Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reading with Your Kids?

Need a quick "pick-me-up" type of read? In the spirit of the holiday season? I just downloaded Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Glad I did. Now it's my kids turn. They won't put up a fuss, since they heard plenty-o-giggles my way.

How often do we really seek out the face of God in others? No matter who they are or where they came from? (I can't take credit for this question. It was posed to our congregation in our priest's homily a few weeks ago.) It's certainly something I need to ask of myself more often. And this cleverly crafted story which recounts how the shunned clan known as the Herdmans manage to transform the annual Christmas Pageant from a rote ritual into what the Christmas story is meant to be. And while the pageant was a bit clumsy and unorthodox, it was perfectly heartfelt and undeniably real. I love a message when it's spun with humor. Speaking of...

On to Diary of a Wimpy Kid's Cabin Fever with my son. I sense a theme in my reading material these next few weeks. Oh–happy times! The most wonderful time of the year!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks

A few years ago (quite a few actually), having just finished vacationing with our best friends at the Great Wolf Lodge, we were getting ready to head home from Kansas City. While it had been a fun vacation, all of us were tired. And a bit cranky. The kids were on the verge of shattering our nerves and I was praying the four hour ride home would be...peaceful.

"Have you read The Notebook?" asked my dear friend Amy, handing over her copy as we parted ways.

I'm not sure if my husband has ever forgiven me for completely ignoring the crying kids in the backseat while his wife read, sniffled, and cried for the duration of our trip home. (I think it's why he gets annoyed every time I try to force the DVD on him as well.) Anyway the point to this verbose anecdote? It was my introduction to Nicholas Sparks. And my sensitive soul was hooked on his works.

I'm a fan of Mr. Sparks, but I have to pace myself when reading (or watching) his creations. Since I'm likely to cry over a well-crafted soap commercial, you can imagine how I'm affected by A Walk to Remember. Needless to say, I greatly respect this author. So, when my good friend Diane brought me Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas and his brother, Micah, I was excited to read a piece of his non-fiction! This certainly wouldn't be a tear-jerker.

Au contraire.

The book intertwines a three-week trip that Nick embarks upon with his brother and his own personal history, beginning with his childhood. And while I dived into the book thinking, "How lucky for this guy to become an overnight success," I certainly have different sentiments now. Mr. Sparks writes about the human heart so beautifully because he himself has been struck by tragedy himself. And not just once. I'm fairly certain Nicholas Sparks would trade his fortune for the family members he's lost.

But don't think this is a sad book. It's not! There's actually a fair bit of humor. And this author is so talented that you think you're reading a travel/memoir, then all of the sudden, wham! You just learned a lesson about life...

I myself have been working, working, working. Trying to finish this project. Trying to get to that project. But not really living. And that's what Mr. Sparks was forgetting to do. Live. Enjoy the gift of life. And I'm sure this is the message he wants to pass on to everyone who reads his books.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cutting for Stone

My mother determines the greatness of a book if she's still thinking about it a few days after completion. Good litmus test. It's been a few weeks since I've finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. And yes, I'm still thinking about it. I'm not really sure I'm even qualified to write a review. The novel is just that massive.

For starters, we could talk about the metaphoric title at length. At book club, one of our members mentioned that her son (a pre-med student) was required to read this fictional account of an Indian nun who gives birth to twins at a missionary hospital in Ethiopia. (Cool prerequisite, huh?) The father, a surgeon, named Thomas Stone, flees upon the death of the nun and the twins are left to be raised by other doctors. Anyway, that's just the beginning. The story is at the heart of an Ethiopian revolution and much, much happens as the twins grow up and eventually become reunited with their father.

The book was long, yes. But compelling is an understatement. For example, the last time our Lunch and Library read a book over 600 pages, only three of us toiled through it. When I walked into our Cutting for Stone session, we had a full house. And we hardly had enough time to fit in all of  our discussion.

Voice–beautiful. And there was plenty of medical terminology tossed about. Now that's talent.
Themes–the unique bond between twins, a doctor's duty to care for patients, Africa's constant war with itself, unrequited love, requited love. Yes. He manages to weave all of these themes perfectly.

A five star book, through and through. I'm typically a fast reader...I whiz through them. But this is not a book to speed read. It's a book to savor. So, if you're reading it for book club, start early.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Great Gatsby

Last summer we saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I can't imagine any enthusiast of literature not loving this film. Especially when Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald made their clever appearances. Anyway, the film reminded me that a long time ago I had read The Great Gatsby. And loved it.

I was really young (high school age), so I searched my memory bank. Why had I loved it? Barely remembering the plot or the characters, the depiction of life in New York York City in the 20's is what resounded with me. Maybe, just maybe I needed to read the novel again to make sure my youthful self had painted the picture F. Scott really had in mind. What better excuse to read?

Said task is complete. The verdict?

Still love it. And amazingly, the images of "West Egg and East Egg" in Long Island are still just as vivid as when I read them over twenty years ago. The plot  had been pretty much lost in my memory completely. So that was fun for me - like reading a whole new book.

I was most amused by each of the personalities' flirtatious relationship with the glamorous eastern metropolitan of NYC, even though these characters were actually common Midwesterners, like me. (Okay, maybe a little less common than me.) Of course this book is chock full of symbols and metaphors dealing with the age-old of topics of love, greed and calling - all great fodder for book club discussion and high school language arts class. But I want to discuss what really makes me love this book... the lyricism. The voice.

I can pick up my paperback classic, flip to any page and start reading.

"Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization." 

I'm an aspiring author - one of my favorite ways to study writing is reading from the best - and finding a sentence like this and pondering it for awhile.

The minute I read the first paragraph of Gatsby, I was hooked. I was hooked until Mr. Fitzgerald typed the last sentence in which he so perfectly and poetically stated,

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaseless into the past."

I do wonder how a mint julep tastes...probably best not to know. Best to let those Roaring 20's cats drink their drinks. I'll just sit here and imagine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Words can hardly give this book review justice. But if it's any indication, I'd like to purchase the novel since I read the library's copy. Certainly, I'd read it over and over again, for it's brilliant prose and heartbreaking story. Of course, I will not let my family alone until each one of them has read it as well. Because it's simply too important.

This historical fiction takes place in the heart of Nazi Germany-with our protagonist, Leisel, merely 13, a foster child, being raised on the poor side of the town of Molching. While the tale is full of colorful characters (complete with rude yet lovable neighbors) and with animated language (peppered with German insults), it's also fraught with danger since Leisel's foster family is hiding a Jew. Oh - and of course, the tale comes equipped with a full-scale villain. Amazingly, author Zusak didn't have go very far into the depths of his imagination to create him. Adolph Hitler actually lived.

Of course, this story is sad. How can it not be? We all know the tragedy and horror that took place in World War II. (Did I mention the narrator is Death? He really seems quite endearing.) However, there is much beauty in this book. One of the themes that struck me most has to do with the power of words. Of course, Hitler used words to bring together an economically depressed country to obliterate an ethnicity in the most dastardly of ways. But there were a few quiet and courageous ones, like Liesel who used words in only the best of ways. And while "The Book Thief" seems a negative connotation, it wasn't for Leisel Memminger who was only attempting to keep true to herself in Nazi Germany.  Eventually, words, reading, and books helped Liesel  to save others and their sense of themselves in the darkest of times.

This book is listed in the Young Adult genre. My hope is that our youth will take a break of vampires for this one - it's an important piece of literature. It's very deserving of the awards and accolades it has received. And it was very deserving of my tears that I shed when the cruelty and heartbreak of World War II became real. Sometimes we forget what happened. Words won't let us forget.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

I'm an only child. So, naturally, sibling relationships fascinate me. So when Mom recommended I read Sister by Rosamund Lupton, it wasn't without reservation. “And perhaps it spoke to me since I’m still grieving for my brother,” said my mother.  Never one to doubt my mama, I took hold of the novel and wasn’t disappointed in the least.

Death in the form of murder. Grief. Deep-seated guilt. Dark topics, yes? The story is actually refreshing because Rosamund Lupton has crafted a unique literary piece, most suited for pondering and discussion. In my opinion anyway. Topically, Sister is first and foremost a murder mystery. And there are a load of twists and unsuspecting turns in this novel. But what I found most compelling was the protagonist’s (Beatrice) uncertain personal journey in pursuing her sister's murderer. In a way, her sister (Tess) became the sacrificial lamb in order for Beatrice to reclaim her life - a life that she had slowly and irrefutably let slip away from her.

Grieving for a sibling not only contain the typical prongs of pain, but I'm guessing include extreme elements of loneliness as well. While I don't have that experience myself, I have comfort in the camaraderie I witness between my children. When me and my husband pass on, they will have each other. In reading this book, Ms. Lupton poured out this sibling love so masterfully, I felt the pain of losing one's sister. Now, that's good writing. 

And by the way, I had no idea who did it. And there was another "I had no idea that was going on" in this book. And that's good plotting...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Once after watching an old Saturday Nite Live skit (or maybe it was after watching Baby Mama, I forget), I likened myself to Tina Fey. Husband raised his brow and agreed with this and remarked, "Except she's funny." Touche.

I had the pleasure of reading Bossypants during our get-away to Minneapolis in the past few days. And if my hubby were to read the parts that I didn't read aloud to him, he just might find more similarities than he might think. Busy. Working Mom. Guilt. Bossy. Pants. Not terribly mean. A peppering of feminine outrage. (Not the set your bra on fire type, but have experienced enough in the workplace type...)And if I were half as clever as Ms. Fey, we'd be like two peas in a pod. Oh, the girl is funny.

Much of my amusement, methinks, has to do with
  • my Gen X mentality, and whoosh, when did we get slammed into this adult world? I completely related to her highly scientific stress graph on various workers such as comedy writers, coal miners and TGIF managers. Next time I feel a bit of adrenaline on a hectic day, I'll remember her graph.
  • my obsession with everything Chicago and NYC, which is where she launches her amazing career at SCTV, SNL and 30 Rock...
  • again, her incredible wit.
Admittedly, she threw a few names and references in the book that left me clueless. (NO! I'm not talking about Palin, McCain or Lorne Michaels! Do you know who Lorne Michaels is? Huh?) They were probably names well known to people with a vast knowledge about the world. Unlike me. No - I'm not calling her a namedropper! Gheesh. Tina seems about as down to earth as, well, let's just say she doesn't even drive. (Wish I could get away with that.) And there are many other interesting things you'll find out about her if you read the book.

Bossypants is much more than a humorist's rant. It's an interesting tale of a woman who worked hard in a tough industry. Yes, especially for a woman, it was tough! But the book impacted me so that as a matter of fact, I'm urging my daughter to consider a career path as an SNL writer. (What kind of mother does that?) Now, Alex is reading Bossypants. (What kind of mother allows that?) Apparently, I do.

The other night I had a dream (the night I fell asleep reading the book - although it was very good reading), that Jimmy Fallon missed a marketing meeting. Kenan Thompson, though, had astutely made it. As it occurred to me that we had great comedians working for our bank, I leaned over to Kenan and asked, "Do you guys really need the day jobs?" He nodded and replied, "Oh, yes. SNL isn't as lucrative as you'd think." That's all I remember about the dream. And I don't really want to think about what it means as I'm trying to get a novel written.

Anyway, the book is awesome - hilarious - compelling! I hope Tina reads my review and wants to become my new BFF. But that might be weird.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Promise Me

Book Club Alert! Ever wonder who IS this Susan Komen and how HAS her name become so ubiquitiously associated with the Race for the Cure against breast cancer? Well, I know. Because I read stuff. And, I got friends at book club who know lots and lots of stuff – and recommend really good books like Promise Me, written by Ms. Komen’s sister, Nancy G. Brinker.

Promise Me seems (to me) to be three books in one!

  1. -A human interest story where we meet the infamous and beautiful Susan Komen (along with her incredibly ambitious sister Nan). “Susie” was a pretty lady and dedicated wife and mother - who died much too young. She suggested to her sister that cancer treatment need not be such a sentence. Perhaps victims should be treated with a speck more humanity. Have you, or someone you know, gone through treatment? Were the walls painted in bright colors? Or were there floral decorations of some sort? You can probably thank Susan. And, of course, her sister.
  2. -A medically intriguing history which takes us from the days of horribly painful surgeries without anesthetics to a completely amazing awareness campaign that we now know as "The Race for the Cure". (The phrase "Awareness Campaign" seems a bit trite!) Was there a time do you remember that it was shameful to discuss breast cancer? Some of you do, for sure. Thanks goodness we seem beyond that.
  3. -The story of Nancy Brinker herself. She certainly had her share of hardship, but boy has she made her mark on the world. I'd like have some of this fireball rub off on me...

Loved the writing. Loved the information. And for anyone who has been affected by a cancer victim, this is a story worth taking the time to read.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Summer Reading - The Chronicles of Narnia

I purchased the Chronicles set some time ago for my imaginative children who have a penchant for stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Most likely I was smitten by the first beautiful production of the The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when a Scholastics book order came around. And, by jove, guess who of the Kramer clan has solely found herself in the land of Centaurs, badgers and telmarines?

It is I.

No, I haven’t convinced my children of the lovely, rich, and overall goodness of these adventurous tales whose allegories would please any English major on a rainy day. I’m completely delighted to study Mr. C.S. Lewis and his ability to spin a story, seeming at times to face the camera with a clarification, yet without one ounce of pedantification. He's like the charming grandfather I never knew.

Back to encouraging my kids to read this most awesome series. (Currently on Book 4- Prince Caspian.) They loved the movies, so I was perplexed by their hesitation on picking up the books. Alex, the elder, was already in the midst of another series. Cole, the younger, on the other hand, was more interested, but tentative. Then I learned that he had tried. And he read the first few pages several times...attempting to understand. Sigh. So, the next time I picked up where I was reading, I considered it from my son's perspective.  "In the name of Aslan, I wonder you have never asked me before?"  Hmm. A slight twist in the dialect probably made this book a bit ardous for Cole. More than I had anticipated. But good for him for trying.

So, I'll journey to Narnia alone for now. And await for my children to join me. I'll be patient. I believe they have some wizards to watch. 

Sidenote: I would like to thank the Narnia film producers - as I read, the imagery is tainted but what I saw in the movie, but in a magnificent way by the fine actors and great scenes. And, of course, Liam Neeson's voice as the powerful Aslan...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Devil in the White City

Remember those days when I was on medical leave? And I was posting a book review at least once, twice or three times a week? Those days seem a distant memory...Well, a few days before I went back to work, I opened Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. And I read nearly 1/3 of the compelling non-fiction piece before having to put it aside for our book club's 500 page laborious novel. Then baseball, soccer and a few other obligations got in the way. But tonight I finished it! And it wasn't so much a story to read. It was a story to become absorbed in. To become fascinated, horrified, saddened, amused and even made proud. It was a unique history skillfully written by a talented author whose research must've been excruciating.

Mr. Larson juxtaposes the 1892 Chicago World Fair (The Columbian Exposition) with a charming serial killer who set up shop (a hotel and pharmacy) only blocks away from the event. There is so much fodder in this book;  how the fair came to Chicago, the political climate of the nation, the economy, the architecture of the fair, AND the profound impact the fair had on our country today....really. All the way from Urban Planning to Shredded Wheat to light bulbs to the bank holiday that we know as Columbus Day. Oh, and let's not forget about Disney. But that's just part of this amazing story. Anyone interested in criminal minds and depraved serial killers will certainly be intrigued. And, certainly you'll draw some parallels between the calculated murders and the men who died in attempt to create the "White City."

I never really favored non-fiction. Give me fiction any day. But I find myself reading more and more of the stuff all the time. Perhaps I wasn't finding non-fiction writers who were compelling for me. Suddenly, I've got uber favorites! Elizabeth Gilbert. Lauren Hillenbrand. (Deepak Chopra and Sonia Choquette on the spiritual side) Now, add Erik Larson to the list. I must leave you one quote that this author wrote in all place, the acknowledgements.

"I fell in love with the city, the people I encountered, and above all, the lake and its moods, which shift so readily from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour."

That is a great sentence. About a great city. In a great book.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lunch and Library Club

After missing April's gathering, I was determined not to miss another literary discussion after being cooped up in the house for so long. "Lunch and Library" is non-negotiable time for me. It's a recurring appointment in my calendar. No lunch dates with friends. No lunch meetings with peers. The only events that keeps me from attending are surgery and sick grandmas. And despite being tempted to quit reading the laborious 500-plus page novel, I drudged through the All-Iowa read for May, to join my erudite friends on the second Tuesday of the month. The novel? Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos.

The cover of the book is quite lovely. And by approximately page 400, I was finally getting into it. And according to Bev (book club member who read to page 30), every review she found on the Internet was glowing. Out of approximately 12 members who regularly attend our library club, only three of us finished the tome. Roger (an extremely well-read library board member) commented, "Life's too short."

To be fair, the three of us who stuck to it (and even those who read part of it) had a lively and great discussion. And it certainly had a story line that made me think for a while. The maternal themes were quite timely for the motherly month of May. Characters were fairly interesting. Prose was good. It was just the darn Dutch funeral that bored me. But we all seemed intrigued by the story. Apparently, those who make the selection for the All-Iowa read know what they're doing.

Anyway, a few years ago (on a whim) I decided to start attending the lunch and library club.  A bit nervous on my first visit, I joined in on a discussion of The Reader. Since then, I've made a number of new friends, and my life has become vastly enriched. While reading is joyous in and of itself, it becomes so much more enlightening in a social setting and allows us to reach more deeply into ourselves.

Not a part of a book club? Don't you wish you could discuss some of your reads with others? Then, you should do it. Find new friends. Explore new thoughts. Share intriguing ideas. You won't regret it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Most recently, I alternated between tears and smiles as my dog peacefully slept at my feet while reading The Art of Racing in the Rain - a tale narrated by a dog. Enzo is the most clever of dogs - interpreting his surroundings infinitely well (including the English language) which leaves this novel completely rich with detail.

Of course, Enzo is handicapped by his inability to speak (tongue is much too long) and his lack of a thumb. So all he really has "is gestures." But as we all know, dogs perform amazing feats - to stir or sooth our emotions - using...gestures! Throughout this compelling story line - of a race car driver who must fight for custody of his daughter - Enzo never forgets his purpose.

All dog lovers will relish in this book. Race car enthusiasts will also be amused. And those who appreciate strong prose will think, "Smart dog."

This morning I sat on the floor, attempting to stretch my legs. My faithful dog, Percy, decided to join me. I thought to myself, "I wonder if he understands more than we even realize." So, I looked into his big brown eyes as he wagged his tail. Then I gently reminded him,

"Remember what I told you about not putting your paws on my tummy right now. That would be a no-no. Because it hurts pretty bad."

He wagged a bit more. Before reaching his little paw right over to my sore belly. So, he might not have Enzo's mind. But he does have gestures. And that's all he needs. That's all we need, Percy.

Our Percy...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle

Once in awhile the stars will align, your dog will come when you call,  someone will let you have her parking space, your son gives you a hug, and your daughter says, "That was a really good book you gave me." Hmm. You try hard not to smile. Because she probably wouldn't want to hear how proud you feel about the fact that your girl's got some depth. Anyway, I picked up A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle as a small Christmas gift (almost selfishly) explaining it was one of those books that for years was on the "banned list." It might be fun to read together and find out why.

Wrinkle is an allegory, disguised as an adventure, with several layers of social elements to consider. First and foremost, we meet our social misfit and heroine -Meg Murry. While most of us have felt "different" at some time or another, Meg is brave enough not to deny who she is. So she gets in trouble a lot. From her troubled hearth, with a missing father, we are thrown into an adventure with a wild cast of characters including her brainy young brother, a charming schoolboy and three magical neighbors with the monikers of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Don't worry about keeping them straight- the author is completely and wonderfully magical herself at creating her characters. I'd like to read a few passages again and study the art of L'Engle's writing - undoubtedly, the dialect of the dialogue helped, but I was truly taken in by some of the cast of actors. I found myself reading aloud  - as if I was in a play! And I had grown quite fond of Mrs Who and her ability to quote great men AND to traverse between languages.

Beyond the intriguing characters, the social commentary (especially in light of the time the book being written -1962) should stir some robust dialogue. As Meg is on the mission to save her father and brother, the tale leads us to question the convention of conformity and authority. How much is too much? Where do we draw the line? But there are so many other underlying issues to consider. Like when the group stopped at a peaceful planet and it occurred to Meg that on earth, the same beasts that nurtured her would have been shot without warning.

The ending is sublime. And as Meg has carried resentment because of her lack of convention, ultimately she has what it takes to be the heroine. But what's her secret weapon? I won't spoil it for you - you'll have to read it for yourself.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Lay down vampires. Pave way for that literary genre known as historical fiction. With books so well written as Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, readers will quickly become spoiled by clever plot (with embedded biblical symbolism), compelling backstories about circus folks, subtlety pleasing prose, robust dialogue, gripping cruelties, and the clincher - a love story to die for.

The tale is about Jacob Jankowski - a 90-something (he forgets) nursing home resident who is watching a circus set up across the street. He begins to reminisce events of his youth - unbelievable events as he found himself in the midst of a quagmire as a circus menagerie attendant.

The author aptly pulls us into Jacob's life. One minute we're sitting with him in his room. Sometimes we're humored by his wit which involves his sharp sense of his dull surroundings. Other times we're saddened by his lonely and deteriorating situation. But in a flash, we traverse to the Depression era world of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth - Jacob's youth.  Novelist, Sara Gruen is so crafted at her art, I  read this book in colors. The transition from Jacob's nursing home room to the circus world was in sepia. (As a matter of fact, when editing this post, I had to to change the word "movie" to "book" several times. Talk about creating imagery.)

Okay, I must admit that perhaps the movie trailers with the handsome lead may have motivated the read...but the first few paragraphs quickly had me hooked. And I'm not even sure if I want to see parts of the movie, because there were cruelties that were certainly difficult to digest. Again - another indication of the author's writing talent.  But overall, I found the tale from beginning to end a complete indulgence.

I have a few indicators of great reads - compulsion and bookmarked prose. This book scored high on both of these. I was going to quote a sampling so readers could at least have a "taste." But guess what? I couldn't find a passage where I felt I could stop. I started reading the whole thing again. So get your own selves hooked at the Amazon's "Look Inside"section!

Monday, April 4, 2011

comfort food by kate jacobs

After reading Louis Zamerini's nonfictional account of surviving sharks and deranged Japanese guards in a POW camp, Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs (who also wrote the best-selling Friday Night Knitting Club) seemed a bit...trite. Obviously I had to keep reading. And it became deliciously trite.

Ms. Jacobs weaves a story (with plenty of of spicy characters) around an aging (ahem - a few years older than myself!) Food Network celebrity in danger of losing her show. The grand old elements of humor and romance spin into some fun and there's even a life lessons learned in the tale. But if you decide to read this book, I'm positive you'll walk away I was quite impressed with the author's knowledge of the culinary arts - tossing around terms like canapes, fontina or pimenton as if they were as common as salt and pepper. While these terms probably meant something to real foodies, it was Kate Jacob's descriptives of homemade buns,  chicken and noodles, or (my personal favorite) cake that would make my simple tastes percolate.

Anyway, I do believe the Food Network owes this lovely author of comfort food some royalties. After completing the book, I was strangely drawn to the TV yesterday...and watched a marathon of celebrity Chopped nearly all day. Coincidence? Me thinks not. I bet I wasn't the only reader who became mesmerized by some chefs after reading this appetizing novel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand

My husband declares himself the "non-reader" of the family. Sure, it's a bit ironic considering my aspirations. But don't most wives enjoy the challenge of improving their loved ones? Well, it seems after all these years, I'm getting a bit closer to wiping him off that sordid and fabricated club of "people who don't like to read."

After an addiction to all books written by either Dan Brown or Dave Barry  (polar opposites? maybe...), my Doug has informed me that Unbroken by Ms. Lauren Hillenbrand has taken top honors as his favorite book of all time. I had the pleasure of topping off the read yesterday...and while it's too fresh for me to put into my favorite of "all time" category (my bookshelf is a bit wider than my darling's), it will certainly get the "Five Star" and the "heart" on Shelfari.

Anyone that has read Seabiscuit knows that Hillenbrand is an accomplished artist when it comes to writing compelling non-fiction. It's been awhile since I read about the racehorse, but the story of Louis Zamperini had me so captivated from the start, it felt like I was reading something from fiction. Could this all be for real? Yes. Amazingly, yes.

The stories will appall in parts. How can it not? It was war. But it's not all about despair. The story is incredibly inspiring. On my worst very worst day, it would do me good to think about what some of the poor young men battled in those awful POW camps. It would seem we, and I mean my generation (of the X variety) of Americans, take a lot for granted.

I have a friend in her 80's. She's a widow, and her husband was a WWII veteran. She still ventures to a WWII veteran reunion with his battalion that has been meeting every year since the war. Isn't that amazing? They never forget what it's about. I love my country. But honestly, sometimes I forget about freedom. I take it for granted. I complain about taxes. I forget how easy it is to walk outside. Or to do whatever I want. Or say whatever I want. This book made me think how so much has been given for the lives we live today. In our peaceful land in the center of the universe.

Thank God for the many, many Louie Zamperini. I found a few interviews with Louis. This one was my favorite. It won't take away from the book. Take a look...and don't forget to pick up the book!

Sidenote: I was thinking about the argument of E-books being the decline of the book industry. But for a really great book, like Unbroken, perhaps that argument is flawed. Case in point: My mother purchased the book on her Kindle. Then decided my father needed to read it, so purchased the hard bound book. She loaned to us. Doug read. Then I read. Now, I feel that we need the book on our shelf. I will buy upon our next visit to a bookstore. I also believe that my 80-something friend (aforementioned in the post) would love this story, so I will also purchase a copy for her as a gift. Thus not only has one electronic copy been purchased, three additional hardcopies. Oh - and I mentioned this book to one of my best friends, Amy,who also is a bibliophile and most certainly will grab the book on her next visit to a B&N...So make that four additional hardcopies. My point? Maybe we need more great books...

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Storm Before Atlanta by Karen Schwabach

Did my last post ramble on about reading for pleasure? Well, let's get back to expanding the mind. For my hospital stay, I chose a book that took place during the Civil War. Interesting choice, I must say. As I learned of men having limbs sawed off without provisions, I thought maybe I should suck up my bit o' pain with a bit more gusto.

For anyone who likes historical fiction, this is a good read. I believe it was actually written for Middle Grade, but I just loaned it out to my mother-in-law. She'll read it quickly...cuz I do want the kids to read this one. (I want my kids to read everything. Just ask them.) Anyway, back to the Civil War...back to this book.

While I wasn't unfamiliar with the details that were described in the book, they were very well done throughout the story. It never hurts to be reminded of the horrors of war. And the Civil War seems, to me, to be the worst of the worst.

What was great about this book was the personal stories of a boy who went to war to find glory and a girl who escaped slavery to find freedom. Neither of them discovered what they expected. (Do we ever find what we're after?) After navigating fierce battles and befriending a Rebel spy, the war gives Jeremy and Dulce battle scars. But most of all, it gives them a deep understanding of selflessness and true friendship.

There are a lot of interesting twists and turns in this book that will definitely keep you flipping the pages. I don't won't to blow it for you... Alex told me she's starting a unit on the Civil War in History. How timely. I mentioned there's this book that would be great for her to read...I don't think she rolled her eyes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reading for Pleasure??? YES!

Preface - Half of blog was written "before surgery." Finished this blog today...sorry if the ending seems a little "rushed." :) I really did enjoy the book. 

When choosing a book to read, my selection usually boils down to
  • a long-standing bestseller,
  • an Oprah pick,
  • a that I'm well-read - and of course living up to my "English degree" from the U of Iowa reputation (and becoming more masterful writer),
  • a spiritual or self-help - for obvious reasons,
  • a non-fiction/business to hone, hone, hone, hone...expand, expand, expand my knowledge of anything really, and/or
  • basically anything that's not wasteful of my time...
Then it occurred to me as I finished reading a book the other day, what's so wrong about wasting time? And does reading always have to be a learning experience? It seems I've forgotten the joy of reading for leisure. So, about this book? Chasing the Sun by Kaki Warner. And it was really good! Quite honestly, it probably wasn't something I would have picked up, but I won it on a blog contest. And I'm glad I did - BECAUSE:

I haven't read a Western since....??? And it was great fun. It was like watching Hopalong Cassidy with my dad as a little girl. And who couldn't love a story with a myriad of strong female characters, tangled love interests, witty dialogue and, of course, despicable villains? Oh yeah, there's a really nice fairy tale ending - my favorite... 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod

The Kindle has some handy features that allow you to bookmark, notate and highlight passages you find inspiring or at least worth revisiting. This is all good and dandy, until you find a book so amusing and full of delectable quips that you find yourself bookmarking the whole damn book. Such is the case with Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod.

Don't let the name fool you. While Mr. MacLeod takes a few jabs at corporate America - and he doesn't lack of sharp wit with shreds of cynism (undoubtedly, residue from his time working an inane job that suffocated his creative spark -dang cubicles), Hugh is an inspirational writer. And this is a book (believe it or not) As a matter of fact, I think I'd like to have tea with Hugh. Although, I very much think he's cut more from my hubby's cloth and prefers a brewsky. Anyhoo-

Things I LOVE about this book:

  • The author's vocabulary - use of words like "feckless" and other words that don't even show up on the Kindle's dictionary.  I can't remember them, but there seemed to be a few obscurities starting with the letters "sch..."
  • The cartoons - undeniably funny. And some very sweet! Too bad I had to view them on the Kindle. But I was compelled to visit his blog this way. You should too -
  • Anecdotes and other business stories. They were relevant for every point Hugh made. Hugh's smart. I like smart people. It generated much discussion between me and my husband. Basically, I read the entire book to my husband.
  • A poem called "Welcome to the Hunger." Seriously, I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading it. At the end, there was a cartoon with a caption stating "my name is hugh macleod. and right now i'm crying."  How is that for uncanny?
For anyone who is interested in reconciling passion and career, entrepreneurialism, or marketing your own business, this is a must-read.  It was surprisingly delightful and stirring. I'll leave you with one of Hugh's cartoons (which I think can be purchased by visiting his website) in hopes that you'll be inspired to visit his blog and find wisdom in any of his many art forms:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Social Network

"In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst." -Oscar Wilde, writer (1854-1900)

Last weekend I was finally able to sit down and watch The Social Network - a movie with a story that has piqued my interest since I saw a preview some time ago. Perhaps I was merely struck by an eerie rendition of Radiohead's Creep. Nevertheless, I was even more compelled when the screenplay became nominated for an Oscar...and isn't it time that I finally see a movie with some depth? Apparently! Cuz I can't seem to quit thinking about it.

While there were many aspects of the movie that I admired - the soundtrack, the clever dialogue, the intricacy of the screenplay, great acting - what I loved most is how the movie reflected the terrifying and wonderful experience of college-youth. No matter if you're the brilliant outcast who would someday develop Facebook. Well, he's not much of an outcast anymore. And by the end of the movie, Mr. Zuckerberg (youngest billionaire in the world) didn't seem to care about "fitting in" anymore. I think we all learn that lesson eventually - but most people would agree that Mark Facebook Zuckerberg has had a far more interesting journey than most of us.

Oh sure, The King's Speech swept the Academy, but I wouldn't let that stop you from seeing this movie! (Not sure if the Oscars sway you or not...) And no matter your opinion of Facebook - it's a game-changer. And it's origin is quite intriguing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A book about cancer cells? I wasn't so sure I'd be interested in this particular non-fiction work. But Rebecca Skloot had me hooked in the first couple pages as she she so craftily described her early fascination with cell division. Suddenly I (a banker, writer, musician - definitely not a scientist), found myself intrigued with a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had died in in 1951 of cervical cancer.  Her cancer cells are still living and dividing to this very day. Oh and by the way, she didn't know her cell tissue was going to be used for research. Neither did her family (for many years). And another thing - she was black.

Never mind the fact this had been the first time in history that cells had been able to grow outside of the body. HeLa cells (named after Henrietta Lacks) opened a whole big world for scientific research, paving the way for important discoveries like the polio vaccine. Ms. Skloot not only defines HeLa for us in a scientific sense - she writes the story of Henrietta Lacks. She is a person, with a family who ironically has a myriad of health problems and can barely afford health insurance.  But at least a few companies got rich from it.

This novel is definitely discussion-worthy. While racism is an obvious theme, I believe the most controversial issue is "informed consent" in the medical field. This has been taking place on all races and all genders for quite some time - before HIPPA. Have you ever had a procedure and wondered what happened to the "waste" (for lack of a better word)? Honestly, I have not - until I read this book. I don't care what they do with it. I don't even care if they use it for research - more power to them. Most would agree (including the Lacks family) that research for the progress of science is good. But I'd sure like to know if I had contributed to mankind in some way. And of course, I'd sure be curious if there's something about my "waste" that could make a research outfit billions of dollars.

Anyway, this book is much more than a scholarly translation about cancer cells - it's a story about Henrietta Lacks and how she changed the world. And it's a story about a person's right to know how he or she can change the world.  It's a great read - I hope you read the story.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reading about Writing

I once heard someone tell me that they preferred to write, not to read. Needless to say, the statement baffled me. Now, I love to write. LOVE IT. But writing without reading? What the hay? As a matter of fact, reading (to me) is simply a guilty pleasure. But to an aspiring author, it's also an important tool.

In addition to those classic penmen - John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald (sorry Ma - I like him), Willa Cather, Mark Twain - and the contemporary greats like Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Amy Tan, every writer should arm themselves with some technical writing books beyond Strunk and White's Element of Style.  I've just finished reading a couple of books that are surprisingly compelling! Then I went to my bookshelf to see what else I've read (on writing). As it turns out, I have a few others to recommend...

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark - touts itself as "A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English." Don't let the subtitle fool you. Mr. Clark is as clever as the the fellas on late-night TV. And he doesn't even have the benefit of celebrities like Snooky for material - he's merely using his wit and the ole subject matter of grammar. Anyway, beyond the coy, there's invaluable advice for writers.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark - notice a theme yet? Well, after reading his second book, I went back to the bookstore to pick up his first book. While this book is also clever, it's more scholarly (really), giving the writer fifty specific writing tools. So break it down - do the math, you're bound to get your money's worth. Honestly, as I read it, I made a pact to myself to re-read this "manual" every year.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande - I have no idea when I picked this book up, or if my mother gave it to me, or if I picked it up at a conference, but I am THRILLED that I have it! Why, you ask? Because Roy Peter Clark references this book in Writing Tools - I made a side note to check it out at the library. Needless to say...I already owned it. Serendipity at its best. Will read soon.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose - This book was a Christmas gift from my mother a few years ago. "The trick to writing is reading - carefully, deliberately, and slowly." This particular book was transformative for me. I have never read a book in the same way - and while I'm an English major from the University of Iowa (and am only slightly pretentious when it comes to literature), Ms. Prose helped me to distinguish a ho-hum sentence from a fly-to-the-moon sentence.

I'm sure there are many more books to explore. There always are. But that's my short and inexperienced list. As I find more, I'll be sure to spread the news. Anyway, since this is the web, if you have any to share, please feel free to comment!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dear Lucky Agent Contest!

Once again, the trusty Guide to Literary Agents blog is sponsoring a contest for anyone who has finished their manuscript and has not yet published their masterpiece! Get the details at the GLA blog! Contest runs from January 9th through January 23rd, so don't delay...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

There are writers in which I take a particular delight; as soon as I read their written words, it's like coming home from a long hard, day at the office. And when I'm done with their books, I'm sad. It's like Monday morning all over again.  Elizabeth (or Liz, as I like to think of her) Gilbert is one of those authors for me.

On the first day of the 2011, I finished Committed, Ms. Gilbert's follow-up piece to the wildly successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love.  (Love that one too.)  This book had the same voice of the writer, but a much different feel. It's a compelling, smart sequel for a someone whose world was sadly falling apart a few years back.  Now her dilemma (even though very personal -- she must marry Felipe, if she wants to stay with him) seems to identify at a much more universal level.

Anyway, the read is very anecdotal (adding to the warmth - she is lovingly self-deprecating), and it's interestingly academic at times.  Truly, Committed is engaging (no pun intended) for anyone who wants to talk about love and marriage. And who doesn't want to talk about that? Really! Even most guys, deep down, like to talk about it. Even MY husband.

Mostly, I love the way Liz writes. (Yes, she and I are having tea next week.) She has a vast lexicon. (I slightly regret not purchasing the tome (:)) on the Kindle - her vocabulary is a bit more extensive than mine....had to get my arse off the couch to find the actual dictionary a few times. Good for me though.)  And for the aspiring writer in me, I so admire how she effortlessly pieces together a story or an argument, not forgetting to weave in her cunning wit.  I find myself giggling and uttering, "good point" in the same breath.

I found out that Elizabeth (we're not really that close) will be speaking in Omaha in April! Mother and I decided that we'll be venturing out to this conference - no matter what. Hope that I can somehow manage my way over to obtain a signature on my two books, maybe I can think of something witty to tell her - or, something poignant about her book. But star power will probably overtake me. I'll probably think of the most brilliant point ever made about marriage days before the event. But when I meet her?

"I like the part about the flower girl in your book. That was cute...." If I say anything at all.

Anyway, the point of this post - I loved the book, as I love the writer. If you like Lizzy Gilbert and you're at all interested in the institution of marriage, I suggest you read.