On the Nightstand

Today Will Be Different
Rating: 3 out of 5

I loved this book . . .when it was called Where’d You Go Bernadette. Today Will Be Different is a good book, that is just way too similar to her last book. Maria Semple essentially follows the winning formula from Bernadette and tells a story that repeats many of the same themes and plot lines. Bernadette was such as pleasant surprise. Maria Semple needs to break the mold on her next book and tell a tale as original as Bernadette and move to a completely fresh plot.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Rating: 4 out of 5

This is the first adult book I have read by Neil Gaiman, and I was gratified to learn there is not much difference between how Gaiman writes for adults and for children. Gaiman stands alongside David Mitchell as one of the most unique writers publishing today. After finishing a novel by either writer, I am always left shaking my head and asking what just happened–but in a really, really good way.

Beautiful Ruins
Rating: 3 out of 5

Written by Jess Walters and published in 2012, this book was the darling of lots of critics and made it onto many “best of” lists the year it came out. This book has lots of fans. . .I’m just not one of them. I would put it in the category of “summer read,” not only because it’s set on the Italian coast in the 1960s, but it’s a light story that is easy to read, involves rekindled love, and eventually makes its way to modern day Hollywood–all the elements of a beach read. The story didn’t hold my interest as much of other light reads, for instance, Where’d You Go Bernadette. I do love the cover, though. 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Rating: 4 out of 5

I discovered acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in backwards fashion: I started by reading his book of non-fiction, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It was a nice, short tale of how he began running, the various races he’s run and his relationship to running and writing. It was interesting enough to lead me to his novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami appears to be particularly beloved by his legions of fans, but he also elicits a strong response from readers who have tried his novels and find them maddeningly frustrating.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki tells the story of a 20-something young man whose group of friends abandoned him with no explanation. Nearly 20 years later, he embarks on a quest to go back, contact some of the friends and try to reconstruct what may have happened. The story unfolds in a way that is suspenseful and eloquent, and while this is the only Murakami novel I have read, I’m guessing I will be counted among his legion of fans. Next up on my Murakami reading list is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (and not just because it features prominently in one of my favorite books, Patti Smith’s M Train).

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Rating: 3 out of 5

If a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, or the National Book Award, and I don’t rate it five stars, I assume I was too dense to understand its value. But as they say in the tasting rooms in Napa Valley. . .”A good wine is whatever wine you like,” and this was a mediocre wine to my palate.

Pulitzer Prize or not, I could have done with 75 fewer pages. The story of two Jewish cousins, one from Prague and one from New York City, whose fates merge and take them on a journey into the beginnings of the comic book industry and the creation of superheroes. It’s also an immigrant tale, a coming-of-age in the 1950s and a portrayal of the business deals being struck among young artists and the businesses who became wealthy off of their creativity. Not a bad book and I don’t regret reading it, but not nearly as beloved as some of my other Pulitzer Prize favorites.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Rating: 5 out of 5

It may not win the Nobel Prize for Literature. . .but this book was so much fun to read. That’s okay, isn’t it? Plus, I think what Maria Semple pulled off with this satire is a lot harder to achieve than it appears! Balancing a career with parenting, trying to focus on marriage while making a living, and struggling to reconcile all these competing interests–all while negotiating the school pick up line. Not easy, but this book made it really funny.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Rating 4 out of 5

Nothing signals the end of summer quite like a 586 page biography of a founding father. Even so, it’s not half bad! It’s not exactly a page-turner, but I did read 50 pages in one sitting yesterday evening. Not only is it shocking to learn about all the catchphrases (no gains without pains), business concepts (it’s best to not only own the printing press, but to own the content and distribution, too), civic and social groups (libraries!) that Franklin was responsible for, but it’s fun to find out things like he was never legally married to his wife (since she may or may not have had a living husband at the time Franklin moved in with her) and his first child was illegitimate (and his common-law wife was not a fan of him). It had been on my bookshelf for 8 years (determined after a receipt fell out of the book and one of the kids said, “hey, Mom, what’s Borders?”) and I’m glad I picked it up.

The 5th Wave
Rating 4 out of 5

I get made fun of around the house for reading books for teenagers. I read all the Twilight books (lots of fun, maybe not great literature), and the Hunger Games series (scary fun, well-written), so I naturally decided to check out Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave. My approach to reading is that good books are good books, no matter what demographic they are intended for. This one falls squarely within my love of futuristic, dystopian literature. I wanted to read it while on a camping trip. I pictured reading it late into the night in the dark of the tent, using my headlamp for a reading light. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t get finished with the book ahead of it fast enough to do that. It might have been too scary. Even so, this one reaffirms my belief that a good book is a good book, whether it’s intended for teenagers or not.

Blood Will Out

Part Walter Kirn biography, part true-crime book about the Rockefeller impersonator who made international headlines after kidnapping his daughter and later being charged with murder. Kirn is probably best known for writing the novel Up in the Air, which was later turned into a George Clooney movie and earned six Oscar nominations. There were several books written about the Rockefeller impersonation saga, and Kirn’s should be considered by those who are less interested in dissecting the crimes committed and more interested in what it feels like to be friends with someone who is not who they say they are.

The Painter

I loved the Dog Stars. One of the things I loved the most about it was the way it surprised me. I didn’t know much about it, so it probably wouldn’t have taken a lot to exceed my expectations, but expectations or not, it was good. I read a lot of dystopian society novels, and this is one of my favorites. I loved that the main character had a small plane and would take short flights to gather supplies, clear his head, survey the territory. I wanted The Painter to be all that, and I did have expectations going in. Most of them weren’t met. It veered dangerously close to Harlequin Romance territory, and everything the main character in the Dog Stars was, the main character in The Painter was not—most notably, compelling.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings

A massive book by my normal standards, Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning 688-page novel is the first book I read entirely with a pencil in hand since War and Peace. That’s not meant to be an insult, not meant to be a compliment, but the book is a difficult read and requires a lot of attention. Similar to Tolstoy novels, the start of the book greets the reader with a long list of characters, separated out by sections of time and place. There’s a lot here, and most of it is interesting. It’s a fictionalized account of the attempt on Bob Marley’s life that weaves decades of Jamaican politics, drug trade, and life on the streets. It’s worth tackling if one can find the time and focus.

 

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

Writer and professor Timothy Caulfield examines the impact of celebrity culture and endorsement in how the average person views health and happiness. Subtitled “How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness,” the book starts with an analysis of dieting and beauty tips from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Katy Perry. This is the book’s strongest section and the one of most interest to me. Caulfield interviews doctors to understand the health benefits (or lack thereof) of juicing, cleansing, colonics and skin care regimens. His conclusion? Colonics and cleanses are gimmicks with little or no health benefits, and the two most important tools for avoiding wrinkles are using sunscreen on not smoking. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Provence, 1970

Provence,  1970 is a snapshot in time of the American culinary movement that began four decades ago, is still going on and can be traced to a group of food writers and cooks who socialized together in Provence, France in 1970. For those who like reading about the evolution of American cooking and like good writing, Provence is a unique, interesting read that sheds light on the major culinary figures of the time—leaders of the slow-food, locally-sourced, organic, this movement and that movement, that is still growing in momentum in America. The writing is beautiful and it’s a treat to learn more about Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard, among others. Nonetheless, for those who are not interested in culinary arts and the forbearers of the current culinary scene, there will be little of interest in the book. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Little Failure: A Memoir

One of my tried and true methods for choosing books is the New York Times Notable Books list. A big fan of Super Sad True Love Story (for kicks, check out Bill Gates’ quote about the novel—it couldn’t be more true), I thought I would enjoy Shetnyngart’s memoir and was happy to see the New York Times choose it as one of the best of 2014. It turns out, sigh, this was not for me. Did not enjoy the style, struggled to get through it, not sure why it didn’t appeal to me. Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let the Great World Spin

The only part of reading I don’t enjoy is beginning a new book. I love the process of choosing a book, I love the middle and the end of books, but getting involved in a new book is difficult. There’s a period of reading—before the book grabs the reader and takes hold—that feels like work, not entertainment.

This is why I avoid short story collections. They are an accumulation of the part of the process I dread the most, repeated over and over again, and matched up with a shorter payoff period. Every once in a while, I stumble on a book that is a collection of short stories, disguised as a novel. Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award, is a book that weaves characters and stories together, going back and forth and in and out. All of the characters and stories take part in some way on the day of the 1974 New York City tightrope walk of Philippe Petit.

The awards and praise that have been heaped on this novel are probably well-deserved. I just wish I didn’t have to sit down and start a new story so, so many times in the course of the novel. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Yellow Birds

 This is the fourth book I’ve read focused on the war in Iraq. Two have been fiction—The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—and three have been nonfiction— Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, The Good Soldiers and Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.

All were well-written, all had similar accounts that ran through each of their narratives, whether fiction or nonfiction. All left me feeling like I wanted to read and learn more about the topic. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

It’s odd to be reading a book over the holidays that has a picture of a headless woman on the front. This book wasn’t on my reading list, but something comes over me when I walk into the library (usually looking to kill some time occupying kids), and I see a book right there for the taking (or borrowing, as is the case) that was just released and has been getting excellent reviews (and is written by an author who has been responsible for two of my favorite books from the last several years). Sometimes reading a book is about nothing more than access. I had access to it, so I’m reading The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Cooked

Michael Pollan’s writing has impacted the choices I make about food as much as almost anything, outside of my mom’s incredibly effective technique of teaching me simultaneously not to eat too much sugar and bribing church attendance by offering up sugar cereal only once a week—on Sunday mornings. I’ve learned from reading Pollan’s books how the food we eat is produced, including everything from how it is conceived, farmed, shipped and marketed. He has an easy, accessible style of writing about the politics of food and nutrition. As a food evangelist, I find him incredibly effective at continuing to convert. As a writer, I wish he would go further into new territory. I’m beginning to find his books redundant. I got the message, I’ve been converted. Now, I want to continue to be engaged in the topic. I’m not sure Cooked is doing that. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The Flamethrowers

“It’s a great book. As long as you don’t mind that there’s no plot.” That’s how I’ve been describing Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. The main character, “Reno”, moves from Nevada to New York in the 1970s and becomes part of the city’s evolving art scene. Her focus is performance art, and she attempts to ride her Italian motorcycle across Utah salt flats and break time barriers. It’s a beautifully written book, and somehow, someway, it kept me reading. I picked it up over and over to see what would happen next . . . even though very little actually happens. Reno is on a journey of exploration that incorporates friendships, art shows, Italy, radical movements, an older boyfriend, SoHo in the 70s—but not much of a linear plot. Is that okay? Mostly, yes. At a loss to describe the book to someone who asked, I arrived at, “It’s a great book. As long as you don’t mind that there’s no plot.” Raring: 4 out of 5 stars

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love

A New York City writer visits a working, sustainable farm to do an interview and falls in love with the farmer. She quits her job to help run the farm, eventually marrying the farmer, buying a new farm and setting up a CSA that grows fruit and vegetables, produces eggs and raises livestock for their CSA subscribers. Even though I’ve read it many times before, I still found it interesting to learn the details of what goes into producing the food we all eat, and even more interesting to learn how hard it is to pull off organic, sustainable farming. It’s a quick, easy read that any gardener/foodie would enjoy. Can’t quite explain why—probably the cynic in me–I deducted one star from my review after learning the author is a Harvard graduate. Humble, modest, living off the earth. . .Harvard. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Liberator

When something is well-written, any subject matter can be interesting. I’ve been drawn into many a New Yorker article on a topic I had no interest in, only to learn how fascinating most anything can be behind a solid storyteller. The Liberator was my first non-fiction book about World War II. There, I said it. I’ve never read a World War II book before now. Fiction—sure. Non-fiction war writing can be so challenging, though. There’s strategy, artillery, dates, locations, names, places and, of course, battle scenes. Alex Kershaw tells a captivating story, though, and his writing is just plain good. It drew me in, and once again, my lack of historical knowledge on the aspects of World War II that the book focuses on—storming the beaches of Italy and the battle of Anzio—made the book gripping and even suspenseful at times. It just may not be my last attempt at World War II non-fiction. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

2001: a space odyssey

This book traveled with me to three different houses over the course of almost 20 years, passing by the actual year 2001 without any activity. It has yellow pages, smells a little musty and the price on the front indicates it sold for $1.75. I finally picked it up to read. I think one of the reasons it stayed on the shelf so long was that I’d somehow convinced myself I’d already read it. Famous movies have a way of overshadowing books in that way.

I didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would. Maybe Kubrick made it look so darn cool, there was no way the musty hand-me-down could have lived up to what I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised, even sometimes shocked, how close several of Arthur C. Clarke’s depictions of life at 2001 are true to our lives today. From one of the picture’s captions: “Mission Commander Bowman. . . eats an automatically-produced meal while on the Newspad, a kind of flat portable TV device which can display any type of visual or printed material.” The Newspad, huh. 1968. Rated: 3 out of 5 stars

A Hologram for the King

I like to read books that have won an award. It’s a lazy way of vetting out bad literature. Or is it? I’ve found that I like Pulitzer Prize winners the best. I usually like National Book Award winners, although sometimes they are a bit too highbrow and inaccessible. Nobel Prize-winning books usually aren’t very fun to read.  That’s the one award that makes me approach a book with caution. The problem with using awards as a vetting process is the feeling you’re left with when the book is over and you didn’t like it. Does that make you, the reader, dumb? Were other people more capable of understanding the value of the book than you? Are you just not smart enough to pick up on all the fine nuances of the piece of literature? Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King packs a double punch: it’s not only stamped with the prestigious “National Book Award Finalist” sticker on the front cover, it’s also advertised as “one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year.” Now I really have to like it. And, I did. I just didn’t love it. Rated: 3 out of 5 stars

Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell trilogy” is considered historical fiction. . .by anyone who has a dimwit’s knowledge of world history. I’m apparently one step below dimwit level, so for me, the books are filed under suspense. When I read the first book, Wolf Hall, I couldn’t wait to keep reading to find out what was going to become of Katherine of Aragon. In Bring up the Bodies, King Henry VIII has become disenchanted with his new wife, Anne Boleyn. I understand, from a more informed member of society than I (and someone who failed to warn me with a “spoiler alert”) that this will not end well for Anne Boleyn. Sometimes being historically oblivious has its perks. Rated: 5 out of 5 stars

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

I’ve always had a passion for astronomy and the engineering and scientific principles behind space travel. Just joking. I found this astronaut/author on the internet after he did a cover version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”–while in space! I figure it’s not a bad thing if I learn a little bit about science while I read the story of how the “Space Oddity” video came about. I get the feeling that if Col. Chris Hadfield had been a high school teacher, he would have been the cool guy who realizes sometimes you have to trick students into wanting to learn new things. Whether that’s the case or not, I fell for it. When he brought David Bowie into real-life space travel, I followed, and now I’m learning about science. Rated 2 out of 5 stars

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Short story collections:  I have a hard time with them. The most difficult part of a book is the “getting into it” part. I labor for about the first 30 pages, then I love. With short stories, the “getting into it” part starts up over and over and over and . . .

What if each story only takes about two pages to grab a reader, though? What if the stories feel perfect at the exact length they are? Then, would a short story collection work? Yes, and with this collection by Nathan Englander, they work. It was a New York Times Notable Book and an NPR Best Book of 2012. It’s got me thinking I might be ready to tackle George Saunders’ Tenth of December. Rated: 4 out of 5 stars

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn and the Army’s Bravo Company are in the middle of a patriotic heroes’ tour after having performed bravely in a deadly firefight that was caught on film by a news crew. During the appearances that Billy and Bravo Company make, he explores his relationship to the war, his family back home and the citizens for whom he serves on behalf of. The Dallas Cowboys and their fictional, yet recognizable owner, stadium and support staff, play prominent roles in this novel. Author Ben Fountain repeatedly finds ways to blend humor with the seriousness of the subject through Billy’s introspection. I was reading this novel earlier in the week while waiting around on jury duty. When my fellow potential juror asked what I was reading, I had a hard time articulating how a war novel could be appropriately humorous, but I assured her it was. Rated: 3 out of 5 stars

Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever

I have a bike. I ride it twice a year for a half hour. I don’t know anything about cycling. I dread when the Tour de France comes on. I have family members that go nuts for it. They get excited to see who’s in the lead, what stage is being raced, where the course will take the riders each day. They use words like peloton.  It’s not my thing.

Maybe that’s the very definition of a good book: when a subject matter shouldn’t interest you in the least, yet the book manages to draw you into the topic. Sometimes you even get drawn in, interested, excited, engaged in the subject matter in way that takes you past the book.

Then you find yourself starting to use the word peloton in conversation and wondering when the Tour de France starts. Rated: 4 out of 5 stars

Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking.

If it were hip hop, it would be called “old school.” If it were a football uniform, it would be called a “throwback.” I found it at the library, and I’m loving it. Linda McCartney was cooking healthy before it was cool.

Published in 1989, the book starts with a thorough directory of vegetables, fruits, grains, spices and herbs. It details when they are in season, how to buy and cook with them, and what their nutritional benefits are. (This would have been helpful when I had the CSA box and vegetables were showing up at the door I had no idea what to do with!)

Yes, the book is dated. The photography and descriptions feel like they are from another era. The recipes were ahead of their time, though, and feel current. Maybe cooking with vegetables doesn’t ever really go out of style. Rated 4 out of 5 stars

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