Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Poetry Wednesday: Chocolate

National Poetry Month begins in April, so here's a tasty morsel to help you get ready!


Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb -

how you numb me
with your rich attentions!
If I don't eat you quickly,

you'll melt in my palm.
Pleasure seeker, if i let you
you'd liquefy everywhere.

Knotted smoke, dark punch
of earth and night and leaf,
for a taste of you

any woman would gladly
crumble to ruin.
Enough chatter: I am ready

to fall in love! 

by Rita Dove
courtesy Poem Hunter

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Month of Letters Starts Today!

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

A card?

A postcard?

Anything without an "e" in the title?

Make February the time to do just that: join A Month of Letters.

It's simple, really. Just write a letter or postcard. To anyone. About anything. And pop it in the mail. Then repeat through February.

Don't worry, you don't have to be wordy, just thoughtful. Or funny. Or — well, you decide.

Stop by the stationery store (yes, they still have those!) and pick up a box of blank cards. Or stop by Target, or your favorite drug store. A sheet of notebook paper folded into an envelope will work as well. Be as fancy or simple as you want.

Yes, writing a letter on the computer counts (if you print it and mail it, of course).

Here are a few ideas:
  • Congratulate a friend.
  • Praise the work of a professional.
  • Thank someone.
  • Send a memory, happy or poignant.
  • Share your favorite poem.
  • Print a photo and send it as a postcard (it's easy!
  • Wish someone a happy birthday.
  • Write a fan letter.

Join me for A Month of Letters!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Filling in the 'Gaps' 2016

Do you think classic books (even modern classics) are best left to students? Or do you indulge throughout your life?

I am in the latter camp. I read some great books in school, but there are too many good books to simply stop because no grades are involved.

As a result, I have begun "Filling in the Gaps" of my reading. The original challenge was to make a list of 100 books to read in five years. My list was originally published in 2010, was ambitious — and one that was destined to change. I realized some books were not worth reading after all, and others I discovered I already had read.

Additionally, the list was influenced by an interactive project with my friend Carole: Weighty Reads, in which we chose 20 books to read together in the next decade, with a few related books tucked into our repertoire along the way.

Frankly, one should adjust one's list as time goes on. Is Asimov as important as Bradbury? Should I keep three Dickens at the cost of Jerome K. Jerome and Patricia Highsmith? Do I sacrifice classics for modern classics? The answers differ depending on who one is at the time the decision is made.

Here is the most recent iteration of the list, with a few more books marked off since it was published.

Fill in the Gaps, 2016

  1. 1001 Nights / Arabian Nights
  2. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  3. Highsmoor, Peter Ackroyd
  4. Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  5. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
  6. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  7. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  8. √ Sundays With Vlad, Paul Bibeau
  9. Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly
  10. √ The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
  11. The Early Fears, Robert Bloch
  12. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
  13. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  14. Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns
  15. √ The Land that Time Forgot, Edgar Rice  Burroughs
  16. √  Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell
  17. √  Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
  18. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  19. O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
  20. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  21. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
  22. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
  23. The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever
  24. Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
  25. √ The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  26. Moll Flanders, Daniel DeFoe
  27. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  28. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
  29. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  30. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  31. The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas
  32. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
  33. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  34. So Big, Edna Ferber
  35. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  36. Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster
  37. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  38. The Women’s Room, Marilyn French
  39. In the Woods, Tana French
  40. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  41. √ Unbroken, Lauren Hildenbrand
  42. √ Goodbye, Mr. Chips, James Hilton
  43. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  44. The Bone People, Keri Hulme
  45. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  46. The  Lost Weekend, Charles R. Jackson
  47. √ The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  48. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  49. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
  50. √ Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
  51. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
  52. √ Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Jean Kerr
  53. √  The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  54. The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling
  55. The Man Who Would Be King, Rudyard Kipling
  56. A Separate Peace, John Knowles
  57. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John LeCarre
  58. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  59. Sliver, Ira Levin
  60. Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis
  61. √ The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis
  62. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  63. √ The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft
  64. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  65. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  66. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  67. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
  68. √ Atonement, Ian McEwan
  69. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurty
  70. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
  71. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  72. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  73. Suite Fran├žaise, Irene Nemirovsky
  74. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O'Toole
  75. The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
  76. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
  77. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  78. Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
  79. Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  80. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  81. Home, Marylynne Robinson
  82. The Human Stain, Philip Roth
  83. The God of Small Things, Arundathi Roy
  84. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  85. √ A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  86. Prayers to Broken Stones, Dan Simmons
  87. Enemies, A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer
  88. Angle of Repose, Wallace Steigner
  89. √ Dracula, Bram Stoker
  90. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington
  91. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis
  92. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
  93. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  94. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  95. Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt
  96. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
  97. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  98. Night, Elie Weisel
  99. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
  100. The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  101. The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

I tried to make my list as inclusive as possible. If you have suggestions, please share your ideas with me.

Do you have a Fill in the Gaps list? What's on it? If you haven't compiled such list yet, what would you put on it? Let me know!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Stellar Year in Reading: 2015, The Best and Worst

Not to brag, but I managed to put quite a few new books (and more than a couple of re-reads) on my "read" list in 2015. Some were great. Others... well, let's just "live and learn," shall we?

Let's start on a positive note, with my favorites..

The Martian — If you haven't read the book, stop what you're doing right now and read it. Seriously. Seeing the movie won't help. There are some things that a book can do that movies have to leave out. When Mark, who's been in his own head for weeks, is told to tone down his messages to Earth because they are being read in real time, his response made me want to be him. I've never loved an inappropriate word more than I did in that moment.

More importantly, The Martian reminded me just how precious our planet is: it sustains us, despite what we do to foil that effort. I truly fear that we will make our planet as inhabitable to us as Mars. (review)

Station Eleven — What happens to humans who lose their civilization out from under them? How do they retain their humanity? Shakespeare and a traveling orchestra. Never tell me the arts don't matter. In the end, it's all we have.

Double irony: the loss of technology was keen in this story, and I read Station Eleven on my Kindle. (review)

the life-changing magic of tidying up — Stop trying to organize your crap. Weed it out with one single criteria: do you love it? 

I still struggle with that question, and I find myself loathe to let go of what's unloved in case it's all I can find. My effort in 2016 will be to take this final step to heart and trust myself enough to live with love only. (My husband and cats are relieved.) 

I am certain the author was more explanatory than I, which is why you should read the book.

Kindred — if you love time-travel stories and you haven't read Octavia Butler's classic story, make it your next read. 

This story mixes love and hate, confusion and clarity, with one of the most American of institutions: human slavery. Butler jettisons the omnipotent narrator and allows readers to be as confused as the narrator in this classic story. 

I am thrilled to add her to my library, and I will be reading her as voraciously as I can in the coming years.

The Power of Habit — How are habits made, and changed? Why do we do what we do, and how do we reinforce habits, good and bad? 

Take a look into the brain with an engaging writer and discover how habits are formed and broken, and how much reward matters in the forming of habits — and decide how you may want to use this information in your own life.

(Full disclosure: I skimmed over the animal tests, which made me ill.)

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (review)
Everything I Never Told You (review) 
These novels offer storytelling at its written best. Each has its own magic, whether it's a quiet power, a refreshing honesty or an unforgettable, vivid tale. Their stories and characters will remain with you long after the final page.

Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2 — John Connolly scared the crap out of me with his short story collection Nocturnes, so of course I would not pass up the chance to be equally terrified again with a second installment. In a word: amazing. I did have to stop reading every so often to catch my breath and stop freaking out. More than one story made me question myself, reality, my concept of right and wrong and a whole lot of other things.

Now, for the Books I Hated.

Natchez Burning — As a reader, and as a woman, I was never so insulted by a writer's characters than I was with this book. Two men and two women arrive at a life-changing historical scene. The men talk business, the women talk relationships. It's more than that, but that is where I stopped reading. Three Pulitzers between them and the women were too busy talking about their men to talk shop? Please. (review)

Gone, Girl — Had it not been a library book, I would have not only thrown it across the room, but also have torn it in half. How can an author be so untrue to her characters? What she did was just downright mean: if you don't like your characters, kill them. Don't make them stop being who they are. No one wins: characters, readers or authors. (review)

Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us — Not convinced, despite the author's credentials, that I need to jettison my own judgment. I am not saying I should disregard the bloody apron the suspect is wearing and climb into the windowless van, but I do want to credit the small clues my brain is clever enough to collect to help me make my decisions.

I have listed my 2015 reads below. Let me know what you read, and tell me what you think of any books we both read this year.

Also, have you started compiling your 2016 list? What is on it?

  1. Ruby Red
  2. Sapphire Blue
  3. We Should All Be Feminists
  4. Beautiful Day
  5. The Winds of Marble Arch
  6. The Humans
  7. Tricky Twenty Two
  8. The Monk
  9. Simon’s Cat in Kitten Chaos
  10. Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2
  11. The Girl With All the Gifts
  12. What Alice Forgot
  13. Alexander Hamilton
  14. I Could Pee on This
  15. Chronicles of Old New York
  16. The Witch's Big Night
  17. The Borrower
  18. The Dalai Lama's Cat
  19. Prisoner of the Devil
  20. Everything I Never Told You
  21. Kindred
  22. The Four Agreements
  23. A Dirty Job
  24. 52 small changes: one year to a happier, healthier you
  25. Interred With Their Bones
  26. The Cats in Krasinski Square
  27. Daily Rituals
  28. Earth (DK)
  29. Stepmonster
  30. the life-changing magic of tidying up
  31. The Husband’s Secret (half)
  32. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  33. Puff the Magic Dragon
  34. Story of the Nile
  35. Arcadia
  36. The Light Between Oceans
  37. The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter
  38. Orphan Train
  39. She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems
  40. The Martian
  41. Start Late, Finish Rich
  42. Picture of Grace
  43. The Death of Me
  44. Divergent
  45. As You Wish
  46. The Three Monarchs (re-read)
  47. Moriarty
  48. Station Eleven
  49. Good Omens
  50. What If
  51. Tell the Wolves I’m Home
  52. Auntie Mame
  53. Trigger Warnings
  54. Unhappenings
  55. Fun Home
  56. The Girl on the Train
  57. I Knead My Mommy
  58. The Woman in White
  59. Where There’s Smoke
  60. Leaving Time
  61. The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse
  62. Natchez Burning
  63. The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition
  64. Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears
  65. Gone, Girl
  66. The Power of Habit
  67. The Quiet Book
  68. The Quiet Christmas Book
  69. Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us
  70. Jackaby
  71. Dear Committee Members
  72. The Three Monarchs
  73. The Quick

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tell the Wolves I'm Home: Growing Up in the World of AIDS

I had no intention of reading Tell the Wolves I'm Home because the description on the jacket was so unappetizing. I am grateful my book club chose this novel — it's one of my favorite reads of the year so far.

The book jacket makes the story sound like an AIDS story, which is totally inaccurate. Rather, it's a story of grief and loss; of growing up, growing apart, and growing together; of self-discovery and of the discovery of the world from a different perspective; of family; of tolerance. Carol Rifka Brunt captures this through the voice and experiences of an unlikely character: 14-year-old June, a girl at the stage in life where her self-awareness often shrinks to a microcosm of her own life.

AIDS may be a factor in this book, but it is by no means a central character. In fact, the family and community treat the disease — and the people with it — with more compassion and honesty than I would have expected. What a welcome respite from the real world, in which HIV-AIDS was (and to a certain extent, remains) a media circus threat and mystery.

June grieves for her Uncle Finn, her godfather and closest friend who, in his last year of life, is painting a portrait of her and her 16-year-old sister Greta. June thinks she knows her uncle because her uncle knows her. June doesn't know much beyond her direct experiences with Finn, so she's shocked to find out that he has a "special friend," and even more shocked that this mystery person is accused by her family of infecting Finn with AIDS.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is about growing up and growing out of the role of a protected child, finding one's own path on the cusp of adulthood and learning what boundaries are worth pushing and what rules should remain unbroken. It's about finding out that people are more than just who they appear to be. It is rooted in a time and place: New York, 1987. It is told by a reliable narrator in a compelling story with rich description and great honesty. It's perhaps one of the best coming of age stories I've read in a long time. And it's a touching love story between people who are trying to figure out how to live with grief and loss.

Read this book and be just as surprised as June that life isn't exactly how it looks from your passenger seat on the train.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

'Throw Across the Room' Book: Gone, Girl

I was warned.

Strangers and friends alike, people who share my taste in books and those who have no idea what I read, sent up red flags.

"You will be furious by the ending of Gone, Girl," they said, to a one.

Yet, I did not listen. Hey, I survived My Sister's Keeper and Bridge to Terabithia (and so did the "throw across the room" books, but only because they were library books). I mean, how bad could Gone, Girl be?

Worse than you'd imagine.

I will try to analyze my disappointment without spoilers, but I may give away more of the plot than you wish to know. If you intend to read this book, proceed with caution. (I may discuss a few other airborne books, so be forewarned.)

Let's start with the basics: Amy disappears under suspicious circumstances. The police see Nick as the most logical suspect. Both Nick and law enforcement uncover information and evidence that points to him. He looks guilty — but is he?

The story is told in two voices. Amy's story begins as journal entries dating back seven years, when she met her now-husband, while Nick remains in the present. Both voices sound authentic, and Gillian Flynn's control of these two characters is tight and flawless. She knows when to cut between scenes, when to end a chapter, precisely how and when to ignite the bombshell. Technically, the book is taught, the perfect whodunit.

The problem lies in the final pages. I have willingly traveled with these two strangers-turned-friends through hundreds of pages of their lives, for years of their experiences together and apart. I have watched both Nick and Amy evolve from what they were to what they became with each other. I have seen how their perceptions of each other evolve, as does how they view themselves, or how they are themselves. Amy emerges slowly, carefully orchestrated, and gels to a glistening sheen.

Nick, on the other hand...

It is with Nick that Flynn failed this reader. His emergence, his evolution, his becoming make sense until the very, very end. As the final scenes close, I wanted to scream and throw the book across the room. Had it not been 1 a.m., I would have expressed my rage and disappointment.

In the end, Nick was nothing like the man of his resolve. The circumstances of his life can conveniently explain it away, but like an untimely demise or deathbed confession, there was no a-ha. There was no resolution, no logical explanation by the author. It just happened, at the end, with finality but no satisfaction for the reader.

Had there been more preamble, had Nick's character toed the line differently, the logic of his final situation would make sense. Even if I didn't like it, I could accept it. Unfortunately, I cannot accept the Nick at the End. It felt like a cop-out, like Flynn had written a good ending for one or two of the characters and she just didn't have it in her to give Nick what he had been himself building all along.

For years, I was angry at Jodi Picoult for the ending of My Sister's Keeper. I saw it as a non-resolution that took the author and her characters off the hook. When a decision was made by someone other than the character who has been set up to do so for hundreds of pages of narrative and plot complications, I felt cheated.

I can't understand, to this day, the "beloved" moniker awarded Bridge to Terabithia. Katherine Paterson wrote it for her young son, whose young friend died in a random accident — so, if she wanted to reinforce that idea, her book succeeded. It was a terrible, nonsensical ending that added nothing to the story or the characters. I felt cheated.

The ending of Gone, Girl makes me feel as though both the readers and Nick were cheated from an ending we all deserved. I don't trust Flynn and I won't recommend this book to another reader.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What Alice Forgot: Good Fluff 'n Trash™ or Just Fluff?

 I am a fan of Fluff 'n Trash™. I love Penny Vincenzi, Janet Evanovich and select other writers who offer stories with a light touch. However, along with a light touch, their stories offer substance: characters make sense and act logically within the story. The narrative matches tone and focus. Without these elements in tight control, readers encounter too much froth, and the entire thing falls apart.

Lianne Moriarty is too frothy for this reader. I got as far as the secret in The Husband's Secret and put the book down. How could I care about such a dire, stressful situation if the characters felt so insubstantial and offered an almost flippant response? Reading the book made me feel as if I was eating cotton candy when I needed a heaping pile of macaroni and cheese. The author skated across the top, not investing in the characters or the story, just telling it.

I gave Moriarty a second try with What Alice Forgot, which I thought had a brilliant premise: a woman loses a decade of her memory, retreating to a time in her life before — well, before her life began, in her head. When fainted at the gym during a workout, she awoke thinking she was a decade younger and four months pregnant with her first child. It was a golden time in her life.

Within a decade, her life was completely different. She was completely different. However, everyone hoped her memory lapse was temporary, so they didn't have to tell her how different. Also, no one seemed to like her very much, or care enough about her to truly listen to her and tell her the truth. Alice was living in the past until the present elbowed it out of the way.

What Alice forgot was significant, but the tease to get there grew tedious quickly. Why is her sister so distant? Why does her husband's assistant speak to her so rudely? Why is everyone so dismissive of her memory loss? How many times can wrong suppositions be applied to broken relationships? It's like in the movie Twister, when everyone grows quiet at the mention of a Category 5 cyclone: it's overly dramatic and leaves the audience feeling like fools for not knowing.

Thankfully, Alice is not the only resource for memory and information. Frannie is writing letters to an unnamed recipient and Elisabeth has to keep a journal for her psychiatrist; these are interspersed through the narrative and offers welcome substance to the story.

Moriarty offers an almost Jekyll and Hyde comparison of Alice-29 and Alice-39, and neither bode well. The younger Alice is doe-eyed and innocent, almost an older version of her pre-teen daughter. As readers learn more about Alice-39 through Alice's friends, family and daily calendar, the question becomes, "What happened?" The difference is very stark, almost too much so.

I would have liked to see more of Alice-39 after she regained her memory, especially pertaining to any conflict she felt or enacted and the reactions of those in her life (aside from her men). Also, Moriarty actually pissed me off with the red herring regarding Elisabeth, which was cheap and very unfair to readers.

Although I am not inclined to recommend What Alice Forgot to my fellow readers, I will not dissuade them from reading it. There is an excellent value in contemplating a life lived versus a life intended, and many reader find themselves pondering their own lives, measuring their previous trajectory from their landing place. I would not be surprised if more than a few people made important changes to try to recapture their past persona, or to put themselves back on the path they thought they were on in the first place.

What did you think of What Alice Forgot? Do you like Moriarty? Would you recommend a particular book of hers? Let me know!