Friday, December 27, 2013

2014 Preview

Whoops, there goes 2013!

I read some great books in 2013, but if I think about my favorites, they were all published before the year began.  My four favorite books that I read in 2013 are:

1Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
2.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
3.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
4.  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Last year I told you at this point what your favorite books that I read in 2012 were, based on your page views.  This year, the page views seem to be oddly skewed toward the Industry Requested Reviews.  The post that my readers looked at the most this year was actually my review of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which I reviewed in 2012.

Although there doesn't seem to be an "Off the Shelf Challenge" for 2014, I still plan to get some books off of my shelves, or more accurately, out of my nightstand.  This year I will do the Rewind Challenge, which is similar to the Off the Shelf.  These are some books that I own, and I hope to read 24 of them in 2014.  I'll cross them off and link to my reviews as I go.

1.  City of Thieves by David Benioff  Reviewed 1/27/14
2.  The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
3.  Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
4.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks  Reviewed 6/27/14
5.  We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
6.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
7.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
8.  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
9.  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho  Reviewed 3/8/14
10.  Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
11.  A Secret Kept by Tatiana De Rosnay Reviewed 3/27/14
12.  Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks Reviewed 1/9/14
13.  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides Reviewed 4/21/14
14.  Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
15.  Happy Families by Carols Fuentes
16.  The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway Reviewed July 2014
17.  The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
18.  Sycamore Row by John Grisham
19.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie Reviewed 2/19/14
20.  A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway
21.  The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson  Reviewed September 2014
22.  The Titans by John Jakes  Reviewed 5/18/14
23.  Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
24.  McSweeney's 44 Reviewed July 2014
25.  The Tudors by G. J. Meyer
26.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
27.  The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
28.  The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
29.  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
30. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
31.  The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey Reviewed October 2014
32.  The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
33.  The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
34.  New York by Edward Rutherfurd
35.  The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto
36.  Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
37.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
38.  Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks  Reviewed September 2014
39.  Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
40.  This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper  Reviewed 3/29/14
41.  The Age of Miracles by Karen  Thompson Walker
42.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
43.  The Zero by Jess Walter

I have found some other new challenges that I want to try.  Specifically, I am going to do A Year of Re-Reading.  I have said so many times that I want to re-read a book, but I almost never find the time to do it.  This year, and this is not a big commitment, but I hope to knock 2 books off of my re-read list.  Here it is:

1.  Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
2.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
3.  Great House by Nicole Krauss
4.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
5.  Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

I also listen to a ton of audio books, so I am going to do the 2014 Audiobook Challenge.  I think that I can listen to 20 audio books in 2014, which would make me a Socially Awkward Binge Listener according to this challenge's host.

Finally, I love library books, so I am going to do the I Love Library Books Reading Challenge.  Appropriate, right?  All of these challenges allow cross overs, so I might listen to a book for the Rewind Challenge, also count it for the Audiobook Challenge, and if I check it out from the library, count it for the I Love Library Books Reading Challenge too.  I hope to read 30 library books, counting all 20 of my audios.

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Perfect Guest

Last Wednesday, when The Typical Book Group got together for our annual book exchange, I offered the book groupers a chance to review Rachel Joyce's new book, Perfect.  My friend, Kim, decided to give it a try, and now she has become my first ever guest blogger.  Here is Kim's review of  Perfect:

Apparently, people with OCD want things to be perfect, because they believe that then nothing bad can happen.  As a result of Byron's obsession with the addition of two seconds to the yearly clock things go horribly wrong in the summer of 1972, in Rachel Joyce's book, Perfect.

To begin with things did not seem to be going well in Byron's household.  Especially not on the weekends when his father came home from the city.  Perhaps his father also suffers from the OCD, as shown by his insistence that his wife wear certain clothes, that nobody touch anything in his office and his excessive car washing.  I believed that he was just more worried about what people thought about him than that he was mentally ill, but perhaps I was wrong. 

Diana, Byron's mother, really let me down.  Besides being mostly (but not completely) controlled by her husband, she desperately loved her children, but could not fight her unhappiness with her life.  Depression medication did not work, and at times I thought that she might be an alcoholic.  Can you drink yourself to death without alcohol?  Can drowning permeate your body that much?  Why didn't Diana know that she was being taken advantage of?  It was obvious to her son.

We, the reader, were led to believe that the flash forwards to Jim were to James.  James, Byron's best friend, was odd, but I wasn't sure if he was mentally ill.  I was quick to judge James' mother and jump to conclusions.  Instead, his mother did better for him than Diana did for Byron.

The ending seemed a little "Silver Lining Playbook" to me.  I am not sure that love can cure OCD.  I would like to think so.  God bless Eileen and everyone at Jim's work for sticking with him.  Tears were in my eyes (at work) at the end.

To me this is what makes a book great: 
1.  Hooks me from the beginning
2.  I can't wait to read more of it and find out what happens
3.  Moves me (maybe to tears - maybe not) because I care about the characters so much

By that criteria, I guess that Perfect is great. In fact, I find myself frequently thinking back on it even days after I finished it.  Would I pick it as a book group book?  I went back and forth on this, mostly because I am known for reading too many mental illness books.  Why I think this would be a great book club book is because it would provide a lively discussion.  Besides, it is an enjoyable, complex, and surprising read.

Thanks, Kim!  Kim and I generally like the same books, so I think that I will have to read Perfect soon.   Full disclosure:  I was offered and accepted a free copy of Perfect, which I let Kim borrow.  No promises were made, no payments were received.  Perfect will be released on January 14, 2014.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  I am really loving this book, but wish that I had more time to read it.

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Typical Book Exchange

Last night, The Typical Book Group got together to exchange books, and talk about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  There were 10 of us there, which was great.  Each December, we clean our closets of the books that we are prepared to part with, and trade them with each other.  This year, I got a little aggressive, and gave away two of my unread books from the Off the Shelf Challenge, We Were the Mulvaneys and Death Comes to Pemberly.  The Mulvaneys had been sitting in my night stand for at least 4 years, and I have always dreaded reading it, but felt that I should because it was written by Joyce Carol Oates.  And we all know about Joyce Carol Oates.  Hello??  She was one of Jonathan Safran Foer's professors in college, and she helped him get started writing.  When I was Googling the connection to support this claim, I came across this article that I hadn't seen before.  Not much about JCO, but it talks about almost everything JSF has ever written.

So, anyhow, back to the Typical Book Group.  We usually pick numbers from a hat or a bowl or whatever to decide who gets to choose first, second, etc.  This year, I got 9th.  Did you notice that I said that there were 10 people there?  So, I was surprised that a copy of The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling was still available for me to snag.  I also got a book called The Tudors by G. J. Meyer, which I hadn't heard anything about, and two cookbooks. 

After the exchange, we talked about Harold Fry.  There was quite a lot to say.  We all pretty much agreed that Harold seemed like a nice enough guy, but not anyone who we were dying to meet.  We talked about his journey, and Queenie, and about the effect his journey had on his wife, Maureen.  Our host, Kim had printed out some discussion questions that she had found online, and we thought it was odd that none of them dealt with the subject of alcoholism.  We all had ideas of what we thought would happen, which actually didn't happen, but in the end we felt that Joyce found the right ending.  Rachel Joyce, I mean.  I'm not exactly on a first name basis with JCO.

In the spirit of the season, I offered the Typical Book Groupers the opportunity to review Joyce's new book, Perfect, which is coming out next month.  Kim took me up on it.  Kim has a blog of her own, where she claims to review books, but she keeps her blog private.  I can only guess what she writes about me there . . . So, stay tuned, and we should soon have a guest blogger, or at least opinions dictated by Kim, and transcribed by yours truly.

We didn't decide on a book to read next month, so that will be a surprise as well. 

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  I am loving this book so far, and only wish that I had more time to read it!

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Monday, December 16, 2013

Both Ways, but Wanting More

When I read The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff, I was so impressed with the intensity that Wolff brought to each story, that I decided that the reason his stories were not novels is that no reader could stand the tension long enough to read a full novel.  With that expectation, I began reading Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy.  Sadly, I didn't find what I was looking for.

To me, the best thing about Both Ways is the title.  I totally get that.  Meloy took the title from a poem by A. R. Ammons, which she quotes before her stories begin.  The theme of wanting what one can't have, and being indecisive about those wants plays out again and again in the stories, but I found that I really didn't care.  I didn't have any pages turned down with unforgettable quotes, and now, less than 24 hours after finishing the book, I can't tell you a single character's name.  Pathetically, in opening the book to try to refresh my memory, I realized that two of the characters in the last story of the book were named Bonnie and Clyde.  Even that I forgot. 

I was looking forward to reading Both Ways all year, since I like short stories, and I had read something good about this collection.  In fact, Both Ways was a NYT Notable for 2009.  I guess I'm just more of a Tobias Wolff kind of a girl.

This is the 24th book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  I think that it will probably be the last Off the Shelfer of the year.  I can't feel too bad about not making my "goal" of 25 books, since my original goal was only 15, and I increased the goal twice.

Next up:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Constant Forward Motion

One day, Harold Fry gets a letter from a former co-worker, telling him that she is dying of cancer.  Harold wants to send a nice letter in response, but somehow, as he walks toward the mailbox, the letter feels inadequate.  After speaking with a girl at garage (which Harold pronounces as "gare-ah-ge" because he's British), he comes to believe that if he can just walk all the way to see his friend, she will live.  Harold is in the later half of his 60s, and wearing yachting shoes.  The friend, Queenie, is 500 miles away.  But Harold keeps walking, away from his wife and his life, and toward his friend from the past.

I was not a believer in Harold.  In fact, it took me until I was 3/4 through The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, to even understand what journey Harold was taking.  But once I got it, I got it.  Harold and his wife, Maureen, had been living distantly from each other within the same house for 20 years.  Somehow, with every step that he took away from Maureen, Harold grew closer to her.

Harold describes his son, David, as being clever.  He is so clever in fact that he went to Cambridge, despite growing up with working class Harold and Maureen, in their ordinary world.  David is a bit of a mystery throughout the story.  He might have autism or Asperger's; he might be depressed or mentally ill, but something is not right.  David is the wedge that forced Maureen and Harold apart.  Some studies say that parents of children with autism are 60% more likely to get divorced than people with "typical" children.  Even the parents of "clever" children may be facing troubles that are hidden to the outside world, like drugs, alcoholism, anxiety and debilitating stress.  Between the blame and the guilt, there may not be much room for hope.  What Harold learns on his journey is that people make choices, and that those choices are OK.  If parents choose to stay married, they should.  If they choose to divorce, they should.  They should make choices, and take responsibility for those decisions.  We, as a society, have to respect other people's choices.  Harold realizes that his life with Maureen is not limited to their life with David.  In choosing not to divorce, he and Maureen actually chose to stay together, when it might have been easier to leave.

Along the way, Harold gathers followers and corporate sponsors.  He wants none of this.  Eventually he sees that he feels better when he carries less, in terms of physical and emotional baggage.

I read this book for The Typical Book Group.  When we discussed The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in October, we discussed whether Benjamin Benjamin was on a pilgrimage.  Harold adds an important, if not essential, element to the term.  Harold is on a pilgrimage, and Ben was not, because Harold's journey was based on faith.  Harold believes in Queenie, the girl in the garage, and occasionally, he even believes in himself.  His faith is not necessarily religious, but it is there, nonetheless.

The Typical Book Group will discuss Harold next week.  I'll let you know what everyone else thought about it then.

Next up on CD:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Still Reading:  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Monday, December 9, 2013

Makin' Bacon

After reading the first few pages of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, I couldn't sleep.  You see, Reese told me that I could make bagels.  In my house.  Without fancy bagel making stuff.  I began to imagine the possibilities.  But, who could I invite over for freshly made bagels, who would appreciate them, without thinking that I was insane for making them?  And that was what kept me up.  Who would properly appreciate my homemade bagels?

In fact, Reese told me that I could, and should, make all kinds of things that I had never considered making.  Like hot dog buns, and English muffins, and hot cocoa mix.  For each recipe, Reese told a little story about how and why she decided to try making the item, what the cost was to make the item versus the prices of various brands one can buy at the store, what the result was, and whether it was worth the hassle.  I came into this book thinking that it would be mostly about keeping me from eating preservatives, and saving money. Reese surprised me by recommending that I buy some items that lot of people commonly make, like Quaker instant oatmeal and Kozy Shack rice pudding.  If she couldn't make it better, or if she or her family preferred the store bought version, she said so.  Sometimes, her recipes cost more than buying the product from the store.  In some of those cases (margaritas, chocolate chip cookies) she still recommended making them.  In others, like French onion dip, she recommended buying.

There were so many things in this book that I had never thought about making, but now I'm ready to try.  These include the bagels and hot dog buns mentioned above, but also Cheez-its, Oreos, and ginger ale.  I love Oreos, but I stopped buying them once I heard a nutritionist speak about all of the secret ingredients that they include.  Reese's recipe includes butter, sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, an egg, flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda.  No secrets there.  She also recommends (strongly) that I make my own vanilla.  Who knew?  According to Reese, if I make my own I will pay $7.00 for 12 ounces, versus $53.00 if I bought 12 ounces in a store.

Admittedly, Reese is many steps ahead of me.  While she makes owning chickens and even goats sound like something that I am missing out on, I'm sure my neighbors aren't ready for that.  I'm not ready for curing my own meats or making cheese.  But, there are enough things that I want to try that my copy of the book is fatter than it should be, with just about every second corner turned down.

So, when it comes to Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, should you check it out of your library or buy it?  The book is marked $15.00.  If you go to Books A Million, you could probably use a coupon.  If you order it from Amazon you will pay $13.21.  If you also buy the Madagascar vanilla beans that she recommends for $18.95, you will be just shy of the $35.00 minimum for free shipping.  Maybe you should buy more beans.  In terms of hassle, there is virtually no hassle in buying from Amazon.  However, if you check the book out of the library, you are sure to find yourself photocopying half of the book, then losing the loose pages, and generally making a mess of things.  Better to buy the book, and help Reese justify her goat purchase.

Next up:  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Still Listening to:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Virtually Real

In Upload by Mark McClelland, the main character, Raymond Quan, is a teenager living in a group home in 2060.  He has a job working for a wealthy 85 year old man, Nicholas Tate, who had made his money through insider trading tech stocks.  Tate, like many people, spends most of his time in a V Chamber, living in a virtual world of his own creation.  Some people, like Raymond's father, become so V addicted, that they can't live life in the real world.  Most people have a virtual presence, but still live a real world life, with a job and a family.

While exploring how to improve his own virtual world, something goes wrong, and Raymond is convinced that he could be charged with a serious real world crime.  We fast forward to 2069, and Raymond is working for a company working on an uploading project.  The company is attempting to upload a monkey into the virtual world.  The result would be that the monkey would die in the real world, but would live forever, and enjoy his life, if his brain was uploaded into the virtual world first.

McClelland drops the bombshells of Raymond's crime as though they were breadcrumbs.  He gives us details so shocking that you re-read to be sure that you have it right, and then he quickly moves on, as though those specifics are no big deal.  Soon, someone else is following the trail, and Raymond begins to consider whether he should upload his brain into the virtual world in order to escape a reality that is closing in fast.

Raymond is an odd, but well developed character.  He lacks social skills due to being raised in a group home and being so focused on his virtual world.  At his upload company, Raymond meets a woman and begins to fall in love, only to stumble on the intricacies of normal social interaction.  He tries to fill his virtual world with everything that he could possibly need in case he were ever to actually upload.  However he is so overconfident in his skills and naive that he overlooks the obvious.

Upload is a good book, exploring a really interesting concept.  If we could create a world and move into it, would it be better?  What would we forget?  What would we get sick of?  Do we need our bodies in order to live a fulfilling life?  If I was writing the story, I would have resolved a few of the issues differently, but McClelland also thought of things that I would never have considered.

I read Upload at the request of Mike at Sandpiper Publicity.  I received a free copy of the book, but other than that, no promises were made and no payments were received.  I would recommend this book to anyone who likes technology focused sci-fi, and especially to any sci-fi lovers who live in Ann Arbor or attended U of M.  McClelland is a U of M graduate, and much of the story is set in the Ann Arbor area.

You might remember that last month I said that I might do two Industry Requested Reviews in November.  Instead, I did none.  I just missed finishing Upload in November (better late than never), and I never got a copy of Melt:  The Art of Macaroni and Cheese.  I'm probably better off without that one!  My next IRR will be Perfect by Rachel Joyce.  I'm taking a chance on this one.  Joyce also wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which I just started listening to.   If I can't stand Harold, I might not be so anxious to jump into Perfect.

Next Up:  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese.

Still Listening to:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
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