Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year in review, part three: Randomness

This year - my first full year of blogging! - I established my postings on a general schedule, and as much as possible, I drafted posts in advance and used Blogger's "scheduled posts" function (thank you for getting that out of draft, Blogger!) to publish. I tried to stick to one post per day, and by the second half of the year, I wasn't usually posting on Sundays; they became my main writing and catch-up day.

The one-post-per day plan and my preference for preparing posts ahead of time led to the launch of "TBIF - Thank Blog It's Friday," in which I combine my responses to several popular book-related weekly memes and the Friday Fill-ins. Not posting a comment on a Tuesday meme until Friday means that the post probably gets less visits from other participants, but it works for me, and a few visitors have told me that they like the omnibus approach.

The amount of time I spend with Google Reader, and the range of blogs I subscribe to there, mean that I frequently find posts I think are worth sharing. I began doing a links round-up on a semi-regular basis early this year - it's gone by a few names during that time, but I think I've finally settled on calling it "The Saturday Review." I'm by no means the first blogger to do this - I was inspired by others to start doing it in the first place - but I enjoy it from a community-building perspective, and it's gotten very good feedback. I've seen a similar feature crop up on some of the blogs I read since I started doing it, and I'd like to think I've helped inspire that, as other bloggers did for me.

The general outline for the posting schedule here has evolved to this, with occasional variations and special exceptions:
Monday - Weekend Assignment
Tuesday - Ten on Tuesday or another meme
Wednesday - varies, but usually a "writing" day
Thursday - Book review or other book-related post
Friday - TBIF
Saturday - Saturday Review

Doesn't seem very random to have such a structure, does it? But again, it works - now, anyway. We'll have to see if it stays that way over the next year!

A look at the numbers for 2008 (rounded and somewhat estimated, since I put this post together a few days before the actual end of the year):

Number of posts, total: 330
Guest posts contributed by others: 10

Via Google Analytics

Total visits: 12,000
Total page views: 18,750
Total unique visitors: 6,050

Most popular pages (besides the main page);
Bookworms Carnival #14
Summer Reading Giveaway
December Giveaway
Clothing basics (this one was linked by Susan Wagner on BlogHer, which is probably why it's gotten so much traffic)

Most popular search keywords:
Some variation on "three R's," plus 21 instances of search for "how to be a bookworm" - other blogs have much more interesting search-related visits than I seem to, or else I'm just not gathering that data from the right place. (Then again, the smallest percentage of traffic - 13.75% - ends up here via search at all, so maybe it's not that surprising that this isn't an exciting stat for this particular blog.)

Feed analysis/subscriber growth
Subscribers 1/08: 26
Subscribers 12/08: 121
This may be somewhat overstated due to people who have subscribed to the feed in Google Reader and are also using Blogger's "follow" feature, which leads to double-counting, but even considering that, it's still nice growth, and it's probably my favorite blog statistic, since subscribers are the most regular readers (even if they're not regular commenters).

A couple more numbers to wrap this up: hope you've been mostly satisfied with how things have gone in 2008, and let's all hope for a very fine 2009! Happy New Year!

How much have you already forgotten about the year gone by?

You Remember 90% of 2008

You were paying attention during 2008.

And you remember what happened really well.

You'll be able to talk about 2008 for years to come...

Even when most people have forgotten what went down.

Unfortunately, like most Blogthings quizzes, this one doesn't tell you which questions you got wrong - but apparently I was awake for most of the year! How about you?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The year in review, part 2: 'Riting

Participating in NaBloPoMo last year was good experience in establishing a schedule for writing and posting, and I wanted to carry it forward into 2008. I was also discovering that I wanted to do more posts that gave me a chance to stretch my muscles with the "second R" in my blog title. Of the 157 posts (at this count) labeled as "'riting," 98 of them were done in 2008, so it looks like there's been a lot more writing around here this year, and I'm pleased about that. I'm including excerpts from, and links to, some posts from that category, and I'd love to have you go and read more!

Almost half of those posts this year came about from my participation in the Weekend Assignment, which is hosted by Karen Funk Blocher on her blog Outpost Mâvarin. As this year began, Karen was new to hosting the Assignments, having recently taken them over from their founder, John Scalzi, although she had been a participant in them; I was just plain new to them. The Assignments have been an excellent source of weekly writing prompts, and I would love to see them get more participation! They have also introduced me to some of my favorite bloggers.

Excerpts from a few of my favorite Weekend Assignment posts:
I'm not the most adventurous person you'll ever meet, but jumping in the car and heading off somewhere really appeals to me. I like choosing a destination and planning the route; I like deciding what to bring and packing, if the trip will last more than a day; I especially like seeing what there is to see along the way, and stopping on a whim to take pictures or explore what I find. There's also an All-American mythology element to the whole "road trip" idea that attracts me - the lure of the open road and all that. I spend most of my time driving around metro Los Angeles, and "open" is one of the last descriptions applicable to the roads around here, unless it's around 2 AM.

I'm very lucky to be married to someone who likes road trips too - he even likes hitting the road with no particular destination in mind, and just seeing where we end up. He also really enjoys the driving itself, if it's a car that's fun to drive - which means, most likely, not his own Honda Civic. That reminds me - if we're getting a prepaid rental car for this trip, I expect that he'll be asking for a Dodge Charger.
Weekend Assignment #203: Road Trip! (2/18/08)
My family has a place in Northern California, in a small lakeside town between Mammoth and Lake Tahoe, where we've gone on vacations for years. A couple of summers ago, we were driving through town when Mom mentioned that she wanted to visit a friend's gift shop. "Just remind me where it is," I said.

"Oh, sorry, I think we passed it - it's just back there, across the street," she said.
Grumbling a little about the late notification, I checked for clearance, shifted over, and turned the car around, heading back down Main Street in the other direction. Of course, I had just come through the turn when I noticed the police car behind me, but I thought it was probably just coincidence. Unfortunately, the kids noticed too, and they turned around to watch. "I think the police car is following you," came from the back seat.
Weekend Assignment #209: Lies, all lies! (3/31/08)
My parents gave me a very long name, particularly when you consider what a small child I was (even by small-child standards), and they always called me by that name in full. (You knew you were in trouble with my mom when she yelled out your first, middle, and last name.) The only one in my immediate family that was regularly called by a shortened name or nickname was my dad.

But outside the house, the smallest kid in the class was frequently addressed as "Midge" or "Munchkin," and let's not forget "Four-Eyes." None of these are names one really wants to embrace.
Weekend Assignment #229: What's in a (nick)name? (8/18/08)
Looking back, it seems there's never been a shortage of political candidates that can't be taken seriously. If you start from the premise that anyone who wants the job is probably crazy to begin with, it's not hard to fathom that it could go downhill from there. There have been a few elections where I was quite tempted to cast my write-in vote for "none of the above." But since I do, for the most part, consider my vote too important to throw away, I've never done that, although I certainly have voted for candidates who didn't have a chance at winning their elections. I really hope that won't happen this November.

Having said that, though, I do enjoy a colorful candidate, and when I lived in Memphis, we had some pretty interesting local elections.
Weekend Assignment #231: Candidates with a Difference (9/2/08)

During the spring and summer, I was a semi-regular respondent to the "Hump Day Hmm" questions that Julie Pippert posted at her blog, Using My Words, on Wednesdays. (Julie seems to have become a semi-regular blogger these days, due to various demands of real life, and I miss both her "hmm" prompts and her generally thoughtful posts.) I liked these topics because they really made me think, and they took both my thinking and my writing in directions I might not have traveled otherwise. I'm not sure I would have posted some of my more opinionated, issue-oriented writing if I hadn't had the experience of responding to Julie's questions.

Excerpts from a few "Hump Day Hmm" posts:
The rules themselves don't mean much, though, unless they're followed, and it's sad but true that they're more likely to be followed if people know there may be rewards when they do, and there will penalties when they don't, rather than because the rules themselves mean anything. However, I don't think "following" the rules means blind obedience, or that the rules can never be questioned. Society won't progress without questioning the rules. The rules need to be questioned. A society where the rules matter more than the people is just as uncivil as one where the people ignore the rules; it just flows in the opposite direction.

A former manager of mine used to have a sign over her desk that said, "There's no reason for it: it's just our policy." It was a joke, but unfortunately it's too often true, and that's why the rules need to be questioned.
As might be expected, a lot of my worry had to do with my future, which was suddenly in limbo. I had never truly been "single" as an adult - I had never even lived alone - and I was looking at approaching forty and learning to be on my own for the first time. During this period, I did some reading in a genre I had rarely taken seriously before - self-help - and found that some of what I read actually was quite enlightening and, yes, helpful. Two books that made quite a difference for me were by Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses and Imperfect Control. Both of them contributed to my making a connection that later seemed obvious - as is so often the case - and has made a big change in how I engage with the world: worry is inversely related to control. The more control you feel you have in a situation, the less there is to worry about.

The "feeling of control" may not be the same thing as actually having control over something, and it's an important distinction. It's similar to the idea of the Serenity Prayer, which asks for "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." I think the last of those is the most important, and coming to understand this was liberating. I started to see a lot of the situations in my life from this new angle, and realized that I had both more and less control than I knew.
My moment of Zen, or how I learned to stop worrying...sort of (7/30/08)
1984 was the first year I was old enough to vote in a Presidential election, and I didn't want to "throw away" my vote. Enough said. But I really think it's a shame that 24 years later, our country is still struggling with some of the same issues. In many ways it not only hasn't moved forward much, it's backtracked in a number of directions. Civil rights once granted have been threatened or taken back entirely, class divisions have grown (even though we still officially consider ourselves a "classless" society), and community consciousness has become less important that individual privilege. I think that attitude of concern for self over other is a big part of what's keeping us stuck - "yeah, nice idea, just don't inconvenience me/regulate me/expect me to pay for it." Sometimes being an adult means seeing past your own nose. And sometimes ignoring or neglecting what came before means you find yourself back in the same mess, and you're not sure how you got there or how to make sure you get out of it and stay out.
1984: There and back again (8/20/08)

Some of my own favorite writing this year wasn't in response to blog-based prompts, though; the inspirations were more life-based. I shared my family's national-parks excursion this past summer in the four posts that made up my road-trip diary; I recapped BlogHerCon '08 without even attending; and I hit a few political hot buttons.

Some of the "hot-button" posts here were hatched by my writing in another place entirely; since July, I have been a contributor to the Los Angeles Moms Blog, a member site of the Silicon Valley Moms Group. I'm not always consistent about linking here when I have a new post up over there, but that happens roughly every couple of weeks. One of my posts there was selected for national syndication back in August; I was pleased and excited about that, as you might imagine, but I have other favorites among my contributions to the Moms Blog. Here are excerpts from a few:
I'm sure that other people have viewed my decision to stop with one child as suspect, and may have picked up on the aspects of selfishness within it...but people will think whatever they think, and there's not a lot you can do about it. I had several stock responses to the "Are you going to have any more?" query, and one of my favorites was "I want to see how this one turns out first." After 24 years, Son is a college graduate with a good job as an electrical engineer and a decent social life, living on his own and NOT on my couch, and a smart and personable guy to boot, so I think the verdict may be in on that one - besides, at 44, I may finally be old enough to avoid getting the question in the first place.
Then again, it's possible that no one asks that question anymore because it's apparent that I have two children now - the proverbial boy-and-girl matched set, actually. (Well, actually I have three, but anyway...) They were part of the deal when I married their father two years ago.
The one and only (7/17/08)
While there are certainly plenty of drawbacks to having a baby when you're only twenty years old, in retrospect there was one really good thing about that timing - my mom was there for it. She was there when I found out I was pregnant. She was there to advise me when I was confused and overwhelmed by the needs of a newborn. She was there to help keep me focused on what was important. She and my dad provided the practical help of childcare and housing that allowed my son's father and me to get through college for our bachelor's degrees. Granted, there were plenty of times when trying to define myself as an adult and a mother while still living with my own parents had its challenges, but I really don't want to think about how much more challenging it could have been if my mom hadn't been there. And in being there, she was also there as a daily part of the life of her first grandchild during his first three years.

Sadly, the grandchild really doesn't remember much about that period of his life - but then again, most people in their mid-twenties don't remember their preschool years in much detail. The sadder part is that just a few years later, the grandmother didn't remember it either.
Mom: Something to remember (9/30/08)
My family has always been pretty far-flung geographically, and there have been many years when we couldn't all be together during the holidays. Work responsibilities, the challenges of traveling with small children, the cost of plane tickets, obligations to the in-law side of the family - any or all of these have contributed to not having a big family gathering, and we've accepted that and made do. And there were years when I was the one who didn't come home for Christmas, especially when my son was little. I felt that my parents should be understanding about my need to start my own traditions, with my own young family...and I think they were, but now that the shoe's going on my foot I'm getting a sense that they may have had some very mixed feelings about it.
I've known parents of young children who can't imagine the day might come when their kids are somewhere else on Christmas morning. And maybe it won't; I've known families who've never lived far apart, or who have had the resources to bring everyone together every year no matter what.  But I'm not from that kind of family, and therefore my son isn't either.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (11/15/08)

As I previously mentioned, I read and reviewed "only" 35 books here this year, so if you're a regular reader, you're getting a lot of non-bookish stuff too. I plan to continue with the essay-writing, so I appreciate your sticking around to read those as well! And by the way...if you have a topic or question that you might like to see me do some "thinking out loud" about, please leave your suggestions in the comments!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Weekend Assignment #248: What'dja Get?

Karen's assignment for this weekend was appropriately posted on the day after Christmas:

Weekend Assignment #248:
What was the most interesting or unexpected gift you received this holiday season?

Extra Credit:
What was the most interesting gift you gave this holiday season?

I really didn't have any "expected" gifts this year. I didn't even make a list, since I couldn't think of much to ask for, and none of it was especially big-ticket stuff: some new earrings for my recently-(re)pierced ears, more Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD (since I only had through Season 3), and gift cards for bookstores and iTunes. I received everything except the iTunes gift cards, and other goodies as well - more TV on DVD, treats, other gift cards, and some actual books (my husband read that book-wishlist post I put up last month - I probably should edit it now and take a few more things off it!).

The most unexpected gift I received this Christmas was one that came in a green envelope that I opened at my mother-in-law's house on Christmas afternoon. My not having a "list" this year affected her too, since she would normally get some of the items on it passed on along to her by Tall Paul, and the two of them must have had some discussions about what she could do about my gift when I had no specific requests to grant. My husband remembered a couple of things I'd mentioned to him - unrelated to the holidays - and he does read my blog.

I was pleasantly surprised to open that envelope and find a generous check from Mom-in-law, written just to me. Since I hadn't asked for much this year, a nice infusion of "mad money" to entertain myself with was fine with me! When I thanked her, she said, "Did you see what it's for?"

No, I hadn't read the memo line - tacky of me, I know, but I'd just looked at the amount. Not "mad money" after all? I re-opened the envelope, read her note on the check, and gasped. Thanks to my husband's input, my mother-in-law was paying my way to attend BlogHerCon '09 in Chicago next July!

I registered and made my hotel reservations the next day. It's my first blogging conference and my first trip to Chicago! I'm excited but nervous now - "nervous" will probably escalate to "terrified" by summer, but I think it will be worth it and that this is the time. Thank you, Mom-in-law and Tall Paul!

Of all the gifts I gave this year, my favorite is one for my husband. Unlike me, he was able to produce his usual lengthy, detailed wish list, so he gave me plenty of ideas. I looked forward to seeing his reaction to his new Indiana Jones fedora on Christmas morning. He likes it a lot, and I was right; it does look really good on him!

Did you get any gifts that were surprising and totally cool this holiday season? Post about them, if you haven't already, and leave a link in the comments section of Karen's "Weekend Assignment" post at Outpost Mâvarin!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The year in review, part 1: Reading, featuring my Books of the Year

My Book Talk Master List, which is always linked in my sidebar, contains links to all the posts where I have reviewed books, and has been updated for 2008 year-to-date.

Strictly from a number-crunching perspective, 35 books works out to about 1.5 weeks per book or 0.6 books per week, which is probably not bad generally, but for someone who counts herself as a member of the book-blogging community, it's just sad. If I were a resolution-making person, I'd definitely resolve to do better next year. (Not a chance I could do this, though - 400 books in one year!)

This was the first year that a significant portion of my reading didn't come straight from my own shelves via one bookstore or another. Here's the breakdown:

11 out of 35 books were offered or requested for review via author or publicist
3 out of 35 books were read for my off-line book club (which went into hibernation this fall)
2 out of 35 books were Advance Reader Copies (ARC) received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program

I read 18 of the 35 books this year just because I felt like it, and that's actually more than I had thought; there were times when it felt like all I was reading were review books from one source or another, but I'm glad it's really much closer to half-and-half. (Just to clarify: I "review" nearly every book I read no matter how I obtain it, but a "review book" is one that was sent to me for that specific purpose.)

In February, I received the first book I was ever "pitched" by a publicist and invited to review; as I've said before, I had been blogging for months before I even realized that book bloggers were frequently sought out and offered free books! Well, they aren't entirely "free" - I do feel that if I accept a book through a publicist, and even more when it comes directly from the author, that I have a responsibility to read and review it in a reasonably timely manner, and I try to comply. Having said that, there are several "review books" currently waiting in a stack in my living room. If it's not for a blog tour, online book club, or something similar with a specific deadline for posting my review, I've begun letting authors and publicists know it could be weeks before I get to their books, and that they should tell me if that's a problem; so far, no one has said it is. While I appreciate the review offers I get and free books are nice for my wallet, I won't accept any books that I wouldn't be willing to spend my own money to read, and I have no wish to become primarily a "book reviewer;" I am, and always want to be, a READER first. I just happen to be a reader who blogs her impressions of what she reads.

And as a reader, I'm thinking about my best reading experiences of 2008. They weren't always the books I gave the highest ratings, but they are books that introduced me to something new, resonated with me in one way or another, and have stuck with me over the course of the year. And for what it's worth, all but one was "discretionary" reading, although two of them did lead to review offers of another book by the same author.

Book of the Year, Fiction:
The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. Coupled with her second novel, No One You Know, Richmond is also my "Must-read Author Discovery" of the year.

The Year of Fog somehow manages to be suspenseful and reflective at the same time. In the midst of the story of Abby's search for Emma, the child who mysteriously disappeared while in her care, Michelle Richmond weaves case histories on the subject of memory and considerations of how the past shapes who we are.
When her fiancé's daughter disappears during the brief moment when Abby stops to consider how to photograph a seal pup on the beach, Abby's guilt over her lack of constant attention is compounded by a sense that she has failed as a stepmother-to-be. That stepparent ambivalence particularly resonates with me; it's far more than being a caretaker, but somehow not quite a "full" parent, no matter how strong your emotional investment in the child is. In Abby's case, it almost seems to fuel a need to atone for Emma's disappearance by completely immersing herself in efforts to find her.
This is definitely Abby's story, told through her first-person narration, and I found her a very relatable and sympathetic character. Her self-awareness as she digs herself in deeper and deeper is one of the qualities that makes her painfully compelling.

The Ruins of California, by Martha Sherrill

I loved the writing here. The story is told through Inez' first-person narration, and her voice is honest and convincing. The period descriptions and details sound and feel right. It's a growing-up story, which by its nature makes it more episodic than plot-driven, but it's the character development that really carries things along.
After the beginning, it feels like not much attention is given to Inez' relationship with her mother, and that bothered me until I sorted out that it's really not their story; following her divorce from Paul, Connie moved on from the Ruins, but Inez remains one, and so the focus here is on that side of her family - the not-everyday, complicated, come-and-go Ruins. Her grandmother Marguerite introduces her to horses and the rituals of a traditional county-club society that already seems to be out of date, but that isn't quite as fascinating as her laid-back half-brother Whitman's unrooted surfer lifestyle, and her father Paul overshadows them all. He's a contradictory combination of brilliance and interpersonal obtuseness, generosity and self-absorption, strongly attractive (and attracted) to women while never fully investing, art and technology, and parenting habits that swing between devoted and inappropriate. It's impressive that Inez comes through it all eventually with perspective and maturity, but there's no question that her father is an endlessly intriguing character - to her, as well as to the reader.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

(E)ach chapter except the (first and) last is told twice - once as if Irina gives in to the impulse, and the kiss with Ramsey leads to an affair that ends her relationship with Lawrence, and then to Irina and Ramsey's marriage; and once as if she doesn't, and returns to her life with her partner Lawrence. In both versions, Irina frequently reflects on what she might be giving up with one man as her life moves forward with the other. It's an excellent framing device, and Lionel Shriver employs it well. Exploring the characters through their actions and feelings in both scenarios, over a period of several years, develops different dimensions, and helped me feel more more connection to and sympathy for them.

I liked the way that each chapter essentially related a similar plot scenario, but with differing details and twists depending on which future it was talking about. For example, Irina writes and illustrates a children's book. In one version, it's a creatively assembled two stories in one that doesn't make a lot of money, but is nominated for a major award. In the other, it's a different story in a different style, more commercially successful, and it's nominated for the same award. I also liked that I really had no idea which of the two versions of Irina's future might be the "real" one; both have their positives and negatives, which makes either direction plausible, and I found it difficult to favor one over the other. The final chapter - which, like the first, is only told once - wraps things up while maintaining that ambiguity. I realize that this very attribute might annoy some readers, but for me, it's what made The Post-Birthday World an involving, original, and memorable reading experience.

Book of the Year, Non-fiction:
But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went From Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet, by Jancee Dunn

There are some books that make you feel like you're just hanging out with the writer - laughing, sharing stories, spending an enjoyable afternoon. For me, this was one of those books.
Jancee Dunn (class of '84) has spent quite a few of those afternoons herself, but they were with people like Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera. She's not a name-dropper, though. Her memoir of her years writing for various magazines, among them Rolling Stone, GQ (as a sex columnist), Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine, shifts between celebrity anecdotes - framed as proven recommendations for getting to the heart of an interview with a famous person - and her memoirs of making the big leap from New Jersey to Manhattan to pursue her writing ambitions. A lucky encounter with a Rolling Stone staffer at a party leads her out of the ad-agency job she landed after college and into the rock and roll lifestyle, starting as an editorial assistant and working her way up to the big cover-profile stories.
But the charm of this book is that Dunn never fully embraces that rock and roll lifestyle, even though she tries, and her most serious attempt to do so does not turn out well. She can't - and doesn't really want to - break out of the embrace of her friends outside "the business" or, more importantly, her close-knit New Jersey family, and as long as she has that, she stays just a bit too grounded, and a little too geeky, to be a true "Rock Chick." Eventually, she comes to embrace that truth about herself.

So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson sets herself the task of reading a book a week every week for one year, and keeping a journal of her reading during the period. (This was back in the pre-blogging days of 2002.) She starts out with a plan and a reading list, but quickly finds that circumstances can send her reading choices in completely different directions. By the end of the year, she's done a lot of reading, but not quite in the way she expected to. She's read many unplanned books, and not read quite a few of the ones on her original list, particularly the books in the poetry and nonfiction categories; she had good intentions of expanding her reading horizons during the year, but fiction is her first literary love and just calls to her more often, particularly as she trolls her bookshelves at 3 AM, looking for her next victim.

While there's plenty of discussion of particular books here...this is a memoir much more than a recommended-reading guide. It very much reflects Sara's personal experiences with the books she read that year, in addition to some of her other experiences during the time. Her tastes in reading are informed but unpretentious - no literary snobbery here - and her discussions of the books she loved, the books she didn't like, and the books she didn't finish are accessible and often insightful.

Nelson's eager approach to reading, and her love for it, come through clearly. I liked her voice, and the way she relates to books and reading comes across very much like mine. When she talked about books that I've also read, I found myself wanting to discuss them with her, or at least be able to leave her a comment - this is what blogging does to a person!

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller

The context of social change and how it impacted women at that time, particularly the ones emerging into adulthood, gives the book substance, but the stories that it tells within that context are what make it a page-turner. Weller has done a lot of research and made good use of secondary sources in developing this parallel biography of three women who have more in common than you might have realized.

Weller does discuss each woman's particular musical career in (mostly objective) detail. Carole was barely out of high school in Brooklyn when she started out as a professional songwriter and arranger, and was a seasoned pro when, ten years later, she became a hugely successful singer-songwriter. Canadian Joni was always driven toward artistic expression, both musically and visually, and on her own terms. Carly's privileged Manhattan upbringing led to a relatively late start on her career, as it interfered with her being taken seriously. As Weller discussed the writing of various songs, quoting lyric passages here and there, I found that a lot of them were coming back to me, even if I hadn't thought of them in years.

The context is enlightening and the work is interesting, but the book is also a biography, and it's in these women's personal stories that the real fascination - and fun - is. While I didn't feel that Weller struck a gossipy tone at all, much of anyone's biography involves their relationships, and these three women definitely have had many of them in their lives. Carole was a teenage working mother, and played a maternal role with many of her friends as well - and this tendency was probably also a factor in her attraction to younger men (she's been married four times, and all except her first husband were younger). Both Carly and Joni were rarely without male companionship unless it was by their own choice, and both have been part of musical power couples at various times. Joni was the inspiration for Crosby, Stills, and Nash's song "Our House" (she and Graham Nash were living together when he wrote it), and later was James Taylor's girlfriend. James and Carole were platonic friends, but eventually Carly became his wife. The overlaps in all three women's social and artistic circles are interesting, if a little confusing. I really felt like I'd gotten to know all of them pretty well by the time the book wrapped up, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to do so.

While I read all of these books in 2008, only one was actually published in first edition this year. However, the Weekly Geeks participants have selected their top books among 2008 publications, and you can find their picks in various genres in the Book Bloggers' Top 10 of 2008 list posted at Literary Escapism.

What were the highs and lows of your reading experiences this year?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Book talk: "Who By Fire," by Diana Spechler

Who By Fire
Diana Spechler
Harper Perennial, 2008 (paperback) (ISBN 0061572934 / 9780061572937)
Fiction, 368 pages

First sentence
: At the back of the plane, twelve men bow and mumble and sway, masked by thick beards and crowned by black hats.

Book Description (summarized): When Bits and Ash were children, their younger sister was kidnapped, a tragedy that led to their family's unraveling. Years later, Ash, who always blamed himself for Alena's disappearance, abruptly moved to Israel to become an Orthodox Jew. By the spring of 2002, with the second Intifada at its peak, Ash's new life has consumed him; he wants nothing to do with Bits anymore, or with their mother, Ellie. Bits, a twenty-something wild child living in Boston, who parties too much, consistently destroys her personal relationships, and seeks solace in sex, is almost willing to accept Ash's disappearance, until she hears the news that changes everything: After thirteen years, Alena's remains have been recovered.

Now Bits is on her way to Israel to find Ash and bring him home for Alena's funeral. She becomes obsessed with the idea of salvaging what's left of her family, but she approaches her mission with limited information: She doesn't know about the secrets her mother has been keeping, about the girl who is trying to seduce Ash away from the religious life, about the struggles that her brother is having with his faith.

Comments: I don't personally subscribe to any form of religious fundamentalism, but reading Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God several years ago did give me a little more insight into its appeal for some people. After years of self-inflicted guilt over the disappearance of his little sister Alena, Ash (Asher) Kellerman finds that the disciplined study and strictly-defined lifestyle rules of Orthodox Judaism just might give him some answers, and makes the choice to immerse himself in a Jerusalem yeshiva. This decision doesn't go over well with the mother and older sister he left behind, and they're both open to some pretty extreme measures to try to bring him home, although for different reasons; his sister Bits (Beatrice) fights Ash's withdrawal from modern life, while his mother Ellie believes he's been brainwashed into joining a cult.

Ash isn't the only member of his family scarred by Alena's kidnapping and presumed death, of course. His father left the family, married again, and moved to Colorado, while his mother has essentially refused to move on with her life at all. Bits has been acting out since her pre-teen years, making very few personal connections other than sexual ones. The Kellerman family has been damaged for years. The events in Who by Fire represent the long-building climax, and potentially a resolution, of a family tragedy.

The central themes here are rescue and connection, and Diana Spechler explores them through the parallel narration of Bits, Ash, and Ellie over the period of a few months in 2002. As the women in his family see it, Ash has turned to religion to rescue himself; it's a choice they can't understand, and although they respond in different ways, both Bits and Ellie think he needs to be rescued from religion. Everyone in this family has been needing saving from something for thirteen years, and their difficulties in communicating and connecting with one another show that it's not just the individuals who need a rescue, it's the family itself.

Spechler tells a compelling and unsettling story, and brings the narrative threads together in a way that I felt rang true in the end. At times I found every one of these characters frustrating, but I tend to see that as a positive thing - it usually indicates that I'm caught up in the story and wish they'd just get their acts together and figure it out. I would have liked to see more dimension and development in each of them, but then again, they might have been different characters in that case and their story would have been different as well.

This book is the January selection for the Silicon Valley Moms Group Book Club, and will be featured across the group's member sites and its contributors' personal blogs on January 26th. However, I had purchased my own copy before the book-club pick was announced; I just moved it up the TBR rankings so that I could read it before the online discussion.

Rating: 3.5/5

Other bloggers' reviews:
The Boston Bibliophile
Fizzy Thoughts
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?
Musings of a Bookish Kitty 
Everyday I Write the Book Blog
Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Presenting Lenore 
Book Addiction

If you have reviewed this book, please leave me a link in comments or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I'll edit this post to include it!

TBIF: Thank blog it's Friday, for the LAST TIME in 2008!

Tuesday Thingers: questions for LibraryThing users from The Boston Bibliophile

This is the finale of Marie's Tuesday Thingers. Beginning next week, Thingers will be hosted by Wendi of Wendi's Book Corner.

This week's question: Holiday gift-giving. Do you give books for the holidays? Did you participate in LT's SantaThing, either this year or last, or in other blogging gift exchanges? Were you happy with what you received?

I can actually answer this question with details, since the response is posting the day after Christmas - yes, I definitely give books, as well as bookstore gift cards, for the holidays. However, I don't always plan what books I'm going to give; sometimes, it's a matter of browsing through Borders, picking up a book that catches my eye, and thinking "So-and-so would like this one." That was how I found Rita Rudner's I Still Have It, I Just Can't Remember Where I Put It for my sister, who has enjoyed Rudner's humor for years - she even quoted Rudner in the toast she gave at my wedding two years ago.

On the other hand, as soon as my son mentioned that he had lost his copy of America: The Book when he moved to DC after college, I knew I'd be getting him a replacement. My husband now has David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates on his nightstand, and my 9-year-old stepson was given several books; some of them just feed various obsessions of his, specifically Star Wars and Pokemon, but one was a lovely hardcover copy of his new all-time-favorite book, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

A tradition has developed over the years for my dad to get the latest edition of the World Almanac as a Christmas gift from one of his daughters. My dad doesn't have a computer, so he still gets his facts and trivia the old-fashioned way. This year he received the book from me, along with a bookstore gift card so he can get himself some more reading material.

I didn't participate in any book-blogger gift exchanges this year; I had thought about joining in on the Secret Santa exchange, but never got around to it, and I opted out of LT's SantaThing because it was announced so close to Christmas and would have meant research that I didn't have time to do, although I like the idea. However, as part of my giveaway-fest here earlier this month, I did purchase LibraryThing Lifetime gift memberships for two lucky people, and I'd like to think that was kind of a "Santa thing" in its own way.

This meme has helped me learn a lot of things about LibraryThing I might not have discovered on my own, and introduced me to some great new-to-me book bloggers. Thanks, Marie, for all of the time and effort you put into Tuesday Thingers, and thanks also to Wendi for picking it up and keeping it going!

Did you give any good books this holiday season?

Booking Through Thursday - Wintery Books 

No, no … this isn’t the question you’re probably expecting, that asks about your winter reading habits.
What I want to know today is … what are the most “wintery” books you can think of? The ones that almost embody Winter?
(Personally, “A Winters Tale” by Mark Helprin pretty much nails this for me, and “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” was right up there…)

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!
Off the top of my head, I'd have to agree with Deb's choice of Smilla's Sense of Snow, and The Ice Storm by Rick Moody is another book that says "winter" to me. What about you? 
(This is much less wordy and more off-the-cuff BTT than you usually see from me. I'm scrambling to get it done for posting on Friday morning, since I actually didn't bring my laptop (!!!) to Mom-in-law's on Christmas Day to work on it.)

Friday Fill-ins #104

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and happy holidays to all! Questions this week are courtesy of Heather from It's All About The Hat! Thanks, Heather :-)

1. I must write a new will and update my life-insurance beneficiaries before I die.

2. You can't stop the beat (hey, maybe I'll watch Hairspray again this weekend!).

3. I wish I never had to buy any clothing in double-digit sizes again.

4. Moving to California six years ago has helped me change my life.

5. I know the song whose title I can't remember right now by heart.

6. If I weren't so afraid, I would go up in a hot-air balloon.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to relaxing at home with Tall Paul, tomorrow my plans include taking some of the gift cards we received yesterday and going shopping and Sunday, I want to read, write, and rest!

Hope you had a wonderful Christmas Day and have some fun plans for this weekend!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Your Christmas is Modern

Your wish for the New Year is more happiness.

For you, Christmas is secular holiday. Religion doesn't play a big part in it.

You are patient when it comes to Christmas. You don't celebrate too early, and you don't like seeing holiday decorations in October.

You like Christmas traditions, but you're not uptight about them. You do things your way.

You like to celebrate Christmas your own way, and you don't like to have to compromise.

You are too busy to really get into Christmas, but you try to do a little to celebrate.

You like giving to your friends and family during Christmas. You focus on the people you're close to.

A somewhat scattered answer, but not too far off the mark, really.

On a related note: are holiday-letter writers the original bloggers? And if you didn't get around to writing your own holiday letter, you can adapt the Leflers', which came in "mad-libs" form. Also - not a "secret Santa," but a Santa secret.

If you're celebrating today and tomorrow, in any way at all, I wish you a very happy holiday!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten on Tuesday: I hereby resolve...

This week's Ten on Tuesday prompt for "10 New Year's Resolutions" is one I approach with some ambivalence. As I said when this topic came up last year:
I've never really been one to make New Year's resolutions. I don't think there's anything magical about January 1. If you want to change something in your life, you can do it any time you decide to - the beginning of next month, the first day of summer, next Monday, tomorrow, five minutes from now! New Year's Day is an artificial milestone. For example, if you decide you're going to start a healthy new habit - or break an unhealthy old one - you're cheating yourself if you wait till then instead of starting right away.
Then I came up with a list of resolutions I might make if I made them. Since I still feel the same way about resolutions in general, I thought I'd start with last year's list, and see whether they were accomplished or needed to be carried over or changed for 2009. If you've ever gone through the goal-setting process in a performance review, it's kind of the same concept. I ended up with one carryover, a few revisions, and several new ones. We'll see how things go with this batch.
  1. Be more present when spending time with family and friends, and keep my mind where my body is (instead of thinking about blog post ideas or other items on my to-do list)
  2. A resolution I never imagined I'd have to make: make more time for reading books. As much as I enjoy blogging, it's really taken a chunk out of book time.
  3. Plan - and actually take! - a special local/regional outing with my husband at least once every couple of months. Carried over from last year's list: still a good idea, but one we really didn't get to act on very often, and given the current economy, "local tourism" seems like a particular smart idea.
  4. Maintain my weight on my own, using what I've learned in four years with Weight Watchers. Re-focus on using my Weight Watchers tools and habits, with a goal of losing 10-15 pounds (I did NOT like what I saw on the scale at my doctor's office last week!)
  5. Related to #4: Now that we live in a neighborhood favorable for long walks, take them as often as time and weather permit, with or without the dog!
  6. Take more pictures, and post more of them on my blog. I carry my camera with me all the time anyway, and I really need to think more about using it!
  7. Catalog my books. (Wow, I actually DID this one!) Either drop my GoodReads account, or match it up to my LibraryThing book catalog.
  8. Put more effort into being a better correspondent and friend to people I don't communicate with via blogging and Twitter (a/k/a people I've known in person since long before the Blog Era)
  9. On the flip side of #8: Take (or make) opportunities for more in-person connections with people I've "met" via blogging
  10. Cook more often, and try for a more varied menu without sabotaging my weight goals
Are you making any New Year's resolutions yourself? If you are - or, like me, if you are hypothetically - what might a few of them be?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Weekend Assignment #247: Home for the holidays?

Weekend Assignment #247:"There's no place like Home for the Holidays" - or so the song claims. Are you heading "home" to family and friends? Are other family members heading "home" to visit you? Are you heading someplace that definitely isn't home, or perhaps just staying home, with no visitors on your doorstep? In short, what are your holiday-related travel arrangements this year, and is that they way you prefer to spend it?

Extra Credit: Tell us a holiday travel story from yesteryear.

It seems that for much of my adult life, the holidays have involved travel for someone close to me, although more often than not, the person or people in question have traveled to me and my home, even if that wasn't really "home" for them. After my mother went into a nursing home in 1992, my dad came up to Memphis for nearly every Christmas until my first marriage hit the rocks, a time which roughly coincided with my mom's death; my dad moved to the West Coast to be near my sister and her family a year later. When I moved to California myself in 2002, my own holiday travel became a Christmas Eve drive across town to my sister's house and a couple of airport runs to and from LAX for my son's flights out here to spend the holiday break with me.

Since Tall Paul and I have been together, Christmas Day has usually meant traveling to his parents' home (which was never his "home," since they built the house well after he and his brother had grown up and moved out), but that's not a really major excursion unless the weather and/or traffic are really bad - it's a two-hour drive south if they're not. This year, we're just making it a day trip; my stepkids are with their mom on Christmas Day (officially, at any rate - in fact, we'll all be at Grandma's, but their mom will be parent-on-duty) and I have to be at work on the 26th, so Tall Paul, Gypsy, and I will drive down in the morning after opening gifts with the kids (who'll be spending Christmas Eve with us), and will head back home some time after dinner. Next year, the alternating-holiday schedule will have Tall Girl and The Boy with us for Christmas Day, and we'll try to convince Grandma to come up to our place instead - one person traveling is much easier than four people and a dog.

This will be the first time since his birth that I won't see my son on Christmas, but he actually is going "home" this year - to his hometown, at least, where he'll spend Christmas with his dad. He was here for Thanksgiving, and at this stage I assume that seeing him during the holiday season will probably be a year-by-year, play-it-by-ear thing, given that he lives on the opposite coast and that eventually, a significant other with a family of her own will most likely be a factor in the plans too.

When my ex-husband was in grad school, we made the cross-country Christmas trip "home" to Florida from central New York a couple of times. One year we caravaned with friends who were also heading to the Tampa Bay area, and that was fun, but for the most part I'm glad to stay put at Christmas and let folks come to me.

Do you have travel plans for the holidays, or will you be host for out-of-town guests? Does your holiday "travel" just involve a drive to the next town? If you'll be leaving home for the holidays at all, please be safe!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saturday Review 12-20-08

Today's your last chance to vote for your selections for the Book Bloggers' Top 10 Books of 2008 at Literary Escapism!

New in Google Reader
Belle of the Books
Rose City Reader
Pop Culture Junkie
And speaking of pop culture: the national obsession returns in just a few weeks, and the LA Times has given American Idol its own blog. (Don't judge me for adding it to my feeds! If they start one just for Lost, I'll add that too. The DVR is going to explode in January, y'all.)

As seen around the blogiverse
Santa isn't Jewish, and no matter how many times you hear "Happy Holidays," this time of year is still "Christmastime." On the other hand, the "reason for the season" just might depend on what season you're celebrating. By the way, here's how to tell if he's not really Santa. (Don't let the kids read that one...)

There's the circle of life, and the circle of "re-gifting" - if you're going to partake, here are a few basic rules. And think twice - or more - about these "reality-preparation" gifts for anyone on your list.

As your kids stop being "kids" any more, you realize some things no one tells you about parenthood. And when they're young, please consider that there will probably be other people dining in the restaurant too...

Being laid off could save your life? Maybe, but before it happens, better save some money.

Thoughts on the demise of dating, or getting things backwards; also in the "demise" vein, the Scobberlotcher continues her quest for guest-blog domination with some thoughts on putting a "final spin" on things - that is, what would you want said about you in your eulogy? She also shared 10 tips on how NOT to write a novel.

You don't have to be a "book blogger" to have a giant TBR stack on your nightstand

Re-tweeted: A few sources of Twitter annoyance - and oops, I'm guilty of some of them. Are you?

The one reason my husband would visit Atlanta...

From the e-mail inbox: best (worst?) bad jokes of the week
Both of these came via my uncle (who also celebrated his birthday this week!)

A new supermarket has just opened in Polson, Montana .

It has an automatic water mister to keep the produce fresh. Just before it goes on, you hear the sound of distant thunder and the smell of fresh rain.

When you pass the milk cases, you hear cows mooing and you experience the scent of fresh mown hay.

In the meat department there is the aroma of charcoal grilled steaks with onions.

When you approach the egg case, you hear hens cluck and cackle, and the air is filled with the pleasing aroma of bacon and eggs frying.

The bread department features the tantalizing smell of fresh baked bread & cookies.

I don't buy toilet paper there any more.

A strong young man at a construction site was bragging that he could out do anyone in a feat of strength. He made a special case of making fun of one of the older workmen. After several minutes, the older worker had enough. "Why don't you put your money where your mouth is?" he said. "I will bet a week's wages that I can haul something in a wheelbarrow over to that building that you won't be able to wheel back."

"You're on, old man," the young braggart replied. "Let's see you do it."

The old man reached out and grabbed the wheelbarrow by the handles. Then, nodding to the young man, he said, "All right, Dumbass, get in."

This may be the last official "Saturday Review" for this year. I suspect that activity in my Google Reader feeds will be slowing down during the next couple of weeks for various reasons - Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's, traveling, kids at home, the proverbial "need a break" - so there won't be as much linkage out there to share. I'm also working on a few "Year in Review" posts, and will probably be devoting more of my link-gathering energy to putting those together.

Have a great weekend - hope you're not having to do too much last-minute shopping!

Friday, December 19, 2008

TBIF: Thank blog it's Friday! 12-19-08

Tuesday Thingers - questions for LibraryThing users from The Boston Bibliophile*

Today's Question: The LT Home Page feature. How are you liking it? Or not? Do you go here when you log into LT or do you use your profile page more?

I use my personal home page all the time - I really like how it centralizes things. However, sometimes I don't get very far down the page, since the feature I use most is one near the top: my recently added books. It's so convenient to be able to find them here when I want to get a link for a review rather than search my whole library.

If I go past that section, I'll usually take a look at my "connection news" to see who has added what books and reviews lately, and I'll take a look at my stats. I just noticed that my tags are shown on my home page, so I can skip that tab now when I'm narrowing my search for a particular book. I also like that there's a note on my home page if someone has left a comment on my profile, so I know to go to that tab and read it. And if I want to see different things on the home page, I can change and customize it. Really, what's not to like?

*This may be the next-to-last Tuesday Thinger, at least for a while, as Marie is in need of a blogging break and is looking for a new host for this meme. I've learned quite a bit about LibraryThing since I started participating in Thingers, and it's been fun, so I do hope it will continue!

Booking Through Thursday - "Generosity" and "Treats" 

Do you give books as gifts?
To everyone? Or only to select people?
How do you feel about receiving books as gifts?

What is the best book you ever bought for yourself?
And, why? What made it the best? What made it so special?

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

Well, there was a generous and unexpected treat on BTT this week - two questions to answer! I'm not sure whether this was a mistake or advance planning, since next Thursday is Christmas Day and both the planners and players might want to take the day off, but it was a nice surprise all the same.

Taking the questions in reverse order:

Treat: I have been buying books for myself for most of my life, going back at least as far as junior high school - for the record, that's over thirty years and a LOT of books. In fact, I've bought most of my own books, period, since other people are too nervous to buy them for me (see my answer to the next question).

I no longer have some of those books; they've been read and given away, loaned out and never returned, or misplaced somewhere along the line. Others have been read once or more, but are living in boxes now, and there are currently well over 100 in my LibraryThing catalog that I haven't read yet. Selecting the single best book I have ever bought for myself is extremely difficult, but if you're going to hold my feet to the fire, I think I'd have to say this one. I still have the copy of East of Eden that I bought during college (not for college - this was recreational reading at the time), and I've read it several times since then. The book has everything, and in my humble opinion, it's one of the best novels of the 20th century.

Generosity: I'm going to combine my answers with a little "books for the holidays" meme that I found at My Friend Amy and have been meaning to do for a couple of weeks now.

I give books frequently as gifts - for Christmas, birthdays, and Father's Day, among other occasions. I'm lucky in that most of my closest family members and friends are readers too, and they usually are happy to receive books. I'd like to flatter myself that they particularly appreciate receiving books from me, because I do make the effort to be knowledgable about both the books on the market and my recipients' interests and favorite authors.

What books are you giving this Christmas?
I can't answer that question in this public forum at this time, but I'll be glad to let you know after Christmas, once they have been received. There are several, though.

What makes a book a good gift book?
It's chosen thoughtfully, with the recipient's tastes in mind, and/or it's enthusiastically recommended by the giver.

Do you give the same books to a lot of different people or pick out books individually?
It depends. I usually do it individually, unless I've come across one that I know several people will enjoy.

Do you always give books you’ve read yourself, or are there occasions where you give something that you haven’t read?
It depends. Sometimes I'll give books that I've read (but it will be a new copy!). In some cases, I may have read a different book by the same author, but much of the time I give books I haven't read, since my recipients' interests may be different from mine - and to me, the "thought that counts" is what the recipient, not the giver, would like.

As far as being a book recipient myself - well, honestly, I'm happy to get then, but I'm a better book giver. My taste is books is wide-ranging but hard to classify, but a bigger consideration is that people are never sure what I've already read, or have waiting in TBR Purgatory, so they don't tend to give me books all that often. However, I'm more than happy to receive bookstore gift cards - the gift of a book-shopping spree is one of the best anyone can give me!

Are you giving - or hoping to get - any good books as holiday gifts this year?

Friday Fill-ins #103

Fill in the lyrics...with the correct ones or ones of your own :-) Have fun with this, don't worry if you don't know 'em...just make up something silly or do a silly one and a serious one! The most important part is to have fun with it.

1. Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you hear what I hear? (The wind doesn't have ears. How did it hear anything?).
2. The first Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay (talk about lying down on the job!)
3. Go! Tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere.
4. It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old...
5. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light. (Ironically, this is one of the most melancholy Christmas songs I can think of.)
6. And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing in the shower. (I think this is "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," but I only know the first three or four lines of that song!)

Janet did this last year, too:

1. Away in a manger, no room for a traveler without an American Express card.
2. Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh.
3. Hark! The herald angels - wait, you mean it's not "the hairy angels"?
4. It's coming on Christmas...it don't snow here, stays pretty green - gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene. I wish I had a river I could skate away on. (It's weird, but I only know the second verse of this song.)
5. When I was small I believed in Santa Claus, Though I knew it was lost cause that he'd bring me anything but coal in my stocking.
6. That Christmas magic's brought this tale to an end, thank heavens.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to unwinding, tomorrow my plans include some not-quite-last-minute Christmas shopping and Sunday, I want to do some baking; I'm bringing breakfast to my co-workers on Monday!

I didn't play around with the lyrics too much because I knew most of them...if you have more creative responses, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book talk: "Thursday Next: First Among Sequels," by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels: A Thursday Next Novel (Thursday Next Novels (Penguin Books)) by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde
2008, Penguin (paperback) (ISBN 0143113569 / 9780143113560)
Fiction, 384 pages

First sentence(s): The Swindon I knew in 2002 had a lot going for it. (Chapter 1 prologue) The dangerously high level of the stupidity surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning. (Chapter 1 proper)

Book Description: It is fourteen years since Thursday Next pegged out at the 1988 SuperHoop, and the Special Operations Network has been disbanded. Using Swindon's Acme Carpets as a front, Thursday and her colleagues Bowden, Stig and Spike continue their same professions, but illegally.

Of course, this front is itself a front for Thursday's continued work at Jurisfiction, the Policing agency within the BookWorld, and she is soon grappling with a recalcitrant new apprentice, an inter-genre war or two, and the inexplicable departure of comedy from the once-hilarious Thomas Hardy books.

As the Council of Genres decree that making books interactive will boost flagging readership levels and Goliath attempt to perfect a trans-fictional tourist coach, Thursday finds herself in the onerous position of having to side with the enemy to destroy a greater evil that threatens the very fabric of the reading experience.

With Aornis Hades once again on the prowl, an idle sixteen-year-old son who would rather sleep in than save the world from the end of time, a government with a dangerously high stupidity surplus and the Swindon Stiltonistas trying to muscle in on her cheese-smuggling business, Thursday must once again travel to the very outer limits of acceptable narrative possibilities to triumph against increasing odds.

Comments: If you have never read any of the Thursday Next series, I recommend that you NOT start with this one. Even the author, on his (content-heavy but challenging to navigate) website suggests that this series be read in order, and despite the First Among Sequels subtitle, this is actually the fifth novel featuring Thursday. Go back and start with The Eyre Affair and work your way through Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten before you return to this book. It will be worth it, if you love reading, clever plots, imaginative action, and bad puns.

I love this series, and it was great to meet up with Thursday Next, intrepid Literary Detective, once again. Well, she's no longer officially a Literary Detective, since SpecOps has been shut down, but she and her former SpecOps colleagues are still helping to keep the world safe for (and from) fiction from behind the guise of Acme Carpets. She's also still working to keep the world safe within fiction as a Jurisfiction agent in the BookWorld, and as the LBOCS (Last Bastion of Common Sense) on the Council of Genres. In addition to this, she's a very happily married working mother of two (or is it three?).

If I had to pick one thing I like best about this series - besides the action, story development, humor, and creative use of public-domain characters - it's probably how meta it gets sometimes. One of the central threads of this book is Thursday's encounters with two different fictional versions of herself; novels have been written about her adventures. (They happen to have the same titles and basic plots as the books Jasper Fforde has written about Thursday Next, but there are a lot of deviations in plot points and character development.) Then there's discussion of Storycode Engines, core-containment chambers, and book engineering - it fascinates me to see how what we see as a creative endeavor can be reframed as a construction industry.

I really can't reveal too many of the details for fear for both spoilers and causing general confusion, but in addition to Thursday's experiences with other versions of herself, First Among Sequels involves classics being rewritten as reality television (a suggested solution to the "stupidity surplus"), cheese smugglers, a serial killer, and the looming End of Time - and more. But the overriding concern of Thursday and her colleagues is the decline of readership; decreasing attention spans mean that people are spending less and less time reading books, and this is justifiably seen as a tragedy that must be reversed. As a writer, Jasper Fforde is doing his best to help stop that trend and keep the world safe for bookaholics, and we who read should really appreciate him for that.

My only real issue with First Among Sequels was my own reading experience. I find that Thursday's adventures go down best when I can immerse myself in them and read them quickly, and the timing wasn't right for me to do that this time - I might rate this book just a bit higher if I had.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other bloggers' reviews:
Bride of the Book God 

*** If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link in comments or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I'll edit this review to include it!***