Category Archives: 2011 Books


Hunger in America

Have you read The Hunger Games trilogy? If not, do. It is incredibly creative, entertaining reading that I thoroughly enjoyed. That’s right. I just said I enjoyed a series of books that were mass produced and loved. In fact, as far as Summer 2011 books go, these are at the top of my recommendation list.

It’s crazy. Literary times, they be a changin’.

Speaking of hunger, I have been hanging around a local food bank lately helping out where I can. This week, I spent a couple hours taking portraits of recipients and food, to later be used in marketing materials. A few things I’ve learned, for those who’d consider giving to a food bank:

1. Did you know food banks have incredible buying power? That for $1 donated, they can buy 10 pounds of food on the commodity markets? So, if you are interested in donating, instead of going to the grocery, consider instead writing a check.

2. There are non-grocery related items food banks always need — like grocery bags and totes. They can also use toiletries. Not all food banks distribute these, but the ones here in Denver are always asking for toilet paper and small bottles of shampoo and soap too.

3. Pets need food too. Many American families now visiting food banks were otherwise employed and doing just fine a few months ago. Their pets, in turn, were also eating well. Now with the worst unemployment since World War II, pets are among all family members feeling the pinch. Dog and cat food is in great need.

Otherwise, volunteering with these folks is one of the most humbling, gratifying times of my life. I’m getting way more out of it than I’m able to give. Finding such an organization I can work for makes me feel a part of this Denver community.



small dolly on the book shelf, Casa Luna

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. Two out of five bananas. This was the latest month’s book club selection. And while it was not my favorite read, there was plenty to learn from this book. It is a historical look at the puritans of early America and how our nation — particularly early colonies — were formed during lengthy debates on faith and morality and escaping the monarchy. Told in a current day, sarcastic voice, I imagine this is as interesting as the puritans get. Sarah Vowell is well known for her time on NPR and the Daily Show. For me, she’ll always be beloved for reintroducing me to John Winthrop and specifically his essay, The Model for Christian Charity.

She spends a great portion of this book explaining how this essay went on to influence politics hundreds of years later. Winthrop was such an intense pacificst, all-loving man who came to the US as a pilgrim and has this religious vision of a city on a hill. This city comes to be Boston and his writing was critical to the time. His essay went on to influence Martin Luther King, Jr. This excerpt gave me chills. (I actually walked around reading this page to friends, prefacing it with, “Holy Moses. You have to hear this:”)

“It made sense that Winthrop, a man accustomed to setting lofty goals for himself, would then set lofty goals for the colony he is about to lead. “A Model for Christian Charity” is the blueprint of his communal aspirations. Standing before his shipmates, Wintrhop stares down the Sermon on the Mount, as every Christian must.

Here, for example, is Martin Luther King, Jr., doing just that on November 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.'”

And so, this book is worthy of reading for that page alone. Page 45. Because if I could live my life by one sentence ever written, it would be that very one.

Bravo, Sarah Vowell. Thank you for making me love John Winthrop, a stodgy puritan. And thank you for reminding me of the greatness of MLK, Jr.

Next up, Hunger Games, thanks to a gift from Mini.


New Library Card Day


Our book club red “Into the Beautiful North” for April; having read “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” last year, we were looking forward to Urrea’s latest. This novel takes the current immigration conversation and turns it upside down. It’s the story of Mexican women from a small southern town who decide they are tired of living in a town without men. All of the men have gone north to the US for work. And so, they create a plan to go get their men back.

There are several notable characters and the writing is colorful. That said, writing a novel that competes with the beauty of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” is tough. Kingsolver has yet to top “The Poisonwood Bible.” Marquez will never top “100 Years of Solitude.” Courtenay’s “Power of One” was the one.

So, “Into the Beautiful North” is fun, light-hearted reading. But it isn’t Urrea’s best. We collectively agreed we wanted more. More detail, more character development, more resolution.

Three of five bananas

Similarly, in the easy reading category — “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is an enjoyable read. I bought this on a day trip to Colorado last month and managed to finish it in one day, with flights both directions. It is one of those novels that I looked up and 200 pages had gone by. I was fully engrossed in the characters. And these characters are memorable. I’ve found myself thinking of their story several times in the last month, wondering where they are today — as if they are long, lost friends.

This novel didn’t teach me anything new about culture or take me to some far off land where I’d never traveled. But novels like this teach me more about humanity, and as a writer — more about dialog and phrasing.

Four out of five bananas, absoloodle.

I’ve also read several health books lately while riding the primal eating train. The title is horrible, but the information was worth my time — “Why You Get Fat.” I won’t preach about primal eating, but I will say I’m seeing sweeping changes in weight for friends who are following it. In my half-ass attempts, I’ve noticed how grains effect my digestion. Like so many other wild claims and great intentions I’ve shouted publicly from the blog, I’ll instead say I’m working on eating this way. (Also, a great primal eating blog.)

Four out of five bananas.


And a false start — I recently tried reading “The Diagnosis.” No go. I got 100 pages into this novel and I couldn’t enjoy the character’s mania dealing with temporary amnesia. As it goes with so many books I read, the content has to fit my mood. Thankfully, I got my Colorado library card yesterday and checked out four new novels for the next three weeks. (These lovely deer were chomping away in a front yard on my walk home. Oh, Colorado life — you are keeping things interesting. If I can make a suggestion? Fewer snakes, more deer. I saw my first evil slithery monster yesterday too. I would have taken a photo, but I was too busy screaming at the top of my lungs and fleeing in mania.)

First up, “The History of Love,” by Nicole Krauss.

What are you reading?


A Must Read


Flowers in NOLA

I have a couple friends who stop by here solely to see what I’ve been reading. We swap email regularly — what’s on your nightstand? What have you heard is good? What is your book club’s selection this month? Can you believe they are releasing this?

When a new coworker and friend recently put “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” in my hands and declared it “his favorite book of all time,” I took note. This friend recently returned from 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan, where he said his two significant pastimes  — other than surviving the typical below freezing weather and doubling up on wool socks — were drinking and reading. He was averaging 2000 pages a week. This, after finishing at the top of his class as an English major at Boston College. When someone with that kind of hunger for literature hands you his favorite book and instructs you to immediately make time for it, you do.

I did.

And oh, if he wasn’t right.

Flowers in NOLA

Michael Chabon has both inspired and ruined me with this book. On one hand, it is so incredibly well written, entertaining, educational without being pedantic. He makes me want to drop everything else I’m doing in my life and study words, writing and language. I want to write like this more than anything else. It’s truly brilliant.

On the other hand, the next book I picked up — which isn’t a bad read — is so boring! It doesn’t have the same verve. I have this intense love of  for Garcia Marquez, Courtenay and Kingsolver too. They are just so very good, everything else is a bit dull by comparison.

En sum, Kavalier and Clay are cousins who create a series of comic books in New York City. En largess,  it is an epic 600-page story about war, faith, revenge, art, survival, love, loyalty and family.

One of my very favorite passages:

“At the same time, as he watched the reckless exercise of Joe’s long, cavalier frame, the display of strength for its own sake and for the love of display, the stirring of passion was inevitably shadowed, or fed, or entwined by the memory of his father. We have the idea that our hearts, once broken, scar over with an indestructible tissue that prevents their ever breaking again in quite the same place; but as Sammy watched Joe, he felt the heartbreak of that day in 1935 when the Mighty Molecule had gone away for good.”

Five out of five bananas, absoloodle.


Books of 2011

Bookcase at Cape MacLear

I’ve been reading like a machine lately. Too bad I can’t play jeopardy like a machine. I might be able to turn it into a side gig. The latest books to add to the 2011 list:

The Delta by Tony Park. This is a suspense military drama set in south western Africa. It starts with a failed assassination attempt in Zimbabwe that bleeds into drama on the Okavango Delta of Botswana and into Namibia. It was an easy, fun read that I particularly enjoyed because of the setting. Also, one of the main characters is American while the other is African. Their view points and conversations  — down to word choice — so often mimic the gaps between my Arizonan English vs. that of Matt’s Malawi. Calling me a “nugget” may be a term of endearment in Africa, but in the suburbs of Tempe it sounds a bit angry.

Other examples — a woman’s chassis is not located solely on her car. The greeting “happening” means “how is it going?” Coincidentally, “Howzit” also means “how is it going.”

It is a fun read, especially for anyone who is interested in Africa. Three out of five stars absoloodle.

The second book was a bit harder to muddle through, although it has received rave reviews. On Love by Alain de Botton is a creative approach at a fictional tale of a couple falling into and out of love. It is the full, sweet, insightful, and painful cycle of a relationship. Some of de Botton’s writing caught my breath — it was simply so spot on:

“To be loved by someone is to realize how much they share the same needs that lie at the heart of our own attraction to them. Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally “together,” when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love itf there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.”

Absoloodle. Three out of five stars.

Next up: Kavalier and Clay.


Books + Shoes

new release

Have you guys seen the hoarder television shows? They make me itchy. I cannot imagine living with — nor feeling like I need — so much stuff. It makes me ache a bit for those profiled; you can tell it isn’t about the physical stuff, so much as something emotional that cracked long ago.

That said, there are two things I would hoard. Books and shoes.

I have more books than I care to admit. They are hidden under my bed, in the kitchen, stacked high on shelves in Matty’s room, in boxes at my parent’s house in Texas, in my patio storage unit and over flowing a bookshelf at work. There are unhealthier things to collect, but still. In an attempt to reel this little obsession in, I’m not buying books. (Unless otherwise required for book club, assuming they aren’t available at the library.)

These fit

As for the shoes, no promises. (I mean really, these are just so pretty. And these would be great for work. Or the gym. Sigh.)

I read a couple new books this week worth mentioning.

A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey is the story of three friends who bird. The true tale of their adventures in spotting birds and being a part of the “birding” community is snort-laugh funny. Dempsey is British and the book is written with this dry, sarcastic undertone that didn’t wear me out. The section on their adventures in south eastern Arizona was particularly sweet to read.

The thoughtful prose  made me want to pick up a pair of binoculars for the first time in my life and go look to the heavens.

“The violet-crowned hummingbird beat its wings around 34 times. It’s a number to boggle the mind; I can’t even conceive of doing anything 34 times every second. This felt like the most salient fact about hte world that I could muster, right then. And many times since. When I squeeze onto a train in Manhattan, or when I’m stuck in traffic getting out of Manhattan, or when something is screaming at me on the phone about a tiny, tiny thing, more often than not what comes to mind is this fact: somewhere in southeast Arizona, a bird is beating its wings 34 times a second. It does so to enable itself to extract much-neede sustenance from Mrs. Paton’s feeders, or from flowers, whichever it can find. As we pave over the flowers, the commitment of citizen birders like Mrs. Paton, just like that of er husband before her, will becom eeven more critical. There on Pennsylvania Avenue — the irony of the address was not lost on me — Marion Paton’s actions were so selfless as to be a manifestation of the good, and seemed a fitting punctuation to the magic that was this corner of America. We’d come expecting rare birds, but we’d found rare people too.”

Three out of five bananas — I particularly enjoyed this having sat with an American birder on safari. Bob worked for the World Bank and was in Malawi to assess a large grant proposal to build a new damn. He was one of the most peculiar people I’ve met because the baby elephants did nothing for him. But the birds! The man had a giant birding book in his fanny pack and he whipped that sucker out to cross off several “life birds” on our brief trip. Bob fit into this story well.

The second book — The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan — is a piece of art. It is so well done, I stopped half-way through reading and immediately purchased three copies online to give as Valentine’s gifts. It is a love story told through short entries that are alphabetized like a dictionary. You can read the entries independently and be fulfilled. Reading the book from cover to cover provides an entirely different tale and is such a treat.

One of my favorite entries:

“Obstinate, adj.

Sometimes it becomes a contest: Which is more stubborn, the love or the two arguing people caught within it?”

Five out of five bananas, absoloodle.

Thanks to Matty’s great return to the desert yesterday afternoon, I’m now enjoying The Delta. He picked it up for me in South Africa en route. So glad the African is home. Listening to him and Adam catch up yesterday was like a sweet family reunion. Those two boys were meant to be friends.


Books of 2011


A view of some of the fabric I bought in Malawi, along with a collection of book reviews

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski — three out of five bananas

This is a book I have given as a gift several times, after having read the reviews. However, when I got around to reading it myself, it fell flat. Perhaps my expectations were too high? I remember when this novel was published, it was revered. So many raved about the author’s first novel. In truth, it is an interesting story. I’ve never read about a mute character before. However, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the other fiction I’ve recently devoured.

Room by Emma Donoghue — five out of five bananas

This story is told from the perspective of a five year old boy — Jack. Jack’s mother gave birth to him in “room,” where she’s been kept captive for years. Jack is the product of her abuse. Jack’s perspective is one so unique and tender. His mother has gone to may creative lengths to keep his childhood — as limited as it is — special and important. I truly loved this story.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot — five out of five bananas

This nonfiction tale of the HeLa cells, taken without knowledge from an African American woman in the 1950s who was being treated for cervical cancer, is one all public and social workers in the United States should read. It shows how abuse of power and policy left a community distrustful of medicine for decades. It also shows how racism and classism are ever evolving and makes the reader question their own belief structures. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and my admiration is sincere for Rebecca Skloot — who spent much of her life to date researching and writing this tale. A very, very important and smart read.

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — two out of five bananas

Blah. Blah blah blah blah BLAH. I know as an author I cried when I read reviews like this and promised I wouldn’t ever write them again. I lied. Knowing this book on horse racing won the National Book Prize for 2010 makes me think my taste in novels is horrible because I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. In fact, this is the first book in recent history I immediately sold back to the store. Gordon doesn’t use quotation marks, which is so distracting from the story, I didn’t finish it. There are portions where the author’s poetic voice shines — and they are wonderful. But they are too few.The characters’ voices are varied, confusing and the nonsensical punctuation makes this story unreadable.

So much for National Book Prize judges.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson — three out of five bananas

I liked it. This mystery took about 150 pages to grab me, but then I couldn’t put it down. Additionally, the last 100 pages could have been summarized in about 20. That said, I can’t wait to see the films and read the next two books in the trilogy. I like the complexity of the characters, who are both admirable and incredibly flawed. I like the foreign setting. I like the fast paced nature of the story. I liked learning so much about Nordic culture.

Simply put, it is fun book candy.

Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — four out of five bananas

If it hadn’t been for the last chapter of this book, I would have called it one of my top ten reads in the last year. The characters are fascinating. The writing is lyrical, sorrowful, beautiful and simply perfect in places. I have never read a book constructed in this fashion and I applaud Egan’s courage and brilliance for gracefully mastering new literary waters.

The only bummer was the last chapter. So — someone else read this one quickly and let me know what you think. It is my book club selection for February and I can’t wait another 4 weeks to talk about it.

I’m currently enjoying A Supremely Bad Idea and it is hilarious, as of page 15.


Reading more this year? Yes we can.


Books of the New Year


Ya-Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells: I’ve had this book for years, tucked on a bookshelf with its $.25 yard sale sticker in place. I enjoyed Wells’ infamous “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” novel to the point of long referring to my girlfriends as the Yas. We’ve been the Yas since 2000 and we will remain forever more.

The sequel couldn’t ever live up to the first. I’ll never forget our happiness crowding into the now defunct Tempe theater to see our book – a book that for once encapsulated the joys and sorrows of having girlfriends who are your blood, your breath – on the big screen. We invited our mothers and smushed together with giant boxes of popcorn and vats of Diet Coke. These women on screen were our southern counterparts.

I can tell you where I was when I read Wells’ primary novel the first time and the second. While “In Bloom” doesn’t come as close to my heart, it is still fun. It had the ability to make my eyes brim and my heart ache to have my legs intertwined with those girls I love the most.

Caro puts another log on the fireplace. “Tell me more, Vivi,” she says.

Vivi looks at her friend, and thinks, ‘Those three words are as good as the words I love you.’

I come from a garden of gabbers. We love to tell our stories. To have the entire group’s rapt attention typically means something has gone so very right or so very wrong. Regardless, you tingle. The attention fuels the details of your stories. Your arms dance in front of you, expressing their own version of the story. Your head shakes just so. Your brow either eventually arcs with a wide relief of joy, or the down crest wallop of sorrow. With my Yas, I tell the last few lines of my stories embraced, smelling their sweet hair on my shoulders, feeling their hands on my back, knowing their love is within me.*

Three out of five bananas, absoloodle.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is an epic novel I will think of a decade from now, still considering the characters and wondering what they would be doing today. At more than 600 pages, this is not a novel for the less than motivated. The story is that of twin brothers born in an Ethiopian hospital under less than desirable genetic circumstances. Their mother is a nun. Their father is an esteemed surgeon at the hospital.

The story speaks of their childhood – one tormented by politics and circumstance. There is so much to say about this great book, but so little I want to reveal; it is a tale you must experience for yourself. There are few stories I’ve read that have touched me so profoundly. I dreamed of these characters for days after finishing the book, hoping for a continuation.

“Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

This is one of those books that you happen upon every ten years – a book that will change the way you look at life and give you more satisfaction for the existence you have.

Five out of five bananas, absoloodle.

Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain is a memoir of a Francophile family who during World War II must flee their lovely French home for a new post in Boston. With a twist of fortune, they are able to bring their esteemed French help – a woman named Clementine – with them. Her adventures in both French and American markets and cooking is a fun read, although a bit heavy in recipes that I couldn’t ever follow.

I’m pathetically American. I’m not a fan of snails or cream. While I enjoy the occasional leek, I crave a casserole of homemade macaroni and cheese, a plate of stewed green chile with homemade tortillas, and my father’s barbequed chicken.

This book is a fun memoir of an exceptionally well-heeled American family’s exploits in French living and cooking upon return to the homeland. I appreciated Clementine’s spunk, but the tone, theme and contents were a bit too pretentious for this All-American girl.

Two out of five bananas, absoloodle.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony is a must-read for anyone who loves Africa. I borrowed this book, among others, from Matty’s family bookcase on the tea estate in Malawi. It is the true story of Anthony, and his French wife Francoise on their game estate in South Africa. Thula Thula unexpectedly becomes home to a family of misbehaving elephants.

The next 400 pages are a sweet story of how one man with incredible patience, a diligent staff and a loving girlfriend, transform the veldt to yet again include a family of Africa’s largest mammals.

I’ll be sending this book out to several friends when I return to the States. It is such a delightful tale.

“There is nothing more energizing than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter. In the outback, life is lived in the instant. The land thrums with exuberance when everything is green and lush and is stoically resilient when it isn’t. In the bush, simple acts give intense atavistic pleasures, such as sliding a sprig of grass into a tiny slot of a scorpion hole and feeling a tug that pound for pound would rival a game fish. Even today that triggers of my born-free adolescence as vividly as a lovelorn youth recalling his first heart-thudding kiss.”

“Such is Africa, the flawed, beautiful, magnificent, beguiling, mystical, unique, life-changing continent … seductive in its charm and charisma, its ancient wisdom so often stained by unfathomable spasms of blood.”

Four out of five bananas, absoloodle.


*I might be a bit homesick.