"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning by Celia Rivenbark

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A series of comedic newspaper articles about life, kids and marriage by a Southern columnist. 

“Coupled with the sad fact that I’m not Really Nice at all is this awful personality defect that makes me crack a joke at the worst possible time.” Me too, hons, me too.

I just discovered Celia Rivenbark, my newest favorite humorist. Maybe I was in the right mood, or maybe I just started with her best book, but I found You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning to be the funniest of the many books she has out.

Celia Rivenbark, who often refers to herself as Mama Celia, likes TV, likes to eat cheese, and she’s a bit of a princess, with a low tolerance for morons – just like me. Of course, she’s Southern and I am not.
With regards to camping:
“Then there was the “urgent media advisory” from the makers of a handheld bug-repelling device that 'efficiently repels black flies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums.' You know what else repels those insects? Hotel rooms.”
And her fitness level mirrors mine.
"I have several close friends who have run marathons, a word that is actually derived from two Swahili words: mara, which means “to die a horrible death,” and thon, which means “for a stupid t-shirt.” Look it up."
Every time she cracks an insensitive joke, I howl with laughter and wonder if I'm a meaner person than I thought.
"What is it with men, anyway?
Hons, I have to tell you that I was crushed at the revelations that my former political crush, John Edwards, had strayed.
My attractive single friend Susie quipped over a glass of wine when the news leaked that she was upset about Edwards’ cheating heart for two reasons.
“On the one hand, it’s just so horribly disappointing that he's that kind of man,” se said, “but on the other hand, I’m upset because all this time I didn’t know he was available."
If you take yourself seriously, this will NOT be the book for you.

I didn’t enjoy Belle Weather: Mostly Sunny with a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits, simply because most of her stories revolve around construction and home repair. That’s simply not interesting to me. Stuck in the middle of stories about varmint capture and trips to Home depot is an open letter to Britney Spears, whom Mama Celia wants to love and protect.
“Brit, the problem, as I see it, is that you had two babies in twelve months. This has caused you to go astronaut-lady-in-diapers level of crazy and nobody seems to understand that.”

In Bless Your Heart, Tramp, and other Southern Endearments, Rivenbark asks:
“Why not a bumper sticker for the unlucky parents, something like: My fifteen-year-old’s in Detox and Not Speaking To Any of Us” or “My Kid Robbed a 7-Eleven and is in a Center for Youthful Offenders.”
This reminds of a bumper sticker I saw that read: My Kid Knocked Up Your Honor Student.

Life is funny and Rivenbark takes it to the absurd and beyond. You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning is my favorite of all her novels. And yes, I have read them all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A 42-year-old unmarried journalist researches the dating market with the goal of finding a husband who meets every requirement on her Husband List.

Get over yourself!

That’s basically the advice that 41-year-old Lori Gottleib gives single women over 35. No other book I’ve read lately (or at least in the past 5 years) has made me so glad and grateful to be married.

Believe me, I’m not interested in dating anyone else but this book gave me a kick in the pants to stop complaining about my husband. I always thought I got a pretty good deal but now I’m realizing that by marrying young, I got a great deal.
Says Gottlieb: “What I didn’t realize when I chose to date only men who excited me from the get-go (without considering the practical side of things), is that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. According to my married friends, once you’re married, it’s not so much about who you want to go on a tropical vacation with; it’s about who you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a constant passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane nonprofit business.” 
Gottlieb is also a single mother by choice, having chosen artificial insemination because she wanted a kid far more than she wanted to “settle” with any of the men in her life. And from what she shared, some of the men she dated would have made terrible fathers. Gottleib’s Husband List of the qualities she needs in a husband is so long and so specific that you can’t help but realize that Gottlieb has been way too picky, esp. since she says she wants to get married, but won’t consider anyone under 5’5”.

This book was an easy-to-read mix of the author’s personal experience, case studies from friends and colleagues, professionals in the dating and marriage business and science. She reviews marriage expectations with people who divorced, people in arranged marriages, people who “settled” and are happy over it, and women who wouldn’t settle and are still alone. Many divorce experts say that marrying the wrong guy for a fleeting sensation like excitement instead of stability feels like settling but really leads to unhappiness down the road.

And she talks about maximizers versus satisfiers, one of my favorite topics. I’m trying to change my own shopping habits from being a maximizer to a satisfier. I always wonder if I could get a better deal on that pair of black pants, and go from store to store looking for the perfect pair. What I should have done is bought the pair of black pants that I originally thought were too expensive but that I ended up buying anyway after I bought two other disappointing pair for $30 each. So I ended up spending $160 for a pair of black pants that really only cost everybody else $100 and made a second trip out to the fancy mall.

When you look at your life, or your man, or your job for that matter, you will always make yourself unhappy, especially if you’re a maximizer, if you ask, “How does this compare to what I though I wanted? But if you ask yourself, “Do I like this?” then you have a better perspective and a better chance for happiness. Just as you shouldn’t settle for someone who treats you badly, if you and your beloved don’t share a love of college football, in general, do you like him?

Know what you want, know what a good value is, and when you find it – stop looking!

So that same advice goes for women looking for a husband. Don’t think that perfect guy is out there – 6’1”, green eyes, dimples, high earner, exciting, passionate, understanding, good listener. Pick your 5 needs (loyal, smart, responsible, affectionate and tolerant) and separate them from your wants (world-traveler, funny-but-not-funnier-than-me, well-read, must love dogs and good dancer.)

Once you know what you need, you open up your choices and find a way to look at people with new eyes. This is terribly hard for Gottleib, as she still doesn’t want to settle. And when her friends, or the matchmakers or the online dating sites convince her to look deeper or at least go out on one date with someone she wouldn’t consider, that man is often unavailable by the time she changes her mind. That happened several times in the book and while I would be feeling desperate, Gottleib still seems to think she’s some smoking hot 25-year-old. With a kid.

She doesn’t realize that she has to settle for someone who would actually want to date her. The dawning of this insight is a lowering experience to read about and will make you hug your husband even tighter.
“Women under 30 might be dating a great guy, but there’s this one thing they think he’s lacking. They’re with an 8 but they ant a 10. Then they’re 40 and they can only get a 5! So they gave up the 8 in order to hold out for the 10, only to end up with a 5 – or nothing.” 
In the end, Gottlieb tells about her encounters with the 5s and 6s she’s met and checks back in with the happily married 7s, 8s, and 9s she passed by. This was an enjoyable book and one I’d love to give to my single friends, if only they wouldn’t be offended by it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A retelling of the romance between Romeo and Juliet, focusing on their shared love of the poetry of Dante. 

O, Juliet makes the love story of Romeo and Juliet far more believable and touching than any other version. Yes, I include Shakespeare in that. Shakespeare had Romeo and Juliet marrying at 14, which although that did occur in Elizabethan England, was far rarer in Renaissance Italy. 

The actual writing was a little difficult for me, as I was not captivated by the poetry of Dante the way the author and Romeo and Juliet  were. I found this book a little slow, but well-researched and definitely full of life, joy, romance. While Juliet falls in love with Romeo the minute he quotes Dante to her in public, I fell in love with Romeo here:
"But the sight of my beloved alone with my mother at our table, and in such a state of easy grace, took my breath away.
He was listening. A man listening earnestly to a woman speaking. It shook me to the core."
Okay, I love Romeo too.

The plot unfolds in amazing ways and I would recommend this retelling to anyone who enjoys the story.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A twelve-year-old girl finds a new family in 1960s Savannah after the death of her mother.

Twelve-year-old Cecelia “CeeCee” Honeycutt is responsible for taking care of her manic mentally ill mother, while her father is out making sales and cheating on his crazy wife. CeeCee’s mother doesn’t fit in in Ohio, which she refers to as the North.

During one of her manic episodes, CeeCee’s mother dresses in a Goodwill prom gown and believes she is in a beauty pageant. While she’s twirling in the middle of the road, a semi-truck hits her. CeeCee, of course, is witness to the whole scene.

After the funeral, her father ships her off to live with Aunt Tootie in 1960s Savannah. Her father loves her but is casually neglectful and detached, like many fathers in the 1960s. CeeCee is welcomed and wanted by Tootie, which makes a delightful, but unnerving, change for her.

Here CeeCee befriends - or more accurately is embraced and befriended by - her Aunt Tootie, Auntie Tootie’s black housekeeper Oletta and Oletta’s black friends Nadine and Chessie. I do mention the race because it is important to plot.

This book was deeply similar to The Secret Life of Bees. Young white girl finds a new family with black women in the South. But Saving CeeCee Honeycutt was much lighter in tone and mood, although there are moments of racial tension in SCH.
“As I watched all the comings and goings and listened to the charming “Welcome to Savannah’s” and the heartfelt ”I’m so pleased to meet you’s” that dripped like honey from these women’s’ lips, I realized that Southern hospitality not only came from the heart but was a practiced social art that had been passed down from one generation to the next – like fine silverware or china. Southerners had a way of doing things that made you feel special and Mrs. Odell soaked in every drop of the kindness.”
It’s odd to me that a culture and locale that places so much emphasis on the social niceties isn’t completely embarrassed about the obvious and subtle racism that occurred as part of everyday life.

Mrs. Odell, her aged Ohio neighbor, is visiting them while on her way to retire in Florida. When her retirement plans fall through in a big way, Mrs. Odell is invited to live and retire with Tootie, Oletta and CeeCee. Tootie shares stories of her mother as a young girl, while Mrs. Odell can share memories of her mother in the later stages of her illness. With both women loving and supporting CeeCee, she begins to heal, and makes a friend her own age for the first time in a long while.
“I had been ashamed of her for so long that any good memories had been distorted and smudged by her illness.”
CeeCee narrates the story and of course is far more mature for her age. She’s not naïve in the way that Lily from SLOB was, but because there was such a lack of dramatic tragedy in this book, it was difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the writing, despite similar plot lines. I do think that one line from SCH will stay with me longer than the image of Lily kneeling on the grits. Tootie is passionate about old buildings – the history, the décor, the beauty. It’s her fire; what keeps her going. And she asks CeeCee (and also the readers) “What’s your fire? What’s your passion?” Because when you find your fire, you find happiness.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Jane Austen has been quietly living as a vampire and trying to get published again.

It is a truth universally acknowledges that Jane Austen is still alive today… as a vampire.

Oh, yes.

What a fun read. It met needs I didn’t even know I had. It meets my enthusiasm for Jane Austen and enhances my appreciation for her flawed, proud and tender characters. It’s not as good as Pride and Prejudice, but it’s a fun read, with a great blend of a few of my favorite subjects.

Jane Austen? Check.
A book store? Check.
Vampires? Check!

And it’s funny, too.

During a clandestine trip to the English lake district, Lord Byron (yes, the poet) seduces Jane Austen and then bites her, making her into a vampire. Jane stages her death in her time period and then runs away to America where she’s been quietly living all this time.

Jane’s also been struggling in modern-day America to publish what she thinks is her best book yet. She has been rejected by 116 editors. Jane Austen – arguably the most popular female writer of all time – keeps getting rejected. The real irony is that Jane Austen now is the owner of a bookstore in New England and suffers little pangs of agony when she sees another Jane Austen-themed book fly off her shelves. The royalties! The gimmicks! The dolls!? And why does every moron and her sister get a book deal but not Jane?

And one day, Jane’s life changes. A publisher wants her book. A tall, dark handsome publisher who thinks Jane is brilliant and can’t wait to publish more of her books. Jane’s finally getting to realize her dream. And in walks Lord Byron, renamed Brian. He’s finally decided that he and Jane should be a vampire power couple, and he’ll use his considerable charms to ensure Jane complies. The banter between two world-famous writers is delightful.
'"I don’t love you,” she said firmly.
Once more Byron laughed at her. “Who said anything about love?” he replied. We’re both far too old to believe in happily ever after, Jane.”
Perhaps you don’t,” said Jane.
Byron smiled. “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart. ‘Tis a woman’s whole existence.”
“Stop quoting yourself,” Jane said. “It’s vain even for you."'
You don’t have to be a Jane Austin fan to enjoy this book, but it certainly helps. And wait until you find out about Charlotte Bronte.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Saving Face: My Victory over Skin Cancer by Carolyn Shuck

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A woman chronicles her battle and victory over skin cancer in the 1970s.

I’m dealing with my own skin cancer and Carolyn Shuck’s story of diagnosis, treatment, recovery and struggles with facial skin cancer in the early 1970s, while not quite “inspirational,” was encouraging and helpful.

I was taken aback by the contrast in our styles to our skin cancer despite our similar personalities and life stories. Her skin cancer was diagnosed in the 1970s and she mentions using sunscreen once. Once! Only years after her skin cancer diagnosis, does she give up playing golf, because she doesn’t want to damage her skin even more. She was living in Minneapolis, where I live now. She also has three children, as do I.

It helps that Carolyn Shuck is enormously wealthy and can make monthly plan trips to Madison, WI from La Jolla, CA. Of course, she is seeing the world’s finest skin cancer doctor. If you had the money, wouldn’t you pay to see the best doctor?

Dr. Mohs cuts and removes only the cancerous cells, but his cutting has left her without both sides of her nose and with damage to her forehead and cheek.

At times it seems as if her husband is deliberately sabotaging her efforts:
“How I wanted him to hold me and tell me he loved me now and he’d always love me. That no matter what happened, I’d always be beautiful to him and that he couldn’t bear to be away from me either.
But few men have scripts in their hands for a scene like this. I’m sure he didn’t know what to say. He gently pushed me away, fixed me a drink, and brought me up on the new details of our California move.”
In addition, they move to La Jolla, California, go on trips to Singapore and walk along the beach. I don’t know if the extremely wealthy see no reason why their lives have to change when tragedy strikes, but she didn’t seem as active with preventative measures as I am now. Granted, I am struggling with skin cancer 30 years later. The world has changed a lot since then. However, the topical chemotherapy cream 5FU, which Carolyn tested back in the 1970s, is still in use today. (Yes, the cream does F-yoU.)

Carolyn naively thinks that she’ll just get a little extra work done on her plastic surgery but instead encounters an arrogant prick of a different doctor at the Mayo Clinic. He has no idea what he is doing, but his arrogance comes across as confidence and Carolyn so wants to believe that she can have a normal nose again and doesn't bother to ask the right questions. After six botched surgeries on her nose by the Mayo Clinic doctor, she gives up and gets a prosthetic nose. Her husband, DeWitt, thinks she should be happy, but Carolyn still struggles with the daily struggle of putting her fake nose (a third one, after she rejected the ill-fitting and racially mismatched noses another doctor created for her) on and off every day.

“After eleven failed attempts at a nose, why was I asking for more?” Carolyn perfectly expresses her challenges of trying to get healthy and trying to be a good wife and mother.

Carolyn Shuck encountered a lot of people who said incredibly stupid things to a woman with a severe facial disfigurement. “I was glad I’d taken Psychology 101 and knew intelligence isn’t distributed equally: for each very bright person there is one very stupid person.” While I don’t have any facial disfigurement, I did and do feel very self-conscious about my face after treatment.
"I’m an extrovert, always have been. I both enjoy and need closeness to other people; need to hear what’s happening in their lives and to tell them what’s happening in mine. And all the communication isn’t verbal – with my face I’ve laughed with my friends and cried with them, expressed sympathy for them and enlisted their sympathy in return
Would they be uncomfortable, now, in my presence? Not know what to say or where to look? With a glaring defect in the middle of my face, would I find their attention focused on that instead of on me? Would they pity me??
I couldn’t stand that."
This so perfectly captures the sentiment I feel that I may re-read this book, just so I don’t feel alone or when I feel like hiding my face from others.

The writing is simplistic, but well-told with a few scattered narrative leaps. Great story and helpful for anyone dealing with any stage of skin cancer.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Following her divorce, Haven moves back to her hometown and starts a fling with a handsome hunk.

From the title, and the genre (modern romance) I did not expect such a deep, intense book.

Haven Travis is a spoiled little rich girl. She’s used to getting everything she wants. So when she sets her heart on Nick, nothing, not even the disapproval of her family, will change her mind.

On the day of her brother’s wedding, Haven sees Nick slip into the wine cellar. She follows him into the darkened room and silently seduces him. It’s only when she feels the smooth hairless chest of the hunk she’s been mauling does Haven realize she has the WRONG man! It makes me blush just to think about it, but Hardy Cates is discreet and nobody knows anything ever happened.

Haven and Nick elope and set up house in Dallas. Haven’s father disowned her, since he warned her against marrying Nick, but Haven has Nick’s love and doesn’t need anything else. Haven thinks they’re fine without the Travis money, but Nick keeps insisting that they have a baby, because that will make her father bend and help them out financially.

Haven is fairly naïve about married life, and thinks that she just needs to try harder to be a better wife to Nick. Nick insists that his shirts be starched perfectly and Haven is too busy creating a home for them to spend hours at the ironing board. She uses some of “her” money to send the shirts out. When Nick finds out, he gently forgives Haven, saying that she’s been rich her whole life and never had to please anyone but herself. Haven is wracked with guilt, and vows to be an even better wife.

And then Haven cuts her hair short and Nick wonders why she would want to look like a boy. He married a woman.

Nick insists on calling Haven by her middle name, Marie, and introduces her to people as Marie.

Haven’s aunt dies, but the funeral conflicts with a big corporate picnic that Nick expects to attend with her. Haven doesn’t go and never hears from her family again.

Nick also thinks that Haven doesn’t really need to work, that she should quit her job and stay home and be a proper wife to him. She does.

Can you see here this is going?

And then Nick finds her birth control pills one day. He beats Haven, violently rapes her and kicks her out of the house. Barefoot and bruised, with no purse, ID or money, she hobbles into town to call her brother Gage collect to come and rescue her. Gage is in Houston and Haven is in Dallas. Gage can’t get there soon enough so he makes some calls. One of Gage’s many friends gently approaches her. Haven herself didn’t realize how bad the damage was until she sees the look on this man’s face. He takes off his shoes and gives her his socks, so she can walk to the car. Haven is terrified of this stranger, but this moment in the book was so tender and traumatic that I am now a Lisa Kleypas fan. Wow!

Haven is trying to rebuild her life in Houston and is trying to become independent. Haven sees a therapist who helps her see that she worked so hard for Nick’s approval because she never had her father’s approval. And when he washed his hands of their marriage, it only made Haven more determined to make her marriage with Nick work. We also learn that Nick was a narcissist, and that Haven always had trouble setting boundaries. Reading about Nick's narcissism also helped me recognize a narcissist I know.

This was quite an introspective novel, especially as it is narrated in the first person by Haven. When Haven starts up a friendship with Hardy Cates, her family is naturally wary. Haven did such a terrible job at picking a man previously, that nobody will let Haven trust her own judgment.
“Hardy had charmed me more than anyone I’d ever met. He was engaging, playful… but always and foremost a man. He opened doors, carried the packages, paid for dinner and would have been mortally offended by the suggestion that a woman do any of those things. Having lived with a husband who had spent most of his time inflating his own fragile ego, I appreciated Hardy’s self-assurance. He had no problem admitting that he’d make a mistake or that he didn’t understand something, only turned it into an opportunity to ask questions.”
But Haven gets to control the pace of the relationship, and Hardy remains a fixture in her life, even though Haven freaked out at a little bit of intimacy with Hardy. This book reminded me a little of Never Less Than a Lady, although Julia’s scars seemed deeper yet she healed much sooner.

When Nick stalks Haven and attacks her, Hardy is there to rescue her, and saves her from being raped again. Haven and Hardy, together, are free of Nick’s influence and you know the Travis heiress and the Blue-Eyed Devil she loves will live happily ever after.

I am not blind to Haven’s faults. She still thinks and acts like a poor little rich girl throughout the book, but I raced through this compelling novel.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Descent into Dust by Jacqueline Lepore

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Widowed Emma Andrews fears she is going mad but instead discovers she was born to be a vampire hunter in Victorian England.

The original Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Charles Dickens.

Widowed Emma Andrews is at a house party with her sister and cousin. After visiting her niece Henrietta, she thinks she sees a man in the room. All of Emma’s life has been spent guarding against the madness that drove her mother to her death, so Emma tells no one, fearing that she too is going mad. She hears voices, and sees things and is terrified of losing her mind or hurting her family.

Valerian Fox, also a visitor to Emma’s cousin’s house, follows Emma and Henrietta on their walks around the country estate. Emma believes he is stalking them, but finds out he is actually protecting them. There’s a secret that he won’t share with her, but perhaps Emma is not mad after all. When Emma is caught alone in the stable, she killed six snakes with three jabs of a pitchfork, surprising herself.

Mr. Fox finally tells Emma she is a Dhampir, a Vampire Hunter, given extraordinary ability to fight vampires. Together, Emma and Mr. Fox kill the vampire’s minions. Emma is caught in her niece’s room late at night and tells the truth – that a vampire has been stalking Henrietta. Emma is believed mad and is kicked out and instead goes to France to study all she can about vampires.

Emma secretly returns to fight for Henrietta’s soul and instead finds herself fighting a greater evil than she can imagine. Emma is welcomed back into the bosom of her family. When she presses her uncle for more information about her mother, Emma discovers that her mother was not mad, but instead was the victim of a vampire, fighting her bloodlust while trying to raise a child. Her mother is not actually dead, but ran away long ago in order to keep Emma safe. Emma’s next novel, and next adventure, will focus on her search for her mother.

The writing style is Gothic, but it fit the mood and the theme. An enjoyable read.