Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sloppy Firsts

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty is a little bit chick lit, a little bit YA novel and very, very good. Jessica Darling (yup, that's her name) is a 16 year old dealing with a best friend who's moved away, parents and older sister who just don't understand her, and the usual school, boys, track team dramas. Her voice is honest and quite sarcastic as you see the world through her eyes. Her huge crush on Paul, the perfect guy, and strange relationship with Marcus, a semi-reformed stoner all ring true and make this one of the most satisfying books in both of its genres that I have read in quite a while. There are two, soon to be three sequels, and the book was even worthy of being quite notably plagiarized.

Friday, March 30, 2007


If you don't have access to the books, you can check out the Unshelved comics archive online here. You can even have them delivered to your email. Plus the site has lots of cool gift ideas for your favorite librarian (ahem!). I'm especially fond of the Read Responsibly T-shirt.

What Would Dewey Do?

It helps to have a sense of humor in the workplace. For librarians, Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes have created a comic strip that chronicles the absurdities of working in the library. This is one of several collections of their strips which cover everything from unusual patron questions to generation gaps to programming. A lot of people have misconceptions about what working in a library is like--you must read all day, all the people must be really nice, etc. In reality, it's mostly fun and rewarding but sometimes, well, let's just say you go home with a lot of stories. What Would Dewey Do? contains some of those stories familiar to librarians everywhere.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien is still working out Vietnam for himself, using writing as his therapy. In this book, he has transformed his inner turmoil into great art. Part memoir, part fiction, the book focuses on several different characters-- soldiers, nurses, the people who love them. The book talks about the experience of being in combat and also what it's like to live with the combat experience afterwards. Another Vietnam themed book I enjoyed was The Road Home, by Ellen Emerson White, about the experiences of combat nurse as she returns home.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I'm not a subscriber, but I will occasionally pick up Bitch magazine at a bookstore. It is billed as a feminist response to popular culture. I especially like their book review section, it has pointed me to more than one book I've enjoyed in the past. Bitchfest is a collection of articles compiled over the ten-year history of the magazine. I enjoyed many of the pieces in this collection, from the use of "like" in young women's speech, to the confessions of a black female heavy metal fan, to the media's obsessions with mean girls. There were some pieces where I didn't always come to the same conclusion as the authors, but on the whole it's an interesting and thought-provoking collection. Be sure to pick up the magazine as well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Tummy Trilogy

This book is actually three separate books by Calvin Trillin, --Alice, Let's Eat, Second Helpings, and American Fried-- in one volume. I love Calvin Trillin's books about his family and particularly this volume which focuses on food. Trillin touts the pleasures of barbecue (particularly Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City), good fried chicken joints, and Chinese food authentic as he can find it. He is horrified by the "continental cuisine" that was popular when the books were written (the '70s and '80s) and bland food in general. When his daughter asks him how come the bagels in Kansas City "taste like round bread?", I knew just what she meant. A lot of the book has his wife Alice, playing straight man, limiting him to three meals a day, and suggesting his views on food might be, oh, just a bit extreme. For a corrective of that check out his memoir, About Alice. These are funny and sweet, a good pick me up on a bad day.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Everything Bad is Good for You

If you want to justify your couch potato existence, then look no further than Steven Johnson's book. Johnson argues that, contrary to popular belief, watching television and playing video games all day actually makes you smarter. While I don't completely buy his entire argument, he does make a good case that popular culture has advanced and has become increasingly complex, at least if you're looking at the upper end of the scale. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Lost all require the viewer to keep track of multiple characters and plot lines over the course of an episode, season, and series. The phenomenon of TV shows on DVD has also helped this, as shows are often seen less as stand-alone hours of entertainment and more of a multi-hour arc. Video games change the way we make decisions--more quickly and through more trial and error. They also help with spatial intelligence, coordination, and layered thinking. Both mediums also often lead to more reading and writing--on the Internet--through message boards, cheat guides, and blogs. In short, they are both more interactive than passive. Whether you agree with him or not, there are definitely some thought-provoking issues raised.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Miriam's Kitchen

Miriam's Kitchen by Elizabeth Erlich is another former book club pick. I think I liked it better than most, but then again, observant readers will note I have some sort of "food memoir" obsession. The story weaves together the author's family history, focusing on Jewish identity or lack thereof, with tales of learning to cook various kosher recipes from the author's mother-in-law, Miriam. From the author's perspective embracing her identity as a Jew is about how she chooses to act, ie, keeping kosher as an adult when her family never had before. The book also explains the challenges of a kosher kitchen, such as many sets of dishes and how one goes about "purifying" the dishwasher. It also drives home how, for better or worse, the rules of keeping kosher are resting primarily on women.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Old School

Acclaimed memoirist and short story writer Tobias Wolff sets his first novel at a New England boarding school in the 1960's. The students at this school are all obsessed with literature and fixated on a writing competition that allows a meeting with a famed visiting writer, including Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and rumored Ernest Hemingway. The unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with winning this contest. Confronting the blank page, he ends up composing an entry that will later come back to haunt him. The narrator reflects on this period from middle age, having become a writer, and his reflections upon his boyhood are itself riddled with passages on memory and writing and, maybe above all, deception. This book has a lot to say about literature and writing and memory. I especially liked the visiting authors--Ayn Rand behaves exactly as one might expect, but Wolff also does a good job of explaining the thrall her philosophy has over young people in particular and why they may also later turn away from it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Book Crossing

The idea behind book crossing is that once you finish a book you should "release it" by leaving it somewhere or donating it, with a code it in and instructions about how to log its movements for the people who find it. I've never particpated, though i did see a book crossing book "in the wild" as they say, but as was a ratty looking Agatha Christie, I wasn't too motivated to take it home. Has anyone actually tried this? The site also has forums where you can chat about the books you read, found ecetera. Please post if you've tried it, I'm curious!

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book so beautifully written, so gripping, and so informative that this hypochondriac was able to read an entire book about drug resistant TB without having a panic attack. Dr. Paul Farmer is one of those people who does so much good in the world its hard to believe he's real. As a young man he traveled to Haiti, fell in love wth the country and devoted himself to becoming a doctor and helping the people there. He became one of the founders of Partners in Health, and spends half of his time in Boston, raising money and teaching, and the other half in Haiti, practicing medicine and working to improve the heath care system there. In his spare time (ha) he tries to assist Russia, Cuba and other countries with health care problems and writes books about Haiti and medicine. I learned so much from this book, about Haiti and about international health, particularly TB, HIV and how the two intertwine. Because of Kidder's masterfully touch in portraying three demensional people, Farmer seems human and real, and the book doesn't seek to judge the reader for not following Farmer's example, even though maybe it should. Kidder also wrote Old Friends and Among Schoolchildren, two other non-fiction books I loved, along with several others I haven't read yet.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Then We Came to the End

Fans of The Office, or those who just work in one, this is the book for you. I've been anxiously awaiting this book since reading about it in Nick Hornby's wonderful Housekeeping v. the Dirt. It didn't disappoint. Told with a collective "we" narrator but populated with many first person stories of work life, Ferris captures the essence of life in an ad agency where fear of layoffs runs rampant. Ferris has the office culture down pat--the currency of gossip, the meetings that take place after meetings, the effort and creativity with which people go about looking busy and avoiding work. In a book like this with such a large cast, it would be easy for the characters to descend into caricature. Not in this book. Ferris finds the behavior quirks and character traits that we find annoying in our coworkers--and that they find annoying in ourselves--and gets to the motives behind those traits and the real people underneath. From the superwoman boss who may or may not have cancer, to the aloof, kiss-ass middle manager with a troubled past, to the laid-off worker who keeps coming back to the office, first to complete his resume then to prove his worth, Ferris' people are real and complex and interesting. And did I mention this book is funny too? This is the best book I've read in a long time, and I highly recommend it. I can't wait to read what Ferris does next.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Time and Again

Time and Again by Jack Finney is a bit of a time travel classic, althought I had never heard of it before I picked it up at a library book sale. The government has funded an experiment in time travel ("the project" )and Si Morley has been recruited to participate. Through a method that is one of the more interesting parts of the book, Si travels back to the New York City of 1882 and falls in love with young woman of that time. He begins to question the morality and wisdom behind this meddling with the past and ultimately takes action to address "the project". There is also a sequel, From Time to Time. The book is not a fast paced thriller, but instead is a more deliberate meditation on what time travel and the differences between the 1880's and the 1970's mean.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lipstick Jihad

In Azadeh Moaveni's memoir, she details life returning to Iran, the country her parents fled during the Islamic revolution. Moaveni was raised in California but has always felt a tug toward the country of her ancestry. She returns as a journalist for Time hoping to find more about her country and herself. She finds that, just like in America, she doesn't quite fit in. She writes of her experiences moving among the youth of Iran and how they both conform and defy the strictures placed upon them by their religion and government. The presence of the veil is especially important and Moaveni talks of the hypocritical male Muslim officials who insist on the veil while harassing and propositioning young women and practicing "temporary marriage" in order to sleep with them. The increasing fear of outsiders is apparent by the shady figures who follow Moaveni and other journalists to make sure they don't go too far afield in their reporting. Lipstick Jihad is a moving account of a young woman's pull between two cultures.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Fire and The Gold

Yes, another out of print book. I have a knack, what can I say? The Fire and the Gold by Phyllis Whitney is a young adult novel written about the San Franciso earthquake of 1906. The heroine, Melora is a rich girl who family doesn't understand her headstrong ways, and who is about to break off her engagement to a wealthy man. When the quake hits, suddenly her family's money and social status mean nothing as every one is forced into fighting for mere survival. Fires and floods sweep the city and Melora's actions help save her family and bring her into contact with a another young man (of course). Despite the romance subplot, the book really is about the effect of the earthquake on San Franciso society and includes a fair amount of commentary on race and social class. Both my mother and I loved this book, check it out if you can find a copy.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Patchwork Planet

This was my first Anne Tyler book and, maybe because of that, probably my favorite. Barnaby Gaitlin is destined to disappoint those around him--his parents, his ex-wife, his daughter. He got into trouble as a kid, got divorced, and works in a dead-end menial job helping elderly old people around the house and with errands. Barnaby himself gets satisfaction from his job and the characters he has as clients. He meets a lovely, together woman, Sophia, on a train and begins a relationship with her. His fortunes and status seem to be looking up, but again, not everything is as it appears. I loved this book for the character of Barnaby--a loser in everyone else's eyes, but a winner of a character and person.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

We Are Still Married

Happy St. Patrick's Day. Two good friends are getting married today, so I picked this title with them in mind. We Are Still Married is my favorite Garrison Keillor book, just edging out Lake Wobegone Days. (Garrison Keillor was brought to my attention by my maternal grandparents, who came to visit us with a copy of Lake Wobegone) This is a collection of essays and poems and while there is some Lake Woebegone type stuff, there is also some really great commentary on contemporary life. I thought the "Young Lutheran's Guide to Orchestra" was pretty funny, loved some of the short stories, but the real standout is his essay on writing a letter. In fact, his description of the flow of letter writing was actually critical in one of my major career decisions. It's a treasure trove of a book, check it out.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Author Web Pages

It's not enough to just write books. These days, most authors also have a web presence, some more elaborate than others. The title link is a directory for author websites, including personal, publisher and fan sites. Here is also a list of some distinguished author blogs.

Truth and Beauty

This memoir chronicles the friendship between writers Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). They met in graduate school and began a devoted if somewhat dysfunctional friendship. Lucy had jaw cancer and endured may operations to help, but not completely, correct the facial deformities it left behind. Patchett was more of the "good girl" who was drawn to Grealy's adventurous and wild nature. As Grealy achieved success, she still had personal demons to battle, including drug addiction and suicidal thoughts, and Patchett was often there to pick up the pieces. Patchett doesn't back down from Lucy's flaws--or her own--but even at her bottom, Lucy's spirit is evident.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Frosty: A Racoon to Remember

Ok, I know this sounds like the cheesiest book in the world and it's out of print. But, I really loved it when I was in junior high school (my mother and grandfather liked it too!). This is a memoir of a park ranger at Big Basin National Park who takes in a baby raccoon, when its mother is killed by a falling tree. Frosty, the raccoon, starts out tiny and cute, needing to be bottle fed, but quickly grows up enough to be quite a handful, eating things he shouldn't, and antagonizing pets. Eventually (spoiler alert), Frosty becomes an adult and must venture into the wild. It's a cute, fun read, that I liked much better than say, the Cat Who Came For Christmas.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio

This book was recommended by a former member of my book club. She enjoyed this book because she likes nonfiction that makes her think about what she would do in such a situation. In Prize Winner, Evelyn Ryan is the mother of ten children and married to a violent husband. She comes up with an ingenious solution to help her family get by. She enters contests and frequently wins the small prizes--$25, a toaster, even a trip to New York and a sports car. Most of these contests are for writing jingles. The book is written by her daughter, Terry, who reflects upon her mother's perseverance and her father's anger. My friend especially liked this book because, as a pessimist herself, she enjoyed reading a book about an optimist that wasn't annoying.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Chosen

I first read this book for high school English class, so this pick comes to us courtesy of Ms. Ryan,or possibly the school district. Chaim Potok's the Chosen tells the story of two 15 year old Jewish boys, Danny the son of Hassidic Rabbi and Reuven, an Orthodox Jew, who's father has a growing interest in Zionism. The boys meet in a fluke accident and become friends against the backdrop of World War II and its aftermath. Their relationship with their fathers and each other highlight the ushering in of a new era, both in their lives and in the Jewish faith. Even being "forced" to read it, most of our class ended up loving this beautifully written book, which is a high compliment indeed from a bunch of crabby teenagers. There is also a sequel, The Promise.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jesus Land

This heartbreaking memoir by Julia Scheeres tells the story of growing up in 1970s Indiana in a strict Calvinist household with her two adopted black brothers. Julia and especially her brothers suffer at the hands of the s0-called Christian values of their parents and with racism in the larger society. The younger of her brothers, David, is shipped off to the Dominican Republic to a Christian reform school. Julia is sent not far behind. As bad as the situation with her parents was, the atmosphere at the school is even worse. Julia and David rely upon each other to make it through their experience. Much like The Glass Castle, Scheeres' account is clear-eyed and without anger or judgment and her writing is beautifully evocative. Most of all, the book is a heartbreaking story of a love between a brother and sister that I highly recommend.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

I Feel Bad About My Neck

Thoughts on aging from the woman who brought us When Harry Met Sally, how can you go wrong? I really enjoyed this quick read from Nora Ephron, where she takes on aging, but also beauty rituals, her Manhattan apartment that she had to give up and her inability to have a neat purse. I'm 30 (it's the new 20!) and I felt this book still spoke to me. I have read that other people felt she was flaunting her wealth in the chapter where her rent is raised on her luxury apartment and she is forced to move out, but I felt she was pretty down to earth and had a rather wry sense of humor about the whole thing. There's also a great chapter about her love of reading, as she too is in the reader club. I'm wearing a scoop neck for you right now, Nora!!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham's book is all over the place now with the recent movie version. I decided to pick it up because Maugham is an author I've been meaning to read for awhile. Kitty Fane is a shallow young woman who spurns all her suitors until her younger sister becomes engaged. She then accepts a proposal from Walter, a shy bacteriologist with whom she has nothing in common. The two marry and move to Hong Kong where Kitty embarks on an affair with a British official. When Walter finds out, he is devastated and takes Kitty with him to the middle of a cholera epidemic where he tends the sick and conducts research. Kitty considers this a death sentence, but finds that the experience gives her a chance to reflect upon her existence. Maugham is particularly good at conveying Kitty's awakening. I was also impressed with his use of dialogue and how much of a character is revealed in a short conversation. I will definitely look for more Maugham in the future. Next up on the list of authors I've been meaning to read: Graham Greene. Any suggestions on where to start?

Friday, March 9, 2007

What's that book?

I feel I must apologize in advance for the time suck I am about to subject you to. Welcome to the Island of Lost Books. The above site helps people find books they dimly remember by descibing the book as best they can and then letting the internet do the rest. I think the children's book section is the best, mostly because I have read so many of them, but it makes sense that childhood books would be the ones that have drifted out of your memory. The post about the 1800 family is killing me now...

Ex Libris

Anne Fadiman is part of our club. You know the club. The reader club. If she comes to your house she will NEVER ask "have you read all those books?". Instead she will start checking them out, trying to discretely rearranged the double rowed ones to see what's back there. This book is a collection of essays, mostly about reading, but also about language and words too. My favorite essay is the first, in which she describes how she and her husband married their book collections together, approximately ten years after moving into together. They debate which doubles to get rid of and how to arrange the books (by author, chronologically, by subject?) and learn about themselves and each other. Another great essay concerns phyiscal vs. courtly love of books, whether one turns down corners, turns the book face down, writes in the margins, or would rather DIE than do any of those things. I am a physical book lover my, husband is of the courtly school (ah, the mixed marriage). If you are in the club (and you know who you are) you will love this book.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Road

In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, some unnamed disaster, presumably a nuclear holocaust, has rendered the world a lifeless, ashen landscape. No animals or vegetation have appeared to survive and relatively few humans roam the land. The book follows two such survivors, a man and his son, as they follow the road south to the coast, which serves as their ray of hope for survival. Along the way, they scrounge for food and try to avoid roaming bands of cannibals who are themselves trying to survive. It is a love story between father and son, as the father tries to protect his son from the harsh realities they encounter. It is also a story of what happens to humanity when faced with scarcity and chaos. This book has been up for numerous awards and was unanimously liked by my book club (an unusual event in itself).

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Heart Shaped Box

I read about this in the New York Times and I bought it for my Dad for his birthday as he's a big fan of the horror genre. He loved it, read it in two nights and loaned to it a friend who also loved it and read it in two nights. The plot, according to Amazon and the Times, anyway, is that a middle aged rock star buys what is billed as a haunted suit online as a curiosity and gets far more than he bargained for. Horror hijinks ensue. Side note, the author, Joe Hill, is Stephen King's son.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Android's Dream

The Android's Dream opens with a scene where United Nations of Earth trade official farting grievious insults to his alien counterpart using the alien Nidu's scent language. In the aftermath of this fatal meeting, tensions have escalated between Earth and Nidu which could lead to a war in which Humanity would not fare very well. However, all this unpleasantness could be averted if Earth can provide the Nidu with a sheep.

You read that correctly: a sheep. This isn't any ordinary sheep, however. It is a very special sheep that our hero Harry Creek must go to a great deal of trouble to find and protect. Shockingly enough, this involves lots of narrow escapes, creative applications of force, and hell-raising AIs. Creek's first date with the sheep is a complete disaster as well. While the sci-fi action comedy that follows is unlikely to be mistaken for serious literature, it was a most entertaining, light hearted read that left me wanting more. This was my first John Scalzi book, but it will not be my last.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Julie and Julia

The book's full title is Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 tiny Apartment Kitchen. Julie Powell, in her early 30's, stuck at a soul sucking job decides that she will make every single recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art Of French Cooking. Even the gross ones (aspics, chicken liver and so on)In one year. The act of doing this (and blogging about it) transforms her life. The book describes cooking disasters, scouring New York City for obscure cuts of meat, (imagine trying this in the Midwest!) and noting the new pounds of "butter weight" she and her husband put on. At the end of the book she is able to leave her hated job to become a professional writer to turn the blog into this book. I really enjoyed this book, but I have no desire to repeat her experiment, she is one brave person.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Snow Crash

Perhaps one of the best novels in the cyberpunk genre, Snow Crash depicts a near future, though completely unrecognizable America. We are introduced to the book's main character, Hiro Protagonist, in a brilliant opening scene depicting him as the Deliverator, a pizza delivery guy for the mob owned Uncle Enzo's Cosa Nostra Pizza. Hiro is later thrust into dangerous intrigue as he discovers a mind altering known as Snow Crash, which is being used by an industrialist to take over, well, pretty much everything. The book does contain a rather massive info dump as Hiro discovers the virus's connections with ancient Sumerian mythology, but the characters, story, humor, and action are all so engaging that they easily make up for it.

Used Books Online

Since yesterday's book is out of print, here are some links to assist you. The above link and abebooks are supposed be great, but I hven't used them, just browse. I have used and actually been burned by them (but it was my fault for not complaining promptly enough). Amazon also offers used books and I have had good luck with their sellers. Happy shopping!

Friday, March 2, 2007

The President's Daughter

Today's post is in honor of Crowinator, of Trapped Inside my Huge Chattering Head fame. We read this book over and over again along with the sequels (White House Autumn and Long Live the Queen). Meg is a typical 16 year old girl. She lives in Boston, her dad is a lawyer, her mom is a senator and she has two younger brothers, Steven and Neal. Then her mother runs for president and wins and her life goes crazy. She has to deal with moving, boys asking her out just because of who her mother is and dealing with pressures to be the perfect political kid. The characters in these books are really witty and sarcastic, especially her best friend Beth and her mother's press secretary Preston. Some of the references are a little dated as these are from the 80's, but who cares, we love 'em!. I just found out while working on this post that a fourth sequel, Long May She Reign is scheduled to come out in October 2007. So stay tuned.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Sleeper: Out in the Cold

Sleeper is not your typical superhero comic. Sleeper tells the story of Holden Carver, a super-powered deep undercover government agent who is infiltrating a dangerous super-powered criminal syndicate. So deep undercover is Carver that only his boss John Lynch knows what he is really up to, but at the time the story begins Lynch had been attacked and rendered comatose. Carver, now trapped in his criminal identity, must simultaneously avoid detection by the criminal mastermind running the organization he is infiltrating while eluding capture by his former government compatriots, all the while dealing with having lost his way. Backing up an intriguing premise is an entertaining (if heinous) cast of characters including Carver's colleague and lover Miss Misery, best friend Genocide Jones, evil mastermind boss TAO, and more. While perhaps not the most beautifully drawn book out there, it is dark and definitely suits the mood of the series. Highly recomended.