It’s Wednesday. Some say Hump Day. Some say Halloween. I say it’s time to play a little book game. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? Just started Chris Cleave‘s Gold, which has been on my list for some time. Listening to the last disc of Fool by Christopher Moore. It’s his raunchy retelling of King Lear. So funny, so clever, plus the bonus of narration of Euan Morton. A true delight.

What did you recently finish reading? Finally finished The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli. I loved her book The Lotus Eaters but couldn’t quite get in the groove of this one. Some excellent writing, but I never connected to the two main characters. Took me a full week to read. That could have been because I paused to read the excellent short story collection, Astray, by Emma Donoghue. She took tidbits from historical documents about immigrants and castaways and created moving and interesting stories about them. I highly recommend for short story or historical fiction lovers.

What do you think you’ll read next? I’m planning to start the audio version of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. I own the book version but never got to it so I’m hoping the audio will be a good one. Next in hardcover, the completion of my Ann Patchett Project. I finally have a copy of Taft.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Paperback Picks – October

October was a great month for paperback releases. Here are my picks for five not to miss.

A WALK ACROSS THE SUN by Corban Addison

4 stars

Addison took my breath away with this unflinching look at human sex trafficking. Be warned: the tsunami that wipes out Ahlaya and Sita’s entire family and leaves them homeless orphans is not the most tragic thing that happens in this story. In fact, that happens in the first chapter. What follows is a downward spiral of kidnapping, rape, smuggling and terror as these girls are “trafficked” from person to person, country to country. But don’t let any of that scare you away. Corban Addison has also written something beautiful and touching and honest. The inner strength present in these characters is inspiring. Plus, Addison does an admirable job of drawing the truth out without preaching. Addison does not shy away from the graphic or gruesome details of this atrocity, but somehow he never pushes too hard or too far.

“Hope may vanish, but can die not.”

STAY AWAKE by Dan Choan

4 stars

“It is the worst sound Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently…” Any story collection with this line in its opening paragraph is not for the faint of heart. Dan Chaon‘s characters are dark and twisted. This is not bedtime reading, but I love his writing. Like any short story collection, some are better than others. Each piece is haunting but “I Wake Up” and “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow” stand out as the best. A few stories crossed into a territory too dark for my taste and the final piece was just plain confusing, but overall I find Chaon’s writing brilliant.

“This is one of those things that you can never explain to anyone; that’s what I want to explain – one of those free-association moments with connections that dissolve when you start to try to put them into words.”

SACRE BLEU: A COMEDY D’ART by Christopher Moore

4 stars

Moore is smart-assed hilarious, definitely irreverent, and sometimes brilliant. He reimagines art history in 19th century Paris, mixing together all the masters of the time, and traveling back far enough to throw in Michelangelo as well. The cast of characters is at once familiar (van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet) and unusual (each intimately connected to the next). The plot centers around a murder/suicide, a mysterious color man, the enchanting Juliet and a baker/painter named Lucien. Throw in some politics, magic, curious inventions, cave paintings and whores and you get a mess of book that delighted me just the same. I was completely taken in by Moore’s language and satire. For all the bouts of uproarious laughter, he scratched at deeper truths.

“They are between. Not what they used to be, and not what they have become. In those times, they are nothing. And I am invisible, and I am nothing too. That is the true demimonde, Lucien, and the secret is, it is not always desperate and dark. Sometimes it is just nothing. No burden of potential or regret. There are worse things than being nothing, my friend.”

RUNNING THE RIFT by Naomi Benaron

4 stars

The choice to set a love story amid the genocide in Rwanda does not immediately seem wise, but Naomi Benaron handles this story with such tenderness and sincerity that she succeeds in creating something both beautiful and horrific. Jean Patrick is a young Tutsi man coming of age in a large, loving family. While poor in material wealth, his natural talent and strong determination to become and Olympic runner drive him toward success even in the face of Tutu discrimination.Benaron’s choice of running as an extended metaphor works beautifully as Jean Patrick struggles with ambition, trust and pride. Benaron sets a strong pace and the novel’s start and knows just when to make her surge. Hard to believe she is a first-time author herself.

“Your hope is the most beautiful and the saddest in the world.”

CARRY THE ONE by Carol Anshaw

3 stars

Carol Anshaw creates a brilliant premise for her latest novel.. A group of “friends” leave a wedding, all drunk, stoned or high and kill a 10 year-old girl. Each in his or her way must carry that weight forever. I appreciated the skill with which Anshaw drew the similarities and differences in the other characters’ reactions to the trauma. All of these men and women are seriously screwed up to begin with, so heaping on guilt and sorrow leads to some really bad behavior. She shifts perspective often, giving us a glimpse into each character’s soul. I flew from storyline to storyline always wanting a little bit more and wishing Anshaw could have shown a little more trust in her readers. But still, a worthwhile read.

“Carmen could see the women gathering, clutching the Instamatics, tears already pooling in the corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride.”

Alena’s Favorite Things – Fall Edition

In true Oprah style, I return with “My Favorite Things” for fall. Before you get too excited, there’s no giveaway attached, but I do hope you discover some of your favorites too. (And, yes, I know I wrote about my love of fall a few short weeks ago, but I can’t help it — it’s my favorite time of year.)

Favorite Flowers

Bushel baskets full of mums are the visible sign of fall in my neighborhood. They mark the entries to many homes and businesses. I love their richness and complimentary hues, plus their strength, standing up to the highs and lows of Chicago fall temperatures. I wish they lasted longer, but I’m thankful for the time I have them. (This particular basket in front of our house comes compliments of my sister-in-law Liz. Thanks for the smiles.)

Favorite Sport

Truth be told, I’m a big fan of American football, especially the Chicago Bears, but soccer (aka futbol) has grown on me. It’s hard not to get excited by the enthusiasm my husband and youngest son feel for the sport. I caught the Olympic Women’s Soccer fever and enjoy the skill that even the youngest players show on the pitch. Of course youth soccer is year-round, but fall soccer is when I really started to see that I could have many years of “soccer mom” ahead of me. My little guy loves it and “he’s got skills” if I do say so myself.

Favorite Fall Nail Color

Tired of the nude-pink I’d been wearing for 6 weeks, I went to Walgreens in search of something deeper for fall. I discovered “Over the Knee,” which is definitely in the brown family (on trend) but not so deep or dark that it draws too much attention to my stubby little fingers. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but, trust me, it’s a terrific fall color — fingers or toes.

Favorite Fall Activity

It’s gotta be carving jack-o-lanterns. Truly a family get-together, last year we welcomed my brother-in-law and [future] sister-in-law for a family carving night. We designed faces, scooped pumpkin guts, carved and roasted seeds, all while spooky music and movies kept us company.  From simple pointy-toothed smiles to intricately designed spooks, our pumpkins each reflect our personalities (and carving skills.) While my NY in-laws can’t join the fun this year, we will bravely carry on the rest of the creative tradition.

Favorite home decor

I love decorating our mantle come fall. Beginning October 1st, the top of our place remains decorated in some holiday theme all the way through New Years. My sons (and I) look forward to the day when we bring up the decorations from our basement and unpack each one, placing it in its proper place. There are stories to accompany each, books to be re-read and something new to add every year. There’s nothing better than a crisp fall evening with a fire roaring and all our candles lit. It puts me in a great mood every time.

Favorite Fall Beverage

OK, so I’m still a white wine girl, it’s true. But I do like the release of fall beers each year. For the past few weeks we’ve been enjoying Goose Island Harvest Ale, but I’m usually game to try a couple of others each year. Just keep me away from those German Weiss beers — I know Oktoberfest lovers would argue with me, but, Yuck!


Yikes! I almost missed Wednesday again. Luckily, I still have time to play a little book game. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? Reading The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli. I loved her book The Lotus Eaters so I was eager to follow up with this one. About 150 pages in a liking it very much. Just when I thought I knew where the story was going, she surprised me. Listening to Fool by the hilariously dirty-mouthed Christopher Moore. The writing is laugh-out-loud, made all the better by the narration of Euan Morton. A true delight

What did you recently finish reading? Finished reading Where’d You Go Bernadette, which I liked, but didn’t love. It felt like something I viewed from afar instead of sinking into. Clever, but not totally engaging. The same might be true for the audio book I finished. The Weird Sisters seemed to go on forever despite characters I liked and a good deal of smart writing.

What do you think you’ll read next? I just picked up Astray, a new short story collection from Emma Donoghue. I loved Room, so I’ll probably read this next even though I also have Chris Cleave’s Gold which I have waited a long time to start.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Monday Quote: Please vote


Apathy (Photo credit: Toban Black)

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel

I avoid politics in the social media world. I figure that since I am not defined by my political viewpoint, neither are others. Frankly, I’m tired of the campaign slogans, the same old “scandals,” and skewed numbers trotted out on Facebook. Who are these things supposed to convince?

I am not even really sure I understand “undecided.” “Conflicted” I can get – there has never been a candidate for any office in my lifetime who has been without flaws or perfectly in line with my beliefs and priorities. But, I make a decision.

I don’t fit some cookie-cutter description of either political side. This is also why I know I love people who will not vote the same way I will.

But I love people who will vote.

What I truly can’t fathom are people who don’t vote. (And I love some of these people too by the way.) I just don’t get it. Every time I hear the statistics about the number of eligible voters versus actual votes cast, I feel a little sick.

Voting is a right. It is a responsibility. It is a privilege.

I think of Elie Wiesel. I consider the history of Rwanda, South Africa, Sarajevo, Armenia. All over the world and throughout history, people have lived without basic human rights and dignity. They have had their very existence threatened – all made possible by the indifference of others.

It may seem dramatic to compare genocide with not voting, but I don’t think so. To claim your vote “doesn’t matter” is to show an indifference to a basic American right. The very act of showing up at your polling place and taking a ballot shows that you care about the future of your city, your state and your nation.

Please vote.


It’s still Wednesday, right? Luckily, I still have time to play a little book game. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? I’m having trouble getting into Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I don’t think it’s the fault of the book. I just think I’m too tired to pay close attention. I do like the smart, funny style of the writing as well as the modern-day mania inherent in the story-line. About 1/3 of the way done. Plus, I’m still Listening to The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Will this book never end? I alternate between really liking the sisters and the writing style and despairing over the bad narration and self-aware overkill of some of the passages. On the last disk so I should finish tomorrow.

What did you recently finish reading? Posted a review of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins yesterday, but I will repeat that I loved it. It’s a book which you can totally judge by its cover (also intoxicating). Also read In the Shadow of the Banyan this week. This is a worthy read about a young girl’s trauma in Cambodia. (That doesn’t sound very enticing, I know, but it’s a good read.)

What do you think you’ll read next? It’s a complete mystery to me (which never happens.) I have a title from Jonathan Tropper sitting on my shelf, along with Bent Road, which has gotten good reviews. I also really want to read The Forgetting Tree. I’ll have to see what strikes my fancy…that is if I ever have time to read again.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Beautiful Ruins is a beautiful novel

I have delayed writing a review of the truly lovely Beautiful Ruins because it’s a book that defies easy categorization. A little bit mystery, a little romance, a little historical fiction, even a little Hollywood. Jess Walters does a fantastic job of blending all these components into something smart, entertaining and lovely.

The action begins on a tiny Italian island in 1962. The Hollywood epic Cleopatra is filming nearby. Pasquale is a dreamer, intent on opening a romantic and successful hotel on his nothing of a destination. “He found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment.”  We meet him while he attempts to create a beach despite the pull of the tide and envisions tennis courts despite the rocky hills. Suddenly a mysterious American actress appears by boat and his life changes forever.

“Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life–not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”

Walters writes many such moments throughout this novel. The action moves between 1962 and modern-day Hollywood, affecting multiple generations of dreamers – hoteliers, actors, producers, singers and writers. Even Richard Burton makes an appearance. We come to know these characters primarily through their broken dreams; yet the book never becomes depressing.

What I really loved is the way Walters carried me away to another world, another time. He puts me squarely inside the minds of his characters so that I’m on the journey with them. The characters themselves are the beautiful ruins of this novel. Each one seeks a dream life. None have found it, but that’s almost beside the point.

“True quests aren’t measured in time & distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant, sail for Asia  and stumble on America, and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.”

This is the kind of novel (rare to me) that continues to get better as it goes along. Walters throws in enough curve balls to keep the story surprising. We meet just enough characters to shift perspectives often, but each person is fully developed, integral to the story and engaging to readers.

“I think so, too. I know I felt that way. For years. It was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.”

Oh how well I understand this sentiment. I may not have much in common with a mid-century Italian inn-keeper, but I get his heart, his dreams and even his fears.

Highly recommended.

Love what you do

I frequently question why I do this. Why do I feel guilty when I don’t post “enough”? Should I schedule the post even though it could stand more editing? Is it OK to re-use copy from a previous post? Are there too many book reviews and not enough life? Really, is this a blog or a journal? What’s the difference?

These are the questions that run through my brain at the oddest hours. They steal moments when I should be folding laundry or vacuuming. They nag at me every time I ask my sons to wait a few minutes while I finish writing. They also motivate me to get up and write when I’m zoning out in front of the television.

My life was in a different place when I launched alenaslife. I had more flexibility and freedom in my schedule. My writing assignments for work were centered around my family and personal interests, allowing me some overlap between work and blogging. Now that I’m trying to fit alenaslife around a full-time job and schoolwork, three boys full fall schedules and some semblance of a personal life, blogging isn’t so easy.

But, I always return to my personal bottom line. I love to write and I love to share. When I publish something that strikes a chord with readers and elicits comments and feedback, I am thrilled. I don’t understand the magic formula — some mix of topic, style and timing I think — but each time it happens, it’s like Christmas Day.

So, in crisis, I look to the blogosphere, where I frequently find wisdom and inspiration. About a month ago, I bookmarked a post I knew I’d need at some point. Liz Gumbinner’s Mom-101 is one of my favorite sources of humor about life. When she wrote about the blog world’s “existential angst,” I could relate. You can read the full post here, but this is the excerpt which struck me:

You serve best by doing the things you love most.

It struck me that this is the key, isn’t it? For all of us? Whatever it is. If you’re writing for love, writing for money, writing for fame and glory. Writing to bear witness or make change in the world, writing to understand your place in the world. Writing as an escape from your life for a few moments out of every hectic, whirlwind of a day. Writing to connect, writing to feel connected.

It’s all good.

It’s all okay.

It’s all important.

It’s how you serve.

It’s easy to look at people doing so much and think, I could be doing more. It’s easy to look at bloggers making wholesale changes and question your own path.

Use them to inspire you. Don’t use them to beat yourself up.

I will use Liz’s words to remind myself that whatever I blog, however often I do it, and on whichever topic strikes me that day — it’s all okay.

I would love to know what motivates or inspires you to do what you love.

(Book)Geek Love: Erin Morgenstern Tonight!

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”
Erin Morgenstern,
The Night Circus

Without any doubt, Erin Morgenstern has taken up residence in my soul. It all started with her outstanding debut novel, The Night Circus. Sometimes I’m afraid to read books that are as heavily buzzed as this one was at its release, but Morgenstern did not disappoint.

From my Goodreads review…

Erin Morgenstern has created something quite spectacular in this debut novel. Playing with ideas of magic, illusion and perception, she unveils a truly fantastic circus. I really felt as though I were walking through someone’s dream.
The story itself is not much to tell — an ongoing game/duel with participants unaware of the rules or potential outcomes. More driven by characters and imagery than by plot, Morgenstern nonetheless drew me into a labyrinth of moves and countermoves. I felt the tension, especially in the love story between the players. And, rather than fill her book with peripheral characters, she makes each person three dimensional and important.

I have never read a book that transported me so completely to another place. I could see, hear, smell and even taste the surreal world of the Night Circus. And, while I found fault in the book’s ending, I knew I had found a new author to follow. A few years ago that would have meant eagerly awaiting her next release (which I will do). But now, TONIGHT, I can see her in person.

So what if Aurora is not exactly next door – this is Erin Morgenstern people!

I saw on Facebook yesterday that there are still seats available (what?!?), so, if you’re in Chicagoland, here’s the link to register for the event if you’re in the Chicago area.

“Secrets have power. And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on paper, no matter how careful you might be with it. So it’s really best to keep your secrets when you have them, for their own good, as well as yours.”

I am over the moon with excitement about this. Can you tell?

***Please forgive the fact that I’ve cobbled this post together from other bits and pieces I’ve written.

Want more?




Wow, Wednesday came fast in this shortened week. I guess it’s time to play a little book game. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is the fictionalized retelling of the author’s childhood in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge overthrows the government and basically steals the life she’s known. Not an easy read, but compelling and well-written. Listening to The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown, which is only so-so a third of the way through. It’s fine for background while I drive, but maybe a little too clever and self-aware for my taste.

What did you recently finish reading? Still obsessing over We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I posted a review if you want more of my thoughts, but I’m glad my Goodreads book club has a discussion thread going because it’s definitely the kind of book I need to “talk about” with other people. Also finished Beautiful Ruins, which was completely different, but also excellent. It’s romantic and cinematic and mysterious and intelligent. Just lovely.

What do you think you’ll read next? I may turn to Where’d You Go, Bernadette based on the strong reviews from people I know and my desire for something more lighthearted. But I also have a library book, Love Anthony by Lisa Genova. It’s gotten some fairly dispiriting reviews from friends, but I loved Still Alice so much — I want to give it a shot.

What are your W…W…W… titles?