Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wrapping It Up

At the end of every year all the booksellers and critics put out their "Best of" lists. Publisher's Weekly, Amazon, etc. And I just know everyone has been eagerly awaiting Running With Books's Best of 2008 list, right? Well at long last, my favorites of 2008...

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig
The Anatomy of Deception Lawrence Goldstone
The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
The Rhino with the Glue-On Shoes by Lucy Spelman and Ted Mashima
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
The Sister by Poppy Adams
Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith

Books that disappointed:
A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire
The Dracula Dossier by James Reese

Book that were a big waste of my time:
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

I also made some reading resolutions last year. Let's see how I did...
1.) Read more books than last year (125 in 2007). Yikes. I really slipped this year. Only 108.

2.) Read the books that are already on my shelf instead of buying more books. I did succeed in buying less books. Instead of buying them, I checked them out from the library (which seems to be the case with a lot of people, considering that book sales are down and library circs are up). But I still failed at this resolution, since I read the books on the library's shelves instead of my own.

3.) Read a challenging book, such as Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, or anything by Hemingway. Well, I did read most of Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa, which was a challenge for sure. And I also read The Great Gatsby, which isn't really a challenging book, but it is a classic, so I'm counting it. I make the rules here.

4.) Read a book by James Patterson. (I felt like I probably shouldn't judge him since I'd never actually read anything by him.) Done. Early in the year I knocked out Patterson's First To Die, so I can officially say that I've read him and now I can continue to turn my nose up at him.

So, I guess 2 out of 4 isn't bad. My reading resolution for 2009 is to read less commercial fiction (i.e. NY Times bestselling authors) and more classics and literary fiction. Here's to a happy, healthy New Year, filled with wonderful new reads!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Get Baked

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm a sucker for cookbooks. I love looking at recipes and imagining myself creating the perfect meal or the perfect dessert and all my guests beg me for the recipe, but I tell them I cannot divulge my secret family recipe (even though I really got it from Cooking Light), and everyone is envious of my superior cooking skills. I also have a huge sweet tooth. Sugar + chocolate = happiness. So, imagine what a cookbook of only desserts does to me.

The latest cookbook that has everyone talking, blogging, etc. is Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito's Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. The book is a compilation of the recipes that they use in their bakery in New York. Published in October, it is already in its third printing and has sold more than 20,000 copies. The book has gotten rave reviews from food bloggers and has been featured on Martha Stewart and the Today show. Food & Wine magazine has named it one of their favorite cookbooks of the year. Even Oprah has given her endorsement, naming their Baked Brownie one of her "favorite things." When I first heard about this book, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Just look at the cover! Does that not make your mouth water? There are quite a few recipes that I wanted to try, but I knew I had to start with the Red Hot Velvet Cake with Cinnamon Buttercream Icing. I love Red Velvet, but usually only make it from a boxed mix. Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I am not the best cook. Although I love to bake, my results are often disappointing. Sometimes this is because I fudge the recipe a little, but most of the time I think it's just due to the fact that I'm missing some essential talent that good cooks have. But because I was making this cake for my friends, I was very careful to stick to the exact ingredients and instructions. Result: disappointment. Nothing at all like the beautiful cake in the picture. The cake, while tasty, was not at all red velvety. Not even a hint of red. It looked just like a plain old chocolate cake. The icing in the picture looked like an off-white icing, smooth and firm. The icing that I ended up with was runny and brownish-speckled. In fact, it was so runny that I couldn't use it and I ended up running to the store for a can of Pillsbury icing. Blech. The cake did taste good. It was moist and light and delicious, but not red, and since I had to use store-bought icing, that was a let down. I definitely wouldn't make this recipe again. I bought the ingredients to make their Millionaire's Shortbread, but after the Red Velvet Disappointment, I've been reluctant to try again. I think Matt and Renato should send me one of their Red Hot Velvet cakes, so I can experience it properly. And maybe some shortbread.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Irene, you've really gone too far this time...

Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but I prefer his 44 Scotland Street series. This series features a small cast of interesting characters living in Edinburgh. His latest installment in this series is The World According to Bertie. In my opinion, Bertie is the most likable and interesting character in the series. McCall Smith writes in the preface that wherever he goes, people always ask him how Bertie is doing. Bertie, who is only six, has been the only child (until now) of Irene and Stuart. Irene considers Bertie her "project." She is determined that Bertie will become an exceptionally intelligent, well-educated, sympathetic, "evolved" young man. All Bertie wants to do is play with other boys in the park, but Irene forces Bertie to take Italian and saxophone lessons, play with girls, and attend yoga classes and psychotherapy. She makes him wear strawberry colored pants instead of jeans like the regular boys, and paints his room pink. In this installment, Irene has just had a baby. Bertie is overjoyed, because he thinks the baby will distract his mother's attention. Not so. Irene uses the baby as an opportunity to "educate" Bertie on nurturing. Bertie is expected to help change the baby and help pump the breast milk. Seriously. This woman makes me so mad! When will someone stand up to her? (I'm sure readers everywhere cheered when, in the last book, Angus's dog Cyril bit Irene.) Fortunately, none of the other characters are this bad-in fact, they are quite lovely people and I always enjoy peeking into their lives. The next installment, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, is due out in the UK May (I'm not sure of the US publication date).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Civilized Rat

Not long ago I happened upon a funny looking book. The cover of Firmin by Sam Savage shows a scruffy rat reading a book and a large chunk is taken out of the book, as if a rat has chewed on its edge. I thought this was cute, so I decided to give it a try (although Firmin would be appalled, as he can't abide the cutesy rat literature). This is also why I recently read the nonfiction book about rats. I figured it would be nice to have a well-rounded look at rats.

I must admit that my expectations were not high when I picked this book up. Firmin is a rat and is the narrator of this surprisingly touching and contemplative novel. Firmin is a very intelligent creature, stuck in the body of a rat. He begins his story at his birth. Firmin was born in the basement of a bookshop; the runt of his litter. When he did not get enough nourishment from his mother, he turned to eating books. His literal love of books soon turned into a literary love, when he discovered he could read. The more he reads, the more intelligent he becomes. But this also makes him less rat-like and distances him from his family. As his brothers and sisters leave the nest, he stays on in the bookshop alone. Firmin longs to interact with humans and spends his days imagining a friendship with the owner of the bookshop. An outsider with his own species and with humans, Firmin doesn't seem to belong anywhere. He lives a very lonely life, full of self-loathing. This sounds depressing, and it is. The tone is melancholy and bittersweet, but I enjoyed this story. Firmin is a very well-developed and sympathetic character. It is a very short book (only 164 pages), but there is much to consider and it is not meant to be read quickly. I'm thinking this might make a good book discussion, but I'm not sure if I can get others on board with the whole rat thing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Audacity of Drivers

So, this week we have been plagued by horrible winter weather and with that comes the always frustrating, swear-inducing, want-to-pull-your-hair-out Chicago traffic. I managed to get through the terrible drive last night by listening to Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. I don't normally read political books and I don't normally listen to non-fiction on audio, but Obama narrates the audiobook. I have to admit that I am a little enamoured with our new president, so I thought it would be nice to listen to him read. And I was right. He writes about his entry into politics and the Senate and his hopes for the country and the Democratic party. I found my attention drifting numerous times (as it always does when I listen to non-fiction), but I found his voice to be even and pleasant and it lulled me into a state of contentment. I did giggle though, when Obama describes a meeting with President George W. Bush shortly after he was elected to the Senate. Obama's attempt at imitating Bush's voice and accent is humorous. And I thought it was funny that W offered Obama hand sanitizer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I've never seen a rat in the wild before. I've seen pet rats and I've handled rats in science classes, but I've never encountered a rat on the streets of Chicago, or anywhere else. I suppose that's a good thing. Some people are horrified by rats, but they don't bother me. Although I suppose that could be because the only rats I've ever seen have been clean and relatively tame. Maybe if I saw a dirty, greasy, hissing, wild rat, I would run the other way. But I found Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants absolutely fascinating. Sullivan stakes out a New York City alley for one year to observe the resident rat population. Sullivan supplies the reader with remarkable facts about rats, such as their astounding rate of reproduction. It seems that rats do only two things: eat and have sex. A female rat can produce up to 12 litters of up to 20 rats each, per year. As for eating, rats seem to prefer carbs over vegetables. Sullivan's particular alley backed up to a Chinese restaurant on one side and an Irish pub on the other. Sullivan also details the fascinating history of New York's ongoing battle with rats, the history of rat fighting and the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866 by Henry Bergh, the history of the sanitation workers' union, the tenant riots in the 1960's led by Jesse Gray, and a brief history of the plague (which, by the way, still occurs sporadically every year in America. Did you know that??). The book is well written, informative, interesting, and entertaining. And, you can impress your friends with your useless knowledge of rats.

Monday, December 15, 2008

All the latest...

The Guardian has chosen Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century as the winner of its First Book Award. The Guardian newspaper awards the best new literary talent in fiction or non-fiction across all genres.

The Grammy nominees are out and the nominees for spoken word are: Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), Sidney Poitier's Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter and David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

Johnny Depp's production company has acquired film rights to Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante. Depp is also planning film adaptations for Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary, Gregory Robert's Shantaram, and Brian Selznick's children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Nintendo is releasing the 100 Classic Book Collection cartridge that will be compatible with the Nintendo DS portable game system on December 26th. So far, it is only available for delivery in the UK and Europe. Not sure if there are plans for release in the U.S.

A BBC report shows that 46% of men and 33% of women have lied about reading a book in order to impress someone. Have you ever done this? I wouldn't say that I've outright lied, but there have been occasions when I've just nodded my head and acted like I'm familiar with whatever book everyone is talking about. It's more about not looking stupid, rather than impressing others.

I am a huge fan of historical fiction and I've heard about a few historical fiction novels that are in the works:
Kathleen Kent (author of The Heretic's Daughter) has sold her next novel, The Giant of Edgehill, which is a love story set during the English civil war and early colonial America.
Kathryn Wagner is the author of Dancing for Degas, which is scheduled for publication in Spring 2010. The novel will be in the tradition of Chevalier's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and portrays Paris in the late 19th century through the eyes of a young ballerina, Degas' muse.
Rebecca Stott (author of Ghostwalk) will release her next novel, The Coral Thief, in Fall 2009. The novel features a group of philosophers on a mission to reclaim art stolen by Napoleon.
The next "big" novel, due out in June 2009, will be The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. The author is a descendant of 2 women accused of being witches in the Salem Witch Trials and the novel is about a young woman who is haunted by the Trials (does this sound familiar?).

Many newspapers, magazines, booksellers and critics have published their Best of 2008 lists. Take a look:
Washington Post
New York Magazine
The Salon
Publisher's Weekly
New York Times
The Reader's Advisor Online has published a pretty comprehensive list. There are a few that I've seen on multiple lists: Toni Morrison's A Mercy, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Robert Bolano's 2666. Stay tuned for my list of favorites.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When You Are Engulfed In Flames

David Sedaris' latest compilation of essays, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, is without a doubt, one of the funniest books I've read in a while. I've read a few of his other books, but I think this is the best yet. His last book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, is mostly about his nutty, dysfunctional family. His family comes up a couple of times in this book, but most of the essays focus on himself and his partner, Hugh. Sedaris is very talented at turning everyday events and conversations into hilarious stories. He also seems to meet so many odd people. It made me wonder if it is just by chance that he has so many odd encounters, or does he make himself more open to meeting other people, regardless of whether they seem strange or not? Is he just odd himself, which leads him into strange situations and attracts other odd people? Or is he just making this stuff up, or embellishing? He does say on the copyright page that these stories are "realish" and I do recall him saying in an interview that as long as something is 97% true, that was enough to call it nonfiction. Whatever the case may be, his essays are entertaining and great for a laugh.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Year of Readers

We all know people who have participated in marathons or walks to raise money for various charities. These are great events and I admire their efforts. But I don't run. I do, however, read. The Year of Readers is a great event that combines reading with raising money for literary charities. The Year of Readers is a sponsored read-a-thon that begins January 1, 2009. Readers choose a literary charity, collect sponsors, and start reading. Books of any genre or type count (including graphic novels and poetry anthologies) but magazines and newspapers do not. Only books read from January 1st to December 31st, 2009 can be counted towards your sponsored read-a-thon. People can sponsor an amount per book or a lump sum amount. The Year of Readers suggests some literary charities, such as First Book, Book Aid International, African Library Project, and many others. But you are not limited to the charities listed on the Year of Readers website. You can pick any charity, as long as it has a link to reading. I will be reading for Room to Read, which was founded by John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. If you are reading anyway, why not raise some money for a good cause at the same time?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Although I enjoy visiting my family over the holidays, I do not enjoy the 3 hour drive that it takes to get there. I've found that these trips provide the perfect opportunity to get in some uninterrupted time listening to audiobooks. However, since I share the car ride with my husband, who is not a reader, it's always a challenge to select a book that he will enjoy. For this year's Thanksgiving car ride, I selected Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeffry Lindsay. Not only did my husband listen and pay attention to the story, but he asked to keep the audiobook so he could finish it. Success!

On the outside, Dexter is a normal guy who works as a blood splatter expert for the Miami police. But there is a darker side to Dexter. Dexter is also a serial killer. But Dexter does not choose random victims for his crimes. He focuses his efforts on other killers. Using his position in the police to obtain information about suspects, he gets to the killers before the police. In this book, which is the first of a series, a serial killer is stalking the prostitutes of Miami. Dexter is intrigued and impressed with the killer's methods and is determined to solve the crimes. But there is something very familiar about these crimes. Is it possible Dexter is committing these murders himself, unconsciously?

At first I wasn't sure about a story narrated by a serial killer. But while I didn't really like Dexter, I didn't dislike him either. Yes, he is clearly sick, but I found him intriguing. And slightly comical. There are some aspects to the story that are a bit absurd, and the ending is a little weak. But the story is engrossing and I am looking forward to Dexter's next "adventures." Maybe for the Christmas drive?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Best American Travel Writing

The Best American series includes collections of short stories, essays, sports writing, travel writing, science and nature writing and more. I'd never read any of these collections, but when I heard that Anthony Bourdain edited and wrote the introduction for the 2008 collection of The Best American Travel Writing, I figured that would be a good place to start. I'm a sucker for Bourdain and will greedily eat up any little snippet he tosses out. The collection contains 25 essays that appeared during 2007 in publications such as The New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, Outside, National Geographic, and others. As one might expect from Anthony Bourdain, the essays that were chosen to represent the best travel writing are "evocative of the darker side" of travel. Although all of the essays are so well written and fascinating, some of my favorites include: Bill Buford's trip to cacao country in search of Extreme Chocolate; James Campbell's description of his 130-mile trek across the dense, unforgiving jungle of Papua New Guinea in Chasing Ghosts; J. Malcolm Garcia's African Promise, which exposes life in the corrupt and ruined country of Chad; Karl Taro Greenfeld's Hope and Squalor at Chungking Mansion, which describes the 17-story maze of curry stalls, brothels, meth dens, electronics vendors and guest houses that make up this "mansion" that is home to over twenty thousand residents in Hong Kong; Peter Gwin's Dark Passage, which gives a first-hand view of modern-day pirates in Malaysia; and John Lancaster's look at poverty tourism in Mumbai in Next Stop, Squalor. These essays certainly do illuminate the darker side of parts of the world that most of us never hear about and most of us will never see. But it is for this reason that I love travel writing and why these essays are so captivating. Absolutely fantastic reading.