Friday, December 28, 2007

Top 5 Books I read in 2007, No.1: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows

I know I've been a little heavy on the Harry already this month. However, when it comes to naming my top book of the year - no contest. My mom started me on Harry Potter during Christmas 1999 when she gave me the first three books. I’d heard a bit about this Harry Potter character, but I had no idea what I was in for. I think I read all three books during that semester break. The next 8 years were spent waiting. Waiting for Goblet of Fire – which wasn’t too long of a wait, waiting an excruciating three years for Order of the Phoenix, waiting for Half-Blood Prince, and then, this past July, the wait was over. The mailman delivered Deathly Hollows at 4 p.m. Saturday and I finished reading Sunday at 5 p.m. (Unlike other readers, I did take a break to sleep, eat, etc.)

When you’ve been reading a series you find so magical for nearly 10 years, and you know it’s going to come to end, you have high expectations. My high expectations were met – surpassed even. The story of Harry Potter came full circle (an Epilogue even!) and I was happy with it. The magic world is at war, and Harry, Ron and Hermione are on special assignment from Professor Dumbledore to slowly kill Lord Voldermort by destroying the Horcruxes that contain pieces of his soul. It was odd not to be in the halls of Hogwarts with the students, instead traveling to the ends of the continent with the three wizards. The death toll increased exponentially in this book, each bringing tears to my eyes and gasps to my lips. But I had to remember that these wizards were fighting, and dying, for freedom.

And that’s the thing with the Harry Potter series, especially the last three books. The parallels to our real world are hard to miss: death, oppression, hatred, discrimination, dirty politicians, war, and denial, but also love, strength, truth and hope. There are so many wonderful things about the series - getting millions of kids to learn the “magic” of reading, a struggling writer discovering her dream and never losing her integrity - that I could go on and on. But, either I’m preaching to the choir, or those are discoveries a new reader has to make on his or her own. These books will be around for generations though, and I’m anxious to see the stories be enjoyed all over again by those close to me.

[Fun Fact: J.K. Rowling recently hand-wrote and illustrated seven copies of one final Harry book, The Tales of Beetle the Bard. Six of those she gave as gifts to those close to the series, and one was auctioned off this month for nearly $4 million (all of which goes to a children’s charity). See stories here and here.]

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Podcast with J.K. Rowling, Part II

I listened to the second part of The Leaky Cauldron's Jo Rowling podcast today (what an awesome job those Leaky creators have!). It was a good way to start the morning - listening to her voice makes me happy. Her love for these books shines through. She really believes in them, which I find so special in an author. I know many probably feel the same way about their own books, but I'm sure there are plenty who don't, too.

In this edition of PotterCast, Rowling talked about the secrets she had to share with Alan Rickman before they started filming any of the movies, so he could indeed nail Snape the way he does.

She makes mention of the new Harry Potter theme park that's in the works. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the movies, actually asked her permission first, and she's had a huge amount to do with the creation and the look of the amusement park. (It's nice to hear about movie studios being respectful of writers...) "It's as close as you'll ever get to actually walking into Hogsmeade, "she says. While I'm not huge into amusement parks, I can only imagine how cool it would be for kids. (Who am I kidding? I'd have to go if I had the chance.)

They discussed the evolution of wands in the books, especially in Deathly Hallows when the elder wand becomes so important. Rowling says that while most wands have a sense of loyalty to its owner, the elder wand only knows strength, thus falling under the power of anyone who rightfully wins it - and usually into the wrong hands. Mistaking the desire to murder as power is Voldermort's biggest problem.

They also talked about the documentary that was made during the last year of Rowling writing the Deathly Hallows, on tour, at the book's launch, her traveling back to the haunts where she used to write and much more. It airs in the U.K. on Sunday, Dec. 30. When it'll be available here is still unknown.

Definitely worth a listen, but listen to Part I, first.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Christmas List

I've been eagerly waiting for Christmas and other December occasions, because I knew I would get a stack of books to read in the new year. I wasn't disappointed, and, boy, am I excited! My list:

1. Pretty Little Mistakes, A Do-Over Novel, by Heather Mcelhatton (Thanks AG)
2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman (Thanks MMLG)
3. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs (Thanks M&D)
4. The Zookeeper's Wife, A War Novel, by Diane Ackerman
(4-7 Thanks to my other half)
5. The View From Mount Joy, by Lorna Landvik
6. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
7. The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

I also have a B&N gift card to spend, so I'm trying to decide what to buy between the many other books left on my wish list. And, we still have one more gift opening with my mother-in-law, so more books are possibly on the way! I hope the holidays brought everyone something new to read.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Top 5 Books I Read in 2007, No. 2: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Note: Throughout the month of December, I’m going to post my Top 5 books of 2007. This does not mean these books were published in 2007, though some were. I just read them this year. Unless I just have to read a book ASAP, it’s cheaper to wait for the paperbacks.

What can I say about Khaled Hosseini’s second novel? I absolutely loved The Kite Runner, though it also disturbed me and broke my heart into a million pieces. I had the same reaction to A Thousand Splendid Suns. While The Kite Runner was about two young boys, and one of those boys as a young man, Splendid Suns is about two women and how their lives come together in Afghanistan. Mariam, a 15-year-old with her own tragic past, is forced to marry Rasheed, a 40-year-old man, and move with him to Kabul. When she proves infertile, unable to produce the son he wants, Rasheed treats her far worse than a woman should ever be treated.

Eighteen years after Mariam marries Rasheed, their 14-year-old neighbor Laila loses her family in the bombings of the civil unrest that’s been going on for years. Rasheed takes her in, and soon marries her as well. The story continues through the years as the women grow to trust each other and join forces against their abusive husband. (I don’t want to give anymore away.)

I think I connected with the two female characters a bit better than the two boys in The Kite Runner, but the fact that Hosseini, a man, could make me feel that way demonstrates his skill as a writer. Reading about the abuse these women suffered was very difficult. Learning more about the anti-Soviet jihad and Taliban control over Afghanistan throughout some 30 years is also hard to bear, especially when I know that the scenes of this novel come from truth. Situations in this book actually happened/happen to real women and children in this part of the world. Sometimes it’s hard for me to love a book that makes me so sad (for example, A Fine Balance, which I’ll write about another time), but I’m able to love this book.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Podcast with J.K. Rowling

Yesterday I downloaded the first of two podcasts with Jo Rowling from The Leaky Cauldron. Part II will be available next week sometime. If you're a Harry fan, this is definitely worth a listen. Besides just loving Rowling's voice and her humor, which makes her a joy to listen to, I loved the podcast with her for the back story she provided and the light she shed on some of the mysteries of the series. If you love the books as much as I do, you want to believe the story of Harry as "real." Rowling talks as if it is, and you can really tell that she has all the answers in her head.

How could Harry (sort of) be a horcrux? Why does Harry's scar burn when Voldermort gets close? What about Dumbledore's sexuality? Is she really going to write a Harry Potter Encyclopedia?!?

I can't wait for Part II. More about Harry Potter to come next week.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Top 5 Books I Read in 2007, No. 3: The Thirteenth Tale

Author Diane Setterfield follows Maragret Lea, a young biographer (usually of people who are long gone) as she takes on her greatest assignment yet: writing the biography of the very ill, but still very much alive, world-famous novelist Vida Winter. Lea stays with Winter in her huge mansion, spending parts of each day listening to Winter tell her life story. Margaret’s main concern? How can she be sure Ms. Winter, someone who has never be forthcoming about her past, is telling the truth? Margaret takes it upon herself to investigate Ms. Winter’s past to prove the truth - and the truth she does find makes for a very interesting story indeed.

I loved this book for many reasons. First, there’s a mystery to it. You know straight away there’s a mystery – a ghost story, even – but you don’t know exactly what until the very end. I’m a pretty good judge of books, TV shows and movies, and can usually call the endings before most others. This book still held surprises for me in the end. Also, I loved the imagery in Setterfield’s writing. She really places the reader in the different settings. I loved the jumps between the past and the present, between Ms. Winter’s story of her life and the secrets Margaret unveils herself and about herself. For me, reading this book felt like I was reading the novels of long ago - it felt like literature, something completely different from the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you find on so many bookshelves today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

NaNoWriMo: Twin Citizens Represent

I just read this article on about how many local writers prefer to work at coffee shops, libraries, restaurants or bars, instead of at home. Some like the noise, some like the anonymity (amongst a crowd) and some just want the caffeine. As one writer put it, at home "you get bored with yourself." I can relate to this. Home has too many distractions, or the same-old scenery. When I was in college, I always preferred to study at Dunn Bros, then at home. Especially at a larger table at which I could spread out.

At the end of the article, the reporter gives a shout out to those local writers who participated in November's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo):

"According to the National Novel Writing Month's Word Count Scoreboard, Twin Cities NaNoWriMo participants out-produced every region in the world except for the much larger Seattle and Maryland (D.C. area) communities. A total of 13,059,537 words were generated by Twin Cities writers participating in last month's great novel-writing marathon, with an average of 28,267 words per novelist. The goal was 50,000, which means most participants didn't 'win.'"

I've always known we have a strong writing community here - the list goes on and on of well-known, local, published writers - but I love to hear of more, especially new or amateur writers.

The Rule of Four

Because the plot of this novel is so complicated and intertwined, I'm going to share the review from Publisher's Weekly:

Caldwell and Thomason's intriguing intellectual suspense novel stars four brainy roommates at Princeton, two of whom have links to a mysterious 15th-century manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This rare text (a real book) contains embedded codes revealing the location of a buried Roman treasure. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are inevitable, but Caldwell and Thomason's book is the more cerebral-and better written-of the two: think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco. The four seniors are Tom Sullivan, Paul Harris, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin. Tom, the narrator, is the son of a Renaissance scholar who spent his life studying the ancient book, "an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology." The manuscript is also an endless source of fascination for Paul, who sees it as "a siren, a fetching song on a distant shore, all claws and clutches in person. You court her at your risk." This debut novel's range of topics almost rivals the Hypnerotomachia's itself, including etymology, Renaissance art and architecture, Princeton eating clubs, friendship, steganography (riddles) and self-interpreting manuscripts. It's a complicated, intricate and sometimes difficult read, but that's the point and the pleasure. There are murders, romances, dangers and detection, and by the end the heroes are in a race not only to solve the puzzle, but also to stay alive. Readers might be tempted to buy their own copy of the Hypnerotomachia and have a go at the puzzle. After all, Caldwell and Thomason have done most of the heavy deciphering-all that's left is to solve the final riddle, head for Rome and start digging.

Authors Caldwell and Thomason are two long-time friends who wrote this book during their last semester at Princeton. I definitely would compare this book to The Da Vinci Code in that it has a mystery to solve, the mystery is complicated because few people know the secret cults/manuscripts/legends of which either book refers to - however, you can't help but be swept up in it. I think I enjoyed this book more than Da Vinci, if only because it had less hype along with it and it involves college students who are closer to my age. The ancient text and the secret puzzles within it are confusing, but the reader gets it after hanging in there for awhile. The book jumps back and forth in time, a ploy I actually liked; it adds to the suspense. Because the authors went to Princeton, I felt a lot of the school culture they wrote of was probably close to the truth (minus the murders and fraud, hopefully). And, I loved the ending.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Top 5 Books I Read in 2007, No. 4: Water For Elephants

This book, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of Jacob Jankowski. When we first meet Jacob, he’s an old man in a nursing home, who is realizing he has trouble remembering the people who come to visit him each Sunday afternoon. But when Jacob goes to sleep, he’s taken back (as are we the readers) some 70 years to the summer he ran away with the circus. Jacob spontaneously hops a railcar one night and finds himself aboard a circus train. A previous vet-in-training, Jacob becomes the caretaker of the circus animals.

Now, this circus is no Ringling Bros. Some shady actions take place daily, and the cruelty to animals claim that’s still charged to circuses these days is wholly felt. But Jacob meets Marlena and becomes infatuated. The rest of the book tells his story with the circus - the people he meets, the traveling, the acts, the food, the audiences and the sweetest pachyderm of which you've ever read.

This was one of those books that I wasn’t sure I’d like, so I postponed reading it. But then I kept seeing other people reading it, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did. Gruen paints such a brilliant picture of life on a circus train. She thoroughly researched the goings on of circus folk in the 1930s; she also received the rights to use some old photos throughout the book. These real photos only go to prove she’s not making much of this stuff up (bearded ladies, ball-balancing elephants, diseases caused by breaking the laws of prohibition). The story is mesmerizing and flows wonderfully.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Top 5 Books I Read in 2007, No. 5: The Overachievers

Note: Throughout the month of December, I’m going to post my Top 5 books of 2007. This does not mean these books were published in 2007, though some were. I just read them this year. Unless I just have to read a book ASAP, it’s cheaper to wait for the paperbacks.

You can read my three previous posts about The Overachievers here, here and here. But in the end, I found this book extremely interesting. Armed with the knowledge it gave me on the subjects of school schedules, college admission processes, homework amounts and child development - along with the typical characteristics these overachievers possess - I see more and more cases in the people I meet in my everyday life, and a bit within myself. Anyone who is interested in this culture of students will enjoy this book. Robbins writes her books in a novel-like style making them very easy to consume.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jodi Picoult, Part II

I wanted to comment on the post my friend Willikat made on my previous entry. She mentioned she used to think that Picoult's books may have been "supermarket" reading - you know, cheap romances, thrillers, nothing too substantial. I'm also hesitant when it comes to these uber-authors who can write so many books so fast. I mean, James Patterson (whom I've never read) writes at least two books each year, if not more. But I read that he writes with a partner - someone who can take Patterson's outline for a story and fill in the rest. Other examples include Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi, etc.), another author I've never read, or Patricia Cornwell (I've enjoyed her Kay Scarpetta novels), Janet Evanovich (I read through Seven Up before the Stephanie Plum series got old for me), Stephen King, etc. These authors are different than the J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee-types who write one or two great books in a lifetime. Right?

Picoult actually has a very interesting podcast on her Web site titled "Literary vs. Commercial." She talks about the difference between the two types of books: Literary books get reviewed by the The New York Times, commercial books top the NYT Bestseller list; literary authors get nominated for national book awards, commercial authors may not get awards, but they make lots of money; literary books make you think about them long after you've read them, commercial books are forgettable; and so on.

Picoult talks about the day she realized she was considered a commercial author - with her books stacked to the ceiling at B&N or on the grocery store shelves - and not necessary a literary one. She talks about her struggle with this: should she be happy she can pay the rent, or disappointed she's not considered a literary gem that all the critics are talking about? The podcast is only six minutes long and definitely worth a listen if you're interested in this type of thing or aspire to be a writer yourself. (Her other podcasts are also interesting: her own son being bullied in school inspired her to write Nineteen Minutes.)

I think Picoult is actually the perfect mix of the two. She's commercial because her books sell like hotcakes and she probably makes the big bucks. She's literary because she's well researched, discusses important issues and I'm still thinking about several of her books months and years after I read them - especially My Sister's Keeper and Nineteen Minutes.

Your thoughts? Who are the "commercial" authors you can't help but love? Who are the "literary" authors you feel don't get enough publicity? If you aspire to be a writer yourself, what type would you want to be?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jodi Picoult

One uber-author (one of those authors who can crank out books nearly every year) of whose novels I've read quite a few is Jodi Picoult. On her Web site she says she can write a book in nine months - she doesn't know why it takes her the same amount of time every time, but it does. I enjoy Picoult's books because they usually surround a controversial issue with a story about love and family. She puts an incredible amount of research into her stories, so that while they are fiction, everything that can be is factual. Plus, her books are fast reads, they sweep you up from the first page and they're nearly impossible to put down. Here are the five Picoult books I've read so far, in no particular order:

My Sister's Keeper: This book looks at the issue of a family with a child with a devastating, life-threatening illness. When the child is diagnosed, the parents have another child immediately in the hopes of producing a genetic match and in turn helping to cure this disease. What ensues is a lifelong battle for this new child, a battle between being poked and prodded every time her sister falls ill again and the hopes of being just a normal kid. The book alternated between voices of both sisters, their parents, the brother and the lawyer who the youngest hires to sue her parents for the right to her own body. This was a heartbreaking story that really had me thinking about some ethical issues. (Movie News: Dakota and Elle Fanning have been cast to play the sisters and Cameron Diaz has been cast as their mom in the soon-to-come movie of the same name.)

The Tenth Circle: A father who illustrates comic books from home, a mother whose college professorship brings her closer to student then it should, and a daughter, Trixie, who learns what it's like to be in love at 14 and what it's like to have your heart broken, too. Trixie finds herself in violent situation and her father, a normally mild-mannered man, reflects back to his difficult childhood when he tries to protect her. The Tenth Circle looks at teenage angst, racial stereotypes, broken marriages, drug use and sexual violence, all in one household - a household that could be thought of as normal by anyone. One of the most unique features of this book is the mini comic book that runs throughout. I'm not a comic book fan, but I definitely enjoyed this aspect of the book. (Fun Fact: Because the comic feature was so cool, after this book was published, Picoult was asked to scribe the latest Wonder Woman story.)

Salem Falls: Jack St. Bride was wrongly accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of this high school students and serves time in jail. When he's released he tries to start over in Salem Falls, a tiny New Hampshire town, but once the citizens, in particularly one disturbed 17-year-old girl, find out about his past he find a whole new set of problems. This book brought on that struggle readers sometimes face when we know a character is innocent, but no one in the book does. You just want to scream at them!

Vanishing Acts: 32-year-old Delia learns that what her dad has told her about her mom and their life together isn't all true. In reality, her father kidnapped her from her mother when she was too young to remember. But was it for the right reasons? That's the issue readers have to figure out. Both this book and Salem Falls have several scenes that take place in prison. It's horrifying to think about what goes on in prison (especially to the men who shouldn't be there in the first place), and Picoult brings it all to life - just another aspect of life I'm sure she had to greatly research.

Nineteen Minutes: This story surrounds a school shooting. It looks back over the lives of some of the parents and kids who were involved in the shooting, sometimes from 15 years out. This was a very interesting book in that it looked at how it could be possible for good parents to raise a child who ends up shooting up a school - and how they may not even see it coming. Many of Picoult's books have a bit of a surprise twist in them, but this one had the most shocking one of all. I usually see these things coming, but I didn't until right before she let her readers in on it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Children of God Go Bowling

Here is the sequel to my top pick of a few post ago, Shannon Olson's Children of God Go Bowling. I waited in great anticipation for this book, as it was delayed being published. While I've yet to write a novel, I can only imagine how hard it is to do. And then to have to come up with another one just a few years later? Well, I can understand the delay. But, it was well worth the wait.

We rejoin Shannon in her mid-30s, still struggling with the same issues of the previous book. She has yet to find a boyfriend, yet all her friends have paired off and have started to pop out babies. She still does her laundry at home. Instead of peeking in on her sessions with her counselor, we now take part in group therapy with her (a suggestion from the aforementioned counselor). The characters in group therapy with her are just who you'd imagine, and the sessions play out as scenes in a movie might - the passing of the tissues, the breakdowns, the snide comments, the reprimanding from the group therapist. But at the end of the day, this mess of people, who only know each other because of group therapy, really help each other. Shannon's inner thoughts on the group rank right up there with some of the funniest things I've ever read.

The title of the book is a reference to something someone in her group therapy session said about the sport of bowling. It seems most people bowl pretty poorly. So, no matter who we are in our everyday lives, when we bowl together, we're all on an even playing field. Or, in other words, God loves us all equally.

Shannon also makes a reconnection with a college friend, Adam, who is also single in the city. Maybe Shannon has been setting her sights too high and has missed the laid back, silly, lanky, kind-of-cute friend who has been in front of her ever since freshman dorm life? Things don't work out that way, but Shannon and Adam do experience an emotional road in the end.

This book includes the same humor that I loved so much in Welcome to My Planet. However, it reaches a little deeper than the previous book. Through her sarcasm and self-deprecating manner, Shannon is forced to deal with some very adult emotions and experiences, and watching (reading) her struggle through it and make the decisions she does is emotional for the reader as well. When I read this book in 2004, I learned what life might bring in the future. And now, nearly four years later, I've experience some of the the same things Shannon did. Maybe I wasn't that much better prepared for it all, but I do think her story helped. It's amazing to me how books can do that.

(Sara L., I hope you're bowling strikes right now. We miss you.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In the Palm of Your Hand

My hubby pointed out to me today that Amazon just released Kindle - its electronic reader. Because I can't say it any better than the Web site itself, here's what it offers (directly from Amazon):
  • Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.
  • Simple to use: no computer, no cables, no syncing.
  • Wireless connectivity enables you to shop the Kindle Store directly from your Kindle—whether you’re in the back of a taxi, at the airport, or in bed.
  • Buy a book and it is auto-delivered wirelessly in less than one minute.
  • More than 88,000 books available, including 100 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers.
  • New York Times® Best Sellers and all New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.
  • Free book samples. Download and read first chapters for free before you decide to buy.
  • Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • Top international newspapers from France, Germany, and Ireland; Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and The Irish Times—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • More than 250 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics, including BoingBoing, Slashdot, TechCrunch, ESPN's Bill Simmons, The Onion, Michelle Malkin, and The Huffington Post—all updated wirelessly throughout the day.
  • Lighter and thinner than a typical paperback; weighs only 10.3 ounces.
  • Holds over 200 titles.
  • Long battery life. Leave wireless on and recharge approximately every other day. Turn wireless off and read for a week or more before recharging. Fully recharges in 2 hours.
  • Unlike WiFi, Kindle utilizes the same high-speed data network (EVDO) as advanced cell phones—so you never have to locate a hotspot.
  • No monthly wireless bills, service plans, or commitments—we take care of the wireless delivery so you can simply click, buy, and read.
  • Includes free wireless access to the planet's most exhaustive and up-to-date encyclopedia—
  • Email your Word documents and pictures (.JPG, .GIF, .BMP, .PNG) to Kindle for easy on-the-go viewing.
Sounds pretty slick. It's probably not for me for a few reasons, two being: 1) I'd miss looking at a physical book, and because I'm in front of a computer all day long, well, looking at another similar device during my leisure time doesn't really appeal to me, and 2) The ability to buy most any book for under $10 at anytime right at my fingertips - well, that just spells trouble. And an empty bank account. What do you think?

[UPDATE (Dec. 19, 2007): Here is a review of the Kindle (and Sony Reader) from the Pioneer Press.]

Monday, November 19, 2007

National Reading Habits

The front page feature of the Star Tribune discusses our nation's reading habits. The National Endowment of the Arts released its latest study that says book reading is falling by the wayside. If you don't want to click through to the story or the report, here are some of the facts:

  • Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
  • On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.
  • Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.
(UPDATE Nov. 21, 2007: Another article to read, if interested, from MinnPost.)

In general, we're not reading as much, and we're not reading as well. I find this astounding. I believe it - college freshman are not prepared for college reading, and that only continues the vicious cycle into adulthood - but it still upsets me. I'm as big of a TV fan as anyone, maybe bigger. And yes, many of my nights are spent in front of the TV for three hours of my favorite primetime shows. However, I would be lost without being able to escape in a book. I love my lunch break for the 45 minutes it gives me to read, and my bus ride for the 20 minutes each way it gives me to read. If I didn't have this time during the day, I would make time.

Now, the Strib article looks at both sides. Is the NEA getting worked up over nothing? While there's a decline amongst book readers, that doesn't mean they're not getting their reading time on the Web and are really learning through electronic means, such as blogs, Second Life, CD-ROMs, etc. However, I still agree with the NEA in that Web-based reading can't compare to reading a novel or a textbook. Reading practice, especially through the developmental adolescent stages, makes you a better reader in the end. I used to be a slow reader in elementary school and I was embarrassed by it. When I started to read for fun - reading Babysitter Club and Sweet Valley Twins series so quickly because I couldn't wait to get the next one - my reading for school only improved. I could retain information faster, read my homework faster, in turn getting my homework done faster. This skill helped me greatly through high school and college.

I worry that kids (and adults) who get their reading from the Web have shorter attention spans, making reading for school, work or even for leisure that much harder. And in turn, not fun. Reading is supposed to be fun! Some of my best moments come from reading: waiting eagerly for Harry Potter books over the years and then consuming them as quickly as I could; being wholly surprised about liking a book I never thought I would (Frankenstein, thanks to freshman Lit); having mini book clubs with my girlfriends discussing the Traveling Pants series, even if we're a bit too old for them; and all the laughter, tears, confusion and epiphanies that have come from reading.

I do agree with the article that reading books and Web-based learning do have to go hand in hand now. Kids have to learn how to navigate cyberspace, learn the difference between trustworthy sources and crap, and learn how to participate in conversations started by their peers on blogs and wikis. But hopefully future generations won't forget what a new book smells like and how satisfying it is to shut the back cover after you've read that last page. Your thoughts?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Welcome to My Planet: Where English is Sometimes Spoken

It's time to make mention of my most favorite book of all time. Shannon Olson spoke in my Creative Writing class my freshman year of college. We had a sample of her writing to read before she spoke, and I loved the chapter so much, I went to the bookstore and bought Welcome to My Planet and read it in a day. Like a nerd (but a cool nerd), the day she spoke, I asked her to sign my copy.

The main character, Shannon (it's a novel, but Olson readily admits that many situations are pulled from her own life), is nearing 30 and reexamining her life. (Maybe she's reaching her quarterlife crisis or her Saturn return, as mentioned by Willikat?) We learn about Shannon's neuroses, her love life (mostly gone bad), her friends, her boss, her nameless counselor, and my favorite character, her mom Flo. Shannon is a blond haired, blue eyed, St. Olaf grad (probably the only Catholic at St. Olaf by the way) from Chaska, Minn., and she's oh so relatable, especially if you're a 20-something female from the Midwest. Her mom is our mom, her mess ups are our mess ups. The story follows her through this time in her life - going back to school, moving in with a new boyfriend, breaking up with said boyfriend, her relationships with her siblings (who seem like our siblings). Her sarcastic, self-deprecating humor made me laugh out loud so many times. So many times during the first read, and then all over again in the dozen or so times I've reread this book. It may sit on my shelf for nine months to a year, but I always pick it up again, because it just makes me so happy. There's no huge climax, no huge resolution, no life-changing moment in the book, but that's why I love it so much. It's real - and life is like that.

Her follow up, Children of God Go Bowling (which I'll write about at a later date), was the hardest book for which I ever had to wait to be published. And it delivered. I can't say it's better than Welcome to My Planet. But, it's equal. And this one makes you cry, too. Which for me, more often then not, makes a book grand.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Things They Carried

While I'm a couple days late, I'd like to make mention of a book in honor of Veteran's Day. I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in 11th grade English, I believe. If you're unfamiliar with O'Brien, many of his books - novels, memoir, etc. - are about the Vietnam War. The Things They Carried is a compilation - memoir with bits of fiction, in my opinion, though it says "novel" on the cover - of short stories about Vietnam. However, the stories follow the same men of Alpha Company, so the book feels very connected throughout. Some stories are told in present-day Vietnam, while some are flashbacks from 20 years later.

O'Brien's storytelling is mesmerizing. The short story that stuck with me the most, and that I still think of to this day, is "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." Located in a "safe" place in Vietnam, one medic decides to bring his girl over from the States to stay awhile. Picture this prim and proper teacher in her sweater set arriving in Vietnam. She takes to the daily routine, joining in the fray and even becoming friendly with the neighboring Green Berets. Crazy things unravel - she chops off her hair, goes on secret missions, kills animals - and let's just say she's never the same again.

The other stories tell about the pressures, boredom, anger and angst that these soldiers faced during the war. While these stories are fictionalized, I'm sure their feelings and experiences are wrapped in truth. I think it would be really hard to make that stuff up completely.

What books would you recommend for Veteran's Day?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Jon Hassler and MinnPost

On MinnPost today, I read a wonderful story about Jon Hassler, author of such best sellers as Staggerford and A Green Journey, not to mention the young adult books Jemmy and Four Miles to Pinecone (both of which I read when I was younger and loved). I also wrote a paper on Grand Opening for my 10th grade English class. His books line many Minnesota shelves I'm sure, including my mom's. He's one of the greats from our region.

I didn't know, however, that he's suffering from a Parkinson's-like disease which affects his speech and mobility. Imagine how hard it is to write books when you can't write, type or speak well. The writer, Dave Wood, describes Hassler's daily life - of which writing is very much a part - and his selfless, caring wife and "helper." It's a great story of focus and perseverance.

I also want to give a shout out to MinnPost. Started just last week, this online and print publication is composed by many writers familiar to we Twin Cities dwellers. Many are former Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and City Pages reporters who were bought out, asked to leave or got out just in time when our big newspapers went through several months of turmoil and turnover recently. I'm so pleased to see their names in print again and look forward to reading what they have to say.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Lovely Bones

Since my good friend willikat made mention of it in her comment on my previous post, I thought I'd write about The Lovely Bones today. Willikat mentioned it was one of the books that gave her a powerful reaction - sadness. I couldn't agree more.

This is a haunting tale about a young girl, Susie Salmon, who is murdered, but her body is never found. She tells the story as she looks down from heaven, watching over her family. I enjoyed the image author Alice Sebold painted of what heaven may be like to a 14-year-old girl. In my heart of hearts, I imagine heaven is different for everyone - it's how you want it to be. Besides the fact that she was abducted and killed, the story was also sad on so many other levels: Susie's struggle with all the things she'll never experience (boyfriends, driving, high school, etc); watching her family grieve and her parents drift from each other; and wondering if her killer will ever be caught.

Not to spoil the story for others, but I have to tell of probably the most heartbreaking, but also heartwarming, part of the story for me. As a person who had a dog for 17 years of her childhood, I've often imagined what "doggie" heaven is like. Well, when Susie's childhood dog passes away, and she hears his chain jingling toward her in her heaven, and he jumps on her lap and licks her face... well, I have goose bumps and tears in my eyes right now. It really moved me. It still does.

Next year brings The Lovely Bones the movie, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Mark Walhberg and Rachel Weisz. I'm anxious to relive the story through the movie. I know not all movies live up to the books - and I'm sure this one won't either - but I have a good feeling about it.

I also read Sebold's first book - a memoir called Lucky. It tells of her own rape as a college student. If this type of violence is something you can stomach to read about - it's graphic - then I recommend the book. It was almost too much for me, but her process to get passed it and move on was interesting and worthwhile to read about. I'm still on the fence about The Almost Moon, her latest. The reviews haven't been stellar, and as I said in my Slam post, I hate to be disappointed. I read an interview with Sebold though, and she too knows how hard it is to live up to the popularity and praise that came with The Lovely Bones.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

I'm ashamed to say, as a journalist who loves literary journalism, I haven't read much Joan Didion. But, when her book The Year of Magical Thinking came out, I felt drawn to it. The reviews were over-the-top good for this book, and I was going through a particularly difficult time with an illness in the family, too.

In this book, Didion describes a year in her life when her daughter fell into a coma unexpectedly and for unknown reasons, and just days later, after visiting her at the hospital, Didion's husband died instantly at the dinner table from a heart attack. The book starts there. It describes the moments right after he fell out of his chair, the medics arriving, the trip to the hospital, the days that followed. It describes her visiting her unconscious daughter, who eventually does wake up, and having to tell her that her father passed away months earlier. They waited to have the funeral until her daughter was well enough to go. Which, in a way, postponed Didion's own grieving.

The feelings Didion describes - expecting him to be there when she gets home, coming across something of his months later, cleaning out his closet - are heart breaking. She has such random thoughts about him, that to some, she may seem off her rocker. However, if you've ever lost someone close to you - even if it's a pet or just an awful break up of a relationship - you completely understand her. I choked up with every chapter - every chapter. Being newly married at the time, it made me realize even more how heartbroken I will be if hubby should be the one to go first.

This book made me unbelievably sad - not in a depressing way that I wouldn't recommend it to others - but what made my heart break even more was to learn that after the book was published, Didion's daughter fell ill again and passed away, too.

What books have made you feel an emotion - sadness, happiness, anger - so completely?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Currently I'm reading Slam, by Nick Hornby. When I posted about Hornby previously, I mentioned that I loved several of his books, but How to be Good didn't really do it for me. While I'm only halfway through it, Slam may fall in the same category as How to be Good. While it's humorous reading, it's also told from the POV of a 15-year-old boy. I'm finding it hard to relate. This boy has gotten himself in loads of trouble and the book follows him during this time in his teenage life.

Hornby wrote from a teenage boy perspective, at least part of the time, in About A Boy. But, I think either he was more mature then Slam's character, or else the alternating between the two main characters in About A Boy, one an adult male (which I've said Hornby excels at), made it easier on me.

I'm going to finish the book, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it in the end. But, I can't help feeling a little disappointed when one of my favorite authors comes out with his or her next book and it leaves me unsatisfied. I know it's happened to me before. Do you know what I mean?

UPDATE (Nov. 13, 2007): I finished Slam over the weekend. In the end, I did enjoy the book, for the most part. The boy matured a bit, his heaps of trouble remained but he learned how to deal with it all in a respectable manner. However, I do hope Hornby retreats back to his forte for his next go around. I do love the English speaking though: full stop, bollocks, etc. The dialect always sticks in my head for days after and I have to try really hard not to speak that way aloud - I could never pull it off.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

A few years ago I read The Time Traveler's Wife. I always saw it on the B&N Recommendation shelves and my Amazon recs would always have it listed, too. I'm not really into Sci Fi, and this book felt Sci Fi-ish to me. But I checked it out and it was worth it. Actually, my appreciation for the book has grown more over the years.

The main character, Henry, can travel through time - both into the past and into the future. He doesn't realize his powers until he's in his 20s - however, once he starts traveling, he makes his way back to the same girl several times. So, here's this girl who has a time-traveling friend throughout her life. Amongst the time traveling aspect unravels a love story between the two (nothing pedophile-like, they fall in love at the appropriate ages in present day). Henry can't control when he's going to travel, so this affects his life in many ways. Plus, he never knows where he'll end up, when it will be, and he's always naked. He spends a lot of time, while traveling, trying to fend off enemies (people he creeps out by appearing out of nowhere) and the cops (he has to steal to cover himself, eat, get around, etc.). The story follows Henry through the past, present and future, but also follows his love, Clare, through her life chronologically.

For me, the story felt complicated and I had to concentrate very hard to understand how time traveling could actually work. I was a huge skeptic, which unfortunately took away from my enjoyment of the book, I think. If I would've just relaxed and gone with the flow, I would've ended up with a better feeling of the book. But, like I said, as time passed, I now see the brilliance of the story and the creativeness of author Audrey Niffenegger. I borrowed the book to my mother-in-law and she loved it, too.

My appreciation for the story is probably why I'm very into Journeyman on NBC right now (Monday nights 10/9c). The TV show has a very similar storyline to The Time Traveler's Wife. Dan, the main character, suddenly discovers he can travel through time - unwillingly and only to the past so far. (Fortunately for him, he's fully clothed when he arrives.) Each episode has him helping someone in the past, which keeps episodes contained week to week, making it easy to miss it sometimes or come into in the middle of the season. Of course, time traveling can't be all fun. Dan's wife and child are the only ones who know he can do this (which causes problems itself), while his brother and boss are just wondering what the heck is going on with him. It's a very good show. I don't think I would have thought this if I hadn't read The Time Traveler's Wife and gotten over my need to figure out the "how."

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Feast of Roses

If you read below, you learned my love for The Twentieth Wife. I lucked out when Indu Sundaresan published its sequel, The Feast of Roses. We join up with Mehrunnisa again, now in her 20s (and through most of the rest of her life). She's fulfilled her dream of marrying into the Empire, and the book follows her struggles to maintain power amongst her husband's other 19 wives and against her husband's personal assistants who feel the Emperor already gives too much power to his latest wife.

Mehrunnisa was an early feminist, demanding that she be able to hold court alongside her husband - while women usually have to sit above, behind a veil - and help him make his decisions. The Emperor was very accommodating toward her - she was his one true love - and, to me, he was unique among the men of those times. He respected his wife, loved her and her child, and valued her opinion, as she was very smart. Almost everyone within the Empire disagreed though, and Mehrunnisa's relationships with her friends and family suffered because of it.

Wives of the Emperor usually obtained assets of some sort - most likely a fleet of ships that they could manage and reap the monetary benefits from. This was very interesting as the book examined the trade relations between England and India as an offshoot of the main story. Also, if something were to happen to the Emperor, while Mehrunnisa could stay within the Empire, her power would diminish. Unless she could marry her daughter to one of the Emperor's many other sons. When her husband becomes sick, the book takes us through her determination not to lose the power she's worked so hard to gain.

I found The Feast of Roses, like The Twentieth Wife, to be very educational of the times. Even though the finer details of Mehrunnisa's life are exaggerated, the hierarchy, the customs, the names and the events (ex: construction of the Taj Mahal) are all very true. While the ending is bittersweet, it is nice to see Mehrunnisa's life through to the end.


As I was writing my previous post, I got to thinking about spoilers. I know how much I hate for endings to movies, books, TV shows, etc., to be spoiled for me, but I also know that given the opportunity, I have a really hard time stopping myself from reading a review or discussion even if I know spoilers are coming. This is why I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within 24 hours. I knew if I wasn't done by Monday morning, I would probably find myself on a review that would spoil the ending for me.

Now, as I write my personal thoughts on the books I read, I'm trying not to spoil anything for anyone who should happen upon Bookish Bent. However, I do want to create enough of a discussion so people who have read the same books as me, could actually discuss if they wanted.

I mulled over it this weekend and I decided that if I'm going to give away huge plot points, I'll provide warning somehow:


Or, something similar.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Twentieth Wife

One of my best friends borrowed me this book more than a year ago. She had read a few years before that and loved it. She's big into historical fiction, or was at the time. I had run out of things to read and was starting to panic. Fortunately she came to my rescue and provided me with several books at once. I started with The Twentieth Wife, even though I was uncertain if I would enjoy historical fiction as much as she did.

Written by Indu Sundaresan, The Twentieth Wife takes place in India in the 17th century. It follows Mehrunissa from the day she was born, as her father searches for a better life for his family and ends up in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor. The book tells of Mehrunissa growing up in the imperial harem, falling in forbidden (and semi-secret) love with the Emperor's son and direct heir, and her arranged marriage to a soldier.

For me, the book was magical. Through Sundaresan's detailed way of writing, I felt I could really picture this kingdom. Though it's still fiction, I also felt I learned a lot about India in the 1600s and the hierarchy of the Empire. How rich they were! The fabrics, the gold, the jewels, the fact that the whole kingdom - hundreds and hundreds of people - would move across the country in the summer, to stay somewhere cooler. The harem politics were particularly interesting, as was the realization that lies, backstabbing, revenge, and ultimately love, are the same now as they were hundreds of years ago. This book got me on my kick of reading Indian fiction, as will be illustrated in posts to come.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Nick Hornby

The next book I'm reading is Nick Hornby's latest, Slam. I just started it this morning on the bus. I've read most of Hornby's books: High Fidelity, About A Boy, How to Be Good and Fever Pitch. Obviously, I enjoy his work. High Fidelity was my first contact with his writing. The movie had already come out, I was semi-interested in it, but I decided to read the book first. It grabbed me from the beginning. Not only do I like reading British books, but Hornby's writing is very entertaining. He can speak from the male perspective well, and isn't afraid to write what men are really thinking (this is what I've heard and how it seems to me, since I'm of the opposite gender, I don't know first hand). There were so many situations in the book that were real to me - the way men may fantasize about other women, but how those fantasies "don't deliver" like the person they're really with and who they truly love. While the movie is set stateside, and Rob is played by the American John Cusack, it's perfectly done as well, and one of my most favorite, most quotable movies.

About A Boy was a similar experience for me. The book was engaging and hilarious. I went out and bought it shortly after I read High Fidelity. And when I heard they were making a movie, and an English flick at that, I was excited. And that movie delivered as well. Hornby has a way of making the most painful situations turn out to be heart-warming. While the boy's mother attempts suicide, the boy's reaction is true and realistic. His need for male companionship is gut-wrenching, but the events that ensue are hilarious. And just the thought of a young kid reaching in and melting the cold exterior of a self-absorbed man-boy is very hopeful.

In How to Be Good, Hornby took a detour and wrote from the female perspective. While the book was still entertaining, I wasn't as enthralled as with the other two, and I honestly have a hard time remembering what it was about. Fever Pitch, Hornby's memoir of his love of futbol/soccer, is also great. He's back in his natural style of speaking from the male side of things. He's obsessed with the sport - obsessed. Being someone who has also been obsessed with different things at different times in my life, I could totally relate once again. I'm anxious to see if Slam will captivate me the same way - will I truly care about a skateboarding teenager who talks to his poster of Tony Hawk? I'll let you know.

The Overachievers, A Final Word

I finished The Overachievers last night. I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the book, Robbins gives her own list of tactics that schools, teachers, parents and students could use to help bring this overachiever mentality under control. By the end, as a reader you know where Robbins stands on this issue. I can understand why some readers may not appreciate her personal opinions showing through, but in this case, I'm fine with it. While I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, one of Robbins suggestions made a lot of sense: Teachers could assign test days for their particular subject - Physics on Monday, English on Tuesday, Math on Wednesday, etc.

So often students end up with midterms, projects and papers due within the same week, or even worse, on the same day. While I understand the importance of learning time management and the ability to multi-task, I think by knowing tests would at least fall one day apart, would help students study better and, in the end, perform better. I also understand that in college and the "real world" your deadlines won't be assigned this way. But, maybe a variation of this system would be beneficial and help teachers understand that their classes aren't the only ones these students are taking?

One other real life situation that I've paid more attention to since starting the book is the Academic All-Stars that a local news station hypes each week. More often than not, these students have 4.0+ GPAs (weighted GPAs, seriously?), volunteer, play sports, play an instrument, are in the National Honor Society and so on. While I think it's great to publicize these student's achievements, these past few weeks I've wondered if on the inside these students are depressed, frustrated, stressed or lonely. Are they slamming Red Bulls to get through the day? What messages do these news spots send to fellow students who "only" have a 3.5 GPA and play just one sport really well? That they're not good enough?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Overachievers, Part II

I love when the books I read, especially nonfiction books, pertain to my daily life. This afternoon I learned that my 7-year-old niece has about an hour of homework each night - in first grade! Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think I had homework in first grade. Maybe a project here and there, but every night?

I told my sister-in-law about The Overachievers, and how, in the end, I think all the homework (I'm talking about busy-work homework, not math skills, sentence structure and things you just need to know), the grades, the numerous activities, don't matter so much. As long as you strive to do your best and develop important social skills, you can succeed in life.

And not only is this hour of first-grade homework each night affecting the student, but the parent also has to sit with him or her and help out. Which they should. But add on two, three or four more kids, and that's a lot of time taken away from family time, play time, or as they get older, bed time. My sister-in-law did make a good point though. The homework is only going to increase from here, so she's glad my niece is learning the discipline of doing homework now, even if it is first grade.

Another portion of the book I found very interesting had to do with sleep habits of teenagers. Robbins fills in all the facts very well, but in general, a teenager needs more sleep than a younger child or an adult. In addition, teenagers naturally stay awake later. However, high schools start around 7:30. So, teens are staying up late to get their homework done - or just because hormonal imbalances make it hard for them to fall asleep earlier than 11 p.m. - and still have to rise before the sun. I was proud when Robbins called out Edina and Minneapolis school districts as systems that changed their high school start times by an hour. What did they discover? After some time, they were left with happier, less moody, healthier kids who were participating in class and getting their homework done on time.

The Overachievers, The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

I'm almost done with The Overachievers, by Alexandra Robbins. If anyone has read Pledged, The Secret Life of Sororities, also by Robbins, and enjoyed it, you'll like this book, too. Robbins has a way of integrating herself into a culture, painting a picture of what life is like for the participants. However, she can also take herself out and talk directly to the reader. Robbins has been criticized for being biased in her writing, but this doesn't bother me much. Maybe because I always agree with her.

The Overachievers follows a group of high school students who strive for straight A's, throw themselves into numerous extracurricular activities, stay up late studying, take the SATs multiple times - all to make themselves look well-rounded and superior on their college applications, in return fighting depression, stress, sleep deprivation and peer pressure . While these kids push themselves to be perfect, they're not the only ones. Robbins examines parental pressure on kids, parental pressure on teachers, administrative pressure on teachers, college admissions pressure on administrators and government pressures (No Child Left Behind). Robbins also goes back to the beginning, when expecting parents put the name of their unborn child on the waiting list for their city's best, private preschool.

The book is comprehensive and full of facts, but reads like a novel. As someone who did well in high school and college, made friends, played in band, etc., I was also told just to do my best. In the end, grades don't matter all that much. Happiness comes from somewhere else.

Bookish Bent is Born

I read a lot, probably two or three books each month, in addition to several magazines, blogs and online news sources. I'm a journalist, so reading comes with the gig. Because I consume so many different stories each day, week and month, I can't keep track of it all. Plus, I love to share with others about what I read, hear what they have to say, and receive recommendations.

As I was reading my latest book last night, sharing my thoughts on it with my hubby (J), he said, "You should have a book blog." A very good idea (he has many). So, here I am. To share about what I'm reading, or what I've read, with whoever's interested. Sometimes it'll be nonfiction, sometimes it'll be escape-type fiction; a news story here, a review there. We'll see where the pages take me.