Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide 2011

What to get for the folks on your holiday list?  Books of course!  I always believe that your favorite book of the year makes a great gift for everyone.  Here are some recommends from my family to yours:

Grayson loved City of Ember. He read it for the second time this year and especially loved the movie it inspired.  This one has a strong female lead, perfect for the YA reader on your list.

Tessa, for some reason, calls all books Ga-Ga books.  She says, "read me this ga ga book or read me ga ga (insert name of book)."  Her favorites have been one based on an Edward Lear poem The Owl and the Pussycat and also a very frothy, syrupy, sweetie book called Pinkalicious.  Both available on-line or at your favorite bookstore.
She likes the part about plenty of money




Tries to eat the cupcakes off the page
My husband Geoff reads only e-books now so I have no idea what he has been reading, but I took some time to ask him what he recommends from this past year.  He suggested Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way we Live.  Geoff says, it puts roads in their proper context and is a harrowing travel memoir.

He also recommends Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, Happier.  This books focuses on the creativity and the people that come together to make a city.  Urban Policy that focuses solely on infrastructure and not the humans that live there wind up as cities with empty buildings.


As for me I have recently dug out a copy of Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders and am writing and thinking about the value of home.  I hope you and yours also are enjoying home and the simple pleasures of the season: music, lights, good food, laughter, and warm company.

I take a few weeks off from my blog at holiday time.  I'll be back in the New Year with plenty of good book recommendations. Happy Holidays to all!

What are your best reads of the past year?  Please recommend them below.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp

Top 10 Things Never to Say to a Homeless Person

10.  You are living in a trailer in a Wal-mart parking lot, how can you call yourself homeless?

9.  How can you be homeless, you have a job?

8.  If you can afford a lap top and a cell phone...

7.  Can't you just crash on someone's couch?

6.  But you are clean and you have a business suit!

5.  How dare you splurge on yourself!

4.  Just call your parents.

3.  Look at the bright side, no bills to worry about.

2.  You shouldn't have a dog.

1.  How can you be homeless, you don't do drugs, do you?


PS Girls Guide is a fresh original memoir which is either about being homeless while in a  relationship gone awry, or the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between a couple who happens to be homeless. I found it to be quite a page turner and I highly recommend it.  I do note--that the story seems sort of young.  My frequent complaint about memoirs of late is they feel like they need to sit in people's minds and hearts for a few more years before they get written.  This whole story happened two years ago. (But I guess when you get a book deal, you get a book deal.)

PPS  I learned that things going viral is not necessarily an accident. Good to know.

PPPS  Wal-mart had one redeeming quality for a few chapters.



Sunday, December 4, 2011

The value of paper and a pencil

About twice a month a few friends and I lead a writing circle for women at the Monroe County Jail.  We take lined composition books, pencils, some poetry, and for purposes of a small ritual we do before we start writing, we take a flower. I have been participating in this service to our community for about 5 years now.

Last week, the commander of the jail got angry because he discovered someone snuck in some contraband (rumor has it that it was a lighter), and so he banned everything from coming in--except of course employees and volunteers.  This meant we could hold the writing circle, but we could not bring in the tools that we needed to encourage women to write and tell their stories.  

My co-facilitator brought a sheet of paper with our agenda on it and a poem about hope that we wanted to read to the women.  The guard made us leave that behind.  We went up to the activity room, hands empty.  We did  discover a loop hole in the rule: the commander said that if we already had materials in the jail, we could use those.  When we arrived to conduct the circle, we found we did have some notebooks and at least 15 pencils.  In addition someone gave us a sheaf of lined notebook paper.  We still have kleenex and a little chime to ring and a small smooth stone to pass around the circle.  Our liaison at the jail allowed us to get on her computer in her office so we could find the poem to read aloud to the women. Getting ready for the circle felt a little like a game.

Our circle yesterday was fine and full. We spent 90 minutes writing about hope and that is no small thing for the 13 woman in our group who sometimes feel hopeless.  

As we wrapped up the circle, we asked them all to write for us, so that when we come back in two weeks, they'll have stories and poems to share.  Of course, We realized right away they will have a hard time doing that...they won't have any paper or pencils.  Normally, a writer in our circle would take a full 200 page composition book back to their cell, but if we want to come back again and this restriction has not been lifted, we would need to conserve what paper and pencil we had stored away for as long as we could.

We stared at the dwindling sheaf of paper and made a hasty decision to give each woman 2 or 3 sheets. We made her promise to write. "Use the margins if you have to," we said.   We collected the pencils as they filed out in hope that they could scrounge something to write with on the cell block.  If we let these precious few pencils go, we might not be able to have a writing circle.

Just as they were filing out, I spied a blue pencil box filled with the smallest of pencil stubs.  I opened it up and showed it to the women.  This is what hope looks like.




Hope

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

~ Lisel Mueller ~

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Situations Matter by Sam Sommers

Sam Sommers, Psychology Professor from Tufts University, has written an interesting book about context that compares to books written by journalist Malcolm Gladwell.  If you liked Blink and The Tipping Point, you would enjoy Sommers' analysis of the importance of paying attention to the situational elements of life which can deeply affect how we understand ourselves, our relationships and our community.

Sommers' readable book combines personal anecdotes from his teaching life and family, stories from popular culture, and current psychological studies to illustrate interesting concepts about day to day problems.  My favorite chapter was called "You're not the person you thought you were" and discusses how our own self-perceptions are shaped daily--perhaps hourly--by the context in which we find ourselves.  He critiques the idea of the authentic self because the self we wish to be within our family might be different that the self we want to be at work and so on.  The self is ever a work in progress, and no self-help book on earth tries to explain that to us.

He does a good chapter on gender which I also enjoyed, but found it overlapped with some reading I had done on current gender trends by Peggy Orenstein in Cinderella ate my Daughter. The chapter on race described a lot of training I had many years ago when I worked as a student affairs administrator.  Those ideas were re-treads for me, but my own unique context might be different from another reader's. I loved the chapter on finding a mate and falling in love.  I also loved the chapter on why often many people witnessing a crime or distressing event fail to act.  We really aren't bad people.  Perhaps lazy, but not malicious.  He ends with several emails and anecdotes from former students who have taken his ideas and theories and used them in the wider world.  All the information felt really useful and practical for understanding common situations.

Much of his storytelling and thinking seemed to me, fresh and original.  I read several chapters of this book aloud to my husband as we drove to various destinations on the Thanksgiving holiday.  The stories and ideas prompted thoughtful conversation with one of the most interesting people I know.  (Wanted you to know my own context for enjoying this book.)  I highly recommend Situations Matter and would love to lend this early review to anyone who is interested.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

The most useful advice I have ever received as a writer, "One, don't wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing.  Two, once you begin keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going?"   These rules saved me half a careers worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town.  I'm not faster.  I spend less time not writing.
--Roger Ebert

I fell in love with Roger Ebert the writer after reading this much talked about article in Esquire Magazine last year.   I had always simply regarded him as that movie critic for the Sun-Times and on that TV show with the skinny guy, but Esquire made me consider him as a fine writer and an interesting man. When I heard of his memoir, released this year, I put myself on the list to check it out from the library.  I had to wait a few months to get it.

Roger Ebert has had a life many of us would envy. One observation he made of his life early in the book is that none of what happened to him, happened by design, or because he had some sort of plan.  All his major life turns were accidental.  In 1967, he was suddenly told by his editor that he was the new film critic, and he began reviewing movies and made a life out of it.  He was suddenly offered the gig reviewing movies for PBS which eventually was put on commercial TV, and thus he became a household name around the country when he sat down every week with Gene Siskel. In the last reinvention of himself, his editors at the Sun-Times requested he blog. He began to write on-line and discovered the wonder of having conversations with his fans and his movie community. It was a whole side to his career he never considered. I loved the idea that his fabulous life was entirely serendipitous. 

Roger Ebert then takes us along on the journey of his life as he meets and greets famous movie makers, actors and other famous writers.  He travels in London, South Africa, Venice and New York.  At times his book is poignant: stories about his childhood dog or his father's death or the sad tale of his love life under the thumb of his judgmental mother.  I was especially interested in his friendship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, I shed a tear over that chapter.  Many chapters are great behind the scenes tales of his life among the stars and directors.  If you want to know about Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese and what they were like as directors and subjects, this is a great read.  Toward the end his chapters are philosophical as he digests the last sad chapters of his life.  He is unable to eat or talk due to his cancer and many surgeries, so his abilities to read and write become more and more important to him.  He thinks of his own death and makes sense of God and religion.  I loved the whole memoir, and think it can serve as a great primer on how to write a memoir--focusing not so much on the linear passage of time, but more on the themes of our lives as we look back on a life well spent.

The book was at its best when Ebert looked deep into this past in the early chapters as a boy in Urbana, Illinois. I did not care as much for the gossipy chapters on movie stars, and I hope to God I can write as beautifully and cogently about my life when and if illness begins to run its course as Roger Ebert can.  If you are a movie fan or a fan of the memoir, this is a great choice.  I give it a thumbs up!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Books and 9/11

Shortly after 9/11, I began to wonder when the books about the disaster and the mentions of the day would begin to appear on bookshelves and in the movies.  Ten years outside of the horrific time, I think we can safely assume there is now a 9/11 canon.

Like many, I am interested in reading about the time, wishing to get inside the minds of people who witnessed and experienced the horror first hand.  When I read memoirs that take place over the span of time covering September 11, 2001, I eagerly read about what the author was doing.  One amazing thing about that day is that virtually everyone can tie themselves to other people via those moments and days.  We all know what we were doing simultaneously.

I heard Lauren Manning interviewed on NPR on September 11, 2011. Unmeasured Strength is her personal account of the horrible flames that engulfed her body in the lobby of the world trade center on the morning of 9/11, and the great strength and determination it took her to recover after the fire burned over 80 percent of her body.

Ms Manning had an insurmountable climb to make her way back to family and normalcy. Her face, back, legs, fingers and arms had to be grafted with new skin and devices and contraptions had to be constructed to keep her skin pliable so she would be able to move normally.  She had surgery after surgery on her hands and arms.  She had months and months of rehab and physical and occupational therapy.

When I think of this story, I think of her complete positive attitude.  She had to focus on living and recovery and the hard work of healing all while ignoring the stares and disabilities in order to be able to climb out of the very deep dark place that she found herself after the attacks.  Chapter after chapter focused on her unquenchable drive to heal and resume her life before the accident.

This is a fast read, easily available at the library, and if you are interested in the stories of the victims of 9/11, a satisfying read.



Saturday, November 12, 2011

A book and a movie

Several years ago I read a fabulous travel memoir by Tim Moore, humorist and traveler. He wrote Travels with My Donkey, an account of his trek with a donkey named Shinto along the pilgrimage path from St. Jean Pied de Port in France through the Spanish Pyrenees to Santiago do Compostela near the coast of Spain.  I loved the tale and I became fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage. What do modern day pilgrims seek? Why do they walk 500 miles just to reach a church that is purported to hold the remains of one of Jesus's apostles?  It has been awhile since I read this, so the details are cloudy but I know he met fellow travelers, ruminated about the history of the pilgrimage and wrote about Spain and being companionable with a donkey for a few months.  I always wondered if it was something I could do.

Last week, I had the opportunity to see a fabulous new movie, The Way, that just came out which follows a man as he journeys on the camino to Santiago.  A fictitious story about Tom Avery (played by Martin Sheen) who travels to St Jean Pied de Port to retrieve his only child's body after he is killed on the trail in a freak accident.  Avery is filled with grief. He has an empty, lonely life and was far from understanding his now deceased son (played by Martin Sheen's real life son Emilio Estevez, who also made the movie).

In a bold move, Avery decides to pick up his son's backpack and gear and take the trek himself, in an attempt to honor his son and try to understand what he was trying to do with his life.  He takes along his son's remains and begins to scatter them along the path.  Of course Tom is sad, angry and alone, but he begins to meet other travelers, all who have their own path and their own reasons for trekking the camino.

Some might call it predictable and the movie might be a little long, but it was beautiful and gave me a chance to see what the pilgrimage might really look like. I did love watching crusty Tom Avery begin to melt away, dig through his layers of grief, and connect with his travel companions.  I love how travel thrusts unlike people together. You never choose your travel companions; they choose you. All the shots are filmed in Spain along the trail with a musical score that made me want to sing: a gorgeous and thought provoking film.

I began to wonder, would I ever have the opportunity to walk this trail?  I told my theater companion that when we retired we were going to take this walk together.  Perhaps get our kids to come and carry our packs?  Will you join me?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Soul to Soul by Deborah Masel

The writer tells us in the first few sentences that her book is a sad one: a woman's story as she accepts diagnosis and struggles with stage 4 metatastic breast cancer and wends her way through and often unkind and mixed-up health care system (Australian).  She requests that we not stop reading even though the journey is a hard one to bear, and it was this simple introduction which lured me in and kept me with it.  I felt that I had been chosen to bear witness to the depths of suffering of the human soul.

The memoir was most interesting early in the book when she is clearly ill and waiting for the doctor's diagnosis.  Her busy life barely lets her rest and it is hard for her to change gears and accept that she must stop and be sick for awhile.  Also in the early chapters of the book she goes back through her life and recounts various adventures she had as a young student and a young wife.  She recounts recent tales of being in Israel during the recent Lebanon war.  I found her method of storytelling, going back and forth and introducing us to her rich and varied life, interesting.  It kept me turning the pages.

The constant turning back to tell a story of and earlier version of herself made me hang in limbo about the Cancer story...so it unfolded painfully, but slowly.

It lost a little steam in the last half when it was simply chapter after chapter of pain and suffering.  She had some epiphanies about accepting death and her journey with the Torah (she was an avid Torah scholar and teacher) always presented divine revelation, but the reading was not as compelling.  I felt that the recent chapters were too close to her.  Like she just had that treatment last month and was just now writing about it.  A writer always needs distance between herself and her subject. But then, it was sad to realize, that Deborah might not have much time to reflect.

The story ends with a craniotomy to remove some tumors from her brain and as far as I know Deborah is still alive in Australia teaching Torah and enjoying her family and her precious life.

I would recommend this to anyone who is struggling with life or death issues or who wants to read about the ups and downs of the medical establishment.

Please ask me if you would like to borrow my copy. This was an early review.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mockingjay

It did not take me long to finish the third book in the trilogy.  Yes, I will say everything that every other reviewer and blogger has stated:  mesmerizing, riveting, horrifying, perfect ending, couldn't put it down and can't wait for that movie.  If you have made it this far--reading the first two--I don't know how you can not finish and not want to know what happens to Katniss and Peeta and Gale and Haymitch and Prim and the Capitol with their beloved Hunger Games.  I read this waiting in line, on breaks at work, and just about everywhere I could squeeze in a paragraph or two.

What is it about exceptional storytelling that leaves a reader so engrossed in a tale that she cannot forget it?  All I want to do is thinking about these characters and this story and all the themes and symbols and implications.  Moreover, I want to write a story as compelling and engrossing as this one.  How did Suzanne Collins do it?  When I read something like this I am humbled: always wanting more, wondering how to become this kind of supreme storyteller.

After a day or two it will fade.  Other stories and life itself will take over.  The tale will recede a bit, and eventually I will pick up other books to try and recreate this feeling.  I guess this is why I read and why I write, to create this feeling of ecstasy over finding other people, other worlds, other ideas.  I read to become absorbed in something other than myself, to learn about the world, to broaden my scope of understanding.

I really have to remind myself that I often stumble across inspiration and fabulous storytelling in the most unlikely of places.  Several good friends and avid readers had recommended these stories to me, and I waved them all off. The topic sounded too grisly:  children put in an arena to kill each other off!  Not my cup of tea. That is what has made this reading experience doubly good.  I did not expect to be so captivated by this tale.

Thanks Suzanne Collins.  Looking forward to your next adventure.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Catching Fire (and a confession)

If you caught my post of a few weeks ago you know that I am starting to read The Hunger Games trilogy with my son.  We read it almost every night, chapter by chapter, and it really got so exciting that I was losing sleep.  For my own sanity, I snuck off one morning (I can only read this in the morning.) and finished it.  Of course like any captivating story, I find that I can't stop thinking about it and this drove me to pick up the second book and begin to read it right away.

Now here comes the confession:  Rather than go to the bookstore or order it on-line, I picked up my husbands I-pad where he has already downloaded all three books and read, yes, I  did it, I read Catching Fire almost entirely as an e-book.

Whew!  That was a difficult confession.  When I was done, I felt slimy, like I needed to take a hot shower and get the shame of e-book reading off me.  Reader's know that I loathe e-books and have vowed never to get an e-book reader.  A few months ago the Nook seller at Barnes and Nobles approached me to take a look at his little device, and I bit his head off.  (I think he was a little surprised at my ferocity over the device.)

Anyway,  now no one can see from my shelf that I have read this book, I can't loan it to you, and when I am reminiscing about favorite books, I'll need to stare at a tiny icon on a screen.  The actual reading experience, however, was probably not any different from holding a book.

When I was three chapters from the end, my husband took his i-pad and went to work.  I had the day off, so I went to Barnes and Nobles, planted myself in a comfy chair and read and sobbed my way through the last three chapters in the intimacy of the bookstore.  Afterwards, I bought Mockingjay, the third book and happily began reading the real book version of that.

So if you began reading The Hunger Games after my last post, I think you will enjoy this sequel.  It is storytelling at its finest including a gut wrenching love story.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Tea Reader: Living Life One Cup at a Time

Enjoying this sampler of writings about tea, given to me by dear friend and fellow blogger Steph who, along with Sweetcakes,  introduced me to the beauty and mystery of the age old custom of a cup of tea.

The editor, Katrina Avila Munichiello, has compiled an incredible array of contemporary essays on tea and tea culture as well as pulling poems and stories from historical writings.

Its a perfect rainy day read, perfect with my own cup of tea, and made all the more special as my good friend has a piece included in the collection.

A great gift for lovers of tea everywhere.  Pick it up at your favorite tea shop or of course, on Amazon.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blowing my Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy by Lindsay Moran

My reading life has me all over the place: a magazine article, chapters of the Hunger Games, a false start or two on some new books, reading manuscripts for writer friends.  This is all to explain why so many days have come and gone between my last post and this.

I picked up this funny and fascinating memoir at the Red Cross Book Fair two weeks ago.  I have always enjoyed non-fiction chronicling what people do for a living and there's always been a lot of question in my mind about the CIA and what it means to be a spy for the USA.

My husband asked me right away, how on earth can someone write about how and why spies do what they do, isn't it all a big secret?   She never explains what sort of censors needed to read her book and approve of it, but my gut instinct tells me that why and how spies do what they do isn't really secret.  In fact, many of the things she does, we have seen in the movies a million times over.  What is secret, is who is doing those things.  I feel fairly certain that she did not blow anyone's cover but her own, and now she is decidedly on the outside, it doesn't matter.

Lindsay Moran is a likable person who questions her motives and the CIA motives from the very first day. She presents an honest and often hilarious look at what she does.  The places and the work while fascinating also lends itself to soul crushing loneliness.  You really can't have too many friends when you can't tell people what you do for a living.

Roughly one half (probably more) of the memoir chronicles her process for getting in and the extensive training she is sent through in order to prepare her for what lay ahead in the field.  Spending about 10 years of my own career in Residential Housing at a University, I remember how much we relied on role playing games to teach Resident Assistants how to do their jobs. Guess what?  The CIA relies on the same sort of training techniques.  Learning of all the extensive role playing games (including fake kidnappings, hostage takings and embassy cocktail parties) that go into training a spy was half the fun.  No kidding.

You can probably pick this book up on Amazon or at your local library.  Let me know if you would like to borrow mine.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Hunger Games

Now that Grayson and I have finally packed away Harry Potter, we searched for a new reading adventure that we could read together.  It was hard to pick a Young Adult Book that would appeal to mother and son as much as HP did.  Many, many friends have encouraged me to pick up the Hunger Games by Susanne Collins.  So starting this past Monday night, the kid and I are getting to know Katniss Everdeen.

After three nights, all I can say is it will be hard to read this one chapter at a time (perhaps I'll have to borrow it and sneak ahead)  and it is keeping me up.  Did you all know there's a movie coming out in 2012?  Imagine that a strong female protagonist!  Thanks Suzanne.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

"I don't know many happy people.  What are they like?"  ~Meg Tilly as Chloe in The Big Chill

There is an interesting branch of social psychology that studies happiness and what makes people happy.  Is it true that money can't by happiness?  Children make us happy? Marriage makes us happy?  Religion?  I have been to several presentations on the origins and truth about what makes people happy.  I find them infinitely fascinating as the topic of who is happy and why they are happy seems to come up frequently in my life.  I am reminded that even our own Declaration of Independence bases itself squarely on the side of the pursuit of happiness. 

This new book, The Happiness Equation: The Surprising Economics of our Most Valuable Asset by Nick Powdthavee, studies happiness now from an economic standpoint.  The author is an economist by training and attempts to translate economic studies on happiness from economics journals to studies and stories that the rest of us can use and follow.  Most of it asks and answers interesting economic questions about the pursuit of happiness. 

In general, much of it reads like an economics primer and would be interesting if you followed economics news and had a head for the vagaries of the study of the economy.  I was a C student in economics, and it often made my head swim, so I was perhaps not the best early reviewer for this book.  Parts that piqued my interest most of all were the discussions on the happiness factor of parenthood (really none of us is very happy) and the fact that perhaps we have an overblown sense of the right to be happy.  Some people prefer to pursue a more interesting life rather than a pleasurable one.  The books asks, who makes us think that we have to be happy? 

I was also pleasantly interested in the discussion about the ability of a government to coerce their people into doing things that will make them happy through the right kind of policies and legislation and marketing.  Have you ever heard of libertarian paternalism?--now there's an oxymoron.  And of course no book on the study of happiness would be complete without a look at the famous country of Bhutan whose monarch actually put into place the idea of GDH-Gross Domestic Happiness.  Who cares about the product when what you really want is to make the people happy.  Really?

I close this post with the fond memory of one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons.  Charlie Brown and Linus are discussing the meaning of life.  Linus says, I think we were put on this earth to make others happy.  To which Charlie Brown turns to the skies, raises his fist and yells, "Someone is not doing their job!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Girl Interrupted: The book vs the movie

Had some fun this week reading the 1993 classic Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.  Ms. Kaysen wrote a really thought provoking series of non-fiction pieces about her life in a mental institution over about 18 months in the late 60's.  The essays are roughly chronological and in between chapters she shows artifacts from her patient file:  doctors notes, official admitting papers and discharge papers.  I liked that it was a very nuanced look about a teenagers life in a mental hospital: was she crazy or was she just a typical teenager?  Sometimes I felt genuine madness was afoot and sometimes she seemed to be the only sane one on the ward.  I liked that she played with my perceptions and that life in the hospital was neither all good or all bad.
This book came out early in the memoir writing craze and is probably one of the better ones to take a look at mental health.  

Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen in the 1999 movie of the same name.  Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Lisa, Susanna's crazy best friend in the asylum.  What is most interesting about the book to movie is how much the producers had to add to Kaysen's fairly simple story in order to make it an interesting movie. 

While Kaysen simply mentions the existence of underground tunnels in her memoir, in the movie they become part of illicit rituals in which the women on the ward participate in order to gain a little control over their lives.   A woman who leaves the ward and goes to live on her own commits suicide.  It is a sad mark in the book; in the movie it becomes a major plot point. And the most fantastic part is the homoerotic/lesbian overtones between Susanna and Lisa. This was so far from the book it was almost laughable, but it really works in the movie and in some ways makes a lot of sense.

The movie managed to portray the character's ambivalence about her situation fairly well. I loved seeing how the script writers wove together the author's voice and minor plot points to make an interesting narrative arc.  It had a great cast including Elizabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) and Whoopi Goldberg.  I suddenly feel like I am stepping out of my comfort zone reviewing a movie here--but I did enjoy reading the book and seeing the movie together. It is easily a weekend project with time out for soup and a walk in the woods.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dick Cheney Saves Paris: A personal and political madcap sci-fi meta-anti-novel by Ryan Forsythe

For those of you who expected yet another memoir review of a sad lonely twenty something girl struggling with depression/eating disorders/drugs, look again.  I got to read and enjoy a science fiction novel this week.

Full disclosure:  An old friend wrote that he was publishing his first full length novel and did anyone with a blog want to read and review it?  I do, I do!  (To my long time readers, all 6 of you, you know I am kind of a book whore.)

So I really didn't know if I could expand my very limited idea of what a good novel is and enjoy something billed as a sci-fi meta novel.  I am a pretty literal reader and don't like a lot of extraneous distractions from the plot, but I'm game,  and in the name of supporting new writers and old friends, I put it on my stack.

First, let me say that this is a very funny book.  If you are up on your current events (especially politics since the Nixon administration) you will probably laugh a lot. Many of the jokes pertain to the antics of Dick Cheney (time traveler and our hero), Donald Rumsfeld (an alien), Joe Lieberman (a robot), Ralph Nadar (time traveling spoil-sport) and of course, Al Gore (who?).

Dick Cheney travels back in time and while there decides to please his old man from the 27th century and make sure Al Gore never gets elected.  Several nefarious agents and time travelers are in on the scheme for various reasons and they all come together on one madcap night in November of 2000 (remember that night?) so that good prevails over evil and time can be re-written so that Al Gore does not become president which will lead to the ultimate evil...which I cannot reveal, or it would spoil it for you, dear reader, and that is part of the fun.

I also loved the varying discussions about the ins and outs of time travel (fueled by yogurt) and the future history regarding the regulation of time travel and some of the problems that arise in the future because we are so able to change history.  It makes just enough sense to be fun and thought provoking.

The meta novel part appealed to me as well.  Ryan Forsythe, the author, chronicled what I assume is a semi-autobiographical tale of how he came to write and publish this time traveling caper novel on the same day that the real Dick Cheney published his memoirs.  I really hope that John Stewart gets a hold of this because Ryan Forsythe would be an excellent guest on the Daily Show.  There would be much hilarity.

So friends, you can find this lovely little time traveling sci-fi adventure novel on amazon or you can borrow it  from me.  Please support a young aspiring novelist, and I might be able to get you his autograph.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy

My mother recommended this one.  She said it was written in an unusual way.  Different.  Not exactly a thriller but just different.  Well, I am always looking for something different, so...it was an odd read, mostly plot driven about a man named Harry Ricks who runs away to Paris to escape a sex scandal he gets tangled up with in the US.  The plot seemed driven only by dialogue.  Every scene was plodding dialogue.  It moved things a long but it felt painful and contrived.

Then, I got into it.  It was a thriller and a kind of a crime novel and I was clipping along wondering how our fearless hero would get out of this jam and reunite with his daughter when wham, the author pulled the rug right out from under me.  (spoiler!) I did not expect the twist into the supernatural at all.  I really hated it after that.  I kept thinking, how can he pull this off?  I kept waiting for it to be a joke or explained, but no.  It was just a weird kind of hell in which the main character found himself.

Anyway, like a thriller that's not really a thriller?  Try this book.  Or just wait for the movie which I understand is due out this fall.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

I have said that I love science books written for people who don't understand science.  It takes a very special academic to pause from the rigors of real scientific research and publishing, to write books meant to bring the rest of us in on the secret.  Again and again, I find these writers to be fascinating and oftentimes poetic.

Richard Wiseman attracted my attention with some video on youtube.  It led me to his books 59 Seconds (self-help in a minute or less) and Good Luck (the science of luck).  He also publishes a quirky little blog where he introduces readers to interesting illusions, puzzles and the latest in the world of psychology research.  Sometimes he invites readers to take part in psychological studies.

He recently published Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There and asked American readers of his blog especially to order it.  It seemed that no American publisher would pick it up since too many Americans believe in the paranormal phenomena that he discusses.  American publishers would not distribute because they thought no one would buy it.

Wiseman uses psychology to explain and understand about every paranormal phenomenon that you can think of:  ghosts, mind-reading, dream prognosticating, seances, table tipping and all kinds of other spooky stuff. He writes using short chapters, stories about mediums, psychics, and hauntings from history, and gives great lessons in how to have your own psychic readings or out of body experiences.  There is a great appendix to the book called The Superhero Kit where he gives you all kinds of tricks for impressing people at parties. Think spoon bending and predicting the card you picked will turn up.  Amazing.

You can get this book now off Amazon.




Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Following Josh by David Norman

As a twenty something traveler I always dreamed of doing what Dave Norman and his friend Josh do:  travel the world via the Trans-Siberian railroad.  Dave flies to Seoul, Korea where he meets up with Josh and together they form a roving fraternity duo heading their way through China, Mongolia, Russia and Eastern Europe to the tune of booze and bad moods.

I have read a lot of very good travel memoirs.  Most of them are extremely well written and full of witty observations and self-deprecating humor.  I love a wry take on the theme of a stranger in a strange land.   Dave Norman does not seem to understand the genre, rather he seems to have published his travel journal and included every whimsical thought and internal monologue that he had while trekking across the North Hemisphere.  Each page was full of half thoughts and slang terms and fevered experiences and elipses.  This book could have used a good editor. From the absense of any acknowledgements in the final pages (which I always love to read) I have to believe he forgot to run this by anyone.

This is why, strange to say, that in the parting pages of this book, when Dave Norman promises his next book will be about part two of this grand tour with another friend named Jake, I actually felt a little interested in it.  Was it true that I stuck with the writer long enough, through enough eye rolling, angst ridden travel that I actually want to see how this turns out?  Perhaps.

Also,  once I waded between the awkward prose, I did enjoy seeing parts of the world to which sadly, I will probably not venture.  My rugged, youth hostel, strange meat eating days are long past me. So Dave Norman, if you read this, I am one of those Saints who would sit with you at dinner and hear your whole travel story from first to last and ask you about all the crazy adventures you had and admonish you for having a perpetual bad mood all the way around the world.

This was an early review book and if anyone wants to journey on the Transiberian railroad please let me know and I will send it along.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Loud in the House of Myself by Stacy Pershall

You may know Stacy Pershall from her prior work, as she was an early internet sensation when she became one of those web cam girls who lived her daily life on-line.  She has written an interesting twist on the young woman/mental illness memoir in which the author recounts her years of struggling with both bi-polar disorder and undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. At the beginning of each chapter she recounts a story of how she got one of her multiple tattoos and what it means to her.  She reveals early on in her life chronicle that tattooing, getting to choose her own skin, seemed to be one of the only ways she could reclaim her sanity.  If you have ever stared at a woman who is covered with body tattoos and wondered how she could do that to her body, I think this might help shed some light on that phenomenon.

Stacy Pershall recounts her young life and her growth into a mature woman amidst the backdrop of self loathing so profound that it leads her to starve herself, treat the people who love her most very cruelly and eventually try to kill herself in a very public and humiliating way.  Her mental illness does finally lead her to work with psychiatrists and mental health professionals to get the drugs and behavior therapy that she most needs.  She writes about the life long and on-going struggle that she enters into daily.

I found Stacy's writing very tight and original.  I had sympathy for the character, and I enjoyed watching her struggle and gain footing as she escaped from her small town. I really cheered for her as she began to find her way at the end.  I like Stacy and found this to be a compelling personal narrative.

There is a thesis in here about how each of her mental illnesses is treated and one of them may be wrongly categorized, and one is also difficult to diagnose in the presence of the other.  The medical terminology lost me, but I have no doubt that others who find themselves dealing with these psychiatric problems will find her comparison and comments interesting.

The title drew me into the book originally.  If you enjoy memoir this is a fast and worthwhile read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better Late than Never

Has this happened to you?  You see a book that looks interesting at the bookstore, read the covers, and put it down because you think, not quite what I am looking for.  You see that book many times over the years, right at the top of the pile: you note positive reviews, it's place on the best seller lists and its general omnipresence everywhere, but still you decide not to pick it up.  You finally buy a copy at a used book sale for 50 cents, thinking, maybe someday I will read it, and after it gathers dust for a few more years, you recognize the author is coming to your town to speak and think, maybe now is the time.  Once finished, you crack yourself on the head and think, why did I wait so long, that was amazing!!!

I just finished James McBride's memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother.  It is the perfect example of why memoir can be better and more interesting than fiction.  A white Jewish woman marries a black man and moves to Harlem where she has 8 kids and then when that man dies, marries a second black man and has 4 more kids.   Her son James, always full of questions about his mother and her past which she refused to answer, tells the tale of his own upbringing and his feelings of love and shame for his unusual mother, a white woman in an African-American world.  He tells his mother's story of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household in the south, her leaving her home for New York, and her conversion to Christianity which went hand in hand with her marriage to a black minister.  This was more than 25 years before Loving v Virginia made anti-micegenation laws illegal.

McBride told his own story of being number 8 in the 12 child family and intersperses his story and memories with his mother's story and memories: both well written and compelling.  It seems that it does not matter what is the color of your skin, all you really need is love as Ruth McBride Jordan demonstrated over and over again.

My edition of the book was the 10th anniversary edition, which I recommend:  an epilogue to the epilogue. All 12 of Mrs. McBride's children went to college and most to grad school. She raised 12 successful children on the motto all you need to education and God. Money doesn't mean anything.

 Now that I have read this beautiful memoir, I am ready to meet James McBride.  If you live here in town I hope you will join me.  Perhaps it is true that when we are ready to read a book it appears before us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Around the House and in the Garden by Dominque Browning

I was racing out of the house for a weekend trip this summer and could not find my regular book.  I glanced at one of the many stacks under my bed and grabbed the first thing I saw that looked interesting.  The funny thing is I do not know where I got this book originally.  I have no memory of buying it or borrowing it or finding it.  So there it was--the fairy book.

Ms Browning is the editor of House and Garden magazine and at the publishing of this book (2002) was the divorced mother of teenage sons.  The book was essentially a rough chronological collection of the essays and columns she wrote for her magazine.  Each chapter read like an 800 word column.  The chapters were short and pointed and sweet, and it really was the perfect summer read when my attention was busy slogging off into sun drenched beaches and amusement parks.

The general theme of almost every chapter was the healing she needed to go through as she was experiencing her first years as a divorced mother of two boys.  Each chapter focused on some part of her house or garden that she needed to fix up or she let sit in disrepair.  She wrote of her fireplace and her dining room and the need to curl up and wallow in her bed.  She wrote of the love and care she put into her garden and into the raising of her boys and the sadness of having to part with them for half the week as they traveled to their father's house.

It was a book about grief and lonliness, and I found its lessons sweet and comforting.  I liked it because I felt like it was something that I could write and that I could relate to.  Although it hasn't rained a bit around here for days, it is the perfect rainy day read.  It is gloomy, but there's plenty of hope, insight, and creativity to fill you up.

Since this was published in 2002 it might be a bit hard to find in bookstores. Try your library.  I would be glad to lend this one if anyone wants it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do Nothing But Read Day

I am reading all kinds of books but I have a summer attention span and can't get through any of them.  A chapter here a page there.  It feels all very profound, I assure you, but I don't usually post unless I finish a book.  I hope to have a book or two in August.

In the meantime, I cam across this interesting activity in which some of you might want to participate:  Do Nothing but Read Day.

This year's DNBRD is August 6th and in these dog days of summer it seems a great activity in which to indulge oneself.  In fact, I think we could declare one of these every month or so.  Let the laundry pile up, bills go unpaid and spend a day with a favorite book or two.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Falling for Me by Anna David

I have written before about what I term the stunt memoir.   The author, usually an already well established writer, comes up with some sort of stunt to try for a year, and then writes about it.  I have read memoirs about giving up electricity, not buying things, not buying things from China, and making amends with all the people you have alienated.  All these stunts generally take one year.  After reading so many of them they start to feel really contrived.  All you need is an agent to pitch it to, a publisher, and a great book advance and voila, paperback memoir and a big book tour.  None of them has given me terribly great insights.

Enter a variation on the theme: established contemporary writer reads a long forgotten tome by some famous person and lives a life in response that work and writes about it. The best example of this is Julie and Julia about the woman who blogs her way to fame by cooking all of the dishes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, also made into a movie starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep.

Falling for Me falls under this catagory as Anna David comes across a copy of Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown written in 1962.  Ms. Brown is an early feminist who talks about having a career and attracting men. She posits the idea that you don't have to be dowdy to be powerful.  It is okay to be sexy and wear make-up and be a modern woman.

Anna David is thiry something and sadly single and decides she will follow Gurley Brown's advice for-- guess what?--one year and see where that takes her.  Perhaps a bit of the 1960's Cosmo editor's advice is all she needs to perk up her languishing love life.  Ms David takes up new hobbies, redecorates her apartment, makes herself very available to dating all kinds of men through on-line sites, speed dating, volunteering and going to the beach.  She redoes her wardrobe and her voice and in the last chapter spends a lovely summer in Spain.

She does fall in love, but in the end she falls in love with herself, and the last chapter is really the best written and most interesting as she details how she really has become a whole person because of her ability to re-do herself.  The rest of the work feels a little tired and worn out, and she somes across as really pretty shallow.  Most of the men she meets never pass her sexy meter or looks meter, so even though she vows to give more men a try, it really felt pretty low brow.  The cover you see here on my blog is different from the one on my advanced copy.  This cover actually makes it seem a lot more fun than it really was.  Though I love the ending and the realization that one can love oneself, I also think that in many ways it felt like one 300 page singles ad.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter Mania!!

It is only right that today, on the opening day of the last film of the Harry Potter series that I dedicate my post to the boy who lived.

My son and I have been counting down the days until this last movie.  We watch the trailers over and over again.  We try to get ahold of sneak peaks and watch those, and we have re-watched many of the first 7 films.  Of course we are also attempting to re-read the Deathly Hallows, and are not going to finish by opening night.

It took me a long time to get to reading the series.  I dismissed it as kids stuff and decided to wait to read it until my kid asked me to.  He never did ask me.  I ended up reading them in reverse order and then reading the final one:  1, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 7.  Then I begged him to let me read them to him.

Once I read them they stuck with me like no other.  I re read the final battle scenes several times, tears streaming down my cheeks. Like many writers, I wish I could have thought of this. Not necessarily for the eternal fame and glory, but because it was so fun and interesting and made perfect perfect sense.  All the pieces fell into place.  I loved the words and terms and ideas she created:  quidditch and muggles and squibs and Hogwarts. All named perfectly and creating this amazing world of whimsy and magic.  I have wished so much I could go there and visit.  This is the work of the writer.  To create a world that others want to visit, characters we want to meet, or in this case things we want to do, like ride a broomstick or cast a spell to protect us from evil or how about that amazing handbag of Hermione's?

So I bought my tickets a week ago, hired a babysitter for the little one, and have already made a plan to be there for this first night of the last show.  We will watch in 3-D, but I would enjoy it either way. It is not the effects for me, it is the hero's story that captivates me, I could hear it told over and over again.

The wee ones casting spells on each other
I told my son yesterday that after this comes out on DVD, and we watch it at home once or twice we need to put all of them on ice for a few years.  Once the little one has reached a certain age, I need to read them to her and start introducing them to her.  It would be nice to have them be brand new and magic to both of us.

Now there is nothing left to do but enjoy the show!

Wingardium Leviosa

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah WIles

I spent the better part of my childhood curled up in a corner with a good book.  Reading and books have always brought me a sense of comfort and security.  My church and chapel are bookstores and libraries.  When my husband and I went on one of our first dates, we spent it at a bookstore in the children's section reminiscing about favorite young adult books that we read and loved.

Since I have been reading to my son, I have picked up quite a bit of children's literature, but it is fairly indicative of my son's tastes in books:  creepy tales, dragons and boy books about poop and farts.  But I do note that there are lots of young adult and children's books out there that would have appealed to me when I was his age.

Alice Ozma brought me back to all that.  In her memoir, she mentioned this book about a girl who grows up in a funeral parlor.  I have always loved cemeteries and funeral parlors and obituaries, and I also hunger for more children's books with female protagonists, so I thought I would stray from my usual adult memoir reading list and see how I liked this book.

Deborah Wiles won a National Book Award finalist designation for this story of Comfort Snowberger, a young girl growing up surrounded by death and dying and grappling with death in her own family as she is loosing her best friend.  There is an exciting climax and a bittersweet ending and a host of interesting characters who come together in Comfort's world in and around the funeral home.  The author includes witty obituaries that Comfort writes for the local paper (her writing tendencies reminded me a lot of my very favorite female protagonist, Harriet the Spy), and notes she writes back and forth with her best friend, and also a great hand drawn map of the world that Comfort occupies.  Deborah also has a knack for colorful character names and places.  Comfort's siblings were Tidings and Merry and her dog was Dismay.

I loved this story and I loved Comfort and am putting it on my read aloud queue after I finish my current book with my son.  It is a good good story, even if you don't have a child to read it to.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

My mother-in-law introduced this book to me, and I must confess I hesitated a bit before starting.  (Two renewals from the public library!)  She showed it to me because I still read to my son who is 13 years old.  While my son and I don't have "The Streak" which the author and her father have, we do a pretty good job of settling down together every weeknight before bed.

I hesitated in beginning to read this because it did not seem there could be that much to say about two people reading together for over 3,000 nights.  It seemed a very thin premise with which to hang a full length memoir.  Really? I thought, what more can you say other than, "I have a great dad and he and I are committed to reading together every night until I go away to college. We have read hundreds of books together."

After seriously doubting what a young twenty-something girl could say about nightly reading with her father, I have to conclude it was a pretty interesting set of stories.  A coming of age look at a girl/young woman who was smart and pretty normal.  She wasn't on drugs or anorexic or a raging lunatic.  She was a just a precocious girl who made it through her parents divorce and a life of relatively little money by reading.  Yes,  almost every chapter was at least tangentially related to sitting down and reading with her father: a funeral for a pet, a car accident, reading on prom night, reading the day her mother moved out, how reading interferes with puberty, the last time the pair read before leaving for college, and the sad fate of a public school librarian among many other witty and sometimes sad stories.

Alice Ozma writes from the point of view of each age she is at, slowly maturing through the 9 years spanning the book.  At first it feels a little precious, syrupy, but as she grows and begins to tell of the darker side of her family life it becomes a richer and more interesting story.  Alice is a young writer.  She has just graduated from College and her stories did feel young in places.  I wonder if this memoir would change if she wrote it at age 50?  It will be interesting to see her grow and mature as a writer over the years.

I thank my MIL for pointing this book out for me and I look forward to more reader recommends.  If you have a young person in your house try making them a reading promise. Though I don't don't think most people will need it spelled out for them, Alice Ozma includes contracts for parents to sign to agree to read with their kids.  She also includes a bibliography of the books she and her dad read together.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Read-Aloud

My theme for the month of July is reading aloud: to your kids, husband, friends, parents, anyone who will listen.  When I was pregnant with my son, some friends of ours (librarians) threw us a baby shower in which the gifts were all children's books.  It was a fun shower and we received some great books: both classics and new books.

One book stood out for me.  The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease was a book for adults, and for all of its 200 some pages, the author extolled the virtues of reading aloud to your children from birth to forever. His message loud and clear was read, read, read to your kids even when they are shaving and rolling their eyes at you.

I found the book fascinating and read it from cover to cover.  Of course, he was preaching to the choir.  My mother read to me, and I in turn knew I would read to my children, but there was something about this book that gave me vast interest in reading and listening as important skills to pass on to children and adults.

My son is now 13, and we still read together almost every night.  I think that our reading time is more of an excuse for him to cuddle with his mom as he approaches the age when it is not cool to do that, but I still enjoying reading stories of dragons and wizards and creepy things to my son.

Of course, now I am also reading picture books to my daughter. She is already showing signs of the independence that I had.  She'll pull a book away from me and say, "I read".  As soon as I learned how to read in the first grade, reading time was all my own.  My mother no longer read to me.  I don't recall being sad about it.  I was impatient and found I could read faster than I could listen.  Mom and I parted reading ways.

How about you?  Did you read to your kids?  Get read to by your parents?  Next week I will have a review of a book about a father who read to his daughter until she went to college.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz

A few years ago I did an early review on a memoir very similar to this one.  Do-over was the author's take on 10 separate incidents in his life that he did poorly, and in the memoir he did his best to recreate the scene and do it all over.  I found the narrative to be entertaining because it was a childhood memoir combined with a stunt memoir.  It worked on both levels for me.

Unfinished Business follows a year in the life of Lee Kravitz, a work-a-holic editor who finds himself without a job.   While he is trying to get his life together, he makes a list of 10 things that he should have done that he never did and sets about to right a bunch of (mostly social) wrongs from his past.

The book started off with a bang.  The voice held my interest, the story seemed enough different from Do over, and I began reading quickly.   Now that I am finally finished after two weeks, my honest reaction is that it was a very good effort, but it felt like it would have better filled 10 short essays for Sojourners magazine rather than one long memoir.  Mr. Kravitz would introduce the piece of unfinished business, describe how he finished it, and then was philosophically about it for 20 pages.  In a nutshell, taking care of all his unfinished business:  writing a condolence card, eulogizing his grandmother, paying an old debt, finding a long lost friend, changed him for the better.

The two chapters I found most interesting were the first, where he sets out to find a favorite and long lost aunt who has been locked away in an institution for many years and the second to last where he uses his reporters research skills to corroborate a family story that involved Eliot Ness and bootleggers in his hometown of Cleveland.

This paperback version of the book comes complete with your own guide to unfinished business.  How do you right some of the wrongs that you committed when you were young? Seems cheaper than therapy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A major Award!

I am pleased to announce that I have won a MAJOR AWARD!  I came in third place in a local short story contest. It will be 6 months before my story appears in print, so I will wait till it comes out to post here and share the story and the publication.

Needless to say, I am very excited.  I won a small gift certificate to a local restaurant.  I plan to take out the lovely ladies who helped me workshop the story over several weeks.  I couldn't have done it without them.

Also, a big shout out to Women Writing for (a) Change-Bloomington which also creates the venue for me to tell stories and revel in a marvelous community of women writers.

I must tell you that I enjoy summer so much it is hard to get to the reading I want to do.  These posts may slow down a bit over the summer months.

Peace and hope you are enjoying some good reads!  Post and let me know what they are.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Finding things

A few weeks ago I wrote about my newfound love of FOUND magazine which chronicles the flotsam and jetsam people find on the streets and in library books of life.  Davy Rothbart, who has made a cottage industry out of finding things and writing about them, edited a book of short stories by writers and celebrities about things they have found.

Requiem for a Paper Bag is an eclectic assortment of short tales (some are true some are fiction) all about the things people find that have created stories and stuck with them over the years.  The book itself is a tribute to storytelling of the most basic and most beautiful form: clever observations about finding a lucky rock or returning someone's wallet or reading an old store clerk's diary after she dies, or finding a photo of a stranger in an unusual place.  These are the stories that surround us at the dinner table or cocktail parties.  This is the bread and butter of our lives.

A few of the entries were ruminations on found objects that tried to tell the fictional tale of why the note was written or why the photo appeared where it did.  These stories were also fun and clever twists on the theme.

As a writer and storyteller I am captivated by how we tell stories and how we find the stories we tell to begin with.  This volume gives me more thoughts about good storytelling and how we find those stories and peer into them.  I hope my writing friends out there will use this idea as a prompt...what have you found and how has it stayed with you over the years?  Did it change your life?  Or what story can you create behind the found object?

I am certainly going to begin watching for things and noticing more finds.  What have you found?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Rachel Simon previously wrote a work of non-fiction called, Riding the Bus with my Sister.  This story catalogs one year of Rachel spending time with her developmentally disabled sister Beth as she rides the city bus every day.  Now Ms Simon captures the life of a developmentally disabled girl in a fictional institution that houses the "feebleminded".

The Story of Beautiful Girl was well written and engrossing.  The stories haunted me.  Partly, it is the history of the evolving views and treatment of the disabled in our community, but it is also a love story and a heart pounding quest and adventure tale.

Beautiful girl and her companion show up on the doorstep of  the farm of an old widow one rainy day.  They have with them a newborn baby.  The widow gives them clothes and comfort, and before she can know their story the police arrive to arrest them and take them back to the institution from which they escaped.  As beautiful girl is stuffed into the  car to go back to her terrible life, and the companion escapes out the widow's window, Beautiful Girl whispers to the widow,  "hide her."  The widow understands she is to hide the newborn baby.

And so the story progresses: each of the four characters is living a horrible life, waiting to get back to the others.  Will Beautiful girl and her companion ever see each other again?  Ever meet their daughter? and what does the old widow do with her new responsibility?

It is a tad schmaltzy, especially toward the end, but it is a fascinating look at how the disabled are perceived in our society and how they also might perceive the world.  It can be terribly sad throughout the book but also has a lovely, sweet ending.  It is a fast, easy read especially if you like a thick coat of sugar.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Someone recommended this book on Facebook, and I went immediately to the library website to request it:  whoa, long waitlist, it must be good.  So after waiting a few months, I finally got my hands on this book, and it took me awhile to get through it.  While the characters were compelling and the situation interesting, the plot kind of dragged out and the whole thing felt sort of contrived in places.  In other words, I am not sure it lives up to its hype.

The story is rooted in Shakespeare (which my husband figured out from the title.  Brush up your Shakespeare for this read.)  and tells the story of three sisters and their lives after they return home to care for their ailing mother.  Sister Rose (Rosalind) is the responsible, motherly, accomplished never left home sister.  Sister Bianca has fled from their home and developed a nasty NY lifestyle of lies, stealing, and cheap one night stands. Cordelia just runs and keeps the life of a vagabond, not really caring much about anyone or anything.  One summer they all return home and begin to solve all of thier problems and heal their mother.

The one interesting twist on this novel was that it was told from a first person plural point of view.  All the sisters are apparently telling this story from the point of view as a single sisterly unit.  It was most unusual, and I have never read anything like this before.  It is probably the single facter that kept me reading until it finally turned into a page turner for me.

As a general rule if a book does not compel me to keep reading within the first 10-20 pages of the book, I don't usually continue.  The fact that I kept plowing through this, really says a lot for the hope I had that it would get better.

You will enjoy this if you know your Shakespeare and like a nice tidy ending for your fiction.  Also,  if you enjoy unique perspectives, this one is worthy of taking a look at.  We might be able to learn a thing or two about writing.  Maybe this was why there was such a long waitlist for it.

For those of you waiting,  I am returning it today.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Winged Obsession

Parts of this journalistic account of  a Fish and Game undercover agent's exploits in the the world of insect smuggling are interesting but many parts are just down right dull.

Yoshi Kojima is an eccentric man who makes his living (and a pretty substantial one at that) dealing in endangered butterflies and insects.  Agent Ed Newcomer is out to bring him down.  Understanding the butterfly and insect trading world and the life of an undercover agent in the most unappreciated division  of law enforcement held my attention.  I think anyone would enjoy the general set up to the problems and the day to day life of the agent and also the nefarious world of illegal bug trading.

Once the writer got to the daily and weekly machinations of the sting (which was easily half of the 300 page book) I lost complete interest.  I had very hard time focusing on which butterflies were which, who told which lies, when agent Newcomer was supposed to call and Skype his prey and all the petty comings and goings of the the agent and the butterfly dealer.

The author, Jessica Speart, wrote this book without mention of herself at all.  It was totally third person with no over arching voice of the narrator, how she got all her information and how she could tell the story so thoroughly from a third person perspective.  The last chapter ended that voice and introduced us to a first person view of the author and how she went to get an interview with Kojima after he was released from prison and sent home to Japan.  I found this an odd chapter and while in some ways it was the most interesting, it was also the most misleading.

The author is worried the Kojima will not talk to her, so she lies to him about being interested in his shop and she basically goes undercover and asks him all kinds of questions about the agent and about the illegal butterfly trade.  Huh?  Undercover journalist as well?

So while this was not my favorite Early Review book,  and I personally did not enjoy it, someone may like the stories of butterfly smuggling and undercover work.  Please let me know if you would like to borrow it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Finding Things

Did you ever find a note or a scrap of paper on the street or in a library book that made you go hmmm?  Over the years, whenever I would find something like this, I would pick it up and read it but almost always not know what to do with it.  Found objects like this were clearly portals into other people's stories, but it was hard to know where to put them or what meaning to make out of small snips of life.

I was overjoyed to find that someone else (many other people really) have the same fascination I do with found objects.  They have started a zine and a website called Found Magazine.  Found Magazine is free of advertising and is easy to find in Independent bookstores or art shops.  There are many editions featuring found notebooks, lists, recipes, photos, love notes, school reports, children's drawings, teacher evaluations, report cards, audio tapes, diaries, posters for lost dogs, dire warnings left on windshields.  Some funny, some sad, some bittersweet, some WTF!!

So check out the website and make a mental note that if you find something interesting with handwriting or photos or drawings you are encouraged to mail it in to the good people at Found magazine who may feature it as the find of the day.  If you are a story lover like I am these will all pique your curiosity.  I wish I had thought of this first!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blogs become Books

These days many of my early review selections are books by bloggers.  Someone starts a blog about a particlar topic, in this case diet and nutrition, and attracts a lot of followers and uses that poplarity to launch a book of the same name.  I am impressed.  This method of getting yourself published seems to level the playing field a bit and give me hope that its not just literary writers who get to have a piece of the publishing pie. 
To be fair, there was a lot of useful advice in this book regarding how to approach dieting and weight loss with the many temptations that bombard us day after day.  I also came across many good recipes that I will try:  pumpkin muffins and tomato zuchini fritatta to name just two.  So if you are looking for good low fat, high health recipes to try this is a good source (as her blog probably is too).


The only drawback to this book is that Ms Haupert's writing is not very interesting or engaging, and I had a hard time geting through each chapter.  I am not sure it was possible to make it more lively.  She spent a lot of time explaining her schedule each day and her calorie counts.  Some people might find this fascinating, but I found it dry.  (I am also a tad over weight so maybe she does have something!)

I do want to give her credit for inventing a life for herself that is interesting and varied and sings to exactly what she wants to do.  This I envy and admire.  I guess that is another good reason to read this book:  she gives good advice on living a creative life and breaking the mold from the standard 8-5 drudgery. 

I can offer this book to anyone who would like it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who is Professor X?

Professor X wrote this article for the Atlantic Monthly in 2008.  It caused a lot of controversy when it appeared.  He excoriates our culture for demanding that College be a prerequisite for most jobs, even those that do not seem to need such preparation.  From this article he wrote:  In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.

It was hidden in a bottom shelf of a bookstore in the parenting section which was kind of odd, but of course I was attracted to it as I am part of the Ivory Tower and have learned to both love and hate it over the years.

This book is an interesting interplay of his own memoir, why he chose to adjunct and what it does for his finances and his marriage; a social critique of the culture that has elevated a college education way beyond it's possible worth, and a writing primer.

I have to say, that the combination really worked for me.  I was fairly convinced about his argument that we are unnecessarily pushing college at the expense of huge amounts of debt and frustration, his own story was sweet and well written and who can't use advice on writing, even if from an anonymous author.

Professor X chose to remain anonymous because he loves his job and doesn't want to lose it.  He no longer needs the money, his marriage is fine, but he truly enjoys teaching even if his students are woefully unprepared.

I would really like to write this man as I have a few critiques about some of his assumptions about college education.  The easy avenue of email probably won't be open to me.  I'll have to write his publisher.  I have a copy of it if anyone would like to borrow it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

The most compelling memoirs are not about movie stars or teenagers who combat abuse, alcoholism or anorexia. They are really the ones where ordinary people do unusual things with their lives.  Things that we can picture doing ourselves.

Kristin Kimball lived life as a NYC writer. Lattes and Central Park and nice clothing.  On a story assignment, she met a farmer who took her breath away and in a short amount of time she gave up her lease on her Manhattan apartment and joined the man she would later marry in starting an organic farm in Northern New York near Lake Champlain.

The work is back breaking and she has little time for sleep or any of the activities that normally occupy her.  Her parents think she is a tad crazy, but by the last chapter she has agreed to have a wedding on the farm for 300 people and comes to a happy satisfaction with her crazy, dirty life.

Her partner is an optimist and always believes that people will come together to care for each other: that things will be given them and labor be donated.  Their new community proves to be an oasis of faith and love and neighborliness of which they participate in as well.  It is exciting to follow the story of how the farm and the CSA come together seed by seed, animal by animal. The climax of  the story is a big grand wedding and a small glimpse into the future of a new baby born at home under the watchful eye of their pigs and cows.

If you are interested in this simple life,  the farming life, a life transformed you will enjoy this book as much as I did.