Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: The Divorce Diet

The Divorce Diet
Ellen Hawley
Kensington Books
paperback, 234 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

We all know that food and love are intimately connected. We just don't always know how to manage that connection.

The Divorce Diet is a novel that blends humor, pathos, and the very real-sounding advice of an imaginary diet guru.  Abigail is forty pounds overweight and unhappy, but she doesn't really know that yet. She's married and staying home with her adorable baby, having put her cooking career on hold--just one of the things she's decided to give up for a life with Thad, her self-absorbed and snobbish husband.

The novel begins with Abigail at home, cooking a fabulous meal for her caddish husband, whose birthday it is. She's also just started a diet, and the guru-like voice of her diet book soon becomes the guru-like voice of her imaginary friend as Abigail realizes that she's being dumped. Suddenly single, without a career, friends, or much sanity, Abigail clings to the structure offered by her diet book: record every single thing you eat, and every time you exercise.

The Divorce Diet isn't as depressing as it sounds, although the protagonist is often depressed. Abigail is forced to pick up the pieces of her life and rediscover the passions that used to drive her. One of those passions is cooking. Descriptions of food, meals, and recipes are scattered throughout this novel, with an additional recipe section at the back. Hawley's writing is precise and charming; The Divorce Diet is funny, entertaining, and a bit wry. Hawley firmly avoids sentimentality or a too-serious tone through humor, and through Abigail's wry and self-deprecating voice. Although Abigail starts out as a bit of a marshmallow (in her inability to stand up for herself, for starters), she eventually gains insight, and her insights are earned and believable.

I really liked this book, and was surprised at the end by how touching it was. Abigail grew on me, and I was impressed by Hawley's technique. The way the author wove food and cooking into the story is appealing, and Hawley manages her narrative voice perfectly. The Divorce Diet would be an excellent choice for a book club selection: discussing this book over wine and some of the recipes in the book would be great fun. Recommended for book clubs, and for readers who enjoy humor and a good story.

Ellen Hawley's author website:

Ellen Hawley's blog:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do

Thirteen Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do
Amy Morin
William Morrow
hardcover, 280 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker, writer, college psychology instructor, and psychotherapist who wrote an article that went viral. First there was the post in Life Hack, which turned into an article at Forbes. Morin, who draws on both life experience, and her observation of human behavior (she works as a psychotherapist, after all), drew up her list of "13 Things" that she knew held people back from succeeding. She drew up her list when she herself was dealing with a series of losses and difficult experiences.

The original article, "Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid," was so monumentally popular (and presumably helpful to readers) that Morin turned it into a book: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

Do you need this book? The short answer is probably yes, but go ahead, take this online assessment:

Unless you're really good at cheating at these things, you might need this book. Or you have the mental strength of Wonder Woman.

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do is an approachable, easy to use book. Morin uses personal stories from her life, or the lives of people she knows, anecdotes from successful people (mostly in the business world), and examples from her therapy clients. These illustrations of the bad habits that hold people back are easy to understand, and Morin makes her book very helpful in the sense that she gives very specific things to do and to avoid.

In this list of 13 habits or ways of thinking, there are probably some that will really hit home for the reader, and some that will not. For me, the chapter "They Don't Fear Alone Time" wasn't one I needed to focus on. I'm an introvert who loves solitude, so fearing alone time isn't a problem for me. But the chapter on not focusing on things you can't control: that one spoke to me.

One thing that stands out about this book is the fact that Morin frames her book in terms of what the reader shouldn't do. This might be one reason for the wide appeal of her original article: most lists like this would focus on what the reader should do. But Morin tells the reader about negative habits that can stand in the way of success--and they are things you might never have thought about.

What I like about this book is the clarity of Morin's examples, and the fact that she really focuses on ways that you can change your thinking. She gives a brief self-assessment in each chapter, so the reader can recognize: Do I do this? I also liked Morin's encouraging tone, and her overall positive view that we can recognize and change unhealthy thinking and mental habits.

The best approach to this book is probably to read it through once, then keep it on your bedside table. Pick one mental habit to work on at a time. You can do it: you can become more mentally strong, and change the way you think. Get out of your own way.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Reading Challenges 2015

Challenged by Challenges

Reading Challenges are so alluring: the camaraderie, the glittering goals, the sense of achievement. So why have challenges not worked for me? Two types of challenges have worked for me in the past: classics challenges, and TBR challenges. Even though I told myself I wasn't going to do this any more, here are the reading challenges I just couldn't resist for 2015.

It's not a challenge, see? It's a Double Dog Dare. The TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James at James Reads Books will help me reach two of my goals for 2015: spending less money on books, and reading more of the books I already own.

Guys, I've been stockpiling books from Europa for about three years. They's so easy to find because of the distinctive design of their spines. So the challenge works really well with my TBR plan. Marie at The Boston Bibliophile is the genius behind this challenge: The Europa Challenge.

Hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, The Back to the Classics Challenge will help me work away at my Classics Club list (and reading the classics is one of my goals for 2015).

I know I'm tempting fate, but there is one last irresistible challenge:
Hosted by Passages to the Past. Since I'm finding I love historical fiction more than I realized, this challenge is perfect for me.

Have you signed up for any reading challenges for 2015?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: A Matter of Mercy

A Matter of Mercy
Lynne Hugo
Blank Slate Press
paperback, 263 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

If I had to sum up A Matter of Mercy in just one word, I would say that this is a book about trust. The characters in this novel are all deeply flawed, yet entirely engaging--in other words, they are human. Caroline Marcum, known to friends and family as Cici, has returned home to the town of Wellfleet in Cape Cod because her mother, Eleanor, is dying.

Cici's return home brings her face to face with her unresolved past. She is still struggling with her sense of guilt for having killed a four-year-old child in a car accident. Arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, Cici spent time in jail, lost her teaching certificate and career. Eventually she lost her marriage. She attempted to escape her past by moving to Chicago, where she supported herself as a waitress. Now, back home in Wellfleet, Cici is facing the loss of her mother; she is also facing her unresolved guilt, and the ways in which her life has been changed by the death of a child. As Cici realizes that the life she thought she was going to have is now gone forever, she is back in her childhood home, with plenty of time to think.

Cici's childhood home in Wellfleet is a Cape Cod cottage, right on the beach. While many local neighbors have had to sell their homes as taxes became exorbitant, and "washashores" have moved in with their ostentatious, glass and multi-deck houses, Cici has a view, from her picture window, of the traditional Cape Cod way of life. In Wellfleet, aquaculturists with "grants"--land between the ocean and the high tide mark, where oysters and quahogs are cultivated--work during low tides within view of the Marcum cottage. One of the aquaculturists, Ridley Neal, was a high school classmate of Cici's. Now Rid is working as a sea farmer, cultivating oysters and quahogs on the grant he inherited from his father.

Cici and Rid meet on the beach, where Rid tells her about his life as a sea farmer, and about his past, which includes a stint in prison for selling drugs. Later, when Cici glimpses Rid struggling to save his oysters from an incoming hurricane, she goes out on the beach and helps him. Since her mother is hospitalized for the night, Cici and Rid end up at her house. The brief romantic interlude that follows in large part determines the trajectory of A Matter of Mercy, as two damaged, flawed, and struggling characters try to learn to trust one another.

Caroline Marcum and Ridley Neal are not airbrushed romantic leads. They are ordinary people who have made huge mistakes in their lives. These two struggle to even have a conversation with each other--for much of the book it seems as though every encounter between the two ends with an emotional explosion. And Rid, who has a deep love and commitment for two just two things--his Labrador retriever and his work--is caught up in another struggle. He and two other aquaculturists are being sued by a washashore property owner, Pissario, whose land borders the tidal flats that include their grants.

A Matter of Mercy is a book that is totally rooted in a sense of place. The subplot of the aquaculturists' legal battle, and their struggle to maintain a traditional way of life, give Hugo's novel a larger context and significance. This is a novel about people who labor for a living, and most of the novel's action takes place during a time when the tourists and part-timers have gone. This gives Hugo the opportunity to paint a picture of the daily lives of ordinary people living in a place of extraordinary beauty. For Rid, working the flats is the only life he can desire or imagine. There's a hint of Thoreau's Transcendentalism in some of Rid's attitudes toward working outdoors, with the sky as his ceiling. Hugo captures both the arduous labor and the simple joys and pleasures of this way of life.

As Cici watches her mother slowly fade away, her primary relationship is with a hospice nurse, Elsie. Every encounter with Rid--after the one night they spend together--seems fraught with mistrust. Cici finds solace in Elsie's kindness and wisdom. Elsie advises Cici, not just in physically caring for her mother, but in letting go and healing emotionally as well. One of the pleasures of A Matter of Mercy is the detailed characterization of not just the main characters, but all the characters.

Since one of Cici's major unresolved issues is her guilt over the death of a four-year-old boy (a boy born with major deformities, which makes it even worse in Cici's eyes), it seems inevitable that one she returns to the area where the accident took place, she will ruminate constantly about it. She ends up accidentally running into the mother of the dead child, who is working at a branch of the public library. Cici begins watching the mother, Terry, and becomes mired in a web of lies as she spends more and more time watching the grieving mother of her victim.

All of this might make Cici sound unbalanced (and maybe, in a sense, she is), but Hugo writes her characters with such empathy and compassion that the reader is able to understand pretty much everyone in the novel--when from an objective point of view, many characters' behavior might seem inexplicable. That's one reason why I really like Hugo's choice of point of view. She chooses to have a limited-omniscient narrator, focusing on one character at a time. This gives the entire narrative a very smooth feel--no bouncing from narrator to narrator, but we get multiple points of view.

As Cici's life seems to fall apart--her relationship with Rid seems completely broken, she has lost her beloved mother when she wasn't really ready for that loss, and she is obsessed with somehow making sure the living victim of the worst mistake of her life is okay--she becomes endangered by a series of spooky stalking incidents.

A Matter of Mercy is incredibly absorbing. I became so attached to both Cici and Rid, even as they acted like silly teenagers some of the time. Hugo knows how and when to tighten up the tension, and the various story-lines (Cici and Rid, Cici's guilt over the accident, the lawsuit and the stalking incidents) are woven together so expertly that the story never slows down.

I absolutely loved A Matter of Mercy. The characters were entirely human and real, and very sympathetically drawn. The novel has beautiful writing, and a wonderful sense of place. I highly recommend A Matter of Mercy, especially for readers who enjoy the books of Nancy Thayer and Jodi Picoult.

For more about Lynne Hugo and her books, go to the author's web site at:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Year in Books

Happy New Year Readers! How was your year in books? In this self-interview, I will tell you about mine.....

How was your year.... as a reader?

It was a great year in books. I read about 77 books this year. That doesn't include all the other kinds of reading I do: reading on-line, excerpts and chapters from books, essays, textbooks, curriculum materials, etc. I spend a significant percentage of my time reading. (Note to self: wouldn't it be interesting to keep track of just how much time that really is?).

What were the best books you read in 2014?

I think the best book I read in 2014 was Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Men We Reaped in non-fiction, a memoir of loss--specifically the loss of five young men in Ward's life. Ward traces the effects of racism and poverty on her community, her own life, and the lives of young black men. This is a deeply compassionate, profound book that everyone should read.

Other non-fiction books that left a deep impression in 2014:
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America essays by Kiese Laymon
Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White a memoir in graphic novel format by Lila Quintero Weaver
Waking Up White by Debby Irving
Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau (I got a bit Thoreau-crazed this year. I now own three editions of Walden, my favorite being the Norton Critical Edition edited by William Rossi)
Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick--a slender volume that argues for Moby Dick as the great American novel

In contemporary fiction, I especially loved:
The Enchanted by Rene Denfield
Trans Atlantic by Colum McCann
Casebook by Mona Simpson
Fallout by Sadie Jones
Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson
Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
We'll Go to Coney Island by Barbara Scheiber
The Conditions of Love by Dale Kushner
What is Found, What is Lost by Anne Leigh Parrish

That's a pretty good list, but what about the classics?

I didn't read as many classics as I would have like this year. But the ones I did read didn't disappoint. (Wait, no, I lied. I hated Hard Times. A Charles Dickens novel that is both short and boring. Didn't know it could happen). But these classics I loved:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (a reread)
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison ***** Amazing book
Another Country by James Baldwin  ***** Amazing book
Antigone by Sophocles (a reread)
Walden by Henry David Thoreau

How does being a teacher affect your reading habits?

I find myself reading more Young Adult books, and reading certain books as background or research for my classes. I also spend enormous amounts of time reading in my field of secondary English education. That means books and articles about curriculum and theory, and books or essays about education and teaching. Here are a few Young Adult books I read and loved:

 Fangirl by Rainnbow Rowell
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

What else can you tell us about being a reader and a teacher?

Only that the two are deeply intertwined. Being a reader (a voracious reader) informs everything I do in the classroom. My class and my room are constructed around the idea of creating lifelong readers. I read every day in my classroom, and so do my students. I have conversations about books in the classroom, in the hallways, and in the library. Basically I am a full-time proseletyzer.

I don't see any fantasy or speculative fiction on your list. Did you read any?

Oh yes, this was the year that I decided I really do like fantasy and speculative fiction. I plan to read much more widely in this genre next year. Here are a few of my favorites:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

What is the last book you will read in 2014?

That would be Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston. It is a story about a young woman, Briseis, whio falls in love with the warrior Achilles during the Trojan War. So far I'm really enjoying it.

What are the biggest insights that have resulted from your year in reading?

That reading isn't a race. The past few years I've really focused on the number of books I've read, but I'm coming to see this as unimportant. I'd like to give myself permission to read slowly, and to really focus on authors whose books I've gotten the most from. Read deeply and slowly if I can.

The other insight I've had is the importance of rereading for me. I found a quote from Walter Mosely that sums it up nicely: 
Stories, essays, novels, and memoirs all deserve to be, indeed have to be read multiple times. Every writer worth his or her salt knows that writing is rewriting. Every reader should know the same thing about understanding text: that is, real reading is rereading.

         Walter Mosely in the Introduction to The Best American Non-Required Reading, edited by Dave Eggers

Any last thoughts?

Yes: it is a great privilege to be a reader. I have almost unlimited access to books and texts of all kinds, from all cultures, in all languages and in translation. The hardest thing for a reader today is to discern what is of value, and I think that's very personal. I think that comes down to the reader.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Goals for 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's Top Ten is:

Top Ten Goals or Resolutions for 2015......

There are two kinds of people: those who make resolutions, and those who resolutely refuse. It just so happens that I LOVE making resolutions. After all, it's a list!

For those naysayers who declare that no one ever keeps a resolution: I say you are wrong. A few years ago my list of resolutions included cultivating a habit of daily meditation. Well. that year I made progress toward the goal, but didn't achieve it. But because I had made the resolution, written it down, and thought about it, the intention was there. Eventually, meditation did become part of my daily life. So every year, at the end of December, I begin making my list. I usually try to keep it short (five is a pretty good number). And I save my lists so I can go back and see how I've done, and what patterns show themselves over the years.

This list isn't quite so serious... but it is intentional. Here are my bookish resolutions for 2015:

1. In 2015 I plan to spend more time rereading. There's always a conflict for me, because there is only so much time for reading. Am I missing something splendid by rereading a book? But more and more I am coming to think that any book that is worth my time is worth rereading. So I plan to give in to my impulse to reread.
2. Read more classics. I say this every year, but the classics are the most deeply rewarding books for me. And that Classics Club list is haunting me!
3. Read more comics and graphic novels. There are so many good ones out there!
4. Write more about what is happening in my classroom (here in this space, and maybe in other spaces out there in the blogosphere).
5. Read some speculative fiction and fantasy. After reading some really excellent fantasy (China Mieville, Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin) I need to continue to explore this genre.
6. Post at least once a week. So people know I'm alive. And reading.
7. Write blog posts on bookish topics that aren't necessarily book reviews. And approach book reviews in some different ways (short reviews, author profiles, etc.).
8. Read Haruki Murakami.
9. Read diversely: choose to read books by people of diverse backgrounds about diverse people.
10. Read without ceasing. The easiest resolution to keep.

Here's a long-ish quote from Henry David Thoreau that I absolutely love--and it says everything that needs to be said about why we should all spend time reading. It's from the section in Walden called "Reading":
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;--not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.

Do you make resolutions, bookish or otherwise? What are your goals for 2015?

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's (the last)Monday (in 2014): What Are You Reading?

It's the last Monday of 2014, and I have the luxury of immersing myself in reading for the next week. Most of my reading recently has been somehow school-related. I'm teaching American literature this year, with a focus on Civil Rights and social justice. Since I've been off from school it has been wonderful to be able to fully submerge my thinking in some of my favorite books. Here's what I read over the last week, and what I'm planning to read next:

Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
(Norton Critical Edition, edited by William Rossi)

Reading Thoreau is like an intellectual deep cleaning: his writing and ideas challenge an unthinking, automatic existence. What would Thoreau think of today's consumer society? Surely he would think we are all frittering our lives away. I've read Walden before, or at least big chunks of it. But it is in essays like "Civil Disobedience" and "Slavery in Massachusetts" that I am discovering what an original and independent thinker Thoreau was.

Other books I've read (for school and for pleasure):
Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer
Frederick Douglass: A Noble Life by David A. Adler
Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester by Rose O'Keefe

Since I'm preparing to teach The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, I decided to do a little research...

Then, for fun, I read Maira Kalman's delightful My Favorite Things (a sort of picture book for grown-ups).

Finally, I read Nathaniel Philbrick's brief Why Read Moby Dick? which convinced me that I need to reread this American classic soon.

What's up next? Definitely Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire, which has been in my TBR pile for far too long. Judith's blog is Reader in the Wilderness. Hand of Fire is the story of Briseis, a captive woman who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in The Illiad. This is my best chance to read for pleasure before school starts up again.

All the other books on my list for this week are somehow related to school. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (maybe) or The Good Lord Bird by James McBride are both on my list. And I've borrowed a copy of Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, which I hope to read before the end of the week.

Looking over that list, I might be overly optimistic!

It's Monday? What are you reading as 2014 comes to a close?