Tuesday, December 31, 2013

30 Second Book Reviews: Goodbye 2013!

2013 is drawing to a close today and this has to have been one of the strangest, fastest and most challenging years I've had in a long time. I'll write more about that later. But to end 2013 with things I adore, and with a little bit of a literary bang, I thought I'd share with you the rest of the books that I read in the final months of this year. There's something here to get you excited about reading in 2014, I promise. So skim these super tiny reviews and pick up something new to start January 2014 with a bang!

No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie -I'm hooked on this British mystery series and fearful I'm going to start adding British slang to my everyday chatter. Tea, loo, cuppa. Yep, it's happening.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman's books make me feel like a kid again, reading with an enthusiasm, speed, glee and terror about what might happen to my friends on the next page. Clever, fresh and familiar and delightful, I loved this one. His books have a heft and a message that doesn't weigh down the story.

12-21 by Dustin Thomason- Since it's 2013 already, I think we all know the end of the world Maya stuff was nonsense, but it did make for a silly, fun, suspenseful summer read.

An Atheist in the Foxhole by Joe Meto- This memoir is mildly amusing fluff. Nothing shocking or particularly revealing. Musto comes across as a rather smug, short sighted prepster in a Rep tie and a sport coat. He's no mole. He's just milking his last five minutes of "fame" and who can blame him.

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgeway-Strange and philosophical, and fun all at the same time. And certain to be a series, which makes me happy.

Kissed a Sad Goodbye by Deborah Crombie-Perfect mystery series to listen to on my commute. And I'm totally out of order in this series and I don't care.

The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook by The Lodge Company - It's so good. I feel like my Great Grandma Ouida every time I haul out the cast iron pan, but after reading this book, I'm not sure why I cook with anything else. Like 1,500 cornbread recipes. And why not? Cornbread is amazing.

It Gets Better by Dan Savage and Terry Miller- I listened to this audio-book that takes multiple interviews with LGBT adults, sharing their stories to help young LBGT youth realize that is does get better. This project has exploded and made a huge impact. The book gets a bit repetitive, but the message is enormously valuable.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell- Because I don't really get the idea of fan-fiction, so it took me a little longer to get sucked into Fangirl than it did with Rainbow's other two amazing novels. But that's my issue, not an issue with the book itself. The book is a delight. Filled with funny, nerdy, flawed and honest characters whose relationships feel so natural that it's quite painful at times to read. Rainbow knows how to capture the blush of first love and lust, much like in Eleanor and Park, it took me right back to those times in my own life. She knows how to let you into a character's head so well that I found myself relating to the young protagonist and at the same time feeling more like her parent, shaking my head and saying to her "What are you doing, Cath?" Rainbow knows how to share the pain of struggling with social anxiety, family with mental illness and divorce without hitting you over the head like a cheesy after school special. I found myself irritated and loving and proud and admiring of the two main characters, twin sisters Cath and Wren. I fell in love with Levi's smile. I wanted to hang out with Regan all night at a local bar. And I ended up even falling in love with all the Simon and Baz bits too by the end. So thanks again, Rainbow, for creating this beautiful, smart, complex and yet familiar world and letting us into it

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer-Sparse and lovely writing with a story that raises the question of possible tandem lives, who we are and what might be if we lived in a different time. I liked this odd little novel, it made me wonder about my own life and the core people I would hope appear in any decade and version of my life.

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley-Everything I like in a vacation read: romance, witty banter, rugged dark haired Scottish hunks, psychic kids, archeological digs, Roman ghosts and some vodka smuggling. I read this while lying in bed in our tiny rented cottage in Maine, staring at the rain hitting our windows and watching the tide come in. That might skew my review, just a heads up.

Someday Someday Maybe by Lauren Graham-Charming vacation read. I hope there's a sequel. Like reading a novel written by and starring a young Lorelei Gilmore. Straight up F.U.N.

The Shanghai Girls by Lisa See-Shredded. Easily one of the most frustrating and depressing books I've read in a long time. I couldn't even read the sequel.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman-Odd, and sweetly sad, and like a fable or a myth that feels true in your bones, but you suddenly find hard to articulate to someone else why it resonates inside of you.

Serena by Ron Rash-One of my favorite books of the year. Deeply flawed, frightening characters and the good people struggling to survive under their watchful, terrifying and charismatic eyes. A fucked up love story, if you'll pardon my language. (Sidenote: I cannot wait to see Jennifer Lawrence play the title character in the movie!)

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling really) - Fine. I only picked this up, like most people, because JK wrote it. It was fine.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin - Art buyers in New York throughout the 1980's and 90's. It was funny, slick, ridiculous and entertaining audiobook. I love Steve Martin's style. Even with the fake arrows through the head.

If I Stay by Gail Foreman-Who knew such a small, seemingly simple young book would break my heart? The romance and the very basic writing style wasn't my favorite, but the family, oh that family got me, particularly the grandparents.

Where She Went by Gail Foreman - The sequel to If I Stay. I liked it, but it didn't break my heart like the first one.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld- I liked this story of two sisters, two very very different sisters set in St. Louis, Missouri. But the story felt like it went on too long and rambled a bit. It was more predictable than I wanted it to be, but Sittenfeld is a strong writer and I enjoyed it, I just thought it could have been edited down a bit.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Loyd Parry-This non-fiction story about a kidnapped and murdered American girl living in Japan, would have suited me much better as a long form article. Way too long, way too much detail. I skimmed the last half of the book.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain-I think everyone's probably read this one already, about Ernest Hemingway's first wife. Hadley was a strong, old fashioned gem, Hemingway, of course, was a louse and a prick. But one hell of a writer.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight-2.75 Stars. Fast, rather convoluted, and more like an overly long and unnecessarily complicated episode of Law and Order.

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell- This audio-book read by Gretchen Mol was perfection. An unreliable gossipy narrator, a twist, and some charmingly devious characters and developments. I loved this novel. So much.

Joyland by Stephen King-Stephen King as been an author I've loved since high school. I think I'll always love him. He writes horror and mystery and fantasy populated by real, complex characters that you fall right in love with from the first page. He doesn't stick to one type of story, but you always know it's a Stephen King book. Joyland was't perfect or unique exactly, but it was an excellent read. Thanks again, Mr. King.

The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie-Again, British mystery series. These are my new summer addiction. So good I keep jumping around in the series and I don't even notice that I'm reading out of order. Or should I say listening, because I'm listening to this whole series.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter-Can someone take me to Italy again please? I'm an excellent travel companion. This book is sad and true and beautiful. I loved the examination of fame, art, pain and family, from Italy in the 1960's to LA in the present, this book is great.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh- Nope. I was in for the first half of this one, and then it went right off the rails. Couldn't finish. Couldn't enjoy it. Just lost me.

American Savage and The Commitment by Dan Savage- I was in a bit of a Dan Savage mood here for a bit in September. He's so bold and funny and honest that I enjoyed reading both his essays and then listening to the story of his relationship and eventual marriage to his husband Terry. Did I mention that if you follow him on Instagram, you might be able to see the incredibly hot Terry wearing only some swim trucks? Yeah, you can.

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin - One of my top five books of the year. Just go read it. I don't even want to say much about it here. It explores gender, family and how we become who we are meant to be. It's beautiful and challenging and tender.

The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly- Just a strange little murder mystery with angels and demons set in the Maine woods. No big whup.

The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls- Oh jeez, I wanted to love this book. I love Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle, but something was missing for me with this one. I can't put my finger on it. It was too easy I think.

Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins- My third time reading this series. I still love it. I think Catching Fire is my favorite of the three.

Grace Eventually by Anne Lamott- Just the book I needed at just the right time. No one shares their flaws, their grace, their need and their survival quite like Anne Lamott. I adore her writing and her attitude and her beliefs about the world. And I needed her reassuring words.

The Dinner by Herman Koch - Strange, quick, chock full of bloody violence and family drama. Not the best book I've ever read, but a solid 3.5 stars and a perfect diversion on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - Not what I expected at all. Told entirely through letters and set before and after World War II in London and on the island of Guernsey, I loved this sweet, small little novel and enjoyed learning about WWII from an entirely different perspective.

The Shining by Stephen King- As terrifying as when I read it in high school. And so much better than Stanley Kubrick's strange movie version.

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani-While I loved the descriptions and setting, the protagonist was just irritating enough to make this a three star instead of a three and a half. Clearly well researched and beautifully created, many of the characters felt a little hollow. Felt a little too romance novel for me. But a happy, independent ending which seemed nearly impossible for a book set in 1600's Iran.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson- On nearly every best book of 2013 list, it isn't on mine. Eh.
I tried, but it just felt rather repetitive and pointless, despite the exquisite writing. Maybe just the wrong book at the wrong time.

The Litigators by John Grisham- Silly, silly audio-book. I miss A Time to Kill or The Firm. This was not that.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane-Once again, Dennis Lehane cements his position as one of my absolute favorite authors. A gut punch of a book that left me questioning good vs. evil, the morality of taking the law into your own hands, and the definition of loyalty. A nearly perfect novel.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris- I've stopped reading copies of Sedaris, and instead always let him read to me. His books need his voice. And this one, while not my very favorite, was filled with the perfect balance of family stories, sly observations about our culture and lives, and quirky fiction. I love Sedaris and no holiday season is complete without a little Santaland Diaries or Six to Eight Black Men on the radio.

What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner-Joe made me read this. Sexy, fascinating, full of new science research and personal stories both insightful, a bit sad and culturally revolutionary. Did I mention sexy?

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield- Can't give this a rating since I didn't finish it. I just found the writing flat, the story and characters rather dull, and the dialogue stilted. Maybe I'll come back. Really disappointed because I loved her other novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Go read that one instead.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve- Again, an author I used to adore, books like Sea Glass and Fortune's Rock were wonderful. Lately I haven't been as enamored. So this one was closer to 3.5 stars, but still compelling, and a different angle on WWI. I enjoyed this book and liked the ending

Blankets by Craig Thompson- I finished this book in the middle of the night, with a short bout of insomnia. It was a sweet coming of age graphic novel, all tied up in lust, religion, family strife and growth. I liked it a lot.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King - The perfect book to end 2013 on. I loved this sequel to The Shining. Not a single criticism. Not so much terrifying, but still captured the creeping, unsettled quality that The Shining had. I loved this book. I loved seeing Danny all grown up and meeting Abra. I hope we see more of these characters in future King novels. 

So how was your literary 2013? Any great recommendations for my 2014 reading? I'm still listening to Keith Richards' memoir My Life, it's long and a little rambling so I need to hear it in small doses. And I'm also listening to an excellent short book called Bite by Bite by Geneen Roth about emotional eating. It's a good kick start to some resolutions I'm working on in 2014. So goodbye until next year and have a safe and happy New Year's Eve!


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Getting a Taste of Minnesota Nice

I read something the other day that suggested that if you wanted to find out what stereotypes existed around the city you lived in you should google "Why is 'insert name of city here' so..." and watch what auto-populates. I don't care what people think about Kansas City, because I live here and I know the truth. This city is fabulous. (Flawed, of course, but fabulous.)

But it made me think about our travels and the assumptions we make about cities when we visit. Typically our visits are short, just a few days to soak in the culture and the ambiance and the vibe of wherever we've landed. The wandering traveler part of me mourns the fact that I'll never get to be a resident of 99% of the places we've visited. Because I think there are things I would find welcoming and engaging about so many of these spots we've had the chance to visit. But I'm a Midwestern girl. I like being rooted in one spot. I like being close to the majority of our friends and family. But I love traveling. And visiting loved ones. So back in April we headed north, with a very brief sojourn in the small town charms of Mason City, and went on to meet some Twins for the first time.

These twin cities, thanks to our charming hosts who were the primary reason for our visit in the first place, won us over in just a few days. So instead of googling "Why is Kansas City so.... " and waiting for the stereotypical, mythological answer, I googled "Why is Minneapolis so..." and here's what popped up:


And here's exactly why I fell in love with these two towns, St. Paul and Minneapolis, because out of that list, only one thing gets in my way, the cold. And who doesn't look cuter in hats and scarves and boots anyway?

Now I'd always heard good things about the Twin Cities. If you like art and food and books and theater and culture like we do, people tend to say this to you. And I'd heard from some St. Paul expert guides, our good friends, Emily and Jay, that we were going to enjoy ourselves on our visit. And as our hosts and long time residents, they knew what they were talking about.


Now those Twin Cities played hard to get at first. It was mid April and we expected mild spring temperatures. But the cities made us work for it, instead of mild, it snowed before we arrived, and nearly everyday while we were visiting. In April. Like every single day. So we had to prove ourselves worthy of these Twins and brave the crap weather and buck up. And we did.


We arrived in Minneapolis Friday morning, and forgive me, but I still haven't learned how to know when I'm in Minneapolis or St. Paul respectively, but I'll get there. So we arrived in "town" and since Emily had an important event on campus to run, she is the assistant to the provost for the University of Minnesota, we headed to grab some lunch before meeting up with our hosts so we could attend Em's fancy work event, more on that later.


We aimed to eat somewhere close to campus so we'd have time to linger and then figure out parking for the event, so we got in the very long, but quickly moving line at Punch, home of perfectly thin crust, wood oven cooked at a blistering 800 degrees, Neapolitan style pizza. Joe and I split a pizza covered in spicy salami, sausage, garlic and king Vesuvio tomatoes, and a fresh salad, and it tasted like being in Italy again. Minus the snow melting on the floor and the smell of wet college students wafting through the room. It was a perfect lunch and a lovely welcome to the frigid North. Hot, crunchy, spicy pizza. After our lunch we headed over to the Ted Mann Concert Hall for what was guaranteed to be an intellectually challenging, but fascinating lecture and Em's big event.


I'm not a scientist. I was an English Lit major with an art minor. Science is not my passion. But I do find scientific subjects intriguing when presented so that someone without a doctorate can actually understand the concepts.  And Lisa Randall, best selling author and theoretical physicist, was billed as just that, bringing theoretical physics to the unwashed masses. But that's a hard task. Physics is a challenging enough discipline without verging into the dark matter/time travel theoretical portion of the subject.

Once she got about ten minutes into her lecture, I think most of us, at least the people in our group, were in over our pretty little heads. I think we are all intelligent, well-read, well-spoken, liberal arts type, NPR listening folks, but this was something very different. There was a tense question and answer session, where students and professors, many studying or teaching in other sciences like biology, had the chance to ask questions and casually debate topics with Ms. Randall. She shut them down. She was brilliant. She was prickly, with little interest in silly questions, and she was brilliant. Things that I did learn, and am trying to still remember: dark matter is transparent, time travel is impossible because all of the things that we hold dear wouldn't exist, and scale matters.


After the lecture and the brief flash of feeling like a nose picking moron, we headed back to Jay and Emily's house, and Jay gave us the tour of their lovely home, friendly neighborhood, and cute, wriggling dog, Sam. Sam and I hit it off. A little too well. Though by the end of the visit he'd finally stopped greeting my leg with a hearty hump and just settled for having his neck and ears scratched. Emily joined us after her event wrapped up and we headed back out for some dinner, conversation and book shopping.

After a dinner of scrumptious sandwiches, and spreads and soups at Cafe Latte, we each took home a decadent slice of cake for later, and made a stop at Garrison Keillor's amazing local book store, Common Good Books. I think we wandered for over an hour, took home a few selections and just enjoyed the atmosphere, the impressive independent selections and those cool tin ceilings. I kind of wanted to have a slumber party right there.

We headed back to the house, and settled in for some talk. Emily and Jay are the kind of friends that we don't get to see in person very often. We keep in touch online, but once we are together, face to face, the talking just doesn't stop. All four of us get along so well, and have so much to share, that there aren't those awkward lulls that happen sometimes with people you don't see often. They are easy friends. And that's a huge compliment. So we talked and talked and laughed and gossiped and talked some more, we drank coffee and ate rich, indulgent slices of cake, and then we changed into pajamas, and settled in to catch up on Game of Thrones before the 3rd season premiere. All wrapped up in quilts on their massive couch with a sleeping dog at our feet, we finally headed to bed around 1:30 am, all talked and Throned out for the night. (God, I miss that show.)


Saturday was jammed. We woke up fairly leisurely. I say we did, Joe and I, but Emily and Jay were up early, taking Sam off to doggy day care for the day, and Emily was prepping Indian food for dinner with another group of friends that night. We eventually got dressed, gussied ourselves up and headed out for brunch, antiquing, shopping and general sight-seeing, with an itinerary planned by our personal tour guides.

We headed over to northeast Minneapolis and brunched at The Red Stag Supper Club. The place is in an old warehouse building with high ceilings and wide open spaces, and it looks like a mix between an old saloon and a brothel. All dark wood and red velvet, but with big open windows and lots of light. Filled with an equal ratio of hipsters and grandmas, eating joyfully off of the locally sourced menu. I had the hash browns, sausage asparagus cheddar scramble with brioche toast and Joe had the "best Reuben ever" and fries. And lots of coffee.


And in order to walk off a little of the brioche and the corned beef, we opted for a little shopping. We hit I Like You for quirky, strange knick-knacks, like a clay state of Minnesota Christmas ornament and a hand lettered "Get Your Shit Together" print. And then we walked over to City Salvage to look at antiques. And to buy a slightly broken, incredibly dirty stained glass window from La Crosse, Wisconsin that Joe fell in love with. Six months later and we still need to find a home for that window. It's clean at least, sitting in our basement waiting for a home. Let's pretend it's a Frank Loyd Wright original, shall we? Who know? It might be. Or at least a beautifully inspired knock off.



After our shopping, our hosts suggested that we do some sightseeing so we drove over to the Guthrie Theater. The place is enormous. Just massive. And beautiful and modern and filled with sharp little corners, and mirrored windows, and so much color, and stunning views of Minneapolis.


Our personal docents, (see our lovely friends up there? Did I mention that Emily was glowingly 6 months pregnant during our visit?) made sure we saw it all. Heading directly to the top for those dramatic views, (see all that damn snow in April?!) and then we just wandered around the building for awhile. Checking out the long halls filled with photos of the famous, talented actors who have performed on one of the three renowned Guthrie stages, taking in the views, the yellow rooms, the outside spaces, and just absorbing all the culture and architecture we could soak up.






See? I told you the views were impressive. That is the Stone Archway bridge, and then the Gold Medal Flour factory which is now the Mill City Museum. Which we might have to visit next time we're in town.





I'm just sticking with the dramatic theatre theme we've got going here.





This is the Endless Bridge, the cantilevered lobby that gives you these staggering views of the Stone Arch Bridge, the Mississippi, and the falls, and I'm sure 1,000 other landmarks that I can't remember.



So much yellow. What a ridiculously cheerful room to visit on one of the many icy, gray Minnesota winter days, all this amber glass as you look out over the river again, and more landmarks. See why people love this town? A huge cantilever amber glass filled room? Who else has this? It's so strangely appealing. Though it does have the tendency to make everyone look like a jaundiced newborn baby in photos.





And of course, kids dressed in their prom finery had to come and have their photo taken with Mr. Guthrie. And so did we. And of course we had to pretend to pick his enormous nose. Remember, I said I felt like a nose picking moron earlier? Turns out it was the truth.



After our afternoon of theater, or at least theater building touring, the genders split. The men headed off to visit the Union, and take artistic architectural photos, and the women went off to meet the lovely Jessica and Amy, two women that I've met online through our blogs, Reverb Broads, and mutual friends like Em. We chatted over coffee for a couple of hours and talked about everything from books to volunteering to politics. They were delightful and funny, and it was a treat to get to spend a little time with them in person instead of just online. And of course, I forgot to take any photos. Crap. So here are the photos from the men. Since the women failed to document our afternoon properly.






After our gender assigned afternoon activities, we met back up at Emily and Jay's house, gave Sam some attention while avoiding any errant humping, and got ready for the arrival of the baking goddess whirlwind that is Emily's friend Lanie, and her husband Kirk. Lanie is another friend that I've met through Em and through our blogs, and she is one of those people that brings light and energy into a room without any effort. She is bubbly and open and hilarious and honest, and can bake like friggin Julia Child could cook. Lanie is a whirlwind in the nicest sense of the word. Lanie and Kirk arrived, so once again, somehow the genders got split, with us women talking loudly, or so I'm told, in the kitchen, while the men hung out in the living room, talking slightly less loudly.

We had Emily's delicious Indian food for dinner, followed by Lanie's epic desserts, a chocolate cake with a chocolate peanut butter ganache and a cheesecake covered in strawberries. It was a delicious way to end the day. The only regret from the night was that Kirk wasn't feeling well so Lanie and Kirk had to leave early. We were bummed, but totally understood and now just want to make sure that we have the chance to see them on our next visit! So once again, we wrapped up the night with pjs, talking, Game of Thrones and plenty of satisfied touristy exhaustion.



So how does one wrap up a brief, but fabulous weekend trip with an appropriate finale? What last splash? What final memory to send us off on our six hour drive? If I told you that we waited in line for an hour in the cold and snow flurries to get breakfast, would you laugh at me? Because that's exactly what we did. And it was totally worth it.


Emily and Jay have a deep love for Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown. I think a vast proportion of the population of Minneapolis has a love for Al's brand of expertly cooked breakfast foods, teeny tiny narrow restaurant, brusque staff and chronic long line.



Em sold us on Al's by simply describing the fact that the restaurant is so tiny, roughly ten feet wide, there is just one long counter with just 14 bar stools and everyone who waits for their seat is literally standing right behind the people currently eating. You can see what they chose for breakfast, you can tell when they need a coffee refill. And it's clearly an institution.



The walls are covered with memorabilia and the detritus of years of successfully filling people's bellies with some of the best corn beef hash, poached eggs, blueberry pancakes and bacon that a person could dream up.



I mean it's a James Beard American Classics Restaurant award winner for a reason. It's like eating in an alleyway with a crowd of people standing behind you, and somehow it feels perfect. Because it's this melding of atmosphere, lore, and flawless cooking. I want to go to there. Now. And this time I'm trying the waffle with bacon in the middle. In the middle. My god.










So we wrapped up our visit with pancakes and corned beef hash, and poached eggs and strong coffee and laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.


We drove back to Em and Jay's house, said goodbye to Sam, packed our bags, checked a couple of books out of the Library of Justice (the Little Free Library branch owned and operated by the erudite Em and Jay), hugged our dear friends and promised to visit again soon.

A brief 48 hours or so in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I feel like we got a true taste of Minnesota nice. Covered in syrup, decorated with quirk and scenic views, guided by wonderful friends, and squeezed into the tiniest restaurant I've ever seen, but nice, so very nice. And then of course it started snowing again. Because this is Minnesota after all.


Most photos by the non-nose picking moron, Joe Sands. And a couple by me, and one or two by Jay Mac.