All posts by Laurie C

I'm a public librarian in Massachusetts who loves to give reading suggestions, whether asked-for or not, a specialty known in library jargon as "reader's advisory". I read a lot -- mostly literary, genre, and young adult fiction, but also short stories and memoirs -- and listen to a lot of audiobooks. Newer favorites include Patry Francis, Donna Tartt, Meg Wolitzer, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, Laurie R. King, Lionel Shriver, Carolyn Parkhurst, Penny Vincenzi, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, Orson Scott Card, Patrick Rothfuss, Martha Southgate, Jennifer Haigh, Zadie Smith, and Louise Penny. Some older favorites are Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan, Susan Howatch, and Connie Willis.

Meaningful Holiday Gift Idea Exchange

Meaningful Holiday Gift Ideas Exchange badge

The meaningful gift idea exchange is hosted by My Friend Amy. This is very simple, it’s basically just a chance for us to share ideas that are more personal and relational in nature than the usual gift ideas we get!

The holiday gift season is approaching, like it or not! There are no really young children involved in our extended family celebrations. The “children” are all teenagers, or older, or close enough to 13 that they might as well be teenagers, and there are no grandchildren. So for the last few years, we’ve been going the grab-gift or gift-swap route, with mixed success. It’s less traumatic than trying to pick out a good gift for everyone, but it’s hard with mixed ages and interests to pick a gift that appeals to a majority of the people involved in the swap.

The most fun swap we’ve done is the $1 swap. To be part of the swap, you bring a wrapped gift with no identifying tags or gift wrap and sneak it into the pile. The only rule is that the item must cost no more than one dollar. The first year we did this, we were surprised at how much fun to see what people came up with for ideas and what the most coveted items turned out to be. People actually did put a fair amount of thought into choosing something that would either be a funny item or potentially desirable, in order to have bragging rights over getting the most bang out of their buck. But since the only money you’ve invested is a dollar, if someone ends up with a swap item that’s not something he or she has always wanted, no one is really disappointed, even the younger ones in the crowd. Plus, it’s a swap that everyone can participate in – even the broke, strapped, overextended, in-school, out-of-work, or short on cash for whatever reason.

This swap idea isn’t especially meaningful, as requested by Amy at the My Friend Amy blog, but it is inexpensive and it fits in with the idea of celebrating the holidays by spending time with family instead of focusing so much on exchanging gifts.

Click on the Meaningful Holiday Gift Idea Exchange button at the top of the post to see other ideas on other blogs, and feel free to share your own ideas in the comments!

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Image and Identity: Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (Audio)

Cover image of Look at MeEveryone who liked Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad will probably like Look at Me, a novel published in 2001. Even if you weren’t crazy about A Visit from the Goon Squad because of all the ’70s music references or the disconnectedness of it, you might like this novel of intersecting stories better because the stories are more closely tied together.

Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful model who doesn’t reveal her true age, is getting less and less work through her agent and is firmly in denial that it’s not too late to reach supermodel status, when she is in an accident and has to have facial reconstruction surgery to put her face back together. Her whole life in New York City has been built around how she looks. But, although her face can be fixed and the damage repaired (This is a novel about alteration, not disfigurement), Charlotte becomes unrecognizable to herself and to others.

Charlotte’s is just one story line in the book, but even though Charlotte herself is a loner, an aging party girl, a beauty for hire (one of Jennifer Egan’s recurring images,) her story is the one that connects all the others. There’s Charlotte’s timid sister, Grace; the private detective, Anthony Halliday, wanting to talk with Charlotte about the accident; Charlotte’s childhood best friend, also a beauty, Ellen, with a family of her own now; Moose, Ellen’s brother; Ellen’s daughter, Charlotte, and her son Ricky; a new teacher at their school who says he comes from California; and Irene, a reporter assigned to write a story on Charlotte. In this pre-9/11 novel, the author also imagines the consummate outsider – a man from an unspecified Islamist country who discards and changes identities convincingly, infiltrating and assimilating, while plotting spectacular acts of terrorism and burning with hatred for America and Americans. While bringing out serious themes and ideas, the author can be playful with her characters and treats some of their interactions with light irony.

There is so much to talk about in this novel – beauty, image, media, celebrity, family, class, culture, terrorism – that it could make for a great book discussion book, for a group that wouldn’t get too distracted by Charlotte’s cocaine- and booze-fueled lifestyle and the reckless behavior of many, if not all, of the characters during their individual crises of identity. (A lot of characters go off the rails in this one.) Charlotte herself is fascinating, but not likeable.

This is a wide-ranging novel (20 hours long) and narrator Rachael Warren does an incredible job voicing the thoughts of the mostly female main characters, especially Charlotte. Each character’s story is important, resonating with the other stories and carrying layers of meaning within itself, but the audiobook narrator lightly conveys the different personalities of each character with slight changes in her voice. The only quibble I have with the audio production is that there were errors that weren’t edited out. Not just the many odd pronunciations (which I always figure could actually be me with the incorrect pronunciation) but also a few clear mistakes to the extent that I haven’t heard on audiobooks before. For example, “She twirled her head on a finger” instead of “She twirled her hair on a finger” and “Front Loop” instead of “Froot Loop”. I wondered if they were on the audio edition on CD or only on the Audible download. These occasional errors were surprising and a little distracting, but wouldn’t stop me from recommending this as a very good audiobook.

Disclosure: I received Look at Me by winning a free Audible download of my choice of any book by a female author from audiobook narrator Karen White’s Home Cooked Books blog.

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Growing Up at the Steam Table: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl

Cover image of Memoir of the Sunday BrunchThere are a lot of foodie and food-ish memoirs out there, but Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl is an enjoyable take on growing up in a Wisconsin restaurant family that will resonate with a lot of readers. Maybe especially those who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s when middle-class children had a lot more unstructured free time than they generally do now, but sometimes couldn’t escape spending it (gasp!) doing chores, or even working in the family business.

Julia Pandl, the youngest of nine children, was twelve years old in July 1982 when she started working Sunday brunch at her father’s restaurant. As an adult, the author does stand-up comedy on the side; her good sense of humor and sense of timing come through in her writing.

Here’s an excerpt from the book describing the author’s thoughts about her father, in her early days of helping out during the craziness that was the Sunday brunch at Pandl’s. Here, her father stands across from her, obsessively overseeing the staff and the progress of the diners while serving up scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, steak tips, and the delicate whitefish from behind a massive steam table on wheels.

Amy gave me a quick lesson in the art of pancake making. Honestly, it was a snap. I wielded a swift spatula. My practice cakes were light, fluffy, and done to golden perfection. As customers approached, I asked them, “Blueberry or plain?” Simple.

George stood across from me, fidgeting with the serving pieces, placing them just so, running his hands along the stacks of plates every thirty seconds to make sure they were hot, and clicking a set of tongs with such rapid fire they sounded like the camera shutters of a thousand paparazzi. Click-click-click, as if he were keeping time to some schizophrenic beat in his brain. The twitch, and the big vein pulsing just above his glassy left eye, fell into perfect rhythm: Click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge; click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge. As I poured batter, blueberry or plain, onto the griddle, I wondered if this thing of his had a diagnosis. One of my brothers – Jeremiah, I think – had let me watch The Exorcist, and it looked to me like George and Linda Blair had the same problem.

Nothing stopped the brunch, though, not even demonic possession. I plodded along. It turned out that “doing pancakes” was fun for exactly six minutes. It’s not that tough to get them right, again and again. There’s a book out there about a guy who goes to heaven and plays so much golf that eventually he gets a hole in one every time he steps up to the tee. Perfection begets boredom. Talk to anyone at a cocktail party who got a 1600 on his or her SATs. That’s what “doing pancakes” was like, minus the sense of superiority.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch was originally self-published. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the author had hoped to write and publish the book while her father, restauranteur George Pandl, was alive to read it. (He died in 2007.) A newly edited version is being released by Algonquin Books today. The author dedicates the book to her mother, father, all her siblings, and “everyone whose first job was at George Pandl’s in Bayside,” but it really is a tribute to her father, who she clearly admired and respected, despite his twitches, quirks, manic work ethic, and crazy parenting methods like waking his kids up in the morning by beating his belly like a drum and singing, and letting them drive just a little before it was legal to do so.

It’s not all comedy. When the book segues from the restaurant work to her parents’ declining health the memoir also loses some of its vigor, but the author still finds life’s moments of humor (a skill which she seems to have inherited from both parents) in sadder times. The author doesn’t seem to be a foodie (She’s addicted to Swedish Fish.) and there really isn’t enough about food and cooking to satisfy readers looking for a restaurant memoir along the lines of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. But, for readers who don’t care for a lot of strong language, this one is pretty tame, especially considering the author is a stand-up comic. It’s more of a family story, with food, than a cooking memoir. Readers who liked The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan, Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, or A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel will probably also enjoy Julia Pandl’s memoir of coming of age as the youngest child in a large Catholic family.

Disclosure: I won an advance reading copy of this book through a Monday Giveaway on the Algonquin Books blog.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch
Pandl, Julia
Algonquin Books
November 13, 2012
978-1-61620-172-2
256 pp., $13.95 (soft.)

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(Have you reviewed this title on your blog? Please let me know and I’ll add your review to the list.)

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