Monday, December 20, 2010

Seeking Recommendations

You may have read earlier that I am doing Chick Lit Plus' Reading Challenge in 2011.  That means I'll be reading, you guessed it, Chick Lit.

Off the table are mystery/thrillers and historical romance.  But anything else goes. I think.  So,  this is where you come in.  I need chick lit suggestions.  I like smart Chick Lit (Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, Marian Keyes). I like Brit Chick Lit. I'm interested in books that might stretch the definition of Chick Lit.

Any thoughts? I have to read twelve. So please, add your suggestions in the comments.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why, After All This Time?

I'd Know You Anywhere
Laura Lippman

Earlier in the week, I just wanted a book that would suck me in and make me want to turn the page.  I didn't want to think, much, but be engrossed and entertained.

I'd Know You Anywhere certainly met my "suck me in" requirement. But surprisingly, what I thought was going to be a fast-paced, intriguing mystery was actually more than that, deeper, and it made me think in ways I was not anticipating.

When she was fifteen, Elizabeth Lerner was abducted and held for forty days by Walter Bowman. He was convicted of the murder of other girls. Now, twenty years later, Bowman is on Death Row with an imminent execution date, and Elizabeth is now Eliza Benedict, happily married and mother of two children.  Until the day Eliza receives a letter from Death Row, Walter re-establishing contact.

What follows is the unravelling of what really happened while Eliza was captive. The choices we make to survive, the choices we make to take control of our lives. It also explores the  morality of the death penalty, but does not come down clearly in one camp or another. Rather it explores the motivations of both supporters and detractors.

What I really liked abut this book is that it told an exciting story, intertwining the past and present.  Without being salacious, Eliza's time with Walter is revealed. She's made peace with how she survived her time with Walter, and built a life for herself. But as the story unfolds, Eliza must revisit that time in her past.  She's unsure why Walter is contacting her, and she's looking for something from him. But is he only manipulating her again, after all these years, for his own purposes?

This is one of those books that had me carrying the eReader around with me, grabbing whatever minutes I could to read a few more paragraphs.  

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I'm Doing Chick Lit Plus' Reading Challenge

One of the blogs I follow, Chick Lit Plus ( ), is sponsoring a reading challenge for 2011.  It is a simple challenge, twelve chick lit books throughout the year, two of which must be by a debut author.  So why this challenge?

The label "chick lit" alone is enough to turn off some people, and I understand that argument. You don't see much "men's fiction" but let's be honest.  Some fiction appeals more to certain groups than others. I, for example, don't often choose to read about hunting and fishing- they simply aren't interests of mine. That being said, some people use the term "chick lit" to be summarily dismissive of a work simply because it is written by, or geared towards, women.  And while some books I've read certainly fit the "chick lit" stereotype, others do not.  And if they do, so what? People read for a myriad of reasons. If someone gets some enjoyment reading the Shopaholic series, even if it isn't your cup of tea, why do you care? 

So part of the reason I'm doing this challenge is to, hopefully, broaden people's understanding of what "chick lit" is and show where it, like any other entertaining piece of fiction, has merit.  Secondly, although I read a fair amount of non-fiction to learn, sometimes I like to read to escape from the day to day chaos in my own life.  This challenge will remind me to slow down, at least once a month, and read.  There are so many talented, smart writers out there, writing about things that matter to me or that I can relate to. Still, I sometimes forget to take time to enjoy them.

So, I hope you'll join me on this journey, participating yourself or following the challenge related posts.   And as always, suggestions are welcome!

Great Power, Great Responsibility

A Great And Terrible Beauty
Libba Bray

With apologies to Spiderman, I'm starting this review with a paraphrase from him: With great power, comes great responsibility.  And that is also the theme of this book. Libba Bray's title is spot on. Power can be a great and terrible beauty.

I read a fascinating essay by Libba Bray a few weeks ago.  I didn't realize I owned the book but when I stumbled upon it in the bookshelf recently, I picked it up.  I wanted to see what else Libba Bray had to say.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is gothic, set in the Victorian era. After a family tragedy, Gemma Doyle moves from India to England to attend a women's finishing school.

The girls are being groomed to be the perfect society wives.  Their job will be to support their husband, not sully his name, and lie back and think of England. Through a bit of blackmail, Gemma secures a place with the most popular girls in school. Their tenuous friendship deepens, and as they realize their futures are looming, they also look for more freedom.

The discover a way to enter the Realms, the otherworld, and there they unleash a powerful, primordial magic.  Heady with their new power, the girls of The Order begin their adventures, but a powerful brother organization tries to thwart them.  The Order no idea how grave the consequences of their power can be.

While A Great and Terrible Beauty is a fun, mysterious YA read with a kick-ass heroine who seems attainable to any reader, it is also social commentary about coming of age and women's role in society.  You feel the frustration of Felicity, Gemma, and Pippa as they want more from their life than to just be a dutiful society wife. Living at the turn of the century, and with their newfound power, this might just be in their grasp.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
David Ebershoff

I'm fascinated by polygamy.  I don't know why. But it is no surprise that when I saw this title, I had to check it out.

A modern day mystery of a nineteenth wife who is accused of murdering her husband, The 19th Wife  is interspersed with the based-in-truth story of Ann Eliza Young, the purported nineteenth wife of Brigham Young.

I found the history of Ann Eliza Young more interesting than the modern murder mystery itself. Even so, the details around the modern mystery were compelling.  While polygamy as it is practiced in this novel is not the norm, it is what we think about when we hear stories of men like Warren Jeffs. 

Ebershoff highlights two especially poignant side effects to the world of fundamentalist polygamy. Young girls forced to marry men, sometimes more than twice their age, and live a life bearing children to build up credit in the afterlife. And the lost boys, young men cast out of the compounds to not be competition of the older men.  Ebershoff's recounting of these gelled well with what I have read in polygamist memoirs.

Ebershoff points out that the recorded history of the Mormon church is ambiguous at best.  And modern Mormons will argue that the modern fundamentalist sect portrayed in this book are not real Mormons. Still, there's no disputing that polygamy was a huge part of the church's past.  

The story of Ann Eliza Young, manipulated into a marriage with Brigham and then successfully divorcing him and helping fight against polygamy, was fascinating.  It was history I was unfamiliar with, and I enjoyed learning more about this story. Ann Eliza's own dubious motivation for fighting Brigham was only a small part of the story. Finding out about what happens to her is the truly intriguing part.

Not as quick of a read as I thought it might be, I still found The 19th Wife an entertaining read, especially if you are interested in the subject matter.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Riding with the Hells Angels... Not a Bullshit MC

No Angel
My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the
Inner Circle of the Hells Angels

Jay Dobyns

I'm a fangirl over three things: Harry Potter, U2, and Sons of Anarchy.  I'm going to assume that if you're reading this, you know what Harry Potter is, and that love or hate them, you've heard of U2. But Sons of Anarchy may be new to you.  If you don't know, Sons of Anarchy is Kurt Sutter's FX Network drama about an outlaw motorcycle club based in the fictional Charming, CA.  Since I love this show, it is no surprise that No Angel caught my eye when I was browsing through Barnes and Noble.

In 2002, undercover ATF Jay Dobyns took on the case of a lifetime, infiltrating the most notorious outlaw motorcycle club, the Hells Angels.  This was an incredibly dangerous assignment. If discovered, any retaliation short of death would only leave Dobyns craving said death.

The story is told simply from Jay's perspective.  He wanted the case to work.  But he took his role almost too seriously. He was so  immersed in the culture that not only did he almost become a fully initiated member of the Angels,  he nearly lost his wife, family,and self in the process.

The outlaw MC's, the "one percenters" as they are known, may operate outside the law, but they strictly adhere to their own code. Loyalty to the club is at the top of that list. Betrayal of that loyalty means almost certain death.

The book was an easy read, and a fascinating look into a world most of us will never know.  It takes the romance of a TV show like Sons of Anarchy and exposes the seamy underside of the life.  What do I mean? Well, with Sons, you truly care about the characters and although they are criminals - sometimes quite vicious ones- you feel understand their motivation and root for them, because underneath it all, most of them are good guys.

The reality - at least from what Dobyns experienced- is that most MC members are thugs. And while he genuinely liked and cared for some of them, he didn't gloss over what he saw. Most of the people he encountered were tweaking on meth or other illegals, and quick to violence. Still, there's something to be said for the intense loyalty of the club. That was the thing I couldn't get away from. Knowing that the club business is illegal, I can still appreciate the bond that the club brothers have, the respect for the cut and the life and I can see how Jay was sucked into it.

While a show like Sons of Anarchy gives us the bad ass Gemma Teller and Tara Noles, life for women in an MC is hardly glamorous.  Women are truly second class citizens in this world, at the beck and call of their "Old Men" if they ever make "Old Lady" status.  And they earn their place in part through sex- with whomever, whenever. 

What I found most fascinating about this books was Dobyn's complete immersion into the culture.  He became his alter ego, Bird, finding it hard to turn off his MC persona when he spent time with his family.  The Angels were relatively quick to trust Jay and the manufactured MC Charter he was a part of, a true testament to their ability to walk the walk.

The book includes an epilogue of what happened to all the key players in the years following the case, as well as  glossary of the terms unique to the MC world.  Recommended for anyone who wants a glimpse into this group that exists just outside the bounds of society.  It is indeed a unique brotherhood.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Celebrating Harry Potter

The Beginning of the End:
Celebrating Harry Potter

In case you’ve somehow missed the news, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, opens on Friday. Fans have been counting down to this date for months. The worldwide Premiere was in London last week. New York is celebrating the premiere this week. For the fans, it is a week of excitement as movie parties are planned around the world. The HP fandom is rabid and diverse, and most of us proudly wear the label of at least a little geeky. I dedicate this post to all my wonderful, geeky Harry Potter friends, real and virtual, who have made this journey so fun.

Like me, most of my geeky friends are insanely excited about the opening of Deathly Hallows Part 1. Three friends are in NYC now for the premier. I have a group of friends who are going to the Midnight showing overnight Thursday. They plan on getting in line around 4PM. They’ll be playing games while queuing up. Some will be in costume as characters from the series. I won’t be with them because of other obligations, but I’m going to a late showing on Friday night with another friend who is also a big fan.

While my friends and I are looking forward to the premier, it is, at the same time, bittersweet. Tempering our excitement is also a sense of melancholy. I’m not sure why. True fans know how the story ends. We’ve known since 21 July 2007 when the final book was released and we devoured it in the course of a day or weekend. But we still had films of books six and seven to look forward to, and the opening of a theme park called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Yet most of us have been watching the premiere frenzy with a sense of also saying goodbye to something that has been a part of our lives for ten years or more.

This is the beginning of the end. There’s only one more film after this, and we know it. There’s nothing to anticipate, although JK Rowling does drop hints that there may be more in the future. And although we’ll have the books and the DVD’s; the theme parks and collectibles; and the HP fandom communities we've built, we’re still saying goodbye in a way. Goodbye to characters and a world we’ve fallen in love with. To a world that was and is sometimes more palatable than our reality. To characters who showed a generation of kids that it is OK to be a little different, a little odd. That the greatest heroes are sometimes the most unlikely. That it is cool to be smart. That love is the greatest weapon, loyalty an admirable trait. That it takes more courage to stand up to our friends than to our enemies. That we all face the choice between what is right, and what is easy. And for those of us who were already grown up when the series started, well, we liked being reminded of those same lessons. We are saying goodbye, or at least learning to relate differently to, a series that has forged friendships, both real and virtual, across the world. 

We’re saying goodbye to a franchise that made readers out of an electronic generation. That spawned the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit based on the principles of love and loyalty and friendship in the books and uses them to combat real-world horcruxes. To an imaginary sport that sounded so incredible, it inspired college students to adapt it to reality. They even played the Quidditch World Cup over the weekend. But its legacy is greater than even these things. It is something almost intangible, and hard to articulate. But for any true fan, that legacy is there.

So yes, it is bittersweet. There’s not anything new after this, except re-watching the movies, re-reading the books, and building on the foundations that already exist. I’m not sure we’ll ever see another phenomenon like this. I sure am glad I hopped on the Hogwarts Express for my own chance to experience this magical world and all it has given to me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Russell Wiley Made Me Laugh...And Cringe

Russell Wiley Is Out To Lunch
Richard Hine

Russell Wiley Is Out To Lunch made me laugh out loud.  Reading the story of Russell Wiley, trying to survive the downward spiral that is the daily business paper that employs him, was almost like watching an episode of The Office.

Russell Wiley's daily paper is facing a do or die fight for survival.  Politics run rampant through the office. Loyalty is tantamount.  Russell's trying to keep his job, and the jobs of his team, safe.  He's got a bit of a crush on a co-worker. And he's writing astute business articles under a pseudonym.  On the home front, things aren't much better. He and his wife are in a dry spell, and no matter what he tries, Russell can't seem to connect with her. Add to this mix the arrival of the Process Consultant to save the day, and Russell feels as though he might drown.  Until he comes up with his own fail proof plan for survival.

But I also have to tell you about what made me cringe in this story.  And cringe in a good way.  See, I've been that Process Consultant (capitalized here much like Superman might be).  I've been perceived like this Judd has. And I've seen the political office game be played.  The cringing comes from those situations that are so realistic, you know you've been in them, you know what's coming, and you're powerless to stop it, but you're still compelled to watch it unfold. 

Like so many of us, Russell started out young and idealistic, intent on changing the world. Fast forward fifteen years, and Russell is like so many of us formerly young and idealistic kids- schlepping away in a middle management job that doesn't excite him. He's somewhat loath to change his circumstances- there's security, change is hard, and do we really have it in us once we hit our mid-thirties to still change the world?

But you can see in Russell's articles- written under a pen name, and often taking a scathing job at the failings of his own employer- that he has a real passion existing deep within him.  He's frustrated with where his life is, both personally and professionally, and he's desperate for something, anything, to happen.  He gets, in many ways, more than he bargained for.

I found Russell Wiley Is Out To Lunch to be witty and snarky.  I recognized so many of the people and the circumstances as I read through the book, and I found myself cheering for Russell Wiley.

Monday, October 11, 2010

So, I Met My Goal. Now What?

When I started this little blog, I was going to read 52 books in a year.  I planned to blog my thoughts here, and that would be that.

Except that I finished early.  And I like doing the blog.  So what now, since I've read all 52 books?

I worked with Marian Schembari, who gave me some fantastic pointers on ways to improve the blog. And I'm going to spend time over the next few weeks working with folks who know a lot more than I do to migrate this blog to a new bookfetish domain, and implement said changes.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep reading and keep blogging.  I'm reading slowly right now.  I'm re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in preparation for the next film.

That's a slow one for me to read. There's so much going on, and I read it so quickly the first time that I know I missed things.  I want to take time to really enjoy it and catch all the action with this reading.

So, stay tuned, and keep checking in. I'll update as I'm reading new things. Although now that I've met my goal, I may slow down my pace a bit.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Simply My Favorite Book, Ever.

Book 52: To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee

I've loved To Kill A Mockingbird since I first read it, in Mrs. Reid's ninth grade honors English class.  It was, I think, the first book of assigned reading that truly captivated me.  I've re-read the book countless times since then. In fact, I used to re-read it at least once a year. That frequency has died off a bit in the last few years, but it is still easily my most beloved book.  When I set out on this little quest of mine, to see if I could read 52 books in 52 weeks, this was the only book I knew I would read, and I knew that it would be book 52.  It is a coincidence that I also read it during banned books week, as it has been one of the most frequently challenged book since its publication in 1960.

What can I say about To Kill A Mockingbird that hasn't already been said, probably with greater eloquence than I can hope for, by innumerable people before me?  Not much, perhaps. But I can tell you why I this book means so much to me.

My mother's family is from a small town in Alabama.  Lee's description of the town and its inhabitants is as familiar to me as my own family, despite me not growing up in either the era of To Kill A Mockingbird, or having ever lived in such a small town myself. The admonishment to not "take a check from the Delafield's without a discrete call to the bank first..." is so true of a small town where every family knows every other family, and their business.  I think it is that sense of connection that first drew me in to the story.

Scout.  What a terrific heroine!  Running around with her brother Jem, just a bit precocious, getting into trouble. Yet smart, and fiercely loyal.  With a child's sense of justice, and a child's world view.  

Boo Radley. Misunderstood. Shy and quiet. An example of persecution and misunderstanding as much as Tom Robinson.  But also loyal and courageous, and a hero.

But, most beloved to me is Atticus.  Lee really shaped what a hero is, what integrity is, what character is, when she wrote Atticus Finch.   An intellectual, older than the other fathers in the town, Atticus is at first a dubious hero in the eyes of his children. As the story winds on, though, we see that Atticus embodies what we should all strive to be. His definition of courage- fighting a losing battle even when you know you are beaten before you start, because it is the fight itself that is important- resonates just as soundly today as it did in 1960.  

Lee's central theme, that all people should be treated equally, and with respect, regardless of the color of their skin,  carries through today. Race, still, is a divisive factor.  Let's throw into the mix religion and orientation as well.  Sadly, Lee's is a message we need just as much now as we did when the book was first published.

I could go on and on about this book. Had I not been reading a 50th Anniversary hardback edition, I would have had notes and highlights throughout the book. I couldn't do that to this one. But as I was reading it, I pictured in my mind the notes from that first purple, paperback copy, "Foreshadowing. Courage.  Metaphor."

I think, simply, Harper Lee said what she needed to say with To Kill A Mockingbird. I for one, am glad that she did.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grab a Glass of Wine, and Let's Snark

Book 51: 
My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover if Not Being a Dumbass is the New Black,
Or, A Culture-up Manifesto

Jen Lancaster

Any time I pick up a Jen Lancaster book, or in this case, listen to one, I feel like I am sitting down to catch up with a snarky, wine-swilling, smart-assed girl friend.  In other words, it's a good time.

I first discovered Jen Lancaster in Bitter is the New Black, and found myself laughing out loud on an airplane between Boston and Atlanta.  I couldn't help it. It was that funny.

I've read all of Lancaster's books, but some I've identified more with than others.  My Fair Lazy was one where I felt like we were largely on the same wave length.  I'm nowhere near the reality TV junkie Jen is, but I do like my share of the Real Housewives .  Similarly, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles hold a special place in my heart.  So I was right there with Lancaster when she realized that her knowledge of all things pop culture might not be completely helpful to her in a number of social situations.  And thus begins her Jenaissance. Her quest to get some culture and expand her horizons.

Lancaster's series of essays around this subject are both amusing and thought provoking, and at times, poignant.  As she explores live theater, world cuisines, and difference cities, Jen realizes her attitude may have been one of the reasons she lost her job in the dot com bust of the early 2000s.

She learns a lot about herself, which is endearing to read about. Anyone who's been on any type of journey of self-discovery will relate. At the same time, she learns to balance her love of the superficial with an appreciation of the cultural and intellectual. In other words, well-rounded.

Chock full of the wit and style Lancaster is known for, My Fair Lazy will not disappoint fans, or newcomers, to her work.  And we all know that anyone who can still argue the finer points of Jake Ryan is bound to be fun at a dinner party. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

And This Book Has Been Challenged/Banned Why?

Book 50: Summer of My German Soldier
Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier was on the summer reading list before the start of my sophomore year Honors English class.  Of the four books assigned for summer reading that year, I recall finishing only this one. I loved it.  So when I saw it on the frequently banned and challenged list of books from the American Library Association (ALA), I decided to make it this year's Banned Books Week reading selection.

I wonder if Bette Greene knew, when Summer was published in 1973, that it would still be relevant in 2010? Summer of My German Soldier tells the story of Patty Bergen, a young Jewish girl growing up in rural Arkansas in World War II.  Often the subject of her mother's criticism and her father's violent temper, Patty's only real friend is Ruth, the family's housekeeper. That all changes the summer Patty is twelve, and German POW's are relocated to Patty's hometown. 

Patty befriends on soldier, Anton, and when he escapes, she helps hide him.  This was the gist of what I remembered about the story, all these years later.  And as I started reading the book, I kept thinking to myself 'Why on earth was this book challenged?'  I assumed it was because of the racial slurs, but when I looked it up at the ALA website, that wasn't it.  WARNING:SPOILER ALERT. I'M GIVING AWAY THE ENDING. I'll encapsulate the spoiler by  (* * *) and when it is over, repeat that as well. Scroll past this if you don't want to be spoiled.

*  *  *

The book has been challenged because Anton dies in the end (off screen, so to speak. Patty hears about it after the fact and there is no description of what happens) and then Patty is sent to reform school for helping an escaped Federal prisoner. 

*  *  *

The challenge against the book is the age appropriateness of the ending.  I don't get it.  I was much more traumatized by Old Yeller than Summer of My German Soldier.

I loved the book this time as much as the first time I read it.  I even found myself underlining and highlighting passages throughout the book, shocked by the relevance to what is currently going on in the world.

Patty's classmate, Edna Louise, says at one point, "It is too.  God is on America's side and anybody who's against us is on the devil's side, and that's the truth."  Sounds a lot like the rhetoric going on with the war against terror and America's viewpoint that "you're with us or against us."  We still haven't learned that god doesn't pick a side in any war.

Similarly, Ruth recounts talking to the head of the draft board trying to get her son out of the WWII draft so he can finish his education.  The draft board tells Ruth, "...Why this is your boy's country, too, and he's gotta do his share so this country will always belong to us Americans."  The Irony or reading that sentiment in the same week we failed to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was not lost on me. We expect people to serve and possibly die for our country, yet we aren't willing to let them acknowledge who they are.

Patty's world view begins changing. She's growing up, and hears things going on in her community, and wonders "Is it possible that the rich would steal from the poor?"  While maybe not stealing in the literal sense, it certainly seems to be the haves controlling our destiny, and often without regard for the have-nots (and also reminds me of the line from U2's God Part II where Bono sings "The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor.")

And perhaps to me, the most profound statement from Anton.  "I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than in destroying a cathedral."  Substitute temple, mosque, and church for cathedral, and I think that's a pretty spot on observation for today as well.

This amazing story, and its relevance to what's going on in the world today, and people want it banned? How sad. Shame on us as a society for even entertaining the idea of banning books.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Banned Books Week

Banned Books week starts today and runs through 2 October.  I have read some bad books. I have read books that offended me on some level.  But I've never read a book I think should be banned.  That is an evil,scary practice to me.

I remember in high school, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the books challenged in our school district. The Junior and Senior Honors/AP English classes at my school invited the challenger in to hear why he felt these books should be banned.

He objected to the use of the word "goddamn" in the book.  The use of racial slurs didn't seem to bother him too much. He said, "that was the vernacular of the time. It is what a lot of people would have said." To which my friend Will replied, "And you think ignorant farmers wouldn't have used 'goddamn'?"  If we banned every book that had an offensive word in it, we'd have nothing to read. Plus, most people I know are smart enough to understand the context in which words are used.

But I look at the American Library Association's list of Banned Books, and I start to get a little ill.  I've read and loved more than half of the books on the Banned Books list (2000-2009 most challenged/banned). And I think how empty my life would be without these books. 

Take the Harry Potter books, the most challenged/banned of 2000-2009. I adore these books. I know that when they were challenged in a district near me, the woman leading the charge had not even read the books. She had read that "other people" said they were bad and led a campaign to get them out of her children's school libraries.  To challenge something you've not even read?  That's such an ignorant thing to do. And to presume that you know better for someone else's children? No.

At Dragon*Con this year, I attended a young adult literature panel called "Freaks and Geeks in Harry Potter."  I was older than a lot of the attendees. But most of the audience grew up with the Harry Potter books. And to hear these young people, who were all geeks or nerds or dorks or artists or in some other way, not quite the popular mainstream in their schools, say how much it meant to them to have the heroes in the Harry Potter books also be freaks and geeks brought me to tears.

Because perhaps in youth, more than any other time, it is important to know that when you aren't quite sure who you are and how you fit into the world, it is important to know you aren't alone. And so many of the banned and challenged books are aimed at this group of people. 

I think most people who challenge books are motivated by fear. They are scared of their children being exposed to new ideas. I was blessed to be raised by readers.  People who felt that reading was one of the best ways to be exposed to new ideas and expand thought. Open one's mind to new possibilities.

Banning books narrows our minds. It reinforces the idea that there's only one way to think, one way to be. It encourages fear and xenophobia. It subjects people to warped understanding of content, like Wesley Scroggins'  description of a rape in Speak  (just one book he is trying to get removed from school shelves in Missouri) as "soft porn."  I don't know what types of porn Mr. Scroggins typically reads or views, but it has always been my belief that non-consensual sex is an act of violence, and not titillating.  I was also surprised by his criticism of the classification of some of the girls in Speak who partied on Saturday night, but appeared as virginal goddesses in Sunday morning services.  Frankly, that describes most people I know.  There's quite a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.  I was also disappointed that, as an associate professor of management, Mr. Scroggins' is so literal and doesn't appear to understand hyperbole.

I find that the most profound ideas, the stories that made me think the most as a student and young adult, are represented in the challenged and banned books.  So read one. Encourage your friends and family to read them, and to think. I live in an area where intellectualism is often treated as a four-letter word.  Well, I'm quite fond of four letter words, so I'm proud to wear that label.

And if reading controversial ideas and thinking for myself makes me somehow subversive, then that's a label I'll proudly adopt as well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Speak. Speak Loudly. It's Subversive.

Book 49: Speak
Laurie Halse Anderson

Wesley Scroggins is wrong.  I am so glad that I start this post by saying that. Mr. Scroggins should be as well, as it is certainly the kindest thing that I think about him.

I didn't intend to read this book. But then, a post came across my Twitter feed yesterday.  This Wesley Scroggins was trying to get Speak, along with several other books, banned from a school district in Missouri. (Side note, I've since learned he's also trying to get text books with references to evolution banned, as well as anything that disagrees with his personal interpretation of the Constitution. See$FILE/School%20Board%20Presentation%20%28Scroggins%29.pdf)

In a recent letter to the editor, Scroggins took his opinions to the newspaper reading public (, alluding to  several works, including Speak, as soft porn.  Now, this captured my interest.  I'm no fan of banning any kind of book and I trusted the opinions of other book bloggers I follow who said this guy was way off the mark.

But I think for myself. And before I decided to run my mouth about Scroggins' gross misstatements about this book, I decided to read it and decide for myself.  I bought Speak after work tonight. I read it in a little over three hours.

Speak is nothing like porn of any type. The sex in Speak, without graphic description, but with emotion, is Rape.  Not sex. Not titillating to anyone but the basest of people.  Mr. Scroggins is utterly and completely wrong.  

Laurie Halse Anderson has written a luminous book.  An odd characterization, luminous, given that so much of the book is centered around the depression of Melinda Sordino after she was raped at a party before the start of her Freshman year of high school.

Anderson hits the nuances of cliques perfectly. How fitting in seems to be so effortless to some and so unachievable to others.  The struggles of living in a less than perfect family.  A family you want to talk to and confide in but you're scared to reach out to.  Boring teachers talking about things you think can't possibly matter in real life.  Figuring out who your friends are.  Literally losing your voice because you're afraid that if you speak, all your dark secrets will come spilling out for the world to see.

In Speak, Anderson creates real characters, relatable even if you don't share their exact experiences. You still know all these people from your own high school days.  The book isn't preachy, it isn't condescending.  It doesn't talk down to the readers or marginalize their experiences.  It doesn't glorify that underbelly of high school where teenagers are really trying out, for the first time, what they think adulthood is about.

I thought Speak was brilliantly done, and I wish more books like this had been around when I was in high school.

As a side note, Banned Books week starts 25 September. As part of that, I'll be re-reading one of my favorite books from high school summer reading.  Summer of my German Soldier for reasons unfathomable to me is on the list of most challenged/banned books from 2000-2009.  I'll be posting on its literary merits, as well as a separate post about my feelings on banning books in general. In that post, I'll also share more of what I find so distressing about Wesley Scroggins' crusade against Speak.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Messy Sloppy Politics

Book 48: Dirty Sexy Politics
Meghan McCain

I don't know precisely what I was expecting from Dirty Sexy Politics but what I got was a hot mess of rambling and meandering writing with a few insights about the Republican party and the inner workings of a presidential campaign thrown in.

Meghan McCain's memoir about her father's 2008 Presidential bid did expose the ugly underbelly of life on the campaign trail.  The insane hours, short tempers, and sexcapades of stressed out staffers are no real surprise. The lack of juicy tidbits in these areas was disappointing.  

I understand from some other reviews that there is a blatant lack of fact checking and editorial oversight in the book. To be honest, I didn't go so far as to try to directly refute anything because I don't care.  I didn't read the book as any form of Republican bashing.  I read it because only a handful of people ever get to experience what Meghan McCain did, as both a blogger and as the candidate's daughter.  I did feel that the writing was at times disjointed, and there did appear to be a lack of good editorial review. 

I was surprised to learn that even as the candidate's daughter, McCain did not have unfettered access to her parents while on the trail. I had always assumed that would be a non-issue. But with campaign leaders concerned about Meghan's blogging of day to day campaign life, as well as her image, they managed to relegate McCain to marginal status within the campaign. They even forced her to go so far as to see image consultants, to get rid of her "stripper hair" and wear the ubiquitous pants suit.

That being said, McCain has what I feel are some golden nuggets of wisdom for the Republican party, and politics in general. First, stop with the double standard for women in the political arena. Who the hell cares about our hair and clothes? Obviously people do, but we don't judge our male candidates the same way, so we shouldn't include it in the evaluation of our female candidates.

Second, McCain urges the party to become more inclusive: embrace technology; don't ignore the youth voting block; don't force all republicans into the same narrow social viewpoints; stop treating intellectualism as a four-letter word.  I think those are incredibly valid points, and I hope McCain uses her rebel tendencies to help further those causes within her party.

Overall, I don't find the book particularly well-written or deeply insightful, but it is a quick read and does provide an inside look at a world few of us will ever see firsthand. Meghan McCain is a smart woman. She graduated from Columbia. I like to think this book is more a reflection of her age than her ability.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Cool, Classy YA Heroine, Great Action, and Romance

Book 47: Clockwork Angel
Cassandra Clare

Cassie Clare is back, with a fantastic new heroine and a deeper look into the world of the Shadowhunters.  Set in 1878, this first book in the Infernal Devices series brings Tessa Gray into London, searching for her brother. Just sixteen, Tessa finds herself kidnapped by members of the Pandemonium Club, a secret organization  made up of mundanes (humans), and Downworlders (Vampires, Werewolves, Warlocks, and Demons). There, Tessa learns she herself is a Downworlder, with the rare ability to transform into another person. Tessa learns she is to be married to the Magister, the unknown leader of the Pandemonium Club, because her transformation ability will help him further his nefarious plans.

With no sign of her brother, Tessa takes refuge with the Shadowhunters (very cool, skilled warriors who fight to rid the world of demons) at the London Institute.  They agree help Tessa find her brother, in exchange for Tessa using her powers to help them.  Of course, Tessa finds herself drawn to both Will and Jem, two of the Shadowhunters.

Fans of the Mortal Instruments series will find familiar names like Herondale and Lightwood, as well as familiar and favorite characters like Magnus Bane.  This book spoils nothing in Mortal Instruments series.

What I like about Clare is that she creates strong female characters without compromising their femininity. Sure, Tessa was shocked to learn that women in the Shadowhunters fought alongside the men, but when the going got rough, she doesn't wait on Will or Jem to save her. In fact, she relies on the story of Queen Boudica (who I also wrote about earlier in this blog) to help her fight.  She doesn't wrap up her happiness in finding true love.  She considers herself on equal footing with both her suitors.  

I don't know yet if I am Team Will or Team Jem in this series. I'm definitely Team Tessa, as I like this character. But we'll have to learn more about Jem and Will for me to make a decision there. And as any reader of the Mortal Instruments saga knows, Clare has some pretty dynamic plot twists that could have us all changing our minds.

Clare has written another winning book, and I can't wait for the sequel, which comes out in September 2011.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I Am Not Superwoman... or Am I?

Book 46: I Am Not Superwoman
Further Essays on Happier Living
Michele Woodward

Back in June, I read Michele's first book.  I didn't intend to review an author more than once in the blog this year, at least not in close succession, but sometimes life intervenes and here I am, finding myself doing exactly that.

In the interest of full disclosure, Michele sent me this autographed copy of her book, for which I am grateful.  If I had hated it, I would have found a reason to not write about it.  So what I'm saying here is truly what I think, but I can't have y'all thinking I'll say nice things just because someone gives me a book.

With that out of the way, I'll tell you why I am a content reader.  When you're in the right headspace, I think things happen because you need them or are ready for them. This has been a huge year of change for me on a personal level (more on that another day) and one of the things that I did was start reading more from life coaches and people who appear to have it all figured out.  I learned that they tend to come at you with a good dose of common sense.  

In Superwoman, Woodward uses her trademark conversational yet funny style to give people- primarily women- the tools to get past the constant pressure to be perfect and instead, be happy.  No, she doesn't have a spell, or a fairy godmother, or a detailed instruction list telling us exactly how to get from feeling the pressure to be superwoman to embracing being just us, but happy.

Instead, she gives readers the tools identify what's not working and suggestions around ways to change whatever it is that is blocking us. Sometimes the things we have to look at are a bit uncomfortable. Like figuring out what makes us feel stuck, or why we feel afraid of change, or why it's important that we know how to manage our money.  The point is, she gets readers thinking about things. Often from a new or different perspective, which has the power to change one's whole perception of life and its possibilities.

Most importantly, she talks about her own need to ask for help sometimes, and her own uncertainties.  Like when she needed help decluttering an area of her house, and brought in a professional to assist.  She talks about examining the "why" that is the reason we do anything.  Making sure it is the right "why's" owning us. All this without being condescending, dismissive, or judgmental.

The essays are the perfect length to read when you just a have a few minutes, or when you need some quick motivation or inspiration.  And yes, this book has Superwoman in the title and is geared toward women. But there's plenty in it for the guys, too.

After this year, and this reading, I've adopted a new definition of  Superwoman: It's being me, being authentic; making deliberate choices for the right reasons, and not being afraid to go after my bliss.

You can get your own copy of I Am Not Superwoman here:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book 45: Mr. Peanut
Adam Ross

Marriage has been a theme the last couple of weeks.  No, I'm not planning my own. However, my friend Michelle is planning a wedding, and conversation at our recent girls night out dinner with another friend focused largely on how hard couples must work to be happily married. I read Bad Marie, in which Marie has an affair with father of the child in her charge.  Then I read Mr. Peanut which unravels the mystery surrounding the death of Alice Pepin while examining marriage in general through the relationships of other characters.

I've been finished with Mr. Peanut for over a week now.  I needed a few days to formulate what I wanted to say. Then I spent last weekend geeking out at Dragon*Con. After that, I still needed time to think about what I want to say about Mr. Peanut.  Why? This is Ross' debut novel. He delves into uncomfortable territory- the dark parts of the mind, where a spouse might imagine being suddenly free of his/her partner. He explores the cyclical nature of marriage, the best, blissful, fully connected parts and the lowest, desolate, despairing moments when both partners must decide if they even want to go forward. And he does it all with symbolism, beautiful prose, and forcing readers to go to the darkest places of their own minds all the while spinning a page turning tale that leaves you demanding to know what happens next.

The unravelling of the marriage of David and Alice Pepin, and the mystery of whether David killed Alice or if she committed suicide, is only one part of the story.  There's also the relationship between Detective Hastroll and his wife, and the telling of Ross' interpretation of Sam Sheppard and the murder of his wife. At the same time, there's Pepin's version of his own marriage in a novel he is writing.

At first glance, Ross' view of marriage is a bleak one, more dark than light.  But on closer reading, there's so much more to it than that.  There's caring enough to be pissed off at not understanding one's spouse. There are moments where your heart breaks a little for these characters, just trying to make their relationship work.

The art of M.C. Escher ( and the films of Alfred Hitchcock ( symbolize the frenetic feelings and categorizations of of marriage throughout the novel.  I was not familiar with Escher before this book. I recommend browsing through his work before reading the book.  I'd seen a handful of the Hitchcock films, but just signed up for Netflix so that I can see more of them.

At times, reading Mr. Peanut is trying. There's so much going on, and stories within stories and various points of view narrating throughout that it almost feels chaotic. But that's the point, and Ross does it well.  To fully absorb this book, it must be read more than once.  I plan to read it again after watching a few of these Hitchcock films.  But I call Mr. Peanut  one of my top reads of 2010.

Two other book blogs I follow interviewed Mr. Ross.  I highly recommend reading through these posts.  Part 1 can be found here at The Book Lady's Blog ( and Part 2 at Brews and Books (

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Oddly Compelling

Book 44: Bad Marie
Marcy Dermansky

Bad Marie could have been a cliche.  The hot nanny; the bored, weak husband; the seemingly cold, ambitious wife.  But Dermansky avoids death by predictability.  

I read Bad Marie in one day.  I can't precisely define what it is that made the story so compelling, but I was completely sucked into the book. I also can't say I particularly cared for Marie, the ex-con landing on her childhood friend's doorstep begging for a job.  Friend Ellen takes in Marie, tasks her with caring for young Caitlin.  Caitlin adores Marie, and Marie adores Caitlin.

Whiskey swilling, chocolate loving, and thieving, Marie sets her sights on Ellen's husband and so begins the saga that is Bad Marie.  We learn that Marie's always coveted Ellen's life, from the time they were children and even now, after serving six years in prison as an accessory to armed robbery. Although Marie sees what she wants and takes it, this is no "Hand That Rocks The Cradle."

Although Marie's childhood was far from ideal, I never felt sorry for her. I don't know if this ambivalence to Marie was deliberate on Dermansky's part.  I found  myself frustrated with Marie more than once, shouting to her  in my mind, "You can't just take something because you want it.  It doesn't work that way."  But it does with Marie.

The whole story ends up being a quest for some kind of stability and love for Marie.  And ultimately, I think she does begin to realize that she has to return all that she has taken.  While deep down, she knows that some things are unforgivable, Marie still imagines that somehow, all those she has wronged will do just that.

At the same time, Marie's illusions about the men she's loved- her "true love" who died in prison, and Ellen's husband (with a twisted, sad backstory all his own)- are shattered in front of her eyes. She finally begins to realize that she creates whatever reality she needs, yet she is consistently disappointed when the true imperfections reveal themselves.

Dermansky's prose is purposeful and eloquent. She repeats a particular exchange between Marie and Caitlin, showing how Marie's adoration for the little girl is perhaps the only pure thing in her life.  

So I can't say precisely why I could not put down this book. It certainly wasn't an enchanting, happy ending. It was not sad and melancholy. Perhaps it was the realism of this glimpse into a troubled psyche.  Perhaps there was some identification with Marie- thinking the grass is greener in another life, preferring to re-write events in our mind to make them fit our definition of happiness and perfection.  At any rate, I found this book oddly and completely compelling.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

More Vampire Lore

Book 43: Insatiable
Meg Cabot

I always enjoy Meg Cabot.  Her reads are fun.  Insatiable is no exception.  Cabot capitalizes on what I think is the crest of vampire fatigue.  They are everywhere these days: hovering outside our windows in the delectably creepy "Let the Right One In"; Sexing up our Sunday nights on True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse novels in which the Bon Temps undead originated; and in the seemingly indefatigable Twilight series, with its sparkling, "vegan" vampires. 

Insatiable brings back the best of the vampire stories.  With a deliberate shout out to Mr. Stoker, Cabot's heroine is Meena Harper, your typical lovelorn divorced New Yorker, stuck in a frustrating job and a generally mundane life. Except for one small thing. Meena can tell when you're going to die. Which some people might appreciate knowing, but it just makes Meena feel like a freak. As a heroine, she's likable.  Enough like all of us (save the whole knowing when people will die thing) that we cheer for her and want her to be happy. We know something is about to happen to upset the boredom of her every day life. Queue the crazy neighbors just aching to set up Meena with some eligible bachelor.  And enter the vampire, the true Prince of Darkness, Lucien Antonescu, who is suddenly captivated with Meena.  With shades of Buffy- and by that, I mean the action, the dialogue, and the humor- we also have the vampire fighters of the Palatine Guard, who are on a mission to eradicate the undead. The story all comes together over a few days in New York City against the backdrop of murders and a quest to overthrow the Vampire King.

This became my "let me read a chapter or two before bed" novel over the last few weeks.  It completely entertained me and Cabot's settings let me see the entire novel unfolding in my mind.  Not every book is supposed to make you think deep thoughts.  And that is in no way a criticism.  Some books are supposed to entertain and thrill you, make you laugh, transport you from the triviality of every day. This is one that does that very well.  And if you're like me, a bit over vampires being everywhere these days, this book is the perfect remedy.