Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Reading Recap

This year had lots of good books, some great books, and some books I’m now an evangelist :) for. My full list follows, in reverse chronological order read, sorted by fiction/nonfiction and including ratings (out of 5 stars). Click the link to read my review. Click the book’s image (most are included at the end of this post) to peruse it on Amazon.

Scan the list and you’ll find very few books I didn’t like. As for favorites -- I’ll highlight my Top 10 by posting individual reviews, in alphabetical order of the title, over the first ten days of January.

91. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (4)
90. You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon (4.5) (See review)
88. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (3.5) (See review)
87. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (3) (See review)
85. Great House by Nicole Krauss (3.5)
84. Touch by Adania Shibli (4.5) (See review)
73. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley (4.5) (See review)
72. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (4) (See review)
70. The Recipe Club by Andrea Israel/Nancy Garfinkel (2) (See review)
68. Saturday by Ian McEwan (3.5)
65. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (4)
63. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (4) (See review)
62. All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang (3.5) (See review)
59. Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman (4) (See review)
51. The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (4.5) (See review)
48. This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia (2.5) (See review)
45. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (3.5) (See review)
43. The Lion by Nelson DeMille (3.5) (See review)
42. Countdown by Deborah Wiles (4) (See review)
41. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (4) (See review)
38. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (4) (See review)
37. Light Boxes by Shane Jones (3.5) (See review)
35. Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn (3) (See review)
33. Day for Night by Frederick Reiken (4.5) (See review)
32. Gents by Warwick Collins (3)
31. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (4.5) (See review)
30. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (3) (See review)
29. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (3) (See review)
28. We the Children by Andrew Clements (3) (See review)
25. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (4)
24. Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott (3) (See review)
22. The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (4.5) (See review)
21. The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford (3) (See review)
20. The Heights by Peter Hedges (3) (See review)
17. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (4) (See review)
16. Refusing Heaven (poems) by Jack Gilbert (3)
13. The Incident Report by Martha Baillie (4) (See review)
11. Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (3.5) (See review)
9. The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens (3.5) (See review)
6. A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End by Avi (2.5)
3. The Pursuit of Other Interests by Jim Kokoris (3.5) (See review)

89. American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen (4.5) (See review)
86. 365 Thank Yous by John Kralik (3) (See review)
83. Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows (3.5)
82. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (4) (See review)
81. Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People by Amy Sedaris (4) (See review)
80. Penguin 75 ed. by Paul Buckley (3)
79. The Gourmet Cookie Book (3)
78. Mad Men: The Illustrated World by Dyna Moe (3)
77. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (4)
76. The Fashion File by Janie Bryant (3.5) (See review)
75. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (4) (See review)
74. Pheromone by Christopher Marley (5) (See review)
71. The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks by Bethany Keeley (3) (See review)
69. Huck by Janet Elder (2) (See review)
67. Chip Kidd: Book One by Chip Kidd (4) (See review)
66. Turn and Jump by Howard Mansfield (3) (See review)
64. Brain Candy by Garth Sundem (3.5) (See review)
61. True Prep by Lisa Birnbach (3.5) (See review)
60. The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand / Jacob Kenedy (4.5) (See review)
58. Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy (3.5) (See review)
57. Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point by Alex MacLean (4)
56. Change by Design by Tim Brown (2.5) (See review)
55. The Playbook by Alex MacLean (4)
54. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (4.5) (See review)
53. Extraordinary Clouds by Richard Hamblyn (4) (See review)
52. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (4.5) (See review)
50. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown (3.5) (See review)
49. Kick-Ass Creativity by Mary Beth Maziarz (3.5) (See review)
47. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut (4.5) (See review)
46. Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us by David Freedman (3) (See review)
44. Cutting Rhythms by Karen Pearlman (4.5) (See review)
40. Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern (4.5) (See review)
39. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman (4.5)
36. Jenniemae and James by Brooke Newman (3) (See review)
34. Aspergirls by Rudy Simone (4) (See review)
27. The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk (3.5) (See review)
26. Forbes City Guide Chicago 2010 (reference) (4) (See review)
23. Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts (reference) (4) (See review)
19. The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar (4) (See review)
18. Blankets by Craig Thompson (4)
15. Words Fail Me by Teresa Monachino (3)
14. It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs (2.5) (See review)
12. Obsolete by Anna Jane Grossman (3.5) (See review)
10. Making Rounds With Oscar by David Dosa (3) (See review)
8. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte (5) (See review)
7. The Paris Review Interviews I (5) (See comments)
5. The Elements by Theodore Gray (5) (See review)
4. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel (3.5) (See review)
2. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (4)
1. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (3.5) (See review)

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Does It Take... coax out a muse?


Of course this was pre-arranged ... in the mall.
(But what’s happening ... in you, now?)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What You Want to Know

From a recent segment of The Leonard Lopate Show, it’s clear that novelist Ayelet Waldman is less a proponent of “write what you know” and more of “write what you can imagine” -- that is, "what you want to know."

Because writing is an avenue to discovery, she pursues all sorts of real-life “want to knows” through her fiction. Her latest novel, Red Hook Road, was prompted by a terrible car accident that she recalls reading about in a newspaper. Also interested in classical music, she learned about it and weaved it in. And boxing. And boats.

For her next book, Waldman went totally “want to know.” She Googled keywords of topics that interested her: Hungary (she wanted to visit a friend there and liked the excuse of researching a writing project) + Holocaust (she’s Jewish and hadn’t written about it) + art (as with the music of Red Hook Road, she was interested) = a novel about the Hungarian Gold Train at the end of WWII.

I can’t wait to read it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What Are the Odds?!

Stay with this video for the first minute-and-a-half, then just laugh for the next minute:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oh Yeah, Someone Cares

The cliché years ago, when weblogs were just becoming mainstream, was that most were mind-numbingly dull diaries along the lines of “what I had for lunch.” The hard truth was: No One Cares!

Turns out that’s not true.

While reviewing a company’s business policy on travel-expense reimbursement, I was surprised to see it doesn’t allow a general per-diem nor accept the IRS threshold that only expenses above a certain level (currently $75) require documentary receipts. Rather, every dollar needs support. And when it’s meals, forget submitting the summary/signature receipt -- this company requires the server’s item-by-item listing of your lunch.

Now let your imagination loose and consider some of their other policies. Heh. You’re not even close.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Begin with a Character

I sooo believe everybody has a story -- that lives seemingly ordinary on the surface turn interesting deeper in. Consider these juror/alternate juror bios* -- some are immediately novel-worthy; others have real potential; still others seem such impossibilities that I’m frankly intrigued by the challenge:

103, a quiet-spoken white woman in her 20s who works as a full-time legal assistant

105, an African-American woman who teaches math to sixth- and seventh-graders in public school; her husband is a state probation officer

106, a white, female retired director for state public health department who has served on two juries before

115, a blond woman in her 30s or 40s who has worked in retail for the past 15 years; a fan of boating and gardening, she reads news "only for the weather"

119, a mother in her late 20s or early 30s who works in investment accounting and is an avid runner

121, a white, female accounting student at Western Illinois University with an interest in law; her father is a police officer

123, a white, male human resources manager in his 30s who volunteers for a family shelter and has done volunteer work for political candidates

127, a woman in 50s or 60s who likes reading and crafts like knitting and cross-stitch

128, a white community college student and former Best Buy salesman who likes sports, videogames and hanging out with his friends

133, a former Marine of 18 years who served in various places, including Beirut, where he suffered an injury; he has had a hip replacement and was concerned about sitting for long periods of time

135, a retired man in his mid-60s who said he was born in a Japanese internment camp in California; a former Marine, he has served on a jury

137, a retired Navyman who works full-time

148, an African-American, church-going man who worked as a letter carrier for 30 years; has served on two juries in the past, one of which did not reach a verdict

151, a mechanical engineer with a graduate degree who supervises a crew of 30 at a steel company

153, a female secretary and paralegal in the real estate department of a law firm

155, a secretary at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who volunteers at her church and used to be an event planner for a dating service; said it was hard to avoid the news, but believed she could be fair

156, young women who works in direct mail marketing and likes spending time with her boyfriend and her dog

166, a female, African-American social worker for a nursing home with a college degree

* From the Chicago Sun-Times coverage of the corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fun with a Purpose

I was drawn to the Tom and Lorenzo/Project Rungay blog for its infotaining posts about Lost and Mad Men*. And now there's another layer to my visits: the blog’s Mad Style category of posts -- deep dissections of fashion as characterization -- are a virtual writing workshop!

* Season 4 premieres Sunday, July 25

Monday, June 28, 2010

"The Arts Are Not Extracurricular"

On the importance of making art, from Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So*, a memoir
by Mark Vonnegut -- Harvard-educated practicing pediatrician, son of Kurt, and four-episode psychotic:

The arts are not extracurricular.
Art is lunging forward without certainty about where you are going or how to get there, being open to and dependent on what luck, the paint, the typo, the dissonance, give you. Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.

* To be released October 5

Friday, June 4, 2010


“Yes,” I said. It would take ten minutes. How could I say no? “Send me the buccal-swab kit.”

But it wasn’t just a yes to ten minutes of swabbing some cells from the inside of my mouth and sending them to be tested for what was already a potential match as a bone-marrow donor.

I'd looked ahead and knew that if my cheek cells confirmed the preliminary match, I’d say yes to giving an hour and a vial of blood for the definitive match. If that was a go, I’d stand at the rabbit hole where someone was struggling to live. And at that point, how could I say no?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lost on Gilligan's Island

Feeling out of sync with society? Getting manuscript rejections that include, “Not for us at this time”?

Here’s testament that your day will come:

Now for the serious details:
Lost pilot episode (re-air, w/info captions): Saturday, May 22, 8-10pm ET on ABC
Lost retrospective: Sunday, May 23, 7-9pm ET on ABC
Lost series finale: Sunday, May 23, 9-11:30pm ET on ABC
Jimmy Kimmel Live, Aloha to Lost: Sunday, May 23, midnight-1am ET on ABC

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Attention: Screenwriters

Query: You want to pen a blockbuster Hollywood film. Maybe a mob picture. Maybe with a wedding to rival that in The Godfather.

Solution: Wrangle an invitation to these August 21 nuptials and get yourself to Chicago. Then just sit back and take dictation.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Left or Right?

Which do you prefer?

In my previous corporate life, I
spent a meeting distracted by a cup
like the one on the left.

       Now in my creative life,
       I think I prefer it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fictional Billionaires

Who are the richest characters in fiction?

Jed Clampett, sure. And Thurston Howell III and Jay Gatsby, although they’re declining on a list increasingly populated by newer names.

Browse the tongue-in-cheek valuation of characters from TV, film and literature -- and the sources of their wealth -- in this year’s Forbes Fictional 15.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Elgin Park

Designer/photographer Michael Paul Smith believes the secret is in the details.

He gets them right -- and pulls off the “fiction.” Watch it here (2½ min):

See more photos (including a slideshow) here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Animal Vegetable Mineral

I’ve had semesters of botany and pharmacognosy, but today while listening to a podcast about plants on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show, I heard Jamie Boyer (from the New York Botanical Garden) simplify things by defining plants generally as “any organism that can produce its own food.”

Aha! -- they’re food-manufacturing plants.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Second Meaning

I was just ten when my big sister got married in the ‘60s, and was fascinated by her opportunity to play house for real. I listened as she and Mom discussed her household budget, and what I remember to this day is her mentioning some exorbitant amount for staples. True, both she and my new brother-in-law were teachers and would be dealing with lots of papers. But I’d seen the price of staples in the store, and seen the box at home last forever. Wow, I remember thinking, that’s a lotta staples.

So it is when you live with a term for years, then discover a whole other meaning. And so it was yesterday, when I heard about the many magazines carried by the gunman at the Pentagon Metro stop, and my first thought still flashed, Something to read on the train…

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A New Season

My favorite eagles are back at the Norfolk Botanical Garden -- and as of yesterday, they're again nesting three eggs!

The young usually hatch in mid-March and fledge in June. Watch it all live here (I keep a link on my blogroll) and dig deeper via the blogs by Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Center for Conservation Biology.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Writers II

...A continuation of my favorite takeaways from The Paris Review Interviews I (begin with Part I here).

Robert Gottlieb:
In book publishing, the editor and the author have the same goal: to make the book as good as it can be and to sell as many copies as possible. In a magazine, it’s a different matter. Of course a magazine editor wants the writing to be as good as possible, but he wants it to be as good as possible for the magazine, […A] book publishing house is much less bound up with the personality of its editor in chief. […] A magazine, on the other hand, is in a sense an emanation of its chief editor […] A magazine’s subscribers and advertisers and owner have a right to get every week or month whatever it is they’ve been led to expect they’re going to get.

Ernest Hemingway:
A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers. The important thing is to have good water in the well, and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill.

Dorothy Parker:
It’s easier to write about those you hate -- just as it’s easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.

Richard Price:
If you’re the first generation of your family to go to college, the pressure on graduation is to go for financial security. The whole point of going to college it to get a job. You have it drilled into your head -- job, money, security. Wanting to be an artist doesn’t jibe with any of those three.

Robert Stone:
You construct characters and set them going in their own interior landscape, and what they find to talk about and what confronts them are, of course, things that concern you most. […] In all the arts, the payoff is always the same -- recognition. If it works, you say that’s real, that’s truth, that’s life, that’s the way thing are.

Kurt Vonnegut:
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. […] Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. […] Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.

Rebecca West, revelatory about how the dead influence the living:
We had lots of pleasant furniture that had belonged to my father’s family, none that had belonged to my mother’s family, because they didn’t die -- the whole family all went on to their eighties, nineties -- but we had furniture, and we had masses of books, and we had a very good piano my mother played on.

Billy Wilder, with a secret every modern writer now grows up knowing*:
I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character. A bit of background. Some boy-meets-girl scenarios.

* but it’s the only passage I marked before Wilder carried me away on a tell-all tour of his writer-director experiences in the old movie-studio system; the pages flew!

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Writers

I just finished The Paris Review Interviews I (there are four volumes), a collection of conversations with writers initially published between 1956 and 2006 in The Paris Review literary journal.

My stand-out favorite is with editor Robert Gottlieb, in which writers (Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton among others) comment on working with Gottlieb and he responds -- it’s illuminating and hilarious! But all of the interviews are terrific, and I found myself marking passages throughout. Decided to pull one takeaway from each of the renowned novelists, poets and screenwriters to post here. (I’m all about “short,” so will post half today and half tomorrow.)

Saul Bellow, about sources of inspiration:
I suppose that all of us have a primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest years has been advising us, telling us what the real world is. […] When E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” he was perhaps referring to his own prompter.

Elizabeth Bishop, about childhood:
You are fearfully observant then. You notice all kinds of things, but there’s no way of putting them all together.

Jorge Luis Borges:
When a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament […] Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, […] a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word. I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word.

James M. Cain, about formula writing:
You seem to think there’s some way you can transform this equation, and transform it, and transform it, until you arrive at the perfect plot. It’s not like that. The algebra has to be right, but it has to be your story. […] If it’s too easy you have to worry. If you’re not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn’t going to, either. […] There are problems to be solved. […] Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right.

Truman Capote:
I believe in hardening yourself against opinion. […] Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Joan Didion:
I generally have a point of view, although I don’t usually recognize it. Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.

T.S. Eliot, about unfinished work:
It’s better, if there’s something good in it that I might make use of elsewhere, to leave it at the back of my mind than on paper in a drawer. If I leave it in a drawer it remains the same thing but if it’s in the memory it becomes transformed into something else.

Jack Gilbert, about writers’ complaints that writing is difficult:
They should try working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. That’s a very delicate kind of approach to the world -- to be so frail that you can’t stand having to write poetry.

Tomorrow: Part II

Friday, January 22, 2010

Keyboard Inspiration

I like the FAO Schwarz keyboard-dance scene in Big and I like the old music of Johnny Mercer (link: audio alert).

Combine the two and I love this*:

*from the 1937 film Ready, Willing and Able, discovered via a recent segment of CBS Sunday Morning

Thursday, January 21, 2010

2010 on the Blog

Something I’ve noticed, and analyzed, and found interesting, is my volume of posting here on the blog:

2007: 156 posts
2008: 85
2009: 46
That it’s decreasing is a concern, but how it’s decreasing is interesting: in a stick-straight line. Year 2 (2008) had 54% as many posts as Year 1 … and Year 3 (2009) had 54% as many posts as Year 2. And with two posts so far in this year’s trended volume of 25, I’m exactly on track.  :(

The laws of mathematics assure me I can maintain this trend into infinity and never reach zero. But the laws of blogging require posts to come as whole numbers and, on this path, I’ll eventually dip below “1.”

That’s just sad! And so my goal this year is to nurture the part of me that comes to this place of creativity and play -- and in the process turn that trend around.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2010 Reading Preview

My recent reading tells me I most enjoy mainstream and literary fiction, and memoir and science-related nonfiction. I’m especially drawn to coming-of-age stories; debut novels; stories set in workplaces; and following my curiosity, especially into books with humor, original premises/styles, or twists of perspective (moments of awareness). Having focused on science rather than arts from high school on, I’m beginning to fill in some of the history and literature I’ve missed.

This year: more, please! In content, that is; not volume :) Plus, some specific areas of interest: the origins of civilization; the Middle Ages; the Holocaust; historical disease epidemics; physics and higher mathematics; classic literature; and creativity.

I already own many terrific books along these lines and have gathered the juiciest here to keep them in mind. See a fluid chart of my year’s finished books here, and follow my reading comments here.

And because I’m thrilled by sparkly new books (new releases or merely new-to-me), I welcome your recommendations!