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

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

"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.