Sunday, January 30, 2011

The 2010 Leafy Awards!

I have bad news for you, people. In their 4th year now, the annual Leafy Awards, resident bull crap awards at Leafing Through Life, are getting a little high and mighty, a little full of themselves even. They suppose that after four years of existence, they can just show up fashionably late, or whenever the heck they feel like. They told me they were thinking of just waiting until February to show their pampered little faces. Fear not, however, I am yanking them down from off of their high horse and forcing them to present themselves now, a mere almost-month after the new year came to pass.

If you haven't been through this with me in one of these past years, you should know that the Leafy Awards, of course, are my way of recapping my reading year in extraordinarily good (and occasionally bad) books. All those many years ago when I started this tradition, I was dead tired of ye olde "Top 10" list and mostly unable to pick just 10, so I cooked up a slew of bogus categories to spotlight any book I very well wanted to. And so it has continued to this very day, with new and different bogus categories to go with all those old and samey categories that have appeared before. No charts, no graphs, no stats, just pure unadulterated texty rambly tangential goodness!

Without further ado or explanation...I present to you the cream of my very small crop....the 2010 Leafy Awards!

The "Can You Believe I Read This (AGAIN)?" Award goes to....

Hamlet by William Shakespeare! (Turns out I forgot to lock the door when when I shut it on Shakespeare after the last page of my AP English exam in high school. Sneaky bastard bard snuck back in....and I liked it!)

The Book I Got SO Into I Almost Believed Its Events Were Actually Happening award goes to...

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (How many times can you say that you looked up from a book and were actually disoriented because oh actually you aren't, you know, living through the apocalypse after all? You're just reading a book and making a true statement of that quote in your blog header.)

The Content to Crying in 25 Pages or Less award:

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (20 pages it took this book to have me in tears. That has to be a record or something, right?)

The Total Tears award for most pages spent crying (and liking it) goes to...

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell (All without a single cheap emotional ploy! Brava! And I just loved this book. Loved it. < /gushing >)

Winner of the cheesy "I Laughed, I Cried, I Loved it Award!"):

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (Because, I did, you know, laugh and cry and love it. And a book has to be pretty darn good for me to consider the use of this cheesy sentence. Plus, this book made my dad cry. When does that even happen?)

The thoroughly uncontested Cruelest Cliffhanger award belongs to...

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Resulting in a panicked last minute scramble to add the other two books in the Chaos Walking series to my Christmas list. Fear not, I was not too late, and they were under my Christmas tree! I must know if anything good ever happens to these poor kids...)

The Unforgotten Award:

Complications by Atul Gawande (for being that book from the very beginning of the year that you would totally forget if you hadn't loved it enough to carry that warm fuzzy feeling of book love with you all through the year. Also takes the cake in the Important but Enjoyable Book of the Year category)

The Glorious Bookish Nostalgia Award is a tie between...

Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein (for reminding me of my love for the horror/thriller/mystery reading that defined my high school reading self. Despite how much I really did enjoy this book, it is also the unfortunate winner of the Blogger Fatigue award for wearing out its welcome in the book blogosphere within a month of its re-release.)


Full Tilt by Neal Shusterman (for reminding me of my inner middle school reader who loved reading those creepy Fear Street stories by R.L. Stine deep into the night while skulking in the doorless entry to my room reading by the hall light because I was supposed to have been sleeping. The sound of the door at the bottom of the stairs always gave me enough time to sneak back to bed without being caught. Ahh, the good days.)

Winner of The Book Evangelist's Book of the Year award is...

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen (Have I recommended this book to you yet? If not, maybe you should check and see if you have a pulse? I pushed this book in my review, in person both far and wide to my family and people I met at BEA, and then I pulled it out again to foist it upon people during BBAW. Despite my best efforts, though, it still takes this year's top honors in the Criminally Underappreciated category.)

Honorable Mentions because I can't think of appropriately quirky categories:

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (The I Secretly Love Books About Prison Award? Um, no. Book That Made Me Love Prisoners award? Ugh, definitely no, but it, uh, did. Honorable mention. Yeah.)

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian (Best Elderly Narrator award? Ehhhh. Best Book About a Historical Event That Giant Swathes of People Still Aren't Talking About award? Snappy, really rolls of the tongue. Best Book about Genoci...ah hell, Honorable mention!)

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (Because Book I Didn't Realize Was Brilliant Until I Reviewed It 2 Months After the Fact seems like the worst of backhanded compliments - Honorable mention!)

Thursday, January 27, 2011


This past weekend was the 4th Bloggiesta hosted by Natasha at Maw Books. It's a blogging marathon where you get all your blogging housekeeping done that hasn't been getting done. Nobody needs a Bloggiesta more than I do, but it never fails that I'm always totally booked the weekend of Bloggiesta - all four of them. Therefore, since I'm not busy this coming weekend, I've decided to have my own lonely Bloggiesta for better or worse. It might not be nearly as fun and community involved and all those good things I've been missing by, you know, never being home to attend to the needs of my blog during the allotted Bloggiesta days, but I'm taking the idea and borrowing the picture, even, and here's hoping I can accomplish some things. Some of these things in particular...

- Write 4 3 book reviews (The Knife of Never Letting Go, Blood Lily, The Death Instinct, and Open House)
- Write up the 2010 Leafy Awards (Seriously...I haven't done this yet?!?)
- Write a post about the new (used) books I may or may not have acquired this week (Bad Megan!!)
- Add the new acquisitions to my LibraryThing shelf
- Experiment with a new feature I've been toying with and see if its regularly doable
- Whip my review books spreadsheet into shape
- Make a pretty banner for the header (!!!)
- Get books ready to take to the post office and to donate
- Prepare about a zillion Waiting on Wednesday posts (So fun, so easy - no excuse not to have them!)
- Finish the Book Review by Title Archive
- Back up blog
- Clean up the dreaded feed reader
- Comment on 20 19 15 7 blogs

And/or whatever else I can think of. Wish me luck!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Starting From Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins

The day Olivia Tshcetter defended her doctoral dissertation on "The Use of Flouting Implicatures by Advanced Non-native Speakers of English" should have been a happy day for her. Instead, it was the day Olivia found out about her mother's stroke that would shortly lead to her death. Instead of tying up the loose ends of her doctorate, Olivia is home cooking elaborate meals for her father, unable to tell him or any of her doubting older, overachieving siblings about her defense since she never got the chance to tell the person she most wanted to tell.

Olivia wants to finish her mother's last cooking newsletter, but she can't seem to make the pieces fit together. She can't seem to grieve or even start the process of letting go, so she rattles around her parents' house and cooks attempting to fill the gaping hole left by the loss of her mother. When her father and her aunts corner her to bully her into getting back to work on the dissertation they think she hasn't finished, Olivia flees and finds herself stumbling into a part time job at Meals on Wheels. It's there that Olivia uncovers the mystery of an old friend of her mother's and discovers a long buried secret about the sister she always thought was the most perfect of her siblings.

Starting From Scratch is a sweet but slow moving story about family, secrets, and healing. Susan Gilbert-Collins is one of those authors who skillfully develop their characters not with tons of background information but with realistically rendered dialogue. With their conversations combined with Olivia's feelings, Gilbert-Collins reveals a family, who having lost their matriarch and anchor, seem to be floating away from each other. Olivia is a sympathetic character who provides an interesting and totally believable look into what life is like for the youngest of several siblings, the one who little is expected of, the insecure one standing in the shadows of her three older siblings, the one who is always sheltered and the last to know, the one who nobody ever seems to think of as an adult regardless of how old she might be.

While I liked Starting from Scratch, I didn't love it. It plunges into the grief part too fast without giving us a very well fleshed out picture of Olivia and her siblings' relationships with their mother. You see the characters are sad and crying and struggling, but it's hard to understand the magnitude of their loss, and Gilbert-Collins never made me feel these things along with her characters and so gave me a feeling that I was skimming along the surface of a story that had the potential to touch me much more deeply. The unexpected mystery angle adds some texture to the book, and I enjoyed it and the revelations within the family that resulted. The story, however, takes a long time to build up to the mystery and the revelations so that only the patient will be rewarded.

Despite what I see to be its flaws, Starting from Scratch is an absorbing portrait of the impact of grief on a family, and of a family learning to live life without a loving mother. Caught up in it all is a story of a sensitive girl who never got to become a woman carving a place for herself in a family that has just begun to see her for who she is.

(Thanks to Alexandra at Planned TV Arts for my review copy!)

Other reviews of Starting from Scratch:

A Progressive on the Prairie
S. Krishna's Books

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Ten Miles Past Normal

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Atheneum, March 22, 2011


Janie Gorman wants to be normal. The problem with that: she’s not. She’s smart and creative and a little bit funky. She’s also an unwilling player in her parents’ modern-hippy, let’s-live-on-a-goat-farm experiment (regretfully, instigated by a younger, much more enthusiastic Janie). This, to put it simply, is not helping Janie reach that “normal target.” She has to milk goats every day…and endure her mother’s pseudo celebrity in the homemade-life, crunchy mom blogosphere. Goodbye the days of frozen lasagna and suburban living, hello crazy long bus ride to high school and total isolation--and hovering embarrassments of all kinds. The fresh baked bread is good…the threat of homemade jeans, not so much.

It would be nice to go back to that old suburban life…or some grown up, high school version of it, complete with nice, normal boyfriends who wear crew neck sweaters and like social studies. So, what’s wrong with normal? Well, kind of everything. She knows that, of course, why else would she learn bass and join Jam Band, how else would she know to idolize infamous wild-child and high school senior Emma (her best friend Sarah’s older sister), why else would she get arrested while doing a school project on a local freedom school (jail was not part of the assignment). And, why else would she kind of be falling in "like" with a boy named Monster—yes, that is his real name. Janie was going for normal, but she missed her mark by about ten miles…and we mean that as a compliment.

Frances O’Roark Dowell’s fierce humor and keen eye make her YA debut literary and wise. In the spirit of John Green and E. Lockhart, Dowell’s relatable, quirky characters and clever, fluid writing prove that growing up gets complicated…and normal is WAY overrated.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Another book review brought to you by "Embarassing LibraryThing Early Reviewers Backlog." Today we have, The Blue Notebook by James Levine, arguably the hardest book I've read all year. It's not hard because of the writing, but the subject matter is downright painful.

The Blue Notebook is the story of Batuk, an Indian girl who was sold by her father into sex slavery at the age of nine. When the story begins, Batuk is nested on the Common Street in Mumbai, and at the age of fifteen she is already very well acquainted with the practice of pleasuring her male clients, which she refers to as "making sweet-cake." Batuk knows the tricks of her trade too well for one so young. Batuk has a secret refuge, though, a refuge few of her counterparts can claim. Despite being from a poor rural village, Batuk can read and write, and her words become her refuge and her preservation from a cruel way of life.

And so I look within myself and assemble myself in words. I take the words that are my thoughts and dreams and hide them behind the dark shadow of my kidney. I compress my need for love into words and hide that as a drop of blackness next to my liver (it will be safe there until I need it). I transcribe the poetry of life into words, and with care slide it between sinews of muscle where he will not find it. I craft the words of merriment and sadness (they are the same) into a pyramid and place it under my skin so I can touch it whenever I need to know where my feelings are. I compile my memories into a record full of words and slip that into a slot left open for it in my head. There is plenty of room for all the words in the world to live in me; they are welcome here. He may have taken my light and extinguished it, but now within me can hide an army of whispering syllables, rhythms, and sounds. All you may see is a black cavity that fills a tiny girl, but trust me, the words are there, alive and fine.

Levine paints a raw, gritty and painfully real picture of Mumbai and molds a smart, strong, sympathetic narrator whose only worth in the world has been reduced to what men will pay to have her. Levine shies away from none of the rough edges or the harsh realities of Mumbai itself, nor does he let us look away from the constant struggle that is Batuk's life as she learns her trade and discovers how she has to survive in the new life she's been forced into. Levine gives us a girl, though, whose indomitable spirit and her refuge in the written word sustains her through a life filled with tragedy that is difficult even to read about. Levine's prose is full of vivid descriptions and is even poetic in its own way, but my one complaint would be that sometimes he lets his prose get away from him. There are places where it's better to state the obvious instead of going the more flowery route. For example...

With a big brown brush she wiped cream under my armpit nearest her and shaved off the early grasses of womanhood using a razor.

That one earned an emphatic eye roll from me. (I mean, "early grasses of womanhood".....really?) Thankfully, this is one of only a few rare occasions where Levine seems to get carried away in his efforts to enrich his prose.

The Blue Notebook is a profound and unflinching work of fiction. It's not the sort of book that you're liable to enjoy, but it is an important and eye-opening work that should be read. Even more, it is a book that should be bought because all of the U.S. proceeds from the sale of The Blue Notebook are being donated to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

It didn't snow that much the day of the accident, not even an inch, but it was enough to cancel school for Mia and her brother Teddy and keep their parents home from work. It wasn't enough to keep the family from taking a drive to see friends. Mia doesn't think it had anything to do with the snow at all, but tragedy strikes nonetheless. In a moment, Mia has gone from a happy winter outing with the family she loves to silently and invisibly accompanying her critically injured body from the scene of a deadly car crash that leaves her fighting for her life, or rather deciding whether to fight for her life.

If I Stay follows Mia hour by hour as she realizes that in her disembodied state she has the freedom to roam the hospital halls observing the grief of her boyfriend, her best friend, and her family and reflecting on the life she lived before it was stolen away in an instant. At one point, it becomes all too clear to Mia that she has a choice to make, the most difficult choice with the most important of consequences. It's up to Mia to choose whether she wakes to a new life of pain and struggle or whether she surrenders to a death that looks all too welcoming.

In If I Stay Forman creates a family rife with quirks and personality, a family whose love for each other is palpable. She builds a unique family the reader can love virtually from page one and a main character, Mia, who is strong and talented and in love with the family she stands to lose. Forman weaves the past seamlessly into the present as Mia watches her family and her friends band together at her bedside, giving her reasons to stay or permitting her to go. The flashbacks reveal the beautiful life she has lived that will never be the same and remind her that not all the good has gone even despite the most tragic of events.

I liked If I Stay, but I didn't love it. Part of the reason might be that I heard so much about it before reading it that I went into it expecting more than it could deliver. I went in expecting a tearjerker, and that's definitely what I got. I found myself in tears several times over Mia's story. I read the book quickly, enjoyed the characters, and was impressed by the flashbacks that filled in Mia's history. Sometimes, though, Mia's quirkly, lovable family seemed almost too quirky and lovable, and the tearjerking parts maybe just a bit too much on the emotionally manipulative side, and the dialogue from some of the medical personnel occasionally steps over the line into the soap opera-esque. All these things are but minor quibbles, however, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend If I Stay to anyone who wants to read a powerful story about love, grief, and what ultimately makes life worth living.

(Hey, look! This is a book I actually read from my own shelves. Wild, huh?)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Townie

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Townie by Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton, February 28, 2011


An acclaimed novelist reflects on his violent past and a lifestyle that threatened to destroy him—until he was saved by writing.

After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their exhausted working mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and crime. To protect himself and those he loved from street violence, Andre learned to use his fists so well that he was even scared of himself. He was on a fast track to getting killed—or killing someone else. He signed on as a boxer.

Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash of worlds couldn’t have been more stark—or more difficult for a son to communicate to a father. Only by becoming a writer himself could Andre begin to bridge the abyss and save himself. His memoir is a riveting, visceral, profound meditation on physical violence and the failures and triumphs of love.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Happy New Year, everybody! Guess it's time I got to work on closing out the reviews of last year's reads, huh? Here goes...

Obviously, she knows I'm out of work and that we're in debt (she helped us get there) but she doesn't know, for example, that today Richard is cashing out what's left of my retirement so I can make a deferred balloon payment to the mortgage company next week, "After the meeting with Richard," I tell her, "I'll go see the employment counselor. Then I've scheduled a bank robbery. Then I'm selling my organs to buy food. It's a glorious day in Matt-topia."

Lisa has learned to ignore self-pity disguised as humor - my metier.

Matt Prior's life as he knew it is circling the drain the night he heads out to the 7-Eleven for some overpriced milk. He lost his job some months ago, the job he was forced to crawl back to after he risked it all on a website venture dedicated to financial advice written in mediocre poetry. It's starting to seem inevitable that he will lose his house if he doesn't come up with a significant sum of money before week's end. His wife is carrying on an affair of sorts with an old boyfriend via Facebook and text messages, and his dad's mental health is declining rapidly. When Matt, shuffling under the fluorescent lights of the 7-Eleven in his bedroom slippers, happens upon two of the sorts of guys that you'd rather not run into in a 7-Eleven he soon finds himself driving the two stoners to a party and smoking way better weed than he ever smoked in college. With a clarity that only weed can produce, Matt knows that this weed is the weed that can solve all his problems. He just needs to sell it.

The Financial Lives of the Poets drew an inevitable comparison to the TV show Weeds for me. Both are at once laugh out loud funny and sad in their biting satirization of what the American dream has become. Mercilessly does Jess Walter spear the new American family unit that builds its ambitious life on hard work and mountains of debt. He harpoons the people who seemingly without a second thought take out loans on houses and cars they never had any hope of affording sold to them by slick salesmen peddling an unrealistic way of life. Walter mocks the people who, once they've attained some semblance of security, throw it away on goofy dreams and online shopping binges all the while ignoring the important things in life like their spouses, their children, and their friends.

Hidden within Walter's laugh out loud satire, however, is a set of real, recognizable characters that draw readers' sympathies. There's Matt who got lost while he was trying to find his dreams, who can't sleep at night for worrying about what fate will befall his family now that he's failed as their provider. There's his wife, Lisa, who desperately misses the powerful, sexy career woman she used to be before she gave it up for kids. There's Matt's father who is slowly going senile, but still thinks he's "got it" because he can't remember that a stripper named Charity took him for all he was worth. There are countless would-be customers of Matt's pot dealing scheme who feel like they need to have a smoke just to make it through a day at the office. These are people we know, and in some cases these are people we are, and despite all his squeezing them into ridiculous situations for laughs, Walter doesn't let us forget that. The Financial Lives of the Poets is an engaging story of a family gone awry full of cannily delivered truths and a potent satire of life in today's USA.

It was Franklin's favorite game a couple of years ago, Jenga. ... I stare at the beams in my front yard, stacked crosswise, and it comes to me that life is a version of that children's game: pull one from the bottom, and stack it on top and try to keep the whole thing from falling. Slide a board out, stack it on top, the structure growing taller as the weight shifts upward, until the base begins to look like lattice, and pretty soon you realize you're holding your breath, that there are no more safe moves, but still you must try, always try, because that's the you look for a board to slide, gently...slide...gently...even though you can never win, and it's always the same...breathless and tentative...the world teetering above your head.

(My copy provided for review by Erica at Harper Perennial. Thanks!)