Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols

I know I've already waxed rhapsodic about the first book in Beverley Nichols' Merry Hall trilogy (aptly titled Merry Hall) but I plan to be equally enthusiastic about this second book of the trilogy. This book focuses a bit more on the actual home that Nichols bought and its piecemeal restoration while the first detailed much of his fascination with bringing his gardens back to life. Like his previous book though, this is not nearly as boring as it sounds when I put it out there like this. It is a thoroughly delightful and entertaining book complete with more charming anecdotes about his eccentric neighbors, the previous owner whose taste was clearly egregious, and everyone else in Nichols' orbit. I truly wish I could have met Mr. Nichols (although he would likely have gently skewered me just as he does his other neighbors) and been a visitor to Merry Hall. I wouldn't even have asked for a cutting of his gorgeous flowers like his other much maligned, but fondly recalled nonetheless, female visitors. I truly don't know how to entice people to read these wonderfully witty and sly books since calling them garden books or estate books makes them seem far too tame and dull to do them any justice whatsoever. Suffice it to say, if you have any fondness for well-written, charm-laden non-fiction without event-driven narrative, you should read these. Even better if you happen to be a bit of an Anglophile. You can thank me later.


It is very distracting to take cycle class when every time you add tension to your bike, it sounds like Yukon Cornelius.

I don't like therapy and have a bad attitude about it. The entertaining bit of this is that the therapist doesn't seem to have noticed yet. Does this mean he's not a great therapist or I'm a truly talented actress? (Given that he was busy making my children cry--perhaps boring them to tears?--I know what I think but we're going to give this the ole college try anyway, at least for a while.)

Thinking about weeding the flower beds the previous owners planted makes me feel weak and sleepy. I don't really know what all is a weed and what a welcome plant so I'm contemplating just spraying Round-Up on the majority of it and watching it wither. The only thing slowing me down is wanting one of the beds to be an herb garden and even I draw the line at planting edibles in a bed I've napalmed.

I ran yesterday for the first time in weeks. 4 miles. Not the best plan in the world. Apparently my neighbor saw me running and didn't even honk. She was probably afraid a loud and unexpected noise was likely to be the straw that broke the camel's back and caused me to have the coronary running always makes me look like I'm on the verge of anyway. I could have used a ride back to my house though!

Most of the bins of Christmas decorations in my basement fell over at some point between this morning and the last time I was in the storage side. I'm too lazy to check and see what all broke now but Christmas decorating could hold some sharp surprises this year. Wonder if this is Santa's way of telling me I'm already on the naughty list (as if that would be news).

I'm still playing hooky from the DMV despite driving on expired plates. The latest snafu in getting properly registered is that my insurance is still from Michigan. D. tells me we got new and improved sunny south cards, but I don't seem to have one. He also says that I can go to the DMV office, ask for their fax number and have proof of insurance faxed to them. But the DMV is a soul destroying place I choose not to frequent without all proper documentation. No need to give the friendly succubi who work there any provocation. Besides, it'll be more fun to make D. wade through all the unfiled paperwork to find my card (see why I am in no danger of getting off Santa's naughty list any time soon?).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Subtitled Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, this tells the story of Roosevelt's trip into South America to map an unknown Amazon tributary after his defeat for a third Presidency. Equal parts true life adventure story, biographical portrait of a larger than life politician, and South American history, this is a generally interesting, sometimes gripping story I had never heard before. I will admit that my knowledge of long dead presidents is fairly sketchy and generally limited at best to their major accomplishments (or failures) in office, but I did have some inkling of the adventure-junky aspect of Roosevelt's character. After all, which school child hasn't heard about the hunting trip that resulted in the naming of the teddy bear or about his African safaris or about his Rough Riders? But about the expedition down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, nothing.

After his final defeat, Roosevelt obviously needed something to take his mind off the political failure and to test him physically, despite suffering from numerous ailments that would have kept a less determined man from the hardship and danger that faced him in the Amazonian jungle. The South American officer leading the expedition wanted to chart the course of the the River of Doubt. The museum naturalists accompanying the former president wanted to catalog new species of plant and animal. The Catholic father who had been the originator of the plan wanted a South American adventure. Kermit Roosevelt was along to make sure no ill came to his father. And the local men were there to paddle the inadequate log boats and do most of the hardest work of the journey. Like all good adventure stories, this has murder and hardship and ultimate survival only by the skin of the men's teeth. It has inadequate knowledge coupled with appalling risks and near starvation. And it has the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt. Even with all of this, there are still times when Millard's narrative bogs down in details. The journey took far longer than anyone had anticipated and perhaps drawing the narrative out was intended to mimic the increasingly desperate slog down the river in a race against time but the end especially really dragged until the men emerge from the renamed Roosevelt River. Once the objective of conquering the river has been met, Millard speeds the narrative on, giving a quick overview of what happened to all the notable (or traceable) men of the party.

I didn't originally want to read this book when it was chosen by my bookclub but it certainly turned out to be more interesting that I had suspected. Ultimately I ended up liking it but I can see my friend's argument that it was dry. I will pass it along to my husband as he's a history buff for whom I suspect it will be a perfect read.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Garden shots

It's kind of nice to see spring come early. They tell me that this is actually late for down here in the sunny south but it's earlier than we are used to so I'm still calling it early. One of the interesting things about moving to a new house is seeing the surprises that come up in the yard. Aside from the dogwoods and the azaleas, I can't identify any of these flowers.

Monday Mailbox

It was a very slow week for the mail this week. Each day I went to the mailbox and gazed forlornly into the box but only found junk mail and bills until finally, one day, there was a book. Oh the handsprings that ensued! It was destined to be the only book that arrived by post this week and is all the more cherished for that. Of course, I won't admit that getting fewer books than usual was a good thing since my self-restraint in a physical store was less than inspiring or that I still haven't posted any new reviews, despite having 18 books backed up in the need to be reviewed queue on the desk. Only one new mailbox book should, in theory, allow me more time to read what I already have and to review those that are patiently awaiting review, right? Well...maybe. But I do hope more books come next week!

This week from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer bonus batch, I recieved Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson.

As always, if you want to see what others found in their mailboxes this past week, check out Marcia's blog at The Printed Page.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Winners x 15

I had the birthday boy choose random numbers for the massive book giveaway and as soon as he did, the computer connection pooped out. My long suffering husband has allowed me to touch the sacred work computer in order to post the winners. Without further ado:

Jantsen's Gift winners
1. Liyana
2. liane66
3. nightdweller20
4. Wanda
5. bookreviewsbybobbie

Girls in Trucks winners
1. Chris
2. Jennifer
3. Beth
4. Deborah (and happy birthday to you too--honest, the birthday boy didn't know you shared your day when he chose either!)
5. tatertot374

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming winners
1. NotNessie
2. VioletReads (didn't you win one last time too?!)
3. Polo.Pony
4. Carrie K
5. Kaye

With luck my computer will be functional again tomorrow so I can e-mail the winners for their addresses but in the meantime, know you've won and I'll be in touch as soon as the computer gods smile on me again, or I can beg/sneak my way onto the sacred work laptop again. :-)

For those who didn't win, I feel your pain but come back for a Cinco de Mayo giveaway of Do-Over by Robin Hemley, a non-fiction book that looks like it will be quite an hysterical read sinced it chronicles Hemleys' going back to kindergarten and prom and many spots in between at the age of 48. I know I'm looking forward to reading it myself!

Sunday Salon: Bookstore travels

This weekend has been the usual welter of kiddie sporting activities (soccer game, baseball opening day festivities, dance competition, and tennis match) and while this would mean most people wouldn't get any reading accomplished, I am the bad mom in the stands with her nose in a book whenever I think the kids won't be looking to make sure I'm watching. Actually, they catch me more often than not but that's something else entirely. After all, if we're paying for therapy, they need to have stories to keep making it worthwhile, right? To make things interesting than usual this weekend, the dance competition was out of town, necessitating a hotel stay and a careful road trip book selection.

I needn't have worried about the books I'd take though as we arrived a bit earlier than expected and my little dancing queen was more than willing to search out a local independent bookstore. In my own personal quest to ensure the health of any and all bookstores within a certain mileage radius of my physical presence, I came home with 12 new books for myself and 4 or 5 for the dancing queen (she's already taken them off to her hidey hole so I can't double check her numbers). Several were on my wish list, several by authors I generally like, a few were on the discount table, and at least one was both in regional literature and on the staff picks table. When I'll actually get to them (days, weeks, years from now?) remains to be seen as I excersized great restraint before bed last night and stuck with one of the books I am already in the middle of when the interminable competition finally ended at 11:30pm.

Frankly, starting something new would have taken more brain cells than I had to spare at that hour of the night given that I was still overwhelmed by all I'd seen at the show. My fellow readers, were you aware that smallish cowgirls (ages 4-6) who tap are quite capable of masquerading as chipper little Western-themed prostitutes? I think it took me four numbers subsequent to that one (danced to "Put a Girl in It," incidentally) to regain the power of speech, nevermind any mental acuity useful for reading. Something else I learned this weekend was that despite the childhood obesity epidemic, no one sees any reason to push for a tad more modesty in costumes (and I only saw kids under 12--the older girls dance today and we're long gone). Perhaps the sheer expanse of pre-pubescent wobbling flesh is meant to be a distraction in case of any missteps in the actual dancing. Whatever the case may be, it was an effective distraction from my book, despite it being a pretty good read. I guess it's a good thing these girls aren't self-conscious about their bodies but fostering self-confidence should still be age-appropriate, right?! I know there's a book (or books) out there on the cheerleading culture but I don't know that I've ever heard of one about competitive dance. All I have to say is that it would certainly be a fertile field (and this from a mom who signs her daughter up for it year after year despite misgivings). Since I can't read about kiddie dancing and all the wackiness engendered in it (and whether I'd want to read it given that I am currently living it is also up in the air), I will stick to thinking of competition weekends as opportunities to get to know bookstores in a variety of different cities around the tri-state area.

Here's what came home with me this weekend: The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown, Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer, Attachment by Isabel Fonseca, A Concies Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, Refuge by Dot Jackson, House and Home by Kathleen McCleary, Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran, On Account of Conspicuous Women by Dawn Shamp, The God of War by Marisa Silver, Sundown, Yellow Moon by Larry Watson, Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner, and After Hours at the Almost Home by tara Yellen.

Yesterday's massive book giveaway winners to be announced later today.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday Mailbox

The first half of the week saw my mailbox yawning like an empty cavern (well, an empty cavern spitting bills at us, of course). But the second half of the week a few books arrived, cheering me up immensely.

First from Spiegel & Grau came The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine. The story of an Indian girl sold into sexual slavery who keeps a diary of her experience, this promises to be a difficult read but I've already heard good things about it so as odd as it seems, I am looking forward to reading it.

Then from Hatchette Book Group came Houston, We Have a Problema by Gwendolyn Zepeda. I'm still a bit baffled by this one as I received a copy (actually, two) of it two months ago and have already read and reviewed it. But an extra copy never goes amiss when you are contemplating an international giveaway, right?

Lastly, author Elizabeth Wix sent me a copy ofher novel A Fortunate Child. This is the story of a child born to a German mother just after WWII and adopted by an English mother. You can see more about the book on Elizabeth's website.

As always, if you want to see what others found in their mailboxes this past week, check out Marcia's blog at The Printed Page. And don't forget to stop by below and enter my massive book giveaway!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Salon: College regression weekend

I'm sure it doesn't surprise anyone to hear that I was a total nerd in college. Who actually reads for their classes anyway? Um. Me, that's who. But having married a frat boy, I am occasionally called on to host college regression weekends. Since I went to school with all these crazy guys myself, this is not really a hardship (it's fairly hysterical watching thirty somethings turn into stupid 18 year olds again), other than in terms of the beating that my kitchen takes. And figuring out how to squeeze all that beer in amongst actual foodstuff in the refrigerator is like a geometry problem and should keep my brain agile and Alzheimer's free for many a year, right? This weekend was one of those regression weekends and so my Sunday Salon post may be a bit incoherent from lack of sleep or completely scattered as I run between the computer and the dishwasher in an effort to make some dent in the mess. (And I shudder to think what the recycling guys will think of us tomorrow when they get a look at the 3, yes three, more than overflowing bins we'll be putting out, especially if they notice the Beast Light cans with the shotgunning holes punched in them--told you it was a real regression sort of weekend!)

But before total chaos reigned, I got in some good reading. I read The One True Ocean by Sarah Beth Martin and Cordelia Underwood: Or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League by Van Reid. Interestingly enough, both were set in Maine, just about 100 years apart. They are about as different as books can get though I'd recommend both. I also visited with Elisabeth [sic] and Fitzwilliam Darcy in The Bar Sinister but before I got too into it, I was waylaid by Nick Hornby's final collection of essays for The Believer magazine called Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which is as wonderful as his previous two collections, especially for the clinically bookish. The fact that each month he almost always acquires more than he reads and that his books bought list never matches his books read list all that well has earned him my undying love. I love knowing I'm not alone! I'm not finished with the book yet, despite the short length, because reading and trying to prevent D. from repeating *all* of his dumber college antics are completely incompatible. (Obviously I didn't win when the guys decided that buying Beast Light would be funny--at least until they all tasted it again, at which point it was consigned to my fridge to be used as dirty dish water at some later date--but they could have gone so much crazier that having The Beast take up precious fridge space in perpetuity is merely a minor inconvenience.) I will be diving back into the Hornby book shortly once the health department backs down from declaring the kitchen a toxic disaster area because the best way to consign such wackiness to peaceful oblivion is, of course, to settle in with a marvelous book. (And for the record, from here on out I will completely deny anything that anyone, including my pesky kids, claim happened this weekend.)

I am shamefully behind on my reviews yet again and hope to start catching up on them this week although I have to do car stuff and DMV stuff, which may suck all spare time from the space-time continuum. After a nice contribution to the charity of my choice (aka the State of MI), I now have a duplicate title to my car, which will enable me to get plates down here in the sunny south. Will be interesting to no longer be a "furriner." It'll probably mean no one will ever let me merge timidly onto the highway ever again, assuming incorrectly that I must be one of the many transplanted New Yorkers who have brought their regrettable and slightly aggressive driving skills with them down to these more temperate zones. In any case, the books awaiting review currently include:

The River of Doubt: Theordore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard (non-fic: history/bio)
Laughter on the Stairs by Bevereley Nichols (non-fic: memoir/gardening)
My Fallen Angel by Pamela Britton (historical romance)
Welcome to the Departure Lounge by Meg Federico (non-fic: memoir/aging)
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliott (kiddie fiction)
A Final Arc of Sky by Jennifer Culkin (non-fic: memoir/medical)
A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev (fiction)
Jantsen's Gift by Pam Cope (non-fic: memoir)
Mastering the Marquess by Vanessa Kelly (historical romance)
The One True Ocean by Sarah Beth Martin (fiction)
Cordelia Underwood by Van Reid (historical fiction)

Feel free to ask me about any of these to poke me to write the reviews faster! I have about 12 more books lined up to read by the end of this month but I suspect that definitely isn't going to happen, further lost weekends notwithstanding, so I'll have to carry them over into next month. Hate not reaching my ridiculously unattainable goals! And finally, don't forget that I have a massive book giveaway going on right now with more to come in May.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter candy and ham

Easter candy is really a gift from Satan, isn't it? Having my kids' baskets around is not doing my will power, self-respect, or waistline any good. It's also killing my credibility as a good mother (Mom, did you eat my peanut butter egg while I was at school?). It was definitely a mistake to buy things I liked to put in their baskets. But when else can you get those luscious Cadbury eggs--creme or caramel? Evil, it's pure evil. (Wonder if the stores still have some of these goodies on clearance or have the other shameless, basket-pilfering parents beaten me to it?

Donuts should never be allowed in my house. I will even eat them two days later adn stale, stuffing them in hand over fist before the kids get off the bus and want one as an after school snack. "Sorry guys, mom ate them all. Why don't you choose something from your Easter basket? Oh crap! I ate that too, didn't I? Have a carrot or something."

What is it about 1pm that inevitably sends me into a food coma? If I am at home after I have lunch, I sink gracefully onto the couch and drift into a nap after eating. OK, I collapse in a sleepy, drooling heap but I could be graceful about it if I wanted! The food coma is from the sugar crash, you say? No! Sugar doesn't affect me that way at all and I don't really eat sugar anyway. Just ignore the progressively emptier Easter baskets. ::snore::

So now that the candy is just about gone and it's time to play hunt the foil wrappers down from wherever the kids have stashed them in an effort to keep them away from sugar-addict mom, we turn to other Easter bounty (I originally typed Eater instead of Easter--maybe I should have left it!). What in the holy heck do you do with 100 pounds of leftover ham? We're already tired of ham sandwiches and I foolishly made spaghetti carbonara *before* Easter so that option's out. Tonight we are having ham, Swiss, and apple bisuits but I'll still probably have two large plastic bins full of ham once I'm done making those. Any suggestions? I'm contemplating buying clearance sale Easter candy, melting it, and drizzling it over the ham in an effort to make leftovers for the fourth day more appealing to the short crew. Or maybe I'll stud it with jelly beans instead of cloves. Oh wait--I already ate all of those too!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mailbox Monday

I had another happy book week last week with four, shiny, new books coming to live at my house. Two are non-fiction this week and two are fiction so a nicely balanced week.

I scored a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of A Final Arc of Sky by Jennifer Culkin, a lovely memoir written by an emergency flight nurse. I've already read this one and enjoyed it quite a lot.

From Putname Books came Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes On In the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen. And since I love to read about food almost as much as I love to eat it, this should be a satisfying one.

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi came from Riverhead Books. This is a novel about a fatherless boy being raised with his female cousin in Pakistan, and given my fascination with Pakistani culture, it is right up my alley.

And finally, Shaye Ayreheart Books sent Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue, a novel about a woman who takes in a young girl who appears on her doorstep, passing her off as her granddaughter and the child of her daughter who had run off and disappeared ten years prior. Finding out the answers to the questions this one raises should be a good ride.

As always, if you want to see what others found in their mailboxes this past week, check out Marcia's blog at The Printed Page. And don't forget to stop by below and enter my book giveaways!

Massive Book Giveaway

This title makes me want to mimic monster truck commercials. MASSIVE, Massive, massive. BOOK, Book, book. GIVEAWAY, Giveaway, giveaway. (All said in deep voice in sets of descending volume.) Sorry, clearly feeling goofy today. Goofy is good though, right?! Anyway, I have three sets of books from the truly generous folks at Hatchette Book Group to giveaway.

First is Jantsen's Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue, and Grace by Pam Cope. My review of this one should be up in the next couple of days but suffice it to say that it is both heart-rending and inspiring.

Second is Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch. I'm waiting on my own copy of this one (hopefully it arrives today!) but I have heard good things about it and I just plain old love the cover.

Third is The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson. I'm still waiting on this one as well (how annoyed would my mailman be if they both came today?!) and I have to be honest and say I don't usually read anything where there is a guaranteed body because I am a huge coward and suffer from nightmares. But, I made an exception for Jackson when her book Gods in Alabama came out and I've never once regretted it, thoroughly enjoying the book. Hence her lifetime inclusion on my body exemption list and the reason I am anxiously awaiting this one.

So, since the folks at Hatchette are not only willing to let me blather on about their books, but are willing to put 5 copies of each book into the hands of willing and eager readers (for the math challenged like me--and I managed to do this math without a calculator, that means 15 lucky folks unless one of you is beyond lucky and wins more than one, in which case, buy a lottery ticket and share with me please!), let the games begin.

You must live in the US or Canada to enter (although for my international friends, I'm contemplating a future giveaway just for you guys where I foot the postage since I hate to see you left out all the time) and can't have a PO box. In order to enter, leave a comment on this post telling me which one or ones you'd like to win. Please include an e-mail address where I can contact you for your address should you be a winner. If you want a second entry, become a follower (or mention that you already do follow me). For a third entry, blog about this contest and leave me a link so I can come visit you too. I'll choose the winners for all three books around about midnight on April 25th, which is W.'s birthday so maybe I'll have the birthday boy pull numbers from a hat or something equally boring to a certified pre-teen! That's all there is to it.

All this for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling. But wait, there's more! Okay, not really. I just felt like channeling more crazy tv. There's really no charge and no shipping and handling, just the anticipation of hoping you win and the sheer glee of a shiny new book if you do. So start entering today!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Location: Handbasket, Destination: Yeah, that really hot spot

We tried a new church today. Yes, I am well aware that Easter is probably not the best time to change your usual church-going practices but given that our usual church-going practices on any given holiday either include the "hit the ER and avoid church" plan (the year a kid's ear drum burst, the year my mom literally poked herself in the eye with a sharp and pointy stick, the year a kid developed a fever and strep) or the "visit the 'rents' church" plan or some combination of both, we don't have a game plan for staying at home. This is the first year since my children have been born (nearly 12 years now) that we haven't headed to my parents for the holidays. My younger sister planned poorly and had a baby last week, which completely nixed all long-standing annual plans (gee thanks, Z.!) and left us at loose ends. So not only am I having to actually cook an Easter dinner, which I have never in my life done before (and I insanely invited friends to come and watch the immolation bound to occur during such a grand folly--wonder if pizza delivers on Easter?), but we had to find a church to grace with our usual heathen presences.

Now I would very much like to find a church that we would cheerfully attend each and every Sunday. So far we've been much more content to worship at the altar of St. Mattress. This stems from many reasons, not the least of which includes laziness, but isn't helped by outside things as well. For starters, I am a traditional service kind of person. The fact that I am the only one under the age of 80 who is, however, means that in order to attend a tradtional service in the denomination of my choosing, my entire family, reluctant children too, must be out of the house no later than 7:45 on a Sunday morning. All reasonably timed services seem to be "contemporary," which is not my thing at all. So given the sloth of my children, we were doomed to the contemporary service today. I always consider it a bad sign when there's a band in the front of the church. No good can come of bands contributing to worship services. Trumpets and drums are too loud for the confined space of a sanctuary. If I wanted to go deaf, I'd go to a loud bar--also not my kind of place, incidentally. Bands also generally mean that there will be music written in the past 20 years or so. I do not appreciate much music written in the past 20 years or so. Frankly, it's a step up from the hideous Christian rap that my least favorite cycle instructor plays, but it is pretty ghastly stuff. It's peppy. I will give it that. But the snob in me must also point out it is poorly written and, oddly enough, given that it is called praise music, uninspired. I happen to really like most traditional church music. It just feels right.

So, consigned to a contemporary service with a band and awful music, I was horrified when W. leaned over to me and casually mentioned that the guy on the guitar is a math teacher at the middle school. I had to spend several minutes of the service figuring out how we were going to slink away without him seeing us so we wouldn't be obligated to lie in church about how much *ahem* we enjoyed the service. Would be dreadful to be struck by lightning on Easter, and in church to boot, wouldn't it?! Should definitely have just worshipped at St. Mattress again once we'd officially missed the traditional service.

As if I wasn't already squirming (I hate it when the only thing I recognize during a service is the Lord's Prayer--give me pomp and circumstance and all the trappings please! Yes, I probably would have been one of the crabby folks complaining bitterly about the move away from Latin in the Catholic service had I been a.) alive then or b.) Catholic.), when the minister asked for prayers for members of the congregation, he actually detailed everyone's ailments. The things I really don't need to know! Even worse, apparently, one of the parishonners is having a baby today. (How lovely to have an Easter baby!) How do I know this, because I know that this woman is at a sepcific hospital right now and is dilated 7-8 cm. Yeah. From the pulpit, we actually got an update on her dilation. Ick-o! D. looked over at me for my reaction to this one. Apparently I shook my hands as if trying to get something nasty off of them. Prayer in the delivery room, perfectly acceptable and welcome. Medical details in the church, not so much. Pretty much lost me right there.

Lest you think we are uptight weenies who deserve to be headed to hell (and we cheerfully acknowledge that we probably are headed there on the fast track), this morning also gave me some chuckles unrelated to the service itself. For starters, when we sat down, T. asked for something on which to draw. R. helped edit his picture but not before I noticed that he'd drawn himself with a speech bubble that said, "Church sucks." Yeah, my 7 year old is soooo articulate and appropriate, isn't he? (On the plus side, he only asked twice if church was over yet--and it was a rather long service.) R. the diplomat erased this and wrote: "Church rocks." That girl will go far one day.

The even funnier bit was D. at commmunion. Now all churches do communion a bit differently and when visiting a new church, it always pays to see how things are handled by the actual parishioners. So I watched and learned. D., not so much. The church offered both common cup and individual glasses for communion and thanks to the lingering nastiness I'm still harboring, I knew there was no way on the planet I was going for common cup. The last thing I needed was yet another opportunistic bug to whammy me all over again. D. must have felt similarly but instead of drinking and taking the small cup with him to deposit at the side in a basket provided for that reason, he drank and returned the cup to the tray. The horrified look on the face of the older man holding the tray was worth the price of admission as he tried to move it out of the way of anyone else. I had snickered, noted where my clueless husband had deposited his cup, and reached for my own all at the same time the older man was trying to retrieve the empty cup and move it out of the way. Our hands just about collided and blood was almost spilled (all over the floor) as he bobbled the tray desperately. I'm not sure we'd be welcome back there even should we choose to go back. I had to bend forward and let my hair cover my face as I laughed all the way back to the pew. We are clearly the Dennis the Menaces of the church-going world. As we left, the minister noted that we had never been there before and welcomed us. I suspect he was actually mentally writing descriptions of us for the restraining order. Wouldn't surprise me at all.

Now that I've regained my composure, I'm not certain we could survive intact at a traditional service (or that whatever church we find could survive us) but I will be back on my quest to find one that meets at a human hour of the morning because I just can't face another Sunday of out of order slides (maybe it was PowerPoint, but the effect was the same), a jammin' band, and unfamiliar songs and prayers that leave me feeling snarky instead of uplifted. And failing to find a church that can serve us, maybe I'll convert and lead the charge to bring back Latinate mass.

Sunday Salon: Happy Easter!

I have turned into a very last minute kind of person. Yesterday, I decided to invite a cartload of people to my house for Easter dinner. Yes, Easter is today and I invited 12 extra people to my house for a meal I've never cooked before. Spur of the moment or totally nuts? You decide. Only 10 of them are coming (yeah, I know, *only* 10 extra people sounds sort of ridiculous, doesn't it?). So between shoehorning my kids out of bed for church and cooking a meal for 15, I don't suspect my book reading will be terribly high on the list (good thing I already got up at 6 this morning in order to assemble Easter baskets for my three and to hop down the bunny trail--aka toss some eggs into the bushes for them to find this morning--not that this was planned to be quite that last minute, but still turned out that way). I have had a pretty good reading week so one day without probably won't kill me.

Check in tomorrow when I post giveaways for 5 copies each of Jantsen's Gift by Pam Cope, Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch, and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson. And a Happy Easter to all and sundry!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

We have a winner (or five)!

I went to and dutifully punched in the appropriate number of entries for the 5 copies of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Guilia Melucci and it helpfully spit five random numbers back at me so we officially have the winners of my first ever book giveaway.

Congratulations to:
Amber & Cheryl (Just Your Typical Book Blog)--and I leave it to them to decide which of them gets the book
Violet Vixen

Check back in a couple of days because I have at least two more April giveaways coming up and another two or so for May.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Guilia Melucci

Guilia Melucci woos her boyfriends in the kitchen, having taken as her own the old chestnut that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. This is a collection of her failed relationships and the recipes that were inspired by the men in her past. Each chapter is about one significant man in her past (there are a few exceptions that are boyfriend-less) and what happened in the relationship, from start to finish. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are the recipes Melucci cooks or creates for and with her boyfriends.

The tone is fairly light throughout this book, making this a very easy read. The recipes sound scrumptious and if I can't have Melucci cook them for me (not only am I married, but I am not male so ineligible for boyfriend status), I suppose I will have to try them myself. The fact that the recipes are scattered smack in the narrative, as soon as they are mentioned, is distracting and interrupts the flow of each relationship, but once the reader adjusts to that (or simply puts the recipe on hold until the chapter has otherwise concluded as I did), the chapters cook along. Clearly writing about what happened in each relationship has helped Melucci gain some perspective on why none of her previous boyfriends was "the one" but this is more than just a therapeutic work. It's entertaining and fun, fluffy and delicious. I don't wish Melucci never finds the man of her dreams but I wouldn't mind reading more of her writings. Perhaps finding lasting love would add a new depth to her next book. This was a cute premise, nicely written, and if the ending is a little unfinished, that is probably because Melucci is still out there cooking and looking for Mr. Right.

To win a copy of this book for yourself, read the last paragraph of this giveaway post and make sure to enter by midnight tonight!

Review: Life Is Like a Line by Cynthia Sabotka

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 48, Sabotka penned this memoir, subtitled: A Memoir of Moods, Medication, and Mania. Starting with her parents' courtship and marriage even before her own birth, Sabotka chronicles the dysfunction that threatened to overwhelm her family at every turn: her parents' hostile marriage, her mother's clear favoritism towards the first born child, her father's hair-trigger temper, her mother's nervous breakdown(s), and the list goes on and on. Reading the litany of unhappiness in Sabotka's childhood and even adulthood, it is a wonder that she didn't seek professional help sooner than she did. But after years of being the peacemaker and caretaker, she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and entered into the process of trying to balance herself. The book is told in both straightforward sections and in "journal entries" and focuses heavily on childhood and early adolescence rather than on Sabotka's journey once diagnosed.

I found this incredibly difficult to read for a variety of reasons. The writing struck me as stilted and oftentimes overly analytical. I didn't like the convention of the journal entries as they came across as therapy exercises rather than actual journal entries of the times she was chronicling. Perhaps they were indeed culled from throughout her life but they rang false and felt contrived tossed into the book as they were. And oftentimes they weren't set off from the rest of the writing other than by their font, melding into the rest of the story so as to negate their efficacy and necessity. Perhaps this would have been better as a textbook than as a general interest memoir. Certainly the writing had a dry and informational feel to it rather than coming across as an in the moment memoir. Certain things Sabotka did in her writing reinforced this effect, such as referring to anything medical using the very stilted, proper medical diagnosis. It is far easier and more comfortable for a lay reader to come across "hypothyroidism" than long involved medical terminology--and frankly as that lay reader, also fairly uninteresting to have all possible drug interactions or physical side-effects chronicled. I'm not certain I gained any insight into a bipolar person, although I got more than I bargained for of Sabotka's incredibly dysfunctional upbringing, which, combined with a genetic predisposition perhaps easily explains her illness. Not a book I'd recommend, I really struggled hard to get through this one.

Review: Mates, Dates, and Inflatable Bras by Cathy Hopkins

A cute YA book about 14 year old Lucy, who feels awkward when everyone else around her seems to have their lives together and on track to become the adults they want to be. She not only doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up, but she thinks she's losing her best friend, Izzie, to the new and infinitely more glamorous than Lucy, Nesta. She doesn't look 14 and she has had the misfortune to fall head over heels with Nesta's older, more sophisticated brother before she knows who he is. Definitely all the makings for teenaged drama here but Hopkins handles it deftly and without losing the naivete that makes her heroine sweetly entertaining. Less comedic than some similar books but also less world weary than others, this book fits in that small niche that makes this appropriate for my pre-teen daughter but also equally worthwhile for slightly older teens to read as well. This is the first in a series and while I'm not sure I'll follow the series any further, I will be offering it to the girl-child who likes real life sorts of books and I'd be happy for her to read the series if it does capture her interest.

Review: One Hundred Million Hearts by Kerri Sakamoto

Miyo has spent her whole life being cared for by her father so she is shocked after his death to find out how much of his life has been hidden from her. Leaving her lover and traveling to Japan with the stepmother she never knew she had, she meets her enigmatic younger half-sister Hana and comes face to face with a different picture of her father than she ever expected. Hana has discovered that their father was not just a soldier who never actually served in WWII, he was in fact a kamikaze pilot whose war ended before he could fulfil his destiny. All this new knowledge, combined with the potential that Miyo's mother was exposed to radiation during the war, thereby causing Miyo's physical problems, turns Miyo's world upside down.

This is a slow, elegaic, and oftentimes confusingly written novel. None of the characters inspired much sympathy, not Hana with her penchant for disappearances and unwillingness to really share; not Ryu, Hana's stoic boyfriend; not Setsuko, the emotionally cold stepmother; not David, Miyo's oddly off-kilter, possesive boyfriend; not Masao, the father obsessed with duty rather than love; and not even Miyo struggling to keep-up and unravel the mysteries everyone else has already discovered. There is just something cold and remote about this tale that even the surprise in the end doesn't humanize. Each of the characters seem so wrapped up in his or her own drama, to the exculsion of all other story threads, that they don't come together to provide a cogent whole. And while the themes of loss, sacrifice, and duty spiral throughout the story, they seem more reported on rather than felt through the characters' actions. Well-written but hard to connect to emotionally, this was not one of my favorite reads of the month.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Sunny Cooper lives in Albuquerque with her boyfriend, a long way from Armonia, the commune where she grew up. She can tell that things aren't going well between she and Michael and she wants to talk to him but he is killed in a car accident before she can confront him. In the wake of this accident, her life starts to unravel and she takes off to start over again, heading all the way to the small town of Harmony on San Miguel Island, off the coast of Washington. Painstakingly building her life over again and slowly letting other people into her life, Sunny comes to be a part of Harmony even as the past catches up to her and determines her future. Sunny's present storyline is interspersed with her childhood in the commune, leading up to the tragic day when her younger sister died. The weaving is well done as the reader never feels yanked one way or the other and is content to wait to get back to each story in due time.

Sunny is a prickly character but one whom the reader comes to care about and wish well. Her scars are earned and it is completely understandable that she is slow to warm up to people given her past history. The setting of the book, both in New Mexico and on the fictional Washington island, is incredibly well drawn and makes the reader feel as if s/he is there. The characters are realistic and almost all fully fleshed out (Sunny's initial landlady is a bit of a characature but she's one of few here). There is a massive twist in the plot that I didn't expect but it worked and showed how far Sunny had matured given the way she chose to deal with it. This is definitely a relationship story, between mother and daughter; between lovers; and between friends. And it was a satisfying one at that.

Monday Mailbox

It's time for my weekly gloating, ahem, I mean gushing session. I'm not really gloating but I am definitely gushing. I love, love, love getting books in the mail. This week, not only did I get books, but the former owners of my house also got books. UPS dropped off a box that was disproportionately heavy and skedaddled without checking to make sure we were the same people to whom the box was addressed. We weren't so I called a neighbor who is still close to the former owners and she called them so we could effect a way to get said box to its proper owners. Turns out it was many copies of the book the Mr. who used to live here wrote (will have to check this out at amazon). How funny that this house seems to have a bookish aura about it! (And how unfriendly that they didn't even offer me a copy--okay, not really since I have no idea what the book is about but still...)

Now on to the books that really did come for me this week:

Jantsen's Gift by Pam Cope came from the good and generous folks at Hatchette Book Group. This one looks hard (the death of Cope's 15 year old son started her on the path that led to this memoir) but excellent.
Doubleday sent Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother, a title which highly entertained my husband when he saw it on the kitchen counter. He knew enough not to suggest that it was appropriate for me though!
The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane arrived from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt despite the fact that I had also received an e-mail saying that I was too late for an ARC copy. I must have asked for it twice and I'm glad as can be that one of those times I was in time to get a copy!
And finally, I received an unexpected but very much appreciated copy of Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy from Algonquin Books. I already love this one just based on the beauty of the cover. But since I tend to like all things Algonquin, I have no doubts the contents will be every bit as wonderful as the packaging.

For those of you who like to read about what other folks have also gotten in their mailboxes, head over to the lovely Marcia's blog at The Printed Page and see what everyone else found waiting for them this past week.

For those of you who are just the slightest bit jealous and want to get books in your very own mailbox, enter to win a copy of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Guilia Melucci here no later than Apr. 8 (the giveaway is in the final paragraph of the post) or click here to win a copy of Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch at Angela's Library Girl Reads

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Salon: Reading (or not) when sick

It's the second week where I have to admit to not having read very much. Last week it was because I had suffered so with that book (I still haven't managed a review for it either) that I avoided reading at every turn. Wonder if that's how reluctant readers feel when faced with their English class' homework? This week it is because I have felt so darn sick and miserable (much whining already posted here so I'll refrain from too much more) that I just didn't even care to read. It is no fun to be so dreadfully incapacitated. And now that I am feeling the tiniest smidgeon of humanness eke back into my limbs (ignore the hacking cough and the background-variety headache), I am examining my book stash and deciding what to attack first. I have three books that still have bookmarks in them, two from months and months ago. Do I read them first? Do I dive back into the review book stash and knock some of those out? Or do I just read randomly as the spirit moves me, flitting from comfort read to comfort read as I try to get my reading mojo (and my generally disgustingly hearty health) back? I did allow myself the indulgence of reading Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols, the second in his Merry Hall trilogy while I was ill since I knew it would be a pleasing and gentle, easy read. Nothing lovelier for a feverish, distracted reader than escaping into Nichol's charming english country house and garden. At least it offered me pleasant reveries during what could otherwise have been virally inspired nightmares.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Firefly Cloak by Sheri Reynolds

Tessa Lee and her little brother Travis are abandoned by their mother and her current boyfriend in a campground near the home of grandparents they've never met. Mom Sheila writes her parents' phone number in permanent marker on little Travis' naked back and leaves the firefly housecoat under which the children were sleeping when she and her boyfriend light out. The story then jumps about eight years to when Tessa Lee is 16 and she decides she must go to the touristy boardwalk a few hours away where her mother was last seen working so that she can tell her the terrible thing that happened to Travis. As Tessa Lee makes this journey, and is confronted with a truth she never wanted to face, much of the backstory also becomes clear. As you'd expect, Tessa Lee loses some of her innocence, although she is extraordinarily lucky on her journey as well but the largest growth in a character somes to her grandmother, who has tried very hard to recognize the ways in which she alienated her own daughter, Tessa's mother Sheila, and to change that in her treatment of Tessa Lee. The ending has a few too many coincidences but Reynolds resists the urge to unveil them all to the characters, even if the reader sees them, which is a bit of a help. There are several extended scenes that are completely gratuitous and offered nothing to the story, despite the desperate attempts at connecting them through the reader's guide questions. And the ultimate end to the book was too easy, unrealistic, and clearly incomplete.

This was a book chosen for my bookclub based on one member's strength of feeling for a previous book of Reynolds' and she spent most of the meeting apologizing as not one person particularly enjoyed this one. It was hard to sympathize with the characters, even as they changed, they stayed strangely flat. There were instances of lovely writing but even that couldn't save the book from mediocrity, unfortunate since everyone had wanted to enjoy it so very much. An interesting premise, it fell short of its promise.

Review: The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit by Jill Conner Browne

I picked this up at the bookstore on a whim because I enjoyed the humor in the first few Sweet Potato Queen books. I expected to be easily sucked into this and find chuckles galore but that turned out to not be the case. Unfortunately, this tongue in cheek look at rearing children was not nearly as original or funny as I'd hoped. Perhaps I'm too far away from babyhood (although the title does not imply that the bulk of the book will be focused on infants and little tiny people, now does it? And heaven knows the older mine get, the closer they creep to teenaged life, the more rearing they require but I digress) or Conner Browne is far enough away herself (farther than I am actually as Bo Peep is older than my crew by a few years) that she is unaware of the books already out there on the market that say the same things this one does and also says them humorously (Vicki Iovine, anyone?) but I found myself almost bored reading this. I've not only been there, done that, I've already read the book too. It was a quick read and it did eventually touch on older children but since the bulk of the book focuses on the small fry, I can't really recommend this to anyone but perhaps the expectant mom or the new mom who can still find time to eke out a chapter or two once a year, anyone else, including new moms who read more widely than that, will feel like this is a rehashing with a few minorly entertaining anecdotes at most. (And yes, I know I am probably forfeiting any chance at ever being a Queen myself with these comments--although I still think the original book is pure comedy genius.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Not strep

So it must be bubonic plague (despite the continued lack of visible buboes), right? I am seriously baffled as to how I am the one still the sickest around here. Everyone else gets it and recovers a couple of days later. Me, I'm still in viral purgatory. And yes, since it's a virus (albeit one that clearly intends to kill me), that means no good drugs to combat said awfulness, unless you count the doctor's suggestion that I snort a saline spray to give some relief to the "clearly visible rawness" at the back of my throat (which was very much not helped by the scraping involved for the ultimately worthless rapid strep test). Now I know how addicts feel. I darn near broke into sobs at the news it wasn't strep and therefore not subject to modern medicine's miracles. Not that I didn't already know that, but well, when it hurts to swallow your own spit, hope springs eternal that it'll be bacterial. ::whine, whine, whine:: I may never feel human again.

After the marathon was over and the final mupdate written (they can be found on the blog starting in May 2008 for those who missed that cheapest of all entertainment), several people mentioned they would even read my grocery lists if I would just keep writing. Curse them if you like, but here's your chance. On the way home from the doctor, I needed to stop and get milk for the cheerfully healthy around here (damn their eyes!) and I decided I would indulge my sad, sick self. The ultimate contents of my grocery cart? 2 gallons of milk, deli-made mashed potatoes, 2 cans of Campbell's chicken noodle soup (cause nobody wants the grown-up kind when they are sick and need their mommy--including me!), 2 six packs of Jello cups (I stayed reasonably decent and went for fat free/sugar free, which only worked because the idea of chocolate pudding residue on my raw throat made me tear up in the dairy aisle--otherwise it definitely would have been pudding, hands down), 1 avocado (chilled, these are nice and smooth and creamy sliding down a raw throat--who cares if they are packed with 9 trillion grams of fat; I got fat free Jello so I deserve the avocado), a small thing of potato salad (for when I feel a bit better), and my own personal "I'm sick so humor me" indulgence: Chef Boyardee mini ravioli. Frankly I'm shocked the cashier didn't take one look at the contents of my basket and ask me to breathe in a different direction. Or maybe to find a different line. Or even to take a break to pop an entire bag of echinacea before she touched anything that had touched my germ-infested hands. Could my shopping have screamed "dying of the plague" any louder? The only thing I was missing as a comfort food was my grandmother's mac and cheese. And well, the local grocery store certainly can't pull that off.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Looking forward, looking back

As it is the first of the month, I have a whole new list of books to read for the month. So here's the list of books I'd like to read in April, if I ever get over this soul sucking virus:

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliott
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Bar Sinister by Linda Berdoll
The One True Ocean by Sarah Beth Martin
Tallulahland by Lynn Messina
Cordelia Underwood by Van Reid
My Fallen Angel by Pamela Britton
Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

12 books should be do-able but I could always need to add some additional review books into the mix depending on their release dates. I have 8 books waiting for reviews right now and I plan to get to those once my finger joints quit aching.

As for what I read in March, I polished off 18 books, an unusually high number for me. 5 of the books were review books, one a romance, 7 were non-fiction, and 2 were YA books. Eventually all of them will be reviewed but at the moment, I am just pleased I'm batting more than 50% (not much more, but still) with 10 reviewed and only 8 waiting.

The Infirmary

I think we have the plague. No, make that The Plague. Just when I think one of us is getting well, some other microscopic nastiness invades the house and lays us all low. Last week R. was dizzy but after a few days of sleeping all day long, she was back in fine fettle. In the meantime, her bugs were incubating in the rest of us. Unrelated to her dizziness, T. managed to fall off the couch (he was asleep) and hit the corner of the slate-topped coffee table on his way down. He narrowly missed his eye and sliced the heck out of the skin right at the very corner of his eye. He bled like a stuck pig but since slacker mom (me) examined him closely and saw that there was nothing in the eye itself, I tucked him into bed with us and suffered the most uncomfortable night since any of the crew were infants. In the morning, T. declared that he was seeing fuzzy out of his eye and proceded to walk dizzily into a wall on his way to the bathroom. Not a good morning for this since R.'s bug had obviously planted a flag and conquered my normally fairly robust immune system. As my neighbor so colorfully says, I felt like "hammered dog sh!t." But off to the Urgent Care, where I looked like a neglectful and terrible (and sicker than sick) mother for not bringing him in the previous night. However, the doctor dismissed the dizzies and the cloudy vision and sent us on our way.

I had just ensconced the wounded smallest in front of the tv (world's best babysitter) and climbed my feverishly cold and shaking self into my bed when W. called from the nurse's office with a fever of 99.9. I wanted to cry and beg the nurse just to keep him sleeping on the cot at the middle school until it was time to come home (what's a mere 5 1/2 hours?) but I hauled my weak self to the car, prayed I wouldn't get dizzy driving, and dragged off to get him. He has now been home with his fever and the sweats for 2 days. I knew it was bad today when the disappearance of T. from the family room, he having returned to school, meant there was complete silence and no tv on. This is not the W. I know.

Not to be left out, R. had a headache last night and finished the last of the kiddie Motrin we had on hand. As I dragged my still fever-wracked body to the store to replace it, I considered buying stock in it. Yes, I am still sick too but there's no one to take care of mom (well, D. did get pizza for dinner last night but...) and now D. says he thinks he's coming down with it. Oh joy of joys! I am so weak feeling and my joints ache so badly that walking to the mailbox (all of 25 yards from the garage) left me winded. And heaven knows I had to get the mail and see what books might be in there for me! When I went to the grocery store, because if I didn't we weren't going to eat tonight, which would have been a-ok by me but not so acceptable to the few walking wounded with appetites left around here, I had to lean heavily on the cart as I shuffled around the store like a glassy-eyed drug addict. The only plus about feeling like dirt is that I had no interest in anything tasty and bad for me while at the store. I blithely stumbled down the cookie and cracker aisle and turned away with disinterest. Perhaps I've found my new weight loss plan! Yeah, now you know I'm sick: not interested in sweets or salties (the one indulgence I bought was a thing of berries swirled with whipped cream and boy did that taste good). And I wonder, only semi-facetiously, how much my lungs weigh because I am shortly to hack one up and out of my body permanently so that'll register as a loss on the scale.

I am at the point where I want to camp out on the doctor's doorstep and beg for drugs, knowing full well that what I have and what the kids have (had) is a virus and therefore untouchable by modern medicine. Wonder if alternative medicine can do anything to get rid of the unwanted house guest? Clearly it's hell to get older because the older the person in the house, the worse we have been laid low by this opportunistic, obnoxious germ. And I just know it is stripping me of all that hard-won, healthy, in-shape status. I am likely to be quite pitiful when I try to get back to working out, despite the fact that I got myself some spiffy brand-new cycle shoes right before I crashed. I'd say that was a sign to quit cycle classes but I can't even muster up the oomph to care what the universe is trying to tell me right now.

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