Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe
Mid 1980s London comes to life with Nina Stibbe’s letters home to her sister. Funny, poignant, refreshing, and thoughtful, I really enjoyed reading this memoir. At 20, Nina becomes the live-in nanny for Sam and Will Frears, who live with their mother, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Sam has some significant health issues, and they are mentioned but not a focus of the book. Literary celebrities like Alan Bennett frequently stop by, and this makes for some unusual dinner table conversations. Great books are discussed, as well as how to swear in German. Nina’s sister sends her recipes, and some are more popular with the family than others. Nina and the boys have adventures in London, comment on Mary-Kay’s dates, and casually refer to Nina’s trouble parking the family car. Nina is encouraged to consider college, and struggles with the recommended reading list in English literature. Even after she starts school, she maintains her close connection with the family.
I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn
At the end of 2009, Lu Ann Cahn is feeling stuck. She’s happily married, on good terms with her grown daughter, a long-time cancer survivor, and respected for her work as a news reporter in Philadelphia. But still, not happy. And also not happily embracing new technology or social media. So she begins 2010 with a project to embrace and blog about a Year of Firsts. For 365 days in a row, she tries something new, or something (like hula hooping) that she hasn’t done in over a decade. Her firsts include: a polar bear plunge, taking a ballet class, baking a chocolate cake, zip lining, using an ebook reader, paying other people’s parking meters, sewing on a button, and going to the opera. Some were fun, others took more daring, some days weren’t very successful, but every day Lu Ann tried something new. She learned to embrace change, say “yes” more, got recharged and changed her life in surprising ways. Read more about her firsts on her website, and link to short video clips of her experiences. Looking to make 2014 different from last year? Lu Ann’s book may inspire you to embrace change, too.
Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
After watching at least one episode of the comical television series “Parks and Recreation” (thus a chance to familiarize yourself with the masculine, carnivorous, neoliberal, and mustachioed Ron Swanson character—played by Nick Offerman) you may then want to read Offerman’s memoir “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” Offerman is a loveable humanist who encourages others to live a “delicious life” that entails getting out into the great outdoors, creating something with your very own hands, and best of all finding a partner to share and enjoy life’s adventures with. No doubt his book will appeal to those who love his Ron Swanson character’s deadpan humor as he delivers his personal history related to sex, drugs, rock and roll, theatre, and film—and to small town America. He hails from Minooka, Illinois, attended U of I in Champaign-Urbana, and is a well known professional in the Chicago theatre scene. Offerman is a wordsmith. By the time you finish his book, you’ll be ready to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) and pass it with flying colors, so long as you do your homework and look up the words he cherry picked to vividly describe his childhood, his years as a not so starving (yet very poor) artist, and his current status as “one lucky bastard” (his expletives are common knowledge, so no need to have a dictionary on hand for this half of his book). I would especially recommend this book to anyone who is the least bit interested in the life of a modern day thespian. Offerman has had an extensive, successful career in theatre and in front of the camera. He offers sage wisdom in a very direct, endearing, and humble manner. He is a family man to the core, a loyal friend, and one of the funniest individuals on television today. As a woodcraftsman, he is a force to be reckoned with. And to boot—he is an intelligent and engaging author. This is one of my top picks for the 2013 year of great reads! It is also enjoyable to read a local author. –Jeanne
This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
Ellie, 16 and living with her mother in Maine, gets an email from a stranger asking if she could walk Wilbur tonight. Concerned about Wilbur, she writes back to alert the sender to the mistake. The two start a funny exchange of emails (Wilbur turns out to be a pig), and Ellie and Graham, 17, become friends over several months. The teens don’t exchange names. Unknown to Ellie, Graham is a movie star. When the location for his next movie falls through, he suggests Ellie’s coastal Maine village, and the movie crew set up camp in Henley for several weeks in the summer. He doesn’t tell Ellie, and mistakenly thinks Ellie’s friend Quinn is his email pal when he meets her at the local ice cream shop. After the pair finally meet, and are definitely attracted to each other, they continue to exchange emails. Ellie is not very happy to have her friend turn out to be famous, and she knows that her mother will be upset by the media who follow Graham’s every move. Ellie and her mom have a family secret that they’re trying to keep, even from Ellie’s friend Quinn. The two teens are very likeable, and had normal, happy childhoods, unlike many of the teens in fiction today. Except for his fame and career, Graham is normal. He’s lonely and feels isolated since he left school and feels that Ellie is his only real friend. Ellie is trying to earn enough money to go to a poetry camp at Harvard, and hopes her absent dad can help out with tuition. Graham gets in trouble trying to keep photographers from hassling Ellie, and the two take a boat and head out of town to meet Ellie’s dad. Nothing goes as planned, but it makes for a good story. I enjoyed this sweet fantasy teen romance with a lot of humor.
Recommended for fans of Joan Bauer’s books.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.
The Tao of Martha, by Jen Lancaster
Jen, a Chicago area writer, closes out a very bad year by deciding to tackle her house, garden, and life with tips from Martha Stewart. She figures that if Martha can bounce back from adversity, the practical advice in her books and magazines should help Jen. For his New Year’s resolution, her laid-back husband Fletch resolves to grow a beard. Jen is funny, tends to take on more than she can handle, swears a lot, and is devoted to her dogs, especially Maisy, who has major health issues. Guests arriving for a party are likely to be handed a recipe card and directed to the kitchen. Thinking like Martha helps Jen clear out her kitchen’s “Drawer of Shame”, organize and decorate her house, learn about gardening, throw some great parties, become an obsessive disaster prepper, and get her priorities straight when life throws her a curve, such as forgetting that Thanksgiving was just around the corner. Jen finds that while learning new crafts can be rewarding, if you’re not having fun, it’s not for you. For example, pumpkin carving is tough and messy, but decorating pumpkins and gourds with glitter is a breeze. And if you’re going to stop wasting food and cook more, you might as well learn to make comfort foods that are expensive to buy, such as cheesecake. I enjoyed this entertaining and insightful memoir of the year Jen chose organization and happiness.
The Human Division by John Scalzi
From award-winning science fiction writer John Scalzi, another adventure in space. This book was originally released as a serialized ebook. It’s good to have a Plan B. For Colonial Union administrators, Plan B is the unarmed courier ship Clarke, with Captain Sophia Coloma, Ambassador Abumwe, her assistant Hart Schmidt, and Lt. Harry Wilson, on loan from the Colonial Defense Force. Unknown to the crew of the Clarke, they are sent on diplomatic missions that have not gone well for various reasons, including the disappearance of one of the ships they’re replacing. The division referred to in the title is the disconnect between the humans on Earth, and the humans in the Colonial Union, a collection of human colonies, which has been using the Earth to staff its Colonial Defense Force, whose recruits have a short life expectancy. The Clarke and its crew have various adventures which include Harry and the secretary of state’s daughter, a doctor, skydiving to Earth from a space station that is under attack. It was entertaining to read, and I look forward to the serialized sequel. For more about the book and sequel, visit the publisher’s website. For more about the author, visit his well-known blog.
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
This is a supernatural thriller, and quite fun to read. It’s the first in a series about the Checquy, a secret British spy agency staffed with people with a variety of supernatural abilities or unique physical characteristics, along with normal assistants. The opening sets the tone: Myfanwy Thomas (she pronounces it Miffany) finds herself in a park in London, surrounded by bodies wearing latex gloves, and with no memory. Her former self has left her a letter, however, giving her two options and a safe hideout. Clearly there is a traitor within the Checquy agency. The reader and Myfanwy learn that she is an executive with a desk job at the agency, but is occasionally called on to oversee the Checquy response to supernatural emergencies, such as a building covered with purple fungus that has swallowed the first team sent to investigate screams from inside. Her normal assistant Ingrid is invaluable as Myfanwy tries to get up to speed on her job while looking for the traitor. Lots of action and suspense, along with humor, plenty of eccentric characters, and unique settings including a boarding school for supernaturally gifted children make for a page-turner. I can’t wait to see what O’Malley, a first novelist from Australia, comes up with next. For more information and a video book trailer, visit his website.
Much Ado about Magic by Shanna Swendson
Texan Katie Chandler is normal. She has no magical talents, but is immune to magic and can see through illusions. She returns to MSI in New York City to work in marketing. MSI is run by Merlin. Yes, that Merlin. Her boyfriend, Owen Chandler, is a sweet, shy, powerful wizard. A rival accuses Owen, who’s adopted, of having evil wizards as parents, and of causing the havoc in Manhattan that he stops. There’s a lot of humor with flying gargoyles, a clumsy fairy, magical illusions and spells, and her department’s constant partying while Katie’s trying to plan a big event in Central Park. Her roommates know her secret, and try to help when Owen and MSI are in trouble. Not your typical urban fantasy, it’s more of a romantic comedy with fantasy elements. This is book five in the series that begins with Enchanted, Inc. Read more about Katie on the author’s website. Book 6 is now available, and we own the whole series in print, and as e-books on Media on Demand.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
I like cookbooks. I select them for the library’s collection, and I also collect them, skim them, look at the photos, flag promising recipes, and bake or cook recipes from each. But I don’t generally read them out loud. Deb Perelman’s entertaining first book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, was meant to be read out loud. She is young, has a tiny New York City kitchen, a husband, and a toddler. She also loves to cook and entertain, and find new dishes at a restaurant and then experiments (or obsesses) with getting them just right in her kitchen. Her wildly popular blog, smittenkitchen.com, is full of recipes and observations on food and life. In the cookbook, the notes for each recipe are often hilarious, and guaranteed to make you hungry. I’ve already tried a few recipes, and my coworkers at the library agree that Deb’s Brownie Roll-Out Cookies are delicious.