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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Public Service Announcement: Do Not Read This Book at Night

Because you won't sleep. I haven't, for the last three nights or so, and just this morning I woke up after a particularly creepy dream where I was trying to go about my normal life but I had to carry a gun with me to shoot the Gs that were swarming the town.

Yes, I could have the book down and tried to sleep, but you try starting a chapter from this book and then putting it down. I dare you. Anyhow the details:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Reason for Reading: IRL Bookclub
Rating: 5/5

It's called African Rabies at first, but like so many things during World War Z, the information got mixed up. It actually started in China, with a child who moans and writhes and oozes gray goop instead of blood. In America, the government approves a useless vaccine to placate a population restless with rumors. In Russia, the soldiers who first spot the dead who don't stay dead are forced to turn their guns on themselves to keep the secret. Israel abruptly closes its borders.

But eventually the truth is impossible to deny. The Great Panic sweeps over the entire globe and suddenly humans find themselves in the minority. Governments retreat, if they exist at all, refugees travel... anywhere that seems to offer safety.

When the US Government finally pulls itself together enough to start cleaning out the country of zombies, they face an enemy 250 million strong. An enemy that can't be spooked or have their food supply cut off or be overpowered by exhaustion. An enemy that keeps on coming until their brains are destroyed.

Set in the near future, World War Z is a collection of interviews of survivors of the zombie war. What makes this book so fascinating, and terrifying, is the realistic manner it predicts the world will behave to a threat that takes everyone by surprise. Most governments, it tells us, will bury their heads in the sand until it's too late. And even then, to survive they'll have to make impossible choices about which citizens to save and which citizens to throw to the zombies to keep them distracted.

Although large sections of the book are dedicated to the American front (with plenty of sly references to our current government, celebrities and the unique American way of thinking), this book reaches out to see how other cultures would react to the threat. Some with denial, others with detachment, others with opportunism. Cuba, in this scenario, becomes a major world player and a major destination for North American refugees.

The book flows and builds much better than you would expect what is essentially a collection of short stories to do. Most are horrifying, but some are funny, some are touching, and some have a "Twilight Zone" element to them. The story of a downed pilot in zombie-infested Louisiana was especially memorable.

Zombies are a terrific metaphor, and this book has plenty to say about the government's attitude towards an impossible enemy. When the rumors start about African Rabies, a particularly opportunistic company begins marketing a vaccine for rabies that they claim will protect everyone against the zombies.

We never lied, you understand? They told us it was rabies, so we made a vaccine for rabies. We said it had been tested in Europe and the drugs it was based on had been tested in Europe. Technically, we never lied... Who was going to blow the whistle? The medical profession? We made sure it was a prescription drug so doctors stood just as much to lose as us. Who else? The FDA who let it pass? The congressmen who all voted for the acceptance? The surgeon general? The White House? This was a win-win situation! Everyone got to be heroes, everyone got to make money...It (the vaccine) protected them from their fears. That's all I was selling.

Like the generals who ordered cavalry charges in World War One only to discover that the new rules of warfare had made horses obsolete, all of the technology, the enormous bombs and tanks and strategic thinking of the modern era prove to be completely and utterly useless against zombies. Brooks has imagined out a fascinating method that the US Army eventually adopts to fight zombies, completely unlike anything seen before.

Ultimately, details like that are what make this book succeed. Brooks has clearly spent a lot of time thinking out this apocalyptic scenario and how each of the characters in the book would react to it. We get not only the perspective of a few poor saps holed up in the mall, fending off an army of zombies, but a global view of what's happening. Through each story, we get a different piece of the whole picture.

By the end of the book, I noticed that the actual science of what makes zombies work is never explained. I realized immediately afterwards that it doesn't matter. When I watch Star Trek do I really care that the warp drive defies the laws of physics? Am I disturbed by the fact that Indiana Jones can take six bullets and still beat up three bad guys in a row? (Hmmm....) No, because the book isn't about zombies, it's about the people left behind and how they will face the challenge of their era.

Highly recommended! Read it! Just not late at night, or you may have weird dreams. And in case you're wondering, I have a 40% chance of surviving a zombie war and you can find out your odds here. (Click on "Calculate Risk").

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pickles and Ice Cream

The other day I mentioned that I suspect that if were ever to become pregnant, I would have cravings for pickles and ice cream. Apparently, this is not an uncommon phenomenon. (Thank you trish for pointing this one out to me.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Long Story About Blog Awards

I had a long weekend. It started out on a bad note when I showed up on Saturday to a family baby shower. I realized that I was the only one there, and the lights were off inside the house. As it turned out, the shower had been canceled and if I had listened to my voicemail before leaving, I would have not driven an hour for said baby shower.

On Sunday, husband and I packed up for another hour long trip to my parent's house for a family birthday party. We arrived, and had a similar experience. Lights off, no one around. As it turns out, we had gone to the wrong location. The party was actually at my grandma's house, an hour away from our present location. After we drove to the party, we then finally went home (which happens to be another hour away).

This did not make for a happy or economical weekend. In both these situations, the common element was family, and therefore I blame everything on them. I refuse to accept responsibility for not checking my voicemails and/or forgetting the location of said birthday party.

Anyhow. So amidst all of this, there was a highlight, in which husband I and were able to visit some good friends, and we arrived on the correct day, at the correct time. After eating dinner, we all got to chatting, and eventually we all got around to talking about blogging. Both friends have been blogging rather longer than I have and now my husband has (finally!) forayed into the blogging world.

It occurred to me later (much to my shame) that I have never so much as added any of them to my blogroll. So henceforth, there is a section of my blogroll dedicated to my "IRL friends", and today I'm going to tell you why they are so cool.

They are so cool, in fact, that I'm passing on this award to them. (Letters on Pages nominated me for this one originally here.) Yes, they are all brillante.

Let me start with my husband. You've come to know and love him already from my anecdotes about him, but let me introduce you to the man. The myth. The legend. My husband is an unabashed foodie and thusly his blog has a foodie bent to it. But if you pop over there right now, you'll find he actually has a book review up at the moment. So if you've read Collapse by Jared Diamond or think that sounds like an interesting book, leave him a comment and I promise, you will make his day. To intrigue you further, let me just quote from his header, because as I commented to him the other day it sums things up so nicely:

Any midwestern grillhouse is a great place to share not only great food, but great people and great ideas. Let's share.

Doesn't that just make you want to read more? Okay, I know I'm biased and all, but really, I think it sounds cool.

Nextly, I can't say enough good things about Lauryn. She lived with me in college and despite that, still considers me a friend. She and Aaron (more about him next) are extremely good cooks and every time we visit them, they always make some extremely scrumptious dish. Lauryn is now sharing all her awesomest recipes at White Kitchen. I'm awaiting the recipe for the amazing chicken pot pie they made for us this past weekend, myself. Honestly, the thought of it makes my mouth water.

Okay, so now on to Aaron. He is just cool because without him getting after me, I probably would not have joined the Graphic Novel challenge (which would have been a tragic mistake as I loves it muchly). He is a big fan of graphic novels, movies (don't try to take him on in Scene-It. You will die.), and the silly/absurd. (Thanks to Aaron I am aware of such things as Steampunk Star Wars and the I. Beat Blaxx mp3 player. I'm trying very hard to talk him into becoming more of a book blogger, so if you march right over there and ask him to post a review of Stardust and American Gods (he's read or reading them both right now), I'd be much obliged.

Lastly, but not leastly is someone else who has managed to live with me and is alive today to tell the tale. I'm pretty sure that Giulia was born the wrong nationality, because she has such a love and interest in all things Russian. At her blog, Storytellerg, she's been going strong for four whole years now, blogging about life, friends, family, and Russia. So go, wish her a happy blogiversary here.

And so my friends, I have passed on the blogging award. There are strings attached to it:

1. Put the award logo on the post
2. Link back to the person who nominated you
3. Nominate 7 other blogs
4. Add links to your nominees
5. Leave a message on their blogs

But I hope you can live with that.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend Fiction Break: The Story of My Name

The part of the show where I post my own fiction.

The Story of My Name

I was born on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, under an especially auspicious sky. My mother was a noblewoman who married below her rank to a knight. She was allowed a love match because she was the youngest daughter in a large family and enough of her brothers and sisters had married well that her indiscretion was permitted, if not exactly admired.

My mother was in such pain as I struggled to be born that she thought she would certainly die. I was laid out at last in her arms and the sight of my red, wailing face calmed her anxiety.

Her husband was out on patrol but servants had been sent to find him. I had just suckled at my mother’s breast for the first time when a man galloped up to the house and rushed into her chamber.

“Your husband is dead,” he said grimly. “He was on patrol and overheard a plot to overthrow the king. He rode to warn the king when he was intercepted and killed. Madam, I was a good friend of your husband’s and even now the plot he discovered is being carried out. There will be a great deal of chaos and because of my loyalty to your husband, I came to warn you that you must take your child and leave. Make no mistake, if they succeed, they will come for you.”

From his pocket he drew out a rose that had been pressed between the covers of a book. “I regret that I could not retrieve the body for you, but I found this for you. It is a wild rose, and a rare one. I wish I had better news for you.” And with that the man left.

My mother gathered up me, the money she could find, and left with her maid. After a week’s journey, they were stopped at an inn, when the maid said, “Despite everything, your daughter be named after all. Have you chosen something, mistress?”

“Rose,” said my mother, as the tears rolled down her face.

I was born on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. If my mother had had the money to consult an astrologer, she would have known that it was an auspicious day for a child to be born. At the moment I was trying to be born, she was more concerned with where her husband was than the fate predicted by the stars. Her husband had left three days ago, to get the money for the midwife, he’s said.

My mother could only hope that eventually he might sober enough to recall that he had a pregnant wife and a midwife who needed paying. At last, I came, reluctant to enter the world. My mother had not eaten in days and quickly gave up trying to nurse me when it was evident that neither she nor I had the inclination for it.

The midwife grew cross indeed when my mother told her that she did not have the money to pay her yet. “I will pay you as soon as my husband returns,” my mother told her, “he’s gone out to get the money for you. He’ll return soon, and I know where to bring it.”

“Your husband is a worthless drunk and I was a fool to think you’d pay.” The midwife left and my mother spilled a great many tears onto my red cheeks. At that very moment, a friend of her husband came to our hut in a great deal of hurry.

“Your husband is dead,” he said, breathlessly. “I am sorry. He insulted another man or it could have been the other man insulted him, but either way he was slower with his knife. I wish I had better news.”

My mother was too shocked to wail. “I haven’t even the money to pay the midwife who delivered my baby,” she said, “I can’t bury him. Oh the shame, to be buried in a pauper’s grave!”

My mother was still a very beautiful woman, and perhaps the man’s heart was softened perhaps at the sight of a lovely woman in such distress. He gave her a handful of coins wrapped in a handkerchief and left. When my mother unwrapped the handkerchief, she admired its fineness. It was soft white silk, embroidered with a border of roses around the edges. The coins were enough to bury her husband and pay the midwife and even to eat for a few days.

Together we wailed for the father I would never know, and then when my mother had finished crying for the first and last time over her dead husband, she held me close and rocked me.

“My little Rose,” she said.

Thoughts on what I wrote? Leave a comment or email me boldblueadventure AT gmail DOT com.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Six Quirky Things About Me

Alice tagged me for this meme. The rules are to:
  • Link to the person who tagged me
  • Mention the rules
  • Tell six quirky yet boring, unspectacular details about myself
  • Tag 6 other bloggers by linking to them
  • Go to each person’s blog and leave a comment that lets them know they’ve been tagged
Hmmm... quirky but boring...

I like pickles. I like ice cream. Sometimes I like them one right after the other. I think when (if) I get pregnant I'll get cravings to have them at the same time.

My goal this summer is to hit up every ice cream shop on the Twin Cities Magazine Best of Summer list. Weirdest flavor tasted so far: Irish Whiskey, with a scoop of Guinness.

When in the car, I have an insatiable urge to do something besides just drive. Sometimes this urge is satisfied by listening to the radio, but when that just doesn't do it for me, I talk to myself. I'd tell you what I talk about with myself, but then I'd have to kill you.

I've never watched the entire Wizard of Oz. I somehow never managed to see the whole thing growing up. In high school, I played the Coroner of Munchkinland in our fall musical. (To my everlasting horror there was a singing line which terrified the crap out of me.) I know the entire plot having read many, many, many of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, but I just never watched the whole thing.

I can't sleep if there is the slightest noise. Ticking clocks drive me insane. Even the hum of a computer that hasn't been turned off can keep me up. So I usually sleep with a fan on to cover up any ambient noise. College dorm living was almost my undoing. Between living next to a girl with an extremely loud sound system to roommates up typing to the crack of dawn, I learned the best way to cope was to stay up later than everyone else. And consequently I didn't get much sleep for a few years.

I wrote my first story before I knew how to write. I had a particular babysitter that I adored because we would pull out a blank notebook, I would dictate my story to her, and then I'd draw the illustrations. Sometimes I'd scribble on a piece of paper in imitation of writing and then ask a grown up to please tell me what I'd written.

Okay, so there you have it. I now nominate:

Trish (Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?)
Mrs. S
Andi (Tripping Toward Lucidity)
Stephanie's Confessions of a Bookaholic
Gautami Tripathy

Thursday, July 24, 2008

From The Inbox

I get a lot of email requests to review books. Sometimes the publicist or author has taken time to actually look at my blog and see what sort of books and topics I'm interested in, other times they are just generic mass emails. For example, these two email requests this morning.

New book: So Why Have You Never Been Married?

In 1980, 6% of men ages 40-44 were never married. Today that number has jumped to 17%. Men are delaying or avoiding marriage like never before and the question is, why? A new book sheds light on what these bachelors are thinking and the influences that have caused these men to remain single.

So why do men remain bachelors into their 40s and beyond, some forever? Is there something wrong with them for failing to wed --or with society for expecting them to be married by now? Is their decision out of choice? Are they happy? We are privy to answers to these crucial questions with an enlightening new book, So Why Have You Never Been Married: Ten Insights Into Why He Hasn't Wed, by a 49-year-old never-married man, Carl Weisman, MS...

I can tell you that this request was sent to me generically, because you who actually read my blog will already know that I'm married. Happily so. So sorry, but my interest in reading about why males in their forties have never married is pretty much zilch.

On to the next one.


Why are never-married, divorced and widowed women opting to stay single today? Why Women Shouldn't Marry: Being Single By Choice is an important new book by mother-daughter co-authors Cynthia S. and Hillary B. Smith that points out the pitfalls of marriage and remarriage, reveals statistics that back up the current trend, and recounts the experiences of women of all ages who no longer feel marriage is the only way to go.

In this update of her highly successful book written twenty years ago that continues to bring her letters from grateful women who found the book empowered them to eschew marriage, Cynthia and her daughter did extensive research on the current state of marriage that shows it to be a weakened institution that is no longer a societal necessity for women. The book features interviews with young women who no longer need the derivative prestige of a "good marriage" since they themselves are doctors, lawyers and successful career professionals. Widows who say they "never again want to wash another man's socks" describe how they are enjoying new lives of unprecedented independence that includes the freedom to openly have lovers - without the children's disapproval! The book warns older widows that remarrying men of advanced years means the job title may be nurse. Divorced women describe the problems of remarrying when you have kids and why you should think twice before bringing a stepfather into your home.

"No Way Wedlock" describes women who refuse to marry the men they live with. "They Wanted to Marry In The Worst Way - and Did" tells about the sad lives of women who mistakenly married out of desperation. "Parent Power" describes what happens to women who allow their parents to pressure them into wrong liaisons. "Closet Singles" is about women who only go out with unmarriageable men because they truly do not want permanent attachments. "The Motherhood Option: Non-Mothers and Single Mothers" describes the new-morality of not marrying the dads, and destroys the myth that all women have the maternal instinct. The book contains handy Guides and Checklists like The WHY YOU SHOULDN'T MARRY GUIDE that outlines the many wrong reasons to marry. THE SOUL MATE CHECKLIST gives the unrealistic qualifications that many young women today claim to be seeking. And then there is the handy DON'T-BREAK-YOUR-HEART CHECKLIST OF WHAT-NOT-TO-EXPECT-FROM-MEN'.

Why Women Shouldn't Marry: Being Single By Choice is filled with case histories of women of all ages who have chosen not to marry and manage to live happily ever after. It's an important book that documents the huge changes in attitudes to marriage and reassures women that today they have the option to stay single and still live a fulfilling happy and perfectly normal life.

Just the book blurb had my hackles up. Are we seriously still in the 1950's? Where the housewife ironed her husband's shirts and vacuumed simultaneously while wearing her pearls? The trend today is to marry later and with divorce rates as high as they currently are, more and more people are living as singles anyhow. Do we really need a self help book to encourage a trend already so prevalent in society?

Anyhow. Again, happily married. Not really my style. If you happened to be interested in either of those books and you have a blog, go ahead and email me. I'll forward your information.

So every once in a while, through hit or miss, I do get a few requests for books I'm really interested in. In fact, my stack of review books to be read has pretty much overtaken my coffee table. This picture shows you some recent acquisitions.

I've actually finished Marie-Therese, but the rest are still waiting. Maybe one of these will strike my fancy today for reading material. I need something lightweight that will compete with my desire to be completely lazy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Write On Wednesday

Today will be the first time I've actually remembered to check Write on Wednesday on a Wednesday. Becca's question is:

What do the three P’s of writing…practice, pleasure, profit…mean in your writing life?

I once entered a poem into a poetry contest for Minnesota high schoolers and wouldn't you know it, I won. I was published in an anthology and given a $50 savings bond. I did not know that savings bonds took so long to mature, so when I finally cashed it out, it was worth $35. And that is the extent of how I have profited, money-wise, from writing. I support myself at the moment on a regular job and I genuinely hope I never have to support myself financially from writing, because at my regular job I still get paid for the days when I'm bored and spend all day pretending to work while secretly playing solitaire.

I've been committing to write more this year and sometimes succeeding. I don't have the practice of writing on a daily basis, for any number of reasons that would amount to nothing more than excuses. On an irregular basis, I post some short fiction on this blog, but I'm torn about it. If I ever went back and wanted to submit any of those stories for publication somewhere, I'd have problems, as publishers don't want fiction you've already published on a blog. However, giving myself a reason to work on writing makes me actually write, which is a good thing. So I've stuck firmly to the irregular schedule of my fiction. And writing. The thought of taking an actual writing class (oh why did I not take one in college when I was already taking out student loans??) has crossed my mind more than once.

And lastly, writing is a pleasurable activity in general, however I have a tendency to give up on it when it becomes less pleasurable (i.e. I get stuck or can't think of the right words). The greatest pleasure (right up there with finally graduating from college and getting a raise) is reading something I wrote and realizing that I actually like it.

Alright, enough writing about writing. Back to actual writing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pictures That Are Worth 1000 Words

Rusty was the most excited participant in the family reunion that husband and I went to last weekend. There were more people to lick and kids to pet him than he could shake a paw at. Rusty vied all morning for "Cutest Little Thing Ever" with the baby you can see in the picture. Eventually, though, the stress of being so damn cute got to both of them and they both fell asleep. On top of each other.

I brought two books along with me for the weekend, but no luck getting into them. I am still working on Farworld and I thought I'd want to start I Am Legend.

Looks like I'll be setting both of those books aside though, because I just got an email from my library that World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars was in for me. My IRL bookclub picked that for next month, for which I am eternally grateful, because I've been looking for an excuse to read it anyhow.

I'm suggesting the books for next month, and I'm trying to decide what book to suggest. I want to introduce people to a type of book they might not read otherwise, so I seriously considered suggesting a graphic novel. However I think the group would rebel, as World War Z was pretty edgy for everyone. So maybe I'll suggest some fantasy. I have been on a Neil Gaiman kick lately, but I don't know if everyone gets his style. Plus, I've read like eight books by him in the last few months. I guess the other category that I could introduce everyone to is YA. What good YA books would appeal to adults who don't necessary think that they would like YA? Hmmm... must contemplate.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Who will be haunting my dreams??

The Joker, of course. I just got back from seeing Batman on the Ultrascreen. If Heath Ledger doesn't win every award they can throw at him for his performance as the Joker my name isn't Kim L. The hype over his performance is not just about his untimely death after the filming of the movie, it is about a role that should have been career-making.

With due respect to Christian Bale, who was once again excellent as Batman, this was the Joker's show from start to finish. He starts by ripping off Gotham's mob bosses then walks in to their secret meeting and convinces them that they should work for him instead. And because he's just that crazy, they end up agreeing with him.

Bruce Wayne, vigilante that he is, still thinks of the Joker as a conventional criminal at first. This is his first mistake. The Joker doesn't follow the normal rules of criminals. He doesn't follow any rules. Neither does this movie. Superhero movie rules dictate that major characters must not die, endings must neatly tie everything up except for the allowance of possible sequels and heroes are heroes, villians are villians.

We're plunged, instead into the possibility that Batman really isn't that different from the Joker after all. That maybe to save the things he cares about he'll have to cross the line.

I think you will have to search high and low for a negative review of this movie, and yes, I say that it does live up to the hype.

On Writing

I've had a writing itch this week. I've been making more and more use out of Google Docs, which is basically a stripped down version of Word. The really cool thing is that my stories are then saved online, so wherever I have internet, I have time to write. Instead of surfing the net during my downtime at work, I can write. This is good. My goal this year is to write more. Especially since nanowrimo is coming up and I promised myself I would try it this year. (Hyperventilates).

Where I am in my writing? I am writing about people, places, and things. I'm rewriting Sleeping Beauty's story to see what would happen if she had been cursed with eternal wakefulness first before the lengthy nap. I'm imagining "what if I was a ten-year-old girl who could be invisible?" I'm taking the opening line that popped into my head one day: "It was exactly 12 'o clock noon when I almost committed suicide" and seeing what story pops out of it.

I'm trying to take the most important rule of being a writer to heart, which is "WRITE!!" It is scary to write. It is scary to write about my writing. I flounder a lot. I scribble out what I think must have been the dumbest thing ever more times than I want to say. But sometimes I reread what I've written and I'm happy with it. And that, I suppose is what keeps me at it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Chocolate War Vs. Breakout

I really love My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. I have read a lot of Dangerously Challenging Books that I would have never picked up if not for this challenge. I really thought for sure that this month, with the YA theme, would be the easiest.

However, I'm sad to report I didn't like The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. I have read half-way and I'm giving up. I won't go on and on about it, but I thought the book was silly and the characters unbelievable. There is a private school, a secret society that controls everyone through fear, and an annual chocolate sale. I just could not find myself believing that a small group of teenage boys would actually be able to exert as much control as the Vigils, the secrety society in this book does. The whole book was about psychological manipulation, but so far the writing hasn't lived up to it. I could see all the surprises that were coming.

So. I'm moving on to Breakout. Which happens to be the title of a Paul Fleischman book.

Author: Paul Fleishman
Reason for Reading: YA Reading Challenge, My Year of Reading Dangerously
Rating: 4/5

Del's running away from home. She's been bounced from foster home to foster home all of her seventeen years, and she's finally rounded up enough money to fake her own death, change her name, and leave Los Angeles. The only problem is that once she tries to leave, she gets stuck in a monster traffic jam. The kind only LA has. The kind where you are stuck in traffic for the day.

Interspersed in the narrative is another traffic jam. This time, it is a one-woman play called Breakout that Del's written, inspired by the day she was trapped in a traffic jam 8 years ago.

This is a short, unusual novel. In fact, I don't even really want to call it a novel. It is, by way of style and character development, a lengthy short story. There are two scenes, no other narrative for Del.

So, traffic jams. In both narratives, the characters at first stay in their cars, then they shut off their cars, then finally when it becomes obvious that no one's going anywhere, they start getting out to mingle. The oddness of people interacting in this setting provides interest to the story.

If you are the mood for a quick, digestible read, this one might just hit the spot.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a Giveaway

Author: Betty Smith
Reason for Reading: IRL Book Club, Classics Challenge
Rating: 5/5

In the foreword that Anna Quindlan wrote for this edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she sums it up thusly:

"In its nearly 500 pages, nothing much happens. Of course, that's not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens, from birth and death to marriage and bigamy.... The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human."

The main protagonist of this book, Francie Nolan, is a girl living in the poor tenements of Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. Her mother, Katie, works as a janitress to support her, her brother Neeley and her father Johnny, a happy-go-lucky singing waiter who has had the misfortune in life of becoming more attached to the bottle than regular work.

The book is about Francie, about her family, about the course her life takes her. It is about growing up, about surviving, about life. Running as a theme throughout the course of the book is the poverty that Francie lived in.

There was half of a cold broiled lobster, five stone cold fried oysters, an inch jar of caviar and a wedge of Roquefort cheese. The children didn't like the lobster and the cold oysters had no taste and the caviar seemed too salty. But they were so hungry that they ate everything on the table and digested it too, during the night. They could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.

Francie earns a little pocket money with her brother collecting junk, and the feeling of a nickel to buy candy makes her feel wealthy.

Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floorwalker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say, yes, buy it and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided.

Betty Smith herself grew up in Brooklyn during the same era, born five years to the day before her protagonist. I'm not sure how much of the book is autobiographical, but a particular scene made me wonder. Francie, who has always gotten A's on her essays, is trying to reason with her teacher over the recent stories she has written about her father and their life. Her teacher has given her C's on the papers, and explains it is because of her subject matter.

"But poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn't write about them."

Francie's frustration when the teacher tells her to go burn her writings causes her to go home and burn everything else she has written except for the stories in question. I would love to know if this or something similar actually happened to Betty Smith as she worked on this book.

Although my description thus far makes this sound like a grim book, it is far from that. It is full of both parts funny and sad vignettes from the life of the Nolan family. Francie's wild aunt Sissy always brings about humorous situations. Sissy works at a rubber factory where some rubber toys are made as a front, but the real product is a completely different kind of "rubbers". While watching Francie and Neeley, she inadvertantly leaves them a few of what they believe to be balloons. When their mother comes homes and spies the "balloons" hanging out the window, she is so humilated, plans are immediately made to move and Sissy is disinvited from their home. But Sissy is so lively, so fun, that the invitation is extended again soon enough.

Sissy quickly found her way into my heart as one of my favorite characters. In fact, my favorite line about Sissy is:

Sissy, who was done with her wild past, and who should have been settling down into the calm that precedes satisfied middle age, threw the family into a turmoil by falling madly in love with the John to whom she had been married for more than five years. Not only that, but she got herself widowed, divorced, married and pregnant-all in ten day's time.

In contrast, Francie's down-to-earth mother, Katie, keeps the family grounded throughout the many hardships they face. Despite their deprivations, she insists that they all save their extra pennies in a tin can bank to buy a piece of land for their very own someday. And she fights especially hard for her children to be educated. When they are on the verge of starvation, Katie pretends with the children that they are on an expedition to the North Pole, until they get the money to make it through another week.

We go through with Francie as she grows up, falls in love, and learns what it really means to be a woman. I was so delighted with the book that even when it ended with a nice bow to tie everything up, I wasn't annoyed. I just wanted to know what comes next for Francie and her family.

At times this book reminded me of parts of The Bluest Eye and Angela's Ashes, but I can tell you that of the three memoirs of extreme poverty, I would pick this book anytime. Highly recommended.

Other reviews:
Trish's Reading Nook

Unrelated Note:
Do you love free books?? Trish from Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading? is hosting a ginormous contest to give away 14 books to up to five people. You can earn entries by leaving comments on the post and advertising it on your blog (as I am here).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

This N' That

With all the hoopla for fireworks going on, I've been noticing this logo cropping up. In Minnesota, the restrictions on fireworks are heavier than in the neighboring Wisconsin, it is an annual tradition for normally law-abiding Minnesotans to cross the border once a year and buy their illegal fireworks so they, too, can have the chance to possibly blow their hand off in an attempt to celebrate American Independence.

I understand the marketing person who came up with this logo probably was going for a phantom of the comic-book variety, but if you ask me, the only thing it is missing is a scythe. Then he'd really resemble this guy:

Truth in advertising? A warning to play safely with your illegal fireworks or you'll receive a visit from the Grim Reaper... er Phantom? You decide!

Anyhow. As dog owners, we have a tendency to present stimuli to our dog to see their reaction whether or not he actually enjoys it. This video is a case in point. Rusty is not much of a barker. He does not bark at guests or other dogs or almost anything. Except spinning tops. Rusty clearly was taking the spinning top much more seriously than we were. I don't understand why dogs chase laser pointers or bark at spinning tops, but as long as they do, I'll have a laser pointer and a top for them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


My great-grandmother recently turned 100. My mother wrote a sanitized version of her life and times in the local newspaper, but let me level with you. For as long as I remember, she was a cranky old lady I avoided like the plague as a child and have seen only once in the past five years.

I don't mean to drag the name of a elderly senile relative through the mud, but her recent birthday has me feeling feeling reflective. If there is such a thing as longevity genes, I've certainly got them, as the women on both sides of my family have lived well into their nineties. (The men on the other hand... well, let's not talk about the lengthy widowhood my great-grandmothers experienced).

At 100 years old, God-willing, I hope that I have something more significant to say about my life than "She's done the best she can with the resources that were available to her." (The headline of great-grandma's article). Hopefully things like "She was a world-famous writer who gave inspiration to millions", but I'll settle for "Well-loved by her family and friends."

When a friend of mine died almost two years ago from battle injuries he sustained fighting in Iraq, I thought a lot about death. Contemplating the mortality of someone who was full of life made my mind think about all of the possible ways I could die young... cancer, car accident on the way to work, allergic reaction to the sushi at my favorite sushi place. Baring all that, eventually I'll give out someday. I thought about it so much eventually it stopped being scary and just sort of inevitable. I decided that my best route to go was to not waste time. I only have so much time to love my husband, friends, family, to read, blog, enjoy the outdoors, to write, think, passionately defend my political opinions, play with the puppy, and enjoy life.

Happily, I have many other role models besides my great-grandma to look up to in life who have done just that... lived their lives by loving other people and doing what they enjoyed in life. My grandma, for example, got married last weekend. She has been a widow for almost 20 years, and fell in love again recently with an old friend. I admire her for many things, not the least being the fact she believes so much in love.

I read a book recently, Life is So Good, about centenarian named George Dawson who learned how to read at the age of 98. Although he seemed to scoff throughout the book at the idea he was anything special, he had managed to stay hopeful and optimistic about life. While reading, I couldn't help but admire him. Both he and my great-grandma lived through a similar era; both got raw deals in life. Both made their choices about how to react to it. My great-grandma chose to become bitter, George Dawson to remain optimistic. An entire century of life. Gosh that's only 77 years away. I've got some things I need to get done first...

Monday, July 7, 2008

Some Nice Things

I'm feeling especially excited, thank you to Love who sent me an Amazon giftcard for winning her trivia game (it was a challenging one, too!), and Dewey, who drew my name for We Are On Our Own.

I just went to the bookstore last night and bought my first full-price book of the year. I've hit up a few library sales and Amazon sales, but alas, I needed this book asap so I can read it before my bookclub next week. I'll be busily cramming in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

By the way, we had a great 4th of July and the puppy pretty much made friends with everyone we saw. A few people asked if they could bring him home, and I wasn't sure they were quite kidding. How was your 4th?

Weekly Geeks Etc.

I'm combining Weekly Geeks #9 and #10 this week.

#9 asks us to post about Reading Challenges.

As in, which ones we are a part of, and getting them organized!

This is a great topic for me as the vacation has left me very behind. I'm caught up on reviews at the moment, and I've got my challenge lists and links up to date. (As I type that, I have to go check again to make sure I'm actually telling the truth there).

So here is how I've done this year for Reading Challenges:

Mythopoeic Award Challenge: 3/7 complete
Short Story Challenge: 4/10 complete
In Their Shoes Reading Challenge: 5/10 complete
Young Adult Reading Challenge: 13/12 complete
Chunkster Challenge: 3/4 complete
My Year of Reading Dangerously: 5/12 (I gave up on Lolita and I'm behind on June. Le sigh).
The Sci-Fi Experience: 3/3 complete
Margaret A. Edwards Reading Challenge: 5/5 complete
Royalty Rules Reading Challenge 2/2 complete
Once Upon a Time Challenge: 9/5 complete
Classics Challenge: 0/6 complete
Graphic Novel Challenge: 2/3 complete

Challenges Completed: 4/12 (so far-I'm sure there will be more). I had no clue when I started blogging that I would be a book blogger. So I look back at how many challenges I did join with amazement.

#10 asks us to write about the magazines we read

Thanks to my ever-practical grandmother, my husband and I have a subscription to Consumer Reports. We absolutely love the advice they give on different products. It has helped us buy a car, decide what camera to get, and it even helped make Valentine's Day better, by ranking different types of boxed chocolate. Hubby bought me this ridiculously expensive but yummy box of Jacque Torres chocolate one year for Valentine's Day. I've become terribly spoiled as a result and cannot stand anything but the expensive chocolate now.

A friend of mine has been getting duplicates of her Glamour subscription, so I've been the lucky recipient of her extra copies. I enjoy and am always amused by reading the mix of "Girl Power" articles, the "Lose Weight Now" articles, and the "Men: How to Understand Them (Hint: Lots of Sex)" articles.

And a recent acquire is a Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine. You know, the type of magazine with lengthy "Best of" lists, extensive advertiser sections and little hard content? I normally look down on that sort of thing, but I made a goal this summer to try and enjoy every minute outdoors in my hometown (I live in the Twin Cities), and the "Best of" list in this particular issue included the "Best of City Parks" and the "Best of Ice Cream", two things that I enjoy. So along with going to art festivals and city parks, I'm aiming to hit up all of the best ice cream joints in the Cities.

Now that sort of goal is not conducive to blogging, so unfortunately my time online might go down. But can you blame me? I mean, I live in Minnesota here. Summers last like 2 seconds compared to the winter. I think there is a good reason I live here. If only I could figure it out.

The Absolute Sandman, Volume 1

Author: Neil Gaiman
Reason for Reading: Graphic Novels Challenge
Rating: 5/5

Also posted at Graphic Novels Challenge

Despite it's sizable size and weight, I'm going to count this as one book for the Graphic Novel challenge, otherwise I would be done already with the challenge, and I'm certainly not ready for that. The Absolute Sandman collects issues 1-20 of the Sandman comics into a hefty collector's edition. Thank you to the Washington County Library for carrying this one, because it also carries a hefty price tag that I personnally could never afford.

Anyhow. The story opens as a group of occultists try to capture Death. Instead, they find that they have captured Dream. Unable to find a use for him and unwilling to let him go, they leave him in a prison, his guards forbidden to sleep.

Nearly 70 years pass, and the absence of Dream is being felt around the world as people fall into a mysterious sleep from which they can't wake up. Dream is one of the immortal Endless, who do not age and outlive even the gods. So he bides his time and eventually his bonds weaken. He steals out through the dreams of a guard who falls asleep. Revenge is immediate on his mind, but after condemning his captor to eternal nightmares where each waking is a new nightmare, there are important tasks to carry out. Finding his tools, which have been scattered and lost, restoring order to the inhabitants of his kingdom, and locating the ones who have strayed.

In his quest to restore his kingdom, Dream journeys across earth, and into Hell. He finds help and hindrance from an array of characters both mythological and contemporary. The Fates. The Justice League. Lucifer.

Like all the Neil Gaiman I've read so far, I loved this book. The intensity of action starts to peter off towards the end, and short, stand-alone stories emerge. I liked both, even though the action is more page-turning. A story that reveals what cats really dream about was especially amusing. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that some of the stories contain especially disturbing gory scenes. I haven't read enough comic books to compare it to any others, but there were a few parts that I kind of had to get through quickly because I'm not one who likes gore.

Even so, I rate this book very highly. Like I mentioned the other day, my brother came and read this in one night, I finished it, and then my husband read it. So for a library book, this one was put to good use. This particular collection has all of the enhancements and extras a collector's edition should have, and if you already like Sandman, it might be a great way to collect the comics.

Other reviews:

Andi of Tripping Towards Lucidity (Preludes and Nocturnes)
Chain Letters (Doll's House)
Dewey (Preludes and Nocturnes)
Debi (Preludes and Nocturnes)

If you've reviewed any of the first 4 graphic novels in the Sandman series, please let me know and I'll link you here.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Marie-Therese, Child of Terror

Author: Susan Nagel
Reason for Reading: In Their Shoes Reading Challenge
Rating 4.5/5

Marie-Therese was a celebrity from the moment she was born in front of an adoring crowd of onlookers. If I tell you that her mother was Marie-Antoinette, though, you have some idea of how the fairy tale ended. While still very young, Marie-Therese, along with her family, was placed under house arrest and eventually imprisoned in the France's Temple Prison.

She was kept ignorant of her mother and father's death, and was forced to listen to the cries of her brother as he was tortured in an adjacent cell. Eventually she was allowed to leave, and spent much of the rest of her life in exile, waiting for the Monarchy to be welcomed back to France. Until her dying day, she believed in France and represented the hope for the future of France.

I enjoy history, but I remembered very little of this time period from my college history course. Susan Nagel writes passionately and sympathetically about the monarchy of France. Marie-Therese lived an amazing, almost unbelievable life. From her childhood in the fairy-tale palace of Versailles, she faced her country's largest civil crisis with incredible endurance. She lived as an exile, dependent upon her royal cousins abroad for support, as a returned monarch, and was the subject of much speculation. Had she actually been switched with her half-sister and lived out her life as "The Dark Countess"?

This book was an excellent recounting of a tumultous period of history and an amazing woman who came to symbolize France. I had only a very minor complaint, and it has nothing to do with the actual book, but rather the marketing of the book. In the description, it focuses itself on the fact it will be exploring the mystery of whether or not Marie-Therese had been switched with her half-sister. I was expecting the book to be an in-depth examination of the mystery. Actually, the resolution of the mystery with all the research Susan Nagel did was an afterward.

If you have any interest in history, France, and/or interesting heroines, I can definitely reccommend this biography.

Other reviews:
In the Louvre

Friday, July 4, 2008

Once Upon A Time Challenge Wrap Up

The Challenge: Read 5 fantasy books March 21-June 20th

Books Read:
The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
Seeing Redd by Frank Beddor
Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Fables: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Sandman: World's End by Neil Gaiman
Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I don't think I've quite so overboard on any of my challenges. I read graphic novels, an ancient poem, YA, and lots of Neil Gaiman

Mr. Linky on the challenge website did not like me and I could never link any of my reviews. As far as books, Sunshine was a bit of a disappointment, as I felt like it lead to a bunch of nothing after a ton of buildup.

Some pictures from vacation

I have some book reviews, but we'll worry about those later. For right now, pictures of the vacation to Colorado. And happy 4th of July to my American readers!

Here is my husband and I in Boulder, Colorado. We're drinking tea while waiting to take a tour of the Celestial Seasonings tea factory.

Aside from seeing and smelling the enormous boxes and bags that held the raw materials for the tea, we helped ourselves to an extreme tent sale and spent about $7.00 on a big box of tea.

The Rockies aren't really that big after all. Ha ha. We drove through the Rocky Mountain National Park, and discovered the meaning of the words "Altitude Sickness".

Great Sand Dune National Park. I kept feeling like I was in an alien landscape as we climbed up the sand dunes. Climbing up is nothing easy, as the footholds keep shifting on you. Climbing back down is marginally easier, because you kind of go into a controlled fall.

And yet, despite the barrenness of the dunes, there is life. It was hard to believe, but there are specialized plants, bugs, and even a type of rat that live on the dunes.

We stopped in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to enjoy the hot springs. For a ridiculous sum of money, we got to watch the sun set from a variety of natural mineral springs. My swim suit still smells of sulfur.

So that is our vacation in a nutshell. I did not make too much time for reading on vacation, but I did read a little bit of Farworld, and since coming home, I've gone through The Absolute Sandman Volume 1. I picked it up from the library the day before we left on vacation (it includes the first four volumes and weighs about 10 pounds). My younger brother came over that same night so he could drive us to the airport, and he spotted that book. From 10:30pm until we got up at 4:45am, he read that book. When we came out to the living room where he was camping out, my brother was laying on the floor, with the last page of the book open in front of him, his feet still on the couch. "Finished it," he said when we woke him up, "About 20 minutes ago."

I'm still trying to decide what I want to do for the 4th of July. Trek up to my parent's house to see fireworks or stay at home? What are your plans?