Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Books I Read in 2009

As I compile these long-assed lists every year, I say to myself, "Self, this sucks. Next year, let's do it differently." And so, as each year rolls into the next, I tell you guys about how I'm going to do it differently. Sometimes, I even follow through...for about thirty seconds. But mostly? Not at all. And then I wind up here, close to the end of the year, starting pretty much from scratch.

This year is the worst of all, in that sense. Because while I kept a list of what I read (and listened to) this year, I didn't put down even vague notes as I went. And my brain? She ain't what she used to be. (Which wasn't much. Trust me.) So these notes are a bit, um, sparse. Or, in some places, essentially nonexistent.

I'm starting with the books I read this year. There aren't very many, and that makes me wonder what the heck I was doing all year long. I mean, I could have sworn I read more than this, and yet...not according to my list. It wouldn't bother me at all if it didn't meant that my 12-year-old daughter beat me--and by quite a bit--in the book-reading game.

But when it comes to book-listening-to, well...I'm a master! (For those, however, you'll have to wait until tomorrow, or maybe even New Year's Day.)

Here's what I managed to physically page-turn this year:

1. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis: So much fun! Plus, the list of q-without-u words turned my Facebook Lexulous game totally around! Win-win.

2. Princess Bride by William Goldman: As I noted in my last post, Em and I read this one together, and it was awesome. Possibly even more fun than the movie. And that's saying a whole heckuva lot.

3. Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet: Fascinating memoir of a man with both Asperger's and savant syndromes. What Tammet goes through in his life is simultaneously jaw-droppingly unique and eminently relatable.

4. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier: Taking a well-known painting and turning its creation into a full-fledged novel is a brilliant idea. I enjoyed this book's execution, though I wouldn't quite call it a brilliant novel. Still, it was fun, and it was well worth my time.

5. Persuasion by Jane Austen: No year is complete with at least one Austen read (or, rather, re-read).

6. Blankets by Craig Thompson: What I'd read about this well-done graphic novel/memoir before picking it up led me to believe it was one of those abusive-childhood stories, and yes, there were elements of that. But mostly, it was a compelling story of a young, first love.

7. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb: I would say that Lamb put everything but the kitchen sink in this book, but I'm pretty sure that the sink was in here, too, somewhere. I finished it because I don't like to give books up in the middle. But, really? Bleh.

8. Anyone but You by Jennifer Crusie: See below.

9. Manhunting by Jennifer Crusie: So I got these two through my library's ebook program. I wanted to see how it works, and I wanted something light and quick to read. And Crusie? Always makes me smile. These two were no exception. Fun. Fun. Fun!

10. Schuyler's Monster by Robert Rummel-Hudson: I've read Rob's blog (or blogs, since he's moved around once or twice) on and off for years, since before Schuyler's diagnosis. I remember emailing him a number of years ago to tell him I thought he had the voice--and the story--with which to write a book. I'm beyond certain that I wasn't the only one...that I was one of dozens, probably scores. I'm not even vaguely suggesting that I had anything to do with this book; what I'm saying is that I'd looked forward to it for a very long time. It was worth the wait--different from what I'd expected, and yet absorbing.

11. A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks: Another one I already wrote about in my last entry. There's not much more to say.

12. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson: I say the same thing every time I read one of Joshilyn's books. I shouldn't love this book--it's not my thing, not my genre--but I do. I love every single one of them. And I can't wait for the next one to come out.

13. This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman: Vicki's become a friend of mine, but that has absolutely no bearing on how incredible this book was. I wrote about it (though mostly in passing, and not with the careful thought it really deserves) in a post I wrote back in July. What I said then--that it's heartwrenching and beautiful, that it requires quiet digestion and time for tears to dry--only begins to express how profoundly Vicki's words and story touched me. If you add one book to your reading list from my reading list this year? This is the one I want you to add.

14. Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh: Part of my job involves working with Sandra, and she cracks me up. The book overall made me laugh. But the "inside LA" jokes? Made me laugh a lot.

15. Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster: My friend told me I would love this book. I probably should have loved this book. I didn't love this book. At all.

16. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: I want to do this! I want to spend an entire year living off the land, growing and cooking local or homegrown foods. It sounds so absolutely idyllic. But I do have to say that, while I loved this book, it's almost impossible to write about these sorts of ideas and projects without--at least in some places--coming off as condescending, supercilious, and...annoying. Kingsolver's no exception. I just ignored it when it happened, is all.

17. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: I read this for my temple's book club, though I didn't make it to the meeting, so I never got to talk through it. I thought it was really clever, and well-written, and all that good stuff. But I also thought it was unnecessarily elliptical in places (he rarely said anything straight out when he could instead vaguely imply it and leave you wondering), and perhaps more than a little bit too carefully foreshadowed. It made it feel a little bit fake, a little places. I also wonder whether the bulk of the kids (officially, "young adults," whatever that means) to whom this is marketed actually really get it. I'd have been interested to hear what the rest of the book club had to say, though since they're all my age or older (mostly older), that last point probably wouldn't have been addressed.

18. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith: I fully expected the conceit behind this book to get old quick. But it really didn't. It was fun. Really. Just plain fun.

19. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: This, on the other hand, was not fun. But it was good. I read it mostly because Em had read it, and I wanted to know what she'd been exposed to. (Turns out? A lot.) Like The Book Thief, there were times when the whole tape thing felt overly contrived. And it certainly wasn't uplifting or hopeful, even if there were bright spots in the book. But I thought it was good, impressive, something meaty for teens to consider. And, hey. No vampires! That's definitely a point in its favor, at least in my book.

Next up: Books I Heard in 2009. But for now, since it's 1:39 am and I'm exHAUSted, I'm heading to bed. Without doing any reading, most likely. Darnit. Em's going to beat me again in 2010, isn't she. SIGH.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Em's Reading List, 2009

This will be a week for lists. My reading (and listening) lists are up next...but, first, by popular demand, the 30 books Em finished this year:

1. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
2. My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (this is Em and N's beloved Uncle S--and this book, if you haven't read it, is achingly sweet, and features a young character who is more than a little bit modeled after N)
3. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
4. The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)
5. The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3)
6. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (Em and I read this one together...and loved every single minute of it)
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (Em put a note after this one, in parentheses: "one night!!!")
8. The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)
9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Roderick Rules by Jeff Kinney
10. Diary of a Wimpy Kid 3: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney
11. The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5)
12. A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (Em so loved this book that she insisted I read it, too; if you know me, you know that Nicholas Sparks isn't likely to be my cup of tea, but I love talking about books with my kid, so I enjoyed it for that reason, at least, if for no other. And trust me. There was no other.)
13. Goy Crazy by Melissa Schorr
14. Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
15. Maximum Ride 2: School's Out -- Forever by James Patterson
16. Click Here by Denise Vega
17. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
18. Maximum Ride 3: Saving the World by James Patterson
19. All-American Girl by Meg Cabot
20. Gender Blender by Blake Nelson
21. Maximum Ride 4: The Final Warning by James Patterson
22. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
23. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Em read this for her 7th grade Advanced English class and loved it; I was impressed by the choice of book)
24. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
25. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare by Darren Shan
26. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (I'd heard enough about this book to know that I wanted to read it after Em had; I knew it was a pretty heavy book, and while I'm comfortable with my "no legitimate books are off limits" stance when it comes to Em, I do think a 12-year-old might need to talk about what shes read in a book about suicide that features a whole bunch of other types of ugliness as well. I'm glad I read it; it was quite good, if somewhat contrived, and it had a lot to say. It terrified me...probably a whole lot more than it terrified her. But yes, we talked anyway.)
27. Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks by Lauren Myracle
28. Cirque du Freak 2: The Vampire's Assistant by Darren Shan
29. Cirque du Freak 3: Tunnels of Blood by Darren Shan
30. Max by James Patterson

By the way, and I know this isn't the time or place for it, but I just have to say, for the record: I find it seriously disappointing how many of the books out there these days are parts of series. Why can't anyone tell an entire story in a single, sweeping novel anymore? I especially dislike the books that pretty much require you to have read the previous books to properly understand what you're reading in one of the later books. (Hello, Ms. Rowling...) I mean...a chunk of plot that takes up where the last chunk left off, and then leaves you at the end with a cliffhanger, wondering what will come next? Didn't we used to call those chapters???

I also think that when you need your protagonist to appear in every subsequent book you write, you seriously limit your ability to be true to your story. That's part of what turned me off to those Janet Evanovitch Stephanie Plum books; you knew Stephanie wasn't going anywhere, and it made the supposed suspense feel really dishonest to me.

Getting off my soapbox now...

Next up: The books I've read this year, followed by the audiobooks I've listened to. Stay tuned! (Or sigh heavily at the thought of more freaking book talk. I won't be insulted. It's not everyone's passion.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


[Trumpet sounds]
Hear ye, hear ye! I formally announce my clear and absolute wrongheadedness, grant my daughter a one-time revokable right to read my blog (well, this entry, wandering, Em!), and promise never to underestimate her again:

Em rocks and I WAS WRONG...and I'm not afraid to admit it.

The backstory: Around Thanksgiving time, Em looked at the list of 25 books she'd read this year, and announced she was going to get to 30 by year's end. I suggested that five books in a month was overreaching. She suggested that I would end up eating my words...and that if that happened, I should do it publicly. Last night, with more than a week to spare, she finished Robert Patterson's "Max," which was the fifth book since I mouthed off. My words, they are eaten. In public. And I couldn't be more pleased.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Never Underestimate the Power of an Ice-Cream Cake

N's been having a terrible school year. Terrible. In pretty much every way you can think of to parse it. Social. Emotional. Academic. Especially academic.

His first of three report cards came home last week, and it was...yes...terrible. On a scale of 1 to 4 (1 = below grade level; 2 = approaching grade level; 3 = at grad level; 4 = above grade level), he got nothing but 1s and 2s. The teacher dutifully checked off the "at risk of retention" box where indicated. (Uh, thanks a lot, school. I wasn't actually planning to have that conversation with him quite yet. Was it really necessary to put it on a document you know the kids themselves look at, considering I've signed 763 pieces of paper indicating I've been informed about his 'risk'?) And the teacher's comments--while perfect in terms of what we need to prove need in an IEP--were not exactly what I would call encouraging.

It really has been a terrible year.

And so, on Tuesday, when we were walking toward school and N said to me, "What would happen if I got a 4 on my science test today, Mommy?" I laughed, not thinking, and said, "Oh, sweetie. I would throw you a party, is what I would do. With cake. A family party, with mint-chocolate-chip ice-cream cake."

I quickly realized that I was setting him up for a disappointment. For one thing, not only has he not gotten a single science grade above a 1 so far, but this was a test on a chapter about light in which (and before I go any further, let me say this: their current science curriculum is the worst science curriculum ever, regularly using terminology--often undefined--so far over even MY head that it's laughable) there was discussion of transverse versus compact waves. This what THIRD GRADERS are being asked to learn and digest.

So I changed tactics and told him that I'd be thrilled with whatever grade he brought home, so long as he tried his best. Because really, what do numbers mean, anyway? Some people just don't do well on tests, even if they know the material, you know what I mean? And he had studied so hard for this with Daddy; even if he didn't get a great grade, we knew he knew the material. So no need to worry about it, kiddo.

"Yeah, but if I get a 4, you'll throw me a party, right?"

Sigh. I'm an idiot.


And so, of course, he called me at work this afternoon, the results of the quiz in hand.

"Mama! Guess what?"

Not just a 4, mind you. One hundred freakin' percent.

This is going to be the sweetest ice-cream cake EVER.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Officially an Adult

I always wondered when I would become an adult. Most kids do, I think. I'm not sure what exactly we think "becoming an adult" means, but we know it's bound to happen some time.

At first, I assumed that it would happen on a birthday. I'd wake up, 18 years old, and be an adult. When that didn't happen, I nudged it up to 21. No dice there, either.

So I pinned my hopes--so many hopes--on motherhood. And while the birth of my children changed me in ways I can't begin to enumerate, it only served--then as now--to make me feel even less capable, less grown up. I may act the part, but inside? I knew it was a sham.

And so I gave it up, that hope of adulthood.

Today, my mother called to ask me a cooking question. My mother. Called me. Asked ME.

Today, just shy of my 46th birthday, I am an adult.

It's everything I dreamed it would be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hey, Look! Over There! Latkes!

I don't hawk my posts on (Never) Too Many Cooks every single time I post one. But, you know. This one's awesome. Because it's about carbs. And oil. And rededication. And ancient history. And sorta miraculous long-burning lights during a time of year when darkness reigns.

But mostly? It's about carbs and oil. You know you want some. You know you do.

Mmmm. Latkes.

(In the photo above, the bronze shoes on the left are N's; the porcelained ones on the right are Em's. Baroy built the awesome display case they're in, years ago. And yes, my living room is pretty much orange. Goldish orange, or maybe orangey gold. I love orange. I love its warmth and its sweetness. Which has nothing to do with Hanukkah and latkes, but is true, nonetheless. There's a lot of warm orange in my house, and that makes me happy.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Interview Experiment: Magpie Musing

I suck. I know this post isn't supposed to be about me, but I do. Here's why: I signed up to do Neil's Great Interview Experiment AGES ago. I took way too long to respond to the questions sent to me by my interviewer, and then took way too long to send my questions to my interviewee, Magpie Musing. But she responded quickly. And I said I'd put up the interview ANY SECOND NOW.

That was, um, let's just say several weeks ago.


Magpie's awesome. We have oodles in common, and I'm loving keeping up with her blog, now that I've been introduced to her. You will, too. So, here, without further ado or suckage-related delays like waiting until I'm at home where I have the cool logo so I can add it here, is my interview with Magpie:

1. From one of your more recent entries, I found out that infertility blogs were your entree into the blogging world. But who were your early influences? Which blogs, which bloggers? And what about now? Who are Magpie's Muses? (Sorry. Had to do it!)

During the infertility treatment period, I got enmeshed in message boards - Resolve ( and Inciid (, primarily. They were incredibly helpful and supportive. At some point, after the baby was born, I was drawn - like a moth to a flame - to the very very idiosyncratic and insane "toddler" message board at UrbanBaby ( I really don't remember migrating over to reading blogs, and I don't remember what the first one was - but both Julie ( and Julia ( were right up there. Today, I don't know that there's a blog that's a "muse". I read a lot of blogs - some with great regularity, some more randomly, many are by people I don't know, some are by people I've met on-line and/or in person. I think, though, that the source of my "muse" is not so much on-line as it is just day to day life. I see stuff, I want an outlet for processing it - from the ridiculous to the sad to the sublime. And some of it is just as a way to document my daughter's childhood.

2. Sticking with blogging for just one more minute: You post nearly every day. Do you have a blogging routine, a time of day or a place or something that gets you started? And do you have a "process"? Do your posts always come off the top of your head, or do you plan, do drafts? Do you outline? Do you jot notes for future posts?

I have no process. I try to post most weekdays; sometimes the posts are scheduled in advance and sometimes they just happen. If I have a post sketched out on a Saturday, I'll usually schedule it for Monday - but not always. Sometimes the posts are off the top of my head; others percolate for a while. I have a notebook in the bag I carry every day - it's got scribbled notes, and printed out articles, and other people's posts - all things that have piqued my interest in some way and that I think could be fruitful. There are maybe 10 draft posts in my blog at any time - and a draft could be as little as nothing more than a link to something else.

3. If tween Magpie met grown-up Magpie, would she recognize her? What would she like about her grown-up self? What wouldn't she like?

I was a kind of idiosyncratic child, and I'm differently so now. I cooked then, I still do. I was crusty and reserved then, I still am, though I'm better at acting outgoing now than I was then. I think that tween me would be surprised to find that grown-up me is married. I was deeply opposed to marriage then, because my parents endured a nasty divorce that my mother never recovered from. And part of me still thinks that it's a faulty construct, and I had to be talked into marriage by my now husband. I'm not sorry that I entered into our partnership, but...(trails off, thinking of same-sex marriage, and the individual, and, maybe this is a whole post...)

4. We have so much in common: books, cooking, crafts, gardening. (And ohmigod, I never learned how to be a girl, either. Except I don't even have those two bottles of nail polish, because I bite my nails almost down to the quick. But I digress.) These similarities made me wonder if you, like me, have a hard time keeping up with all of your own varied interests. Is there a hierarchy of favorites among them? Given a couple of hours of completely free time, with no outside pressures, what would you do first? Next?

Free time! Such a huge luxury. A nap would be nice, or a hot bath! If there really were no outside pressure, I'd probably dive into some crafty project. Books I can fit in - on the train, or at night before falling asleep. Cooking is fun, but it happens when it happens - my husband's been doing nearly all of the day to day cooking for the past six months. The garden ebbs and flows with the season. The crafty stuff is short-shrifted, and it's a shame, because it's terribly satisfying. That said, I have some crafty projects that I'm mulling for Christmas.

5. If you could time travel, would you go back to the future, or just back in time? Would you visit any specific year or event? Why?

I'd probably go back, but then again...I don't know. Two really cool books that I've read were Jack Finney's Time and Again (which goes back) and Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation (which goes forward, but only to 2013 which is like right around the corner!). On reflection - I'd like to go back, as in Time and Again. A block or so away from my office, there's a staircase that leads down from the sidewalk - to nothing. Every time I walk by it I wonder what's down there - and if it's the transitional portal to another period, as in Time and Again.

6. Are you a helicopter mom or a free-range parent? Do you have a parenting philosophy, or are you winging it? If the former, what is it, and why is it the way you've chosen to go? If the latter, do you wish you had some kind of guiding principle, or are you happy with free-and-easy?

Totally free-and-easy, winging it, slacker mom. And, honestly? It works just fine. Yeah, she whines sometimes, but she questions authority. Better that than a sheep. When she was a smaller child, I did obsess about the (no) sleeping thing for a while, and there are still three sleep help books tucked under my bed, just in case.

7. (Because I prefer odd numbers, and because these were more serious than I'd meant them to be...) Dream vacation: Where and with whom? (Sky's the limit on money and companions.)

A warm beach, with lovely blue water and perfect fine white sand. A hammock. A pool boy with drinks and snacks. Enough books. Good food at night. And a soft bed with excellent cotton sheets. Alone. Oh hell, my husband can come too. And my daughter. And my sister. And her kids. And you!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rockin' Out

There are a couple of "those" kinds of houses around the corner from us, and we decided to take a walk in the freezing-for-LA night air tonight to see them. N stood in front of this house for ages--all the while quietly, unselfconsciously dancing to the music.

He makes me smile.