Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Buying Books

I love reading. Love it in so many ways that I feel at a loss when I don't have a book with me. But for the last few weeks, I've felt like I have nothing to read.

This is not the actual case -- publishers send me a lot of books they hope I will read. Most of the titles I review on this blog are sent to me directly from publishers. I've started in on a few books that seemed interesting but, after the first 30 pages, were a bore. Even the last book on this book a week series didn't spark anything in me, but I was on a train with nothing else to do, so I read it.

Last night, I went to Barnes and Noble. My goal was to wander the store and pick something. Still, after a half hour, I left empty handed. I spent another half hour going through the titles on my shelves, and still nothing.

As readers, do you ever get like this? I'm surprised. I can't remember a time when it's happened before. My solution has been, so far, to read magazines, but they don't usually supply the same experience a book can. And I'm worried about this un-readerly thing since I'm going to Key West in a few weeks and planned to bring a stack of books to read on the plane and by the pool. What if I find nothing of interest? What will I do then? Nap?

This morning, I put a big order in at bn.com, a mix of books I've heard others rave about, one that I read about in the Washington Post. I'm worried that I'm back in the position I was when I started this book blog -- that I won't read something unless I can write about it, and that defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book 35 of 52: Laura Rider's Masterpiece

If you've been reading along with this 52 books in 52 weeks series, you know that I've read quite a few romance novels for articles I've written about romance writers (the second one will coming out in late May/early June). Fitting, then that Laura Rider's Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton, is about a woman trying to write a romance novel. But Laura Rider doesn't want to write any old "boy meets girl, they argue, they get married." She wants to write a true romance, and to get herself something to study, coaxes her husband into an affair with a radio personality.

It's an odd duck of a book, and I stopped reading it twice. It didn't quite catch me, but as I picked what book to take on the train to NYC yesterday, it won because it was the lighter and smaller of the two, and I read most of it on Amtrak (finished the last bits this morning).

I didn't really like it, but it's getting good reviews elsewhere. If you haven't noticed, I don't review too much fiction -- I like reading books that take a topic and open it up, like a can opener. This was a sort of silly story with a nifty cover, which is why I picked it up in the first place. But at least it was some company on the train, which is sometimes what you need.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Book 34 of 52: You'd Be So Pretty If...

I almost skipped a meeting yesterday -- an important one that I didn't necessarily have to go to, but would be something I could write about, and was a chance to see professional contacts that I hadn't seen face to face in years. But I almost didn't go. Why?

Because my pants were too tight.

Ridiculous, yes? But it's the truth. My bed was strewn with outfits I'd taken off in disgust, clothes that didn't fit right, were too tight or made me look flawed. I settled on one pants/shirt combination, but after walking my dog in it, decided it made me look hideous. So I stripped it off when I got back inside and almost reached for the sweats, embarrassed that on that one day, I fit into the outfit I'd planned to wear, but it felt tight.

Sound out of the ordinary? Ladies, I don't think so. I think weight and body issues is something that is brought up a lot, but not dealt with in the right way -- and by the "right way," I don't mean in women's magazines that tell you in every issue that you are too fat, don't please your man, and will die of breast cancer.

Enter You'd Be So Pretty If . . .: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies--Even When We Don't Love Our Own by Dara Chadwick. Chadwick was Shape's Weight-Loss Diary columnist for 2008. I let my Shape subscription lapse. I think it sells its product by making women feel bad, even if they're healthy. But while I still had the subscription, I read Chadwick's column every month (full disclosure: I've met her and knew when she signed the contract).

I wasn't sure what I'd feel when reading her book. She is up front about the Shape project, but she doesn't wallop the magazine with praise, and even writes about what she abandoned once the column was over.

That out of the way: It's an important book for mothers and even fathers. It explores how the way the mother deals about body image affects the daughter, and how mom making negative comments about her own body can set up the daughter for a life of disappointment in how she looks.

I wracked my brain to think about examples of this from my own life. The most glaring was from my father, not my mom. When I was a teenager, he overhead me say my weight. "Five pounds lighter and you're the perfect woman," he said. That number has stuck and still sticks in my head of the ideal (the fact that his new wife is probably that weight is a reminder that he still feels that way and makes me wonder if he thinks I'm heavy in comparison). But my mom was pretty good about things. I do remember when she lost a lot of weight on Weight Watchers and put it back on. She also told me I have "birthing hips" when I complained that a dress made me look like a bowling pin (this was in high school when my body was just developing). I think I get more disparaging comments now at 28 -- reminders that someday I'll look like her, a comment often said in front of other people. I think that's unfair to both of us because it's said in such a negative way.

Those parts in the book about the mother/daughter relationship are important to read, as are the areas dealing with how girls naturally have to put on pounds to go from girls to women. I wish someone had told me that in college. I was a bit of a late bloomer, going from an A to a C cup my first two years of college. I despaired that I no longer looked like the freshman waltzing through the door of the University of Tampa in their booty shorts with their flat chests and stick legs. "Why would you want to look like that?" someone asked me when I made an offhand comment about it. I didn't know -- I thought that's what boys wanted.

This came up again this weekend as I watched the Miss USA competition. I didn't put it on but was at a bar watching the 76ers game, and the contest was on the other TV. All of those girls are what magazines want you to feel is the idea -- tall, skinny and with oversized boobs. I know better. I've worked with models and styled photo shoots and know what they do to stay that thin (coke in the bathroom, anyone? for a fashion shoot for a regional magazine? and I am NOT talking about a soda...) I then saw how computers change those images to make those models look skinnier, bustier, and more perfect. I consider myself a rational person, but there I was yesterday, almost skipping a meeting because I felt fat.

I almost didn't write this review here. The book was upsetting in that it made me think about myself and my relationship with body image. I'm a healthy weight (the too-tight pants are a size 2), and very athletic. While I was reading yesterday, I worked on stretching my legs at the same time. While on my back with my legs out at a 90 degree angle, I wondered if they were actually mine -- tanned and toned from running. I've had someone giving me a pedicure shocked by the strength of my legs before. They are strong, as am I. But, as Chadwick writes, we still struggle.

I don't have children, but I will keep this book in mind if I do have a daughter, and it's made me re-think how I talk to my younger cousins. No way do I want to set a young woman down the wrong path with a simple statement about my body. I know I can't stop every other outside factor, but I can at least control what I say.

Oh, and that meeting? I went -- after pairing a bright pink dress with black tights and black cardigan. A lot of those business acquaintances mentioned how great I looked, and I wrote an important story based on the meeting. How horrible it would have been if I'd listened to the inner critic and hid at home instead of going.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Q&A: Matthew Quick

I didn't write about The Silver Linings Playbook: on this blog -- I read it in between the "Book a Week" series. But here's a Q&A with author Matthew Quick anyway.

I like this story for a lot of reasons:

1. I went to high school with Quick's brother.
2. Quick taught at my high school (but not while I was a student there).
3. Quick lives in Collingswood (where I live now), and the book takes place in Collingswood.
4. It's a happy ending to someone who took a huge risk to pursue writing.
5. All signs point to this being made into a Very Big Movie.

So check it out!

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Book 33 of 52: Once a Runner

"They were a strange crowd, runners."

Yes, yes we are.

Once a Runneris a great story -- and I don't just mean the book itself, which is phenomenal. Parker's perseverance in getting the book published and in the hands of other runners is enough of a feel good story itself.

Parker self-published Once a Runner, a book about a runner gunning to run under a four-minute-mile, in 1978 and sold it at races out of the trunk of his car. Runner's World has called it the best novel written about running, and I can see why. Even without the running portion, it is a finely crafted, tight novel with characters that come alive from the first chapters.

Those copies from 1978 were passed around and passed down, almost like a rite of passage, among runners. And I'm not talking about Sunday jogger or even 8-minute-milers like mean. I mean serious elite runners -- the guys who think 6-minute-mile runs are a jog, the guys who log over 100 hours a week, the guys for whom running a mile in over five minutes is a failure. It became one of the most sought-after out of print books, and copies on ebay sold for hundreds of dollars. Scribner re-published the book in hardback form -- it just came out (again) on April 7.

I know some of these elite runners -- they said to me with a straight face that they hope to finish in the top 20 of the Broad Street Run, which has somewhere close to 20,000 entrants. I hope not to get sucked up in the mob.

Quenton Cassidy is such a runner. He's the "under four minute mile" runner of the novel, and the book follows him as he tries to run faster. I wouldn't recommend anyone follow his training techniques, which involve logging over 130 miles a week and doing intervals to the point of peeing blood. But it's as clear a shot as I've ever seen into the mentality of these runners where running is everything. Absolutely everything. They aren't themselves without it.

I haven't reached that point (obviously with 8 minute miles), and I don't know if I'd ever want to. I played high level softball and didn't like being that linked to one sport, like it consumed my identity. I'm certainly training harder, though -- I dropped over 16 minutes off my 10 miler time this year, and I'm logging over 30 miles a week, including exercises to make me faster. I spend time in the gym lifting, too, to get stronger -- sometimes running in the morning and lifting at night. Some people might think it's crazy, but running has become enough a part of me that it matters.

At one point in the book, Cassidy explains to his love interest that sometimes pole vaulters and shot putters like to "play" at their sport. They work so hard and competition is so intense that it's not fun. So they might have a few beers or a few tokes and just play for fun.

I had something close to that today. I ran this morning and lifted this afternoon between phone calls and writing. Then, still in my workout clothes, I took my dog for a walk. It's a gorgeous day in Collingswood, so I walked her down to the park, which has an asphalt trail and grass on each side. Emily's getting older, but she still has some kick and likes to run, so I started jogging with her. She started running ahead of me, so I sprinted. She sprinted, too.We slowed, then did it again. Slowed, then did it again.

I wasn't running for a pace or a time. I let my legs just go as if I told them "go ahead and make me fly." And I they did -- past slow joggers, senior citizens sitting on benches to enjoy the sun, and early evening walkers -- with my little dog flying by my side. I don't know what it was -- the weather, the dog, or finally letting lose the power I've built in my legs over the last three years -- but I felt completely free, and even laughed when I was done.

It's not something I'd have ever done without reading Once a Runner, and even though I don't run at that level and don't really want to, I am so glad to have read it. So glad. Thank you, Scribner, for making that possible, and thank you, Bill, for buying me a copy.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Book 32 of 52: Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids

I had meant to write a long blog post about Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids by Mark Hyman. For now, though, I will keep it short. It's a dry book, but it's a an important read for parents with kids who play sports. It's a statistical look at how pushing a kid too far too soon can hurt him or her in the long run.

I'm keeping it short because my mind is elsewhere. Long-time Phillies announcer and voice of NFL films Harry Kalas died today. Even though he was 73, it's still a shock. He died in a broadcast booth getting ready for today's Phillies vs. Nationals game.

More than any other announcer, Kalas was the Phillies for me. I still remember hearing his call for Mike Schmidt's 50th home run. I played the last out of the 2008 World Series endlessly on youtube.com the day after the Phillies became World Champs. Here's the last strike:



I met Kalas once, briefly. Very nice gentleman who came up and talked to me even though I was shy to introduce myself. My father called me today to tell me the news and could barely get out the words because he was so choked up. Kalas will be sorely missed.

I'll post the newspaper review of Until It Hurtswhen it runs. For now, though, RIP Harry the K.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Book 31 of 52: So Happy Together

This, readers, is the last in the string of romances I read for the latest and greatest piece about the industry. So Happy Togetherby Maryann McFadden (Pub. date July 7) isn't bad, and probably more in line with "women's fiction" than what you'd typically think of in romance. There isn't, for example, any blatant descriptions of sex. The heroine isn't wronged by a man to kick off the story, and there really isn't a romantic rival. It might not even be clear who the hero is (though I could tell).

The story's about Claire Noble (nice name, eh?). She's about to start her new life -- she's engaged and moving from New Jersey to Arizona after the marriage. After taking care of her daughter as a single parent, and then her aging parents, it's time for her to finally live. But when said daughter, who had left home in a huff years before, shows up practically crowning a grandchild, everything changes. Obviously. It's not every day an estranged daughter comes home and has a baby in the bathroom.

Overall, it was OK. Probably too long and drawn out in places (the whole whale thing in Cape Cod was too long and read at parts like the characters were asking questions just to give us background -- which would be fine, but it was almost textbook like), but I enjoyed it and kept turning back to it at night. I cared about the characters. I even got into bed early last night so I could finish it. It'll make a good beach book.

I have one big problem with the book, though: the inclusion of New Jersey Monthly.

Now, I like New Jersey Monthly. I work for them and have been known to call the magazine "the man" but in a good way because it is a man I enjoy working for. In the novel, Claire wants to become a photographer. She is hired by an environmentalist to take pictures of an article he's working on. Turns out that magazine is New Jersey Monthly.

A few things:

1. Writers don't hire photographers. Ever.
2. There's no way the magazine would allow an unproven and unpublished photographer shoot photos for a big feature -- especially not in black and white film.
3. What budget are they using that writer can rent a house for three months and the magazine pay for it? While he's not working on any other stories? I don't think "the man" would be giving that budget. If so -- Ken, we need to talk.

I say this partly in jest. I laughed so hard when I got to the New Jersey Monthly parts that I had to put the book down. But it irked me because it broke down the wall between fiction and reality, and in doing so was inaccurate.

You might think I'm being nit picky, and maybe I am. It probably won't phase another reader. But the magazine is "the man," and I feel weird seeing its name flung around like that -- and hopefully I won't be getting calls from black and white film photographers begging me to hire them.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book 30 of 52: The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green

Feeling greenwashed yet? I am. And even though Terra Wellington's The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green: Saving the Earth Begins at Home offers a few nuggets of good eco information, I wouldn't recommend it as your one green go-to book. A lot of the information is beyond basic, like how to put more walking into your life, and put a lid on the pot as it boils to save energy and heat. Wellington also leans so much on information from the EPA and Energy Star programs that I wondered why she didn't just reprint their web pages in the book.

The title of this book also bothers me. I can see why putting "mom" in it would mean to sell books, but there's little about this book that screams it's specifically for moms. Why are kids tips just for women? Or a chapter about greening a school?

I'm annoyed by this book. Seriously annoyed -- like how I feel when I see someone like Clorox with a "green" product (Really? How is bleach green? You can't claim to be green while still producing that stuff. Also, the author notes on her bio that she has done spokesperson work for Clorox, which I realized AFTER I wrote this part of the review).

So many people are hitching onto the green bandwagon for the sake of selling something (I can only imagine how many of them I'll see at Book Expo America this year). Don't get me wrong -- there's some great books out there, like book 3 of 52 -- but green books are becoming like diet books. Too many of them, all repeating the same thing. Unlike a lot of diet books, The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green: Saving the Earth Begins at Home isn't nonsense, but doesn't offers information I can't find elsewhere. It's not even told in an interesting format -- just a listy, bland narrative with so many boxes and charts that I wonder as to how much space had to be filled to reach word count. I also don't see how a bio like this makes someone a "green" expert. If I wanted to search for a tip or two on green living, I'd go to Google or to Leah Ingram's Suddenly Frugal blog, not a book that amasses the websites I'd can easily find on my own.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book 29 of 52: Bound by Your Touch

I swear, dear readers, that this is not becoming a romance novel review blog. Really! But I'm at the tail end of another piece about romance writers. I could just write up summaries of the books based on their online blurbs, but that's not really right, is it? Especially if I'm recommending people buy said books?

So that brings us to Bound by Your Touch (pub. date June), the second book out by NJ gal Meredith Duran. It's a historical romance that takes place in the late 1800s.

The book opens on our heroine, Lydia, ready to accept a marriage proposal from who she thinks is her love, George. Only George isn't asking for Lydia's hand in marriage -- he wants to marry Lydia's younger sister, Sophie.

The story then jumps four years ahead when Lydia is a book smart spinster (yes, at age 26) who shows up Viscount Sandboure, a self-admitted rake, but proclaiming his Egyptian artifact as a fake. When it turns out her father, who is a scientist working in Egypt, might play a part in selling the fake, Lydia is set and determined to find out the truth. Sanburne gets wrapped up in the story, too, and of course they end up making love in a shed during a rainstorm.

He he. As much as I enjoy reading these books, they are quite silly. Bound by Your Touch is a fun one, though at times too descriptive and a tad tedious. It's easy to skip past those parts, though. I think it'll be a good beach read.

I've got one more to go, then it's back to non-romance on the blog. Promise!

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