Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book a Week with Jen Three: The Wrap Up

Last night, as I finished up reading Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman, I started thinking about what I'd say in the review. Then I remembered - oh right - I'm already done the series.

That's how this installment of Book a Week with Jen has gone. It wasn't exactly an afterthought, but it wasn't an undercurrent of the year. When I first took on this challenge in 2007, I threw myself into the project. I was at a very dark spot in my life, and forcing myself to read a book a week, I wrote about those books and my life, and it helped me heal.

This year wasn't awful, but it started off rotten. I ended a long term relationship, briefly moved back in with my mother, then lived in a scarcely furnished house (the house I had bought in 2007 then turned into a rental because that relationship was supposed to be "it") while I put my life back together. I had an off year work wise at the exact time my expenses rose because I was living alone again. I nearly broke my foot running. I got screwed on a book deal. So, no, I wouldn't put 2013 on my best list.

But there were bright points. I ran my fastest marathon ever. I published a long form piece of journalism that I had been trying to write for two years. I traveled to Anchorage, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego for the first time in my life. And because I was in a bad mood on Valentine's Day and decided to make fun of the only guy at the running event in jeans, I have a boyfriend and a New Year's Eve date at the Four Seasons tonight. I never would have renovated my house if I had not left then moved back in. And I am oh so happy to be home.

Very little of this came out in reviewing these books, which is okay. It was a nice side project to have, and I think that I've inspired you to pick up some books you might not have heard of otherwise. And I re-read The Prince of Tides specifically because of this project, which has sent me down a long path of re-thinking my approach to writing.

Now, some observations.

Most of the books I read were written by women. This was not by choice, and I didn't notice this until I was 3/4 of the way through. I stay out of the debates about men and women in writing, and whether or not women are seen as lesser writers. There are too many people screeching about it already. I pick what I want to read because I want to read it, not because of gender, the same way that I don't think it's a big deal that the Philadelphia Inquirer gave me, a woman, a sports column.

The pull of eBooks is getting stronger. Because I like to line up the books as I read them, eBooks were not eligible for this series, but they're hard to ignore - hell, I even wrote one. I don't like reading on a screen, but I did download a few novellas to read on my iPhone through a Kindle app so I'd have something to read on PATCO when I either forgot to bring my book or a book was too big to fit into my purse. I will most likely be doing this for flights from now on, or at least having one book on my iPad and one in my carry on.

I love reading. This might sound obvious, but one of the things I didn't do that much when I lived with someone else was read. As soon as I moved out, I started reading before bed again. It's a routine that gets me ready to sleep. I also no longer have cable, so my transition from work day to free time is to sit on my couch and read instead of watching TV. I like it this way.

And now, my top picks of the series.

Best Fiction: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer.
This book knocked me on my rear. I thought about it for days after I read the last page. Deciding to leave a relationship that was supposed to end in marriage is a hard choice, and it left me asking a lot of "what ifs" - not just about this relationship but those that had come before. The "what ifs" happento Greta in this book, with a time travel bend thrown in. I loved it so much that I gave it as Christmas presents. Please go read it if you haven't already.

Best Non-Fiction: Ingenious by Jason Fagone.
Can we build a better car? I didn't think I'd really care, but this book sucked me into a world of dreamers and schemers who think that the answer is yes. It's an eye opening read, but a fun one too. I never thought I'd be saying that about a car book, but Fagone is such a good story teller, that he made me car. That's the sign of a great book.

So that's it for now. As always, I'm not sure what I'll use this space for in the future. And thanks for reading along. Now go read a book!

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Book 52 of 52: Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

What a heart wrenching story. Making Toastby Roger Rosenblatt is about the aftermath of his daughter Amy dying suddenly of a rare heart condition while running on her treadmill. Two of her three small children saw it happen.

After her death, Rosenblatt and his wife move into Amy's home and help her husband cope with the loss and with the children. The story is told in short vignettes, which mirrors what grief does to your system. Everything is scrambled, and flashes of the past, when that person is alive and whole, mix with the profound feeling of loss that they're never coming back. Mix in that this is a story of a father who buried his daughter, and how the children try to cope, and you have an incredibly sad yet beautiful book about love, loss and family. Rosenblatt doesn't make the book entirely about darkness, and I think that's why it works. The children are still children and do funny things. His daughter seems to have been a remarkable person, and he lets that show through too, even as his loss of her is unbearable.

This fall marked the 25th anniversary of my Uncle Tim's passing. He died of cancer, so the death was not sudden, but the magnitude of that death is still felt. I was young then, but I still remember the stream of family in and out of our house and my grandparents' house, the debate of whether or not the kids should go to the funeral (we did not), and a lot of crying. One Sunday in church soon after, my mom broke away from our pew and met my grandparents in the back of the church because she couldn't bear it. When I gave the eulogy at my grandfather's funeral, I cried hardest when I told him to go build buildings with his son in heaven. It's been 25 years and that loss is still so great.

Of course life kept going in those 25 years. His wife re-married and had two more children, who we call our cousins even though we're not blood related. Uncle Tim's daughter just got engaged; his son bought a home. The get together they held for the anniversary of his death was mostly a happy event, with everyone telling their best Time stories, but it's hard not to feel sad that a great man died so young, leaving a wife and two small children behind even though by all accounts they have gone on to live happy, healthy lives.

I read most of Making Toast on a train to and from San Diego with the Pacific Ocean flashing outside my window. I thought half way through that maybe I should pick a cheerier book for both that setting and the last in this series, but I couldn't stop reading. I'm glad I didn't.

So that's it. Another year gone, another 52 books read. I'll do a separate wrap up post about the series, including my top picks for the year. So, as always, stay tuned!

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Book 51 of 52: Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence by David Samuel Levinson

I started Antonia Lively Breaks the Silenceby David Samuel Levinson before I flew from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. It was supossed to be my in-flight reading. But I ended the flight by playing word games on my phone while glancing at my fellow passenger's in-seat TV, which was showing the end of the Eagles game. And I don't like football.

It's not that it's a bad book, but it's a sprawling, messy one - and not in a good way. There's too many narrators, which make for too many story lines. The book starts in the middle of what happened to these characters, which can make for good tension in a book as what really happened unfolds, but that tension was buried under too many plots moving in too many directions. I kept seeing it as a movie. It would make a good one if someone clarified the story, and made those plot lines more clear while trimming back some of the ones that go nowhere. I almost DNFed the book, but I brought it with me to California, and was more than half way through, so I finally finished it this morning.

Good thing I did - one more book to go before this series was over, and I was anxious to move on. I already started book 52 of 52, and imagine it won't be long until you see the review here. So stay tuned!

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book 50 of 52: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

This is the second time I've read Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, but I can't remember exactly when was the first. The novel was published in 1986 when I was six, and the movie came out in 1991 when I was eleven. I'm guessing I read it sometime when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school.

It's a heavy novel, and not just for a tween. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD (which seems somewhat silly for a 27 year old book, but still). The story takes places in two times, the bulk of which is the childhood of Luke, Tom and Lila Wingo. Tom narrates that story from the present, which of course was the 1980s, by telling it to his sister's psychologist after his sister has once again tried to take her life. Their childhood was a disaster, and they lived at the mercy of their father, who beat them and their mother, and that mother, who felt she sold herself short by marrying a shrimper. There's also sexual assault and a very graphic rape. I found myself slowing down my pace of reading as I knew the rape scene was drawing near. It's really hard to read, even in my 30s. I remember how affected I was reading it 20 years ago, too. It's one the first grown up books I ever read, and it shocked me into the understanding that books could be about horrible things and still be beautiful.

Conroy's a master in this book. I usually don't like novels that are full of too much description because those pieces feel tacked on. Conroy makes them a key part of the narrative. It makes it a very southern book, even when Tom is talking about being a fish out of water in New York City. It's one of those books that is hard to get out of my brain when writing - I just turned in something the other day that had more lyricism in it than my typical stuff. It's not necessarily a bad thing since I'm not copying him, but it forced me to stretch a little with my writing.

I didn't remember everything - how Luke dies, for example. Reading that chunk of the book was like coming to the book fresh all over again. I stayed up very late the last two nights because I was sucked in by the story all over again, the good parts and bad, and to be amazed at what one writer could do with a language we share.

I'm wavering on watching the movie again. I know it's a different story, more tilted to Tom's time in New York than in South Carolina, and the near deletion of Luke was a big disappoint since he's such a big figure in the novel. But that's the way the movies go.

I have a six-hour flight coming up. Maybe I'll watch it then. Or, more likely, work in making sure I hit 52 books by January 1. Fifty down, two more to go.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Book 49 of 52: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadetteby Maria Semple is not a novel with a traditional narrative. Yes, there is a narrator - Bee, an 8th grader whose mother has vanished - but she's only a small part. The rest of the book is made up of letters, emails, faxes and even some IM chats, all winding back to who is this Bernadette, why she had become a kind of hermit, and why did she suddenly disappear, as curated by a teenager.

It's an okay read. I feel very three out of five stars about it. Enjoyable, but not earth shattering and very Seattle (that's why they lived after some mysterious event, and Bernadette's husband works at Microsoft). It'd make a good beach read, less so a "sink on the couch and read because it's cold out" read.

I was more intrigued about where the book came from. I bought it on Half.com, and knew it was a used library book. It's even stamped as a "Readers Choice," which makes me wonder why it was culled from the library so soon after it was published in 2012. Maybe there's a general three out of five stars feeling about it.

(I just checked the Goodreads listing for the book - 3.5 out of five).

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Q&A: Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women

Good news, whiskey lovers! Book 26 of 52: Whiskey Women is now out, as is my review in American Way magazine. Promotion has been a whirlwind for author Fred Minnick, who took time out of his busy schedule, which also includes preparing for the birth of his son, to answer a few questions. Ever wonder what it's like to do a book signing at Costco? Read on.

JAM: According to the wordsmith Beyonce, girls run the world. Tell us how that's true in whiskey today.
FM: Today, women are the CEOs, CFOs, marketers, blenders, distillers and owners of many whiskey brands. They are running every aspect of the whiskey industry. And the funny thing is, they’ve always been in the thick of the whiskey business.

JAM: So women have been in charge for some time...
FM: Women have always been a part of whiskey. Even before whiskey was coined as such, Sumerian women invented beer and Mesopotamian women invented distillation. When we get into the brands we see on shelves today, women once owned Bushmills, Cardow (Cardhu), Dalmore, Laphroaig, Tullamore Dew and many others. A woman invented the packaging for Maker’s Mark, which redefined liquor packaging strategies. So, women have been making important business decisions for whiskey brands for a long, long time. It’s only now that they’re finally receiving credit.

JAM: I know you love whiskey - how did you come to this angle for your book?
FM: I was at the Bourbon Women’s founding meeting, and they were talking about women being the first distillers. As a whiskey writer, I had never heard this, so I started looking into it and realized that women were not only distilling at home, but they were crucial to the modern success of whiskey. I had to write this book after I discovered how important women have always been. It was my chance to give many forgotten women, even the bootleggers, the credit the men have always taken.

JAM: What's it like signing books in Costco?
FM: Talk about an experience! One minute a man is knocking over my sign, the next another guy is scratching his butt in front of my table while sorting through cheeses. Old ladies laughed at me when I told them my title was Whiskey Women, and Mormons tried to give me their Book of Mormon. My favorite line: "I’ve never heard of your book because I’m Canadian." The guy walked across three aisles to pick up my book and tell me that. Weird. But, I sold a lot of books, and I recommend a Costco signing to all authors. You just don’t know what people wills say to you.

JAM: What's next for Fred Minnick?
FM: Well, I don’t know right now professionally. My literary agent, Linda Konner, and I have discussed a few potential projects, but no contracts yet. Personally, my wife and I are expecting our first child soon and I’m really gearing up to be a dad. I can’t wait.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book 48 of 52: Whiskey Beach by Nora Roberts

I almost didn't read this one. Nora Roberts been disappointing me lately. She's published three series recently. The first was the Bride Quartet; the second the Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy.

I've read a lot of what makes good romance, and conflict is key. There always needs to be some kind of conflict that is pushed the hero and heroine apart, and the plot turns as they overcome those challenges.

For those two series, the conflict was...just not really there. For Brides, it was "OMG! We run a wedding industry but we are so resistant to love!" For the Inn BoonsBoro Triology, it was "we're building an inn! AND THERE'S A GHOST."

Yes, that oversimplifying both series, but they weren't that great. It felt like Roberts was off her game, and that she was writing copies of books she'd done before, just with a lot more brand names mentioned over and over again, and hooking them into series because that made financial sense.

So I'm glad to report that Whiskey Beachis a much different kind of book. It has a lot of conflict and complications, and a murder mystery wrapped inside. Eli Landon has just had a horrible year. His wife - from whom he was separated - had been murdered, and he was the prime suspect. Despite there not being enough evidence to charge him, he's still seen as guilty in the eyes of public opinion, and he loses his friends, his job, everything. So he retreats to the family estate called Bluff House in Whiskey Beach, north of Boston. His grandmother had lived there until she took a nasty fall. The woman who had been taking care of the house, Abra, has been charged with continuing the upkeep - of the house and eventually Eli.

Sure, there are the hallmarks of her work: the importance of family, the importance of a place, and there's someone fabulously wealthy involved. But Whiskey Beach didn't feel like a re-tread. It felt like something I wanted to read, and something she wanted to write.

It's not perfect, though. The book could have been about 50 pages shorter and not lost anything. I was impatient for the resolution - not because of the fast paced action, but because in spaced I was bored.

Still, it's encouraging that the book was so much better than those series. I have hope yet.

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