Friday, August 31, 2007

Best of 2007 (So Far) has listed its best books of the first half of 2007 in fiction, nonfiction, and kids books. The lists are mostly populated by the big names you'd expect--Chabon, DeLillo, Kingsolver--but there is also a list of hidden gems as well. My 2007 book year started out great but I hit a couple of dry spells and haven't done a great job of keeping track of my recent reads. I would have to say that my (new) book of 2007 so far is one that is also on Amazon's list--Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. If we count books published before this year, it would probably have to be The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. What books make your best of 2007 list?

Spook Country

I did enjoy this book, but not quite as much as much as the only other William Gibson novel I've read, Pattern Recognition. Spook Country follows three different threads that you just know will all come together at the end. Hollis Henry, former lead singer of The Curfew, takes a job for a new magazine created by the mysterious Hubertus Bigend. She thinks she is writing an article on locative art but finds herself caught up in much more. Tito delivers ipods loaded with who-knows-what to a mysterious old man. Milgrim has been kidnapped by a seemingly rogue government agent in order to help him translate messages. The threads do converge but I was still somewhat confused as to how some of the characters were related. On the whole, it was a quick read with some interesting political commentary thrown in as well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

You either love this book or you hate it. Even though bad books week has passed, Anstrat's comments in her earlier Joan Didion pick made me want to take a swing at this one. The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of what has to be the most horrible year on record for Joan Didion or for anyone. First, her only daughter Qunitana becomes ill and is hospitalized. Then her husband dies of a massive coronary. Then Quintana has a series of recoveries and relapses and ultimate dies as well (in her thirties) although the memoir was completed before that occurred. Joan Didion is a perfectly capable writer and does express some germane thoughts on grief. She is also an obsessive name dropper and cannot stop describing the luxuries they enjoyed in the utmost detail. (We dined at Morton's almost every night, the Beverly Hills Hilton felt like home-- I knew the manicurists). I found it incredibly off-putting and unnecessary - you can say you went to the same restaurant every night with out name dropping a famous and exclusive restaurant. You can mention your husband's navy windbreaker without mentioning it was the staff jacket for the movie Up Close and Personal, which, oh, by the way you and your husband just happened to write. These details do not help me understand your grief-- they distance me from you and make us both seem shallow, you for writing them and me for being bothered by them. I read her White Album in college and had the same reaction to her meeting with Jim Morrison and her pretentious title. Not recommended.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Center of Everything

Evelyn Bucknow is a Kansas girl who thinks she lives with her single mother, Tina. The book traces Evelyn from around age 10 to 18. Evelyn has many influences in her Kansas existence--her mother, Tina, who makes a series of disastrous mistakes, mostly involving men; her religious grandmother; her next-door neighbor and best friend, Travis; and teachers who recognize her potential. The author, Laura Moriarty, also has a new book out, The Rest of Her Life.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Amy's Answering Machine

One of my favorite moments on the TV show Friends was when Monica complained that Rachel lost her messages. "What messages don't you get?" jeered Rachel "Chandler or your mom? Your mom or Chandler?". Moms love to call their kids but not many moms do so with the flair of Amy Borkowsky's mother. This book, a small volume of transcripts of the messages the author's mother left on her machine is a fun quick read. Amy's mother warns her of the danger of wearing an underwire bra through airport security, informs her that she saw on TV that a rich bachelor from Alaska was going to be in New York, and gives the vital information that her foam headphone covers could be a germ breeding ground.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Book of Common Prayer

I still haven't made up my mind whether I like Joan Didion's writing. I've loved a couple of essays she wrote. I read The Year of Magical Thinking and it suffered in comparison to Calvin Trillin's About Alice which I read in close proximity to it and was a much more personal, affecting book. I just read A Book of Common Prayer, the story of two women in the fictitious South American country of Boca Grande. Grace, the narrator, is a widow in one of the controlling families of the country. Charlotte travels there after her daughter commits a terrorist act in the United States. Grace tries to piece together Charlotte's story. I admired a lot of the writing and Didion has a very distinctive voice. However, I feel some of the power of the writing was undermined by the excessive use of some of the techniques I first admired. It's all a little too much for me. I found the story to be interesting and found myself wanting to figure Charlotte out along with Grace.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Westing Game

I loved this book as a kid. A millionaire has died and a group of specially chosen individuals move into Sunset Towers. They include 12 year older Turtle Wexler, her parents and older sister Angela, the Hoo family, the Theodorakis family, and several others. One of the people in the towers took the millionaire's life but before the book reveals the answers the reader must puzzle through tons of clues and each character's back story. This is a highly sophisticated children's book and richly deserved the Newberry Medal.

Good Reads

A friend of mine suggested I check you this book recommendation web site. It's similar to Librarything, but seems to be more focused on rating books rather than cataloging them. I have been using it to rank books as a means of listing what I've read (as opposed to what I own)and check out other recommendations. You can organize your books into "shelves" which seems to be the equivalent of the librarything tags. I think that if you could get several of your bookish friends to keep up with it, it could be a lot fun, getting updates about what they are reading and how much they like it. Check it out!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Sweetest Dream

This is a qualified recommendation. My book club read this book and my mother and I weren't crazy about it, but everyone else loved it. Doris Lessing wrote this novel instead of a third volume of her memoirs because she felt that would hurt too many vulnerable people, to paraphrase the introduction. The first half is the story of Frances, an actress who made a young marriage to the Britain's most self absorbed Communist, Comrade Johnny. After he leaves her and their two boys she is forced to become a journalist rather than taking acting jobs, move in with Johnny's German born mother, who vaguely disapproves of her, and become a den mother to seemingly dozens of young people (her sons' friends) who are drifting through the 60s. The second half concerns Sylvia, the daughter of Johnny's second wife with her previously husband (got that?) Sylvia morphs from a miserable child to a doctor in AIDS ravaged Africa. Our book group felt comparing that the attitudes towards family were interesting conversation starter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Niagara Falls All Over Again

Mose Sharp, the narrator of this book, dreamed of a vaudeville career with his young sister, Hattie. After her death, he goes on to pursue that dream with minimal success until he teams with Rocky Carter. The two men end up becoming the central figures in each others' lives. Mose chronicles their partnership from their early struggles to their ascent to the top of the vaudeville ladder to the early stages of movies. The depiction of the dying out of vaudeville and the fledgling movie industry were very interesting. Mostly, though, this is Mose and Rocky's tale, their lifetime partnership, friendship, and separation. Their relationship is every bit as important as a marriage and McCracken explores all aspects of it. Any conversation of my favorite books or authors has to mention Elizabeth McCracken. She writes like I can only wish to--beautiful, wise, and funny. This is not quite up to my favorite, The Giant's House, but is still a gem.

The Giver

This Newberry Award Winner was suggested as a pick by a friend. Twelve year old Jonas lives in seemingly perfect world. Each family has one boy and one girl, everyone trains for their career (selected for them by the elders), everyone marries a suitable spouse selected by the elders. Jonas' world begins to show its cracks when he learns he has been selected to be the community's Receiver of Memories. Jonas comes to realize that not only has his society eradicated hunger, war and poverty, but has also removed the pain from their lives, going so far as to medicate them to tamp down any sexual or violent impulses. As Jonas, one of the few people not so stifled, learns, pain is what brings life much of it color.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Short History of a Prince

Oprah gave the seal of approval to The Book of Ruth and The Map of the World, but this is the Jane Hamilton book I love. I first listened to an abridged audio version of this and was captivated by it and then went to the book which was much more fleshed out. The main character is Walter McCloud and the story concerns his present life where he has recently returned to the midwest as a teacher. The most engaging parts, however, are the parts that take place in the past, during the summer where Walter comes to terms with his sexuality, his brother's illness (and death), and his aspirations as a dancer. Hamilton weaves together Walter's love of dance and his love for his friend, Mitch. The slow realization that he will never be able to have either, is achingly beautiful. Walter's reflections on this period as a much older man reveal both his innocence at the time and the lasting effect of that summer and it is all wrapped up in Hamilton's beautiful prose.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Night Listener

Gabriel Noone is the host of a NPR program called "Noone at Night", sort of a "Prairie Home Companion" crossed with "This American Life" crossed with "Queer as Folk". His life is in a tailspin because his much younger partner, Jess, who is finally responding to new HIV meds has moved out. His writing is blocked and nothing in his life seems meaningful. Then a publisher sends him a memoir writing by Pete, a 13 year old boy, who has been sexually abused by his parents and has AIDS. Gabriel begins a series of phone calls with Pete and his adoptive mom Donna that begin to restore Gabriel's sense of self. Until questions begin to rise to the surface about whether Pete is really what he seems. Maupin is a great writer and the story is a fast read with some excellent moments of suspense.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Child's Garden of Verses

I think this collection of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson was the first book I remember reading. By reading, I'm pretty sure I just had most of my favorite poems memorized. I was recovering from a surgery and had nothing to do in bed but read and I remember reading this one over and over and my aunt helping me to follow along in the text. The poems reflect the wonderment of childhood. We had the Little Golden Book version and I loved the illustrations as well.

What Book Got You Hooked on Reading? has compiled a list of the Top 50 books that got people reading. It's a list with a lot of familiar titles, many of which I could make an argument for applying to myself. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dr. Seuss, the Ramona books, etc. There is also a list of writer and celebrity favorites as well. So what book got you hooked?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

So You Think You Know Jane Austen

As an undergrad I took a study abroad trip to England. While we were there the BBC replayed their Pride and Prejudice miniseries and almost our entire group fell in love with P and P (or Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) Upon my return, I took a class devoted entirely to Jane Austen, where we read even the dreaded Mansfield Park. Since then I've seen the mini-series at least 4 times and the new (inferior) Keira Knightly version. With this background I thought that I could at least do well at the Pride and Prejudice section of this literary quiz book. Alas, it was not to be. Each of the six major Austen novels has four quizzes, the first strictly fact based, the second more tricky, the third requiring some speculation on the part of the reader and the fourth being the most interpretive questions, such as why Mr. Bennet marries Mrs. Bennet in the first place (physical attraction is provided answer). I liked the different types of quizzes but because I hated flipping back and forth (and was getting so few right) I ended up just reading the end section which provides questions with the answers. It's a lot of fun, though much of it is speculative, making any answer as right as another to such questions as to why Wickham chose to run off with (spoiler!!) Lydia.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Mango Trees

Sorry, another late post. This memoir covers actress and author Madhur Jaffrey's childhood in India. There is a pleasant wistfulness to the stories of her childhood surrounded by extended family. There is also an emphasis on the many influences on Jaffrey and her family from all elements of Indian society--Hindu, Muslim, and English. But above all, it is about the food from her childhood and the many memories of preparing and eating everything from traditional meals to the treats from street vendors. There are also many family recipes included in the back.


Lamb is a retelling of the story Jesus, through the eyes of his friend Biff (real name Levi). The story starts in Joshua's (Jesus's true name, Biff explains as Jesus is a translation) childhood, where he struggles to understand his powers and resign himself to the idea that he is the Messiah (and deciding God doesn't mind if you eat bacon). They meet Mary of Magdalene (Maggie) who they both love. Maggie loves Joshua, but knows he can never be hers. In years of Jesus's life not described in the Bible, Biff and Joshua are traveling the east, learning the tenets of Buddhism, meditation, and Kung Fu. They return home, Joshua gets down to performing miracles and preaching in earnest, and the apostles join their group. The story is funny and Moore has some interesting observations of both modern and ancient Christianity. (sorry this wasn't up yesterday, we lost our electricity)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

This anthology is a collection of short stories hand picked by David Sedaris. I had read several of these authors before, but none of the stories and was impressed with the selection. Most of the stories fall into the funny or dark categories, and sometimes both. It’s really hard for me to pick a standout story. I remember loving Richard Yates’ writing style (still keep meaning to pick up Revolutionary Road). Flipping through, though, I am reminded how many of the pieces affected me. I also loved Tobias Wolff’s powerful “Bullet in the Brain” and Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon”. This is a great introduction to some amazing authors.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

If You Ask Me

Libby Gelman-Waxner on the movie The Fisher King-- "This is a movie for people who thought that Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves were too sarcastic. After seeing it I decided that there are certain things that Robin Williams must never be allowed to do on-screen, by federal statute if necessary:
1. Smile through tears
2. Hug another man, who will then act embarrassed
3. Clutch a child's toy
4. Talk dirty so it sounds cute
5. Rip off his clothes as a rite of freedom
6. Twinkle, cavort or exult.

Libby, whose columns appeared in Premiere
, has got to be the funniest movie critic of all time. Written by Paul Rudnick, a Hollywood screenwriter, Libby always stays in character as a Jewish mother of two, married to an orthidonist and working as an "assistant buyer of junior activewear"> This leads to memorable columns such as helping her daughter Jennifer to understand "the larger topics like death and heaven" after the death of her hamster by going to see Ghost. This collection was published in 1995, so the movies covered are older, but Libby's observations still seem fresh, none more so than the Robin Williams comments above. I'd really love for another collection to be published- fingers crossed!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Beautiful Mind

This book is so much better than the movie. Sylvia Nasar captures the complexities of John Nash, the brilliant mathematician and schizophrenic. Nash's decline is difficult to read as we see him lose the very qualities and talents that defined him. Nasar also doesn't skip over the things the movie does in order to foster the love affair aspect, including Nash's homosexual affairs and child out of wedlock. Nash's slow climb to recovery in the 1990's is also inspiring. I also really liked the glimpse into the Nobel process, when the committee, wanting to honor a game theorist, contemplates the ramifications given Nash's mental illness.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada

My sister will be ill when she sees this pick on my blog. She hated this book, which, along with the Nanny Diaries is the Ur text of assistant lit.(see Chambermaid as an example). She found Andrea, the young assistant to Miranda Priestly, part genius, part monster to be a terrible cry baby and sided instead with Miranda. That in a nutshell is the beauty of the book, perhaps created unintentionally by the author, who no doubt believed all the readers would side with the thinly veiled copy of herself over thinly veiled version of Anna Wintour, the famed editor of Vogue who Lauren Weisberger briefly worked for as an assistant. Instead, you have to deliberate between the woman who worked hard to get what she wants but can be deliberately unreasonably just because she feels like it and the woman who feels oh so sad that she has to hang up her boss' coat. Sometimes Andrea wins and sometimes Miranda does. The subplots with the best friend and boyfriend are quite silly, but the book still has value as a test to see whether you as the reader take the side of the rookie or the old pro.

Harry Potter round-up

If you can't get enough Harry...spoilers ahead

Stephen King on Harry Potter
J.K. Rowling interview
Deathly Hallows quiz
Another J.K. Rowling discussing the upcoming Encyclopedia of Magic
Harry Potter parody
Another interview

Thanks to Krista and John for links

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Burning Chrome

I was carrying around my copy of William Gibson’s latest book, Spook Country, when a coworker came up to me to pronounce her love for him. A friend first made her read the story Burning Chrome in a Nebula collection (best science fiction stories of the year) and she was hooked. Gibson is considered a father of cyberpunk and his books explore technology and its impacts. Many of the stories in this collection, including the title story that my friend loves, take place in the same world as his famous novels Johnny Mnemonic and Neuromancer.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


This is one in a series of teen romances that were published when I was in grade school and junior high. Each one had the heroine's name as the title, each was set in a different historic era (Emily is set in 1899), each featured a 16 year old heroine (or a 15 year old who would turn 16 in the course of the book) who would chose between two disparate suitors (here the "adoring and rich Worthington Bates" and "handsome Dr. Stephan Reed"). The boys were always pictured on the cover behind her, with a smaller picture showing the heroine with ONE of them. (I had a theory there was some kind of formula to whether the boy pictured would be the one chosen, but school eventually became more challenging and that research was abandoned) To be honest, I don't remember who Emily chose, but I remember the historical details including how rich, sheltered Emily had to stay home from anywhere fun to protect her reputation, to people debating whether 1899 or 1900 was the turn of the century. The entire series is fine historical fiction and truly I think these books gave me a much stronger interest in American history than I might have otherwise. I am not the only reader who remembers these books fondly, this site discusses collecting the series.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Best American Political Writing

This series has become an annual purchase for me. It collects some of the best political writings from the past year from a diverse range of viewpoints. The collection includes pieces from newspapers, magazines, and internet sources and sometimes book excerpts are also included. I've found the collection edited by Royce Flippin to be pretty balanced. I'm a bit of a political junkie and it's sometimes hard to not just get the perspective of the people you agree with. This series does a good job of picking out the pieces from both sides that are less partisan diatribes and more thoughtful analysis of the issues. I was initially a little skeptical of the series because of the topical nature of political writing that can date itself fairly quickly, but most of the pieces I've read in these collections remain fresh and timely.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Suite Francaise

The story behind this book is nearly as interesting as the book itself. The author, Irene Nemirosky, was a Frenchwoman of Jewish ancestry, who had converted to Catholicism before World War Two began. She had completed the first two books of a five book cycle about the War, when she was sent to Auschwitz, and was killed. Her daughters found her notebooks, but only sixty years later did they realize what the notebooks contained. The first book tells of the flight or attempted flight of various Frenchmen, both Jewish and Gentile, likable and not on the eve of the German invasion. The second book, tells of everyday life in a rural French community under German occupation. Some of the characters overlap and the end of the book contains her notes hinting where the work would have gone had she lived to complete it. A memorable book, both for what it is and and for its unfulfilled promise.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


This is another recommendation from a co-worker. She really enjoyed this book by the co-writers of The Nanny Diaries. I admit that I am really intrigued by the premise. Kate and Jake were high school sweethearts. After he abandons her the night of the prom, he goes on to be a famous rock singer. It's hard for Kate to get over him considering she keeps hearing songs about their relationship on the radio. When he returns to their hometown, Kate is anxious for some closure. My co-worker thought this was funny and recommends it to anyone looking for closure or sweet revenge.

The Kite Runner

This should have been posted yesterday-sorry. ) feel I am uniquely qualified to comment on this book, having first listening ed to it on Audio while on a trip with my husband, and then having read it in book form for my public library book club. I think the book was more enjoyable than the abridged version at least, because the end of the book has a bunch of hairpin plot twists, that seemed absurd when the story was paired down even further. The book is about two motherless Afghan boys, Amir, the son of a rich man, and Hassan, the son of his servant. Amir narrates the story, telling first of their boyhood in Afghanistan and then of the flight he and his father made to the US after the Russians have invaded. Amir, must return to Afghanistan as adult and faces his demons concerning his childhood and especially Hussan and his childhood betrayal of him. The book starts strong during the descriptions of their childhood and life in the US, but Amir's trip to Afghanistan is a little too packed with coincidences (born in a a desire to tie things up a bit too neatly). A interesting read, but not an all time favorite.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Water for Elephants

This book, written by Sara Gruen was a selection of one of my book clubs a few months ago. It's the story of a young man named Jacob, who leaves veterinary school a few weeks before graduation following the death of his parents. It's the 1930's and after finding out that his parents have spent every penny on his education he takes to the rails and meets up with small and slightly seedy circus. His skills with animals, and particularly Rosie, the elephant the circus acquires, make him a valuable member of the team but his position and even safety are jeopardized when he begins a flirtation with the boss's wife, a bareback rider named Marlena. The book culminates in a circus fire, the true cause of which is not revealed until the end. There are several plot twists throughout the book and, while it is not the deepest read out there, it was entertaining and full of interesting circus trivia.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Shards of Honor

A coworker highly recommends the Vorkosigan series by Lois McNuster Bujold. Shards of Honor is the first book in the series. The series is the story of two generations of a family in a distant future where Earth is a part but not central. The first book in the series deals with the clash of people from two very different cultures and their ability to love one another. It also raises a lot of questions about honor. These were the first adult books my coworker remembers reading and enjoying. She liked the series because it was character-driven and funny. She also enjoyed the scientific and cultural aspects of the world Bujold created and comparing it to the things she was studying in history.