Saturday, March 31, 2012

Doing my own Mini-Challenge, and other things I did today

I've used BlogPress before to draft posts, but this will be my very first time doing it live! If I'm going to challenge other Bloggiesta-ers, I should join in too, right?
I actually haven't spent much time on Bloggiesta today, in all honesty. I did one mini-challenge this morning and worked a little on my Goodreads updates, but most of today was reserved for belated-birthday celebrating with my sister.
First she took me to breakfast at the Firehouse Cafe. I don't know if it really was a firehouse once, but it's definitely got a theme.

Then we did a little shopping, and then she took me to the movies to see this:

I thought it turned out quite well--if I have some time during the next few days, I'll say more than that.
Now Tall Paul and I are off to forage for dinner, and maybe kick back with some TV. Good thing there's more Bloggiesta tomorrow!
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bloggiesta Kick-off! The Best-Laid Plans...

Good morning, Bloggiesta-ers! Who's ready for some spring cleaning of the bloggy kind? Thanks so much to Danielle and Suey for bringing Bloggiesta back!

I've got a few posts in draft that I want to get finished up and scheduled for next week...and since I am NOT doing NaBloPoMo for April, I only need a few posts for next week. But my
primary task for Bloggiesta weekend falls into the general category of "catching up on reviews."

I'm actually current on reviews here. However, I want to set up my Goodreads account as my primary review archive, so I need to get all of the reviews posted there. It's a project I've already started, but my goal for the weekend is to get it finished--and by "finished" I mean "caught up," so that future updates keep pace with the blog. And I'll get to count my work for Janicu's Bloggiesta Goodreads Challenge, too!

The Mini-Challenges are such a good source of inspiration for Bloggiesta projects, and there are lots of new ones this year! Suey has the complete list, and these are the ones I want to check out:
Danielle has collected all of the Mini-Challenges from previous Bloggiestas, and there are some excellent ideas there too. (I created my blog favicon and gravatar thanks to a Mini-Challenge during the Summer 2009 Bloggiesta.) I plan to explore "10 Things Bloggers Should Not Do" at WordLily ((Winter 2011)--just to make sure I'm not doing them!--and "Analyze Your Blog!" at Bookish Ruth (Summer 2009), which I've done before, but not for a while.

I also plan to participate in my own Bloggiesta Mini-Challenge using mobile blogging apps--care to join me?

Good luck with your Bloggiesta goals, and wish me luck with mine, would you please?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bloggiesta Mini-Challenge: Mobilize!

If you have a smartphone, or a tablet, or both, there's no need to be chained to your computer for blogging any more. Have you explored some of the ways you can read and write while you're out and about? For my Bloggiesta Mini-Challenge, I thought we'd look at a few mobile apps that can benefit your blogging.

(I was going to discuss reading apps here too, but the post was getting so long that the mini-challenge would have been reading it all the way through! But I won't waste all that research; I'll post about those in a few days.)

Mobile Blogging

If you have Facebook and Twitter accounts, their apps were probably among the very first you installed on your mobile device--they're essentials. Although status updates aren't proper "blogging", the apps do let you share posts you read and get ideas for posts of your own. (There are other apps that let you manage your FB and Twitter feeds--sometimes together--but since I've been pretty satisfied with the official ones, I've only dabbled with those and can't say much about them.)

Evernote is another must-have app--very useful for blogging prep, and it works pretty much everywhere (including BlackBerry devices). It saves links and web clippings, and lets you create new notes via typing, photos, or audio recording. (I use it for my shopping lists, too.)

One thing that's not essential for mobile blogging is a camera app--but it can be very nice to have one. If you take a lot of photos with your mobile and want to include them in blog posts, it's good to be able to edit them a little right on your device before you bring them into your blog draft. Instagram (iOS, coming for Android--and free) and Hipstamatic (iOS) both have their fans, but my personal favorite is Camera+ on my iPhone--it has a very impressive set of tools. It's not a freebie, but it's more than worth the 99 cents.

It's easy to share photos from camera and social-media apps, but what if you want to save them for your blog...and maybe even add some words?

If you blog on WordPress, you're in luck--it's got mobile apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone platforms, plus Nokia phones and tablets using WebOS. Blogger users don't have it quite so good, I'm sorry to say--its mobile app is only available for Android and iOS phones, and not optimized for tablets like the iPad. Tumblr has apps for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry; I deleted my Tumblr a few weeks ago, but I have used the iPhone app, and it's very streamlined and user-friendly--not much different from the desktop experience, really.

But maybe you don't use any of those platforms...or you use several, but don't want several apps. There are some apps out there that work with a variety of blogging platforms. I've experimented with a few of them, but the one I keep returning to is BlogPress, which supports just about every major blogging service--thanks to Kristen Howerton for making me aware of it!

BlogPress doesn't have the "compose" mode, so it takes a little getting used to the appearance of posts when you work in it; having said that, the HTML editor is very easy to use. If you have online access while you're on mobile, you can sync with your blog and edit drafts you saved from your computer, and you can save posts you start on the mobile as online drafts. BlogPress is for iPhone and iPad only--if you know of similar apps for other devices, tell us about them in the comments!

And now for your Mini-Challenge, should you choose to accept it! it's actually not all that challenging, but it has to be done during Bloggiesta weekend.
  • Create a blog post on a mobile device--photo, text, or mix. The content is up to you.
  • Post to your blog from the device (Tumblr blogs count, Facebook and Twitter don't!)
  • Leave the link to your mobile post in the InLinkz below (not in the comments!). Links will be accepted through Monday, April 2.
And to encourage mobility, one random challenge participant will receive a $10 iTunes/App Store gift card or e-gift card! I'll draw a winner next week. (I wanted to make this a nonpartisan prize and offer an App Store or Google Play/Android gift, but I can't figure out how to "gift" Android apps!)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Question Time--Now With Answers! (Part One)

I'm offering a bonus entry in my Blogiversary Giveaway to anyone who asks me a question (and you can still enter until this Saturday, if you haven't already!). Since several people took me up on that, I thought I'd answer some of the questions today. Others will be addressed next week, so stay tuned.

Several of the questions I've received specifically addressed blogging, so I'm going to field all of those in their own post. Today I'm responding to some of the more random ones, like "favorite things"...including books!

I usually have a hard time giving just one answer to "favorites" questions, but I actually do have just one response to UnfinishedPerson's question:
What's your favorite ice cream?
This question is easy for me to answer because I really don't like ice cream very much (Yeah, I know, how un-American of me.) But when I do eat ice cream, I want chocolate, preferable with other chocolate things embedded in it (cookie or brownie bits preferred) and with warm chocolate sauce over it. But in all honesty, I'd prefer the brownie with the warm chocolate sauce. You can add a little of the ice cream as garnish if you want, though. Are you buying?

This is exactly the question I'd have expected my theatre-loving friend April to ask:
What's your favorite musical? :)
I've had two since I was a kid, in this order: The Music Man and My Fair Lady. The latter is in large part because of the great dialogue, which largely comes from the show's origination in the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion; the show's concept is, honestly, kind of irritating to a 21st-century feminist. The Music Man is as all-American as it gets--it has some terrific classic songs, and the lead female character is a librarian!

As for more recent shows, I love Wicked (much more than the book), and Spamalot is the funniest musical I've ever seen--that includes the songs, too!

Adrienne was wondering:
When do you find so much time to read?
It's honestly not as much time as it may appear to be, especially during the week, but I do read every night before I go to sleep. Also, I never go anywhere without a book, so if I find a few minutes, I can squeeze in a few pages. I manage to get in a few hours of solid reading time most weekends, and when I do have the time (and the right book), I can read pretty quickly. I can have two books going at once if one of them is an audiobook. And I don't get out very much.

These two questions basically have the same answer, so I'm putting them together. Pearl asks:
What is your favorite ever book?
And Kim's question is:
If there's one book you could make everyone read (or at least try to read), what book would it be?
Actually, I did try to get everyone to read it a couple of years ago. If you were around then, you might remember my evangelizing for Mary Doria Russell's genre-crossing literary masterwork, The Sparrow:
"There aren't many books that I'm an evangelist for. I'll tell you what I like, and I'll make suggestions and recommendations, but I don't often state outright that 'You HAVE to read this.' I will go out on that limb for The Sparrow, though. You have to read this.
"This is a very hard book to pigeonhole. You may not care for science fiction; this is SF free of technobabble. While the primary plot concerns interplanetary exploration and first contact with a non-human species in another solar system, the focus is on character and the setting doesn't require contortion of the imagination. You may be wary of fiction with religious overtones; this novel prominently features several Jesuit priests among its characters, but the last thing it does is preach. The novel explores Big Ideas of faith and God and humanity and the Meaning of Life in the way that many of us would - in far-ranging conversations with friends - and doesn't beat you over the head with them. You'd never guess that this is Mary Doria Russell's first novel (previously, she wrote scientific articles and technical manuals); the writing is very accomplished, and yet it doesn't call attention to itself at all. What other arguments can I shoot down for you?"
Anna asked:
What is the best book you've read that your probably wouldn't have read if it weren't for other book bloggers?
I don't think I can narrow it down to one book, but I can definitely single out an author I now love and wouldn't have discovered without book bloggers: Beth Kephart. Thank you, book bloggers!

On a sort-of-related note--well, it's another reading question--Kailana (Kelly) asks:
What are 5 blogs that you read that you think more people should be checking out?
To be honest, I really don't know what blogs other people are (or aren't) reading, and some of my regular reads may not be what y'all would think of as "blogs," because they're not one-person operations like this one. But they're in my feed reader, so I'm counting 'em, even if I don't read all their posts all the time:

The Mary Sue--geek culture with a girl twist
Monkey See--NPR's pop-culture and entertainment blog, and source of my favorite podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour
The Broad Side--women playing politics
Social Dialect--talking about the ins & outs & ups & dens of social media
Pop Culture Nerd--"pop culture" here includes books

And from Serena, a question that sounds more like a challenge:
If I recommended a book of poetry, would you read and review it on your blog?
Yes. OK. But please make it one that's short and not too complicated, and DO give me a deadline so I don't keep putting it off!

Got a question? I might have an answer--and if you ask it by March 31, on the form embedded in this post, I'll enter you in my Blogiversary Giveaway!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Talk: *Little Princes*, by Conor Grennan

This is my final review from the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list.

(Also: Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
Conor Grennan (Facebook) (Twitter)
William Morrow Paperbacks (2011), Reprint, Paperback (ISBN
Nonfiction (memoir), 320 pages (ISBN 0061930067 / 9780061930065)
Source: publisher
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir) WINNER, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines (from the Prologue): “It was well after nightfall when I realized we had gone the wrong way. The village I had been looking for was somewhere up the mountain. In my condition, it would be several hours’ walk up a rocky trail, if we could even find the trail in the pitch-dark. My two porters and I had been walking for thirteen hours straight. Winter at night in the mountains of northwestern Nepal is bitterly cold, and we had no shelter. Two of our three flashlights had burned out. Worse, we were deep in a Maoist rebel stronghold, not far from where a colleague had been kidnapped almost exactly one year before.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: In search of adventure, twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan embarked on a yearlong journey around the globe, beginning with a three-month stint volunteering at an orphanage in civil war–torn Nepal. But a shocking truth would forever change his life: these rambunctious, resilient children were not orphans at all but had been taken from their families by child traffickers who falsely promised to keep them safe from war before abandoning them in the teeming chaos of Kathmandu. For Conor, what started as a footloose ramble became a dangerous, dedicated mission to unite youngsters he had grown to love with the parents they had been stolen from—a breathtaking adventure, as Conor risked everything in the treacherous Nepalese mountains to bring the children home.
Comments: I work for an organization whose mission is providing services to nurture healthy families. In some cases, that may mean bringing broken families together again. We’re part of the social-services system, supported by local government and the general community. We operate in a sphere not unlike that of Conor Grennan’s organization, Next Generation Nepal...and we operate in a very different world, figuratively and literally. For one thing, the families we’re trying to hold together were probably not broken apart by child trafficking.

At the beginning of a year of traveling around the world, and with very little idea of what he was getting into, Conor Grennan worked as a volunteer at the Little Princes Children’s Home in Godawari, Nepal for a few weeks. He hadn’t known what to expect, and he certainly hadn’t expected to be as affected by the experience as he was, but he quickly grew attached to the eighteen orphans who lived there and promised to come back as soon as he could. That wasn’t till over a year later, and on his return visit, he stayed longer and expanded the scope of his work. He’d learned that most of the children at Little Princes weren’t truly orphans; they’d been recovered from a child trafficker. Parents in the remote, impoverished northern regions of Nepal would give over their children in the belief that they’d get education and opportunities in Kathmandu, never knowing that they were being sold as laborers in the city or ending up on the streets. The city’s numerous children’s homes couldn’t help enough of them. There was no social-services system to protect them, let alone get them back home, but Conor was determined to do something about that. He could raise money...and he could make the difficult journey, largely on foot, into northern Nepal to track down families, beginning with those of the Little Princes.

Grennan may not be the most eloquent writer, but he’s a fine storyteller with a conversational style and a remarkable story to tell, and he capably engages his reader. It’s not hard to understand his bonding with the Little Princes and how that spurred an impulse to do more, and while it was difficult for me to keep some of the characters straight sometimes, it was easy to see how they affected him. I found him very likable--the nature of memoir sometimes makes it challenging to evaluate the story being told apart from the person telling that story, but having said that, both come off well here--and couldn’t help rooting for him. The journey to find the Little Princes’ families held many challenges that made for suspenseful reading--geography, weather, language barriers, and physical injuries among them--and I was completely drawn into it.

Conor Grennan’s work with Next Generation Nepal is ongoing, but Little Princes has a definite narrative arc--and one that would make an excellent film, based on what I was visualizing throughout my reading of the book. A portion of the proceeds of every copy of Little Princes sold goes to support NGN (I feel guilty about getting a review copy!), but the heightened attention and money a movie could generate would certainly help NGN carry out its mission:
Next Generation Nepal preserves family unity and strengthens communities by reconnecting trafficked children with their parents and culture in post-conflict Nepal by: 
  • Searching remote regions to find families of children who were taken by child traffickers with false promises of safety and education.
  • Reconnecting these children with their families by facilitating regular communications and visits.
  • Caring for children in transitional homes that offer safety and security during the reconnection process.
  • Strengthening local communities to support the safe reunification of children with their families whenever possible, in partnership with local and international organizations.
Little Princes is the moving, memorable story of an unexpected hero in an unlikely place, and I hope it leads to one happy ending after another.

Rating: 4/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Talk: *Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother*, by Amy Chua

This week, I'm posting the final two reviews of the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list contenders.

(Also: Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua (Facebook) (Twitter)
read by the author
Penguin (Non-Classics) (2011), Reprint, paperback (ISBN 0143120581 / 9780143120582)
Nonfiction (memoir/parenting), 256 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Audible ASIN B004INSU48)
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir) RUNNER-UP, Audiobook Challenge 2012, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It's also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: At once provocative and laugh-out-loud funny, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother set off a global parenting debate with its story of one mother's journey in strict parenting. Amy Chua argues that Western parenting tries to respect and nurture children's individuality, while Chinese parents typically believe that arming children with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence prepares them best for the future. Achingly honest and profoundly challenging, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chronicles Chua's iron-willed decision to raise her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, the Chinese way-and the remarkable, sometimes heartbreaking results her choice inspires.
Comments: The very nature of memoir sometimes makes it challenging to evaluate the story being told and not the person telling that story. Amy Chua makes it especially challenging with her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; particularly in the audio version, which she reads herself, she seems quite aware that she’s opening herself to a lot of potentially negative personal judgment. But she doesn’t seem entirely uncomfortable with that, either; as an attorney and law professor, as well as a mother, Chua is likely well acquainted with both passing judgment and being subjected to it.

The original premise that led Chua to write ...Tiger Mother--that Chinese mothering practices are better than “Western” ones--is a pretty judgmental one, and if the book stuck to it more closely, it might have been judged even more harshly than it was by some readers. But along the way, it develops into a much more personal story--one that contains many revealing, unflattering details undermining that original premise, and that allowed me to feel more empathy for Chua and her daughters, even when I vehemently disagreed with her.

Chua’s generalizations of differences between “Chinese” and “Western” parenting are sometimes on target, but they’re often irritating--and I’d suggest that what she calls “Chinese” parenting (and acknowledges is not strictly confined to that particular ethnic group) could just as well be described as “old world.” Some aspects of what she talks about reminded me of the way I was brought up; my parents came from European immigrant stock, but as first- and second-generation Americans, they weren’t that far removed from older traditions yet. (And in all honesty, I may be part of the last generation whose parents really didn’t seek out or subscribe to much “parenting” theory; they just raised their kids.) Emphasizing hard work leading to achievement, deferring to authority figures, and not involving children in decisions that directly affect them are pretty traditional concepts.

On the other hand, some aspects of what Chua talks about strongly resemble the very modern Western concept of “helicopter” parenting--and given that she had a busy career while raising her children, I’m oddly impressed that she had time to be as deeply involved in some aspects of her daughers’ lives as she was. I was particularly struck by the amount of time she spent on the girls’ music practice, studying their pieces herself and giving them practice notes...which is one area where I felt that she really went overboard (and if she were a professional musician with her own expertise to share, I’d have seen it differently). I was also a bit frustrated by how long it seemed to take her to understand that her daughters actually were different people; it was apparent to me that some of their differences--from each other, and in how they behaved within the family--may have correlated to birth-order roles, but that didn’t even come up for discussion until very late in the book.

Despite my issues, I enjoyed ...Tiger Mother and found it surprisingly engaging. It’s very funny in spots, and while I didn’t find Amy Chua entirely likable, I developed a grudging respect for her and her eventual development of self-awareness. And her daughters come across quite well, which makes it hard to argue with the results of Tiger Mothering.

Rating: 4/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Salon: Buzz and Bulletins

There are so many things to talk about in the Salon today!

Let's hit the books first: 

The Indie Lit Awards winners were announced last Monday, and I began posting my reviews of the books that were considered in the Biography/Memoir category that same day. So far, I've discussed:

I Pray Hardest When Being Shot At, by Kyle Garret
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, by Nina Sankovitch
Bossypants, by Tina Fey (previously reviewed, but re-posted for the occasion)

Reviews of the final two are coming this week:
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (runner-up), Monday
Little Princes by Conor Grennan (winner), Tuesday
Those were my personal choices for the top two, and I was very happy that the rest of the panel thought so too!

The Indie Lit Awards postings were interrupted for a BlogHer Book Club review of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which is outstanding. If the year ended today, it would easily be my Book of the Year.

Today, I'm reading The Bloggess' "(mostly true) memoir," Let's Pretend This Never Happened, for a Shelf Awareness review next month. If you know Jenny Lawson from her blog and Twitter, you have some idea what you'll be getting in this book...but only some. You have no idea about the rest. She's got a blurb from Neil Gaiman, though, if that matters.

In other news...

Bloggiesta begins on Friday! Are you working on your to-do list? I've started mine, and I'll be hosting a mini-challenge too...with a prize!

And speaking of prizes, my Blogiversary Giveaway is still open (ask a question on the entry form to get a bonus entry!)! I'll be choosing the winners during the first week of April, so take your chances now!

The winner in my BlogHer/eHarmony sweepstakes was chosen a few days ago, and I was excited that it was one of my regular readers. Congratulations to Stacy, and hope you enjoy spending that Visa gift card!

Oh, and I got retweeted by Christopher Moore yesterday when I linked to a very helpful post from his blog:
That was kind of exciting. And you really should check out that post of his. (@RhapsodyinBooks retweeted it too, which was also very nice.) He'll be touring next month for his latest novel, Sacre Bleu, so it's rather timely--and I hope to be there when he comes back to Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on April 28th.

It's been an eventful month or so around here, but there are big events coming up elsewhere, too...

The BEA Bloggers Conference (formerly the Book Blogger Convention, purchased by BEA earlier this year and an official "concurrent event" with Book Expo America) is starting to add names to its program, which looks to have a strong publishing-industry presence this year. So far, they're mostly authors, but blogger panelists are promised...I'll be watching for updates.

In the meantime, there are discussions brewing about a blogger-centered, independent "unconference" to be held the same day as BBC...and I'll be watching what develops with that, too.

The "unconference" seems to be growing out of a perception that the "new" BBC is developing as a conference for bloggers, presented by those who want to work with bloggers; in response, this new group wants to produce, collaboratively, a day of discussion by and among bloggers.

Ideally, we'd have both. Look at BlogHer. While it's expanding into a growing number of smaller niche conferences, programming at its main event continues to be primarily driven by community input, and it still manages to serve a diverse range of blogger interests and experience levels.

While these events are sorting themselves out, the conversations will continue, and drama may or may not ensue. If you prefer to sit out the drama, there's always Armchair BEA--not much drama, but plenty of fun! It's coming back, and coming to you wherever you are (maybe even at the "real" BEA?)...and now it's on Facebook, too!

What are you reading about--and talking about--today?

The Sunday Salon.com

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Song Lyric Saturday: "History of Everything (The Big Bang Theory theme)"

Welcome to Song Lyric Saturday, a new feature for my NaBloPoMo month of March--and it may make occasional appearances even after that's over, but we'll see how it goes. I'm not a big fan of short stories in traditional form, but when they're set to great melodies and last for under four minutes, sometimes they really work for me. 

I'm developing a new routine during my drive home on Friday afternoons: listening to the latest edition of my favorite podcast, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which usually gets posted for download before I leave the office. It's as close to any "happy hour" as I get, really.

This week, the show's featured topic was TV-show credit sequences, which morphed into a discussion about favorite TV-show theme songs.

The TV-show theme song--especially the old-fashioned kind with lyrics that basically explain the show's premise--is becoming an endangered species. Shows don't have theme songs at all, or the songs are have no words, or they were licensed for the show's use rather than written specifically for it.

There are still a few examples of the tradition out there, though, and not just on TV Land. Barenaked Ladies' song "History of Everything" started out as the theme for The Big Bang Theory, and both the song and the show are favorites of mine.
Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait...
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang! 
"Since the dawn of man" is really not that long,
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song.
A fraction of a second and the elements were made.
The bipeds stood up straight,
The dinosaurs all met their fate,
They tried to leap but they were late
And they all died (they froze their asses off)
The oceans and pangea
See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya
Set in motion by the same big bang! 
It all started with the big BANG! 
It's expanding ever outward but one day
It will cause the stars to go the other way,
Collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it wont be hurt
Our best and brightest figure that it'll make an even bigger bang!
Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
Debating out while here they're catching deer (we're catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy, Encarta, Deuteronomy
It all started with the big bang!
Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang!
It all started with the big BANG!

Do you have a favorite TV-show theme?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Foto: Spring has Sprung!

I can never decide whether the seasons in Southern California don't exist at all, or are just out of whack with both natural and human calendars. Last weekend, just a few days before the vernal equinox and after a warmer, drier winter than normal, we had chilly rain and hail. Now we're looking at high temperatures in the mid-60s/low 70s into next week, with maybe some rain on Sunday.

But back in February, it seemed like we might not have any winter at all this year--it might as well have been spring already.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

(BlogHer) Book (Club) Talk: *The Fault in Our Stars*, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green (Twitter) (Facebook)
Dutton Juvenile (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 9781101569184 / 1101569182)
Fiction (YA), 336 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks edition)
Reason for reading: BlogHer Book Club

Disclosure: I was compensated for this review and participation in discussion about this book at BlogHer.com; I read it as an e-book I had purchased prior to joining the book club.

Opening lines: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my free time to thinking about death.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. 
Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.
Comments: It seems wrong, on the face of it, for a book about teens with cancer to be laugh-out-loud funny. It seems appropriate for a book about teens with cancer to be wrenchingly sad. And when a book that has both these qualities is written with both tremendous intelligence and respect for the intelligence of its readers, it seems quite likely that the author would be John Green.

Green’s adolescent characters tend to have the best qualities of real teens--intelligence, observational skills, critical thinking, a functioning moral compass, and keen, if dark, sense of humor--but they’re never too good to be true. This is particularly fortunate in his latest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, as his principal characters are teens with cancer; in different hands, they could be all too easily sanctified and/or reduced to their condition. However, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are rendered vividly alive in the time they have with each other--”living (their) best life today,” whether they want to or not.

In different hands, this story could simply be a tragedy. Here, it’s hilarious, heart-rending, romantic, sometimes furious, occasionally farfetched (but not where it really matters), painfully honest and honestly painful. The writing is both straightforward and evocative, and the dialogue is particularly remarkable: it’s literate and casual, sometimes within the same sentence--and as someone who’s lived with teens quite recently (and currently), it rang thoroughly real to my ears.

As an adult reader, one of the things that tends to get under my skin when reading YA is the marginalization of adult characters that sometimes happens. Then again, such marginalization is probably an accurate representation of adolescent self-absorption--and to be fair, the adolescents in The Fault in Our Stars may have more justification for their self-absorption, and the associated belief that their parents have no other focus but them, than most teens do. I appreciated that this actually was addressed within the novel, between Hazel and her parents, in a way that was insightful and true to character and story.

The only one of Green’s books I’ve read prior to this one is Looking for Alaska; I have a couple of his others in TBR Purgatory, but I really can’t evaluate The Fault in Our Stars relative to his other work at this point. However, I can say that at this point in 2012, it’s the best book I’ve read this year--although I don't feel that I've communicated that here very effectively, not have shared many details of the book itself beyond the quoted description! Check out some of the other reviews; you'll probably find that many other readers have responded to The Fault in Our Stars much as I have, but most of them express it better. I’d absolutely recommend this novel to both teens and post-teen readers, and I'm excited to be discussing it with the BlogHer Book Club during the next few weeks.

Rating: 4.25/5

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Talk (rerun): *Bossypants*, by Tina Fey

This review was originally posted in July 2011. I'm re-running it as part of my feature on the 2011 Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir) this week. 

(Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Tina Fey
read by the author
Reagan Arthur Books (2011),  Hardcover (ISBN 9780316056861 / 0316056863) (Audio edition 1609419693 / 9781609419691)
Memoir/essays, 288 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook
Reason for reading: Personal
Book description, from the publisher’s website: “Before Liz Lemon, before 'Weekend Update,' before 'Sarah Palin,' Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.
She has seen both these dreams come true.
At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.
Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.
(Includes Special, Never-Before-Solicited Opinions on Breastfeeding, Princesses, Photoshop, the Electoral Process, and Italian Rum Cake!)
Comments: I’ve referred to celebrity memoir as my “guilty-pleasure genre,” but my most recent experiences with the genre have given me very little to feel guilty about. Perhaps it’s not the genre itself that’s guilt-inducing; it could be the celebrities. If the memoirs I read are actually written by celebrities who are interesting people best known for appearing in places other than TMZ and the tabloids - and are competent writers to boot - I suppose none of us have any reason to be embarrassed.

I intended to read Tina Fey's memoir/personal essay collection Bossypants (we bought it in hardcover) eventually. However, I read quite a few reviews during Audiobook Month (June 2011) that suggested that audio was the perfect format for the book. That guidance led me to make it my very first download from Audible.

There was no guilt involved in this one, either. This is definitely not a "tell-all" - there are some things that Tina Fey does not intend to talk about in this book, and she states that up front. However, she doesn't mince words when it comes to the things she does want to talk about.

Tina Fey's autobiography isn't terribly remarkable. She had a middle-class upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs as the younger child and only daughter of parents who are still married to each other; college; a move to Chicago to work, study improvisational theatre, and eventually join the Second City comedy troupe, which led to another move - this time to New York and a job as a writer for Saturday Night Live; creation of and a starring role in a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning sitcom inspired by her experience on SNL...and marriage and a family. Okay, some parts of her autobiography are pretty remarkable.

Fey’s recollections of career and life milestones are mixed with observations about life, society, and the challenges of being a woman who loves both her work and her child in early 21st-century America. Bossypants may strike some readers as being a little short on personal insight and reflection, but Fey’s opinions on the bigger picture are a worthwhile trade. It’s not entrirely clear to me whether she self-identifies as a feminist, but her worldview is clearly informed by feminism. As befits the title of the book, Fey does spend much of the second half discussing work, and repeatedly expresses a preference for the collaborative management style that tends to be more associated with women; she is a boss, as creator of 30 Rock, and is fully aware of the perks, the stress, and the responsibility that go with being the source of 200 people's paychecks.

But it’s not all serious gender politics or management theory - in fact, most of it’s not serious gender politics or management theory. Most of it's humorous and real. Tina Fey’s experience is in writing and performing comedy, and this makes Bossypants, as read by its author, ideally suited to audio. If you’re a Tina Fey fan, which I am, you’d probably hear her voice in your head while reading the book anyway, so why not just hear it for real? She mines her own story for the funny, mixes it with smart observations and self-deprecating reflections, and comes across as pretty down-to-earth and genuine. My stepdaughter was in a six-week teenage theatre workshop last summer, and I want her to hear Tina’s stories of her two high-school years in "Summer Showtime;" in addition to those, I particularly liked her work stories and the tale of her ill-fated honeymoon cruise. I was intrigued to discover just how much Liz Lemon is Tina Fey (a lot). And I appreciated the way her appreciation of certain people in her life - most notably her parents, her mentor Lorne Michaels, and her friend and SNL colleague Amy Poehler - came across so clearly.

I should also mention one feature of the Bossypants audiobook that’s not part of the print version: it includes the full audio of her first "Sarah Palin" sketch for Saturday Night Live. While that’s not the only reason to “read” this on audio, it’s definitely something to consider if you’re torn between this and the print version.

I’m (still) glad I chose this for my very first audiobook.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Talk: *Tolstoy and the Purple Chair*, by Nina Sankovitch

This week and next, I'll be posting my reviews of the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list, working my way up to the top two.

(Also: Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Nina Sankovitch (Facebook) (Twitter)
Harper Perennial (2012), Paperback (ISBN 0061999857 / 9780061999857)
Nonfiction (memoir/books), 256 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B004MMEIWI)
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir), E-Book Reading Challenge 2012, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines: “In September 2008 my husband, Jack, and I went away for a weekend, leaving our four kids in the care of my parents. We went by car from suburban Connecticut out to the Atlantic beaches of Long Island. We had a Windsurfer lashed to our roof and a bike shoved in the back on top of our few bags filled with clothes and books, enough for three days away. Our vacation weekend was my present to Jack in honor of his fiftieth birthday.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Nina Sankovitch has always been a reader. As a child, she discovered that a trip to the local bookmobile with her sisters was more exhilarating than a ride at the carnival. Books were the glue that held her immigrant family together. When Nina's eldest sister died at the age of forty-six, Nina turned to books for comfort, escape, and introspection. In her beloved purple chair, she rediscovered the magic of such writers as Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and, of course, Leo Tolstoy. Through the connections Nina made with books and authors (and even other readers), her life changed profoundly, and in unexpected ways. Reading, it turns out, can be the ultimate therapy. 
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair also tells the story of the Sankovitch family: Nina's father, who barely escaped death in Belarus during World War II; her four rambunctious children, who offer up their own book recommendations while helping out with the cooking and cleaning; and Anne-Marie, her oldest sister and idol, with whom Nina shared the pleasure of books, even in her last moments of life.
Comments: From books to blog and back again, Nina Sankovitch chronicles her “year of magical reading” in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. In describing it that way, Sankovitch intentionally references Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; this is a time of healing from loss, as she turns to books--reading one each day, every day for one year, and writing about it on her blog Read All Day--to help her make sense of life following the death of her beloved sister from an aggressive form of cancer.

If you didn’t know what was motivating Nina to undertake this project, it would be easy to envy this stay-at-home mother of four sons for having the luxury of spending the bulk of her days reading and blogging for an entire year. And once you do know her motivation for it...well, it’s still hard not to be just a little envious, but that’s greatly tempered by compassion. This isn’t a vacation--Nina is not taking a year off from her family or domestic responsibilities to bury herself in books. It’s not a vague, idealistic quest for “self-improvement” either--this is focused, or as she describes it, “intense.” This is reading as therapy--and it seems to have been pretty effective therapy, at that.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an engaging and inspiring read. While it’s a chronicle of an endeavor fueled by sad circumstances, it’s also a record of accomplishment. Nina actually manages to read 365 books in one year, at the rate of one per day, and write about them all, but that’s really all in service of a larger goal; books are her tools. At the end of that year, working with the tools she’s chosen, she’s gained insight and understanding about how to keep living and loving and moving forward. She discusses selected, personally significant books in some detail, but this isn’t so much a “book about books” as it is a book about one particular thoughtful, articulate reader’s personal journey through one transformative year, which has a narrative arc of its own.

While not exactly a book about books, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a book about reading, and it’s clearly a book for readers. The idea of using books to help process a significant life event--not strictly looking for information, but seeking emotional truth in stories both real and fictional--makes perfect sense to a reader. It’s something many of us probably have done, or would do under equally personally-challenging conditions, even if we couldn’t devote a full year exclusively to it. However, as readers, we can appreciate that Nina Sankovitch did, and chose to share her story; it’s evidence of the life-changing power of books...literally.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Talk: *I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At*, by Kyle Garret

This week and next, I'll be posting my reviews of the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list, working my way up to the top two.

(Also---Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At
Hellgate Press (2011), Paperback original (ISBN 1555716865 / 9781555716868)
Nonfiction (biography/memoir), 200 pages
Source: publisher
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir), Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines: “This is a book about love and war.
“My grandparents had a love affair of over sixty years. Three generations of my family have served in the military, spanning Pancho Villa’s attack on US soil to Vietnam. In my family, love and war were nearly inseperable.”

                     Book description, from the publisher’s websiteI Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At is a true story of love and war. It’s the story of three generations and two romances, one of sixty years, the other of just a few months. Pray deals with one generation trying to connect with another and how it affected both of them.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, eighteen-year-old Robert Stuart had a decision to make: keep working at the steel mill in Warren, Ohio, or volunteer to serve his country. Stuart’s father had served in the first World War, and service was in his blood, so he enlisted in the Marines.
Anne Davis had a decision of her own to make. The girls in her high school were going to send letters to alumni who were going off to war. She looked at the list of soldiers and saw a familiar name: Robert Stuart.
The letters Anne sent would mark the beginning of a relationship that would span sixty years, two marriages, two children, and three wars.
Over half a century after those first letters were sent, the Stuarts’ grandson, Kyle, began chronicling their life together. He would discover pieces of a family history that only he dug deep enough to learn. But in the back of his mind, one concern lingered: the story of a person’s life can only have one ending, and his grandfather’s health was deteriorating.
Comments: The title of I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At was provided by retired three-war veteran Robert Stuart, who was intended to be the subject of the book. However, the book’s author is Stuart’s grandson, Kyle Garret...and along the way, the book became at least as much about him, and how he went about writing a book about his grandfather, as it ever was about Stuart.

The end result is a mixture of biography, memoir, history, and dissection of the writing process, and is not entirely satisfying in any of those aspects. Garret’s grandfather died when he was still in the early stages of writing, which caused him to lose opportunities for research via correspondence and personal interview with his subject; as a result, we don’t really get much insight into Stuart beyond the basic biographical details. Garret is so acutely aware of this that it overshadows his original intent to highlight his grandfather’s story as part of the “Greatest Generation.” In the end, this is primarily a book about someone writing a book...and I didn’t feel that I got much insight into that, either.

There were moments of ...Pray... that absorbed me, and elements that could have been been constructed into a compelling story, but the overall narrative is choppy. I think that a major cause of that choppiness is the book’s pervasive self-consciousness. As a reader, I don’t really need to be told, over and over, about the writer’s intentions and challenges in writing the book I have in my hands. Here, the writing of the story becomes a story of its own, sometimes overwhelming the original story itself--and that is not to the benefit of either of them.

I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At would not have come to my attention at all without the Indie Lit Awards. It’s a great example of the sort of book these awards should recognize: a personal passion project of its author, published by a small press, championed by readers (it received more short-list nominations than several more prominent titles). However, the awards-show cliché “It’s an honor just to be nominated” applies here. It’s a challenge to produce a compelling biography of someone who isn’t already well-known, and not everyone can rise to it like Laura Hillenbrand or Rebecca Skloot--Kyle Garret’s not there yet. Perhaps he’ll revisit his grandfather’s story one day and really make it about his grandfather; if so, he’s got a good first draft already.

Rating: 2.75/5

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Salon: Welcome to My 5th Blogiversary Party--and there are gifts!

My first post on The 3 R's Blog was on March 16, 2007. The second post went up on March 18--five years ago today. (And then I didn't post a third time until April.)

A few days ago, I reflected on some of the developments I've seen on the way to this milestone. On my blogiversary itself, I shared a snapshot of my very first post. But celebrations are best suited for weekends...welcome to my fifth Blogiversary party! 

Party Favors!

A few weeks ago, I shared a special discount code that GoneReading International is offering to 3 R's Blog readers:

The coupon expires on March 31st, and is good for 25% off any purchases at www.GoneReading.com except bookends. GoneReading's speciality is cool reading-themed gifts, and all of their after-tax profits go to support libraries and reading-related charities.

In addition, GoneReading will send a "Go Reading" gift collection--with items selected by me--to one lucky reader! You'll receive:
(This giveaway is for US residents only.)

I am also giving away a $25 iTunes gift card (or e-mail gift certificate) which may be used on anything you like--music, e-books, audiobooks, apps)--from the iTunes store. (This giveaway is open internationally.)

You may enter either or both giveaways, but you may only win one of them! I will select a winner using Random.org during the week of April 1--if the same winner comes up twice, I'll randomize again to pull a different name. To enter, please use the form at the end of this post--you'll see there how to get a bonus entry! (If you're viewing in a feed reader, you may have to click through.)

And there's one Blogiversary gift you can give to me, if you're so inclined. The 3 R's Blog has a Facebook page--would you please "like" it if you haven't already? All of the blog posts are linked there, along with other links and miscellany that are exclusive to the page.

Party Games!

Since this blog no longer has the same URL it started with--I bought the much more manageable www.3rsblog.com in July 2008--it's a little tricky to come up with its lifetime stats for things like visits and pageviews, so I'm not going to waste our time number-crunching. I thought it might be fun to see what content is associated with the biggest numbers over the last five years, though, so here we go:

Top 5 Most-Viewed Posts
Factors for a successful marriage - the Pew Survey (July 2007--over 1200 views, mostly from search traffic)
From The I-Don't-Get-It Files: Eight is more than enough (February 2009--a post about the "Octomom" that got picked up as a "related content" link by CNN.com for about a day)
My Festival of Books Report, (April) 2010 edition (mostly thanks to one of the authors mentioned in it, Pamela Ribon, who tweeted the link)
Ten on Tuesday: I am Music, or These Are the Songs of My Life (February 2009)

These are certainly more representative of the "randomness" and the "'riting" than the "reading" that goes on around here, aren't they? They also serve as reminders that words live forever on the Internet...

Popular searches
Most search traffic lands here by searching on some variation of the blog's title--some actually is looking for "3 r's blog," while the others are just looking for "three r's." (Sadly, they will not learn 'rithmetic here.)
Top 5 searches leading to specific posts:
factors for a successful marriage
book review policy (actually leads to a page and not a post..but hey, people do look at it!)
shelf awareness consumer edition (happy to see this association)
firefly lane plot (this is my most-viewed book review)
office gift exchange (gets most hits during December)

Party Treats and Sneak Peeks!

The Indie Lit Awards winners are scheduled to be announced tomorrow, and I'll be posting my reviews of all the Biography/Memoir short list titles through this week and into next, leading up to the runner-up and the winner--I'm very excited to be able to share those at last! The BlogHer Book Club for John Green's The Fault in Our Stars kicks off this week too--look for my review on Thursday, but I'll tell you right now that I will not be disagreeing with the majority opinion on this one.

The Sunday Salon.com

Have a great week, and thanks for coming to my Blogiversary party!