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