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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Monday, November 24, 2008

Book 4 of 52: Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports

I've been meaning to read Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sportsby Michael Sokolove for a long time. When I first saw that the book was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine my heart plummeted, which you'll understand in a minute.

The book takes a look at the horribly high incidence of ACL injuries in female athletes -- they experience this injury eight times more than men. He asks the tough question of why do women get hurt more than men? It's not an easy issue to tackle. Sokolove makes it clear that he believes in the benefits of Title IX but that women need to be looked at as different athletes, not just smaller, lighter men.

His theory that overspecialization too early makes sense. Instead of playing a different sport a season, girls are playing the same sport all the time. They aren't cross training, and their bodies start to break down. He takes a peek into the world that is highly competitive youth female sports, but it's just a peek.

That's why this is not the book I wanted it to be, which, as a criticism, isn't exactly fair to Sokolove. It's not as if he sat down and said "I want to write a book for Jen Miller." His purpose -- his thesis, if you will -- is that ACL injuries is an epidemic among young female athletes, not about the overall bigger picture that make it almost certain that girls are hurt so much.

This is good and bad. It's bad because it was a book that did not reach my expectation (again, partly my fault). But it's good because that book about intense teenage girls sports? I want to be the one to write it. And here's why.

I was always an above average athlete. I liked playing, and my dad promoted sports. My older brother did not show much of an interest, so the focus fell on me.

I know my dad only wanted for me to do well, and to do well I had to be tough and play like a boy. One soccer season, I actually did play with the boys. I think I was 11, and it did not go well. I couldn't keep up, and my coach hated having a girl on the team, especially when there was a girls team I could have played on. He made fun of me endlessly, and even made up one practice exercise to show that I couldn't even do a cartwheel -- "something any real girl can do" he said.

Soccer, though, was not my best sport, even though I liked it the most. I never either had the training or the innate ability to excel (though I did start on my high school team senior year). My best sport was softball.

Out of the gate, I was good. My dad had trained me, first in t-ball, which was co-ed, and then more so before softball tryouts. I hit off tees. I went to the batting cages. We did endless fielding and catching drills. When I tried out my first year at the age of seven, I was one of the first girls "drafted" out of the pool of choices.

And I liked playing, at least at that level. I liked being in a good team with a friendly coach, and I liked being chosen for the All Star team, which played in a tournament in Pine Hill, N.J every summer.

Of course there was pressure, sometimes more than I thought necessary. Keep in mind, too, that I was a somewhat volatile child. I had an intense temper. I didn't know how to control it, and sometimes I acted out (I once kicked a girl in a high school game). Being put into an increasingly tighter pressure cooker didn't help.

I played all over the field. I liked first base, but hated grounders so went to the outfield in high school. My dad had wanted me to be a pitcher. I even went to pitching camp in the off season -- I still remember my dad driving me down to Pine Hill in his blue Oldsmobile, usually in the dark since camp was held in the winter. I went on Sundays because it didn't interfere with basketball, which I played until high school.

But my temper got in the way of pitching. I didn't have the mental control to do the same thing over and over again, to work on the mechanics, and to deal with games that didn't go well. I'd cry. After one CCD class (a Catholic education class for those of us who went to public school), a girl on another team wrote "crybaby" over all the pages in my notebook while I was in the bathroom.

But as a fielder and hitter, I was good. I was also left handed, a bit advantage in softball when the distance from home to first base is much shorter than in baseball.

I was so good that, as a teenager (I think 14), I was recruited to play for the Sharks, now the Outlaws. The Sharks were considered an elite team. They crushed our town team All Star team in any competition. And they were mean -- one season, they all shaved the lower half of the back of their heads. Why? Apparently, they thought they intimidated other teams.

They also used that All Star series to pick new players -- the ones whose parents didn't know that those leagues existed -- and I was one of two Bellmawr girls asked to play for them that year. From what I remember, my father was ecstatic. Finally! All the hard work was paying off. Of course I said yes. Why wouldn't I? It showed that I was doing a good job. It was a chance to play at another level, and the road that would lead to maybe college softball and a scholarship.

But I wasn't fully committed. Softball, even in my early teens, took up a lot of time. My family had a place down the shore, and that All Star game ate into shore season. I was always relieved when the season was over and I could go to the beach and rest up before soccer started in the fall.

If I joined the Sharks, that wouldn't happen. They played all summer, and their training wrapped around the entire calendar. Could I still play soccer? Could I still do musicals in the winter? What about my summer? Would I ever make it down to Avalon? As much as I liked softball, I liked all those other things, too.

I still remember when I changed my mind. I was being fitted for a uniform. It was going to cost $100 -- out of pocket, of course. I started tallying up how much this was going to cost my family, and I knew the uniform was just the beginning.

Everything was out of pocket -- uniform, equipment, and travel to tournaments, which included driving, lodging and food. Softball would become my life, so I said no.

As Sokolove shows (though more for soccer), not many people would say no because joining an elite team is the natural progression for a lot of athletes. But I just knew I didn't want to do it (I've always been bullheaded).

I don't remember all of the fallout. If I work on this topic more, I'm sure it'll come to me -- and if I ask my parents, too. I think my dad was disappointed. He wanted me to become an elite player -- even bought me the glove that would last me through "high school and college," he said. But I pushed back, which is where I defer from the athletes Sokolove writes about.

That didn't stop softball for me, though. I played on another traveling team and, of course, high school. The traveling team gave me a taste of what that other life was like -- some tournaments, we'd play two or three games a day. Sometimes the same pitcher would pitch all three games. I played some varsity as a freshman but spent most of the season in JV. My father was so upset when I didn't make the varsity squad my sophomore year, and so I was. At Haddonfield Memorial High School, which puts a lot of emphasis on sports, it was OK if you didn't make varsity your freshman year, but if you don't make it by a sophomore? Forget it. You were out of that sports club. You weren't one of the students whose parents talked to college scouts. It wasn't going to be an option if you missed that first high school step.

In other sports, this had been going on long before high school. I knew there was some sort of caste system with club soccer teams. If you didn't get on the right one, you would never excel to the top level. It wasn't as big a priority for me because I didn't exactly care. Even though I focused on softball, I was a more traditional athlete in that I did a different sport per season. Even when I stopped playing basketball, I danced in musicals -- still a great physical activity.

But back to sports. How humiliating not to make varsity my sophomore year! Softball was supposed to be my game. It wasn't that popular at Haddonfield, and most of the better athletes ran track. I felt like I wasn't living up to the promise I showed so early. And, yes, those are the thoughts of a 14 year old. Softball was that big a part of my life.

So I kept working at it, kept playing, kept perfecting my throw from center field to home without a cut off and, my junior year, I made the varsity squad. We were horrible, but I was still at the top of my team. Senior year, I was captain.

And that's where it all started to fall apart.

I had felt pain in my throwing shoulder before. I saw a doctor (a doctor who I think should have been put out to pasture long ago), and he said it was nothing and sent me on my way. The shoulder hurt through warm ups, and then was fine.

Senior year, though, that ache never seemed to go away, especially on those cold early season practices and games. It didn't help that our coaches made us play in that cold, even practice in driving, freezing rain. I could never get it going. I was having more and more trouble throwing in from the outfield. I still did it, but in pain.

I saw a trainer, who wanted me to go to the doctor to see if I tore anything, but I walked out of his office. If I had made it to my senior year, I wanted to see that season through. After that, I knew softball was over. I had had enough -- enough of the practices and games and stress about wining and being the best. My coaches senior year had come to take over the program after working at a private school with a top softball team. "We could have made you all state," one of them said. And you know what? By that point, I was in so much pain and so numb to a sport where our coach demanded we miss spring break and prom to practice, that I didn't care. I just wanted the season to be over. I wanted to go to college where I'd never have to play again.

But the pain didn't go away, of course. It intensified. I wasn't playing anymore -- and wasn't doing much physical activity at all -- but the physical act of writing, especially writing by hand at length, requires motion from your hand, arm and shoulder. I wrote a lot more by hand then, and it hurt. Sometimes I couldn't sleep because of that persistent ache.

I wasn't diagnosed until I was 23, but I started writing about all of this when I was 20. I took a journaling class in college, and one assignment asked us to write to a letter to a body part. I wrote my letter to my shoulder and cried the whole time. The tone, from what I can remember, moved back and forth between outrage at the shoulder itself for failing and the people who kept pressing me to play. Then there was regret for not being more vocal about my problems, and for pushing through when something was so obviously wrong.

After turning in that assignment, my professor, who was also my advisor, pulled me aside and asked me if I would go see a doctor. He saw then that this problem was not just a mental issue for me but a physical one, especially because he saw me becoming a writer (which I thought was crazy at the time) and knew that such pain could have an impact. I insisted I was fine, switched to typing as my entryway into writing, and downed more Advil.

The funny thing about a chronic pain is that it becomes such a part of you that you forget what it was like to be normal, and you forget that other people don't deal with the same sorts of issue every day. My shoulder pain was just another part of my life, just like studying. It was always always there, and I got used to it.

It all came to a head in the spring of 2004. For my graduate thesis, I wrote just about a book-length manuscript about that softball life. I took a good, hard look at the environment I lived for so long, and wrote about it. I put everything -- EVERYTHING -- into it, from my JV coach who smoked with her players, to the intense fear that my ability to be a girlie girl and woman was ruined by being so involved in sports for so long. My graduate advisor loved it as a piece of memoir, and I started shopping it around as a possible book (I got a few nibbles, but no big bites. I don't blame the literary community. I'm a much stronger writer now, and it would need a complete overhaul).

I lived in Manayunk, Pa., then, and while driving home from one night, I almost hit a dead deer on the road. I swerved, wrenching my shoulder in the process. It hurt -- oh God it hurt -- but I figured I just tweaked it. I was working at the University of Pennsylvania Health System at the time as an assistant press officer, and one of the areas I covered was Sports Medicine. So I asked the chair if he would take me on as a patient. We were still at the diagnosis stage when this all started. He thought he knew what it was, but he had to do more tests to be sure.

I was also, at the time (yes, I was busy), preparing for a job interview. The position was editor of SJ Magazine -- a regional magazine about Southern New Jersey that I wrote for as a freelance writer. In preparation for the interview, I was to go through back issues, critique one, and say what I would do differently. The Rutgers University-Camden library had the back issues. One afternoon, I took all the magazines off the shelf and carried them to a study room in the basement. My shoulder hurt, but I figured it was normal. Then I tried to write notes and realized I couldn't control the pen. Then I couldn't feel my hand.

The next day, I tried to work, but my shoulder throbbed. I still didn't have full function of my hand, so I told my boss I had to do something. They sent me to the ER. Thinking that the pain was from sitting at a desk all day, the ER sent me to yet another office that handled workplace injuries. They looked at me, my condition, then sent me back to the ER.

At that point, I'd had it and paged my doctor -- a no no but the doctor said he didn't mind, knowing that I was already looking into the problem. I called my mom, too.

By the time he had a spot open to examine me, I was sitting in a room in front of an audience of six -- doctor, doctor's wife (also a nurse), my mother, and three interns. I was, apparently, a unique case, and having dating a medical student, knew the value of unique cases for teaching, so OKed the interns to be there. But there was little the doctor could do. Anytime he touched my shoulder, I screamed.

What happened? Apparently, in high school, I tore the labrium in my shoulder, which is a ligament that helps keep the bones in their proper places. The injury happens one of two ways: trauma or overuse. My injury was caused by those throws from center field to home plate without a cut off. "No one your weight and size should have been doing that. Your body could never have supported your shoulder" he said. When I sought help, I was misdiagnosed, and kept playing, but it is a problem that can be repaired through surgery -- both my father and younger brother have had it. My doctor suspected that was the problem. However, between swerving out of the way of the deer and carrying the magazines, I most likely damaged the nerves, which made surgery too risky. We never did the tests because they are painful, but I showed all the signs -- intense pain, loss of feeling and control in my hand. And it doesn't go away. I used to experience numbness three or four times a year. It's happened one so far in 2008.

There was nothing I could do then but wait and not use the shoulder and take a nerve suppressant. I kept my arm in a sling, and I still remember taking it out of the sling for my job interview because I didn't want to show weakness.

Good news was that I got the job, and went into physical therapy where I learned that, by tightened the muscles around the shoulder, I could force my body to hold everything in place. I went through the last round of PT in 2005.

So where does that leave me now? Am I still in pain? Sure I am. My shoulder throbs just writing this. But I don't think it throbs so much because of the strain of typing -- more a flashback pain to how my life used to be.

The difference? Running, and temperence.

I've written about running before on the blog, so I won't go so much into it here. But I never expected to become a runner. I hated it -- the physical activity of it, the boredome of it. It was also a different kind of sport. While we had cross country and track teams, running was still an individual thing to do. Your performance wasn't all that much affected by an opponent's move, skill or ability. You competed against yourself.

And that's exactly why I think it's the sport I consider mine now. I never thought I'd be an athlete again, and even writing that here is bizarre. An athlete without a team? But I work out four times a week -- even now when I'm not in training, my schedule involves lifting on Monday, cross training and lifting on both Wednesday and Friday and a longer run on Sunday. When I'm in training, I am either on the treadmill or on the road five days a week. I've placed in two races. Why wouldn't I consider myself an athlete?

Because it's not a team sport. There's no combat. There's no intimidating your opponents and using sheer force of will to overpower someone. Those are the things that Sokolove writes about, and one of the changes in women's sports that can lead to injury. He makes a much better case for it than I do, so I'll leave that to him. But in comparison to the soccer and softball that I played, running is more pure. You only do as well as you train and only rarely will someone else's intensity affect your performance.

The team pressure is also taken out of it. If I don't do well, it's not like everyone else on the softball field are affected -- just me. I've never not run a race well, so I don't know what that's like. But even when I missed my goal time in my last 5k, so what? It's just a race. My running coaches have tried to get me to train more intensely because, apparently, I'm fast. But I pushed back every time. I don't want this sport to become a job because then I know I'll hate it. I need it to be something I enjoy doing for the sport of it, not as a means to push myself as far as I can go.

That's the perspective I didn't have in high school, and I'm sure most student athletes don't have now: at the end of the day, it's just a race, or a game, or a meet. Lives are not at stake. Yes, maybe a scholarship or two, but I made more in scholarships as editor of my student newspaper than the average athlete gets in scholarship money. Sokolove cites a sobering statistic: about five percent of high school athletes play in college, and only about one percent get full scholarships. One percent. What about the thousands of dollars parents spend on club teams, equiptment, travel and coaching? How does that "it's all for her to get a scholarship" rationale sound now? The ends do not always justify the means, especially when our future vitality is at stake.

My shoulder is still an issue. I've had to stop training at times because of it, but it's not nearly so bad anymore, in part because of a change in sport, and also in part because I now lift weights and am stronger than I ever was in high school. My muscles support the shoulder where they didn't before. If I had built up support while flinging a ball from center field to home plate without a cut off? I probably wouldn't have torn the labrium.

I don't regret playing sports. I think the skills I learned and even aggressiveness I used while playing has helped me as a professional. I have a job that comes with high levels of stress. You have to keep pushing yourself to perform because no one else will. I think part of those abilities come from sports. But even though I pushed back early against going full force into softball, I wish I had spoken up soon. I wish I had saved my shoulder. I wish I could still throw a ball.

In an almost perverse twist, I don't know if I'd have become a writer. I went to college for marine biology, but I was bored. I was so used to going to practice after school that I needed to do something, so I joined the student newspaper, which gave me the base training for what I do today. I never could have edited the newspaper while playing softball. I never would have had the time to explore other options, and I might not be sitting here in my home office typing away if I still played. So good thing have come out of what happened.

I know that was probably long and rambling, and not really a critique of Sokolove's book, but as I've always said about this blog, I let the books lead me to other places, and this is a place I'm very much in right now. I ran into my graduate advisor the other day, and he asked me about "the book." I had breakfast with my college advisor while in Tampa last month, and he asked me about "the book." Neither one were asking about the book I published but the manuscript that's in a box in my spare room.

I don't know what will come of this. Immediately, I'm writing an article for a magazine about an athlete who tore her ACL, so that is where I will start. From there? We'll just have to see...

Most immediately, though, I do have a 5k coming up on Saturday. It's in racing where I feel that competitive surge sometimes, especially at the end of a race. I don't just jog to the end. I run to the point of almost vomitting because I tell myself that I must leave everything on the road. I've done quite well, too. In two of my races, I beaten some of those girls who were elite athletes in high school. It gave me, I admit, a small charge that I did that (and if you're reading this right now, I know, it's stupid, but it is what it is).

It's so petty, but I thought about that today as I tried to figure out what I'll wear to my 10 year reunion, which is on Wednesday. It'll be interesting to see where everyone ended up, especially those elite athletes. I wonder what their lives are like right now and if they have the perspective I do now that 10 years have passed and we're on with our "grown up" lives. I think it'll be a lot of posturing and bragging. I've had a great run since graduating, but I know I'll feel like I'm a behind because I'm not married, which is a stupid thing to feel. Part of me will feel like that tomboy, which is probably why I'm so worried about what to wear. I want to show that I've grown up, that I got out of my sweatshirt and jeans phase, that I really could be girlie -- that I could be more than just that so/so softball player.

Life really does always go back to high school, doesn't it?

Anyway, I think I've gone on long enough for now. If you've got kids who play sports, especially girls, read the book. Just because ACL injuries happen a lot doesn't mean they're harmless. Some of these athletes could need total knee replacements in their 30s. Or at least check out the Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group, which runs an ACL prevention program. As much pain as I've suffered because of softball, I'm thankful that I did not hurt a weight bearing joint. Cross training probably saved me there.

One more note, then I promise I'll let you go -- I've actually crossed paths with Sokolove. The first time was back when I worked at Penn and I arranged for him to interview one of the doctors (though I never met him -- I was home sick with the flu that day). The second was this summer. He was on NPR talking about the book, and I called in. I surprised myself by quickly coming to the brink of tears when talking about my shoulder and how it has limited my life.

What's next? Not sure. I don't think I've tipped my hand in saying that I want to write about this. I've talked to a lot of people about it, including an agent who has talked to publishing folks. I would need to put together a proposal and finally open that box in my spare room that holds my old manuscript. It is so painful at times to go back there, but if I can help another athlete from doing what I did? I think it'll be worth it.

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Recommendation: Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform

Those of you who followed my last book a week series might remember my post about Emily, my dog, that had to do with one of the books in the series. My gal turns seven on November 30, and I wrote up a post about her on my other blog.

If you're an animal lover -- especially a rescue animal lover -- you might want to check out the new book Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transformby Karin Winegar. I'm not including it as part of this series, but it is a fine piece about how saving animals can save yourself. If you know anyone who's thinking about getting a new pet and waffling on the shelter issue, give them this book. It could change their minds.

Here's Emily's shelter picture:

It was taken three years ago back when she was too scared in the shelter to eat. Can you imagine that someone hit this dog? So very sad. So very glad I found her.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book 3 of 52: The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference

I read The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference(Pub date Dec. 2) by Jodi Helmer because I interviewed her about "green" holidays and one very green lady for an article I'm writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I started flipping through the book about a half hour before the interview, and finished it later that night.

It's an easy read, which is a good thing for this kind of book. I write quite a bit about green topics, and I run into a lot of people who think that it would cost way too much money and time to switch over to a green lifestyle.

That's why Jodi's book is a perfect way to get into a greener life, or give your own green ways a tune up. It's 365 ways to be more planet friendly and, yes, you can do just about every one in one day. That's also why it was a quick read -- it's one item per page, and they don't walways fill the page.

Now, when I started in, I figured I was a green smarty pants and had already done at least 75 percent of the things she suggests on the book.


I started putting stickies on all those that I wanted to do and ended up filling who knows how many pages -- at least three colors of my sticky pack, though I will say that I checked off a few dozen as "done."

Some suggestions are those that I keep MEANING to do, like insulating my water heater (January 4) and switch to cloth dinner napkins (March 2). Others are bigger steps I would like to take plan a vegetable garden (April 28) and buy houseplants (May 17) -- they may seem easy, but not for those if us born sans the green thumb. I even learned about www.greensingles.com. How cool!

But this did remind me that I do a lot even if I'm not perfect. I took PATCO to Rutgers-Camden where I teach instead of driving. I probably would have saved money driving, but not time, pollution and aggration. I shopped the Collingswood Farmer's Market whenever I could so that I was eating local fresh produce and supporting local farmers (last weekend of the season is this year. Sniff, sniff). As I wrote for an upcoming issue of Edible Jersey magazine, I don't have to take out the trash every week because of how much I compost. I'm going to probably get rid of my garbage disposal becauses I just don't use it, and the extra storage space under the sink would be nice.

So do I recommend this book? Of course I do -- a great holiday gift for the greenie or future-greenie in your life. Or for yourself, of course.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Book 2 of 52: Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasure and the Stories they Tell

I was sent Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tellby Nancy Moses back when I was working on a piece about holiday coffee table books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even though it's not a coffee table book, I held onto it anyway because I thought it might be interesting.

And interesting it was. Moses, the former executive director of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, looks at museum "stuff" -- and not just any stuff. She told the stories behind nine items that are kept in the vast vaults of American museums but rarely seen by the public. And since a majority of the items are Philadelphia connected, I knew at least of the museums if I hadn't visited them, and could add them to my "to do" list as I have with the Physick House.

It might seem strange that museums wouldn't display all of their objects, but who has the space. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened a new building and still doesn't have enough space to showcase their collection. Plus, launching exhibits costs money, money a lot of museums don't have.

The most interesting items to read about, at least to me, were the Blaschka Sea Animals, glass recreations of sea invertebrates. I was about ready to hop into a car to Pittsburgh, where they're held, to see what they looked like.

However, this is not a perfect book. The material, yes, is fascinating, but I almost stopped reading 30 pages in. Why? For the same reasons I liked Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life : the writer's presence in the book.

Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life is not just a history of karaoke but the author's connection to it. In that case, it works. If someone's writing about singing songs -- most likely not in a sober state -- in front of strangers, wouldn't you want to know how the author feels about that? I read part of the book aloud to my class tonight, and they were laughing because it was his experiences, plus the writing, that made it funny.

This book, however, is about museum pieces. I wanted straight reporting of those histories. Sure, a bit about Moses' role with the Atwater Kent in the introduction was appropriate, but she didn't leave. Her experiencing traveling through museums didn't add to the narrative. I wanted to push her out of the text.

Another issue is how she used quotes. Garrett Graff, friend and author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, once told me that quotes should be used as icing -- the sweet stuff that shows off the actual cake. That's not the case here.

Example: In the chapter about Ker-Feal, a house that is part of the Barnes Foundation collection, she writes (the conversation is with Barbara Buckley of the Barnes):

"'A lot of people are working on this project,' I said. 'What do they all do?'
"The registrars took the first step. They inventoried all collections objects: the furniture, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles,' she said, handing me a red notebook."

That doesn't need to be quote. Those are facts, not icing. And I don't like it that Moses keeps quoting her questions. We should be able to tell the question from the answer and the context.

Compare that to this expert from Benjamin Svetkey's article in Entertainment Weekly about Robert Downey, Jr.:

"There are enough organic potions and natural remedies on Robert Downey Jr.'s coffee table to stock an aisle at Whole Foods. Shriveled, rooty-looking things in Ziploc bags. Jars filled with herbal pills as big as bullets. He's sitting cross-legged on the floor next to all of these unusual items in the living room of the London townhouse he's been renting while shooting his latest movie, an elementary detective story called Sherlock Holmes. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but with his hair in full bedhead bloom, Downey looks like he could use a pick-me-up. He reaches for a bottle and shakes a dozen gelcaps into his palm, then stuffs them into his mouth. 'Brain formula,' he mumbles as he gulps them down."

Svetkey quotes two words in that whole paragraph. Why? Because that's the icing. He can show the rest through the narrative. It's the "brain food" line that's important, and that's it. The items in Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tellare no less fascinating than Robert Downey, Jr. In fact, I'd like to know more about them.

Before you start throwing rocks at me, I understand that Moses isn't a writer by trade, but I have to look at the writing in the review, especially when it almost stopped me from finishing the book. A good edit could have fixed the quotes issue, but it is what it is.

If are interested in museums and all their treasures, I do recommend the book. But don't beat yourself up if you skim passages.

In other book news, Frank Wilson, my former book review editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and grand wizard at Books, Inq, is now writing for When Falls the Coliseum. You'll get a hint from the column name: "That's what he said."

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book 1 of 52: Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life

Confession: I have never done karaoke. Never. I've had opportunities, sure. It's not like I've been to a karaoke bar. The closest I've come to participating was on a trip to Atlantic City two years ago when I said that I might be interested in karaoke-ing at Planet Rose with another writer, and then I bailed to go to bed early. At a round of Terry-Oke (karaoke that's run at the Jersey Shore by Terry O'Brien), I didn't sing but was reportedly the first person to ever get up and dance. The song was "That Thing you Do." How could I not? It's a great song, but I didn't want to sing it.

I don't think I'm a terrible singer, either. I had vocal parts in two high school musicals (no, not THAT High School Musical, but Grease (1997) and Bye Bye Birdie (1996) as performed by Haddonfield Memorial High School). I don't karaoke because I have little to no desire to get up in front of an audience and sing because of a mortal fear that I'll be terrible and some other 20-something writer will be out in the audience making fun of me like I make fun of other singers (though my comments are usually reserved for folks who treat karaoke like a record deal audition).

Brian Raftery, on the other hand, loves karaoke, and has written a very funny book on the topic: Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life (pub date January 1). It's the kind of book I like -- part memoir, part history, all wrapped into an entertaining ball that adds to all those random snippets of information I know that makes me a gas at cocktail parties and happy hours.

The best part? He takes such a serious, researched look at something that seems like a fun bar game. His three part explaination about why "Like a Rolling Stone" is the worst karaoke song ever by using Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" as a counter example is such a convincing argument that I want to teach it in my writing class as an excellent example of persuasion. My students read Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank as an example of technical writing (I teach tech comm at Rutgers-Camden), and they liked it, but if I were to teach the course again, I'd consider subbing in this book (and in some student conferences showed it as an example of how writing and reading can be interesting when you really love the topic -- most of my students are not English or writing majors).

Why? Because it's about a technical topic but told in a way that just about anyone could pick up and read it and get it -- except Don Henley, of course (read the book and you'll get that one).

My favorite line? "I'd describe Jessica Simpson's voice as "robotic," but I imagine that would make most robots sad."

I liked the book, though I can imagine some readers will find Raftery so focused on zingers that the book becomes tedious. I don't mind it most of the time, and I marked two points in the book where I thought his stretched himself too far for a punchline. But you might think those points are funny, so I won't repeat them here.

Will I try karaoke now? Maybe. I don't know what I'd sing -- maybe something from Jimmy Eat World (it would be nice to bleet out "I'm the one who gets away / I'm a New Jersey success story" from "Big Casino"). I'm writing an article about companies that have alternative holiday parties, so I'll be visiting Planet Rose soon (and, yes, the inspiration for the article came from reading the book). We'll see if I get up enough liquid courage to give a song a try, or at least twist to "That Thing You Do."

A quick note about where I finished reading the book: I had dinner in Philly last night (Monk's, as usual, was spot on), and I paniced while I was reading the book waiting for the train in. I thought I'd finish it too early and I'd have nothing to read on the ride home. So I took reading breaks while waiting for the train. I hate not having anything to read while I wait for PATCO. I have the attention span of a gnat, so it occupies the time.

I finished the book between the Ferry Ave. and Collingswood stops. Perfect.

What's up next? Not sure yet. I picked this one out of the big pile of books left after the galley purge. Stay tuned.

For more on karaoke, check out the book's blog. The URL makes me think that the title changed somewhere along the production line...

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Beginning, Part 2

Here we are. Again.

Like when I started this blog on October 2007, I'm taking on another "52 books in 52 weeks" project because of a break up. I won't go into details except to say this: the story of the relationship's demise could be told three ways -- his version, my version, and what really happened.

So it's time to get on with it. How?

Step 1: Remove all pictures and mementos. This also includes unfriending each other on facebook and unfriending his friends who added me while we were in the relationship.
Step 2: Eat an awfully unhealthy meal -- for two reasons. First, nothing comforts a broken heart like cheese that comes in powder form (sorry, Michael Pollan). Second, I lose my appetite in such situations, so a high caloric meal to kick things off at least puts some fuel in my body.
Step 3: Reclaim space. This meant reconfiguring the elements of what had been his temporary office in my spare room. I now have a the library I'd always planned for that room:

This room will change -- it still needs another coat of paint, but it's a start.

Step 4: Clean. I've started in my office, which had books coming out of every corner and crevice. Seriously, I found one in a desk drawer. So today I spent a good chunk of today sorting through all those galleys that publishers send me, whether wanted or not.

There was a lot of stuff in here that I'd never read. While I appreciate that Harper Collins sends me mass market paperbacks every month, what am I going to do with books like Evil Beside Her: The True Story of a Texas Woman's Marriage to a Dangerous Psychopath, The Outlaw Demon Wails and Blood Blade?

I know they're popular but not my style. So I freecycled them.

Then I set aside just about every book that had been on the shelf since the last "Book a Week" series. Sorry, Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery and The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance
-- if you haven't grabbed me by now, it's time to go.

Then I went through what was left, reading first pages of books to see if I'd want to read them, and setting aside what will interest family and friends. Then I sent out an email letting said folks know that I had more books up for grabs.

After family and friends root through the pile, the books will be donated.

Then I set out to pick the first book of the series. It's not as easy as it sounds. I haven't finished reading a book in weeks. I was distracted I guess -- by the World Series, the election, the break up I felt was about to happen. It would have been fitting to read one of the dating books that are sent to me because of the work I used to do for match.com, but that seemed way too thought out. The point of the series is that it's supposed to be random. So I picked up one book from the pile, sat down to read and...realized it didn't interest me. So I went to the next, made it through the introduction, and that's where I'll begin.

Stay tuned, folks, and tell your friends. Book a Week with Jen is back.

Also, a short note: you'll see a link to my book over on the left hand side of the page. If you click on that link then shop Amazon -- whether you buy my book or not -- I make a small commission. So if you have any online shopping to do, click first to help finance this Book a Week series for another 52 selections!

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Friday, November 7, 2008


Hello to anyone still reading this blog! It's been a very very long time since I finished my 52 Books in 52 Weeks project. Well, guess what?

It's starting all over again.

The reason? Same one for starting the series the first time around.

So check back soon for another 52 selections from the wonderful library and mind of Jen A. Miller!

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Help a Writer in Need

I know it's been a long time since I wrote on this blog, but I wanted to come back 'live' to post about a writer who really needs our help.

Lori Hall Steele is a freelance writer. She has had a long and flourishing career -- in fact, you can read one of her essays published in the Washington Post by clicking here. Read that essay first, then continue on.

In September 2007, Lori lost the ability to move her feet. The paralysis then spread to her arms and legs, and she was eventually confined to a wheelchair. Then she could no longer move her hands, which meant that she could no longer work. Freelancing is how she supported herself and her seven-year-old son, Jackson.

You can guess that the story does not improve from here. She's now confined to a hospital bed and depends on a Bi-Pap breathing machine, and doctors surmise that the cause is ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Her medical bills -- which the insurance company says are not their responsibility -- are already at $50,000, and are expected to go up to $120,000. She is days away from foreclosure.

Lori is a member of Freelance Success, a writing group that is the main reason I am sitting here in my home, a successful, published writer. We're a very tight knit writing community, even if we live all over the world. All of us who have blogs are writing about Lori because she needs help. The American Society of Journalists and Authors, of which Lori is also a member, has already maxed out on how much we can give her from the organization's fund for writers in need. So if you have any change to spare, please click on this link and donate what you can via paypal. Everyone in our organization is giving at least $25. If we can all get one more person to donate to the fund, we'll help out a wonderful person and writer, and her son.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

About those question marks...

Hey! I'm alive! I promise ;-)

Been very busy promoting my book as of late. I've decided for sure that I won't continue this blog series through what would have been the end of the year, but I have some good news: I just got an assignment from a major magazine in part based on this blog series. The editor says that she thought of me because of my handle on the publishing world, as shown by this blog. VERY EXCITING!

I'm also happy to share the books that were the three question marks on this series: I wrote about them for MORE magazine, which is why I couldn't write about them here. Click here for the reviews.

And for fun, if you ever wondered what I was like live and in person...

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Back in the Swing of Things

I know I haven't posted in a while, but that probably has something to do with the fact that I hadn't read a book since the end of the 52 books in 52 weeks series. Yes, I said "hadn't." I finished a book, two books actually. I started reading one and got sidetracked by the other -- and finished them both within a day of each other.

Are they significant choices? Maybe. The first I finished was Nora Robert's The Hollow, the follow up to book 21 of 52. I picked it up while food shopping at the Jersey shore. I'd brought half a dozen books with me, hoping to jarr my reading mind back open while spending six days away from home. But when I saw that book in the supermarket isle, I couldn't say no. It was an easy (and sometimes silly) way to get back into things.

The second is Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. My food education is progressing since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, book 40 of 52. I'm more conscious of what's in my food and where it came from. Last night, my aunt asked me how much peppers were at the farmer's market. I said I didn't know -- the peppers had been shipped in from North Carolina, so I didn't buy them. "Why?" The look on her face was almost horror. I've had to temper myself in spreading 'the good word.' People have been used to having nutritionism shoved down their throats, and information based on now unproven studies (e.g. 'fat is bad,' which is nonsense) that it's hard to do a wake up call in one conversation. I've gotten into food debates with folks who get angry for suggeting that things they've known all their lives are wrong. If it's wrong, then why is this country so overweight?

If you need a good rule of thumb, remember this: If your great grandmother would not recognize it as food, don't eat it. And, yes, that knocks skim milk and any kind of Weight Watcher's engineered food off the list.

Anyway...enough of my high horse. I'm glad to be back into reading. I still don't know what'll happen with this blog. But thank you to everyone who requested an e-copy of it. I hope you got some summer reading suggestion. I don't have a to-read list yet outside of what I have due to review next week. So we'll see where this reading thing takes me.

On another note, click here to read my article on Amy Hill Hearth, which ran in today's St. Pete Times. She wrote books 30 and 31 of this series.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

In the Philadelphia Inquirer

Two articles of note in today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

My write up of the Philadelphia Library Book Festival.

My suggestions for summer beach reads. Ths books were numbers 45 of 52, 49 of 52, 35 of 52, 50 of 52, and one not included on this list

I'm off to Cape May today for my father's wedding. I'm packing two books. I hope to get some quality reading time in before the ceremony today. We'll see!

Remember, if you'd like to reviews in order from 1 to 52 in a word document, just email me at jenmiller27 [at] gmail [dot] com!

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Someone's Been Reading my Blog...

...because this showed up in the mail today:

I can't even tell you how excited I am about this bag. I must take it down the shore with me this weekend. Click here to read what the fuss is all about.

Still haven't read anything since I ended the series. I don't know if it's book overdose or making a major push for my shore book -- probably a little bit of both!

Remember, if you'd like to reviews in order from 1 to 52 in a word document, just email me at jenmiller27 [at] gmail [dot] com!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

What I've Been Doing

Thanks to everyone who commented and emailed me about ending the blog series. It's nice to know that people enjoyed it. As someone said to me, "You should either write something worth reading or do something worth reading about," and your support makes me think that I managed to do that.

So what have I been doing since finishing the 52nd book? A lot, actually. I haven't read a book! I tried -- even dipped into a few -- but they couldn't keep my attention. I don't think it's because of the material, but because I need a break.

What I have done is sorted through all the magazines I didn't get to because I had my nose burried in a book. I forgot how much I enjoy reading magazines (and not stuff like Cosmo and Maxim -- I'm talking Portfolio, Metropolitan Home and National Geographic Traveler), and how many ideas for articles I get from reading magazines.

I've also been planning my book launch party, and finishing up a lot of work that I need to get done before June 1. Today I'm headed down the shore on assignment from both the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times, and to pick up seashells. It's a cold, windy day, which means the conditions should be perfect for shells on the beach.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with this book blog series yet. A few people have mentioned book, and I've thought about it. I read through some of the earlier blog entries this weekend, and I can see how much has changed in the last seven months. Who knows. Maybe there is nothing to do with it because I did it -- I wrote about it and shared it and hopefully entertained you. I learned a lot about myself, and what could be better than that?

Remember, if you'd like to reviews in order from 1 to 52 in a word document, just email me at jenmiller27 [at] gmail [dot] com!

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Friday, May 9, 2008

Giving it All Away

I went through the blog today and put the reviews in order -- 1 to 52 -- in a word document. If anyone wants it, drop me a line at jenmiller27 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Why give it away for free? Because it's already free online :-) But I realize that some people might want to be able to read it all in order without the clicking, or print it out and carry it with them.

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