Friday, June 29, 2012

Vacation Book List

I realized today that I haven't officially recognized the start of summer on the blog yet. Hooray!

Usually, summer for me means travel time. Sometimes it's a few short trips, sometimes it's something bigger (like the cruise in Alaska last summer). Additionally, for the past 7 years, the end of August has always meant a week at the beach with family. Sadly, this year I'm staying close to home for most of July, and the whole family will be missing out on the Outer Banks since our week coincided with my due date. (I still feel horrible about this.)

But just because my vacation plans have been curbed doesn't mean that the rest of you will be staying home, so I thought I'd pass on my vacation book list: the compilation of literary elements that I always carefully select before a trip that's a week or longer. I usually choose about 5 books. If I'm going to the beach, I look for them in used bookstores (no point in getting sand in something that costs $12 or more) though I generally treat myself to one or two new releases. During the cruise last summer, I downloaded them to my Kindle to save space. You can also do combinations of the two: pack a couple of paperbacks, and if you don't have an e-reader, plan to buy a few on the way. Airport bookstores always have copies of the latest thrillers and romances, if nothing else, and many resorts and bed & breakfasts have rotating libraries.

Here's the list:

1. The latest novel by my favorite summer author. This varies year-to-year, but recent favorites have included Elin Hilderbrand and Kristin Hannah. Jane Green, Sophie Kinsella, Jen Lancaster and Mary Kay Andrews are always standbys.

2. A quick-read thriller. I usually grab the next sequel in the Women's Murder Club books by James Patterson. Note that I never, ever read these except at the beach. Vacation is also a good time to read Stephen King. If you're going to read things that scare you, it's best to do it when it stays light out longer.

3. Something more intellectual, like a history or sociology book. I admit, this is the one I'm least likely to finish by the end of the week, probably because they tend to be slower reads. But it always makes me feel a little more virtuous to bring it along.

4. A fluffy-but-fun chick lit book. I know I've said I hate that term, but I actually mean chick lit, not women's literature. The pastel-cover-featuring-dresses-and/or-cupcakes kind, featuring a heroine who is either plucky or confused about love, or both. I think the best ones I've read were Something Borrowed and Something Blue by Emily Giffin. (Of course, I only thought those were chick lit when I started reading them, but they turned out to have much more depth than expected.) A few summers ago, the Twilight series took the place of this category.

5. A work of really strong literature. This could either be something old (a re-read of Animal Farm or The Lord of the Rings) or something current (last summer's Room). I'm proud to say I generally read this one first.

Comedies, memoirs and biographies sometimes round out the list, but those are the basic components. Stuff a few magazines in the beach bag for good measure, and you've got yourself a vacation!

Oh, and don't forget to have a margarita for me!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

As a huge fan of The Office, I've been eyeing this memoir by Mindy Kaling, one of the head writers/ producers and actresses on the show, for many months now. Funnily enough, I apparently bought it in the Kindle store awhile back, and then forgot that I had it until I opened my Kindle to download the Laura Vanderkam e-book. So after I was done reading about what successful people do before breakfast, I read Kaling's success story- in a very different style, of course.

Kaling starts off the book by deferring to Tina Fey's memoir, Bossypants, saying that it's the better comedian's memoir and that no one can live up to Tina Fey. I'd say that's accurate. I liked this book- it was funny and interesting- but unlike Bossypants, I found it completely forgettable the moment I put it down. I think that's the test of a really great book- when you can't stop thinking about it days or weeks later. (There's a blog post idea!) Kaling's book didn't pass that test, but it was a fun, quick read.

If you are a fan of The Office, or comedy writers in general, you will probably enjoy this book. Kaling is much more snarky, quirky and edgy than her character Kelly Kapoor. She writes about her conservative Indian upbringing, her first forays into love of comedy, and the path she took to getting hired as the only female original writer on the staff of a hit show. She intersperses her life story with lists, brief anecdotes and jokes. It's all written in a smart, self-deprecating style.

Assessment: A good summer beach read.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Another Mini Gem by Ms. Vanderkam

Regular readers will all know by now that I'm a big fan of Laura Vanderkam (168 HoursAll the Money in the World). This is my third blog post about her in less than a year, which is more than I can say for any of my favorite fiction writers. I can't help it; she's current, she writes about things that interest me, and I'm addicted to her blog.

This time around, she's published a very short e-book called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. It cost me $2.99 at the Kindle store, and I read it in about half an hour.

After the success of All The Money..., Vanderkam has returned to her roots of time management and prioritization in this mini book. She writes about how crazy mornings can be for most people, especially people with children, and how much of an impact that late start to productivity has on the workday. She has located people who have even more crazy schedules than the average person, such as CEOs with multiple children and single mothers with demanding jobs, and analyzed what they do in the mornings to have a successful start to the day. She proves that prioritizing and letting go of specific activities in your mornings can help you get more accomplished, especially towards long-term or personal goals like running a marathon, learning a language or spending time in meditation or prayer. She gives evidence to the fact that mornings are the very best time to be productive, when we are well-rested and have a clear head; this is despite the fact that Vanderkam herself identifies strongly with the "night-owl" category, and ironically, wrote most of this book in the late evening hours. However, she does believe in the evidence she's collected, and practices what she preaches: she made changes to her own schedule so that despite having three very small children, a full-time writing career, and a husband who's often out of town, she still manages to go for a run, with or without a jogging stroller, every morning. That's her priority, and she's found a way to make it work.

As usual, Vanderkam's writing made me think about my own mornings and what I could be doing with them to be more productive. Luckily, I'm already a morning person; I generally don't have trouble getting out of bed and I feel good about accomplishing things right away. I sometimes struggle with what to do with that most productive time, though, because I find that I'm a better writer first thing in the morning, but I'm also a more consistent and energetic exerciser. Since exercise is a more ingrained habit for me, and since I find I'm much more apt to write in the evenings than I am to go to a late-afternoon Step class, exercise usually wins out in the mornings (though I can almost always take 5-10 minutes to write in my journal too). Now that school's out, and I have much longer mornings with few scheduled obligations, I can extend my time so I can get exercise AND writing done early on. I'm looking forward to two months of that luxury.

After that, I have no idea what's going to happen to my mornings. I assume, at least for the first several weeks, that my mornings and afternoons and evenings will just become a blur of sleeping and feeding, and attempting to take care of myself and the house. After the baby settles in a little more, though, I can't go back to the same routines; it's going to be much harder for me to use the mornings for anything selfish. Vanderkam acknowledges this too: she gave birth to a daughter last fall, and that trumped all of her morning habits for quite awhile. But she sees this as a temporary change, and feels confident that she will be able to get some time back for herself with a little creative maneuvering. I hope I can do that as well. I don't know nearly enough about mothering yet, but I do know myself, and I think I'll be a better mother if I can carve out a little time just for me: a bike ride, a walk, a few minutes to read or blog. Vanderkam proves to me that this is possible. I guess that explains why her work speaks so strongly to me right now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Every Town NOT Worth Knowing

After listening to this audiobook, I have a few things to say to the author, Lauren Weisberger.

Dear Ms. Weisberger,

I don't pretend to know anything about the world of New York socialites, fashion and PR. You are clearly well-versed in this environment, and you depict it well. However, I have to take issue with an important part of your book, Everyone Worth Knowing, in which you send your main character, Bette Robinson, up to my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY to visit her vegan, hippie, Vassar professor parents.

Ms. Weisberger, you may know Manhattan. But I would bet the deed to the Juliet theater/ pool hall/ future Vassar bookstore that you have never been to Poughkeepsie in your life.

Please note:

1. There is absolutely no earthly reason why a Poughkeepsie native would take a 4-hour bus from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie. Lady, it's called Metro North, and it takes 2 hours from Grand Central.

2. Bette's parents bought a bunch of "winter vegetables" for their Thanksgiving Harvest festival from the local "farmers market." As far as I know, there are no farmers markets open in Poughkeepsie in late November.

3. Someone from Poughkeepsie, speaking to other people from Poughkeepsie, would never refer to the Culinary Institute of America by its full name. It's "the Culinary" or "the CIA." Period.

4. Where the hell is this "famous" Starlight diner you refer to as the local high school hotspot? Okay, fine, maybe that's just a fictionalization. You have the right to do that. But why not choose an actual Poughkeepsie diner? We have plenty, and they all have a lot of character and varying degrees of good coffee.

Ms. Weisberger, I have to conclude that the only thing you know about Poughkeepsie, and the only reason you chose our town to depict, is the fact that it's the locale of Vassar College. And yes, Vassar's a big landmark and important institution. But there's a lot more to Poughkeepsie than a Seven Sisters school. I'm just sorry for you that you never bothered to learn about it.

After all, we're only a 2 hour train ride away.


Disappointed in Poughkeepsie

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Another Jane Austen knockoff

Jane Austen's work is very popular fodder for current fiction writers. The Jane Austen Book Club, Pemberley: Or Pride and Prejudice Continued... I know there's more, but I'm blanking on the titles right now. I read a romance novel awhile back based on Pride and Prejudice, featuring Elizabeth Bennet as a hotshot lawyer and Mr. Darcy as her not-so sober judge, but I can't remember what it's called.

Like most living, breathing, decently-educated women, I love Jane Austen. (Evidence: Sense and Sensibility.) This leads me to try some of these knockoff books every once in awhile. Sadly, I have not yet read one that comes close to living up to Jane Austen's name. Granted, those are pretty high stakes, but if the author is going to make the attempt, he or she can't complain that the bar is too high.  Last week I read this recent addition to the Jane Austen line:

Unfortunately, it proved just as disappointing as all the rest. In this book, Kate Shaw works as a writer/editor for a woman's magazine. Through several strokes of misfortune, she finds herself at forty years old, completely broke, temporarily out of work, up to her ears in her mother's gambling debts and mourning the loss of her beloved grandmother. While Kate is grasping at straws to get her life back together, a former boss suggests that she might try writing an article about landing a rich husband after the age of forty and despite the troubled economy. While initially scoffing at the idea- Kate is an "independent" sort of woman- she gradually starts to see her research for the article as a chance to make it happen for herself. She meets a billionaire at a polo match in Palm Beach who seems reasonably attractive and charismatic, and decides to throw herself at him. She pursues him from Florida to St. Moritz and finally to London, but along the way meets a few other men, both eligible and ineligible, that make her question her goal... right up until she's about to walk down the aisle. 

Where does the Jane Austen part come in? That's what I'd like to know. The ties to Austen are flimsy at best. Kate is described as an Austen fanatic who even painted her bedroom the same color as a country house in England. Her editor suggests that she use the Austen connection to show her readers that even centuries later, heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet could be role models for women wanting to "marry up." But Elizabeth Bennet was precisely the opposite role model. She didn't care about Mr. Darcy's wealth or position; in fact, she vehemently turned him down at first, only changing her mind when she fell in love with him as a person. Even her sister Jane married for love, with Mr. Bingley's estate a happy afterthought. Kate uses Austen as an excuse to behave in a revolting manner throughout the entire story, which to me makes the book much worse than if it were simply a flimsy story about a desperate, money-grubbing woman. 

Even taking Austen aside, it was a shallow and very predictable book. (The reader knows who she's going to end up with as soon as the character is introduced.) The character of Kate, originally depicted as a woman to admire, is degraded over and over to the point of nausea and no return. The only redeeming feature might be the characterizations of some of Kate's friends, particularly the frivolity of the wealthy divorcee/mentor Fawn, and the upstanding quietude of Kate's sister Ann, who turns out to be the real heroine of the story. 

So another Jane Austen knockoff disappoints. But I have heard wonderful things about P.D. James' mystery Death Comes to Pemberley. Perhaps, after a brief spell, I'll be willing to try an Austen spinoff again. Hope springs eternal...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

Even though I re-read this book last week, I've been procrastinating on this post because I love and admire the book so much, and I'm afraid I won't do it justice. But I suppose that's precisely why I need to write about it.

I read this book in high school, expecting a dull story about a subservient female. Instead, I was drawn into a futuristic world where the government is controlled by a Taliban-like Christian oligarchy. The Handmaids are women who have proven their ability to bear children, which is a rarity in this time, after polluted water and radiation began causing infertility and birth defects. Each Handmaid is assigned to a government official, or "Commander," and lives with him and his Wife in their household. Once a month, when the time is right, they perform the "Ceremony," in which the Handmaid lies between the Wife's legs while the Commander tries to impregnate her. Biblical parallels are drawn to Jacob lying with the his wife Rachel's maid to provide children for them. Handmaids are given a period of time with which to conceive; if they do not do so, they will be sent to the Colonies, where most die of radiation poisoning.

I began craving this book a few weeks ago, and after I finished it, I realized why: the women in this book are valued only as vessels for conception and birth. While I am not at all treated this way, there have been times recently when I felt defined by my pregnancy, and that part of me sympathized with the Handmaids in a way I was never able to understand during my previous reads.

There is so much to this book and its futuristic world that I would love to delve into, but it would take several posts to do it justice; whole college courses could be built upon it. Instead, I am going to give you some quotes from the book that should help illuminate the society's framework; the main character, Offred (Handmaids are known only as being "of" their Commander's name); and Margaret Atwood's insightful writing, remarkably free of judgement about the hellish government she portrays.

Offred describes the differences between the previous society (the United States as we know it, circa 1980s) and the current one:

"I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

The Handmaids wear red robes and white headdresses, with wings like blinders: "We have learned to see the world in gasps."

"We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices."

Offred was re-educated in a Center, governed by the Aunts, the highest possible post for women:

"You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make... For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.
She said: Because they won't want things they can't have."

And lastly:

"Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing."

Read this. It's the highest of top-shelf literature.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Author Addiction

I realized recently that it's been a long time since I've had an addiction to a particular author. Over the years, I've frequently read a book that I enjoyed so much that I immediately went out and located several other books by the same author. Agatha Christie is a prime example; I kept reading her mysteries one by one until I'd exhausted her entire oeuvre (minus the Miss Marple books, which I never took to). Jane Green was another author I sought out regularly in my early twenties. I'm still addicted enough to Sophie Kinsella/ Madeline Wickham (she writes under both names) that I'll immediately read any new book she releases. In the past few years, I've read a lot of Anita Shreve and Kristin Hannah throughout the school year, and Elin Hilderbrand during the summer (with the exception of The Island, which I read this spring on my Perfect Reading Day.) But I've been reading all of those authors for multiple years. It's been a long time since I found a new author that I loved enough to want to devour all of his or her books. Why?

I can only think of two possible reasons:

1. My taste in books, and therefore authors, has become much more discerning since I started educating myself on writing and analyzing my reading more thoroughly through this blog;
2. I'm getting lazy about trying new authors.

I hope it's mostly #1, though that still makes me sad, kind of like I'm in the advanced Flowers for Algernon state, and can't enjoy some of the sillier, less serious (though still with some merit) books out there. I think I do try to look for new authors (I did buy two new books from new authors this week), but maybe I'm not trying hard enough. Maybe if I adjusted more or even most of what I read to unfamiliar writers, I'd be more likely to hit on an exciting new find that I love. Or I might just get disappointed over and over again. But I think it's worth the risk. I love that feeling of connecting to a writer and not wanting each book to end. Maybe one day, someone will feel that way about me.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is it gift card-worthy?

Last night I spent a little time at Barnes and Noble picking out two new books. I've said before on this blog that I rarely buy books, and even more rarely pay full-price for them. I usually only shop for paperbacks once a year, right before our annual trip to the beach (which, sadly, I will not be taking this year, as our baby boy is due smack in the middle of our usual beach week). Even then, I buy most of my paperbacks at the Bookworm, my favorite used bookstore and site of The Book Miracle. In the past year, the only new books I've bought have been on my Kindle, and those are significantly cheaper than their three-dimensional versions.  As I've also mentioned before, my reasons for not buying physical books are 1. the cost of my reading addiction; 2. my love of the library; and 3. shelf space.

However, since my friends and my students know that I love to read, I often receive Barnes and Noble gift cards. Before last night, I was in possession of six of them, in varying amounts. (It was amusing handing one after another to the cashier to fulfill my total. And I still have three left.) As I've been itching for new reading material, it seemed like a good opportunity to spend a few of them. But shopping in Barnes and Noble proved to be a difficult experience. Why? I picked up book after book, and though a lot of them looked interesting, I just couldn't decide if they were gift card-worthy. If it had been a library, I would have walked out with at least twenty books that I thought were worth a try. But "worth a try" isn't good enough for me to spend money (or gift cards) on. I had to be pretty damn sure that I was going to like them enough to want them taking up my shelf space or lend them to my friends. And that's hard to evaluate based on a quick perusal of cover, synopsis and first page.

So I went with two books I'd heard of before last night: a novel my friend had looked at and emailed me about a few days ago, and a nonfiction social-study type book (one of my favorite genres) that I'd noticed several times in the last few months. I'm happy with my purchases, especially as I've already started the novel and am enjoying it. It's even by an author I've never read before, which is a nice bonus.

As a side note, besides reading the novel, I also watched some classic movies today (after the stressful few weeks at school, I was due for a relaxing afternoon). I was riveted by an old favorite, 12 Angry Men, based on the play by Reginald Rose and released in 1957. The writing in that movie/play is so damn good. The rise and fall of the dialogue, the way the juror's opinions and passions wax and wane, the way all the pieces of evidence come together in a way that feels completely organic, the fact that no names are used inside the jury room, even the fact that only a few minutes of the movie are spent outside the room- it's all pure genius. There's nothing like a well-written movie. (It's also well-directed and well-acted, but it's the writing that really stands out to me.)

I can't think of a clever line to bring this whole post together, so I'll just say goodnight to you all!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Clinton's Life

Hi everyone! It's been over a week since my last post. I've had a very busy week at work and haven't really had the creative headspace to think about blogging. I did, however, manage to finish two books this week, one on audio and one paperback. Tonight I'll give you my impressions of the audiobook, My Life by former POTUS Bill Clinton.

I liked listening to this book on audio because I've always enjoyed Bill Clinton's voice, with its soothing Southern overtones and passionate inflections. I did zone out a little while listening, though. There were some dry sections, particularly during the Arkansas governor years, and the rants about how the Far Right was always out to get him started to wear thin after awhile. But I was very interested to learn about his childhood, and also in the sequence of events during his campaign and presidency. I was fairly young when Clinton was president- only 11 when he was elected- and had no political interests whatsoever until I was out of college, so I wasn't aware of these events while they were in progress (with the obvious exception of the Monica Lewinsky/Kenneth Starr/impeachment circus). Other people my age might find these facts as intriguing as I did; those of you who lived through it with higher political consciousness may be more interested in hearing familiar events told through the lens of a very biased, very major player.

A few things I learned about Bill Clinton (that may be more common knowledge to others):

1. His grandfather was a role model of practicing racial equality during a time when segregation was the law of the South.
2. His first date with Hillary included sneaking into a closed art exhibit and then making amends by cleaning up the adjoining garden.
3. He did a bit of a run-around between avoiding the draft by allowing them to excuse him for his education, then changing his mind and requesting to serve, and finally not being needed because his birthdate number was too high. He always felt great guilt for not fighting in Vietnam, despite the fact that he strongly disagreed with the war.
4. He received a call from the Bush White House before deciding to run for president, asking him if he planned to run and telling him point blank that he was the only candidate they felt unsure of defeating, and that their campaign strategy would be to attack him in unprecedentedly personal ways.
5. He slept on the couch for months after telling Hillary that he had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. (All I could think was, good for Hillary. It's not every woman who'd make the President of the United States sleep on the couch, no matter what he'd done.)
6. In his meeting with George W. Bush before leaving the White House, he listed Osama bin Laden as the number one threat to U.S. security. Bush disagreed, listing Iraq and several other threats above Al Qaeda. This was 9 months before 9/11.

If any of these tidbits sparked your interest, you may want to try the book for yourself. I do recommend the audio version. Clinton's periodical observations about life and insights into his own flawed character are both charismatic and folksy, and it was good to hear it in his simultaneously self-deprecating and prideful twang.

Next up: a post about author addiction, and a review of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (one of my all-time favorites). I also finally went to Barnes & Noble tonight and came back with two books I'm eager to read, The Jane Austen Marriage Manual by Kim Izzo (thanks Cristen!) and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.