Category Archives: Book Reviews

I’m Cleaning Out the Junk Drawer

Be honest, you have one too. That drawer in your kitchen where you put toothpicks and matchbooks and coupons and birthday candles and bits of string and old coupons and the set of coasters that only has two left and cat treats and all the other randomness that doesn’t have a good place where it “belongs”.

I have two junk drawers in my life- a kitchen junk drawer, and a blog junk drawer. The first is filled with all the aforementioned junk, plus all the kitchen gadgets they tell you you simply cannot survive without when you do your wedding registry, but then you only use once. (Exhibit A: silicone basting brush. Exhibit B: egg separator. Exhibit C: tiny measuring cups that say things like “pinch” and “dash.”) The later is filled with all the little bits of humor and observations that don’t really “go” with any other post but are too good to just forget, and books that I read but never felt inspired to review.

In an effort to start the new year clean and fresh and organized, I attempted to organize my kitchen, but I was quickly defeated. So here instead are my condensed thoughts on some books that have been floating about, waiting for their moment in the sun:

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The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle: Adam Eddington, of A Ring of Endless Light fame, is on his way to Europe for the summer to intern with a famous scientist. But on his journey there he gets wrapped up in a plot thick with intrigue, international politics, and danger, and suddenly his summer is no longer relaxing. Or safe. This is not L’Engle’s best work, but the action is fast paced and well written with just the right amount of tension sprinkled in.

The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick: A little girl goes missing at the local zoo, and her brother and two best friends must hurry to help find her. But strange occurrences meet them at every turn, and a mysterious shadow man is hot on their tracks, leading the kids to question: is this zoo really just a zoo, or is something more sinister bubbling underneath? A really fun concept, one any kid (and many adults) will relish. I enjoyed this series first, although I was a little disappointed by some of the characterizations, especially one little girl with an obnoxious attitude that Chick seems to glorify.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This little book is stuffed with plenty of insight and advice for writers. I really appreciated her wisdom, and I learned a lot, but the fragmented style of writing made it hard to read in long stretches.

The BFG by Roald Dahl: A little orphan girl, Sophie, is snatched away by a giant. Fortunately he is the Big Friendly Giant (BFG), and not one of the little girl eating ones. But the nasty giants are about to go on a child-eating rampage in England, and it’s up to Sophie and The BFG to save the day. This delightful little adventure was fun to read- I especially enjoyed BFG’s fun way of mixing up and mispronouncing words. Also, I felt like Dahl’s undeniably dark undertones were a little more dulled in this story versus, say, The Witches, which is, at least for me, a plus.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: Written with Lamott’s usual warmth and candor, the chapters of this book were fun and companionable. Even though I really enjoyed this book and found it chock full of good advice, I’ve come to the conclusion that any book about writing is hard for me to swallow in the usual amount of sittings a book of this size would require. Writing books are best savored in little bits, not devoured in heaping spoonfuls. But, overall, I preferred this book to Dillard’s Writing Life.

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo:

    ‎”Do you think,” she said, “that elephants have names?”

    “Oh, yes,” said Sister Marie. “All of God’s creatures have names. Every last one of them. Of that I am sure; of that I have no doubt.”

DiCamillo is, without question, one of my favorite authors, and possibly my very favorite children’s author. She writes with warmth and understanding that touches adults and gives children an invaluable sense of security. You cannot read her works without believing, even the tiniest bit, that the heart of life is beautiful. This story is no exception as it finds an orphaned boy, a displaced elephant, a disillusioned magician, a blind dog and his beggar companion, a hopeful policeman, and a host of other lovable folk discovering that the impossible can happen; that sometimes dreams do come true. Plus there’s an elephant. What’s not to love? Take an afternoon and read this one. You won’t regret it.

Lucky Child by Thomas Bergenthal: This memoir tells the story of how young Thomas survived the atrocities of the Jewish ghettos of early WWII, several concentration camps, and finally the Auschwitz death march, before being miraculously reunited with his mother at the end of the war. I really appreciated this account, which was written without sentimentality and with straight-shooting, unflinching honesty and grace.

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart: With it’s whimsical setting, fun title, and critical praise, I really thought I was going to love this one. No such luck. I forced myself to finish it, but it was without relish. The story is bogged down with too many subplots, and the quirky details which at first were mildly amusing quickly became a drudge. The light tone belies the many sad circumstances the characters are dealt- infidelity, unrequited love, unwanted pregnancy, the death of a child, a crumbling marriage, crushed dreams- which results in a lack of depth, and a missed chance for a deeper connection with the audience. I get what Stuart was trying to do, but it just didn’t work out for her.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton: At 21, Nell’s world falls apart when her father reveals a long guarded family secret: Nell is a foundling of unknown origins. She goes in search of her roots, but it isn’t until after her death that her granddaughter Cassandra is able to get to the bottom of the mysterious little girl who was abandoned on a ship bound for Australia all those years ago. Written in the same vein as Diane Satterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, Morton masterfully weaves the stories of seven women spanning hundreds of years in this multilayered mystery that will, if not keep you guessing, keep you deeply involved right to the end.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: The last installment of The Hunger Games trilogy is just as fast paced and thrilling as the first two. I was a little unsatisfied at the resolution of the Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle, but ultimately pleased with the result, so I can’t complain too much. My final verdict? Read this trilogy! It is the singularly most satisfying pure pleasure read I can recall to date, and the commentary on human nature and the role of government were unexpected but ultimately timely and thought provoking.

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My 12 Favorite Books of 2011

Today and tomorrow are all that remain of 2011. I can’t believe it’s gone by so quickly! As the year draws to a close, so does my very first reading challenge adventure. I’ve read several amazing books, a few terrible books, and a whole lot of books that fell in the middle somewhere. These are my 12 favorites, in…hmmmm…let’s go with alphabetical order:

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1: The Book of Lost Things: John Connolly
2: Bossypants: Tina Fey
3: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: Cathrynne M. Valente
4: The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay: Suzanne Collins
5: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns: Mindy Kaling
6:
The Map of Time: Felix J. Palma
7: The Night Circus: Erin Morgenstern
8: One Thousand Gifts: Ann Voskamp
9: The Reading Promise: Alice Ozma
10: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: Nina Sankovitch
11: Traveling Mercies: Anne Lamott
12: The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion (This book touched me so deeply that I could not bear to write up a review. Needless to say, it is a moving portrayal of grief from an author who is worthy of every bit of the praise she receives.)

Runners Up:

  • Alice I Have Been: Melanie Benjamin
  • Angry Conversations With God: Susan E. Isaacs
  • Anonymous: Alicia Britt Chole
  • Bittersweet: Shauna Niequist
  • A Jane Austen Education: William Deresiewicz
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: Rhoda Janzen
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: Ransom Riggs
  • The Paris Wife: Paula McLain
  • Sideways on a Scooter: Miranda Kennedy
  • The Wilder Life: Wendy McClure
  • Zoo Story: Thomas French
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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Odds and Ends

    Zoophilia: Three Great Animal Books

    I love animals. From elephants and panda bears to manatees and gorillas, you name an animal and the chances are high that I’m completely fascinated. (As long as they have legs. I don’t deal well with reptiles of the no-leg variety.)

    So it’s logical that I am completely obsessed with zoos. I want to see them all! One of the few things I love with the same intensity as a good book is a leisurely afternoon at my local zoological garden. There is nothing more peaceful than sitting inside a darkened aquarium, watching the myriad of tropical fish and sea turtles mosey around their coral home, nothing more fascinating than observing a family of bonobos playfully harass one another, nothing as awe-inspiring as watching a tigress stalk around, waiting for her lunch, or as fun as seeing a troop of otters gleefully dive and run and chatter.

    So, naturally, when my husband presented me with Betty White’s newest book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, I promptly lost my mind.

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    Betty has been deeply involved with the Los Angeles Zoo and the cause of animal conservation for over 30 years. This book is a collection of antidotes and stunning photographs of the animal friends she has made over the years. It’s “her personal love letter to zoo’s and the animals in them.” The photographs are beautiful, and her stories are touching though brief. This reads more like a coffee table book, and is really best for the hardcore animal lover who won’t care that the photo-to-word ratio is rather high.

    Of course if you’re looking for a more story-intensive offering (and most people spending upwards of $26 on a new hardback are), there are a few surprisingly good zoological tales out there.

    Zoo Story: Life In the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French, gives a rare glimpse into the nehind-the-scenae workings of a zoo.

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    French spent six years researching in and reporting on Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo, and what resulted is an absolutely fascinating and touching account of the life of a zoo and it’s animal and human inhabitants. From the quirky (an alpha chimp with a fetish for blond women) to the painful (should we keep animals captive? Do zoos help accomplish or ultimately defeat their own conservation goals?), French, true to his journalistic heritage, does not shy away from any issue, nor does he seek to answer the questions or ease the tensions. What is left is a raw but beautiful account of the interdependent relationship of man and the lesser animals, and the stickier questions of our responsibility towards them. Both animal lovers and lovers of masterfully crafted nonfiction will be delighted by this fantastic book.

    For a more warm, homespun tale, Benjamin Mee’s memoir, We Bought A Zoo, is just the ticket.

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    This is literally my dream. If I am ever independently wealthy, I plan to purchase two things: a book store and a zoo. (Side note: the chances of a housewife from San Diego who has problems saving money because she buys too many books and also really likes shoes becoming independently wealthy are slim. I know this. But even a housewife is allowed her dreams. What else am I supposed to do while scrubbing out the bathtub?)

    Mee and his family- mother, Amelia, wife, Katherine, and a smattering of siblings- decide to use the inheritance left to them by their late father and husband to purchase the small, rundown Dartmoor Wildlife Park. They hope to renovate the dilapidated park and reopen it as not just a tourist attraction but a viable zoo that aids in the conservation and breeding of endangered animals.

    Along the way, they run into their fair share of troubles: lack of funds, their own amateur naivety about the needs of a zoo, escaped jaguars and wolves, contentions between new and old employees, and Katherine’s reoccurring brain tumor all threaten to derail the dream. But the crux of the story is that through grief, overwhelming odds, and a steep learning curve, sometimes zoo dreams do come true. The Dartmoor Zoological Park, as it is now known, is a thriving, accredited zoo, and this little memoir is now a Matt Damon blockbuster movie that opened last week, just before Christmas. I haven’t seen it yet, but if it has as much gumption as the book it’s based on, I’m sure I’ll love it.

    What about you, friends? Have you read any of these books, or any other good animal books that a zoophile such as myself shod check out? Or do you prefer your animals to be of the domesticated variety? If so, I have that too! Cambria has recently started working on her own memoir. The working title is: “The Story of Cambria: How A Stray Ally Cat Came to Rule the World.” Or something like that.

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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Odds and Ends, Some Thoughts, Wednesday Book Review

    My Week of Magical Reading

    Inspired by Nina Sankovitch’s literary memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, I took it upon myself over the last week to read a book a day for seven days, just to get a taste of what it’s like.

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    In a magical fairy land where my husband is a money farmer and soda does not make you chubby, I would have read seven books in seven days. In the real world, I read six books in six days, and then the seventh book a day and a half later. It was, in fact, finished in one day, like the other six, just not on a consecutive day.

    I’m not sure where the trouble came, but on the seventh day I hit a wall. Maybe it was all the Christmas music that got in my head, maybe it’s that my brain got book-logged from all the many, many books I’ve been reading lately, but the seventh day came and I just couldn’t do it.

    The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart, is a book I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. I almost bought it when Boarders was going out of business, and I’ve kicked myself for skipping over it ever since because I couldn’t find it elsewhere. When I stumbled upon it at Target recently I immediately became super excited!…And then I couldn’t read it. Normally I have the same relationship with books that Augustus Gloop has with the chocolate river, but suddenly I was Augustus Gloop with a bag of carrots. I just couldn’t do it. And then a few days later my carrots unexpectedly turned into carrot cake, and I have been happily reading ever since.

    The moral of the story? Some people, like Nina Sankovitch, can read a book a day, and it enhances their life exponentially. And then some people, like me, can read probably five books a week. In fact, my first five days of reading were a complete delight. I was happier, I took more pride in my household chores, I was kinder, and I remain absolutely convinced that my dinners tasted better on those nights. But I need a reading weekend, a few days break where I read little or nothing. In her book, Nina even mentioned that in her year of book-a-day reading she let a lot of things go, and her four sons and husband picked up a lot of slack they otherwise would not have tended to. I think it’s awesome that that worked for her, but I don’t have four sons. (In fact, the idea of four sons is possibly the most intimidating thought I’ve had in awhile. Eeek.) And I don’t feel like I can just let things go to read. For starters, I live in a loft, and things get icky in an apartment on just one room really quickly. Also, I started to feel detached from the world this week, and that defeats the purpose and magic of reading.

    So this is my verdict: try it for a week if you think you might like it, but don’t commit to a book-a-day without a trial run. I don’t feel like I can commit to even five books a week for next year, not because I don’t think I can do it, but because I have absolutely no clue what 2012 holds for me job, school, and career wise. (Marissa, my book challenge buddy from this year, and I are going to be doing a book challenge again in 2012, however. This year we’re doubling our ambitions and shooting for 104 books, or two books a week.) But I do think I’m going to aim for five books a week as a short term goal, at least until my birthday on January 12. This will help me get a running start on my 2012 reading, and help clear off my shelves for all the books I’m hoping to get between Christmas and my birthday. (I’m going to be 25. That seems incomprehensible. Wasn’t it just last week that my mom told me I was too young to date a guy who was 20?)

    While I’m here, I might as well mention that my day five book, Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, being the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy, was magnificent. (I’ll post tomorrow about days 6 and 7-8-9. Those were fantastic books, and I want to spend a little more time on each review.)

    We pick up with Katniss Everdeen, now a Hunger Games champion, as she gets ready to embark upon her Victory Tour with fellow champion and supposed lover, Peeta. But victory did not solve her problems: the unprecedented allowance of two Hunger Games victors has undermined The Capital and planted thoughts of rebellion in the minds of many districts. The Capital is breathing down her neck, and unless she can figure out how to fix it, the lives of her family and friends, including the town she is torn between, Peeta and her long time hunting partner and best friend Gail, are in jeopardy.

    Then, suddenly, The Capital plays an ace card no one could have anticipated, and Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in the arena, and this time there can be only one winner.

    Almost everyone (and by that I mean all of six or seven people)told me that the second book wasn’t as good as the first, but you just had to find out the ending anyway. Perhaps I’m losing my English major edge, because I still loved the second book! I’m actually really frustrated that my husband made me promise not to buy the third book because Christmas is coming up. I totally get that it’s not cool for me to rush in and buy all the books on my Christmas list, but I am dying over here! I have to know what happens! I’ve been having dreams about it, for pities sake! I can’t wait ten more days! Sigh. I haven’t been this bad off since I started reading Harry Potter in college and decided to read the sixth book instead of study for a big history test.(I miraculously scrapped by with a B. I still don’t know how I pulled that off. I’m not good with dates.)

    Anyway. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Husband-Clause, and in the mean time, I’m amusing myself with my five books for this week: a Kate Morton mystery, another Madeleine L’Engle classic, a few memoirs, and an undecided fiction book, of which I have several lined up, it just depends on my mood when I get there.

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    Hamlet With A Twist

    I’m not very good at this whole “Goals and Resolutions” business. In fact, reading 52 books in a year may very well be the only resolution I’ve ever kept in full. Pitiful, isn’t it? Point in case: not three days ago I posted that I wanted to start blogging 6 days a week, and here I am going 1 3/4ths days without so much as a picture posted on here. Oh well. I got rather caught up in 1: reading, and 2: turning our apartment into a Winter Wonderland. But that’s a story for another day.

    Wednesday’s book was Ophelia by Lisa Klein.

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    I sped through this book almost as quickly as I did The Hunger Games, though they could not be more different. Reading like historical fiction in the same vein as Phillipa Gregory, and being one part suspense and intrigue, one part romance, and one part tragedy, Ophelia is every wonderful thing you suspect upon reading the title.

    Ophelia is a rough and tumble village girl when her father moves her and her brother, Laertes, to the court of the King of Denmark. Though she is of humble birth, Ophelia finds favor with the queen, Gertrude, and begins her new life as a lady in waiting.

    But Ophelia is different from the other courtiers, preferring the company of the woods to stuffy castle life, and a good book to the latest gossip. Soon she catches the eye of Gertrude’s son, Prince Hamlet, and the two begin a secret courtship, falling deeply in love, and marrying secretly just days after Hamlet’s father, the king, has been murdered.

    From here, most of us think we know the story: how Hamlet is driven mad after being visited by his father’s ghost and promising to avenge him; how Ophelia, overcome with grief at the change in her lover, drowns herself; and how everyone, from Claudius, the kings usurping brother and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, to Gertrude and Hamelt, dies in the last scene, the whole court having been overcome with the madness of revenge.

    But what if that’s not the whole story? What if Ophelia didn’t drown? And what if she were the only person at court who really knew the whole story?

    That is where Klein takes us, to the hidden underbelly of Shakespeare’s masterpiece where perhaps a different ending is found, one no less tragic but more hopeful, one where new life springs out of the soil of tragedy.

    If you have never read Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, you will want to do so before reading this novel. (It’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s works, so I hope you enjoy it!) Once you’ve done that, go out and find this fantastic piece of fiction!

    I really enjoyed this book, which was well written, imaginative, and extremely satisfying for anyone who ever wished there was more to be said for poor Ophelia and her hopeless love affair. (I am not one of those modern cynics who thinks every love story should be “realistic”. I hate it when a great love story doesn’t work out! And I relish it when an author says, “Fie upon modern cynicism! My lovers will live happily ever after!” Anyway, what kind of sad world would we live in if the only realistic love was the one that was doomed to failure?) Also, Klein is obviously knowledgable in the realm of Elizabethan culture and history, which makes this story all the more believable. The last third of the book, after Ophelia flees Denmark, started to get a little groggy, but the final chapter makes wading through totally worth it.

    And that, kids, is all she wrote. I shall return tomorrow to tell you all about our Christmas tree adventures, and my last two days of reading. Here’s a little sneak peek for you:

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    But for now I’m going to eat Christmas cookies and sleep. Mmmmmm…I love sleep.

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    “Wanted: Crazy Cat Lady to Read Crazy Cat Books.”

    If I found that description in the want ads, my job hunt would be over. I guess I’ll have to settle for being a self-employed crazy cat lady right now, though, since there doesn’t seem to be a need for one in most industries at the moment. How puzzling.

    I tried to deny my love of animal books for a long time. Then, this summer, I read Thomas French’s Zoo Story, and my fate was sealed. But I still tried to avoid cat books for awhile, to try to avoid the obvious cat lady stigma. Then I realized that I own cat print dish towels and oven mits, and I gave up.

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    Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron, drew my attention for a few reasons:

    1: It’s about a super cute, fluffy orange cat.
    2: He’s a library cat. Love it! I don’t know how book stores and libraries came to be havens for furry little kitties, but I am a fan. Two of my favorite things in one place, how ever am I supposed to resist? Someday, when I own my Lovely Little Book Store, it will totally have a cat. Preferably a Hemingway six-toed cat.
    3: This particular feline literati lived in Iowa, for which I have a particular soft spot. I’ve mentioned before my love for my home state, Ohio. But I also adore Missouri, and Iowa, the states my mom and dad are from respectively. I’ve spent Christmases, Thanksgivings, vacations, family reunions, and countless other weeks among the corn fields of Iowa, and I love it there. When Vicki writes about Des Moines, Sioux City, and Lake Okoboji, I’ve been there. I may not have grown up on a farm or in a small town (at least not most of my life), but these are my people. My parents are those hard-working, small-town Midwesterners, and reading Vicki’s straight forward prose felt a little like going home. I may live in a beautiful California city by the beach now, but I’ll always be a Midwestern girl at heart.

    “Let them have the oceans and mountains, their beaches and their ski resorts. I’ll take Iowa.”

    Amen.

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    There are few books that I read that I don’t have any criticism for, but this is one of those books. I fell in love with Dewey from the first moment the librarians pulled his tiny, frostbitten body from the after-hours drop box. I loved the pictures of Dewey stuffed into so many too-small boxes, and the stories of how he changed peoples lives, especially his friendship with Crystal, a disabled girl who could neither move nor speak. And I didn’t just cry, I sobbed as his story came to a close. He was loving, and even lively, to the end, and when I finished the book, I was sorry there were no more antics, no more pictures, no more stories.

    Sure, your English professor is not going to assign this book in your Great American Novels class, but if you like cats, you’re going to enjoy this book.

    Perhaps this makes me sound ridiculous, but I connected so deeply with Dewey’s story, with what he did for the struggling town of Spenser, and for Vicki as she struggled too.

    We got our Cambria during a time of unparalleled grief in my life. She was a six pound, one year-old, full bred Siamese who was terrified of the world after having been dumped, probably by an amateur breeder (her tail is too short, and she’s surprisingly stocky for her breed, so she’s not good for breeding or showing), and then snared by a trap originally set out for raccoons. For the first week she did nothing but hide under furniture, but having a scardy cat to love and care for that desperately needed me literally pulled me back from the brink. (I’m convinced, and so were the rescue workers who saved her, that we saved Cambria’s life as well. She went from shaking uncontrollably whenever a human entered the room and eating just enough to survive to being an irascible bundle of energy and affection who loves to play, snuggle, and eat as much human food as she can sneak away. Love did that for us both.)

    I’m now 100% a believer in animal therapy. Depressed? Lonely? Get a pet, or at least pick up a book such as this one. It will not make all your issues vaporize, but the love of an animal can definitely place you back among the land of the living. It worked for Dewey and Cambria; it also worked for Vicki and the people of Spencer, Iowa, and it worked for me.

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    Happiness Is…

    Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang is, by far, my favorite cartoon ever. I especially love the Christmas holiday special, and the “Happiness is…” calendars that I used to hang on my wall each year.

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    As much as I love Charles Schultz’s happiness meme, I’ve never thought much about happiness. Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pretty happy person. I’m not given to melancholy or depression, I’m usually pretty content, and my glass is almost always half full. I do have a temper, but it tends to die down just as quickly as it starts up, and I’m no good at grudges because I always forget what I was mad about. A warm puppy (or a warm Cambria!) really is enough to make me happy most days.

    With that in mind, I started Gretchen Rubin’s memoir-cum-self help book, The Happiness Project, yesterday, expecting a light, enjoyable read, and not expecting to be challenged. But, of course, I was.

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    While this cheerful little paperback is unlikely to become a classic, I both truly enjoyed it and was truly challenged. (Though I read the words happy and happiness so much that they ceased to seem like real words anymore, becoming more like the nonsense syllables of a baby just discovering his voice.) Focusing on happiness may seem vapid or selfish, but the true questions here are deeper than that. It’s about quality of life: am I doing the best with what I have? Am I maximizing life, finding the joy in where I am, or am I letting my temper, the circumstances I wouldn’t have picked for myself, etc, get in the way? Not only are these worthy questions, but they aren’t as selfish as they first appear. The truth is that I cannot change my loved ones, but I can do my best to improve myself since who I am directly affects their lives. It’s in my husbands best interest for me to be healthy and happy, just as it’s in my best interest for him to be the same. Plus, it seems silly to waste the life God gave me wallowing in mediocrity, wasting the gifts and opportunities for joy He’s handed me.

    Some of Gretchen’s approach I will leave on the table. I’m not going to make a resolutions spread sheet for each month of the year, or research happiness from the angle of every discipline I can think of. In fact, this will probably be my only happiness book. Additionally, I’m not going to keep a food diary, study Buddhist meditation, or read multiple memoirs of catastrophe. Some of the things she needed to focus on don’t apply to me: I’m already a committed Christian, so I don’t feel the need to try to imitate a new spiritual leader. I already make plenty of time for books, and I don’t have children yet, so while that chapter was very insightful, I didn’t highlight quite as much.

    But some of this really challenged me. I need to discipline my house keeping, cut my husband some slack for his faults, and stop being afraid of failure and aim for what I want instead of hoping it falls magically into my lap. And while I’m still not going to make any spread sheets, I did take a few cues from Gretchen. I wrote down Ten Commandments for 2012:

    20111206-165615.jpg These commandments to myself crystalize my core values: I love Jesus, I prize authenticity, I desire to live a life characterized by kindness to others and unconditional love. I’m going to post my notecard by my mirror so I will always be reminded: this is how I want to live.

    I also identified some goals:

    1:Schedule dedicated writing time each day. I want to be a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted, but, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never given myself the leverage to go after it. I may not get published this year, or the next, or for another decade, but I’ve got to start somewhere. So I’m starting here.

    2: Visit the zoo; go to the theatre; see a symphony; try a new museum. Do something adventurous at least once a month.Part of Being Amanda Always is knowing what I do and do not enjoy. I’ve spent too much time in my life trying to like things because I feel that I should. But the truth is, I prefer art museums to going out dancing. I’d rather go to a Jazz club than a rock concert, and I love sushi, but Indian food just isn’t my thing. I want to have adventures, but I’m tired of doing it on everyone else’s terms and never my own.

    3: Make some concessions. Always choosing love means making concessions. Tyler loves house music with a fiery passion, so sometimes I go out with him even when I’d rather read a book, and I’ve eaten a lot of Pad Thai so he can indulge in his favorite curry because I’m learning that love trumps preferences. And when my love is happy, I’m happy.

    4: Blog every day. I love my blog. It makes me happy, stretches my creativity muscles, and helps me connect with others, so I need to stop neglecting it every time I get the sniffles.

    5:Do fifteen minute tidy-ups of the closet, bathroom, and kitchen each day. I am not a natural house keeper. I’m often times so distracted I don’t notice a mess until it has grown legs and teeth and is trying to eat the cat for breakfast. But both Tyler and I are happier, more relaxed, and more productive when the house is clean. These are my three problem areas, so I’m going to focus on them.

    6: Give both time and money. One of the biggest things God has taught me is that if I really want to be on His team, I can’t sit on the bench. I need to be giving my time, energy, talents, and money to help the hurting and spread love. Happiness won’t do me a bit of good if it’s at the expense of my own soul. Plus, helping others makes me happy! It feels good to pass it on.

    There are also some little things I want to do, like get a library card, find a reading group, keep fresh flowers in the house, buy an audio book to listen to while I clean the house, keep one dollar bills in my purse to give to the plethora of homeless folks that populate my neighborhood, try to read a new magazine each week, make time each week for at least one of the artsy projects I have lined up, go for more walks, visit the dueling piano bar that looks so interesting, talk to both of my parents and my brother at least every other week, write more letters. And Marissa and I are going to try to double our reading goals, shooting for two books a week this year.

    I used to be more spontaneous. My list of stuff I wanted to do never got very long because when stuff popped in my head I want ahead and did it. Maybe I’ll never be that same carefree girl again, but, like Gretchen, I’m going to try.

    What are your goals for the coming year? Do you make resolutions? Or better yet, do you keep them? What little things (or big things) are you going to implement to improve your happiness in 2012?

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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books, writing

    Aaaaaaaaand We’re Off!

    My week of reading a book each day is officially under way. Yesterday I read Suzanne Collin’s bestseller, The Hunger Games.

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    I had heard so much about this book and the trilogy it begins, and almost all of it was good. In fact, everyone I know personally who read it said the same thing: make sure you can get your hands on the next two books asap, because you will not want to put them down.

    They were right.

    The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl living in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem, which is situated where the United States of America once resided. Her home district, District 12, is the coal mining district found in what we know as The Appalachian Mountains. Life is rough in this outlier district, and it has made Katniss a survivor of enviable savvy and fortitude.

    Every year, the ruling Capitol picks two tributes at random from each district to compete in The Hunger Games, a cruel fight to the death in a wilderness arena designed to remind the citizens who’s boss. And this year, despite the odds, the Everdeen family is up.

    I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I tell you that I was completely riveted from the first page. Stories of wilderness survival and bloodshed are not usually my cup of tea- case in point, Hatchet by Gary Pulsen was, without question, my least favorite book I ever had to read for school- and I was afraid this offering would be too graphic or, honestly, just about stuff that doesn’t interest me. But for just $8 at Target, I figured it was worth a shot. My fears were instantly assuaged. Collins uses clean cut prose to communicate Katniss’s every emotion with clarity and depth, and she is never unnecessarily graphic. In fact, this book is incredibly clean, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to my teenager or pre-teen.

    The first-person limited perspective allows the reader to live through the experience first hand as Katniss struggles with questions of duty, loyalty, and love, the answer to which could literally mean life or death for her and her loved ones. And unlike many other popular franchises, such as The Twilight Saga or Harry Potter, I haven’t heard much criticism about the quality of writing found in The Hunger Games trilogy, and if the next two are as well written as the first one, I understand why. Written with Hemingwayen sparsity, there is not an unnecessary word in this rich story, which in another author’s hands could easily have doubled in length. This gives each standing word an extra punch of meaning, and lends the book the extra measure of potency that made it not just a good story, but a truly excellent read. The Hunger Games is definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

    Today, Day Two of my Book-A-Day challenge, I am reading The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.

    20111205-152109.jpgThis memoir is a lighthearted tale of the author’s quest to live life to the fullest. I’m 143 pages in, and so far I’m enjoying it, although I keep getting sidetracked by wondering if the little bookstore down the street has the next Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, and if so, do I have enough cash to cover it. Sigh. The problems of a book blogging house wife never end.

    Have you read The Hunger Games? What do you think of them? Am I going to love Catching Fire as much as I think I am?!

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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books

    Firsts

    Today is a good day, and a day of many firsts.

    The first first: It’s my first time writing a blog post from my phone! I’ve pushed a post live from my phone before, but I’ve never composed one. It makes me feel all edgy and savvy and hip. And it makes me realize what a s-l-o-w typist I am, since I only use one finger, my index finger, to type on the touch screen. Is that how normal people do it? I don’t know. I’ve only been hip for an hour now, so you cool kids will have to help me catch up.

    The second first: It was the first day of my Book-A-Day week! I’ve been reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins today, which I’ve wanted to read for awhile now. I have about 100 pages left to go, and two hours left in the day, so I should make it without an issue.

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    I do have a confession to make, though. I cheated just a teeny tiny bit: I read the first ten pages of the book a few days ago. Oooops. I felt bad about it for about three minutes, and then realized that this is my game, and if I want to bend the rules a little every now and then, I can do that. I think. I still feel a little guilty, though, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be making this confession right now. Darn my hardcore Baptist love of rules! I can’t even break my own rules. I’m sure this serves me well in the long run, but sheesh, today it’s just pathetic!

    And the third first:I’m considering getting a reader, maybe a Nook color. I’ve held out for a very long time. I would consider myself a book purist; I like a real book, one I can write in and put on my shelf. There’s something more tangible about the legacy of a real book, one that I can share with any friend, not just the ones who also happen to have the same reader I do. But traditional books cost more money.

    There are some books, say for instance the new Sherlock Holmes book, The House of Silk, that I know I’ll want a hard copy of. But then there are books that I only have a passing interest on, such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, that I’m certain I will enjoy, but won’t be broke up about not having it on my book shelf. Getting my library card will help with this, but I’m still considering a reader. Plus I could put things like bulky, expensive cookbooks on it, which would be really nice.

    What do you think? Do you have a reader? Would you even consider getting one? Am I selling out? The convenience would be great, but I’m afraid that the book, like the snail mail letter, is going the way of the buffalo, existent: but quaint and rare.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to finish, a peppermint mocha to guzzle, and a kitty cat to snuggle.

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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books

    Three Not-Quite-Mini But Still-Fairly-Short Reviews:The Map of Time, And Both Were Young, and Sideways on a Scooter

    The good thing about being sick for a long time with out either internet access (besides my phone) or a television is that it gives you plenty of time to read. And my favorite thing to read when I’m sick is a book that takes me someplace I’ve never been before. This time I adventured to India, Switzerland, and the Future respectively.

    The Future: The Map of Time by Felix J Palma: This three-part tome (at 609 pages, I feel I can call it that without exaggerating) was a fantastic story, blending the real personas of H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and Jack the Ripper with the fictional stylings of a carefully planned time-travel ruse that saves a suicidal youth’s life, a scam time-traveling company that fools everyone- even the Queen, a dock worker-cum-actor who pretends to be a general from the future and accidentally falls in love with a socialite who believes his ruse, and the accidental discovery of a real time traveler wreaking havoc in Victorian London.

    I tried to play it cool and pretend I wasn’t obsessed with this story, but it didn’t work. I loved it! I talked about theories of time travel with my husband over dinner, and I carried it around with me in purse in spite of its considerable weight and size, which left room for little else even in my usually roomy handbag. It was, however, long. And though Palma does an excellent job of weaving the three seemingly unrelated sections together into a surprisingly unified whole, and also of turning the time-traveling genre on its ear, there were times when I felt bogged down. It was engaging, and it kept me guessing, but I wouldn’t call it fast paced. Filled with romance, intrigue, mystery, and a plethora of colorful, well-developed characters, The Map of Time is not an undertaking for the faint of heart, impatient, or short on time, but for those who do brave its pages there is much to be gained. I want to say more, but i don’t want to give anything away! I will say, however, that Palma is an expert story-teller, and I hope more of his works are translated into English soon.

    India: Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy: Kennedy wanted to leave behind her New York City radio job and be a foreign correspondent. Even more than that, she wanted to live in India, to experience the adventure of completely submerging herself in the totally foreign life of a totally foreign culture. So instead of waiting for life to hand her her dreams, Miranda boarded a plane for New Delhi and decided to take fate into her own hands. This memoir follows Miranda’s journey to discover herself in a new world and her struggles to mesh her western life and identity with the still very traditional Indian culture. It also follows the stories of seven women she meets on her five-year journey, and their struggles to adapt as their traditional, caste bound system begins to clash with a quickly globalizing city life.  I was quickly drawn in by Kennedy’s vivid descriptions and journalistic prose. She managed to cover most of the large issues confronting today’s Indian woman, from arranges marriage vs. “love matches,” to birth control and gender-picking abortions, and she does so all through the lens of these seven friends. From her Brahmin widow maid, Radha, who thinks that cats are vermin and touching a toilet is a fate worse than death, to Geeta, her spunky Punjabi friend who struggles to find a balance between her life as a “modern girl” living alone and working in the city and her desire for a traditional, arranged marriage, to Azmat, her Muslim friend who works at a women-only gym and always finds the joy in life despite her dwindling prospects of ever having a family, I fell in love with the cast of colorful and quirky, but earnest and honest characters. And though I was disappointed at the hardened edge she developed as the story went one, I also appreciated Miranda’s honesty about her own struggles, from being able to find an apartment in a country where a woman living alone often signified her profession as a prostitute, to the deeper issues of how to be truly intimate and build lasting relationships with anyone, family, friends, men, while struggling to find your identity and worth as a woman. Every woman, be they American, European, Indian, has been faced with the same dilemma: we want to be mothers and wives, but we want our passions too, be they a career or experiences or just the freedom to wear whatever clothes we choose. The world has started to tell us we can have it all, but they don’t tell us how. Sideways on a Scooter is an honest, messy, beautiful portrait of struggling to discover the how.

    Switzerland: And Both Were Young by Madeleine L’Engle: Madeleine L’Engle is quite possibly my favorite writer. Her prose is masterful, and she has a way of connecting with the reader in a way that, no matter the circumstance she is relaying, one feels instantly connected to and a part of the experience. I have never traveled via time wrinkles, but every time I read  A Wrinkle in Time, I feel akin to Meg Murray in a moving, intimate way. Certain Women is one of my favorite books, and despite the fact that my father never had eight wives and a selfish steak ten miles wide, it still resonated deep within my chest. I’ve hoping to read all the L’Engle books I haven’t experienced yet in the next few years anyway, and then I saw this article about the Madeleine L’Engle re-read (though for me this one is a first-read), and the deal was sealed. 

    “I saw two beings in the hues of youth/Standing upon a hill, a gentle hill…/And both were young- and one was beautiful.” Lord Byron, The Dream, Canto II

    I was hooked from the beautiful epigraph on, reading this little beauty in just over three hours. This isn’t her best work, but L’Engle does present a solidly entertaining and touching story. It has been a year since Phillipa “Flip” Hunter’s mother died in a tragic accident, and her artist father, who has to travel a lot for his work, has decided to send her to a boarding school in Switzerland so they can at least spend the Holiday’s together. Though she feels awkward and unsure around the usual cast of boarding school girls, Flip forms a friendship with Paul, a handsome local boy with no memory of his past. Through their connection, Phillipa learns to be happy where she is despite her insecurities and deep homesickness for her father, and Paul begins to heal from the trauma of his past. Though the ending is tied up a little too neatly, and the subplot of Paul’s lost-and-found memory is a little shaky, I really enjoyed this book, my favorite moment being L’Engle’s observation that it is the tragedies and sorrows of life that make us stronger, that give us depth and give joy its greatest meaning.  I certainly could have used that message when I was a teenager, and it resonates deeply with me today, only now it is from experience and not need. I also like the insight into the lives of European young adults so soon after WWII, as well as the glimpse of an awkward, bookish, artsy type we are afforded here, because that’s exactly what I was in my youth, and that is exactly what I still feel like in the quiet, still moments. Overall, a fun and worthy read.

    You know what else being home-bound gives you lots of time for? Cat pictures! I bet you though I’d forgotten all about Caturday, huh? Well, for those of you who endured ’til the end, here is a super-secret, mini-Caturday:

    Top left: This is what I call Cambria’s “Children of The Corn” pose, because she sits perfectly erect and totally quiet behind you, and when you turn around it’s almost creepy, or it would be if she wasn’t such a cutie-face.

    Top right: Cambria’s newest obsession: the bath tub. She’s started sniffing around it when she thinks no one is looking, and she even jumped in it this week when she thought it was empty, but in fact has about an inch of water in the bottom. I’ve never seen a cat poof into a  total fuzzball so fast before, and she cleaned herself for a solid hour, mewing angrily if anyone dared speak to or touch her.

    Bottom left: Cambria sleeps on the book I’m trying to read, per usual.

    Bottom right: This is the position that I call “The Cat-sserole,” and when she’s in it you could set off the fire alarm in our apartment while elephants stampeded down the hallway, and she still wouldn’t wake up.

    And that’s that. Happy Caturday, friends!

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    Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cambria, Caturday