Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Forward and Back on the Blogging Thing

For me, 2010 will definitely be remembered as the year I discovered blogging. Back in April, when I started Col Reads, my idea was pretty simple: I wanted a place for my reviews for the What's in a Name 3 Challenge. But clicking on a just a few links to read reviews turned into a far more interesting proposition, as I found other book bloggers with similar interests and tastes. Now reading book blogs and participating in memes is part of my weekly routine, and for the most part it's been very rewarding -- especially meeting so many wonderful, bookish people.

With 2011 looming, I took a little break last week to enjoy time with my family and friends. I've also been thinking about what I wanted to do with this little piece of internet real estate in the coming year. Here are some plans:

More and shorter reviews: Some books deserve a long review -- others, not so much. I'm going to try for pithy this year, rather than comprehensive.

More creativity: I think I'm going to work on the look of the blog. Sounds like a summer project, but it's on my mind.

More adventure: I've joined a number of challenges that will push me to read from different literary traditions. Some of the best books I read in 2010 were not ones I would have picked up on my own. But Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge introduced me to Kitchen. Amy's Scandinavian Challenge introduced me to The Summer Book. I'm looking forward to more of those "a-ha" moments this year.

Less pressure: This is for fun. I have a day job. If blogging becomes a chore, why do it?

With all that in mind, here's the current Challenge Line-up (complete book plans are in the Reading Challenges tab). I'll probably add a few more as the year goes on. Looks like a lot, but I'm only doing a few books in each!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Must-Have Cookie Map of My Life: Virtual Advent Tour 2010

To say that my mom is not a cook is a bit of an understatement. (I have a cousin who suggests that the EPA asks my mom to file an environmental impact statement before she enters her kitchen, but this is a scurrilous falsehood.) The truth is, my mother can cook, and the few things she makes well are really quite delicious -- she makes her own manicotti crepes, for goodness sake! The thing is, my mother usually doesn't choose to cook. Which is why the two bakers I knew best growing up on Long Island were Stella D'Oro and Entenmann's.

So how did cookie-baking come to mean "Christmas" to me? I can trace it precisely to a day while I was at Georgetown, when I grumpily mentioned to my roommate that it didn't feel like the holidays because I couldn't get Stella D'Oro Pfeffeneusses in Washington, DC. Her stunning response changed my Christmas perspective: "Why don't you just bake some, Col?"

Make Pfeffeneuses? She had to be kidding! But eager to avoid whatever paper was due next, I pulled out the only cookbook I owned, a battered, red and white checked copy of The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, and checked the Index. What do you know? Pfeffeneuses. Better yet, we had almost all the ingredients on hand. Paper avoidance could continue for another hour or so! I decided to give home made Pfeffeneuses a try. Needless to say, our ravenous student friends were happy to scarf the cookies down. And the rest, as they say, has become my own little family history.

Pfeffeneueses were my standard Christmas cookie for years -- it wasn't Christmas until I baked a batch. When I met Lee, I shared my Pfeffeneusse tradition. But he's really not a big fan of the cookie's "warm" spices. So when we got married, I added a plain butter cookie to the pre-Christmas baking. Two must-have cookies.

When our oldest daughter was a toddler, our two cookies seemed fine. But then she went to pre-school and experienced her first cookie exchange. The colors! The variety! The Spritz Christmas trees were the most amazing things she had ever seen. Wouldn't it be fun to try and make them ourselves? A cookie press was purchased, colored sugar as well. Three must-have cookies.

Our second daughter was a toddler when I learned about the Brown Bag Cookie company. An article in a gourmet magazine sent me to the Internet, where I was able to acquire some of Lucy's collectible Christmas molds. One of my fondest memories of my littlest girl is of watching her face when Santa's toy-laden sleigh came out of the oven in perfect cookie form. Four must-have cookies.

You get the idea. As a refugee from New York, I have added some things to the list that I could easily get there, but can't buy here -- rugelach and Linzer tarts taste like "home" to me. Family travels and friends have introduced other cookies to the mix. This year, as the girls made their cookie list, reviewing past creations and new possibilities, they arrived at a new cookie total: 11 must-have cookies! The favorites can't be discarded, but who wouldn't want to try the pink confection laced with crushed up candy canes found by one of the girls? So eleven cookies it is.

At this time of year, our house is filled with the sweet smells of cookie-baking more often than not. And each recipe makes me think of a particular time and place in my very lucky, very blessed life. I hope that my girls will have the chance to share this Christmas cookie tradition with their own daughters some day. But even if they don't come to share my cookie-baking passion, I hope that when they pass the Stella D'Oro Pfeffeneusses in the cookie aisle, they'll think of family, and all the fun we've had in the kitchen together. I can't pass the Entenmann's display without thinking of my own mom!

Wishing you the sweetest of holiday seasons, with many thanks to Marg and Kailana for hosting this wonderful Virtual Advent Tour! I have enjoyed reading so many of the posts from around the world!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Persephone Secret Santa Revealed: Or, How Bellezza Sent the Perfect Book

This is what Christmas is supposed to feel like! I got a wonderful surprise, but it was just what I wanted. It isn't too shocking though, since my Secret Santa is one of the few (and highly valued) followers of my little book blog: the wonderful Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza.

(Here's the back story. I only started my book blog because I wanted to participate in the "What's in a Name 3" reading challenge. Looking for inspiration to complete my categories, I clicked on a link to one of Bellezza's reviews. Hers was the first blog I ever followed, and since then I have enjoyed some wonderful book (and life) discussions with her. So it's pretty fun that Claire of Paperback Reader linked us up!)

Bellezza sent me Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Painter-Downes. It was a fabulous choice. Social history is a favorite genre of mine -- little known fact in the blogosphere, as an undergraduate I was a History major, although I study Communications now. In fact, the only other Persephone Book I had read before this year was A London Child of the 1870s, another autobiographical account of a woman's life in England. I cannot wait until my grading is done and I can dive into this book!

So a million thanks to Bellezza for finding the perfect present, and to Claire Boyle at Paperback Reader for hosting this year's Persephone Secret Santa event!

I haven't heard from my own Santee yet -- the book I sent had a LONG way to travel, so I sent it very early. I hope to read that it has arrived safely somewhere in the Pacific sometime tomorrow! [UPDATE: I have heard from my Santee, and she got the book I was so worried about -- Yeah! It was a pleasure and a challenge to find a new book for someone who's read as many Persephone titles as Mrs. B at The Literary Stew, and I'm looking forward to reading her review of The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.]

Sending Happy Holiday wishes from beautiful Happy Valley, Pennsylvania!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Astrid & Veronika: A Character Connection

It was not a good idea to read Astrid and Veronika on a plane. Especially sitting next to a stranger. Especially with a colleague dozing a few rows ahead of me. Honestly, by the time I landed in Albuquerque I had cried sad tears, happy tears, hopeful tears and disappointed tears. I was a puffy, sappy mess by the time I exited the aircraft. Linda Olsson’s book wrung me out. That’s mostly because in Astrid Mattson, Olsson has created one of the most surprising characters I have come across in a while. Which is why I decided to review this book with a Character Connection.

When we first meet the solitary Astrid, she is in a quandary: something is definitely wrong at her new neighbor’s house, but she’s sidelined herself from society for such a long time that she doesn’t really know what to do about it.
Astrid could no longer sleep. She wandered between her room and the kitchen, coffee mug in hand. The car was still in the same place. She couldn’t have left. Yet there was no sign of life. She means nothing to me, she told herself. I know nothing about her. I have no business intruding. (p. 14)
Astrid’s humanity conquers her reticence, however, and she finally makes her way to Veronika’s door:
When the door opened and she stood face to face with the young woman, she realised that life had irrevocably returned. She cared. (p. 15)
Because of this choice, this singular act of reaching out to another human being in need, the eighty-year-old Astrid is eventually able to reclaim a part of her life. With the decision to help comes a kind of absolution, and Veronika, a young writer with her own sadnesses to escape, acts as Astrid’s confessor. And with every secret she reveals, Astrid’s character comes more into focus.

Up to the point where she meets Veronika, Astrid’s life has been almost entirely defined by her relationships with two men: her father and her husband. Both are destructive, malevolent forces, and Astrid’s bitterness remains, even when they are both out of her life forever:
“When my father died, I cut up all his clothes and started to weave. When my husband was taken to the rest-home, I began on his.” Astrid stepped onto one of the rugs and let the sole of her foot rub against it. “It gives me pleasure to walk on them,” she said. (p. 56)
But as the book progresses, Astrid learns that she does have control over her reactions to her past. Each secret she reveals to Veronika is a part of herself she can finally face and accept. Her final letter to Veronika crystallizes her understanding of her life and her hard-won philosophy of community. It was one of the most inspirational passages I have read in a very long time, a kind of manifesto for sisterhood. Which is why I cried. Uncontrollably. Astrid is truly unforgettable.

This book will make you reflect on the relationships that have defined your life – the short ones and the long ones. I would recommend it to readers of literary and world fiction, especially those who appreciate a feminist perspective.

This finishes The Black Sheep Dances’ Scandinavian Reading Challenge. I am so happy I participated – I have found two of my favorite books of the year (and maybe of all time) through the challenge! Thanks, Amy, both for hosting the challenge and for the book recommendation! And thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connection. If you’ve never participated in that meme, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I'm Leeswammes' Guest for Book Bloggers Abroad!

Well, the end of the semester chaos has obviously kept me from my blogging "duties" for the past few weeks! But like most academics, if you give me a deadline I will do my best to meet it -- so I did manage to put together a guest blog -- on book blogging -- for Judith at Leeswammes. Judith blogs world literary fiction in the Netherlands, which is why I qualify as a "Book Blogger Abroad" over there.

With two trips to the Southwest in three weeks, I was able to read FOUR books, and blog ZERO. But I finished classes yesterday (Hip, Hip, Hooray!) and I plan to catch up in the next few days. New Year's Resolutions are looming, and finding time for more regular posts is definitely going to be at the top of my list for 2011. In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season -- I actually feel like my holiday season is finally beginning!

Thanks to Leeswammes for sponsoring Book Bloggers Abroad, and especially for asking this newbie to participate!

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates: In Defense of Puritan Roots*

Sarah Vowell is about as good a feature writer as anyone in journalism today. I have always enjoyed her essays for PBS’s This American Life, because she has a real knack for tying together history and modern culture. So when I was wandering through Pattee Library’s lovely new leisure reading room at the beginning of November and saw her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, with its cute little Puritan (definitely not Pilgrim, but more on that later) dolls on the cover, I grabbed it off the easel on impulse for a light Thanksgiving read. Impulse books are always a bit of a risk, but this time I feel like I got pretty lucky.

At the heart of The Wordy Shipmates is John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which was delivered just before his little band of true-believing Puritans lost patience with the slow pace of reforms in the Church of England, and decided they’d rather carve out an existence on a wild, snowy bog – a.k.a. Boston – than endure any more of Archbishop Laud’s “popery.” (Never mind that the Pope hadn’t done much more than ritually excommunicate Englishmen in more than a hundred years – these Calvinists knew “popery” when they saw it – or smelled it, if the incense was burning.) Vowell uses this sermon as a launching pad for discussions on a wide range of topics, including Pilgrim kitsch, separation of Church and State, the Reagan Revolution and women’s healing gardens.

Vowell’s TAL essays generally run the listener through a gamut of emotions, moving almost effortlessly from sadness to amusement to anxiety, and the book’s extended format allows her to develop her ideas at a slower pace than on radio. I found the results here mixed – some of the sidepieces didn’t hold together as well as others. In one of the truly moving portions of the book, Vowell explains how “A Model of Christian Charity” became the focus of her book:
I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant. (page 52)
The juxtaposition of the long past and the recent past is striking, and Vowell does a great job of tracing and clarifying the country’s Puritan roots. She is also quick to point out how far the country has come from those roots, especially in terms of dissent, which in Puritan Massachusetts took the forms of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Frankly, I will never be able to drive on the Hutchinson Parkway again without sticking my figurative tongue out at that big bully Winthrop!

This is a book with a focus on minutia – as Vowell herself points out, 17th century religion was based on tiny differences of interpretation. If you’re yearning to know why a Pilgrim isn’t a Puritan, this is your book. What was missing, to my mind, was the comic relief – and chapters. The comic relief would have thrown the historical and modern portions of the book into sharper contrast, I think. And chapters – well, they might have provided a bit more structure to the essay.

If you need some kind of linearity in your books, this one definitely isn’t for you! However, I’d absolutely recommend this book to history lovers and fans of This American Life. Also, to popular culture observers. It’s enjoyable, and factual without being heavy.

*Yes, this was supposed to be my Thanksgiving post. Didn't happen. Still a good book.