February 26, 2008

You Make My Day & Mwah Awards

This is long-overdue, but I want to send out a big thank you to Heather, Teddy and Stephanie for honoring me with the You Make My Day award. I also received a big Mwah from Stephanie! Thank you all for the kind words and encouragement. I love blogging, but I especially enjoy the friendships that have grown as a result of this hobby.

Now to pass it on. I always struggle with award lists, as there are so many great bloggers I visit several times a week, if not every day. As I mentioned here, I worry that someone, somewhere will get their feelings hurt if they're not on my list (or any list, for that matter!). You all make my day, whether it be an inspiring post about family or pets, a thought-provoking book review, a tantalizing recipe, or a breath-taking photograph from your place in this world. My life is richer since I met all of you.

Here are 10 blogs that make me laugh, smile, sigh and think:

Patricia Wood (author of Lottery)
Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza
Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm
Kay at My Random Acts of Reading
Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble
Nat at In Spring It Is the Dawn
Booklogged at A Reader's Journal
SuziQOregon at Blogging My Books
Andi at Tripping Toward Lucidity
Heather at A High and Hidden Place
Stephanie at The Written Word

Oops, that's 11. See, I told you this wasn't easy! And, yes, those last two bloggers were responsible for giving me this award,
but I couldn't make this list without including them.

Several of you have already received this award, so no need to pass it on again. And, I certainly understand if the others on the list would rather not take a turn at this. I know I vacillated for weeks!

February 23, 2008

Change of Heart

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 2/20/08
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
ARC (Book due out on March 4)

Book Description

The acclaimed #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a spellbinding tale of a mother's tragic loss and one man's last chance at gaining salvation.

Can we save ourselves, or do we rely on others to do it? Is what we believe always the truth?

One moment June Nealon was happily looking forward to years full of laughter and adventure with her family, and the next, she was staring into a future that was as empty as her heart. Now her life is a waiting game. Waiting for time to heal her wounds, waiting for justice. In short, waiting for a miracle to happen.

For Shay Bourne, life holds no more surprises. The world has given him nothing, and he has nothing to offer the world. In a heartbeat, though, something happens that changes everything for him. Now, he has one last chance for salvation, and it lies with June's eleven-year-old daughter, Claire. But between Shay and Claire stretches an ocean of bitter regrets, past crimes, and the rage of a mother who has lost her child.

Would you give up your vengeance against someone you hate if it meant saving someone you love? Would you want your dreams to come true if it meant granting your enemy's dying wish?

Once again, Jodi Picoult mesmerizes and enthralls readers with this story of redemption, justice, and love.

From the author's website:

[Change of Heart] features a Death Row inmate who wants to donate his heart to the sister of his victim…which means petitioning the state for a less “humane” form of execution than lethal injection. When he starts performing miracles, the press labels him “Messiah." After all, people are always finding Jesus in prison… what if he were really there? And what if the things he said didn’t match what you’d been told your whole life…but instead, matched verbatim the text of an ancient gospel that was excluded from the Bible as heresy?

This is a difficult book for me to review. There is the obvious connection to the situation of my family's terrible loss. And as with most of Jodi Picoult's novels, it's almost impossible to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers. Here are some random thoughts and passages that will hopefully give you a sense of what Picoult has tried to achieve with Change of Heart.I really enjoy reading a book in which the point of view alternates between multiple characters and Picoult is a master when it comes to seamlessly weaving a story between the cast. In Change of Heart we hear from four characters:

June Nealon - mother of Elizabeth and Claire; two-time widow
Maggie - ACLU attorney; single; daughter of a rabbi; atheist
Michael - Catholic priest; spiritual advisor to Shay Bourne; rides a '69 Triumph Trophy motorcyle
Lucius - Shay Bourne's neighboring cell-mate; AIDS victim

My favorite character was Maggie. Her "story" provided witty humor to an otherwise depressing narrative. I would love to see more of her in another book by Picoult!

I love the way the author continued to surprise me, even when I was absolutely certain I knew what was going to happen. Again, Picoult is a master of twists and surprises. My jaw literally dropped at one point and I wound up flipping back through the previous pages, searching for a clue I might've missed.When I first heard the specifics about Change of Heart, my initial thought was that nobody would understand why I would want to read this, of all books! But having read several of the author's previous novels (understanding that she not only is a phenomenal writer who deftly researches her subject matter, but also presents it it with truth and accuracy), I knew that in less than two months, I would be able to walk into a Virginia Beach courtroom and have some idea of what would ensue. In a sense, I've relied on Picoult's research expertise to prepare myself for the unknown -- facing the person who killed my stepdaughter (and two other young adults) on Memorial Day Weekend almost three years ago.

Lots of sticky notes!

Miscellaneous quotes that I marked:

"I wanted to play them the answering machine message that still had their voices on it, the one I couldn't bear to erase, even though it felt like I was being cut to ribbons every time I heard it." "I wanted them to live my life, because that was the only way they'd really know what had been lost."

"...lethal injection might not be as humane as everyone wanted to believe." [Ah, but neither is murder.]

"...a thirty-three-year-old carpenter with a death sentence on his head, who was performing miracles left and right."

"What I would like to tell Shay Bourne about the impact this crime had on my family is that it erased my family, period." "I would like him to come with me to the bank, the day I broke down in front of the teller and told her that I wanted to liquidate the college fund of Elizabeth Nealon." [or cash out savings bonds in the name of a deceased daughter...]

"If they had to die, I would have loved to have known in advance, so that I could take each second spent with them and know to hold on to it, instead of assuming there would be a million more. If they had to die, I would have loved to have been there, to be the last face they saw, instead of his."

"...he spoke, words that at the time felt as solid and square as bricks, layered sentence upon sentence to build a wall between life as I'd known it and the one I would now be forced to lead."

"Some people say that the reason we have a death penalty in this country is because we need to punish certain inmates. It's said to be a deterrent--but in fact, murder rates are higher in death penalty jurisdictions than in those without it. It's said to be cheaper to execute a man than keep him in prison for life--but in fact, when you factor in the cost of eleven years of appeals, paid for with public funds, it costs about a third more to execute a prisoner than to sentence him to life in prison. Some people say that the death penalty exists for the sake of the victims' family--that it offers closure, so that they can deal, finally and completely, with their grief. But does knowing that the death toll has risen above and beyond their family member really offer justice? And how do we explain the fact that a murder in a rural setting is more likely to lead to a death sentence than one that occurs in the city? Or that the murder of a white victim leads to the death penalty three and a half times more often than the murder of a black victim? Or that women are sentenced to death only two-thirds as often as men?"

After studying similar death penalty stats in a sociology course many years ago, I became a firm believer that life in prison (with no chance of parole) was the right course of action to punish the guilty. However, my opinion took a complete 180 on May 28, 2005 after our daughter was violently murdered. And now, after reading Change of Heart, I'm beginning to reconsider my stand once again. Picoult's books force you to examine your beliefs and opinions about society and the world at large. We all know that life is never simply black and white. There are no absolutes.

One thing I do know for certain -- I'm glad I'm not serving on a jury, faced with the decision of whether another individual lives or dies.

Nonfiction Meme

Here's another meme I've been tagged for (thanks, Bookfool and Bellezza!) that originated with Guatami over at My Own Little Reading Room.

What issues/topic interests you most--non-fiction (i.e, cooking, knitting, stitching, there are infinite topics that have nothing to do with novels)?

I love to read books about World War II, gardening/nature/home-related essays, memoirs, travel essays, cooking memoirs and the occasional humor book.

Would you like to review books concerning those?

Certainly. I generally review everything I read, now that I have this blog.

Would you like to be paid or do it as interest or hobby? Tell reasons for what ever you choose.

I think I'd like to be paid to write reviews, but I wonder if the pressure to churn out a certain amount of reviews in a given period of time would take away from the enjoyment of actually reading the books. If I could continue at my regular pace, picking & choosing the books I want to read, and get paid for the reviews I write, then definitely yes! However, if I was told what to read and had specific deadlines, I'd probably decline. Of course, if the money was really good, I could be persuaded. ;)

Would you recommend those to your friends and how?

Depending on their reading preferences, I enjoy recommending books to my friends and family. Either face-to-face or via this blog.

If you have already done something like this, link it to your post.

I have several nonfiction reviews here.

Please don't forget to link back here or whoever tags you.

Since this is another meme that's been circulating for quite some time now, I won't tag anyone else. Feel free to join the fun, if you like.

Eva's Reading Meme

I'm finally getting around to Eva's Reading Meme that Heather tagged me for back in January!

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

I don't know if there are any that I am purposely avoiding, but there are a few that I've been holding off on -- Water for Elephants, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I've heard such good things about these books, but I'm afraid they might be over-hyped at this point. I still plan to read them. Just not sure when.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Oh, this was a tough question! I'll go with a dinner party with Odd Thomas (from Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series), Maggie (the ACLU attorney from Jodi Picoult's upcoming release, Change of Heart) and Agnes (from Mary Doria Russell's upcoming release, Dreamers of the Day). There's no particular reason why I chose this combination of characters. I simply like all three and think it'd be an entertaining evening to sit around and chat with them.

By the way,
I thought my husband's answers were rather interesting. He'd choose Ishmael (from Moby Dick), Yossarian (from Catch-22), and Count Dracula (from...well, you know).

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Ugh. Moby Dick.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

Hmmm, I don't think I've ever claimed to have read something I haven't. But there may be a guilty pleasure or two that I'd deny ever having read. :)

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

Pretty sure this hasn't happened either.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (If you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP.)

Although it might be a little difficult for a non-reader to get interested in (at least initially), I'd suggest The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It's my all-time favorite book and one that I feel everyone should read.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Oh, probably French since that's what I took in high school. I still remember bits and pieces, but certainly not enough to read an entire book!

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

Oh, this is so tough! There are so many great books that I'd love to read again, but every year?? Well, since I don't want to use The Book Thief again, I'll go with Beach Music by Pat Conroy. No, wait! The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art - anything)?

I've started reading more science fiction (thanks to Carl's challenges) and nonfiction (thanks to Joy's challenge).

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Well, it would have to have lots of comfortable chairs and couches so I could invite all my book-loving friends over to chat about their recent reads. It needs to have lots of windows to let in the sunshine and a large stone fireplace against one wall for those cold winter days. The shelves would be constructed of natural wood with plenty of extra space for plants and photographs. I would prefer to have only trade paperbacks since I don't really care for mass markets and hardcovers. I'd have one section of the room for all the books I've read (and wish to keep) and another section for all those waiting to be read. I'd also have a special bookcase for books that have been signed.

And now, let’s say everyone has to tag four people. I tag…

I'm pretty sure everyone in my blogroll has already participated in this meme, but if not, please feel free to do so!

February 19, 2008

Author Interview - Patricia Wood

Patricia Wood

Paperback due out on June 3rd!

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Patricia Wood about her debut novel, Lottery. Not only did Lottery make my Top Ten list for 2007, but it was my favorite work of fiction for the entire year. I have enjoyed getting to know Pat through her blog and website, and after exchanging numerous emails during the past few months, I've learned a great deal about Pat as a writer and Pat as a friend. No, I didn't get to fly out to Hawaii for the interview, but maybe we can work something out when her second book is published. Just need to convince my husband that it's a business trip. ;)

LS: I remember my high school composition teacher telling the class to "write what you know." You bring quite a bit of personal knowledge to Lottery: Your father won the Washington State Lottery in 1993 ($6 million), your former brother-in-law has Down syndrome, and you live aboard your 48-foot ketch. How much additional research was involved in writing Lottery?

PW: I talked to lawyers who specialized in guardianship and who knew about powers of attorney and discussed with them how best to rip someone off -- especially a person who was considered developmentally disabled. That was quite interesting. Although I am a competent sailor, I had my cruiser friends look over my manuscript. I traveled to Everett and checked out where my "imaginary" marina could be located. It is always annoying to me when someone writes a book and doesn't check details like this. I even had to check to make sure that Keith could legally date Cherry.

LS: Were there any surprises along the way to publication?

PW: Just getting published was a huge surprise! This whole thing has happened so fast and furious and has felt so "meant to be."

I guess one thing is -- I hadn't known how important book sellers were to the whole process. I thought that if a book was good the audience/readers would find it -- but often times how a book is received and marketed can be so serendipitous. Sometimes good books just get lost.

LS: What do you know now that you wish you had known then?

PW: Nothing! If I had known half the things about how difficult it was to be published I never would have tried! I'm glad I was ignorant.

LS: Do you have a favorite character? Scene?

PW: Besides Perry, I simply LOVE Keith. He's just so wonderful. I love to think that Cherry would have been the making of him. My favorite scene was him and Cherry dancing in the moonlight, obviously in love, and Perry looking down and realizing that Cherry loves Keith and not him. It was so bittersweet.

LS: Which was the most difficult scene to write? Which was the easiest?

PW: I think the hardest were all the scenes with the family. Showing the reader what was going on but keeping Perry in the dark. I had to figure out a literary strategy that could make that happen. I really struggled with that. I also wanted to show the family in not such a stereotypical way - however, I was stymied by the fact that Perry would SEE them that way. He saw things in black and white and often times made assumptions. Policemen are good. Bad guys are creepy. Businessmen are honest.

LS: What do you hope readers gain from reading Lottery?

PW: I really hope they consider what it is like to be marginalized by our society. I hope they slow down and look around and see people for who they are and not make assumptions. I hope they consider that those who have cognitive challenges are capable of so much more than many think. I certainly hope that if they are asked to vote in favor of a group home in their neighborhood they will do so. I hope people will donate to Goodwill - an organization that does a tremendous amount for those with developmental disabilities.

LS: If Perry owned an iPod, what would be on his playlist?

PW: Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach (Gramps' music), Patsy Cline and Chet Atkins (Gram's music), The Smashing Pumpkins and Train (Cherry's music), The Beatles (Gary's music). Remember, Perry said he likes all kinds of music.

LS: There are four versions of cover art for Lottery (North America, United Kingdom, Dutch and Swedish). Do you have a favorite?

PW: I really like the Swedish cover. The man looks so free and happy.

LS: If the movie rights are optioned, who would you like to see play Perry? Keith? Gram?

PW: Unknowns would not be bad. I feel Jake Gyllenhaal would be great for Perry, but then I think Steve Carrel would also be good. I would love to have Jeff Bridges play Keith and I wish Jessica Tandy were alive to play Gram...

LS: What is your favorite thing about writing? Least favorite?

PW: My favorite thing would be the creativity: making up stories. I don't really have a least favorite, as I enjoy revisions and editing in different ways. I do wish I could run away to a perfectly quiet retreat where meals were left on my doorstep and my room was miraculously cleaned by someone else every day and then I could just write! I will say it is easier for men as they have wives who think about dinner and laundry and housework. Actually...I need a wife!

LS: I'm already someone else's wife, but I'll come cook for you! I've even had recent experience cooking in a galley.

LS: What are you currently working on?

PW: My new project is about achieving the impossible.
It has a boy with a dream.
A mechanic with a secret.
An aunt with regrets.
A ghost.
And a horse.

LS: Sounds intriguing! I can hardly wait!

LS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

PW: I have always written. I didn't know it was possible for me to be an author until I turned 50.

LS: Which authors have most influenced your work?

PW: John Irving. Nancy Mitford. Dorothy Sayers. Walter Farley. (I hate this question, as I always leave out somebody obvious!) I have read voraciously throughout my entire life and will read anything. Oh and I LOVE The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham.

LS: Do you find time to read for pleasure every day?

PW: No. I read every day but not necessarily for pleasure.

LS: What books are currently on your nightstand?

PW: The screenplay of Little Miss Sunshine. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Out Stealing Horses by a wonderful Norwegian author whom I can't for the life of me remember and I am too lazy to go back to my aft cabin and look. [Editor's note: That would be Per Petterson.]

LS: What were some of your favorite books as a child?

PW: Everything by Marguerite Henry. Justin Morgan Had a Horse. The Godolphin Arabian (Eugene Sue). I loved Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, Pippi Longstocking and The Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka, The Red Pony. Anything with animals, especially horses. I also read Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and history books about World War II.

LS: Does the success and popularity of your first novel make you more or less anxious - or excited, if you will - when it comes to the release of your second novel?

PW: No. If anything it has calmed me down and made me more deliberate. I do not want to let my readers down. I want them to read my next book and be satisfied that they have found an author whom they enjoy reading and have them look forward to my third book.

LS: As I mentioned earlier, you and your husband live aboard your boat in Hawaii. I can't tell you how envious that makes my husband (and me -- sort of!). My 75-year-old father and stepmother just moved ashore after 15 years on their 48-foot Richardson on Lake Union, Washington. Do you see yourself moving ashore anytime soon?

PW: Probably not. I am living where I love to live. Doing what I love to do -- but the minute that is not the case, I will change.

LS: Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule to chat with me. Wish I could've done the interview in person!

PW: So do I!! Aloha.

I'd also like to thank Becky for giving me permission to borrow some of her interview questions!

February 16, 2008


River by Lowen Clausen
Contemporary Fiction
2008 Silo Press
Finished on 2/3/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Book Description

From a remote corner of a vanishing American landscape, a bereaved father begins a journey down the river that has been all but inseparable from his life. At the river’s origin the shallow stream courses through the ranch where he was born. It is where he fell in love the first time and where the ashes of his son have been poured.

"Now, before it’s too late, before I lose the will to do anything, I am leaving this land to follow the sticks I dropped into the river so long ago." But this man’s passage along the interlacing rivers to the ocean will not be simple or disconnected from the life he leaves behind. His estranged son’s last angry words echo in his memory, and despite moments of pure concentration on the waters ahead, the solitary voyager finds the past seeping into his thoughts and dreams.

In River, novelist Lowen Clausen has created a story of deep beauty and seriousness, in which he weaves together the complex threads of one man’s search for wholeness. Clausen’s rich, elegiac prose becomes its own landscape and river, transporting the reader on a journey through despair and doubt into discovery.

I have lived in Nebraska since 1992 and I have yet to see the Sandhills. However, as I read Lowen Clausen's evocative novel, I came to know those Sandhills like I know the beaches of San Diego, as though I'd been born and raised in western Nebraska instead of in Southern California.

Like Clausen's main character, John, I too have lost a child. And, I too own a kayak. But I have never once contemplated a trip down a series of Midwestern rivers, ultimately winding up in the Gulf of Mexico! The dangerous currents, barges, and weather are enough to keep me on the calm waters of our local lakes. Yet I still enjoyed this remarkable story. If 19 sticky notes is an indication of a good book, this one certainly qualifies.

The sunrise is long in coming. First there is a softening of the darkness, a gray tinge that dims the stars above the eastern horizon, then a pink glow that seeps through. It turns into a swath of yellow as if the sun will fill the whole sky, but it doesn't. It concentrates into a sphere of gold that rises above the sandhills and hurts my eyes.

Weariness weighs down my body as I get up from the riverbank and drag the kayak closer to the water. Her name is Gloria, and the idea of a journey with her has gotten me through one day after another. For months I've been planning this trip, buying equipment and supplies and storing them in the barn beside Gloria. Now that the day is here, the anticipation of leaving is gone and I feel empty.

Once more I look across the river into the hills as if I won't see them again. The coarse grasses along the bank of the river are green, but the rolling sandhills hold the dead brown of last year's growth. There are no trees on the hills and few even beside the river except at this place where the creek wanders down from the beaver dam to join it. Here willows cling to the bank and cottonwood trees have rooted in the low spots behind them. The willows are beginning to form new leaves, but the cottonwoods wait for more certain weather.

I push Gloria into the water and draw her close to the bank. The current pulls impatiently.

Clausen kept my interest in spite of the necessarily introspective tale of one's man's journey. The narrator's story slowly unwinds, keeping pace with the current of the rivers, slowly revealing the past through memories and thoughts. As John travels down Nebraska's Loup and Platte Rivers, picking up the Missouri and finally the Mississippi, I found myself recognizing various points of interest throughout his voyage: Brownville, NE ("This is a nice little town, but there ain't much here. We're getting a new bookstore though. Got a Greek name I can't pronounce. It's mostly for the tourists, I guess.") -- Rod and I visited the Lyceum Bookstore last summer; Indian Cave State Park, NE; Lexington and Saint Louis, MO; Memphis, TN; Vicksburg, MS (a fellow book-blogger lives here!). While I enjoyed my armchair-view of this journey, I can't begin to imagine the physical (and emotional) toil one must endure to travel such a distance with only a few changes of clothing, food fit only for Boy Scouts, and virtually no companionship. Clausen's vivid, yet at times elegiac, prose will appeal to fans of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. Fans of Huck Finn and Tom Saywer (with a keen sense of adventure) will also appreciate Clausen's lyrical writing.

This is a leisurely read, yet one that has made me anxious for warmer kayaking weather. Quite a joy to read!

February 13, 2008

Two Year Blog Anniversary

And the lucky winner is... JACKIE!!!! Please send me your mailing address (via my email that is listed in my Blogger profile) and I'll get your Barnes & Noble gift card in the mail tomorrow. Congratulations and thank you for visiting my blog!

It’s important to have a sense of place. To feel that you belong somewhere, to feel committed. For some people, place begins with another person and everything – from friends to the Japanese maple in the yard – grows from that. But sometimes, it works the other way. You find a place where you belong. And the people find you. Gathering mussels, picking beans, eating blackberry pie. (author unknown)

During the past two years, I have found a place where I belong. I love sharing my thoughts about the books I've read, the places I've visited, the beauty in nature, and the new music I've discovered. And, I've discovered so many new authors and books thanks to all of you fabulous bloggers. My life is richer since I began blogging and I've met so many intelligent, funny, and kind new friends. I simply can't imagine ever giving this up! So here's to many, many more years of friendship and books.

As a big thank you for your loyal readership and comments, I would like to offer a gift of appreciation. Leave a comment between now and Sunday night and I'll have my husband draw names from a hat. The winner will receive a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card.

Good friends
good books --
we want to
hang on to

February 9, 2008

A Month In Review - January ('08)

I had a great month of reading in January! There were several high ratings (a few that have a very strong chance of making it on my Top Ten list for 2008) and only a couple of disappointments. Nice way to kick-off the New Year, don't you think?

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

The Face of Death by Cody McFayden (4.5/5)

I Am Legend by Richard Matteson (2/5)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (4/5)

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (4.5/5)

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell (4.5/5)

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (2/5)

Favorite of the month: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

Books Read 6
Male Authors 5
Female Authors 1
New-To-Me Authors 4
Audio 0
Fiction 6
Nonfiction 0
Historical Fiction 1
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 1
Sci-Fi 2
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Series 1
Re-read 0
Challenge 2
Mine 4
Borrowed 2
Gift 0

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

February 5, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
Contemporary Fiction
Copyright 2007
Finished 1/30/08
Rating: 2/5 (Below Average)

Book Description

Stewart O’Nan has been called “the bard of the working class” and has now crafted a frank and funny yet emotionally resonant tale set within a vivid workaday world seldom seen in contemporary fiction.

Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, The Red Lobster hasn’t been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With only four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he’s wondering how to handle the waitress he’s still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at home, and the perfect present he still needs to buy.

Last Night at the Lobster is a poignant yet redemptive look at what a man does when he discovers that his best might not be good enough.

Like most teenagers of my generation, my first real job was in the food industry; Carl's Jr., to be precise. I had been babysitting for relatives and neighborhood families since I was 11, but I was tired of crying babies and $2.50 an hour and decided to give the restaurant biz a try. My older brothers were making much better money working in real restaurants. (You know. The kind where the wait staff seats you and brings the food to your table in return for a nice tip!) David had worked at Smitty's Pancake House, as well as Sizzler; Neal and Mark both worked for Marie Callender's. (Mmmmmm. The day-old strawberry pies they got to bring home were such a treat!) Ok, I admit it. Working in a real restaurant was too intimidating for this klutz. What if I mixed up an order? What if I tripped carrying one of those huge trays of food?! (How do they carry those things??) Chris wound up at McDonald's, so I opted for Carl's, since it was less than a mile from our house -- close enough to ride my bike when I couldn't borrow Mom's car.

I enjoyed my three- or four-year stint at good 'ol Carl's. The crew felt like a close-knit family, complete with the favorites, not-so-favorites, and annoying siblings. And, of course there were the "regulars" that I can still remember like it was yesterday: The homeless man who came in every morning, absolutely filthy; matted, dirty hair and dirty hands that looked like they were tan, they were so covered with grime. He had a wild, crazy look about him and never said a word other than to place his order: One coffee and 8 sugar packets. He would count out his money, all dirty pennies and dimes, yet always enough for his order. We took pity on this man and occasionally pitched in to buy him a breakfast or lunch. He never made eye contact, wandering off into the dining area to drink cup after cup of coffee (refills were free) until he disappeared 'til the next time. I think he lived under the freeway overpass near my house...

And then there was the charming elderly couple who came in every morning, holding hands while they ordered their usual pancake breakfast and coffee. (He took his with two creamers, but didn't like them to be cold so we took them out of the dairy fridge when we opened at 6 am.) They would always chat with the morning crew, talking about the weather or their grandkids. They were the epitome of a happily-ever-after and I hoped to someday marry someone who would grown old along with me just like they had.

And as long as I live, I'll never forget the young woman with a cute, chubby little baby boy. He had the prettiest blond hair and huge blue eyes. We all loved to make him smile and laugh, and oohed and aahed over his first teeth and steps across the lobby floor. Such a happy little guy. And of course, we all loved to slip an extra hamburger or milk in his mama's bag since we knew she too was homeless. We all worried about her and the baby when they missed a day or two, wondering where they were and if they were warm enough. (Yes, it gets cold in San Diego!) It just occurred to me that that little baby is now somewhere around 30 years old! I wonder what ever became of him and his mama...

I had some good times at Carl's. Ate too many Famous Stars with Cheese (hold the pickles and onions), but it was fun, especially when someone called out, "We've got a bus!" There was a great sense of camaraderie, and while I don't remember too many of my co-workers' names, I do remember sitting back in the break room, gossiping or complaining about a customer, employee or corporate rules. I remember going home after closing, so wound up I couldn't fall asleep for hours. (So, of course I read.) I remember the stink of grease on my polyester uniform and the God-awful hairnet and hat we were required to wear. I remember learning how to do the supply order and how cold that walk-in freezer got when you had to spend 10 or 15 minutes inside, working the inventory numbers. (And trying not to worry about getting locked in and wondering if I was strong enough to use the ax that was mounted on the wall. Come to think of it, what was I supposed to chop, exactly? The door was metal!). I also remember when one of the assistant managers came rushing around to the back-line after close only to step right into a hot vat of fryer grease! Fortunately, I wasn't working that shift. I don't do well in emergencies and that would have been horrific.

So you'd think Last Night at the Lobster would resonate more strongly with me and score a much higher rating than I've given it. Unfortunately, slim as it is (146 pages), I was constantly flipping to the end to see how much more I had to slog through to get to the last page. Clich├ęd characters that failed to evoke any feelings of sympathy (along with a thin plot) left me hoping for something much more substantial. Maybe you really do have to have worked in a real restaurant to appreciate this book. I have a few friends who thought it was very good, so don't be too quick to dismiss it. You can probably read it over a nice slice of pie and coffee at your local diner!

February 2, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Historical FictionCopyright 2008
Finished on 1/22/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
ARC - Tentative On-Sale Date: March 4, 2008

Book Description

“I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: My little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”

So begins the account of Agnes Shanklin, the charmingly diffident narrator of Mary Doria Russell’s compelling new novel, Dreamers of the Day. And what is Miss Shanklin’s “little story?” Nothing less than the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world—and of our own.

A forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic, Agnes has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes, with her plainspoken American opinions—and a small, noisy dachshund named Rosie—enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Neither a pawn nor a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. It also makes her unexpectedly attractive to the charismatic German spy Karl Weilbacher. As Agnes observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue and toward a personal awakening.

With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines. As enlightening as it is entertaining, Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.

About the AuthorMary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, Children of God, and A Thread of Grace. Her novels have won nine national and international literary awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the American Library Association Readers Choice Award. The Sparrow was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year, and A Thread of Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

When I heard that Mary Doria Russell had a new book coming out this spring, I did a Snoopy-dance for joy! I met Mary (yes, I like to think that we're on a first-name basis, although I highly doubt she would recognize me in a crowd) ten years ago this summer at a small book conference in Cleveland. I had just read her first novel, The Sparrow; probably the first science fiction book I'd ever read—well, with the exception of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (which I read back in junior high in 1975). I loved The Sparrow (it remains one of my all-time favorites) and was thrilled to meet the author at such an intimate gathering. When I heard about Dreamers of the Day, I decided to send Ms. Russell an email and see if I could possibly get an Advanced Reader Copy. Well, in addition to a lovely response, I was thrilled to receive a copy of the Advanced Uncorrected Proofs of the novel. (Is this different than an ARC?) I felt quite honored and didn't want to let the book languish on my shelves as so many other ARCs have been known to do in this house. With a couple of long flights to (and from) Virginia Beach pending, I knew this would be just the book to pack in my carry-on.

I began the book a couple of nights before our departure, not wanting to start en route, as that's always a bit distracting and I wanted to be eager to resume my reading once we took off. I was far enough along to feel a sense of anticipation as we boarded the plane in Omaha, anxious to settle into my seat and my book! My poor husband. Throughout the entire flight to Dallas and then on to Norfolk, I kept interrupting his own reading with exclamations of enthusiasm: "This is such a good book!" "What a great read!" "Have I told you how wonderful this book is?" "Did you know this?" "Were you aware of that?" "Hey, you've got to read this passage!" And on and on and on.

I must confess, I'm a bit relieved that I wound up enjoying this book as much as I did. When I first read the plot description (and Mary's comments in her email to me), I was a bit intimidated by the subject matter. I am not well-versed in the history of the Middle East history or in its politics. As a matter of fact, I'm quite ignorant of most of the history of that region. However, I got so wrapped up in Agnes' story, I found myself zipping along through all the factual information, eager to learn and understand more about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. Of course I had heard of T.E. "Lawrence of Arabia", but had no idea he'd been involved in the creation of the modern Middle East (along with Winston Churchill and Lady Gertrude Bell). There were a few instances in which I felt a bit confused by some of the historical facts, but I decided to sit back, continue reading, and not try to turn the reading into a history lesson. Having said that, my copy of the book is full of Post-It flags and highlighted passages. I am actually considering a re-read of the novel when it comes out in hardcover, as I'd love to own a real copy of the book. Now that I know the fictional side of the book, I'd like to focus more on the facts. In addition to a re-read, I plan to read Janet Wallach's bio of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen and Assignment: Churchill by Walter H. Thompson (Churchill's bodyguard during that period). I'm also considering a read of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry. I was quite intrigued by the details about the influenza epidemic in Russell's novel. And finally, if I'm ever feeling bold enough to further educate myself, I might just have to read A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin (although after a quick skim of this earlier today, it might be a bit dense). And, now that I think of it, I should add Lawrence of Arabia to my Netflix queue!

Dreamers of the Day has a bit of everything: history, romance, humor, even a bit of mystery. As with The Sparrow, the characters and situations will remain in my memory for years to come. Kudos, Ms. Russell! You've got yourself another winner! Nice to see I have something for my Top Ten of 2008 so early in year.

To read an excerpt from the book or for book tour information, go here.