Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books and Cooks - Best Reads of 2008

I've read a lot of good books this year, but 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.

I don't allow myself to put books on my list that are re-reads. But if I did, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood would both be on there. Both are timeless classic books, one set in the past, the other in the future. Both show life that is harsh, one ends with hope, the other, I still haven't decided. (What do you think happened at the end of The Handmaid's Tale?)

Here are my favorite books of 2008. Links will take you to my original review.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - Brilliantly creative storytelling, a story that touched my heart all wrapped up in a book I wasn't sure I wanted to read.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - Set in India, terrible things happen in this book, every time you think the character's luck will change, things become worse. These characters were so alive for me, I still think about them, I still pick up this book and re-read the ending.

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor - At only 64 pages, this book packs a bigger punch that books 10 times its size. This 1938 book of letters that was originally published as a magazine article set during WW2 deserves the hour of your time it will take to read.

The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich - I was surprised to love this book that I read for bookclub. Unique characters and a compelling story put this book on my list.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser - I thought I knew a lot about our country's food supply, but it turns out I was wrong. If you need another reason to never touch fast food or commercially produced meat, read this. If you want to be horrified at how the fast food industry has impacted our entire food supply, read this. Terrific.

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson - Atkinson outdid herself with this third installment of her Jackson Brodie series. I love how she manages her tightly controlled plots and at the same time writes memorable and brilliant characters.

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd - I haven't forgotten Miss Ranskill these many months. Brilliantly republished by Persephone Books.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - I read this despite being one of 17 people who didn't adore The Kite Runner. Hosseini tells an important and moving story, it's easy to forget that he is a man writing these full and deep female characters.

Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran - A delightful surprise which charmed me to pieces.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson - A late addition here - it's not easy for December reads to make it onto this list, I like to let thoughts percolate a bit. This teen novel surprised and impressed me with its utterly unique story and compelling main character. Pearson's peeks into the future are thrilling and I couldn't stop thinking about this book and telling others about it.


The Best Book of the Year? I cannot choose one, but without any hesitation the two books that stand out the most for me, that were unforgettable and stunning were:

The Book Thief


A Fine Balance

Happily, my book club will be reading The Book Thief in November of 2009 so I'll have the chance to experience it all over again.

Happy New Year to all of you! I am so grateful for this community and for the opportunity to share my reading life with all of you. Cheers!

2008 Statistics

Here are last year's statistics for reference.

Total Books Read: 85

Nonfiction: 21
Fiction: 64

Books by female authors: 64
Books by male authors: 20
(One book was by a woman and a man)

Memoir: 11
Mysteries: 14
WWII/Holocaust: 6

Books that were re-reads: 5

Books published in:

2009: 3
2008: 27
2000-2007: 35
1990-1999: 5
1970-1989: 5
1940-1969: 6
1900-1939: 3
pre-1900: 1

Total pages read: 27,447 divided by 85 = 323 average pages per book

(Not sure why I kept track of this, other than being curious. It's not a terribly accurate number, seeing as I read a lot of cookbooks and magazines that I don't count.)

I think the biggest difference is that I read many more books by male authors than I did last year. It felt as though I read less nonfiction, which I did overall, but I think it's still a respectable amount.

Next up: Favorite books of 2008!

Monday, December 29, 2008

A New Obsession

A few people I work with suggested that I might enjoy the TV program, Lost. That was either a really good idea or a really bad idea. Because I am absolutely hooked! If I could, I would hole up for the next week at this computer and watch every last episode. Alas, that is not possible, but it is certainly cutting into my reading time, I must say. Any fans out there?

I should tell you about a few books that I've read.

First off, is The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Now, how to convince you to read a book that at its most basic is about...excrement. The Ghost Map is a nonfiction book that explores the cholera epidemic in London in 1854. It's a bit of a who-done-it or actually a how-done-it, as the author traces the footsteps of the men who discovered what was the ultimate cause of the epidemic and how this discovery affected the future of London and really, all major cities around the world. This is one of those nonfiction books that reads like the best novel and is full of all sorts of interesting facts about topics you perhaps never thought about. For example, what might explain the fact that there is a disproportionate rate of alcoholism in Native American and Aboriginal people? The author suggests that this may be due to the fact that most other people on earth were forced through a 'genetic bottleneck' in which the genes for tolerating alcohol became dominant, due to the fact that drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water years ago. This is fascinating stuff! This is a great read for those who are interested in medicine or the history of medicine, the history of cities, the history of Victorian London and the future of cities on our planet.

Nuts - that's all I have time for, I'm off to ready myself for work.

I hope to post my favorite books of the year tomorrow, if my girl allows me the time.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Goals, and Books, and Christmas, Oh My!

I must be thinking about The Wizard of Oz which I watched with my daughter for the first time (hers, not mine) last week. It was a bit nightmare inducing.

I am not usually a Saturday poster, but this is the first time I've been alone in days and days. I love my family, but I'm a true introvert so it's nice to be able to finish my own thoughts in my head for a few moments uninterrupted.

I began 2008 with a couple of goals. I must be afraid of failure, since I never mentioned the main one and only do so now since I have accomplished it. I've only kept track of what I've read since 2003 and each year I've finished more books, but the past couple of years I seemed to hit a plateau and was not able to break 80. So, my goal this year, which was also a goal of 2007 which I did not accomplish, was to read 80 books. One of the books was quite short, more of an article, so I felt I must read 81 to keep myself honest. And I have done it! I have finished 83 books, and I may get to 85. I know many of you read much more than this, but I am really thrilled. The other goal involves this list that I wrote late last year. Funny, it looks just the same outside now! I didn't do quite as well with accomplishing this goal. For the fiction list I've read Cranford, A Fine Balance, Shirley Jackson, and I am reading Elizabeth Taylor now. From the nonfiction list I read Fast Food Nation, and part of Maximum City but put it aside. It was really heavy on modern day India's crime and mafia and I just lost interest.

Christmas. All my lovely books have arrived but sadly our camera was left in Iowa so I will share those when it arrives. One bookish and sad thing that happened on Christmas had to do with my niece. She is 15, not really sure what she's interested in, her only idea for earning money is to marry a rich husband and she hates books. HATES THEM. She was so vehement about this, I wonder if it's just to be contrary, 'you all want me to like books but I won't, so there.' It's really quite sad. I looked through her books in her room and she had some good ones. I suggested Twilight -too long. It's not even that maybe I could buy her some books that she'd like, it's that she wouldn't even bother to try them. I even asked her if I read to her if she'd listen, and she said yes. So maybe it's worth it to read to your teenagers - I don't know. I can understand that the books she is required to read in school are boring and uninteresting to her. I just wish she'd read something, comics, magazines, trashy fiction, whatever. Sigh.

This post is sort of wordy already, but I ought to try to review something before I am interrupted!

Many, many thanks are due to Cath for writing this review of Susan Hill's The Various Haunts of Men. Something about it peaked my interest and I bought it almost immediately. The cover says that it is 'A Simon Serrailler Mystery' which I found a little odd since he seems like a secondary character in this book. The Various Haunts of Men is much more novel than it is a mystery, and that I don't mind at all. The story takes place in the small British town of Lafferton. We get to know various residents of Lafferton, about their history and their lives, and oh! someone has disappeared! and we learn more about Lafferton and oh! someone else has disappeared! Perhaps these disappearances are related. Perhaps we should investigate. If you're looking for a page-turning who-done-it complete with gore this isn't it. If you like a character driven novel in which a murder mystery happens to be taking place - this may be the book for you. I have to say that I really, really liked this. I loved Hill's writing, I loved the small town, and what made this book stand out in my mind is that the people I was getting to know - they were the ones who disappeared. Often it seems someone has been murdered (in murder mystery books) and since we don't 'know' them we don't feel affected by it. In this sort of book, we feel the loss of the characters. I did figure out the perpetrator in this book fairly early on, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has read any from this series. As for me, I've already ordered the second one.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

You'll Be Hearing More About This

I have a feeling that The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker (Little Giant from here on out) is going to be one of those books that you'll be seeing a lot of in a few weeks. So much in fact, that this is the sort of book I might avoid, simply because of hype or popularity or its place on those bestseller shelves at Barnes and Noble. So it's lucky then, that I have had the opportunity to read Little Giant in advance and not fall prey to those preconceived notions that sometimes develop.

What makes Little Giant stand out, I think, is it's unlikely heroine Truly Plaice, who is big, really, really big, and whose mother dies in childbirth. Truly is left with her perfect, pretty, and petite sister, Serena Jane and her father, who never quite adjusts to single parenthood. Truly is raised by another family, an unpopular family, and due to this and her size, Truly is an outcast in a small town. A series of events leaves Truly in charge of the home and son (also Truly's nephew) of the town's doctor, a man who has always been unkind to her. Truly grows into herself, literally and figuratively and discovers hidden secrets which lead to a new phase of her life. I could really go on and on about the storyline, but I think it's one readers will enjoy discovering for themselves.

Little Giant is just one of those books that grabbed me and didn't let go. I loved Truly's voice - she was so honest and real. In a sea of books that may be easily categorized, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County stands out, for its unique and rich storyline and characters, and for its writing. The author made it look easy, though I doubt that it was. I should also mention that I think the cover is terrific and fits the book perfectly.


I'll be doing the Mommy thing here, and then the out-of-town to the in-laws thing, and so the blogging and posting thing may suffer in the coming days. But I have a few posts left in me for 2008. Hopefully a review or two, but definitely the breakdown of the books for myself, and my favorite books of the year. Cheers!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Open Letter to US Publishers

Would you please publish some of Irish author Mary Stanley's work?

The first book of hers that I read was Retreat. I was lucky to find it in a used bookstore and while I don't remember the details, it is a story of young girls and how they were being treated (poorly) while attending a Catholic school. In the past year I've read Stanley's books Revenge and Missing. What they have in common is that they are stories about families, somewhat quirky and eccentric families, but families that are living and growing and to whom something bad happens. The only reason I haven't read Stanley's other books is that I love them so much, I horde them.

Revenge is the book that I just finished last week. In this tale, the oldest daughter in the family awakens on Christmas morning in her bed, obviously assaulted and with no recollection what has happened. The aftermath of this, how her family comes together and apart, and how each member of the family handles this is the bulk of the story.

It's hard for me to know how to categorize Mary Stanley's novels. I might call it women's fiction since most of the primary characters in the books are women. But some take offence to that category so I won't call it that. Though I do think it's true that there are books that have more appeal to women than men and there's nothing wrong with that. So back to the drawing board. It's even hard to decide who to compare Stanley's writing with. Her characters are real and flawed, unique and funny at the same time. Her writing is fluid, and just detailed enough. Her books have that page-turning sense of suspense. They are readable and smart and most importantly they are entertaining.

So please, US publishers, I implore you to take a look at Mary Stanley's work and consider adding her to your list. I don't think you'd be sorry, I think her books have widespread appeal and would sell. I, for one, know that I can purchase Stanley's books from the UK. But think of all the people who are missing out.

Sincerely, Tara

In other news, a bookish story....this is a conversation that took place in my home last evening.

Me: Have you gotten me anything for Christmas yet?

Husband: No. (No surprise there.)

Well, would you mind if I ordered something and it'll be from you?

What do you want?


Well, you have that gift certificate from Amazon.

Yes, well. I want books from Britain.

Mmmmmm. I figured.

So can I?

Go ahead.

And that was that. I spent a glorious time on the computer last night ordering from The Book Depository and another company that begins with a P. I gave myself a monetary limit. Sort of. And the exchange rate now is quite good (1 pound = $1.55), so it's a good time to order. I will soon have SEVEN books winging their way to me and I.Cannot.Wait. Will share titles and photos after they arrive. I figure, even though I picked out the books and ordered them myself, they will all still be a surprise, since I've never held any of them in my hands or browsed through them. Dreamy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What I Can Tell You

A week or two ago one of you clever bloggers (who was it??) wrote a wonderful post about a book called The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. I was so curious about this book that I ran over to the library, plucked the book off of the shelf in the Teen section, and began reading it, despite the fact that I was already in the middle of two other books. Oh, it was worth it.

What I can tell you about The Adoration of Jenna Fox is this. Jenna Fox is a teenager living sometime around 2023. She awakens from a coma that she has been in for more than one year following an accident. Jenna has lost her memory, and does not remember the people around her or the images of herself she sees in the home movies her parents encourage her to watch. Despite her lack of memory, Jenna feels that something is not....right. There's something about the house she lives in and in the way that the people around her are behaving that strike her as curious.

I can tell you that Mary Pearson has written a wonderfully suspenseful and rich novel of a young woman trying to figure out who she is. I can tell you that she raises all sorts of interesting questions that would be fantastic to discuss with a group, but I cannot tell you what they are. I can tell you that I hope you read this book and then email me and say 'oooooh, I'm so glad I read it and I sure didn't see that coming!' because that's how I feel.

That's all I can say about that.

Other thoughts I'm having lately involve vegetables and the fact that I've hardly eaten any lately. I've gone from the queen of vegetables to the queen of frozen peas. I'm eating fruit to make up for the vitamin deficit. Seriously though, I cooked some broccoli last week and it was horrible, barely green, tough and flavorless. Blech. I need inspiration, that's all.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


There's been a lot more reading than writing going on around here. This is a good thing, since I've read lots of enjoyable books, but bad because I have forgotten what I wanted to say about them. For example, I enjoyed Kate Grenville's The Secret River last month but having never gotten around to doing a proper review, don't have much to say about it now.

Here are a few I remember more clearly.

Fixing Shadows by Susan Barrett had all the makings of a fantastic read for me. A setting in Victorian England/London, the swap of a baby, the upstairs/downstairs issue, a house in the country - what more could I ask for? The story is told by the omniscient narrator in what I cannot fully describe, but would say was a rather quirky and darkly comedic way. This made for an unusual reading experience as I never had the opportunity to feel close to any of the characters. The tale takes place over quite a long period of time and plenty of horrid things happen to all the characters, but I never really felt bad about any - all right, most - of it since I didn't have much of a connection to anyone. I think if you enjoy this sort of setting and the time period you might like this unique and modern take on a Victorian tale.

Next up is Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran, the sequel to Pomegranate Soup which I found delicious earlier this Fall. We join the Iranian Aminpour sisters in the little town in Ireland where they have made a home and a business for themselves. The three sisters grapple with life and love, religion and keeping secrets in this installment of their story. I enjoyed this book, though did not feel the same magic as I did with Pomegranate Soup. I think their story is a compelling one, so I am hoping Mehran is working on another book about them.

Finally, we have Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun. When I requested this from Shelf Awareness I was thinking, based on the subject matter, that it was a memoir, so I was surprised to find that it is a novel, being released later this month according to amazon. Miles from Nowhere is the story of Joon, a Korean-American teenage runaway living on the streets of New York in the 1980s. Miles from Nowhere is not easy reading, as young Joon works for little money at horrific jobs, and winds up living in squalor with people she cannot trust, doing drugs and hoping for more out of life. This hope is present throughout the novel and we begin to see what could be a better life for Joon. I think what is most mystifying from the outside in terms of teen runaways is why they have left home in the first place. I suppose my opinion is that a person would have to be pretty emotionally and/or physically terrorized to decide that living on the streets is a better option. I wish that aspect of Joon's life had been explored in more detail. This is a beautifully written novel, but I found myself comparing it to a memoir about a similar book I read about a teen runaway in New York. I'm sure that's not a fair comparison, but it seems in this case, for this subject matter, a memoir simply resonated more with me as a reader.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bookishness, Mostly

My book club had our last meeting of 2008 last Thursday evening. Everyone enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but the downside of that, was that it did not generate much general discussion. How do you handle it when that happens? Then we voted on our books for 2009. Here is the list:

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch
Emma by Jane Austen
The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tourmaline by Joanna Scott
Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I am really quite excited about our list! Most of my top picks were chosen, and I've only read three of these. In comparison, some years I've read up to seven of the chosen books. I was thrilled that everyone voted for The Book Thief, which was one of my three suggestions along with The Birth House by Ami McKay and another book by Louise Erdrich with a long title. There will have to be some purchasing, too, since I don't own most of these. I would like a new and pretty copy of Emma. Does anyone have any Austen books from the Vintage Classics line? Here is the cover of Emma. I'm wondering what the quality is.

In other news...

* I am reading three terrific books right now - that rarely happens. I can't wait to share them.

* Soon, we are going to be talking about a book reading goal that I had for 2008 that I think I'm going to reach.

* And one that I'm not going to reach.

* Has anyone seen the price of maple syrup? Real maple syrup? Holy cow, at Whole Foods today the 32 ounce jug of B grade was $16.99. EEEK! There was a note saying that warmer weather has simply not made it possible to produce as much and the shortage will last the next couple of years.

* Now, I am going to go make Creamy Tomato Soup and grilled cheese for dinner. Yum!

* Then, I am going to rest my feet, since I've been Christmas shopping all day. Cheers!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Immoveable Feast - A Paris Christmas

Could there have been a more perfect book that was offered to me one day this past Fall? A representative from Harper Collins suggested that I might be interested in this new book coming out, a memoir about food and cooking and France. France and cooking and food. Was I interested? I certainly was. He couldn't have possibly tempted me more. Unless perhaps the word chocolate was involved.

Immoveable Feast by John Baxter made it's way to me and was even more than I expected. The book is described as the memoir of an Australian born gentleman turned Los Angles based film critic who marries into a traditional French family and is faced with the task of preparing their Christmas dinner. There are high expectations, indeed. This is the driving narrative of the book, but it is so much more. It is a memoir of Baxter's food life. He describes growing up on what was probably a typical diet for any Australian, British or American child at the time, things were boiled and served plainly, pasta came from a can. He describes having lunch with an Italian family at age ten, and his revelations:

This was fresh from the pot, and chewy, baptized with oil and garlic, and a pungent grated cheese that smelled like sick but tasted sublime. Their homemade bread wasn't spongy and white but crusty, dusted with flour, and delicious if you dipped it, as my hostess demonstrated , in olive oil and salt.

Baxter's love of food brings him to the next logical step, that is how to cook it, something I can relate to coming from a home with a mother who would not be described as a good cook. And this brings us back to Christmas dinner. Baxter designs his menu and seeks out the finest foods in France. From the oysters, to the wine, from the cheese to the piglet (this part is perhaps not for the vegetarian among us), we travel with Baxter as he puts together his feast and serves it to his French family.

Charming and delightful, full of lovely vintage food related illustrations, Immoveable Feast would make a wonderful gift for anyone you know that loves food, either cooking or eating it, and in particular who loves France or all things French.

Here are a couple of terrific videos:

This one is a recreation of Baxter's feast in a lovely Paris restaurant.

And here is a delightful interview with the author.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My House Smells So Good

Because I just made this.

But now that I look back at this post from last year, I realize that I'll be serving the same dessert to my bookclub two years in a row.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008


1. Thanks everyone so much for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your stories with me. It's hard to feel so violated in your own home.

2. The WINNER of one copy of The Green Beauty Guide is........


Congratulations! I'll be emailing you for your address. Thanks to everyone who entered. I appreciated your comments and have found that we all have many of same challenges when choosing green products.

3. Squash.

Squash is good food, and I'm pleased that my family is eating it (somewhat) happily.

First there was this fabulous squash and pasta recipe, then some divine squash soup with roasted garlic and herbs that I kept all for myself. Because no one else would eat it.

Here is my latest creation, a squash and rice casserole that I adapted from Deborah Madison's book, Vegetarian Suppers.

This was total comfort food. Sauteed leeks with garlic and herbs, combined with cooked brown rice, grated butternut squash and a medley of cheeses I found in the fridge. I topped each serving with toasted pine nuts, not part of the recipe but my child is a nut lover and I though it would make this more appealing. My nervous husband suggested we go out after he took one look at this, but after trying it reluctantly said "It's good. I like it. (insert big sigh here)"

Here's how it looked after we had our way with it:


4. Book Review

I finished Sophie Hannah's novel Hurting Distance recently. It has a fascinating premise: Naomi is having an affair with a married man. He seems to have disappeared. But when Naomi goes to the police and they contact his wife, she insists he's not missing. Naomi lies to the police in order to get them to take her seriously but this dredges up her past which she is reluctant to discuss.

Sophie Hannah sure knows how to create an atmospheric page-turner. As a reader, I was so attuned to what people were saying, who they were saying it to, and if there could be a double meaning. After all, Hannah completely fooled me with her book Little Face. I was happily reading along, when a storyline emerged having to do with rape. Rape is never a happy or positive story, but the slant this author took was really offensive to me. I found the storyline to be extremely sick and disturbing. It just was not the story I was expecting, nor would ever expect to read to be quite honest. After it becomes obvious what has happened, the final confrontation I found to be very....bland.

I don't know if I'll read Hannah's books again. She certainly does come up with unique and interesting premises, but this book crossed the line for me. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read this book; I had a UK copy but it looks to have been just released in hardcover here.