Thursday, December 31, 2009

ARC Reading Challenge

Teddy Rose knows that some of us need to keep lists to stay on top of our obligations. Last year she ran the ARC Reading Challenge and while I didn't get through all the advanced reading copies I was sent, the growing list certainly did keep me accountable by reminding me constantly of the stack of unread books I needed to read and review. I did manage to read 75 of 109 books sent to me so I think I did pretty well, especially as about 7 of those still unread were sent to me in December alone. So, since I still have a bucketload of unread ARCs, I am signing up for serious accountability again.

The rules differ depending on how many unread ARCs you have stacked around your house so suffice it to say that I have to sign on to the heavy duty version of the challenge. Once I deleted those from the 2009 list which I've dutifully (and in most cases, happily) read, I was left with this list remaining:

1. The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri
2. The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi
3. The Blue Notebook by James Levine
4. Old World Daughter, New World Mother by Maria Laurino
5. The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha
6. The Link by Colin Tudge
7. Viva Cisco by Patrick Shannon
8. The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins
9. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
10. A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand
11. Stand the Storm by Breena Clarke
12. Passeggiata by G.G. Husak
13. Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
14. The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
15. Waking Up In Eden by Lucinda Fleeson
16. The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter
17. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
18. The Blue Star by Tony Earley
19. The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt
20. Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle
21. The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell
22. The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley
23. Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
24. Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
25. Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould
26. The Return by Victoria Hislop
27. Children of the Dust by Ali Eteraz
28. Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie
29. Reasons by Tracy Fabre
30. The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana
31. A Rainbow in the Night by Dominique Lapierre
32. Solar by Ian McEwan
33. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
34. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

With luck I'll have some more wonderful books to add to the list as the year goes on but I will also manage to whittle this down so that I have fulfilled the obligations to which I've already committed (and yes, I'm fully aware that it's probably me that should be committed instead).

Review: Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter

I have to start by saying that the title of this book drives me a bit bonkers. What on earth is so wrong with proper grammar? Really? OK, now that that is off my chest, I can get to the substance of the review, because really, I did enjoy the book overall. It was cute and undemanding and fun.

Emily, who manages an old time independent bookstore in NYC, is almost 30 and she's giving up on men. Her last dates (yes, plural) have been hideous and she's had enough. So when she tries to explain why to her slightly eccentric assistant, she holds the chivalrous and moral Mr. Darcy up as the gold standard to which she compares all men. Obviously this won't get her very far with real men. When Stella tries to poo-poo Emily's explanations and convince her to go on a drink and man filled vacation to Mexico, Emily instead impulsively books a trip to England, visiting many of the places Jane Austen immortalized. Of course when she arrives for her tour, she finds that all the other tour members save one are women of a certain age. The one person who isn't? Well, Spike is a reporter trying to understand what it is about Mr. Darcy that so attracts women. He's also rather abrasive and obnoxious and he and Emily rub each other the wrong way right from the get go. However, Emily is no paragon of virtue either, being snippy and nasty to Spike simply because he calls her ordinary.

As the tour goes on, Emily gets herself into scrape after scrape, often being rescued by Spike. In her crazy adventures, she meets the real Mr. Darcy although whether he is a figment of her imagination or not remains to be seen. But she's desperately attracted to Mr. Darcy even though she starts to see cracks in his perfection. She's starting to realize that what's on the page of an Austen novel might not translate well to real life. And her relationship with Spike is parallelling Pride and Prejudice almost perfectly although Emily is blind enough that she cannot see this.

The secondary characters here are funny but fairly one dimensional although they do provide the plot with a much needed push here and there. Potter's Darcy is not half as appealing as Austen's and I'm still confused as to how he can possibly say he's fallen in love with Emily. But I appreciate that this is a necessary plot point so... Emily and Spike's relationship, on the other hand, is contentious and combative and seemingly out of the blue. And because they have spent so much time being enemies, the ending is rather abrupt and unearned. Even with these criticisms, because I am a sucker for a great premise and because I like P&P parallels, I did enjoy this one. It's probably not of great interest to anyone who isn't a bit of a silly P&P fan as well as forgiving of the myriad sequels. Sweet and an easy read, this is chick lit with the merest of morals at the end.

Review: Through Thick and Thin by Alison Pace

Ostensibly the story of two sisters, living very different lives, who are going to tackle dieting together, this is not so much that as it is the alternating stories of Meredith, a zaftig restaurant critic, and Stephanie, a stay home mom with extra baby weight to lose. While they are indeed sisters, their lives don't cross much without effort and since both seem to think her sister's life is perfect, or at least as close as it gets, and therefore harbor a slight jealousy toward the other, their lives don't intersect as much as expected. Meredith identifies herself as a failure because she isn't thin and doesn't have the perfect husband. She is looking to meet her very own successful doctor, lawyer, stock broker and round out her lonely life. Stephanie doesn't feel like she fits in with the suburban New Jersey moms around her and wonders when her marriage stopped working, pre- or post-baby.

Both sisters have to face the fact that while their lives may not be what they imagined, only they can take charge and make the changes they so desire. Meredith falls in love with and adopts a mini daschund/terrier mix who leads her to start taking yoga and question her long held values. (Odd pathway, I know but true nonetheless.) Stephanie discovers her husband's prescription drug abuse and realizes that everything in her life isn't in her control.

Both of the sisters face their new lives without each others' support and each of their stories take place by turns isolated from the other. This makes the plot feel very choppy and as if the author had two different plot ideas and instead of fleshing one or both out into their own novel, mashed them together into this not entirely successful offering. The narrative occasionally breaks into second person, with the narrator directly addressing the reader, a tough convention to pull off and I don't think that Pace manages to quite do it. The premise is cute but there are some heavy-handed lessons in here about accepting oneself and appreciating the joy in life and plot lines that don't seem to be turning the proper way are simply abandoned. Not my favorite chick lit but fine in the long run if you aren't bothered by the narrative shift both from third person to second and from one disconnected character to another.

South Asian Author Challenge

I loved our trip to India a couple of years ago. I am a glutton for Indian food. I read Indian authors. I have a real love affair going with India. So when I saw S. Krishna was hosting the South Asian Authors Challenge, of course I had to sign up. Reading about that part of the world will only allow me to armchair travel, but if that's my only option, it's not a bad one since there are so many outstanding South Asian authors writing now.

Here's S. Krishna's explanation for the challenge:

This challenge is to encourage people to read books by South Asian Authors – South Asia being India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Please not that it does not include the Middle East! The books can be from any time period, contemporary or classic.

There are two requirements for a book to qualify for the South Asian Author Challenge, both of which must be met:

1) The author must be of South Asian descent. It doesn’t matter if they’re third or fourth generation, or are only half South Asian – I’m pretty flexible on this issue.

2) The book must be about South Asia in some way. It doesn’t have to be set in South Asia, as long as it’s about the culture or history in some way. On the other hand, it can be set in South Asia and not be about South Asians.

As an example, The Blue Notebook is an amazing book about India by James Levine. But because James Levine isn’t from South Asia, the book wouldn’t qualify for the challenge.

Another example: Amulya Malladi is a South Asian author, but her book The Sound of Language wouldn’t qualify because it’s about a girl from Afghanistan.

However, the book The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar would qualify because, although it is about non-Indians, it’s set in India.

If you’re still confused on this point, please feel free to contact me and ask if a particular book would qualify for the challenge, or leave a comment on the list of South Asian authors page.

The challenge runs January 1, 2010 – December 31, 2010

There are four different commitment levels: 3 books, 5 books, 7 books, 10 books

I am signing up at the 5 book level and figure I can level up as necessary. :-) There are no lists required to sign up but I have most of a list already created (with wiggle room, of course) so here's my initial plan at least, even if I don't end up following it worth a hill of beans:

1. The Forbidden Daughter by Shobhan Bantwal
2. A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman
3. An Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
4. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
5. ??

I'm not entirely certain that Unaccustomed Earth is going to qualify but I'm sure I'll read it anyway, even if it has to be replaced to fit the challenge. And I do have scads of qualifying books left sitting on the shelves for that fifth spot (and potentially the third) so we'll just see where the mood moves me.

GLBT Challenge

I've never joined this challenge before but I thought it sounded really interesting and given my eclectic mix of to be read books, I was fairly certain that I could come up with at least for books already on the shelves that would fit the GLBT Challenge, aka the challenge that dare not speak its name.

The basic idea of this challenge is to read books about Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, or Transgendered topics and/or by GLBT authors.

The challenge runs year-round, and there will be three levels of participation:

Lambda Level: Read 4 books.
Pink Triangle Level: Read 8 books.
Rainbow Level: Read 12 or more books.

You don't need to choose your books right away, and they can change at any time. Overlaps with other challenges are fine.

I'll be going for the Lambda level, which only requires 4 books because I am generally clueless about the sexual orientation of the authors whom I am reading (as a matter of fact, I had to scroll through the list of authors on the site to find three of these four but I did already own them so that's good).

1. The Well of Loneliness by Radcliff Hall
2. The Kid by Dan Savage
3. Openly Bob by Bob Smith
4. She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan
and the trusty alternate since I never stick to my original lists:
5. Swish by Joel Derfner

TBR 2010 Challenge

Every year I sign up for the TBR Challenge. That's To Be Read for you non-bookies out there. And every year I have to make two lists, 12 original choices and 12 alternates, because I seem congenitally unable to stick to the original 12 and there are no swap-outs for this one. So this year I'll be doing the same thing.

The official rules are:

** Pick 12 books – one for each month of the year - that you’ve been wanting to read (that have been on your “To Be Read” list) for 6 months or longer, but haven’t gotten around to.

** OPTIONAL: Create a list of 12 “Alternates” (books you could substitute for your challenge books, given that a particular one doesn’t grab you at the time)

** Then, starting January 1, read one of these books from your list each month, ending December 31. )

There are also some addendums at the official sign-ups that you might want to check out here.

Now without further ado, here's my intended list for 2010 (and yes, astute readers will note that several of these were on last year's list too--just hush up!):

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
2. Harvest by Catherine Landis
3. Life at These Speeds by Jeremy Jackson
4. In Summer Light by Zibby Oneal
5. Keeper and Kid by Edward Hardy
6. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizake
7. Dog Years by Mark Doty
8. With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
9. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
10. Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
11. Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie
12. The Well of Lonliness by Radcliff Hall


1. Kartography by Kamila Shamsie
2. Pure Dead Frozen by Debi Gliori
3. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
4. Slow Fat Triathlete by Jayne Williams
5. Adam Bede by George Eliot
6. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
7. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
8. The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther
9. An Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
10. The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri
11. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
12. Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

Review: A Little Bit Psychic by Aimee Avery

I can be counted on to pick up just about any Jane Austen prequel, sequel, or continuation that I can get my hands on and this book fell prey to my fascination for all things Austen and Austen-related. Unfortunately, it not only didn't live up to the marvelous book Austen created. Other than sharing character names, there was no resemblance at all to the Lizzy and Darcy that we all know and love.

The premise of the story is that Lizzy and Will are modern day characters but they still have internal obstacles to their love. Lizzy is a PhD candidate who is living in England while finishing her degree. Will runs his father's company and is a favorite of the tabloid papers. They've known each other since they were younger, when Lizzy had a huge crush on the older Will, but they haven't met at all in the time Lizzy's been in England. When they do finally cross paths, they step into the family relationship they once had before progressing to a full blown affair. But it's not happily ever after for them as their pigheadedness with each other causes a misunderstanding and jeopardizes their happily ever after even though modern Lizzy has seen psychic visions that seem to ensure their eventual togetherness.

The psychic bits of the novel are a little odd but would be fine if they weren't coupled with a ridiculously silly and stupid Lizzy. She has none of the sparkling wit and intelligence found in Austen. Both she and Will are very thinly defined as characters and the plot in which they hang is also merely an outline, underdeveloped and anemic. The dialogue between characters is incredibly stilted and the amount of exposition contained in the awkward dialogue is much greater than it should be. None of the secondary characters is recognizable, so changed and watered down they are. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, it is a little disturbing that the adult Will admits to highly prurient imaginings about the child Elizabeth, excusing himself by saying (as he reflects on the last time they met years ago) that her 12 year old body was really the body of a 20 year old. I had a lot of trouble getting past that ick factor. Darcy as Humbert Humbert is just not right. And the sexual scenes between the adult Lizzy and Will are a bit much given the very short length of the book. Really, they are about the only detailed thing in the book. Sad to say, but I was definitely disappointed in this one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: The Reluctant Bride by Leigh Greenwood

I don't generally gravitate towards western set historical romances. Cowboys do not make my little heart go pit-a-pat. But every now and again, I dip back into the sub-genre to see if things have changed for me at all. Unfortunately, the answer, as of this reading, is still no.

Tanzy escaped from her Kentucky mountain home after her whole family died feuding with neighbors. Once she was left defenseless, her uncle planned to marry her off to her horrible cousin. Instead she fled to St. Louis where the only work she could find was in a gambling hall, not the place for a respectable girl. And so on the advice of another girl, she becomes a mail order bride, traveling out to Colorado Territory to marry Russ Tibbolt. Her first sight of him is when he defends the stagecoach against bandits and she feels a frisson of something for him even then. So it is a shock to her to hear that he is persona non-grata in the small western town.

In his youth, he was convicted of murdering the town leader's younger brother and although the conviction was a set-up, he did his time and has come back to Boulder Gap to resume his life. Too bad the townsfolk, led by Stocker Pullet, won't let him, continuing to believe Stocker's assertion that Russ is a liar and a murderer. No matter what Tanzy thinks about the man she somehow knows is decent, she refuses to be caught up in another feud so she isn't willing to marry him. Staying in town and starting to work as the local teacher, she comes to see the best in Russ and in a young boy, Tardy, whose aunt continually degrades and demeans him. When Tanzy's background is called into question and she loses the teaching job, she ends up out on Russ's ranch where she falls farther and farther in love with him and determines to clear his name somehow.

While the plot is intriguing, there's a lot of wishy-washy bits where we hear Tanzy and Russ disagree about the nature of the "feud" and whether or not it should be an impediment to their marriage. Add to that Russ's ingrained distrust of women and lack of respect for their opinions and you have a recipe for disaster. Even worse, Tanzy seems to finally understand that it's not a feud but almost immediately does an about face and becomes stupid over the subject again and Russ realizes that Tanzy is an honorable adn trustworthy woman but then turns right around and completely discounts her opinion again. Argh! Both she and Russ are fairly sympathetic characters but there wasn't much of a spark to speak of between the two of them. They'd have done better to partner in opening a home for wayward boys. OK, not really, but this felt entirely too long and drawn out, especially since it was not only clear who was framing Russ for cattle rustling but also how right from the beginning (and this was not carelessness on the author's part as he tells the reader). And so there was no suspense to speak of, lackluster sexual tension, and ubiquitous misunderstandings between characters here. I might have been more forgiving if this had occurred in a romance set in a time and place for which I have more fondness, but perhaps not. As I understand it, fans of western romances really love Greenwood though I did not.

A-Z Wednesday

Reading at the Beach is hosting A-Z Wednesday where bloggers take the time to highlight one book that starts with the letter of the day. This week is the letter U.

I couldn't resist using this one because the title cracks me up. (Sometimes I think I must be a 12 year old boy.) I haven't read it yet. Like so many others, it sits neglected on my to be read shelves. But really, doesn't the title just grab you? Unzipped: What Happens When Friends Talk About Sex--A True Story

Amazon has this to say about it: This book eavesdrops play by play on the sex-and-love lives of the author and her friends as they share gossip, stories, laughter, and tears. By turns hilarious, banal, and rather sad, her chronicle shows women and men working valiantly at mating in a culture without universal consensus or rituals, where bottles, beds, and bodies are shared but rules and expectations are not. Her portraits are vivid, and the book is an entertaining read rather in the style of a nonfiction American Bridget Jones's Diary. Weaver, a journalist, wrote the column "Unzipped" for Salon magazine for several years.

Review: This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen

This YA book by Dessen has at its center, Remy, just graduated from high school, who doesn't believe in romantic love. Her own life experience tells her that it doesn't exist. Her mother is about to embark on marriage number five. Her musician father left before she was ever born, wrote her a now famous song when she was born (complete with lyrics exhorting her to not count on him), but never laid eyes on her. She's always skinnied out of any relationship that seemed like it might be getting too deep and the summer before she leaves for college should shape up to be just another in the same superficial dating scene. Then she meets Dexter, who crawls over all her barriers and makes her break all her rules. First, he's a musician and she's always had a no musicians rule because of her father. Next, she doesn't dump him for one of the myriad small reasons that she's tired of boys before. And finally, he's gotten under her skin in a way that no other boy ever has and he is persistent, not allowing her to pull back and retreat when she gets scared. So although Remy knows how a relationship goes, even to being able to predict how long it will last from first infatuation to last goodbye, nothing about Dexter is by the book for her.

Dessen has drawn very believable young adult characters, tapping into their belief that they know how the world will always work and in Remy's case, into the sad cynicism she uses as a shield so she won't ever be hurt. Although the adult characters are very secondary, Dessen skillfully uses them to help Remy grow and mature and see the world in a new way. There was only one instance in Remy's interactions with her mother that seemed a bit preachy and obvious, otherwise they were understated and subtle. While this was very obviously a teen romance, it was more than that. It was about the existence of love and the ways in which we close ourselves off from or conversely, open ourselves up to, that experience. It's not about first love or lasting love but just the willingness to accept love, with all its attendant hurts and healings, whether it lasts forever or just a short time. Readers of young adult literature will certainly appreciate this one as it is a nice representation of the genre. Teens will enjoy it too, whether they think love is ephemeral or that they have already met the love of their lives.

A few of my 2010 reading challenges

The end of the year is approaching and that means that it is challenge extravaganza time. I have an obscene number of challenges I want to sign up for despite my rather dismal track record at completing challenges last year. Listed below are a few that don't require dedicated links to my challenge post and/or lists of the books I intend to read. Those that do will be trickling in as I get around to creating each post. In the meantime, here's the first taste of some of what will be directing my reading this coming year (well, at least 'til I go off plot, per usual):

The Most Memorable Memoir Challenge at The Betty and Boo Chronicles plays right into my love of memoirs and only asks participants to read 4 during 2010. I think I can definitely do this one!

The 2010 Ontheporchswing Challenge through the yahoo group of the same name asks for participants to read a selection of books fitting different criteria. This year the books are: two books whose title contains the first letter of your first and last name, two books by an author whose first name begins with a "D", one book by a female author whose first name is Mary, a biography about someone you have always been interested in, and a book of short stories. Surely I have books to fit this one already waiting on my shelves.

The 2010 Global Reading Challenge asks participants to read at least one book from the continents of Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America, and South America. Seems like a good way to dip into lots of different types of literature, doesn't it?

I am the champion at buying books and putting off reading them until they have aged like a fine wine. OK, seriously, I am terrible about reading things as I buy them so I figure I need a challenge like the Buy One Book and Read It 2010 at My Friend Amy. And to up the ante a bit, I am committing to level 3, which means I'll read 12 of the books I buy this year just as soon as I get them.

The Romance Reading Challenge at The Bookworm blog is one I really like. It helps that I manage to complete it every year, unlike many others. So I'm joining up again to read at least 5 romances (traditional and non) in 2010.

I am a bit late signing up for the Darling Daughters Reading Challenge at By Hook or by Book but better late than never, right? This one asks participants to read books with the word daughter in the title, one for each month of the challenge, which runs Dec. 8, 2009 through Oct. 3, 2010.

The Art History Reading Challenge is one I didn't complete this past year but I had a good old time trying so I'm going to sign myself up again. This year I am just going to shoot for 3 books and see how I do.

The Chick Lit Challenge at The Twiga Blog asks participants to read 8 chick lit novels over the course of the year. I didn't manage to read the 10 needed to complete last year's challenge, I figure I can shoot for the 8 this year and hopefully make it.

The Third Time Is a Charm Challenge, hosted through the A Novel Challenge Yahoo Group, asks participants to read 3 trilogies. I don't know if I can come up with 3 that I haven't read at least the first book for, but I'm sure going to try!

The Rainbow Connection Challenge asks participants to read 7 books with either the title or the author (or do a double rainbow and do both) spelling out ROYGBIV. I'm fairly certain in all my other challenge reading I can squeeze a ROYGBIV or two out of my books. Of course, this one doesn't run all year so I'll have to squeeze then in between January and June.

The Read and Review Challenge at MizB's Reading Challenges helps keep me on track with getting my reviews done in something close to a reasonable timeframe so I am definitely signing back up for this one.

The Read Your Own Books Challenge at MizB's Reading Challenges is one that is completely up my alley. Choose the number of books you want to read from the immense stash of books you own and have at it. I think to make life interesting, I'll commit to 50 of my own books.

The Reading From My Shelves Challenge at Bibliophile by the Sea should be a tough one for me. Not only does it ask participants to read their own books, but to pass them along in some way, thereby getting them off your shelves. Since I have a load of trouble letting books out of my possession, I am only going to attempt 20 books. Well, only 20 books that I will subsequently give away. This could be a painful challenge. ;-)

The Young Readers Challenge at Young Readers asks readers to read 12 books classified as Easy or Juvenile in the library. Since this is the last year I might be able to do this challenge by reading some of the books T. brings home from school, I thought I'd play along. (Might play along after he is completely and totally past these books too but I love being able to tell him that I need to read his books too.)

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Women Writers Challenge at Becky's Book Reviews asks participants to read a minimum of 2 books written by 18th or 19th century women writers. I failed miserably at this challenge (or one like it) last year, reading only one. I am determined to do better this year so I'm shooting for 2. ;-)

The New Author Challenge at Literary Escapism challenges participants to read 15, 25, or 50 new to you authors over 2010. I'm going to try to read 50 but we'll see how that pans out.

Many more challenge posts to come because I have zero self-restraint!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas travelogue

We're back from Christmas. And for those of you who have known me a very long time, you know that means a travelogue. Unfortunately the kids are getting older, less funny and more snarky so this will probably be less entertaining than my usual ramblings.

Both going and coming home, the car was so overloaded that the kids were lucky I didn't strap them to the top like grandma in National Lampoon's Vacation. Actually, they'd probably have had more room if I had! I very carefully went through R. and T.'s clothing to take anything outgrown down to my sister and her young brood. W. escaped the mad flurry of clothes trying on since his clothes just get passed directly to T. In addition to the clothes though, I weeded through the books and the toys as well. We are free of all learn to read books here and even though this means the kids are all reading independently and well, it still gave me a pang to get rid of them. I wouldn't wish for another baby or toddler or preschooler ever again but it kills me to give up books. I'm so maternal, aren't I? T. willingly gave up his Rescue Hero boat command center thing and all of his rescue heros so I had to pack an entire plastic toy bin in the trunk, which didn't leave room for much else. But I happily squashed everything in under the mistaken impression that I would be leaving with a much emptier car than we arrived in. Ha! The best laid plans and all that.

So with van groaning and tires so weighted down they looked flat, we headed out on the four hour drive. Amazingly, it was completely uneventful aside from the fact that the kids had to curl up into little balls to sit in their seats since I had managed to use all spare room for bags and that meant they had no leg room. No vomiting, no traffic, no nothing. We suspect the blizzard up north kept the highways relatively empty for us. Bad for them, perfect for us.

The day after we arrived, the kids were not thrilled about being woken up for church. They were even less pleased when they saw the clothes I'd brought for them to wear. One of these years they'll wise up and actually help me pack but this wasn't the year. And so W. ended up wearing dress pants that were two inches too short and a pair of sandals from last Easter that were likewise too small. Guess I should have made him participate in the clothes try-on frenzy before we left! He was not thrilled to hear that these were the same clothes he was expected to wear to Christmas Eve services.

T. and my grandmother have a very special bond so no one blinked when the two of them sat together at the end of the pew. But we didn't think about the fact that it would be the blind leading the blind trying to follow along in the hymnal. T. would wildly flip pages and finally settle on the current hymn just as it was ending. On the plus side, that meant only a handful of us were adding our croaky voices to the song. Between the two completely confuzzled and a couple more of us trying to stifle laughter, our off-key singing had far less volume than usual.

Come communion we all trooped up to the railing. The kids expected to be blessed so it was a bit of a surprise to W. and R. actually be given communion. Poor R. had no idea what to do with it. She finally popped it into her mouth and promptly gagged. T. was desperately hungry through the service and so when he was the only one left out of the body and blood, he turned to me and said sadly, "I didn't get any." He was unappeased to hear that it wouldn't have quieted his rumbling tum. Of course, when we got to brunch later, he promptly dropped (and shattered) his plate full of freshly made to order omelet and a mound of bacon so he just wasn't having a good food day.

For the first time over break, we signed the kids up for various camps. This was supposed to be so I could get a jump on wrapping the presents I had sent on ahead with my parents the last time they were here (you didn't really think I got *all* the presents for five people plus our gifts for seven more in the trunk with the Rescue Hero bin, command center and D.'s golf clubs taking up gobs of space, did you?!). In reality, it turned out to be a time where I just vegged, knowing that meant I'd probably be doing the Christmas Eve scramble to wrap again.

R. and T. went to a craft camp followed by swimming. Thanks to the crafts, we are now the proud owners of reindeer antlers. Is it problematic that the boy also added jingle bell earrings to his reindeer's ears? Maybe I should stop giving R.'s outgrown girl clothes to her cousin and just let T. cross dress. Certainly would save money! Well, except for the fact that camp was the last time we remember seeing T.'s winter coat. Honestly, I'm going to start stapling the things to my kids. Remember mitten strings so you didn't lose your mittens? I need the coat version and I suspect that it would be made of the aforementioned staples and duct tape. While the younger two were crafting and swimming, W. was off at tennis camp. Of the 3 days, he was monarch of the court the first day, and king of the court twice the second day. On the third day (this story would have worked so much better if it had been Easter instead of Christmas!), he got shellacked. My suspicion is that the 16 year old girl finally got tired of the gloating little gnat and played her A game instead of going easy on him. But he had fun and got a new t-shirt. Wonder if it's remotely thick enough for his brother to use as a winter coat?

After the requisite trip to the seventh circle of hell (aka Chuck E. Cheese), with ears still ringing from the noise and eyes still smarting from the flashing lights, we waited for the cousins to arrive. Once they did, my crew swooped in like locusts and smothered the little kids with love. Poor A., my 4 year old niece, had only one eye visible so wrapped in hugs she was.

The following day was Christmas Eve and we all dressed up and trooped off to church. When we got home, we sent the kids to bed. W. didn't want to go and after the littlies were out of earshot tried to lobby to stay up and help put the presents under the tree announcing "I know it's just you guys. I don't believe in Santa." My dad looked at him and told him that he should be careful because non-believers end up with clothes for Christmas. When W. opened a box filled with several new pairs of pants the next morning, dad's comment was, "See what I told you about the clothes?" Bwahahaha!

Christmas day was a whirlwind, per usual. The kids tore through their stocking bags and somehow T. had gotten ahead of everyone else (we are anal retentive and take turns opening so we can all see what everyone else got). He looked at me with a completely straight face and said, "I'm finished with my stocking. Can I go and start on my presents under the tree?" Um yeah, no. Meanwhile, my sister noted the rather large number of books in my kids' stockings so she asked R. if she liked to read. The answer? "I like to read plus mom is our mom." Wonder if that means Santa's lost another believer. We did all finally make it out to the tree and the glut of presents there and I think everyone was happy as little clams with their gifts.

We cleaned up the wrapping and ribbon mess and I had to pack the car up since we were leaving at 7am the next morning. Somehow we acquired enough stuff (including the large trash bag of Christmas garland my mother no longer wants) to make up for everything I brought to pawn off on my sister and the kids were no more comfortable on the way home than they were on the way there.

As we went to pull out of my parents' driveway, my dad tapped on my window and asked if we intended to take the dog with us. In the flurry of getting kids in seats and feeding in the last of the bags, we had let her run free and forgotten she wasn't in the car. Damn! I'm not only a bad human mom, I'm a bad dog mom! We popped her on R.'s lap and headed out.

At one point I glanced back and noticed that R. was reading one of her new books. It crossed my mind that the notoriously carsick kid should probably not be reading but I didn't say anything. When we stopped for gas, D. got R. a grape soda for the remainder of the trip. And she started reading again. An hour and a half from home, the dog bolted out of R's lap as she blanched white and wailed that she was going to get sick. The first bag had a slight hole in the corner and dripped on the seat despite me having pre-screened the bags on purpose. Double bagging solved that problem though. And blase parents that we are, we just made her hold onto the bag until we got home, knowing from experience that stopping wouldn't make her feel any better. You'll all be pleased to know though, that grape soda smells sicky sweet enough on its own to mask any vomit smells, especially when it has spent very little time in someone's tummy.

We got home, tossed all the Christmas stuff through the door and D. and I zipped off to work the Panthers game for R.'s dance. After a very long day, we arrived home to a complete disaster. The kids had opened boxes and strewn legos and all sorts of other Christmas presents all over the family room. It looked like we'd had Christmas at home and never gotten around to cleaning up. Next year I don't think we'll work the game immediately following Christmas so the mess can stay at my parents' (hi mom!).

Luncheonette by Steven Sorrentino

Steven Sorrentino was in his early 20's, happily living in New York City, going to auditions, dreaming about performing on Broadway, meeting eligible men, and just generally heading his life in the direction of his choosing when he goes home to New Jersey for a Christmas that will change his life forever. He's met at the door by his mother who tells him that something is wrong with his father. What follows is a medical nightmare that ends with his father paralyzed from the nipples down and Steven putting his own life on hold to take over running dad's luncheonette, abandoning his Broadway dream, and stepping firmly back into the closet required of suburban New Jersey in the early 80's.

This memoir of the years Sorrentino spent at the luncheonette, becoming bitter and frustrated as his father faced more and more health setbacks with smiles and grace is an instructive one. He never glosses over his anger about his situation and his disbelief at his father's relentless cheer in the face of so much loss and while it is clear from the book that he has learned a lot from his father's approach to life, Sorrentino lets the reader see just how difficult and hard fought it was for him to come to understand and appreciate the lesson his father taught him about life and persevering in the face of adversity. He is unafraid to come off looking less than his best. To the outside world he was a wonderful and dutiful son but inside he was seething and unhappy.

Cliff Sorrentino is not a fatalist and he goes about living his life to the fullest, without bemoaning his fate. He runs for mayor and triumphs, his paralysis not holding him back, even as Steven continues closing himself off to any attempt to break free of the stultifying, joyless life he's leading behind the luncheonette counter. Sorrentino has a real talent at drawing the character of the regulars at Cliff's Corner. They start out one dimensional as he hopes that his tenure at the luncheonette will be short-lived but he fleshes them out as he gets to know them over the intervening years. Their little ticks and eccentricities go from being mildly entertaining to annoying as Sorrentino's patience with his lot decreases. There's no epiphany here for Sorrentino and his luncheonette years will probably always be tender like a wound but in the end, this is a loving tribute to the man who taught him by example and gave him a new way to live, no matter how hard following that example might have turned out to be. Fans of unconventional memoirs will quite appreciate this book.

Review: Devotion by Katherine Sutcliffe

An historical romance with incredibly dark overtones, this novel opens with Maria defying her abusive and quite possible mentally deranged father and accepting a position as nurse to the Duchess of Salterdon's grandson. In accepting this way out of her father's home (and hopefully the means to earning enough money to save her mother as well), she doesn't inquire too closely into her charge and his malady. And it turns out that she is not to be nurse to a sickly child but to a very virile, by turns comatose or violent adult man who has been retreating into his own world ever since he was beaten badly during a robbery a year or so prior. Trey had been a man about town when he was set upon by thieves and paralyzed and he has slowly been slipping into insanity, abandoned by the same society that once toasted him. But with the advent of Maria, there is something that pulls him back from the edge. And he's not happy about stepping back from the brink, thinking, no knowing, that he's not a complete man. Maria masters her fear of the mercurial and dangerous Trey, proving incredibly devoted in nursing him back to health and ultimately falling in love with the man she knows instinctually is in the shell he so despises.

Sutcliffe tells a different story than so many, making her characters work incredibly hard to overcome their tortured pasts and then still putting the stumbling block of being of different classes in front of them. That she doesn't completely resolve the plot in the end is frustrating but if it had stood alone, that wouldn't have been as infuriating as it is to find that you must read a later book in order to find out how Trey and Maria's desire and devotion are rewarded. This is the second book in the series so perhaps I would have been happier having read the first one before this. As it is, the ending felt hurried and unfinished and left me feeling unsatisfied with the book as a whole.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My year in first lines

I found this first line meme at Letters From a Hill Farm. It suggests that taking the first line of the first post of each month of the year will make an interesting portrait of your blogging year. I don't know how interesting mine turned out to be, but draw your own conclusions:

Jan-- I have a low patience level, a high frustration level, and absolutely zero tolerance for other peoples' learning curves.

Feb-- January was a pretty good month for me reading-wise.

Mar-- I saw the Chunkster Challenge back in January but didn't get around to signing up until now, the day that sign-ups end.

Apr-- I think we have the plague.

May-- The first of the month always seems to hold such potential reading-wise.

Jun-- It was a bit of an odd week around here mail-wise.

Jul-- Giveaway day #3 has on offer our first novel: My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare by Jess Winfield.

Aug-- I just got home from vacation last night and thought I'd share some of my recent discoveries so as to save all of you from having to stumble across the truth yourselves.

Sept—I was skipping through my appallingly overloaded Google Reader when I had to stop short at a post by Tam at Bailey's and Books.

Oct-- On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest.

Nov-- I should start out this review by admitting that there is no style of writing I loathe more than stream of consciousness.

Dec-- This book has been on my shelves literally for years.

So what do you think this says about me?

Review: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Winner of the 1973 Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award, this coming of age story is told from the point of view of little Antonio Marez. He is the last of his parents' children and they are each determined that he will grow up to take after their side of the family. His father wants him to be a vaquero on the llano as he was and his mother, of farming stock, wants him to become a priest and scholar. And he himself has no idea which way his life will hew, observing everything as he does and asking difficult questions. In her old age, Ultima, a curandera or healer, moves in with his family and becomes a sort of touchstone for him in his philosophical wonderings, not least because little Antonio witnesses great evil that even the local priest seems unable to contain whereas Ultima, called a witch by so many, vanquishes it. As he grows, he reveres Ultima even as she throws some of the things he once thought were fact into question.

Anaya has captured the nature of men and their beliefs in this simple tale juxtaposing evil and good, right and wrong, Catholicism and paganism, child and man. While the novel is very pensive, Antonio as a character is far too old for his years, even if he is a child of the 1940's. His introspection and maturity are simply not that of a 7 or 8 year old child. A novel of ideas more than a novel of action, the plot bumps along slowly from one senseless, violent death to another and interspersed with long periods of tedium. This novel does give a voice to the Chicano population in northern New Mexico and showcases early magical realism and it has some sociological significance as a result. Overall the book was a slow, sometimes mesmerizing read but isn't one that I'd suggest to most readers, knowing they'd be bogged down with the pace.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog.

Books I completed this week are:

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Devotion by Katherine Sutcliffe
Luncheonette by Steven Sorrentino
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
The Reluctant Bride by Leigh Greenwood
A Little Bit Psychic by Aimee Avery

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Through Thick and Thin by Alison Pace

Reviews posted this week:

Friends Like These by Danny Wallace
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb
Swift As Desire by Laura Esquivel
Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer
Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad

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

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Devotion by Katherine Sutcliffe
Luncheonette by Steven Sorrentino
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
The Reluctant Bride by Leigh Greenwood

Monday Mailbox

Between a few goodies waiting for me at home when we got back from our Christmas travels and a book I had sent to meet me at my parents, the mailbox stayed happy and full. Add to that my Christmas haul and I have an embarrassing amount of new books, which is always a good thing. Good thing this meme only requires me to admit those that came in the post! This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach was a gift to me from myself.
This book about the famed Parisian bookshop (the original one) has been on my wishlist for more than 6 years. So when I needed to add something to my Christmas present order to qualify for free shipping, I decided it had been on the list for long enough. Heaven only knows when I'll get around to reading it, but I am just pleased to finally own it!

Solar by Ian McEwan came from Doubleday Books.
The brilliant McEwan takes on an academic who has coasted on his reputation for years and who goes to New Mexico in order to repair all that has gone wrong in his own life and to try and save humanity from itself. Not too ambitious a premise, hey?

An Assembly Such As This by Pamela Aidan came from Emily at Emily's Reading Room who was my partner in the Book Blogger's Holiday Swap.
Obviously it is completely and totally obvious to anyone who spends even one nanosecond on the blog that I am an Austen fan and happily read any of the Pride and Prejudice sequels, continuations, prequels, etc. This looks like a good series and I'll have to make time to read it soon.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick came from Algonquin Books.
This has been very highly lauded this past year and although the fact that people have used the words thriller and psychological when describing it (words that generally scare me off quickly), it's always good to try and stretch your reading horizons a bit, right? Besides, a duplicitous mail-order wife has to make for stirring reading.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Review: Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad

American Tim Reinhart, a former math professor, moves to France to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an artist. In addition to renovating his somewhat ramshackle farmhouse in the South of France, he also meets an aristorcratic French woman almost two decades his senior with whom he falls in love. An epistolary novel this is mostly the story of Tim and Catherine as they negotiate the waters of love and marriage in France despite her disapproving relatives and the arcane laws apparently designed to keep them from marrying. The letters are for the most part between Tim and his mother and sister with a few between Catherine and her sisters and other assorted people caught in the web created by this unconventional marriage.

The premise is charming but the execution didn't live up to my expectations. There was something a bit off in the voices in the letters here, making the characters not as likable as they should have been. In addition, this falls into the pitfall of many epistolary novels in that it is heavy on explanation, as would be expected in correspondance with someone removed from the situation, but it seems unnecessarily heavy-handed here. On the plus side, there is a lot of interesting information about French inheritance law, how marriages take place (or are prevented) in France, and general information about the country and its people. The love between Tim and Catherine is sweet, if a bit underrepresented in the letters and their quest to marry starts to take on a farcical aspect. As to Tim being an artist, there's little enough here, with the personal taking over the professional just about completely. Ultimately there's not much plot to this novel and the characterizations are thin but it is a quick and easy, feel good sort of read for those times when something like this is needed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review: Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

An early Georgette Heyer romance, this opens with a brief introduction to three different landowners in a provincial neighborhood, illuminating their characters in the ways that they will reflect on the next generation. That next generation is represented by honest, simply-attired Philip Jettan, beauty Cleone Chateris with whom he is in love, and the town-polished but eminently disagreeable Henry Bancroft. While Cleone is in love with Philip, she wishes he had a bit more care about his appearance and manners. Philip's father concurs. Philip doesn't understand why it matters when he is the upstanding soul that he is. And he is particularly unhappy that he thinks the two people he loves most want him to ape Henry Bancroft, a dandy of low morals and other unadmirable traits. But rebuffed by Cleone, he leaves town, traveling to Paris under the tutelage of his uncle to transform into society's pride. When he hears that Cleone has traveled to London and is actively enjoying herself, he heads back to England to show her he has changed into what she wanted. But Cleone finds she misses the old Philip and so the two act at cross-purposes, in danger of permanently driving each other away with their contrariness.

Heyer is considered the queen of the Regency romance and yet this early attempt on her part is a Georgian-set romance rather than a Regency. And it is almost not a romance in the traditional sense, being instead a comedy of manners. Henry Bancroft is a complete popinjay, as is Philip when he is acting as he thinks his father and Cleone want him to act. The superficiality of society and the disregard for the character of the people in high society are certainly condemned here but it is a little awkward in its presentation. Cleone and Philip's father are supposed to remain sympathetic characters but they continually discount Philip's moral fibre and want him to be more polished, which makes it harder for the reader to stay in sympathy with them. Philip himself might still be as hardworking and upstanding as he was before he became society's darling, but the game he plays to see if Cleone will love him for himself and not the fairly empty-headed facade he's so carefully cultivated is a bit immature for such a formerly forthright and staid character. There are definitely glimmers of the Heyer to come in this novel but I don't think this is one of her best.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

photo from

Merry Christmas! Although my regular readers probably know all of this already thanks to my propensity for oversharing, I thought I would still share our somewhat edited family Christmas letter with you. You probably already knew I wouldn't write the typical Christmas letter and this one has been judged not up to my usual standards by my ever discerning husband and mother, but apparently we were fairly boring this year. No matter, I still want to wish all of my readers a vrey happy Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.

January: Since we moved to the sunny South, there was snow this month. Lots of it. And snow days off of school. More of them than ever before in recorded history. (Okay, I made that up but it might actually be true.) Sort of entertaining to see the kids sledding down hills that are mostly mud slicks with a few stubborn, off-white patches of snow scattered around. Well, entertaining until K. went to do the laundry and discovered that the red clay mud permanently stains clothing.

February: D. had surgery to repair a hernia this month. He claims it was a result of K. making him carry and move heavy furniture. Such a delicate flower. ;-) But the hutch in the dining room looks great! We had a phone meeting with the school to discuss some of the issues that W. continued to face with bullying. If it can’t disappear, it’s at least marginally comforting to know the school is being active in dealing with it.

March: This month saw the advent of dance competitions for R.. Traveling to each of these offered insight into the South as we passed “concealed carry class” and “deer processing done here” signs as we drove through the back of beyond. Also this month, R. started her stint on safety patrol for school. Don’t be fooled. This is not an honor. It meant that she had to be at school a full 45 minutes earlier than usual and since that made riding the bus not an option, we all had to drag ourselves out of bed at an insanely early hour of the late night (note: it was so early it wasn’t even morning).

April: Spring sports ramped up with soccer (T.), baseball (T.), tennis (W.), and dance (R.) all claiming demands on our time. Too bad you can’t earn frequent flier miles in the car or we’d be entitled to all the perks around! Also this month K. cooked her very first Easter meal. She sort of overestimated how much ham to cook and we were eating it for months and months and months. Thank heavens for freezers! W. turned 12 this month, promptly moving from the back into the front seat of the car. This upset K.’s apple cart as the passenger seat was formerly considered her office and now must actually stay free from clutter.

May: We had a proud day this month when T. brought home a note from his teacher requesting that he change his clothes daily because he was smelly and dirty. I think she was actually slightly more diplomatic than this but we’re good at reading between the lines. K. is clearly up for mother of the year, never having noticed that T., despite his closet *full* of clothing, was recycling the same outfit daily for a week at a time. Perhaps he was just trying to reduce his carbon footprint and save on energy and water for laundry. In any case, green he was: mossy, grungy green.

June: As is the case every year, this month found us spinning like gerbils on wheels wrapping up the school year, finishing up sports seasons, and planning the logistics of getting from NC to MI and back and forth and back again the following month. Meanwhile, D. continued to drive all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and occasionally even Georgia for work so that we rarely saw him for longer than a few minutes at a stretch.

July: Summer was rather wet and drippy for us this year. And it rained a lot too. On the way from the mainland to the cottage, with all our luggage, all five of us, and the dog, we sank K.’s parents’ boat. It’s amazing how fast a boat goes down and K. refuses to believe that the 75-80 books she had on board hastened the watery demise. The only thing to stay dry on the boat? T.’s bathing suit. Please try to refrain from hysterical laughing when you picture a panicky D. out on the bow of the boat trying to keep his work laptop from getting wet, with nary a thought of his family going down with the ship.

August: R. started middle school this year so we now have two children living through some of the most miserable years known to childhood. I mean they’re thriving as they head into young adulthood. But you knew what I meant, right?!

September: The kids had a real life demonstration of why sneaking food and stashing it in their rooms is a bad idea aside from the fact that it makes K.’s head spin alarmingly. Daisy found chocolate and proceeded to need much medication and time at the vet’s to recover from her bout of bloody chocolate vomiting. This science experiment on the effects of poisoning is not recommended. (Hey, at least it wasn’t a result of the Easter ham, which we were still eating this month.)

October: Because K. doesn’t read enough on her own initiative, she volunteered to be on the WNBA National Reading Group Month panel which chose a selection of books to designate as Great Group Reads for the month.

November: R. danced in her very first Nutcracker ever. Well, danced is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, since she ran across the stage as a party boy, marched across as a soldier, and stood around looking darling as a sweet. All that entertainment was provided for the very low price of about a zillion dollars. She enjoyed herself so much that we are all refraining from mentioning the lack of dancing on her part. But we do have it on DVD for anyone visiting and wanting to suck up to Miss R.

And that’s 2009 in hindsight. As another year comes to a close, we hope that all of you are surrounded by family, peace, love, and happiness now and throughout the coming year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: Swift As Desire by Laura Esquivel

A tribute to her telegraph operator father, Esquivel's novel about Jubilo, gifted with the ability to hear more than just the words that people say, and his wife and daughter, this doesn't compare to her famous Like Water for Chocolate. Jubilo lies blind, incapacitated by severe Parkinson's Disease and dying. His daughter Lluvia, in whose home he is, brings his friends in to try and entertain her father and in so doing, uncovers the reason why her two very passionate parents haven't been speaking to each other since before her birth. Jubilo and Lucha led a turbulent life with each other, complicated by the fact that Jubilo's second sense about people failed him at crucial times with his wife. The story of Jubilo's life, especially after meeting Lucha, is alternated with his present and his daughter's careful caretaking. Uncovering the mystery that drove her parents apart and helping them to repair their hearts before Jubilo dies is part of what drives Lluvia as she bustles around her father's bedside.

Unfortunately the writing here is choppy and lackluster and it takes a real effort for the reader to continue along with the storyline. The mystery itself isn't alluded to until quite a ways into the story and still isn't compelling enough to make the pages turn quickly. Lucha as a character is a rotten, whiny, spoiled brat and there's little to no explanation as to why she would be so appealing to Jubilo and to other men around her. Jubilo as a character is gifted with his almost magical powers (more a heightened sensitivity) and yet Esquivel doesn't choose to show him using this intuition much at all and refers to it most only when it fails him, which makes his character feel more allegorical than real. There are plot lines that seem as if they should be major themes but they peter out for lack of life. All in all, this was a disappointment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb

A sweet story, this is being billed as a Christmas story but it's really more of a story about childhood and being on the verge of growing up. Set in 1964, Felix Funicello, third cousin of the quite famous Annette, is in 5th grade at St. Aloysius Gonzaga. His family is warm and loving and his childhood is familiar ground. During the course of the novel, his mother goes on tv as a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off and Felix himself is on a local Connecticut show: Ranger Andy. The mishaps and entertainment sprinkled throughout the story are charming and funny. From Felix unknowingly hitting a bat with a spitball and causing his nun-teacher to have a nervous breakdown right in class to Mrs. Funicello sweeping into the Pillsbuy Bake-Off kitchens trailing toilet paper (what nerves will do to the intestinal tract!), to the penultimate scene at the out of control Christmas pageant, this will make readers of a certain age reminisce and chuckle.

In many ways, it is a mash-up of Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (better known as the movie A Christmas Story) and Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pagaent Ever and all memoirs of growing up Catholic so it definitely doesn't break any new ground. But the gentle humor and the time of life Lamb has captured, that time when boys are still children at play but also growing into men who will shortly understand the dirty jokes they laugh at now knowing the jokes to be off-color somehow and in some way that they will eventually discover, is a particularly enchanted time, neither child nor man but an innocent bridging from the one to the other. The good news is that this quasi-holiday offering is not overwhelmingly sugary sweet. The bad news is that it is a very slight offering that ends a bit abruptly. But it is a nice book to dip into in between wrapping presents as it is breezy and quick and cute.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Five o'clock shadow--gone

My great aunt shaved. Please read that again. The word aunt was not a mistake; and she shaved. Shaving would imply that the chin hair situation had gone far beyond what was possible to manage with a few minutes and tweezers. The fact that I had a female relative (or two or untold numbers) who shaved used to be the source of great hilarity. Now it is just another reason to curse the absolute certainty of DNA. Yeah, hirsuit are her. Ahem, I mean me, hirsuit are me. ::sigh:: I am becoming my great aunt--or my father, whose aunt she was and whose beard was once so fecund that he had to shave twice a day. My mother disavows all responsibility for the thatch on my chinny-chin-chin. But that has never stopped her from coming at me, tweezers in hand. But I have apparently passed into Aunt B. territory where tweezers just don't do the job anymore because before we even arrived for Christmas, my mother called wanting to know if I'd like to have a wax and a facial when I got down to her house. Now I don't much like to be touched by people (I actively loathe massages) but the waxing part sounded appealing and so my appointment was set. Santa was going to be the only person in our house who had a beard this Christmas (nevermind that Santa is usually me--actual Santa could have the beard and I'd be his smooth, baby-faced helper).

My appointment arrived today and off I went, unsuspecting. I got into the little terry cloth wrapper while wondering why on earth a facial and chin waxing would require removal of clothing. But whatever. First came the wax. Now I've waxed my own chin and so I figured I was pretty innured to the pain. And I was--on my chin. But when she waxed my mustache and then the sides of my face (Holy cow! I must be hairier than I ever knew, never having worried about these other areas before.), I winced and flinched like the wimpiest of the wimps. That was nothing to the desperate pain that accompanied the waxing of the innocuous and unassuming philtrum. You know, that divot between your nose and mouth where nothing but soft little peach fuzz grows anyway. Yup, apparently that peach fuzz, which never hurt anyone, I might add, must be eradicated, ripped out of the sensitive skin and torn from the roots so that that never before noticed part of your face throbs and thrums with pain so intense you would have prefered to give birth without drugs again. (Ok, maybe not but only because you'd have a sleepless infant to care for afterwards, not because the pain was more than the philtrum waxing. Trust me; I know this for a fact.)

While I was preoccupied with the agony under my nose, she proceeded to wax my eyebrows into shape. Now I am the beneficiary of not only the chin hair from dad's side of the family, but also the always charming unibrow. Yes, dad really passed on the winnings of the genetic lottery, let me tell you! I have, in the past, spent very little time shaping the hedgrows above my eyes, occasionally tweezing the more appalling Frieda Kalho bits but nothing beyond that. And so I was pleased when I was told that I have great eyebrows and that we wouldn't be going too skinny. Not only would skinny eyebrows not look like me, I would look perpetually bewildered. I just know it. And the eyebrows turned out to look good. They "make [my] pretty blue eyes stand out better." But let me tell you why this is: it's because that shit hurts! Paste some duct tape-like wax onto the very soft, sensitive skin over your eyes, let it dry out for a while so it's good and attached, and then yank like you're taking off a band-aid. I defy you to have your eyes stay tear-free. So of course my eyes were sparkling and looking bright and pretty under my new brows! But it's good she told me how I looked because *I* couldn't see through the tears swimming in my eyes. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful. Instead, feel intense sympathy that I endured all that ridiculous pain!

The waxing was over and thank goodness because getting looked at from 2 inches away through a brightly lighted magnifying glass was contributing to the tearing eyes problem plus it made me just a little self-conscious--I mean have you ever looked at the pore-craters on your face through heavy magnification before? Not pretty. I promise. So onto the facial. Have I mentioned that I don't love to be touched by other people? Because I don't. I don't find it relaxing to have people's hands on me or any part of my body. Relaxing to me would be to climb under the heated towels or blankets and go to sleep with no one else in the room and no kids calling "Mooooommmmm" and needing an argument to be refereed, not to be kneaded like bread. Potion after potion was rubbed into my skin and then wiped off. I couldn't help but think that it seemed a waste to be spending all that time just to wipe everything off again but then I have long been the bane of skin care professionals everywhere with my long-standing lack of facial maintenance and resistance to any regimen that would take even a sliver of my time.

Once I was coated with a gloopy mask that smelled of a mix between blueberries and oatmeal and something slightly unpleasant, the reason for the lack of clothing became obvious. While the sludge on my face dried to the consistency of silly putty, she massaged my arms, shoulders, ears, and neck. Even worse, she finished with these bits and moved onto my feet and calves. Now I may not like to be touched in general but I will barely touch my own feet, nevermind someone else touching my feet. This totally skeeves me out. And her working the exfoliating stuff between my toes made me cringe. It was literally all I could do to get through that portion of the appointment. But finally that was finished and the mask had another 15 mintues of firming to go. It was the most boring 15 minutes of my life. Nothing to read, and only a red, slightly chipped ceiling at which to look. Once I examined the fire sprinkler head and the AC grate, I was itching for a book. That's my business suggestion for places like this. Instead of the soothing, new age music they all pipe in, they should provide iPod docking stations so customers could listen to their own music or books on tape or podcasts or what have you. No charge for that stellar business-enhancing idea either. Because, I'll be honest, in my version of Hell, there will be no books available to read and someone will be rubbing my feet, probably tugging on each toe in turn. ::shiver, cringe:: You freaks who like this sort of thing just pipe down! ;-)

My face finally cured and peeled of its funky purple mask, I was all finished and ready to be inspected by my mother (oh she of the hairless side of the family, the one who did not see fit to share the good genes). I got back into my clothes and squinted at the shiny and hairless person in the mirror, the one glowing like a veritable Christmas bauble, well, one of the red and throbbing ones. Mom's verdict: The facial made a huge difference and I look like I'm glowing. My response? Well, of course. Everything on my face is swollen and throbbing. It's just fooled you into thinking that that's a glow. Oh and my philtrum? Let's just say the nerve endings haven't forgiven me yet. They'll probably get back at me by growing actual coarse black hairs now instead of the harmless peach fuzz so I can either continue to wax there (ouch) or just start grooming my mustache. But at least I am presentable for Christmas now.

Review: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

Buzbee spent many years as a bookseller and publisher's sales rep so he would appear to be uniquely suited to writing a book about bookstores labelled both a memoir and a history. Unfortunately, the latter overwhelms the former at almost every turn so instead of a history peppered with personal anecdotes about working in a bookstore, especially the colorful independents where Buzbee spent so much time, this is instead mostly a timeline of the emergence and growth of the bookstore, from the beginnings of libraries with their illuminated manuscripts to scribes to the printing press to stall holders and onward. While this could be interesting itself, it wasn't really enough to sustain the book. As a former bookstore employee myself, I know just how much Buzbee missed mining in a very fertile field when he chose to make this less personal and more generic. And while there were a few chosen bits about his obsessive love of reading and words here, overall, it was a much drier and slower read than I had anticipated. In poking around the internet, I seem to be in a minority in my feelings on this book but I just didn't see the charm and delight that other reviewers felt in reading this. Mostly I found it lackluster and was disappointed that I already knew all of the history that it presented.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Friends Like These by Danny Wallace

What a delightful premise for a memoir! Danny Wallace is twenty-nine. He's not ambivalent about turning thirty at all. He really doesn't want to turn thirty. Somehow, in his head, turning thirty will mean he's a grown-up with display pillows. Somehow he'll morph from fun guy to a stick in the mud. But of course, we can't slow the march of time. Wallace frets quite a bit (but thankfully entertainingly) about growing up. So when his mother sends him a large box of his childhood things, he sorts through the memories, remembering the people with whom he's long lost touch. He pulls his old address book out of the box, recalling that only the most important of his childhood friends made it into the book; flipping through there are only 12 addresses--well 13 if you count the fan club World of Michael Jackson. And so he hatches a plan to find the special twelve, meet them face to face again, and see if he can't rekindle these relationships that were once the entirety of his world. Of course, he has to get his wife on board with this plan first. But she agrees that he can indeed delve into his past if he also spends time working on their new house and doing all the projects that need to be accomplished when you move. So Danny Wallace is off on the hunt (and in DIY hell).

This is a laugh-filled, sweet, and thoughtful examination about what it means to be an adult, the constancy of friendships, how we change, and bits of the past that made us who we are. I love that Wallace doesn't take the easy way out when looking for old friends. He eschews Facebook but he does Google people. Some of his most success in finding people comes through his mother and the connections to their past that she's maintained. And he travels all around the world to meet with the people who meant so much to his childhood self. With a goal of finding the special twelve before his thirtieth birthday, he also ruminates on growing up and growing older, discovering that if you like yourself and have wonderful people in your life, it's not nearly as bad as it once seemed. In fact, with his newly rediscovered friends back in his life, Wallace seems quite content to become that settled and happy adult he once scorned.

I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative non-fiction. It was by turns hilariously funny (and I'm glad for Wallace's sake that not all of his friends are in IT as so many people told him they would be) and introspective. The pages whipped by as I read through this eccentric quest. And it made me want to look up names I only half remember from my own childhood (although I'm content to do it through Facebook). I will say that Wallace really lucked out by having such incredibly interesting friends in his past but I suspect that we all have old, half-forgotten friends from our pasts who have turned out to be far more interesting than we ever suspected (or cared about when we swung from tire swings with them). Particularly pertinent at this time of year when we are all looking to "update our address books" to send out Christmas cards, this is a wonderful and entertaining read.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?

This meme is hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog.

Books I completed this week are:

Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb
Swift as Desire by Laura Esquivel
Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer
Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Through Thick and Thin by Alison Pace
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Reviews posted this week:

Cooking For Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser
Apocalipstick by Sue Margolis
Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick
Eliot's Banana by Heather Swain
Christmas in Camelot by Brenda Jernigan
Dracula Is Dead by Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe
Jam Today by Tod Davies

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

Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb
Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer
Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad

Monday Mailbox

Again my mailbox has escaped being bereft this week and that is a good thing. Even better, Christmas is coming soon and I'm hoping to get a good assortment of fun goodies. Since they will come under the tree and not in my mailbox, they won't appear here, but be assured they will help make any future empty mailbox weeks bearable as do the pair that arrived here this week. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana came from Doubleday Books.
I don't remember asking for this one but I would never look a gift book in the mouth! And this one looks fantastic anyway so perhaps my unconscious requested it for me! A memoir of a woman who travels to the Middle East to study the role of Jesus as a prophet, this twines Christianity and Islam, American and Syrian, and religious life and secular life. Overarching it all is love and all its possibilties. I can't begin to imagine how this can't be riveting reading!

A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique Lapierre came from Da Capo Press.
My oldest son is learning about the African continent this year in school. He likes to come home and tell me tidbits of trivia since he knows how much I like trivia. So when this book about South Africa came along, my interest in African countries had already been piqued. And besides, I figure if I read it, he won't be able to stump me with any of his questions on at least one country in Africa. ;-)

And not books but book related, I found this fantastic box of Bag Ladies Novel Teas in my mailbox. I do love tea and having fun literary sayings on the tea bag tags makes me smile. I can't wait to brew up a cup as I finish up my last minute wrapping!

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

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