Monday, August 31, 2009

It’s Monday 8/31! What Are You Reading?

We had a wonderful last week of summer, packed full of fun and friends. My 11-year old son starts back to school this morning, and his 15-year old brother goes back on Wednesday. And for me, it’s back to work! I hardly got any writing done at all this summer, so it’s time to catch up. Meanwhile, it was another good reading week:
  • I finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac and will post a review this week.
  • I couldn’t wait any longer and asked my son if he minded if I read The Prophet of Yonwood (book 3 in the Book of Ember) before he did, after we gave it to him for his birthday last week. It turned out to be a prequel to the first book and just as good as the first two. I'll review it this week at Great Books for Kids and Teens.
  • I started People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks for one of my book groups. It’s been on my want-to-read list for awhile, and so far I’m enjoying it very much. I loved her novel, March, also read for the same book group.

Last week, I posted a review of Julie & Julia at this blog and a review of a wonderful middle-grade audio book, Freaky Monday, at Great Books for Kids and Teens.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is sponsored by J. Kaye's Book Blog).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Memoir Review: Julie & Julia

I’ve been fascinated by Julie & Julia ever since I first heard about it (before it also became a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams). After all, this story combines two of my passions – cooking and blogging. In case you’ve been living in a cave this past month and somehow missed the movie ads shown on TV every 10 minutes, Julie & Julia is a memoir by Julie Powell, a self-described “government drone by day, renegade foodie by night.”

Feeling trapped in a dull job and anxious about her quickly approaching 30th birthday, Julie decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (referred to by Julie as MtAoFC), in a year within the confines of her tiny NY-area kitchen and blog about the experience. Here, the glimmer of this idea begins to form during a visit to her mother’s house:

Oh, God. It really was true, wasn’t it? I really was a secretary.

When I looked up from MtAoFC for the first time, half an hour after I opened it, I realized that deep down, I’d been resigned to being a secretary for months – maybe even years.

That was the bad news. The good news was that the buzzing in my head and queasy but somehow exhilarating squeeze deep in my belly were reminding me that I might still, after all, be something else.

Do you know Mastering the Art of French Cooking? You must, at least, know of it – it’s a cultural landmark, for Pete’s sake. Even if you just think of it as the book by that lady who looks like Dan Aykroyd and bleeds a lot, you know of it. But do you know the book itself? Try to get your hands on one of the early hardback editions – they’re not exactly rare. For awhile there, every American housewife who could boil water had a copy, or so I’ve heard.

I enjoyed Powell’s honest writing style and sense of humor as she examined her life and set out to accomplish her unusual goal. Be warned, though, if you’re easily offended, that she can swear like a sailor and takes pleasure in bashing the Republicans that she works with. I found those passages some of her most amusing but not everyone shares that sense of humor.

I did occasionally find Powell a bit whiney, but I enjoyed her memoir overall. Her cooking escapades were both interesting and amusing, though I can’t say I really identified with her passion for MtAoFC. I love to cook and understood why she set out on this venture but just didn’t get the appeal of making things like cold poached eggs in aspic, sweetbreads, and liver (something Powell is passionate about). To me, this particular cookbook is outdated. But to each her own. I admire what Powell set out to do and was entertained by her tale.

As a fellow blogger, I was also fascinated by the story of the book itself. When Powell embarked on this project, she didn’t even know what a blog was. She started her blog at her husband’s suggestion to keep her family and friends informed about her cooking project, but her blog took on a life of its own, with a rapidly growing and passionate audience. Out of the blue, magazines, newspapers, and TV news started calling her to cover her story, and she eventually got a book deal that turned into a hit movie. It’s an amazing story, and, ultimately, undertaking this project ended up changing Powell’s life dramatically. I was curious enough to look for and read her original Julie/Julia Project blog and found an article about her path from blogger to best-selling writer very interesting. And, if you're interested, you can also follow Powell's current blog, post-best-selling author. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie!

P.S. If you’ve read Julie & Julia, Barney’s Book Blog will be hosting a book discussion of it this Sunday, August 30. Stop by and join in!

Monday, August 24, 2009

It's Monday 8/24! What Are You Reading?

Hello! We took a mini vacation last week, so I haven't posted in awhile, but I've been reading some good books!
  • After watching the movie The City of Ember, I was inspired to finally read the middle-grade books my son had been recommending. I loved The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau and quickly devoured book 2, The People of Sparks. In a fit of selfishness disguised as generosity, I bought my son book 3, The Prophet of Yonwood, for his birthday last week! Do I have to wait for him to read it first?
  • Since we were heading off on another summer road trip (a short one this time), I decided to read Jack Kerouac's 1955 road trip classic, On the Road. I'm almost finished and have enjoyed it, though it's very different from the contemporary books I normally read.
  • In the car, we listened to the start of a wonderful new kids' series, Eric Rex: the Dragon's Eye by Kaza Kingsley. It's about a boy suddenly thrust into a magical world, and we all loved it. Even after arriving home, the kids wanted to start listening to the second book.
In the category of books made into movies...
  • We watched the movie version of Inkheart, a favorite family book. The movie was very well-done, and my 15-year old son Jamie says that the next books in the series, Inkspell and Inkdeath are even better! So many good books to read and so little time...
  • My husband and I watched The Nanny Diaries, which is also based on a book. I haven't read the book, but the movie was pretty good.
Last week, I posted reviews of Benny & Shrimp, a Swedish love story of opposites attracting, and Building a Home with My Husband, a wonderful memoir by Rachel Simon.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

(What are you reading Mondays is sponsored by J. Kaye's book blog)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Memoir Review: Building a Home with My Husband

Years ago, I enjoyed reading Rachel Simon’s memoir, Riding the Bus With My Sister, for one of my book groups, so I was glad to hear she had a new book out, Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love. I wanted to read it but didn’t expect to be able to relate to it very much. After all, it’s about Simon and her husband undertaking major renovations on their city rowhouse – something I’ve had no experience with, living out here in the suburbs in a newer home.

As with her previous book, though, Simon surprised me. I had forgotten about her talent for taking unique events from her own life and finding within them some basic truths about all human existence. That’s what she does in her new memoir; she uses the process of renovation as a metaphor for life and love, and, in the process, makes some very astute observations. Not only could I relate to her account, but by the time I finished the book, it was so full of Post-It flags, I could barely manage to turn the pages. I wanted to remember all of the amazing insights she wrote about and apply them to my own life.

In addition to being insightful, Simon’s writing is clever and eloquent. In one of many of my favorite passages, she talks about her sister’s preparations to visit their ailing mother, with whom they’ve had a difficult past relationship:

When Hal and I return from our walk, I plunge right in and dial my sister Laura. Days away from flying across the country to visit our mother so one of us can see the situation firsthand, Laura has been far more decisive about what clothing she should pack than about what emotions she will need. We know it would be wise if she could wedge patience, kindness, and acceptance into her suitcase, though we’re aware that space will be limited, given the well-worn disappointments and annoyances, and so many still-in-the-package fears.

I happen to be preparing for a visit with my own extended family this week, and these sentences are pure genius – what a perfectly apt metaphor.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Simon and I have a lot in common. She lives in Wilmington, DE, just a few miles from us, she’s a writer, and best of all, she’s very introspective, always analyzing what’s going on in her life and seeking to better herself. I enjoy this kind of reflection, too.

I really loved this memoir. It was both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I look forward to whatever writing project Simon tackles next.

Dutton Adult, 253 pages

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fiction Review: Benny & Shrimp

Benny & Shrimp, by Swedish author Katarina Mazetti, is a sweet and funny love story about two people who are wildly attracted to each other but who have little in common. This novel surprised me, made me laugh, and kept me turning the pages way past bedtime.

Desirée (aka Shrimp) is a well-educated librarian who lives in an all-white apartment in town and enjoys books, opera, and vegetarian food. Benny is a farmer who left high school to take over his parents’ dairy farm and is in desperate need of a farmer’s wife who can cook and clean and help him take care of the farm.

The two first meet at the cemetery, where Desirée’s late husband and Benny’s parents are in adjoining plots. They are each immediately annoyed with the other, but their distaste quickly changes into passion. Their story is told from both of their points of view, in alternating chapters, which adds to the fun as the reader sees first-hand how they each see the same event from completely different perspectives. Here’s Desirée’s first impression of Benny at his parents’ grave:

Next to Örjan’s stone there’s a really tasteless gravestone, an absolute monstrosity. White marble with swirly gold lettering; angels, roses, birds, words on garlands of ribbon, even a salutary little skull and scythe. The grave itself is as crowded with plants as a garden center. On the headstone are a man’s name and a woman’s name with similar dates of birth, so it must be a child honoring his father and mother in an overly lavish way.

A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by the monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in a loud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up in the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNER’S ALLIANCE. He was eagerly raking and digging his little plot.

And Benny’s first impression of her:

Going to the grave is my only breathing space, and even then I never feel I can just sit there thinking. I have to rake and plant and weed before I can let myself sit down.

And then she’s there.

Faded, like some old color photo that’s been on display for years. Dried-out blond hair, a pale face, white eyebrows and lashes, wishy-washy pastel clothes, always something vaguely blue or beige. A beige person. The total insolence of her – it would only take a bit of make-up or bright jewelry to let the people around her know that here’s someone who at least cares what you see and what you think of me. All her paleness says is: I don’t give a damn what you think; I don’t so much as notice you.
It might seem odd that they are soon drawn to each other, but who hasn’t experienced a relationship where pure attraction overrode more rational considerations? I really came to care for these two misfits and was rooting for them to somehow work it all out. For me, that’s the mark of a good novel – when the author can make me care about the characters and what happens to them.

I have one minor complaint, a trivial thing that drove me a little crazy. The cover and all the promotional material for this book and many passages within the book describe the two main characters as “middle-aged,” but just a few pages into the novel, I discovered that they’re both about 35! If that’s middle-aged, I must have one foot in the grave at 44! Perhaps they just use the term “middle-aged” differently in Sweden than we do here.

In any case, that is a small thing, and once I adjusted to the fact that the lovers were in their 30’s and not their 50’s, I loved the book. In fact, I think the translation was otherwise excellent because the novel was very well written, and I never felt any cultural rift due to its taking place in Sweden. After all, love is a universal experience.

Penguin, 224 pages.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's Monday 8/10! What Are You Reading?

(sponsored by J. Kaye's Book Blog)

I had a very enjoyable reading week.
  • I finished Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti, a Swedish love story, and enjoyed it very much. I'll post a review of it this week.
  • I read Julie & Julia by Julie Powell in honor of its movie release last week. It was an intriguing memoir made even more fascinating by the fact that Julie started a blog a few years ago - much like all of us here! - and is now a best-selling author.
  • I started The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau, a middle-grade novel. We watched the movie with the kids over the weekend which inspired me to finally read the book - my older son, Jamie, had told me it was very good (along with its sequel). He was right!
I'll post reviews this week for both Benny & Shrimp and Building a House with My Husband this week, then I'll be off on vacation for a few days - another chance to listen to some great audio books!

What are YOU reading this week?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Fiction Review: I Love You, Beth Cooper

I laughed all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike last week (an unusual occurrence!), thanks to the hilarious audio book, I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle. The book is read by Paul Rust, who also plays the role of the main character in the movie that was released in July.

Most people are already familiar with the basic plot from the endless TV commercials for the movie. Denis Cooverman, valedictorian of his high school class and captain of the debate team, stuns his classmates and their guests when he announces during his valedictorian address that he is in love with the ultra-popular head cheerleader, Beth Cooper. Denis has sat behind Beth in almost every class but has never actually spoken to her (except to lend a pencil once), and Beth is barely even aware of who Denis is.

The book takes place during the rest of graduation day and into the night. Denis and his best friend, Rich Munsch, hope Beth and her friends will stop by for Denis’ graduation party (a sad affair consisting of snacks and just two guests – Denis and Rich), but they don’t count on Beth’s menacing boyfriend, Kevin, who’s on leave from the Army to attend Beth’s graduation. What ensues is, as you might imagine, silly, outrageous, and farcical…and also very, very funny!

Listening to this book brought back memories of all those John Hughes’ high school movies of the 80’s, like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. All the classic stereotypes are there – the geeky guy who lusts after the popular girl, the quirky best friend who’s not sure whether or not he’s gay, the jealous boyfriend whose neck is larger than his IQ. And of course, there’s the huge, out-of-control party at the rich kid’s house whose parents are out of town and a few car chases, just for fun. The book is filled with alcohol, drugs, sex, and cursing, so you might want to skip this one if you’re easily offended.

By now, you’re probably thinking this book sounds silly and a bit trite. Apparently, that’s what most critics thought of the movie version (I haven’t seen it). I don’t usually go for those types of silly comedies, but I found this book absolutely hilarious. Doyle’s writing is clever and sharp (he’s written for The Simpsons), and his liberal use of movie quotes and pop-culture references adds to the fun. My face hurt from smiling so much by the time I’d finished, and I got plenty of strange looks for laughing hysterically all alone in my car. It was a wonderfully entertaining way to while away a tedious drive.


Listen to a sample of the audio book.

Monday, August 03, 2009

It's Monday 8/3! What Are You Reading?

Lots of audio last week again because I drove up to my mom's house in Connecticut to pick up my kids. Some good paper books, too!
  • I finished Building a House with My Husband by Rachel Simon and enjoyed it very much. I'll post a review this week.
  • I started Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti, and I like it very much - more than I expected to. It's a novel about finding love, originally written in Sweden.
  • In the car, I listened to I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle and laughed out loud all the way to Connecticut! Hilarious novel about high school graduation night - I'm looking forward to seeing the movie now. I'll review this one this week, too.
  • The kids and I finished Freaky Monday by Mary Rodgers and Heather Hach. It was excellent, a great follow-up to the original Freaky Friday, with excellent reading by Jennifer Stone (who plays Harper on the Disney Channel hit Wizards of Waverly Place). My boys and I enjoyed it very much, but it will be especially appreciated by tween girls.
What are YOU reading this week?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Memoir Review: Jantsen’s Gift

I received an advanced review copy of the memoir, Jantsen’s Gift by Pam Cope with Aimee Molloy, quite a few months back. Every time I went to my bookshelf to choose a new book to read, I passed it up, until I finally felt guilty for neglecting to review it for so long. I’m glad I finally read this inspiring story.

I know why I avoided it for so long. From the back cover, I knew that the memoir begins with the sudden death of Pam’s 15-year old son. My own son turns fifteen in a few weeks, and I just couldn’t face reading about something so unthinkable. It was difficult to read that first section of the book, but it sets the stage for the rest of Pam’s remarkable story. Once I got past my initial dread, I could scarcely put this compelling book down.

Suffering from a deep and crippling depression after her son’s death, Pam was pondering how to best put her son’s memorial fund to use, when she recalled some close friends who were trying to help a group of orphans in Vietnam:

In early November, Randy and I drove to Fayetteville to meet the Harlans for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, and to talk about the decision we had made: We wanted to donate Jantsen’s money to them for their work in Vietnam. They were touched by the idea, but before they accepted Carol looked at me over her tacos.

“You know,” she said, “I’m going to Vietnam over Thanksgiving. Why don’t you guys and Crista come along with us and make sure this is the right place for the money? I don’t know if you’re up for something like this, but why not?”

Vietnam? I knew nothing about the place, other than old stories about the war. It seemed so faraway and foreign. It seemed like the farthest place in the world from Neosho, Missouri, and Thanksgiving dinner and birthday celebrations and family expectations…

I accepted immediately.

That impulsive trip to Vietnam changed not only her own life but also the lives of many children around the world. The more Pam learned about the orphans in Vietnam and other suffering children around the world, the more she felt compelled to help them in whatever way she could. She had never been involved in charity work before, but now she felt as if she could make a difference in the world, one child at a time. Along the way, Pam discovered how to fill a void in her life that had been there long before her son died.

It was difficult to read about some of the things that Pam encountered in her quest: abandoned children with disabilities in Vietnam, very young girls forced to become prostitutes to support their families in Cambodia, and children as young as five years old forced into slavery in Ghana, Africa. But this is not a depressing book; on the contrary, the things that Pam is able to do to help these children are inspiring and uplifting. She takes her own suffering and pain and uses it as motivation to give to others with passion and commitment. And in the process of helping these children, the children help Pam, too.

It’s a heartwarming story that opened my eyes to some of the terrible things that children face around the world but also to the remarkable difference a single person can make. Don’t avoid this story as I did because of its sadness; instead, open yourself to its joys and inspiration and maybe let it change your life, too.

Grand Central Publishing, 320 pages.