Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No, Virginia

There is no such thing as Santa Claus or your father’s law degree.

Laurie Sandell grows up believing her father’s stories…grenades and diamonds, stints on the National Security Council, and hobnobs with the pope. But her suspicions arise when as a teenager, she watches her father build a bomb shelter in the basement and stock an attic arsenal. Finally as a college student, her image of her father as a Rushmore-size personality begins to shrink when she discovers he’s been racking up debt in her name on ill-gotten credit card accounts.

In her “true memoir” The Imposter’s Daughter, Sandell has broken her life into graphic novel blocks illustrating her disillusionment with her adored father. While she is investigating her father’s true identity, she’s jetting around the country writing celebrity profiles for Glamour and pursuing a long distance relationship with Ben, a screenwriter she met on the Internet.

Sound fascinating? Indeed. You’ll speed through this one as fast as the author goes through her prescription for Ambien. And you'll sleep just as soundly knowing you could never write such a book about your father. Or could you?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Candy, Nuts and Ladies Underwear

I would have posted yesterday, but I was up late finishing a real find.

It’s the 1930s in Middle Swan, Colorado. Hennie, who was made a young widow by the Civil War, doesn’t want to leave her mountain home, but her daughter Mae wants her to come live with her. As she enters her last seasons in Middle Swan, Hennie meets Nit, a young woman seeking to buy a prayer. Through coffee cake and quilting, Hennie helps the new arrival acclimate to life in the small gold mining town.

Through Hennie’s recollections and reflections, Sandra Dallas pieces together bits of romance, loss, and retribution in Prayers for Sale. Her language more than anything creates a sense of time and place. Nit’s husband fears being hoovered from his tenuous job on the dredge but looks forward to a tasty hereafter (dessert). Middle Swaners take leave of one another with “tap ‘er light.” The final leaving is referred to as a planting.

Should you read this one? As Nit likes to say,“Hello yes!” This one's sound as a dollar.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Going up?

Blythe Young is on the lam from the IRS, numerous creditors, and a vindictive Austin socialite named Kippie Lee. After a rags-to-riches marriage unravels, Blythe seeks refuge with Millie, her former roommate who is still living in the Seneca House co-op they inhabited in college. Millie, now an un-ordained minister, spends her days feeding the homeless, the unemployed day laborers, and teen runaways that panhandle on the Drag.

No longer able to rely on the drugs and alcohol she needs to get through her day as a bankrupt extreme events coordinator, Blythe turns to her far worse habit of manipulation. After alienating Millie by forcing a love confession from her already-spoken-for-in-an-arranged-marriage-sort-of-way crush Sanjeev, Blythe is kicked out of the house. Blythe, and the novel, finally finds her groove when she successfully coordinates a last-minute retreat for Kippie Lee’s gang at the Seneca “Spa.”

Sometimes silly, sometimes trite, sometimes funny, sometimes not, How Perfect is That by Sarah Bird isn’t. What it is, however, is entertaining. Like its characters, the novel is over-the-top at every possible moment. In it you’ll find at least one characterization of every person you’ve ever met living in Austin from the Whole Foods bagger/bassist to the Westlake malpractice lawyer who hires Lyle Lovett to entertain at parties.

With reading, “sometimes you get the elevator, sometimes you get the shaft” (to borrow a line from the novel). But Bird’s writing, as evidenced in her other books I’ve read (The Mommy Club and The Flamenco Academy), never fails to give you a lift.

Find Bird's writing for Texas Monthly here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Humbug

Can't find your copy of A Christmas Carol? Click here to read a classic.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"There’s no turkey in it."

This was my four-year-old’s assessment after sitting down with the first Thanksgiving book in our stack - Nickommoh! - and flipping through the pictures. Then as soon as I began reading the first page (“Kautantawwitt, the Creator…”), my listener exclaimed, “English please!” After stumbling through the pronunciation of “Taqountikeeswush” and “Qunnekamuck” I too was thinking, “English please!” Unfamiliar language aside, Jackie French Koller weaves together an intriguing story of a Narragansett harvest celebration. We watch as they build the lodge, prepare the nasaump pudding, swim in the river, and dress in paints for the singing and dancing in the Sacred Circle. The illustrations by Marcia Sewall are a pleasure to look at – from bold black lines outlining photorealistic features on one page to the rough figures sketched around a bonfire on another.

The other book we were able to procure from the library two days before Thanksgiving was Word Bird’s Thanksgiving Words by Jane Belk Moncure and illustrated by Chris McEwan. Despite the inclusion of a turkey, my (picky) listener decided this one is “not really cool because that turkey’s not cool.” Cool?

We decided to stick with this week’s Pre-K issue of the Weekly Reader for our Thanksgiving reading. Gobble up some fun Thanksgiving Facts here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanks a Lot

What will it be this year? Sunflower Rice Patties? Not-Too-Dirty-Rice? Cocoa Avocado Mousse?

I found these potential Thanksgiving (ahem) delicacies in the following new (to me) vegetarian cookbooks.

Get It Ripe by Jae Steele
I don’t mind the occasional “chik” on my plate, but the spellings in this vegan cookbook (Creemy Rice Pudding, Chewy Peanut Buttah Cookies) take the cutesy a bit far. I did like Steele’s section on menu ideas which divides the book’s recipes into meal and holiday plans. Although for my next “living foods feast,” I’m thinking I’ll skip dessert (Avocado Mousse). For Thanksgiving, either the Spiced Squash Muffins or The Good Shepherd’s Pie seem like safe bets.

Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry
Each recipe in Terry’s book is accompanied by a personal comment or suggestion for improving your cooking game AND ideas for music to dice to. A palatable symphony. I’m not sure how well his “Sweet Thang” recipe for Maple Yam-Ginger Pie would go over at our table, but the Boppin’ John might be worth a try…for New Year’s.

Enemy of the Steak by Nikki and David Goldbeck
The Goldbecks’ latest book introduces the vegetarian recipes with a section called Basic Training. With detailed instructions and cooking times for stewing beans, soaking grains, and grilling vegetables, you can finally use those speckled beans that have been eyeing you from the pantry. I’ll take pity on the carnivores and opt out of the Orange Arame Salad and Rare Root Stew, but perhaps the Maple Pecan Tempeh won’t feel too neglected next to the green bean casserole and that last turkey leg.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Stories by Tracy Winn

Lowell, Massachusetts has been popping up in any printed material I’ve picked up lately. Most recently it’s appeared as the thread binding the stories in a first collection by Tracy Winn. With characters as varied as the town’s economy, Winn will keep you reading long into third shift.

Read the title story here and see for yourself that Winn is (a Mrs.) somebody to watch.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Soup's Off?

One normally doesn’t associate the kitchen of a posh hotel with human trafficking, sex workers, and blackmail but maybe I’ve just been watching too much Top Chef and not enough CSI.

Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen serves up a cast of multinational night porters, sleazy managers, and working-class siblings. One of these siblings, Gabriel Lightfoot, is the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel. Gabe is biding his time at the hotel while he tries to pull the financing together to open his own place. He is also debating proposing to his nightclub-singer-girlfriend even while sheltering one of the above-mentioned sex workers in his apartment. As if that weren’t enough of a full plate, Gabe learns his father has cancer.

You may remember Ali from her previous book Brick Lane (or seen the film). Perhaps she’s bit off too much in her latest endeavor. Not only does Kitchen tackle Gabe’s present menu of troubles, but it doesn’t blanch at including numerous flashbacks to Gabe’s childhood as well as throwing in the back story of almost all of the immigrants who work in his kitchen. We read of Gabe’s visits to his father’s mill and his delights in the antics of his madcap mother. Well, the madcap turns out to be simply mad, as Gabe learns near the end of the book, just in time for his own mental tray of dishes to come crashing down.

Like the diners who clap at the sound of shattered plates, you may applaud Ali’s efforts. Will you be praising her examination of the breadth of human folly or simply pleased the last page is imminent? It all depends on your taste. This book has a little (or should I say a little too much) for everyone. Immigrant struggle, illicit sex, sibling rivalry, and fledgling entrepreneurship - you will be sated. Bon Appétit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creepy-Crawly Catchy

When Jezebel’s Papa leaves for the war, she runs away to the forest. Despite the “googery-boogery creepy-crawly catchy” feeling in that spooky place, she claims it for her own.

As the seasons pass, the lonely feeling of missing her Papa doesn’t. Again and again she seeks out her spot even though she’s up against spiders, swamp ghosts, and pixie lights libel to steal her soul.

The book is Jezebel’s Spooky Spot by Alice Ross and Kent Ross and illustrated by Ted Rand. Like Jezebel’s Little Brother, your listener will be hanging on to every word. And you won’t mind reading it again because how often do you get to say “lawse a mercy”?

Speaking of spooky, I've included a new link to an interview with Maurice Sendak. Look on the right side of this page under audio.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

The scope of this novel is deceiving. Perhaps because Irish immigration is so enmeshed with potato famines, I kept having to remind myself the story begins in the 1960s rather than the 1860s. But reading of a childhood sans electricity and indoor plumbing and the flight from Ireland not on a plane but on a ship, does put one in the mindset of Tammany Hall rather than Tammy Wynette.

The title refers to Ireland’s traveling people who wander from camp to camp doing odd jobs and begging to earn money. Michael Ward grows up in a traveling family, sleeps under the stars, but longs for a permanent roof. After running away from home, he finds shelter with the Cahill family and eventually accompanies the two Cahill sisters, Greta and Johanna, to New York.

Crossing the Atlantic, Michael and Johanna have a Titanic moment. Michael finds work in building maintenance, Greta goes to work for a department store, and Johanna abandons newborn Julia to seek her fortunes in California.

We catch up with Greta’s family in the late 70s. Rather than sparking a reunion, the death of her mother a few weeks after her daughter’s birth severs all ties to her family. Skipping ahead to the 80s, we find the family has managed to save enough to buy a house in suburbia. In the course of the move, Julia finds a tin of old letters that raises questions about why she’s never met her mother’s family.

In the novel’s final section, we delve into the preparations for Michael’s retirement party. Greta soon learns, however, that her kids have prepared a surprise for her as well. The surprise, it turns out for the reader, is just one of the many reasons that makes this novel so – as the Irish say - dear.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mama-Grace’s Cakes

You owe Gaile Parkin a big thank you. Instead of reading about Shop Your Closet by Melanie Fascitelli this week, you’ll get to enjoy Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali instead.

Baking Cakes tells the story of Angel, a native of Tanzania, who lives in Rwanda. When she’s not caring for her husband and five grandchildren, Angel bakes special occasion cakes out of her apartment. Each chapter of the book introduces us to a new cake client.

These clients represent different slices of Rwanda’s tumultuous history and pieced-together present. Foreign aid workers, university professors, local shop owners, and neighbors all request cakes. And in the course of filling out their order form, they reveal their, often sad, stories over a cup of tea.

These vignettes could easily have been plated as short stories, but Parkin allows Angel to introduce one client to another – creating a community that happily pitches in for the book’s wedding celebration finale.

Though many of the stories Angel hears deal with grief, Parkin tempers all the sadness with sprinkles of humor. Baby names, condoms, and Oprah all give Angel something to smile about. Smiles she surely needs since Angel is also coming to terms with her own daughter’s AIDS-related death.

Now go rummage through your messy closet to unearth those sweat pants, grab a cupcake (or ten), and dig in.

Mama-Grace’s Cupcakes
(makes a dozen)

½ cup of sugar
½ cup of Blue Band (aka 1 stick of margarine), softened
2 eggs
1 cup of flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Preaheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream the sugar and margarine. Add the eggs. Sift in the flour and baking powder. Mix until creamy. Spoon into cupcake molds. Bake for 20 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes are lightly browned. When cooled, ice with the frosting of your choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not Those Fugees

I could have started this post by writing about living in a small town in Oregon – delivering mattresses to migrant farm worker families in the morning, eating lunch in a restaurant run by a Russian Orthodox family, and making marionberry jam with a retired farmer whose parents immigrated from Poland.

I also thought about starting this post by relaying the harrowing tales I’ve heard from my ESL students from Sudan.

Or perhaps I could have begun with the birthday party of the Kurdish women I tutored where I arrived on time (but hours early nevertheless) and delighted in watching the dancing under a hot Arlington summer sun.

Or that time I arrived for my soccer game with only one shoe…Ok, that last example didn’t happen to me. It comes from the book that awakened all these memories. Outcasts United by Warren St. John is about a youth soccer league comprised of refugees. The boys come from Liberia, Sudan, and Iraq. Their coach, Luma al Mufleh, is from Jordan. They all live in a small town outside Atlanta, Georgia.

Though they lack shoes and even at times a practice field, the team manages to win games. Even the non-sports fan will eagerly look forward to St. John’s engrossing replays of the games. Equally fascinating, are the stories that happen off the field. The players offsides include the mayor who enforces bogus park rules, police officers who are ticket happy (and at times slap happy), and the town denizens who are none too pleased with their new neighbors.

After you race through this one, you’ll want to roll out St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer about Alabama football. It’s another slam dunk..er..touchdown.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Barbarism in this Beauty

Buntings and bourbon fly through Buenos Aires and small town New York. A teenager looks for romance in a Chinese restaurant/brothel, an invalid heiress elopes with her swim instructor, and a majorette catches herself on fire. These stories have alighted in Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds.

In the title story, a female journalist must evacuate with a team of male reporters during World War II. She is nicknamed “l’ ortolan” for the delicacy diners devour while veiling their faces with a napkin. She herself proves to be a dish when she and her colleagues are captured by a sadistic German.

When you’ve finished these stories, you’ll want to turn to Groff’s first book – The Monsters of Templeton. Truly epic in heft and scope, Monsters is a story of origin. One woman researches the town lore to discover her father’s identity. In doing so, she unravels a complicated family tree with chapters giving voice to minor characters from her past.

Mythical Realism. I don’t know if this is a thing, but Lauren Groff should be the poster child. Her work contains the same unsettling plot twists you’ve come to expect from stories of metamorphosis while her prose may prove as timeless as Sisyphus’ task.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Banzai Akita

Lately I’ve been running hills. I was feeling pretty good about my endurance until I read this book about a man who also runs. Up mountains. To kill bears.

Morie Sawataishi, the subject of Dog Man by Martha Sherrill, engages in these activities to train his prize winning Akitas. Although the book describes Morie’s quest to breed the ultimate Akita, this is no Best in Show. Through chapters named for the dogs he raised over a lifetime from No Name to Shiro, we read about the venture from both Morie and his family’s perspective.

Despite the money to be made selling dogs – first to the American servicemen and then to avid Akita fans - Morie refuses to take money for a dog, preferring to give them away. This causes some raised eyebrows (and voices) in his household, since his wife Kitako, a society girl turned mountain mama, remembers the lean times. Little rice, little meat, and little heat was to be found in their remote village in post-war Japan. Despite the deprivation, the dogs never went hungry.

Later in the book we hear from Morie’s children – a vet, a Vidal Sassoon hair stylist – about Morie’s enthusiasm for all things Akita. And his reticence when it came to his own children.

This is a book about a man who loves dogs. What he loves most about them isn’t their physical appearance or their promise of riches. And he most certainly doesn’t teach them tricks. What he really strives for is a dog with kisho. Funnily enough, it’s this kisho, or life force, that Morie himself embodies in these pages.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

MS+JF= BFF

Some rely on Harlequin romances. Some on cat mysteries. Still others on Stephanie Myers. My guilty pleasure? Juvenile fiction.

Recently I dusted off some old favorites by Lois Lowry, Ellen Raskin, and Cynthia Voigt. Somewhat disenchanted with the last, I decided to see what young readers today have to pick from. Luckily, I've been following just the blog to help me choose.

First on the cart - Cassie was Here by Caroline Hickey. In this one, eleven-year-old Bree sways between a friend who’s too childish and one who's too mature. I found myself shifting allegiances, also. First, I was rooting for cool Cassie but then found myself feeling sad at the demise of Bree's (ahem) imaginary pal.

Next in line - My Life in Pink and Green by Lisa Greenwald. Lucy, a wannabe make-up artist, tries to save her family’s pharmacy by going green. I liked this one as well but found the beauty tips at the beginning of each chapter a little silly. But then again, I'm not exactly the target reader.

Shhhh. Don't tell.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte

I’ve broken every rule in this book. I’d say more, but I’ve got some Power Points to revise.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

“not all beer and skittles”

So remarked Ezra Jack Keats after winning the Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day. His quote reflects the controversy his books sparked for being done by a white illustrator featuring multicultural characters. Although his character Peter was inspired by a picture of a little boy he saw in a copy of Life, Keats drew from his own life - he grew up in a Brooklyn tenement during the Depression - to create Peter’s world.

All this comes from Keats’s Neighborhood, a collection of 10 stories compiled on the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Snowy Day. The treasury also includes a short biography of Keats and remembrances of his life and work from other children’s illustrators including Eric Carle and Reynold Ruffins.

My favorite story of the collection, apart from The Snowy Day, is A Letter to Amy. In this story, Peter’s having a birthday party. He decides to invite a girl to the party and writes his friend Amy a special invitation. On his way to the mailbox, a storm whips the envelope from his hand. Amy finds it, but before she can pick it up, Peter snatches it so he can mail it according to plan. The party day arrives and we wait to see if Amy will indeed show up. Waiting isn’t hard, since it gives us time to take in the details of the party hats, curtains, and Peter’s tie.

My daughter’s favorite stories in the collection include Peter’s Chair and Jennie’s Hat. In her words, “what I like about them is I like the story.” But what I like about them is the illustrations. Keats’s technique of marbeling and cutting paper for collage makes his pictures vibrantly pop off the page. From hodgepodged hats of valentines and eggs to weathered circulars peeling off the bricks outside the Chinese laundry “How Soon,” Keats can set the scene.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Charmed, I’m Sure

Once upon a time there were three sisters. Fluent in the make-believe language Arnish, they spent their dreaming moments in a faery realm. Banished from her daughters’ secret world, their mother spent most of her waking moments cultivating heirloom tomatoes in her garden.

Years passed. Once so close, the sisters realigned allegiances in high school when the eldest, Elv, began rebelling. Betrayed by her sisters into rehab, Elv met Lorry. Lorry instantly ensnared her heart with a tale of a youth spent living underground in abandoned subway stations. The two storytellers, with a little help from heroin, managed a life together. Meanwhile the youngest, Claire, unable to deal with life’s loss, moved into her grandmother’s Paris apartment. After a slice of Honesty Cake (fresh eggs, flour, sugar, lemon rind, anise seed and dry cherries), Claire was hired by a family friend to work in a jewelry store. Eventually, Claire won her sister back through charms crafted for Elv’s daughter Mimi. And they all lived happily ever after.

Or did they?

Alice Hoffman, like the protagonist of The Story Sisters, is a born storyteller. She breathes life into characters that join us on our commute, read over our shoulders, linger over dessert. Like others we spend our days around, they annoy, entrance, humor, and perplex us. Equally as perplexing is the ending. Heartbreakingly tragic or sigh-of-relief sweet? I’m still not sure. Maybe I’m just disappointed the tale had to end at all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It's Your Turn

It all begins with a storybook wedding. Sex. Kids. And then either:

A) both parents work, children are cared for by someone else
B) one parent works, leaving the other parent as the “stay-at-home”
C) one parent works, one parent stays-at-home writing, and a housekeeper and nanny are hired

It’s a good thing she chose C.

Caitlin Flanagan has compiled a mope-conquering collection of essays examining woman’s work in To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.

I first discovered Flanagan when I came across her article “Housewife Confidential” in the Atlantic. To Hell with All That includes an expanded version of this article which examines what the original housewife authors from Bombeck to Bracken had to say – don’t throw out your sense of humor with the dishwater.

Flanagan moves on to discuss the phenom of today’s mother’s little helper. Not valium. The nanny. After investigating the rise of the governess culminating in Disney’s Mary Poppins, Flanagan relates her own experience as the mother of twin boys and employeer of help more likely to be named Maria than Mary. Paloma, it turns out, is a godsend. She cleans, she cooks, she quiets the boys with a look. And Flanagan loves it. When she’s not questioning her own role in the whole endeavor.

After the boys have grown, Flanagan hires a housekeeper to take up where the nanny left off, which leaver her more time to manage the family’s schedule (and its clutter). Essays on both resonate and cheekily point out the ridiculousness of it all.

And then there’s the husband. Poor him. Really. He’s gone from the housewife’s main preoccupation to an afterthought somewhere between Little Gym and pet vaccinations in the stay-at-home’s day planner. Flanagan’s words from page 36:

“He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she’s jolly well in the mood…and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids’ dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.”

I’m going to tape that quote to my fridge. Just as soon as I wipe that crusty stuff out of the produce bin and alphabetize the chutneys.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gum Arabic

Grand-maman presides over the table covered in her mother’s tablecloth. Beautiful people lounge in mismatched wooden chairs set on the grass. It’s Sunday and children are in from the city seeking escape from their day jobs in publishing, finance, and children’s clothing design. Carafes of wine, children in spotless white, women in tastefully wrinkled linen. Cheese for dessert.

If you’ve been waiting to recreate such a scene, here’s the manual: A Well Kept Home: Household Traditions and Simple Secrets from a French Grandmother by Laura Fronty and Yves Duronsoy.

In this book, Fronty and Duronsoy have created a tisane of beautiful photographs (straw hats, lily oil), vintage recipes (Colette’s quince water, Dumas’ butter), and practical home keeping advice (returning the shine to glassware, keeping moths away with peppercorns). Sprinkled throughout are Fronty’s reminisces about lemon balm, ivy water used to wash silk, and a time when currants, quince pips, and bergamot oil were household staples.

Although I don’t own a straw hat, my wine glasses, sadly neglected, are cloudy. I took a recipe from this book and am, as I write, hoping the vinegar/egg shell mix works its magic. If it does, I may drag my own mismatched set of wooden chairs out on the lawn, sip a glass of wine, and savor the plate of plum cake at my feet – though I daresay my children won’t be wearing white anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Square One

My dad is a man of habit. Every morning he pours a cup of coffee, opens the paper, and after reading the news, works the puzzles. From solving the Dallas Time Herald's crossword of 30 years ago or the Ft. Worth Star Telegram's sudoku of today, he is purportedly in great shape to stave off Alzheimer's. Or so I believed until picking up Dean Olsher's From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords.

Olsher doggedly fills in the pages of this book as one might solve the Sunday New York Times puzzle - going across with one topic, down to another, then back to the stumpers. Among the stumpers he tackles are why musical theater lyricists make great puzzle constructors, why more couples aren’t doing crosswords together, and why you should try belly dancing if you are really interested in delaying the onset of dementia (are you taking notes, Dad?).

Like Olsher, I habitually become obsessed with doing crosswords. Three hours into labor with my daughter found me working the Monday New York Times puzzle. Recuperating after the birth of my son, I worked through a Variety collection of word games. Usually the Sunday morning drive to church finds me listening for Will Shortz’ weekly puzzle challenge on NPR. I actually have been intending to see Wordplay, a movie Olsher mentions about competitive crossword tournaments. Now thanks to Olsher, I’ve got a new obsession – the cryptic.

By the end of his book, Olsher's moved away (or across) from crosswords to explaining the rules for solving cryptics. Perhaps Olsher's only trying to jumpstart the publishing industry with a new wave of cryptic books. After all, according to Olsher, Simon & Schuster got its start from the popularity of a series of "Cross Word" books in the 1920s. Farrar, Straus and Giroux received financial backing from Farrar's wife Margaret, who made her living as the NY Times crossword editor in the 1940s. Whatever his motive, Olsher succeeded in getting one reader to try her hand (and even more trying, her brain) at this cryptic. You can find instructions here, reader, if you are so inclined. If not, take it from Square One.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If you like...

You've read everything Jodi Picoult has written. Now what?

Welcome to the world of "If you like" lists. I first discovered such lists on the Seattle Public Library website. Now, sadly, most of their resources are reserved for card holders. But a multitude of libraries have jumped on the book wagon and have lists accessible to anyone who can google.

Here are a few I found:

Clifton Park Library
Multnomah County Library
Oxford County Library
Wake County Public Libraries

By the way, if you do like Jodi Picoult, then you'll probably like Michelle Richmond's The Year of Fog and No One You Know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Skimming the Stacks

So it seems I’ve fallen out of favor with the librarians. Somebody shelved the books I had on reserve leaving me no recourse but to quickly browse the shelves for something (anything) to read.

That’s how I found these three. As usual I have a knack for picking out the funny, the lyrical, and the heartbreaking.

We Are All Fine Here by Mary Guterson

Julia & Ray & Jim & Patricia. Julia is married to Jim, sleeps with Ray, and is jealous of Jim’s infatuation with Patricia. One pregnancy at 39 later, Julia‘s frank, funny observations of her mid-life predicament make you wish you said it first.


The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo

A portrait of an artist as a young man pining for the time when his mother read him Ovid morphs into a day job at 39 writing obituaries of former Rockettes. At night, he spies on the owners of his dream house, ghost-writes a best selling pulp series, and creates assemblage boxes of found objects. After being diagnosed with cancer, he travels to Mexico and falls into a camp of misfits led by an indigo child. Winged but somewhat unhinged, he begins another transformation. More Marquez than New Agez, D’Erasmo’s prose pulls it off.


The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson

Zephyr marries Zipper. Zephyr greets the neighbors on Sundays. Zipper writes for a fashion magazine. Zephyr finds out he has 30 days to live. Zipper accompanies him on an alphabetical last-days tour…Amsterdam, Berlin, Chartres. Poignant characters carry this slim novella though the conceit loses steam around LMNOP.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"No Deal?"

If I ever get Parkinson’s, don’t take me anywhere near this place. The dopamine stimulants used to treat the disease have been linked to an increased risk of gambling and other reward-based compulsive behaviors - behaviors that many might view as plain old poor decisions.

Poor decisions, and good decisions, are the subject of Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.
Opening with quarterbacks, Lehrer then follows a poker player, credit counselor, and soap opera director (among others) to illustrate the brain functions that guide our decisions. He delineates the different types of decisions we face from simple to complex and explains whether we should draw from the rational or emotional in making up our minds.

If a decision can be summarized in numerical terms, such as price, he suggests utilizing the prefrontal cortex. Therefore making the best decision on which cereal to spoon up or which suitcase to open on Deal or No Deal requires a little thought.

Likewise, he also suggests using reason to work out new problems. While we can rely on past mistakes and our gut when encountering most problems, novel crises require an application of logic. He cites two cases involving a firefighter and pilot who both took the time to think through their life-threatening dilemmas and saved some lives in the process.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, with more complex decisions such as buying a new house or car, Lehrer cautions us not to over think. He says you may just rationalize yourself into a third bathroom by telling yourself that hour long commute isn’t that bad. It is.

To sum up, Lehrer advises us overall to think about thinking. Be aware of the kind of decision you are faced with. Then approach it rationally or emotionally. We can learn from our mistakes and listen to the emotional brain that has formed around those mistakes. Unless, of course, you are playing the slot machines.

To read more of Lehrer, read his Frontal Cortex blog or find him at Scientific American.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Klingon Poets

This summer leaves me little time to read with a growing list of books I’d love to read. Here is my short list. Small wonder they were all either written by speakers of other languages or by speakers attempting to learn other languages. Click on the highlighted words to read more about each book and/or author.


Dreaming in Hindi:Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Hear an interview with Adichie here.

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
Hear an interview with Gappah here.

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language by Arika Okrent

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To Peruse at Your Leisure

“You are not married. Perhaps you are looking for a husband. This is for you to peruse at your leisure.”

So proposes a man named Suketu as he hands his CV to an American microbiologist traveling in India in the opening story of John Murray’s A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Like the microbiologist, we’re both delighted and a little overwhelmed as we encounter the eccentric characters and often tragic details throughout the collection of stories.

Many of the stories explore the relationships between estranged family members. Many of the stories feature doctors. Most mention Darwin. We read about surgeons assisting refugees near the Congo border, Indian immigrants making a go of it in Vietnam-era Iowa, and mad explorers searching for Queen Alexandria’s birdwing butterfly.

Murray’s prose, like his characters’ penchant for order and adventure, is straightforward yet touching. Unfortunately, this is a debut, so other works are not available as of yet. In the meantime, I may just have to seek out a copy of The Vogage of the Beagle.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Backyard Agains

Long before we were lounging by the pool, long before there was a pool, we had a gorgeous pecan tree in our backyard. One of the branches arched out perfectly to support a hammock. Since we didn’t have air conditioning, long summer afternoons often found someone in the hammock reading, a bowl of frozen grapes slowly turning soft on the makeshift brick patio.

Such afternoons were perfect for Ann Tyler: Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, or my perennial favorite, Saint Maybe.

Bee and Doug Bedloe have successfully raised three happy and healthy children and are looking forward to retirement. When their son Danny unexpectedly dies, they are reluctant to start all over in raising his infant daughter and two young step-children. But after Danny’s brother Ian wanders into the Church of the Second Chance, he realizes he must drop out of college to be the one to raise the children. Twenty years fly by and as Ian turns out tables as a woodworker, the tables turn on him. Although he still worries over the children, they start worrying over him.

Whether it’s a day spent at vacation bible school, a long walk to seduce the typewriter salesman, or a disappointing Christmas visit home, Tyler’s descriptions aptly evoke the skepticism of childhood, the despair of young motherhood, and the maddening quirks of family members long set in their ways. Mundane, yes. Engrossing, definitely.

More hammock reads for kids and teens can be found here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Grit

Hearing Richard Price extolled again and again on Fresh Air for his mastery of dialogue, I decided to venture into the section of the library where many of the dust jacket blurbs proclaim “gritty.” I begrudgingly picked up Samaritan and rushed back two days later for Lush Life.

Samaritan proves you can go home again but may get a severe concussion as a result. Ray Mitchell returns to his home town after a stint as a Hollywood writer and soon ends up in the ICU after being attacked in his apartment. He refuses to name his attacker but a childhood friend, now detective, Nerese Ammons is determined to make an arrest regardless.

Lush Life takes place on the Lower East Side, where every bartender has a screenplay under the bar and every waiter has a casting call after work. When a mugging goes awry leaving one up and comer dead, detectives aren’t sure who’s telling the real story and who’s just acting the part.

Can’t afford to go see the latest summer blockbuster? Price provides an action-packed thrill with dialogue you’ll probably be hearing in next summer’s box office hit.

Find another summer reading list here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Swimming Lessons

You’ve seen one dead man’s float you’ve seen em all.

While the kids are at their swimming lesson, dive into Philip Galanes' latest. Slender in size, Emma’s Table fits quite nicely in the tote between the sunscreen and Dora towcho.

As the kids are getting into the pool, you'll be diving into a tale of an Oprah-famous decorating maven trying to regroup after a year spent in jail. Did I mention this was ficition? One Nakashima table later, Emma subsequently befriends a rival bidder, beds her ex-husband, and belittles her talented but misguided daughter.

Vanity Fair compelling, this one doesn't require too much effort to keep up with the plot. That's a good thing since you know you'll be looking up every few minutes to make sure that's not your child refusing to get her face wet.


More summer reads here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sonic Youth

The air conditioner in my apartment sucks. This is June in Texas after all. So I pile the kids in the station wagon and drive down the block to Sonic.

Rolling down the windows lets in a light breeze tinged with the smell of the afternoon’s tater tots. Moments later our drinks arrive. I unwrap the extra straw to keep the nine-month-old occupied, hand back the strawberry shake to my daughter, and open The Red Convertible.

Louise Erdrich’s collection of short stories is part tart, part sweet, just like the cherry limeade in the cup holder. And I even manage to finish a couple of the stories before my three-year-old pokes a hole in the Styrofoam cup, and we find a use for all those extra napkins.

Looking for more summer reads? Try this list.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Jesus Junk"

Ever wonder what happened to Willie Aames? I hadn’t either until I came across the chapter on Bibleman in Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready.

From skater devotionals to the UCW (Ultimate Christian Wrestling), Radosh has pulled together a surprising page-turner on Christian culture. Radosh, who is Jewish, examines the multi-faceted marketplace where Jesus is the reason to spend your money. He spends nary a moment at an actual church service but divides his time between passion plays, raves, and comedy acts.

Journey with him to get Kirk Cameron’s autograph inside a mock museum of evolution (Exhibit A: “The Ascent of Women (rescheduled due to hair appointment)”), hang out at the Cornerstone music festival (“Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?”), and sit in on a seminar on sex ( "We discovered that God’s Word is holy and hot.”).

But wait, there’s more. A handy web appendix of video clips allow the table of contents to speak for themselves.

Testamint, anyone?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Feeling WASPish?

You know that friend of yours that sends the funny emails, takes her kids to pick organic produce, and married the sickeningly handsome poetry professor? Well, she wrote a book.

To be exact, she wrote a memoir about her divorce. These seem to be all the rage these days. An Amazon search for "divorce memoir" came back with 896 titles. Among them - Split, Eat Pray Love, and now, Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.

Whether you read this as a cautionary tale, for solace, or simply because she's that chick from Law and Order, you'll find a strange form of escapism in this memoir if you've always longed to be one of those people that "summers."

Gillies and her husband Josiah move to Ohio when he gets hired to teach at Oberlin. As Gillies writes, "I got a thrill knowing I was going to take on my children without help, cook every meal, and go it on my own in a new town where I knew nobody." A few pages later, she and the children (and summer babysitter) travel from the summer house in Maine to Ohio to join Josiah who is already there. When he fails to prepare dinner for their arrival, we can already see where this marriage is headed.

A few idyllic decriptions of William Morris wallpaper and produce stands later, enter Sylvia stage left. Sylvia is the latest English dept. hire at Oberlin. Although Gillies confesses she - like her mother - says certain words in French, Sylvia is French, a smoker, and curiously married to her first cousin (conveniently left behind in New York). Befriended by Gillies, Sylvia eats at their house at least one night a week and asks Josiah for help in her job search. A few months later, at Gillies' suggestion, Sylvia and Josiah end up at the opera together one Sunday afternoon. When he returns, the following exchange occurs:
Gillies: "Bully, you were there for one hundred years."

Josiah: "I know. Awful - Go take a bath- I've got the boys."
As removed from reality as this dialogue seems, it's this very quality that keeps you transfixed from the first cat fight (fight about cats) to the moment Josiah tells her he's leaving. Like that friend you love to hate because she loses weight when she's stressed, paints her kitchen in a yellow named for her toddler, and gets paid to kiss Chris Meloni, you put up with her for her dramatic spin on things. And these days, you need that spin.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Outliers

A few weeks ago, I was telling my husband about the fascinating opening chapter of this book over dinner. Here’s the deal. The Canadian professional hockey world is dominated by players with January, February, and March birthdays. As author Malcom Gladwell explains, the cut-off is January 1st for the kiddie hockey leagues. Therefore, December boys are competing with the much bigger January boys. Of course size alone doesn’t determine success. The bigger boys, most often born in the early months of the year, are chosen to play on the select teams and receive better coaching, play more games, and invest in more practice time. AND that’s the kicker. Time. 10,000 hours of time should you want to be an expert at something.

The next thing I knew, the book had disappeared from my nightstand.

Once I got the book back from M, I was more intrigued by the chapter on plane crashes being caused by mitigated speech. Gladwell includes transcripts of Colombian and Korean co-pilots who hinted at dire circumstances rather than risk disrespecting their captain with more direct language. This combined along with minor technical glitches, bad weather, and pilot fatigue causes more crashes than I realized. Interestingly, Korean Air has improved their safety record by implementing an English-only policy for their pilots.

While I was finishing the book, M was working on some figures. He’s concluded that he’s got around 352,800 hours left: 88,200 for sleep, 147,000 for work, 29,400 for eating, and 88,200 hours for husbandry, fathering, and becoming an expert in...well, something.

As M contemplates his 10,000 hours, we’re also considering “red-shirting” or holding back our children who have July and August birthdays. The concern is they won’t be as developmentally ready to learn the same math concepts as those older September babies. And as Outliers emphasizes, success is all about opportuntity. And hours. Hours of practice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Library Valet

In the weeks leading up to E’s birth I requested several books on toddlers and babies through our library’s website. Since our library is part of a system of nearly 30 branches, it is much easier to go online and request that a certain book be transferred to my branch rather than try to browse or seek out call numbers with an active three-year-old. I usually go to the library once or twice a week to pick up the books I’ve reserved and to let P pick out books or DVDs.

After I had E, it was at least 10 days before I could get it together to go pick up my latest requests. Eager to show off the new baby – all the library ladies took an interest in my pregnancy - I went up to the desk. Before I could even find my library card, the librarians were already making trips to the back room to haul out my reserves. Turns out I had more than 15 books to pick up. As I cradled E in one arm and tried to prevent P from running back to the children’s section or going home with one of the non-mainstream Internet users, the librarians proceeded to fill up my bag with heavy parenting books, novels, and DVDs. While I carried E and held P’s hand, one of the librarians picked up my bag and carried it out to the car for me. She even buckled P into her car seat.

Since then I’ve broken my request record. One morning I had 17 children’s books to pick up. However, as I only had E that day, I managed not to need the library’s personal valet service.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“Someone dies in this book”

should be the name of this blog.

The latest novel o' death, Sonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson, takes place near water. Trivial and monumental events are forgotten and picked up just as the rusty hair clip found on the deck at the novel's beginning.

Rather than detail these events, I will provide a short guide to the novel’s characters. If you decide to read the book, you’ll be less confused than I was. If you don’t, the character descriptions provide an intriguing synopsis anyway.

Miriam (Mimi) – The daughter of Adam Anker and Cecilia Hagg was raised with her father in New Zealand.

Adam Anker – Born in Krakow, the novel's narrator was raised in Sweden by Wanda Anker. After his daughter’s birth, Adam takes her to live in New Zealand where he works as a composer and teacher.

Clara Lipski Fried – Adam comes across a picture of Clara’s brother, Adam Lipski, in a War Memorial museum in New Zealand. Thinking Lipski is a relative, Adam contacts Clara. She gives him a picture of his mother and tells him he should meet with her friend Liebermann in Krakow.

Szymon Liebermann – A childhood friend of Clara, Liebermann lives in Krakow. His brother fled with her brother during the war. He introduces Adam to his chess partner Moishe. Later, Clara sends Liebermann an old bundle of letters that he passes along to Adam.

Moishe Spiewak – Moishe knew Adam’s mother and aunt before the war. He spent time in Lithuania with Lipski but then moved to New York and became an art dealer and finder of lost art for survivors. He helps Adam find his Krakow birthplace and comforts him as the truth of his birth is revealed.

Adam Lipski – Clara's brother was a talented violinist who fled Krakow during the war and was never heard from again.

Wanda Maisky Anker – Adam's mother raises him in Sweden after fleeing Poland.

Marta Maisky – Wanda’s sister is adored by Moishe but in love with Lipski. After Lipski leaves, Marta entrusts Clara with her love letters.

Ben Kaplan – Ben, a childhood acquaintance of Adam, is now a famous director who wants Adam to compose the score for his next film. A meeting with Ben gives Adam an excuse to return to Sweden where he reunites with Cecilia.

Cecilia Hagg – After a brief affair with Adam, she chooses her art over her daughter. She lives alone on an island in Sweden and narrates the later part of the novel.

Memories are unreliable. This statement rings true for the reader as well as the characters in Sonata. You may need to read this book twice before everything makes sense. But don’t worry. You’ll want to.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Kill a Lark Bunting?

When I lived in Japan, the junior high school assistant principal asked me to come up to his desk one day. He handed over a small book that had belonged to his grandfather. In it were his grandfather’s notes taken in an English class. But as I read “dig the latrine,” I realized the English class had taken place in a prison camp. Both horrified and fascinated, I read through the rest of the book and carefully returned it to my boss. Hopefully my red face conveyed what my Japanese could not.

Surrounded by Hello Kitty, sushi and Ninja Warrior , it’s easy to forget there was a time when our two countries were enemies. But Sandra Dallas takes us back to that world where "Nip" does not refer to a cheese cracker.

By the third page of Tallgrass, I had to double check the cover to make sure this wasn’t Harper Lee’s long awaited second novel. Dallas’ characters channel the precocious observations and level headed charm of Scout and Atticus. In this case, Rennie (“Squirt”) and her father Loyal Stroud deal with WWII racial tensions surrounding the internment of Japanese-Americans to a camp near their Colorado beet farm.

The Strouds hire some of the camp residents to help out on the farm, and Loyal becomes the unofficial spokesman for the Japanese-are-decent-folks side of town. Hooligan Beaner Jack and his sidekick Danny do more than their share to represent the opposite view. A couple of murders, pregnancies, and telegrams from the front later, all in the town are examining where they stand.

If you like Hisaye Yamamoto and love Harper Lee, you’ll eagerly mow through Tallgrass.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I Should Have Said

You know how you always think of the perfect comeback -
five minutes/days/years too late?

Nico, the teenage narrator of Goldengrove, informs us the French have a phrase for this – “l'esprit d'escalier.” Nico, like most teenage girls, is obsessed with the wit of the staircase. Even more frustrating than coming up with a stellar retort too late is having an older sister who is never at a loss for words. Nico’s sister Margaret smokes, wears vintage, dates a painter, and sultrily sings jazz standards (“Is your figure less than Greek/Is your mouth a little weak/When you open it to speak/Are you smart?”). Nico takes these lines from “My Funny Valentine” especially to heart since they are the last lines she hears Margaret sing.

After Margaret dies, Nico attempts to work through her grief by doing Margaret things with Margaret’s boyfriend Aaron. No, not that. They go for drives. They watch old movies. But Nico knows all is not innocent. Rather than tell her parents of these outings, she asks one of her father’s bookstore employees, Elaine, to cover for her.

But as the summer progresses, Aaron wants to do other Margaret things. He asks Nico to wear Margaret’s clothes. He asks Nico to eat pistachio ice cream, Margaret’s favorite. After one particularly creepy scene involving the ice cream, Nico is no longer deluded into thinking Aaron is grieving for Margaret but realizes he’s trying to replicate Margaret. Elaine comforts Nico by renting Vertigo – illustrating Aaron isn’t the first guy to dress up a gal to look like a dead girlfriend.

Francine Prose crafts a believable teenage narrator in Nico blending the right amount of insecurity, insolence, and innocence. Sure her father owns a bookstore AND a lake house, but these idyllic settings inform the plot rather than distract from it. Despite the poem referenced by the title of this novel, it is not Margaret, but Nico, you’ll mourn for when the book comes to an end.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Go Ask Amy

She had me from “we are not Kleenex people.”

What’s not to like about a woman who soaks up her divorce tears with a roll of Charmin? After the last tear has been absorbed, Amy Dickinson and her daughter move out of her sister’s house in Freeville, New York to Washington, D.C. No matter where her physical address is, however, home is always Freeville.

One’s true home is an integral theme to Dickinson’s memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville. Although she is a single mother, raised by a single mother, both she and her daughter are always surrounded by an extended family of close sisters - who still meet once a week for a diner breakfast even though they see each other every day anyway.

Her life experiences in and around Freeville read like letters to an advice column:

Dear Amy,
My ex-husband is allergic to cats…

Dear Amy,
My father has just married his fourth wife…

Dear Amy,
My Sunday school student ate Peanut Jesus…

Perhaps this illustrates why Dickinson was chosen to take up Ann Landers’ pen in her advice column "Ask Amy."

If this wasn’t a library book, I would have been tempted to add marginalia like “so true” and “!” throughout chapters entitled “Falling Up” and “Dork Like Me.” However, I wouldn't have wasted any ink on a rather long chapter about her cat Pumpkin.

While I consider subscribing to a newspaper that carries Dickinson’s column for more of her wit and wisdom, I’ll just have to settle for listening to her on NPR. And of course I’ll be on the lookout for the cookbook her mother has always been meaning to write: After the Cat has Licked It.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Book that Changed My Life

This is the book that made me give up meat, that made me live in Japan, that made me attractive to my husband, that made me meet his cousin, that made me read her blog, that made me write this post.

Ironically My Year of Meats inspired me to become a vegetarian in 1999. Prior to reading this book, I had been avoiding red meat for about a year. But Ruth Ozeki’s fictional account of a filmmaker commissioned to inspire Japanese housewives to cook more beef, gave me an acute “allergy” to anything with legs. I use allergy only because it was a handy way to explain my diet when I myself ended up living in Japan in 2000. Luckily tofu needed no translation.

Instructed by Mere’s blog to pay it forward, the first five people to comment on a book that changed your life will receive a personalized list of five book recommendations from me. If you blog, then I challenge you to pay it forward to your readers.

Need more inspiration? Click here to listen to TAL’s piece on the same theme.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Loose Ends

I came across this book in one of my weekly emails from the Dear Reader book club.

Set in small town Tennessee, The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society follows a group of women whose lives intersect at their monthly knit-lit meeting. Assigned to read “girlhood classics,” each character works on a knitting project (i.e. a scarf for Mr. March) in addition to finishing the month’s reading selection (i.e. Little Women).

Between her account of each meeting, Beth Patillo spins the tale of each member. There’s Eugenie, the town librarian ergo spinster, who leads the group. Sisters Ruth and Esther share the same taste in men, but one is a former Peace Corps volunteer while the other spends her days at the country club. Merry, a stay-at-home mom, tries to conceal her fourth pregnacy from her husband and reconnect with her teenage daughter. Camille looks after her mother when she’s not running her dress shop or trying to have an affair. Teenage Hannah, avoiding a shady home life, soon finds herself reading Heidi and shopping for yarn.

As they tackle these tasks, all the women seem to come unraveled by one of life’s little snags at some point. But Patillo manages to rework each dropped stitch and ties up every last loose end. Perhaps it’s worked a little too perfectly. We’re left with the feel of factory manufactured rather than homespun - wearable but predictable.

You delighted in The Mitford series. You devoured The Jane Austen Book Club. And you dashed off The Friday Night Knitting Club in one sitting. You'll be delving into The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society next.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tickets, Please

In Silesian Station, set in the summer leading up to WWII, John Russell, a journalist/triple agent, watches and writes about events as they unfold in Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. He frees his German film star girlfriend from the Gestapo, searches for a missing Jewish girl newly arrived in Berlin, and seeks contacts among the underground Communist movement. Meanwhile he transports documents between officials in an effort to secure a safe passage for himself if war should break out.

Though not as singularly thrilling as its predecessor, Zoo Station, Silesian Station covers multiple tracks which sometimes cleverly intersect and sometimes just leave you stranded. Serving to unravel some of the complexities are Russell’s fellow passengers on the journey. Conversations with his German son sporting a Junvolk uniform allow him to raise questions about the prudence of blindly following one’s leaders. Interactions with his ex-brother-in-law portray the humanitarian instinct many Germans felt in aiding their Jewish neighbors. And finally clandestine meetings with an array of organizers and informants explore the line between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.

Author David Downing whisks us from prison cell to dance hall, from beer garden to blackout drill. His short paragraphs and snappy dialog have you running down alleys, tensely waiting in line at checkpoints, and impatiently finishing a cup of your landlady’s bad coffee. With the informative detachment of a news story and adrenaline of a spy novel, Downing makes it worth your while to read beyond the front page.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In Time for Friday the 13th

Gather round kids, and I’ll read you a romantic, chilling tale of a cold, aggressive Duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. A traveling minstrel wants to marry Saralinda, but the Duke has set him on an impossible task. On hand to help those in peril, the Golux guides the minstrel, really a prince dressed in rags, in his task to gather the tear jewels of Hagga. Listen quickly - for the minstrel must achieve his task timely or be slit from guggle to zatch.

Intrigued? Written by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, and introduced by Neil Gaiman, The 13 Clocks was meant to be read out loud on a gloomy day when you are in need of a laugh. You might just bust in half.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Don’t say I didn’t warn you

I’ve been banned from choosing movies for sometime now. Inevitably the movies I choose feature a sick, dying, or dead child, a sick, dying, or dead mother, or a sick, dying, or dead adulterer. But the pick that sealed the deal was Nobody Knows – a Japanese movie about three kids struggling to survive when their mom abandons them. Needless to say the thrill of spotting a box of Pocky was not enough to overcome the devastating images of the ending.

If I chose my husband’s reading material, I’d be banned from this as well for recommending An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. Of course I almost didn’t read past page one myself: “A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn.”

McCracken’s memoir of grief is understandably bitter. As she recounts the doubts and fears of the pregnancy following the stillbirth, she admits she would rather read Pregnant for the Time Being Monthly in the waiting room. She wishes for a calling card to announce her loss to insensitive strangers even while acknowledging, “How could they know?”

Luckily her friend Lib knows exactly what to say. And it’s her wisdom, tempered with other bittersweet moments, that makes the book bearable. For example, as an American living in France, McCracken relates her uncertainty that the nurse’s offer of a dwarf is a misunderstanding of language or culture.

This book will unabashedly provoke tears. But it will also remind you that sleepless nights are a blessing. And it may leave you downright thankful for the lungs - full of life - producing that demanding cry. Now you know.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Go Boldly

I met my friend Ahna, during my year teaching English in Japan. We were introduced via email by a mutual acquaintance and serendiptiously met in person - despite the crowd of thousands - at a welcome reception in Tokyo. Quests to find Mr. Donuts and floating nuns, a decent beet salad or book in English were just a few of the adventures we shared. Since then we’ve managed to stay in touch through old-fashioned letters and have exchanged recommendations for good music, movies, and books. And this is how I came to be introduced to Lauren Winner.

Even though I’ve only met her through her writing, Winner is, like Ahna, one of those people with the talent of making instant friends. By the time you’ve finished Girl Meets God, a memoir of Winner’s conversions to Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, you may well feel you’ve made a new friend - one who is intelligent, witty, and admittedly imperfect.

In honor of today’s being Ash Wednesday, I would like to share with you Winner’s reflections on the “boldness” of the day. This commentary is adapted from Girl Meets God.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stop a Bullet Cold

Who knew Jennie Epper has been my idol all this time? Yes, she, not Lynda Carter, was Wonder Woman.

I discovered this only by reading Kevin Conley’s book The Full Burn. Profiling some of Hollywood’s notorious stuntmen (and women), this book examines the personalities courageous enough to inflict pain on themselves willingly. Conley goes behind the scenes on gags ranging from racing a motorcycle through a Matrix rush hour to flying through downtown (ala Spidey) to setting a person on fire. We learn about the trade from Terry Leonard (he did the truck gag in Raider’s of the Lost Ark), Mike Kirton (he literally died twice on the set), and Debbie Evans (she played Trinity’s double).

Most stuntmen get their start in extreme sports, gymnastics, martial arts, or the military, but are more likely born into it. Many stuntmen eventually become second unit directors where safety and engineering are emphasized over bravado. However, Conley makes sure to throw in a few tales of mishaps with gators and off-the-set joyrides in Minis.

For a sitting at the edge of your seat, shaking your head in disbelief, and racing to your Netflix queue to rent the Bourne series experience, do try this at home.

Look under Audio to hear the interview with Kevin Conley from Fresh Air.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

“tremendous clarity, great acidity”

Once when we were dating, my husband took me to Austin’s West Lynn Café. We ordered wine with our appetizer and enjoyed choosing our entrees from the exclusively vegetarian menu. As we were waiting for the vegan chocolate cake to arrive (I know, heaven, right?), I asked what all the fuss was about. He then told me that at midnight the “match” for medical school acceptances would be announced. Although I forget if we ended up with the Caribbean stir-fry or the Mediterranean pizza, I remember the wine – Gewurztraminer.

What’s your most memorable glass of wine? That’s the premise for a book called Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion. The authors, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, write a wine column for the Wall Street Journal. Rather than explain how you can tell if a wine is stony or supple, the authors relate memorable wines that either they (or their readers) have enjoyed and recommend reliable varieties for all budgets. If you are looking for a wine to drink with the Thanksgiving pie, the Fourth’s barbecue, or your daughter’s wedding cake, look for this book. If you don’t have time to find the book before Saturday, read their recommendations for a romantic Valentine’s wine here. Although I thought the “wine for the Oscars” chapter was a little too delightful, I got quite excited about the idea of how to host a wine tasting party that doesn’t require taking out a loan or inviting mustachioed experts with bulbous noses.

I’m already plotting which bottle we’ll open when we send in that last student loan payment.

To hear an interview with the authors, look under Audio on the right side of this page.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Like Butter: Julie and Julia

“Sometimes I just made stuff up.” Despite the disclaimer on page one, Julie Powell serves up a humorous account of her attempt to follow all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. Faced with conception complications at home and the endless files to be copied at work, she began the cooking project (and blog documenting the project) in August of 2002. Interspersed throughout the book version are imaginary scenes between Julia and Paul Child. I skimmed these for the most part to get back to the meatier narrative.

Powell recounts her successes – skinning a duck and flipping a flawless crepe - but more entertaining are her mess ups – one memorable description likens her homemade ladyfingers to “so many sunk mastodons” in a “tar pit” of caramelized sugar. She also relates how she connected with her blog readers with proficient swearing and as ifs which resulted in donations of funds and jars of her favorite salsa. You might recoil with her in the discovery of a maggot colony under the drainer, but you’ll marvel at her chutzpah at leaving an offering of butter at the Julia Child exhibit at the Smithsonian. If you missed the blog, then read the book. If you miss the book, there’s always the Nora Ephron moviecoming out this summer.

The book by Julie Powell is called Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kites and Kangaroos

Since Monday was both Chinese New Year and Australia Day, here is a survey of children’s books about kites (a Chinese invention) and kangaroos…

Kites
Asian Kites by Wayne Hosking
An informative introduction covers everything from materials (Mulberry paper and #10 crochet thread are musts) to wind scale (light air or fresh wind). The subsequent chapters illustrate how to make kites from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, and Japan. Each project details recommended ages, what you’ll need, and what to do to make the kite. Most are for ages 9-12 and a few are for 7-12 (so much for our preschooler’s January craft project). I’ll file this one away for a future family project.

Riley Flies a Kite by Susan Blackaby and illustrated by Matthew Skeens
Riley’s red and yellow kite becomes a focal point for each page saturated in colorful graphics. The storyline about where he will fly his kite is suspenseful enough for a beginning reader but grinds to a disappointing halt.

Bear and Kite by Cliff Wright
A board book of opposites – loose/tight, play/fight – demonstrated by black and white bears. My favorite picture depicts the bears running with the kite, sheer delight on their faces.

Kangaroos
Mother May I? by Grace Maccarone and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Joey has a new question for every page. Cute text but the illustrations have a “rough draft” quality that’s distracting.

I Love It When You Smile by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Charles Fuge
Trying to make her son smile, a kangaroo pulls all sorts of tricks out of her pouch. Done with realistic paintings, this is a fun story to read out loud to your grumpy Little Roo.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Everyone Can Be Great

Through collage and watercolor illustrations by Bryan Collier, Martin’s Big Words tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Stained glass windows, church steeples, and the American flag illustrate Martin’s message that “everyone can be great.” We read of bus boycotts, marches, bomb threats, accolades, and finally the assassination. A concise history of the great man’s life and work that will have you flipping back through the pages even after your listener has drifted off to sleep.

Martin’s Big Words Words by Doreen Rappaport and Pictures by Bryan Collier

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Voting Ends January 20

Click here to vote for the best book you read last year.

Are you an addict?

Have you ever decided to stop, but only lasted a couple of days?
After Confessions of a Shopaholic, I swore that would be the last one. But then my sister had the one where she ties the knot. Then I realized I skipped the one where she takes Manhattan. After that, I found out she had a sister, so I had to read just one more.

Has your reading caused trouble at home?
One afternoon I was reading and eating chocolate chips with my baby sleeping next to me. Two chapters of The Undomestic Goddess later, I looked down and saw a pool of dark matter oozing out of E’s neck. My husband (a doctor) thought his intestine had ruptured. Upon closer inspection, we realized he had a pulse and a melted chocolate chip on him.

Have you had to start reading upon awakening during the past year?
Does 3:30 a.m. count?

Do you tell yourself you can stop any time you want to?
I told myself that after every chapter of Can You Keep a Secret? and found myself reading the last page at 3:45 a.m. (see above).

Do you have "blackouts"?
I can’t really recall Remember me?.

Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not read?
I could do without the headaches and fatigue after a 5 hour binge, the anxiety caused by the character’s mounting debt, and the paranoia that my colleagues will find out.

Hi, my name is Morningstar and I’m a Kinsellaholic.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass

Kiwi sorbet. Fox hunting. Open-heart surgery on a bear. Only Julia Glass is skillful enough to blend these disparate elements into the same novel.

As in Three Junes and The Whole World Over, Glass relies on strong characters and the passage of time to propel the plot forward. In I See You Everywhere, Glass alternates the narrative voice between sisters Clem and Louisa. We are given updates on their careers (in science and art), lovers (fishermen and stuntmen), and health (wilderness injuries and cancer) over lapses of three years at first and then of three months as the novel comes to a close.

Despite the soap operatic elements of plot – amnesia from a yachting accident, unwanted pregnancies – the emotional elements remain believable. Parental grief is fueled by rage. Marital dissatisfaction is born from indifference. Sisterly love is expressed in inappropriate stabs at humor.

Sure Louisa may make kiwi sorbet, but she also eats brownies not quite done in the middle. The bear may end up on the operating table, but you’ll keep reading to ensure Clem doesn’t sleep with the surgeon.