22 March 2015

Call Me Ish: A Tale of Kazuo Ishiguro and His New Book


I read Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, The Buried Giant, a few months ago. I'm not a completist when it comes to Ishiguro, but I know enough to admire him greatly for being a different writer out of the gate, every time. I read When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go, and I've seen the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day, three radically different kinds of works. Thus, I was pretty excited to read his new book to see what he would do next.

The Buried Giant has a very different narrative style, which is fitting, considering that he's tackling the interrelated philosophies of memory and forgiveness, but placing them in an early medieval context.  His is a world peopled with Angles and Saxons and Britons (oh, my!), one generation after the death of King Arthur. With the exception of very few individuals who seem immune to it, there's a fog over the land that obscures memory.  When we meet Axl and Beatrice, our two older adventurers in this book, they have been struggling to remember their son. They have the feeling that something went terribly wrong, some time ago, without quite remembering what led to their estrangement, and they would like to travel to his village to see him one last time before they die.

On their journey, they encounter some amazing and mysterious and creepy things, including a village that is harboring more than one dark secret, a soldier-warrior on a quest, and the last of King Arthur's Knights of the Roundtable, who, doddering though he may be, is in dogged pursuit of the last task that his liege had set for him many decades ago.

There were many points during the reading where I was strongly reminded of both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings (with hints of humor that occasionally pointed to Monty Python), but that quite possibly points at my own deficiencies as a reader, as much as anything. I read medieval literature in grad school, but I'm not  particularly well versed in contemporary fiction where dragons and quests cohabitate with knights and monsters, so there may be more appropriate comps out there.

More than anything else, though, this novel is working on many levels, both literal and allegorical.  I enjoyed Ishiguro's book, but I'm not sure that I understood it, precisely.  I tend to be a bit too literal a reader to grasp nuance on the fable level, and as I turned the last page, I wasn't quite sure what I had read.  But these months later, there are still images and passages and ideas in this book that haunt me. I feel that Ishiguro is a giant among his peers, and I'd vote for him as Most Likely To Be Read In 100 Years.
Here is what 300+ copies of the same book looks like
Which is why it was such a great pleasure to spend some time in his company this past weekend. My co-worker, Nancy, and I drove to Boston with a carload of more than 300 copies of The Buried Giant to get signed for our store's First Editions Club.  Mr Ishiguro was there with his wife, Lorna, and they were both so lovely.  Almost in one voice, as Nancy and I introduced ourselves, they exclaimed, "Call me [him] Ish." Biting back an urge to add "-mael, " I did as they requested.

Some readers like to be on a first name basis with writers.  Not me.  I think I prefer to be on a monosyllabic basis.

Here's Nancy passing books to Ish
Anyway, we spent our time passing books to Ish to sign, and packing them back up in their boxes, all the while chatting about his tour, the rise of the importance of social media, "power readers" vs casual readers, the Oscars, and whatever other tidbits of conversation came up. They were so gracious and charming that I was sad when Ish signed the last book so soon.

Here are a few photos of the signing and of the book itself, which vies for most beautiful trade book produced this season (Aquarium by David Vann, published by Grove Atlantic, is the other).

Nancy, Ish, and me
L-R: Me, Ish, Lynne (their media escort) and Lorna
The beautiful map endpapers are very Tolkienesque
Only the first printings have all of the edges black.
Beautiful 1/4 binding with marbled paper overlay

NB: This book was published by Knopf in the US a few weeks ago, and I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my wonderful sales rep.

18 March 2015

Around the Bookstore: THE BATHROOM and other things


Because I'm not sure I have the stamina to write a second book review today, I'm instead going to write a post about my bookstore and some of the goings-on there.  Mostly I'm going to write about our staff bathroom, but before then, I want to share a photo I snapped in our essays section a couple of weeks ago:


This triumvirate of ladies with pink & white books caught my eye for various reasons, not least for the color scheme.  I also happen to have read all three collections of essays (well, with the case of Roxane Gay, I'm actually still making my way through), with varying degrees of appreciation.  But what I really love is how they look on the shelf together and how all three of these women have hit the indie bestseller list (concurrently, even).  I mean, it's unusual enough that female authors hit the bestseller lists for nonfiction, but for all three to be feminists, and for one book to even declare it proudly, makes me a little bit misty-eyed.  America is facing lots of problems right now, but the readers who put these books on the best seller list make me feel better about it.

And now for something completely different...

Many, many years ago, Anne Rice did a signing at my bookstore, the momentousness of which was marked with a small, shiny gold plaque on the wall:



And then that rascally writer Ben Fountain, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, visited the store a few years ago and started something amazing when he wrote that Anne Peed Rice Here. We didn't know right away that he had done this, but we knew something was up when he walked out of the bathroom with a shit-eating grin on his face. (Pun absolutely intended.)

Since then first desecration of our staff bathroom wall, it has become a badge of honor for authors and illustrators to sign more than just their books when they're here on tour. It's unquestionably now one of the greatest bookstore bathrooms in the US.  My only concern is what's going to happen when we run out of space--I shudder at the thought of painting over all of our great signatures on the wall.  Maybe we'll hang shelf paper and just keep peeling it off...

Anyway, we've had both big names and small writ large on our bathroom stall.  Here are a few that I snapped photos of to share with you:

Multiple cookbook author Virginia Willis shows her skill with more
than one kind of cast iron skillet
Some, like Chrysler Szarlan, class it up with a bit
of poetry. This is from Tennyson and a reference
to our crack'd mirror on the bathroom wall.

Garrison Keillor told us that "[we] look good enough. Back to work"
You can see the crack'd mirror here, too.

The children's picture book authors really set the bar
pretty high when they started adding illustrations, too.

Emily St John Mandel wasn't daunted, though,
and she added her own sweet penguin to the mix. 

Who doesn't love a good nar-wall/narwhal pun?  And Gregory Maguire
didn't disappoint when he left a sketch of one of his Wicked witches.

Naturally Mo Willems added his own brand of humor by drawing on the
actual toilet. He forgot to write "DO let the pigeon flush the toilet," though.
Now the first thing I do every morning after an author event is head to the bathroom to see how quickly I can spy the latest additions.  

That's that for now.  I'm totally amazed at how much easier this post was to write than a book review.  I clearly need to take this way out more often, because now I have so much more time to curl with a book and READ!

16 March 2015

Book Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw


I've got to stop doing this to myself!  I read Holly LeCraw's novel The Half Brother on vacation last November, and it pubbed in February, and I'm only now sitting down to try reviewing it.  Now it's necessarily going to be vague, thanks to the distance of time, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed this book quite a bit, as it hit some of my literary preferences.

First up, it's a boarding school book, something that I've been enthralled with since a young age, reinforced by reading A Separate Peace and later by reading Harry Potter and Never Let Me Go. I spent my earliest childhood in a dying central Wisconsin mill town, and later in a tiny suburb in southern Mississippi.  There probably were boarding schools in Wisconsin but I was too young to be aware of them, and there were some in Mississippi, but they were mostly white-flight schools, and even if my parents had had the money to send me to one, they would never have had the inclination.

Reading about New England (or better yet, England!) boarding schools put me in a world that was impossibly exotic to my grade school self, and I've loved the setting and all of its expected memes ever since. It will probably come as no great surprise to you that my favorite movie in high school, revered above all others, was Dead Poets Society.  I, too, wanted to suck out all of the marrow of life and walk through ivy-walled courtyards, and I can't tell you how much I longed to have a quad.  I didn't really know what a quad was, but I was certain that life would be better if only my school had one.

When I was 16, I actually did go away to boarding school, but not the kind I had been dreaming of. In a bright spot in the state's otherwise lamentable track record on education, Mississippi had created a magnet school for the entire state for bright children, particularly those who showed aptitude in mathematics and the sciences.  It wasn't called boarding school, it was a residential high school, and to the state's enormous credit, it was publicly funded.  The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) changed my life in much the same way that I expected boarding school would, and, to my surprise, in many ways that I never would have expected.

But that's quite enough about my childhood. In getting back to Holly LeCraw's book, the second thing that resonated with me about The Half Brother is the fact that Charlie, the protagonist, is a transplanted Southerner.  Born in Georgia to a working class single mom, Charlie is a natural observer who has always felt a bit out of place.  When his mother marries the scion of an old Southern family, Charlie feels even more of an outsider, despite the fact that his new stepfather only wants to do right by him.

Through his stepfather's money and influence, Charlie escapes north to attend Harvard.  His degree in English literature nabs him a teaching position at a second-tier boarding school in western Massachusetts, not far from where I now live, as a matter of fact. Charlie is old school -- he fiercely believes in the power of literature to change a person's life -- and so, despite the fact that's never taught before, and that he's only a few years older than his students, he becomes an immediate favorite among the students. In other words, he's exactly the kind of teacher who would inspire his students to stand up on their desks, chanting "O Captain, My Captain."

At Abbotsford, Charlie falls in love with the rolling foothills of western New England, academia, and, eventually, the chaplain's daughter. May has returned a few years after graduation and is no longer Charlie's student, so there's nothing untoward in their relationship.  Or is there? Charlie's life is upended when first his mother, and then his much-younger half brother, Nick, rain family secrets down upon him.

LeCraw is a solid stylist, and the structure of The Half Brother works well for her story: Charlie narrates the book, but past and present intertwine as his story unfolds.  In the same way that Charlie cannot seem to choose one persona for himself, he cannot decide where to lead the reader, which story to settle on.  When Nick joins the faculty at Abbotsford and eventually becomes involved with May, who now teaches French there, Charlie no longer has the luxury of re-inventing himself with every incoming class of students, and this is where the story takes on more nuance.

It is one thing, I think, to write a good book, and another thing entirely to be able to end it well, but LeCraw mostly succeeds on both counts. I won't get into anything too spoilery here, but I will say that I am apparently a depraved enough reader that I would have preferred for Charlie and May to find happiness together without the benefit of the final plot twist. I'm sure that most other readers would not agree, though.

NB: Doubleday published The Half Brother in February and I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my sales rep. 

11 March 2015

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce


 Rachel Joyce's earlier novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was such a delightful surprise for me.  I read it on vacation a few years ago and it remained one of my favorite books of 2012, so when she recently published the companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, I knew immediately that I would want to read it.

Queenie Hennessy, the object of Harold's pilgrimage, is the first person narrator in this novel.  She's dying of cancer and she divides her time between interacting with the nurses and fellow patients of the hospice center and writing a long letter to Harold revealing the secrets she has been harboring for decades.  The reader knows from the start that one of them has been her clandestine love for Harold all of these years, but the second secret, involving Harold's son, is of a darker stripe and unfolds more gradually. Along the way, we get updates on Harold's progress on his pilgrimage, as this book is not a chronological sequel to Harold Fry, but a concurrent one.

Unlike Harold Fry, this novel does not stand on its own.  It is dependent on its predecessor for much of its context and, frankly, its emotional content. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it.  I did.  I liked getting Queenie's story, her many frustrations and her infrequent, small joys. She's also a more intelligent and observant character than Harold was, so it's nice to see the world from her eyes.  There are lots of literary allusions sprinkled throughout the book in Queenie's letter to Harold, two of which I remember were references to J. Alfred Prufrock and a poem by Emily Dickinson.  There were lots more that I don't recall, and no doubt scads more that I didn't recognize at all.

Rachel Joyce does a particularly good job of evoking end-of-life moments with Queenie and her fellow terminal patients. There were occasions when I was moved to tears and there were other times when I became so impatient with the deliberate pace of the story that I did some heavy skimming.  This is not a perfect book, but it has its share of perfect moments, and sometimes that is all I need as a reader.

Now that I've had time to reflect on both books, I think I might have enjoyed a book that integrated both Harold's and Queenie's stories into one.  The individual books were both overall charming but containing unnecessary filler to draw them out to full novels.  Combining both stories would have been better, and I suspect that if film rights are involved, it would make an excellent movie that way, too. If you read and loved Harold Fry like I did, then you should absolutely see what the other half of the story is.  If you didn't read or didn't love Harold Fry, then I wouldn't recommend this one to you.

One of the things I like about Joyce's writing is her knack for summing up characters in one or two offhand sentences. A couple of examples:

"He kept checking his cuffs, his hair, his shoes, the way people do when they're unsure and they need to remind themselves where they stop and the rest of the world begins."

"The world is full of women who have children, and women who don't, but there is also a silent band of women who almost had them. I am one of those."

NB: This book has been out for some time in the UK, but it released here in the US just last week.  I read an advance reading copy provided at my request from my wonderful sales rep.

08 March 2015

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


Hanya Yanagihara's sophomore novel, A Little Life, is anything but sophomoric. It gets published this week, though I read it in the waning days of 2014, staying up in the night longer than was good for me during the busiest retail season of the year, and finishing it in one last chunk of a five hour reading session on Christmas Day. To say that I was unfit for company when I at last closed the book is to engage in the most careless of understatement. 

This book simply undid me.  And thus it's fitting that a book that was difficult to read is proving difficult to review.  I've put it off for a couple of months now, but as I said, the pub date is drawing nigh, and it's better for me to write my review now so that I'm not unintentionally influenced by anybody else's. 

You will hear two things about this book that I would argue are not exactly true.  The first thing everybody (including the publisher's promotional material) says is that this is the story of four friends.* Not so much, say I. This novel is, more than anything else, a close psychological study of a man named Jude. He has three friends from college, Willem, JB, and Malcolm, whom he remains in touch with in the decades to follow, but he has a deep and abiding friendship with only Willem.  He also has a close relationship with his mentor and father figure, Harold, and his doctor, Andy. The reader may get close third person narration featuring all of the characters, and random chapters of Harold's first person narration scattered in the middle, but never forget that Jude is the sun in this particular heliocentric universe. 

The second thing that everybody says about this book is how beautifully written it is.  Maybe now we're venturing into the realm of quibbling over semantics, but when I think "beautifully written," I think lyrical, poetic.  This book is extremely well written, and Yanagihara stuns (and disturbs) the reader at every turn with her human insights and compassion and generosity. But beautifully written?  Not particularly, in my opinion.  Which is just as well, because to engage in lyrical prose juxtaposed against the story of Jude would seem both careless and cruel, in my opinion. Powerful and stunning, yes, but not beautiful.

In the book, we meet Jude as an adult, but it's not long before the reader comes to realize that Jude isn't like the others.  He's quiet and reserved and he lacks the physical robustness with which his friends are blessed.  He has no family, which is perhaps unusual but not unheard of, but more than that, he has no past.  Or at least no past that his friends know.  While they all sense that Jude's fragile physical condition hints at some childhood trauma, his past is essentially a tabula rasa for them. As the pages unfold, the reader comes to understand some of the childhood and adolescent horrors that Jude has survived that have left him scarred in every conceivable way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

More than anything else, A Little Life is a love letter to Jude, avatar for all of the broken people of the world. It is a testament to friendship and to love, but also to the limitations of friendship and love. In this world, these ideals cannot save what's broken; they can only minister to it. And sometimes that has to be enough.

Despite weighing in at over 700 pages, it is not plot that comprises most of this novel's heft, but character development. With every passing chapter, I came to care more deeply for Willem, Harold, and Jude in particular, and despite having finished this book over two months ago, my heart still aches from the emotional wrenching it gave me. There are books that are hard to put down because they're just that good, and there are books that one needs to put down because they're just that difficult, and A Little Life is simultaneously both.

To say more about the plot would be a bit spoiler, so suffice it to say that we follow Jude and his friends from college to young adulthood and all the way through middle age. Jobs, careers, lovers, spouses, and other friends all flit through, but mostly it's Willem, Harold, and above all, Jude. I'm not sure I've ever encountered such a complete portrait of a fictional character as Jude.  As the reader gradually learns of the horrific abuse Jude suffered as a child,  nearly always at the hands of those who were charged with his welfare and protection, it was sometimes more than I could bear, but as my coworker Nancy says, the readerly exhaustion is nothing compared to what Jude himself must feel on a daily basis. There is a haunting account of grief in the last 100 pages or so that is the most superlative evocation of loss and grief that I have ever encountered. Ever.

This book is not for everybody.  It's possible that it should be accompanied by trigger warnings. But for stalwart readers who value a deep, rich, and emotional experience,  A Little Life will be hard to beat. It's without a doubt the best book I read in 2014 and will probably occupy that position for 2015, despite being only two months (and some change) into the year. For those of you who know me, let me put it this way:  A Little Life has had greater staying power with me than any other book I've read since J K Rowling started publishing Harry Potter.

The cover on this book is pretty terrible, I think. I don't generally like photographs of real people for my book covers as a rule, especially when it's not a biography or memoir. The cover alone will turn many people off, which is a shame.  Let's then forget the cover, and here are some passages that will give a flavor of the writing and the characters:

Malcolm: "He was missing, it seemed, the sense of victimization and woundedness and perpetual anger it took to be black, but he was certain he possessed the interests that would be required if he were gay."

Jude: "And this was worse, somehow, having to have Willem, always Willem, defend him. Against Malcolm and JB! At that moment, he hated all of them, but of course he was in position to hate them. THey were his friends, his first friends, and he understood that friendship was always a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information. And he had no money. He had nothing to give them, he had nothing to offer. He couldn't loan Willem a sweater, the way Willem let him borrow his, or repay Malcolm the hundred dollars he'd pressed upon him once, or even help JB on move-out day, as JB helped him."

Willem: "Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn't hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn't friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn't it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. "

NB: Doubleday publishes this book on March 10. I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my excellent sales rep. My aforementioned coworker, Nancy, and I both felt strongly enough about this book to make it a selection for our store's First Editions Club.

* The book was pitched to me more than once as the story of four boys from college, following their friendship a few decades into their adult lives. That's not a book I really wanted to read, thanks. People who want to read a book like that definitely would not enjoy reading this one, and people who would enjoy reading this one might not pick it up because they think it's a story they've seen countless times before. That and the cover are the two biggest marketing mistakes I've seen recently with book this monumental.

05 March 2015

Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come


I'm not sure why I put off reading Alexandra Fuller's newest book, Leaving Before the Rains Come. I had read two of her previous books, one of which I even loved, but the subject matter of this book -- a woman discovering that she and her husband are not a good fit after all -- was not of much interest.  More the fool, me.

It's true, though.  On the surface, there's not much to separate Fuller's story from the hundreds, or even thousands, of memoirs out there that explore marital dissatisfaction and spousal incompatibility, even with the additional level of angst brought on by the recession/depression that hit American in 2008 and from which we're still recovering. Luckily for the reader, though, Fuller is a master of humanity and a helluva writer.

Fuller grew up in Zimbabwe and Zambia, child to parents of hardy English and Scottish stock, and had the great good fortune (some might say misfortune) of being raised in a larger than life family.  Many writers grow up in big, raucous families, but the Fuller family makes every other family I've encountered through literature seem tame by comparison. They've survived civil wars and famines, lost their homes and jobs many times, and even have had to endure the loss of some of their children.  Venturing to the grocery store involves 8+ hour roundtrips on dangerous roads. The surviving children are home schooled, sort of, but that means finding ways to stay out of doors all day, wandering around the bush. Malaria was a fact of life, drinking started early in the day and went on late, and the worst sin anybody could commit at the dinner table was to be boring.

In other words, the Fuller family is of the kind that is so admirable and interesting to read about but perhaps less comfortable to actually live with.  Unconventional, larger-than-life, fearless, fierce, careless, and  undaunted.

So really, it comes as no surprise to the reader that Fuller falls for Charlie almost as soon as she meets him.  An American in Zambia, he can play polo, face down wild elephants, and paddle down  Class V rapids without apparent effort or concern, but he also is easy going and able to take in the ramshackle Zambian setting with aplomb. Mistaking his ease with the country and her family as an anchor to stabilize herself, Alexandra marries him quickly.

That's the set up.  The second half of the book is the mire of that marriage, now that the couple have moved with their young children to the US. Neither spouse is really what the other had imagined, and Fuller does not spare herself the same scrutiny that she applies to husband when examining how and where things went wrong.  Her answers keep circling back to her family, her upbringing, and her leaving the land she loved.

Not especially earth-shattering, or at least not to the reader.  The dissolution of a marriage is a sad thing, but it is not an extraordinary one.  But as I said above, it's Fuller's insights and her knack for piecing together words in beautiful and surprising ways that sets this book apart. Here are a few excerpts:

On being neither African nor European: "I was accidentally British, incidentally European -- a coincidence of so many couplings. But I was deliberately southern African. Not in a good or easy way. There is no getting around the fact that there had been so much awful violence to get me here; my people had engaged in such terrible acts of denial and oppression; I so obviously did not look African; and yet here I still was. That seemed to me to prove a point. Someone had planted me in this soil and I had taken fierce hold. And although I had no illusions -- this land wasn't mine to inherit, none of it belonged to me -- I couldn't help knowing that I belonged to it...The fact that I felt more at home in southern Africa than I did anywhere else on earth, and that I missed the countries of my youth with a physical ache, didn't make me a legitimate citizen of Zimbabwe or Zambia any more than an amputee's cruel sensation of a missing limb renders them whole again."

On watching migratory birds: "Often since then, I've searched the night sky, and although I have caught the brief twist of bats flitting through currents of insects, I have never again seen that nighttime miracle of birds, secretly stitching together south and north with their hunger, with their collective, insistent, mounting realization of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

On madness in the family: "In the way of all daughters, I watched my mother for clues to my future. Her madness terrified me in part because it was too easy for me to see that if I had inherited her small ankles and her oversized laugh, how could I have skipped the place where her ingenuity and passion sat too close to insanity on the spiraling legacy of heritage?"

The Canadian edition
I took the advance reading copy of this book on the plane with me to Asheville last month with the idea that I would leave it behind in the hotel in order to make room for the dozens of books I'd pick up at Winter Institute. Little did I know that the story and the language would get under my skin the way they did, so the book came home with me.  Incidentally, my ARC cover looks a lot like the Canadian edition, which I happen to think is quite superior to the US cover.

Penguin Press published this book in the US in January and I read a copy that was provided to me at my request by my wonderful sales rep.

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 touch 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