25 December 2012

And So This Is Christmas...


Image source: http://www.disclose.tv



NB: This is a slightly modified post from last year that I wanted to reuse for Christmas.

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  But there's a Christmas song lingering in my mind right now that I have been listening to more or less on a loop for the last couple of days.  I love sacred Christmas carols, though I'm not Christian. Agnostic, I suppose is the proper term.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. A lapsed Whiskeypalian if you want to get playful with it.   Whatever spark of the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my recent soundtrack  Loreena McKennitt's performance of Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.   So  regardless of any divine stuff,  a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that, if not his divinity.  But what does the celebration of his birth mean for the world today, all those angels and mangers (bacon creche?) and glorias in excelsis deo *? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, yet so sorely lacking, in our current times where grace and graciousness are endangered species.  

With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling--
Yonder peasant, who is he? 
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence,
By St. Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, 
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bring them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together.
Heedless of the wind's lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night grows darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze the blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, all good folk, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
You who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourself find blessing.

Here's a link that will take you directly to a YouTube video that uses McKennitt's haunting song. It's not just the song, for me, but also the arrangement that is so important.  I love the melding of a traditional western carol with Celtic and Middle Eastern musical elements as well and the instruments you don't normally hear outside a medieval/Renaissance festival. The Middle Eastern aspect actually places the song in a historical context like never before, and I like that it feels like it has come full circle.

* Glory to God in the highest
**And on earth, peace to all people

24 December 2012

Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson (redux)

My ARC and finished copy. The knife is to give scale and to cut anybody who doesn't like Bill Bryson

I'm in a quasi-reading rut right now but for my audio books.  Last week DH and I had dinner with some friends and at the end of the evening, one of them handed back to me the audio book of In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson that I had let him borrow quite some time back. I'd forgotten that I had let him borrow it and was actually just on the verge of ordering another copy since I'd been looking around the house for it in recent weeks to no avail.  I LOVE Bill Bryson. I popped disc one into the car on the drive home that night and just finished the last one tonight as I pulled into the driveway.

Normally I would write a whole new blog post about how incredible his book about Australia is (it ties for me with A Walk in the Woods as my favorite), but it's the holiday season and I work in the retail world and frankly I'd rather be drinking, eating, or sleeping than almost anything else in what little spare time I have. Thus I have reprised one of my previous posts about Bill Bryson (with slight modifications), in which I met the man himself and spent the better part of the afternoon in his company whilst he signed books.  Of course, I cannot post it at the time of said modifications because Alice recently taught me that nobody writes or reads blogs on the weekend, so this will post on Monday morning instead. Merry Christmas Eve, y'all.

Bill Bryson's latest work, piled high!

I don't think I've mentioned recently just how much I love my job.  Or my sales reps.  Because right now I'm bursting with love for bofe 'em. (NB: I still love my job and my sales reps, but by "right now" I meant October of 2010.)

Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson.
The man himself
 You might have guessed, but I just got to meet Bill Bryson.  There has been exactly one other author I have been this excited to meet, and he happened to write the best book I've read in the last decade (Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone.  Read it, y'all!), and I definitely went all fan-girl on him the two times our paths crossed.  But Bill Bryson is in a different category all together.  I'm not usually a completist when it comes to most authors, let alone non-fiction writers, but he's one of the few authors of whom I can say I've read all of his or her published works (And I mean an actual body of work, smartass.  John Kennedy Toole and other one-hit wonders most emphatically do not count), and I'm such a Bryson-completist that I include his reference books, too.  Yup, read every word. The little book he wrote for charity that scarcely broke the 50 page mark?  I read that one, too.

I have also listened to many of his published works, and because he is the reader of his audio books, I've listened to him for hundreds of hours.  His voice is as familiar to me as my own brother's.  He's like a friend whose humor has seen me through the years, both the high times and the rough patches.  I bought In a Sunburned CountryA Walk in the Woods, and Neither Here Nor There on tape.  I listened to all of them so many times that the tape wore through in several places.  Then I replaced them with CD versions and kept on listening.

Today I drove to Arlington, MA, with my devoted and long-suffering husband to meet Bill Bryson, who was signing books at the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) office in Arlington, MA.  One of my sales reps from Random House, Ann Kingman, arranged for Bryson to sign books for her accounts.  So I got to take the day off work and go for a Sunday drive on a beautiful day with my favorite person in the world to meet one of my favorite writers in the world.  The phrase "walking on sunshine" comes to mind. 

Bryson was in the region promoting his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I've already blogged about twice.  You can read the posts here and here.  It's marvelous and funny and erudite and everything else that I like about his writing. 

May I confess something?  Before I moved from Mississippi to New England to live with the man who became my husband, I wrote up an extensive pro and con list.  My husband knows that one of the "cons" was that I would no longer be able to watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they aired because he didn't have access to the UPN network (this was before newfangled websites like Hulu were around).  But what he doesn't know is that one of the "pros" is that I would be more likely to have the chance to meet Bill Bryson, who lived in New Hampshire at the time.  So you could say that Mr. Bryson is one of the reasons I moved to New England.  I'm just not revealing exactly what position he had on my "pro" list. 

Mr. Bryson was also kind enough to sign and inscribe my personal collection of his works, or at least those books still holding together without tape.  I thought it might be unseemly (though a compliment of the highest order) to bring him my copy of In a Sunburned Country that was in two pieces. Or my copy of A Walk in the Woods, which one of my dogs enjoyed as much as I did. 

Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson, Bill Bryson. 

L-R: The man I moved to New England for, the other
man I moved to New England for, and me.


22 December 2012

Secret Santa!

One of my favorite blogger memories last year was participating in the Secret Santa program hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, the same folks who have introduced the popular Top Ten Tuesday meme. Thus I was quite dismayed this year when I missed the call to participate. But sweet Jamie from TB&TB kept my name on file just in case there were other late registrants or something happened with the pairings she had already done, and about one week into December I had a match!

Today my Secret Santa package arrived and it was full of amazing goodies. It's a nice & colorful spread, don't you think?  Ruby from Ruby's Reads in Ojai, California, was my Secret Santa and she has surpassed all previous Secret Santas, and not just in the book blogger world.  The participation rules include picking out a book that is on the recipient's wishlist and including one other stocking stuffer, but not only did Ruby present me with the only hardcover on my list, she included two pairs of fun socks AND a package of prickly pear-flavored licorice.  And if you think I've not already eaten my way through half of it, then you crazy! (Also: check out Ruby's brochure for her blog on the far left.  Pretty nifty.)

So thank you, Ruby!  I look forward to wearing my socks on Christmas Day and snuggling in bed with the new J K Rowling. I think it will be sufficiently past the peak of the critical frenzy for me to enjoy it on its own merits. 

21 December 2012

Book Review: Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

It's been a month of nonfiction reading for me, which is not my usual December M.O. Once the high retail season kicks in, if I have time to read at all, I read Harry Potter fanfiction. But this month I've read two pieces of non-fiction, almost back to back, and though they are both memoirs, to compare them would be, in television terms, like comparing America's Next Top Whatever to a BBC miniseries.

I first heard about Jacob Tomsky's Heads in Beds a few weeks ago from one of the blogs that I follow, but I just did a search to try to give credit and I could not find it.  If you think you're the one whose review I read, please let me know and I shall modify my post.

Like the aforementioned reviewer, the title made me a little wary. You hear of a hotel book called Heads in Beds and you think perhaps, bedbugs. Or lice. Or other Gross Things. But the subtitle clears up all such wariness: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality. The publisher is touting it as the Kitchen Confidential of the hospitality industry. I'm actually a fan of Anthony Bourdain's tv persona but his writing is pretty tedious and repetitive and one grows weary of the constant innuendos and sexual metaphors, and I'm sorry to say that Tomsky's writing is no better, and frequently worse, than Bourdain's.

But does that mean I didn't finish or didn't like the book?  Why, no! When you read and sell books for a living, it's hard to waste time on a book filled with patently bad writing, but sometimes, as with a bad reality tv show, you get so caught up in the story that you feverishly race through to the end, and that's just what I did.  As soon as I read that first review, I emailed my sales rep from Random House and asked her if I could have a copy and a few days later I spent my entire day off reading it.

I love to travel, but I usually travel on a budget, so part of my desire to read this book was to glean the secrets of the trade that Tomsky tantalizingly promised on the jacket flap.  But as somebody who is in the service industry every bit as much as Tomsky is (and if you don't think working a retail job qualifies as service, then you've clearly never worked retail) I was also interested in the war stories. Plus the story begins in New Orleans, and I am nothing if not a sucker for all things New Orleanean.

Tomsky started off working valet parking for a chain restaurant called Copeland's in New Orleans but soon applied for the valet parking department of a soon-to-open, unnamed luxury hotel in the Quarter. From there he worked his way quickly to an inside job and from there into management. He loved that job (just as well, since he was working 14-16 hour days) but was filled with wanderlust, so when his savings accumulated sufficiently to go walkabout, he left for Europe.  Upon his return to America, he landed in New York and eventually got sucked up into the industry again, and it's really here that his tales of woe begin.

Tomsky's style of writing is extremely conversational and occasionally repetitive, and yes, as others have pointed out, his language is frequently coarse. He doesn't have much use for being PC and is happy to phonetically spell the spoken "Chingrish" of a Chinese couple when recounting his tales.  He also gives advice ranging from the handy (how to "pre-reg" your room so it will be ready for an early arrival) to the shady (how to get out of any and all minibar charges).

If there is one thing that I took away from this book it's a new awareness of the way I tip.  Many, many pages are devoted to the bellmen, whom I rarely use, but when I do, it will be with greater compensation than I've used in the past. One thing that surprised me, though, was that even though Tomsky was housekeeping manager at some point in this memoir, he never excoriates the reader for not tipping housekeeping on a daily basis. He totally goes off on the reader about a family who didn't tip the bellman for telling stories to their children, but not a word about tipping housekeeping. I can't tell you the number of times I've traveled with friends, family, and colleagues and they always express surprise at my leaving a tip for housekeeping; the few who are aware of that custom are surprised that I do it daily and not at the end of my stay, at which point I explain it's because there is no way of knowing if the same person cleans my room each day or not.

If you're a frequent traveler, or if you enjoy tell-all memoirs from an insider's perspective, OR if you've worked in the service industry yourself, give this book a try. You may just learn a thing or two, and more than once you'll roll your eyes at some people's idea of proper behavior. The book is worth reading, albeit a skimming read. 

17 December 2012

Book Review: Lovely Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara

Summary, courtesy of GoodReads: Since the night of the crash, Wren Wells has been running away. Though she lived through the accident that killed her boyfriend Patrick, the girl she used to be didn’t survive. Instead of heading off to college as planned, Wren retreats to her father’s studio in the far-north woods of Maine. Somewhere she can be alone.

Then she meets Cal Owen. Dealing with his own troubles, Cal’s hiding out too. When the chemistry between them threatens to pull Wren from her hard-won isolation, Wren has to choose: risk opening her broken heart to the world again, or join the ghosts who haunt her.

I recently learned the hard way that I need to read at least the first two chapters, not just the first one, when "test-driving" a book for travel reading. As my coworker has pointed out, usually the first chapter is the best--it's been workshopped and revised multiple times to catch not just the reader's eye but the agent's and the editor's, too. McNamara's debut novel Lovely, Dark and Deep was yet another YA book that I had high expectations for that mostly just fell flat. Partly because it's written in the first person, present tense (or the "present pernicious," as my friend Rob calls it), it makes the character much less sympathetic and more self-absorbed than your typical teen narrator, even one who has survived tragedy and is filled with guilt.

The short, choppy sentences are probably supposed to indicate Wren's delicate and uncertain frame of mind, but they mostly just serve as examples of bad writing. I opened the book at random and here are some examples I found:

"If he picks me up, I'll have no way out. I'll be stuck at his house. My palms are clammy."

"I sip my latte. The milk's scalding. My tongue will be wrecked for a day or two."

"I step out the door a second. Music's blasting in the studio. Mary's working. The sun's high and huge in the sky. Its own triumph. Good for the sun."

"Winter sets in. The trees sag with snow. Icicles dangle from eaves and boughs."

Still, the book has a very pretty cover and if you're familiar with the small town in Maine where the book is set, you might be able to overlook the distractingly bad prose in favor of enjoying the local color. Despite the Robert Frost allusion, I'd say this book was eminently skippable.

NB: I read an ARC of this book, which was published in October of this year by Simon & Schuster. 

13 December 2012

Book (P)Review: The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

If you're looking for novel that is sweet, charming, and life-affirming, then The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag is the book for you.  Said house at 11 Hope Street in Cambridge, England, is the residential equivalent of the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter. It is a place for wayfaring women whose troubles prevent them from realizing their bright future, but spending ninety-nine nights (and no more--house rules) under the roof of this sentient abode can change their lives. Like the Room of Requirement, the house provides what the women need most and it sends them messages directly or through the house mistress,  and previous residents (including such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale and Viven Leigh) proffer advice via talking photographs and portraits (with another nod to Harry Potter, perhaps?).

When Alba notices the house for the first time, she has no place else to go. Cut off from her family, disgraced at university and on the verge of a breakdown, all she wants to do is hide under the covers and nibble on ginger biscuits, but soon she notices that among the house's odd assortment of residents, who are perfectly content to accept the house's magical properties without thinking much about them, she is the only one who can see certain ghosts.  Alba's synesthesia also takes a distinctly unusual form: she sees the tone or intent behind the words that other people speak as different colors and can read them like an aura. While the house tries to encourage Alba to embrace these gifts, the portraits urge her to get out of her history books and into life.

We meet other residents along the way, including Greer, an aspiring actress with a talent for inhabiting characters so that she doesn't have to live her own life; Carmen, a traumatized musician running from her past; and Peggy, the house mistress who loves the house itself, chocolate cream, Sunday trysts with Harry, and old Mog the cat in nearly equal measure. There are also the non-Hope Street residents, like Alba's family (her siblings, her newly discovered father, and ghost mother), Blake-the-sexy-bartender, and Zoe-the-librarian, who has loved Alba from afar for years.

The book has a shifting third person point of view, which hovers over each character anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages, and I found it is a little frustrating that just as I was really warming to one character's story, the POV abruptly shifts to somebody else. Most, if not all, of the characters' fates will end up the way you expect, but despite the quirky predictability of it all, this book was fun to read and each day I anticipated the pleasure of putting away a few chapters at bedtime. It helped me out of my November reading rut and I would suggest it as a perfect palate cleanser to your reading if you've been living on a diet of dystopian fiction or heavier/darker literature.

NB: I read an advance reading copy that was given to me by my sales rep and this book will be published in the US in April 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Viking.  I believe it is already available in the UK. 

11 December 2012

Book (P)Review: The Madness Underneath: Shades of London volume II by Maureen Johnson

Last year I wrote a review for The Name of the Star, book one in the Shades of London trilogy and one which fairly scared the pants off me. The Madness Underneath is Maureen Johnson's sequel, and while I enjoyed it very much, it didn't get my spook on the way the previous one did.  Which for me is unequivocally a good thing.

When we left Rory at the end of book one, she had just survived a brutal attack and made the unpleasant discovery that she was a human terminus--that is, a vessel for destroying ghosts by touch. This book picks up in a typical London pub one morning, except that the barkeep and his assistant experience something quite atypical down in the cellar and only one of them comes out alive. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Bristol with her parents, Rory meets with her therapist to deal with the PTSD from her near-death experience, except that she cannot actually say anything truthful about it because we all know that talking about ghosts and spirits and the whole paranormal thing isn't the best way to remove oneself from psychiatric supervision.

The therapist eventually suggests that Rory is ready to return to Wexford, for which she is simultaneously grateful and alarmed. The former for obvs reasons, the latter because she has done zero homework in her weeks away from the classroom and therefore the word "impossible" is the greatest understatement of the year regarding her ability to catch up in time for end of semester exams. Jerome & Jazza and the other Wexfordians are all there, but ho, ho, ho, Ms Johnson wants us to think (or at least wants Rory to think) that the ghost squad has abandoned her.  Oh, no, no, we do not fall for that at all, and soon our faith is rewarded by a midnight assignation in the Underground.

I won't say more about the plot for now, other than a whole lotta Bedlam shakes loose, but it's a fun & breezy read (I read it on a flight from Hartford to Atlanta) filled with Johnson's signature humor and just a touch of romance. Here are some of my dog-eared passages:

"I had to restrain myself. It doesn't look good if your therapist asks you how you learned about death and you practically jump off the couch in excitement because that's pretty much your favorite story ever. But as it happens, I have a really good 'learning about death' story."

"(Also, for the record, if someone is called a Romantic, it should mean some sexy times, I think. Instead, what it really means is people in puffy shirts who probably had a lot of real-life sexytimes, but produced almost exclusively pictures of hillsides or people in dramatic poses, like pretending to be Ophelia dead in a swamp. I definitely call shenanigans on this.)"

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by our children's Penguin rep. It will be published in February 2013 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. 

10 December 2012

Bookstore Rants: Lady, you CRAZY


mommydearest.jpg


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an encounter with a  crazy customer must be in want of a blog post.  

If you have ever worked with the public sector, particularly in retail, then you know that the holiday season is a time when the crazy customers come out in full force.  If they're not demanding to know why we don't carry swimming goggles (Hello? We're a bookstore? True story!), they're contributing to the eventual incarceration of their children when said children finally get retribution for crazy parents, or they're making me wonder why they're shopping for Shakespeare when they clearly don't even know their ABCs, for Pete's sake! 

Ahem.  Sometimes I let myself get a little carried away.  I had a customer this week who, while being perfectly pleasant, actually said one of the most asinine book-related things I've ever heard.  To wit:

Customer: I'm looking for a picture book for a child, but it has to be real. 

Me: Do you mean you're looking for a work of non-fiction? 

Customer: No, I want a story picture book for children, but I want it to be real.  Nothing fake.

Me: Do you mean, like nothing in the fantasy realm?

Customer: Well, yes, I don't want that, but I also want to make sure that everything that happens in the book is a real-life thing. Nothing made up. Nothing that couldn't happen in real life.

Me:  Hmmm...let me see...what about the new Jan Brett book called Mossy?  Our children's buyer tells me that Jan Brett was inspired by a real-life tale involving a similar turtle. 

Mossy
Customer: Well, that might be okay, but you see that picture on the cover? That would never happen in real life.  A garden just wouldn't grow on a turtle's back like that. 

Me: Well, not strictly speaking, no. 

Customer: I just think imagination is dangerous for children. They need things that are real. 

Me: I'm sorry, you lost me at IMAGINATION IS DANGEROUS FOR CHILDREN. Get thee behind me, Satan!

07 December 2012

Book (P)Review: After Visiting Friends

(It's not your eyes--the photo on the cover is intentionally blurry)
Another friend in bookselling recently made a comment on her blog that there are just too many memoirs being published.  I tend to agree. She also went on to note that there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Again, I tend to agree. The problem with most memoirs is that the authors either don't have a good enough story to tell or they're not skilled enough to tell it well.  And don't even get me started on celebrity memoirs (Steve Martin's Born Standing Up being an exception to any rule. That man is a genius.).

So when I first saw the bound galley of Michael Hainey's After Seeing Friends, I was inclined to dismiss it.  Unknown author. Nondescript title.  I almost put it in the communal staff kitchen where all of the other unwanted galleys go, but then I saw who sent it to me: Wendy Sheanin, the adult marketing director at Simon & Schuster, whose tastes I trust.  And she'd tucked a handwritten note inside of the first page.  I'm a sucker for a handwritten note. And then I see an envelope hand-addressed to me tucked into the middle of the book.  Turns out that unknown-to-me Mr. Hainey is the deputy editor at GQ magazine and he's written me a note by hand on his letterpress stationery (I'm also a sucker for letterpress anything).

Naturally, After Seeing Friends made it into my tote to take home at the end of the day. Luckily for me, Mr. Hainey is possessed of a writing gift AND an interesting story to tell.  By the end of the first chapter I had dog-eared about half a dozen pages. That pattern continued throughout the book.  The GoodReads summary begins: "Michael Hainey had just turned six when his uncle knocked on his family’s back door one morning with the tragic news: Bob Hainey, Michael’s father, was found alone near his car on Chicago’s North Side, dead, of an apparent heart attack."

But was that the entire truth? Various obituaries in the city mention that the elder Hainey had died "after visiting friends," but who were these friends, and why didn't they attend the funeral? It is only when Michael has attained his father's age when he died that he decides to bring his full investigative journalism skills to bear to inquire into the circumstances surrounding his father's death. In Michael Hainey's search for what really happened the night his father died, it's not the 25-year-old cold trail so much as the stymying efforts of his father's former friends and colleagues that nearly prevent the story coming to full light.

Hainey travels from New York to the midwest and back so many times that I lost count, tracking down leads not only in Chicagoland, but in Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, and many points in between. Along the way, the reader gets a front-row show to the golden age of Chicagoland journalism: old school, hard core, and with a code of honor that makes the Mafia look like they're merely playing at it.

Eventually Hainey does get the information he's after, and his main reward is that in losing his lifelong idea of what his father was, he is lucky enough as an adult to truly know his mother; the facade she maintains for her children's sake finally crumbles. For me, though, the real turning point of the story is when he reconnects with his cousin and older brother, and then later attends what would have been his father's 50th high school reunion, where he comes to know his father and where he himself fits within the generations of Hainey family. While Hainey's is a very specific and intimate story, there's an element of the universal permeating his quest: how can we know ourselves if we don't know where we come from? How can we know ourselves if we don't consider our impact on the next generation?

If you are interested in the nature of memory and how it intertwines with history, do yourself a favor and read this book. 

Some of the passages I enjoyed:

On visiting his grandmother in the nursing home: "I gave her a chocolate cream. She raises it to her mouth. A tongue emerges, takes the candy. Like a tortoise I saw at the zoo. She bites, almost in slow motion, chews so slowly I swear I can feel her tasting it ."

A description of Chicagoland as America's meat processing capital: "This was the land of Swift, the kingdom of Armour. It was the beauty of the Industrial Revolution's assembly line turned inside out. Chicago as the disassembly line. Chicago--how fast and how efficiently as creature could be reduced. Rendered. Broken down."

A terrible truth, laid bare, when he and his brother are told about their father's death: "In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life up until then, my bother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he's always teased me, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, 'Cry-baby! Cry-baby!' "

"So often I wonder--Do all brothers end up at Kitty Hawk? Flipping a coin to write history. One will fly. The other stands slack-jawed with awe. Maybe chasing his brother. The wind in his face now. The wind that lifts his brother."

04 December 2012

Book Review: Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank

This is a review I've been debating whether to post or not.  I do not usually spend my time writing reviews for books I do not care for, but since most of the reviews I've seen online have been quite favorable (check out the one from my friends at Three Guys One Book if you'd like a drastically different opinion from mine), I decided in the end to post this one as a matter of balance.

I picked this book up because, though I was unfamiliar with the author, it seemed to have everything going for it.  First of all, it's published by Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, a literary house who publishes some of my favorite authors, among them Madeline L'Engle and Jamaica Kincaid. Secondly, the author is the publisher of Razorbill, a terrific YA imprint from Penguin. Thirdly, check out that cover: it's inconceivable that a book with such a terrible retro cover could contain anything except ironic magnificence--but perhaps that word doesn't mean what I think it means.

The summary provided by the publisher on the advance reading copy is the same one posted at GoodReads, so I took the lazy efficient way out and copied and pasted from there:

"Peter Herman is something of a folk hero. Marriage Is a Canoe, his decades-old book on love and relationships, has won the hearts of hopeful romantics and desperate cynics alike. Peter and his wife lived a peaceful life, but now it’s 2010, and his wife has just died. He passes time with a woman he admires but doesn’t love—and he begins to question the advice he’s famously doled out for decades.

Then he receives a call from Stella Petrovic, an ambitious young editor who wants to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Marriage Is a Canoe with a contest for struggling couples. The prize? An afternoon with Peter and a chance to save their relationship.
The contest ensnares Stella in the opaque politics of her publishing house, while it introduces the reader to couples in varied states of distress: [Emily] a shy thirtysomething Brooklynite whose husband [Eli] may be just a bit too charismatic for his own good; a middle-aged publisher whose imposing manner has imposed loneliness on her for longer than she cares to admit. Then there’s Peter, who must discover what he meant when he wrote Marriage Is a Canoe if he is going to help the contest’s winners and find a way to love again."

Sounds interesting enough, no?  Who doesn't love the whole book-within-a-book hook?  Unfortunately, this was one of those novels that I only finished because I kept believing it was always on the cusp of getting better. It was readable enough and the prose never got in the way of itself, but that is about the faintest praise with which I can damn it. The characters remained both two-dimensional and unlikeable throughout the book; if they had been just one or the other, it would have been more bearable. Beyond that, most of the dialogue felt utterly stilted, and not one of the couples was remotely believable, either as a happy couple or an unhappy one. There is one point in the book when Emily & Eli arrive at Peter's house for couples counseling where she says to Peter, "Please forgive how awkward we are." The author should be asking the same forgiveness of the reader.

NB: I read an Advance Reading Copy of this book provided by my lovely sales rep. This book will pub in about one month from Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of FSG.  

03 December 2012

Last Month In Review: November 2012

NB: I finished this book today, not in November. But it's cute and I wanted to show it. 
Oh, November, where doth the time go? Thanksgiving and travel to MS and first snow and milestone birthdays and now you're gone.  On the upside, I now have an entire month ahead of me where I can use eggnog instead of milk & sugar in my morning coffee.

November was a slightly below average for me but I still managed to meet my reading goal for the year somewhere mid-month. I used to set my goals too high to ever achieve (well, without going hikikomori or anything drastic like that); now I set reasonable ones and feel good when I meet them.

1. The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon.  Very compelling and disturbing story. Highly recommended. Review is here.

2. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.  Outstanding YA novel. Highly recommended. Review is here.

3. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall. Audio book.  Sweet and wholesome, but not in a bad way. More like the pure goodness associated with mid-century Middle America, but with modern sensibilities.

3 1/2. The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott. Didn't actually finish this one, but read over half of it, thus the ranking on my list. Intriguing concept that didn't pay off, at least to this reader.

4. Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew.  Impressive novel that looks at immigration and families and a pastor who really asks himself what Jesus would do in the face of illegal immigrants.  The book is quite ambitious only occasionally falls short of its reach. Review to come, if I can get my act together.

5. The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson.  This one is book two in the Shades of London trilogy.  Fun and frothy and much less scary than the first book.

6. Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng. Debut novel, gorgeously written, lacking a little direction in the middle.  Review to come.

7. Just One Day by Gayle Forman. I really like this YA author and this book was no exception. Review here.

8. After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey. I don't read many memoirs, but I'm glad I made an exception in this case.  Remarkable writing, good story. And a lens into the heyday of Chicago journalism. Review to come. 

24 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Period 8 by Chris Crutcher


Period 8 by Chris Crutcher is a pretty interesting tale of school and suspense and sociopaths.  I only read this book in tiny increments (TMI: I mostly read it in the smallest room in the house), so a few things that came as surprises to me probably wouldn't otherwise have done so had I been reading in larger than 5-page increments.

The tagline on the cover still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, even after finishing the book. "They told him it was safe. They lied."  While I know who "him" is, I have no idea what "it" is supposed to be.  Life? Swimming in cold water? Being a teenager? Falling in love? Talking openly and honestly among your peers because there may be a sociopath among them? All of the above? Dunno. And for that matter, who are "they?" The teachers? The parents? The cops? The mob?

That being said, I enjoyed this book for the various relationships in it, particularly those between Logs and his students.  He's a teacher on the verge of retirement, and he's trying to keep it real with his students every day during Period 8, a time when kids gather 'round and talk about whatever is on their minds, with the assurance that everything that is said during Period 8 stays in Period 8. But not all of his students are who they seem to be...

The dialogue lacks the snappiness of John Green and David Levithan and Sarah Rees Brennan, who write dialogue well, but they've not convinced me yet that there's a teen alive who talks the way their teens talk.  Chris Crutcher's dialogue is very real--these kids are both smart and confident, and they're not completely snark-free, but I feel their conversations could have been lifted wholesale from any prep school in the real world and transplanted into this novel.

It was around the page 230 mark that the book's adrenaline really ratchets up, and I'm SO HAPPY that this book is written in third person instead of 1st.  I think this might be the first YA book out of the last dozen or so that wasn't 1st person, present tense.  What's more, this might actually be a book that is as well suited for male readers as female ones--not a common occurrence in the world of YA.

So if you're interested in realistic teen fiction with relationship drama, the bizarre mood swings of adolescence, betrayals, tough guys, cool teachers, political and/or moral corruption, and parents who are hiding a secret or two of their own, give this one a shot.  No, really--it's good.

NB: This book will release in April 2013 from Green Willow Books, a division of Harper Collins.  I randomly picked up the ARC from our bookstore shelf because I wanted to read a YA that involved neither dystopias nor love triangles and hopefully would appeal to a male readership.  

22 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I find it interesting that within the course of two short weeks, I saw a film (the brilliant "The Intouchables") and read two books about wheelchair-bound patients and their caregivers, becoming just another instance of book synchronicity. One of the two novels was Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, whose previous book was the wildly popular (at least in the UK) The Last Letter From Your Lover. I said it once before, but it bears repeating: while I don't mind romance as a by-product in my fiction, I rarely turn to books where it is the raison-d'etre. This book is not only a romance, it's a tragic one, but that's not giving anything away if you've already read the back jacket (which proclaims that it's "a Love Story for this generation"). Which means, basically, that while it shares much of the same subject matter with "The Intouchables,"it lacks that film's pure joie de vivre.  Man, I am apparently all about using the French phrases today.

This novel should come with a warning: do NOT pick this book up unless you have a box of tissues by your side and several hours to spare. Because once you start reading it, you're not going to want to put it down, and once you do put it down, you're going to be a soggy, wet mess. Believe me, my cat Murray was quite concerned with my state of mind. Then again, anything that interrupts the administering of chin scratches concerns him.

Up until the motorcycle accident that made him a quadriplegic, Will Traynor was both a go-getter and a player--wealthy, handsome, charismatic, and a thill-seeker to boot.  Lou, on the other hand, is from an economically challenged working class family--bright enough to have gained university admittance, but required to join the workforce to help her family pay the rent when her sister gets pregnant and her father gets laid off. When the cafe where she's been working as a waitress for the last several years closes, she desperately accepts a six-month contact taking care of Will. Will and Lou couldn't be more different on the surface, so when they form an uneasy alliance that grows into the truest friendship either has ever known, nobody is more surprised than they are.

The catch, and of course there's a catch, is that Will and his mother are keeping a secret from Lou, and when she discovers what it is, she reacts with her characteristic passion, matched only by her pigheadedness.  But might Will's secret haunt Lou to the point she makes the biggest mistake of her life?

Let me clear: this is not a book with complicated twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing.  If you pick this book up to read, you will have a fair idea of the story-arc before you're even fifty pages into it, as it's the story itself that pulls you in; but the class issues, the family relationships, and the importance of having somebody to believe in you when you no longer believe in yourself give this book a heft that matches its heart.

NB: This book is already available in the UK, but it will be published in the US in January 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books, a division of Viking.  I read an advance reading copy of the book provided by my sales rep. 

21 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Just One Day by Gayle Forman



I was a big fan of both If I Stay and Where She Went, Gayle Forman's previous story pairings, and she is following the same formula this time around, too--but without the emotional heft--telling the story from the girl's perspective in one book and the boy's perspective in the sequel.

Allyson is on her Teen Tours! tour in England, a high school graduation gift from her parents, when she meets a handsome young Dutch Shakespearean actor.  They click immediately and spend a day and night together in Paris. After a simply marvelous and unforgettable time (in which she feels freer and more risk-taking than ever before in her life) Allyson thinks they're falling in love, but when she wakes up the next morning, Willem is missing.

Eventually convincing herself that he was just a player, she heads back to the US and to college, where she mopes for her entire freshman year. She can't make new friends easily and her former best friend from childhood drifts apart from her.  She also can't tell her parents that she's dropped pre-med classes and doesn't want to be a doctor, their plan for her since she was a girl.

She does enroll in a Shakespeare Out Loud class at the urging of the school counselor, where she finally makes her first college friend, the mercurial D'Angelo, and life at least starts to interest Allyson again, even if she doesn't feel quite successful at it. When she finally decides that she wants to go back to Paris to try to find Willem, she's able to get a bit more direction in her life, and the second half of the book is devoted to her finding a job to pay for French classes and her two-week trip back to France, then her actual search for Willem.

It's true that Allyson goes a bit Twilight-Bella-like with her moping after Willem's disappearance, but I was able to pardon her for it in the midst of her own identity crisis.  She has no idea who she is because all of her life she's been living her parents' dreams for her and not her own.  It's hard as a teen when you have to start re-evaluating and restructuring your relationship with your parents, not to mention your own relative unimportance in the wider world, and Forman covers it well.

Like Maureen Johnson's Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes (which is the most obvious comp), though, there's a metaphorical journey tied up in Allyson's physical journey back to Europe, and by the end of the book, she is able to definitely say that Shakespeare got it slightly wrong: it's how to be, not whether to be, that is the real question. The other major comp to this book is The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight for its exploration of first love and whether it's even possible after a single chance encounter.  This book doesn't blaze new paths, to be sure, but it covers old ground in a sweet and eminently readable way.

I apparently read through this book so quickly that I dogeared hardly any pages.  Here's a passage that I did make note of, the first description of D'Angelo : "He's one of two African American students in the room, though he's the only one sporting a huge halo of an afro covered in bejeweled barrettes, and bubble-gum-pink gloss on his lips. Otherwise, he's dressed like a soccer mom, in sweats and pink Uggs. In a field of carefully cultivated weirdness, he's a wildflower (197)."

NB: I read an Advance Reading Copy of this book that I got from our sales rep and it will be published by Dutton in January 2013.  The sequel, told from Willem's point of view, is slated for sometime in the fall of 2013.

11 November 2012

Virgin Gorda: Day 5

Sunrise through a screened door
It's hard to wake up on your last full day of vacation and feel excited.  Sure, you want to make the most of your last day, but it's difficult not to get bogged down with how little time you have left.  Breakfast is a casual buffet of fruit, eggs, toast, juice & coffee, and then we're off to Savannah Bay for the morning.  If we'd had our druthers, Spring Bay probably would have been our first choice, but with DH's arm still bandaged and tender, we opted not to make the short hike down to the beach, ducking boulders and tree branches along the way.

We were the only people on the beach when we first arrived, but the surf was much stronger this morning compared to our previous visit--related to the large storm that passed through overnight, we surmised. We set up our chairs under the sea grapes again; Melanie and I tried to snorkel while DH and Mom opted to read, but the visibility was pretty poor and Melanie wasn't comfortable swimming against the mild undertow.
DH, sporting his Guana cap and Guana shirt

Footprints in the sand...


Black sand patterns on Savannah Bay
After a while, DH and I took a walk and admired the black sand patterns on the far end of the beach. There was also a good bit of erosion at the point where the waves were strongest:
Erosion on Savannah Bay
Savannah Bay viewed through sunglasses
We walked back and sat down to read for a little while longer, enjoying the sound of the waves and being distracted by the chickens.  We made a few more pictures and then I did my little bathing suit change under a sarong before heading to lunch. But first we stopped at one of the lookouts on the Nail Bay road to make yet more photographs, and then we saw the adorable pigs not far from Heavenly Hog.
Mom photographing the view
Love this little piggy!
Leverick marina
The $18 nachos platter
Since we hadn't spent any time at Leverick Bay, we chose to lunch at their beach bar. It wasn't crowded but the service was still fairly slow.  We shared a variety of appetizers, including my mom's favorite nachos (they better have been good at $18 a pop!) and in general enjoyed the laidback atmosphere over our meal.


Talk about multipurpose!
Melanie at Leverick
After that, we made a few photos and then went back to Euphoria to relax for cocktails before dinner. We had time to take a swim, too, so I kicked back with the floating donut ring for once and just floated around.  There's something absolutely relaxing about zoning out, your legs sprawled below the water, and gently floating where the current takes you. Before long, though, we had to clean up for an early dinner, as we planned to visit the copper mine before catching the sunset at CocoMaya.

Main part of Virgin Gorda seen from the Copper Mine
It took close to 30 minutes to drive from Leverick to the Copper Mine and by the time we got there, the sun was behind the ridge, so the light wasn't great on site, but it did throw a lovely, golden color on the main part of the island when we looked back in that direction.


Close up shot of same structure above 

Different angle of same structure above
Melanie and I went down the somewhat-precarious stairs to make photographs while DH and Mom stayed closer to the top.  The ground was uneven and after a certain point there was no rail to hold on to, so they made lots of photos up top.

The uneven steps down to the lower level
Close-up shot of the copper-streaked rock. 
Zoom photo of the goats across the water on the cliff
My guess is that we were there for around 30 minutes or a little less, and then we drove back to town for cocktails and dinner at CocoMay.  We had liked the atmosphere so much there two nights before that we made reservations on the spot, requesting a particular table. Or so we thought.  When we showed up, they were surprised to see us and didn't have a reservation down at all. Oh, well. They had room for us, but they had several tables that night, including one large party with a few small children, so we had a less-than-ideal table location.


That's one high bar. It almost comes up to my husband's shoulders.
Still, the atmosphere was just as fantastic as we remembered, and the bar was still empty when we arrived, so we grabbed the swing and two bar stools and hied ourselves up.  No, seriously, it's a really tall bar and even with the "mounting block" beneath the swing it was a little difficult getting up, and this was before the first round of cocktails.
Looking down at my feet on the "mounting block"
Josey is quite petite, so she's the perfect photographic foil for the tall bar.
Cocktail menu at CocoMaya
But oh, what marvelous cocktails they were.  They definitely get my top nod for any cocktail menu I've ever seen for both creativity and clever twists on current trendy drinks, edging out both Veya and The Sand Bar on Anguilla, my previous favorites. The Cohiba is one of the best cocktails I've ever enjoyed (fresh fruit & mint but not too sweet), and one that I could drink all night, and the Tamarind & Chili Margarita was among the most interesting burst of flavors I've ever experienced. One was enough for me, but it was truly excellent. If you like your cocktails on the sweet side, I definitely recommend the Strawberry Mule, the Mango Mojito, or the Cinnamon Girl, all three of which at least one person in our group ordered (and I sampled).

Mom and I are on the swing here

DH and Melanie, bellied up to the bar next to us
We enjoyed two rounds of cocktails at the bar  and visiting with the lovely Josey (who entertained and educated us about island flora, particularly local herbs) before heading to the table.  I chose not to leave to make sunset photographs because my bug bites from two nights ago were still irritating me and I didn't want to add to their numbers, but I did climb upstairs and make a few photographs of the upper level, which was closed off for the night but had a very comfortable-looking lounge area and almost a private dining room.

Looking down on Melanie & DH at the bar
The upstairs lounge area
The semi-private dining balcony upstairs
Beautifully set table at CocoMaya
This seemed to be the secondary dining space
We decided to order a smattering of tapas for the table. Unfortunately for my mom, the menu was full of items she'd never heard of, much less eaten, before, so they challenged her palate but she gamely tried most of the items we ordered for the table. We ordered the Fire & Ice ceviche, the duck confit nachos (that were more like wantons), one of the rolls of sushi, edamame, and the curried snapper.


Curried snapper

Fire & Ice ceviche
Duck confit nachos (really, wantons)
Virgin Gorda Roll
I'm sad to say that the setting definitely outclassed the food.  It wasn't bad, mind you, but it wasn't the fine cuisine that we had been expecting from the rest of our experience, either. But I didn't find the prices out of line like many reviewers (on TripAdvisor and other travel forums) have. For five tapas, eight (I think) cocktails, two desserts, and five glasses of wine, the bill came to $198, plus additional tip.  We met the sweetest honeymoon couple, Quinn & Benjamin Oglesby, who had just arrived on Virgin Gorda after a few days on St. John and a few days on Jost, so we sent two drinks over to their table, too.  And Melanie was a real sweetheart for picking up our bill on the last night.

The honeymooners

Chocolate Mousse

Signature dessert trio
I'm not a huge chocolate fan, but I enjoyed my two bites of the chocolate mousse.  The dessert trio was pretty interesting conceptually, but not quite as successful in practice.  We all loved the coconut creme brulee and wished it had been on the regular dessert menu in a full portion, but the sorbet tasted just like mince meat pie but with extra spices.  Not unpleasant, exactly, but a little too intense, and the two biscuits were forgettable enough that I can't remember what was in them, but I do recall that we only ate one of them between us.

If and when CocoMaya lays out food that is commensurate with the rest of the dining experience, it will be a force to be reckoned with on Virgin Gorda.  It's hard to believe that the island has been lacking this kind of place for so long, but with a congenial bar scene, a fabulous cocktail menu, interesting dinner menu, and a great location in a beautiful setting, I think there is much potential here.

One last shot of Mom and me in the swing
Savannah Bay again