An Impatient Reader: 2012 Titles I Can't WAIT to Read

For those of you who don't know me personally, I am not a particularly patient person. For those that do know me... well, you know. I have a tendency to get overexcited about the things I love, including, but not limited to: baby giraffes at the Bronx Zoo, baby lions at the National Zoo, Christmas, getting the cupcakes out of the oven, seeing my niece, and books. Not necessarily in that order.

But I digress. What I'm trying to say is that I am currently anxiously awaiting each of the following books, scheduled to be published in 2012, and when I saw "anxiously," I mean "if I talk about these any more my husband is going to buy soundproofing headphones and tune me out."



The Twelve by Justin Cronin (final cover not available): I have been dying - DYING - to read this since I read The Passage in 2010. Two years, we've waited! I posted about my eagerness to read this sequel once, twice, three times a charm. July 2012, here we come.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (final cover not available): I'm sensing a series theme here, I know, but I've read all of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books twice in preparation for the final volumes of the now-fourteen-book series (it was originally slated to be twelve, but Jordan passed away, and the final book became three volumes because of the mass of content to include). It will be bittersweet to finish the series, and know that there is no more coming, but I have waited my entire teenage and adult life for this book. Impatience doesn't even begin to describe my anticipation. No pressure, Brandon Sanderson. No pressure.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward: Debuting in the US next year, this one is said to be similar to The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I listened to earlier this year and really enjoyed. I'm intrigued by the title here, of course, and also the praise it has already received in the UK.

In One Person by John Irving: I'm ashamed to say I've read only one Irving novel (The World According to Garp), and never even reviewed it. But I loved it, with a big piece of my readerly heart, so much so that I'm right there on the bandwagon in itching to get my hands on his new novel, a first-person narrative of a 60-year-old bisexual man. And since it's out in May, I have five months to catch up on some more of his backlist.

So, that's what I have on my mind as I look at the year of reading ahead of me. Want to take bets on how many I'll read? What about you, what are you excited for in 2012?

A Poem a Day, Inspired by NPR

NPR has done it again: inspired me to do something I never thought I'd do. This time: read poetry. Alan Heathcock, author of Volt, wrote recently on NPR about his impulsive decision to start reading a poem a day. With breakfast. At Jiffy Lube. Wherever. They are "portable, peaceful, perfect."

While I know myself better than to expect that I will be able to sit quietly with a cup of tea and a poem every morning (I'm too likely to oversleep for that), I own several poetry anthologies and have access to the internet almost every waking minute of my life, so I am going to do my best to read 365 poems this year. I've always wanted to learn to read poetry, to learn to appreciate it, to actually open the anthologies I own. Hopefully, like Heathcock, this exercise will prove to be a "poem each morning, to sustain me through my days with the faith of an egret stepping over every dark thing." At the very least, I know I won't run out of poems.

Who's with me?

Audiobook Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

It took me nearly a month to listen to all 30+ hours of Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/63, but I firmly believe that every single minute of this epic novel was worth it. King has masterfully recreated the "the Land of Ago," as our narrator, a schoolteacher in Maine named Jake Epping, fondly refers to it. Epping's first-person narration is captured on the audio version of this title by the impeccable Craig Wasson, whose skillful narration is steady throughout the text, though charged with emotion as appropriate. And it is often appropriate.

See, it all starts like this: Jake goes to his Al's Diner to celebrate the end of a school year, and one thing leads to another, and just like that, poof!, Al has lung cancer and his dying wish is that Jake go back in time to 1958 to stop the assassination of JFK. Sounds impossible, but a handy little rabbit hole that links modern times to September of 1958 makes it all possible.

And so, not to spoil anything, because it's pretty obvious, Jake goes. He tinkers, he tampers, he checks back on 2011 to see how his changes are holding up in the future. Or the present. Whatever it is. And he sets off to do just what Al asked him to: prevent the assassination of JFK on that fateful date, 11/22/63, in Dealey Plaza.

Jake lives in the Land of Ago for five years -- between the rabbit hole entrance of 1958 and that memorable date in 1963 -- and he has, to put it mildly, time to kill. This life he leads becomes as much the story of 11/22/63 as the mission to save Kennedy, as Jake finds himself pulled further and further into the obdurate past.

King explores the once-upon-a-time land of mid-century America in full detail, recounting a time in which the root beer is rootier, the milk is creamier, the people are more trusting, and the gender norms are vastly different. But 11/22/63 is about more than the past, encompassing territories that cannot be defined by any one time period: love, and loss, and fear, and knowledge, and community.

Given, too, that this is a novel of time travel, both King and Jake struggle with the implications of time travel, of how the past influences the future, how delicately the future is woven, and how important even the smallest of actions may be. These concepts, though not groundbreaking, are thought-provoking; if the butterfly effect is as real as we can imagine, 11/22/63 forces us to consider, what am I influencing right now by doing exactly what I am doing? Is there an alternate version of this reality in which I made different choices? Or took a fateful step one fateful second later, and changed the course of history?

I could go on and on about the subjects King explores here, but I won't, because unlike King, I lack the ability to ramble on in detailed sidepaths without losing my readers. And that's assuming you've even made it this far. So I'll sum up: King, in short, is a master of his craft. 11/22/63 is long, but never lengthy, detailed, but never tedious. Subplots and side stories abound, but each one is relevant in its own way.

King's clever use of foreshadowing throughout all the twists and turns of this complex story make him one sneaky bastard in my book, but this trick is successful in keeping the pages turning: each hint of what is to come, each delicate implication of how things might net out sent my heart a-palpitatin'. Maybe that's something King is known for; as this is my first King novel, I wouldn't know. But I do know that despite the 30+ hours (or 900+ pages, for those reading in print), I was sad to hear (or see, as the case may be) this one end, and I'll certainly be looking out for more King in the future.

---

Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for providing a copy of this title for my review, which, by the way, includes King himself reading the afterword.

---

Thoughts from other bookworms:
January Magazine
Jenn's Bookshelves
The Book Case

---

11/22/63 | Stephen King, nar. Craig Wasson | Simon & Schuster Audio| 9781442344280 | $75.00 Audio CD | 30 CDs, 31 hrs | November 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Audiobook Review: Freddy & Fredericka, by Mark Helprin

Ask me what my favorite book is, and I will attempt to avoid the question. Press me, and I will most likely answer One Hundred Years of Solitude or Winter's Tale, depending on my mood. The latter, considered by many to be a modern classic, was the sophomore novel of Mark Helprin, written in 1983. I've read it twice. It's fantastic. It's one of those books I could not begin to review, because all that would follow would be gushing, gushing, gushing. If you disagree, go away.

Given my love for Helprin's most famous novel, I've recently attempted to explore some of his others. Freddy and Fredericka was a re-read for me, but as it is the most recent of his novels (originally published in 2005), I decided to return to it on audio this summer.

Let me just start with this: I. Love. This. Book. I love Mark Helprin. I love his writing, his wit, his genius at crafting a sentence, a paragraph, a novel. And that's all an understatement.

Here, Helprin tells the tale of the Prince and Princess of Wales, sent to the United States to reclaim it as a territory of Britain in order to prove their worth for the throne. There's a lot more to it than that, but summed up in one sentence, there's the plot.

Along the way, of course, they learn a lot: about themselves, about life outside of royalty, about life and living in general. Their naivety becomes a cloak that they wear with pride, and as they gradually learn to live without the cloak, they begin to truly understand the meaning of life.
  

A careful balance of magical realism and an incredible sense of humor prevents Helprin's work from becoming too transparent in its mission to educate, and though the story can be uneven at times, the characters are a delight to come to know, and Helprin's sneaky sense of humor has a way of sneaking in to save the day.

With Freddy and Fredericka, Helprin has crafted a collection of sentences, stories and ideas and drawn together into one absurd but cohesive plot structure, all perfectly narrated by Ian MacKenzie, whose charming British accent is the icing on this novel's swoon-worthy cake. And as a particular bonus, the conversation between Freddy and his charmingly ditzy wife often capitalizes on word play and misunderstanding, making the audio even more laugh-inducing than the print.

Though not as good as Winter's Tale (and really, nothing ever will be), fans of Helprin, well-crafted sentences, and delightfully absurd stories will enjoy this foray into British-cum-American culture.

---

Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Captive Reader
Red Hot Eyebrows
January Magazine

---

You may also like:
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (bet you didn't see that one coming, didja!?)
An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennet

---

Note: Many thanks to the AACPL for having an audio copy of this for my listening pleasure, especially since good friend JMOW has permanently borrowed my paper copy of this book, with all its precious underlines.

---

Freddy & Fredericka | Mark Helprin, nar. Ian MacKenzie | Recorded Books  | 9781419335914 | $49.99 CD | 25 hrs, 35 min | July 2005 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

2011 in Review: Books I Wish I'd Read

Last week, I posted my favorite 2011 reads (of books published in 2011). This week, I'm still working on some older titles that I've been eying for far too long (American Gods, I'm talking about you), but I'm close enough to the end of the year to catalog those precious 2011 releases that I wish I'd read... but haven't. Yet. Consider this a rough guideline of must-reads for 2012. Of course, that doesn't include all the backlist titles I want to read, the classics, and the assigned books that I will review for Shelf Awareness. But it's a start:


Hemingway's Boat, by Paul Hendrickson: One of the goals on my 26 by 26 list is to read everything that Hemingway has ever written. I'm beginning to sense that I might fail in that regard (he's written a lot of books, and I have less than 2 years on this clock), but I'm still hoping to read this recent biography.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach: I've heard from every corner of the blogosphere that this book is amazing. Greg at New Dork Review of Books loved it, and cheered when Rachel at a home between pages read it. Brenna at Literary Musings raved, and Michael listed it as one of his best of 2011 on the year-end podcast for Books on the Nightstand. I have a copy on my shelf. How have I not read this yet!?

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray: This is a bit of a cop-out, as Skippy Dies technically came out in 2010. But the paperback released in 2011, so I'm counting it. I've had my eye on this for two years now. Come on, self. Get on it.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey: I've heard that the only way to read this one is to listen to the audio. That way I can laugh while driving to work, and hope that I can still see the road ahead of me as I do so.

 ---
There are lots, lots more that I could add to this list, but at least it's a start. What were your favorites of 2011 that I haven't read? And what 2011 reads are you wishing you'd had time for this year?



Merry Christmas!

For my family, Christmas begins today with a feast of seven fishes, in the Italian tradition. I should warn everyone to stay far away for the next day or two - we've already peeled & chopped 100+ cloves of garlic in preparation, so we'll be stinking up Maryland until we get that out of our systems.

I'll be offline this weekend, for the most part, but wanted to leave you all with a little taste of Christmas humor from the other side of my family -- my very, very talented sister-in-law singing a very, very hysterical Christmas tune. And I don't just say that because we're related. Trust me, you'll be laughing out loud:




MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

There are certain books that require a slow reading, that cry out to be savored, to be loved, to be underlined. These are the kinds of books that prove the most difficult test of self-control: one part of our readerly brains cries out to go faster, yearning for more, because it is just so damn good, while the other part, the rational part, the conservative part, tells you to slow down, to appreciate, to take your time. Because once it's over, it's over. And once you know the ending, no re-read will ever be the same.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is exactly that book. This is one that has sat on my shelf for nearly two years, after good friend and fellow blogger Emily sent me a copy as a birthday gift. And I'll admit, rather sheepishly, that I started the book on more than one occasion. I could tell immediately that it was the kind of book I would love, that I would lose myself in, that I would long to devour. And so I did not read it, because the timing was not right, and because it needed to be perfect.

When I finally sat down to open the first chapter for the tenth or eleventh time, it clicked. There it was, a full 325 pages of reading bliss that lay before me. It took me two days to read, and that was forcing myself to slow down.

What Muriel Barbery has presented with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a rich, complex story of two seemingly unrelated women: Renee, a concierge in an upscale apartment building, who cradles her secret intellectual life in quiet, and Paloma,  a precocious, eminently unlikable 12-year-old who is preparing to kill herself in order to avoid the tedium of adulthood. She argues, "“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

As their stories come together, as stories inevitably do, Paloma muses that Renee “has the elegance of a hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

Both characters, though not particularly likeable at first, are rich and extraordinary, and their disjointed stories are captivating and moving. With these two women, varied in everything from upbringing to age, Barbery forces readers to question what it is that lies beneath our assumptions of class, of intellect, of knowledge, and of love.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a book of slow-moving parts, of philosophical musings, of tangents and asides, and given its construction (alternating first-person narrative and journal entries), it is susceptible to lengthy monologues. But these are no a detraction or distraction; instead, they are some of the best parts. The slow pace and bittersweet nature of the story itself don't make for entirely uplifting reading, but the story itself is both hopeful and fulfilling. Just be sure to read with pen in hand, because there are innumerable passages here you'll want to remember.

“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”

---

Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Boston Bibliophile
A Book Blog. Period.
The Novel Word
Man of la Book
Vulpes Libris

---

You might also like:
Enough About Love by Henre le Tellier
13, Rue Therese by Elena Shapiro

---


The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Muriel Barbery, trans. Alison Anderson | Europa Editions  | 9781933372600 | $15.00 Trade Paper | 325 pages | September 2008 (orig. published 2006) | Buy from an independent bookstore near you


Book Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford

Last December, I sat down and read A Christmas Carol For the first time. Throughout the reading, I found myself musing on the familiarity of the text, the love I felt for Dickens' words before ever having read them, my new appreciation for the myriad film adaptations*. This year, I continued my newly-founded holiday tradition, and once again broke out my gorgeous edition of A Christmas Carol, a beautiful red leather-bound edition with gold-edged pages, and paper as smooth as velvet (which is sadly out of print).

Given my long-lasting and yet new love for Dickens' text, it seemed only natural that this December, I would turn my attention to the story behind the story, found in Les Standiford's slim history, The Man Who Invented Christmas, aptly subtitled How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

What Standiford has done--and done quite well, I might add--is provide a history of Dickens' most beloved work within the context of his life as an author. Starting with Dickens' troubled childhood, and moving into his struggling career as an author, Standiford leaves no stone unturned in seeking motivations for Dickens' writing of A Christmas Carol. And once we've learned of its publishing, fans of the Victorian novelist are treated to insight into Dickens' pride over his work, his struggles to maintain its copyright, and its long-lasting impact on the Western world and our holiday traditions.

All of Dickens' feelings about iniquity, injustice, poverty, charity and a need for a shared sense of responsibility for those less fortunate than ourselves have flooded into A Christmas Carol, a book that Standiford maintains transformed a little-celebrated Christmas holiday into the full-fledged giving-fest that it is today. And as times today get tougher and tougher, and streets of occupiers cry for change, Dickens' messages of charity and goodwill become even more meaningful and important.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is one of the more successful literary histories I've read, though I cannot claim to have read many. The work is eminently readable and likeable, fact-filled but never dry; Standiford has a knack for color that many historians and biographers seem to lack, perfectly placing his quotes, trivia facts, and anecdotes in a way that keeps the story engaging. And its short length--just 220 or so pages--make it easy to fit in during the holiday season, even coupled with a re-read (or first read, as the case may be) of A Christmas Carol. Plus, now that I've re-read Dickens' original work and read The Man Who Invented Christmas, I figure I'm a pro at Dickens' Christmas writings,** and can flounce off to any literary party and show off with my new-found literary trivia tidbits.***

---

* I said it last year, and I'll say it again: the George C. Scott version of the movie is hands-down the best version ever made. Although lately The Muppet Christmas Carol has started making an appearance in this house as well.

**Not true, actually. Included in my lovely, out-of-print, gushworthy edition of A Christmas Carol are Dickens' two subsequent Christmas novels (he originally aimed to publish one each year): The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. While I've read these two, I have yet to read The Battle of Life or The Haunted Man.

*** Did you know, for example, that Dickens essentially self-published A Christmas Carol? Or that one of Mark Twain's first dates with his eventual wife was to a Dickens reading in the United States? See? Literary trivia tidbits abound. 

---

Thoughts from other bookworms:

Season's Readings
Books on the Nightstand
The LA Times Book Review

---

The Man Who Invented Christmas | Les Standiford | Crown Publishers  | 9780307405784 | $19.95 Hardcover | 241 pages | November 2008 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Bookish Gift Bows

Just in time for the holidays! Because we all know that no matter how early we finish our shopping (or how late we start it), there's always the wrapping to follow. Modified from original instructions in Playing With Books, I've been trying my hand at some handmade bows made out of book pages:


Let me begin by saying this: I am not a particularly crafty person. I do not have a lot of patience for small, difficult things. Like knitting. I hate knitting. And anything that involves threading a needle. I like shortcuts. I like crafts that involve minimal steps, minimal supplies, minimal tools. If I can do this, you can do this.

To start, you'll need:

- Tape (preferably double-sided tape, but you can use single sided if that's what you have on hand. I did, and it worked fine. Just be prepared to roll lots of little tape circles so you can mimic double-sided tape.)
- Scissors
- A book you are willing to cut up (this is the hardest part, I promise).

Step 0: Take a deep breath. You are about to cut pages out of a book. My only recommendation for making this easier is to go to your local library and buy a book out front that you intend to cut up, which prevents forming any attachment to it. I chose The Naming of Names, a book about the history of plant names, because it had nice typesetting and a luscious, creamy paper stock, and is a subject about which I have zero interest. So.

Step 1: Cut 9-12 strips of book pages, approximately 3/4 in x 7-9 inches (you can be flexible in the size of your strips, but you'll definitely want them all to be consistent). If you cut longer strips, you'll most likely need more strips to fill in the bow. Longer strips = taller bow. Shorter strips = less required, but smaller final product.

Step 2: Place a small piece of double-sided sticky tape (or a small circle of single-sided sticky tape) in the center of the strip. Fold one end down, and twist end 180 degrees before affixing to the tape. Think of the twist in the Breast Cancer Awareness ribbons. Do that. Make sure that when you do this, you don't cover up all of the tape, as you need some to stick down the other end, too.


Step 3: Do the same thing on the other side. Note: If you don't think in 3 dimensions, as I don't, you might have to twist it a few different ways to figure out how to get the ends to align in the middle like this. You're not alone.

Step 4: Repeat step 3 over and over and over again.

Step 5: Place a small square of tape in the center of one of the loops, and place another inside it perpendicular to the first one. Place another piece of tape inside this next one, and keep layering loops on top of each other, varying the angle of the strips. They'll naturally push themselves up into a bow shape as you get taller and taller.


Presto digito! You have a book bow. Happy Wrapping!


---

As an aside, I'm counting this as one of my 100 lovely things on my 26 by 26 list

Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Reconstructing and Reimagining Books | Jason Thompson | Quarry Books | 9781592536009 | $24.99 Paperback |152 pages | April 2010 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

A Bookworm's Pick: Top 2011 Reads

Everyone's doing it, and I'm a big fan of the bandwagon, so what follows is my (first ever, I might note!) attempt to pick out my top 2011 reads. Note that these are my top ten new reads - all were published in 2011 (unless I made a mistake, in which case, let me amend that sentence to read "Most were published in 2011."). I'm comfortable posting this now because I know that in the next three weeks, I will be reading books with publication dates in 2012, or be working on those shelves and shelves of TBR books that are mocking me from the shelves.


13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro: This unexpected little gem showed up at my door early this year from the publisher, and proved an absolute delight to read. Very French, very fun, very thoughful. Very recommended. Includes some steamy bedroom scenes, as an added bonus. 

The Magician King by Lev Grossman: I fell head-over-heels in love with The Magicians in January, and eagerly anticipated its sequel. Luckily, Grossman did not disappoint. A healthy dose of teenage angst, and post-college life angst, and magic, and back story made for the perfect follow-up to what others have called "Harry Potter for grown-ups," and what I call "Harry Potter if he was a loner stoner who went to magic college and did a lot of drugs and fell in love and discovered Narnia." But I also hate the fact that we constantly compare all fantasy books to Harry Potter, and believe that both The Magicians and The Magician King stand wonderfully on their own two feet.

Among Others by Jo Walton: This one was a gift from my husband, who read about its release on io9, and promptly pre-ordered me a copy, believing it would be right up my alley. It was. It still is. Walton perfectly captures the magic of books and of belief in magic, and Among Others proves as much a fantasy novel in its own right as it is a love letter to fantasy books. Read with pen in hand, because there are multiple quotes you'll want to recall later on, and the books mentioned will have the holds shelf on your local library exploding before you're done.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: I love anything and everything by Sarah Vowell, including things she writes on subjects about which I previously had no interest. Case in point: this book. I can't profess to have cared much about Hawaiian history until I heard Vowell was writing about it, but Unfamiliar Fishes was a worthwhile jaunt into the history of a collection of islands that sort of accidentally on purpose happen to be a state. Vowell has a special knack for making me feel educated and entertained at the same time, and that's saying something.

     

11/22/63 by Stephen King: I haven't even finished this yet, and I'm saving it a spot on my list. King is a master at storytelling, I'm learning (this is my first King novel, I confess in shame), and I am totally, completely hooked on this story. If I keep writing, I'm just going to descend into downright gushing. So. Read it. I want to talk about it with you, I promise. Time-travelling, after all, is a brain teaser.

Among the Missing by Morag Joss: I am probably just as surprised as anyone to find this on my list. The novel's cover suggests... I don't know what it suggests, actually, but it proves to be something other than what you'd think. A probing, intellectual exploration of the emotional turmoil that comes from a collapsed bridge, and what it means to be the one missing, the one left behind, and the one who finds excitement in the terror. This story has stayed with me for months -- hence the inclusion on the top 2011 reads. Because, as I've always said, the kind of book that lingers past its final page is the kind of book worth reading.

Enough About Love by Herve le Tellier: I guess I had a French thing going on this year. Who knew? Le Tellier's book is beautiful, gripping, and, as with so many others on this list, unforgettable. Enough About Love is a very French novel about the power of love, and fidelity, and what it means to fall out of love, and infidelity. Complex but never complicated. Not uplifting, but not quite depressing. Just... thought-provoking.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: This one has caught a lot of flack from other reviewers (and a lot of praise, too!), but I can't help but include it here. Yes, the plot is a bit slow, and there were times when I questioned the development of the characters. But Morgenstern's perfectly captured world, of a circus, of magic, of love, of mystery, is inescapable, and I'm a sucker for description, and imagery, and magic, magic, magic. Done well, that is, which it is here.

Christmas Spirit

"It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." - A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Paper or...?

At the grocery store, or at my grocery store at least, they have stopped asking me if I prefer paper or plastic. We default to plastic unless I remember to say something before the groceries start their interminable beep, beep, beep across the register. I never remember.

Which is really too bad, because I do prefer paper. While plastic grocery bags are good for one thing (bagging kitty litter), paper grocery bags are multi-functional. And recyclable. In the world of groceries, as in so many other places, paper is just... better. And yet we fail to give it its due.

Take planners as another example. The most 21st-century of us can decide between our do-it-all, know-it-all phones for calendar purposes, or our tablets (I don't actually have one of those), or our computers. Most computers come with some kind of calendar program, and if not, there is always the all-knowing, all-seeing Google.

I have both a know-it-all phone (which I like) and an all-knowing Google account (which I love), but I am successful in using neither to keep track of my life. When I finally upgraded to my current phone from my dumbphone, I decided to make an effort to consolidate: I stopped carrying around my annual Moleskine planner. I always had the double-spread weekly view, with one page showing the days of the week and the other a blank lined page for my listmaking activities. Now I have iCal. And Evernote. I have synced my work calendar with my personal calendar (a depressing thought, actually), and my work to-dos have their own notebook within the Evernote app, while my personal to-dos have yet another, and so on.

And I hate it. I have been doing this for over six months because this is the generation we live in, this generation of consolidating, of tools that can do anything and everything, of combining our work lives and our personal lives. But I cannot catalog my life on a screen. I cannot relate to it, I do not complete my lists, and I never check for appointments before making a new one.

I am now actively searching for a new paper planner for 2012, one in which I can scribble notes to myself, and make weekend honey-do lists, and keep a copy of my 26 by 26 list on hand. I will continue to use my smartphone for work, where I live in a world of technology and ever-changing schedules, calendars, and due dates, but for me, and my own life, I will remain on paper until they stop printing paper planners.

My To-Read List Is Mocking Me

I own hundreds of books.

On top of that, there are hundreds -- or actually, probably thousands -- of books I want to read. Goodreads alone tells me that I have marked nearly 300 titles as to-read, and I'm not a particularly thorough user of this to-read functionality. Plus what about the 189 books I have read and reviewed on Goodreads that I might want to re-read? And what about the hundreds of books I have read and not reviewed on Goodreads (that happens, too) that I might want to re-read?

I could do extensive math problems to prove that I will never be able to read them all. If I read fifty books a year, and live for another 50 years (I hope), that means I have another 2,500 books in my lifetime. If I stop adding to my to-read list right this very instant, I might stand a shot of finishing them all. Maybe. Possibly. But probably not.

I'm sure you can relate. This is the classic conundrum of bookworms everywhere: there are so very many books, and such precious little time.

I could, theoretically, try to slow the growth of my to-read list to a point where it is more in line with my actual reading speed. I could be choosier about my books. I could commit to not adding a new book to my collection until I have read an existing one in it (actually, I kind of like that idea). But I don't. I continue to see books around me, whether it be on blogs, in print, or on shelves of bookstores, libraries, and others' houses, and I continue to add to the non-existent list.

Take, for example, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. I'd really like to read this book. So much so that I checked it out from the library. And renewed it three times. And returned it. And then checked it out again. And renewed it. And returned it. But I never actually read it. The same, or similar, can be said of Understanding Comics. The Art of Fielding has been mocking me on my shelf since its release. So has Marilyn Robinson's Home -- which came out in 2008.

I have grand ideals of reading more, reading wider, reading broader. Reading current events, so that I understand what the hell is happening in this crazy, mixed up, bizarre-o world. Reading books about happiness, and slowing down, and living fully, so that I can make sense of this crazy, mixed up, bizarre-o world. Reading fiction that takes me to a place I've never been. Or a place I'd never even have imagined. Or a new time period. Or all of the above.

I keep expanding my list against all odds because I believe in the power of books to help me understand, cope with, and explore the world. To enrich my life, and to make me see things differently. Perhaps even better. Even the un-read books that grace my shelves are a part of this, reminding me every day of the possibilities that surround me.

Audiobook Review: The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, by Don DeLillo

You know those times when you're craving the literary high-life, but lack the ability to commit to something as dense as War and Peace? The days that you want some thought-provoking, snobbish sounding literature to move you, but you don't have the time - or the attention span - to tackle something too daunting? I find that this is where short story collections fit the bill, and Don DeLillo's first collection, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, is no exception.

All nine of DeLillo's stories, written between 1979 and 2011, take everyday events and reveal the unsettling sense of dread that lines even the most mundane of actions. In "Creation," a couple heads to the airport to catch a flight home from the West Indies, only to find that they did not check in often enough, their plane is oversold, no seats until the next day, must stay another night and wait for the next flight out. It is a simple case of the agony of long-distance travel, and all of the hassles of flying, but in DeLillo's hands, this morphs into an exotic, neverending saga of abandonment and uncertainty. In "The Ivory Acrobat," a woman must struggle with the anxieties of everyday in a Greece riddled with earthquakes and aftershocks. What does it matter what we eat for breakfast if our entire kitchen may fail to exist at the end of the day? What power do we have to stop Mother Nature?

This underlying theme of dread and anxiety does not make for particularly uplifting reading (or, in the case of the audiobook, listening), but DeLillo's fine writing coupled with superb narration by a cast of voices is gripping in a way that won't let you stop once you start. DeLillo captures the world around us - or the imagined world of our possible futures - with such precision and detail that it is impossible not to believe him, or his narrators, and think about how our own lives might look when cast under such a detailed eye. What anxieties run through our everyday that seem mundane, but truly impact the outcome of each of our days? Our months? Our entire lives?

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is a short collection, amounting to just six hours on audio, and easily digested, but has the one-two punch impact that short stories often carry. The collection functioned as the perfect dose of short story literature, an ideal introduction to DeLillo (though, having read of his other works, I might not be the best reader to make that particular call), and the kind of book that I believe will live with me for a while. And those, I find, are the best kinds.

---

A note on the audio: The narrators chosen for each of these nine stories vary from one to the next, but each proves perfect for their selections. The narration is clear and concise, and easy to understand. My only complaint would be the length of the tracks, which I believe is a trait of S&S audiobooks - I'm not into 20-minute tracks, which makes it hard to skip back if needed, or move a disc, say, from the car to the house without losing the place.

---

Note: Thanks to the publisher, Simon and Schuster Audio, for providing me with an audio copy of this title to review.

---

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories | Don DeLillo | Simon & Schuster Audio | 9781442348233 | $29.99 Audio CD | 6 CDs; 6 hrs, 16 min | November 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Book Review: War Room by Michael Holley

In which I read my first ever sports book - and love it! This review was originally published in the November 18, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive bi-weekly issues of Shelf Awareness in your inbox, fix that by registering here.

Most football fans are aware that Bill Belichick does things a little differently--the head coach of the New England Patriots is known for his one-word press conferences and sleeveless hoodies. Behind this seemingly uncommunicative character, however, lies a man passionate about football and the art of team-building. In War Room, sportswriter Michael Holley (Patriot Reign) gives readers a glimpse of his character and the legacy he has begun to create.

As early as 1991, while working with the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had a revolutionary vision for scouting players. As he advanced in his career, he refined a system of scouting and drafting unlike any other, aided by two young protégés, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli (now head coaches of the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively). War Room explores the details of that scouting system, as well as the lives, relationships and careers of the three men, all of whom live and breathe football, football, football.

Though War Room tends to be overburdened by facts, names and dates that can prove challenging to a novice football fan, the passion for the sport evident in Holley's writing, mirroring that of his subjects, is a saving grace. In understanding the heart of the game--the team, and the art of building it--fans at every level of intensity will come to appreciate the careful thought and execution it takes to create the teams we root for year after year. And next year, we’ll all have a bit more strategy for our fantasy drafts.

Give Bookish Thanks

This year, I am thankful for our bookish community. For finding a place online -- or rather, several places -- that share in my love for books, reading, and the printed word. I am thankful that there are teams of intelligent, passionate people who aim to make the world of the printed word jive with the era of the backlit screen.

I am thankful there are people who are able to dedicate themselves full-time to these tasks of sharing and loving and promoting books, whether it be in a publishing house, at a bookstore, or by creating a small company that promotes books online. I am thankful that there are others who are willing to spend their free time, their me-time, doing the same. I am thankful that through the combined efforts of authors, editors, agents, publishers, bookstores, bloggers, publications, and so many more, I have a house full of books waiting to be read, a world of stories I have yet to discover.

I don't care who makes money doing this, or who complains too much, or who reads what books when, or who gets reviewed where. What I really care about is that we are all passionate about one thing: books. And together, we can be thankful that that passion still exists, in all forms, despite all of the things that threaten it.

---

I'm off visiting family, stuffing my face, and sticking my nose in a book or six for the rest of the week. Back on Monday. Safe travels, and happy Thanksgiving!

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, by Ben Loory

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is one of those books that hits you like a tube of Pringles. You're not even sure that this is really what you're in the mood for, but then you find yourself dipping in for more, and then still more... until suddenly there is nothing left.

Ben Loory is a master of his craft, although his craft is somewhat undefinable. The stories here, ranging from a mere page long to a whopping ten at most, are a collection of the terrific, the fantastic, the horrific, and the mundane, assembling themselves into a truly addictive collection of modern-day fairy tales. Loory has an imagination that must be the size of the Atlantic Ocean that proves a delight to explore. Though brief, these stories pack punch, leaving me with a tingling spine and a sense of adventure and an indescribable inability to stop reading.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a delight, though I am finding now that it is hard to explain why, exactly. In many ways, that is the charm of this collection--its refusal to fit into any one genre, to mold to any one set of expectations. If you find yourself with an afternoon to spare, suffice it to say that Loory will make it worth your while.


---

Thoughts from other bookworms:
Estella's Revenge
Book Banter

---

Many thanks to Penguin for providing a digital galley of this book for review via NetGalley.

---

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day | Ben Loory | Penguin | 9780143119500 | $15.00 Trade Paper | 224 pages | July 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Reading with Author Blinders On

Remember that kerfuffle last summer over certain female authors complaining that certain male authors got more publicity than them? Or, in fact, that in major news outlets, male authors are consistently favored over female authors? Remember last week when said kerfuffle made a re-appearance?

I'm not out to voice opinions on one side of said kerfuffle or the other. I think both sides have merit, and I think one of the beauties of social media and the blogging network is that everyone gets to have--and voice--an opinion. (I do wish we could all play nice, however, as said kerfuffle sometimes gets hackles raised.)

While I am no major literary news outlet, said kerfuffle got me thinking about my own reading preferences. Do I read more male authors than female? I'd never really thought about it. Turns out I do: in 2011, I read 43 books written by male authors compared to just 29 written by females.

In order to know that number, I had to create the worlds nerdiest spreadsheet to tally my reading statistics. (In case you're interested, I also read 49 print books and 3 e-books and listened to 21 audio. I started 8 books that I did not finish, and 7 of the books on my list this year were re-reads.) The fact that I had to look at cold hard statistics in order to glean the fact that I trend toward male writers says one very important thing to me: that these decisions were not conscious. At no point in time did I stop and think to myself, "That book is written by a female. I should read it." (Or the inverse, of course).

Naturally, when I read a book like Gilead, which was written by a woman but narrated by an aging male priest, or Letter to My Daughter, which was written by a man but narrated by a mother, I often comment on the skill of the author in pulling off so completely a voice so foreign from their own experience. But these are observations on completed books, rather than deciding factors in what to read.

I select books by the cover, by word-of-mouth, by subject, by back-cover blurb, by captivation of the first chapter, or by opening the book at random and selecting 10 pages to read. I read books that are recommended to me, whether by fellow bloggers or by friends and family, books that are given to me, and books that are loaned to me. Rarely, if ever, does the gender of an author play a part in my decision to read a book. I think about my next read in terms of the language it will present, the subjects and themes I will encounter, the setting and the experience of reading it. These things, of course, are shaped by the author, but examples like Gilead and Letter to My Daughter are written proof that the author's gender and own life experience are not limitations for a book. The book, ultimately, stands on its own, apart from the author that created it.

I know I may be alone in this sentiment. I know there are bloggers out there who make a point to read more female writers, or non-white authors, or authors who are not from the United States, in order to keep their reading well-rounded. I commend that dedication. Really, with such a wealth of literature to choose from, selecting books by a set of specifications is challenging (just look at the long list of books that didn't meet my 2011 reading goals and you'll see what I mean).

So what about you? Do you read based on author attributes? Do you have reading goals or participate in challenges to meet these goals? Am I the only one who reads with author blinders on, or are there others out there like me?

With that, I'm off to spend Sunday morning with a new book. I haven't yet decided what it will be, but I will be picking based on the book, not the gender of the author that wrote it. At least consciously--I'll leave it to Freud to analyze what all of this says about my subconscious.

Audiobook Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

When I was eleven years old, I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for Christmas. Since then, I have been waiting for an owl to perch on my windowsill and deliver an invitation to attend school at Hogwarts. Even after I was long past the age of Hogwarts invitations, a piece of me still held on to the hope that one day I would discover that behind the veil of the "real" world, there lay a world of magic and wizards and spells and wonder.

Not since I was eleven have I read a book that has had me longing to enter the world about which I read, yearning for some tip, some clue, some hint of a world of secret things and objects of amazement lying in wait. Until The Night Circus.

The circus arrives without warning.  
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.  
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick. 
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.

These opening lines of Erin Morgenstern's debut novel set the tone for the entire book, inviting a sense of wonder, mystery, and an element of whimsy onto the page from the outset. Jim Dale's narration of the passage will send chills down any magic-lovers spine, and leave listeners tingling for more.

As the story develops, we learn that the circus itself is the public stage for a challenge between two magicians, both of whom display wonder after wonder to a wide-eyed and disbelieving audience. Here, then, is a place where magic is on display for all to see, but in a world where magic is believed to be the stuff of myth, the displays are thought to be nothing more than illusion, put on for the entertainment of a paying crowd.

What are the consequences of such actions? What happens when the illusion of illusions can no longer be maintained? What price must one pay to win? To love?

The Night Circus has not been as well-loved by all as it was by me, and perhaps that is because I listened to, rather than read, the story. Because in fact, it is not about the story. Just as the circus is a mere backdrop against which two illusionists can throw their challenge, the book is a backdrop against which Morgenstern can exercise her power of descriptive language and powerful imagery. It is a means for whisking readers (or listeners) away from one world and into one similar but slightly altered, carried along by a desire to discover this world rather than merely find out what happens in it.

Some of this reviewer disappointment I attribute to that dreaded hype machine, which has made this wonderful little skirmish of a book sound like something it is not. Though there are spells and duels and romance and love triangles and even a semi-evil magician, this is not what makes The Night Circus special. No, instead its power lies in the fact that is a book of setting and description, touched with a small but helpful dose of plotlines, wrapped in striped paper and tied with a flourishing black-and-white bow.

Set aside any expectations but that you will discover something new, and The Night Circus will deliver. Not surprisingly, Dale proves to be the perfect narrator for the novel, bringing Morgenstern's elegantly imagined world to life, coloring characters with unique voices, tones, and attitudes, enveloping listeners in the melodic sounds of whimsy.

And for those of you who have always had an inkling that Harry Potter really could be real, prepare to find yourself waiting for the sudden appearance of black-and-white tents, an elaborate clock, and a faint breeze carrying the hint of caramel on its back.

---

Thoughts from other bookworms:
Jenny's Books
books i done read
Literary Musings

---

Thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library, as always, for continuing to stock amazing - and current! - audiobooks for my listening pleasure.

---

The Night Circus | Erin Morgenstern, nar. Jim Dale | Random House Audio | 978-0-307-93890-9 | $45.00 Compact Disc | 11 discs, 13 hrs 39 min | September 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Back to the Classics Challenge

This year, one of my reading goals was to read more classics. Of the 73 books I have read to date, 5 were classics. Not the best showing, really. The problem is not that I do not like classics, just that I don't seem to pick them up. But I'm going to do better next year, and in order to motivate myself, I've signed up for my first official challenge - Back to the Classics. Here's what I'm thinking of reading:

Any 19th Century Classic:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Any 20th Century Classic
Anything by Fitzgerald
Anything by Hemingway (also part of my 26 by 26 list)
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Reread a classic of your choice
Dubliners by James Joyce
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
The Aeneid by Virgil

A Classic Play
Shakespeare. Shakespeare. Shakespeare.

Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arther Conan Doyle

Classic Romance
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your language 
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also on my 26 by 26 list)
The Illiad or The Odyssey by Homer

Classic Award Winner
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (Pulitzer, 1947)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Pulitzer, 1940)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre (Edgar, 1965)

Read a Classic set in a Country that you will not visit during your lifetime
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

I'm sure my list will change as the year progresses, but at least it's a starting point. As an added bonus, I own the majority of these titles already, so I can at least work on my continued to goal to read books I already own.

What classics are you hoping to read next year? Will you participate in a challenge to reach your goal?

A Bookish Journal to a Future Reader

Several weeks ago, Greg at The New Dork Review of Books posted about his aversion to e-books (and Greg, if you're reading this, my apologies in advance for summarizing your rationale in less eloquent terms than you did). His reasons, however, were not the standard protestations of needing the physical feel of a book in hand, the smell of the binding, etc, etc (although I think I could safely argue that most bookworms harbor some love for the look and feel and smell of a physical book).

No, instead of the standard reasons, Greg did not want to give up his paper books because of the "book memory phenomenon" associated with them, the recollection of the time and place in which they were read that was associated with their physical presence on their shelves.

I feel the same way about my bookshelves (though I've never articulated it as well), and this is one of the reasons that my living room is not decorated with art, but instead several teetering versions of the infamous Billy Bookcase from IKEA. As I sit in my spectacularly recovered reading chair, I can scan the titles on the shelves, thinking of the last time I read them, or when I purchased them, or who gifted them to me, or kick myself for not reading them yet, whatever the case may be.

But my love of paper books as memory vessels goes even further than that, I think, due in large part to the fact that I write in my books. Yes, that divisive subject again. I'm not going to get into the whys of my writing in books - I've done that already - but suffice it to say that I do. (I also dog-ear the pages, if you're wondering. Top corners and bottom corners.) What I'm left with is a cohesive unit that contains both the content of the book (duh) and my experience with it. I've underlined the passages I like, circled words I didn't understand, written definitions and thoughts in the margins. I've most likely broken the binding (page 141-142 fell out of my copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog this weekend), and there's even a risk of coffee stains on the pages (or tea, as the case may be).

What I love most about this process is not the cathartic nature of underlining or commenting as I read, though I do love that. It is that when I re-read, or turn back to a passage, a page, a sentence, I am recalling the exact experience I had when I last read the book. I am essentially reading a journal of my reading experience, overlayed atop the reading material itself.

Most often, when I re-read a book, or dip back into it for whatever reason, I find that what stands out to me has changed. Perhaps it is because I know the outcome, and therefore events take on a new meaning. Or perhaps it is because it has been several years and my perspective has changed. Or maybe it's as simple as forgetting the definition of a word I used to know (or thought I knew).

My bookcases, then, are physical reminders of a place, a setting, a story, as they are to Greg. But my books are journal entries to a future reader, especially when that future reader is myself. I have an e-reader, and I will read books on it, but the experience of revisiting my book experience will never be the same in e-ink.

Audiobook Review: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

Occupy. Occupy. Occupy. Otherwise understood as a case of them vs. us. The top 1% vs. the 99%. The elite vs. the rest of us. The rich vs. the poor. Hell, the rich vs. the middle class, the upper middle class, and even the upper-upper middle class. These are the headlines that dominate our newscasts, our blogs, our magazines, our newspapers. However you feel about the protests themselves, or the motivations behind them, the undeniable fact that threads through every debate around the Occupiers is the fact that the richest among us are getting richer. And richer. And still yet richer.

I look at the incomes of the top 1% - the very same incomes that have risen 275% since 1975 - and wonder how on earth one person, or even one family, could spend so much money in a lifetime. The Kardashian wedding comes to mind: a showcase in absurd overspending. But don't you wonder? What is it like to live with no concept of excess? With no concern for overspending? With no fear of debt, or loss, or sacrifice? How does privilege change a person? For better? For worse? And if the 99% ask these questions of the 1%, what questions do the 1% ask of the 99%?

These are the kinds of questions addressed by Jonathan Dee's The Privileges. Although the story is in no way associated with the Occupy movements, the 1%, or any other current events, it proved a timely selection in a world of economic headline. 


The Privileges is an aptly-named novel about a wealthy family in Manhattan. Adam and Cynthia Morey are a pure exemplification of the American Dream. Married at 22, fresh out of college, they return from their honeymoon expecting their first child. Adam works for a hedge fund, Cynthia a fashion magazine. Adam gets a raise. Cynthia stops working to raise children. They settle into modest apartment in Manhattan, then move to a larger one when their children are too old to share a bedroom. Adam deals in insider trading, Cynthia questions her purpose in life. They move to a townhouse. Adam gets a 6-figure bonus, Cynthia gets involved in charities. The kids go to prep school, experiment with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and spend their parents' money.

Throughout it all, Adam and Cynthia remain fiercely loyal to one another, basing every action on its ability to make the other, or their family, happier than in the past. And page by page, we watch each member of the family, and even the family as a whole, struggle to define what life is all about if it is not about overcoming challenges - for in truth, they really don't have challenges to overcome in their little bubble of a world. Is it about leaving a mark on the world? Helping others? Making more money? Finding Art? And if they are such a wonderfully perfect family, led by a couple so wildly in love, why do they seem so lonely?

The prose throughout Dee's novel is stark but emotional, captured perfectly by David Aaron Baker's narration in the audio version. Though several reviews have complained of the static nature of the storyline, or the flatness of the characters, and these complaints are not entirely unfounded, I found that this bare-bones approach to storytelling actually complimented Dee's novel. Dee is not out to judge his characters, or even make you like them. He's just telling you about them, in all their selfish, wealthy glory. The story is, in fact, really not much of a story at all, moving to no specific culmination or conclusion, but instead a profile of a family, flawed and perhaps unlikeable, but ultimately understandable.

The Privileges proves to be a treatise on how wealth and greed and power and love and loyalty and determination can shape not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. It is melancholy, bitter, but ultimately not depressing. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to leave a mark on the world, how to keep from disappearing, how to make an impact.

Like Gossip Girl, the Kardashian wedding, and the 1% headlines, The Privileges will prove captivating to anyone slightly obsessed with the world of the wealthy (and don't deny it, you know you're intrigued). Though the characters here may not be likeable or relatable, the novel itself gripping and insightful, and, given the backdrop of Occupy protests, jobs acts, and economic reform, incredibly timely.

As a final thought: Those turned off by the episodic nature of the plot should at least invest in the first chapter (focusing solely on Adam and Cynthia's wedding), which could easily stand alone as a short story.

---


Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Book Case
Bookpage
Books on the Nightstand

---

Note: Many thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for (as always) keeping an excellent stock of audiobooks on hand for my browsing pleasure. You guys rock.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Or, the post in which I admit that I read a YA-bestseller that wasn't Harry Potter and actually liked it.

You'd have to have been living under a rock for the last few years to not have heard of The Hunger Games trilogy at this point. It's so ubiquitous that it is even making appearances in the #Occupy movements. At least it did this one time, at any rate. Because it is so everywhere-and-in-your-face-and-read-me-read-me-read-me, I did the only natural thing a book snob like myself could do: I avoided it.

That is, until a good friend and fellow blogger sent me a copy and insisted - yes, insisted - that despite all the things I thought I knew about it, I had to read it. She coupled this argument with the fact that I would be able to finish it in an afternoon. Figuring I had nothing to lose but a few hours and some of my pride at insisting that it wasn't for me, I took a stab.

What I found between the unsuspecting pages of The Hunger Games was a fast-paced, imaginative and creepy in that this-is-all-too-possible kind of way story. I won't go into the details of the plot, because in all likelihood, anyone reading this has already read the whole trilogy anyway, but for those who don't know the premise:

In the country of Panem, which sounds shockingly like a country that used to be known as the United States, The Capitol dominates. And, somewhat inevitably, there is an attempted revolution. And also inevitably, in a world of dictatorships and dominatrixes, The Capitol thinks up a twisted punishment for this revolt, which doubles as a constant reminder of their power and control: The Hunger Games. Each district must send one boy and one girl to compete in the games each year, in which children are pitted against a series of man-made challenges - and each other - in a fight to survive. Last child standing wins. All the others... well, they are dead, and thereby have not won.

See? I told you it was twisted. I can understand some of the parental objections over the book (although I maintain that attempting to ban a book because it gave your child nightmares is just outrageous), for there is some heavy stuff in there: the importance of family, the concept of sacrifice, the making and breaking of allies. And death. There's all that stuff about death.

Ultimately, Collins' imagination is the savior of the book -- her writing is not. Conversations feel stilted and forced, and characters develop unevenly at best. And don't get me started on the sentences that aren't really sentences.

Despite all of the flaws, though, I'll go back for seconds and thirds with the next two books in the trilogy. Collins has succeeded in creating a masterful world, a world of centralized power and dictator-ship like rule that is all too possible to consider, and a world to which I'd like to return. I'm eager to find out what happens of the whirlwind media storm created by the Games featured in this first installment, and I really do want to know what happens to certain characters-who-shall-not-be-named-but-if-you-read-the-book-you-know-what-I'm-talking-about.

So. To sum up. Maybe not the most well-written book I've read, and certainly not my favorite of ever or even the year, but I've got a soft spot for imagined futures (see my recent review Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood), and The Hunger Games fit right in there. Thanks to Emily for the recommendation, the insistence, and then going so far as to send me my own copy of the book -- and for proving that sometimes I don't know what's best for my own reading tastes.

---

It seems I'm on a dystopian, re-imagined future kind of kick. What should I look for next?

---

Thoughts from other bookworms (sharing the same I-read-this-and-SURPRISE!-I-actually-kinda-liked-it feelings):
another cookie crumbles
Dead White Guys
Frederation

---

You might also like:
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The Hunger Games Companion by Lois Gresh

To My Best Friend

One year ago today, I put on the most fabulous dress of my life and walked down the aisle to look into the eyes of my best friend and say "I do." We piled books on tables under bunches of blue flowers and ate rockfish covered in crab meat and danced until our feet hurt and drank champagne until we were giggly with exhaustion. We've spent a year building a life together, and a home, and quite the collection of books. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I love you, darling. Happy Anniversary, and here's to many more.

A New Reading Nook

Last week, I posted about my grandmother's chair and the crazy, bizarre, meant-to-be-path that it took to get to my living room. This week, the chair came back to me again, reborn this time as a piece that not only matches my living room (which, surprisingly, does not contain anything pink) and almost looks like a piece out of the Pottery Barn catalog:

Before: Pink and Ugly and Very Cozy

After: Khaki and Pretty and Still Very Cozy

I'm looking for many more years spent curled up here with a book. Thanks, Grandma. Love you.

Audiobook Review: North River, by Pete Hamill

I made my first foray into Pete Hamill's work nearly ten years ago (a number that makes me feel old, as young as I am), when I picked up Forever at a local bookstore. I knew nothing about it at the time, beyond the fact that it had a striking cover and was set in New York - a city that I was moving to just months later. I did not know that Hamill is known for writing love letters to his home city into each of his novels, or that Forever would take me through Manhattan's history, from the Dutch to September 11. I certainly did not know that ten years later, it would still be a book that resonated with me.

But that is why we read, is it not? To find the gems that call to us from their bookstore shelves? To find the perfect cover with the perfect subject for this perfect moment? It's all about timing.

Perhaps the timing issue is why it has taken me nearly ten years to return to Pete Hamill, despite my infatuation with Forever. Now that I have spent more than a year away from the city that I called home for all of my college and post-grad years, I find myself returning to the literature of New York -- of which there is no scarce amount. Hamill's North River is just such a novel, this time taking readers (or listeners, as the case may be) back to the grips of the Great Depression in New York.

Dr. James Delaney is our compassionate and kindly and downright likeable protagonist, spending his days caring for the sick of Manhattan's West Village--regardless of their ability to pay him for his services. At home, however, he is both lonely and alone, left by both his wife, who disappeared over two years earlier, and his daughter, who ran off to Mexico with her exotic husband and infant son. When that grandson, now three years old, shows up on his doorstep one snowy night, Delaney's world shifts -- he is no longer alone, he is no longer the center of his own universe, and he must once again learn to show compassion, and even love, to those close to him as well as to his neighbors.

It is this subtle shift in Delaney's character that makes North River as compelling as it is. As Delaney faces down mob bosses, toddler's tantrums and the haunting memories of his own past, the hard core he has built up in himself begins to melt, replaced by a new kind of core, this time built on a new definition of family. These subtleties are perfectly captured by Henry Strozier's smooth and understated narrative, which is at once plodding and mesmerizing. Though North River is not told in the first person, Strozier's narration is perfectly representative of Delaney's even-keeled temperament, his thawing, and his deep-seated compassion for those around him, regardless of the costs to himself.

And as with all of Hamill's novels, North River could not exist without its setting. Delaney interacts with New York as though she was a character herself, and Hamill captures the intricate details of a New York that he knows and loves in a time period in which he can only imagine. Hamill's is the story of the winter winds whipping from the East River into the tenement buildings of SoHo, and the tale of the small but quaint houses that still decorate the twisting, turning streets of the West Village. It is the story of struggling immigrants in 1930s Manhattan, of brothels and whores, of mobs and gangsters and boozing and all of the dangers and thrills and wonders of a city like New York. Those looking for historical fiction will be satisified; those looking for a tale of families and what it is to be loved will be pleased; and those with any interest in the history of New York will be thrilled.

---

You might also like:
Forever by Pete Hamill
Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

---

Many thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for (as always) having such an excellent collection of audiobooks for my perusal and reading pleasure.