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Growing up, reading aloud was what my family did together. Maybe some during the day when we were little, but always every evening after supper. Whoever was assigned to be the dishwasher of the evening could dictate the book, and everyone else would gather around to listen, doing crafts or artwork to keep the hands busy while the ears listened. After I went to bed, if I had nightmares, I would creep halfway down the stairs to listen to the comforting sound of my father’s voice, reading aloud to my mother. Though I know they read more, in my mind’s ear, it was always either Hornblower or the Dragonriders of Pern. As a family, though, the series we read over and over again were Swallows and Amazons, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings. The last, early enough that I experienced a brief burst in popularity with my fourth-grade classmates, when our teacher read Fellowship aloud to us and I was the only one who knew what happened next. Those memories are why I felt compelled to read this book.

book cover The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma This memoir comes from a young woman who made a promise with her father at about age 9: they would read together every night. At first, they planned to read for 100 nights, but as they reached that goal, they aimed for 1000 and then kept right on going. They read through Alice Ozma’s mother leaving, through her late high school drama evenings and her father’s larangytis, right through until she left for college. Alice Ozma (named, of course, for her father’s favorite storybook heroines) narrates the story. I’d heard a lot about this book, and was slightly disappointed that it spent more time talking about what was going on around the reading than discussing the books they read. There are quotes from the books heading the chapters, and a bibliography at the end, but this is more memoir than reading reflection. It’s enjoyable as a memoir, but I want you, Dear Reader, to be more prepared than I was for the actual content of this book. Ozma paints a glowing portrait of her father, so dedicated to reading to children that he would hide her in a sleeping bag under his desk at work if she claimed to be sick, so that he could still read to his classes at the school library where he worked. More heartbreaking was his early retirement, when his school board decided that library time should be mostly about learning to use computers, with not more than five to ten minutes spent being read to. I wish for every child to have as dedicated a read-toer as Ozma’s father.

Originally posted at .
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I am discovering through my work duties that the nonfiction works of popular fiction authors often languish. This one looked too interesting to pass when it came up on my list of long unread books.

book coverThe Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich In this book, Erdrich, author of several authors focusing on Native Americans and prairie life, writes about the first year of her daughter’s life. Although she says the baby in the book is a composite of all three of her daughters, in the book it sounds like she is writing about the youngest of her three daughters. It’s poetic and reflective, honest about the difficulty of parenting a baby while at the same time stunningly beautiful. It doesn’t hurt that Erdrich lives in a cabin in the woods, and the baby’s stages are mixed in with large doses of the natural life outside their window and the woods through which they walk. She writes, as an example of the tough times, of how hard it is to keep a sense of self apart from the baby, how easy suicide seems after weeks of sleepless nights – only her self is so absorbed in the baby that she feels that she has no self of her own left to kill. On the plus side, she writes about breastfeeding, how many great romantic writers’ deep inarticulate longings were really for that feeling of unity and transcendence that breastfeeding brings. Despite the poetry and deep thoughts, the book is slim enough to get through easily, an important consideration for sleep-deprived new parents. The saddest part for me was knowing that the happy blended family described in this book fell apart just a few years later, giving the already fleeting pleasures of a baby and the changing of the seasons an even more ephemeral feeling.

Crossposted to and .
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book coverSweater Quest by Adrienne Martini Martini’s last book, Hillbilly Gothic was a memoir of severe postpartum psychosis. Grim subject, that one, saved by Martini’s delightful sense of humor. This book brings the same thoughtful approach and humor to a more cheerful topic, one also dear to my heart (did you know that the sanity and well-being of new mothers was a cause dear to my heart? It is.) Martini took up knitting as part of her sanity-maintaining efforts – hooray! And in this book she tracks her quest to knit one exquisitely beautiful, terrifically difficult sweater, after a knitting diet of mostly hats. She starts by going over the tangled history of the gifted yet prickly knitting designer Alice Starmore, as well as a little bit of the Tudors, the inspiration for Starmore’s pattern book in which is contained Martini’s dream pattern. The supplies are hard to come by; the technique takes some work to master. But this isn’t just about this one project. Over the course of the year, Martini visits various knitting luminaries to discuss deep knitting questions with them: why do we knit? If she is knitting a Starmore sweater designed it to be knit with Starmore’s brand of yarn, no longer available, is it still a Starmore? How much of the sweater is Starmore and how much Martini, and does it matter? Many of the knitting folks are ones whose blogs and books I read myself – Ann Shayne and Kay Gardiner of, and Stephanie Pearl McPhee, aka, as well as Clara Parkes, whose The Knitter’s Book of Wool I read not so long ago. Martini is still both funny and insightful; this was another book where I found myself reading bits aloud to my love every other page or so, and even that was restraining myself. Thank you for sharing, Martini. The sweater is beautiful.
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book coverThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin Is happiness really worth pursuing? Rubin decides that yes, it is. Her happiness affects her whole family’s happiness, and she doesn’t want the best years of her life to slip by without her being able to enjoy them. Happiness is quite a deep topic, but fortunately, Rubin puts in the heavy lifting on the philosophy reading end of things to produce a book that’s easy to read while covering a wide spectrum of ideas about happiness. She picks an overarching happiness-increasing goal and a handful of smaller goals for each month, and talks about what ideas are most effective and easiest to accomplish – two quite independent variables. A sampling of her ideas: declutter, exercise, be kind to her husband and children, spend money well, find and do what she really likes to do, find a spiritual guide, start a blog (after which the text includes comments from blog readers). This was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
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book coverThe Passion of the Hausfrau by Nicole Chaison Chaison’s memoir of motherhood hits both the humor and the hurt of motherhood, told in text with comic-style illustrations in the margins. She talks about giving birth – once in a hospital utility closet and once in a feeding trough; about grocery shopping and Halloween costumes with children; about trying to maintain her relationship with her husband. But she also traces her journey to self-actualization, aligning her journey with those of the male and presumably childless heroes in the classics that fill her bookshelves. It’s this angle, I think, that got her a cover blurb from Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home, while less funny, also journeyed through the classics. Chaison’s version of motherhood requires large amounts of humor seasoned with profanity; for those of similar bent, this is well worth reading.

French Milk

Jul. 8th, 2009 12:25 pm
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I went to a lovely convention, Kids Read Comics, a few weeks ago. I learned lots about graphic novels (mostly for kids, but still) and met several lovely librarians. At least one of whom I referred to this blog, and in the process discovered that “graphic novels” is a pretty teeny tag in my cloud, and I hadn’t reviewed any gns recently. Pretty pitiful given the amount of time I spend picking out what to buy for my collection. So I thought it was time for me to actually read a few more.

book coverFrench Milk by Lucy Knisley This memoir in graphic form has been getting some good press. Knisley and her mother, both celebrating birthdays – 22 for Knisley and obviously older for her mother – decide to spend a month together in Paris. While there, they look at lots of art, do a fair amount of shopping, and eat lots and lots of good food. Some reviewers commented on the nuanced portrait of the mother-daughter relationship; I didn’t really notice this much. There was good commentary on the art, which I should have expected from someone enough into art to be drawing a memoir. Somehow I was surprised anyway. I was less surprised by the loving commentary on the food, given that the book is named for her love of the milk in France – many, many meals and snacks drawn out, with written descriptions. I put this in adult again because I wasn’t sure how many teens it would appeal to; the most graphic it gets in terms of actual sex or violence is a mention of missing her boyfriend with a drawing of a wrapped condom. There is also some humorous nudity in the art references, as Knisley talks about how tired she is of the female nude as a traditional art topic, showing a couple pages in a row full of sketches from museums. This is worth looking at for the lover of France or food.


Apr. 15th, 2008 07:01 pm
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book coverPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi There are a lot of good comic books out there. And there’s a lot of good “contemporary women’s fiction,” aka book club books out there, with enough heft to carry over an hour or so discussion. This memoir fits nicely into both categories. Satrapi (five years older than me) tells a story of growing up in Iran in the 70s and 80s, moving from one repressive regime to another. The illustrations are very simple black and white, expressive and occasionally stunningly beautiful. The stark contrasts are especially telling as they illustrate the story of a girl learning that life isn’t black and white. Comic fans will probably already have read this. Everyone else should put it on their lists now.

Gifts Two

Jan. 10th, 2006 12:57 pm
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Now, remembering all the books that I read, I proceed onwards:

Last year, I found out that our youngest teen niece read Sunshine, Robin McKinley’s first adult novel, a vampire book, which had been rejected by her twenty-year-old sister because it isn’t a romance. Well! Ignoring the slight irritation that the niece for whom it was intended wouldn’t even try it – this year, the oldest niece got a romance and the youngest got this, a very hot new vampire book for teens.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer Seventeen-year-old Bella Swann leaves sunny Phoenix to allow her mother to travel with her new husband, and moves in with her father in a tiny town in Oregon. Shy, not too popular back in Phoenix, she’s surprised when she’s suddenly the most popular girl in class. She finds herself falling for Edward, one of the mysterious Cullens, who stick to themselves and are shunned by the rest of the school. Though we know from the back cover what Edward is, it takes Bella a while to figure it out – by which time, she and Edward are trysting over cafeteria lunches. He says he’s dangerous, and though she knows it’s true, the attraction is too strong for her to leave. Though Edward has sworn to eat only animals, attraction and hunger must be kept in careful balance, and his vampire family is slow to believe he’ll leave her alive. The romance is compelling, and gets mixed in with suspense as Bella is stalked by a truly evil vampire near the end. This book will fulfill your gothiest fantasies and make you believe in the romance of the Lonely Ones.

Sucker for romance that I am, I was pulled right into the story and read the whole 400+ page book in about two days. I loved the development of Edward and Bella’s relationship, and the dark vampires mixed in with high school (wait – haven’t we seen that before?) I was highly amused, reading the author’s bio, to note that she is almost certainly Mormon – how many good Mormon girls out there write vampire romances? And it manages to stay squeaky clean, even as it builds up impressive steaminess. I was not quite convinced by the kidnapping, and I wish that Meyers hadn’t played so loose with so many vampire traditions. Her vampires don’t burn in sunlight; they sparkle. Towards the end, our heroine, who willing put her life in danger to save her parents, starts begging her vampire lover to change her, and this irritated the heck out of me. Seventeen is way too young to be making that kind of decision! [ profile] amnachaidh points out, rightly, that the teen readers for whom this is intended will have no such qualms, and that I really shouldn’t expect differently from a vampire romance. And I would have liked to hear more about the Native American tribe of werewolves that are the vampire’s sworn enemies. Still, I enjoyed the book, and Niece 4 said she was really excited about reading it.

In the middle of my holiday book cramming, what should I find on the hold shelf, but the lovely [ profile] tupelo’s latest book. It’s good enough for two people to read in less than two weeks.

Nerd Girl Rocks Paradise City by Anne Soffee This memoir takes place before Snake Hips. As Soffee graduates from college with an English major, she decides to put it to work in Los Angeles making a name for herself as a gonzo journalist of hair metal. With neither job prospects nor a place to stay, Soffee heads out from Virginia in search of her destiny. Now, I know next to nothing about hair metal, and the dark bars she frequents in pursuit of bands are far outside of my experience and (to be perfectly honest) interest. (In fact, were it not for the fact that I adore [ profile] tupelo, and how much I loved Snake Hips, I would probably never have picked up the book.) It turns out that, as Soffee has given up a future of wrapping gift baskets in the mall for her new life, hair metal is on the decline. Though she finds some unpaid jobs at first, they become harder and harder to come by. Depressed and spending most of her time in bars, Soffee falls into alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. It sounds like we have the making of a book that is Not for Me, between the depressing real life issues and the music that I don’t listen to. Except that Soffee is so wonderfully wry with her writing that she made me laugh at all of her mishaps, and sigh with her over the coolness of meeting stars that I had never heard of before.

Mission: Organization by Jody Garlock This book I requested for a display and ended up taking home with me. I don’t think the organizational advice is anything really outstanding, but the step-by-step summaries of episodes of the shows are very nice. It’s nice home decorating porn for a former HGTV junkie like me.
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Snake Hips by Anne Soffee This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while. I first looked into it when [ profile] garrity was reading it, but as I was pregnant at the time and reading it had started labor for garrity, I put off reading until my due date, hoping it would do the same for me. Then Mr. Froggie Pants decided to come weeks early, and reading a book that would have to be (gasp!) purchased or inter-library loaned was put off again. Now, with [ profile] tupelo doing tours for her next book, it seemed really past time to read her first one. But on to the book: Anne had what she thought was the perfect life with her (tattoo) artist boyfriend. Then he dumped her for not being cool enough. Heartbroken, she returned to Richmond. A friend suggests belly dancing as a means of recovery. The friend is joking, but Anne isn’t. Once she starts classes, she’s hooked. Soon she’s spending her evenings at multiple practices, her money on fabulously tacky costumes, and what little time is left over trying to find the perfect Arab sheik to marry and make little brown babies with. I might tell you to read this book anyway, just because I like [ profile] tupelo and I know she’s reading this. But I was laughing out loud for most of the book. I had to force myself not to read most of it out loud to [ profile] amnachaidh, because I knew he wanted to read it, too. My mother also really loved it. In general principal, memoirs by people you haven’t heard of are a dime a dozen, but this one is well worth reading. And I’ll ask our bio man to buy the new one for the library, so we can share the love.
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Look! I can read fiction and other books not related to babies!

No Touch Monkey: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late by Ayun Halliday My father gave me this book to read, probably because I spent some time traveling around Europe in my younger days. Here, Halliday looks back on her days of backpacking around the world, mostly with assorted boyfriends. Halliday was a much more hard-core backpacker than I – where I stuck to Europe, and generally took money with me, Halliday describes travels through Africa and southeast Asia as well as Europe, sometimes with no money for food or shelter. Halliday gets down and dirty with the stories, from her boyfriend being chased from the public restroom in Munich, to intestinal difficulties in India and dislocating her knee in Sumatra. Yep, it’s amusing. Yep, I’m glad not to be there.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett I know, it’s a children’s book again, but it’s a current best-seller, and deserving of it. Petra and Calder are sixth-graders at an alternative school in Chicago. They find themselves mixed up in the theft of a Vermeer painting that should have been part of an exhibit in the Chicago art museum. Everything around them seems to connect to the theft, but what is coincidence and what is clue? Can they find the painting before the thief destroys it? This is a highly enjoyable book, both thoughtful and fast-paced.

Firethorn by Sarah Micklem And again, I have difficulty resisting the rare fantasy book that gets starred reviews in multiple publishing magazines. But this is not your typical sparkly magic, epic fantasy. Micklem has a finely realized world with a researched, authentic medieval feel, but a developed religion based around twelve gods. The world is starkly divided between the nobles of the Blood and the commoners, or mudfolk. Firethorn, trained as an herbalist, has lost her place in the household she grew up in with the death of her mistress. After a year alone in the forest, she feels herself touched by the gods – but what does that mean, and what do they want from her? Even when she thinks she knows, things do not turn out as she expects. She decides that the god Ardor has bound her to follow a young knight to war, but this is fraught with difficulty. Not only do his companions not believe he can have real feelings for his “sheath”, but the divide between the Blood and mudfolk is so strong that Galen and Firethorn themselves cannot work around it. Firethorn is so out of place in this world that the book made for disturbing, yet gripping, reading. Alas, it’s only the first of three, and so does not resolve at all neatly.


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