Friday, December 31, 2010

Out With a Bang Read-a-thon wrap-up

I finished two more books today, making my read-a-thon total 5 books in three days. Not too bad. I'm still bummed I didn't make it to 100 books for 2010. I missed the 100 mark by 5 books. Oh well. There's always next year.

The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

I finished listening to the audiobook this afternoon and it was one of the most enjoyable food memoirs I've ever read.

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast

Since I never actually read the original Divine Comedy, I can't comment on how this graphic adaptation relates to the original, but it was certainly a good way to simplify the story for anyone who's reading the original and having a hard time with it. Anyone who's a visual learner would be aided by such a book.

The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

In 2003, Kathleen Flinn is laid off from her corporate job in London and decides, rather than immediately looking for a new job, she'll use her life savings to move to Paris and enroll in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. With the support of her boyfriend Mike, they embark on new rites of passage in their careers, in their lives, and in love.

I listened to the audiobook and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this memoir, from the unpretentious writing, down to the soothing, mellifluous voice of Cassandra Campbell, the narrator, who made each of Flinn's Cordon Bleu dishes sound mouth-watering - even if I never would dream of making it in a million years.

It was interesting to read a modern-day "behind-the-scenes" perspective at Le Cordon Bleu. I appreciated what hard work it is to earn a diploma there, but as much as I love cooking, there's no way I'd ever want to learn in such a disciplined environment. I'm anxious to do further research to see where this experience led Flinn after she received her diploma.

Three parts memoir, one part cookbook, the one aspect that made me wish I had read the book rather than listened to it is all of the delicious recipes included at the end of each chapter and also at the end of the book. I may decide to purchase a hard copy of the book just for the recipes alone. If you love food and you're a sucker for food memoirs, this book is a can't miss.

The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
Published: October 2007 by Viking (audiobook produced by Books on Tape)
Pages: 285
Genre: Memoir
Audience: Adult foodies

Out with a Bang: Book Title Sentence

As part of the Out with a Bang Read-a-thon, Reading Teen had an awesome mini-challenge: create a sentence using only book titles from the books in your house. I thought I came up with a pretty darn clever sentence if I do say so myself:

Being polite to Hitler, Nigella bites Dracula in love.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Out with a Bang Read-a-thon progress

I'm participating in the Out with a Bang Read-a-thon hosted by The Bookish Type and Book-Savvy. I've been reading and listening to books like crazy the past couple of days. This is what I have finished so far:

Perfect by Natasha Friend

Incredibly emotional and haunting book about a girl battling bulimia as a way to "deal" with her father's death. Isabelle's story will stick with me for a long time.

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

Beautiful novel in verse, told in first person from the perspective of a Vietnamese boy adopted by an American family after the war.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Very strange book. I can't even categorize it. I want to read more of Shaun Tan just to try to figure out what makes him tick because I haven't quite put my finger on it yet. Is there major symbolism in all of these strange stories and characters or does he just like confusing his readers?

Attempted and abandoned:

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

What could have been a funny, self-deprecating romp around the country correcting typos became a self-congratulatory, hyperbolic disaster of a narrative. Mr. Deck, I know you're an editor and everything but you come off as an arrogant buffoon who hugs his thesaurus a little too closely.

100 Books in a Year Reading Challenge 2011

I am SO close to 100 books for 2010 but I think I'm going to end up just shy of my goal. So it's time to be thinking ahead to 2011. I will be participating in Book Chick City's 100 Books in a Year Reading Challenge 2011. Here's hoping 2011 will get me to 100 books!

Perfect by Natasha Friend

**Attention: Spoiler-ish review ahead** When Isabelle Lee is forced by her mother to attend group meetings for her eating disorder, she soon discovers that the most perfect, popular girl, Ashely Barnum, is a part of the group too. As the novel progresses, the two form a toxic friendship that encourages the other to continue binging and purging. But as Isabelle gradually discovers, her new friend's life isn't as perfect as she initially thought.

This is a difficult book to read. Not because it's a bad book, but simply because you're forced to see the world through the eyes of a bulimic. To see how they deal with pain by expelling food from their bodies. In the case of Isabelle, the main character, her pain stems from her mother's refusal to deal with the death of her husband, Isabelle's beloved father, Jacob.

I thought Friend did an excellent job getting the reader emotionally involved in the story without going into too much vivid detail regarding how the characters went about their purging. Don't get me wrong, there were most definitely some uncomfortable, even disturbing scenes, but the descriptions were written in a way that let you view the "action" from far away rather than being directly in the scene with them. For someone who has a very weak constitution when it comes to vomit, I greatly appreciated this aspect of the writing.

What this book lacked in vivid description (thankfully) it made up for in heartfelt emotion. This is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the book and helps the reader understand where Isabelle's pain is coming from:

In my room, I ran straight to my closet. That's where I keep my stash, under one of Daddy's old flannel shirts that nobody knows I have. For the longest time after he died, I kept the shirt under my bed, wrapped in a paper bag. I would take it out whenever I missed him because it had his smell. Clean and warm, like grass.

This shirt was legend. My mother was always trying to throw it out because it had missing buttons and the pocket that got ripped off in a football game. But every time mom tried to get rid of the shirt, Daddy would rescue it just in time. It was their special game. "There you are," he would say, dragging it out of the Goodwill bag and slipping it back on. And Mom would wag her finger at him, pretending to be angry. "Jacob Lee. You are impossible." This was his cue to chase her all around the house until he caught her and wrapped her up in his arms, in that big soft shirt that smelled like him.

One time last year, right before my birthday, I took the shirt out from under my bed and jammed my face in it, hard, because I missed him so much. That's when I realized it was all smelled out. I breathed in and... nothing. It was just a shirt. Just a ratty old shirt that could have belonged to anyone.

That was the moment in the book that really pulled me into the story, where I first felt Isabelle's pain.

I really enjoyed following Isabelle's development throughout the novel, and even though it felt a tad "goody-two-shoes" at times, she still had enough triumphs and setbacks to make the story believable.

The ending will leave the reader hanging, which makes me hope that maybe Friend will write another book, maybe this time from Ashley's perspective. Though seeing as how this book was published six years ago, I'm thinking that's not likely.

Perfect by Natasha Friend
Published: September 2004
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Pages: 172
Genre: realistic fiction
Audience: young adult

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Favorite Books Read (Not Published) in 2010

A few days ago, I posted my favorite books of 2010, but now I'd like to recognize my favorite books that I read this year that weren't published in 2010. I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the great books I read that were published in years previous to this one.

Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer

Joan Bauer has a knack for writing lovely, accessible, coming-of-age stories. This is one such story. The main character, Jenna Boller, is commissioned to drive the owner of Gladstone's Shoes on a six-week tour of all of her stores as she prepares to retire and pass the reins to her son. As the story progresses, you soon come to realize that Mrs. Gladstone, while well past retirement age, still has some fight in her and is only retiring because her greedy son wants to sell the company to a big-time shoe mogul.

As with any great story, Rules of the Road succeeds on the merit of the characters. Road trip stories very rarely disappoint, and this one is no exception.

Published: May 1998 by Putnam
Audience: Young adult/middle grade

Prada and Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard

On a class trip in England, Callie finds herself surrounded by popular girls from her school who shun her or don't even acknowledge her existence. In an attempt to try to fit in, she goes and buys a pair of real Prada heels and no sooner does she put them on when she falls and klunks herself on the head, transporting her to the year 1815.

I started off reading this book wondering if I was going to finish. It seemed too superficial and lacking of substance for my liking. But the more I read, the more I got sucked into Callie's dilemma and appreciated how the time period changed her and how she had an impact on the people she encountered.

Was it believable? Not in the slightest. Was it a fun, feel-good read? You betcha. In fact, this would be the perfect story for Disney to snatch up and make into the next great romantic comedy, in the same vein of Enchanted.

Published: June 2009 by Razorbill
Audience: Young adult

Beastly by Alex Flinn

In this modern re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, Alex Flinn manages to write a story that speaks to young adults and possesses enough literary merit to be taught in high school classrooms. Not only does this book teach studendts the same literary elements as those dusty classics, but it's also a great talking point for high school kids who think that books aren't written for them.

This is one of those rare books that appeals to both genders equally. Girls like it because it's the re-telling of a fairy-tale, but boys can enjoy it because it's being narrated by a high school boy who doesn't sugar-coat or make the language overly-sappy.

Published: October 2007 by Harper Teen
Audience: young adult

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Jenna Fox doesn't remember the accident. All she knows is that her family is keeping a very big secret from her and she's determined to reveal the truth.

This book delves into the world of bioethics and the lengths parents will go to save their child's life. It is gripping, page-turning, and full of questions humans today must answer in this brave new world of genetic engineering and biotechnology.

Published: April 2008 by Henry Holt & Co.
Audience: young adult

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Science fiction is generally so serious and abstruse. Douglas Adams subverts the science fiction stereotype in this hilarious novel about what happens when a human makes it off the earth moments before the entire planet is destroyed. Since science fiction is generally not my preferred genre (unless it's dystopian), I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining this book was.

Published: October 1979
Audience: adults

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I'm pleased that this year's Newbery winner is a book that kids will actually enjoy reading. Too many Newberys in the past years I think have been too literary for kids to enjoy. This one is written simply enough for kids to understand, yet complex enough for it to be considered the cream of the crop in children's literature.

I loved that the plot keeps you thinking (it even hurts your head a little) and that you don't really know what happens until the last few pages. It's a little realistic fiction, a little mystery, and a little science fiction. This is one book that isn't easy to categorize by genre.

Published: July 2009 by Wendy Lamb Books
Audience: middle grade

Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins

When Jasmine "Jazz" Gardener learns that she'll be spending the entire summer in India with her family, she is less than thrilled at the idea. Her mother, the exuberant do-gooder, wants to return to the orphanage where she was adopted to help set up a clinic for the poverty-stricken women and children in the area. Jazz, who still can't shake her own charitable failures, decides to stay as far away from the orphanage as possible. This plan backfires when she meets Danita, the young girl the Gardeners have hired to cook for the family during their stay. Danita has a dilemma that only Jazz can help her resolve, and she slowly begins to let herself be open to the beautiful people who are a part of the Asha Bari orphanage.

The writing in this book is full of so much sensory language that you can feel the rain falling on you, can taste the tantalizing flavors of the Indian cuisine, and you can feel the warmth of the people. It's a book that makes you realize, if you hadn't before, that despite the abject poverty, so much of India's beauty is its people.

Published: April 2006 by Laurel Leaf
Audience: young adult/middle grade

360 Degrees Longitude: One Family's Journey Around the World by John Higham

This is the true story of John & September Higham packing up their lives, their jobs, their responsibilities, and setting off for an around the world adventure with their two kids for an entire year.

Not only was this book entertaining, but it reinforced the importance of travel to learn tolerance and understanding. It forces you to set aside your preconceived notions of culture and actually learn the truth beyond the propaganda.

I especially loved the Google Earth feature that lets you travel along with the family while you're reading the story.

Published: July 2009 by Alyson Books
Audience: adults

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

A wonderful children's classic, The Phantom Tollbooth transports lazy, reluctant Milo to magical lands full of adventure and linguistic hurdles. The perfect story for any word lover.

Published: 1961
Audience: middle grade

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

If you are in the business or education world, or you are a manager of employees, you MUST read this book. The old model of external motivation that Pink refers to as "If/then Rewards" ("If you do this, then you'll get this...") is found consistently again and again to subvert motivation and actually prevents us from doing our best work.

Yet businesses, employers, and schools across America continue to use this old model of motivation (Motivation 2.0 as Pink likes to call it... Motivation 1.0 is merely cave-man survival) in an attempt to keep us compliant.

Compliance will no longer get the job done. We must do better. We must create autonomy in our work environments rather than managerial control over minions. Drive gives us the knowledge and tools to make that happen. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better.
Let's hope everyone who reads this book strives to do better.

Published: December 2009
Audience: adults

Out With a Bang Read-a-thon

I'm participating in the Out with a Bang Read-a-thon hosted by The Bookish Type and Book-Savvy. Even though I'm bummed I didn't make it to 100 books this year, I'm still going to try to get as many books finished as I can for these last three days of 2010.

These are the books I am going to try to finish in the next three days:

Perfect by Natasha Friend

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Under My Tree (IMM 10)

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren.

This week is a very special In My Mailbox since all of the books featured were actually under my Christmas tree.

Nigella Kitchen by Nigella Lawson
Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld

The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Bejamin D. Herson
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Glimpse by Stacey Wallace Benefiel

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau
Ice Story: Shackleton's Lost Expedition by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

Poems in Black and White by Kate Miller
America at War poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins

What did you get under your tree?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing for a European Christmas

My TiVo recorded a suggested show this morning on European Christmas markets. So I promptly sat down and watched the whole thing - even though the family's coming over tonight and I have cooking to do . It's funny that I long to be in Europe at this time of year considering how much I longed to be home when I actually lived there. The grass is always greener syndrome I guess.

What makes me love Europe this time of year, Germany in particular, is how Christmas is still done Old School for the most part. It's not about the STUFF: how much you have and how much more you can get. It's about a feeling, an atmosphere. The Christmas market is the perfect example of this atmosphere. Parked in the middle of historic town squares, Christmas markets are akin to being shrunken down and walking around one of those little Christmas villages you put under your tree. And even though the air is cold, you feel warm sipping from a mug of steaming Glühwein. I wish I could be there right now.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Canning

I do not keep it a secret that I despise the vapid consumerism of this time of year. I avoid the mall and most stores in general from Thanksgiving to New Year's. I have instead chosen to make many Christmas gifts for friends and family.

This year I did quite a bit of canning, and this is what my pile of gifts looks like:

For seven people I made:
  • pickled/marinated peppers and onions
  • red pepper hummus
  • Dukkah (Egyptian nut and spice paste - kind of like a savory peanut butter)
  • ginger garlic paste
  • ginger lemon/limeade

This was much more satisfying to me than spending hours and excessive money at the mall. And maybe the people I give these gifts to don't even like the things I made for them, but so what? You run the risk of that when you buy something random at the mall too. I at least had fun making my gifts, and I did so with less stress and mood swings than if I had gone out and bought all those gifts. If they don't like the things I made, I hope they'll at least pass them along to someone who will.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Books of 2010

As I look back on 2010, I read a lot of great books of all different genres and age ranges. These are my top 10 favorite books published in 2010.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

This book is absolutely adorable and captivating. I think the audiobook, narrated by Katherine Kellgren, made it even more entertaining.

This is the story of three children found running wild in the forest and the 15-year old governess charged to take care of them. There's mystery, there's fantasy, and there's tons of humor.

Audience: middle grade

Guinea Dog by Patrick Jennings

All Rufus has ever wanted is a dog of his own. Since his father will never allow that to happen, his mother tries to appease him by getting him a guinea pig. Rufus soon discovers that this is no ordinary guinea pig. This rotund little rodent runs, fetches, rolls over, and even barks! This book is full of nonstop smiles and even makes you wish for a guinea dog of your very own.

Audience: middle grade

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

This charming graphic novel was inspired by the author's own middle school and high school dental trauma. The story and adorable drawings will make you laugh, smile, and wince all at the same time.

Audience: middle grade

Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Foods, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

This is not a diet book. It is a paradigm shift in the way you should look at food. Somehow Americans have lost their way in regards to the food we put in our bodies. Convenience has won out over nutrition and pleasure. Not only that, but we've fooled ourselves into thinking those convenience items taste good, when they really have very little complexity and are just pumped full of preservatives, salt, or sweeteners.

This book gives you a step-by-step process of how to rid yourself of those processed foods, and has some great recipes as well.

Audience: adults

The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, Illustrated by Renata Liwska

With writing that fills you with serenity and illustrations that will calm the savage beast, I have never seen anyone endear children to quiet the way Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska have been able to do. Your little one will undoubtedly be ready for their indoor voices and a nap after reading this book.

Audience: primary

It's a Book by Lane Smith

Technophiles beware: Lane Smith wants to warn you of the sometimes misbegotten ridiculousness of the digital age with this comical, verbal romp between a monkey and a jackass. Now some readers were (and will be) inevitably outraged at the fact that Smith had the audacity to use the word jackass instead of donkey, and even more angered at the way it was used at the very end of the book. I agree that it might not be best to read to little ones, and is more appropriate for middle grade and older, but you have got to give Lane Smith his due credit for his pitch perfect comic timing - controversial or not.

Audience: ??? (Depends on who you ask)

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

This book looks at rape from a different perspective than what most of us envision in our minds. What if there was no violence? What if the boy assumed that because you didn't say "no", that meant you were saying "yes." Daisy Whitney explores a different, less dramatic rape story, yet no less important to tell.

This book would be perfect to teach alongside Speak in high school classrooms.

Audience: young adult

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Vera Dietz is beside herself when her estranged best friend Charlie dies before they have a chance to make amends. Now she has a difficult decision to make: does she clear his name of a crime that people think he committed or does she allow her own anger and fear to keep her silent?

Describing the plot of this story is very simple. Describing the emotional impact this story will have on you is more difficult. You just need to read it. That's all there is to it.

And an added bonus to this story is that even though the narrator and main character of this book is female, it is by no means chick lit. Vera is hard-edged and will be enjoyed by girls and guys alike.

Audience: young adult

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I am still going back and forth between my #1 and #2 book. They were both my favorite books of the year but for different reasons. I gave my #1 the edge for reasons I'll explain shortly.

Anna and the French Kiss has been a hugely hyped book in the blogging world this year. I was worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, but I was proven wrong. Stephanie Perkins has managed to write a romance that won't make romance-haters gag. Triteness and cliches are nowhere to be found, and the characters feel like real people rather than caricatures. It is a book that will still make teenage girls swoon, yet it is written in such an accessible style, that it will be loved by a variety of readers, not just the teeny-boppers.

audience: young adult

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Half Brother was not hyped the way my #2 pick was, and I suppose that's part of my reason for choosing it as my #1: I like to root for the underdog.

But that's not the only reason I chose this as my #1 pick of 2010. I have never read such an unusual, emotionally heart-wrenching story before. Oppel poses so many questions about animal experimentation and makes us re-think our positions on this issue. But he does it in such a masterful way that the reader never feels like he is being preached to. The story tells itself and you can't help but question everything just by simply reading it.

audience: young adult

And there you have it. My Top 10 of 2010. Now I recognize that there were many, many great books written this year and I probably left some books off the list that should have been on here, had I read them in 2010. But this is my top 10 of the books that I was actually able to read. So you tell me: which books should I have added to this list if I had read them?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions? - from Goodreads

I am not feeling the love on this book as much as everyone else. It was entertaining, and I certainly enjoyed the NYC at Christmastime setting, which was almost a character in and of itself, but I wasn't a big fan of the main characters of Dash and Lily. Their development felt superficial to me, and the word choice of these two supposed teenagers was much too sophisticated. Yes, I understand that they were both self-proclaimed word-nerds, but even so, there was something about their characters that didn't make this aspect of them believable.

I mean, I am an English and literature teacher with a college degree who flags words in books that I either don't recognize or am not completely familiar with so I can look them up later, and this is how many flags I had to use in this book:

For two teenage narrators, this seems a bit extreme for them to be using words that the average teenager (or adult) won't recognize. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to encourage readers to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary, I just think there's a fine line between being encouraging and being condescending. The word choice in this book is straddling that line I think.

I will say that I often found myself enjoying the secondary characters in this book much more than the main characters. I thought that Dash's friend, Boomer, and Lily's Great Aunt Ida, whom Lily affectionately refers to as Mrs. Basil E., to pay homage to one of her favorite books, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, were much more likable, and a burst of much-needed energy and comedy in an otherwise brooding sort of story.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. My complaints are really more nit-picky than all-encompassing (even though it might not appear that way when you read this review). I thought there were some hilarious, ridiculous moments throughout that made it worth the read. It just felt, at times, more like a fun writing exercise between Rachel Cohn and David Levithan than a fully developed novel.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
Published: October 2010 by Knopf
Pages: 260
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: YA