Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What I'm Reading Now-The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up/I-Spoke-Too-Soon Edition, Part V

Soooo, remember how I thought I was all done catching up on my 2010 reads with my last post?  Well, as I was assembling my Books Read in 2010 page, I realized that I had one more that never got reviewed here.  I did review it on Goodreads though, so I am just straight up going to copy and paste.  Not only does that save me a lot of time, but it also means that all the embedded links are going to take you to Goodreads.com

Many WatersMany Waters by Madeleine L'Engle-I don't really have too much to say about this book. I liked it a lot better than #3 in the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but I still didn't love it. I understand why L'Engle's books endure-I think she does a great job of bringing sophisticated science to young readers in a way that is interesting-I can see how some kid might decide she wants to be a physicist or a mathematician after reading some of L'Engle's books, and I think that's great; however, I don't think she's a very good writer. I hate to say that, seeing as how I have no credentials to base that on and I didn't really notice it as much in the first three books, but I almost couldn't keep reading after the first 20 or so pages of Many Waters. Things just feel clunky and awkward and so very non-Mary-Doria-Russell. (File this under "things that are being unfairly compared toThe Sparrow") 

That said, I thought this was an interesting interpretation of the story of Noah and the ark. Sandy and Dennys Murry, the popular twin brothers of Meg and Charles Wallace, find themselves whisked away to Biblical times when they accidentally mess with one of their parent's experiments. As in L'Engle's other books, there are mythical creatures, like unicorns and manticores, right alongside her other characters. There are nephilim and seraphim, which I didn't know anything about, but I took them to be similar to angels and fallen angels or angels and demons-in-the-making. After some wikipedia-ing, I see that I pretty much had it right. 

Like A Wind in the Door, this book is filled with creatures that I think would capture the imaginations of younger readers, and I'm sure it would also promote some good discussions about both religion and science.

There.  NOW I am done!  Woohoo!

What I'm Reading Now-The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition, Part IV: Seriously, I Think I'm Done Now

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows-This is one of those books with which  I'm not really sure what to do.  I did enjoy it, let's start there.  I'm always skeptical about books written in epistolary format-the idea of it just doesn't appeal to me.  All the date, time, location, salutation stuff just slows me down.  I can't skim; if it's there, I have to read it.

Here's my real dilemma:  It wasn't that long ago that I read this (four months ago), and while I do remember thinking that it was charming and enjoying reading it (in fact I have a sent email in which I tell someone that I "loved it!"), I could tell you virtually nothing about it now.  This lady goes to this island and visits some people there.  If it weren't for my notes, that would have been your review.  However, I managed to find my notes from when I was reading, and as I was going over them I found myself thinking, Oh yeah, I loved that!  So, do you grade a book based on how much you loved it at the time you read it or how "meh" you feel about it four months later?  

While we all ponder that, I'll share with you some of the things that I liked about the book.

Juliet Ashton lives in post-war London and has reluctantly sold many books, one of which ended up in Dawsey Adams' possession, and he wrote her a letter to let her know how much the book meant to him.  He is a resident of Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel, that is still trying to recover from its war-time occupation.  In her response to him, she says, "Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.  How delightful if that were true."  She later says, "That's what I love about reading:  one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book.  It's geometrically progressive--all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."  Ah!  Didn't I just say the same thing in my review of Flower Confidential?

In another of Dawsey's letters to Juliet, he says, "Some of the things being sent to us are wrapped up in old newspaper and magazine pages.  My friend Clovis and I smooth them out and take them home to read--then we give them to neighbors who, like us, are eager for any news of the outside world in the past five years.  Not just any news or pictures:  Mrs. Saussey wants to see recipes; Mme. LePell wants fashion papers (she is a dressmaker); Mr. Brouard reads Obituaries (he has his hopes, but won't say who); Claudia Rainey is looking for pictures of Ronald Colman; Mr. Tourtelle wants to see Beauty Queens in bathing dress; and my friend Isola likes to read about weddings."  I love this way of depicting a village.

Juliet is an author and after corresponding with Dawsey for a while has taken great interest in hearing about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and has asked Dawsey if, on her behalf, he would solicit his neighbors for their stories about the society.  In her letter, Mrs. Maugery tells Juliet, "Dawsey Adams has just been to call on me.  I have never seen him as pleased with anything as he is with your gift and letter.  He was so busy convincing me to write to you by the next post that he forgot to be shy.  I don't believe he is aware of it, but Dawsey has a rare gift for persuasion--he never asks for anything for himself, so everyone is eager to do what he asks for others."  What a lovely thing to have someone like that in your life!

You can see what I mean about this book being charming, no?  In addition to the charm, there is also a lot of wit, particularly from Juliet.

In Juliet's letter to her friend, Sophie:  "Do you remember that afternoon in Leeds when we speculated on the possible reasons why Markham V. Reynolds, Junior, was obliged to remain a man of mystery?  It's very disappointing, but we were completely wrong.  He's not married.  He's certainly not bashful.  He doesn't have a disfiguring scar that causes him to shun daylight.  He doesn't seem to be a werewolf (no fur on his knuckles, anyway).  And he's not a Nazi on the lam (he'd have an accent)."  I love that the natural progression of speculation goes:  married, bashful, disfigured, werewolf, Nazi.

And again in a letter to her publisher/friend, Sidney:  "He's an expert on Wilkie Collins, of all things.  Did you know that Wilkie Collins maintained two separate households with two separate mistresses and two sets of children?  The scheduling difficulties must have been shocking.  No wonder he took laudanum."

In response to her friend Sophie's poor attempt at snooping:  "Am I in love with him?  What kind of a question is that?  It's a tuba among the flutes, and I expect better of you.  The first rule of snooping is to come at it sideways--when you began writing me dizzy letters about Alexander, I didn't ask if you were in love with him, I asked what his favorite animal was.  And your answer told me everything I needed to know about him--how many men would admit that they loved ducks?"

The other thing that I liked about this book is that it was so clearly written by people who love books--there's a bit about a broken engagement that any true book-lover would understand and non-book-lovers would just think is crazy.  The book as a whole was a bit reminiscent of 84, Charring Cross Road, which I loved for many of the same reasons that I loved this book.  There!  I said it!  See, we just had to come at this sideways, like Juliet said!  Characters who love books, people far away connecting with and helping each other, good humor, it's all there.  So, if you're one of the 12 people out there who still hasn't read this, go read it.  You'll love it!

Well, you can see why this book got its own post, but if you haven't yet checked out The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition, parts I, II, and III, don't be intimidated.  They're not all this bad, and the one that is talks a lot about Valentine's Day, so you can skip that part.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day-February 2011

I almost forgot to do my GBBD post today.  Here it is, 2:30 PM, and I'm sitting around perusing the Internet, reading blogs, checking Twitter and Facebook, when all of a sudden I realized I needed to get my butt outside and take some pictures.  My fans need me!  Hahahahaha-yeah, right!  Anyway, here's what's blooming in my yard today.

After an unusual time away, my orchid (Den. Pam Tajima (atroviolaceum 'Pygmy' x eximium)) is finally blooming again.

Holding onto a little rain from earlier today is my Blue Daze (Evolvus glomeratus).

Hiding from the paparazzi is my giant bird of paradise.  I know the angle on this is not great, but if you'd seen where I had to stand just to get this, you'd understand.  

Spilling over our rock wall is the ever-blooming lantana.  I didn't notice until now that some have a white -and-yellow middle and some don't.  I wonder if this is an age thing-lantana has very distinctive stages of blooming-or if it's something else.  I'll have to do some research!

Very similar in color are my volunteer snapdragons.  I'm not sure where these came from-I'm thinking that I had snapdragons a couple years ago; I wonder if these are seeds that have been lying dormant since then?

In a neighboring pot is my African daisy (Osteospermum).  I love all the subtle colors on this.

In another pot, I have a lobelia making a determined stand against the invading sweet alyssum.

In December, I showed you a picture of my variegated hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus/Talipariti tiliaceum) in bloom and told you that by the end of the day, the bright yellow flower would turn a dusty burnt orange color and fall off the shrub.  Now, as part of my newly-dubbed Progression Obsession category, I will show you!

11:35 AM


10:29 AM the next day

The first three pictures were taken of a cut-flower arrangement on my table a few days ago.  The last picture is a flower that was on the ground today when I was taking the rest of my pictures.  The cut flowers never made it to this stage of red, but this is eventually how they end up in the wild. 

I know a lot of the world is wicked cold and covered in snow right now, so if you're hankering for some more flowers to brighten up your day or want to submit your own bits of color, please visit our Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day host, Carol, at May Dreams Gardens to see what else is blooming today.

**Edited 2/17-In visiting other gardeners around the web, I found a post at Good to Grow which would make for a great addition to my Progression Obsession club (maybe I can make it an honorary member?).  Anyway, here is a great look at how a hyacinth goes from nothing but leaves to all those grewat-smelling flowers.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What I'm Reading Now-The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition, Part III

Well, I think this will finally wrap up all of my 2010 reading.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I did a pretty good job divvying up Part I and Part III.  I guess the trick is to just quit when you get tired.  Isn't that what all the great how-to-succeed-in-life books say?  No?  So, I can take full credit for that?  Awesome.

Anyhooo...Where was I?  Oh, right.  I did a much better job of making some notes on Goodreads after finishing these books, so a lot of what you are going to see below has already appeared on my Goodreads reviews, but I've added new content as well.

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy)The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan-Not that I can claim any kind of aficionado status when it comes to vampire lore, but I think this is the most plausible explanation of vampirism-as-virus that I've come across.  I generally don't get too freaked out by books, but I couldn't do my normal before-bedtime reading with this; I had to read this during the day, otherwise the 12 steps from my couch to my bedroom were too much for me to handle with all the lights off!  There were just too many opportunities for creepy things to be lurking in the hallway.    

The Best of the Best of American Science Writing (The Best American Science Writing)The Best of the Best of American Science Writing edited by Jesse Cohen-  This collection covers 2000-2009, and although I was a little surprised at what comprised "the best" science writing for some of those years (Darwin's had a big influence on modern thought? Really? That's the best you've got for the whole year?), over all I enjoyed the articles. It was interesting to see how scientific focus has progressed over the last decade, knowing where we were just a decade before and, even, where we are now. Although the articles are all science-based, they aren't all technical; many investigate the moral and ethical aspects of science as well, and these were the ones that I found most interesting.  I started reading this back in April during the Read-a-Thon; if you want more details you can visit my Read-a-Thon updates about doctors making mistakes, ambitious plastic surgeons, people who want to become amputees, and why low-fat diets may not really be all they're cracked up to be.   

This Is My Letter To The World: The Omikuji Project, Cycle OneThis Is My Letter To The World:  The Omikuji Project Cycle One by Catherynne M. Valente-Whenever I think of Catherynne M. Valente, I also think of Nymeth.  I don't think I can document this anywhere, but I'm pretty sure it was some of her high praise (possibly for Palimpsest?) that sent me seeking out Valente in the first place.

I'm not much of a short-story person, but overall, I really enjoyed this collection. Many of Valente's stories are twists on the classic fairy tales we all know and love, but many are pure originals (at least as far as I know).  If you're like me, and not sure if a whole book of short stories is where you want to spend your money, you can check out Valente's writing at her blog, and you can subscribe to her Omikuji project and receive one short story a month. This is how I discovered her writing; and in full disclosure, I received a free copy of her book as a token of apology in regard to a billing mix-up, which was awesome and way more than was necessary. So, not only do I like her writing, but now she seems like good people, which never hurts!

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis-I liked this book enough to keep reading to see what was going to happen, but I think I could have just as easily not finished it and not been too heartbroken. I think the story about an English girl time-traveling to the 14th century is solid, but it just didn't quite have that on-the-edge-of-my-seat quality that I was hoping for, and I never felt all that much for the characters even though their lives were full of peril and drama. I've heard great things about this author though, so I'm willing to give her another chance.

The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott B. Smith-Ann at Books on the Nightstand named this the best airplane book ever back in 2008.  This past October, one of their podcast listeners also called in to recommend it as a good, spooky Halloween read.  I don't know if I would call it the best airplane book ever, but I can see where it would make a good vacation read (as long as you're not going to be tramping through the jungles of Mexico on your vacation!)  It provides a definite creep factor that builds all the way to the end of the book. I feel like this was sort of a "safe" psychological horror. You can easily imagine the horror of the situation that the characters find themselves in, but there's that reassurance in the back of your mind that it could never really happen. Probably.

The Magician's Elephant: Special Signed EditionThe Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo-Quiet little story with some charming bits, but overall, it felt a little slow for me.  I'm not sure that the intended audience, kids, would be entranced enough to stick around.

Ugh.  Remember how at the beginning of this post I said that I thought this would wrap-up all of my 2010 reading?  Well, that's not quite the case.  I realized that I left The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society off my list.  Since I also realized that I had a fair amount to say about it, it will get its own post a la Flower Confidential.  But THEN I will be done for real. I think.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What I'm Reading Now-The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition, Part II/The Valentine's Day Edition

Even though this is part of my Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition series, Flower Confidential gets its own post because apparently my exercise in creativity and brevity is on hiatus.

Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of FlowersFlower Confidential:  The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart-I just love looking at this book!  Isn't it pretty?  I wish the theme had been continued inside; instead we just get a few boring black and white photos and some line drawings, but, being a plant person, I still feel like it's a fascinating look at the cut-flower industry. Given the sparse visuals, plant people will appreciate Stewart's descriptions of flowers, like this bit about her first impressions of Terra Nigra's gerbera daisies.  As I stood with him and looked out across several dozen rows of sunny orange gerberas in bloom, I thought that I'd probably never seen so much exuberance in one place.  This is not a flower with nuance.  It radiates pure, uncomplicated happiness.  You have to love it, although I can see how a person could get cynical enough to be irritated by its unwavering good cheer.  I know some florists who are sick of gerberas, bored with their endlessly sunny dispositions and their utter lack of mystery or depth, but not me.  A single gerbera on my desk makes me smile every time I look at it.  I'm grateful to it for that.

I don't know if this book would have quite the same appeal for someone who isn't a plant person, but I think the information is interesting enough to appeal to most people on some level; it's operationally interesting.  For instance, did you know that the cut-flower market was hit hard during WWII because so many of the California growers were Japanese Americans who were rounded up and sent to internment camps.  Many had no choice but to simply abandon their land and their crops.  Bill Sakai, whose grandfather started growing roses in the Richmond area in 1927, remembers how the war hurt their business, which was primarily run by Bill's father and brothers at that time.  "We left it in the hands of some German employees," he told me, without a trace of irony in his voice.  "We were fortunate that we had someone we could trust so that we'd have a nursery to come back to."  (p. 74)    

I feel like this is a pretty timely post, given that Valentine's Day is just around the corner.  Do you have any idea what that bouquet of flowers that you're thinking about picking up at the grocery store or ordering for your loved one went through prior to arriving at its final destination? Amy Stewart traveled all over the planet to give her readers a better understanding of the hybridizing, the growing, the selecting, the auctioning, and the shipping involved in getting cut flowers from the field to your home or, more impressively, into the hands of your loved ones on Valentine's Day or Mother's Day.  Did you know that the Miami airport, where 88% of our cut flowers enter the country, usually sees about ten to twelve flights from Columbia a day, but that around Valentine's Day it might be as many as forty?  The problem is those planes are full of one-way flowers, not round-trip passengers, and they usually return home empty.  How do you cover that cost?  Jack up the price of flowers on Valentine's Day.  Ahhh, so that explains it (or at least part of it)!       

Stewart also talks about the role of oraganically-grown flowers in this industry-is it possible to mass produce perfect blossoms without all the pesticides and fungicides that have traditionally been used and at what cost? All I'm going to say about that is if you've ever thought it would be romantic to woo your loved one in a bathtub filled with rose petals, you might want to rethink that particular seduction after you read about what most roses go through prior to arriving in that beautiful, pest-free, disease-free, blemish-free bouquet.  You'll either skip the rose petals or don a Hazmat suit prior to submersion.  (Pssst, Hazmat suit=not sexy).  Speaking of organics, I'm going to do a little shilling for Organic Bouquet here because A) I have ordered their products in the past and received good feedback from the recipients, B) I  feel like I could handle their products without fearing for the life of my unborn children, and C) Have you seen their Extraordinary Roses?  Yeah, they're kinda pricey ($259.99/dozen), but aren't they cool??  

On the other hand, if value is what you're looking for, you might consider a box of 150 stems for $349.99 from FiftyFlowers.com, an on-line flower wholesales.  To put it another way, that's 12.5 dozen flowers for $12/dozen.  Get a few friends to pitch in, and you've got yourself one heck of a deal.  I've never had any dealings with FiftyFlowers.com (and I'm not sure where they fall on the "organic" scale), but they seem to be embracing the idea of bulk flower sales, as is Costco, someplace you probably never seriously considered for your floral needs (even bridal).  At $100 for 75 stems of Rainforest Alliance Certified long-stem pink roses, you might consider taking a second look though.  

Well, I seem to have strayed from my book review, but that's part of why I liked this book.  I learned a lot and it made me curious to know more.  I love that!

Please note that all prices referenced here are current as of posting.  If you are considering ordering from any of the companies I mentioned, please be sure to double check their product pricing and find out about their shipping prices and policies.  I am not affiliated with any of the above companies, but, as stated, I have ordered from Organic Bouquet before and been very happy with the results, so I'm happy to send you their way. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

What I'm Reading Now-The Jumbo 2010 Catch-Up Edition, Part I

In an effort to cross some things off my aging to-do list, here is a wrap-up of my 2010 reading.  At some point, it all just got away from me.  I am going to try to keep this short and sweet, so here goes a giant exercise in brevity and creativity.

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Trilogy, Book 1)The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Trilogy, Book 1) by James Dashner-A boy wakes up in an elevator that dumps him out into a maze.  There are lots of other boys there.  Nobody remembers anything before the maze.  *Gasp*  A girl appears!  What does it all mean?  Don't go out into the maze after dark or you'll likely be killed by giant armored amoeba-y things.  Action ensues.  I gave this 4 stars on Goodreads, but I might downgrade it to 3.  Not sure if I'm interested in the follow-up.

The Sweetheart Season: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle)The Sweetheart Season by Karen Joy Fowler-I picked this up because my favorite author, Mary Doria Russell, lists it on her  "Recommendations" page; and, by golly, if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me!  It's about a women's wartime baseball (softball?) league.  The problem with that is that it immediately makes me think of A League of Their Own, which this was nothing like.  Not that that's a bad thing in and of itself but I went into it expecting it to be something it wasn't.  I think this is one that I need to reread, this time with no expectations.  Although I didn't walk away loving this, I did take copious notes on things that I liked within it, so...that's gotta count for something, right?  Give it a read, just don't expect it to be very much about baseball.

The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking: Book TwoThe Ask and the Answer:  Chaos Walking:  Book Two by Patrick Ness-Still dark and depressing, but not quite as bad as The Knife of Never Letting Go.  Don't get me wrong, it's still dark, just in a different way. It's been a while since I read this, but if I remember correctly, there might have been a tiny bit of hope at the end of this one.

A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller-This is another book that I was inspired to read after I found it on Mary Doria Russell's list of recommendations.  And now I am going to cut and paste from my Goodreads review: Although I didn't love this book from beginning to end, the ending affected me deeply and in a way that I totally did not expect, and that's what pushed it from 4 stars to 5 for me...even though I knew how the book was going to end since I read Norman Spinrad's Introduction in the 1975 Gregg Press edition. Thanks a lot for the giant spolier, Norman! (Note to writers: If you are ever asked to write an Introduction for a book, please don't include any version of, "the book ends with [insert final climactic event here:]..."  I'm just sayin'.)...I originally checked this out from the library. Time was up, but I knew I wanted to keep reading it and that I would want to refer to it later, so I returned my giant spoiler-filled copy to the library and bought a new copy. What do you know-I opened it up to find a new (spoiler-free) Introduction by Mary Doria Russell! [Which shouldn't have been a surprise, seeing as how she mentions it on her web site, but I guess I forgot about that part].  I enjoyed the book on its own merits, but I can also definitely see where it influenced her book, The Sparrow, which, I admit, makes me love it just a little bit more.  One more note:  There is a lot of latin in this book, and I finally went on line and found a study guide from Washington State University that turned out to be most helpful.

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese-Ann has raved about this again and again on Books on the Nightstand (in 6 different podcasts and one blog post (the link takes you to a page where you can search for podcasts and posts by book title, but I can only get the two most recent podcasts to play-you might have to get the others from iTunes if you want to listen to them)), so I finally picked it up.  Again, from my Goodreads review:  Great depth of story here and I loved all the medical detail-enough to be fascinating but not so much as to lose the average reader. Also, when I started reading, I didn't realize that part of this story revolves around live-donor liver transplants. My husband's side of the family went through this process, all except the actual transplant itself-at the last minute it was determined that the vasculature of the intended donor did not line up with the recipient's and the surgery had to be called off. (In the end, a cadavar donor was found, and hubby's family is doing well and we are all very grateful.) With this family history, the story resonated for me in a way that I hadn't been expecting when I picked up this book about twin boys living in Ethiopia. A lilve-donor liver transplant is not something that most people have any familiarity with at all, so to randomly run across it in a work of fiction was kind of cool. 

The Magicians: A NovelThe Magicians by Lev Grossman-Part Harry Potter, part Chronicles of Narnia, but then it finally gets its own legs under it and goes off in a darker direction.  Thanks to Jeanne's review at Necromancy Never Pays for finally convincing me to read it.

People of the Book: A NovelPeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks-This is a fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Jewish manuscript from the 1300s, that was thought to have been destroyed in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Thanks to the brave efforts of the director of the National Museum, the Haggadah was safe, contrary to rumors that it had been destroyed or sold for arms.  The Haggadah faced a similar threat in the '40s when the Nazis came looking for it; again, it was saved, this time by the director and the curator of the National Museaum, both of whom risked their lives to save it.  People of the Book traces the Haggadah's history through various stories of narrow escape all the way back to its creation.  I started reading this on my Kindle months (years?) ago, and I finally picked it back up on the plane, on the way home from our trip to France, which included a side trip to Venice.  Turns out that part of this book takes place in Venice during the 1600s!  Imagine how psyched I was to recognize the places in this story that would have meant nothing to me one week earlier!  Heather J. gave the audio version a rave review, along with a better plot summary.