Friday, January 30, 2009

My Best of 2008: Nonfiction

Part two of the best books I read this past year will focus on nonfiction. I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction, so this will be a shorter list, but it was hard to pick favorites because they were all quite good.

Out of the eleven works of nonfiction I read this year, I think my favorites would have to be these two:

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs
Jacobs is both funny and earnest in his pursuit, and his account of this year is very entertaining as well as enlightening. I love people like Jacobs, who jump so completely into a project, and I love people like his wife, who bring people like Jacobs back to earth with firm, funny, needed reminders of what's truly important.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
A friend lent me her copy of this memoir, telling me it was a facinating read. I'm not big on stories of horrible childhoods, but this book is much more than that. Wow, what a childhood! Walls' parents were brilliant, self-absorbed, creative, neglectful, and eccentric idealists. Walls writes about them and about her growing-up years truthfully, from her point-of-view as a child, living in this sometimes confusing, often dangerous, always exciting family. It's facinating, heartbreaking and inspiring. (Are those enough adjectives for you?)

Honorable mention goes to many of the others I read this year:

The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups: Recipes & Reveries by David Ansel
Cool book. Yummy soups! Jen and I made one together.
Heart in the Right Place by Carolyn Jourdan
You can read my review of this book here.
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert's search for self is funny, honest, and sweet. (Of course I loved the Eat section the best.)
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
What a neat graphic memoir for young adults.
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
I loved reading this memoir of his childhood and young adulthood, exploring identity and race. Really thoughtful, insightful, and honest, as well as funny at times and touching -- not in an overly sentimental way, but in a quiet and important way, if that makes sense.
French Milk by Lucy Knisley
This graphic memoir of a mother/daughter trip to Paris brought me back to my year in France, and I'm grateful to Knisley for the lovely visit!
Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas by John Baxter
Another vicarious trip to Paris for me, and a perfect book to read in December. Slowed me down again when things got hectic.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Best of 2008: Fiction

How do I write this post? I've been avoiding it for almost a month now. Choosing my favorite books read this year has been a delightful challenge. I read some really good stuff.

I've taken my friend Jennifer's idea and decided to split this into three different posts: favorite fiction, favorite nonfiction, and favorite literature for young people. (This way, I can include more books and won't have to cut my list too ruthlessly.)

My absolute favorite of this year is actually not a choice. It's an "of course, what else would it be?" The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a wonder. If you haven't read it yet, you must. Now to the challenging picks....

Favorite Fiction

If The Book Thief belongs in a category all its own (Almighty Winner of 2008, perhaps?), then the first place prize for my favorite fiction books has to be split between these two:

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I scooped these stories up like spoonfuls of ice cream. Well, no, not exactly like ice cream. They go down easy, but they aren't happy stories. Many of them are painful or melancholy, but she writes them so beautifully that they made me happy. I'd read one and then sit with it awhile. Lahiri shows exactly what a great storyteller can do.

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe
My Uncle Charlie introduced me to this lovely novel. Again, the story is painful and melancholy, but the telling is gorgeous. I was so engrossed in this book that I dreamed of the characters and settings every night that I read it.

Second place for fiction goes to these three winners:

Hens Dancing by Rafaella Barker
Now, this one was a happy book. It's perhaps the book that made me laugh out loud the most this year, and for that it gets second place. It's written in a wonderful style with a great voice: Venetia is a hoot.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
I smiled my way through this novella. It's smart and funny and an absolute treat for a book lover.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
"A book that's fun to read, and that teaches you something" -- that's how this one was described at Conversation with Books this year, an annual event put on by my alma mater. I loved this very satisfying epistolary novel, and I expect I'll reread it someday. I borrowed Jennifer's copy, but I think I'll get the paperback when it comes out.

Honorable Mention:
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Conjoined twins?? Yes!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Rightly a classic. I put it here, but it is often categorized as YA lit.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Stories of an important book -- a work of art -- and the people whose hands it passes through.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Historical mystery (before and after World War I in England); a great start to the series. I want to learn more about Maisie.
Donna Leon's Inspector Guido Brunetti mysteries
I love spending time in modern-day Venice with Brunetti (and his family). I read the first three this past year.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What I Read in 2008

1. The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs)
2. The Sweet Far Thing (Libba Bray)
3. Mr. Popper's Penguins (Richard Atwater)
4. A Book of Coupons (Susie Morgenstern)
5. Summer (Edith Wharton)
6. The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse (Bruce Hale)
7. The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups (David Ansel)
8. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)
9. Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon)
10. Granny Torrelli Makes Soup (Sharon Creech)
11. Pleasing the Ghost (Sharon Creech)
12. Heart in the Right Place (Carolyn Jourdan)
13. Secret Letters from 0 to 10 (Susie Morgenstern)
14. Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
15. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
16. Death in a Strange Country (Donna Leon)
17. The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)
18. Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)
19. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
20. The Girls (Lori Lansens)
21. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
22. The Painted Veil (W. Somerset Maugham)
23. The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (Ellen Raskin)
24. American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang)
25. Words Under the Words (Naomi Shihab Nye)
26. Garden Spells (Sarah Addison Allen)
27. Lulu's Hat (Susan Meddaugh)
28. Frindle (Andrew Clements)
29. The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis)
30. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
31. The Mystery Guest (Gregoire Bouillier)
32. Project Mulberry (Linda Sue Park)
33. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
34. Hens Dancing (Raffaella Barker)
35. The Abbess of Crewe (Muriel Spark)
36. The Landry News (Andrew Clements)
37. The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
38. Whisper and Shout: Poems to Memorize (Patrice Vecchione)
39. Mouse Guard #1: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)
40. If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? (Erma Bombeck)
41. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
42. The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski)
43. Habibi (Naomi Shihab Nye)
44. Warriors #3: Forest of Secrets (Erin Hunter)
45. Gods in Alabama (Joshilyn Jackson)
46. Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (John Hollander)
47. Three Good Deeds (Vivian Vande Velde)
48. Punished! (David Lubar)
49. The Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsall)
50. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
51. Empress Orchid (Anchee Min)
52. James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)
53. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (Jeanne Birdsall)
54. Little Vampire, Volume 1 (Joann Sfar)
55. People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)
56. Paddington Here and Now (Michael Bond)
57. The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)
58. Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama)
59. Dressed for Death (Donna Leon)
60. The Lace Reader (Brunonia Barry)
61. Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan)
62. Babymouse #1, #2, & #3 (Jennifer Holm & Matt Holm)
63. Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear)
64. Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Avi)
65. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
66. Everything on a Waffle (Polly Horvath)
67. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
68. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
69. The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe)
70. French Milk (Lucy Knisley)
71. Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas (John Baxter)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Christmas Book Stacks, 2008

Finally, I'm posting our book stacks from this Christmas. I had such fun putting them together. I got some at a local used bookstore, several used from Powell's, and many through the kids' Scholastic book orders. Most of them are paperback copies. I picked a few of the past year's favorites to add to the family library, as well as some new books to explore.

Without further ado, here they are!

Skye's stack:
~ Two Warriors Manga books: She devoured them both over break.
~ Stink #3: Stink and the World's Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers: Ditto the above.
~ Schooling Around: Treasure Fever: "I loved this book! It had a school that was crazy and a teacher that taught them fun things instead of their regular lessons."
~ The Ghost, the White House, and Me: In honor of a new president.
~ The Name of This Book Is Secret: Looks neat, in a Mysterious Benedict Society sort of way.
~ Salsa Stories: Could be a fun one for us to read together - and cook some of the recipes afterwards.
~ Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat: I love the rat crawling along the margins, flip-book style.
~ Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism: I keep hearing about this one; I think we should read it together.
~ Rocks & Minerals: A cheapie Scholastic science book.
~ Every Minute on Earth: Skye gives this one an A++++, "'cause it has cool facts."
~ The Giving Book: It would be fun for her to go through this one sometime this year. There are several of these books, so if she likes it, maybe next year...
~ My Amazing Book of... Autographs!: I found this one at the used book store. It was published in 1974, and hasn't been written in at all! (This was Skye's extra-special book this year.)

Felix's stack:
~ Legend of Zelda Manga, Volumes #1 & #2: Link from the Legend of Zelda is his favorite character for pretend. These books help fuel that magic.
~ Who Stole the Cookies?: A cheapie Scholastic book based on the children's rhyme/game. He loves it.
~ The Little Penguin: Penguins are a favorite animal around here.
~ Scaredy Squirrel: This one is a big hit. I can't wait to explore more Scaredy Squirrel books with him.
~ Say Hola to Spanish and Say Hola Otra Vez: These rhyming books looked like a fun way to introduce another language.
~ Sun Is Falling, Night Is Calling: A sweet bedtime read - you can never have too many of those!
~ Anno’s Journey: I've been waiting for Felix to be old enough to enjoy this one; I love the illustrations.
~ Skippyjon Jones, Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble, and Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse: These are the best read-alouds!
~ The Little Red Bird: He loves this story and asks for it again and again.
~ Otto Runs For President: In honor of a new president.
~ I Love My Little Storybook: I love books about loving books!
~ Henry’s Amazing Imagination: I met the author, Nancy Carlson, at our local independent children's bookstore. It was great to chat with her, and she signed this book to Felix, including a cool illustration. (This was Felix's extra-special book this year.)

This year, we continued the tradition of opening the book stacks last on Christmas morning. The past two years, we took our time with them, opening one or two at different moments of the day. It was a nice, calm way to keep the surprises coming.

But when Skye started in on her stack this year, there was no stopping her. I watched with delight as she tore through the wrapping paper, exclaiming with glee at her discoveries. She then went to work with Felix on his stack, happily announcing each new title to him. I loved seeing her so excited about this, and it was such a treat to see the kids going to the two piles throughout the day to enjoy the new reads.

Because we love books around here so much, Santa knew to bring us a few:

For Skye:
~ The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil
~ The Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity: Santa hit the jackpot with this one. She's picked it up every day since Christmas.

For Felix:
~ Snowmen at Night
~ 365 Penguins: Skye loves reading this one to Felix.

For our whole family:
~ Free to Be You and Me and Free to Be a Family
~ Poetry Speaks to Children

And Mom just doesn't know when to quit, so the kids got these extras:

Night before Christmas gift:

To Skye:
~ When Santa Fell to Earth
~ The Christmas Party from the Black Lagoon
~ 101 Holiday Jokes

To Felix:
~ Deck the Halls
~ Toot & Puddle: I’ll Be Home for Christmas
~ You Can Do It, Sam

From Mom & Dad to kids on Christmas morning:
~ The Gingerbread Man with pictures by Karen Schmidt
~ The Gingerbread Man, retold by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
~ The Gingerbread Girl, Lisa Campbell Ernst
~ Gingerbread Baby, Jan Brett

Winter break involved lots of reading time this year. It's been great having these stacks of books to entertain us during this cold, snowy winter.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Felix recommends... (Autumn '08)

Felix and I are enjoyed books about fall and Halloween this season.

Favorite fall books:
~ Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert
~ Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf, also by Lois Ehlert
~ Leaf Jumpers by Carole Gerber with beautiful illustrations by Leslie Evans

Favorite Halloween books:
~ Skeleton Hiccups by Margery Cuyler
~ Boo! Made You Jump! by Lauren Child (a Charlie and Lola book)
~ Halloween Bugs by David A. Carter

Other favorites:
~ Mrs. McNosh books (Sarah Weeks)
~ the Froggy books (Jonathan London)
~ Fireman Small (Wong Herbert Yee)

A wonderful new discovery was author Amy Hest. Felix loved both her books about Baby Duck and about a little bear named Sam. I love that Baby Duck makes up songs, and they don't necessarily rhyme or have a particular form. They remind me of the songs in the Frances books, very true to what a little kid would create. The illustrations in the Sam books, done by Anita Jeram, are gorgeous. I love her artwork.

Skye recommends... (Autumn '08)

For our mother-daughter book group, we read:

~ The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Jeanne Birdsall
~ Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
~ The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart

We recommend them all!

On her own, Skye read Lunch Money by Andrew Clements, which inspired her to open a savings account and think of money-making tasks she could do. She also enjoyed Paddington Here and Now, the only book on the Roald Dahl Funny Prize shortlist that we could find at our library. She said, "This book is a very calming one to read, Mom. It makes me feel peaceful." I read it, too, and I think it's the London atmosphere -- "Let's have elevenses!" -- she's describing. Pretty sweet!

Other highlights this season were the Babymouse graphic novels and Bailey School Kids books for quick reads. She loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid and read it in one afternoon. She also enjoyed a re-read of Bunnicula.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Felix recommends... (Summer '08)

This summer, the kids and I read lots of books together. We did some themes (caterpillars/butterflies, chickens & ducks, birds) and Felix found a few favorites in these categories:

~ Bob and Otto by Robert O. Bruel & Nick Bruel
~ the Duck in the Truck books by Jez Alborough
~ Little Red Bird by Nick Bruel

We read a lot from the 20th Century Children's Book Treasury, and everything Mo Willems was a reading staple. (He's got some great beginning reader books now featuring Elephant and Piggie.)

More of Felix's summer faves:

~ The Little Cat Baby by Allan Ahlberg
~ Silly School by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
~ Max's Bunny Business by Rosemary Wells
~ the Skippyjon Jones books by Judy Schachner

Skye recommmends... (Summer '08)

This summer, Skye browsed through books about pet birds (she really wants a bird!), beginning knitting books (she's hoping to learn soon), Garfield comics, joke and riddle books, and books of magic tricks. She read easy series chapter books (Beast Quest, Pokemon), Warriors graphic novels, and a couple of titles nominated for the Maud Hart Lovelace award (Three Good Deeds and Punished!).

Together, we read Forest of Secrets, the third Warriors cats book. For me, this was the best one yet. I just checked, and it looks like this one was written by a different author from the first two, so maybe this is why. (The Warriors books are written my several writers; go here and click on "Meet Erin Hunter" to learn more about them.)

Our most exciting reading news this summer is that we started a mother-daughter book group! We are both really enjoying it. All of the titles we read and discussed this summer were excellent and made for great gatherings:

~ Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park
~ Frindle by Andrew Clements
~ The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

(More later on these titles and our meetings!)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Readolution #12

12. I will organize my book shelves, and find a new home for some of my books.

This was my last readolution for 2008. What a fun one! I didn't find much time for it, but this is a great task to carry over into 2009.

I'd love to have a place for books in each room of the house. I think I somewhat have that now, but I'd like to make these places more deliberate, as well as practical. Ah, that never-ending project: home organization!

Readolutions #10 & #11

10. I will buy fewer books.


11. When I buy books, I will do my best to buy independent/used, or to buy in support of a charity (public library, school, etc.).

I did quite well with this one. Always room to improve, of course.

I am going to reevaluate both of these goals for 2009. For one thing, I really don't believe there's anything wrong with aquiring books. It's a much healthier (and less expensive!) habit than lots of things I can think of. I love having lots of books around me; they are in integral part of my home. I also believe it's important, especially now, to support books and their authors, as well as libraries. Hmm. I'd like to come up with some readolutions around these thoughts for 2009.