31 August 2011

Book (P)Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

This was a book that I *wanted* to like far more than I actually did. I'm a bookseller and I was hoping that this might be the contemporary title to hand to girls instead of (or in addition to) My Most Excellent Year or Will Grayson, Will Grayson, both of which are wonderful novels that feature boys who come out.

Summary (with some spoilers, be forewarned, and in my own words): One Montana summer day, Cameron and her best friend Irene stave off boredom by shoplifting and making out with each other; later that night, Cameron learns that both of her parents died in a car crash and her first thought is one of relief for not getting caught for either of those activities. Guilt kicks in, her religious Aunt Ruth moves in to take care of her, and Irene leaves for boarding school back East. Mostly Cameron fills her time with swim team and hanging out with a gang of boys drinking and smoking pot and doing mildly destructive things, but now she's also involved with a youth group in an ultra-conservative megachurch of Aunt Ruth's choosing. Then drop-dead gorgeous cowgirl Coley comes to town and Cameron falls in love with her; eventually they start making out every chance they get, which builds to one scene in particular, after which Coley reports Cameron to their pastor as an instigator and manipulator of unnatural sexual activity. Aunt Ruth sends Cameron away to a conservative Christian school where they basically try to pray the gay out of her. She loses her right to privacy and endures daily one-on-one sessions (later, group sessions) with the quasi-therapists at the school, but luckily she falls in with Jane and Adam who know how to talk the talk with their teachers without actually giving in to the brainwashing sessions. Something bad happens to one of the students. Then Cameron, Jane, and Adam escape. End of story. We have no actual idea of what happens to them after that point.

One of my biggest problem with this book is that I think it's overwritten to the tune of about 150 pages. Cameron just wasn't an interesting enough character and her "issues" just not compelling enough to draw out her story that much. Her own boredom living in a small Montana town quickly becomes the reader's boredom. I did a ton of skimming. I thought that the dialogue itself was pretty good, as were the passages of teen interactions. But I think the author does a disservice to her readers for not being more condemning of schools like the one to which Cameron was exiled. Not to mention the fact that Cameron herself doesn't seem to think that the place is all that bad. No, she doesn't like it, but she pretty regularly lets the therapists off the hook because she knows that they really *believe* that gayness is a sin that can be cured, and that didn't make sense to me considering the rage that Cameron is occasionally described as having but rarely shown to the reader.

A smaller, more technical issue that I have with this book is that the publisher rates it for readers 14 and up, which is a pretty tough sell considering the very widespread drug use (true, it's "only" pot) and a couple of scenes that, while not described graphically, are pretty graphic nonetheless (in one of them, a distraught boy attempts to slash off his penis with a razor and then pours bleach on himself). Not many parents or librarians (or booksellers like me) will feel confident putting this book into the hands of 14 year olds, I suspect.

But my biggest concern with this novel is that it doesn't make it clear enough that schools like the one Cameron is sent away to are unacceptable, full stop, no exceptions. And that, to me, is the most dangerous thing in this book.

This book will be published by Balzer & Bray, a division of HarperCollins, in early 2012.  My store received a large box of ARCs, compliments of our sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.  

27 August 2011

Pre-pub Party for The Night Circus

Nieves at The Night Circus
 On Wednesday, August 24, my sales rep for Doubleday, Ann Kingman (along with her other New England colleagues), threw a big ol' pre-publication book party for Erin Morgenstern and her incredible debut novel, The Night Circus.  Book sellers, book bloggers, and librarians were issued tickets for this festive event honoring what will probably be the biggest book of the fall.
L-R: Elli, Nieves, Erin, me, Joan
My fellow Odyssey booksellers and I left work early to make the drive up to Concord, a small town that the Cirque des Reves favors in the novel.  Elli, Joan, Nieves and I all dressed for the part as reveurs like they did in the book, all in black or white, with a splash of red, and we were pleased to see that a large number of book people who had arrived ahead of us had also dressed accordingly.  No, the circus tent pitched on the field wasn't black & white striped like in the book, but the folks from Doubleday had arranged circus-like entertainment in the form of a strolling magician and juggler, along with fortune tellers and a balloon man who creates outlandish balloon concoctions.
Nieves, getting her fortune read. 
We got to hear an opening track of The Night Circus audio book, read by the amazing Jim Dale, and then Alison Callahan, the book's editor, gave a lovely intro for Erin herself.  The Doubleday/Random House folks put on a nice spread of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, and the night wouldn't be complete without a bottomless bowl of caramel popcorn and a chocolate mouse for every attendee.  It was great chatting with all of the other book people, including writers from The Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix.  We got to chat with Erin for a little while and she was amazingly sweet and generous in her thanks for my review of The Night Circus (you can read it here), which I had sent to her.  It made her cry; she in turn made me cry in telling me about it.  It was all good.  We are now bonded through our tears, and the staff are now even more excited to host Erin at the Odyssey in September than we were before attending this charming event. 
Nieves and her intricately awesome balloon hat!

21 August 2011

Repost: Book review of The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

 One of my favorite book bloggers, BookBelle, asked me to repost this review in August now that the book has been published.  Belle, anything for you, babe!

Meet Caleb & Camille Fang and their children Annie and Buster, known at home and at large as Child A and Child B.  They’re a family dedicated to making art, but not in a way that anybody would expect.  The term performance art doesn’t quite do justice to what they do—it’s more like guerilla warfare aimed at a complacent public, and it’s not “good” in their eyes unless somebody ends up bleeding, broken, arrested, or worse.  This book is laugh-out-loud on the surface, but the absurdity really only masks a darker level where children are valued only as much as the next prop and where the parents’ final performance is both devastating and liberating.  This book is a marvelous find.  

My Harper rep, the amazing Anne DeCourcey, handed me an ARC of this book that will be published by Ecco in August and told me that I should read it.  She was right.  Again.  Here are some of the passages that resonated with me--either because of the writing, the humor, or my own self-identification. 

On why there should be a third film in The Powers That Be action franchise, in which Annie starred: "Yes, well, I think we can all agree that everyone loves watching Nazis getting hit with lightning bolts."  Later on that page, Wilson describes a sip of gin: "So clean and medicinal it felt not unlike surgery under light anesthetic."  
On how simultaneously funny and pathetic Buster is, upon the prospect of sex: "He could count on one hand the number of times he'd had sex and still have enough fingers left over to make complicated shadow puppets."

Buster again, after his sister has left home and he's alone with his parents, not knowing how to be around them without her: "His mother and father were laughing with such vigor, so genuinely moved, that Buster tried it out, to see what it felt like.  He laughed and laughed and, though he did not yet know what the joke was, he hoped it would be worth the effort he'd already put into enjoying it."

These people are profoundly fucked up.  And profoundly funny.  And profoundly disturbing. Just read it.

In other news, my husband and my dear friend Melanie went to the *cough* shamelessplug *cough* Odyssey Bookshop this afternoon to hear Kevin Wilson read.  What a treat it was!  He and my husband both hail from Tennessee, and his wife Lee (Leigh?) is an editor at the Sewanee Review and has connections to the Baylor School where my husband matriculated back when it was a military school, so let's just say there was some pretty fine jawbonin' taking place in the bookshop.  Kevin is a little soft spoken, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition reading aloud from a book like The Family Fang, which is a little bit brash, a little bit in your face with absurdity.  It was also fun learning the provenance of some of the novel's details or plot points, like the potato canon, the unorthodox production of Romeo & Juliet, and shooting somebody in the arm in the name of art.  

I really cannot recommend this book enough, and if you're looking for a book that is well-written, outrageous, thought-provoking, and funny, look no further.   

P. S.  Happy Birthday, Mom!

20 August 2011

A Trio of Tidbits: Hundred Foot Journey, Rules of Civility, and The Very Thought of You

I polished off three very different novels this week, and while it's true that I didn't love all of them, they are all worth mentioning here.  And since it's my day off and I've got the time, and since most of my blog posts from the last couple of weeks have been Blog Hops and nothing more, it's high time for me to write a "real" post.

Isn't this book cover gorgeous?  The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard Morais is the story of a young Indian boy whose family emigrates first to England, then to France, after the matriarch dies in a riot in Mumbai. The boy has a knack in the kitchen and in fact grows up to be the first foreign-born chef in France to earn 3 Michelin stars.   I wanted to love it--the very promising blurbs and the starred reviews, not to mention the subject matter, made me think I would love it--but I did not.  There is some very good food writing and some of the story I enjoyed, but it lacked that figurative pinch of salt to bring out the rich flavors that I was hoping for. The narrator also tends to hold the reader at the same distance that he holds everybody else in his life.  Still, if you're a foodie or at all involved in the food industry, it's worth a look.  Incidentally, it's the third book I've read this year that qualifies for the South Asian Challenge.  NB: I received a complimentary finished paperback copy from the publisher, Scribner. 

This book, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, is one that has been garnering much attention over the last month when Viking published it.  It follows a young woman named Katey Kontent, whose life of modest means in late 1930s Manhattan is upended (not always for the better) when she meets and falls for socialite Tinker Grey and inhabits his sphere for a while. I expected to love it, but alas, I did not.  However, I did find much to admire in it, including Towles' prose style and his ability to capture something essential about his characters with a couple of throw-away sentences: "He gave the Virgil in perfect meter, iamb for iamb. Although, one suspected that Dicky's ability to quote classical verse stemmed less from a love of literature than from a rote education in prep school which time had the opportunity to erase."

We meet a few interesting characters along the way, but most of the time I kept reading because I was sure it was going to get better.  There was no single "a-ha" moment when the story markedly improved for me, but as with many titles I've read, by the time I got to the end there was that peculiar literary alchemy where the book in its entirety is transformed into something better than what I had experienced along the way. NB: I received an advance reading copy of this book many months ago from my sales rep, Karl, but it took me until this month to actually read it. 

I seem to be on somewhat of a kick this summer reading WWII fiction.  The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize) mostly follows the story of young Anna Sands, whose mother evacuates her from London in 1939 in order to escape the Blitz;  Anna fortuitously ends up at a large Yorkshire estate whose family has taken in dozens of children and set up a school for them.  The author does a great job of capturing the period mood of hope and determined cheeriness in the face of a dark future, particularly in the children. She also writes with a knack about the alienation and daily alliances that children make and break on the way to learning socialized behavior:
"She might run down a hill holding hands with Beth. But then Beth would turn and walk away, and Anna would watch her go and never know if Beth wanted to play with her anymore or not. Why was it Beth, not her, who held this choice? Every day she tiptoed across the terrain of other children's affections, clumsy with self-doubt.  She could not work out why she feared other children more than they feared her."
Of these three novels, this is the one with the most heart, the least detachment from the narrator, and thus it was the book I responded to most warmly.  NB: I received a finished paperback copy of this book from Washington Square Press. 

19 August 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Size Matters

Book Blogger Hop

It's been a relatively slow book blogging week for me.  I've been trying to get lost in a couple of good books but it hasn't been working.  I read a couple that were of moderate interest but nothing more.  So it's fun to join in the hop since I've not been reviewing.  This week's question, sponsored weekly by Crazy for Books provides another short answer for me. What is the LONGEST book you've ever read, excluding religious or spiritual texts?

Because I do not have the page count in front of me for the editions I read, I'm not sure which one of these wins, but since each book weighs in at over 1,000 pages, they're both contenders: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (according to iPage, a current one volume trade paperback is 1,231 pages)) and my one volume edition of The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien (which according to iPage is 1,178 pages).  Either way, it's close.  

What about you?  What's the longest work you've ever read? 

15 August 2011

The Wife of Bath Kicks Ath!

I am a bit of a failed medievalist.  I never read Chaucer until I got to grad school, so I was off to a late start,at least from a scholarly point of view.  But I promptly fell in love with his stories, his word play, and the timelessness of his themes, Middle English be damned!  It also helped that the lady in The Knight's Tale shared my name, albeit with a different spelling.  And did you know that Chaucer used the word "piss-ant" back in the 15th century?  While I can't say that he was a feminist, or even a proto-feminist, it's clear that women's issues interested Chaucer a great deal.  If you never got past "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote..." in high school or if you have scary flashbacks from trying to read rhymed couplets in translation, I'd recommend that you give Chaucer another try.  Find a good modern translation (the prose version from Ackroyd is pretty good, actually) and sit back for some good times.  Because in a time where the book as an object may soon become obsolete, isn't it nice to be reminded that language and stories can survive through the centuries with their power undiminished?

Anyway, all of this is to say I ran across something very interesting in today's Shelf Awareness: the personal playlist for Chaucer's Wife of Bath.  I've copied and pasted it for you to read below, but you can read it in its original format at Flavorwire
Literary Mixtape: The Wife of Bath
3:30 pm Monday Aug 8, 2011 by
If you’ve ever wondered what your favorite literary characters might be listening to while they save the world/contemplate existence/get into trouble, or hallucinated a soundtrack to go along with your favorite novels, well, us too. But wonder no more! Here, we sneak a look at the hypothetical iPods of some of literature’s most interesting characters. What would be on the personal playlists of Holden Caulfield or Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn or Harry Potter, Tintin or Humbert Humbert? Something revealing, we bet. Or at least something danceable. Read on for a cozy reading soundtrack, character study, or yet another way to emulate your favorite literary hero. This week: Chaucer’s bawdy grand dame, the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath is one of the most developed characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is somewhat unusual, since she is — gasp! — a woman. Also going by Alyson, the character is a strong proponent of female independence, and even dominance over men. She’s bawdy, lusty and rambunctious, insatiable and in control in the bedroom, and confident in her God-given right to have as much fun as she wants. Independently wealthy and confident, she has managed five marriages despite the Church’s disapproval, because somehow she just keeps on landing those gentlemen. The Wife of Bath can get down with the best of them, so she’d definitely be into some deliciously crude fare, as well as some of your typical feminist empowerment rock. And of course, she’d only listen to lady singers. Who else? Here’s what we think the Wife of Bath would gossip, spin her tale, and lay down the law to, but be warned: there is some parsing of Middle English ahead. Stream the full mixtape here. “Let’s Talk About Sex” — Salt-N-Pepa After all, even the Bible tells us it’s good to procreate! Why not talk about it so everyone can do it better? Or as the Wife of Bath says, “But wel I woot expres, withoute lye, God bad us for to wexe and multiplye: That gentil text can I wel understonde.” “Independent Woman” — Destiny’s Child All we can say is, the Wife of Bath would totally be throwing her hands up during the chorus of this song. Plus, let’s not lie: Beyoncé’s “Try to control me boy, you get dismissed” is basically the modern equivalent of Alyson’s ”We love no man that taketh kepe or charge.” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” — Billie Holiday The Wife of Bath may be somewhat unconventional in her proto-feminist views, but we don’t think she really minds the criticism. Plus we think she’d really dig a strong woman like Billie in her headphones. “Konichiwa Bitches” — Robyn Alyson would be all over Robyn — an unconventional young woman who doesn’t take any guff and pretty much turns it out on all counts. After all, girl knows exactly what she’s doing: “You wanna rumble in my jungle/ I’ll take you on/ Stampede your rumpa/ And send you home/ You wanna rumble in space/ I put my laser on stun/ And on the north pole I’ll ice you son” “Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy Me” — Tata Young Even the Wife of Bath needs a song to jam to when she hangs out with her equally bawdy, irreverent friends. Leave your husbands at home, ladies! “Like a Virgin” — Madonna Though it’s true that Alyson “nil envye no virginitee,” and by most counts a rich widow was more desirable than a virgin, sometimes it’s still fun to pretend. Especially when you get to that fourth husband. “Dirrty” — Christina Aguilera The anthem of all sexually unrepressed party girls everywhere. We think the Wife of Bath is probably also too dirty to clean her act up, and proud of it. “Money” — The Flying Lizards Because let’s face it: the Wife of Bath knows what’s really important in life. And she’s got a lot of it. “How Many Licks” — Lil’ Kim feat. Sisqo “I wol persevere, I nam nat precious. In wyfhode I wol use myn instrument/ As frely as my Makere hath it sent. If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe! Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe.” In other words, you better know what to do with it, and so should your man. “I Want You” — Joan Jett Badass rocker Joan Jett would definitely be on heavy rotation on the Wife of Bath’s playlists. No nonsense and gruff, she never dolled herself up for shows like the pop stars, but wore what she wanted and kept pace with (or, often, bested) the big dogs. “Gentlemen Aren’t Nice” — Emilie Autumn Doesn’t Alyson know it. Good thing she’s about ten steps ahead of them. “Not a Pretty Girl” — Ani DiFranco Ah, but of course we had to put on a song from the queen of the hippie-feminist crooners herself. The song might be a little soft and breathy for Alyson’s taste, but we’re pretty sure the message would hit home.

(NB: I tried to reformat this so that they wouldn't all run together but I couldn't get it to work.  Not sure why.  But if it's hard to read here, just click through the above link to read it on Flavorwire.)

14 August 2011

Mailbox Monday: Lots of Goodies

Mailbox Monday is not usually a weekly meme in which I participate, but I just received a nice stack of goodies from my various sales reps, some of which I'm very excited about reading!

Top of the list goes to The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, which comes out in January 2012.  I first fell in love with her writing with her previous book, The Weight of Heaven.  She's a good stylist and is great at getting to the heart of the matter in her story telling.  My sales rep from Harper sent me this one, along with Ron Rash's new book coming in April 2012.  And if that weren't enough, Anne also sent me her personal copies of the audio versions of Christopher Moore's Fool and Sarah Weeks' So B It.  Isn't she swell?

From John at Simon & Schuster I received an ARC of The Last Testament of God: A Memoir by God, helped along by David Javerbaum.  Looks like fun and comes out in November.  I also received finished paperback copies of Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes and The One Hundred Foot Journey by Richard Morais.  Isn't this cover gorgeous?  I'm a sucker for books with mangos on the cover.  Or about the Indo-Pakistani experience.  And food.  Yup.  Started this one last night and it's good so far. 

Not to be outdone, my wonderful reps Ann and Michael from Random House also took care of me this week, sending me an ARC of the forthcoming book from Michael Ondaatje, coming in October, called The Cat's Table.  I'm showing the UK cover here instead of the US because it's much better. Can't wait to crack the spine on this one, either, as it's a possible selection for my store's First Editions Club.  So many books, so little time.  If only I were Hermione with her time-turner...

13 August 2011

Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

Summary: Sometime after the year 2020, a worldwide virus has made women over the age of 18 infertile, which means that the uteruses (uteri?) of teenage girls are a seriously hot commodity.  Girls with boyfriends and the proper genetic makeup can sell their newborns to the highest bidder. Or they can turn pro, which means they contract out their uterus (occasionally even their virginity) to wealthy prospective parents when they're as young as 13 to earn enough money to pay for a great college so that they'll have a good job and can pay for someone else to bear their children when their time comes. 

Add to this interesting little world a beautiful and intelligent girl like Melody, whose (adoptive) parents raised her to be their little money maker, sparing no expense for specialized training in languages, arts, sciences, sports so that when the time comes, she will land the most lucrative pregnancy contracts to keep her parents living in the style to which they have been accustomed.  There's only one flaw in their plan: her identical twin named Harmony, separated at birth and raised by an uber-conservative Christian movement, wants to save Melody from her contract of sin. 

Sounds intriguing, no?  I certainly thought so, at least until I actually read the book.  What begins with a smart premise and the potential to be an excellent satire mostly just fizzles out with too many undeveloped plot twists, not enough writerly commitment to any of the "causes," and dialogue that is mostly insipid.  At a time when pop culture is devoted to spotting baby bumps on celebrities and there is a reality TV show depicting pregnant teens, all while Teabaggers (no, I won't call them Tea Partiers. they earned their stupid moniker) seem hell-bent on separating a woman's rights from her own body, this could have been a book of both importance and pertinence.  Instead, it was like a light sorbet--fine, if that's what you're looking for, but not a satisfying replacement for something more substantive.

12 August 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Crazy Titles

Book Blogger Hop
Two weeks running with the Book Blogger Hop, sponsored by Crazy For Books every Friday.  I don't always, or even usually, participate but this week's topic also merits a short & sweet answer:  highlight some crazy book titles. 

1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  I loved this title from the get-go and once I read it, I loved it all the more.  Pure, epistolary goodness.  And the title actually makes sense after you've read the book.

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.  Pure-dee crazy.  I love this title, too, but I have not read it yet.  I'm not sure why, since it got good reviews.  

3.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics is also a great, albeit crazy, title.  I've had multiple coworkers recommend this one to me but I haven't read it yet.  I noticed while shelving yesterday, though, that we have a few remaindered (for which read: Bargain Book) copies of it on my store's shelf, so maybe its day will come soon. Modern Physics was my favorite class in high school and honestly the only one that challenged me and made me think in new ways.  What's not to love about a novel that capitalizes on that high school nostalgia?

4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  When I first heard of this book from Europa Editions, I thought maybe something in the title got lost in translation.   I mean, had they ever seen a hedgehog?  Cute, yes.  Elegant? Not so much.  So I was skeptical about the title when I started reading, and then I was skeptical about the book for the first 75 pages, and then by the time I got to the end I was completely gobsmacked.  Great book.  Crazy title.

What about y'all?  What books with crazy titles made it to your discussion this week? 

05 August 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Most Desired ARC (RH folks, are you reading this?)

Book Blogger Hop

This week's Book Blogger Hop, sponsored by Crazy for Books, is a short answer for me, for once.  What is the one ARC that I'd love to get my hands on right now?  Easy.  Haruki Murakami's forthcoming novel, 1Q84.  It sold out in Japan upon its original publication and it's going to be a hot-ticket item for this fall.  I'd fall at the feet of my Random House sales reps if they could procure a copy for me. 

04 August 2011

Book P(review): The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Summary, taken from publisher website: At Westish College, a small school in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth,
The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others.

But saying that this is a book about baseball is like saying that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling.  I use the comparison deliberately despite its triteness because Melville himself plays a small but essential role in this debut novel.  It's a book that's got both heart and soul, set in academia but not really of academia.  It's a testament to the human spirit, in a sports-triumph yay-team kind of way, but beyond that, it's a celebration of the human condition, all of our glorious foibles and hangups and endless striving.  I've rarely met characters who were so gloriously human and complicated and fucked-up and lovable AND real. That Schwartzy -- I wanted to hug him, reassure him, slap him silly.  Many times.  Sometimes simultaneously.  And Owen -- I want to know how he managed his level of Zen detachment toward everything that was important to him.  And Guert, bless him -- what an upstanding train wreck of a man. 

Harbach's turn of phrase is generally good and occasionally brilliant, but what surpasses his prose is his generosity of spirit towards his characters.  Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Pella, Guert: they're all magnificently flawed and equally likely to evoke feelings of compassion in the reader as frustration. There are several passages that I marked in my ARC, but there's only one that I'll share here.  It stands out for me because the town & college it refers to are right across the river from where I live now and because I'm amazed at the audacity and careless cruelty of rich, privileged white people even today. Westish College baseball team has reached the national championship for the first time, pitted against Amherst College:
While Schwartz lay awake, he tried to concoct a pregame speech that would whip his team into a frenzy.  A real fire-and-brimstone number, based on his favorite theme, that ageless angelic theme, of the underdog outlasting the favorite, the oppressed bitch-slapping the oppressor.  He was going to start by bringing up the namby-pamby Amherst mascot: Their team was called the Lord Jeffs, after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the 18th century British general who advocated using smallpox-infected blankets against Native Americans.  And--so went the speech--not much had changed in three hundred years.  The Amherst players were still Lords, still hip-deep in old-school power and privilege--imagine the practice facilities they had! Imagine the jobs they'd be given when they graduated! By comparison, the [Westish] Harpooners might as well have been sucking on small pox blankets.  They were going to answer to guys like the Amherst guys for the rest of their lives...Their first, best, and last chance for preemptive revenge was here, now, tonight.  Crush the Lords or be forever crushed. 
This book was one of the Editors' Book Buzz titles at BEA this year and I read an advance reading copy from my sales rep.  It will be published next month. And I would encourage anybody who likes a good, long character-driven book to pick it up.  Don't worry if you're not a baseball fan.  Don't worry if you don't like books about college boys. Just read it.

03 August 2011

Santa Fe, NM: A mini getaway. Part II

I wised up on Saturday night and used both earplugs AND a sleep mask and slept about 150% better than the night before.  Still woke up early, but refreshed this time instead of bleary-eyed.  DH and I were up and out of the hotel by 8:00 but were quite surprised to see that the little coffee shop & bakery across the street from the hotel was closed, so we turned around and decided to break our fast at the hotel's restaurant, Amaya, which gets good ratings on various travel forums.  We opted for the continental breakfast at $11 pp, adding some eggs (DH) and crispy bacon (me) for $4 apiece.  We ate outside in the pleasant courtyard and read our books and thus passed a very enjoyable morning.  I didn't take any photos of my own at breakfast, but here is one of the courtyard from the hotel website:
Hotel's photo, NOT mine. 
After breakfast we walked back downtown to the Plaza and poked around for a few hours.  It was very hot that morning, and though I was happy that I remembered to slather on the sunscreen, I was definitely wishing I had remembered to bring along a hat.  We have one major regret from that morning and that is not buying a CD from a woman playing guitar on one of the side streets near the Plaza.  The music was haunting and beautiful but we had no cash on us.  We walked around a bit in search of an ATM or a bank but didn't see any, and after a while we were too tired to persist.  With luck, my DH will be able to find her again sometime this week while he's still in Santa Fe and will bring home the prized CD.

Here are some photos from our wanderings downtown on Sunday:

These beautiful doors were in a courtyard with other gorgeous woodwork

I'm a sucker for brightly colored glassware

After a few hours wandering around downtown we were starting to drag our feet, so we went back to the hotel for an hour or so to read & recharge before heading over to St. John's campus to check in for the Glen Conference and inspect the studio where DH would be teaching for the week.  After that we headed to Museum Hill and chose the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture somewhat randomly from the four to choose form.  In retrospect, I wish we would have chosen the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, but there's always next time.  MIAC was a very impressive museum, nicely appointed and designed.  But as with the Spanish Market, I found myself getting museum fatigue all too soon because to my untrained eye, many displays looked nearly identical.  The various diorama were very interesting and thoughtfully put-together, particularly the cross-section wickiup, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of those.
Koi pond at St. John's

View from DH's studio at St. John's

Museum Hill

Museum Hill
After stopping for a cold drink at the outdoor cafe on Museum Hill, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our 5:30 dinner reservation at Amavi.  It was necessarily early because originally Karin and Linford were joining us but felt compelled to leave in time to attend the welcome reception for the Glen, which started at 7:00.  As it turned out, Amavi exuded its allure on them and they stayed with us through the entire meal instead of leaving after appetizers.  Well, we all just loved it, me especially.  I had done a little research on travel forums, particularly at Trip Advisor, and this was one of the places recommended to me.  Its Mediterranean cuisine combines the best of Spanish, French, Italian, and Greek culinary traditions to provide tasty and inventive dishes.  We had the chilled cucumber gazpacho (DH), the Mezze Salad Trio (Linford), the arugula salad (Karin) and the sweet red pepper panna cotta (me), all of which were passed around.

I'm startin' with the man in the mirror (DH)
They thoughtfully provided a palate cleanser in the form of a cucumber-mint sorbet, which let us dive into our entrees with a renewed sense of anticipation.  All of their meats are locally farmed, cruelty-free, FYI.  We ordered the beef & lentil stuffed eggplant (DH), the grass-fed lamb tortellone (Karin & me), and the summer vegetable fettuccini (Linford).  Everything was excellent, but my personal favorite was my own dish.  Karin and I also had a couple of rounds of the Snap Dragon cocktail, which was a delightful and refreshing vodka & ginger liqueur concoction and the gentlemen drank wine & martinis.  Much to my own disappointment, we had neither the room nor the time to sample dessert, which is truly a pity since their dessert menu is one of the most interesting ones I've run across in simply ages.  Four appetizers, four entrees, four cocktails and one glass of wine brought our grand total to only $198, or basically just under $50 per person.  Add in the fine company, the cheerful atmosphere, and our very engaging server, and I'd call that a bargain.

My sweet DH

The congenial bar
After dinner we made a brief appearance at the college before heading back to the hotel for me to pack.  My flight left ABQ at 8:30 so we had to get up pretty early to check out of the hotel, return the rental car, rent a new one for DH, and get me to the church airport on time.  I'm not normally very chipper at that time of day, but the stunning sunrise that greeted us on the open road made slight amends.  I wish I had been better able to photograph it!  Flights home were relatively crash free AND on time, so I have no complains.   I also finished the Harbach book, The Art of Fielding, and got a good start on Pie Town by Lynne Hinton, which I finished when I got home.  The latter isn't very good, and for the first third of the book I was kicking myself for not test-driving the first chapter before purchasing it.  It improved a bit on acquaintance, though I probably would not have stuck with it if I'd had an alternative to read.  That being said, my July reading slump seems to be over because including The Emerald Atlas, which I read on the way out to Santa Fe, I read over 1,200 pages in the last 60 hours, and that's even with a pretty full schedule!

Sunset at St. John's College

Sunrise reflected in a raindrop-ridden rearview mirror
Too bad about the resolution on this one but I had try to shoot this rainbow sundog. 

DH driving me back to ABQ.  We were both a little sad.

02 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Please, sir, may I have some more? Or not!

This week's Top Ten Tuesday question, sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish blog seems playful to me, so I think I'll join in.  The top ten trends I'd like to see more (or less) of:

1. Less -- Multiple narrators in a novel.  Particularly if they each get their own typeface because the author thinks their readers are too stupid to figure out who's being featured. 

2.  Less -- Paranormal romance, etc.  For both teens & adults.  I'm sure that there are some that are done well.  But I feel that this genre contributes more to the dumbing down of today's readers than any other. I mostly blame Twilight

3.  More -- Realistic fiction for teens/YA that is not romance- or bitch-driven.  (Gossip Girl, Clique, etc).  More like If I Stay, or Jellicoe Road.  Or even 13 Little Blue Envelopes

4.  Less -- Memoirs, celebrity or otherwise.  Most people who have written memoirs haven't lived an interesting enough life and/or aren't good enough writers to have merited writing a memoir.

5.  More -- Meaty, epic literature that speaks to the human condition, punches you in the gut, and leaves you thinking about it for days.

6.  More -- Funny travel writers with a social conscience.  Like Bill Bryson or J. Maarten Troost, who seem to know that readers who laugh are likely to remember more about what they read. 

7. More -- Books that deal with important issues without feeling like they're "issue books," particularly for teens.  I'm thinking Will Grayson, Will Grayson or My Most Excellent Year for books that might be labeled issue books for their gay characters but are really just slice of life books that feature excellent gay characters.

8.  More -- Narrative non-fiction that is written and plotted so well that it reads as smoothly as fiction.  I'm thinking Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, or maybe Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Just because you're writing a science book or a biography doesn't excuse you from writing in an engaging prose style!

9. More -- I have borrowed this one verbatim from bibliophiliac: Realistic Fiction about regular folks. 

10.  As usual, I leave this one blank.  What's the number one trend you'd like to see more or less of? 

Santa Fe, NM: a mini getaway. Part I

Every year my husband teaches a week-long workshop at the Glen, held every August on the campus of St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM.  It's sponsored by the journal Image, whose tagline is "Arts, Faith, Mystery," and they hire experts in various fields such as painting, poetry, songwriting, fiction writing, drawing, photography, etc, with evening lectures and concerts given by some of the workshop leaders.  It's largely, though not exclusively, an ecumenical Christian setting.

Last year I joined my husband for approximately 30 hours at the end of his gig at the Glen, but this year I added on an extra night (for a grand total of 54 hours in NM) and we went out a couple of days ahead of the workshop--my schedule at work dictated that it be this particular weekend, but we had the serendipity of meeting up with our friends, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, collectively known as the music group Over the Rhine.  Not only were we on the same flight landing in ABQ, we booked ourselves into the same hotel and we had the great privilege of seeing them in concert in Santa Fe!

Flying Star Cafe in Albuquerque
Friday was taken up with travel, with a delay out of Atlanta (as always--they like to brag that it's the world's busiest airport but they're not so forthcoming with their on-time record, that's for sure!), which means that our Santa Fe dinner plans were scrapped in favor of eating in Albuquerque.  Knowing how much I love desserts, Karin & Linford recommended the Flying Star Cafe.  Very fun & funky interior, pretty good food (would have been better if the salads hadn't been positively swimming in dressing) served up fast, and a dessert display that could put you in a diabetic coma just by looking at it.  They had three refrigerated cases to showcase their desserts, one for their pies alone.  Too bad we were tired and reluctant to get hopped up on sugar that late at night to do more damage 'cause the peach-raspberry pie a la mode split four ways was the highlight of my meal.  Food was a little bit on the pricey side (slice of pie a la mode was $9, one salad + beer was $18), but the portions were fairly ample. 

Here is but one of their dessert case displays

Our home for the weekend was the Hotel Santa Fe & Hacienda, about a 15 minute walk from the Plaza.  We booked it online knowing very little about it other than it claims to be the only Native American-owned hotel in the city and it was one of the few places within walking distance of the Plaza that still had rooms available for under $200/night.  Good enough for us.  My husband and I really lucked out because we booked a regular king bedroom for $169/night but they upgraded us to a jr. suite (a $265/night value), so we had an additional living area with a pull-out sofa, desk/table, wet bar area, and television.  It's a large(ish) hotel, at least to us--we mostly stay in smaller inns or B&Bs when we travel--but it doesn't have that impersonal feel I associate  with other hotels of similar size.  And may I just say here that I LOVE that it doesn't go over the top with Southwestern kitsch? It's mostly understated Southwestern elegance in the public spaces and in our room, and I love the many sculptures and local art featured all around the property. All of the staff members we encountered were extremely pleasant, as was the property in general.  All other things being equal, I would stay here again in a heartbeat.  We made plans to use the inviting swimming pool and hot tub a couple of times but we never actually made it down there. I guess I packed my bathing suit for nothin'. 
Our living room

This bed was amazingly comfortable!

Desk & wet bar
One of the many sculptures around the property

A beautiful urn set into the wall

We agreed to meet Karin & Linford for a late breakfast at Pasqual's on Saturday, so when I woke up at 6:00, still on Eastern Time despite only about 5 hours of sleep, I got ready for the day and when my husband woke up, we decided to go out and explore.  We sought our first destination, Collected Works, a wonderful independent bookstore in the old town, with a twofold purpose: to replace a missing copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper that my husband had been counting on reading this week and to fortify ourselves with some coffee to keep us going until our breakfast at 11:00.  I also picked up a small box of salted caramels (alas, disappointing) and a novel called Pie Town by Lynne Hinton.  I had a customer tell me about this book just last week and since it's set in New Mexico, I bought it for the trip home. 
Colorful Cafe Pasqual's
Breakfast at  Cafe Pasqual's was a lot of fun, not to mention colorful!  They offer a very wide range of breakfast and lunch items and we all enjoyed our smoked salmon & cucumber on toasted brioche (DH), smoked trout hash with poached eggs (Karin & Linford), and an egg and guacamole quesadilla (me).  Each couple also shared a cup of the cold avocado soup to start.  Three of us had a glass of freshly squeezed juice, and one a la carte order of toast & jam brought our meal to $96.  Again, I admit I was a little surprised with the price since it didn't seem like we had ordered extravagantly--we hadn't even ordered coffee, much less mimosas.  Coming off a recent vacation to Anguilla, I feel a little jaded when it comes to restaurant pricing, so that's saying something.  But it was all excellent and the company was even better, and best of all, our window table provided us with outstanding people-watching opportunities!
Our good buddies, Karin & Linford
 It was close to 1:00 when we parted ways: our friends back to the hotel to prepare for their concert while DH and I opted to walk around the Plaza.  I didn't know at the time of booking our hotel, but one reason there was such a dearth of reasonable accommodations was because it was Spanish Market weekend.  Streets were closed off all around the Plaza for artists and vendors to set up their booths.  The following comment just may mark me as a Philistine, but I have to admit that after walking up & down the second avenue of vendors that all of their wares started to look alike: the jewelry, the art, the religious icons & statues.  We poked around for about an hour and when it started to rain, we made for the Georgia O'Keeffe museum (admission $18 for the two of us), where we walked through the small galleries and watched the two short films.  I had read many reviews proclaiming disappointment that not many O'Keeffes were on exhibit, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were a good many of them.  I thought the museum was very well done, indeed.  We enjoyed the short film on O'Keeffe's life, narrated by Gene Hackman, but the second film on artists' use of photographs in their work was both clumsily edited and lacking articulate interviewees. 
No photos allowed inside the museum except for here in the lobby.  Note the signature poppies.
We saw this couple on our walk back to the hotel.  Fun!

We went back to the hotel to rest & freshen up (all that walking, the sun, & the altitude contrive to make one sleepy!) before leaving for the Over the Rhine concert at the intimate venue of Sol Santa Fe, about a 15 minute drive from the hotel.  They are the sweetest people in the world and reserved tickets and a table for us.  We ordered the local beer (excellent) and the grilled cheese from a very limited menu (it was god-awful AND they shortchanged us) and settled in to enjoy the show.  Now I'm clearly a biased source because OTR have been friends with my husband and me for quite some time now.  But I am not blowing wind up your ass when I say that they give as fine a live performance as I've ever heard.  No smoke & mirrors, no distraction, just a couple of performers and music at its purest-- searching, reaching, and revealing.  And this all in the face of some major technical difficulties.  Apparently someone tripped backstage somewhere and shorted out the lights.  They performed in near-darkness and had to put up with sound & light crew interrupting the flow of everything, but they are also commensurate professionals and kept up a steady stream of banter to distract us while ladders were being toted about behind them on stage.

View from the parking lot of Sol Santa Fe

First song--the lighting was spot-on.  (so to speak!)

Here's the odd orange mood lighting from the rest of the concert
NB: I have tried unsuccessfully to upload a video of my favorite Over the Rhine song that I shot with my iPhone that night.  OTR has given me permission to post it, but if any of you Blogger users can give me advice, I'd appreciate it.  When clicking on the "insert a video" icon and uploading, I get an error message.

After their post-concert obligations the four of us met up in our suite (that upgrade came in handy!) for some liquid vitamins.  Vitamins V and G, to be precise, supplemented with some medicinal tonic. We talked story until the wee hours.

TBC...but until then, here are a few photos from around Santa Fe:

How much is that gander in the window?

At the Spanish Market festival downtown

I loved these funky fishes

Just a cool tree

Here's Linford gesticulatin' for a story
NB: All photos in this post are mine, shot either with my iPhone or a small point and shoot Pentax.