Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Review: 'Riting and Randomness, 2009

I "borrowed" this first line meme from Kristen at BookNAround - it suggests that taking the first line of the first post of each month of the year will make an interesting portrait of your blogging year. I guess it depends on how you define "interesting," but let me know if you can spot a theme here. I don't see one, other than the fact that several of my "firsts" were Weekend Assignments. However, you may notice that I was providing disclosure statements about my review books before all that FTC business got started...

January: I'm not a stickler for reading the book before I see the movie adaptation. (At the movies: "Marley & Me")

February: I'm substitute-teaching "guest-professoring" another Weekend Assignment for Karen. (Weekend Assignment #253: Roughing It)

March: Thanks to Anna Jarzab of Authors on the Web for providing an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of this book! (Book Talk: "True Colors," by Kristin Hannah)

April: I'm the guest professor for the Weekend Assignment again this week, and when I gave Karen this topic suggestion, I already knew what my answer would be. (Wednesday's Weekend Assignment: Best. Job. Ever.)

May: I try to mix nonfiction into my reading pretty regularly; in fact, I'm currently reading my third consecutive nonfiction book. (TBIF: Thank blog it's Friday! 5/1/09)

June: I had heard of the annual Book Expo America conference and trade show before this year, but to my knowledge it was a book-industry thing not open to civilians. (It was not to BEA...but it was on Twitter!)

July: I already did the extra credit - that was yesterday's post. (Weekend Assignment #273: Meaningful music(ians))

August: I know...you're thinking, "Hasn't she spent a whole week now talking about where she's been?" (Where I've been, and where my books came from)

September: This review is based on an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via Trish at TLC Book Tours. (Book talk: "The Weight of Silence," by Heather Gudenkauf)

October: Karen once worked for a travel agency, and travel is on her mind for this Weekend Assignment. (So far to go: a travel-themed Weekend Assignment (#286))

November: The Salon is on the short side this week - I think I've been in Readathon Recovery mode for most of it! (Sunday Salon 11/1 - "Did you change your clocks?" edition)

December: Welcome to a "less" edition of Ten Items or Less, bringing you tidbits and thoughts that don't warrant a blog post of their own. (Tuesday's special: Ten Items or Less - by the end of December, this would morph into the recurring feature Tuesday Tangents)

The only real "theme" I've been aware of in my blogging this year is that my content is becoming more focused on books and reading. Considering that I started blogging in the first place so that I could have a record of the books I read, I really can't complain about that...and yet I'm going to, just a little bit. Despite the original inspiration, I've never really wanted this to be a single-topic blog.

While I feel very much at home in the book-blogging community, and with reading-related discussions - enough to self-identify as a "book blogger," should anyone ask - there have always been, and will continue to be, posts here that have little or nothing to do with books. I'm still contributing to the LA Moms Blog and cross-posting content between this blog and that one, but the fact is that I have varied interests...and I only want to have one blog of my own, so it's going to be a mixed-up place.

I published 318 posts here this year, counting this one. In September 2009, I hit the 1000-post milestone on this blog, and marked it with a roundup of my 10 most-popular (based on hits/visits) and 10 best-liked (personal favorite) posts from the preceding two and a half years. In that vein, here are 2009's Top 5 most-visited posts (posted IN 2009, and NOT including giveaways), only one of which is book-related:
And my Top 5 10 personal favorites for 2009, including a couple of two-parters:
These brought reading and writing together in book-inspired commentary:
Getting back to the topic of "community" for a moment: I think it's another theme. It's one of the aspects of blogging that matters most to me, and it crosses between the virtual world and "real life." It's a big part of why I do my weekly link round-ups - to pass along interesting things to my readers, and to let the original writers know it made an impression by giving them some "link love." For the last several months, I've been doing two round-ups most week - one drawn just from the book blogs I keep up with, and one from the variety of other blogs I read (I subscribe to a LOT of blogs). Community is one reason I've begun participating in reading challenges, and it's the main reason I helped out with Weekly Geeks and Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year (and intend to be involved with both of them next year as well). Community is why I wanted to meet up with other Southern California book bloggers at the LA Times Festival of Books last April - and why I want to do that again in the spring of 2010. Community was one of my primary motives for going to the BlogHer'09 conference last July, and why I'll be attending BlogHer'10 this coming August in New York City (where I hope book bloggers will be a bigger presence than we were last year - did you think I'd forgotten about that?)

Thanks for being part of my community this year, and for welcoming me as part of yours! Before we go off into the New Year, tell me about one of your highlights of 2009.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year in Review: Reading - 2009 Final Bookkeeping, and my Books of the Year

Before getting into the discussion of the quality of my reading this year, let's run some numbers:

BOOKKEEPING: The Reading Status Report

Number of books read and reviewed in 2009: 47. This is an improvement over my 2007 reading, and a nice return to form from the dismal 35 I read in 2008. Given the pace at which I usually read, which isn't aided by big chunks of reading time (other than my "Starbucks hour" most weekends), and the types of books I prefer, I really don't see myself exceeding 50 books a year at this stage of my life, so I'm not displeased with the 2009 total.

I don't really track my reading by sub-genres, but the major breakdown was 33 fiction, 14 nonfiction; 11 of the 14 nonfiction reads were memoirs.

Review copies read, from all sources: 23. I'm fairly satisfied with that. With a nearly even split between books sent to me and books I bought, it looks like I didn't do too badly at keeping review obligations from taking over my reading, and I want to keep the trend going in 2010 (while continuing to slow the influx of new review obligations). I reviewed books from the following sources in 2009:

LibraryThing Early Reviewers: 8
TLC Book Tours: 5
Other sources (authors/publishers/publicists): 10

FYI for the FTC: The other 24 books I read this year came from my own shelves, and were either purchased or received as personal gifts

Reading challenges entered in 2009:
Read Your Own Books Challenge (RYOB 2009): Committed 20; Read 20; Completed as of 11/24/09.
This was my very first challenge, and it helped me rein in my review-book habit. I will be re-entering the challenge for 2010.
Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge: Committed 25% of books read in October and November to qualify; Read 4 out of 9 books that qualified (44%); Completed as of 11/4/09
This was a short-term, non-recurring challenge that coincided perfectly with my plans to participate in my first 24-Hour Read-a-thon in October.
50 Books for Our Times Project: Committed to read and review a specific book by December 31, 2009; Failed
Just one book? Easy! HAH! I kept thinking I'd have time to get to this, until I realized time was running out and I wasn't going to meet my commitment. I sincerely apologize to Amy for dropping this one.
Women Unbound Reading Challenge: In progress, running through November 2010
I'm currently reading my first qualifying book for this challenge, and I expect to significantly exceed my 5-book reading commitment, since my original prospective reading list for the challenge was at least twice that long and I'd like to read all of the books listed during the coming year.
Shelf Discovery Challenge: In progress, running through April 2010
I have obtained 5 of the 6 books I plan to read for this challenge, and may need to substitute for the sixth, since I can't seem to find a copy of it. Since this challenge involves reading youth fiction and my list is 2/3 re-reads, I'm fairly optimistic about completing this one before the deadline.
Memorable Memoir Challenge: Starts January 1, 2010 and runs all year
I tend to read a lot of memoir as it is, and cross-challenges are allowed, so I think I can manage the minimum 4-book commitment for this new challenge (letters, diaries, and autobiographies also qualify).

Moving on to the more subjective, qualitative portion of the review of this year's reading...

Best reThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collinsading experience: The 24-Hour Readathon, October 2009 edition, featuring The Hunger Games. It was my first time joining in, and I didn't last the entire time; however, I think I got in a solid 12-14 hours of reading, and I made it through 2-⅔ books. One of the two books I finished was Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games; I completed the sequel, Catching Fire, later that weekend after the Readathon was officially over. The novels were perfect - and popular - choices for the Readathon, but the real payoff came a little later. I handed both books to Katie, my 15-year-old stepdaughter, and told her "You ARE reading these. Now." She had finished both within a week and loved them, and is now in the process of getting her friends hooked too.

Best book for Book Clubs: I was invited to contribute a list of "Book Bloggers' Best Books for Book Clubs" compiled at Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, and my selection was The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Most disappointing read: I had the unfortunate experience this year of reading a few books that I wanted to like more than I did, but there's really only one I regret feeling that way about. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a hard book to forget - beautifully written and thought-provoking - and I'm not sorry I read it. However, I had trouble connecting with it emotionally, and I ultimately feel like it was my failure rather than the novel's; I ended up respecting it more than truly liking it.

I posted a half-year Reading Status Report in July, and observed at the time:
I've liked most of what I've read this year, but I utterly loved one book: The Uncommon Reader. Gods Behaving Badly was probably my most fun read so far this year, and Honeymoon in Tehran the most enlightening memoir. The books that I'd most encourage other people to read - for completely different reasons, as there's no connection between them - are Bad Mother and The 19th Wife.
Six months later, with 47 books behind me all together, here are my favorites of 2009.

Book of the Year, fiction:
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife: A Novel by David EbershoffDavid Ebershoff's ambitious blend of historical fiction, murder mystery, and social commentary in interwoven stories of plural marriages divided by over a century has stuck with me for over six months since first reading it, and it's a novel I look forward to re-reading one day. I was very impressed by Ebershoff's use of distinct narrative voices and unconventional techniques - facsimile historical documents, letters, and Wikipedia pages are all part of the story. The novel as a whole is ripped-from-the-headlines contemporary in its themes, with a page-turning plot and vivid, memorable characters.

Fiction Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
In September, The Help was voted "Best Book Published So Far in 2009" by participants in Book Blogger Appreciation Week. It's rare for me to finish a book and immediately want to start reading it again, but I had that reaction to The Help. Kathryn Stockett's first novel is thoroughly involving and engaging. It drew me in immediately and kept me reading compulsively.
The Uncommon Reader: A Novella, by Alan Bennett
I would truly describe this 120-page novella about the Queen of England's late-in-life discovery of the delights of readingas "a joy." If you should find yourself with a couple of hours to spare, you could do much worse than to spend them with a copy of The Uncommon Reader and the beverage of your choice.
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
Still Alice by Lisa GenovaThis novel may have affected me more powerfully than any other I read this year. Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist by training who originally self-published this novel, has done a remarkable job of truly getting inside the mind and emotions of an Alzheimer's patient. She includes a lot of real information about the disease and its effects in ways that don't distract from the story, and she effectively captures its disruption and alteration of family, career, and daily life, but the fact that it's all told from Alice's perspective makes it unique and unforgettable.

Book of the Year, nonfiction: Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet WaldmanOccasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman calls herself a Bad Mother chiefly because she falls short of the standard for the Good Mother. This book is an interesting combination of memoir and essay; each of the eighteen pieces in it  revolves around personal incidents which Waldman relates to her own reflections and opinions on parenting and society. Her opinions are strong and expressed with eloquence and passion. Bad Mother would be a great read for moms' book groups; it's certain to generate discussion on multiple levels about both Waldman's own stories and their relationship to bigger issues.

Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni
While Westerners sometimes tend to lump the "Middle Eastern" countries together, Azadeh Moaveni elaborates on the ways in which Iran, whose heritage is Persian rather than Arabic, is different from its neighbors. However, while she is in the position of being able to report on Iranian developments from the inside, her purpose in this writing is to show their effects on individual lives - particularly her own, as a ethnic Iranian raised in the United States and working for an American news magazine, returned to her family's homeland by work and her own choice.

I really think I had a pretty good reading year, and as it winds down, these are the things that stand out for me. How do you feel about your 2009 reading overall, and what are you looking forward to in 2010?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday Tangents: Between the Holidays Edition

I have the week off from work, since Chris (my DC-dwelling son) is with us till at least Thursday - he may wind up the week and spend New Year's with some friends before he flies home on Saturday. He's keeping himself pretty well occupied while he's here - among other things, he's written some blog posts, watched some football, bought an iPhone and (finally!) joined Twitter - and will be sending home a boxful of new kitchen stuff he received for Christmas.

It's nice to be away from the office during what would most likely be a slow week anyway, but I tend to be a bit ambivalent about at-home "vacations." Since I'm home, there's always the temptation to do practical things instead of relax, and I don't end up really feeling like I've had time off like I do when I go somewhere. Does anyone else have that problem? But having said that, I spent most of Monday reading, writing, and not exerting myself all that much, and I must admit that I enjoyed it.

(L.) Indiana Vasquez (the fedora was a Christmas gift last year, but the jacket is brand-new)

(R.) Captain Spencer in his Lego Christmas fort

Speaking of Christmas, let's ask the "loot" questions...did you get some good gifts? Did everyone like what you gave them? Everyone at my house seemed pretty pleased with Christmas morning - even Katie (15), who didn't ask for much this year and made people guess about what to give her, so I guess we didn't do too badly on that front. The two things she did ask for - iTunes gift cards and Beatles Rock Band for the Wii - she got. We all tried out Beatles Rock Band on Christmas afternoon, and I may have finally found the game for me, as long as I don't try to play the instruments; I've been singing Beatles songs for years, and actually know the words to nearly everything already!

Since one of the gifts that Tall Paul gave me was the "Beatles edition" of Trivial Pursuit, he will one day find out just how much Beatles-related info - in addition to lyrics - clogs my brain! I also received some TV on DVD (two seasons of The Big Bang Theory, and the first seasons of Better Off Ted and Mad Men), but no books. However, I did get a Borders gift card, as well as a nice assortment of other gift cards; thanks to the iPod Nano that was at the top of my wish list, the iTunes gift card is already depleted. And once again, my very generous mother-in-law is subsidizing my trip to the BlogHer Conference - New York City, in August 2010!

I actually love to receive gift cards - they keep the fun going longer. Every one of us received movie-theater gift cards, so we won't have to pay for movie tickets for quite a while! (Tall Paul and I gave movie gift cards too, but not to anyone we live with.) Tall Paul and I used a gift card to see Sherlock Holmes on Saturday afternoon. It was entertaining - Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law played off one another well - but I felt that it was a bit of a mess in spots, with a plot involving a highly-placed conspiracy and occult elements that seemed just a bit Dan Brown-influenced to me. I've never read any of the original Holmes novels, but I'll just assume many liberties were taken. Still, it was fun, and RDJ is always very watchable.

I'll be posting my year-end reading wrap-up tomorrow, and I'm working on a more generalized "year in review" post this week too. I like doing the "reflection" posts, even though they usually turn out to be more work than I expect...but you're not likely to see a "resolutions" post around here. At this point, I don't have any major changes in mind for 2010, so we'll just see how things evolve.

Grandma and the grandkids, December 25, 2009

What's going on during your between-holidays week? Are you at work or at home? Reflecting on the ending year and resolving for the coming one? It's Tuesday Tangents time, so tell me all about it!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book talk: Betsy Ray grows up and leaves Deep Valley

Disclosures: I purchased this book for my personal library. *This review includes purchasing links that go through my Amazon Associates account, which pays me a small percentage for purchases based on referrals through those links.

Betsy and the great World by Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding
Maud Hart Lovelace
Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2009), Paperback (reissue) (ISBN 0061795135 / 9780061795138)
Fiction/youth fiction, 688 pages

Book description: This brand-new edition of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved works brings together the final two books of the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wedding, along with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen.

Betsy and the Great World: Betsy Ray is twenty-one and on the adventure of a lifetime: a solo tour of Europe! There's even a handsome Italian, Marco, who's going overboard for her—if only she could stop thinking about her ex-sweetheart Joe Willard.

Betsy's Wedding: When Betsy's boat docks in New York, Joe is waiting there . . . with a ring! But she's going to learn that marriage isn't all candlelight, roses, and kisses. There's also cooking, ironing, cleaning, and budgeting— and will she be able to find time to forge a writing career?

Comments: After returning to Deep Valley, Minnesota, for Betsy Ray's high-school years, I met up with her once again for a trip to Europe and the first couple of years of her married life back in Minneapolis. The final book in the series, Betsy's Wedding, is probably the Betsy-Tacy novel I've read the fewest times; for some reason, I recall it being harder to find at the library than the others. I've read Betsy and the Great World several times before, though, and as I found when I read the high-school stories again, a lot of it has remained with me.

When I took my first trip on a cruise ship in the mid-1990's, I remembered that my introduction to shipboard life came with Betsy. When she and her parents agreed that it might be best for her to quit college, they discussed the idea that travel could be at least as educational for a would-be writer; perhaps the money would be better spent on a trip to Europe than on another year's tuition. Back in 1913, of course, travel by ship really was the only means of getting from the U.S. to Europe; these days, it's a vacation more than transportation. But many of the conventions and traditions of shipboard life haven't changed all that much, and Betsy's trip - although somewhat more dramatic, and definitely more romantic, than my own - kept popping into my mind during that week on the Norway. Once she arrived in Europe, she didn't really tour it; instead, she lived in a few cities - Munich, Venice, and London - for a few months each, with shorter visits to others. That's always seemed like a fine idea to me, even though most of us probably couldn't pull it off these days.

Betsy's travels in the "Great World" are to be cut short by the outbreak of what was then called the "Great War," but what summons her home is one of the best personal ads ever:
"Betsy: The Great War is on but I hope ours is over. Please come home. Joe."
While Betsy and Joe's post-high-school romance hit rocky water after he transferred from the University of Minnesota to Harvard, they haven't really let each other go. When Betsy declines repeated proposals from a young architect she gets to know in Venice, she realizes that it's because of her unresolved feelings for Joe, and writes him a long-delayed letter before she leaves for London. She doesn't give him a forwarding address, but the London Times carries a personals column on its front page, and Joe finds a way to reach her.

Betsy's Wedding
picks up just a few weeks after Betsy and the Great World ends, as Betsy sails back to the U.S.A. and finds Joe there to meet her. The wedding itself occupies only a few chapters - it happens shortly after Betsy's return, and it's a cozy event at her parents' home in Minneapolis (the family hasn't lived in Deep Valley for several years). Most of the novel concerns Betsy's adjustments to married life over the first couple of years, coming to an end in 1917, as the US gets into the Great War and Joe prepares to enter the army along with the husbands of Betsy's friends.

I remembered the fewest details about Betsy's Wedding, and although part of that's because I haven't read it as many times as some of the other books, I wonder if another part of it has to do with its subject being less meaningful to me when I was younger. Having been a newlywed (twice) myself, I definitely brought a different perspective to this novel this time around, and I was impressed by how much I really liked it. Granted, there were aspects of it that were appropriate to the time period but are a bit grating now, chiefly Betsy and Tacy's anxiety about getting Tib "married off" before she reaches her mid-twenties. (Tacy observes that "If girls don't marry young, they tend to get fussy"...as if that's a bad thing.) It was fully expected that the husbands would go out to earn money for the household, and most married women didn't hold jobs outside the home; but then again, keeping up a home was a lot more work in those days. However, writing was (and still is) a career that can be pursued from home, and I was pleasantly struck by the fact that Joe and Betsy considered both of their writing equally important. Since this book was written for younger readers, the picture it paints of the early years of marriage is mostly pretty, but it's also strikingly imperfect at times, and for the most part it's true to life.

While these last two "grown-up" Betsy-Tacy books may be less universal in their themes than the high-school ones, they also have the feeling of being both modern and timeless, with depth that escaped me the first several times I read them, but which I can appreciate that much more coming back to them as an adult. However, while revisiting these books has had its particular pleasures, I'd certainly encourage getting to know them for the first time as well, no matter how long ago your own teens and early twenties were!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Welcome to my Christmas card!

Season's Greetings from me to you! Step into Christmas with me...

and if you don't celebrate Christmas, have a great weekend! See you in a few days :-).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get lost! (Weekend/Wednesday Assignment #298)

This past week, Karen had one of those unexpected adventures that can happen along the way, and that prompted a question:

Weekend Assignment #298: Do you often get lost, trying to get someplace new? Do you print out a map, or just wing it? And when you do have trouble finding your way, is it an annoyance or an adventure?

Extra Credit: Is your town or city easy to get lost in?

View Larger Map

I'm pretty good at reading maps, because I need to be. My eyesight is bad enough (even when wearing my contacts) that I have trouble making out small street signs and address numbers. When I'm going someplace new, I'll study the map carefully first, so I know just how many more blocks I need to go after the last major intersection and can count them off as I'm driving. I try to remember to put the map in the car ahead of time, so I don't leave without it and can refer to it on the way. I usually print my maps from Google Maps so I can include the turn-by-turn directions, which are very helpful; I just wish they'd include on which side of the street the address I'm looking for is located.

Even with preparation, though, I still get lost sometimes. Most of the time that happens toward the end of the trip, when I overshoot or can't find the address I'm looking for. Occasionally, I'll encounter a detour that sends me off my route into an unfamiliar area. And if I have to find my way to a new place at night, I'll probably try to get someone else to drive.

I've found that I'm most likely to get lost when I've gone somewhere just once or twice - enough that I don't think I need a map, but not enough to know the route well. Last week, I got myself lost twice while on the way to the "pet lodge" where we board Gypsy. It's out in the country - yes, we do have "country" around Los Angeles, and my home turf of Ventura County has a lot of agricultural land - and I was taking a route that I've used before, but always going in the opposite direction. I made a couple of wrong turns, but realized it soon enough to turn around, go back, and correct myself. But there was an unexpected benefit to that little adventure - I discovered a new alternate route for part of the drive!

My reaction to getting lost depends a lot on time - if it's daylight, and I'm not in a rush, I don't really mind it too much. Luckily, most of the time I realize I've gotten off track pretty soon after it happens, so I look for a place to turn around, and backtrack to where I think I made my mistake (it's more of a problem if I'm not sure exactly where that happened, of course). As I already mentioned, I prefer not to find my way to new places in the dark, so if I get lost at night - or at any time of day when I'm rushing or running late - I'm much less likely to be nonchalant about it.

The suburb where I live isn't very large; it's not hard to learn the main north-south and east-west streets, and you're usually not far from one of them. However, there are a lot of newer subdivisions along the edges of town, with winding roads and limited access, and those can get quite confusing. (I live in one, so trust me on that.) I work in Los Angeles, though, and that can be a whole big, sprawling other story; some people only know how to navigate the place by freeway. Over seven and a half years, I've learned the main roads through the San Fernando Valley well enough to get between work and home entirely on surface streets; it would take me a couple of hours one way, so I don't want to have to do it, but it's good to know that if it came to that, I could.

I think it's vital to know how to read a map, and I have a good enough sense of direction to find my own way most of the time - but I'm not so good at giving directions. Fortunately, if your car has a GPS navigation system or your cell phone has a map/navigation app, you can probably figure out how to get where you need to be without my help. But if you ask me how to get somewhere, I'll probably end up telling you to print out your own Google Map. Study it before you go, bring it with you, take your time...and don't get lost!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday Tangents: Countdown to Christmas edition!

As I mentioned a couple of times last week, I'm making Tuesday Tangents a regular feature here - and I hope you'll consider joining me! I love reading about your own random ramblings in the comments on my Tangents, but maybe you'd rather post them on your own blog instead? If you do, just come back here and leave me your link in the comments so I can go visit you (I'm not planning on using a Mr Linky unless this thing grows more than I expect it to) - and help yourself to the button, too!

❊ ❊ ❊ It didn't arrive until some time on the 20th, but my sense of Christmas finally showed up. It just needed a tree and cookies, apparently...

We had decided to wait to put up our Christmas tree and decorate until after my stepson's birthday party, which took place on Saturday. We didn't have the party at home - he wanted to have it at the go-kart track where his cousin had his last party - but we invited the family back to our house afterwards, and we felt that having the house all Christmased up might take the focus away from his birthday celebration, since that's a common hazard with December birthdays anyway.

My husband brought the tree in on Sunday morning, and we decorated it with my stepkids in the afternoon. I always enjoy seeing our special ornaments every year, and it was fun getting the tree "dressed," even if it's not exactly a work of art. The garlands on one side look like they were hung by drunk monkeys, quite frankly - that was the first description that came to mind, and Tall Paul didn't disagree - but the whole thing looks like it was a fun family project, and that matters more than picture perfection, doesn't it?

In between the tree placement and the decorating, I had some time to myself, and I spent it in the kitchen baking. My son arrives from D.C. on Wednesday evening - barring another East Coast blizzard, of course (which I REALLY don't want to think about!) - and I traditionally meet him at the airport with a bottle of water and a bag of homemade cookies. Years ago, his dad came up with our family variation on the Toll House Cookie recipe - leave out the nuts, and use butterscotch chips in addition to the chocolate ones - and that's how Chris likes them. Tall Paul likes his cookies with chocolate chips only, though, so I made two separate batches to accommodate them both. (My stepkids will eat them either way.) I added my own favorite twist - a teaspoon of ground cinnamon - to both batches. And since I actually prefer brownies, I baked a batch of those too. I brought a sampling of it all to the office yesterday, and I've already set aside Chris' "greeting" cookies for tomorrow.

I'll be doing more baking for Christmas dinner, of course - I'm not counting on very much of Sunday's efforts still being around by then. Do your holiday preparations include baking, too? What goodies have come out of your kitchen recently? ❊ ❊ ❊

❊ ❊ ❊ I've been waiting till we put up the tree to open the gift I received from my Secret Santa in the Book Blogger Holiday Swap, and last night was the night! In a strange coincidence, I got a true swap - I was her Secret Santa too!

I received a lovely package of treats from Cindy, who blogs at Wears Many Hats (which she does - she has a very eclectic blog!). Take a look:

Here we have a pair of bath mitts, two body mists - one for energy, one for relaxation - from The Healing Garden, a matching notebook, notepad, and refrigerator magnet, and a reader's best friend - a bookmark! Thanks, Cindy! ❊ ❊ ❊

❊ ❊ ❊ The consequence of a busy weekend - one spent in places other than in front of my laptop - was nearly 600 unread posts in Google Reader on Monday morning. I skimmed a lot and made judicious use of the "mark all as read" button, but I expect this to become less of an issue over the next few days - it was the storm before the calm. I'm pretty sure blog updates from all sources will slow significantly over the next week or so...and that means mine, too.

I'll be "unplugging" for a few days as of Thursday, and next weekend's Sunday Salon may be a "Sunday Salon on Monday" post - we'll see how it goes. And despite what I said in this week's Sunday Salon, it looks like my "Books of the Year" post will probably be postponed till next week, when I plan to focus on "the year in review" generally. In addition to those, I do hope to have some time to during the break to do some writing, and get some future posts lined up!

 ❊ And from a Weekend Assignment post back in August, Merry Christmas from Gypsy!

Pleez Santa,  i can haz kitteh?
(We still have some of that wrapping paper, too!)

So, with just three days left till Christmas (!!), what tangents are your thoughts taking? I want to know!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book talk: Back to Deep Valley High School with Betsy

Disclosures: I purchased these books for my personal library. *This review includes purchasing links that go through my Amazon Associates account, which pays me a small percentage for purchases based on referrals through those links.

Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace
Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of HerselfBetsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe
both by Maud Hart Lovelace
Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2009), Paperback (ISBN 0061794694 / 9780061794698) (ISBN 0061794724 / 9780061794728)
Youth fiction, 704 pages/640 pages (each book is 1 volume containing 2 novels)

Book description: This brand-new edition of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved works brings together the first two books of Betsy and Tacy’s high school years, Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself, along with a new foreword by New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman.

Heaven to Betsy: Betsy Ray is loving every minute of freshman year at Deep Valley High—with new and old friends all around her . . . not to mention boys! But most intriguing of all is the one she and her best friend, Tacy, dub "the Tall Dark Stranger."
Betsy in Spite of Herself: Betsy is at the center of every activity as a Deep Valley High sophomore—and suddenly, thanks to her old friend Tib, she's offered a golden opportunity for glorious transformation. But will she impress the special boy by becoming dramatic, mysterious Betsye—or would she be better off just being Betsy in spite of herself?

Book description: This brand-new edition of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved works brings together the third and fourth books of Betsy and Tacy’s high school years, Betsy Was a Junior and Betsy and Joe, along with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot.

Betsy Was a Junior: It's the best school year ever, especially now that charming, funny Tib Muller is back in Deep Valley. But when her crowd gets into trouble, Betsy's best year could turn out to be her worst.
Betsy and Joe: Betsy always thought she and Joe Willard were made for each other—and now that summer's over and senior year's begun, it seems her dream is coming true! But her friend Tony Markham has come calling as well—and his intentions are definitely romantic.

Comments: I'm incapable of doing one of my ordinary review posts about the Betsy-Tacy books. For one thing, they're the first re-reads I've talked about in nearly three years of book blogging, although this wasn't the first time I've re-read them, so I really can't approach them with fresh or objective eyes. It's been at least thirty years since I last read them, though, and now that the four high-school novels and two "grown-up" Betsy books are back in print, I was very excited to have the chance to revisit them...and, of course, to see if the magic was still there.

Returning to Deep Valley, Minnesota, and Betsy Ray's high-school years after so many years away was quite enlightening for me. For one thing, I was struck by how much I still remembered about the books - not just major plotlines and characters, but oddball, episodic details about what happened in each of them - and reading the novels already knowing that "oh, and after this is when Betsy does such-and-such" didn't take anything away from the experience.

It occurred to me that when I originally read Maud Hart Lovelace's novels, I was aware that they were set in the past, but now Betsy and Tacy's high-school years of 1906 to 1910 are literally a century ago. Realizing all the changes in the world just since my own high-school years ended in 1982, and adding those on top of the preceding 80 years, turn-of-the-20th-century Deep Valley seems like another world entirely - and in many ways, it was. But coming back to the stories now, with the perspective of having lived a few more years, it also occurred to me that in many respects, they're both modern and timeless.

Other things I discovered in getting back together with Betsy:
  • She's responsible for my affection for fiction series that follow characters chronologically (from Betsy Ray to Harry Potter? Who knew?)
  • She shaped my hopes and expectations for my own high-school years, 70 years later - it's not her fault mine didn't go the same way and I never had a Crowd
  • She was a genuine "popular" girl, in a time when that was based on one's personality and on being friendly and likable (and that probably explains, at least in part, why high school was different for me)
  • Vera Neville's illustrations in the high-school books were a major influence on my style of drawing during middle and high school (in those days, I was constantly sketching as well as reading, and thought of myself as an artist rather than as a writer).

The quality of writing doesn't tend to stand out for me as much when I read youth fiction, unless it's poor quality - and Lovelace's books are not of poor quality. I'm better equipped to consider that now than I was when I originally read the Betsy-Tacy books, though, and I did notice the writing more this time - a few minor quirks and peculiarities jumped out at me at times, most arising from the fact that these books were written in the 1940s about the early 1900s. The stories are well-crafted and the characters are vivid. It's enjoyable seeing Betsy gain self-awareness and confidence over the course of her four years at Deep Valley High School, trying to learn from the setbacks and having lots of fun when things are going well. There's depth to these stories that escaped me the first several times I read these books, and I can appreciate that much more coming to them as an adult (I may be older than Betsy's parents by now, come to think of it!).

I hope girls today - middle- and high-school girls in particular - are able to appreciate Betsy Ray; I'd like to think at least some of them can. I hope women who never met Betsy while they were young take these new editions as the opportunity to get to know her. And for women like me, who did have the joy of growing up with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, I have to say that it's wonderful being reunited with such old and well-loved friends.

(I'm currently reading the last reissue, the post-high-school Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding, and will give that volume a post of its own once I'm done.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Salon 12/20: Challenging, planning, and bookmarking

The Sunday Salon.com

A few weeks ago, Jennifer at The Literate Housewife Review brought up the idea of "Reading Deliberately." It's a concept I find intriguing, and one that's gotten a lot of other book bloggers thinking and talking too.

Part of "reading deliberately" seems to be ceasing to accept review books, or becoming much more selective about the books we'll accept. I started to cut back on review books several months ago, and haven't regretted it - especially when I look at the row of still-unread review copies on my shelf! Aside from entering LibraryThing's Early Reviewers book raffles and hosting some blog tours for my friends at TLC Book Tours, I don't plan to step up my acceptance of review books from other sources in the coming year. While one of the perks of review books is the "conversation" angle - when you're not the only one reading something at a given time, chances are better that you might get some comments about it - I guess I'll just have to take my chances that people will be interested in talking about my books with me anyway.

After resisting reading challenges for awhile, I tried a couple this year, and am already signed up for two that will continue into 2010. I think I'm beginning to understand how they really CAN be helpful in working one's way through TBR-land in a focused manner. I'm signing up for the Read Your Own Books Challenge again in 2010, committing to 20 books, which was also my 2009 goal (and accomplishment!). Most of the books I've chosen for the Women Unbound Challenge will come from the RYOB pool, so I'll get two challenge credits in one for those!

My idea of "reading deliberately" means that I have a tentative reading plan/pattern going into the new year: challenge book, review book, personal-choice book, and then back around again. We'll see how it works out.

Here's a challenge that I won't officially join, but one that a few of my own books would probably qualify for: the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, hosted at A Life in Books, and themed to reading about reading. Another one that could be partly filled with books from my TBR stack: My Friend Amy's six-month Beth Kephart Reading Challenge. I'm not committing to that one either (yet), but I do like Beth, so it's very tempting... However, I have joined Amy's Buy One Book and Read It Challenge again; she's even got options involving buying 6 or 12 books this year! Frankly, I'll probably accomplish the "buying" part a lot sooner than I do the "reading" part, but the challenge lasts for the full year.

**** I know it's early to mention this, but I'm already excited about it: it looks like I'll be able to get my husband to go to an author event with me in April! Christopher Moore's brief bookstore tour for the upcoming publication of Bite Me is scheduled to bring him to Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Friday, April 9, at 7 PM. We've already marked the calendar. Lamb was the first book I ever loaned to Tall Paul, back in the first couple of months we were dating, and Christopher Moore quickly became one of his very favorite authors - I'm glad this will be his first reading/signing event! I realize it's a few months off, but if you're a fellow SoCal Moore fan and want to meet up there, let me know (I'm not sure Softdrink will ever forgive him for Fool)!

BOOKMARKS: Reading-related Reading

The Book Bloggers' Top 10 Voting Booth is open, and will remain so until December 29 - go and make your preferences known! The candidates for book bloggers' favorite books of 2009 were collected from Weekly Geeks participants, but voting is open to all!

Question: is it easier to talk about books than about reading? Maybe not.

When it comes to e-book readers, Jenn probably won't be recommending Sony's any more (if this seems familiar, it's probably because I also included this link in the Weekend Review post on Friday)

Here's a book you'll only put on your TBR list if you absolutely have to

As my Google Reader overflows with book-bloggers' challenge-signup posts, some will choose to refuse. Speaking of refusal: does not wanting to read Christmas-themed books make you a Grinch? Then again, some families have a holiday-reading tradition

I'm a LibraryThing loyalist, but it's still good to see this about the growth of GoodReads

I'll be posting a special edition of Bookkeeping: The Reading Status Report later this week, in connection with my "Books of the Year" picks, so please check back for that! But if you haven't seem my "Books of the Decade" yet - I posted those on Thursday - I'd love to get your take on those.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Week-End Review: Travels around the blogiverse near year-end

Assorted Announcements

This is officially my last Week-End Review of 2009! Although it seemed to get more reader response when I posted it on Saturdays, I'm still not sorry I moved it to Fridays. However, I won't be posting one on Christmas Day - and I certainly hope you'll have better things to do next Friday than look for it, anyway! I'm not certain yet whether I'll be posting on January 1; I suspect that the amount of link fodder out there will slow down a lot over the next couple of weeks. Regardless, the Week-End Review will be back at the end of the first week of 2010!

Also at the end of the first week of January: Bloggiesta is back! While this "blogging marathon" is hosted by a book blogger, Natasha extends the invitation to the broader blogiverse:
"...I’d love to welcome anybody who has a blog who would like to write content or improve their blog to join in.  In addition to adult, kidlit, YA, romance, mystery, historical fiction, non-fiction, and publishing book blogs  any other bloggers are welcome.  Movie blog?  TV blog?  Mommy blog?   Gardening blog?  Photography blog?  All are welcome!"
This three-day weekend event - don't worry, you don't have to participate for anywhere near 72 hours! - is meant to give you the chance to get lots of blog housekeeping done, while being cheered on by (and borrowing ideas from) other bloggers with the same plan. It's scheduled for early January to help get your blog off to a great start in the New Year. Find all the details, including suggested blogging activities and sign-up info, over at Maw Books Blog.

Here's something that might not wait till after the first of the year - the official launch of "Tuesday Tangents," to be hosted right here at The 3 R's! Born of my own random ramblings - things on my mind that don't necessarily warrant a full post of their own - these "10 items or less" posts have gotten a good response, and I'd like to invite you to join in at your own blog! There's no guarantee that I'll be doing it every week myself, so feel free to participate as often, or as rarely, as you like - as long as it's on a Tuesday!
I've even made a button - it's right down below, and it's also posted in the right-hand sidebar. You're welcome to grab it and use it whenever you post your own Tuesday Tangents!

Dispatches: Links of the Week

I WISH I had the time to "Do Nothing But Read" this Sunday, December 20, but it's five days before Christmas and the to-do list is just a bit too intense! (But maybe I'll have my own DNBR day during my vacation week between Christmas and New Year's.) Are you joining in?

There's still time for another holiday gift guide (and one reason I like this one is that it mentions books I haven't heard about before!). Speaking of books and gifts, these are the books she's giving this year; she's giving books to a dozen girls; and some kids already know that books can be the perfect gift

Your "best" may not be my "best," and just because it's a favorite doesn't necessarily mean it's "best" anyway

Maybe lots of things actually taste better than "skinny" feels?

We're all "those people," really

Customer-(non)service story of the week, or The Death of a Device; online support of a much more personal variety - part of a culture that some still don't understand

Still working on your disclosure policy? Here's some inspiration

Things your iPhone can't do, but this one can...

Panic in Aisle 5, via Not Always Right
Grocery Store | Paxton, IL, USA
Customer: “Hello, young man, can you help me?”
Me: “Yes ma’am. What can I do for you?”
Customer: “Where do you keep your scratch?”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Customer: “Scratch! Where do you keep it? I need some to make pie!”
Me: “I’m not sure that I’m clear on what you need. Can you tellme what you are going to use it for?”
Customer: “My husband says that I need to make pie from scratch for Christmas, so I need to buy some scratch for the pie.”
Me: “Ma’am, that just means that you buy the ingredients and make the pie yourself.”
Customer: “I don’t have time to make pie myself! I need some scratch!”

New Arrivals in my Google Reader

OK, so who's going to be trying to finish up their Christmas shopping this weekend? We've done most of that, but the house isn't ready, so we'll be tree-trimming on Saturday and Sunday!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Year(s) in Review: A Decade of Favorite Reads

The year-end wrap-ups you start seeing everywhere in December are being joined by recaps of the decade this time around. There's probably no reason one can't take time to look back over the last 10 years every year, but when you're talking about the block of years running from '0 to '9 (or '1 to '0, depending on how you prefer to count), that usually means "THE decade." Hence, as we reach December of 2009, the reminiscences are reaching back beyond the last twelve months, so I decided to give some consideration to my favorite books of the last ten years (meaning books I've read during that time period - some were published earlier).

I wanted to call this listing "10 Books I've Loved in the Last 10 Years," but as you might imagine, that was an impossible cut for me to make. However, I did choose to cut books I've read and reviewed this year, since I'll revisit those soon in my 2009 "Books of the Year" post.

Speaking of those "Books of the Year," I thought I'd start off with a return to the ones I picked in 2007 and 2008 to see how they've held up in my estimation. I'll be quoting from my original posts, with new comments below.

Book of the Year, nonfiction: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Great writing, a great story, and so many things that struck chords with me - I'm not going to forget this book for a long time, and I'm not going to give away my copy, either.
I've discovered that this one tends to be a love/hate book, but I still love it - don't hate me! This does rank with my Books of the Decade, and I'm planning to read Gilbert's upcoming follow-up.
Book of the Year, fiction: Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst. This was the somewhat strange, yet gratifying, experience of liking a book just as much as - maybe even more than - I'd expected to. I knew that I'd get into the premise of following the participants of an Amazing Race-type reality show through the last rounds of their competition, but Parkhurst did a great job defining her characters as well as in telling their story, and I loved the behind-the-scenes production details.
I really did enjoy this novel, and it's stuck with me quite a bit, but if I'm going to be tough and strict here, it doesn't quite rank as one of my top reads of the last ten years.

2008:The Year Of Fog by Michelle Richmond
Book of the Year, Fiction: The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. (Coupled with her second novel, No One You Know, Richmond (was) 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 the search for a missing child, Michelle Richmond weaves case histories on the subject of memory and considerations of how the past shapes who we are.
This one makes the cut - actually, both of Richmond's novels are among the best I've read in the last ten years. I'm anxiously awaiting her next book!
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.
The book itself doesn't make the list for the decade, but its author does. I tremendously enjoy reading Jancee Dunn, and have just added her latest memoir to TBR Purgatory.*

The remainder of my Books of the Decade list comes from books I read during the pre-blogging years. Part of what makes them remarkable is that I remember them well without having reviews to refer back to; in addition, they're all books I would read again. Please note that they're listed in no particular order - and only ten items are listed, but since a few are series, the numbers are clearly fudged.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. RowlingThe Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling:

I came in a little late, and in part because I was just curious, but after the first two books I was hooked, and by the third I truly loved these books. I'm sure many people will count these among their own "books of the decade" - a genuine publishing phenomenon, but also a modern classic, and loved by readers of all ages. (I keep trying to reconcile my affection for HP with my ambivalence about reading kid/YA lit in general - I haven't come up with an answer yet.) Because of the way Rowling successfully captured the conflicted essence of a 15-year-old boy, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is my favorite of favorites, and one of my rare 5-star reads.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides: Unexpectedly funny and touching, as well as beautifully written, I honestly didn't expect to love this book as much as I did.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend - Laura Hillenbrand: I never went through that pre-teen horse-loving phase so many girls do, and I'm not big on sports, so why would a book about horse-racing have any appeal? I've always been glad I ignored those roadblocks and read this. The story of this unlikely champion and the people who worked with him was utterly compelling (and much better than the movie).
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon: He's been my writer crush for 20 years, and I was thrilled to see him win the Pulitzer Prize for his third novel. While some elements of the novel worked better for me than others, the characters are well-drawn, and the comic-book stuff was surprisingly interesting. But the bottom line is that it's written by Michael Chabon, and that's ultimately enough for me.

Niagara Falls All Over Again - Elizabeth McCracken: This story of the ups-and-downs of a vaudeville team as they transition through the various new entertainment media of the 20th century - radio to movies to television - was fascinating and moving. I need to read more of McCracken's writing.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher MooreLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal - Christopher Moore: This was the first book I ever loaned to my husband, during the first couple of months we were dating. I thought he had the right mindset to appreciate it; I ended up giving Tall Paul a new favorite author. I was already hooked by then, though. At his best, Moore's more than just funny - he actually has a point - and I would say he's at his best here.

The His Dark Materials trilogy - Philip Pullman: I didn't expect to like these, to be honest, and it took me some time to get into The Golden Compass. However, I was immediately drawn into the second book, The Subtle Knife, and had to stick around for the end. I discussed the books a couple of years ago, in a post regarding a "boycott" of the movie version of The Golden Compass, driven by the fact that its creator is an avowed atheist:
I read the His Dark Materials trilogy a few years ago. I'm not sure what slots it as "children's literature," honestly, other than the fact that its central characters are young preteens and teens. I thought it was philosophically complex, highly developed, and very well-written - which is not to say that those can't be attributes of children's literature at all, just that these books feel more "adult" to me...The overall themes of the books struck me as more anti-theology than anti-God - and perhaps I'm not really disturbed by them since I'm not a churchgoer these days. I have issues of my own with institutional religion, and consider expressions of faith - or lack of same - to be personal. I don't subscribe to the idea that "non-Christian" equals "anti-God," or that there's only one "right" way. I do feel that your beliefs and actions should be consistent with each other, and that regardless of where you think you'll end up after you die, how you live on this earth matters. While it's clear that Pullman's atheism informs his story, I didn't get a sense that he had an agenda - but if he actually did state in an interview that "(his) books are about killing God," and didn't mean it metaphorically, I may not have read closely enough.
The Sparrow/Children of God - Mary Doria Russell (published 1997/1999, read in 2005): If I had a TBRR (to be re-read) list, these two novels would be right near the top of it. Their blend of religious/philosophical themes with fantasy/science fiction elements isn't entirely new (see the preceding item), but Russell does something special with it, crafting a compelling, emotionally resonant narrative. I haven't come across enough people who have read these - but among those who have, I haven't found anyone who wasn't wowed by them.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx - Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Narrative nonfiction at its best. LeBlanc spent the better part of ten years following her four central "characters" - drug dealer Boy George, his protege Cesar, Cesar's sister Jessica, and Cesar's girlfriend Coco - out of their teens and into poverty, crime, prison, and single parenthood. Their stories were riveting, moving, and made me far more appreciative of my own advantages in life.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader - Anne Fadiman: I BookCrossed my copy of this terrific book of essays about reading years ago, out of a wish to share the joy with other readers. I really need to replace it one of these days.

*Speaking of the infamous TBR Purgatory...just for fun, I thought I'd list a half-dozen books that have lived there unread for most of the decade. Don't ask me to explain why I haven't gotten around to reading any of them yet, but if you have an opinion about which one I should rescue first, speak up! I think every one of these moved from Memphis with me, and that happened seven and a half years ago...

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

The Orchid Thief - Susan Orlean

Naked - David Sedaris

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography - Kathleen Norris

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro

I know this was a long post, but it did cover a decade's worth of material - thanks for sticking around for the whole thing! Are you considering a reading retrospective of the decade yourself? What books have really affected you over the last ten years?