Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

The destruction was irresistible. When I was a young child, one of my favorite Beatrix Potter stories was The Tale of Two Bad Mice. For some reason, I loved the fact that these two innocent looking mice stayed in a doll's-house and wrecked the lovely furnishings and fake, porcelain food with glee (they do make some amends, however). The detailed watercolor illustrations are worth lingering over, and I read this book as often as possible. There is something about children and stories about mice, even today. Maybe it's because children can relate to mice--they are both tiny and usually a bit timid.

If you have children, or even if you don't but simply enjoy children's literature, I recommend The Tale of Desperaux, a 2004 Newbery Medal winner by Kate DiCamillo, a charming, off-beat book, which was recently released as an animated film, starring Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Signourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, and others.

Here's the basic story of The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. Despereaux Trilling, a misfit mouse, is born with courage, which a mouse should never possess. Despereaux can also read, which further sets him apart and introduces him to other worlds and great ideas. Because he's so different from the other mice, he's banished from Mouseworld, and the unthinkable happens--Despereaux is befriended by a rat, Roscuro, who's intrigued by Despereaux's stories of the faraway kingdom of Dor, where a king grieves for his late queen, and a princess feels lonely. In fact, all the villagers are suffering, in need of both rain and soup. Will this little mouse with the big ears be able to save the kingdom of Dor?

It is an enchanting book, and although the movie does not follow the book too closely, the movie is also quite entertaining. I really don't expect movies to follow the books they're based on all that closely, although some do. Stephen King sums it up well when he says that to compare a book with a movie is like comparing an apple with an orange. They are different fruits. That being said, though, I do wonder what authors think when their books are made into movies--hopefully, they are satisfied with how their books are translated to the silver screen.

Happy New Year to all of my readers!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Duma Key

Updated January 26, 2012:   I posted the following review in the early days of my blog,  before I had discovered the rich community of book bloggers; in those days I had many lonely posts.  I've changed the review only slightly, and just added it to The Stephen King Project, a new reading challenge hosted by Natalie from Coffee and a Book Chick and Kathleen from Boarding in My Forties. Although this review is probably best understood by others who have read Duma Key  (I use words and phrases employed by the author in the book, in an attempt to be humorous),  if you haven't read the book,  I hope it will stimulate your desire to do so.  At the end of this post,  I mention Lisey's Story, a chunkster I have on my shelf but have not yet read.  I also plan on ordering It very soon from Amazon,  and will read and review it in 2012.   After this review posted originally, I read a non-fiction work by Stephen King, and aspiring writers may wish to stop by my review of his book about writing,  On Writing: Are You Serious?


"I can do this," I told myself. I can end the year with a book by Stephen King. Believe it or not, I've never read a single book by the King of Horror Fiction (I wonder what Stephen King thinks of that title), although I've seen at least two Stephen King movies, The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption. Horror fiction is not my usual reading choice--not by a long shot--but we'd been given the thick paperback Duma Key as a Christmas gift and I picked it up, read a few pages, and thought, "I can do this". I could always stop reading it if I didn't care to finish it, as I do with other books which fail to engage me. But it did engage me--and quickly. Stephen King is a good storyteller, a master. His friendly, familiar style drew me in, mi amigo; his informal tone seems to balance the menacing events, liberal use of profanity, and gore of his books, muchacho.  He's also quite funny, and characters exhibit a droll sense of humor at times.  Edgar, the protagonist of Duma Key,  who's lost an arm in a horrific accident, makes jokes about his missing arm such as, "I was going to say I'd cut my own arm off first, but all at once that seemed like a really bad idea."

Quite briefly, here's the basic storyline of Duma Key, a bestselling horror novel published in 2008. Edgar Freemantle, a wealthy, 57-year-old contractor, suffers a traumatic brain injury and loses his right arm in a horrendous accident at a job site. Edgar also battle bouts of rage and forgetfulness during his recovery, and to make matters even worse, his wife wants a divorce. Depressed and suicidal, Edgar follows the advice of Dr. Kamen, his therapist, to "change his scenery", and moves from Minnesota to Duma Key, a small, nearly deserted island off Florida's gulf coast. Edgar rents Salmon Point--which he calls "Big Pink" due to its pink color--a unique house on the northern part of the island, where Edgar feels compelled to draw and paint, a compulsion he relates to the phantom limb sensations he has in his right arm, the itching and burning. His paintings, which are quite good, have a sinister side to them, and seem to foretell horrific future events. They are also somehow connected to the past, and to Elizabeth Eastlake, an elderly resident of Duma Key.

Duma Key was a good introduction to the novels of Stephen King,  and an auspicious way to end my year of reading, with a new-to-me author.  I enjoyed this story,  which is an inventive blend of the creepy and the "ordinary".

The author was born in Portland, Maine on September 21, 1947, the son of Donald King and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury.  Extremely imaginative and prolific, Stephen Edwin King wrote over 40 books, including a 7-part series of novels, a 6-part serial novel, and countless short stories, and is one of the world's most popular writers.  Obviously, he's heeded his true calling as a writer.  Here's a fascinating interview from Lilja's Library with Stephen King about Duma Key, before the book was published.  At least to me it's fascinating--I enjoy reading what writers have to say about their work and writing. Would I read another book by Stephen King?  Yes. While I can't say that I'll join a Stephen King fan club, I am interested in reading Lisey's Story, which King has called his best book.  I'm particularly interested in what writers deem as their best work.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Marley and Me

I'm a cat person, and agree wholeheartedly with Leonardo da Vinci who said, "the smallest feline is a masterpiece". But I'm also a dog person. I grew up in a household which seemed to favor cats. We were cat people, after all, and had two cats during the early part of my childhood, a gorgeous calico and a sweet black cat. However, one fateful day my family decided to change things, and suddenly we had a large, shaggy puppy as well, an Old English sheepdog we named Chaucer (even though she was female). As a child, it was difficult for me to break the news to my cat people friends. They wouldn't understand why we had gotten a dog, but somehow I managed to utter the words. Overnight, it seemed, I became a cat and dog person. Since then, I've had no qualms about this, adore my cat, and enjoy taking my wiggly, exuberant boxer, Jenny, for long walks in the park. To Jenny, it's not just a walk but a grand adventure. Together we get exercise, and socialize with other dogs and their friendly owners, and I marvel at the variety of dogs we meet, everything from Greyhounds to American Eskimos to adorable Pugs and mixes (formerly referred to as mutts). Jenny's favorite activity besides going for a walk is sleeping.

Obviously, I 'm a dog person (who also happens to be a cat person), so I suspected that I'd enjoy Marley and Me, a film based on John Grogan's bestselling book. In 2008, the novel was adapted into a family movie, also titled Marley & Me. Released on December 25, 2008, the film stars Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Dane, and other talented actors, and is directed by David Frankel. The role of Marley is shared by twenty-two labs. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which is a tearjerker. Marley and Me is not just a dog movie, but also a touching story about writing, following your dreams, unconditional love, and the passing of time.

Book wise, Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog is a New York Times bestselling book written by journalist John Grogan. Published in 2005, this autobiographical novel portrays Grogan and his family during the years that they lived with their yellow Labrador Retriever, Marley, who's high-strung, rambunctious, and generally uncontrollable. From the start "the world's worst dog" is quite "a handful"-- always hungry, strong and active, often destructive of their property--and he remains a challenge to live with. Repeatedly, Marley misunderstands what's expected of him, but he's forgiven, because he's still lovable and has a heart of gold.

Marley & Me has been rewritten into three versions for younger readers, Marley: A Dog Like No Other, a picture book for beginning readers called Bad Dog, Marley!, and A Very Marley Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Avenging Angel

Shannon Wallace has hit rock bottom. First she's fired from her job, then her boyfriend is murdered. To make matters worse, she's implicated in his murder, is missing some private videos, and seems to be next on the killer's list. This is a very short summary of Kim Smith's mystery novel, Avenging Angel: A Shannon Wallace Mystery, Book 1.

Kim Smith is a fellow blogger I recently met online, who hails from the south, is passionate about writing, and hosts her own radio show. Having never before read an e-book novel, I didn't know what to expect. I've read a few e-books, but they were short and non-fiction, related to health or wealth. This is my first post about an e-book, Kim Smith's newly released novel Avenging Angel. A murder mystery set in the steamy south during the summer, it's a thriller packed with action and suspense. I don't usually read this type of book (although I did recently read a yet-to-be-published murder mystery manuscript), but I must say that I was thoroughly entertained and on the edge of my (computer desk) seat, as I read it on the computer screen (the print is large and quite readable, granny glasses not required). I downloaded Avenging Angel a few days ago and each night I read several chapters. I looked forward to this reading time, because this mystery is exciting, and the characters are like real people you might meet and befriend in everyday life. (Not the killer, of course, but I want a great friend like Dwayne!) Although the subject is brutal, there's enough friendship and potential romance in this book to keep you smiling just a bit. Kim Smith has made a great debut with her first e-book novel--congratulations, Kim!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on Writing

"My writing model is my mother, who is a writer as well. She always valued clarity and simplicity above all else. If someone doesn't understand what you're writing, then everything else you do is superfluous. Irrelevant. If any thoughtful, curious reader finds what I do impenetrable, I've failed. My highest compliment is when someone comes up to me to say, "My 14-year-old daughter, or my 12-year-old son read your book and loved it." I cannot conceive of a greater compliment than that — to write something that as an adult I find satisfying, but also that manages to reach a curious 13- or 14-year-old. That's my model, and if that's your model, then you have to write in a way that's accessible. Clear writing is universal. People talk about writing down to an audience or writing up to an audience; I think that's nonsense. If you write in a way that is clear, transparent, and elegant, it will reach everyone. There's no idea that can't be explained to a thoughtful 14-year-old. If the thoughtful 14-year-old doesn't get it, it is your fault, not the 14-year-old's. I think that's a very important fact."
~ Malcolm Gladwell

Intrigued by some of the ideas in his newest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, I Googled this bestselling author and found this tidbit about writing in a recent interview with Malcolm Gladwell. These words from the author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, express the importance this writer gives to clarity. I have always believed that good writing is clear writing. The point of writing is to be understood--not to confuse. (But what about poetry? Poetry is a different art, to be taken much less literally. I've never been good at writing poetry, or even deciphering it, although perhaps poetry is to be felt, above all else, as is music.) Of course, a fourteen-year-old doesn't have the same experience as a forty-two-year-old, so the understanding may not be as great, but the point is that writing should be clear and concise, and convey a story and ideas. What do you think?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Honest Scrap Awards

I've just received this award from Kim Smith from Writing Space, my very first blogging award. Thanks, Kim! I appreciate the gesture. Even though we've met online recently, Kim's quickly becoming a blogging friend.

Here are the guidelines I received from Kim:
1. List 10 honest things about yourself (have some fun with this!).
2. Pass the award on to 7 bloggers (I was told that you can give out fewer if you'd like; I'm only giving out four.)

Ten Truths About Me:
1. Lately I have to force myself to go to holiday parties, but usually end up enjoying them.
2. I love snow (so does Kim!), and find it very romantic.
3. I wanted to be a lion tamer when I was a kid. Ahem.
4. I'm a tea-aholic. Tea helps me to wake up, energizes me, and later provides calm; tea is "my drink".
5. I sweat the small stuff too much of the time.
6. I really do like to get compliments. :)
7. I'm a neat freak (not as bad as Felix Unger but I don't appreciate junk all over the place).
8. In spite of my attempts to proofread, I still discover embarrassing typos after I've published or emaiiled something. (See?)
9. I'm ambitious. This may come as a surprise to many, who consider me to be relaxed and easygoing.
10. I'm a bit shy, but can act confident.

I'd like to pass this award on to the following bloggers I admire; they're honest and speak their minds in a thoughtful manner. Without further ado, here's my list of award-winners:

To Christie for Losing the Low Carb Way
To Heidi for Single Parenting
To Mee for Books of Mee
To Myrthe for The Armenian Odar Reads

Congratulations to all of you. I enjoy reading your blogs, and hope you'll participate.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comfort Food

Recipes found in books that are not cookbooks have extra appeal to me. They seem more special somehow, and more worth trying, perhaps because they're not expected, as opposed to having page after page of recipes (although many cookbooks are wonderful, and the photographs can be rather enticing). When my daughter was in second grade, we read a story together called Jalapeno Bagels in which there was a recipe for "chango bars", and we had to bake some, because they sounded (and taste) so good!

In The Friday Night Knitting Club and Knit Two, author Kate Jacobs offers a few tempting recipes, including "Dakota's oatmeal, blueberry, and orange muffins" and "maple apple muffins". Trying out the muffin recipes in these books will add another dimension to my reading experience of them. I haven't yet read Comfort Food, also by Kate Jacobs, but I've learned that it's the story of Augusta Simpson, a famous cooking celebrity on the Food Channel. Augusta, who's called Gus by everyone (this author often gives her characters off-beat, unisex names), is about to turn fifty-years-old, and starts to question who she is and what she has done so far with her life on a personal and professional level. Somewhat surprisingly, I read that this book doesn't have any recipes in it, although it talks a lot about food, especially Spanish food; perhaps the author thought it would be too predictable to include recipes in this book and wanted to focus more on the storyline. Still, my guess is that reading Comfort Food makes you head for the kitchen or out the door to a favorite restaurant. But let me return to my discussion of recipes in non-cookbooks or unexpected places. Here, I present a recipe in an unlikely place, in my blog about books, after a little background information.

I came up with this recipe for miso soup because I wanted my vegetarian daughter to be able to enjoy it again. I found three problems with the fresh paste, instant miso soups on the market. First of all, I couldn't find anything vegetarian--they all have fish in them. They also have MSG and a lot of sodium in them. I thought I could do better, so I asked the advice of friends and some family members, and also searched on the web. The result is my recipe for vegetarian miso soup, below.

Vegetarian Miso Soup ~ A Healthy Comfort Food
Serves 4

5 cups of water
1 teaspoon shredded dried wakame seaweed, broken up
1 dried shiitake mushroom
1 tablespoon of extra-firm tofu, strained, and chopped into tiny rectangles
2 to 3 green onions, sliced into small pieces
1/3 to 1/2 cup of miso paste, depending on taste (I prefer an organic dark miso paste that I order from the Asian Food Grocer in San Francisco.)

Bring water to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer seaweed and shiitake mushroom in the water for at least 20 minutes. The longer you simmer the seaweed, the less "fishy" the seaweed will become. I leave the top partially on the pot, to allow steam to escape, and keep the heat on low.

After simmering, remove shiitake mushroom, slice up, and return to the broth or "dashi".

Add sliced green onions, tofu, and smallest dash of soy sauce, and continue to cook for 5 to 10 minutes.

Gently mix miso paste in a bowl with about a cup of the dashi, then add to soup pot and simmer uncovered for a couple of minutes on very low heat before serving. (Do not boil miso, because that destroys the flavor and healthful properties of miso, which is a superfood.) Soup is best enjoyed steaming hot.

As with any recipe, vary amounts of ingredients to taste. You can get creative and add small amounts of other things to your miso soup, such as edamame and sliced baby corn. To make miso soup for one, use about 1 cup of water, two teaspoons of miso paste, and reduce other ingredients as well.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Becoming Finola

Finally, it's cold enough to wear the scarves I crocheted a few winters ago. After reading The Friday Night Knitting Club and Knit Two by Kate Jacobs, I appreciate my handmade creations more than ever. Though imperfect, they've got a bit of me woven into them, and I love wearing something I've made. But right now I'm wearing something else around my neck. It's a necklace, a pendant, with a small silver charm on it, that I purchased from a new-age catalog while in an optimistic mood. One side of the charm has Sanskrit characters on it, and on the other side is the English translation, "Fearlessness". You may wonder what this has to do with anything. Don't worry, I'll get to the connection soon enough.

I've just read Becoming Finola by author Suzanne Strempek Shea. I decided to read this novel from an author I'd previously never heard of, because my good friend, Eriko, a breast cancer survivor (and one of the most energetic, upbeat people you'll ever meet), told me she'd read Songs From a Lead-Lined Room: Notes--High and Low--From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation by this author, who's also a breast cancer survivor. Interested in learning more, I searched on the author's website for possibilities, and then looked on amazon for her work. I ordered Becoming Finola, because the premise of this novel--a woman who goes to Ireland and adopts a new identity, that of the legendary Finola O'Flynn--intrigued me. Without giving away too much of the story, here's the basic premise of the book. Sophie, a 30-year-old single American, accompanies her friend, Gina, to the remote, seaside village of Booley in Ireland. Gina has generously paid for the three-month trip for both of them, and has even bought them each a travel wardrobe. Gina has just suffered some recent losses and believes that Booley, rainy and mystical, is the place for healing. But the day after they arrive in Booley, Gina unexpectedly heads back to America, and insists that Sophie remain in Booley, in the cottage of Liam and Finola (who has left). Sophie does stay, blends in with the locals, and begins to work in Liam's craft shop, stringing bracelets which prove to be irresistible to the tourists. She makes one-of-a-kind bracelets with charms and beads, and puts labels on them that say things such as "gratitude" and "life" and "self-esteem". And that's the idea behind the pendant I'm wearing. Even though it doesn't really give me courage (who am I anyway--The Cowardly Lion?) it reminds me to face life fearlessly, or at least more fearlessly. In the book, Sophie a.k.a. Finola invents the powers that the labels on her bracelets suggest, but the wearers believe they are now empowered by the "magic" bracelets from Booley, and therefore, they are. This is the magic of belief. As customers in the shop, mostly tourists, assume that she's Finola, Sophie doesn't correct them and in fact soon adopts Finola's identity as her own. Sophie, who is now known as Finola, receives many letters thanking her for the magical effects of these handmade bracelets. (These letters from the customers are great fun to read!) Sophie realizes she's actually becoming the legendary Finola (whom everyone in the village has a story about), taking over her role in the shop and elsewhere, living in her home, wearing her clothing, and offering new words of wisdom.

While reading this book I had to slow down to appreciate the abundant humor in the author's sentences. I won't spoil the book by telling you more; I'd hate to have to add a "spoiler alert" to this post. But I definitely recommend that you read Becoming Finola and find out what happens. And although I've never really desired to be anyone other than myself, if I had to be someone else, it would be a toss up between Finola O'Flynn and Angelina Jolie.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Knit Two

"It's the friends you can call up at 4 AM that matter."
~Marlene Dietrich

Don't worry, friends, it's unlikely that I'll actually call you at 4 AM. I chose this quote because it dramatizes the importance of having good friendships, a central theme in Kate Jacob's new novel, Knit Two, and also because in the book friends do call each other at all hours of the day and night; they are truly always available for each other. Knit Two is the sequel to the novel The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs. Last month, I was fortunate to post an exclusive interview with this very gracious author, who has just come out with her new novel. Knit Two celebrates something near and dear to the hearts of girls and women, friendship. True friendship. (The fairer sex is also the more social sex. Or at least we approach friendship and bonding differently than males.) Reading Knit Two made me think about the role of friendship in my own life, and recall the friends I've had over the years, starting in the second grade with my first best friend, Patricia. She was Argentinian with red hair and green eyes. We met while looking into the window of a pet shop, both admiring the irresistible baby rabbits, chinchillas, and kittens for sale. After that meeting, we walked home from school together daily and became inseparable best friends. Gradually, I got to know her family and she got to know mine. Since Patricia, I've had numerous best friends over the years, as well as many other good friends, and place a high value on friendship.

In Knit Two, the characters from The Friday Night Knitting Club--Dakota, Anita, Catherine, KC, Peri, Lucie, Darwin, and others--form new bonds as they continue to see each other, knit, and share experiences that bring them closer to each other, including a trip to Italy for some of them. Men are not completely overlooked in Knit Two; there's a concerned father, a wedding in the works, a passionate romance, as well as male-female platonic friendships. But the book does center more on women, and their many roles are explored: friend, businesswoman, wife, daughter, mother, and sister. Knit Two encourages girls and women to bond together, and also to follow their individual dreams and ambitions.

Knit Two is the perfect contemporary novel to get cozy with on a cool night, a cup of steaming tea or cider by your side, with an afghan wrapped around you. Preferably hand-knitted.

Some of the books featured here were given to me free of charge by authors, publishers, and agents. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


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