03 March 2015

Book Review: The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

I read this book very quickly over the course of a couple of days, and it's just SO GOOD.  I don't read many short story collections, but this one is a bit different in that the stories are interconnected.  Less like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge (which I liked a lot) and more like Frederick Reiken's Day For Night (which I loved).  So maybe this is a novel in stories.

Anyway, author Lauren Acampora grew up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb and couldn't wait to move away for college.  When circumstances demanded that she move back to her hometown, she kept her sanity by imagining the dark, inner lives of her friends and neighbors, and thus The Wonder Garden was born.

Acampora clearly has an eye for the bizarre and a taste that runs to the twisted side, and I had the feeling that I would love this book from reading the first story. The characters drop in and out, the point of view shifts for each chapter, and what the reader ends up with is a brilliant cross section of the dark underbelly of suburbia.

For example, in one story, a man is the house inspector for a young couple moving to this rarified and historic Connecticut town from New York City. The inspector turns up in a later story, as do the young couple, but now the husband has become a shaman and the wife takes a job in an antiques shop. There's a wealthy business man who bribes a brain surgeon to let him his his wife's brain during a procedure, and all three show up one way or another in other chapters. There's the matron who is so dedicated to preserving her historical pre-revolutionary home that she can't understand why her children would rather go off to college to learn about post-colonial Africa than to stay home and learn how to make furniture by hand.  One of those children in a later chapter then attends a sort of love-in where the shaman has attained guru status. A wealthy couple become patrons of an art installation that infuriates the entire town, and pieces of the installation later find themselves at an antique shop for sale.

And so on.  While these myriad characters skim by on the surface, Acampora deftly exposes their secrets that writhe in the murky depths, stalking them from below.  Her overall vision of suburbia is masterful, occasionally verging on brilliant.  If you had David Sedaris take on the work of Edith Wharton, and if you added in a pinch of the madness from Where'd You Go Bernadette, you might have a good sense of The Wonder Garden.

I had the good fortune of meeting Lauren Acampora at Winter Institute a couple of weeks ago and attending a dinner hosted by Grove.  I was so taken with her description of her book and how it came to be that I read it as soon as it arrived home -- I flew home from the conference, but the books I collected in Asheville were shipped back via slow boat. Grove Atlantic will be publishing the book in May.  I happen to love the cover, which Acampora told me that her husband designed. He's a miniaturist and he created the scale model used in the photograph.

01 March 2015

Last Month in Review: February 2015

God, what is it with the winter this year?  I'm so full up with snow fatigue that I don't know what to do with myself.

February had its ups and downs.  The snowfall has been terrible, but at least I got to escape a little while to head to Asheville, NC, for a book conference for work.  It was amazing, what with the all-you-can-carry free book buffet and the author dinners, but frankly one of the best parts was being in a place where I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin.

Being outside without coat, hats, scarf, gloves, or balaclava
February wasn't a big reading month for me.  Solid, but not amazing. In chronological order, here's what I was able to finish last month:

1. The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry (novel). This book is as understatedly funny as the title might imply. Anybody who has grown up in the country or in Wisconsin (and other rural parts of the midwest) will probably find much to relate to in this one. 

2. Moranthology by Caitlin Moran (essays/nonfiction).  I treated myself to one essay/column per day over breakfast.  I loved a LOT about this book and found my attention wandering in other parts. I found myself not caring very much about the pop culture stuff (except for Benedict Cumberbatch), but when she was taking on social issues in England, I found myself wanting to stand up and roar in agreement.

3. Wild Tales by Graham Nash (memoir/nonfiction).  I'd had this audio book sitting around for quite some time but hadn't been too interested in it until the day I had no book to listen to in my car.  I gave this a whirl, and while I didn't love it, I'm really glad that I had the chance to listen to it. Review here

4. Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (memoir/nonfiction).  This book was excellent.  Her story is a common one -- a woman with a raucous upbringing marries a man who seems to promise stability, but then realizes the fit isn't quite right -- but her writing and the setting set this one apart. I hope to review it one of these days. Definitely the best book I read in February.

5. The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora (fiction).  Great collection of interconnected stories.  Or maybe a novel in stories?  I am not entirely sure what the difference is.  Review is in the can and will post later this week. This might actually tie for best book I read in February...

6. & 7. This One Summer (fiction) by Mariko Tamaki and Strange Fruit (history/nonfiction) by Joel Christian Gill.  Two graphic novels written for younger readers.  I didn't love either one and I reviewed them together here

I think this is the only month in my own recorded history where I read more nonfiction than fiction (4 vs 3). Without really intending it, I achieved a bit of diversity, too.  Only four of the authors are American, and two of the authors are non-Caucasian.

What did y'all like this month? Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

27 February 2015

Two Graphic Novel Mini Reviews

For the first time since riding the train back from BEA in 2007, where I read a fun YA graphic novel whose name eludes me, I read not one, but two graphic novels.  I'd heard quite a bit about both of them, either through bloggers or via industry buzz, and since both Sarah Says Read and Nylon Admiral have been sharing their enthusiasm for comics and graphic novels in general, I thought I'd pick these up to read.

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, which earlier this month was awarded both a Caldecott Honor and a Printz Honor (I think the first time in history that a graphic novel has won both) is the story of two friends who meet every summer at the lake cottages where their families vacation.  Rose is a little older than Windy, and though both of them are on the cusp of adolescence, it's Windy who often is the wiser of the two, despite her silliness.

Rose and Windy become quasi-involved with the drama among some of the local teens as a means of distracting Rose from her own family troubles, and before the summer is over, both of them have begun  that process known as coming of age.

I didn't love this book the way I thought I would, especially after all of its accolades and the raves of two of my coworkers, but I liked it and it was an easy way of incorporating a graphic novel into my usual reading.  My artist/illustrator husband teased me for reading it, to which I didn't pay him a bit of mind, but as he was teasing me, he grabbed the book out of my hands to study a few pages.  "Well, whoever drew this sure knew what they were doing," was the surprised compliment out of his mouth. The single panel pages held particular sophistication.

I picked up Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill to read specifically during Black History Month after seeing it on somebody's blog.  I ordered in several copies for the store, where it sold pretty well, and I finally settled in to read it last week. Of the nine narratives, I was only familiar with one story, that of Henry "Box" Brown, so I was glad to get a mini-education in these pages.

Unfortunately, what I had mistaken for a graphic novel for adults (I mean, come on, it's called Strange Fruit, after all) is actually aimed at middle grade kids, and because of that the author/illustrator seemed much less interested in narration than didacticism. What's more, the humor used to minimize the dreadful situations of the characters for younger readers came across as back-pedaling when read through adult eyes.

While I'm glad I read this book, it ultimately wasn't a book that I liked very much, but that has more to do with my incorrect expectations of it.  The instructive tone throughout is better suited to the classroom than to a graphic novel, and the illustrations didn't do much for me, either, I'm afraid. If, however, you're a teacher or librarian looking for ways to get kids to read more history, particularly history that has been minimized, this book could be just the thing.

NB: I purchased copies of each of these books for myself.  This One Summer is published by First Second and Strange Fruit is published by Fulcrum. 

22 February 2015

When You Get to Asheville: Winter Institute, Part Deux

Behold the glorious Grove Park Inn.  They say it's haunted!   
Y'all, I'm pretty tired.  I had to work three 10-hour days in a row last week and I've got one coming up again tomorrow (today, by the time most of you read this). You may not have heard, but winter has not been particularly nice to New Englanders this year.  I'm cold all the frickin' time and so full of snow fatigue that I'm beginning to understand how cabin fever could be a justifiable defense in homicide. And really, the last thing I want to do is blog, but I've got 30 minutes before Downton Abbey comes on, and I'm trying really hard to stick to my two-blog-posts-per-week resolution.

Okay, enough whining from me.  I'm still sorta-kinda riding the high from Winter Institute, even if Asheville seems like a distant memory.  Here's a recap of my days (and nights).  You'll have to forgive the terribly blurry photos, but many times I couldn't be arsed to show up on time because I had things to do in between sessions, so I ended up standing up in the back on several occasions.
L-R: Larson, Corrigan, O'Nan. Sorry they're so tiny
Our mornings began with institutional breakfasts and plenary speakers, one of which was often better than the other.  You can guess which was which. One such morning, we had a last minute change of schedule, where Maureen Corrigan and Stewart O'Nan were led in conversation by Erik Larson on the topic of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the permanence of The Great Gatsby.  Larson allowed that he was more of a Hemingway fan, at which point I tuned him out, but I very much enjoyed what Corrigan and O'Nan had to say from their nonfiction and fictionish points of view.
This is the secret basement passage
After breakfast each morning, we'd dash from one side of the GPI to the other, trying to find the ballroom where our break-out educational sessions were held.  It was getting from one side to the other that I followed a fellow bookseller down what I dubbed the "secret passage." Almost everybody walked through the hotel on the lobby level, but there's also the option of using the basement passage, which is strategically lit and filled with the soothing scents of lavender and mint, since the spa is on that level. Lo and behold, when you get to the halfway point, there's an amazing waterfall right outside, so naturally I had to pause there to make a photo.

We also had speed dating lunches with publishers, where we sat at assigned tables and publishing folks would go from table to table, pitching their favorite/best/most interesting books for the upcoming season.  Here's the lovely Ruth Liebmann from Penguin Random House, as she pauses in the midst of a presentation. She was talking about the just-published short story collection from Kelly Link called Get In Trouble, which is fun and offbeat and flirting with the fantasy/horror genres without actually settling into them.

More educational sessions after those lunches, and dashing back & forth across the hotel. There were two days when the weather was quite pretty, so I tried to maneuver outside on those days.  I even managed to catch up with Joan on one of those dashes and an obliging bookseller took a snapshot for posterity.

I might have skipped the last session once (or maybe twice) in order to sit outside with a cocktail and reflect on all that I had learned so far.  That might sound coy, but really, sometimes there's a real feeling of sensory and information overload, and taking a moment to process it all is quite good and not at all a waste of time.  Especially on that one day where I was meeting with three different point-of-sale inventory system guys and listening to their pitch on why our store should change to their system instead.  A cocktail was definitely needed!  Plus, look at that sunset.  I'd be a fool not to be sitting there in contemplation of the sun's downward progression.

Asheville or Tattoine?  You decide.  Not sure why there's a second sun in this photo...
After cocktails came the author receptions.  One night was full of major publisher sponsors of Winter Institute, followed by a second night of indie publishers.  I don't waste time at either of these with the food or booze provided.  I spend my whole time in line, getting books signed for myself and for booksellers back home who weren't able to attend.  I met dozens of nifty authors but didn't make many photos.  Here are a few that were worth snapping:

These Star Wars characters are felted.  They were amazing!
 From the same guys who brought us the Cozy Classics series now comes the Star Wars Epic Yarns series.  I love these board books!

One author and illustrator team used photographs of their adorable dog as the illustrations for a children's picture book. It's only the second dog I've ever seen at Winter Institute, and she was just a gem.  Very chill, and not at all trembly like one might expect from a dog that size in a large crowd of strangers.

Last but never least, here's my co-worker Elli signing books at the author reception.  We'll be launching her book at the store next week and it will be ever so exciting!

I was lucky this year to arrive at Winter Institute with two dinner invitations and receive a third one for the last night only moments ahead of time.  I had been looking forward to the parties for Other Press and Macmillan/Bloomsbury, but when somebody canceled at the last minute for the Grove/Melville House party, I was very happy to inherit the empty seat at the table.  All three of the dinners were great fun, but check out especially the location for the Other Press soirée:

Other Press hired a bus to transfer us all to the winery at the Biltmore Estate. We arrived after dark, so there wasn't much that we could see, but then somebody led our group underground to a beautiful room straight out of The Lion In Winter, complete with tapestries for hiding behind and plotting.  It was stunning.

This was the hallway to the bathroom. Or maybe to the dungeon.
There were three authors at the table, but the table was so massive that I only had the chance to chat with one of them.  The rest of the time I enjoyed visiting with my fellow booksellers and some of our hosts from Other.  The food was good, and even though I'm not a chocolate fan, I had to take a picture of this beautiful dessert:

My second dinner had an unexpected beginning: we rode to dinner from the hotel in what my group dubbed the Jurassic Park-mobile.  Macmillan/Bloomsbury hosted a dinner in downtown Asheville at Cúrate, a tapas restaurant:

Here we had three small tables, with one author per table, which made it so much easier to get to know the folks whose books I will be selling in a few months' time. The evening was just wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed talking with my neighbor, author Rebecca Dinerstein about the intricacies of learning Norwegian (she's fluent, and her first published book was actually a bilingual book of poetry). The food and the company were all superb.

Here's Rebecca with two booksellers
My third dinner, the last minute one sponsored by Grove & Melville House, was also a lot of fun. I was  lucky enough to be seated next to the author again, which was great, and with a couple of really neat booksellers.  The pièce de résistance, however, was probably this dessert, which I scraped up with my spoon and very nearly again with my tongue. Why, yes, those are bits of pomegranate and persimmon, with chopped pistachio, sitting atop two perfect rounds of vanilla panna cotta:

I was pretty exhausted by the end of our last day and ready to go home. Or at least ready to sleep on the plane!  As much as it all is, it's also on the hectic side.  Joan and I would leave our hotel room by 8:00 every morning, not returning there until after 11:00 pm each night, and one night it was closer to midnight.  Hard work AND hard play comprise the bookseller's conference, that's for sure.

One last shot from the Grove Park Inn

17 February 2015

When You Get to Asheville: Winter Institute 2015

   The lobby at the Renaisance  
So, last week, I traveled to Asheville, NC, with two coworkers to attend the tenth annual Winter Institute, an indie bookseller's conference where all one's bookish dreams come true. Our hotel, the Renaissance, was in a prime location downtown.  It was clean, modern, and comfortable, and directly across the street from the Thomas Wolfe homestead.
the Wolfe homestead
And check out the photo at the top.  How could you not love a hotel that uses books as a decorative statement and names their restaurant The Writer's Bistro? So I was feeling pretty good about our choice, despite the fact that we were staying at the "overflow" hotel for the conference.  The official hotel sold out in less than 24 hours, but I didn't really care about that until we pulled up to it for registration and were greeted with this place:
The Grove Park Inn
Daytime view from the back porch
Well, actually, that's the opposite side of what actually greets you when you drive up, but that side wasn't quite as picturesque.  This is the venerable Grove Park Inn, and it was pretty fabulous.  Getting to hang out there for a few days, even if I wasn't staying overnight, was a privilege. For one thing, it's got some serious literary cred.  F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed here when he was visiting Zelda in the nearby asylum, and he did some writing here.  The hotel has his writing desk, typewriter, and traveling case on permanent display just off the lobby:

For another thing, it has a huge sunset patio that stretches the length of the original wing of the hotel, which was the perfect place to mingle, enjoy a cocktail, and hope for a sign of the elusive Green Flash. Though I never heard it ring, there's a beautiful bell out on the porch (incidentally, it's almost as tall as I am) labeled The Sunset Chime, and I appreciate that.

Waiting for the Green Flash
After grabbing our badges and taking it all in for about thirty minutes, Elli, Joan, and I left Grove Park Inn and headed back downtown.  First stop: Malaprop's.  It's Asheville's pre-eminent indie bookstore and it is a gem.  Full disclosure: I'm also friends with the owner, so it's possible I'm a little biased, but don't take my word for it.  It was voted #1 bookstore in America a few years ago by the good folks at Publishers Weekly.
Emöke B'Racz and me
From fun signage to playful gift items to Dolly Parton cutouts, this store is a gem.  You'll be surprised by how much these good folks can pack into a rather modest square footage.
And why not?

Dolly is a national treasure!
Elli even had a sighting of her first book "in the wild" on the store shelves, which tickled her, and she had the opportunity to sign her photograph on the wall.  Malaprop's had put up photos of all of the featured authors at Winter Institute and Elli was the first to sign.

Emöke with the three Odyssey folk
Here's Elli signing her author photo
After that, it was time to head to the venue for our opening reception, cunningly called The Venue. All 500+ of us booksellers met there, along with authors and publisher sponsors.  It's always a lot of fun to meet up with those folks I usually only see at conferences such as these, but before long the noise was so intense that I had to check out of there a little early.
Random shot holding my camera above my head at The Venue.  I see one book-
seller from Oxford, MS, and a woman from Macmillan whom I know here.  
Joan was invited to a publisher dinner that night, so Elli and I found a restaurant for a light, late dinner. Since this was Elli's first time attending Winter Institute, we went over the general structure of the conference and talked about stuff for the upcoming week.  Oh, and books.  Always books.
Elli, sitting in the Writer's Bistro
We didn't linger over our meal, as we were both pretty tired from our early morning departure from Connecticut.  I knew that it would be the last night I would be returning to the hotel before 11:00 pm, so it was just as well I had one early night with which to pace myself.  So I headed up to the room to watch Downton Abbey instead of going back out.

Because I'm feeling punchy, here's a closing photo of my
reflection + the view outside my hotel room...
...and a glowing skull, to which I say, why not?

15 February 2015

Audio Book Review: Wild Tales by Graham Nash

It may be a disappointment to my brother, who used to own a record shop, for me to admit in a public space that up until I was given a copy of this book to listen to, *literally* the only thing I knew about Graham Nash is that he comprised the "Nash" portion of the music group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I didn't know that he was British, I didn't know that he formed the band known as the Hollies.  Basically, I didn't know the second thing about this guy.

Which is probably why it took me more than 18 months after the book was published for me to get around to listening to his memoir.  Random House Audio sent me a copy back in September 2013 and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since, but when I was in between audio books last month, I gave it a go.

Graham Nash does his own narration, and he's a competent reader. I'm not sure that I'd sign on for him to narrate audio books in general, but this one came with a bonus: every time a line of lyric comes up in the text, Nash sings it instead of just reading it straight.  In this way, I came to realize that I knew far more of his songs (and the music of C, S, N, & Y) than I realized.

While the specifics of this book were new to me, the general content is about what I expected: celebrity memoir that was slightly dishy, slightly masturbatory, and filled with more than a little drugged stupor. Not particularly well written but occasionally engaging, in listening to this audio I felt like I was getting a history of popular music from the 1960s and 1970s. Nash opens with the moment he meets David Crosby and Stephen Stills at Joni's house, where the "Joni" turns out to be Joni Mitchell.

He then backtracks to his childhood in the north of England, through the rise & fall of The Hollies until he leaves them to form Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  Neil Young comes in later, and along the way the reader gets Nash's personal impressions of such music greats as The Beatles, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and scads more.

Mostly I was left with the impression that Neil Young was an arrant asshole and that Graham Nash is unrepentantly sexist, and yet there were moments when I was completely carried away on his narrative.  I found myself coming home at night after listening to the book to do a little googling. Weary as I felt about reading about  all of the hash, heroin, and cocaine consumption, there were occasionally some instances of truly good writing--mostly when it came to describing music and songwriting. And several times over the last few weeks of listening to this book, I've found myself humming, whistling, or singing some of the songs that Nash and/or his bandmates have performed: Bus Stop, Carrie Anne, Love the One You're With, Southern Cross, Our House, Judy Blue Eyes, and more.

I'm glad that Random House Audio sent me a copy of Wild Tales, as I do feel it's important to occasionally read beyond one's usual turf.  There were times when I was very pleasantly surprised by where this book took the reader, and I feel much more knowledgeable about the formative tunes American music in two pretty turbulent decades when the entire social fabric of this country was changing.

What about y'all? Are you a fan of The Hollies? Of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young) in general, or of Graham Nash in particular? 

11 February 2015

Lying Liars: Bizarre Customers, Part-the-mumble...

While I'm away in Asheville for the week, I wanted to schedule a post or two.  Obviously I'm not going to write an actual book review, but I have just the right amount of energy to recount a terrible/laughable customer encounter I had right before Christmas. For whatever reason, I totally kept my cool and was even trying very hard not to laugh through the whole thing, so I must have been in just the right mood. I often feel deflated after bad customer interactions and I tolerate behavior directed toward me that I would never allow to be directed toward my staff So the way that this story ends is particularly satisfying.

Woman: Yes, I called yesterday about The Hobbit.  Where is it?

Me: Right over here in the sci-fi/fantasy section. We keep the Tolkien on the bottom shelf. [In a fit of bookseller humor]. You could say he anchors this section.

Woman: Which one is the illustrated one?

Me: Well, we have a couple editions with some of Tolkien's original illustrations, but I wouldn't call them illustrated editions, per se.  They're right here...

Woman: What? Why have you lied to me?  I called yesterday and you told me that you had illustrated Hobbits.  Now where are they?

Me: Well, I didn't personally tell you that we had illustrated editions, and I'm sorry if one of my coworkers did.  I know there was a Michael Hague illustrated edition at one point, and I can check to see if it's still available...

Woman: Do you have it here?  If not, don't bother.  You're a liar and I wouldn't buy anything from a liar.

Me: Well, ma'am. Well, again, I didn't personally lie to you, and there's an excellent chance I can have the book for you by tomorrow.  This close to the holidays, we place special orders every day of the week. I'm sorry that you're upset, but why don't you let me see if I can have it for you tomorrow?

Woman: Was I not clear? You're a liar -- you're all liars -- and I will never shop here again.

Me: Ma'am, I'm very sorry that you're upset, but I'm trying to make the situation right for you.  What would it take to make you stop calling me a liar make you happy?

Woman: Why would I trust the word of a liar? You're just upset that I'm yelling for everybody else in the store to hear.  Well, I'm going to tell everybody I know that Odyssey Bookshop is filled with liars.  *stomps off, with a tone that implies that she thinks I'm probably a whore, too.*

Normally, an encounter like this would really make me angry.  But it was just so obvious to me how ridiculous the situation was that I called out to her, with a big grin, as she walked away: "Ma'am,  I'm really sorry.  And I'm really sorry that you think it's okay to treat people that way, but I'm glad you took it out on me and not somebody else."

A small clutch of customers who had started to gather 'round started applauding.  I curtsied once (while I was thinking, to save time) and got back to work. I don't normally give any lip back to customers, no matter the situation, but for this I was fighting to keep my face straight the whole time.  It was almost as if it had been Will Ferrell there in the store, hurling those accusations at me:

In other words, it was pretty hard to take her seriously.  What about y'all?  Do you have any outlandish customer tales to share with me?