Friday, August 31, 2007

They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky

Last month, I wrote about my attempt at reading Dave Eggers' What is the What. Since I couldn't get through it, I picked up They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak. This is a true story of three Lost Boys from Sudan, who lived through terrible ordeals and were finally relocated to America. In the late 1980's, when Arabs from northern Sudan began attacking villages in the south, thousands of people were killed or displaced from their homes. Brothers Benson and Alepho and their cousin Benjamin were just 5-7 years old at the time. Separated from each other and the rest of their families, the boys started walking, along with many other displaced boys. Overall they walked almost 1,000 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Along the way they almost died from thirst, starvation, wild animal attacks, bombings, sickness and injuries. Alternating chapters between the boys, each one tells of their experiences and how they managed to survive and reunite with each other.

I enjoyed the beginning when they talked of their lives before the fighting broke out, and even though Americans might view their way of life as simple, they were happy, safe and well fed. I also liked the little bit about their adjustment to life in America: their first time using a soda machine, their first trip to Wal-Mart, etc. Most of all though, their stories just stunned me. I kept reminding myself how young these boys were when they endured this, and I just cannot believe they made it. This is a heart wrenching story about the effects of war on children, and an inspiring tale of their determination to survive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Random Facts #1

Did you know that best-selling author Diane Mott Davidson went to Wellesley College and lived across the hall from Hillary Rodham Clinton? HRC convinced Davidson to join the Young Republicans with her (which HRC left in her sophomore year).

Monday, August 27, 2007

Books vs. Movies

Over the weekend I saw the eagerly anticipated (by me) movie, The Nanny Diaries. The movie is based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. I absolutely loved this book, and while the movie was fun and entertaining, I didn't like it as much as the book. It seems that most movies released these days are based on books and in most cases, I enjoy the book much more than the movie. Even the Harry Potter movies, which I love, still don't live up to the books, in my opinion. There have been a few exceptions to this: The Painted Veil, Under the Tuscan Sun and North and South (the BBC movie based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, not that Patrick Swayze-Civil War movie) are the only movies I can think of that I've liked more than the books. I'm still deciding on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I've never actually read those books (GASP!), but I'm listening to the audio version now. I loved the movies, so I find myself frequently comparing the two. Maybe it just has to do with which version you experience first.

P.S. During the previews before The Nanny Diaires, a preview for the Kite Runner was shown. When I first heard they were making a movie based on one of my favorite novels, I swore to myself I wouldn't see it. I don't think I could bear to see the story changed in any way, and I'm not sure they will be able to convey the emotion I felt when reading the book. But I have to admit, it looks really good and I'm not sure I'll be able to resist.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single thirty-something woman must be in want of Jane Austen

A while ago, I mentioned my love for anything resembling Jane Austen. Sequels, re-tellings and modernized versions of her works as well as novels with Jane Austen as the main character continue to be enormously popular. Lately, there seems to be a rash of chick-lit fiction featuring women obsessed with all things Austen, so I decided to check out a couple of titles.

Austenland by Shannon Hale is about a young woman, Jane Hayes, who is a thirty-something single career woman. Obsessed with Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy (specifically the BBC's movie version starring Colin Firth), Jane thinks she will never meet a man that could compare to him. When her great aunt dies, bequeathing her a three week vacation at a secretive Austen-like resort, Jane heads off to England. This resort is set up to be just like 19th century Victorian England. Jane is required to dress in the appropriate costume of the time, follow the customs, etc. During her stay, she snogs one of the servants (which is absolutely forbidden), and also engages in flirtation with one of the gentlemen. Since both men are paid actors at the resort, Jane is unsure whether these encounters are real, or just part of the act. Blah blah blah. Happily ever after. The characters who visit the resort are quite amusing, as is the idea of such a vacation. This is a fun, light read, but it's forgettable.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler has another thirty-something single woman who is obsessed with Jane Austen. Courtney has just broken off her engagement with Frank, after she finds him canoodling with their cake decorator. After a night of drowning her sorrows in Pride and Prejudice, Courtney wakes up to find herself in another body, in another time. She wakes up in 1813 England as Jane Mansfield. Jane is 30 and still single, and has a mother who is more concerned with marrying her off than with her happiness. When Courtney finally realizes she is not dreaming, she must act the part or risk having Mrs. Mansfield toss her into an asylum. Apparently Jane had been having some sort of secret fling with one of the servants. Meanwhile, her mother has been trying to marry her off to Mr. Edgeworth, the neighborhood's most eligible widow, and it seems that Jane had also been having an on-again, off-again kind of relationship with him. Courtney/Jane tries to figure out how she got to 1813 and how she will get back to her real life, while keeping up the pretense of being Jane. Courtney/Jane tries to take advantage of the situation and enjoy what 19th century England has to offer, and slowly she begins to think of herself as Jane. Blah Blah Blah. Happily ever after. The author does a wonderful job with the descriptions of country life, London and Bath and Courtney/Jane's reactions to common 19th century practices (such as bloodletting, communal bathing and chaperons for a 30 year old woman) is amusing. However, I was a little confused with the whole switching bodies part. Why and how did it happen and where is the real Jane? Courtney/Jane ponders these questions, but there don't really seem to be any answers. In the end, it is also somewhat ambiguous as to whether Courtney gets back to her real life or if she stays in 19th century England. Maybe that's the point. In any case, it was entertaining even though it has some weak points.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Happy Birthday Ray Bradbury!

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, IL in 1920 and is the author of many famous novels, including Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451. Two of his never before published novellas will be released in September under the title Now and Forever.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Are Best-Sellers Really the Best?

Each week, several major newspapers publish a best-seller book list. Most notably is the New York Times, but other popular lists include the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the Washington Post. Many people turn to the best-seller list each week to find books they want to read. I think this is a real shame. Best-seller lists are not indicators of good books. They are not even indicators of which books sell the most copies. They indicate which books sell the fastest within a one-week period at certain bookstores. According to an article at Slate, a book that sells 20,000 copies in one week will reach the top of the best-seller list, even if it never sells any more copies. Whereas a book that sells 200 copies every week for 10 years, will never make the best-seller list. The New York Times doesn't even follow all the books published each year. The Times "tracks" certain books they believe have potential to become best-sellers, which often come from publisher tips. In addition, bookstores now allow publishers to pay to have a book displayed in the front window, so best-seller lists are often indicative of the books that have the most money spent on publicity. Each week, we see the same big-name authors on the best-seller lists: James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, etc. This is not to say that these aren't good books. These are all very popular authors with large fan bases. However, there are so many wonderful writers and books that never make the best-seller lists or get pushed off after only a few weeks. Take the Man Booker prize for example. This is a very important literary award, yet most of the titles on the 2007 longlist are not titles that have dominated the best-seller lists. This is the case with many other literary prizes as well. If readers are turning only to the best-seller lists to pick their next read, they miss out on so many wonderful reading opportunities.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Billy Boyle vs. Christopher Foyle

I love historical fiction, and one of my favorite time periods to read about is World War II. My new favorite TV program is a British show, Foyle's War, that is set in England during World War II. Christopher Foyle is a detective who investigates murder, sabotage, stolen fuel supplies, etc., while the war goes on around him. It's a great show that depicts what life was like for the English during the war. While there is usually a murder, the violence is minimal. You could almost call it a "cozy." Most of the World War II books I have read are thrillers that usually involve espionage, which I enjoy, but I wanted to find a book that is more like Foyle's War: something that focuses on what was going on at home during the war, not necessarily in the thick of it.

In my search I discovered a new series by James R. Benn. Billy Boyle is the main character and the title of the first book in the series. His second book in the series, The First Wave, will be released next month. Billy Boyle is a Boston cop whose family ties to General Eisenhower got him an office job in London, rather than on the front lines. "Uncle Ike" wants Billy to use his detective skills to investigate problems within the ranks. His first case involves the Norwegian government that is living in England in exile. It is believed that a spy is amongst them and Billy sets out to find him. During his investigation, a high ranking Norwegian official is murdered, and Billy is also asked to solve the crime. Billy is no Christopher Foyle, but he is a likeable character. It's a good mystery without a lot of violence. Benn does a good job of describing the effects of the war on England. It has a somewhat slower pace than most WWII thrillers, but that's what I like about Foyle's war. I did get a little confused with all the characters and suspects, but aside from that, I enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading the next one.

It turns out that World War II is one of the hottest subjects in publishing right now (both fiction and non-fiction) and is expected to continue in the next decade. The Telegraph has an interesting article about the World War II publishing phenomena, and why it is so popular.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

There's a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell

I have said before that I've picked up a book simply because of the title, and that was the case with Laurie Notaro's There's a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble. How could you not be interested with a title like that? Well, it turns out that the book lives up to its crazy title. Charlie and Maye Roberts move from Phoenix to Spaulding, a small town in Washington, when Charlie gets a job as a professor at the local university. Maye is thirty-something, with no children and no job, and finds that it is not easy to make new friends. Her attempts at meeting people end in disaster. When her realtor tells her that winning the Sewer Pipe Queen pageant will surely win her many friends, Maye is determined to win the crown. All pageant entries must be sponsored by a previous Queen, and when Maye's sponsor is eaten by a raccoon, she is determined to find the most famous Queen, who seems to have disappeared, to help her win the pageant. Crazy adventures ensue.

The story starts out somewhat slow, and Notaro goes a little overboard with the similes ("new businesses popped up all over town like pimples on the forehead of puberty"). But Spaulding is a charming town, full of quirky residents, and Maye's attempts at making friends is quite funny. At then end, I found myself thinking this would make a good series. I would like to go back to Spaulding and spend more time with these characters.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Listen to a Book

Some people think listening to audiobooks is cheating. Like if you don't actually read the book yourself, it doesn't count. I think that's ridiculous. This isn't school. Who cares if you read or listen to the book? Better to listen to the book, than not read at all, I say. Audiobooks are a great way to fit in more books when you don't have time to sit down and actually read. I have found that listening to audiobooks while I'm stuck in traffic helps preserve my sanity. And it makes chores bearable. Parents are encouraged to read to their children. Children love it and always want a story before bedtime. Why shouldn't adults get the same enjoyment from having a book read to them? Besides, if the narrator is really good, you may get more from the book by listening to it than if you had just read it yourself. Since I have started listening to audiobooks, I have come to favor a few narrators. I have found that a good narrator can make a so-so book really good, and a bad narrator make a great book terrible. I have also found myself listening to books I might not normally read, simply because I like the narrator. My favorite narrator is Kate Reading. I would listen to her read anything. She has such a great voice and does a great job distinguishing between characters. Some of the books she has narrated that I enjoyed were Lauren Willig’s Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, and Ann Rule’s Bitter Harvest. A few other great narrators I enjoy are Scott Brick, Paul Michael, Cassandra Campbell and C.J. Critt. Publisher's Weekly has a great interview with Scott Brick, where he talks about how he records a book. It's very interesting to learn what goes into recording and how long it takes. If there is a narrator that you enjoy, you can always find other books he or she has narrated by doing an author search of their name in the library catalog.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bitter is the New Black

The best way to sell a non-fiction book? A great title. I picked up Jen Lancaster’s memoir Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office because of the title. How could you not be intrigued? I loved it so much, I eagerly picked up her next book, Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why It Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door To Me?

Her first book, Bitter, is described as "the story of how a former sorority girl went from having a household income of almost a quarter-million dollars to being evicted from a ghetto apartment." This really sums it up. Lancaster is working in corporate America, making great money and suddenly looses her job. Her fiance is also downsized, so they leave their beautiful Chicago penthouse apartment, and she must learn to do without the designer clothes and bags, expensive martinis, manicures and haircuts. She braves the unemployment office carrying her Prada bag, and can't find a job because she is overqualified for everything. With all of her free time, Jen spends a lot of time online and develops her own blog, Jennslyvania, which leads to a book deal. Her second book, Bright Lights, picks up after Jen has sold her first book and is working on the second. Jen decided to continue writing, but she finds that being a writer isn't like Carrie Bradshaw's Sex in the City lifestyle. To pay the bills, she has to take temp jobs. She now shops at Target instead of on the Magnificent Mile and struggles with finding an affordable apartment in Chicago without living in the ghetto.

Lancaster reminds me of the character Karen from the TV show Will & Grace: funny, clever, crass, selfish, stuck up and sarcastic. To me, Karen was the best part of that show. I feel the same about Lancaster. Although her story is not uncommon, her personality, reactions to life and the way she tells her story is just hilarious. I made a spectacle of myself laughing uncontrollably while reading her books in public. These books are great fun! I believe she is working on her third book, which I am anxiously awaiting!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sin in the Second City

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott is about the world famous Everleigh Club, a brothel that operated in Chicago in the early 1900's. Sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh, wanted to elevate the "profession" and run an upscale club. Unlike other pimps and madams of the time, the sisters did not beat their girls or hold them against their will, but fed, clothed and paid them well, had them checked regularly by doctors, refused to employ girls under 18, and did not tolerate drugs or theft. There was actually a waiting list of girls interested in working at the Everleigh Club. The club only welcomed the wealthiest of men. Visitors had to provide references and proof of income. The elaborate decor, sumptuous feasts and beautiful women attracted patrons such as John Barrymore, Theodore Dreiser, Marshall Field Jr., and Prince Henry of Prussia. The success of the Everleigh Club made the sisters targets of rival madams as well as reformers. A rival madam tried to implicate the sisters in the death of Marshall Field Jr., and several ministers continuously worked to shut them down.

This is a great look at the seedier side of Chicago's history. Aside from the prostitution, the corrupt politicians, wealthy playboys, bribes, scandals, white slave trade, and Chicago underworld make for a very interesting story. It is written like a "non-fiction novel," which makes it very readable. However, that technique made me wonder how much was based on actual documentation and how much was just conjecture. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining story. Those who enjoyed Devil in the White City for the Chicago history, will find interest in this as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Jennifer Weiner Update

A few years ago, I took a weekend trip with a group of girlfriends. One of my friends gave us all copies of Jennifer Weiner's book Good in Bed and we all read the book together on the trip. We all loved it so much, we were constantly asking each other "what page are you on?" On the plane, we took turns bursting out with laughter. Since then, I have read and loved all of her books. Jennifer is bringing back Cannie Shapiro, the main character from Good in Bed, in her new book, Certain Girls. Library Journal gave a publication date of October 2007, but a comment on Jennifer's blog led me to believe that the book won't be out until Spring 2008. I'm trying to get to the bottom of this, because I'm really looking forward to another great read!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Adriana, Adriana

Can I tell you how much I love Adriana Trigiani? I had the pleasure of meeting Adriana at a book signing last year. She is absolutely hilarious and very kind. The line for the signing was the longest I have ever stood in, because she stopped and chatted with each person, treating everyone like an old friend. I just finished her book, Lucia, Lucia and absolutely loved it. I have read two of her other books, Rococo and Queen of the Big Time and loved those as well. She is probably best known for her Big Stone Gap series. I have not read this series yet, but it's definitely on top of my list! She is such a great storyteller. Her characters are strong, independent women (with the exception of Rococo-the main character is a man, but great nonetheless), who come from large Italian families. The stories focus on family, love, life and food. She uses wonderfully descriptive language which brings the time and place of her stories to life. Some of her books also include recipes, which adds charm to the stories. Her stories are just a joy to loose yourself in and leave you with a good feeling. If you haven't read any of her books, you are really missing out. Her website mentions that she has a new book coming out in Spring of 2008, which will be part of a new series. I can't wait!

Incidentally, I have tried a few recipes from her cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes from Bari to Big Stone Gap. The baked zucchini and the wedding cookies turned out pretty good, but the braciole was a disaster and a waste of three hours and a lot of meat. This is probably due to the fact that my cooking skills are questionable and the meat I was using had the texture of a rubber band. But the cookbook is still fun to read-aside from the recipes, she includes stories about her own family.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Poet Laureate Named

Charles Simic has been named our country's 15th poet laureate. The position has been in existance since 1987. Laureates receive a $35,000 award and a $5,000 travel allowance.
The position does not come with any specific responsibilities, although previous laureates have initiated different projects.

Organize Your Book List

Tired of trying to remember what books you have read? Sick of carrying around scraps of paper with titles you want to read? There are a few new websites that allow you to list all of your books (books you've read, books you want to read, books you own, etc.). The sites allow you to save titles in a spreadsheet-style format and show pictures of the covers. You can "tag" and rate each book as well. Tags are descriptive terms that you choose to help you identify and sort your books. These sites are also social networking sites, which means you can see what other people are reading, look at other readers' tags, write and share reviews, and participate in on-line discussions about books. The great thing is that you can access this information from any Internet connection, so you don't have to carry around a bunch of lists anymore!

LibraryThing is probably one of the most well-known sites. You can catalog up to 200 books for free, but a one-time fee of $25 will give you a lifetime subscription and allow you an unlimited number of books. Shelfari and GoodReads are similar to LibraryThing. Both are completely free and allow you to include as many books as you wish.

I started using LibraryThing first. I like the layout and find it easy to use, but they only allow you to create one "shelf" or list. I wanted to create a list of books I have already read and a separate list of books that I want to read, but could not do this with LibraryThing. GoodReads does have this option, but I don't like the layout as much as LibraryThing. While all of these sites are social sites, it seems that Shelfari and GoodReads pushes the social aspect more, encouraging "Friends" like a MySpace account. So for now, I'm using both LibraryThing and GoodReads, but I am hoping that LibraryThing will develop the option for multiple "shelves."

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Author Visit!

Brad Thor, author of The First Commandment, will be signing copies of his new book at the Barnes and Noble at Old Orchard shopping center in Evanston on August 9 at 7:30 p.m.

From the Publisher: "A master assassin. A vendetta years in the making. And a counter terrorism operative who will risk everything - even treason - to keep the people he loves alive. Brad Thor, the New York Times bestselling author of Takedown, delivers an explosive international thriller featuring Navy SEAL turned Homeland Security operative Scot Harvath, who somewhere, somehow, has left the wrong person alive."

The $64 Tomato

Recently I reviewed Barbara Kingsolver's new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. While I enjoyed this book, I found it really hard to see myself being able to create and sustain a garden like she does. Even though it is clear that it was a lot of work, she makes it seem easy. William Alexander paints a more realistic picture (in my opinion) of what maintaining a garden would really be like in The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. When Alexander decides to turn a portion of his yard into a kitchen garden, he anticipates growing and eating fresh organic fruits and vegetables. The reality, however is the $64 tomato. Alexander finds out there is "No Such Thing As Organic Apples" and battles with weeds, fungus, bugs, deer and groundhogs. My favorite part is the description of his war with "Superchuck," the feisty groundhog that resists even a 10,000 volt shock just to get at his prized tomatoes. He ends up spending thousands on building and maintaining this garden, and finds that the cost of his beautiful Brandywine tomatoes average about $64 each! This book was hilarious and I found myself snorting with laughter-a sure sign of a good book! On the serious side though, he also presents an interesting discussion of the organic versus pesticide argument. Alexander's tales are exactly what I envision would happen to me, if I were to ever try my hand at gardening.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Her Royal Spyness

For those of you not familiar with Rhys Bowen, she is a wonderful "cozy" mystery writer. She has two well-established mystery series. The first is her Molly Murphy series, which is set in the 19th century. Molly is a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York and manages to embroil herself in several mysteries. Her other series is her Constable Evans series, which is set in the Welsch village of Llanfair and features Constable Evan Evans. Both are lovely series, with interesting characters and settings.

Bowen has just realeased her first novel in a new series, Her Royal Spyness. This novel is set in 1930's England and features Lady Georgiana, who is 34th in line to the throne. After her father gambled away her family's money and her allowance is cut off, Georgie must find a way to make ends meet. This is easier said than done, since it is frowned upon for members of the royal family to have jobs. Fearing that the Queen will marry her off to a boring foreign prince, or send her to the middle of nowhere to be a lady in waiting to an old royal, Georgie agrees to spy on the Prince for the Queen. In the midst of this, Georgie tries to make a living cleaning houses while in disguise, crashes parties with a dashing penniless Irish nobleman, and becomes embroiled in a murder. Bowen has introduced another character who will no doubt become a favorite. This is another light, fun mystery with a great description of 1930's England, the royal family and interesting characters.