Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Christmas Gift to You . . .Books!

For several years now, I have compiled my "top ten" list of books that I read that year and would recommend to friends. This year, I couldn't come up with ten. Mostly because I read several that really disappointed. But I managed to come up with 9 that I thought I would rank somewhere between "Fantastic" and "worth mentioning." Please feel free to comment with your favorite books of 2008. I'm always looking for my next read . . .

Note: may not have actually been published in 2008, but was read by me in 2008. In order of preference . . . .

1. What is the What, Dave Eggers
2. Twilight, Stephanie Meyer
3. Sandspurs, Mark Lane
4. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
5. Are you there Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea, Chelsea Handler
6. Atonement, Ian McEwan
7. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
8. Skinny Bitch, Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
9. The Double Blind, Chris Bohjalian

What is the What by Dave Eggers
I spent months telling everyone I know about this book. It truly affected me. It’s the story of a man whose family and village in Sudan were attacked by the murahaleen and rebel militias in a civil war in Africa. At the age of nine, Valentino is forced to flee after seeing his brothers, sisters, mother, father and neighbors brutally slaughtered. He along with all the other “lost boys” of Sudan travel hundreds of miles by foot pursued by militia, wild animals and threatened by hunger and exposure. It’s incredible that he and any of these young men lived. It’s astounding that he was sent to America as part of a refugee relocation effort. And it’s amazing that he told his story to Dave Eggers who then wrote the book in Valentino’s voice. This is not light reading. It is disturbing at times, but it left me feeling hopeful and inspired. A must read!

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
I haven’t read a book for teens since I was one. But I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s not so much a vampire story as a romance novel and something about it just sucks you in (no pun intended). It’s not exceptionally well written and, after spending the last 20 years reading adult fiction and non-fiction, the writing and story seemed overly simple. But what makes this a good read is the characters and the setting. Meyer does an excellent job creating full-bodied and distinct characters in an eerie setting that I found myself drawn to and thinking about long after I put the book down. And the movie, very true to the book, was delightful! I’ve already loaded the rest of the series into my Kindle for reading in 2009.

Sandspurs by Mark Lane
This collection of Florida newspaper columnist Mark Lane’s work is an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read if you live in Florida, especially if you’re a Florida native. He gets right to the heart of what makes Florida unique – love it or hate it. And he conjures up the best of what Florida used to be – a state full of small towns, scenic roads, predictable but sometimes dangerous weather and all manner of quirky people, places and things.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
I don’t often read books that become a part of Oprah’s book club, but I was intrigued by this book as soon as I heard about it. I picked it up (no small feat since it is 562 pages) before it was ordained by Oprah but after it became a critical favorite. The writing is exceptionally well done in a quiet, building sort of way. You can’t help but fall in love with Edgar, the deaf mute whom the story is about. It has everything a great American novel should – an underdog, a family secret, mystery, good guys and bad guys, tragedy and triumph. In addition, it features some amazing canine characters, probably the best written dog character I’ve experienced since reading The Dogs of Babel. It took me all summer to read this book, but it was easy to drift in and out of. If you’ve got the time, invest it in reading this book.

Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler
After reading some pretty heavy stuff this year, I needed a mind-break. This book did the trick. It’s funny in a bawdy “No she didn’t!!!” kind of way. It was a favorite among my female friends. Very funny, sarcastic, and a quick read. Chelsea Handler is one of the best female comedians of our time.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
My grandmother gave me this book because she said she couldn’t understand what was going on in it after reading the first several chapters. It was difficult to get into and I admit, I skimmed a lot of it because it was overly long and descriptive. But it had a great payoff. I didn’t see the movie, so I can’t comment on that, but I really loved the ending of this book. However, if you want a neat, happy ending, this is not the book for you.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
I admit I only read this book because I’m interested in seeing the movie that’s now out with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. It was written in 1961 and the story is about a young, idealistic, passionate couple whose lives sputter and stall after they move to the suburbs in the 1950s. Think “Mad Men” combined with “Titanic.” I think doomed love must have been a theme for me this year (Twilight, Atonement, and to some degree Edgar Sawtelle), and this book is the poster child for that particular genre. The book's themes include the death of dreams, the dangers of apathy and the pitfalls of money and success. The bright light of the book is the character of April, whom I thoroughly enjoyed. A lonely woman who wakes up one morning, takes a look around and says “This is it? This is all there is to life?” Perhaps a feeling we can identify with on a bad day . . .or maybe any day.

Skinny Bitch by Rory Friedman and Kim Barnouin
This is Chelsea Handler meets Rachel Ray. Two bawdy, colorful super skinny chicks offer up advice on losing weight and living a healthier life in stark terms. “Duh, put down the donut bitch!” Funny and thought provoking.

The Double Blind by Chris Bohjalian
The only reason this made my list is because of the surprising twist at the end. I can usually see these things coming, but this ending truly startled and perplexed me. I had to go back through the book and re-read parts to figure out how I could have missed anticipating this ending. It’s written as an homage to the Great Gatsby. If you like mysteries, you’ll like this book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in Florida

I've enjoyed three unique experiences of Christmas in Florida in the last couple of weeks.

First, spent last evening with two very good friends sipping wine on one's front porch overlooking the salt marsh. No jacket required. Just hours of good conversation and laughter with a stunning view.

Second, getting Christmas cards from my friends here locally that show what Florida is really all about. Like this!

Wondertwin all ready for Christmas - note the red and green surfboards!

And finally, took delivery of a great big bag full of fresh picked oranges from my neighbor's tree. She gifts her favorite neighbors (that's me!) with fresh fruit when the oranges ripen every winter. Free fruit, locally grown (as in next door) and organic, too!

Porch sitting, surfing and fresh picked citrus, that's what Christmas in Florida is all about!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Random Holiday Thoughts

Today is the first day of my two plus week vacation. I won't have to go back to work until Jan. 5. It's been so long that I took this much time off all at once, I'm not quite sure what to do with myself.

Play. Play is the main reason for living for MiniMe. And at a time when so many kids are staying indoors connected to videogames, computers and tvs like umbilical cords, I'm grateful that MiniMe loves to play. She plays with the other kids in the neighborhood, she plays with our dogs, she plays independently in her room. Last night she climbed into bed with me for a mother-daughter chat. She'd had a confusing day. Seems she was playing with a girl in her class she seems to get along with best and she invited another girl to play with them. But the first girl didn't want the new girl to play. Isabel was trying to be peacemaker. She's often in this role on the playground. Why are girls so difficult about getting along with each other? Oh but to have my only daily dilemma be who to play with . . .

I was hanging the stockings over the fireplace this weekend and remembered one of my favorite childhood Christmas experiences. Each year when I get out the stockings, I think of the time that my sister and I got new stockings one holiday. Out went the old, small felt stockings, replaced with much bigger white stockings made of a fluffy white material. Mom proudly hung the stockings near the tree. She wasn't out of the room 5 minutes before my sister and I had those stockings on our feet and were sliding across the room in them. Actually we took turns, first I'd put the stockings on my feet and she'd pull me around the house (hardwoord floors) then we'd switch. A couple days later my mom exclaims "What happened to the new Christmas stockings!!" still hanging in their usual place, now with the bottoms of the stockings stained black.

In true crazy dog lady fashion, I hung a stocking for the dogs. Two dogs, one stocking. It's already stuffed with new chew toys, new leashes and there's a package of pupperoni wrapped under the tree. No stocking for the guinea pig. Guess I'm playing favorites . . .

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Perfection Doesn't Make Memories

At this busy time of year I think it is important to remember that it is not perfection that makes lasting memories, but mistakes. Some of my family's most cherished holiday memories are built on the "oops, that's not exactly how I had planned it." So if you're suffering from the pressure to get everything done right and on time, relax, kick back and stop trying to make everything perfect. No one remembers perfect!

For instance . . .

One of my family's most talked about holiday memories is the time my dad decided to surprise us and bring home a fresh cut Christmas tree. I know, sounds innocent enough. My dad had picked out what he thought was the perfect tree. Only it was planted firmly in the median of US1 between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, his daily route to and from work.

"Oh my god!" I hear my mother exclaim as a commotion ensues outside the back door one December evening after dark. There's Dad standing there, his clothes a mess, scrapes on his hands and arms, with a great big grin on his face, dragging a scraggly green tree with broken limbs covered in dirt. "What have you done!" exclaims Mom.

Dad proudly states "I got us a Christmas tree" as he pushes past mom dragging the sad little tree inside the house leaving a trail of dirt and branches in his wake. My sister and I scamper around excitedly, happily taking directions from Dad in helping him set the tree up in the living room.

For weeks Dad had his eye on this little tree as he passed it each day on his ride to work. One day he takes along his ax and some rope and, on his way home, he pulls his old blue station wagon off the side of the road. He grabs his ax and rope, sprints across two lanes of oncoming traffic on US1 in the dark and proceeds to "steal" the perfect Christmas tree. The tree comes down easily as it is not as big up close as it looked from the road when he was zooming by at 70 mph. And here's where it gets a little tricky. Now he has to drag the tree back across two lanes of oncoming traffic in the dark. Mind you, it is rush hour.

He sees a break and goes for it. Only as he runs across the road, he trips and falls on top of the tree in the middle of US1. Miraculously he makes it across and manages to wrestle the tree into the station wagon and deliver it home, proudly to his family.

"You could have been killed!" my mother says with a horrified look on her face as Dad sets up this half-crushed tree in our living room. "It's got a bird's nest in it."

"Cool! Let me see! Where is it!" My sister and I exclaim as we dance excitedly around the dirty broken tree.

It was the "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" come to life in our living room. It was pathetic. But it is the tree I remember most from all Christmases of my youth.