Category Archives: Whatever Else

A New Year of Reading


Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.42.25 AMThe Seattle Library recommended everyone start the year 2016 with Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading. Why?  To get the year started off right.  For February, they recommended Aziz Ansari, Chinelo Okparata, and Courtney Milan. Great ideas for starting out on a new year of reading.

Now that we are already in May, I’ve decided to start keeping online lists of what I’m reading this year, in addition to the notes I keep in my handwritten journal. You can find my lists starting with April – and come back soon to see what I’ve read in May.

Side Effects: the Books of Almudena Solana

I am a huge fan of the Spanish writer Almudena Solana. Great news for me: I am finally meeting her this week after years of reading and re-reading her books (we became acquainted through emails back and forth). Bad news? Only one of her novels – the marvelous The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz – has been translated into English. I reviewed her novel Las Mujeres Inglesas Destrozan Los Tacones Al Andar (English Women Destroy Their Heels By Walking) in 2011 in the hopes it might be translated; now I am trying again with her latest novel, Efectos Secundarios (Side Effects). I’ve attempted a review in Spanish and follow with the English version. Unknown

La última novela de Almudena Solana es una maravilla de la imaginación y de la humanidad. En Efectos Secundarios el novelista español utiliza diez cualidades medicinales para explorar las profundidades internas de cada uno de sus personajes, nombrando a ellos después de los medicamentos comunes. Por ejemplo, una mujer llamada Adiro puede entender cuando alguien está mintiendo; Nolotil es un médico que tiene que aprender a decir “no”: Augmentin está lleno de nostalgia de la infancia; Voltaren es lleno de sí mismo; Paracetamol es una vieja que no puede recordar nada; y Ventolin es un joven saxofonista.

Incluso sin nombres propios, todos los personajes son muy reales y cada uno exige nuestra atención y afecto. Al principio, yo no entendía cómo las historias de los distintos personajes se entrecruzan pero poco a poco todo se unió para formar una hermosa historia sobre la soledad, la familia, la amistad, el amor, el sexo, el dolor y el confort. ¿Cómo se deletrea alivio? A través del contacto humano.

Hay muchos métodos (y algunos pueden decir los medicamentos) para obtener a través de las dificultades de la vida – pero al final, es la relación entre una persona y otra que da a los personajes la fuerza que necesitan.

Yo mismo aparezco en el libro, en la historia de una mujer que lee un libro al día durante un año para hacer frente a una terrible tristeza. Fue durante este año de terapia libro que leí por primera vez Almudena Solana, cuando un día de la biblioteca elegí El Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. Sentí el toque humano en las palabras de Solana – y me sentí mejor. No paracetamol para mí: sólo libros y más libros. Gracias, Almudena, para el mejor alivio del dolor – las conexiones entre los seres humanos, la empatía de una persona a otra.

Now in English:

The latest novel by Almudena Solana is a marvel of imagination and humanity. In Side Effects the Spanish novelist uses ten medicinal qualities to explore the inner depths of her characters, naming them after commonly prescribed drugs. For example, a woman named Adiro (a kind of aspirin) can understand when someone is lying; Nolotil (a pain reliever) is a physician who has to learn to say “no”: Augmentin (an antibiotic) is full of nostalgia for childhood; Voltaren (an anti-inflammatory) is full of himself; Paracetamol (pain reliever) is an old woman who can not remember anything; and Ventolin (a bronchodilator) is a young saxophonist.

Even without proper names, all the characters are very real and each demands our attention and affection. At first I did not understand how the stories of the different characters intersect but gradually everything came together to form a beautiful story about loneliness, family, friendship, love, sex, pain and comfort. How do you spell relief? Through human contact.

There are many methods (and some may say drugs) to get through the difficulties of life – but in the end, is the relationship between one person and another that gives the characters the strength they need.

I also appear in the book, in the side mention of a woman reading a book a day for a year to deal with a terrible sadness. It was during this very real year of book therapy that I first read Almudena Solana, when one day in the library I chose The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. I felt the human touch in Solana’s words – and I felt better. No paracetamol for me: just books and more books. Thanks, Almudena, for better pain relief – the connections between humans, empathy from one person to another.

Book Girl TV and Purple Cocktails

I appeared on the opening broadcast of Book Girl TV! Had a wonderful chat with the marvelous Tessa Smith McGovern while we enjoyed the Purple Chair, a cocktail created out of sparkling rose, Hynotiq, and a touch of cranberry juice. Since the interview, I’ve discovered another purple cocktail, pomegranate juice mixed with vanilla vodka and ice in a blender to create a lovely zinger of a drink. Now I need to create a cold weather purple drink: any suggestions?

Discovering Chimamanda Adichie

I have read the short stories of Chimamanda Adichie and they are beautiful, transformative and inspirational (see below). And now, through this amazing TED video, I have heard her speak about the importance of telling many stories in order to understand our shared humanity across the world and even, possibly, to regain paradise.


On my list of must-reads? Adichie’s novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun.

My review of October 3, 2009, entitled
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Truth Around Your Life

“There are many beautifully-wrought stories in the collection The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and every one of them rings with truth. Most of the stories left me wanting more, hoping for novels rising from the bones of the story, and answers to “what happens next?” Adichie is very good at creating quickly but with full depth of character, people that I care about, and putting them in viscerally-etched situations that are immediate and dire (whether of life or of spirit). Although she can easily portray either sex and all ages and classes, she is at her very best in presenting women without wide choices but with the quiet strength to make the most of what is offered. She celebrates the endurance of women circumscribed by tradition or poverty or custom who move beyond their defined places to find more for themselves and in themselves. These women are able to bridge the Nigeria they are rooted in and the new world (either literally or figuratively) that they have found or made for themselves.

The exception to this is the first story, “Cell One”, which is not about a woman and her connections to Nigeria, but is instead about the country itself. It is a powerful but quietly stated history of modern Nigeria. A young women witnesses the changes wrought in her own brother under a regime that is changing the entire country of Nigeria. The parallels between her brother and her country are understated but precise: the ability to manipulate, the perception of invulnerability and being above the rules of society, and the horror of realizing all that can be lost when society breaks down. There is hope at the end of the story in the brother’s stand against cruelty, but there is also sadness, in the shadow that will from now on preside over him.

In “The Headstrong Historian”, Adichie combines a longer history of Nigeria with a truly compelling story of a maternal line that passes on strength and traditions between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Both are historians, the grandmother for her knowledge of the past and her understanding of how integrally past and present are connected, and the granddaughter for her understanding of the “clear link between education and dignity, between the hard, obvious things that are printed in books and the soft, subtle things that lodge themselves in the soul.” It is a struggle between what the western male has deemed history-worthy of Africa, and what these two African women know is the full history of their place on the continent. When Grace returns to Africa and reclaims the African name her grandmother gave her, it was a moment of pure joy in reading.

In “Jumping Monkey Hill”, that same contradiction between the western male view of what is interesting in African and the African’s experience is presented in the context of a writers workshop. Adichie ‘s portray of the workshop is so acute and genuine that I felt queasy: the power of the organizer and his intention to use that power for sexual advantage; the awful judgments passed on works of the attending writers; and the attempts of the writers to assert themselves against the white and western hold of power in terms of agents and publishing and recognition. Again this story ended with a moment of pure reading joy, when a writer who is tired of being manipulated by the men in power in all aspects of her life (her father, her would-be employers, and now the organizer of the workshop), lands a bomb of truth in the midst of the posturing and falsity of the workshop.

In “Shivering”, a Nigerian woman cannot face the truth of her life until an erstwhile friend confronts her with the facts of her boyfriend’s behavior: “Maybe it wasn’t love….Udenna did this to you and Udenna did that to you, but why did you let him? Why did you let him? Have you ever considered that it wasn’t love?“ That moment of recognition — that turning point in life when a person realizes that what was always thought to be true is not true — is present in every one of Adichie’s ‘ stories. Revealing truth is not only a motif of Adichie’s stories but a characteristic of them. The power of story-telling lies in its ability to convey a truth and Adichie’s stories are powerful indeed.”

A Small Gift: Snapshot Reviews of Fun Holiday Reading

Happy December, everyone! I will be posting short reviews of fun holiday reading over the next few weeks, starting with Comfort and Joy by India Knight, and continuing on with A Christmas Homecoming by Anne Perry; The Alpine Winter by Mary Dahem; I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley; and Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison. Every Tuesday and Thursday, check in for the latest review.

I can also recommend books from Christmases past: Augusten Burroughs’ You Better Not Cry and Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, and a Christmas mystery by Cleo Coyle, Holiday Grind.

Charles Dickens is absolutely the BEST for Christmas reading, not only the perfect A Christmas Carol, but his many other Christmas tales as well.

Any others you’d like me to review? Just let me know. Happy Holidays and I wish to all of you JOY always and time to read every day.

Sharing Books and Spreading Magic

On Halloween, I saved the tricks for my kids and sent out treats of one hundred paperback and hardcover books to three different APO and FPO addresses, here and abroad. Who needs — and deserves — the comfort, escape, and pleasure of books more than our United States troops? Operation Paperback, founded in 1999, understands the solace and joys offered by the reading of a book. It facilitates the exchange of books between people just like me, looking for a good home for the overflow of books on our shelves, and the troops stationed all over the world, looking for something good to read.

Through Operation Paperback, books have been sent to just about every location where U.S. troops are found, from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. Just imagine where those books have taken their readers, everywhere from home again to planet Mars! Even more importantly, a connection is made when books are exchanged: we at home understand just how hard it must be to be a soldier, to be stationed away from home and friends and family, and we offer what comfort we can, through the books we’ve loved.

Every month, Operation Paperback posts a list of requests that they’ve received, everything from travel books to classics to mysteries to biographies (go easy on the romances!) and volunteers sign up for what they can provide. I tend towards mysteries, having amassed a huge collection over my forty-plus years of loving the genre. Other volunteers might be ready to thin their collections of westerns while others might canvass their friends at work or in the neighborhood for secondhand volumes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, or Dickens. Volunteers sign up for what they can, pack up the books they’ve got, and march on down to their local post office to send off their boxes.

I was surprised to discover just how inexpensive it is to send books all over the world via media mail. And what a great feeling I got in return for simply culling my shelves and paying out a few dollars in postage: I had the joy and the thrill of watching my packages descend down the chute of the unknown, going off to provide the same reading pleasure, escape, joy and yes, wisdom, that I discovered when I first read the books. I am already gearing up for the November shipment, talking the project up with friends and hoping to start a Thanksgiving drive for books, a cornucopia of adventure and escape to send off to troops hungry for the written word.

Visit Operation Paperback’s Facebook page for inspiration, and its website to sign up as a volunteer.

Another great site for recycling books towards a good cause is the Bridge of Books Foundation. Bridge of Books wants your gently-used children’s books (books appropriate for readers through age 18) to distribute throughout New Jersey, thereby bringing the magic and power of reading to at-risk and under-served children throughout that state. Visit the Bridge of Books site for inspiration and sign up here for books to donate and sign up here for if books are needed in your own community.

Love at First Bark — and I’m a Cat Person

I have three cats and would have five more if my husband Jack could stand the drifting clouds of hair, the scratched furniture, the meowing, and the brawling. A dog he would not even consider, with its extra requirements of walking, drool wiping, and accident clean-ups (what he doesn’t know about the cats won’t hurt him). But if anyone could talk my husband into a fostering a dog or two, it would be Julie Klam, master of rescue story telling and a woman who can break your heart with one hand but then lift your spirits higher than a kite with her conclusions of dog rescue, human kindness, and dog-human bonding — and have you laughing all the way.

In her latest book, Love At First Bark, Klam offers more doggie tales with profound insights into why we humans need the companionship of our four-legged friends. Human-animal relationships help us with our human-human relationships, by allowing us to see what we humans are capable of (generosity, caring, risk-taking) and by the examples set by animals of how much more wecould be capable of (unconditional love, boundless energy, housetraining). Her book You Had Me at Woof was wonderful, and Love at First Bark is a great follow-up.

Klam falls in love with just about every dog she meets and I have no doubt they fall in love right back. I am lucky enough to have met Klam and in person she is every bit as warm, funny, and just a little bit nuts as she is on paper. I finished up reading Love At First Bark last night before going to bed and when I woke up this morning, I felt good; I was energized and positive and ready to go. That a book about dog rescuing, from the troubled streets of Upper Manhattan to the desolation of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, can make a person feel hopeful about life says a lot about Julie Klam, and also about the bond between animals and humans, a source of sustenance that goes both ways and that cannot be denied.

One of my shelter-rescued cats lies beside my keyboard, another stretches out in a spot of sun on the floor, and the other snores peacefully on a chair behind me. What joy, and how lovely that Julie Klam can capture that joy, in yet another charming, moving, and very funny book.


This post can also be viewed on The Huffington Post, with other posts about books.


On My Way to Chicago

I hope to meet many Midwestern Book Lovers on my swing through the Chicago Area. I’ll be in Evanston reading from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and answering questions on Thursday, July 14th, at Evanston Public Library; Mundelein on the 15th at midday at The Fremont Public Library; Chicago on the evening of the 15th at Women and Children First Books, and Palos Heights on the 16th, at the Palos Heights Public Library. I will also be stopping by Unabridged Books in Chicago during the day on July 14th to sign books. Details of all these events are listed below.

In the meantime, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is traveling around and enjoying itself! The Dutch version came out on June 30th, and below is a photo sent from Canada of the book enjoying a picnic in Toronto!

Details on Events:

July 14, 2011
7:00 pm
Evanston Public Library
1703 Orrington Avenue
Evanston, IL
(847) 448-8600

Friday, July 15, 2011
1:00 p.m.
Fremont Public Library
1170 N Midlothian Rd
Mundelein, IL 60060

July 15, 2011
7:30 pm
Women and Children First Books
5233 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL
(773) 769-9299

Saturday, July 16, 2011
11:00 a.m.
12501 S. 71st AVE
Palos Heights, IL 60463

Pop-up Bookstores: Saving the Printed Book, and Bookstores, One Pop at a Time

Pop-up bookstores are an international phenomenon, from New York to Chicago to Honolulu to London to Berlin – and now one has come to Pittsburgh and it’s the biggest one ever. Twenty-four thousand square feet of vacant space has been turned into a temporary bookstore – exactly where a Borders used to be. For one month, Fleeting Pages, a coalition of independent presses, authors, artists, magazines and zines, is stocking the space with books, magazines, zines, comics, and art.

Used to be a Borders; now it is Fleeting Pages

Fleeting Pages fleeting bookstore offers books from the smaller presses, both independent publishing houses and self-publishing venues, including non-fiction, fiction poetry, graphic novels, zines, and comics. In addition, all kinds of workshops are being planned, from making your own zine, to how to self-publish, to how to start up volunteer-run bookstores.

In my own town, with its many vacant shop fronts, I would love to marshal the forces for a month-long used-books store, a chance for all of us to recycle our own overcrowded bookshelves, sharing what we’ve read and loved, and finding new morsels (or meals!) of written works to bring home and devour. Every year the Halloween store shows up for a month or two, a seasonal and fleeting emporium of costumes, decorations, and treats. If the ghouls can do it, why can’t we book lovers?

The goal of Fleeting Pages is to lead the way for innovative thinking about the future – and of books – in whatever forms necessary. As it says on their website (not a fleeting one, I hope: too many resources in one place!):

“There are a lot of great bookstores out there who do what they do really well and have a local population that both appreciates and supports them. There are a lot of people in the publishing industry with ideas based on their experience. And there are a lot of consumers who know what they would like in a bookstore that would make shop there. Exploring all of those ideas about the future of the bookstore is something that we hope will happen during the month. We have an open call for submissions on the topic- bookstores. Past, present, and future.”

Open call, people! Join in, buy some books, and remember, as Barnes & Noble says in its new Nook campaign, “Reading is Forever“. Let’s make sure bookstores are too.