Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Monday 12/21! What Are You Reading?

Whew, what an exhausting, busy week I had last week! We spent this past weekend celebrating Christmas with my family in Connecticut, so last week was a flurry of preparations - buying and wrapping gifts, packing, and making my annual year-end DVD of family photos. Miraculously, I finished everything by Friday, and we spent an enjoyable weekend with my mom and her husband, my sister, brother-in-law, and my adorable niece and nephew.

Meanwhile, Delaware got a record-setting December snowfall (13 inches in our town). We're back home now and trying to dig out. I still need to finish my shopping today!

So, not a lot of time for reading last week (and no time at all for writing reviews!), but I did manage some enjoyable books:
  • I finished The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel and really enjoyed its fascinating look into a young woman's life in NYC in the 1920's and 30's.
  • I had trouble starting a new book because I was so distracted with so many things to do, so I chose a teen science fiction story that my son really loved: Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard. It's great so far and engaging enough to hold my attention during this busy season.
  • On audio, I finished The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. It's a fictional story set during the time of the Salem witch trials. It was good, though I couldn't help comparing it to The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent (recently reviewed here) which was GREAT.
  • In the spirit of the season, I started listening to The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans on audio, but I probably won't have time to finish it! I'm only a couple of chapters into it, but it's an interesting premise, about a greedy, selfish man who wakes up one morning and reads his own obituary in the newspaper (I suspect there's some redemption ahead).
  • In the car on the way to and from CT, our family listened to Prism, a wonderful teen/YA science fiction audio that I listened to and reviewed earlier this year at Great Books for Kids and Teens. My husband and sons are enjoying it as much as I did!
Otherwise, we continued to read our favorite Christmas books at bedtime, and I really enjoyed reading them to my niece and nephew this weekend, too! I hope all of you enjoy the holidays with your families!

So, what are YOU reading this week?

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's Monday 12/14! What Are You Reading?

It's a bit late for my Monday posting. I'm not going to have much time for blogging for awhile - we have holiday celebrations in Connecticut, Delaware, and Oklahoma coming up. Plus, my sons and I were all sick all last week with a bad flare-up of our chronic illness, so I have so much to get done now! The boys went back to school today, but I'm still feeling pretty crummy.

Anyway, last week was a good reading week, though we also watched a LOT of movies!
  • I finally finished Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey, with no further interruptions! This dark, compelling teen fantasy in The Resurrection of Magic trilogy (book 2) was just as good as the first one, and I can't wait for the third and final installment!
  • I started The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel. My mother read it for a book group and recommended it. I've had this copy from the library sitting on my kitchen counter for over a month, so I'm glad I finally got to it. It's a fascinating real-life look into the life of a young woman in New York from 1929 - 1934.
I did manage to post a review last week of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, one of the best books I've read in the past five years - a great gift idea for any reader on your holiday list!

And on Great Books for Kids and Teens, I posted my family's Top Ten List of Christmas Picture Books. Check out our favorites and tell me about yours!

So, what are YOU reading this week?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Quote It Saturday 12/12

Time again for my favorite weekly feature, Quote It Saturday, started by That Chick That Reads. I've chosen a short quote for today, just because we've had a difficult week. My two sons and I all experienced a severe flare-up of our chronic illness this week. My younger son and I are doing better, but my older son is still flat on his back.

Today's quote is from Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, a novel based on facts about the life of a woman who was a long-time lover (and, some say, the soul mate) of Frank Lloyd Wright. As the novel begins, she is a young mother and wife who is frustrated and feeling smothered by her dull life:

I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.
- Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

While I didn't necessarily agree with her actions in the novel, I could certainly relate to this particular sentiment.

Hope you are all enjoying your weekend!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Fiction Review: The Help

With The Help by Kathryn Stockett on so many Best of 2009 lists, I couldn’t wait to read it myself, so I was thrilled when my neighbor lent me her copy. I have to agree that The Help is one of the best books I’ve read this year; not only that, but it easily made it onto my own personal list of top ten novels of all-time. I loved this book and never wanted it to end.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and is narrated by three different women.

Skeeter, a young white woman, has just returned home with a diploma from Ole Miss. She has dreams of becoming a writer, but all her mother wants is for her to meet a nice man and get married:

I drive my mama’s Cadillac fast on the gravel road, headed home. Patsy Cline can’t even be heard on the radio anymore, for all the rocks banging the side of the car. Mother would be furious, but I just drive faster. I can’t stop thinking about what Hilly said to me today at bridge club.

Hilly and Elizabeth and I have been best friends since Power Elementary. My favorite photograph is of the three of us sitting in the football stands in junior high, all jammed together, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. What makes the picture, though, is that the stands are completely empty around us. We sat close because we were close.

Aibileen is an older black woman, working as a maid for Skeeter’s best friend, Elizabeth:

Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?”

It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.

And Minny is a friend of Aibileen’s. known for her amazing cooking skills and for her sassy mouth which often gets her in trouble:

Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in, Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind, too. Look like a maid who does what she is told. Truth is, I’m so nervous right now, I’d never backtalk again if it meant I’d get this job.

I yank my hose up from sagging around my feet – the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell.

Each of these three women is fascinating on her own, but their paths are destined to cross in ways that will change all of their lives forever. Things are changing in the world, even though Mississippi seems to be lagging behind. These three women come together to do something unbelievably brave, and perhaps foolish.

The stories of these women – and of the rest of the women in town, black and white – are all entwined together, creating a mosaic of a time when there were social lines that were not crossed. This novel is about those lines and about what happens when people dare to step outside of them. There are the hateful emotions between races that you might expect for the time – prejudice, fear, anger – but this book is also about the loving relationships between the black maids and the white children they cared for and raised. Stockett writes, in part, from her own experiences, growing up in Mississippi with a close relationship with her family’s own maid.

Stockett’s writing is vivid and real, pulling you into this captivating and volatile period of time and place. You come to care about the main characters, to hate others, and to feel as if you are living more within the story than within your own life for a short time. And it will be a short time because you will be unable to put this book down. I found myself carrying it around with me, stealing five minutes of reading time whenever I could. That, to me, is the mark of an extraordinary novel. The Help will stay with me for a long time.

For more information about the book and the author, check out Elizabeth Stockett’s website.

451 pages, Amy Einhorn Books (Putnam)

Monday, December 07, 2009

It's Monday 12/7! What Are You Reading?

Not a lot of reading time last week - too much other stuff to do this time of year! But what I did read I enjoyed...
  • I finished Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and posted my review. I also posted a couple of extra quotes I liked from the book for my Quote It Saturday feature.
  • With my book group reads behind me, I finally went back to the novel I've had to put down twice for book group books: Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey, Book 2 in The Resurrection of Magic series, a dark but engaging teen fantasy. Once again, it's excellent, and I think I'll actually get all the way through it this time!
My Top Ten List last week was a list of the top ten books I'd like to receive for Christmas. What's on your list this year?

So, what are YOU reading this week?

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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Quote It Saturday 12/5

Welcome to my favorite feature of the week, Quote It Saturday. Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting it!

Since I just finished and reviewed Olive Kitteridge this week, it's fresh in my mind, so I thought I'd share a couple of other quotes from the book that I really liked. I mentioned in my review that parts of the book were a bit depressing, but these quotes feature a couple of the sections I referred to that emphasize joy and optimism instead. Both of these quotes really spoke to me and reflect my own feelings.

The first is about small moments of joy in life, as Olive recalls watching her son's soccer games when he was younger:

There was beauty to that autumn air, and the sweaty young bodies that had mud on their legs, strong young men who would throw themselves forward to have the ball smack against their foreheads; the cheering when a goal was scored, the goalie sinking to his knees. There were days - she could remember this - when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.

Having spent many, many similar hours on soccer fields watching my own two sons play, I know just what she means.

Here, in another chapter, Jane and Bob Houlton, an older married couple, drive through town looking at Christmas lights on all the houses:

And she was happy right now, it was true. Jane Houlton, shifting slightly inside her nice black coat, was thinking that, after all, life was a gift - that one of those things about getting older was knowing that so many moments weren't just moments, they were gifts. And how nice, really, that people should celebrate with such earnestness this time of year. No matter what people's lives might hold (some of these houses they were passing would have to hold some woeful tribulations, Janie knew), still and all, people were compelled to celebrate because they knew somehow, in their different ways, that life was a thing to celebrate.

That one is particularly relevant at this time of year, don't you think?

Hope you're enjoying your weekend!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fiction Review: Olive Kitteridge

For the past year, I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and I finally had the chance to read it this week for my neighborhood book group. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, and the book was at the top of many “best of” lists last year. Most of the women in my book group enjoyed this unique novel-like book. It is very well written, with a clever approach to telling Olive’s story.

The book – not exactly a novel – is written as a series of thirteen separate but interrelated short stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Each story focuses on a different character or family in Crosby but somehow relates to the title character, Olive. In some of the stories, Olive is a major presence, as in the stories focusing on her husband and son. In other stories, Olive is barely there, perhaps just passing the main character at a restaurant. Through the eyes of the various townspeople, we learn more and more about Olive, as in this scene, where Bob and Jane Houlton have come to church for a holiday concert:

The church was slowly beginning to fill up. Olive Kitteridge walked in, tall and broad-shouldered in a navy-blue coat, her husband behind her. Henry Kitteridge touched his wife’s arm, indicating they take a seat in a pew nearby, but Olive shook her head and they sat instead two pews closer to the front of the church. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” Bob murmured to Jane.

They watched the Kitteridges settle into their pew, Olive shaking off her coat, than placing it back on her shoulders, Henry helping her. Olive Kitteridge had taught math at the school Jane had worked at; very seldom had the two women spoken at length. Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane kept her distance. In response to Bob’s remark now, Jane merely shrugged.

Through each short story, we learn about its characters, about the community, and a bit more about Olive. The stories are roughly chronological, moving from when Olive and Henry are raising their teen son to the inevitable challenges of old age. Through it all, we see Olive (and the other characters) learn more about herself and about life. I enjoyed these insights, like this one:

Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.

Generally, I enjoyed this unique book, although it was a bit depressing at times. I understand first-hand that bad things happen in every life and part of life is dealing with these challenges, but I would have preferred a more upbeat view of life. The stories had moments of hope and optimism – and a nice ending – but there were also an awful lot of suicidal thoughts, infidelity, and yearnings for something different in this small community. All in all, though, Olive Kitteridge provides an interesting and well-written study of a small town and of human life, with all of its joys and despairs.

If you've already read Olive Kitteridge, you may enjoy this interview with both Elizabeth Strout and with the fictional Olive (but it does contain spoilers so best to save it until after you've read the book).

270 pages, Random House

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Top Ten Books I Want For Christmas


Although all of my Top Ten lists are very subjective, today's is even more random than usual. I have a running list in an Excel spreadsheet of 200 books that I want to read, added to whenever I hear about something that sounds good. I love to receive books - any books! - as gifts, so it's impossible to really choose only ten from this never-ending list. But, these are books that I had starred, books that really struck a chord with me for one reason or another. I'd be happy to find any of these under the tree on Christmas morning!

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (amazon’s best of 2008)
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (Time Traveler's Wife is one of my top ten books of all time)
  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (I keep trying to convince my book group to read this one)
  • Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch (because it sounds similar to my favorite book, Replay)
  • Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee (memoir of girl raised in New Orleans, looking for birth parents - I love to read anything about New Orleans)
  • Roastbeef’s Promise by David Jerome (a road trip novel, recommended by Mary at Bookfan, because I love road trips)
  • Traveling with Pomengranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor (traveling plus mother-daughter memoir - what a combination!)
  • Limbo by A. Manette Ansay (memoir by author with a mystery illness)
What books would you like to receive this holiday season?

Monday, November 30, 2009

It's Monday 11/30! What Are You Reading?

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday! We spent the last 5 days visiting my extended family in Rochester, NY. It was a hectic weekend, packed full of visits, but a lot of fun. It was wonderful to see everyone, and my sons had a blast playing with three different sets of cousins! Not a lot of time for reading, though...
  • I finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and it's easy to see why this novel ended up on so many Best of 2009 lists. I could hardly set it down, and it's definitely on my own "Best of" list. An amazing novel about the relationships between white women in 1960's Mississippi and their black maids. If you've read this book, stop by Barney's Book Blog for an online discussion (it was actually yesterday, but I plan to stop by today to add my two cents!).
  • I started a book for my neighborhood book group (which meets on Wednesday) - Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It was hard to switch to a new book after finishing The Help, but I'm enjoying it so far. I still have a lot left to read in the next 3 days!
  • I've been listening to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe on audio for the past couple of weeks. I'm enjoying it, though it's not as good as The Heretic's Daughter (both are about the Salem witch trials).
If you're interested in kids' and teen/YA books, check out my weekly update at Great Books for Kids and Teens. The boys didn't have a lot of time for reading this week, but we listened to lots of great audio books on the way to and from Rochester.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's Monday 11/23! What Are You Reading?

Another Monday morning. This week will be crazy busy, with just two days of school and traveling to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with family. Won't be much time for reading!

Last week was another good, though hectic, reading week:
  • I finished The Art of Racing in the Rain for my book group and loved it! You can read my review and some additional favorite quotes from the book.
  • Having fulfilled my book group reading, I resumed reading the excellent teen fantasy novel, Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey (book 2 in The Resurrection of Magic series). I was enjoying it when I realized (again - second week in a row!) that I was running out of time for two more book group books! So I had to once again set this book aside...I hope to finish it before 2010!
  • I began reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett for the online book discussion next Sunday at Barney's Book Blog. I was hooked from the first page and have been carrying it around with me all weekend! It's just as amazing as I'd heard.
As soon as I finish The Help, I need to read Olive Kitteridge for my neighborhood book group - can't believe it's almost December already!

If you're interested in kids'/teen/YA books, you can find out what my family is reading this week at Great Books for Kids and Teens. Last week, I posted a review of Sent, book 2 of the exciting time travel series The Missing by Margaret Peterson Haddix. With our long drives this weekend, we'll be listening to some good audio books!

So, what are YOU reading this week?

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Quote It Saturday 11/21

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting my favorite weekly meme, featuring a favorite quote (or two!).

This week's favorite quotes come from The Art of Racing in the Rain, a novel narrated by a dog that I finished and reviewed this week. This book really grew on me, and I especially enjoyed the philosophical musings of Enzo, the book's narrator, who yearns to be human:

To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, as Eve felt the joy of life. To separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something I aspire to.

...I could have pulled him close to me, so close he could feel my breath on his skin, and I could have said to him, "This is just a crisis. A flash! A single match struck against the implacable darkness of time! You are the one who taught me to never give up. You taught me that new possibilities emerge for those who are prepared, for those who are ready. You have to believe!"

- Enzo, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

As you can see, Enzo is pretty wise. I'm so glad I read this wonderful book and wish I had Enzo by my side!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fiction Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is a unique novel because its narrator and main character is a dog. Yes, a dog. Now, let me say right up front that I’m not really a dog person, so I wondered when I started this book whether I’d be able to get into it. Not only did I get into it, but I really loved it and came to love its narrator, Enzo. Despite being a dog, he is very wise. Because he’s a dog, he has spent his entire life observing humans and he has some wonderful insights into us and the way we live our lives.

The book opens with Enzo explaining his limitations:

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home – he should be here soon – lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

Denny is Enzo’s owner - and best friend – and he’s a racecar driver (hence the title). Denny shares his passion with Enzo by watching racing on TV and videos with him, including in-car videos of his own races. Their lives change quite a bit when Eve enters the picture, then again when Eve and Denny have a child, Zoe, but Enzo adjusts and grows to love them both. Tragedy hits the family, compounded by a series of equally devastating events afterward.

Through it all, Enzo shares his unique perspective with the reader, based on what he sees and hears and on all that he’s learned through watching television. I especially liked Enzo’s philosophical musings, like this one:

I will never tire of watching tapes with Denny. He knows so much, and I have learned so much from him. He said nothing more to me; he continued watching his tapes. But my thoughts turned to what he had just taught me. Such a simple concept, yet so true: that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.

I told you he was wise. And that was actually a problem for a few people in my book group who felt the book was unrealistic and Enzo too intelligent. For the rest of us, we had no problem suspending belief for a while, accepting the premise, and going along for the exciting ride. I know nothing about either dogs or car racing, but I really enjoyed The Art of Racing in the Rain. I read far too late into the night, laughed out loud, and cried – all signs for me of a great book.

NOTE: Although I'm a big fan of audio books, this might be one that's better to read on paper. A few people in my book group were disappointed with the audio version and found it hard to follow.

321 pages, Harper Collins

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Authors Provide Gift Ideas

I thought this was pretty cool - Penguin publishing company has posted a What To Give and What To Get feature on their website. Click on your favorite (Penguin) authors to read which books they loved this year and want to give as gifts as well as which books they'd like to receive. There are some big names included, like Geraldine Brooks, Sue Grafton, Nick Hornby, Sue Monk Kidd, and many more.

Besides getting some good gift ideas (for you and for your loved ones!), it's fun to read about what books professional writers liked best!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Top Ten Books That Disappointed Me


Last week, I posted a list of the Top Ten Books I Enjoyed More Than I Expected, so it only seems fair to also post a list of books that surprised me in the other way, Top Ten Books That Disappointed Me.

Now, I want to be clear here - these aren't necessarily books that I hated. I rarely dislike a book so much that I don't finish it (though there are a couple of those on this list!). Rather, these are mostly books that I had high expectations for, books that I expected to LOVE and didn't. I know that some of these books are beloved by many people - in those cases, it's a matter of "it's not you, it's me." Reading books is a very personal experience, and no two people are affected in exactly the same way by a particular book.

So, without further ado, here is my list:

  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck – all-time favorite of a close friend of mine; I liked it but didn’t love it – too depressing and almost no likeable characters.
  • The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman – liked it OK, but I guess I’m not really into the magical/mysticism angle.
  • The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch – loved the movie Iris and wanted to read one of her books; maybe I chose the wrong one.
  • Manhunt by Janet Evanovich – big fan of her Stephanie Plum books but this romance had none of her usual humor, suspense, or cleverness.
  • Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston – most of my book group hated it; I didn’t even finish it; characters were too passive.
  • City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende – I’ve heard great things about her adult books and looked forward to this middle-grade adventure, but the characters seemed flat and the writing awkward and repetitive; maybe a poor translation?
  • Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert – everyone in my book group hated it; I couldn’t finish it; pointless and condescending.
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – a well-loved author I wanted to love, but along with most of my book group, just found it too depressing, though we did have a good discussion.
  • Live a Little by Kim Green – I found the main character’s actions despicable – she discovers her cancer diagnosis is a mistake and doesn’t tell her family!
  • Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral by Kris Radish – I loved the premise and wanted to love the book but, like everyone else in my book group, found it repetitive and a bit tiresome after awhile.
How about you? Are there any books that have disappointed you? Books that everyone loves that you just didn't like that much?

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's Monday 11/16! What Are You Reading?

I had a few false starts last week but also some reading successes:
  • I finished Megan's Way by Melissa Foster. I know lots of people really loved this book, but it just didn't grab me.
  • I started Sacred Scars, Book 2 in The Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey, a dark and compelling fantasy series that my teen son and I really like. Unfortunately, partway through, I remembered that one of my book groups meets this Wednesday and I hadn't read the book yet! So, as hard as it was, I had to set this book down and...
  • I started The Art of Racing In the Rain by Garth Stein, a novel narrated by a dog (!) with surprising warmth and insight. It's very good so far.
  • On audio, I gave up on Return to Sullivan's Island by Dorothea Benton Frank. I'm not a big fan of so-called Southern Fiction (how come there's no Northern Fiction?) in the first place, but I was trying to give it a fair chance. But when a ghost did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen in the start of the second CD, I'd had enough. Just not my kind of thing.
  • In its place, I started The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe on audio. I've heard that The Heretic's Daughter, which I loved and reviewed here last week, is much better, but I'm so fascinated by the Salem witch trials now that I decided to give it a try.
If you're interested in kids' and teens' books, check out Great Books for Kids and Teens to see what my sons are reading this week.

Last week, I posted reviews of The Heretic's Daughter and Hush, Hush (teen/YA), as well as two Top Ten lists - Books I Enjoyed More Than I Expected and Favorite Childhood Books.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

(Thanks to J. Kaye's Book Blog for starting What Are You Reading Mondays!)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Quote It Saturday 11/14

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting my favorite weekly tradition, Quote It Saturday!

Today's quote is another one from 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe, one of my favorite memoirs, about a family from Brooklyn that takes their kids on a trip around the world. This series of quotes focuses on how quickly kids grow up, right before our eyes, and it really hits home for me:

So much information passes into obsolescence the moment an individual stands upright. It is like this throughout childhood, data gathered, then filed away, or discarded. This is how it is: you get comfortable, they spring something else on you. The twelve-year old kid, boy or girl, is a most perfect master, a king among kids, worldly in their world. They get so confident, they forget to duck when blindsided by adolescence.

...They would not be children long. The three of them walked around with expiration dates on their heads.

...Pressure, man. I can feel the tick of the clock. Soon the hair will sprout from under Billy's arms. Stubble will sully his smooth face. Who he is now will be found only on photographs and in addled memory. There is nothing to be done about it. When he complains, about not wanting to grow up, about wanting to stay his perfect twelve forever and ever, it is my job to tell him it is only in Never-Never Land that boys never get old.

...It was all so very familiar. The return of normalcy was fast approaching. Trip Time, that little rip in the continuum of Regular Time, was zipping shut.

- 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time, Mark Jacobson
I feel exactly this way about my two sons, especially my oldest, who is now 15 and shaving but still isn't sure he really wants to grow up. And that last line is one of my all-time favorites. Our family cherishes our summer road trips together. I love living in Trip Time,where it's just the four of us, living in the moment.

Hope you're enjoying the weekend!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fiction review: Heretic’s Daughter

Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a powerful, haunting story that will stay with me forever. I recently read this novel, set during the Salem witch trials, for one of my book groups. Although some in the group found the book too depressing, most were moved and glad to have read the novel.

The author is descended from Martha Carrier, who was tried for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. She based the novel on the stories she’d heard growing up in her family, as well as plenty of research, and filled in the gaps with fiction. The result is a remarkable picture of daily life during that harsh time in our history, as well as the horrors of the witchcraft trials, imprisonments, and executions.

The novel opens with a letter from Sarah, Martha’s daughter, to her granddaughter, written in 1752:

…And now I have hit upon the heart of my letter. You cannot have grown to womanhood without hearing the embittered whispers of Salem Village, and of me and my parents. But in your love for me, you have never asked me to reveal the dread happenings of my youth. The name Salem even now causes grown men and women to blanch with fear. Do you know that a few months past, the councilmen of Essex County, Massachusetts, voted to change the name of the village to Danvers? It was a thing well done and done quietly, too, though I believe the memory of the Salem witch trials will last well beyond the few remaining living relics of that time.

As God in heaven knows, changing a name cannot change the history of a place. This history has for so long lived like a spider in my breast. The spider spins and spins, catching memories in its web, threatening to devour every final happiness. With this letter I hope to sweep away the terror and the sadness and to have my heart made pure again by God’s grace. That is truly the meaning of the word “Puritan.”

The rest of the novel is Sarah’s story, which begins when she is just nine years old, and her family moves to her grandmother’s house in Andover in an effort to escape a smallpox outbreak in their nearby town. They unwittingly bring smallpox with them, though, cementing their position in their new town as outsiders. Eventually, a group of young girls in nearby Salem (and in their own town) begin to accuse people of witchcraft, and Sarah’s family is swept up in the hysteria that results.

What happens next is as shocking as any other senseless massacre in world history, no less horrifying for its relatively small scope. My mother said that reading this book had, for her, a similar effect to visiting the Holocaust Museum. The morning after book group, just before Halloween, she and I saw a story on the Today show about Salem. The story was about all the fun things you could do if you visit Salem today, like going to a faux witchcraft trial and buying witch souvenirs. My mom has actually been to Salem and done these things, but she said that knowing the truth about what really happened there makes this celebratory atmosphere just appalling now.

Kent’s details of the imprisonment, punishment, and execution of innocent men, women, and children are haunting. As I read, I was astounded by the capacity of people to be so ignorant and cruel to their fellow human beings, but others in my book group immediately saw the parallels with plenty of more modern atrocities. Whatever your perspective, Kent’s writing paints a vivid picture and leaves a lasting effect. I highly recommend this compelling and important book.

368 pages, Back Bay Books

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Top Ten Books I Enjoyed More Than I Expected


Today's Top Ten list is a list of books that surprised me. These are books that I did not expect to like at all but read for one reason or another and ended up really enjoying them! I read these books based on recommendations from friends or family or, in many cases, because they were book group selections. This is what I like most about being in book groups - I end up reading (and enjoying) books that I never would have picked up otherwise.

So, here are the Top Ten Books That I Enjoyed More Than I Expected:

  • March by Geraldine Brooks – before I read this, I didn’t think I liked historical fiction
  • Ender’s Game and its sequels by Orson Scott Card – my first adult foray into science fiction, another genre I didn’t think I’d like
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood – another science fiction book recommended by my husband which is now my favorite book of all-time
  • Still Me by Christopher Reeve – I don’t normally enjoy celebrity memoirs but Reeve’s book was so inspiring!
  • Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins (author of this year's hit The Hunger Games)– It sounded gross but my sons were interested. We ended up reading the entire series out loud and loving every single book!
  • Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh – my neighbor lent it to me and I read it to be polite and ended up loving it and recommending it to my book group. Haigh is now one of my favorite authors.
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – read for book group; the description just didn’t sound interesting, but I was glad to be proven wrong
  • River of Doubt by Candice Millard – fascinating nonfiction account of Teddy Roosevelt’s trip up the Amazon River; read for book group
  • The Lost Years by KristinaWandzilak and Constance Curry – honest & painful memoir by a mother-daughter about the daughter’s addiction to alcohol and drugs; read for book group
  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – ironically, many in the book group did not like this book, but I had bought it and missed the meeting, so I decided to read it anyway and really liked it.
How about you? Are there any books that surprised you (in a good way)?

P.S. If you like Top ten lists, check out Ten for Tuesday at Great Books For Kids and Teens, where I listed the top ten books from my childhood.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It's Monday 11/9! What Are You Reading?

More sick days last week, but I think I'm on my way back finally. I seem to have caught the virus the rest of my family had a couple of weeks ago. I'm still dealing with congestion and a mild fever, but my energy is slowly coming back up. Thanks for all of the kind words and well wishes!

Last week:
  • I read Sent by Margaret Haddix, book 2 of The Missing, her exciting time-travel series for middle-grade readers. My son and I love this series!
  • I started Megan's Way by Melissa Foster, a review novel about a woman who is dying of cancer. I've had a hard time getting into this book - maybe because I haven't felt well or maybe because I so strongly disagreed with the main character's actions at the start of the book - but I'm sticking with it to see what happens.
  • I started a new audio book, Return to Sullivan's Island by Dorothea Benton Frank. I didn't read Sullivan's Island, but I hope that doesn't matter. This seems to be more of a follow-up than a sequel. I received the audio for review, and it just caught my eye. Anyone else read this book or something else from this author?
If you're interested in the kids' and YA books the rest of my family is reading, check out Great Books for Kids and Teens.

I posted reviews last week of a wonderful memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and a great middle-grade mystery, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

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

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Quote It Saturday 11/7

My family is very important to me, and I love traveling and taking my kids to new places. One of my favorite memoirs combines these elements: 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe by Mark Jacobson. Mark is a writer who, along with his wife, scraped enough money together to take their kids on a no-frills trip around the world, both to show them world and to bring their family closer together, as their kids grew older. I filled many pages of my quotes journal with excerpts from this wonderful memoir. Today, I'd like to share some quotes from the book that perfectly mirror my own feelings about family and how travel brings families together:

What remained was us. Little us, nuclear us. For the moment, the entropy that inevitably flings things and people apart was suspended. The force field of our own making ruled the day, a most favorable kind of gravity. We were together. The will by which we created life in our family, this fleeting passage during which we lived under the same Brooklyn roof, rode in the same Toyota Camry station wagon, and got on the same airplane to go on this trip that had landed us, currently, in the city of the Hindu dead, remained in control. That's what this trip really was, a grand, somewhat nutty gesture, a tribute to the ephemera of our lives together. Even if everything went perfectly, in the middle-class way of thinking of things - them doing well, going off to college, getting really swell jobs, etc. - we'd never be as close as we'd been over the 16 years since Rae came on the scene, followed by her sister and brother. Arrows on the dartboard; for now we'd landed here.

...You had to get it while you could, put aside a million mixed feelings, because those moments were irretrievable. It had been a big, juicy chapter, this time of us being together, this invention of us. In no small way, we were all just passing through, tipping our hats like any Lone Ranger, here today and gone tomorrow. It was hard to say where we would go next. With the next lightning strike, it could be over. Sometimes, things just fell apart.

The deal was to horde the here and now. What was known only to us. The shared knowledge, the inside jokes.

Wow. I can relate so well to all that, even better now than when I first read it, as my older son is now 15 and quickly burning through high school. These passages ignite my own urge to travel, to enjoy these fleeting years together, just the four of us. It also makes me want to read this book again!

Thanks to Leslie at That Chick That Reads for starting Quote It Saturday, my favorite weekly theme.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Memoir Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

After weeks of dealing with a bad flare-up of my chronic illness, I was feeling in need of a little inspiration, so I picked up a memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This small book packs in a lot of emotions – hope, joy, anger, frustration, and, yes, inspiration.

Bauby was the 43-year old editor-in-chief of the French Elle magazine when his life was suddenly and dramatically changed forever. He suffered a massive stroke that resulted in a condition known as locked-in syndrome. After waking from a month-long coma, Bauby discovered that he could move only his neck and his left eye. He wrote this entire book by blinking his left eye to dictate his words, letter by letter.

That in itself would make this a remarkable book, but it’s what Bauby writes that is truly amazing. There is not a hint of self-pity in this book. Bauby writes in an open, pragmatic way about what it’s like to have a lively mind trapped inside his motionless body, to trade in his previous globe-trotting life for one limited to the grounds of his hospital, to daydream about the tastes of his favorite foods while being fed through a tube. He compares the feeling of paralysis with having a giant invisible diving bell on top of his body and describes what it’s like to wake up in the morning:

An ordinary day. At seven the chapel bells begin again to punctuate the passage of time, quarter hour by quarter hour. After their night’s respite, my congested bronchial tubes once more begin their noisy rattle. My hands, lying curled on the yellow sheets, are hurting, although I can’t tell if they are burning hot or ice cold. To fight off stiffness, I instinctively stretch, my arms and legs moving only a fraction of an inch. It is often enough to bring relief to a painful limb.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.

I am completely in awe of Bauby’s positive attitude. I have spent much of the past month confined to the couch – still able to eat, go to the bathroom, hold a book, and type on my laptop – and I can tell you that his strength and courage are remarkable. He is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

The memoir goes back and forth between the past – before his stroke – and his current life in the hospital. Although you might think it would be depressing, it’s not at all. In fact, Bauby shares his story with honesty, optimism, and even humor. The only thing I found truly sad is the fact that the title page explains that Bauby died two days after the book was published in France, an unfortunate loss for the world.

This was a moving book, and now I can’t wait to watch the award-winning DVD as well.

132 pages, Vintage International, a division of Random House

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Amazon's Top 100 Books of 2009

I often post my own Top Ten list on Tuesdays, but today I thought I'd share another list: Amazon's list of Top 100 Books of 2009. They've actually posted lots of lists of top books for 2009 - Top 100 as voted by Amazon's editors, Top 100 customer's favorites, and lots of Top 10 lists for various genres.

Of the Amazon Editors' Top 100, I've only read two:
  • #14 - This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (review to come in the next week)
  • #42 Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
And a few are on my short-list to-be-read stack:
  • #6 Crazy for the Storm (we have the audio version)
  • #19 The Help
  • #29 The Last Olympian (last book in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, a favorite of ours)
  • #62 Shiver (ironically, I picked this one up today and almost started it, then chose another!)
I'll have to get to these soon, plus the other 100! So many good books to read and so little time...

I had some fun looking through the lists and hope you will, too. I'll wait to post my own Top 10 of 2009 List until the new year - I still have two more months of reading! So, what do you think? Do you agree with Amazon's choices?

Monday, November 02, 2009

It's Monday 11/2! What Are You Reading?

I had a few more sick days last week, so I had lots of reading time. Thankfully, I recovered in time to enjoy Halloween with my family. My son, Jamie, chose a quasi-literary theme for our costumes this year, and we dressed up as the Where's Waldo? characters (I was Wenda), with my younger son dressed up as an old man (who many people thought closely resembled Benjamin Button!). I also managed to go to NYC on Sunday with my Mom and loved seeing Mamma Mia! on Broadway - what a fantastic show! Hope you all enjoyed your weekends, too!

Lots of good books read last week:
  • I finished The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent and made it to my book group discussion. It was a haunting book about the Salem witch trials based on a true story that will stay with me for a long time. Review to come later this week.
  • I finished Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick on audio, a teen/YA supernatural thriller/romance - not my normal genre, but it was very good and the audio was well-done. Review to come on Great Books for Kids and Teens.
  • My illness flared up severely again mid-week, so my next book pick was the equivalent of literary comfort food - Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich, read for pure fluffy fun! No thought required and lots of laughs - just what the doctor ordered. I love the Stephanie Plum series.
  • After that big dose of fun, I was ready for some inspiration and started The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a memoir written by a man suffering from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke. He wrote the book by blinking his left eye. His intelligence, grace, and sense of humor are amazing and moving.
Last week, I posted a review of After You by Julie Buxbaum and hope to catch up on more backlogged reviews this week (after I recover from my trip to NYC!) Check out Great Books for Kids and Teens to see what kids' and teens' books our family is reading this week.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fiction Review: After You

After You by Julie Buxbaum is the kind of novel you get lost in, where partway through, you feel like the characters are friends and you live as much in their fictional world as in your own real world. Of course, it probably helped that I read it during a sick week when I desperately wanted to escape my own miserable life, but I think credit belongs to Buxbaum’s writing.

Ellie Lerner rushes from her home in Boston to London when she learns that her lifelong friend, Lucy, had been brutally murdered. After the funeral, Ellie decides to stay for a while to help Lucy’s husband and 8-year old daughter Sophie. She remembers her own mother comforting her after her grandmother died by reading The Secret Garden together, so she decides to read the book with Sophie. Here, she and Sophie cuddle together on the bed to read:

I wonder now how many times Lucy sat in this exact spot, on Sophie’s bed, with the weight of Sophie’s head against her shoulder. If she, too, felt that sharing her favorite book was the purest way to express love, like telling your secrets or saying a prayer out loud.

“Hey, Soph, I bet you didn’t know that in certain cultures you aren’t supposed to put books on the floor or go near them with your feet. The idea is that they’re special, almost like magic or something.”

Sophie moves in a little closer, looks up at me, her expression impenetrable. I’ve dropped my kid tone, because I think I’ve been underselling her. I’ve noticed that she holds books with the same reverence as I do, taking a breath before she opens the cover, sitting still for a moment when she closes one. The way she gets lost in Nancy Drew, lets herself to be carried off to one girl’s adventures in Indiana, tells me she has a much richer inner life than I’ve been giving her credit for.

Sophie is devastated by her mother’s sudden death, but Ellie begins to make some progress with her, and her support is essential since Sophie’s dad seems lost in his own grief. Things aren’t always what they seem, though. As Ellie struggles with her own husband, who’s back home in Boston, she discovers secrets about her best friend Lucy that she never suspected. Ellie begins to feel that her whole life is unraveling and nothing is as simple as it seems.

This book tackles the complexities of marriage, friendship, and grief, but it is also about the healing power of books in general and a love song to The Secret Garden in particular. I came to really care about Ellie and Sophie and was rooting for both of them to work out their problems and find happiness again. It was a warm and compelling story, right to the last page, and I think I'm way overdue for a reread of The Secret Garden.

336 pages, The Dial Press

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Monday 10/26! What Are You Reading?

(Thanks to J. Kaye's Book Blog for starting What are you reading Monday)

October 26? Huh? Where am I? After more than three weeks spent sick and lying on the couch, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle this morning. But, I am up! It's been more than 24 hours now, so I'm hoping this trend of feeling OK continues. Just in time - my husband caught the virus our sons had last week.

Anyway, it was a good reading week:
  • I finished The Circle of Gold by Guillaume Prevost, last book in the middle-grade/teen The Book of Time trilogy - very exciting conclusion!
  • I started The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, about the Salem witch trials, for one of my book groups. It is haunting, horrifying, and compelling (and based on a true story). I'm glad I wasn't around in 1692!
  • I'm still listening to Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick - didn't get very far with it last week because both of my kids were home sick, too, but I have a long car ride this week, so I should finish it.
If you're interested in the kids' and teen books our family is reading, check out Great Books for Kids and Teens.

Book reviews to come this week - hurray!

What are YOU reading this week?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Quote It Saturday 10/24

Another tough week with both of my sons sick as well, but I do think I am finally, gradually gaining some energy back. I even drafted a book review yesterday, though I was too worn out to finish it and post it. I'm hoping for life to return to some degree of normalcy next week.

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting Quote It Saturday, one of my favorite features. Today's quotes come from Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen, a novel about two very different sisters,one who works for a charitable organization and the other who is a very wealthy anchor on a highly rated morning show. Both quotes are about motherhood:

In the face of all this mythology [of the perfect mother] it becomes difficult to admit that occasionally you lock yourself in the bathroom just to be alone...The great motherhood friendships are the ones in which two women can admit this quietly to each other, over cups of tea at a table sticky with spilled apple juice and littered with markers without tops.

Now I know that much of parenthood is watching and waiting for the chick to fall into harm's way, watching and waiting for the cats and the cold nights. The joyous enterprise has an undercurrent of terror.
- Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen

Monday, October 19, 2009

It's Monday 10/19! What Are You Reading?

Another Monday, and I'm still sick with a severe flare-up of my chronic illness. Over three weeks now - this is a personal record. I'm trying a program of aggressive rest this week. An oxymoron, yes, but it usually works.

So, lots and lots of reading time last week on the couch...
  • Last Monday, I was trying to decide what to read next. I chose This Is Where I Leave You, a novel by Jonathan Tropper. I loved his The Book of Joe a few years ago, and I was not disappointed by his latest novel. An intricate character study of a dysfunctional family brought together by their father's funeral, it was emotional, real, and very, very funny.
  • I've been listening to the teen audio book Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. I'm not normally much into supernatural type stuff, but this is very good so far.
  • I'm currently reading the third and final book of The Book of Time trilogy by Guillaume Prevost, The Circle of Gold. My 15-year old son and I both love this time-traveling trilogy, and the final book is so suspenseful that, despite knowing I needed extra sleep, I had trouble setting it down last night!
Check out Great Books for Kids and Teens for an update on what my sons are reading this week.

What are YOU reading?

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Quote It Saturday 10/17

Sorry my blog has been so dull again this week. I had another long week spent trapped on the couch, too sick to write anything. Doing a little better today.

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting Quote It Saturday. I looked through my journal of book quotes this morning and found a couple from a favorite Elizabeth Berg novel, The Art of Mending, that I want to share, both dealing with simplifying life (something I could use more of!).

Here, the narrator, Laura, is observing the few items she has set near her bedside while staying at her parents' house:

There was a cozy completeness to this utilitarian still life. It occurred to me that one of the values of going away was that you saw that something far less complex than what you were used to would do just fine. More and more, I looked at my house, at my life, and thought, "Why do I need all this stuff?"
- The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

And, in another passage, she stays out late on a rare night out and just goes straight to bed:

So I had not done any of my usual nightly routine and it felt wonderful. I wondered why I cluttered my life so much. I felt so free...
- The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

This one reminds me of a favorite Baby Blues comic that my husband and I often laugh about. It shows the Mom and Dad both saying, "I think I'll go to bed now." Then, the Mom starts the dishwasher, folds the laundry, picks up toys, makes lunches for tomorrow, signs school permission slips, washes her face, brushes her teeth, etc. while the Dad goes right to bed and closes his eyes! Perfect, right?

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's Monday 10/12! What Are You Reading?

Happy Columbus Day!

I had another week of being sick most days (my chronic illness has been badly flared up lately), so lots of good reading but not much writing time again!

Last week:
  • I finished After You, a novel by Julie Buxbaum. It was a well-written tale of how a woman copes with the aftermath of her best friend's murder, including taking care of her friend's daughter. I really liked this novel - review to come later this week.
  • I read a wonderful middle-grade/teen mystery, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia, by Susan Runholt, about two young girls who get wrapped up in the midst of an international art crime. I'll post a full review at Great Books for Kids and Teens this week.
Last week, I posted two new reviews: Travel Writing , a novel by Peter Ferry, here at Book By Book and Catching Fire, the exciting sequel to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins at Great Books for Kids and Teens (though this trilogy is a great choice for grown-ups, too!) I've also started posting a What Are You Reading Mondays update at Great Books for Kids and Teens, based on what my sons and I are reading, so check it out if you're interested in books for kids, teens, or young adults.

Now, comes my favorite part - time to choose a new book to read. I'm not sure what it will be - there are so many great books to choose from!

What are YOU reading this week?

(What Are You Reading Mondays was started by J. Kaye's Book Blog)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Quote It Saturday 10/10

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for starting Quote It Saturday. I skipped last week because I was out of town, so I've been looking forward to posting a new quote this week. I browsed through my journal of book quotes to find something good. I have quite a few quotes written down from Rachel Simon's first memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister. You might recall that I recently reviewed Simon's latest memoir, Building a Home with My Husband, and included some quotes from that on a previous Quote It Saturday. Her books just seem to speak to me, with all sorts of inspiring tidbits that I want to remember.

Just to set the stage, Riding the Bus With My Sister is about Rachel's mentally handicapped sister, Beth, who spends her days riding city buses, and the year that Rachel spent trying to get to know her better by riding the buses with her. These are a couple of the best quotes from the bus drivers, some of whom became like mentors to Beth and sound like some of the worlds' greatest philosophers:

It might seem hard now...but you have to have bad days to know how to appreciate the good ones.
- Tim, a bus driver

When you listen to somebody's story, and you see the troubles they have, you get a better sense of why they act a certain way. It might not excuse lousy behavior, and not everyone who has a difficult life acts badly. But going deeper, and really listening to someone, can help you see that they don't mean nothing against you, they're just hurting.

- Jacob, another driver

And, finally, a quote from Rachel herself that seems to perfectly express my own relationship with my sister, too:

I love her, and at last I believe she loves me, too, but I know that in her eyes I will always be the big sister. It is both my bridge to her and the moat eternally between us.
- Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus With My Sister
Hope you're enjoying the weekend!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fiction Review: Travel Writing

As soon as I heard about Travel Writing, a first novel by writer Peter Ferry, I was intrigued. I like any novel where the main character is a writer, and in this one, he is a travel writer, something I have dabbled in and aspire to. This unique novel combines elements of mystery and love story, with some travel essays thrown in and a thought provoking overlay on the thin line between fiction and memoir. In short, it defies easy characterization.

The narrator is Pete Ferry, a high school English teacher and part-time travel writer whose life sounds remarkably similar to the author’s bio on the back of the book (including sharing the same name), so right away you’re wondering how much of this novel is autobiographical. One night Pete witnesses a traffic accident and sees the beautiful woman driver die. He becomes obsessed with what he witnessed and whether he could have prevented it, and he begins to conduct his own investigation into the woman and the accident.

Meanwhile, he’s telling his students a story about the woman and the accident and insisting that he’s making it all up. Throughout the book, the reader is left to wonder how much of this story within a story is truth and how much is fiction. Here, Pete talks about his life as a teacher and a writer:

I would go to parties and say I was an editor, and people, especially women – and that was important to me back then – would say, “Oh, really?” and raise their eyebrows and look at me a little more carefully. I remember the first party I went to after I became a teacher, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said, “Well, I teach high school.” He looked over my shoulder, nodded his head, said, “I went to high school,” and walked away.

Once I repeated this anecdote around a big table full of Mexican food in the garden at a place called La Choza in Chicago, and Becky Mueller, another teacher at the school, said that I was a “storyteller.” I liked that. I was looking for something to be other than “just” a teacher, and “storyteller” felt about right. I am a teacher and a storyteller in that order. I have made my living and my real contribution to my community as a teacher, and I have been very lucky to have found that calling, but all through the years I have entertained myself and occasionally other people by telling stories.

Ferry creates a wonderful sense of place throughout the novel. Pete lives in Chicago, and the novel contains so many detailed references to the restaurants, bars, parks, and other features of the city that I wished I knew Chicago better so I could fully appreciate every allusion. In addition, the main story of the novel is accented with a series of travel essays written by Pete highlighting Mexico, Thailand, and, my personal favorite, a wilderness canoe trip in Ontario. The travel essays are not separate from the main story but describe Pete’s trips during the timeframe covered in the novel.

Travel Writing is the perfect title for this novel because it takes the reader on a journey, through the mystery of the accident, through the places Pete visits, and even through Pete’s own emotional growth. It’s suspenseful and engaging; the characters feel very real. I was kept guessing right until the end about exactly what caused the accident and what Pete would do about it, and I’m still wondering exactly how much of the story was fact and how much was fiction. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable journey.

294 pages, Mariner Books

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's Tuesday - Where Are You?

Thanks to An Adventure in Reading for this fun weekly feature.

This week...

I am in the tony Notting Hill section of London with Ellie, a woman from Boston whose life-long best friend was just murdered, as she helps her friend's 8-year old daughter, Sophie, deal with her mother's death and uncovers secrets she never suspected from the woman she's known since she was four years old.
- After You by Julie Buxbaum

The novel is wonderful so far, and I'm enjoying the fictional trip to one of my favorite cities.

Where is YOUR reading taking you today?

Monday, October 05, 2009

It's Monday 10/5! What Are You Reading?

Hope everyone had a great weekend! Sorry for the lack of reviews last week, but I was very sick all week and unable to do any writing at all. I did manage to post my review of Living Dead Girl at Great Books for Kids and Teens (that one was already written). And I was thrilled and relieved to be well enough by Saturday to enjoy an overnight getaway to the beach with my husband for our 20-year anniversary.

The only good thing about being sick is plenty of time to read good books:
  • I finished Travel Writing by Peter Ferry, a very unique story within a story that provides a mystery, some great travel stories, and a thought-provoking question about the difference between memoir and fiction. Review to come later this week.
  • I read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the long-awaited sequel to The Hunger Games. It was just as compelling as the first book; my husband and I both loved it, and my son was urging me to read faster last week so he can read it! Review to come this week on Great Books for Kids and Teens.
  • I finished the audio book The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells, even though I never wanted it to end! Review to come as soon as I get a hard copy from the library - I can't write this review without including some excerpts.
  • I started After You by Julie Buxbaum, a novel about how a woman copes with the murder of her best friend. I've only read the first chapter so far, but it sounds intriguing, and I like the writing style.
So, what are YOU reading this week?

(What Are You Reading Mondays is sponsored by J. Kaye's Book Blog)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's Tuesday - Where Are You?

Thanks to An Adventure in Reading for this fun weekly feature.

This week...

I am hanging out in Chicago with Peter Ferry, a high school English teacher and travel writer. Besides his hometown of Chicago, Peter has taken me along on his travels to Mexico, Thailand, and (my favorite) canoeing in the wilderness of Canada.

- Travel Writing by Peter Ferry

This is an odd book - a novel where the author is the main character, blurring the line between memoir and fiction - but a very interesting book. I've been to Chicago a few times, but I'm wishing I knew it better so I could fully appreciate all the references to favorite restaurants, bars, and parks. The novel's action is interspersed with the main character's travel essays, so I'm enjoying those locations as well.

Where is your reading taking YOU today?

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's Monday 9/28! What Are You Reading?

(Thanks to J.Kaye's Book Blog for starting What Are You Reading Mondays)

My kids have the day off, so I slept in a bit this morning (Happy Yom Kippur to those who celebrate it!).

Another good reading week:
  • I finished The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (you can read my review at the link) - it was an entertaining and edifying book.
  • I'm on the last CD of the audio book The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells. I think I may have to revise my list of Top Ten Favorite Novels (though I don't know what I'd push off the list...)
  • I read a teen/YA novel, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. It is an absolutely chilling yet compelling book about a young girl who was abducted at age 10 and has been living with her captor for the past five years. I'll post a review of this haunting book at Great Books for Kids and Teens this week.
  • I started a new novel, Travel Writing, by Peter Ferry that explores the thin line between memoir and fiction. I'm enjoying it very much so far - I always like books about writing and writers.
In the books-to-movies category, my husband and I watched The Reader this weekend, and I thought it was an excellent film adaptation. I was pleased to see that the movie retained all of the complexities of the thought-provoking book.

I also posted reviews of the teen novel Bounce and a wonderful fantasy trilogy for middle-grade and teen readers, The Cronus Chronicles, this week at Great Books for Kids and Teens.

So, what are YOU reading this week?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quote It Saturday 9/26

Thanks to That Chick That Reads for Quote It Saturday!

Today's quote comes from Rachel Simon's Building a Home with My Husband. I wrote down many quotes from this wonderful memoir. This is one of my favorites:

That was one of the most important lessons I learned in the long educational process that I've come to call my life: although other people might create havoc for me, the more I seethe toward them, the more I make myself suffer.

- Building a Home with My Husband by Rachel Simon
I try to remember this lesson myself - that anger and bitterness hurt me more than they hurt the object of my dissatisfaction.

Enjoy the weekend!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Memoir Review: The Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacobs’ second memoir, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, is at turns funny, inspirational, and sometimes just plain silly. As the subtitle explains, the book chronicles his efforts to live according to the Bible’s many rules, not just the Ten Commandments but all edicts in the text of the Bible. I read this book for one of my book groups.

To give you an idea of where Jacobs was starting from (and his sense of humor), he describes his own religious background as, “I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. “ Despite his Jewish heritage, Jacobs goes into his biblical year with a very open mind, following both the Old and New Testaments and investigating the beliefs of a wide variety of religious groups (and I do mean a wide variety).

Although Jacob’s writing is often very funny, he is also hoping to learn something from his biblical year. He’s the father of a young son, and he’s interested in exploring his own spirituality and figuring out what he should teach his son. I appreciated his honesty in sharing even his awkward moments:

So, now, I’m going to pray. Even though I’m not exactly sure how to pray. I’ve never prayed before in my life, not counting the few perfunctory uplifted gazes when my mom was sick.

For starters, what do I do with my body? The Bible describes a multitude of positions: People kneel, sit, bow their heads, lift their eyes skyward, put their heads between their knees, raise up their hands, beat their breasts. There’s no single method.

Sitting is tempting, but it seems too easy. I’m of the no-pain, no-gain mind-set. So I settle on holding my arms outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God’s signal.

At other times, his attempts to follow the Bible are just plain silly and seem senseless, set up only to go for a laugh, like when, in an attempt to follow the Bible’s command to stone adulterers, he goes to Central Park and tosses tiny pebbles at people. For some people in my book group, this artificial set-up of the book was just too contrived – he admits in the introduction that he did this year-long experiment in part so he could write a book about it – but most others were entertained and educated by his experiences.

In one of my favorite passages of the book, Jacobs tries to make sense of the varied and bizarre biblical rules he’s trying to follow:

My alter ego’s behavior points to one of the biggest mysteries of the Bible. How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It’s not like the Bible has a section called “And Now for Some Crazy Laws.” They’re all jumbled up like a chopped salad.

Admittedly, I know very little about the Bible myself (those few Sunday school classes were a looong time ago), though I do try to be a spiritual person. I learned a lot both about the Bible and about the beliefs of various groups that he met with during his year, and I also enjoyed Jacob’s humorous writing style. You might be familiar with Jacobs from his first memoir, The Know-It-All, in which he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year (see a pattern?). Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I’m glad I read it.