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

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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.