Looking Back: March Highlights

March was a bit of a snow slow reading month for me (also a slow posting month, and doing the laundry month, and do much of anything not work or volunteer-related), but there were definitely some highlights (*cough Saga cough*). Without further ado:

Saga, Volumes 1 & 2, by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples: Hot damn, how did I wait so long to pick these up? While I've never been a big reader of comics or graphic novels, the right combination of stunning art, interesting subjects and just enough WTF-ery is generally all it takes to pull me in. The last time that happened was with Bill Willingham's Fables series, which I devoured, but Saga tops the WTF-ery of Fables by a long shot. And then some. And that's a good thing. The story of two star-crossed lovers trying to raise a kid in a world and find peace--yes, entire world--at war might sound hokey, but when you consider that both are gunslinging, cursing motherfuckers, it becomes anything but hokey. I read the first two volumes back-to-back, and am eagerly awaiting my library's copy of the third volume.

Fallen Beauty, by Erika Robuck: I've come to expect nothing short of fascinating historical fiction from Erika's work, and Fallen Beauty did not disappoint. A truly captivating story not just of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but of the time in which she lived. Read my full review of Fallen Beauty.

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, by Kevin Brockmeier: Ok, I'm cheating on this one, because it doesn't actually publish until April, but I had to include it here. I read (and adored) Brockmeier's The Illumination, and his memoir of the seventh grade was intriguing for a variety of reasons: it focuses on just one year of his life, it's told in the third person, it has elements of the fantastical. I had the chance to interview Brockmeier about the book and his experience writing it; stay tuned for my full review and interview in Shelf Awareness this month.

Hotel on the Place Vendome, by Tilar Mazzeo: Mazzeo's history of the Hotel Ritz in Paris reads like an if-walls-could-talk memoir of a building, documenting the famous--and infamous--inhabitants of one of the world's most recognized hotels. From Coco Chanel to the Nazis and beyond, this proved one of the books I couldn't stop talking about, filling my friends' ears with, "Did you know...?" statements left and right. Read my full review of Hotel on the Place Vendome, and my blurb in Bloggers Recommend.

The Heaven of Animals, by David James Poissant: I requested this on Netgalley on a whim, and could not be more thankful. Poissant's stories are absurd and heartbreaking, emotional, wonderful, hilarious, awful. I had to stop reading halfway through because I could not see the pages through my tears, and yet the stories never left me without hope. I didn't write a full review of this one because I wasn't quite sure how to put into words how much I loved it. Just read it, please? Read my blurb in Bloggers Recommend.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay: I did manage to review this one... barely. Another collection of short stories, another for the "not quite sure how to find the words" pile (a rare thing for a book reviewer, one hopes). Klay's collection paints such a vivid, varied portrait of the life of a veteran that anyone who's anyone should take the time to read it in order to better understand our nation's military. Read my full review of Redeployment, and my blurb in Bloggers Recommend.

#24in48: My Reading Stack

I gearing up for another fabulous weekend of fabulous reading with the upcoming #24in48, and have worked to narrow down my list of books to consider over the course of the two days. While I certainly won't get to all of these, I want to make sure to be giving myself options for different moods, activities, weather, etc.

If you haven't already signed up, it's not too late to join us! And if you have signed up, what books are on your radar for the weekend?

Back in Flash, BEA, and Other Updates

I feel like it's been a good long while since I've written any original content for this little corner of the interwebs, and wanted to hop on to apologize. The non-blog, non-reading life has started to catch up with me in recent week--work, volunteering, and a few new, exciting personal endeavors have kept me from writing as much as I'd like.

But I've still been reading (albeit not nearly as much in March as I did in February), writing for Shelf Awareness, and following the conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and others' blogs. I'm hoping to be back in the swing of things next week. Which leads me to...

I am so, so, SO excited to be participating once again in Rachel from A Home Between Pages' #24in48 readathon weekend, April 5-6th. Stay tuned for my book stack, and of course I'll be updating during the event itself. I desperately need this kick in the reading pants, and can't wait to set aside an entire weekend (ok, almost an entire weekend, because I have baseball tickets for Saturday night...) to do nothing but read.

And last, but certainly not least...

I'm thrilled to be heading back to BEA this year, and for more than the 1.5 days I managed to swing last year. Verdict's still out on what days I'll be there, but I'm looking forward to books, conversations about books, more books, and a chance to meet so many lovely bloggers that otherwise exist solely behind the computer screen for me. So, role call time. Who else is going this year?

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Cooking with Joy: Coq Au Vin

Let's me start with this warning: I am not a chef. Unlike my husband, I cannot look at a row of ingredients and just magically know what to do with them. I am not magic. I can, however, follow directions - hence my love of cookbooks.

And because cookbooks are books to, and because I get to determine what I want to write about (that's the beauty of writing for myself), I decided to start documenting my kitchen forays.

Where better to start than with The Joy of Cooking? I actually wrote a research paper on the cookbook. Written by Irma Rombauer, Joy of Cooking was the first cookbook to try to make cooking accessible. Think of that blond bimbo you see on Food Network when you accidentally turn on Semi-Homemade with Sandre Lee. Yep, Rombauer was the Sandra Lee of her time, but I'm not talking about looks. No, instead, Rombauer looked to pre-made ingredients - like canned soup - for her recipes. Simplify, simplify, simplify. I like that.

Accompanying these recipes, of course, is the narrative that fans of Joy are so familiar with. Or are we? In fact, the narrative bits (and the recipes, too, for that matter) from one edition to the next are vastly different, depending on which editor's red pen and which family member's oversight the edition was subject to. So don't assume that your 75th anniversary edition (which is the one I have) is the same as your mother's 1960s edition. It's not.

Ok, now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll turn to coq au vin. Cock in wine. Who doesn't love that? Essentially, this is browned chicken, cooked to doneness in a red wine soup of sorts, and then the red wine soup is reduced to a gooey red wine sauce with mushrooms that gets poured over the chicken. And if you're like me and you love little tiny pasta bits, you probably would pour it over chicken on top of cous cous. Look how simple!

Step 1: Pour red wine. This will ultimately
come in handy for the cooking parts, too.

Step 2: Brown those chicken parts. In bacon grease.

Step 3: Remove chicks and brown veggies.
We used breasts, which meant adding
oil here, but if you used thighs or
parts with skin, you should be ok.
You can always add more bacon, too.

Step 4: Add the saucey bits.
Then add chicken bits and bacon bits.
Simmer until chicken bits are cooked through.

Step 5: Meantime, brown some mushrooms.
Save that mushroom juice.

Step 6 (not pictured): Remove chicken bits.
Add mushroom and precious mushroom juice to pot.
Reduce saucey bits until thick.

Step 7: Place chicks on a lovely bed of cous cous.
Pour sauce over chicks.
Eat! Enjoy!
And also drink more wine.

Tada! I made coq au vin, and I didn't even burn anything. I'd always thought of this as an extremely complex dish (When my dad makes it, he lights things on fire. On purpose.), but thanks to good ol' Irma and a solid Le Creuset dutch oven, I managed to pull it off. Speaking of which, that Le Creuset stuff is speeeeeensivo, but totally worth it. Cleaning up was a breeze.

Book Review: The Up Side of Down, by Megan McArdle

Originally published in the February 21st, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Megan McArdle is no stranger to failure. She has a failed engagement and a failed stint in investment banking to prove it--but she also has a loving husband and a career as a business writer for the Economist and other magazines and websites. How does one move from such failure to such success? That's the key question behind The Up Side of Down, as McArdle explores our current thinking about failure and how we can learn to embrace it as individuals, as businesses and as a society.

McArdle comes at failure from every angle, starting with the brain science behind our aversion to risk and ending with the problems of our conventional forms of punishing failures--and the need to forgive both ourselves and others when they occur. Each chapter is peppered with anecdotes from her life (including the failed engagement and her mother's life-threatening surgery) and examples drawn from current events (such as the bankruptcy at General Motors and the state of American penitentiary parole programs). Written with a journalistic flair, her personal anecdotes supplement the facts and figures--and help break up what could have been monotonous reading. As with many business titles, the actual data found in The Up Side of Down is not necessarily new or surprising, but it is compiled in such a way that McArdle succeeds in making us reconsider the failures of our past--and how they can better shape our future.


The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success | Megan McArdle | Viking | February 2014 | Hardcover | 320 pages

Thoughts: Bark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore

I was very much looking forward to my first Lorrie Moore experience, though I'm afraid that Moore's latest collection, Bark, may not have been the best place to start. Each story is unique, and it is clear that Moore is an excellent writer--the title alone, and the myriad interpretations of "bark" through the stories, is evidence of that--but ultimately, the collection failed to resonate with me in any meaningful way.

I don't just mean this because the subjects here were bleak or depressing, although they were--a divorced man struggling to define love in a world on the brink of war; two musicians forced to accept their failure to achieve fame (or money); the ghost of an old friend making an appearance to say goodbye. But at some level, it felt as though the stories got lost on their way to deliver a message; the cleverness of the situations got in the way of relaying anything but disappointment and frustration. But then, each of the characters here are disappointed, frustrated, or some lethal combination of the two--so perhaps that was the intent, as Moore drives readers to accept the certainty of our own mortality, the bleakness of our inner selves, the sadness of progress.

Ultimately, I appreciated a glimpse into Moore's skill with language, which is awe-inspiring, to say the least, and though I found the collection a bit uneven, there were parts of it that really hit it home. While this may not have been the best entry point into Moore's work, I'm still planning to visit her previous writing, and hoping for the best.

Has anyone else read this one? How does it compare to Birds of America or her novel, The Gate at the Stairs?


Thoughts from other bookworms:
The New York Times (1st review - quite the disappointment) and (2nd review - he liked it!)
The Boston Globe
Publisher's Weekly


Thank you to the publisher for providing an e-galley of this title for review.
Bark: Stories | Lorrie Moore | Knopf | February 2014 | Hardcover | 208 pages

Book Review: Fallen Beauty, by Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck's previous books have explored the histories and personalities of famous writers, capturing Ernest Hemingway's years in the Florida Keys (Hemingway's Girl) and Zelda Fitzgerald's tumultuous relationship with both her husband and her sanity (Call Me Zelda). In her latest, Fallen Beauty, she again takes us back into the mind and world of a deceased writer, this time those of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

In recounting Millay's days at Steepletop, a remote house located on a 500-acre farm in upstate New York, Robuck has captured the extreme mood swings and tendencies for debauchery, ranging from drunkenness to promiscuity, for which the artist is known. In contrast to this life of extravagance, Robuck introduces Laura Kelley, who is struggling to live as an unwed mother in a town not known for its progressive thinking and a time not accepting of sexual deviance.

By mixing the actual history of Millay's years at Steepletop with the imagined life of a single mother in the same time, Robuck highlights the rapidly changing times in which both women lived, asking the question,
"Was there a way to live freely without being wild, to live a balanced and satisfied life? To have good fortune in love, parenthood and work?"
Where Millay celebrates living a life of passion, finding romance in every corner and taking sexual pleasures from whoever she pleases, Laura is ostracized by her town because of the result of one night of passion. The two live in the same time period, mere miles from each other, but come at the subjects of love and passion from completely different angles. The resulting story of two women at odds with both each other and with the worlds in which they live is captivating throughout, whisking readers away to a time and place so completely that it is easy to forget that Laura is, in fact, an imagined character, while Millay lived and breathed and left us a legacy of poetry to read for generations to come.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Gilmore Guide to Books
Jenn's Bookshelves
Book Addict Katie


Note: Thanks to the publisher for an e-galley of this title for review.
Fallen Beauty | Erika Robuck | NAL | March 2014 | Trade Paperback | 384 pages

Book Review: Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude starts with the most solitary of characters: a young orphan named Ruyu being sent to live with distant relatives of her previous caretakers, whom she calls her "grandaunts." Her arrival at the Beijing train station reinforces her youthful naivete in a world she does not begin to comprehend:
"Ruyu...did not know that one's preparation for departure should begin long before arrival. There were many things that she, at fifteen, had still to learn. To know the world, for a child, is to ask questions, but the situations leadin
g to those questions once answered, are forgotten; having gathered enough knowledge, one enters adulthood only to be confronted by more questions, which, no longer answerable, form the context of one's being. What can we do but persist questioning privately, or, for those among us insisting on the appropriateness of adulthood, to go on living as though we have all the answers?"
The idea of questioning, ever questioning, becomes central to Yiyun Li's slow-burning but still captivating novel; as Ruyu befriends Boyang and Moran, two other youths in her quadrangle, she also finds herself at odds with Shaoai, the older daughter of her new guardians, now expelled from school and refused a work assignment because of her involvement in the protests at Tiananmen Square. Combined, the foursome poses the question of how history impacts us each as individuals; while Moran and Boyang know little to nothing of the events of Tiananmen Square beyond their consequences for Shaoai, Ruyu believes that the protests have nothing to do with her, and Shaoai must pay the now life-long price for her daring to speak out against an all-powerful government. And when Shaoai is poisoned, the tentative bonds of friendship and first loves between the trio crumble and fall away, leaving a world of loneliness and secrecy in their wake.

Kinder Than Solitude bounces back and forth between the past, in which the children Ruyu, Boyang and Moran clack against one another in the pursuit of adulthood like balls on a pool table; and the present, in which the three refrain from all contact with each other, and even with the greater world. With great skill, Li explores the ways that secrets and our inner lives--those questions we persist on asking privately, and those we insist on asking the world around us--drive us apart, further into ourselves and away from others. As an adult, Boyang yearns for "someone to understand that a moment, even a trivial one, could in time accumulate weight and meaning." Moran, watching her ex-husband suffer the side effects of chemotherapy, wonders if there is a "line in everyone's life that, once crossed, imparts a certain truth that one has not been able to see before, transforming solitude from a choice into the only possible state of existence."

The great mystery of Shaoai's poisoning feels hurried and incomplete at times and out of place at others. Ultimately, however, it is the defining moment of the trio's lives, the culmination of a series of trivial decisions that could have led to nothing but this terrible death. While it is not always easy to grasp the mystery itself--or perhaps why it should be important to readers--it is what gives us the adult versions of Boyang, Moran and Ruyu, all equally lonely in their decisions, all equally removed from the world by their unanswered questions. "Loneliness comes with secrets;" Li writes, "secrets in turn become the badge of honor for loneliness." What could more represent such a sentiment than the solitary figures of Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu, all of whom have failed at love and friendship, barricaded in with their secrets by a pretense of their own design?


Thanks to the publisher for providing an e-galley of this title for review.
Kinder Than Solitude | Yiyun Li | Random House | February 2014 | Hardcover | 356 pages

Book Review: Redeployment, by Phil Klay

Phil Klay's short story collection, Redeployment, does not deal in ambiguities. All of the stories here center on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American veterans returning from these wars; all of the stories here are brutal in their honesty, their emotion, and their ability to convey the life of a soldier that no civilian will ever truly grasp:
"You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn't understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn't matter. You held up your hand and said, 'I'm willing to die for those worthless civilians.'"
It's not a nice sentiment, that, taken from "Psychological Operations," in which a young man returns from war and attends college, where he finds it difficult--impossible, even--to find even footing with his fellow classmates. But it starts as a nice sentiment, tied up in the sense of honor and duty and freedom that we would like to associate with military tours. A kind of association Klay is not interested in letting us get away with.

From "Redeployment," in which a man struggles to transition home after the war, feeling naked without his rifle by his side, to "Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound," in which the relative success of a veteran attending law school stands in stark contrast to the drunk, dysfunctional friend he visits with, Redeployment takes a harsh look at the impacts of war on those who fight it: psychological, emotional, and physical.

There's not much I can add about Redeployment that will do it justice. Suffice it to say that after each and every one of these stories, I was forced to pause due to the sheer weight of what I was reading. And yet I couldn't put the collection down, tearing through the entire thing in just a few days. Nathan Dunbar (bookseller extraordinaire) summed it up with absolute perfection, though:
Klay manages to convey in a way that is both accessible and downright daunting the horrors and lasting impacts of war on our veterans. The range of veterans issues in the news is not unknown: PTSD and suicide, employment, depression, the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life. But Klay's stories make these more than headlines and more than data to be thrown about on Capitol Hill; these are stories of humans and of humanity, and what both sacrifice in times of war.

"That KIA means they gave everything," he writes in "OIF," "That WIA means I didn't."

If that doesn't give you chills, I'm not sure what will.

Redeployment | Phil Klay | Penguin | Hardcover | March 2014 | 304 pages

Looking Back: February Reads

I had an ambitious list of books I wanted to read in February, and while I (not surprisingly) didn't get to all of them, it was still a fabulous reading month all around. A few highlights:

Marshlands, by Matthew Olshan: This novel of war and conquered territories deals in very few details, but that only made it all the more powerful. Read my full review of Marshlands.

The Secret of Raven Point, by Jennifer Vanderbes: This novel of World War II had a few issues, but ultimately, Vanderbes won me over with her ability to depict the raw emotion and lingering uncertainties of wartime, this time tackling the Italian front of World War II through the eyes of a young nurse looking for her missing brother. Read my full review of The Secret of Raven Point.

Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux: I devoured this book, staying up way past my bedtime on already-busy days to finish it. It asks big questions, about the soul vs. the body, our memories vs. others perceptions of us, and how we define our selves, but embeds them all in a thrilling mystery. Definitely recommended. Full review to come.

Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li: Yiyun Li's novel of three teenagers and the murder they may have committed is quiet and slow to build. I haven't quite finished it, but already can't find the words to express how strange the story is, and yet how easy it is to get lost in. Stay tuned for a full review.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg: I put off reading Lean In for far too long, it seems, as all of my reservations about the preachy, self-help nature of Sandberg's writing were entirely off-base. I found a lot here to apply to my own life, and am certain my copy will be revisited time and again. Read my full thoughts--not truly a review, though--on Lean In.

Wave, by Sonali Derinayagala: Wave was on my list of 2013 titles I was sorry to have missed when they first came out, and I finally took the time to go back and revisit it this month. The story was much less about the wave itself than I had anticipated, but Derinayagala's account of the grief she carried with her--and still carries today--after the sudden loss of her parents, husband, and two young boys is impossible to ignore. Read my thoughts of Wave.

Book Review: Marshlands, by Matthew Olshan

Originally published in the February 11th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Matthew Olshan's Marshlands opens with an aging prisoner being released from an unnamed jail. Beaten down by his jailers, the man is returned to "the capital," a city once familiar to him but now entirely unrecognizable. He scrounges for food, sleeps on benches on the mall and seeks refuge in the warmth of the free museums when he can--until he is unexpectedly caught in the midst of a protest, injured and rescued by a kindly museum worker.

Restored to a semblance of his previous self, the man is offered a job in a hospital for refugees from the marshlands. This, it turns out, is his calling, as he once spent years as a military doctor in the marshlands. From there, Olshan's brief but poignant novel moves backwards in time, exploring this man's history with the occupying army of the marshlands--and revealing the startling crime that put him in jail.

Marshlands is not a novel of specifics: "the capital" is never named as Washington, D.C., the "marshlands" never explicitly identified. Even the main character is not named until well into the story. The lack of detail can be jarring at first but ultimately is what makes the novel so powerful. The political and emotional struggles that plague the army and the people of the marshlands are specific to one time, one place and one waning culture, but their lessons can be applied to the struggles between the occupiers and the occupied that have plagued our history for centuries--and continue to do so today.


Marshlands | Matthew Olshan | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | February 2014 | Hardcover | 176 pages