Monday, January 25, 2010

Leave of Absence

I've written this post in my head more than a dozen times in the past few days, but that isn't making it any easier.

I've decided to take a leave of absence from Book By Book. This was a very difficult decision for me to make because I really enjoy this blog and the connections I've made with other book lovers here. I've been struggling the past few months with a prolonged flare-up of my chronic illness. At the same time, 2009 was a terrible year for freelance writers, with lots of magazines cutting back or even folding all together.

In taking a hard look at my goals for 2010, I've finally admitted that I'm overloaded right now, and I need to focus on two things: my health and my freelance writing. As much as I've enjoyed writing this blog, it has grown more than I expected and is not only time-consuming but is also non-paid writing.

I don't plan to disappear, though! I will still visit other book blogs, to satisfy my love of interacting with other book lovers and sharing what I've read. And I will still occasionally post a review or other bit of book news here - I just need to eliminate the daily commitment for the short term. I also plan to maintain my other book blog, Great Books for Kids and Teens, because that does fit in closely with one of my paid writing jobs. I hope to be able to resume Book By Book at some point in the future.

Thanks to all of my readers for your wonderful support and friendship. This isn't good-bye but just...See You Later!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fiction Review: This is Where I Leave You

I absolutely loved Jonathan Tropper’s novel, The Book of Joe – and the TV show adapted from it, October Road – so I was excited to hear he had a new novel released, This Is Where I Leave You. I read it last fall (still catching up on that backlog of reviews!), and I was not disappointed. Though different from The Book of Joe, Tropper’s latest novel is engaging, thoughtful, and hysterically funny.

This Is Where I Leave You is about a dysfunctional family that comes together for a week to sit shiva for their father. This is how the oldest sister, Wendy, informs her brother (and main character), Judd, that their father has died:

“Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. “He died two hours ago.”

“How’s Mom doing?”

“She’s Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner.”

I have to smile, even as I chafe, as always, at our family’s patented inability to express emotion during watershed events. There is no occasion calling for sincerity that the Foxman family won’t quickly diminish or pervert through our own genetically engineered brand of irony and evasion. We banter, quip, and insult our way through birthdays, holidays, weddings, illnesses. Now Dad is dead and Wendy is cracking wise. It serves him right, since he was something of a pioneer at the forefront of emotional repression.


So, right away, you can see the set-up for this group of wise-cracking, distant siblings (there are four of them) to spend seven days together in their childhood home. But there’s more. Judd’s life is in turmoil right now. He recently caught his wife and his boss, a radio shock jock, having sex in his own bedroom and is now in the midst of a very painful and somewhat complicated divorce. Judd’s siblings all have their own issues and secrets, too.

Judd is a depressed but side-splittingly funny narrator with a dark sense of humor. Here, he describes his father’s last months:

…It took four months for him to die, three more than the oncologist had predicted. “Your dad’s a fighter,” they would say when we visited, which was a crock, because he’d already been soundly beaten. If he was at all aware, he had to be pissed at how long it was taking him to do something as simple as die. Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can.

As you can see, Judd – and the rest of his family – are quite irreverent. If foul language or explicit sex scenes bother you, then you may want to skip this book. If not, then you’ll find the scene where Judd walks in on his wife and his boss very entertaining, as Judd sets it up here: “My marriage ended the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake.”

I laughed out loud all the way through this novel, but it also has a serious side, as Judd and his sister and brothers try to resolve their various problems and begin to come together, despite their expertise in remaining distant. Judd himself is struggling just to pull his life back together after his wife’s devastating betrayal. Tropper has a talent for portraying real-life relationships and problems with depth and humor. I enjoyed this novel very much and can’t wait for his next one!

For more information on Jonathan Tropper, you can visit his website.

You can hear an interview with Tropper about his novel at amazon's page (scroll down a bit) - he's working on a screenplay of it for Warner Brothers!

339 pages, Dutton (Penguin Group)

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's Monday 1/18! What Are You Reading?


I'm running a little late this morning because I had to cook breakfast for 8 ravenous boys (my younger son turned 12 last week). Wow, 12-year old boys can eat a LOT! Besides last night's sleep-over, we had two sets of house guests last week. Thankfully, things will now - finally - slow down a bit.

Still found time to read last week (while resting in between visitors!):
  • I finished I Wanna Be Your Shoebox by Cristina Garcia, a warm and funny middle-grade novel that I really enjoyed. I posted a review at Great Books for Kids and Teens and some favorite quotes from the book at this week's Quote It Saturday.
  • My book group book finally came in at the library, so I started The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I've heard so many great things about this book from other bloggers, and I'm really enjoying it. I was worried I might not finish in time for my Wednesday meeting, but the boys had both TV's occupied with video games last night, so my husband and I read for two hours instead of watching a movie. We should do that more often!
  • I began listening to a classic teen/YA novel on audio by Madeleine L'Engle, Camilla. L'Engle was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid (I worshipped the Wrinkle in Time series!), but I've never read Camilla, so I'm enjoying it.
If you're interested in what the rest of my family is reading, check out Great Books for Kids and Teens.

Last week, I posted my list of Top Ten Books Read in 2009 and my list of Top Ten Kids/Teen Books Read in 2009 and a review of the wonderful nonfiction book, The Red Leather Diary.

What are YOU reading this week?

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

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Quote It Sunday 1/17


I had to make a slight adjustment to this weekly feature since I never had a chance to write on Saturday (we've had house guests...and a birthday party coming up today), so this week it's Quote It Sunday! Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting this feature.

I chose something a little different today, a quote (two actually) from a kids' book. Earlier this week, I read a wonderful middle-grade book, I Wanna Be Your Shoebox by Cristina Garcia (you can read my full review at my kids' book blog). The lead character, 13-year old Yumi, comes from a multi-cultural family and is dealing with lots of upsetting changes in her life, including the impending death of her beloved grandfather, Saul. Saul is from Brooklyn originally, though he lived in Japan for many years where he met Yumi's grandmother. Yumi spends a lot of time with Saul, listening with fascinati0n as he tells her his life story. I loved these passages between grandfather and granddaughter, so today's two quotes are excerpted from those discussions:

But change is inevitable, kid. No use trying to run from it or pretending to keep everything the same. It's a law of nature. Things die if they stand still too long. They get stagnant, like an old pond. That don't mean that everything will get better right away. But everything happens for a reason. In the long run, it usually turns out for the best.

And another:

...Listen up, Yumi girl, there's no use running away from your problems. 'Cause where are you gonna run to? There'll be up times and down times, and sometimes, looking back, they're the opposite of what you thought. Sometimes big changes force you to grow in ways you can't predict. But if you got a problem, look it straight in the eye and deal. That's good advice, kid. Take it. I wish I'd followed it myself. You can't return to the past, as much as you'd like to. Look at me: I couldn't go back to Japan, and when I finally returned New York, it didn't work out neither. You gotta keep looking forward, little one. Live in the present, take on the future. That's what I say.

Good advice, huh?

Hope you're enjoying a good weekend.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nonfiction Review: The Red Leather Diary

My mother read The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel for a book group discussion and recommended it to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this very unique book that begins with its author, Koppel, finding an old diary in a pile of steamer trunks that had been discarded from her apartment building in New York City. That diary led Koppel on a journey of discovery.

The 5-year diary had once belonged to a young girl named Florence Wolfson who started it on her fourteenth birthday in 1929. Florence lived a rather privileged life, attending Wadleigh High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in the city and spending her summers on Long Island and, later, in the Catskills. Florence was a remarkable young woman, mature beyond her years, who had started high school at age 11 and graduated at 15.

Koppel read the diary from cover to cover, then hired a private investigator to help her find Florence. Amazingly, they found her, alive and well, now 90 years old, and living in Connecticut and Florida. The two women met, and Koppel returned Florence’s diary to her. Florence answered Koppel’s questions and filled in more information about her life as a young woman of the 20’s and 30’s.

Koppel’s book is a combination of Florence’s original diary entries and additional details, some supplied by Florence and some gained through research, as in this excerpt:

A magnificent day – I still can’t get over the beauty of New York – at dusk.

Everywhere she looked there was a scene ripe with artistic possibility. Around her neck dangled her new Leica camera with a Zeiss lens from a brown leather strap. Florence snapped a photograph of a man in a Magritte hat scanning a store display, which she titled on the back, “Reflections,” for a competition she entered by mail. Off Fifth Avenue, streetcars buzzed diagonally across intersections on brass rails powered by live wires. Florence reached her arm out the trolley’s window to feel the breeze. Wires also transmitted phone calls, courtesy of New York City’s thousands of telephone girls, easy to flatter with a joke as they plugged in the right exchange. “Atwater 9-5332” reached the Wolfsons. At the Horn and Hardart Automat, sticking a nickel in a slot opened a little glass door for a slice of pie. Silver dolphin spouts poured hot coffee.

Young Florence’s boundless joy for life and love of the arts is evident in many of her exuberant diary entries, like this one:

Bought several books today and feel quite proud of my tiny library. Alice and her adventures in Wonderland are included – and why not! There’s so much to do – music, art, books, people – can one absorb it all?

The result is a fascinating and engaging portrait of that time period, from the perspective of this lively, enthusiastic young woman. Florence went to Hunter College in New York and enjoyed all that the city had to offer. She shares intimate details of her friendships, love affairs (with both boys and girls), hopes, and aspirations. Sprinkled throughout the book are captivating photos, many of them from Florence’s own collection, that help to complete the picture of a young woman’s life in 1930’s New York.

352 pages, Harper Perennial

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Top Ten Books Read in 2009

TEN FOR TUESDAY

I'm finally getting around to making my best of 2009 list! This was a really great year for reading for me; it was hard to narrow my favorites down to just ten. These are all grown-up books. If you're also interested in books for kids, teens, and young adults, check out my Top Ten of 2009 List at Great Books for Kids and Teens.

So (drumroll, please), here are my Top Ten Books Read in 2009, in the order that I read them:
  1. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
  2. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
  3. The Girl She Used To Be by David Cristofano
  4. Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo
  5. Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
  6. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  7. The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells
  8. The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
  9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  10. Gumbo Tales: Finding My Way at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen
You can click through the links to read my full reviews.

What were your favorite books of 2009?

Monday, January 11, 2010

It’s Monday 1/11! What Are You Reading?


Still busy, busy, busy! My Dad and his wife are visiting, my son’s 12th birthday is Wednesday, then my mom and her husband arrive on Friday. Fortunately, I still have books to provide a little downtime:

  • I finished Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch, an enjoyable novel about an unhappy mom who suddenly finds herself seven years in her past with the chance to make different choices. Review to come soon.
  • I’m now reading an excellent middle-grade novel, I Wanna Be Your Shoebox, by Cristina Garcia, about a thirteen year-old girl who is part Japanese, part Cuban, and part Russian Jew. It’s very well-written .
  • I’m almost finished with the audio book, The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans. I don’t normally read or listen to holiday-themed books, but this one turned out to be pretty good – sort of a modern variation on the Scrooge story.

If you’re interested in kids’ books, check out what the rest of my family is reading at Great Books for Kids and Teens.

I’m making progress on my backlog of reviews. I posted two here last week, both books that I loved: The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder and Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table. I also posted a kids’ audio review at Great Books for Kids and Teens of Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

What are you reading Mondays is sponsored by J. Kaye's Book Blog.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Quote It Saturday 1/9


It's been a few weeks since I've been able to participate in Quote It Saturday because of the holidays, so I'm glad to be coming back to my favorite weekly feature, where I share a quote from a book. Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting Quote It Saturday!

Today's quote is a partial excerpt from one of my favorite books of 2009, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells. I wrote a review of the audio book this week, but there were so many quotes that I loved and couldn't fit into the review!

Here's one of my favorites, a list that Calla Lily's mother, M'Dear, wrote that hung on the refrigerator of their home in the little town of La Luna, Louisiana. In the book, La Luna is both the name of the town and the name of the river, and Calla's mother also refers to La Luna, the Moon Lady, who watches over her. I've abridged this list a bit so as to not give away any spoilers:

The Rules of Life According to M'Dear:
  • Sleep with the windows open (window screens are fine, when necessary).
  • Whistle in the dark. Calla Lily, your attempt at whistling is good enough.
  • Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.
  • Sing anytime you feel like it, and even more when you don't feel like it. Sonny Boy, this does not mean in math class, although you have my permission to sing in all other classes. Will, all your silent singing is good, and also try to sing out loud at least once a day.
  • Let love slip underneath closed doors, through tiny cracks in the walls, through your pores.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: KEEP ON DANCING. Dance while you're brushing your teeth, dance while the sun shines, dance under the moon...Remember, La Luna waits for us to dance in her light, so dance in the streets. When life is happy, dance in the kitchen, and when life is roughest, dance in the kitchen...
- The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells

Lots of good advice, don't you think? I especially like "Perfect will make you a big, fat mess every time."

Hope you're enjoying a nice weekend and staying warm!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Memoir Review: Gumbo Tales

Where to begin? Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, a scrumptious memoir by Sara Roahen, is one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, I started reading a library copy of this book last year and loved it so much that I set it down and returned it because I knew this was a book I had to own, a book I’d want to read again and again. My husband gave it to me for my birthday this year, and I recently finished it during my trip to Oklahoma. It was one of those books that I never wanted to end; I read every word, including the acknowledgments and index (how could I not love a book whose index goes from Abita Amber beer to Zulu Social Aid Club?), then hugged it to me with a satisfied sigh.



Like me, Roahen is a transplanted northerner who moved to New Orleans, and, like me, the city cast its spell on her and changed her life. Although Gumbo Tales is ostensibly about the food of New Orleans (certainly a worthy topic on its own), it’s also about the city’s unique culture, history, and people. Woven into the stories about Roahen’s discovery of New Orleans’ culinary riches are tales of the unique characters she meets and the devastating toll of Hurricane Katrina on the people and on the city itself.



Each chapter is devoted to a unique aspect of New Orlean’s food culture, from the expected (gumbo, crawfish) to the lesser known (sno-balls, red gravy, and Le Beouf Gras) to the downright bizarre (turducken). I savored every word of the book as I used to savor every bite of New Orlean’s wonderful food, smiling at the mention of old favorite foods and restaurants and grabbing my pen and notebook at the mention of as-yet undiscovered treasures. I was reading Gumbo Tales on the plane and was starving by the time we landed!


Here, in the first chapter, Roahen explains the magic of gumbo:
Gumbo is the most important dish in the Louisiana lexicon for its prevalence and dependability alone. It’s difficult to come up with a single regional-leaning restaurant in New Orleans with a menu of any substance that doesn’t serve some version of it at least once a week. Gumbo’s pervasiveness does not, however, diminish the dish’s mystique; just as its variations are infinite, so are gumbo’s controversies and questions.
Every native can, and is dying to, describe her quintessential gumbo down to the final grain of rice, rice being the single constant among gumbos. Usually. There are at least as many definitive gumbos in Louisiana as there are accents, and like accents, definitive gumbos are established at home. It’s an intensely esoteric topic, as personal as pie crust and pimento cheese: whatever style a person grows up eating tends to remain her ideal for eternity. If you disagree with that ideal, it’s clearly because you’re impaired in some sad, fundamental way.
Roahen’s words bring you deep into the history and hearths of New Orleans. Foodies, travel buffs, and Louisiana enthusiasts like me will love her warm, funny, touching memoir. It reminded me of all that I love about New Orleans and why we’ve brought our kids up on red beans and rice and jambalaya here in Delaware. We’re planning a spring break trip to Louisiana this year (we took our sons two years ago, and they fell in love with it, too!), and I can’t wait to get back there to try some of Roahen’s favorite dishes and restaurants. I feel like I’ve made a new friend.

268 pages, W.W. Norton


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Fiction Review: The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

I really enjoyed Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and its sequel and prequel, so I was excited when the audio version of her latest novel, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder arrived at my house this past summer. But this warm and satisfying story surpassed even my high expectations. As I listened to it over the course of several weeks this fall, I laughed out loud and cried my eyes out.

The book opens when its narrator and title character is eight years old, growing up in rural Louisiana:
"My name is Calla Lily Ponder. I was born in 1953 in La Luna, Louisiana, on the banks of the La Luna River. That is where my mother cut and curled hair, and my father and mother together taught tango, waltz, and Cajun two-step. They said they named me for their favorite flower because they wanted me to spiral open into a radiant beauty, inside and out. Even when I was born, a red, tiny, hollering thing, they claimed they could see the beautiful, creamy-colored, velvety bloom of a calla lily.

My eyes are blue like my mother’s – I call her M’Dear – and my complexion is olive like Papa’s. I guess the only thing that resembles the flower I’m named for is my long, strong legs. They’ve served me well so far, and I’m grateful for that. I was taught not to care much what other people thought, unless someone said you were mean to them, and it was true. Then you better pay attention. My big brothers and I learned this at an early age: That it is kindness that makes you rich."

Calla tells her story, from her childhood in La Luna with M’Dear, Papa, and her brothers through romances, lifelong friendships, a career in New Orleans, and all of the ups and downs that come with every life. That’s what makes this book so appealing – the author’s ability to portray real life, with its highs and lows, joys and sorrows. Calla is one of the most endearing characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. I was concerned at first that the sweetness of the book might turn out to be cloying (and some reviewers thought it was), but Calla Lily just happens to be a pleasant, kind main character, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I love everything about Louisiana (we used to live in New Orleans), and this novel perfectly captures its unique spirit and character. I could picture the tiny town of La Luna, and I felt like I was right there with Calla when she moved to New Orleans, experiencing that one-of-a-kind city for the first time.

I love to read, and it’s rare that I prefer the audio version of a book to the printed version, but this was one of those exceptions. The reader, Judith Ivey, has the perfect southern Louisiana accent and portrays Calla Lily both as a child and as an adult so flawlessly that you forget you’re listening to a fictional story. She made Calla and the other characters come alive, until I felt like I was in La Luna myself.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder
was one of my favorite books read or listened to all year. I’m so late with this review in part because I was sick when I finished the book, but I think I also put off writing the review because I wasn’t sure exactly how to capture the warmth and spirit of this special novel. I got a print version of the book out of the library so that I could find quotes for this review, and I ended up reading much of it again, as I browsed through the book and spotted favorite passages I had listened to. Do yourself a favor and escape into the world of La Luna for a while and get to know Calla Lily Ponder. You won’t regret it.

416 pages, Harper-Collins

Audio book by HarperAudio

Listen to a sample of the audio.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2009 In Review

I'm still struggling to catch up on all of my backlogged reviews after a busy holiday season, but I took a few minutes today to look back over what I read in 2009. I finished a total of 84 books in 2009. Of those:
  • 12 were adult memoir
  • 22 were adult fiction
  • 1 was adult nonfiction (and not memoir)
  • 4 were adult audio books
  • 20 were books for middle-grade readers
  • 9 were middle-grade audio books
  • 13 were teen/YA books
  • 3 were teen/YA audio books
I read 56 books in 2008, so this was a big increase for me.

2009 was also the year I began keeping up my book blog more regularly and the year I began a separate blog for reviews of kids/YA books, Great Books for Kids and Teens, in addition to the reviews I write for Family Fun magazine. In 2009, I wrote and posted:
  • 33 reviews here at Book By Book
  • 39 reviews at Great Books for Kids and Teens
All in all, a good reading year!

Monday, January 04, 2010

It's Monday 1/4! What Are You Reading?


Happy New Year!

2010?? It sounds like some sort of sci fi novel!

We had a very busy holiday season (hence the hiatus from blogging), plus some unforeseen emergencies (my husband had emergency laser eye surgery the Sunday after Christmas), but now things are settling back down. I did manage to read some excellent books these last two weeks:
  • I finished Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard, an imaginative teen science fiction novel set during the future when humans have populated space. My son was right - it was very good.
  • During Christmas break and our trip to Oklahoma to visit my in-laws, I read Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen. I LOVED this book! We used to live in New Orleans, and I could relate to everything Roahen wrote about - the food, the culture, the people. I miss my favorite city! I'll try to post a review this week because I definitely want to include this book on my Top Ten of 2009 list.
  • I started Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch, a Christmas gift from my husband (after he read my Top Ten Books I Want for Christmas list! He also gave me Mudbound.) The plot - about a harried mom who suddenly find herself transported back in time seven years earlier with the chance to rethink the choices she's made - is somewhat similar to my favorite book, Replay by Ken Grimwood, and I'm enjoying it so far.
My sons read a lot over the break, too, so if you're interested in what they're reading, check out my Monday post on Great Books for Kids and Teens, too. I have a big backlog of reviews to write this week, so check back!

Hope you also received some good books for Christmas. Happy New Year!

What are YOU reading this week?

(What are you reading Mondays are hosted by J. Kaye's Book Blog)