Best Books of 2006

It had to be done. One of those end-of-the-year "best of" thingies. Because despite their over-abundance in our culture, I love lists. And being both a writer and a librarian, my list must be about books!

I keep a record of everything that I read each year. (You know, anything to keep me out of trouble.) I've looked over it, and here are the wonderful titles that I must bring to your attention:


Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006) — I can't rave enough about this book. It's spiritual without smacking you in the face with any one dogma. It's mouth-watering for foodies and engrossing for travelers. And, man, it's funny. Hands down, the best nonfiction I read all year. As I read it, I kept thinking: My mom needs to read this! My sister needs to read this! So-and-so needs to read this! And so-and-so's neighbor! And his dog, if he can read! No other book in recent years has moved me quite like this.

Twilight and New Moon by Stephenie Meyer (2005, 2006) — Young Adult is where it's at. For years, it's been literature's neglected baby, but that's quickly changing. Great writers are being sucked in, and lovely, interesting, edgy stuff is being written. Case in point: Twilight and its sequel, New Moon. I've heard Meyer's books described as "Vampire books for people who don't like vampire books." But I also know that many who do love vampire books are equally thrilled with this modern take. The heart of this story is a delicious romance between Edward Cullen (vampire) and Bella Swan (regular girl). As someone who craves love stories, I can say with certainty that this is one of the best out there. I couldn't put them down. I started reading as soon as I got home from work, and I didn't get out of my chair until they were over. Husband, dogs, dinner, sleep — neglected. Twilight has won many honors, including being named by Amazon as the best book written for teens in the last five years. I agree.


I finally read Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), and all I could think afterward was, "Why did I put this off for so long?!" But after the millionth person told me that I had to read it, I finally did. And I'm so thankful. It's fresh and original, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and utterly engrossing. Henry and Clare are well-developed, well-rounded characters that I cared about. It's bursting with surprises and puzzles. And despite skipping around chronologically like nothing I've ever read, it's easy to follow and a quick read.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948) — I cry. A lot. But for some reason, I rarely cry when I read novels. This is one of the exceptions. The main character was so real, and I was genuinely concerned for her. What a beautiful book. It has the wit and heart and plotting of Jane Austen, but with kookier characters and a less-easy (but not unhappy) ending.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (2005) — The best children's novel I read this year (not to mention a National Book Award winner!). It's warm and fuzzy and feels like a classic. The action is low-key, the characters are charming, and the setting is marvelous. It will make you crave gingerbread in the summer. A real winner.

Other great fiction reads: Zorro by Isabel Allende (2005) — Swashbuckling fun from one of our greatest living novelists. Shug by Jenny Han (2006) — A children's novel about first love by a first time author. Sweet and touching and memorable.


The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003) — Creepy, creepy, creepy. My favorite quote on the back of this book is something along the lines of, "How could I have never heard about this before?" About America's first real serial killer, the Chicago World's Fair, and architecture. A surprisingly satisfying and fascinating combo.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005) — Hilarious history. Vowell takes a look at presidential assassinations and along the way, you learn some freaky cool stuff, like Lincoln's son being present at Lincoln, Garfield, AND McKinley's assassinations. I recommend everything Vowell has done, in print and on radio. Big thanks to my brother-in-law for introducing me to her.

Other great reads this year: Piano Lessons by Noah Adams (1996) — for anyone who wants to learn a new talent, She Got Up Off The Couch by Haven Kimmel (2005) — a welcome follow up to A Girl Named Zippy, and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (2002) — How messed up was THAT?


Best Chick Lit: Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes (2006) — Keyes is at the tip-top of the literate end of the chick lit scale, and her latest novel is her strongest. I love an author who gets better with time.

Best Graphic Novel: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006) — All I have to say is that whoever thinks that a graphic novel can't be as deep as a regular novel has obviously not read this.

Best Picture Book Published in 2006: So Sleepy Story by (former Caldecott winner) Uri Shulevitz. Finally, a bedtime story as perfect as Goodnight Moon. I want to buy this for every young child I know! Though the year's best line was in Mo Willems' Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct. It goes something like this: "Everyone loved Edwina. That is, everyone except Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie." The accompanying picture of Reginald is priceless.

Two YAs I Still Think About: Chris Lynch's Inexcusable (2005) and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (2004). Two stories told in first person — one from an teenage boy accused of rape and one from a teenage girl caught in the middle of a new world war. Unforgettable.

Author I'm Glad I've Finally Started Reading: Gail Carson Levine, master of the fairy tale. I zipped through Ella Enchanted (1998) and Fairest (2006). Her others are stacked on my office floor, waiting to be read in 2007.

And My Most Read Author Was . . . Meg Cabot! I read ten of her novels this year, twice as many as my second place author, Diana Gabaldon. (Though Ms. Gabaldon's tomes took up considerably more of my time. Oh, how I love Jamie & Claire! And Fergus. Fergus rules!) I love Meg. She's cheerful and fun and a positive role model for girls and women everywhere. I'll read anything that she writes (including her very funny blog). She's most famous for her Princess Diaries series, but my favorite is her Mediator series. Her adult books this year, Queen of Babble and Size 12 Is Not Fat, were both great fun, and I'm looking forward to the upcoming sequels.


My Super Sweet 16 . . . Desk Makeover

After the nice comments made about my pink desk in the last post, I feel it's my duty to show you what it looked liked BEFORE its super-deluxe 1950s glamtastic makeover. Yes, Kelly, that's the same desk you helped me haul away from the church rummage sale three years ago. And I don't want to tell you exactly when it was that I finished our project, because you might curse my name forever! After all, it took your generous and obliging nature, many days sweating in the Georgia summer sun, several tuna salad sandwiches, and a viewing of A Knight's Tale to get it this far:

The desk also lived a brief and boring life painted white, not long after these pictures were taken. Thank goodness I have no snapshots of that; I think my desk would be insulted if I showed the world its awkward, adolescent years. Besides, it has blossomed well in its new shade of Behr "Sweet Sixteen." Why bring up the painful past?

(Thanks again, Kelly. I don't know what I would have done without you that May.)


Project: French Memo Board

I took off five days from work last week, and during that time, I managed to get to several projects done. Most fell under "boring but necessary" — sewing up holes in sweaters, dusting windowsills — but a few left me feeling quite excited and proud. Enter my French memo board.

I was inspired by one my friend Amber made, as well as a cool Marimekko-like fabric that I found on eBay (purchased for a failed project last year). I read through instructions here and here and then went for it.

Here were my supplies:

1 piece of damaged art (bought for the lovely large frame — only two bucks!)
vintage fabric
chocolate-colored ribbon
large chocolate-colored buttons
old couch pillow
chocolate-colored pen

Not shown: staple gun and pliers

To be brief, I pulled the art apart with the pliers and then stapled it back together with the stuffing from the old couch pillow used as padding between the art and the fabric. Before placing the whole thing back into the frame, I stapled on the ribbon (pulled as tightly as possible). Then I sewed on the buttons at all of the places the ribbon intersected. Finally, I used the pen to color in the damaged parts of the frame where the lighter-colored wood underneath had been exposed. Ta-da! It took one evening and the help of my husband (he stapled while I pulled) to make it.

Here it is hanging on the wall above my writing desk. I plan to use it for holding notes for my novel, so this is as clean as it will ever be.


Spectacular Spectacular (No Words in the Vernacular)

My husband and I took this photograph last October. If you can believe it, the Asheville Area Autumn Spectacular Spectacular (AAASS) is even more beautiful this year than last. It's a shame I'm too lazy to go snap a new picture to prove it! I love living in the mountains. Last week, my breath caught while driving up the interstate — all of those yellows and reds and golds and oranges.

I'm looking forward to these three autumn Ts:

(1) Traditions — Reading "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and following it up with my favorite fall films: Ernest Scared Stupid (a guilty pleasure, MIAK!), The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Scream, and Halloween (even though I try to avoid it, I can never turn the channel away from those early scenes where Michael Myers hides in the bushes and drives around in that beige station wagon — some of the scariest scenes ever filmed in broad daylight).

(2) Trick-or-Treaters — My neighborhood is prime Halloween ground. We get over 300 children. Last year Spider-man was the big costume, and I was surprised to discover that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were still kicking it. Who will dominate the market this year? Captain Jack? Bob the Builder?

(3) Thanksgiving — I'm hoping to visit some family this year, and my birthday follows right after. I've always loved the idea behind this holiday. Not the Pilgrims-giving-the-American-Indians-smallpox thing, but the being-thankful-for-what-you-have thing. It's nice to be reminded how wonderful life really is.


Three Highlights of the Last 42 Days

(1) Visited the Elvis Peanut. There are over sixty-five peanuts masquerading as newsboys, Uncle Sam, and Hooters girls in Dothan, Alabama. I love a town with a theme.

(2) Viva Pedro. I could hardly believe that Asheville was lucky enough to be a part of this film series! My top three viewings (I made it to six of the eight, and rented a seventh): Bad Education, Talk to Her, All About My Mother. I can't wait for this winter's Volver; the trailer looks fantastic, and it got a great reception at Cannes. Plus, Carmen Maura, one of Almodovar's favorites, is back!

(3) Stephenie Meyer's New Moon. I didn't think it could live up to the sheer gloriousness that was Twilight, but by Gobstoppers, she did it again. Meyer is the kind of novelist who is making YA lit so much more exciting than adult lit right now. My fingers and toes tingle when I think about what is still to come for Edward and Bella.


Weekend Movie Roundup

Friday: Jarrod and I went to see Hollywoodland. Hurrah! Adrien Brody & Diane Lane were superb, and it was finally the right role for Ben Affleck. There were several great unspoken details — the elderly bodybuilder comes to mind, as does the gum chewing done by Brody — and only one thing that bothered me (it felt like lost its train of thought in the end). I'd give the acting four stars and the movie three.

Saturday: Got hooked on AFI's inspiring movie countdown. I was happy to guess four out of the top five, only forgetting To Kill a Mockingbird. There were a few "What?" moments, but nothing too major, although I do wish that The Shawshank Redemption had ranked higher (it was only #23). I mean, that scene where Andy Dufresne plays the song from "Le nozze di Figaro" over the prison's intercom system — how beautiful is that? It's a shame this movie was released the same year as Pulp Fiction & Forrest Gump, because it never stood a chance during awards season.

Sunday: In the morning, Memoirs of a Geisha — a repeat for me, but I wanted to see its gorgeous cinematography again. And at night, Money for Nothing, which I had no idea was based on a true story. Love me some John Cusack, but YIKES is that movie dated.

Best Movie of the Weekend: The Shawshank Redemption even though, you know, I didn't actually watch it.


"PO-TA-TOES" — Samwise Gamgee

Potatoes! We grew potatoes! Even if nothing else in the garden survives this nasty heat, I'll be proud of this small accomplishment. These were the first two Yukon Golds that my husband and I dug up. Sliced thin, sautéed in olive oil, and dashed with Kosher salt — mmm, no potatoes eaten before can compare. (And I had no idea that they'd be so easy to grow!) Next up: True Gold Sweet Corn. Our plants appear to be healthy, huge, and bursting with ears.

Monday Mini-List of Awesomeness:

(1) The Moon-Spinners — Hayley Mills (in her first adult-ish role) is vacationing with her aunt in Crete when she stumbles into an adventure involving stolen jewels and a cutie-pie Englishman. Not as good as the book, but perfect for a lazy morning.

(2) "A Girl Like You" by Edwyn Collins — Thanks to a freebie iTunes download from box of taco shells, I've been grooving to this all afternoon.

(3) Potatoes — I mean, really. Potatoes are awesome.


Employee of the Month

Today, while wandering the aisles of Target*, I realized that I was wearing a red short-sleeved T-shirt. Thank Elvis I wasn't wearing khaki pants or that could have been embarrassing.

*looking for liquid body soap, which I swear is in a new place every time I visit


Trailer Love

I love movie trailers.

Have you ever wondered, after viewing your Dodgeball rental, who would watch the trailer listed as a "special feature" right after watching the movie? I mean, deleted scenes, cast interviews, bloopers? Sure. But the trailer? I just saw the movie. I don't need to see the abridged version!

Well, I'm the reason they include that trailer on your DVD. Art house indie film or scatalogically-humored buddy flick, I want to see how it was represented in its trailer. I'll watch a good trailer over and over and over, studying it both before and after the movie's release.

The perfect movie trailer is a delicate blend of several elements. A good song is important. The images and dialogue need to be spliced together in a way that gives an idea of plot without giving away any surprises (especially the film's best jokes, nothing is more irritating). I also want a good look at the actors involved. Please don't make me guess who is in it! And the trailer must be of equal quality as the movie — not better, not worse. I don't want to watch a beautiful trailer, only to watch a less-than-beautiful film. Because, above all, a movie trailer needs to be as unique as the movie itself — visually, stylistically, and artistically.

I've been thinking about this today, because there are a few good trailers that have captured my attention:

(1) Marie Antoinette

(The teaser trailer.) Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman. WOW. The juxtaposition of modern music and Versailles is fantastic. And the costumes! The glorious costumes! Of course I want to see this movie.

(2) The Science of Sleep

Gael García Bernal + Michael Gondry = match made in Stephanie heaven. (And I refer to Me Stephanie, as opposed to the characters in this film. Oh, happy coincidence!) What can I say? This is one hella cool-looking movie. And I don't use the word "hella" often.

(3) Hollywoodland

Not as artsy as the other two, but it surprised me. I hadn't heard anything about it when I saw the trailer a few weeks ago. Apparently, it's been in the works for several years but keeps getting shuffled around and pushed back, perhaps due to its non-flattering Hollywood content. But with the noir edginess, the Hollywood murder mystery, and a few actors I really admire (Adrien Brody and Diane Lane), I'm excited! I hope this gets good reviews.

And while I'm thinking about it, here are my three favorite trailers of all-time:

(1) Adaptation — This has honest-to-goodness made me cry it's so good. The music selection is perfect, the editing is perfect, and it has a beautiful crescendo and climax. It's an excellent representation of the film. It feels like the film, it sounds like the film, it has the irony of the film — and it stands as a work of art by itself. Gush gush gush. I just love it.

(2) Garden State — (The teaser trailer.) Another excellent music selection, which considering the success of the soundtrack, is accurately representative. When I first saw this trailer in the theater, I exploded into a million happy pieces. Director/actor/screenwriter Zach Braff has a unique cinematographic style, and the imagery here is thrilling. I was so sad to discover that the trailer isn't included on the DVD.

(3) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — I think this particular trailer was a teaser, as well. I love writer Charlie Kaufman (who also penned Adaptation), and what I enjoy so much about this trailer is that it gives an intriguing glimpse into his screenplay. It has a great setup that leads into a strange array of images, and once again, it's set to an interesting song choice.

Talking about movie trailers makes me wish novels had them, too. The blurbs on the back cover can be so dull and uninformative. Wouldn't it be fantastic to instead have a tasteful image and tagline on the front (one super-fantastic review would be acceptable here, like on movie posters or DVD boxes), and then on the back have a sample of the actual story? That way, you'd get a sense of plot as well as a sense of how the novel actually reads.

Ooo, I wouldn't mind books having soundtracks either. But that's a story for another day.


Five People I've Been Compared To

I'm told that I look like someone based on one thing alone: hair. Here are five people that I've been told I look like, in order from least-suggested to most-suggested:

(5) Rogue

Sadly, I haven't been compared to the Absolutely Adorable Anna Paquin of the movies, but a coworker once said that I looked like Rogue from X-Men (and pointed at a comic book to prove his point). I think it was this particular Rouge, but sadly I don't know the name of her illustrator. I thought it was cool being compared to a superhero. Plus, I like her stripes.

(4) Pebbles Flintstone

In middle school, I pulled back the front of my hair with an elastic every day. So I had this little POOF of something, right on the top of my head, which led to several Pebbles remarks. Once, I wore a little white rubber bone in my hair just for the heck of it. I kinda liked it. Pebbles had it goin' on.

(3) Clara Bow

As a silent film fan, this one is exciting despite the fact that, no, I don't look like her. I wish I had It, but I can't say that I ever have. But she did have short red hair, and I do have her famous bow lips.

(2) Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

My sister gets this one, too. I got it again just last week. In fact, I honestly cannot count how many people have said it — department store clerks, teachers, customers, friends, strangers on the street. I don't look like Molly either, but since she's the most famous short-haired redhead, she's the celebrity most people think of first. The strange thing is that it's rarely, "You look just like Molly Ringwald." It's always, "You look just like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink."

So where's my bad prom dress? Where's Duckie? If I were Molly, I so would not have chosen Andrew McCarthy.

(1) My Granddaughter (or A Girl I Used to Date)

Grandmothers can't control themselves around me. Nearly every week, one mentions that their grandchild has My Exact Same Shade of Hair. Hmm, I say. No really, they reply. It's just like yours but a little lighter/darker/oranger. Which makes it not so just-like-mine, but okay. I understand wanting to talk about your grandchild.

However, I CAN'T STAND IT when people bring up the ex-girlfriend thing.

Enter strange man. "You know, I once dated a redhead . . ." Then they go off and tell me either one of two clichés: (1) She was a bitch or (2) She was a slut. And then they imply that, It's true what they say about redheads, meaning I'm either mean or sex-crazed.

Thank you, creepy old man. Thank you.


Two Looks For Two Sexes

Two looks I dig on both men & women:

(1) Chunky Glasses — as modeled here by Elvis Costello & Lisa Loeb

(2) Tall Hair — as modeled here by Zach Braff & Gwen Stefani

Two things I learned while putting this together:

(1) Tall hair pictures are hard to find. Poor Gwen. I liked her hair best in the drunk picture. And there's a sad, sad lack of Scrubs pictures online, so I had to settle for this so-so one. Where's the J.D. love? His hair rocks so much that he has a hairmet, for crying out loud.

(2) It always takes longer to post something than you think it will. I was supposed to get the laundry started two hours ago.


Three Down, Three to Go

This picture is from April, but things aren't much better at the moment. So it doesn't really matter that I don't want to go outside and take a new picture. There are mosquitoes out there, people. Lots of them.

This is only my second year gardening. I grew up in Arizona — the land of yellow lawns and gravel raking. To say things are different in North Carolina would be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad understatement.

I've spent the last few years reading from a towering stack of gardening books (beginning with, I am not ashamed to admit, Organic Gardening For Dummies) and making many mistakes. Like letting the grass grow into the former homeowner's beautiful Garden Tour perennial beds, and then letting said grass go to seed. Yes, my home used to be on the town's annual GARDEN TOUR. Talk about neighborhood peer pressure. Or how about that time that I didn't pick out those cute little seedlings, because they looked so promising, and then they turned out to be weeds taller than me? I never bothered to pick them, so they all dropped seeds, and now I have, literally, thousands of them.

I have noticed that the Garden Tour committee has not contacted me.

But I have a good reason for ignoring the flower beds. Veggies. I want veggies! Last year, my husband and I built three raised beds in the backyard. We made the mistake (shocking) of digging up the grass without killing any of it first. It took nearly two months to dig up the grass, fill them with new dirt (a mix of peat, vermiculite, and compost), and chicken wire them (to keep out hungry bunnies). We were thankful when it was over — Think how easy it will be NEXT year! we kept telling ourselves.

I started everything from seed — tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, peas, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, butternut squash, pumpkins, herbs, and bell peppers — but, of course, everything was planted late. Again, we said, that next year would be different. Things would make it into the garden on time for maximum veg.

Cut to this year. I buy a ridiculous number of seeds (adding more tomatoes, bell peppers, and pumpkins, plus jalapenos, yellow squash, watermelon, potatoes, radishes, eggplant, okra, and corn) and decide that I want more veggie space.

I know! What was I thinking?

We didn't just double the veggie beds, we TRIPLED them. And even though we set down black plastic to help us kill the grass, we're still only halfway done. So here's a note to my future seed-buying self: Yeah, that cool new seed you've never tried to grow before? IT'S NOT WORTH IT. SAVE YOURSELF. SAVE YOURSELF!


"Hypnotized By A Strange Delight . . ."

My lilac is in bloom right now, and the smell is intoxicating. I feel like I live in a storybook cottage every time I take the walk between my front door and my car.

But since moving here two years ago, I've avoided something. My lilac must be pruned. The problem with pruning a lilac — I've, er, read — is that it's a three-year process. And for those three years there aren't any blooms, because the lilac's flower bud is at the tip of the last year's growth (meaning, it doesn't form in the spring). Well, I was going to slash it, hack it, chop it this winter, but I never found the heart (or energy, let's not kid ourselves here) to do so.

Now I'm glad I waited.

Because I've finally made the lilac/My Little Pony Poof & Puff Palace connection. You see, the MLPP&PP had one of those fantastic rubber squeezy perfume thingies on top, and when squeezed, it released this subtle but fantastic scent. I had no idea what it was, but I LOVED that smell. In fact, this scent was so fantastic that my sister once noticed it in her office's restroom soap dispenser and called me immediately with the exciting news. And now I know it's lilac.

Lilac! I have a Poof & Puff Palace in my front yard!

Now I'm on a mission to purchase a lilac/pony perfume. It's always wonderful when the smell of a toy you had as a child — a sweet Strawberry Shortcake doll, the warm, plastic-y smell of an action figure — can trigger such complete feelings of happiness.

And speaking of happiness, the bees must be ecstatic, for I have noticed that pollination looks a lot like copulation:


Sentimental Saturday

Last summer, my husband and I lost our beloved Peeg.

(Notice the carrot stains under his chin. He ate — and pooped — several pounds of carrots a week!)

Jarrod and I live on the sentimental end of the emotional spectrum, so after burying him in our backyard and surrounding him with garden statuary left by the previous homeowners, we decided to plant an old-fashioned bleeding heart above the grave. Unfortunately, it wasn't Dicentra spectabilis season. Our local nursery couldn't help us and neither could any nursery online. I finally located a single store still selling them. We ordered and the plant arrived, bareroot, on our porch a week later. Bareroot, of course, being a common way to ship perennials. Too bad we didn't know what "bareroot" meant — even though the answer was, duh, in the name.

After scanning and rescanning the planting instructions (which assumed we were Master Gardeners working for the Queen of England) and searching and researching the internet for bleeding heart instructions (not realizing that bareroot was bareroot, no matter what the plant), we got tired of waiting and went for it, planting two-thirds of it in the ground and one-third of it above ground. Whoopsie! We realized this was a mistake once the part above ground, you know, died and fell off. I thought for sure we'd killed poor Peeg's plant and that we were terrible, horrible parents who deserved to have their golden retriever taken away from them.

But, like all my favorite stories, this one has a happy ending. Because for the last three weeks, this has been growing in my backyard:

And today, I saw them. Two tiny, bleeding hearts — one for me, one for my husband.

We miss you, Peeg.