Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Magnolia Wednesdays

Magnolia WednesdaysMagnolia Wednesdays by Wendy Wax is an enjoyable novel set in suburban Atlanta which tells the story of Vivien, a hard-driving journalist who left the South to pursue her career in the concrete jungle of New York City.  She looks with derision on the land of suburbia and feels superior to the women tending to homes and children.  That is, until she finds herself 41, pregnant and unemployed.  In desperation, she heads back down south to live with her widowed sister, Melanie, and her two teen children.  Things get interesting when Vivien takes a job reporting on life in suburbia under the pen name of "Scarlett Leigh" and begins investigating the death of her brother in law - all unbeknownst to her sister and the friends she has made in the 'burbs.

Wendy Wax has created quite an ensemble cast of characters in this book  - the main characters are Vivien and her sister, Melanie but there is also their critical mother, Caroline and the members of a belly-dancing class hosted at the dance studio owned by Melanie.  Each of the "supporting" cast members have their own stories which add a depth and interest to the book.  Like Vivien, they each undergo an evolution as the novel progresses and it is interesting to watch how they change.

Vivien, however, undergoes the most change - both physically and emotionally.  As her pregnancy progresses, she is surprised by the change in her shape and size but she also begins to notice a shift in her opinion of her suburban neighbors that she so harshly criticizes in her weekly newspaper column.  Slowly, she integrates into the community she has found in the 'burbs and she recognizes that there is life beyond the big bad city.

This book is a funny, entertaining read with just enough depth to make it a truly worthwhile read.  I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Salon: December 19 2010

The Sunday

credit: Simply Recipes
Just one week to Christmas!  I am really looking forward to my trip to Texas to spend Christmas with my family (and to my trip to Thailand on the 27th).  I have already heard that my nephew is looking forward to building a gingerbread house with me - he and I have built one on each Christmas we have spent together since he was about 3 (he is now 6).  I am not very artistically inclined so our houses have had middling success in the aesthetic department but its a fun time nonetheless.  And now it is a tradition which is what the holidays are all about, right?

Packing - grrr!

What I am not looking forward to?  Packing!  I have been procrastinating on this one now for days -  I have been accumulating items in my spare bedroom that need to be packed and the suitcase is out on the bed.  But not a single item is technically packed -  it is complicated because I am packing for two trips but I really need to get down to it if I don't want to be hurriedly tossing stuff into a suitcase in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.  In the typical pattern of the procrastinator, I have done many things around my task without actually getting down to it.  Today's avoidance technique - planning the books I will be taking on my trip!  So much more fun . . . . I will do a post on all the books I am taking with me before I leave but my current project is downloading books to my new iPad!  I am excited to have such a portable library for this trip.  Do you read on an e-reader?  What are the pros/cons?

In Case You Missed It . . .
This week I posted a piece about a talk by Colm Toibin hosted by the Tenement Museum .  It was a great evening and I had the privilege of attending another talk there this week - this one was with Pete Hamill.  I am a big fan of this author and was thrilled to see his topic for the discussion was immigration.  It is a theme in many of his books  - all of which would be great choices for my Immigrant Stories 2011 Challenge.   We already have some sign-ups (thanks!) and I hope you will consider joining the fun!

Have a relaxing Sunday and a good week!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Author Event: Colm Tobin on Henry James

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Colm Toibin at The Tenement Museum  - I was so fortunate to be able to make it to this event!  As I have mentioned on this blog before, Colm Toibin is a favorite author of mine so I jumped at the chance to hear him talk.  He did not disappoint - his comments were insightful and he peppered his talk with a signature Irish wit.

All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry JamesThe focus of his talk was the author Henry James.  Toibin is a scholar of James and in addition to a writing a number of essays and literary criticism pieces about the author (now collected in All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James),  made him the subject of his novel The Master which is a fictionalized account of James's life.  As I mentioned in my review of the Master, the novel is a beautifully written and Toibin deftly weaves fiction with the facts about Henry James.  It is no surprise that the book was shortlisted for the Booker.  In the talk, Toibin referenced James's reported homosexuality which he worked very hard to conceal his entire life.  In fact, it was only after James's death and upon reading his letters and his contemporaries' journals that scholars concluded James was a closeted homosexual.  Toibin made the point that in many of James's works there is a theme of things being "hidden" or held beneath the surface which he connects with the author's attempts to conceal his sexual orientation.

In answer to a question about how he balanced the facts of James's life with a fictional storyline, Colm Toibin provided an insightful answer - he said, in essence, that every author puts their own stamp on a story and reveals as much about themselves as about the subject of their novel.  He posited that he could provide everyone in the audience the same research and material about Henry James and we would each write a different novel about his life because we would all view the material through the lens of our own experiences and life story and that would be reflected in what we wrote.  I thought that was an excellent way of describing the art of writing and what an author shares each time they write a work and provide it to us to read -  they truly share a piece of themselves.

About the Venue
The Tenement Museum in New York City celebrates the immigrant experience from a unique vantage point - the inside of 97 Orchard St which was once a tenement apartment building on the Lower East Side.  They offer guided tours of apartments recreated to look like the apartments inhabited by the many immigrants who lived on the Lower East Side in the 19th century.  It is a great experience and I definitely recommend it to any NYC visitor.  Throughout the year, they host Tenement Talks, such as the one I attended with Colm Toibin.

Have you read anything by Colm Toibin and/or Henry James?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Dec 12 2010

The Sunday

Two weeks until Christmas!  I feel surprisingly prepared  - so much so that I am beginning to fret about what I MUST have forgotten to do!  Today's task is Christmas cards . . . right on schedule.
This advance work is not my usual MO - I am generally rushing at the last minute but I did that last year and it really ruined the holiday for me and I vowed not to let that happen again. 


Credit: Trek Earth

Part of my pre-holiday to do list has included planning for my trip to Thailand which I head out on the day after Christmas - I am really looking forward to this trip!  Thailand has been on my "must visit list" for a few years now - we are  going to Phuket and Bangkok.  I always like to read books set in the place I visit while on vacation  - does anyone have any good recommendations for books set in Thailand?

It's That Time of Year Again . . .
About this time last year, I wrote this post about writing reviews - performance reviews.  They seem to be taking up a good portion of my work days right now and while I know they are an important element of development for our colleagues and integral to assessing performance for compensation, I really dislike writing them!  After the first two, I find myself repeating the same key phrases ("partners well with others", "could be more successful if . . .") again and again.  Are any of you also plagued by these reviews right now?

Immigrant Stories Challenge 2011

I am excited to announce that I am hosting my first challenge  - Immigrant Stories Challenge 2011!  I am the child of immigrants and have always enjoyed reading stories about the immigrant experience.  I realized that there are actual a lot of books that include an immigrant story ( I have begun a list here) and decided to design a challenge around it.  I hope you will consider joining in!

You May Have Missed . . . .

Here are the reviews I have posted since the last Sunday Salon:

Queen of Babble in the Big City by Meg Cabot
I Know What I Am But What Are You? by Samantha Bee
Digging to America by Anne Tyler (Audiobook)

Hope you have a restful Sunday and a good week!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Announcing Immigrant Stories Challenge 2011

I am the child of immigrant parents and have a real interest in immigrant stories. The more I paid attention to it, the more I realized that there is a broad selection of immigration stories out there - from immigration generations ago to modern day immigration from and to new lands. So I decided to start a challenge which focused on immigrant stories . . . . announcing Immigrant Stories Challenge 2011!

The only requirement of books for this challenge is that it must have an immigrant story - this includes stories about immigrants, the immigrant experience, and children of immigrants (first generation). Remember - there are immigrants to and from all countries - the challenge is not limited to the American immigrant experience.

How many books do I need to read for the challenge?

There are 3 levels for the challenge:

Just off the boat: 1-3 books

This Land is My Land? : 4-6 books

Fully Assimilated: 6+ books

Include your level in your sign-up post but you can go up from your initial post if you find you are reading more immigrant stories

What types of books are eligible? Only fiction? How about audiobooks?

All types of books are eligible - fiction, non-fiction, short stories, audiobooks, e-books.

Other details?

Re-reads are acceptable as are cross-overs with other challenges

Any book suggestions?

You can find recommendations for books that cover the immigrant experience here - this is in no way comprehensive but will give you a start. I will keep the link updated with titles suggested by all the participants.

What are the dates for the challenge?

January 1, 2011 - December 31, 2011. You can sign up anytime but there will be a chance for a prize for everyone that is registered by Dec 31, 2010

How do I sign up?

Go here to sign-up and put one of the buttons below on your blog/in your sign-up post

I hope you will join me in reading immigrant stories in 2011!

Immigrant Stories 2011 Sign-Ups

Sign up below for the Immigrant Stories 2011 Challenge.  For more info about the challenge, click here

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Immigrant Stories Challenge - Review Link-Up

Please link to your reviews for the challenge.  Enter you name/blog name with the book title in parentheses.  For example, Colleen@Books in the City (When We Were Strangers).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Queen of Babble in the Big City by Meg Cabot

Queen of Babble in the Big CityQueen of Babble in the Big City by Meg Cabot is the second book in the Queen of Babble series and Lizzie Nichols is back and recently arrived in NYC while trying to make her dream of becoming a wedding gown specialist come true.  She is up to her usual antics and desperately trying to defy her moniker of blabbermouth by keeping a multitude of secrets to herself.  Although at times predictable, the book is successful because Lizzie endears herself to readers with her optimism and unyielding faith in love.

I read Queen of Babble a year ago and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it - yes, it can be superficial but it is a light novel well done and I looked forward to the next in the series.  In that first novel, we are introduced to Lizzie Nichols as she triumphantly saves the day at a wedding in the South of France when she re-makes the bride's wedding gown into a piece of fashion art.   In the process, she also gets the guy, Luke.  In the second book, she has followed Luke to NYC where he is pursuing a pre-med post-bacc so he can follow his dream of becoming a doctor while Lizzie is jobless but excited to be living with Luke.  She is not satisfied, however, just to mooch off her wealthy boyfriend and ends up working two jobs - as a receptionist for a law firm to earn some cash and as wedding gown specialist in a high end shop for free to hone her craft.

In between her two jobs, she gets herself into a few jams with her best friend and her boyfriend's parents but she continues on despite these obstacles.  Of course, things work out surprisingly well in each of these scenarios but Lizzie's optimism and dedication to her dream of becoming a wedding gown specialist are admirable and endearing.  I thought I had the ending figured out but one element of it surprised me and has me looking forward to reading the next installment in the series  - Queen of Babble Gets Hitched.  If you are looking for a light, fun read and a heroine you can love, I recommend Lizzie, aka Queen of Babble!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ireland Reading Challenge Completed!

The 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge was hosted by Carrie at Books and Movies.  I like to read Irish authors and books set in Ireland so I knew this challenge was for me and signed up at the top level - Kiss the Blarney Stone (6 books)!  This was one of the first challenges I finished but I was holding out on the wrap up post because I wanted to include a photo of me kissing the blarney stone from a childhood trip to Ireland but I kept forgetting to get the snapshot from my Mom.  So I have decided to include a few photos from my recent trips to Ireland at the bottom of the post.

Carrie will be hosting this challenge again in 2011 so stay tuned to her blog!

Here is what I read for the challenge (titles link to my reviews):
Brooklyn: A Novel
Carey, Alice: I'll Know It When I See It
Delaney, Frank: Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show

McPartlin, Anna: Alexandra, Gone
O'Carroll, Brendan: Agnes Browne Trilogy (The Mammy, The Chissellers, The Granny)
Toibin, Colm: Brooklyn

Gap of Dunloe - Co Kerry
Achill, Co Mayo


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samatha Bee

I Know I Am, But What Are You?I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee
From Amazon:
A senior correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Toronto-born comedian pokes fun at herself in a witty collection of personal essays. Recalling her upbringing, she lightheartedly and hysterically skewers her parents, stepparents, grandparents, and even the nuns who taught her math, half of whom "looked and smelled like the rejection of life itself." Bee's stepmother took camping "very seriously," and preparing for a trip was "like preparing for the End of Days;" her father, claiming to be thinking up strategies for better fuel efficiency, was really "just reading Penthouse on the toilet." Regarding the nuns at her Catholic school, Bee doesn't hold back: "You could see that they had all their lady parts, but you just knew that once a month they menstruated dust." Bee takes readers from childhood to adolescence and beyond, reminiscing along the way about her first boyfriend, comparing their sexual chemistry to that of a "sea cucumber that sits motionless on the cold, dark ocean floor and dreams of dry-humping a nearby scallop." Bee successfully brings her witty, self-deprecating, slightly cynical, and semi-scathing world view from screen to page.

My Thoughts:
This memoir is told in a series of essays each recounting a cringe-worthy story from Bee's childhood or adolescence.    Now most of our childhoods and certainly adolescences offer material galore in the humor department but it takes talent to write and package those scenes into funny, sardonic essays with just the right amount of detail.  Samantha Bee definitely has a self-deprecating sense of humor and is not afraid to make fun of her younger self which makes for a more humorous story.  With divorced and somewhat eccentric parents, Bee seemed older than her years as a child watching and assessing the exploits of her parents.  She may not have realized it at the time but all that observation would turn into a funny, entertaining book!

The author I can most easily compare Bee to is David Sedaris - she has a similar sarcastic tone and tells personal stories as he does - however, I think her book approaches the humor found in a David Sedaris story.  I definitely found myself laughing out loud but I feel Sedaris is just that little bit more witty and exacting in his prose.  With that said, I Know I Am, But What Are You?, takes dysfunction and makes it funny - and maybe makes us all feel just a little bit better about our own childhoods!

FYI - Although I read it in print, I think this book would likely be excellent in audio (check out S. Krishna's review of the audio) as I am sure Samantha would deliver her witty one-liners with just the right inflection. 

Thank you to Kristin at Simon and Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review