June 26, 2008

Inspiration of the Day

This video never ceases to bring a smile to my face. I think it's because in this day and age of war, famine, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, fires and every other unimaginable disaster, accompanied by overwhelming sadness and despair, I love to see the children laugh and smile. I could watch it every morning with my cup of coffee. Thanks, Matt!

To learn more about this video, go here.

To see Matt's video outtakes, go here. Some of the captions are hilarious.

(Shamelessly stolen from Random Wonder.)

June 23, 2008

The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Science Fiction
Arthur C. Clarke Award
1996 Fawcett Columbine Book (Ballantine Publishing Group)
Finished on 6/17/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Product Description

"A NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT . . . Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense."
--USA Today

"AN EXPERIENCE NOT TO BE MISSED . . . If you have to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? How about four Jesuit priests, a young astronomer, a physician, her engineer husband, and a child prostitute-turned-computer-expert? That's who Mary Doria Russell sends in her new novel, The Sparrow. This motley combination of agnostics, true believers, and misfits becomes the first to explore the Alpha Centuri world of Rakhat with both enlightening and disastrous results. . . . Vivid and engaging . . . An incredible novel."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"POWERFUL . . . Father Emilio Sandoz [is] the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, 'a soul . . . looking for God.' We first meet him in Italy . . . sullen and bitter. . . . But he was not always this way, as we learn through flashbacks that tell the story of the ill-fated trip. . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"SMOOTH STORYTELLING AND GORGEOUS CHARACTERIZATION . . . Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them."
--Entertainment Weekly

I have three brothers, so naturally I was outnumbered when it came to voting on television shows when we were growing up. Forget The Partridge Family, Family Affair, or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I got stuck watching episode after episode of Star Trek. I think that's when I decided I hated science fiction! I never ventured into the Sci-Fi section at the library or book store and honestly, I just couldn't understand the appeal.

Well, if it hadn't been for my online book group choosing The Sparrow back in 1997, I may have not only missed out on one of the best books I've ever read, but I would've remained stubborn about science fiction in general. Fortunately, I have gained a great appreciation for the genre and have gone on to read several more books, leaning heavily on the post-apocalyptic theme (as well as becoming a huge Battlestar Galactica fan). I initially thought The Sparrow was the first science fiction book I'd ever read, but then I remembered I'd read (and loved) Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine back in seventh grade. I also have a vague recollection of borrowing my brother's copies of Logan's Run and The Adromeda Strain, which I think I enjoyed as well, although the details are a bit fuzzy.

It's been over a decade since I first read The Sparrow and as with most of my favorite books, I'd been meaning to read it again for several years, but kept putting it off for something I hadn't read yet. When it came time to nominate a science fiction title for my face-to-face book club, I decided the time had come. I was very happy when the group voted to read it this past month. More importantly, I am happy to say that it withstood the test of time! It was just as enjoyable as the first reading. Maybe even more so since I wasn't rushing through the chapters, eager to see where the story was leading me. I read more slowly and paid much more attention to all the details. I was actually a bit surprised that I had forgotten so many! I was fairly certain of a few important plot points, but as it turned out, I had forgotten the specifics and was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. It was almost like reading a new novel. However, the extrapolation of technology that had so intrigued me back in '97 wasn't quite as exciting this time around. Laptops and PDAs are such a big part of our lives now that I barely noticed the mention of similar devices in the book. Yet, in spite of the lack of technological thrills, I fell back in love with all the characters. It felt almost like a reunion of sorts, visiting with old friends of whom I'd grown so very fond.

The Sparrow wound up on my Top Ten list back in 1997 and everyone on my Christmas list received a copy that year. When I went to work for Borders Books & Music in Fort Worth, the book became one of my favorite titles to recommend (to customers and employees). I had recently returned from a small book conference in Cleveland where I met Mary Doria Russell and I was eager to tell customers about her upcoming sequel and the news of a possible movie (which, unfortunately, still remains to be filmed).

If you're one of those people (as I was) who swear they'll never read any science fiction, don't be too quick to dismiss this remarkable book. The author has created some wonderful characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. The writing is both captivating and provacative, not to mention quite funny here and there. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't love it.

June 10, 2008

Catching Up

Time to catch up.

First and foremost, thank you all for your good thoughts and prayers for my brother. He's doing very well. For those of you who didn't see my reply to the comments on my post, I'll give you the Cliffs Notes version. The surgeon was able to remove the entire tumor (which was benign). However, it encapsulated the auditory nerve, so Mark lost all hearing in his left ear. He's been home now for almost two weeks and is taking it easy. He's still a bit fatigued and has some balance issues, but he's cracking jokes and sounds very upbeat. It was great to be out with my family in San Diego. I think it's been close to 8-10 years since my last visit. I spent most of my time at the hospital, but I did manage to get a long walk in at the beach in Del Mar. I also managed to eat Mexican food at almost every meal. Love those fish tacos at Rubio's!

By the way, that blog entry about Mark's surgery received the most comments of all my posts. You all are such a caring group of people and I'm honored to know each and every one of you! Thank you.

Bellezza honored me with another award almost two months ago!

Thank you, dear friend, and shame on me for failing to pass on your kind gesture. I was so touched by all the comments posted about my brother (as well as all the virtual hugs on May 28th) that I would like to extend this Blogging Friends Forever award to each and every one of you.

Spring must be my lucky season. Not only did I get the BFF award, but I won this darling apron from Kristen's Dine and Dish blog. I've been reading Kristen's blog for quite some time (I've accumulated a huge stack of recipes to sample) and was so surprised to win the contest. I love the apron and will try to remember to have my hubby snap a picture next time I'm wearing it. Thanks again, Kristen! Your blog rocks!

The stormy weather has been unbelievable this past month. Not only did we have all those tornadoes I mentioned a week or so ago, but we had another big storm come through last Wednesday, just to the north of Lincoln. The sirens went off and we headed to the basement. I think there were four tornadoes that night. And early Sunday morning, one touched down in West Omaha. Crazy weather. I heard that Snoqualmie Pass got 7 inches of snow last night. In June! Go figure, eh?

I've been putting together a list for a new end cap at work and was so pleased with the numbers for my current display. Here's a picture of what's currently up:

Click on the picture to enlarge.

Here's a list of the books:

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg

Durable Goods by Elizabeth Berg

Joy School by Elizabeth Berg

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

Wish You Well by David Baldacci

Boy's Life by Robert McCammon

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Yellow Raft on Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I've read Durable Goods, Joy School, Yellow Raft on Blue Water, The Secret Life of Bees and Some Things That Stay twice. It's been quite a while since I read Boy's Life, so maybe I'll add that to my towering stack of summer reading.

The best-selling of all of these books has been Fannie Flagg's Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. I think a lot of readers missed it when it was first published in 1992. It's such a fun read! Definitely another to re-read later this summer.

Stay cool and safe!

June 6, 2008

A Month In Review - May ('08)

May is typically not one of my better months for reading, but glancing back at April's list, I did pretty much the same last month. Finished four and gave up on one. I think my days of eight books a month are over, at least as long as I'm working.

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Summer Blowout by Claire Cook (4/5)

Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman (3.5/5)

The Space Between Before and After by Jean Reynolds Page (DNF)

Stone Creek by Victoria Lustbader (3.5/5)

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton (3.5/5)

Favorite of the month: Summer Blowout by Claire Cook

Books Read 4
Male Authors 1
Female Authors 3
New-To-Me Authors 3
Audio 0
Fiction 4
Nonfiction 0
Historical Fiction 0
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Series 0
Re-read 0
Challenge 0
Mine 3
Borrowed 1
Gift 0

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

June 4, 2008

The Wednesday Sisters

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Contemporary Fiction
2008 Ballantine Books
Finished on 5/28/08
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
ARC - Due out on June 17

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost

Product Description

Friendship, loyalty, and love lie at the heart of Meg Waite Clayton’s beautifully written, poignant, and sweeping novel of five women who, over the course of four decades, come to redefine what it means to be family.

For thirty-five years, Frankie, Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally have met every Wednesday at the park near their homes in Palo Alto, California. Defined when they first meet by what their husbands do, the young homemakers and mothers are far removed from the Summer of Love that has enveloped most of the Bay Area in 1967. These “Wednesday Sisters” seem to have little in common: Frankie is a timid transplant from Chicago, brutally blunt Linda is a remarkable athlete, Kath is a Kentucky debutante, quiet Ally has a secret, and quirky, ultra-intelligent Brett wears little white gloves with her miniskirts. But they are bonded by a shared love of both literature – Fitzgerald, Eliot, Austen, du Maurier, Plath, and Dickens – and the Miss America Pageant, which they watch together every year.

As the years roll on and their children grow, the quintet forms a writers circle to express their hopes and dreams through poems, stories, and, eventually, books. Along the way, they experience history in the making: Vietnam, the race for the moon, and a women’s movement that challenges everything they have ever thought about themselves, while at the same time supporting one another through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.

Humorous and moving, The Wednesday Sisters is a literary feast for book lovers that earns a place among those popular works that honor the joyful, mysterious, unbreakable bonds between friends.

I was chatting with my next door neighbor last weekend and she mentioned that when her children were little, she and several other mothers in the neighborhood would get together for coffee every morning. The woman who lived in our house back in those days would hang a quilt (decorated with a coffee cup) out on the front porch to invite the other mothers to stop by for coffee and a visit. Oh, how I would've loved to have had a group of friends to get together with when I was a young mother. I was a single mom, working and going to school, so we missed out on the whole playgroup thing. It wasn't until my daughter was in 3rd grade that I became a stay-at-home mom, but by that time we were living on an acreage, far removed from a neighborhood full of other young families. I was always a bit envious of those moms who got together on a regular basis, sharing advice on teething, potty-training, and how to deal with a picky eater. However, I did have a couple of very good friends to whom I could turn with my questions, as well as offering my own helpful suggestions when asked. I don't know how any young mother can survive those early years without the love and support of at least one good friend.

Over the years, I've learned that friends come and go, especially when one moves around as much as I have. However, I still keep in touch (though not as often as in years past) with maybe a half-dozen friends that I knew from school. I have about the same number of very good friends who live nearby. Each is the kind of friend who would drop everything and rush to my aid if I needed them - even in the middle of the night. I also have several close friends that I've come to know from online book groups (we now go back more than 10 years!), as well as all the wonderful people I've met since I began blogging two years ago. In many ways, these online groups are much like the gatherings of my neighbor's era. We chat about the weather and what we're reading, share tidbits of news about our children (and grandchildren), discuss our aches and pains and illnesses (our own and those of our loved-ones), and offer up virtual hugs and comfort when one of our pets, children or parents dies. So, between my face-to-face friends and my Internet friends, my life is richer than ever before, even in the absence of a front-porch coffee gathering occasioned by the hanging of a signal quilt.

Meg Waite Clayton offers a story of friendship and loyalty, set against the backdrop of the women's movement. I could easily have been a six-year-old daughter of one of the characters. I have a vague recollection of segregated want-ads and 18-year-olds gaining the right to vote, yet there is probably a lot about the women's movement that I take for granted. Clayton's passion for research is apparent, as she incorporates pop culture and historical facts throughout the narrative, and I enjoyed learning about how it felt to be a young woman and mother during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

I was a little put off by the cliché of yet another friendship book in which one woman has marital problems, another struggles to have a baby, and another faces a serious health issue. However, it was this particular character's illness that drew me deeper into the book, making me care just a little more than I had up to that point.

Recent "friendship books" have centered around book groups, so it was refreshing to read about a group of aspiring writers, thus getting a glimpse into the unfamiliar world of would-be novelists rather than the more familiar world of readers. I have never felt inspired to try my hand at writing a novel (no NaNoWriMo for me!), but I've always been intrigued by the way in which a novel comes to be. Like a beautiful painting, it almost seems like it's been magically created, rather than being the result of long, hard days of solitude and hard work performed under the omnipresent threat of (sometimes brutal) rejection.

The women in The Wednesday Sisters had an annual tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant, something I've never been a fan of and I can honestly say I've never watched it more than once (and don't have any lasting memory of any of it!). However, over the years, I've watched many hours of the Johnny Carson show, so it didn't surprise me that my favorite scene from the book was when the women got to attend one of his shows. I won't spoil the book with an explanation of why they were there, but it was definitely a highlight!

I know I've said it in other reviews, but I have to say once again that timing is everything. It's at times like this that I really hate rating a book. I should know by now that late May is not a good time for me to read anything of substance. I should either re-read an old favorite or continue with some lightweight mystery series. I should also know that sitting in a hospital waiting area or a room in ICU is not conducive to quality reading. Having said that, I believe this book has the potential to be a popular choice among reading groups, as well as one that friends will want to share with one another. It reminds us of the value of true friendship, without resorting to sappy sentimentality and stereotypes. Don't be put off by my middle-of-the-road rating. Lesa has written a lovely review that I encourage everyone to read. And honestly, how can anyone not like a book that includes the following epigram (from one of my favorite authors and book):

Where there is great love,
there are always miracles.
-- Willa Cather,
Death Comes for the Archbishop

Be sure to check out Meg's website! Someone's put a lot of effort into it and I enjoyed it both before and after reading the book.

June 1, 2008

Stone Creek

**Laura Knight is the winner of the give-away!**

Stone Creek by Victoria Lustbader
Contemporary Fiction
2008 HarperCollins
Finished on 5/18/08
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher's Description:

In a small town in upstate New York, a random meeting will offer hope and the chance of love for two lonely people.

Though he still grieves for the young wife he loved and lost, Danny, a widower, knows he must move on for the sake of Caleb, his five-year-old son. Lily has arrived at her summer house, determined to forget her yearning for a child while her high-powered workaholic husband, Paul, remains in New York.

When Lily and Danny meet while volunteering for a local charity, something immediate and undeniable happens between them. Neither one can ignore that Lily is married and ten years older than Danny, but it is Danny's son, Caleb, who continues to bring them together. Missing his mother, Caleb is growing attached to Lily, and neither Danny nor she wants to upset the delicate balance that holds the boy's happiness. But Danny and Lily find themselves, too, balancing on a high-wire act between happiness and despair.

Stone Creek is a novel of tremendous emotional impact that illuminates the power of love and loss to transform — and break — the human heart.

I'd never heard of Victoria Lustbader until I stumbled upon the ARC for Stone Creek. After reading the publisher's blurb on the back cover, I decided to give it a try, thinking it might be a good summer read. Having recently read Keeper and Kid (which also centers around a father raising a young son after the death of his wife), I was curious to see how this author would handle the issue of a husband's grief. While the plot had the potential of becoming quite sappy (say, along the lines of Danielle Steel or Nicholas Sparks), I was pleasantly surprised, deciding that it actually had more depth and style than I had expected, more like one of Anne Rivers Siddons' or Elizabeth Berg's works than something by Steel or Sparks. As with Berg's domestic descriptions, Lustbader's attention to detail enabled me to easily picture the characters and their individual settings, and I was immediately pulled into the story, finding myself looking for a free afternoon to get back to my reading (rather than pulling weeds or washing my filthy car!).

Lustbader is definitely an author I'll read again. Her previous novel, Hidden, sounds interesting, as does her work-in-progress, currently titled Approaching The Speed of Light. Stone Creek is sure to be a popular beach read and I plan to include it on my upcoming "What's In Your Beach Bag?" end cap at work. And, to help kick off the beginning of summer, I'm offering my Advanced Reader's Copy to one of you lucky blogophiles. Leave me a comment and I'll throw your name in the hat.