Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Notes in the Margin

I feel as if my reading has been slowing down a bit but I did manage to finish two books. Both books (reviews below) have got me thinking about depression.  I will post something personal on that topic later. Although I have started a few more books, I keep getting distracted by the Olympics and other good television. Since getting DVR, I have become a bit of a television junkie.

Some of my favorites:

REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ORANGE COUNTY/NEW YORK CITY (embarrassed to admit that one)

And then there are all of those great shows on the premium channels:

TRUE BLOOD  (I have a love-hate relationship with this show)

I'm on the verge of turning into a couch potato!  Especially since the weather lends itself to staying indoors and hibernating.  In other news, these books landed on my doorstep over the last week:

THE POACHER'S SON by Paul Doiron (B&N First Look)
HERESY by S.J. Parris (ARC)

For my fellow children's book fans, I will have something special for you next week.  There will be a giveaway of some downloadable audio book titles that are really great.

I think it's going to be a great year for reading!!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

KEEPING THE FEAST by Paula Butturini

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

KEEPING THE FEAST is a memoir by Paula Butturini that recounts the painful recovery of Butturini and her husband after a series of tragedies.  Butturini and her husband John were both foreign correspondants in Europe when they met and fell in love in Rome. Soon after their marriage, Paula is severely beaten while covering a news story and a short time later John is shot while covering an uprising in Romania.  As if these events weren't painful enough, Paula's elderly mother commits suicide while John is struggling to heal. During these difficult times, Paula clung to the ritual of preparing and eating food to carry her through.  She weaves stories of the importance of food while growing up into the story of her and John's recovery. Much of the book revolves around the effects of depression on Paula's family and John's own dramatic slide into depression in the aftermath of his shooting. It is a reflective and meditative memoir on how devastating depression can be on the individual and those around him/her as well as the healing powers of the rituals surrounding food.

The book was slow to get going.  I wasn't sure where Butturini was going with her story at first.  The transitions between Butturini's current struggles and the food memories of her past were sometimes jarring. However, the book soon found its voice and offered a compelling look at depression and recovery.  The connection between food and healing was interesting. It made me think about my family's own food rituals and how healing cooking and eating can be.  I loved Butturini's descriptions of Rome.  Having been lucky enough to visit Italy four times in my life, I found her descriptions very evocative and accurate.  Her descriptions of food and dishes made me so hungry!!! One of my only complaints about this book is that I wish she had included some of the recipes that she describes.  It would have been wonderful to try cooking some of the dishes and eating them while I read the book.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  For anyone who has ever been touched by depression, this book will be especially meaningful.  It isn't just a story about physical recovery but the emotional recovery of the soul as well.  The food angle offers a nice and welcome twist.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

I am a big fan of Anne Lamott so I was very excited to read her newest novel, IMPERFECT BIRDS.  Rosie Ferguson is a beautiful accomplished 17-year-old getting ready to start on her senior year.  She seems like the perfect child with her straight-A grades, job working with kids and good looks. But she isn't.  Rosie has fallen into the world of drugs and dangerous behavior.  Rosie's mother Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, can barely get through her days without crippling anxiety over her family. Yet this anxiety does not help her to recognize that Rosie is truly in trouble. Neither Elizabeth nor Rosie's stepfather James seem to realize just how much Rosie has been lying and how much danger she is in. 

I really wanted to like this book and in many ways I did like it. I think many parents right now are struggling with these same issues. Do we smother our children and allow them no freedom in which case they may rebel? Or do we allow them too much freedom and hope they will make the right choices? The story of the Ferguson family is a heartbreaking one. As a parent, I found it difficult to read because this is every parent's nightmare. However, the book is also filled with hope.  The Fergusons are surrounded by a strong network of friends and advisors who help them navigate this troubled time.

While the subject matter is strong and powerful, I was disappointed in the characters.  Lamott points out that we are all imperfect birds. Her characters are flawed just like the rest of us.  But they fail to be likeable.  Elizabeth is such a mess and seems so willingingly blind to everything that is going on that you wish to shake her until her eyeballs rattle. James is clearly a good man and father but often comes off as pompous and weak.  Lamott gives us glimpses at the situation from Rosie's perspective that are meant to create empathy but it never works.  She just comes off as an entitled brat. It is a real problem when a reader cannot emotionally connect with any characters in a book and this is what happened for me.  Their story is authentic and painful but something is missing.

This book will be released in April 2010.

BOTTOM LINE: Although I was sorely disappointed in this book, I would recommend it for specific groups of readers.  I think it will resonate with parents as well as those who have been touched by addiction.  The story is solid even if the characters aren't.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

HOUSE OF TOMORROW by Peter Bognanni

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Don McLean's immortal lyrics: "Do you believe in rock and roll? Will music save your mortal soul?"  Really, I should have been thinking "I'm a teenage lobotomy!"  HOUSE OF TOMORROW is a coming-of-age story about Sebastian, a young man raised by his grandmother, whose world is changed overnight. Sebastian's Nana is an eccentric old woman who is a follower of the late Buckminster Fuller, a visionary who believed everyone would eventually be living in geodesic domes.  To that end, Sebastian and Nana live in a geodesic dome and give tours to supplement their income.  On one fateful day, Nana has a stroke while giving a tour to a woman named Janice and her son Jared.  Janice and Jared accompany Sebastian to the hospital which sets off a chain of events that change Sebastian's life forever.

This is a book of damaged people trying to find their way.  Sebastian has led a sheltered, homeschooled and lonely existence with his grandmother.  Nana has been living a lie for years.  Janice is a single mother struggling to parent two troubled children. Jared is a young man trying to be normal while recovering from a heart transplant. Jared's sister Meredith is a troubled girl whose life has been eclipsed by her brother's illness. Jared's family takes Sebastian in after he is forced to leave the dome and Jared introduces Sebastian to the world of punk music as they attempt to start a band that will make them feel normal and connected to the rest of the world.

While this book was a little slow to get going, I found it very moving. The characters are so well-drawn and you feel the thread of sadness that runs through all of their lives. We all know what profound power music can have in people's lives and this book demonstrates that fact all the more through Sebastian's introduction to the outside world through punk music.  The music provides a gateway from his sheltered existence into the real world.  While the story is a little slow to get going, it picks up speed quickly and the characters will stay with you long after the book is done.

This book will be published in March 2010.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  A really great story that will have you wanting to put on the Misfits and Ramones in the background for a soundtrack. I only wish it had been a little longer because I felt that one relationship in the book didn't get enough resolution.  Overall, a very satisfying read.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Notes in the Margin

Hello Friends!
Happy Valentine's Day!  I have a four-day weekend this weekend and it is (as they put it in Office Space) "everything I thought it could be."  I'm working on my reading and trying to finish up HOUSE OF TOMORROW and KEEPING THE FEAST and I owe you a review on the BENJAMIN PRATT book (I really liked it!) and I got these books this week:

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes (ARC)
HOMER AND LANGLEY by EL Doctorow (purchase)
THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH by Allison Hoover Bartlett (purchase)
HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger (purchase)
UNION ATLANTIC by Adam Haslett (purchase)

So much good reading there!  And I keep on saving THE PASSAGE but I may not be able to wait much longer.

I also spent some time this week working on my faith life.  I joined the bazaar committee at church and attended my first meeting today. I have been a member of my church for four years and have done such things as taught Sunday school, volunteered as an usher and attended playgroup with my child but it still feels as if no one knows who I am.  I'm hoping I'll get to know some women one-on-one through this committee and find my place in the church. I really want to help out and do my part and feel connected but it can be hard to gain entree sometimes. Since I am also a creative blogger (see my other blog in the sidebar), I thought the bazaar committee might be a nice fit.  I'm actually looking forward to our Ash Wednesday spaghetti supper and service.  Most people use New Year's for their resolutions and life changes. I use Lent. 

Happy Valentine's to you all and remember to tell everyone in your life how much they mean to you!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

It is always fun to stumble upon a new children's series. Especially one with so much potential.  WE THE CHILDREN, the first book in the new BENJAMIN PRATT AND THE KEEPERS OF THE SCHOOL series was really delightful.  Benjamin Pratt attends the Oakes School which has been around since the late 1700's.  It was founded by a sea captain and sits on a prime piece of New England property overlooking the sea.  Benjamin is a good kid who is fond of sailing and is struggling with his parent's separation.  His world is about to change as the school has been sold by the city to a company that hopes to change it into a theme park. When the old school janitor has an accident, Benjamin goes to his aid and is entrusted with a gold coin that carries a secret about the school. Benjamin enlists the help of a clever schoolmate (think "Hermione Grainger") to decode the ring and the two decide that they must solve the secrets of the Oakes school in order to save it.

Benjamin Pratt is a very likeable character. He is good, thoughtful kid who tries to do the right thing. The book mostly sets the stage for what will come later. The children only get to solve a few puzzles this time around and one of the main villians is introduced. There is also an exciting sailing race where Benjamin gets to exhibit his "good guy" qualities. The series is very promising and a great book for a young reader not quite ready for the complexities of a "Harry Potter" type book.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: No questionable content here.  There is one minor gross-out scene where Benjamin assists a janitor in cleaning up some vomit.  Otherwise, no language, inappropriate behavior or questionable content at all.

This book will be released in April 2010.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. I think this is going to be a good series for young readers. Especially boys who will enjoy the puzzles and sailing races.  The book also provides a potentially strong female character in the form of Benjamin's clever classmate.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lent is Coming

Ash Wednesday is next week and I have to say I'm really looking forward to Lent.  It is a time to reapply myself to my faith life and get focused again.  Plus, it is a great transition into Spring. Gary, Purl and I have resurrected our faith blog and welcome you to join us there.  My church always has a Lenten book read and this year our pastors have chosen AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Coincidentally, it was featured it its own dedicated Shelf Awareness this week.  In addition to this book, I will also be reading and applying 40 DAYS TO PERSONAL REVOLUTION by Baron Baptiste.  It is a yoga/meditation book that just came into the library and I thought to myself....."Hey!  40 days of yoga/meditation.....40 days of Lent....sounds like a match!"  The time has come to get serious about my health and fitness.  I need to lose about 40 pounds and that number seems insurmountable.  But I'm going to try and make some changes and Lent seems like a good time to do it.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Sometimes, it is fun to think about winning the lottery. My husband buys regular lottery tickets. I don't. Although I did buy a ticket in a local house raffle.  I was doing a little daydreaming and decided to figure out how much my ideal lottery winnings would be.


Enough money to pay off all debt including student loans and car loan.
Set aside money for Noodlebug's college education.
Set aside money for minimum 5 years nursing home or equivalent needs for my mom.
Enough money to buy a house in the expensive area I live in.

$1.5 million would do it with money leftover.  I would donate some of the leftover and put the rest into savings and look for part-time work so I could be more of a stay-at-home mom but still contribute to our household funds.  In the great lottery world, $1.5 million doesn't seem like too much to ask for.  Does it?

The house raffle I entered would pay out $1.6 million before taxes if you chose that option instead of the fancy house.  The drawing is Feb.20.

It's a nice daydream anyhow.

ANGEL AND APOSTLE by Deborah Noyes

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

I always enjoy when a modern author takes up a classic tale and embellishes upon it or adds to it.  One of my favorites is WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys. So many of these classic characters are so compelling and so charismatic that it is hard to let them go once the story is over.  We yearn to know more.  In ANGEL AND APOSTLE, Deborah Noyes gives readers the chance to see what happened after the end of the SCARLET LETTER. 

ANGEL AND APOSTLE centers on the life of Hester Prynne's daughter, Pearl. Pearl is as impetuous and impish as she appeared in Hawthorne's tale. She has grown up in the shadow of her mother's scarlet A and its accompanying shame and public scorn.  The effects of this state of affairs carry throughout the book. Pearl has no friends so when comes across a young blind boy named Simon and befriends him, it changes her world. When the sinister Dr. Devlin arrives in town and destroys the peace of Pearl and Hester's life, everything changes. The two must travel to England to start a new life. The tale carries through to Pearl's subsequent marriage and adulthood in Europe and how she cannot ever escape the consequences of that scarlet letter.

Noyes has a wonderful writing style that seems to flow seamlessly in a continuation of Hawthorne's work. She does an excellent job imagining Pearl's life and the effects of Hester's choices on that life. I must admit I was very confused by some of the changes and intepretations from SCARLET LETTER.  I had to go back and remind myself of the original plot and players. Noyes makes some changes to the story and I'm not sure they were necessary. However, this story is ultimately compelling and interesting.  It occurs in a unique time and place in history where religion and supersitition thrived side by side while the world faced such terrors as the plague. A very interesting imagining of this classic tale.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  For those who want more from the SCARLET LETTER, Noyes offers a fascinating continuation of the story. While the plot can be a little confusing at times, it is a sad and moving story of how difficult it can be to escape one's past.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

SOLAR by Ian McEwan

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Ian McEwan is probably best known for his famous work ATONEMENT so those readers familiar with that book may be surprised with his latest work.  I am a fan of McEwan's but this may be my favorite work so far.  SOLAR is witty and wry in its depiction of a Noble Prize winner resting a little too comfortably on his laurels.  Michael Beard won the Nobel Prize as a young man and spent most of his life living as a pseudo-celebrity and accomplishing nothing of note save five failed marriages. The novel opens at the end of the fifth marriage where Beard finds himself the cuckold for a change.  He is aging, balding, overweight, self-absorbed and generally unlikeable. Yet he has a Mr. Magoo quality in that things always seems to work for him.  As despicable as he may seem, he continues to fall into titular positions with generous stipends, lucrative speaking engagements and romantic entaglements with attractive women.  McEwan even allows Beard to make a media spectacle of himself by stating at a press conference that there aren't many women at the top of his profession due to inherent differences in their brains rather than any sort of discrimination in the system. Yet, Beard manages to survive this snafu as well.  The book follows Beard's life over a nine-year span as he goes from an apathetic egomaniac content to rest on the accomplishments of his past to a new-found interest in the future of solar energy due to a curious turn of events.

I found much of the book laugh-out-loud funny. There is a scene on a train revolving around a packet of crisps that I found especially humorous. One can only shake one's head and smile at Beard's antics.  He is awful but you can't wait to see how he gets out of trouble each time and where he will end up at the end of the book.  SOLAR is typical, timely and humorous and offers a truly great literary character in the form of Beard.

This book will be published in March.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. McEwan fans will find much to like here and I think this one will draw new readers in as well.  Very well done.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

MAKING TOAST by Roger Rosenblatt

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

There have been many wonderful books on the subject of grief.  Most recently, I have enjoyed AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION by Elizabeth McCracken and Joan Didion's YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. It always amazes me how writers come up with new and powerful ways of expressing such a universal experience.  This is how I felt with Roger Rosenblatt's memoir of grief, MAKING TOAST.  Rosenblatt's daughter, Amy, collapsed on her treadmill at the age of 38 of an undiagnosed heart problem.  She left behind her husband and three small children. Rosenblatt and his wife immediately moved into their daughters home to help care for the children.  MAKING TOAST is Rosenblatt's chronicle of that first year told in little moments and memories.

I think what makes this book so effective is how Rosenblatt tells the story.  Grief doesn't hit us all at once. It comes at us in little bits and pieces. And that is how Rosenblatt's story is told. The reader gets honest and moving glimpses into this family's struggles through the retelling of small intimate moments.  We witness how Rosenblatt and his wife attempt to provide some sense of normalcy to the lives of their grandchildren while trying to find their own way through grief. It almost seems amazing that life could continue forward after such a loss but we see Rosenblatt fixing breakfast for the children, organizing playdates and taking the kids to school. While it seems as if Rosenblatt would spend a good deal of the book expressing his anger at such a loss, he only touches on those feelings a few times. Instead, he chooses to focus on those moments of a family pulling together in the face of a loss that changes things forever.

I believe that anyone who has lost a loved one will recognize the feelings that Rosenblatt expresses in his book. And the fact that life must go on and we have to figure out ways of dealing with that. Amy's death will never be comprehensible and it is hard to read about the daily lives of this family over that first year without your heart breaking.  

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  A beautiful quiet memoir that expresses how the thread of grief can run through all the little moments of one's daily life and how we must learn to perservere while never forgetting.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

CLEAVING by Julie Powell

I believe that I was in the minority of readers who did not enjoy Julie and Julia. I liked the premise but Julie Powell often came off as whiny, self-centered and grating.  The movie version offered just the right amount of editing to provide a fully-satisfying experience. And Meryl Streep was wonderful.  So, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I picked up CLEAVING.  Curiousity got the better of me.

It is now several years after Powell's success with her first memoir and her life is anything but rosy. In the flush of her newfound fame, Powell runs across an old lover known as "D" and enters into an affair with him.  An affair that her husband learns of and continues to stay by her side while retaliating with his own affair.  This state of affairs continues for several years until Julie decides she needs to embark on a new experiment in order to find herself. She becomes an apprentice butcher and uses the experience as a cathartic outlet and escape.

It is incredibly hard to accept the fact that Powell's husband would knowingly accept her infidelity for years while sticking with her. Much of the book is Powell's attempt to justify her behavior as a type of obsession or mental illness that she cannot control. She cleverly weaves in her experiences at the butcher shop and contrasts it with her disastrous personal life.  When "D" finally ends the affair, Powell collapses into a messy heap and pines for him. Even resorting to stalking. The last section of the book is Powell's attempt at an EAT, PRAY, LOVE scenario where she travels the world to famous "meat" destinations including Ukraine and Africa.

One thing I appreciate about Julie Powell is her unflinching honesty. She presents herself warts and all. That is a difficult and scary thing to do.  But the book often feels as if it is one long justification for her behavior. Much of her butchery exploits are interesting but they just as quickly become boring and I found myself skimming much of those sections. Powell never really arrives at any sort of resolution and one wonders what her next memoir gimmick will be.

BOTTOM LINE:  Not recommended. While this is a brutally honest depiction of the effects of infidelity on a marriage, it felt really self-indulgent.  I have never found Powell to be particularly likeable although, according to her memoirs, everyone else seems to. If you really liked Powell in her first book, you will probably find this book interesting and revealing. If you weren't charmed by Powell in JULIE AND JULIA, you certainly won't be now.