Friday, December 30, 2011

My Best Books I Read in 2011 Lists: Best Fiction, Young Adult, and Short Stories

I love this time of the year, this looking back and making lists reflecting on the year gone by and what lies ahead. And with all that comes my annual list of the Best Books I Read in 2011.

I'm probably going to end 2011 with having read either 69 or 70 books, depending on how the next day or so goes. (I'd like to get to that nice round number of 70.) So, while this seems like a lengthy list, it's really not when you look at it as a percentage. Still, it was a pretty good reading year, all things considered. 

My usual disclaimer applies: these are books that I read in 2011, not necessarily books that were published in 2011 (although there are are few of those as well). I've broken my annual list down for you into two separate posts.  In this post, I'll give you my picks for:
Best Fiction

Best Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults But That Completely Blew Me Away and Are Ones That Every Grown Up Should Read;

Best Short Story Collections

In a separate (and shorter) post that will go up either later today or tomorrow, I'll give you my Best Memoirs/Essays and Best Nonfiction lists.  The descriptions are from my reviews; you can click on the links in the title to read the review in its entirety.  (Some I didn't write a review for - and I'm guessing that, at this point, that's not going to be happening - but they are ones that still stay with me even months later which is even more a testament to how lasting and wonderful they are!) Books are listed alphabetically, by author's last name.

Best Fiction 

"And both of us luxuriate in the village yard with words that have a lover's lightning - lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be."  (pg. 161) Words that have a lover's lightning.  How can any reader not love that phrase?  And words like that, my friends, are part and parcel of the treat you're in for with this superb novel. 

Jerome Charyn makes Emily Dickinson so intriguing, capturing her voice and her feisty spirit in such a way that you can't help but want to keep reading and learning more.The reader is taken on a wonderful literary ride through Emily's life (Charyn writes in the beginning which elements of the book are fictional, which is very helpful because that is one of my personal stumbling blocks with historical fiction). We meet her beaus and her Holyoke friends, her headmistresses, and her family. We see her as a budding poet and as a recluse, forever in mourning of the deaths that affected her and would become a force in her poetry.  

By Nightfall is a novel about internal and external beauty and what happens to us when we feel that the beauty has gone out of our lives. Peter Harris knows a little something about beauty. He's a 44 year old art dealer in New York City with a respectable client list and a slight case of insomnia, living in SoHo with his 41 year old wife Rebecca.  Like many professional couples who have been married and have been parents for a number of years (21 of them), theirs has become a marriage (a life) of complacency, of routine and familiarity, of going through the everyday motions of jobs, of sex, of social obligations. By Nightfall is much more of a in-depth look at who we are as a person, and how we relate to each other, and the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night as we sense our life becoming not what we anticipated.

(Cunningham's debut novel, A Home at the End of the World, which I also read this year, deserves an honorable mention on this list. I'm just not sure how I feel about the last third of the book. It felt rushed, too tidy. But the writing, my God ....)

The first thing you need to understand about Room is that this is so much more than your regular novel, and about so much more than the actual plot.  So much more.

From the book jacket:  To five-year old Jack, Room is the world. It's where he was born. It's where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack's imagination - the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma's clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.  

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it's the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen - for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven foot space.  But Jack's curiosity is building alongside her own desperation - and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer."  

It is original in respect to the writing - for it is the mark of a true talent to sustain the incredibly authentic voice of a five-year-old over the course of a novel, which Emma Donoghue (a mother of two young children herself) does brilliantly.  The pacing is perfect and has you on the edge of your seat.  While Room is indeed very tense in parts, this isn't a gory or graphic novel. (Donoghue could have easily gone down that road, but didn't, and it works just as well.)

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano 

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

(I had a review written in Drafts, attempted to copy and paste a portion thereof here for you, and promptly deleted whole damn thing. Sadly, it was really good. Almost as good as the book, which I really loved and which was the first book I read on my Kindle.) 

Internal and interpersonal conflicts, those spoken and unspoken, are at the heart of Children and Fire. Thekla - a teacher of 9 year old boys - is a complicated, conflicted woman, proud of her independence but who learns that it has come at a price paid by others' dependence and guilt. While she's thrilled to have finally landed a teaching position after ten years, it comes with a combination of guilt and loyalty to her beloved teacher and mentor, Sonja Siderova. There's the personal torment of those in her family (her mother Almut, her father Wilhelm) that they can never escape, that keeps them prisoners in their minds. There's Thekla's inability to commit to Emil, whom she loves but who she won't allow herself to fully love. ("Loving was different. It was only the falling she minded. She wished she could love like a man, be skin only, lust only. Her friend Emil was good practice." pg. 13)

The structure of Children and Fire works beautifully and provides for the novel's tension, particularly toward the end. The chapters alternate between February 27, 1937 as we follow Thekla and her students through their school day and the years 1899 - 1933 which provides the critical elements to the novel's backstory such as the relationship between Thekla's parents and a wealthy Jewish couple in town and her father's family tragedy.  The day that the current action takes place, Tuesday, February 27, 1937, is not random; it's the one year anniversary of a fire that destroyed the Reichstag, the parliment building in Berlin.  Even though that fire was hundreds of miles away from quiet and quaint Burgdorf, there is the fear that whatever evil force was responsible for the fire will eventually come to their small village. (And as the reader knows from history, it surely will.)

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd 

In this National Book Award winning novel, Colum McCann transports his reader to New York on August 7, 1974. There, high atop the city and on a wire strung between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers (which are not even at half their full office capacity), is tightrope walker Phillipe Petit, strolling and soft-shoeing his way across the skyscrapers, 110 stories above the concrete jungle below.  

But although the fundambulist's story is at the center of the novel, Let the Great World Spin is really about the stories of those who witnessed this daring act and those whose lives were therefore affected by it.  While the tightrope walk really did happen, the fictitious literary liberties taken by McCann are within these stories.  As with Olive Kitteridge (another novel within stories that I adored), all of these characters are not simply witnesses; they are all connected. How McCann shows this while drawing his reader into a New York of August 1974 - a time when the Bronx was burning, a time defined by Vietnam and boys who didn't make it home - is the brilliance of this novel.  

The characters who inhabit this world are vivid, incredibly true to life and alive on the pages.  We see Tillie and Jazzlyn, a mother-daughter prostitute pair living in the Bronx.  We see Corrigan, an Irish immigrant and priest who is one of the more complex characters in the novel, and his brother Ciaran who is stymied as to how best to help.  There's Claire, a grieving mother whose only child was killed in Vietnam despite working on computer programs and seeing a future that included computers being interlinked and having the ability to communicate with one another. Let the Great World Spin is about the everyday (a car crash, a judge presiding over a case, a group of ladies gathering for tea) and the extraordinary.  

It is about the extraordinary moments in the everyday.

I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn 

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one's perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised, and who remain on the fringes of society.  

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. And it has the potential to happen again (as I hope and pray it does) with The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, "put away," sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That's the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania "school" where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn't have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better "forget" about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie - who is mute - meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  (He is based on a real person.) There they become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge - temporarily - with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband's emotional distance and loss of their only child.  Read the rest of my review here.

Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults but That Completely Blew Me Away and are Ones that Every Grown Up Should Read 

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

With Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine gives an incredibly heartfelt and wonderful gift to people with Asperger's Syndrome, their parents and teachers, and their peers.  

It is, quite simply, the gift of knowing that there is someone (Erskine herself) who "gets it."  And that knowledge, that understanding, is truly something "good and strong and beautiful," to quote one of the many themes that resonate through this book. 

When we meet fifth grader Caitlin Smith, her world seems to be anything but good and strong and beautiful.  It is a world where her mother died when she was 3, and her beloved brother Devon was recently killed (along with several others) during a school shooting.  Left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives are Caitlin and her grieving father. 

While such a tragedy would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, it is compounded even moreso by the fact that Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome.  Her world is very much like the charcoal drawings she creates: black and white.  No color, no gray area, no ambiguity.  All that is confusing to Caitlin, and she struggles - oh, how she struggles! - to make sense of the senseless, to cope with feelings, to try and reach the elusive closure.  Read the rest of my review here

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This is more fairy tale than fright-fest, more enchantment than gore.  Right from the first couple pages, I was captivated by the story of a baby who crawls away from his family - all murdered - to live among the larger-than-life spirits in a nearby graveyard.  
"Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother's and father's despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides, like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step ..."  (pg 10-11)
C'mon, doesn't that make you want read on to find out what happens to the orphaned boy?  

What happens is that he makes his way to a nearby graveyard where he is taken in by the kindly souls that reside there.  He gets parents and a new name ("Nobody Owens," and is nicknamed Bod), and a guardian named Silas.  They teach him practical things, like history and the alphabet and how to Fade and Haunt.  In Bod, Gaiman creates such an endearing, lovable character that you just want to scoop him up and adopt him.  He evokes your sympathy, first with the loss of his entire family and then as he is ignored by much of the world when he does, on occasion, venture out of the graveyard. 

You Are My Only is the story of Emmy Rane, a devoted young mother who does what every mother has innocently done: leaves her baby unattended for the briefest of moments. On a still, bright day, outside in the yard while tucked snug in the branches of a tree swing, four month old Baby goes missing.  The only trace of her is one single yellow sock.

You can see this unfold because we have all experienced this - a simple act that results in the shifting and forever changing of lives - and you can see this in the opening pages of You Are My Only because Beth Kephart takes you right there.  You're with Emmy in her moments of desperate terror (anyone who has ever had a child wander off, gone missing even for mere moments, knows this piercing anguish). You're right there when Emmy's emotionally and physically abusive husband is in her face, accusing her of being a bad mother by causing Baby's disappearance through her carelessness.

From there, You Are My Only alternates between two timeframes and two points of view: Emmy Rane's, as she endures the days and months after Baby's disappearance, and Sophie Marks' (formerly Baby) who is now 14 and living an always-on-the-run-from-the-No-Good life with Cheryl, the only mother she has ever known. The way in which this story unfolds for its reader is beautifully written, with Kephart's signature lyrical prose infusing each page. 

You Are My Only is a story that reflects the times in which we live.  While there have always been hearts-held-captive baby-gone-missing stories in our nation's history (think Lindbergh, think Elizabeth Smart, think Jaycee Dugard) having this fictional one appear now brings a powerful message in these dark days of personal despair and economic uncertainty for so many.  With You Are My Only, Kephart is saying that we have the strength within us to endure the darkness and break through into the light. It is a message that she personally knows well, and it shows - beautifully, triumphantly - in this novel.  

Sixteen-year old Jacob Portman and his grandfather Abe have a special relationship. They're connected in a way that transcends familial bonds, and in a way that mystifies (and maddens) Jacob's emotionally-distant parents. Their closeness allows Jacob to become curious about his grandfather's past, about the "peculiar" children he grew up with (and the reasons for their peculiarity) and why they still so much a part of Abe's life today.

Abe's past is one spent in a children's home (that would be Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), located off the coast of Wales.  Jacob and his orinithologist father travel to this remote island for two purposes: bird-watching and research for the father and for Jacob, to discover the origins of the stories his grandfather held close to his heart while cryptically sharing details with Jacob. What begins as Abe's story continues as Jacob's, and as he discovers truths he never imagined, author Ransom Riggs takes his reader right there to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  Read the rest of my review here

 Best Short Story Collections 

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Stories by Yiyun Li 

Everybody Loves Somebody
Stories by Joanna Scott 

Some additional Honorable Mentions:
The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
Ford County: Stories by John Grisham 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson 
Dangerous Neighbors, by Beth Kephart
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson 
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Have you read any of these? Did any of them make your Best Of 2011 list ... or make it onto your list of books you'd like to read in 2012? Regardless, hope you have a Happy New Year ... and Happy Reading!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2012 Challenges: The Master Sign Up Post

I had originally intended to write separate sign up posts for all of my intended Reading Challenges for 2012, but after the second one, I knew nobody was going to read 17 of those.  

Yeah, I know.  Seventeen reading challenges. That's 3 more than I signed up for last year. I've said it before: this is the literary equivalent of my husband's Fantasy Football team.  

My approach to reading challenges is this:  I don't plan my reading to coincide with nor center around any particular challenge. Rather, it's pretty certain that whatever book I'm reading at the moment can most likely be matched to any of the various challenges I have going on at the time.  And I like that a-ha moment of discovery. If I find I'm falling short in one challenge, then there's the fun of trying to find books that might have been on my TBR list that would qualify. I try not to stress over all of this and to remember that it is really all in the name of fun. 

Anyway, so here goes it for 2012.  All of these run from January 1-December 31, 2012 unless otherwise specified. You can go to the blog url listed on the button for more details or within my description if you'd like to join in.  

1. The 2nds Challenge was a really fun challenge for me last year, so I was glad to see that it is being offered again. It's at its own designated blog this year.  I'm signing up at the "A few more bites" level, which means I'm committing to reading 6 books that are the second in a series or the second time I've read the author.  

2. I've been meaning to participate in the A-Z Book Challenge every year, but for some reason, I never get around to signing up. This year, I'm adding this one to my list. I don't expect to be able to finish this challenge, truthfully, but it will be fun to see how far I get.  

3. I'm in the car a lot for work, especially during the spring and fall months, so the Audio Book Challenge hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner is a given.  I'm going to increase my goal for this one to the Going Steady level, which means that I'll strive to listen to 12 audio books this year. That should really be no problem.  (25 seems a little high, but that might not even be entirely out of the question, especially in the fall.)

4. The 2012 Chunkster Challenge is hosted by Wendy and Vasilly at There are a few changes to the 2012 challenge, namely the dates. It typically started in February but has now switched to beginning on January 1. There are several other changes too, so you'll want to read the sign up post carefully. I'm going for The Chubby Chunkster, which means that I will be aiming to read 4 books of at least 450 pages. (Personally, I'm striving for The Plump Primer level - especially since there are new categories allowed this year! - but am only officially commiting to the Chubby Chunkster).

5. The E-Book Challenge has a new host this year, that of Sarah of Workaday Reads.  I only read 6 e-books this year (which is pretty pathetic, but still met my goal for this year's challenge). Still, I'd like to increase that number, so I'm going for the CD level, which is 10 e-books.

6. For Serena's Fearless Poetry Exploration Challenge, I am going to commit to reading and reviewing two books of poetry during 2012.

7. I didn't do so well with the Foodies Reading Challenge this year (bit off a bit more than I could chew) but that' not stopping me from going back to the buffet table for more. I'm going for the Pastry Chef level this year, which means that I will strive to read 4-8 food-related books.

8. I'm delighted to be hosting the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge again, and it certainly isn't too late to sign up if you haven't already done so. You can do so here.  We keep things pretty low-key. I'm going for the Memoirist level on this, which means I'm going to try and read 10 or more memoirs.  We'll see if that happens.  This year I read 9.

9. This is absolutely, without a doubt, THE challenge I need this year. I mean, if I do no other challenge, this is the one, hosted by My Readers Block. I need to make a serious commitment to reading my own books this year.  I know I say this each and every year, but we're quickly becoming crunched for space here in the apartment and my books are a big part of that problem. I also have quite a few boxes in storage, too.  That being said, I'm going for the Mt. Ararat level, which means I am committing to reading 40 of my own books.  This is HUGE for me, people, especially when you consider I'm probably only going to read 70 books total this entire year. But it needs to be done.  That's 3-4 books a month.  Definitely doable.

10. Hosted by Literary Escapism. I really enjoy this challenge, and I confess that it's one of the easier ones for me. I like discovering new authors and am going for the 25 New Author level again this year.

11. I love reading non-fiction, so I am thrilled to see that Julie of My Book Retreat is hosting a Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Reading Challenge. I'm officially in for the Diploma Level on this one (10 nonfiction books) but I'd really like to strive for the Bachelor's level (15 nonfiction books).

12. I think self-published authors tend to take a lot of crap, so I'm glad that Sarah is hosting the Self-Published Reading Challenge.  I'm going for the Sentence level (5 books) on this one.

13. I'm so glad someone (Library of Clean Reads) is hosting a Short Story Reading Challenge, because you know how much I love my short stories. I'm going for the Tales Galore level for this one, which is 7-9 books (collections of short stories).

14. This was another challenge that I didn't fare so well at this year, but I'm going for the Y'all Come Back Now, Y'Hear? Level on this one in 2012. That means I'm committing to read 4 books set in the South (SC, GA, AL, NC, VA, TN, MS, LA, KY, WV, TX, AR, FL) and written by an author from the South.

15. Also hosted by Library of Clean Reads, is the Time Travel Reading Challenge. I'm going for the Surprise Trip, which is 1-3 books.

16. This is probably going to be my most challenging Challenge of this year.  Truth in Fiction is being hosted by Fig and Thistle  with the goal of reading a specified number of book pairs that are comprised of one fiction book and one related non-fiction book. (The non-fiction book could be journals, memoirs, etc.) Instead of individual reviews, after each pair write a joint review. I'm going for the Sophomore level on this Challenge, which is to do 2 such pairings.

17. Finally, the What's In a Name Reading Challenge is one of my favorites, so I am absolutely thrilled that Beth Fish Reads is hosting this again!  This one is a lot of fun, as we have to read one book in each of the following categories:

A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title
A book with something you'd see in the sky in the title 
A book with a creepy crawly in the title
A book with a type of house in the title
A book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title
A book with a something you'd find on a calendar in the title.

I can't guarantee that I won't be adding to this, but I think that's a pretty good list.  How about you? Are you participating in any of these challenges?  Did I entice you to join me in any? 

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ye Ol' Annual "Books We Got and Gave for Christmas" Post

(This is my favorite Christmas ornament of all time. I think my parents got this for me when I was in elementary school and I've had it ever since. I love it. If I could only have one Christmas ornament on my tree, this would be it.)

Anyway, it's time for the Ye Ol' Annual Books We Got and Gave for Christmas post.  I realize this doesn't help any of you who could have used this post as inspiration for your gift-giving a few weeks (or days) ago, but so be it.

Here's what we found under our tree:

Santa's big on giving books to Betty and Boo, and he left quite a few for them this year:

For Boo:
Tales of a Sixth Grade Muppet, by Kirk Scroggs
Big Nate in a Class By Himself, by Lincoln Pierce
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angelberger
From our friends, he also got Pittsburgh and the State of Pennsylvania: Cool Things Every Kid Should Know.  

(We gave The Strange Case of Origami Yoda as well as Darth Paper Strikes Back to our nephew.)

For Betty, Santa left three of Laurie Halse Anderson's Vet Volunteers series books (Teacher's Pet, Time to Fly, and Fear of Falling), three American Girl books (McKenna, Meet Marie Grace, Meet Cecile), and Dolphins and Whales.   (Not pictured is a reference guide to dogs.)  She also got a Barnes and Noble gift card from our friends.

Below are two books that The Husband got from his parents:

George Harrison Living in the Material World, by Olivia Harrison and The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough.  The latter is a very strong contender to possibly become the first and only book that The Husband and I have both read, as explained in this post.

And then there was this pile:

That's my Kindle on top of the pile, which was a gift last year from The Husband.  However, I was lucky enough to get several generous Amazon gift cards (from my Book Blogger Secret Santa, my mother and stepfather, and my in-laws) and have since been in downloading heaven. So far, I've purchased The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan; The Quickening by Michelle Hoover; In Leah's Wake by Terri Guiliano LongTurning Point by my friend Melissa Luznicky Garrett; Dirt: A Story About Gardening, Mothering, and Other Messy Business, by my friend Susan Senator; Pictures of You by Carolyn Levitt; and The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2012. I've also ordered The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, Still Love in Strange Places, by Beth Kephart, and I've pre-ordered the new Carly Simon biography, More Room in a Broken Heart. 

So, my Kindle is a-smokin'... and there's STILL $25 left on the gift cards!  From my in-laws, I also got two Marion Winik books that I've been coveting - The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and her essay collection, Above Us Only Sky. A few weeks ago, I fell in love with Mel u's review of Brandon Shire's The Value of Rain, so much so that I immediately added it to my Christmas wish list. Lo and behold, it showed up in my pile of presents from the in-laws!

Rounding out the pile is Stephen King's 11/22/63, which was my selfish gift to The Husband. (Selfish because I might want to read it myself - making this another contender for a shared book that The Husband and I might actually have in common as both having read.)

Finally, there's Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly, a gift from my mother to The Husband. My mother is a big Bill O'Reilly fan.  My Husband, not quite so much.

So there you have it, the books that we found under our tree this Christmas and that we're enjoying this Christmas season.  How about you ... did you get any books for Christmas? Any e-readers?  Do tell!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Celebrate Me Home

Boo's thank you letter to Santa from 2010

Just wanted to take a moment to wish all of my blog readers who are celebrating Christmas today and tomorrow a very happy holiday.  We're back in Philadelphia for several days, living the true meaning of "home for the holidays." *

It has been a great, relaxing vacation thus far. The kids are beyond excited, the presents are all bought (as of this morning when I did a final Christmas Eve shopping run) and wrapped, the weather is more than cooperating (i.e., there's no snow!), and everyone is healthy. We're really lucky that both of our families not only live in the Philadelphia area but live within a 10 minute drive of each other.  We're spending Christmas Eve at my in-laws' tonight, watching our Eagles and having dinner and dessert, and we'll go back to my mom's tonight where Santa is scheduled to arrive after midnight. 

Later in the vacation, several get togethers with friends are scheduled and we're looking forward to seeing everyone. My reading mojo has even returned (yay!) and in my downtime, I've been spending some time with A Clockwork Christmas, a new anthology from Carina Press of four steampunk novellas that each have some connection to Christmas.  This is the first steampunk anything I've ever read, and I must say, if the first story ("Crime Wave in a Corset" by Stacy Gail") is any indication of what this genre is like, I could see myself liking this genre.  I'm trying to be more diligent about my NetGalley commitments, of which this was one. 

I hope that whatever you're doing this weekend that it involves people you love and doing the things you love. Thanks so much for reading the blog and for all your support this year. Merry merry and happy happy!

* = less Internet time than usual

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stickin' a Fork in the 2011 Reading Challenges

I've been agonizing over my reading challenges for the last several days.

I tend to do this when I have big stuff on my mind - you know, things like a major holiday (Christmas), a death in the family (my grandmother), projects for work. I zoom in and focus on the minutia, the tiny details of life, because the big stuff ... well, because sometimes the big stuff is just too big.

I'm really close to being finished with both the Reading Madly challenge as well as the Southern Literature challenges (2 books left for each of them) yet I can't seem to decide on books for either, and the thought of being obligated to read four books in the next 9 days is a little daunting, and that has me frozen in place, unable to pick up ANY book.  I'm not kidding; I haven't picked up ANYTHING to read since our car ride home from Philadelphia on Sunday, which is highly unlike me.

Which also means that I'm way, way, way overthinking this, and that there's only one solution:

To stick a fork in this year in terms of the reading challenges.

After all, chances are that the same challenges will still be here in 2012.  I know the books will be.

So, without further ado, here's how I fared with my 14 challenges that I signed myself up for around this time last year.  Dare I say, it was a very good year (bookishly speaking, that is).

Challenges Completed (9 out of 14)
2nds Challenge
Audiobook Challenge
E-book Challenge
Essay Reading Challenge
GLBT Challenge
Memorable Memoir
New Authors
Nordic Challenge
What's in a Name 4

Challenges Failed (5 out of 14)
50 States
Foodies Reading Challenge
Reading Madly
Southern Literature
Where Are You Reading?

I'm signing up for many of these again - and then some. I think I'm up to something ridiculous like 19 or 20 challenges now.  (Unlike a lot of posts I've seen about bloggers being burnt out on challenges, I'm not. This was the first year I participated in this many challenges and I found I actually kind of liked it.  What can I say - I like the keeping track and the statistics and the listmaking that's involved in all of this.)

How about you? Are you still going strong with any challenges for 2011? Or have you wrapped up your year too?

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sunday Salon: A Little Christmas Now

"For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now ...."

My Christmas prep plans (what absolute bare minimum I've accomplished because I have truly NOT been in the spirit) have gotten more than slightly discombobulated this week, as we find ourselves heading back east this morning to Philadelphia (a 6 hour drive each way) unexpectedly for my grandmother's funeral tomorrow. We were already planning to go back home for the holidays for several days as of this coming Friday (and we're still planning on doing that) so this just throws a bit of a wrench into those plans.  It'll be a whirlwind trip, with not even being there for 24 hours during the early part of this week.

Needless to say, it has been a crazy week since Wednesday with not much reading getting done. I finished Michael Cunningham's wonderful A Home at the End of the World, which I loved, and a long workday on the road on Thursday allowed me to finish listening to Studs Terkel's Voices of Our Time, a really interesting and fascinating collection of 48 of his radio interviews spanning the years 1950 through 1990.

I'm honestly not sure what book is up next.  There won't be much time to read over the next couple days, and I'm only taking my Kindle with me for this 24 hour trip.  (I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to traveling WITHOUT an actual book!) I'm not focused on reading right now, nor on the challenges I have left to finish (and I am really close to finishing the last couple of them too!)

Maybe it's because I'm preoccupied with all that's going on, what with my Christmas procrastination coming to bite me in the behind this year bigtime, coupled with work craziness and some health issues. On the latter, that's nothing life-threatening, but some significant lifestyle/dietary changes and a bunch of pills and supplements that Dr. Feelgood is throwing at me. Let's just say this is NOT the best time of year to go on a low-cholesterol diet, 'mkay?

Honestly, I just want to pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep until sometime in the middle of April.

All that being said, there was a really cool, awesome, amazing thing that happened yesterday that I just have to tell you about (otherwise, at the rate I'm going there's a good chance the holidays will go by without a mention).  In the midst of arguing with Boo about when he was going to try on the outfit I bought him for the funeral, and practicing my remarks (I'll be reading my previous blog post after all, it seems), fitting in hair cuts for The Husband and Betty, and the new cat sitter for the holidays coming over to meet us and see our disasterously mess of an apartment after I called to cancel and she didn't get the message, and finishing up some work projects for early next week ... THIS showed up at the door!

My Book Blogger Holiday Swap package ... from Danielle @the1stdaughter of There's A Book!  Honestly, there could not have been a better day for this to arrive.

Just look at what goodies we got! Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger, Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows, and When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (which has been on my want-to-read list for awhile!)  Betty is now enthralled with Darth Paper, which earns Danielle major props because this is a girl who reads the Merck Manual for Pet Health as light bedtime reading.  Seriously, if it doesn't have anything to do with animals or veterinary health, Betty is not interested.  So, this is a major, major coup.  These are coming with us this morning on our car ride east.

Also included were treats like Ring Pops and jelly beans ... and a generous Amazon gift card for me, which I promptly loaded onto my account.

Thank you so much, Danielle, for bringing us a little Christmas now!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What My Grandmom Taught Me: Make Sure That Guy is "Three-Bus Worthy"

We lost my Grandmom this week, just a few weeks before what would have been her 99th birthday. There's a part of all of us, I think, that had been hoping she would have made it to 99, even 100 and maybe beyond.  Indeed, I always joked with my aunt that she would outlive all of us and at times, it seemed like she was on track to do just that. Here she is above, with my grandfather, who passed away in August 1990.  I was one of the speakers at her funeral, along with my dear cousins, and here's what I shared with our family and friends as my eulogy.

My grandfather "wasn't doing well" that summer. In those days, in the sultry summer of 1990, people had just started saying the word cancer in octaves higher than a whisper. And in those days, eyebrows were still raised when women "of a certain age" exerted some degree of independence.

My feisty, stubborn as heck, petite grandmother was living alone, at 77 years old, in the rowhouse where she and her husband had raised three children - and mourned their middle child, that being my father.  My grandfather's illness had advanced to the point where it was time for a nursing home, where my grandmother was determined to visit him every day, despite the fact that she didn't drive.

(And even if she did, their one car was an immobile turquoise and white 1957 Chevy held together literally with string and duct-tape, parked like a Franklin Mint collectible on a rough-ride of a narrow street in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood that had already seen many better days even by 1990.)

Determined, my grandmother took a maze of public transportation to reach the nursing home - one bus, two buses, three in all.  Maybe the elevated subway system was part of it; I don't know.  Maybe there were more; my memory of the public transportation logistics is fuzzy now. What's crystal clear is that as she navigated the City of Brotherly Love's network of tracks and wheels, she was teaching me something about love.

At the time all this was happening, I was a self-absorbed college student with a bit of a messed up triangulated (and other applied terms from my psychology classes) love life. I remembered being in awe of my grandmother's ability to even figure out the bus routes when I - a sheltered suburbanite - could count on one hand the number of times I had been on my city's public transportation  system.  I whined when I had to traverse my college campus in the rain, and here my grandmother was taking three buses a day just so she could go spoon-feed her husband his dinner and to be there to be the one to tell him good night.

That, there, I realized, was love.

So I took a good look at the guy I was dating at the time and asked myself if this was an individual who would ride three buses every single day just to give me a bottle of Ensure as I was dying.

And the answer was ... eh, yeah not so much.

As these things tend to go, there was another guy biding his time, waiting in the wings.  I asked myself the same question. Is this someone who I thought was Three-Bus Worthy?  Who thought I might be Three-Bus Worthy?

And the answer this time on both counts was ...yeah, maybe so.

(That one would wind up becoming The Husband, who I would start dating officially only mere days before my grandfather passed away.)

Now, with my grandmother's passing this week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this over the past couple days, and I realized that her lesson of making sure someone is Three Bus Worthy is still true.  It's not one she ever verbalized or one we ever spoke about, but rather one that was silently shared. Like any long-term marriages, ours has seen times and situations where the other's Three-Bus Worthiness has been proven and put to the test. Then again, there have been other times when we've been stubborn enough that we didn't even want to take three steps - let alone three damn buses - to reach the other person's side.

We're among the lucky ones, though, because when it comes right down to it, each one of us is on a journey and a ride in life that is similar to the one involving the three buses that my grandmother took every day.  Because let's face it: this life is tough enough as it is with the everyday stuff. It's when the big guns come calling - the stuff of children dying (as both sets of my grandparents would experience) and spouses getting sick (ditto), that's when you find out just how Three-Bus Worthy someone really is.

And most likely, you already know - because that's the person who been holding your hand during the ride all along.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Announcing The 2012 Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

The 2012 Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge
January 1 - December 31, 2012 

It's back again for the 3rd year! (Can you believe it?) If you love memoirs as much as I do or if you simply want to add more memoirs into your reading life, then the 2012 Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge is for you!

What Counts as A Memoir?
I know there's a difference between memoir and autobiography, but for this challenge, we're going to define memoir as a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation. Published letters, diaries, journals, autobiographies, nonfiction books on the craft of writing memoirs ... in my book, they all count as Memorable Memoirs for this challenge. (Generally, biographies don't, but I could always be convinced.)

The Rules:
Books, e-books, audiobooks, ARCs, NetGalley books are allowed.
Overlaps with other challenges are also allowed.
Re-reads are allowed.
No need to create a list of books in advance (but if you want to, please feel free!)
You don't need a blog to participate.
You must select a level.  You can increase your level, but you can't go back down.

The Dates:
January 1 - December 31, 2012. You can sign up anytime between now and throughout 2012.

The Levels (new this year!)
Diarist: read 1-4 memoirs

Autobiographer: read 5-9 memoirs

Memoirist: read 10+ memoirs.

How to Sign Up:
Write a post on your blog indicating your intent to participate and at what level (Diarist, Autobiographer, or Memoirist) then come back here and leave the link here with Mister Linky:

No blog?  No problem! Simply leave a comment that you'll be joining us and at what chosen level.

I'll have a kick off post up in early January along with some of my favorite memoirs if you need some ideas.  I'm also planning to do monthly updates, as much as possible, and there might be more surprises in store throughout the year. The most important thing is that we have fun ... and we will.

Looking forward to having you join us! Happy Memorable Memoir Reading!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

The Sunday Salon: Untitled

News yesterday morning put a damper of sorts on an already chilly day, one that began with my heading out the door at 6:45 a.m. (on a Saturday!) to visit the lab for bloodwork (see my post about how I apparently have just dodged slipping into a coma). We then spent the day as we'd planned, hauling out the holly from the storage unit to Christmas-ize the apartment.

If I have to be in one of these holding pattern "wait and see" modes, I have the best book to keep me company. You all know how much I have a literary crush on Michael Cunningham. (As a refresher, The Hours is one of my all-time favorite books and By Nightfall will be on my best books of the year list.)

I just adore the way Cunningham writes. I mean, one-line gems like these?  I cannot get enough.
"When we were together, memory dragged behind consciousness on a shortened rope and any event more than a day or two old fell away into the prenatal darkness." (pg. 171) 
"This is what you do. You make a future for yourself out of the raw material at hand." (pg. 106) 
I spent last night reading approximately 100 pages of this gorgeousness and am hoping to finish this up today. Which will be a sad thing. This is one of those books I don't want to see end, mainly because I know I only have one more Cunningham novel (Flesh and Blood) to indulge in.

One of the things I love about Cunningham is that he makes this writing business look so effortless, so easy. As we all know, that's not the case. Even Cunningham himself acknowledges such in the beginning of A Home at the End of the World. It's easy to miss the very small, brief author's note on the page with the publication and copyright information. He writes this:
"A Home at the End of the world was started during hard times. By the date of its completion - nearly six years later - things had eased somewhat. For those more comfortable circumstances I thank the National Endowment for the Arts and The New Yorker. I must reserve the bulk of my gratitude, though, for several friends whose generosity literally rescued this book during its early phases, when encouragement, shelter, and even a working typewriter were sometimes hard to find."  
I think it's so important for us writers to remember that, even for those that make it look it easy, there was a time that it wasn't. (And, that maybe it still isn't.)

Among the other things that I'll be reading today are some works by folks who may (or may not) be hoping for the type of recognition someday that is currently enjoyed by the likes of Mr. Cunningham.  You see, I've gone and joined a writing group here (actually, two of them!).  I'm really excited about this for a lot of reasons. I like the idea of meeting similarly-minded writerly people here and in regards to my own writing, I think I need this.  I haven't progressed all that far on my novel on my own, and it's not lost on me that some of my best years of writing were more than 10 years ago when I was in a very-similarly structured writing group. There's something to being accountable and getting regular feedback, and I'm looking forward to reading what these new friends have to say.  

What are you looking forward to reading this week?

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011 Challenge Fail: Foodie's Reading Challenge (and Sign Up Post for 2012!)

Weekend Cooking is a feature hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Apparently, I bit off much more than I could possibly chew this year by going for the (appropriately-named in my case) Glutton level of the Foodie's Reading Challenge.

Fortunately, Margot of Joyfully Retired (who hosts this challenge on its very own blog, Foodies Read 2) is hosting this one again for 2012 ... and even though I didn't clean my plate this year, I'm still heading back to the buffet table for more.

But first, a bit of clean up from 2011.  As mentioned, I signed up to read 12 "food books" - and Margot made it pretty easy for us.  "A food book is a book which is centered around food and/or drinks. That could be a cookbook, a food biography or memoir, a nonfiction book focused around a specific food, wine, chef, or restaurant. Also allowed is a fictional story in which food plays a major role."

As of today, I only managed to read 4 books out of the 12 that I hoped to get to, so I think it's time to concede this one.

The first book I read was American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Half Its Food (and what we can do about it), by Jonathan Bloom. (Links take you to my review.)  This is probably going to be tied for my favorite nonfiction book of the year.

There were also 3 cookbooks in the mix.

Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables, by Andrea Chesman

Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker, by Robin Robertson (in addition to my thoughts on the book, the link also takes you to a recipe for Slow Cooked Spanish Beans and Rice which I make all the time).

Super Suppers Cookbook: More Than 180 Easy Family Recipes to Enjoy Tonight or Freeze for Later, by Judie Byrd, founder of Super Suppers.  I never got around to reviewing this one, but I did copy a lot of recipes that I'm hoping to try.

Even though I wasn't very successful, this was one of my favorite Reading Challenges for 2011 ... and I'm delighted that Margot is bringing it back again for a second year. All the details can be found on the Foodies Read 2 blog.  I'm going for the Pastry Chef level, in which I will strive to read 4-8 food books.  With any luck, I'll make it to the Sous-Chef level (9-13 food books).

As is usually the case when food is involved, the more the merrier!  Will you be among the Foodies joining us?

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.