Wednesday, December 30, 2009

best books of the year

"Cold Mountain" tops the list, hands down. Beautiful and real about the power of human connections in a brutal and illogical world.

"If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name" was very moving and made me laugh and cry.

"Trouble" was the perfect book for my tastes - well-written, smart and thoughtful with a touch of the glam life.

"I'm So Happy for You" was something I devoured with a pleasurably guilty feeling about friends with envy. Jealousy in friendships is not something you're allowed to admit to and in this book, it's mined for gold.

"The Gastronomy of Marriage" was a book I read and reread and reread, just because it's so cozy and relateable. I sometimes feel oppressed by the "What's for dinner?" question which arises every day and she shares her own journey to find an answer.

"The Glass Castle" is an unforgettable memoir that I urged on my mother and described in great detail to my husband.

farm city

In "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," Novella Carpenter documented her adventures in gardening and raising livestock in an inner city environment in Oakland. She replaces our ideas of a farm as a bucolic pasture with the gritty scene of homeless people, an attempted mugging at gunpoint, thieves of her produce, junkyard dogs killing her poultry and a turkey crossing the freeway. It's an extraordinary story - definitely a few levels beyond what the ordinary person would do. She has a great sense of humor about her craziness. She dumpster-dives for food to feed her livestock - including two pigs. She spends a month relying solely on her garden for food. She befriends a fancy restauranter who teaches her how to cure pork into salami and the like. It's all very engaging. I did have to skim over some of the gory descriptions of butchering -- I am squeamish, I don't even eat meat! I do eat fish, but lately I've been worried about the mercury and overfishing issues.

But I totally admire her resourcefulness - I also hate waste and think it's fab she fed her pigs garbage. I was in awe of her willpower with her month-long garden-only diet -- she even goes to a Mexican restaurant and doesn't eat anything. I'd be scarfing down the chips immediately!

Anyway, she tells an inspiring story - makes me want to get some chickens. She connects to the awesome and challenging process of raising food so we will appreciate every bite.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

a year without "made in china"

"A Year Without Made in China"

Sara Bongiorni's attempt to not buy anything made in China for a year was tremendously funny. I can't stop laughing at the part where her husband loses his sunglasses and is reduced to wearing pink baby sunglasses he found. They break and then he has to wear glacier glasses with thick blinders on the sides. "People stare when I'm running... they think I'm blind," he said. I think that is hilarious!

Beyond the comic bits, they get more resourceful - making Halloween costumes, sewing sleeping bags as gifts for their kids. But why are they doing this? The answer is not clear except for a vague sense of threat about China's growing power. It makes them more thoughtful instead of mindless consumers of cheap plastic, which is surely a good thing. But there are certainly sweatshops in other countries. And it's not like they replaced their purchases with items made in America. So it seemed like something of a pointless exercise on a political level. "Not Buying It" by Judith Levine was about her family's attempt to spend a year without buying anything and I think that is more worthwhile as far as helping the environment.

But the book did something valuable and make me curious about where things I buy are made! This morning's outfit - Wool sweater made in China, jeans made in Egypt. For Christmas, I got little mister lots of wooden toys - and yes, a plastic baby cell phone made in China.

Monday, December 28, 2009

after you

"After You" by Julie Buxbaum is about a woman caring for her best friend's child after her friend is murdered. The novel is elevated by some surprise plot twists and solid writing, but it didn't touch me very deeply. If all these things really happened to you within months - murder of best friend, separation from husband, miscarriage, unexpected pregnancy - you would be FREAKING OUT! Not just reading "The Secret Garden" and playing with British words like "brolly."

"If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name" by Heather Lende was a book that made me weep and embrace life in its glory and pain. It's a collection of essays by a woman who lives in a tiny town of Haines, Alaska and writes the obituaries for the local paper. I was worried it would be really corny and full of "zany" small town busybodies. Instead, I loved reading about her lifestyle - the Native people, smoking salmon, goat hunting, building a cabin, adopting a Bulgarian girl, the tragic sinking of a fishing boat. Because she writes about death in a dangerous place, she has a heightened awareness for the beauty and brevity of life. After every funeral, she wishes she had one more chance to smile, say "thank you" and strike up a chat with the deceased. Great reminder.

I read big parts of this book to my husband as we drove back from Christmas. He enjoyed it as well. The last chapter made me weep as I read about putting down her dog. She wrote that she had become accustomed to death as the normal cycle of life after going to so many funerals. But then she has to watch her beloved dog die and she can't stand it. This is not natural, not normal, it goes against all our love and desire.

Anyway, it was wonderfully affecting and gives me open eyes to the beauty of this day - which will never come again.

And speaking of books that move you - I read "A Christmas Carol" and promptly donated $100 to the food bank.

Rented "The Jane Austen Book Club" movie - it was really fun. Can't argue with insights about Austen books mixed with Hugh Dancy's good looks.

Last night I watched "Julie and Julia" which was a bit long. Also, I wanted to see the part where Julia Child becomes a TV star. And I was unclear as to why she was so influential? But Meryl Streep is fabulous, just blossoming with joie de vivre. The Julie part was the sour counterpoint to the sweet - she seems shallow and mercenary. I read her book a while ago and threw it out of my house immediately - the food was fatty and revolting, and the writer was obsessed with herself. I know her sequel is about her cheating on her spouse - just tacky all around.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

changing my mind

"Changing My Mind" by Zadie Smith is very erudite! I felt like I was back in college listening to a brilliant professor as she compared the literary philosophies of Nabokov and Bartes. I wanted to take notes as she discussed E.M. Forster's place as an English writer or "Netherland" as the ultimate post 9-11 novel.

The collection is leavened by movie reviews, a trip to Hollywood for the Oscars and an essay about the greatness of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo's face. I utterly agree with her on Hepburn!

My favorite part was her metaphor of a great book as a house - with structure, doorways, secret passageways, windows and many levels. She says that a lover of a certain book lives in the house and feels ownership. How perfect.

Monday, December 21, 2009

a homemade life

Finished "A Homemade Life" - it's wonderfully well-written for a blog, but for a book it lacked a certain something. The best part was a recipe for argula salad involving chocolate. The whole planning-a-wedding part felt over familiar to me, not really saying anything novel. Also the recipes were distinctly not my taste. I'm sure fennel salad is perfectly edible, but it's not making my dinner menu.

It did make me want to read Julia Child's book about France. Also on my list is "A Christmas Carol" and I have Zadie Smith's new essay collection on my iPod.

"Looking for Alaska" by Peter Jenkins was excellent - the author lived in Seward and traveled all around the state, going fishing and dog-mushing and doing all kinds of classic Alaska adventures. It gave me insight into the culture of rugged individualism and got me excited for what we're going to experience.

Speaking of Alaska... I also read Sarah Palin's biography. I would like to quote Rush Limbaugh and say "'Going Rogue' is truly the most substantive policy books I've ever read." And then I'd like to fall on the floor laughing. It's basically just her trying to look good and blame her disaster of a campaign on McCain's underlings. Lots of lying and fuzzy logic. My sister's cat shredded my dad's copy of the book and I think that is the best use for it -- cat toy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

in a perfect world

I read the most eerie and chilling book - "In a Perfect World" by Laura Kasischke. This phantasmagorical story starts off as a romantic tale of a flight attendant finally finding love with the most handsome pilot -- and then turns into a harrowing apocalyptic world where a deadly virus is sweeping the world, international trade has stopped and gas is $11/ gal. The nightmare is a combination of how people reacted to the Black Plague in the Middle Ages with cultish fervor and blaming different groups with deprivation and rationing of goods like in England in WW2. Very unsettling. I shouldn't read books about climate change devastation b/c it just freaks me out and I can't function. I wrote letters to some policitians after reading this book.

Anyway, another thing she does well is take a tiny detail and make it seem full of portent in the manner of a fairy tale where the slipper is the key to fate.

"Alicia: My Story" by Alicia Applebaum-Jurman is a memoir about the Holocaust so obviously it's horrific and full of Nazis shooting babies - but the young woman is a true hero who saved many lives. She was amazingly inspiring and resourceful and strong - and the book covers her life from age 10 - 15! It's unbelievable. I'm left haunted the question - why? Why did the Holocaust happen? I don't know and I'll never know. I read a book called "Hitler's Willing Executioners" in high school, trying to grasp why people would suddenly turn into homicidal psychopaths.

I thought I knew about the Holocaust but the book depicts a different experience as she wasn't sent to concentration camps but hid out in wheat fields for some time. It seemed like every ten pages she was close to being killed. Her entire family was killed.

Anyway, the book made me aspire to her courage. Also it made me savor the good qualities of my life - I feel that I can protect my child, and that is everything. Also it's a warning to be ever viligant for intolerance in society.

Anyway, I'm reading "A Homemade Life" by Molly Wizenberg. She tells little tales before presenting a recipe. She's a good writer but I want more - it's more a cookbook than memoir at this point.

In "Principles of Uncertainty," Maira Kalman muses on the meaning of life around her melancholy paintings. It's a satisfying peek of her view of a world that is so various and gorgeous and lonely and sad. Having a heart means sometimes it's full and sometimes it aches. I really relate to this particular sensibility - I think about how much I love my husband and bring myself to tears. All I want is to be truly grateful for the blessings of my life. I am so fortunate - how can I be worthy? I can't, I can only strive to be thankful. I heard about this book from Catherine Newman's blog - I adore her writing. Her book "Waiting for Birdy" is the only thing that got me though the crazy newborn baby stage.

I also picked up some books for the baby by Sandra Boynton, who is so lively and sweet. Also some by Charley Harper. I have determined that only way to stave off boredom from reading the same books over and over is by having great art to admire. This is "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" theory.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

necessary madness

"Necessary Madness" by Jenn Crowell was a 1990s sensation as she wrote it as a teenager - it's still a good book and quite impressive. I like when the main character meets her love and he says, "I want to marry you" and she says, "I want to be you."

Finally finished "The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate" by Mitford. Very delightful and funny, I giggled out loud and craved some tea and crumpets. Reminded me of "Snobs" by Fellowes in the third-person viewpoint. Irrepressable characters and refreshingly non-judgmental about how people find happiness in life.

Also I got "Is Your Mama a Llama?" and "Animalia" from the library to read to the little mister. Very fun books. I also read "Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" by Kate DiCamillo which broke my heart in the most life-affirming way. "If you aren't going to love or be loved, the whole journey is pointless." Those are words to live by.

Right now I'm reading "Looking for Alaska" by Peter Jenkins.

Monday, December 7, 2009

how reading changed my life

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn has a great energy - told from two viewpoints about one crazy night in NYC, it's quick-paced and quick-witted and fresh about sophisticated teenagers who are knowledgable about queercore bands, strippers dressed as nuns, transgendered people, etc. I really liked the funny, modern voices but after a while, the constant use of "fuck" got tiresome. It was in every sentence at least once. I got pretty weary halfway through.

I also read "Love is the Higher Law" by David Levithan about teenagers in NYC on 9/11. At first, I was turned off by the topic, who really wants to relive those days and who can say something new? But, as the author points out in the end, kids today don't have those memories and need to be told what those days were like. Anyway, it's also about sophisticated teens grappling with love lives. It was sad and sweet and lovely.

On to nonfiction! "The Audacity to Win" by David Plouffe about the Obama campaign was totally gripping. It's my favorite story - how a man named Barack Obama became our president. Plouffe is not a writer's writer and the book doesn't really capture the emotional arc, but he comes across as a nerdy genius. He even played with a game called "Landslide" as a kid about election math. I never fail to marvel at the improbable story of Obama's election and savor the transcendent moment.

"How Reading Changed My Life" by Anna Quindlen is about how much she likes to read. I quite agree. The best part is the book lists in the back. I'm eager to pick up "Poems for Life" her book of famous people's favorite poems.

What's next:

Love in a Cold Climate (halfway done)
Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Thursday, December 3, 2009

cancer vixen

I read "Cancer Vixen" by Marisa Acocella Marchetto -- it's a true memoir of New Yorker cartoonist living a fabulous city life who gets breast cancer. She writes about how it impacts her relationships - including her fiance who runs a hot restaurant in NYC. It's a mash of serious topics and Sex and The City-type fluff. What kinds of shoes should I wear to chemo? I really enjoyed the book and bought a copy to send to my friend who has a parent with cancer.

Monday, November 30, 2009

manhood for amateurs

My mother, another bookworm, brought me two books and a DVD: "A Child Called It" about child abuse, "Alicia" about the Holocaust and a National Geographic movie about the human footprint. Everything you need for a severe depression!

I read "A Child Called It" very quickly - sort of a sadistic exercise in gobbling up the most awful abuse imaginable. There was no counterpoint or higher message except that it's sad when a woman starves, beats and poisons her little boy. Yuck.

I reread "Gastronomy of Marriage" b/c it's so delicious. I hug that book!

Currently I am listening to an audiobook of "Manhood for Amateurs" by Michael Chabon and loving it. He has such great insights, observations and explorations of modern fatherhood. His rambling essays on topics ranging from OCD running in his family to carrying a diaper bag as purse. He does have a kind of nerdy appeal in that he talks about comic books, baseball, marijuana, and other geeky teenage boy topics. I could feel his affection for his family and that was the most interesting part to me.

On the shelf I have Nancy Mitford and the Alicia book about the Holocaust.

I gave my mother "The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie and she loved it, read it in one evening. I love that book because it shows how Junior can grow up in dire poverty with alcoholic parents and yet transcend his reasons for bitterness to embrace life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

gastronomy of marriage

"The Wordy Shipmates" by Sarah Vowell was a delightful foray into Puritan history - not exactly a burning topic of interest for me these days, but I still liked the book. She intermixes pop culture in clever and witty ways. I loved her discussion of how sitcoms treat the Puritans and Indians in their obligatory Thanksgiving episode - Brady Bunch, Happy Days, etc. I haven't read "Assassination Vacation" because my brain cannot treat assassinations in a ironic way these days. Her next book is about Hawaiian history, that does sound fascinating.

"The Ocean Inside" by Janna McMahan was well-written, right on the line between commercial and literary fiction. I loved her depiction of sultry South, the family brought to the brink. Each story line - the little girl's cancer, the older sister's temptation into drug dealing, the parents' dissolving marriage - kept me hooked. I wish they all came together in a big bang, though. The story just drifted away and I was still waiting for all these ingredients to coalesce into something hair-raising. (For instance... the older sister uses the drug money to pay off her sister's medical bills and the parents use this dark knowledge as a secret that seals them together again.)

"The Gastronomy of Marriage" by Michelle Maisto is a book I just want to hug or maybe marry. I loved it, it definitely makes the cut for a space on my bookshelf. The dull way of describing it is a memoir about making dinner. It's really an investigation about two individuals joining together, each with different tastes and histories and talents. She takes a very thoughtful, nuanced approach to the domestic details - who cooks, who shops, who cleans, and what does that mean about the relationship? I loved the author's honesty and rich, vivid sense of place. I sincerely adored the book.

(Highly superior to the flat "I Loved I Lost I Made Spaghetti.")

Thursday, November 12, 2009

catching up

"Oxygen" by Carol Cassella was a quick fun read with a surprising plot. The writing style seemed really wordy, though - I felt impatient but hung in there.

"Family Affair" by Caprice Crane had its moments of humor but I didn't cotton to the multiple perspectives. It didn't move the story forward. I did laugh at the discussion about using the Bette Midler song "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" for a gyro commercial. Ha!

Also read "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" by Lise Eliot about sex-based development in kids. This was a really powerful and fascinating book! I learned a lot. It blew "The Female Brain" out of the water by choosing to focus on studies of children. If you only study adults, then they're already influenced by culture. The author, a neuroscientist with 2 boys and a girl, demonstrates how tiny differences in our brains grow into troubling gaps as stereotypes are reinforced.

It made me resolve to TALK nonstop to our baby boy and encourage him to partake in all types of play, whether for little girls or little boys. He needs to learn empathy and fine motor skills as much as he needs to learn spatial skills and physical confidence.

Friday, November 6, 2009

where men win glory

I love Jon Krakauer's books - after reading "Into Thin Air" I had nightmares about climbing Everest. So I was eager to pick up "Where Men Win Glory" about Pat Tillman.

You know all the massive fury you endured daily during the Bush administration as their deeds ranged from hopelessly incompetent to pure evil? This book swamped me with that same feeling - ugly rage. Krakauer does his usual of romanticizing a young man and portraying him as a noble hero - Tillman was a pro football player, but he drove a Volvo and liked cats. He left his football playing job to join the military in search of something real and true. He was killed by friendly fire and the administration launched a fraudulent scheme to hide the truth and keep public opinion in favor of the war. It made me extremely sad and angry to read.

I also read "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar about John Nash. The author is totally enamored of him as a mathematical genius - but in fact, he was a pretty horrible person even without the mental illness. He was violence and abusive towards women - refused to support his own child so the mother had to give him up?!? He was pretty despicable so I didn't feel too sympathetic during his mental illness struggles. Who cares how beautiful the mind is when the heart is so ugly?

The movie sanitized his life and cleverly dramatized what it's like to have schizophrenia. It is so well-written, though. Reading this book is like falling into the comfiest bed of pillows - you can relax, you know you're in skilled hands.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a year in provence

"A Year in Provence" by Peter Mayle was delicious and delightful - I loved it madly. It reminded me of Adam Gopnik's book about Paris - very learned and smart and funny. This book was as glorious as a vacation in Provence.

"The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler was also really wonderful. I resisted it, thinking it would be too sickeningly sweet. But she does have a wry take on things, a penchant for witty lines and a friendly writing style. I giggled to myself when reading it several times. The storyline is rather elliptical but I didn't mind at all, I liked her digressions and mini-stories and amusing take on love, relationships, books, pets.

Friday, October 23, 2009


"Resilience" by Elizabeth Edwards left me in a melancholy mood all night. She enjoyed a life full of family and love and fulfilling work and then suffered the death of her son, cancer, and her husband's infidelity. She writes in great detail about the loss of her son, the grief process and pain she always carries. She has dealt with it in the many years of aftermath, but she doesn't say much about dealing with her husband's affair. Clearly they are still going through that challenge.

Anyway, I felt very close to her as she spoke honestly about these trials. I think this book would be incredibly valuable to anyone looking for a map - she tells the Bible verses, poems, stories and activities that kept her moving. I had questioned her decision to make her story public - how did her little ones feel seeing mom bash dad on the TV? - during the big publicity blitz. But now I see that she was providing a service in her book - keeping her son's memory alive, showing others how to cope with unspeakable grief. It was a tremendously touching book.

"Perfect Family" by Pam Lewis was a literary suspense novel. I thought it was too heavy on the literary - lots of dull dialogue that went nowhere. WIth suspense novels, you want the mystery to proceed apace! That's all you care about, not character development so much.

"Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Color" by Joyce Sidman is a really neat poem about the seasons with gorgeous, gorgeous art by Pamela Zagarenski. It's a children's book - my child is much too long to enjoy it but I certainly did.

"Bibliotherapy" was very disappointing - blah. I liked the idea of pairing books to moods - I totally think of certain books as cozy winter reads or books to enjoy when you're dreaming about a weekend in Paris. This book was basically a summary of self-help books of the '90s. Not interesting at all. Those books die for a reason.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

a reliable wife

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is a perfect read for a spooky wintery day... It's about a cold that burns, about wrapped-up people seething with sexual desire, about poisoned love and tender cruelty. It has the bitterly cold atmosphere of a Gothic melodrama - I loved the line about "the knots of births and deaths making a insane lace." Couldn't put it down.

A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve is my first book by her - I absolutely loved it. Prep school friends reunite for a wedding, each has a secret regret or longing, relationships tangle and spark. Each character was totally fascinating to me and I I loved the ending.

"French Milk" is a charming account of a young woman's month in Paris. She's lonely and eats good food and looks at paintings and nothing really happens, but she is in Paris and feeling despondent in Paris is always in style.

Monday, October 19, 2009

real life and liars

"Real Life and Liars" by Kristina Riggle is a family story set in a quaint lakeside town. The mother has cancer and rejects medical treatment, the tightly-wound angry daughter drinks too much, the impulsive daughter is pregnant and hastily married to an older black man, the son is a struggling musician. It was a quick, enjoyable read.

"Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech is a Newbury-Award-winning teen book. I love it b/c it shows the sophistication of young adults- discussion poetry and relationships and metaphor. It reminded me a lot of Lois Lowry's books - the kids are depicted as nimble and astute about the world, not clueless and neutered.

I also watched "One True Thing" last night - what a great movie. The image that sticks in my mind is Renee Zellweger furiously stirring a big mixing bowl, unable to vent her anger at her father - and men in general for leaving the emotional work to women while they go off and selfishly pursue their own desires (and have affairs). NOTE TO JOHN EDWARDS: Don't cheat on your wife as she dies of cancer!!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

gaudy night

"Gaudy Night" by Dorothy L. Sayes is a mystery set at Oxford in the 1930s. I read it in 2000, when I was studying at Oxford. It's fun to read, a mix of suspense and intellectual philosophy and romance between feminist Harriet and Lord Peter, a witty Cary Grant-esque detective who keeps proposing to Harriet. They have really good chemistry.

I liked reading Agatha Christie mysteries when I was a teenager, so this took me back to that atmosphere.

Also this week I attended a reading by Michael Chabon. I actually haven't read any of his books but I will rectify this asap. I got "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" since it's set in Alaska. He read from "Manhood for Amateurs" and the precision of his writing impressed me. On a shallow note, I will also say that he is extremely good-looking.

Next up: Real Life and Liars by Kristina Riggle.

Monday, October 12, 2009

one true thing

One True Thing by Anna Quindlen was a reread... I first read it in high school and loved it. Reading now as a mother who is more aware of the cruelty of time, I found it shattering. It was so disturbing I had to put it down as I read about the daughter caring for the cancer-stricken mother while the father had affairs. Awful.

Isabel's Bed by Eleanor Lipman was a fantastic comic antidote, a great paean to potential and life's wonders and possibilities. Again, I read it in high school and loved it much more now. The narrator is a struggling writer who writes thinly-veiled accounts of her life. After catching her boyfriend flirting with a new mom whose baby is named Nicholas, she writes a story about a man flirting with a new mom whose baby is named Nicole. I found that hilarious.

Summer People by Brian Groh didn't do much for me. I liked the concept of a young man caretaking for a elderly rich woman but I didn't connect with the characters at all.

Currently reading Gaudy Night!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

House & Home

As a fervent lover of Portland who will be moving, "House and Home" by Kathleen McCleary was right up my alley. She writes about the love of a house, a particular place where you lived the days of your life, with great emotion and understanding. The plot was so well-done that I couldn't guess the ending and usually the winner in the love triangle is quite obvious.

I also finally saw the Cold Mountain movie, which was brutal! I hate violence. I couldn't even watch the scene with the baby in danger. But the movie was really good and true to the book. I think it lacked some of the humor of the novel, it felt pretty heavy.

I read "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" by Maureen Corrigan from "Fresh Air." Appropriate, right? She tells the story of her life baed on the books she's read. I liked her insights about female endurance tales - positing "Jane Eyre" as the female counterpoint to the challenges of "Into Thin Air." I did not relate to her discussion of Catholic young adult literature and its values. But I did enjoy the talk about "Gaudy Night." I read that book a while ago and she provoked me to pick it up again.

I'm kind of a sucker for books about books. Anne Fadiman's "Ex Libris" is a favorite. I trust the recommendations of authors about books very highly. Reading about reading is a great pleasure.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

happens every day

"Happens Every Day" by Isabelle Gillies is a memoir about her marriage ending - I actually got this on my iPod and listened instead of read the story. She describes in loving detail the domestic life that was ripped away from her - her big brick house in the college town, taking her sweet toddlers for walks around the campus, the sense of community and belonging. Her husband left her for another woman and it happened so quickly, it's riveting. I kept trying to pinpoint the moment when it was over. I kept trying to find out why. It's obviously one person's side of the story so an incomplete picture is a given. I really felt for her. It's a good choice to listen to since she is an actress and reads her own life story well.

"Bad Mother" by Aylet Waldman is an examination of modern motherhood and the traps of feeling guilty about everything. I identified with her at some parts and value her honesty. I'm a new mother and already spent great mental energy stressing over questions like - if I pick up my baby when he cries, am I making him overly dependent? if I ignore his cries, am I being selfish and neglectful? Every tiny choice you make is a step towards certain doom and ruin in someone's eyes. It's vital to learn to trust yourself and relax but it's really hard.

I liked her comparison of how she mothered her kids different based on birth order - overly doting on the first, more casual with the last ones. The writing style was annoying with footnotes sprinkled throughout. I know she's an attorney, but footnotes are too cutesey in a book of essays.

What's next - reading "Girl with Pearl Earring," maybe rereading "Jane Eyre," rereading some Elinor Lipman. Also I want to watch the Cold Mountain movie! I haven't had a chance yet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Last night I read Rebecca again... Oh, what a great book. I hadn't read it in years and loved the spooky Gothic atmosphere, the surprising twists, the descriptions of living in such a colossal house, the constant taking of tea. You just sink into the story, wrapped up in the narrator.

In my editon, the introduction by Sally Beauman was all spoilers. It kind of ruined my fun a little bit even though the insights about identity and gender-blurring were valuable. It should have been placed at the end of the story.

Here's a photo of Milton Hall, the supposed inspiration for Manderley --

Seriously - to live in a house like that I'd marry a murderer!

"Rameau's Niece" by Catherine Schine was comic and light - repressed academic goes on sexual odyssey - but ultimately tiresome. It took too long for the story to get started and had a thousand overblown descriptions of how amazing her husband was. There were funny bits though - a discussion between friends where one thinks the topic is Art (as in Art History) and one thinks they're discussing Art (as in the friend's husband Arthur).

I loved loved loved Schine's book "The Love Letter" and remain convinced that's her best work.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I have been reading some wonderful books recently!

Last night I finished "Trouble" by Kate Christensen - too fantastic. It's about two friends escaping from their troubles by going to Mexico City and letting loose. I adored the descriptions of lively Mexico City! The food, the music, the history, the colors and smells. My husband and I went on vacation there a few years ago and it was tremendously fun to revisit through the book. The ending also has a utter shock that made me gasp out loud. Wonderful book, wonderful writer.

I also read "Of Mice and Men" by Steinbeck and shed many tears at the end. In 100 brief pages, Steinbeck makes you care terrible for the characters and then breaks your heart. It's devastating. I haven't read it since high school but I loved rereading it.

"Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier is a masterpiece. I was utterly enthralled. So many things stick in my mind: A body is a "hut of bones." The scene where Ruby covers Ada's eyes and asks what she hears - "Just 'trees'? What kind of trees?" They lived so close to the earth, with all its savagery and beauty. The ending made me clutch my heart and sob and ponder the power of being claimed by another human.

"Not Becoming My Mother" by Ruth Reichl - I'll read anything by her, her memoirs about food and her life are some of my favorites. But this book was very slight - lots of white space on every page, very thin. She has already told stories about her mother in her previous books so she just kinds of puts them together in this book. Don't bother reading this book.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I read the Shopaholic series when they were new - at the time (2001), I found it a guilty pleasure. I liked the humble details - how Becky Bloomwood likes the cushy chair where she picks photos for the financial magazine's cover, how she wishes someone would stop and ask what labels she's wearing, how she proudly ignores the newsstand (but only b/c she's read all the magazines already). It was cute and homey, easy to relate to her struggles of stopping spending. My favorite episode was when she tries to follow the thrifty book's advice. I read the first three books in the series, but lost interest as the later ones seemed painfully dopey. It lost the relatable touch and became just an airhead doing horrifically irresponsible things and yet everyone loves her anyway.

But I did rent the movie (for ninety-nine cents) and found it a pleasant diversion. The actress was cute.

What I was thinking, though, is that the Shopaholic book is a WARNING in disguise of the economic collapse of last year. Seriously. The main character is a financial journalist who knows nothing about finances. Shades of all the newspapers that missed the story of the bubble. She's told to get a job in the financial services industry in London to get rich - exorbitant bonuses sounds familiar? And, of course, the main plot - she can't stop SHOPPING despite that she has no money. It's like a predictor of the future. All those problems which seemed so amusing had some horrifically ugly consequences for us all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

body and soul

Loved, adored, and swooned over this book! "Body and Soul" by Frank Conroy is deeply felt and thoroughly satisfying story with hints of "Great Expectations" and a nuanced description of the consequences of possessing extreme musical talent. I read this for the first time when I was in high school and remembered enjoying it. But reading it as an adult, I was even more swept away. Apparently the author is famous for his memoir "Stop Time" so I'll have to read that too.

"Home Game" by Michael Lewis was pretty amusing. He has a likeable personality even as he admits trying to shirk his duties at times.

I whipped through "What Do You Do All Day?" by Amy Schiebe - gotta love any book where a mother thinks she doesn't feel like singing the effing alphabet! Very funny and real.

Also I read "The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaska Livin'" by Brookelyn Bellinger - oh dear. It appears we may move to Alaska. This book did not allay my fears. It has a jokey tone and depicts a freezing cold land of nutjobs in Carhartt overalls and rubber boots. Scary.

Just ordered six copies of "Gladstone's Games To Go" for Christmas presents. My game-loving inlaws will never be bored with this book around.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

i'm so happy for you

Went on a vacation to Alaska last week! But I'm back.

I finished "The Brothers K"! Finally! It's not the kind of book everyone will love - if you are baseball nut, you will love it more than life, I'm sure. But it takes a certain amount of indulging the author as he goes into long detailed baseball digressions. It's a sprawling family saga and I got impatient with the languid pacing. I wanted something to happen! But I'm glad I stuck through it. The ending pierced my heart with its last image and I felt sad and hopeful and satisfied. The writing is very clever - a child observes that a crazy man has eyes like ketchup and mustard mixed together - but he needed an editor with a chainsaw. I think he got so caught up in the big ideas he was exploring (about religion and Indian philosophy and the purpose of war, etc) that the narrative drive just sat there. Another line that sticks out is a Vietnam soldier reflecting that what he was really defending was the innocence and sweetness of the people back home.

I also read "Hell is Other Parents" by Deborah Copagen Kogan, a group of essays about modern parenting. I like her writing but there was a certain element that rubbed me the wrong way. She makes life choices - living in an expensive city, having a baby after her other kids are nearly preteens, making a long drive with a toddler, sharing her postpartum room - and then complains about it. Several times, I wanted to say to her - what did you expect? Here in reality, this is what we deal with. Own the consequences!

And I read "The Liar's Club" by Mary Karr, a memoir about child abuse. I think I've overdosed on this genre - Angela's Ashes, Falling Leaves, The Glass Castle. It's well-written and the author went through a lot. I had no greater insight. The Glass Castle by Walls captured me much more as I struggled to understand why her parents were choosing to live on the streets. I still think about Jeanette Walls' brother sleeping under a blow-up raft to stay dry under a leaky roof.

In Anchorage, I picked up "Crossing Washington Square" by Joanne Rendell. How I wanted to love this book! The premise is about two literature professors in a love triangle - sounds scrumptious to an English major like myself. And yet it was cliched and stilted from the start with paper doll characters. I felt the same way about "The Professors' Wives Club" so I don't know why I bought this book. I think I really liked the coat on the cover.

Also on vacation, I read "I'm So Happy for You" by Lucinda Rosenfeld. Here, the premise seemed offputting as described in reviews - the dark side of friendship, the spite and jealousy that binds women together. But the book was utterly delightful, daring and hilarious and joyous. I was laughing out loud, clutching my pearls in horror and having way too much fun with its satirical humor. I was cracking up at a scene where a rigid federal prosecutor and pothead slacker debated the "war on terror." One odd thing was how often the characters emailed each other. It seemed they didn't pick up a phone at all.

As a palate cleanser after "The Brothers K" 600-something pages, I am reading "What Do You Do All Day?" by Amy Scheibe. Then I'm excited to read "Body and Soul" by Frank Conroy. And "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier and "Rameau's Niece" by Cathleen Schine.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


On your nightstand now:

I'm reading three books right now - "The Big House" by George Howe Colt as it puts me into a Cape Code, Kennedy compound type mood. Also "The Brothers K" and "Gilead" as mentioned previously.

Favorite book when you were a child:
I loved the Emily of New Moon books by LM Montgomery. Obviously I loved the Anne of Green Gables books as well, but Emily was a writer so I identified with her. Those books - the depictions of nature, the finding joys in a cold house, the almost spooky connection with Teddy - are deep in my bones.

Your top five authors:
Diane Johnson writes the kind of sparkly, witty books I love. Anne Rivers Siddons for the Deep South atmosphere. Jane Austen for the timelessness. Barbara Kingsolver and Catherine Schine for their intelligence.

Books You've Faked Reading:
I took a class on Chaucer and was supposed to read the entire Canterbury Tales in Middle English. It was torture. I didn't make it.

Book You're An Evangelist For:
If I know anyone pregnant or with a new baby, I force "Waiting for Birdy" by Catherine Newman into their hands. It will save your sanity.

Book You've Bought for the Cover:
"Gloria" by Keith Maillard has the most beautiful cover of a woman delicately fingering a pearl necklace. The book is even more gorgeous, I loved it. I also was influenced by the beautiful covers on "The Birth of Venus" and "The Drowning Tree."

Book that Changed Your Life:
"Animal Vegetable Miracle" by Kingsolver made me look at food and eating in a whole new way.

Favorite Line from a Book:

Book You Wish You Could Read Again for the First Time:

Monday, August 24, 2009


"Impossible" by Nancy Werlin is excellent - it's actually for teenagers, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The story of a young girl trying to solve a family curse was inspired by the lyrics of "Scarborough Fair" and the book is wonderfully clever and enthralling. It's like "Twilight" in that it's about teenagers encountering fantastic and magical people, but it's extremely well-written. I'm a sucker for a grown-up fairy tale about how love is the true magic.

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a charming and quaint series of letters. The chorus of voices and characters are vibrant and well-differentiated. The setting - occupied islands off the coast of England - is novel and intriguing. I knew nothing about this time period and was really interested in learning about the hardships - the isolation, the slave labor camps, the small acts of bravery such as farmers trading around the same dead pig to show the Germans so they could keep their live pigs for themselves. It's the kind of book that you can predict the cozy ending once you're 100 pages in. My only comment is that it's gotten so popular and praised that I fear it could suffer from the same paradox that affected my viewing of the movie "Once" - it dazzles when you aren't expecting much, but if you expect a masterpiece you probably will be disappointed.

"Petite Anglaise" by Catherine Sanderson is a blog-to-book story of how she had an affair with one of her blog readers. It's pretty average, yet an entertaining glimpse of what it's like to live in Paris. The narrator does not come across very well - narcissistic, self-indulgent and immature. Even worse is her sleazy lover who piles on the charm until their relationship becomes real and then can't uphold his promises. They seem like they both love big dramas. If you're in the mood for drama in Paris, it's a decent popcorn book.

"The Wednesday Sisters" by Meg Waite Clayton seems like it was written for me - friendships over the decades set in Palo Alto. I was prepared to love it. But the characters were flat and hard to differentiate. Another really annoying element was the clunky editorializing, jumping in to explain to the reader that things were different back in the '60s. The reader knows that social attitudes were different. It took me out of the story to have it explained that interracial couples were taboo back then or that divorce was stigmatized.

Currently reading: "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson. I read it with my heart overflowing with love and tears in my eyes. Its spare beauty requires attention.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


"Perfection" is exceptionally eerie - a woman discovers her husband was flagrantly unfaithful to her after he dies. How on earth do you come to peace with such a discovery? He had short-term affairs with strangers and a long-term affair with a neighbor. A very gruesome legacy. The writer gains a new understanding of why she'd been so unhappy and taking so many antidepressants. I really felt for her as she undertook a painful journey to the truth. Some of her choices seemed a bit jarring to me - prioritizing her own affair in the immediate aftermath of being widowed and uprooting her child - but she is telling her story of coping. Her complete honesty is courageous.

I also read "Full of Life: Mom to Mom Tips I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Pregnant" by Nancy O'Dell. It was at the library so I picked it up. It wasn't useful or informative - she seems astounded by the realization that breastfeeding takes time to learn, that pregnancy hormones make your breasts tender, that people give you lots of baby blankets at the shower. And she misses the biggest thing people need to know - that the pregnancy and birth are nothing compared to the trauma of the first weeks with baby! Those are the real life-altering days. Of course, she hired a nurse to care for the baby at night... It's too easy to mock this book.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

the glass castle

I found The Glass Castle absolutely gripping. I could not stop thinking about her peripatic, deprived childhood. She and her siblings suffered so much due to her parents - the classic alcoholic father and irresponsible mother, too busy creating art to fix a meal for her children. Instead of getting a job and putting food on the table, the parents chose to let their kids go hungry and dirty. It was an "adventure" - really strange. The revelation at the end - that her mother had access to money all along - really shocked me! I was appalled and stunned. It made me think that the mother had to be severely mentally ill - delusional, narcissitic and possibly bipolar. A great book.

Admission is a book about an admissions counselor for Princeton. The narrative is quite slow and unengaging but the reflections upon the college admission process are insightful. Whose needs are served by this process? What does it mean to ask teenagers to present themselves as perfectly competent in all areas? Why does so much life-changing power belong in the hands of admissions officers? A lot of the most interesting parts of teh book are presented in almost Socratic dialogues, where certain characters challenge the narrator and we get to hear all the explanations and rationalizations.

I liked when the narrator said something like - admission to a great college is one of the very few portals to a different life. How true - and it rang especally true after reading The Glass Castle, where the deprived young girl got into Barnard, escaping a horrible life and starting on a career.

A fun book with an unusual narrator, a British teenager boy with autism. The book does a great job at depicting how the world looks to him - every detail demands his attention until he is overwhelmed. I giggled when he brought his pet rat to the tube station, alarming the other passengers. It also gives glimpses of how hard it is for his parents to care for him. They are complex, doing bad things and showing their goodness at the same time. The book also has puzzles in it.

Also... I read "Who Killed Iago?" - a literary trivia quiz book. It's HARD! And "How to Photograph Your Baby" - kind of elementary but inspiring. I also read "The Scenic Route" - instead of a strong driving narrative, it's a collection of stories. It has many priceless observations but I didn't love it madly. It requires a lot of attention to read and I was reading it while the baby was crawling around the room. I'll have to return to it someday.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

the lovely bones

I am extremely susceptible to raves from other readers. If someone I like says a certain book is amazing, I have to read it.

I read "The Lovely Bones" when it first came out in 2002. I had just graduated from college. I remember being appalled at the mother leaving the kids and the dead person having sex via another body a la Ghost. I'm not very lenient when it comes to fantastic elements in books, I value realism.

In a discussion about books that make you weep, "The Lovely Bones" came up. And I decided to give it another chance. The first chapter made me weep about the beauty of family love - flashing between the rape and the hum-drum details of the mother waiting for her kids to come home. How humble our greatest desire is - a regular afternoon at home. It's an amazingly affecting novel.

This is the killer passage:
"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections - sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent - that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life." (p320)

That passage is so amazing because it turns death into an act of love for the living. Death is not the end as we understand it, it's a catalyst for the loved ones on earth.

I also looked up the movie trailer at The heaven as CGI madness is tired - wasn't there a Robin Williams movie where he hunted through CGI landscapes of bright colors for his dead wife? But it has lots of good actors so I hope it's a good movie.

I also read "The Impostor's Daughter" by Laurie Sandell, a memoir in graphic novel form about a young girl discovering that her father was not the man he claimed to be. I found it quite gripping when I read it - eager to learn what the truth was.

I also read "Best Friends Forever" by Jennifer Weiner. I like her books, her wry observations and comic characters. "Good in Bed" is such a comforting read, it's like sinking into a bed with fluffy covers. BFF has a lot of the same characteristics - it seems like life is over for the lovable shlump but then... I won't spoil it since it's a new book.

Up next: The Brothers K. I have tried to read this book in the past but was put off by the copious amounts of baseball. But everyone says it's the most amazing book so I want to give it another try.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

the divorce party

"The Divorce Party" by Laura Dave is exactly my kind of book! It's as delicious as cake but stuffed with wise insights and musings about relationships - what partners owe each other, what the cost of starting over is, what can and cannot be saved.

The book follows Gwyn, an older woman facing the end of her marriage, and Maggie, a younger woman who is engaged to Gwyn's son. The two plot lines reflect and intertwine in unusual ways. Dave has several surprises up her sleeve and it's utterly enjoyable to see how it all unfolds. I'm being vague b/c I don't want to ruin it!
I suspected I would like it - I loved her smooth, humorous writing style in her first book but it felt a little airy. This novel deals with substantial questions in the same elegant and enticing manner.

"The Divorce Party" also reminded me of "The Senator's Wife" by Sue Miller with the two women, one older and one younger, contemplating marriage. It's a rich premise - I loved both books.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

water for elephants

I love when a stranger in a bookstore will recommend a book to me - it's like an acknowledgement that we are both in the community of booklovers and know the eagerness to press a favorite book on someone. "You must read this...!"

While persuing the shelves at Target, a woman told me I had to read "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. I didn't immediately take her advice, somewhat put off by the idea of reading about unsavory circus freaks, but I finally succumbed. And she was right, it's excellent. The first section of the book details the fascinating world of a second-rate circus in the Depression - the survival by one's wits. Once the love story heats up, I was totally captured - penniless but sincere young man falls for beautiful showgirl married to psychopath. Shades of Moulin Rouge. The novel reminded me of Dickens in that the characters are utterly wicked or noble-hearted and the ending provides an old-fashioned sense of satisfaction.
Gruen is particularly adept at describing animals. I loved the moment when Jacob, the circus vet, hands an orangutan a piece of fruit. "She wraps her long fingers around it, then lets go. She sits on her haunches and peels her orange. I stare in amazement. She was thanking me." (p 118)
Lastly, the book has a gorgeous cover by Honi Werner.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

the corrections

a href=",204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_.jpg">

Decided to track what I'm reading... I've read so many book blogs and decided to join in the fun. I love discussing books.

Currently I am rereading "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. I was inspired to pick it up after reading Janelle Brown citing it as an influence. (I devoured her satirical book "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.") I read it when it first came out, in 2001, and mainly recalled uncomfortable family dynamics and a squeamish scene with a man slipping raw fish in his pants. Ah, yes, I thought: "That a salmon fillet was now spreading down into Chip's underpants like a wide, warm slug did seem to have everything to do with his brain and with a number of poor decisions that this brain had made" (p 97).

"The Corrections" is excruciatingly good - so hyper perceptive, so sharp-edged, so painfully alert to the absurdities and hypocrisies of American life. He describes the cluttered home of Alfred and Enid, an elderly couple, zeroing in on a Ping-Pong table in the basement: "At the eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a decide for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely no reason Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts" (p 7). You have to groan in recognition - and laugh at the pinecones.

Franzen's writing is so skillful, it's exhilarating. Nearly every page has a deadly accurate observation, such as this comment on pretension: "'I'm so starving,' she said. It was a thin woman's apology for being corporeal" (p208).

The character I felt for the most was passive-aggressive Enid, the mother who is willing to guilt her children into coming home for Christmas. Her twisted sense that she deserves a nice holiday no matter what is both sad and true. Her family Christmas may come at the expense of her son's marriage, her son's sanity, her husband's health and her daughter's happiness, but it's really the least they can do.

Also this week, I read "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" by Jeffrey Toobin. I really enjoyed his somewhat gossipy, behind-the-scenes take on some of the most important decisions of the Rehnquist Court. He also makes very smart analysis of how the Justices' lives affect their rulings - Kennedy's exposure to international judges, Thomas's anger over his confirmation hearings.

I have complex feelings towards Sandra Day O'Connor - I have met her twice and want to love her. She's a true trailblazer, obviously, and she also seems to have a great joy for life. "Don't fall into a rut of making the same meals all the time," she once told a law professor of mine. "Not when there's so many recipes to try." I love that spirit! But - even though it's a decade later - I still lament and grieve Bush v. Gore.

I also read "Commencement" by J. Courtney Sullivan - I expected to love this smart book about female friends in college and beyond. It's pretty much a winning formula. Look at Martha Moody in "Best Friends," Anne Rivers Siddons in "Outer Banks," etc. And yet this book seemed to be trying too hard. None of the characters moved beyond stereotypes of the angry rebel, the sexy girl next door, etc. And the big drama at the end felt really forced - a last-minute attempt to convert a friendship novel into a suspenseful thriller.

The novel did do an excellent job at depicting the hothouse atmosphere of an all-women college - a claustrophobic feeling of being surrounded by females, expressing emotions and overeating and indulging in sexual experimentation and obsessing about the patriarchy.

Also - I read "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel. I remember reading rave reviews when it came out in 2004. And now I know why! I've only read a few graphic novels - "Maus" and "Persopolis." "Fun Home" is extremely literate with all kinds of meditations upon memory and truth as seen through Proust and Joyce. I was utterly absorbed. I don't think I'll read it again, though.