Sunday, March 7, 2010

Photo Tour: The Marais, Paris

Place des Vosges.

Jewish bakery on Rue des Rosiers.

Rue des Rosiers.


Jewish Quarter.

Another Marais street.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Twelve Tips for Reading More

My only New Year's resolution this year was to read more so I was excited to see twelve tips for doing just that in my recent newsletter from The Happiness Project. I think numbers 3 and 5 will be most helpful to me.

1. Quit reading. I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started. No more. Life is short. There are too many wonderful books to read.

2. Read books you enjoy. When I’m reading a book I love—for example, I’m now reading A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book—I’m astonished by how much time I find to read during my day. Which is another reason to stop reading a book I don’t enjoy.

3. Use TiVO. It’s much more efficient to watch shows on TiVO, because you skip the commercials and control when you watch. Then you have more time to read.

4. Skim. Especially when reading newspapers and magazines, often I get as much from skimming as I do by a leisurely reading. I have to remind myself to skim, but when I do, I get through material much faster.

5. Get calm. I have a sticky note posted in our bedroom that says, “Quiet mind.” It’s sometimes hard for me to settle down with a book; I keep wanting to jump up and take care of some nagging task. But that’s no way to read. Incidentally, one of the main reasons I exercise is to help me sit still for reading and writing -- if I don't exercise, I'm too jumpy.

6. Don’t fight my inclinations. Sometimes I feel like I should be reading one book when I actually feel like reading something entirely different. Now I let myself read what I want, because otherwise I end up reading much less.

7. Always have something to read. Never go anywhere empty-handed. I almost always read actual “books,” but I carry my Kindle with me everywhere, so that I know I’ll never be caught without something to read. It’s a great comfort.

8. Maintain a big stack. I find that I read much more when I have a pile waiting for me. Right now, I have to admit, my stack is so big that it’s a bit alarming, but I’ll get it down to a more reasonable size before too long.

9. Choose my own books. Books make wonderful gifts – both to receive and to give – but I try not to let myself feel pressured to read a book just because someone has given it to me. I always give a gift book a try, but I no longer keep reading if I don’t want to.

And some tips from great writers and readers:

10. Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim! Read at whim!
11. Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.
12. Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Girls from Ames Book Club Meeting

Angela Bendorf Jamison, one of the eleven friends chronicled in The Girls From Ames, was our special guest at our book club meeting this month. Angela found us through one of our blog posts and graciously offered to come to one of our meetings. She answered all of our questions and updated us on the girls' lives. We had a great discussion about friendship and how it changes with the various stages of life. It was particularly interesting to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on how the book came together, the publication process and what's next for the group. Angela also posed for a picture with us - she's the second from the right in the back row.

Thanks for coming Angela!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"One rarely gets the sense in Roth that he would throw away his penis if he could."

So. That title is hard to follow. But I've been thinking about this essay by Katie Roiphe for weeks. It's an essay on the "great American male writers" and how they write about sexuality. Basically, she points out that the Great Male Novelists of the 20th century (Roth, Updike, Bellow, etc.) were, in their writing, explicit and misogynist about sex. Sex was aggressive, virile, dirty, and well masculine. It was often uncomfortably intimate. It wasn't sweet.

But this was problematic, for feminists. The women characters in these books were often hated, ridiculed, despite the male characters' extreme displays of physical intimacy with them. So, post-feminism, we moved on. But what happened? When the next generation of great male writers established a collective voice, it was shockingly asexual. Think David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon. Intimacy with women was reduced to, well, cuddling. Intimacy has become pure and childlike. There may be emotional connection between men and women. It might be romantic, but, well -- it's just not very sexy. It doesn't involve the intimacy of true risk-taking, soul-baring sex on the part of the characters. And if it doesn't involve risk - how can it be a genuine emotional connection?

I have some reactions to this article.

1) Hell yeah, Katie Roiphe is right! I feel like I have no interest in reading Roth, Updike, etc. But I do feel this infantilization of adult love that shows up in the books of the writers she mentions, including my beloved Jonathan Safran Foer! How can it be a good thing for sex, or masculinity, to become childlike?
2) But what about the women writers? Where do Shriver and Atwood and Niffenegger fit in? They write about sexual relationships between men and women that don't seem quite so childlike. What alternate perspectives are they presenting? Are they more real? Or more fantastic?
3) There are other male writers Roiphe doesn't mention: McEwan, Perotta, Irving. We have read all three of them in book club. Are they just not "great enough' for her to consider? Because they present alternate, less conservative, and riskier versions of sexuality.
4) She doesn't mention the "pornification" of our culture. Perhaps we don't need to visit the great male novelists for sexual explicitness, because whatever variety of porn you want is everywhere. The barriers were broken by the 60s, and being dirty is just not a big deal. Or maybe since sexual depravity is so commonplace, with internet porn, that level of intimacy is not needed between real people (or literary characters) to get the same effect. That's a little scary.

But I agree with Roiphe that something is lost. There's got to be something in the middle between misogynist and childlike. Just not sure what the next wave of writing will show. Does this strike a chord with anyone else? Would love to discuss at book club!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Allison's Favorite Read Books of 2009

With just a few hours left in 2009, I wanted to post my top books of the year. According to Goodreads, I read just 15 books in 2009 so rather than do a top ten list I thought I would just highlight a few of my favorites. And speaking of the number of books I read, my one and only resolution this year is to read more -- hopefully at least two books a month.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is the book that stands out to me the most this year. What should be very depressing subject matter is actually uplifting and inspiring. The book is very readable and offers practical suggestions for what the reader can do to help. I hope this book becomes a part of high school and college curricula.

Most of my other non-book club reading this year was mysteries and I read two excellent ones this year: The Likeness and What the Dead Know. I heard the word mysterary somewhere once (mystery + literary) and that is a perfect description of these two books. The ending of What the Dead Know actually brought me to tears.

Happy New Year! Hold me to my New Year's reading resolution!

Monday, December 7, 2009

List Time! Liz's Favorite Books Read in 2009

The New York Times released its Ten Best Books of 2009. I have not read any of them. (Although I do have Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women checked out from the library.)

For my top 10 list of 2009, I have to consider all the books I read this year. If I counted only 2009 releases, there would only be 1 or 2 on the list. But here's my list, in order (#1 is my fave of the year). What's on your list?

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (friendship, Victorian, magic)
  2. The Host (body snatcher, not Twilight, love)
  3. The Girl who Played with Fire (trafficking, justice, Sweden)
  4. Dead and Gone (Sookie Stackhouse #9) (southern, vampire, blondes)
  5. From Dead to Worse (Sookie Stackhouse #8) (see #4)
  6. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Jesus, charity, poverty)
  7. Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America (schools, cities, equality)
  8. What Happened to Anna K? (not Tolstoy, New York, modern)
  9. NurtureShock (parenting, science, chatty)
  10. Intuition (postdocs, cancer, truth)
Update: Inspired by Sasha Frere-Jones' best shows of 2009, I added three word descriptors to my book list.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Kindle's Competitor

Now that Kindle is a hit, Barnes and Noble is offering the Nook. When I saw the ads for it (while Cyber Monday shopping) I was barely intrigued, having decided an eBook reader is not for me at this time. However, I subsequently had a conversation with a friend at work who noted that with a Nook, you can actually loan out your books to other Nook users! You enter the other user's email address, and they are notified that the Nook-book is available to them. It's downloaded to their Nook and off the original owner's Nook. It's available to the other user for 2 weeks, after which period it gets sent back to the owner's Nook. The Nook then restricts the borrower from being able to borrow that title again.

It's still not going to replace my library card. But I'm slightly more intrigued now.

The Book Thief: Final Results

didn't like it - 0
it was OK - 0
liked it - 0
really liked it - 3
it was amazing - 1

4 votes total

Sunday, September 20, 2009

SciFi and Philosophy

I recently came across this article from 2008 on "Why Science Fiction is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing." I think it's a little overstated, but I share some of Clive Thompson's sentiments, especially the following statement:

"I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it's because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality."

Meanwhile, I'm reading a fabulous fantasy/alternate history which was shortlisted for the Booker: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. One thing that shines in JS&MN, that Thompson doesn't highlight in his piece, is the ability of science fiction (or in this case fantasy) to present very lucid examinations of questions of morality, by taking us out of our day-to-day prejudices and contexts. My favorite science fiction novels create parables that have stayed with me and inspired me to try to live a more just life - books like the Ender Saga, and The Sparrow, for example.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

This post is on the food side of things but I was so excited by it, I had to share. Tonight I was craving something sweet but didn't have anything in the house. I remembered seeing this single-serving chocolate cake recipe all over the internet this summer and I decided tonight was the night to try it. There are all kinds of variations but the basic premise is that you scale a chocolate cake recipe to one or two servings, pour it in a mug, and microwave it for a few minutes. I chose this recipe randomly and it was a success! It wasn't the best chocolate cake I've ever had but it was very good for taking less than 5 minutes. It would have been even better with ice cream -- maybe next time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Approach to Teaching Reading

Last week I read about a new method of teaching literature in middle school where, rather than teaching a common novel or story that all students read as a group, students choose their own reading material that they then discuss with the teacher individually and with one another. The reasoning behind this method is that if students have a personal interest in what they're reading, they will be more likely to develop a habit of reading. For one teacher profiled in the story, her students even fared better on standardized reading tests after adopting this method.

Critics of this method say that these students may miss out on works of quality and complexity and the common body of knowledge that comes from reading literary classics. But maybe by reading books of their own choice and becoming habitual readers, they will eventually choose more "difficult" books down the road.

The article also mentions a school district in NY that sets aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing. Where was that when I was in middle school? I used to race through assignments and tests so that I could have a few free reading minutes before everyone else finished and we moved on.

Monday, August 31, 2009

North Carolina Literary Festival

Coming up the weekend of September 12th is the North Carolina Literary Festival, being held at UNC. I really enjoyed it when it was last held in 2006, at Duke. I believe a group of us went to listen to Barbara Kingsolver. I think it would be fun to do something similar this year. There are several evening keynotes, including John Grisham, but most of the authors will be speaking throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday. One of my favorite sessions at the 2006 festival was a conversation between Allan Garganus and Ann Patchett. Garganus is speaking several times at this year's festival so he's definitely on my list of must-see authors. Take a look at the schedule and let me know if you'd be interested in making this a group outing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love: The Sequel

Another memoir from Elizabeth Gilbert is coming out in January. Titled Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, it's a follow up to the previous book, exploring her marriage to "Felipe," the man she met her "Love" chapters.

What do you think? Was Eat, Pray, Love enough? Or are you ready for more Gilbert?

Monday, August 24, 2009

First the Food is on Twitter!

We have recently started tweeting. I think it is a good way to share and keep track of news/public debate on items of personal interest. We will mostly tweet links to interesting literary or book club related articles. Perhaps a few on women's relationships and on politics! Or local NC/RTP area goings on. Please follow us if you're interested in these topics. And let me know: what would you like to see us tweet about? What do you think you would use it for, if at all?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Lace Reader: Final Results

didn't like it - 1
it was OK - 5
liked it - 2

8 votes total.

Yay, we had a lot of people voting this time!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Monica Ali

Has anyone read anything by the author Monica Ali? The New York Times recently reviewed her latest book. Brick Lane and her new book, In the Kitchen, both sound really good. And In the Kitchen seems like it would have a nice culinary theme for a book club meeting.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Where's Spike?

You may have seen this week's cover of EW, with the 20 best vampires of all time.

The list includes Lestat, several different versions of Dracula, Edward Cullen, Bill, Angel, and Keifer Sutherland from The Lost Boys! But I was dismayed to find that you-know-who did not make the list. This is so wrong. It is obvious that Spike is the best vampire ever! Angel whines, Edward pines, Lestat attempts suicide. But Spike is the only vampire who ever has come to the realization that he is evil, and then gone out and done something about it. He's the only one who fought Hell demons to get his soul back, and won. And then, he became a hero. Sure, Spike was the comic relief and Buffy's man stud for a while. But he saw his flaws and tried to make himself a better man, much like another favorite hero of mine.

It's a shame that Spike only made EW's list of hottest vampires. But at least he got something.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Girls from Ames has a local connection

I'm becoming more and more intrigued by this book, especially as many of my friendships are now in their second decade, along with this book club. It turns out one of the Girls lives here in NC and is a cancer survivor-

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Two Questions

With which to start a book club meeting, per Book Group Buzz:

“If you particularly enjoyed this book, what did it offer that you found most satisfying?” or “If the book disappointed you, how would you define its most glaring weakness?

I like the idea about asking what was the most satisfying aspect of a book. Or the least satisfying.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Monsters of Templeton: Final Results

didn't like it - 0
it was OK - 1
liked it - 1
really liked it - 0
it was amazing - 0
didn't finish it

2 votes total

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hobbit: Final Results

didn't like it - 0
it was OK - 1
liked it - 0
really liked it - 0
it was amazing - 1
didn't finish it - 0

2 votes total

Sunday, June 28, 2009


That's the number of books I packed for a 1 week trip to Poland. Not a vacation. A business trip. Five are packed in my suitcase. Four are in my carry-on. Only 2 are for work. (1 each in carry on and in suitcase.) The five in my suitcase?
  1. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson
  2. Swimming Lessons by Mary Alice Monroe
  3. the last Sookie Stackhouse book (#9)
  4. Coming of Age in Second Life (work book)
  5. The Believers b (Zoe Heller)
The 4 in my carry-on?
  1. Infinite Jest (all 1000+ pages)
  2. the 8th Sookie Stackhouse book
  3. The Survey Interview of the Future
  4. the 7th Sookie Stackhouse book (already finished, on the flight from RDU to JFK)
Posting from the JFK airport.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Buffy vs. Edward

I kinda love this in theory. From Bookshelves of Doom.

You can also buy this T-shirt:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Case Histories: Final Results

didn't like it - 2
it was OK - 3
liked it - 0
really liked it - 2
it was amazing - 0
didn't finish it - 0

7 votes total.

Harry Potter: A Romance

Meg Cabot has a hillarious blog post (please, just click through to look at the comments on the pictures) on how the new Harry Potter movie promotional materials make it look like (gasp!) a romance.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What Would Irina Do?

Remember Irina McGovern, central character of The Post-Birthday World? The book hinged around her choice between contentment with one partner and passion with another.

Well, Irina was the first person I thought of (after my husband and myself, I guess) while reading this NYT review of the new book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century, by Christina Nehring. According to the Times Review, her book is an argument for a "darker, more demanding vision of love."
Nehring thinks the contented happy ending of a stable marriage is too tame. The choice to stay in such a marriage is less a sign of emotional health than of insecurity. She praises famous "great lovers" like Frida Kahlo and Heloise, women who had the confidence to entangle themselves in demanding or unorthodox relationships. (Does this mean that when I find my husband a challenge I can credit my mental fortitude?)

Nehring might be wrong, but I'm fascinated by her argument and want to read the book. I especially admire how she seems to present the willingness to love at great risk as the woman's choice - rather than the woman "falling in love" and losing control the way many novels seem to do. What do you think? Does this sound like a good selection for book club? It might lead to some great discussions.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Infinite Summer Reading Challenge

When David Foster Wallace died last fall, I kept reading articles about his life and his writing and I became intrigued in particular with his novel Infinite Jest. Coming in at 1000+ pages plus extensive endnotes, it has been featured on best of all-time lists like this one from Time. Yesterday I saw several links to this website, Infinite Summer, which is challenging people to read Infinite Jest from June 21st to September 22nd, 75 pages a week. This seems doable and kind of fun to me. I like the idea of reading a book with a large group of strangers. In addition to the blog, which will have daily postings by guides and forums for discussing the book, there is also a facebook group and a goodreads page dedicated to the project. Anybody in with me?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Kindle

Does anyone have a Kindle or considered buying one? I've been firmly anti- e-readers in the past but I think I'm warming up to the idea of a Kindle. A few people at work have them and love them. I'm impressed by how close the text looks to book text and it would be so nice for travel. I recently realized you can subscribe to magazines through it too. I'm all for reducing book and magazine clutter in my house. At ~$360, it's still too expensive for me but I can only assume cheaper, better versions will continue to roll out as it gains in popularity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Charlaine Harris in the NY Times

The NY Times has an article on Charlaine Harris and the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. The latest novel, Dead and Gone, is going to be No. 1 on this Sunday's hardcover bestseller list. You can read the first chapter here.

She seems like a neat lady and I'm glad to see the NY Times devote space to her particularly since in the past they have been guilty of ignoring genre fiction.

Monday, May 4, 2009

2009 Agatha Awards

March is Mystery Month is one of my favorite months of book club. However, it's always a challenge to pick an appropriate mystery. The format of the meeting requires that it be a whodunit novel that lays out all the clues and offers the reader a fair play chance of identifying the murderer and motive. Occasionally, we pick a book that doesn't really work.

However, the Agatha Awards are here to help us out! The Agatha Awards go to novels that:
  • contain no explicit sex
  • contain no excessive gore or gratuitous violence
  • usually feature an amateur detective
  • take place in a confined setting and contain characters who know one another
I'd be willing to bet that Agatha winners are almost all fair play whodunits.

The 2009 Agatha winner is The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny. It looks charming!