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 www.geocities.com/gene_moutoux/diagrams.htm
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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
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 bookmarksmagazine.com. 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 manybooks.net.
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.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Sunday, February 24, 2008
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Thursday, February 14, 2008
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?http://www.powells.com/interviews/joshuaferris.html
Monday, February 11, 2008
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!