Friday, February 29, 2008

Blackboard Memories

As a grade school student in the 50's, my favorite assignment was diagramming sentences. Perhaps it was my left-brained tendencies that made the tidy, structured division of sentences so appealing. Remember those neat diagonal prepositional phrases? And what about those gerunds slithering down the stairs? So I was delighted when a friend gave me Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Author Kitty Burns Florey, a veteran copywriter who honed her diagramming skills in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade class, shares my passion (as well as my Catholic school experience), and offers diagramming examples taken from such diverse authors as Hemingway (a good choice for beginners) to Henry James (a black diamond course for experts only). Florey's enthusiasm for diagramming is contagious, and she offers an amusing look back at its origins as well. For more than you'll ever need to know on this subject, you might also want to check out

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What shall I read next?

As explained in our Welcome section we started our reading group almost exactly 25 years ago. I don’t recall that any of us had had any experience being in another book group at that time. Our very first book was The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Very early on we adopted as our policy or theme to read only books that had a strong female character. The books didn’t need to be written by women but did need this strong female character. To give us suggestions we invited at different times a woman whom I knew who taught a class in children’s literature (I was a math major so the word “literature” in any context was impressive to me) and a man that I met at a Christmas party who was a professor of women’s literature at the local state university. Over time (25 years is a lot of books) in our search for titles we adopted other themes: magical realism, South American, classics, contemporary, World Wars I and II, prize winners (Nobel, Booker – no guarantee: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner was a general disappointment as I recall). Of course the easiest way out is to hire a facilitator who provides a list of choices and guides the discussions – which we have also done at times.

But there are other sources and I thought I would share a few of mine. In December I picked up at my local Costco a copy of 501 Must-Read Books published by Bounty Books. I must say I’m impressed by what we have – and haven’t - read over the years. I don’t know that I will ever get to The Epic of Gilgamesh from circa 2100 BCE but someone is reading it as there are four translations currently in print. There are many authors in the Modern Fiction section that are new to me – especially it seems Italian authors: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi…In addition to Fiction (Classic and Modern) there are sections on Thrillers, Travel Writing, History, Memoirs and more.

In a similar vein is a book that I picked up at least a decade ago: The Reader’s Choice 200 Book Club Favorites by Victoria Golden McMains. The book starts with suggestions about forming a book club. Then each of the book selections (which include fiction and nonfiction) is given a page of description and a couple of questions for discussion. The selections are arranged alphabetically by Author but then at the end is an index by Title but best of all a Subject Index including Countries. So if you are planning a vacation to Wales or New Zealand or even New York and you want a book in that locale this will give you some ideas. Or perhaps when you return to recapture some of the feeling...

Of course there are magazines – my current favorite is Bookmarks (subtitled For Everyone Who Hasn’t Read Everything) which is published every 2 months. Much of the content is available for free online at The first thing I do when my issue arrives in the mail is turn to the Book Group Profile. This is a profile in question and answer format and a photo of an existing book group including some located overseas. They describe themselves, what they read, how their gatherings are conducted, what they’ve liked or disliked. The variation among groups is astounding! With that out of the way then I can turn to the actual book and author contents. This is a great resource. I would never have known about the free book downloads (mostly classics) available at

Finally no list of sources could omit the Internet. Twice a month I receive by email a newsletter BookBrowse (subtitled Your Guide to Exceptional Books). It previews/reviews new or forthcoming books. There is the version of the newsletter that I receive which is free and then there is a subscription membership which seems like a reasonable value but I already am suffering from information overload. And then there is the tradeoff between reading more about books or actually reading a real book itself. I think that I need less of the former and more of the latter.

Let us know in your Comments if you have found other sources of interest.

Happy reading!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Identity Quest in Lapland

"Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" was a title that caught my Scandinavian eyes. It's a brief contemporary novel, a taut, terse story of Clarissa, a young woman who discovers at her father's funeral that he was not her biological father. Her mother disappeared years earlier. Clarissa travels to Lapland in remote northern Finland in search her father, a Sami priest, to learn more about her family and identity. What and who she encounters comprises the plot. Vendela Vida, the author, writes in a propulsive "tight" style that pushes you forward in this rather spare but stirring book. Some may find it bleak, while I found it compelling. She and husband Dave Eggers are gifted writers who have contributed much to writing projects for youth in San Francisco. It was a pleasure to discover and read her work.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Circus Life

“Water for Elephants” is Sara Gruen’s new novel about a traveling circus in the depression era. There aren’t many novels written about the circus and Sara Gruen has done a fantastic job on researching life in a circus in the 1930s. The details of the circus life are fascinating and also horrifying. The cruelty, to the animals and especially to the people working behind the scenes, was horrific and sad. It is a compelling epic and love story that keeps the reader interested.

The author uses the technique of flashbacks between the present life of the narrator, Jacob Jankowsky, in a nursing home and his past life in the circus, 70 odd years ago. Often this technique propels the story and keeps the reader mesmerized by the connect between the past and the present. Somehow, this did not work for me in this novel. I did not enjoy the chapters with the narrator in the nursing home. I consistently wanted the author to return to the story at hand. I think the story could have worked without the flashback technique. But “Water for Elephants” is a well told story. The factual details about circus life in the 1930s, and the characters, make the story interesting and unique. It is such a surprising pleasure to read a novel and learn about a way of life that you did not know existed!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Clever Girl

Once again a first novel – this time it's Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. The story is told by Blue Van Meer, the precociously erudite teenage daughter of an itinerant genius academic. Her father crisscrosses the country teaching one semester poli sci courses at a variety of backwater colleges and educating his daughter on everything from Wordsworth to Nabokov to Karl Marx as they drive from one remote town to the next. And educated she is. The book is littered with literary and film citations, both real (”Dad chose to ignore these signs of impending doom (see Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius, 121 A.D.)”) and hilariously imaginary (“Milton, sturdy and grim, with a big, cushiony body like someone's favorite reading chair in need of reupholstering (see “American Black Bear”, Meat-Eating Land Animals, Richards, 1982)”. She never met a simile she didn't like (“Jade had a very severe way of looking at you that made you feel as if she was a 1780 sugarcane plantation owner and you, the branded slave on the Antiguan auction block who hadn't seen your mother and father in a year and probably never would again”). She even provides her own schoolgirlish illustrations as she describes her senior year in Stockton, North Carolina, the latest town in her father's itinerary. But just when I was losing patience with this tale of high school angst by an overeducated showoff, the story took a sharp left turn and became a whodunit that kept me flipping back to re-read chapters where I'd missed clues. Pessl doesn't blindside you with the death itself; it is initially described in the first chapter of the book. But her hints are dropped skillfully, and once the mystery shifts gears, it barrels along to its odd but appropriate final chapter. I'd recommend it as a good book to take on a long plane ride or a trip to the beach.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Finding your inner farmer

I know that we were reading Barbara Kingsolver at least as far back as 1992 when we read Animal Dreams in our Reading Group. But I also have on my bookshelf her The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. I know that we DID read Poisonwood Bible as a group; DID NOT read Prodigal Summer as a group; and probably DID read the other two but alas memory and my archives fail me. Of course what unites all of these titles is that they are Fiction.

I can be sure that one title of hers that we will NOT read in our Book Group is her most recent Animal, Vegetable, Miracle A Year of Food Life because it is non-fiction. We have few proscriptions in our group but after many years there is a line in the sand and all “Book Group books” are on the Fiction side. So I had to read it on my own.

There are actually 3 authors of this book: Barbara writes most of it in her wonderful prose but her husband Steven contributes more factual background pieces and Barbara’s daughter Camille writes the recipe sections. In addition to the book there is a website with the same name that has additional recipes, farming resources, and some fabulous photos. I have found this to be the case with several non-fiction books lately – the tie-in website which is actually a great idea for updating the material.

But if you have grown up in an urban/suburban environment like I have, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can pack your belongings, move to the country and with only this book as your guide release your inner farmer and sustain yourself. Barbara and family didn’t just move from Tucson to southern Appalachia and start from scratch on day one of this year-long chronicle. They had owned the farm and spent summers there for many years. Barbara herself had grown up in a rural area of eastern Kentucky. So they had a lot of the experience and knowledge which I suspect can only be gained the hard way – by trial and error and trial again.

I loved reading this book, learned a lot and was inspired to take a more local and seasonal approach to the food I eat. (Does that mean that I can never have another banana?) Maybe I’ll start with a few containers of herbs and some San Francisco Fog tomato plants in my backyard. After all, “a journey of a thousand paces…”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"eat pray love"

Elizabeth Gilbert’s,“eat pray love”, is an engaging memoir about a woman’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual journey to restore a life that has gotten out of control. Elizabeth Gilbert is a well known writer who has been a finalist for the National Book Award (among other awards) but I had never read anything she had written. “eat pray love” is one of those books that felt I should read to find out what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed this book mainly because Gilbert is a good writer and her self-deprecating humor and adventurous spirit made it such an enjoyable read.
Her first journey is to Italy in search of great food or pleasure, hence the “eat”. I enjoyed her descriptions of Italy, her earnest desire to learn the language, to meet the people, and to eat the wonderful food. On the way she made you feel that food can truly feed the soul as well as the body. But, my favorite part of book was the “pray or devotion” section, in India. The author goes to great lengths to explain the practice of Yoga and meditation as she encountered it in an ashram in India. It wasn’t an easy journey. She put her heart and soul into her practice of yoga and meditation in this remote ashram and she brings the reader with her every painful step of the way. I didn’t want this section to end. But, after 36 chapters, she was off to Indonesia, specifically, the tiny Hindu island of Bali in search of “love or balance”. There are some very comical parts of this section as she “hangs out” with her medicine man and learns the history of his life. Her life in Bali is, "ridiculously free". She falls in love with a wonderful man, which, as a reader, I felt was somewhat contrived. But, apparently, Elizabeth Gilbert really did marry the man she met in Bali and they are living happily ever after in New Jersey!
“eat pray love” seems to be a great formula to repair a life and a worthwhile journey for any reader.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Books That Stay With You

What a great pleasure it is to read! From escapism and adventure, learning about new cultures, the latest in medical science, about the food we eat, to impressive people. Sometimes a book really "sticks" for a long time. The San Francisco Chronicle had an article on February 8th about such a book. Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains was the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard-educated physician who built a health clinic in Haiti among the poorest of the poor. Later on, he developed services for prisoners in Russia, and people in several countries who had multiple drug resistant Tuberculosis. He has worked with prisoners, families, orphans and is a truly determined hero. Since reading that book I've told many people about it, and saw Dr. Farmer speak at a wonderful fundraiser for Orphans of Rwanda last winter. He inspired a huge crowd of young prosperous professionals and drew record attendance to a fundraiser for a San Francisco group that provides books, food, housing and education for university bound students who will become the next generations of leaders, educated within Rwanda. I was delighted to read about the numerous non-profit groups that have been started and maintained by people who were inspired to action by this story. Isn't it a real privilege to read about the impact, struggle, persistence and passion of a man or woman who has made a difference? This book was written in 2003 which is in its 19th printing! Good tales about true heros will always have a long term following. Thank you Paul Farmer for teaching us that one person can make things happen that have a huge impact on the lives of others. And thank you Tracy Kidder for writing this particular book.

I'm very interested in books that have had an impact on you, for whatever reason. Joan Didion's
honesty in The Year of Magical Thinking was, I agree, an amazing act of honesty and skill. It "sticks" doesn't it? I'd love to hear from you about some of your favorite books of the last several years. What was it about them that made them linger in your memory or impact your thinking? One of the pleasures of a blog is this kind of exchange. Until next time...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Office Life

I recently read Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. It was a Christmas present – no surprise since I often direct my sons to the NYT Notable Books list when they ask for gift suggestions. It's a first novel (always a risky read) and was National Book Award finalist. The action takes place in a Chicago ad agency, at a time when business has taken a downturn and co-workers are afraid of losing their jobs. One very unusual aspect of the book – it's written in first person plural, whichemphasizes the 'groupthink' aspect of office dynamics . I think it really captures the feeling of 'cubicle life' - the gossip, the jokes, the personalities and quirks of co-workers, the battles over perks (bagels, office chairs), the fears of being canned (or 'walked Spanish' as they nickname it). Ferris understands the weird way in which you often know your co-workers in a very intimate ways – sometimes more than you want to. I laughed out loud reading this book, but there were also many touching moments. There's a good interview with Ferris on the Powell's Book site in which the book is compared to the TV show “The Office”. It has some of the same mix of humor/pathos/sweetness. I wonder if this same dynamic occurs in workplaces other than offices?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Food for the Mind as well as the Body

In recent years I have taken up marathon running and in trying to optimize my limited performance at the back of the pack I have focused on the Nutrition component of the training. One of my recent reads was by Brian Wansink: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. It only took a nanosecond for my 20-year-old son to point out the other interpretation of the sub-title. The book is a very readable chronicle of many of the author’s experiments and the results of his research including useful information such as: If you want to reduce the amount of wine that your guests drink at your next dinner party, pour each refill into a clean glass and leave the used glasses on the table. The accumulating glasses will send a message.

Then, through an article in The Week magazine (thank you, Diane), I ordered Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease by Gary Taubes from my local library. I don’t think that the article mentioned that it is 640 pages. I did read a few pages but the rest will have to wait for another time (or illness). But what I did read is very thought-provoking. His thesis seems to be that the original research regarding the damage of fat in our diets was grossly misinterpreted and the wrong messages have been perpetuated. It’s really the carbs that do most of the damage – and make us hungry besides. That also confirms what I recently heard in a nutrition lecture by Max Utter that there is no way that a fat calorie can be converted into fat in your body unless you are really starving and your body has no alternative. There’s a lot of science here which somehow was left out of my liberal education – but an interesting and vitally important topic.

On a more accessible note, I recently spent a rainy weekend (we have had several of late) with In Defense of Food An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Michael Pollan is the author of the popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma which I didn’t read. Pollan’s newest book is another argument for “you are what you eat” and it has some great practical suggestions. I have no trouble getting excited about eating well – it’s just with the shopping and cooking that I get bogged down. I did however sign up for the summer season of veggies/fruit/eggs/bread/cheese from Canvas Ranch, a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that delivers weekly. All of this is making me hungry – I had better go for a long run!
(Max Utter)

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking

I had wanted to read Joan Didion’s, "The Year of Magical Thinking” but I hesitated because I knew that it was about the death of her husband and the life threatening illness of her only child. I felt that it would be too sad and depressing to read. I finally made myself buy the book and I loved it! Joan Didion’s writing is superb. She has let the reader enter her world, from the day her husband, John Gregory Dunn, died of a “sudden, massive coronary event” and her only child, Quintana, lay unconscious in an intensive care unit, to the day a year later when she realizes that she had to, “go with the change”. It is a year that she chronicles with deep personal insight and beautiful prose. There is the suspension of reality and the magical thinking----------that he is going to reappear and everything will go back to “normal”. The relationship that the author details between her and her husband is so strong and the loss is so overwhelming for her . But, she is able to bring the reader into her life and to share her loss, her grief and her strength. It is a book that I recommend for not only the great writing but for the experience of living through the death of someone who is your life partner, your world, and somehow, eventually, relinquishing them, letting them go and living your life without them.