Monday Quote – Anna Quindlen

In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own.”

author image from Goodreads

Anna Quindlen,    How Reading Changed My Life

Anna Quindlen has been much on my mind the past week. With the press tour for the release of her new book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, she has been everywhere from television, to Twitter, to a video chat on Goodreads. I’ve followed her career from journalist, to essayist, to fiction writer, so I was thrilled to participate in the iVillage Twitter party and the video chat. (In the interest of full disclosure, I won a copy of her new book – randomly chosen from participants.)

I find her interesting and witty. She was as clever in 140 characters as she is in her books. I admire that she has made motherhood her priority above all things and found a way to not let that hamper her success. She seems the kind of person I could sit down with to have coffee and talk life.

Only once this week did I feel out of synch with her. When asked about the lack of a Fiction Pulitzer this year, she seemed unfazed. She admitted to not being very upset because, in her words, she couldn’t think of a truly outstanding candidate. I was taken aback and a little horrified that an author would diss her contemporaries so openly. I disagree with her strongly on this point and can point to at least three novels I believe are Pulitzer-worthy, but I get the feeling Quindlen simply speaks her mind. Since I respect that quality in a person, I’ll have to just agree to disagree about the Pulitzer.

So back to the quote…I chose this one because it doesn’t just address the “external” world created by writer, but about the internal changes books bring to both the readers and the authors. I have not read How Reading Changed My Life, but I have lived that sentiment.



Paperback Picks for April

Book cover from Goodreads


by Kevin Wilson

5 Stars

Hands down the most brilliantly creative book I read in 2011. Darkly comic (and sometimes just dark), the Fangs live at the border between life and art.

Art, if you love it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”

Wilson takes this thought-provoking premise and fills it with these wonderful characters. Buster and Annie (the children of the family now struggling into adulthood) are exactly the products we might expect from a dysfunctional family. I couldn’t help falling in love with them and truly caring what happened as the story twisted through to its conclusion.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Alice Hoffman

5 stars

The events in the book swirl around the fall of Jerusalem and the siege of the fortress at Masada. Although I knew little about these events when I started the book, she draws the setting and characters so well at I honestly felt I was living there with them. My pulse quickened at dramatic moments and I felt the heat and wind of the desert just as described. The four women who tell this story are all damaged, yet strong (my favorite kinds of characters). And I love that they are all dovekeepers (peacekeepers) in a time of war and brutality.

We stood and watched as God abandoned us, and then we did the best we could.”

The symbolism is deep and constant, but the deeper levels never get in the way of the storytelling.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Timothy Schaffert

4 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It has the feel of a Tim Burton film — dark and funny at the same time. I found myself smiling a lot at the odd characters and their observations about modern-day small-town living. But Schaffert is also exploring some deeper ideas about aging, mass media, and perceptions of reality. Just when I was cruising along, I’d go back to reread passages, surprised to be so moved so suddenly.

We could endlessly reminisce, live in the past to an unhealthy degree, then politely kill each other some winter night before bedtime, stirring poison into our cups of whiskey-spiked chamomile tea, wearing party hats. Then, nervous about our double homicide, we could lie in bed together, holding hands again, frightened and waiting, still wondering, after all these years, if we even believed in our own souls.”

Without including a spoiler, I will admit that the last 30 pages are very weak, which was really disappointing given how strong most of the writing is. I’ll definitely give this author another shot.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Geraldine Brooks

5 stars

Geraldine Brooks is the Queen of Historical Fiction. I’ve liked everything she’s written, but Caleb’s Crossing is my favorite. Brook’s attention to detail, especially to the voice of narrator Bethia, is fascinating.

I felt the reckless abandon of one who knows she stands already among the damned. “Why not, then, another sin?”

Bethia’s diary put us squarely in the time and place of the book, 17th century Martha’s vineyard. We understand the constraints and opportunities of the time through her eyes. I could easily relate to her struggles to enlighten her mind while keeping her thoughts to herself. It’s a great conflict. As the title suggests, the story is also about her young Indian friend, whom she names Caleb. Can her. will he cross to the mainland literally and figuratively. That’s the story that moves the plot forward, but this is Bethia’s book all the way. A must read for historical fiction lovers



One Post – Two book reviews

I’ve read a couple books recently that I liked, but didn’t love. I considered not posting these reviews at all, but in the interest of comparison, I decided it’s not right to only post raves. After all, there are thousands of really good books I don’t love. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading these two titles. I just couldn’t give them more than 3 out of 5 stars.

I should have loved this novel. It has most of the ingredients I seek.

1)      Historical Fiction. The story takes place just before and after the Civil War so we’re treated to a glimpse of the unrest prior to Emancipation and to the hardship following the war.

2)      Young girl’s perspective. We meet Granada when she is just 11. Spoiled (for a slave that is) and petulant, we watch her mature and gain a true understanding of her roots and her identity.

3)      Strong female characters. This book is populated with wise black women, most notably Polly Shine, and I love that. In the spirit of Toni Morrison, these women can “see through” others and death does not stop communication between generations.

4)      Beautiful, evocative language. Odell has a lovely way with words.

Granada felt many things she had no words to shape, so she remained quiet and let the secret part of her flicker as long as possible until at last it faded to its hiding place.”

But something about this book did not click for me. Part of the issue was that I never came to love Granada. I could not figure out if the story belonged to her or to Polly. I never came to know either deeply enough.

I did love reading Odell’s language, especially in terms of Granada’s struggle to listen, to seen, to understand.

Now that her mother was no longer, Granada was flooded with needs, never before spoken. She wanted her mother to explain to her this crumbling wall between dreaming and waking…How tenderness could hurt and how delight could be so terrifying.”

But even his lyrical language wasn’t enough to fully engage me. I never wanted to give up on the book, but I definitely wanted to love it more.

Book Cover from Goodreads

I waited a few days after finishing the book to write the review only to find I still didn’t have much to say.

When I looked back to see quotes that struck me, I found I hadn’t copied any. Strike One.

I know some details about the characters but I can’t remember their names after 3 days. Strike 2.

I did like the premise of a birth mother and “life” mother locked in a battle. Halverson puts forth quite a few situations that ask moral questions without simple answers. I always like those kinds of moral dilemmas.

Had the ending not wrapped up with such frustrating tidiness, I may have stayed more involved and interested, but 2/3 of the way through I just knew there would be a dramatic catharsis and a “happily ever after” feel despite the book’s title. Strike 3.

Bottom line: I liked it enough to finish reading, but not enough to recommend it.

Rock Candy Salon for moms and kids

The May issue of Chicago Parent is out on the newsstands this week. So I’ll be posting links to my stories throughout the coming days. As always, my meals, services or admissions at the places I visit are usually comped but the opinions are completely my own.

For Chicago Moms (or kids) looking for a little pampering, I can’t say enough about Rock Candy Salon. I took my niece there last month (funny my sons didn’t want a pedicure) and we spent a fabulous afternoon getting manis and pedis. The owner is really committed to mom-based and local business owners and tries to source her products from other small business owners.

Here’s the full story:

 We spent an afternoon being buffed, massaged and polished like Dorothy in the Emerald City. The treatment was so nice my niece later asked me if she could go back and just ask for the manicure without the polish.

Kreativ Blogger: It’s an honor to be nominated

This week I was so happy to see that my friend Joan, The Thing About Joan… ,  had been nominated for the Kreativ Blogger Award.  She was one of the first bloggers to follow me and has been a regular source of support and inspiration. She writes candidly about raising kids (and puppies), always with a sprinkling of humor and a good dose of reality-check.

I was frankly stunned to discover she had nominated me for the same honor! Starting alenaslife has been a reward for me just on its own. I have practiced my craft and come to know dozens of interesting people through the blogosphere. Thank you Joan for adding to the fun.

Part of the award is to write about 7 things you might find interesting about me, so here we go:

  1. I used to be Artistic Director of a professional theater company. In fact, there was a good chunk of my life when I believed I’d be directing plays until the day I died. Shows what I knew.
  2. I’m not an animal person. I know this will shock many, but I just don’t get the love of animals. I suffered through a turtle for a few years, but that’s as far as I’ll go in the pet department.
  3. I won’t eat nuts in dessert. Out of a bowl or in a salad, sure, but why would I want them in something that’s supposed to be sweet and smooth? Don’t even get me started on coconut.
  4. I really loved the television series, Gilmore Girls, like to the point that I watched it in reruns every day for a few years.
  5. I’m a huge Chicago sports fan: Bulls, Hawks, Bears, Cubs, even Chicago Fire.
  6. My husband does the cooking. Yes, I am just that lucky.
  7. I was bi-lingual as a child, but can barely get through ordering in a Mexican restaurant as an adult. Sad, but true.

And now, I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Kreativ Blogger Award:

  1. memyselfandela because Ela’s posts always stop me in my tracks. She combines photography and poetry (mostly her own) in thoughtful and moving ways.
  2. Books and Bowel Movements because Cassie is as passionate about books as I am. Her Newsday Tuesday posts are filled with the best links and quotes of the week. She inspires me to work at my best.
  3. 50 things before I turn 50 CJ gets me up and moving with her enthusiasm for her life and determination to make the small changes in life that lead to the big ones. She is a remarkable woman on a fantastic journey.
  4. Life and All Things Love. This is one of the few blogs that brings me to tears (regularly), not because it’s author is intentionally pulling at heartstrings, but because she writes about life and motherhood from such a personal perspective. I might just as easily laugh heartily at her latest story, but I have the tissues ready just in case.
  5. Dare I Eat a Peach? Carrie Nyman is a young author who writes beautifully about writing. She shares her own struggles and accomplishments, which I find both enlightening and inspiring. I never quite know what to expect from her blog and I like that.
  6. Bookananda is just books, books and more books. But she writes about books I would not normally read, and that intrigues me. On her blog you’ll find great style and variety.
  7. Word by Word. Claire sometimes writes about a single title, sometimes along a theme, but she always stays true to her blog’s theme, which is to write about inspiration and journey. Even when I disagree about a particular book, I love to read her viewpoint.

I’m going to follow Joan’s lead and pass along the rules for those nominated:

  1. Copy the Kreativ Blogger Award logo and place it in your post.
  2. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  3. List 7 things about you that people might find interesting.
  4. Nominate 7 other bloggers for their own Kreativ Blogger Award.
  5. Leave a comment on the blogs you nominate to let them know about the award.

Thanks again, Joan!  You really made my week with this nomination and I hope I was able to interest you in at least one new blog.

World Book Night with a little help from my son

So I participated in the first-time-in-America World Book Night last night. As with many things in my life, it didn’t go according to plan.

Way back when (6 months ago), I stumbled across a Facebook post about World Book Night in the UK. When I followed the link, I saw it was coming to the US in 2012. I love books. I love promoting books. I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I signed up for the newsletter.

When it came time to actually register and request books, I faltered. Once again, the idea of this was more appealing than actually committing to the follow-through.

Choosing titles to give away was no problem, but writing about a place I’d go and why I wanted to do this was a little harder. I’m a curl up on the couch and share my book love with like-minded people kind of girl. The thought of seeking out a place where I could find light or reluctant readers scared me. But I did it.

First paperback edition book cover

First paperback edition book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I was chosen and I had to move beyond my comfort zone. I had a plan. I would go to the train station and just smile and offer my book, The Kite Runner, to strangers. Gulp.

As the date approached, I turned again and again to the virtual world for courage. I followed @wbnamerica on Twitter and “met” thousands of other people giving away books. I promoted World Book Night on Facebook and received loads of encouragement from friends and family. Ultimately, I connected with real-life friends and revised my work-alone plan.

Feeling better about a group of us working together with several titles, I wore my button, passed out stickers and packed my box. Then real life interfered with my best-laid plans. My husband could not get home in time for me to meet up with my friends. Sigh.

I could have used this as a reason to not interact with strangers, but I surprised myself by adapting quickly. I brought my youngest son along for the “fun.” He was none to pleased about being taken away from his backyard soccer game to “sell” books, but he had no choice. I explained how much this worldwide event meant to me and he agreed to help.

In the end, we had a blast walking up to strangers, talking up our titles and seeing people walk away with a new book. After a slow start, and quite a few skeptical looks, one train’s worth of commuters cleared out most of our books. My son was cute and charming and more than willing to run back to the box to refresh our armloads of books. I felt like part of a much broader community as I followed the experiences of givers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Now that it is over, I can forever claim being one of the first in America. And, so can my youngest son. I like that.

Some of my favorite #wbnamerica tweets:

Stacey Mason ‏ @StaceyLMason

“Sometimes we need books. And sometimes books need us.” Perhaps half a million free books started a new conversation last night @wbnamerica

Martha Kiley ‏ @MarthaKiley

Gave Bel Canto to a bartender, barista, counter girl, pizza guy, new moms, dog walkers and a butcher. Great night! #wbnamerica

The Book Shepherd ‏ @mybookshepherd

Yesterday was World Book Night-continue it and donate books to those who will open them and fall lin for the love of the word.#wbnamerica

Gabe Eggerling @saysgabe: I have always been told it’s a Gift to receive a book, but thanks to @wbnamerica I can say it’s also a Gift to give a book!!


My box of WBN books


Proud book-nerds ready to talk to commuters.


My youngest son with an armful of The Hunger Games. Ready and willing.

Monday Quote: Books as Capital

Cropped version of Thomas Jefferson, painted b...

Cropped version of Thomas Jefferson, painted by Charles Willson Peale. Philadelphia, 1791. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.
Thomas Jefferson

In honor of World Book Night on April 23rd, I ask you to consider this quote. Thomas Jefferson may have had his faults, but the promotion of literacy and the love of the printed word were not among them.

I love the image of books as capital. Are we not enriching our children by reading stories, teaching them to read and then exposing them to books? Why not, then, continue that enrichment throughout our lives?

As I pass out free books this evening, I will proudly spread the wealth.


Further Reading:


Flannery O’Connor – Master of the Short Story

Portrait of American writer Flannery-O'Connor ...

Portrait of American writer Flannery-O'Connor from 1947. Picture is cropped and edited from bigger picture: Robie with Flannery 1947.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it hard to believe, given my love of short stories, that up until last week, I had never read anything by the American master, Flannery O’Connor. This seemed an enormous gap in my reading history. So I decided to close it.

A Good Man is Hard to Find was nothing that I expected. I somehow skipped over the words “apocalyptic,” “Grotesque” and “Misfit” in the cover blurb and expected a collection of clever, well-written love stories.  Instead, O’Connor served up story after story of lowlifes, neglected children, psychopaths and losers. I loved it!

Flannery O’Connor is further proof that America in the 1950s was not all bright colors, mothers in pearls, and sunshine. This intelligent writer was casting her eye on the people who existed in the shadows. She writes about the marginalized, the damaged, the worst in all of us. We meet criminals, drunkards, racists (a lot of racists) and con artists.

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. – The Artificial Nigger

These stories gripped me from the very beginning. It’s rare to find an author who can look into a character’s soul and not turn away from the terrible things she might find there. Even the victims in her story defy easy categorization. As The River unfolded, I began to understand that O’Connor was not going to flinch, even when her subject was an innocent boy.

Many of her characters are in search of Salvation, but it’s not easy to find or to grasp; hence the book’s title. This kind of storytelling is uncomfortable, but oh so necessary.

And, despite all of her bleak and disturbing subjects, she manages to interject humor throughout the book.

All the people who had lived in Pitman had the good sense to leave it, either by dying or by moving to the city. – A Stroke of Good Fortune.

Lines like this keep the stories from falling too deep into despair. They gave me a moment of relief and something “likeable” to cling to in her characters.

My favorite story, A Late Encounter with the Enemy came toward the end of the book, but I went back and re-read it three times because I was so drawn to its structure and to its main protagonist, General Sash.

Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.

I could see his sad relationship with his foolhardy niece, Sally Poker Sash, as clearly as if they were my neighbors.  In fact, I recognized bits of myself and others in many of O’Connor’s characters.

After all, we’re not always good, are we?

Food for literary thought

BEFORE YOU READ THE REST OF THIS POST, close your eyes and think about your favorite authors. I’m talking your “go-to” writers, the ones you’ve read and possibly reread. Can you say, “I’ve read almost everything written by so-and-so?”

This morning, the moderator of one of my Goodreads Book Clubs asked this very question. (Thanks Deb at Bound Together.) Without having to think too hard, I immediately answered.

I have several adored authors. If I had to choose a few whose books consistently blow me away, I’d go with:

Toni Morrison whose latest book in coming out in May. I know she’s not for everyone, but I love her voice and the way magic and ghosts and folklore are just woven into every story.

Ann Patchett because she’s smart and her settings are incredible and she can really craft a sentence.

Geraldine Brooks for historical fiction. No need to say more.

Aimee Bender is a newbie for this kind of list. But her books and short stories take me to such interesting places that I can’t wait to see what she has in store next.

As I prepared to post my comment, I realized that I had chosen all female authors. Frankly I was surprised. If you had asked me yesterday whether I preferred male or female authors, I would have refused to answer such a ridiculous question.  Of course I also have male authors I follow closely – Colum McCann and Dennis Lehane come to mind immediately.

I want to believe I read blindly when it comes to an author’s gender. But I’ve read multiple articles in the past month on the gender gap in literature and they have me questioning my own literary assumptions.

In a wonderful New York Times article by Meg Wollitzer, On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women –, she writes:

But the top tier of literary fiction — where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male. Will the literary habits of a culture change as younger readers take over?

I certainly don’t classify as a “young reader,” but I do believe I buck the male dominated trend.

  • According to my Goodreads stats, 51 of the 88 books I read in 2011 were by women. (I realize this is only one year of reading so it doesn’t prove much, but it’s all I’ve got.)
  • 9 out of the 10 books on my “Best of 2011” list are by women. Again, it’s one year of many, but those are the numbers.

I want to believe that none of this matters. I want to assume that the above-mentioned authors are not my favorite because they are women, but because they are fantastic writers. But it’s given me food for thought today.

Now think back on the authors you chose as your favorites. Are they all one gender? Or, did you have some of each? Does it matter?

WBN – I’m a giver

Did you know Monday, April 23rd is World Book Night. On that evening I will be part of an international effort to give away 1,000,000 books. Successfully launched in the UK last year, readers in the United State will spread the joy for the first time this year. I am extremely proud to be part of the effort to celebrate reading by GIVING AWAY FREE books.

Volunteers were offered a list of 30 titles from which to choose. We requested first and second choices, hopefully of titles we had read so we could share our love of a certain title. WBN worked with publishers to produce 1,000,000 specially designed paperbacks which we will give away in every state.

I picked up the box of books my mom is giving out yesterday and will get mine at the library tomorrow night. The paperbacks are terrific looking. On Monday evening, I’ll be standing at the train station convincing commuters that THE KITE RUNNER is one those modern books everyone should read.

And, yes, it’s free.

Cover of "The Kite Runner"

Cover of The Kite Runner

Thanks to upallnightreading for the lovely post on this same topic and for the list of all of this year’s WBN books. have read 13 of the 25 books and plan to read a lot more of them. How about you? Which are your favorite.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Wintergirls by Laurie Anderson

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings* by Maya Angelou

Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Little Bee* by Chris Cleve

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Blood Work by Michael Connolly

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Zeitoun* by Dave Eggars

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton

The Kite Runner* by Khaled Hosseini

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

The Stand by Stephen King

The Poisonwood Bible* by Barbara Kingsolver

The History of Love* by Nicole Krauss

The Namesake* by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Bel Canto* by Ann Patchett

My Sister’s Keeper*by Jodi Picoult

Housekeeping* by Marilynne Robinson

Lovely Bones* by Alice Sebold

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks* by Rebecca Skloot

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Glass Castle* by Jeannette Walls

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

See the list of books and cover art at the WBN website here.

* indicates books I’ve read

I would love to hear from any other book givers out there. Where will you be? How do you plan to give away books?