Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hello booklovers!

Here are three books that recently kept me up at night:

Innocent Spouse by Carol Ross Joynt
The true story of a successful Washington woman who worked for CNN and was married to a charismatic owner of one of the most popular bar/restaurants in the D.C. area. When he dies suddenly she is informed that she is on the hook for the three million dollars he owes the IRS, the result of shady business dealings she knew nothing about. The story of the legal, business (she had no desire to run a restaurant but had no choice), and personal (did I mention that she has a five year old?) challenges she went through makes for fascinating reading. The title comes from a legal defense that her lawyers will use to try to help her.
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
This novel is about a 26 yr old children's librarian who is very concerned for the welfare of a 10 yr old patron, an extremely bright boy who comes to the library every day. When she suspects he may be emotionally abused by his parents (they think he is gay and are sending him to "classes" to straighten him out), and then she finds him hiding in a closet at the library after running away from home, her efforts to return him to his parents turn into a road trip that looks a lot like kidnapping. This book is VERY funny, and at times serious, and you will love the main character.
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
This book is a wonderful and epic family saga made all the more interesting because it covers a time period that most of us can remember well. I really liked the alternating stories, by chapter, of the different characters. 
The following is from the book jacket:
"It begins in 1973 when the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa, gathers for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Anita. Even as they celebrate, the fault lines in the family emerge. The bride wants nothing more than to raise a family in her hometown, while her brother Ryan watches restlessly from the sidelines, planning his escape. He is joined by their cousin Chip, an unpredictable, war-damaged loner who will show Ryan both the appeal and the perils of freedom. Torrie, the Ericksons’ youngest daughter, is another rebel intent on escape, but the choices she makes will bring about a tragedy that leaves the entire family changed forever.
Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago to the coast of contemporary Italy—and moving through the Vietnam War’s aftermath, the farm crisis, the numerous economic booms and busts—The Year We Left Home follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change. Ambitious, richly told, and fiercely American, this is a vivid and moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of the national character."

Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Drowning in Books: Part Three

Minding Ben by Victoria Brown

I managed to find the time to read this. Highly recommended.

From Amazon: "At sixteen, Grace Caton boards her first airplane, leaving behind her small village in Trinidad for another island, this one with tall buildings, graceful parks, and all the books she can read. At least that's what Grace imagines. But from the moment she touches down, nothing goes as planned. The aunt who had promised to watch over her disappears, and Grace finds herself on her own.

Grace stumbles into the colorful world of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, having been taken in hand, sort of, by a fellow islander, Sylvia. Here, she's surrounded by other immigrants also finding their way in America. From her Orthodox Jewish landlord, Jacob, to her wannabe Jamaican friend, Kathy, who feels that every outfit can be improved with a Bedazzler and a low-cut top, there's much to learn about her new city.

Most challenging of all is figuring out her new employers, the Bruckners, an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Manhattan. The job is strange...But Grace loves four-year-old Ben, and she's intrigued by the alternately friendly and scheming nannies who spend their days in Union Square Park.

As the seasons change, Grace discovers that the Bruckners have surprising secrets of their own, and her life in New York becomes increasingly complicated and confusing."

No Biking in the House by Melissa Fay Greene

From Publishers Weekly: "With four children of their own, Atlanta journalist Greene (There Is No Me Without You) and her husband, a criminal defense attorney, gradually adopted five more—one from Bulgaria and four from Ethiopia—to create a roiling, largehearted family unit. In her whimsical, hilarious account, she pokes fun at her own initial cluelessness regarding the adoption process...The family often felt like a "group home," as Greene depicts engagingly, yet despite periods of tension and strife, such as the discovery of living parents and sibling rivalry, Greene captures the family's triumphant shared delight in one another's differences."

Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl's Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age by Coco Irvine

Coco Irvine was just turning 13 in December 1926 when she received a diary as a Christmas gift. For the next year she recorded her social life, her family life, and her rather daring and precocious behavior in these pages. Irvine was the daughter of a lumber baron, and their 20-room mansion on Summit Avenue would eventually be donated by Coco and her sister to the State of Minnesota and turned into the Governor's Mansion. This diary was found as Peg Meier, former Star Tribune journalist, was looking through the Minnesota Historical Society archives. Meier says in the introduction: "I remember sitting in the somber library, trying not to guffaw as I read about Coco's exploits."

This is a very quick read and I absolutely loved it.

The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell

I haven't read comic books since Archie, Betty, and Veronica. But with the graphic novel showing up on the adult fiction and nonfiction bookshelves, I have rediscovered how enjoyable it is to read panel by full-color panel instead of page by page.

Sandell has written a very brave account of her relationship with her father, a man who claimed he was many things (a Green Beret, a lawyer, fluent in many languages) but in the end he was a fraud, though the story is much more complicated than that. Sandell talks about tracking down her father's stories, setting her boundaries, going for years without speaking to him, and trying to figure out how much her mother knows. She also is very frank about how her relationship with her father affected any relationship she tried to have with a man. I was taken by surprise that this is what graphic nonficton can be, and I look forward to reading more in this genre.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Books I'm Excited About

Here are some books I'm excited to dive into. The descriptions are from Amazon.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Yemen, 1935. Jama is a “market boy,” a half-feral child scavenging with his friends in the dusty streets of a great seaport. For Jama, life is a thrilling carnival, at least when he can fill his belly. When his mother—alternately raging and loving—dies young, she leaves him only an amulet stuffed with one hundred rupees. Jama decides to spend her life’s meager savings on a search for his never-seen father; the rumors that travel along clan lines report that he is a driver for the British somewhere in the north. So begins Jama’s extraordinary journey of more than a thousand miles north all the way to Egypt, by camel, by truck, by train, but mostly on foot. He slings himself from one perilous city to another, fiercely enjoying life on the road and relying on his vast clan network to shelter him and point the way to his father, who always seems just a day or two out of reach.

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

When the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is her suspected lover, Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Tormented by questions about the circumstances of their deaths, Daniel dedicates himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship and the inspiration behind Wind's dazzling final exhibition.

What Daniel discovers is a web of mysteries leading back to pre-World War II Vienna and the magnificent life of Josef Pick, a forgotten artist who may have been the twentieth century's greatest painter of love. But the most astonishing discoveryis what connects these two artists acrosshalf a century: a remarkable woman whose response to the tragedy of her generation offers Daniel answers to the questions he never knew to ask.

Life is Funny by E. R. Frank

"'He's got poetry,' I go, all choky. 'He's got mad poetry.'" With these words from China about her crush Eric, debut author E.R. Frank proves her fresh knowledge of millennial teenspeak. In Life Is Funny, there is no dated slang, only the ripe hip-hop dialogue heard on subway cars and street corners. Frank's ear is perfect as she details the lives and loves of 11 Brooklyn teens on the cusp of adulthood. Though the stories are gritty, for every slam there is a triumph. Tough-talking Monique, who is pregnant by her abusive ex-boyfriend, finds real peace with Hector, a dreamy-eyed nurse at the prenatal clinic who knows that love is the only medicine that will cure her terminal anger. Rich-boy Drew rejects all the material possessions that his father can buy him when he finally makes the 911 call that saves his mother from another beating at his father's hands. There's also Grace, whose movie-star looks can't save her from her alcoholic mom's rages, and Eric, who has lost the ability to love anyone or anything except his little brother Mickey. Sonia feels the friction of being a good Muslim girl in an intolerant public school, and Ebony cuts herself to forget how much she misses having a father in her life.

Frank has penned a high-intensity, multicultural, multidimensional teen reading experience that will challenge and change those who open it. These are real teens in real time. Be prepared for them to rock your world.

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson

I devoured this book in two or three nights. Here is Amazon's description:

When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.

But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own. This is an amazing true story.

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma

When Alice Ozma was in 4th grade, she and her father decided to see if he could read aloud to her for 100 consecutive nights. On the hundreth night, they shared pancakes to celebrate, but it soon became evident that neither wanted to let go of their storytelling ritual. So they decided to continue what they called "The Streak." Alice's father read aloud to her every night without fail until the day she left for college.

Alice approaches her book as a series of vignettes about her relationship with her father and the life lessons learned from the books he read to her.


I Am in Love

I am in love. Obsessed even. With a woman. And no one is more surprised than me.

Her name is Ree Drummond, and she is the author of "The Pioneer Woman" blog (http://www.pioneerwoman.com/). And the cookbook "The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Reflections of an Accidental Country Girl." And her new memoir (though her story is far from over), "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels." She has a gazillion loyal and crazed followers and this fall will host a cooking show on the Food Network from her ranch. (This is hard for me to imagine, considering that her driveway alone is five miles long. Can you imagine getting all that equipment out there?)

I first heard about Pioneer Woman while reading a blog by another brilliant and talented writer/photographer/mother Tracy Morrison., the author of Sellabit Mum (http://www.sellabitmum.com/). She called Pioneer Woman her idol and wrote about what it was like to meet her when she came through town on a book tour for her cookbook. How she agonized over what to wear, what to say, etc.. I briefly looked into who this Pioneer Woman was on the internet and thought, nah, not for me, country stuff, another cookbook, and besides, I would never go that gaga over someone.

Then Ree Drummond wrote the whole story about how she met her husband (famously known only as Marlboro Man) on a stopover trip to her Oklahoma hometown, in between leaving L.A. and moving to Chicago. I knew I wanted to read "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels" because I had read bits and pieces of her story on her blog and it sounded really intriguing.

I swallowed this book in one gulp. I may still have pieces of it stuck in my throat. And I will say, with only a tad of embarrassment, that this is the most wonderfully romantic story I have ever read. It is also funny. Because Ree Drummond is a great writer, and she is genuine, and she is delightfully human. Ok, so maybe she mentions his starched shirts one too many times. She can be forgiven because each chapter leaves you with a cliffhanger and you just have to keep turning the page. And though thankfully it has a happy ending, their story is not without its challenges.

When I finished this book I had to know MORE. I wanted to see pictures of her kids, her ranch, Marlboro Man, her. I spent a lot of time reading her blog, which goes back to 2006 and showcases her stunning photography.  I wanted to know about every corner of her life and I wanted her to be my girlfriend. I requested her cookbook, and though it contains a lot of meat-and-potatoes recipes (she cooks for cowboys, after all), it is the cookbook that shows us more about her life on the ranch. Did I mention that it is an absolutely beautifully designed book? I plan to savor it and go through it one page at a time.

So now you know about my new love. I'll be busy for awhile. Stalking. A redhead in Oklahoma.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Four Movies: Two to Applaud, Two Just for Laughs

I recently saw "Win, Win" with Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man, American Splendor)and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office, The Wire), and I want to give it a huge thumbs up. This is a hugely likeable movie with hugely likeable co-stars. Giamatti plays a down-on-his-luck lawyer who spies an opportunity when a client of his needs a guardian. He also coaches the high school wrestling team, which hasn't won in a very long time. He coaches the team with the man (Jeffrey Tambor) who shares his small law office. When the troubled grandson of his client runs away from home and shows up on his doorstep, complications ensue. Though it doesn't hurt that this kid is a star wrestler.

Can I just say that I love Giamatti and Ryan? Paul Giamatti never will be the typical Hollywood leading man, and yet in just about everything he does he infuses the role with so much humanity that he nails it every time. In this role he is lovable schlub who loves his wife and kids and makes a very bad decision. And we know that it could be any one of us coming to the precipice of that decision.

And Ryan, adopting a hint of the Boston accent she used in "Gone Baby Gone," is like your neighbor next door. I know exactly where she shops and how much she has to spend just from looking at her wardrobe. I have to admit I already admired Amy Ryan when I saw her go from her devastating character in "Gone Baby Gone" to her humorous turn on "The Office." But now I love her. Could she please be my girlfriend?

I almost forgot to mention that Bobby Cannavale (do you remember Will's policeman boyfriend on "Will and Grace?") does a hysterical and touching turn as a high school friend of both Giamatti and Tambor. They were all on the wrestling team together back in the day, and Cannavale desperately wants to recapture what might have been.

Here is the trailer:

This next movie is one I mentioned when I blogged about Emma Stone in "Easy A." I said that she was going to play the starring role in the film version of "The Help," the incredibly popular novel by Kathryn Stockett about race relations in 1960's Mississippi. The film comes out in August, and seeing the trailer all I can say is "I can't wait I can't wait I can't wait."

The next two movies I want to see purely for the belly laughs.

Hangover: Part II (Opens May 26)

The Bridesmaids, with Kristin Wiig (opens May 13)

It Takes a Special Person

I have a very good friend who is a teaching assistant for kids with significant support needs (a new term they have come up with..."don't we all have special needs?" she asks) in the public school where she works. Most are physically disabled in some way, some in huge ways, and most have varying abilities to communicate. We have had long conversations about who these kids are and what they bring to the human table in terms of opening our hearts and minds to different ways of being in the world. We have also talked about her frustration in dealing with the belief systems of educators and even parents who don't share her views about the range of possibilities for these kids.  She recently sent me a few brief stories and I realized that I wanted to share them with you here. (The titles are mine.) I have encouraged her to keep them coming. I sense a book in the making.

A Different Way to Travel

Today when we got back to school one of our students decided on his own that instead of cruising the halls on a scooter or in his walker he could push against the floor with his heels while laying flat on the floor and propel himself around. He asked me to open the door so he could head down the hall and several things happened: he really gave his muscles a tough workout, he got the chance to interact with a multitude of people (kids and adults) and he succeeded in achieving his goal to get from our classroom  down the hall and around the corner and all the way to his sisters classroom (by our bipedal standards this took a very long time). He reveled in his accomplishment.  "I did it!" he kept saying to himself. This is why I love what I do.

When fellow educators pass us more than once in this process we hear everything from "way to go!" to "you are working so hard" to "you aren't getting very far. " I in a state of astonishment that we are all in this same field and yet I have to interject for those latter remarks about how far he IS getting and how very hard he IS working in hopes of shedding some light on a dark mind. This learning curve is greater than the sum of its multidimensional parts and it is not just a need just for kids to be "in school."

Cookies or Sandwich?

We have a first grade student that is blind and is learning to navigate his world in a multitude of ways, including vocalizing his wants and needs. One morning during group when another student is busy passing out lunch cards and giving choices for that day we hear this savvy first grader, who does know what his preferences are, engaging in self talk in preparation for his turn. He is saying repeatedly "Do you want cookies or a sandwich? Cookies or a sandwich?" Cookies would not ever be a meal option, but it is good to know what you want and go for it right?!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Drowning in Books: Part Two

Update: I read "Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses (see Drowning in Books: Part One)" this past week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Great writing, interesting story. I believe this book will be especially attractive to yoga students, but there is a story here about a family, a marriage, and what makes us who we are, that can be enjoyed by all.

 The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I actually read two books this week! Booklovers have told me about this book for a long time, most recently my neighbors, who told me I would never look at my dog the same way again. And they were right. This story is narrated by Enzo, who's human caretaker, Denny, is an aspiring race car driver. Denny is married to Eve, and they have a daughter Zoe. When something happens to Eve and her parents go to extreme lengths to wrestle custody of Zoe from her father, all hell breaks loose. The entire story is told through Enzo's eyes, whose only wish is to come back in the next life as a human so he can have opposable thumbs and be able to speak all the thoughts that are in his mind. Through Enzo's narration the reader learns what the world is like from a dog's perspective, and why they do what they do. A really graceful, lovely story.

A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

Another "narrated by the dog" story. I have actually read about half of this book and it is really lovely. It follows the life (I really should say "lives," because this dog has several lives in succession) and the thoughts of the dog as he lives with a family through all its stages. Attached most closely to the boy in the family, he describes what it is like to visit the old couple on the farm (Grandma and Grandpa), one of his favorite places with its multitudes of smells and places to discover. He also describes how confused he is as the boy goes off to college and he is told to "stay." I have the feeling that if I finish this book it will be with a box of tissues next to me.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

When Elizabeth Gilbert visited the Twin Cities (see "Elizabeth Gilbert Fills the House" on this blog), someone asked her what is her favorite book to recommend to people, and this book was her answer. It is the true story of a Hmong family in Merced, California, who has a young daughter with severe epilepsy. How the family viewed this "illness," and how the medical community viewed it, created a clash of cultures with tragic results. Fadiman also gives the reader an extensive history of the Hmong people: their beliefs, their homeland, and the circumstances of their journey to the United States.

Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

I first heard of Elizabeth Benedict when she appeared as a guest butler on the Head Butler site, first writing about Joyce Carol Oates new book about her sudden widowhood, and then again when she wrote about the book "The Winter of Our Discontent: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale." I went to her website and read some delightful essays, then decided I would check out "Almost," one of her novels. The first chapter has me totally hooked and I plan to keep this one for myself to read. From the inside cover, "Almost divorced, Sophy Chase is in bed with her new lover - an art dealer and father of four young children - when the police call her with shocking news. Her almost ex-husband, Will, has died suddenly....Sophy takes off at once, hurled back into a life and a family - her husband's grown twin daughters and their prickly mother - she had intended to leave behind." Did I mention it is funny, intelligent, and promises an unforgettable cast of characters?

The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik

From the inside cover: "'We were a world of two, my mother and I, until I started turning into an American girl. That's when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. It became a taunt, a warning, an omen.' Jasmin Darznik came to America from Iran when she was only three years old, and she grew up knowing very little about her family's history. When she was in her early twenties, on a day shortly following her father's death, Jasmin was helping her mother move; a photograph fell from a stack of old letters. The girl pictured was her mother. She was wearing a wedding veil, and at her side stood a man whom Jasmin had never seen before." Eventually Jasmin convinces her mother to tell her the story of her first marriage at age thirteen, the years of abuse, and the daughter she had to leave behind to save herself.
Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley
My friend Deb P. recommended this book. I said I don't read crime or detective stories (my somewhat ill-informed impression of author Walter Mosley's work). She said this one is different. Fortunate Son follows two half-brothers, one white and one black, over the course of their childhood and young adulthood. One is not expected to live at birth, the other is unusually strong and thriving. As their life circumstances change, one goes through many hardships, while the other goes through life feeling completely disconnected from emotion. After ten years of separation they reunite under dramatic circumstances and discover what they have meant to each other all along. Booklist said, "Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, weaves the themes of race, destiny, and redemption into an astonishing tale of unlikely siblings and unconditional love."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Drowning in Books: Part One

Here's my problem. I'm drowning in books. Can't keep my head above water. In an ideal world I would find interesting books, read them, and then tell you about the best of the best. But with my "side job" working forty hours a week, and a very sick dog this week, and other things that fall into the category called "life," I am hopelessly behind. And I really, really want to read these books.

So I'm going to try something new. I am going to go through these stacks of books one by one and tell you about them. Briefly. And then you can decide whether you want to track them down or not.

Of course, if you want a tried and true "best of the best" book, you can always go to my shelfari book shelf at www.shelfari.com/betsyellis. Those books have all been read by me and deemed worthy of the shelf.


Broken: A Love Story by Lisa Jones

I first heard about this true story from Head Butler, and you can read the fabulous write-up here. This is from the inside cover : "Writer Lisa Jones went to Wyoming for a four-day magazine assignment and came home four years later with a new life. At a dusty corral on the Wind River Indian Reservation, she met Standford Addison, a Northern Arapaho who seemed to transform everything around him. He gentled horses rather than breaking them by force. It was said that he could heal people of everything from cancer to bipolar disorder. He did all this from a wheelchair; he had been a quadriplegic for more than twenty years."

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning

From the inside cover: "For over a decade, Dominique Browning was editor-in-chief of Conde Nast's House & Garden. One Monday morning in November 2007, the magazine folded and she was told she had four days to pack up her office. Like thousands who followed her, she was out of work. Overnight, her driven, purposes-filled days vanished. With her children leaving home, and a long relationship ending, the structure of her days disappeared. She fell into a panic of loss - but found humor despite everything, discovering a deeper joy than any she had known."

Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

I am midway through this book and I find it engaging and achingly familiar, due to my eight years in a yoga studio (now closed - that's the "aching" part). But you don't have to be a yoga student to enjoy Dederer's clever writing and her description of her Seattle suburban life with husband and child, her struggles with her marriage, and her extended family that includes two dads, who aren't gay. Intrigued? So am I. This is one book I am going to try to finish, and soon.

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadverdent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Anthony Bourdain, chef and author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, said of this book, "Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER. Gabrielle Hamilton packs more heart, soul, and pure power into one beautifully crafted page than I've accomplished in my entire writing career. [This] is the work of an uncompromising chef and a prodigiously talented writer. I am choked with envy."

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

From the inside cover: "Seventy-seven -year-old Marylou Ahearn is going to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs, come hell or high water. In 1953, he gave her a radioactive cocktail - without her consent as part of a secret government study - that had horrible consequences. Fifty years later, she is still ticked off, and now that she has recently discovered where he lives, she's on a mission...Told from the varied perspectives of an incredible cast of endearing oddballs, this lively, intricately plotted, laugh-out-loud novel beats with the heart of a genuinely affecting family drama."

The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten

Weingarten is a nationally syndicated humor columnist and writer for The Washington Post. This book is a collection of his best writing. The title refers to a question Weingarten tried to answer: what would happen if you put a world-renowned musician in a Washington, D.C. subway station? Would anyone notice? To find the answer he engaged Joshua Bell and set him up with a hat at his feet. Other notable essays include "The Great Zucchini," about a hugely popular children's birthday party entertainer who had some serious personal flaws, and my favorite (so far, because I still have to finish the book), "The Ghost of the Hardy Boys," in which Weingarten revisit his favorite boyhood literature only to discover what bad literature it really is, and goes in search of the author, who has a very surprising story to tell. I truly love Weingarten's writing. It is immediately engaging and accessible. He comes across as someone you would love to sit and talk to over coffee.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I was fascinated when I heard that Steve Martin was a serious art collector. Such a different side to the zany comedian he presented to the world. Then he started writing books. He is the author of the novellas Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, plays, children's books, and a memoir. An accomplished actor. And he recently released a CD of banjo music. Is there anything this man can't do?

His latest work of fiction delves deep into the world of art galleries and the buying and selling of major works of art. It follows twenty-something Lacey Yeager as she ascends the personal and professional heights available to her in the New York City art world. I can't wait to get to this book.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland is the author of one of my favorite historical novels, The Passion of Artemesia. In fact, it was one of the first historical novels I ever read, and it opened my eyes to this genre and led to The Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Other Boleyn Girl, among others.

In the late 1800's, Louis Comfort Tiffany was becoming famous for his innovative stained-glass windows. But behind the scenes was Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division, who conceives of and designs nearly all of the lamps for which he is remembered. This is the story of Clara's struggle to make her art come alive in a world that had few options for women who wanted to both work and have a family.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I probably would have passed this book up, except that Deb P. told me it was fascinating, and it is showing up on several "Best Books of 2010" lists. Puzzling, since the subject matter is so odd. But from all the buzz I am convinced it is worth a look.

Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer, and her cells (now called HeLa) have been used for more than 60 years to advance modern medicine in the areas of cancer, viruses, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. The cells have been bought and sold a billion times. Her family did not know of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, and they never saw any of the profits from the multi-million dollar industry that her cells launched. This is the story of the Lacks family past and present, the birth of the bioethics industry, and the dark history in our country of experimentation on African Americans.

Coming soon: Drowning in Books: Part Two

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Movies. Couldn't Be More Different. Highly Recommended.

Here I go. This blog has only been up for about two months, and I am going to risk my street cred by suggesting you watch a movie that I initially thought was a teen flick. Well, it is a teen flick, but it has so much in it for adults to enjoy, and the cast is so talented, and the writing so good, that, well, here's the trailer for Easy A:

The star of this movie is Emma Stone, who you probably didn't see or notice in the movies Zombieland and Superbad. She certainly wasn't on my radar screen. But the minute she fills the screen at the start of this film you know this is one intelligent, young actress, and a budding Lucille Ball to boot. I won't go into the plot, because you can get that from the trailer and it isn't brain surgery. What this movie is, however, is extremely funny and surprising. Surprising because Stone is one hell of an actress and comedienne. Surprising because her hippie-dippy, very funny, too good to be true parents are played by Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia, The Lovely Bones) and Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Pieces of April), two actors usually found in much more serious movies but here, having the time of their lives. Her favorite teacher is Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), and her guidance counselor is Lisa Kudrow (Friends).

This is the perfect Friday night movie to kick back with after a long week and really have a good laugh. You won't be disappointed. And watch for Ms. Stone in the lead role ("Skeeter" Phelan) of the movie version of The Help, coming out soon. (Though not soon enough for those of us who have devoured the book.) Allison Janney plays her mother, and Sissy Spacek is Missus Walters.

Bringing up Sissy Spacek gives me the perfect segue into a discussion of this next movie that couldn't be more different from Easy A. It's called Get Low, and it stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray.

Let me say at the outset that I have had a crush on Robert Duvall since Lonesome Dove. I just love watching him work. He has a non-acting way of acting that shouldn't be as good as it is. But it is. And the crustier the character, the better. He was recently in Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges, but he was clean cut and sensible. Kinda boring. But show me a Robert Duvall who hasn't shaved in weeks and has a crazy twinkle in his eye, and I am entranced.

Well, this role in Get Low may be the epitome of crusty and crazy for him, and he hits it right out of the park. It is a period drama, based on a true story of a 1930s Tennessee hermit named Felix Bush (Duvall). Bush decided that he wanted to throw his own funeral so he could hear what people had to say to him.

When I first saw Duvall in this movie I wanted to gasp in shock and disbelief. His hair is long, his beard is long. He looks ancient and decrepit. (This is the point where, seeing an actor I really like looking old and haggard, I silently pray that it is mostly make-up.) He has been keeping to himself for 30 years because of an incident long ago that left his true love dead, and he blames himself. Duvall is simply a wonder to watch in this role, and I kept wondering, is it possible that this performance COMPLETELY missed the Oscar nominations? How did that happen?

Sissy Spacek (glowing, but again, please let those wrinkles be make-up) comes to town and reunites with Duvall. They had a relationship 30 or 40 years ago, and Spacek is the sister of the woman who died. Spacek is dignified and beautiful and her eyes are like deep pools of water that hold a torrent of emotion.

Bill Murray is the town funeral director who agrees to set up this strange party for Duvall. When I see Bill Murray in a movie I expect to see irreverence and comedy, and that was true here, but in such a restrained way that Murray supplies this character with deep emotion and humanity. As I watched him tiptoe up to a situation that could easily be a comedic moment for him, and then treat it with the utmost warmth and respect by underplaying it, I wanted to yell "Bravo!"

The trailer makes this look like it is a much lighter movie than it is. Don't be fooled. It isn't what I would call dark, but it is pretty serious. And definitely worth your time. Be sure to check the special features to hear how the story was written, and listen to a panel discussion with the actors, producers, and the first-time director.

And that music that will haunt you at the end? Alison Krauss singing "Lay My Burden Down."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thinking About Reading "The Glass Castle?" Stop. Read This Book First

Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" was published in 2005. It tells the harrowing story of Walls' upbringing in which she and her siblings were often left to take care of each other and fend for themselves while their eccentric parents lived out their own ideas of freedom, which usually included abject poverty.

The book starts out with the adult Walls riding in a taxi on her way to a fancy evening out in New York when she spies her mother digging through a dumpster. She is appalled, but not surprised. Her parents have chosen to live as part of the homeless for many years and are deaf to the offers of assistance from their children. How did things get to this desperate state of affairs? This is the story of "The Glass Castle," starting with Walls' childhood.

I had decided not to read "The Glass Castle," even though it was getting rave reviews and a lot of press. It just sounded too depressing.

Then in 2009 Walls published "Half Broke Horses." It is a "true-life novel" that tells the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. She originally sat down to write her mother's story, but her mother kept insisting that it was really Jeannette's grandmother who had lead the interesting life. Walls' interest was piqued, especially since her mother had often told her that she was a lot like her grandmother. Through countless sessions interviewing her mother she got most of the story, but not enough to write her biography. And so the "true-life novel" label.

Wall's grandmother was born in 1901 in the Southwest, and like the women who would come after her, she defied conventional living. From the front cover of the book,  "By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town - riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. She survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and heartbreaking personal tragedy. She also ran a vast ranch in Arizona with her husband Jim."

I loved this book. I loved this book so much I wanted to sleep with it. In the same way that my then five-year-old son slept with his new Batmobile when he got it. In the same way that I loved the Little House on the Prairie books when I was in grade school. Finding that glimpse of another time and another way of living so fascinating, because it was a time that was almost within reach yet still foreign enough to be exotic.

"Half Broke Horses" ends with the marriage of Lily's rebellious (surprised?) daughter, Rosemary. Rosemary is Jeanette Walls' mother, the homeless woman she spies at the beginning of "The Glass Castle."

Well, now I had to find out how point A got to point B, so I dug into "The Glass Castle" feeling like I already knew the characters. And I was not disappointed. It's a story that is at times hard to believe, and you will ask yourself, where was Child Protective Services during these kids' lives? But it is also a story of Wall's journey out of her beginnings and into a new life. Highly recommended.

So this is my pitch. If you haven't read "The Glass Castle" yet, read "Half Broke Horses" first and have an ever richer experience of both books.

Just sayin'.

Riding With Masoud: The Next Day

I get a daily email from Abraham-Hicks.com, which is a website that represents the Abraham-Hicks material, which I have found to be extremely useful - ok, life changing. The morning after I wrote "Riding With Masoud" this quote came to my inbox. To me, it could not have been more appropriate.

You cannot find someone, even if they deserve it, as your enemy and stay Connected with who you are at the same time, because your Source will not take sides like that. No one can stay connected to Source Energy, and push hard against someone else. There are these battles that are fought in the name of "God," and all of these prayers that say, "God is on our side," and we say, god is not on your side, nor is god on the side of those who fight against you. god does not take those sides.
--- Abraham
Excerpted from the workshop in Orlando, FL on Saturday, December 15th, 2001

Riding With Masoud

My husband and I are getting ready for our annual trip from Minnesota to Florida to stay with his parents for a week. I have the task of calling for a taxi, so I look online for a taxi service in the area. I find Northwest Taxi and Limo and request a pickup for the following morning at 5 a.m.. I am assuming we'll get a taxi, so when a town car shows up, I’m slightly afraid I’ve made a mistake and this will be costly. But I hate taxis and taxi rides, so I hope for the best.

A small, smiling, middle-aged man of Middle Eastern descent gets out of the car, introduces himself and shakes our hand. He’s wearing an oversized gray Columbia parka and glasses that sit low on his nose. While he handles the luggage we climb into the back of the car and it’s spacious with nice leather seats.

(It is during these times that I feel the awkward separation between who I am as a comfortable, suburban, white woman, and who this person is as an immigrant to this country, depending on driving a cab for his livelihood.)

It is also that weird time of the day where it is too early for other people to be out and about, too early for light in the sky, and too early for my brain to be working very well. I feel a little punch drunk when we have to get up this early to catch a flight and I’m never quite sure what I’m going to say.

I ask our driver where he is from, and he tells us Iran, but he has lived in Minnesota for twenty-five years and loves it here. I ask him if he has any family here, and he says no, all of his family is back in Iran, and he is afraid at this point that if he went back to visit he would not be able to leave again. He tells us that he really doesn't want to live there anymore because of the restrictive government. But he talks again about how much he loves Minnesota. In fact, he says, he moved to Atlanta this winter and only lasted three weeks. He missed Minnesota too much and moved back.

We tell him about living in a duplex next to Iranian neighbors during the years when were newlyweds and then young parents in San Francisco. I describe the wonderful smells of Persian cooking that would drift over from their side of the duplex, and how we always hoped they would invite us over for dinner. We tell him we know all about tadiq (ta-deek), the wonderful crust of rice at the bottom of the pan that was crispy and fought over at the dinner table. He can’t believe we know about tadiq and keeps exclaiming about it. “Oh, you know about tadiq! That is so beautiful!”

Now that we have established this rapport I get up the nerve to ask him about the taxi versus limo rates, and which one we are getting. He assures us we are getting taxi rates and not to worry about it.

When we arrive at the airport he tells us to call him when we return and he will pick us up. He asks when we arrive. He says he will be waiting in the cell phone lot and to call him when we get our luggage.

While waiting for our return flight to Minneapolis, I text my friend Deb.
Me: In Tampa airport. Yay.
Deb: ETA?
Me: 2:30 landing. Ready to get back to my routine. The one I complain about. hahahahahaha
Deb: Safe travels. It's frickin' snowing here.
(I should mention that the day after we left for Tampa the Twin Cities area received 15-18” of snow.)

Taxiing to the gate, I text:
Me: Back on cold, frozen land again. Where’s the sun? I need spring rolls.

We get off the plane in Minneapolis and I ask my husband, Ian, if he saved the number of the guy who picked us up. He says yes, and we make our way to the baggage area. As we walk behind a row of seats I spot our driver, at least I think it is him, sitting and waiting. I tug on my husband's sleeve and say, isn't that our guy? He looks and says yes, and stops me from going around the front of the seats to greet him until he can pull out his card and find his name. It is Masoud. I walk around the front of the chairs and cock my head to one side and smile, and indeed it is Masoud, who decided to park and come in and wait for us.

He is so happy to see us and we have a cheerful reunion. He offers to wait with us and help us with our bags. I need a restroom and a Starbucks, so I offer to get him something and he asks for a small black coffee. When I return the luggage has still not appeared so we commiserate about the 18 inches of snow that has fallen since we left. But he wants to talk about cheerier things so he asks us about our trip. I explain that my in-laws live in a senior community, so it was VERY quiet, maybe TOO quiet, but that right before we left we spent an evening, just the two of us, on the main street of downtown Sarasota, and explain how it was very European, with all the shops and restaurants open to the evening air, and people of all ages eating on the sidewalks, and music coming from the bars.

(As we are talking there is a part of my brain that is wondering what people are thinking about the three of us. Do they have a private chauffeur? Is he their employee? There is a young guy standing fairly close to us against a pillar and looking strangely at Masoud. Does he have a thing against Middle Easterners? It all feels strange, but we really like Masoud. He is instantly likeable and friendly. So we go with the flow.)

Masoud thinks that Sarasota sounds wonderful and suggests we buy a house down there and he could come and be our chauffeur. He said he had bought five Powerball tickets and they were drawing tonight, so if he won we could do that. We say that sounds great.

When I mention that we have a 21 year old son who lives in Chicago, he mentions that he is 52 and still has the mind of a child, and what can he do about that? We tell him we are both also 52, and he says, “Oh, that is so cute!” But we kid him that he is the oldest because his birthday comes in January, before ours. And he says, “That is why I am driving you!”

Now the luggage is coming off the belt and I say to Ian that I am craving spring rolls and there is only an empty frig at home. Masoud asks where we like to get spring rolls and I tell him the location of our favorite Thai restaurant. He suggests that we stop on the way home because of course we won't want to go out again tonight (it is cold and snowing-again). I hesitate but say, well, it IS on the way home, and he says, sure, sure, we will do that! You can call from the car! He really seems to want to take care of us. I’m wondering what this detour will cost us and if Ian will be mad I’m going ahead with this. We get back in the comfortable town car and I dial up our favorite Thai restaurant and put in our usual order. I offer to get Masoud something but he declines. I tell him he'll be sorry when he smells the takeout I bring back in the car.

When we pull in to the restaurant he jumps out to get my door, and again I think, jeez, this is awkward. Who am I to have a driver who gets my door?

Me: Yes, heading for spring rolls with our driver. Great story to tell. He’s taking us there on our way home so I don’t have to go out again. His name is Masoud.
Deb: You at spring roll-ville yet?
Me: No, why?
Deb: Where is Masoud taking you?
Me: Thai Curry House, our favorite.
Deb: Will he wait or join you?
Me: Wait while I pick up takeout. I called it in. We’re in his town car. This is a story for sure.
Deb: Better forward me his license plate #.
Me: hahahahahahahaha why? I only meet good people! Gotta pay. I’ll check in with you later, k?
Deb: Does his car say taxi on it?: Does his car say taxi on it?
At this point I show my husband the phone and he takes it from me and texts: Jihadi Taxi Co..

Leaving the restaurant with the food I decide to tell Masoud that I have been texting with my girlfriend this whole time and she is asking where he is taking us, and if his car says taxi on the side. “I think she is afraid you are kidnapping us!” We all have a good laugh over that one.

Masoud wants to know how I had found this restaurant. I have to think, and then tell him it was because I used to paint with some artists nearby and we would come here for lunch. He tells us that his sister in Iran has just called him, and his twenty-four year old niece, who is an artist, is locked in her room and won't come out. She was harassed by the Islamic Fundamentalist authorities while driving her car, because, they said, her head scarf was not pulled down far enough on her forehead. She talked back to them, and told them that this was her car, her private property, and she could do anything she wanted inside of her car. (When I hear this I become extremely alarmed about where this story is going.) They commented that she had a smart mouth on her, and what was she doing with that dog in the front seat? Didn't she know that it was illegal to have dogs out in public? She again said that this car was her private property and she could do what she wanted. So they took her dog, which she had raised since a puppy. And now she won't come out of her room.

Masoud said his sister wanted him to talk to her, and he said, "I don't know what I am going to say!"

I asked what it would take for her to leave the country. He said you had to have a "good cause." I asked what that meant and he said it meant you had a lot of money, and you could hire a good lawyer to get you through the system. He explained that not only was it difficult to get out of Iran, but it was a bigger problem to get into the United States from Iran, since the terrorist attacks. You could get in if you were sponsored, but it had to be an immediate relative like a parent or sibling. He said she is in her third year of college and excels at all her classes, but especially art, which is her major. She wants to come here to continue her studies.

I couldn't imagine how frustrating it must be for a talented twenty-four year old woman to feel so trapped. I told him to give her a message, from one artist to another. I told him to tell her that it is her art that will save her, and to never give up her art. That no matter what is happening outside, she needs her art to find peace of mind inside. He said he will tell her. He said she is selling some paintings now and says she is saving for a plane ticket to the U.S., but what was left unsaid by both of us was her slim chance of ever making that trip.

Somehow the talk turned to things happening in the world, and he said that the earth was not going to be gentle and understanding forever. That one day things would change. A long time from now, but gradually. He talked about how we are just a very tiny galaxy amongst a million other galaxies out there. I asked if he ever wanted to know, as I did, what other galaxies looked like. He said he would like to travel to Jupiter because he heard it had sixteen moons, and wouldn't it be nice to sit outside with your coffee and look up at sixteen moons? I explained that I would like to see other galaxies that had produced life forms like the earth had, but they certainly wouldn't be exactly the same, and I am curious what their worlds look like.

He said that someday we will know these things but that right now our brains aren't big enough to understand these things. I said, you mean we aren't ready to comprehend worlds beyond our own? He said, yes, you know, just like the computer. The knowledge was always there but we weren't ready to see it. So, I said, it is like when society is ready for a new concept, then we manifest it? Yes, he said.

I am reveling in this moment. I am a Midwestern white woman from the suburbs, having a metaphysical discussion with this man from Iran, and we are on exactly the same page.

As we enter our neighborhood I take a risk and decide to tell Masoud that when my girfriend asked if his car had "taxi" on the side, my husband had texted her, "Yes. Jihadi Taxi." I held my breath for a moment but he laughed really hard, saying, "jihadi taxi, hahaha." Then we talk about something else and he comes back to the joke, except this time he says, "Al Qaeda taxi," and we say, very quickly, no, no, we didn't say Al Qaeda (as if this was much, much worse), we said Jihadi Taxi. But then a moment later I say, I suppose you could call it Al Qaeda taxi too," and we all laugh, and I think, this whole conversation is so surreal but so good, and I suggest that if the friend he is in business with has his own town car then his could be Al Qaeda Taxi and Masoud‘s could be the Jihadi Taxi. He said that the next time he comes to pick us up he is going to put that on his car. I said that I would call all the neighbors out to see. (And, my husband mumbles, the next call we get is from the FBI.)

Now we are in the driveway. He oohs and aahs over our ancient dog, who comes out to greet us, saying “hello baby,“ which endears him to me even more. I tell him, Masoud, you are the best and we will always call you when we need a ride to the airport. I want to hug him but I don’t know if it is alright, so I shake his hand instead. He said it was strange, but he felt like he has known us a long time. I said, well, there are a lot of us who have known each other for a long time. He said, yes. And he was gone.

Later that night in a phone call to my Mother I was relating the story of our ride with Masoud, still high from the experience. There was silence on the other end of the line. Then she told me that warnings had been in the news lately, especially for women, to never get in a car that didn’t specifically say “taxi” on the side, because people were being driven off to unknown places and meeting horrible fates. I replied that no, I hadn’t heard about that.

The next day I meet my texting friend at the Y and it turns out she was seriously worried about my safety, having heard the same reports my mother had. She talks about how easy it is to be “courted” by people like this to carry drugs or other things. We argue about it. Whether I had been foolish. I become quite upset and confused but during my workout I decide this is more about her fear than my foolishness.

Because that’s not the world I live in. And neither does Masoud.

Quote of the day

"Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it." -- P. J. O'Rourke, American political satirist, journalist, and author.

(Thank you to Linda Shaw for sharing this.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert Fills the House

This past Friday night I was privileged to introduce "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert to a crowd of 800 people filling the Burnsville Performing Arts Center. She is currently on a book tour promoting her new book, "Committed: A Love Story," which was just released in paperback. It details the process she and the man she met in Bali (during "Eat, Pray, Love") went through when faced with getting married in order to keep him in the country, even though they had both vowed never to marry again.

She was a dream of a speaker - engaging, funny, sharing from the heart. She took questions from the audience and signed a zillion books. Truly a wonderful evening.

I had not planned on reading "Committed." I started it at home, and when it got to "the history of marriage" I stopped reading. I seem to find this a lot in nonfiction books. Someone wants to tell a personal story but for some reason feels compelled to give "the history of dogs" if it is a dog book or "the history of cooking" if it is a story about their mother's cooking. I'm the kind of reader where I really want to read the personal story or memoir, and could care less about "the history of... ."

But when Elizabeth Gilbert read from her book Friday night, it was so funny and interesting (I guess I didn't get that far) that I decided to give it another try. (FYI, the hardcover version is called, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage.")

Let me know if you've read it, and what you thought.

Update: I read "Committed" on my recent trip to Florida. It was delightful. I will admit I skipped the academic parts that I find tedious. But Gilbert's personal story was just as fresh and interesting as you would expect from this author.

My Favorite Poem, Once Lost, Now Found

More than a decade ago I read this poem and was amazed at its brilliance and humor (although I realize not everyone shares my opinion), but years later when I wanted to find it again I realized I didn't know the poet (I was pretty sure it was Phillip Lopate or Phillip Larkin) or the first line. I made several attempts over the years to find it with no luck.

Well, with the help of librarian extraordinaire Roger P. and the trusty internet, here it is! It is hard to explain how excited I am to have found something I thought was lost. Let me know what you think.

We Who Are Your Closest Friends
by Phillip Lopate

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

How To Tell You're Reading a Really Great Book

Recently Jesse Kornbluth, author of Head Butler, one of my favorite go-to blogs about books, movies, and music, posted that he had "devoured" a book during a five-hour flight between San Diego and New York City. (For the curious, it was One Day by David Nicholls.) My immediate book-geek response was envy and an appreciative "oooooooohhhhhhh," not unlike the way I would respond to any one of you telling me you had just had an eight-inch high slice of Boston Cream Pie put in front of you.

Those of us who love books and reading love to get completely lost in a book. We feel like we got an extra, unexpected Christmas present when we find one, and bereft if the next one to sweep us off our feet takes too long in coming.

Here is my own criteria for recognizing a really great read:

1. You want to send a fan letter to the author, even though you're "not that
kind of person."

2. You are tempted to ration out how much you read each night because you don't want it to end.

3.There's no way you can ration out how much you reach each night and so you
stay up till a very late hour and drag your butt into work the next day.

4. You can't wait to get back to "your book" when you manage to finally sit down to read again.

5. You learn something about a time period or a place in the world you knew very little or nothing about.

6. You want to know what happens to these characters after the book ends and you hope the author writes a sequel. (Hmmm...think I'll write that in my fan

7. You resent intrusions by family members in the form of requests for food,
clean laundry, or transportation to the emergency room.

In the last couple of years I have felt this way about:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibbs

What books fit this criteria for you?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

If You Liked "Winter's Bone"

The movie "Winter's Bone" is getting a lot of well-deserved attention right now. It's up for Best Picture, and its young star, Jennifer Lawrence, is up for Best Actress. Also, for you trivia buffs, John Hawkes, the man who plays Ree's uncle Teardrop, is from Alexandria, Minnesota. (Thanks, Roger P., for that info.) He is up for Best Supporting Actor in a role that The New York Times calls a "breakthrough performance."

The book was written by Daniel Woodrell, an author who Esquire magazine called "The most overlooked great novelist in America... ."I saw it on a teen shelf in my library right around the time the movie was hitting the theaters, so I thought I would grab it to see what all the fuss was about. (This is definitely not a book just for teens.) I thought the book was amazing, intense, unique. Honestly, I wasn't sure I wanted to see the movie because of a few violent scenes. But several fellow movie lovers assured me it was more implied than actually shown. So now I'm waiting for the movie to come to me through Netflix.

What blew me away about "Winter's Bone" is that it revealed a slice of our society that is right under our nose but so invisible to the general public. How many of us really know about the devastating poverty in the Ozarks, the effects of the coal mines shutting down, and the meth labs that have taken over people's lives? The hopelessness, the culture of "us vs. them" that creates an incredibly closed, dysfunctional society, the go-nowhere lives of the young people.

On my way to writing this I looked into who Daniel Woodrell is, and where exactly his story was set, and I came upon this interesting interview where he talks about his writing and his background, which, surprisingly, is much like his characters'. At the time of this interview "Winter's Bone" had not yet been made into a movie.

If you liked "Winter's Bone" you might want to pick up a collection of short stories called "Burning Bright" by Ron Rash, a North Carolina writer who sets his stories in the Appalachian mountains.

I was familiar with this author from reading his novel "Serena," a Pen/Faulkner 2009 Finalist set in 1930s North Carolina, when the lumber barons were moving in from the East to clear cut the timber and make their fortunes. He created some unforgettable characters in "Serena," including the couple who come out from Boston and eventually, in their quest for power, destroy everything around them, including each other. It is a Greek tragedy set in the time of the Vanderbilt's (who make an appearance in the story) and very hard to put down.

So when I saw a new book by Ron Rash called "Burning Bright," I was immediately on alert. This collection of short stories (winner of the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize) covers some of the same ground that Daniel Woodrell covers in terms of desperate people trying to fix their lives with meth. I say some because he also sets a story in the North Carolina mountains during the Civil War, and another story in the present about a woman who marries a drifter and then wonders if he is the arsonist that the local sheriff is trying to find. No matter the time period all of these stories take place in the Appalachian mountains, a place I am beginning to see as beautiful, brutal, unforgiving, and completely hidden away from most of us with soccer mom lives and iPhone apps.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century

"I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high functioning sociopath. There's a difference." - Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Now that we are empty nesters, Darling Husband and I really enjoy breaking all the rules by bringing our dinner into the family room and (gasp!) eating in front of our new HD-TV with the surround sound. (Sorry number one son, we waited, for no particular reason, until you had moved out.) Neither of us watch very much tv, and we don't have cable (what???), so what we enjoy watching are series we can get on Netflix that we wouldn't otherwise see. In this way we have enjoyed Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Doc Martin, to name a few of our favorites. (Darling Husband likes to watch the British version of "Top Gear," and I must admit it's pretty entertaining.)

And now that we can hook up to Netflix instant streaming, well, I could do a commercial for Netflix on how much I love instant streaming and how much I love that Netflix keeps track of my several hundred movies in my queues (instant and not) whether I will ever get to watching them or not, and how much I love checking my queue to see what's coming in the mail and moving things around. I'm in movie geek heaven.

But I digress.

There is a new version of Sherlock Holmes out there that we really like. It comes from the BBC, and it is set in the present.

Sherlock is a relatively young, mysterious, brilliant, and slightly androgynous man who uses a smart phone and is only happy when there is a mystery to be solved. The local police force has a love/hate relationship with him: they know they can't solve some cases without him but he won't play by their rules.

In the first episode he meets John Watson, a military veteran who has just returned from Afghanistan and is fighting his own demons. What cracks me up is that in this 21st century version Holmes and Watson keep getting mistaken for a gay couple, with a "well, we are very cool with that, right?" attitude from the people they meet. Sherlock is mystified and doesn't think much of it. (Or does he?) Watson is frustrated and quick to correct the misperception.

This is a very clever, highly stylized and very suspenseful series that has really kept our interest. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who you might have seen in "Atonement" "Amazing Grace," and the "The Other Boleyn Girl," but who should really get some kind of award for his name alone.

John Watson is played by Martin Freeman, who you would have seen on the original version of The Office.

There are only two discs currently available, unfortunately. The first disc contains the pilot and one episode, and the second disc contains one more episode. Hopefully they'll get busy and throw any new episodes onto discs very soon.