Sunday, December 30, 2007

Something About Me Challenge Wrap-Up

Challenge summary: Lisa from Breaking the Fourth Wall hosted this fab challenge, complete with its own blog. Participants chose 5 books that they felt said something about them and then everyone chose from those lists.

My books: Here are the ones I'd planned to read. I can't believe I picked 25, but every time a new list came up, I'd find another one I couldn't resist.

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby (Athena)
So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson (Vasilly, A Book in the Life, Sally)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Kristin)
Oh My Goth by Gena Showalter (Stephanie)
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Wendy)
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (Nattie)
Sixpence House: lost in a town of books by Paul Collins (Nattie)
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth (Raidergirl13)
Evening Class by Maeve Binchy (Raidergirl13)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Christina)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (various lists)
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (Margo)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Soleil)
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan (Booklogged)
Nantucket Nights by Elin Hilderbrand (LibraryLady)
An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance (LibraryLady)
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (SheReads)
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (SheReads)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (Valentina)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Juli)
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (Faith)
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (Kelly)
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (Historia)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Vasilly)
Marley and Me by John Grogan (Lynne)

The best book?: I can't pick just one! I can barely narrow it down to half a dozen, but here they are:
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Thirteenth Tale
The Polysyllabic Spree
An Inconvenient Wife
Evening Class
84 Charing Cross Road

Books I could have done without:

The Neverending Story, The Little Prince, and Inkheart - It's not exactly true that I could've done without them, because I did want to add add them to my children's librarian repertoire and I'm glad I did. But for me, they were pretty mostly chore-like and a struggle to get through.

Sixpence House - While I liked bits of the author's wit, I really didn't see the point of this book.

Books not finished:

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading - From the introduction and table of contents, I could just tell her reading tastes were way too estoeric for me. She had a section titled something like What I learned from Catholic nun stories. As I wasn't even aware that was a genre, I figured we should part ways.

Marley and Me - Several things kept me from finishing this one - I'm not a large-dog person, I'd been reading a lot of non-fiction and needed a break, and I figured it would have to end with Marley dying, and I just didn't want to get invested only to have a sad ending.

The Historian - I just couldn't get into it, it seemed so very large and dark. And while I enjoy vampire stories, I'm not actually very interested in Dracula.

(Technically I didn't finish East of Eden for the challenge, unless I finish the last half by tomorrow night, but I am reading and enjoying it.)

What I learned from this challenge:

1) That there's a wonderful community of book bloggers out there! I guess I already knew that books can be a great common denominator for people, but it was cool to see it play out in cyberspace among (mostly) virtual strangers who all came together because of our love of reading. And I learned that that community is a wonderful source of recommendations - I liked most of the books and I loved a lot of them.

2) That I seem to need the "excuse" of a challenge to read things that have been on my TBR list for ages. East of Eden is one of my husband's all-time favourites and I've been meaning to read it since we met, but I hadn't tackled it til now. Same with the 3 children's books mentioned above and also Rebecca. I've joined a ton of challenges for next year and organized my TBR list on LibraryThing, mostly as a way to whittle down the list.

3) As with past challenges, I expanded my reading horizons. In particular, I read more nonfiction in the last half of this year than I've probably read in the last five years, combined.

Review: Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Summary (from Amazon): Maniac Magee is a folk story about a boy, a very excitable boy. One that can outrun dogs, hit a home run off the best pitcher in the neighborhood, tie a knot no one can undo. "Kid's gotta be a maniac," is what the folks in Two Mills say. It's also the story of how this boy, Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee, confronts racism in a small town, tries to find a home where there is none and attempts to soothe tensions between rival factions on the tough side of town.

My thoughts: This was my final book for the Newbery Challenge. I've always meant to read it - it's one of those fairly rare books that's an award-winner and also actually popular with kids. I can see why, it's a great story and one that would appeal to both boys and girls (especially boys, which is always welcome!). It had a lot packed into its short length - humour, fun, sadness, joy... Maniac is one of the most interesting kids' book characters I've come across in quite a while - smart, athletic, funny, resourceful, rather naive and very kind.

The only thing I didn't quite get is when it was supposed to be set - like Shiloh (which also confused me on the time front), it was published in the early nineties and appears to be set in that time, but the small-townness and the racism seems to belong to the 60's or 70's.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Review: There's a (slight) chance I might be going to hell

There's a (slight) chance I might be going to hell by Laurie Notaro

Summary (from Publishers Weekly): When Maye Roberts's husband, Charlie, gets a tenure-track job at prestigious Spaulding University, childless, 30-something Maye leaves her tight-knit group of friends and job as a Phoenix reporter to move to the school's eponymous Washington State burg. While Charlie fits in easily, Maye, after a faculty dinner run-in with Dean Spaulding's wife, Rowena, feels lonely and bored. When she learns about the Sewer Pipe Queen pageant, a local tradition that guarantees the winner a town full of friends, she enters with her singing dog, inflaming Rowena further. As tensions thicken, Maye's rather notorious pageant sponsor, Ruby, may hold the key to Rowena's continuing rage and to the decades-old incident that sparked it.

My thoughts: Like Swim to Me, this is just a great, quick read - lots of fun. There are some truly hilarious parts, particularly Maye's disastrous attempts at making friends. My favourite is her joining a "gothic book club" that isn't interested in the Brontes and their ilk at all and turn out to be complete loons. I actually really felt for Maye - one of my fears is having to move away from my lifelong home some day and being incredibly lonely because I can't make new friends, and that's exactly what she experiences when she moves to Spaulding. Speaking of which, the town,
with its blend of old timers and new agers, is a much character as much as any of its quirky residents (of whom there are quite a few).

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Review: The Shepherd, the Angel....

The Shepherd, The Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry

This is a funny, quick Christmassy read from Dave Barry, who always makes me laugh. I'd read some of it before, in his column (who could forget the description of why it's better to be a shepherd than a Three King because you get to wait for your cue in the church belfry closet filled with bat poop?), but it's the story of Doug Barnes who, in 1960, is playing a shepherd in the Christmas pageant. His family's beloved dog Frank is about to die, his dad gets a flat tire on Christmas Eve (and their car is infested with red ants), and the shepherds keep giggling instead of solemnly walking towards Bethlehem.

It's illustrated with great 60's ads and photos and opens with one of Santa endorsing Lucky Strikes, which I thought was hilarious. I think this could be a great family read-aloud. Barry does a great job of telling it from his younger self's point of view (even though, officially, any similarity between people he knew growing up is "frankly, a bewildering coincidence"). A funny stocking stuffer!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Blog Advent Calendar

Welcome to my entry in the blogosphere advent calendar!

I love Christmas, although I confess this year we're very behind. I've been loving people's descriptions of their traditions. Here's mine - I collect ornaments! My mom gave me my first one when I was about six. I was going to post a photo but I haven't even unpacked the ornaments yet, I'm sad to say. But it's one of my most prized possessions - she's a little plastic angel with an adorable face and gold foil wings. Every year her velveteen and paint wear a bit thinner, but I still adore her. There are pictures of me at that age with her clenched in my little fist. I took her off the tree at night and made her a little bed on the shelf next to mine. No matter how old I get, unpacking her brings me great joy every year.

My mom gave me an ornament every year until my late teens and even now she'll often give me one, especially if she and my dad have been on a trip. And now I buy them! Ohhh boy, do I buy them. I try to limit myself to one per year, but that rarely happens. This year I've gotten two. Here's the second one, I just couldn't resist her (the rest of her body is sticking out the back!):

I'm not normally a big Disney fan, but I have a soft spot for Peter Pan and especially for Tinkerbell. Oddly, I seem to be having a Tink sort of year, she keeps popping up. So I took spotting this one as a good omen and scooped up the last one in the store.

And now, for some Christmas music! It's an a cappella band called Tonic Sol Fa. We saw them this summer and I thought they were super. The house with the lights is apparently in South Dakota and each year they sync up their lights to music.

And another YouTube find, a little slideshow set to the ever-excellent Brad Paisley's Christmas song, James Penguin.

And please do check out the last 5 days of holiday blogging cheer! I'm sorry, I can't figure out an easy way to post the list here, so please click on the banner.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: An Inconvenient Wife

An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance
4 stars

Summary (from Booklist): Mrs. Lucy Carelton, who comes from one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in 1880s New York City, has been completely undone by her nerves. Her ambitious husband, a nouveau riche stockbroker, drags her from one doctor to another in search of a cure that will allow her to fulfill her many social obligations without giving in to hysteria. They think they have found the solution in charismatic neurologist Victor Seth, a champion of a relatively new procedure called hypnotism. Seth sets about freeing Lucy from the social constraints that have made her so unhappy, encouraging her to pursue her artistic talents and explore her sexuality. Seth convinces himself that his techniques, including his handy way with an electrotherapy wand, are all in the name of science, but even he is unprepared for the new Lucy who emerges - a passionate, calculating, amoral creature of large appetites.

First line: "An asylum!" William said. "Is there nothing else we can try? Nothing at all?"

What I liked best: I really enjoyed how this book kept changing - at first it seemed like it was going to be an exploration of women's submissive role in 19th century society, then it got into Seth and his ambitious quest for recognition by the medical community and it looked like he'd be a Svengali, then Lucy became her own person, so it looked like it would be about her new life, and then there was a major plot twist!

More thoughts: At first I was concerned that it was just going to be about Lucy and her hysteria, a fairly simple historical fiction, and I wasn't sure if I'd like it. But, as you can see above, it kept me very interested. It was well-researched, with lots of interesting details about New York society and early medicine (apparently what I'd heard about vibrators being used to treat hysteria is indeed true!). Often the way Lucy's husband and father, and even Seth, treated her made me very angry, so I was glad when she emerged from their suppression as her own woman. The discussion of the power of the unconscious mind was also interesting, especially since it's something that's still being explored today.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Review: Swim to Me

Swim to Me by Betsy Carter
4 stars

Summary: Ever since she visited Weeki Wachee Springs with her (now separated) parents, Delores Walker has wanted to be a mermaid there. At 16, she boards a Greyhound bus bound for Florida, leaving the Bronx behind. The roadside attraction is in danger of closing with the opening of Disneyland not far away. But when Delores joins a group of other aquatic hopefuls in this City of Live Mermaids, she reinvents herself Delores Taurus, Florida's most unlikely celebrity and heroine. Along the way, her family gets a chance to start over in the Sunshine State, with the help of the mermaids and a circus (particularly the elephants).

My thoughts: I was so excited to read this book - like Delores, I was enchanted by Weeki Wachee and spent at least a year around age 10 pretending to be a mermaid in any watery area I could find, particularly the bathtub. When my friend Vidalia recommended it to me, I had a flash of them swimming in the tank at the park - I could still even hear the mermaids' theme song!

This is a great book - the mermaidization of Dolores and her love for her little brother are lovely to read about and the stories of her parents' development since their parting fleshes the book out. It's just fun - the Florida setting, the mermaids, the circus.... I just really enjoyed it.

Apparently Weeki Wachee is still in trouble - they seem to have been in danger of going under since the 70's, when this book is set. Read about the park at I hope it doesn't close, I want to visit again, hopefully with my own kids some day!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review: The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Summary: "Bastian embarks on a wild adventure when he enters the magical world of Fantastica, a doomed land filled with dragons, giants, and monsters, and risks his life to save Fantastica by going on a very dangerous quest."

My thoughts: Oh gosh, this is one I should be careful with, because I know it's a beloved classic. But honestly, the title really summed it up for me - quite often I felt like it was literally never going to end and I really wanted it to. I'm just not a fantasy girl, that was the main problem. I did enjoy some of the descriptions of the places in Fantastica - the many-coloured desert and the silver city, for example. And, rather like Inhkheart, I liked the idea of it - who hasn't wanted to be transported into a favourite book, especially when life isn't treating you very well? But it just kept going on and on with another place and weird character and another and another. Telling the whole story up until Bastian entered it and then starting over again was bizarre to me - I'm sure there was lots of deep meaning I didn't get, but the "Fantastica has always existed/nothing existed until you wished it" thing didn't really make sense to me. And I found Bastian very irritating, although I was happy that he got a good ending (and not just because it was the end :-) ).

It's funny, because I adore The Phantom Tollbooth, which I've just realized is quite similar - rather annoying boy enters a story and meets all kinds of weird characters and goes on a quest. I don't know, I guess it has a lot more humour (I found very little in this one) and it's shorter. Part of my problem with The Neverending Story could also be because it's translated - I seem to sometimes have trouble with translated works (I didn't really like The Little Prince, either, as you may recall).

Oh well, I'm still glad I read it, I've been meaning to for years, to add to my children's librarian repertoire.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Review: Sixpence House

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins

Summary: An account of Collins' attempt at moving his family to Hay-on-Wye a small Welsh town with 40 antiquarian bookstores (and not much else).

My thoughts: While the town of Hay sounds like a book-lover's dream vacation destination and Collins has a pretty good sense of humour, the point of this book was rather lost on me. Collins and his wife decide they can't afford to live in San Francisco any more and are craving a rural setting so they move not to a small town in the US, but across the Atlantic to Wales (with their baby son and hundreds upon hundreds of their own books). They'd visited Hay on vacation and liked it, so they try their hand at living there. But the town is a bit too weird and they can't find an affordable, non-deathtrap house, so they come back (apparently to live in a small town in Oregon or Vermont, which would have made sense in the first place). They don't even live in the titular Sixpence House, they just try to buy it before realizing it's a deathtrap. Collins peppers the book with passages from obscure books that he finds in Hay and there are some interesting characters in the townsfolk (particularly Richard Booth, the "King of Hay," who turned it into a bibliophile's mecca), but overall, I didn't find it particularly gripping. I'd certainly like to visit Hay some day, though!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Review: Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Summary (from Barnes and Noble): "Last Night I DreamtI Went To Manderley Again."
So the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter remembered the chilling events that led her down the turning drive past ther beeches, white and naked, to the isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast. With a husband she barely knew, the young bride arrived at this immense estate, only to be inexorably drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten...her suite of rooms never touched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant -- the sinister Mrs. Danvers -- still loyal. And as an eerie presentiment of evil tightened around her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter began her search for the real fate of Rebecca...for the secrets of Manderley.

My thoughts: I've always meant to read this one, so I'm glad the Something About Me Challenge gave me the chance. I recall seeing a PBS miniseries about it when I was a kid, but don't recall much beyond Mrs. Danvers being really creepy. While I didn't race through it, I enjoyed it and the plot twist came as a surprise and then I found it really picked up. I enjoyed all the descriptions of Manderley and wanted to live there.

I spent a lot of time being annoyed with both Maxim and the narrator, too - he had no business marrying such a young, unsophisticated girl and dumping her at Manderley with all its baggage. He does nothing to help her settle in, just leaves her at the mercy of Mrs. Danvers and expects her to know how to run a huge house. And it really did seem as if any young girl he'd picked up in Monte Carlo would've done as the second Mrs. De Winter - for all the protestations of love in the novel, I didn't buy it. She loved him in a puppy-dog way, he loved her because he needed a new wife. After the circumstances of Rebecca's death came to light, they did seem to develop an actual relationship, but it was still sketchy to me. Still, it's an excellent example of gothic suspense and I'm glad I finally read it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tis the Season!

Ho, ho, ho, fellow book bloggers! The Written Word blog is presenting...

Check out the featured blog each day from now (well, yesterday) until Christmas for some holiday cheer. I'm so excited, it's such a fun idea! (I'm signed up for December 20th.)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Summary: A collection of humourous essays "which mines poignant comedy from his peculiar childhood in North Carolina, his bizarre career path, and his move with his lover to France."

My thoughts: Wow, the Sedaris family is sure...interesting! I read his sister Amy's I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence earlier this year and it was one of the most bizarre books I've ever read (funny, but gosh-darn weird). And apparently it runs in the family! I enjoyed the first essay on being forced into speech therapy in elementary school for his lisp (where, he says, there should have been a Future Homosexuals of America sign on the door of the speech lab, since none of the popular jock boys had lisps). Sedaris Sr. sounds like quite the dad, from his desperate desire for his children to form a band, despite their lack of musical talent and interest all the way to the final chapter, which discusses his hoarding of rotten food. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about trying to explain Easter in French to a Moroccan woman, as well as the other French class ones. I don't think Sedaris will top my favourite humourist ever, Dave Barry (and, recently in second place, Billy Bryson), but I enjoyed the essays and laughed out loud a few times. I have a feeling he'd be even better in audiobook format, but my library is very scant on them, unfortunately.