Sunday, January 31, 2010

If you were going on vacation to Hawaii for nine days with no kids...

1) What would you consider must-see attractions in Maui and Oahu (staying on the North Shore)?

2) What would you bring to wear?

and most importantly....

3) Which books would you pack? I have a growing pile including Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, Michael Pollan's Food Rules, Dispensation (edited by my good friend Angela Hallstrom), memoirs by Abraham Verghese, Sylvia Plath, and Isabel Allende, and the first three mysteries in Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series. Since I probably need to pack a second suitcase for my books, is there anything else you'd heartily recommend? We're leaving in three weeks so I have time to track down a must-read.

Book #13: What the Dog Saw

Title: What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Author: Malcolm Gladwell

If you really, really like Malcolm Gladwell's articles from The New Yorker, you'd probably love the chapters of What the Dog Saw, because the chapters are Malcolm Gladwell's articles from The New Yorker. Maybe he's a recycling enthusiast, maybe he doesn't think he got paid enough for his work the first time around, maybe his book publishers were putting the screws on him to put out a new book, or maybe he just considers What the Dog Saw a kind of greatest hits album. Regardless, all of the material was previously published in The New Yorker. The book is 400+ pages (considerably longer than a typical Gladwell book), and even though I'm not a regular reader of the magazine anymore (I used to subscribe, but finally decided it wasn't doing much more than decorating my magazine basket), I'd read about 1/3 of the articles included in the book before I actually sat down with the book.

It's funny, because I don't necessarily think of Gladwell as having a genre as a writer, other than possibly "interesting people" but in the articles that ended up in What the Dog Saw, he tended to write a lot about the military and business subjects, particularly Enron (and after living in Houston, I'm awfully tired of hearing about Enron). I liked the book, but I picked it up (and gave it to my mother-in-law for Christmas) thinking it was original material, so I was a little bit disappointed to be getting used goods. I also missed the (often somewhat loose) narrative focus of books like Outliers and Blink. Still, Malcolm Gladwell's used goods are every bit as entertaining as most authors' new goods, so it's worth a read, especially if you're not a frequent reader of The New Yorker.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book #12: Sea of Monsters

Title: Sea of Monsters: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2
Author: Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson is a year older and a year tougher when we meet up with him at the beginning of Sea of Monsters. He's spent a whole year (a first!) at the same prep school in New York City, with his only friend, a homeless scholarship student named Tyson. On the last day of school, Tyson and Percy get involved in a dodge ball game against some big mean kids who turn out to be cannibals, and it soon becomes evident that Percy is off on another adventure with half-bloods and monsters.

Just like The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters is an enjoyable quick read. My nine-year-old loved the book and quickly jumped into the third after finishing the second. I think the characters are more fully-developed in this book than in the first, and Percy shows a greater range of emotions (he's growing up!) as he faces his enemies and tries to come to terms with the prophecies surrounding him, many of which suggest that he has less that three years left to live.

In this second book, Percy, Annabeth and Tyson (who turns out to be a cyclops and Percy's half-brother) travel to the Sea of Monsters (aka the Bermuda Triangle) to rescue their friend Grover and the golden fleece (which will restore Camp Half Blood, destroyed by monsters) from a hateful cyclops. They have many adventures along the way which set Percy up for his biggest battle, which I presume will take place in The Last Olympian.

As for me, I'm hooked too. I'll keep reading!

Book #11: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Title: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of  a Thief, a Detective and the True Story of a Literary Obsession
Author: Allison Hoover Bartlett

Last summer, I was a speaker on a couple of panels at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium. I mostly just ran in for my own presentations and ran home to do kid duty, but I did attend one other session, a panel with speakers discussing the best Mormon books. Two or three of the presenters talked about what I expected them to talk about, books with interesting content for one reason or another. But the third presenter talked about bookbinding and deckle edges and clamshells and a whole bunch of stuff about the physical presentation of the books themselves. He said that he didn't actually read the books, he just collected them.

I didn't get it. And after reading The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, I'll admit that while Allison Hoover Bartlett did a great job talking about the obsession of John Gilkey, who loved books so much that he stole hundreds of them just to have in his possession, I still don't really "get" the whole idea of having books as for the pleasure of owning and looking at them (as one might a vase or a pretty plate) instead of actually reading them. But then again, I am a girl who would much rather borrow a book from the library than buy it, who feels no compunction about reading in the bathtub or dog-earing pages (yes, even of those library books), who wants to consume more than to hold on to. But why buy a book if you're never going to read it, if it's just going to sit on your bookshelf and be?

That said, Bartlett did a great job telling Gilkey's story, and trying to figure out why stealing books became such an obsession for him. Gilkey is, at best, an unreliable narrator, so Bartlett's job was tough-- recreating a narrative from the perspective of someone who wanted to tell a self-important version of his story, but whose best interests were in sharing as little as possible. Gilkey is complex, amoral, and striving, someone who is willing to spend time in prison to build his empire of stolen rare books. Pitted against Gilkey is Salt Lake City's own Ken Sanders, the crusader who organized rare book dealers around the country to track Gilkey down and put him back in jail. The story of the chase isn't really a nailbiter (it's a book thief we're talking about, after all) but Bartlett's own experience with books, along with those of Gilkey and Sanders, makes The Man Who Loved Books Too Much a worthwhile read for anyone who has ever wondered if they love books too much.

Four eyes, four eyes

If you've been reading my Facebook status updates over the last two weeks, you know I've been doing a lot of whining about my eyes. I've worn glasses for almost 30 years-- I got my first pair when I was six, and I remember feeling like the whole world came into focus when I put them on for the first time. I got my first pair of contacts when I was ten, and for the last twenty-five years, I've worn my glasses as little as possible, basically only to the bathroom first thing in the morning to put in my contacts. As a result, I hardly ever spend money on glasses, and my current pair is six years old and badly scratched. We thought about buying me a new pair last summer, but when I went in and picked out frames and priced them, they were going to be about $800. My eye doctor had suggested that I get LASIK, and for just a fraction more than two pairs of glasses (or a couple of years worth of contact lenses) I could be glasses free. So we decided that I'd go under the knife after the first of the year.

Well, tomorrow's the day. I've been wearing my glasses in preparation for the last two weeks, and if nothing else, wearing them has reminded me just how much I hate glasses. They're always smudged and dirty, and are a royal pain in the butt to wear while running. And doing yoga while wearing them is a total joke. Not to mention the fact that they're pretty much broken and none too fashionable anymore. And they make my nose break out. I look lovely these days, I tell you.

So tomorrow I'll get to experience my first surgical procedure in my 35 years (do wisdom teeth count?). I've heard the recovery isn't too bad, but I don't know what "not too bad means." Will I be back to running on Friday? Will I be able to drive the carpool without killing anyone? I don't much know what to expect. Except that life without glasses will be pretty darn sweet.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book #10: The Year of the Flood

Title: The Year of the Flood
Author: Margaret Atwood

You can talk to me all you like about why I should like science fiction, but it's never going to be the genre that attracts me most. Maybe I'm unimaginative or something, I don't know. Anyway, The Year of the Flood is set in a North America of the future, after the world has seen the consequences of both global warming and rampant corporate scientific greed. This is a highly-fractured world, with well-educated corporate types living behind gates, corporate police keeping order, crime and gangs ruling cities, and religious cults reacting against the whole of it. Ren and Toby both end up living with the Gardeners, a group of religious vegetarians who live a simple life and revere Saints E.O. Wilson and Mahatma Gandhi. Both end up leaving the group, but come together again after a plague destroys most of the world's population.

There are some authors whose entire body of work deserves to be read, even when she writes in a genre that you're not really all that into. For me, reading Margaret Atwood's more straightforward fiction, like The Blind Assassin, is like a most delicious entree: it's substantial, it's filling, it's challenging, and when I put the book away, I'm fully sated and see the world differently. I see the world differently after reading The Year of the Flood too (in a scare-the-pants-off-me kind of way), but instead of feeling like I ate a delicious and complex entree, I feel more like I got a heaping portion of vegetables. Good for me, yes, and substantial too, but not as enjoyable as some of her other work.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Plates, revisited...

I've been doing more than just indulging in my serious Dexter addiction lately (although I have watched all of the first season and half of the second in the last week), I also screwed my courage to the sticking place and got back up on the ladder in the dining room to hang more plates. Leslie has been a lot more dedicated to the plate endeavor than I have, and I got another box fresh from the Central Massachusetts Salvation Army yesterday. This morning I headed out to get plate hangers and came home with a bunch more plates from Home Goods and Ross, so I've been up on the ladder, dutifully hanging, this afternoon. I'm almost done! One small wall left, and if I could find my kids' birth plates (where, oh where, could they be? I haven't found them in the moving boxes yet) then I think I'd be just a plate or two away from completion. Excuse the terrible pictures, they're from my phone (I can't find my memory card, and the house has turned into a disaster while I've been ten feet up on my ladder).
This is now what you see when you enter the house from the front door. The east wall was already hung.

A view of the north wall. Les found lots and lots of little plates, and most of them even survived the cross-country voyage.

Here's the little northwest corner.

A view of the south wall. I really want the aqua Star of David in my bedroom, so I may have to do some reshuffling once I get more plates. 
That's the only empty space. Too bad I'll have to pull the ladder out from the garage again to hang just four or five more! Thanks for indulging my need to show off, yet again. I'm sure I'll share a picture of that last corner once it's done too!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book #9: The Lightning Thief

Title: The Lightning Thief  (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
Author: Rick Riordan

Last time I was in The King's English, I asked one of the employees what my reluctant-reading fourth-grader might be interested in. She recommended the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and when Bryce finished the first book and asked for the second, I knew she was on the right track. When he saw that that book was being made into a movie (to be released next month), he told me that I needed to read the book before the movie came out (hey, I've used that tactic on him before!), I made sure that I got right on it.

I enjoyed The Lightning Thief. It's quick-paced and funny, with a likable protagonist in Percy Jackson, the boy who has gotten kicked out of six schools in six years and discovers at the beginning of the novel that he's a half-blood, the child of one human parent and one godly parent (in this case Poseidon is his father). He joins other half-bloods at a camp on Long Island, not too far removed from New York City, the seat of Western Civilization and the current home of the gods. Soon after his arrival, he's sent with two friends on a quest to retrieve Zeus's lost lightning bolt. If he fails, a world war of the scope we've never seen will start, so it's a pretty tall order for a twelve-year-old.

My main quibble with the book is that Percy's mom disappears and is presumed dead at the beginning of the book. In the first few chapters, Riordan does a good job demonstrating that Percy and his mom are unusually close. She disappears just as he arrives at Camp Half-Blood, and all of his surroundings are new and much different than he's used to, and he starts to realize his place in the world. But I'd like to think that maybe he would have been so broken up over his mother's disappearance that he wouldn't notice things like the leanness of the meat in the cafeteria Instead, he takes her "death" in stride. I know the book is fantasy, but that was one part where the difference between fiction and reality seemed a little bit too unbelievable.

Book #8: Hello, Goodbye

Title: Hello, Goodbye
Author: Emily Chenoweth

Helen Hansen is a counselor in her early forties, a mother and a wife, who comes in a from a jog on a wintry Saturday morning and collapses on the kitchen floor. She's quickly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (but her husband Elliott chooses not to tell her about the dire nature of her fate), and the next summer the couple, along with their college-age daughter Abby travel to New Hampshire to get together with old friends for what will be their last reunion.

I read through this book pretty quickly, and the Hansens' fate moved me. Practically overnight, Helen went from being a young, vibrant woman, to someone who needed help getting dressed, couldn't spell, and often forgot words. Elliott watched the woman he loved turn old, and he knew she was going to die, but felt that the remainder of her life would be better if she didn't know quite so quickly. And Abby juggled being self-absorbed and going through a process of self-discovery with the very adult task of losing her mother.

The book reminded me of The Big Chill, or some other kind of "let's get together after a long time" kind of book, superimposed with "Beaches" or a tearjerker of that ilk. It was an interesting, quick read, and I liked the characterizations of both Elliott and Abby (flawed both), but I don't know that it's a book that's a must-read or something I'd recommend to others.

Book #7: A Short History of Women

Title: A Short History of Women
Author: Kate Walbert

A Short History of Women follows five generations of women, all from the same family, beginning around the turn of the twentieth century and ending about 100 years later. Dorothy Townsend, the woman whose story started it all, is a Cambridge-educated (though not degreed, because that wasn't allowed at the time) suffragist who starved herself to death to make a stand in the fight for the vote. The women who come after Townsend, her daughter the chemistry professor, her granddaughter the stay-at-home mom-turned activist, her granddaughters (a yuppie banker and a potter) and her great-granddaugher (a college student) all look to the original Dorothy as their symbol, their inspiration, and often their nemesis. They're a family of strong women, but not always sure what they want to stand strong for.

The book is written as about a dozen vignettes or short stories, each with one of the women in the family as the center. It jumps back and forth chronologically. While I thought the stories were interesting enough on their own, I didn't really see any kind of overarching "theme" that would have made the book qualify as a novel. I've read other books about families written in a similar way, Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth comes to mind as the best example, but after reading Angela's book, I saw how the stories came together and why she chose to profile people at different times and in different crises. After reading A Short History of Women, I wasn't so sure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rock and Roll Arizona Race Report

I had a great weekend in Phoenix with Lyn and Sheree and Sheree's sister Bekah and her family! We did some good shopping, ate really yummy food, saw a bunch of friends, and got to soak up some of the sun that has refused to shine up here in Utah. In fact, it was so nice that the only thing that would have made it perfect would be to go and not to run a marathon. But run a marathon we did, and here's the race report:

We woke up at the relatively late hour of 5:45 and got to the start line about an hour early. Instead of freezing up in a canyon, we merely shivered a little bit as we walked around the runners' village. About fifteen minutes before the gun went off, we bade each other farewell, and got in our corrals with our pace groups. I'd decided to run with the 3:15 group, since that would give me a PR. I hung with the group for about 18 miles, and I don't know if it was the flora or smog, but my asthma started acting up shortly after the race started. I tried to take my inhaler while I was running, but I couldn't breathe deeply enough to get it in my lungs and get it working. Finally, around mile 18, I ran into the bathroom and made myself relax for a few seconds while I peed to get the albuterol in. By the time I left the bathroom, the 3:15 pace group was too far ahead to catch easily, and while my lungs were feeling better, I'd committed the cardinal sin of marathoning; I'd stopped. Getting started again was really hard. My left foot and calf started cramping up, and wouldn't stop seizing. I did what I always do when I need to keep going, I looked for someone to talk to (social runner that I am) but everyone around me had looks of determination on their faces and earbuds in their ears. Finally, between mile 19-20, I ran into Dave, who had started in the 3:10 pace group with his sights set on Boston, but was plagued with a cramping quad and blisters. I asked him if he wanted someone to run with him, and he didn't object. At this point, I wasn't sure if I was going to stay with him for the rest of the race, or just until I got myself feeling better, but I started thinking about it: I could get back in a groove and finish in 3:20 or 3:25, and go back to Utah feeling sore for a week, or I could stay with Dave, and go home feeling good and be back to running in a few days. I decided to stay with Dave. We walked when we needed to walk, ran when we felt good, and finished in 3:38.

A year ago, I probably wouldn't have called this a successful race. I would have been disappointed that I didn't PR (and I still know that there are a bunch of things I need to do better before Ogden in May, including not sluffing off on the speedwork and tempo runs I'm supposed to do on the days when I don't run with my friends, and running with the fastest people and not taking big rest breaks during my long runs), but in a way, I'm proud of myself that I was able to pull back and not feel bad about it. I know that marathoning has become a way of life for me (why, I'm not quite sure) and there will still be good races and PRs in the future, even if they weren't in Phoenix.

As for my companions, Lyn and Matt (Sheree's brother-in-law) both did a great job in their marathon (which is always the hardest one), and Sheree had a good race too. None of us came home with great racing times, but I think we all had a great time regardless of our chip times..

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A big shout out... my dear friend Blue, who took time out of her busy schedule over the last two days to take my picture and analyze all of the details as we photoshopped it together (she's the one with the skills, I'm just the one with the opinions). I'm thrilled with the end result, and happy that my blog now reflects the reading, the running, and the real-life family things that I write about regularly.

On nerves

The night before I ran my first marathon, I didn't sleep much. I forced myself to bed before nine o'clock, and then woke up at least once an hour all night long. It was nerves. Big-time nerves. I'd heard of runners feeling like they were going to throw up after a race, but my stomach rolled all the way to the starting line. When the gun finally went off, a surge of adrenaline went through me, chilling me right to the bone.

The nerves, combined with a disappointing race performance and an injury left me feeling sorry for myself as we drove home. But before the sun set on that day, I'd signed myself up for another marathon.

I recognized the feeling; as a high school swimmer, I loved practice, but hated races. I'd never skimp on my laps during practice, but I felt so intimidated as I saw the other teams' swimmers entering the pool deck that I wanted to run back into the locker room and cry. The only time in my life that I ever faked being sick was when I managed to snag some entries into the district championship meet. I just couldn't take the pressure. 

At the second marathon, the nerves were still there, the same feeling of dread set in a couple of weeks before race day, the clock taunted me all night long once again, but at least I could eat breakfast. The next time, I slept and ate breakfast.

This weekend I'm running my seventh marathon, and three days out, I'm not nervous. I don't know if it will be my best race (I've had sort of a nagging IT-band injury, and my training wasn't as focused as it could have been), but I'm no longer afraid. If I do well, great. If I don't, there's always another race (I'm already signed up for Ogden and plan to sign up for New York once I get back). If my knee doesn't cooperate and I have to pull out, it will be a bummer, but I'll live.

Not being afraid is pretty liberating, and it's something I never really thought would happen. Even if I never get another PR, then I consider overcoming my game-day fear to be a reward that will translate beyond running.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Transformation, transformation!

You may notice over the next few weeks that the blog is changing. When I started it, back in 2005, it was a place for me to try to be philosophical about my life as a stay-at-home mom of three kids under the age of five. Then came my hyperactive running phase, in which I wrote a lot about improving my speed and losing weight and trying to smoke the pants off my male compatriots while wearing a running skirt (a much more appropriate way to deal with my competitive nature than comparing whose kid potty-trained first). Now my big kids are older, and the little ones, strangely enough, don't make me feel all angsty the way I did when the big ones were little. The running, while still important, is no longer a subject of exploration-- it's just something I do; the alarm goes off, I lace up my shoes, and run off into the darkness for an hour (or three) of exercise and therapy. Both of those aspects of my life, while still very, very important to me, aren't necessarily the things I write about most these days (besides, writing for Segullah gives me ample of opportunity to be philosophical, and writing for fMh gives me ample opportunity to be angsty). So while I'll still write about the kids (yes, Mom, there will be pictures) and about running (no, there will likely be no pictures of that, since taking pictures of myself while running is something I have not perfected and I refuse to pay $20+ for a single 5x7 of myself at a race, although my runner's legs will figure gratuitously in the new header), I want the name and the look of the blog to reflect the fact that reading and writing about books is one of the things I love best, and certainly the thing I'll write about most often on the blog in 2010.

Keep checking in for the transformation...

Book #6: The King's English

Title: The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller
Author: Betsy Burton

I've been on quite a reading kick lately, if I do say so myself. It reminds me a little bit of how my best friend Leslie goes through painting binges, but when she's done with a painting binge she has something to show in a gallery or hang on a wall, and when I'm done reading a book, it just goes back to the library, and I have nothing (other than a short little review in my blog) to show for it.

I saw Betsy Burton's book a few months ago when I was at The King's English, a bookstore here in Salt Lake City at the corner of 1500 South and 1500 East, but instead of buying it, I came home and reserved it from the library. It sat on the bookshelf in my bedroom for a couple of months (I kept renewing it) but for some reason I'd decided that it would be boring, a dry history of a bookshop, and I never picked it up. I should have known better, because The King's English, as an institution, is anything but boring, and I basically read the book in a single sitting.

After my most recent trip to The King's English, I wrote a post about it at Feminist Mormon Housewives, wondering about the place in our commercial culture that independent and local institutions hold when chain stores are often cheaper with equal or better selections. After reading The King's English, I'm a convert to it and other independent stores like it. In fact, I don't just want to support Betsy Burton; I wish I could be Betsy Burton. Like her, I live and breathe and dream about books. In a very small way, I see my blog blog posts as a chance to evangelize what I love to others, just as she does in her store (on a much larger scale). And while she laments about accounting and managerial problems, it's obvious that the chance to know and become friends with the wonderful minds that have created the books we love so much is ample reward for Betsy. She lives The King's English, and she obviously loves it.

Burton also provides great lists at the end of each of her chapters, related to the subject of the chapter ("banned books" for example, in her chapter about censorship), and I felt the same sense of being overwhelmed and close to tears, that I often feel when I go into a bookstore with a pad and paper and write down lists of titles that look interesting. There are just SO MANY good books I haven't read, and even if I read all day, every day (which sounds heavenly) from now until I die, I won't even make a dent. In fact, I'll probably forget about 90% of my list before I even have the chance to reserve the books from the library.

So what's a voracious reader to do? For this voracious reader, at least, the next step is to go down to The King's English and buy the book. Then the lists will be intact, Burton and her staff will get my support (small as it is), and I might even find something else to add to the pile on my bedside table while I'm there.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book #5: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Title: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Author: Jacqueline Kelly

It's August of 1899, the hottest summer on record in Fentress, Texas, a sleepy little town south of Austin where eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate's father runs the cotton gin and she lives with her parents, her six brothers, and her grandfather. To pass the long, hot days, Callie begins recording what she sees in the world around her in a notebook, and her stern grandfather takes her under his wing and encourages her budding career as a naturalist.

Part coming-of-age novel and part feminist training manual for today's young girls (the book is written for a 5th-8th grade audience), Callie must come to grips with the fact that the things that are expected of her (sewing, embroidery, cooking, deportment) don't interest her at all, and the things she loves (exploring by the river, experimenting with her grandfather in his laboratory, reading Darwin, dreaming about college and career) don't fall in line with what her mother expects of a young woman of her station. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes on Christmas Eve, when Callie receives a book from her parents, and glimpses the word "science" through the wrapping paper. She continues to tear open the package, feeling hopeful that her parents finally understand her, but when she realizes that it's actually a book on "The Science of Homemaking" she can't hide her frustration. The book clearly highlights how many more opportunities young women have today than they had a century ago, but probably also acts as a springboard for young girls to see where discrepancies still exist.

Like many books about young girls in olden times (think Little House, Betsy-Tacy, etc...) there's not one single storyline that drives the text. Instead each chapter has its own rising and falling action, which makes it feel even more domestic. It's very well done, written by a woman born in New Zealand and raised in Canada, who is both a lawyer and a physician now living in Texas. One of my favorite things about the book is its cover. The cut paper is intricate and beautiful, even if Callie looks strangely one-legged.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book #4: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Title: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope
Authors: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba talks about growing up in Malawi, where everyone, young and old, goes to bed at 7pm. Why? Because that's when the sun sets, and 98% (that figure may be wrong) of rural Malawians live without electricity. William grew up as the son of a farmer, and when a famine struck the land, his parents could no longer pay his school fees and he had to drop out after one year of secondary school. Armed with not much more than an old high school physics textbook and access to the town junk heap, William had a dream of bringing electricity to his house, and spent months creating a windmill that would harness electricity to light up his home.

While William's story of his childhood in Malawi and the construction of the windmill are interesting, the sensation he created (which is described in the last few chapters of the book) is equally interesting. After a few local journalists reported on the windmill, he was nominated to attend a TED conference in Tanzania, which led to a scholarship to a pan-African high school, a better windmill for his parents (to draw water from a well), several trips to America, ,where he was feted by rich Americans, and, presumably, this book. By the end of the book, it felt a little bit like the sensation of a boy who built a windmill was more the story than the boy who actually built the windmill, if he was even the same boy anymore.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book #3: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley

Every once in a while, I love a good mystery. This is a good mystery. The eleven-year-old protagonist, Flavia de Luce, wakes up early one morning to find a dead man among the cucumbers in her garden, and then proceeds to race the police in her small English town to find the murderer. A child detective could be oh so wrong, but Bradley does a great job with the precocious de Luce, whose greatest love in life is Chemistry. She takes off on her bicycle, sleuthing in an age before the internet made it both easy and possible to do it from the comfort of home (the book takes place in 1950).

As far as the mystery goes, the murderer wasn't all that much of a surprise, but the backstory is compelling enough that it doesn't really matter. I learned a lot about philately (which sounds dirty, but it's really just stamp collecting) and poisonous compounds along the way. While the book's heroine is a child, this isn't a book written for children (it won the Dagger Award for best first crime novel), although I think it would be appropriate for a teenage reader. Apparently Bradley has a second Flavia de Luce novel in the works, and I'm very eager to read about her next adventures.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book #2: The End of Overeating

Title: The End of Overeating
Author: David Kessler

I love seven-layer bars. Even thinking about them right now makes my stomach start to rumble. There's something about the combination of the chocolate, the salty nuts, the coconut and the caramelized butterscotch and sweetened condensed milk that makes them completely irresistible. I used to make them every so often, but I realized that when I do that, I can not stop myself from eating them. No one else in the family likes them, but I'd often eat an entire 9x13" pan in two days, three days tops. So I don't make them anymore, but when I see them for sale at a bakery, I'll buy myself a square.

This "not being able to stop" phenomenon is what David Kessler talks about in The End of Overeating. He calls it conditioned hypereating, and studies show that a majority of obese people struggle with it, along with significant portions of overweight and normal-weight Americans. According to Kessler, the American food industry has snowballed the problem by creating foods that are hyperpalatable (with multiple layers of fat, sugar and salt) and by making eating out a rewarding occurrence that takes place with increasing regularity in our society.

Kessler, a pediatrician and professor of medicine at UCSF (and the man behind the new food labels), spends the first half of the book talking about why we crave sugar, fat and salt, and how those cravings get harder to turn away as they become habits. He also spends a significant amount of time talking about how the food industry creates foods that are addictive and bad for us (he uses examples from Cinnabon, Outback Steakhouse, Panera Bread, and I'm pretty sure I will never be able to eat at a Chili's again). But the last third of the book is about what we can do to recircuit the now-instinctive behaviors and conquer conditioned hypereating. It's a really interesting read, although I think it's probably just a first step for people for whom conditioned hyereating is really a problem. I think back to when I was trying to lose weight about three years ago, and lots of what he says in the book (like setting rules-- I had a rule that I would never eat dessert before lunch, which has worked really well for me) reflects the things that I used back then. Ironically, I've thought more about the foods that call out to me over the last two days (and craved them more strongly) than I usually do, but I can see that Kessler's book helps all of us understand why we as a society struggle with obesity and how to start fixing the problem on an individual level.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book #84: Her Fearful Symmetry

Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Author: Audrey Niffeneger

Whoops! I forgot this one in my book count from last year. I guess I really read 84 books, which puts me only four back from 2008, when I got to 88 (but several of those were cookbooks, I just can't not be competitive, even with myself!).

I know there are lots of people out there who like fantasy and science fiction. I'm not one of them. I barely tolerated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and I hated A Wrinkle in Time (what kinds of enemies have I earned myself?). For some reason, even though her characters travel through time and live as ghosts, Audrey Niffeneger's books feel enough like real life that I really like them. Does that even make any sense?

And I guess I also have to recant some of what I said here, because although I found the first three-quarters of Her Fearful Symmetry to be totally charming, it did get weird at the end. The book is the story of Valentina and Julia Poole, twenty-year-old identical twins who live in Chicago when they get the news that their aunt Elspeth (their mother's identical twin) has died, leaving her London flat and her fortune to them, under the condition that they come spend a year living in the flat. By the time they arrive, Elspeth comes to realize that she's not so dead after all, living as a ghost, but limited to the confines of the apartment. The girls become close to the other people living in the building (including Elspeth's lover) and learn secrets about their mother and aunt.

I heard Audrey Niffenegger interviewed somewhere (was it Fresh Air? Diane Rheem?) about writing the book, and how she became a guide at London's Highgate Cemetery (the cemetery figures prominently in the narrative). I find that I enjoy books a lot more if I've heard the author speak about the writing process (which I guess shouldn't be all that surprising). In this case, I wonder if I would have liked the book as much without the author interview or the good feelings I had about The Time Traveler's Wife-- if it had existed in a vacuum. It's a quick read and a page turner, but the end strayed a little bit far from what this realistic kind of girl felt entirely comfortable with.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Book #1: Cleaving

Title: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession
Author: Julie Powell

Remember Julie Powell? Cute, sweet, Julie Powell so adorably portrayed by Amy Adams in the film Julie and Julia? Well, that Julie Powell and the one in Cleaving bear only a couple of resemblances: the hangdog husband Eric, and an annoying tendency to whine. In Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman talks about how people with bipolar disorder make the best memoirists because they tend to overshare-- to lack the inhibition that makes most people stop talking about the most intimate details of their lives. While Julie Powell only hints at her psychological difficulties (quite possibly the only thing she only hints at), she definitely falls into the category of oversharing. Big time.

When I read on the book's jacket that she was caught between her faithful husband and a lover, I thought the lover must have been a lover in a metaphorical sense. But no, Cleaving is the story of how Powell makes herself miserable over the course of the three or four years after the end of Julie and Julia, carrying on an extended affair with the man she cheated on Eric with back in college, a man who indulges her S&M fantasies (yes, I'm serious). While the personal stories are squirm-worthy and almost too salacious to be believed, she mixes them in with the story of her butchering apprenticeship, which I actually sort of loved. I learned a lot about how meat goes from squealing to sausage, and I think she did a pretty good job of using metaphors between butchering pigs and cows and the butchering she was doing to her marriage.

You've got to admire someone who isn't afraid to come across as pretty despicable, as Julie does in Cleaving. But honestly, I was riveted. I could not stop reading the book. But if it had been my life (which I cannot even fathom), I would have changed the names and the places and called the thing a novel.

Book #83: Superfreakonomics

Title: Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
Author: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

If you read and enjoyed Freakonomics or any of the recent Malcolm Gladwell books (The Tipping Point, Outliers, etc...) then you'll likely enjoy Superfreakonomics. It's full of interesting tidbits about why condoms fail in India more than in other parts of the world, why prostitution isn't as lucrative a field as it was a century ago, or why the solution to global warming involves nothing more than a long garden hose. I read it in a few hours (which makes me feel that it wasn't worth the price for the hardcover), and while it's got a lot of splashy facts, I think I'm sort of tired of this genre of books-- the "things aren't really as they seem" field of economics/parenting/social networking that seems so popular lately (think Nurtureshock). But Superfreakonomics is what it is, and as an example of the genre it's pretty good, but not $29.99 worth of good.

The Fifty Book Challenge-- Year Five!

I don't know why I bother calling this the Fifty Book Challenge any more, but it's nice to have a goal that, at least so far, has been relatively attainable. Here are my totals for years past:

2009: 84
2008: 88
2007: 72
2006: 85

Hope you'll enjoy the reviews! I know I love reading the books and have even sort of come around to liking the act of writing about them.

Book #82: The Lacuna

The Lacuna: A Novel (P.S.)
Title: The Lacuna
Author: Barbara Kingsolver

I had great luck in December with picking books that were both really intelligent and totally engrossing. I spent three hours in bed one morning last week, ignoring my kids, and getting lost in the life Harrison Shepherd, a boy whose growing-up years alternate between military schools near his American father and the kitchens of his Mexican mother's rich boyfriends. As a teenager he becomes first a plaster-mixer, then a cook, and finally a secretary for muralist Diego Rivera, and befriends Frida Kahlo. After working for Trotsky, Shepherd returns to America, where he becomes an author of historical potboilers, and finds that he can't escape his past... until he finds a lacuna.

Kingsolver must have done an inordinate amount of research in writing The Lacuna. She has an intimate knowledge of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky, McCarthyism, and the writing style of small-town newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s. The result is a completely enjoyable read with a satisfying, if surprising ending.

Book #81: Discovering Home with Laurie Smith

Title: Discovering Home with Laurie Smith: Find Your Personal Style
Author: Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith was far and away my favorite decorator back when I was addicted to Trading Spaces. She was nice to her clients, hardworking and organized, and her stuff always turned out great. When Stephmodo recommended her book, I signed up for it at the library. The premise of the book is simple: she takes us through pretty much every room of the Mississippi house she and her husband recently bought, renovated, and decorated. She goes through all of the little details that make her work special (techniques like mixing multiple fabrics, raising doorways, not matching artwork to the color scheme of the room, adding something vintage to each room, and mixing woods and furniture styles). I love the voyeuristic quality of being able to see every bit of her personal space, which is impeccably well done.

Book #80: That Old Cape Magic

Title: That Old Cape Magic
Author: Richard Russo

Jack Griffin grew up with miserable parents-- snobby English professors who thought that they'd been exiled with their tenure-track jobs in the mid-f*&%%-west and lived for the time they spent each summer on Cape Cod. After years of infidelities and acrimony, they eventually divorced. Griffin grew up not wanting to become them, but in his early fifties he's also an English professor, also set in his ways, also a lover of Cape Cod, and also in danger of losing his marriage. He's also carrying his father's ashes in the trunk of his car, but is somehow unable to part with them.

Russo is my favorite kind of author-- readable and smart. My only criticism of the book is that Griffin is a little too wrapped up in his head, and it seemed at times that he might not pull his head out of his butt enough to do the right thing. But the characters, even the supporting characters and most memorably Sunny Kim, are all full of life. The book is a quick read, but it's memorable and thoughtful and funny. And you just might look at your next wedding invitation with different eyes.

Book #79: The Bellini Madonna

Title: The Bellini Madonna
Author: Elizabeth Lowry

What makes a reliable narrator? Someone who observes keenly, who doesn't have a personal stake in the events at hand,  whose vision isn't clouded by mind-altering substance or illnesses. Thomas Lynch has none of these characteristics, and as he tells the story of The Bellini Madonna, I was alternately confused, repulsed and charmed by the story.

Lynch, a former art history professor specializing in the works of Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, has been searching for a lost Madonna. His quest leads him to wrangle himself an invitation to a rundown estate in the English countryside, where he believes the painting is hidden. During the weeks he stays there, he doesn't know if he's the one doing the duping, or if he's being duped by the women who live in the home. Lynch is almost completely unlikeable as a person, and it can be hard to follow the narrative at times (a drunken narrator isn't very reliable), but the book is still pretty enjoyable, and the dynamic between Lynch and the women in the home is entertaining.

Book #78: The Children's Book

Title: The Children's Book
Author: A.S. Byatt

I loved A.S. Byatt's Possession (and I even liked the movie, unlike most of the world), so I was thrilled to hear that A.S. Byatt was coming out with a new book. The Children's Book is dense and epic, and like Possession, includes stories within stories (Olive Wellwood, the story's matriarch, is an author of children's books), which is part of what I found most charming about Possession. The Children's Book is essentially the story of the Wellwoods and a half-dozen other families, bound together by their Fabian sympathies and artistic inclinations, who live in the South of England. It takes place over a period of about 30 years, culminating at the end of WWI. I loved the first several hundred pages (it's 700+ pages), when the Wellwood children were small, but as they grew, I started to dread reading about their lives and the lives of their friends.While Possession is charming, though long, The Children's Book is too sprawling, with too many characters to care intensely about their tortured lives. I felt like Byatt felt somewhat the same way, since the death of two characters early in the novel took up many chapters, but a half-dozen others were bumped off in the space of a couple of pages later on. It's a beautiful book and a rich book, but eventually not engrossing enough to make me want to read all 700 pages.

Book #77: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House Reader's Circle)Title: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World
Author: Tracy Kidder

Paul Farmer is a man with a mission, a man who has likely done more to advance access to medicine in the third world than anyone else in the century, a man worthy of sainthood. But I wouldn't want to be married to him. He works 20-hours days (and has for decades), travels between Boston and Haiti and Russia and Cuba and Peru (is it Peru? I can't remember, it's been a while) and France with great regularity, has at least three full-time jobs (but very little wealth to show for them), and has revolutionized both access to medicine in Haiti and treatment of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis on several continents. He loves what he does, and Kidder does a great job showing both the humanity and the superhumanity of Kidder. It's an interesting book about an interesting man, but reading it both made me feel guilty for the comforts I enjoy and made me feel like a lazy slacker.

Book #76: Persepolis 2

Title: Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
Author: Marjane Satrapi

I loved Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis when I read it a few years ago. Persepolis 2 takes place where the first graphic memoir left off, with a teenage Marjane being sent from Iran to Germany, where they hope she'll be safe during a time of political upheaval. While the original Persepolis was dark, with war and fear and death always looming close to the surface (as I'm sure it must for people who live in countries like Iran), it was also told from the point of view of a child, so there was still some of a sense of wonder as Marjane learned to live in her fractured world. In Persepolis 2, she's mostly grown up, and while the story is just as entertaining, it's also darker-- she lives on the streets for a time as a teenager, feels her alienation as a woman without a country very powerfully, worries about not being wanted anywhere, marries the wrong man, and generally feels pessimistic about her future. While Satrapi presents the story of her life convincingly, it's not something I relate to easily since my life has been perfectly conflict-free in comparison. It's interesting that this book (which I read about two months ago) only took me a couple of hours to read, yet it sticks in my mind better than many novels I've read since. Maybe I should stop discouraging my kids from reading picture books instead of chapter books!

Book #75: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

Title: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir
Author: Elna Baker

A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast of The Moth while running one morning. Many of the storytellers at The Moth sound like they've been around the block a few times, but this girl sounded so sweet and squeaky-clean. It was a huge change of pace to hear her after stories of alcoholic parties and attempted murders (more typical topics for The Moth). As I listened to the girl talk about how her parents married young and had five kids, I said to myself, "Wow, this girl has GOT to be Mormon." And sure enough, a sentence or two later, she outed herself as one of the tribe. I've been a fan of Elna Baker ever since, and couldn't wait to get my hands on The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance (which I'm sure would have come through on my reserve list much more quickly had we still lived in Texas, less competition than in Utah). 

In New York Regional.... (the title is stupidly long) Elna talks about trying to live life as a faithful Mormon while living single in New York City. It's sort of a Sex in the City (without the sex, but making out aplenty) meets The Singles Ward (although Elna would have a much hipper soundtrack). Elna honestly talks about her doubts about her faith and her desire to cling to both her beliefs and her culture, and the obstacles that make staying faithful in her profession and at her stage in life difficult while living in one of the most worldly cities in the world. She also writes about her battle with her self-image (she lost 80 pounds in her early twenties), and her family relationships.

As a Mormon, I'm firmly in Elna's camp. I think the book is funny, well-written, and shows that there are lots of different ways to be LDS, and that it's possible to explore doubt and stray occasionally from the straight and narrow without wanting to leave it permanently. Yeah, it's a little bit self-absorbed (but c'mon, it's a memoir!) and there are some places where a conservative Mormon might roll her eyes and wish that a lesser-known publisher had released the book, but overall, I'm proud of one of my girls making it big!