Sunday, October 31, 2010

National Reading Group Month Wrap Up

As October draws to a close and everyone gets excited for fun parties and candy, I am a little bummed about the end of National Reading Group Month.

A couple more book club suggestions:
some book clubs are lucky enough to have an author call in to speak with the group. One potential issue with this set up is that book club members don't feel they're able to be completely honest about the book while the author is listening. A solution is to set up the call for 30 minutes into the meeting, not just as soon as it starts. That way there can be some discussion before the author joins in, and any criticisms of the book can still be aired without worrying about insulting the author.

One book club idea I heard recently that I think is very cool is this: each month a topic is picked, and everyone in the book club reads a different book on the topic. Topics can be as varied as WWII, Jackie Kennedy, Southern Lit, racism, religion, the 60s, Asia, adoption. The members don't feel forced into reading a book they don't like since they pick their own, and everyone in the book each meeting hears about a lot of interesting books, and can find out about several potential great new reads at each meeting instead of just one. There are so many different ideas for book clubs. I found one run by a library in Illinois where the group meets at a walking trail and they walk while they discuss books - fantastic! I want to join that book club! A friend's library system in SC has a long list of book club books, and if you pick one and let them know by the cut-off date, they'll have the books in a bookbag, one person can pick them all up, they can be checked out for 2 months instead of 1, and it's really easy.

If you want to start a book club but don't feel like you have the time or resources to do it yourself, you might try a resource like Book Club in a Box. Also some book clubs have been known to pay a book club facilitator to run the meetings. If you have a book club and feel you need fresher suggestions for next year (beyond the ones I've suggested!), contact your local independent bookstore. Our local bookstore owners go to book club meetings throughout October and makes presentations on great new book club reads.

One of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, did a whole episode based around National Reading Group Month a couple of weeks ago, which you can find here. I subscribe to the podcast so it just shows up in my iTunes periodically, very, very easy!

In the second half of the month, there hasn't been as many posts around the blogosphere, but there have been a few, so here they are. If I missed anyone, please let me know in the comments! National Reading Group Month was much fun and I look forward to it again next year.

Words We Women Write
Mother-Daughter Book Club
Bookworm Meets Bookworm
Book Group Buzz (Booklist online)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: The Language of Goldfish by Zibby Oneal

When I was a teen I loved Zibby Oneal's book In Summer Light, and I didn't know she had written other books. The Language of Goldfish was a very powerful book. Carrie is growing up, 13, but she wants everything to stay the same. Her older sister Moira, 16, is navigating adolescence pretty smoothly, including their move to a new town and a new school, and yet Carrie is not. She eventually has a breakdown.

Writing about someone going crazy, particularly in first person, is a very tricky task, but this felt real and authentic. The world seems to turn into a kaleidoscope and turn sideways when Carrie has what I assume is a panic attack. But at heart Carrie really is a practical person. She's good at math, doesn't like poetry, and I think it's her practical side that brings her back to herself. It takes quite a while, with daily psychiatric meetings, but she does come to the realization that things are changing, she doesn't handle that well, and that's pretty much the problem. Meanwhile her art gives her an outlet, and her art teacher gives her a safe place to just be.
Unlike some other YA books I've read recently, I didn't feel like this book passed by too quickly for me to get immersed in the story and the characters. Yes it is short, but there's no wasted words or images. Her family feels three-dimensional and authentic, the kids at school seem pretty normal, and Carrie's problems are of course very real. It may seem very simple, especially to those of us who did not have trouble with things changing as we grew up, but I'm sure we all knew someone like this. Someone who wanted to stay a child, who wanted to still believe in Christmas, stay her Daddy's little girl, not mature into a young lady. Kids deal with this desire in different ways - eating disorders being probably the most common - but Carrie's response isn't at all out of the ordinary. Unfortunately when kids go through this kind of trauma, the usual reaction is very much like Carrie's mother who tells everyone she had bronchitis and wants to just forget about it. If we ignore these problems, they won't solve themselves. In that way, Carrie was more mature about her problem than her mother. This was a touching, thoughtful, powerful book.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme now hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
"It's odd, I suppose, that when I think back over all that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began."

Does this sound a little ominous? Because it should. The next day, someone comes back into our protagonist's life from 30 years earlier, bringing with him unwelcome memories of a violent event.

Books I Read for Book Club that I was Surprised to Like

I can have a lot of prejudices about books. I mean, you have to, or how else would you decide what to read? There are 250,000 new books published every year in the U.S. If you like everything, how can you ever pick your next book without being paralyzed by too many choices?
One problem I often have with books is if they’re over-hyped. Particularly if they’re written by up-and-coming young authors who live in a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn and have been published in The New Yorker. I know that’s a weird prejudice to have but all things considered, it’s not as bad as some. I have been burned a few times, but more likely I will develop such a distaste for the author that I don’t want to read their book so much that even if I did and liked it, I would still be disgruntled, because I don’t like to like things produced by people I don’t like. Luckily, that particular issue hasn’t happened for me yet (and I will keep quiet about who I refer to so my book club members don’t figure them out and suggest them.) But many other books I’ve really not wanted to read I’ve been forced to for Book Club, and loved.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
The first strike against this book was its length (848 pages!) and the plot description didn’t do much for me. I started it and found the first 50 pages so incredibly tedious and boring that I wanted to just cry. I considered just not reading it and going to book club anyway, but I’m too much of a Type A person when it comes to books for that. I couldn’t stand not going to book club as it was our summer meeting so I hadn’t seen my friends in a few months. Instead I put it off and put it off and put it off. Finally I had less than a week to go. I had to read 100 pages a day to get through it. And I loved it! I've read a lot of reviews where people have said that the length is 100% necessary, not a superfluous word, etc, and I disagree. I think it should have been 1/3 shorter at least. The first 200 pages should have been 50. If it takes you 200 pages to adequately introduce characters, then you're a bad writer. Which Ms. MacDonald is not. If anything, it more likely shows a lack of self-confidence in her writing, and a lack of faith in her readers (not to mention a lack of strength in her editor.) It was actually very well written. Lyrical, poetic, evocative. But just too much of it, and it took way too long for the actual story and plot to begin (over 200 pages). The ending was pretty satisfying. It wasn't obvious, but was adequately set up. I had certainly picked up on a few of the clues, and it felt true.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This was an amazingly creative, bizarre, but well-written and lovingly-told story. I did find it a tad slow-going at first, and I was very reluctant to read it as I'd thought from what I'd heard leading up to it that it would be pretentious (particularly the excerpt I read in The New Yorker.) However, I found that wasn't the case at all. I think I understood the characters more than most of our members as I used to live in Astoria, Queens (the Greek neighborhood) and I brought spanikopita to the meeting. What a fascinating story with some of the most well-drawn characters I've read about in years.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Another one I would have given up on at p. 50 if it hadn’t been for book club. And boy, am I glad I didn’t! The beginning is draggy and weird, but of course it all makes sense when suddenly we realize that set up isn’t how the whole book is written, and it has an excellent reason for being, and for being the awkward style that it is. It’s hard to review this book without giving away too many spoilers, but it was brilliant, exquisite, heart-breaking, and is a masterpiece.

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
I didn't want to read this book as I thought it was over-hyped, sounded self-consciously literary, and at the same time seemed to have elements of sci-fi, which in my book amounted to three strikes. Luckily, it was chosen for my book club and it won me over thoroughly. I wasn't wild about the ending, but I could see what the author’s goal was with ending it that way. It was beautiful, romantic, and really unique.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Wow oh wow did I not want to read this book. I thought it was really a guy's guy kind of book (and it was a guy in our book club who picked it.) It was long and Mr. Chabon was the darling of publishing in a precious and annoying way. It was about comic books which I had no interest in. And while I do have some issues with the book (particularly the section in Antarctica with the plane and the boat which I think could be just deleted whole and the book lose nothing at all), I found it fascinating, unique, and I have recommended the book to a dozen people (mostly men) since we read it.
Sometimes I just don't read a book when it first comes out and everyone is talking about it because I'm sure it will be a book club selection soon enough (such as Cutting for Stone and The Help). I really like that my book clubs over the years have forced me to read outside of my comfort zone. I am not looking forward to our next book club selection at all (The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver) but luckily, I now have proof that a lot of the time the books I most dread reading turn out to be wonderful, so I won't feel at all put upon buying the book tomorrow. Thank you book club!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What are your favorite Classics?

I love lists of books, and list of Classics are the only ones where I can reasonably expect that I've read more than 2. When I think of Classics, I usually think of Penguin Classics. Their orange spines are so easy to pick out on the shelves! I do like to look at all the different jacket treatments for classics, as they can vary wildly, and it's so neat to see different people's ideas of how a character looks or how a book is best represented.

Penguin Classics did a list last year of the Best Classics, but they had a lot of protests and so are doing a survey this year! Get in there and vote for your favorites! I voted a couple of weeks ago. They want to whittle it down to the ten essential Classics. TEN!?!? Seriously, get your opinion heard! And you've got to do it now, because the deadline is Nov. 1. The shortlist of 25 will be announced in November.

After you vote, you can register to win a gift bag with an assortment of Penguin classic books. I am hoping of course to win a few classics that are on my long TBR list such as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Cranford, and The Woman in White. The list of potential books is very, very long though! I also totally want some of these Penguin mugs. Aren't they cute? My Christmas list is already growing

Book Review: While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

*warning, some spoilers. I usually try very hard not to spoil a book but this one is very hard to discuss without doing so.

Thank God book club is tonight. Because the minute I closed this book (in fact, a few pages from the end even), I was torn by a desperate desire to discuss this book in depth with someone! So many intriguing topics and issues she brings up. One that struck me as very profound is this: Jo has a happy life. Three young adult daughters more or less succeeding in the real world, a successful work life, a wonderful husband, happy marriage, cute dogs, adorable house. And yet, (or perhaps because of) she is not happy. Her whole life has been a striving. To figure out who she is, what she wants, what will make her happy, how to find it, is this the right man? What about this one? How to raise the children well? To open her own practice? Make a marriage work? And once she got everything squared away, instead of being content and happy, she is restless and discontented. And I worry - is that the fate we all end up with? J was telling me about his sister A who for years has struggled to go to work and maintain her household while also going to nursing school and juggling her schedule, and now that she's done with school and doesn't have two jobs and school anymore, she finds herself bored, at a loss, and feeling like she's supposed to be doing something she's forgotten. Do we all end up like that? Do people create chaos in our lives in order to feel alive? Feel like life is still moving forward? I feel like I am more of a Daniel kind of person, Jo's husband, and can be content with a quiet life with few bumps, but will I find myself with a Jo, who eventually will become unmoored by the monotony? Unemployed, many friends predicted I would be hair-pulling-out bored in a couple of weeks. Not only did I scoff, but I find it sad that they are so reliant on the outside to entertain them, that they can't even imagine how I could be perfectly happy months into my unscheduled vacation, and not chomping at the bit to go back to any job, just to get out of my house.

The author interview and the book club questions also talk a lot about the theme of confessions. About how the confessions impact both the confessor and the confessee. But I think that's superficial. The real theme is secrets. That's what really hurts people. Sadie uses that accusation with her mother like a knife, and it cuts her too. Jo keeps secrets from everyone. Her mother keeps secrets. And despite her daughters all saying they hate it, she's likely passed the secret-keeping down. Most notably in Cass, who most of the time no one knows where she even is. At the end of the book when Jo's visiting her mother, who makes her confession about Jo's father, Jo thinks to herself, "It seems we need someone to know us as we are - with all we have done - and forgive us. We need to tell. We need to be whole in someone's sight: Know this about me, and yet love me. Please.

"But it's too much to ask of other people! Too much. Daniel makes it easier on those around him: God is the one he asks to know him as he is, to see him whole and love him still. But for us others, it seems there must be a person to redeem us to ourselves. It isn't enough, apparently, to know oneself. To forgive oneself, in secret." (261)

Is this really what love is all about? Total honesty? I'm not sure I agree. After all, wasn't Jo burdened by Eli's confession? What was gained by her mother's confession? Didn't Jo hurt Daniel with her confession? I think that sometimes love is biting one's tongue and keeping things to yourself that will only hurt the other person. No, this isn't an excuse for lying or cheating or anything like that - in fact I'm mostly a scrupulously honest person. But I'm reminded of the scene at the end of Gone With the Wind when Melanie is dying and asks for Scarlett and the doctor tells Scarlett she must not confess anything to Melanie that will do nothing but hurt Melanie and assuage Scarlett's conscience. Often we tell ourselves that we are doing the other person a favor by confessing to them, but mostly we are only doing ourselves a favor and hurting them. I know Ms. Miller would disagree with me here. She goes out of her way to show that honesty is the only option and confession is good for the soul, but I think she goes a bit far at times. For instance, when Sadie is mad at her mother for not telling her that when she was young - long before Sadie was born - she had a friend who was killed. But that's not a secret. It's just something that hasn't come up. I know very few people who know much about their parents' lives before they came into them. Some broad brush strokes, sure. You know how your parents met and when, and the circumstances of their wedding. You might know one or two funny stories from an aunt or uncle from when your mother was a little girl. But is it reasonable to know what happened to a woman your mother knew briefly in her early 20s in another city? I don't think so. If my mother told me a story like this, I'd find it interesting, but it wouldn't even occur to me to be angry or to consider she was hiding something. I think Ms. Miller was stretching a bit far in that one detail to make her point.

However, that is a very minor quibble with an otherwise pretty perfect book. The slightly ominous foreshadowing at the beginning allows her to go through a long introduction and set up of the characters, and just as you're starting to think it's a pleasant book but nothing really happens - bam! Something very interesting happens with perfect timing. And then the repercussions play out, but it's not quite over even though life has gone on, and you know there's more to the story, and if you're not a dolt like me and read the author interview at the back when you're halfway through the book and spoil the second big surprise yourself, you'll get a second big surprise, with further repercussions, and it's a brilliantly plotted book. The characters are great - there's a lot of them but they're all pretty three dimensional and easy to keep track of. I especially liked the bickering between the sisters even as they are entering adulthood. I get a little frustrated with how most of pop culture insists once you turn 18, all sibling rivalry will just vanish and everyone suddenly will become best friends as that certainly isn't true. The passing of time and the seasons was so visceral, I missed New England a bit.

This book will stay with me for a long time I think. One of the best books I've read this year. I am SO looking forward to the discussion as I think it should be one of our best. Another fantastic book I never would have read if it weren't for book club!

My Favorite Reads: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. October is National Reading Group Month so I am featuring books I red for my book club. These would all make for excellent discussions. This week is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Summary (from GoodReads):
A dazzling triumph from the bestselling author of The Virgin Suicides, the astonishing tale of a gene that passes down through three generations of a Greek-American family and flowers in the body of a teenage girl....

In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them - along with Callie's failure to develop - leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.

The explanation for this shocking state of affairs takes us out of suburbia - back before the Detroit race riots of 1967, before the rise of the Motor City and Prohibition, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie's grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set in motion the metamorphosis that will turn Callie into a being both mythical and perfectly real: a hermaphrodite.

Spanning eight decades - and one unusually awkward adolescence - Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited second novel is a grand, utterly original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire. It marks the fulfillment of a huge talent, named one of America's best young novelists by both Granta and The New Yorker.

Why I chose this book:
Why oh why was Callie's brother named Chapter Eleven? It's going to bug the Cr*p out of me until I figure it out! Aside from that, this was an amazingly creative, bizarre, but well-written and lovingly-told story. I did find it a tad slow-going at first, and I was very reluctant to read it as I'd thought from what I'd heard leading up to it that it would be pretentious. However, I found that wasn't the case at all. What a fascinating story with some of the most well-drawn characters I've read about in years.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

“Waiting On” Wednesday: My Reading Life

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

from the publisher:
Bestselling author Pat Conroy acknowledges the books that have shaped him and celebrates the profound effect reading has had on his life.

Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is also a vora­cious reader. He has for years kept a notebook in which he notes words or phrases, just from a love of language. But read­ing for him is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

In My Life in Books, Conroy revisits a life of passionate reading. He includes wonderful anecdotes from his school days, mov­ing accounts of how reading pulled him through dark times, and even lists of books that particularly influenced him at vari­ous stages of his life, including grammar school, high school, and college. Readers will be enchanted with his ruminations on reading and books, and want to own and share this perfect gift book for the holidays. And, come graduation time, My Life in Books will establish itself as a perennial favorite, as did Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Nan A. Talese at Random House publishes 11/2/10

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Simple Times

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People by Amy Sedaris

from the publisher:
America's most delightfully unconventional hostess and the bestselling author of I Like You delivers a new book that will forever change the world of crafting. According to Amy Sedaris, it's often been said that ugly people craft and attractive people have sex. In her new book, SIMPLE TIMES, she sets the record straight. Demonstrating that crafting is one of life's more pleasurable and constructive leisure activities, Sedaris shows that anyone with a couple of hours to kill and access to pipe cleaners can join the elite society of crafters.

You will discover how to make popular crafts, such as: crab-claw roach clips, tinfoil balls, and crepe-paper moccasins, and learn how to: get inspired (Spend time at a Renaissance Fair; Buy fruit, let it get old, and see what shapes it turns into); remember which kind of glue to use with which material (Tacky with Furry, Gummy with Gritty, Paste with Prickly, and always Gloppy with Sandy); create your own craft room and avoid the most common crafting accidents (sawdust fires, feather asphyxia, pine cone lodged in throat); and cook your own edible crafts, from a Crafty Candle Salad to Sugar Skulls, and many more recipes.

PLUS whole chapters full of more crafting ideas (Pompom Ringworms! Seashell Toilet Seat Covers!) that will inspire you to create your own hastily constructed obscure d'arts; and much, much more!

my thoughts:
Well I am currently poor, and I do like crafts (be prepared family, Christmas will be mostly homemade!) Amy is hilarious. I once saw her in a play she also wrote in NYC. Never laughed so hard in my life.

Publishing 11/2/10 by Grand Central Publishers

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays: While I Was Gone

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller p.20

"That's what I was thinking of that Monday night before everything changed, before my other life caught up with me. I'd pushed aside that moment in the boat."

Somewhat ominous, no? It's certainly got me looking forward to my afternoon reading!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

What a beautiful book. It's one of those that people describe as "a gem." It's also fascinating. I kept reading snippets aloud to J, much to his consternation.

Elisabeth has a mysterious and debilitating illness, and she's had it for years. During a relapse, while she is too debilitated to even sit up, a friend brings her a snail as a companion. At first she doesn't understand what on earth she's going to do with a snail, but as the days pass, Elisabeth discovers watching the snail to be a meditative and interesting way to pass the time. As she becomes invested, she even does some research to find out things like why are the bites a snail leaves perfect squares (due to the configuration of the 800 rows of 33 teeth they have. Yes, you read that right. That's over 2600 teeth.) Did you know some species of snail are predatory or even cannibalistic? Woodland snails are hermaphrodites and can reproduce on their own if need be. Most snail shells have a right-hand opening, but some are left-hand, and right snails only mate with right snails, and left snails only mate with left snails. Slugs were once snails, but evolved to not need to carry their house (scary to think slugs are the creatures more highly evolved!) The excerpt from "Experiments to Test the Strength of Snails" made me laugh out loud! While noses are the only part of a person associated with mucus, they are the only part of a snail that does not have mucus on it.

Amidst all these fun facts are meditations on life. What is one's life worth when it consists of merely lying on a bed? When one can't participate in daily life, how can life remain valuable? Snails can go dormant, and even hibernate for years if conditions are not favorable - something Elisabeth feels like she is going through unwillingly. The parallels between the languid, quiet life of a snail and of Elisabeth become more profound as the book continues. As her conditions improves and she feels she is coming back to life, similarly one day she finds the snail has laid eggs - life quite literally continuing.

This book was stunning. A contemplative treatise on what defines life, I was touched and affected by Ms. Bailey's condition, and the precious result of it this book is.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (more than halfway through!)

Up Next:
Firehouse by David Halberstam
Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin by Norah Vincent
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber
Not sure if I'll get to read as much with NaNoWriMo going on next month, but we'll see!

Some Book Club Suggestions: Young Adult for Adults

Another list of book club suggestions by the Charlotte chapter of the Women's National Book Association. This one is from our treasurer who has been on YA tear lately. This has been a pretty big trend for several years now. I think it was started by Harry Potter and the Narnia books (when the recent movies came out) making it okay for adults to be seen out in public reading "children's" books. Then came Stephanie Meyer, and now with The Hunger Games, I've never seen so much interest in YA, which is fantastic!

1. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
4. Life of Pi (student edition) by Yann Martel
5. Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen
6. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
7. The Boy In the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
8. The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
9. Make Lemonaid by Virginia Euwer Wolff
10. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
11. An Off Year by Claire Zulkey
12. Pure by Terra Elan McVoy
13. Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Beals
14. Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
15. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

YA books can be terrific book club choices because they tend to read fast, so even the longer books won't be as much of a time commitment. So if "I don't have time to read" is a common complaint you hear at your book club, you might sprinkle a few of these in your list next year. Because a lot of these books are used in schools, you might be able to find lists of questions about the books on different websites, and many of the contemporary authors have extensive websites with material that can include discussion questions. These books would also be perfect for a mother-daughter book club with high schoolers.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

I have been intrigued with the concept of this book ever since it came out, and I recently ran across it in a used bookstore, and happily started it the next day. It's very interesting that Norah would not just dress but really try to impersonate a man to see what life is like on the other side. Luckily she's tall (for a woman, although she felt like a small man), and she worked out before the project with the project in mind, so she worked out her shoulders and lats a lot to try to get broader. I found it interesting that smooth facial skin is a very female trait as that hadn't occurred to me before. The prep work she did (figuring out how to bind her breasts, how to create fake stubble) was fascinating. And then the experiment began!

Like a sociologist would, she decided on topics that would demonstrate the largest range of male experiences, from friendships to dating to work, and the chapters are divided up as such. Instead of just living as a male and seeing how life was, she purposefully searched out these situations and environments, and instigated relationships to force the issue. Sometimes she eventually came out to people as a woman (not a transvestite, although she is a lesbian) doing a research project, but not always. She didn't have a hard and fast rule about that but instead played it by ear. To me the most intriguing chapters were the ones where she stayed in a monastery (as a guest, not pretending to be a monk, just pretending to be a male visitor), and where she joined a men's movement group. Honestly, I didn't realize those existed anymore - so that section was also interesting to find out about those groups at all.

Personally, I have always said that I am not a feminist - I am a humanist. I think all people should be treated equally, regardless of gender. And while that means I'll get pretty miffed if a male asks if I need help carrying a 10 pound box, it also means I'll be annoyed if I see a male drop a door in another male's face instead of holding it open. I hold doors for both genders equally, and men are always effusive in their thanks, implying they've never before experienced a woman holding a door open for them, which is sad. Just like I don't like to vacuum, I know not all men like to do yard work, and I don't expect them to. But Vincent points out beautifully in her book that men's lives in this era are overly difficult. We expect them to be so many things, most of which are diametrically opposed. We want them to be tough, but sensitive. Strong, but caring. Protective, but emotionally available. We want them to do the yard work AND the vacuuming and be happy about it. Most men are confused. Not to mention, they didn't get any direction as children on how to accomplish any of this. Most of the men she encountered had difficult or nonexistent relationships with their fathers, which didn't help. She found some hazing, and she found it actually had some reasoning behind it - for teaching (kids mostly) appropriate behavior and social cues.

At the very end, she has a bit of a breakdown - inevitable after trying to live 2 lives according to her therapist (her second book is about checking herself into a mental hospital). She is very honest about it and it does certainly help everything ring true. And in reviewing what she's learned she's found she doesn't interact with men very differently. There were three traits she enjoyed and has incorporated into her own life, such as confidence. But otherwise, she interestingly found that this experiment has made her more feminine (she was described previously of being a rather butch female). She is very sympathetic to men's plights, and she does say next time she encounters a man in pain she will repress her innate desire to mother and pet him as she now knows that's not what men want and it's not helpful. But that's about the only way she's going to act differently. But she will always be much more attuned to gender roles and cues than everyone else, and this book really made me think. It was truly fascinating, and I applaud Ms. Vincent's effort in going through such a difficult ordeal - physically and mentally - to enlighten us all.

My Favorite Reads: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. October is National Reading Group Month, so I am featuring books all month that I read with my book club and thoroughly liked. They also led to good discussions. This month is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Summary (from GoodReads):
"Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell." Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools."
It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Why I chose this book:
Another book I thought was overly hyped and overly literate that was required reading for my book club (which I thank regularly for helping me get over my preconceived notions so I can read popular books relevant today which is crucial for my job, but the preconceptions don't go away.) And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a fun, fast, exciting read with a great ending. It's a tad pulpy and melodramatic and the villain is a bit over the top, but one forgives these things in a rollicking romp.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Mind's Eye

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Mind's Eye by Oliver W. Sacks

from the publisher:
From the author of the best-selling Musicophilia (hailed as “luminous, original, and indispensable” by The American Scholar), an exploration of vision through the case histories of six individuals—including a renowned pianist who continues to give concerts despite losing the ability to read the score, and a neurobiologist born with crossed eyes who, late in life, suddenly acquires binocular vision, and how her brain adapts to that new skill. Most dramatically, Sacks gives us a riveting account of the appearance of a tumor in his own eye, the strange visual symptoms he observed, an experience that left him unable to perceive depth.

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks explores some of the most fundamental facets of human experience—how we see in three dimensions, how we represent the world internally when our eyes are closed, and the remarkable, unpredictable ways that our brains find new ways of perceiving that create worlds as complete and rich as the no-longer-visible world.

Knopf (Random House) is publishing on 10/26/10

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A New (to me) Bestseller List

Did you know that college bookstores have a bestseller list? It's listed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is September's list (the number after each title/author is the book's ranking last month):

What They're Reading on College Campuses

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson


2. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson


3. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert


4. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins


5. Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern


6. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner


7. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler


8. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer


9. Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler


10. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins


The Chronicle's list of best-selling books was compiled from information supplied by stores serving the following campuses: American U., Drew U., Florida State U., George Washington U., Georgetown U., Georgia State U., Harvard U., James Madison U., Kent State U., Pennsylvania State U. at University Park, San Francisco State U., Stanford U., State U. of New York at Buffalo, U. of California at Berkeley, U. of Florida, U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U. of Miami, U. of Nebraska at Lincoln, U. of North Dakota, U. of North Texas, U. of Oklahoma at Norman, Vanderbilt U., Washington U. in St. Louis, Williams College, Winthrop U., Xavier U. (Ohio).

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Can't Believe I'm Going to Do This: NaNoWriMo

If not now, when? I am unemployed, and jobs in my field in my neck of the woods are very few and far between. While I haven't harbored notions of being an author since I was in high school, this would be the perfect time to either drive that last nail in the coffin, or actually give it a chance, now that I know the book industry inside and out. I've often said that I have done every job in this business, which certainly isn't true as this is one job I've not done. I even have an idea. And National Novel Writing Month starts in two weeks. Normally timing does not work in my favor, but maybe this time it is. So I am signing up for NaNoWriMo, and we'll see what happens! For those of you who know me in the real world, please don't ask me about it - if I want you to know how it's going I'll tell you. But it might not go well and I'm embarrassed enough to be doing this. No, I'm not embarrassed to be writing - I'm embarrassed because I think there's an excellent chance that if I do write something, it won't be up to my own standards. After all, I was an editor for several years, and a very successful one. And one reason I gave up on writing altogether was that I felt my writing wasn't up to my own standards. I have very high standards with everything in my life, and I am highly critical (as all good editors are), so meeting my own criteria will be difficult. Plus, while it's been a joke the last few years that when people ask if I want to write I say no, because I know how the sausage is made, it's also in fact true. I know all the behind-the-scenes information about publishing, and while it will be very helpful to be along the way, it will also make some things tricky. But what the heck! Nothing ventured, right?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (reread, I am almost halfway through!)

Up Next:
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (I plan to send this to my bedridden sister but I want to read it first! She has a broken foot.)
While I Was Gone by Sue Miller (for book club next week)
Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden (this is my little brother's favorite author. I grabbed a copy of this on Saturday while helping to set up for the library's book sale. We voluneteers got a free book for every hour we worked! Awesome!)

Some Book Club Suggestions: Foodie Books

The secretary of our chapter of the Women's National Book Association, also known a BookNAround, created this mouth-watering list of books about food. I am impressed she found so much fiction! I can attest she's an excellent cook (and I look forward to months when she is the book club host) and I know she loves reading about food as well as eating it, so these books are all assured to improve your appetite. Her post about her list can be found here.

1. Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
2. La Cucina by Lily Prior
3. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
4. Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi
5. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais
6. Georgia’s Kitchen by Jenny Nelson
7. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant edited by Jennie Ferrari-Adler
8. Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen
9. Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
10. Candyfreak by Steve Almond
11. Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
12. Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini
13. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
14. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

It would be fun to have the food at book club match up with the book! I know my book club does that sometimes. For instance, when we read Water for Elephants, there was popcorn, cotton candy, and circus peanuts as snacks. When we read Julie and Julia, all of the snacks were from Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Now if you decide to do this, be prepared that some of your hosts may not be excellent cooks, so be sure that those gals get to choose books like Candyfreak which would really only involve shopping for some obscure candies, and no cooking. Believe me, you wouldn't want to assign me the Julia Child month as everyone would go home sorely disappointed and hungry!

Friday, October 15, 2010

National Reading Group Month posts round-up

As it's halfway through the month, I thought I'd post a round-up of blogs who have talked about National Reading Group Month so far. Do you plan to cover it on yours as well? Let me know and I'll add you!

Please visit these other blogs for more tips and book recommendations for Reading Groups! And let me know if you have any questions or topics you'd like me to cover. Happy reading!

Book Beginnings on Friday

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent
" Seven years ago, I had my first tutorial in becoming a man."

Pretty straightforward first line, and pretty straightforward book, even if it does involve her lying a lot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Favorite Reads: Sammy's Hill by Kristin Gore

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. October is National Reading Group Month, so all month I'll be featuring books we read for my book club, and enjoyed!

Sammy's Hill by Kristin Gore

Summary (from Goodreads):
In her debut novel Sammy's Hill, Kristin Gore treats readers to an insider's view of life and love on Capitol Hill. In fact, the view couldn't get much more inside the Beltway, especially coming from former Vice President Al Gore's daughter. Still, Sammy's Hill is witty and engaging enough to prove that it's not always who you know, but sometimes how well you tell their stories.

Samantha Joyce, Gore's heroine, is a 26-year-old self-deprecating health-care policy advisor to Robert Gary, a well-respected senator from her home state of Ohio. Between endless work days, a grueling campaign schedule, and frequent trips to the pet store where she seeks advice on caring for her listless Japanese fighting fish, Sammy finds time to obsess over her new boyfriend, sexy speechwriter Aaron Driver. As things heat up with Aaron, Sammy's work schedule takes on a new intensity when Gary becomes the Democratic candidate for vice president. Along the way, scandal clouds both her personal and professional life, and our heroine discovers the often salacious underbelly of life on the hill.

Why I chose this book:
A thoroughly fun read! Sammy is engaging, hilarious, and thoughtfully optimistic - which is something sorely needed these days. A perfect read for election time (we read this in fall 2008). Ms. Gore has created a fully fleshed character, and it's so refreshing to read chick lit where the main character likes her job, doesn't live in NYC, doesn't have oodles of inappropriate roommates, has a reasonable relationship with a man who's not blatantly an idiot, and the man she might end up with at the end isn't completely obvious, nor does he appear out of left field. This is top-notch chick lit. And made me contemplate - just for a minute - getting a Japanese fighting fish.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Club Tips

Are you trying to start up a book club? Or are you in one that just doesn't really work? Do you need some help?

My friend K. was in a book club that didn't work. Here are some reasons why:
  • they met 12 months a year with no breaks
  • each of the 12 members got to pick a book with no input, feedback, or voting from other members. Which meant they frequently had 500+ page books, often two months in a row, had little variety in genre, and a couple of members who didn't understand picking books for "discussability" would pick absolute duds every single time, and would often pick hardcovers
  • they met at a restaurant each month which started to break the bank for my fiscally conscious friend
  • it was hard to hear anyone at the restaurant, and easy to get distracted
Oh, and no one ever read the books. She eventually quit. She's in a different book club now that does a lot of things right. Here's what my book club does that I think makes it fantastic:
  • we have different genres we hit every year including mystery/thriller, classic, nonfiction, historical, and we try to stick to paperbacks
  • we meet at members' houses. Everyone except two of us live in the same neighborhood so it's convenient. We ask for RSVPs a couple of days beforehand so the host knows how many to expect. We meet after dinner, there are snacks and wine
  • we take the summer off. We do meet once in the middle of summer, but we skip June and August. We also skip December. And we make sure that those months when we have two months for reading (January, July, and September) are the only months we can pick a 500+ page book
  • yes, we chat and gossip at first but after about a half hour or so, we move from the kitchen to the living room, which is the signal to discuss the book
  • we have at least two months' of books picked in advance so people who want to read ahead can do so
Reading Group Choices puts out an actual book filled with 65 book club suggestions every October and it's FREE if you spot it in a bookstore (otherwise it's $6.95 which is still really cheap.) You can also buy back issues if you want even more suggestions! They have a great website and blog with more books, tips, and advice. Book Club Girl is another great site/blog with suggestions, reviews, giveaways, and more. There's also Reading Group Guides, and Book Club Queen, and your local library's website.

If the main concern is not having anything to discuss, your book club might want to stick to books that have reading group guides. Not all books have them bound in - often there isn't enough room in the book itself, but there is a reading group guide available online. All the major publishers and most of the rest have whole sections on their websites devoted to book clubs, such as HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Hachette, and so on.

But what if you really want to read a book that doesn't have a reading group guide? Well, someone (probably whoever suggested the book if there isn't a book club leader) needs to make a little effort before the meeting. Check if the author has a website. They might have some information on there that can be used. But my own personal trick is to read reviews. Then I pick out the negatives, and that's what I ask about. When everyone just says "I liked the book," there isn't much to discuss. But when people disagree, that's a discussion! If someone doesn't like the non-linear structure, ask why do you think the author used that structure? What does he gain by that that he wouldn't by following a traditional linear structure? Someone else might criticize the author for writing from the point of the view of the other gender. Again, the best question to ask is why. Even if everyone in the group ends up disliking an aspect of the book, it's still good to explore why that might be there. So I would go to a couple of different websites with reviews, and read through them, looking for the negatives. Any sentence that begin with But, Although, However, Unfortunately, is a red flag. That's what you're looking for! Sometimes you might have to read more carefully to pull out the issues, but this really shouldn't take much time. And if this duty is divvied up amongst the members so one person isn't saddled with it every month (unless one person volunteered for it! But even so, they should be checked in with annually to be sure they're not becoming overwhelmed) it shouldn't be too burdensome.

So, what are your concerns? Do you have more specific issues in your book club? Questions? Problems? Suggestions? Let me know and I'll address those in another post this month!

“Waiting On” Wednesday: American Colossus

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands

from the publisher:
From bestselling historian H. W. Brands, a sweeping chronicle of how a few wealthy businessmen reshaped America from a land of small farmers and small businessmen into an industrial giant.

The three decades after the Civil War saw a wholesale shift in American life, and the cause was capitalism. Driven by J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and oth­ers like them, armies of men and women were harnessed to a new vision of massive industry. A society rooted in the soil became one based in cities, and legions of immigrants were drawn to American shores.
H. W. Brands’s American Colossus portrays the stunning trans­formation of the landscape and institutions of American life in these years. Brands charts the rise of Wall Street, the growth of a national economy, the building of the railroads, and the first sparks of union life. By 1900, America was wealthier than ever, yet prosperity was precarious, inequality rampant, and democ­racy stretched thin. A populist backlash stirred.

American Colossus is an unforgettable portrait of the years when a recognizably modern America first took shape.

my thoughts:
last year I saw a list of the 100 wealthiest people of all time, with inflation and currency taken into account (it included Cleopatra and Alexander the Great even!) and the decades right after the Civil War in the U.S. was the biggest concentration of wealth on the list. That era and country produced more of the richest people ever, than any other time or place. This book looks to show us why.

Publishing 10/12/10 by

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: What We Have: A Family's Inspiring Story About Love, Loss, and Survival by Amy Boesky

You would expect this book to be really sad, but I found it ultimately hopeful.

Every woman in Amy's family (bar one) has died of ovarian cancer, most in their mid-40s. Amy and her sisters know they are extremely high risk, and so they live their lives in fear, and they also have harder deadlines for things like having children, than most of us experience. But Amy, an academic, has been caught up in the world of graduate school and doesn't even meet her husband until her early 30s (behind schedule!) She feels pressure to have a baby right away, and is overjoyed when her sister is pregnant at the same time. Then one tragedy strikes. Meanwhile, Amy is moving, getting used to living with her new husband, Jacques, and on the tenure-track at her University. A worrier, the looming deadline for her to seriously consider a prophylactic hysterectomy, casts a shadow over all.

The book is really well-written. I found it a little funny in fact that while Amy has no control over her worrying and occasional panic while it's happening, she has enough distance to be able later to report it to us in a way that shows she is very aware she's high-strung, and occasionally unreasonable in her fears. Her husband Jacques is not at all a worrier - he's more of a wait-and-see comparison shopper. While they do balance each other well, their differences lead to natural conflicts.

One thing I thought was very well done in this book was discussing the triangles that occur with two sisters and a mother (I also am one of 3 girls), us against them, them against me, a sister and a mother against another sister, and so on. Who tells who what when, in what order, is very important. When she finds out news about her sister from her mother, it stings that her sister hasn't told her.

In the course of this memoir, scientific developments advance, and at the end, at the same time that Amy's hysterectomy is scheduled, they could be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. But she and her sisters are reluctant to do so. Does knowing make things better or worse? Is uncertainty torture, or a gift?

Ms. Boesky is a sharp writer. The book might be a little academic for some but I grew up in academia so that feels like home to me. The tragedies are heartbreaking, and I do hope she and her sisters (and daughters) have managed to change their family's destiny. Whenever I put the book down I was thinking about it, and had to pick it back up right away. Their story is sad but filled with hope and inspiration.

Teaser Tuesdays: Self-Made Man

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man by Norah Vincent p. 54

"But when I responded to him emotionally, I had to modify the temptation to mother him, because after I'd heard some of the things he told me - stories about beatings he had suffered as a child and the struggles he had had trying to come to grips with the abuse in silence - the woman in me wanted to hold him and let him cry it out. But that would have been like throwing a wool blanket over his head, exactly the wrong thing to do."
I adore "stunt memoirs" and this one has the added bonus of hopefully giving my insight into the male mind - yay!