Saturday, December 31, 2011

8 for '11

Provided I finish the book I'm reading before I head to a New Year's Eve party this evening, I will have read and listened to 107 books in 2011. Last year I posted my 10 favorites. This year I read many fantastic books and eight of them stand out from the rest. In no particular order, they are:

The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the Storycorps Project by Dave Isay
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

What are your favorite books from 2011, and what do you plan to read in 2012?

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What was the best book you ever got as a Christmas present?

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

More WWII Historical Fiction

Since my trip to London last year I've done a lot of reading (fiction and nonfiction) about what it was like to be British during World War II. I've read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Winston Churchill: Statesman of the Century, The King's Speech, The Very Thought of You, The Postmistress,

Since I'm liking this stuff so much, The Report by Jessica Francis Kane was recommended to me and I borrowed it from a friend. It's based on an actual civilian tragedy in 1943 in the East End. One hundred and seventy-three people were killed while entering the tube station at Bethnal Green during an air raid when one woman tripped and members of the crowd were crushed against each other. The Report centers around the report written by a government official concerning the event, and the government's refusal to release that report for fear of what it would do to Londoners' morale. The book takes place both during March 1943 and 30 years later when a child affected by the tragedy is working on a documentary exposing the truth of the accident.

Though Kane's work is historical fiction, she drew heavily upon real primary sources to write the story. The characters are complicated and memorable, and show true, honest pictures of humanity. The story is a real one which makes it both wonderful and terrible to read. 

Side note: I've read the book and seen the movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement. I kept thinking back to the movie scenes in the tube station during the Blitz when I needed a visual.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Book Club 2011

Last night my book club met for our last meeting for 2011. The book up for discussion was rated by all who attended as a fantastic read. I have not been able to put down Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Now that I've finished it, I'm sorry I don't have more to read about this American missionary family with four daughters in 1960s Congo.

I'm still turning the book over in my head. It's a dense one, filled with literary references (I made some of my own comparisons as well), clever plays on words and invented words, politics, cultural misunderstandings and a family with the kinds of complication relationships that just seem to me to be so difficult to navigate, yet throughout everything the family presses on. We know it's not going to be a pretty story from the get-go. Each awful thing that happens to the family was a blow to me as the reader but kept me hanging on for more.

Well, that is, until the last 75 pages or so. I was all set to give this book one of the few five star ratings on Goodreads that I've had all year. If only the book had ended before I'd had to read too much about the sisters' adult lives! A couple of book club friends agreed with me that if we each read this book again, we'd stop reading at the exact place we felt the book should end and skip the rest so we get out of it exactly what we want next time. Have you read this book? What was your reaction?

As a side note, last night was the second Christmas book club party where we celebrated by making mandarin lanterns (a bit blurry, but still festive). Here's mine:

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

O'Connor Movie in the Works

One of my favorite Flannery O'Connor short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," is going to be made into a movie! Here's the scoop.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

100 Books Read So Far in 2011

I, along with several of my reader friends, set ambitious reading goals for 2011 in Goodreads' 2011 Reading Challenge. Last year I read about 90 books, so I decided to make this year's goal an even 100 books. At an average of two books a week, I wasn't sure I could get there but knew I could get close. It turns out that I got there quicker than I thought, having finished the 100th book on December 5. It's a satisfying milestone, reached easier than I thought due to a multitude of audiobooks listened to in the car and counting the books I build in time in my work schedule to read for professional development.

When I knew I was getting close, I really wanted to make that 100th book a memorable one (i.e. not one for work or one I felt I wouldn't have anything to say/blog about once I'd finished). I chose well. About a month ago I was meeting with a client in their conference room where three out of four walls were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for employees to borrow. The client offered to let me borrow any book that looked interesting, so I left with one that I'll return to them later. It seemed particularly appropriate. I read Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life, a delightful (and short) book about the thing Quindlen loves best, which is also the thing I love best.

Quindlen's comments about how some fictional characters felt more real to her than people she knew, how as a child she'd rather have read all afternoon than played outside, how some banned books really are the best books and how the face of reading might change in the future. Once I got to this part, I noted that the book was published in 1998, several years before I'd even heard of e-readers, but Quindlen knew then that reading would be changing.

It's always reassuring to know that there are others out there who read and enjoy it as much as I do. I'm happy to have read 100 books, and I look forward to fitting in a few more before 2012 begins.

What have you read this year?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Changing Face of Libraries

There is just no way I could read everything I read without public libraries. I am lucky to live where I have good access to the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. I frequent libraries all across the metro area (Fulton and DeKalb Counties) when I'm between meetings for work and tired of having to buy a cup of tea to have access to Wifi and a good place to work for a couple of hours. It's unfortunate that in an economic downturn, library funding is among the first to be cut. (Attention government officials: During hard times, people need libraries to search for jobs. Keep this in mind!) It's an interesting time for libraries in light of changes being made due to the economy, e-readers and other technology. C.M. Rubin and Molly Raphael sum it pretty well here. Take a look.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald Interview

I saw this on Twitter a while back, shared by The Guardian. It's a transcript of an interview that appeared in the New York Post in 1936. In it F. Scott Fitzgerald describes his childhood, family history and his writing. It's an interesting read.

Monday, November 28, 2011

New Orleans Reading

I've been on a New Orleans reading streak. It began with Robert Hicks' A Separate Country, then moved to Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and finished with Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans.

Earlier this year I talked about Hicks' first book, The Widow of the South, and his second novel, A Separate Country, is a nice follow up to his first, and like his first, it is historical fiction based on truth. In it, a soldier named Eli Griffin who appeared in Widow returns as a trusted friend to Confederate General John Bell Hood. Both men are living in New Orleans. Hood settled there after the war, met and married his wife, and raised 11 children with her. Hood and his wife, Anna Marie, have both contracted the same disease and are near death when Hood sends for Eli. Hood instructs him to find a man named Sebastian Lemerle and to publish his memoirs which he has handwritten. Eli agrees and returns to the house after he hears of Hood's passing a few days later. At the house he finds another memoir of sorts written by Anna Marie for Lydia, the couple's oldest daughter. Eli narrates us through his reading of both of these works and we realize the complications of the Hoods' marriage. In the book, readers meet colorful characters and learn a little about honor from several of the characters including Eli, who is determined to carry out Hood's last wishes.

New Orleans is a wonderful, intriguing, mysterious place unlike any other. It is that today as it was while the Hoods were living there. In her journal in A Separate Country, Anna Marie writes to Lydia, "I hope that you never leave this city. I hope you will love it as I have, imperfectly, inconstantly, but passionately....There has been little for me but this city. I wonder if I could breathe the air outside New Orleans, whether I would drown....I am glad of this place only because I could not survive anywhere else."

Zeitoun is a much more modern book written about the days before, after and during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the central character. He, too, struggles with his adopted city and country during the days after Hurricane Katrina's devastation along the Gulf Coast. As a business owner, he is hesitant to evacuate and leave his property for the storm. His wife and four children leave without him first for Baton Rouge and then for Arizona.

Zeitoun's need to remain with New Orleans, though, is rooted more deeply than just out of concern for his business. On his first day paddling around his neighborhood in his canoe, he begins rescuing people who are trapped in their homes and dropping them on higher ground where they can get help. At the end of that first day Zeitoun knows "...there would be more to do tomorrow. How would he explain to Kathy, to his brother Ahmad, that he was so thankful he had stayed in the city? He was certain he had been called to stay, that God knew he would be of service if he remained. His choice to stay in the city had been God's will."

A few months ago when I blogged about my disappointment that Julia Reed's The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story wasn't the post-Katrina/resilience/rebuilding story I'd hoped for. While I realize that for an area to bounce back after a natural disaster, all sorts of things come into play, and that New Orleans is a city focused heavily on the tourism industry and a partying atmosphere, I really wanted to read about the "regular" people who faced adversity in getting back on their feet after the storm, whether the end result was 100% triumphant or not. Luckily, a reader suggested Zeitoun as a read more like what I was looking for. It was. Though I wasn't bowled over by fantastic writing, it was a compelling story, especially after some of the background information on Zeitoun and his family were out of the way and the storm hit.

Just as I remember watching CNN in August and September of 2005 in disappointment that such chaos and disorder was even possible in the United States, I read this book with disappointment that even though we live in a great nation, we still don't live in a place where people who are perceived by some as being "different" can be left to live their lives in peace. It was an eye-opening story that needed to be written. I'm glad Eggers brought attention to this family's story.

Just as Zeitoun was an eye-opening book, so was Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans. The author recreates the lives of nine New Orleans residents from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 through Katrina in 2005. It covered the ins and outs of Mardi Gras for the different neighborhoods in the city and showed the variety of life experiences had by these residents of varied genders, races, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. Parts of this book, like Zeitoun, were particularly heartbreaking. I remember hearing in the media during Katrina's aftermath that corpses could not be collected promptly, and police officers reached the breaking point, and in some cases simply walked away from their jobs. All the things I was horrified to hear about in 2005 were spelled out in this book by characters who experienced them first hand.

From this New Orleans reading trifecta, I'm still convinced that New Orleans is one of the weirdest and most wonderful places on earth. Reading about it helps me understand better how so many things went wrong after Katrina and why New Orleanians are so resilient. I highly recommend Zeitoun and Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans for Katrina stories, and if you're into history, you'll probably like A Separate Country. Three fantastic reads.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Books All Georgians Should Read

Besides their list of 25 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, the Georgia Center for the Book also has Books All Georgians Should Read, a list published in 2010. How many have you read?

Snakeskin Road by James Braziel
A Cry of Angels by Jeff Fields
The Confederate General Rides North: A Novel by Amanda Gable
Bombingham by Anthony Grooms
Luminous Mysteries: A Novel by John Holman
How Far She Went (Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction) by Mary Hood
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
Hue and Cry: Stories by James Alan McPherson
When the Finch Rises by Jack Riggs
Nothing with Strings: NPR's Beloved Holiday Stories by Bailey White
The Heart of a Distant Forest by Philip Lee Williams
Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008 by Coleman Barks
New and Selected Poems of Thomas Lux: 1975-1995 by Thomas Lux
The Watchers by Memye Curtis Tucker
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South by Roy Blount, Jr.
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 by Taylor Branch
Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove by Max Cleland
Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler
The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life by Lauretta Hannon
Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes
The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist by Deirdre O'Connell
Altar in the World, An: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
Bon Appetit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis