Friday, December 26, 2008

All I Want For Christmas: 17 New Books

I made out royally this year. Between my mom, my mother-in-law and the hubby, I have 17 new books in my possession. My Amazon Wish List is definitely depleted. Here's what I received:

+ New England White, by Stephen L. Carter (I read The Emperor of Ocean Park and just loved it.)

+ We Need to Talk About Kevin & The Post-Birthday World, both by Lionel Shriver

+ The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling

+ Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty

+ Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, by Nick Hornby (Thanks Pop Culture Junkie for the idea!)

+ Whatever Makes You Happy, by William Sutcliffe

+ The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

+ The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee

+ This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America)

+ Pretty is What Changes, by Jessica Queller

+ The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett

+ Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson

+ The Way Life Should Be, Christina Baker Kline

+ Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas

+ House of Happy Endings, Leslie Garis

+ The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

Plus, thanks to my boss and my father-in-law, I have $65 to spend at Barnes & Noble. (Which I used part of to buy In the Woods, by Tana Finch and I Was Told There'd Be Cake, by Sloane Crosley.) Now, what to read first?

A Look Back 2008, The Most Fun: Twilight

Without a doubt, the most fun I had reading this year were those two weeks in July and August when I was consumed with the Twilight series. I was instantly drawn into the story of Bella and Edward, a good-girl-meets-vampire tale. I loved the romance and the mythology. But most of all, these books were something different. Sure, because they’re young adult novels they can be mentioned in the same breath as Harry Potter, but they’re so much different than those. (I love both series.)

Of course there are some things I didn’t like about the books, but when I look back and remember how I read them all so fast, with such great interest, and the debates the books provided for me with co-workers and friends, it’s been a great ride. And with the movie coming out, the ride was extended.

Which is good, because I’ve never felt such withdrawal from reading until I was done with those books. I was depressed. Nothing I read for weeks after held any part of my interest. I missed Bella and Edward and all the Cullens. I thought I did a smart thing, not realizing what the books even were until just before the fourth one came out and reading them all back to back. However, I think that ended up causing the depression. With Harry Potter, I was used to waiting, and by the time book seven appeared, I had fully prepared myself for the sadness I would feel. But this? Well, this was just awful. (And my girlfriend felt it, too, so I don’t feel completely lame.)

Fortunately it went away. And with the release of the movie, some of the excitement returned. However, I felt the same withdrawal the day after the movie. Fortunately, that didn’t last as long.

Twilight, Twilight-related
Top Books 2007

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Look Back 2008, The Biggest Disappointment: Life of Pi

I read Life of Pi long after the masses, so I’d read numerous glowing reviews. So, when I was reading and not really enjoying it, I was puzzled. Didn’t I get it? I felt the book was slow and a bit predictable. Sure, several books are predictable, but if they’re engaging, at least I can move past the predictability. But, I wasn’t very engaged in Life of Pi. I found the main character to be annoying and the “at sea” section to be awfully long. So, in the end, I had too high of expectations for the book and it didn’t meet them.

Life of Pi
Top Books 2007


I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. May you be surrounded by those you love.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Books as Art

Last night, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis opened Text/Messages: Books by Artists, an exhibit that demonstrates how some artists have used books as a form of material, medium or subject in their creations. Over the years, the Walker has collected 2,000 pieces that fall into this book-art category, and now some are on display, including, according the press release, "Elegant tomes conceived by artists such as Robert Motherwell and Ellsworth Kelly; conceptual projects by Lawrence Weiner; humorously subversive books by Karen Finley, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy; and rare illustrated editions such as Salvador Dali’s take on Alice in Wonderland."

With this exhibit, and art form, what's on the pages - if there are any pages at all - is not what's significant. It's the shape they take, and the way they present the message, oftentimes political. (For example, again from press release, "Red Book, a work by Chinese artist Xu Bing composed of a row of cigarettes printed with text and housed in a box that resembles Chairman Mao’s so-called Little Red Book.") From a 26-foot, accordion-style book to a large sculpture book-boat (pictured), this exhibit studies a way of art that still thrives and is celebrated in this age of technology and Twitter accounts.

Through April 19. I hope to make a visit.

Walker Art Center
Star Tribune article

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Walker Art Center. Kcho, Obras Escogidas (Selected Works), 1994, books, metal frame, wood table, newspaper, twine Collection Walker Art Center Clinton and Della Walker Acquisition Fund, 1996)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Into Thin Air

I received Into Thin Air about five years ago from one of my bffs. For some reason I lost track of the book for awhile and had yet to read it. The other day, when I was out of books to read and I didn't want to buy more because Christmas - the book-receiving season in my world - is right around the corner, I searched my bookcase for a book I had yet to read. I found Into Thin Air. I've read Jon Krakauer's other books, Under the Banner of Heaven (utterly amazing) and Into the Wild (depressing but worth the read), so I knew I would like this book. And I did. A lot.

In 1996, Outside magazine sent Krakauer to climb Everest and report back in a feature story. But this trip up Everest was a deadly one, and Krakauer had several teammates perish on the side of the mountain. Afterward, he wrote his article for Outside, but then within 6 months extended it into a book - I think mostly for thearpy, but also to provide his version of the truth.

The book reminded me of how talented Krakauer is as a writer. His books are engaging, while at the same time teaching you about something real. It was very interesting to learn about the art of climbing, and the commercialization of Everest. The fact that people with very little climbing experience can pay enough money to have a guide take them to the top is just amazing to me. It sounds unbelievably dangerous. Krakauer even admitted that the "point" of climbing Everest might not even be to reach the summit - it's to endure the utter pain that comes with reaching the summit. The headaches, the stomach bugs, the coughs, the lack of oxygen to the brain, the freakin' cold. Because, a majority of people, once they get to the top, stay for only several minutes, snap a photo and then turn right back around, because they're too tired or they're hallucinating from the hypoxia.

And more often than not, people make it back down. But not in this case, and the tradegy that follows is scary and heartbreaking. You feel for those who died, and you feel for those who survived, who must now live with the guilt that they couldn't help their fellow climbers. A very interesting read. A true adventure story.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Look Back 2008, The One that Still Has Me Thinking: Middlesex

Since I’ve read Middlesex, I’ve thought about it plenty of times. Several people I know have read it too, and we’ve had discussions about it. I’ve thought about it, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I think Eugenides is a very talented writer. Unlike some other reviewers, I was never bored reading Middlesex. The language and imagery he used was pretty beautiful. However, the story’s subject matter – the young life of a hermaphrodite - is pretty heartbreaking and at times tough to digest. So as with all books that make me sad and hope for better for the characters, I know I liked it, I know I’m glad I read it, I just don’t know if I loved it.

Top Books 2007

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Last Chinese Chef

Last week I finished The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. (Mones also wrote Lost in Translation.) The book is about an American food writer who has to visit China due to a claim on her late husband's estate. While she's there, her boss gives her the assignment of writing a profile on a Chinese-American chef who has been in China for the past several years learning the art of real Chinese cuisine. He's found himself in an Olympic-type chef competition and Maggie, the writer, is observing him and writing about him.

This book was lovely. Mones lived in China for a long time, running a textile business before becoming an author, so she knows the culture, the landscape and the food very well. A good portion of the book just describes in great detail the cuisine in China: the rules it must follow, how it's not just about taste but texture, how dishes are inspired by poetry or nature, and how even if something tastes wonderful it may not be perfect. Mones writes with beautiful language, too.
Then their street ended at a T intersection, beyond which stretched a dreamy blue mirror of water dotted by islands and double-reflected pagodas. Hills covered with timeless green forest ringed the opposite shore. Small, one-man passenger boats sculled the surface, their black canopies making them seem from a distance to be random, slow-moving water bugs. As far as she could see around the lake, between the boulevard and the shore, there stretched a shady park filled with promenading people. The noises of the city swallowed themselves somehow into silence behind her. She felt a sense of calm spreading inside, blue, like the water. She glanced at him. He was smiling with the same kind of pleasure.
I really liked this book. Besides learning about Chinese food (while we may think it, what we eat as Chinese food here is in fact nowhere near actual Chinese food) and culture, the story of Maggie and Sam (the chef) is also beautiful and tender.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Look Back 2008, The Most Educational: Infidel and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I learned a lot about two very different cultures this year. Infidel tells the true story of a young woman who leaves the Muslim religion behind, goes to school and eventually becomes a member of the Dutch parliament. The Spirit Catches You tells the true story of a Hmong family with an epileptic child, and how communicating with doctors was nearly impossible, in addition to the family’s beliefs not necessarily falling in line with Western medicine.

Both books made me realize how little many of us know about other cultures. How just because someone from another culture disagrees with something American doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to be difficult, but because something is ingrained in them that they firmly believe. And they may not necessarily be wrong. How when two cultures think so completely differently, there’s really no way to meet in the middle – it takes one side folding more to the other.

While both books were very educational for me, they also raised just as many questions. The books are set out to do the right thing: create awareness. But most of the time awareness isn’t enough. We have to do more, together.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Top Books 2007

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cutting Back: Magazine Subscriptions

I read this short article online at Folio which cited a Forrester Research study that found while 77 percent of people plan to keep their current number of magazines subscriptions for the near future, 18 percent plan to cut back. Those with multiple (more than five) subscriptions - 24 percent anticipate cutting back. And the harder hit type of magazine will be the consumer magazine (not business-to-business). (I was also amazed to read that more than 700 new magazines formed in 2007. How many of those do you think are still around?)

We get a lot of magazines at the house. I pay for Wired ($10/year) and EW ($36/year). I also get Domino, which was a gift. The hubby gets Esquire, Scientific American, Spin, PlayStation, Popular Science, Sports Illustrated and Motor Trend. My EW is my Sunday escape reading, so I'd really miss it. I get Wired primarily for work, but I may not renew when the time comes. And I'm not planning to start any new magazines subscriptions (I used to get several others, but I cut back last year).

I think the hubby also plans to cut back, especially when we find we don't read them all. He loves the PlayStation magazine (reads it cover to cover), most issues of SI (which I actually got on a deal for $2 for a year, so um yeah, can't go wrong there, especially for a weekly) and his car mag. But the rest are up for consideration, I think.

So, what about you? How many magazines do you get? And is this something that you're looking to cut back on in the upcoming year? As a magazine editor, I can't help but be sad at this trend - I love magazines! - but I do understand. :)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Look Back 2008, The Best Fiction: Unaccustomed Earth

Once again, I'm reviewing the previous year and picking out the most memorable books I read.

I fell in love with Jhumpa Lahiri after reading Interpreter of Maladies. The Namesake was also good, but Interpreter felt like magic to me. So, I was incredibly excited when Unaccustomed Earth came out this past year. And it didn’t disappoint. It was even more magical than I expected. Lahiri writes of her culture (second- and third-generation Indian Americans) with such honesty and grace. She’s not afraid to tackle the big issues – health-failing parents, racial issues, language barriers and so much more – and she does so with great story telling. While a majority of the stories were on the sadder side, they also felt very true. I loved how her last three stories related to each other, a technique you don't find too often. Lahiri has made me appreciate the reading of short stories, but she’s also put herself so far out of everyone else’s league, that other authors’ compilations tend to disappoint.

Interpreter of Maladies & The Namesake
Unaccustomed Earth
Top Books in 2007

Saturday, November 29, 2008


A-woo hoo! I did it. A complete novel at 50,074 words. With a day to spare! Colletively, the whole NaNo community wrote nearly 1.5 billion words so far. Really, really cool.

I'm very glad I took on this challenge. It was fun, hard, frustrating and easy at all different times, and now I can actually say I wrote a several-chapter novel, with an epilogue, from start to finish. Thanks to everyone for their support!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Twilight: The Movie

Last night I saw Twilight with one of my best girls. And we loved, loved, loved it. It actually surpassed my expectations. Sure there were some cheesy lines, but I expected that since the first book is full of them. Sure the special effects weren't stellar, but they had something to prove with this movie and its small budget, and New Moon will be done even better (bring on the werewolves!).

But, looking past those little things, the movie was like a dream I didn't want to end. The actors were brilliant. Robert Pattinson was nearly flawless, making even this 28-year-old married gal swoon just a bit. Kristen Stewart had down pat the combination of angst and head-over-heels in love. The whole movie - as did the book, but the movie even more so - brought me back to high school, to what it felt like to be so crazy about someone that's all you thought about, that's the only person you wanted to be with. You wanted that person in your bedroom at night, and here Bella gets that with one sexy vampire.

And the Cullens. Sigh. I love that family. They too were beautiful. My girlfriend and I audibly gasped when Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) entered the movie for the first time. Esme was just as I pictured her in my head. Emmett was handsome and silly, Alice cute as a button, and Rosalie beautiful yet seemingly unattainable like a super model. Jasper was a little Edward Scissorhands-like to me, but I can understand his vacant stare since he's new to this "vegetarian" thing. I also thought one of the best characters, and the actor who did one of the best jobs, was Billy Burke as Bella's father Charlie. He played the perfect version of a father who doesn't quite know what to do with a teenage daughter, but he tries really hard. And he's supportive and protective and sarcastic. Loved him. The supporting cast was great, too. Bella's friends Mike, Jessica and Eric were hilarious and very real, and I'm excited to see more from Jacob in the second movie.

But in the end, it came down to Bella and Edward for me. They had great chemistry on screen and I felt they were true to their characters. Very true.

All in all, hands down, great movie. It made me rediscover my love for the series. I don't know how they make teenage girls feel (I can only imagine all the Robert Pattinson posters lining bedroom walls all over the world), but for me the stories are nostalgic and sweet and a wonderful escape.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Look Back to 2008: Quick Survey

I'm working on my "Best Books I read in 2008" blog for sometime in December (see last year's list here), but I was curious, if you had to create a similar post, what would you include? Think back - What were the best books you read in 2008?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NaNoWriMo, Day 19: 30,000 words

The most recent goal set by NaNoWriMo is to have 30,000 words total by midnight tonight. I'm only some 150 words from that goal, which I should easily be able to complete this evening - and hopefully more. NaNo founder Chris Baty's pep talk for the week made me laugh: "Use all of your sprinting skills and word-count-bolstering tricks you've learned in the last two weeks to get to 30K. If you need to have your characters sing "American Pie" in its entirety or recite some of their favorite passages from telephone books, so be it." While I'm proud to say I've concluded nearly 30,000 words without such techniques - and hope to make it to 50,000 without doing so - it's nice to know it's not frowned upon. :)

Anyway, I know you can all do the math, but 10 days left to write 20,000 words (ugh, I know I've done that 1.5 times over already, but it still sounds insurmountable) means 2,000 words/day. With a girlfriend's birthday bash tomorrow and a pre Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, those two nights are shot. That means 4,000 words/day on the weekend. But I've done it before the past three weekends (another lucky turn of events in that this November had FIVE weekends - bonus!).

Also, I have to give a shout out to my hubby who has been super supportive this month, almost to the point of scolding when I'm not writing. Also, to my two very best girls who surprised me with a card of support that came in the mail yesterday. Their "you can do it!" sing-song phrases made me tear up and remember, yet again, how so thankful I am for them. And that yes, I can do this.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On Beauty

First, NaNoWriMo update: Halfway through the month (Nov. 15), halfway through the novel (25,054 words). Week two was a killer, and I'm not sure the final 15 days will be much easier, but I'm proud of where I am.

Now, I've been a bit consumed by my own novel lately, but that doesn't mean I'm not still reading on the bus or at lunch. I've been reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I haven't read any of her novels before (I heard White Teeth was good - anyone?), but I bought her book on the sale table at B&N a while back. It's an interesting story, a bit boring in places, long-winded passages that I'm sometimes tempted to skim, but some good characters. Not necessarily good in their actions, but good as in characters with depth. Here's the book's synopsis:

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith's third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.
I can tell Smith is a talented writer. Certain methods of her writing or turns of phrase remind me of Charles Dickens even. She sometimes acts like a narrator, telling the reader directly that we'll be jumping through time or letting us in on an unknown fact/secret about a character. However, the book is just OK for me. Some of the characters are just despicable, and others don't even seem like they could be real. I'm almost done, and I will finish it, but because I'm not completely enthralled, that might be why it's taking me so long to finish.

Monday, November 10, 2008

NaNoWriMo, Day 10

Everything I’ve read on the NaNoWriMo site has said that week two is killer. To quote Chris Baty, NaNo founder, “Week Two tends to be when the novelty of NaNoWriMo wears off, and the difficulties of making so many tough decisions in such a short time period add up. Enthusiasm dwindles, fatigue rises, and we begin squinting at our manuscripts, thinking, ‘This derivative pile of crap is my literary statement to the world?’”

In his latest pep talk, he encourages us to use week two to work on the plot of our story. Supposedly week one was all about character development and we need to now move those characters forward.

That’s not quite my problem, sitting right below 20,000 words. I am feeling more fatigued than my week one “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to do it” high, and the decisions I’m making for my characters are definitely getting harder to make. My mind goes blank.

However, it’s not for a lack of plot. In my day job, and the past four-and-a-half years of it, I’ve mastered the art of tight, condensed writing. I can tell you about any Twin Cities attraction in less than 15 words, and you’ll leave feeling satisfied. So, here I sit at just under 20,000 words with a plot. Things have happened. Lots of things. There’s been a break in, a beating, a love story and a whole bunch of other stuff. So, in my learned practice of writing quick and to the point, my fear remains: I’ll finish it before 50,000 words.

I can see where the problem started. I had this idea for a young adult novel in my head and I just typed and typed to get it out of my head and down on paper as fast as possible. In doing so, I’m afraid I spent too little time on my main characters: what they look like, what drives them in the end, what they think about (at least more of what they think about). So what do I do now? The goal of NaNo is to just write. You aren’t supposed to go back and reread stuff - just get it out. Editing is for December. However, if I could go back and flesh out these kids a little better, maybe my story, and my word count, would benefit? I know in the end, how I go about getting to 50,000 words – honestly – is up to me. But those are my week two struggles.

For me to stay on track, I need to hit 25,000 words by Saturday. Here’s hoping!

Friday, November 7, 2008

NaNoWriMo: Day 7

Well, I'm about a little more than a 1/4 of the way done with the month, and I've written 1/5 of my novel so far. A little more than 10,000 words. I've developed a system - if I can write 1,000 words a weeknight and some 7-8,000 words a weekend, I can finish this thing. I also realized that without distraction, give me an hour, and I can write 1,000 words. Sure, that's only in the first week and I'm sure my motivation will decrease, my ideas will stop flowing or my story will come to an abrupt halt at some point, but so far, I'm pretty pleased.

The folks at NaNoWriMo send pep talks from famous writers to our inbox every week. This week we heard from Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass and other stories. I loved all he had to say; his words were very encouraging. He says the hardest page to write is page 70:
All the initial excitement has drained away; you've begun to see all the hideous problems you've set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you've undertaken. That's when you'll want to give up.
That made me laugh, and as someone who is on page 20, I'm not looking forward to page 70. However, maybe remembering what he said about it - power through! - it won't be so bad. The other thing that he said, which I've heard before as well, but is so true, is that you can't write a novel if you're not a reader:

Every novelist I knowevery novelist I've ever heard ofis, or was, a passionate reader. I don't doubt that someone with determination and energy, but who didn't read for pleasure, who only read for information, could actually write a whole novel if they set their mind to it and followed a few rules and guidelines; but would it be worth reading? Would it give any pleasure beyond a mechanically calculated sort? I doubt it. Novels that last and please readers are written because the novelist is intoxicated by the delight and the endlessly renewable joy that comes from engaging with imaginary characterswith story; and that engagement always begins with reading; and if it catches you, it never lets go. Write a novel if you want to win a competition, or impress your friends, or possibly make some moneydo so by all means. But if you're not a lover of stories, a passionate and devoted reader, don't expect your novel to please many readers.

On the other hand, if you do love reading, if you cannot imagine going on a journey without a book in your pocket or your bag, if you fret and fidget and become uncomfortable if you're kept away from your reading for too long, if your worst nightmare is to be marooned on a desert island without a book
then take heart: there are plenty of us like you. And if you tell a story that really engages you, we are all potential readers.
I don't know if being on a desert island without a book is my worst nightmare, but it's up there. Here's to the next 10,000 words.

Monday, November 3, 2008

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo)

I'm doing something crazy this month. I'm attempting to write a novel. In 30 days. For those of you who are unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo started in 1999 with 21 people trying to write 50,000-word novels in the course of 30 days. Last year, more than 100,000 people around the world signed up for the challenge and some 15,000 actually completed the task.

I've thought about joining the fray the past two Novembers, but finally decided to take the leap this year. Why? I have no idea. But, I have a supportive husband, and it just came down to: Why not? You can see my NaNoWriMo official word counter to the right, and can keep track of my progress with me.

I don't want to get into the official rules and regulations of the program, so I encourage you to read the Web site if you're interested. Bascially, it just comes down to self-satisfaction at the end of the month. Hopefully I'll wind up with less-than-perfect prose in the form of a novel, and if I like it, I'll use the following months to edit it into something worth sharing (or not). Or, if I can't make it to 50,000 words, well, at least I tried.

And now that I've told the lot of you, I'm really on the hook, huh? :)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Losing My Mind (and blogoversary)

I just wrote a column for a publication I write for about how my once stellar memory ain’t so stellar anymore. I used to remember everyone’s birthdays, I never had to keep a calendar (“It’s all up here,” I’d say, pointing to my noggin), assignments got done and phone calls returned ASAP. Nowadays—this has just started happening in the past several months—I can have something written down in two different places and still forget about it, the bills sit not getting paid (because that’s hazardous, we’ve worked out a somewhat better system then just remembering to pay them), and whole assignments, favors or conversations are just *poof* gone.

Things have been a little more stressful in life lately, so yes, stress probably has a lot to do with it. However, I also blame it on our current culture of interruption and multitasking. You know it takes me days to write an 800-word article? And that’s after I have all the research and interviews done. Days just to write it, because my e-mail bongs every two minutes, my phone rings, managerial decisions need to be made right now, etc. To write I need at least a solid two hours sans interruption. That doesn’t happen in this day and age of RSS feeds, Twitter, IM, etc.

As I complained to my boss about this “phenomenon” I’m suffering from—“I’m turning into you!” I exclaimed to my forgetful boss who I now have a whole new respect for, even more so than I already did—he pointed me to this great article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid? It’s hilarious because it’s true.
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Yes! And, he blames the Internet. Google. All those things. They’re changing the way we process information. The way we READ. Should we be concerned?! Will it soon come to fruition that I can’t sit and read a book anymore? Maybe it’s already started—I’ve put down two books this year I just couldn’t get through. I never do that. Am I destined to be completely changed forever? My friends will be so disappointed – they love my memory and my attention to detail.

[Edited to add (same day): My boss also sent me this article about how as we age we get worse at multitasking, because of all the thoughts running around in our head. We hit our multitasking peak at college age, which explains why I could take 13 credits, work three jobs and go out several times a week and still graduate with a 3.7 GPA. That girl is gone.]

After my panic attack of sorts subsided, I’ve succumbed to the way it’s going to be. We are a working society, and because we want to be faster and better than the next guy, technology needs to be by our side. If I really want to have an interruption-free day, I need to work from home. Since I did read some 30 books this past year, maybe I just know what I like to read, and those two books I put down before the end weren’t it?

I have also resolved to sound like an old woman and purposely not get on the Blackberry-check-my-email-every-five-minutes wagon (I’m at a computer and e-mail all day, it’s not coming home with me) and my e-mail ‘new message’ icon is the only thing popping up on my screen all day – no RSS feeds, no Twitter accounts, no AOL IM, no Facebook. Right now, this is the only way I think I can remain somewhat sane. I know this will probably change in the near future (as they say, if you want to play the game, you gotta get on the field), but for now, at least I can breathe.


So, one year ago today I started this blog. In that time I've posted about 130 times and, if I counted right, I read about 30 books. Thirty books a year is pretty good, I think. I've read fiction, nonfiction, memoir and young adult books on everything from Islam and zookeeping to Hmong immigrants and vampires. All in all, a good year for books.

I was thinking I may get all reflective and talk about what my blog means to me, however, in reality, it meets the purpose I intended in the beginning: to share my thoughts and create a record of the books I read. Now, when I'm having a conversation with someone about a book I read, I feel like I remember it better because I wrote about it. Or, if I don't remember much about it, I can go back and read my thoughts. And that's helpful for me.

So, for all of you who've visited Bookish Bent over the past year - thanks. I appreciate it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In His Sights

Over the weekend I read In His Sights, a memoir by "Kate Brennan" about her life with a stalker. Here's the synopsis:
What if the man you'd loved for years vows, when you leave him, to destroy you? What if he transforms into a ruthless tormentor, stealing your freedom, undermining your sanity, and threatening your safety?

This is not a fictional scenario. It is Kate Brennan's life.

Kate is a well-respected writer and scholar, a highly independent woman with simple tastes and a complicated romantic past that leave her perfectly content with singlehood. So when she meets Paul—a wealthy, charismatic businessman with a great deal of free time—she's wary of getting involved. Eventually, though, his polished charm and relentless wooing win her over. Things move quickly, and it is only after the two have moved in together that Kate discovers the serial infidelity, the unbalanced psyche, and the sordid secrets lurking under the Mr. Right facade.

Kate lets Paul into her life with trepidation, and when she ends the relationship, she finds she can't get him out of it. With limitless resources, he dedicates himself to stalking her: he tracks her movements, arranges for people to break into her home, interferes with her work, and even relocates to her new neighborhood. His harassment lasts for more than a decade and, as Paul is still at large, it continues to turn Kate's life upside down today.

This visceral memoir not only lays bare the mind of a stalker, but also shows how a smart, successful woman can fall prey to a warped and powerful man who has the money and connections to keep her under his watchful eye. Both frightening and insightful, In His Sights is a gripping tale of one woman's descent into the dark side of love and how she has fought—and still struggles—to free herself.

This was a pretty good book, very engaging, but also very disturbing. While "Kate" is very careful about the names she uses for friends and family (they're all aliases, so as not to put others in danger) and the places she visits, if you're from Minnesota, you know she lives here and has all her life. She's also a writer, and sometimes a professor, so it makes me wonder if I could possibly know who she is in real life. [Side note: It's not lost on me that she could be throwing us off with a made up profession and location, just like her name, but I don't think that's the case.]

I can't imagine what she goes through every day, living with having a stalker. It's been nearly 15 years, and he's still stalking her. He gets her mail rerouted to him, he cuts her phones lines, cuts her power, has people follow her nearly every day, calls her family and friends, and moves into her neighborhood with his new wife. Sick.

Through the book I questioned why she was with him in the first place. He didn't seem like that good of a guy, but I believe that he probably could have charmed her into believing he was. He also ends up having lots of problems, is verbally abusive and cheats. Why does she continue to stay? It's that tendency women have when they see an injured man to try to make him better. To accept the apologies that come the next day. It's definitely in women's nature to be caretakers, even if they're not treated the best in the long run. You see it all the time all around you.

Once she finally does leave him, she waits for two years of the stalking before going to the police. Again, what? But when she describes how she felt that they wouldn't be able to help her and that they would think she was exaggerating, I can see her reluctance. Fortuanately when she does finally go to the police, they're gems. However, stalking is one of those crimes that's hard to prove and a majority of the time the police can't do one thing about it. The only reassurance they can give her (besides advice on how to stay safe and protect herself and help her with fake identities) is that if anything should happen to her, "he's the only suspect." Woo - what a relief (she writes sarcastically).

If you're looking for a quick read, that's engaging and true, In His Sights is definitely worth a read. Just be prepared to hurt for Kate.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Infidel, Finale

I finished reading Infidel last night. This is a very powerful book, and if you've ever wanted to learn more about Islam and the right's of Muslim women, I highly suggest picking it up. Granted, this is one person's point of view, and unfortunately her point of view has put her life, and those around her, in unbelieable danger.

Hirsi Ali's personal story is amazing. In just 10 years she went from being an immigrant who didn't speak the language to a member of the Dutch Parliament, changing the way the governement looked at immigrant groups and changing policies in relation to Muslim women. Her bravery has to be commended, and her will to stand up and speak out, well, she's just a very courageous woman. And the most amazing thing is: I don't think she felt she was being brave. She never really questioned why she wrote the papers she did, why she made the comments she did, why she filmed Submission and put it out there for people to see. She was fighting for the women of her culture, and nothing was going to stop her, because if she didn't do it, who would?

I'll leave you with this quote from the Epilogue:
People accuse me of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument. Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors' traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes? When I came to a new cluture, where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different, would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice?

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state. To accept subordination and abuse because Allah willed it - that, for me, would be self-hatred.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Star Tribune regularly republishes articles from years ago. After reading Loving Frank, I found today's reprint particularly interesting. It's from 1926 when Wright was wanted by Wisconsin authorities for various reasons and found, shacked up with his mistress, in Minnetonka, Minn. As in Loving Frank, here is another instance when Wright was married (to someone different this time then during his time with Mamah) and took a mistress (who was also married at the time). Such scandal! It's hard to imagine this took place in real life back in the 1920s, and in the wholesome Midwest, and not in some soap opera. :)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Infidel, Part II

I’m a little more than halfway through Infidel. The book is fascinating to me, though also sad, shocking and eye-opening. I know all of us sitting in our nice homes in our somewhat safe cities in America know that not everyone has it as good as we do. But, I think we forget this a lot. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I don’t want to delve too deep into the story because there’s just so much there, but I’m going to pull out one part that reinforced what I just wrote above. Hirsi Ali was married off to a man from Canada (she didn’t attend the wedding, she didn’t know this man very well, but that didn’t matter, her father arranged everything). On her way to Canada from Kenya to move in with her new husband, she stopped in Germany to await a visa. When she walked down the German streets, she had many realizations (keep in mind this was 1992): the streets were clean, the streets had street signs, people had space to live, women wore whatever they wanted, men and women held hands and people didn’t shun them, she could walk down the street without one glance or sneer from a man, no one cared where she walked or what she did—in Germany she was anonymous.

She writes at the time that she didn’t feel like renouncing her religion, she didn’t feel like abandoning her family, she just felt like there was more. More. That’s when her new life started. Those stronger feelings about her religion and the ways of her family came later.

The book gives some very interesting insights into Islam. Some people take the word of Allah literally, others choose to interpret it or modernize it (which in the minds of the literals, is a sin in itself). This really isn’t different than any other religion. No matter what you believe, there are others who believe either “deeper” or “less” than you. It just comes down to whether we can coexist. And it’s so sad that some believe violence against infidels is the only means to an end.

Last weekend we saw Body of Lies. This isn’t a movie we would typically go see in the theater, but I had free passes. DiCaprio plays a CIA undercover agent who tries to catch a man responsible for bombings across Europe. The word “infidel” was thrown around frequently in this movie, as that’s who he was trying to kill/send a message to with his bombings. The movie made me really sad because it demonstrated how this war will never be over. Never. It may curb. It may desist for a time. But it will never end. Just like Hirsi Ali knows she will never be truly safe, even in America.

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, with a focus on poverty. While this post isn't about poverty specifically, I hope if anything: May we all take a moment yesterday, today and tomorrow to think about those who have less than us, who are worse off than us. In truth, you don't have to look far.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


On recommendation of my girl Willikat, I'm reading Infidel. I'm not going to try to explain the memoir in my own words, so here's the publisher's synopsis:
In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West.

One of today's most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali burst into international headlines following an Islamist's murder of her colleague, Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the movie Submission.

Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished -- and sometimes reviled -- political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat -- demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan -- she refuses to be silenced.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali's story tells how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.
I'm only about 100 pages in, but the book is riveting. Hirsi Ali starts telling the story before she was born, filling the reader in on the history of her family and other clans in Somalia. Then she describes her life in Somalia with her brother, sister, mother and grandmother - for much of her childrhood, her father was in jail for being a part of the resistance against the government. Over the years they move to Saudia Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Hirsi Ali and her siblings are beaten weekly by their grandmother and mother (more so the girls than her brother), and all experience genital mutilation between ages 4 and 6 years old. While school is a source of stress for Hirsi Ali (because they moved so much, they were always the new kids, and usually of a different religion or culture, so they were bullied), she also learned many different languages and the practices of many different families.

With any memoir, I think we've all learned, you have to take what you read with a grain of salt. Several reviews I've read call the book "eye opening," but others feel her abusive childhood colored her real understanding of Islam. But if anything, I feel she renounced her religion for a reason and it's better she share her story with the world, than remain silent. Though the danger it puts her in is unimaginable.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Loving Frank, The End

I finished Loving Frank this week. I have mixed feelings. I think overall the book is good: good writing, interesting characters, based on true life events, etc. However, I had a hard time relating and even liking the main character, Mamah. Like I said in my previous post, I found her to be rather selfish. And she continued on this path throughout the book. And the author paints a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright as a eccentric, egotistical artist who was far in debt. (The author used many sources in her research and I think Wright was known in this way in many circles, so I don't feel she was exaggerating.)

So, what did Mamah see in him? I think he was a man who could understand the fight women were going through in the early 1900s, trying to get the right to vote, equal pay and credit for the work they did. He was more evolved in that way, plus he talked about his feelings and respected her intelligent thoughts about the world. I can definitely see how, to a woman who felt she was in a loveless marriage to a nice, but simple man, this would sweep her off her feet. But sweep her so far as to abandon her children and the rest of her family? That seems crazy to me.

In the midst of her time with Wright in Europe, Mamah met a Swedish feminist, Ellen Key, who seemed to echo her views about life: conventional marriage may not be for every woman, work and fair wages are important for women, perhaps more important than children, and women have so much further to come. A lot of this interested me because I never realized how many women more than 100 years ago were fighting for these rights, and I never realized how many women were in fact very outspoken about these things. Good for them! In the book, this conversation between Mamah and Ellen Key stood out to me, as I think these words could still be considered in today's world:
Men have always been trained to have the courage to dare. Women, on the other hand, are stuck being the keepers of memories and traditions. We've become the great conservators. Oh, I suppose we're suppler, as a result, because we've learned to see many sides. But what a price has been paid. It has kept us from greatness! And most women are happy just to repeat opinions and judgments they've heard, as if they thought of the ideas themselves. It's dangerous! Women need to understand evolutionary science, philosophy, art. They need to expand their knowledge and stop assassinating each others' characters.
I also liked this quote that came a few graphs later:
Attack the personal character of the thinker, and you will kill her ideas.
All very true, still to this day. So, overall, it was a good book. It was entertaining, for the feminist viewpoints and because much was set in the Midwest. I learned more about that time in history, and a lot more about the motivations of Wright, an architect whose buildings can be found on streets around here. I followed my coworkers advice and didn't Wikipedia any of the characters, and I was pretty shocked by the ending. Tragic. I did however look him up afterward, and it was just as interesting to read how Wright lived out the rest of his life as well.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Think Pink: Mixing Up Memories Cookbook

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to make mention of a Minnesota family who created a cookbook to raise money for the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Last year, the family mama, Joan Eichers, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early this year, the family came up with an idea of compiling a book of family recipes (140 total, with nice anecdotes alongside the recipes) called Mixing Up Memories. The book sells for $20 and from that $17 goes directly to the foundation. Here's a story in a Mankato newspaper about the family. What an inspiration.

Do you have any inspirational stories like this?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week presented by the American Library Association. If you click on the link and search around on the site, you'll come across a list of frequently challenged books, such as The Color Purple and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as the top 100 most challenged books from 1990-2000 and 2000-2007. No. 1 on the 2000-2007 list? Harry Potter. Others include:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Blubber, by Judy Blume (she's on the list FIVE times)
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
Goosebumps series, by R.L. Stine

(Other links, Pop Culture Junkie, PopCandy and the Guardian (via PopCandy))

And many, many more. I fortunately went to schools where, not only were these books in our libraries, we actually read them in class. My parents trusted me to make my own choices when it came to reading, knowing I was mature enough to handle the issues, and if I had questions I could come to them. It continues to surprise me that we still live in a society where parents and officials are so uncomfortable with important life issues such as racism, slavery, sexuality and growing up that they fight to keep kids from reading some really great authors. Maya Angelou! Toni Morrison! Lois Lowry! These women are amazing, award-winning authors for a reason. Don't they know that, in most cases, when you tell a child she can't do something, she's going to find a way to do it anyway - especially when it's as harmless as reading.

What about you? Do you see any of your favorite books on the lists?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Cheer For the Home Team

I know this isn't book related, but it's something I want to publicly celebrate. When our country is in such turmoil, we have no idea what's going to happen next, and we feel near hopeless, it's nice to have a distraction. If our Minnesota Twins can be that distraction, I'm grateful to them. I know the seasons isn't over, I know we still have three games left to play, and I know the White Sox our nipping at our heels, but when you're down and you need to be reminded of what it means Not To Give Up, see our Minnesota Twins sweep the dreaded Sox in the second-to-the-last series of the season to claim first place in the Central Division.

Thanks guys, for giving us something for which to cheer.

(Photo Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Forks, Washington

I absolutely loved this story on CNN about how, ever since the Twilight series hit the shelves, the little, rainy town of Forks, Wash., has seen an increase in visitor activity. Forks is where Bella moves to live with her sheriff father in the beginning of the first book. It’s where she meets Edward and Jacob. It’s where the books end.

When researching real towns for the setting of her stories, Meyers was looking for a specific place. What did this place need? Well, for vampires to be comfortable there and able to walk around amongst mortals, it needed to be a place with the least amount of sunlight possible. In truth, Forks is one of the rainiest places on the planet—more than a foot of rain falls each month. Ideal for vampire inhabitation.

At the time, Meyer couldn’t have known what her books would do for Forks. She had no idea Twilight and the following sequels would be so popular, but ever since those books first started topping the charts, Forks, a town that was losing steam and watching its citizens leave for brighter horizons, has seen an influx of new life.

Thousands of visitors have traveled to Forks, hoping to see in front of their very eyes, some of the magic they read about in the books. And town residents are taking notice. As the article says, one guy has taken it upon himself to find houses that match the description of Bella’s and the Cullens’, found a spot on the beach that matches that of Bella and Jacob’s favorite hangout, and the local hospital even has a spot reserved for Dr. Cullen. How frickin’ cool.

As someone who has a large understanding of hospitality and tourism because of my job, I know how important it is for small towns to find that specific draw. I know how important it is for local chambers or visitors centers to hype themselves in an effort to bring in more tourists. Tourists = $$$. So, because of this understanding, this story touched my heart and made me so happy for Forks. So proud for this little town I’d never even knew existed before two months ago. Maybe someday I’ll be able to check out Forks, too. For Meyer’s personal experience during her first visit to Forks, and a slideshow of photos, see here.

(Map courtesy of Stephenie Meyer's Web site.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Loving Frank

A coworker lent me Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. She really liked it and it was on my Amazon Wish List, so I thought I'd give it a try. Here is what Kathy Piehl of Library Journal had to say about the book:
In 1904, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, respectable members of Oak Park, IL, society. Five years later, after a clandestine affair, Frank and Mamah scandalized that society by leaving their families to live together in Europe. Stunned by the furor, Mamah wanted to stay there, particularly after she met women's rights advocate Ellen Key, who rejected conventional ideas of marriage and divorce. Eventually, Frank convinced her to return to Wisconsin, where he was building Taliesin as a home and retreat. Horan's extensive research provides substantial underpinnings for this engrossing novel, and the focus on Mamah lets readers see her attraction to the creative, flamboyant architect but also her recognition of his arrogance. Mamah's own drive to achieve something important is tinged with guilt over abandoning her children. Tentative steps toward reconciliation end in a shocking, violent conclusion that would seem melodramatic if it weren't based on true events. The plot, characters, and ideas meld into a novel that will be a treat for fans of historical fiction but should not be pigeonholed in a genre section.
My coworker warned me not to Google the real-life characters in this book, so I wouldn't ruin the ending for myself. I've kept this in mind, but now I'm glad I didn't read any reviews either because there are a lot of spoilers out there! Tragic conclusion - oh my!

I'm enjoying this book for several reasons. Mamah is a strong, independent woman, particularly for the early 1900s. She was fighting for suffrage, and searching for meaning in her life. She loves her children but isn't defined by them, and struggles with what to do in a loveless marriage. While I would never promote a married woman to have an affair, I find it so fascinating that in this time, when divorce was hardly the norm, Mamah and Frank did what they did. Mamah struggles with her actions - running away to be with Frank - but I'm not sure if she suffers enough (at least as of now as I'm only halfway through the book). But she firmly believes love conquerors all. And while I can be a romantic, I think she shouldn't forget her responsibilities back home. Could a mother really leave her young children behind like that - no matter how unhappy you are in a marriage? It just screams selfish to me.

But, even if I feel Mamah is selfish and making some tragic choices for a woman of her time, she's still an empathetic character and a woman some may admire. Also, being from Minnesota, it's interesting to read more about Frank Llyod Wright. As the review says, he's from the Midwest - the prairie and nature were his muses - and we have several Wright and Wright-inspired homes in the Twin Cities.

How do you feel about historical fiction? Is it hard to decifer the truth from the fact? Or don't you care?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Host, Finale & Real Life Themes

When I read novels that I think are just novels, but then make me think about things on another level, I still get amazed. As someone who would love to write a novel one day, I think, Would I be able to do that? I don’t know. Or, maybe it just comes out of authors naturally, because that’s the only themes they know. Like, with Harry Potter - themes, include oppression, fear, bigotry, but also love and hope. Was Rowling purposely creating stories around these themes, or because that’s what our world is like in real life, it’s only natural for those themes to fill the Potter books?

Same goes for The Host. You think you’re reading a book about alien invasion, but then you start thinking that it’s about so much more. It’s about war, living underground away from the enemy, loving someone you shouldn’t, discrimination, but also kindness and acceptance.

To go off course just a touch, when he was doing press for I Am Legend, Will Smith suffered some bad PR when he made a comment along the lines of understanding that when it came to the Holocaust, in Hitler’s mind, he thought he was doing the right thing. Of course people flew off the handle, but Smith in no way meant he agreed with Hitler. If you watch the movie, you see Will Smith’s character capturing the creatures, trying to “cure” them through medicine, and then unfortunately killing them. In his mind, he was doing the right thing – trying to save humanity. However, in the minds of the creatures, he was murdering them when they could quite possibly coexist. Now, I’m not saying that Hitler was right – God, no – but from his perspective he thought he was and I can see how convincing him otherwise would be near impossible.

So, since I’ve given those themes a lot of thought because of that movie, a book about alien invasion strikes a similar nerve. As a human, I can’t possibly think that aliens invading our planet is good, however, these aliens think they’re doing the right thing. Then, when an alien befriends humans who she shockingly discovers are murdering her kind to try to stop the invasion, she’s upset. But, in the humans’ minds, that’s what they need to do. Keep fighting. So, how do you reconcile that?

Both I Am Legend and The Host, and many other books and films, reflect our real world. We don’t believe what you believe, so we’re going to put a stop to it. You have to protect yourselves, so now we’re at war. The stronger “team” wins.

Coexistence. Whether male or female, black or white, Christian or Muslim, straight or gay, alien or human: Why is that so hard?

On a bit lighter note, Do you believe in aliens? Will they come here someday? Have they already arrived? Maybe we’re all already aliens? I’m kidding with that last one. Sort of. ☺

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Story by Phone

I just came across this really cool local idea today when I was reading a Star Tribune blog (the guest blogger is someone I've worked with before, so I'm always interested in what she has to say). StoryLineMN offers kids stories by phone. Just dial up the number, and kids can listen to a story read by local actors. Each month has a theme, and there's a new story each week. How cool is that? I even called up and listened to a story - and I'm not even the intended audience. As Lucie writes in her post, this is a great way to entertain kids when you need to get something done around the house.

Again: Why didn't I think of this? So simple, yet so brilliant. Plus, it promotes literacy! If there are any moms and dads out there who try it, let me know what you think.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Host

Now I’m reading The Host, Stephenie Meyer’s novel for adults. This is a story about Earth being taken over by aliens. When the story begins, aliens have infiltrated most everyone on the planet, with just a few rogue humans out there trying to survive. The aliens (centipede-like creatures) are placed inside captured humans and then go about daily life as humans would. Many stay in the same relationships their “hosts” were in, live in the same homes, etc. The aliens came to Earth because they believed, that through violence and irresponsibility, we were letting our planet go to crap. They were appalled by our way of life. Aliens disbanded our currency programs - who needs money if we all just trust each other? – drug addicts cleaned up, criminals went straight, everyone wins a medal in the Olympics, no one fights or disagrees, and so on.

Melanie Stryder is a 20-something human who moves around constantly with her little brother and Jared, a man she met while on the run and fell in love with. One wrong move and Melanie is implanted with Wanderer, an alien who has lived on several different planets in the universe. Wanderer’s job is to read Melanie’s mind so she can lead the other aliens to the few humans who are left. However, Melanie is a lot stronger than Wanderer gives her credit for, and she won’t succumb. Soon enough, Melanie and Wanderer are mixed up in adventure together.

At first, it was a struggle to get into this book, with the conversations between Melanie and Wanderer a little harder to follow, since they took place inside the same head. However, that only lasted for a chapter of two. Then things got really good. As humans, we should hate the aliens, yet you end up feeling empathetic toward Wanderer. Also, as someone who opposes violence and wishes we could all just live in peace, to me the alien Earth seems a little nice, actually. However, without differing opinions, doesn’t that actually make for a boring place to live? Meyer writes about this from Wanderer’s point of view [note: the “souls” she talks about are she and the other aliens]:
I’d never lived on a planet where such atrocities could happen, even before the souls came. This place was truly the highest and the lowest of all worlds – the most beautiful senses, the most exquisite emotions…the most malevolent desires, the darkest deeds. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Perhaps without the lows, the highs could not be reached. Were the souls the exception to that rule? Could they have the light without the darkness of this world
Meyer’s writing is similar to her Twilight books, in that it’s simple and fun, yet asks meaningful questions and also presents lots of action. While I’m not as enthralled with this book as Twilight, it’s right up there and I like that it feels a bit more adult-like. I’m also not one to read about aliens, but same went with vampires, so go figure. :)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

PopCandy: 25 Great High School Books

I check in daily with USA Today's Whitney Matheson and her PopCandy blog. Last week she got an e-mail from a teenager starting her first year of high school. The teenager was asking for some advice. Whitney put out the call and several readers offered some great tips for getting through high school angst. This then led Whitney to start a series of posts about movies, TV shows, books, etc., that are either good reads/watches for teenagers or that represent teenagers in a good way.

Here is a link to her list of 25 Great High School Books. I actually haven't heard of several of them. But I definitely agree with Catcher and the Rye, The Outsiders, Harry Potter, Brave New Girl, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and A Separate Peace.

(I don't agree with Running with Scissors. This book disturbed me to no end and I was in my 20s when I read it. I really wouldn't reccommend it for teenagers, especially since I believe Burroughs did a little exaggerating and a childhood like this is most definitlely NOT ordinary.)

I've tried to think of books I would list or recommend, but I don't do well under the pressure - my mind goes blank! But, what about you? What do you agree or disagree with? What tomes would be on your list of best high school books?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cookbooks: Southern Living's Easy Weeknight Favorites

I don't like to cook. I love food, but I just can't get into cooking. Sure, I'll whip up the easy things like pasta and tacos, but spending a long time cooking a meal just doesn't interest me. I don't have the patience, or I'm just too anxious to eat, that something quick is always better. I think a lot of it comes from my mom. She worked all my life, so quick and easy meals were key. Plus, she had to cook for me and my dad, who are probably some of the pickiest eaters out there, so her options were already limited. Also, I hate the grocery store. When you're a busy person and your only time to go to the store is on the weekend, it's just not the most fun activity, you know? All this makes cooking meals just one of those things that has to be done and not fun, which is too bad because I love to eat.

A few years ago, probably around the time I got cable, I got way into the Food Network. I loved Rachael Ray and Giada and all the FN staples. But as simple as they make the dishes look (even you, Sandra Lee) they're never that easy. I have several cookbooks at home - many RR 30-minute meal books, plus a Bride & Groom cookbook with recipes - are you kidding me? - that are next to impossible unless you're on Top Chef. But one cookbook has been top notch for me: Southern Living's Our Best Easy Weeknight Favorites. I didn't even buy it. My aunt gave it to me, and she probably got it free through a subscription or something. But one day, the hubby and I flipped through it and found numerous options to try and we still cook these up several years later: meatloaf (I'm a pro at this meal and have even added my own twist), enchiladas, pizza sandwiches, parmesan chicken and several others.

Now it's your turn: What cookbooks do you swear by?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Likeness, Part II

I’m loving The Likeness. Cassie, the undercover detective, has been placed in the shoes of a murder victim, Lexie, who Cassie looks like exactly. While her partners try to use all their powers to discover who Lexie really was on the outside, Cassie lives in an old mansion with Lexie’s four roommates. Having prepared through video clips and any and every fact the cops could give her, Cassie morphs into Lexie and becomes a part of the family, all the while trying to find her killer.

The roommates are very interesting characters – Abby, Daniel, Rafe and Justin. The five are unbelievably close. The mansion holds a mystery (why do all the local residents hate the group so much?), each roommate has a past they keep secret and Cassie has to discretely infiltrate the town, the roommate’s personalities and the house to discover whom Lexie was and why anyone would want her killed.

The book is very engaging, giving the reader hints along the way as to who possibly could be the killer. You fall in love with the roommates, but then you question their motives. It’s also sad to think that they believe their friend is still alive. While trying to remain professional, Cassie does fall into the group easily and starts to like them a lot. All the harder for her to possibly discover one or all of them is up to no good, or if anything, eventually have to tell them their friends is really dead. While it’s fiction, it does make me think about real undercover cops. How hard would it be to pretend to be someone else, especially within a dangerous situation? Always looking over your shoulder, hoping you don’t let on that you’re not who you say you are?

The author, Tana French, has a good way with language, including a lot of detail about the town, the characters, etc., but all in a very engaging way. Even if there’s not much dialogue for several pages, and you’re just sitting inside Cassie’s mind, the paragraphs are engaging and the pages go by quickly.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Twilight: The movie

Two new trailers for the Twilight movie. I like what I see for the most part, though some of the acting may seem a little cheesy in the long run. Plus, to me it looks like they're really going to escalate the danger aspects. But, that's what movies do. It does look exciting though, and I'm sure I'll have to see it in November (especially since it's taken Harry Potter's spot on the fall schedule). I love the last few seconds of the first preview, when Edward says, "You really shouldn't have said that," and smiles at Bella. That's exactly how I pictured his mannerisms - definitely sexy for a 17-year-old immortal.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Night Gardener, The Likeness and Other Thoughts

I finished reading The Night Gardener last week. It was just OK for me. While I was getting into it somewhat in the middle, the beginning dragged and the ending was a bit of a letdown. There were also a few character arcs that I felt were unnecessary and kind of a waste of space. Pelecanos actually received some pretty good reviews for this book though, so once again, I feel like I’m missing something. Maybe it was the genre that I didn’t like? However, funny thing…

Now I’m reading The Likeness, a story about an undercover detective in Dublin who comes across a body of a woman the spitting image of her. So the cops involved use this “likeness” to their advantage, covering up the murder as an attempted murder and putting Cassie, the detective, in the middle of this woman’s life in attempt to find the real killer. The Likeness is a sequel to In the Woods. B&N didn’t have In the Woods, so I decided to start The Likeness and see if I needed to read its predecessor to understand it. I didn’t. The author, Tana French, gets you up to speed ASAP. The catch is that many years ago, Cassie and her boss create this dead woman’s identity for the purpose of another undercover operation. She’s not real. So, how does she wind up dead in the Irish countryside? Good question. That’s what the characters in The Likeness are trying to figure out. I’m really enjoying the book, so my previous theory that crime fic might be a genre I just don’t enjoy isn’t holding much water.

In actuality, I think I was just going through a funk and The Night Gardener was not a good enough book to get me out of it. I think I got in the funk because I read, and became consumed by, the Twilight series in a little over two weeks time, and anything I picked up after that just wasn’t holding my attention (The Secret of Lost Things – boring; The World Without Us – while very interesting, too dense and not fast enough for what I need right now; and The Night Gardener…). I think The Likeness will help as I’m pretty into it so far – always a good sign.

What about you? Ever get into a reading funk? Does it depress you like it does me? I just felt out of sorts these past few weeks without a good book by my side.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Library Hotel, New York City

No, no. I didn't make a trip to NYC over the holiday weekend. However, my boss did, to attend the US Open, and he stayed at what perhaps may be my dream hotel: the Library Hotel. The hotel's floors are arranged by the Dewey Decimal System (Social Sciences, Literature, History, General Knowledge, etc.) with each room themed with a collection of books and art pieces pertaining to a specific topic within each category. (For example, my boss stayed on the Math & Science floor in the Botany room.)

Common areas such as The Reading Room (with 24-hour refreshments), The Writers Den and The Poetry Garden offer additional spaces to relax and learn, plus the hotel offers free breakfast every day and a complimentary wine and cheese reception nearly every afternoon. Books and wine, are you kidding me?

I know my girl Willikat would love to stay on the Technology floor in the Health and Beauty room, while my bff 4you would choose the Literature floor and the Fairy Tales suite. I personally would be all over the General Knowledge floor/Journalism or New Media room or the Love room (pictured, right) on the Philosophy floor. Maybe someday.

What do you think? Sound cool or what? Where would you want to stay?

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Night Gardener

I don’t read too many crime novels. I used to drink in my mom’s Patricia Cornwell books like water back in high school, but that seemed to be a phase. I also read a few Carl Hiassen novels – but those are more humorous takes on crazy crimes (and not focused on one character like Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta). However, I read some good reviews of George Pelecanos’ The Night Gardener, and put it on my Amazon wish list. A couple of weeks ago I found the book on the discount table at B&N for $5.95 and picked it up.

Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:
When the body of a local teenager is found in a community garden, homicide detective Gus Ramone relives intense memories of a case he worked twenty years earlier. When he was still a rookie, Ramone and his partner Dan "Doc" Holiday assisted legendary detective T.C. Cook as he investigated a series of killings involving young victims left overnight in neighborhood parks. The killer, dubbed, "the Night Gardener," was never caught. Since then, Holiday has left the force under a cloud of morals charges; he now works as a bodyguard and driver, taunted by his dreams of what he might have been. Cook retired, but he has never stopped agonizing about the unsolved case. Ramone is "good police," working as a homicide detective for the city's violent-crime division. He is also a devoted husband and father, and his teenage son, Diego, was a friend of the most recent victim, a boy named Asa." Could the Night Gardener be on the prowl again? Asa's death draws the three men together on a mission to finish the work that has haunted them for years. For T.C. Cook, it means solving one of the few cases that eluded him in his distinguished career. For Doc Holiday, the Night Gardener case is one last chance to prove - to Cook, to Ramone, and to himself - what kind of police officer he once was. For Gus Ramone, catching the killer means not only doing his job but knowing that his son will not be the next victim. The regret, anger, and fierce sense of purpose that once burned between them come rushing back as they race to lay to rest the monster who has stalked their dreams.
Because it’s considered crime fiction, I expected the book to sweep me up and become one of those can’t-put-it-down-type books. 150 pages in I don’t have that feeling. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like the book, which is different for me. The book is very dark. It speaks of all the conflicts between races in Washington D.C., cops and parents and children. How do some of these kids keep it on the straight and narrow when there are so many forces pulling them to the dark side? How do parents help and hinder the situation? And what’s the role of law enforcement (or the local government)? Because all these questions and the sad, dark feeling the book gives me, I think that’s why it is taking me a little longer to digest.

There’s also the mystery. Those who know me know I like to try and figure it out before the big reveal. The mystery is good here, and there are so many characters in play, it’s definitely a challenge to try and place where they all fit in the end. This is the part that keeps me reading, for sure.

In a related note, we watched Gone Baby Gone this weekend. Another missing child-type mystery, filled with good cops and bad cops, race relations, and “right” and “wrong.” A very good, but very dark movie. Put that on top of reading The Night Gardener and it’s no wonder I had a bad dream last night.

What about you? What books did you like, but took a while to digest? Did a book ever give you nightmares?