Sunday, May 31, 2009

Running again

If you follow me on Twitter or know me on Facebook, you'll know that my sister-in-law e-mailed me and told me that my training for the marathon last year inspired her to sign up to get back in shape (like me, she was a swimmer for umpty-ump years) by training for the Columbus Half-Marathon through Team in Training. I don't know I've ever inspired anyone to do anything before in my life. Usually I'm the bad example no one tries to emulate. And yes, I completely get the fact that you non-runners in my life think that my marathon training was not an inspiration, but another of my bad examples to be avoided. ::grin:: But C. actually thinks it was inspiring (and yes, given that she's related to D., who was crazy enough to marry me, she probably has questionable mental stability in her blood, as well). And I think that's totally cool. So cool, in fact, that I am seriously considering training to run it with her. The very first endurance event I ever ran was the Columbus Half-Marathon so it has a special place in my heart (plus, it's a nice, flat course).

With this in mind and after being inspired by the movie double feature last night at one of my running coach's house (Spirit of the Marathon and Run Fatboy Run), I thought I should probably get my sorry self back out on the road running again since averaging a run twice a month is not a particularly good training plan. So today I proved once again that my learning curve is steep and possibly even slower than my running pace.

Let's just say that the high point was outrunning a gecko. Yes, I can outrun a tiny, three inch lizard, even though his legs were spinning fast enough to look like the Road Runner outrunning Wile E. Coyote. It was pretty much all downhill from there (or maybe I should say uphill since there seemed to be few downhills on the route I chose to run). For starters, as one loathe to forgo the pleasures of sleep, I broke the cardinal rule of hot weather running: I headed out the door for the run after 10:30am, right into the obnoxious heat and high humidity of an 80 some degree day. Not pleasant at all. I was quickly a red-faced, sweaty, roly-poly ball of mental breakdown on legs. Yeah, I actually stopped to walk three times (and guzzle water two of the three) on a mere 3 mile run. And yes, I ran that mere three miles with my water belt, because I'm not completely stupid (we're probably looking at a 90/10 split with the 10 being smarts).

The third time I stopped to walk, I looked down and noticed how nice and trim I look. NOT! The pot belly hanging over the water belt is a charming feature. It makes me look like I should be waddling along like a pregnant woman instead of plodding along the side of the road like a heat stroke victim. (And before any of you misread that, I am most emphatically not pregnant--just fat.)

Then I admired the steaks of foundation colored sun screen streaking the front of my shirt. It may have claimed it was "Very water resistant" but it clearly didn't take into account the Niagara Falls of sweat I produce just a nanosecond into exercising. So much for decent skin protection while running (of course, earlier in the morning will afford more shade over the roads, but that's for another day).

And while I laughed last night while watching Run Fatboy Run and seeing him describe the itchy rash on his "scrotal region" to all and sundry, I completely discounted the need for Body Glide for a mere 3 miler. Of course, I also underestimated the amount of time any and all sweaty bits would be rubbing together as well as the humidity index for the day. Suffice it to say, if I had a "scrotal region," it would have a rash right now. As it is, I just suffer from inner thigh chafing. Chub rub doesn't feel nice and it isn't pretty. And boy howdy, I can't wait until it scabs up. So much fun looming in my near future! But I'll be investing in Body Glide by the vat again, I can tell.

As I finally limped back to my house after this most pitiful of all runs, I realized that I have a long way to go before I can actually commit to signing up for this half. In the next few months we'll have to see if I can actually haul myself around the roads regularly and be in some semblence of physical shape not resembling a circle. Then and only then will I commit. In the meantime, for those of you who want to help support my sis-in-law's efforts and the amazing Team in Training in their fight against Leukemia and Lymphoma, be sure to click and make a donation and be sure to tell her I sent you.

Sunday Salon: The book club edition

Every summer a group of women up at my cottage allows me to choose three books to add to their summer reading piles. I have jokingly dubbed myself the Supreme High Chooser for the summer bookclub and no one, even when I offered (and trust me, that was only once) to let others help choose, they agreed that I should continue as sole dictator book chooser. And since I'm not one to turn down totalitarian rule when it's so graciously ceded to me, I weigh my options carefully and then make totally incomprehensible choices for us to read and discuss in June, July, and August. I have a hot or miss track record although I have yet to have a summer where we hate all three choices, so I'm calling it an overall positive. My criteria for choosing is completely random. It could be because the book is one I want to read desperately. It could be because it's a huge buzz book (although I generally prefer less obvious books to introduce to the group). It could be because it's a book I've seen lauded to the skies in the blogsphere, yet it doesn't really entice me and therefore I need that extra kick in the pants to force myself to read it. It could be a fairly obscure book that a trusted friend thinks would make a good discussion book. I could probably go on listing criteria forever but I'm probably already the only person still admiring the minute distinctions I make when I am compiling lists (land sakes do I love lists!). In any case, it is past time to choose the books for this summer. I canvassed people and got very few suggestions. Is everyone feeling lethargic after the long winter or something? So I've had to ponder long and hard all on my own. Could this be the summer all three books are duds? Geez, I hope not! This summer's selections are:

Drum roll please.......

The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell
Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

How do you think I've done? Weigh in if you've read these. Feel free to tell me other books I should have chosen in their stead so I have a collection already started from which to choose next year.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy

Sarah and Charles Lucas have created a long and generally happy life for themselves in the large Vermont house where they raised their children. And they have settled in for a contented retirement when Charles unexpectedly dies. Sarah finds herself drifting through her days until her granddaughter and friends move into the house. Then comes a woman and child who have lost everything in a fire. The cousin of an old friend moves into the guest house, needing quiet and solitude. The daughter and gradnson of an acquaintance escape an abusive situation by moving into Sarah's. And Sarah starts to come back to life with this newly created family inhabiting her home and her grounds.

Told in two seperate sections, starting with the Lucas' life before Charles' death, part one ends in the past, picking up part two with the memorial service and the emptiness now pervading Sarah's life. Maloy has written both the portrait of a good, solid marriage and of one partner's painful coming back to life after the death of her husband. The characters are flawed and real and utterly sympathetic. Their interactions, especially Sarah's with her children, echo the interactions of people the world round. While the Lucas house might be a place of healing for so many of the lost souls who congregate with Sarah, it is clear that this is just one stop on their path and that Sarah and her determination to find meaning in the life left to her is the main focus of the story. She is a strong and graceful character for whom the reader can't help but root, even as we see her frustrations and watch her admit her past mistakes. The narrative covers much loss but has a tender and lovely feel to it that draws readers in and keeps them engaged with the story each and every page. I very much enjoyed this book about lasting love, family, loss, and going on in spite of and because of what happens in life.

Review: The Dogs Who Found Me by Ken Foster

Ken Foster rescues dogs. He not only takes them in to find them homes, but he takes them into his heart. With this book, he invites the reader into the stories of several of the dogs he's rescued, as well as some that he couldn't and who haunt him to this day. Weaving through the stories of the dogs that find Foster, is the story of his life with his own rescue dog, Brando, and then of sister rescue dog, Zephyr. Some of the stories of other dogs are incomplete feeling and I was struck by the sense that at times, Foster was working really hard to keep an emotional distance, perhaps so that he didn't end up adopting zillions of dogs himself. But I can hardly make that a complaint when I am incapable of going into pet stores that sell dogs without aching to bring them all home with me. This book will appeal to dog lovers, those whose animals sleep on the bed with them, curl up on the couch next to them, those whose animals are so confident in their owners' love they pester them with toys for hours at a time. It's a quick read, one that offers satisfying conclusions to most of the dogs' stories, and that reassures dog lovers that there are people like Foster out there, willing to take the abused, the abandonned, and the neglected into their hearts and their homes, even if it's just a way station on the road to their permanent home.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sentimental motherhood and (not) me

I sometimes wonder if I am missing some vital gene that mothers are supposed to have and if the day someone figures this out will be the day that they revoke my mom's club membership. I am completely and totally unsentimental and even the alleged cuteness of my spawn (I had to restrain myself from writing demon spawn given the way our day's gone so far) rarely makes me choke up over anything they do.

For instance, today was T.'s acting and singing debut at school. He's in first grade so the fact that he memorized his line and remembered most of the lines of the songs was huge. And his fellow classmates did the same. As I stood in the back of the gym in order to have a better shot for my pictures (see, I do have *some* mom abilities), I lost track of the number of moms who looked over at me with tears literally glistening in their eyes and said, "They're so cute. They're going to make me cry." Not trusting myself not to rudely ask why, I simply stuck with the head bob that they all took as a sign of mutual feeling. But I didn't feel that way. Why for all that is holy would a first grade play choke anyone up? As I watched T., I noticed that he was louder than anyone else and flatly tone deaf. Given this, I might perhaps cry because of bleeding ears but really, I had to restrain myself from visible wincing. Sure, he's darn cute. He loves to perform, especially when there's an audience. And he nailed his lines, garnering the biggest laugh of the play (and why not, since he was a "walrus in love with a tuna"). But a tear jerker, it wasn't.

But then I am clearly a philistine when it comes to getting sentimental over my kids. Did I cry when they were born? Nope. Did I cry when any of the little buggers graduated from pre-school? Nope. Did I cry when I put oldest child, W., on the bus for the first time? Nope. (I actually did a little happy dance. And I did a bigger happy dance when R. followed him onto the bus the following year. I practically stripped my shirt off and ran around the soccer field in just a sports bra when T. hopped on the bus. Oh wait, that wasn't me. But that's how I felt about everybody being at school all day long.) I just don't cry over their stuff. Don't get me wrong, I do love them and all. But I don't understand the weepies over the milestones or the manufactured cuteness moments. Like I said, I am not a sentimental mom. Maybe I'll save all my tears for after the kids are out of the nest but I somehow doubt it.

I'm even so unmaternal, I delight in finding new way to embarrass the kids. Today's discovery was that it is completely mortifying for mom to stand at the self-checkout line at the grocery store and feed all of the assorted coins in her purse into the cash slot. Nevermind that I had about $25 in change because the pre-teen has suddenly decided that he needs bills rather than change and has gone into my purse, aka his own personal bank, to exchange my bills for his change. The fact that I was determined to use said cash, was terrible enough but to actually stand there and have to listen to the ka-chink of each coin as it went in was the height of mortification. Made me feel postively gleeful, it did. See, the non-sentimental mother will find devious and inspired ways to pay back (literally) any snarfty pre-teen behavior because she is unburdened by remembrances of sweet toddlerhood. I know, I know. The official notice of motherhood rights revocation is probably in the mail even as we speak. I most likely won't weep over that either.


So the 5 Cinco de Mayo winners (and how appropriate is it to have 5 winners for a 5th of May celebration giveaway), according to, are:

Neas Nuttiness

Congratulations! You've all won a copy of Do-Over by Robin Hemley. Look for an e-mail from me asking for your snail mail addy.

Review: Duke Most Wanted by Celeste Bradley

The third in the Regency set historical Heiress Bride series, I don't think I've read the first or second offerings by Bradley. In the series, grandfather Pickering has left his considerable fortune to the first of his granddaughters to marry a duke. Sisters Phoebe and Deirdre find their loves in the previous two books and with one of the men being the heir to a dukedom, it seems as if cousin Sophie has less than no chance to inherit her grandfather's fortune. But that's fine with her as she's been secretly in love with her best friend, Graham, for ages and he's just the third son with no expectations of inheriting. But fate has other plans, as Graham's father and dumb as posts brothers all die on a safari, leaving the terribly impoverished dukedom to Graham. Now he needs an heiress and while he doesn't know of Sophie's potential inheritance, she knows she is just what he needs. Of course, as Graham grapples with his inheritance, Sophie is busy being transformed from ugly duckling to swan, drawing notice from all the ton. She really only wants to captivate Graham although she won't trust even him with her deepest secrets. Can she marry him, claim the inheritance, and live happily ever after?

While this is a well-written romance, as Bradley's works generally are, I can't get over the huge plot twist she throws into the works, making the interior thoughts of one of the characters completely and patently untrue. Unless the author's intention was drawing said character as completely unhinged, believing in their own concocted story, this didn't really work. I was reading along happily, enjoying Sophie's long-suffering love for Graham and his dawning attraction (could it be love?) towards her when I was walloped in the face with this enormous twist, placed in the narrative solely to push the happily ever after out farther and to require some convoluted wrangling to make that ending still happen. I. Didn't. Appreciate. It. At. All. And not because I am averse to well done plot twists. I'm not. This one came out of thin air (one small foreshadowed comment on page one doesn't make it believable) and made the character in question completely suspect, especially since this immense twist was never acknowledged, even when the character was speaking internally. The resolution of this enormous plot twist was well done but I can't get over being rankled by its necessity. Color me grumpy but as a result, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this one.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Monday Mailbox

I love it when the books you are expecting actually start coming in. The anticipation is nice but to actually have the hard copy in your hand is better. Actually, the very best is probably when you are still holding the unopened box or envelope so you haven't yet discovered the joys the package holds. It could be anything. What joy, what rapture. So this week in my mailbox came:

Old World Daughter, New World Mother by Maria Laurino.

Amazon describes it thusly: In a memoir that combines the personal and the political, Laurino (Were You Always an Italian?) documents her journey from a childhood spent in the company of a traditional Italian family to becoming a mother herself and the many differences between her mother's life and her own. Laurino's mother, a stay-at-home mom, claimed that she was not like the other mothers—she didn't drive or participate in the school's PTA; she was superstitious and read omens from dreams into daily life, while keeping an overprotective eye on Laurino and her mentally disabled brother. Laurino's father believed in the power of education and supported Laurino through college, where she pursued her burgeoning interest in the feminist movement. She began her career in the early 1980s at the Village Voice and later became New York City Mayor David Dinkins's chief speechwriter. As she married and had a child, her worldview expanded to include that of a working mother, and she struggled to find a comfortable place for myself amid the hum of two dominant, divergent traditions. Laurino deftly tells her story, while succinctly expressing a feminist's perspective on motherhood and explaining how much further we have to go as a country in order to honor every woman's work.

Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton.

Amazon's blurb reads: This is the story of Mina, a girl at a Sheffield call centre whose next customer in the queue is Peter, a Cambridge geography don who has crashed his car into a tree stump when swerving to avoid a cat. Despite their obvious differences, they've got a lot in common -- both single, both parents, both looking for love. Could it be that they've just found it? CROSSED WIRES is an old-fashioned fairy tale. It is about the small joys and tribulations of parenthood; about one-ness and two-ness; about symmetry and coincidence; about the things that separate us and the things that bring us together.

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha.

Amazon's take on it is: Irene and Nate Stanley are living a quiet and contented life with their two children, Bliss and Shep, on their family farm in southern Illinois when Nate suddenly announces he’s been offered a job as a deputy sheriff in Oregon. Irene fights her husband. She does not want to uproot her family and has deep misgivings about the move. Nevertheless, the family leaves, and they are just settling into their life in Oregon’s high desert when the unthinkable happens. Fifteen-year-old Shep is shot and killed during an apparent robbery in their home. The murderer, a young mechanic with a history of assault, robbery, and drug-related offenses, is caught and sentenced to death.

Shep’s murder sends the Stanley family into a tailspin, with each member attempting to cope with the tragedy in his or her own way. Irene’s approach is to live, week after week, waiting for Daniel Robbin’s execution and the justice she feels she and her family deserve. Those weeks turn into months and then years. Ultimately, faced with a growing sense that Robbin’s death will not stop her pain, Irene takes the extraordinary and clandestine step of reaching out to her son’s killer. The two forge an unlikely connection that remains a secret from her family and friends.

Years later, Irene receives the notice that she had craved for so long—Daniel Robbin has stopped his appeals and will be executed within a month. This announcement shakes the very core of the Stanley family. Irene, it turns out, isn’t the only one with a shocking secret to hide. As the execution date nears, the Stanleys must face difficult truths and find a way to come to terms with the past.

Dramatic, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting, The Crying Tree is an unforgettable story of love and redemption, the unbreakable bonds of family, and the transformative power of forgiveness.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.

Amazon reads: Jackson matches effortless Southern storytelling with a keen eye for character and heart-stopping circumstances. Laurel, a high-end quilt maker, sees the ghost of a little girl in her bedroom one night. When it leads her to the backyard and a dead girl in the swimming pool, the life Laurel had hoped to build in her gated Florida neighborhood with her video-game designer husband, David, and their tween daughter, Shelby, starts to fall apart. Though the police clear the drowning as accidental, it soon appears that Shelby and her friend Bet may have been involved. Bet, who lives in DeLop, Laurel's impoverished hometown, was staying over the night of the drowning and plays an increasingly important role as the truth behind the drowning comes to light. Meanwhile, Laurel's sister, Thalia, whose unconventional ways are anathema to Laurel's staid existence, comes to stay with the family and helps sort things out. Subplots abound: Laurel thinks David is having an affair, and Thalia reveals some ugly family secrets involving the death of their uncle. What makes this novel shine are its revelations about the dark side of Southern society and Thalia and Laurel's finely honed relationship, which shows just how much thicker blood is than water.

As always, if you'd like to check out the goodies that other people found in their mailboxes, check out The Printed Page where Marcia kindly hosts this meme every week.

And don't forget to check out my Cinco de Mayo giveaway for 5 copies of Robin Hemley's wonderful non-fiction work called Do-Over: In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments. It's really worth the read and the giveaway doesn' end until May 27th so there's still a few days to throw your sombrero into the ring.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Salon: Review: Do-Over by Robin Hemley

Looking back at your life and many of the rites of passage in it, there are probably things you'd change. Things that didn't quite happen as planned, things that make you wince when you remember them, and things that you didn't do and wish you had in hindsight. And that's why the idea of Robin Hemley's Do-Over: In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments is so incredibly appealing. Most of us have experienced the "If only" or "I wish" and even the "I should have" when thinking back on different times in our lives. Hemley actually set out to "do-over" those things that niggled at him in that way.

Each chapter takes a certain event or period of time in his life that he wanted to revisit, not in the impossible task of replacing his memories with something different but to try and experience them in a different, positive way. There is a lot of humor in this book (imagine a 48 year old man re-doing kindergarten or going to the prom) but there's a lot of honest introspection too. Obviously Hemley's life wasn't completely consumed by these events as his adult life continued on even as he worked on his project. But being older certainly gave him a different perspective on each stage as he faced it. He was able to face the class bully with equanimity. He looked with amuseument on the stress of SAT preparation (something few if any high school juniors can do). And yet he learned a lot from re-experiencing these events, both about himself and about the world that his daughters live in now. Much of what he did gave him great insight into his own family and into his parenting, a truly valuable lesson. In initially not being able to let go of his own past mistakes or embarrassments, Hemley has crafted a witty, entertaining, and well-written memoir that was a delight to read. It also begs the question, what in your life would you like to do-over?

I currently have a giveaway going on for 5 copies of this book. To read the rules and enter, check out my Cinco de Mayo giveaway.

And unfortunately not Do-Over, but for a giveaway for my international readers, look at the International Giveaway for a chance to win one of two books.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: Godmother by Carolyn Turgeon

Lil is a older woman who works at a bookstore, lives simply and frugally (out of extreme necessity), and has a great love for one of the books in the bookstore: a valuable copy of Cinderella. Is this the sum of Lil or is she also who she claims to be, the exiled fairy godmother from the Cinderella story? As Lil goes about her day, with her tell-tale wings bound tightly to her back, she describes her life as a fairy godmother and the mistake that led her to be cast out from her life. She made the mistake of falling in love with the prince herself and went to the ball in place of Cinderella. Convincing herself that she will be re-admitted to the fairy realm if she rights her wrong, she determines to help unite her new friend Veronica and her kindly boss George, both unlucky in love and bearing melancholy scars.

Lil's rendition of the real Cinderella story starts off lightly but soon becomes more and more dark in feeling as she prepares to tell of her ultimate betrayal as a fairy godmother. Likewise, the story of her small existence in the human world starts to sound more menacing even as her plans for George and Veronica seem to be coming to fruition. The end to Lil's Cinderella story is unexpected, foreshadowing the end of the book. The ending completely changed my reading of the story. The impressive twist turns the lightness of the early story on its head and pulls the curtain off the life of quiet desperation that Lil has led for so long. This was a completely engrossing book, impossible to put down which I read in less than a day. But I am left ambivalent about it, although certainly still pondering it even weeks later so it clearly captured me in unusual ways. A real departure from my usual type of book, the glimpses of the magical world enchanted me but the loneliness of the human world counterbalanced the fantasy. So many questions remain in the end that I was left with a sense of unease, feeling decidely disturbed. Regardless of my own reaction, I don't think there's any doubt that this is a highly unusual and readable book, carefully crafted and taut with emotion.

Review: Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue

This mysterious and mesmerizing triptych of a novel opens with widowed Margaret Quinn opening her door and finding a child, half-frozen, shivering on her doorstep. She takes this orphaned waif in, dubbing her Norah assuming that the tattered and torn piece of paper pinned to her coat is the start of her name. As Margaret makes this orphaned child comfortable and warm, she is thrown back into her memories of her own daughter, Erica, as a child. Erica had run away from home ten years before to join a radical group called the Angels of Destruction. Norah's presence, which Margaret explains away by saying that the child is her granddaughter come to live with her while her parents work out their difficulties, starts to heal the wounds in Margaret's heart. Norah also befriends an emotionally hurt, young, local boy named Sean, whose father has abandonned his mother and him. Sean knows the secret that Norah is not really Margaret's granddaughter but conspires with Margaret to keep this hidden from the rest of the town, and even from Margaret's own sister. What neither Margaret or Sean know is what Norah really is or from where she's arrived. Sean sees her perform small miracles or impossibilities and starts to believe Norah's assertion that she is an angel, and assertion that will cause the unravelling of everything.

The second portion of the book moves back into the past, into Erica's adolescence. Margaret's husband Paul and Erica butt heads in more ways than just as typical father and teenaged daughter, growing more and more estranged and contemptuous of each other as Erica falls even harder for the boyfriend her father so disdains. Boyfriend Wiley is very obviously a loose cannon, even before he convinces Erica to run away with him and travel cross-country to join the revolutionary group Angels of Destruction. But Erica takes off anyway, escaping the father she thinks completely hypocritical and the mother she barely considers but whose heart she breaks. Much of the second part of the book details Erica and Wiley's flight to the West, including a long and unplanned stopover in the Tennessee mountains when Erica is ill and they are taken in by a grandmother and her otherwordly granddaughter Una, who bears a remarkable resemblence to the Norah who will appear 10 years later at Margaret's door.

The third part of the book moves back to Margaret and Norah together, beautifully tying the threads of the first two narratives together as the novel's inevitable denouement plays out. There is an elegaic feel to the writing in this novel and Donohue skillfully keeps from answering the reader's questions about Norah and her reality. Is she an angel sent to thaw Margaret's frozen heart and help heal Sean or is she a mentally unbalanced little girl or is she exactly who she claimed at the start of the novel, an orphaned child who appeared out of nowhere and beckoned by the light in the Quinn house? In this novel of damaged characters and rejected love, there are no easy and simple answers. The ending is both a surprise and not a surprise, striking in its inevitability. Despite knowing there will be no answers, there is almost a compulsion to keep reading, to come to the end, to know the little that we will be granted. This is quite simply an obsessive and ensnaring novel.

Review: The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez by Judy Goldschmidt

Raisin Rodriguez's mom gets married and moves across the country with her new husband, taking Raisin and her little sister from Berkley, CA to Philadelphia, PA. Not surprisingly, the move is difficult. Raisin misses her two best friends, doesn't fit in with the popular girls no matter how hard she tries, and feels as if she is completely out of place in this new blended family. So Raisin starts a secret blog to keep her best friends informed about her life. And she is not necessarily nice. As a matter of fact, Raisin is overly concerned with being popular, judging people based on their looks, and just generally snarky. In short, she's a pretty average, garden-variety middle school girl. Add in the difficulty of having moved and adjusting to an entirely different culture (seriously--Berkley to Philadelphia--how much more different could the culture be?) and Raisin's fits of self-pity, her meanness towards the only person who shows her any kindness, her pettiness and general snottiness towards being a contributing member of this step-family make perfect sense. The denouement is completely predictable and of course Raisin grows as a person once she sees her writings for what they are. But the book doesn't set out to push any boundaries, just as the middle school lit we read eons ago didn't push any boundaries. It just gave us a mirror to look into, as Raisin does for the current technologically savvy set of middle schoolers today. And what Raisin learned, they will hopefully learn by osmosis rather than experience. Because it's far easier to learn from Raisin's mistakes than to make them yourself. Written as blog posts, this was cute, funny, self-aware, and altogether entertaining, as long as you aren't living with an ungrateful and mopey Raisin yourself. It should appeal to middle school girls and to some of their moms.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume edited by Jennifer O'Connell

If you were a girl growing up in the 1980's, chances are you read Judy Blume's books. And if you read Judy Blume's books, chances are even better that you still remember one or more of them better than many books that you have read subsequently. Who doesn't remember Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? And of course, everyone passed Forever around to read the juicy bits. I personally identified with Iggie's House although I was always the kid moving, not the one left behind to befriend the new family in the house. I still have my original Judy Blume books and have passed them along to my older children (and it's about time to pass the less girlish ones along to the small boy as well). And really, the way that these books captured a generation is unique and the very thing that this collection edited by Jennifer O'Connell celebrates.

This is a collection of essays written by current YA and chick lit writers is nostalgic and familiar. Their essays on the work or works that meant the most to them as they developed as girls and young women could have been written by your best girlfriends. As Blume's books are pretty universal, so are the essays in this book. The authors have chosen a wide range of the Blume canon about which to write. The ways in which these stories have impacted their lives, the extent to which they remember the stories, and the breadth of the debt some of their own writing owes to the stories varies but it's likely that you'll find yourself nodding your head in agreement with most, if not all, of them. It is amazing how this shared cultural experience still forms us so many years later. This is very much a love letter and a thank you note to Ms. Blume and I admit that I read it with a huge smile on my face. I might be an adult now, but just reading about others' Blume experiences as preteens and teens had the power to take me back to that more innocent time in my life. And we can all use a little more innocence these days.

International Giveaway

I hinted that I was thinking about it. I even said I would. But those of you who know me, knew that it would take me a coon's age to ever get around to it (that's a really long time for those of you not au fait with Southern 'Merican sayings). And it has taken me a good long time to get around to it but it's here now. The International Book Giveaway! These are brand new books that you've seen offered all over the blogosphere available to only those in the US and Canada. Well, now here's your chance with them.

Houston We Have a Problema by Gwendolyn Zepeda.

Somehow I ended up with 3 copies of this one and heaven knows that while I am a terrible book hoarder, I don't need three copies. One copy was given away in my book club but I saved one for my intrepid international readers.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.

A second copy arrived at my house yesterday and I'd already won a contest for it elsewhere so you get double the fun even before I admit to getting it during my Monday Mailbox post. How lucky is that?

So now the rules: To enter, comment on this post, follow me, twitter the contest and send me the tweet too (I'm @booknaround), or blog about it on your blog and post the link. Each of these will get you one entry. If you would prefer one book over the other, note that in your comment. Please make sure to leave me a way to get in touch with you if you are the winner! You cannot enter if you are in the US or Canada. The contest ends May 31 at midnight. Happy entering

RIP Tannenwald

The cottage I've been going to my entire life is no longer, replaced by what I've been told is shaping up to be a lovely new cottage. The old cottage was sinking dreadfully and I've been assured, each and every time I am ratty (but only because it breaks my heart) about tearing it down instead of fixing it, that it was less expensive to build a new cottage around the old fireplace than to try and renovate what was already there and coated in bat guano. Sometimes I think my parents just tell me these things to shut me up. But in this case they were probably telling the truth (and wanted me to shut up too). I will miss the original Tannenwald dreadfully. All of my summer childhood memories were wrapped up in those brittle and ultimately fragile old walls. RIP Tannenwald.

The view from the cottage arched over by a rainbow.

The old cottage and rock wall that the water used to reach when I was small.

Looking down the front porch.

The side door entrance from the well house.

Review: Independent People by Haldor Laxness

If you were being quizzed, how many of you, even those of you who are well read, could come up with an Icelandic author off the top of your head? I know I certainly couldn't have before being introduced to not only an Icelandic author but to THE Icelandic author, 1955 Nobel Prize winning author Laxness. This bleak, desolate novel of a poor sheep farmer ekeing out an existence for himself and his unhappy family can be a tough read. After all, it doesn't sound terribly appealing, does it? But it is far more than the plotline would suggest.

Opening the story with the recounting of a old myth, the reader first Bjartur of Summerhouses hiking to his newly purchased croft, which is reputed to be haunted by the characters of the myth. We see the measure of the man when he refuses to toss a stone on the cairn built to appease the mythic figures he disdains. And we know his hard-headed determination will not yield to anything, not to softness, kindness, foolishness, or truth. He has worked for 18 years to be able to put down a downpayment on a poor farm with only a small sod home/barn on it and a few animals but he feels richer than the richest man around. To this remote holding he brings first a wife, who gives birth to another man's child alone during a blizzard, bleeding to death in the process. Surprisingly Bjartur opts to raise the baby as his own, finds another wife (one who seemingly had little to no choice but to marry him) and fathers more children, only two of whom live past infanthood.

This is really Bjartur's story as most of the other characters are one dimensional, with the exception of eldest daughter Asta Sollilja. Life is hard and nature cruel but Bjartur continues to eke out an existence. There are great descriptive swathes spent on worms killing sheep and butchering animals and the like but somehow, they only add to the narrative. Like a homegrown sort of Odyssey, all experienced within a day or two's walk, the experiences and adventures of the bombastic Bjartur are all oriented towards a striving for home (and in Bjartur's case, of independence). Almost all reviewers have called this an epic book, and it does indeed feel epic. Echoes of poor farming settlers everywhere abound but there also seems to be something indescribable that is purely Icelandic here as well. It feels as if this must have been written under the lowering sky of sunless winters. And yet, I think it brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. Probably not for all readers, as there is little (no?) joy to be found in the characters here. But for those who want to persevere, they will be rewarded with nuggets of truth.

New rule for buying clothes or fashion hints for the chubby and busty

Always, always, always sit down in them before agreeing that they should come home with you. My local fashion consultants helped me to do this when I tried on jeans the other week (and came home with none). The jeans looked perfectly fine while I was standing up. (Well, aside from the fact that I have a dreadful muffin top but that's hardly the jeans' fault. I blame the kids for that.) But when I sat down, let's just say my nether region got more exposure than a model's at a thong underwear convention. And given that I am still wearing underwear I have owned from college (yes, it's old but it's perfectly serviceable and the elastic still works but you're feeling sorry for my husband now, aren't you?), exposing it to the world--or having it dragged down by denim, thereby turning into a bunched up rear-flossing mess when I stood up and causing me to contort myself to pluck it out of the depths--is not pretty. I did eventually find a pair that worked for me but not on that hysteria invoking, shameless explosure trip. So I now appreciate the art of sitting down in pants before buying them.

But, no one told me that this needed to be extended to shirts, and specifically shirts with buttons, as well. I found and bought a cute shirt that gaped a tad at the buttons at the bustline. My fashion consultant promised that once I hiked the mountain range back to altitude, the shirt would no longer gap, inspiring a bra shopping trip. She was correct. Unfortunately, she didn't take into consideration the fact that I don't stand around all day long. I go from seat to seat. Usually this is in private so no one else knows what a slug I'm being but occasionally I have to loaf in public. And yesterday was one of those days.

So, wanting to look cute in public, I donned the darling shirt, checked that there was no gapping, and went on my way. As I drove to my book club meeting, I noticed that I had gaps between almost all of the buttons the entire length of the shirt. I wrote it off to the seatbelt pulling it strangely and made a mental note to tug it all back gapless when I arrived. This was all well and good until I sat down with the group. Instant gappage. What the heck kind of rearranging does my body fat do to make this happen? Does it lie in wait to squish out in any direction it spies freedom? One whiff of air and the thought of exposure to said air and it wobbles with delight towards buttons with alacrity? I mean really! How is my sitting torso so different from my standing torso that this happens? Does all the fat slide down to my butt and hips when faced with gravity as I stand? Whatever the reason, I had to endure book club, lunch afterwards, and then my haircut with peekaboo cellulite. At least once my hair was washed at the salon, they mercifully covered me with a cape. That short may be cute but the odds of me wearing it again are about zero. Poop. And here I thought I had a shot at being marginally stylish. Then again, I am a woman who still wears underwear that is almost 20 years old so I was probably deluding myself all along.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: A Fortunate Child by Elizabeth Wix

Based on a true story, this is the story of an English couple, a young German woman, and the baby loved by all of them. Set during and following World War II, the story opens with a woman in a hotel in Poland on a search for her birth mother before jumping back in time to tell the stories of her German mother and the English couple who adopted her.

Gisela is a young German girl who lives with her melancholy bookseller father (her mother and baby brother died within weeks of each other). She befriends an English girl staying with a friend of hers and is subsequently invited to come to England to visit Marjie. Not long after her lovely interlude in England meeting Marjie's friends and family, Hitler's ambitions start to play out with the Anschluss and the Invasion of Poland. Gisela comes of age during the war, facing great hardship and privation. Meanwhile, in England, the friends of Marjie's family also suffer greatly during the war.

The threads of Gisela's and the Tacey family's lives continue to weave together and seperate throughout the narrative. Wix has handled the intertwinings of these stories beautifully, making even the coincidental instances believable. There are no heroes or villans here, just people living and loving during a difficult and terrible period in history. Just as we never know all the connections we have to others, many of the connections between the characters stay hidden from them or unexplored by them. This book just feels true.

Jane, the fortunate child of the title and the older woman searching out echoes of her birth mother at the start of the book, is the permanent connection between the characters. And the story of her parents, biological and adoptive, is a powerful one, touching and engaging. It will draw you in and ultimately leave you feeling alternately happy and sad: happy that this child was so surrounded by love in the family in which she grew up and sad that she and her birth mother never really had the chance to know each other. Their stories must, by necessity, diverge again. Well-written and engrossing, this self-published book deserves a wider audience. It is available at Lulu. (Please note that I have no dog in this hunt. I don't earn a commission from the author or anything like that if you do decide to buy it. I just liked it and think that anyone intrigued by the description--mine or on Lulu--will as well.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Car clutter

W. is now 12. Well, he's been twelve for almost a full month now so he can sit in the front seat of the car. And let me tell you, there is no greater joy for him than to casually slide into the front seat as his brother and sister are bickering over their spots in the back. But having a constant passenger means I have to give up my office space. Yes, I treat the front passenger seat like many people treat their desks: as a dumping ground. And so for years I've jokingly referred to it as my office. In the past, I rarely have had to excavate the seat since the vast majority of my driving has been of the kiddie carpool variety. But I no longer have that luxury. And usually I don't forget and clutter it up. But today I plumb forgot. So when W. went to get in the car, he had to remove no less than 5 books (3 started and 2 unopened in case I get somewhere and finish all three of the in progress books, don't you know), one coupon folder, assorted coupons not yet organized in the folder, one graduation present and several letters to be mailed, my tennis bag complete with racquet, balls, and checkbook (to pay for the lessons, of course), my purse, one disposable camera needing to be developed, and a few fast food napkins from our last swing through Wendy's on a game night. He's just lucky I've stopped putting so much on there or he could have missed his lesson entirely trying to find upholstery.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review:Tallulahland by Lynn Messina

Tallulah West has gone out of her way to displease her father, even if that has meant selling herself short, very, very short. She thinks she is settled and content with her life, relying on best buddy Nick, aggravating her dad, and being general dogsbody to a designer who has less talent in his little finger than she does in her entire body. So when her boss Marcos lets her go in order to save on his outrageous expenses and she finds the deed to some land in North Carolina that her mother has left to her, she starts to dream about what direction she wants her life to go in and how to pursue that dream. But in order to chase that dream, she might have to let go of some of her antagonism towards her father and obnoxious step-mother, look more closely at her relationship with Nick, and face up to the gifts she's been given instead of letting her anger at her mother's death continue to dictate all her actions.

Messina has drawn a smart and engaging heroine who starts out being so crippled by her pain and anger that she can't see beyond it to carve out a life for herself. Tallulah really grows and gains confidence throughout the novel at just the right pace. The reader roots for her as she gains an understanding of not only herslef but of the people around her, starting to forgive them their faults as she realizes that she isn't blameless either. And one of the things that I liked about this book was that while it conformed to the happily ever after tone of chick lit, it wasn't all wrapped up in a neat little bow. Clearly Tallulah will still have challenges and she will continue to have to work on them but she is happy enough to be capable of facing it all. I knew next to nothing about the design world that I haven't seen on shows on TLC or Bravo or the like so it was fascinating to me get to peer in the window of this foreign world. Messina has done a nice job all the way around with this book and anyone looking for a quick, happy read will find it here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

I'm not certain what exactly I thought this book was going to be when I heard the description but somehow it didn't enter my conciousness that it would be essays rather than a memoir or even fiction. Don't know why I didn't think of essays but because I didn't, it took me a bit of time to readjust my reading mindset. Even once readjusted, I didn't love this look at mothering, how we demonize or sanctify perfectly normal parenting acts, and some insight into Waldman's own life as a mother/wife/author (not necessarily in that order). It really left me feeling so-so despite me wanting to like it a whole lot.

Waldman addresses the need we seem to feel to point out the "bad mothers" who make the rest of us look like "good mothers." She uses examples from the media--and ironically I was reading this as it came out that Madlyn Primoff made her two bickering daughters get out of the car and then she drove off. Not only did this turn into a prime example of what Waldman was arguing about, it made me examine my own reactions to examples like this (and incidentally, I would totally have done that to my two older kids--also 10 and 12--if I'd thought of it so I'm clearly already the Bad Mother of the books' title). Now hypotheticals are not all Waldman writes about, sharing moments in her life (besides the famed loving her husband more than her kids moment) that might or might not qualify her as a bad mom, mostly not. Well, really, all it qualifies her as in my mind is a human mom. And perhaps that is my biggest trouble with this book. None of the things that Waldman has written about seem egregious to me. They seem average, the sorts of things I do on a daily basis and which, therefore, I don't really need to read about. But I suspect there are moms out there who need the reassurance that they aren't going to break their kids if life isn't one hundred percent perfect all the time.

There are some very moving essays in here, such as when Waldman discusses her decision to abort after discovering a terrible chromosomal abnormality. The pain she must have faced and the grace with which she writes about this experience is fantastic. However, this is just a glimmer of what the whole book could have been (although I do rather question including the recounting in a book called Bad Mother but I guess that's a personal choice) and wasn't. The book is also very loaded with current touchstones, which could make for a very dated book even two years down the line. In some ways that's good as it showcases how we don't even manage to retain the names of the demonized "bad mothers" for terribly long but in other ways it didn't work for me.

The writing is strong but sometimes the topics of the essays seem questionable in terms of the over-arching theme. This left me with rather mixed feelings and a vague disappointment over what could have been.

Monday Mailbox

A very, very slow week here in my mailbox. Only one book came my way. But it's a good one and one that I gave away here on my blog: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson. Since I didn't get a copy for myself, I was tickled to win one from Amy at Chic Book Chick. She's always got loads of giveaways going on so be sure to check her out for the latest. Also, don't forget to check out my Cinco de Mayo giveaway for 5 copies of Robin Hemley's wonderful non-fiction work called Do-Over: In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments. It's really worth the read and the giveaway doesn' end until May 27th so there's still time to throw your sombrero into the ring.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Salon: book hopping

It's a cool, grey, and windy day here in the southland and that translates to curl up on the couch and read time. Maybe it's the weather or maybe it's something else entirely but I can't seem to settle down and stick with a book. I have picked up and started books of all sizes, shapes and descriptions. The only one I managed to finish was a kiddie book. I'm restless. So I'm traveling to varied locales and just dipping into them all by turns. I'm not in the Well of Lost Plots but, like Thursday Next, I am going from book to book. In my case, I am hopping rather than jumping and right now it seems as if I am in no danger of being stranded any of them. I did help Gregor safely out of the Underland (Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins) and have briefly visited a plane crash site in the mountains (Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad) and pastoral village life in 1950's Great Britain (Sunlight on the Lawn by Beverley Nichols) as well today. Not sure where I want to journey next but I feel these other places are better left for another day. I guess my next trip will be to my tbr stacks, perhaps my most favorite trip of all.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: The Bar Sinister by Linda Berdoll

I am a Jane Austen addict. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book ever. And I cheerfully buy any and all sequels to it, knowing without a doubt that there's no way on the planet that they will live up to the original. But I can't help myself. I may not read them in a timely manner, as proved by this particular book which I bought years ago, never read, and only rediscovered languishing on my shelves when it was re-released a couple of years ago under a different title (which I also promptly bought and had to return) but I buy them nevertheless. After reading this, I am a little sorry about my blanket Austen sequel reading policy.

An unattributed blurb on the back tells readers to "Hang on to your bonnets, this isn't Jane Austen. Reader discretion advised." Truer words were never spoken (and I'm a veteran romance reader so graphic desciptions don't bother me but this book is completely over the top. Opening with Darcy and Elisabeth [sic] jolting down the road towards Pemberley following their wedding night, we find the new Mrs. Darcy ignoring the pillow Mr. Darcy has so kindly offered her to give her lower bits respite from their aching. And this is just the beginning. We are treated to scene after scene of our newlyweds thinking lewd thoughts about each other or engaged in vigorous romping throughout the entire estate. Somehow the plot seems tangential to all the steamy (adn quite frankly fairly laughable) sex. We are told of Darcy's discreet exploits when he was younger and see further into his character as he snubs a neighbor who legitimized his bastard son as his heir. We meet Elisabeth's sisters again and get to encounter the still slimy Wickham as he makes a pass at Elisabeth. In addition we are treated to bad guys (why didn't Austen write about a kidnapping?) and another illegitimate child about whom speculation is rife. Elisabeth has trouble getting pregnant despite the constant sex. And Darcy continues to learn that his pride is misplaced as he discovers things about his own family that disappoint him.

With as much going on in this novel as there is, the chaos and the sex aren't the things that bothered me the most. Instead it was the stilted and unintentionally hilarious writing. I know that Berdoll was trying to mimic Austen's writing but it would probably have been better to just claim her own voice instead of producing this awkwardness. In addition to this, the book was incredibly poorly edited, with sentences trailing off into nothingness or making absolutely zero sense, even after several re-readings. The characters were as static as possible, perhaps in a nod to trying to stay true to Austen's original depiction, but since so much else of the story was as Austen would never have imagined it, why bother to try and keep them slotted into their familiar molds when circumstances should have dictated growth? And even at that, some of the characters are more true to the BBC production than to the original book. I really can be forgiving of a well-done sequel, after all; who hasn't wanted to know what happened after the happily ever after wedding in P&P but this is not that sequel. Really, it's fairly egregious.

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

This young adult confection is pure fun. Seventeen year old Ginny has a collection of sealed envelopes from her aunt. She is to travel to Europe and then around Europe following the instructions in the letters, not opening a new letter until she has completed the task set forth for her in the prior letter. Ginny's beloved aunt had runaway from the settled predictability of her life in order to pursue her art several years before and she wanted Ginny to have a taste of the spontaneity and experience the joy of travel that she herself felt in her last years (she has recently died of a brain tumor). Making a huge leap of faith, Ginny does indeed buy a plane ticket and head off to Europe to fuflfill her aunt's hopes for her, meeting special people in her aunt's life and people who become special in her own. She opens her envelopes one at a time, sometimes understanding the reasons behind the instructions and other times being baffled but always trying to enter into the spirit of the adventure. She learns a lot about herself through her trip through Europe and perhaps learns even more about family, love, and belonging. This is written for high school aged readers but there's very little that might be inappropriate for younger advanced readers. It was a cute read and one that almost makes me wish I had done something so completely out of character like spinning off to Europe without set plans. The ending is a bit of a surprise and while I initially wanted more, upon reflection, I think it ended just as it had to end. A sweet book and one that I'll stick on a shelf for my daughter to discover sometime.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dinner when the inmates are let out of the asylum

Family dinner. Everyone always yammers on about the importance of eating as a family. We don't often manage to pull off the whole family dinner thing given our beyond crazy schedule, which will probably result in years of therapy for the kids (as if just being related to me wasn't enough to doom them already). So tonight had high expectations riding on it. A couple of them were even met: I didn't have to cook and we all got fed. Only one child dissolved into tears before the meal came and since R. is essentially a hormonal basketcase, tween girlie that she is, she's mastered the art of dissolving quietly so that she just sounds like the air being let out of a balloon. So no fellow diners were disturbed by the grand tragedy being enacted at our table. All three kiddos picked at and baited each other so that was really pleasant and made for an enjoyable experience. But these are usual things on the rare occasions when we eat together.

T. was the only one to request crayons and a coloring mat (because we only go to the finest dining establishments, which all distract their young clientele with the chance to make yet more grease-stained art to hang on the family fridge). The crayons he was given were pretty cool. They were called Crayangles. When he dumped them out, I looked at their shape and said, "Oh look. They're square. I mean triangular." W., who was sitting next to me muttered, "That explains why you got a C in geometry." Little rat. If you're keeping score, we now had one quietly weeping child, one insulting child, and one budding Picasso all at our table alone. Lucky us.

Somehow the conversation changed to Spanish, a subject which W. is thoroughly loving. R. pointed out, for the jillionth time, that she wants to take French instead of Spanish (anything to be different from her brother), at which point T. announced that he was going to be a Spanish type of guy. As we wondered what a Spanish type of guy was like, he looked over at us, twinkled (seriously, you should meet the kid--he's like a magical leprechaun), and said, "Senoritas" with an ear-splitting grin and an atrocious accent. Apparently "a Spanish type of guy" means he's going to be Rico Suave.

Since T. had lightened the mood and our family dinner was starting to look like family dinners should, it was, of course, destined that our appetizer would come after our meals, two side dishes would not appear until they'd been requested three times, the burger that could only be cooked to medium or longer (shoe-leather anyone?) was actually beyond well-done, and the lettuce on the burgers was brown at the edges and had wilted into elasticity (hey, could have been worse--it could have been slimy). Oh and we didn't get out of there before 9pm. Good thing it wasn't a school night! Is it any wonder we aren't too hung-up on family dinners?

Twitter and other Luddite nightmares

I gave in. Not only do I have a facebook account, but I signed up for Twitter. This is a major step for this cheerful Luddite who can get her knickers all in a knot even thinking about devices like a Kindle (I'll keep the heft of my books, thanks, although I wouldn't return a Kindle were it to be gifted to me). In any case, I get Facebook. I love Facebook. I have been having a good old time playing on Facebook and reconnecting with people. Actually, what I love most about Facebook is the status update thing. I compose status updates when I'm drifting off to sleep or when I'm in the middle of a really tough cycle class or when I'm standing with the kids at the bus stop or anywhere really. And I have fun with it. Lots of fun with it. A few recent examples:

K. actually drew recognizable hippos and elephants today. Mind you, the first grade boy I was drawing for was unimpressed by the lovely eyelashes I gave his hippo and left them off his final copy. Pint-sized ingrate!

K. is going to start her day grudgingly.

K. should probably take a shower sometime today, no?

K. now knows that Tilex removes the enamel finish on toilet seats. Just don't ask.

K. wonders if using the weed whacker on the flower beds constitutes gardening.

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. But I do love the status updates. So it seemed to make sense that I join Twitter because what is it but one continuous stream of status updates and comments on others' updates, right? Well, having floundered with it for a few days now, I think that it's really more along the lines of those online chats where I have trouble following the lines of the convo. This probably marks me as old. I just hate that I can't read the entire conversation. I don't like big parties for this same reason: I always feel like I'm missing something. So congratulations Twitter, you've reduced me to my insecure, dorky high school self. Props. I'll keep trying but if you make me cry at my prom, that'll be it for our relationship. Got it? You've been put on notice.

(And anyone wanting to share who they are on Twitter so I can follow them or even offer up some of the funny stuff they follow, I'd appreciate it. Right now I am following a couple publishers--I've already admitted to my dorkiness--and a couple of the blog writers whose blogs I follow. I seem incapable of locating most people though. Yes, I am stupid about technology and I'm totally okay with that. And incidentally, I'm booknaround there in case you aren't already totally sick of me here on the blog.)

Review: Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen

Chef's memoirs are incredibly popular and there are quite a few of them on the local bookstore shelves. But I think there are more of them here on my shelves than at the bookstore. Chef's memoirs are the book equivalent of M&M's for me. Why have one when you can have a handful? I have no desire to become a chef (the tales of their grueling hours and the fickle public do not appeal to me in terms of choosing my life's path). I am not a particularly good cook myself although I can follow a recipe with the best of them. I have no ability to think of seemingly disparate ingredients which, once combined, would create a phenomenal taste sensation (you should see how hard I have to work to sub something for mushrooms when a recipe calls for those nasty little fungi). And as the parenthetical comment alludes, I am a notoriously picky eater. I like to think I'm adventurous and will taste anything, but I won't. And so the life of a chef is not for me. But I can still dive into any and every chef memoir published and live vicariously a little.

Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Epxploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen is one of the newest chef memoirs to hit the market. Standing out first because of the fact that its author is a female chef, it is also different in substance from others I've read. Almost every chapter deals with a different aspect of Jurgensen's unconventional path to the kitchen, from diving in as a pastry assistant at Nobu to taking time off and cooking for a catering company to working for Martha Stewart. Jurgensen's worked in some very impressive restaurants and her tales of what goes on in the kitchen sound a bit like what happens above-stairs in a frat house, which is no surprise given the general sexism and sometimes outright misogyny rampant in restaurant kitchens. She briefly details how recipes come into being, how co-workers fall into relationships, what chefs really think of the wait staff, and much more.

I'm not certain that Jurgensen has necessarily trod new ground with her book (but as I pointed out originally, this is not a drawback for me, cooking literature addict that I am) but her contribution is fast-paced, varied, and interesting. I appreciated her willingness to showcase her own failures as she learned her trade but I admit I would have liked a bit more detail about recipe creation and the food itself. I definitely enjoyed reading this but it helped reinforce for me that I would never want to be a chef. I'm wimpy enough about burning myself when slapping together Hamburger Helper (okay, no, we don't really eat that) so letting Jurgensen take all the burns and let me read along in safety was good enough for me. A book other food and chef obsessed people will enjoy, this was ultimately an enjoyable read.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

I should preface this review by admitting that I am totally in love with Nick Hornby. I have never met the man, or even seen him in a picture (unless the stylized guy on the covers of the three collections of The Believer essays is him) but I have a raging crush on him anyway and it's all because of books like this one.

This is the third in the collection of essays Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine, following The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping Versus the Dirt. They all start off with a list of books he's bought and books he's read that month. The lists never match up, which is true for most reading addicts I know and is endearing as get out to this addict, who loves to know she is not alone. Then the essays range over the books he's read that month, sometimes touching on their connections to life and other times entertaining digressions from the world of books entirely. As per magazine policy, he only discusses books he's enjoyed but occasionally mentions, without identifying features, books he's set aside as unreadable. The essays read like a conversation you might have with Hornby while walking down a street together, easy and comfortable, smart and engaging. This is truly a wonderful book for other book lovers, and especially those of us who take some measure of enjoyment from writing about what we've read. Unfortunately, this is the last of the collections of this type as Hornby has left the magazine to spend more time with his family. A sad event for his readers although probably a happy one for his family (darn them anyway). Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Quit!

Hollywood has a lot for which to answer. I took my child to a PG-13 movie two weeks ago. Mind you, W. is 12 so he's not terribly far off the "acceptable" age to see this movie without permission. Also note that I didn't know it was PG-13 before I took him (not that that would have changed my decision, mind you, but I probably would have left the 7 year old at home--I have standards, ya know). It has taken two weeks of pondering this movie but I finally got a question worthy of making me want to turn in my parenting card. My 12 year old got in the car and promptly asked me what a douche bag was. Holy guacamole! Is it too late to resign my motherhood?! First I asked him where he'd heard it. Thank-you 17 Again! Zac Efron as eye candy in no way makes up for having to field this question!!! Once I got over the relief of knowing that he hadn't called anyone a douche bag and hadn't been called one himself, I had to decide how graphic I should be. Never one to shirk embarrassing questions (I leave that role to D.), I settled on a vague and prissy, "It's a bag of liquid used to clean a woman's parts." Luckily that was more than enough for W., who turned a tad green and got very quiet. He agreed with me that it would be a terrible thing to call anyone. Not that I don't fully expect him to break it out the next time someone tries to bully him. I can hear the phone call now: "Mrs. K., we're going to have to suspend W. for calling a fellow student a douche bag." Should I practice choking back the laughter now? Really, I shouldn't be allowed to quit as mom, I should be sent back to Remedial Mothering 101. Graceful and erudite, that's me.

Review: Cordelia Underwood: Or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League by Van Reid

Originally written in serial format, this novel of Victorian Maine is chock full of characters, plot lines, and just plain fun. As the subtitle implies, this is the first book in a series about the Moosepath League. However, instead of starting out focused on the creation of said club, it opens with Cordelia Underwood, a sweet, young, redheaded woman, finding out that she has inherited a parcel of untamed land land well to the north of Portland from her ship's captain uncle. This inheritance starts a whole crazy chain of events, including some that are ridiculously coincidental but somehow work in this wacky, madcap adventure story.

The Underwood family meets and befriends many strangers along the way as they travel north to examine Cordelia's property. Those strangers meet and befriend their own plethora of strangers and the connections and characters grow and grow. There are three goofy male characters who seem to be the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges. There's Tobias Walton, who becomes the leader de facto of the Moosepath League (not that this comes into existence until late in the book). There's the charming and ever-present John Benning. There's a circus bear who stands on her head, an ascentionist in a hot air balloon and an "attractive suit of tights." There's attraction and love. There's the rumor of buried treasure, a kidnapping, and a runaway horse carrying illegal booze. In short, this book is chock full of action and entertainment.

Because of the serial nature of the book, the chapters are short and often end with a teaser. Subsequent chapters often skip to another of the many characters in the book and to start with, this makes it very hard to differentiate between storylines (the characters themselves are all very different from each other) and to become fully engrossed in the story. But upon perseverance, the reader is richly rewarded as the climax of the novel nears and the seemingly disparate plot lines coem together to finish a delightful romp. Unlike many series books, this one feels complete in and of itself, not requiring the reader to go on to further books to feel a sense of closure. But I suspect that the main characters (Cordelia and her family) do not reappear in later Moosepath books, unless tangentially, and so their stories are full and satisfying when you come to the end of this first book. Walton and the three bumbling musketeers surely appear in later books but that doesn't detract from the wrap-up here. I will be eager to read the following books now that I've gotten into the groove of this one. I'm very interested to see what happens to the Moosepath League members next.

Bra shopping

I'm pretty certain I've already whined and moaned ad nauseum about the indignities of getting older. ::insert loud chorus of denials here:: Ok, judging from the solitary chirp of a cricket instead of the requested denials, you all agree with me. But that isn't going to keep me from whining a bit more. Hey. I can hear the resigned sighs from here!

So one of the unpleasant realities of getting older, unless you have unlimited funds or are married to a cosmetic surgeon, neither of which is true for me, is the depressing southerly slide. Now, I realize that we moved south, which might have you thinking we are wandering down the road to cliched retirement (for those who don't know me in person, I am most definitely not AARP material just yet, not even having hit the big 4-0). But we moved solely for D.'s job (and the sun). So I find it patently unfair that moving south happened not only for my whole person, but my whole, as in every last bit, person. The sag and wobble of the much lower parts did start happening long ago but it's only since moving here that I've been called on it.

Now, no one has been unkind enough to mention the pouchy tummy hanging like a new pendulum belt below my hips. Nor have they mentioned the lengthening of the under chin wattle I'm thinking of naming Doris, as she's clearly here to stay. Not a single person has pointed to the Bingo wings flapping under my once fairly buff arms (nor have they ducked when said wings come flapping in their direction). But they have gently mentioned that perhaps "the girls" should try and stiffen up their salute. I guess I'd gotten so used to having them slouched over checking out my toes that I'd completely forgotten where nature originally plastered those babies. After all, as someone who could paint her toenails should she attach ta-ta tassles to herself, denial was a form of self-preservation.

This is how you know what good friends I've made in the months since moving down here. Not only did they tell me what was amiss instead of just snickering about it behind my back, they actually accompanied me bra shopping. Yes, the sign of true friends. (This occasion did give them even more fodder for laughter but we'll just pretend they didn't see me topless or with the muffin top hanging out or the train tracks left by a drunken engineer that pass for stretch marks all over the mushy middle and hope that I never piss them off enough to have them tell the rest of my neighbors about the horrors housed under my shirt.)

The net result of this foray into lingerie was that I am now the proud owner of several new industrial strength, steel reinforced knocker slings that defy gravity, turn back time, and deny that nursing contributes to any loss of elasticity. In short, when men try to talk to my chest now instead of looking me in the eye, they no longer look as if they are navel gazing instead of rudely gawping at boobies. I'm downright perky looking. I only wonder how long the elastic can be expected to last given the structural stresses. And I fear that my friends will next try to tackle my abominable knicker situation since they seem to think there's something wrong with wearing the same drawers I've had since college.

Review: The One True Ocean by Sarah Beth Martin

Told in alternating chapters in the voice of mother Renee and daughter Jenna, this is the story of long buried family secrets and their eventual discovery. Opening in the aftermath of Jenna's young husband's death in a car accident, the narrative unwinds into two seperate threads as Jenna tries to cope with her loss. The first narrative path shows her life as it pushes forward despite grief, as she chooses to move back to Maine to the house she remembers vividly from her childhood and where she once lived with the long-dead beloved aunt she always felt a special kinship towards. The second thread is also triggered by her move as it goes back to the summer that her mother was 14 and 15, the summer that Renee got pregnant with Jenna. Jenna never knew who her father was, having only a name and a very slim tale told by her mother about the man who seduced and left a young girl pregnant. But by moving back to Maine, Jenna uncovers the story not only of her father, but of her aunt's inexplicable suicide even as she forges new, fragile bonds with her mother.

The theme of loss and connection, love and grief arch over the entire narrative but they are handled without resorting to cliche or heavy-handed drama. The depth of emotion of the characters feels very authentic and while each revelation about the past may not come as a surprise, it all fits without stretching credibility. On the other hand, there are one or two plot points that do stretch credibility a bit too far. Chief among these are the wallpapered bits of letters that Jenna finds in her mother's old room in her aunt's house. Having the house, its walls, and its hiding spots still contain all the keys to the long hidden secret of Jenna's paternity, as if people still just paper over any previous wallpaper is a bit disingenuous, especially as the building had gone through multiple owners. But if you forgive minor lapses like this, the rest of the novel was almost mesmerizing. I'd be curious to see what else Martin has written.

Review: Mastering the Marquess by Vanessa Kelly

In this Regency-set historical romance, Meredith's Burnley must take her sickly sister and flee her awful uncle's plans to marry her off to her cousin. But this plan is complicated. Meredith's sister is actually a half-sister and their reception at Annabel's grandparents' home is uncertain as her mother had been disowned for marrying Meredith's father. And no one knows how far their uncle will go to try and marry the nearly connectionless Meredith to his son while they wait to see if Annabel's grandfather will ever accept his granddaughter. Meanwhile, Annabel's grandmother has cooked up a scheme whereby her nephew, the Marquess of Silverton, will marry Annabel and mend the family rift. But Stephen is drawn to Meredith and vice versa. The evil uncle will not be denied and matters come to a head, in love and in war.

When I need a happily ever after, I turn to romances, knowing I will get my wish and this one delivered on that desire, as expected. The writing was fine but the plot was not terribly memorable, echoing so many other books in so many small and large ways. Most genre work has stock characters or situations and this one was no exception. I have to admit I am somewhat jaded by the "just in time" rescue from a kidnapping and of the one-dimensional evil character masquerading as a slightly off-putting generally upstanding person. But in asking for a certain outcome, I hav signed on to some of these cliches and I guess I should accept that. I can sacrifice unique for the desired predictability if I get a few hours of entertainment from the book and this one provided me with that. All in all, it was what I wanted.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The DMV, PMS, and me

Now you know with a title like this that it's not going to be pretty. It's also going to be graphic. You've been forewarned. ;-)

After procrastinating as long as possible, I finally had to break down and get new state-appropriate license plates. I mean, it's hard to take the moral high ground with the kids when they knew that I'd been driving on expired plates for a good month. "I might be flunking English but you're doing something illegal. Beat that!" Yeah, well... So in an effort to regain my moral superiority, once my replacement title arrived from my favorite charity aka the state of Michigan (after a mere 4 week wait instead of the suggested 6-8 week time frame for those cheap enough--me--not to pay for expedited handling), I needed to find time to get to the DMV. Actually, first I had to find time to get my car inspected and then to get my plates. And true to form, I put it off and put it off and put it off and, well you get the picture. There's just very little in this world as unappealing as going to the DMV.

I did finally go and have the inspection and my poor car just barely passed. Apparently bald tires are not a good thing (note to self: must replace those sometime soon). Ok, not bald but within one 30 second (or however they measure it--the aforementioned is what I heard whether it is correct or not) of failing. Now I don't mind being told I need new tires, although the cost makes me shudder, but to potentially fail the inspection because of my tires? Have they not noticed some of the clunkers on the road that belch smoke directly into my lungs as I sit at a light behind them? And they're going to mutter distractedly about my tires? Really?! But the rest of the car is apparently fine and dandy (they must not count the condition of the interior then--or I did a better than usual job of ditching the petrified french fries and other assorted detritus before I took it in) so it was time to head to Hell's waiting room.

Since I continued to figure that the police officers down here wouldn't immediately cop to expired out of state plates with just one glance (heehee, couldn't resist the pun), I avoided the DMV for a few more days but I did eventually go. And because everyone should be as cheery as possible when going to the DMV, I went when I was deep in the throes of PMS.

I was smart enough to take a book with me. But I was dumb enough not to realize I'd inadvertantly cut up my debit card since the replacement credit card (and why they replaced it continues to escape me incidentally) was the same color as the debit card and a completely different color from the card it was replacing. Yes, this meant that getting cash out to pay the exorbitant fees for my plates was impossible. Luckily I showed a streak of brilliance by also bringing the check book (complete with out of state checks, mind you).

Anyway, I walked into the DMV at roughly 10am to find myself about 6th in line. Not too bad, you think, correct? Oh but it was worse than imagined. As I looked around, I noted a mere two lines out of 8 open. Even better, framed in a nice plexiglas holder was a lovely sign (not hand-printed) asking for patience since many employees were out due to illness. I later saw another of these same signs behind the desk so they clearly toss one up on the counter as needed. Given the permanent aspect of their display, they are needed and/or used frequently. As is the case with most state DMV's I've ever been in, this one moved at a rate easily exceeded by glacial creep. And yes, in making the comparison, I am aware that glaciers are currently receding, not creeping forward.

By 11am, the line had moved foward not one iota. The short line of people turning in old plates was ticking along beautifully though, leading to much grumbling in my line (not from me though, of course ::snort, choke::). This was promising to get uglier when one of the two clerks helping my line finished up and promptly tossed another plexiglas sign on the counter at her spot: "Closed for lunch." The woman three people up from me made a sound like air being let out of a balloon and loudly asked one of my favorite rhetorical questions appropriate for these situations, "Are you shittin' me?" I probably would have used the word "kidding" but she'd been there a lot longer than I had. Oh, alright, I would have cussed too had I still had the will to speak. And as for Ms. Closed for Lunch, do note that it was not even 11:20 when she hoisted her sign to the counter and the place hadn't opened before 9am. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Oh, and while people were muttering about lunch breaks and the like, the only other person dealing with the long line up and left her post too. Turns out she just needed a bathroom break--and don't think we didn't all grudge her every moment on the toilet either (although we were okay with any time taken to wash her hands). At least she eventually reappeared, unlike Ms. Closed for Lunch.

Eventually a be-suited supervisor walking through the room noticed the natives were getting restless and sent another succubus out to suck the souls right out of all of us. But at least the line moved up one person. And eventually it was my turn. I forked over the small tree's worth of paper I had brought with me and was presented with a bill for $223. Holy smokes! Who knew license plates were so expensive! But of course, it wasn't just the license plates. It was a new title (and anyone who can not only explain to me *why* I must re-title my car in each new state we live in but can get me to agree with said logic is a certifiable genius), the notary public fee (not that I have any idea what they were notarizing, mind you), the taxes (again, can anyone explain how it is that I have to pay taxes on something I already own outright? Even better, down here we get to pay these taxes yearly--scam anyone?), and other assorted nickel and dime fees. Yes, it cost me over $200 for license plates for a banged up 2002 minivan. I can only imagine the fees for a nice, new car.

They did conveniently have an ATM in the building (I imagine that the fee on *that* ATM was obnoxious) but since I don't have a debit card, I crossed my fingers and asked about out of state checks. Amazingly, they were willing to take one provided I hand over every item in my wallet for ID (and I don't think I want to know what they plan to use my frequent buyer card at Salad Creations for) and promise to sign over my children as surety (and they don't know my kids or they wouldn't have asked), which I cheerfully did if only in an effort to get out of there sometime in this century.

Plates in hand I started out of the place wondering about the strange looks I was receiving from the folks still in line. I almost reassured them that I hadn't aged too much while waiting when I realized they were all checking out my butt. This is not usual ever but given that *everyone* was looking at me and glancing studiously away, I stopped dead and recognized that the problem was a bit sticky, literally. Yup, I'd stood in line long enough to not only pass through PMS but to actually start my period, completely changing the color of the seat of my pants. I can only say I hadn't noticed before because of the stupor they lull you into there.

I hastily waddled out to my car, tossed my new plates on the seat, and squealed out of the parking lot towards home. Would have capped the day off nicely to be picked up for speeding while driving with expired plates still on the car and the new plates rattling around on the passenger seat but I figured any police officer worth his or her salt would hear my DMV story, get treated to a look at my rear, and escort me home at top speed without giving me a ticket. I mean, there's only so much one person can take per day and I'd long since exceeded it. Thankfully I didn't get pulled over and have to humiliate myself any further. I got home, hosed myself down, did the laundry, and put the plates on my car. Now I'm an official southerner but I can never, ever, ever go to that DMV again, not that I'd want to.

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