Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2012 Challenges

Each year, there are several "novel challenges" that encourage avid readers to sign up, and commit to reading a certain number of books.  There are "around the world challenges", that dare the reader to read a book from every country.  There are challenges to read novels from the year in which one was born.  There are challenges to read books with colors in their titles.  You name it, there's a challenge for it.

This year, I decided to join two, the 2012 Support Your Library Challenge, and Off the Shelf 2012.

The 2012 Support Your Library Challenge is exactly what it sounds like, a challenge to read as many books as you can from your local library.  My goal for this challenge is 24 books, as I plan to get books from my TBR list from the library, read books for both book groups from the library, and get audio versions of some of the books for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and be able to double count those.

The Off the Shelf 2012 Challenge encourages the reader to read books that he or she already owns.  Since my nightstand is always over flowing, I think that I can make this one work.  I have to admit, however, that even in the best of circumstances, I can only expect to read 24 books from my nightstand each year, including those that I actually own on paper, but listen to on CD. 

To this end, and to my dismay, I have made an inventory of my nightstand.  After adding it all up, I have to wonder if my nightstand has secret compartments, or if it magically extends into the wall behind it to give me added storage.  Here is what it is holding right now:

1  .Emma by Jane Austen  Reviewed 3/17/12
2.  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
3.  March by Geraldine Brooks Reviewed 4/6/12
4.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
5.  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
6.  Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
7.  The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
8.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
9.  The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho
10.  I Was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley Reviewed 9/8/12
11.  Under the Table by Katherine Darling
12.  Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
13.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant  Reviewed 9/22/12
14.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz Reviewed 2/3/12
15.  Middlemarch by George Eliot
16.  In the Company of Liars by David Ellis
17.  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides  Reviewed 1/6/12
18.  World Without End  by Ken Follett Reviewed 10/27/12
19.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George  Reviewed 3/22/12
20.  The Grown-Ups by Victoria Glendinning Reviewed 8/20/2012
21.  London Train by Tessa Hadley Reviewed 2/7/12
22.  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh Reviewed 11/18/12
23.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie
24.  Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin Reviewed 9/8/12
25.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin  Reviewed 4/26/12
26.  The Titans by John Jakes
27.  Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson Reviewed 2/23/12
28.  Lit by Mary Karr Reviewed 4/30/12
29.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
30.  The Last Life by Claire Messud
31.  The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer Reviewed 6/9/12
32.  Black Swan Green by David Mitchell  Reviewed 3/31/12
33.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Reviewed 12/7/12
34.  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
35.  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk Reviewed 7/6/12
36.  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult Reviewed 8/21/12
37.  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
38.  Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl Reviewed 4/30/12
39.  Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff  Reviewed 12/22/12
40.  Mockingbird by Charles Shields
41.  The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart Reviewed 8/2/12
42.  The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli  Reviewed 10/11/12
43.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
44.  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
45.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
46.  Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters Reviewed 6/13/12
47.  The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff Reviewed 7/25/12

As I read these, I'll cross them off this page, and link you to the page where I tell you about the book.

No time to blog - I've got to get reading!

Still Reading:  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Still Listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  This one just narrowly missed being listed above.  It had lived in my nightstand for at least 2 years before I finally decided to listen to it instead of waiting to read it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chicago Memoirs

Long time no blog!  I've been so busy getting ready for Christmas, that my heart just hasn't been into reading, let alone writing about reading.  Now that the gifts are unwrapped, but before the wrapping paper is thrown away, I'm back.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished listening to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I didn't immediately write about it, because although I was listening to it on CD, I also owned the book, and I realized that the book included an extra segment not read on the disc.  This segment is called Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, and is almost 50 pages long.  In this section, Dave attempts to make right anything that he got wrong in the first edition.  While most "memoir" writers would find this unnecessary given that half of their so-called memoirs are fiction, his efforts to make everything exactly correct make the reader feel closer to Dave and his brother, Toph.

Heartbreaking Work is the story of Dave Eggers raising Toph after their parents die of cancer within months of each other.  At the time that Dave became a quasi parent, he was 21, and his brother was 8.  Dave has another brother and a sister, both who are older than him, but for some reason, the family decided (against the terms of their parents' wills) that Dave would raise Toph.   The story in Heartbreaking Work starts with Dave caring for his mother while she dies, and then moves to California with all of the siblings after the parents are gone.  We flash and travel back to Lake Forest, IL, just outside of Chicago, where the family home was, and where Dave feels a need to return.

Dave is a pretty amazing faux father for Toph, despite his obvious and honestly reported flaws.  They cook tacos using spaghetti sauce, on purpose.  They run late for open houses at school.  Dave sleeps in each morning while Toph manages to get himself to school on a bike he can't pedal, and instead rides like a scooter.  But at the end of the day, they make it work.

In reading about Heartbreaking Work, I learned that Eggers is 12 days younger than me.  This is extremely disappointing.  I have read and appreciated other works that he has written and created, and would like to think of him as being much older than me, as an explanation for why my accomplishments are so lacking in comparison.  However, our small difference in age also helped me to appreciate the effort that he was making while raising Toph. When I was 21, my parents were paying my rent, and my time was spent working in the mall between classes and planning "progressive" drinking parties in my apartment complex.  I have no doubt that I would have raised Toph differently than Eggers,  but I can't say that I would have done better.

Meanwhile, back in the Hills of Beverly, I have been reading Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster.  Bitter is the story of Lancaster and her husband both losing their jobs, their standard of living, and their self respect, but then finding themselves again.  Lancaster and her husband were victims of the dot com bust, reminding me of the characters in The Cookbook Collector.  The first two thirds of the memoir is Lancaster going on and on about the things that she used to have, and scheming up ways to get them back.  The last third of the book is where she puts on her big girl panties and pulls her life back into shape.  In fact, that sounds just like something Lancaster would have said herself.  Lancaster has a sassy and funny way of telling a story.  She is also quick to point out her flaws, although she usually offsets them by naming 4 or 5 of her strengths for each weakness.

Lancaster's preferred Chicago neighborhood, where she once lived in her "dot com palace", is Bucktown.  When Lancaster is somehow lacking in adventures in her own life to relay, she reports on those around her, like her neighbors.  Coincidentally, my sister has just bought a house in Bucktown, where she'll be moving soon.  My fingers are crossed that Lancaster lives next door.  I feel like I know the neighbors who Lancaster wrote about in Bitter, and in her later book, Bright Lights, Big Ass, and it would be fun to read about my sister through the eyes of the self proclaimed "condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered, smart-ass" herself.

So what can Eggers and Lancaster have in common?  Probably a mutual loathing of each other, but other than that, I was surprised to find some coincidences.  Obviously, much of both memoirs takes place in Chicago.  Thematically, they both face challenges they never expected, and were unprepared to face.  Strangely, Dave auditions for "Real World San Francisco" and Jen watches a rerun of the show while she prepares for her wedding.  But really what Heartbreaking Work  and Bitter have in common is that they are each their author's first foray in memoir writing, and both authors hone their skills while telling great stories.

In other news:  Today's Christmas!  And my life is changing. . . my kids bought me a Kindle for Christmas, and my husband loaded The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides on it for my first e-reading adventure.  Although I am pretty much a book purist, and to be honest, a used or library book reader, I have to admit that there have been a couple of times this year when I have wished for a Kindle.  I have a feeling that I will take to it like a fish to water.  I also got a number of other books as gifts, including The London Train by Tessa Hadley, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and three great cookbooks!  One of the cookbooks is The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond, which is absolutely amazing.  Her spaghetti and meatballs recipe is already one of my favorites, and I can't wait to cook more. There are tons of photos in the book, with the obvious food photos, but also lots of Drummond, her family, her animals and her friends.  I think this is just enough to get me to add her memoir, Black Heels to Tractor Wheels to my TBR list.

Next Up On Paper:  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I requested this in audio form from Michigan's inter-library loan system 3 weeks ago, and still haven't received it.  I gave up and requested it in paper form, which I got in a week.  Hope it's worth the wait!

Next up on CD:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life After 40

A few years back, when my friend, Kim, turned 40, I bought her a copy of Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.  In that book, a girl living in New York, Julie, decides that she will spend a year cooking every recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the cookbook which made Julia Child famous.  Julie blogs about her culinary adventure, and eventually her blog became a book.  I thought this was a great book for me to give to Kim, because we had just finished editing a cookbook for our kids' elementary school.  After Kim read it, she passed it on to me, and thus began my relationship with Julia Child.

After reading Julie and Juila, I wanted more Julia, and read My Life In France by Juila herself.  MLIF (no, not "MILF") is Julia's story of not knowing what to do with her time while her husband, Paul, was stationed in France for his job, and taking up French cooking.  Julia loved French cooking so much, that she moved on to teaching cooking lessons with two of her friends.  The three of them then began writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  One thing that I love about Julia is that she didn't take her first French cooking class until she was in her late 30s, and she was well into her 40s when Mastering the Art was published and she really knew what she wanted to do with her life.

The movie, "Julie and Julia" came out a couple of years ago, and I have to say that it is great.  In fact, it is the only movie that I can think of that is actually better than the book.  The movie is a combination of the books, Julie and Julia and My Life in France, and is focused much more on Julia Child than Powell's original book.

When I went to Paris last year, I looked up Julia Child's apartment, which she called "the Rue de Loo", but which is actually at 81 Rue de L'Universite.  Here is a picture of me outside.  I also went to the cooking store which she loved and raved about in MLIF, E. Dehillerin, on Rue Coquilliere.  I had figured that E. Dehillerin would have been overwhelmed with tourists since the movie had been released, but when I went there, that seemed not to have been the case.  At first the staff was a little standoffish, and I was surprised, after talking with a salesperson, that he wanted to know about Detroit.  He asked about the music from Detroit, and I assumed that he was referencing the Motown songs.  Actually, he wanted to talk about the Techno music fests, which are apparently better known in Europe than they are in Beverly Hills, just 5 miles north of The D.

This brings us to As Always, Julia:  The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, as edited  by Joan Reardon.  MLIF tells the story of Julia's struggles with getting her cookbook published, and this is echoed in As Always.  As Always is not really a story at all, but a collection of letters exchanged between Julia and Avis.   Their relationship started when Avis' husband wrote an article about how inferior American knives were in the 1950s.  Julia read the article and wrote to its author, enclosing one of her favorite French knives.  Avis wrote Julia a thank you note, since her husband, Bernard, was too busy.  From there, Avis and Julia established a pen pal relationship that spanned the Atlantic.

Mastering the Art was intended by Julia to be a fool proof book allowing busy American wives to successfully cook French dishes which they probably thought were too difficult for them.  Julia painstakingly cooked and re-cooked every dish until she had the instructions just right.  The problem was that Julia was cooking in France, and writing a book for Americans.  Julia consulted with Avis regarding what ingredients may be hard to find, how cooking times may vary, and how certain instructions may be interpreted.  Without Avis, Mastering the Art would never have worked.  Without Avis' publishing connections, it probably would not have made it to print.

Frequently, while reading As Always, I drifted off to sleep.  Several times I told myself that if the book was so boring, I should quit reading it.  But it was not boring.  It was just so soothing to be reading letters between two strong women who established their relationship in paper and pen, that sometimes I did find myself startled awake with the book still in my hand.  As Always tells the stories of the election gossip of the 1950s, of the McCarthy hearings, and of the battles with Child's co-authors.  Details about recipes are worked out, including one of Child's most famous, scalloped potatoes.  But I did take the full three weeks of my library loan to read the book, which is unusually slow for me.

My mom gave me back MLIF, without finishing it.  To my dismay, she found it boring.  As Always, Julia, is not going to be the book for her either.  However, if you loved MLIF, and can't get enough Julia, then As Always is worth the read.

Next up:  Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

Almost Done Listening to:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  In fact, I have passed the part where the reader said "The End" and am now listening to the 12th and last disc which Eggers says one should only listen to if one does not have anything else available.  That is exactly my situation!  I tried to get Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami in book form at my library and was surprised to find a lead on it in CD form first.  My library doesn't own it in either form, so I had to order it.  I placed my order 4 days ago, but sometimes these things take a while, and I don't want to start something new while I wait.  I'm hoping Eggers makes this 12th disc last.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Typical Book Exchange

Tonight the Typical Book Group got together for our annual book exchange.  While it wasn't quite as exciting as last year, when Lynne was fresh back from Oprah's Favorite Things episode, it was still a lot of fun.  I picked up a few new titles, including The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, and Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson.  More books to read for the Read What You Own challenge!

The real purpose of the meeting tonight was to talk about Room by Emma Donoghue.  Of the 8 of us there tonight, all of us had read the book and liked it.  We agreed that Ma was a creative and thoughtful mother, and felt sorry for her when her choices were questioned by the media at the end of the novel.  An interesting point that was mentioned is that sooner or later, Jack will find out that Nick was (is) his dad.  We can imagine Jack struggling to understand that the bad-guy-captor is also his father.

The next book that we will read is Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe.  I warned January's host that my husband will be coming along with me that night.  He's already planning his book group discussion points, and keeps walking around the house saying "I'd like to hear you read some words" like the guy in the Bud Light commercial who realizes beer is served at book group and wants to join.

Almost done reading:  As Always, Julia by Julia Child

Almost done listening to:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
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