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).