Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Humble Pi

My grandmother was a math teacher. My college roommates were math majors. My kindergartner loves the “dot game” at school. Although I am not a Mathlete like my husband, I did enjoy The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

The professor in the story is a renowned mathematician who can’t remember anything after 1975 for more than 80 minutes. He dons a suit each morning with tiny notes pinned all over it to remind him where his medicine is, who he needs to thank for the cake, and that he has a new housekeeper who has a son.

The professor greets the housekeeper each morning with an inquiry about her birthday or shoe size. He then informs her of the significance of whatever number is the answer. Throughout her employment, he teaches her and her son about everything from factors to triangular numbers to Euler’s formula. When he’s not lecturing, he’s solving the latest puzzler from his math journals or enjoying the baseball broadcast with the young boy.

As the housekeeper begins seeing the beauty in the numbers surrounding her, you will appreciate Ogawa’s work for its elegant balance of sweet plus intriguing. And then you will send this book to your grandmother.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


These are the ones I read this year that I almost abandoned, mid-read, for something less sparkly, less despondent, less wearing, less dysfunctional, and, well, less quirky. But persistence paid off.

The Rhinestone Sisterhood: A Journey Through Small Town America, One Tiara at a Time
by David Valdes Greenwood

New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro

Solar by Ian McEwan

Nothing Right: Short Stories by Antonya Nelson

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best of...

I probably should read some of these.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Finally. After waiting for fifty-six other people in Dallas to read this book, it was my turn this week. Imagine being able to taste the cook's emotions in whatever food they prepare. I tried to give an extra gentle pour to the milk this morning. You never know who else might have this gift.

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
"Lillian's mother's face became a series of book covers," may very well be a sentence my children could write someday. Ironically it was this one that had my own face hidden until I had reached the end. Pancakes got burned, mismatched socks walked into school.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"The music is sweet"

So I was watching this movie which reminded me of this movie which reminded me of the book I'm reading. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips.

It's about a director, Julian, who falls for an up-and-coming singer, Cait. Rather than approach her after the concert, Julian leaves Cait a set of coasters illustrated with advice on life. She takes one of the phrases from the coasters and crafts a song. He secretly takes her picture and sends it to her. She puts the picture on her concert poster. And so forth- but with better writing, pleasing dialogue, and a decent soundtrack.

If you like Nick Hornby, you'll like the story. Which reminds me...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Safeway and Lucky Charms

Ruby meets a rich-boy biker whose hobbies include petty theft and manipulation. Trying to distract her from sure heartbreak, her mother invites her to the library book club she runs for seniors. The seniors are abuzz with gossip that one of their members was once the one-true-love of a famous writer.

Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti takes you from the comforting exasperation of hanging out with your little brother to the exhilarating ride on the back of a motorcycle through rain-slicked streets. Just as you yell at the girl on the screen not to go in but are still mesmerized by her demise, you will be captivated by how Ruby falls for and resists his charms.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting My Vote

I actually made it to my local rec center to cast my early ballot this week. The election officials were quite gregarious. I learned all about their grandkids (as I had my own kids with me) while we were waiting for the computer to find me (of course I didn't have my voter's registration card with me).

Identity verified, we walked over to a voting station. My two-year-old only almost-knocked-over two of the adjacent rickety voting stands before I was done with the nine touch screens. As we were leaving, my five-year-old asked me, "What was that all about?" After patiently listening to my impromptu spiel about democracy, she said, "No, what were those kids doing there?" alluding to the after-school program's roomful of kids. And, "Do they get doughnuts?"

If you are tired of the real issues being swept aside by talk of doughnuts (or in this year's case, fortune cookies), try Hope was Here by Joan Bauer.

Hope and her aunt travel from restaurant to restaurant trying to find success. Hope works as a waitress, and her aunt works wonders in the kitchen with her signature deep-dish apple pie. Moving to Wisconsin from New York, Hope is nervous about starting over...again. Fortunately, the owner of the diner they are working for decides to run for mayor. Thrown into the campaign, Hope finds friends (and hope) in the people she works with to rally support for the underdog candidate.

Bauer's style aptly captures the staccato banter of the diner counter and the campaign trail. As in all reputable YA novels, she also includes a first kiss, a wayward mother, and a funeral. So maybe when my daughter's twelve, she can read Hope was Here and get a little perspective on a small-town election. If the election theme doesn't grab her, there's always the pastries to entice her.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sick Day

We've already started with the runny noses, sore throats, and not-feeling-goods. When that happens, I try to stock up on Tylenol, tissues, and popsicles. Luckily since we live across the street from El Rio Grande, we're never lacking in the latter.

In addition to the aforementioned remedies, providing some relief this week was a copy of Carmen Tafolla's What Can You Do with a Paleta? Suggestions in this whimsical tale range from painting your tongue green to gaining an advantage during a baseball game (Rangers take note). The illustrations by Magaly Morales are soothing, bright, and dreamy.

If your son shushes you when you try to read it in Spanish, distract him with a grape one.

Fresh out? Go here. What will you do with yours?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Tomorrow is Too Far"

Dust whirls. Husbands are snatched. Babies spill fresh palm-oil blood.

A girl's brother is jailed for being a suspected cult member on his university's campus. Two women from disparate backgrounds hide out from a riot in an abandoned shop. A newlywed of an arranged marriage finds out her husband is already married.


You can hear Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discuss her collection of stories called The Thing Around Your Neck here. I'll save you a seat.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Picture is Worth...

When I was little, I had a book with a picture of a girl holding a book. On her book was a picture of a little girl holding a book. On her book...When my youngest sister was little, I found a book called Zoom. On each page, the camera zooms out and you realize some detail of the previous picture is part of a larger picture. Recently I discovered a book for my son called Flotsam. A boy finds a camera on the beach. He develops the film and finds a picture of a child holding a picture of a child holding a picture...until you see a picture of the camera's original owner.

Although it is not a picture book, Click is a book of layered stories. Each story takes us a step deeper, a stop closer, into the life of a photojournalist and his family. As each of the ten stories is written by a different author, details shift from the background into the spotlight. And back again. We zoom into a Russian prison, an Australian beach house, and a French village. Along the way, we also see the photographer's impact on his grandchildren and watch them grow into adulthood.

On a side note, the jacket for this book notes that the purchase of this book benefits Amnesty International. Let's give it more exposure.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gin Vida

Some may go giddy over free publications like this, this, or even this. Me? I do a little happy dance when I see this for the taking at the library.

The latest edition mentions Vida by Patricia Engel. It is a collection of stories, tied together by a central narrator, Sabina. Sabina's parents are from Colombia, but she has grown up in New Jersey. On 9/11, she finds refuge at the home of her married guitar teacher. She watches her aunt die of cancer. She befriends a former prostitute. She battles anorexia. Not all at once. The stories shift back and forth in place and time and boyfriend.

Strangely enough, as I was reading Vida, I kept confusing it with another book I picked up this week, Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison. When her grandmother dies, Stella discovers her mother has a sister no one has heard from in years. Stella finds Tilly living in a ramshackle trailer - with more than a few empty gin bottles stashed in the closet. The pair go to live with Tilly's son to try and beat her drinking habit. Stella, too, has her ghosts - a former eating disorder, a married boyfriend, a string of dead-end jobs. Sound familiar?

Dysfunctional, gritty, "crazy-ass," and all those other buzz words to describe this kind of fiction apply. Trust me, you'll be hooked.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Marvelous Muddle

Precocious Victorian children grew up and came of age in a time of war. A.S. Byatt examines this age in The Children's Book. Centered around the family of Olive Wellwood, the novel follows would be potters, writers, and suffragists as they embrace and discard the burgeoning social movements of the day.

After her husband leaves the banking industry, Olive supports the family by writing scary stories for children. She leaves the upbringing (and sometimes even bearing) of her own children to her spinster sister. For each of her children, Olive has written a personalized storybook with an ongoing tale. But closest to her heart is the story she creates for her eldest, Tom. Without consulting Tom, Olive takes Tom's story public as a play. Her collaborator on the play just happens to be a fantastical German puppeteer and the father of one of her daughters.

Questionable paternity appears often in this tale. Into the muddle of an extensive cast of characters (and bedfellows) goes pages from Olive's stories, an excerpt from a randy novelist advocating free love, letters from boarding school, poetry from the tranches, and entreaties by world leaders. Out of the muddle comes an ending which ties up nicely. Quite satisfying, really.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When a Drowning Isn't the Worst Thing

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Mary Beth is a landscaper and mother of three. She worries about what to throw together for dinner, whether her son is depressed, and if she should be having more sex. She has best friends who call her for parenting advice and old friends that don't speak to her anymore. She fights with her daughter. She calls her mother occasionally. Then, she wakes up in the hospital.

Despite the tragedy that upends the whole thing, I fell into this life. One adage I took especially to heart (along with the recipe for chicken tetrazzini): "small children, small problems, big children, big problems."

So after reemerging from that life into my own, I hugged my son, made a cake for my husband, and read my daughter a bedtime story. One with a happy ending.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Are we there yet?

Perhaps Labor Day Weekend has you taking one last road trip with the family. If that family includes anyone between the ages of four and four hundred, be sure to pack the audio book collection of The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne.

The Magic Tree House books travel with a brother/sister team (Jack and Annie) as they visit famous historical events in their time-machine tree house. Hardly rosy, the pictures Osborne paints are tremulously vivid. You'll slip with the slanting of the Titanic as it sinks, taste the grit of the San Francisco earthquake's aftermath, and smell the blood of the wounded Civil War soldiers. And you'll feel immensely relieved as they escape each adventure unharmed but not untouched.

And who knows? With these CDs on play, "Are we there yet?" may also be history.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One Night Stand (or the other)

Apart from The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning, my night stand looks pretty bare this week. The other side of the bed is a different story. My husband always has a plethora of interesting reads.

Two I'm browsing this week when I grow tired of the whole crime scene-scene:

Supercharge Your Memory by Corinne Gediman and Francis Crinella
Do you remember Highlights for Kids? This is sort of like Highlights for grown-ups. Graphically pleasing, this book offers a smorgasbord of activities from recalling olfactory memories (remember that rotten carrot your mother put in your kindergarten lunchbag?) to redrawing abstract designs (was the squiggle above or below the circle thingamajig?). You'll have fun, fun, fun, till your Daddy takes your T-bird away.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
A fan of Mitchell (especially Black Swan Green), I swoon over everything he's written. Thousand Autumns is no exception. At almost 500 pages, this epic travels to Nagasaki Harbor and immerses us (sometimes too intimately) in the sights, sounds, and sighs of the colorful cast and crew that work for and about the Dutch East Indies Company. If this weren't novel enough, the story ventures further inland when the love-interest of the title character becomes enshrined in a remote convent. You'll be itching to find out how the last samurais face the impending interests of the British Empire.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just Beachy

Only one more week of guilt-free beach reads. I've got a stack on my nightstand to get through.

Booked to Die by John Dunning
I read about this book in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary ObsessionThe Blue Bistro
I browsed this one on the buy-me table at a local retailer. Luckily the library had it in stock as well. A quintessential summer read: girl arrives on Nantucket, girl finds job at magical restaurant on the beach, girl falls in love with...well, you'll just have to wait til I finish it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I laughed til I cried

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Barrows and Annie Shaffer is romantic, funny, and heartbreaking. Read it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Who's your daddy?

Fathers these days teach a lot of essential skills. They teach their children how to tie shoes, ride bikes, make the perfect Sunday morning waffle, and drive a stick shift. Fathers of long ago perhaps had a more daunting agenda. They were in charge of teaching their offspring how to shoot an arrow for protection and the midday meal, ride a horse, and savor the finer bouquets of monster blood.

Fire by Kristin Cashore features a cast of fathers ranging from game wardens to battle commanders to kings. And monsters. As the story unfolds, many of the characters discover their fathers are not what or even who they thought them to be.

Fire is raised by her birth father, the monster Cansrel, and in his absences, a former royal commander named Brocker. Fire, like her father, possesses mind manipulating powers. She struggles to emulate her father in honing her powers but also to follow the guidance of Brocker in respecting those under her power.

Her struggle is put to the test when Prince Brigan arrives. His brother, King Nash, is working to reverse the unjust practices of his father. He and the royal siblings need her help in uncovering the plots of traitorous lords in the north and south.

As the plot and battle unfolds, the pages turn swiftly through encounters with raptors, sure-shot archers, salacious spies, and a distastefully devious boy with two different colored eyes. Cashore deftly balances the blood and fury with quieter scenes that examine regret, honor, and responsibility. For this, maybe we have her father to thank for teaching her the importance of including both rage and reflection.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Faking It

Up to forty percent of artworks being bought and sold are fakes. So I learned while listening to an interview with the author of Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.

While waiting for my library request for this book to go through, I came across this article about a man who proposes to authenticate art through fingerprinting. Thus, when the book arrived last week, I was primed to read more about the art underworld.

Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, opens with the dramatis personae. Topping the list are John Drewe, mastermind, and John Myatt, painter. Together they attempted to pull off a scheme that duped art dealers, archivists, and collectors. Myatt painted the “Giocomettis” and “Turners.” Drewe created the provenance for each work. Like one of the detectives in the case, I too was not familiar with this term.

Provenance refers to the documents that track an artwork’s history of ownership. Comprised of receipts, invoices, letters, and catalogs, the provenance not only authenticates a piece but affects the value. If someone can prove a work belonged to a celebrity or was scandalously stolen and retrieved, he can negotiate a higher price for it.

Here’s how the scheme worked. After commissioning a work from Myatt, Drewe created meticulous documents to show records of ownership from the painting’s supposed inception to the most recent deal. He slipped mock catalogs into archives at institutions such as the Tate Gallery and changed sales records. He made stamps and insignias for documents. He doctored canvases to age them and used period wood for the framing. And he made thousands from unwitting dealers and collectors.

But in the end Drewe was framed – by an ex. Just as fascinating as the heist is the unraveling of the operation by the detectives and skeptical archivists. To the end, Drewe proves just as adept at feigning health problems as he was in forging gallery invoices to postpone his trial. He acts as his own counsel and weaves in arms dealing and government conspiracy to prolong the trial.

Ultimately, both men end up serving time for their deception. Though it is not made clear what Drewe is up to these days besides media interviews, his tools have ended up in Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum. Myatt, much more repentant, appears to be doing quite well by selling Genuine Fakes and starring in his own TV series.

As the book asserts, maybe crime does pay. Or at least pave the way to infamy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Grace and Will

In a land of seven kingdoms lives a young woman graced with powers to kill. On a secret mission for the Council to rescue an elder Lienid, she encounters a young man graced with fighting. Thus begins the young adult novel Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

Katsa is successful in her mission of mercy but soon tires of the killing missions her uncle, King of the Middluns, sets for her. Tired of feeling powerless, she leaves the court with Po, the Lienid fighter of her mercy mission. They set out to discover the mastermind behind his grandfather’s kidnapping.

This page turner packs in plenty of adrenaline-fueled battles, harrowing passages through harsh environments, and tension fraught love scenes. Although Katsa and Po set out to uncover the mystery of his grandfather’s capture, they end up revealing their true Graces.

Another young adult novel I opened recently, Perry Moore’s Hero, opens on a different kind of battle field - the basketball court. We learn that Thom Creed is a typical teenager. When he’s not playing defense, he tries to get along with his father (his mother having disappeared), get to work on time, and daydream about his favorite superhero, Uberman.

Turns out that Thom not only lives in a town that has a League of superheroes, but his father used to be one. And that mother who disappeared? That wasn’t a figure of speech. After Thom begins mysteriously healing people, he’s invited to try out for the League. As most superheroes do, Thom begins living a double-life. His is made a tad more complicated since he not only has to hide his daring-do from his father, but his sexual preference as well. Luckily, a young renegade named the Dark Hero comes to his rescue.

Although the two novels differ in setting and tone, they both examine the trials of coming of age. Not only do these characters learn to control their passions, but more importantly they learn not to fear them. Even those of us not graced with supernatural powers can find that lesson empowering.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Espresso Yourself

I've always wanted to go to art school. Then I'd have an excuse to dye my hair purple and wear vintage lingerie. And take pictures like Sandra Juto.

Now I know where I went wrong. If you are an aspiring artiste, you have to drink coffee. Or serve it. At least this is what I gleaned from two young adult novels I read recently.

Same Difference by Siohban Vivian follows Emily from her safe suburban Starbucks hangout to summer art school in Philadelphia. After meeting a few creative types in her classes, she starts painting dead kitties on her J.Crew tanks and ditching her best friend. She soon discovers it's easier to mix media in her artwork than in her life.

The next novel, The Espressologist by Kristina Springer, has Jane whipping up a few frappycaps in hopes of collecting enough tips to go to this place. In the meantime, she jots down drink orders and the types that order them. (Can't you just picture that frazzled woman who orders a tall iced chamomile tea?) Jane takes it a step further and starts matching her customers based on their drink preferences. Sadly, finding her own love match becomes grounds for betrayal.

Pass me that camera, would you? I'm off to order a ventiwholemilkwithwhip mocha - for my soul mate.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

From the Top

Recently I spent the afternoon reading back issues of Dance Magazine while waiting for my daughter, who at 5 is taking her first ballet and tap class. As I flipped through the pages advertising dancewear and workshops, I wondered why 1) I don’t dance anymore and 2) I had let my collection of dance books (A Very Young Dancer, Winter Season, Holding On to the Air) gather dust on my bookshelf.

Apart from an occasional ticket to a Titus performance or Google image search for White-Nights-era Baryshnikov, I realized I’d ignored the dance world for over fifteen years. In chagrin, I turned to Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella.

Acocella, a critic for The New Yorker, has compiled a collection of essays on dancers, writers, and yes, a couple of saints. Here’s a sample of the fascinating figures inside:
Open to the tragic story of Lucia Joyce (James’ daughter), an aspiring dancer who eventually ends up not in the spotlight but in a straitjacket.

A few essays later, read about Vaslav Nijinksy. His ballets, staged in the nineteen teens, were among the first to deal openly with sex on the stage and relied on Stravinsky for the score.

Then meet the man responsible for American ballet as we know it, Lincoln Kirstein. He, along with George Balanchine, was responsible for founding The School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet.

Sadly, the library’s copy is due back soon and I have yet to read about Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, or Twyla Tharp. Looks like I may have to make room in my permanent collection for a new acquisition. Oh, and look into that Mommy and Me merengue class.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I swear I did not read the blurb on the back of this book when coming up with this comparison myself. So, Vendela Vida, I agree. Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen is quite.

Never read Murakami? Start here.

Never heard of Galchen? Start here.

Never mind? Go here for other authors on The New Yorker's list of 20 under 40 to watch. And read.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Before I Was Gone

The summer I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I read The Living by Annie Dillard.

Before I moved to Japan, I read everything I could by Banana Yoshimoto.

Since my husband recently accepted a neurology fellowship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I reread Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love. This time I was attuned more to place names and landmarks than silly things like character and plot. Thus, I noted when someone was walking along Stadium Boulevard ("GO BLUE!"), attending a backyard barbecue in Burns Park, seeking out the tarot card reader in Ypsilanti, or playing in Allmendinger Park. Unfortunately no one mentions elementary schools or where to get a decent vegetarian meal.

Searching for more clues, I picked up Baxter's collection of stories called Believers. Although the stories aren't explicitly set in Ann Arbor, the characters have Midwestern backgrounds. The collection opens with a story about Glaze and Jodie. Jodie's wish to fall in love is granted by a genie at a breakfast counter. In the next, a dinner party has turned to talk about reincarnation. Were you a swan or a swain? Following that one is Harry's story about his finding a would-be-bomber's sketch on the street. Everyone he shows it to is confident they can identify the location. I would have liked to have read more, but the library's copy started smelling a bit too musty around page 123. I'll be sure to purchase a copy before we go.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

that calculating a person

It's been ages since I had to resort to reading the large print edition for a popular new title. I'd forgotten, or maybe never noticed, that words that would be italicized in a regular edition are bolded (emboldened?) in a large print edition. In the textbooks I use in my reading class, I'm accustomed to seeing the bold words as target vocabulary words. I was easily distracted then by the stark she donates fiancée playwright is dotting the pages.

In a way, Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited redefines is. It reexamines the familiar, revisits the past, rethinks impulse. Four characters, loosely connected, watch, perform, and write a play. We sit through opening night, rehearsals, the true life events that inspire the lines, and talk on the phone about what it all might mean after the curtain falls.

Leslie is in Boston to see a play written by Billy (short for Wilhelmina). Billy was dating Leslie's brother Gus, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. After the play, Leslie has invited Billy out for drinks along with an old friend, Sam.

Before we meet Billy, we read lines with the play's lead, Rafe. On stage, Rafe's character's wife is on a train that has been attacked by terrorists. In real life, his wife has ALS. Prior to opening night, Rafe goes out with Billy, and they delve into an ulterior motivation for Rafe's character.

After Rafe's performance, Billy meets Leslie, Leslie's husband Pierce, and Sam for drinks. After bidding Sam a rather unpromising goodnight, she reminisces about Gus. Before his death, she was a few weeks away from breaking up with him. Instead she finds herself playing the role of the distraught not-quite-fiancée when he dies. Soon after the play, Sam asks her out. They go for a walk that ends in a sprained wrist, tears, and a lost earring.

Sam had had to call Leslie for Billy's number. They discuss the play. Everyone thinks it's about him or herself. Sam is reminded of his divorce and then about the time he loved Leslie. He takes his son to see the play. Billy icily dismisses him. And then he finds her earring. (Curtain).


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Room of One's Dead

A small, quiet dimly lit room. The walls adorned only by the portraits of the dead. This is the place Viji slips into first thing in the morning before her triplets have awoken, or her father-in-law has peed on her roses, or her professor husband has left to flirt with the undergrads he teaches.

Shanthi Sekaran's The Prayer Room examines the life of Viji and George Armitage. After meeting in an art history class in India, they marry a short time later, and find themselves on a plane back to George's home in England. After a tense stay with George's parents, they soon board another plane to the land of pudding pops and flip-flops.

Viji and George's triplets are eleven the summer George's widowed father Stan comes to Sacramento for an extended stay. They are soon won over, as are the neighborhood women, by his British charms. Viji , alone, is not amused and spends even more time cleaning her prayer room. However, Stan's presence attracts the visit of an Indian expatriate neighbor, Kamla. Soon Viji's laughter is again filling the kitchen over cups of tea with her new friend. Kamla's friendship also gives Viji the confidence to take her children for a long-put-off visit to her sister in Madras. Viji's absence proves taxing not only to her marriage vows but to her own self-perception.

If you've shooed your own on-summer-vacation kids out into the backyard, and are looking forward to a few moments of quiet, somewhat dark, contemplation, The Prayer Room may just be the refuge you seek. No dusting required.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In the Spring

Some of my regular readers ("Hi, Mom!") might be wondering if I stopped reading two months ago. The short answer is no. The long answer, well, it all started with Toronto.

Despite reservations at the Downtowner and an afternoon crying while watching a Canadian-Irish film, I did enjoy the parts of the trip I spent reading. I hadn't planned on reading that much, and set out early on Saturday to see the sights. However, as most of the Toronto shops didn't open until 11, I hunkered down in the Second Cup and took out the novel I had packed, Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall.

Divided into several generations of stories, In the Fall lent itself well to the sporadic timing of travel reading. A few minutes on a metro here or several hours in the park across from there and I was back in Vermont with the Pelhams. I opened to the point where Norman is walking home after the Civil War with his new bride Leah.

Later that afternoon, on a long bus ride to here, I began the part where Norman's youngest son Jamie leaves home and tries to make his way as a bootlegger.

The next day, after I had passed through customs and "turned my change into GOLD" for the Canadian ski team, I ended up at my gate several hours too early. I welcomed the wait, though, since I had also arrived at the most gripping part of the book. After Jamie dies, his son Foster finds a stack of letters from an aunt he never knew about. Foster meets his aunts and learns that his grandmother was a runaway slave. He has just knocked on a door in Sweetboro, North Carolina to confront a man about his grandmother's past.

So after arriving home and sitting down to write a reaction, I succumbed to a bout of writer's block. Who wouldn't after reading a writer like Lent? But then all blogging got shelved for a funeral, a disheartening parent-teacher conference, a box of Bob books, 72 final exams, a job offer in Ann Arbor, a graduation, an uninvited house guest or two, and a potty-training toddler.

We'll see what happens in the summer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grids Gone Wild

For those of you with preschoolers, the summer looms long with relentless requests for snacks and hulu cartoons. In order to thwart the boredom (and get my 4-year-old ready for kindergarten), I've been researching different ways to review (and expand) her math, reading, and writing skills. Here are three resources I'm counting on for math.

Much More Than Counting: More Whole Math Activities for Preschool and Kindergarten by Sally Moomaw and Brenda Hieronymus

In the 48 hours since I checked this book out from the library, I've created about 10 different grid games (hence the post's title). A grid game consists of two pieces of card stock marked with 16 (more or less) squares. You fill in the squares with stickers or pictures related to a children's book or theme. For example, for the book The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash by Trinka Hakes Noble and Steven Kellogg, we filled in our grid with pictures of t-shirts. Then, the first player rolls the die and picks out that number of markers (in this case mini-clothespins). The player then places the markers on the grid (or not). Once you begin playing with a preschooler, you realize why the authors didn't include more rules. My next obsession? Path games.

Math Detectives: Finding Fun in Numbers by Ricki Wortzman and Lalie Harcourt

Are you a square or a rectangle? If you didn't guess already, I'm a square. This book points out that numbers are all around us if we just take the time to look. From figuring out how long is a minute to mastering the basics of playing Nim, this book can be adapted for younger kids but seems geared toward older ones. It includes illustrated directions for each household activity and a notes section in the back gives additional information for those so inclined.

Math-terpieces by Greg Tang and Greg Paprocki

This beautifully illustrated book focuses on grouping. How many ways can you combine Cezanne's citrus, Seurat's circles, and Picasso's features to add up to the target number? It would be helpful to own this one, so younger ones can cut out the pictures and practice combining. If I can't find it at Half-Price, I may just have to attempt a little forgery.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


This is not about giving up chocolate. It's about sacrifice, mourning, and forgiveness. And a cello.

Jeffrey Lent's After You've Gone tells the story of Henry and Olivia. And Henry and Lydia. And Henry and his cello. Henry takes us from his childhood in Nova Scotia, to his marriage and professional career in New York, and finally to a sabbatical in Amsterdam. But not in that particular order.

Having read Lent's works A Peculiar Grace and Lost Nation (in that order), I braced myself for tragic clashes, piercing descriptions of setting, and even bloodshed or rape. However, this story seems mellower, though it does contain its fair share of heartache. Before reading this novel, I've never had a particular desire to travel to Amsterdam. If anything remains of Lent's account of its 1920s beauty, I probably should add it to my list.

I'm still mulling over the ending. Not to give anything away, I'll just say it was all wine and roses - and even chocolate- in none of the right places. But since it's Lent, all is forgiven.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Homemade Life

The library finally had a copy of Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life. I've only begun the introduction, but I'm already as charmed as I was by her blog.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Cultural Revelation

In 1979 China, it's a fresh torment at every turn in Muddy River.

First we follow Teacher Gu. His daughter Shan has been sentenced to die. Gu seeks help from the Huas to give her a proper burial.

The Huas, having lost their own adopted daughters, cannot help Shan, but they try to help the crippled girl Nini when they can.

Nini, twelve, eats wall paste to ward off hunger. She is being courted by nineteen -year-old Bashi.

Bashi woos Nini with a roasted hedgehog and poisons a dog called Ear just to see if he can.

Ear's master, Tong, attends a memorial rally for Shan coordinated by Kai. Tong signs his father's name to a petition.

Kai is the voice of Muddy River's radio station. She is married to Han, the son of a well-connected political family.

Han moves out with their son Ming-Ming.

Ming-Ming doesn't attend the denunciation ceremony of his mother Kai.

Yiyun Li's The Vagrants will not lift your spirits. It will not serve to pass the time waiting in the dentist's office. Instead, the novel demands constant vigilance. Your first seemingly watertight impression of either place or character will soon be found flawed. And therein lies the humanity of Li's characters.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Berne by Berne

I first heard of Suzanne Berne last November. Although The Ghost at the Table is about coming home for Thanksgiving, it proves timely no matter what the season.

Cynnie lives on the West Coast writing historical fiction for girls. Her latest book is about Mark Twain's daughters. Her sister Frances (decorator/homemaker) lives back East. Their father has recently suffered a stroke and their step-mother no longer wishes to care for him. Cynnie agrees to visit for Thanksgiving to help her sister transport their father to a rest home.

Through Cynnie's eyes, the author takes us from her arrival on Frances' doorstep back to her teenage years and her mother's illness and then returns us to a train wreck of a holiday. As the novel progresses, I found myself trusting Cynnie's version of events less and less. And as the drunk Cynnie tells a devastatingly sad tale of Twain's treatment of his family, we find ourselves revising our own opinion of Cynnie from the sad, charming cynic to just sad cynic.

Taught my lesson not to trust appearances, I turned to an earlier work of Berne's called A Perfect Arrangement. Mirella is a lawyer. Howard is an architect. Their house is a mess, their son Jacob's not talking yet, and their daughter Pearl frequently throws hair brushes. In short, they need a nanny.

Randi arrives on their doorstep, entices Howard with visions of home-cooked meals, and has Jacob talking in no time. She even cleans out the cellar. But as we follow Mirella, Howard, and Randi through their days, we realize that (in no particular order) false references, unwanted pregnancies, and intern affairs will soon knock the perfect balance out of whack again.

Berne achieves an admirable level of suspense that will keep you reading -leaving your own kitchen a shambles. But you'll be thankful for the mess.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Doritos are Flammable

George moves to Des Moines, meets the crush of his life (and her sister), and wrestles. Off the mat, he grapples with his feelings for Emily. Meanwhile Emily's little sister Katie gifts him with homemade comics and promises him a time capsule.

Upon opening the pages of Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, the reader also slips into a high school time capsule (if you were born in or around 1976). Emily scores an extra spot on the set of The Bridges of Madison County and George rollerblades. But as the title portends, life is not all sappy adultery and hockey.

Michael J. White's debut blazes, but it might leave you with a peculiar orange residue of images and conversations not easily rinsed away.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I'll admit it. The thought of time-travel boggles my mind. So it was with some trepidation (years after hearing of this book) that I finally sat down with The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

I first knew I was in trouble when I realized each section of the novel begins with the day, month, and year as well as the ages of the two main characters. For example, the book opens in 1991 when Henry is 28 and Clare is 20. They are meeting after a two-year absence. Clare hasn't seen Henry since she was 18. Henry hasn't seen Clare since he was 36.

Here's where the title of this post comes in. If you need to go grab some Advil, I'll wait.

Better? Yes, initially the dates and ages gave me a headache, too. But persevere, suspend disbelief, and you too will be enthralled. (I'm not alone in this. Praise for this book takes up the first three pages. My favorite of which is "dizzyingly romantic.")

We read backward into the early days of courtship. We leap forward into the troubled years of marriage. We're taken back again into Henry's childhood and forward into Clare's old age. Then we are back again to discover the first physical strains of time-travel and look forward hopefully for a cure.

And if nothing else of the above compels you to open the pages, I'll just have to leave you with one other detail. One of Henry's "cures" for preventing unwanted disappearances from the present is sex.

It's worth the wait.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Eating My Words

Remember that post about Julie and Julia? And how I skimmed over the parts about Julia Child?

"Abashedly," after seeing the movie, I realized I had missed out on the best part. To remedy the situation I turned to Child’s My Life in France (written with Alex Prud'homme). Part diary, part travelogue, part expat handbook, the account begins in 1948 and concludes with her later years in Provence.

While Powell sticks mainly to the story of Child's first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child in My Life in France has documented her work on both volumes. In addition, she takes us behind the scenes of her cooking show. Of her later years, she ruminates on fame and the necessity of having a hide-away. She and Paul find respite in a small house near Simca's (her writing partner Simone Beck).

Child relies not only on her own memories, but spices it up with bits and pieces of correspondence from friends and family. Her "hold yer hat" husband Paul provides some of the most delightful excerpts while proving that those emails and texts will probably not stand the test of time when it comes to jotting down your own memoir.

So for this Valentine's Day, cook up a rich meal, write a long love letter (with a pen), or pick up this sweetheart of a tale.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Just barely

made it through January. A spate of bad luck, starting a new semester, and winter doldrums all worked in conspiracy against posting anything new. Starting with a flaming vacuum and a jammed computer drive and ending with a wild dog attack, January wasn't my month.

And then I found out I was selected by What Not To Wear to receive a makeover after my sisters compiled months of footage of dowdily clad me.

Well, no, but that is one of my greatest fears. To stave off that inevitability, I picked up Just Try it On: A Month-by-Month Guide to Shopping and Style by Susan Redstone. Then I remembered why I opt for the same yoga pants and fleece every day. My day-wear works whether I'm waiting at the Toyota dealership, the ER, or running from rabid dogs. The slightly worn "extras" I'm supposed to include in my fashion emergency kit are already on my back.

At least I tried.

And though there's a slim chance I could appear on the above named TLC favorite, there's no chance that I would ever appear on the show hosted by the subject of Just Desserts.

Just Desserts - Martha Stewart: The Unauthorized Biography by Jerry Oppenheimer dishes the dirt and deflates the souffle. Guiltily I admit it was a fun read. I learned Stewart had a ghost writer for her Entertaining books and worked as a stock broker with Brian Dennehy.Oh, and they also dated after her divorce, according to Oppenheimer. Desserts was written before her prison debacle, but the inside look into her Kmart campaign and launch of her magazine is an intriguing place to end. But just.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Le Spy

Spy novels, spy manuals, Othello, Edith Wharton, and the Koran supply the cryptic quotes introducing each chapter of Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech. Lulu is in Marrakech ostensibly to research female literacy programs. But her covert mission as a CIA agent is to keep an eye on the expats (including her new boyfriend Ian) and other donors who may be funding terrorist networks.

Lulu is drawn to Ian as husband material, but she suspects he isn’t telling her everything. When Gazi Al-Sayad shows up on the doorstep after leaving her Saudi Arabian husband, Lulu’s suspicions are unveiled…in a few more chapters. (Lulu is a novice after all.) With the help of her secret contact, Colonel Barka, Lulu eventually unravels the clues. Which leaves this reader to wonder, didn’t she read the epigraphs?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Quirky Situations, Action, and Mild Language"

So reads the ratings warning on the back of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory DVD.

So, too, should read any label regarding the following five "quirkiest" reads o' mine of 2009.

My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum

Confessions of a Window Dresser by Simon Doonan

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Godmother by Carolyn Turgeon