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