Thursday, August 30, 2007

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Lisa See - I borrowed this from Raz awhile ago, but at the time felt like I had read too many books set in Asia, so I put it to the side. About half-way through I realized, "I love books set in Asia." This one takes place in 19th century China. Lily is a poor peasant. Snow Flower comes from one of the wealthiest "feng shui perfect" counties around. A matchmaker notices Lily's delicate feet, and pronounces that with the right footbinding techniques, she could marry into a well-respected family and change her fate. To assist in this journey, the matchmaker arranges for Lily and Snow Flower to become laotong, or life-long intimate friends. They exchange messages in nu shu, a secret women-only language, and share their hopes and dreams - in a world where a woman is valued only for the sons to whom she gives birth. The constraints placed on the women - by society, their husbands, their mothers-in-law - is heart-breaking, but the friendship they maintain is a true treasure. I felt as if the end of the book came too quickly, with the author explaining a little too much. But, this is a very intriguing glimpse into old Chinese traditions, and the importance of female friends.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson - In real life I love hot showers, soft beds, and all the conveniences of modern life. In my dreams, I am an outdoor whiz, hiking through the forest with my pack and walking stick, cooking under the stars, and loving every second of nature. So, reading Bryson's travel book about his time on the Appalachian Trail (from the comforts of the couch) was pure heaven. Bryson vows to conquer the 2,000+ miles from Georgia to Maine with a 40 pound pack, out of shape and with no background in camping. He takes along with him, Katz, an old friend and recovering alcoholic who appears to live on cream soda and Little Debbie snack cakes. Together they survive overcrowded shelters, annoying know-it-all hiking companions, and hundreds of miles of trails. For anyone who has ever endured a long hike, this is an absolutely marvelous tale. And for those who have huge dreams, but aren't quite sure how to start (or finish), Bryson is a master at getting perspective, learnings to take things a little less seriously, and finding accomplishment and humor in every step.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Tie That Binds - Kent Haruf - Years ago I read a novel by Haruf called Plainsong. I can't remember the plot, but I remember really enjoying it. So, I picked up Haruf's first novel The Tie That Binds, without really even reading the back cover. The book starts out with an old woman lying in the hospital, charged with murder. It's unclear who she's allegedly murdered or how, but it is clear that the narrator doesn't think she's guilty. And so he tells the story - the story of life on a farm in Colorado, and a woman tied to her father and the land he keeps. It is a story about family, obligations, sacrifice, and love - of all kinds. It was a bit difficult for me to get into this book, but once I did, I found that I actually did care about the characters. It wasn't so much about figuring out the murder that started the book out, but just learning about where these people had come from and the unfortunate hand life had dealt them. It is depressing and frustrating, but ultimately, a realistic story about family and the choices we make.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tender at the Bone - Ruth Reichl - My friend Anh gave me this book years ago when I was on a kick of reading books by chefs (Kitchen Confidential among my favorites). But, for some reason, I didn't get around to reading this one until now. Reichl is the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, and this is her memoir about "Growing up at the table." As she tells the stories of her life, growing up with a manic depressive mother, going to boarding school in Montreal, and surviving in a commune in Berkeley, she includes recipes she loves and describes her unique and constant connection with food. Reichl is a good story-teller, and I look forward to trying some of her recipes. I was, however, deeply disturbed by the portrayal of her mother in the book. Her mother does have a very interesting relationship with food that clearly affects Reichl (and these are some of the best stories in the book). But, like any dysfunctional family, I suppose, she and her father seemed to live in constant denial of her mother's mental illness. Reichl addresses the difficulties of living with her mother repeatedly, but her solution was usually to run away (as her brother did) and leave her father to pick up the pieces. It is a really tragic background to Reichl's life which I would have liked to see developed a bit more - but perhaps this was not necessarily the point of the book. Reichl's next book, Comfort Me With Apples, is somewhere in my shelves and stacks of books at home. I plan to unearth that one soon.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Breakfast at Tiffany's* - Truman Capote

Ever since reading In Cold Blood, one of my most favorite books of all time, I was very excited to read Breakfast at Tiffany's. I haven't seen the movie, and since everyone raves about that, I figured the book would be even better. Well, I will acknowledge that the writing is incredible. But, I was so disappointed with the very irritating and self-absorbed main character, Holly Golightly. As is so often the case (I feel) in "older" stories, I can never quite grasp why men fall head over heels in love/infactuation with these women who seem to have no redeeming qualities. I suppose casting Audrey Hepburn in the role helps make the mystery a little more understandable - though Capote apparently didn't agree with the choice, or the other changes that were made to make the film more palatable. I think Capote wanted to create a morally ambiguous woman. Someone who made her own choices and was sexually "liberated," but still remained trapped by her society, no matter how often she attempted to escape and redefine herself. Breakfast at Tiffany's is interesting as a character study, but in terms of reading pleasure, I think I'd take a pass.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde - This is the third book in the Thursday Next Series (started with The Eyre Affair and Lost In A Good Book), which features the apprentice agent of Jurisfiction, studying under Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations fame). Her adventures take place in the world of fiction where she hops from book to book, encountering famous characters, and talking her ways out of difficult situations. She fights off those who would reduce fiction to mere text, and helps stock characters fulfill their dreams of becoming leading roles with names and backstories. This is a difficult series to explain to someone who isn't familiar with it, but if you were an English major and/or really into books and grammar, definitely check it out. Fforde gets a little carried away at times, but he is extremely clever. My favorite part of this book was the BookWorld Awards - which honored, among others, The Magus for most confusing plot (I myself have never been able to get through it) and Heathcliff (of Wuthering Heights) for most troubled male lead.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tuesdays with Morrie - Mitch Albom

I read Albom's Five People You Meet In Heaven a couple years ago. It is a great book, but made me cry so much that I was not eager to pick up another one of his books (even though I was sure it would be good.) In Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom goes back to visit his dying college professor, Morrie. Through their weekly talks, Morrie imparts his wisdom about life, love, and relationships. The relationship between Albom and Morrie is a little stereotypical - student gets lost in capitalistic stressful American society, idealistic ailing mentor teaches him to slow down and smell the roses. But, despite the trite nature of the story, it is told in such a tender way that I couldn't help crying by the end. This book is short enough to read in one sitting, but it's one I would recommend reading a small bit at a time - in hopes that the message will sink in - and we'll all remember to tell our friends and family that we love them, and try to live our lives today instead of putting everything off until tomorrow.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Descendents - Kaui Hart Hemmings - This book was written by a Stegner Fellow living in San Francisco, who I went to elementary school with back in Hawaii. Set on Oahu - with a side trip to Kauai, The Descendants tells the story of a wealthy descendant of missionaries (Matt King), who has two out of control daughters, and a wife lying in a coma after a boating accident. As King wraps up his wife's affairs by informing her relatives and close friends of her condition, he discovers one secret affair that he must figure out how best to confront. I feel like I've been on a string of so-so books, and it was making me think I needed to take a break from reading. But, I raced through this one and really enjoyed it, which made me a happy reader again. The main father character was frustrating at times in his cluelessness about who his wife and daughters really were, and sometimes I felt like the dialogue was trying too hard to be "hip" or "real". But, I loved the character of Sid, King's oldest daughter's maybe-boyfriend, who while a little lost himself brings some perspective to the rest of the characters. I recommend this for a good book about the awkwardness and frustrations of family.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Nimrod Flip-Out - Etgar Keret - I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but after seeing the cover, I couldn't resist. This is a collection of off-the-wall short stories by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. The stories are creepy, silly, implausible, and a little inappropriate (read: adult themes) - but they were fun to read on a weekend morning over coffee on the deck. As with many short story collections I've read, I wouldn't recommend reading this in one sitting all the way through - instead, I'd keep it lying around. Read one while you're waiting for the oven to pre-heat or while waiting for the bus. They're a good momentary break from real life.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Wintering - Kate Moses - This is a fictional biography of Sylvia Plath based on her final collections of poems, published post-humously by her philandering husband, former Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. Lisa gave me this book years ago and I started it right away. I became fascinated with Plath in high school when I first read The Bell Jar. I then studied her poetry when I was in college. The book is written in a beautiful poetic style, but knowing it would end with Plath's suicide, about half-way through I found that I was too sad to continue reading it. So, I put it on the shelf. Feeling somewhat melancholy myself last week, I picked it back off the shelf and finished it out. This is a difficult read, but Moses has clearly done her research. While a number of the scenes are not grounded in fact, she elegantly captures Plath's mental illness, and her struggle to find happiness and meaning in her family and her work. Plath's death at the age of 30 was a tragic loss of a brilliant writer, and I feel that this novel is a powerful tribute to her work. In the Acknowledgments, Moses thanks Stanford English Professor Diane Middlebrook (in whose class I studied Plath as an undergrad). Middlebrook recently published a non-fiction book called Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage, which focuses on the marriage between Plath and Hughes, and the impact her suicide had on his life's work.

Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby - I am a huge Nick Hornby fan. I love his sense of humor and get a warm cozy feeling whenever I read his writing. So, I decided to pick up this book, which is a bit of a memoir focused on Hornby's obsession with football (or soccer, depending on the country). This was like a sports version of The Orchid Thief. I am not a fan of soccer, don't know the players or the teams. Yet, I enjoyed this book. Sometimes he gets a little heavy on the game details, but he tells enough stories about his childhood and uses soccer as a metaphor for enough things in life that this held my interest. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves soccer (Arenal is Hornby's team) or Hornby in general. It's also a frightening glimpse into the nature of obsessions - I've always found people who love one very specific thing so much that they revolve their lives around it to be quite fascinating. Not a must-read, but not a bad way to pass the time.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling - The final installment of the Harry Potter series! I was excited to see how it would all turn out, but wanted to read it slowly so that it wouldn't be over. This book is full of surprises - happy and sad - for the true Harry Potter fan. I came across the first book in the series (The Sorcerer's Stone) in the children's section of my local bookstore during law school. I had never heard of it, and bought it on a whim, took it home and read it in one night. The second had already come out, so I rushed right out to get it. I've been hooked ever since - and love the movies too. I won't get into any plot details - they won't make sense for anyone who doesn't like HP, and anyone who does won't want to read a spoiler. But, I will say that I am very satisfied with how Rowling chose to wrap everything up. There is a small cameo by Sirius - my favorite character of the entire series. And my other two favorites, Snape and Neville, end up just as I would have expected (but not without doing a few surprising things first!). A truly amazingly wonderful series. I look forward to reading it all again...but not for many many years.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver - I was reluctant to read another "food ethics" book so close on the heels of The Omnivore's Dilemma, but since I started at #74 on the waiting list for this at the library, I figured I better read it when it arrived. And, I'm glad I did. This is Kingsolver's (with her husband and two daughters) attempt to live for one year only eating what she raises and grows, and what she can buy from local farms and farmer's markets. Kingsolver is a wonderful writer (she had me laughing and crying in alternate chapters), and the book is peppered with political pieces by her husband, and great essays by her college-aged daughter on nutrition and suggested recipes. There are so many little tid-bits and tips throughout - I kept wanting to grab a pen and paper to write them down or email everyone I know with them (like, did you know it's considered bad luck to say "Thank You" to someone who gives you a plant as a gift? It will cause the plant to wither and die!). Kingsolver's family raises animals to eat, which I would never do - but I am very much going to try to follow her other examples of eating foods in season, and trying my best going forward to avoid meat produced by CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations - or basically any US farm that supplies meat to grocery stores). As Kingsolver's daughter points out in one of her essays - what we choose to eat is one of the most personal decisions a person makes - and no one likes to be preached to in this area. I have always felt this way - which is why I won't preach the miracles of this book to everyone I meet. But, I really truly recommend reading this and thinking about how, if at all, you can change your habits and use your purchasing power to make a difference. I also felt as if there was a lot in Kingsolver's book about just slowing down - appreciating life, family, and friends - and trying to undo so much of what has made us into a "right here, right now" society. It's not just about food, but food is certainly a delicious metaphor.