Sunday, November 29, 2009

TSS: Holiday Weekend Wrap-Up and A Look Ahead

Good morning! It's been long, happy, holiday weekend, but feels like I've been away from this blog for weeks. Let's get caught up...

The holiday:

First, Thanksgiving was perfect! Daughter #1 was home from college, my brother and his family were visiting from Pennsylvania, and my parents and second brother came for the day. The table was set for a relatively small crowd of 13 (all three sisters spent the day with in-laws). We enjoyed the traditional Thanksgiving meal, and the company was superb!

In anticipation of Black Friday shopping, my oldest daughter had 5 friends spend the night. They were out the door by 4AM, but Daughter #1 was back home and in bed by 9! I avoid the mall at all cost on this day. We also hosted the 'leftover feast' on Friday...same crowd as Thanksgiving, plus my three sisters and their families. The teen girls slipped out to the movie to see New Moon that evening, some for the second time!

Yesterday was the annual Family Christmas Party. Always held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it gives us a chance to spend time with my aunt, cousins, and their families before the holiday frenzy really takes hold. The highlight is definitely the Yankee Auction gift exchange!

Today, I will brave the mall crowds and begin Christmas shopping with Daughter #1. Since her Monday morning class was cancelled, she'll stay home an extra night, avoid the holiday traffic, and return to campus tomorrow.


Despite all the activities, time was carved out for reading. Before the leftovers on Friday, I finished North River by Pete Hamill. For some reason, I was anticipating not liking this, but was very pleasantly surprised. Hamill is also the author (and reader) of my current audiobook , Downtown: My Manhattan. A personal history, woven together with a history of the city, it is quite enjoyable in this format. Both books are in preparation for his talk at the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series in early December.

I finished Great Expectations by Charles Dickens on audio. Initially this was a combination read at home, listen in the car book, but the reader was excellent and the audio version "won". Classics aren't my usual audio fare, but I'm wondering if I should start adding them to the mix. Do you ever listen to classics?

Bookish Plans:

I must get caught up on reviews! Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto was fabulous, as was The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton (in totally different ways, of course), but I haven't managed to get anything written. North River can also be added to this list.

Short Story Mondays will take on a holiday theme for the coming month with Everyman's Pocket Classics Christmas Stories. If I get a chance to read one later today, this may even begin tomorrow!

What to read next? I'm not quite sure. A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamill, came from the library. I seem to get more from the lectures when I've read more by the author, so this is a possibility. There are also several novels and classics I'm ready to pick up, but another Agatha Raisin cozy mystery would also fit my current mood. What's a girl to do...

Enjoy your Sunday, and I'll be by to visit this evening.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays - Downtown: My Manhattan

"It [the New York version of nostalgia] involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same. Tuesday turns into Wednesday and something valuable is behind you forever. An “is” has become a “was.” Whatever you have lost, you will not get it back: not that much-loved brother, not that ball club, not that splendid bar, not that place where you once went dancing with the person you later married. Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself. New York toughens its people against sentimentality by allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia. Sentimentality is always about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone."

by Pete Hamill

Downtown: My Manhattan is my current audiobook. This passage really struck me yesterday as I was listening, and I was happy to find the quote on the author's website. Pete Hamill is the next speaker at the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series.

Visit MizB at Should Be Reading for more Tuesday Teasers.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Short Story Monday: What Language Is That? by Uwem Akpan

Last week's story, "The Ex-mas Feast" from Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, packed such an emotional punch, I found myself thinking about it the rest of the week and wondering how other stories from the collection would compare. Saturday is my short story morning, and the second story in this collection turned out to be more of a novella. Pre-Thanksgiving preparations were underway and there was no time to sit and read 130 pages, so I skipped ahead to the third story.

"What Language is That?" is also concerned with children, but this time the setting is Ethiopia. We are introduced to two young girls who are best friends despite the "faith differences" of their families. When riots break out in the city, communication between the girls is forbidden. It opens:

"Best Friend said she liked your little eyes and lean face and walk and the way you spoke your English. Her name was Selam. You said you liked her dimples and long legs and handwriting. You both liked to eat Smiling Cow toffees. She was the last child in her family; you were an only child. The world was only big enough for the two of you, and your secret language was endless giggles, which made the other kids jealous."

The narrative voice jumped out at me in this story. Neither an "I" first person narrator, nor a "she" third person narrator, this narrator refers to one of the girls as "You" throughout and appears to tell her her own story. Very unusual!

In the end, "What Language Is That?" was as beautiful, well-written and insightful as last week's story, but much less emotionally draining.

See more Short Story Monday posts at The Book Mine Set.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eat This, Not That!

Eat This, Not That!
by David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding
Rodale Inc, 2009
415 pages

I like food, I like books about food, and I like to cook. So, when Matt (A Guy's Moleskin Notebook) reviewed Eat This, Not That! late last summer, I knew I'd have to take a closer look. My library hold finally arrived - just in time for the holiday marathon of shopping, decorating, baking, and parties. As we spend more time at the food court, restaurants, and grocery stores, this slick little book aims to provide the information needed to make healthier choices.

Before blogging, I went on a food book binge with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and, of course, Fast Food Nation by Michael Schlosser. These books are full of general principles and good, practical information. They provided an excellent foundation of "food knowledge".

Eat This, Not That! goes one step further and names names.... lots of them! There are 24 short chapters all titled "The Best (&Worst) ...", each devoted to categories such as Salads, Burgers, Frozen Foods, Mall Foods, "Healthy" Foods, Sushi, and even Beer & Wine. They are full of charts and nutritional information, with photos of best and worst choices appearing side by side.

So, what did I learn? McDonald's Egg McMuffin was named the best breakfast in America with 300 calories, 12 g fat, 820mg sodium, and the extra advantage of protein.

What surprised me? Subway's foot long sweet onion chicken teriyaki was the worst "low-fat" sandwich. "... teriyaki sauce...covers this chicken like a blanket of briny syrup, simultaneously providing a day's worth of sodium and 4 Peanut Butter Twix bars' worth of sugar..."

Under the Best Healthy Food in America, I was happy to find Panera's Asian Sesame Chicken Salad.

Good grades for fast food and chain restaurants went to Subway, Chick-Fil-A, Red Lobster, and several others.

I enjoyed my browse through, but 16 year old Twin A poured over this for hours! She even noted the "worst" choices were photographed to look sloppier, with food often spilling or dripping off the side of a plate.

My recommendation: Save yourself $25 and borrow this from the library, or browse though it at the bookstore while you sip a Tall Starbucks Skinny Vanilla Latte + Protein (Best Coffee Drink in America).

Visit Beth Fish Reads for more Weekend Cooking posts.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
copyright 1962
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2006
146 pages

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have ben born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

So begins this creepy classics that's recently attracted much attention from book bloggers. My reaction mirrored the other favorable (and beautifully written) reviews, but it was a unique reading experience that really stood out.

I began on October 29 or 30, anticipating an ideal holiday-themed read. On Halloween Day, the wind howled and whipped leaves everywhere as rain pelted the windows. Power flickered on and off all afternoon and finally, around sunset, went out for good. Surrounded by candles, with a book light clipped to the cover, I curled up to finish We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Creepy, indeed... perfect reading for a dark and stormy night!

The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition shown above is gorgeously disquieting too, but have you seen the back cover and flaps?
For an actual review, please visit:
(may I add yours?)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays - North River

"The textbooks were filled with the medical ignorance of the day, now worthless rubbish that could not even be sold to the dealers on Fourth Avenue. And yet he could not throw them out. Once he loved them and learned from them. They were like aging teachers whose time had passed." page 33

by Pete Hamill

Hamill will be the next speaker for the Rosamond Gifford Lecture series. I plan to read this and one of his nonfiction titles within the next month.

The rest of the above paragraph (just because I love it):

"Then his eyes fell to the lower shelves, full of treasures. Dickens and Stevenson and Mark Twain. Conrad and Galsworthy, Henry James and Edith Wharton. On one shelf, Theodore Dreiser leaned against Dostoyevsky, and he remembered how sure he once was that they were snarling at each other, each filled with certainty. To their left, unable to soothe them was the good Dr. Chekhov. With any luck these books will be the patrimony of the boy. And who will teach him how to read?"

and finally...

"...he would read novels to know more about human beings, who were, after all, his basic subject, and still were. The medical books didn't tell such stories. Only novels did."

Thanks for letting me indulge in this (very) extended teaser. Find more teasers at MizB's blog, Should Be Reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Short Story Monday: Oprah's latest selection

Whatever your opinion of Oprah, her book club selections, or the effect she's had the publishing industry, I think her newest selection is an important book. Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest with a MFA in creative writing, is a collection of stories portraying the struggle of everyday life in Africa today.

In "The Ex-mas Feast", a large family living in a Nairobi shanty goes about daily living, while making small adjustments for the holiday. It opens:

"Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven out parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents."

Although the family has very little, money is being raised to send eight year old Jigana, the eldest son and narrator of the story, to school. The children go out begging with Baby in tow, Maisha sells herself on the street, while their father steals wrapped gifts and trades them for food. The children sniff kabire in an effort to deaden the pain of an empty stomach.

Although difficult to read at times, the story is told with remarkable humanity. A touching part of the holiday ritual involves naming all dead or lost family members. Later, when young Atieno is shivering, her father "stuck her head through the biggest hole in the middle of our blanket. That was our way of ensuring that the family member who most needed warmth maintained his place in the center of the blanket."

My knowledge of modern Africa, as well as my experience with African-American literature, is limited. Reading the rest of the stories (two are long enough to be considered novellas) over the next several weeks, will surely help increase my understanding.

Thank you Frances (Nonsuch Book) for sending this amazing book my way.
Visit The Book Mine Set for more Short Story Monday posts.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

TSS: An Evening with Geraldine Brooks

(photo courtesy of The Syracuse Post-Standard, Mike Greenlar)

It seems like everyone in central New York is either sick or recovering from a cold or flu, so Geraldine Brooks must have felt right at home. She was in town, "squeaking like Minnie Mouse", to deliver the second lecture in the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series.

The former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent and Pulitzer prize winning author spoke with obvious enthusiasm about writing historical fiction. Although based in fact, she prefers when there isn't too much of it available. Her imagination can then be allowed to fill in the blanks. Brooks works by "trying to hear the voices", a job description which caused one of her children to ask if she were schizophrenic.

A stroll through the English countryside and an old fingerpost labeled "Plague Village" provided the inspiration for her first novel, Year of Wonders. At that point, she was on holiday from her job as Middle East correspondent and the lush green landscape provided a much-needed a break from the desert. It also provided a new direction for her career.

Brooks spoke of her early discouragement upon discovering a letter Henry James had written to Sarah Orne Jewett disparaging the historical novel. James said this type of novel was condemned to a "fatal cheapness" for the reasons that a novelist cannot possible know or understand the mind of anyone who lived more than fifty years ago. He said that "You may multiply little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like - the real thing is almost impossible to do and in its essence the whole effect is as naught..." Find the complete letter here.

The letter sent Brooks to her kitchen for a "stiff gin and tonic", but also lead her to the realization that an author can, in fact, understand the minds of long-dead people and that certain aspects of human experience must be universal. She has so obviously succeeded in writing historical novels that the audience roared in laughter when she said something to the effect of "So take that, Henry James!"

Brooks treated the crowd of over 1500 to a power point presentation highlighting photos and background from her research from People of the Book, which I must read soon.

March, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2006, was triggered by the discovery of buried belt buckle in Virginia that belonged to a civil war soldier and by visiting Antietam with her husband, author Tony Horwitz, for the fourth time.

Brook next novel, Caleb's Crossing, set in the 1600's, will be based upon the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It is scheduled to be finished around this time next year and I'm looking forward to it already!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Weekend Cooking: Dark Chocolate Cookies with Espresso

I've been in a bit of a blogging slump the last couple of weeks. Although I'm reading and enjoying the books, I just can't seem to get any reviews written. There's a new Weekend Cooking feature over at Beth Fish Reads that might be just the thing to get me posting again.

This week I made some of my oldest daughter's favorite dark chocolate cookies with espresso. The recipe came from Martha Stewart's Everyday FOOD magazine (the small one found at the supermarket checkout).

Dark Chocolate Cookies with Espresso


1 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa (spooned and leveled)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 4 ounces melted and 4 ounces coarsely chopped


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

2. Using an electric mixer,beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. Combine espresso powder and melted chocolate; beat into butter mixture. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture; mix until just combined. Fold in chopped chocolate.

3. Drop dough by 2 heaping tablespoons 3 inches apart, onto two baking sheets. Bake until edges are dry, 14 to 15 minutes, rotating sheets half way through. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely. (To store, keep in airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days).

Yield: 22 cookies

My notes:

These cookies are rich and delicious! The secret may be in using a high quality chocolate. I use Ghirardellli cocoa and chips. Enjoy with a tall glass of milk.

Visit Beth F's blog today for Weekend Cooking: Cookies, Anyone? and see what everyone else is cooking up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays - November 10

"Agatha remembered when she was at school, she vowed that when she had her first pay cheque, she would walk into a sweet-shop and buy all the chocolate she wanted. By the time it happened, her desires had focused on a pair of purple high-heeled shoes with bows. She enjoyed having enough money that enabled her to buy what she wanted." (page 85)

by M.C. Beaton

This is the first Agatha Raisin mystery, and a delight to read!
Visit MizB at Should Be Reading for more teasers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"I Dated Jane Austen" by T.C.Boyle

T.C. Boyle does many things, and he does them well. His short story "Chicxulub" is incredibly powerful. I loved his novel The Tortilla Curtain, and look forward to reading the others I have on my shelf. He also does a fabulous job reading the audio versions of his novels... which is not, by any means, a given for authors. Yesterday, I discovered that he's even dated Jane Austen!

While perusing his collection entitled t.c. boyle stories, "I Dated Jane Austen", found in the "love" section, caught my eye. Written in 1977, it tells of Boyle's date with our beloved Jane. He arrives at the Austen residence (dressed in 70's attire), and is shown into a parlor to meet Reverend Austen.

I could see it coming with the certainty and illogic of an aboriginal courtship rite: a round of polite chit-chat.
The Reverend cleared his throat. "So what do you think of Mrs Radcliffe's new book?"

Soon it's time to head out to the movies.

There really wasn't much room for Cassandra in the Alfa Romeo, but the Reverend and his troop of sons insisted that she come along. She hefted her skirts, wedged herself into the rear compartment and flared her parasol, while Jane pulled a whit cap down over her curls and attempted a joke about Phaetons and the winds of Aeolus. The Reverend stood at the curb and watched my fingers as I helped Jane fasten her seat belt, and then we were off with a crunch of gravel and a billow of exhaust.

The juxtaposition of 70's hip with 18th century manners is quite humorous.

As you might expect, things don't go exactly as planned at the movies. Boyle decides to take the Austen sisters clubbing instead, and you'll never guess who they run into!

As it turn out, you don't have to guess. This story, in it's entirety and complete with illustrations, can be found on the author's website. Click here to read it. It's short and just a lot of fun!

Visit The Book Mine Set for more Short Story Monday posts.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

BTT: It's All About Them

Today's question:
Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

My answer:
My initial reaction was to reply biographies, definitely.

I read a lot of biography when I was younger, but as I searched for a recent favorite, there were surprisingly few to choose from. To be sure, plenty are on my shelves, but none have made it to this year's "books read" list. I hope to read both Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee and Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin in 2010.

I have, however, read some great autobiographies and memoirs. Two favorites are Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. These were both fascinating glimpses into lives that couldn't possibly be more different from my own.

It seems that I've grown to prefer autobiographies and memoirs. Do you have one to recommend?

See more answers to this Booking Through Thursday question here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays - November 3

"Life can be so hard," I said, moved.
"Yes. But if a person hasn't ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is. ..."

by Banana Yoshimoto
page 41

To see more teasers, visit Miz B at Should Be Reading.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Virago Book of Ghost Stories: The Wrap- Up

Are you tired of hearing about The Virago Book of Ghost Stories yet? Just a few final thoughts in this wrap-up post and then we move on... I promise.

As I've mentioned before, this volume contains thirty stories, all by women, written over a period of 150 years and arranged chronologically. Rather than read straight through, I picked a couple of stories, and then jumped ahead 40 or 50 years for the next week's selections. This method may have caused me to miss some of the more subtle changes, but still provided a fascinating look at ghost stories over time.

Ghost stories really began to increase in popularity when they appeared in magazines like Dickens' Household Words and All the Year Round. They were not limited to writers specializing in the genre. Many mainstream writers also experimented with the form. Edith Wharton admitted that writing a convincing ghost story was very difficult, saying "It is luckier for a ghost to be vividly imagined than dully 'experienced'; and nobody knows better than a ghost how hard it is to put him or her into words shadowy, yet transparent enough.... If a ghost story sends a cold shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well."

Of the stories I read, only Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" (my post is here) truly sent a shiver down my spine. This was one of the oldest stories in the collection and, to me, represents the classic ghost story. Moving forward in time, the stories seemed to exhibit more realism ("The Villa Lucienne" by Ella D'Arcy - post here), then a focus on supernatural phenomena ("Roaring Tower" by Stella Gibbons or "The Station Road" by Ann Bridge - post here) and finally arrived at a retelling of Cinderella ("Ashputtle" by Angela Carter - post here).

Not only did the focus of the stories change, the language changed. It was interesting to read as it became more contemporary by increments. The sentences got shorter, there was less punctuation, and word choices and usage became more modern. To go directly from Gaskell to Carter would have been to miss the progression.

These stories have been great fun, and were responsible for quite a bit of 'Halloween spirit'. Maybe I'll focus on Edith Wharton and Henry James next year. But for now, does anybody have a recommendation for a good collection of Christmas stories?

Short Story Monday is hosted by The Book Mine Set.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

TSS: It was a dark and stormy night ....really!

Last night was Halloween. The wind howled all day, the power flickered all afternoon, and finally just went out. How fitting! The girls liked the eerily atmospheric candlelight, but the feeling faded quickly with the realization that no electricity means no heat and no water. To make matters worse, the cable was out - no internet connection even if your laptop does have battery remaining.

Our area is also being hit hard by H1N1 flu. Friday's Halloween dance was cancelled, the party Twin B was scheduled to attend last night was postponed (the host's sister has the flu), and yesterday morning Twin A fell ill with 'the swine'.

No power, no internet, no parties, no trick-or -treaters, a sick daughter...what's left to do? I turned to Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The combination of that book under those conditions produced a reading experience I will remember for years to come! Look for a review later this week.. maybe by then I'll come up with the words to describe it.

Luckily, the efforts of National Grid (combined with a rain delay in Philly) had power restored before the opening pitch of Game 3 of the World Series. Go Yankees!

Today, Twin A is feeling slightly better and I'll be starting a book for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge. My choices at hand are Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and After Dark by Haruki Murakami. What will you be reading?


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