Monday, December 31, 2007

Book 20 of 52: Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl

It's New Year's Eve. Since December 23, I have done nothing but eat, and most of the food I've consumed does not have my 'healthy meal plan' stamp of approval. On top of all those calories, I turned my ankle over a week ago and haven't been able to run since. For a four-times-a-week runner, this is disaster. Not only have I gone without my usual runner's high, but I can feel those sugar, fat and cream calories packing around my mid-section. And tonight's New Year's Eve party, the theme of which is wine and fondue, does not promise to be a change in my eating habits.

So what do I read? A book about food.

In my defense, I'm working on an essay about food literature, so Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table is up my working alley. I read Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, which you could argue is the prequel for Comfort Me with Apples years ago, and it made me want to cook. I feel that way every time I read a food-related book, or watch America's Test Kitchen. These books also make me want to eat with abandon -- no more asking for everything to be broiled instead of fried, no more saying no to dessert, no more gulping water to fill my stomach and prevent me from reaching for the for-the-table appetizer. No more worrying about fitting into the size 2 pants and making sure my abs are still taut. These food books make me want to live in stretch leggins while learning how to properly saute onions, mash garlic without a press, and make my own beef stock.

(I haven't become an at-home chef yet, but I did get a new pots and pans plus two America's Test Kitchen cookbooks for Christmas, and I've learned how to make a few dishes built around whatever's fresh at the Collingswood Farmer's Market.)

You don't need to read Tender at the Bone to get into the story of Comfort Me with Apples, though it helps. It lays the family background that brought Reichl to Berkley from New York City, and tells the story of her pairing with her first husband, Doug. But she sprinkles in enough context that you can pick up on the story line, and not be completely shocked by the rotation of affairs undertaken by both parties of that marriage.

It's a biography told around food, which I think makes it more readable than if it were just "here's what happened to me." To be unwitty, the food ads spice, and the gaps of the book that do not involve food fall flat.

But those gaps aren't long, and worth muddling through to get to the food. Reichl is a superb food writer, and I do love beautiful writing that doesn't take too long to make a point: "Each forkful was like biting off a piece of the sun." No adverbs or adjectives required. It's all about word choice.

I would also like to point out that I picked up my copy of Comfort Me with Apples for $1 at the Haddonfield Library Book Sale, the same book sale where I had a book reviewer crisis. I wanted to read this book since I'd finished Tender at the Bone, but knew that I couldn't turn it into a sell-able review since it wasn't a new book. I almost didn't buy it, but I figured I could spare the $1. The result? I'm writing about it anyway, but instead of for a review, for an assigned essay. And isn't that a nice way to cap off the year? Well, a fast, good run would be perfect right about now, but I'll have to be patient at least in that portion of my life.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Book 19 of 52: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Well, that was fun.

I read 95 percent of Marie Phillip's Gods Behaving Badly in a day -- not just because it was a quick read, but also because I'm sick (ever see that commercial where the person's whole head turns into one big stuffy nose? That's me).

And what a nice companion it made. It's a silly book, really. Phillips puts the Greek gods and goddesses into today's era and into a run down London house, where they fled after losing their hold on the beliefs of the Greeks. Apollo does a show on a psychic channel; Eros goes to church; Dionysus runs a club; and Aphrodite works as a phone sex girl. Their powers have been sliced down to almost nothing, either because they're getting old, people don't believe in them anymore, or a combination of the two -- it takes a while for the gods to figure that out, and how to fix their predicament.

It's a fun, quick read and completely ridiculous (much like Ian Sansom's Mr. Dixon Disappears, which I named my second favorite novel of 2007). What else would you expect from a novel that brings the gods and goddesses to modern London? It's drawn a lot of review attention, too. I pitched it around as well -- I loved reading about the Greek gods and goddesses in high school and even dressed up as Athena for a report -- but couldn't find any takers, mostly because my editors already had it covered. The book's even been optioned by Ben Stiller for a possible comedy series. I don't know how that would work, though -- the gods and goddesses weren't very PG, and neither is the book. A light edit could take out all the sex, though, I suppose. But what would the gods and goddesses be without all the mating with gods, mortals and demi-gods in and out of the family?

Interesting "success story" note: Phillips wrote Gods Behaving Badly while working for a bookstore. As a former bookstore cashier, I can tell you that you have more than enough time on your hands to daydream, and even think up the basis of a novel. I'm glad at least someone got hers published.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Book 18 of 52: Ellington Bouleavrd: A Novel in A-Flat

Who here likes musical theater? I like musical theater, but not in a "humming Rent while walking the dog" sort of way. Still, I have an appreciate for the silly songs, dance routines and simple plots that always end in a marriage knot.

If you are that "humming Rent while walking the dog" kind of person, you'll probably appreciate Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat by Adam Langer (to be published January 22). You'll also get a kick out of it if you're a dog lover, and/or if you've had to deal with real estate within the last five years -- especially if you've had to deal with New York City real estate.

Maybe what I'm trying to say is that it's a likable story that will appeal to a wide cross section of people. It's a bit too simplistic for me to give it five out of five stars -- the plot is very predictable, but this book is, after all, a novel set up around a musical theater structure, so it's not surprising.

The story focuses on one New York City apartment in what had recently been deemed a section of the city ready for gentrification. Langer writes about the buyer, the seller, the broker, the owner, the buyer's dog and clutch of supporting characters in a revealing point of view: the third-bordering-on-first-person with a slightly omnipotent narrator. While the focus shifts from one characters' head into another, the reader can still read what another character is thinking.

It's not a particularly new point of view, but one I've seen a lot of lately. Cathleen Schine's The New Yorkers is the same way, using one New York City block and the dogs of select owners as the point around which the book revolves. The movie Love Actually , which has quickly become one of my favorite holiday movies, is the same, too -- I'd target the airport as that axis of rotation since it's where the movie opens and closes.

I'll admit that I could have lived without the musical correlations in Ellington Boulevard. They were cute, but, for me, distracting (maybe not so for anyone whose musical theater experience goes beyond second tier roles in Grease and Bye Bye Birdie).

My favorite parts were when Langer wrote from inside the head of Herbie, the tenant's dog -- and will be particularly touching if you've ever owned a dog who someone else got rid of. I laughed at the dog's thoughts of how he gets through gaps when his owner is not home, and his thoughts when processing familiar and new smells. I couldn't help but think of my pup, who snoozed on my chest while I finished the book and who, like Herbie, was abandoned and, I hope, feels at home now.

A lot of the people, too, in Ellington Boulevard have been abandoned, either by their lovers, their spouses, their job, their dreams or the city itself. It's not the kind of book someone who wants to go to New York to 'make it big' will want to read -- Ellington Boulevard is almost a precautionary tale against it, though the book also shows that not all is lost if the original dream is. Sometimes it's the revised goals that are the better fit.

After reading so much non-fiction, it was nice to get lost in a novel for a while. I read the bulk of Ellington Boulevard on Christmas day, which has long been a favorite habit of mine for December 25. I'm not sure what I'll read next -- I have three titles on top of my "to read" pile -- but I can tell you this: it isn't for an assignment. Not that I don't like assignments, but sometimes it's nice to be able to reach into a pile and pick whatever strikes my fancy...

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Best of 2007

For the last three years, I've put together my top 10 albums, songs and concerts of the year. But I was so wrapped up in writing my book that I didn't pay as much attention as I usually do to the music world, and instead relied on old favorites like Guster and Pete Yorn to provide my writing soundtrack.

But I did read a lot of books this year, more so since I started this blog. So here's my best for 2007. But before I begin: I obviously did not read every book published in 2007. I'm guessing I got to about 40 to 50 in 2007, so here's what rung my bell.

If you'd like a fabulous top-music list for 2007, check out WXPN's top 100 albums of 2007. I'm shocked that Wilco got the top spot, but, hey, to each their own. I am glad Stars made the list, even if it was at 100, and that Dr. Dog (which would have been on my top 10 concerts list if I'd made one) placed so high.

Alright, on with the show:

Best Non-Fiction: Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever by Susan Warren. When people ask me what I like to read, I tell them non-fiction books that can make a sliver life fascinating. Such is the case with Backyard Giants. Who ever knew that growing gigantic pumpkins -- think 1,500 pounds -- could be so interesting? Warren, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, follows a father and son who strive to break a world pumpkin growing record, and the cast of characters that surround them in this tiny world. By the end, when the growers went to the final weigh off, I covered the upcoming text like I would with a good mystery novel so that I wouldn't spoil the ending. Well done. On an interesting side note: I reviewed this book for the Philadelphia City Paper. Soon after, I saw that Backyard Giants was featured in the Collingswood Library as a recommended read. I mentioned to the librarian that I loved the book, and he said, "Oh, yes, it got an excellent review." I'm not one to conjecture, but the Philadelphia City Paper is distributed right outside the library. It was neat seeing a review (possibly) in action.

Non-Fiction Runner Up: A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. If you're slightly messy (guilty as charged), this will make you feel better about it. After all, penicillin was found by accident because of a messy desk. I use this book constantly to remind myself that it's okay nothing's ever 100 percent filed in my office.



Best Fiction: Barefoot: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand. I don't read a lot of fiction. I'm not sure why, probably because I don't write it, and I like reading non-fiction because I hope that by reading more of it, I'll be able to write more of it. But I was excited when I heard that Hilderbrand had a new book coming out this spring. I've read all her work, and interviewed her when Love Season(which isn't nearly as cheesy as the title indicates) was first published. She was a delight, and I love that she still writes in long hand. Her first books were a little bit fluffy and thriller-ish, which gave her a "beach book author" brand, but with The Love Season and especially Barefoot, she's shed that mold. Barefoot centers on three women who escape to Nantucket for the summer, all for different reasons. Vicki has been diagnosed with lung cancer and wants to go back to where she had so many fond summer memories while dealing with chemo. Melanie, her best friend, has not only found out that her husband has been cheating on her, but that she's pregnant. Vicki's sister Brenda has just been fired from her teaching job because she had an affair with a student -- a student about her age, but a student none-the-less. Barefoot is the story of their summer, and I could not put the book down even when I should have been writing my own. There aren't many fiction writers I put on my "to watch," but Hilderbrand is one of those few.

Fiction Runner Up: Mr. Dixon Disappears: A Mobile Library Mystery (Mobile Library) by Ian Sansom. I'm not a big mystery fan, but the Mobile Library Mystery series is so ridiculous and so witty that I can't help myself. This is the second book in the series. The first is The Case of the Missing Books: A Mobile Library Mystery (Mobile Library Mysteries), but you don't need to read the first one to completely get what's going on. These books literally make me giggle -- and that's a good thing.

And with that, I'm off to prepare my house for a holiday party. I have one more review assignment to do before the year's out. I'm sure I'll be posting here before the near year, but if not, thanks for reading along this year.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Book 17 of 52: Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud that Forever Changed the Business of Sport

As someone who's played soccer since she was four years old, how could I not pick up Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport (available March 25, 2008)? And with a subhead like that, how could I not ready it (side note: one of my graduate school professors said to skip the title and pay attention to what came after the colon...in this case, he's 100 percent right).

This isn't just a story about a family feud. It's about how that family feud laid the groundwork for sponsorships as we know it today. Yes, it might be McDonalds and Coke who we most associate with big ticket sponsorship deals, but it all started with the Dassler brothers trying to one up each other by convincing Olympic athletes to wear their shoes, first by giving away free shoes , then by leaving envelopes of cash in pre-determined places (since, before 1990, 'professional' athletes were banned from the Olympics).

I would hate to hate my siblings like this. Granted, we don't always get along, but I'm looking forward to having my brothers and sister in one place for most of the holiday weekend. And I felt bad enjoying how this story unfolded since the catapult of the brand split this one family in two, but the book is so well written and so fascinating that it read like a novel.

Smit has meticulously recreated what happened, with copious help from both Adidas and Puma, who let her delve into their archives to tell the story as it really happened. Both companies are far removed from those original family businesses, so it makes sense for them to have worked with Smit though it was a risk since the history is not pretty, especially when revealed that the Dassler brothers had Nazi ties (not tight ties, but ties none the less).

The only thing that irked me about the narrative was Smit's tendency to use Dickensonian chapter endings -- those over dramatized closing sentences that are meant to catapult you to read the next chapter (very effective for Dickens stories since they were serialized in magazines, and such endings would prompt you the buy the next issue). Sure, phrases like "The unpleasant conversation the Frenchman anticipated turned into a nerve-wracking poker game, with Adidas at stake" and "Yet it still wasn't immune to disaster in the United States" would have been okay every one and a while, but Smit used so many that I was rolling my eyes at them by the end of the book.

BUT -- do not let this deter you from picking up the book. You can skip past them. Who knows. Some of them might be edited out since the book doesn't come out until late March (I'm reviewing this for a magazine, which is why I got such an advance copy, and why a cover isn't available for me to include with this review). It'll make you think twice before picking up your next pair of running shoes, cleats or sports-branded sweat pants.

P.S. For the record, I run in Mizunos but won't play soccer in anything by my Adidas Copa Mundials -- perhaps the most perfectly formed shoe I have ever worn).

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Essay: Viva La Blog

About a year ago, I was chosen for a 'makeover' over at The Renegade Writer Blog. The original renegades are Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, and they've printed two extremely helpful books about freelancing writing, The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success (The Renegade Writer's Freelance Writing series) and The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer's Guide to Selling More Work Faster (The Renegade Writer's Freelance Writing series)
The rest of the renegades, in case you're curious, are those of us who freelance according to their advice, which does NOT involve self addressed stamped envelopes!

My goal was to be a book dork for life. I love reading, reviewing and writing about books, and that's where I wanted my freelance life to go.

For a variety of reasons, that didn't happen. I signed the contract for my book, which threw my business plan out of whack, and the economics of book writing didn't match what I needed to make in order to pay the mortgage on my new house. Book reading and writing also became a job -- not my intended goal.

In any case, you can read the entire essay here. One result of this makeover experience is that I started this blog, which been more fun and interesting and helpful than I ever thought it would be. So enjoy the essay, and whatever else The Beautiful, Wonderful, Fabulous Renegades have to say!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Book 16 of 52: To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle

I don’t consider myself a wine connoisseur. My first drink ever was half a can of beer when I was 16, an it wasn’t until I was 18 that I felt the full effects of too much alcohol consumption – in the form of one too many screwdrivers drunk from a McDonalds cup tailgating for a Doobie Brothers Concert, after when I ended up puking in the bathroom of what is now known as the Tweeter Center in Camden, NJ.

Classy.

I don’t know if I consider my introduction to alcohol typical since, aside from one total can of beer, I didn’t drink in high school, unlike a lot of people I knew who considered “getting trashed” THE thing to do. I spent the day after my junior prom on the beach in Strathmere (which I wrote about in The Jersey Shore; Atlantic City to Cape May: Great Destinations: A Complete Guide: Including the Wildwoods (Great Destinations), FYI) watching other people get drunk because I was too scared to drink for fear that my parents would banish me to my room for a month (a very real threat, too).

Sure, I had my drinking dalliances once I got to college, but now that I’m closer to 30 than 20, those days are – for the most part – behind me. I’m at the point where the wine I’ve drunk does not come from a jug and/or box. I don’t know my wines very well, and sometimes I buy a bottle of wine for dinner based on the label. But, baby, I’ve come a long way. I at least try to figure out what kind of wine I should bring to dinner based on what kind of cuisine is served, and I cut out wine-related articles from the newspaper so that I will have a reference database.

Which is what brings me to To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle by George M. Taber, which is about the great debate of how you should close a bottle of wine. It’s a bigger problem than you might expect – an X industry – and explains why you’re asked to taste your wine (at least in finer restaurants) before the bottle is poured. Wines can sometimes suffer from cork taint wherein your wine smells more like wet cardboard than whatever it’s supposed to taste like. The problem has vexed winemakers almost since the first cork was pushed into a glass bottle, and some makers report getting back five to ten percent of their bottles as having been corked. Not good, for your budget, or your wine’s reputation.

So Taber explains it all, from how cork taint happens, to the pluses and minuses of screw caps, and all about why it’s a fierce battle between the two with plastic corks and glass stoppers thrown in.

I wonder sometimes if I’m qualified to review these kinds of non-fiction books that put a spotlight on a niche market, being a non-expert about wine and all (I don’t drink jug wine, but someone’s bringing a box of wine to my party on Sunday, but as a joke – promise). But if Taber can not only make me interested in the raging debate about the best ways to close wine, but fascinated about the nooks and crannies about the debate, then he’s done a good job in making the information accessible to the lay audience, and writing a book more than worth reading.

My caveat: the beginning of this book is slow. Not just dragging but tortoise slow. He explains into the history of wine, which I think to some would be valuable information, but it pales in comparison to the chapters about how non-natural cork producers broke onto the wine scene, which involved everything from putting bright yellow plastic corks into blue bottles of wine to staging the elaborate funeral of “Thierry Bouchon,” a ‘corpse” made up entirely of corks, in New York’s Grand Central Station.

And who said wine snobs were boring?

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle
is a good book to use as a transition into a cluster of books known as foot lit – that’s my next assignment. I’m not sure how many new-to-me books I’ll be reading since I pitched the essay based on experiences I’ve already had with food lit, but I might pop in a tasty reading treat sometime soon!

Also -- congrats to Garrett M. Graff, author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, which was book 6 of 52 in this series. He got a nice review from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Congrats!

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Redux: Self Help Books

This is the last time I'll be posting about self help books...well, almost. I'll post a link when the article I wrote about the genre is published in early January.

Obviously, I couldn't write about and/or read every self help book on the market. It is, after all, a nearly $10 billion industry. But to give you an idea of what publishers think will sell -- and what people probably will spend money on -- below is a selection of what was in that stack I posted about earlier.

I also wanted to point out that this doesn't mean that I hate all self help books. Some can be helpful. I know a few have helped me, but I think a lot of them are crap, especially the "it worked for me, so it will work for you, too" books written by people who don't have any other qualifications outside their own personal stories.

Maybe it's a matter of the right book finding the right person. As one person I interviewed for the article said, that first book on the list below will probably help someone who thinks that not being engaged by the age of 25 is a major problem. But it sure isn't me.

Side Note: I watched It's a Wonderful Life for the first time in a long time last week. Great movie. Deserves to be an American classic. Really makes a gal think. But is the worst thing that happen to Mary be that she ends up an 'old maid' in her twenties? And that she works in the library? And that she -- oh the horror -- WEARS GLASSES!?!?!?!?!?! OH THE HUMANITY!!!! End Side Note.

The Panic Years: A Guide to Surviving Smug Married Friends, Bad Taffeta, and Life on the Wrong Side of 25 without a Ring by Doree Lewak










Overwhelmed, 2nd Edition: Coping with Life's Ups and Downs by Nancy K. Schlossberg











It's All About You: Live the Life You Crave by Heather Reider and Mary Goulet











How Did I Get So Busy?: The 28-day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim Your Schedule, and Reconnect with What Matters Most by Valorie Burton










Don't Get Lucky - Get Smart: Why Your Love Life Sucks-and What You Can Do About It by Alan Cohen











Don't Gobble the Marshmallow Ever! by Joachim de Posada and Ellen Singer










Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.











His Cold Feet: A Guide for the Woman Who Wants to Tie the Knot with the Guy Who Wants to Talk About It Later by Andrea Passman Candell










How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic's Guide to Spiritual Happiness by Karen Salmansohn









The Girl's Guide to Kicking Your Career Into Gear: Valuable Lessons, True Stories, And Tips For Using What You've Got (A Brain!) To Make Your Worklife Work For You by Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio









Get Yours!: How to Have Everything You Ever Dreamed of and More by Amy DuBois Barnett

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