Friday, December 30, 2011

My Top Ten Books of 2011

It's that time of year again! Time to think back and reflect on the best reads of the year.

Many of the books I read provided very satisfying reading experiences, and it is a challenge to narrow my list down to the Top Ten.

Most Magical Reading Experience and Most Favorite Book of 2011: The Night Circus
With very vivid descriptions, this book is an experience for the senses.

Funniest: The Year of Living Biblically
Laugh-out-loud and read-out-loud funny!

Best for My Heart: Life of the Beloved
One to read again and again.

Favorite Cooking Memoir: Beaten, Sauced, and Seared
Honest and stressful!

Most Controversial but a Very Fast Read: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Don't read before you go to bed because it will really wind you up!

Excellent Food for Thought: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough
Prompted several interesting conversations with my husband, Mr. Wrong. I mean, Mr. Wong.

Best Biography and Most Inspirational: Unbroken
Crazy that it's true.

Most Effectively Written from a Dog's Perspective: The Art of Racing in the Rain
Read with your pet on your lap, and a box of tissues by your side.

Best Fiction: Mudbound
Seamless fiction, just like it should always be done.

Best Historical Fiction: Pillars of the Earth
I'm usually not that big of a fan of historical fiction, but I enjoyed this one plenty.

Thank you for reading my blog this year! I appreciate all of your comments and book recommendations. 

What were your favorite books this year? Please leave a comment and let me know so that I can check them out!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This story begins with Victoria, a foster child, leaving her final group home at the age of 18. On her own for the first time, she finds herself homeless until she finds a job at a florist. She had spent time with one foster mother who taught her the meanings of different flowers, and so Victoria brings an added dimension of floral arranging with her.

This book was both predictable and original. Predictable in that I guessed some of the plot development, but original in the whole meaning of flowers thing. The story goes back and forth between past and present which was very effective and did leave me hanging chapter after chapter.

A really easy read, and just original enough for me to recommend it. I mentioned in my last post that the Steve Jobs book was not one to curl up with, but this one would definitely be a good choice for that cold winter's day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I picked up this book for a couple of reasons. One, it's #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list and I like to keep up with what America is reading. Two, I went to the same high school as Steve Jobs. I had a government teacher who also taught Steve Jobs, and this teacher pointed out more than once, "If I had invested in Apple back in the day, I would not be here teaching you now." Hum, someone was not happy with his job.

When I was in the first hundred pages of this book and friends asked me what I thought, I answered that I wasn't really liking Steve Jobs as a person.

The reading was slow going (or not going) for awhile until I had 500 pages left (out of 600) and a week left to finish it before it was due at the library. So I told myself to read 50 pages a day (always a bad sign when a book is supposed to be for fun). But then the book picked up and I finished it ahead of schedule.

After finishing, I can't say that I like Steve Jobs any better as a person. I am not convinced that it is necessary to be so rude, arrogant, and demeaning in order to succeed or to motivate your employees. I can write that there are several things that I respected - 1) the book includes a letter he wrote to his wife for their 20th anniversary that is very sweet and 2) he had very high standards of excellence and wouldn't settle for anything less and 3) he gave Isaacson free reign over what he wrote in this biography and didn't try to censor or control the content.

A pretty interesting book. Not recommended if you're looking for something to curl up with on a winter's day, but recommended if you're curious about how Apple and Pixar developed and who this Steve Jobs guy was.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Very First E-Reader

Look what arrived on my doorstep! A Kindle Touch. Thanks, Santa! Actually, thanks, Boomer!

Some of you have asked me when/if I was going to buy an e-reader. When I told my friend about an extended trip I have planned, she wrote back: "Are you getting a kindle or ipad?  I can't imagine you being able to drag enough books along for all the traveling down time at the rate you read." This showed me how well she knows me and I appreciated her concern.

Yes, I now own an e-reader. I'm having fun using it and finding free books to download. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn

Didn't I just write a post saying how I read a lot of cooking memoirs? Well, here's another one. This one is by Kathleen Flinn who wrote The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

This time around, she's back in Seattle and takes on a project to teach regular non-chef people how to cook. This project started when she observed a mom and daughter in the supermarket buying all sorts of packaged foods that could easily be made from scratch for much less money.

She teaches a group of nine women who, for various reasons, were scared of cooking or had never learned how to cook beyond using a box mix, the basics of cooking like how to use a knife, cook meat, make a vinaigrette, bake bread, and cook soup. She follows up with them six months later to see how their cooking and lifestyles have changed now that they're more comfortable with cooking.

The most inspirational chapter for me was about not wasting food. So much food and money is wasted when we throw out food because we forgot about it (check your produce drawer). I took a look in my own fridge to figure out what I needed to use up (sour cream) so that I don't have to throw it out.

A fun, easy, and educational read.

PS: If you have any suggested uses for sour cream (about 1/2 cup), please let me know asap. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller

From the author of Blue Like Jazz and Father Fiction. Two movie producers approached him about turning his memoir into a movie and they all started meeting to write a screenplay. He starts thinking about his life and editing it and what makes a great story and movie. He challenges us to think about our lives and what kind of story we're living and if that's the story we want to be living.

Recommended if you want to take a look at the big picture of your life and what you're living for and what your life is about.

A quote from the book:
"I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can't see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story." --Donald Miller

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Long Goodbye: A memoir by Meghan O'Rourke

Keeping this blog lets me see patterns in the kinds of books I like to read. I'm finding that I read a lot of memoirs, mainly about two different subjects: cooking and grieving.

Here's one about grieving.

The writer's mom died from metastatic colorectal cancer in 2008. In this book, she writes about her relationship with her mom, the process leading up to her mom's diagnosis, and her mom's treatment. She also writes about the whole year (and a bit beyond) after her mom's death and what her grief was like.

I liked that this book covered a year plus more about her grief. It's a misconception that grief is something to "get over" in two weeks or three months or six months. It doesn't work like that, if we're being honest with ourselves. O'Rourke reads studies about grief while experiencing her own feelings of grief and figures out that the loss of her mother is something that she'll never "get over." Rather, it's a loss that she will live with in some form for the rest of her life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I was so excited that Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, was coming out with a new book. In my review of Middlesex, I described it as "one of the most satisfying reading experiences of 2009 for me so far."

In contrast, The Marriage Plot was SO disappointing. It might even rank up there as one of the worst books I've read in 2011. The characters were annoying and I didn't like any of them. The plot was also pretty predictable and plodded along at a dreadfully slow pace. There was a lot of wordiness in the book as well, so I found myself skimming long paragraphs.

Middlesex is by far, the best book by Eugenides, so read that one, and please skip this one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen

A beautiful book about how much we are loved by God. A short book that can be read in a day, but is best savored over weeks or months. A book that I will definitely read again and regularly as it carries a message that my heart oftentimes forgets.

New at My Local Library: An E-Reader Petting Zoo

Earlier this month, an e-reader petting zoo opened up at my library. There are six e-readers on display and you can pick them up, try them out, and get a feel for which e-reader might fit you best. I love that it's called a petting zoo!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

You and Your Adolescent, New and Revised edition: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25 by Laurence Steinberg

Note that this book considers the early 20s as part of adolescence. Some of you, my faithful blog followers, are barely out of adolescence. Welcome to adulthood! =D

This book covers everything you need to know about adolescents - physical changes, emotional development, cognitive development, friends, drugs, etc. It's all in here.

It was helpful for me to read this with my own adolescence in mind. This book would have been really handy to read as a 13 or 14-year old. It just explains a lot.

This isn't really light reading. It's more educational. Definitely recommended if you work with adolescents, if you have an adolescent, if you're gonna have an adolescent anytime soon, or if you're just curious about what was going on with yourself during those junior high, high school, and college years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

I read this book in two parts. I initially checked it out, read 100 pages, and got stuck. Then, I had to return it to the library because there was a waiting list.

A couple of months went by and it was announced at my church that there would be a sermon series based on this book in January. Furthermore, Louis Zamperini, who is the subject of this book, would be at our church for a service. Also, at the Christmas Eve service, every family that attends will receive a copy of Unbroken, and I volunteered to help pass out the books. If I'm going to distribute a book, I need to have read it (that's my own personal policy, not the church's policy).

And so, I checked the book out once again from the library.

This time, I got sucked into it. I picked up where I left off and flew through the remaining 300 pages.

Unbroken is the biography of Louis Zamperini, a running/track star in the 1930s who participated in the Berlin Olympics. He was in the Air Force during World War II where his plane was shot down over the Pacific. He drifted in the ocean for 47 days before landing on a Japanese-occupied island. He was then held as a POW until the war ended. The book also follows him in the years after he was released and as he adjusted to life back in the United States.

A fascinating, stunning, and amazingly redemptive story. One of the best books that I've read in 2011. I give this my highest recommendation! A warning that the first 100 pages kinda drag, but press on! It's very much worth it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

This is by the same author of Sarah's Key which I raved about. I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about this one, but it was still a page-turner.

Antoine and Melanie are siblings who revisit a beach resort area 30 years after they last vacationed there as a family. Memories, both good and bad, resurface leading to the revealing of some family secrets.

A predictable and not that noteworthy of a page-turner, but a page-turner nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows

Fallows is a linguist, and this book is about how she learned and studied Chinese during her three years of living in Shanghai and Beijing. She writes about how learning the language gave her insight into Chinese culture. For example, foreigners use "please" and "thank you" much more often than the Chinese when they speak Mandarin. However, Chinese people rarely use these niceties because it indicates that you are speaking with a stranger or someone not very close to you. By omitting the "please" and "thank yous", you're actually saying something about the relationship - that we're close so there's no need for all that. It's not rudeness in the context of Chinese culture.

This book would had been really helpful when I was attempting to learn Mandarin and trying to understand some about the culture.

As a memoir, however, this book is pretty shallow. But as a supplementary tool to learning Chinese, I think it would be pretty valuable.

Recommended if you've ever tried to learn Chinese or if you're thinking of trying.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking for some book suggestions?

Check out this website called Whichbook! It asks you to put in what you're looking for in a book, and then it will give you book suggestions!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

The author decided to follow the rules in the Bible as literally as possible for a year. He started by growing his beard, buying many versions of the Bible, and enlisting the help of religious consultants (pastors, professors, rabbis, etc.). He researched a lot and asked questions when he didn't understand a rule and its history and context. He found that there are many interpretations of the rules in the Bible.

Jacobs begins his journey as a Jewish agnostic. He ends the year by describing himself as a "reverent agnostic."

This was a really funny book. There are some moments of deeper thoughtfulness (like when he accidentally gets locked in his bathroom for four hours until his wife comes home, and he finds that being away from technology and the rush of life was actually quite nice). Overall, a very entertaining book that made me laugh out loud.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I wasted too much time reading this book. The first 100 pages or so were good and then it just became horribly awful.

I'm not going to waste more time thinking about this book and writing a blog post about what it's about and all that.

All I have to say is: Skip this book. Don't even pick it up. Move on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cooking for Gracie: The Making of a Parent from Scratch by Keith Dixon

I've reviewed a bunch of cooking memoirs, but this one is different. This is from a father's perspective during the first year of his daughter's life as he cooks for himself and his wife, and indirectly, their newborn baby.

The recipes sounded great, but the ingredient lists were way too long for me, so I doubt that I will try any of the dishes described.

Touching and honest. Another title for this book could have been True Confessions About Being a Parent.

My only complaint is that the book ended rather abruptly. It could have used an Epilogue.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

William & Catherine: Their Story by Andrew Morton

I felt kinda embarrassed that I read this and was debating about whether or not I should post about it.

Then I remembered that you all already know that I read all of Tori Spelling books, so what's the big deal about admitting that I spent a good chunk of time on the sofa reading about William and Catherine? They are quite a bit classier than Tori Spelling. (But, Tori, let me know when your next book is coming out...)

I didn't know much about William and Catherine, so this book provided some good information about their lives and upbringing. There are also lots of pictures. I'm not sure if this was an "official" biography- I thought it was because Morton also wrote a biography about Princess Diana...and if it was "official," I was surprised that Catherine wasn't written about in a more favorable light, especially when it came to her 20s. She apparently didn't really have any real career/job to speak of as she waited around to get engaged? Is that true? That's what this book reports.

Anyway, I did like reading this one, and if you want to know more about the royal couple, then check it out.

Monday, November 14, 2011

101 Things I Hate About Your House: A Premier Designer Takes You on a Room-by-Room Tour to Transform Your Home from Faux Pas to Fabulous by James Swan

James Swan, a designer, goes room by room through your house and writes about how to decorate/what not to do. Some of the hints are very helpful, but the writing was so ridiculous and flowery that it was tough to find the hints in the long paragraphs. 
A good one to skim if you're interested in some decorating tips. But check it out from the library and DO NOT BUY this one.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

The only other Joan Didion book I've read was The Year of Magical Thinking about her husband's death. I must have read it before I started this blog because it's not reviewed here. Anyway, I remember liking it, so I was excited to hear that she just wrote another book.

This one is about the death of her adult daughter. But it's more than that as well. Didion shares her thoughts about motherhood and growing older.

It's all done in a rambly kind of way which can be confusing. This book didn't feel very cohesive to me although I did end of mildly liking it, sort of. It's okay, but don't take that as a very strong recommendation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Story of My Life

I have a mug with this saying on it. It's so true!!!

There are so many books out there I want to read. I have the maximum number of books on my Waiting List at the library.

I was actually a bit grumpy this past weekend because I wasn't in the middle of any books. A trip to the library solved that fast.

Let's keep reading, my friends!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation by Abigail Carter

Abigail Carter lost her husband, Arron, who was in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center on 9/11. She writes about her grieving process in the years after as she raises her two children and tries to orient herself and them to life without their dad.

Grueling but honest, this is probably one of the best books I've read about grief.

This book was in stark contrast to A Year and Six Seconds that I recently reviewed. I know that the writer in A Year and Six Seconds was dealing with divorce, not death. But reading these two books back to back made it very clear how much more in-depth The Alchemy of Loss was and how much more Carter let the grief process take its course. There's no happy ending per se, just movement in her grief. She's willing to confront and feel her grief (all forms of it, including anger), and that makes this book very real.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Besides all of the other books I read, I am also usually slowly working my way through a Harry Potter book and a Lord of the Rings book. I don't read them for long periods of time, I just pick them up every once in awhile and read a chapter or so.

So just noting this re-read.

If you haven't read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I encourage you to! The movies are excellent, but really...they are just a glimpse of the richness and depth of the books.

I'll tell you a secret: sometimes when I'm reading The Lord of the Rings, I read it out loud to myself. Or to my cats if they are around and awake. The language is that beautiful. Even my cats close their eyes and nod and purr approvingly.

I'll tell you another secret: there was a period of time when I included a chapter of The Lord of the Rings along with my daily spiritual ritual/readings as well. It just touches my heart and speaks to me, so I thought it was important to read it every day.

And those are all of my secrets. Ok, well, I have a few more, but I'll post those another day.

A Year and Six Seconds: A Love Story by Isabel Gillies

A memoir about moving on and rebuilding a life after divorce.

Isabel moves from Ohio to New York with her two toddler boys after her husband leaves her for another woman. She writes about the struggles of single motherhood and living with her parents again. Within a year or so, she's engaged to another man.

Fairly readable, but also seemed implausible. She tries to make sense of what happened to her, and it seems like all it took was a 90-minute therapy session to move on. She seemed pretty desperate to have a normal family life again and to have a father for her boys, so I was unconvinced that she had really come to terms with her divorce and her part in the demise of the marriage. Just seemed like she wanted to get married again. She writes that she was ready....but just left me wondering about how real that really was.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Truly is a giant baby who grows into a giant woman due to an untreated pituitary gland problem. On the other hand, her sister, Serena Jane, is beautiful and petite. After their father's death (Truly's mom died after childbirth), Truly is sent to live with a farm family while Serena Jane lives a life of luxury in town.

A novel about a small-town, full of mystery, magic, murder, and rumors.

This book was slightly above average for me. I liked all of the twists and turns.

However, the novel is written from Truly's perspective, and I didn't feel like I really came to know her all that well. I didn't understand how she was able to deal with all of the taunting and teasing directed at her, or how she came to be the person she was. She remained a pretty flat character for the entire book. Good story, not as good development of the main character.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

This is the newest book by the author who wrote Devil in the White City. This time, he covers Berlin during 1933/1934. He follows William E. Dodd who is America's ambassador at the time. Dodd moved his wife and his family (he had two grown children - one daughter, one son) over to Berlin. The daughter was quite the flirt, having scandalous affairs with many men, including the first chief of the Gestapo.

Dodd suspected that Hitler was up to no good, and warned United States officials about him. But the US, still believing that isolationism was the best foreign policy stance to take, paid no heed to his warnings. Dodd definitely made some very accurate predictions about the dangers of Hitler and how Europe was going to be affected, and he was pretty much dismissed by his colleagues.

This book is substantial (about 400 pages), in-depth, and well-researched. It's intense and fascinating, filled with information about Berlin and Hitler's early days of power that I had never read about before. I read it in a few days which was not such a good idea. I found my brain too absorbed in Hitler's Germany which was not a good place for me to be for hours and hours at a time. I figured out that I had to take frequent breaks and even had to take a break from the book for a day.

Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a very, very short kids' chapter book about four cat siblings who have furry wings! Cats that can fly!

Short and sweet. Check it out if you like kids' books and cats.

Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home - A Memoir by Caitlin Shetterly

In 2008, Caitlin and her new husband set out from Maine to Los Angeles, California with big dreams of finding work and success. They are both artists - she's a writer/actress and he's a photographer. They drove across the country with their dog and aging cat in tow and settled in southern California. Then, they found out that they were expecting a baby. They were also hit hard, like many others, by the recession. Without work, their money running out, and with a brand-new baby, they end up moving back home.

I liked Caitlin, her husband, and their pets. (The baby isn't described so much, so I didn't really feel any sort of affinity for him.) I admired their courage to pursue their dreams and their commitment to each other and their family.

This book was thoughtfully written. It seemed like a brave book to write - to write about dashed dreams, disappointment, and loss. It's well-done, humble, and very readable.

Caution: One section of this book had me in tears, but I also have a big soft spot for animals.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma

When Alice was in the fourth grade, she made a deal with her librarian father that they would read out loud for one hundred nights straight. They accomplished this, and then decided to continue "the Streak." They ended up reading each night together for minimum of ten minutes until the night that her father dropped her off at college.

Each chapter starts with a quote from a book that they read together, and then offers some story about Ozma's growing up years.

I'm a big fan of literacy. I'm a fan of parents reading to their children. It gives kids a good head start on learning how to read, and is just good overall academically. Plus, what kid doesn't want to snuggle up to their parents and hear a good story and look at pictures?

My sister is a reading teacher (and she's the one who taught me to read!), so I hear all about the problems that kids have when they aren't read to at home and aren't familiar with how books and words work and sound.

My mom read to me before bedtime until I was in junior high, and I can still name all of the chapter books she read to me. And look at me now! I have a book blog! =D

Anyway, I liked the book's spirit and its message. However, the execution was lacking. Ozma includes a lot of dialogue between her and her dad which didn't seem true-to-life. Or maybe they are just very smart and clever conversationalists who always have witty comments to make. So those conversations seemed fake to me. Also, each chapter jumped to a new topic, so there wasn't so much cohesion to the entire narrative besides the fact that her dad was reading to her every night. Each chapter beginning was disorienting (especially since they usually start with dialogue) and it would take me a little bit to figure out what she was talking about.

Ozma seems like a really sweet, generous, and thoughtful person, and I think she has more books in her. With some maturing and experience, I think her next books will be better. I applaud her father and her for promoting reading and taking it so seriously.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

Bard was an American journalist who fell in love with a Frenchman, and she ends up moving to Paris. She writes about her relationship (she ends up marrying the guy) and her transition to living and cooking in France (which she has plenty of time to do because she doesn't have a work visa).

This book was well-written. I enjoyed her observations on the cultural differences between Americans and the French.

A couple of distractions: at times, the author came across as whiny, spoiled, and falsely modest. Also, the recipes seemed unnecessary (all food memoirs don't need recipes!) and I don't think I would actually cook any of the recipes (but I also dismiss a recipe if the ingredient list is too long) although I would eat the food if someone else cooked it for me.

A light, mildly annoying at times, read. Probably good for an airplane ride.

By the way, I heard about this book on Notorious MLE's blog. You can read her review of the book here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine

The author of this book is a psychologist who works with teens from affluent families. She noticed that although her clients had tons of resources and opportunities, they still felt empty, depressed, and anxious.

She argues that teens who are over-scheduled, accomplished, and never have to deal with any kind of problem-solving (because their parents swoop in and take care of everything) are actually stunted in their development as people. They don't have the time, support, or even the chance to figure out who they are and to develop their inner lives.

I don't think this book is just for wealthy parents. I think it can apply to any parent. There's lots of good parenting information (like a breakdown of ages and developmental stages and what kids need from their parents during each stage). The author also encourages parents to continue growing themselves into independent, strong, and content people...and have a that their own "success" and identity isn't dependent on the outcomes of their children.

Recommended for any parent, future parent, teacher, or anyone who might be interested in reading about how our very techie and consumerist culture may actually be making us more unhappy and disconnected from ourselves and others.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern



This book had it all - magic, competition, love, whimsy. It was beautiful, clever, and enchanting. Plus, it has to be the most creative and original book I've read in years.

It's about a circus that is held only at night, appearing and disappearing at cities around the world. Within the circus, there are two rival magicians pitted against each other in a contest that neither of them really understands but have trained for their entire lives.

I have not read a book so thoroughly satisfying from beginning to end in a really long time.

I read and re-read lines and sections just to delight in the language. I could not put this book down! As I was nearing the end, I was afraid that the ending would disappoint, but it did not. 

If I haven't said enough about how much I loved this book, here's one more thing. You all know that I hardly ever buy books because I check them out from the library. Well, I'm gonna buy a copy of this book for my own personal library. Plus about five more copies for Christmas presents. I predict that this book is gonna be big, and remember that you read that here on El Estante para Libros. =D

The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1 by Rick Riordan

My niece, Sailor, recommended this book to me. It's the first in a series, and I guess it's pretty popular because I was on the waiting list at the library for weeks before it was available to check out.

Percy Jackson is a twelve-year-old boy who was just kicked out of a private boarding school for troubled youth. But something strange is going on and Percy starts having encounters with mythological gods and creatures that he has only read about in textbooks. Who is Percy and what is going on?? Once he figures some of that out, he also learns that he is being accused of stealing Zeus' lightning bolt and that he has ten days to rectify the situation. Percy and his friends jump into action.

I had a difficult time reading and enjoying this book because I kept comparing it to Harry Potter. If I had never read Harry Potter, I think I would have found this story to be original and fun. However, there were too many similarities to Harry Potter (being a "half-blood", the mystery of who your parents are and what happened to them, boarding school, magic, the two sidekicks - one female, one male) that it made me think that this was a wannabe Harry Potter story, lacking in originality.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Remember how I wrote that I regularly hear about good books from the three Emilys that read this blog? Well, this book was recommended by one of those Emilys, but she hasn't read the book. Her parents and sister recommended it to her, and she then recommended it to me, but she has yet to read it herself.

So I guess I also take recommendations from your mothers, fathers, and siblings even if you haven't read the book. Keep sending those book recommendations (and those of your parents)! I love hearing about what others are reading and enjoying.

This non-fiction book tells the story of two men - Daniel Burnham, the architect of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer also in Chicago who preyed on young women. Reading about the fair and everything that went into the planning and building of the grounds (and Ferris wheel) of the World's Fair was very interesting albeit stressful because of all of the deadlines and rushing. Reading about Holmes' meticulous planning, premeditated murders, and disposal of bodies was disturbing. I kept asking myself, "This really happened?"

Fascinating, kinda gross, but definitely a book that captured my attention.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler

I've wanted to learn more about Amish life, so this book caught my eye.

Wagler writes about his Amish upbringing and his struggle to decide whether or not he wanted to stay in the Amish community. He left several times and lived in the non-Amish world, and always returned only to feel constricted and wanting freedom. He finally left for good at age 26.

Wagler writes really well about the inner struggle and turmoil he experienced. He writes about his years-long courtship and break-up with an Amish girl, and that was heartbreaking. I was reading that part right before I went to bed, and almost didn't read it because I didn't want to read something so sad before closing my eyes on the day.

I was really into this book mostly because I am curious about Amish life, but also because it's well-written and moves along at a quick pace.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

Park So-nyo is the mother of four adult children. One day, she goes missing in a Seoul subway station. This story is told in four parts from four different perspectives. This made each part a little confusing until I figured out who exactly it was who was telling the story.

We find out family secrets and learn about who this mother was, and the kids' and husband's regrets when she goes missing.

My conclusion about this book: very good, but very sad.

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

The author used to live in Manhattan and worked in advertising, and his partner, Brent, worked for Martha Stewart. They decided to buy a mansion/farm on 60 acres in Sharon Springs, New York and become weekend farmers, commuting to the farm on weekends and then back into New York City for the work week. Kilmer-Purcell writes about the toll this took on their relationship, the joy they found in learning how to farm, and what is was like to live in a closer-knit community.

Funny and heartfelt. I loved how they wanted to get out of the rat race, and that they found a way to do this. A sign of a good book: as I was reading, I kept wondering, "Who can I give this book to?"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning

The author was the editor-in-chief of House & Garden when she suddenly found herself unemployed when the magazine folded. She writes about her adjustment to unemployment (but it doesn't seem like she really needs the money), a slower pace of life, and the emotional ups and downs.

I read this book slowly because it was so honest and I liked the writer. Browning rediscovers joy in living and in activities that give her life (gardening, playing the piano, baking).

The one annoying thing about this book is her on-again, off-again relationship with a married man. Who, by the way, sounds like an a******. Bleh!

Also, the ending seems to fizzle out to nothing and was kinda disappointing after such a rich and enjoyable read (minus the whole jerk boyfriend thing).

So, yes, I do recommend this book. Just consider yourself warned about the jerk boyfriend.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

There are at least three Emilys that I know of that read this blog. And they each recommend books to me. Thanks! This is another Emily-recommended book.

This story takes place in rural Mississippi in the late 1970s. Silas and Larry are unlikely friends (black, white, poor, middle class, etc.) until there's a crime that Larry allegedly commits. Their friendship is broken. Twenty years later, they are both back in the same small town when a girl is murdered and Larry is suspected. Secrets come out and their friendship is reconsidered.

The Emily that recommended this one to me loved it. I didn't love it...but now that I type that, I am remembering that I was trying to figure out when I would have time to read it (for example, I thought: Ok, if I get to work early, I'll have 15 minutes to read), so maybe I did like it more than I thought. Didn't love it, but I did like it and it's a solid novel that reads easily.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Dugard

At age 11, Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped by a couple when she was walking to the school bus. She was held captive in a backyard where she was sexually and mentally abused until she was rescued at age 29. She was not allowed to say her real name and instead, went by the name Allissa. She gave birth to her two daughters when she was 14 and 17 (fathered by her kidnapper).

I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to read this book. I started it out slowly because reading about the sexually abuse and rapes was quite horrifying. However, I kept reading because I knew that Dugard would be eventually rescued.

I'm glad I kept reading. Despite years of isolation and abuse, Dugard seems to be a warm, smart, aware woman who wants the best for her children. She really seems like someone who would be nice to talk to and who wants to emotionally connect with people. Of course, she's still going through healing and therapy, but she's also set up a foundation (with animal-assisted therapy because pets helped her through her captivity) that will help others who have been abducted and abused. I'm amazed at what she went through and who she has become despite the nightmare she lived through.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X

Professor X wrote an article of the same name in The Atlantic back in June 2008. He has worked as an adjunct professor teaching English composition classes for ten years. He writes about his students, his thoughts on the college system, and if college is really necessary for everyone.

I really liked this book! I did teach writing (albeit writing for English as a Foreign Language students) for a year, and took the students through the process of writing a sentence, a paragraph, a five-paragraph essay, and finally, a research paper. It was tiring yet rewarding work....and maddening at times, so I appreciated what Professor X had to say about learning/teaching how to write. At times, the book was quite poignant, especially when he writes about how he gets to know the lives of his students through their writing.

I recommend you read this book if you have any interest in reading or writing, or if you've ever taught writing...or learned to write from a really good teacher.

"Over the years, I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be 1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and 2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms. It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester." --Professor X

Friday, September 2, 2011

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans

"...the truth is, I've found more people to be much more receptive to the gospel when they know becoming a Christian doesn't require becoming a know-it-all. Most of the people I've encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them." --Rachel Held Evans

The author grew up going to church and attended Bible college only to find herself questioning her faith in her 20s. She learns that finding real faith involves asking questions, expressing doubts, and challenging what we've been told and taught...and engaging with God and others.

I think this book is a real challenge (and it should be a welcomed one) to the Christians who think they know it all and, with just enough equipping, can answer all questions about faith. Where is the dialogue? And the safety to say, "I don't know"? Sometimes just expressing that you're not sure about something is met with lots of intellectual reasons from Christians who...might be threatened by the not-knowing?

I wish that churches asked people to read this book instead of books about how to share the gospel. I think this book would be much more useful in examining our own answers...and questions...and our own faith.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels--A Love Story by Ree Drummond

Ree Drummond is the author of the super famous blog, The Pioneer Woman. I faithfully read her blog for a long time and then, well, I'm not online so much anymore so the number of blogs I follow has been greatly reduced.

Drummond's story is that she was a big-city gal planning on moving to Chicago when she was swept off her feet by a cowboy (she calls him Marlboro Man). She has most of this story posted on her blog, so reading this book was not too new.

The book was an easy read, but there were a couple of things that struck/annoyed me:
1- She doesn't seem to speak the emotional truth in the moment. For example, after her dog dies and after she finds out that her parents are divorcing, when Marlboro Man asks what's wrong, she says that she's fine. I'm didn't detect a lot of emotional intimacy in their relationship.
2- The book was repetitive. She chronicles date after date of making dinner, watching a movie, and making out. Ok, I didn't need all that description, especially of the kissing.
3- There was a lot of descriptions of Marlboro Man's body, especially his arms. So there was a lot of lust? Ok, got it, again, I didn't need all of the descriptions.

In conclusion, I recommend her blog (I'd still read it if I was online more often), but skip the book.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Monthly Log of Books Read

At the end of August every year, I make a tally of how many books I've read. (If you want to know why - it's our annual Family Reunion each Labor Day weekend, and each family has to report some "Did you knows" about what happened that year. Mine is always: "Did you know that Elaine read ___ books since last Family Reunion?")

Above is a chart of how many books I read each month from September 2010- August 2011. You can see that I had a summer vacation in July!

The total number of books I read is 91, which is quite a large increase from the year before (only 67). Hum, maybe I'll see if I can read 100 this coming year??!!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America by Jonathan Dixon

At age 38, the writer made a career change and decided to enroll at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America. He chronicles his time there and all of the pressure, criticism, and discouragement (and encouragement) that he experienced.

Engaging and honest (especially with his failures), I found this to be a super gripping read.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I think I've found my new scent.

Grace, a faithful reader of this blog, alerted me to this new perfume called "In the Library." The scent is described as "a warm blend of English Novel, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish."

I wonder if it smells like new books at all. If it does, I would love to wear it. That's one thing I miss since I read mostly books checked out from the library - they don't smell new. Usually they don't smell at all, and that's actually a good thing, but I do miss that new paperback smell.

Read more about the perfume here.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Alice is a 39-year-old mother of three going through a high-conflict divorce.

But then she takes a fall at the gym and wakes up knowing nothing about the last 10 years of her life. As her friends and family fill in bits and pieces for her, Alice discovers that maybe she doesn't like who she's become in the last ten years.

I want to say that this book was chic-lit, mystery, and beach read all combined, but it was actually deeper than the average chic-lit book. I thought it was pretty original, clever, thoughtful, and funny.

It's not short (just under 400 pages), but this was a page-turner. I couldn't put it down yesterday until I finished it, so that explains why dinner was ready at 8:30pm last night instead of the usual 6:30pm.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Not Summer Without You by Jenny Han

The second book of the trilogy that I read out of order. This one was better than the first and third because it filled in some gaps for me. But this whole series was just a mediocre reading experience for me. I didn't get to know the main character, Belly, that well and never got a good sense of who she was. So I found it hard to root for her and to even care that much about her.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Some of you have commented that you appreciate that my book reviews are short, simple, and to the point. Well, I think this will be my shortest review so far:

Great writing, but what a downer.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Remember when I accidentally read the third book in a trilogy before reading the first? Well, I read the first one and just started on the second.

This one introduces Belly. She spends each summer at a beach house with her brother and mother, along with her mother's best friend who has two sons. Belly's growing up and things seem to be different this summer. Relationships between everyone at the beach house are changing, and these changes are sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken.

I still don't have a good sense of who Belly is and what she is like. Is she smart? Wise? Shallow? I'm not sure. I don't have a good feel for her, and it seems like the first book of a trilogy should really establish that.

An easy, fast read. I read it almost all in one afternoon, while on the sofa, with a cat sleeping on my tummy. Didn't love it, but didn't hate it. Hoping that the second one will fill me in on what was missing in the first and third.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Julian and Carter meet in a writing class during freshman year in college. Carter starts dating Pilar and Julian starts dating Mia. The couples end up getting married after graduation, and this story follows them for about fifteen years, focusing mostly on Julian and Mia. It's a portrait of a marriage - the ups, downs, betrayals, and decisions.

I liked this one. The writing seemed effortless. There weren't any weird gimmicks, just the story of two people and how their lives and relationships evolve over time. It's about life - plain, simple, and ordinary...and yet there is heartbreak, dreams lost, things not communicated, secrets kept.