READ: Speak by Louisa Hall + much more

I have anxiety about weird things. I don’t like being late for anything. It makes my hands sweaty and my heart beat a little fast. I don’t leave my house dirty and my bed unmade. I can’t do it. I can’t stand leaving emails unanswered – drives me nuts. And I hate turning my library books in late. I picture the next person on the hold list waiting patiently for the book to arrive on the reserve bookshelf, and that makes me stay up late to finish a book so I can return it on the due date. Related: San Diego overdue library fines are at 7 millions dollars right now…people, turn your books in on time, people are waiting for them!

Since it is the Fall, when the best books of the year are released, I have a loooong list of books on my library hold list. They all seem to arrive at once, so I am reading like crazy to keep up and to make sure that I am returning them all on time. Lots of good ones…

Speak by Louisa Hall

The most unique book I read this year! If you like the movies “Her” and “Ex Machina” or all of the work of David Mitchell, you will probably love this book as much as I did. Hall uses different narrative devices to tell the story – chapters rotate between letters, instant messaging, diary, memoirs, and memories in a computer program. These devices are used by six different narrators – A babybot (a robot that looks like a doll to appeal to young children), a computer program and a young girl (example of the dialogue between them: Young Girl: “So you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices. Mary3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case”), a Puritan woman crossing the ocean to America, the Silicon Valley creator of the babybots, a Jewish refugee after WWII, and Alan Turing.

The book explores loneliness and the inability to fully connect with others. A pervading sense of loss hangs over the novel, which leads the narrators on a search for connection in an attempt to find meaning.

Related to this book/idea is a new 2-part TED podcast called Screen Time. Our connection with computers is on an irreversible path – where will it lead?

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

As the horrible news about the killing of Cecil the Lion spread like wildfire on social media and the news, I was reading about the heroine of this novel’s encounter with a lion. McLain’s story is historical fiction based on the life of Beryl Markham – a rule-breaker, feminist, and pilot who grew up in colonial Africa. Beryl’s life intersects with the love story in the Redford/Streep movie “Out of Africa.” All stories have multiple perspectives, and like McLain’s other book, “The Paris Wife,” this narrative offers a different point of view than what we already know. Great, escapist reading.

Check out the Radio Lab’s podcast “The Rhino Hunter.” It explores a case similar to Cecil the Lion. Heartbreaking.

Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

I ALWAYS read Hoffman’s novels even though she has started following the same formula in her novels. She takes a juicy, obscure historical nugget and turns it into a sweeping story (see “Dovekeepers” and “The Museum of Extraordinary Things”). In this novel, she starts with the story of the mother of a famous impressionist painter, and builds it into a world full of interesting characters who experience longing, loss, love, and hardships. Hoffman transports readers to  the 1800’s in the Caribbean by describing all the smells, foods, and  brilliant colors. Since it is Hoffman, she also injects a little magical realism into the story.  I’m a huge fan of Hoffman, and my esteem for her continues to grow.

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

A fish falls out of a fishbowl from a balcony of a high-rise in New York City. As the fish falls (and time passes), the stories of the residents in the apartment building are told. Random interactions cause ripples in the the lives of the residents. This book leaves readers thinking about the passage of time and all the random acts that form our lives.

Somer writes, “The milk in the fridge moves, second by second, towards its “best before” date. It is an inevitable reminder of time passing and how, through the very act of existence, the unmarred, unspoiled purpose of things moves inexorably toward expiration” and “It’s said that everything happens for a reason, but it’s never said that reason is always a good one. That reason is choice, chance, fate, or not.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

The absolute best collection of short stories I have read since George Saunders Tenth of December. Johnson’s writing is heartbreaking and intense. Like his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Orphan-Master’s Son,” this collection will stick with you and make your heart hurt as your mind revisits his masterful scenes over and over in the days after they are read. This is difficult, heavy, disturbing writing. Gut-wrenching, beautiful stuff.

The Last Love Song by Tracy Dougherty

Mom, you can partly blame Joan Didion for my move to California.

As soon as I read Joan Didion in high school I wanted to move to California . Over the years, I have read everything by her, with “The Year of Magical Thinking” being my absolute favorite. Her wit, literary references, sharp critiques, and desire to understand the events around her touch me deeply, and her seemingly fragile, anxious persona has always intrigued me.

Dougherty wrote this bio without the cooperation of Didion so there is not a ton of new information in this 600 page bio – but, I still devoured it. The bio brings together all of the Didion/Dunne stories and intertwines them with snippets of her writing. It is a great read. Dougherty delves into Didion’s love of California as a land always on the verge, a land where beauty & uniqueness mix with danger. Earthquakes, fires, floods, drought…bright colors, jasmine, eucalyptus, the Pacific horizon.  The creation of the University of California as it flourished because of the link to weapons R&D. The California frontier transformed into suburbia. A land of contradictions.

Didion has lived a life full of famous actors and writers, world travels, large parties, lots of bourbon & pills & cigarettes, and of course, lots and lots of time spent writing and researching. As a part of the new journalism tradition, Didion inserted herself into most of her writing, yet there always seems to be parts of her that are unknowable. Even though Didion probably won’t publish anything else in her lifetime, I will be re-reading all of her writing over and over again because her writing will always be relevant.

Misc. stuff…

New podcast addiction: Limetown

New album addictions: Gary Clarke Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim; Jason Isbell, Something More than Free; Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 album; and Chris Cornell, Higher Truth

I have a huge stack of books that I just picked up at the library…Purity, The Story of the Last Child, Fates and Furies. I’ll be up late reading for the next few weeks.

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READ: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

No one writes a love story like Alice Hoffman.

I have never been disappointed in an Alice Hoffman book. She is an extremely prolific story teller who has published books since she was in early 20’s. I have read and enjoyed EACH and EVERY one of her stories. They remind me of the magic and beauty in our world.  “Blackbird House,” ” The Dovekeepers,” and “Practical Magic” are essential reads.

In the “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” Hoffman creates yet another magical fairy tale. The novel takes place in Brooklyn in 1911 when the city was undergoing massive transformations. The novel weaves real events into the narrative with the Dreamland Amusement Park and the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. These provide the backdrop to the stories of the two narrators – Coralie and Eddie. Both of these lost souls are searching for happiness after years of disappointment and loneliness. They are both motherless, have difficult relations with their fathers (for very different reasons), and are mentored by people who are outcasts to society.

Hoffman uses powerful themes and images in her work that contribute to the magical realism of her writing. In this book she plays with many opposing ideas like Fire/Water, Darkness/Light, Rich/Poor, Religious/Atheist, Normal/”Abnormal”, Entertainment/Exploitation. The imagery adds to the spell that her words have on readers. Pay attention to the many ways she utilizes animals throughout the story –  Fish, Dogs, Birds, Tortoise, Wolves. Compassionate practices towards animals contrast with the inhumane nature of labor practices for immigrants and “freaks.” The characters who are affiliated with animals are the “good guys” in the story.

Scenery and setting are key to this novel. Hoffman writes in a way that allows her readers to smell and feel everything. While I was reading this book I had dreams about the museum, the Hudson River, the forests of Ukraine, and Eddie’s carriage house. Hoffman does not write paragraphs and paragraphs of description, instead she has the power to create a sense of place with just a few well-chosen words.

Overall, the book is about the transforming power of love. Good love overcomes misunderstandings and evil. It is everything. One of the characters says about his wife who died shortly after they were married, “I’ll tell you this, a day with with her was better than a life without her…I wouldn’t mind being haunted. I’d be happy about it.” “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” enchants and delights on every page.

Authors have started releasing short youtube videos for their books. Elizabeth Gilbert did it for “The Signature of All Things,” and I noticed that Hoffman did it for this book. Kind of weird. Kind of interesting. Must be a new marketing tool that publishers are using…

In other Hoffman news, I read “The Dovekeepers” is being made into a mini-series that will be released in 2015. It will be on CBS – I’d be much more excited if it was HBO or Showtime, but I’ll still watch it.

Also, I blogged a few months ago about the 21-Day Oprah/Deepak Meditation Challenge. A new challenge, Find Your Flow, starts on MONDAY, April 14th. Register for it here!

READ: 2014 Book Preview

The other day at the San Diego Central Library I noticed a card catalog and it reminded me of the way I used to do research projects in high school and the first year or two of college. I have not opened a card catalog in almost twenty years. I loved research projects in school because they would lead to unexpected discoveries and open up unknown worlds. The first research project I remember was in fourth or fifth grade in my “Program for the Academically Talented” class (do they still have this program or is it a remnant of the 80’s?). The project involved Greek and Roman Gods, and as soon as I started learning about them I wanted to know everything. One discovery led to another, and over time the little bit that I learned led me to Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, and so much more.

200px-Gatsby_1925_jacketZelda Fitzgerald was the subject of my 9th research project and I chose her because of my obsession with “The Great Gatsby.” Researching Zelda led me to authors like Edna St. Vincent Millay (same biographer), Ernest Hemingway (Zelda could not stand him), and Sylvia Plath (she always reminded me of Zelda). Learning is a continuous, exciting cycle where little flickers of interest move us to diverse things.

Part of the fun of reading for me is deciding what to read next, I like researching upcoming books. The sources I turn to the most are IndieBound, the New York Times, and The Guardian. I also get ideas for what to read next from walking through bookstores. The books below are all going to be added to my library list in 2014.

“California” by Edan Lepucki (expected Summer 2014)

I am a little jealous of this book because it sounds like an idea I had a few months ago. Of course, I never even wrote the first sentence, and this woman wrote the entire book…The book centers on a couple in post-apocalyptic California. It sounds as though it takes place in the near future and it explores love, humanity, and resilience. Can’t wait to read it.

“The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd (out now)

Oprah brought her book club back about a year ago as Oprah 2.0. I am an Oprah junkie, and have read almost all of her book picks over the years, so I’ll be reading this one. She only picks about two books a year, the last two books, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis were great reads.

“Cutting Teeth” by Julia Fiero (expected May 2014)

I found this book on Flavorwire’s 15 most anticipated books list. I am intrigued because Fiero has been compared to Meg Wolitzer, and Karen Thompson Walker (who wrote “The Age of Miracles”) wrote, “Fiero’s writing feels like real life. She captures the anxiety of our times with authority, insight, and humor.”

“The City of Mirrors” by Justin Cronin (expected Fall 2014)

If you have not read the first two books in this trilogy, “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” you still have time to get caught up before the final book comes out next fall. “The City of Mirrors” will be the end of The Passage Trilogy and I am hoping for a satisfying ending. These books are creepy and will keep you awake all night. Cronin writes incredibly well, and the world he has created in these books will always haunt me.

“Oh She Glows Cookbook” by Angela Liddon (expected Spring 2014)

Angela creates no-fail recipes on her blog www.ohsheglows.com and I know this book will be full of delicious recipes and gorgeous pictures.

“Delicious!” by Ruth Reichl  (expected Spring 2014)

Reichl is a memoirist who wrote two of the best book memoirs of all time: “Comfort Me With Apples” and “Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table.” This book will be her first work of fiction. The Amazon website describes it as a: “…dazzling fiction debut—a novel of sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must find the courage to let go of the past in order to embrace her own true gifts.” Reichl has a gift for storytelling, so I think this will be fantastic.

“And the Dark Sacred Night” by Julia Glass (expected Spring 2014)

“Three Junes” will always be one of the books on my Top Ten books of all time list. I am so excited about this book because she brings back characters from that book. Glass published her first book in her late 40’s – inspiring!

“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” by Alice Hoffman (February 2014)

Alice Hoffman. Enough said.

“The Bone Clocks” by David Mitchell (Fall 2014)

If you have not read Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” you are missing out!  The website The Bookseller says the following about his upcoming novel:  “The “rich and strange” novel will follow the story of Holly Sykes, who runs away from home in 1984 and 60 years later can be found in the far west of Ireland, raising a granddaughter as the world’s climate collapses.” Mitchell tells unique, haunting stories that should not be missed.

Untitled Short Story Collection by Margaret Atwood (Fall 2014)

I will read a grocery list if Atwood writes it. Can’t wait to read these stories.

READ: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

It’s been a busy week. I spent the last six days traveling in San Francisco, Napa and Livermore for work and fun. In addition to my husband, Sean, I had another great companion for traveling, Khaled Hosseini’s new novel “And the Mountains Echoed.” This is an essential read. I finished the book on the plane ride home and I have not stopped thinking about it.

I remember being devastated after finishing “The Kite Runner,” and this novel left me feeling the same way. Hosseini is a master at capturing complicated family dynamics and feelings of guilt that can last a lifetime. In this new story he uses different narrators with unique voices for each of the nine chapters. Each of the chapters is linked to the others, but it could also be read alone. My heart broke a little more with each consecutive chapter.

And the Mountains Echoed

The story begins “So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one.” Hosseini then tells a story that spans three generations, three continents, and multiple tragedies. Over and over again we are reminded of the many ways a family can fall apart or come together.

Like his other stories, the main protagonists are from Afghanistan; in this one, he focuses on the love between  Abdullah and his sister, Pari. These young siblings have an uncommon, unbreakable love for one another. Within the first thirty pages they are separated and the reverberation of this is explored throughout the book. Some of the narrators are intricately connected with the main story, and others are related by small associations. The connections are sometimes revealed slowly, which made me want to keep reading to see how it fit together.

My favorite chapter/story in “And the Mountains Echoed” focuses on two men who are Afghan Americans. After living their entire existence in California, they visit Afghanistan to reestablish ownership of their family home. The two men interact with medical relief workers and visit a young girl who has been horribly disfigured. The meeting with the girl demonstrates the true nature of each of the men, and it reveals that good intentions and actual actions are completely different.

Setting and where “home” is are important elements of the novel. It moves from isolated villages in Afghanistan, to large homes in Kabul, to feelings of displacement in California, to sophisticated Paris, and to a remote island in Greece. Over and over Hosseini shows how our environment contributes to the people that we become. It is an inescapable part of our character.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. The imperfect characters, well-drawn environments, and beautiful imagery created a space that I did not want to leave. I was rooting for all of the characters to have satisfying outcomes, but of course, life is complicated and there is no such thing as a happy ending.

Right before “And the Mountains Echoed” I read “Survival Lessons,” Alice Hoffman’s teeny tiny new booklet that was recently published. Hoffman is one of my favorite authors so I read everything that she writes. She wrote this after battling breast cancer and it is a gentle reminder to appreciate all the beautiful, wonderful things around you even during the darkest times of your life. She reminds the reader over and over again that “There is always a before and an after.” It’s a nice book to read when life feels unbearable.

More to come on my trip to Northern California soon!