Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jane Austen and zombies on film

This seems like a bad idea. Apparently Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is going to be made into a movie.

Of course, I also thought that making a movie out of a Disneyland ride was a bad idea, so what do I know?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Camp Halfblood

Calling all Percy Jackson fans... you too can attend Camp Halfblood!

JJ would give anything to go to this camp. Too bad it's in San Antonio......

Monday, November 9, 2009

YA fairy books

The NY Times included their special section on children's books in the Sunday review this weekend. I was especially taken with this article that looked at the spate of fairy-themed YA books, many of which we (well, I) have read recently without really noticing that it seems to be a trend.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Facelift for Classics

I saw them! All three of them towering on the book table at Costco the other night. This is the only place I could find all three of the novels with their newly released covers by Harper Collins. You have to hand it to their marketing department, the books look lovely. If this doesn't get Twilight fans checking out some good, classic stories, I don't know what will!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Seasonal gifts

I ran across this article this summer and kept meaning to get back to it and share it with all of you. I was intrigued by the idea of the story of how whichever book came into your life. I do remember quite vividly the way in which I acquired certain books, whether they were gifts or purchased with my hard-earned babysitting money. I got my first Nancy Drew as a Christmas gift from a family I babysat--it took me about a year to read it, because I thought it looked too scary! I thought my parents were completely bereft of book ideas the year they gave me The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Yet, my dad's efforts later, from Danielle Steel to a Mrs. Pollifax mystery, were always so touching. And do you think I can get rid of that Danielle Steel? Of course not! Countless garage sales or used book sale piles have come and gone and every time I see that book on my shelf, I know I can't give it away just yet.

Now, with the holidays fast approaching, I am once again thinking about that most perfect of gifts--books. I want to be the one. The one who finds that perfect book for one of the kids in our lives that they just can't believe I knew about. Always willing to take suggestions of course, but some years, I will go on a hometown kick, and try to challenge myself to finding Minnesota titles and authors that are just right for each recipient. Other years, I stick to classics or bestseller lists. This year, with the release of Catching Fire, I think there is a sixth grader in need of The Hunger Games. And for his brother, I think it's time he learns of Smekday. The girls always seem easier, once I figure out at about what level they can read, I'm off and running!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

National Book Awards

I saw a piece in today's Strib about this year's National Book Award finalists. Of course, we're happy to see a couple of MN connections, but I was pleased to see a Carleton connection with the inclusion of TJ Stiles. I knew him via my Carletonian days and even checked out his Jesse James book a few years ago when I saw it in the Voice. I bet we can all guess where his interest in that figure may have begun!

I'm always surprised by some of these lists, there are so many titles I don't really know. In fiction, I only know of two titles very well and in the young adult literature, I only recognize a couple of the authors, not the works. It's humbling, because between libraries, bookstores, print sources, you guys, goodreads etc, I feel like I have a pretty wide area in which to pull my reading choices!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Art imitates life

After the premiere of Castle the other night, I went to the ABC website, because I thought EW had mentioned different authors than Connelly and the ubiquitous Cannell that showed up at the poker table. I was right and wrong, I think I had remembered a mention of Patterson from the first season. However, imagine my surprise when I learned you can read chapters of the new Nikki Heat novel, Heat Wave for free at ABC.com. They have 7 chapters ready to go!
Being the inquisitive sort, I followed the information about purchasing said book and discovered it will be released next week! (Amazon was cheaper than the ABC link, of course!) What a great marketing crossover tool for the folks at ABC and Castle.
Now, if I could just figure out if NF will be going out doing author signings as Richard Castle. Maybe he'd sign J's Dr. Horrible DVD too...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pumpkin Harvest

I should've mentioned that we (that is, Eric) harvested our pumpkins a couple of weeks ago. He grew them in our "other garden" - we have a plot at a community garden where there's more sun than in our yard, but the soil is worse and there are no deer fences. They wound around the tomatoes and along the sides of the plot and did pretty well, but then the vines were dying off and some of the pumpkins looked like they might rot, so he harvested the lot of them and put them in the garage. A few were pretty greenish but turned more orange in the cool of the garage, and I cut up and cooked the ones that looked soft. There were a dozen; I've been trying to cook and puree them a few at a time so I don't go crazy on pumpkin production. I've found that cutting them into chunks and steaming is the easiest, though I need to strain out some of the liquid.

Besides having pumpkin puree in the freezer, I baked several batches of pumpkin-chip muffins, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin-chip loaves, and the long-awaited pumpkin pie...but I forgot the sugar in the pie. Aaauggghhh! I've never done that before. Luckily it tastes fine if you sprinkle A LOT of sugar on top.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ridiculously overqualified

I'm really enjoying The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, with its combination of Darwin and coming-of-age story. I was curious about the author, so I flipped to the back flap. We've discussed the tendency to list entertaining or sometimes cutesy jobs that authors have held before being published, but this is a whole different category:

"Jacqueline Kelly was born in New Zealand and raised in western Canada. She now makes her home with her husband and various cats and dogs in Austin and Fentress, Texas. She is a practicing physician and lawyer. This is her first novel."

And I thought that *I* was busy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dan Brown

Just heard some incredible numbers about Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol. It had an initial print run of over 5 million books and on Tuesday, the release day, over one million were sold. Wow. I just thought it was interesting.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Borrowing Posts

The Hobbled Runner has been snapping pictures of my garden for me. I think I'll just send you all over there to see the pictures...

Rain garden: I'm still obsessed with my rain garden - and had to extend it this year. (See photo) I had bigger plans, but there are too many tree roots in the area. So, it's just a small addition. Planted more Northern Blue Flag Iris, Culver's Root, Blue Lobelia and Goat's Beard.

Anuals: Other post is of the annual section of the garden. Some of my favorite plants are "volunteers" - things I didn't plant, or planted years ago that keep self-seeding - sometimes quite far from the original plant! Guess I better not enter the contest to identify the plants, but happy to let you know what any of them are.

Fun part is wondering what will come back next year!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Did we read the same book?

I was reading my latest Entertainment Weekly the other day and I was excited to see that the lead review in the book section was for Catching Fire, Suzanne Collin's sequel to The Hunger Games. However, I barely got a paragraph into Jennifer Reese's review when I found myself muttering, "WTF!" Here's the opening paragraph of the review:

Last year, Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, the first in a projected young-adult trilogy about Katniss Everdeen, a heroic adolescent girl who crushed on a sexy hunter. In between romantic daydreams, Katniss shot strange beasts, dodged force fields, and battled murderous zombie werewolves — usually while wearing fabulous glitzy outfits.

Huh? Did Jennifer Reese read the same book that I did last fall? I remember The Hunger Games as a young adult novel about a dystopian future where every year young people are choosen at random to fight to the death. One of the opening scenes involves the heroine, Katniss, stealing into a forbidden area to hunt food for her family. The reason Katniss ends up in the games in the first place is because her 12-year-old sister is initially chosen and Kat knows there is no way she will survive. I don't remember a lot of romantic daydreams and though I vaguely remember that they tarted up the contestants before the battle began--all for the television ratings--I don't think any of those contestants wore those clothes onto the battlefield. Yeah . . . battlefield . . . fight to the death . . . not exactly the stuff of adolescent yearning . . .

In critiquing the second book, Reese notes that Collin's novel lacks the "erotic energy" of the Twilight series. Double huh? I think Twilight captures the adolecent yearning for all-consuming love (in all its scary passiveness) like no other series but it's so chaste that most folks (okay, maybe just me) kind of lost interest by book 2 and started rooting for the werewolf, Jacob, because he seemed so vibrant, alive, and well . . . real.

And I guess that's what makes me the most annoyed at Reese's review . . . the fact that she misses the essential "realness" of The Hunger Games-so real that I stayed up until 3:00 am reading it the day I bought it (and had to grumpily face a long day of work on three hours of sleep). It felt real like The Handmaiden's Tale felt real . . . like World War Z felt real . . . a scary future that has just enough of the present in it to stop your breath.

The fact that Reese misses this aspect of the novel suggests that she didn't read The Hunger Games very carefully. Actually, the general "comment" consensus after her review online is that she didn't actually read the first novel at all. Either way, it casts a lot of doubt on her review of the sequel. Also, my thought is if you wear your Twilght sunglasses to every young adult novel, you might miss a lot as many a librarian and middle school teacher hastened to point out.

For a good time, read the review and chuckle and then read the comments. With only one exception that I saw this morning, almost every single responder felt like I did. Did you read the first book? Do all young adult novels have to follow the Twilight formula (big yawn!)? My favorite response was from a sixteen-year-old, who used craptastic as an adjective and reminded Reese that Twilight was really a rip-off of a vampire series in the 90's. Go girl!

So, I look forward to reading Catching Fire soon and entering a fictional world that is far more vivid and real than Jennifer Reese's review.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Summer Readin', Had Me a Blast...

Summer readin', it happened so fast...

We're lucky here; school doesn't start for another week, so I can remain on summer schedule a little longer while semesters have already started at many schools across the country. As always at times of transition, I tend to look back and look ahead and think about what I've done and what hasn't gotten done. So this is an ideal time to think about our summer reading trends and best-of lists, right?

I've read a whole bunch of YA sequels in the last month or so; by far the best was The Immortal Fire, Anne Ursu's final book in the Cronus Chronicles. Great blend of Greek mythology, contemporary teens, and snarky humor. In a similar category: Rick Riordan's The Last Olympian, also an excellent conclusion to a series.

I feel like I read a whole lot of books that I thought were just okay but not particularly memorable. Standouts, though, are People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks), Sorcery and Cecelia (and sequels, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer), and The Latehomecomer (Kao Kalia Yang).

Booby prize goes to Heavenly (Jennifer Laurens), which will go down in history as one of the most-maligned books I've ever read.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Carleton in the news

I recently learned through JNJ that Patricia Wrede (author of those deliciously long titled books she's been reading lately) went to Carleton. She had found her through the Voice, in one of those articles about alums. Well, imagine my surprise this weekend, when not one, but two more alums, both YA authors, were highlighted in the Star Tribune.


Guess I'll have more titles to add to the always evolving to-be-read pile!

Monday, August 10, 2009

John Hughes

It's always sad when someone dies so relatively young. And I have been interested to read about what may have been a two-way disenchantment with the business.

On to the polls. Have you guys noticed the lack of Sixteen Candles making the cut?? What's up with that?? I would have voted for it. But C. reminded me about how The Breakfast Club really introduced us to more of those young actors who made up much of the Brat pack of the 80's.
Certainly have some good memories of his hits.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

...and again!

Okay, I'm a little embarrassed now...I won my third GoodReads "first reads" book. This one is Heavenly by Jennifer Laurens. There were 20 copies being given out - it must have increased the odds.

Looking ahead, there are some other books coming up on the list that I'm really excited about, including an ARC of the sequel to The Hunger Games and the new Margaret Atwood book. I was interested to see that it's not at all just unknown authors trying to drum up publicity.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Julie & Julia

A little off topic, but there is an article in today's NY Times about the filming of "Julie and Julia," specifically about the food styling involved in it. I found this interesting because there was an article a long time ago - 15 years? More? - in Harper's (I think) that deconstructed a food photo shoot. Ever since then, I find myself staring at the food in both print and film, wondering how much of it is real.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nikolski: A Review

Since I got a free copy of Nikolski from the publisher, I thought I would publish my review here as well as on Goodreads. I apologize for those who have to read this twice.

Nikolski: A Novel Nikolski: A Novel by Nicolas Dickner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really enjoyed this novel though I find it difficult to neatly summarize. It's three different stories about three different people--an unnamed male narrator who works in a used bookstore, a young man who leaves his mother and their vagrant lifestyle to go to university, and Joyce, a young woman who flees her small town in search of a long-lost relative (and modern day pirate), who ends up becoming a tech pirate herself. All three characters spend time in Montreal, have an absent parent, become fixated with travel, cartography, and/or pirates.

These three characters are also connected in other ways though only the reader realizes it and that makes their brief interactions all the more poignant. The writing, in translation, is both beautiful and engaging and I'm tempted to read this over again at some point to think more about how its parts relate.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Did you know this and not tell me??

According to the Guardian (via the Star Tribune books editor), "Final Anne of Green Gables book reveals dark surprises." Did you all know this but no one told me??? This could be as earthshattering as Harry Potter 8!! Full article...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters


Oh my.

I just don't know what could be next. But I'm a little surprised they didn't go with Persuasion for the sea monsters, what with all that travelling to Bath and that nasty sea wall. I bet Wentworth could handle those sea monsters.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

i won again!

Last night I went through the First Reads list of giveaways, figuring that there were a whole bunch that had a June 30/ July 1 giveaway date.

I checked my e-mail this morning, and I won another one! This one is After You, by Julie Buxbaum. I know nothing about this book...hope it's good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What did you get for High School Graduation?

So, what did you buy with your high school graduation money? I'm rather embarrassed to admit, but I bought a Walkman. Pretty cool for 1983, huh? It served me well at Carleton.... especially late at night.

So here's an amusing BBC article about the Walkman 30 years later...

Hobbled Runner beats me to it

Once again, the Hobbled Runner beats me to a post. Granted, he took this picture, so I guess he can post it first!

It's true... there are tomatoes growing right by my roses. And I did go a bit crazy and have way too many tomato plants. So, these are in pots out in front.

Any good answers to his question of why the edible stuff has to be in back??

Friday, June 26, 2009

They do come in threes, don't they?

What a week. Granted, Ed McMahon was old, Farrah had a terminal illness and there's already talk of Anna Nicole similarites with Michael Jackson's death, but still, to lose so many of our childhood icons at once.

I remember feeling so grown-up when I would stay up and watch Johnny Carson when I was babysitting. (it was that or Dick Cavett, no cable around there in those days!). I may not have always understood their joking in my younger years, but there was always something comforting about seeing Ed and Johnny spar.

And Farrah, gee, she married the six-million dollar man, remember? And I sure wasn't a big poster buyer or anything, but you couldn't doubt the power of those Angels, even though she was only one for a year. And I lived in Texas back then. Her influence on hair in those years was legendary.

Oh, I think we all have already missed the little boy Jackson was. But during my French class trip to France senior year, the biggest homesick moment came while hearing "Billie Jean" over the speakers at Les Halles while shopping. He was definitely a worldwide sensation at that time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Won, I Won!!!

I think the karma from my fertile plots buddies has rubbed off -- I won a Firstreads book from Goodreads today! I have entered in the past - probably 5 or 6 times, but never won. Just went after Julie won and entered again -- and won! So I attribute it all to you!

Book will be interesting: An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town. Given the fact that Julie won a YA book, and I won a, what, historical travel something or other type book, there must be some sort of formula they look at..... ok, so I did "enter" to win this book, but still.... curious!

Will let you know how it is!

Monday, June 8, 2009

I love my library!

So, I'm about halfway through my free Erec Rex book, and it's great - Harry Potteresque, but not at all a pale imitation. I'll post a full review on Goodreads when I'm done. Today I stopped by the library (to pick up the 5th Percy Jackson book, yeah!) and told the librarian about Erec Rex, and how surprised I was to find out that there is only one copy of the first book in the seriesin the county system, and the second in the series isn't in the county system at all. A few keystrokes later, they had ordered a copy of each, plus pre-ordered the third book, coming out later this month. Isn't that great??

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More Rain Optimizing...

I know I've blogged about my rain garden in the past, and probably have even posted a picture of this Lupine before, but it's so cool I'm going to post it again.

It's the first color in the rain garden in the summer. It's lovely. And this year, it's got purple flowers to go along with the pink. Very interesting. I may have to investigate why.

Last year, this plant got me a spot on the Friends School Plant Sale blog. The picture here is that same plant... and I'm going to send the Plant Sale people another picture and see if they know why it's purple. I'm thinking perhaps it's a cultivar that's reverting???

Rain Barrel - Finally!

I have been wanting to install rain barrels for a few years, and we finally did! They are not the fancy kind from gardeners.com, but they are recycled food barrels. No idea what originally came in them!

It was not a difficult task, but we are not very handy around here, so it was a bit of a project. It seemed a bit odd to be sawing off perfectly good gutters... but it was for a good cause. John tackled the project and even wrote about it.

Now, we just need some RAIN to test them out!!

Monday, June 1, 2009


Well, a mere week or so after being made aware that there are giveaways at Goodreads, guess what...I won one! Thanks J and J, for telling me about this! Not only that, it was something that I had seen a while ago and had thought might be a good candidate for A's reading list as well as mine. Now it's out in paperback, and I'm getting a free copy! The Dragon's Eye is the first of the Erec Rex YA series.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Summer Book Club

JJ and I saw a flyer for a summer book club for 4th and 5th graders at the library this summer. Soooo exciting! He's digging into "No Talking" by Andrew Clements tonight - for a June 16 book club. The rest of the summer includes City of Ember, Gone-Away Lake, Chasing Vermeer and one other. Good to see the book club thing has passed on to the next generation!

Gold Iris

Here are my gold irises. Not sure you can see this well, but I'll post it anyway.

Grass that looks dead in this picture is a gorgeous miscanthus that has tall, wispy plumes starting in about August and last all winter....

For more plant pics, see the Hobbled Runner. That darn Blackberry camera makes it so easy to take and post pictures. Warning -- you'll have to scroll down past all the dog updates to find plant pictures!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My first picture!

I decided I couldn't be the only one who didn't know how to upload a picture into our blog text.
This just popped open the other day. It's my maroon-ish bearded iris, which oddly enough, is right next to a yellow one (yet to open), making Gopher colors for S!! I just wish the blooms lasted longer, I always enjoy them so much.
The peonies won't be much longer. The buds are looking rather full and there are ants marching all over them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bulbs are blooming and too many plants!

OK, they've been blooming for a couple of weeks, but I just got this picture, thanks to the Hobbled Runner. Cute little miniature grape hyacinth surrounds by tulips and daffodils, which you can't see.

Spent the weekend volunteering at the Friends School Plant Sale. I cashiered for 4.5 hours. I no longer have the stamina for that! More fun was doing inventory after the sale closed. I spent almost 9 hours over three days counting plants... every thing from Indian grass, various monardas and astilbe, to swamp milkweed and more. I learned a ton! I didn't really need any more plants for my yard, as Hobbled Runner would attest to, but geez, you can't work around them for that long and not find something new to try! So, now I have about 13 flats of plants waiting.... ugh. What am I going to do??? I'll post pictures!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

I'm so proud to report that yes, I remembered to take in two reusable bags when I stopped at Rainbow foods on my way home from work. Yes, I work at a SuperTarget, where I couldn't buy cheap yogurt, hence the stop at Rainbow. And yep, I got 18 little tubs of yogurt, which aren't recyclable in my area because they don't have "necks". Sigh. I may as well have bought a bunch of plastic spoons to eat them with. I really do like the earth, I promise!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Our Book Deal

There's an article in today's New York Times about bloggers who strike it rich with book deals. C'mon, you guys, we need to be more interesting so we can get a publisher interested!

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Each fall, our borough collects leaves, and then in the spring they offer leaf mulch for sale. The smallest unit is a cubic yard, I think, which is a ton! Last time we got some, the pile lived in our driveway for about 2 years before we managed to get it all used. Well, we bit the bullet and got another delivery this year. We have mulched almost everything possible already, and there's still more than half of it left. I'm not sure what we're going to do with it all...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

There was an article in today's Strib about Marvel's new five comic book issue series on Pride and Prejudice! Basically, people seem to think it's a great way to reach out to young female readers or it's a portent of the coming apocalypse. Either way, I went to Marvel to check it out. I figure if I'm willing to read about the Bennetts and zombies, I certainly can't dismiss a comic book out of hand!


Monday, March 2, 2009


It's getting to be that time and I keep meaning to ask JNJ, what zone are you? It seemed so late last fall you were still digging things out of the garden. Granted, it may have been working as cold storage for you, but I was curious!

I can't believe it's the beginning of March already. I always get the itch to start plants inside, but have had terrible luck when it comes to do the transplant. Have you guys had any luck with starting your own? I stick to what I can seed in the ground, or go ahead and buy the starters--especially for things I don't necessarily want a whole lot of anyway!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Last Olympian

Hey there! There are a couple author blogs J and I follow once in a while and I just thought this was cute as we wait for May.


We also read a sneak peak of The Last Olympian in the back of his new Demigod Files book. J did not feel he had to purchase the Files, instead opting for some large anthology of all of Watchmen comics. (devoured and enjoyed).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Better World Books Sale

Like any of you need more books.... but it's so darn tempting! Check out this sale from Better World Books.

Odd note about Better World Books -- it's a short mile or so from my sister's house in Indiana. She shops in person - even more dangerous that online!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More on Scholastic

I know I've lamented the decline in Scholastic Books' catalogues; I remember with great vividness the excitement I felt as a child when the new flyers came out, and the happiness when my new books arrived. I want my kids to have those feelings, but I have to be careful: if I promise to get them something, they are quite likely to choose something that it isn't a book and/or has some commercial tie-in. Well, I'm not imagining it; there was an article in yesterday's New York Times that reports one-third of the offerings aren't books.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hooray for Neil Gaiman!

Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book! I haven't read it yet, but I love his writing.

In other Neil Gaiman news, I need to re-read Coraline in preparation for the release of the film version, but I was pretty creeped out by the book the first time through.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And another top in 2008!

Here's my list of some of the favorite books I read in '08. And I like the addition of runners-up this year, it takes a little of the pressure off! So, in no particular order:

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
Suite Francaise is a compelling look at the occupation of France by the Germans during WWII. Nemirovsky's first two installments of what would have been a five book set are beautifully written (and translated). But even more touching is Nemirovsky's true backstory and the appendices that show some of her real papers and notes on what could have been a wonderful, finished novel. Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz in '42, where she perished at the young age of 39. Her daughters unknowingly kept these papers safe for years, not knowing they were a novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by MaryAnn Shaffer, Annie Barrows
Following the war, Juliet Ashton is searching for something to write about. What she finds on thie little Channel Island are the makings of a wonderful story for us and for her. The epistolary style makes the story fly, as Juliet connects with various islanders and their stories of their lives under German Occupation.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
What can I say? Collins has created a post apocalyptic world that is intriguing and peopled with characters you won't soon forget. North America has become a place called Panem and is divided into 12 districts, with the wealthy Capitol in the Rockies. Every year, each district must send a male and female player, between the ages of 12 and 18, to the televised Hunger Games. When her younger sister in drawn by lottery, Katniss Everdeen jumps up to replace her as the female District 12 "contestant". Along with Peeta, District 12's other pick, they travel to the Capitol, where they begin their journey in the ultimate survival game.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger
I was swept away by Monte Becket's tale, from the Cannon River in Northfield, MN to the orange groves of California. It's 1915 and the old West has become but a shadow of it's former self. Monte and former desperado Glendon Hale head first to Mexico, then to the orchards of California, chased all the while by an old Pinkerton man, Charlie Siringo. Along the way, this duo meets up with some lively characters, tragic circumstances and beautiful settings. This was the real deal, and not a word is wasted as we follow the characters across the country to Blue, Hale's lost love.

The Moneypenny Diaries by Kate Westbrook
Working as the book editor, Kate Westbrook is supposedly going through her aunt's papers after her death and only now, can the truth be told. Miss Moneypenny, M's loyal secretary, was much more than a well-turned out desk girl. The Secret Intelligence Services that employs Bond, also utilized this very bright woman to help rescue that same man from Cuba. (these diaries only cover 1962, there may be more information uncovered in subsequent volumes) Jane is well-connected in her job and is also trying to find out what happened to her father, back in the day when they lived in Africa. It's written as well as a Fleming tale, with all the right characters making appearances.

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison
The Waverlys are have lived in Bascom for years, and are the eccentric ones, just like the Clark women are sexpots, and the Hopkins men always marry older women. Older sister Claire has made her home in the family house, maintaining a mysterious garden, using her grandmother's recipes for flower foods and a catering business has bloomed. Younger sister Sydeny returns to Bascom with her young daughter, fleeing a bad relationship. There is a bit of that Southern magic flowing throughout as both the sisters come to terms with new relationships with each other and some local men.

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris
An interesting peek into the inner workings of a Saudi Arabian family. When daughter Nouf goes missing, the family hires Palestinian desert guide Nayir to look for their daughter. When she is found dead in the desert, Nayir investigates further, hoping to discover what really happened to what was one of the freer spirits of the Shrawis family. He is aided by Katya Hijazi, Nouf's brother Othman's intended and lab worker at the coroner's office. Nayir is able to piece together Nouf's last hours. I was drawn to a lot of the minutae in this story, such as Katya's inexpensive sandals melting on the hot concrete sidewalk or how her driver/escort uses a silicone hot pad to open the metal handles of the car door.

The World to Come, by Dara Horn
What a great, complex tale. It all begins with a singles cocktail party, in which recently divorced Ben discovers an old family Chagall painting on display and takes it back. Horn takes us on a engaging family journey, from the early days of Ben's grandfather Boris in a boys home in Russia to the days of his soon to be born nephew, awaiting the world to come. Throughout it all, the narrative is tied together by various Yiddish and family tales of love and loss, which add an interesting perspective to the present day lives of Ben, his sister Sara and her husband Lenoid. It's hard to do it justice, it really needs to be read, but I thank Jenny for telling us about it! I don't think I would have found it on my own and I think I would have unknowingly missed it.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
A really elegant story about an old man going to live alone in a more distant area of Norway. A late evening encounter with a neighbor reawakens Trond's memories of his fifteenth summer, spent in an area not unlike where he is living now. Memories flow between his daily tasks, as we discover the painful realities of his past and are left without all of the answers, much like real life.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
Growing up in Northern Wisconsin, we find third generation dog-breeder Edgar Sawtelle. He is mute, and communicates with his parents and fellow students at school in his own version of ASL. Even the dogs understand Edgar, making even more remarkable this breed they raise on their farm. Edgar's father, Gar, was raised on the same farm with his brother Claude. Claude's return to the farm sets into motion many events that create most of the tragedy in the story. Similarities to Hamlet abound, and I was drawn in to this story and tragic events with Wroblewski's wonderful storytelling.

Honorable Mentions
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson
Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
Becky, the life and loves of Becky Thatcher, by Lenore Hart
Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex
Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another top 10 list

I'm adopting Jenny's strategy of including two #10s as well as a list of extras that didn't quite make the list. These are my favorites of the books I read in 2008. Discuss.

Lady of the Snakes, Rachel Pastan
We follow Jane Levitsky during her first year as an assistant professor as she suffers the insecurities of a woman trying to have it all: she wants to spend more time on her research, but she feels guilty about the time away from her daughter, Maisie. Meanwhile, the subject of her research, the wife of a 19th century Russian writer, becomes more than the breakthrough that might make her academic career. As Jane’s tenuous hold on her career and family starts to slip, we feel her anguish and desperation as she keeps looking to her Russian alter ego for answers.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Each year each district must send a boy and a girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal contest for survival that only one can win. When her younger sister is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She finds that her hardscrabble lifestyle has prepared her for the hardships of the Games, though perhaps not for the gamesmanship. Her struggles to survive, and her evolving understanding of the unfairness of the government, make this a gripping story.

The World to Come, Dara Horn
This book starts with an awkward singles cocktail party at the Jewish Museum and Ben Ziskind’s unlikely theft of a small Chagall painting. The narrative spins out forward and backwards in time from there, both detailing the consequences of his action and slowly filling in the pieces to explain how it became a family heirloom. Horn repeatedly returns to the themes of memory, beliefs, and trust in relationships.

The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti
Ren expects that he will never be adopted because he is missing his left hand. However, when he is twelve, Benjamin Nab appears and claims him as his long-lost brother. Ren immediately starts to suspect Benjamin’s claims: he is a small-time crook who uses Ren’s disability to disarm his intended marks. Ren and Benjamin’s unconventional little family stretches to include a number of other quirky and beautifully-written characters that pull together against the threats of the local factory owner. Along the way, Ren learns more about his past and also about what constitutes a family.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
This is Alexie’s autobiographically-inspired account of Junior, a Native American. Written in very spare language and illustrated with Junior’s cartoons, his diary chronicles his life on the reservation and his experiences at the white high school 20-some miles (and a huge cultural gap) away. His matter-of-fact recognition of the hopelessness and alcoholism that surrounds him is heartbreaking, but nevertheless there is a lot of humor and affection in his depiction.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
This is Kingsolver’s account of her family’s attempt to live a year as true locavores, growing much of their own food and finding local producers of anything they couldn’t grow themselves. I especially enjoyed her anecdotal sections about her daughter Lily, who was 9 at the time, and her budding chicken farm; trying to figure out how to encourage her turkeys to have sex; and her trip to Italy.

The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz
This is a fictionalized story of Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the rigid hierarchy of the Japanese Imperial family. It is not a Cinderella story, however; the princess – here called Haruko – finds herself so constrained by her new position that she cannot even see her parents anymore. The ending breaks from what is otherwise a pretty factual telling of Empress Michiko’s life, but it does a wonderful job evoking the relationship between the Japanese people and the Imperial Family.

Away, Amy Bloom
Lillian Leyb leaves Russia after her family is killed in the pogroms and settles in New York in the 1920s. As she says early in the novel, “Az me muz, ken men” (When one must, one can), which describes Lillian’s approach to her new life. On her cross-country quest to find her lost daughter, Sophie, she moves through the vividly imagined worlds of other marginal people, adapting to their rules.

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer
What would you do if life as we knew it was ending? That is the question posed by this thought-provoking young adult novel. When an asteroid knocks the moon out of its orbit, the resulting gravitational shift causes tsunamis that destroy coastal areas. Written as the diary of a typical 16-year-old, the book chronicles her family’s survival through a series of crises, and yet there are times of celebration and family; it is reminiscent of Anne Frank in that way. Pfeffer also wrote a companion book, The Dead and the Gone, about the same catastrophe, set in NYC.

Tied for #10:
A Person of Interest, Susan Choi
The story starts with a mail-bomb. Professor Lee, a retirement-aged math professor, becomes a Person of Interest in the investigation of the bombing; his personal awkwardness and lifelong habits of reticence make him seem suspicious. We go back through Lee’s life to see the choices that have left him living in a dirty, empty home with no social life. This is not a cheerful story, but Choi creates a compelling portrait of a man who finds himself alone, uncertain how he got there.

Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock
DJ Schwenk does not question the silence between her family members or the ridiculous sacrifices being asked of her, running her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, until the coach of her school’s rival football team sends his QB to help out on the farm. Murdock gives DJ a distinctive voice and places her in an authentic world peopled with interesting and idiosyncratic individuals, making her coming-of-age drama into a touching but not maudlin story.

Didn’t quite make the cut:
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin
Before I Die, Jenny Downham
The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean

Monday, January 12, 2009

Two articles

There were two articles in the NYTimes that I thought might be of interest.

The first, yesterday, was about the publication of the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. I'm somewhat torn about these books: they have little in the way of redeeming characters or good lessons, but they are hilarious and Tim loves them enough to read them, and re-read them, on his own.

The second, this morning, reports that fiction-reading is up among adults. The statistics are still terribly depressing, especially considering that reading on-line fanfic counts as reading fiction, at least for the purposes of their study.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Top 10 Books Read in 2008

Can you tell I'm procrastinating? Well, I am. It's January and time for looking back. Here are the top 10 (well 11) books that I read in 2008. They are in no particular order and they have been chosen based on my engagement & excitement and not necessarily for literary value (though I would argue the merits of any one of them).

#1: Sharp Teeth: Toby Barlow

If George Pelecanos, Kelley Armstrong, and Sonia Sones all got together in a dive bar in L.A., talked for hours and had a few too many, a novel like this might have been the result. Written in blank verse, Sharp Teeth tells the gritty, bloody, yet strangely captivating story of a lycanthropic underworld in Southern California filled with schemers, criminals, and down and out folks simply wanting to belong . . . to something.

#2: Fingersmith: Sarah Waters

If David Mamet's movie of cons and con men, House of Games, had been set in 1860's London, it might have gone something like this. Sue Trinder, orphaned at a young age, and raised by Mrs. Sucksby and her "family" of thieves, fences, and ner-do-wells, is pulled into a complex con game with a young man, the neighborhood calls the "Gentleman." He needs Sue's help to woo another young orphan, Maud, who lives with her reclusive uncle in the country--an orphan who will come into money of her own only after she is married. Sue takes on the role of Maud's maidservant and her job is to help the romance along; however, once the Gentleman spirits Maud away to be married (since her uncle would never permit it), the plan is to have Maud institutionalized as insane and for Sue and the Gentleman to take the money. However, things are much more than what they seem and Sue certainly did not bargain on having feelings for Maud.

#3: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson

A mystery in the vein of Henning Mankell--that is, not a lot of flashy show downs (okay, well one) but a lot of intriguing, deliberate investigation and some vivid characters. A crusading financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, recently convicted on libel charges, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the aging head of family-owned corporation, to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, almost 40 years before. Lisbeth Salander works for the security firm that is initially hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate Mikael (prior to hiring him). People often underestimate her--judging her by her punk rock exterior, all heroin skinny with lots of tattoos and piercings. Also, her social skills leave something to be desired. However, not only is Lisbeth a genius hacker but she is a brilliantly meticulous investigator. It is when Mikael and Lisbeth join forces that things really get interesting.

#4: The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins

This novel, set in a dystopian future, has the United States divided into twelve districts (the 13th district was obliterated after a failed rebellion) and a ruling Capital (giving shining city on a hill a whole new sinister twist). Life in many of the districts is hard and made harder by the fact that each year every district must send two tributes, one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 - 18, to the Hunger Games, a contest-to-the-death a la Survivor, broadcast on national television.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen going on 30, supporting her mother and sister, Prim, by hunting game and collecting plants in a forbidden area outside of District 12 (an area encompassing much of Appalachia and focused on mining). When Katniss's sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss steps in to take her place. The boy chosen from District 12 is Peeta, son of the local baker, and a boy that once did Katniss an enormous kindness. As the novel follows Katniss to the Capital and through the horrible (but all too familiar) rituals preceding the games, the tension grows. Will Katniss be the first tribute from District 12 to win in decades? When the time comes, will she be able to kill Peeta? What will be lost by winning?

#5: Love is a Mix Tape: Rob Sheffield

I really loved this book. It wasn't just that it made me laugh. It wasn't just that it brought back a swirl of music-tinged memories from the 90's. It wasn't just that it made me cry. It wasn't just that the author is my age and that we seem to speak the same pop culture language. It was all these things and more. Rob is a tall, shy music geek from Boston pursuing a graduate degree in English when he meets Renee, a bold "punk-rock girl" from West Virginia who is getting her MFA. Music connects them from the very beginning. They both perk up when a Big Star song is played at the local bar and the soundtrack to their developing relationship is wonderfully eccentric (and most likely recorded over some crappy band's demo tape). This book isn't just a mix tape; it's a love letter. A love letter to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Renee and all she stood for, to music and especially 90's music, and, of course, to mix tapes.

#6: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: David Wroblewski

This is the third book that I've read in the last year that does a modern take on Hamlet and it was by far the best. David Wroblewski takes the spirit of the Shakespeare play and crafts a novel about family connections, silence and communication, and the dream of creating the perfect breed of dog. Edgar is a young man growing up with his parents on a farm in northern Wisconsin. He has been mute since birth but is able to communicate with his parents, Gar and Trudy, using sign language--part ASL and part his own creation. The family business is breeding dogs and training them and that's just one of the fascinating bits of this story. When Gar's brother, Claude, returns to the area, trouble starts because the brothers' relationship is complex and strained. As the story begins to build and you know (or at least suspect) that the events will lead to a Shakespeare-like tragedy, it's hard to stop reading.

#7: Maynard & Jennica: Rudolph Delson

This is a quirky love story set in New York around the time of September 11th and narrated by a cast of thousands (well, more like 30). This cast includes the two title characters but also friends, family members, and a number of random New Yorkers, who weigh in as the relationship between Maynard and Jennica develops. If you hate things that border on twee, this is not the book for you but I enjoyed the eccentricities including the structure of the story itself. Besides, how can you resist a book that concludes with a list of "speakers in this comedy" and said list ends with, "As well as an aged MACAW, certain CICADAS, certain FROGS, certain CRICKETS, and one EMERGENCY BRAKE on a certain No. 6 train" (p. 296)?

#8: The Translation of Dr. Arpelles: David Treuer

In this novel, David Treuer weaves two stories together in interesting and ambiguous ways. One strand follows a 40-something translator of Native American languages who works archiving unwanted books in a giant book depository (I picture that warehouse at the end of the first Indiana Jones). Every other Friday, Dr. Apelles visits a library archive to work on translation projects. At the start of the book, he has found an exciting new text to translate and one that changes him in the process. The other strand seems to be the story that Dr. Apelles has found-a story of two Native American young people, who are destined to be together--though they must survive many challenges to do so. By the end of the novel, it is not clear what is being translated and what is truth and it left me with many questions (in a good way) and a desire to talk about this book with a book group and lots of coffee.

#9: Dairy Queen: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is a great coming-of-age story that involves football, cows, and learning to take chances. DJ Schwenk worries that she has become a cow-not questioning the many hours a day that she spends keeping the family's dairy farm going (while her dad recovers from hip problems), not questioning the angry silence between her Dad and her two older brothers (who are both off playing football in college), and accepting her flunking of English class the previous semester as inevitable. However, when a family friend, who happens to be the football coach of a rival town's team, sends his star quarterback, Brian Nelson, to help DJ with farm chores (and eventually to be trained by DJ), something happens . . . and nothing in the Schwenk family will be the same.

Tied for #10:

Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin

Though it took me a chapter or two to get into the rhythms of this novel's omniscient narrator, once I did I couldn't put it down. In 12th century Cambridge, a young child is murdered and the townspeople blame the Jews. An out-of-control mob not only attacks and kills one of the wealthier Jewish families but they chase the rest of the community into the local castle, where the sheriff and his men must protect them. The king, Henry II, is concerned because the Cambridge Jews had been a reliable source of income for his royal coffers. He contacts his cousin, the King of Sicily, to send for a "doctor of death," a doctor who has been trained to examine dead bodies to determine cause of death (think forensic investigations when autopsies were still a sort of blasphemy.) The Italian king sends his best doctor, who just happens to be a woman.

Kornwolf: Tristan Egolf

What do a middle-aged boxing trainer, a 30-something journalist who has trouble keeping a job, and a young Amish boy whose father brutalizes him have in common? Read this novel and find out. It's a story of prodigal sons (to quote the back cover), werewolves, family curses, rural Pennsylvania, and human weakness. Yet it's also wickedly funny, dark, suspenseful, and satirical. Not your typical werewolf story or really typical in any way. I found this at a used bookstore in Providence, RI, and bought it because . . . who can resist a story that combines the Amish and werewolves. This, however, nicely exceeded my expectations and I'm looking forward to tracking down Egolf's two earlier works. I wish there were more to come but Tristan Egolf committed suicide in 2005.

Contenders that didn't make the cut:

No Country for Old Men: Cormac McCarthy
by George: Wesley Stace
Unaccustomed Earth: Jhumpa Lahiri
Julie & Julia: Julie Powell
And She Was: Cindy Dyson
The Spellman Files: Lisa Lutz