Sunday, February 28, 2010

Four-Month Reading Challenge Part Three

She Read a Book is hosting a four-month challenge part three! I'm trying to read the unread books I own this year, so I'm going to try to accomplish this challenge with as few library books as possible.


5 Point Challenges

Read a book by an author you’ve never read before - The Alchemist

Read a book with a one word title - Cranford

Read a book with an animal name in the title - The Cricket in Times Square

Read a book with a proper name in the title - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Read a fantasy - The Good Fairies of New York

10 Point Challenges

Read an ‘Austenesque’ book - Intimations of Austen by Jane Greensmith

Read a book with a two word title - Big Boned by Meg Cabot

Read a book that is part of a series - Living Dead in Dallas

Read a book about a real person - Fall to Pieces by Mary Forsberg Weiland

Read a mystery - The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

15 Point Challenges

Read a book written in the 60’s (any century)- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Read a book with a number in the title - 100 Worst Bosses by Jim Stovall

Read a book by an author born in March, April, May or June. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger - June 13

Read a book with a three word title - Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Read a book by an author with three names - La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

20 Point Challenges

Read a book with over 500 pages - The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Read a book with a four word title - Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

Read a book by two authors - Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Read a book written in the 70s (any century)

Read a book that has been number one on the NYT Best-sellers list - House Rules by Jodi Piccoult (March 21, 2010)

Four-Month Challenge Part 2 Wrap-Up

The four-month challenge part two is over! It ran from from Nov. 1, 2009 to Feb. 28, 2010. She Read a Book is hosting the four-month challenge part three if you want to join in for the next round.

I enjoyed participating in this challenge, although I wish had managed to finish it completely. I noticed that only one person actually finished it though, so I'm in good company!

5 Point Challenges
Read a book with a proper name in the title – Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss
Read a book about a queen or king – The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Read a book by or about/related to a Bronte - I started The Bronte Myth but haven't finished it.
Read a book about Vampires - Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Read a book by V.C. Andrews – Flowers in the Attic
10 Point Challenges
Read a book by Canadian author – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Read a book by or about/related to Charles Dickens - The Man Who Invented Christmas
Read a book set in France - French Milk by Lucy Knisley
Read a book by Georgette Heyer - I started Friday's Child, but haven't finished it.
Read an ‘art’ themed book.
15 Point Challenges
Read a book with a Civil War theme (any country)
Read a book with characters inspired by King Arthur or about King Arthur/Camelot
Read a biography/autobiography – Stolen Innocence by Elissa Walls
Read a book related to or something by Shakespeare
Read a book by an author born in November, December, January or February – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, born Jan. 25
20 Point Challenges
Read a book with a wintery theme (Christmas, snow, ice, freezing, star, camel, mistletoe, etc.)A Christmas Carol
Read a book that was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Read a book that begins with A and one that begins with Z
Read a book from The Modern Library Top 100 – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Read a book and then write a review – The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

160/250 points

My two favorite books I read for this challenge are Chang and Eng and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I absolutely loved both of them!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marriage Most Scandalous

Yes, I seriously read a book called Marriage Most Scandalous. And I'm blogging about it instead of keeping it a deep dark secret. Is it weird to anyone else that my mom keeps both my grandmother and I in constant supply of racy romances? Anyone else have a mom who does that? Well, since my grandmother reminds me of the grandma in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovitch, I don't really know why that still surprises me.
Anyway, I did in fact read, and enjoy!, Marriage Most Scandalous. For the most part anyway. I read it on Monday, which was the day after I got home from my conference. I took a nice long hot bath, which is appropriate since that's what's depicted on the cover, and relaxed with it. I really liked the two main characters and the story had an interesting plot. A man unknowingly sleeps with his best friend's new wife, they duel, man accidentally kills his best friend in duel, and is banished from the country. His pretty neighbor tracks him down years later and convinces him to come home because someone is trying to kill his father. They solve the mystery and fall in love.
I just really wish the book had ended a little earlier. They had a perfectly reasonable plot going, I cared about the characters, and was invested in them, and then she whips out this crazy plot twist that makes zero sense. She had a perfectly reasonable and still somewhat surprising ending going and bam! She throws in all sorts of craziness that completely took away from the heart of the book. And this is why people mock romance novels and soaps. Oh well. It was still exactly what I needed for a relaxing bath and evening after working 16-hour days all week.

The Black Tower

I have to admit I was disappointed by Louis Bayard's The Black Tower. It had a lot of elements I like: mystery, historical fiction, alternative history, gritty detectives, a likable main character. But I just didn't love it. I didn't dislike it; I think I just had really high expectations that weren't met.
I had read several great reviews for The Black Tower, and many compared it to Matthew Pearl's works, which I love. There's even a quote from Pearl on the back cover singing the book's praises. And Bayard had an essay in Maybe Baby that I enjoyed, so I fully expected to love this book and be enthralled all the way home from San Diego.
But I wasn't. I think the language bothered me and kept pulling me out of the story for one thing. Bayard uses current curse words and some slang terms that startled me as I was reading and took me out of nineteenth century France and into modern America. It's an easy thing to avoid dropping the F bomb, so I was surprised he must have purposely included those and a few other words/sayings. It's a small thing, but it was really distracting.
Although the storyline idea was good - the son of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned during the revolution and was thought to have died in a tower, but this book asks, "what if he didn't die?" Intriguing idea. And it was suspenseful until about halfway through, and then I just wasn't engrossed anymore. I took out my iPod and listened to music for a while and just stared out the window, which I never do on a plane. I had other books with me, but I didn't pick up one of those either, so perhaps I was just exhausted from the conference and not able to focus and it didn't quite get a fair shake. Anyway, I kept flipping back and forth between reading and not-reading it the rest of the trip and finished it just as we hit the runway in Oklahoma City.
Has anyone else read any Bayard? Did I not give him a fair chance? I'm curious since I fully expected to love the book.

Olive Kitteridge

I ended up enjoying Olive Kitteridge, but I must say it's not the best book to select for traveling across the country away from your husband for the week. Although it was more appropriate than The Pilot's Wife, which I also read on a plane traveling away from my husband.
Anyway, Olive Kitteridge is the Pulitzer Prize winner by Elizabeth Strout. It's a series of interconnected short stories. I must admit, my usual perception of short stories is that they are stories that aren't good enough to make into a whole novel or that the author is a bit lazy and just didn't feel like developing it. Clearly, there are exceptions, I enjoy reading Poe for example, and Shirley Jackson. So I realize I'm not being fair, but I still have a tendency to think that. I have an anthology of short stories that I don't even remember buying (I probably got it a library book sale) and have never read, so maybe I'll give them a try to beat down that perception for good.
Olive Kitteridge was a good selection for starting to change my mind about short stories. I enjoyed seeing different sides of certain characters and getting snapshots of life in this small town in Maine. And in reading the author interview in the back of my copy Strout points out that the reader needs breaks from Olive once and a while. The format was also nice for traveling because it was easy to stop at the end of a story during all the starts and stops you have while flying.
Why I say it was not the best choice for reading when I was traveling away from my husband is because it was rather depressing. You can't even count on your own family to be there for you when you're sick or dying. Olive worries about dying alone, and every time I see another statistic on how women live longer than men in the U.S. I worry about that too. And I felt like Strout cut down all of the solutions people turn to to avoid that fate. Olive's son moves away and never visits, friends die, volunteer work doesn't fulfill her the way it's supposed to. In all, I was left with a feeling that it's all hopeless and nothing matters. It just made me want to run to Ryan and give him a big hug and I couldn't do that because I was on a plane to San Diego. Fortunately, since I was on a place to San Diego, I at least had beautiful scenery to greet me and clear my mind instantly.
One last thing - Strout is a master at beautiful, lyrical language. That alone made it worth reading, and it reminded me a bit of Woolf in that sense. But, there were a few times where it was almost too much, and I would think, "Wow, she's really going for the Pulitzer with that paragraph!" Then it became a little distracting. But, overall I did think it was well written and I ended up really enjoying it.


After reading High Society by Donald Spoto and loving it, I picked up Enchantment by him at the library. Enchantment is a biography of Audrey Hepburn, my favorite actress. Since I like Hepburn even more than I like Grace Kelly and I enjoyed Spoto's work, I expected to love Enchantment. But I didn't. Maybe I set it up for failure by expecting too much, or maybe I just lost interest because I was already familiar with Hepburn's life.
My now husband, then boyfriend bought me a book on Hepburn for my birthday the first year we were dating. It's full of beautiful photos and her basic life story. Since it was more about photos, I expected to find out more information from Spoto's book, but I don't feel like I learned much new information, and most of what was new to me was negative. I knew Hepburn had relationships with a few costars such as William Holden, but the book was rather full of affairs and failed relationships. Those were discussed in a rather unflattering manner. I felt like Spoto put Grace Kelly up on a pedestal and tried to knock Hepburn down a bit.
I did enjoy the first few chapters about her childhood. I knew she had suffered as a child during WWII, but this gave many more details than my glossy coffee table book did.
I surprisingly didn't enjoy reading about her movies as much. I think Spoto focused too much on some of the details around the movies that had nothing to do with Audrey to the point where my mind would wander and I would lose interest. I like getting a bit of behind the scenes info, but I felt like he just got off track a few too many times.
I am glad he praised my all-time favorite Hepburn movie, Paris When It Sizzles. It's hilarious, and it's the movie that made me fall in love with her. It doesn't get much press, and when it does it seems like people don't get that it's supposed to campy. She's wonderfully funny in the movie and encourage you to check it out if you haven't seen it.
But for this book, I think there are probably better biographies of Hepburn out there. Spoto has written a ton of old Hollywood biographies, and I will still pick up some of his about people he likes more, such as Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock came up frequently in both the Spoto books I read and you can tell Spoto worships him, so I think that would be a stronger book, as well as his biography of Marilyn Monroe. So, I still plan to pick those up some day.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm back!

I'm back! My conference was more draining the usual since we had a much smaller even crew than normal, and I had a TON of work waiting when I got back to the office, so I've barely had time to breathe much less read or blog this week. And my Google Reader is out of control, although I've tried to read through some of them and make at least a couple of comments this week, but that's about the extent of my reading in general this week. Things are going really well at work, I'm just mentally drained from answering questions and writing and proofing at work this week to do much of anything except watch the Olympics and night and catch up on my shows from last week. The massive amount of Olympic hockey games this week hasn't helped either.
But, I did manage to read one book on the way to San Diego and one on the way back, and I have a review I didn't write of a book I finished right before my trip, so I'll get that written as well. By the end of the weekend I plan to have those three posts written, finish and write about the Lord of the Rings (which I should be posting tomorrow but will not be finishing that quickly), finish at least two of the library books I'm in the middle of, make a dent in my laundry and actually unpack, clean out my work inbox and catch up on my Google Reader. Yikes! Or maybe I'll just lounge on the couch with my cats! Especially since I'll have four more hockey games to watch. I really want to catch up though, and I really want to clean up my library pile because my goal is to finish this current stack and then try to read my own books for a while instead of being distracted by all the library books. I do not need to have 20 books checked from the library when I have a ton of unread books at home. My goal is to read through most of my unread books by the end of the year. I realize "most" is a rather vague goal and I should probably be a little more concrete, but I don't really want to count the number of books I own that I haven't read. I've gone to too many library book sales!
Anyway, welcome back, and I promise I'll have real posts by the end of the weekend!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Missing in Action

My husband called just a little while ago and told me our wireless internet router died. And we won't be able to get another one until Sunday due to his work schedule. So, no blogging for me until Monday. :(
Then I head to San Diego on Tuesday and won't be back until the following Sunday, so I probably won't be blogging much for the next week. I just didn't want to you to think I've disappeared.
Don't be too jealous of my trip to San Diego. It's for business, and I'll be on the event crew working 14-hour days (at least) most days. Downstairs at 6:00 a.m. and not wrapping up until 8:00 p.m. most days. And Saturday we have a big gala at night, so I work until somewhere between 10 and midnight after starting my day at 6:00 a.m., with a couple of hour break in the middle of the day for a quick nap and getting ready for the formal that night. It's fun overall and I enjoy seeing all of our company's franchisees, but it's a bit tiring so the blogging probably won't happen much. People who think event planning is glamorous are wrong! :) It's a lot of aching feet and putting out fires. I'm glad I just help with our events and am not a full-time event planner.
Anyway, I will rejoin the blogging world as soon as I can! Happy reading in the mean time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Plum Bun

I was a little jealous of the people getting to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of my favorite books, for the Classics Circuit's Harlem Renaissance bonanza. But I wanted to read something by someone I was unfamiliar with, and selected Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset, written in 1929. And I am so glad I did. It was wonderful. It definitely shot up my list of favorite books and will be one I buy for myself, as the copy I read I borrowed from the library. (The copy had a library print out in it from 2005. I hope that doesn't mean I'm the only one to read it since then. And we have only one copy in my library's system, and it's at the "black" library, the Ralph Ellison library. That's tragic people.)
This book would be outstanding to teach to high school students, or at least college students. It's about race, but it's also about sexism and what is was like to be a woman in 1929, it's a love story, it's about right and wrong, and integrity. There is so much to discuss, I'm not sure how to cover it all in one post, or choose what to leave out. So go read it for yourselves!
Plum Bun is the story of Angela Murray, a girl in a middle-class black family in Philadelphia. Angela and her mother can both pass for white. Her father and sister cannot. First and foremost, I came to care greatly for both Angela and her sister Virginia, and to a lesser extent their parents. I connected to them almost immediately and couldn't wait to find out what happens to them. The book starts with Angela at age 14 and goes until she's 27, or at least that's the last year that's mentioned, but she may actually be about 30 at the end. I completely identified with her, which is a wonderful testament to Fauset's ability, since I'm a white girl from modern-day Oklahoma.
As someone who can pass for white, Angela has a unique set of challenges and choices. When she meets new people, they assume she is white, and when they learn she is not, they usually recoil and demand to know why she didn't tell them. When she is younger, it never occurs to her to tell people this. What, should she wear a sign on her forehead? And if the person liked her five minutes ago when they thought she was white, why do they dislike her now? Eventually, she realizes the advantages to being seen as white, and decides to move to NYC, where no one knows her and therefore can't discover that she's not. This opens up opportunities to her she would not have as a person who looks black. The novel makes you question those choices and wonder about what you would do in each situation she faces. I could completely understand why she would try to pass for white and try to create a successful career that way. I'm not sure that that's right, but I can't say it's wrong. What's interesting is that it's hard to tell what Fauset thinks exactly. They do discuss race in the book, and a character at one point says that when a black person succeeds, whites see it as an exception, something was good about that individual, and if they have any mixed blood they attribute that to the white blood. But if a black person doesn't succeed, it's a representative of their whole race. I think Angela takes that to heart and feels like if she announces she's black, people will credit any good she does to her white blood anyway, and it will limit her opportunities. So why not do what she can for herself?
Of course, this leads to another set of challenges. Does she start a relationship with a rich racist white male? How does she treat her sister? How far exactly will she go?
Another aspect of the novel addresses the challenges of being a woman during this time. Even passing for white leaves her with a set of challenges. She's a young single woman navigating a new terrain. In the 1920s, it becomes more common for people to have sex outside of marriage, for virginity to be less valued than it was, and for women to discuss their sexuality. For an innocent young girl, this can easily lead to trouble.
However, I was surprised at the relative independence Angela had. She had her own place and a job. She had people over, including men alone in her apartment. That just surprised me a little. And that opens up other choices - does she have an affair with a man because she can gain materially from it? Is that better or worse than selling out her race? Again, Fauset doesn't guide the reader to a judgment.
Finally, at its heart Plum Bun is also a love story. You aren't sure if it's a tragic love story or a happy one until the very end. There are layers of relationships intertwined the above situations that complicate everything. Angela questions the very nature of love and if it's just something to use to gain what you want or if it's something more.
The subtitle to Plum Bun is "A Novel without a Moral." I find that ironic, because it's full of moral issues. Every page screams with choices that can be hotly contested with both sides taking what they feel is the moral high road. But it's an appropriate subtitle because Fauset refrains from inserting her opinion. I can guess at what she felt, but that's my reading my own views into it. She leaves everything with shades of gray, which is an interesting description since so much of the novel is about black and white and what's in between. But you can apply the principle to other issues, for example, is it okay to use your looks to get what you want? What attractive person hasn't used their looks to get something? Isn't that what Angela does? But does that demean yourself? It happens every second. Yet I think we would be quick to judge Angela because she's betraying her race. Personally, people often underestimate me because of my size. If I round up I'm 5'1". But I can't even begin to count the times I've used that too my advantage. I just found that fascinating.
I adored this novel overall and encourage you to give it a try. It really made me think, and I know it's one that will stick with me for a while, and color my choices in the near future.
Make sure to check out the other posts on the Harlem Renaissance this month at the Classics Circuit.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Shakespeare Wrote for Money

Shakespeare Wrote for Money made me fall a little bit in love with Nick Hornby. I knew nothing about him before reading this, but for some reason I had the impression he would be rather pretentious and literary in an annoying way, like he's trying to hard. Instead, I loved it! He wasn't like that at all. This is actually what I thought I would feel about Ex Libris, which is I was really looking forward reading, and I almost took this back to the library unread. I am so glad I didn't!
Shakespeare Wrote for Money is a collection of essays from Hornby's Stuff I'm Reading column in Believer magazine. Hornby is not at all stuck up and was actually quite funny and entertaining. And he likes books that are also entertaining. They may also be literary, but he prefers the non-boring books. My favorite part of the book was when he talks about the Alex Awards, which are awarded to the top 10 books each year that were written for adults but that would appeal to young adults. In Hornby's words, they are therefore not-boring books. And shouldn't everyone want to read those? Then he rattled off some titles of his own favorite not-boring books, and he included I Capture the Castle, one of my all-time favorites.
I also enjoyed the first essay, where he talks about his desire to move to Oxford, MS, and sit on a veranda and walk to Faulkner's house. My advisor for my undergrad degree specialized in Faulkner and studied at Ole Miss, so with that and the picture of this Londoner wanting to move to Mississippi was quite funny.
The good and not-so-good part of this book was that I kept adding more and more books to my want-to-read list, which is already stuffed full at the moment. And I want to read them all RIGHT NOW. I think that's why I tend to read so many books at once, because I want to eat them all up and make sure I don't miss one and it makes me feel like I'm making more progress.
Hornby mentions a friend of his who takes a few days between finishing books to let the book sink in. I was immediately horrified - think of all the wasted time! Apparently Hornby agrees: "Those of us who read neurotically, however - to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths - can't afford the time."
I think that explains my need to read so many books at once - what if I need that random fact on page 34 of the book about the Tolkien tomorrow, and I make myself finish The Lacuna first? What if I die tomorrow without having read a word of Hilary Mantel? Shouldn't I at least start Wolf Hall so I have at least read a little bit? What if there's something better out there than the book I'm reading right now and I miss it because I'm struggling through this one? And so I end up reading 10 books at once. I have done a much better job of this so far this year though. Until last week I was limiting myself to two at once, but I couldn't seem to focus last week and kept hopping around. It's mainly non-fiction so it's not a big deal, but I'm still trying to not let myself reach double digits. It got so out of control at one point last year that I stopped to count how many books I was currently reading (and had read something of in the last six weeks) and once I reached 20 I stopped counting. I made myself sit down and go through one at a time to finish them all quickly and get that calmed down a bit. Since I finished Shakespeare Wrote for Money this morning, I'm only in the middle of three right now - Plum Bun, Enchanted (about Audrey Hepburn), and Orlando. Oh. And Inventing English. So four. I guess I got up to five yesterday, but I'm finishing Plum Bun tonight so I can review it tomorrow for the Classics Circuit and then I'll be back down to three.
Anyway, I adored Shakespeare Wrote for Money and look forward to reading many of the books he discussed and more Hornby.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ex Libris

I expected to love Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. I think that I assumed that since she loves reading enough to write a book about it, I would feel an immediate affinity with her. But I just didn't connect with her. Something about her writing made me feel like I was being held at arm's length.
I did enjoy a few things, for example, when she talks about people who treat books as precious objects never to be marred in any way (courtly lovers) versus people who physically love their books, making notes in them, leaving them on pause by placing them open, face-down until you return (carnal lovers), I am like her and am a carnal book lover. Spines, in the case of books, are meant to be broken. You can tell my favorite paperbacks by their well worn spines. And until recently I never used real bookmarks. I'd leave the book open or grab whatever was at hand, usually a tissue, a scrap of paper, a pen, another book.
I also enjoyed how she talked about owning books, and was good at creating images of houses overflowing with books. That's how I want my house to be.
I also appreciated having a book of essays to read this week. I've been slammed at work, preparing for my company's annual conference in two weeks and shooting four commercials on top of my regular duties. I've been too drained to concentrate on much at a time at home because my mind keeps flickering to all I need to do. I'm hoping to spend the day reading tomorrow to help relax and be refreshed.
But despite this, I found myself skimming some of the essays and feeling disconnected.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Okay, so I'm 200 pages into Drood and it's due back at the library and my renewal limit is up. Do I finish it anyway and pay a small amount in fines? Or should I just abandon it?

I really want to like this book, and it has lots of wonderful elements, but I feel like it's a bit off. Something isn't keeping my interested. I think Louis Bayard hits in this review. Simmons needs a better editor. Condensing would have been nice here. I'm not put off by large books on their own. I enjoy Dickens himself, Gone with the Wind, and War and Peace. But those books keep me interested. I keep losing interest in Drood after a few pages, which is why it's due back and isn't finished. But I want to know what happens. And I really want to like it because Wilkie Collins is the narrator and it stars Dickens, but it's actually not giving very favorable impressions of either one.

I think writing this has convinced me to just turn it in. But, has anyone finished this and loved it? Any arguments for why I should finish it?

Made in the U.S.A.

It's funny that I read Made in the U.S.A soon after reading Summer. Summer is a departure for Wharton from her usually setting of NYC, and Made in the U.S.A. is a departure for Billie Letts from her usual setting of Oklahoma (although she makes it there eventually). I guess I should read the covers/flaps before diving in so I'm not so thrown off at first by these things!
Letts wrote Where the Heart Is, and several other books that take place in Oklahoma. As this is where I'm from, this is exciting for me because we don't get many books set here, so I think it's nice that Letts writes about her home state. What's funny though is that they're always about rural areas and I've always lived in the city and am not actually that familiar with a lot of the rural areas. They do make me think of the stories my grandparents told me about growing up in rural Oklahoma, and help that come alive for me, since they've lived in the city the entire time I've been alive.
Anyway, this Letts novel was quite different, and not just in the setting. If you've never read Letts before, I would start with Where the Heart Is (don't let the movie steer you away if you haven't read it, although I actually enjoyed the movie). What made this book so different for me is that I didn't like the main character. I know she's 15 and has had a rough life, but I would think that would make you closer to your sibling, not cause you to be mean to them. And she's horribly selfish at first. It's oddly not until she starts a downward spiral during their life in Las Vegas that I feel like she's trying to be selfless and do something for her brother. The things that happen in Vegas are dark, especially since they're happening to a 15-year-old girl. I was surprised at where Letts went, but I think it made sense in the story. I think it speaks of Letts' skill that she was able to make you understand Lutie, and grow to like her more after her reprehensible choices.
If you've read Letts before, I think you need to let go of what you expect from her novels before reading this. I think that's part of the reason why reviews of it were pretty negative. But, even though I wasn't sure about it at first, I ended up liking it and read it pretty much in one sitting, so it held my interest.