Thursday, December 22, 2005

2005: Year End Review

2005 was the year of the chin-up courtesy of Monkey Bar Gym. It was my first official chin-up (in elementary school I did nothing but hang from the bar--that was the extent of my skills), and I still only have one. No matter where we were, if we were within shouting distance of a playground, I'd show the chin-up to whomever would pay attention. The playground chin-up craze extended briefly to Jim (who has many chin-ups), who was once at a park doing some and overheard a nearby six-year-old complain loudly, "Man! Now we can't use the monkey bars!" Monkey Bar is owned by Jon Hinds, son of Bobby Hinds (Madison's strongest 60+ year-old-man), and Bobby Hinds owns Lifeline USA, and if you buy a jump rope from them, you also get a handy instructional book.

We celebrated our first wedding anniversary this year by dining at L'Etoile, which was founded by Odessa Piper, who is one of Alice Waters's (owner of Chez Panisse) prodigees. (If that sentence didn't make any sense to you, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) The menu proudly featured the farmers' names along with the descriptions of each selection, and every Saturday morning at the farmer's market, I'd always see the L'Etoile red wagon stocking up at the various farmers' stands. If you can't make it to the Madison farmer's market or your local one, a couple market-friendly cookbooks are Deborah Madison's Local Flavors and Therese Allen's Wisconsin's Hometown Flavors.

Jim and I learned a valuable lesson this year: never move. The struggles and sheer pain World Moving Services put us through while we tried to move back to Cali after a 3-year stay in Wisconsin were horrendous. (It could have been way worse: they didn't end up with our stuff and we ended up getting our deposit refunded.) The good news is that we did finally get to use all the great camping gear we received as wedding presents. We learned it is way too hot in early August to camp in central Nebraska (and the bugs there are giant and abundant in number), that camping in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City isn't as crazy as it sounds, and that the State of California is just lucky I'd seen Lake Tahoe before because otherwise I could've driven off windy I-80 when I saw it this time, the view was so amazing. KOA (my kind of camping--a flush toilet, showers, your car nearby, and an adorable retired couple who make pancakes in the morning? What's not to like?) publishes a yearly book with all their campsites listed and helpful information and maps (it's also available online).

In the spirit of the Bionic Man and former Cubs third-baseman Ron Santo, my dad had his right leg amputated below the knee and got a fancy new leg (well, I believe the super-fancy permanent one might still be in the works, but it's still pretty damn cool). That may seem like a sad thing to some people, but considering he originally thought the leg might have to go in the 1980s and he's more mobile now than he probably has been for quite a while, it's not a bad thing at all. In honor of my dad, I'd recommend picking up a Kinky Friedman mystery novel (even Bill Clinton loves them) and soaking in some Texas culture.

And hooray for all the new babies! They include Ian, Lydia, a whole bunch of them in Wisconsin (Christie's son and Patty's twins, to name a few), and my newest nephew, Luke Carlos. Even though my sister rejected our name ideas (Wild Bill and Binomial, among others--okay, so maybe we had been drinking a few margaritas when we came up with those), we highly approve of Luke Carlos. Given that babies aren't very good readers, I don't really have any book recommendations here, though they do very much enjoy being read to.

That's it for 2005. I hope 2006 is full of love, joy, and lots of good books for everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Jane Austen Book Club (Karen Joy Fowler)

I would never have picked up this book unless I had heard a couple reviewers/fans (mostly on NPR, I think) say that it wasn't actually about Jane Austen. Not that I have anything against Jane Austen. I mean, I hardly know her. I haven't read any of her books, which given my two degrees in English may be alarming news to some.

But to say this book isn't about Jane Austen is a disservice to the writer, Karen Joy Fowler. While The Jane Austen Book Club is about the main characters who meet each week to discuss Austen, you also learn a whole lot about Austen through the course of the novel (there's a lot of research and work going on behind the scenes that is presented seamlessly in the book--that's a sign of a great author). This makes Austen accessible to those who haven't read her books.

This book is quiety wonderful. The writing isn't show-offy, gimmicky, or in love with itself. And for those who love Austen, this book will have yet another rich layer that should make it an even more wonderful read.

At the end of the book, there are a few nonfiction sections such as "Reader's Guide" that gives brief plot synopsis and "The Response" that gives the criticism both from Austen's family and friends and writers up to present time. I did skim much of this part, but that could be because I was at the train station waiting for the light rail to take me home and I was tired and cranky because I had strained a back/shoulder muscle that morning at the gym and had been sore all day. But a few gems from this section are Mark Twain's comment ("Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.") and a 1940 MGM advertisement for the movie Pride and Prejudice ("Five charming sisters on the gayest, merriest manhunt that ever snared a bewildered bachelor! Girls! Take a lesson from these husband hunters!") I also very much enjoyed the "Discussion Questions" at the very end of the book written from the point-of-views of the main characters.

I'm probably not going to pick up any Jane Austen very soon. For me, that kind of reading is not conducive to reading on the train. But I did see her novels at the library last night, and I paused for just a moment near them, so who knows.

Next book up: The Wedding by Imraan Coovadia

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke), by Guest Reviewer Jim

Your basic 800-page book falls into one of three categories. First are the ones that seem interesting in theory, but after it becomes clear around page 10 that no one has a gun to your head and you don’t have the first clue what the hell’s going on, can be safely set aside (see Finnegans Wake) (or actually, since this is Book Reviews for Real People, maybe don’t). Second are the ones that you’ve always heard are good, pick up, and turn out to love, even if as a tip it helps to skim the chapters where Russian aristocrats argue endlessly over “the peasant question” (see Anna Karenina). Third are the ones that when you’re done you actually wish were longer.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell falls into the third category. It’s no exaggeration to say that upon reaching page 782 I seriously considered flipping back to page 1 and reading it straight through again. It’s the kind of book that, to paraphrase one of the blurbs on the back, isn’t read so much as lived in. I’m not sure it’s to everyone’s taste (Maria glanced at it and shortly handed it back to me), but I for one thought it was so compelling and singular and terrifically well done that a Guest Review was in order.

It takes place in Britain in the early nineteenth century, partly during the Napoleonic Wars, in a world where magic was a formerly commonplace phenomenon. The tradition is now carried only by magicians who do no magic--theorists who “read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic,” “gentleman-magicians, which is to say that they never harmed any one by magic--nor done any one the slightest good.” Magic has the reputation of being a tedious and not particularly useful thing for a person to do.

Enter Mr. Norrell, a timid, fussy late-middle-aged man who has spent half his life tracking down every magic book he can find and the other half shut up in his library reading them, and has taught himself how to actually do magic. After some scuffling with the local magician society he moves to London to pursue his ultimate goal, bringing the magician profession back into respectability, by entering high society and assisting in the war. He’s not very successful at this at first (social skills are not Mr. Norrell’s strong suit), but does ultimately achieve renown as the Foremost Magician of the Age (mainly by default). Eventually a younger man, Jonathan Strange, having followed Norrell’s magic along with everyone else in Britain, takes an interest in magic, discovers he has an aptitude for it, and manages to convince Norrell to take him on as a student.

This much is covered on the jacket copy, and it would be unfair (not to mention impossible) to continue any sort of synopsis, but suffice to say much satisfying trouble ensues, particularly involving a cheerfully insane fairy-creature referred to only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair” and the semi-legendary originator of English magic, John Uskglass, better known as the Raven King.

The really marvelous things about the book are how absolutely convincing its world and characters are. Although this is never specified, the impression I had is that the book was supposedly “written” toward the end of the eighteenth century, and it has just enough anachronistic spelling (“chuse” for “choose,” “sopha” for “sofa”) to give the flavor of the time and place without being obtrusive. Footnotes scattered throughout offer, among other things, citations of books later written by some characters about other characters and amusing little side-stories about terms or incidents mentioned in passing in dialogue, which are generally delightfully weird and often hilarious. (At one point a character mentions a spell called “the Unrobed Ladies.” The footnote begins “Like many spells with unusual names, the Unrobed Ladies was a good deal less exciting than it sounded.” Heh.) It’s full of the dust and smells of the place, and seamlessly mixes imagination with history (the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron feature as prominent characters, and even mad King George III makes an appearance); it’s not a page-turner of the Harry Potter variety, but the voice is always compelling and the wit dryly British in the best possible way. Particularly striking are the descriptions of the magic when it happens, which tends to be unobtrusive and difficult to spot but is often accompanied by odd sensations--like, to give one example that for some reason leaps to mind, “it was as if the shadows had all turned and faced another way.”

I didn’t end up going back to page 1 just yet--it is a library book, after all--but I suspect this will be another of those ones I find myself coming back to every year or two (see Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and as far as I'm concerned can't be recommended enough.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lipstick Jihad (Azadeh Moaveni)

I'm not a big fan of the news (unless it's fake news from The Daily Show or The Onion). Mostly it makes me sad or depressed or laugh in a sort of hysterical way that helps me get through the current administration (a dear-God-what-have-they-done-now sort of thing). Also I find the media generally presents events in the abstract ("Iran offers U.S. a deal"), which makes me visualize Iran as an entity instead of the thinking about the individual people who live inside the country. Whenever things get more personal and human in a news story, I have a better understanding of the situation and that's when I want to pay attention.

In Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni, who is Iranian-American, tells her own story of returning to Tehran in 2000 as an American journalist (she was the first American journalist based there, a feat she was able to achieve because she was also Iranian). While she still has a lot of family in Tehran, she grew up in Palo Alto, California, as an Iranian exile. At first she believes cultural assimilation will take little time, but once she realizes how the complexity and craziness of everyday life in Iran conflict with her own sense of American personal freedom, she knows this will not be the case.

To Americans, there seems like there's a whole lot wrong with everyday life in Iran. There's the Basij, the morality police, made up of 15-year-olds from the poorest areas of Iran with built-up anger and aggression, and oh, by the way, they're also armed. If your veil is a few inches too far back on your head, if they can smell alcohol on your breath, if you're standing too close to a member of the opposite sex in public, then the Basij will stop you and interrogate you, hold you for hours if they want, and even possibly beat you. There's also the dog kidnappers (the clerics running the government especially hated miniature poodles, they considered them "bourgeouis lapdogs") who will snatch your dog and try to resell it at a black market pet sale for ransom. And there's a show on TV where an ayatollah answers various "dilemmas of faith and extenuating circumstances" such as if "Islamic law would forgive unmarried men and women for huddling together for warmth, if they were in sub-zero temperatures and threatened with frostbite or worse."

And most Iranians would agree that there is a whole lot wrong with present-day Iran. But, as Moaveni points out, amidst the craziness, there is a lot change and progress. No longer do women have to wear the black, formless cloak and veil. There are more form-fitting ones in all colors. Iranian youth develop their personal lives via mobile phones and the Internet, using public holidays and celebrations to discretely pass their phone numbers to members of the opposite sex. Still, in this generation raised on segregated gender, they don't know how to act around the opposite sex, and the religious goverment that banned all things remotely sexual has accidentally created a society that constantly talks about sex.

I think this book is an especially relatable take on the current Iranian situation because Moaveni is Iranian-American and a journalist. There is a very interesting moment when she is in New York as part of the Iranian president's press corp and has to decide whether to wear the veil. And after reading the book, Iran isn't any less of a mess of contradictions to me (in fact, it's even more so now), but I have a better sense of the people in the country who have to live through these contradictions every day.

Other good books: These are both books I haven't read, but I still think they're worth mentioning given the sources and praise for both of them. My friend Ashley read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and couldn't say enough good things about it. And a coworker of mine is currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, which, like The Kite Runner, received tons of good press when it came out.

Next book up: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Effect of Living Backwards (Heidi Julavits)

I first heard of Heidi Julavits when I read her short story "Marry the One Who Gets There First" in Best American Short Stories 1999. It was my favorite story in the volume because it was so different from the others (e.g., one moment I remember from the story is when a character bakes shredded pieces of love letters into the wedding cake--love letters written by the groom that were NOT for the bride).

In The Effect of Living Backwards, the story takes place after the "Big Terrible" (otherwise known as 9/11) and is crazy over-the-top, which I think you would need to make it be if your book is focused on a plane hijacking after the Big Terrible and you want much of it to be funny. It follows two sisters (raised by an entomologist father and a population control activist mother) and their very complicated lives through a very complicated plot. The book reminds me of George Saunders' work, where he puts ordinary people in surreal circumstances or pushes the edge of reality. Julavits' writing is great and the story is very funny at times, but there are moments where things got a little too psychological for me (the book is very, very psychological).

There are many great moments in the book, and while my immediate reaction once I finished reading was a little closer to "okay" than "wow," I'm now feeling like it is definitely worth the read.

Other good books: George Saunders' work is great. I don't read very many short stories anymore, but I'd read his any day. People talk with ghosts, work in fake Civil War lands, and it's all very funny.

Next book up: Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in American and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni

Friday, December 09, 2005

Books: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I thought I'd offer up some books that would make excellent Christmas presents for those you love.

McSweeney's is a publisher run by my nemesis Dave Eggers. (Dave Eggers is my nemesis in the way every good nemesis should be: he's a published author, owns his own press, and many amazing nonprofits for kids and teenagers, and he apparently is very nice.) McSweeneys is like an old-fashioned candy store, full of amazing, one-of-a-kind finds. There's the Collins Library, an imprint which revives lost books such as English as She Is Spoke, an English guidebook written by two Portugeuse men in the 1800s who didn't know English (they had a Portugeuse to French dictionary and French to English dictionary). Mark Twain said of the book "Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect."

There is also How to Dress for Every Occasion by The Pope (a.k.a. Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame), Dear New Girl Whatever Your Name Is (a collection of student-passed notes confiscated by a substitute teacher who then sent them on to artists who illustrated and recreated them), and many more.

One caveat! Because these books are so one of a kind, they have limited print runs and when they're gone, they're gone (such as the first edition of Nick Hornby's Songbook that came with a fabulous CD and the falsified children's science book Giraffes? Giraffes! that stated giraffes were aliens from outerspace. Note that some used copies are still available through some Internet booksellers.)

McSweeney's also publishes the journal McSweeney's and The Believer, both available as a subscription.

How Stuff Works

Ever wonder how glow sticks work? Ballpoint pens? Rocket engines? Chain saws? Blimps? Caffeine? Well apparently you're not the only one. How Stuff Works started as a very popular Web site, so popular they started publishing books. There's How Stuff Works, More How Stuff Works, and a couple more offshoots. All have easy to read formats, are well-illustrated, and make you smarter!

Edward Tufte

Sometimes known as the man who loaths Powerpoint, Edward Tufte is a statistician turned artist, who does an amazing job combining art and science. He often tours the country with a one-day seminar on presenting information in graphic form, and if you can convince your employer that that topic somehow fits into your job description, you should definitely attend. Luckily Tufte has put his ideas into some beautiful books that are so stunning you don't want to get them dirty. In them he talks about the great books and illustrations of Newton, Galileo, and, among other things, a notorious chart used in John Gotti's trial. His books are available via his Web site, where you can also find a lot of other interesting information.

Books by People I Know

If you can't give a shout out to your friends who are published authors on your book review blog, then I don't know where else you can:

Please Don't Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakapoulos
The Bright Forever by Lee Martin
The Last Day of the War by Judith Miller

Crafty Books

For all knitters, amateur and advanced, Stitch 'n Bitch is the best how-to guide out there. Debbie Stoller (Editor of BUST magazine, another great gift idea) talks stitches in plain English with great, helpful illustrations. Even after I had been knitting for over 4 years, this book finally made sense of gauges, blocking, and sewing pieces together.


Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is the best cookbook I own, and it's completely applicable to nonvegetarians. In it Deborah Madison gives not only recipes but cooking techniques and skills. I use this book for my most basic recipes including my standard tomato sauce, roasted almonds, pizza dough, blueberry muffins, and some cardamom cookies that are super yummy around Christmastime.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Everything Bad Is Good for You (Steven Johnson)

Two words: Monkey Olympics. That's what the low end of reality TV (with Fox as the ringmaster) has become in recent years. Remember Lorenzo Lamas's laser pointer on Are You Hot? The "couples" on Married by America? And that horrifying game show The Chamber that involved extreme heat or cold that the contestant had to deal with while trying to answer trivia questions?

I've watched a lot of TV in my life, definitely enough to call myself an expert. I grew up on 1980s' game shows (Tic Tac Dough, Bumper Stumpers, Card Sharks) and know most of the words to the theme songs to Charles in Charge, The Facts of Life, and Perfect Strangers. After countless seasons I've finally shook the habit of The Real World, but I still watch a lot of fluff (while I could use the excuses of cultural experiences in The Amazing Race and the craftmanship of the designers in Project Runway, I really don't think there is any such excuse for our series recording of America's Next Top Model).

I used to make excuses for what I watched (especially around the "I don't own a TV" people), but I don't feel the need to offer any arguments any more. And when I saw Johnson's book and read on the jacket sleeve that it would tell me how watching The Apprentice is making me smarter, I thought I'd give it a read. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that the complexity of today's popular culture creates more participatory situations for our brains. The old TV model was based on episodes in bubbles, no backstory, no foreshadowing, and nothing that might be considered offensive (though with hindsight much of it does seem slightly offensive. Benson as a servant? Really? The executives thought that was a good idea?). Today's popular TV shows have multistranded plots that usually involve heavy viewer participation (i.e., 24, Lost, any show where if you step in midseason you're probably not going to know what's going on). My only real problem with Johnson's argument is that I find him a little too pleased with how great TV is today: he says that even the crap TV has improved, but I'm really wondering if he's seen some of the stuff on these days (see "Monkey Olympics" above).

Besides TV, Johnson talks about films (Finding Nemo gets mentioned most of all--apparently one of the author's sons was 4 years old during the writing of this book), the Internet, and has a heavy focus on video games. Seeing as I'm a girl and, despite a brief fling with Sonic the Hedgehog on a friend's Sega, that I had the original Nintendo only, my gaming skills do not go beyond Dr. Mario--I couldn't beat Super Mario Bros 3 and that's where it ended (damn that level 8 with your flashlight view!). I found the video game discussion interesting, but I'm sure that those of you who played Zelda for hours on end will find it more so.

Other good books: Johnson's book is an interesting read and will definitely give you something to think about, but I found The Math Instinct more fun and engaging (the two books both talk about intelligence and how different kinds of intelligence appear in real life and the classroom).

Next book up: The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Banishing Verona (Margot Livesey)

I first heard of Margot Livesey at the Wisconsin Book Festival a few years ago, and I very much enjoyed hearing her read there. Livesey writes what have sometimes been called "literary mysteries," and I'd definitely say that is the case with Eva Moves the Furniture, the first book I read of hers, which I liked, definitely enough to go and read more of her books. As for the others I've read, literary? Very much so. Mysteries? I'm not so sure. I've read Criminals (all right), The Missing World (pretty good), and now Banishing Verona, which I have to admit is probably the one I like least of them all. In this book, her latest, there is still the very distinct Margot Livesey voice, which can be a bit too literary for me at times. But the story (house painter and seven-months-pregnant lady have a mysterious brief encounter and then become intertwined throughout the book without ever really seeing each other again until the end) didn't really work for me. Maybe it was too psychological or too literary, I don't know.

I know there are many things I'd rather talk about than Banishing Verona. Like how today, after 4+ years cohabitating or being married, Jim and I went and picked out our first ever Christmas tree (we'd always traveled to the relatives for Christmas, but this year, they're coming to us). It took three tree lots and two tree stands, but we found the perfect one, took it home, and decorated it. The cat's having a grand time drinking tree water to her heart's content, and the tree sure smells good.

Good books: I'd recommend both Eva Moves the Furniture and The Missing World over this one. The first one features ghosts (Scottish ghosts, nonetheless) and in the second one, not only does a main character have a major case of amnesia (we're talking years missing), she's in danger too.

Next book up: Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Distant Land of My Father (Bo Caldwell)

I picked The Distant Land of My Father off the library shelf because I loved the cover. There's a black and white photograph of a busy Shanghai street with large square billowing flags painted with Chinese characters hanging above shops and a crowd of people on the sidewalk. In the front are two men, their backs mostly to the camera, running across the street, their long coats rising behind them. It's a beautiful photo capturing a far away land, but the motion of those two men make it feel as if it's still alive.

When I read the author bio on the back, I realized Bo Caldwell was the wife of Ron Hansen, who was Jim's professor in college. Then I started to get uneasy. The last book I picked off the shelf without knowing what it was about was The Seven Sisters. Since I didn't know Margaret Drabble, it was easy to write how I really felt about that book. Even though I hadn't met Caldwell, the association was close enough to count for something. What would I do if I didn't like this book?

It turns out I didn't need to worry. Caldwell had me right from the start with her rich descriptions of 1930s Shanghai and the story of a young girl, Anna, Shanghai-born from American parents, and her millionaire father and sophisticated mother. The story begins with Shanghai from seven-year-old's Anna's eyes and moves through the many struggles the family faced there as the Japanese Invasion begins and their own personal lives start to break apart.

I generally shy away from most books that are dramatic and sad, especially any books that have to do with war. I figure there's enough of that in real life to deal with, and I like to read to escape. If I had known what this book was about (with some passages detailing the horrors of everyday life in a war zone and those of the life of prisoners of war), I admit I wouldn't have read it. But I'm really glad I did. Not only is Caldwell's writing superb, the story is majestic in its scope while being relatable and human. I think the proof of how moving the story was is that I was completely engrossed in it and never felt as if there were any conventions or author tricks going on. The whole time I was lost in the story. Which is probably why it made me cry at various times. This book is very sad, but very, very good, and it will remind you how much you love your parents and all those close to you in your life.

Other good books: Judith Mitchell's The Last Day of the War: Judy was also one of Jim's professors, but this time in graduate school, and this is her first novel. It's set during World War I but does not fit the criteria of a typical war book, and it's a great vivid read. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible: I love this book. It took me forever before I finally read it because I thought I wouldn't like it because of all the Oprah Book Club hype. Kingsolver's description of 1950s Africa is amazing, as is the story of the young American missionary family who attempts to make that unfamiliar land home.

Next book up: Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Penultimate Peril (Lemony Snicket)

Unlike cereals and toys, the best children's books are ones that would never even make it to test marketing. Harry Potter would be too long. The Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books would be too dark, too complicated, and too verbose, which here means "using a lot of words adults think would cause confusion in children's minds." Snicket would argue to his critics that he gives fair warning of the darkness and the sadness (each book starts with the author's plea to not read further--the back cover of The Penultimate Peril reads, "If this is the first book you found while searching for a book to read next, then the first thing you should know is that this next-to-last book is what you should put down first").

Lemony Snicket is really Daniel Handler, author, acordion player, sometimes contributor to the band Magnetic Fields (see The Onion for a great recent interview with Handler). When Lemony Snicket is called to do readings, Handler arrives, explaining that he is Snicket's agent and that Snicket is currently in hiding (this won't sound at all suspicious to the kids as Snicket has explained his own precarious, life-threatening position in the pages of his books in between the precarious life-threatening plots of the Baudelaire orphans as they tried to solve the secrets of their parents' lives and deaths).

There's only one book of the 13 left in the series, and Penultimate Peril reads more like a prelude to the final book than the previous books, which have more stand-alone adventure while adding small puzzle pieces to the overall plot; instead in the 12th book, everything starts to come together and previous villians return. And as always, it's a very funny, engrossing read.

For an example of how these books are so relatable to adults as well, at one point in Penultimate Peril, the Baudelaires are on trial, and they learn that everyone in the court, except the judges, must be blindfolded. "'The verdict of the High Court was to take the expression literally,' said the manager, 'so everyone except the judges must cover their eyes before the trial can begin.' 'Scalia,' Sunny said. She meant something like, 'It doesn't seem like the literal interpretation makes any sense,' but her siblings did not think it was wise to translate." These sorts of remarks are scattered throughout all the books, and they're not placed there specifically for adults. It's Handler's writing style of this series that makes it so successful. He knows how to tell a good story, and I can hardly wait for the final book.

Other good books: I have to thank my good friend Karen for introducing me to the Lemony Snicket books. Karen teaches middle-school language arts, and always finds the best books to read. If you haven't checked out the Lemony Snicket books, you should, and even though they can be read out of order, they do make the most sense if you do read them in order. And, it may seem like old news, but the Harry Potter books are also really, really good. I just read the most recent one a few months ago, and thought it was the best one yet.

Next book up: The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Cookoff (Amy Sutherland)

"The lemon pie has taken second place in the presentation category." Jim walks by as the TV narrator says this, and he laughs so hard I'm afraid he's going to fall over. He repeats the next thing he hears in the voiceover's same measured, earnest tone, "The most popular category is apple with 14 entries." I'm watching Food Network's show Challenge--this particular episode is about a national pie contest in Celebration, Florida, and I'm completely hooked. Will the tiny old lady who grows her own pumpkins for her fresh pumpkin pie take home a blue ribbon? I hope it's her and not the woman who traveled far and entered 11 pies because I find the second woman quite bossy. In each episode, Challenge chronicles competitive food challenges from professional pastry competitions to BBQ cookoffs. My favorite one, though, is the pie episode. I really like pie.

Amy Sutherland, a newspaper reporter, found herself at the National Pillsbury Bakeoff, to cover the story of a contestant from her local area. Once there, she was curious about the different contestants, the competition circuit, and intrigued by all the amazing stories she heard. Even though amateur cookoffs veer more toward casserole fare (with preprocessed foods as main ingredients), the prizes are immense ($1 million grand prize at the Bakeoff, $50,000 at National Beef, expensive kitchen supplies, and even a year's supply of sauerkraut--though I'm not sure how much that would be) and the contestants come from all income brackets and professions. In Cookoff, Sutherland travels the contest circuit during 2001, following both the contest newbies and the "contesters," the official name for those seasoned cookoff veterans for whom the cookoffs have become an obsession.

One of my favorite cookoffs mentioned was National Beef, where each contestant gets their own hostess, a middle-aged Arizona Cowbelle, a cattlewoman who will be their personal guide through the contest, give them tote bags filled with pro-NRA, pro-Republican literature (with titles such as "Endangered Species Act Train Wreck"), and who, in case an animal rights protestor sneaks into the cookoff, stresses the contest supervisor, will "know what to do." And if that's not strange enough, there's also a chili cookoff in Terlingua, Texas, where ladies who look like your grandma can drink you under the table.

My only complaint about the book has to do with a small layout issue: for each cookoff Sutherland covers, she gives the winning recipe at the end of that chapter (which is very close to where the big who's-going-to-win moment takes place). If you don't want the who's-going-to-win moment ruined, then I suggest that when you see the recipe format, cover that page with your hand while reading the announcement of the prizes.

I have to admit by the end of the book, I was trying to concoct my own million dollar recipe for the Pilsbury bakeoff. I had quickly learned from the book, however, that I clearly do not eat like the average American (i.e., recipes that use a lot of spinach tend not to win because they are not "family friendly." I love spinach!) But I can still keep the dream alive and I could be a spectator at a couple of the cookoffs mentioned in the book that take place near me: The Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger. I'm already planning a small trip in July down to Gilroy for this upcoming year's garlic festival. Jim, a big fan of garlic, has agreed to come along. For now, though, he keeps repeating "The lemon pie has taken second place in the presentation company," laughing harder each time he says it.

Special contest!
Cookoff was not available at my local library, and it's a book I've been trying to find at libraries for a couple years without too much luck. I happened to find it at a large remainder sale (and no Dean, we did not see your book there) where I purchased it at a very reasonable price. I will send this brand new hardcover to the first person who posts a comment with the answer to this question: What was the grand prize winning recipe at the very first Pillsbury Bakeoff?

Other good books: Susan Orlean has written many great books about ordinary (and not so ordinary) people, places, and things. She's conversational in her tone and very entertaining. She's well-known for her book The Orchid Thief, which the movie Adaptation was based on. Also, if you've ever watched those The Knot Real Weddings shows on a lazy Sunday afternoon, there's one with her, which I think is the best episode of them. Not only does she come off as a fabulous real-life person, she has this fantastic gospel choir sing at her down-to-earth, small, homey wedding. Not that I watch these shows regularly. Really, just occassionally.

Next book up: The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket

Monday, November 21, 2005

Girl Sleuth (Melanie Rehak)

I come from a family of movers and shakers. Well, mostly movers. And with the many of cross-country moves I've made, I'm lucky I've held onto anything from my past, let alone my childhood. But somehow my parents managed to save my older sister Sue's Nancy Drew books for me and I've managed to hang onto them all this time. I have 14 yellow hardcovers from 1974 (which I've now learned is the official third version of Nancy), most with Sue's name written neatly on the inside of the front cover, some with pages covered in stickers that were prizes from cereal boxes, and one with a cracked spine where I had apparently started my own sleuthing by hiding notes inside it and taping it closed so craftily that no one would know, or so I thought.

I'm not the only one who can't let Nancy go, it seems. In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak gives an excellent, thorough (while being completely riveting the entire time) review of how Nancy Drew came to be. The story wasn't completely new to me--I had read an article some time ago in The New Yorker about Edward Stratemeyer, the king of juvenile serial fiction. He originally came up with the concept for both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, among other series. While Girl Sleuth begins with him, it quickly moves to the lives of the two main Nancy Drew authors: Mildred Wirt, a young writer in a small Iowa town, and his own daughter, Harriet. The book focuses on the interaction between the women and gives full, fascinating portraits of their lives. I wasn't expecting this book to do such a good job of placing these women inside their historical context (especially considering how timeless Nancy Drew stories were designed to be), but it does, and now I can see how important that is in understanding the amazing feats they accomplished (Harriet became C.E.O. of her father's publishing company by necessity when he died in 1930; Mildred took care of a brand new baby and an ailing husband while cranking out many books on tight deadlines, all without complaints).

I loved this book. For someone so steady, Nancy's certainly had a lot of changes over the years (though the books revisions still gave them a timeless feel and were not as drastic as the newer spinoff series that came about in the 1980s). I'm now interested in reading the original 1930-1940s versions of the books (they have been reissued by Applewood Books) to see what she was like in the original form. As a kid, I never cared that the Nancy I read wasn't up on the current lingo or popular culture. Books for pre-teens and teenage girls when I was growing up were all about serious things like bullemia, drug abuse, Divorce with a capital D, teenage runaways, you name it. I'd rather slip into River Heights where Ned was always polite and safe and Nancy was always smartly dressed and ready to get herself in and safely out of mischief.

Other good books: The Nancy Drew series (pre-1980, I don't think the ones after that should count).

Next book up: Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America by Amy Sutherland.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Seven Sisters (Margaret Drabble)

I'm more patient with the British than I am with Americans when it comes to fiction. If a book starts slowly and is set somewhere in the British countryside, I'm more likely to slow down with it and take it as it comes. I have no idea why this is, but it is a pattern. But even though Margaret Drabble is British and The Seven Sisters starts slowly, I ran out of patience. For reasons I'll go into more detail below, I wanted to stop ready many, many times. "It's a good thing," Jim said, as I sighed whenever I picked up the book again. "It'll balance the blog since all the other reviews so far have been positive ones."

In order to explain my experience with this book, I'm going to have to ruin what has been referred to in the backcover blurbs as a "clever" story and give a brief synopsis. So, if you are a fan of such movies as Vanilla Sky (a movie I saw for free and wanted to walk out of) and the ordinary lives of older British women, then I'd suggest not reading this post further.

Part 1: The book starts with a very lengthy section written as a diary by the main character, a recently divorced woman who is depressed. Nothing happens in this section. Sometimes it seems like it might, but nothing ever does. And this section is approximately half of the book.

Part 2: By God, something happens! Albeit it's not that exciting, but given my experience with Part 1, I'll take anything. The main character goes on a trip with some friends to Italy. Besides the actual journey to Italy, nothing really happens (and this section takes up almost the remaining half of the book), except for a strange point-of-view shift: Part 1 was first person, and Part 2 is 3rd person omniscient. Okay . . . . It's more interesting than Part 1, so I'll take it, but as I'm reading, I'm constantly revising the structure of the book in my head to make it a more interesting read.

Part 3: Oh no. Point-of-view shift again. Now the story is being told by one of the main character's estranged daughters because (gasp!) the main character has committed suicide. And now we find out that some of what the main character has told us in Part 1 has been a lie (but that's all sort of hazy at the same time, and given that nothing really happened in Part 1 anyway, kind of beside the point).

Part 4: Okay, so remember Part 3? Well, just kidding! Turns out that the main character did NOT commit suicide after all and that one of her estranged daughters did NOT really write that section. That was just the main character imagining what it would be like to write from her daughter's point of view and what it would be like to fake her own death. Seriously? Are you kidding me?

I must point out that Drabble has written quite a lot of books, so some people out there must be enjoying them. (And judging from the ratings on Amazon, some people really liked this book.) I could tell from her sentences and descriptions that the actual writing was good. But in my opinion, the story wasn't. If the whole book's success hinges on this "gotcha" moment that isn't that successful (and I have to wait until the very end of the book for the reveal), then I don't really want to be a part of it.

One of the backcover blurbs referred to this book as showing how a "realistic novel" can illuminate our lives (I wonder if that reviewer finished the book). A couple of days ago I saw an older woman walking in my neighborhood with a surgical face mask over her mouth. She stopped a walnut tree, took her poking stick (she had crafted the stick herself out of two thin tree branches tied together with a yellow ribbon) and jabbed the tree's branches so that walnuts fell onto the ground. She then collected the walnuts in her plastic bag. Then, not even 15 minutes later, I saw another old woman who, at 8 in the morning, took a large bright red processed meat stick out of her backpack, opened it, blotted the meat stick with a couple paper towels, and then proceeded to eat it. Both of those women were way more interesting in those small moments than the main character of this book was to me. So I don't see any reason why a "realistic" novel should be uninteresting.

Good books to read: Three Junes by Julia Glass: I only think of this book in this context because I had a hard time getting into it, but then it turned out to be an amazing book. Good writing and great story.

Next book up: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

The subtitle of Ella Minnow Pea, "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," made me a little uneasy before I started reading. Epistolary I could handle--though a pleading note to all book publishers and book designers: We will understand that what we're reading is a letter without the use of funky fonts or italics (or in this case, both). Really. We'll figure it out, I promise!--but progressively lipogrammatic? What's that? Turns out it's a fancy way of saying some alphabet letters are going to fall (literally), causing a great ruckus on the fictional island and the government said island to ban the use of these fallen letters in speech and writing (therefore carrying over to the book's author, which, if you're interested in nothing else, makes it worth reading just to see how he'll handle it). This technique does not makes the book a good candidate for an audiobook (for those of you out there who prefer your books this way, you know who you are).

The first letter that falls is "z," which seems harmless enough, but then when more common letters start to fall things get a little dicey. When "d" goes, so does most of the past tense and all days of the week (though the council kindly makes such useful suggestions for substitutions such as "Toes" for Tuesday and "Satto-gatto" for Saturday). And once a vowel falls, I wondered how Dunn was possibly going to make it through the rest of the book. Near the end, which many letters gone, it gets a little hard to decipher some of the sentences, but the book is so delightful, it is completely worth it.

I'd keep the fable part of the subtitle in mind as well while reading this book. Most readers will need to shut off that cynical part of their brains or they'll constantly find themselves asking Why at times when it might be best to enjoy what the book does offer. It's a quick and simply fun read.

Other good books: It's hard to categorize this book or think of too many others like it. One that gave
me a similar "wow-I-can't-believe-this-author-is-doing-this" sort of feeling was A Wrestler's Cruel Study by Stephen Dobyns. This book also bends reality, but in a much more visual way.

Next book up: The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble. This one should prove interesting because it was a pick-off-the-shelf book without any background knowledge, so we'll see how it turns out.
[Note: Next book up features books I have just started to read, so no spoilers please!]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Math Instinct (Keith Devlin)

I'm not going to lie and say, like most English majors would, I'm not good at math. Give me a good old pencil and paper school math test any day, and I'll gladly show you my work (though, for the record, I prefer not to do anything above advanced algebra). But just because I can solve some equations doesn't mean I necessarily want to read about them. I tend to shy away from books involving real math or science (or I take a sincere stab at them and then find myself reading page 3 over and over again without retaining anything at all). However, The Math Instinct won me over, which must mean it's a softer sort of science book, pared down for normal, nongeniuses like myself.

Devlin grounds mathematics in nature, where (I know, I had a hard time believing it at first, too) it actually makes sense. His examples (how bees compute distance flown, human babies' amazing sense of number, how a zebra gets its stripes) are highly interesting and entertaining. I'll admit that there were moments where the material was a little too math-intense for me, but then he'd pull me right back in with Brazilian street kids doing crazy market math.

It turns out (according to Devlin at least, and it seems like he's onto something to me) a lot of our problems in learning school math have to do with abstractness that isn't all that meaningful to us (or that we've learned the math for the sake of test taking only). And he has a very interesting discussion as to why American kids lag behind Chinese kids in math. Turns out a lot of stuff is about language, including math, and the two are so connected that the "English major" excuse can't truly be used anymore (don't worry, Devlin can give you plenty other reasons for not being good at school math, and he'll make you feel good about all the math you can do without knowing it).

While I enjoyed this book, I'll never feel the way about math Wim Klein, a bonafide math genius, does. When presented with the number 3,844, Devlin quotes Klein as saying, "For you it's just a three and an eight and a four and a four, but I say 'Hi, 62 squared!'"

Other Good Books: Thus far, the only other science- and/or math-intensive books I've managed to finish and truly like are The Code Book (Simon Singh), Longitude (Dava Sobel), and Endurance (Alfred Lansing) (which I'm not sure if it counts--it might be more under the adventure category, but it sure was good and seems enough about science to fit).

Next book up: Fiction! That's right. The first fiction book for the blog: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.
[NOTE: Next book up features are books that I have just started to read, so no spoilers please!]

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Feeding a Yen (Calvin Trillin)

To say that I like food is a bit of an understatement. I love shopping for it, cooking it, and reading about it. I've read a good deal of foodie nonfiction, and it seems that to write a good food read, you need to be at least a bit obsessive about it, say, for instance, like Jeffrey Steingarten (lawyer turned Vogue food writer). And where Steingarten may be a bit too obsessive in his food quests for many nonfoodies, Calvin Trillin, writer for The New Yorker, has a great balance of obsessiveness in real-life context that appeals to those who do not think about food most of the day. When the annual food issue of The New Yorker arrives in the mail, I'm read every article in a trance-like state while Jim, my husband, glances over almost all of them, except for whatever Trillin has written. (And Jim is the person who, when asked what he would like to eat for dinner, cannot remember a single meal he has eaten in his life.)

In Feeding a Yen, Trillin discusses his travels in search of regional food, from his Manhattan neighborhood to small villages in Spain. He does this with a lot of humor and without pretention. He searches for the pumpernickel bagels of his daughter's youth, and sincerely believes that if he finds them, she will move back home to New York from San Francisco. During his travels to Ecuador, you learn the fascinating fact that guinea pig is such a regional speciality in Cuzco, there is a 17th century religious painting with the furry creature served for Jesus et al. at the Last Supper. He tests wine connoisseurs to see if they can tell the difference between red and white wines (which, is worth reading, regardless of what you have heard on the topic--this chapter in the book updates his 1994 New Yorker article on the subject).

This is the first Trillin book I have read, so I can't compare it with his others, but I found it to be a quick enjoyable read, with many laugh-out-loud moments. While traveling to these extraordinary places eating extraordinary meals, Trillin is incredibly relatable in his experiences.

Friday, November 04, 2005


I commute everyday from San Jose to Palo Alto using public transit, so I read a lot of books from the library. Because I tend to pick them out by title or cover (and if I'm lucky, I'll skim the book jacket), sometimes I end up with something great, and sometimes not.

In general, I'm not a big fan of published book reviews. I don't find them very helpful: They seem overworked and too serious. I'm not sure what audience the reviewers has in mind when writing as it doesn't feel as if they're talking to a real person who's looking for something entertaining to read.

So I started this blog to record what I read and my opinions about it. I'll be incredibly biased (because we're talking about my tastes here), but I'll try to point out why I didn't like it (which may make someone else love it) along with other (hopefully) entertaining information.

I welcome any book suggestions. Please keep in mind that I generally only read library books (so the books would need to be available at the San Jose Library--which has an excellent online request system so the branch does not matter).