Category Archives: Books

Reading Materials: August 2017

39. The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman. (Digital Library) I did not love this book. I appreciated that it was a true story, but there were just too many rabbit-holes. The author would introduce a very minor character, and then spend several pages giving that person’s biography. It made the story clunky.

40. Duma Key, Stephen King. (Library, Book Club Selection) I enjoy Stephen King books; I am not a fanatic about them. I read (and loved) The Stand, The Gunslinger series, and Bag of Bones. I have read many others, and liked them plenty, but King is not in my personal pantheon. That said, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. It’s a doorstop of a novel – nearly 800 pages – but it moves quickly and efficiently from one plot point to the next. I may have felt especial empathy for the main character because he searches for words in the same way my mother does. Most of the novel is creepy, but not outright scary – until you get to the last 25% or so. I stayed up late to finish it and then had nightmares. I’m sure Mr. King would consider that a compliment.

41. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. (Kindle Purchase) In college, I dated a guy from rural southeastern Ohio. I spent a lot of time there, including a whole summer. Additionally, I lived for three years in rural northwest Alabama. Many of Vance’s observations rang true for me – hollowed-out towns with boarded-up main streets, hollowed-out people whose futures left when the plant closed. I loved Vance’s straightforward storytelling, which eschews flowery language in favor of the unvarnished truth. Sentences like “I watched my mom get loaded into a police cruiser” really don’t need embellishment to be disturbing. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, since I heard an interview with Vance on a podcast earlier this year. I’m so, so glad I read it.

42. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders. (Purchased) This was a summer reading selection at our (delightful) independent bookstore, the Midtown Reader. The description – Science vs. Magic! Romance on the brink of global catastrophe! – ticked all my boxes, but the book was not what I expected. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have selected it for my own book club to read later this fall. It was funnier than I expected, though I feel its young adult category may be a stretch. It had some very, um, adult portions. I would not be comfortable with my 14-year-old reading it.

43. All Together Dead, Charlaine Harris. (Gift) Palate cleanser. Perfectly entertaining fluff. Great way to end the month.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 36
Non-Fiction: 7

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Reading Materials: July 2017

33. Bird Box, Josh Malerman. (Library) This was billed as a horror novel, but it was better than that label. It was chilling and creepy. It reminded me of The Walking Dead in that the main characters are facing a threat that is not actively malicious, but still very dangerous. I can’t even really explain the “monsters,” because the book never fully explains them. This is not a flaw – I think sketching them with a minimum of detail keeps the situation creepier. I enjoyed this read.

34. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood. (Library) A pretty decent read about carnival workers on Coney Island at the turn of the century, and a young English girl who gets separated from her family and has to use her wits (and her newfound carnie friends) to stay safe. Meanwhile, there’s an outbreak of plague. This book was aggressively fine, but also reduced many characters to two-dimensional cutouts.

35. News of the World, Paulette Jiles. (Library) Despite the author’s incredibly annoying lack of quotation marks around all dialogue in this book, I really enjoyed it. Don’t dismiss it because it’s “a Western.”  For the record, I resisted reading Lonesome Dove for many years, because it was “a Western.” Shame on me. The writing is beautiful – expansive like the swaths of country it describes. This is a lovely little book.

36. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans. (Borrowed for Book Club) This book describes one woman’s personal journey from an evangelical upbringing, through a time in the spiritual wilderness, and finally landing in the arms of the Episcopal church. It is divided into seven sections, each named for one of the sacraments of that church. I enjoyed the writing, and the honesty with which Evans wrestled with her faith. My only complaint is this: When one talks about sin, and confession, it is traditionally understood to mean examining oneself for deficiencies and naming them before God. Victimhood, on the other hand, is devoted to examining and naming the sins of others. Too often in this book, Evans substitutes victims for sinners, and the only sin she names in herself is a tendency to dislike Republicans. For example, in a gathering she calls one of the most spiritually profound experiences of her life, a group of gay Christians tells their personal stories of persecution. These are powerful stories, and deserve to be told – but they are not confession. They are testimony, or witness. Anyway, this is a minor quibble with the book, which I overall enjoyed.

37. Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman. (Library, Book Club) I have always wanted to love Neil Gaiman. He has a strong cult following of people whose opinions I value. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it was…fine. I started Stardust, but some asshat had removed the last page of each chapter, so I abandoned it after a few chapters and never sought out another copy. I watched Coraline. This collection, however, was very good. It shows an excellent range of storytelling ability. I could probably do without the poetry, but only because it looked like artfully-arranged prose. I think my problem with Gaiman is that so many authors have derived from him that the original material seems a little cliched. I felt the same way when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an adult.

38. Sweet Bitter, Stephanie Danler. (Library) Critics of this book characterize it as “exactly what you’d expect from a new MFA graduate,” and they’re probably right. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put it down. It follows Tess through her heady first year in New York City, as a backwaiter at an upscale restaurant. Her life becomes a trainwreck – but one you can’t stop watching.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 32
Non-Fiction: 6

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The Sweet Smell of…Success!

A couple of months ago, I entered the Midtown Reader’s monthly Story Slam, but ALAS my tale was not chosen. I entered again in June, and my story was selected! Along with three other writers, I read my story (out loud! to strangers!) last Thursday night, and then sat through a Q&A with the audience. It was a ton of fun and I hope to do it again.

Here’s the story I submitted:

I am sitting on the floor outside my mother’s bathroom, a place I have occupied every Sunday evening since I was seven years old, grinding my teeth. Shortly after my dad had just about enough of my mother, she instituted “Sunday Night Spa,” which mostly involved putting on face masks, or playing with her makeup, or French braiding each other’s hair. When I was seven, this was a huge treat. Now that I’m sixteen, not so much. My mother will not allow me to make plans that conflict with Sunday Night Spa, and since I do not share my mother’s overriding interest in her own face, I sit outside the bathroom door while she dyes her hair or plucks her eyebrows or whatever. This is her idea of a generous compromise. Some nights she spends hours watching makeup videos on YouTube while I pray for an asteroid to hit the house. She can tell you all about sheet masks, but can’t identify which political party the President belongs to. Did you know you can contour your toes?, she’ll ask. God, her brows look amazing. 

The soundtrack for these Sunday evenings – and every other evening, for that matter – is a running monologue detailing my mother’s misery and bitterness at finding herself divorced. But in the last few years, the target of her ire has shifted from my father to me. When I finally hit puberty, my head transformed. Suddenly, I looked like my dad in a wig. His nose sprouted from the middle of my face, and my hair became thick, wavy, and unruly. My mother saw this as a calculated affront, like I made my face look this way for the sole purpose of tormenting her.

That’s when my mom started knifing me verbally. “You poor thing,” she’d say, “you got your father’s ugly nose.” Or “Why don’t you let me straighten your hair? It could be pretty like mine.” She offered to get me a plastic surgery when I turn 18 in a couple of years, and got very upset when I declined. The more she insults my father, the prouder I am to look like a dude in a wig. This drives her insane. I mean, more insane. My dad is just a regular guy, and I’m pretty sure the amount of time he thinks about my mother or their marriage is zero. He’s moved on in the last ten years. This also drives her insane. She’s marooned in the past – for her, every day is the day he left. The anger is always that fresh.

Even now, through the bathroom door, she’s offering to get me the same color hair dye so we can match. Remember when we used to wear matching outfits?, she asks. Remember when you loved me best? Remember when Daddy ruined the life we had planned?

She knows that I hate Sunday nights.

She does not know that I have substituted her hair color base for Nair hair remover.

It turns out that I have also had enough of my mother. I’ve had enough of being her therapist, her substitute spouse, her best friend. Over the last few weeks, I have been squirreling away my most prized possessions in my car. I’m 16, so they fit nicely under the piles of clothes and water bottles and books.

I’m going to my dad’s, and I’m not coming back.

In the bathroom, the timer goes off, and my mother turns on the shower. My heart rate picks up speed, my palms slick.

I hear the sharp breath before a scream.

I walk out.

 

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Reading Materials: June 2017

28. Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett. (Library, Book Club Selection) I actually read this in May and forgot to include it in last month’s list. Ooooops. This book reminded me of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, in that it dealt with grief from the perspective of a younger girl with an older sister. This was a thoughtful book – it’s hard to write like a child, to capture the feeling of being young.

29. Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink. (Borrowed from Tyler) This is a weird book – I mean, WEIRD – yet also delightful and filled with unexpectedly beautiful moments. In what was a we-live-in-the-future first for me, Welcome to Night Vale started as a podcast and was later made into a book. It follows a fictional town in the desert where nothing is normal. It’s as though one of The X-Files‘ signature creepy small towns collided with an extraterrestrial location from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I found this book a challenging, but rewarding, read. I find myself thinking about it frequently.

30. Dark Places, Gillian Flynn. (Borrowed) I enjoyed Gone Girl, and needed a bit of a palate cleanser after being immersed in Night Vale, so this fit the bill nicely. I enjoyed this twisty mystery, even if I found it difficult to like a single character.

31. The Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly. (Borrowed) A sweeping WWII novel told from the perspective of three women – two of whom were real people. My only criticism is that one of the three narrators drops out of sight for most of the second half of the book, and I kept waiting for her name to appear on a chapter title. Overall, I thought this was well-written and engaging, and gets bonus points for some awesome French food descriptions.

32. Creating Your Dream Kitchen, Susan Breen. (Library) We’ve known since the day we bought our house that we wanted to completely remodel the kitchen. It was designed by a sadist who didn’t cook – there is zero counter space on either side of the slanty cook top, for example, and the cabinets are cavernous and un-shelved. Anyway, I want to design the new kitchen myself, so obviously the first thing I did was check out a book on the subject. (And pin a bunch of things in Pinterest, duh.) This was a very basic primer, but it did have some good inspiration photos. Alas, on a personally-aggravating note, it also had a bunch of typos. Grrrrrrrr.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 27
Non-Fiction: 5

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Reading Materials: May 2017

23. All the Missing Girls, Megan Miranda. (Library) This has been hanging out on my to-read list, and I finally got it from the library. I enjoyed the story a great deal, however (you knew there was a however, right?)…. The book uses a distracting format – the story is told over two weeks, but instead of going from Day 1 to Day 15, we go from Day 15 to Day 1. This is an interesting device, but ultimately I’m not sure it adds enough to be worthwhile. I enjoyed the story, though, and would like to re-read it in the right order to see how it holds up.

24. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson. (Library) WHAT a good book. It dealt with terribly depressing subjects, yet rarely felt gloomy or maudlin. The main character, Ursula Todd, dies and is reborn many times over the course of the book. The author manages to re-tell the same story, over and over, and make it feel fresh with each telling.

25. The Bad Seed, William March. (Library, Book Club Selection) I was looking forward to reading this book as a history lesson – this novel was written in 1954 – but I found myself just as captivated as I would be with a modern thriller. There were definitely moments where it showed its age, but those were brief. I am very glad I got a chance to read this.

26. The Quick, Lauren Owen. (Library) Solidly enjoyable, if a bit slow at first. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I didn’t hate it, either. It felt a bit loose, or out of focus. It was hard to know who the protagonist of the novel was supposed to be. Spoiler alert: it’s a vampire book, but a subtle one.

27. Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton. (Library) I’m going to be honest here: I don’t remember putting this book on hold, so when I got an e-mail notifying me it was ready to be picked up, I thought What the heck, let’s give it a try. This was foolish. I’d never heard of Margaret Cavendish before this, and quite frankly, learned little of interest about her life. It is as though Margaret herself – known for her eccentricities and social awkwardness – wrote this as an autobiography. It is rambling and, at times, incoherent. I think the audience for this novel is devotees of Margaret Cavendish, people who already see her as an important and unique figure in history, who already know her story. As someone just trying to get a feel for her, or learn about her, this book was a flop.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 23
Non-Fiction: 4

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Reading Materials: April 2017

18. The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson. (Library) This book is, as they say, right up my Edwardian England alley. I find the society fascinating – why so-and-so can be invited to tea or not, why one man is a suitable prospect but another is Totally Unacceptable, and the plethora of unappetizing food names. It was beautifully written, well-paced, and swung effortlessly between the silliness of manners and the seriousness of war.

19. The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena. (Library, Book Club Selection) It would be helpful for me if all books involving babies in peril came with a big warning label on the front. This was a book club selection, so I hadn’t had the chance to read about the book before I read the book. In the first chapter, a couple discovers their six-month-old baby missing, and the rest of the book deals with the how and why. I had a hard time focusing on whodunnit because I was anxious about the status of the baby. I doubt everyone has the same problem. Otherwise, this was a well-written and twisty mystery, and I enjoyed it.

20. Definitely Dead, Charlaine Harris. (hand-me-down) After Baby In Peril, I needed a palate cleanser. As always, this was a perfect fluffy sherbet of a book.

21. The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J. Church (Library, Book Club selection) I disliked this book almost to the point of loathing it. A few years ago, I finally read The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a weighty tome by Richard Rhodes – so a novel about one of the wives of a Los Alamos scientist seemed like it would be my thing. But this book had almost nothing to do with Los Alamos, and everything to do with the giant chip the main character carries on her shoulder. In short, at the age of 19, she marries a professor more than 20 years her senior, and ends up not going to graduate school – a fact she whines about for the remainder of the novel. She allows this festering resentment to consume her. AND ANOTHER THING. In the novel, at the age of 46, she is suddenly turned from a relatively serious person into a lust-crazed, boy-crazy twit – and the boy in question is 20 years her junior. I don’t buy it. Even in the 1960s.

22. The Rook, Daniel O’Malley. (Library) This book was tremendously entertaining, and it grabbed me from the first page. The main character wakes up on page one surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, with no memory of who she is or what happened. She finds a letter in her pocket from herself, and then we’re off on a grand supernatural adventure. I will definitely be checking out the second book in the series.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 18
Non-Fiction: 4

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Forty Eight Hours in New Orleans

Because “Forty Eight Hours in New Orleans with Two Tweenagers and a Toddler, Thank God for Alcohol” is just too long for a post title.

Very occasionally, Jason gets to travel somewhere awesome for work. On Monday, he had three depositions scheduled in New Orleans, so we decided to take advantage of the long weekend and haul everyone over there. Well, everyone except Hollyn, who chose to stay behind so she could train with her crew team for the upcoming erg sprints. Noble, but foolish.

Every time we go to New Orleans, we do several touristy things requested by the kids – this time, beignets at Cafe du Monde and browsing the French Market. But I also like to try a few new things each time I go, to keep things interesting.

On this trip, we used AirBnB for the first time, and booked an apartment in the Garden District/Freret area. Overall, I was pleased. The price was reasonable and the apartment was comfortable for the five of us.

I am unable to resist a used book shop, and this trip I found one I’d never visited before. The Librarie Book Shop has a well-curated collection of used books and the proprietress was extremely knowledgeable about New Orleans and the authors who call it home (or spiritual home). I picked up A Pattern Book of New Orleans Architecture, by Roulhac Toledano.

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Traditional pattern books were like DIY manuals for amateur builders, especially in areas where there weren’t established architects or designers. They are filled with sample floorplans as well as detailed drawings of architectural elements like mantels, doorframes, columns, and windows. Iconic architect Palladio published one in 1570, and pattern books were an invaluable resource to American colonists trying to build homes and municipal buildings in the wilderness.

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This is not a pattern book in the historical sense, but is nonetheless a great resource. It outlines the various styles of architecture, including floorplans, used throughout New Orleans, and includes vintage real estate advertisements.

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When I put it on the checkout table, the bookseller confided that it was her favorite book in the shop. For a moment, it looked like she might not let it go. I promised to give it a good home.

Monday morning, Jason boarded the streetcar for work (he reports this was an awesome way to commute) and the kids and I headed somewhere new – The Bank Architectural Salvage & Antiques. Located north of St. Charles Avenue on Felicity St., this place was packed with salvaged doors, mantels, hardware, corbels, windows, and other decorative bits from old New Orleans buildings.

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I had to force myself to walk away empty-handed.

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As should be pretty obvious, we love the architecture of New Orleans and seek to incorporate it (in tasteful ways!) in our Tallahassee house. This trip provided plenty of ideas and inspiration for future projects.

 

 

 

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