Wednesday, December 16, 2009

37. Sorcery & Cecilia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

After deciding that I wanted to read one of my suggested books, I chose this title from that list basically at random. I hadn't saved the e-mail from the family friend that suggested it, so I couldn't really remember why she liked it and thought I should give it a try. So I started reading this one without knowing much about it except that it was in the Young Adult section at the library. The book jacket copy was no help -- Colin read it, and said it was the worst book jacket copy he'd ever seen. I wasn't that surprised when it took some time to get invested in the story.

This story is told in a series of letters between two cousins, Cecilia and Kate. The year is 1817 and Kate is making her social debut in London while Cecilia is at home in the English countryside. At first, they describe commonplace occurrences to each other, complaining about their siblings and deciding what dress to wear to which party. However, in their world magic and sorcery are accepted facts of life. The young cousins soon become entangled in a complicated web of competition and deceit amongst a dashing wizard and a ruthless witch and wizard who are attempting to rob him of his powers. Keeping each other apprised of events and advising each other on courses of action through their letters, Cecilia and Kate manage to defeat their enemies -- and become engaged to the men they love.

I was surprised at how invested I eventually became. While I wouldn't really call this book a page-turner, I really did want to know what was going to happen and how all of the events were connected. I grew more comfortable with the letter format as I read, but it's not something I prefer. I am the type of person that sets a book down once I've ended a chapter -- and there were no chapters in this book! I kept setting it down after one letter ended and having to back up a few pages to remind myself of what was going on before starting the next letter. I also had some trouble keeping track of the many secondary characters, although it was easier by the last third of the book.

I appreciated the Authors' Note at the end of the book, although I almost wish that I had read it first. Wrede and Stevermer didn't set out to write a book together, this project started as a writing exercise -- a game, really. They took turns writing letters in character to each other, never discussing plot points in person. Once their game was over, they went back and read through the story. They edited and made some changes, but the book is entirely representative of their game. This made complete sense to me. I think it explains why the beginning is a little slow, and hard to get into. The two authors seem to be very compatible; the overall tone of the book was really very cohesive. It would have been easy for two characters who know each other intimately to fall into the short-hand of their friendship and leave out details, but for the most part Wrede and Stevermer did a good job of including exposition naturally.

I would recommend this book, although I recommend reading the Authors' Note first! Also, it really is appropriately YA. If there's a young girl in your life who enjoys fantasy novels, I think she should give this one a try. (Boys will probably want to skip it -- there's a lot of girly stuff about dresses and courting and stuff.)

36. Animal Husbandry by Laura Zigman

I really like the movie Someone Like You, which is based on this book. Ashley Judd is gorgeous and charming, and her wardrobe is fantastic. Hugh Jackman is very appealing. And Marisa Tomei has never played a better sassy best friend. So I was a little apprehensive about reading the source material -- would I like it as much as the movie? What if I liked it better than the movie and didn't watch to watch it again? I actually put off reading it for a few days after I got it from the library! Shrug -- it was a little silly, but whatever.

Animal Husbandry  is about Jane, a TV talent scout who falls madly in love with and is then unceremoniously dumped by a new co-worker. After the break-up, Jane moves in with Eddie, another co-worker and post-love survivor. She is desperate to understand the why -- why did he leave, why didn't he love her as much as she loved him? Why? In order to cope, Jane throws herself in to a new theory about men and their inability to commit. She finds research to support her hypothesis that men have the same instincts as male animals -- they have the same "copulatory imperative" as well as the urge to move on to better pastures after mating, so to speak. After obsessing about her theory and lost love, she eventually recovers from the break-up and moves on with her life.

I didn't dislike the book, but I appreciate the story more in movie format for a few reasons:

In the book, there was too much foreshadowing at the beginning. The "if you'd asked me then" and "if I'd known then what I do now" portion dragged on a bit. A simple and brief voiceover at the beginning of the movie was more effective.

There is actually a lot of scientific information in this story. If you know me, then you know that this isn't really a selling point for me. Each chapter of the book began with an excerpt from a book or magazine with scientific facts about that stage in Jane's theory. To be honest, I think I only read one. So boring! I thought the use of the scientific facts that Jane uses to support the theory were used more effectively in the movie -- mainly shared in Jane's conversations. It was almost as if the theory was a character in the book, and it was a bit more secondary in the movie.

In the book, Jane commiserates with a gay male friend who is just as perplexed as she by male behavior. This character was cut from the movie and replaced with a sister and brother-in-law who are trying to have a baby. I liked this change a lot. Jane's friend in the book didn't really add very much to the story (I don't even remember his name). I really liked how in the movie, Jane is completely caught up in her "men are animals" theory, and she realizes toward the end that she hasn't given proper credit to her brother-in-law, who is good man and a very caring husband.

I felt that the movie explained Jane's obsession with the theory better. Eddie is appalled by her research, and demands to know why Jane can't just let her ex go. She replies that if the theory isn't true, then men don't leave all women -- they just leave her. It's a fairly powerful moment, which I think the book was lacking.

The main difference between the book and the movie lies in Jane's relationship with Eddie. In Animal Husbandry, Eddie and Jane are roommates and friends, somewhat united in the battle to recover from their break-ups. At the end of the book, they have managed to heal somewhat and move on with their lives. In Someone Like You, Eddie and Jane are roommates and friends, somewhat united in the battle to recover from their break-ups. And at the end of the movie, they fall in love. I admit, I prefer the romance of the movie to the reality of the book.

In the end, I think the story is better told in the movie format. Or maybe I just prefer that version of the story, I'm still not sure. I am relieved that I will still want to watch Someone Like You occasionally, I really do like it a lot. Colin watched it with me after I was done reading the book, and he claims that he liked it. I'm waiting to read his review, though. He's a little behind on posting movie reviews on his blog, so I'm not sure how long until that will be.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

35. The Likeness by Tana French

Remember when I read In the Woods? And it was awesome? Imagine my excitement when Colin told me there was a sequel. Yay! I thought Colin would be eager to read it too, but he felt so burned by the ending of In the Woods that he literally scoffed at me when I brought it up. (So touchy.) I read this book over a Saturday night and Sunday while he was at work, so as not to bother him. I was a little stupid to start reading a mystery while I was home alone on a dark and stormy night (as I am a big scaredy cat) but it was so good that I couldn't put it down.

The Likeness isn't a straight-up sequel. Rob's partner Cassie is the narrator of her own story, which takes place about six months after the events of In the Woods. Cassie's past work as an undercover officer comes back to haunt her when the body of an identical woman is discovered in a remote area in a small town. Cassie's boyfriend, Sam, and her former undercover boss, Frank Mackey, call her to the crime scene. After learning that the woman, who was in no way related to Cassie, was using the fake identity created for Cassie's undercover work years before, Frank decides that they should pretend the woman was only injured instead of killed and that Cassie should infiltrate the dead woman's life to figure out who killed her and why she was using Cassie's fake name. After a week's preparation, Cassie assumes the identity of "Lexie" and movies in with her four roommates. After almost a month of undercover work, "Operation Mirror" comes to a shocking close.

This book was great! A total page turner. I could not put it down. French somehow found a way to make her crazy premise work -- by the end, you don't even remember being doubtful about it. Not only was the mystery engrossing, but the characters were well-developed and totally drew you in. For anyone like Colin who didn't get enough closure at the end of In the Woods, I recommend that you give this one a try. French gives you more answers and closure this time, and the payoff at the end is satisfying and credible.

I felt a personal connection to Cassie. She is the only child of a French mother and an Irish father, and the combination of those heritages gave her a unique appearance. Living in Ireland, she never met anyone who truly resembled her. That makes the discovery of "Lexie" so intriguing -- who is this woman and how is it possible that she look so much like Cassie? My experience is a bit different, but with similar results. I look a lot like my mom, but the shape of my eyes and my tiny nose (there's almost no bridge to it) give me a slightly Asian appearance. More times than I can count, people have mistaken me for Asian or part Asian. We went to a party given by family friends when I was seven years old, and someone remarked what kind people my parents were to adopt a Korean orphan after having two children of their own. (Indeed.) I felt as though I could relate to Cassie and possibly have similar reactions in the circumstances.

If you're in the market for a good mystery, or just a good read, pick up The Likeness. Oh, and I read online that French is writing a third book in this series, with Frank Mackey as the narrator. I'll be first in line.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

34. Bobby and Jackie by C. David Heymann

I love Jackie Kennedy. I really do. It's mainly her iconic sense of style, but I also admire the fact that above all else she was a survivor. I have a few biographies written about her, including one called A Woman Named Jackie by C. David Heymann, who also wrote Bobby and Jackie. [Side note: I keep trying to type Jackie and Bobby, which shows my clear bias.] When I read a review of this book in People, I clipped it and saved it until I was ready for another biography.

If the Kennedys -- and Jackie in particular -- interest you at all, you should definitely read this book. It's a fairly quick read, only covering in depth the time period of the alleged affair (1964-1968). Heymann quotes numerous members of the Kennedys' inner circle, many of whom he states are only now willing to go on the record about the "open secret" of Jackie and Bobby's affair. According to those interviewed, so many people were in on the secret that it's amazing the story didn't break at the time. Jackie and Bobby are portrayed as close friends whose bond deepened after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, eventually leading to a long-term affair and the realization that they were each the love of the other's life. The affair came to an amicable end while Bobby was running for president. It's an interesting read, although you have to decide for yourself how much of the story that you believe. Although Heymann is careful to provide sources, there is no concrete proof or evidence of the relationship.

I didn't really plan to read this book directly after In the President's Secret Service, but I'm glad that I did. It was interesting to read about the circumstances of the JFK and RFK assassinations with a stronger grasp on Secret Service protocol. For example, Bobby was entitled to Secret Service protection while running for president, but opted not to use it. Instead, he hired two bodyguards -- neither of whom he allowed to carry guns. Both of the brothers -- especially Bobby -- felt that if someone wanted to get to them, they would find a way. And neither wanted to be separated from the public that they were trying to connect with.

I have to mention that this is the first book that I've read using Kindle for PC. It's awesome! You can install Kindle software on your computer for free and buy Kindle books (usually $9.99 each) to read onscreen. Many thanks to Annie & Doug for the idea!

Monday, December 7, 2009

33. In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Colin loves watching The Daily Show. I like it too, but it's not must-see TV for me. I'm usually around while he's watching it, and pay attention when something is especially funny or interesting. A few months ago on the show, Jon Stewart interviewed Ronald Kessler about this book. It sounded really interesting, so I made a note of the title and placed a request at the library. It came in last week, and I was excited to start reading (in part because it was a welcome change of subject from honor killings). I was expecting a serious and objective history of the Secret Service.

That wasn't what I got. As it turns out, an objective history was not Kessler's goal in writing this book. He does provide information on how the Secret Service was founded and how it became the agency it is today, including an official timeline of events. He also spends time explaining procedures and training. However, the bulk of the book is comprised of personal anecdotes about the presidents who have been protected by the Secret Service and criticism of its current management.

The personal anecdotes read a bit like good gossip, which I am not opposed to. Although I really wasn't expecting to read dish about our nation's leaders, I'm definitely not above enjoying it. In part because I agree with the idea that how one treats people behind closed doors is indicative of their overall character. Politicians work very hard to maintain a public persona that will instill confidence and get them votes, and it's always interesting to learn how that persona compares the person behind it. For example, Jimmy Carter made a show of arriving to work at the Oval Office by 6:00 a.m. and carrying his own baggage onto Air Force One, so that Americans would respect his hard work and common man attitude. In reality -- according the agents interviewed for the book -- Carter would nap for a couple of hours after arriving at the Oval Office and the bags he carried onto the plane were empty, his agents being left to carry his actual bags. I also enjoyed learning Secret Service code names, such as Renegade (Barack Obama) and Renaissance (Michelle Obama).

In shining a light on the problems within the agency, Kessler states that he hopes to be a catalyst for change and reform. It's obvious throughout that he has utmost respect for individual agents and the work that they do. However, according to Kessler, in the last decade managerial problems have compromised our presidents' safety. The Secret Service became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which created more competition for funding. While increased competition for funding is a serious concern, the real problem is that Secret Service management is not aggressively pursuing the funding necessary to properly provide protection. Management expects agents to step up and compensate for lack of funding with unimaginable hours and an ever-increasing workload. The attitude is that agents should be able to handle whatever is thrown at them, to the point that retaining agents is difficult -- especially since the private security sector is booming, offering more money for fewer hours. And a higher turnover rate should mean additional money and time spent on training new agents, but often training falls by the wayside due to the workload.

Kessler also clearly has little respect for protectees who attempt to limit their Secret Service protection. He shares stories about the Bush twins attempting to lose their agents, and states that they would probably regret doing so should they be kidnapped by terrorists and end up on Al-Jazeera. He also provides numerous stories of campaigns and administrations objecting to metal detectors at public events, especially in recent years. The instances when Secret Service acquiesced to such demands seem to baffle Kessler, who strongly feels that this is a dangerous compromise to the protectee's safety. He blames the current agency management for allowing such security breaches and attempts to make a case for the dismissal of the current agency director in favor of an outside hire, reasoning that an objective outsider could begin the necessary reforms.

As I said, In the President's Secret Service was not what I expected. I enjoyed reading it, but I think the information and stories within are best taken with a grain of salt. Not only does Kessler have a clear agenda and attempt to persuade his readers, but many of his sources elected to remain anonymous. While this doesn't mean that their stories aren't true, I think it's worth remembering while reading and coming to your own conclusions.

I want to include a link to an interesting Q&A with Kessler about the recent breach of security at the White House State Dinner (you know, the social climbing party crashers?). Also you can go here to watch the interview from The Daily Show.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

32. Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime
by Rana Husseini

I saw this book on the new non-fiction shelf at the library and was intrigued. I know a little bit about honor killings -- I've heard of the practice happening in the Middle East and in immigrant communities here and in England (and once saw a Law & Order: SVU episode featuring the topic). I was interested to know more, mainly because I don't understand the concept of honor as a motivation to kill someone. In my experience, losing face or not having honor doesn't have the same significance that it does in other cultures. There are a lot of conservative people in our society, as well as an endless amount of people willing to judge you, but the things that might cause someone to lose honor are becoming more and more commonplace and accepted. Even when you hear about someone who has been disowned by their family, the word "honor" isn't really used in talking about it. So I checked out the book in the hope of gaining some insight.

Husseini starts her book with an account of the first honor killing that she reported on in 1994. She swiftly adopted the cause, investigating and reporting on as many honor crimes as possible. In this, her goal was to humanize the victim and break the taboo surrounding the practice. She expanded her efforts into campaigning against the laws in Jordan that allowed for lenient sentences of the perpetrators. The second half of the book explores the nature and frequency of honor crimes throughout the world -- from other Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Iran), to European countries (Sweden, Holland) to both South and North America. Husseini's writing is accessible for the most part, although she tends to get mired down in statistics. She offers suggestions for prevention and dealing with the matter throughout, which I appreciated but would rather have read about in one cohesive chapter. The history of honor killings is not extensive, although I'm not sure how much documentation exists past the last twenty or thirty years. All in all, it's a fairly well-written introduction to the topic.

I was incredulous at the defense of this tradition documented in the book. Many honor killings happen in broad daylight, within sight and earshot of bystanders. People who are aware of what's happening don't try to stop it and speak of it casually after the fact. Many people feel that there was nothing else a family could do after losing their honor; they had to restore it and an honor killing was the only way. Husseini was told by one man that the the male perpetrators of honor killings were the ones who suffered the consequences, rather than the female victims -- clearly demonstrating the value he placed on a woman's life. While most people involved in honor killings feel no remorse and would gladly repeat their crimes, some do experience mixed emotions. As one person put it to Husseini, no one wants to kill their sister. And yet the society they live in is so rigid, they don't feel they have another choice.

So what can lead to a loss of honor so great that it could lead to one of these murders? Some examples from cases covered in the book: if a woman is raped, has a consensual sexual relationship before marriage, commits adultery, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, dates or marries someone that their family has not approved, tries to divorce a husband that the family does approve of, is seen walking down the street with a man that her family does not know. Or, most distressing of all, if there is gossip about a woman having done any of these things, even if there's no proof. And for many women whose families have emigrated to Europe or North America, the reason is often that a young woman became too acclimated to the West -- wore revealing clothes, spent time with people not from their community, rebelled in any way against their parents' way of life. And that's what's really at stake for so many people -- the preservation of a way of life that is increasingly becoming outdated. A way of life that devalues women and relegates them to property.

The stories in Murder in the Name of Honor will break your heart. Not only are the many accounts of honor killings graphically violent, but the senseless loss of life will weigh on you. I can't shake the story of one young woman who was beaten to death in front of a crowd of twenty people -- including members of law enforcement -- some of whom recorded the murder on their cell phones. After thirty minutes of this brutal attack, the killers buried the woman in a shallow grave with the corpse of a dog, to show how worthless she was. It makes me sick to think of it.

If you re-read the book's subtitle, you'll probably be able to understand the main problem that I had with this one. As Husseini puts it, this is the true story of her heroic fight against an unbelievable crime. I thought perhaps that was something that her publisher suggested, a simple marketing ploy. But throughout the book are subtle and not-so-subtle pats on her own back that are ultimately off-putting. I fully acknowledge that her work is important and that she has done a great deal to raise awareness and be a catalyst for change. But I hate bragging in any form. Why not tell me what happened and let me decide that you're heroic? It's a more gracious approach that won't detract from your cause.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pink glove dance!



I had to share this video that a co-worker forwarded to me. Apparently it was created to promote breast cancer awareness and this line of pink gloves in particular. If the video gets 1,000,000 hits, the glove manufacturer will make a huge contribution to this hospital in Portland as well as offer free mammograms to women in the community. That's what I like to call win-win-win. Pass it on!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

31. Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo

I placed a request for this book at my library after coming across the title somewhere. As previously mentioned, I enjoy James Patterson and his Alex Cross series especially. There were a lot of people in line ahead of me, so I didn't think I would be able to read this one for a couple of months. But I got the call, and so here I am with another James Patterson response.

Alex Cross tells the incredible story -- passed down through the generations -- of an ancestor's courageous fight for freedom.

Separated by time.
From his grandmother, Alex Cross heard the story of his great-uncle Abraham and his struggles for survival in the era of the Ku Klux Klan. Now Alex passes the family tale along to his own children in a book he's written -- a novel called Trial.

Connected by blood.
A lawyer in early-1900s Washington, D.C., Ben Corbett fights against oppression and racism -- and risks his family and his life in the process. When President Theodore Roosevelt asks Ben to return to his hometown to investigate rumors of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan there, he cannot refuse.

United by bravery.
In Eudora, Mississippi, Ben meets the wise Abraham Cross and his beautiful daughter, Moody. With their help, Ben discovers that lynchings have become commonplace. Ben vows to break the reign of terror -- but the truth of who is really behind it may break his heart. Written in the fearless voice of Detective Alex Cross, Alex Cross's Trial is a gripping story of murder, love, and unparalleled bravery.

Plot summary courtesy of jamespatterson.com.

I didn't know anything about the plot before I picked up the book and read the book jacket. Based on the title alone, I thought Alex Cross's Trial would be about Alex Cross being put on trial (right? and that sounded good to me). But no, this is really a book called Trial by Alex Cross. Okay, got it. My first reaction? Alex Cross and James Patterson have remarkably similar writing styles. I have a feeling that Patterson had this story in mind and the use of the Alex Cross name was just a way to guarantee book sales. He certainly got me, although I almost always go to the library first and bookstore second. There really wasn't any other good reason for the Alex Cross angle. Patterson could have cut back and forth between scenes of Alex writing and his chapters or included a chapter at the beginning and end showing Alex decide to write and finish up. Instead, there was a short introduction from Alex explaining why he wanted to write the story. Take that page out, and the book can stand by itself. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't take away from the book. It's just funny to me that Patterson even bothered with the pretense of Alex Cross as the author.

I highly recommend this book. It was a good read with a good message, although it's not a mystery per se (as I was expecting). However, you might want to skip this one if you're squeamish. Patterson really didn't shy away from the grotesque in this book. There are graphic descriptions of lynchings and corpses, as well as ugly instances of discrimination. It serves its purpose of awareness, but is fairly disturbing. The only complaint that I have is pretty minor -- I thought that Patterson/Cross didn't really follow through on the problems that Ben was having with his wife; after setting up a marital crossroads of sorts, the book ended as soon as Ben returned home from his trip south to his wife's apparently waiting arms. I would have liked to see them begin to address their differences.

Actually, I do have one more complaint. In the plot summary above, Moody is mistakenly identified as Abraham's daughter when in fact she is his granddaughter. Let's get some fact-checking on that website, Patterson!

30. Portland Noir edited by Kevin Sampsell

Portland Noir is part of a heralded series with a simple format: a short story collection by locally based authors, each set in a particular neighborhood or district of the titular city. The success of Brooklyn Noir, the series' inaugural edition published in 2004, led the way for future collections set in Boston, Detroit, D.C. -- the list goes on and on, with forthcoming editions planned for Barcelona, Copenhagen and numerous other exotic locales. I saw Portland Noir on the new fiction shelf at my library and instinctively grabbed it. My mom is from Portland and her family still lives there, so I've visited the city many times. I feel a little proprietary of Portland because of this personal connection, even though I haven't it explored it very much. And I don't know about you, but I find the word "noir" intriguing. If you label something as "noir" I want to know more about it. So I thought I would love this book; what could go wrong when you added Portland and noir together?

As it turns out, plenty. I hated it. This is just not the right book for me, for a few reasons:

First, I don't really like short stories. Never have. I didn't realize how little I enjoyed them until reading this collection. I want to spend more time with characters and experience more with them. In general, these stories centered around a specific event and its short-term consequences -- and the reader was usually thrown into the middle of the story, which was jarring for me. It shouldn't take three pages for me to figure out if the narrator is male or female when the whole story is only 20 pages long. The silver lining? When I didn't like a story, at least it was going to be over soon.

Second, I don't know Portland well enough to get a thrill out of the settings. I've never even been to Powell's Books (for shame!). I thought I would connect more to the locations in the stories, and I was disappointed when I didn't.

And finally, I just didn't like these specific stories. The noir aspect didn't work for me in the short story format. The tension would be building for 19 pages and then on the twentieth, the author would pull the rug out from under you with a twist ending that was supposed to be really clever but oftentimes was too abrupt and just plain stupid. Also, the dark and gritty subject material didn't appeal to me. One story in particular featured a drug kingpin assaulting a dealer with a pencil, and I just didn't need to read that (I'll spare you the details).

Of the 16 short stories in this volume, I only really enjoyed Coffee, Black by Bill Cameron. A retired detective working as a private investigator is working on a simple vandalism case that turns out to be more complicated. It wasn't too dark, it had a real mystery, and there was plenty of coffee. That works for me. There were a couple of other stories that were somewhat clever (Virgo by Jess Walter and The Red Room by Chris A. Bolton), but I didn't whole-heartedly enjoy.

This series wouldn't be so successful if people didn't enjoy the stories. As it happens, I'm just not one of them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving thanks.

Coffee, thank you for tasting so good and helping me through my mornings. 

Stephenie Meyer, thank you for Twilight and hours of mindless entertainment.

Facebook, thank you for helping me keep in touch with people. 

U of M football team, thank you for losing to OSU this year. It'll feel that much better when we do eventually beat them.

DVR, thank you for making it so easy to record the (way too many) TV shows that I love.

Doug and Kevin, thank you for joining the family. I hope you don't mind being referred to as chickadees and Sullivan girls.

Annie, thank you for remembering that I wanted something from the Google shop and getting me the Blogger sweatshirt. That was really sweet.

Mollie, thank you for consulting me on matters of style. I always consider you to have more style than me, so it feels really good.

Mom, thank you for giving me Grandma Otto's sewing machine. It means a lot to have something of hers.

Dad, thank you for reading this blog and talking about books with me. I love you.


Colin, thank you for everything.

Friday, November 20, 2009

29. Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

I saw Twenties Girl on the new fiction shelf at the library, grabbed it, and took it home without even reading the book jacket copy. Sophie Kinsella knows from chick lit, and I will give anything she writes a chance. Although her characters can be a little zany and and hijinks usually ensue (hello, Shopolic series), her books are still well-constructed and just plain fun. I may roll my eyes a few times, but I like being along for the ride.

Lara Lington has always had an overactive imagination, but suddenly that imagination seems to be in overdrive. Normal professional twenty-something young women don't get visited by ghosts. Or do they? When the spirit of Lara's great-aunt Sadie -- a feisty, demanding girl with firm ideas about fashion, love, and the right way to dance -- mysteriously appears, she has one last request: Lara must find a missing necklace that had been in Sadie's possession for more than seventy-five years, and Sadie cannot rest without it. Lara, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing distractions. Her best friend and business partner has run off to Goa, her start-up company is floundering, and she's just been dumped by the "perfect" man. Sadie, however, could care less. Lara and Sadie make a hilarious sparring duo, and at first it seems as though they have nothing in common. But as the mission to find Sadie's necklace leads to intrigue and a new romance for Lara, these very different "twenties" girls learn some surprising truths along the way.

(That would be the book jacket copy that I finally read after getting home.)

Unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed this book. I read it in one sitting on a night when Colin had to work, and it was great company. I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the twenties theme, it's not an era that I'm especially interested in, but I really did. Kinsella's love for the subject shines through, and it was fun to read about this firmly twenties-era girl stuck in present day.

I liked that there was an actual mystery behind the disappearance of the necklace that Lara had to solve. I thought she would just be tracking it down and bantering with her ghost along the way, so I wasn't trying to keep track of clues and solve it for myself as I usually do when I read a mystery. When Lara figures out the who and the why and the how -- and how to give the culprit their comeuppance -- it's tremendously satisfying. Looking back, you had all the clues that you needed to piece it all together, but you don't feel silly for not knowing the end three hundred pages ago.

The book also had a bit more heft to it than I was expecting. Lara's story begins on the day of Sadie's funeral. Her great-aunt was 105 years old when she passed away, and no one in the family really knew anything about her. It was simple familial obligation that even got Lara and her parents to the funeral home. Sadie's ghost appears to Lara as her 23-year-old self, because that's who she always saw in the mirror. Lara realizes that most elderly people must feel the same way; instead of thinking of themselves as old, they probably still see themselves as young. When she visits Sadie's nursing home to collect her belongings, Lara sees the residents as forgotten. Over the course of the story, Lara and Sadie become good friends, and Lara feels ashamed that she knew next to nothing about her when she died. Lara makes Sadie tell her everything about her life, not wanting anything about Sadie to be forgotten. The message came through loud and clear, but I didn't feel beaten over the head with it.

One aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the fact that Lara's Uncle Bill started a Starbucks-esque chain of coffee shops. Being a coffee aficionado, I thought it was a really cool choice for his business. Bill is a multi-millionaire, with a wife who ends up in rehab and a spoiled daughter who aspires to be a fashion designer. It was a great send-up of celebrity, and the fact that coffee made Bill rich -- I really liked it.

Of course, there was some zaniness and a few hijinks. Sadie appears to Lara during the funeral and demands that she find the necklace before they bury Sadie's body. So Lara accuses the nursing home employees of murdering her aunt to delay the burial. (Commence eye-rolling.) It works, and she is questioned by the police a few times throughout the story. It doesn't take too much away from the book, but it wasn't entirely necessary either. All in all, I still whole-heartedly recommend this book. It's thoroughly enjoyable, chick lit at its best.

28. Roosevelt and the Holocaust by Robert L. Beir
with Brian Josepher

I saw this book on the new non-fiction shelf at the library, read the book jacket, and was sold. Like many people, I find the subject of the Holocaust to be endlessly fascinating. I think it's due in part to the psychology of it; the state of the German people after World War I and the way that Hitler played into their fears and lost sense of pride, what it would mean to be discriminated against to the extent that the Jewish people were, what kind of courage it would take to join resistance fighters, how confusing it would be as a child to grow up in that environment. Also, I really didn't know very much about Roosevelt during the war. I remember learning more about him and the Depression in school, not about how he handled international affairs of state.

Here is the book jacket copy that caught my attention:

"The year was 1932. At age fourteen Robert Beir's journey through life changed irrevocably when a classmate called him a 'dirty Jew.' The classmate put up his fists. Suddenly Beir encountered the belligerent poison of anti-Semitism. The safe confines of his upbringing had been violated. The pain that he felt at that moment was far more hurtful than any blow. Its memory would last a lifetime.

Beir's experiences with anti-Semitism served as a microcosm for the anti-Semitism in the country at large. Opinion polls showed that 15 percent of the population thirsted for a large-scale anti-Jewish campaign and 35 to 40 percent of all Americans would have gone along with one. That year, a politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved into the White House. Over the next twelve years, he instilled optimism and new confidence in a nation that had been mired in fear and deeply depressed. His presidency saved the capitalist system. His strong leadership helped to defeat Hitler. The Jews of America revered President Roosevelt. In the election of 1940, 90 percent of all Jewish Americans who voted, voted for Roosevelt.

To Robert Beir, Roosevelt was a hero. At an early age the author became a 'Rooseveltian.' In mid-life however, Beir experienced a conflict. New research was questioning Roosevelt's record regarding the Holocaust. The author felt compelled to undertake a historian's quest. How much did President Roosevelt know about the Holocaust? What could Roosevelt have done? Why wasn't there an urgent rescue effort? In answering these questions, Robert Beir has done a masterful job. This book is graphically written, well-researched and provocative. The kaleidoscopic portrait it depicts is truly unforgettable."

Roosevelt and the Holocaust is part memoir, part non-fiction. This is due to the author's personal connection to his subject; Roosevelt being one of his heroes naturally intertwines the two. Beir spends a few chapters writing about his early life up through World War II and serving in the Navy (far from any actual conflicts). His experiences with anti-Semitism are occasional but damaging nonetheless. He spends much of his life after the war as a businessman, and upon retiring has an idea for what to do next. Beir had amassed an impressive library of material on Roosevelt and began teaching mini-courses about him at a local college. His image of Roosevelt remained intact until a student raised a question about a group of Jewish refugees who were denied entry to the United States. The questions raised by his class and the publication of David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews, a scathing account of Roosevelt's actions during WWII, compelled Beir to research his hero's role in saving Jews from the Holocaust. Did Roosevelt do enough? Were his actions justifiable? Did the man that he had revered for his entire life deserve it? Although Beir was in his 80s at the time of writing, he felt that he could not rest until he had answered these questions for himself.

Beir gives a thorough history of Roosevelt's policies leading up to and during the war. There is a lot of information provided and I hope that you won't judge the book by the lame recap that I'm attempting. Basically, although America was represented by an isolationist Congress, Roosevelt did his best to assist friendly European nations before America entered the war. He comes across as someone who feels a responsibility to help but has to respect the wishes of his nation. After America declares war, Roosevelt is still faced with impossible choices. The stories of the treatment of Jews seem inconceivable to most Americans, who resist acceptance of Jewish refugees. Roosevelt decides on an approach: in order to save the Jews, he must win the war. He focuses all of his efforts on the military aspect, rather than on specific rescue attempts. He steadfastly sticks to this approach, although he does eventually form a board to address the refugee crisis after secretly meeting with someone who had escaped from Auschwitz and could describe the conditions there. Beir concludes his history by explaining that he remained a staunch Rooseveltian, having satisfied his questions about his hero.

I read this book in one sitting, which I definitely wasn't expecting. Beir inundates you with information, but it never felt overwhelming to me. He has to describe unspeakable acts by the Nazis, but his writing swiftly moves you on to the next paragraph without getting mired down. I really appreciated how accessible Beir's writing was. Although I'm familiar with many of the events that were covered, I wanted to keep reading to see how Roosevelt handled them and how Beir would analyze those actions. Reading about the war from this particular angle was very interesting and I did enjoy it.

This is the kind of book that I could go on and on about, but I'd rather not. If you have any interest in the subject, I absolutely recommend this book as food for thought. While I found myself agreeing with Beir's conclusions, maybe you won't. The fact of the matter is that there's no one right answer and people may still be debating Roosevelt's policies and actions for years to come.

27. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

My friend The Grammarphile recommended this book to me and, since vampires are so hot right now, I put it near the top of my list. I had never heard of it before people started buzzing about the show True Blood, which is based on this book series. I don't have HBO so I had never seen the show, but I have heard bits and pieces about it on the internets and I was intrigued.

Dead Until Dark is the first in a series of books about Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who lives in Bon Temps, Louisiana. In Sookie's world, the Japanese have developed a synthetic blood that can replace human blood as nourishment for vampires. The vampire community has decided to come out of the closet, so to speak, and are living openly among humans. There has never been a vampire in Bon Temps -- until the night that Bill Compton walks into the bar where Sookie works and tries to order a bottle of True Blood. Sookie is immediately intrigued by Bill, in part because she can't hear his thoughts. A lifetime of ridicule and and people thinking she's either slow or crazy attracts Sookie to the relief of someone whose mind is silent to her. Bill is likewise intrigued by Sookie; he instinctively knows there is something different about her. They fall in love and face the (fairly justified) prejudices of most of the community. People are suspicious of Bill because a few young women in the town, known "fangbangers," have been murdered recently. Sookie's brother Jason is also a suspect, and Sookie is compelled to try to figure out who the murderer is so she can clear both their names.

I really wasn't expecting to like this book as much as I did. I was completely drawn into the story and the characters, and didn't want to leave their world when I was done. I'm not typically interested in stories set in the deep South, I think in part because I don't like humidity. But seriously, it's not a setting that I usually want to read about and it takes something really good to make me want to go to there. I think the twist of the practical implications of vampires living in the open did it for me. I don't think I've read or watched anything else that took on that particular idea. It's cool to think about what would happen in our world if vampires came out to play.

Not only was I interested to see what was going to happen to Sookie and Bill, I really liked them as characters. I enjoyed reading about Sookie's telepathy and what it meant for her. Constantly being bombarded with people's innermost thoughts and feelings takes a toll that really affects her quality of life. People think she's crazy and mock her, or people think she's stupid and talk down to her. Imagine having to concentrate with all your might just to walk through a bar and deliver drinks without being distracted by what everyone is thinking. It sounds exhausting. I also liked reading about Bill's attempts to "mainstream" (live with humans). He has moved into his family home, which has been in disrepair since his last living relative passed away, and wants to fix it up. Can you imagine trying to deal with contractors only at night? And not only does he have to observe the rules of human society, but those of the vampire society as well. Whenever he and Sookie meet another vampire, he has to immediately declare that Sookie is his human so that no one else will bite her. And even that's not a guarantee when dealing with a vampire that's older than Bill. There's a strict hierarchy that Bill has to respect, and try to work around in order to be with Sookie.

I liked the book so much that I rented the first disc in the True Blood season one DVD set. And, um... it's not for me. I can't mince words here, I watched one episode and it was so f@*#'d up that I'm not going to try another. It's just funny because the book wasn't really that out there. For example, you knew that there were "fangbangers" who would have sex with vampires and let them bite them. But you didn't read graphic scenes about it. In the show, you actually see rough sex with a vamp and it was just... out there. That's just my opinion, though. I don't want to offend anyone who likes the show. I can see why people would like it, it's just not for me. Possibly in small part due to the fact that I don't think Stephen Moyer is hot. (Sorry. Team Edward and all.)

I'm interested to read more books in this series, even though I'm sure that I'm going to start mixing up all of the vampire mythologies in current pop culture. There's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (of course), Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and now Sookie Stackhouse. How am I going to keep up?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

26. The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

When college sophomore Laurel Estabrook is attacked while riding her bike through Vermont's back roads, her life is forever changed. Formerly outgoing, Laurel withdraws into her photography and begins working at a homeless shelter. There she meets Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box full of photos he won't let anyone see. When Bobbie dies suddenly, Laurel discovers that he was telling the truth; before he was homeless, Bobbie Crocker was a successful photographer who worked with legends such as Chuck Berry and Eartha Kitt. As Laurel's fascination with Bobbie's former life begins to merge into obession, she becomes convinced that his photographs reveal a deeply hidden, dark family secret. Her search for the truth will lead Laurel further from her old life and into a cat-and-mouse game with pursuers who claim to want to save her.

Plot summary courtesy of chrisbohjalian.com.

I have no recollection of who recommended The Double Bind to me. None whatsoever. I placed a request for it at the library and promptly forgot all about it until I got a phone call telling me it was ready to pick up. [Side note: I hate those phone calls. I don't like the pre-recorded voice and it takes forever to listen to the whole message. Sigh. Okay, on with my story.] I picked up the book, along with a few others, and set it aside for a few days. When I picked it up to start reading, I finally read the book jacket and thought to myself, "Ugh. I do NOT want to read this." But I'm a trooper, so I commenced reading that night at 8:00 p.m.

And I didn't stop reading until 1:00 a.m. when I was done with the book. I loved it! I could NOT put it down! The story was so intriguing, I simply had to know what was going to happen next, while trying madly to piece together all of the clues myself. And the ending tied everything together so perfectly, I was completely satisfied. Nothing's worse than a book starting out amazing and then losing its way two-thirds through.

Here's the thing, though: I don't really want to go into detail in this review, because it was such a great experience reading it without any prior knowledge (except for the unappealing book jacket copy, of course). I really just want everyone I know (especially my mom and my sister Mollie) to read it immediately. If you do, please tell me what you think!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

25. The 8th Confession by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

I used to work at Caribou Coffee when I lived in Columbus. I loved the coffee, the discount and most of the people that I worked with. For months, I always worked on Thursday nights with my friend Denise. It was always slow, so we had a lot of time to chat about books, movies, TV shows. She made a killer observation about me one night that I've never forgotten. I think we were talking about the fact that I was super excited when Colin gave me the new Ashlee Simpson CD for no particular occasion, and how shocked she was that I was that excited, seeing as how Ashlee Simpson is really lame. She remarked that I mainly enjoy things that could be classified as guilty pleasures -- for me, it was the rule rather than the exception. Truer words were never spoken. While I'm intelligent and can appreciate more high-brow culture, I am all about the guilty pleasures.

Which leads me to James Patterson. I love him. I have reads countless books by him, and am always entertained. His books are like comfort food, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that I think they're great. I even like how short the chapters are, because it makes me feel like I'm reading really fast. I've been reading a lot of book blogs and book reviews online lately, and I notice that Patterson gets a lot of flak for co-authoring most of his books nowadays and cranking them out so fast. Well, to that I say whatever. You read what you want to read, and I'll be over here trying to figure out how Alex Cross is going to catch the bad guy for the umpteenth time.

The 8th Confession is the eighth installment in Patterson's Women's Murder Club series. Lindsay and her partner are assigned a high-profile case that's seemingly impossible to solve. Someone is killing the wealthy elite in a way that leaves no trace, and Lindsay is under tremendous pressure from her boss and the mayor to put a stop to it. Claire is stumped by the murders, determined to figure out the cause of death. Cindy is investigating the murder of a homeless man, using his story to shine a spotlight on the issue of homelessness in San Francisco. She convinces Lindsay to help her identify the dead man and find out who killed him and why. Yuki is awaiting the verdict in a tense trial, and meets a charming doctor who may or may not be perfect for her.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I was home sick on Friday, feeling weak and nauseated with only Monty for company, and I settled on the couch with a blanket and read this one start to finish. It was the perfect day for a fun, non-challenging read and it really helped me not feel overly miserable and sorry for myself.

It was a good installment in the series. The four ladies seemed to be working independently of each other, I don't think all four of them gathered for drinks until two-thirds through, and it was interesting to discover how interwoven their stories actually were. I also liked the continuing character development, particularly how Lindsay is finally ready to commit to Joe by the end of the book.

And finally, it was refreshing to read a mystery that didn't really have any violent scenes. I feel like I've read a lot of depictions of violence lately, some more graphic or gratuitous than others, and it was a relief to read a book with a good mystery without detailed descriptions of violent acts. I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but suffice it to say that the killer's ingenious method was basically painless when administered and fairly creative at that.

24. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
by Brock Clarke

This book was recommended to me by Fat Bridesmaid, who also recommended In the Woods. I frickin' loved In The Woods, so I was excited to read this quirkily named mystery (which is kind of hard to type, by the way).

"It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusett Mt. Rushmore of big gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burningwitches at Salem, and then there's me."

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is the story of Sam Pulsifer, accidental arsonist of the Emily Dickinson house, a beloved tourist attraction in his hometown of Amherst. Sam has served his time and now lives with his wife and two children, who are completely unaware of his past. He has no contact with his parents, who were ostracized after his crime, until the day that Thomas Coleman, whose parents died in the Dickinson house fire, confronts Sam and demands an apology. Coleman sets out to ruin Sam's life when he doesn't get the reaction he feels he's entitled to, and Sam's wife kicks him out when Coleman tells her that Sam is having an affair. With nowhere else to go, Sam returns to his parents' home in Amherst and reconnects with his parents. A string of suspicious fires at local writers' homes leads the local police to investigate Sam, who then sets out to solve the mystery and clear his name.

What I liked about this book was that there was a lot more to it than I expected. I thought it would be a straightforward mystery about the arsons, but the deeper mystery that Sam pursues is that of his family history. There's a lot that he doesn't know about his parents and their relationship, and it was interesting to see events unfold and clarify Sam's lingering questions. The book is written in the first person, and Sam is telling us his story after the fact. This form of story-telling really appeals to me for some reason, I love the foreshadowing and the "if I'd known then..." type of comments sprinkled throughout. I also liked how the writing drew me in, and I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

That being said, I didn't whole-heartedly love the book. It was supposed to be eccentric or quirky, but I didn't quite relate to it so it just came off as weird. And a lot of it was sad, which I wasn't in the mood for. Maybe if I had read it at another time, I wouldn't have minded the sad parts, but I got up from reading it feeling a little bummed out. And while I liked the fact that Sam was discovering the truth about his parents' relationships, I did not get why his mother told him scary stories about the Emily Dickinson house after his father left them. It just seemed so weird and random to make up scary stories about this tourist attraction and tell them to a young boy after his father left to go find himself. I couldn't quite place myself in the characters' shoes, and that affected my enjoyment of the book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

23. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

As I mentioned in my Austenland post, I'm not a big Austen fan. No particular reason, but her books were never really on my radar. I set out to read Pride and Prejudice for three reasons: my sister Mollie likes it, I can count it as a classic, and I found a really cool way to do it.

I heard about the website Daily Lit, and wanted to try it out. Daily Lit offers subscriptions to over 1,000 books via e-mail and RSS feeds. You choose a title and subscribe to receive installments of the book -- you control how frequently the installments are sent and can even specify a time of day. Many of the titles are free, and the rest cost somewhere between $5 and $15 per book. I really liked the idea of tackling a classic this way, a little bit at a time, and thought that this would fit nicely into my morning routine of checking blog subscriptions in Google Reader. So I set up a subscription to receive an installment of Pride and Prejudice at 8:30 a.m. on each weekday, eager to get the first of 146 installments.

Cool, right? Yes and no.

Let's start with the positives, shall we? I like reading e-books, in this format or as a whole. I create a Google Doc for each book I read, so I can keep track of ideas for the blog post. When I'm reading on a computer, I can easily go back and forth between the book and my document. While reading Pride and Prejudice, I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. So I also kept up a tab for the novel's Wikipedia page. Check out this cool map of character relationships:



Onto the negatives...

The idea behind Daily Lit is pretty cool but I found it a bit lacking in execution. You're supposed to have the option of receiving another installment immediately, which is great if you have the time and inclination -- which I did. I don't think there was even one weekday in which I read only one installment. But with Google Reader, I was only able to get another installment once an hour. I had to go to the Daily Lit site, where you can view the last two installments that you received. From there, you can click "next" to continue reading. But! If you do this, Daily Lit doesn't save your place. It will send you the next installment from the last one you read in Google Reader. So then you have to go back to the Daily Lit site and click "next" however many times until you get to the installment that you wanted to read. Frustrating!

So I probably won't sign up for another book from Daily Lit, unless I see something on their site that looks good and is free. I can always try subscribing via e-mail. Maybe it's easier.

Onto Pride and Prejudice! In case you're not familiar with it, this is the story of the Bennet family -- Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia and Kitty. Mrs. Bennet is obsessed with marrying off each of her five daughters. The Bennet estate is entailed and will be inherited by a male cousin upon Mr. Bennet's passing. So Mrs. Bennet feels an urgent responsibility to see that her daughters will be taken care of. The story takes place over about a year in their life, with many romantic ups and downs to keep track of. Jane hopes to become engaged to a new neighbor, Mr. Bingley, but a misunderstanding drives them apart. Elizabeth is offended by Mr. Bingley's friend Mr. Darcy, whose prideful nature makes him unpopular, and readily believes a new acquaintance's tales of mistreatment at Darcy's hands. Mary tends to stay out of the fray, while Lydia and Kitty flounce around like the silly teenagers that they are. Mrs. Bennet also comes across as a bit silly, always going on about her nerves, and Mr. Bennet clearly considers these various goings on as a waste of time.

I could go on, but a complete plot summary would be a post in and of itself. If you haven't yet, go read it for yourself!

I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice more than I expected to. It was surprisingly readable for a book published almost 200 years ago. But I found that you have to pay strict attention, or you will miss something. As I said above, I did have a hard time keeping track of the characters and their relationships to each other. It was a bit of a tangled web.

Austen did a great job of portraying characters with pride and prejudices that interfere with their -- and others' -- happiness. Mr. Collins, the Bennets' cousin and heir to their estate, was so insufferable! As was his patron, Lady Catherine. The importance that they place on Lady Catherine's wealth and beautiful estate seemingly excuses her bad manners. The sheer nerve of that woman! Money does not equal class and good for Austen, portraying her message so tongue-in-cheekily. Lydia's behavior on visiting her family after her elopement made me angry, too. How was she not humiliated? Seriously! Her actions were incredibly irresponsible and could have ruined her family's reputation, making it impossible for her four sisters to marry well. And she comes in, lording it over everyone that she was the first to marry. I feel kind of mad again, just writing about it!

I was bothered by the fact that people considered the Bennet family embarrassing. Lydia and Kitty are a little immature, Mrs. Bennet is kind of a flake, and Mr. Bennet doesn't care enough of the rules of society to "correct" their behavior. How is that social suicide? Or at least, social suicide to that magnitude?

At its core, this is a really wonderful love story. Girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl realizes that she was wrong, girl loves boy. Well, that actually made it sound kind of stupid, didn't it? But I really loved it. Elizabeth and Darcy aren't exactly easy characters, they make it so hard for themselves to find love and happiness. The fact that they learn from their mistakes and make each other better people is so relatable. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I can relate to characters from another era; it's interesting to see how universal matters of the heart are.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Glenn is a regular guy,
and regular Americans like thrillers." 

I don't watch Fox News and I don't care for Glenn Beck. The above quote from a New York Times article I read today kind of makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little.

That being said, the article was about Beck featuring authors on his Fox News show and it was pretty interesting. Apparently, he's a voracious suspense reader himself and recommends suspense novels on his TV and radio shows as well as on his website and in e-mail newsletters. When interviewing authors, Beck discusses their books but also relates their writing back to the issues that he's featuring on the show. All in all, it sounds pretty cool.

I don't think I'll be tuning in, but if any of you enjoy suspense novels and don't object to Beck's showmanship, maybe he has some good recommendations for you. It sounds like he's well on his way to becoming the Oprah of suspense readers. Although Glenn's Book Club doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

22. The Collection by Gioia Diliberto

I'm not sure how I heard about this book. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably jotted down the title one afternoon when I was browsing through a few book links that my friend Adriana, master of library science, sent me. I have a compulsively organized spreadsheet for keeping track of books that I want to read, so I have ideas in mind when I head to the library. Seeing the cover sealed the deal for me. Colin even remarked that the book looked "so you." He's a keeper, folks.

Isabelle Varlet, charming and naive, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautifiul [sic] women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to steal designs before they hit the runway. In Chanel's workshop, Isabelle thrives on the time-honored techniques of couture -- the painstaking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings in [sic] exquisite dress to life for the fall collection -- from its embryonic origins in humble muslin to its finished form in the finest silk -- she navigates the tempestuous moods of Chanel, the cutthroat antics of her fellow workers, and her own search for love.

Plot summary courtesy of gioiadiliberto.com.

"Instead of dying, I learned to sew."

And so the opening line of The Collection sets the tone. When I started this book, I half expected a The Devil Wears Prada-esque roman a clef about Mademoiselle Chanel -- which in truth, I wouldn't have minded. But this is so much more. For me, Chanel was entirely in the background. Her volatile nature and (what would be today) outrageous demands on her workers are threaded throughout the narrative, but it's Isabelle's story that takes center stage. As a young girl suffering from bouts of consumption she is taught to sew by her grandmother, the first step on her path to Paris. Through Isabelle's eyes we see the fall collection take form and develop from inspiration all the way through to the final product on the runway. I enjoyed reading about someone who has so much talent and is clearly fulfilled by her work, something that seems to be an increasingly rare occurrence.

I appreciated how Diliberto took pains to accurately portray her chosen setting, explaining her choices in an Author's Note and providing a Selected Bibliography. The inherent drama in the world of haute couture in post World War I Paris provides a lot of material: the competing designers are shown comparing press coverage, throwing tantrums when theirs is less than a rival's, and endlessly criticizing each other's work to anyone who will listen; lavish parties are thrown and attended; the very real issue of theft is addressed in a major plot line; Americans complain about the prices, ignorant of the quality of the work and materials of haute couture fashions. True couturiers are rapidly becoming extinct, and it's interesting to read about their heyday and note how much in the fashion world has changed and how much is still the same.

The Collection is a page-turner, though not in the vein of Jackie Collins (or Lauren Weisberger, for that matter). It's not a fluffy beach read, but it is engaging and captivating -- you won't want to put it down. Don't worry if you don't know very much about sewing or couture (my knowledge thereof mainly comes from Project Runway). Although the story and setting are so specific, Diliberto is not writing solely for fashionistas. Anyone who appreciates good writing and an interesting story will most likely enjoy this book.

Monday, November 2, 2009

21. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume

Like many girls, I grew up reading Judy Blume. She innately understood me, and I loved her in return. Blubber, Just As Long As We're Together, Forever -- the list goes on. We had a lot of other reading material in our house, The Baby-Sitters Club series and L.M. Montgomery books spring to mind, so I never got through her entire oeuvre. I always thought I should read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret., being a fellow Margaret myself, so when I saw it on one of my "classics" lists I knew the time had come. 

This book follows the titular Margaret over the course of one year at her new school. Having just moved from New York City to a suburb in New Jersey, Margaret is dealing with a lot of change. She's at the age when boys become a big deal and her friends begin to start their periods. And for some reason, everyone in her new town seems to care about what religion she is, something that never came up in the city. Margaret has been raised without a religion, her Jewish father and Christian mother having renounced their faiths when they married. But Margaret has a special, secret relationship with God, always starting their talks with the same line, "Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret." A year-long independent study project leads her to explore different religions, which ultimately ends in confusion. 

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. was published in 1970, but it doesn't seem all that dated to me. The hardships of young adulthood as Blume writes about them seem pretty universal. Who hasn't kept a secret of the boy she likes because her friends will disapprove? Who hasn't experienced that intense curiosity about how her body is changing? Who hasn't had a friend that makes her feel stupid? Who hasn't treated someone unfairly and felt guilty afterward? I went through the same experiences as Margaret, just 20 years later.

The only part that I didn't quite relate to was Margaret's search for religious meaning. I was raised Catholic, attended a Catholic school through eighth grade, and never really questioned my faith.  I'm not really practicing now and there are issues on which I disagree with the Church, but it's a part of who I am. It's like having brown hair and not being able to read a map -- it's who I am. So it was interesting to read those parts of the book, and Blume makes it relatable for her readers. Even though I haven't been in a similar situation, I still felt like I could understand what Margaret was going through. 

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone like me who missed it the first time around or anyone who has a daughter to give a copy to. The hardest part of being Margaret's age is feeling like no one understands you, and this book will make anyone feel less alone.

Friday, October 30, 2009

20. American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

When my sister Annie first heard about the project, she sent me an e-mail with book suggestions. American Shaolin was at the top of her list, and so I put it near the top of my list of suggestions. All I really knew about the book before I picked it up was that it was about martial arts, something I know almost nothing about. Annie and her husband Doug have practiced Aikido for years, but I've never really seen them in action. All I know is that their kids will definitely be able to beat up our kids, should they care to.

Matthew Polly was scrawny and insecure during his childhood in Kansas, always a favorite target of neighborhood bullies. He kept a running mental list of Things That Are Wrong With Matt, and no matter what he did to eliminate an item from the list, it was inevitably replaced by something else that he found lacking in himself. Matt developed an interest in kungfu after seeing David Carradine's Kung Fu, and pursued it as a student at Princeton. Not only did he take kungfu lessons, he also studied Chinese and eastern religions. After three years at Princeton, Matt happened to read Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman, a memoir about a Yale student who studies martial arts with a kungfu master in China. Matt decides to take a leave of absence and study with the monks at Shaolin Temple. Although it's difficult to convince his family and friends that he's serious and needs to go through with it, he does make it to China and the Shaolin Temple. He arranges to study with the monks, and remains there for two years.

My first reaction the the book? I would NEVER do something like this! It's SO impractical! I just don't have the cojones or the desire to embark upon this kind of journey. Matt leaves for China in 1992, long before you could find the location of the Shaolin Temple with a few clicks online. He flies to China, and simply asks around until he finds his way to the temple. Did I mention that he goes to China all by himself? Totally alone. Matt considers himself cowardly (it's on his Things That Are Wrong With Matt list) but I think taking that leap was incredibly brave. I spent a semester in Spain during my junior year in college, but I don't know if I could have done without the other 11 people in my group. I probably wouldn't have even considered going alone.  


"It was a shock to discover that after three years of studying Mandarin in college I could not actually speak Chinese."

I can relate! It's one thing to study and speak a second language with other students, but it's completely different to immerse yourself in another country with native speakers. When I was in Spain, it took about two months to feel really comfortable speaking with my host mother and other Spaniards.

Matt, or Bao Mosi as he is known in China, is hysterically funny. I laughed out loud at many points in the book. His observations and commentary on his experiences are so witty and humorous, without taking away from the seriousness of the subject matter.


"I nicknamed her 'Shou Ting,' because I have a weakness for bad puns, and deep down inside I'm not a very nice person."

I giggled over that line for at least two minutes. I really had the feeling while reading that Matt was someone that I would like to know and hang out with. I bet his Facebook statuses would be hilarious.

Not only was the writing funny and personable, it was engaging. The book is intended for readers who may know nothing about Shaolin Temple, kungfu or China. Matt imparts a lot of historical background, detailed explanations of his kungfu routines, and information about Chinese culture. It's a lot of information, but I never felt like I was "learning" and I never got bored. He really cares about what he's writing about, and he makes you care too. And not only do you care about his surroundings, you care about his journey. By the end of his time with the monks, Matt has really grown up. He no longer harbors revenge fantasies about his former bullies, he feels at peace spiritually, and he's certainly more than competent in kungfu. While I did say that I would never do something like this, I would like to think that I would re-consider for the type of reward that Matt earned for himself.

As a professional proofreader, I really appreciated the note on spelling and pronunciation included at the beginning of the book. Matt explains the system he used to romanize the Chinese language in the text and the few exceptions, as well as providing a few tips on pronunciation for the Western readers. But this is by far the point that I appreciated the most:

"...while most American dictionaries spell 'kung fu' as two words, I reduced it to one, 'kungfu,' because I didn't want thousands of orphaned 'fu's populating the pages of my book with no 'ck's to keep them company."

See? Funny. (You'll notice that I used the same spelling throughout as an homage.)

Please read this book. I promise that you will enjoy it. If you do, Annie recommends Angry White Pajamas by Robert Twigger for contrast.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

19. The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

It took a long time for Barack Obama to show up on my radar. I didn't pay too much attention to the 2004 presidential campaigns, feeling pretty safe in my assumption that the Democrats would regain control of the White House. As it turns out, just because everyone you talk about these things with is liberal doesn't mean that the majority of the country is. Lesson learned. So I didn't see Obama's keynote speech at the convention, and didn't hear the phrase "the audacity of hope" until years later. I had hoped to vote for John Edwards in 2008, his family and their background having appealed to me since the previous election cycle. When it came down to Obama or Hillary Clinton, I didn't really care anymore. I knew that I would be voting Democrat regardless of the candidate chosen in the end. So it wasn't really until the convention in Denver and following months leading up to Election Day that I started to pay attention to Obama and really care about the potential for his presidency. The Audacity of Hope has been on my mom's bookshelf since then, and I finally decided to borrow it.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama identifies the problems that he sees Americans facing and offers his take on how to approach said problems to alleviate or eliminate their negative consequences. He basically uses the book as a platform on which to explain what kind of president he will be. As Gary Hart, a former presidential nominee himself, put it in a New York Times review, "In a more perfect world, a graduate program complete with a doctoral thesis might be required of all those seeking the presidency. In certain ways, 'The Audacity of Hope' qualifies as Senator Barack Obama's thesis submission." A recurring theme is the current polarization of liberals and conservatives. He looks to recent political history and the nature of the media and special interest groups to explain the divisive nature of politics today, taking the time to differentiate between "politics" and "government." Emphasis on values that are common to all Americans and a renewed focus on the American Constitution are offered as possible common ground for liberals and conservatives to move forward on together. Obama also provides thoughts on the role of opportunity, race, faith and family in politics; mixing personal anecdotes with historical context and proposed government policy.

I don't want to say that Obama's writing isn't accessible, because it is... and isn't. Like most people, he's best when writing about his life and using personal stories to illustrate a point. I sympathize with his wife Michelle when he writes about her bearing the brunt of running their household while he's away working. I love his mother for instilling in him such a strong sense of empathy. He's self-deprecating to a fault, which is a very attractive trait to me. But this is not a straight autobiography. Obama is writing about serious issues, examining them from all sides and providing thorough background information. This is where I begin to feel like I can't keep up. While I think that I am among the intended audience for the book, the aim is a bit high. I think that Obama is so passionate about the issues and his ideas that he gets a bit wrapped up in writing about them. I can easily imagine him debating said matters with friends and colleagues for hours. When left to his own devices, Obama seems to be writing for that audience, rather than the general public. I was a bit surprised by this, expecting something more accessible because of Obama's excellent speaking skills. I suppose that he has people to reign in him for speeches and remind him who the audience is.

Regardless of one's political leanings or views on Obama's performance as President thus far, I think most readers will come away from reading the book with some measure of admiration for him. He comes across as a very thoughtful person, one that carefully considers all sides of an issue. He's a bit idealistic, but is that a bad thing? We should all be a little idealistic, I think. He feels compelled to roll up his sleeves and put in the hard work to fix that which is broken. He genuinely wants to help. It also seems that he sincerely enjoys meeting people and is invested in hearing their stories; relating them back to his own in order to understand them better. It's probably starting to sound like I drank the kool-aid, but I swear I didn't. All of the traits that I just mentioned happen to be important to me and it's comforting to see them in our president regardless of his flaws, of which I'm sure there are many.