Books That Started as Blogs

If you’re like me, and I hope you are, you follow a blog or two just because it’s fun. Of course I read this very blog because my smart and hip co-workers contribute valuable stuff to it. Hey, you’re reading it right now! You must be just like me.

Did you know that there are a lot of great books which have been spawned from blogs? Let’s explore some recent titles which had their starts as blogs. I’ll start with the visual ones:

indexCake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong by Jen Yates is so funny! Yates has been entertaining us with the worst cakes ever, including the ugly, silly, creepy, sad, and suggestive on her blog since 2008. It currently features photos of awful graduation cakes. Have your cake and laugh at it, too. With witty commentary and behind-the-scenes tidbits, Cake Wrecks will ensure that you never look at a cake the same way again.

index (1)There, I Fixed It! No, You Didn’t by Cheez Burger is part of the ubiquitous Cheezburger Network of blogs and is another hilarious visual feast full of epic fails which show human ingenuity at its worst. My favorite ‘chapter’ features quick fixes with duct tape.

index (14)How To Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You is based on the blog, The Oatmeal, a hugely popular website. It is a brilliant 136 page offering of cat comics, facts, and instructions to help you enjoy, love, and survive your cat. The book is a #1 NY Times best seller and sold over a half million copies in its first three months in print. Check it out from the library for free. Even I laughed, and I hate cats.

index (3)I do love dogs and fortunately for me there’s Dog Shaming by Pascale Lemire, based on the blog with the same name. This book features the most hilarious, shameful, and never-before-seen doggie misdeeds. It reminds me of the evening we were sitting around with friends having a nice conversation, when we discovered that our friend’s dog had chewed apart another friend’s shoe. We didn’t think to take a photo, but these folks have taken some pretty funny ones.

index (13)And what blog-book list would be complete without an awkward family photo selection? I’ll include Awkward Family Pet Photos which came from the Awkward Family Photos blog. These books are always so weird, yet funny. Just look at this fellow hugging his dog on the cover. The photos with monkeys, possums, and chickens are especially hilarious. And now on to the blog-books which have more text than photos.

index (4)Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:  (A Mostly True Memoir) is written by Jenny Lawson, the “Bloggess”. She’s ‘like Mother Theresa, only better.’ She writes this about her book: “You should probably go buy it right now, because it’s filled with awesomeness. And cocaine. But only if you hollow it out and fill it with your own cocaine. I’m not buying you cocaine. Because I love you.” I thought it was hilarious when I read it and you may also, since you’re just like me!

index (5)Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas who writes dispatches on McSweeney’s. Scott Douglas works for a smallish public library nestled cozily between Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California. This is where most of his observations occur, although sometimes he goes to other libraries. This book is super funny because it could have taken place at our very own local library. Read it and see for yourself.

index (6)The Happiest Mom by Meagan Francis who writes the Happiest Home blog online. The author also writes for Parenting magazine and is the mother of five children, so she presumably knows her stuff and spells it out in ten simple rules that are delivered with humor. This book has gorgeous graphics and the main idea is that you can be a mom (or grandparent) and still be happy. As I’ve always said, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

These blog-books are sure to make you happy.  Check them out at your local library!

Physician Heal Thyself

DR.I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but doctors, in the real world at least, are no longer considered infallible gods. This is great when it comes to getting second opinions and not being railroaded into unnecessary treatments. There is, however, a downside:  the perils of self-diagnosis. You see, without an authority figure (I tend to imagine Spock or Tuvok) to say “the chances of you being inflicted with such a disorder are infinitesimal” my fevered brain tends to see a deadly and rare disorder in the slightest cough or rash. Luckily, perhaps, the library has many tomes to guide me on my journey of disease self-discovery.

It is always best to start with the classics. The two heavy hitters are Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment (CMDT) and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Such scintillating titles no? Both are geared toward the medical professional and provide rational, current and highly technical information on almost every disease and its symptoms, that you could possibly think of. Just don’t expect much sugar coating. Also avoid looking at the diagnostic images at all cost.

If ice cold logic doesn’t put your mind at rest, perhaps it is time to admit that the problem lies in the fear of disease itself or as the professionals like to say, hypochondria. Luckily, you are not alone. There are many tomes dedicated to individuals who struggle with the fear of disease. Best of all, they tend to use liberal doses of humor to describe their plight. Here are a few examples:

wellenoughalone

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig
Convinced she was having a heart attack at 18 (the college nurse’s reply: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re not dying) the author realized that she just might have a problem. This book is a witty, and often hilarious, self-examination of all the foibles of a woman convinced she has every disease known to man. Each chapter not only highlights her own “issues” but also puts her hypochondria in a historical perspective with amusing anecdotes from the past.

Hyper-Chondriac: One Man’s Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
hyperchondriacFrazer definitely suffers from hypochondria, as a child he came down with a new disease every month, but this book is also a far ranging quest to find relaxation and, for lack of a better term, inner peace.  He tries reiki, yoga, Zoloft, Craniosacral therapy, Ayurveda, dog walking, and even, gasp, knitting. Sadly none of them seem to fully rid him of his demons, but the hilarious journey is well worth it. For the reader in any case.

The Hypochondriacs: Nice Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
hypochondriacsnineAnother subtitle for this book could be: misery loves company. After reading about these nine famous suffers and their quirks, you probably won’t feel so bad about any fears of disease that you might have. While each sufferer’s oddities are definitely amusing, this work also highlights the interesting connection between each malady and the individual’s creativity. In several cases, such as Charlotte Bronte, the illnesses, both real and imagined, provided a means of escape as well as inspiration.

hypochondriacsguidetolife

The Hypochondriacs Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten
While there is a smattering of actual medical information throughout this work, this is pure satire and all the better for it. The author introduces you to his own neuroses, and then tries to convince you that you should have them as well. The chapter titles (such as ‘How Your Doctor Can Kill You’ and ‘Pregnant? That’s Wonderful! Don’t Read This!’) tell you all you need to know about the contents of this book. There are even helpful quizzes to confirm your paranoia.

So you now have all the tools you need to calm your irrational fear of disease. I’m sure you will be fine. Well, maybe not.

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Magicians coverLike a literary magpie, I am drawn to pretty, shiny, exciting things. I often enter the library without a clue about what I want to read. I wander and browse until something jumps out at me – a cool spine design, a flashy cover, a witty title. It doesn’t take much.

I judge books by their covers.

Sometimes this approach backfires, but more often than not, I find that I like the book if I like the way the author has chosen to decorate it. It could be dumb luck, or perhaps the author and I agree on some deep, mystical, aesthetic level. Either way, I’ve been happy with my track record, and I’d like to share some of my favorite ‘window shopping’ finds:

Dreams and Shadows coverDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill. This book will appeal to anyone who is into folklore, mythical creatures, and generally wizardy stuff. Cargill’s style of writing was right up my alley – a little bit edgy, but sprinkled with humor and an occasional academic interlude to fill in more information about some of the supernatural beings that are involved in his story. I feel this book was left open-ended enough that it could be turned into the first of a series, or it could remain as a good stand-alone work. Those who liked American Gods may be into this.

Utopian Man coverUtopian Man by Lisa Lang. This was a really lovely read from start to finish. I enjoyed getting lost in the world that Edward William Cole, our Utopian Man, was trying to create with his glorious Arcade. Setting the story in 19th-Century Melbourne made the book all the more fascinating, as it’s a time and place that is very unknown and exotic to me. I think the author brings this feeling of newness and excitement across very well to the reader. This is a light read full of beautiful imagery, a little bit of conflict, and a lot of imagination.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I’ve already raved about this book in another post, so I’ll get to the important part. This book jacket GLOWS IN THE DARK! Aside from it being a great book, what more do you need to know?

Deathless coverDeathless by Catherynne Valente. 2/3 Russian fairy tale, 1/3 history of Russia from the death of the Tsar through the Siege of Leningrad. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to this book, mainly because I didn’t know what it was I was getting into: fantasy, a dream sequence, a paranoid delusion, or allegory. Once I figured out how I related to the book, I was drawn in. Deathless reads primarily like a folktale, punctuated with passages full of beauty, mystery, hardship, poetry, mythology, joy, and melancholy. While the library doesn’t own Deathless, I was able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. EPL does have many of Valente’s other titles on shelf.

Age of Wonder coverThe Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I picked this one up shortly after I finished grad school. I found a note I’d written about it on GoodReads while I was reading the book that made me chuckle: “Interesting subject matter, but perhaps a bit more dense than my poor brain wants to deal with so soon after graduating. Recovery is a long, hard road. I’m sticking it out though, for the greater good.” I am happy to report that it was worth it, and that I learned a lot about science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As grueling as I made it sound, the book was quite a pleasure to read.

Super Sad True Love Story coverSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. SSTLS is kind of an odd book for me. Generally when I love a book, I love it from the beginning. With this story, my feelings sometimes bordered on hate, and for the most part, hovered in the area of disinterest. Then a funny thing happened: I finished the story and let it marinate in my brain for a while. Soon enough, ideas from SSTLS started popping up in conversations with friends and they would immediately jump in saying that they’d read the same book and completely agreed. Similar to the movie Idiocracy, SSTLS delivers a darkly humorous appraisal of the future of mankind that occasionally seems prophetic when watching the news.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kind of like Harry Potter, but for grown folks. I went on to read the sequel, The Magician King, and enjoyed it just as much. I would recommend Grossman for anyone who likes a little humor and sarcasm to go along with their fantasy reads.

Travels in Siberia coverTravels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Before I knew that Ian Frazier was awesome, I stumbled upon his cover for Travels in Siberia. I thought it was lovely and that combined with my odd fascination with all things Russian was enough to get me to put it on hold. I was not disappointed. I think those who enjoy the kind of travel writing one gets from Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson would really connect with this author.

Lisa

Beauty Queens and Other Aberrations of Nature

Ever since a brilliant, beautiful friend of mine entered a small-time city beauty pageant and lost to the mayor’s granddaughter (whose talent was disco roller skating), I’ve not held these contests in the highest regard. But actually, my disdain started much earlier in life. SmileOne of the first grown-up movies I remember watching as a kid is Smile, a biting satire of pageants and middle-class American society. Teenagers compete for the Young American Miss crown while running the gauntlet of an overprotective chaperone (a former Young American Miss crown-holder herself), a sleazy, dimwitted emcee and a temperamental choreographer. The pinnacle of the film is the pageant itself, highlighted by a participant demonstrating how to efficiently pack a suitcase. Amongst the contestants are very young versions of Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole.

But this was just to be the beginning of my complicated relationship with beauty and its contests.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Beauty QueensThis hilarious book opens with a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashing near a small, apparently deserted island. The crew members, as well as many of the competitors, die in the crash, and those who survive must figure out how to make like Gilligan. All this death and suffering makes for a knee-slapping premise in the hands of Libba Bray. At first the surviving contestants are little more than stereotypes, albeit not simplistic pageant queens (well, except for Miss Mississippi and Miss Alabama who are impossible to tell apart). Each young lady has special knowledge and talents that come in handy and Miss Texas, well, she’s just a natural born dicta…, um, leader. The story is occasionally interrupted by pageant entry forms, commercials for the pageant’s sponsors, and other humorous asides. As time passes we meet faux pirates who star in a reality TV show, a foreign leader patterned after Chairman Mao, and bad bad government men. Adventures and merriment abound, and throughout it all Miss Texas makes sure that the young women practice their pageant routines daily.

Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss SunshineAlthough a beauty contest does play a central role in this comedy, it’s a family’s quirkiness that’s the focus of the story. Olive is a seven-year-old pageant-hopeful surrounded by a remarkable cast of characters: an overworked mother, unsuccessful father, suicidal uncle, mute-by-choice brother, and heroin-using grandfather. In the midst of everyone’s issues, Olive dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine contest in faraway California. So the entire clan climbs into their trusty VW bus and begins an 800-mile journey. Hilarity ensues, misfortune is overcome, and the family arrives at the last minute to discover a gaggle of skinny, tan, and overtly sexual little girls. Olive, in contrast, is plain and somewhat chunky. The family tries to talk her into withdrawing from the contest to avoid embarrassment, but in a lovely show of support Olive’s mom decides that Olive should just be herself and compete. Humor, drama, pathos, angst, and merriment combine for a unique movie-viewing experience.

There’s a (slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: a novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble by Laurie Notaro

There's a slight chanceLaurie Notaro is a hilarious woman. In her first novel we find Maye Roberts moving to a small university town in Washington where her husband has landed a tenure-track job. She leaves her job and friends in Phoenix and moves to Spaulding, a clique-ish place where it’s difficult to make friends. The town originally was famous as the world’s largest producer of sewer pipes, but a devastating fire put an end to this claim and Spaulding is now known for its prestigious university. A final remaining vestige of the town’s plumbing heritage is the annual Sewer Pipe Queen pageant, a remnant of the Spaulding Festival which featured sewer pipe oriented contests. It is suggested to Maye that she compete for this title, which is a guaranteed gateway to instant popularity, and she decides to follow this advice. While this is not a book about a beauty contest per se, it is an amusing look at the challenges of fitting in.

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Drop Dead GorgeousPerhaps my favorite pageant movie, Drop Dead Gorgeous, is a mockumentary about the Sara Rose Princess America Pageant in small-town Minnesota. As the contestants begin to expire spectacularly one-by-one under suspicious circumstances (exploding tractors and what-not) the remaining contenders soldier on in fear and trepidation. The talented cast, which includes Kirstie Alley, Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin and Denise Richards, lends an aura of authenticity to the proceedings. Who will win the crown, and more importantly, who will survive?

Ron

Long Live the Dog!

Don't, just don't...

Don’t, just don’t…

I’ve never seen nor read Old Yeller - I just know better. My mom preferred stapling the last couple pages of The Snowman together over having me be repeatedly disappointed that the boy’s wonderful new friend never got to stick around. Bambi didn’t get much airtime in our house, and All Dogs Go to Heaven still makes me feel betrayed (but seriously, shouldn’t the halos on the posters have tipped me off?). Alas, I was a sensitive child.

Taking all that into account, it should be no shock to my readers that I still try to avoid books and films where the non-human lead dies in the end. If you’re like me, just knowing that a book has a lovable (or not so lovable) dog in it tends to be a deterrent because you just know how that’s going to wind up. It doesn’t matter if it’s supposed to be a heartwarming death or a senseless one, we instinctively know to steer clear.

Thankfully there are books out there that buck the trend. The best way that I have found to avoid having my emotions brutally toyed with is to get into a series in which the dog happens to be the main character. To help you all out, here are a few series that I would recommend for other softies like me who wouldn’t flinch if the human protagonist got eaten by a tiger, but would cry their eyes out if the author dared to have Rex die peacefully of old age surrounded by a litter of loving offspring.

For kids and young adults:

Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell. Originally introduced in 1963, Clifford has lived to an amazing 213 dog years and shows no sign of decline. The Clifford empire has expanded from simple, delightful softcover books for young readers, to a range of television programming, movies, video games, and toys.

Harry the Dirty DogHarry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. Harry was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that, like Clifford, Harry continues to live a long and productive book, DVD, and merchandise life.

Castaways of the Flying Dutchman* by Brian Jacques. This title gets an asterisk because technically the dog is already dead; that’s how the series begins (no real spoilers there). I won’t get into the details, but Ben and his dog companion Ned travel throughout the ages, irrevocably tied to the fate of the famously cursed ship, The Flying Dutchman. As they wander through time the duo get into a series of adventures, befriend an interesting cast of characters, and fight evil when they encounter it. Though these books can be a little bittersweet at times, because Ben and Ned are always forced to move on from their newly established lives, you know that they will not be parted from each other.

For Adults:

The Mrs. Murphy Mystery series, by Rita Mae Brown. I know some dog-loving purists may take issue with the fact that this series was co-authored by Brown’s cat, Sneaky Pie, and features two cat detectives, but hear me out. I personally love Tee Tucker, the lively crime-stopping corgi that plays a big role in all of Brown’s mysteries. I think if you gave the series a chance you’d root for Tee too.

A Fistful of CollarsThe Chet and Bernie Mystery series, by Spencer Quinn. For those who can’t stomach the idea of their dog hero sharing the spotlight with a couple of cats, there are Chet and Bernie. Failed K-9 cop Chet, the narrator, works with his human companion Bernie as a private eye. These books are full of suspense, humor, and a little bit of canine mischief, that all adds up to very enjoyable reading.

All of the above series have multiple volumes, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting your dog hero fix with minimal heartbreak. That should keep your eyes busy and your tails wagging!

Lisa

All I Want for Christmas is My Sense of Humor

Tis the season for crazy sweaters, spiked eggnog, and blackmail photos. If you’re following the library on Facebook you’ll know we’re not above poking fun at ourselves around the holidays.

Crazy Sweaters

But if you’re like me, this time of year is so crazy-busy you really try to find the humor in whatever new holiday-related predicament you find yourself in. Let me lead you through my holiday routine and you’ll see why I believe there’s no place like the library for the holidays.

awkwardfamilyphotos.comWhen my waistline is somewhat back to normal post-Thanksgiving and my calendar is now screaming DECEMBER at me, I will usually gather up my husband and our cats and attempt to pose us into some semblance of order. We aim for cute. What we usually end up with are semi-strangled pets and harried looking adults grimacing in what is sure to be the 30th attempt, one that will “have to do” because no one wants to do this anymore. The Awkward Family Photo books have similar photos to show you what I’m dealing with on an annual basis.

People of WalmartOnce the photo has been taken, it’s off to get the prints made. Usually I can send the photo over the Internet to be printed at my local pharmacy. But if you’re unlucky enough to need to wade through the hordes of holiday bargain-hunters and actually set up your photo card in person, you will be sure to find some truly bizarre individuals completely oblivious to social norms. The People of Wal-Mart books have just a few samplings of folks who haven’t paid any attention to their attire—or in some cases paid entirely too much attention to what they’re wearing, to a horrifying degree.

sketchy-santasIf you have children, or feel like a child yourself, the next stop will probably be the North Pole, aka your local mall Santa. These days you can even take your pets to visit Santa, though I suspect my cats would be truly horrified should we ever attempt that with them. While there you may find yourself face-to-face with what can only be called a Sketchy Santa.

Who’s that excessively jolly fellow with the fake beard, shifty eyes, sweaty hands, and boozy breath? Why, it’s not just Santa but sketchy Santa!

crap at my parents house

Eventually we will arrive at the big day: holiday celebrations with the family! I was lucky to have grown up celebrating Christmas Day at my Grandma’s house, a home which was tastefully decorated and yet still inviting for the sticky-fingered, running, screaming grandkids. However, occasionally I would visit friends’ houses during Christmastime and inevitably stumble across something that could have come straight out of Crap at my Parents’ House: creepy ceramics, giant Santa figures that could easily be mistaken for a Sketchy Santa, and hundreds of Precious Moments dolls crammed into one tiny hutch.

my kids ruinedAfter the holidays come to an end, there’s always something else to look forward to. Yes, there will be another holiday season to anticipate next year. But really I’m talking about the time when that gift you loved getting is inevitably ruined by someone you love and thought you could trust. Sh*t My Kids Ruined features some prime examples. Toys shoved in the VCR, diplomas graffitied with ink pens, and countless pets massacred with everything from condiments to vomit are sure to leave you clutching your loved ones close but your prized possessions closer.

This holiday season, I am fortunate to be able to travel back home to Illinois, where my story began. Spending so much time with my family I can guarantee I will laugh, I will cry, and I will be thankful for the life I have and for the possessions that haven’t yet been destroyed.

Carol

Best of 2012: Genre Fiction Favorites

As we draw close to the end of the year, it is time to take stock of all that has happened in 2012. Some may evaluate personal goals, others the political and cultural ramifications of events. Here at the library we like to talk about all the great things we have read and viewed in 2012.

There are lots of “best of” lists at this time of year, but ours is compiled by a dedicated staff who come across thousands of titles in any given year and know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Our list is long, but we have divided it up into five sections which we will publish every day this week. So come take a personalized tour of the best and brightest fiction and film of 2012. First up: Genre Fiction

Crime Novels and Mysteries

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Nick and Amy’s marriage is boiling over with repressed anger, fear and manipulation. When Amy suddenly disappears, Nick’s life is torn by the suspicions of his family and the police. But Amy left behind a diary. Is it filled with fabrications or facts?… A masterpiece of psychological fiction, this novel plunges deep into each character’s dark side. As you are caught up in the sharp suspense, this novel also reveals deep truths about human emotions and relationships. –Esta

The Woman Who Died a Lot : a Thursday Next Novel : Now with 50% Added Subplot by Jasper Fford
Thursday Next is back. No longer physically capable of being a field agent, she is appointed head of the Swindon library, a much more dangerous job than one might think. Fforde has created a universe that is just slightly different from ours in quirky ways (i.e., cheese smuggling is a crime). I was sold when she was shown the red button to push in case of emergency, which would summon Nancy (Pearl) from Seattle. –Ron

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming
Disgraced British agent, Thomas Kell, is brought back into service when the woman scheduled to be the new head of MI6 disappears. Has she defected? Has she been abducted? Kell needs to find out fast. A thriller for those who appreciate good spy craft. Suspense with lots of twists and turns. –Marge

Broken Harbor by Tana French
French’s latest mystery is set in a bleak, half-finished housing development on the cold Irish coast. A family is found murdered and the mother, the only survivor, unable or unwilling to talk. Its compelling setting and strongly drawn characters combine with a plot that’s almost gothic, making for a book that’s hard to put down. –Eileen

Psychological Fiction

In One Person by John Irving
Billy Abbott struggles with his bisexual impulses and bravely searches out experiences and people who will help define his identity. These memorable characters dare to step outside gender and social roles, and make us redefine what is masculine and feminine. A daring and honest novel that confronts how ’we are formed by what we desire. –Esta

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Aaron Woolcott’s wife dies in a freak accident, and this novel follows Tyler’s formula of presenting a sad-sack fellow who is vaguely aware that his youthful dreams have eluded him. This is domestic fiction with some supernatural elements and the author’s cleverly casual expression of the ordinary. –Gloria

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult
After their father, a famous wolf researcher, is left comatose during an accident, siblings Edward and Kara Warren disagree about whether or not to terminate his life. I loved the research about wolf and pack behavior and how a human may have been a part of it. –Gloria

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
The artistic process, art world excesses, failed human relationships, and the resilience of the natural world are just some of the themes in this idea-rich page-turner that is part art world exposé, part visceral thriller. Audacious and brutally honest. –Scott

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper
Middle-aged divorced dad Silver is dying, his estranged teenage daughter is pregnant, and his sudden clarity of insight (and stroke) bring them together. But will they save each other? Funny, insightful, edgy, and unpretentiously smart writing. –Alan

Domestic Fiction

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
The story of the struggles and joys of a hippie commune in the countryside of upstate New York in the 1960′s, told from the point of view of Bit–the first child born who grows to manhood embraced by this alternative lifestyle. With a circus of colorful characters, this novel brilliantly recreates the playful and reckless energy of the 60′s. From the charismatic leader to the youngest child, we can see the sweet irony of how people who seemingly are fools can be visionary as well. –Esta

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Four women in Harvard’s class of ‘89 gather for a 20th-year reunion with some serious soul searching. All four of the women have lied in their stories to each other and have to unravel those lies before they can become whole. Plus I graduated college in 1989 and wondered what a class reunion would be like. –Gloria

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
Kugel’s just moved to an upstate country house, but his nasty tenant, impatient wife, fake Holocaust survivor mom, and the discovery of Anne Frank in his attic combine to ignite the proceedings. Very funny, very smart writing, everything that This American Life featurist writes is solid.  –Alan

Humorous Fiction

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry:  a Novel by Rachel Joyce
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.
I just walked over 100 miles in England, and really understood the struggles Harold felt just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. –Julie
The story unfolds fluidly and achieves a familiarity that had me rooting for Harold and walking with him. –Liz

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
Vampires are killing Porters, members of a secret society who protect humankind, and who can pull objects out of books. Isaac Vainio, librarian and failed field agent, is charged with saving humankind. A world where people can reach into the page of a book and pull out an item from that page is fascinating. Isaac wears a trench coat filled with books from which he pulls fantastical weapons with which to defend himself from vampires and their kind. –Ron

Panorama City by Antoine Wilson
A pitch-perfect story about “slow absorber” Oppen Porter who lies in a hospital bed and records on audio cassette the events and lessons of his life for his unborn son. Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There crossed with Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. A terrific blend of characters, style and story. –Scott

For a full list of all the 2012 staff picks, click here.

The Manly Arts

So what actions make a man a man? As a member of that gender, well into my 40s, I can tell you one thing: I haven’t got a clue. Of course, I am probably not the guy you want to ask. In my youth I can remember imploring my father to let me wear my Darth Vader helmet to the Brewers game to avoid damage from foul balls. John Wayne I am not.

Others, however, are more confident in their definitions. So much so that they have not only compiled lists of manly actions, but they even tell you the correct way to perform them.

If you want your masculinity defined in a mist of generational nostalgia, then How to Build a Fire and Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew by Erin Bried is the book for you. The traditional activities are all here (How to Mow a Lawn, How to Hang Drywall) but the book also veers off into Oprah territory. How to Kindle Romance, “Set the mood according to your sweetie’s taste,” and How to Find Self-Confidence, “Be your own best friend,” sound decidedly ungrandfatherly to my ear.

More straightforward and practical, appropriate for a book put out by Popular Mechanics, is How to Carve a Turkey and 99 Other Skills Every Man Should Know by Chris Peterson. Each task has clear instructions and handy illustrations to guide you through it. Examples include: Splint a Broken Bone, Escape a Burning Building, Kick Start a Motorcycle, and Navigate with a Map and Compass. In a nod to the changing nature of masculine tasks, there is a section on electronics and computers including How to Destroy Your Old Hard Drive.

The best of the bunch though is How to Land an A330 Airbus and Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man by James May.  Mr. May realizes that the whole concept is rather absurd and to prove his point, trots out nine skills that you must master in order to be a man. In addition to being able to fly a commercial airliner in an emergency these skills include:  How to Fight a Duel, How to Invade and Occupy the Isle of Wright and How to Play the First Movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2 with No Previous Experience. The warning sticker on the cover tells you exactly what to expect from the advice in this book: Clear, Concise, Untested, Optimistic.

So after all three books I’m still a bit fuzzy on what actions define a man. I have learned, however, that cheap plastic does little to impede the force of a baseball hit by a professional athlete.

Richard

Twick or Tweet

Back in the seventies there was a lot of talk about the generation gap, the set of things that separates one generation from another. For example, my parents did not wear bell bottom jeans. I did. These jeans were one small part of the generation gap between me and my parents.

Music is another important part of the gap. As a child, I was defined by The Monkees, The Beatles and later The Boomtown Rats and Madness. My parents: Mitch Miller and George Jones.

In more recent times, technology has become perhaps the most important piece of the generation gap puzzle. It seems that kids these days are born knowing how to use devices that people of my generation can only stare at in wonder, waiting for them to open cans or launch a nuclear device.

As I approach my sixth decade (that’s age 50 for those of you who aren’t on top of the math thing), I’ve decided that I need to take a stand on what defines my personal generation gap. Thus, Twitter does not exist for me. Oh, I’ve used the MySpace and still use Facebook (while secretly hating it), but I have not and will never tweet.

But recently I’ve discovered books that use the limitations of social networking (i.e. how many characters can be in an entry) as a starting point. And this I find interesting. Setting a strict limitation and then trying to create art within that limitation is an exciting exercise.

And so, I leave you with a few titles, some twicks, some tweets.

The Ten, Make that Nine, Habits of very Organized People. Make that Ten: The Tweets of Steve Martin by Steve Martin 

Steve Martin is a generation older than I, but he decided to explore Twitter as a means of keeping his comedy chops sharp, of perhaps creating new material that he could use on his current bluegrass tour, and finally as a way of receiving funny responses from his followers. He has collected some of his tweets into a slim volume, perhaps a thirty minute read. It’s not the funniest book I’ve come across, but it is charming and fun to see how Mr. Martin used Twitter in perhaps a different way than most users, and how his usage evolved over time.

Eat Tweet: a Twitter Cookbook by Maureen Evans 

Yes Virginia, there is a Twitter cookbook. This collection of 1000 recipes follows the tweet format of 140 characters or less per entry, providing social networkers with a veritable feast of outstanding food. Betty Crocker, move over. But just a little bit; these recipes don’t take up much space.

Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less by Alexander Aciman 

The premise of this book is to synopsize literary classics in less than twenty tweets (making the maximum number of characters available 2800), with a sense of humor. This limitation forces long passages to be described succinctly. For example, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “Walking walking walking … Still walking – this is so boring!” Good for a chuckle or three.

iDrakula by Bekka Black 

Bekka Black’s iDrakula is a modernization of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The original text consisted of letters and diaries, and this update uses a similar format but with text messages, emails and Web browser screenshots. The story is not an exact retelling of Stoker’s classic, but Black sets an excellent tone with the opening text: “Renfield had a psychotic break. Carted off to Bellevue. More l8r.” An excellent addition to the Dracula canon.

For some more social networking inspired books, try the following:

Tweet Heart: a Novel in E-mails, Blogs, and Tweets by Elizabeth Rudnick
The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel by Daniel Sinker
Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros

Ron

Let us read cake, cookies and other sweet things (with apologies to Marie Antoinette)

book coverI’m not sure what it means, but every time I‘ve opened a book during the past two months, it seems to have something to do with food. First, I read the memoir Cakewalk by Kate Moses. The photo on the cover should have been a giveaway but I couldn’t put this book down. Moses relates her childhood and young adult years. One wonders how she survived her mismatched parents. Her memories revolve around food, mostly sugar laden, although her life was certainly not sweet. Most chapters end with a recipe connected to her painful life.

book coverThen, I read Aimee Bender’s tale, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, wherein Rose, on her ninth birthday, discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in the lemon-chocolate birthday cake. Food then becomes an obstacle for Rose as she navigates through life. Thrown into this mix is her brother, Frank, who must also confront his unusual gift. This is a fascinating look into a disintegrating family. Yet it is uplifting when Rose finally finds a way to confront and put her gift to use.  (There are no recipes in this book.)

After these books, I needed some light reading for a plane ride so I picked up The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal. Tessa, an outdoor adventure leader, is recovering from an accident that took the life of a young woman for whom Tessa was responsible. Tessa’s been recuperating at her hippie father’s home, but she decides to investigate the (fictional) town of Las Ladronas, New Mexico, as a possible new site for an adventure tour. While exploring the area, she experiences déjà vu and memories are starting to surface. She also, of course, finds love – a widower with three young girls. The plot was a bit contrived, but O’Neal’s characters are appealing people with interesting lives and back stories. Yes, there are recipes in this book (most of them breakfast specialties). And there are also some delightful dogs in this story, too.

I also read Jen Lancaster’s latest laugh fest, My Fair Lazy. Although she covered her struggle with food and dieting in Such a Pretty Fat, in My Fair Lazy Lancaster attempts to bring culture into her life, which she labels “Jenaissance.” She and her very patient husband, Fletch, take several food and wine appreciation classes and visit a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy, where food is created using blowtorches and liquid nitrogen, rather than ovens and flame. Some of the dishes she describes made my mouth water. 

After finishing these books and raiding the fridge, I set out to redeem myself by reading The Amazing Adventures of DietGirl by Shauna Reid.  This inspiring and humorous story of the author’s experience of going from a very overweight young woman to a healthy slim one seemed to happily break the food spell. 

book coverNow I’m looking for something else to read. Perhaps a mystery, but preferably one without mention of butter burgers, frozen custard or “TastyKakes.” I believe I’ve found it in the gripping Still Missing. Please excuse me but I’ve got to get back to reading this “can’t put down” book.

Suzanne