Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Burning Holes in My Shelves

Thanks to the Christmas holidays, some generous bloggy friends, and some generous publishers, I have a stack of books burning a hole in my shelves!!! Many of my books have been boxed up and stored away for the last six months or so, and that part of my reading life has actually been really helpful. I can't spend too much time perusing endless choices when I only have 20 or so physical books to choose from and the stock of stuff on my e-reader. It streamlines the waffling, in other words.

Here are the books at the tippy top of my stacks really calling my name right now...

I've started The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, and I've already bumped off 40 pages or so before a bitchin' headache bloomed. This was a gift from the lovely Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble. She was kind enough to send along her copy when I mentioned wanting to read it recently. This one feels cozy and pleasant so far, and I can't wait to see where Ogawa takes the story. I'm also really impressed with the beautiful translation by Stephen Snyder.

BlurbHe is a brilliant math professor, with a peculiar problem — since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son who is hired to care for him. And between them a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms. Though the professor can hold new memories for only eighty minuets, his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past; and through him, the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the housekeeper and her son.

After I added Melissa Marr's Graveminder to my list of hopefuls for Christmas, I received it in the mail from the publisher! I'm pretty sure I had a CRS moment and forgot I'd requested it in the first place. Hmmphf! Either way, I'm glad to have it. This looks like a fun book when I'm in the mood for something light and paranormal. 

BlurbRebekkah Barrow never forgot the attention her grandmother Maylene bestowed upon the dead of Claysville, the small town where Bek spent her adolescence. There wasn't a funeral that Maylene didn't attend, and at each one Rebekkah watched as Maylene performed the same unusual ritual: She took three sips from a silver flask and spoke the words "Sleep well, and stay where I put you." Now Maylene is dead, and Bek must go back to the place she left a decade earlier. She soon discovers that Claysville is not just the sleepy town she remembers, and that Maylene had good reason for her odd traditions. It turns out that in Claysville the worlds of the living and the dead are dangerously connected; beneath the town lies a shadowy, lawless land ruled by the enigmatic Charles, aka Mr. D. If the dead are not properly cared for, they will come back to satiate themselves with food, drink, and stories from the land of the living. Only the Graveminder, by tradition a Barrow woman, and her Undertaker—in this case Byron Montgomery, with whom Bek shares a complicated past—can set things right once the dead begin to walk.

Tides of War by Stella Tillyard was another book provided by the publisher. I haven't had a chance to jump in, but reading the early pages of this one makes me think it's a promising read. I also enjoyed Wendy's review over at CaribousMom. I don't read enough sweeping historicals, and I think I'll be in the mood for this one really soon.

BlurbTides of War opens in England with the recently married, charmingly unconventional Harriet preparing to say goodbye to her husband, James, as he leaves to join the Duke of Wellington's troops in Spain. Harriet and James's interwoven stories of love and betrayal propel this sweeping and dramatic novel as it moves between Regency London on the cusp of modernity: a city in love with science, the machine, money, and the shocking violence of war in Spain. 

Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor, is yet another book I saw in a publisher's e-mail, and I jumped on it without hesitation. It looks a little dark and moody and maybe a little seedy in spots. Just the kind of historical novel I want to curl up with underneath the new quilt I received for Christmas.

BlurbA powerful and deeply moving masterpiece about love, partings and reconciliation — and of the courage involved in living on nobody else's terms. Dublin, 1907. A young actress begins an affair with a damaged older man, the leading playwright at the theatre where she works. Outspoken and flirtatious, Molly Allgood is a Catholic girl from the slums of Dublin, dreaming of stardom in America. Her lover, John Synge, is a troubled genius, whose life is hampered by convention and by the austere and God-fearing mother with whom he lives. Their affair, sternly opposed by friends and family, is quarrelsome, affectionate and tender. Many years later, Molly, now a poverty-stricken old woman, makes her way through London's bomb-scarred city streets, alone but for a snowdrift of memories. Her once dazzling has faded but her unquenchable passion for life has kept her afloat.

Finally, Wendy was kind enough to host a giveaway for The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer, and I've been itching to read it ever since it arrived. I've seen good reviews of it here and there in the blogosphere, and y'all know I'm a cover nut, and I like this one a lot. Not to mention the inclusion of art and scandal. Woohoo!

BlurbWhen the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Dedicating himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship, Daniel discovers a web of mysteries leading back to pre--World War II Vienna. Ambitious, haunting, and stunningly written, The Marriage Artist is an “elaborate psycho-political-sexual puzzle, with...hard truths, startling visions, and eerie insights into the mystical and memorializing powers of art, and that endless hunger we call love” (Booklist).

While these aren't the only books burning holes in my shelves, I did take the time to make a specific stack of books to read sooner rather than later. They've been sitting across from my favorite blogging spot for a while now, staring at me and mocking me. Little temptresses! 

Have you read any of these books? What books are calling out to you the loudest right now?

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

There's a good possibility Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, will be my final completed book in 2011. And it's a good way to cap off the year!

My first experience with Julian Barnes's work wasn't really any experience at all. I was scheduled to take a Contemporary British Literature class to cap off my undergraduate degree in 2003, but I ended up dropping the class in favor of a different British lit class with a professor with a bigger, badder attitude. I can't say I regret it, as the class I opted for introduced me to one of the most influential of authors I've ever read: T.S. Eliot and my all-time favorite poem, "The Waste Land". The bigger, badder professor also turned out to be a life changer, leaving the university to pursue the priesthood, largely influenced by T.S. Eliot and his work. His influence drove me to get a graduate degree in English. What's not to love about that?

Why am I wasting your time with this remembrance? Because it is formative and my memories are memories I consider concrete, unchanging, certain. The main character in Barnes's novel, Tony Webster, discovers that his own memories are not so certain. The book is split into two long chapters, the first of which details Tony's adolescence with his three best friends--namely the enigmatic Adrian Finn--as well as his naive fumblings with girlfriend, Veronica. The latter half of the book is Tony's realization that his has been a fulfilling but lackluster adulthood. When he receives an attorney's letter in the mail he's left scrambling through those earlier memories to put together pieces of a puzzle that will thoroughly unsettle him.

This is a great book in a number of ways. First off, it's only 170ish pages in print, and it was only 107 on my Nook. The amount of character building and the sense of realism Barnes is able to infuse in a story of this length is quite an accomplishment. I'm a proponent of short stories, so it's probably not surprising that I would enjoy what amounts, in my mind, to a novella, but I guess the impressive part is the sense of realism Barnes imparts with a lot of different issues swirling around the characters. Issues of time, philosophy, class, relationships, sexuality, and suicide.

To build on that, this novel is a lit-gasm, y'all. There is a ton of talk about literature and literary devices, philosophy, and a good many intertextual references. In the beginning, Tony is reflecting on his experiences in school, and Adrian tends to be pretty brilliant, so the banter about philosophy and literature was really fun for me. I also knew there was an intertextual reference in the title, but it wasn't until I stumbled upon a review in Vogue that I figured out what it was (because I'm too lazy to Google it): "Barnes’s title is taken from critic Frank Kermode, whose landmark analysis of fiction examined the consolations of narrative and the corrections authors make to bring meaning and order to a chaotic world." 

The title says so much about the novel. The biggest issue at work in this little book is Tony's struggle with memory. He remembers his first girlfriend as much more of a cold fish than she probably was, he idolizes his friend Adrian more than necessary, and quite honestly, he remembers himself in a much nicer, more flattering light than was true. It's only when he looks back at a letter to Adrian and Veronica that it really dawns on him how fallible memory can be.

I'm SO not doing this book justice. Tony is a regular guy who experiences a big slap to his ego and a big snap back to reality in light of who he and his friends really were in their youth. The only thing that left me slightly unsatisfied was the ending. There is a surprise ending in this book -- a revelation that honestly surprised me, though looking back through my notes and highlights, it probably shouldn't have surprised me. While I was satisfied with the surprise itself, the novel only lasted a few pages past the surprise. As a reader, I wanted Tony to grapple with the truth a bit more before the novel closed. It's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

While I am absolutely certain I'm impressed by this book, especially from a technical perspective, I'm not sure how long it'll stick with me. I wasn't touched on an emotional level (which I tend to prefer in picking all-time faves), but I found myself in a constant state of analysis while reading. Barnes is a good storyteller and a thoughtful evaluator of issues. While I'm interested in reading more of his work, and while I appreciate this novel, it didn't win me over on visceral level, but it sure impressed me on the cerebral plane.

Snuggle (more like a firm handshake with a professor) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: October 2011
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Format: E-book
ISBN-13: 9780307957122
Source: Purchased by me.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Nook Simple Touch

It's been almost two years since I received the first generation Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader. If you remember, I was thrilled with the device. I've remained pretty thrilled in general, but over the course of the two-year relationship I discovered a few annoyances:

1. The white frame and reflective touch-screen navigation were occasionally annoying. I had a habit of studying my double-chin in the touch-screen.

2. It was really too heavy to hold with one hand. Especially when it was "wearing" a cover.

When it came to getting a new Nook this year, I was somewhat noncommittal. I kinda felt guilty wanting a new e-reader since there was absolutely nothing technically wrong with my old one. On the other hand, there were parts of the Nook Simple Touch that really appealed to me:

1. The dark grey frame seemed like it would cut down on distraction and help make the contrast between the print and the e-ink page more noticeable.

2. No reflective navigation bar to throw my chins up at me.

3. Smaller, lighter.

4. Faster page turns, longer battery life!

My mother, in her infinite wisdom, went ahead and bought the Simple Touch for me for Christmas. Thrilled is me! All of the improvements I listed above are certainly true. I can comfortably hold the Simple Touch with one hand, even when it's wearing its cover. The reading screen is the same size, but the whole device is smaller and slimmer thanks to the exclusion of the navigation panel.

I've also discovered some nice surprises -- new features I never thought about that really jump out at me. First and foremost, the touchscreen is fantastic!!! It's responsive and quick -- none of that dreaded lag. I admit that I am super anal retentive about smudging screens and dust particles and all of that. I bought a cleaning cloth -- should take care of that little obsession.

Since the device is now touchscreen, the act of highlighting and adding notes is MUCH improved. To highlight a passage you simply hold your finger down where you want to start highlighting and drag to the end of the passage. Voila! To add a note, use your finger to click the highlighted passage and add your note. Once the note is added, a notepad icon appears next to the passage for easy reading. It's also much easier to locate highlighted passages since the device automatically labels them with the quoted text if you don't indicate a specific note with which to identify the passage. In the past, the device randomly attached a number to the passages and bookmarks which made it almost impossible to identify at a glance.

The navigation is streamlined with five options: Home, Library, Shop, Search, Settings. The home screen itself is great, with a magazine-style layout. It includes clickable sections for Reading Now (shows current book and page number), New Reads (recent downloads), and What to Read Next (enter to shop B&N and view recommendations). The Library is also revamped a bit, with some options for filtering and ordering titles in one's library, and it combines Barnes and Noble NookBooks and books manually downloaded and added to the Nook together into one library (formerly two separate libraries).

Battery life also seems to be vastly improved. I've been reading a couple of hours a day since the 22nd of December, and my device is still at 69% charge.

Throughout the e-reader boom in the last few years, I've stuck to my guns on a couple of things: I prefer the Nook to other devices, and I prefer a DEDICATED E-READER!!! While I respect and am occasionally envious of those readers with NookColors and NookTablets, I know myself well enough to admit that those devices are probably not for me. Like so many areas of my life, I am easily distracted!!! If I have an option to hop on Facebook or play Angry Birds, I will probably do it! Even engaging in those things rather than reading. Why would I do that if I LOVE reading so much??? Because Facebook and games require far less engagement and mental capacity on my part. I love reading, but sometimes it's a struggle to settle in with so many other things going on. A dedicated e-reader helps me remain focused on what makes me feel fulfilled and put the other "plugged in" activities to the side.

Since I received my Simple Touch six days ago, I've read the majority of two books (will finish the second today). This is a byproduct of time off work and a new toy, but I also think I'll continue to enjoy this new e-reader for all the reasons I mentioned above. Hopefully it'll continue to enhance my reading into 2012!!!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex

Sex SEXXXX sex sex SEXY-SEX! Do we have that out of our systems now? Or maybe it was just me with that in my system. Whatever.

Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex first came to my attention when Natasha mentioned it over on her blog. I wasn't immediately interested in reading it, but when I saw it on and it was $2.99, my interest increased! I downloaded it, I read it on my new Nook in two days flat (over the holidays!!!), and the rest is history. Good history.

First, let's just get this right out of the way -- it's not sensational, it's not grodey (much), it's thoughtful, provocative essays, short stories, and there's even an illustrated comic and dramatic dialogey thing thrown in (waves at Eve Ensler). If sex makes you uncomfortable, you may squirm a little (lot) reading it, and if you're not uncomfortable, it might still make you squirm from time to time. But it'll also make you think, ponder, and take a minute to reflect on your own experiences, attitudes, and how they came to be what they are.

The pieces in this edited collection really do run the gamut of content, though I think I can safely say the quality of the writing is always high. I spent a good deal of time highlighting passages so I could remember all of the great moments I knew I'd want to remember for this review. I wish I could include them all, but it would be a book-long review.

There are a few things worth mentioning before I hop into commentary on the essays and stories themselves. I've seen on a couple of blogs when I was reading reviews of this collection, that readers were troubled by the inclusion of fiction within this collection. I get the sense that some readers felt the subtitle: "Real Women Write About Real Sex" created some weirdness with the inclusion of fiction. Having connected to some very real emotions through fiction in my lifetime, this aspect of the book was absolutely NOT a problem for me. Some of the moments I found to be personally truthful, touching, or even troubling came from the fictional pieces.

In fact, the first story that comes to mind when I think of this collection is Margot Magowan's "Light Me Up." Juliet is a new mother, married to Henry, and struggling with her sexuality in light of being a new mom. She feels ugly, used up, exhausted, confused, hormonal, empowered, embittered, and a host of other swirling emotions. The confusion in this story and the struggle between the two main characters rang so true to life, I was quick to start highlighting. However, I think it was ultimately Juliet's mental change of attitude about sex that really spoke volumes in this story.
There were other differences I noticed in myself. Sex, or even just blatant sexuality, on TV disgusted me--watching reality shows' horny drunks or all those women shaking their asses in videos. Previously, even when I didn't like something that was on, I often got sucked in, fascinated, curious, analyzing, trying to figure it all out. Now it was just gross. 
I was really pulling for Juliet as she worked through her feelings post-baby and I felt really sorry for her at times, triumphant for her at others. Magowan did a good job injecting a lot of meaning and eliciting an emotional response with the content of this story.

Another favorite in the collection was an essay by New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, called "Worst Sex" about how growing up in a Catholic school molded her young mind on the topic of sex. There was one particularly funny passage I could relate to growing up in a very conservative community and it goes like this...
If sinning took place, it was definitely going to be our responsibility. Boys were not much more than little sex robots, and they could not be held responsible for their actions. Once, we were all called to assembly to hear Charles Keating, the head of the Citizens for Decent Literature (and future star of a huge savings-and-loan scandal), who told us the story of a young mother who went walking down the road with her two small children while she was wearing shorts. The sight of her naked legs so overwhelmed a passing motorist that he swerved off the road and killed both the kids. And it was all their mother's fault. We were then asked to sign a pledge never to wear any kind of shorts, including the long Bermuda ones.
 And while I never experienced anything quite that extreme growing up, it's also not that far off the mark for Southern Baptists.

So what's the real draw to a book like Sugar in My Bowl? For me, I just find sex interesting. It's a basic human experience, but it's something we're all quite edgy about from time to time. I think Erica Jong expressed it nicely in her introduction to the book...
Because my contributors span the generations, we read about the great range of sexuality--subtle and overt. Sex has changed a lot, and it hasn't. Sex is more about imagination than friction. Most of these efforts are psychological rather than explicit. 
Overall, I would say this is a thinking woman's (or man's) book about sex. It's not stuffy and it's not sensational. It's not too straight laced or tight lipped but it's also not indulgently graphic. It's populated by self-proclaimed prudes and some free lovers. It's got a little bit for everyone and a whole lot of deep thought. Is it for the faint of heart or of stomach? No, probably not. There are some overt, graphic moments, but I never felt like they were for cheap thrills or pornographic.

I've mentioned in previous posts--mostly recently the review of The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories--that I have mixed feelings about explaining books in terms of other books, but in this case, I'm just going to take the plunge! If you enjoyed The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, I think you stand a really good chance of enjoying this collection as well. I could not be happier to cap off 2011 with a book like this one that leaves me pondering into the new year.

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: June 2011
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins
Format: E-book
ISBN-13: 9780062092205
Source: Purchased by me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Christmas Recap: Of Toddlers and Bagged Drinks

So I promised a review of my new Nook today, and it most certainly will come this week, but I just had to take a minute to recap my Christmas, because it really did turn out well this year -- despite my original humbuggery. It was quite the drawn out affair with three separate celebrations (four if I include work, which I believe I will),  gifts, great food, and most important, family time and relaxation.

Wednesday the 21st, we set aside some time to exchange gifts at work. My current supervisor is a total sweetheart, and given that she is clued in on my love of owls, she really hooked me up!!! She bestowed upon me an owl kitchen timer and an owl candle from West Elm and my very own zen garden. I will be endlessly raking the zen garden sand if I take it to work, so I think I'm saving it for home.

My other work friends are also very kind and generous, treating me to a Starbucks gift card (already spent!), a Barnes and Noble gift card (in the process of being spent!), and our registrar crocheted a gorgeous scarf that I've already worn twice and with which I am thoroughly obsessed.

The second official round of celebration was with Greyson and my mom on the 22nd. Greyson was much more clued in to Christmas this year, and he had a fantabulous time tearing open gifts. Always the responsible toddler, he handed every single shred of paper off the gifts to me. The boy does not tolerate clutter. He's enjoying riding around on a Disney car, playing with a couple of racetrack toys, a dancing alligator, wearing new clothes, monster house shoes, and some other cool stuff!

My mom was very very generous with her gifts to me this year. As I mentioned in my previous post, she hooked me up with an upgrade: a new 2nd generation Nook (Simple Touch). She also gave me a great black sweater and a beautiful silver owl necklace.

Sorry about the quality! At least you can see a bit of the Nookiness, the owl  candle, and a self-gift: Vanilla Bean Noel from Bath and Body Works!
The third official round of celebration was on Christmas morning. Greyson, Chuck, the Rockets and I opened gifts, snacked on treats like chocolate truffles, cake pops, and peppermint bark, before a late lunch of ham and all the trimmings. The kids got a bunch of cool stuff, books included (Catching Fire for Rocketgirl and the third in the Skullduggery Pleasant series for Rocketboy). Greyson made out like a bandit AGAIN, and was still careful not to drop any paper.

Rocketboy is talking to me while Rocketgirl and Greyson look at a Cake Pops recipe book. 
Finally, we had my cousins over to my mom's house just yesterday. Greyson received some really cool monogrammed items (a blanket and t-shirt that say "Lil G"), and they treated my mom and I to several bagged alcoholic beverages. Have you seen these things? They're like margaritas in a Capri-Sun bag. Delicious and tidy.

I was glad everyone around here was happy for the holidays and I am thankful for time off work to spend with my family and time off to recharge my batteries. I'm feel light and holiday-floaty, my reading mojo is cranking, and I'll be refreshed when I return to work on the third. I hope all of you were as fortunate to spend time with loved ones and to slow down for your own sake.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Ate My Brain

Good (early) morning, my friends. Sorry to be posting after the fact, but like many others, Christmas ate my brain! The festivities started on Thursday and roll straight through today, so I'm just stealing this little snatch of time to see if you all survived.

I have to say, it's been a really good holiday season for me. It was off to a slow start, but these last few days have been filled with family time, treats to eat, books, great movies, and lots and lots of excited Greyson playing with new toys!!!

And see how I mentioned books up there in the list of goodness? Check this out...

Yeah, baby!!! I'll be back tomorrow with a review of my new Nook Simple Touch Reader, and you'll see a review of the first book I read on it coming up in a day or two. For now, I hope you're all recovering nicely, and if you have a little further to go with your Christmas celebrations, I hope it all goes smoothly for you!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers,  by Patrick deWitt, is one of the year's most talked-about books. It's been popping up in the blogosphere everywhere, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And I found it on sale at Borders! Woohoo! Otherwise, I might not have picked it up at all.

I'm not into the westerns so much. I've read one other western and it was the horrific, freaking vile--but somewhat literarily appreciatable <--say that five times fast!--Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Anyway, I steeled myself for reading The Sisters Brothers, but what I found was not quite what I expected.

 It's the story of two hitmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are employed by the Commodore (typical western name) and on the prowl for a Gold Rush prospector they need to bump off. Eli, the tubbier, more philosophical of the two brothers is the story's narrator and I really kinda liked him. He was nice to whores and injured horses, gave money away as necessary to said whores and those suffering from ailments, and he waxed poetic here and there. A jerk with a heart of gold, really. At the end of the day, he was still willing to shoot someone if he had to, but he might feel badly about it afterward. Charlie, his brother, was not so philosophical, preferring to drink himself into oblivion and shoot whomever got in his way without so much as a backward glance.

So what was unexpected? The humor. It was deadpan and ironic in spots, silly in others. Eli had a soft spot for the newly-marketed toothbrush and he really was overly nice to those whores. The dynamic between Eli and Charlie was entertaining, and the spots they found themselves in as they traveled to kill the prospector were laughable at times: cursed by an old woman, a hotel burned down to their monetary peril, nearly killed by trappers. At other times they were gruesome: horse loses an eye, men covered in blisters and chemical burn.

This book is most definitely character-driven, which I do enjoy. I really felt invested in the brothers, especially Eli, and the "westernness" of it faded into the background, trumped by the humanity rather than the historical setting. That said, I bogged down about three quarters of the way through, but once I got over the hump, I was quick to finish the book.

This is one of those books that I appreciate for what the author was able to accomplish: a thought-provoking cast of characters and interesting psychological dilemmas. On the other hand, I'm not sure how long this book will stick with me. It certainly didn't bowl me over the way other novels have this year, though I appreciated it. It was a "healthy" read in this year's literary fiction diet.

Snuggle (maybe a one-armed hug) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: April 2011
Publisher: Ecco 
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10:  0062041266 
Source: Purchased by me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pause for Christmas Spirit

Given some of the ever-present drama in "real life" lately, it's been a little hard for me to get into the Christmas spirit this year. The last week or so, Greyson and I have spent some time watching Christmas movies at night and I've watched a few Christmas specials after he goes to bed. It's helped my Christmas spirit along...a lot!

I'm REALLY picky about my holiday music, favoring songs like "O Holy Night" and other tunes that lend themselves to high-flying vocals. My fave musical special so far this year is the CMA Country Christmas. My favorite performance was "The Little Drummer Boy" a la Faith Hill. I should mention, I'm a little biased since I played the bass xylophone thingy to accompany this song in my 4th grade Christmas program. We rocked it.

Take it away, Faith!!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Books I Hope Santa Brings

I don't participate in Top Ten Tuesday regularly, but I always look forward to seeing my fellow bloggers' responses. When I saw this week's topic over at The Broke and the Bookish, I KNEW I had to jump into the fray. Tis the season to be wishlisting books! Here are 10 from my wishlist.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Because I'm all about a literary romp through a post-apocalyptic landscape. 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Even though I know it's gonna tear me a proverbial emotional "new one." 

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Because I need to make peace with at least ONE Patchett novel. I've had no luck with the others.

Graveminder by Melissa Marr
Even though there is potential for cheese here, but still want to try. It looks ridiculously fun and potentially creepy.

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost
Because I have enjoyed other Troost books including The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages.

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
Because Tony is a kitchen god. An inflammatory, sensational, good-writery one. 

There but for the by Ali Smith
Because Hotel World blew my socks right off and even though I didn't have luck with The Accidental.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Despite the  fact that it's going to make me cry like an idiot.
I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck
Because it sound freaking amazing and underappreciated. I need a literary underdog.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Because I haven't liked one solitary thing Eugenides has written to this point, but I'm a sucker for an academic novel.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Andi's 2011 Favoritest Books Throwdown

That's right y'all! Choosing favorite books this year was a RUMBLE!!! While this is one of my slimmest years in terms of the number of books completed, it has been one of the best quality reading years I'VE EVER HAD. A couple of things:

1. I challenged myself to read more literary fiction (whatever the hell that is) because I generally find it pleasing and "filling."

2. I let my mood dictate my choices about 98% of the time.

I've actually done a couple of drafts of my "favorites" list for 2011. The first one was ridiculously long. I percolated over the weekend, and the books that remain are the clear winners. The five novels that float to the top are the ones from which I can still name characters, or remember quotes, or pull scenes from memory. These are the most memorable of memorable, the strongest fighters in a small pool of strong contenders.

When I was choosing, I thought maybe I should do a list of favorite books published in 2011; or maybe I should pick a list of backlist gems and discuss those separately. With such a small group of books read for the year, I thought that would ultimately be silly. And I just wanted to highlight the best of a bunch of really good books. Some are current, some are backlist, some are somewhere in the middle. They're all amazing.

While I've read plenty of not-so-flattering opinions of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, it was a clear winner for me. I first saw it listed on NetGalley, and the NetGalley gods turned me down TWICE! It was then that I turned to hot pursuit, e-mailed the publisher directly, and I received a beautiful pre-publication copy. I think this was just the universe's way of bestowing a print copy on me. As much as I love e-books, this is a book I want to OWN! And caress. And re-read. 

The Night Circus is one of those books that took me away from my everyday life. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, it made me feel awe. It made me feel like reading felt when I was a kid and the whole room around me melted away and I was hurtled into the author's dreamworld. Read my review HERE.

I read Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger completely on a lark. After not having such great luck with Affinity (it remains unread), a friend from graduate school was kind enough to mail her slightly cat-chewed copy of Stranger. I typically get antsy if it takes me *too* long to read a book. Certainly, there's no specific measure of *too* long, but with all kinds of stuff to do, generally I get bored with a book after a week. This one--not so! I dragged it out and dragged it out and then RACED through the last bit. I just love, love, loved it. I loved the stuffy atmosphere, the unreliable characters, the gothic creepiness of it all. And it genuinely freaked me out in parts. If a book can freak me out AND it's written in a sumptuous, literary style, I melt like butter in the author's hands. Read my review HERE.

I could not help but choose The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I came to this one under the influence of my personal Tournament of Books reading challenge. I had serious doubts going into this one that it would be fluffy and cliched, but what I found was such a surprisingly touching book. It was the characters who really owned my opinion of this one. I will never in my life forget Rose and her brother Joseph. I'll never forget Joseph's "ability." It was such a poignant metaphor for teenage awkwardness, depression, and pain. It blew the top of my head off in its simplicity and power. Read my review HERE.

After reading review after review of Ian McEwan's Atonement, I finally bit the bullet and picked it up this year. I already knew about some sort of twist at the end, and I had the surprise figured out long before it came, but even when it did come, I still cried. Big smooshy, mascara-streaking tears. My only previous experience with McEwan was the slim, On Chesil Beach, but I had a similarly involved reaction to that little novel. McEwan has such a thorough, believable way with words, Atonement had me enthralled from beginning to end. Read my review HERE.

And last, but most certainly not least, the first novel by one of my favorite writers and one I consider to be extremely underappreciated and underdiscussed...Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy. Previously known for his short stories, Simon hit it out of the park with this first novel. Really and truly. What began as a love story had a HUGE wrench thrown into it about midway through. This particular plot point changed everything in the novel, and it killed me as a reader. In a good way. You have to read this novel to really appreciate what I'm dancing around, but just  trust me that Simon Van Booy has literary GUTS. It was a bold move and it made for a bold and spectacular novel. Read my review HERE.

In closing, I have to thank you all for following along during what has been an eventful year in reading and in life. Professional life encroaches on my passion for reading more often than I'd like, but I have a blast blogging and discussing my picks with you all. Thank you for giving your time to stop by and comment and for participating in my reading life year after year. 

Cheers to more in 2012!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories (vol. 1), is just that. It's not hard to explain, it doesn't take more than a few minutes to read through, but this book is so special in so many ways, that's the part that may be difficult to explain.

First off, the book is edited by actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, famous for films like 10 Things I Hate About You, Inception, and 50/50. And let's not forget the TV show Third Rock from the Sun! He also runs a really interesting website, It's a collaborative community where musicians, artists, writers, and other artsy types come together and "make stuff." They also split profits on their products and creations 50/50 with the contributors.
In short (har!), The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories is a short (88 pages or so) collection of 31 "stories." The stories are bite-size...sometimes no more than a line or two, but what happens in those line and in the interplay between words and images is MAGIC.

This book was a winner for me in several ways, touching on nostalgia and an interest in visual storytelling and collaborative storytelling. The cover itself is a hit with me, touching on a deep-rooted nostalgia. When I was little, maybe 5 or 6 years old, my aunt bestowed upon me a copy of a small children's story book from the early 1900s. It was a Christmas book and the cover looked much like this one: a simple drawing with the image embedded in the hard cover. Just the feel of this little tiny book in my hands takes me back to those days and that early love of reading.

When I dug into the stories themselves, I found myself transported again. This time to graduate school and a blooming love of visual storytelling in a minute amount of space and few words. A prime example is Postsecret and the books that have resulted from that project. If you're not familiar, it started as a community art project. Individuals from around the world write a secret on a postcard and some of them are posted on the website. I was struck from the first day I read Postsecret by the brutal honesty in many of the cards and the impact just a few words can make.

Additionally, I was taken back to my blooming love of graphic narrative that began shortly before graduate school. While I was taking courses I was introduced to the work of Julie Doucet, a Canadian comics artist (formerly underground). Specifically, this book reminds me of her woooonderful book, Long Time Relationship. Split into six chapters, each is a narrative of its own, even if it's just a collection of hand-drawn portraits. It was like putting snippets of life together and seeing how they all mixed up and came together. At first it seemed random, but it eventually came together beautifully.

My experience with The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories was so very similar to these previous experiences, it reminded me and made me wonder WHY I haven't been reading more like this. Maybe there just isn't as much available as I'd like. Some of the stories were cute or pleasing enough, but others were humorous, and ironic, and some knocked me flat with the truth of them.

Click to view larger versions.

These were two of my favorites: the top has a touch of "The Story of an Hour" to it and the bottom one was just wonderfully, comically morbid.

I feel sort of guilty describing this book in terms of other books, but that's what this tiny volume did for me. It took me back to a couple of different times in my life (both of which were GREAT times to revisit), but it also gave me fresh stories and delivered them in a way I hadn't experienced in a long while.

I'm extremely pleased to report that this is the first in a three-volume set of Tiny Books. You can rest assured I will collect every stinkin'-adorable, sassy one of them for my book stash.

Snuggle (with big, squishy cheek pinching) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: December 2011
Publisher: It Books (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10: 0062121669
Source: It Books/HarperCollins sent along a copy for review.

Monday, December 12, 2011

BBHS: The Gift Has Landed!

It's been my pleasure to participate in the Book Blogger Holiday swap (click the pic for a direct link) for the last few years, and this year was as delightful as ever! I had a great time discovering my Santee's, Jodie's blog...Uniquely Moi Books. Don't worry, she's already received her gift, so I'm not letting the Santa out of the bag. :)

Friday evening, I headed out of town with two of my girlfriends and spent some quality time playing the Wizard of Oz slot machines at a nearby casino. I never do stuff like that, but the girls wanted a change of scenery, and it was a lot of fun. Halfway through my girls night, my mother texted to let me know my Secret Santa box had arrived at the house and I tooootally SQUEEED with delight.

I'm not one to wait until Christmas (way too impatient for that), so I tore into the box as soon as I arrived home.

I was delighted to find a box from Stacy at Stacy's Books! Stacy was very thoughtful and sent some really wonderful goodies my way. First was a tote from Barnes and Noble that I adore. I've eyeballed this thing for years, never taking the plunge to buy it for myself! She also included one of my wishlist books: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman. I've been lusting after it for a while now as the blurb reminds me of my very favorite Alice Hoffman book, Blackbird House. And also included in my bag: a pink folding snowflake mirror. It's adorable and just what I've been looking for to carry in my purse.

Thank you, THANK YOU to Stacy for the lovely gifts, and also to Marg and all the helpers behind the scenes who make the swap happen!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011 Virtual Advent Tour, Day 10: Festive Food

Happy adventing! This is my first time participating in the Virtual Advent Tour and I'm tickled to be sharing a little holiday cheer with you all.  As I've been reading through others' posts the last several days, I've been at a bit of a loss as to what I'd like to post for my appearance.

A couple of nights ago I experienced a mad urge to bake, and the idea was born! There are a number of Christmas traditions in my family, and seasonal food tends to stand out. Like so many others, I experience an urge to cook and bake more during the holiday season, and I'm always a fan of simple, delicious recipes that won't suck away a ton of time.

I also feel an urge to share food with my friends, family, and co-workers this time of year, so I recently whipped up a batch of Pecan Pie Muffins for co-workers. This is a ridiculously simple recipe that provides a warm, comfy start to the day. Despite the name, they aren't wildly sweet, but they have a great texture and the taste of brown sugar always gets me into a holiday mood. Without further ado...

Pecan Pie Muffins

1 cup of light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour 18 mini muffin tins or line with paper muffin liners
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together brown sugar, flour and pecans. In a separate bowl beat the butter and eggs together until smooth, stir into the dry ingredients just until combined. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Cups should be about 2/3 full
  3. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on wire racks when done

Note: As much as I love mini-muffins, I find that the texture of these can be a little bit tough when they're that small. I prefer to make a double batch of the batter and cook these in standard muffin tins. 

If you have an opportunity to whip up your own batch of Pecan Pie Muffins, I hope you enjoy them! 

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Frippery, Wherein Andi Rambles and Bullets

Yeah, I said frippery. I got nothin', but I wanted to stop in and say hello. My life in a bulleted list:
  • Tomorrow is my day on the 2011 Virtual Advent Tour, and I'll be sharing one of my fave holiday recipes. 
  • I'm nearly done with The Sisters Brothers. It's taken me a ridiculously long time to read this book, but I've sort of been savoring it. And I've sort of been a wee tad lazy. Sorry, Jill
  • Next week is the final week of the academic term, so I'm in the throes of a grading frenzy. Gotta get all these essays squared away so I can do fun holiday things. Like blow money!
  • And that's it. I'd kinda like to go eat lunch now at my fave restaurant. I'll have #89. 

And here's a picture of a sleeping sugar glider. Because it's cute. And Fridays are for cuteness. 
Note: this is not my sugar glider. This is from the mecca of all supreme cuteness,

Monday, December 05, 2011

2012 Challenges, or Challenges I May Not Finish

I am a bit of a challenge glutton. I like to sign up for challenges, but finishing them is not always (usually not!!!) in the cards. Call it a bit of bookish tartery. I can deal with that. HOWEVER, in light of not always finishing, I always like to join. Here's what I have in mind for 2012...

2011 was my year of literary fiction, and what a year it's been! The quality of my reading is probably better than ever, even if I'm not seeing the numbers my gluttonous, bookish heart really desires. In 2012 I'd like to work more classics into my daily life, so I'm signing up for A Classics Challenge from November's Autumn. The goal is to read seven classics in 2012. Katherine has set this one up to include monthly prompts that bloggers are free to answer -- kind of like a reading challenge and a blog hop had babies. Works for me!

A potential seven books (though maybe not THE seven books)...

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (because I stalled on it the first time and need to just start over!)
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (because it's about time I re-read it. First and last time was 1999.)
  • Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (because it's embarrassing how little of his work I've read)
  • Madame Bovary by Flaubert (because I have it)
  • Vanity Fair by Thackeray (because I liked Reese Witherspoon enough in the film to try this big ass book)
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen (because I need to read another Austen)
  • The House of the Seven Gables by Hawthorne (because it's been on my physical shelves for over 10 years and that's just ridiculous)

I'm also keen to sign up for the 2012 E-Book Challenge. This will be hosted by Sarah at Workaday Reads in 2012, and thanks to her for taking on the challenge of hosting!

I'm going all-in at the "CD" level...10 e-books in 2012. There's always a good chance I could read more, but it probably depends mostly on the number of books I read overall. My reading is split roughly 50/50 between printed books and e-books.

Some potentials for 2012:
  • The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian (stalled out on this one this year!)
  • I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (of The Fabulous Beekman Boys fame!)
  • Postcards from a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber
  • Who By Fire by Diana Spechler
  • Affinity by Sarah Waters (because I am the worst readalong host EVER)
  •  Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (because I've had it forever)
  • The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (again, had it forever)
  • The Small Hand by Susan Hill (bought this year, still sitting)
  • ...and stuff to be announced that I'll impulse buy at some point! Oh, and all of the above listed for the Classics Challenge because they're all e-books, too. Ahem!
Another challenge I'm really excited about in 2012 is Reading the Awards hosted by Tanya Patrice at GirlXOXO. I've followed awards much more closely this year than usual (goes with that literary fiction reading thing I was doing). It's been great fun to try to keep up, and in this challenge, the goal is actually to read books that received an award in 2011. I have a good bit of catching up to do, so this is perfect for me. I'm going in at the Bronze level (1-5 books). Trying to keep it realistic here, people!

Some books I'm considering...
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht is at the top of my list since I intended to read it in 2011.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Man Booker Winner
  • I would also like to read a National Book Award finalist. I am almost certain I cannot stomach the animal cruelty content in the winner, Salvage the Bones, so I might cheat a bit on that one. 
  • And of course there are more to come. No idea what the others will be just yet. :)

This last one is possibly my favorite. This was a personal challenge in 2011, but I might need to formalize this challenge if others are interested in joining, but I'll be tackling the 2012 Morning News Tournament of Books list!!!! I let the list guide my reading this year, and it's been WOOONDERFUL. I didn't come close to finishing the bunch, but I did enjoy trying, and it opened my eyes to some new-to-me titles I wouldn't have read otherwise. The tournament list won't come out until sometime in January, but in the meantime, the good peeps at TMN have asked US, the READERS to list our three fave books of the year right HERE.

I think I love this challenge SO DEARLY because it's a great mixture of books. Some really highbrow that will become award winners, some underrated titles that might never get much attention otherwise. Good stuff! It's like a literary grab bag.

And there you have it, friends. The challenges I'll be tackling, wrestling with, and triumphing over. And some that will take me to the mat. All worthy opponents.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

That Blasted "Breaking Dawn" Movie

These movies are like crack, y'all. Soul suckingly bad, but such an addiction. I assume if you're reading this you know some of what happens in the series/films. This is a totally spoilery post. Beware.

It started this past weekend. It was a freebie weekend on some of the movie channels through DirecTV and I thought it might be a good idea to re-watch New Moon and Eclipse in preparation for Breaking Dawn, Part I.

I'm really surprised every time I watch at just how crappy an actress Kristen Stewart is (and pretty much everyone else, too). And I'm consistently disappointed at how little FUN there is in these movies. There's usually one or two scenes that are a lot of fun or really exciting. The baseball game in the first film. Some cool training shots in Eclipse or werewolf kickassery here and there.

But mostly, it's a lot of swoony eyes and awkward pauses. Way. Too. Emo.

While I admit and acknowledge the problems in the books, too, (Bella, codependent much?) there's a much more interesting sass and fun interplay between Bella and Edward that I miss soooo much in the films. I just want to tell them to lighten UP already. Kristen Stewart, you always look like you're going to throw up. Even when it's not written into the book/script.

But anyway, the Breaking Dawn movie is probably one of the more interesting films. It makes me laugh that Bella spends at least half the movie just tryin' to get some married action. As most of us already know, she succeeds, and that's when all hell breaks loose. There was a leeeetle more fun between Edward and Bella in this movie, thank God. That's probably why it stands out as less of a downer than some of the others.

I had a distinctly nervous, jittery, anxious feeling about this movie. I was really curious how they would handle the "unsavory delivery." Not too bad, but there was a moment when I thought, "Wow, she really looks dead. Like really dead. Disturbingly realistically dead." It bothered me. Made my stomach hurt.

So in the wake of having seen this movie, I realized I do not remember a whole lot of what's coming in Breaking Dawn, Part II and I don't particularly remember what Bella was like on the other side of the change, so I downloaded the e-book last night. I need to finish The Sisters Brothers this week, but I'll probably read Breaking Dawn when my brain energy is sucked away tonight between 6 and 8pm (when I'll still be at work).

I know there are whole factions of you out there who hate the whole Twilight Saga (books and movies), and I respect that. You can vent here. Go ahead! BUT, if you're planning to see it, have you? Do these movies live up to your expectations or do you want to redirect them like I do?
Images by Freepik