Wednesday, October 1, 2014

National Reading Group Month and the Annual Great Group Reads List

It's October again. That time of year where the leaves change color, everything is flavored with pumpkin, stores devote multiple aisles to candy, and in honor of National Reading Group Month, the Women's National Book Association releases its annual Great Group Reads list. I am a big fan of all of the above but especially of the Great Group Reads list. If you're in a book club, these books will make for great discussions and your book club will thank you for choosing them. If you're not, they are just plain ole great reads. Seriously, you should read 'em. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the President of the Charlotte chapter of the WNBA and a reader on the selection committee to determine this list. But don't let that put you off. :-) Now without further ado, the list for 2014-2015 is:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Cataract City by Craig Davidson
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks
Euphoria by Lily King
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
Where Somebody Waits by Margaret Kaufman
The World of Rae English by Lucy Rosenthal

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Fall by Diogo Mainardi. The book is being released by Other Press on October 7, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: THE FALL is a memoir like no other. Its 424 short passages match the number of steps taken by Diogo Mainardi's son Tito as he walks, with great difficulty, alongside his father through the streets of Venice, the city where a medical mishap during Tito's birth left him with Cerebral Palsy.

As they make their way toward the hospital where both their lives changed forever, Mainairdi begins to draw on his knowledge of art and history, seeking to better explain a tragedy that was entirely avoidable. From Marcel Proust to Neil Young, to Sigmund Freud to Humpty Dumpty, to Renaissance Venice and Auschwitz, he charts the trajectory of the Western world, with Tito at its center, showing how his fate has been shaped by the past.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Dinner With the Smileys by Sarah Smiley

Just about every expert out there talks about the importance of family dinners. But what do you do when your family is apart, not by choice, but because the husband and father is military and deployed for a year? If you are Sarah Smiley and her three boys, you invite guests to fill the empty seat at the table.

When the Smiley family found out that Dustin would be deployed to Afghanistan for a year, they knew that it would not be easy. The three boys were old enough to miss their father and Sarah Smiley was faced with trying to hold her house together while finishing up her degree without her biggest supporter to help her. In order to help the boys adjust to life without their dad for the year, they came up with the idea to share their Sunday dinners with others for the next 52 weeks. Smiley wanted the boys to have local role models, to show them about community, and to be just a little bit distracted from Dustin's absence. The guests they invited ranged the gamut from politicians to local celebrities, from beloved teachers to special neighbors. Most of the dinners took place at the Smiley's home but a few of them involved being at someone else's home or doing things that pushed their boundaries.

The book is not just about the dinners though. It is also about parenting alone while a spouse is on deployment. It's about the way in which the boys reacted to their father's absence. And neither of these latter two things were easy. Smiley details the crying and the despair that overwhelmed her at times. She writes about the boys' frequent misbehavior. In other words, she shows her family warts and all.

Dinner With the Smileys is certainly homey, heartwarming, and honest. But it suffers a bit from the mélange of agendas: the dinners and guests themselves, the life and sacrifices of a military family, or the lessons she and the boys learned from their guests. The beginning of the book spends a lot of time on the guests and the experiences of the Smiley family as they embark on this project but by the end, the guests and the dinners are glossed over too speedily, sometimes dealt with in the span of a single sentence. This imbalance between beginning and end made the experiment feel a bit forced by the time the reader reaches the last page. This was indeed a wonderful premise and a feel-good read but in the end, while I enjoyed reading it, it seemed just a little cursory and ultimately a little less insightful than I would have expected.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Monday, September 29, 2014

It Can't Possibly Have Been 25 Years...

I went back to my 25th high school reunion two weekends ago. I hadn't even been back to the state since graduation; the moving van pulled out of our driveway about 6 nanoseconds after I was handed my diploma. But I thought that 25 years was a good time to go back if I ever planned to do it. Never mind that I do not look anywhere close to what I'd have liked to look like when seeing people I haven't seen in so long. (I'd settle for looking like my 18 year old self, not that that would be hard, right? HA!) I realized about three years too late that I hadn't prepared my best self for the reunion. You know, the self that has lost a ton of weight, looks fit and gorgeous, and is completely stylish. Then again, if *that* person had shown up for the reunion, no one would have recognized me since my nerdy 18 year old self didn't exactly qualify either. I'm willing to concede that I was fit, because, well, I was. The rest...not so much. So took a stab at lowering people's expectations just a bit by posting this on Facebook: "My high school reunion is next weekend. And I'm going. I haven't been back since I graduated. Do you think if I bleach my teeth into a blinding whiteness, it will distract everyone from noticing that I have a much more enduring love affair with food than I do with exercise? Or that I can't be arsed to dye the greys that are pushing me dangerously close to what I like to call Mother Nature aided blonde? Pretty sure my personality hasn't gotten any better since high school and that I am more socially awkward than ever. This could be a hot mess. But it could be a hot mess with great, blazingly white teeth. So there's that." See? It's not all about physical appearance? OK, so in this status update I forgot to mention that I briefly considered Botox until my longstanding needle phobia ruled that right out and then I thought that an eyebrow waxing would be subtle but helpful until I recognized that my luck meant that I'd find someone who completely removed one of my eyebrows entirely, a look I'm quite sure I am incapable of rocking. If you are keeping track, that's 5 out of 7 things that are appearance driven. And that discounts the fact that I had to go shopping for new clothes so I'd be marginally less frumpy mummy than I usually am. Apparently I am ridiculously vain. Who knew? But I'd committed and hoped for the best. (Side note here: the high school I went to was quite small so I knew every last person in my graduating class. Anonymity was never going to be an option. So I convinced my husband, who did not go to school there, to go with me to run interference if my chubby, insecure, introverted self needed bailing out.)

Being the neurotic, regimented sort of Type A personality I am, the night before I left for the reunion (post shopping and tooth whitening--they never did get the fluorescent white color I thought would be the perfect distraction), I printed out a blow by blow of what the weekend would have to look like for everyone to get everywhere he or she needed to be. I taped it to the door leading into the garage so that each kid (and my husband, since he was following me a day later) would see it each time they left the house. I pointed it out to everyone. Then I packed and went to bed. Thursday morning I ran some last minute errands and then headed to the airport. Direct flights from here to there are few and far between and since I had waited fairly last minute, were obnoxiously expensive to boot. So I was forced to endure two flights on commuter aircraft, and I don't much like flying. For the first flight, my seat was the ever-coveted last row before the bathroom. I sat down, pulled out my book, and started reading. The plane was mostly full when an old dude (and you know he was an old dude if my middle aged self thinks so) took one look at the seat next to me and told the flight attendant that he'd rather sit in the bathroom. If I'd have been her, I would have allowed it, FAA be damned. The second flight was on the same plane but I still had to deplane and then get back on again, thankfully in a seat further up the way.  However, I got to sit next to a mom who held a grizzling 3 month old baby while getting to listen to his older sister sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame quite loudly across the aisle. I may not find baseball any more interesting than watching the grass grow but even I know there are only three strikes, not five, as our little songstress seemed to think. Have I mentioned I'm not very fond of flying?  I might have opted for a seat in the bathroom on that one.  So I finally arrived, collected my rental car, and headed out to find J.'s house since she graciously offered to let us stay with her. I recognized absolutely nothing about the city.  Seriously!  Nothing.  Not long after I got to the house, R. called me in tears to tell me that there was no one to drive her to dance. W. had gone off to his tennis lesson and my husband, who had one job Thursday evening (getting the kid to dance), had also disappeared because he hadn't read the schedule. I had to call all of my friends and neighbors to get the poor child to where she needed to be. Home crisis handled, I tried to relax for the rest of the evening.

Friday morning dawned clear and lovely and I trailed J. to the middle school for Breakfast at Blake where one of our classmates was being honored as an Alum of the Year. When I first saw R., I love that he complimented me on my lovely teeth (yes, he had read the Facebook post). It made me feel just that little bit better about looking the way I look right now. R. and his brother gave an interesting talk about their lives and successes as entrepreneurs and I intend to force my husband to watch the whole thing on YouTube once it's posted since he missed it, still flying in. I did have to sneak out early in order to head back to the airport to pick up my husband so I didn't get to do any mingling afterwards, which turned out to be okay since I have to ease into that much social stuff. I drove my husband all over the city, including out to my old house (which I had forgotten you can't see from the road as it sits over the crown of a hill and behind a bunch of trees). He was mightily impressed when I pointed out one small triangle of roof and about three bricks and told him that's where I lived for four years. ::snort:: Then we drove around to the high school (20 minutes with no traffic at midday) and I tried to drive from the upper school to the middle school, a drive I did daily for four years, on memory alone. I got about half way there but then my memory conked out. In another twenty-five years, I probably won't even be able to find the front door of the school. We headed back to J.'s house and as is fitting for our status as old buggers, took a nap.

Friday evening we headed to the Homecoming football game. There was a nice alumni reception on the loggia at the school. I don't think this is a new thing but I have to be honest and say that in the four years I went to school there and was at the Homecoming game, I had no idea they were having this old folks party on the loggia. Amazing how oblivious ages 14-18 can be! I chatted with people I hadn't seen in forever and my husband, extrovert that he is, met not only my classmates but spent time talking to other alums I had never before laid eyes on. After the game, which I did not watch and which we lost badly (apparently not much has really changed in 25 years, for me or for the football team), the class party moved to a bar and bowling alley. I did not bowl as no one offered bumpers. (Actually, very few people bowled; it was mostly more talking.) I did recognize almost everyone there. Turns out the only person I didn't recognize was a guy who left after eighth grade. I didn't arrive until ninth grade so that earlier cheating by looking at the yearbook paid off in spades. ;-) There were a few people who didn't recognize me (they should have looked at the yearbook and then added weight and grey hair to my picture and it would have been immediately obvious who I was!). I told my husband that it was giving me a complex when people had to squint at my nametag to figure me out. Always wanting to help, he suggested that they just wanted a closer look at my boobs and pretending to not recognize me was just a ruse. What would I ever do without his thoughtful support?!

Our morning Saturday started much earlier than planned when my mother called us at 5 am. We'd left the kids home alone (several states away, mind you). Well, at that insanely early hour, the alarm company had called her to tell her that they were sending a police officer out to our house. No, not a party, but an alarm going off and no one answering the phone. Talk about wide awake and in a panic quickly! We called everyone we knew to try and rouse them to meet the police at the house and made the youngest wake the oldest (who had slept through the alarm) so we didn't have a 12 year old telling the police that he was home alone. Turns out that the kids forgot they'd set the alarm so when R. went to let the dogs out, she just opened the door. And none of them saw any reason to answer the phone to reassure the alarm company. While we were panicking trying to get everything handled from afar, the kids were completely sanguine and unruffled by all of it. Of course, they hadn't been awakened from a dead sleep to deal with it either. But it all worked out fine, a neighbor showed up to make us look like more upstanding parents than we actually are, and we managed to drift back off to sleep. Once we had start number two to our day, it was absolutely gorgeous, sunny and 75 and it looked like a day straight out of a tourism brochure. There was a class picnic at Lake Harriet and a few people brought their kids to play on the playground. We did not bring our kids but they are so much older than most of my classmates' kids that every time I had to admit to having a senior, a junior, and a seventh grader, it made me feel irrationally older than whoever I was talking to.

Later on Saturday, there was a another party at the Upper School and J. wanted to paint the rock in the courtyard for it. We took all the stuff to get set up and as the rock was being painted, I got yet another phone call from home. This one was from a neighbor telling me that T. had been playing football and had hurt his arm. I talked to him and suggested that he take some Advil and call me back in an hour. I know, I know. Not exactly the most concerned and empathetic response ever but he's a very dramatic child. Anyway, my suggestion suited him and later in the evening I got a text from him saying that they were going to go to the local amusement park's haunted weekend. I patted myself on the back for appropriate mom intuition. We raced home, got dressed for the party, and headed back to the school in a monsoon of vast proportions. On the plus side, the spray paint had managed to dry before the skies opened up so the rock looked good to greet people, if they could see it through the driving rain. I took the opportunity to walk around the school and see how it had changed in the past twenty-five years. Much of it was the same but there were some gorgeous additions too. Comparing it to my kids' school really drove home how lucky I had been to go to school there. There were some different people at this party so there was more chatting and catching up. One classmate even asked me if I was this funny in high school (meaning my Facebook posts). She looked a little skeptical when I told her I wasn't actually this funny now either. We opened the time capsule that we'd put together 25 years prior and although I have no memory of contributing to it, the first thing pulled out of the box was from me. Turns out it was a pair of shoes. I must have worn them every day for four years. The sole was split through on one, the inside leather was curled and gross, and there was a rime of mud on them. Most of the other things in the time capsule were historically significant newspaper articles or letters about what people thought their lives would look like twenty-five years on. I was one of the few to put in a cultural artifact (this is my fancy justification for the weird way my eighteen year old brain worked). My husband sent a picture of me holding the shoes to my mother who promptly texted back wondering where my wedding ring was and warning him that I might be "trolling for guys." She also wanted to know if my high school boyfriend had come back. Honestly! I clearly inherited the crazy fair and square. For the record, I am too fat for my wedding ring and between my husband and my sons, I have more than enough guys in my life, thank you very much. But it was a lovely time and I did enjoy catching up with people in person.

The next morning we headed home. Although my husband had made both our reservations, making them a couple of days apart was a mistake because he forgot which flight he put me on and booked a different one for himself. At least he claims it was an accident! Maybe he went to my reunion trolling for women. ;-) In any case, he had a four hour layover at O'Hare and I spent my long layover in Dulles. Although I had no less than appealing seatmates, I recognized my discomfort with sitting as an incipient pilonoidal cyst (look this up only at your own peril as the pictures are horrifying and the description might even be worse). Suffice it to say it's a cyst on your tailbone and it makes sitting very unpleasant so two plane rides were great fun. I immediately made plans to spend Monday at the doctor's office getting good drugs. Other than that though, the trip home was uneventful.

Re-entry into regular life was not destined to be quite so easy. Monday morning, the kid with the injured arm that I had dismissed as likely to be fine still could not move his arm. After many hours at the ER and then the orthopedic doctor, I have been permanently struck off the list of nominees for mother of the year. Yes. Broken. And I encouraged him to take Advil and just walk around with a broken arm for two days. So much for mom's intuition. Back at home I found dog vomit in the front room and damp mildew-smelling clothes in the dryer after R. told me that she'd gone to get her pants out on Friday but they were wet. When I asked her if she'd run the dryer, she looked at me in surprise and said that no, she'd just tossed the wet jeans back in there and closed the door. Argh! Obviously I can never leave home again. And no, I didn't get to the doctor to handle my own issues until two days later at which point I could no longer sit or walk normally. Reunions are clearly a pain in my ass. Literally.  Can't wait to see you all in another twenty-five years!

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford

Reviews posted this week:

Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
Where Somebody Waits by Margaret Kaufman

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella
The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Spanish Queen by Carolly Erickson came from St. Martin's Griffin.

The Tudors are always a fascinating subject to me and while Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first queen, she is not often a focus, merely a speed bump on the way to Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I. I am interested to see this take on this first of Henry's wives.

Flirting With French by William Alexander came from Algonquin Paperbacks and Library Thing Early Reviewers.

Learning a language as an adult is a booger and I can't wait to see Alexander tackle French.

Last Train to Babylon by Charlee Fam came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Somehow this book about a young woman who keeps suicide notes ready just in case, and the former friend who actually does kill herself brings to mind the black humor of the movie Heathers to me. I'm hoping the flavor comparison holds when I actually read it.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Where Somebody Waits by Margaret Kaufman

There's something very charming about this physically slight novel that's not really a novel, more a collection of connected short stories. And while the dimensions of the book have nothing whatsoever to do with the content, it somehow seems to fit that it is a quirky-sized book.

Ruby Davidson is the character around whom all the stories revolve. Starting during WWII and then spanning sixty years, Ruby surprises her small Arkansas town by marrying Bubba Davidson, the decade older Jewish owner of the town's clothing store rather than waiting for her soldier boyfriend, John Clay, to come home from the war. Ruby adores her husband but she's also still in love with John Clay and this two part love will lead Ruby to decisions and down paths she never expected. She is a free-spirited, generous and loving woman, good to her husband and worshipped by her young nieces. She is unconventional and socially conscious living, as she does, through historic times. As the years pass and Ruby lives her life from her 20s to her 80s, there is a real sense of sultry, Southern days tinged with melancholy here. Ruby makes mistakes and hurts people but she is also fierce in her love and tolerance.

The point of view shifts from story to story and many of them have been previously published on their own so they stand alone and complete within themselves. But they also make a united and special whole. Some chapters are narrated by Ruby, some by her nieces, some by John Clay, and others. The different perspectives on Ruby were not always equally strong but they did offer extra insight into her impact on the lives of those loved ones around her. Sometimes Ruby's choices in life were simply stated without offering a motivation, which would have been nice to know and added to the depth. The writing is extremely poetic and lovely. Kaufman draws her characters and their small town beautifully. There are some wonderful colloquialisms here and Ruby's character makes this an uncommon and unique read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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