Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October Reading Round Up

I thought I might break 100 this month, but I think I'm still shy by a couple... I'll know by the end of this post. However, due to the fact that the first part of the month I read 2 books in a week, I've really turned on the gas the past 3 weeks. And I will definitely read 2 books in the next two months anyway.

(SPOILER ALERT: Some of these book reviews may contain spoilers. If you see a title that strikes your fancy, read with caution. I'll try not to reveal any cliffhanger endings.)

1. Father Knows Less (Or: Can I Cook My Sister?) by Wendell Jamieson. I had a little bit of a non-fiction urge this month as you will see, and this was the first in a string of non-fictions. Wendell Jamieson, an editor at the NY Times, decided that he would go on a quest to answer his son's and other kids' most baffling questions. But rather than look up the questions on the internet, he decided to talk to experts in the fields in which the questions fell. For instance, one kid asked why does a whip make that cracking sound? Wendell talked to a dominatrix.

The book was absolutely fascinating, and I learned so much from reading it. There were things I thought I knew, and my answers were either confirmed or denied (IE why the sky is blue), and there were things I'd never even wondered about and learned (ie why ships have round windows).

My favorite factoid learned had to do with Jupiter. So, dear reader, an informal quiz. What is Jupiter made out of??? Don't google it, just drop me a comment with the first answer that comes to mind. I'll post the answer later. :-)

Awesome book and it made learning fun. My next similar book will be Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which I picked up at a book sale.

2. The Girls by Lori Lansens. Lori Lansens's story of conjoined twins was this month's book club selection. Due to the fact that we met early, I can speak freely about the book.

Ruby and Rose are identical twin girls born conjoined at the head. Their birth mother flees from them after they are born, and they are taken in by the attending nurse, Lovey and her husband, Stash, a native Slovak. The girls grow up in a small Canadian border town, and as they learn that they are dying, they decide to write their autobiography. The story spans their growing up and their life together, as well as Lovey and Stash's lives together.

I really, really enjoyed this book, it was probably one of the top 10 I've read this year. My only minor quibble with the book was the sheer number of time the author wrote "we are conjoined". Every freakin' page. Judy and I would call each other and ask, "Hey, did you know these girls are conjoined?" It got to be a joke. Last night we were sitting in the car, and I said, "You know, I've been thinking a lot about it, and I've come to a serious conclusion after a lot of thought." Judy kind of tensed up, since a lot's been going on lately, and she said, "What?! What's up?" and I said, "I think they were conjoined." and we both got the giggles.

The other quibble I had with it was the girls' trip to Slovakia, which in my opinion was set up to be a huge, disastrous experience, and in fact, after I read it, I thought, "uh huh, and?" But there were other parts that made up for it. Great book, I really liked it.

3. You'll Never Nanny In This Town Again by Suzanne Hansen.

Suzanne Hansen spent a year working to care for the three children of Hollywood power player Michael Ovitz and his wife, Judy. Nearly 20 years later, she wrote her first book about the experience. In it, she writes of how the Ovitzes routinely neglected their children and mistreated their staff, as did their friends and neighbors in show biz.

Many people found a lot to criticize about this book, and I can say that I found a lot of Hansen's issues to come about on account of her own lack of experience. For instance, she'd never bothered to get a contract from the Ovitzes stating her working hours, overtime pay, or expected duties. She failed to stand up for herself and let the situation spiral out of control until it was intolerable. She then quit, and found a job working for Debra Winger, whom she found to be quite down-to-earth and friendly, but who didn't really need a nanny. Her third gig was as a nanny to Rhea Perlman and Danny Devito's kids, another great position. Although she enjoyed it, she realized she didn't want to be a nanny and left that job to become a nurse.

I have to be honest. I enjoyed the hell out of this book. Seeing inside a Hollywood home, albeit not that of a major star, but of a broker, was fascinating as hell. I don't know why she wrote this book, but I'm glad she did. I also enjoyed hearing about the down-to-earth stars like Sally Field and Bill Murray, who were kind and funny and nice to be around. It was like the best of both worlds. I wouldn't say run out and grab this, but if you're looking for a fun read and love celebrity, this may just be the book for you.

4. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin.

I admit. The title got me. I'm a sucker for a clever title. And the book was worthy of the title.

Naomi is a typical popular teenage girl, dating the star of the school tennis team, inexplicably best friends with a yearbook nerd, and all around school royalty when she loses a bet to said yearbook nerd and has to go back to the school to get a camera they've left behind. Coming back down the stairs, she falls and hits her head, and awakes to discover she's forgotten absolutely everything about her life after 8th grade. When she returns to school and tries to go back to the Naomi everyone is used to, she discovers that the person she is isn't interested in the person she was.

I sped on through this book, and I really enjoyed it. There seems to be a trend of teen stories about popular teens who feel bad about being mean to the nerdy kids but who don't do anything about it, and this book was no exception. Naomi discovers that she doesn't very well like her boyfriend, and her girlfriends are a bunch of backstabbing weasels, but she still sits with them at lunch and endures their company instead of spending time with the two people she'd most like to spend time with: Will, the yearbook kid and James, the brooding artist who's new at school.

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say it's somewhat of a surprise how it all comes out in the end, and Naomi is a better person for her bout with amnesia.

5. Running the Dogs by Thomas Cochran and Really Cheesy Facts About Famous Authors by Camille Smith Platt. I'm counting these two as one book, because frankly, neither one of them was very long, nor were they particularly taxing to read. I would feel like it was cheating if I counted them separately, since I read them both in under an hour's time.

Running the Dogs tells the story of Talmadge Cotton, a young boy in Louisiana whose family is snowed in just a day before Christmas in a freak snowstorm. Talmadge's father is stuck out of town, where he works on oil rigs (or something), and the family isn't sure Daddy will make it home. Talmadge's fondest desire is to "run the dogs" alone out in the woods without adult supervision, and this is what he's asked his father for as a Christmas gift. However, with only a couple of days to go, Talmadge lets the dogs run loose and they disappear, leaving him to worry for their safety as well as giving him his first taste of the real woods in the night time.

The book is a sweet little story for the holidays about the pangs of growing up, the disappointments, heartaches, and tribulations, as well as the joys and excitement of the holidays. The setting of Louisiana and the family's traditions as a family celebrating Christmas there are richly detailed in the traditions and foods the family prepares as it is ready to celebrate Christmas.

Really Cheesy Facts About Famous Authors is apparently one in a series of Really Cheesey Facts books and this particular entry discusses the foibles and follies of authors from Shakespeare to JK Rowling and back again. Which authors were in debt up to their eyeballs? Which were embarrassed by sexual escapades? Which had family embarrassments? Who was rejected and who was accepted by society, publishers, and others? It was a fun and interesting read, lots of little sidebars about the authors, informative and cute. I recommend it if you're a bibliophile.

6. The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard. Michael and I got into this one and fell hard and fast for a great thriller of a story.

The focus of the tale is the small town of Small Plains, Kansas, where one night, tragedy strikes when an unknown girl is found naked and dead in a frozen cow pasture belonging to the town's sheriff. The same night, the son of one of the sheriff's best friends (who happens to be the town judge) disappears, sent away by his parents after the girl's death. Mitch leaves his devastated girlfriend, Abby, behind, and the unknown girl's murder is never solved.

Fast forward 20 years, and Mitch's mother dies. Mitch returns to town months later, for the first time since the death of the girl, now called The Virgin of Small Plains. Her grave is a magnet for miracle seekers and many miraculous healings are attributed to the young woman. Mitch's return opens many old wounds and new questions are brought to light. The mystery of the girl's has to be solved and Abby has to put her feelings for much to rest, one way or the other, to move on with her life. Mitch and Rex, his other best friend who discovered the girl's body, must also put the past behind them.

What a nail biter. It was a book I absolutely hated to have end. I put off the ending for as long as I could. I wanted certain things to happen, and by and large, they did, and I was surprised at the end as to how the whole mystery wound up, so I was even more satisfied. Great, great reading.

7. Goodbye Jumbo, Hello Cruel World by Louie Anderson. I had no idea Louie Anderson was still around, let alone that he wrote books! I found this one at the library book sale, and the jacket suggested that it was a book that had to do with Anderson's quest to discover a) why he was fat and b) how he could get healthy. Apparently his first book dealt with the abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father.

Well, lately I've been on a quest of sorts to figure out my life, how I got to where I am, why I look the way I do, what I am going to do about getting what I want out of life, and so on and so forth. I picked this up along with another book along a similar vein in the hopes that my quest will be furthered by them what went before.

Louie talks about his supposition that fat people are fat because they are hiding from the world. He tells a parallel story along the way of a baby elephant whose mother is killed and who is brought into the circus and is crowned the biggest elephant ever, and then becomes a freak, a sideshow act, all the while searching for the love of his lost mom.

I gave a lot of thought to this, and I'm not sure it necessarily applies to me. I don't know. I never felt like I didn't get a lot of love growing up. My parents both loved me, although admittedly I was a miserable cuss after hitting 6th grade and finally became human again some time in college. This was due in large part to the trials of adolescence and life being split into the cool kids and the nerds of which I was decidedly of the second stripe. I was the first kid with zits, the first kid with braces, shy, and "smart". So, am I fat because of all that and the fall out that came with it? Honestly, I don't know. I could be. I'm still working on it. But I've pretty much crossed my family off the list. I felt loved by my nuclear family, if misunderstood, and my immediate family was very loving towards me--my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. I had some friends, few, but friends I cherished and still love today... And I was looking at my school yearbook the other day, and thinking how I was one of "the fat kids" and honestly? I think I looked OK. Yes, heavier than the other kids, but I think I looked OK. Everything was just so out of whack, and I've had poor body image my entire life. And now, I can't even tell you the last time I looked at myself, really looked at myself.

I'm thinking of starting a new, private blog to deal with these issues, possibly something password protected. I'm not a conventional journaler, so I think that blogging about these things could be valuable. But I don't want my private thoughts splashed everywhere either. So I'll keep you posted and any one who wants the URL/password with good reason can have it.

So, Louie gave me lots to think about, as you can see. I enjoyed reading about his journey, although I suspect mine will be different. Thanks, Louie, wherever you are!! (seriously, the last time I remember seeing Louie Anderson was on an episode of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist--and if you're out there and you love me, the full DVD set of Dr. Katz is out on November 20th. Hint hint hint).

8. Circle of Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini. She's back and better than ever. Honestly, I skipped the Elm Creek Quilters book before this one. It was a continuation of one of the Elm Creek back stories about the Underground Railroad, and try though I might, I just couldn't get into it. Suffice it to say, I greeted this one with trepidation.

Circle of Quilters revolves around the Elm Creek Quilts Camp's search for 2 new instructors to replace the two quilters who are leaving Elm Creek to pursue new directions in their lives. There are several highly qualified applicants, and each of them has a story to tell. The book dedicates a very long chapter to each and how they became involved in and fell in love with quilting, goes through to their interview, and then drops off into the next applicant's story. Eventually, when all the tales are told, the Elm Creek Quilters make up their minds and choose who the new instructors will be.

Much as I am loathe to admit it, I cried through about half of this damned book. Damn you, Jennifer Chiaverini!!!! And double damn you. heh Seriously, when she writes these current stories, I love them. I didn't put this down, and stayed up reading till almost 2 in the morning finishing it. I was particular touched by the story of Mitch, the male quilter, and his wife Elaine.

The next Elm Creek book is a throwback to Sylvia's childhood again, so I suspect I'll skip that one and move on to the next. We'll have to see. These are so much fun, though.

9. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson.

Once upon a time, journalism profs duly instructed their greenhorn grads to seek out community papers and the obit pages as logical entrance points into the world of newspaper reporting. Working for cash-strapped local papers allowed novices to practice writing everything from hard news to lifestyle features. Obituaries, meanwhile, were a rung on the ladder of major publications, albeit the lowest. The musty, dusty obit pages also traditionally hosted aging reporters put out to pasture. Not any more, argues Marilyn Johnson in her unabashedly knock-kneed love letter to the obit pages, The Dead Beat. Today, august publications like The New York Times, England's Daily Telegraph, Independent, and The Economist, and Canada's Globe and Mail use exalted members of the fourth estate to turn out smart, hip tributes to widespread, almost cultish, acclaim. Why? Because, as Johnson persuasively demonstrates in her book, truth is almost always stranger than fiction and a well-written, deeply researched obit is not only a vital historical record but a damn fine read over coffee and toast. "God is my assignment editor," cracks Richard Pearson of the Washington Post and if that isn't more interesting than what's going on in your city council chambers, author Johnson and those working the so-called Dead Beat don't know what is.

I used to love reading the obituaries, but upon reading this book about obituaries and obituary writers, I think I was going at it all wrong. The book was a fascinating look at what goes into writing a good obituary, and honestly what goes into good writing at all. I was glad it was a relatively short book (272 pages), because after a while, for me, it started to wear a little bit thin, but it was so much fun reading the stories of the obituary writers and the subjects they covered. Overall a good read, but as I say, after a while, I got a little bored with it. I finished it out of sheer tenacity, plus someone wanted to borrow it and I wanted to finish it before lending it out.

10. Enough Dammit! A Cynic's Guide to Finally Getting what You Want Out of Lifeby Karen Salmansohn.

This is the sequel to a previous favorite read, How to Be Happy, Dammit!, which I read earlier this year. Enough Dammit again has lots of pretty graphics and 44 life lessons, but challenges you to quit sabotaging yourself and start getting what you want by doing what needs to be done to get to your goal.

The book tied in nicely with the Louie Anderson book, and with my general state of mind right now. I didn't want to hear the message of the book, which is basically that change is painful, but living the life you're living right now where you don't have what you want mentally, physically, and emotionally is also painful, and a little different pain will put you in a happier place. I recommended this one to several people I know need the message like I do, I hope they'll get it and read it. Unlike How to Be Happy, Dammit, I can see myself coming back to this one several times, to refresh my memory and re-learn the lessons. This was a lot harder to read, since I generally consider myself a happy person, but not necessarily motivated to change.

11. Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor.

Believe it or not, this is the first Garrison Keillor book I've ever read.


Vacillating between poignant, endearing, outrageous and mocking, this thoroughly engaging, frequently hilarious bildungsroman is narrated by the libidinous, iconoclastic 14-year-old wannabe writer Gary. Recounting the trials and tribulations of coming of age under the smothering influence of the Sanctified Brethren, a religious sect preaching unrelenting hellfire and damnation during the summer of 1956 in the tiny backwater of Lake Wobegon, the somewhat nerdy hero has a sexual fixation on his slightly older cousin Kate, abhors his geeky goody-two-shoes older sister, is obsessed with pornographic sexual fantasies engendered from reading a purloined copy of the verboten magazine High School Orgies, and is preoccupied by such intellectual pursuits as classifying variations of the 10 known categories of flatulence. Given an Underwood typewriter as a bribe from his uncle to tattletale on Kate's romance with a ne'er-do-well local baseball hero, Gary turns to writing pornographic stories about his imagined adventures with Kate before he is serendipitously handed the job of substitute sportswriter for the local paper. Game after game, he is forced to observe Kate's budding romance, until the affair predictably culminates in the age-old biological consequence and the family spins into crisis mode while our hero suffers a broken heart.

This book was actually a tad on the racy side! Young Gary amuses himself with a book, High School Orgies, given to him by his friend Leonard. He spins himself additional fantasies around this book and his cousin Kate, as well as spending time hanging out with his hero, Jim Dandy, member of the Doo Dads singing sensation and announcer at the local ballfield. The book has lots of Lake Wobegon charm and I suspect I'll probably read more in the series, but I was a tad surprised by the constant mention of genitalia, considering I only was familiar with the NPR version of Keillor's famed little town. It was a fun read, though, and I finished it today. I look forward to some more of these stories and people.

12. Homefront by Doris Gwaltney. I actually read this book last month, and I couldn't find any mention of it in either the list I am keeping on the computer or on the blog. If I'm wrong, please let me know so I can adjust my stats accordingly!

Gwaltney's YA book tells the story of Margaret Ann Motley, who's been waiting her whole life for her sister, Elizabeth to move out so she can have her own bedroom. Unfortunately, just as Elizabeth leaves for college, their aunt and cousin move in and steal Margaret Ann's room out from under her. Courtney, Margaret Ann's cousin, has arrived in Virginia with her mother from England, fleeing World War II and its many disastrous implications for them living in such dangerous times. The battle between the two young women as they fight for position of alpha female in the household and at school with friends is funny, poignant, and bittersweet. Finally, when the US enters the war, and Margaret Ann's brother and Elizabeth's new husband both enlist, Margaret Ann and Courtney come to some understanding about each other and the many feelings they have as citizens of the world.

I really enjoy WWII era books for some reason and this book was no exception. I also liked that the book took place n a farm in Virginia, and not too far away from Fredericksburg. Living in urban sprawl, I like to read back to the simpler times when the Virginia I know wasn't even dreamed of and the Virginia the characters knew didn't exist.

So, that's it, twelve books on the month, added to 86 from the remainder of the year brings us to a total of 98, two short of the goal. I fully expect to have that complete if for no other reason than I'll have a couple book club reads to finish up this year and I want to read a few other books from the stack--perhaps on the trips to Atlanta and Florida.

The breakdown, as ever, is as follows:

The Excellent: Father Knows Less, The Girls, The Virgin of Small Plains, Enough Dammit!

The Great: Circle of Quilters, Homefront, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

The Good: You'll Never Nanny In This Town Again, Running the Dogs, Really Cheesy Facts about Famous Authors, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, Goodbye Jumbo Hello Cruel World, The Dead Beat

Totals for September:

Books Read: 12
Pages Read: 3617

Totals for 2007:

Books Read: 98
Pages Read: 31,149

2 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Laura said...

Kate/Susan... I contacted you last year for a Free Lance-Star story on NaNoWriMo, and while I didn't end up including you I got intrigued by your blog, specifically your 100-book reading quest. Now I'd like to do a feature story just about you, and that quest. I like the idea of showing people they can fit 100 books into a year's normal life, even with working, socializing and meeting everyday obligations. What do you think?
Please contact me:
Laura Moyer
The Free Lance-Star
web site: fredericksburg.com


Melissa said...

WOW Susan...you go...getting in the newspaper for your reading! Let me know if you got for it...may grandmother reads the Free Lance Star and would likely be thrilled to read about one of my friends!!!! :) How cool!