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December 2013

Holiday viewing.

Throughout the year, I find that re-read certain books according to season. It's somewhat odd to me, then, that I don't really have any holiday books that I revisit. I think it may be because during the Christmas holiday season, I have a few TV shows that I absolutely must see every year (or it just doesn't feel like the holidays). They are, in no particular order:

The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident.

A great BBC comedy series, featuring Dawn French as a vicar in a small English village. In this Christmas episode she finds herself invited to no fewer than three Christmas lunches. Features one of my favorite bits of all times, when the farmer explains to her how his cows don't talk, and how that's a shame, but perhaps not really, because all they could say to each other is "So, what are you doing?" "Oh, standing in a field. You?" "Oh, standing in a field."

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted.

Oh, Father Ted. A wonderfully surreal BBC comedy series about three misfit priests (one a complete dolt, one an aging drunk who likes to scream "feck!" and "arse!," and one, Ted, who embezzled parish funds for gambling) exiled to a small Irish island. In this episode Father Ted wins a religious award for helping seven other priests find their way out of a department store's lingerie department. See? Surreal. You may just have to watch the whole series to appreciate this one, but it'll be so worth it.

Northern Exposure: Seoul Mates.

The Jewish doctor exiled in Alaska to pay back his med school tuition gets a Christmas tree, and the former astronaut who's the biggest businessman in town discovers he has more family than he thought he had. I just can't do this one any justice in a short description, but it's wonderful (much like the whole series was). And I still have a crush on Dr. Joel.

Honorable Mention: This year I discovered there's also a Christmas episode of the BBC classic program All Creatures Great and Small (based on the books by James Herriot). And yes, I realize this list is BBC-heavy; I think they just do Christmas better in Great Britain. But the most important show on my list is American:

The Peanuts Christmas special.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." --Linus

For a more comprehensive list, check out Stacy Horn's list of favorite Christmas episodes.

Happy holidays, my fellow readers. I hope 2014 is filled with all good things--books and otherwise--for all of you.


You know? I just enjoy Helen Fielding.

When I heard that Helen Fielding had a new Bridget Jones novel coming out, I'll admit it, I got a little excited. I have always really enjoyed Helen Fielding, and I loved Bridget Jones's Diary in both novel and film form.*

If you're not aware of the story (and where have you been, if not?) it all started in 1996 with Bridget Jones's Diary (follow the link for the plot summary), featuring the British thirty-something "singleton" character of Bridget Jones, presented through her own diary. Jones was a lovable female scamp, always battling her weight and cigarette and alcohol dependencies, and she couldn't help loving the hilarious, dashing asshole (played perfectly by Hugh Grant in the movies), although eventually she fell for the much more staid but surprisingly much more romantic Mark Darcy. A sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, followed, and now, more than a decade later, Fielding has written another installment in the story titled Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy.

Now, I could do a huge spoiler here, but I'm not going to. Suffice it to say that the book opens with a ballsy character development choice on the part of Fielding. Many readers were not happy about it, but I had to give her credit for trying the unexpected, and for the most part, I think she pulled it off. But the point of these novels is not the story. Much like fellow Brit Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole diaries (also hilarious), the appeal here is the character. I just love Bridget Jones. In this book, she has a couple of kids, and it gives her new perspective. One of my favorite passages in the book is when she sees a neighbor struggling with her own kids (and she can relate):

"Suddenly the upstairs window in the house opposite shot open and a pair of Xbox remotes hurtled out, landing with a smash next to the dustbins.

Seconds later, the front door was flung open and the bohemian neighbor appeared, dressed in fluffly pink mules, a Victorian nightdress and a small bowler hat, carrying an armful of laptops, iPads and iPods. She teetered down the front steps and shoved the electronics in the dustbin, with her son and two of his friends following her, wailing, 'Nooooo! I haven't finished my leveeeeel!'

'Good!' she yelled. 'When I signed up for having children, I did NOT sign up to be ruled by a collection of inanimate thin black objects and a gaggle of TECHNO-CRACKHEADS refusing to do anything but stare with jabbing thumbs, while demanding that I SERVICE them like a computer tech crossed with a five-star hotel concierge. When I didn't have you, everyone spent their whole time saying I'd change my mind. And guess what? I've had you. I've brought you up. And I've CHANGED MY MIND!'

I stared at her, thinking, 'I have to be friends with that woman.'" (p. 89.)

I don't care what anyone says. That is funny. And good writing. And I'm not ashamed to say I consumed the entire book as fast as I could, like a box of good chocolates, and I enjoyed every single moment. Even when I read it at 3 a.m., after feeding my own new baby, who will most likely grow up to be a spoiled techno-crackhead himself.

*Which reminds me, it's about time to watch this movie again; I often re-watch it around the holidays. I think because the movie begins and ends around Christmas time, it always strikes me as a Christmasy movie. And who doesn't love a movie that offers Hugh Grant in perhaps the most perfectly cast role he's ever played? (The casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, in a brilliant twist on his role of Mr. Darcy on the BBC's Pride and Prejudice adpatation, was also a stroke of genius, and seems to indicate Colin Firth has a sense of humor.)

Yet another parenting memoir.

I know, I know, you're saying, good lord, how many of them ARE there?

A lot, it turns out. (I've been addicted to them this year.)

Today's entry in the canon is Leanne Shirtliffe's Don't Lick the Minivan: And Other Things I Never Thought I'd Say to My Kids. This title wins points right off the bat for a fun title and for at least starting off with a bang: Shirtliffe had twins while living in Bangkok, which gives this Mommy Memoir a more international flavor than most (books telling American mothers that French mothers do it better notwithstanding). Later chapters find her family moving back to her home country of Canada and settling into a more typical routine: balancing kids and work; starting the kids in school; traveling with kids and family visits and stories.

This didn't become one of my favorite memoirs, but it did grow on me as I read it. I went into it expecting something a bit more hilarious, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of very funny bits here. One of my favorites didn't even have to do with parenting, but with Canada:

"We were driving through Saskatchewan, which is like North Dakota, but with fewer people and straighter roads. The directions for driving across the Prairie Provinces are this: Drive in a straight line until you want to slit your wrists; you're 10 percent there." (p. 119.)

There's also a very nice bit of hilarity between Leanne and her husband, when they have some fun with kids' books, playing a game they learned on the TV show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" The idea is to add "if you know what I mean" onto everything you say:

"We both grabbed a book and opened up to a random page.

I grabbed a Doreen Cronin book, opened up, and read, 'Bob had all the pigs washed in no time, if you know what I mean.'

We laughed.

'How about this one? Chris said, picking up The Cat in the Hat and opening to a random page. 'And then something went BUMP! How that BUMP made us JUMP, if you know what I mean.'" (p. 171.)

The author, who blogs at, also includes "parenting tips" (my favorite tip? "Misbehave during prenatal classes. Nothing is going to go according to plan anyway.") and letters to her children as sidebars.

As far as Mommy Memoirs go, it's a solid read. And extra points just because you know I love all things Canadian.

A book I can't recommend...

...for reading or gift-purchase purposes: Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.*

It announces on the cover that this is a "new Jeeves and Wooster novel," as well as an "homage to P.G. Wodehouse." Now, I know there is really no replacing Wodehouse, but I do love the Jeeves books so I thought I'd be open-minded and give this one a try.

It's not working.

Faulks gave it a good old college try, I'll admit. The novel actually is a serviceable example of a Jeeves book, but there is something just not right about it. I keep reading ten pages here or there and then putting it back down, and not really enjoying what I've read. I can't actually put my finger on what is wrong with this "homage"--the only nonsensical phrase that keeps going through my head is, he got the tone right, but the tone's not quite right. Which makes no sense. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is an okay substitute, but when it comes to Wodehouse, you really should accept no substitutes:

"I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone steps. After a moment of floundering in the darkness I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise: the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock. There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling bout before I was able to shove the wretched thing beneath the mattress."

That's the opening paragraph, and I wish I could report it got more compelling from there. But I think your best course of action here would be to skip this one and just go re-read some P.G. himself.

*And this really hurts to say, because I was totally looking forward to this one.

We interrupt list mania... bring you a Friday funny.

Sent to me by a friend (you know who you are: thank you!), here's a piece by Drew Magary, who I totally love, on hating the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I didn't have to get much further than the intro to fall over laughing:

"I have a house and, like most houses, it's an unfinished work. There are cracks in the paint. There are piles of old clothes and shoes exploding out of the laundry room, which doubles as a storage room because we don't have a storage room. The walls in our bedroom are bare because we haven't had time to hang pictures on them since we moved in 10 years ago. We need a pantry, but don't have one. We just cram cans of food and boxes of pasta into the front hall closet with the coats and shoes because there's nowhere else to put them...But for now, this loving house will do, in all its imperfections. I suspect most houses are like this. There's always some goddamn project that needs to get done and never does."

But then of course I fell down the Internet rabbit hole and read another one of his essays, My Kid's Insane Christmas Wish List, Annotated. And that was even better. Drew Magary: the gift that keeps on giving.

Have a great weekend, all.

The seasonal list madness.

Normally I am beyond not excited by the end-of-year best lists. Partially this is because I get my books from the library, and the waiting lists for new books tend to be long (meaning I rarely get books in the year they were published, particularly in the latter half of the year). But primarily it is because I resent reading on anyone else's schedule, and having to read books just because they're new (unless they're by authors I really love) definitely feels like reading on someone else's schedule.* I am actually a very poor "social reader"--meaning I'm not particularly interested in chatting over the latest books with others who have read them. All of this contributes to me really not caring a whole lot about which books are called each year's "best."

But I still like to look over these lists, which is a good thing, because they're tough to avoid right now. One of my favorite lists is always the New York Times 100 Notable Books; usually I peruse it just to see how few books I've read from it. This year I have another pathetic total: One of the fiction titles (The Tenth of December, by George Saunders--although I am currently waiting for library copies of two other titles on the list), and two from the nonfiction list (George Packer's The Unwinding, and Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial). In looking over the list just now I put a few titles on hold at the library, but I can honestly say I'm just not interested in most of these books--I won't be reading Peter Baker's Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, for instance, because, frankly, who could stand reliving the Bush regime?

So are there lists out there that I enjoy? Well, yes. I'm enough of an Anglophile to enjoy The Telegraph's List of 100 Best Books for Christmas--I simply MUST have the biography of Penelope Fitzgerald by Hermione Lee. I also typically enjoy the fiction and nonfiction bests lists at the Christian Science Monitor--but that may be just because I LOVE the CSM. Seriously. Are you reading the online version? There's always something interesting there, not just in the news department but also on such topics as money matters and parenting. They even have recipes!

But no, I'm not finding a lot of "best of" lists that light my fire. Are you?

*Mr. CR calls this sort of thing me being "difficult."

Forgot a couple!

After I posted my list for book gift-giving ideas on Monday, I realized I forgot a couple of titles! They are:

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor. I'm only about a quarter of the way through this one, but it's been a spanking read so far. London lived a LOT for someone who only lived forty years. This would make a great book for any fan of London's writing, or anyone with an interest in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American history.

And for those novel readers out there, consider Lexicon by Max Barry. It's a crying shame, I think, that I haven't seen this one showing up on any "best of the year lists. It's a great book, thought-provoking, quickly paced, and not too long. And it would be particularly great for any readers who enjoy dystopian fiction (know any fans of The Hunger Games who are looking for a similar read?), as well as for readers who love thinking about issues of language and culture.

And, I should also mention, Chelsea Green Publishing, a great indie publisher of nonfiction on sustainability issues and DIY topics, is also having a 35% off sale. Check it out!

List Mania 2013: Books for Gift-giving

It's that time of year again: everyone's putting out their Best Books of 2013 lists. Interested to see what lists are available? Check out the Best Books 2013 sidebar at the Reader's Advisor Online, or view the exhaustive compilation of Bests lists at Largehearted Boy.

I'll be offering a few takes on the lists this week (hopefully, if everyone here stays healthy--fingers crossed!), but thought I'd kick things off with a gift-giving guide for the season, highlighting some of my faves from the year that I feel are severely underrepresented on other lists I've seen so far. I'll list the book title (which will link directly to Powell's, from where, full disclosure, I would get a small percentage if you purchase it; likewise, if you use the Amazon link or graphic at the side, I get a small percentage of anything you order there as well), give a small review, and link to my original review of the title. Let's have at it!

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, by Stacy Horn. Horn describes her experiences singing in a community choir in New York City, and ties her experiences (and the importance of choral singing to individuals who participate in it) to the choir's history and the positive effects of being part of a singing collective. She's a fantastic nonfiction author who takes her dedication to research and fact-checking seriously, and she's also a fabulous and personable prose writer. Readers who are very into music or who enjoy offbeat history subjects might get a kick out of this one.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, by Rose George. British investigative writer George explores the shipping industry, which is largely invisible to most people, and which employs ever fewer workers (and pays them less and works them harder), even though the vast majority of things we eat and use in our daily lives comes to us on container ships. I'm not even done reading this one yet and I'm finding it fascinating. Another solid gift-giving choice from this author is The Big Necessity. Sure, it's about poop. What are the holidays good for if you can't give your nearest and dearest a totally engrossing book about poop? I ask you. Anyone you know with a lot of curiosity about the world would enjoy these books; they also make good read-alikes for fans of such authors as Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell.

Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, or The Postmortal, by Drew Magary. Two totally different books: one a memoir on parenting (complete with lots of swear words, which parenting does seem to bring out in some of us) and one a futuristic novel about somebody discovering the cure for aging. Both were a lot of fun to read, and might make great presents for hard-to-shop-for male readers as well, particularly if said readers have a couple of kids.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer. This one actually did make it on a lot of "Best of..." lists, with good reason. Packer spoke with a variety of people in different socioeconomic classes to provide an unsettling picture of current American culture and lifestyles. Some of his most illuminating interviews were with very well-off people who still, at the end of the day, felt unsettled by their lives and work. This book might appeal to any political or current affairs junkie on your list.

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff, a Detroit native, returns to his hometown to document its continued collapse. Unsettling but highly educational, and LeDuff's the perfect unintimidated narrator (who's still smart enough to know he's in deep shit in various locales and situations across the city).

Last but not least, we have the "books on books" that would be terrific gifts for any of the hardcore book lovers on your list. These are Joe Queenan's One for the Books; Nick Hornby's More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, and Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores. All are fantastic reads (even if they were all from 2012, not 2013), and any real reader worth their salt will finish each of them with a much longer TBR list. And that's what all readers really want--more great books. Oh, and perhaps more time to read them. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Happy reading and gift-giving all, not only during this season but all throughout 2014.

Reading, check. Writing? Not so much.

I know, it is shameful the way I am neglecting this blog. A new baby, even a stellar one, will do that to you. Particularly when his three-year-old brother CRjr, while being an otherwise charming boy, still needs to nap but WILL NOT NAP. After three p.m. this house devolves into a round-robin of tears and declarations of "I don't wanna!" I've found lately that it's more effective to stand in the corner myself than to send the three-year-old there; at least that way I can lean my forehead against the wall and nap standing up for two minutes.

But all of that is neither here nor there. The point is I HAVE been reading, and I want to tell you all about it, but now I just have to find time for the part where I write about the reading. In the meantime I have also been considering how to make this blog better in the new year, and I'd very much like your input on that. What would you like to read here? More of the same--nonfiction reviews, but perhaps on some types of nonfiction that I don't usually write about as much (history, science, etc.)? More lists? More book discussions? Author interviews? Let me know what you think.

And in the meantime, today is Cyber Monday. If by any chance you will be shopping at Amazon or Powell's Books, would you consider doing so through my associate links in the sidebar? Thank you so much. Many of you have already been doing so, and I am so, so grateful. Even though you wouldn't know it from my posting laziness. But as of now, the 2014 plan is to make it up to you. Further bulletins as events warrant!