26 July 2011

Muddled in the Middle (of books, that is)

It's been a slow blogging week for me.  We have been very busy at work preparing for a physical inventory and then we closed for two days to actually count every item in the store.  And since we don't just sell books--we sell cards and pens and pencils and posters and journals and art supplies and gift items and all of those other things a bookstore needs to entice people who don't read into our shop--it takes a long time to do.  Yes, I know.  Woe is I.

And as difficult as I find it to believe, I have not completed an adult novel since I posted my review of The Soldier's Wife.  I have, however, been caught up in various stages of completion several other novels coming out this fall.  And there ain't a one of them that's short, which is partly why I've not been able to finish one yet.  I don't like to juggle this many literary novels as a rule because I find that my attention gets distracted; when reading one of them, my mind occasionally wanders to the others.  Plus as I get older it gets more and more challenging to stay really on top of all of the characters from all of the plotlines.

Here are some of the books I'm reading for work (and to a certain extent for my own pleasure, too, but there are reasons that I am reading these specific books that I shan't go into here):

Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, to be published by Scribner this October.  I'm about 300 pages into this 500+ page novel.  Talk about historical fiction--this book, which industry buzz pegs as Hoffman's literary masterpiece, begins in the year 70 C.E.  It spins together the stories of four very different women and right now the story is driving towards the massacre of Masada, about which I know nothing.  I don't think I've ever read any fiction set in this time period and I love learning from Hoffman the various customs and mores of the different peoples of ancient Israel.  Admittedly this story started off very slowly for me, but I'm glad that I stuck with it without really knowing why I did.

Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni (incidentally the copyright is in a slightly altered name) is a debut novel forthcoming from Free Press this September.  It's set in 1980s Sofia, Bulgaria, in a Soviet school of music, and while I cannot say that I am enamored of the story (teenage rebellion against authority, lots of smoking and sex, ho hum), Grozni's writing is very good, and his writing about music is superlative. I also like that on the first page he hit me with three words that I didn't know: apparatchiks, ponichki, and chthonic.  I have just a sufficient enough background in music (distant college choir and even more distant piano lessons) to understand and really appreciate what he says about music.  The author himself was a world-class pianist in his youth in Bulgaria, so it's not unreasonable to assume that some of the book is inspired by his own exploits. I'm about 150 pages into this 350-page manuscript. 

Russell Banks' The Lost Memory of Skin I've only recently started, so I've barely dipped my toes into the depths of its 400+ pages.  It's forthcoming from Ecco in October, and though I've read very little of it, so far it's the story I find the most gripping: a very young man convicted of sexual assault on a minor, is released from prison and joins the throngs of other homeless men living under the Causeway.  Banks is one of America's most literary writers, and though I rarely like his characters, I am expecting something complex and thought-provoking from him as usual. 

And then this morning I started another novel that is quite different, at least on the surface, from anything I've read in a while.  It's The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and it is forthcoming this fall from Little, Brown.  For any of you who happened to be at BEA this year, this was one of the books presented at the Editors' Book Buzz session.  It was also reviewed earlier this summer by Jonathan Evison on the nifty blog, Three Guys One Book (if you're a serious reader and don't know that blog already, please check it out). I'm not what you would call a baseball fan (though unlike other sports, I don't mind it, and I'm proud to have attended some Cubs games at Wrigley Field), and after reading just a little bit over breakfast the last couple of morning, I've already run across multiple passages that were worth reading twice.  I look forward to getting more into the meat of this novel.  And at 500+ pages, this one definitely qualifies for a Chunkster Challenge. 

So this fiction list is what has been occupying my waking moments in recent days.  I think I may take a break from reading for work this weekend when I head out to Santa Fe for a whirlwind visit.  My husband goes every summer to teach a week-long workshop at St. John's College and I'm traveling out there with him for a couple of nights.  Which means, of course, airplane reading time!  [does happy dance]  My coworker, Nieves, has been encouraging me to read The Emerald Atlas, an adventure novel for middle readers, and she's letting me borrow her copy of it.  I'm also considering taking with me the new book by Amor Towles called Rules of Civility.  So who knows which books will end up in my backpack?  If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

19 July 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Required Reading for Teens

I've been having a great time reading other people's posts for today's Top Ten Tuesday topic, sponsored each week by the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish.  I've been mulling it over all day while at work and over dinner tonight I asked my husband what his thoughts were.  He taught at the high school level for twenty years and he raised three daughters who all survived teenagerdom, so I figured he might have some good input, too.  In no particular order, here is what I've settled on, and why, with the caveat that asked the same question next week, the list might be largely different.

1. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  Because it shows curiosity and high spirits in the face of an impossible situation, because of its frankness (pun intended), and because it shows, sadly, that life is deeply and bitterly unfair--and it doesn't always go on.

2.  The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Because on the scale of invented worlds complete with their own languages, mythologies and people it is an unparalleled monument to scholarship and imagination.  As a testament to friendship, loyalty, and living by your word, it has an important message.  And because it shows that war is hard for those who are called to battle, but also quite difficult for those left behind in the home guard.

3.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Because it shows that human decency should know no barrier of race, class, age, gender.  And that treating people with dignity is important.

4.  Almost any novel by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Because she speaks to issues of interest to teens today in a way that they seem to relate to.

5.  13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  Because it teaches the important lesson that a person's actions don't  have to be overtly cruel to have a corroding effect on another person's spirit. 

6.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling.  It's impractical to recommend a book in the middle of a series without recommending the others, but here's why (and you can apply the specifics here to real life examples)...it shows that not all evil people are Death Eaters and not all Death Eaters are evil.  That if you don't think through your options and choose your actions accordingly, impulsive decisions can lead to trouble.  That small-minded people in positions of power can be more dangerous that the more obvious bad guys.
7. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.  Because after the holocaust of WWII, the world said "No more genocide. Not on our watch," and yet it keeps happening. (Edited to add: This is a book on the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. I could just as easily have chosen a book about Darfur or Sri Lanka or any of the innumerable instances of "ethnic cleansing" that take place while the rest of the world  just watches with detachment, tempered with both pity and revulsion.)

8.  Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel.  Because sometimes to understand the horror of something, you have to come at it from an oblique angle.  Martel does just that with the Holocaust in this fine novel that on the surface is about a taxidermist, a writer, and a play about a howler monkey and a donkey.

9.  The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.  Okay, a couple of these are on the dull side, but a good translation is everything.  I know teenage boys would respond to the Miller's Tale if they could get beyond the Middle English.  And in a world where technology might make the codex book obsolete, isn't it nice to have a reminder that written stories are not only important but can stand the test of time?  In this case, 600 years and going strong?

10.  As usual, I leave this one blank.  What book did I leave off that you would most want to include?

18 July 2011

Book Review: Short Story Perfection

There is one word that comes to mind when I think of Eric-Emmanuel Scmitt's new collection of short stories, Concerto to the Memory of an Angel--and I should stress that it is not a word that I commonly use when writing book reviews--and that word is "perfect." In the US, the short story seems to get short shrift and I'm not sure why.  Of the various literary forms, I consider it to be among those most difficult to execute well. Great novels are a dime a dozen, but not so the great short story collection.  They are far less common and thus all the more to be valued when I do come across one.  This work has achieved a perfect and rare balance.  To add or to take away anything would ruin it.  I could continue to heap superlatives on it, but I'm fairly sure that, in my native tongue at least, "perfect" is pretty much the highest praise. 

This is Schmitt's third collection to be translated into English from his original French, brought to American audiences courtesy of Europa Editions and Alison Anderson's fine translation (which surely adds much to the book's perfection).  Full of philosophy and quiet moments of ephiphany, these stories range from a father's intensely private ruminations on the death of a child to a portrait of a celebrity marriage very much in the public eye.  Each story leaves the reader a little bit slack-jawed with amazement that so much can be conveyed and accomplished with such efficiency.  If you value fine writing and the remarkable execution of a difficult craft, this is a book you should purchase for your collection right away.

The only negative point I can think to raise is that despite Europa's very high production qualities overall, Scmitt's works suffer from dreadful jacket design and a tendency toward awkward book titles. 

NB: I requested this book from my Penguin sales reps and received my complimentary finished copy in the mail last month. 

17 July 2011

Women & War: Three Novels

I don't read many war novels, per se, with all of their action and violence and killing, though Andrew Krivak's excellent novel, The Sojourn, is a recent exception to that rule. No, I prefer to know the stories of the people who get left behind, or who are outside the immediate threat of battle.  This means largely, but not always, the story of women and war.  In the last couple of weeks I have read two novels about women during World War II, and each in its way reminded me of a book from a few years ago, which I loved--The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  If any of you dear readers loved Guernsey like I did, I think you might find something of interest in these other two.  If you are not familiar with it,  this epistolary novel, set just after World War II in London and the isle of Guernsey, is sweet, charming, and old-fashioned, in all the best senses of the words.  Juliet Ashton is a journalist who begins a correspondence with the residents of Guernsey, and through their letters we get a remarkable portrait of a community's strength and perseverance during the Nazi occupation.  It is a slender tome, full of both laughter and heartwarming moments,  and overflowing with characters you'll wish you could call friends.

Sarah Blake's The Postmistress straddles two worlds: pre-war America and London during the blitz. When Emma's husband, a small town doctor in Cape Cod, MA, blames himself for a patient's death, she finds herself abandoned when he volunteers to work in a London hospital to make karmic amends.  Iris is the titular postmistress in the same small town, who takes her official job as postmaster as seriously as her unofficial job of keeping her small community informed (or not) of the goings-on in the world.  An ocean and a world apart, Frankie works for the BBC, desperately trying to tell her nightly stories in a way that will make the war seem real to her fellow Americans--real enough to sit up and participate, rather than dismiss it as something unfortunate that happens to other people. All three women cross paths after Frankie witnesses something in London and feels compelled to travel back to the US to find Emma and to confront Iris.

In the meantime, Blake does a great job of establishing how life must go on, whether you're waiting every single day for months to hear from your husband to know whether he is alive, or whether your home has been bombed and you have no place left to live.  Most of all, though, she shows the importance of telling stories and bearing witness--that in the end, it's only our personal connections with other humans that will get us involved, either literally or metaphorically, in a way that will effect  a change in this world.

Margaret Leroy's The Soldier's Wife takes place during the Nazi occupation of the island of Guernsey during WWII, and its third person narrative follows Vivienne de la Mare, a woman who must daily walk the fine edge between patriotism and practicality.  After her husband enlists, it falls to her to keep her daughters and her ailing mother-in-law safe in a world that has suddenly become alien to her. When German officers requisition the house next door and turn out to be rather neighborly, Vivienne finds herself constantly second-guessing her actions under their scrutiny.  Other islanders may be high-minded about fraternization, but Vivienne simply cannot afford those same scruples when her family's well-being is at stake.  Only when food from their their own scarce supply goes missing and her younger daughter regales her nightly with tales of the ghost in the barn does Vivienne realize that there is a moral burden unfolding that might become too heavy for her to bear.

What I really liked about The Soldier's Wife is that unlike many wartime settings, it leaves room for people who are neither cowardly nor heroic, but somewhere in between.  At first I was a little surprised about the uneasy rapport Vivienne develops with some of the German officers, but I think it is perhaps a more realistic presentation than the patriotic resistance narrated in The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.  It demands that readers reflect on what they would or would not do to preserve their family: Would you feed another starving human if it means your children will go without food? Would you risk your home as a safe house? Would you turn away from the torture or murder of a prisoner when interfering means deportment to a work camp? How do you raise your child to be a moral person when you cannot set the example you want to, because to do so is to risk your life or your child's?

And there's always the smaller, garden variety dilemma.  If the kind German officer across the street gives you medicine to save your daughter, are you morally required to show him gratitude when it's the German occupation that is causing the dire shortage of needful things? If so, how much gratitude?  If medicine is okay to accept, what about a loaf of bread? Clothing? More than anything else, I would say that this book demonstrates that the lines we draw in the sand between what we are and are not capable of doing are ever-shifting under the weight of our complicated humanity.

NB: I bought Guernsey for myself, I got a signed paperback copy of The Postmistress from Winter Institute, and I received an unsolicited (but certainly not unwelcome) copy of The Soldier's Wife from the publisher.  While I liked the latter two to varying degrees, I really, really loved Guernsey.

16 July 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Do your books fall off the back of a truck?

 Book Blogger Hop

I was away for a few weeks, then spending time getting caught up with work and my home life, so it's been a while since I participated in the Book Blogger Hop, sponsored each weekend by Crazy for Books.  This week's question asks how/where do you get your books?  Do you buy them or go to the library? Is there a certain website you use, like paperbackswap?

For once this is a quick & easy answer for me.  I work in a bookstore and I have a great relationship with most of my sales reps, which means I'm extremely fortunate.  If there is a new book I want to read, mostly I just have to ask for it and they will send it to me, gratis.  I get an employee discount on our store merchandise, so I end up buying quite a lot of books, too.  Mostly signed ones, as I'm a bit of a collector.  I'm also a big fan of the library system and think it's a great way to get out of print books. I have two e-reading devices--a Sony e-reader and my smartphone--both of which I can use to download e-books from independent bookstores' websites.

NB: My answer is complete.  Only read further if you want to know why I do not get my books from Amazon and why I think Amazon.com is bad for the world.  

I have never once ordered a book from Amazon.com (though I do occasionally order merchandise on line from other vendors) and there are several reasons why.  First of all, it takes away sales from the local community and it adds NOTHING.  Here are some factoids found at www.Indiebound.org. What is in the regular typeface is taken verbatim from the site and what is in bold black is my addenda. 

When you shop at an independently owned business, your entire community benefits:
The Economy
  • Spend $100 at a local and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43. Spend the same $100 at Amazon.com and your community receives NOTHING. 
  • Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
  • More of your taxes are reinvested in your community--where they belong. Including public education and public libraries, two of our most precious resources to readers and bookbloggers.Amazon collects almost no sales tax (except in NY, and I think one other state) despite having on-the-ground affiliates in every US state.  If Amazon collected sales tax, there would be hundreds of millions of dollars of additional revenue across the country.  Might be nice to see that kind of money in a recession, eh?
The Environment
  • Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.
The Community
  • Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
  • Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains (And forget about Amazon.  Go ahead--ask Amazon if they'll donate a gift card to your school's fundraiser. Or to donate books to the local library that flooded. Or to give money because a community member's dog has cancer and the owner cannot afford treatment.)
  • More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.

11 July 2011

Book P(R)eview: The Marriage Plot by Jefffrey Eugenides

Though I have been a bookseller for more years than I'm willing to confess, I have somehow never read Jeffrey Eugenides, despite his Pulitzer Prize and the fact that The Virgin Suicides is the favorite novel of one of my favorite sales reps (shout-out to Michael Kindness!).  It's not that I was actively not reading Eugenides.  I just hadn't gotten around to it yet.  Enter his new book this October from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux called The Marriage Plot, which my bookstore is considering for its signed First Editions Club, and for which I am one of the readers.  

It's the story of Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard in the early 1980s, following them in their senior year at Brown and then into the "real world" as they fumble and stumble their way outside the gates of the rarefied and privileged atmosphere of the Ivy League campus they leave behind.  Madeleine is an English major smitten with the great English novels when she takes her first semiotics class.  Leonard is the brilliant but understated young man whose campus mystique serves to mask his bipolar disorder.  Mitchell is the religious studies major who is as given to ponder the mysteries of life as he is to ponder Madeleine as his destined life partner.  Mitchell defects to India after graduation while Leonard and Madeline move in together at a small research facility on Cape Cod, but they all meet up again later in New York.  

This book is so much better and so much bigger than this summary--it's a story of trying to grow up (but not necessarily succeeding), of academia, of inequality between the sexes, of class and gender stratification, of the absurdities of literary theory in the face of literary substance, of the rise of greed in that decade, and so much more.

 Well, I for one think it's very...good.  I cannot honestly say that I *love* the book because love implies an emotional connection and I have no such connection with any of the characteres (though the academic setting is dear to me), but I admire it.  I think Eugenides writes characters brilliantly, and I think he does a particularly good job writing mental illness--both the frustrations of living with it and the frustrations of loving somebody with it (believe me--as someone with a beloved sibling diagnosed with schizophrenia, it's a tough call who the disease is more difficult for).  The back and forth of the plot's chronology flows like memory, like you're caught up in the spell of a master story teller.  It's a ...pretty good... novel and you can be sure that I will be paying very careful attention to Mr. Eugenides and his work from now on. 

NB: My sales rep from MPS provided our store with an advance reading copy of this book.  The cover of the ARC, which is very curlicue-y and features a gold wedding band, seems a little inane for the book, so I fervently hope they change it.  Doing a Google search for finished cover images didn't get me very far, so I went with a publicity photo of the author instead.

09 July 2011

Book Reviews: Two travelogues

Here are two very different kinds of travel books written by two very different types of writers.  With one of them, the author immerses himself in the local culture and with the other, the authors mostly skim across the surface of local culture, choosing to spend as much time among other tourists as possible.  And by the by, only one of the writers is any good.  Is it any surprise, then, which of the two books I liked better? 

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost is a travel memoir that I read on vacation last month.  Troost is both a funny and gifted writer, with a real talent for keeping up the pace, making wry social & political observations, and both educating and entertaining the reader.  I loved his two previous books, which are tales of his living in the South Pacific, and while I have never traveled to that region myself, after becoming a devoted traveler to the Caribbean, I recognized many truisms of life in a tropical not-first-world country. 

Let it be said now that I know very little about China other than pervasive Western perceptions that may or may not be purely stereotypes.  One of my best friends lived in China teaching English after college graduation, but that's pretty much as close as I've gotten to knowing anything about the culture. Having read Troost's book, I am as equally convinced of China's enviable position at the forefront of world economics & growth as I am knowing that I will probably never want to travel to "the real China" any time soon.  For someone who considers herself a traveler at heart, this was a disconcerting realization. And I know that's unfair for me to form this opinion from somebody else's biased  (western) persepective, but since I don't actually have enough time or money to travel the world at leisure, I have to prioritize somehow--and if that means not traveling to a country with serious issues regarding both human and animal rights, not to mention a distinct lack of healthy air, so be it. 

A few excerpts from the book, to demonstrate both Troost's humor and my reasons for distaste...

"At the gate, a sign informed us that old people (sixty to seventy years old), students, and maimed person would have to pay only 50 yuan to clim Tai Shan.  Not too many mountains offer a discount to the maimed, by Tai Shan does (91)."
"Waltzing, as it turns out, is very popular in China, and even President Hu Jintao himself was on the university waltzing team back in the day. I was unaware that waltzing was also a competitive sport, but in China the government, in an effort to overcome the rising rates of obesity that occurred as more Chinese eat Western foods, has mandated that school kids will now be forced to waltz.  lucky for the Chinese, Hu Jintao was not a squaredancer (314)."
Warning: the following passage about the Siberian Tiger Park is very disturbing and features something we in the US would call animal torture (and yes, before any apologists flame me, I understand that it is probably no worse than the lives of chickens in the US who are fated to be part of the farm factories, but at least most people don't laugh about that).

"One of my fellow tourists [a Chinese tourist] approached her with some money.  The woman dipped her hand inside this crate of live chickens and attached it to a four-foot stick, before handing it to him.  The man took the fishing pole with the dangling chicken...and lowered it out over the tigers.  A tiger leapt up and shredded a wing.  The chicken wailed. Oh, the fun we have in China. He lowered the chicken again. A tiger shredded a leg.  The chicken screamed.  Everyone laughed.  Because this is funny in China.  Slowly, painfully, piece by piece, the chicken was shredded into oblivion (371-372)."
I think that passage pretty well sums up why, if I ever go to China, I will not try to see the "real China." A package tour will do just fine for me.  Reading of Troost's experience in China was very disturbing in many ways, and while he realized that a lot of his discomfort was a result of his own cultural bias (though he lives in America, he is a half-Czech half-Dutch citizen of Canada), he knew very soon and with great conviction that China was not a country he wanted to raise his family, which is the purported reason for the book.  Though I did not love this book like I did his first two, I still highly recommend it for the armchair traveler.

And on the opposite side of the travelogue spectrum, we have Letters from the Caribbean: Sailing in the West Indies by Andrea & Ian Treleaven.  Andrea and Ian are a New Zealand couple who sailed from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and then spent a few seasons sailing up & down the Caribbean island chain and then hit the Great Antilles and parts of Central America, where they spent most of their time seeking out other Australian  & New Zealand sailors rather than trying to experience the local culture.  The color photographs in the book are overall quite good.  The writing and the editing, however, leave much to be desired.  They get the names wrong of various places: they refer in one photo to the Pitoms of St. Lucia, rather than the Pitons; Cocoa Point on Barbuda instead of Coco Point; they mis-label the Lighthouse Reef resort as the Cocoa [sic] Point resort, they misspell the Spanish word for eel, from which the island of Anguilla takes its name; they refer to part of the USVI as St. Johns instead of St. John; and so on.   No telling how many other mistakes are there that I didn't catch because I am less familiar with islands not considered part of the British West Indies.

I bought this book because I so loved Ann Vanderhoof's An Embarrassment of Mangoes, a travel memoir of a Canadian couple who sail from Toronto down to Trinidad and back, and along the way immerse themselves as deeply into local customs and traditions as possible.  Well, Andrea & Ian ain't got nothin' on Ann, let me say.  The prose is tedious and repetitive and there is no real narrative.  It strains my credulity to realize that this is their second book, which means that their Letters from the Med sold enough copies for a publisher to take a chance on this book.  At the end of the book, they say they took away three things from their long voyages in my favorite part of the world: "the colours, and then the fantastic sailing conditions, followed by how fit and healthy we felt throughout."  Well, congratulations--you've just visited over 20 countries and not a single item specific to any of their cultures was worth mentioning in your epilogue?  Are you sure you're from New Zealand and not a typical American? I'm sure there are plenty of people like Andrea and Ian sailing the Caribbean, but I hope they don't all write books about their experience.  They remind me very much of sailors I've met in Tortola, Nevis, Antigua whom I didn't much like.  To be fair, they probably wouldn't much like me, either. 

If, like me, you are a true Caribbeanphile, buy the book for the photographs but skip the text. Like the stereotypical beauty pageant winner, it works best as a coffee table book, just sitting there and looking pretty.

04 July 2011

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I just started and finished my first book for this month.  And if you exclude the moments I took to make myself some mint tea, and later to eliminate it, I read this book through in one sitting.  Or more precisely, one lounging.  Th1rteen R3asons Why is told in almost a call and response style (if you know gospel music or have heard any traditional Congolese songs, or if you've ever participated in a Roman Catholic or Anglican mass, you've experienced this), with Hannah Baker initiating the call and Clay Jensen picking up the response.  Hannah is the new girl at school who has just committed suicide.  But she is still very much a presence in the lives of at least 14 of her surviving classmates. You see, Hannah has left behind a collection of audio tapes in which she lists the thirteen reasons why she killed herself, each reason connected to a name.  One day Clay receives a mysterious box in the mail with said cassette tapes tucked inside, with the instructions to listen to them and pass them along to the person named after him on the tapes--and that's, of course, where the story takes off. 

Interesting conceit, no?  And Asher pulls it off remarkably well.  The story moves along at a brisk pace, and each time he turns over a cassette and pushes play, Clay both dreads and anticipates hearing his own name and the role he unwittingly played in her downward spiral towards suicide.  I probably would have responded a tad more positively to this book if I hadn't read all of the accolades it has received since being published last year in cloth, but I felt there were times when the book fell a little flat--where the teen dialogue and interactions didn't quite ring true.  Or at least not as true as other books I've recently read, such as Will Grayson, Will Grayson or Big Girl Small.  And it was less affecting to me personally than Julie Anne Peters' fine novel, By the Time You Read This I'll Be Dead

Still, I did essentially read it in one sitting, and since the reader knows at the beginning that poor Hannah kills herself, there is none of that angsty will-she-or-won't-she feeling as you're reading, so one can concentrate more on the story and less on anticipating the ending.  This book is far more about the effect of Hannah's death on Clay, and to a lesser extent Tony, the poor boy who has been entrusted with a second set of tapes, instructed to go public with them if the 13 people Hannah names on the tapes don't follow through with her last request.  One fervently hopes that the remaining 12 classmates come away from their listening experience changed, but Asher doesn't go there, and it is unrealistic to hold too dearly to that hope. It is, of course, a book about unintended consequences and repercussions and being careless with other people's sense of self.  And I think that it fill an important gap in the literature of bullying and suicide--an action doesn't have to be immediately recognizable as cruel to make somebody's life miserable. It is, in short, a book worth reading. 

This book is published by Razorbill, a division of Penguin, and I ostensibly purchased the copy for some of my granddaughters to read on their summer vacation, but I wanted first crack at it. 

02 July 2011

Last Month in Review: June 2011

Thanks largely to my summer vacation, I was able to get a LOT of books read in June.  Although I didn't quite average one book per day of vacation, I still managed quite a bit:

1. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  Remarkable little work of non-fiction.  Review here

2. We the Animals by Justin Torres.  What an extraordinary debut--puts me in mind of Junot Diaz, with its peculiarly harsh but beautiful prose and its edginess.  Review is possibly forthcoming.

3. These Three Remain by Pamela Aidan.  Another re-read, but Aidan is the best writer of Jane Austen fanfiction there is.

4. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.  Audio, and another re-read.  Review here (sort of).

5. The Submission by Amy Waldman.  Another good debut novel.  Review here

6. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green.  Very good.  Review here

7. The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji.  Another winner.  Review here. Probably my favorite book this month.

8-10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Bee-Loud Glade, The Imperfectionists, reviewed together here

11. Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross.  Short story collection.  Pretty good.  Review here.

12. The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant.  Excellent.  Tough.  McCarthy-esque.  Review here

13. The Paris Wife by Paula McClain.  Pretty good, an easy read, mostly reinforcing my opinion that Hemingway was a real piece of shit.  I will not be reviewing it.

14. The Demon's Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan.  Third book, concluding her  YA trilogy.  I loved it but I probably won't review it--I left my copy of the book behind to donate to the local library since it was a hardcover, and it's difficult for me to review a book without a copy in hand. 

15.  Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost.  Review forthcoming.  Another funny and thought-provoking travelogue.  Sorry, but I don't think I'll be planning a trip there any time soon. (Edited to add: review is here. )

16. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.  His forthcoming novel this fall is a strange suburban tale of the Rapture Great Disappearance.  Review to come.

17. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  Fairly engrossing tale of women during World War II on both sides of the Atlantic.  Probably won't review it, though. 

18-A and 18-B are a couple of also-rans: there are two books that I read about half of but just couldn't bring myself to finish, so I figure together they count as one book.  One of them is Graham Greene's The Comedians, which I bought because it's set in Haiti but I'm afraid his writing style wasn't enough to hold my attention, even though it's hard to imagine anything set in Haiti as boring.  The other is Chuck Palahniuk's book, Damned, coming out this fall.  Who wouldn't want to read about a 13 year old in Hell who begins all of her diary entires, "Are you there Satan? It's me, Madison," and who remakes the cast of The Breakfast Club in the underworld.  Well, apparently I wouldn't.  A little too self-aware and self-referential for me to finish reading it, but I may go back to it one day.

With Greene I apparently prefer the film versions of his books.  With Palahniuk I apparently like the idea of reading his books more than I actually like reading them. 

01 July 2011

Anguilla: A wrap-up and some sundry information


Weather:  We loved the weather and actually would have preferred more rain since nothing feels as decadent to us as sitting out on our huge balcony during  a storm, with a book in one hand and an adult beverage in the other.  Neither my husband nor I take very much direct sun (with sunscreen on, I still get sunburned in the shade in Anguilla), especially not between the hours of 11:00-3:00, so unless I'm in a photo-taking mood, it doesn't matter much to us whether it's sunny, hazy, or cloudy.  As it turned out, after our day of arrival, which was so stormy as to cause power outages around the island, we had mostly sunny & hazy days until the last few days of our trip, which turned out to be largely overcast but breezier.  Of the five trips we've made to Anguilla, three have been in June and this trip was by far the hottest--when we drove by the new thermometer at the airport roundabout, it never registered below 88 (and in many cases was at least 90) except for the overcast day near the end.   Some days on the north shore beaches the air felt very still.  We felt it more on Meads Bay and at Sandy Ground than on Barnes, and of course Upper Shoal Bay felt like the breeziest point on the island, but even our days at Elodia's occasionally felt a little uncomfortable.
Barnes Bay with Caribella in the background
Mosquitos: These were awful for about the first week of our trip, which I attribute to a rainier-than-average  season in the weeks prior to our arrival.  They're tiny and pernicious and for some reason, much harder to swat than their New England counterparts.  I had a few dozen bites after the first couple of days and even had to resort to a DEET product instead of my preferred environmentally friendly brand.  After that, though, I didn't acquire very many new bites. 

Water: Speaking of environmentally friendly, it makes me cringe every time we have to order bottled water with our meals, knowing there is no way to recycle the plastic bottles on the island.  So you either drink the water and maintain healthy hydration or skip it and develop "cankles" due to your body's water retention.  Or maybe that's just me?!  We finally wised up to the fact that fizzy water almost always comes in glass bottles, not plastic ones, so when ordering dinner out, we nearly always opted for fizzy, despite the fact that it's usually more expensive than still water.  Because of the plastic bottle issue, we found ourselves drinking a good bit more soda than usual (aluminum cans being preferable to plastic bottles)--Ting as often as not, but also various diet sodas.  At home I'll go months without drinking a soda, so I probably drank nearly a year's worth of soda on this trip. 
Palm grove on Upper Shoal Bay
 Money: This is the first trip where we did not change any money out for EC$ before our arrival and simply gave in to convention.  It still bothers me that my country's currency seems to be in wider use than the local currency, but that's that.  On most islands, if you pay with US$, you get change back in EC$.  Anguilla is the *only* island I've visited where when paying with EC$, I received US dollars back in change.  A few places on the island are cash only, which for us meant gas stations, Gwen's, and the roadside fruit stands--and any store where the credit card machine isn't working, which for us on this trip meant the pharmacy & t-shirt store. 
Sign near Irie Life
 Travel: Getting more & more expensive, that's for sure!  With American Eagle no longer flying into AXA, we opted to fly American to SXM.  Prices were so high that  with factoring in the transfers between St. Maarten & Anguilla, it would have been comparable for us to fly into SJU and take one of the expensive commuter airlines instead.  Factor in the unpleasantness of the airport staff at SXM and the utter nightmare that immigration & customs presents in MIA, and in retrospect we would have been better off the other way.  I know a lot of people complain about transferring in SJU, but among our experiences, we highly prefer that point of entrance into the US.  In Miami, the immigration lines are convoluted and complicated and LONG.  The wait for our checked bag was an additional 20 minutes, even after having stood in line for immigration, but at least it didn't take long to clear customs.  However, that's when the nightmarish scenario started--once you leave the customs hall, you can no longer pay attention to the overhead signs, which are out-dated--since that's the case, you'd think MIA officials would cover up the signs to help eliminate the confusion, but no. That would make too much sense.   Instead, you have to know which set of colored dots on the floor to follow to re-check your bags and find your way back to security.  There was such mass confusion and not many airport personnel on hand to point the way.  (FWIW, follow the green dots out of customs to the yellow dots.  Follow the yellow dots to re-check your baggage.  Then follow the blue dots to find your way back to security. There were also red dots but I have no idea what they were for!). Let me put it this way: if our flight hadn't landed in MIA nearly 30 minutes ahead of schedule, we would have seriously run the risk of missing our connecting flight, and that was with a layover that was originally a full two hours long.  We really needed those extra 30 minutes!

And not incidentally, this was the first trip in a number of years where we didn't overnight in San Juan and I really missed it--both for its own sake and for the way it helps ease the transition back to home life.  Today I've been the victim of ennui, that peculiar blend of feeling both restless and listless.  Unlike while on vacation, I actually poured myself a rum this morning at around 10:30 am because it felt almost literally unbelievable that we were no longer in Anguilla.  I poured myself a second one for lunch and then took a three hour nap.  Then I experimented making frozen mojitos for our dinner, since my darling and long-suffering husband went to the store to purchase fresh mint and limes for me. 

My  homemade attempt at frozen mojito--not bad!

This Anguilla flag hangs from our indoor balcony
 Caribella -- We have traveled to Anguilla 5x now but this was the first time we have repeated our accommodations and now my husband and I are dedicated fans of Caribella, not least because they were willing to accommodate our budget for a 2-week vacation this year.  I won't say how much we paid (you wouldn't believe me, anyway) here in a public forum, but suffice it to say that it was at a generous discount.  We paid full price last year for one week, and early this past spring I was playing with our vacation budget and thought what the heck--I can email them and ask them how long they'd let us stay for X amount of money since we were return customers.  They gave us the full two weeks, on my proposed budget, which has earned them our gratitude AND loyalty.  You can't beat the location, that's for sure.  I love Caribella's situation on Barnes Bay, it's always quiet enough to suit even us, and we love knowing how much we've paid for our accommodation versus the Viceroy villas next door, only about 50 feet away.  It's enough to make us gloat. 
Gorgeous Barnes Bay
But beyond the brilliant location and the advantage of having a beachfront villa with full cooking facilities and a fabulous balcony that's perfect for eating breakfast and drinking cocktails and watching sunsets, we really, really like the staff at Caribella.  Vandra in particular is such a hoot and we'll definitely miss her until we see her next year (and now that we know she loves action shoot-em-up movies, we'll bring a few that she'll enjoy watching, too). 
Casual but comfortable furniture at Caribella
 And once again, my husband and I are not blind to the imperfections of Caribella, but they're not the sorts of things that interfere with our vacation at all, and for the price we're paying, we're not expecting luxury, except the luxury of space.  So one of the sliding doors sticks a little when you open & shut it, and the balcony ceiling has a little paint peeling, and there was that little incident with the locked bedroom door (we were later provided with a brand-new key, btw), and there's a tile in the shower that sticks up just a little bit over the rest of the tiles.  The walls are on the bare side, though this year they did add some new curtains, although finials were missing off of a couple of the curtain rod ends.  You know what?  None of that affected our vacation, with the exception of the locked bedroom door, and even that we were laughing about the next day.  What Caribella does provide is unparalleled beachfront value, a spacious and casual living space with a huge balcony, optional a/c in the bedroom, a comfortable bed, plenty of hot water and good pressure in the shower, really soft towels, a functional kitchen, and three wonderful and lovely women who will take care of you and help you out when you need it: Gloria, Vandra, and Rose-El.  It certainly isn't perfect, but it's perfect for us, and that's all that matters.  For someone who treasures space, privacy, and quiet , who wants a beachfront location and is on a moderate budget, I'm convinced there's no better value on the entire island. And besides all that, it's Anguillian-owned, so proportionally more of our money goes back into the local economy than if we were staying elsewhere.  

Local building

I admire the fun colors of this local home
 Regrets: There were a handful of new-to-us restaurants that I wanted to try, including Oliver's, Barrel Stay, Hibernia, Dolce Vita, Hungry's van,  and Fat Cat, but we never made it to them, and I was shocked at the end of my trip to discover that we hadn't gone to Jacala for lunch, Lucy's for dinner, or Elvis's for cocktails, since that had been our intention.  Guess that's one of the downfalls of staying two weeks--you think you have all the time in the world so you don't want to obsess too much ahead of time about your dining schedule.  Unfortunately, though, it meant that some places were inadvertently overlooked.  Guess that means we'll try to make it down for three weeks on our next visit!  Other than our trip to Ferryboat Inn, our only other lackluster dining experience that disappointed us after many great meals was our bbq at B&D's.  Maybe we arrived at the wrong time and the ribs and chicken had been sitting out for a while, maybe it was seeing the bottle of Kraft sauce behind the table, but my husband and I were both disappointed compared with the fresh-off-the grill bbq we had at both Elodia's and Gwen's.  Everything else ranged from very good to stellar, though.
 Highlights: Picante, Veya, Veya Cafe, Gwen's hammocks, Cote Mer for lunch, discovering the Sea Spray smoothie shack, the Anguilla Heritage museum, and Shoal Bay East.  Meeting new folks, visiting with old friends.  Realizing that we have started to create our very own Anguilla traditions.  Geraud's pastries and any meal eaten on our balcony.
Looking up...

Anguilla: Our last day...

Take-out from Geraud's

Tuesday: went to Geraud's early to buy pastries to bring back home to eat: almond croissant and raisin/pecan sweet roll.  Ate on balcony. Already melancholy, which will color our experience of the entire day.  The hammocks at Gwen's are exuding their siren call and we are helpless to resist.  Luckily for us "Mr. Anguilla" has made himself scarce, but Terraine is there, and she's a sweetheart who puts us very much in mind of one of our granddaughters.  Neither one of us is particularly hungry, so we shared a burger and got to chatting with a couple sitting next to us, Noah & Salem,  honeymooners from Houston.  We have definitely seen more honeymooners on this trip than previous ones, and Noah & Salem confirmed one of my suspicions: they chose Anguilla because it looked so beautiful on The Bachelor.  Surprisingly, however, they chose Viceroy over Cuisinart.  Say what you want to about that awful TV show (and I've said plenty!), it does seem to be bringing in new visitors to the island.  N&S left and we moseyed over to "our" hammocks where we spent the rest of the afternoon. 

The beautiful Bethel Methodist church

Detail of the St. Gerard's Catholic church door

Wallblake House
On the way back to Caribella we stopped at Wallblake House to take some photos and were surprised to see someone sitting there at a desk--her name is Lily and she's a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton but working on Anguilla for now--she's an underwater archaeologist and was instrumental in helping to get the new Heritage Trail off the ground.  She'd like to start something similar with an underwater snorkel trail.  We chatted for a while and made a donation to the Heritage Trail and headed home to Caribella, but first we stopped by Devonish Gallery for the first time--in fact, it's our first gallery visit on Anguilla, full stop.  We picked up an a/p etching by St. Martin artist Sir Roland Richardson and a small oil painting by Barbara Clark, plus a small piece of pottery to take home--and we ran into Noah and Salem once more.  We had urged them to rent a car while on the island and apparently they had done just that, with their first stop being Devonish gallery.  We also chatted with Lydia (Lidia?) who works at the gallery about Anguilla, comparing notes about our favorite restaurants.  She has many family members who are very good cooks, including an uncle who works at Oliver's, which made me resolve to put them near the top of our list next visit of places to try. 
Surf at Barnes Bay

More Barnes Bay

 Back to Caribella--there were much bigger waves and a stronger undertow than usual when we went for our last swim at Barnes Bay.  We were just thinking about getting out when we saw a large, dark brown shape past our feet near the breaking surf--maybe a sting ray?--the water was too churned up to see more than an outline, so that clinched it for us.  I took a few photos of  the waves, the average of which was probably 18".  Very surprised at change in beach just over course of two week visit--the shape and lines of Barnes Bay beach radically changed during our stay. 

Straw Hat
Usually our last dinner on the island would be at Veya, but once we learned they would be closed, we chose Straw Hat and had been looking forward to it--we always have such a good time there!  Took a big bag of children's books to drop off--at least they know what to do with them, as opposed to the staff at the little bookstore who always seemed confused when I brought them books.  Anne greeted us and gave us a very nice table and we ordered the grilled snapper with choice of sauce & two sides (me) and the stewed goat (DH).  Best goat we've had anywhere--and we try to order it on every island we visit.  And have I mentioned before how much I love the Ti punch at Straw Hat?  So piquant and full of fresh lime juice--makes your mouth pucker right up!   Anne comped us our dessert as a gesture of thanks for our repeat visits, which was so sweet and thoughtful of her, albeit completely unnecessary -- the caramelized bananas were one of the best desserts we had on the trip.  Dinner came to $100, plus additional tip. 
The lights at Straw Hat

Travel day(Wednesday): woke early and started packing.  When most of our suitcases were ready to go, we headed out to Geraud's for one last time, getting there shortly before 8:00, so at least most of their selections were still available.  We each had an almond croissant, though I was tempted to get another Bostock (they take almond croissants and chocolate croissants, mash them up, soak them with rum, and sprinkle powdered sugar on top.  how could that possibly be bad?), but I held back. We also ordered a lovely baguette sandwich with ham, cheese, and butter to go so we could have one last bite of Anguilla while waiting in St. Maarten. We sipped our coffee, read our books, and when we both looked up at the same time, we had tears in our eyes.  Clearly even two weeks is not enough in this place that gets under our skin and in our hearts.  We were starting to go through the motions of leaving when a woman stopped by our table to say hello--she's been coming to Anguilla for years with her family and had been reading my blog--I'm afraid her kind words disarmed me completely and tears sprang to my eyes again.  Gosh, I'm such an easy mark!

Oh, Gwen's, how we miss you!
 After that, it's a matter of biding our time until leaving for the airport.  Back at Caribella we try to read on the balcony a little longer but we end up pacing like restless animals in a cage.  After changing into our traveling clothes we loaded the car, said our goodbyes to Vandra and Gloria, and drove first to the post office to mail my postcards (sidebar: although I wrote about a dozen postcards, most of them mysteriously disappeared, so I only had a few that I mailed.  I'm hoping that the kindness of strangers will prevail and that someone finds them and mails them.  if you didn't get a post card from me and I usually send one to you, it's not because I didn't write one--promise!), and then onward to the airport.

My husband decided he would rather fly over than take the ferry, so we booked with Anguilla Air Services, which was $80 per person.  The flight was delayed by almost 30 minutes, but that was fine since we had plenty of time to connect in St. Maarten.  Clearing immigration was fast and once again, there was literally nobody on hand at customs, so we walked through and checked in at the American Airlines counter.  We paused in the food court to eat our yummy baguette from Geraud's and then bided our time until it was time to go upstairs.  The woman working our security line was perhaps the most unpleasant TSA-type employee I've ever encountered, barking orders at all of the passengers with a real snarl.  Ahh, good times!  Flight itself was uneventful, which really is the main thing, but connecting in MIA is a nightmare, about which I'll say more in my closing notes.  We got to our connecting BDL flight just in time, but flight was delayed for weather reasons.  We got home and tumbled into bed around 2:00 am on Thursday, feeling that we were a world away from Anguilla in both distance and essence. 

Anguilla, Anguilla, Anguilla: part the tenth

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a Concrete Bunker
Two of our three last days, in brief: 

Sunday --Geraud's for breakfast, Elodia's all afternoon.  Overcast & rainy all day, though we escaped the rain for the most part, we could see squalls in the distance and saw evidence of the rain everywhere we went. We ordered the bbq ribs & chicken which were being grilled at the time of our order (around 1:00), but it was so late  by the time the food was ready that we didn't eat lunch till 2:30.  It tasted good enough to wait for, but it left us too full to eat dinner that night. Too bad, since we had been thinking about making reservations at Oliver's when we got back to Caribella--one of those places we've been meaning to try but somehow never got around to.  Now it will have to wait for a future trip.   We bid adieu to Carol at Elodia's and told her that we'd look for her next year, God willing, and she came around the table to hug both of us goodbye and then walked us out to our car, waving goodbye to us as we drove away.  Instead of a full dinner we ended up snacking on crackers with a little cream cheese and olives with our cocktails at sunset and then ate dessert next door at Mango's, comprising two rums (neither of which we loved), one coconut cheesecake (surprisingly light), one Mango's banana split, with lots of pineapple.  Good.  Unfortunately I cannot recall the tab, but I recall that each dessert was around US $14. 
Cloudy day at Elodia's

Storm clouds rolling in

Waiting for lunch at Elodia's

Post-lunch smiles at Elodia's
Monday:  Toast & coffee on the balcony at home for breakfast, Gwen's for the day.  We arrived around 11:00 and set in to do some reading until the staff showed up, but what we got instead was a very annoying proselytizing man who introduced himself as "Mr. Anguilla," whose real name I won't mention here since I have nothing good to say about him.  He was friendly enough at first, and we chatted about our vacation with him, but very soon he started making some very offensive, anti-Semitic comments.  He worked himself up and started yelling about what God has planned for all of us, especially those sinning Muslims, when I told him that I'd appreciate his not yelling in my face.  He told me he wasn't yelling at me, he was just yelling, at which I replied that, as someone on the receiving end, the effect was the same for me.  He was also going commando, and whenever he grasped his shirt up in a gesture of argumentative conviction, his pubes would show.  It was decidedly NOT fun so I put my hand up, and rather coldly informed him that our religious views were different from his, and would he please let us get back to our books.  It was about as rude as I have ever been to another human in my life and it made me uncomfortable, but probably not as uncomfortable as I would have been if I'd let him to continue to harangue us.  Finally another group of tourists arrived from St. Martin so "Mr Anguilla" made his way over to them and sat down with them for quite a while.  They admittedly looked from afar like they were enjoying his company, so either they agreed with his religious views or found other topics to talk about. I couldn't say.  But the entire encounter left me feeling very uncomfortable. 

Post-encounter with "Mr. Anguilla" Ugh!

Who's afraid of a little rain?  Not us!

These hammocks couldn't be any more relaxing
Lunch, at least, improved the situation.  We ordered two plates of bbq chicken, hold the fries, substituting extra coleslaw for the curried pasta salad.  I can't recall total 'cause my husband paid, not me, and since it's a cash transaction there was no receipt.  It was overcast & breezy again that day--coolest day we've had so far.  I snorkeled upper shoal bay for the first time and enjoyed it quite a bit--I imagine it would be much better on a sunny day when you could see better. We spent the rest of the afternoon in those marvelous hammocks and left around 3:45.  We stop by Sea Spray (again!) to try rum punch this time and it was so good we had to get a second one--if you prefer your rum punch on the not-so-sweet side, you should definitely give these a try.  For me, they tied with the Ferryboat Inn for best rum punch I've had on the island.  If you liked a sweet, fruity rum punch, and especially if you like the ones with amaretto, these would probably not be as much to your liking as they were to mine. We chatted with both Veronica and Pamela for a while, then along came a man who introduced himself as Africa, and we chatted some more.  He told some good stories about whale watching & fishing, with Pamela chiming in with some extra details since she had gone out on the water with him quite  a few times.  We also chatted about Grenada, our other favorite island, once we learned that Pamela used to live there when working for Windjammer.  All in all, an excellent end to the afternoon. We dined that night at Mango's.  I had crayfish (excellent, but 5 crayfish is too many), DH had the conch salad, dessert was banana split again for him and apple tart for me. I can't decide which style of crayfish I liked better, the one at Mango's or the one at Veya.  It's not quite as different as comparing apples to oranges, but I think you could say it's as different as comparing an excellent spaghetti bolognese with a terrific Pad Thai:  they both start off with noodles, but beyond that there's no real comparison.  Suffice it to say that both preparations were outstanding.
Just driving 'round the island

Veronica, with her excellent rum punch