Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Little Women

Fans of the Louisa May Alcott novel will enjoy the parallels in this meta-novel by Katharine Weber. Meg, Jo, and Amy Green grew up in New York with the unfortunately deceased pet turtle, Beth. When they discover their mother's affair, the girls are scandalized and decide to move in together in Meg's apartment at Yale. The girls sometimes struggle to adjust to life together in their new family. Their story is recorded by Joanna, who, like Jo March is a writer. Meg and Amy sometimes disagree with Joanna's version of events and their objections are noted in readers' notes sprinkled throughout the novel. The references to the original novel are fun and reverent while updating the story to modern times. Though I am sure there are some who will hate it, I personally loved the commentary that occurs through the readers' and author's notes about the veracity of Joanna's version of events.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Joy of Cooking

I have four copies of this book. One is a reproduction issue of the first 1931 edition, once is a battered copy of the linked-to version (1973 "standard" edition, widely considered to be the best) that I got from a box of free for the taking stuff at a garage sale, a copy of the 1998 revision (which has the sloppy joe recipe my husband is crazy for), and the 2006 75th anniversary edition. All of these have different recipes, side notes, charts, and information to reflect the changing times and editors (the book began life chatty, became less so culminating in the "too impersonal" 1998 edition and is now on it's way back in the other direction.) I love this edition for pure reading enjoyment. There are innumerable weird recipes (four for frog legs alone) and huge sections on wild game, (including a recipe for porcupine), sauces, frosting and tons of details on obscure cooking topics. Some people think these recipes are only average, but I think they have a good work to result ratio, in addition to the books being historic documents and fine reading as well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Tender Bar

J. R. Moehringer grew up in Manhasset, New York. His mother has big dreams for him while watching her own die repeatedly, forcing her to move in with her miserly parents and other relatives. J. R.'s DJ father left when he was young, leaving him nothing but his voice on the radio. J. R. fills the male void through his uncle Chas, a bartender at Dickens. As J. R. gets older, the bar becomes his second home, too, and more of the male regulars become part of his family. J. R. recalls this formative period in his memoir. The men at the bar share their stories, their wisdom, and their advice as they nurture him through the highs and lows of college, his first love, and his first job. Reading this book felt like pulling up a stool at the bar of Dickens and listening to one guy's life story, complete with asides and commentary from his buddies down the way.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Godfather

As the Sopranos comes to a close, this pick, the beginning of America's Mafia obsession, seems appropriate. I picked this up in a used bookstore my freshman year in college and read it one afternoon. I think I maybe the only person to have read the book but not to have seen any of the movies. The book is one of those novels that transports you entirely into another world, where you become Michael Corleone, being drawn into the family business, almost, but not quite against your will. At 18, I found this book to be incredibly sophisticated, but maybe I might feel differently now. Plus, I still need to see these movies. PS, to show how deeply The Godfather is enmeshed in our culture, my spellcheck auto-corrected Corleone.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Ant Farm: and other Desperate Situations

Simon Rich is the former president of Harvard Lampoon and many of these short pieces first appeared there. Situations is an apt description for these pieces, most around two pages, that depict such instances as the X-Files with dog characters, grown up conversation as imagined at the kids' table, and life if lived by hockey rules. There are a lot of laughs to be found here--one of my favorite lines comes from "what goes through my mind when I'm home alone, from my mom's perspective). After a series of notes from his mom that insult his intelligence (don't drink the medicine), he says "I hope that when my mom comes home she asks me some very specific, humiliating questions about my changing body". It's a fun, fast read--I read the entire thing over my lunch hour.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Road from Coorain

This is one of the books that touched off the memoir craze. Jill Ker Conway grew up on a isolated sheep station in the Australian outback during the 1950's, eventually growing up become the president of Smith college and later MIT. Her family life was less than ideal, in part because as a brilliant and intellectual girl, her family and particularly her mother, had no idea of how handle her. Conway is deeply isolated both on the Coorain, and later in Sydney where she eventually attends school. Beautifully written and a nice corrective to too much 1950's nostalgia. There are two sequels, True North, and A Woman's Education.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Banned Books 2006

As I mentioned in the previous post, last night I attended a lecture by American Library Associations Director of Intellectual Freedom, Judith Krug. She talked a lot about banned books and the role of the library when books are challenged. It was an interesting discussion. Here is the list of the most frequently challenged books from last year. Surprise--no Harry Potter! 9 of the 10 books listed sexuality as one of the reasons for the challenge, including the two Toni Morrison books. I don't know about you, but I don't think there's an epidemic of kids sneaking a copy of Beloved off the shelves to read out loud the titillating scenes.

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

Last night I went to a talk by Judith Krug, the director of ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom. She was talking about the list of the top 10 banned books of last year, and this was on the list. Krug read and loved this after it was first challenged and her description of the book made me put in on hold immediately when I got home. Virginia is an overweight girl in a very attractive family. She has a boyfriend but is uncomfortable with him because of her weight. Her best friend moves away and on a visit to see her, Virginia takes a few risks that end up paying dividends when she returns home. What really made me want to read this, though, was Krug's description of a subplot involving Virginia's seemingly perfect older brother. When he date rapes a woman at college, Virginia begins to worry obsessively about the victim. The book was banned because of issues of sexuality.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Detachment

This is the second Tracy Kidder book I have blogged about, but I felt it was so different from his other work it was really worth mentioning. My Detachment is a memoir that tells a little of his childhood and college years, but mainly focuses on his year in Vietnam as a Lieutenant in a intelligence unit. He talks about the usual "war" stuff, the interaction of the men in his unit, the genuine fear they all felt a few times (being in the rear boredom was much closer to their daily experience) but most significant is his unflinching criticism of himself. He recounts lies told to his family in letters about the (non-existent) Vietnamese children he was befriending, how he manipulated his childhood sweetheart into dating him again by playing the "I'm going to Vietnam" card, and how he congratulated himself heartily for the things he should do automatically, like treat his men well. In the conclusion, Kidder talks about how he is accused of making the real people he writes about sound too perfect, and how he is so conscious of his own short comings he does not feel comfortable drawing attention to those of others. Very interesting but also very dark.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I Know a Rhino

I have a brand new nephew who was born yesterday, so in honor of him I am recommending his very first book--from me of course. I Know a Rhino is a board book featuring a girl who has tea parties with rhinos, bubble baths with giraffes, and mud fights with pigs, among other encounters with her imaginary animal friends. In the end it is revealed her adventures with animals aren't tall tales at all but actual playtime with her stuffed animal friends. It's a cute board book for infants and toddlers, with fun illustrations and humorous animal activities. I can't wait to read it to my nephew!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye

I'm reading this book for the third time as a pick for one of my book clubs (yes, she said clubs plural). The first two times were in junior high and high school and I have to say that I am getting more out of it now. Perhaps it is just coming across more "lousy phonies" as an adult, or maybe just maturity helps me understand Holden Caulfield better, but I don't just see him as a crazy, incoherent kid running around New York City anymore. Instead he seems like a smart sensitive kid, who just cannot cope with growing up or the death of his younger brother. A great book that definitly deserved a re-read.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

I just saw the movie version of this after having read the book when it first came out. Bohemian teacher Sheba Hart arrives to teach art at St. Georges school and old-timer Barbara soon takes her under her wing. Barbara becomes Sheba's confidante and writes about her in her journal with an obsessive intensity. When Barbara discovers Sheba's affair with a 15 year old student, she is first betrayed and then sees an opening to exploit her knowledge to get even closer to Sheba. The weight of this secret adds a creepier dimension to their relationship. Zoe Heller's book focuses little on the actual scandalous affair, and more on how this knowledge is used as currency in the lives of others. While the movie was also good, I preferred the novel's more nuanced approach and the greater glimpse into the character's motivations.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris is comic genius and one of the few humans more neurotic than I am. This collection of his essays is an excellent introduction to his work, which centers around his highly dysfunctional childhood and family, his relocation to France as an adult with his long suffering boyfriend, Hugh, and his attempts to learn the language and fit in, and occasionally his obsession with medical oddities. You get the picture. Sedaris is best out loud, so I recommend getting the audio versions, as well as his CD, David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall, just be careful not to wreck your car when laughing. Recently the New Republic ran an article saying his stories were high fictionalized and not a true memoir. I say, when he's this funny- who cares? See him live too if you get the chance, I've seen him read twice and it was amazing.

The Company

Stephen Jones takes a job as in sales at the corporation Zephyr and he quickly realizes the absurdity of corporate life. An argument over a missing doughnut leads to massive reorganization in the company. When more seemingly qualified people begin to disappear, Jones starts asking questions. First up, are we really only selling our products to internal customers? Nursing a crush on the beautiful, secretive Eve, the receptionist, Jones does not leave but his suspicions lead to a meeting with the top brass. And when Jones discovers the real reason for Zephyr's existence, he must decide whether to expose or go along. Barry's books satirize corporate culture. Like his previous book, Jennifer Government, the premise is excellent but the execution isn't quite up to the ideas, but it's still a fun and worthy read.

Friday, May 18, 2007

These Happy Golden Years

In some strange way, I identify so strongly with Laura Ingalls Wilder, that it's hard to keep in mind she was a real, separate person. This is the last book in the Little House Series (The First Four Years doesn't count) and I think it, and the other latter books in the series get short shrift, despite their excellence. This book covers Laura's job teaching in a prairie school and boarding with a family where the wife is clearly mentally ill (although the book never uses that phrase). She is being courted by Almanzo Wilder, a much older farmer, who comes to drive her home EVERY weekend, even when the weather really should forbid it. A lot of my ideas about romance seem to stem from their relationship, which is probably a little weird. This book and the others in the series really transport you away to Laura's life and draw you in completely.

Trivial Pursuit Book Lover's Edition

We, the readers and writers of this blog, like to think of ourselves as well-read. This game exists to prove us wrong. At my most recent book club meeting we played this game to celebrate the beginning of our fourth year. Seven bookish ladies broken into two teamshad five pie pieces between us after an hour and twenty minutes of playing. We all had fun though, and are studying picture books and science fiction to perform better next time!

50 Relatives Worse than Yours

If you dread going to your family reunion, pick this book up and either a)feel a little better about your own family or b)recognize a few of your relatives. Part of a series that includes jobs and boyfriends, this book is a field guide to the 50 worst relative types. Inside you'll find the Cheek Pincher, the Family Newsletter Publisher, and the Slutty Cousin. For each relative, the benefits and drawbacks are listed as well as the motto and the gift you might receive (and then return) from each. These books are fun to flip through and good for a few laughs.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bee Season

This is another book club selection, it's the story of nine year old Eliza, who has been the average member of her family. Her tightly wound lawyer mother, personable and talented cantor father, and older brother Aaron, who is an aspiring rabbi and the apple of her father's eye all overlook her. Then she begins winning spelling bees and her father's attention shifts to her, as he helps her learn new words and get ready for bees. This changes the family dynamic completely and everyone is revealed in a new light. A really interesting book that made for a good discussion. Myra Goldberg's most recent book, Wickett's Remedy was not as well liked, perhaps because in her first version she tried to be less "accessible" and ended up having to revise the paperback edition.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Working Poor

According to the American Dream mythology, if you work hard you can support yourself and your family. David Shipler documents the fallacy of this myth through his profiles of some of America's working poor. The strength of this book is its balance in showing how many factors--including both societal factors and personal choices--contribute to working class poverty and, in turn, can lead to possible solutions. Through the individual stories of all varieties of the working poor (urban families, migrant workers, etc.), Shipler shows the interconnection of various factors that lead individuals into poverty and prevent them from working themselves out from under it. Affordable, safe housing, reliable transportation (public and otherwise), preventative health care, affordable and reliable childcare, the public educational system, family support, basic parenting skills--a deficiency in any of these areas can easily lead to a downward spiral that can affect every other area as well. And while in many cases poor choices by individuals contribute to the cycle, Shipler explains that the middle class may make the same choices but they are less devastating because they have a support system that includes family, education, knowledge of resources, and opportunities, that the working poor do not. I found this to be a very powerful book that deserves to be read by people of all backgrounds.

My Secret: A Postscript Book

Sorry, another late post!! This blog has spawn two books, this one and the first one, Postsecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives. Both are collections of the homemade postcards sent to the creator of the blog revealing the sender's deepest secrets. They range from the general ("With all my friends, I still feel alone") to the extremely specific, ("I stole a love letter he wrote to you and kept in my things, so someone would find it and think someone was in love with me"). These books are really interesting and probably make you feel better about any secrets in your own life.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Until very recently, I was never really a music person. My CD collection is a sad, pathetic mix of impulse buys of mostly one-hit or one-album wonders that I rarely listened to. I first read Nick Hornby's Songbook under those circumstances and liked it OK but wasn't really blown away by it. A funny thing happened in the past year or two, though. The policy at work changed so that we can now listen to music with headphones. I started checking out CDs from the library, listening to this site, and reading music magazines and websites. I bought an mp3 player and I now listen to music constantly and it's now almost as essential to me as books. I listened to the CD that comes with this book the other day and it inspired me to re-read the book. Now that I can better understand the passion he has for music, it may be my favorite Nick Hornby book. It is a collection of essays about some of his favorite songs and, by extension, the various ways that music permeates his life. I think this book contains Hornby's most beautiful writing--his description of finding the closest thing to God in his life in the perfect harmony of two voices; his joy when his autistic son finds the smallest connection to music; and how a song written for a movie based on one of his books perfectly captures his relationship to his son. The book has introduced me to some great songs, too--"Your Love is the Place that I Come From" by Teenage Fanclub, "One Man Guy" by Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and "You Had Time" by Ani DiFranco in particular.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Baby Sister

I don't know if this technically qualifies as a "bad book", but I do think it's on the trashy side of Young Adult novels. And I loved it. hmmm. The book is written from the perspective of Penny, the younger sister who is completely overshadowed by Cass, two years older, brilliant, beautiful and as told from Penny's perspective, completely self involved. Penny feels inferior and is basically living through her sister, when she realized she has a gift for sewing. She eventually follows this love into a career, which Cass, who is in college and planning for law school, predictably sneers at. And then Penny starts seeing Cass' much put upon old boyfriend... I have no idea why this book spoke to me so strongly, when looking back, I am more of a Cass than a Penny. The book is unusual in a lot of ways, including an ending that is less than cookie cutter, and some interesting questions to mull about the two sisters and who is ultimately right (either, both, neither?).

Friday, May 11, 2007

In Praise of Bad Books

I sometimes have to fight my tendencies to be a bit of a book snob. When I see people check out nothing but celebrity biographies or Harlequin romances, I cringe a little at all the great books they may be missing. My snobbishness doesn't necessarily object to just the books themselves, because I read lots of stuff that may not be considered high literature, but more to the lack of variety in their reading. This essay from Joe Queenan says there is a place for the so-called "bad books". I read a lot of the "bad books" in childhood and adolescence, from Babysitters Club to Danielle Steel and VC Andrews and Sydney Sheldon. But if it weren't for those books, I may have stopped reading altogether. I slowly took steps up the literary ladder and today the fiction books I'm drawn most to are those that are considered literary fiction. My preference for literary fiction is not determined by the prestige factor but because the things I look for and appreciate most in my reading today--characterization, language, imagery--are things that I find more often in literary fiction. But I still read the other stuff all the time, books I don't think should necessarily be classified as bad, just different. (Note: there is sometimes a tendency to lump all genre in with the bad which I don't agree with). I read lots of different things for lots of different reasons. When I want to be entertained, there is nothing like a so-called "bad book". The literary fiction I read may not necessarily be as entertaining, but I find in the special cases to be more moving. I think there's a place in everyone's book life for both.

Kristy's Great Idea

I was a big series reader as a kid and the series I particularly loved was The Babysitter's Club. This is the first book in the series. Kristy decides to form a club with her friends Claudia, Mary Ann, and Stacy to attract babysitting clients. The books were more about the girls' friendships than babysitting. I embarrassed my brother by making him order these from Scholastic book order forms when they were no longer distributed in my class. These books, along with a handful of many others, turned me into the reader I am today.


This should have been up last night, oops! Homecoming by Cynthia Voight is the story of the four Tillerman children, Maybeth, the pretty, quiet, almost other-worldly youngest, Sammy, solid and stubborn, James, smart but with a chip on his shoulder, and Dicey, the oldest, who is charged with looking out for her siblings when their mentally ill mother abandons them in a mall parking lot. Somehow she keeps them safe and together as they travel by themselves with few resources to their great aunt's house and then their grandmother's. The sequel, Dicey's Song, about Dicey's adjustment to her new, more stable life, won the Newberry, and there are several other books about the Tillerman's and their friends.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics

In my honors US politics class in college, we had to read this, a book about Congress' attempt at tax reform legislation. Yes, it was as boring as it sounds, as I'm sure Shuttsie would confirm. Along with a few naps, I came away with a huge respect for former New Jersey Senator and failed presidential candidate Bill Bradley, though I no longer remember exactly why, other than he was basically the only political figure profiled in the book I ended up liking. When he ran against Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000, it was the first time I ever closely followed a campaign. Joan Sullivan chronicles her experience working as a volunteer for the Bradley campaign in this memoir. Until signing up to work for Bradley's advance team, she had little interest and experience in politics. After her father's death from cancer, she finds solace in the relentless days on the campaign and a sort of substitute father figure in Bradley. She exposes the insulation of life on the campaign trail, where details like the height of a podium seem so important. While such an experience could easily lead to cynicism, Sullivan ends her experience with her idealism for the political process and for Bradley mostly intact. I was reminded of this memoir now that Bill Bradley is making the round promoting his own book, which I haven't had a chance to look at yet.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Killer Stuff

The author of this book, Sharon Fiffer, is a native of Kankakee, Illinois. When I lived in that area, she gave a book reading at the local YMCA and I went to get a book signed for my mother, who is a huge mystery fan. The reading was great and so is this mystery, especially if you can't get enough of flea markets and garage sales (cough). Jane Wheel, the heroine is a Kankakee native living in the Chicago suburbs working as a "picker" for an antiques dealer (going to sales to get bargains on stuff to be resold later . She borrows her neighbor's Suburban for her treks, but returns to find her dead. This book and the others in the series have lots of great garage sale scenes (I need help, I accept that), and local Kankakee color as the mystery leads her back home, to her gruff but hilarious parents and best friend Tim, a gay florist who shares her love of antiques. A fun series, especially the first two.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack

Gideon Mack is a minister in the Church of Scotland, despite the fact he hasn't believed in God since childhood. Nonetheless, he follows in his austere father's footsteps and is stationed in the small Scottish village of Monimaskit. Though lacking in faith, he tends to his parish and runs marathons for charity. His closest acquaintances, college friends John and Elsie Moffat; his late wife, Jenny; and town elder Catherine Craigie are atheists, too. On a run one day, he discovers a standing stone that wasn't there before and he starts to question everything. Then he falls into a gorge and is not discovered for three days. Gideon believes he was rescued by the devil. When he tries to tell this story, he is dismissed as a madman. This book raised a lot of questions for me about the nature of faith and the things we do and do not choose to believe, as well as the sometimes fine line between faith and insanity. John Robertson's novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Emily Post's Etiquette

The edition in the link is the one I am holding as I type this. I also have editions from the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's as well as a bunch of other etiquette books from different eras. The current volume is useful for adressing invitations (Dear Madam Ambassador) and giving hints on tipping. Old volumes can tell you how to have a dinner for twelve with only two live in servants, what to wear for tennis (white flannel) and how to conduct yourself if invited to a West Point "hop" by a cadet (don't aske for a miniature of his ring, you're proposing!!) I love the look into a very privledged (or social climbing) past that these books give and how they all in time, become historic documents. Someday the "Ten Rules of E-mail" will be as obsolete as telegraph etiquette.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Grace (Eventually)

I have a love/hate relationship going on with Anne Lamott. She seems a little narcissistic and I frequently disagree with her and I sort of cringe when things get either too new-agey or too Jesus-y. But there seems to be at least one gem in her essays, something to make me laugh or look at something in a new way. She puts herself out there, revealing some of the mess and insecurity and the things we don't say in public about being a mother or a daughter or a devoted member of a faith. Grace (Eventually) is the third collection of her essays about her faith, following Traveling Mercies and Plan B. The latest batch has essays dealing with raising her teenage son, confronting shady rug-dealers, praying to forgive the Bush administration, and helping her friends through illnesses and one on abortion that had me saying an "Amen, Sister!". (I dropped the ball and skipped a day, thanks to shuttsie for getting things back on track).

Friday, May 4, 2007

Bridget Jones's Diary

When I first heard about this book, I thought it sounded terrible. What real woman keeps track of her weight, how many cigarettes she smokes and how much she drinks everyday and celebrates or mourns accordingly. But reading it I was very pleasently surprised. Bridget is an Everyperson, struggling every day to fit in and behave herself in a socially acceptable manner (thin, in control and so on). As the book progress she learns to be more comfortable with herself and thus, grows happier. (and she meets Mr. Darcy. That helps too).

Book Lust

Nancy Pearl is an uber-librarian. This book and the companion, More Book Lust and compilations of book lists. There are a list about dogs, lists relating to different ethnic groups and different professions, lists about different cities. I don't know if Nancy Pearl has read them all, but you definatly get the feeling she's read most, blowing Anstrat and I away with the depth and breadth of her reading. There is a also a teen version, Book Crush.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies

I heard about this book about five years ago or so when I saw the author, Jhumpa Lahiri, interviewed on BookTV (just when we thought I could not be a bigger nerd). The interviewer was carrying on about how she'd won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book and a very young age (32). This book, a collection of short stories, is probably the best book I read in all of 2006 and when I picked it up to write this blog entry I was sucked into the first story, "A Temporary Matter", all over again. Lahiri is brilliant at showing life in America filtered through a Indian cultural lens. I hope to read her novel, The Namesake, soon and then see the movie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Gallery of Regrettable Food

Are you hungry? Then avoid this book. If you're looking for a laugh, though, you'll enjoy this fond and disturbing nostalgic trip through the 1950's through the recipes and advice in cookbooks. There are all sorts of disturbing combinations put together here--peppers and marshmallows, hot dogs in everything, and oh, what horrors could be done with Jell-O. In addition to the recipes and visuals, there is snarky commentary on the culinary masterpieces presented. It could possibly be the best diet cookbook on the market because I guarantee you won't want to eat more than a few bites of anything here.