Dysfunction Junction

...what's your function? (yes, I am a child of the '70s)

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

Guys! A historical novel I really, really liked! Seriously! Even sat in the car for way too long because I didn’t want to leave the story (on audiobook, obviously; book-reading while driving is not advised, I’m told).

The story is divided primarily into 3 time periods, which made me think of the 3 layers of the quilt Dolly and the Ladies’ Aid are quilting.

Dolly’s 1950 world is one layer. Dolly’s a young bride, and her (clueless) husband Byron’s hauled her off to a small Wisconsin town where he’s working at a car dealership with a war buddy. Dolly’s so lonely she joins the quilting group even though she doesn’t know how to quilt.

And man, do they got the gossip, them quilting ladies.

Dolly’s fallen in love with a big old deserted house on a hill, and the ladies say all kinds of nasty things about the Mickelson family who lived there. (Given that the Mickelsons don’t live there no more, you kinda figure early on that Something Happened. And did it ever. This thing's got the melodrama turned On.)

The other 2 layers are the years of World War I—when the older Mickelson boys go off to war, and the years of World War II—when all hell breaks loose in the Mickelson family.

We get to jump back in time and see the Mickelson mess as it slowly simmers and then boils over.

And then we hop back to 1950 to see Dolly’s horridly unsatisfying housewife life. (Betty Friedan must have talked with Dolly, I’m thinking, when gathering material for that first book of hers.)

The key turning point in the book (and it happens fairly early on, so I don’t think I’m totally ruining anything here) is when Dolly, who has begun to sneak into the Mickelson house to clean it and restore it to its former glory, gets discovered by the prodigal Mickelson grandson, who’s been drinking himself into a stupor since the war’s end.

So the whole cast of characters… they just run into trouble at every turn. It’s glorious fun to read and will work for readers who need a galloping plot and also for those who read for character.

Audiobook notes: 16 ½ hours, read by Christine Williams. It took me a disc or two to get into the voice, but then it all meshed. And trapped me in my car.

Royal Wedding: It Is *ON*!

Getting up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, to watch the spectacle.

Breaking our brains

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I could barely read this book or write this post because the Internet is rewiring my brain!!

But really, I think Nicholas Carr is onto something here. Has anyone else noticed their attention span dwindling? Anybody?

Turns out, our brains are responding to the Internet’s stimuli, and there’s some different brain activity resulting from that. Scary, no?

Here’s a nice, succinct summary from Mr. Carr: “…when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (pp. 115-116)

Damn, people.

The other thing I found interesting is that the happy futurists like to talk about brain studies that show increased brain activity among Internet users in comparison with dull old readers. But… as Carr points out, “deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one.” (p. 123)

I swear, when I read that sentence, I knew reading this book was well worth it. In that sentence, the author captures the wonderful slowness of reading. Even if one is reading hella fast. (I read pretty fast.) Reading is calming.

For a person who completely failed at her first attempt at meditation (don’t ask) and who tends to get fairly tense when knitting (which is supposed to be one of those meditative activities—for some people, apparently), it’s soothing as all heck to realize that I actually found something (since age 5) that soothes and slows the racing mind.

OK, gotta go. There’s facebook updates to read. And Twitter’s a-calling my name…

[See how distracted you got when those facebook and Twitter links appeared in that last line? That's cuz our brains know they have to make a choice: to click or not to click? It frazzles our poor little brains! We are simple things. Yet not. Yet so.]

[Also-- Did anyone happen to scan this post in an "F" shaped eye-scan motion? Apparently that's how we tend to scan online -- our eyes scan in the shape of an upper-case letter "F" -- across the top line, then partway across another line, then along the left column. So if you're actually reading this here, probably You Didn't Scan That Way! Good little reader.]

Tough old (*young!*) girl

True Grit by Charles Portis

So I hear there’s a movie by this name…

…which makes sense.

This is a rip-roaring good story.

And one of the things that makes it even better is the young female narrator who’s almost too tough to be true. But since she’s telling the story from the later years of her life, as a tough old gal, it becomes completely credible that this crusty old woman would have been one tough cookie as a girl.

It’s the 1870s, and Mattie Ross, age 14, is out to avenge the death of her father, who was shot in cold blood by their hired man. The law ain’t doing nothing about it, so Mattie decides to take care of business.

One of my favorite parts is this: Mattie visits the sheriff and asks who is the best U.S. marshal. (She’s going to hire herself a marshal by offering a reward for the capture of the killer.) The sheriff ponders it aloud, describing the attributes of several marshals, including: “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.” He goes on to describe a fellow named Quinn and concludes that Quinn is the best there is. To which Mattie replies, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (pp. 25-26)

So it comes to pass that Mattie, Rooster, and another fellow named LaBoeuf ride off after the killer and his band of miscreants. While this is a great adventure story, it’s the language—the sharp dialogue—that caught my attention.

While Mattie is looking for a man with true grit, of course she’s the one who’s really got what it takes. But those two fellas—Rooster and LaBoeuf—were not half bad in the end.

This book stands out because of Mattie’s voice. That’s it, pure and simple.

It's not about the plane crash

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad

How did this book miss my radar for 2 years? It’s a remarkable story, gorgeously and simply told, and as an audiobook it’s simply stunning. And I’m rather appalled that I missed knowing about it till now.

We know I can’t keep away from plane crash stories. This is such a story.

But it’s really a father-son story, told by the grown son, who’s looking back at his childhood and the influence of his charismatic father. Ollestad’s dad really pushed his son to excel athletically—dragging him out of bed for hockey practice, taking him surfing in waves he found frightening, and skiing with him down icy mountains. And all that adventure travel and extreme sport stuff prepared him for February 1979, when the worst happened.

Eleven-year-old Norman, his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and a pilot were flying in the mountains, and they crashed.

The plane crash story is interwoven with the story of Norman’s life in the year or so leading up the crash. Obviously we know Norman survived, but it’s still surprisingly suspenseful to read the passages about the crash and its aftermath. It’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old could have the strength and the presence of mind to take the steps necessary for his survival, but he was kind of an extraordinary kid.

He’s grown up to be an extraordinary writer.

Other notes:

The author reads the audiobook himself, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. His intonation adds so much to the story that I actually can’t even imagine reading it on the page. It’s rare that an audiobook is powerful enough for me to say that. (Audiobook: 7.5 hours)

BTW, Amazon has an essay the author wrote about enticing his young son into reading. I love it.

Read-a-Thon: Sleep

Once upon a time, this here person would stay up till 4 a.m. reading like it was no big deal.

Of course, this here person was only in high school and college when that type of behavior was happening.

Now, as a crunky older thing, it just don't happen like that no more.

So it is.

So I'm taking my slippered and pre-pajama'd self off to sleep.

Here's what happened this fine Read-a-Thon day/night:

Number of books read: 4

Here they are:
1. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (nonfiction)
2. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella (fiction)
3. Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (nonfiction)
4. Goody Hall by Natalie Babbitt (children's fiction)

Total pages read: 927 (shameful -- only 3 digits)

Number of hours of reading: 11

Things I should do again next time:
- Choose short books -- none over 350 pages.
- Alternate between fiction and nonfiction.
- Save a children's book for last.

Other notes:
- I did the usual Read-a-Thon thing and ate my way through the day with abandon. All this sitting around really stirs up the appetite, you know?

Threw in the towel at: Hour 20 (the 2 a.m. hour)

Good night/good morning, all. Hope you all had a great Read-a-Thon!

Read-a-Thon: Book 3 finished

It's Hour 18!

It's been a good little stretch here. I finished Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber, which I liked even more than I thought I might.

And I ate a beautiful cupcake that a friend kindly gave me earlier in the day. A sprinkly cupcake is what a person needs around midnight if she plans to keep reading through the night.

I've just started Book 4: Goody Hall by Natalie Babbitt. It's a children's book, by the author of one of my all-time favorite books. Babbitt is one of the authors I designated for the "I Want More" reading challenge.

I continue to read in the kitchen. And the clock is ticking all super-loud. And it feels like I'm the only awake thing in the entire town.

Read-a-Thon: 3rd book in progress

This is a Read-a-Thon record for me: I've started 3 books and stuck with each one of them. Usually by books 2 & 3, I'm getting all itchy and irritable and am impossible to satisfy.

Either I'm having good luck or I'm getting better at choosing books for myself. (My money's on: luck.)

I'm a little over halfway done with Rawhide Down, which I've interrupted to listen to the NPR story again (linked from previous post) and to watch footage on YouTube of the actual assassination attempt (which sounds ghoulish, but really is not intended in that spirit).

What else I've been doing: earlier, ate hummus and pita; then ate some pizza (that little beauty above) and watched Who Do You Think You Are?; visited the Read-a-Thon mothership; did a mini-challenge; and popped around to some blogs

Where I've been reading: still in the kitchen. I love the kitchen. But I've got a new chair in here, and it's so comfy I might keep it here forever.

How long I've been reading: 9.25 hours (This implies I've been goofing around rather a lot. I'll
simply refrain from comment.)

How many books I've finished reading: 2

How many pages I've read: 751

The good thing (though perhaps I'm being tricked) is that I'm feeling more awake now than I did mid-day. Which is weird. Probably will end up slumped over the kitchen table and will wake up with the mother of all neck cramps.

But not before eating a fancy cupcake. I'll stay awake for that.

Read-a-Thon: Hour 12 and Book 2

It's Hour 12, and I've just finished book 2: Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. It was a weirder book than I'd anticipated, and I liked it plenty. It reminded me, in a way, of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

I'm just now starting Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber, a book I heard about it on NPR.

I'm all excited to be returning to nonfiction.

Since the last update, I visited a cafe, ate a muffin, drank some coffee, and drank some water. I'm about to have a snack, and then I'm diving into the Reagan book.

Read-a-Thon -- Mid-Event Survey

Mid-Event Survey:
1. What are you reading right now?
Just started Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

2. How many books have you read so far?
Only 2

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
Rawhide Down (I've been saving it!)

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?
Yes -- did all my usual Saturday errands earlier in the week; it was a bit wild

5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
I love the "interruptions" I've had! A friend popped over briefly, and and I went to a cafe.

6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
For the first time, I'm really taking it easy, which I'm liking a lot.

7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year?
No changes

9. Are you getting tired yet?
Yes. It's ridiculous.

10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered?
Probably everyone else already does this, but... just have fun!

Read-a-Thon: 1st book finally

Since I've been savoring it, I just now finished my first book of the Read-a-Thon: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

Amazingly wonderful book, which made me laugh out loud at least 3 times. Plus it was filled with some of my favorite guys (Collins, Glenn, Lovell). I'll write all about it later.

Since I last wrote, I ate the official food of the Read-a-Thon: quinoa salad. It's been my consistent Read-a-Thon staple. I'm now fortified for endless hours of reading. And eating.

Next I'm starting Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. This bad, bad Iowan has never read this stuff before (nor have I seen Field of Dreams), but that's about to change.

Speaking of Iowa -- When my sister and a friend both mentioned the baby eagles in Decorah (IOWA!) today, I ended up over at the Nest Cam site checking out those little buggers. I love how bald eagles (the grown-up ones) always look so darn honked off. Also: grateful the turkey's not our national bird.

Hour 4 -- Snacking already

Cadbury eggs are the best food on earth and happily occur during spring Read-a-Thon season.

Yes, I'm carrying on my Read-a-Thon tradition of Eating Like a Horse Whilst Sitting on My Bum All the Livelong Day.

It's morning in America, and I'm eating the junkiest of junk food.

I was weirdly sleepy during Hour 3 (in spite of the excellent book), so I figured a good sugar high/sugar low would kickstart my system!

Since I am loving Packing for Mars, I am not even trying to read fast. I'm just reading all normal-like and therefore am only on page 168.

Reading spots thus far: at the kitchen table; in the very cute little slouchy chair

Have been popping around to a few blogs, and now am returning to the reading...

Hello, Read-a-Thon!

Good morning, Read-a-Thon!

This lazy bum's been reading only for 1/2 hour so far, but here I am , after quite an obstacle course of a week.

So today I'm just going to relax and read.

Over at Read-a-Thon HQ, there's a meme happening, and here's how it goes:

1) Where are you reading from today?

My home in the American Midwest

2) Three random facts about me…
- I am addicted to Us Weekly. (This week’s issue has not arrived yet, so twitching has commenced.)

- I got a new glasses prescription this week, so either I’m going to be supercharged while reading today or will suffer eyestrain like never before.

- I love tote bags. It’s almost a problem.

3) How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?

10 (with about 20 others as back-ups)

4) Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?

I plan to read 4 books today/tonight. That’s it!

5) If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?

Read short-ish books! Way more satisfying on Read-a-Thon day.

My first book today is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. I'm on page 33, and I'm completely in love with this book. Am almost regretting having chosen it for book 1 of the day, since now the bar has been set rather high.

Have eaten the breakfast of champions (oatmeal!) and drunk the first cup of coffee.

Back to my book... very happily back to my book...

Historical fiction I could like

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

For assigned reading I was absolutely dreading, this book was darn good. Yes, you guessed it: I’m reading for a genre study. Also for the historical fiction challenge. And I’m surviving. And, with this book, almost thriving.

It occurred to me that one of the things I dislike about historical fiction is largely absent in this book, namely: the horrible physical suffering of those who lived without modern conveniences. When you’re living as a princess, you don’t do without too much.

Though, you gotta admit, getting thrown into the Tower by your half-sister’s really gotta rather sting, so life wasn’t all that sweet.

This book is about the early years of Elizabeth I—the years before she was queen. I’ve forgotten much of any little I ever learned about that time period (though I fondly recall a children’s book written from the perspective of a mouse in Elizabeth’s court), so I’d forgotten by what path she ascended the throne. I’d forgotten that her half-sister had to die before Elizabeth would become queen. (Dang! Talk about sibling rivalry.)

This novel makes Elizabeth wonderfully human but also shows her to be extraordinary. That gal had some real political acumen. The book also clearly shows Elizabeth’s decision to remain her own person by refusing to marry—since in that era, even a queen would have to bow (in private, at least) somewhat to a husband. She said, Nuts to that! and I think we’d have to say it worked out for her.

The plot here carries a reader right along—there’s intrigue just oozing from the thing. And when you’re horribly clueless like I, it heightens the effect of the drama. For a book I didn’t want to read, I sure had a hard time putting this one down.

Cold and cozy

Though Not Dead by Dana Stabenow

I’m a fervent believer that each person who reads a given book actually ends up reading a different book from everyone else who reads the same book. (Dear heaven! There's no easy way to convey that thought!)

(photo credit: Voyageur Quest and the Algonquin Log Cabin)

In other words --

We bring our own experiences and interpretations to each reading experience, which is why I can say this:

Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries are some of the most domestically cozy books I’ve ever read.

Yes. I mean what I say.

I am fully aware that Kate kicks some serious you-know-what as a private investigator and tribal leader. I get that.

But really, the thing about her that most fascinates me is that she has the domestic skills down pat. Not only can this woman butcher her own moose and do maintenance on her snow machine, but she can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.

Maybe because the setting is so stinking freezing cold, Stabenow’s descriptions of Kate’s cabin and her home life are crazy cozy. All those books and quilts and all that home cooking.

Anyway, this book also had a plot, and it was a darn good one that kept me reading into the night over the weekend.

Kate’s uncle Old Sam has died (side note: Stabenow is not shy about killing off her characters, which kind of puts a reader on edge a bit, you know? I mean this in kind of a good way), which is sad stuff right off the bat. But then he’s also left Kate a mystery to solve, and I swear, he was wise to do so. This book is good, good, good. Kate’s digging into the past and uncovering old secrets, and we learn that lots of people ain’t what they’ve always seemed.

The other great thing about this book is that Jim is called back to southern California after his father’s death. So Kate is solo (greater danger and suspense!) and Jim also is solo, discovering his own family’s secrets.

Dana Stabenow—still gots it after all these books. (We’re on, what, #18 here? Impressive.)

Read-a-Thon: One Week Away!

The 24-Hour Read-a-Thon is one week from today, and that means frantic and thrilling preparations are being made in Casa Unruly.

Books: selected (that's them over there on the left)

Groceries: purchased

Cooking: scheduled

Family and friends: notifications ("Watch out! Next Saturday I'm reading all day and all night and will be acting weird") underway

Weekly Geeks: Spring Is in the Air

My first week doing Weekly Geeks! I've been following Weekly Geeks for a while, but this is my first time to play along at home.

This week there were a variety of topics, and I've chosen these three:

The best books you've read so far in 2011

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Organizing books - do you have a new system, new bookcases, or are you simply getting rid of things to make room for the new?
I'm having built-in bookcases built for the living room, and I can hardly sleep at night because I keep rearranging the books in my mind! Absolutely can’t wait, even though I know the compulsive need to organize the books to perfection will overrule even the Need to Read. (Can you imagine?)

Most anticipated book releases in April, May and June 2011
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin
Gone with a Handsomer Man by Michael Lee West

Though—please note: I’ll be much too busy rearranging my bookshelves house-wide to actually read any of these books.

Big honking bestseller

Step on a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

I confess: I picked this puppy because John Slattery is one of the readers of the audiobook. And I love John Slattery, even/especially when he’s being the horrible—yet wildly entertaining and therefore wonderful—Roger Sterling on Mad Men.

(Yes, you have just witnessed a shameless Reading Madly plug!)

Also I picked it because I’d never read anything by James Patterson, and probably there’s a law against a public librarian never having done so.

And while I suspect this book would not have worked so well for me as an actual (printed) book… as an audiobook, it was fabulous.

Why, you may ask, is that?

Well, first of all, we’ve got the Slattery effect. And he’s brilliant at reading the character of Mike, the smart-aleck police officer.

Next, it’s the kind of story that’s set up to hold your attention. And for some reason, suspense novels work for me as audiobooks even when they’d never work as books-to-read-with-my-eyes. I think it’s the whole nature of hearing a story told to you. There’s something about that.

Also, since I tend to listen to audiobooks when I’m exercising, I can work off all that nervous tension that builds up in me when reading suspense novels. I’m a skittish thing.

So, here’s the quick plot summary (without any big secrets revealed): A NYC police officer named Mike Bennett (husband to Maeve, who’s dying of cancer, and father of 10 children—so there’s so stress in his personal life whatsoever) is called to the cathedral where a former First Lady’s funeral was underway. Some bad, bad guys have hijacked the funeral and taken high-profile hostages. So Mike gets to talk to the hella creepy guy, Jack (wonderfully voiced by Reg Rogers), who seems to be calling the shots.

Now, I don’t know if this is Patterson or his co-author Ledwidge, but there are some nice bits of dialogue and turns of phrase in this book. (Sorry, Mr. P.; I may have mis-under-estimated you.) And at two points I even almost teared up. (At the track. Dear God.)

This thing’s a great blend of good (Mike and Maeve and their family) and evil (Jack and The Neat Man), and fast-paced, adrenaline stuff (all that hostage business) mixed with cozy, comforting, yet chaotic, family life.

I now get why this Patterson series hits the top of the bestseller lists from time to time.

Audiobook read by John Slattery and Reg Rogers; 7 hours