Thursday, December 31, 2009


It is my New Year's resolution not to make any more reading resolutions. I'm just setting myself up for failure. Last year, I resolved to read less commercial fiction and more classics and literary fiction. I did make an attempt at this, but I still feel like most of what I read this year was fluff. I also wanted to read more books than I did last year. I signed up for The Year of Readers to raise money for Room to Read, so I wanted to read as much as I could. But I only read 99 books this year (78 print and 21 audiobooks). That's down from 108 books last year and 125 the year before! How can that be? I feel like I'm always reading. In any case, no more reading pressure. I'm just going to read what I want, when I want.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Return to Cranford!

OMG! I just heard that PBS's Masterpiece Theater is airing the sequel to the delightfully fantastic Cranford! Return to Cranford will be aired in two parts, on January 10th and 17th. And a new version of Jane Austen's Emma will be shown on January 24th and February 7th. Joy of joys! The New Year will be blessed with good TV!

For your entertainment...

Didn't get a chance to see the movie version of Stephenie Meyer's New Moon? Don't worry. Jen Lancaster has it covered.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrapping it up

Once again we are at the end of another year and it's time to talk about our favorite reads of the year.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help has been a huge hit this year, and was one of my favorites. While the story was good, I think it was the exceptional audiobook performance that really made it stand out. My other fiction picks are Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. For nonfiction, while the writing in David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite wasn't anything to get excited about, the subject matter was fascinating.

What were your favorites? Disappointments?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I knew when Julie Powell admitted at the beginning of her new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, that she had been having an affair, that my admiration and adoration for her would be tested. I loved her book Julie & Julia, but my feelings for her have soured after finishing her latest book. However, I tried to set my personal feelings aside and focus on the story for its own merits. In a nutshell, shortly after Julie & Julia was published, some old boyfriend looked her up and they began having an affair. She becomes obsessed with this guy. In a freaky stalker-ish sort of way. Her husband finds out about it, but she continues the affair. For whatever reason, she decides that becoming a butcher will help her deal with her issues, so she takes an apprenticeship in a butcher's shop a few hours outside of New York. After the apprenticeship is over, she still hasn't resolved her issues, so she decides to travel. Argentina, Ukraine, Tanzania, Japan.

The butchery aspect of the story was interesting. It's a little gruesome, but interesting if you really want to know where different cuts of meat come from, how animals are broken down, what it's like to work in a butcher shop, etc. How butchery is a metaphor for marriage, I'm still not clear. Her trip to Argentina was also interesting. Seeing how cows are bought and sold fit well with the meat theme. The rest of her trips, while interesting, didn't seem to fit with the theme as well. I started getting this Eat, Pray, Love feeling, I'm sorry to say. (Woman with love issues, who doesn't have to worry about a 9 to 5 job, decides she's just going to take an extended vacation from life and then throw it all together in a book.) Some people enjoy these types of memoirs, but they aren't for me. I eventually started skimming over the obsessive musings and reading only the parts about meat. It feels very disjointed, and the interesting bits are constantly interrupted with her obsessive relationship, freaky sex, and self-loathing. Save that crap for your therapist and give me more food! Had she focused just on the butchery, or just on the travel, I think she would have had a much better book. Unfortunately, this is not a book I will be recommending to people.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women

I have mixed feelings about Ilana Stanger-Ross's first novel Sima's Undergarments for Women. Sima Goldner is the owner of a Brooklyn shop that specializes in women's lingerie. When she hires young Timna as a seamstress, her growing affection for her forces her to confront her feelings about her inability to have her own children and its affect on her marriage. On one hand, it's a pretty good story. The characters and conflict are engrossing and the details of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood are interesting, especially since I know so little about that culture. But on the other hand, I didn't really like Sima. She was frustrating, and even though she did experience some growth, I don't think she redeemed herself very much. I was also confused about the feelings she had for Timna. At times it seemed motherly and at times it felt like Sima envied her, but it also felt very sexual, so I was confused. For example: Sima follows Timna on several occasions. Is she doing it to watch over her and protect her? Or is she doing it out of jealousy? Or is she doing it because she's a creepy stalker? I couldn't tell. Nevertheless, I think it might be a good choice for a book discussion. There seems to be a lot that can be discussed here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If you were wondering what to get me...

National Geographic always publishes beautiful books and I love giving (and getting) them as gifts. Just released from National Geographic is Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe. This would make a great gift for the foodie in your life (like me). It's a monster of a book and retails for $40, but it has the most gorgeous photographs and details all kinds of culinary adventures all over the world. From the Top 10 Cooking Schools in Italy to street food in Israel, there is much to make your mouth water. I was excited to see that I can check 2 of the journeys off the list: sachertorte at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna and Key Lime Pie from Kermit's Key West Lime Shoppe. Mmmm.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Pirate's Life For Me

Although Michael Crichton died last year, a finished draft of his last novel was found on his computer and just released last month. Crichton has written historical fiction in the past, but he is probably best known for his science thrillers. But his final novel, Pirate Latitudes, is a good, old-fashioned pirate adventure novel. And what an adventure! The story begins in 1665 on the island of Jamaica, which is one of the few islands under British control, compared to the many controlled by the Spanish. The dashing scoundrel Captain Charles Hunter is a well-known, successful "privateer" in Jamaica. When word reaches him that a Spanish treasure galleon is sitting in the bay of a nearby island, Hunter sets out with a band of rogues to capture this ship and claim its treasure. What follows is an epic adventure: an attack at sea, a daring escape, storming a Spanish fortress, battles with a Spanish war ship, the sea, and a giant sea monster.

Although this is a fast-paced adventure story, Crichton also includes a lot of detail. He explains how the ships were constructed and sailed, how the cannons and weaponry worked, and details of the sea and weather. Crichton is very talented at interspersing these details in the story, so that you learn a great deal, but the story doesn't get bogged down in the facts. The cast of characters is an interesting bunch, and I would have liked to know more about them. Unfortunately this book will not appeal to all readers, so it's not a book that I can recommend to everyone. I hate to categorize books as men's or women's fiction, but this does seem to be a book that will probably have more appeal to men. It's a sea adventure, heavy on the action and details, light on the character development and relationships. There is also a lot of violence and some gory details. I happened to like it because I have a thing for pirates, and I do like a lot of historical detail, but it's not for everyone.

Steven Spielberg has already signed on to produce the movie. I wonder who will play Captain Hunter? Hunter reminds me of Han Solo, but Harrison Ford might be getting a little too old for the role. It should definitely make for an exciting, action-packed movie.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Colm Toibin doesn't know it yet, but he is currently being considered for inclusion on my favorite authors list. Anything Irish has an automatic advantage with me-Irish writer, Irish character, set in Ireland-I'm hooked. I think I was Irish in a previous life. It was the young-Irish-woman-comes-to-America story that attracted me to Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn, and now I'm wondering why I've never heard of him before. Such a good story! Wonderful writing, with that wistful tone that I've come to expect from Irish stories. An ending that isn't tied up with a pretty ribbon, yet still satisfying. In a way, it reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's Queen of the Big Time, which I absolutely loved. However, I'm not counting him amongst my favorites just yet because I've only read the one book, and I'm afraid that my bias for all things Irish may have clouded my judgment. Also, the audiobook narrator was fantastic, so that may also have heightened my enjoyment. So I have checked out his novel, The Master, to see whether this was just a fling, or the real thing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

East of Eden

So after the disaster with The Brothers Karamazov, my little group of coworkers and I decided to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck for our next classic undertaking. Soooooo much better. In fact, a great story. Fascinating characters, great drama, so much to discuss. This was a great reminder that not all "classics" have to be difficult novels you have to slog through. If you haven't read this, move it to the top of your list.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wade's Walden

I have no idea why I picked up Wade Rouse's memoir, At Least Someone in the City Would Hear Me Scream. Maybe the title caught my attention. Whatever the reason, it was a great laugh. Rouse and his partner Gary decide to sell their house in the city and move to rural Michigan in an effort to live simply, ala Thoreau's Walden. But years of living in the city have spoiled them with Starbucks, Pottery Barns and Whole Foods, none of which are available in rural Michigan. Wade must learn to do without his morning latte and Kashi Go Lean cereal and find shoes that are suitable for snowy Michigan weather. His adventures embracing the solitary life and his rural brethren, and his attempts to eschew fashion and entertainment and learn to live off the land are a never-ending source of laughs. Wade has a great sense of humor and I can't wait to read his other book, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler. That ought to be a good one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dracula, Part Deux

I enjoyed Bram Stoker's Dracula immensely when I was younger, but until now have steered clear of most other vampire fiction. I hoped his great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, might have inherited some of his writing genius, so I decided to check out his sequel, Dracula: The Un-dead. The sequel picks up 20+ years after the original. A gruesome murder leads some to believe that Jack the Ripper has returned, but those that battled Dracula before recognize the signs of the vampire. Believing that Dracula is not truly dead, Mina Harker and members of the original band, set out to finally stop him. But it turns out that there is something even more evil than Dracula out there. I don't know if you would call it great literature, but it sure was a good, fast-paced, exciting read. Dracula's nemesis has an interesting, albeit dark, history, which made for a good story. Simon Prebble narrates the audiobook and is absolutely fantastic. He really should narrate all historical fiction that requires English accents.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wolf Hall

In Bookforum, Wendy Lesser claims that Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain. Having just won the Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall, maybe she'll start getting some of that well-deserved appreciation. I can certainly say that she is underappreciated in the U.S. I was not familiar with Mantel until her recent Booker win, but am looking forward to reading her other novels. Wolf Hall is not for the faint of heart. At 532 pages, it is not a quick or easy read. And although it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to Henry VIII's counsel and his assistance in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, this is not a novel in the vein of Philippa Gregory. Those looking for a court drama should look elsewhere. Those looking for well-written, historical fiction with artful language and subtle wit should definitely give this a shot.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Author Visit!

Friday, December 11th at 6:30 pm. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, will be at the Bookstall in Winnetka for a reading and signing of her latest book Her Fearful Symmetry, a ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London.

Ford County

John Grisham's new collection of short stories was surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Grisham's legal thrillers. But his stand-alone novels, like Playing for Pizza, have been pretty weak. So I was not expecting much when I picked up this collection. I intended to read just one or two of the stories to get a feel for them, but ended up reading the entire book. Grisham returns to Clanton and Ford County, Mississippi, the setting of several of his legal thrillers. I've always enjoyed Grisham's depiction of this small southern town and its flawed, but interesting characters. There is no lack of interesting and flawed characters in this collection--from drunken rednecks attempting to donate blood to a retirement home aide ingratiating himself with the residents, the characters in these stories may not be pillars of the community, but they do have very compelling stories. Although I'm not a big fan of short stories, I found these to be very satisfying.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

November Failures

I've talked before about books you are "supposed" to read and books you given up on, so I thought it might make for an interesting monthly discussion. In November I picked up two books that I would put in the category "books you should read" and inevitably didn't finish them.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
The Office is one of my favorite TV shows and Jim (John Krasinski), who I love, recently adapted and directed the movie version of Brief Interviews. He is also one of the narrators for the audiobook version, so I decided to give it a listen. Yes, sometimes this is how I decide what books I read/listen to. Anyway, I didn't even get to Jim's portion of the narration. I found it a little weird. Random short stories about men of various ages, talking about various things (although sex seemed to be a frequent topic). I didn't get it and it seemed a little pervy. What was the point?

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
Muller is a Romanian-born German novelist and just won the Nobel Prize for literature, so I thought I should read one of her books. People in other countries have complained that Americans are so isolated when it comes to literature, so I thought it would be nice to broaden my selections. This did not go well. I didn't get very far. The language is very poetic, but there doesn't seem to be much happening. And what was all the talk about barbers and nail-clippers? I'm sure it was significant and meant something, but it was completely beyond me. I seem to remember trying to read one of French novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio's novels last year (he won last year's Nobel Prize) and not getting very far with it either.