Monday, June 30, 2008

Half of the Year in Review

It's almost funny how fast this year is speeding past me. Sometimes, I am still writing the date as 2007! This year has been a busy one for me--I have done quite a bit of travelling--to West Palm Beach, Florida, then to Washington DC followed by Ft. Collins, CO (twice), and back and forth from Dallas to San Antonio approximately 12 different weekends. Besides travelling and working, I have had the best reading year since I was working on my English degree in college. My original goal at the beginning of the year was to read 30 books. Thus far, I have read 20, so I should easily be able to meet and exceed my original goal. Since starting my blog in April, I have not only been reading more books, but I've really been enjoying reading other blogs, "meeting" other readers, and finding out about all kinds of interesting books! The challenges I've joined have really helped me branch out from my norm, and have pushed me to read more than I have the past several years.

Speaking of challenges, I figured out that to complete all that I have signed up for, I have 20 more books to read by December 31st. I definitely think I should finish all 20! I also am in a new book club at work, so I will be reading an additional book each month, which brings my grand total up to 26 books that I need to read by the end of the year. I'm really looking forward to the books I have ahead--I think the ones I'm the most excited about are: Mudbound, The Known World, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Cannery Row.

These are my book stats from January-June 2008:

# of books completed: 20
# of pages read: 8306
Average # of books per month: 3.33
Average # of pages per month: 1384
Average # of pages per day: 45.5

The Non-Runner's Marathon Guide for Women-Dawn Dais

The Non-Runner's Marathon Guide for Women is the first running/training book I have ever read. I really did not know what to expect from it, and I was somewhat expecting a fairly dry, and possibly boring book. I was WAY off! Dawn Dais wrote a hilarious memoir/running guide that made me laugh out loud more than once. Not only could I completely relate to many of her struggles with running and blisters and just wanting to stay home and eat Cheetos, but I share her fears of losing a toenail and wearing Spandex in public--while running. Several years ago, I ran a half marathon with my college roommates, so I could vividly picture many situations Dais shared in her journal entries.

Dais decided to run her first marathon in honor of her grandfather, who suffered a debilitating stroke several years before. She had never enjoyed running, and most of her family and friends thought she had "lost her marbles" when she announced that she was going to Hawaii to run 26.2 miles. Dais describes, in detail, how agonizing some of the longer runs were for her. She also talks in depth about what attire is good to wear when running long distances and why. Other topics discussed are good eating habits for runners, having a running mentality, and how to raise money for the big races. Every single chapter is full of sarcasm, humor, wit, and honesty. I think I need to share several passages that I found quite humorous:

"Take a moment after each run to cool down and acknowledge what your body has accomplished. Turn off the headphones, be silent, and just listen to your heart pounding in your ears. Yes, it's slightly bizarre that your heart has taken up residency in your skull; apparently that's where it resides when you are a physically active person. Do not be alarmed" (124).

"Yes, the big news of the weekend is that my right knee has officially left my body. But don't worry, it was kind enough to leave a sharp knife in its place" (163).

I also thought I would share a passage about having the right mentality. Many people believe they could never run a 5k, much less a half or full marathon. However, as Dais experienced, and as I myself experienced, it is possible to work your way up to longer distances than you ever though possible. Of course, many people have zero desire to ever run, and there's nothing wrong with that. But some people say they CAN'T because they have never been a runner, and this is simply not true. Dais' opinion on this issue is, "Your mind will decide whether your training will be successful; if you are mentally convinced you'll succeed, then you'll be able to convince the rest of your body. But if you aren't convinced then that attitude will slowly seep into your physical performance and you will slowly begin to accept limits that are far less than what you are capable of accomplishing" (104).

Dais has included many of her own journal entries, and she strongly encourages runners to keep their own journal during training. She has even included blank lined pages at the back of the book. Besides journaling, there are other "fill in the blanks" for great topics such as pros and cons to training for a race, your fears and why they are ridiculous, and before and after changes you have noticed since you started your training. Of course, she has made her own lists as examples, and they are all hilarious! There is also a training guide at the beginning for those training for a half and full marathon. It is a 20 week schedule, which is much longer than the ones I've found, and they truly start out at a level that most people could handle and slowly add miles/minutes.

I would recommend this book to new runners, those who would like to run but think they aren't capable, or to anyone who could care less about running, but wants a good laugh! If you are a more seasoned runner, you probably won't find much information that you haven't already heard or discovered on your own, but it is always nice to know that other people out there are sharing similar experiences.

Thanks to Becca for giving away this signed copy, and you should check out her interview with the author, Dawn Dais as well as her review!

Date completed: June 28, 2008
# of pages: 229

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg

(This format is from Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf)

Note: I feel that I need to be a bit vague in my review, as it would be extremely easy to give away some of the plot twists.

Fiction or non-fiction? southern fiction

What led you to pick up this book? I was looking for a book for the Southern Reading Challenge, and I enjoyed the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" so I thought I would try out Flagg's newest book.

Plot summary: Elner Shimfissle is a woman of undetermined age (her niece Norma guesses mid-to-late 80s), yet one morning she decides to climb a ladder to pick some figs out of her tree to make fig preserves. What Elner doesn't know is that she is about to disturb a wasps' nest, and this will set into effect a chain of events that will change not only her own life, but the lives of many people around her.

What did you like most about the book? I loved Elner! She is such a likeable character--not only is she kind and thoughtful, but she is funny, curious, and generous. I can definitely stand to learn a few things from her about being content and enjoying the simple things in life. That may sound cliche, but it is easy to get caught up in the general busyness of the day to day and forget to enjoy nature or the company of friends and family.

What did you like least? For some reason, I had a difficult time keeping track of several of the other characters. Besides Elner and her niece, there were several other women-Ruby, Tot, Irene, Verbena--and I couldn't keep them straight.

Have you read any other books by this author? Besides the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes," I haven't been exposed to any of Flagg's other books. I have heard good things about Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man though. I think I enjoyed the story of Fried Green Tomatoes more, because I was more involved in the lives of the characters. The perspective of this novel was from an omniscient narrator simply telling what was happening. While there are benefits to this perspective (the reader can see the reactions of many people all over the place at the same time), unfortunately I never felt close or connected to any one character.

Any other particularly interesting characters? This book was full of interesting people--it is set in a small town in Missouri, and many of the townspeople have been living there for many years and have known each other for a very long time. Besides Elner, my favorite character was Macky-Norma's husband. He is such a genuinely nice guy--hard-working, patient, and dependable. I would describe him as a "good ole' boy." I think they are hard to find these days, but I married one! :)

Share a favorite scene from the book: This is a conversation between Macky and Norma, and it made me smile!
(Macky) "Have I told you lately that I adore you?"
She put her purse down. "What?"
"Did you know that you are more beautiful than you ever were?"
"Yes, you."
Norma looked at herself in the mirror. "Me? How could you think that, with my gray roots and wrinkles and old tired saggy body...I've just fallen into a heap."
"Maybe so, but you're my heap, and you don't look old to me" (298).

What did you think of the ending? The ending wasn't a surprise to me, but it was a nice finish to the story.

Do you recommend this book? If you are looking for a pleasant summer read, this would be a good choice. Flagg's story will take you through many different emotions, and it also contains a mystery and several plot twists. All in all, it was quite an enjoyable story!

Date completed: June 26, 2008
# of pages: 359
Rating 3.5/5

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

The full title of this book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Though I grew up going to church, and went to a private Christian school for many years, I have never read a book about what the term "Christianity" means to someone else. Donald Miller writes like he is having a relaxed conversation with the reader--he is extremely honest about himself--flaws and all. The book is divided into 20 different chapters, each one dealing with an issue that he dealt with about God and what it means to be a Christian. In addition, he tells the story of his growth through lessons he learned from the people who surrounded him.

There are many great points that Donald makes in his book. I would venture to say that most people have struggled with many issues that Donald does, regardless of their religious beliefs. I see two major points that Donald discusses throughout his book--1. Who/what is God? and 2. What does it mean to be a Christian? No matter how people are raised, I think most people at some point in their lives, grapple with the existence of God or a greater being. Many find it difficult to believe in something that can't be proven or seen. Donald has a friend Laura, who is one of the smartest people he knows. She wants an explanation for the existence of God, and Donald says, "I had no explanation for Laura. I don't think there is an explanation. My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief. I think Laura was looking for something rational, because she believed that all things that were true were rational. But that isn't the case. Love, for example, is a true emotion, but it isn't cannot be proved scientifically. Neither can beauty. Light cannot be proved scientifically, and yet we all believe in light and by light see all things (54). Donald frequently returns to the issue of the rationalization of God. He knows there isn't a concrete explanation for many questions that people have about Christianity and God, so he simply tells them how he thinks or feels, without pushing his ideals or beliefs.

The second major issue Donald deals with is the term "Christianity." He says, "Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers" (115). Oftentimes, the term is thought of with negative connotations--people who are close-minded, pushy about their beliefs, irrational and fake. Donald wants to be the opposite type of person. He wants to be one who genuinely cares about all people, regardless of what they believe, or how they act, and he spends lots of his time with people who are different from himself. He discovered that "Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. If a person senses that you do not like them, that you do not approve of their existence, then your religion and political ideas will all seem wrong to them" (220). Donald knows that some Christians feel that they are above non-Christians, and look down on them. He feels that this is a huge disservice, and since God loves everyone, and Christians are supposed to follow God, that it shouldn't matter whether a person is a Christian or not, they still deserve to be loved.

Blue Like Jazz is a book that can be read and appreciated by Christians and non-Christians alike. Donald Miller is humorous, warm, and honest. The goal of his book is not to try to force people to believe and think the same way he does, but instead, he wants to share his experiences and his thoughts, and let the reader take from them what he or she wants. He has a passion for people and understanding and appreciation that everyone is different.

Something that was a bit irritating for me is that even though Donald is so tolerant of people with different values and beliefs, he is fairly negative about many Christian practices. He also brings politics into the picture quite often and makes the assumption that most Christians are Republicans. I'm not arguing that this is or is not true, but for someone who does his best not to judge people who do not believe the same as he does, he is rather harsh on those who have the same beliefs as he does, but carries them out in different ways. However, I found his book to be a refreshing perspective about a topic that can be so controversial.

Date completed: June 21, 2008
Number of pages: 240
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Giveaways Galore!

There are some really great giveaways going on right now, so I want to share them!

Stephanie at The Written Word is giving away a copy of Nefertiti, a historical fiction novel set in ancient Egypt.

Heather from Book Addiction is giving away 5 Jodi Picoult books--The Pact, Second Glance, Plain Truth, Nineteen Minutes, and Keeping the Faith.

Hop over to visit Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf to check out her GIANT Giveaway. Five winners will each get a box of 14 books!

Maggie at Maggie Reads is holding The Sense of Place contest to give away the 3rd autographed copy of Mudbound.

Heather J. at Age 30-A Year of Books is holding her first giveaway for The Avengers: A Jewish War Story and Ciao America! An Italian Discovers the US.

Check out Natasha's Stephenie Meyer giveaway at Maw Books. The prizes are not limited to books, but also include buttons and T-shirts.

On a different, but related note (free books!), I thought I would share my newest additions to my expanding library. I recently celebrated a birthday, and I received several giftcards to bookstores. Thus far, I have only used the gift card to my favorite used bookstore, and I still have 2 Barnes and Noble gift cards that I'm holding onto until I NEED a book that I can't find at the used bookstore.

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan (this copy looks brand new, and I was so surprised to see it at the used bookstore--it must have been my lucky day!)
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
I won The Nonrunner's Marathon Guide for Women from Becca at Girl Runner and The Inside Cover and I can't wait to get started on it!

I've already started a list of the books I might buy with my remaining gift cards, but I'm sure that list will change several times as I read more reviews. I'm also SUPER excited about an upcoming library sale next month. It will be the first one I've ever gone to, though I don't know how I've missed them all these years.

Hurray for birthdays and free books!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

For this review, I thought I would use a different format. I am borrowing this from Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf.

Title and author of book? The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

Fiction or non-fiction? Genre? historical fiction

Summarize the plot, but don’t give away the ending! The year is 1553. Hannah Verde is a 14 year old Jewish girl who has recently escaped the Spanish Inquisition with her father after her mother was burned at the stake for heresy. She dresses as a boy and helps her father run his printing press, while both she and her father have learned the ways of the English Protestants to keep a low profile. However, one day, two men make a visit to their bookshop, and Hannah's life takes a huge turn. The men discover that she has the "Sight" and can see the future, and she is asked to become young King Edward's Holy Fool.

Hannah learns quickly that she must pay close attention to all that is going on around her, but not draw too much attention to herself. She soon finds herself enmeshed in the intrigue of who will be the next monarch of England. After King Edward's death, and the short reign of Jane Grey, there is a bitter struggle for the throne between Mary and Elizabeth--half sisters and daughters of Henry VIII. During the constant plotting for the throne, the English citizens don't know if they should be Catholic or Protestant, and they don't know if they can trust their neighbors and own family members not to spy on them. The struggle goes on for several years, and though Hannah loves Mary, she is entranced by Elizabeth's beauty, energy and tenacity. Hannah finds herself spying for one side or the other time and time again, and she knows her life is constantly at risk.

Besides the fear of being arrested for treason and the constant terror that her Jewish heritage will be discovered, Hannah has another worry. She is betrothed to Daniel, a young man she hardly knows. She doesn't want to give up her independence to be a housewife and to live a life she considerous pure drugery, but she feels safest when she is with Daniel. Should she leave the court and be safely married--to live a life of cooking, cleaning and babies, or should she stay and be of help to the Queen in her time of need, OR should she spend time with Elizabeth, learning what she can from the rising princess?

What did you like most about the book? I read the majority of the book in a weekend--it was difficult to put down! There was not a dull moment in 500 pages!

What did you like least? This is no fault of the author's, but I didn't know enough about the history. I had to stop several times to get on the internet and look up the Tudor family tree, as well as tidbits of information about the people who were mentioned in the book.

Which of your readers are most likely to enjoy this book? Why? Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially Tudor history--it is easy get caught up in the time period and the constant plotting for the throne. I know there are many fictional elements in the book, but the amazing part to me is that so much of the story actually happened! If you enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, I think you will like The Queen's Fool even more.

What did you think of the main character?: I found Hannah to be my biggest complaint of the book. She was forced to spy for all sides, but I hoped she would show more strength of character and simply pick one side and stick with it instead of being so wishy-washy.

Any other particularly interesting characters? I don't know how accurate the description was of Queen Mary in this book, but she was not portrayed like I remember from my history classes--as "Bloody Mary." At the least, reading the book and seeing how difficult her entire life was leading up to her reign sheds a bit of light on who she was.

What did you think of the ending? I am happy with the way this particular story ended, although I NEED to read more about what happened next in the real story.

Date completed: June 15, 2008
# of pages: 500
4/5 stars
Read Annie's great review, and if you've read and reviewed this book, please let me know, and I'll include your link.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

The term "shopaholic" is a bit of an understatement for Rebecca (aka Becky) Bloomwood. She has shopped herself into a large amount of debt from a number of stores, credit cards and her bank. Almost every day, she receives letters or calls from her creditors letting her know that she is overdue on her bills. The ironic part of her situations is that she is a financial journalist. Her job is writing columns for a finance magazine called Successful Savings. However, financial journalism is far from her dream job. She would much rather be writing for Vogue, or any other well-known fashion magazine. Becky strongly dislikes her job and doesn't have a boyfriend, so so she finds her happiness in shopping, even though she is "up to her eyeballs" in debt. Her father tells her there are two ways to escape her financial crisis--cut back, or make more money. The rest of her story revolves around her attempts to do both. Neither option is easy, but Becky realizes she must use her imagination and whatever willpower she can find to get herself out of the mess she has gotten herself into.

I am sad to say that my first foray into the "chick lit" genre this year was a bit disappointing. Confessions of a Shopaholic was predictible and unbelieveable even for me, and I tend to have no idea what's coming in most books. I just couldn't understand why Rebecca kept buying more and more expensive items when she was in so much debt! Now, there have been times when I have made purchases that were a little pricey or impractical, but not every single day, and not when I know I really can't afford it. Also, many of the people who know Becky seemed to think she is quite intelligent and a financial genius. From what I read, I can't understand how anyone would get that impression--she knows next to nothing about the financial world. I'm actually surprised she hasn't gotten fired from her job! While I was reading the last 50 pages or so, I couldn't help rolling my eyes more than once. I won't give away the ending, but you'll probably figure it out if you start reading the book.

There were definitely positives to the book as well. I found it to be a light, entertaining read. Shopaholic would be perfect for a day at the beach, or for a long flight. There were one or two instances when Becky's actions were similar to things I've done myself--such as buying something I don't really need just because it's on a good sale. The book was amusing at times. And in the end, I found myself liking Rebecca, even though throughout most of the book, I really wanted to sit her down and help her make a plan and actually stick to it! I would recommend this book to true shopaholics out there, or to those looking for a very light vacation-y read.

Date completed: June 8, 2008
# of pages: 312
Rating: 2/5

When I was searching for a picture of the book, I discovered that there is a movie in production, starring Isla Fisher set to release in 2009.

If you've read and reviewed this book, please let me know, and I'll post your link.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes

Set in the small town of Petal, Mississippi, in the late 1950s, Mother of Pearl is the story of 6 people trying to figure who they are and where they belong. Valuable, age 15, has an unknown father, and her mother is promiscuous and selfish. Even, age 28, is a hardworking black man who grew up as an orphan. Canaan, age 61, is the black neighbor of Evan who enjoys reading, writing, and speaking his mind. Grace, age unknown (I'm guessing somewhere between 30 and 40), is a black woman who works for a white family, caring for the invalid mother, and basically raising 2 boys--Joleb and Burris. Judy (or Joody) is thought of by many townspeople as crazy or a witch because of her dark skin, her strange hair with sticks in it, and the fact she can hear people's thoughts and can sometimes see the future. She lives alone in the woods by the creek. Joleb, a young white teenage boy (raised by Grace), blurts out whatever is on his mind and has no close friends.

This group of people--different backgrounds, age, gender, and race--begin to form friendships, learn to love others as well as themselves, learn to see past skin color, and understand that "family" does not have to be related by blood.

Haynes is a master of characterization. Each character in her novel, whether major or minor, has a unique voice and memorable personality. Throughout the course of the story, it is easy to see the development and the changes the main characters go through because of several tragic events that take place.

When asked the question, "What message do you most hope your novel will communicate to readers?" Haynes responded with, "That mankind will prevail. That the element of human kindness is somewhere inside of us all. That we can celebrate our differences, as well as our commonalities." Mother of Pearl certainly conveys the message Haynes wanted. It is a beautiful story, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, but ultimately a story of acceptance and love.

Date completed: June 2, 2008
# of Pages: 464
Rating: 3.75/5 stars

I had a difficult time understanding some of the symbolism in the novel--such as the reocurring image of the pig, and the relevance of Antigone. If anyone can shed some light on this, I would greatly appreciate your insight! Trish wrote a great review of this book. If you also have read and reviewed this book, please let me know, and I will add your link.