Monday, December 31, 2012

NYE Readathon!

I'm in!

Jenn over at The Picky Girl is hosting a very open-ended and relaxed Read-a-thon for New Year's Eve and since I will certainly be reading, I've decided to join in.

Last night I started My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan, a memoir of a dissident member of a historically important white South African family, and I've got several other books going as well. I'm reading The Suitors by Cecile David-Weill, an upper crust French comedy, and The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, about a young woman in rural England in the 19th century. I plan to spend lots of time this evening with my books!

Join in Jenn's Read-a-thon here!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Crafturday- Crayon/Pencil Roll

So here's a little thing I made for a child I'm related to for Christmas, a little crayon roll. The child is my husband's cousin, a very bright and creative girl who loves to do art. I got the pattern from Better Homes & Gardens; it was so easy, just a matter of quilting and binding a main fabric, lining and pocket, and making a little tie to hold it together. Here's the roll on the inside:

The size is designed to hold markers or pencils but you can make it any size you want. It could hold brushes for painting or makeup, chalk, crayons, or what-have-you.  I've already started making a second one for myself as a sewing organizer, with a section for my embroidery scissors, and I'm tempted to make more, to sell or give as gifts.

I had so much fun making this little guy. I included a set of colored pens and two big blank books, upcycled from a book on science for kids and a book on horses. I hope my little cousin-in-law has lots of fun with it! What do you think?

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Favorite Reads of 2012

It's that time again- time for all of us to write our top faves of the year. I read 30-odd 2012 releases so I won't do a 2012 Top Ten- not enough to choose from! But I'll share my top five or six and then some great backlisters I read this year.

I knew it would be my favorite when I read it back February and time has not proven me wrong. Absolution, by Patrick Flanery, was the best new book I read this year. It's a staggering debut about South Africa, loss, memory, reconciliation and finding the truth buried under layers of secrets- or not finding it. It just blew me away.

Other 2012 books I loved:
  • Varamo, by Cesar Aira, the funnest book I read in 2012 about a soon-to-be poet and his hilarious dark night of the soul,
  • Pure, by Andrew Miller, expertly written historical fiction with a dry wit, set in pre-Revolutionary Paris,
  • The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne, a book the New York Times called "sleek" and "panther-like," a gripping and moody page turner set in the Moroccan desert,
  • Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua, is a not-to-be-missed meditation on identity set in Israel among Arab-Israelis trying to figure out their place in a country that can't figure out what to do with them, and
  • The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, an incredible and riveting war novel set in Afghanistan that isn't afraid to take sides even as it shows a single event from numerous points of view.
But I don't just read new releases. Here are some other books that I loved reading this year:

Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas. Read this, please! The memoir of the dissident Cuban writer is the book I read in 2012 that I think I want everyone to read.

Moffie, by Andre Carl Van Der Merwe. It's a searing, unforgettable story about a gay man in the South African army and a must-read.

Freedom in Exile, the memoir of the 14th Dalai Lama.

He Died With His Eyes Open, brilliant literary crime by Derek Raymond, himself a fascinating character!

Happy Birthday, Turk! the funnest crime novel I read this year, by Jakob Arjouni, about an ethnically Turkish German P.I. out to solve the murder of an immigrant.

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. Irresistible fun about a posh young lady visiting her country cousins.

The Goodbye Kiss, by Massimo Carlotto. Silly, trashy fun about a love-to-hate psychopath on the loose in Italy.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Simply delightful Western black comedy about a pair of hired killers and their last big job.

The Long Song, by Andrea Levy. What a great, engrossing, gorgeous book!

Stoner, by John Williams, a quiet and somewhat depressing novel about an academic in the early 20th century. I loved it even though it was kind of a downer.

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. If you've never read this masterful Sudanese writer, make room in your schedule for this tight, amazing novel about cultural clash.

When I Was Otherwise, by Stephen Benatar.  An extraordinary book from an extraordinary writer, this haunting and harrowing family story is dysfunction at its messed-up best. A brother and sister live with their sister-in-law and the three create a brilliantly frightening domicile.

What made your tops-of-the-year list this year? What are you excited about in 2013?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 Statistical Roundup- My Year In Books

This meme is becoming an annual event! This is the third year I've done it.

How many books read in 2012? As of December 25, I'd read 95 books this year. That's a record! Last year I clocked in around 82 or 83. I don't know why I've read so much more this year! I think the amount of quick-reading crime fiction probably helped.

How many fiction and non fiction? 12 nonfiction and the rest fiction. So it's almost like I read the same amount of fiction as total books read last year and all the additional books were nonfiction.

Male/Female author ratio? 
A huge difference for me this year- 63 books by male authors versus 31 by women. Usually it's split down the middle or favors the women. I don't have an explanation for this but I'll be picking more women writers off my TBR pile when I get a chance.

Favorite book of 2012?
My favorite 2012 release was Absolution by Patrick Flanery. The story of Clare Wald and Sam Leroux and the secrets, lies and truths that bind them and tear at them is riveting and beautifully written; Patrick Flanery may be a debut author but he writes like a seasoned vet tackling tough social, historical and personal issues. A biographer faces off against a seemingly unwilling writer; it's not so much a battle of wits as a slow unraveling. The perspective shifts between the two and the book that Clare is writing about her dead daughter Laura, a disappeared activist who was taking care of the child Sam just before she vanished. It's a staggering, wonderful and accomplished book. I hope his subsequent books live up to the promise of his astonishing debut.

Least favorite?
Couldn't tell you. I don't finish books I'm not enjoying these days.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
A few. Victorine, by Maude Hutchins. Just couldn't get into it. More I've forgotten about and already weeded.

Oldest book read:
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published originally in 1910.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis. It came out in mid-December and I bought it the first day.

Longest and shortest book titles?
Lovers by Daniel Arsand; From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry.

Longest and shortest books?
State of the Union by Howard Zinn was probably the shortest; Little, Big, by John Crowley was probably the longest. It felt like the longest!

How many books from the library?
Well, I'm listening to The Secret History of MI6 right now, an audio I borrowed. That might be it!

Any translated books?
Season of Migration to the North (Arabic); Lovers (French); The Shape of Water (Italian); 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (Italian); How I Became a Nun (Spanish); My Brilliant Friend (Italian); Tyrant Memory (Spanish); Garage Band (Italian); I Hadn't Understood (Italian); Drowned (Swedish); Singing from the Well (Spanish); Before Night Falls (Spanish); Second Person Singular (Hebrew); Limassol (Hebrew); Days of Abandonment (Italian); Pinocchio (Italian); Divorce Islamic Style (Italian); Happy Birthday, Turk! (German); Tropic Moon (French); The Secret in Their Eyes (Spanish); The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (German); Me and You (Italian); The Nun (Italian); The Goodbye Kiss (Italian); Varamo (Spanish); Obabakoak (Basque and Spanish); Bandit Love (Italian).

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
Two each from César Aira (How I Became a Nun and Varamo), Massimo Carlotto (Bandit Love and The Goodbye Kiss), Elena Ferrante (Days of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend) and Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls and Singing from the Well).

Any re-reads?
No re-reads this year! But I won't consider myself done with Christopher Priest's The Islanders, which I'm still reading, until I've re-read it at least once.

Favorite character of the year?
Varamo of César Aira's eponymous book. Oh my goodness I loved that book! I also loved, in the love-to-hate sense, Giorgio Pellegrini, the gleeful psychopath at the center of The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotto.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
Through books I went to Russia, Iraq, England, Argentina, France, Italy, Morocco, Ireland, Hungary, Sweden, Cuba, Nigeria, Tibet, Germany, Australia, Gabon, Burma, India, Afghanistan, Israel, South Africa, the Netherlands, Jamaica, Guantanamo Bay, Basque Spain, Sudan and the United States. I also visited the imaginary countries of Panem, Mollisan Town, the Dream Archipelago, the Homeland and the Railsea.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, thanks to the extraordinary Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand.

Which author was new to you in 2012 that you now want to read the entire works of?
César Aira. I'm obsessed!

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
None really. I mean, there are dozens I should have read but annoyed? I'm not annoyed I didn't get to anything this year. I do the best I can! I think I would have liked to have gotten to Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. And I still haven't read Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas, an amazing autobiography everyone should read.

2012 TOP TEN Book Events in Marie's Book Life - in no particular order:
  1. Working at Porter Square Books and getting to know the great staff and customers- really number one!
  2. Going to the Europa Editions head office in Rome and meeting owners Sandro and Sandra Ferri and the team.
  3. Bookhunting in Florence, Rome and Sorrento.
  4. Seeing the Life of Pi movie.
  5. Participating in World Book Night. I passed out Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
  6. A quick trip to New York for my birthday and more book hunting.
  7. Hosting a book blogger night at Porter Square Books.
  8. Meeting Jeanette Winterson after she read from her autobiography.
  9. Interviewing Marc Fitten, Alex Gilvarry and Dan Wilbur for the blog. I don't do many interviews these days and these were fun.
  10. 2 guest stints on the Literary New England podcast.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Merry!

I hope all who celebrate it have a very Merry Christmas and I'll see you back here on Boxing Day!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

REVIEW: Quiet, by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Published 2012 by Crown. Read by Kathe Mazur. Nonfiction. Business.

Like 1/3 or so of you, I'm an introvert. I like to be alone; I enjoy solitary activities like crafts and reading; I need my "down time" after a lot of time interacting with people. I always eat lunch by myself, for example, and appreciate time to unwind alone before my husband comes home from work. I was drawn to Susan Cain's fascinating book because I think I was looking for validation, and while I certainly found that, I also found a lot more.

Cain's discussion is quite wide-ranging. She starts out with a discussion of the history of the "extrovert ideal" in American culture in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, with the rise of cities and corporate culture. All of a sudden, the quiet, contemplative life was replaced with the go-getter fast track. People were told to be outgoing, forthright, aggressive self-promoters- and told that this was the only way to be, that anything else was unacceptable. Advertising grew by creating new reasons for Americans to feel insecure; personal hygiene and appearance mattered suddenly, and so did personality. Dale Carnegie started the self-help industry with his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, which continues to be influential today with its tips and tricks for the shy and socially awkward. I've used the book myself to help learn easy ways to start conversations. Cain continues by profiling several prominent organizations, including Harvard Business School and Tony Robbins' seminars, that encourage and promote the extrovert ideal. Then she spends the rest of the book examining the psychological and physiological underpinnings of introversion, extroversion and introversion on a broader cultural scale and finishes by discussing how personality styles can influence family dynamics.

All in all, I found the book to be really interesting. I found most of it to be well-argued and supported, and I really appreciated the thoughtfulness she brings to the subject. As I was listening (I listened to the audiobook) I was thinking about where I fit in in all this, which personality traits and habits I recognized in myself. I can be quite outgoing when I'm doing something I care about, like when I'm at work, and I love having big parties and lots of friends, so I'm not 100% introverted, but I still saw myself in a lot of Cain's insights about how introversion works. And I don't think my extroverted side is really inconsistent with my introverted side after hearing the theory about "free traits" and how introverts (and extroverts) can adjust their personalities to their present circumstances. I was also thinking about my husband, a lawyer like Cain, and how he might appreciate her insights about their shared professional background.

I'd definitely recommend Quiet to introverts who could gain a better understanding of themselves but also to extroverts, who could better understand the quieter half of the room and appreciate what they have to offer. Even though she's quoting studies and talking about some pretty serious science, her style is accessible and no special background is needed. It's informative, fun to read and chock full of information for people all along the personality spectrum.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Announcing the 2013 Europa Challenge!!

Announcing the 2013 Europa Editions Challenge!

The challenge runs from January 1 until December 31, 2013. There is no deadline for signup!

To join: please email for posting access. You need a Gmail/Blogger account to participate.  


  • Ristretto Level (2 Europas-just try a little) 
  • Espresso Level (4 Europas-a little more)
  • Cappuccino Level (6 Europas)
  • Caffe Luongo Level (12 Europas) 
At any level, you can qualify as
  • A Connoisseur, by accepting the Perpetual Challenge;
  • An Expatriate, by choosing books from a single country or original language;
  • A Passport Holder, by choosing books from different countries or original languages.
  • You can also do the Tonga Challenge or The World Noir Challenge, and devote yourself to reading Europa's specialty lines. 


  • Read, review, and post your reviews on The Europa Challenge blog.  See the Participant Guidelines for more information.
  • We encourage you to cross-post your reviews and posts to your own blog and link back to the Challenge blog.
  • You can overlap your selections with other challenges as long as the books are published by Europa Editions.
  • Post your book list whenever you want, and change your reading list at any time.
  • Enjoy these great books!
From time to time Europa Editions has offered (and may or may not offer again) giveaways and exclusive interviews on the blog. In 2012 the Challenge also hosted a Holiday Swap. Who knows what we'll do next year!

Email me at to sign up at any time!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

REVIEW: Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas

Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas. Published 1994 by Penguin. Nonfiction. Memoir. Translation.

For a long time I'd wanted to read Reinaldo Arenas's memoir Before Night Falls, which was made into a celebrated 2000 film starring Javier Bardem. I wasn't actually crazy about the movie- I fell asleep both times I tried to watch it- but I wanted to know Arenas's story better and this was the year I finally picked up a copy and read it.

I think these days with other forms of political and religious repression making headlines, the story of Cuba and Castro is easy to overlook. Reinaldo Arenas was a prominent writer and openly gay man whose life took a terrible turn after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959. Although at first he was sympathetic to Castro, that changed, and Arenas was jailed, chased and persecuted and saw his work banned. His literary reputation grew thanks to friends who published his work and supported him from abroad, but in the end he fled the country for the United States and lived the last years of his life in New York City. He committed suicide in 1990 after a long struggle with HIV and drugs.

His memoir is a book everyone should read.

There's just so much in here, about Arenas and Castro's Cuba, that I was fascinated to learn. He writes about the indoctrination camps he attended, the work he did for the regime and his growing disenchantment with it as he saw what Castro's rule was doing to his beloved country. He writes about the communities of dissidents whose ranks he joined, the time he spent in jail- which is absolutely harrowing in its unremitting violence and absurdity- and his seat-of-the-pants escape and dangerous journey out. One of my favorite passages talks about Castro's conflict with the Peruvian embassy, which was sheltering dissidents:
Around the beginning of April 1980, a driver on the number 32 bus route drove a bus full of passengers through the doors of the Peruvian embassy asking for political asylum. Strangely enough, all the passengers on the bus decided to ask for political asylum. Not one of them wanted to leave the embassy.

Fidel Castro demanded that all the people be returned, but the ambassador from Peru said that they were on Peruvian territory, and according to international law, they had the right to political asylum. Days later, during one of his fits of anger, Castro decided to withdraw the Cuban guards from the embassy, perhaps tyring in this way to pressure the ambassador to give in and force the people out of the embassy.

...When it became known that the Peruvian embassy was no longer guarded, thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, entered the embassy...The following day the embassy doors were closed again but there were 10,800 people inside and 100,000 more outside...From all over the country, trucks were arriving full of young people who wanted to get in...
This passage shows the combination of absurdity and black comedy along with tragedy that is in evidence throughout Arenas's book.

There is also a great deal of sex in book and some reviewers have noted this and expressed some disbelief at the idea that Arenas is being truthful about the amount of sexual activity he claims to have engaged in. Here's what I think about that. First of all, memoir is a form of storytelling and sometimes memoirists sacrifice 100% truthfulness to tell their story the way they want to. It's also important to remember that Arenas was dying when he wrote this book, that the book was intended to reach Cubans in the U.S. and elsewhere, and that he had a great deal of very justified anger towards the Castro regime over the way that he, other gay people and Cubans of all stripes were persecuted. (And when I say "persecuted" I mean jailed, murdered, tortured, and had their lives ruined- not bullied in school or denied jobs somesuch more benign (but still terrible) forms of discrimination. ) Also keep in mind that Arenas's fiction is often fantastical, dream-like and surreal.

What that adds up to is this. I believe that while Arenas, who by all accounts probably had a pretty active sex life, uses sex to some degree as a metaphor for the life-spirit of the Cuban people, and that by portraying so much gay sex in Castro's Cuba, Arenas is jabbing his finger at Castro and his supporters and saying essentially, you can't keep us down, you can't deny our lives, you are liars and killers and you can't win.

Before Night Falls is one of the best and most powerful books I've read this or any year. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to know more about Cuba, about this particular writer or about the struggles that writers have faced all over the world throughout history. It's simply stunning.

Rating: BUY!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Friends' Favorite Books of 2012

A while ago I did a little informal poll on Facebook to find out what my friends enjoyed reading this year. Here are the results!

Robin Abrahams, or "Miss Conduct" of the Boston Globe, liked Breed by Chase Novak. Here's her review as well.

Blogger Sandy Smith Nawrot of You've Gotta Read This! picked 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

Author Barbara Foster Bietz picked Wonder by R.J. Palacio. She says, "Perfection on every level." You can visit Barbara's blog, Jewish Books for Children, here.

Middle-grade writer Jen Petro-Roy loved See You At Harry's by Jo Knowles.

Author Aine Greaney loved The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I did, too! Her book is called Dance Lessons and is out now. Her website is here.

Columbia University librarian and graphic novels maven Karen Green picked My Friend Dahmer by Derf.

Blogger Jeanne Griggs of Necromancy Never Pays loved Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway.

What a great list, you guys! Thanks to everyone who shared their favorites with me. What are your favorites this year?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis. Published 2012 by Knopf.

I usually don't think of myself as the "Oprah Book" type- I'm way too snobby for that, right?- but the truth is I love that Oprah Winfrey does so much to encourage reading and sometimes I even love the books she picks out. The last time I read an Oprah pick that wasn't a classic I knew, like Anna Karenina, was way back when she picked Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall On Your Knees. I don't know exactly what it was, but something about the way she described that book really made me want to read it. And you know what? I really enjoyed it.

And I really enjoyed her latest pick, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Last Friday Shelf Awareness announced the pick, and that the book would be going on sale ahead of its scheduled January 2013 release. That very day I was visiting Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., and decided to pick it up.

The story follows the life and family of Hattie Shepherd and her husband, August. Hattie comes north from Georgia to Philadelphia has part of the great migration of African-Americans so well documented in the recent bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.  That book was compelling history; this is compelling fiction building on that true story. She marries August when she's still a teen and their difficult relationship and many children form the backbone of the book. You could almost approach the book as a collection of short stories. Each chapter focuses on one or two people and bumps forward a little in time, giving the book both personal and historic scope. Settings range from church revivals in the South to a wealthy suburban home to Vietnam to one woman's skewed interior life; among Hattie's children are a musician, a soldier, a housewife, and more. They all struggle with secrets, illnesses, loneliness and a desperate need to be loved.

Hattie herself is like a shadow in many of these stories, her echo sounding in each difficult, painful life. There's hope too- there's an unexpected recovery, a peace that comes after much heartache, and finally the chance that the future will be better for some. Mathis's writing is beautiful and confident; she moves from one voice and scene to the next with ease and creates rich characters and vivid settings. She gets to the heart of these people, gets their voices just right and gives each one a unique perspective and personality. The chapters she devotes to Hattie in particular made me feel like I really knew this person, this frustrated and tired and disappointed woman who was never able to show her children any love. On the surface she might almost be unlikeable, except we know her too well for that.

I think even without Oprah's imprimatur this book would have done well and reached a lot of readers but now it will be the hit it should be. Literary readers will enjoy the craftsmanship and emotional reach, and it's a natural choice for book clubs with lots to talk about. It's really terrific and deserves a broad audience. It's a beautiful work with more than a dash of heartbreak and hope.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

REVIEW: Tyrant Memory, by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Tyrant Memory, by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Published 2011 by New Directions.

Tyrant Memory is a very worthwhile novel about political repression and revolution by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, about a brief period of time in 1944 between the ascension of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez- also known as "the Warlock"- who took power after a coup, and his downfall at the hands of a general strike. The story unfolds in the month between the coup and the strike, as Salvadoran society went into upheaval. Castellanos Moya alternates the narrative between Haydée Aragon, a wealthy woman whose husband has wound up as a political prisoner, and her son Clemen, on the run from the new regime with Jimmy, a military man thrown together with him by chance. The two men have nothing but contempt for each other, but their adventures take the form of absurdist comedy and provide a stark contrast to Haydée's growing anxiety.

Haydée's chapters are written in diary form, so we get a very immediate sense of her emotions. At the beginning she's not too worried; she's sure her husband will be home any minute and she takes every opportunity to see him, to keep him apprised of the minutiae of her life. Slowly the situation disintegrates and she finds herself in the middle of a rebellion, her hairdresser and catering appointments interspersed with secret meetings and public protests. At the same time, things go from crazy to funny and back again with Clemen and Jimmy as their adventures take them from a priest's attic to a perilous train trip and a long ordeal in a raft. Finally, things settle out and an epilogue set years later put events into a new light entirely.

Tyrant Memory is not a book that's going to leap off the shelves at most readers but if you like black comedy and political machinations, it's pretty good stuff. I like the way Castellanos Moya gets into Haydée's head, how he makes her relatively and somewhat frivolous concerns feel pressing and real, how he makes her more than a stereotype of a society wife. The chapters with Clemen and Jimmy bristle with comedy and life; I looked forward to their continuing (mis) adventures and flipped the pages eagerly to learn their fate. I'd definitely recommend the book for readers looking for something off the beaten path.

Edit: I don't think you need any background in Salvadoran history to read the book. It's quite accessible and the blurb gives you all the information you need- how one family is affected by a vicious government coup. Political repression is nothing new in the annals of history.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Oh my. I think I have a record number of books going right now- six!

But first I'm excited to announce I finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas over the weekend. I loved it! What a book. It's heavier lifting than I've been doing lately reading-wise; it's a complex and multi-layered story, stories built on stories, but I loved it. I'll have a full review later this week. Wow! I haven't seen the movie yet but I plan to. Have you read this or seen the movie? What did you think?

Now, about my six books!
  • There's Life Itself, Roger Ebert's autobiography, on my nightstand. I always have a nonfiction book on my bedside table.
  • Quiet, by Susan Cain, is on my iPod. I've been listening to it for a while now and really enjoying it. I should be finished in another week or two.
  • I recently started The Islanders, by Christopher Priest. Recently out in paperback, it's another complicated puzzle book. I had to put it down until I finished Cloud Atlas because I couldn't really focus on two difficult books at once.
  • Victorine, by Maude Hutchins, has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while and I'm honestly not crazy about it. I'll give it another shot but it may end up in the DNF pile.
  • I've been working on Harry Hearder's Italy: A Short History, for a while, dipping in and out. More out than in lately!
  • Finally I bought and started reading The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis, when it was announced as the next Oprah pick. I have to say I'm really enjoying it. I'm about half-way through and looking forward to finishing and being able to recommend it to readers this holiday season.
What are you reading this week? Leave a comment and tell me- I want to know!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Crafturday- Ornaments!

One of our holiday traditions is to make ornaments for our Christmas tree. My husband and I have been crafting together for almost as long as we've known each other;  I think even the first Christmas we were dating, we made painted plaster ornaments for our respective Christmas trees. Over the years I've made beaded ornaments, painted ornaments, embroidered ornaments and more- it's so fun to unpack them every year and see all the crafts we've tried. Several years ago my mother gave me a Martha Stewart pipe cleaner ornament kit for Christmas, and although I didn't succeed in making most of the different kinds, I did manage to figure out the wreaths, with my own spin!

You need:
  • A white pipe cleaner
  • 3-4 green pipe cleaners
  • Thin cardboard stock
  • Circle template
  • Scissors or x-acto knife for cutting cardboard 
  • Coated wire for the hook/ hanging loop
  • Strong adhesive glue
  • Red marker
  • Wire cutters- don't cut wire pipe cleaners with regular scissors.
  • Embellishments- jewels, ribbon, what-have-you.
1. Make the candle. Cut a short length of white pipe cleaner (like 2 inches or so- eyeball it) and pick off about 1/4 of an inch at the top to leave a wick. Then use a red marker to color in the "flame."

2. Make the wreath base. Cut out a circle of thin cardboard- cereal boxes will work. I have a template for this. The circle is about 3 inches tall. Then cut a circle out in the middle. Eyeball it- make one that looks good to you.

3. Glue the candle to the bottom back of the base.

4. Cut a length of stiff twine or coated wire for the hanger. Make a U shape and glue it to the top of the back so it hangs like a loop.

4. Wrap the green pipe cleaners. I need about 3-4 pipe cleaners per ornament. Start by holding the pipe cleaner perpendicular to the front of the ornament with about 1/2 inch above the cut-out circle. Wrap that half inch to the back, tightly. Wrap the pipe cleaner around the ornament, tightly, and when you come to the end of the pipe cleaner, wrap the next one over the end of the first. Wrap around the candle and the hanger. Continue till you cover the base and tuck the final end under.

5. Use fabric glue or another strong adhesive to attach embellishments. I like to use flat-backed jewels and a red bow.


With some creativity, you could transform these into fun brooches, decorations for cards, book covers, or.... These are great, quick little guys to make and share. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

REVIEW: Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater, by Anne Marie Blackman & Brian Clark Howard

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater, by Anne Marie Blackman and Brian Clark Howard. Published 2012 by Running Press. Nonfiction. Christmas.

So here's something fun for your coffee table or stocking this holiday season.

Do you like wearing "ugly" Christmas sweaters? Well, here's your ultimate ugly-sweater-style-guide. Divided into helpful chapters like "Homemade Hits and Misses," "Pets Rocking Ugly Christmas Sweaters" and "Rock Christmas in July," this book displays a wide array of the crazy, the tacky and the just-plain-wonderful when it comes to Christmas sweaters.

There are sweaters with Santas; sweaters with trees; sweaters with crazy garland and sweaters on dogs and kitties. Truly, there is something for everyone, at least for everyone who likes Christmas sweaters.

I love Christmas sweaters. I wear them without irony and with a smile on my face. I love the different reactions they bring out, as long as it's a good reaction. One of my favorite stores, The Garment District, recently had a sale of so-called ugly sweaters and I found some real treasures. (They're also having an ugly sweater contest!) Then I found this book, and realized that I actually own the red cat vest the guy on the cover is wearing. I feel so proud!

You should get this book for yourself or a friend this season, just for a laugh. Or, if you're like me, as a style guide and a way to validate your silly penchant for all things glittery.

And yes, I will post a photo of my entry into the contest!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, December 3, 2012

REVIEW: Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier. Published 2010 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Hit with Russia-fever, essayist and travel writer Ian Frazier spent parts of several years coming and going between his home in New York and various parts of the Russian Far East, much of it taken up with that vast and legendary area called Siberia, a region whose name has entered our language with connotations of cold, isolation and remoteness. To be in a "Siberia" means to be alone, to be set apart, to be frozen out, at least metaphorically.

But as he shows in his engaging and immensely enjoyable memoir, to be in Siberia is to be none of those things. Although at times he was isolated, and at times he was frozen, he was also in the middle of an area rich in history, colorful characters, tall tales and fascinating people.

Writing like a more laconic and moody Bill Bryson, Frazier talks about the nuts and bolts of travel- sometimes literally, as in the ramshackle airplanes, clanky trains and cavernous, echoing airports. He recounts his attempts to learn Russian and the days when he did- and did not- get along so well with his guides. I love that he's not always cheerful, that he has his bad days and isn't afraid to share those along with the sunny times, as in one time when he was trying to catch a ferry to his next destination, only to be frustrated by any kind of timetable or schedule:
At the ferry landing the next morning there were only a few cars, but still no ferry. Soon more cars and several trucks showed up. Always sociable, Sergei and Volodya [his guides] circulated among the other drivers and made conversation, but they could learn nothing definite about when the ferry might come. I preferred to sit by the van and let the waiting bother me. Volodya noticed my mood and said, "Call your wife." That was always his solution when he saw me in the dumps. I took out my [satellite] phone and called, a bit self conscious because of the three or four waiting people nearby who came closer and stared at me. When my wife answered she was making dinner. I complained to her about having to wait for the ferry.
But he also fills the book with fascinating history, particularly about the Decembrists, upper-class revolutionaries who wanted to reform Russian society in the 19th century, many of whom were exiled to Siberia. He also touches on subjects like the immense oil and mineral wealth of Siberia, the sable trade and its influence on Russian and Soviet history, the many settlements, cities and towns dotting the region, some of the indigenous peoples making up its population and more. Frazier has lots of great anecdotes and stories to share about the people and things he meets. One of my favorites is the story of the Siberian flamingos:
[Marina Tabakova, a gardener in the town of Severobaikalsk] took a few snapshots from an album on a garden bench. The pictures of the flamingo...had the radiant, revelatory quality of icon paintings. They showed the flamingo standing in the winter garden's tiled floor and regarding the photographer with an expression that was, indeed, haughty. He (or she) looked as if he had just planted the flamingo flag an claimed this place for Flamingo. Though kind of gray, he was definitely a flamingo. He seemed to have become comfortable with his singularity, and to accept as a matter of course the attention focused on him. Naturally he would find a tropical forest in the middle of Siberia, and naturally it would need a flamingo.
I found this story on NPR about the Siberian flamingos, too, if you're interested.

And there's so much more. I really enjoyed Frazier's laid-back, slightly self-deprecating style, and his patience and empathy with his environment and the people he meets along the way. His love of the region, his curiosity and his depth of knowledge shine through on every page. I read this book in part because I so enjoyed John Vaillant's The Tiger and was interested to read more about Siberia; this book covers broader ground geographically and thematically, but it's definitely of a piece with Vaillant's book. (And if you haven't read that yet, and you're interested in the Russian Far East, it's time!) If you are interested in the subject, Travels in Siberia is definitely required reading!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mini Reviews of Books I Read Sometime in 2011

I don't review every book I read. I review most of them, but from time to time I read things that I just don't have that much to say about- which is not to say I didn't like the book, just that I don't have enough thoughts about it for a full-length post. I have a stack of those books from last year staring at me on a bookshelf near where I blog, and I think now is as good a time as any to finish up with them.

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid, is a story about a girl from the Caribbean who comes to live with an American couple to work as an au pair. You know how I just said it's not necessarily that I didn't a book that I chose not to review it? Well, I didn't really like this one. Lucy seemed like a pretty miserable person and while I admire Kincaid's craftsmanship, Lucy isn't one of those fun unlikeable characters that you might find in a satire. She's just kind of a buzzkill.

Election is Tom Perotta's novel that was used as a the basis for the 1999 film starring Reese Witherspoon. I liked the movie better. The story is the same but the filmmakers did a great job of tightening up the characters and sharpening the satire- which is pretty cutting in the book but razor-sharp on screen. I enjoyed this story about small-town high-school election shenanigans but I'd recommend the movie over the book.
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken is a contemporary classic about a very tall boy and the librarian who comes to care for him. It's a book that should be required reading for anyone who's ever felt different.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black, is a stunning collection of short stories from a gifted voice in fiction. I was profoundly moved by some of these, and awed by the rest. If you read short stories, this should already be on your shelf.

The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, is another you might know from its film adaptation. A lyrical, bitter and impeccably crafted multi-voiced narrative that moves back and forth through time, it tells the story of a tragic bus accident and its impact on a tiny, tight-knit, snowbound town. It's another modern classic and should be on everyone's bookshelf.

 Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros is actually a pretty wonderful, multilayered and absorbing coming of age story about a Mexican-American family and its travails as they criss-cross the country in search of prosperity. I fell in love with Lala Reyes, the young protagonist, and her whole family. The Giant's House and The Sweet Hereafter are modern classics and I appreciate them in that way, but for the sheer joy of reading, Caramelo is my favorite from this list.

FTC Disclosure: None of these books came to me for review.