August 2008

“The History of Love” By Nicole Krauss (2005); 253 pages

Started reading August 22, finished reading August 30.

Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Ever. I know this is going to sound trite, but: “The History of Love” is a literary mystery that made me laugh and cry, and I wasn’t able to put it down. And the minute I finished it I was ready to start reading it all over again. Really. The story–which I am not going to summarize here– involves entangled plot lines that you want to go back and get a fresh reading on as soon as you’ve made your way through it, and yet somehow still manages to be completely satisfying. While the title may sound like this book could possibly fall into the chick-lit category, it’s not. At all. It is a true modern classic.

Only after reading up on Nicole Krauss after finishing the book (which is actually a habit I want to avoid falling in to: I don’t want to base my comments at all on what I’ve read on Amazon or in reviews) did I learn that she is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) whose books I really ought to read–although whether or not I could finish one in a week remains to be seen… I’ll get back to you on that one. Krauss’s book was complex and beautifully written, but also constructed in a way that compels you to plow through it. It did take me the full week to read, but only because I had a lot of other stuff going on at the same time. This is a book you could finish almost in one sitting, and definitely in a weekend. But the story will stay with you for much longer than that.


“Dreams from my Father” Barack Obama (1995, 2004); 442 pages

Started reading in um… Primary Season. Yes, February. Finished August 21.

I know what you’re thinking. There is no way I could read 400+ pages in one week. (Actually, five days; refer to the “FAQ” page) So I confess. This one took six months to read. Not that it wasn’t engaging and wonderful, which it was. I just kept getting distracted by other books, Ben, trips, work, etc. (Yes, completing this book was one of the main considerations when starting the challenge) And now that I’m done, finally, I’m happy to report that I’m as excited about Obama now as I was when I started it, way back in primary season. (For proof on exactly how excited I was, see above: my birthday cake decorated by a very clever husband.)

I can not recommend this book highly enough– whether or not you are a supporter now, I’m guessing you will be when you finish it. OK, unless you’re a Republican, in which case you may not be converted into an Obama supporter, but I expect you’ll still find him likeable and the book to be extremely worthwhile. (And don’t be put off by the length of time it took me to read: my sister Rachel borrowed it during our vacation–while I was busy reading Amanda Hesser– and finished it in about four days. Rachel does have a reputation for being a fast reader, but no matter.) Barack Obama is a beautiful writer, and his personal history is fascinating. This, his first book, covers his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his time spent as a community organizer in Chicago, and a journey to Kenya to meet the African side of his family and to learn more about his late father. The story is amazing and moving, and so well told that I feel like I know him and his family personally. Although he does’t discuss political aspirations in this memoir, obviously his life experiences have contributed signifcantly to the politician that he has become. And yes, he is a politician, but he’s also down to earth and self-aware. The idea that a man this articulate, intelligent and thoughtful could be our president makes me practically giddy.

“1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12” By Thomas W. Phelan, PhD (2003); 208 pages.

Started reading August 10, finished reading August 16.

OK, the title of this one really says it all. Ben got kind of wild on our trip (and who can blame him? He had no routine, plus new friends to hang out with, every day for three weeks!) so when my friend Missy, trained as an elementary educator and administrator, recommended this and handed me her copy, I started reading immediately. And so far, so good– Ben has been pretty good since we’ve been back (I can’t discount the fact that we’re back on school routine, nap schedule, earlier bedtimes…) and perhaps, in part, because the system outlined in the book works. It was kind of funny, though, because I expected I would get through this in two days, but it really took me the full week. Once I got past the how-to-deal-with-your-wild-toddler section–which I read in 45 minutes– the rest just dragged for me. I think it was because the author covered all the way up through difficult adolescents, which I’m just not ready to wrap my mind around yet. But I do whole-heartedly recommend this: if your kids don’t listen to you (um, let me re-phrase that: if you have kids) you should give this a try. In addition to whining, back-talking, etc., it also covers how to deal with bedtime and mealtimes. Which I’m glad about; now hopefully I won’t have to read another child-rearing book for a while.

“Until the Real Thing Comes Along” By Elizabeth Berg (1999); 241 pages.

Started reading August 3, finished reading August 8 or 9.

Another perfect choice to read in less than a week. Shana, lender of many a wonderful book, gave this one to me in Baltimore and I flew through it (and no pun intended– but I was really on an airplane) in part because Ben’s DVD player is the Best Thing Ever Invented. For those of you who have traveled alone with small children, you will not even believe me: I read about 75 pages of this book on the plane, en route from Baltimore to Birmingham. While Ben watched 2 solid hours of recorded TV shows while wearing headphones. And trust me, we –and everyone near us on that Southwest plane– were all better for it.

So back to the book: While masquerading as chick lit, it turned out to be a sweet and beautifully written novel. Yes, its a fast read, and yes, there are baby feet on the cover… I also can’t deny that topic just screams “womens-lite-fiction” (woman with no significant-other wants baby, and in love with her gay best friend) so you probably wouldn’t be in the market for this one unless you like this kind of book to start with, in which case you won’t be disappointed. By the way, I also really liked Elizabeth Berg’s sort-of-recent book “Open House”, which falls into the same category of beautifully written and mostly geared to women. But with better cover art.

“Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes” By Amanda Hesser (2004)

Started reading July 26, finished reading Aug 1.

I’ve been looking at this book on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf in New York during every visit for the past few years, and when I start reading it this most recent vacation, about a third of the way through the book I realized I had actually read some of it before. While that may have been because I had already borrowed her copy during a previous visit, it also could have been because much of this book has previously appeared in Amanda Hesser’s food column in the NYTimes magazine. But thats OK. Once I got back into it, I remembered that I like Amanda Hesser (and according to Ruth Reichl, one of my favorite food writers and memoirists–and who used to work with A.H. at the Times– Hesser is as adorable in person as she seems to be when she writes) and overall this was a good book to kickoff the challenge. It was a fast read, and although parts of it were too precious, it was fun, and just the right amount of gossipy about the NY food world (just enough to make you feel like she was providing interesting dirt–including about her own personal life–but none of it in a mean way.) And, I did want to cook a fair amount of the food she described. Will I ever actually prepare any of these dishes? Probably not. But that’s mostly because the book stayed in New York when I returned to Alabama. But anyway, first book: a success. If you like food writing or following the careers of new york-y people, you’ll probably like it too. And FYI, I’m not so sure about writing a book review every week… with all this time spent reading, I may not have the energy left to become a critic, too.

I’ve been thinking about the main kinds of books I (mostly) read, so that I won’t be reading the same kind of book repeatedly. Because it’s much easier to read a lightweight chick-lit novel in one week than, say, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” (which I liked a lot, but took me at least 6 months to get through) I am going to force myself to vary the choices every week. So some weeks I’ll have something easier and shorter–and hopefully finish in just a few days– other times I’ll attempt something a bit more ambitious, knowing it may take a few weeks… My hope is that over the course of the year it will even out. I’m still working out the basic categories I’ll use to describe the books (and suggestions are welcome) but the main ones I’ve come up with so far include: Lighter Weight Fiction (includes the ever-popular chick-lit category and some mysteries), Non-Fiction (includes essays, child-rearing, food writing, memoirs.) and what I am calling for now Proper Fiction, which includes classics and non-lightweight novels. The big rule is this: I will not read the same type of book from week to week.

In addition…I’m going to read at least 5 classics that I’ve been looking at on my shelves for years. I am finally going to finish Obama’s “Dreams from my Father”, and start reading MFK Fisher (although probably not the 800+ page “From the Journals of MFK Fisher” that I’ve been bringing on most vacations since 1999). I will most likely re-read Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”, again. Regarding children’s books: No books that I read to Ben will count, unless he’s ready to start listening to Harry Potter, etc., which I’m pretty sure he’s not. The occasional book about child-rearing will pop up now and then, but in general a few books a year on how to handle a three-year-old is plenty.

You know how on vacation you have so much more time to read? A few weeks ago, as we were driving from New York to Rehoboth Beach, and I was thinking of all those books sitting at my feet that I couldn’t read because it would make me carsick, an idea for reading one book a week just popped into my head. Inspired by the Visual Bookshelf function on Facebook, which reminds me of all the books I want to read but haven’t yet, this is a challenge to myself: I am going (to attempt, anyway) to read an average of a book a week for the next year. And since I want to give myself just a tiny bit of leeway in case this project is overly ambitious (OK, I pretty much already know it is) my goal is 50 books this year. One reason for committing to all this reading is because the list of what I want to read is constantly growing, while the amount of time I spend actually reading has been shrinking. The challenge also works in tandem with my current TV hiatus (currently derailed by the Olympics); movies and Jon Stewart don’t count. Since I first had this idea on July 26, and have actually been keeping up with the plan so far since then, I am going to back date the entries a bit and include the books that I’ve read since then. The official book-a-week challenge will run from July 26, 2008 until July 25, 2009. I am well aware that in addition to reading a lot more, I’m also going to end up paying more attention to my book choices (a lot less chick-lit, I am sure) so not to continually embarrass myself. Which is sort of the point.