Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Catching Up From Summer Insanity

"There is always room for at least two truths."
Colum McCann

I think my summer can be summed up in the fact that I haven't updated the blog since MAY! What?! So much for trying to stick to my goal of one post a month... oh well. This summer was crazy hectic with going to five weddings within three months of each other, trying to figure out my then-new job, and lots of wine festivals, baseball games, and summer fun! But don't think that means that I stopped reading... no sir. If anything, I read more with all the travel!

I think it would be too much for me to write about every single book I read, so I decided that I'm going to give you the highlights from this summer's list and then at the end, I'll list the other books I read. I will say that I did really hit a lot of disappointing reads this summer, but I think it was just a rut because recently, the literary gods have been smiling upon me.

Enough with the chit-chat--let's get to it. Here are the best books I read this summer:

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Every single time I read something by Colum McCann I am always amazed and then want to sit down and read it all again. His new book did not disappoint. If you have been reading this blog or have ever talked to me about books, you know I love a good story where various, seemingly disparate stories all influence each other in the end--and no one does that like McCann. The story starts with the two men to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic who are supposed to deliver a letter that does not make it to its destination. The stories that follow include one of Frederick Douglas's trip to Ireland, Senator George Mitchell's visit to a war-torn Ireland, and an Irish woman who escapes to America. Though the stories only slightly touch each other in the telling, their relationship in the end is astounding. Written in his usual beautiful, lyric, and heart-punching prose, McCann reminds us that each decision and move we make does mean something.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: Another thing I love is a good war story, and Fountain delivers with this one. Protagonist Billy Lynn is part of a squad who performed amazing feats in Afghanistan and they are being honored at an NFL game on Thanksgiving Day. The whole book takes place during this one day, but Lynn's mind is elsewhere: still at war, with his family, with his fellow soldier who died. The squad leader is trying to get their amazing story sold to a producer so a movie can be made, and it is here and in many other creeping places that Fountain weighs in on mass media, the notion of fame, and yet also the tragedy of war. The characters seem very real and the writing is great.

Dear Life by Alice Munro: Chances are that you have heard of this one recently, as Munro just won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. If you are a fan of short stories, then you have certainly read some of her work, and if you read The New Yorker, then you've basically read this entire book already (so many of the stories were ones I'd already read over the past few years in the magazine!). Each story has a very raw, real sense to it. Though the stories aren't connected in any tangible way, Dear Life is held together by its severely frank tone and the Munro's amazing ability to delve into the real essence of life. I loved the last section which is a set of essays that are semi-autobiographical and talk about Munro's life growing up--it was fascinating.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: I am not usually one for mysteries, but this suspenseful novel caught me by surprise. In the early 1980s, the Cold War is "raging" and two 10 year old girls living in Washington, DC are becoming fast, though unusual friends. Sarah's home life is horrible, and Jennifer seems to lead the perfect life. One day, the girls decide to write a letter to the premier of the Soviet Union to ask for peace, but only Jennifer receives a response. Jennifer is invited to the Soviet Union, her story becomes world-famous, and the girls friendship is strained. When Jennifer's plane crashes with her and her family on it, Sarah is devastated. Ten years later, Sarah receives a letter which implies that Jennifer is still alive and that the death was faked. Sarah goes to Moscow and the story becomes very interesting. I loved the sense of suspense that Holt captures, but also how realistic she portrays friendship.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: Obviously this was not the first time I've read this book, but it was the first time that I listened to it. With so many travels this summer, Traber and I found ourselves trying to find more things to listen to together on road trips, and this one was my suggestion since he'd never read it. If you don't know anything about this book, please go get it now. I know it's a "children's book" but it's really a book for all time. I was constantly reminded of how much I loved and felt a kinship with Claudia, why I love museums, and why I love reading. I mean, tell me that you don't want to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan: I have loved every one of Sullivan's books that I've read, and based on how I flew through this one, I'd say I loved it too! The book follows four different couples each in a different stage of married life, and throughout the story, we are treated to snippets about Frances Gerety (a real woman) who is one of the main people responsible for the prominence of engagement rings in our society. The individual stories are wonderful and really do surprise you at points and the tying in of Gerety's story is brilliant, making the reader consider the many ways that individuals think about marriage, love, and commitment. I loved this one, and if you enjoyed any of her others (Maine and Commencement), you'll enjoy this one too.

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown: I saw this in a bookstore in Seattle and immediately went to Kramerbooks when we got home and bought it. In very short, often illustrated snippets, Brown glances over things that make a person an adult. Placed into themed chapters ("Love," "Cooking," "Money," "Get a Job," etc), Brown doesn't go into super-detail about how to do some of the things that she recommends, but it did get me thinking about some things that I should be doing in my late twenties.  I always love these little self-help books (for some reason, I always read them in late summer) and this one was fun--I laughed out loud several times, realized that I'm not as bad off as I thought, but also thought about what else I can be doing financially, around my house, and in my personal life to make it even better than it is now. A super-fun read, especially if you're just out of college or trying to figure things out in your 20s and 30s.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Oh my God. Have you read this book? I devoured it. I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns but I don't think I loved them like I love this book. The story centers on one action: that of a recently widowed, poor man with two children and a new wife who sells his six year old daughter to a wealthy couple who cannot have children. The girl is brought up to never know her origins, but she is always aware that something is missing. Each chapter is told by a different character whose life is touched in some way by this act, and it's so beautifully brilliant that I couldn't put it down or stop thinking about it. Though in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, it is constantly engaging and awe-inspiring. So good.

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron: I have just finished re-reading all of Harry Potter in about two weeks (I know), and I was so happy to have something this lovely to come down from my Harry high on. I am a HUGE Nora Ephron fan (I can quote all of You've Got Mail by heart and every time I think of "What I Will Miss" and "What I Won't Miss," I get tears in my eyes) so by extension I also enjoy Delia Ephron. After Nora died a few months ago, Delia wrote this book of brilliant, rambling, hilarious essays which, as only an Ephron can, made me laugh on one page and then cry on the next. Delia talks about collaborating with Nora and being her sister, she writes about her mother (and how she can't write about her), and about her dog (which, while I don't like dogs so much, was hilarious because she knows how she sounds when she writes about it). I zipped through it in a few hours and loved every second. I mean, she writes a whole essay on how "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is to blame for being on "walkabout" in her 20s and giving her false ideas about love (but about how much she loves it). How could I not love this book?

The other books I've read between my last post (with short descriptions) and now have been:
  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (weird)
  • World War Z by Max Brooks (better than I expected)
  • The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich (forgettable)
  • The History of Us by Leah Stewart (sweet)
  • Season of '42 by Jack Cavanaugh (not the best basball book I've read, but not bad)
  • The Lion Is In by Delia Ephron (silly, but fun)
  • The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (engaging)
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (was disappointed I didn't like it more...)
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (I wished I liked it)
  • The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (pretentious.. so I enjoyed it)
  • Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig (good Western.. not as good as The Bartender's Tale)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (always a a good re-read)
  •  All seven Harry Potter books (as amazing as ever.)
I'm sorry it's been so long since my last post--I wanted to tell you all about what I've been reading, so I tried to make the intro short here... hopefully I won't have to catch up so much next time and can regale you with long-winded stories about why I love reading or how fall simply can't make up it's mind to come or not or, frankly, how is it November this week?! I am halfway through The Twelve Tribes of Hattie right now and am LOVING it, so I can't wait to finish it and get back to you!

I hope that fall is treating you well with apple pies and crunchy leaves and bouquets of sharpened pencils (see? I told you... Nora is everywhere).

Keep Reading,

Monday, May 13, 2013

No Braces, New Job, Busy Life, But Still Reading!

"She was the dream of the place that bore her, and she did not even know it."
-The Orchardist
Amanda Coplin

It's been a while since I updated here, but there's been a lot going on, so let's update on that first, then we'll get to the book talk!

First of all, my braces are off! Basically, this closes out my 25 year goals and it feels great! I'm so happy with how it all turned out and I'm beyond thrilled to be able to eat (basically) whatever I want (the Doritos intake has been a little absurd... don't judge). Straight teeth are amazing and it was so worth the time and money! Also, reading out loud (my guilty, only-when-I'm-alone pleasure) is so much more enjoyable and sounds a million times better!

Second of all, I am now in the third week of my new job as the Archivist at the University of Maryland's David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora! The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of starting something new, but I'm so excited to be able to work with these super amazing materials and to have a new challenge!

This past month has also been the beginning of what is going to be a very exciting and busy summer full of lots of weddings, wine festivals, shows (Anything Goes and Book of Mormon!), friends, parties, and (hopefully) some good reading! In true DC fashion, Mother Nature isn't sure what season it is, but that's okay, because it's an opportunity for me to wear my yellow coat!

So you can blame my lack of updates due to all that! :)

Though life has been busy, there's been no shortage of good books being read around here, and there are a few that I'm really excited to tell you about, so let's get to it!

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: When I was in college, one of the best classes I took was on Post-Modern literature and one of the books that we read was Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, and while I don't remember much about it, I do remember that I wasn't a huge fan when I read it, so I was kind of hesitant to pick up The Round House, but I'm lucky that Pat Holzheimer loved it enough to make it one of his top 5 books from last year on his blog! The story is mildly graphic, but quite solidly written. The story centers on a Native American family living in peace until a tragic event happens to the mother. The story is told through the eyes of Joe, the teenage son and only child of the Native American judge and his wife, who is traumatized after being brutally raped. After the rape, Joe's mother shuts herself away from her family completely and Joe is determined to solve the mystery of who did this horrible thing to his mother and essentially changed the lives of his entire family forever and irreparably damaged what was good in his life. Told in a very blatant and essential way, Erdrich brings to life the tragedy, heartbreak, and  confusion that surrounds the horrible crime of rape and what it means to the family of the victim as well as the victim themselves. Interwoven with Erdrich's signature Native American stories and morals, this is a wonderfully written book that will stick with you long after you've finished it.

In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan: A recent HarperCollins book, this one was sent to me a while ago, and I only just got to it! In this memoir, Pete Jordan weaves together his own personal story of moving to Amsterdam and the history of the bicycle in that very bike-centered city. Jordan moves to Amsterdam initially for school, but then his wife follows him there and they make there home. There is no doubt that part of the reason behind Jordan's decision to completely relocate to Amsterdam was the fact that there are more bikes than people in the city and Jordan is obviously crazy about bikes. While you do get some of his own story of his move, what he focuses on more is the history of the bike in Amsterdam which is focused more on the role of the bike during the Nazi regime, which does get pretty interesting. Although generally, I kept feeling like I should love this book, I just couldn't get into it. I don't know if I just kind of found Jordan annoying or not genuine, or what it was, but I was relatively lukewarm about this. I will say that he does a very comprehensive job of getting the history of the bicycle in this very interesting city and getting to the meaty and interesting parts of that history. Not a bad history lesson, but kind of a slow memoir in general.

Life of Pi by Yann  Mantel: Traber and I saw this movie a few months ago, basically on a whim (Silver Linings Playbook was sold out) and I am so glad that we did! It was a beautiful movie (though the screen was very dark at the theater, which was the theater's and not the movie itself's problem) and the only thing that I was disappointed with was the fact that for some strange reason, I hadn't yet read the book. Though I almost always think the book is better than the movie, sometimes it's harder to think that when you see the movie first--I don't know about you, but I always end up not using my own imagination quite as much. But Mantel's visuals and descriptions were so specifically beautiful, I really was able to get my own view of the events that follow Pi as he survives alone on a lifeboat for several months with only a Bengal tiger as company. The twist is perfectly executed and in no way trite or cliche (as twists can be) and the language was so magnificent yet poignant that all I wanted to do was keep reading. I can honestly say that in my "old" age, I usually don't want to read before bed usually (I end up falling asleep), but I just had to keep reading until my eyes got too heavy on the nights I was reading this. I'm sure you already know the premise of the story, so I won't go into too much detail except to say that if you haven't read it, I really highly recommend it and think that if you love The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you would be happy that you picked up Life of Pi.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin: Stop everything. Go to the library or bookstore or Amazon or whatever your preferred method of acquiring books is and get this. I'm serious. I'm in love with this book and am pretty sure that it is going to be a really hard decision for best book of this year between this and Canada. This was another one that I simply couldn't put down and basically had me obsessed for a week and a half. Coplin's novel focuses on Talmadge who owns an orchard in Washington state. His life was a hard a relatively lonely one that included walking partway across the country during the late 1800s with his mother and sister after his father died, finding a cabin in an orchard and settling down there, having his mother die while he was still a teenager, and then having his sister disappear shortly after. Talmadge relies on few people and knows very few people in town, so when two pregnant runaway teenage girls show up in his orchard, he has few people to consult about what to do with them. Possibly against his own better judgement, Talmadge begins taking care of the girls, later finding out the horrible conditions that they ran away from. With the help of one of his few close friends, Talmadge helps the girls deliver the babies, and though one of the babies doesn't make it, Talmadge takes in the surviving baby as though it was his own. The events that follow are both tragic and life-affirming and Coplin follows the sisters, the new baby, and Talmadge all in an elegant swirl of prose. Through amazingly deft prose, style, and the perfectly placed short chapters, Coplin does an amazing job of leading you up to the climax of the story and making your heart beat faster as you wait for some kind of collision to come. It's amazing how the style of something so simple as telling a story can make my heart beat faster and the hairs on my arms stand up. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the plot is well-wrought, but what really struck me was the telling of the story and the way Coplin drew me in with simple yet elegant words and storytelling that can often go unnoticed but that really made the book for me. You'll like this one if you liked Canada, The Bartender's Tale, or The Art of Racing in the Rain. Simply wonderful.

To put it very simply: books are awesome. I'm pretty sure that's all one needs to know in life to be happy. Am I right?

I hope that this maybe jumpstarts your summer reading plans and that you get lots of time to read some amazing things. I hope to not wait too long before my next post! :)

Keep reading,

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Four New Books (How's That For A Title?)

"People always think that happiness is a faraway thing, something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains-a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone-just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness."
-A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith

It's been a while since I posted here and I really only just realized it the other day when someone asked me what I was reading. You know those months where you just feel like time is whizzing by without your permission and then all of a sudden you wake up and it's the end of March? That was how this month was. And I will say that I did a little bit of reading, so there are things to update you on.

In my last post, it should have been clear that I was over winter. If it's possible, I'm even more over it now. Spring continues to taunt us here in DC, though it's looking like Opening Day (go Nats!) is going to be a beautiful one, so I'm thankful that I'll be continuing my three-day weekend with some baseball and beers. But still, spring hasn't completely shown her face yet, so I still don't have that feeling like in You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan finds out it's Tom Hanks while they're in a beautiful garden, which is what spring sometimes feels like to me. Yes.. you know what I'm talking about--where you're so full of it all that you feel it in the back of your throat.

So to tide me over, I've been doing some reading and thought I'd share it with you from earlier to later in the month:

-Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer: I love random facts and I love writers, so this was a perfect fit for me. If you were ever an English major or ever thought about being an English major or a writer, this is a really fun book that you'll enjoy. Shaffer takes you in time through the badasses of literature from the Marquis de Sade through James Frey focusing on those authors who drank, smoked, did drugs, shot people, or generally incited mayhem in society in their day. Not only are the stories great (I mean, you have to love Hemingway), but Shaffer has a really raw, real way of writing. He blows through the pretty words and tells you the story of the authors in a shockingly small number of words. It's quite amazing what he manages to get across in each chapter. It's helpful when you already have a general idea of who the people are and what they wrote, but it's certainly not necessary and it doesn't make the ride any less fun. If you like books about books or flaunting your literary knowledge about, this is the book for you.

-A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle: I can already hear your intake of breath when I tell you that I had never read A Wrinkle in Time before. Somehow it slipped through the cracks of my childhood, most likely because it was "science fiction" and I was way too good for that (I've been a snob for a long time, you know). Anyway, I was looking at one of the blogs I like and there was a link to a list of the 50 best sci-fi books ever. Of course, I sent it to my science fiction loving boyfriend and since it's been a while since we read something together and neither one of us had read it, we decided it would be fun to read together. Since it's technically a children's book, it didn't take us very long (I read a paper copy and he listened to it so we didn't finish at quite the same time but close). If I was 10 again, I probably would have loved it--Meg and I would have been kindred spirits in a way, I think. But since I'm 26 (oh, god) I think it was a little harder for me to enjoy. I liked the characters (for the most part, though I wanted to smack Charles Wallace around a little bit) and the whole idea of a "wrinkle in time" was wonderful and I even loved the jab at Communism that was quite relevant for its time, but I must say I didn't love it and I'm not even sure I can put a finger on why (and after sending a text to Traber to see if it was okay if I told my very small reader-base that we read this together that he read it, he said: "For the record, did not love it"). But actually, I'm glad we read it because it was fun to talk about, especially with him because we saw different things, him being more science-minded, and me being more literary-minded. It was fun and I bet that you'd love a good re-read of it if you read it as a kid.

-The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig: For some reason, my reading list this year has been full of stories of young boys and the thing that  makes them grow up (see This is How You Lose Her and Canada) and I'm kind of loving it. It's not usually a tandem I go on (though this is an unplanned tandem), but I'll run with it, especially if it's taking me to books like The Bartender's Tale which I very simply loved. And for so many reasons. The writing is flush with simple beauty as Doig tells the story of Rusty who grew up for the first six years of his life with his aunt and horrible cousins only seeing his father Tom once a year for a vacation. When Rusty turned six, his father came and picked him up and took him to live with him in Montana where he owned a bar and where he was "...the greatest bartender that ever lived." Rusty grows up admiring his father and learning all about the rough life in Montana as he gets to listen in on the life in the bar from a hidden vent that he can hear through. Rusty's twelfth year is a memorable one as Rusty becomes inseparable friends with Zoe who is new to town, he finds a love of theater as he helps a wealthy woman in the community prepare for a role in a Wilde play, and a new complication to life shows up in the form of a teenage girl who claims to be Rusty's father's daughter. One of the greater characters in the book is Del who comes to Tom with the plea to help him capture an oral history of a military base where Tom used to bartend. The detail-without-going-into-detail that Doig executes in this storyline is amazing. Oral history has been a fascination of mine for a while (I even took a class in grad school about it) and it's so finely interwoven into the story that you almost don't realize that you're learning something. It's a story of growing up to the point of not being able to fall back into childhood anymore and of learning who you can become as a person even at a young age. I loved it and if you loved Canada or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I recommend you grab this one too.

-Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth: Though this book was published a while ago, it's gaining recent recognition as it is one of the volumes by Jennifer Worth that is inspiring the (wonderful) series on PBS by the same name. I love the PBS show and can't wait for it to come back at the end of the month, and I felt similarly about the book. You have to get over the fact that Worth is writing literary nonfiction and that she's embellishing on some of the parts of the story that she doesn't know first-hand, but once you do, it's a wonderful and heartwrenching read.  Worth was a nurse working at Nonnatus House in East End of London during the 1950s where she saw all kinds of poverty, abuse, love, family, and despair going on around her.The book is split into three parts which each have their own story lines: one is about children who grew up in the workhouse and somehow made it out alive which is fascinating and brings to light some of the atrocities that the poor suffered in the early 1900s in England, the second part is about Sister Monica Joan who is losing her memory with her age and is accused of stealing jewels and must go on trial, and the third part is about Jennifer's relationship with an ill man with whom she shares tea after hours and who tells her his stories of the war and of his life. Though a very uplifting read, it does shove the reality of the slums at you and it's well done. Worth's experiences are fascinating and her storytelling is very fluid and relatable. If you love the show, pick up the book--you'll recognize some of the storylines and it's fun.

Unfortunately, I haven't been doing as much reading as I'd like to be, but I'm hoping that life will slow down a little bit in the coming weeks and I'll have a chance to catch up. I'm halfway through The Round House by Louise Erdrich right now and I'm basically obsessed with it and am going to be picking it up right after I post this. Also, thanks to HarperCollins for sending me Call the Midwife and

Also, on a totally personal note, I'm getting my braces off in two weeks from today and I couldn't be more excited! I'm sure that I'll bombard you with before and after pictures, so prepare yourselves.

I'm looking forward to a relatively quiet April as we gear up for a very busy May through August and I hope that spring comes your way soon!

Keep reading,

Monday, February 11, 2013

Winter Doldrums? Here's Your Literary Prescription.

"Has that happened to you yet in your life? You hear a word forever, then all of a sudden it makes a whole different sense? That happens to me all the time."
By Richard Ford

Winter-after-New-Years always sucks.

You've worn all your cute winter things too much already, you can't afford to buy new clothes, you've worn your tights so much that they are starting to wear thin, the flu is rampant (and you ride public transportation and have all of a sudden become very paranoid), and all you want to do is either go on vacation or lay around in bed all day and eat.

Or maybe that's just me.

But thankfully, there are few more captivating things to bring one out of the winter funk than books. I usually wait until I've read about three new books to update, but I was so excited upon finishing my last one that I didn't want to wait--I wanted it fresh and vivid in my head. But let's start from earlier in the month and work our way forwards.

Here's what's been getting me through the winter doldrums:

-The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: I walked into the library a few weeks ago and this book basically greeted me at the door. I felt that it was fate. I couldn't believe the library even had it considering it's J.K. Rowling and is pretty new, but then again, this is certainly not Harry Potter. Rowling's narrative centers on a small, fictional town in England called Pagford which is basically run by the town's elected council. Though the town is small, the council fills a large hole in life for many of the people. After one of the main council members Barry dies unexpectedly, there is a run on his seat with people clamoring to get onto the council. Though the plot makes its focal point the upcoming election and the race to the council seat, Rowling spends a lot of time on the character development of the varous people around Pagford, all of whom had some connection to the deceased Barry. Sometimes you wish that Rowling would just get on with the story and stop showing us so much about the characters, who are plentiful, but just when you want her to move on with the plot, she does. Rowling has shown us that she knows how to develop a character and make them real people through her Harry Potter books, and she goes even further here. The great thing is that there are lots of characters to hate and to sympathize with, which is a great mix for the kind of small-town political intrigue that arises when somehow mysterious posts from the "Ghost of Barry Fairbrother" keep showing up on the council's site. Though the world is certainly adult and the election is very adult, the troubled teenagers take up a large part of the focus as they try to cope with their horrible families, impoverished lives, falling in love, and trying to figure out who they are in the light of their parents.  Rowling does a great job of making us care about this small town and the people who reside in it, no matter how broken they are. My one major complaint was that I thought that some of the tie-ups of the story were rushed and a little too loose. But if you love character-focused books, this one is for you!

-Canada by Richard Ford: I love books that make me actually get up out of bed when I randomly wake up at 7:00AM on a Saturday morning just so that I can finish the last 20 pages that I couldn't finish the day before. And thus, I loved Canada. Seriously. I've been trying to think about how I wanted to write about this book and I don't think I've figured it out yet, so bare with me. I've been wanting to read this book since it came out, so when I got an email from HarperCollins about reviewing it, I jumped on it! The main character is Dell Parsons who, along with his twin sister, has grown up his whole life on military bases, moving around from place to place with a family that pretty much just simply functions. When Dell's father gets into some financial trouble and decides that the best way to get out of it is to find a bank to rob, which is just what Dell's parents do. After they are inevitably arrested and jailed, Berner finds her own way to cope with her disappointing childhood by leaving home, and Dell, as the good, rule-abiding boy that he is, heeds his mother's wishes and agrees to be smuggled across the Canadian border to live and work with a stranger who takes him in and puts him to work. And this is where it gets interesting. Dell's employer is a dandy-ish man with lots of secrets, and part of the fun of the story is finding them out, so I won't spoil it too much, but let's just say that his reasons for being in Canada are not particularly kosher. When Dell gets involved in some of the dealings in the small Canadian town, things go awry and Dell's young life will never be the same. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Dell and Berner's relationship and how it is both affected and not by their parents' new criminality. The story itself is arresting, but what really pulled me in was the spare, yet magnificent prose. It really felt like Ford was telling you the story while sitting under a burningly blue, wide sky--it swallowed me up and held me prisoner until I finished it. I usually like to get through books to get on to the next, but I really took my time with this because I wanted to savor every word. This was the perfect book for a contemplative February. If you like William Faulkner, hell even if you somehow don't like Faulkner, I encourage you to pick it up.

Though Canada was a lovely distraction from winter, there are still several weeks to go, so I'm stock-piling on books to get me through. I just started the fun book Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors and am so far fascinated by the shocking lives of those who have so influenced our culture and society. I will be sure to update you on that one soon!

I hope that you are somehow avoiding the winter blues, whether it be with books, a vacation, parties, or however you prefer to spend your time.

Keep Reading, friends,

Thursday, January 17, 2013

It's Raining and I Like Blogging, So Here We Are

"It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip... After a heavy rainfall, poems entitled RAIN pour in from across the nation."
-The Journals of Sylvia Plath

It has been raining and dreary for five straight days now. Five. Days. Normally, I love a good rainy day--it gives you the excuse to be a little sleepier and to listen to sad songs. But five in a row is driving me completely mad. It's not helping that this week is one that just won't seem to end, but in order to maintain any semblance of sanity it really needs to. So today while gazing out my window at the cold, grey-ness, I decided that I had to do something tonight to at least make this week not a complete loss. So, I came home, made dinner, talked to one of my favorite people on the planet, changed into my favorite yoga pants, my old, ratty Wittenberg t-shirt, my old-man cardigan, and my favorite grey socks. I poured myself a beer and I sat down to write and fill you in on the past few weeks of reading. Take that, soggy weather!

There were two books that I neglected to completely review that I read in 2012, so I'll start with those and then move on to the three books I've read this year so far. If the beginning of this year is any indication of the awesome things in the world of books that are to float my way, then call me a happy girl.

Here's what I've read since my last post that was not a look back at my 25th year or my top list of books from 2012:

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell: O'Donnell does a lot of things right in this book and one of them is the characters that she creates and almost forces you to root for. Marnie and Nelly lived in Glasgow with their eccentric, drug-addicted, often abusive parents. The book opens bluntly with the fact that Marnie and Nelly's parents are dead. Not only are they dead, but they are buried in the backyard by the two girls. The girls are used to fending for themselves, so they survive fine without their parents for a while and then they are taken in by the man living next door, Lennie, who's partner died leaving him alone with no one to care for and little to do. Lennie has several secrets of his own, and he makes room in his life and home for the dark and troubled Marnie and the young, innocent, extremely proper-speaking Nelly. When their estranged grandfather turns up looking for their mother, chaos begins and the story of their parents and what the girls have been going through slowly begins to unravel. The story is a little dark, but funny in places, and it's a very quick read with short chapters and plotlines that keep you wanting to read and find out more.  I would say that if you liked The Family Fang  by Kevin Wilson, you'd like this one!

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer: This book actually made my Top 10 of 2012, so I'll just re-post my review there here. Suffice it to say that I really loved this book and found it the perfect read for myself for where I am in my life. My review last week: " This was my last book of the year, and I adored it. It's actually one that HarperCollins sent me and I read it over Christmas. I had a stressful time getting out of DC for the holidays, and because of the fat that I was engrossed in this book, I didn't throw up on the plane on the way back! The story is about Naomi who grows up in the Boston area with a clinically depressed mother and a father who loves her and had a heart attack in front of her while touring Rose Kennedy's home. As she grows up, she is determined to become a doctor and puts all of her effort into it. Naomi's only childhood friend is Teddy whose family is devoutly Jewish and who disapproves of Naomi, but the two are in love--a kind of kid-love that most of us are familiar with, but also something deeper that stays with them even after Teddy moves away and eventually stops communicating with Naomi. As the years pass, Naomi throws herself more into school and tennis and she goes to Wellesley where events occur that lead her to the Shakespeare Society and to performing plays with the group. She makes good friends and stops focusing on school as much, and when her mother becomes ill, her life is completely changed. The major plot point is when Naomi's best friend is accused of cheating and her time at Wellesley goes a bit sour. I don't want to give anything away except to say that this book was the perfect book for me--it's about thinking you know who you are and who you're supposed to be and then taking the time to figure out that it's not that way at all. The story is not only about Naomi's time at school but also in understanding her troubled mother, the nature of friendship, and what is truly important. Naomi comes across as real person, not just a character, and I was sad to finish the book."

And on to 2013...

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon: This short, quick book packs a punch. I will warn you right now: if you have a problem reading things that are not capitalized and that take a while to get used to the writing style, this may not be the book for you. Written completely in lowercase letters, it is told from the perspective of Mary who is the daughter of a poor farming family in 1830. The story is written by her own, newly literate hand. Mary's father sent her to work at the city's vicar's home as a housemaid and nurse to the vicar's ailing wife. Prior to her stay with the vicar and his family, Mary had never been anywhere but home, so the world that she is thrown into is new and scary and exciting. As Mary cares for the vicar's wife, she makes herself invaluable in the household, not only for the friendship that she kindles with the woman, but also in her liveliness and spunk. After the woman passes away, Mary is kept on by the vicar, who teaches her to read but with dire consequences. Mary continues to remind you that she is telling you the truth and that she's writing her story in her own hand, and the reason for those reminders becomes clear in the end. Mary is someone easy to sympathize with and whose telling of her own story is very effective and heartbreaking. I really liked this book and it made me gasp aloud at points (warranting strange looks on the metro) and once you get used to the writing style, its a good, engrossing read.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: Junot Diaz doesn't necessarily need one more random person praising his genius, but he's gonna get one. I love him. I feel like I shouldn't love him, but I do. If you've read anything else by Diaz (if you haven't read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, please go get it now) you'll be familiar with his recurring character Yunior who we meet often in his short stories and in his collection Drown. This book is comprised of nine stories which can all stand well on their own, but work so seamlessly well together it's amazing. Yunior is a womanizer of the worst kind--one who thinks he'll never get caught and who doesn't understand the seriousness of what he's doing to someone he claims to love, yet all he really wants deep down beneath his machismo is to be loved. Each story focuses on a woman in Yunior's life--past lovers, a woman twice his age with whom he had an affair, his mother, his brother's girlfriends, and the true love of his life who he lost by looking everywhere for love and not finding it. The stories are infused with Yunior's home life and his stories of being an immigrant in America. Rafa, Yunior's brother, is diagnosed with cancer that eventually takes his life and becomes this crazy, determined, almost admirable character in a way. Diaz's writing is always straight-up raw with emotion and reality and it's amazing how close he hits to the bone. So good. Please read.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: As I literally just finished this book and then sat down with my computer to write, this is by far the book that's freshest in my head. When I started reading this about a week ago, I said to Traber, "Man, I just don't know if I'm going to like this Barbara Kingsolver book." To which he wisely said, "You always say that about Barbara Kingsolver books that you read and then you like them." Smart (and attentive!) man. I felt the same way about Kingsolver's Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible at the beginnings--I wasn't sure if I was going to like them. It's always something about her characters... they're just not that likable in the beginning or something. I can't quite put my finger on it. Nevertheless. Flight Behavior is the story of a woman, Dellarobia, a high school educated housewife, living in an Appalachian town who, while on her way to a field to meet a man with whom she is considering having an affair, she comes upon thousands of monarch butterflies making their home right there in Tennessee. The sight of the butterflies stirs something in Dellarobia, steering her away from the affair and thrusting her headfirst into national fame and a life that she doesn't understand anymore. Married to a farmer (who is indebted to his parents) at a young age, Dellarobia has two wonderful kids whom she loves and one of whom is one of the greatest parts of the book. The world hears about this strange sighting of butterflies and begin knocking on Dellarobia's door to see them. Eventually, scientists come to find out why the butterflies have come to this field when they should be in Mexico or Canada and Dellarobia becomes enthralled and stimulated by the butterflies, and begins to help the scientists on their quest. The book deals a lot with global warming and the effects it has on things that we don't even realize, and although it's loud when it comes to that side of it, I never thought it was preachy.  There is a lot that happens in the book, but there were two big things that I took away from it. 1) Barbara Kingsolver must be a super-well-rounded person and tells an excellent story. Her books are always so well researched and always go on to teach me something I didn't know about something I never thought I would care about. 2) Dellarobia is on a quest of her own and doesn't know it until the butterflies smack her on her back basically. The story, while about the butterflies is really about Dellarobia's coming to terms with who she is, who she is forced to be, and who she wants to be regardless of where her circumstances have put her. If you liked The Help  or any other Kingsolver, I'd say pick this one up!

And that's where I am in my reading life as of about 30 minutes ago. And now the choice becomes what to read next. This is the pile of books next to my bed:

Sooo I have a big decision to make on what to read next. But that's half the fun!

Time for me to put on warm pajamas and go listen to this song on repeat like I've been doing since I got home and do some kind of sun dance and pray for just a little sunshine tomorrow.

How has your year in reading begun? I hope you've had a chance to read a ton of great things like I have! :)

Keep reading,

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Stephanie's Top 10 of 2012

"One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."
-To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

For the past three Januaries, I have sat down, taken a deep breath, and allowed myself to re-visit every lovely word I've read throughout the year prior. I love this, and I actually think that it's a really great exercise for a number of reasons--I get to remember books that might have been shoved into the back of my brain because of something as silly as the passage of time, I often can vividly remember what I was doing while reading a certain book (for instance, I bought The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown at Kramerbooks because I was waiting for Traber to get home from a trip he had just taken and I had started reading it at his apartment before I fell asleep because it had gotten late, or I remember reading Arcadia by Lauren Groff while flying to Indianapolis to see a friend get married and I don't even remember the plane taking off because I was so engrossed in the book) so in that way, it allows me another way to look back at the year and everything I've done. It also is cool to look at the patterns and personal trends I went through during the year--there was a short "post-semi-apocalyptic" phase, and of course, a Nora Ephron phase, and a "short and sweet" phase. Regardless, it's always fun for me to reminisce about my reading life and to also look ahead to all the fun things to come!

I have been keeping these yearly lists since I was 14 years old. Actually, all of my lists are on the same type of paper (which I'm running out of.. and I really don't know what to do about it. I may have to go on a paper hunt soon. I'm distressed.) and they all fit very nicely folded in an old, loose rubberband and sit in an old wooden cigar box throughout the year. I consult them pretty often--when I make lists for people, I usually take the last five years out and browse through to see if anything sparks a recommendation for that person. My first few years of lists are funny to pull out--I used to love gel pens (couldn't get enough of them.. you know what I'm talking about) so often the lists are written in different colors and in rather large print. Now, I only use black pen (I was told by my fourth grade teacher that blue pens look unprofessional and I've abhorred using them ever since), my handwriting is (to the dismay of those I write to, I'm sure) very small and loopy. And on the even more plus side, I've now got this blog to help me remember exactly what stood out to me about each book I read this year. I've tried to keep a reading journal before and it's never worked--but sharing it has given me motivation!

I know that I've already talked about my 25th year to the extreme, so I won't philosophize about 2012 too much except to say this: there are some amazing books out there and the fact that I come to that realization each year not only gives me hope but keeps me going.

In 2012, I read 52 books (two less than last year). Let me, as usual, give my caveats about my Top 10 lists: these are books that I have read and completed between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012. These books were not necessarily published in 2012 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, for the Top 10 books, I've linked to my original post about the book and listed the year it was published.

Without further ado:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2012
10) Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (2012): As I'm looking back at my list from this year, I'm realizing how few non-fiction books I've read, and it makes me sad. But I am very glad that I got to this one! Foer dives into the world of memory competitions--while writing about the competitions, he decides to enter himself and is mentored by a band of interesting characters who teach him the tricks of memorizing cards, names, numbers, and other things. Foer talks in depth about the idea of a Memory Palace (which actually keeps popping up in my daily life) and about how humans are really losing their ability to remember due to an overabundance of technology and tools to act as our memories for us. It's a really fascinating read and though the topic may sound dull, Foer is a wonderful writer and really pulls you in.
9) The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012): This was a book that I pretty much picked up because I liked the cover (yes, my mother taught me well.. thanks, mom!) and I was really drawn into it and it kind of freaked me out. The story follows a girl who is living in America when the Earth is randomly knocked a bit off its axis, making the days no longer 24 hours where there is a definite time for sunrise and sunset. Though this seems mild when you just passingly think about it, Walker delves deeply into all the things that would change not only on a global level, but also for a teenage girl who has her own problems. I really thought that Walker did a great job of also of showing the true nature behind the creation of a common enemy in the face of fear (in this case, the enemy is the people who want to continue to live their lives on "clock time" rather than on the time the earth rotates). Well written and extremely thought-provoking.
8) The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (2011): I like a good, quirky, dark book and this one fits the bill. The story follows the Fang family--the parents are performance artists who use their life and their family, which includes Annie and Buster, or Child A and Child B to create art. The great thing about this book is that it combines two major themes: What is Art? and the idea that no matter what your parents do to you, there is this unexplanable pull that we have to them, good or bad. It's a really interesting story that, while darkly told, made me laugh out loud.
7) An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer (2012): (I can't link to an old post for this book since I just read it and don't have a past post, so I'm linking you to the Amazon page for it.)  This was my last book of the year, and I adored it. It's actually one that HarperCollins sent me and I read it over Christmas. I had a stressful time getting out of DC for the holidays, and because of the fat that I was engrossed in this book, I didn't throw up on the plane on the way back! The story is about Naomi who grows up in the Boston area with a clinically depressed mother and a father who loves her and had a heart attack in front of her while touring Rose Kennedy's home. As she grows up, she is determined to become a doctor and puts all of her effort into it. Naomi's only childhood friend is Teddy whose family is devoutly Jewish and who disapproves of Naomi, but the two are in love--a kind of kid-love that most of us are familiar with, but also something deeper that stays with them even after Teddy moves away and eventually stops communicating with Naomi. As the years pass, Naomi throws herself more into school and tennis and she goes to Wellesley where events occur that lead her to the Shakespeare Society and to performing plays with the group. She makes good friends and stops focusing on school as much, and when her mother becomes ill, her life is completely changed. The major plot point is when Naomi's best friend is accused of cheating and her time at Wellesley goes a bit sour. I don't want to give anything away except to say that this book was the perfect book for me--it's about thinking you know who you are and who you're supposed to be and then taking the time to figure out that it's not that way at all. The story is not only about Naomi's time at school but also in understanding her troubled mother, the nature of friendship, and what is truly important. Naomi comes across as real person, not just a character, and I was sad to finish the book.
6) The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (2009): If you read my post about this book, you know that I was hesitant to read this for two reasons: 1) it's about a dog and 2) it was an audiobook. Traber and I listened to The Art of Racing in the Rain over the course of several road trips in June and July. Honestly, we didn't even finish it together--I hacked his audible account so I could listen to the end because it was killing me. I had to finish it. I loved it. And I kind of want to read it in paper rather than listening to it just to see if it brings out the same emotions (like... I almost had to stop driving the car because my eyes were so full of tears) as it does when listening to it. The story isn't really about a dog--it's about the dog's owner who gets him when he's a puppy and then eventually gets married and has a daughter. The simplistic yet lovely view of the dog's own world captures the love, happiness, and tragedy of the family as they grow. The dog, while philosophical at times, is a dog and Stein does a great job of verbalizing his world. Please read it.
5) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011): This is a book that's about baseball but not about baseball at all and I loved it. I zoomed through it so fast that I almost wanted to go back and re-read it. The story surrounds several people involved in some way with the baseball program at the fictitious Westish College: three baseball players, the president of the college, and his daughter are the main players, but others pepper the pages. It's hard to explain the plot of the book without giving anything valuable away, but it is beautifully written with an engaging plot and is about so much more than you initially think. My biggest takeaway can be summed up in my initial post: "It's about religion and dedication but not necessarily to a god or supernatural being, but rather about the religion we create for ourselves around an aspect of our lives and what happens when it's taken away from us. It's a novel about finding oneself in the midst of becoming something different than you expected."
4) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012): Words can't quite express my love of this book. The plot seems like it would be sappy and too preachy almost (it's about two kids with terminal illnesses who meet in a support group and fall in love), it's not. Green does an amazing job of capturing the ideas and emotions of teenagers while also laying them over with the slight sheen of adulthood which they've earned through their illnesses and making them very real people who are easy to connect with. Yes, it's young adult, and yes, I cried when I read it, but don't you need a little bit of that every once in a while? It's been on almost ever "Best of 2012" list around, so I think I'm right in saying that you should try it too.
3) Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011): I just realized that I never posted about this book and I'm kicking myself!! This book won the National Book Award in 2011 and rightly so. I was captured from the first page by the beautiful, accessible prose and the story of Esch who is a impoverished pregnant teenager in Mississippi during a massive hurricane. The story only takes place over the course of about two weeks, where Esch and her brothers and father are trying to stock up for the storm, but Ward is able to tell the life story of Esch and the loss of her mother, everything that led up to her pregnancy, and how the family tries to survive through the impossible. Though Esch is the main protagonist, the character development of her brothers and their friends, especially her brother Skeetah who has an affinity for pit bulls and loving them. Although the life that Esch leads is far removed from most of our lives, Ward opens it up for us to see in all its terror, small beauties, and hardships. It's a beautiful book and probably the one I have recommended most this year.
2) Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012): If you've looked at any book blogs this year "best of" lists, you recognize this title. Everyone was talking about it and it's not hard to see why. The story is about Bit who was born and grew up on a commune. The novel is narrated by Bit and is broken into three sections: Bit as a young boy when life at the commune was wonderful, Bit as a teenager as the commune broke apart, and Bit as an adult who has to live in a world that has only recently become a bit familiar. It's brilliantly told and about so much more than life in and after a commune. Slightly reminiscent of Emma Donoghue's Room, this is one that you have to read.
And my number 1 shouldn't surprise any of you...
1) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011): I loved this book. I want to marry this book. I want to read it again and I want it to never end. In case you haven't asked me for a personal book recommendation from me this year (I recommended it to everyone. Seriously.), the story surrounds a circus that only appears at night almost out of thin air. The circus is fueled and maintained by a competition between two older men--they want to see whose protege is the best, basically. I almost don't want to tell you any plot because it's so good that it's best that you don't know anything going in. But if books that are a little fantasy-y aren't your thing (mine either), don't let that turn you away--it's about so much more than that, and the magic is just the icing on the cake. What I love about this book (and I said it in my original post), is that in the end, it's not about what you thought it was about, and I mean that in the best way possible. So good. Please read it.
And that's it, folks. My top 10 picks from the books I read in 2012. Below is the list of the other books that I read in 2012. This was a really hard list to pick only 10 from, so anything with an asterisk is an honorable mention and shouldn't be passed up. (The double asterisk indicates that it was a top 10 book)
  • **The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • *Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • **The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • *The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
  • **The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
  • *Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • Then Again by Diane Keaton
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik
  • *Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • *The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Blue Nights by Joan Didion
  • *Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
  • I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • **Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  • **Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Doran Barbieri
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
  • *The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
  • **The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • *Home by Toni Morrison
  • *The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
  • *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • *How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
  • *I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
  • Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
  • In One Person by John Irving
  • **Arcadia by Lauren Groff
  • **The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • **Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  • Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas
  • **The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • *The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  • Judging a Book by its Lover by Lauren Leto
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • *The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • *NW by Zadie Smith
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge
  • Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear
  • *The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  • *Astray by Emma Donoghue
  • The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg
  • *Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • *The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (look for a review of this next week hopefully!)
  • **An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer
And now it's time to look forward to 2013 and the stack of books next to my bed which includes This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz, The Life of Pi by Yann Mantel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver--so many to choose from! Stay tuned to the blog as I hope to continue updating it monthly if not more frequently.
A final word to say thank you to all of you who read, comment, and generally encourage this blog. Not only have you helped encourage the blog, but you all encouraged my 25th year goals and really made 2012 an amazing year for me.
Happy 2013 and keep reading!
For past "Stephanie's Top 10" lists, click these links for 2009, 2010, and 2011!