cover image“A Southern novel of family and antiques from the bestselling author of the beloved Saving CeeCee Honeycutt,” is how the publisher describes Looking for Me, a novel by Beth Hoffman.

If it hadn’t been chosen as a book club selection this month, I probably never would have picked up Looking for Me, despite seeing blogger after blogger give it rave reviews and include it on annual lists of favorites for 2013. I’ve mentioned this before, but I have an irrational prejudice against “Southern” books. Also books with photos on the cover that look like they could have been lifted out of a women’s magazine. Plus, I’ve been fooled too many times by glowing reviews for books like The Friday Night Knitting Club that tugged at my heartstrings but lacked enough character development to really engage me.

Looking for Me definitely falls into the category of women’s fiction – with the smart, sassy, female main character/narrator, Teddi, whom every reader would love to have as a best friend; Teddi’s own best friend, Olivia (a rare book dealer); a supporting cast of colleagues and family; and, of course, cozy descriptions of food (Yes, pie makes an appearance.*) antiques, and other home furnishings – but the author’s sense of humor, fondness for her quirky, socially awkward characters, and opting for realism over sentimentality more often than not, makes it an outstanding example of the women’s fiction genre. If it weren’t for the girlish cover, more men might read and enjoy it – if not for the antiquing and Teddi’s efforts to become the owner of her own shop – then for the descriptions of the farms, birds, wildlife, and woods of rural Kentucky where Teddi’s family lived.

The story told in the first person by Teddi revolves around her brother Josh and the mystery of what happened to him. It jumps backwards and forwards in time from Teddi’s childhood years in the 1960s with an unhappy mother, a loving but taciturn father, and a younger brother who was far more in tune with the natural world than with his peers, to Teddi’s current life in Charleston, South Carolina. At present, Teddi has lived in Charleston for many years. She drives home for visits, waiting for her mother to agree to come to Charleston for a visit, never feeling the closeness she wishes they could have as mother and daughter. The absence of Josh lies unspoken of between them, along with the years of past misunderstandings.

If you have already read and liked Looking for Me, you may also like Meg Mitchell Moore’s novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away; Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters; Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap books; and/or these authors, whose books I haven’t read yet:

Diane Chamberlain
Lisa Patton
Anne Rivers Siddons
Karen White

I didn’t have the book finished in time to attend the book club meeting, but here’s a link to what the group thought.

*rhubarb

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Looking for Me
Hoffman, Beth
Viking, May 28, 2013
9780670025831
368 pp.$27.95

Disclosure: I borrowed a copy of this book from the public library.

Other opinions on Looking for Me (all very good to excellent):
Beth Fish Reads
Bibliophile by the Sea
A Bit Bookish
Rhapsody in Books
That’s What She Read

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I’ve been renewing a growing stack of library books that I couldn’t seem to get around to reviewing, so here’s a catch-up, catch-all post of mini reviews.

What do these books have in common? Blue or bluish covers, that’s about it…

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House, 2012)
A first novel by an author who grew up in California and now lives in New York, The Age of Miracles starts with the idea that the earth’s rotation begins to slow – for no apparent reason and with no method of reversal – when Julia, the narrator of the story, was in sixth grade. As California residents, Julia and her family and neighbors were used to the idea of earthquakes, but this gradual, – unnoticed at first – progressive, global change in the length of days and nights, was something entirely new and could have a frightening ripple effect on all aspects of animal, plant, and human life on earth. Meanwhile, life goes on for Julia and her middle school peers – dealing with their own perilous social environment, internal and external changes in their bodies, and their inevitable progress into adulthood – while the whole world changes around them. A book club selection that sparked a lot of discussion. Click here to read what the group thought.

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte (Penguin, 2012)
I kept thinking while reading City of Dark Magic that seemed like it was written by a woman,  so I wasn’t surprised to find out later that “Magnus Flyte” is the pen name for two women who wrote the book together. Set in Prague, the story is peopled with unusual characters who say cryptic things to Sarah, a rational, Beethoven-worshipping, neuromusicologist grad student from South Boston. Pollina – Sarah’s blind, 11-year-old music student prodigy – tells Sarah before she leaves Boston that “Prague is a place where the fabric of time is thin,” and Sarah’s hot, Italian scientist male roommate Alessandro (who doesn’t play much of a role after the beginning, but whose words she remembers later) warns her there is magic in the city she’s heading off to. (“Dark magic. Prague is a threshold.”) I thought I would love this book, but, although romance, paranormal, time-travel, and suspense elements were all there, the character development wasn’t; it seemed ready to be made into a movie. (Also, there are some fairly graphic sex scenes in unusual locales throughout, which would all play well onscreen.) I might have loved this book in my late teens or twenties before I became so jaded! Along with its sequel, City of Lost Dreams, this entertaining romp has gotten plenty of rave reviews, so don’t let me talk you out of giving it a try, if it sounds like fun to you.

The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker (Penguin, 2013)
This beautifully written, poetic novel is constructed like one of the delicate ocean creatures made of glass that the author says inspired the story. Built up out of the 18-year-old Carlotta Dell’oro’s memories and imaginings – the narrative becomes so lifelike and so surreal, the narrator has to keep reminding readers that it has been crafted by her. Carlotta’s story is set in Victorian England, a time of scientific exploration and obsessive specimen collecting. Her upbringing is so haphazard and neglected, she has to keep reminding her parents that she exists. The Glass Ocean made a great book club book because there was so much to argue about discuss – the author’s writing style, her narrator’s perspective, numerous ambiguities in the text, and a rich variety of story threads and metaphors to follow and sort out. Much of the book is interior – memories and obsessive thoughts going round and round the same topics – and not much happens in a straightforward way. Unlike City of Dark Magic, this is a novel to read for the writing and the imagery, not for the story or entertainment value. Recommended for readers looking for challenging literary fiction, not historical fiction about a Victorian girl on an ocean voyage, as the cover might mislead you into thinking this is.

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter (HarperCollins, 2013)
Written for her three children and husband by a successful, 44-year-old journalist after finally being diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a neuromuscular disorder that would leave her just one more year of rapidly declining health and mobility in which to make her brief remaining time with her family a memorable and productive one. Adopted as an infant, the author meets her biological mother for the first time and travels from Florida to Greece to meet the extended family on her biological father’s side that she never knew. She also takes each of her children – a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, 9 and 11 – on special trips to places of their choosing, trying to pack as many experiences in as possible while also keeping family life relatively “normal.” The author tapped out most of the book on an iPhone, as her abilities to speak clearly or type on a laptop rapidly got worse. This poignant memoir of a year before dying comes across, understandably, as patched together in haste, but makes a good companion read to other books about mindfulness and joy such as The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, or maybe with other books about facing death such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch or The End of Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (which I haven’t read yet.)

Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault (Berkley, 2006)
First in a series of mysteries set in New Mexico featuring a female Bureau of Land Management agent, Jamaica Wild, with her pet wolf Mountain. Action-packed and steeped in Native American mysticism and ritual, this book will appeal to readers who like mysteries with Southwestern settings like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries (Leaphorn and Chee) or Aimee and David Thurlo’s Ellah Clah series. (See this great list at the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield for more.) To read about what one of our library book clubs thought about Wild Indigo, click here.

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Weekend Cooking buttonWeekend Cooking is a weekly feature hosted by Beth Fish Reads, linking up food-related posts. Click here for links to this week’s Weekend Cooking posts on Beth Fish Reads and other blogs.

For a coffee hour at the library today, we offered St. Patrick’s Day-themed refreshments, featuring, of course, a big plate of Irish soda bread with butter on the side.

photo of refreshments table

The Irish soda bread (not made by me) was a crowd favorite – a sweet version with raisins and caraway included.

Since someone else was baking the Irish soda bread, I brought something sweet that I thought would appeal to any kids who were dragged along came to the event with their parents – Pot O’ Gold Chex Mix.

close-up of Chex mix in a green paper muffin cup

Pot O’Gold Chex Mix. Click on image for the recipe on Betty Crocker site.

Done in the microwave, the Pot O’Gold Chex Mix came out sweet and crunchy. Following the advice of commenters on the Betty Crocker site where I found the recipe, I separated out the marshmallow “charms” and added them in at the end with the M&Ms. I’m going to experiment with a gluten-free version of this recipe. The butter and brown sugar mixture is naturally gluten-free, and so are Corn Chex and peanuts. Lucky Charms come close, but are not certified gluten-free, so I would substitute gluten-free Rice Chex and mini-marshmallows for the Lucky Charms.

These mini chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting were gluten-free, but I didn’t tell anyone, and I don’t think anyone knew the difference. The only thing I noticed was that the paper cupcake holders came away from the cupcakes.

photo of 3 mini cupcakes with green frosting on a plate

Gluten-Free Mini Chocolate Cupcakes made from recipe on King Arthur Flour G/F Baking Mix box. Click on image for recipe on KAF site.

For those who wanted a more healthful snack, there were green fruit cups.

close-up of fruit cup

Individual green fruit cups with cut-up honeydew melon, Granny Smith apples, green grapes, and kiwi fruit.

I’m all about the sweets, but hubby is making the boiled dinner and picked up the Guinness for tonight and tomorrow.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

cover image of audiobook on CDThe author of The Accidental Universe, a wide-ranging collection of essays on cosmology, astrophysics, quantum physics, etc., Alan Lightman, is both a theoretical physicist and a successful writer – a seemingly unusual (and unfair!) combination of talents. According to his author bio, Alan Lightman is currently on the faculty at MIT, and was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities there.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is science writing at its best. The scientific knowledge being conveyed is important and far-reaching (going well beyond this one particular universe we happen to live in); gets explained in a highly readable style – not overly simplified but not too difficult for the general reader.

If you haven’t been keeping up with what theories are currently broadly held to be true among astrophysicists, cosmologists, quantum theorists, and other theoretical-physics-type people, but are curious about things like dark energy, the multiverse, the outer limits of scientific knowledge, and what all this means in the terms of human existence and what we believe, then this is the book for you. Audiobook narrator Bronson Pinchot presents the author’s ideas in a calmly rational voice – making you question what you thought was true about the universe and generally shaking up your entire belief system, while somehow soothing you about it at the same time. (Don’t worry, the eventual expansion of the universe past the point of no return won’t happen for eons.)

Remember what happened to Pluto, demoted from the solar system? Now it seems there’s actually no single, all-encompassing universe either; for scientists who don’t believe in God or in intelligent design, the only explanation for the behavior of the universe, is that it isn’t a universe at all, but a multiverse. The first essay in the book is called “The Accidental Universe,” and it was first published in Harper’s Magazine in December 2011. You can read it online here. Here’s a short excerpt from it:

The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.

This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

The author uses everyday examples such as the idea of going into a shoe store and discovering that a size 6 fits you, but also size 4, and size 12, etc. to explain complex scientific theories. He occasionally uses moments from his own life as jumping-off points, such as walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding or walking in a nature preserve and observing that so many people talk on cell phones instead of communing with nature. He also discusses spiritual and religious points of view respectfully, not dismissively – acknowledging that when it comes to theories about the universe (or multiverse) scientists may never be able to prove them definitively one way or the other. The author’s beliefs reside firmly in science and in scientific knowledge but, at a certain level, they are still unproven beliefs.

I did go back over a few especially complex sections to listen to them again, but I’m proof that even with just a smattering of general scientific knowledge, you can still get a lot out of this book. (I have listened and enjoyed a few books by Richard Feynman – also a theoretical physicist/humanist – and read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, as well as some type of “physics for poets” book at some point, but not much else.)

If you like reading about the intersection of science and the humanities, you should dip into this book of essays, or if you (like me) recently read The Humansa novel by Matt Haig about an alien who comes to earth and takes on the persona of a university professor – you might like reading more about the factual astrophysics behind that fictional story.

Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook here.

The Accidental Universe
Lightman, Alan (author)
Pinchot, Bronson (narrator)
Blackstone Audio
Jan. 14, 2014
978-1-4829-5595-8
3.9 hours, unabridged

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook as an MP3 download through Audiobook Jukebox.

Other opinions on The Accidental Universe:

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