Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top Eleven Books of 2011!

Happy New Year’s Eve! As the final hours of 2011 tick by, I hope everyone has a great start to 2012. I have a slew of mental goals and resolutions, but above all I hope that 2012 is a better year than 2011 for me. Really and truly, I could pretty much write this year off. That’s not to say that everything has been horrible this year -- after all, there have been some highlights -- winning Teacher of the Year at my school, going to Tybee Island, my children continuing to grow into young adults, seeing my aunt and uncle from Australia again -- but losing my mother pretty much cast a pale on everything.

However, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to recapture my sense of optimism and fun -- I feel like I have let that slip away just not this year, but for several years. Of course, last night when I was being negative, Charles commented that he thought I was going to approach life more cheerfully. I had to tell him, “In 2012 -- I still have some time to be a pessimist this year.” :)

I am digressing, though. I thought it would be fun to wind up the year with a list of my top eleven books I read this past year that I have not previously mentioned on the blog. They are in no particular order except for my number one favorite of the year which goes onto my all-time favorite list.

Out of the 84 books I read this year, which ones make the list? As you will see, my list is not filled with “literary achievements.” Often, I find those books too dense and sometimes outright depressing. I read because I enjoy reading, and I read to escape the real world of emptying the dishwasher and mounds of laundry. I don’t necessarily want something that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. None of those types of books, please. So, you will see that I read a lot of what other people might call “fluff.” It’s fun fluff, though, makes me happy, and sometimes I learn a thing or two along the way.

Without further ado…

11. The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Sarah Addison Allen writes a genre of fiction called “magic realism.” Magic realism, by definition, is a style in which magical elements are blended with the real world. In The Peach Keeper, Willa returns to her North Carolina hometown and strange occurrences begin when a skeleton is discovered underneath the old peach tree.

10. Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman
I love Carol Goodman’s books, and this one was no exception. Arcadia Falls is about a mother and her teenage daughter who go to live at a small college in upstate New York where the mother begins teaching folklore and mythology classes. Part gothic and part ode to the power of fairy tales.

9. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Paris Wife is the fictional story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their years in Paris. Ernest Hemingway has always been one of my favorite writers -- along with a few others -- but this book was an eye-opener. I always thought of Hemingway the way he looked in his later years. You know the mental image I mean. Throughout the book, Hadley (it’s told in the first-person point of view) kept saying how good-looking Hemingway was. What??? No way! Well, I looked up some pictures. Hello, Ernest Hemingway! He was quite the looker before the drinking got to him. Changed my whole perception of him. Still don’t believe me? Google early pictures of Ernest Hemingway. Now. 


8. Swept Off Her Feet by Hester Browne
Hester Browne was an author my mother introduced me to -- British chick-lit with a beautiful vintage twist. Swept Off Her Feet is about Evie Nicholson, an antiques buyer, who can never pass up the odd antique. She is sent to Scottish castle to help the owners sell off some of their heirlooms. There were parts where I laughed out loud at Evie’s penchant for finding odd things, and there were Scottish reels and romance to sweeten the whole story. 


7. The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
I am not one who normally reads non-fiction. I need a story with dialogue, so I tend to steer clear of anything that isn’t fiction. I made an exception for The Wilder Life, though, since I had loved the Little House books when I was little -- I can still remember being fascinated in a grossed-out kind of way that the girls made a ball out of a pig’s bladder and being in shock over the grasshoppers eating all the crops. Wendy McClure wrote about her obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder and how she tried to recapture her lifestyle (the churning butter story had me laughing) and visit all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesites (her purchases at the gift shops were equally amusing).  A true must-read for anybody who grew up loving The Little House on the Prairie books.

6. Summer in the South by Cathy Holton
I will admit that I started this book with very low expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised. Ava heads to Tennessee to spend the summer with the aunts of a college friend and in the process unearths quite the 1920’s/1930’s mystery. Rather surprisingly delightful.

5. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Here’s the description on the back of the book: “In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her ancestors and starts to write.” That’s all I am going to tell you. Truly one of my favorites of the year.

 4. The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
“A modern gothic novel of love, secrets, and murder -- set against the backdrop of Provence.” That’s the description on Amazon. Let me add that it all takes place in a cottage where the main character has moved with her boyfriend, Dom, of whom she knows very little.

 3. Folly Beach by Dorothea Benton Frank
Being a Charleston girl, I eagerly devour all of Dorothea Benton Frank’s books since they are set in and around my hometown. They won’t change your view of the world, but they are fun for summer reading. This is probably my favorite book that she has written because she tied in DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s histories on Folly Beach, and how they eventually wrote Porgy and Bess with George Gershwin. Fascinating from a historical point of view.

 2. Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews
Another Southern author I adore is Mary Kay Andrews. Her books definitely make me smile more, and Summer Rental was another fun read. Set on the Outer Banks, it made me glad that we had rented a beach house for our summer vacation, otherwise I would have been pining away for some time with my feet in the sand.

And my number one favorite book of 2011...

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Did I hear you gasp in surprise that I had never read it before? I know. I know. To think I call myself a Southerner and a reader, and I had never before read To Kill a Mockingbird. How is that even possible???

 Somehow in my thirty-seven years, I had never read it. Well, one of my resolutions for 2011 was to read all the classic Southern authors that I had never really read before -- William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, etc. Didn’t get too far with that one, so I am putting it back on the list for this year. However, I did get around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and it was such a treat.

Treat? Seriously?

Yes, an absolute gem. Of course, I had seen the movie and knew the gut-wrenching story, and every time I read the name Atticus Finch, I envisioned Gregory Peck. However, nothing prepared me for the wry sense of understated humor Scout brought to the first half of the story. I laughed out loud so many times at her perceptions of life in her small town, and I was enamored, absolutely enamored, with her tale. Of course, things get dark -- really dark, but, in the end, I still loved the book and its theme of never really understanding another human being until “you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

To Kill a Mockingbird also gave me one of those oh-so-rare moments of sheer delight when I was gussing about it to a friend, and she said, “You know who Dill was in real life, don’t you?” I had to confess my ignorance, and when she told me it was Truman Capote, all the pieces of that puzzle fell together. “Oh my goodness! That explains so much!” was my response, but it didn’t come close to truly conveying my feelings of joy that here was a literary connection where I least expected it. I adore tidbits like those.

As 2012 leans ever closer, I wonder what books the year will bring to me and which resolutions and goals I will achieve. My top ones are:

1. Approach all of my life with a positive attitude.
2. Read more classic Southern authors. I think I will start with William Faulkner. With the exception of “A Rose for Emily” (one of my favorite short stories) and “Barn Burning” (a story I could have lived without reading), I have not done him credit. I think I will sweeten this goal with the prize of a trip to Rowan Oaks.
3. Refine my Southern cooking abilities. I recently bought a cookbook called Southern Cakes -- I think I will start there.

That’s as far as I have gotten -- will have to think some more…:)
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Aftermath of Christmas: Curling Up with a Good Book!

Happy Holidays to everyone! I hope everyone has been enjoying their time with family and friends.

Our Christmas passed with the usual whirlwind of activity, starting at 5:00 when our 14-year-old daughter burst into our bedroom to announce, “Mom, Santa came!!!” As if there was ever any doubt that we would be a stop on his route. J

One of my favorite Christmas traditions dates all the way back to my childhood. Every Christmas I have always received books of some sort, and I like nothing better than curling up with them after the craziness of the day is done. A spot on the couch, some Chex Mix, a mug of tea, a blanket, and a new book. Does Christmas vacation get any better than that?

So, which books ended up beneath the tree this year?

For me, quite a stack that should last me the rest of the week and perhaps a little beyond.
There is a biography of Walt Disney by Bob Thomas and a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We watch Grimm every Friday night, and there have been several times that we have watched it and said, “Which fairy tale is that based on???” Now, we have a reference guide.

There is also A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff. I read that in about a day. Charming story of a woman who opens a vintage clothing store, and the friendship she forms with an elderly lady. It had me scouring eBay for a Kelly bag until I found out how much they really cost.

My current reading material is The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley. She is a fabulous author. Think Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier. I have read several of her other ones, and I love each one more than the last. The Rose Garden is set in Cornwall, and I have been seduced by her descriptions of the coastline and villages. Adding a visit to there to my bucket list.

And do you see that fabulous quilt under the books? My daughter MADE that for me for Christmas. I can’t begin to describe how much I love it. It matches the new colors in our living room, and I have already spent a lot of hours underneath it with my books. 

Connor also received some books for Christmas. He was beyond excited to get Inheritance -- the latest and I think, maybe, the last book in the Eragon series (fantasy and dragons) -- and The Death Cure -- the third book in The Maze Runner series (dystopian fiction).
Santa also included some book treats in the stockings. Chelsea and Connor got magnetic book marks. How cute are they??? Charles got a copy of Charlie Brown’s Christmas which I learned this year is his favorite Christmas special. I personally find it the most depressing of shows, but apparently some people like it. :)

Sometimes the best presents are the surprise ones (like my quilt). I consider this book to be just that -- a book recommendation from my dear friend, Leslie, that turned out to be absolutely gripping.

Soulless by Gail Carriger is the first in a series which already numbers four books, with a fifth one due out in February. How to describe it? Well, let’s just say it is set in the late 1800’s in London and involves romance, mystery, humor, vampires, and a really great werewolf.

I read it one day because I could not put it down, and we were without power for twelve hours due to storms the night before.

I can promise you Alexia and I will be spending more time together since I used a Barnes and Noble gift card from my mother-in-law to buy the other three.

So, there are our Christmas book goodies for 2011. Now, I must get back to my spot on the couch and The Rose Garden.

May you have a wonderful New Year! (I will be posting my Top Eleven Books of 2011 on New Year’s Day.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, and the leftovers are almost finished, I think it just might be time to start thinking about Christmas.

The tree is up and decorated.
The mantle is sparkling with glitter and silver.
And the Christmas books are stacked and ready for reading on cozy winter nights.
It seems like these days most authors write at least one Christmas book, and here are some of my favorites.
Susan Branch has recently become my home keeping idol. She has several books out and a blog (a must-read if you like blogs). She illustrates all of her books, and they are so full of ideas for incorporating Christmas cheer into a home that it will take me years to put them all into practice.
For Christmas anthologies, nothing beats Caroline Kennedy’s A Family Christmas. It is full of all the best poems, short stories, and excerpts from our favorite Christmas literature. Without fail, every year, I have to read her own 1962 letter to Santa where she asked for a long list of items for herself and a total of three things for her brother, John, and David Sedaris’ essay on Christmas traditions around the world (laugh-out-loud funny).
Dorothea Benton Frank sets all of her books in and around Charleston. The Christmas Pearl is a Lowcountry treat about a family who can’t stop fighting until someone arrives with pocketfuls of Gullah magic.
Mary Kay Andrews, in my opinion, is the epitome of a Southern chick lit author, and I promise you that Blue Christmas, set in Savannah, will have you scouring Ebay for a 1950’s blue rhinestone Christmas brooch and a CD of Phil Spector music.
Another great Southern author is Fannie Flagg and her Redbird Christmas is adorable. Made me want to move to the Alabama coast or barring that, make cardinals my new favorite bird. Just precious!
Then, there are the books about misbehaving children -- after all, we all know how hard it is to behave during the Christmas season -- the stress can just be too much.

Eloise is always into mischief and never more so than at Christmas. She just can’t help herself.
Speaking of precocious children, have you met Flavia? If not, you must, must, must. She lives in a crumbling English estate home with her father and two sisters in 1953. There are four books, now, in the series, and the first one is called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The Christmas one just came out and is called I am Half-Sick of Shadows. Knowing Flavia’s penchant for getting embroiled in mysteries, there is the expected murder, and true to her own deviousness, Flavia is up to her old tricks to try and catch Saint Nicholas. Hilarious and the perfect English country home mystery. Really, treat yourself this season by making Flavia’s acquaintance.
Wanting to stay in England for the Christmas season? There is also The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig. It is part of her Pink Carnation series. Have you read that series yet? If not, another must-read. They are all set in Regency England and have all the necessary elements -- spy rings, romance, and polished Hessian boots. The first one is The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and there are several in the series. Another book to add to your Christmas list.
And finally, no Christmas list is complete without the reading of The Night Before Christmas. This is a tradition from my husband’s family, and one we have kept going. Even my very hip, very cool fourteen-year-old looks forward to the yearly reading.
So, what are your favorite Christmas books?

Happy Christmas Reading!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes!

Happy Almost-Halloween! Truly, Halloween is my favorite holiday, so in the spirit of all that is spooky and eerie and slightly creepy, let’s talk about one of my other favorites.

I have a thing for witches: Wicked Witches (either cardinal point on the compass will do), White Witches, Macbeth’s witches (toil and trouble bubbling away), witches from popular culture (Samantha, how I wish I could twitch my nose like you), witches from movies (yes, even when they shack up with Jack Nicholson’s devil), Salem’s witches (pretty sure I need a trip to Salem at some point in my life), witches who lure children into their candy houses, witches who can make poisoned apples, and most of all, witches in books. I think it is all about the accessories -- black hats, black cats, black pointy boots -- I am almost certain I could really rock the witch look. Not to mention, witches span generations -- you can be a young, hip witch, or an old crone -- no need to change your look as you age.

So, where did this fascination come from? I am really not sure, but as far back as I can remember, I have loved witches.

When I was little, I had a series of books by Patricia Coombs about a little witch named Dorrie and her black cat, Gink (I always feel like I have won a prize when the witch also gets to have a black cat). They had the most wonderful illustrations, but Dorrie’s  magic was always just a little off. It didn’t matter to me -- I wanted to be just like Dorrie. I remember pretending to be her and even making a mess of my room based on those illustrations. What can I say, I was an only child until I was twelve. ;)

After Dorrie, I read The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. Most vivid in my mind was the description of a school for witches. Coupled with Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton which had a correspondence school for witchcraft, The Little Broomstick fueled my imagination, and I spent hours pretending I ran a school for witchcraft. Somewhere in the boxes of my childhood, I still have the class schedules, newsletters, and sheets of spells I created -- all on a dot-matrix printer.

There was The Witches by Roald Dahl -- oh, how I loved that book even if the witches were the antagonists.

As I have gotten older, I still seek out books about witches.

There is an entire pantheon of young adult novels featuring witches.

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins (Another school for witches is the setting of this book.)

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong (I promise you, you will never look at werewolves the same way again.)
My personal favorite in the young adult genre: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. If Tennessee Williams had written a supernatural story set in a small South Carolina town, this would have been it. Dripping with atmosphere and Spanish Moss, this book is truly a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction.
Then, there are the more serious adult books about witches which have been equally entertaining.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe -- a dual storyline of the Salem witch trials and modern times with some real spell casting thrown in.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent -- another story of the Salem Witch Trials -- a little more historically based.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness -- a perfect romance featuring a witch and a green-eyed evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a vampire. Who knew DNA was so sexy?
For those times when chick lit needs a little bit of witchy librarian and a sexy watcher, there is A Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft by Mindy Klasky. Who could resist that cover? I certainly couldn’t. Plus, there is a black cat. Bonus points!
However, I have saved the best of the best for last. The one book about witches that I measure all other books about witches by. The one witch book that has earned a coveted place on my Top Ten Books I Have Read in My Lifetime. The one witch book that inspired an entire trip.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.
I read it for the first time in April, 1991, and it haunted my dreams the entire time I read it. Judging by the dates when I read it, I should have been studying for my AP European exam (don’t worry, I did fine on it), but instead this book, my first Anne Rice book, held me in its grip and did not let go until I finished it. To this day, I can conjure up the images elicited in the book -- confederate jasmine blooming in an overgrown garden on a twilit night. Sigh.

Set in New Orleans, it traces a family known as the Mayfair Witches from their very beginnings in England to the present day. The house they inhabit is as much a character as the people themselves, and Anne Rice actually lived in it -- 1239 First Street. When I discovered that it was a real house, I knew I needed to visit it. In April of 2004, my husband, Charles, and I went to New Orleans. Of course, we had to go see the house. Imagine my surprise to find it was for sale. Unfortunately, the 3.75 million dollars Anne Rice was asking for it was a bit too much, but that didn’t stop me from taking a bunch of pictures.

 And there you have it -- your literary Halloween treat. Happy Halloween!

Now I am off to cuddle with my own black cat, Bagheera.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You Can Never Replace...

Like so many others, my mother shaped my reading. She didn’t just teach me to read, she taught me so many other things…

She taught me to take care of books. No folding corners to mark a place. No creasing the spines of paperbacks. No laying a hardcover open on the table.

She taught me to love books. She placed into my hands not just my first books, but some of my favorite books.

She taught me that no matter what I was interested in, there was a book about it out there.

She taught me the sheer joy of walking into a bookstore or a library and being assaulted by the sight and smell of so many books.

She taught me that sharing one’s delight in a book could be just as enjoyable as reading it by oneself. Actually she may have wished she hadn’t done that since I would frequently call her to read funny bits out of books -- I can still hear her saying, “Well, I won’t need to read it now,” and my response, “Oh, no, there is so much more.”

My mother died August 25.

It was as horrible as it was unexpected.

Every Saturday night we would eat at my parents’ house, and we would sit on the couch and chat. In recent years I would on occasion say, “You better just plan on living to be 100 because I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Sadly now I know.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of May, and after a masectomy, she began her first round of chemotherapy on July 29. On August 6 she was admitted to the hospital with severe abdominal cramps -- an infection had entered her intestine and because of the chemo, her body had no white blood cells to fight it. The next day she had a heart attack and her body began to go into septic shock and her organ systems failed. She slipped away from us, leaving a gaping hole where she once was.

The first day in the hospital, my dad asked me to go to the house to take care of the dogs. The coffee table was a repository of my mom’s life. She rarely cleaned it off, and we would tease her about the accumulation of things on it. That day, sitting there was Mom’s new copy of Gone with the Wind. She had bought it just a couple of weeks before when we went to the Atlanta History Center to see an exhibit on Margaret Mitchell and the original manuscript of the novel.

Of course I already had several copies of GWTW -- one of my favorite books of all-time -- but I found myself picking this copy up and beginning to read it.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…”

I hadn’t read it since high school.

I only read a little bit of it while my mom was in the hospital. Instead, I sat by her bedside day after day and talked to her. She was completely sedated, and I have no idea if she could even hear me while I prattled on about On the Banks of Plum Creek.

When she died, I returned to GWTW. I made that conscious decision because if Scarlett could get through her mother’s death maybe, just maybe, I could get through my mother’s. It was comfort reading plain and simple and while I read my mother’s copy, I wished I had Scarlett’s mourning to wear. Black seemed the only appropriate color at the time.

There is a book called The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen where one of the characters always finds books when she most needs them. Those books are actual characters with personalities. At the time, I found it a delightful idea -- after all, who hasn’t felt like certain books just appear when you most need them?

Never have I believed that more than in the weeks since my mother’s death.

I can almost picture the books, wherever books may reside waiting to be called forth, jostling for position.

“It’s my turn!”

“No, it’s mine!”

Because, believe it or not, every single book I have read since August 25 has had a dead parent in it.

I didn’t go looking for them.

It’s as if they have found me.

And they, knowing my personality, obviously, didn’t let on they are about a parent dying to begin with. It’s October, and I have always believed in theming my books to the season. So, yes, all the books have been masquerading as supernatural stories.

There was The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch.

Hoodoo, haints, old Savannah society. Oh, and the main character’s mother has died precipitating the move to Savannah.

There was Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon.

Girl begins attending strange supernatural school in Maine. Oh, and her parents have died under mysterious circumstances.

And then there was The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore.
Girl moves to Alabama to live in crumbling Southern mansion and begins seeing ghosts. Why is she in Alabama? Yep, you guessed it -- her dad has died. Let’s face it -- nobody does death and grieving like the South -- except maybe the Irish or the Russians, but that’s a post for another time. :)

So, I thought I might escape the supernatural for a little bit and picked up Howards End by E.M. Forster. Can you guess?

Yes, there is a mother dying in it, too, with the quote, “You can never replace a mother.”

Thank you, my dear books, for reminding me I am not alone in my grief.