Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Year in Review

The Year of Reading in Review

Inspired by the movie Julie and Julia, and a couple of blogs that I had read--including 100 Memoirs ( and Read All Day ( – I decided that in 2010 I would read a book a week in four genres, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Spiritual, and Memoir and blog about them. It was an exercise in self-discipline at the beginning. I realized that I felt guilty when I spent time reading; I should be doing something more productive. If I had a purpose for my reading, I could read more, and if I had people who read my blog, then I would be productive. Well, I began reading, and by June, I noticed that I was reading automatically every day, that I loved every minute of it, and that people were beginning to read my blog. Now, I can’t quit; I have too many readers, and I am addicted.

Next year, I am planning to continue reading and blogging. I will migrate to a website in February; one that will be easier for friends to join, make suggestions about their favorite books, and comment on my blog entries. Right now I have a huge stack of books to read, many of them given to me by friends or book agents. I will be very busy reading in 2011.

Here are the guidelines that I have operated under and will continue to utilize:

• All books must have favorable reviews. I read BookMarks monthly, and New York Review of Books and The New Yorker weekly. I try to also read the New York Times Sunday book reviews and the review magazine from the library.

• I try to get as many books as possible from the library.

• I try to accommodate book agents and friends as best I can.

• At least one book a month must be one from the church library, or have been bought for the church library.

• The books must be challenging intellectually; in other words, no romances (which has never been a genre I liked anyway) or other fluffy-type books.

If I think up any other rules, I will post them.

So, here is my year in review. I read 21 fiction books and 12 each of non-fiction, spiritual, and memoir—57 books in all.

Books Read in 2010


1) Shantaram 1/8 Gregory David Roberts

2) American Salvage 1/23 Bonnie Jo Campbell

3) Snow Falling on Cedars 2/5 David Guterson

4) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 2/26 Jamie Ford

5) Shutter Island 3/26 Dennis LeHane

6) Tea Time for the Traditionally Built 4/15 Alexander McCall Smith

7) The Information Officer 5/1 Mark Mills

8) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 5/22 Stieg Larsson

9) The Girl who Played with Fire 5/22 Stieg Larsson

10) The Help 6/4 Kathryn Stockett

11) The Lincoln Lawyer 6/15 Michael Connelly

12) Portuguese Irregular Verbs 6/15 Alexander McCall Smith

13) The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 6/26 Stieg Larsson

14) I See You Everywhere 7/25 Julia Glass

15) The Elegance of the Hedgehog 8/14 Muriel Barbery

16) The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott 9/15 Kelly O’Connor McNees

17) A Visit from the Goon Squad 9/21 Jennifer Egan

18) My Name is Mary Sutter 10/14 Robin Oliveira

19) Love and Summer 11/12 William Trevor

20) Case Histories 11/14 Kate Atkinson

21) Lord of Misrule 12/17 Jaimy Gordon


1) Things Seen and Unseen 1/15 Nora Gallagher

2) A Year of Living Biblically 2/12 A.J. Jacobs

3) If the Church were Christian 3/5 Philip Gulley

4) Holy Stuff of Life 3/30 Heather Murray Elkins

5) Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith 4/2 Anne Lamott

6) Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community 4/26 Henri Nouwen

7) The Cloister Walk 6/11 Kathleen Norris

8) Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential 7/16 Caroline Myss

9) Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything 8/20 Geneen Roth

10) Gilead 9/3 Marilynne Robinson

11) Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal 10/28 Rachel Naomi Remen

12) America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story 12/5 Bruce Feiler


1) The Sisters of Sinal 1/22 Janet Soskice

2) The City of Falling Angels 2/15 John Berendt

3) Three Cups of Tea 2/22 Greg Mortenson

4) I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) 3/12 Richard Polsky

5) Bright Sided 4/8 Barbara Ehrenreich

6) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto 5/14 Michael Pollan

7) This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians can Save US All 7/1 Marilyn Johnson

8) The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature 7/31 Daniel Levitin

9) Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham 8/26 Christopher Heaney

10) The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 10/1 Harvey Sachs

11) Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park 10/21 Marie Winn

12) The Harvard Psychedelic Club 11/27 Don Lattin


1) The Complete Persepolis 1/29 Marjane Satrapi

2) An Unquiet Mind 2/22 Kay Redford Jamison

3) Hiding in the Spotlight 3/22 Greg Dawson

4) The Liar’s Club 4/22 Mary Karr

5) The Happiness Project 5/30 Gretchen Rubin

6) The Summer of the Great-Grandmother 7/7 Madeleine L’Engle

7) Mennonite in a Little Black Dress 7/29 Rhoda Janzen

8) Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead 9/17 Sara Miles

9) Losing Mum and Pup 10/8 Christopher Buckley

10) Stitches: A Memoir 11/9 David Small

11) Finding Oz: How L Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story 12/11 Evan I. Schwartz

12) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 12/24 Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Best books of 2010


1) The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

2) A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

3) Love and Summer, William Trevor

4) “The Girl” Trilogy, Stieg Larsson


1) America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, Bruce Feiler

2) Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne LaMott

3) If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley


1 The Sisters of Sinai, Janet Soskice

2) Bright Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich

3) In Defense of Food, Michael Pollen


1) Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen

2) Jesus Freak, Sarah Miles

3) Complete Persepolis (Santrape)/ Stitches (Small)

Three Books I didn’t particularly like

1) Sacred Contracts (The only book I didn’t finish), Caroline Myss

2) I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), Richard Polsky

3) Shutter Island, Dennis LeHane

Top number of blog views
1) A Visit from the Goon Squad

2) Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

3) Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead

4) This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians will Save Us All

5) Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham

6) The Harvard Psychedelic Club

7) Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Novel

8) The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Plan for next week

Dear friends, as you can see, I completed my goal of reading a book a week. I am proud of myself. Next week, I will post my favorites of the year as well as my least favorite. I will also tell you all the plans for my blog for next year. Stay tuned.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

New York, Vintage Books, 1997

Week 52 Spiritual Memoir

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a memoir of a year in the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French edition of Elle magazine. When he was 43 years old, he suffered a massive stroke which left him completely immobilized in what is called “locked-in syndrome.” This was his diving bell. His mind, on the other hand, was his butterfly. Through his mind, he was able to travel to all the far-flung places he had frequented before the stroke.

The task for the doctors and therapists was to release him from his diving bell in whatever way they could. Because he could move one eyelid, that movement became his communication device. With a speech therapist, they devised a manner of speech. She would read through the alphabet until she got to the letter he wanted; he would blink his eye and she would write the letter down until words and then sentences were formed. They used a frequency alphabet as opposed to an ABC alphabet. In French, the first three letters of the frequency alphabet are ESA.

He was determined to write a book to help explain himself to his children. A young woman named Claude was hired to help him put his thoughts on paper. The result is this small, very profound view of Bauby’s world--the diving bell that encases him and the butterfly of his thoughts. The short chapters tell of flights of fancy, frustrations, the pleasures of visits, and the irony of his life situation. He longs for repartee with his children, but the painfulness of the communication form makes humor difficult. He longs for a good meal, but in his memory, he is able to re-eat some of the best meals he ever had—without the calories. He cherishes his children’s letters, and pictures, and kisses, and kindnesses, and memorizes them so they are repeated over and over in his mind. He says that when someone calls on the telephone, he can listen to what they are saying “to intercept and catch passing fragments of life, the way you catch a butterfly.”

Through this book, the reader understands what they previously could only imagine—the “what ifs” of life. We are forced to imagine ourselves in this situation. Would we respond in such a creative way, or would we descend to anger and bitterness? He does say, “To keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.”

On what level, then, do we appreciate life? If all but our mind were gone, how would we live? As I am writing this, I am trying to remember my favorite meal of all time. Can I remember it in minute detail? Can I savor each morsel? Can I remember the joy on the faces of my companions? To speak of something more mundane, can I remember what I talked about with my husband last night? What we ate for supper? What did I say to my son when I spoke to him on the phone yesterday?

The author died of pneumonia two days after the book was published. His legacy lived on in this small book and in the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that came out in 2007, which is arriving from Netflix at our house today. Reviewers say that the movie captures the essence of the book in a very profound way.

Surprisingly, the book is not painful to read. It is an inspired look at the human spirit at its most basic, the will to survive and the desire to thrive. Somehow, when you are reading this book, the disappointments of the day fall away and you find yourself focusing on the very essence of life.

A review in the New York Times:

An article about Bauby’s children and their mother since the book and movie:

A review of the movie from my favorite movie reviewer, James Berardinelli:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lord of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon

Kingston, NY, McPherson, 2010

Week 51 Fiction

It made the headlines of the local newspaper. A creative writing professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo had won the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule. My ears, of course, perked up. Ah, another book for my list. Last year, two local authors had made the nomination list—Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage and David Small for Stitches. (Both of those books are reviewed on these pages.)

About a week later, Jaimy Gordon appeared for a reading at the downtown library, and I was in attendance. At that point, I knew nothing of the book and nothing about the author, except that the book was published by a very small publishing company and that Jaimy Gordon had been Bonnie Jo Campbell’s teacher.

The story of the creation of Lord of Misrule is almost as interesting as the book itself. For a few years in the late 1960s, Gordon worked at a race track near Baltimore as a horse groom. She wrote a draft or two of the novel in the years following the experience, published a couple of other books, and then submitted this book to the publisher of a previous book. The publisher rejected it, and she put it away in a drawer, taking it out only to make a short story out of a couple of the chapters. It languished in her drawer for 10 years, “a huge lump standing in the way of me and progress.”

Finally, this year, Bruce McPherson, who had published another of her books, forced the book out of her drawer and submitted it in galley form to the National Book Awards committee. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, on to the book, itself. I have to say that I had trouble making sense out of Lord of Misrule. I have no prior experience with racetracks, horses, loan sharks, groomers, or any other part of the scene, so the learning curve was severe. However, about half way through, it all began to click, and I gave up the struggle and immersed myself in the jargon, the plot movement, and the characters.

The book is divided into four parts, each named for one of the horses in the stables of the Indian Mound Downs racetrack in West Virginia. Over the course of a year, the horses are involved in four races, and there are four main characters as well; an old African American groom, a “gypsy” woman owner and trainer, and a young couple trying to make a living as horse owners. Maggie, a college-educated “frizzy haired” girl could easily be a stand-in for the author. Her boyfriend, the horse owner, is a con man in training. Over the course of a year, these horses and these people are involved in racing, feuding, fighting and death.

The horses have as much a role in the story as the people. They have personality and depth of character. The racetrack, too, has personality. “It was a complete world, but it was a flat world too—one pure unmitigated plane of being, all the way to the edge, where you fell off. Then it was all void, all menace.”

The reviewer in the LA Times sums up all these characters in one succinct sentence: “Sort the men from the horses, so similar are their slaveries, their striving for nothing, their tendency to be ruled by lesser animals.”

Part of the beauty (but I also must say, part of the difficulty) of the book lies in the language and dialogue. Gordon calls it “third person limited.” Mostly, you are privy to the thoughts of each of the characters, one voice at a time. The reader has to first figure out who is speaking in each chapter. Particularly confusing were the thoughts of Tommy, the horse owning con man. He thinks in the second person, so all his thoughts about himself are “you.” Lots of horse racing terms are bandied about. Lots of slang. I made the mistake of not reading the definition of a “claiming race” that appears before the book begins. Do read that—it will make all the difference in understanding the book.

I began underlining phrases and thoughts that I particularly felt were beautifully put, such as “blue crucifix eyes of the goat." In describing the horse Mr. Boll Weevil at the gate: “He is looking for a home all right. He’s still looking around that gate like he’s thinking about putting up wallpaper in it, making a down payment on a living room suit, moving in for life.” I could go on and on.

I would suggest that if you want to tackle this book, read a couple of reviews, particularly Jane Smiley’s review in the Washington Post. Additionally, the review in the Women’s Voices for Change website is excellent. That reviewer says, “It is, no more and no less, another of those rare and acute studies of the human condition, timeless, tragic, moving, while being firmly rooted in a place and a time brought to life for the reader’s pleasure."

The Washington Post Review:

The review in Women’s Voices for Change:

The review in the LA Times:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

by Evan I. Schwartz
Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Week    50   Biography
( Read aloud with my husband.)

This morning, on NPR, I was listening to an author talk about why Conan Doyle has remained a premier influence in mystery fiction throughout the century or so since he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. This same question, of course, can be asked about L. Frank Baum and the Wizard of Oz stories. The author Evan T. Schwartz was reading The Wizard of Oz to his 7-year-old daughter and enjoying her wide-eyed amazement at the magic of the story. He realized there might be a book in the details about how the classic got written. Finding Oz, a biography of sorts, is the result. I say “of sorts,” because there is a great deal of speculation involved in Schwartz’s narrative. One reviewer noted that Schwartz prefers “the conjectural to the concrete and never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Schwartz traces the restless life of L. Frank Baum from his childhood to the writing of the book. He “does a fine job of unearthing the origins of Oz, and of portraying Baum as very much a man of his times--the era of the vanishing frontier and the uneasy transition from Victorianism into modernity.” As the author says, Baum crossed paths with much of the national narrative during his life, and Schwartz feels that he filed away all those influences until they appeared in his novel. For instance, Baum’s mother-in-law was the radical feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. Many thought her to be a witch, but to Frank, she was a benevolent mother and a huge influence in his life. The family moved to Chicago just before the Chicago World’s Fair, and many people, including Schwartz, feel that the “White City” in Chicago became the Emerald City. Thomas A. Edison and P.T. Barnum, important personages of the time, may have been the influence for the Wizard.

L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum moved his family (wife Maud, and sons Robert, Harry, Kenneth, and Frank Jr.) many times trying to find a formula for making money that would provide for his family as well as satisfy his soul. He tried theatre, sales, retail, and journalism. His family moved from New York State, to territorial South Dakota, and finally to Chicago where he settled into a career as a journalist. It was in Chicago reporting on the World’s Fair that the stories he had been telling his children began to take form and his first book, Father Goose, His Book,was published. Other published stories followed until he completed his masterwork, The Wizard of Oz.

The actual story of the writing of the Wizard of Oz takes up only one chapter close to the end of the book. Schwartz develops all the influences so fully that you are always saying, “Of course. That seems logical.” All the time, however, you are wondering, “Is that really true or merely conjecture?” He feels that the Baum family was greatly influenced by a trendy religion called Theosophy, a religion that was an amalgamation of Buddhism and other eastern religions, and that the book may have been a result of that spiritual journey.

On another level, Finding Oz is fascinating journey through the years following the Civil War from the perspective of L. Frank Baum, who lived through those days and made the most of it. From the historical perspective, the book is a valuable read. We watched a documentary about the Chicago World’s Fair, Expo: Magic of the White City. We had seen it before, as we were reading another Chicago book about those times—The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. To readers new to the Chicago World’s Fair, these books would serve as great companion narratives, but be sure to watch the DVD, which we got from Netflix. It puts the whole scene into perspective.

My husband, Thell, has been a lifelong fan of the Wizard of Oz, and we have a set of about ten very ancient books. I asked him if he thought the Wizard of Oz would have remained classic children’s literature if not for the 1939 movie. He responded that he thought that the brilliance of the movie fixed itself into the American psyche, and thus we consider the books to be of the same classic mode. Like all good stories, there are many ways to interpret it and many ways to find meaning in it. We were regaled the other evening to the road show, Wicked, a brilliant speculation about the origins of the witches of Oz. There is something about that story!

Here is Evan Schwartz telling about his book on his book’s website:

A review of the book in the Washington Post:

An interview with Schwartz by "The Daily Ozmapolitan":

Sunday, December 5, 2010

America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story

by Bruce Feiler
New York, William Morrow, 2009

Week 49   Religion

Although Bruce Feiler’s book, Walking the Bible, has looked intriguing to me as it sits on the church library shelf, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story is the first of his books that I have read. Feiler uses a chatty style, with a lot of interviews and first-person travel to support his thesis, which is that American history is full of the story of Moses and the Exodus.
He outlines three themes of the Moses story and how they have influenced American life. The first theme is the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land. The second theme is the tension between freedom and law (liberty and order). The final theme is the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden.

To this end, he tells several stories of Moses in America beginning with the Pilgrims and their journey to the Promised Land. He then moves on to stories about George Washington and liberation, and Harriet Tubman and slavery. A major chapter concerns Abraham Lincoln, who comes to mind, of course, as the Moses of his generation. The last major story is about Martin Luther King and his sermon the night before his death—a Moses who did not get to the Promised Land. Along the way, he discusses the symbolism of the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, and even Superman. One interesting side story concerns Cecil B. DeMille and his creation of the movie, The Ten Commandments.
It is fascinating to read about the many, many times in our history that Moses and the Exodus stories have been part of the rhetoric of the great speeches of American history. “The promised land,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “let my people go,” “Uncle Tom.” Feiler speaks of slavery, freedom, and covenant as being aligned with Egypt, Red Sea, and Sinai. Because the story of Moses transcends one particular religion—in ways the story of Jesus cannot—it can be told again and again, can be applied to many different scenarios, and can even be used in two conflicting situations. He suggests that the Moses story was used by both the North and the South prior to the Civil War. The South used the story to point out that Moses delivered the law to the people with a set of rules to be obeyed. They emphasized that slavery was maintained throughout the story. The North spoke of the freedom aspects of the journey and the fact that all people are created equal. He says, “If North and South could not agree on the same Bible, they could not sit in the same pews, and if they couldn’t sit in the same pews, they couldn’t stay in the same union.” “What started in religion happened next in politics.”

This is not an exhaustive study, nor is it academic or intellectual. After I read it, I wondered why Feiler chose to discuss Cecil B. DeMille but not Brigham Young. Perhaps that was too big a can of worms! At the same time, I believe that he made his point. Moses is a better model for America than Jesus, because his story has universality to it with broad themes and is the one Bible story that most Americans know and can relate to. One can invoke Moses’ name without being called religiously biased. I kept seeing the men’s book study group at church reading it for it has great potential for book discussion groups.

I was amused that concurrent to reading this book, I was reading my new copy of The New York Review of Books (December 9), which included a review of the Stewart/Colbert rally in Washington. It contained a portion of Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of the rally when he spoke as himself and not his character. He said, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.” In the same issue, an article about Glen Beck quotes him calling for a third great awakening because “God is not done with you yet, and he is not done with man’s freedom yet.” So, the story of Moses lives on.

A review in the Washington Post:

An interview on CNN:

Bruce Feiler’s website:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Please wait for me!

Dear friends, I am late with my blog this week. I will have it up on Saturday night Dec. 4 or at the latest on Sunday. The book is America's Prophet by Bruce Feiler and it's good enough to wait for.