Thursday, April 30, 2009

One month in the life of Kitten Denisovich

Greetings, Kittens,

Sorry I've been MIA over the past few days. Here's how my week has been:

Sunday: sing at church, plan for week, work-related project, procrastinate doing everything because it's so gorgeous outside
Monday: work-related meeting and project, one book club meeting
Tuesday: work-related meeting, project, choir practice
Wednesday: work-related project (see also Monday and Tuesday)
Thursday: work-related meeting, project, other book club meeting
Friday: three-hour workshop at work, no break for lunch, followed by ushering at Sister Kitten's play
Saturday: help out at church tag sale from 7-3, then usher Sister Kitten's play, followed by going out with her and her costars

And that's just this week.

Here's next week's schedule:

Sunday: church, work-related project, other chores I've been neglecting
Monday: work-related meeting, visit to therapist after work
Tuesday: work-related meeting, choir practice after work
Wednesday: catch up on everything I've neglected over the past week and a half
Thursday: special presentation day at work
Friday: see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with group of co-workers
Saturday: collapse from exhaustion

But that's not all! For the second full week of May, we have:

Sunday: church, work-related projects, other chores I've been neglecting
Monday: work-related meeting
Tuesday: big day at work; we're up for an award and we're hosting a visiting committee, followed by yet another work-related meeting, then choir practice
Wednesday: work-related meeting
Thursday: work-related meeting
Friday and Saturday: empty...right now

And there's still more fun to come...Memorial Day weekend I'll be down in Jersey attending my aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary party. The weekend after that is the goods and services auction at my church, followed by me co-hosting coffee hour with another friend of mine.

And there are lots and lots of other work-related meetings and committments in between all of this.

In other words, I don't know how often I'll be blogging. I've said in the past that I won't be blogging a lot, but then I am. However, I'm going to let nature take its course, so to speak.

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately about giving up blogging, taking sabbaticals, or just plain leaving the Internet all together. (Blueviolet, I MISS YOU!) I can understand why people want to do this. I felt this deeply not so long ago. I've decided to keep blogging because it's such a creative release for me. Plus I've made some new friends whom I don't want to lose touch with. A couple of weeks ago I posted a Writers Workshop essay titled "Blogging 101 with Professor Kitten." (I'm too lazy to put up the link right now, that's how busy I am). One of my pieces of advice, which I will add once I have more time, is "Blog only when you feel it's good for you." In other words, don't let yourself become too addicted. Let it become this way and you'll hate it!

I've been so busy, I have neglected my physical health. I've been exhausted, and eating poorly. I haven't had a chance to go to the Y in two weeks. I miss my workouts. I had been doing so well with the health kick, and then--BOOM--life.

I also haven't picked up my book in a week. I've been so tired getting home from work I've just been going straight to bed most nights.

Things will get better, and less busy, but until life eases up a bit, I'm going to be inconsistent in my posting.

So that's it for now. I'll be back Saturday morning with the winner of my May Day Giveaway, so stay tuned, Kittens. I haven't forgotten about THAT. :)

Tally-ho, my dear Kittens! See you somewhere in the blogosphere soon!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The First Hundred Days

From the brilliant people at Comedy Central...a summary of what has happened in our fair nation since January 20, 2009.

IndecisionAn Indecision Exclusive!
Obama's First 100 Days
Funny Political VideoPolitical GamesJoe Biden Jokes

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New England Bloggers presents...May Day Giveaways!

Thoughts of an Evil Overlord

Happy Spring, Kittens!

To celebrate the rebirth of the Earth, Elizabeth over at Thoughts from an Evil Overlord has rounded up the New England Bloggers (of which I am one) for a celebration called the May Day Giveaways! All of us New England Bloggers are giving away something to you, our loyal readers, if you decide to enter one of our giveaways.

Here are the participants:

Art from the Heart - Catherine in ME
Basia-Spirit Space - Barbara in MA
The Bookkitten - Kitten in CT
Fabric 'N Fiber Fanatic - Sara in NH
Life, as it is... - Tara in MA
Living the Local Life - Virginia in NH
Loving Mom 2 Boys - Liz in RI
My Secret Garden - Sue in MA
Penny's Art Room - Penny in ME
Penny-Wise People - Colleen in NH
Raise Your Hand If... - Carol in MA
Seriously, No Seriously - Michelle
Thoughts from an Evil Overlord - Elizabeth in MA

What am I planning to give away, you ask? Well, here's a surprise...I am not giving away books! I know, quelle surprise! Rather, I am giving away some yummy skin care...specifically, some Sistine Body Butter from Serious Skin Care! do you enter? It's easy!

1. Leave a comment...get one entry.

2. Blog about this giveaway...get three additional entries.

3. Follow me, or remind me you're a follower...get two additional entries.

4. Tweet this giveaway...get two additional entries.

You can enter this contest up till midnight on May 1st. I will draw a winner upon awakening Saturday morning. I shall use to select the lucky winner.

Oh, and make sure you visit the other participants of this giveaway! There are many cool prizes to be won!

Best of luck to you all!

Clip of the Week: Dancing muchachos

Second in a series of Exit 57 clips that I've promised to show you.

This one features Colbert singing and dancing. He is SMOKIN' in this clip!

P.S. If you want to see last week's clip, click here.

Happy Birthday, Carol Burnett!

Happy 76th birthday to my favorite performer ever!!!

Oh, and guess what? Do any of you remember how I mentioned a while back that there's a Carol Burnett Barbie doll out there right now? Well guess what...I bought one! I got my paws on it, have taken some pics, and I'll share them with you once I upload them. However, I've been so busy lately that I've had either no time or energy to upload anything, or do much in my spare time.

Meanwhile, in honor of Carol's birthday, here are two of my favorite clips from The Carol Burnett Show. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The First Assistant, by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare

Here, Kittens, is a sequel that oh so deliciously improves upon its predecessor. It is juicy, juicy, juicy reading that is impossible to put down--and you don't want to! I read 72 pages the first night and finished the book in three hours this morning. Oh, and I loved every minute of it!

The First Assistant is light, fluffy reading at its best. I can't give you too many details about it because I'd reveal many spoilers, but it is so wonderfully, wonderfully escapist. It is such perfect beach fare, you will probably get sunburn from finishing this book.

In this sequel to The Second Assistant, (find my review of that book here,) Lizzie Miller has been working for The Agency for almost two years and is learning very quickly that her promotion is only just a title. She is still working for Scott Wagner, who ousted ex-president Daniel Rosen in a major coup, and is still best friends with his wife, Lara, who is now the mother of their infant son, Lachlan.

However, Lizzie has some major career and personal challenges to face. Her boyfriend, producer Luke Lloyd, may be cheating on her with another actress who is starring in a movie he's shooting in Prague. She is, on a day's notice, whisked off to Thailand to be the personal assistant of tempermental teenage starlet Emerald Everhart, a Lindsay-Lohan-esque persona. She suddenly receives a producer credit for her friend Jason's movie, Sex Addicts in Love, only after Jason, who also directed, attends a preview screening and believes the movie is going to bomb at the box office.

Finally, there's Amber, a British woman with a degree in classics who is hired to replace Lizzie in her old job as second assistant. Amber is evil, conniving, manipulative, and ruthless. She will do anything to rise up the Hollywood ladder--especially take Lizzie's job away from her.

Lizzie still shows a lot of the naivete that she displayed in The Second Assistant, but not as much. She is older, wiser, and has learned a lot more about show business. But as the book shows, and as she continues to climb the Hollywood ladder, she's still got a lot to learn.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 Read Your Own Books Challenge, and my 2009 2nds Challenge. Click the buttons in the sidebar for all of the archived lists!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Flashback: Girl in the chorus

I sang in the choir when I was in college.

Mama Cat suggested I audition before I started my freshman year. She thought it would be a good way for me to meet people, since I was very introverted in high school. I sang sporadically in high school, and always enjoyed it, so I figured, "Why the hell not?"

I first auditioned about a week into my freshman year. There was a small group of people in front of the auditorium, waiting to try out. They were closed door auditions; one person went in at a time to sing for the choir director. I was completely confident that I would make it into the choir; I wasn't nervous at all.

I auditioned after a guy I met at the door. He seemed a little awkward and shy, and I listened to his tryout through the door. His voice cracked in a couple of places and he sounded off-key. I thought, "I can do so much better than this!"

Then it was my turn.

A week later I found a very kindly-worded rejection note in my mailbox.

I burst into tears in the mailroom.

Oh, and the guy who auditioned before me? He got in.

And he became my best friend, whom I still mention in the blog today.

But that's another story for another time.

I got over my disappointment and ended up making friends in the choir anyway. One guy was in one of my classes, a couple of girls lived on my floor, and the guy who became my best friend (we'll call him BFF from now on) lived in the same dorm as I did, three floors above me. They helped me get tickets to all of their concerts, as well as into parties on campus. I had so much fun at those parties and concerts, it only strengthened my resolve to get into the choir my sophomore year.

And so, at the beginning of the year, auditions rolled around again.

This time, I was nervous as hell. I dragged my roommate to the audition. She was a transfer student and didn't quite understand what all the fuss was all about.

She would soon find out.

I got in this time.

Rehearsals were twice a week, each Monday and Wednesday, in an auditorium located on the ground floor of one of the dorms. A group of us singers would eat dinner before rehearsal, then we'd all walk over to the auditorium together. We'd chat with our fellow singers for a few minutes before rehearsal, then our director would signal us to come on the stage.

We had a director who demanded nothing but perfection from each one of us. She would make us reach our highest potential, then ask us to do more. She was tough on us, but we all knew that she did it out of love for music, and for us.

We sang a very diverse repertoire every concert. Through the choir, I discovered music that I otherwise would not have known about. We sang Carmina Burana and participated in the chorus of Porgy and Bess. We sang many versions of the Magnificat and the Gloria. We sang music in Latin, French, Swahili and German. As a result of being a member of this choir, I started listening to a lot of classical music and opera in my spare time. My mind was becoming more open.

Oh, and the concerts! How we all loved being up on the stage! We played mostly to full houses; I don't mean to brag, but that's the truth. Our audiences were more than just our friends and families; we had people off campus call the box office repeatedly to find out the day that concert tickets would go on sale. Concerts sold out in hours; if not, days.

The day of the concerts, we'd all have our call two hours before showtime. We'd gather onstage of the performing arts center for rehearsal, warm up, and go through our pieces. We'd get a pep talk and shoulder massages from our fellow members.

And then we'd go to the dressing rooms to get ready.

We had to wear these red satin dresses with puffed sleeves (not Anne of Green Gables puffy, but very subtly puffed). Our dressing room was a mess of bobby pins, hair spray, mousse, make up, curling irons, and other beauty supplies. We'd drink hot tea with honey and lemon, water, or apple juice to get our voices in prime singing condition. There were always plenty of throat drops to go around. We were always excited, yet nervous, to perform. We knew we would put on a good concert, but we still had a little apprehension every time we stepped onstage.

About fifteen minutes before showtime, we'd gather backstage, in the set shop. We'd line up according to voice parts. (I was an alto, and was always stage left. I was also one of the shortest members of the choir, so I was always in the first or second row.) Our chaplain would lead us in a brief prayer to Saint Cecilia (the patron saint of music), and we'd all silently bow our heads and say the "Our Father" right along with him. Then we walked onstage.

We'd be onstage for about ten minutes before the audience was silenced and the curtain rose. I had performed many, many times on the stage of our college performing arts center, and every time that curtain rose, and we saw the audience for the first time, I would get chills down my spine. Once the curtain rose our director would say a few words, then she raised the baton and the show would begin.

In addition to the concerts we performed on campus, we sang at many churches along the eastern seaboard. During my tenure in the choir, we took trips to Montreal, Washington, DC, and Disney World. I loved every minute of it. I loved the music, I loved the bus rides to our off-campus adventures, I loved our trips, and I loved performing. Not to mention, some of my closest friends from choir are still some of my closest friends today. Mama Cat was right. I did meet people--and made some lifelong friendships.

I donned the red dress for the last time in May of 1998, at the Baccalaureat Mass, held in the bright sunshine the day before graduation. I wore dark sunglasses throughout the entire service to conceal the fact that my eyes were red, puffy, and swollen from crying. The fact that I was departing college life, and the choir, for good absolutely wrecked my spirit. It was devistating. I was not the only one, though. We all felt it, even the undergrads. We all felt it.

Turning in my red dress wasn't much of a problem, though. I just put it in the pile, ready for the next deserving soprano or alto to don it the following year. But the thought of not singing onstage again was incredibly depressing.

In 2006, I sang onstage with my college choir once again, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding. It felt good to be back with my closest friends again, singing our signature pieces. It was especially good to reconnect with people I hadn't seen since graduation, to catch up on what had occurred in our lives since we last sang together.

Hardly anything had changed. There were still a lot of beauty supplies and apple juice in the dressing room. We still prayed to Saint Cecilia in the set shop before the show. The chills returned to my spine as the curtain rose.

Yet one thing had changed: The women now wore black dresses onstage.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a concert. I've been eleven years out of college, yet the minute they started singing the alma mater the memories came flooding back, as fresh as they were the day I made them. My friend and I kept referring to the singers onstage as kids. Kids?!? Man, I feel old!

It was a lovely, lovely concert. In addition to our signature pieces, there was a song in Swahili, and a medley of Gerswin tunes. Man, I missed being in the choir. I missed it something awful.

Some alums, however, missed being in the choir so much that they started their own, and asked our choir director to lead it.

My BFF and some other friends are now members.

They're performing tomorrow night.

I've got my tickets ready.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Second Assistant, by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare

I was craving some, as I put it, "light, fluffy reading" after reading a series of nonfiction books, as well as a heavy-duty chunkster. I actually found the sequel to this work at Barnes and Noble, then got that, along with this book, from Paperback Swap.

It is, indeed, light, fluffy reading at its finest. A great, groovy beach read. It's a very quick read, but it's not so absorbing that you can read it all in one sitting.

The Second Assistant is the story of Elizabeth "Lizzie" Miller, a Rockville, Maryland native who moves out to California to become a second assistant at a powerful Los Angeles talent agency. Show business is a culture shock to Lizzie, who spent the first couple of years out of Georgetown working in Washington, DC for her local congressman. Her job ends when it's discovered that her boss has embezzled campaign funds.

However, at a major DC party, Lizzie meets Daniel Rosen, president of The Agency (the aforementioned talent agency), who is so impressed with her that he slips her his business card. Lizzie doesn't take up this job lead until her own job with the congressman fizzles. Soon enough, she ends up in LA.

Lizzie is very naive, and the authors get her in the most embarrassing situations. For starters, during her first week in LA, she gets accidentally hit with a hockey puck, and a man takes her back to his house and nurses her back to health. It turns out that the man is Jake Hudson, known around town to be a sleazy producer who has slept with every woman in town. Lizzie wasn't aware this man was when he came to her rescue, but when she does find out who he is, it's too late. She starts to lose the respect of the other assistants who work at The Agency.

Then there's the situation where she has to organize a major Hollywood party for Daniel Rosen, gets drunk, and ends up naked in a pool with another sleazy Hollywood producer. She ends up, at her boss's insistence, going on another date with this guy--which also ends in disaster.

Lizzie's boss, Scott Wagner, is a drug-addicted online poker player who is crushing his Ritalin tablets and then snorting them. She is not entirely sure whether to trust him or not, but she is fiercely loyal to him, and he to her.

Within the context of this story, Lizzie is also trying to help her barista friend Jason get a deal with a major studio for a screenplay that he has written, Sex Addicts in Love.

Lizzie weighs her options at various points of the book. Does she want to go back to politics, or does she want to stay in Tinseltown? Who can she trust? Who could she have as a friend? What does she value? What are her morals?

At times I got so frustrated with Lizzie's naivete that I put the book down and walked away from it. But some of the anecdotes were so bizarre that I kept coming back to it. One agent, for example, has Lizzie dry clean the clothes on the Barbie dolls she keeps in her office. Mimi Hare, one of the book's co-authors, was, "at twenty-three, the director of development for a Hollywood production company where she worked on feature films such as Jerry Maguire and As Good As It Gets," according to the author's summary.

Still, in spite of her naivete, I found myself cheering for Lizzie. I was hoping that she, in the words to an old tv theme song, "was gonna make it after all." She works hard, she's honest, and she's trusting. She doesn't want to do anything behind anyone's back. Lizzie is a very likable character, and I often sympathized with her.

As beach season approaches, consider adding The Second Assistant to your tote bag. In spite of its shortcomings, it really is a lot of fun. And pick up the sequel, too. I just started it and am curious to find out how Lizzie's doing in Hollywood.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 1st in a Series Challenge, my 2009 A to Z Challenge, as well as my 2009 Read Your Own Books Challenge. Click on any of the buttons in the right sidebar for archived lists of all of my reads!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eight is Enough

My bloggy pal Amber over at Mommy Mania tagged me for this fun little meme. Enjoy!

Here's the rules--mention the person that tagged you. Complete the lists of 8's. Tag 8 of your wonderful blogger friends. Go tell them you tagged them!

8 Things I Am Looking Forward To:
1. Attending an art auction with my friend L Friday night
2. Attending a choir concert Saturday night with my friend D, and watching two of our closest friends sing
3. Ushering Sister Kitten's play the first weekend of May
4. Attending The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with a few friends during the second weekend of May
5. The end of the school year
6. Our family reunion in July
7. The Bridgeport Symphony Summer Pops concert at the end of June
8. My church's annual picnic

8 Things I Did Yesterday:
1. Returned to work
2. Visited my therapist after work
3. Made dinner
4. Blogged
5. Washed dishes
6. E-mailed my sister
7. Did some work at home
8. Watched TV

8 Things I Wish I Could Do:
1. Grow a garden...I tried growing a container garden of herbs two or three years ago, and I failed quite miserably
2. Sew my own clothing
3. Knit
4. Write a book and have it published
5. Perform in an improv group
6. Be independently wealthy
7. Travel to China, Japan, and Australia
8. Move to another locale--if only for a year or two (Connecticut can get awfully boring)

8 Shows I Watch:
I'm not a huge TV watcher, so these are shows I happen to watch only when I'm channel surfing. I only catch bits and pieces of these shows at a time.
1. NBC Nightly News
2. 60 Minutes
3. Family Guy
4. What Not to Wear
5. 18 Kids and Counting
6. Giada at Home
7. Paula's Party
8. Better Connecticut

8 People I Tag:
1. Yaya
2. That.Girl
3. Vickie
4. Missy
5. Jenners
6. CDB
7. Jodi
8. Pooba

Monday, April 20, 2009

Clip of the Week: Money tree

About ten years ago, there was a very short-lived show on Comedy Central called Exit 57. It was a sketch comedy show that featured such up-and-coming stars as Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Sedaris.

I watched it throughout my senior year of college. That show, The Daily Show, Viva Variety, and South Park were my television staples then.

Then I moved back home.

My parents didn't get Comedy Central on their cable until a year and a half later.

By that time Exit 57 was off the air.

This clip features a very, very young Stephen Colbert. It's very typical of the type of offbeat, wacky humor that Exit 57 was known for.

I'm going to share some clips from that marvelous show with you over the coming weeks. I hope, hope, hope they put this on DVD soon!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Stealing: The 40 Meme

Wanna play along? Click here.

1. My uncle once : made a quiche without eggs. It didn't look or taste very good, since eggs are the main ingredients for quiche.

2. Never in my life : have I consumed a Whopper or a Big Mac.

3. When I was seventeen : I worked as a checkout girl at Caldor's, and I worked at the town library, too.

4. High School was : something I enjoyed while I was there, but you couldn't pay me enough to go back there again. But I'd repeat college in a heartbeat.

5. I will never forget : my college graduation. It started off cloudy and overcast, but was pouring down rain as the commencement speaker was about to deliver her address. Did I mention that it was an outdoor ceremony?

6. I once met : Barry Williams, better known as Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch.

7. There’s this girl I know who : eats marshmallows right out of the bag.

8. Once, at a bar : I sang karaoke. I sang "All By Myself" by Eric Carmen.

9. By noon, I’m usually : eating lunch.

10. Last night : I went to the diner with a friend of mine, then we went to see a choir concert at our alma mater.

11. If only I had : a brain.

12. Next time I go to gym/church : I want to pick up a list of classes offered at the Y after work. I need to spice up my fitness routine.

13. Susan Boyle : has an amazing voice and is an inspiration for us all.

14. What worries me most : a sudden accident happening to any member of my immediate family.

15. When I turn my head left, I see : the sliding doors that lead out to my deck.

16. When I turn my head right, I see : my floor lamp.

17. You know I’m lying when : I can't make direct eye contact.

18. What I miss most about the eighties : the sense of innocence that only eight-and nine-year-olds have. (Most of my childhood took place in the eighties).

19. If I was a character in Shakespeare, I’d be : Viola.

20. By this time next year : who knows what will happen? Life is unpredictable.

21. A better name for me would be : I like my name, thank you very much.

22. I have a hard time understanding : life sometimes. Why is it that for some people things always go exactly the way they've planned it, but for others, things never seem to go right?

23. If I ever go back to school, I’ll : earn a degree in library science, or take a few Italian courses. I love being a student. I love to learn.

24. You know I like you if : I'm the first to initiate conversation. Deep down I'm really very introverted.

25. If I ever won an award, the first person I’d thank would be : my mom

26. When I compare 80’s rock to 90’s rock : There is no comparison. 80s rock had more synthetic instrumentation, not to mention, make-up and hairspray. 90s rock fashion was more subdued, and the musicians preferred to use live instruments.

27. Take my advice, never : leave any food item where a dog can easily access it.

28. My ideal breakfast is : scrambled eggs with whole wheat buttered toast, home fries, crispy turkey bacon, orange juice, and coffee. In other words, your typical American diner breakfast. YUM!

29. A song I love, but do not own is : "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (we actually heard it in church this morning)

30. If you visit my hometown, I suggest : dressing in layers. I live in New England, where the weather changes every five minutes.

31. My favorite Beatle is : Ringo. I dig his accent.

32. Why won’t people : clean up after themselves? Why do I still find litter everywhere I go?

33. If you spend the night at my house : be prepared to wake up with a cat or two by your side.

34. I’d stop my wedding for : Hugh Jackman or George Clooney. And maybe Brian Williams, too.

35. The world could do without : racism, poverty, or bigotry. The fact that those three things still exist sadden and disturb me.

36. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than : well, there are many things I'd rather do than lick the belly of a cockroach.

37. My favorite blonde is : Marilyn Monroe, your classic, gorgeous, gold standard Hollywood blonde.

38: Paper clips are more useful than : toe rings. I don't understand why people wear toe rings. Feet are the worst parts of the body.

39. If I do anything well, it’s : because I've really put the effort into it.

40. And by the way : do you like my new header? April designed it for me! And while you're here, snag my button and add it to your collection! April made that for me, too!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A.J. Jacobs

When I was nine years old, a salesman in a brown Pinto hatchback made his way to the Cat Homestead. He sold my parents a bunch of books. I didn't know what they were till the end of the transaction.

Mama and Papa Cat had just purchased the 1985 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Papa Cat was particularly giddy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica. The gold standard of encyclopedias. The cadillac of knowledge. The treasure trove of trivia, both useless and purposeful.

"This is going to help you girls so much in school!" he exclaimed. "This is known as the best encyclopedia in the world." He handed me one of the sample volumes the salesman brought with him.

As a nine-year-old, I was not impressed. It was heavy, with leather-like covers with the titles embossed in gold. The pages were very, very thin and lined with more gold. The font was very, very tiny. There weren't many illustrations.

At school we had the World Book encyclopedia in the library, with its red and blue covers, large font, and illustrations galore. I much preferred that version.

I figured that the Britannica's volumes were so heavy, I could use them to press the various flowers and four leaf clovers I found in the yard--and I did.

Then I hit middle school. And this is where my geekiness started to emerge. I started to read the Britannica for fun.

I never read a volume from cover to cover, but just read the articles that interested me. My reading of the Britannica hasn't helped me much, except in games of Trivial Pursuit, as well as trivia nights at pubs.

Kittens, don't ever expect me to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety. At 65,000 articles and 44 million words, it's too daunting of a task.

However, this task wasn't daunting enough for A.J. Jacobs.

Jacobs is currently the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine. In the earlier part of this decade, the Brown University graduate decided to read the Britannica cover to cover after he realized that he was forgetting more and more of his Ivy League education. He felt that, if anything, the Britannica could fill in the gaps of his knowledge.

He had another reason for reading all thirty-two volumes of the encyclopedia: He had to finish what his father, an attorney who holds the record for having the most footnotes in one article (4,824, to be exact) had originally started back in 1982. Jacobs' father started reading the Britannica, but didn't get beyond the middle of the B's.

The book is divided into chapters that correspond with each letter of the alphabet (with one exception: X, Y, and Z have one chapter together). Jacobs presents us with some very interesting trivia. Among the gems that he discovers:
  • The abalone has five anuses.
  • The city of Cleveland, Ohio was named after Moses Cleaveland, "an employee of the Connecticut Land Company, who arrived with his surveyors in 1796. His mission was to speed up the sale of land in Ohio, and in his honor, the town was called Cleaveland." (p. 46) In 1832, the letter a in "Cleaveland" was dropped because "Cleveland" "fit better on a newspaper masthead." (p. 47)
  • Pueblo women divorce by simply leaving their husbands' moccasins in their doorstep.
  • Ecstasy was patented as an appetite surpressant by Merck in the 1920s.
  • President Lincoln was not the main speaker on the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The main speaker was a man named Edward Everett, a former congressman from Massachusetts and president of Harvard, who spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. Who has the better-remembered speech?
  • Hip-hop gets its own entry, which includes such pioneers as Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Grand Wizard Theodore.

And the list goes on.

It helps that Jacobs has written for such pop-culture periodicals as Esquire and Entertainment Weekly. His offbeat writing style, interspersed with anecdotes about his family and friends, keeps the text moving along. If it weren't for these reflections the book would be awfully dull and boring.

Jacobs has some very funny stories about the times he tried to put his Britannica knowledge to good use. He tried to get on Jeopardy!, but was ineligible because he once interviewed Alex Trebek. He auditioned for, and then became a contestant, on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He and a friend entered a crossword puzzle tournament hosted by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. But the funniest tale has to do with Jacobs' attendance at a Mensa convention on Staten Island.

Jacobs doesn't have much of an ego; if anything, he's a master at the art of self-deprication. He often compares himself to his "brilliant" brother-in-law, Eric, and will do anything to one-up him. He engages in a lot of mental competition with his dad, almost to the point of "what can I do to finally make my dad proud of me" syndrome. However, episodes like this in the book are not so frequent that Jacobs ends up looking like a total Eeyore. If anything, he embraces his geekiness.

Once I finished this book, I Googled A.J. Jacobs to see if he had any other books. He has an official website that lists them all. On his home page, you'll find a plug for The Year of Living Biblically, a book he wrote about spending an entire year following all of the rules in the Bible.

I've got to read that one.

But it will be a while before I do so. I've read nothing but nonfiction or heavy-duty fiction as of late, so I need to scan my shelves for some lighter fare. My brain needs a break from all of this knowledge!

But A.J. Jacobs is an author I definitely plan on reading again.

This book is the latest entry in my 100+ Reading Challenge, my Support Your Local Library Challenge, my A to Z Challenge, as well as my Dewey Decimal Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for archived lists of all past reads.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Favorites, Focus, Fill-Ins, and Favorites

Hello, dear Kittens! Welcome to your weekly edition of FF4! I've been on vacation this week and I am nice and rested, relaxed, and rejuvenated! I just don't want to return to work!

Let's start off with the Friday Fragments, brought to you, as always, by the good people at Half Past Kissin Time.

For the last two days, one of my neighbors has been doing nothing but polish his truck. Every single time I look out my living room window, there his is, in the parking lot, polishing away. In fact, I looked out the window five minutes ago, just to see if he was still going at it, and he was!!!

Speaking of the art of automotive maintenance, Papa Cat loves to wash our cars every time Sister Kitten and I return home. As long as the temperature is above freezing, he's out in the driveway, washing and vacuuming our cars. He's washed cars on Christmas day, Easter Sunday, birthdays, and Fathers Day. It doesn't matter what the occasion is, but as long as he has a bucket of soapy water and a hose, he's happy. That, and I return home with a very clean car.

Now that spring is here I have put up my patio umbrella once again. Now my patio is--pardon the pun--all decked out.

As of this writing, I've finished 20 books in my 100+ Reading Challenge. As London Tipton would say, "Yay me!" But now I'm worried. It's almost the end of April, and I'm only a fifth of the way done. At the rate I'm going, if it takes me four months to finish 20 books, I'll fall way short of my 100+ goal. However, I don't want to turn into a reading machine, either; I want to continue to enjoy my books.

I gave the cats their flea treatment yesterday. That's always a joy. I try to get them when they're sleeping, so I don't have to chase 'em and pin 'em down. Yet they always sense when I'm coming towards them with that little packet of medicine. At least I don't have battle wounds from this procedure--yet.

Why is it that every time I venture out of the house in sweats, with no makeup on, looking more or less like crap, that I bump into someone I know--and that someone I know is always someone from work?

And now it's time for our Friday Focus, brought to you by the good people at Thrifty and Chic Mom.

Last week I focused on finishing Three Cups of Tea and starting A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I'm proud to say that, not only did I finish both books, but I finished four others!

This week, I'm going to focus on something non-book related: keeping my living room clean. I do a good job keeping my kitchen and bathroom spotless, but there's something about the living room that gives me pause. So that will be my goal this week.

Now let's move on to Friday Fill-Ins, brought to you by the good people at...Friday Fill-Ins!

1. Join me in saluting our Friday Favorites, which you can find below!
2. Put a little chocolate in your day!
3. Happiness is a warm puppy (as Charles Schulz used to say).
4. One very stupid-funny movie is "Dazed and confused."
5. I'm waiting for nothing really special in particular right now.
6. A Reese's Peanut Butter Egg is hard to resist.
7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to scrapbooking with my gal pals, tomorrow my plans include going to a choir concert and Sunday, I want to enjoy my last minutes of freedom before returning to work on Monday!
Finally, let's finish off with some Friday Favorites, brought to you by the lovely Miss Janna Bee.
What have been my faves for this week? Well, sleeping late has been at the top of the list! It's been so nice to wake up with the sun's light pouring into my bedroom and the kitties curled up on the bed with me. It's so peaceful. I take my time getting out of bed; I reach for the remote, turn on the TV, and flip through the morning shows before I head downstairs for coffee and breakfast.

Ahhh, coffee. It's so nice to drink coffee as a leisurely beverage as opposed to slurping the stuff down in order to get a caffeine boost. And now that the weather's warmer, and my patio's decked out, I can go outside with my coffee and my book and just relaaaaaaax.

Family has certainly been a favorite this week. It was so good to spend a weekend with Mama and Papa Cat. Sister Kitten joined us on Sunday. Mama Cat and I also met Sister Kitten at a day spa, where we had some decadent treatments. I got a hot stones massage, Sister Kitten got a seaweed massage, and Mama Cat got an "aging skin facial." Then we all went out to lunch at Ruby Tuesday's, followed by some shopping.

Papa Cat and I ordered Pay-Per-View on Saturday night. We watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's not a movie I recommend. Penelope Cruz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this movie, and I'm not sure why. I wasn't blown away by her performance.

Friends--another Friday Favorite. Last night I went out to dinner with one of my book clubs. We didn't discuss books; we did it just to hang out (which is what I love about this book club; we love hanging out together). We went to a Thai restaurant in town. It was a nice, relaxing evening. I get to spend time with two more gal pals tonight. We're going out to dinner, then going scrapbooking! Yeah!

So that's all that's going on right now in the Life o' Kitten. Stay tuned next week for some more Friday Fun!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers

This is my sixth book review this week. Please keep in mind, Kittens, that I have been on vacation, and I have had more time to read than usual. That, and I am behind on my reading challenges, so I have been doing my best to play catch-up.

Anyway, this is Dave Eggers' second book, but his first foray in 100 percent pure fiction. If you read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (click here for my review), you know that Eggers has a very quirky, unusual writing style. Needless to say, when I started reading this book, I expected a very quirky, unusual plot.

I did not, however, expect the plot to be very bizarre at times. That what I felt as I was reading it. By the time I got to the end, I understood why I felt this way.

Here's the story: Will and his friend Hand have seven days to travel around the world to give away $32,000. Will came across this money after he got paid for having his silouhette printed on boxes of light bulbs. He figures that he doesn't need all of this money, so he gets an idea to travel around the world, mostly to south Asian and African countries, to give the money away to those in need.

Sounds like a Judd Apatow comedy, no?

Well, it isn't. There's a lot more involved--a lot more.

One of the subplots involves their friend Jack, who was killed when a semi rolled over his car on the highway. Will is having a lot of difficulty coming to terms with his friend's death. As the novel progresses, we learn more about Jack's death through flashbacks. Will believes that he could have used the money to save Jack, money which would have been put towards a meaningful purpose.

Even though Jack's chances for recovery were nonexistent, Will still thought that there was a chance that he could have saved Jack. He wrestles with this guilt throughout the novel, often having conversations with either Jack or Hand inside his head about his unresolved feelings.

Will believes that, by traveling around the world and giving the less fortunate the money, he'd be making a real difference not just in the lives of others, but his own life. He enlisted his childhood friend, Hand, to assist him in this endeavor. Things start to go wrong before they leave Chicago, when their original flight to Greenland is canceled. The duo replans their trip and end up flying to Senegal.

From the time they land in Senegal, things continue to not go according to plan. Over the next six days they have difficulty with law enforcement officers, they have trouble with hotel concierges, random guests at hotels, and most frequently, airport personnel.

Not to mention, neither Will or Hand can figure out exactly who should receive the money, or how to give it away. They concoct plans, for example, to tape envelopes to the sides of donkeys. They stop to ask for directions many times, only to find people who would accept money. They overpay, at one point, for a key chain at a market in Morocco.

As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses the deterioration of Will's mental state. In addition to struggling with Jack's death, he also is dealing with a heart condition and issues related to his father abandoning his family. He questions his motives for giving away the money, and keeps imagining increasingly complex conversations with his loved ones. He is afraid to sleep, afraid to relive, especially, the events leading up to and following Jack's death.

I really admire Eggers' writing style. He uses many metaphors that keep the text engaging. For example, on page 92, he writes:

"I grabbed my knees and rested and rose again and waded in, still reeling, and the hands of the cold calm sea held my calves then seized my knees and wrapped its thick strong fingers around my thighs and its bondy cold arms around my waist."

He also has a way of keeping the reader intrigued, adding so many twists and turns that you don't know exactly where the story is going. There is one car chase scene that is particularly suspenseful. Eggers even makes the airport scenes suspenseful; at many times you wonder if Will and Hand are even going to make it to their next destination, or worse, have enough money to continue the journey.

This is one of those books that seems like a comedy on the surface, but is really a tragic, dark book. It's one of those books that needs to be discussed in a book club. For example, one could debate Will's true motives behind giving away the money. Why were there so many flashbacks to childhood? If you can get a friend to read this book along with you, by all means do so. You'll have plenty to talk about.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, as well as my 2009 2nds Challenge. Click the buttons in the sidebar for archived list of past reviews.

Writers Workshop: Blogging 101 with Professor Kitten

Okay class, settle down now, make yourselves comfortable. Make sure your laptops are fully charged. No talking, texting, IM'ing, or visiting other blogs during this session. You'll have plenty of time to do that when we're done.

Welcome to Blogging 101. I am the Bookkitten, but you may call me Professor Kitten. Outside of class, just call me Kitten. Anyhoo, I'm here to offer various tips and tactics that I've gleaned during my nearly two years of blogging--but I've only been blogging full-time for a year. (Witness the five posts I wrote in 2007, compared to my body of work in 2008).

In this class, there is no syllabus, no exams, no projects. It's for anyone, whether you're new to blogging or you've been on the Internet for a while. Now that we have that out of the way, let's begin.

We'll start with the basics. Part One: Who Am I, and Why Am I Blogging?

1. Decide on a focus for your blog. In other words, do you want your blog to be about one specific thing?
Will your blog deal with a specific topic, or will it contain stream of consciousness ramblings about your life? Will you have a poetry blog, a knitting blog, a blog about the music you listen to? It's up to you. Don't sweat it too much, though, for this leads in to the advice I'm going to give you for bullet point #2:

2. Your blog will evolve. Let it do so naturally.
Okay, so this cancels out bullet point #1. However, here's why I'm addressing this: When I first started my blog I wanted to focus strictly on book reviews. Then life intervened, and I went through a crisis in my personal life. Writing has helped me through this trying time. I started using the blog as a place to post my thoughts about anything, and not just the books that I read. For a few months I didn't write anything, or rather, wrote very little, about literature. Now I've come back to my blog's original focus, but I've interspersed it with my other interests, such as writing, music, and cooking. You are the person who decides what your blog is going to contain. Don't be pressured to make it anything different than you want it to be.

3. Remember, anyone can read the Internet. Consider using a pseudonym when you blog.
For those of you who know me off blog, you know that Kitten is not my real name. Anyone can Google search you. Be careful of what you post; you wouldn't want your co-workers to know about that wild night in Cabo. If you write about your friends, that's your choice, but be mindful of their privacy. Don't use their last names. Many bloggers use their real first names, but don't disclose their last names. They may also give their friends and family members nicknames to protect their privacy. Check with your loved ones if you're unsure.

Okay, it looks like everyone's still awake, so I'm going to continue with Part Two of this lesson: Developing Your Fan Base.

1. Unless you tell everyone you know that you have a blog, don't expect comments right away.
When I started The Bookkitten, I didn't tell anyone that I had a blog. When I did tell friends they visited, but they weren't regular visitors; they weren't bloggers, and I didn't take it personally. Occasionally I'd get a comment here and there, I'm still not sure how (most likely RSS or a Google search), but I didn't get regular visitors for a very, very long time.

So how did I start getting comments? Read on...

2. Visit other people's blogs and comment.
You can only receive comment love if you give it! Make sure you use your Blogger/Wordpress/Open ID persona when you comment, and make sure that your profile is public! That way the blogger can come visit you!

3. Look at other bloggers' blogrolls. Visit the sites on those.
Blogrolls are a great way to find out bloggers' interests. If they have similar interests as you, you'll find more blogs that you like!

4. Participate in memes, if you so desire, and don't forget to sign the Mr. Linky when you do, so other bloggers can come visit you.
This is one of the best ways to develop a following. Don't forget to visit the other bloggers on the list, too!

So now we've covered content, comments, and now...well, I can't think of a C word to describe this next element: design. Let's now move on to Part Three: Keeping Up Appearances.

1. Don't worry about coming up with a funky design right away. This will evolve right along with your blog.
Use the templates that Blogger and Wordpress give you. Experiment with a look. See which best fits your personality.

Once you've blogged for a while, and you want to change things up a bit, you may find that the blog templates may not be doing much for you. You may want a funkier background, or you may find that you want to change it depending on the season. I have two resources for you:

  • The Cutest Blog on the Block: This site has free templates, with super-easy directions on how to change your backgrounds.
  • Leelou Blogs: This site also has some cute free templates and headers. Some of the templates will even change your blogs from two columns to three.

2. Don't be afraid to seek professional help for your blog.
Let's say that the free templates aren't doing much for you, and you want something personalized. For example, you want a cute, fun header or a button that your followers can grab and display. There are many blog designers on the web, but allow me to introduce you to our first guest lecturer, who also happens to be designing something for me as we speak:

In addition to the amazing work that April does, she now has a section on her blog that contains blog design tutorials. So if you're a do-it-yourselfer, check out these tutorials. She currently has a lesson on expanding your blog from two columns to three. And let's not forget, her designs are amazing. Visit April's blog to learn more about her and her work. She is very easy--and fun!--to work with!

So to recap, we've now covered content, comment, and design, so now let's move on to the fourth and final portion of our lesson: Maintenance. In this portion I refer you to our second guest lecturer:
Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness is running the Blog Improvement Project. She has biweekly lessons and topics to help you improve various aspects of your blog. She's covered many topics so far: social media, posting, comments, and design. I always look forward to seeing what she's going to come up with next.
I believe that blogs are always a work in progress, and the Blog Improvement Project will help you look at your blog in a different light.
Well, class, that is about all that I have today. Shall we review? Here are the highlights of this lesson:
  • Let your blog evolve naturally.
  • You have to give comment love in order to get it.
  • Try out a few layouts before you find one that suits you.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.

If you have any questions or comments, my office hours vary, depending on when my schedule allows me to be online, but you can reach me 24/7 via the comments! If you tweet, I am also available via Twitter.

Class dismissed! Go forth and post!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, by Maureen Corrigan

The first chapter of this book opens with a line that perfectly describes me:

"Among the many dangers of being an obsessive reader is that you tend to mediate your life through books, filter your experiences through plots, so that the boundary between fiction and fact becomes porous." (p. 3)

I've been in love with books my entire life. Mama Cat read to me when I was little, up till the time I could put myself to sleep all by myself. Papa Cat says that I've never met a bookstore I didn't like. In elementary school teachers used to discourage me from taking my books outside at recess.

As I got older, and more mature in my reading, I identified with many of the characters I read about--Anne Shirley, Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown, the Baby-Sitters Club, just to name a few. Maureen Corrigan finds herself doing this throughout this book. She combines memoir with literary analysis (Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR show Fresh Air), and describes how works of literature helped her through certain times in her life.

In the first chapter, "Women's Extreme-Adventure Stories," Corrigan relates female heroines such as Jane Eyre, and authors such as the Bronte sisters, to the struggles that she and her husband had with starting a family. She went through fertility treatments, got pregnant three times, only to miscarry each time. She and her husband then went through the adoption process and became parents of a daughter from a Chinese orphanage. I empathized with Corrigan's quest to become a parent, and really felt her emotions as she wrote about this painful time in her life. However, I had trouble seeing how Jane Eyre related to it, mainly because I have no memory of reading the book. (I may have read it during high school, but am not totally sure. Obviously the book didn't leave much of an impact on me if I can't remember it).

I was better able to relate to the third and fourth chapters. The third chapter is all about marriage, dating, and courtship rituals. Corrigan tells the story of growing up in an Irish-Catholic community, and how all of her girlfriends were married by the time they were in their mid-twenties. Corrigan didn't meet her husband until she was 28; at the time she was in the middle of a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. She expresses her frustration at real-life courtship rituals and how they are never the same as how they are written in books; in books, suitors and boyfriends seem to just "fall into the picture." Maybe that's why I'm still single; I keep waiting for Mr. Right to just "fall into the picture."

The fourth chapter, "What Catholic Martyr Stories Taught Me About Getting Into Heaven," really resonated with me, since I am the product of a Catholic upbringing. However, my Catholic upbringing was a lot more liberal than the upbringing Corrigan remembers. She writes about reading Karen and With Love From Karen, two books about a young woman who had cerebral palsy and was able to learn how to live independently in spite of it. Karen comes from a large Irish-Catholic family, which figures prominently in the books. Corrigan argues that Marie Killilea, the books' author and Karen's mother, is a secular martyr:

"As the Karen books illustrate, however, female martyrs often cloaked their remarkable acts of faith and courage in a mantle of lady-like humility--even as they gloried in doing ferocious battle with the sacred and profane forces of the patriarchy. Reading the Karen books as a young girl, I think I internalized some lessons about being simultaneously devout and determined, pious and self-promoting." (p. 142)

In the book's introduction, Corrigan recalls an interview she had with the English department at Columbia University. She had just earned her Ph.D. and was interviewing for an assistant professor job. One of the professors on the interview asked Corrigan about her Ph.D. dissertation: "Ms. Corrigan, does this dissertation have any methodology?" Her response? "Well, Professor, there is no method except to be very intelligent." (xxx)

There really is no methodology to this book. At times I couldn't tell when and where the chapters transitioned from memoir to literary analysis. It didn't help, either, that I never read some of the books that Corrigan describes. I had to re-read some passages at times to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

While it makes for some slow reading at times, the book does pick up occasionally, especially when she is recalling moments from her past. I really enjoyed the memoir parts the most. Sometimes, I believe, Corrigan tried too hard to relate works of literature to the memoir moments. When this method worked, it worked really well. When it didn't, the reading wasn't as good.

If anything, this book made me reflect on the overall effect that books have had on my life. I can still remember where I was physically and mentally whenever I take a book out of my bookcase or my library. In addition to remembering the plot, I also remember a portion of myself. Whenever I read, I become a part of the story, an eyewitness to the action. I open the covers and I'm transported to another place and time. I close the covers and I'm back to being me again.

I realize that that's a rare gift.

And I realize how lucky I am to have it.

This is the latest entry in my 100+ Reading Challenge, my Support Your Local Library Challenge, as well as my Dewey Decimal Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for archived lists of all my reads!

1001 Books for Every Mood, by Hallie Ephron, Ph.D

When Hallie Ephron says that she's got 1001 books for every mood, she means every mood. Here is just a sample of the moods for which Ms. Ephron has compliled book lists:
  • striking it rich (wealth and finance)
  • tripping the light fantastic (dance)
  • sift through clues (mysteries)
  • hit a home run (baseball)
  • march into battle (war stories)
  • hug your dog (animals and pets)
  • celebrate the season (holidays)

Ephron explains how she compliled the list in her introduction (p. vii):

"My goal was to compile an eclectic list that mixes fiction with nonfiction, books for adults with books designed for younger readers, and to organize them thematically by mood. I included my personal favorites plus titles culled from books recommended by readers, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers. I set out to limit one title per author, but occasionally I couldn't keep an extra title or two from a single author sneaking in."

KITTEN'S NOTE: Ms. Ephron left out the word "nepotism" in her summary, as she has included works written by her sisters, Nora, Delia, and Amy.

Books are rated using the following categories (each category has its own little symbol, and the symbols appear next to the books' summaries):

  • literary merit (a scale of one to four stars)
  • provocative (makes one think, has caused controversy)
  • influential (books that have defined an era)
  • inspriational (symbolized by a dove)
  • brainy (books that inform you)
  • easy reading (symbolized by an umbrella)
  • page turner (can't put it down)
  • challenging (symbolized by a pair of glasses)
  • bathroom book (can be read in short sittings; symbolized by a toilet)
  • family friendly (books that can be shared with youngsters)
  • movie (books that are made into movies)

This is a well-organized tome. Each book has its own brief summary, free of spoilers, but has enough information to pique your interest. Occasionally, Ephron includes such bits as the "Department of Memorable Lines" to further interest you in picking up a title.

For example, consider the quote she used from The Book of Household Management, a tome written by 19th-century England's version of Martha Stewart, Isabella Beaton:

"As with the Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of the house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path."

The following line from Domestic Manners of the Americans, a 19th-century American work by Frances Milton Trollope, led me to include this on my TBR list. It describes an afternoon gathering:

"The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at teach other's dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody's last sermon...till the 'tea' is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johnny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters than ever were prepared in any other country of the known world."

Ephron has a cheeky sense of humor. Directly below the entry for Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, she lists P.J. O'Rourke's Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People.

Can you guess which one made it onto my list?

Also, consider this exquisite line from Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales:

"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

How can you not pick up this tale after reading that one line? Now consider the opening line to Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel, part of a selection in the book called "Department of Great Opening Lines". It juxtaposes well with the above line from A Child's Christmas in Wales:

"Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom."

I sticky-noted many pages in this book for the memorable quotes, opening lines, and excerpts of character descriptions. There are too many to include here.

I suggest you read this book with a pen and pad right next to you. You'll want to write down many of the titles that Ephron suggests. Between this and A Year of Reading, as well as the recommendations I get from you, Kittens, and friends and family, I think I'm set for life with my reading!

This is the latest entry in my 100+ Reading Challenge, my Support Your Local Library Challenge, as well as my Dewey Decimal Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebar for archived lists of all of my reads!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Year of Reading, by Elisabeth Ellington and Jane Freimiller, Ph.D.

I found this book in the library as I perused the shelves for books to fulfill requirements for my Dewey Decimal Challenge. I thought, if anything, it would generate a list of more books to read.

Well, this book does that, and much more. Specifically, it's a book designed for those who are just starting book clubs, or veteran book clubbers who want to improve their experiences.

Ellington and Freimiller have divided this book into twelve parts, one for each month of the year. Each month has a specific theme, and five books that go along with the theme. For example, January's books all deal with winter. February's books deal with Black History Month, March's books deal with Women's History Month, May's books with Mother's Day, and November's with food. You get the idea.

Each chapter has five categories of books from which the book club, or the reader, can choose (p. xvii):
  • Crowd-pleasers are books that will appeal to almost everyone. These are titles sharing strong plots, compelling characters, and topical issues.
  • Classics offer an opportunity to return to old favorites, fill in educational gaps, and discover enduring literature.
  • Challenges are ambitious titles offering challenging subject matter or style for readers who want to stretch their limits.
  • Memoirs are for those interested in a more personal style of writing.
  • Potluck, the final category, adds an element of surprise and unpredictability to the line-up. Here you'll find essays, short stories, history and other nonfiction, as well as a few unusual novels.

Each chapter goes beyond merely having a list of books. The authors write discussion questions for each novel. This is a handy feature if you have both this book and the suggested one on hand, but it gets a little overwhelming when you've never read the book that is being discussed. Sometimes, if you've never read the book, and you're reading the discussion questions, you may find some potential spoilers. Other times you'll find that the questions will pique your interest about a particular book. Read the questions carefully, or if you're afraid of spoilers, skip them entirely.

In addition to the discussion questions, Ellington and Freimiller offer other book suggestions. For example, if one liked reading Little Women, the authors have a list of other books that they may enjoy, such as Anne of Green Gables or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. They also suggest some movie versions of popular novels. In one intriguing suggestion, they advise the reader to rent all of the versions of Jane Eyre available on DVD and arguing over which actor best portrays Rochester. You'll also find internet resources, bits of trivia, and even museum resources if you want to visit places that were described in the books that are listed.

At the end of the book, there are two appendices. One offers suggestions on how to find a book club, and the other one offers guidelines on how to run and maintain one.

A Year of Reading provides a list that will fill any reader's TBR pile for more than a year. I've come up with a list of good suggestions for future reads that will definitely round out my TBR pile. However, I don't think I will finish them all this year, but that's okay. I can include them on my list for reading challenges next year!

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, as well as my 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge and my 2009 Dewey Decimal Challenge. For an archived, updated list of past reads, click on the buttons in the right sidebar.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

When a friend of mine told me about this book, she said that it was a memoir about a young man whose parents had died of cancer within weeks of each other. It was a book about a twenty-something man from Chicago who was raising his eight-year-old brother.

"Okay," I thought when I borrowed this book from the library, "then why am I finding this book in the fiction section?"

I soon found out. In the preface, Dave Eggers discloses that "this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes." (p. ix) All of the dialogue has been reconstructed, and in certain parts of the book, the characters often break out of character and talk about their place in the book itself. In other words, they acknowledge that they are a part of the book, and critique Eggers for the dialogue he is writing for them.

Additionally, some names have been changed (although Eggers used his siblings' real names), and there has been some switching in the chronology of certain events. Eggers acknowledges all of the fictionalized text, and maintains that it was based on a true story. For these reasons, this is why it's treated as a work of fiction, and not strictly as a memoir. (The preface made me immediately think of A Million Little Pieces, and how James Frey didn't admit he took artistic liberties until well after the Oprah controversy).

Anyway, Eggers takes many artistic liberties during the course of the book, starting with the acknowledgements, which continue for twenty pages. In order for you to truly understand what I'm talking about, you'll have to read the book. I can't really accurately describe it online, but let's just say that he includes such people as NASA and Simon and Schuster. He also does his own analysis of the book using common themes in literature, such as loss of parents, a man finding himself, and siblings raising each other (here he makes a few references to the old show Party of Five. However, this book is nothing like Party of Five).

The novel opens in Chicago, where Eggers and his older sister, Beth, are caring for their mother, who is dying of stomach cancer. Their father, an alcoholic lawyer, died from lung cancer weeks before. The Eggers clan, once their parents' estates are settled, pack up and move out to the west coast, where the oldest sibling, Bill, works for a think tank in Los Angeles, and Beth starts law school. Eggers settles in Berkeley with his eight-year-old brother, Toph, and starts working a series of temp jobs before he starts a magazine with several of his old grade school friends.

Might magazine, which is geared towards twenty-somethings, is based out of San Francisco. The city, and the magazine, figure prominently in the middle of the book. This portion of the book deals with mid to late 1990s twenty-something angst. Eggers writes about how he and his friends at Might are going to change the world, that they don't want to ever feel that they have a job, that they don't ever feel that they have to work, that they don't ever feel that they have to listen to what society tells them what to be. Those who were neither in their late teens or early twenties during the latter half of the 1990s, as I was, won't understand this portion of the book. I totally got it, since Eggers was writing about people of my generation.

I especially liked the chapter of the book where Eggers auditions for The Real World: San Francisco. He doesn't get cast, but makes friends with Judd, who became a part of the cast, and tries to get Might Magazine as much exposure on the show as possible.

I had to smile while I read this part. The Real World: San Francisco was a prominent part of my freshman year of college. We had Real World parties in our dorm rooms. I remember Pedro, and how much we all loved him, and how crushed we were when he succumbed to AIDS. I especially remember how Puck was kicked out of the house.

Speaking of Puck, he makes an appearance in the chapter, and makes quite an impression on Mr. Eggers and the Might staff.

Oh yeah, and I'd call home, and talk about The Real World with my mother. She and my then-sixteen-year-old sister would watch it together. Interesting mother-daughter bonding, considering Mama Cat hated MTV. But I digress...

Much of the novel, of course, is devoted to a twenty-four-year-old man raising his eight-year-old brother. Eggers is not your "father knows best" type of parent, but is more of a buddy than anything else. He tries to keep things light between him and Toph, mainly because he doesn't want the boy to be completely traumatized by his parents' deaths. Speaking of their parents' deaths, Eggers doesn't fully explore his feelings about them until the second-to-last chapter in the novel. When he does, his emotions are strong, raw, and tangible. I found it very touching.

Scattered throughout the novel are tales of typical male twenty-something exploits, such as dating, having fun, going to bars and hanging out with friends. As I read about these exploits I thought about how shallow these were. And they are. But there are enough tales in the book that make up for this shallowness, such as Eggers' friend John's suicide attempts, and the fallout from those, as well as his friend Shalini's accident and subsequent coma.

I really enjoyed this book, and would like to read it again sometime. However, I think it's one of those books that older people, such as those of my parents' generation, won't understand. That, and you can tell that Eggers has a bit of an ego. If you get past this, though, and understand the mindset that was the mid-1990s, heck, today's early-to-mid twenty-something, this is a really fine, well-written book.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 A to Z Challenge, as well as my 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for the archived lists!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Keeping up appearances...

Sister Kitten is an infrequent visitor to this blog. She is a very busy woman, so I don't take it personally.

She visits so infrequently that she doesn't leave comments on the blog itself, but rather, via E-mail or my Facebook page. The last time she visited, she left me with this feedback:

"Your right sidebar's looking a little crowded."

Well, she was right. In fact, with so many reading challenges I've signed up for, and so many buttons I've collected (with more to collect, actually, since I'm getting to know more bloggers), I needed to expand. So I did a Google search, found some very easy instructions on adding another column to the Minima template, and voila. All I had to do was change my skin-care regimen to smooth out the wrinkles.

But I wanted more. Much more. In fact, in February, before I expanded to three columns, I had signed up for a cosmetic procedure:

I wasn't looking for a total face-lift, just something that would brighten things up a bit. A little Botox, shall we say, a little fraxel, some microdermabrasion. SITS featured the lovely Miss April Durham one day, and I liked her work so much I asked her for a consultation. And now, she is my surgeon.

I'm not the only one who admires her work. Her wait list is long, but based on the results I've seen so far, they are worth it. Imagine my happiness when I learned, this afternoon, that I had moved from first on the wait list to "In progress." Woo hoo! Surgery without the anesthesia! I can dig that!

So you will soon see a new look to The Bookkitten. I want to surprise you, though, and won't tell you what work I'm having done.

I shall link you all to April's blog, so you, too, can admire her handiwork. She's also hosting a boatload of giveaways this month, which is even more reason to check her out.

In fact, here's the giveaway button:

Oh, and here's one more link from Miss April: easy, easy, easy to follow directions on how to expand your template from two columns to three. You don't need to be a techno-geek to do this! Trust me! April has some illustrations to help you out!

Hope you all enjoyed your Easter and Passover, Kittens! I've got a couple of book reviews coming your way this week (in fact, I just posted my Three Cups of Tea review, in case you missed it), so stay tuned!

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

This is a book that I had heard about for a long time before I actually picked it up. I had seen Greg Mortenson on television, in various interviews, talking about his work building schools for girls in the poorest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Friends from church and work had asked me if I had read it yet, and the answer was always no.

Then last year, on my trip to Washington DC, the New York Times booth in the exhibition hall was giving away copies of this book. I had one thrust into my hands, and knew that I no longer had an excuse not to read it.

Yet it sat on my to be read (TBR) pile for months.

Finally, last month, after I finished When in Doubt, Sing, I picked it up and started to read.

You can't help but be moved by this story.

David Oliver Relin tells the story of Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who earns money for his expeditions by working as an ER nurse. Mortenson had an unconventional childhood; he was the son of African missionaries. His father was a physician who built hospitals in Tanzania. He moved his family back to America when Greg was in his early teens.

Greg's youngest sister, Christa, contracted meningitis as a toddler, and never fully recovered. She suffered from epilepsy throughout her life, and succumbed to a massive seizure on the morning of her 23rd birthday. Greg and Christa were extremely close; he helped her create an independent life for herself. She rode the bus to work, was able to dress herself, and even had a steady stream of boyfriends. He made sure that her seizures did not inhibit her quality of life.

After Christa's death, Mortenson wanted to reach the summit of K2 and place a beaded necklace on the mountain in her memory. In 1993, he set out to climb the second-highest peak in the world--only to barely reach the top. Mortenson had to be rescued from the mountain. He was devastated that he was not able to fulfill his goal and honor his sister's legacy. He didn't know, however, that he would soon do so in a completely unexpected way.

After being rescued, Mortenson ended up in the village of Korphe, where the villagers showed him much hospitality and warmth. He stayed at the home of the village's chief, Haji Ali. One day, as Mortenson was walking through the village, he noticed a group of youngsters attending a class. There was no school for these children, no textbooks, and no proper materials which the teacher could use to help teach her class. Mortenson was moved by this; he felt that the village's children should have a proper school.

Before he left Korphe, Mortenson informed Haji Ali that he would return one day, and promised that he would build a school for the village.

When he returned to the United States, Mortenson wrote over 500 letters seeking donations for his cause. He figured that he needed $20,000 to construct a school for Korphe. Out of all of these letters, only one man donated money: Tom Brokaw, then anchor of the NBC Nightly News, who attended the same college as Mortenson, the University of South Dakota. Eventually, Mortenson found a benefactor in Dr. Jean Hoerni, a Swiss physicist and Silicon Valley pioneer. He donated the money that Mortenson needed to construct the school, and also was instrumental in founding the Central Asia Institute (CAI), an organization committed to help eliminate poverty and build schools in the region.

It turns out that the school in Korphe is the first of many schools to be constructed in central Asia. At the time of this post, CAI has constructed 78 schools and has taken efforts to help reduce poverty in the region, through such donations as medical supplies and scholarships.

CAI has particularly focused on constructing schools for girls, and has done much to help advance the education of women in the region. This is particularly noteworthy, for the role of women in central Asia has not been one of great importance. Men have traditionally been the breadwinners; women have traditionally stayed at home, raised families, and made money by selling food and clothing. Through Mortenson's work, more women have been able to receive an education and set their goals on becoming doctors, teachers, and various other skilled workers.

The book is told, not from Mortenson's point of view, but from Relin's. He tells the story in a third-person narrative, or rather, a very long interview with his subject. This, at times, makes the story seem lengthier than it really is. I thought it slowed down the storytelling. There are also a lot of people to keep straight. Throughout his work in central Asia, Mortenson encounters many politicians, village officials, and village families, and it's easy to lose track of who lives where, who is the head of which village, and who to watch out for. This is the book's weakest point.

In spite of the book's shortcomings, Three Cups of Tea provides a fascinating look into a region that, in recent years, has gained a bigger profile in world politics. Most of the book's events take place during the latter part of the 1990s. Relin often weaves in bits of political occurrances that form a unique backstory for the book's main plot. For example, you'll learn about the concern that the CAI has for an emerging organization--an organization that has come to be known as the Taliban. You'll see the rise of Musharraf and the military, and the beginnings of the US war with Afghanistan.

What touched me most about this book is the gratitude that the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan show "Dr. Greg", as Mortenson is known, for his efforts. I don't make many anti-war statements, but if there is a reason for our country to end the wars in central Asia, this is it. One of the chapters in Three Cups of Tea is titled "Our Enemy is Ignorance." It's not the Taliban or Bin Laden who is the enemy, Mortenson argues, but rather, not being aware of the problems plaguing central Asia. The enemy is the lack of education on such matters.

Three Cups of Tea certainly helped educate me.

This book was first published in 2007. Since its publication, the CAI has helped establish teacher-training programs, women's centers, and scholarships, among other projects. You can find out more about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute at the following websites:

Three Cups of Tea
The Central Asia Institute
Pennies for Peace (a program for students)
The Girl Effect

I encourage you all to take a look and help!

This is the latest installment in my 100+ Reading Challenge, my Dewey Decimal Challenge, my Read Your Own Books Challenge, and my World Citizen Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for archived lists of my reads!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nobunny knows Easter better than him...

And now, for your viewing pleasure, the one, the only, the original...

Happy Easter, Kittens!