Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Review

I only keep a journal when I’m traveling, living outside of Texas, or chronicling my kids. But a few years ago on a dismal New Year's Eve, I decided to write my own year-in-review entry covering books, movies, music, and notable events of the year in one fell swoop. The next year I dispensed with everything but the books. After that, I started maintaining my book list throughout the year rather than try to remember author names and titles after 12 months of reading. Although I don’t write down every book I read, as some are best forgotten (see Cheer!: Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize), I do note my favorites.

Here's my list of fiction and nonfiction notables (in the order read) for 2008. Click on the title to read a summary.

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller
Zoo Station by David Downing
The Guy Not Taken: Stories by Jennifer Weiner
A Peculiar Grace and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent
Consequences by Penelope Lively
What is the What by Dave Eggers
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
Belong to Me: A Novel by Marisa De Los Santos
The Commoner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I'll Never Be Long Gone by Thomas Greene
The Cure for Modern Life by Lisa Tucker
The Condition by Jennifer Haigh
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Deportees: and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle
The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi
The Brambles and The Tiny One by Eliza Minot
This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes
Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
Paris to the Moon and Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
Sheetrock & Shellac by David Owen
Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson
I Was Told There'd Be Cake - Essays by Sloane Crosley

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather

With her Texas twang, my aunt does a perfect rendition of that line from Truman Capote's “A Christmas Memory”. After first watching the movie version at her house, several years later I encountered the audio version on a long car ride to Arkansas. It wasn’t until I bought a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s at a church book sale that I read the print version. It’s always with a sense of delight tempered with melancholy that I turn to the story, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to follow Buddy and his friend as they buy whiskey from Mr. Ha Ha Jones, send fruitcakes to the White House, and craft homemade kites for Christmas morning.

Every year different details in the story stand out. The year my mom made homemade fruitcake, I could taste the citron as I read their recipe. Last year, when my daughter was infatuated with dolls, I could picture exactly the wicker buggy with wobbly wheels they use to haul pecans. This year, I noticed the prices of things in the Depression era story – two dollars for a quart of whiskey, fifty cents for a Christmas tree, a dime for a picture show.

This story sates that yen you had for something rich and sweet and Christmasy, and like fruitcake, endures December after December. So after you've set up the Advent wreath, made the gingerbread cookies, and assembled some 15-odd nativity sets, it’s time to curl up with a hot mug of cider and “A Christmas Memory”.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Twenty Fragments of Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo has conceived the love child Ha Jin and Sandra Cisneros never had. Taking after her mother, Fenfang Wang depicts her life in Beijing in short Mango Streetesque stories - buying a green-apple bathing suit, writing a screenplay, scrounging up money for a meal. She has left her rural family behind and now lives alone in the city. Supporting herself as a movie extra, she moves from apartment to apartment trying to avoid an obsessed ex-boyfriend.

As she pours a glass of Great Wall Red Wine or slurps her UFO noodles, Fenfang wearily tries to make something of her new found freedom. As she recounts, children in rural China skip from childhood to middle age. At 21, she is determined to revive a youth she never experienced and fill it with shiny things. Ever her father's daughter, she details the realities of Chinese life interfering with her pursuit - endless paperwork, nosy elders, dust. Whether choking on exhaust or failing to find romance at McDonald's, Fenfang views her disappointments matter-of-factly. As she says, "It wasn't that the landscape was ugly exactly, it's just that you wouldn't take a photo of it."

Luckily Guo is there taking snapshots. Each fragment of this collection reveals the aimless ambition and enthusiastic ennui Fenfang and her peers are confronting in post-modern China. Is it any wonder that Fenfang excels at roles such as Bored Waitress or Woman Walking Across a Bridge? Although her part may seem insignificant, catching a glimpse of her, albeit briefly, may lead us to contemplate what her life is really like. We may ponder what books she reads, how she takes her coffee, or why she dreams. We may even ask who her parents are. If we don't, as one character notes, we're likely to take nothing more from the experience than we would shopping for cabbages.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mi Mi Mi Mi

I often lend good library books to my mom. I had just finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book of stories and had stashed it in the diaper bag to take to her. I hadn’t even had a chance to put my bag down when she greeted me with, “I have the best book. You have to take it.” I followed her back to her bedroom where she handed me Unaccustomed Earth just as I pulled it out of my bag to give to her.

The funny thing is growing up, I remember my dad always reading a paperback thriller, but I have few memories of my mom’s reading habit apart from the unopened Book-of-the-Month package floating around the back of the car. I do remember seeing her with a book called Victory Over Japan and thinking how boring to read a book about World War II.

It wasn’t until a high school sick day spent perusing the bookshelves in the living room that I came across the same book by Ellen Gilchrist. I spent the rest of my recuperation enchanted by the Mannings. That was only the beginning of a shared affinity for authors ranging from Elizabeth Berg to Amy Tan.

More recently, my mom has introduced me to Eliza Minot’s The Brambles and A. Mannette Ansay’s Blue Water. I also discovered The Secret Life of Bees because it was on her bookshelf. I do have to be careful in my recommendations to her. To this day she thinks I lent her Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout because she identified too well with the crotchety protagonist.

By the way, Mom, I just checked out the new boook of stories by Annie Proulx. I’ll let you borrow it when I’m through.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Geeks Gone Wild

Normally I reserve low expectations for a book subtitled “Bringing Down the House.” In tell-all type language, 21 by Ben Mezrich reveals how a group of MIT students form a card counting team to win big at the blackjack tables. The book focuses on one member as he moves from novice to top player to fallen from glory. Interspersed among the main chapters are interviews with a security expert, casino host, stripper, and fellow team members.

Their method is fascinating. It works this way. A spotter will sit at a table and place unobtrusive bets while counting the cards in play. When the count is favorable, they will signal for a teammate to come over who will place higher bets. I won’t go into it here, but the explanation of their counting technique is simple to follow but would be impossible (for us memory-challenged folk) to execute.

If you can ignore the fact the book was probably written in the hopes of turning it into the “high-concept, cinematic thriller” the author alludes to, you’re in for a fast, interesting read. Although I haven’t seen the movie version yet, I suspect it inspires some people to want go to Vegas. But after reading the descriptions of ratty gym bags filled with chips, bundles of cash strapped to hairy legs, spilled drinks, and smoky casinos, I only wanted to go wash my hair.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bargain Book Bonanza

I wandered into the clearance section at Half Price Books the other day. Expecting to find nothing more than a few dozen copies of Manny or titles like Real Vampires Have Curves, I was pleasantly surprised to find some old favorites. Seeing as they were only a dollar (!) each, little E. decided to go ahead and get my Christmas present out of the way. So now in our permanent collection we have:

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The God of Small Things: A Novel by Arundhati Roy
The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif

P. is thinking about going back next week to see what she can find for me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Some Real Turkeys

In a quest to teach my daughter something about Thanksgiving, I checked out the following books from the library. Next Thursday, she’ll be expecting rhyming men without shirts serving a half burnt turkey in drag.

P is for Pilgrim: A Thanksgiving Alphabet written by Carol Crane and illustrated by Helle Urban
In case you were wondering, X is the signature made by pilgrim women who couldn’t write. Accompanying the short poem for each letter is a sidebar with facts that are too tedious to read out loud. But I learned Sarah Hale petitioned for 15 years to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, colonists called pumpkins pumpions, and why Miles Standish had a poem written about him. P. noticed the Wampanoag man wasn’t wearing a shirt and was curious about the man writing with a quill instead of a pen.

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving written by Louisa May Alcott and illustrated by James Bernardin
Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Charles Dickens in this tale. The three-year-old in your house might find the reference to catnip stuffing hilarious. Heavy on the narrative, you might need a glass of water to sustain you as you read through to the apple slump recipe on the last page.

Give Thanks to the Lord written by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Amy June Bates
Although you’ll have to remind yourself you’re not reading a greeting card (“The day is lovely, cool, and bright,/our house is filled with noisy cheer,/ a perfect day for giving thanks,/ as we all gather here”), you’ll look at the pictures and remember your cousin sticking black olives on all ten fingers, your dad eating pumpkin pie on the couch, your aunt sneaking a taste of whipped cream off the pie.

Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
Poultry puns abound. A turkey wanders into The Chic Hen beauty salon and asks, “Wattle I do?” Eggsactly. Illustrated with pictures of chicken puppets dressed in homemade high heels, this is the one P. has picked up the most often to look at on her own.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Who is your favorite children’s book illustrator?

Eloise Wilkin. Three days ago that would have been my answer. But after discovering Show and Tell - Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration by Dilys Evans I’m not so sure.

Evans explores the work of several award winning children’s book illustrators. She gives a brief background of each and traces the path the artist took to becoming published. In addition, she analyzes a few examples of each illustrator’s work for content and style. After reading this book, I am looking forward to reading books by these illustrators: Harry Bliss, Bryan Collier, Denise Fleming, Trina Schart Hyman, Hilary Knight, Betsy Lewin, Petra Mathers, David Shannon, David Wiesner, and Paul Zelinksy.

Who is your favorite?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Giving Thanks for Vegetarian Cookbooks

As Thanksgiving approaches my husband and I are faced once again with the vegetarian’s dilemma of what dish to bring to the family feast. We strive to make something that contains protein, serves more than four people, and is not too odd as to freak out the carnivores (we’re probably not going to show up with Curried Tofu Scramble). Since we’ll be traveling this year, the dish or ingredients should also be portable or simple enough to make in someone else’s kitchen. I’ve perused three vegetarian cookbooks worthy of meeting the challenge.

Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates by The Moosewood Collective
I have to add this book to my collection. It has both vegetarian and vegan menu ideas for Thanksgiving. It also contains the most recipes that appeal to traditional palates. Contenders include: Lentil Salad, Harvest Stuffed Squash, Mushroom Filo Pastries, Crisp Autumn Salad, Roasted Squash with Corn and Beans, and Gingered Carrots with Hijiki (this one probably won’t make the cut since hijiki - Japanese seaweed - has high freak-out potential).

Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson
I also borrowed this one from the library, but it’s on my wish list for the pomegranate reds, grainy golden yellows, and spinach greens that pop out from the photographs accompanying the recipes. Even more impressive is these photos were taken by the cookbook’s author. Although these dishes probably wouldn’t meet any of our criteria, I’ve bookmarked the Risotto Style Barley, Otsu (a soba and tofu dish), and Hijiki and Edamame Salad. Ok, so I like hijiki.

Three Bowl Cookbook by David Scott and Tom Pappas
My Buddhist priest friend sent me this book after I returned from Japan. I received it just in time for that year’s Thanksgiving, so I made the Rutabaga, Leek, and Sweet Potato Puree. Once I procured the ingredients (I had to have the Whole Foods produce guy show me where to find both the rutabagas and leeks), I had little trouble making this tasty alternative to traditional milk and butter mashed potatoes. Other recipes I’m considering: Carrot and Parsnip Puree with Fresh Tarragon and Green Beans with Ginger, Corn, and Miso.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Perfect (American) Wife

I haven’t spent much time considering Laura Bush apart from thinking of her as the wife of that man. But after reading both a non-fictional and fictional account of her life in recent weeks I’ve decided she deserves more consideration for who she is and not who she’s married to.

In The Perfect Wife, Ann Gerhart outlines Laura Bush’s biography based on information gathered while covering the First Lady for the Washington Post and interviews with her friends and acquaintances. Although it’s not marketed as a tell-all, it does reveal a few shocking facts. She was in a car accident in high school that killed someone. She was a Democrat. She worked as a librarian at the same South Austin school where I taught summer school (I know, shocking). She was instrumental in designing a “green” home for their ranch near Crawford. She and W. call each other “Bushy.” Despite these facts, or maybe in spite of them, Laura Bush began to resemble a more three-dimensional person than the White House Commemorative Paper Doll book would have you believe.

Drawing “particular inspiration” from Gerhart’s book, Curtis Sittenfeld has centered her latest novel around a similar, but fictional, First Lady in American Wife.

When the novel opens, we learn the narrator, Alice Blackwell, is spending a wakeful night tossing and turning over the possibility she has jeopardized her husband’s presidency. Her husband, Charlie Blackwell, is a former playboy from a venerable Republican family. President Blackwell was elected in 2000 even though he lost the popular vote. Apart from a failed congressional run, his only political experience has been serving as the governor of Tex- I mean Wisconsin.

We follow Alice back through her school days, courtship with Charlie, and the early years of motherhood, and finally meet up with her again in the White House. The narrative slows down to reveal the events of a single day where Alice must fix a problem that has arisen from her past and deal with an anti-war protester camping out in front of the White House.

Earlier in the novel on page 321, Alice muses that "being a reader was what had made me most myself; it had given me the gifts of curiosity and sympathy, an awareness of the world as an odd and vibrant and contradictory place, and it had made me unafraid of its oddness and vibrancy and contradictions.”

But had it made her unafraid? She seems somewhat afraid to face the contradictions of her own marriage. Although she’s a Democrat married to a Republican, a pro-choicer married to a conservative Christian, an anti-war sympathizer married to a Commander in Chief, these contradictions are kept under wraps through her terse comments to the press and focus on causes such as literacy rather than forays into more controversial policy. When she finally does reveal her true beliefs on the controversial issues, she threatens not only her husband, her own source of vibrancy, but a presidency.

Sittenfeld’s success in creating a plausible narrator and realistic supporting cast of characters from Miss Ruby, the Blackwell’s housekeeper, to Snowflake, the White House cat, tempts one to wonder how realistic is this fiction. And in doing so, we become much more sympathetic to the plight of those in positions of power, not necessarily the politicians, but the wives, mothers, and even readers. We after all have the power to decide if Alice is passive or prudent, mousy or mysterious. And we may choose to consider Charlie charming or vexing, well-meaning or just well-off. And in deliberating these fictional characters, one is tempted to reexamine their counterparts in real life. As a result, we may find more empathy than anger, more curiosity than cringing.

Hear Curtis Sittenfeld talking about her work on Fresh Air. Look for the link under References.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

That thing is Toad!

When Frog discovers that the monster crashing through the woods covered with twigs and chocolate ice cream is his friend Toad, P. exclaims, “That thing is Toad!” The story “Ice Cream” found in Frog and Toad All Year is just one of our favorites from a series by Arnold Lobel.

Lobel’s four award winning story collections chronicle a friendship. Like any other friends, Frog and Toad can be both sweet – they compliment each other for being brave while one is hiding under the covers and the other is in the closet - and mean – Frog demonstrates will power by throwing Toad’s homemade cookies to the birds.

Written for the “I Can Read” set, these books have somewhat simple sentence structures and vocabulary. However, for the pre-reader this results in easily memorizing the words. P. even repeats lines from the book when we’re not even reading. She surprised me one day when she said to her stuffed monkey, “my best friend is trying to kill me.”

While the simple sentences pose the danger of sounding stilted when read out loud, the suspenseful plot of most of the stories keep the pages turning far past bedtime. We wonder “Is spring just around the corner?” and “Will Toad have to use the frying pan to rescue Frog?” You’ll also want to keep reading for the whimsically tinted illustrations which reveal a world of cozy cottages, curiously dressed animals (a jacket but no shirt? an amphibian in a swimsuit?), and imaginative monsters.

Although these books were first published in the seventies, no one my age seems to remember them. However I’ve inadvertently started a fan club by giving their children the books for their birthdays. One boy liked it so much he spent his next birthday at the musical, A Year with Frog and Toad. I haven’t seen it but I can already tell any show that boasts the musical number “Getta Loada Toad” has got to be worth seeing. In the meantime, is it bedtime yet?

Outtakes from a Marriage by Ann Leary - Cut!

Frank McCourt, Tom Perrotta, Dani Shapiro. When these blurb writers write “crackling wit,” “ruefully funny,” and “hilarious” are they referring to this book? I may have missed something. Perhaps the amusing parts happened when I put the book down to check on E. Maybe if I hadn’t come across similar characters and plot before in books like Certain Girls, The Ten-Year Nap, What Do You Do All Day, and I Don’t Know How She Does It, I could agree with the blurbers.

Chicklit or pulletlit as I’d like to dub it (motherhenlit would imply too much wisdom) is rampant with these stock characters:

Disgruntled stay-at-home mom (with a nanny) who wants to write a children’s book worries she is getting fat
Rich husband who may or may not be having an affair
The bitchy mom that runs the parent’s club

Then there’s the plot:
Wife suspects husband of having an affair when she mistakenly checks his phone’s voicemail rather than hers (they use the same password) and hears several dirty messages. Husband denies said affair saying he’s helping an Australian actress friend with her American dialect. Hilarity ensues.
Perhaps if the plot traversed a different line than events surrounding the main characters’ preparations for the Golden Globes, I would be a little more interested or sympathetic or willing to laugh.

If you are going to spend time reading this stuff, go for a better story. Here are three better options:

Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner also features a writer struggling with her weight but this one is married to her weight loss doctor. At least the main character is somewhat introspective as she realizes her annoyance with her own mother’s interference in her life mirrors her teenage daughter’s annoyance with her. Gotta love a character whose review calls her “feisty.” This book is actually a sequel to Good In Bed so read both if you are interested in following the same characters.

What Do You Do All Day? by Amy Scheibe did make me laugh. In a good way. The main character describes what happens when her husband leaves on a three-month business trip and she is left with a five-year-old and toddler.

Maybe because it’s British I don’t hold its subject matter against it, but I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson is worth reading. In a Bridget Jonesesque manner, the narrator tells her story as a work-outside-the-home mom (see, an original character already) and her struggles with two small children and a husband that earns less than she does.

As far as Outtakes, the only McCourt comment (definitely taken out of context) I would agree with reads, “I envy all who haven’t read this book.”

Banishing Livesey: The House on Fortune Street

I first discovered Margot Livesey with Banishing Verona. I marveled at her description, laughed with her characters, and eagerly looked for her other works. Her latest work is The House on Fortune Street, a story of the events leading up to (and away from) a suicide.

Moving from scenes set in Scotland and England, the four narrators tell bits of the same story. Sean, the first narrator, lives with Abigail. He and Abigail live upstairs from Abigail’s college friend Dara. Ironically Sean is writing a book about how to help your friends commit suicide (i.e. euthanasia) after abandoning his dissertation on Keats. Dara’s father Cameron narrates the second section. He describes his struggle with a disturbing “difference” which leads to the break-up of his marriage. We hear Dara’s version of events in the third. Even with her professional counseling skills, she has trouble coping with her father's abandonment and managing her current affair. And finally Abigail wraps up the novel from her perspective. Abigail relates the trials of her transient childhood. When she meets the already-married Sean, she is in the midst of a fledgling acting career.

Livesey has once again created memorable characters. But none are really likeable. Sean mopes with writer’s block. Cameron struggles not to be creepy. Dara seems tetchy. Abigail, in being self-sufficient, has become self-centered as well. All of the characters betray their intimates - whether it's by cheating on a spouse, a lover, or pining after Lolita. No surprise then that one of them commits suicide. If you want to read an uplifting Livesey, reach for Banishing Verona. If not, try your luck on Fortune Street.