Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday Mailbox

It was a banner week for me this week in the mail. I got 6 different review books and a gorgeous set of bookmarks that I won from Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot. Here are the beautiful handmade bookmarks: . And of course, I have immediately started a couple of new books so that I had something to stash them in right away. :-)

As for the books, from Anna at Hatchette Books, I got
I Loved, I Lost, I made Spaghetti by Guilia Melucci. This one is one that I am giving away, winners to be chosen April 8th. If you want to enter the giveaway, click here and the last paragraph tells you all about it.

Hatchette also sent Do-Over: In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments by Robin Hemley. I will be hosting a giveaway for this one in the not too distant future so keep your eyes peeled for that announcement too.

From Shelf Awareness, several book came in this week. They sent Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, .

Crazy For the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad,

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See,

and The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri.

And finally, Paula at Author Marketing Experts sent me Life Is Like a Line by Cynthia Sabotka.

I have some really good reading in front of me this week! If you want to see what other people found in their mailboxes this past week, head on over to The Printed Page where Marcia hosts this fun meme every week.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Salon: Avoiding reading, awards, and a giveaway

Have you ever had a book that you felt obligated to finish and it seemed to suck the life right out of you each and every time you sat down to read it? I have had that all day today (and for several days prior to this too) and it's not a happy feeling. Usually reading is my escape but I looked for every reason to put this one down. I carry books with me everywhere I go so this accompanied me many places. The latest were to yesterday's dance competition and today's tennis match. Yesterday I actually chose to stay planted in the dark auditorium and watch some less than stellar dancing (I may be a dance mom but I am not delusional about the level of dance to which I must subject myself for my daughter's happiness) instead of reading this book. And today, I was pleased to see that the one chair by my son's tennis match (he lost) was broken and so I'd have to stand. That, plus the wind, made it fairly difficult to read so I didn't. And yes, I have been known to read through many a sporting event before, supportive mom that I am. But this was a review book and it needed to be finished so I can write it up. I would have finished it anyway because I am compulsive like that but I would have been likely to let it molder unfinished on the bedside table for an eon first if not for the sense of obligation attached to review books. So I finally sat down and gutted it out. And the book is finished and now I just have to work through a thoughtful and fair review in my head, which could take a bit! But I don't have to read it again and for that I am thrilled.

On a happier reading related note, I have had a good old time getting e-mails about my blog this week. I've gotten two awards (my very first ever). The first was the Best Friends Award from Joy at Llama Queen's Don't Do Homework.

The second was the Premier Dardos Award from Yvonne at Socrates' Book Reviews. I have to think who all to pass them to so I'll be posting about them again, I'm sure. I was also contacted to take a picture of my work space for Cathy's "Scene of the Blog" which you can find at Kittling Books. So sometime this week I'll be snapping a picture of the disaster that is my desk and writing up a brief bit of commentary (Wait! Brief? Me?) to accompany that and sending it along to her. Also this week, I volunteered to be interviewed about blogging by Hava of Nonfiction Lover. I have already filled that out for her but I don't know when it'll be my turn to be featured. I will, of course, post a direct link when it is up. (And no, it's not brief either unless she uses some mad editorial skills!)

And in even more fun book news, I am hosting my very first book giveaway here. There are a couple I can do but the first one I'm going to do is the next one I plan to read myself: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci. The lovely Anna at Hatchette Books is offering to send a copy of this book to five different readers of this blog. And if you are anything like me, the thought of getting books in the mail just makes you quiver with excitement so now you're wondering how to enter, right? Leaving me a comment on this post will earn you one entry. Linking back to this contest on your blog and sending me an e-mail so I can check it out will earn you a second entry. Following this blog will earn you a third entry. Sending me chocolate will earn you a fourth entry. Oh wait, nevermind that last one. The weather is getting warmer and the chocolate might melt. But in future, bribes could definitely work! I'll chose the lucky five folks on Wed. Apr. 8, the day the book is due to be released in hardcover (and coincidentally is also my mother's birthday). Make sure you leave me a way to contact you in case you win. Oh, and publisher's rules say No PO Boxes and Only Open to Residents of the US and Canada.

Rural south

R. had a dance competition yesterday someplace I'd never heard of, not that this is surprising given that we haven't lived here very long. We loaded her costumes, shoes and bucket of make-up into the back of the van and headed out. We drove quite a ways into parts of this state I had occasionally heard of on the radio (usually in conjunction with some ridiculously stupid maneuver that put the resident of this place strongly in the running for idiot of the year) but had never had occasion to visit before.

So how do you know you've driven into the rural southland? Well, when you are driving along and the local tractor dealer also has a second sign hanging from his tractor sales sign that advertises "Deer Processing Done Here," that's the first sign. The second sign is also compliments of a local business; the gun shop permanently advertises "Concealed Carry classes." Now silly sheltered me thought that if you wanted to conceal a weapon, you just hid it on your person but apparently you have to learn how to do this (and ostensibly the class grants you a permit for doing such upon successful completion--which reminds me to never tick off rural southerners since they have ready access to these ongoing classes). The third sign was the best yet for the naive suburban dance mom. I wondered at the rough leafy looking stencilling on the sides of some of the strangest tree houses I'd ever seen. Half a beat later (because I do possess a modicum of intelligence after all) I realized they weren't treehouses or playhouses for kids, at least not ones without guns. They were deer blinds or perches or whatever the heck you call them when they are put in trees or up a very tall ladder (the suburban intelligence doesn't stretch to knowing the proper name for them).

And before you other suburban or urban folks ask, all of this was on a major state highway, not tucked along the back roads of this county. Every driveway we passed had a pick-up truck in the driveway. I was starting to think that my minivan with my Yankee carpetbagger plates and the fancy, new police car we saw were the only non-pick-up or utility vehicle we were destined to see out there. I mean, after all, a minivan would look awfully silly with your hunting trophy strapped to the front of it, wouldn't it? But never fear, I saw another deer processing place (yes, two in less than 10 miles) and this one had the added benefit of being called "Stuffy's Taxidermy." I am not even lying.

Of course, I suspect that it's only in the rural south that a dance competition would be heald in an "Agri-Cultural Center." Oh, and Miss R.'s dances earned a platinum and 2 golds, so she was pleased as punch

Friday, March 27, 2009

Self portraits

I am always the person taking the pictures, not the person in the pictures. I am okay with this, especially after my scary photo session today. I got a haircut that I really like and I knew it would never again look the way it looked after the hairdresser blew it dry since I'm a brush and go, leave it to air dry kind of girl. I also know that my hair tends to have a mind of its own and it only holds a style for about 2 nanoseconds before it reverts to form. So I came home and immediately got out the camera. Now I realize that self portraits taken from a camera you are holding in front of your own nose only at the purely pitiful distance your stubby little arms can reach are destined to be hideous but *this* hideous? Hoo boy! I think I took in the neighborhood of 7 trillion pictures and got one that isn't too ugly to admit to. I range from looking like I am wacked out on on some sort of really good drug combo to looking like I am Jay Leno's older, bigger chinned sister. I was always under the impression I was rather cute. Apparently I'm more than wrong, I am completely deluded. Either that or I am the most unphotogenic human being on the planet. Did the rest of you know that my nose was that long and that my skin was that red and patchy? What about the droopy eyelid thing? Did you all know I had that and just thought it was kinder not to tell me? And what about the one eye higher than the other thing? Why didn't someone tell me that my upper lip is unattractively skinny and my eyebrows are crazy weird? I won't even get into my ears since the picture I settled on has my hair over them, hiding their largeness fairly effectively. Wrinkles, did you all think I'd never notice the wrinkles if I didn't see a photo of myself again? Is that why I always get to be the photographer? Sakes alive, I'm not sure who the woman in this photograph is but she's not nearly as cute as the person I see in the mirror (nevermind that the mirror person is obviously a hallucination!). I think I'm going to use the excuse a (strange) long ago friend always used when asked about pictures of himself: "I don't translate well to two dimensions." But I guess if you read through this, you've earned the right to see my newest haircut, just ignore the rest and remember I am much cuter than this picture (could I get you to believe I'm far less grey too?).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Lost Years of Jane Austen by Barbara Ker Wilson

I have a weakness for all things Jane Austen so when I saw this novel purporting to fill in the missing time in our knowledge of Austen, I snapped it up. Wilson imagines that Austen traveled with her aunt and uncle Leigh Perrot to Australia during this gap of time, drawing a well done portrait of the penal colony in the beginning of the 1800's. Starting with Aunt Jane Leigh Perrot being arrested and falsely accused of stealing lace (based on a true incident in which Mrs. Leigh Perrot spent some months in jail before being brought to trial and exonerated), Wilson imagines that Austen's uncle, an amateur lepidopterist, fixates on the idea of the strange and wonderful natural life in the Antipodes should his wife be inexplicably found guilty and transported. Meanwhile, Austen herself is in Bath with her family and falls in love with every expectation of marriage. But a letter telling her of Elliott Fordwick's untimely demise ends these happy imaginings and it takes Jane a considerable amount of time to stop grieving. With her future completely changed from all expectation, Jane jumps at the chance to accompany her aunt and uncle on the trip to Australia about which her uncle has never quite relinquished hope of taking. Many are the characters introduced in the book before and during the journey as well as once the Leigh Perrots and niece Jane arrive in Sydney; some are historic figures and some are fictional. And despite the billing on the jacket copy of the book, this is not a book about hushing up a failed romance that Austen had while Down Under. It is a well done, interesting, and unusually imagined guess at what Jane Austen could have been doing during the years there was such a dearth of letters to her sister Cassandra.

I was impressed by how well Wilson managed to invoke the language of the time, something so many post-Austen writers fail to do. I enjoyed her characterizations and the way she set up little clues for careful readers to explain things that later found themselves in Austen's actual works. She widened the focus beyond just Austen herself, fleshing out the Leigh Perrots quite extensively, which helped to give the novel a bit more heft and while that generally worked, I felt it did go on just a bit too long, given the dearth of things to do in the colony for a gently reared young lady. But the budding society in Parramatta and Sydney were well described and interesting, especially the details about the former convicts. Overall, a satisfying read that will probably appeal to most Jane-ites, despite the seeming incongruity of Austen in Australia.

Review: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

The first in a trilogy, this lovely book chronicles Nichols' search for and purchase of a country freehold not too far from London where he can garden. Taking place not too long after the end of the Second World War, not only is this a delightful and enchanting book about plants and gardening, but it is awonderful snapshot of a time long since past. Nichols' garden is his main focus but he also introduces the reader to his eccentric neighbors, his elderly gardener, and various other people about the place. He discusses the folly and joys that came with purchasing his estate. And he generally injects enough light humor in all areas that this was a wonderful, completely appealing read. There are certainly instances that firmly place this in its time period but it has aged well and was a wonderfully diverting book to cozy in with for an afternoon. I have to actually physically restrain myself from jumping immediately into the second book in the trilogy, wanting to draw out the pleasure a bit by savoring the anticipation of an equally lovely amount of time spent with it. And don't skip over this book thinking that you aren't a gardener and don't want to read about gardening. Anyone who lights a hedge on fire on purpose and scorches the heck out of his new albeit slightly dilapidated home should be able to entertain any and all non-fiction readers with ease.

The end of the world

Three things have happened recently that have convinced me the end of the world is imminent.

1. I went to cycle class today without anyone else to make me accountable.

2. I have still not cracked open my birthday pots of Graeter's Ice Cream and I'm actually enjoying the anticipation.

3. And perhaps most fatally, I walked out of a bookstore without buying a thing.

Yes folks, look for me wearing a sandwich board proclaiming "The End Is Coming" on the nearest street corner and start making wild plans for what to do before it comes because the above signs are definitely signs of an apocalypse in my world!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ramblings from the past few days

I am so truly talented that I managed to scrape the snot out of my leg and even draw blood at cycle class this morning. Yes, I drew blood on a stationary bike. And man does an open wound hurt when you start sweating into it.

Much of the day was spent in bed with a small, lavender-filled pillow over my eyes thanks to a persistent headache. I really hate new pressure systems moving into my area, especially when they knock me on my arse. And it doesn't sound like this low system is planning on moving out any time soon. Just what I love, many days of slow, pattering rain and overcast, creeping chill. Ba humbug!

I had to sign a paper from school for W. telling me that if he doesn't pull his head out of his rear by tomorrow, he'll be earning a D in one of his classes. That stands for "Decided not to use the ever so capable brain I was blessed with" and will result in serious misery for everyone in the house if it comes to pass. Seriously? A pressure system headache and a D from one of the smartest kids I know (not that I'm biased or anything). But really?! Clearly I'm still atoning for a past life as a serial murderer or something.

The mail came. I now have 6 review books I need to read. Didn't check the release date on this latest one but I'm hoping it's July or some other rather distant date because another with an imminent release date might kill me. And with the headache, well not a lot of reading going on here at the moment. And no, I'm not telling you the title until next Monday. Can't screw up my weekly meme now can I?

I am apparently the meanest mom in first grade. And no, it's not the first grader complaining, it is what I suspect his teacher thinks of me. T. is the only child in the class who has to fill out his own reading log. We had to have a meeting about my feelings on the reading log and lack of compliance with signing it daily. I don'tt hink we exactly came to an agreement about it but she was willing to let me dump all responsibility on his small shoulders after I argued that *he* should be doing *his* homework, not having me sign off on it. Novel idea, I know and I am evil since I suggested that I was perfectly happy to pre-sign the log if that would take care of the issue. I am not at my best with daily requirements. This is why birth control pills were always an iffy proposition for me (well, that and the migraine problem) and why we are trying to switch the poor dog from her daily epilepsy meds which were supposed to be twice daily and which I was lucky to remember once daily. So the reading log, which I oppose for other reasons beyond the hassle-to-me factor, never had a chance.

It was my birthday on Sunday and it feels like it's been one long celebration so far this week. Not only did two neighbors join D. and I for dinner on Sunday, but they also created a towering cake confection, gave me lovely, wonderful gifties, and sang to me. Then another neighbor felt badly she'd not known it was my birthday and so for a surprise after our happy hour, brought out a homemade red velvet cake for me. Now those of you who saw my Facebook status know why I said I was gaining weight for my birthday. Ah sweet delight. Worth every pound I will have packed on, although questionable if it's worth the months it'll take to come off again. :-P

During the move we seem to have misplaced the title for my car. This only became apparent now, given that my plates expired on my birthday and I can't get new ones down here without the title. What a pain in the rear. I guess having to deal with two different state DMV's is the karmic balance to getting two cakes. Somehow though, I think it's still weighted toward the negative but then maybe it's just more retribution for my serial killer past life. And in the meantime, I am being a rebel and driving illegally. Since three of my neighbors are doing the same, I feel in good company.

I am almost completely finished shelving my book collection. I have topped 8200 books per LibraryThing, without adding in my kids' books (many of which were bought for them purely for show since I fully intend to read them too). And yet there's little that makes me happier than bringing more books into the house. I'm not even finished shelving them and I already have quite a few that are out of place. There's really nothing in this world like a procrastinating anal-retentive, let me tell you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Pan Yuliang, Chinese ex-pat artist. Have you heard of her? I hadn't either but this novel limns a fascinating and believable life for this not particularly well known historic figure. Orphaned young and raised by an opium addicted uncle, Pan Yuliang is sold into prostitution in her teens. She is bought out of her contract by a government offical whom she ultimately marries, becoming his concubine or "second wife." Amazingly, given the political climate in China during her lifetime, she is not only allowed to study at a prominent art school in Shanghai, but she also wins a scholarship to go to Paris and study there. Her work is post-Impressionist and both Asian and European in feel with her most famous and controversial paintings being of nudes, and very commonly of herself nude. While in France, she meets and associates with other young Chinese (Zhou Enlai is one such person) who will ultimately help to change the face of their homeland and drive people like Pan Yuliang from the China racing headlong towards the Cultural Revolution.

This was a completely engrossing novel which kept me reading long past when the light should have been out. Epstein has drawn a very believable story for Pan Yuliang, from her beginnings as a maid in a brothel all the way to being at the nadir of the post-impressionist art movement in China. She's a warm and sympathetic character who faces set-backs with a bit of fatalism and a steely resolve, an intriguing mix in a character. Although this is billed as novel about Pan Yuliang the artist, it is quite far along in the narrative before she tries her hand at any drawing at all, which I had not expected. And while her early life was fascinating, I read with a small sense of "let's get to the painting part" nagging at the back of my mind. Pan Yuliang is very definitely the main character here, with few other characters appearing and lasting in the novel. There are no throw-away characters and no outside tangents to take the reader's attention from the major story, allowing the reader to crawl more fully into Yuliang's skin and experience the highs and lows of her life with her. I went searching on the internet for pictures of her work once I finished the book and obviously Epstein did a good job describing them as they weren't startlingly different from what I had imagined. They aren't particularly to my taste but the book definitely was. I recommend it for those who enjoy historical fiction, art history, or just a plain old good story that will keep you reading past your bedtime.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Johanna by Claire Cooperstein

Johanna van Gogh worked tirelessly after her brother-in-law Vincent's death to help establish his reputation as a pre-eminent artist. Without her, his work would likely have faded into obscurity or worse yet, destroyed. And yet she promoted van Gogh's work entirely out of love for her late husband, who succumbed to mental illness and died (of syphilis) not long after his much loved older brother's death. Cooperstein has imagined Johanna's diary and letters as it might have told the story of her brief marriage to Theo van Gogh and her subsequent quest to find the fame he had worked for so diligently on his brother's behalf. There is an actual diary written by Johanna but the van Gogh family has refused all requests by authors and historians to view it. Cooperstein has created a credible character in her Johanna, showing her frustrations, sorrows, and joys, before and during her marriage and subsequent long widowhood as well as in her second marriage. There are known historical details peppered throught this mostly epistolary novel (Johanna continues to write letters to her late husband as a means of communicating with him--really just as a way to clarify her own thoughts) and while the bulk of the novel deals with the seemingly insurmountable hurdles to having van Gogh recognized as the brilliant avant guarde artist he was, we also see the gathering political clouds over Europe. Cooperstein's Johanna is a progressive and strong woman as the real Johanna must have been to have perservered in her causes, both for van Gogh's art and for womens' rights. This was an interesting book and illuminated a story I hadn't realized existed behind van Gogh's art. My biggest quibble with the book was the frankness of the discussion of sex by Joahnna's second husband when writing to his father. Perhaps this was indeed a cultural thing, as he himself notes in his letter, but it seemed gratuitous, and honestly out of place, in this novel. Other than a few bits like this, though, an enjoyable read. Perhaps someday, we'll be allowed to see the contents of Johanna's diary and we can see how well and closely portrayed Cooperstein's Johanna is. In the meantime, Cooperstein's Johanna is worth spending some time with: passionate, devoted, and determined.

Review: The Alphabetical Hookup List A-J by Phoebe McPhee

Oh my gawd. I, like, think I'm, like, too old for this book. Young adult literature can be just as appealing to adults as adult literature can be but this one made me grateful I'm not an angsty teen just starting college and that I was never as clueless and shallow as these characters seem to be. Three girls, who all requested singles (because freshmen ever score singles--duh) end up as roommates. They are, of course, as different as chalk and cheese and whatever third thing would be equally as different. Only, they aren't nearly as different as they think. When all of their love lives crash and burn almost immediately after stepping foot on campus (cheating boyfriend for one, dumped by long distance boyfriend for another, and clueless attraction to gay boy for the third), they band together and come up with the alphabetical hookup list where each one of them is going to try and kiss at least one guy for each letter of the alphabet, in order. The girls' friendship waxes and wanes as each one tries to fulfill her list amidst all the other distractions of college (although attending class really doesn't seem to be much of a distraction). As the title implies, this is the first in a trilogy and apparently I need to have my head examined because I bought all three of them without trying the first one. Now I have two more vacuous teen reads to slog through (I bought them and having spent money on them, I'm too anal retentive to give them away without reading them). And give them away I will because the characterization is superficial, the plot is pretty darn non-existent, and really, despite the semi-redeeming moral moment at the end of this first book, I don't think I want my daughter to read these, even when she reaches an appropriate age.

Review: Spies by Michael Frayn

Opening with narrator Stephen Wheatley smelling a vaguely unpleasant smell that triggers the memory of a fateful time in his childhood, this story tells of boys Keith and Stephen, their friendship and what their curiousity during WWII cost them and others. As Stephen travels back to the Close he lived on during the war years, he remembers Keith as being the driving force behind all that the two boys did together and the catalyst for their fateful game of spying on Keith's mother whom Keith avers is a German spy. The two boys hide out in a thick privet bush, thinking they are unobserved, trying to mark Mrs. Hayward's comings and goings, and eventually tailing her as best they can. Older narrator Stephen interjects occasionally and the reader is comfortably sure that he or she knows more than young Stephen so when the denouement occurs, it is a somewhat unexpected twist (although we do know it a step ahead of Stephen). It is what our narrator casually reveals after the story of the imagination of young boys that somehow shocks the reader even more.

Frayn builds tension slowly and inexorably throughout the narrative, skillfully adding a slight menace to every action observed or taken. As the reader, you are addressed in the second person, as if older Stephen is narrating his story directly to you and this technique serves to make you a confidante, an insider in the novel itself. Stephen is definitely a more sympathetic character than Keith, not surprising given that Stephen is our narrator. But Frayn also reveals enough about Keith for the reader to understand and feel somewhat sorry for the stoic, rather condescending and unpleasant boy he is. A remarkably surprising book, this is one that will probably stay with me for quite a while thanks both to an unusual plot and to the masterful writing although I'm still not sure I particularly liked it.

Review: Kristin Lavransdatter: II The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset

I read the first book in this trilogy years ago and struggled through it. At the time, I was told that the translation I happened to have was probably the hardest to plug through so I put off, and put off, and put off reading any further. But I wanted to because I had heard such wonderful things about this medieval set saga written by Nobel prize winner Undset. I don't really know what finally inspired me to pick up the second book this many years onward (good thing I have a decent memory for most books or I'd have been rather lost I suspect) but I am glad I did and am now looking forward to the third and final installment in Kristin Lavransdatter's life.

This portion of the saga starts with Kristin and Erlend arriving at Husaby, his ancestral estate, as they start their marriage. But Kristin and Erlend's life is not destined to be easy, even once they have the sanction of marriage, and Undset draws a full and captivating portrait of life in 1400's Norway. Domestic and political, male and female spheres, religion and secularity are all played out on a grand and a small scale, providing the reader with and intimate glimpse of a time long since passed from memory. Kristin is a strong and fascinating character but she has her faults. Erlend is weaker and more wayward as a character, a bigger picture thinker than his wife, who focuses on the small details. But their inability to temper each other's weaknesses in a true partnership leads them into great difficulty.

Once I settled into the language of this translation (and that took a bit), I was interested to see how Kristin and Erlend developed. In general I sympathized more with Kristin because she did so very much, always cognizant of the consequences of her actions. But there were times that I found myself getting annoyed with her, as if she was indeed a real person making poor choices and ill-advisedly holding onto grudges instead of a character in a book. The setting of the book was rich and well-detailed. And the historical imformation in the story line itself and in footnotes was fascinating since Norway's history is not even touched upon in classes in this country. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to live in the Middle Ages but I enjoy visiting there on occasion through the pages of a book. And I plan to visit Kristin in the last third of her story sooner rather than later.

Spring Reading Thing Challenge

If you've read this blog for any length of time (in addition to being cross-eyed from boredom) you know that I hop on the seasonal reading challenge bandwagons as a way to get myself back to the various unfinished books lurking around on my bedside table. So far it's been pretty effective for me so I was pleased to remember that spring means the advent of Katrina's Spring Reading Thing Challenge over at Callapidder Days. It's one of those lax and much appreciated by me design your own challenges. I wait to pick my books so I can see what titles still have bookmarks lurking in them on the first day. In that spirit, here's my list for this year's spring thing:

1. River of Doubt by Candice Millard
2. The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
3. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
4. The Sweet Potato Queen’s Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit by Jill Conner Browne

I know, I know. Only four books? That's positively restrained for me. But please note that The Far Pavilions is about a billion pages long and I am within the first 100 of that billion so it's really like reading many books rather than just one. And because I have a scad load of other books sitting here to read (including two review books with more on the way), these four will be challenge enough for me this spring.

Review: Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John

Wow! This was an amazing book and I've already mentioned reading it at T.'s practices and reflecting on how much our children have both in material possessions and in terms of intangibles like safety and security. If you missed that post, you can see it here.

St. John followed a season with the Fugees soccer teams in Clarkston, Georgia. What makes the Fugees teams different from the usual kid soccer teams elsewhere in suburban Atlanta and around the country is that all the kids on the teams are refugees from war torn nations around the world who have been relocated to southern Clarkston. St. John focuses not only on the kids, roughly middle school aged, but on their families, histories, their unique coach, and on the rapidly changing face of the town of Clarkston. He weaves all of this together seamlessly, presenting a compelling story of the difficulties the refugees present to a town mired in its sleepy past, the escape that a seriously underfunded and ignored soccer program can offer to children who have seen and survived the worst that fellow human beings have to offer, and how the two things can come together: in conflict or in harmony. The personal histories here are completely horrific and engrossing. Coach Luma is inspiring. And the road blocks thrown up by the town for no good reason are infuriating. But St. John doesn't present shy away from the troubles that have visited the town with the huge influx of refugees. And he doesn't portray Mufleh, the female Jordanian coach volunteering her time, as without flaws. He tries to be fairly balanced, detailing ways in which the town has adapted and grown and made the advent of so many international peoples a positive one even as he highlights short-sightedness on the part of others in town. A definite challenge, one that was well done and kept me reading long past when the light should have been turned off, I would recommend this to anyone interested in narrative non-fiction.

**Note that this was an Advanced Reading Copy and the actual book is not due out until April 21st of this year.

Review: Tales From the Scale by Erin Shea

With a subtitle of "Women Weigh in on Thunder Thighs, Cheese Fries, and Feeling Good... at Any Size," I figured this would be right up my alley given my weight battles, both recently and in the past, and my sarcastic and snarky self (and my love of schadenfreude--but I try not to admit to that one too frequently). What I didn't realize was that this was told in short vignettes by weight loss bloggers and that rather than being silly, entertaining, and yet somehow still honest and inspiring, I would not really connect with any of the short pieces in here. Now I understand that being fat isn't funny. Heck, I personally find it depressing as all get out (and this is after having lost half of what I need to lose). But earnest and dull stories of others' weight loss are not the way to keep me on track. I wanted funny. I wanted honest accountings of goof-ups (leavened with humor). I wanted to smile as I ate my carrot sticks. And this book just didn't deliver for me. Obviously the earnest tales appeal to lots of people and I hope they find inspiration in them. Me, I was looking for the promised cheese fries and perhaps that explains my current weight plateau! Missing that certain je ne sais quoi for me, other reviewers have raved (and found the humor I missed) so perhaps it is the right inspirational book in your weight loss arsenal. I'll just have to find something else for myself.

Review: My Girl: Adventures with a Teen in Training by Karen Stabiner

I was shelving my books (almost done with that--woohoo!) and ran across this book. Given that I am living with a teen in training (well, two but only one of the girl variety) right now, I thought I should probably read this sooner rather than later. Of course, it made me a bit nervous given my policy that ignorance is bliss as to what's coming my way as a parent of teens. But since it was sitting on my shelf looking topical and just asking to be read, I heeded its advice and opened its cover. This is the memoir of a few years (ten to fourteen) in the life of Stabiner and her daughter Sarah. Stabiner's premise is that very few kids actually go through what we think of as the standard and horrible teen years and she presents her life with Sarah as proof that being a pre-teen and teen doesn't mean morphing into a Queen Bee or Wannabe and just plain being nasty. The book is both anecdotes of their life and a look at why we have the impressions we do of the teen years and how our children will behave then. I'd be quite curious to see what she thinks of life from fourteen to eighteen or twenty, not simply because I am a pessimist but because I can already see in my own pre-teen daughter that the young teen years are liable to be less fraught than the later years just given her personality and her current mostly naive innocence. But I suspect that many of the hurdles that kids and or parents stumble over come later in the teen years when the stakes are higher and the problems can be so much bigger. This is, of course, not covered in a book that stops at the fourteenth birthday party. But Stabiner and her daughter obviously navigated the years covered with grace and only occasional falling-outs. She doesn't really offer a roadmap for as smooth a ride as possible as much as she offers the reassurance that it can be smoother than you might expect. In some ways, this was reassuring and in others the skeptic in me screamed, "Anecdotal evidence and therefore meaningless!" Several weeks on from reading this, I am still uncertain how I feel about this book, making me suspect that I think it's a lukewarm, "It was fine" sort of read.

Review: Anne's Perfect Husband by Gayle Wilson

Ian Sinclair, badly wounded fighting Napolean but mostly recovered now, discovers that he has been named the guardian of the young daughter of the man who was the cause of his war injury. He plans to have nothing to do with the child since she is safely tucked away at school up north until he has an attack of conscience thinking of an abandoned waif spending Christmas alone at school. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that his ward is not a child and that he has somehow given his word to take her off and try to give her the life that her father's peripatetic military career and non-military inspired neglect never granted her. Anne Darlington, for her part, isn't sure she wants to have a London season unless she can convince Ian that the only man for her is him. As Ian is trying to keep Anne's father's cowardice and callousness from his child, he is trying to keep her at arm's length as well. An interesting take on the concept of "the sins of the father" and "the child of mine enemy," this is, of course, a romance and so such old chestnuts will be overcome by true love. Anne's attachment to Ian seems fairly sudden and without enough evidence while Ian's love for Anne is shown growing over the course of the story. Perhaps this is because the reader can see him struggle with his feelings, but it made for more interesting reading than Anne just declaring to herself out of the blue that if she can't have Ian, she'd go back to school and take up the teaching post offered to her. So half satisfying, this could have used a bit more fleshing out.

Review: The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor

Before I discuss this book, I feel it only fair to disclose my general inability to connect with short stories except on very rare occasions and with very few authors. This inability is all mine and shouldn't reflect on the authors, but of course, it does to the extent that I write reviews about their stories. Ah well. The joys of being a published writer at the mercy of folks like me, I guess. That said, on to the review.

I didn't much like it. Now that comes as a surprise, doesn't it? The stories were well-written, elegant even. They are set in a south (20's and 30's) that was rapidly disappearing even as the characters lived their lives of quiet, privileged seclusion of sorts. This is a time and place I generally don't mind visiting in my reading but there was something about these stories that just didn't resonate for me. I almost felt as if each small story was happening at a remove from me as the reader, that there was no emotional pull, tugging me into each story whether I wanted to be tugged or no. The stories themselves were not superficial in any way although they were muted and restrained, proper even. And perhaps I'm too messy and uninhibited to appreciate that or perhaps my usual disdain for short stories colored my perception of this before I ever opened the cover. For whatever reason, I was pleased to turn the last page and be able to get on with other reading.

Mailbox Monday

It's been a couple of weeks since goodies arrived in my mailbox but this week I lucked out and a few things found their way into the magic book box out at the curb. The haul this past week:

The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein from the author. As I've already finished it, I must say it's a fantastic book (review coming) and that I've already suggested to the "official book chooser" at my newest book club. (I am like a Dorito-eater with book clubs--can't have just one.)

The Italian Lover by Robert Hellenga which I won from Julie at bookingmama.

The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks which came to me from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

With any luck, the mailbox will be overflowing with goodies later today too as I am still expecting several review books to be winging their way hither. In the meantime, if you want to see what other people got this week, check out The Printed Page for other gloating posts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Salon: Happy Birthday!

It's mah birthday. It's mah birthday. (Visualize me dancing as I sing this--or maybe it's better if you don't given my lack of rhythm.) We've told the kids for years that the older you get, the duller your birthday is. Couldn't prove it by me this year though. I did not get what I most wished for: peace and quiet without children anywhere near me. )I do love them, most of the time--::grin::--, I just cherish my alone time and haven't had any in I can't tell you how long.) But if I had to spend my day ferrying children around to various places, I got the very next best things a mom could ask for on her birthday. I got a gift card to Barnes and Noble, a gift card to a girlie boutique-y jewelry/purse place, checks, and Graeter's ice cream. You are now all wishing you were me, aren't you?!

Amazingly enough, one of the places I had to take a child was close enough to B&N to make for an easy detour to completely blow the entire gift card already. Color me as happy as a pig in stink! The books that came home to live with me today were:

Gorgeous As Sin by Susan Johnson because all tired moms need a stash of happily-ever-after, steamy romances for when brain melt overtakes one.

A Vineyard in Tuscany by Ferenc Mate because Tuscany is one of those places I dream of visiting one day and until that day arrives, I'm happy enough with armchair traveling in that general direction. I also have a sneaking fondness for moving and starting over amidst language barriers and general home chaos so this one fit the bill twice-over.

Godmother by Carolyn Turgeon because I read about this one on Julie's blog at bookingmama and it was intriguing.

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg who writes the blog Orangette, which is a lovely blog that will someday make me fatter than the proverbial piggie. Actually, maybe not since I am too bone lazy to make much of what she has on there but I sure do like looking at it! ;-)

I'm just impressed with myself that I only overshot the gift card by about $3 and I'm chalking most of that up to having to buy a birthday card for the kiddie party we were en route to when we stopped to get last week's birthday boy his much anticipated copy of Pokemon Platinum for Nintendo DS. Somehow seemed unfair when I reserved it a couple of weeks ago that I'd have to collect it on my birthday but such is the life of a mom. (And don't for one minute think that I didn't fully intend to stop at B&N even had I not received a gift card once I noticed its proximity to GameStop!)

As for the other gifts, the girlie gift card will wait until next weekend or maybe sometime during the week if I can squeeze it in (have to get new license plates first since mine are illegal as of tomorrow). And the Graeter's ice cream, well, if you haven't ever had the world's best ice cream, I feel sorry for you. But I'm not sharing. That six pints that T. and S, brought me from Columbus for my birthday should last me about a day and a half and only add about 15 pounds to my rear, right?! ;-) Somehow my family thinks I'm sharing. I might have to go buy a cake to be the decoy instead. Maybe if I buy a chocolate cake they won't notice they are missing out on the world's best ice cream. Nah, they probably will. But it'll be worth the whining to eat it all myself. LOL!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Signs of spring

For many people, the first sign of spring is the sight of a crocus bravely peeking through the snow. It offers hope that the long winter will eventually end and is one of the first signs of renewal. Long before we moved here to the sunny south (where it seems to rain more than advertised, I might add), this was not the first sign of spring for me. It was, and continues to be, a slow leak out of the checkbook. I take that back, it starts as a slow leak and then turns into a river swollen with spring rains and rushing past at alarming speed. The bad thing about the south is that this moment comes earlier than it came up north. I've already opened the checkbook for dance competition fees (and complained about it here too!). That was the first sign/leak. But it quickly turned into a torrent as I wrote checks for soccer, baseball, and tennis (times two) as well. And, of course, because it's spring and the checkbook is already open, school has gotten into the act too. Both the middle school and the elementary school are running fundraisers right now (for charity at the elementary school and to supplement technology at the middle school). Elementary school also just had its spring bookfair too and I am well known for my inability to say no to books (for myself or for my children).

All that money flowing out of here may not be as visible as the proverbial crocus, but it does lead to an interesting still life in my car: ballet shoes nestled with a baseball bat and glove, cleats, a soccer ball, a tennis racquet or two, and one shin guard. (We always have to hunt high and low for the second shin guard.) Not piled haphazardly on the seat but still an important part of my spring gear, the trunk is full of water bottles, collapsible chairs, and stray snacks in case the snack mom has forgotten (okay, usually I'm the snack mom who forgets but at least I've learned to drive around prepared so that I only have to run to the car to remedy the oversight instead of searching out the nearest grocery store.

Ah, spring. When we're broke and the car smells of dirt, sweat, and stinky shoes. What a powerful (and persistent) aroma to remind us that summer is coming.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Slam by Nick Hornby

Sam is nearly 16 and everything in life is going really well for him. His mom has dumped the boyfriend Sam didn't like; he's learned new, more difficult skating tricks (that's skateboarding, not ice skating--he's a huge Tony Hawk afficiando, even talking to his Hawk poster and having it talk back to him and show him his future); his teachers think he might have college potential; and he's started dating Alicia, a girl he'd thought was way out of his league. As Sam himself says in the novel, when everything's ticking along this well, it's time to go and screw it up. And this generally normal, average kid does that in spectacular, life-changing fashion. He gets his girlfriend pregnant, echoing his mother's worst nightmare for him (she had him while still a teenager as well). This is the story of Sam, how he screwed up, came to grips with his screw-up, and makes a new, unexpected and imperfect but liveable life for himself.

I'm sure there are a load of novels dealing with teenaged pregnancy but Hornby has managed to add a fantastic new one to the mix. With Sam narrating, rather than girlfriend Alicia, the reader gets a much different perspective than usual. How a soon-to-be teenaged father reacts is different than a soon-to-be teenaged mother. We are taken along in Sam's world as he battles the desire to flee without finding out if Alicia is indeed pregnant (well, he does flee but he comes back), as he tries to finish enough schooling to become something, and as he struggles through life with a new baby and a girlfriend he's not sure he wants to be with any longer. As in his novels for adults, Hornby is quite adept in drawing an adolescent boy and all the confronts him in life. Sam is realistic and sympathetic. The other characters make fewer appearances on the page than Sam does and in fact the other characters are fairly few in number. But the focus on Sam works and while this isn't the usual cautionary teen pregnancy tale, there is certainly no glorification, rather a humorous but still difficult realism. I generally tend to like Hornby's non-fiction better than his fiction but I can recommend this one as a well-written and satisfying read for young adult or even adult.

Review: Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe

I think I may have read this as a child as it was familiar but I picked it up this time to read it when my daughter read it for AR points at school. It is a cute story with just enough mystery and spookiness to keep a child reading along. Harold the dog and Chester the cat are at home when their family arrives back at the house with a small rabbit they'd found at the Dracula movie they went to see. Christening him Bunnicula, the family decides to keep our bunny and that is when things around the house start getting a bit strange. Chester the cat becomes convinced that the new bunny is in fact a vampire rabbit and goes to great lengths to try and convince the more skeptical Harold. But when vegetables in the family's refrigerator start turning up limp and white and drained of their juices speculation turns to a certainty of sorts.

What Chester and Harold do about this strange new member of the family and how they each react to the mysterious little bunny forms the bulk of this short children's chapter book. While the book is a children's book, it does a good job of being engaging enough to not have any adult readers (or perhaps it would be better to say adults reading aloud to children) avoiding the nightly reading. Harold is a loveable doofus while Chester is a more intelligent character and their interactions (Bunnicula never speaks) drive the story along. This really is a great book for the middle grades, never being too scary but having a slight element of suspense that should keep the most jaded 8-10 year old reading along.

Just wondering...

if taking a power nap after a workout negates all the good health benefits of the workout? I'm fairly certain that at the very least it destroys the boost the workout ostensibly gives to my metabolism. Could explain some of my weight plateau problems! Sure felt good though. ;-)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bad attitude corner

Studies have shown that people are more likely to succeed at things if they have outside encouragement, right? (Don't ask which studies; this is not a scientific blog. Just assume the great and powerful "they" means someone out there actually did do studies. And I'm sure "they" have since every time I try to do something like exercise or lose weight or what have you, I am told that it'll be easier if I do it with a friend. Studies have proven it. No one provides the actual studies so I'm not going to either. So there.)

Anyway, having company doing things that might or might not be unpleasant is not a bad plan and is why I tend to skip any form of exercise unless I have a friend helping to motivate me. And I do have a number of people willing to kick my rear, or at least send me on an extended guilt trip, if I don't accompany them to the gym or on a run. Today's exercise fun was cycle class at the gym. Sadly it was the instructor I don't love so very much. There are many things wrong with this class (from my perspective--although she seems to have an unexplicably large and enthusiastic following) and I tend to go into it with a lousy attitude. It doesn't help that K., my friend and cohort in crime for this class, my "outside encouragement," is as sarcastic and snarky about the class as I am. But it works best in our busy mom schedules (::snort:: Just got back from a leisurely lunch again. ::cough::) so we continue to go to it.

Today was lost the moment that the instructor, a maddening, perky, blonde twiglet arrived. I don't know that I've ever seen her off the bike before as we generally screech in at the last minute. I leaned over and said to K., "I am definitely going to hell but I am inordinately pleased to see she's bow-legged." And that, I am sorry to say, set the tone for the class. Once we both stopped howling with laughter, we got ourselves set up on our bikes and had to listen to the inane nattering of this particular instructor for the entire 50 minutes of class. K. and I exchanged incredulous glances when she asked if anyone knew why we wear green on St. Patrick's Day (and she wasn't wearing green so we heard a soliloquy on pinching which only served to make *me* want to pinch her--and I was wearing green, so was safe myself). But we absolutely convulsed in laughter, which is not terribly conducive to maintaining a hard workout, when she told us all not to be upset by the weather since if it wasn't raining and grey, it would be dry. Uh. Yeah. 'Cause then it would be sunny. It is really a good thing that K. and I tend to like our little back corner of the room. We were originally crowded out by the fit and toned regulars but we're quite happy there. We've dubbed it the "bad attitude corner." Since we're hidden behind rows of other people, our snarky facial expressions are harder to read in the mirrors at the front of the room. ;-)

We do try and put in a hard workout, despite our curmudgeonliness though sometimes it is hard. Today we not only got to hear about Perky's heart rate, which has less than no bearing on anyone else in the room, but she repeated the hideous exercise she did last Tuesday where she told us how long it would take to burn off the 25 calories in one Hershey's Kiss. Aside from the fact that each time she does this I have the Homer Simpsonish response of "MMMMMMMMM Hershey's kisses," and drool a little onto my sweaty shirt, it is an obnoxious bit of theater. Yes, we all know it takes longer than you'd think. But we don't actually want to know. Really. Because then we'd have to actually stop at just one Hershey's Kiss, and I don't mean one bag or one giant super-sized version either. One measly kiss. K.'s general response to this ridiculousness is to query why we're there then at all if it takes that long to burn off one. She points out that it sort of highlights the hopelessness of working out as a diet aid, which is probably not Perky's intention. Unlike last week, today she also named a litany of candy filled holidays we've just passed through or will shortly, starting with Halloween and proceding through Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day before we get a break from the evils of sugar. Kinda makes you think you missed out as a kid since you never got candy on St. Patty's Day, Mother's Day or Father's Day, doesn't it? And heck, while cookies are undoubtedly sugar-laden, that's the only form of candy involved at the K. house for Christmas. So now I know I've been gypped my entire life on the candy front *and* I can't even begin to work off one teeny, tiny Hershey's Kiss in any reasonable amount of time or without sweat-drenching my clothing. See why I need K. to keep me accountable and going to work out? I'd easily give in to the futility and snuggle up on the couch with the whole bag of kisses and just go to town, pessimist that I am.

As if the Hershey's kiss information wasn't enough to kill the desire to cycle hard, we are also forced to listen to absolutely cr@p music for the whole ride. Other instructors mix it up. The music can range from 80's music to current stuff and back again or have a theme, which makes for a fun class. Tuesday's class, however, is mired in the egregious sin against music that is Christian rap. I'm sure somebody out there likes this stuff. I most emphatically do not. Actually, I'm not a huge rap fan in general but the Christian rap is particularly bad. The first time we heard it, K. sais she was horrified by it since all she could make out was what she assumed to be loud blasphemies. Now that we are assaulted by the lyrics on a weekly basis, we can actually tell what they are saying some of the time and while not blasphemous in one sense, I will suggest that it is blasphemy to call it music and to think that it is inspiring anyone to cycle harder. It just makes me want to leave the room to escape the cacaphony. But today the music was only one of the noises making me want to flee (or strangle someone). While we did the same workout we do every Tuesday (she's not very creative at varying our workouts), she had us at a stage where we were supposed to be working to our capacity and because she's very big on the mental aspect of training, she chirps over the labored breathing all around, "What's in your head right now? What's in your head?" Now keep in mind that I'm struggling to give it everything I've got when she starts asking this at 30 second intervals. My answer each and every time was "Shut up. Shut UP. SHUT UP!" After class K. told me that what she had in her head was "F--- OFF!" Much more succinct. I'll have to use that one next time. And despite my complaints, there will be a next time because we are in a routine and because I have company in my bad attitude corner and as "they" say, that should make me more successful at it. Which begs the question: Am I going to be more successful at taking the piss out of the instructor or at cycling class? The answer is, of course, yes. Or maybe it's 42*.

*Yes mom, I know you don't get the reference but you wouldn't like the book anyway so don't worry about it.

Book Review Policy

Authors, Publishers and Publicists…

Thank you for considering me for the privilege of reviewing your books.

I am a very eclectic reader and my favorite genres include contemporary/literary fiction, historical fiction, young adult, narrative non-fiction (travel, cooking, etc.) and memoirs. I generally do not read mystery/thrillers, science fiction, fantasy or horror but have been known to make rare exceptions so it never hurts to ask.

I do not accept e-books at this time but will consider self-published books.

I do review every book I read and I finish all books I accept for review. My acceptance of your book for review does not guarantee a positive review. I will strive to review your book honestly and fairly but keep in mind that not every book works for every reader and that may be reflected in my review.

I give priority to my review books and try to have ARC reviews published as soon as possible. If you want me to hold off on publishing a review until a book is released, I can do that as well. I publish my reviews on my blog, to several book lists on yahoogroups, and on LibraryThing among other places. If you would like an Amazon review or a posted review on another outlet of your specification, I will be happy to provide that as well.
All of my blog reviews can be found easily as the format always runs: “Review: Title by Author.” If you’d like to see samples of my previous reviews, look for this in the sidebar of the blog and you’ll get a feel for my writing and reviewing.
I don’t give ARC copies away unless you have specifically told me that doing so is acceptable.

Thank you again for your interest in my blog, and I look forward to working with you.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

I am probably the last person on the planet to read this book (even my kids read it before I did) but I wanted to read it before I saw the movie, which I still haven't gotten around to seeing (at the rate I move, it'll probably be out on DVD before I see it). In any case, this was a really sweet little book. Despereaux is one small mouse, unusual in the mouse world, who has one big heart and courage and determination to match. After he is banished from the mouse world for talking to (and falling in love with) Princess Pea, a human being, he must escape the dungeons and the rats who live there and rescue the Princess in the process. Like all good fairy tales, there is a morality tale here, woven throughout the absolutely enchanting story. Children's literature can often be too blatantly lesson-filled but this one keeps a good balance, teaching and entertaining in equal measure. I was completely delighted by the book and look forward to seeing the movie too. You can be fairly certain that I will continue buying DiCamillo's works for myself...ahem...for my kids.

Review: Fork It Over by Alan Richman

This is a collection of columns previously written by Richman for GQ and other sources about his life as a professional eater and restaurant reviewer. The columns have been arranged into a menu of sorts: amuse-bouche, appetizers, palate cleanser, entrees, palate cleanser, sides, cheese, palate cleanser, wine, and gratuity. Richman is well written and funny and the columns pleased this readers palate. Of course, I do generally enjoy the literary equivalent of what we here sometimes call "food porn" but I think this is of interest to most people. It isn't too specialized or restaurant-centric so that only those who have eaten at the place in question will enjoy the associations Richman makes as he travels from the nostalgia of his mother's kitchen to the palate stirring pleasures of a gourmet meal. One of my favorite comedic bits in the book comes from one of the palate cleansers, Ten Commandments For Diners and headed "5. Pass on the Omelette Station." It reads: "You're on vacation, ready to splurge. That means the hotel's $39.95 Sunday buffet brunch. There's salmon, sushi, crab claws, shrimp, and eggs Benedict. You head straight for the omelette station, where a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who has never been to cooking school is making fluffy four-egg omelets with scallions, peppers, Bac'Os, and a grated cheese product. Nice going. You've just filled up on an egg dish that costs $3.99 at Denny's." After you stop giggling, you recognize that the man really is correct. (And I felt inordinately glad I hate eggs so I knew without doubt I've never fallen into that brunch pitfall.) Good fun, this was well worth the read.

Bachlorette party or how I realized I'm older than dirt

I helped organize a surprise bachlorette party last night. An entertainer I am not, but a good liar, I apparently am. I was in charge of getting M. to the salon for a manicure (and if you read this blog faithfully, you know how I feel about being touched by strangers so you'll know this part was not my idea). She and S., her fiance and one of my running coaches, came over here on the premise that the four of us (including D.) were going out for dinner. I set out chips and dip and made it seem like we really were going to settle in for a while. Then the phone rang and it was for me. I told M. that the salon had just called to remind me of a nail appointment I'd forgotten. She was willing to come with me to catch up on her trashy magazine reading and the entire way to the salon she chatted about how she was sure S. was trying to surprise her with a really nice dinner tonight because he had insisted on her dressing up and how she'd confronted him and told him she'd guessed the surprise. She was just certain that he couldn't possibly surprise her. I just stayed outwardly non-committal through it all while inwardly laughing. She didn't even blink when I admitted I didn't quite know where the salon was, saying that someone had recommended it to me. Either I'm a really convincing liar or I am frequently stupidly air-headed! Good thing she knew where it was. Her face, when we walked in and she saw everyone there for her, was like a deer in headlights.

After the salon, we all drove to the local train station to leave our cars and caught rides uptown with the two women who weren't going to be staying past dinner. The plan was that those of us who went out after dinner could just take the train back to our cars. The best laid plans and all of that; but more on that later. Dinner was fun and laughter filled. Our end of the table spent a lot of time ogling one of the chefs. He really was quite cute. The funniest moment occurred when C1 offered to take C2's card over and give it to him since C2 was too embarrassed to do it herself. She's got some moxie, that C1 and she did it amidst much laughing and scrambling for the door! Wonder which one of us he thought it was from. And if he cooked my meal, the man is not only cute but he's a marvel in the kitchen. D., I love ya honey, and I'd never trade you but learning to do more in the kitchen than open a can of Chef Boy R Dee wouldn't hurt!

After dinner, I was tired (I am old, afterall) but still amenable to going out and since I was our bride-to-be's ride back to her fiance, I didn't really have a choice anyway. So we headed to a nearby bar where there were lines at absolutely every door. Luckily one of the women who was with us knew someone who got us past all of that and into the place. And this was where I started to feel my age. I've never been a huge fan of bars and have always been a bit claustrophbic so a bar on the weekend immediately preceding St. Patrick's Day was probably not the best choice. It was absolutely wall to wall people. Even worse, the people were all about 12 years old by my reckoning. We found a spot and basically rooted ourselves there although that apparently angered some ridiculous college students who must have used fake ID's to get in they looked so young because these charmers started shouting "F--- You!" in our general direction as they tried to make their way up to the bar. One of the advantages of being so clearly old, however, was pretending deafness and having the drunk toddlers not realize we were faking it. M. and D., who spent her entire time all night on her cell phone, texting or calling people (and I'm old enough that I thought this was incredibly rude to do at her friend's bachlorette party), kept making the acquaintance of young boys. As a short, slightly plump brunette, it was indeed eye opening to go out with tall blondes. In some ways I thought it would have been nice when I was younger to attract men so effortlessly but then I noticed how all these guys felt compelled to touch them and given my weird aversions, this skeeved me out. It reached the strangest culmination when one of the guys, having been told that we were a bachlorette party, asked where the strippers were and started unbuttoning his shirt for M. I think I threw up a little in my mouth when he started fondling his nipple for our benefit, although far better his own than M.'s! He was an odd duck, but this probably shouldn't have been a surprise given that we were trapped in a bar filled with people climbing down each others' throats as if they still lived at home with their parents and therefore couldn't possibly go home together. (Just how do you, as an 18 year old, tell mom and dad where you met the scantily clad young woman you've hauled home, when you clearly shouldn't have legally been in a bar? "Oh, and just ignore the fact that we're stuck together like barnacles too.") We did all get a chuckle over the music playing in the kiddie bar though, pretty confident in the fact that were were but among a handful of souls in the place who had actually been alive when "Jessie's Girl" originally came out. We definitely the only ones who knew all the words to "Mickey," cheerfully and loudly singing along.

We finally headed out to another bar but it too pointed up my decrepit age pretty rapidly although the rest of the folks weren't quite as young as the original bar. The pre-pubescent boys continued to hit on the tall blondes and M. dissolved into giggles when she asked one of them if he knew W. (my oldest son, who is almost 12). After he admitted he didn't, she cheerfully told him that she thought he looked like he might know him because he was in middle school too. I don't think he was terribly impressed, protesting that he was 31. Makes one wonder if he added 10 years to his age to seem more mature, because it didn't work. By the time we got to this bar, I was exhausted but trying to play along gamely when I really just wanted my bed (I was so tired I would have skipped the book!). We wandered around some but this bar was also incredibly crowded and moving was difficult. We did manage to get to the bathroom at one point where I had a drink thrown all down my back. Some drunk dingbat tossed her beer *at* the trash can (note I didn't say *in* the trash can) while I was standing waiting to wash my hands. It splashed all down my back and the back of the girl standing next to me. Charming, sticky beer all over me. :-P Apparently that was the proper aphrodesiac for this particular bar though as after I got drenched, I had two guys start dancing with me, including one who thought that it was perfectly acceptable to wrap and arm around my hips, rest his hand rather too close for comfort, and pelvic thrust at my rear. The rest of the women out with us were laughing hysterically at the look on my face. I suspect it was a cross between "I've just stepped in dog poo and can't scrape it off my shoe" and "Please stop dragging your fingernails down that chalkboard!" I guess it's no wonder I met my husband in a pool rather than at a bar given my complete lack of understanding or acceptance of bar ettiquette. Interestingly, we were not on the dance floor when either "dancing" (and I use the term lightly) incident happened. We did, however, eventually make it to the dance floor, where it was too tight really to move at all. (Case in point, as I was standing there swaying slightly--as close to dancing as proximity would permit--some guy trying to grope his dance partner behind me kept grabbing my butt instead of hers. I am way too old for bars where someone grabs your @ss by mistake and doesn't even notice his mistake because you are packed in like sardines.) Despite this, we managed to be stuck by a threesome of two guys and a girl really getting down, slithering up and down each other, bumping and grinding to beat the band. The one guy kept crashing into whichever one of us was closest to him. The only thing that kept me from wanting to stick a foot out and swipe his feet from underneath him (okay, it didn't keep me from wanting to do it, but it kept me from actually attempting to do it) was noting that with his rhythm, his odds of being crap in bed were off the charts. We all got a bit of a chuckle out of it. The boy really was a disaster but he sure thought he was all that and a bag of chips. I had been ready to go home for hours but I think what finally convinced everyone that it was time to go was when C1 used her elbow to just about deflate the boob of the woman behind her who was energetically bashing into her with complete abandon. Obviously most of us had about had it by then. Don't know whether it was age or wisdom or both but we headed out only to discover that the trains had stopped running a half and hour before. One more bit of evidence showcasing my geriatric nerdiness is that when we claimed our coats from the coat check girl, I noticed she had a book splayed face down on her counter. It was one I've read. It took major restraint for me not to ask her what she thought of it so far (and given that she wasn't reading it despite having no one in line before us, I suspect she wasn't loving it).

After a long cab ride back to the train station, with bride-to-be M. in the front seat lecturing the cab driver on his knowledge of the city and three of us in the back laughing madly, we all scattered our seperate ways. I delivered M. back to S. at my house (he was asleep on the couch and D. was sacked out in our bed since the poor man had to be up again in a mere two hours to catch a flight) and they headed home. And yes, as an old lady, I fell right into my bed and didn't wake up until the phone rang with the first of my family calling to wish T. a happy birthday. I have spent the majority of today trying to recover, not from a night of wild excess but from a night up many hours past my bedtime. It's like a hangover without earning the hangover.

S. sent us all an e-mail today: "Thank you all for the effort put forth on M.’s party. She had a blast and was completely surprised. Just one thing, next time you take her out don’t get her as drunk. I could not get her to stop talking the whole ride home. You sent me back a broken woman." That's impressive given that they live a good 30-45 minutes away. Bwahahahahahaha!

My favorite comment of the night? M2 looking at all the little hoochie mamas in their 2 sizes too small, barely there, strapless, twist-once-and-a-nipple-might-pop-out-and-hit-someone-in-the-eye dresses said, "This makes me feel right at home. I haven't seen so many boobs since I lived in New Jersey." Obviously these girls are too young to appreciate the idea of a little mystery, prefering the if you've got it, flaunt it (and if you don't, flaunt it anyway and maybe no one will notice you shouldn't) attitude.

Moral of the story: never go partying the night before your child has a birthday (the constant phone ringing the following day will never let you recover), especially if he's your baby and he's going to be 7. If this is the case, you are clearly old to be out past midnight. Just deal with it. Oh and it worries the heck out of me that my oldest child is *more* than halfway towards being old enough to be out at bars and my middle child is exactly halfway there. I am officially a wrinkly, pitiful crone.

Sunday Salon: Living with books

The scads of books and shelves groaning under the weight of them have been such a constant in my life that I forget how overwhelming my house can look to people who are unaware of the extent of my obsession (and that is pretty much everyone who has yet to see my house since the scope of the book love is pretty unfathomable to non-readers or very casual, occasional readers).

We had some friends come over last night and since we haven't lived here that long, the house is still fairly chaotic and many books have not yet found their permanent homes on shelves. So these friends asked for a tour (my worst nightmare given my sloppy housekeeping) but luckily the sheer fact of loaded bookselves in every room amazed them so much that they either didn't notice or couldn't process the giant dust bunnies we are cultivating and considering naming as family pets. It never fails that when someone first walks in, they say "You must really like books," and these friends didn't disappoint. I have to say that I feel sad when I walk into a house without books so I just don't get the reactions we cause. But since it is a guaranteed response, it does serve to remind me just how unusual it is to live with books, to absolutely wallow in books. I wouldn't change a thing. (Okay, maybe I'd have more bookshelves, but really, that's it.)

In other bookish news, I only managed to review 4 books and have 13 awaiting review. But the reason I have so many to review is that I read 5 more to add to the stacks of the pending. I am in the midst of The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein, graciously sent to me by the author, and enjoying it thoroughly. Look for a review on that one as soon as I finish it. And I still have bookmarks in several others as well, with high hopes of getting back to them and finishing them shortly, unless other books come into the house that demand to be read first! As to my progress on my March determination list (found in this post, I read 3 of them before March even started. Since then I have read 5 of them, am in progress with 1, and have a mere 3 left to read in their entirety during the second half of this month. Not bad, not bad.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

Jim is a young boy, heading into his teenaged years, who lives with his mother and three uncles in a rural North Carolina town during the Great Depression. It is a gentle coming of age novel in a more innocent time. There are no major cataclysmic events driving the plot. It is just (as if it could be "just" anything) a lovely, almost nostalgic look at a family and a place. My bookclub chose this book on one member's recommendation and because it is set not far from where we all live and we were split on how we felt about it. I would liken it to the creek meandering through my backyard. Small and seemingly insignificant, it brings wonderful wildlife to our backdoor and offers a quiet, peaceful and contemplative place to escape the street out front. This book felt the same way to me. One of the reviews on the back cover compares it to a folk ballad and that strikes me as appropriate too. This very quietness or ballad like feel was problematic for some of the readers in our group. But I appreciated the poignancy that is rare nowadays and I look forward to the newly released sequel that will let me slip back into Jim's life and coming adulthood.

Review: The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn

When highwayman Jack Audley stops a coach to rob the occupants, he has little idea of how his life and that of everyone connected to the people in the carriage is going to change because he is robbing the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham and her companion, the impoverished gentlewoman, Grace Eversleigh. He is fascinated by Grace after the robbery and unreasonably bothered by the fact that the Dowager thinks he is the child of her much beloved middle son. He vows to leave the area without pursuing any of the things that are troubling him but he hasn't reckoned on the strength of will to be found in his presumptive grandmother, who has him kidnapped and brought to her. There he finds the intriguing and long-suffering Grace as well as the current Duke of Wyndham, who will lose his title if Jack's birth is proved to be legitimate. As the mystery of whether or not he is the actual Duke unfolds, Jack and Grace fall in love. A smaller subplot between Thomas, the current Duke of Wyndham, who stands to lose everything if Jack is proven legitimate, and Amelia, the woman he's been bethrothed to since childhood is left unresolved and is the focus of the second Wyndham book.

I generally like Julia Quinn's regency set romances and this was no exception. They are light and fun and good escapism. The obstacles her heros and heroines have to overcome to be together don't cross the line into the realm of the impossible and like Jack and Grace, in this book, they have good chemistry together. I do wish that the ubiquitous "immediate attraction" thing would fall by the wayside because I am skeptical of a touch from a stranger being burned into your consciousness but that's a fairly minor quibble here and one that, in any case, seems to be standard for the genre regardless of my personal preferences. Overall, exactly the read I wanted and was expecting here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cheese with your whine?

I'd rather have cake, thanks. After whining yesterday about the shpping excursion, I want my long-suffering readers to know that I did indeed go out and run in the afternoon. I went 3 1/2 miles, which was fairly short for me but I developed a nasty, nasty blister and that called for stopping and putting my feet up. As much as you might think this sort of whining followed by action might help the weight thing and therefore my self-image, I should also admit that I sampled all 3 (!) desserts on offer at Bunko last night. I didn't run nearly far enough to combat that indulgence. Oops.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Shopping, the seventh circle of hell

I love my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. But I do wish that we didn't always follow lunches out with shopping. Sure, the economy is in the toilet. Hells bells, the economy is not only in the toilet, it is a backed-up toilet my children have forgotten to mention to me until it is beyond overpoweringly awful to have to walk into the bathroom to plunge it. But that's not really my beef with all the post-lunch shopping. No, my beef hits much closer to home: I am not happy with the state of my body. Not at all. You'd think that given the amount of exercise I claim to do (and I really do do it if I mention it here), I would be stick insect thin. Well, you'd be quite off if you think that. Somehow my body is hanging on tight to every last ounce I have packed onto my smallish, stubby, short frame. Not only have I never managed to get into the range that Weight Watchers has declared to be "healthy" for my height (I was only 15 lbs. off when we moved), but I have added back 20 lbs. of pure body fluff thanks to my inability to deal with stress other than stuffing food into my mouth. Frankly, it's probably a miracle that I only gained 20 lbs. But that 20 lbs. makes me look like a sausage overfilling its casing whenever I try on clothes. Not pretty. So today's shopping excursion was a bust, which I'm sure will relieve D. since that means the wallet is still intact (shhhhhh, don't anybody tell him I sought my own version of retail therapy since the clothes thing didn't work out--I went to the bookstore! Bliss!!!!!).

But it makes me wonder about our perceptions of our bodies. The media worries about young girls having false ideas of what healthy is thanks to models and Hollywood stars, but what about those of us grown-ups still struggling to like our own bodies? I know that before I started WW a year ago (and 40 lbs. heavier than I am now), I would have been pretty pleased to be buying clothes for a body this size and shape. Now I am completely dissatisfied, having been spoiled by a body 20 lbs. thinner. And lest you think I am fussing over the difference between a small or medium-sized top, let me disvow you of this. I could weigh 10 lbs. total and 8 of it would be in my boobs. There is never a small sized top in my future, ever. And as for pants, yes, I have a nice indent somewhere around the waist, but it's hard to find between the ooshing (official term) doughnut ring above my waist and the squishy kangaroo pounch below it. And actually, that soft and puffy bit makes pants even harder to buy since anything that fits the flabby bits is too big around the waist (add in stretch material and you have the disaster of the crepe myrtles--see below--all over again). So I look in the mirror and see a flabby, droopy, overweight body (medically speaking I think I'm actually seeing what in fact I do possess) but I wonder when my perception of myself will enable me to happily buy clothes, instead of dreading it. And we'll just gloss over the fact that I am definitely a difficult shopper no matter what: "I don't like that color. What's with the ruffles across the boobs? They should outlaw three-quarter sleeves. No way!" It's probably amazing that my neighbors are long suffering enough to continue to invite me along on these shopping expeditions. And they do always poke fun at my self-restraint. They come out of stores laden with bags (or with at least a purchase, singular) while I have none. But they've never seen me in the midst of a bookstore or shopping for purses. Offer me free reign with those two things and Katy, bar the door! I'd spend my children's college funds in the blink of an eye. Offer me free reign in a clothing store and watch me hem and haw and finally admit that I think shopping is the circle of hell Dante mistakenly neglected, probably because he was a man and Beatrice could always pick up shirts for him.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: Losing My Religion by William Lobdell

This is an honest, thoughtful, and fascinating memoir about Lobdell's struggles with religion. The book opens with an accounting of the ways in which his life is going wrong and a friend's quiet assurance that Lobdell needs to walk with God to find the peace he so desires. Taking this to heart, Lobdell starts going to church, eventually becoming born-again. Eager to share his newly minted faith, as he moves from the church that drew him back into the fold, to a Protestant church, and ultimately into RCIA classes to become a Catholic, journalist Lobdell decides that God has called him to write about religion so he pitches the idea to his bosses. Initially he doesn't get the job but eventually, his dream comes true and he starts writing about faith, and not just his Christian faith, in a way that few other journalists have attempted. But all is not well with Lobdell's faith as he starts uncovering the nasty side of organized religion. He was on the front lines as the pedophile priest scandal rocked the Catholic church and he examined in depth a rather seedy (but quite wealthy) televangelist who fleeces his congregation among other stories. And as Lobdell plunges farther into the stories, he starts to lose his belief in God. His journey into and out of faith took him years and I suspect that it isn't quite finished, as Lobdell himself says he's not entirely comfortable with his unbelief but which path the next leg of his journey will take remains to be seen. His writing on faith and its lack is respectful and thoughtful. And he has obviously spent much time reaching the conclusions he has but he never denigrates those around him who have managed to hold onto their faith in the face of what he says is overwhelming evidence that it is unfounded. His writing is direct and honest and his journey is definitely painful. But I for one am glad he allowed us to walk with him, even if I'm not certain I come to the same conclusions he does.

Review: That Went Well by Terrell Harris Dougan

I hadn't heard of this book before I read a fellow book blogger's post saying that she had gotten it as a review book in the mail. After doing a little research on it, I commented on her blog that I was interested in reading it as well. Little did I expect that to lead to a review copy in my own mailbox, but it did. And I am not only glad that I heard about this book but I am also very grateful for the opportunity to read it and let all of you know about it too. Dougan has written quite a lovely book in her book That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister. Dougan's younger sister Irene is mentally disabled. This memoir covers the time from Irene's birth to the present, when Dougan has taken care of Irene, both now in their sixties, in one way or another, for years. Dougan doesn't flinch from telling the hard bits about having a mentally disabled sister but she leavens this with large doses of humor and love, also part and parcel of their lives. She tells of the toll that Irene's disability wreaked on their family but also the wonderful positives that came of it: when her parents were told that Irene couldn't go to school, they started their own to serve the children and later adults who had been left out of mainstream public education, knowing that all people deserve access to an education. Dougan joined in the crusade when she was old enough, advocating for Irene and many others like her. And when the Harris parents both passed away, Dougan took on the full time care of Irene even as she raised her own family, overseeing Irene's caregivers in the apartment where she could live on her own, keeping track of Irene's medical needs, and just generally being available when Irene or her companions needed her. The book is organized into fairly short chapters given that it spans 60 years and there were portions where I wished for more detail or extended versions of the entertaining bits she was recounting, but overall, this was a very sweet, candid tale of two sisters, both of whom have greatly enriched her sister's life.

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