Saturday, December 31, 2011

the year (2011) in books

1. Imagined London (Anna Quindlen)
2. Dash and Lily's Book of Dares (Rachel Cohn)
3. Packing for Mars (Mary Roach)
4. Prince Caspian (C.S. Lewis)
5. Makeshift Metropolis (Witold Rybczynski)
6. Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis)
7. Sea of Troubles (Donna Leon)
8. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis deSoto (ed. Joan Reardon)
9. Silver Chair  (C.S. Lewis)
10. A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
11. Bossypants (Tina Fey)
12. Book Lust to Go (Nancy Pearl)
13. Blood, Bones, Butter (Gabrielle Hamilton)
14. Crunch Time (Diane Mott Davidson)
15. Left for Dead (Beck Weathers)
16. Sojourn (Andrew Krivak)
17. Wither (Lauren DeStefano)
18. An Embarrassment of Mangoes (Ann Vanderhoof)
19. Odd and the Frost Giants (Neal Gaiman)
20. Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
21. Midnight Riot (Ben Aaronovitch)
22. Born to Run (Christopher McDougall)
23. State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
24. City of Spies (Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan)
25. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (Nina Sankovitch)
26. Island (Elin Hilderbrand)
27. Throne of Fire (Rick Riordan)
28. Tortoise and the Hare (Elizabeth Jenkins)
29. Willful Behavior (Donna Leon)
30. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigburg)
31. Tout Sweet (Karen Wheeler)
32. Ghost of Greenwich Village (Lorna Graham)
33. Wilder Life (Wendy McClure)
34. Half Magic (Edward Eager)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August stats

Filling up the tank before school starts! I read six books this month. 

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (Nina Sankovitch)
Author Nina Sankovitch spends a year reading a book a day. There is something simultaneously self-absorbed and enviable in the premise of her project. I mean, really, who can afford to carve out enough time in the day to read an entire book? Isn't there laundry to do, kids to care for, cans to open for dinner? First read about her book a day project in the NYT, which profiled her at the close of her project. Enjoyed the book, especially learning about her tight-knit family and how reading shaped each member. But more so, I have enjoyed reading her project blog and observing her writing style and opinions develop.

The Island (Elin Hilderbrand) 
Back in the day, when I was a publisher's rep for St. Martin's Press and before chick lit was a fiction subgenre, we called these books "smart-women's fiction." Not much of a ring, I know, but a term that was meant to summarize this sort of more-than-romance, character- and relationship-driven fiction. Hilderbrand does this really well, plus she manages to transport the reader to Nantucket, which is where most, if not all, of her books are set. The Island continues a theme begun in Tolstoy, perhaps, about chucking responsibility (jobs, family) to recover or find oneself. Clearly a fantasy state!

Throne of Fire (Rick Riordan) 
Read-aloud with my boys, one of who believes the author walks on water. Throne of Fire is book #2 in Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. Don’t remember much of the story, b/c lately, during reading time, I have had to marshal the boys through skirmishes, which are very, very distracting to me. But, I think Rick Riordan does a fine job with pacing. Characters are pretty one-dimensional. Story alternates between each sibling’s voice and, except for their romantic crushes, one absolutely cannot tell the difference between each. Since Riordan is writing volume three currently, I suspect we'll be at this same place a year from now.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg) 
Another read-aloud to the boys. This one conducted on a four-hour car drive from Princeton, NJ, to Lake George in the Adirondacks. Classic story of two siblings who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Adventurous. Loved it. Will read more Konigsburg.

The Tortoise and the Hare (Elizabeth Jenkins) 
Impeccably written. Gentle. Tweedy. British women’s fiction. Set post-World War 2. Explores women’s roles in relationships. Easily one of the best novels I have read this year. Sad to learn that Jenkins, who was quite a prolific author (12 novels, 12 biographies), only has this one novel in print [at least that I can see]. I would easily read another book from her.

The New York Four (Brian Wood)
This graphic novel, a compilation of four stand-alone comic books, follows four classmates, soon to become roommates, through their first semester of freshman year at NYU. Singles of New York Five: second semester await.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

July statistics

My highest personal [reading] achievement came earlier this month when I (finally) finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I have been reading this book intermittently since the day it was published back in January. The lack of proper, manageable chapters was really frustrating, especially since I never had long chunks of time to devote to the long sections that formed the only natural break in the narrative. Ten years ago, I was a champion for The Corrections (I proudly own a pre-Oprah book club 1st edition). When a follow-up was announced, I could hardly wait for the pub date. When I bought Freedom, I was stoked to learn that it was set in St. Paul, involving a somewhat stereotypical couple that was a gigantic composite of nearly every St. Paul couple I know. Ultimately, the main characters were colossally ugly and while they each find their redemption at the novel’s conclusion, by that point, I so didn’t care what happened to them. Franzen’s dripping hostility was uncomfortably present in every sentence. Seriously, dude, if that’s your “voice,” then I am so over you.

Midnight Riot provided a wonderful antidote to the bad taste that Freedom left. The author, Ben Aaronovitch (who was a writer for classic Dr. Who), has written a mystery replete with well-developed characters, impeccable pacing, and an excellent setting (London). Peter Grant is a Probationary Constable (police officer) who dreams of being a detective. While investigating a crime scene, Grant encounters an unusual witness to the crime—a ghost. Quickly, Grant is taken under the tutelage of Chief Inspector Nightingale for wizard training. If you find yourself above reading the Twilight series or any of the myriad vampire/werewolf/whatever books, you might find Aaronovitch’s series smart and funny.

Over the course of two long car trips, I read Born to Run aloud to John and the boys. My book group had chosen it to discuss last September (2010), but I was unable to attend that meeting and, as often happens, I didn’t read the book. But, I hung onto it with every intention of diving in at some point because I love this type of nonfiction, which, in this book is a pleasing combination of sport, culture, and travel. Also, I knew John, a former cross-country runner, would be interested. I wasn’t wrong. Author Christopher explores the Tarahumara tribe, which dwells in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara run barefoot over long distances. Born to Run culminates with an epic long-distance run involving the Tarahumara and some of the U.S.’s best extreme athletes.

City of Spies: This charming graphic novel features a young girl who is abandoned by her father to live with her Bohemian but rich aunt in NYC city for the summer. To cope, Evelyn draws a superhero comic and casts herself as the sidekick. On the side, she hunts for spies with her real-life sidekick, Tony, the super’s son. I loved the illustrations for their bright, vintage feel, as well as Evelyn’s sense of adventure, which makes this graphic novel perfect for fans of Tintin and Nancy Drew.

Monday, July 25, 2011

currently reading

Cruising through Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, which has a rich setting (the Amazon), well-drawn characters, and a pleasantly complex but not dense plot. Perfect summer read for fans of Bel Canto.

Also started reading Unfamiliar Fishes, which is Sarah Vowell's latest book. I've never read Vowell (her radio voice and smugness annoy me), but I find the subjects she tackles to be interesting. This book is about Hawaii. I like the history interspersed with personal stories and laced with humor.

I'm about to add Ben Aaronovitch's Moon over Soho to the mix. This is his follow up to Midnight Riot, which I found such a treat.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

summer reading program

When I was a kid, the best thing about summer was participating in the summer reading program at the local Carnegie library. As with most of these programs, you were required to read a minimal number of books to earn a prize. My library asked for a short oral report, to be given to a librarian, which was fine. I never minded talking about the books I was reading. I remember the librarian filling an index card with the titles I read. It would be fun to have those cards now.

My childhood library is pictured above. It's one of my favorite places in the world. I learned to love books here. The stacks and every volume they offered were such comfort to me. The entry is new. I think its really attractive and welcoming. The clerestory windows undoubtedly provide a clean, well-lit place, which seems oh so fitting.

The prize each summer was a bus trip. Most of the destinations were frontier-oriented, but I’m fairly sure that’s what you get in eastern SoDak. One year we visited Ft. Sisseton, which was a defense for the eastern Dakota Territory. Another year we traveled to Prairie Village, a living museum near Madison. And, for this prairie girl and #1 Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, the piece de resistance was a visit to the Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet. Regardless of destination, the trips were fantastic opportunities to run around without parental supervision and to see cool corners of the state. I feel super fortunate that my mother enrolled me and that she allowed me to take the end-of-summer trip.

For the past few summers, I have been participating in a reading challenge that is part of my favorite online community. I set my own goal. It’s always the same—20 books. I have only hit this goal once, and to do it, I read three books over Labor Day weekend. That was fun. The summer is just past the halfway point between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I have read twelve books. Currently, I’m looking for a few good, quick reads to get me closer to my goal. Of course there is great satisfaction in reaching 20, but perhaps I should treat myself to a Minnesota literary road trip—Sauk Center (Sinclair Lewis), Walnut Grove (LIW), Mankato (Maud Hart Lovelace), or here in St. Paul (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Monday, July 11, 2011

books on display

Earlier this year, I read about Thatcher Wine in the New York Times. His business, Juniper Books, embraces two of my favorite pursuits: books and design. Wine specializes in creating libraries for customers, often covering books to emphasize a theme or a color. From a reader's point of view, the books aren't necessarily pick-up-able, but from a design perspective, the effect is crisp and organized and very appealing. I find his work very inspiring.

Books were wrapped in orange paper, then stamped with letters that define the theme. Imagine cookbooks or travel books or mysteries done this way.

Books wrapped in complementary colors could enliven a shelf.

The potential for themes is endless. Here is a sports car; below is wine.

Friday, July 08, 2011

currently reading

Finally, I have finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's overly long novel of an epically dysfunctional family. I am relieved to have that monkey off my back. I started reading Freedom on the September day it was published, and I paid full price. For the most part, I found the characters ugly and nearly nonredeemable. I was never sure where the story was going, and yet found myself blown away that Franzen could pull off nearly 600 pages of dense writing, moving his novel along at a snail's pace and that it would be a bestseller and critically acclaimed. Baffling. BTW, I adored The Corrections.

Still working on Ben Aaronovitch's
Midnight Riot, which is the first mystery in a funny supernatural series. I haven't read much in this subgenre, so I may not be the best judge, but I do think it's super fun and has been the perfect anecdote to bloated literary fiction.

We took another trip to SoDak over the July 4th weekend and so had another opportunity for a read-aloud--
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, the story of ultra-marathon runners and the Tarahumara, a super secret Mexican tribe of ultrarunners. We're enjoying the book. The author is a sports journalist and the writing is easy-going.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

June statistics

June has been a great month for reading! I have had glorious swathes of time to sink my teeth into books, particularly during those two glorious weeks when the boys were still in school. Finishing five books in a month is an accomplishment, to be sure, but I also managed to pick up Freedom right at the place where I left off in April. At the rate I am going, I may actually finish this door-stopper--608 pages, feels like 1,200--before the pub year is over.

Sojourn was covered here. The only thing I’d like to say about it now is that it is still one of the leading candidates for Favorite of 2011.

A couple of short reads improved my overall statistics. On son Simon's recommendation, and in anticipation of attending a Neil Gaiman event, I read Odd and the Frost Giant. This is folklore at its best. For one, it’s not updated in some ridiculous contemporary way meant to capture the short attention spans of the modern child. Brett Helquist's woodcut illustrations ground the story so it is approachable and transporting.This beautiful story pays homage to Norse gods and giants in a very pleasing way. I cannot wait to re-read.

Wither is a first novel, and the first book in the Chemical Garden Trilogy, by Lauren DeStafano. As a YA novel, this book was a quick read, which was, perhaps, the best thing about it. I didn’t connect with any characters, and I’m only mildly curious about what happens to them. Catastrophic illnesses have been bred out of the gene pool, but the trade-off is that people don’t live into adulthood. Girls—some as young as 13 years old (which I found disturbing)—are plucked off the street and forced to marry and reproduce. Rhine Ellery, an orphan, is the victim of such a kidnapping. Her husband is wealthy and young. He falls in love with Rhine after his first wife expires from a very messy death. Rhine may have feelings for husband, but she has stronger feelings for Gabriel the servant boy. Mostly she’s plotting her escape from the mansion-prison in which she’s held so she may be reunited with her twin brother. The plot follows predictably as well as makes allusions to experiments conducted in the creepy basement by the scary father-in-law. Yeah, the stereotypes are heavy. It seems as if the publisher—and author—are trying to capture the Hunger Games audience, but I think Wither falls far short. I think I can predict the progression of each of the three books. Also, I found a lot of inconsistencies with the circumstances under which the world has gone to hell and couldn’t suspend enough disgust for the child brides and trafficking. Not recommended.

Foiled, however, was a delightful read. Jane Yolen wrote the story and Mike Cavallaro illustrated this sweet graphic novel about a teen girl who fences. There’s romance and magic (of the fantastical sort). Our lead character is feisty and passionate and competitive and trying to figure out life. I wish more books like this had been in print when I was 14.

The most transporting book I read this month was An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof. This travel memoir details the epic year (plus) that the author and her husband spent sailing from their home in Toronto to the Caribbean. They quit their day jobs in publishing, rented their house, bought a 42-foot sailboat, and set off for points south, covering 47 individual islands. I loved reading about the water, the sand, the sun, the food, and the people (cruisers and islanders, alike) that the couple met along the way. And, I fantasized constantly about taking a leave from my studies, renting the house, pulling the kids out of school, and having an unforgettable adventure. I also have a wicked craving for conch fritters.

Sadly, I was forced to abandon Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which I had been listening to in the car. Half of the story focuses on Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed the grounds for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The other half of the story focuses on a serial killer in Chicago who was active during that same period. Clearly, the character's lives intersect. This past semester, my architectural history class spent a lot of time on international expositions and on Chicago’s post-Great Fire growth so this book has been high on my list for summer reading. No sooner had I returned the book than I learned a friend was reading it and another is searching for a copy. Ah, the power of backlist (Larson has a newhardcover out). Try, try again.