Sunday, December 30, 2012

Summer of nonfiction

Wow, it's been a long time since I posted any book reviews here.  Luckily, I spent my whole summer recovering from long bike races.  And reading.  I did a lot of reading.  Somewhat surprisingly since I love me a good novel, most of it has been nonfiction (full disclosure: except for rereading the Twilight series for the fourth time and, um, the Fifty Shades of Grey series).  Here's a brief recap:


The Blood Sugar Solution - I bought this one because my brother has been losing weight and I saw it at his house when I was there in May.  Basically, the premise is that the types of foods we eat are the cause of the majority of physical ailments today, and by changing what and how we eat, we can make huge improvements in our health.  The first part of the book goes over different systems food affects, and there are patient case studies to illustrate the point of how well Dr. Hyman's "solution" works.  Each section has a quiz that will help you determine if your system is affected and if you need the Blood Sugar Solution.

To be honest, I read the first few chapters and then started skimming.  While the quizzes might be a good diagnostic, to me it seemed like basically anyone would qualify for needing the blood sugar solution.  To summarize: grain is bad, sugar is bad, processed foods are bad, dairy is bad. Get rid of most of the food you have in your house.  The back of the book does have some recipes, and I'm going to try some of those, but like most "how to eat" books, for me it falls short.  Maybe because I couldn't stick with it all the way...

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

In Wild, Strayed writes about her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even a week or so after reading the book, it has stuck with me.  Having had my kids super early, I never had the opportunity to go off and adventure as a young adult with no responsibilities.  That said, I don't know if 19 year old me would have had the confidence to take off and hike 1000ish miles on her own.  39 year old me, yeah, she'd do it...but I'd rather do it with friends.  Who's in?

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

On of my very favorite book is is Krakauer's Into Thin Air, so I couldn't resist picking this up on the Target book rack.  There are some definite parallels between the two "Wild" books.  Similar to Cheryl Strayed, Christopher McCandless took off into the...well, a young adult.  His story lacks her happy ending, but it was a fascinating read.  Both of them were somewhat estranged from their families, Strayed as her family kind of disintegrated after her mother's death, and McCandless in response to some things he learned about his family's past. 

Even before McCandless pulled away from his family, however, he was very strong-willed and independent, setting off on solo trips that I can't imagine letting my teenage kids do.  Of course, there didn't seem to be a lot of "letting" with him, either.  He did; he didn't ask permission.  As a parent, his story is in some ways one of the scarier things I've read.  You can't protect your kids from everything, but you especially can't protect them from themselves.  Very interesting, very sad story.

Nothing Daunted, by Dorothy Wickenden

I absolutely loved this story about two society girls who, unsatisfied with the options around them in Auburn, NY, took positions teaching school in rural Colorado in the early 1900s.  Written by the granddaughter of one of the women, the story fleshes out the numerous letters the women left behind from their year in Colorado.  These two ladies truly had the adventure spirit.   

A new school was built primarily to further education in the area but also to bring marriagable prospects into the male-dominated population, and Dorothy and Rosamond were the first teachers hired.  As a teacher, it added an additional level of fun for me as I read about their struggles to maintain discipline and create lesson plans.  Though both girls were college graduates, neither had any teaching experience...or really much practical experience at all, having lived in houses with maids, cooks, and other servants.  Still, despite growing up in very privileged families, Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood thrived on the Colorado frontier. 

The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

I've read and reviewed this book before, but since I'm currently rereading it I'll mention it here again (boy, you know your blog is getting stale when you're reduced to re-reviewing books you've already blogged about!).  I love this book.  It's funny, it's weird, it's interesting.  Basically, Jacobs, an agnostic of Jewish heritage, spends a year trying to live by the letter of the Bible, both the big rules and the obscure. While he is doing this with the express purpose of writing a book about it, he goes full in, from letting his beard grow (he'd totally fit in with the Virtus crowd!) refusing to touch his wife when she's Biblically "unclean" (she's both a saint and hilarious, such as the scene where she sits on every seat in the house so that he can't use any of the chairs)... to "stoning" attempting to "be fruitful and multiply" (with more success than he'd imagined). 

Having been raised with religion, it's interesting to view the Bible through the eyes of someone who doesn't believe (and I'd be willing to bet he knows the Bible better than the majority of people who are fervent believers), and it was fascinating to watch the transformation in his relationship with religion as he went through the year.  Really a neat book; whether you have a religious background or not, you'll learn something new, you'll be sure to laugh, and you'll be glad you're not married to Mr. Jacobs! :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

HISTORICAL fiction vs. historical FICTION

The White Queen: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
I was over at my aunt's house a couple of weeks ago. She's a prolific reader, and we were downstairs looking at some of her books.  She lent me a few...perfect timing since it was right before we left on vacation.

The first book was The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory.  She has written extensively about the Tudor period in England, and I've read many of her books.  This one was set earlier in England's history during the War of the Roses, a period I don't know much about.  The book is from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, a minor noblewoman who changes allegiance from the Lancaster to the York sides when she falls in love with the king.  I really enjoyed the story.  The characters were well-drawn and the plot was really interesting.  I love getting to learn a little while I read, and good historical fiction really makes the past come alive.  Definitely worth reading.

Daughter of York: A Novel
Next, I read Anne Easter Smith's Daughter of York.  Written about the same time period and with many of the same historical figures, this book tells the story of Margaret of York, the king's sister, and her love affair with Anthony Woodville, the queen's brother.  This was also a well-written and interesting book.  I really cared about the characters and was invested in their story.  It was a little confusing sometimes to keep all of the characters straight (lots of similar the fact that King Edward and both of his brothers all had sons named Edward).  I found myself really rooting for Margaret and Anthony and enjoyed their story.

***If all you want is a quick review of both books, stop here.  The next part includes a spoiler about Daughter of York.***

Finally, at the end of Daughter of York, after all kinds of trials and tribulations, Margaret sails off for Burgundy knowing that she and Anthony are going to get to be together.  Yea for the happy ending!  Unfortunately (for my love of happy endings and for history), then I read the author's note, where she basically says 1) there's no historical evidence that there was ever a love affair between Margaret and Anthony and 2) shortly after she left England he married someone else and she endured some tragic losses of loved ones.

As far as I'm concerned, this latter book is a good story, but it's not historical fiction.  It's taking historical characters and using them in a story of your own making.  I'm laughing at myself saying this, but I felt a little betrayed after reading that note.  In my mind, historical fiction takes what really happened and brings it to life.  Yes, of course the author has to make up details that didn't make it into source materials, create minor characters, and imagine conversations, but the heart of the story is true.  In contrast, the heart of Daughter of York was pure conjecture.

What do you think?  Do I need to take a breath, have a drink, and get a life?  Do you like historical fiction?  Would that annoy you?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This week in books...

Just finished:
Forever: A Novel

Quick and dirty review: Historical fiction, set in New York City (I always think of that commercial when I say New York City), from the point of view of a man who lives forever but can't leave the boundaries of Manhattan.

Interesting fact: The author finished the book on Sept. 10, 2001.  The next day's events led to a significant rewrite of the end.  I'd be interested to read the original ending and see how it was supposed to go.

Verdict: Eh.  Interesting, but not gripping. 

Currently reading (training-related):

Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier

Because, of course, there's no better way to improve one's swimming than read a book about it, right? (rolls eyes)  The book was mentioned by one of the guys at the tri club swim a couple of weeks ago and jumped out at me while I was spending my Barnes & Noble gift card.  Review to come.
Currently reading (non-training related):
The Known World

A manly recommendation.  I'll let you know if his book recommendations are as good as mine when I finish it....which needs to be soon, because after finishing that online class I did this past week (4 months' work in 6 days.  Awesome.  When it was done.) I found out that I can do two more of them.  I need the credits, so I'm going to do it, but it means spending an awful lot of time at the computer and NO recreational reading.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book review: The New Rules of Lifting for Women

Back in January, I blogged about my goals for the year. Number 6 was "Go to the gym/strength workout 1x week."  That's not very often, but usually I do much better by setting low goals that are easily surpassed than by setting more ambitious goals and promptly failing them.  Even with setting the bar very low, though, I think I made it to the gym about 8 times between January and May, and all of those were to use the treadmill. I was on track to completely failing my strength training goal.

Before, any strength training I did was just aimlessly using the Nautilus machines at the gym.  I didn't really know what to do or have money for a personal trainer, and those seemed pretty idiot-proof. Then, I was reading a friend's blog following his family's progress in training for a marathon and in response to one of my comments, he suggested I check out The New Rules of Lifting for Women.  I trust his advice, so I ordered the book, and I'm so glad I did.  I'm one of those people who does better with a plan--somebody else's plan that I can just follow.  For me, this book is that plan.

The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess
The full title is The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess.  That sounds pretty good to me.  It basically has three parts:
  • Dispelling the myth that if you lift heavy weights you'll end up looking like a musclebound man and building a case for lifting heavier free weights.
  • Rationale behind fueling for muscle building (hint: you'll probably eat more)
  • Detailed strength training plan
  • "Diet" plan (I put "diet" in quotation marks because it isn't a diet as we typically think of the word)
I've read the book all of the way through once, most of the way through again, and I continually refer back to it.  I've bought into the program, for sure.  I like the way that he built evidence for the type of exercise and for the way that you should be eating.  I love the strength training.  I need something very detailed.  Do this, this is how.  Next, do this and this.  That's just how the book is set up.  It focuses strongly on free weights and calls for strength workouts 2-3 times a week. Other than one week where I only got in two workouts because my shoulder was sore from volleyball, I've been consistently at the gym 3x week for the past month or so. 

The one part I don't love is the chapter on the diet plan.  It has charts to help you figure out how many calories you should be eating (for a lot of women, probably more than you think), information on the amount of protein you should be eating (for me, WAY more than I typically eat...this has been a real challenge), and some sample recipes.  Remember how I said I need specifics?  This isn't specific enough for me.  Now, that's mostly my failing rather than the book's.  For someone who doesn't need their information spoon-fed to them, it would probably be sufficient.

Like I said, I've been consistently following the strength plan for a few weeks.  I haven't yet seen much difference on my body, but I'm definitely seeing an improvement in the amount of weight that I can lift.  For example, I started out doing squats with just the 45 pound bar, and now I'm up to 105 pounds (on purpose...I did do two sets of 115 pounds because of a math error, but that was pretty uncomfortable.  By the end of the week, though, I should be back to 115 for real).   It's quite a process...there are a total of 7 stages--18 total workouts in the first stage, and then between 8-10 workouts in the subsequent stages. (If you buy the book, do a google search of the title and you'll find several websites where people have made up training logs.  You'll have to have some info from the book in order to access the logs, but they're pretty handy.)

I've started following the eating part a little bit, and I'm planning to really look at what I'm eating a little better so that I'm full-on "on the plan".  Then, when I'm finished with all of the stages, I'll show you my progress. I have some atrocious pictures of me in my shorts and sports bra to serve as "before" pictures.  Hopefully I have some thin good after pictures so that I can show them side by side when I'm finished with the program.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book review: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

Conventional wisdom warns us not to judge a book by it's cover, but that's typically exactly how I choose my reading material. A visually arresting cover or a good blurb on the back are a must. Luckily, Little Bee had the former and just enough of the latter to catch my interest.

The back basically tells you "we aren't going to tell you much about this book because we don't want to spoil the surprise, but trust us that you'll like it". That, to me, is a dangerous sales tactic because it sets you up for disappointment if the story isn't up to the hype, but in this case they were absolutely right.

All I knew was that the book deals with the repercussions of a chance meeting in Nigeria between an English woman and a Nigerian girl. I had a guess at their relationship before I started reading, and I was dead wrong. The story was much more--and much more powerful--than i had imagined. Like the back cover of the book, I'm left with telling you that I don't want to spoil it by giving out too much information about the plot.

Working first back in time and then forwards, the story is told in chapters that alternate between the two women's voices. The male author did a pitch-perfect job writing for his female characters. It's probably the best I've read of a male writer narrating through his female characters since Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. It's a powerful story with well-written characters and a very engaging plot. I bought the book Wednesday night and finished it Thursday morning. I just couldn't put it down. Even now, several days later, the characters are still with me. Definitely worth reading.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Book review: This is Where I Leave You

I read this book last year and then reread it so that I could blog about it.  I was starting to notice that most of the books I review here are books I wasn't crazy about.  I think that's because it's so much easier to talk about what you don't like than what you do...but I'm going to try with this one.

This Is Where I Leave You

Judd Foxman is still reeling from his wife's affair with his Howard Stern-ish boss when his father passes away from cancer.  Despite the fact that his father was a dedicated atheist, his last wish was that the family would sit shiva for 7 days.  This is no small request of a family that tolerates each other best in small doses, and issues most certainly arise.  In the midst of the Foxmans' typical -- and atypical -- sibling drama, Judd's soon-to-be-ex-wife arrives with an announcement that further throws him for a loop.

Sounds like a laugh a minute, right?  And yet, this book is hilarious.  I was reading sections aloud to my husband in the first five pages.  From Judd's discovery of his wife's adultery to their mother's wildly inappropriate conversational topics to his efforts to defuse the good-intentioned matchmaking of shiva callers with eligible daughters to the family's attendance at temple, there are some laugh out loud moments.  At the same time, it's really a touching book and a great look at their complicated family dynamics.  I won't tell you how it ends, but I can tell you that, like in real life, there's always more to the story than the characters see from their side of the conflict.

Well worth reading.  And of course, if you do read it, come back and tell me what you thought.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"I'm easy" giveaway

I recently reviewed The Extra Mile, by Pam Reed, on my book blog.  I don't think I'll be reading it again, and I'm trying to keep the amount of stuff in our house to a minimum, so I thought I'd give it away.  Yes, perhaps I should have learned my lesson about giving it away in college, but apparently I haven't.  Lucky you. :)

To enter into the giveaway, here's what you do:
  • * Comment and let me know you want it. 
See? Easy.

In a week or so, I'll randomly choose a winner, and eventually I'll get the book sent to you.  ("Eventually" because, in addition to being easy, I'm lazy.)