Townhouse Books

Monday, March 24, 2008

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison

Did you know that Augusten Burroughs has a brother with Asperger's Syndrome? After people responded to Burroughs' descriptions of his brother in Running with Scissors, John Elder Robison decided to write his own memoir. If you've read any of Temple Grandin's books, Robison's writing style will seem familiar. His matter-of-fact tone in describing his life stays the same whether he's relating a memory of his father putting out a cigarette on his brother's forehead, or Ace Frehley of KISS offering him a job designing guitars. He left home at age 16, lived in the woods, fixed amps for Pink Floyd, designed toys for Milton Bradley, married twice, and had one son.

Robison was never diagnosed with Asperger's until much later in life, when he had capitalized on his savant-like skills and become a business owner. His experiences have been remarkable, but it is emotional and financial security that he values. In that respect, his diagnosis has given him the vocabulary he needs to describe how he sees the world, and to ask others to treat him as he wishes to be treated.

I was really moved by this book. There are so many people out there who fall on the spectrum between autism and high-functioning Asperger's syndrome -- Robison's patience and courage in sharing his gifts and limitations could make life better for many others who can't express themselves at this level.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

Rainy day reading! Setterfield is a former academic specializing in French literature. Her first novel is a complicated tangle of stories, featuring two sets of twins, two spooky old houses, and two tragic nights.

The narrator is an amateur biographer who is summoned to the home of England's most famous contemporary author to hear the never-before-told story of the author's childhood. The author draws the narrator with two pieces of information: first, that she is dying and wants the truth to be known, and second, that her story involves twins. As the surviving half of a pair of conjoined twins, the narrator feels compelled to stay and listen.

Setterfield does a wonderful job of mingling the old story with the new, making both equally vivid through the voice of the narrator and the voice of the dying author. Their conversations are fascinating, especially as they get to know each other better. At one point the old lady asks the young woman this question: if all of the copies of your favorite novels were headed down a conveyor belt towards an incinerator with a living person operating the switch, and you could only stop the process by shooting him, would you do it? She describes the process: first a Jane Austen novel is lost to the world, then the copies of Jane Eyre start slipping away. The narrator refuses to answer, but in her heart (and her narrative) she admits the truth -- she loves books better than she loves people.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Crafty!

So I've decided that all the Christmas presents I give this year will be handmade. As a result, I've bought and checked out a few books on quilting and sewing. From there, I discovered an amazing variety of crafty blogs, and have been amazed at the level to which the authors of the books I've read put their lives on the internet. (The only other personal blog I read is Dooce.com)

Bend-The-Rules Sewing is an awesome project book with great, simple instructions. Amy Karol blogs at Angry Chicken and adds lots of healthy cooking tips and parenting observations to her craft updates and tutorials.

Simple Sewing by Lotta Jansdotter is absolutely gorgeous -- Scandanavian design applied to simple sewing projects for the home. I made an apron, a purse, and an oven mitt from this book and she was absolutely honest about the skill level and time involved. Jansdotter has a textile line, and you can see a video tour of her design studio at Apartment Therapy.

I have a few things on my "to get" list based on the quality of their internet-based tutorials. I read Soule Mama almost daily, and she has a book coming out this spring called The Creative Family: How to Encourage Creativity and Nurture Family Connections. The Purl Bee is the blog associated with the Purl knitting & quilting supply shop in New York. The owner, Joelle Hoverson, just put out a book called Last Minute Patchwork + Quilted Gifts. She has offered a few projects from the book for Martha Stewart readers and viewers and the framed fabric project has been showing up all over.

These authors share a set of sewing skills that used to be highly valued but have fallen out of fashion. When I was growing up, we always had handmade quilts on our beds. The thing that I find interesting about these quilters is that their design aesthetic is nothing like the country-kitschy quilt shops that I remember my mom dragging me to throughout my childhood. If you're interested in starting to do handmade projects, any one of these books would be a great starting point.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

I Love You, Beth Cooper: Larry Doyle

If you've read Larry Doyle in the New Yorker & seen his new novel in the bookstore, you probably thought, "those humorists never sustain the funny for the whole book; it will get awkward and dull and I won't want to finish reading it."

Well, this is worthwhile. Short chapters, all funny, chronicling the radical decline from his graduation ceremony to the end of the wildest night of the valedictorian's life. Led me to reflect on the innate meanness of coaches who also teach driver's ed. Doyle embraces the Hollywood tradition of high school movies -- uses a quote from a character under a cartoon of the progressively harried & bloodied protagonist to start each chapter. Some, like Lloyd Dobler, were immediately recognizable; others would take some Googling.

Fun!

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Extra Large Medium: Helen Slavin

Annie Colville has been talking to the dead since she was a little girl. She can't block them out, but tries to lead her life with as little interference from them as possible. Then one day her husband disappears and doesn't come back, either in person or as a ghost. And so begins a seven-year waiting game, with characters ducking in and out of Annie's present and past.

This is a great, quick read that has stayed in my thoughts all week. It's only a tiny bit spooky, and the author does a beautiful job introducing a wide variety of present-day and historical characters.


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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin

This book was so !@#%ing good (engrossing, suspenseful, scary & vivid) that I actually had to remove the book from my bedroom and stash it safely in the front room before I could go to sleep last night!

It's a CSI story that takes place in the 12th century. The main character, Adelia, is a doctor, sent from Salerno to solve a crime at a time when there are no female doctors in England. Henry II is a character, and I do love the Plantagenets...

The mystery is genuinely scary, and the secrecy of the investigation adds extra tension.

Cracking good fun!


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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Raw Shark Texts: Steven Hall

If you commissioned Alain de Botton to turn the movie Memento into a novel, but make it more science-fictiony, you might come up with something along the lines of The Raw Shark Texts. The protagonist wakes up with no idea who he is, and is guided by a series of letters from his former self. It's good, it's weird, and it features the crypto-zoology of purely conceptual sharks.


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Monday, June 04, 2007

Luncheon of the Boating Party: Susan Vreeland

This book is like a brain spa -- edifying but relaxing. It's a fictionalized account of Auguste Renoir painting his famous group portrait/landscape/still life, "Luncheon of the Boating Party", in 1881. Plenty of historical detail, art history theory, and interesting development of characters. This author also wrote The Passion of Artemesia, which was made into a film a decade or so ago.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Poison Study and Magic Study: Maria V. Snyder

In the first chapter of Poison Study, the narrator is dragged from a prison cell and offered a choice: be hanged for her crimes immediately, or agree to become the Commander's food taster -- a lifetime position. She takes the job, and her first assignment is not to die -- her employer gives her a near-lethal dose of poison to test her. When she survives the ordeal, she begins to study every known poison while also learning her way around the castle and figuring out who are her friends and enemies.

I didn't realize until I reached the end of the book (and that would be a few hours after I started the book, much later than I intended to stay awake that night) that it was the first of a series. It's too much of a spoiler to discuss the plot of the second book, but although it didn't benefit from that "shock of the new" excitement I felt about the first book it had a solid plot and continued to develop characters and relationships.

Apparently, there is a third volume forthcoming: Fire Study.


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure: Mireille Guiliano

This book is so funny and weird and chatty and oblivious that I would recommend it to almost anyone. The author is French, but has lived in America for most of her adult life. She is the CEO of Veuve Clicquot, and her life is one big dinner party with plenty of champagne.
From this lofty vantage point, she is able to point out everything that is wrong with American eating habits. She's mostly right, but she skates right along the edge of obnoxious throughout the book. And yet it's a fun read! She recognizes and pokes fun of the American desire for a bullet-point list telling them exactly what to do, and instead provides a hopping, skipping memoir of a life well lved, with recipes.
It makes an interesting counterpoint to my collection of "depression lit" memoirs, and based on Mireille's advice I have begun drinking a citron presse (lemon water) every morning before I start in on the coffee.


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Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Spot of Bother: Mark Haddon

Family drama by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Every character in this fractured family is sympathetic, which makes their conflicts and miscommunications seem both funny and sad. My hero is Ray, the daughter's unpopular fiance, who tells his future father-in-law (as he picks him up from the hospital after a botched self-surgery fueled by codeine and alcohol), "you might just be the sanest one in this family." I laughed out loud at least five times.


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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog: Boris Akunin

I picked this up to kill time between meetings, and it is wonderful. Akunin writes mystery novels set in 19th century Russia. I've reviewed his Death of Achilles here; it's one of a series of mysteries featuring a Sherlock Holmsian detective. This is the first book featuring Sister Pelagia, a young Russian nun with a talent for observing small details and character nuances. Her bishop sends her to investigate when his aunt's prize bulldog is murdered, and she ends up tying the crime to political intrigue and multiple murders.

Two things make this a special reading experience: Akunin's nostalgia for the past has a complicated relationship with his feelings about Russia today, and his writing style reminds me of seamless bilingual code-switching, in this case between a dreamy, detailed 19th century style and a witty, tongue-in-cheek modern style. The societal constraints of the time, the place, and the religious order make the plot move forward in a way that is counter-intuitive to the modern reader, but pleasant to follow. Good fun!


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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster

I don't know how I managed to miss out on Paul Auster for all these years, but I received a copy of The New York Trilogy for Christmas and I'm smitten. The book is made up of three inter-related novellas about private detection in New York. The narrators are all drawn into strange, voyeuristic situations. The writing style is very hard-boiled, but instead of untangling the mystery you find yourself being drawn in to it. Everyone is damaged, no one is what they seem, and the author himself is an unsympathetic character. Lovely!


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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Marissa Pessl

It's been a while since I've read a 500+ page book in a day. I even resorted to using a flashlight to read while riding in a car at night. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of Blue van Meer, a freshman at Harvard who is driven to write an account of her senior year of high school. Blue's life is not ordinary to begin with; she lives a nomadic life with her widowed father, a radical political science professor who accepts only semester-long assignments at backwater colleges across the country. But her senior year is stranger still, with a bizarre cast of characters and plenty of intrigue.

Gareth van Meer, Blue's father, is a mouthpiece for the author's most intellectually snobbish inner thoughts, the sort of things you might think but never dare say. On the subject of memoirs, he tells his daughter that "unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond -- James Bond -- you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother .... will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began -- with a wheeze."

Some people might get tired of Pessl's style -- Blue includes lengthy quotes and academic citations in her narration -- but I bought into it as part of the character. The event that Blue considers her "magnificent reason" for writing down her story is a truly tantalizing mystery, laid out for the reader in the introduction and becoming more mysterious with every passing chapter. Oh, what fun!


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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Love and Other Near-Death Experiences: Mil Millington

Some of you may be familiar Mil Millington from his self-titled website or his first book, "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About." Both are hilarious. This book has some truly funny moments, but also serious questions about the possibilty futility of free will. The narrator, Rob, escapes a tragic accident purely through his own fuckwittedness, as he would say, and is now unable to make any decision because the possible outcome could mean life or death. He spends an hour deciding between coffee or tea, as the extra caffeine in coffee could either make him more alert and thereby avoid an accident, or make him jumpy and cause an accident. As you can imagine, his fiancee, friends, and colleagues are soon sick of him.

Rob embarks on a strange quest, meets up with other people who have very nearly died in accidents that killed other people, and ends up wandering through the woods in Wales wearing only his underwear. The thing that really captured my interest was that each character presents a different POV of how fate, free will, God, and the universe interact in our daily lives.

While reading this book I often thought of our recent discussion of Corey Doctorow's novel. This book has some serious editorial errors that ought to have been corrected before ink hit paper. But I think Millington has something really interesting to say in this book, and the less-than-perfect prose didn't stop him from getting his point across.


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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh

Many authors develop a main character in their first mystery and carry on with him or her for years. I don't see that happening with The Cutting Room. The setting and plot are gritty and grim, with moral ambiguity a-plenty. The protagonist is not the kind of character you warm up to. He works for an auction house, and while taking an inventory of an old lady's antiques he finds an extensive pornographic library and snuff photography. He tries to find out what happened to the subject of the pictures without losing his lucrative job of auctioning off the house full of antiques. The ending is a bit of a letdown (one reviewer called it "muted") but the book is still worth reading, especially if you like that whole edgy Glasgow vibe.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

The Death of Achilles: Boris Akunin

This was a fantastic read. Travis heard this author on NPR a while back, and he was described as the Russian Ian Fleming. Great plot, interesting characters, historical setting. Plus, you get that Russian absurdity factor - hard to describe, but recognizable in Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, the only other modern Russians I've read.

The main character is a Russian nobleman named Fandorin who has just returned to Moscow after living in Japan for years. He's acquired a devoted ninja manservant, Masa, and some decidedly non-Russian habits. Fandorin is asked to investigate the mysterious death of the folk hero, General Sobolev, dubbed "Achilles". The story that unfolds is quite interesting, and the novel makes an exciting narrative jump half-way through from the POV of the investigator to that of the investigatee.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters: Gordon Dahlquist

I ordered this book from Powell's because they posted so many conflicting reviews in their newsletter that I wanted to see what the book was all about. Plus, the author photo is ridiculous.

Every review is correct. It's a wonderful, sprawling, boring, fascinating, timeless, dated mess of a story with way too many characters and about 12 too many plot twists. The main character is a very proper heiress -- she receives a letter from her fiance severing their relationship, and she sets off to find out why. Instead of just asking him, she follows him and discovers that he is involved in international intrigue, alchemy, and acts of licentiousness. To her own amazement, she is not incapacitated by this discovery, but instead sets out (with the help of two interesting allies, Cardinal Chang and Doctor Svenson) to save the world from the Dream Eaters. Good stuff, but seriously 300 pages too long.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Eragon: Christopher Paolini

OK, so I finally gave in and bought this book for $4. It was worth it. Quick pace, good story, reasonably original fantasy world. Plus, the "that's so freaky" novelty of knowing that the book you're reading was written by a teenager.

ETA: Second book is also good, but no publication date listed for the last volume of the trilogy. I've been caught in the unfinished series trap yet again.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mission to America: Walter Kirn

Mason isn't a Mormon, although he's often mistaken for one. He's a member of a small, matriarchal sect in Montana who is sent out on a mission to recruit new members, specifically potential mates for the young men of the group. Mission to America is the story of his travels through contemporary America, a foreign land with which his culture has had little contact since the late 1800s.

There's a lot about this book that is witty and insightful. I loved the "Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles," with their coming of age Frolic ceremony and their ever-so-carefully calibrated dietary rules. American fast food cuisine wreaks havoc on the missionaries' digestion...

Where it falls short for me is in the geography. I just can't relate. The small town poverty and methamphetamine addiction translates across the country, I guess, but the Colorado ski resort where the missionaries end up attempting to convert a billionare with an irritable bowel? Not so much. Early in the novel Mason tries to convince his partner to head East. I think Kirn could have accomplished more with this novel if he sent his missionaries on a more wide-ranging journey.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell

Black Swan Green was a good book, but not my cup of tea. The jacket blurbs compare the novel to Catcher in the Rye and the narrator to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- these are not positive recommendations to me. But if you're looking for a coming-of-age novel, this is a great one.

The narrator is Jason Taylor, a 13-year old boy who lives in an affluent new neighborhood outside a British village called Black Swan Green. His main concern in life is fitting in with the other boys at his school. One of the things I think Mitchell does well in this book is show how this primary objective influences every decision Jason makes -- sometimes he deliberately does things that his parents or teachers see as stupid or rash or irresponsible, when in fact it's a logical course of action.

This all takes place in the Thatcher 80s, and one thing that threw me out of the story was the (to me, at least) clumsy addition of historical detail to a timeless plot. It's still very absorbing and intense, though. The narrative style is so strong that you can feel the anxiety the narrator experiences over every decision he makes. He's a stammerer, so he literally chooses every word he speaks carefully. Girls come into the plot only briefly, and are a mystery to Jason and his friends. I can immediately think back to middle school and identify what's going on within the packs of teenage girls he encounters, but the insight into the rules governing the lives of 13-year old boys was pretty interesting.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The System of the World: Neal Stephenson

This was a satisfying read. This is not a true review, just a quick message to those who have already started reading the Baroque Cycle. For the rest of you, I won't get into characters or plot, because this has been unfolding over 3,000 pages in 3 volumes. But if you're worried about investing time and eyestrain in this series, it's worth it.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Our "Gideon" Books

What is the book that you recommend to people over and over? I call it a Gideon book because it's the book you feel so passionate about that you would hand it out on the street.

Mine used to be "A Severed Head" by Iris Murdoch, but I haven't read it or recommended it in a few years. I take a slightly twisted pleasure in convincing people to start reading the Robert Jordan series, but less because I love it and more because I want to share the pain. I think I'm without one right now, so I'm curious to hear what everyone else answers.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Kindred: Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler has been on my "read this some day" list for years, and I'm sad to say it was her obituary on Slate.com that finally motivated me to read one of her books. Kindred is the story of a modern black woman who involuntarily time travels to the antebellem southern plantation where her earliest known ancestor has not yet been born. She is compelled to save the life of the plantation owner's son again and again, because she realizes that her family's survival depends on his.

This novel is incredibly well-researched, and well-written in a way that many well-researched books are not. Rather than weigh down her story with tedious exposition, Butler places her protagonist in situations that illustrate the hardships and ironies of daily life on the plantation. The central time travel premise is the only fantastical element of the book, but that makes the character's adjustment to her situation so interesting -- without the aid of a babel fish or a hitchhikers guide, she must make sense of a culture with rules that are not only foreign, they are repulsive.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Quicksilver: Neal Stephenson

So everyone knows that I hate science, right? My excitement level about the the forces driving natural phenomena existing around me = so low it's barely measurable. Well, I just finished a novel about the Scientific Revolution in three days. I never would have finished it if I hadn't gotten stuck in an airport for four hours - it was long enough for me to resign myself to the science and get involved in the story.

Daniel Waterhouse is brilliant, but since he runs with a crowd that includes Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke he ends up being more of a chronicler of rapidly changing times. The novel shifts back and forth between Waterhouse as an old man and flashbacks to his youth and middle age. Halfway through, Stephenson leaves Waterhouse mid-Atlantic and introduces two new main characters. Their story wanders across Europe, eventually uniting with Waterhouse's flashback. The chronology takes a bit of effort, but the story is engrossing. It's a lovely re-realization at the end of the book that there are two more installments, already written. Next time I have a miraculous block of time open to me I'll pick up the next one!

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Big Over Easy: Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is a nut. He writes science fiction police procedurals -- his first series concentrates on the overlap between literature and reality, and this book is the first in a series of Nursery Rhyme crimes. His stuff is funny, especially if you like absurd situational humor, obscure llterary references, and characters with punny names.

The idea is that the Nursery Crimes Division is a not-well-understood department in the British police force. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt is in charge, assisted by Sergeant Mary Mary. In Fforde's slightly-alternate reality, police work is judged by the success of write-ups in the Amazing Crimes detective magazine. None of the Nursery Crimes are ever featured, so DI Spratt toils on in obscurity. The Humpty Dumpty murder investigation is his big chance to earn membership in the Guild of Detectives. This one dragged a bit, and covered so many nursery rhymes that it's hard to imagine how he'll write another installment.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Shalimar the Clown: Salman Rushdie

Wow. Starts in the near present with India Ophuls, the product of a famous French ambassador's affair with a Kashmir peasant girl. India sees her father occasionally and is estranged from her stepmother -- as far as she knows, her birth mother is dead. After a shocking act of violence, the story moves back in time and shifts to Kashmir, where Shalimar the clown loves a dancing girl in a village untouched by the outside world. The outside world first intervenes into village life in the form of Max Ophuls, and then the war between India and Pakistan focuses in on Kashmir. This is classic Rushdie -- a barrage of perfectly sketched characters, some on collision courses and some following their own tangents. If you've read Shame, you remember that Rushdie can describe anger and vengeance and their effect on body and soul like no other author I know. He is so skillful at depicting the effect of world events (the Watts riots, the India/Pakistan conflict, the World Trade Center bombings) on individual lives. Good stuff!

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Shadow of the Wind: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

So there's a Cemetary of Lost Books in Barcelona, as the protagonist discovers at age 10 when his bookseller father inducts him into the select society who know of its existence. Each first-time visitor selects a book to take home, cherish, and protect. The book the protagonist selects is "The Shadow of the Wind," by an author he's never heard of. He reads it, and it's the best book ever, but no one has heard of the author and no other copies of the book seem to exist. As it turns out, a mysterious man is travelling across Europe buying every copy he can, and burning those he can't buy.
This is a great gothic mystery story. As the protagonist discovers more about his mystery author, the plot of the book, the life of the author, and the boy's real life become hopelessly entangled. The characters are interesting, and it dances on the edge of cheesy without ever falling into that trap. If anybody wants to read this, let me know & I will send it to you.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Knife of Dreams: Robert Jordan

So the new Robert Jordan book pleases me. Might be that it's better than the last few installments, might be that I read it for free thanks to Brian's PDF. I think Jordan's feeling his mortality a bit, trying to move through the material quicker. One of my biggest pet peeves, the total slow-down of time thanks to ridiculous number of characters, was addressed in the book in two ways. First, characters specifically mentioned how many days had passed since events that affected the whole world -- and we actually moved through at least a week of action! Second, there was almost no Nynaeve. Which meant almost no braid-pulling and a drastic reduction of the "women don't understand men" asides. There were still plenty of "men don't understand women" moments thanks to Matt and Tuon, but I can live with that.

I say, go ahead and have it on hand in case you decide that a long, chatty "what's new with these characters I've been following for a decade" novel is what you're in the mood for. Also -- don't read the comments if you're not interested in spoilers!

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

I read this book in two sessions -- one week where I read it consistently and thought I would never finish it, and one long lunch hour where I picked up right where I left off and yet it seemed much more fast paced and fascinating. During the 2 weeks in between these sessions I read an interview with Aimee Bender on Powells.com where she said of Murakami's earlier work, "(t)he complaints people have about The Wind Up Bird Chronicle are often what I love most. It's messiness, its hanging threads, its matter-of-fact surrealism."
I think the surrealism is the aspect of Murakami that you are either on board with or you won't enjoy the book. Kafka has a great structure, switching back between two main characters' experiences that are linked and yet don't connect. There are many moments that in TWoP language could be seen as "jumping the shark" and yet, they work. Good stuff.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

An Ocean in Iowa: Peter Hedges

Scotty Ocean is seven years old when his mother leaves the family. He thought that seven was going to be his year, and while it is definitely memorable, it is not what he pictured. Peter Hedges is a great writer, and does a good job (I think) of telling a story from the POV of a seven year old. For example, Scotty's father is a judge, a remote authority figure in the family. When Scotty draws a picture of him he makes him twice the size of his mother. His mother makes him erase it and redraw it to scale. Then she tells Scotty, "You see? You've cut him down to size."

The descriptions of life in a second grade classroom and in a neighborhood group of kids are excellent. The story takes place in 1969, and the Vietnam war influences the events somewhat.

I infer from the book jacket that the author (best known for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a book that I liked infinitely more than this one) was probably seven years old around 1969. He also has two sons. This book feels to me like an exercise in fretfulness -- exorcising traumas of your childhood, imagining the inner life of your own children, wondering whether your relationship with your children will be better than your relationship with your parents. I recommend it, but only if you're in a certain "Wonder Years / Greek Tragedy" mood.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Perfect Madness: Mothering in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner

I am so blown away by this book. A former colleague of mine, now a stay-at-home mom with a home-based portrait business, recommended it at over lunch last week. Before I was even finished with the book I had to call her to move forward our next lunch date, because I so desperately want to discuss the book. The author has recently moved back to the States after living in France for her first few years as a mother. In comparison with the system of government-run and subsidized child and health care, and with the child-rearing philosophy she was exposed to in France, she is taken aback but finds herself swept up in the horrible rat-race experience of mothering in the US. Working moms are pulling all-nighters so their children won't be stigmatized for not bringing homemade cupcakes on their birthdays. Stay-at-home moms are turning to methamphetamines to keep up with their childrens' breakneck extracurricular schedules. And both camps feel that they have made the wrong life choices, that they are failing their families, and that if they could just get it together, they could raise better children. Here's the omigod moment of the book: women are becoming more and more isolated -- working moms from stay-at-home moms, moms from non-moms, blue state women from red state women -- and the women's issues that matter to us (quality of life, equality in the workplace) are falling off the radar screen. Very cool book.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Mystery Binge

I've been devouring mystery novels during my summer break. Here's a list of the best of them.
Cara Black's latest Aimee Leduc mystery, set in Paris. This series is worth reading for the setting alone. And what luck -- the plots are great. The main character is a cop's daughter who runs a techie security firm, but who is always being drawn into more dangerous work. John Dunning's latest Bookman mystery features an ex-cop turned rare bookseller. Good characters, lots of info on the world of rare books. Charlaine Harris' latest Southern Vampire mystery, featuring a telepathic waitress in small-town Louisiana. So funny. Harris' set-up is that when the Japanese invent a synthetic blood, vampires come out into the open to leave peacefully with humans. It's not always a peaceful coexistance, and there are some good ethnographic observations about small-town life in the South. Peter Lovesey is my latest British discovery. His series is set in Bath -- I always enjoy reading a series more if I have been to the town where they're set and can place the actions in a visualized geography. Lovesey's main character is an old grump, and the officers working under him can never tell if he's joking with them or tearing them a new one. Elizabeth George writes a long-running series featuring Detective Tommy Lynley of Scotland Yard. Her latest installment is a real shocker if you have formed attachments to the characters over the years.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

OK, the new Harry Potter book has been out for three days. Someone had to start this thread, but I won't put much effort into an initial review. Those of you who have finished please share your thoughts on the comments page.

ETA: Yay! Harry! Also, I don't subscribe to any RSS feeds, but we're kosher for going spoiler-nuts in the comments area, right? I ask after I've posted, but I kept things pretty vague since I'm not sure how it might appear on RSS feeds. I should explore that soon. -- lillygog

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

44 Scotland Street , Alexander McCall Smith

So the author of the Ladies Detective Agency series was at a party with Armistead Maupin and complimented him on his serialized work, bemoaning the fact that no one else does serialized fiction any more. He wrote an article about his trip to America and mentioned that conversation -- next thing you know he's doing a serialized novel for The Scotsman about a group of neighbors in Edinburgh's New Town. I'm a sucker for a story with a strong sense of place, especially if it's a place I've visited. This is great in that respect -- his goal was to give readers a "slice of life" in the city. The made-for-newspaper novel is hard to get used to, but has its benefits. It's 110 very short chapters, with dozens of interrelated characters. A fun read, and reminds me once again how crappy our local newspaper is here in Jacksonville.

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Nigella!

If I don’t have the energy to cook or even go to the grocery store, why would I read cookbooks? Two reasons. First, I can usually sweet talk my sister into making the recipe I’m interested in. Second, Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks are more inspirational than they are instructional.

If you’ve seen Nigella on the Style Network, you know that she’s British, gorgeous, and chatty without being (ahem, Rachel Ray) psychotic. She used to be the food editor of British Vogue, and now writes a food column in the New York Times. Her personal life is tragic – lost her mother, sister, and husband to cancer. But her outlook on life is simple: be practical, don’t fiddle, and enjoy yourself. Her books reflect this philosophy; she doesn’t suggest making exquisite canapés or braided pie crusts. She doesn’t make pronouncements about the futility of cooking with sub-par produce. (The woman lives in England, for crying out loud – their growing season for fresh local produce is about a minute and a half in July.)

I find Nigella ultimately believable. When she says that it’s actually quite easy to pop a roast chicken in the oven when you get home from work and entertain 6 for dinner, I believe her. When I feel up to that, I will turn to her recipe. Again, I return to the contrasting example of Rachel Ray – to complete one of her menus in 30 minutes requires 30 minutes of preparation (the recipes start by saying you need julienned carrots, or peeled potatoes, or chicken breasts sliced into thin strips) and 30 minutes of mad multitasking. Nigella would rather let her dinner bake all day, lounging and snacking while the oven does the work.

She has written five books, of which I have read four. How to Be a Domestic Goddess focuses on baking, which I loathe, so I skipped it. How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food has replaced Joy of Cooking as my go-to guide in the kitchen. It’s really a series of essays with recipes included. In the introduction she explains her motivation for both the title and her approach: “I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating. Such love, of course, is not something that can be taught, but it can be conveyed – and maybe that’s the point. In writing this book, I wanted to make food and my slavering passion for it the starting point; indeed, for me it was the starting point. I have nothing to declare but my greed.” This book is arranged into chapters that relate to the occasions for which you want food, and they are the stuff of everyday life: cooking in advance, cooking for one and two, fast food, weekend lunch, dinner, low fat, and feeding babies and small children. There are whole menus included for each occasion. She makes the point that meals that require quick, last-minute preparation are actually more stressful than those that hang out in the oven while you read the mail, set the table, and watch the news. So while you will find instructions for quickly heating canned beans with herbs, onion, celery and garlic in her “Fast Food” chapter, you will also find a recipe for cinnamon-hot roast rack of lamb. If you have kids, the chapter on kid-friendly food is outstanding. This is where my deep trust of Nigella was confirmed: when I read that she fed her children their first peanut butter sandwich in the doctor’s office because she was afraid of peanut allergies. She describes some of the baby-food purees that she concocted for her first-born, and I rejoice – I make all of Daisy’s food myself, and take a bit of flak for not using Gerber. We share the bond of new-mom paranoia, so when she suggests mashing all sorts of things (minced meat, cheese, pesto, poached eggs) into a baked potato I make a mental note to get potatoes next time I make it to the store.

Nigella Bites was the inspiration for the TV series of the same name, and this series is how most people know the author. There are fewer recipes, and they are given more of a glamour treatment: glossy photos, a page-long essay for each recipe. With chapters like “Temple Food” (the stuff you would eat to purify your body after a long night on the town) and “Trashy” (includes deep fried candy bars and ham cooked in Coca-Cola) you can imagine that the essays that launch each recipe are entertaining. My favorite recipe from this book is poached chicken topped with wilted spinach and a mixture of white beans and chorizo sausage. It’s beautiful, simple, and impresses guests. (Right, Justin?) Forever Summer is another gorgeous-looking book. All of the recipes are things you could imagine yourself eating in your fabulous Italian summer home – but in case you don’t have one, Nigella argues that when you eat foods like these in the dead of winter (even if it means using less-than-inspirational produce) you feel like it’s summertime. The cocktails are awesome –I highly recommend the drink that blends a whole (peeled) lemon, sugar, ice, and a shot of limoncello. Feast was just published last Fall, and it is a huge collection for every celebratory occasion, from birthdays to funerals. All of her books have elements of autobiography, but this one more than the rest – lots of memories of her family and how food brought them together. There’s a great, simple recipe for Penne alla Vodka that will save me big bucks – I can’t resist that dish in restaurants, and now I can have it at home for pennies. (Penne for pennies. Can you tell I’m up at 6am to get this post finished?)

Any one of these books is perfect for curling up on a Sunday afternoon, the epicure’s answer to window shopping. Who knows – you might find yourself realizing that you have everything necessary to make spaghetti aglio olio, and off you go.

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