Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Year-End Wrap-Up 2009

We are back in town after a little Christmas jaunt up to my parents' house in Northern California. We had a lovely time. I took my daughter to see the San Francisco Ballet's production of The Nutcracker, which was magical. I'm not sure which I enjoyed more, watching the dancing, or seeing the scores of little girls in the audience, all dressed up in their holiday finery. My daughter loved it all!

I always hesitate to do a year-end reading wrap-up, because I usually haven't read that many books actually published in the year I'm wrapping up. This year I have a few books from 2009 to recommend, so I will. I'll also throw in my cousin's favorites of the year, since he's a voracious reader, he reads mostly new fiction and non-fiction, has good taste, and his favorites include a bunch of things I want to read!

Some of my favorite reads of 2009, published in 2009:

The Anthologist: A Novel, by Nicholson Baker
The Lacuna: A Novel, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Believers: A Novel, by Zoe Heller
A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr
Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman's Sweet Journey from Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker by Gesine Bullock Prado

My cousin's 2009 favorites include:

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories-Wells Tower
The Believers-Zoe Heller
Sag Harbor: A Novel-Colson Whitehead
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It-Maile Meloy
Juliet, Naked: a novel-Nick Hornby
A Gate at the Stairs-Lorrie Moore
A Good Fall: Stories-Ha Jin

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon-David Grann
Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir-Christopher Buckley
The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter-Jason Kersten
True Compass: A Memoir-Ted Kennedy
Lit-Mary Karr
The Hunger: A Story of Food, Desire, and Ambition-John DeLucie
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"-David Bianculli

What does your year-end wrap up look like this year? Do you make an accounting of what you've read in the year?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still on the jury...

I'm on a jury. The trial is supposed to last two weeks, but we hear it might go a day or two longer. Which means it will get dangerously close to Christmas.

We celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas in our family. At home, we've been lighting our candles nightly, and it is quite beautiful. Then next week we plan to head to my parents' house, a six-hour drive away, to enjoy their Christmas tree and lots of presents and food. I was hoping to drive north on the 22nd, but...I could still be in court. I'm thinking the judge won't like it if I skip town...

I've barely cracked a book during the trial, because I've had no time to do any of my part-time work, regular errands, Christmas shopping, or kid stuff during the day. Due to the trial, I'm missing one child's family history presentation at school, and another's teacher-appreciation party. My third is in the middle of finals week, so in honor of that, I thought I'd post a little list of vocabulary words for y'all to ponder.

My eighth-grader (13-year-old) read To Kill a Mockingbird this semester in his English class. This is the list of vocabulary words, mostly gleaned from that book, that he has to know the definition of for tomorrow's exam. I thought it was a pretty good list for a 13-year-old to know. You can quiz yourself on how many you know :)


Friday, December 11, 2009

Doing my Civic Duty--which means a Blogging Break

I am on a jury, for the first time in my life. I've had jury duty before, but have never been picked for a jury, until now. I was hoping that I would have time to blog while being in court all day, but that was a fantasy.

So I'm going to take a blogging break for the next week, and get back to it after the 18th.

Every day I take two books to the courthouse with me, both of which were birthday gifts from my sweet husband: Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna: A Novel or Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. However I try to parcel out the minutes, I have no time to actually read them.

And then I'm too tired to read when I get home at night. I'll let you know if I've made progress once I'm back! In the meantime, I'll try to check in with all my blogging friends, but doubt I'll have time to write much. We'll see!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Bloggers Unite...

...and have lunch!

The antidote for a crappy week: getting together with book blogging friends in real life at the charming Aroma Cafe (which houses the cute Portrait of a Bookstore) and having a lovely lunch and book gift exchange.

It's been one of those weeks. I had jury duty, and got on a trial. And it will be a long two weeks in court. If I'm lucky.

So I was cheered to meet up with Ti from Book Chatter, Florinda from 3 Rs Blog, Jill from Fizzy Thoughts, and Amy from My Friend Amy.

Sweet Jill drove the farthest, and brought us special CDs of Christmas music. And we each brought a wrapped book for a holiday book exchange. Lamebrain that I am, I forgot my gift, but fortunately we were right next to the lovely little bookstore, so I quickly picked a favorite and had it wrapped. We ate, drank, chatted about books and life, and browsed in the tiny but cute bookstore at the back of the cafe. All in all, a very nice day.

Here's Florinda with her book exchange book.

And here's Ti with her new book.

Amy (left) and Jill (right)
I'm looking forward to seeing them all again at this year's LA Times Festival of Books in April, if not before.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Salon: In my head

The Sunday Salon.com

The front page of the New York Times Book Review has a really nice review of Alice Munro's new story collection, Too Much Happiness. It's a book that I covet. And now that my birthday has come and gone, I have a couple of book store gift certificates that I can use to buy it!

The review, by Leah Hager Cohen, starts out saying something that I often talk about in relation to my favorite books--that sense that the author is speaking words you might speak, or at least is writing about things you've thought about. It's a wonderful feeling when it happens, and it happened to this reviewer when she read this book of Munro's. Cohen writes, "...the sensation, when reading, that your own mind is giving birth to the words as they appear on the page. Such is the ego that in these rare instances you wonder, 'How could the author have known what I was thinking?' Of course, what has happened isn't this at all, though it's no less astonishing. Rather, you've been drawn so deftly into another world that you're breathing with someone else's rhythms, seeing someone else's visions as your own."

I love when this happens. It doesn't happen for me with many authors, but with some. For me, it happens with Lorrie Moore, and Laurie Colwin, and Alice Munro. Raymond Carver, every once in awhile. Less so with authors who wrote before the 20th century, because their language is so different than that which I use myself, even though I may get caught up in the poetry of it.

Which, if any, authors do that to you?

I'm in the middle of Nicholson Baker's novel The Anthologist, which I'm really liking. There is a similar sensation reading this book. I think it's because it's a stream-of-consciousness novel to begin with, and Baker has been able to really draw me into his main character's head. He doesn't think exactly the way I do, but I like the way he thinks, and it makes the reading experience very enjoyable.

I would imagine that being inside the head of a character you don't like or relate to would be excruciating. I can't remember any reading experiences like that. Do you have any painful stream-of-consciousness reading experiences?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The world's worst library books

My sister-in-law sent me a link to a website appropriately named Awful Library Books, which rounds up the worst library books out there, most of which are hopelessly and hilariously outdated. Made me giggle.

An update to my wish list for new books:

Too Much Happiness: Stories, by Alice Munro. I almost always love Munro. Her stories are often little gems. I'm looking forward to savoring these.

Wolf Hall: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel. I'm interested in learning about Thomas Cromwell, and this won the Booker this year, and the buzz is good. It's on my list.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My Wish List Grows Longer...

All of a sudden there are so many new books out that I want to read. I'm coveting them. Good thing my birthday is coming up, maybe I can convince the hubby to spring for some of these.

Here's a partial list of the books I'm drooling over:

The Lacuna: A Novel, by Barbara Kingsolver. Here's the review in the New York Times Book Review, by Liesl Schillinger, which ends with this nice bit: "The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the fuller value of Kingsolver's novel lies in its call to conscience and connection."

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. Here's a review and interview with A. S. Byatt from NPR station WBUR in Boston. In it, Byatt calls this novel, "the one I find easiest to love." It is said to be long and rambly with lots of characters, but I'm in. I'm definitely going to get a copy of this one.

Invisible, by Paul Auster. The review in the New York Times Book Review, by Clancy Martin, ends with the superlative, "It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written." I have liked some of Auster's novels, and not responded to others, but certainly want to read his finest. Onto the list!

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr. This is a new memoir by Karr, who was mesmerizing in her first memoir, The Liar's Club. I didn't read her second book, but I hear this one is really amazing. Susan Cheever says it is a serious book about motherhood, faith, alcoholism, and more in a NY Times Book Review podcast.

Hello husband? You listening? Book store gift cards are nice, too.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Anthologist

The Sunday Salon.com

Well, this was meant to be a Sunday Salon post, but the day got away from me.  My three kids were going in three different directions today.  But as my littlest one was drifting off to sleep, and I was rubbing her back, I managed to sneak in a few pages of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist.  

I am finding this book very entertaining, so far.  Main character Paul Chowder is a poet who just can't seem to write the introduction to a poetry anthology that he has edited.  He's just the kind of character I can relate to right now--a procrastinator who seems to spend a lot of time inside his own head.  And he's making me think about poetry, which feels both pleasant and good for me.

I had some hesitation about reading this book, though I had heard good things and thought the subject matter sounded interesting, because I couldn't get through an earlier book of Baker's, The Mezzanine.  It was a slim little book, and also a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing, but somehow seemed much less accessible than The Anthologist.  Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me to read it, but I could not get into it, and I put it down fairly soon after picking it up.  And then I felt terribly guilty.  Because it was a book that someone had loaned me--someone who thought I would like it.  And I have to admit, I still haven't returned it to her.  And now I'm not sure I could even find it on my shelf if I tried.  Guilt, guilt, guilt, shame, shame, shame.  I am usually such a good book borrower, and I abhor this sort of behavior in others.

So all of that created a little barrier between me and Nicholson Baker's work, so I was nervous when my book group picked The Anthologist for its next read.  But I'm so glad I pushed past my anxiety about it and started to read.  I like the way Paul Chowder's mind works.

Looking forward to sneaking in a few more pages.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--It’s All About Me

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is:

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

And it's actually a tough question for me. I guess I don't have a general preference. It all depends on the writing. There are some biographers I always like, like Judith Thurman and Hermione Lee. But if someone writing their own story has a unique voice, then that may be the best way to read about that person. Of course, reading an autobiography is a completely different thing. The writer is less likely to be objective, obviously, and may have an axe to grind that you don't know about ahead of time. It's also hard to know, if there's a ghost-writer, whose voice is whose.

One of my favorite things to do is read an autobiography or memoir back-to-back with a good biography of the person. For example, I read Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, and then I read Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.

And on a similar adventurous African theme, I read and enjoyed Beryl Markham's memoir, West with the Night, and then read Straight on Till Morning: A Biography of Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell.

Some of my favorite biographies and autobiographies:

Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein
The Brontes, by Juliet Barker
Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

On my shelf, but haven't read yet:

Dawn Powell: A Biography, by Tim Page
Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee
Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, by Penelope Lively

So, which do you like better, autobiography or biography? And do you have any good biographies or autobiographies to recommend?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Back home again

Settling back in after another weekend away. These are champagne problems, I know. My hubby and I had a wonderful weekend in San Francisco to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Some foodie friends recommended more restaurants than we could have possibly visited, but we chose to dine at Quince and Delfina, both of which were wonderful.

We also took a long walk from the Marina to Fort Point, just under the Golden Gate Bridge. The photo at left is of the bridge from inside the fort. I didn't have my camera, just my phone, so this is the only picture really worth posting. The rest are fuzzy or lopsided or both.

The weather was gorgeous, and so was the city. And the kids had fun staying with my parents, so everyone was happy.

I'm still full from all of the eating.

I did a little reading, too. I downloaded a couple of the Fairacre series of books on my Kindle, which I started. I got through Miss Clare Remembers and Emily Davis (The Fairacre Series 4 & 8). The Fairacre series chronicles life in a rural English village from the late 1800s through the middle of the next century. Not a lot actually happens in most of the books, but they are full of atmosphere, and I'm enjoying them.

I also started The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan, which I'm reading for my book group. It's a memoir about her battle with cancer, and her father's battle with cancer at the same time. I'm enjoying Corrigan's voice, and somehow, despite the obviously difficult subject matter, it's not really a depressing book. It's not just about cancer; it's about being a daughter and a mother, and so far, I like it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Weekend in New York

I spent last weekend in New York, visiting a friend who recently moved there. It was freezing by Los Angeles standards, in the 40s and raining, but that didn't stop us from walking all over the West Village, Soho and Chelsea, exploring, shopping, and eating. It was a rare weekend away from the kids, in a city I love to visit.

I didn't have much time to read, except on the plane rides. But I did finish David Lebovitz's food memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City. I really enjoyed his conversational style, his funny anecdotes about living among Parisians, and especially his recipes. Lebovitz learned the pastry chef trade at Chez Panisse, and writes wonderful cookbooks and a blog that I love to check for recipes. I love how he writes about chocolate, because chocolate is something I can't live without.

So when my friend gave a dinner party for me in New York, I pulled out the book and made David Lebovitz's Mocha Creme Fraiche cake for dessert. It's a dense, chocolate-y, flourless wonder, and it was a big hit, and the recipe is definitely a keeper. I'll be pulling it out the next time I'm entertaining any chocolate lovers.

Now I'm back in good ol' 80-degree Los Angeles weather, kind of missing my New York gloves, boots, scarf and wool coat. Maybe I'll get to pull them out again when we all head up north to San Francisco next weekend...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Group Madness!

After a summer's hiatus, and a September's worth of back-to-school events, my book group finally got back together to discuss the passle o' books we've read over the last couple of months. Mocha chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin pie bars, Guatemalan chocolate chip bread, baba ghanoush, stilton with apricots, pinot noir--all big hits. The books were less consistent.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. This was probably the most successful book with the group overall. Most everyone really liked it, though some had trouble connecting with the present-day main character. I particularly enjoyed how Brooks brought history to life with involving characters and vivid historical details.

Lush Life, by Richard Price. Most everyone enjoyed this novel for its atmosphere. Set among the world of cops and crooks in Manhattan's Lower East Side, it's a novel to be enjoyed for its ear for dialect and attention to detail rather than its plot.

Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk. A horror fairy tale, with a lyrical Irish lilt. I didn't finish this one, but the others in my book group found it to be either page-turning mind candy or really yucky, because of the gory subject matter.

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks. Okay, I admit it, I did not read this book. I meant to, but I kept forgetting to get a copy. I really enjoyed Sebastian Faulks's book Birdsong, many years back, but the idea of this book, a sort of psychological thriller/whodunit with a remorseless main character, didn't grab me. It didn't grab many of my fellow book-groupers, either. I would say it generally got a thumbs down.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. For me, this was a page turner. Almost everyone in the group loved this book. The main character was really appealing to most, and the subject matter really engaging. There was only one dissenting voice--one reader who didn't think the book covered any new territory. I liked it because the writer created some real tension for me--I was actually afraid of what might happen to the main characters.

As usual, great discussion, good friends, good food, lots of wine, and many laughs made for a successful book group evening.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Would You Lie?

Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

Saw this article (from March) and thought it would make a good BTT confessional question:

Two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

My answer is an ashamed yes. I have lied about reading books I haven't. It's been years since I did it, because at this point in my life I really couldn't care less what books people think I have or haven't read. But at one point it I felt like I hadn't read enough of the classics, and I would just nod my way through conversations about some of those books, not really committing to the fact that I hadn't read them. I couldn't pinpoint a particular book, but I seem to recall pretending to have read War and Peace. And guess what, I haven't read War and Peace. And I don't have any plans to read it at the moment, though I'm sure it's a wonderful book.

What about you, have you lied about reading any thing in particular?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Salon--quotable Moore

The Sunday Salon.com

This time of year always challenges my time management skills. I have three children who attend three different schools. That means three "Back-To-School" nights, on three different nights, among many other things. I've been thinking a lot about blogging this week, but haven't actually done any!

And my reading has suffered, too. I had big plans to start some of the books crowding my night table, but didn't start anything new. However, I did finish Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs last night. It was a bittersweet read, and it left me a little sad. It also left me impressed with Moore's skill with language. Her writing is clever, yet still emotionally full and affecting.

I'll leave you with a few quotes:
"Thanks, maybe later?" I said with the question mark our generation believed meant politeness but which baffled our parents.

Waning light rouged and bronzed the clouds so they looked like a mountain range.

"Awesome," I said, in that peculiar way, I knew, our generation had of finding everything either "sucked" or was "awesome." We used awesome the way the British used brilliant: for anything at all. Perhaps, as with the British, it was a kind of antidepressant: inflated rhetoric to keep the sorry truth at bay.

When I went to bed at night I suffered my first bout of insomnia. This is what death would be like, I feared: not sleep but insomnia. To sleep no more, as I had learned in Pre-1700 British Drama. I had never feared insomnia before--like prison, wouldn't it just give you more time to read? I'd always been able to sleep. But now I lay there, fretful as a Bartok quartet.

Alone at dusk I was quiet; I sang nothing.
Enjoy your Sunday reading!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Salon--Something I've Been Looking Forward To

The Sunday Salon.com

Last night I started reading Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs. I've been looking forward to it, and so far, I'm enjoying it immensely.

Moore is an amazing stylist, and I'm loving her wordplay, letting her adroit use of language wash over me. For me, it's like being inside the brain of a person who thinks like I do, only is much more clever than I am.

I'm trying not to gulp this one down, but to savor it. (I have to admit I have a little trouble with that, in general!)

Moore's descriptions of life as a college student are taking me back. I love the main character's wry sense of humor. So far, it's not a book I'm getting lost in, but I am enjoying the world Moore has created. I'm looking forward to spending Sunday night reading it...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Recent Enjoyable

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

What’s the most enjoyable, most fun, most just-darn-entertaining book you’ve read recently?

(Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean funny, since we covered that already. Just … GOOD.)

This is one in a series of Booking Through Thursdays about your recent "most" books--today it's most enjoyable recent book.

It's an easy one, since I'm right in the middle of a page-turner that I'm having trouble putting down at night.

I'm reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help, and it's very enjoyable. When I'm not reading it, I want to get back to it. For me, that's the sign of a good book.

And it's also one of those books I knew nothing about, except that everybody was reading it. Sometimes, for me, that's the kiss of death--but this book has not been a disappointment. I'll review it soon...

What's your most enjoyable recent book?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Help

The Sunday Salon.com

Whoops, had some crazy posting issues, but now I'm ready to Sunday Salon.

I am staring at my new copy of Lorrie Moore's new novel A Gate at the Stairs, which I'm dying to dive into. But I have been restraining myself, because I have another book to read for my book group first, Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

So far I'm enjoying The Help immensely. It is a story set during the early part of the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Mississippi, about the black maids who raised the white children of their employers, but who weren't trusted with the family silver. Stockett's characters are nuanced and appealing, and her reproduction of the African American vernacular feels authentic without being stilted or otherwise annoying.

I'm very interested to discuss this with my book group. Whenever we read something historical like this, it's nice to try to find background material to bring to group to deepen the discussion. So I'll probably do a little research on the Civil Rights Movement, an era in this country's history that I would like to know more about anyway.

Does anyone have any suggestions for good background reading?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

More Vacation Reading

As a last hurrah before school started for two-thirds of my children, we went on a mini-vacation to a "glamping" spot just north of Santa Barbara. Glamping, in case you're not familiar with the term, is short for "glamorous camping", and you can find it at outdoor resorts equipped with well-appointed tents or small cabins, and in this case a store with a great wine selection.

I hiked, read, and ate too many s'mores. I also spotted a mountain lion! I was safely in my car at the time, as I saw it lope across the road ahead of me, and disappear into the chaparral. Beautiful but dangerous when hungry! The next morning on my hike, I saw mountain lion tracks, and took a picture with my phone's camera. Needless to say, I was happy I had a hiking partner and a big stick with me.

I only brought one book with me, Joanne Harris' Five Quarters of the Orange, which I really enjoyed. It's the only book of hers that I've ever read, but I also have a copy of Gentlemen and Players on my shelf, which I am more likely to pick up now. I loved the author's descriptions of food; of the production of food on her main character's small, French farm, and of the recipes for the dishes she serves in her little restaurant. Harris really transported me to the little town on the Loire, and back in time to WWII. I was also impressed with her vivid descriptions of a woman's suffering from migraines. I get them, too, and so, I learned, does Harris.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Recent Big

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

What’s the biggest book you’ve read recently?

(Feel free to think “big” as size, or as popularity, or in any other way you care to interpret.)

I like the freedom to interpret, here. The biggest book I've read recently in terms of popularity is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. It was all over the blogs and everywhere else, and I really enjoyed it, but I believe there was also a lot of hype over it because the author died before the book came out.

The biggest physical book I've read recently, hmm...I have not been reading chunksters lately. But I am in the middle (okay, still somewhere near the beginning) of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which weighs in at a not inconsiderable 768 pages, and which I was supposed to finish over the summer. When does summer end, technically, anyway? I think I have a couple more weeks. I'd better get reading...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Salon--Book coveting

The Sunday Salon.com

Sunday here in Los Angeles is bathed in an eerie light, from the sun struggling through the smoke from several wildfires burning nearby. For me, weird light makes for a weird mood, and I never quite know what to make of a day that is strangely lit. Perhaps I'll read...

I had some time to read the New York Times Book Review, and right on the front page was Jonathan Lethem's review of Lorrie Moore's new book, A Gate at the Stairs. I've been waiting for this book without even knowing it. I've loved Moore's writing since I read her first collection of short stories, Self-Help, some twenty years ago. I went on to read and also love Like Life and Birds of America. I'm not quite as big a fan of her novels as her short stories, but I hear this one is good. And though I knew she hadn't published anything in awhile (11 years--who knew?), once I heard that she had a new book coming out, I realized I couldn't wait to read it.

The review is good, good enough to make me want to order this book now, hardback price be damned. Lethem mentions that he only knows one person who doesn't like Moore's writing, calling it too "punny". And then he goes on to say, "As for the puns, they seem to me less an eagerness to entertain than a true writerly obsession. Moore is an equal-opportunity japester: heroes and villains both crack wise with Chandleresque vivacity, so you can't use cleverness as a moral index. The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers' attention to the innate thingliness of words. "

He also says, "On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn't read much, and none of what I recommend). I might even urge it on my dissenting friend." That's a good enough recommendation for me!

Maybe I can convince my book group to read this one with me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey--a review, and TLC Book Tour stop

When Darko Dawson was a young boy, his mother travelled from his family's home in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, to visit her sister in the small village of Ketanu where she lived.  While on this visit, Darko's mother vanished without a trace.  This left Darko, his disabled brother, and his often volatile father to fend for themselves.

Darko's father reported his mother missing, and police detective Daniel Armah investigated the case.  Armah persisted in the investigation, but Darko's mother was never found.  But Armah forged a relationship with young Darko, who was inspired by the respect he felt for Armah to become a police detective himself when he grew up.

Now Darko is a detective inspector with the CID in Accra, and he has a wife who is a teacher, and a young son who suffers from a heart defect.  

Darko is called to Ketanu once again, to investigate a murder.  Young medical student and AIDS educator and activist Grace Mensah's strangled body is found in the forest by a young "trokosi", or wife of the gods, essentially a concubine of the local fetish priest.  

In her zeal to educate the local people about AIDS, and in chastising the local fetish priest for following the practice of keeping these trokosi, Grace has made some enemies among the locals.  One of these enemies is the fetish priest, Togbe Adzima.  Grace may also have angered local healer Isaac Kuto.  And young Samuel Boateng had a crush on Grace, and may have killed her out of anger at her rejection.

Local inspector Fiti suspects only ne'er-do-well Samuel, but Darko chooses to investigate more thoroughly.  Darko is aided in his investigation by his special talent of understanding people's true natures by listening to the quality of their voice.  But the case proves to be very challenging, as he is drawn in by the village's secrets, and secrets held by his own family, and he comes face to face with the clash between traditional and modern Ghana.

I am not always a fan of crime fiction, but I find a well-written mystery very satisfying.  And this is just such a satisfying read.  Darko Dawson is a fascinating and complex character, and very relatable.  The writer really lets us get inside his detective's head, and we get to fully explore his strengths and weaknesses.  He is a conflicted man, and a wonderfully flawed hero.  And it is very interesting to watch him struggle not only with his inner conflicts, but with the contradictions between traditional and modern life in Ghana.  

I also love the atmosphere that author Quartey creates in the book.  His portraits of both urban and rural Ghana are very rich and I was very happy to immerse myself in Ghanaian society, customs, and culture.  Though many have compared this book to those in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, I would say that the books are not really alike.  Like McCall Smith, Quartey does a wonderful job evoking a time and place, and his descriptions of Ghana sing, as do McCall Smith's of Botswana.  But Quartey's book has a much harder edge than the Ladies Detective Agency books, and his murder mystery is a stronger, more plot-driven story.  

I enjoyed how the murdery mystery is woven with a tale of a family's tangled emotional web, and I found the characters memorable and the story engrossing.  And I loved reading about the culture and practices of Ghana.  I'll be on the lookout for more from Kwei Quartey about his flawed yet appealing detective hero, Darko Dawson.

Visit Kwei Quartey's really great website, and read his blog.

More stops for Wife of the Gods on TLC Book Tours.

Watch the book trailer:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tomorrow--Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods

Tomorrow I'm happy to be hosting a book tour stop for TLC Book Tours. I'll be posting my review of Kwei Quartey's novel Wife of the Gods, so please stop by.

Click here to check out Kwei Quartey's complete blog book tour.

Also check out author Kwei Quartey's website here. Since he lives in Pasadena, he qualifies as a local author, for me. He's also a doctor, which I find very cool.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Vacation reading

My family and I just returned from a week's vacation at a guest ranch in Central California, where we had a lovely time. This ranch was all about horseback riding, which is not one of my hobbies or interests, but was really appealing to my kids. They also fished, kayaked, swam, and otherwise ran around in the great outdoors.

I, of course, read. I did have the good sense to read outdoors, but I did spend most of my free time reading. I finished The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer, which I enjoyed very much for the quality of the writing and the twists and turns of the story, as well as the descriptions of post-war San Francisco. I also finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, which I also enjoyed--essentially for the same reasons, but of course it was a very different kind of book. I am not usually into thrillers or mysteries, but this was atmospheric and smart, and a real page-turner.

I also started and finished Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. It was one of my book group's picks for summer reading, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's the imagined history of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century illuminated manuscript which actually exists, and has survived many attempts at its destruction. I loved Brooks' way of making history come alive with wonderful characters and vivid descriptions of historical events. I know a fair amount about Jewish history, but it was so interesting to have the history come alive with a good story--to have examples of, say, how it felt when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Isabella and Ferdinand, rather than to just know that dry fact.

If I can find my camera in all the unpacking chaos, I'll post some pictures of the vacation...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Salon--Starting a few new books

The Sunday Salon.com

I've started a few new books this weekend, despite my best efforts to focus my reading. But it's okay, at least I've had some time to actually pick up a book!

I'm really enjoying the writing so far in Andrew Sean Greer's novel, The Story of a Marriage. I'm not very far into it, but I like it so far. I like the cover art, too, so for some reason this make it easy for me to pick it up--does this make me a shallow reader? I had heard so many good things about this book on so many blogs--I'm glad it's something I'm liking, it makes me feel like I'm on the same page as many of my blogging buddies.

I also picked up Aleksandar Hemon's Love and Obstacles, which was sent to me by the publisher. I had also heard quite a bit about this book of short stories on the book blogs, and I agree with those who are impressed by Hemon's use of language, especially for someone who has been writing in English for less than fifteen years.

It's been a relaxing weekend so far, because the kids aren't going in as many directions as usual. I have a little breathing time, which means I can make that into some reading time. I wish I had bigger blocks of reading time, but at least I always have that little bit of time for reading in bed, before exhaustion takes over and the book slips out of my hand and onto the floor (that is really not a good thing when I'm reading on the Kindle!).

I also have to admit that I haven't been reading quite as much as usual because I've been using our treadmill more regularly, and when I'm on the treadmill, I indulge my addiction to Battlestar Galactica, and watch an episode while exercising. If I'm not reading, at least I'm trying to get into shape...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Recent Serious

Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

What’s the most serious book you’ve read recently?
(I figure it’s easier than asking your most serious boook ever, because, well, it’s recent!)

I am currently reading Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, on my Kindle. It's slow going only because I keep toting my Kindle around with me, and then not having it nearby when I'm going to bed, which is my favorite time to get a little reading done. But I'm enjoying the book immensely!

For me, the classics are serious, which is why I mention Daniel Deronda, but I put modern literary fiction in the category of "serious", too. There are all kinds of serious books, I guess.

What is your most recent serious book? And for you, what constitutes a "serious" book, anyway?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer of My English Reading

My summer has been more chaotic than I am comfortable with, so in an unconscious response, I read several books about life in the English countryside, which calmed me down, as it always has in the past. I read two of Miss Read's books, Village Diary and Storm in the Village, which transported me to the middle of the last century and a rural village called Fairacre. I chuckled along with Miss Read, teacher in the village school, about the inhabitants' foibles. They are not plot-heavy books, but there is a rhythm to them that you get used to, and a structure that pays off in the end. I enjoyed their subtlety, and I'm sure I'll read more in the series.

I also read Beverley Nichols' Down the Garden Path, another chronicle of English country life, but through the lens of a city dweller who comes to the country to create the garden of his dreams. Nichols' dry wit and sharp eye for the ridiculous made me laugh out loud at times. Nichols' satire is impressively all-encompassing--he skewers his fellow villagers, his city visitors, and himself with equal vigor.

I'm moving away from rural England to Scandinavia now, to begin The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, to bring a little northern chill into my hot Los Angeles August. Hope it works! I hear so many good things about this book, so I'm really looking forward to starting it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Preferences

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question. Answer with me, won't you?

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date)

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
  • Poetry? Or Prose?
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
  • History? Or Historical Fiction?
  • Series? Or Stand-alones?
  • Classics? Or best-sellers?
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
  • Long books? Or Short?
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
  • Borrowed? Or Owned?
  • New? Or Used?
Okay, since they asked for quickly, I will answer quickly, off the top of my head:

Historical fiction
Straightforward, basic prose
Long books
Not illustrated

Do all my book prejudices show through? Given more thought, I'm sure I would change some answers, so I'm sure my prejudices are there for all to see!

What are your quick answers?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Salon--Scattered

I've been really scattered in my reading lately. Sometimes it happens that I start a whole bunch of books at once, and then I'm pulled in too many directions in my reading. That's what's happening to me this weekend.

I started Christian Moerk's Darling Jim, which I'm reading for my book group. I'm reading it on my Kindle. It's a suspenseful novel, written with a lovely, lilting style, about obsession and storytelling, and some gruesome murders in a small Irish town, and of course I was just getting up a good head of steam when I realized the Kindle battery was low. So I had to interrupt my reading to rummage through my big box of electrical cords to find the Kindle charger. And then I couldn't find the charger, because I realized it was still packed in a bag I had taken on my last trip, and had already put away, up high, in the garage. So, that book got sidetracked by my short attention span, my bad organizational skills, and my inability to manage technology.

I am also reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which won the Booker Prize last year. I love the narrator's voice, and I'm really enjoying the story. I also love the details about life in India. But I brought the paperback with me to a doctor's appointment a few days ago, and then I left it in the car. So I know I'll pick it back up again on Monday, when I start the week's round of carpooling and errand-running again, but today I'm trying to stay out of any four-wheeled vehicles. I'm just like that on Sundays.

I'm also reading Beverley Nichols' gardening memoir, Down the Garden Path. My sister-in-law and I first saw Nichols' books in a little bookstore when we were on vacation, and were intrigued--but neither of us could remember the author or titles later, when we wanted to buy them. But between us, we mustered up the brain cells to recall the title, and I immediately ordered the first book online. I like Nichols' 1930s-style wit, and being a haphazard gardener myself, I'm enjoying living vicariously through this book, as Nichols gets put through his gardening paces while putting his cottage garden in order. By the way, I love the covers of his books, they're so wonderfully old-fashioned.

I got distracted from the book on gardening by another passion of mine, food. I was trolling through my favorite food blogs, and I saw noted pastry chef David Lebovitz's book, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City, mentioned. It's about his expatriate adventures living and cooking in Paris--with recipes!!--so of course I bought a copy of the book. So far I'm enjoying Lebovitz's sense of humor, too. There's a David Sedaris-style, self-deprecating, fish-out-of-water quality to the memoir so far, and I love books about life in Paris. Since I love dessert, and Lebovitz is a famed pastry chef who worked at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, that's a plus.

Oh yes, and I'm obsessed with Masterpiece Theater's production of Little Dorrit. I'm watching it piecemeal, while I walk on the treadmill, but I've never looked forward to exercising more!

What are your Sunday reads this week?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I love my book group

My book group has been meeting for five and a half years. I know this because we conceived of the idea of the group at the bris of the youngest son of one of the members, and he's now five and a half years old. If you know what a bris is, you'll be amazed, like I was, that the woman had the presence of mind to know she wanted to join a book group that day. I've only gotten through every bris I've ever attended by drinking plenty of sweet ceremonial red wine.

At our last meeting, one of the members brought a list she's been keeping of the books we've read so far. It made for a half a meeting full of reminiscing, and I must admit it was such fun to go back over the list of books. It's amazing how much more fondly I remember some of the books now, as opposed to when I read them, when I might have been a tad more critical...

Here's the list. I think it's a darn good one. I'm sort of proud of us for getting through so many books. If you've read any of the books, let me know what you think. If you have suggestions for good book group reads, I'd like to hear those too!

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Saturday, by Ian McEwan
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
13 Steps Down, by Ruth Rendell
Heat, by Bill Buford
The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore
The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Dirt Music, by Tim Winton
Theft, by Peter Carey
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
Silk, by Alessandro Baricco
The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud
The Starter Wife, by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
The Believers, by Zoe Heller
Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
Niagara, by Richard Watson
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Foreskin’s Lament, by Shalom Auslander
Platform, by Michel Houellebecq
Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
Everyman, by Philip Roth
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Dias

Oh, and the books we're reading over the summer are:
Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk
Lush Life, by Richard Price,
The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

I have started Darling Jim, and it's a page-turner...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Unread

This week's Booking Through Thursday question spoke to me, so though it's almost Friday, I realized I had to participate this week.

“So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’ "

Ack! I have so many books on this pile, I don't think they'll fit in a picture. But I have gathered together a representative sampling. Here they are:

I guess the challenge is to get working on this pile...

Do any of your piles of unread books haunt you?