Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best Books of 2008

Since I'm still working on book 9 of 52 (the holidays were busy, plus I slipped on ice and fell on my tailbone so it was much easier to lie on my stomach and watch movies than sit and read!), here's my second annual post of top books of the year. Keep in mind that I don't always read the "important" new titles, most likely because I'd never get to review those back when I was regularily reviewing books, but also because, well, I like to read what I want to read, not what people tell me I should read. So here goes.

Best Non-Fiction: Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark.

You know a good book when you give it as a gift, and a few people are getting this one for Christmas this year. This book was also the cap of my last 52 books in 52 weeks series (you can read the review here). Why my top non-fiction pick? Because of the beauty in how Stark wrote about what had been (and I can imagine) still is a frustrating yet rewarding profession. His tale of how he went from growing tomatos in Brooklyn to re-taking the family farm is a charming yet fascinating read. And if you're one of the folks who are newly aware about where your food comes from, it's an easy way to learn more about the farming process. Just a delightful, informative, engaging read.

Runner Up: My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles by Justin Catanoso. This is a powerful book about family and religion from someone who is, as the title suggests, related to a saint. I know the Catanoso family, which makes this book even more touching. But even if you don't know them, it's still a book worth reading. Check out Justin's website here.

Best Fiction: Time of My Life: A Novel
by Allison Winn Scotch
I read this book over the summer (a preview copy since it came out in the fall), which is why you haven't heard my opinion of it. But let me put it this way: after I finished the book, I sat in my chair and stared into nothing for about an hour. Then I couldn't stop thinking about it.

The concept is fascinating to start -- Jillian Westfield, an unhappy housewife who from the outside has a perfect life, gets the chance to go back and pick the other guy. Who has not thought about what would have happened if they dated, married, broke up with someone other than their chosen one (or picked the wrong person over and over again?) and wondered "what if?" I just had this conversation with someone at dinner a few weeks ago -- the possibilities of what could have been can be maddening. It makes you think about how different your life would have been, so in this novel, Allison gets to explore that through a character, and she followed up on the promise of the concept with an excellent. Apparently, I'm not the only one who liked the book either since it hit the New York Times best seller list. Couldn't have happened to a nicer person, either -- Allison is a wonderful lady and works hard at her craft. It couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

Runner Up: Dogface by Jeff Garigliano. I reviewed this book on the blog before -- a well written book that I think is teen-friendly but features some saucy stuff about a 'reform' camp that is more like hell.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Family Book Find

I've been sick since Sunday. First I had a cold in my ears, nose and throat (mostly my nose). Then everything migrated south so now I have some sort of thing going on in my lungs. I'm miserable. It makes my dog miserable. So where do I go? Mom's of course.

I bring a few things with me to mom's -- my dog (of course), laundry (since I STILL haven't gotten a new washer...I know, I know...but my computer's dying and that comes first), and reading material. I had visions of sitting by the fire reading a book with Emily on my lap, or at least watching Law & Order.

Unfortunately, the book I brought made me gag after three pages (sorry, Julie Andrews and dad, who gave me the book), and I'd already read through this week's New Yorker, so I went through the book collection in the family room looking for something.

My mom's not as big a reader as I am (then again, most people aren't), and the book collection downstairs is an odd mix of Danielle Steele novels and cookbooks. Though I noticed a few older books sprinkled in, which made sense once I pulled out this one:



This is The Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, published in 1952 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Union. It has recipes for wonderful-sounding dishes like butter-crisp chicken, spareribs and lima beans, jellied pigs' feet and nut cake. The Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book is still being published today. It's in its 25th printing, and apparently what I have here is a first edition.

This volume had to have come from my grandparent's home. My mom's mother is Slovak, her father Italian. This year, my mom and her seven siblings sold their parents house since my grandfather has passed away and my grandmom lives in an assisted living facility. I've found bits and pieces of my grandparents house around my mom's home -- his crabbing hat hanging in her studio; a toy horse in the basement; and this book among an old edition of The Betty Crocker Cookbook and back issues of Cooking Light.

My mother's family is of a strong Catholic but mixed heritage. My grandmother is Slovak. My grandfather was Italian. My grandmother's mother died when she was a young girl, so she never learned all of the traditional Slovak meals. Plus, when she raised her kids, the country was in the swing of new foods that seemed so much better (many of which, we're finding out, are not). So our big family get togethers have a mix of foods including kielbasa and sauerkraut but also fresh Italian rolls, spicy meat and something called the "green mold" that my aunt's been making for family parties since before I was born (and does not include actual mold).

My mom likes to say that our get togethers are like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We certainly have the numbers. But I think we're one generation removed -- at least I'M one generation removed. No one would blink if we didn't marry an Italian or a Slovak, but it was an issue when my grandparents married, and there were doubts about my mom marrying my father since he wasn't Catholic at the time (he converted and he's the only one who still practices). We're an all American mixed up family. And even the book is a representation of that mix my mom saw and we see now. It's not a Slovak book. It's a Slovak-American book.

This is on my mind not only because I'm typing this from my mom's computer on the day before her birthday (happy birthday, mom!) but also because the annual Verzella family Christmas party is Saturday. Sometimes it's annoying to have such a large family with just about everyone living in the area. But usually? It's fun. And loud. And caloric, even if I don't think we'll ever serve jellied pigs' feet.

I've had a nice evening at my mom's. I can't say I've done much except roo through her books and type this post. When I asked for tea and cookies, she brought them for me, and didn't say a word about bringing whatever bug I've got into her home. "You're a good mommy," I just to her. She's sitting across from me wrapping up holiday ornaments from my grandparent's house to give out to vaious aunts, uncles and cousins at the holiday party on Saturday. Yup, special lady.

Emily's done everyting from play with her new toy to try and steal said cookies from me. Mostly, though, she's been lying in front of the fire. I tried to get a good picture, but she kept hopping up when I turned on the camera. Sneaky...



Good mom, good dog. Just need to rest up and get better myself...

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Book 8 of 52: A Dog Named Christmas by Greg Kincaid

A Dog Named Christmasis a short, sweet almost parable about -- you guessed it -- a dog named Christmas. Well, it's more about a farmer named George, a Vietnam vet who has loved dogs but was so hurt by losing them that he refused to keep a dog anymore.

It's George's developmentally challenged son, Todd, who convinces George to give a dog a home for the holidays through the local shelter's "adopt a dog for Christmas" program. A big black lab who's a bit of a wandered wanders into the shelter and then into George's home. Todd names him Christmas since he's a Christmas dog -- and supposed to just stay for the season.

This being a sweet story, you can guess what happens -- not that it's necessarily a bad thing. We all need a bit of sweet in our lives.

It's a book that has "stocking stuffer" written all over it, especially for folks who have adopted dogs. And, no, I'm not going to compare it to Marley & Me because that would be obvious, and I think it's gotten enough press already.

I don't have a dog named Christmas, but I do have a dog named Emily. I adopted her before Christmas three years ago. I still remember bringing her home to my mom's house (I hadn't yet moved into the apartment that would let me have a dog). I don't know why, but I tried to tie her leash to a chair. My mom was worried that Emily would either pee on everything or chew on the chords that lit up the houses in her Christmas in the City collection. Obviously, that didn't work, so I followed Emily around for hours as she sniffed everything in the house (and, no, she didn't pee on anything. She's too dignified for that).

This is the photo I used for my Christmas card that year:



It's amazing how that little bugger wound herself around my heart so quickly -- this is a book for folks who feel the same way about their pups.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Article: Pictures and words, beautiful together

Did I ever tell you how much I love coffee table books? Well, I love coffee table books. They're so big and beautiful, and the best of them are engrossing reads. John Loring, Tiffany's design director, has put out some amazing books that I don't think enough people actually read (as opposed to look at the pictures). They're fantastic.

I wrote an article that appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about coffee table books for the holidays. So if you're still looking for that last minute gift, give it a look.

This is also an example for you freelancers out there of how you can re-use the same idea again. I wrote an article about coffee table books for SJ Magazine I think four years ago. The angle was completely different (e.g. why they're popular vs. choices), but when I thought about holiday stories to pitch, this idea came back to mind.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Book 7 of 52: Godchildren by Nicholas Coleridge

Nicholas Coleridge's Godchildrenwas meant to be book 5 and then book 6 of this series, but Nora Roberts and an assignment got in the middle.

In a way, that was a good thing because of the structure of this long long novel. Goldchildren starts at the end of the story. In the year 2000, tycoon Marcus Brand is about to go into bankruptcy, something he finds out while on holiday with his six godchildren. The prologue gives a bit of information about each of the godchildren, but of course the reader has no idea what's going on. Then the narrative jumps back to 1966 when the godchildren are all eight years old and summoned to their first group holiday with Marcus Brand, and the novel brings them back to that prologue scene.

Godchildren is quite a book, and not just because it's 551 pages long. It's an epic that follows so many people on an increasingly twisting (and sickening) path that it's hard to keep everyone's plot lines straight. Plus, some of the characters are detestable, especially Marcus (the biggest disappointment in the book is that we never figure out why he does what he does...unless he's the pure embodiment of evil, but that seems too easy and unrealistic an answer).

It wasn't until about half way into the novel that I got sucked in and was thinking about the characters when I wasn't with the book. Of course, this could have something to do with the massive headcold that's taken up residences in my head since Sunday (and if I talked to you within the last two days and didn't make any sense, I apologize -- and blame Nyquil), but it's more likely to do with the fact that, even though their lives seem like one big train wreck, I wanted to see how it all played out and ended up back at that prologue holiday. I finished the final 250 pages in two days (and I know being sick had everything to do with that since I could barely get out to walk the dog today).

I was tempted to keep going back to the prologue through the book but didn't the final chapters. Knowing that it ended poorly for Brand was enough. Having forgotten the rest while reading books five and six added an extra layer of mystery.

I'd have pegged Goldchildren as a beach book, but it only came out in the U.S. this September. Could make a juicy holiday read if you're like me and spend the down time between shuffling from one family event to another with a new book.

Two bits of trivia:

1. Nicholas Coleridge is a the great-great-great-great-great of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet I studied at length in college and grad school (though what I knew then seems to have left my head).

2. Reading books by British authors me think in a British accent. Chalk it up to my semester away at Oxford University, but I mentally go back to the time I was studying Shakespeare in a church-turned-into-library in sort of a Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma and Sliding Doors accent. Sample:



(I am still tempted to get that hair cut)

I originally typed a sentence from a bit ago as "I'd have pegged Goldchildren as a beach book, but it only came out in the States this September." I even used the word "bugger" in a Twitter post today. It's a really weird occurance that'll go away in a few hours.

I'm still stuck with this head cold so I hope this blog post made some sense. At least I had an interesting book to keep me company while my body fights the good fight to get me ready for the annual Verzella Christmas Party on Saturdy...

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We Can't Let This Bank Fail



I'm part of a state-wide blogger project to get the word out about the dire situation New Jersey food banks are in. I know times are tough, but anything we can do to help matters.

To see what other folks are writing, and all the great people participating in this effort to get the word out, click here.

I hope to get to the next review soon -- I'm deep into one of those novels that keeps you glued to the couch for hours on end. Should be a good one.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Book 6 of 52: Fine, I'll Go Online! The Hollywood Publicist's Guide to Successful Internet Dating

Remember in my last post when I said I'd read two books at once sometimes because of an assignment? This is one of those times.

I'm writing an article about online dating and interviewed Leslie Oren, author of Fine, I'll Go Online!: The Hollywood Publicist's Guide to Successful Internet Dating, for the piece. I admit that I hadn't read the book when I wrote her questions -- I didn't even think about interviewing an author, but as I looked over my notes, I saw something was missing. I'd been sent Oren's book about a year ago (the attached press release is dated November 1, 2007), and in every book purge I've done, it survived because I thought she'd make a good source at some point.

Yahtzee. So while waiting to do interviews today or avoiding the two annoying stories I had on my schedule, I'd read a bit here, and a bit there. And after planting my butt in my reading chair for the last hour, I'm finished book 6 of 52.

I've said it before about these types of books and I'll say it again: they are books of common sense -- at least decent ones. Whether or not they work usually has to do with your frame of mind. The Four Man Plan is one such book. A year before, I would have thrown it out the window, but I read it at exactly the right time, so it made sense.

I think Fine, I'll Go Online!: The Hollywood Publicist's Guide to Successful Internet Datingwill be that book to someone -- not so much to me because I've dabbled in online dating since 2003, so many of the things Oren said I knew, though I did pick up a few things here and there. I will think again about some of the things I wrote in my profile. I signed up for a free online dating site recently but haven't pursued it that much. I think I did it more as taking a step in a positive direction than anything else. Online dating can be a lot of work between writing a profile, emailing with potential suitors, and then going on actual dates. And in thinking back to the last few months, maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind to be dating anyway. So throwing a profile up on a free site? A good way to test things out.

Either way, online dating can be fun and I think for a lot of us, a viable option. I can't argue against its success -- my father met my step mom and my sister met her boyfriend on match.com. My brother met his fiance on myspace.com (she contacted him, FYI -- and this was before myspace.com lost favor). I've met some great guys online, some of whom are still friends. One lives with his fiance two blocks from my house and is my sometimes dog walker; I went to the break up party of another one about a month ago, and I see him all the time while I'm running (which leads to the awkward how-do-I-hug-you-when-I'm-sweaty-from-working-out). It's even funny sometimes when you see profiles of guys you dated. I went on a few dates with men who I sorta knew, but they never knew I was single. Really, just about everyone has tried it.

Of course, I have a few horror stories, too, like the time I got stood up (yes! stood up!) and the date who finished dinner by using his fingers to scoop up ketchup off the table, then licked his fingers.

But of all the methods there are out there to meet people, this at least offers you a screening option, and I don't feel strange about emailing, well, strangers. I'm a journalist and benefit from the same perspective that Oren does as a publicist. We're used to reaching out to people. It's just like meeting for an interview (and, yes, I've dated people I've interviewed, too, but after the story came out). Well, not exactly like that because dating brings on a whole new bundle of nerves, but the more you do it, the easier it is. If an online date goes bad? Meh. There's always another one.

But I think you can apply that to all sorts of dating, not just online. I take the train to Rutgers-Camden where I teach two nights a week, and after class last week, I struck up conversation with a guy waiting to go to Philly. He was probably too young for me, but he was worth talking to. It was good practice (though I wish I'd given him at least my name to see if it would have gone anywhere).

The only question mark I have with Fine, I'll Go Online!: The Hollywood Publicist's Guide to Successful Internet Datingis the advice about pictures. She says no way to pictures in bikinis and lingerie, which I agree with 100 percent. But she's OK with slinky dress pictures. I was thinking about this today because I posted a picture of me at a Christmas party to my facebook profile, and it got a lot of responses:



I'm not stupid enough that I don't know why I got a lot of comments. And as much as I like the picture, I don't think it's a good representation of who I am. I don't even own another article of clothing that has sequins on it. I bought the dress on a lark, and I'm glad I did. I didn't have a date for this party, but, dammit, I was confidant in going stag, and in what I was wearing. It was a proud single girl -- and runner -- moment (see?! all those mornings spent running instead of getting over a hangover were worth it!)

ANYWAY: But would this be the best picture to represent who I am 99 percent of the time? Probably not. It's like the time I met a wonderful guy at a black tie when I was wearing a female tuxedo without a shirt. I got six numbers that night. After our first date, he said he was slightly relieved -- he thought I might be different than I am because of what I wore that night (though he readily admitted and STILL admits that the outfit got his attention but my personality reeled him in). I interviewed an editor with lavalife.com who made a good point about being completely honest about who you are in your profile: you want to meet a guy who will like you, not a false version you present (this in a conversation about people who post pictures from 10 years and 30 pounds ago). Is that picture me? Sometimes, but not most of the time.

I dunno. What do you think? Last time I posted a sorta hot picture online, I got a lot of offer for one night stands, and that's not my thing.

In any case, if you're thinking about trying online dating or getting back into after a somewhat bad experience, this book is a good primer to help you along.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Book 5 of 52: The Pagan Stone

Lawrence Meegan of the Ocean County Library recently asked me if I read more than one book at the same time. The answer, 99 percent of the time, is no. I like to finish whatever book I'm working on. The one percent of the time is usually when I'm given an assignment and must read something else, though most of the time I'll just finish what I'm working on and then go to the next book.

That hasn't been the case with book 5 of 52. I started in on three books before I picked one, and then I stopped reading it when I found The Pagan Stone: The Sign of Seven Trilogy in Walgreens.

Why Nora now? Simple: Escape.

Monday was a bad day. The weekend had been fun (I ate a lot and ran a decent 5k), but the painting of my dining room had taken two wrong turns (wrong type of paint on the ceiling, then the wrong color on the walls), so my dining room was still in my living room. On Monday, I felt sick, whether from a stomach bug or paint fumes, I don't know. Plus, I'd found out that morning that fellow freelancer and former Philadelphia City Paper managing editor Brian Hickey had been injured in a hit and run four blocks from my house and was in a coma (the latest update is that he opened his eyes and grabbed his wife's arm last night when she went to leave -- good news).

So I was sick, rattled, sad and angry. I tried working and failed, so I went to Walgreens for some medicine and came across The Pagan Stone: The Sign of Seven Trilogy, the final book in the latest Nora Roberts trilogy.

I reviewed the second book in the trilogy for the last book a week series, so I won't go into my Nora Roberts fanaticism again, but I will say this: even though the book is more than slightly ridiculous and I don't like when she writes about demons and such, it was a good break. I could read it after passing out fliers at PATCO asking for information about Brian's accident, and clear my brain. I could read it while having lunch at Caribou Cafe. I could read it until 2am after having a few drinks with Brian's family and friends last night.

As much as I read for work, it's still an escape. Yes, I like books that teach me things, but I like books that take me away from my life and plant me somewhere else. Roberts' books are perfect for that, and even though I might roll my eyes every once and a while, the books do their job: entertain.

I hope to go back to the book I had been reading before, which is another departure from my usual fare. I had just started getting into it when Nora crossed my shopping cart.

The dining room, by the way, is almost finished. It was a PIA to do (and redo because the original wall paint made it look like I'd skinned the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and plastered them onto my wall), but worth it. Still not done, though -- only after I rip up that carpet and have the hardwood floors refinished will it be complete. A house is never done, eh?

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