Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books and Cooks Best Reads of 2009

How does a book wind up on my Best of the Year list? Here's what I wrote last year, and it still stands:

...a book that lands on my Best Reads list has that extra something that I find hard to define. These books have touched me, and have stayed with me, some for nearly a year now. They have surprised and impressed me. They are not necessarily what the critics would call the best books, but they are the books that have affected me most deeply.

The above stack is in no particular order with one exception.

Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life was my favorite book of 2009. I knew while I was reading it that it would be. The writing is sublime, and Molly has opened her heart for all of us to peer inside. I could go on and on about her lemon cake which I've made at least four times already and is my daughter's favorite cake.

Vicki Forman kept me spellbound with This Lovely Life, a memoir chronicling her life as the mother of a severely premature baby and then child. She broke my heart and gave me cause to cheer all at once. Simply stunning.

The Midwife by Jennifer Worth was an instant love affair for me, full of nearly unbelievable tales of her years as a midwife in the East End of London. For those who enjoy a graphic medical book, this one is gripping.

Ah, Too Many Cooks. I was nuts about Emily Franklin's memoir of how she feeds her family. Similar in format to A Homemade Life, this had a twist of its own, that of young children. A great read and brilliant recipes, too.

The World in Half is a book I wish I would see around more. Cristina Henriquez tells a quietly beautiful tale of a girl simultaneously losing her mother and searching for her father; instead she finds the most touching friendship I've ever read about.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan packs a punch. The story of a young black man returning home after serving his country is shocking and unputdownable. I'll be suggesting this to my bookclub for 2011.

Ellen Baker's Keeping the House was one of the first books I read this year and it's still with me. Loved this family saga set in Midwest, full of twists and secrets. It was a love affair for me from beginning to end. Would love to see more from this author.

How could you forget The Help by Kathryn Stockett? A totally satisfying read set in the South in the 1960s, I cannot wait to reread this one for bookclub next November.

Ruth Rendell's 1977 masterpiece A Judgement in Stone retains it's creepiness and sense of place 30 years after the fact. A divine story of suspense.

The Dream was my first book of Harry Bernstein's but his second - my mistake. A simply told memoir of a life and a family and a love that now seems extraordinary - to Mr Bernstein, it was just life.

Here's to 2010 and all the great books that are to come! Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Books of 2009

There they are. This is the project I mentioned last week, the messy one my husband wished would disappear. Early in 2009 I started stacking up the books I'd read and before I knew it, I realized it might make a cool photo at the end of the year. So, here they are, minus library books, and a few that annoyed me enough that I've already gotten rid of them. If you click on the photo you can see what is there.

Here are my reading statistics of 2009 (as of right now, and I reserve the right to change these numbers before the end of the year). Here are last years statistics for comparison.

Total books read: 104

Female authors: 89
Male authors: 15

Fiction books: 79
Nonfiction books: 25
Memoirs: 19
Memoirs that are food related: 9
Nonfiction books that are not memoirs: 6 (sad)

Young adult books: 9 + 5 Harry Potter books
Mystery: 15
WW2/Holocaust: 9

ARCs: 29 (obnoxious)

Books that were re-reads: 7

Books published in:
2009: 42
2000-2008: 44
1990-1999: 9
1970-1989: 3
1940-1969: 6
1900-1939: 0
pre-1900: 0

Total pages read = 36,144 divided by 104 = 347.5 average pages per book

Ok, so lets assess all this. First off, it seems I have read way too many ARCs and not enough books of my own choosing. On the one hand I am torn on this subject; I have found some great authors/books that I might not have chosen on my own, on the other hand, I definitely had less 'wow' books than I've had before and more 'fine' books.

I should really read more male authors, and more general nonfiction. I've called this the year of the memoir and that was surely the truth.

I was happy when I totaled up my pages read for the year. I was a little bit afraid that I would find that I read more books, but less pages than last year! That was not the case, as I read nearly 30% more pages than last year - nice!

What about goals? I like to be non-goal oriented when it comes to my reading. It's the only way for me, I think. Having said that, there are a few things I'd like to do this year. I would really like to read more of my Persephone books and Viragos. Another thing I'd like to do is read more of my really thick books. I think I tended to avoid them last year thinking if I was reading 700-800 page books, I'd never have anything to post about. Now that I practice Blog Simplicity, I am not going to worry about that and just read whatever I want. Here are a few books I have in mind.

Coming up later this week, my favorite books of 2009!

In case you are wondering, I got to stay home for Christmas! It was totally blissful watching all that snow come down and know I had nowhere to go. I cooked a great meal and had friends over for Christmas dinner.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Feel like a chat? Plus book porn.

I'm feeling rather chatty today. It's been a busy morning. Before eleven AM I dropped the girl off at school, got gas and groceries, made 6 jars of butterscotch (see last post), wrapped my Christmas gifts, and am on my fourth load of laundry. Whew! I am rushing, rushing, rushing, because I have a movie date with my coworker/friend this afternoon. It is a rare day that we can get together and see a movie in our favorite genre - The British Period Film - we are seeing An Education. My husband thinks I'm nuts to go see this since there are all sorts of 'nominated' films out there. Whatever. If he was being really nice today, he'd let me see a double feature and go to Young Victoria, as well, but it is not to be. In addition to all this rushing, our Christmas plans are now up in the air due to this new storm coming through the Midwest. I'd just as soon stay home than go to Iowa (so not festive), so perhaps I will get my dream to stay home this year. Doubt it.

I really, really, want to get a few reviews, well, not reviews, my reactions to books up in this space before the end of 2009. I am going to try, but not kill myself over it - I am operating on Blog Simplicity here you know. Next week will be devoted to my 2009 statistics and favorite books of the year, as well as sharing a book project I've been working on all year and my husband wishes would disappear (it's messy). I am a general pessimist in life, but must be an optimist about books, as I've been reluctant to post favorites until now. What if the best book of the year came along? But alas it has not.

In lieu of reviews/reactions and the like, here are the books that have come into my home over the past few months.

These are from Bookcloseouts -they were having a crazy 50% off fiction sale. I'm really curious about the Sarah Rayne (it sounds creepy and suspenseful) and excited about the Linda Holeman, an author under published in the US.

Well this is a lousy photograph, it's very grey here. I'm super excited about The Madness of a Seduced Woman, I loved this author's book, Anya. Has anyone read this?

Here are some new books I couldn't resist.

And here are some more. I'm reading Daphne: A Novelright now and it's quite good.

If I had more time, I'd give you more links here, but I've got to go! Cheers!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Red Letter Day

Today is truly a Red Letter Day for me. Last night I finished my


book of the year. For the past few years I had trouble breaking 80, which I finally did in 2008 so this is really a great achievement for me. Will I ever do it again? Who knows, but I'll have a bit of fun bragging about 2009.

You might be wondering what book was my 100th of the year. That honor goes to Persephone's The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. I'll be honest and tell you I didn't know a thing about author Thomas Carlyle before I began this book but that mattered not a whit. What I am interested in, and what this book provides, is a peek into everyday life in a Victorian home.

From finances to home renovations, illnesses, noisy neighbors, and particularly servants, Thea Holmes has woven a picture of the day to day life of the Carlyes. The most prominent subject in the book are the servants that revolve through the Carlyle's door. One after another they arrive, some are competent, others steal, some stay a few weeks, others a few years. Jane adores some of them, but that adoration almost always turns into distaste. Jane Carlyle would surely have agreed with the sentiment 'good help is hard to find.'

I've read here and there that the Carlyle marriage was famously unhappy. That is not evident here. Perhaps I shall have to read the sections on the Carlyles in Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages which has been sitting patiently on my shelves.

It was fortuitous that Persephone published a picture of Jane Carlyle on their daily blog recently(page down to December 2). Isn't she lovely?

I'll end today with a little, okay a BIG treat. I came across this post on Smitten Kitchen (great recipes) the other day, and having all the ingredients in the house I made this crazy delicious yet super easy butterscotch sauce. OH MY. Is this stuff ever amazing. I found the last box of jars at the grocery store, and my yearly neighbor gift giving quandary has been solved. I bet you wish you lived next door right about now, no? ;-)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spotlight on: The Moonflower Vine

It is in the heat of summer that The Moonflower Vine begins. Youngest daughter of the Soames, Mary Jo, describes the annual pilgrimage to her parent's farm in Missouri where she and her sisters converge on their elderly parents for a 'vacation' that is part obligation, part reunion. These adult daughters allow themselves to be parented as they help out with what seems like a primitive farm. Everyone seems to resist intrusion on this short time together, yet social obligation intrudes. We see what appears to be a happy family, led by God-fearing father Matthew and thick-skinned and hardworking mother Callie. We see what looks like an ordinary family gathering, with openness and good-will all around. We wonder what author Jetta Carlson could possibly have to say about this ordinary seeming group of people for 300 or so pages.

And then.

The story changes from first person to third as each member of the family is revealed to us, one by one, from Matthew, to Callie, sandwiching their daughters, including one who is deceased. Suddenly our preconceived notions are shattered. What looked like one thing is shown to be very much another as the inner lives of these characters are revealed, showcasing most prominently their romantic lives.

This is heady stuff, let me tell you. I was a little bit shocked (and disgusted by one of the characters) in 2009, think what original readers of this novel thought in 1962! I was taken in by the tagline of this book:

A Timeless American Classics Rediscovered - An Unforgettable Saga of a Heartland Family

Saga? Rediscovered classic? Count me in.

I began this book knowing only what the back cover said. Didn't read the introduction, nor the 'extras' in the back. Didn't read any spoiler-y reviews. Thus, I think that is how this book is best approached, though of course now you know more than I did!

In any case, I do recommend The Moonflower Vine: A Novel (P.S.). For the surprising turns it takes and for the gorgeous cover you can gaze at on your nightstand.

Friday, December 11, 2009

'And In the End'....they fizzled

I bet the title of this post really makes you want to keep reading! As we near the end of 2009, my thoughts are turning to what were my favorite books of the year. Not wanting to be rash, I'm keeping my mind open to current and recent reads. But let me tell you, not a one is making my list! Sure, there are plenty of good books, but I'm looking for WOW books. I keep having the same problem lately - a book starts out really well, and then, well, it fizzles, it just doesn't maintain the power it had at the beginning. Here are a few examples.

The Day the Falls Stood Stillby Cathy Marie Buchanan was I book I expected to love. I loved the cover, loved the topic of Niagra Falls in the early 20th century, and devoured the vintage photographs so wonderfully included. The story focuses on Bess, once well to do, her family is now down and out, clinging to their old life by a social thread. Bess falls in love with The Wrong Sort of Boy, Tom Cole, grandson of a heroic riverman and a bit of a hero himself. The story becomes partly one of war and how it changes everything, one of industry and debate as the power of the falls is utilized for electricity, and one of life and tragedy. Overall I liked this book, though I would say I loved the first half and found it to be a pageturner. As I continued reading, I found myself less interested in the characters and somewhat unsurprised by the twists and turns at the end.

Changing gears a bit, I came across Minette Walters as an author comparable to Barbara Vine. I was sold! I chose to read Walters' debut novel, The Ice House: A Novel. The Ice House began well, as a body is found in the ice house of a country manor, a place where a man, the husband of the current resident, disappeared. There has been a murder investigation here before - coincidence? This was sort of a quirky murder mystery. I mean, I don't' read many books when the police force comes across as incompetent and the suspects practically seem to be egging them on. Everyone is lying in one way or another. I liked this book right up until the end, when the tone changed from quiet and suspenseful to crowded and confusing with a lot of people showing up and shouting at one another. I read somewhere that Walters doesn't know who is responsible until she's written half of the book, and I'm not so sure I like this idea. Perhaps I prefer a more 'crafted' book in which hints are dropped and feelings are alluded to along the way. Not to say I won't try Walters again - I definitely will.

Now I'm off to make lentil soup - it's soup season here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Club Wrap-Up

My book club met at my house on Monday evening to discuss our last book of the year and vote on books for 2010. Tasty chocolates and lemon cake were served!

The book we discussed was The Book Thiefby Marcus Zusak which was my choice. I was really pleased with the response - several people 'loved' it, most liked it a lot, and only 1 person didn't like it - she's tired of holocaust books - understandable as we've read quite a few this year. My thoughts from my first reading of The Book Thief can be found here. My response this time was more subdued. The first time around I *loved* the book and cried and cried. Knowing what was coming lessened the emotional impact for me this time around, though I still enjoyed the book very much.

Last month my book club discussed The Gargoyleby Andrew Davidson, the story of a severely burned man who is visited in the hospital by a woman, Marianne, who claims to have been his lover in medieval Germany and relates stories about their pasts. She is undeniably convincing. The book is extremely graphic, detailing the medical condition of the burn victim, so graphic that reading about his miserable childhood and sordid life were a 'break' from the burn unit. I found this to be an interesting and engaging read. A couple little issues I had: 1. I though it would have been interesting if the author decided that Marianne did not age (can you tell I bought into the story!) and 2. I didn't care for the drug-withdrawal apparently Dante-esque (I haven't read him) visions explored towards the end of the book. I actually skipped this part; I wanted to get back to the story and I found this tiresome. Everyone in our group enjoyed this book to one degree or another.

Here is our book list for 2010:

1. Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
2. Child 44, by Tom Rod Smith
3. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
4. The Wednesday Sisters, by Meg Waite Clayton
5. Plan B: A Novel, by Jonathan Tropper
6. Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel, by Audrey Niffenegger
7. Sarah's Key, by Totiana de Rosnay
8. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

What do you think? I feel rather so-so about this list. As always, I am let down by some of the books suggested (The Shack? Thank goodness that didn't make the cut.) and surprised by the books voted in. There are 3 I've read, including The Help which is my pick. I've wanted to read 2&6 so I'm pleased about those. My husband has been bugging me to read Vonnegut for years so he is pleased about that;I'm not so sure. 4 seems fluffy, and 5, well I'm just not interested in that At All!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Second in a Series

They're YA, they're page turners, they're both the second book in a series, and they're both from the library and need to go back!

Susan Beth Pfeffer's the dead and the goneis the second in her series of an apocalyptic future in which the moon has been thrown off course. Everyhing is a mess, the weather in particular, which is making it difficult for life to continue. I really liked the first book in this series, Life As We Knew It, and actually wasn't that interested in this installment until I heard there would be a third book involving the main character from the first book. Whew! So, this installment follows New Yorker Alex Morales as he deals with the fallout of this new existence and his new role of 'man around the house' for his two sisters. Alex's story was different in that he seemed to have more resources for food as well as relationships outside his family through school and church. Speaking of church, the Morales family are devout Catholics and their faith is referred to again and again. Readers with a low tolerance for religion may find this tiresome. While I did find this to be a quick read and a page turner, I never felt an emotional connection with Alex nor as drawn in to the story as I was with Pfeffer's other book. Despite this, I still plan to read the next book in the series to see what happens next. I'm fascinated by this future Pfeffer has imagined.

I was waiting, waiting, waiting(!) impatiently for Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)to arrive at the library last Friday. It did, and I finished it Sunday morning. What a ride! Fast paced and exciting, this book picked up where The Hunger Games left off. Heroine Katniss is being targeted by The Capital as Someone Who Might Ignite a Rebellion and they decide to show her who's boss! Do they ever. Was anyone else a little surprised at the direction this book took? I was not expecting more of, you know. But it worked. And the ending was great - a cliffhanger, but what did you expect!? I'll be first in line (at the library) for the third installment.