Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Since Angstrat's post yesterday was a NYC tribute, I went with a book that opened my eyes to New York. Nine year old Peter Hatcher has his hands full. Not only is he dealing with normal fourth grade stuff, like friends, schoolwork, his pet turtle and a girl he's constantly bickering with, but his three year old brother Farley Dexter Hatcher, nicknamed Fudge is a holy terror getting into trouble all over New York City. Not only is this a funny story of sibling rivalry, the parents are hilarlous too. The chapter where the mom gets rid of one the kids' friends who is always inviting himself over for dinner by cooking every food he hates is hilarious (and kind of a forerunner to the mom's cooking inThe Corrections, if you think about it). As a kid in suburban Chicago, I was surprised to learn that grown-ups with kids lived in apartments, even ones that seemed rich. And they were always eating stuff like egg creams, that I'd never heard of. This book has several sequels, but I haven't read the more recent ones.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Remember Me to Harold Square

Kendra Kaye and her brother, Oscar, are not looking forward to spending the summer together in their home in New York City. All their friends are off to camps and they don't want to end up in a stupid day camp or in each other's company. Their parents spring two surprises on them. First, they will have a guest, Frank, the son of their parents' friends from Wisconsin. To occupy their time, both sets of parents have made up a scavenger hunt for them. They must spend their summer exploring all parts of Manhattan, visiting museums and other landmarks, and trying different ethnic foods. Kendra and Frank grow close as they spend the summer together and they learn all about the city they live in. This book by Paula Danziger led to my fascination with New York as a child. I picked it up again to re-read before I leave on my first trip there this week and plan to visit many of the places described in this book.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Glass Castle

Since I always try to say where a recommendation comes from, this time I must give a shout-out (as the kids say) to Amazon. In their recommendations, they pushed it over and over, to the point where they were saying, "If you like air, you'll love The Glass Castle". Ok Amazon, you win, it was awesome. Jeannette Walls is a successful journalist, most notably writing the gossip page for MSN. This book is her memoir, which gives new meaning to "hardscrabble childhood." Her parents, while not overtly abusive and at times loving, are basically unable and or unwilling to provide for them. Not only do they not work or not work steadily, they don't try to find work or even apply for unemployment. What is motivating them is up for debate, theories range from mental illness to plain laziness. Their four children basically learn how to scrape by for themselves but her childhood leaves permanent marks on Walls' psyche. This may sound depressing, but its not, mostly because Walls seemingly has no anger about her parents actions. This book has left me committing to giving to hunger charities, because of its all too real description of NEVER having enough to eat. Sidenote- my husband and I listened to the audio version and it was excellent, the reader did a great job.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


A friend of mine recommended this graphic novel memoir by Marjorie Satrapi. The book recounts her childhood in Iran, beginning with the fall of the Shah and the ensuing Islamic Revolution and up to the Iran-Iraq war. My friend thought it was an amazing story enhanced by viewing it through a child's eyes--Satrapi was 10-14 during this period. She also appreciated how the family's views shifted over time in response to the events around them. Throughout the repressiveness, Satrapi manages to remain fiercely independent, both a source of pride and fear for her family in a country where female independence is dangerous. The sequel is also recommended.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in junior high, in a copy from the library that had another Betty Smith novel, Maggie-Now, in the same volume. I loved it and had to eventually buy my own. To my delight, the copy from the library turned out to have been abridged, so when I read MY copy there was much more story. The book starts out describing how 11 year old Francie loves Saturday because on Saturday she goes to the library (and runs various errands with her brother), which is the perfect way to hook a book worm into a book). The book follows Francie Nolan through five years as she grows up in a poor family in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn at around the turn of the century. Her father is loving, colorful drunk and her mother is (by necessity) hard working and practical. Francie struggles to make her way in the world, feeling like an outsider because of her bookish ways, and the way her family's financial struggle has shortened her childhood. The book is a very detailed view of this world, including great period details, such as when her younger brother transforms him self into a sharp dresser and requests spats for Christmas. Betty Smith's novel Joy in The Morning is a also a great book.

Friday, February 23, 2007

March Madness

We're just a couple of weeks away from one of my favorite times of the year--the NCAA tournament. While the sports world is still obsessing over which bubble teams are in or out and which teams are still in contention for #1 seeds, the book world has already set its bracket for a little March Madness of its own. The Morning News is sponsoring the tourney which pits twelve of last year's best books against each other with each round judged by a different book critic. While last year I had read something like 8 of the top 12, this year I haven't read a single nominee though I do have several on my TBR list. Last year's winner was The Accidental, a book I just didn't get though I did like the voice of some of the characters. Follow the action on the Powells book blog or The Morning News site. Don't forget the basketball version of March Madness either--Rock Chalk Jayhawk!

The History of Love

Leo Gursky wrote a book, The History of Love, as a young man but he thinks it has disappeared. Leo is now an old man who drops things in public places and poses nude for a drawing class just so he will be noticed on the day he dies. Alma Singer was named after a character from that book and her mother has been hired to translate it. Alma's father has recently died and her mother and brother aren't handling it so well. Nicole Krauss weaves the stories of these two characters, as well as solving the mystery of what happened to Gursky's book. Krauss has created two very interesting and believable characters, Leo in particular, and Gursky's novel is itself a character as various excerpts are sprinkled throughout the book. I also highly recommend the audio version. The narrator for Leo's character is absolutely brilliant.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rats Saw God

Rats Saw God is by Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars. Before he was a TV writer, he was a journalism teacher and wrote young adult novels. This book, Thomas' first, is the story of Steve, who must write a 100 page essay about his life. Through recounting his parents divorce and his relationship with his first girlfriend, Wanda "Dub" Varner, Steve eventually comes to more awareness about himself and the realities of life. Like Veronica Mars, the book has great characters and dialogue and I think most Veronica fans will like it a lot.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Woman at the Washington Zoo

Marjorie Williams was a Washington political writer for a variety of publications, most notably Vanity Fair. This is a collection of her writings compiled posthumously by her husband after her death of liver cancer. The book is divided into three sections--one part political profiles, one shorter essays, and the final third more personal writings. I had read and admired many of the political pieces before without noting the author, including a scary profile of Barbara Bush and the great piece "Scenes from a Marriage" depicting the troubled relationship between Al Gore and Bill Clinton during Gore's campaign. Williams managed to get to the core of many powerful people and their motivations and find new angles on over covered stories like Princess Diana's death. As great as these pieces are, however, the real gems are contained in the last third of the book. Williams writes movingly of her complicated relationship with her alcoholic mother and of living with the diagnosis of cancer. She expresses gratitude for the privileges she has--connections, insurance, etc--to fight the disease while also lamenting the dehumanizing aspects of dealing with the medical system. There is a heartbreaking scene where Williams is helping her daughter get ready for Halloween while imagining her in the prom dress she probably won't live to see her in. Whether you come for the politics or the memoir aspect, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Blog news

The comments settings have been changed, now everyone can post, even without a g-mail or blogger account. Get cracking, people! Book recs recommencing in 3...2...1!!!

Standing at the Scratch Line

Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson was recommended to me by a former co-worker. It's the saga of LeRoi "King" Tremain and it's a helluva page turner. The book opens in the Louisiana Bayou, where the teenage LeRoi is pushed out of his home and ends up in the army serving in World War I. From the second he joins the army, I couldn't put it down. The book covers approximately 30 years in his life, during which he experiences bootlegging, the Harlem Renaissance, extreme Southern racism, extreme Northern racism,and about a million family secrets. He is an angry man, and the book always takes his side, even when I am not sure he's right. But who cares? He's fascinating. If anybody out there has read this, PLEASE post in the comments, I am dying to compare and contrast his actions with his wife's. This book also really opened my eyes to a lot of racial issues that I had never fully considered before (such as the disrespect of calling a man by his first name rather than Mr. So and so). There is a sequel, which I think was actually written first and side note, this author is Maya Angelou's son.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Digging to America

In Anne Tyler's latest novel, two families' chance meeting at the airport to pick up their adopted Korean daughters leads to a lasting, if awkward, friendship. The Donaldsons are a white middle-class couple and the Yazdans are an Iranian-American couple. The two families become increasingly entwined when the girls' grandparents--Dave, of the Donaldsons, and Maryam Yazdan--begin a romantic relationship. Tyler's late husband was of Iranian descent, and the best parts of the novel concern Maryam's strong cultural identity as it brushes up against the Donaldsons' brash American one.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bloodsucking Fiends

My husband is now on a full fledged Christopher Moore spree. This is the story of Jody, a San Franciso woman who is attacked on the way home from work one night, only to wake up in a dumpster a vampire, with $100,000 in cash stuffed in her blouse (her sire's idea of a parting gift). Eventually she figures out WHY she has super human strength and senses and a burn on her hand, and she realizes she can't survive in the human worl without assistance. She meets up with Tommy (who my husband describes as her minion), a 19 year old recent transplant from Indiana, who she starts a relationship with to help her survive the restrictions of being a vampire. Tommy, for his part, knows she's a vampire and he's ok with that. The book is incredibly funny and the characters are really engrossing. There is a also a sequel, You Suck.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

America's Report Card

John McNally takes on No Child Left Behind in this satire/conspiracy thriller. Fresh out of college, Charlie Wolf takes on a job grading standardized tests and is alarmed at what he sees there. He comes across a very personal essay by high school student Jainey and decides he needs to protect her. He goes across the country to track Jainey down and the two discover the sinister truth about the purpose and use of standardized tests.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Sales In America

The Friday bonus post is this fabulous site, which lists 100's of used book sales across the country. Once I become independantly wealthy I plan to travel around in an RV and attend them all!!!

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards was recommended by a friend from my last job. She says that it does a great job showing the continuing impact of secrets in a family. The plot concerns a set of twins, the son healthy, the daughter born with Down's Syndrome. The father, a doctor conceals her birth, telling his family the baby was stillborn. He arranges for a nurse to have the baby institutionalized, but instead she decides to keep the child. These decisions have a huge impact on the direction all of their lives end up taking.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Love is a Mix Tape

Above all, they loved music. Rob Sheffield and his wife, Renee, met over a conversation about a song and music was a central part of their relationship. So Rob begins each chapter with a mix tape that he and Renee listened to as he describes their marriage and her sudden death from a pulmonary embolism. Renee does not come across as a saint but as a complex, lively woman and the best chapters are how Rob copes after her death, when that spark is gone from his life. Music both soothes him and causes more pain, as he realizes there are songs he will never again be able to share with Renee. Be prepared to take a trip down memory lane at the songs on each mix tape and the popular culture references thrown in. (This was a couple that loved The Cutting Edge as much as I irrationally do--Toe-pick!). Though Rob is a music critic by trade, he is not a music snob and his and Renee's eclectic tastes will have you jotting down lots of songs to check out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Welcome to Temptation

Happy Valentine's Day!! Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie is funny, absorbing, well-written, and kind of... ahem, racy. So proceed at your own risk. Two sisters who usually film weddings travel to Temptation, Ohio to film a washed up actress' return to her home town. Things can't seem to go right for them, they have a car accident the minute they enter town, their movie devolves into soft core porn, and the place where they are staying is falling apart. Sophie, the older sister, gets involved with the local mayor almost immediately, and much hilarity ensues. Like all of Jennifer Crusie's this book is lighthearted and funny and full of colorful characters.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Boy Next Door

This chick lit book by Meg Cabot is told exclusively in emails, instant messages, and even receipts. Melissa takes care of her elderly neighbor's apartment while her neighbor is in the hospital. She frequently encounters the neighbor's nephew, Max, who she's been warned is a notorious ladies man. Mel thinks Max does not live up to his reputation, but she finds out he may not be who he appears. This book was a lot of fun, mostly due to the format. Cabot has a couple of other books in the series including Boy Next Door. You may know Cabot for her popular Princess Diaries series. I also enjoyed her YA novel All-American Girl about a girl who accidentally saves the president's life and then falls for his son.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Morning Glory

I think my mom either bought this or checked it out of the library for herself and I ended up reading it instead. Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer is a historical romance set in World War II. The heroine Ellie, is a pregnant widow, advertising for a husband and Will, an ex-con, answers the ad. In the real world I do not advocate, 1) placing an ad for a husband and especially 2) marrying ex-cons who answer the ad, BUT it works out well in the book. Ellie is kind of an outsider and a misfit and the reader really cheers for her as she feels loved for the first time. There are many colorful secondary characters, a mystery, and lots of historical details. A great read.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

We can't have a week featuring romance without a little Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice really is the ultimate love story populated with interesting characters and lots of humor, too. The Bennetts have five daughters and Mrs. Bennett is determined to see them marry well. A rich young man, Mr. Bingley, moves into the neighborhood along with his haughty friend, Mr. Darcy. The eldest daughter, Jane, and Mr. Bingley take an instant liking to each other, while the second daughter, Elizabeth, and Mr. Darcy do not. Pride and Prejudice follows the evolution of these two couples. Along the way we meet the odious Mr. Collins, the venerable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the charming Mr. Wickham. Also check out the BBC Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle production (thanks Shuttsie!) and this collection of essays about the book was a lot of fun too. Then read the rest of Austen, because you can't really go wrong with any of them. I'm particularly fond of Persuasion and Emma.

It is appropriate for me to feature Pride and Prejudice today because I just received a beautiful complete collection of Jane Austen from a friend. They originally belonged to her grandmother and are these absolutely gorgeous little old books with wonderful illustrations that I will treasure forever. They were definitely the best book gift (or really, any gift) I've ever received. I love giving and receiving books for any occasion. What was your best book gift?

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Valentine's week continues with Castles by Julie Garwood. When I was in college the lady who owned the used book store in Joliet told my mom and I about For the Roses, which is also good and I got started on Julie Garwood. My co-blogger, Angstrat, then loaned me a few more of her books, including this one, which I thought was the best. It's a somewhat typical romance scenario, where the hero marries the heroine out of duty, and they fall in love after. I remember this one as having a particularly swoonworthy hero, and a lot of funny dialogue. Julie Garwood has now turned to writing appallingly bad thrillers, that must avoided at all costs. Most of romances are pretty good, but she does have a formula, so I don't recommend reading them back to back. PS, if you are amused by that sort of thing, check out how critical the first editorial review on Amazon is and how it seems like the other two haven't even read the book.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Dawn Madden's Breasts Were a Pair of Danishes...

Bet you clicked on that! I love looking every year at Literary Review's Award for bad sex writing. Not new, but since we're on the topic of romance and love and sex and all that other stuff, here are the 2006 nominees. Sadly, I've read two of the nominated books--A Spot of Bother and Black Swan Green and liked them both, bad sex writing and all. And Irvine Welsh writing about anything disturbs me, so I didn't even make it all the way through that passage.

I used to handle all of the series romance novels in my job--the Harlequins, the Silhouettes, etc. and would often amuse myself by finding random passages inside. My all-time favorite:
"She quickly looked away, but not quickly enough to avoid an eyeful of denim-encased male groin. Suddenly, she felt more than stunned. She felt breathless, dizzy."

I'm not sure what I find the most amusing, the highly unerotic description of "denim-encased male groin" or the thought that it might make someone dizzy.'s the denim-encased male groin. Say that five times fast!

Something Wonderful

I didn't read a whole lot in high school, but what I did read was mostly romance novels. Of those, most were by Judith McNaught. Something Wonderful is my favorite McNaught romance. Alexandra, a bookish tomboy, comes to the rescue of Jordan Townsend, a duke. Thinking she's a boy, Jordan takes her to an inn for a doctor to be summoned. To save her reputation, Jordan is forced to marry her. They share a few surprising weeks together before Jordan disappears, seemingly dead. Alex mourns him deeply until she discovers that, before their marriage, her husband had been a notorious womanizer who initially saw their marriage as a sham. She sets out to prove him wrong and becomes one of the most sought after eligible women in society. Meanwhile, Jordan spends his time in captivity pining for his wife, who he begins to see through new eyes. When he manages to return, the two must repair the damage done and learn to love each other again. Jordan and Alex also make an appearance in McNaught's Almost Heaven. One caveat to McNaught books--though not in these two, there are some borderline abusive situations that appear in some of her books that would make me hesitate to recommend them now.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

In honor of Valentine's Day we will be featuring romances over the next week. Although The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger isn't a "genre" romance, it definatly has romance at its center. I think my co-blogger Angstrat recommended this to me, but it took me a while to get to it. Don't be the same fool I was, drop what you are doing AND GO READ THIS BOOK. Henry De Tamble has Chrono Displacement Disorder, which basically means he is an involuntary time travaler. He mostly travels within the scope of his own life, often seeing himself or interacting with himself at a different age. As an adult he begins to travel to Michigan at the time of his wife Claire's childhood, and meets her over and over as she is growing up. Thus when she meet him in "real time" when she is 19, and he is 27, she's met him dozens of times, and he's never seen her before. The book is actually less confusing than this explaination (thank God). The time travel is handled beautifully, which is hard to do (just ask the Star Trek guys) and the story has a very strong Chicago setting. I couldn't love this book more, and my dog, Henry is actually named after the hero. I just hope Niffenegger writes another full length novel soon.

The Inn at Lake Devine

When I want a fun read, I often turn to Elinor Lipman. The Inn at Lake Devine is probably my favorite Lipman novel. As a child, Natalie's family inquires about a Vermont inn and receives an anti-Semitic reply in return. Natalie feels this scorn deeply and sends letters to the manager and even manages to score an invitation to the inn with a friend. A decade later, she is invited to return and finds that some members of the innkeeper's family are quite different than she expected. Lipman's novels often contain quirky characters that still manage to be quite real. Like the best of her novels, The Inn at Lake Devine is best at depicting the various relationships between characters, both familial and romantic.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Daughter of Time

This book, The Daughter of Time by josephine Tey is recommended by my mother. Richard III, according to legend, murdered his two nephews in the Tower of London, so he could assume the crown. In The Daughter of Time, a modern day dectective laid up in a hospital bed becomes fascinated with the case and with the help of a reseacher tries to get to the truth about what really happened.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Between the Bridge and the River

A coworker recommended this book by late night talk show host and The Drew Carey Show alum Craig Ferguson. The book follows the story of a phony, disgraced televangelist and his childhood friend now stricken with cancer, but its main point is to poke fun at just about everthing--from the media, to pop culture, to organized religion. My coworker liked this for its obvious humor, but also because she felt the right people got the proper comeuppance at the end.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Cherry Ames, Student Nurse

Before ER, before Grey's Anatomy, there was Cherry Ames. Cherry Ames, Student Nurse by Helen Wells was written and set during World War Two, at least in part to get girls to go into nursing. That didn't work on me but the first four books in this series,(the others being Cherry Ames, Senior Nurse; Cherry Ames, Army Nurse; and Cherry Ames, Chief Nurse are a lot of fun and now are a view back in time. Cherry starts off book one, fresh out of high school and heading for nursing school at Spencer Hospital. Her nursing program is three years and is considered a top nursing education, the way an Master's in Nursing might be today. Cherry is serious about nursing as a career, as are all her classmates. The war is felt from the very beginning, Cherry's twin brother, Charlie is an Army pilot and the Ames' family neighbor, Dr. Fortune (who inspired Cherry to go into Nursing) is working on a top secret wonder drug(pencillan). This series is a cousin of Nancy Drew, so Cherry solves a mystery in each book, but these first four are more focused on Cherry becoming a nurse, her friends, her love life (the crushworthy Dr. Lex Upham is introduced in book two) and the war. As the series goes on, the war ends, and the books become more straightforward mysteries (and not as good). There is an exhaustive Cherry Ames web page, with lists of all the books and characters here. The books are fluffy fun and example of the rare "career" books for girls.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

I stayed up way too late last night to finish Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. I picked it up after seeing it on practically every best of the year list, and it certainly deserves all those accolades. Wright has constructed a compulsively readable narrative about the history of Islamic radicalism and two of its chief architects, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. There is also some focus on the U. S. fight to combat terrorism, particularly focusing on John O'Neill, and some of the bureaucratic lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA. While the build-up and plan for 9/11 is touched upon, Looming Tower primarily describes the origins and shifting philosophies of Al-Qaeda and how they came to be focused upon the United States.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Hons and Rebels

This Friday bonus post is in further honor of Molly Ivins. Jessica Mitford, author of Hons and Rebels, was a close friend of hers and her column remembering Decca, as she called her, is included in You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You". I actually read this book because of how highly it was recommended in a bunch of threads on Salon's Tabletalk. The book is a memoir of growing up before World War II in one of the craziest families in England. Their father was Baron Redesdale, and the family's rank contributed to the noteriety the six Mitford daughters attained, to paraphrase their mother "Every time I see the headline 'Peer's Daughter' I know one of you is in trouble" The sisters grew up to be among other things, a novelist, the Duchess of Devonshire, and a Nazi. The Mitfords' adventures make them a family for the ages.

Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?

Molly Ivins died January 31st after a battle with cancer. Here is her New York Times obituary. On page two, it refers to a "sexually suggestive phrase" she used to describe a mass chicken killing. Come on New York Times, you can say it...she called it a "gang pluck" and that was the end of Molly Ivins working for the Times. This story not only illustrates that the New York Times is still a bunch of sissies, but that she was a damn funny woman, who always lived by her own advice to "raise more hell". This collection of her columns is in my opinion her very best, taking on Reagan, Bush, and local Texas politics, all without fear, as well as a memorable piece on covering Elvis' funeral, staying in university dorm with a cheerleading camp. Her intelligence and biting wit will be greatly missed. Let's get out there and raise hell in her honor.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Partly Cloudy Patriot

You may know Sarah Vowell as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles or as a contributor to This American Life. Her collection of essays, Partly Cloudy Patriot, is a wonderful collection with pieces ranging from historical tourism to Pop-a-Shot basketball. She was even on to the weirdness of Tom Cruise before his couch jumping on Oprah:
"When the cute little kid in Jerry Maguire gave Cruise a hug, my first reaction was parental. I wanted to grab the child away, scolding, 'We don't touch burning stoves, strangers' candy, and we do not touch Tom Cruise'"

My favorite essays in the collection are probably the more political ones, as Vowell realizes her patriotism even through her tears at Bush's inauguration and reflects upon her participation in an Al Gore internet group. There isn't a clunker in the bunch, though, and it's one of my favorite books. Check out the audio version, too, with voices from Stephen King, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien. And don't forget to check out her many contributions to This American Life.