Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Things I Love--Memoirs

On the surface, autobiographies and memoirs are very similar. They are both true accounts about the author's life told in the first person. An autobiography is the entire story of a person's life, from birth until the time of writing. On the other hand, a memoir is much more intimate than an autobiography. It is usually about a much briefer span of time, and focuses on one theme or circumstance.

For example, in the book She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana, Haven Kimmel focuses on the transformation of her mother--a woman who lived in abject poverty, weighed 268 pounds and rarely moved away from the couch until the day she decided to go to college, get a driver's license and lose half her body weight. That transformation changes Haven's own life in profound ways, but the book covers only a few years of Haven's preadolescence.

Today I promised to do some sample book reviews, so I'm going to review all the memoirs I've read so far this year for you. As I wrote these reviews, I stumbled across many, many reviews that put mine to shame. If you want that kind, go to goodreads or amazon and be swept away by the dissertations some people write. I'm not trying to show you how amazingly profound book reviews can be. My goal is to show you how easy it is to let another reader know whether or not another book is worth picking up.

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, IndianaShe Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana is the sequel to the delightful memoir A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel. Haven says that she never planned to write a sequel, but as she went to book signings so many people wanted to know what happened next. To her surprise, one of the most frequently asked questions was, "Did your mother ever get up off that couch?"  Haven's answer is a resounding, "Boy, did she ever!"

Told in the same child-like spirit as the first book, Haven talks about poverty, depression and other heart-wrenching subjects with humor and wide eyed innocence. This book is the kind that has you rolling on the floor laughing when you know you probably should be crying, and will help you to remember that anything is possible. Recommended.

French By Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France
French By Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France is a travel memoir written by Rebecca Ramsey. It is the story of the four years her family spent living in France while her husband worked for Michelin. I have never been to France, but I studied French in school, have French relatives and have always been fascinated with all things French. I loved this book because Rebecca captured the essence of being a stranger in the French culture with good humor. Although the culture is so different from the South Carolina neighborhood she left, and not all the French people are kind to her or her children, you can tell that she truly learned to love France and the people there. This book is fun and light-hearted. Highly recommended.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert isn't exactly a travel memoir, although it contains elements of that. It is the story of one woman's spiritual journey--her transformation from a "soul-sucking" woman who needs to have a man, but is never happy with one, into a woman who is at peace even when she is alone. After a bitter divorce and a whirlwind love affair leave Elizabeth in complete inner turmoil, she decides to spend a year off from her real life, traveling and finding peace. She spends 3 months in Italy, learning to speak Italian and eating great food; 3 months in India at an ashram learning mental and spiritual control and finally 3 months in Bali, learning to find balance between pleasure and spiritual rigor. The language is a little too salty for me, but Elizabeth's struggle to figure out why she was not happy when she had all the outward trappings of happiness struck a chord in my soul.  Eat, Pray, Love is told with good humor and an honesty that took my breath away. Recommended with some reservations.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.)
I've already done a review of this one, so I'll keep this short. In fact, let me show you the very basics:
1. The title: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (with a link--always a nice touch, but not necessary).
2. The author: Barbara Kingsolver (who is most famous for writing The Poisonwood Bible)
3. The genre: memoir
4. A short synopsis: A year in the life of the author and her family, when they move to their old family farm and spend an entire year eating only food that they grow themselves or that was grown locally.
5.  The tone of the book, how it made me feel and whether I would recommend it: Parts of this book--especially the parts with the turkeys (!!!) made me laugh until I cried. This book has it all--facts and figures that will make you want to become a "locavore" and even make your own cheese, comedy enough to keep anyone's attention, and interesting stories that will stay with you long after you shut the book. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 28, 2010

How To Write A Book Review

Some book reviews are better than the book itself. I love to read these after I've read the book. They make me "ooh" and "ah" all over again as the reviewer points out things I hadn't noticed or says the things in my heart that I didn't have the words for. I am NOT against these kinds of book reviews. I think they are amazing. But that's not the kind of book review I'm writing about today.

The main purpose of a book review is to help the potential reader see if the book you are talking about is one they want to read. The reader should also be able to find the book you are talking about if they decide to read it. Keeping those two objectives in mind, a book review only needs these elements:

1. The book's title
2. The author's name
3. The genre
4. A short synopsis
5. The tone of the book
6. Your recommendation

1. A title, including subtitle, if there is one. Pretty self-explanatory, I think.

2. The author, including any information you think is interesting or pertinent about the author. If you don't have anything, don't worry about it.

3. The genre. You can find the genre of your book by imagining where you'd get the book at a book store--the science fiction section? the young adult section? the mystery section? If you still don't know what to put, you can probably figure it out by going to amazon.com and looking at some of the reviews of the book. Some examples of genre are fantasy, sci-fi, chick-lit, thriller, mystery, romance, christian, literary, classic, young adult, middle grades... The list is quite extensive, and can get very category specific. There is no need for you to get this specific, unless you want to.

Let's use the book The Hunger Games as an example. It's probably enough information to say that it fits into the young adult genre. If you know genres well enough, you'll be able to figure out that it's young adult science fiction. Cool--but an astute potential reader will be able to figure out the sci-fi part when they read your synopsis. If you want to seem REALLY smart, you can mention that The Hunger Games is a dystopian young adult science fiction book. But is that really necessary?

4. A short synopsis. Short is the hardest part here. Especially if you have very strong feelings about the book, brevity is not easy.  At the most, you want to give as much information as you might find on the back of the book, but keeping it even shorter is not a bad thing. Let me use the book Lark by Sally Watson as an example. Lark is young adult historical fiction. Here's my synopsis:

When Lark runs away from her uncle's Puritan family, she meets James, a royalist spy whose annoyance at being forced to protect her from the perils of Cromwell's England gradually turns into friendship, and possibly romance. They get into all sorts of perilous (and sometimes hilarious) adventures with gypsies and Roundhead soldiers as James struggles to figure out which of his conflicting duties deserves his loyalty.

5. The tone of the book, how it made you feel. Was the book hard to get through? Did you laugh a lot? Was one theme particularly meaningful or distasteful to you? Words like "light-hearted," "humorous," "exciting," "dry" or "deeply moving" are useful here. You're trying to convey a sense of what the book was like that might be missing from your synopsis. If you think your synopsis covered all the salient points, you can skip this part.

6. Would you recommend it? To whom? This is a good place to mention what kinds of people might not like it. For example, "I recommend this to anyone who has a strong stomach," or "If a lot of swearing turns you off, this might not be the book for you." There will be books that make you say, "Everyone get a copy of this, right now!" and that's alright too. We're mature enough to figure out whether or not we agree with you all by ourselves.

Tomorrow I'll post some reviews of books I've read recently.

Friday, June 25, 2010

July's Serendipity Challenge

This month we are going to do a couple of things differently. I'd like each person to post how many points they think they can earn here. You can earn points by completing the 3 monthly reading tasks, reading other books, writing reviews and in other ways. I'm always looking for feedback, so let me know how this works for you. (FYI: My own personal goal for July is to earn 80 points. Your goal may be larger or smaller depending on your own personal circumstances.)

Earn points by completing the 3 major challenges!
1. 10 points--For me, 2010 has been the year of the memoir. In honor of my new found love, find a memoir that interests you and read it.

2. 10 points--America's Independence Day is July 4th. To celebrate, choose a book from one of these goodread's lists.
Best American Plays
American Literature At the Movies OR
Best Books About The American Revolution

3. 10 points--I can't wait for the new books by Suzanne Collins and Cassandra Clare that both come out in August, so I thought July would be a great month for us to reread some of our favorite books.

4. 5 points--Books over 100 pages each that don't fit any of the above categories can still earn 5 points per book.

Other ways to earn points:
1. 10 points--(This comes from the Seasonal Book Challenge) There is an age old saying...If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Likewise if a person reads a book and no one is there to see them...did the book ever get read? For this task you must read a book of at least 100 pages in public...at a park, or the beach, or on a plane, or a bus, or at a library...any public place will do. (Note from Melanie: I picked this one because I had such a hard time finding a book someone else was reading in June. :-)

2. Every time you review a book for one of the Serendipity Challenge tasks, you earn 10 points. If you're afraid to write a book review, don't be. It's a great way to help those of us who are searching for books to know if we want to try yours or not. Perhaps my next blog post will be about how to write book reviews.

3. I ALMOST had a task about soccer and the World Cup, but decided it keep it at 3 tasks. An optional way to earn 10 points would be to tie the books you choose to soccer in some way.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review for Enormously Foxtrot

Enormously FoxTrot

June Goodreads Serendipity Challenge Task #2: Be a spy. Go to a public place and find someone reading a book. Without them noticing you, figure out what their book is and get a copy of it. Read it.

This was the most challenging task of all, I am disappointed to tell you. I went so many places, and never saw anyone reading a book. It was bizarre. Track meets, doctor's offices, t-ball games, parks, libraries...where have all the readers gone? I feel like I cheated a little on this one, because I finally had to use the books my own kids were reading.  L was reading Princess School: If the Shoe Fits at the track meet. I felt bad choosing this book though, because I've already read it several times. To my relief, at the library a few days later, I saw D reading Enormously FoxTrot.

It's a cute comic strip--sort of along the same lines as Calvin and Hobbes, but not quite as amazing. The mother is an aspiring writer, and some of the strips about her really struck home. Her name is Andy, and her husband's name is Roger. Here's my favorite:
Roger: You look happy.
Andy: Are you kidding? With the kids back in school? I'm ecstatic! FINALLY I'll have some quiet around this house. FINALLY I'll be able to get some decent writing done. FINALLY I'll be able to do what I've dreamed of doing all summer.
Roger: Ironing my shirts?
(Next frame) Ironing SOME of my shirts?
Andy: Let's see...Now I THINK the Pulitzer Committee meets in March...

The next line shows her diligently working at her desk. She's thinking: The kids are back in school...Roger's off at work...Time to get some serious writing done...Great, brilliant writing...Pulitzer-winning writing...Starting today, Andy Fox is going to write like she's never written before...Just as soon as she finishes this crossword puzzle.

HA HA HA HA...Ouch. That kind of hurt. On a less personal note:
Knock Knock
Who's there?
Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing Who?
Swamp Thing WHO??? Is that any way to greet your long lost identical twin?

Review for Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetJune Goodreads Serendipity Challenge Task #3: For this task, read a book that has been featured on your favorite book/reading related blog. When you post this task include a link to the blog and a review of the book.

I've never met Jamie Ford, but I feel invested in this book because he and I frequent several of the same writer forums, and I have found him to be both classy and helpful, with a great sense of humor. His agent is Kristin Nelson, the author of a popular blog called Pubrants, and she talks about him all the time.

I often mention that I'm stuck in a young adult fantasy rut. That was one of the reasons I wanted to start a book group that would force me to expand my horizons, and it's books like this that make me glad I did. This is a beautiful book. It is about a boy named Henry Lee, a Chinese boy living in Seattle during World War II. He befriends a Japanese girl named Keiko, and quickly falls in love with her. The story switches back and forth between the story of Henry Lee, the boy, and Henry Lee more than 40 years later, right after his wife Ethel's death. The story begins when a middle aged Henry Lee sees a press conference being held at the Panama Hotel, a hotel that has been boarded up for years. The new owner has discovered the untouched belongings of several Japanese families in the basement of the hotel, where they had been stored when the Japanese were forced into internment camps during World War II.  When the owner opens up a parasol that Henry recognizes as Keiko's, all of Henry's memories of Keiko and the difficult choices he made as a child come flooding back.

This book is not just a love story though. It is about the relationships of fathers and sons, and the power of stories to heal and bind us together. I recommend this book highly, and hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Review for Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend
June Goodreads Serendipity Challenge Task #1: Read a book that has your name in the title or the author's name.

This was hard for me! I looked at several books: Dragon Prince, by Melanie Rawn; Confessions of Supermom, by Melanie Hauser; and The Diary of Melanie Martin, Or How I Survived Matt the Brat, Michelangelo, and the Leaning Tower of Pizza, by Carol Weston; before choosing Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend by Melanie Watt. Some of you may think choosing a children's book was a copout. I don't. This challenge isn't about the word count. It's about finding good books in any genre. This was a very cute children's story about a lonely squirrel whose fears keep him from finding a friend. He decides that a goldfish who lives nearby might be the perfect (i.e. safe) friend, and finally works up the courage to go meet it. This is the story of his adventures on his journey to the goldfish. I won't ruin the ending for you, but it's cute.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

#16--Travel all 45 (ish) miles of carriage roads in Acadia National Park

John D. Rockefeller bought a summer home at Seal Island in 1910. It was the beginning of the era of the automobile, and he feared that automobile roads would ruin Mt. Desert Island. His dream was to create an elaborate system of auto-free roads and bridges that would provide access to the most beautiful parts of the island, which would later become Acadia National Park. Between 1913 and 1940 he worked tirelessly to oversee construction of 51 miles of roads, 17 bridges and 2 gatehouses. He presented the carriage road system and much of the land that would become Acadia as a gift to the people of the United States. The roads are made of broken stone, and follow the contours of the land to take advantage of the scenic views.

Today, you may occasionally see a horse drawn carriage or a horseback riders on the carriage trails, but you are more likely to see bikers, joggers and hikers. In the winter, many of the roads are groomed for cross country skiing.

Acadia is about 2.5 hours from my house, so getting there to hike more than once or twice a year is an issue. I have a book called A Pocket Guide to Carriage Roads of Acadia National Park that breaks the roads into 11 loops plus one long loop that goes around the whole park but uses pieces of the other loops. I can skip that long looped trail, but it's impossible to not backtrack on the trails occasionally, so by the time I'm finished with the 11 loops, I will have traveled 57 miles.

Here's the plan:

1. Eagle Lake Loop - 6 miles (bike)
2. Aunt Betty's Pond Loop - 5.9 miles (hike)
3. Witch Hole Pond Loop - 6.8 miles (bike)
4. Jordan Bubble Loop - 8.6 miles (hike)
5. Jordan Stream Loop 4.0 (cross country ski)
6. Day Mountain loop - 5.5 miles (horseback ride)
7. Little Long Pond - 3.5 miles (hike)
8. Redfield Loop (is actually 2 loops and can be either 2.3 miles or 4.3 miles. 4.3 for me!) Maybe I'll ride an actual carriage for this one.
9. Hadlock Brook - 3.9 miles (hike)
10. Ampitheatre Loop - 4.9 miles (hike)
11. Giant Slide Loop - 8.2 (hike. This is the hardest hike, as well as one of the longest)

If you're keeping track, that's 2 bike rides, 1 horseback ride, 1 carriage ride, 1 skiing trip and 6 hikes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

National Parks Part 2--Acadia

My first trip to Acadia National Park was on my honeymoon. I'd never been to the East Coast before, and the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean riveted my imagination. I could have spent hours meandering around Pebble Beach or Thunder Hole, but Roger was looking for something a little more exciting--maybe The Beehive, or possibly even The Precipice.

At this point, I should mention that I LOVE peregrine falcons. I'm absolutely devoted to them, and if I had a million dollars I would donate money to their cause. I love them because they were nesting near the hike called The Precipice, and so it was closed to all hikers that day. Otherwise, I probably would not even be here writing this blog, because The Beehive nearly killed me, and apparently the Precipice is even more precipice-y. The picture at the top of this blog post is one small section of the Beehive. It's not a long hike--only 1.5 miles, but it feels like it's straight up. Metal rungs are dug right into the side of the cliff. I learned a lot about myself as I followed my husband up the cliff. Mostly about how I'm terrified of ledges, which I didn't really know before, but which has since become an important part of my life. Tears poured down my cheeks the whole way up the Beehive. Roger kept asking if I wanted to go back down, but I refused. I kept muttering to myself, "My mom may have raised a crier, but my dad didn't raise a quitter. My mom may have raised a crier, but my dad didn't raise a quitter." Somehow, I made it to the top without a stray gust of wind knocking me to my death on the rocky crags below. The views of Sand Beach and the Atlantic Ocean were spectacular, and we took the longer hike down the backside of the mountain.

Acadia National Park seems much more accessible than the National Parks I grew up with. You can pick wild blueberries as you hike, and people stop to chat with you wherever you go. Even after spending a summer in Bryce Canyon, I didn't feel at home there. The landscape is too stark and surreal to make it my own. But Acadia was instantly home-like. The trees, the ocean, the mountains, the flowers--it's all stuff you see out in the world, just more so.

Last summer we went to Acadia with my dad, my grandmother and 2 of my Utah nieces. My 5 year old son, J, wanted to stay at Thunder Hole all day. The waves crash in and out here--with spray as high as 40 feet when the conditions are just right. It was gentle the day we were there, and mesmerizing to watch the water level rise and fall. The next week, someone was swept off to sea and killed standing in the very spot J and I had stood for so long.

One of the more challenging things on my list is to travel all of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park--47 miles worth of trail. I've been to Acadia National Park at least 10 times since my honeymoon, but I have yet to do more than stare longingly down the carriage trails. There are always so many other things to do (like standing at Thunder Hole for hours) and somehow we've never made the time. That's about to change. Tomorrow I'll tell you about these amazing roads and my plan for traveling all of them in the next 16 months.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Things I Love--National Parks

I love national parks. I guess that's not too surprising, since I was born and raised in Utah, which has a whomping 5 national parks and is only a stone's throw from Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon (this is a hypothetical stone. Do not throw stones near the Grand Canyon. Thank you.)

Some of my earliest memories include seeing a baby bear wander across the road in Yellowstone. A few minutes later a moose ran across the road as well. It somersaulted off the hood of our car and continued on its merry way.

Once, while hiking through a river in Zion's National Park, I fell and hit my forehead. I think I bled everywhere, but I remember that hike fondly because I was hiking through a river, for Pete's sake! How cool is that???

We got to the end of the hike--a pool created by a waterfall, I believe, and my mom and Grandma convinced me to change into my swimsuit while they held up towels for privacy. It was only after I'd completed the switch that I realized that the top of the waterfall was a scenic overlook. *Blush*

After my freshman year of college, I took working in the Lodge at Bryce Canyon National Park, a place I love so much that I made it the setting of one of my (as yet unpublished) novels. In an ironic twist, we took our kids there this summer, and I was miserable. I spent the whole time so panicked about my children near those steep drop offs that I wished I had a couple Valium (actually I often wish I had some Valium, but that's a topic for another time.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hunger Games Series

The Hunger Games Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)

I know there are still members of the Serendipity Book Challenge that are looking for a book that has been talked about on a blog. I don't want to unduly influence anyone, but READ HUNGER GAMES, READ HUNGER GAMES, READ HUNGER GAMES! Mockingjay comes out on August 24, 2010 and I think it will be THE book to have read in 2010. It's worthy of staying up until midnight just to be one of the first people to buy the book. Seriously.

It's a story about a girl named Katniss who lives in a futuristic version of America which is controlled by the Capitol, where people live in wealth and luxury. The 13 districts that rebelled against the Capitol seventy five years ago are kept on the brink of starvation. Each year, to remember their defeat, they are forced to send two tributes--a boy and a girl to the Capitol to compete in The Hunger Games. The victor of the Hunger Games is the last one to survive.

This book is told in present tense, first person. I tried to copy her style once, and it's not easy to do. But it creates such a sense of immediacy that you feel like you are right there in the middle of the action. This is one book that won't take you all month to read. I'd like to see you try.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The June Serendipity Challenge is open!

The June challenge has begun! To see a list of the tasks for the June challenge go here. I hope you have some good books picked out. Me--not so much. I read the first pages of Confessions of Super Mom a few days ago (CHEATER!!! I know, I know) and realized that anyone who could rave about a swiffer mop for that many pages couldn't possibly have anything to say that would hold my interest.

Dragon Prince is not what I thought either. It's 574 pages long, for starters. And based on the reviews I've read, I might not like it either. So I'm back on the hunt for a good author named Melanie.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet hasn't arrived yet, but that's OK, because I'm deeply immersed in Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia which I'm loving, except for some occasional language. If Hotel doesn't get here in time, Eat, Pray, Love works for the third task, because I did read about it on someone's blog. Unfortunately, I read about half of it in May. Do you think that should count?

Sad to admit, but I STILL haven't been anywhere public to spy on people reading. What are YOU reading?