30 May 2012

Michael Chabon Readalong: Or, How to Be COOL and Get an Advance Copy of His New Book

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Plus a kick-ass Michael Chabon readalong.  Wouldn't you agree?  I certainly hope so, because come July, I am going to be hosting my first readalong, and it just so happens that it will be of the Michael Chabon variety.

Ho-hum, you say?  Everybody and her best friend has already read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union?  Yes. Yes, they have.  He is wildly popular and with good reason *cough* Pulitizer Prize *cough*.  But not everybody has read Telegraph Avenue, his not-yet-published novel slated for a September 2012 release, eh? If you participate in this readalong, you will receive an advance readers copy and thus will be the envy of all of your friends, neighbors, and coworkers.  If you're very fortunate, it might even create a lifetime nemesis or two, so be forewarned.

This is a readalong made possible through the generosity of the publisher, open to a limited number of bona fide book bloggers. Harper Collins, bless 'em, has signed on to help me facilitate this project and will be providing me with a certain number of advance reading copies for the participants.  The official signup will be at the first week of June, the books will get sent out during that month, and the actual readalong will take place for the duration of July.

There are a few requirements for participation:

1) You must be a bonafide book blogger with a minimum of either 100 followers or a one-year track record for blogging.  

2) You must be willing to link exclusively to IndieBound OR your own local independent bookstore (i.e. no Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or other chain), OR my bookstore,  for each posting so that your readers may pre-order the book. If you're an Amazon affiliate, no Amazon links are permissible in the actual Telegraph Avenue readalong posts.

3) You must reside in the US in order to participate. (Sorry--too many international restrictions otherwise!)

4) Each readalong post must both link back to my blog AND post their weekly review in a linky on my blog so that it's easy for any reader to find all of the weekly responses. 

Please leave a comment below if you think you'd like to participate.  I have about one week to gather data and assess the general level of reader interest before reporting back to my sales rep, the tireless Anne DeCourcey to let her know the details.  There will be a maximum of 15 people participating because we want to keep it fairly intimate.

Any questions?  Fire away!

The man himself.  He looks a little like my friend Linford Detweiler from Over the Rhine.

29 May 2012

Book (P)Review: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

While the emotional content of this book is trademark Bohjalian, the writer takes on a new depth and historical perspective in Sandcastle Girls that is not usually present in his more formulaic novels. Unsurprising, since this novel is the first that delves into his own history.

The little I knew about Turkish-Armenian relations came from working at a used bookstore, where a customer of mine bought up everything he could on Armenia. Occasionally he would toss out historical facts but eventually I learned it was a topic he didn't want to fully engage in, so it was fascinating to read this book as a first attempt to fill in some of the historical blanks. 

(Incidentally, this is the third novel of genocide I've read this year: Rwandan, Cambodian, and now this one, which I guess means my taste run to the dark side, at least when it comes to historical fiction. It also happens to be the fourth novel in a row that I've picked up that features a Muslim/Christian conflict, so it's interesting to me to see these unconscious reading patterns of mine.)

The novel has two main time frames. One is a contemporary, middle-aged first person narrator named Laura living in NY who investigates her Armenian roots and reminisces about her childhood. The other is a third person narration that begins in Aleppo, Syria, in 1915, mostly following Laura's paternal grandparents Armen, an Armenian engineer who has survived the Turks' first onslaught against his people, and Elizabeth, a Bostonian blueblood who has traveled to Syria with her father to give aid and succour to the refugees. Occasionally the narration darts over to Nevart, a widowed refugee, and to Hatoun, an orphan who has witnessed such unspeakable atrocities against her family that she has become practically mute herself, as well as other, more minor characters.

War casualties are awful things and this novel's World War I setting proves no exception, but it's particularly difficult to read of the crimes perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire against some of its own civilians, and the twisted logic and false rhetoric they use to justify their actions is appalling.

I can't possibly pretend to know or understand the centuries-old history between the Turks and the Armenians, or how the Ottoman Empire selected the Armenians for extermination over all of the other peoples under its sway. But there is a portion of this novel presented as fact, and if it's true, then it's utterly galling, and I will excerpt some of it here:

"If you visit Ankara or Istanbul today, you will find streets and school named after Talat Pasha ["the real visionary" behind the Armenian genocide]....In other words, the nation that found Talat Pasha guilty of attempting to wipe out a race of people later named concourses after him.
   How is that possible? Because, to much of the nation--though, thankfully, not all--that genocide never happened. Even now, labelilng the slaughter of 1915 "genocide" can land a Turkish citizen in jail and get a Turkish Armenian journalist killed (179)."

If that is true (and Bohjalian did not footnote it or document it, so I don't know), then it really blows my mind.  It's impossible to imagine the German citizens of today wanting to glorify Adolf Hitler in a parallel manner, renaming any of the schools or thoroughfares for him. How is it possible that the citizens of Turkey are, as a nation, able to do so?

28 May 2012

In My Mailbox: Great Haul from HarperCollins!

In My Mailbox is a meme sponsored by The Story Siren, and one that I don't usually participate in, but this past week I had a visit from my HarperCollins sales rep and she left me with some pretty amazing books that I can't wait to read.  Oh, fall season, how I love thee!  The fall season in publishing is a little like Oscar season in film making--most publishing houses release the big literary guns in the fourth quarter of the calendar year, and this year Harper's got three big 'uns on the fiction list: Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Edrich, and Michael Chabon.  "Oh, look," she says innocently. "I seem to have all three right here in my book stack.  How about that?"

Which doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the other books in this stack. Anything But Ordinary is a YA novel with a subject that hits somewhat close to home; it's the story of a girl who suffers a diving accident during her Olympic trials and ends up in a coma for 5 years.  Nothing like a little light reading, eh?

The Mirrored World, a follow-up novel from the writer who brought us The Madonnas of Leningrad, should be nice & atmospheric with its 18th century St. Petersburg setting. The Orchardist is Amanda Coplin's debut novel set in the Pacific northwest, and early word is that it's a literary epic worth sinking your teeth into. At the bottom of the stack is The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo, a multi-generational tale of women and their family's olive grove, which one of my favorite booksellers, Annie Philbrick from Bank Square Books, has already blurbed.  

26 May 2012

Book (P)Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

I've had a tough time composing my thoughts on this book.  I started reading it quite a few weeks ago and didn't get very far, and then I finished reading it, lickety-split, over the last four days. Since the book weighs in at over 400 pages, that's a lot of lickety-splitting, though admittedly I did some heavy skimming.

As in so many cases, I was originally drawn to Alif the Unseen by the cover.  I am very judging when it comes to books and their covers, and I think anyone who feebly claims otherwise is full of fewmets, a term I intentionally use as a double-entendre, as an allusion to one of my favorite books, and for its alliterative bonus. As they say, an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.

Anyway, the cover: I don't know if it's an existing typeface, but the word Alif is nicely lettered & spaced,  and it looks like it could be calligraphed.  What's more, upon closer inspection, the decorative lines & dots within the letters resolve into circuitry, so it's a nice design AND it reflects back on the text itself.  Already I was intrigued, so when it was described to me as an Arab Spring-meets-the DaVinci Code, I had to give it a try.

I can see why the publisher would want to market it as Da Vinci Code-like, but in my opinion that's selling the book far too short.  Yes, there are moments of fast-paced pursuit for artifacts that may (or may not) be of great doctrinal import with characters who may (or may not) be what they seem, and readers who like Dan Brown's books will find much to enjoy here.  But Alif is so much more than that: it's a contemporary fairy tale for our time, with all of the original fairy elements that were once familiar to peoples the world over before Disney decided to bowdlerize them into unrecognizable, milquetoasty wholesomeness.

Set in an unnamed Arab country, Alif is a novel of the downtrodden people, the theocratic State, a cautionary tale, a revolution in the making, and a quest that is both intellectual and spiritual.  Alif the character is a clever but somewhat weak-minded computer hacker who sells his skills to the highest bidders, be they Islamists, Communists, feminists, terrorists, or any other kind of -ists; he simply has no belief in any cause beyond generally valuing freedom of speech and not getting caught for his "gray hat" activities. His confidence exceeds his ability when he decides to write code for a new program called Tin Sari (an acronym for the lover who spurned him for her arranged husband) that draws the attention of the Hand, the head of State surveillance and, incidentally, his lover's new husband-to-be. He goes on the run with his best friend from childhood, and forthwith they encounter the various levels of the literal and metaphorical Unseen: djinn, demons, fabled texts, a Western Islamic convert, a quartz city in the middle of the desert, a Mos Eiseley-style cantina, and a political torture center.

To say more of the story would do a disservice to the reader, so I'll only say that the reader should expect heavy infusions of pop culture allusions, a humor that occasionally reminds me of Joss Whedon's, and lots of discourses on religion, politics,  and technology that aren't always mutually exclusive. Alif the Unseen feels both startlingly fresh and intimately familiar, and I think it's a stroke of brilliance on her part to pair the world of fairy tale contained in our collective unconscious with the world of technology and its exponential capacity for change.  Anyone who doubts Alif's ability as a hacker to change the world has had their head up their ass for the last two years, and anyone who doubts that the young, bright minds of today are disengaged from politics should read this book.

I do think Alif could benefit from some culling and scuttling, and the writing itself is a little uneven, but I think I understand the author's urgency to want to put everything in there. G. Willow Wilson says in her introduction that writing Alif was born of a rage that she had to address her three main audiences separately: comic book geeks, literary NPR types, and Muslims. It's an impressive amalgamation of subjects I've never seen married together in one novel, and if the author's reach occasionally exceeds her grasp, it's only because her reach is so very ambitious.

NB: This book will have a simultaneous US and UK release of July 2, 2012. I received an ARC of it from my Grove/Atlantic sales rep. Incidentally, this book qualifies as an entry in my New Authors challenge hosted by Literary Escapism.

22 May 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: These are a few of my non-bookish things...

This week's Top Ten Tuesday meme, sponsored by the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list the top ten blogs or sites that are not dedicated to books. I'm afraid that the lion's share of my answer will be dedicated to travel, the other subject my blog is dedicated to. 

In no particular order:

1. The Trip Advisor Anguilla discussion forum
2. The Trip Advisor Grenada discussion forum
3. Another, locally-run Anguilla discussion forum
4. Another, locally-run Grenada discussion forum
5. The Fodor's Caribbean forum
6. Luxury Link, a fabulous vacation auction site where I've gotten some great deals
7. Facebook, though I spend less time there these days than I used to (y'all don't need this link, I'm sure!)
8. Witchfics, a singularly fantastic source of Harry Potter fanfiction, most of which features Hermione/Snape (I'm sneaking this in on a technicality since it had to be non-book related, but it didn't say anything about non-reading related. Fanfiction is, in my opinion, one generation removed from a book)

Not sure I have that many other favorite websites that I go to on a regular basis.  What about yours?

20 May 2012

Book (P)Review: Evel Kievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi

 Khosi is a young man in his early twenties living with his mom in Butte, Montana.  His Egyptian father deserted them when Khosi was only three, leaving them with far more questions than answers, not to mention a staggering amount of gambling debt. One third of the way through the book, Khosi decides to go to Egypt to track down his father after learning that he'd returned briefly to Butte only to ask for divorce papers.

Luckily for him, Khosi's mother wanted him to grow up in touch with his Egyptian heritage, so he has the benefit of years of classic Arabic under his belt by the time he lands in Egypt and is able to [mostly] communicate with locals on his own.  Unfortunately for the reader, it's shortly after that point that Khosi starts seeing hallucinations of the ghost of Montana copper magnate (and incidentally Khosi's distant relative), William Andrews Clark.  The ghost is a bona fide deux ex machina, though his presence does get an explanation later in the book.  Add to this plot a scheming liar of a father, a gregarious ready-made Egyptian family, an Evel Knievel talisman, a brush with death, and a hashish creme brulee, and you wind up with a pretty good book that occasionally misses the mark but is still worth reading.

I'm not a huge fan of first person narratives.  When they're done extremely well, the point of view does fade away to the point where I don't notice it any more, but it wasn't always the case with this book.  Still, the book at least wasn't written in the "present pernicious" tense, a phrase which my friend Rob coined.  Though I had a few minor issues, I overall enjoyed this book quite a bit.  The author makes generous use of literary allusions throughout the text, which I appreciated and had fun with, and also made me wonder how many of them I was missing.  I picked this book up because I was craving a book with Egyptian local color, and while there certainly is some, it's more of a book about family relationships and less a book about Cairo and its role as mother of the world.  Still, I learned a couple of very interesting things of Egyptian history (namely the collapse of the cotton industry at the end of the US Civil War and how it paved the way for fierce colonialism), and I would recommend this book: borrow it from a friend or a library.

One excerpt showcasing the pitfalls of translation among several included in the book is Khosi, to a man answering the door of a home where Khosi's father once lived. I kind of love this:

"I'm from America," I said in a rush. "My father deserted me when I was three, and I lived with my mother for my entire life, and now I've tracked him down to here, to Cairo -- he's Egyptian -- and I really think he might be living here, his name is Akram Saqr, and he is kind of short, like, like, like a circus bear." That's exactly what I said, word for word, with the exception of circus bear. In my panic I couldn't remember the Arabic word for circus, so I said instead "bear on a chain that wears a hat."

It was not one of my linguistic high points (99). 

NB: This book will pub in July of this year from Crown Publishers, and I received a free ARC upon request from my sales rep.

19 May 2012

Book Blogger Hop: Number the Books? Impossible

Book Blogger Hop

I don't think I've participated in the Book Blogger Hop since last year, but this week's seemed like a fun one.  Over at Crazy For Books, they're asking us how many books we own. 

Well, I have no idea.  I've never counted, but my husband and I are both bibliophiles and collectors.  I've been working in the book industry in one form or another since 1997, and he's a book designer & illustrator, so yeah--pretty much all books, all the time in our house. When I moved in with him, I brought with me a few thousand books, but he lived in a big house, every room of which is decked out in books.  In the kitchen alone, he has a few hundred cookbooks.  Our bed is surrounded by books, our bathroom has a mini-library, and we even have a bookcase on the landing of the stairs.  I think it would be impossible to count, but here are a few photos to illustrate the point:

The aforementioned bathroom

The library

The studio (very cluttered!)

Even our kitchen table is actually a slab propped up on two small bookcases!

I like e-books, but I don't really understand people who don't also value the book as object. I also love revisiting the person I used to be when I pick up a book I read in the past and see all of my old (penciled) marginalia.  I do think I need to weed through our books, though, because there are some around here that neither my husband nor I have consulted in a very long time. Plus they're collecting both dust & animal hair when I stack them on every available horizontal space, and I don't want to damage them.

16 May 2012

Book (P)Review: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

This is the UK cover, not the US one
Full disclosure: I love Jasper Fforde's novels for adults, and if I happen to love the Thursday Next series and merely like the Nursery Crime series, then love trumps like and I can still say that I love his books.  (Did you follow that?) So I was already predisposed to like his first book written for the YA market when my coworker Marika pressed it into my hot little hands.  What ensued, however, was not mere liking.  My friends, this book provided me with the most enjoyable reading experience I've had yet this year! 

For those of you who have already read Jasper Fforde and grappled his books to thy hearts with hoops of steel, you know exactly what I mean.  For those unfortunate souls among you who have not yet discovered his genius, please imagine the literary offspring from the unholy union of Lewis Carroll and Terry Pratchett. It's difficult to imagine higher praise or a more precise comp.

Jennifer Strange, foundling, temporary caretaker of Kazam Mystical Arts Management, and non-magical being, is two weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday when she learns she is, in fact, the Last Dragonslayer (it must needs capitals to differentiate from merely the previous, or last, dragonslayer). She drives a beat-up Volkswagen that's more rust than orange, she loves a queer and fearsome little animal by the name/species of Quarkbeast, and she mentors another foundling by the name of Horton "Tiger" Prawns. They both hail from the Sisterhood of the Lobster, you see. 

If you're like me, then you're already nodding to yourself and saying, "Yeah. I *totally* dig that.  Where can I get my hands on a copy?"

If you're a little slower on the uptake when it comes to grasping Fforde's genius, I'll add that this book is funny and layered and clever and wildly inventive.  It slyly lays waste to things like commercialism, merchandise endorsement, double-crossings, and other treacheries. There's no reason I can think of *not* to read this book. 

Now I want a Quarkbeast.  Though I suppose my mastiff is as a reasonable facsimile as I'm likely to get.

The Last Dragonslayer, first book in the Chronicles of Kazam series, is already at large in the UK.  US readers will either have to order it internationally or wait for October, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will release it here.  I can't speak to other, international rights.

14 May 2012

Book (P)Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I read this book so long ago now that I'm not sure I can give it a coherent review, so maybe I'll just say nice things about it instead.  I plucked it from a tall pile of teetering ARCs back in January, when it still felt like winter might be in front of us and I was craving something to take me away.  In those terms, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is much better than Calgon. 

As it turns out, there was no winter in front of us after all, but that doesn't mean I didn't deeply appreciate the sojourns in warm, sunny coastal Italy.  I have to say, I loved this book against all odds.  I'd read one of Walter's books before (The Financial Lives of Poets) and found it perfectly good but not so amazing that it would drive me to seek out his future novels with ferocity.  Also, I loathe am not a fan of using multiple narrators to tell a story; it's done entirely too often and rarely done well.  Walter not only uses multiple narrators, he also uses multiple timelines and multiple media in this novel.  We get 1960s Italy, 1980s UK, and contemporary Hollywood; a decrepit hotelier, skeazy film producer,  Hollywood starlet, frustrated assistant, ambitious playwright, and a no-count musician; straightforward third-person narratives interspersed with excerpts from a screenplay (Donner! I kid you not), a rejected memoir, and an autobiographical 3-act play. 

Gosh, where do I even begin?  Given all of those disparate elements, it's almost impossible to summarize this novel, and almost as difficult for me to believe that I loved it, but love it I did.  The unlikely pairings of multiple narrative styles with multiple timelines works brilliantly and I salute Walter for it.  I would even go so far as to say that he has set the bar impossibly high for other authors follow. The jacket design is perfect for this book, with the inviting image of a Portofino-like town mingled with a retro-looking typeface.  Once I picked up this book, I could hardly tear myself away from it, so much did I long to immerse myself in this world. I'm almost sad that I've read it already and don't have it to look forward to, because this book would make the perfect summer read.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway--its true religion? Wasn't the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches featured ten thousand sects with a billion sermons--but the same movie showed in every mall in the country. And we all saw it...flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but religion (21)?
The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touchups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell facial injections that have caused a seventy-two-year old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl (93).
But aren't all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos--we know what's out there. It's what isn't that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short card rides and regional jet lags--four states and twelve-hundred miles traversed in an afternoon--but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant--sail for Asia and stumble on America--and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along (284).
So if you're looking for a fantastically-good summer read that will whisk you away from your daily grind, or if you're interested in the structure of fiction and how authors play around with it, do yourself a favor and check out Beautiful Ruins.   The author, whom I got to meet in Boston a couple of months ago at a Harper dinner, is also a real sweetheart of a fella.  Thank goodness I met him then because I'll miss his appearance at my bookshop when I'm taking my summer vacation.  He's also the June selection for our signed First Editions Club.  Yeah, it's that good.

NB: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book several months ago from the ever-lovely Harper sales rep, Anne, and it will publish in June.

10 May 2012

Book Review: Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown

Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in the movie theatres when I was a child.  It was 1977 and I was five years old, and that film opened mind to the world of imagination and role playing in a way that I had never experienced.  Oh, it was so hard to choose who to be!  Princess Leia was probably the first really strong adult female role model I encountered, but I also longed to be Han Solo, Darth Vader, and even (oddly) a Stormtrooper. 

Fast forward to graduate school in the 1990s when the original Star Wars film had its re-release in the theatres.  My friends and I stood in line to get tickets to make sure we could all attend the first showing.  Oh, the glory of watching it together on the big screen. I think The Force is as fine a theological statement of the 20th century as any, and I think that The Empire Strikes Back is about as perfect and definitive as the middle portion of a trilogy can be.

So it was to my delight and surprise that my Chronicle sales rep, Nanci, introduced me to a new book called Darth Vader & Son by Jeffrey Brown.  It's filled with great cartoons of Luke and Darth Vader, and most of the images incorporate at least one direct quotation or paraphrase from the various films.  My rep tells me that George Lucas liked the book so much that he gave permission for his trademark to be used in publication.  If you're a parent or a Star Wars fiend (especially the latter), you'll want to look through this book.  It's as groovy as the smooth stylings of the Mos Eiseley band!

08 May 2012

Two Mini Reviews: Comeback Love and Looking for Alaska

Last weekend I traveled to Boone, NC, to visit my old grade school chum, Tracie, and I took two books with me to read on the plane and during my downtime. 

I love the publication story of the first one, Comeback Love by Peter Golden.  I was just talking with John Muse, my sales rep from Simon & Schuster a couple of weeks ago about this book, which he "discovered" as a self-published book from the Book House in Albany. John was so impressed with the book that he pitched it to his own company, they eventually bought the rights to it, and Washington Square Press published it about one month ago. 

Gordon and Glenna had an amazing love affair at the close of the 1960s, but their relationship was no match for Gordon's financial insecurities and Glenna's personal ones.  The political verve that marked those years also marked the beginning of the end of their love, with Vietnam pinning them in on one side and Glenna's illegal abortion activities hemming them in on the other.  Still, Glenna and Gordon never forgot each other, but when decades later Gordon decides to look her up again, the temptation is to settle back into the same patterns.

I thought this was a very readable and pleasant story of first love and love renewed.  I'm almost exactly midway between the ages the characters are at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and it was interesting to me to feel similar levels of sympathy toward the younger and older selves of the couple. This book didn't knock my socks off, but it did encourage my mind to wander paths of nostalgia while I was reading, and I even had a dream about my own first love.  Cheers, Matt, wherever you are!

With Looking for Alaska, I had extremely high expectations since I was still riding high from reading John Green's latest novel, The Fault In Our Stars, earlier this year. Though I enjoyed it for the most part, for me it lacked the humor and the strength of the writing that I fell in love with in TFIOS. Unlike the flawed but quirkily wonderful Hazel and Augustus in TFIOS, I never could quite understand the mystique of the uber-moody Alaska and how she was able to hold those poor boys under her sway. The insight that she plied so mightily for Pudge and the Colonel quickly became myopic when directed at herself. She mostly came across to me as laconically selfish and destructive.

Still, I think Green does a great job of conveying the intensity of a boarding school atmosphere.  Everything in a teen's life is intense, but it becomes far more so in this kind of setting.  Looking at it from the perspective of someone who was lucky enough to attend a residential public high school for her junior and senior years, Green was spot-on.

NB: I received a comp copy of Comeback Love from the publisher and I bought Looking For Alaska as an e-book so that I could test-drive my bookstore's Nook to see if I wanted to buy one for myself. (Jury's still out. I liked the Nook, but I didn't love it.) In other news, Comeback Love qualifies as another entry in the New Authors Challenge hosted by Literary Escapism.

07 May 2012

Audio Book (P)Review: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

I think this is the UK cover?
My bookstore received an advance audio of the book, so I started listening to it a couple of weeks ago.  Goodreads provides this summary for it: "Budo is Max's imaginary friend. But though only Max can see him, he is real. He and the other imaginary friends watch over their children until the day comes that the child stops imagining them. And then they're gone. Budo has lasted a lot longer than most imaginary friends - four years - because Max needs him more. His parents argue about sending him to a special school. But Max is perfectly happy if everything is just kept the way it is, and nothing out of the ordinary happens. Unfortunately, something out of the ordinary is going to happen - and then he'll need Budo more than ever..."

One disc into it, I couldn't tell whether I would like this book or not.  I'd already caught one narrative inconsistency, which is too bad,  because when you take something like "imaginary friends" and create rules for the world in which they live, the author really has to be consistent if he wants the reader to suspend disbelief.

Also, an entire chapter about pooping?  I don't buy into that.  Still, I had hopes that the book may in the end turn out to be as interesting and as well done as Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, which is the obvious comp for this book.

I'm afraid the book didn't improve that much upon acquaintance.  The reader himself was pretty good, it's the book's content I have the issues with.  Aside from the "imaginary friend world" inconsistencies, the narrative was repetitive to the point of tediousness.  Budo, the narrator, is Max's imaginary friend and he is only as limited as Max imagines him.  Unfortunately, the author drives home that point roughly six hundred times per chapter.  In other words, this author never heard the dictum that writers should show, not tell. 

I think conceptually this is a book that could have been fascinating if it had been executed better.  It could have had the magic of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, or the amazingly convincing young boy narration of Room (which I thought was masterful), but instead it was overly long and painful to listen to. If I'd been reading the book, I would have skimmed most of it, and if I'd been the editor, I'd have cut out large swathes of repetition.  The ending was moderately good, even if it was too much buildup (we're talking many, many chapters of buildup), but without commensurate payoff in terms of the story arc.

And I mean, come on.  I had imaginary friends of my own as a child (one of them was named Melvin. I kid you not).  I suspect most people had at least one at some point in their lives.  But who in the hell would imagine their friend as a spoon?  I'm all for suspending disbelief when it comes to fantastical creations, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around the idea that some stupid kid imagined a walking, talking spoon for their friend.  Maybe when Old Mother Hubbard had her heyday and the cow jumped over the moon, but in the 21st century?  I really don't think so.

No doubt there will be other readers who will lurv this book, but I am not one of them, I'm afraid.

NB: As I said, I received a complimentary "staff listening copy" of this audio at my bookstore.  The reader is credited as Matthew Brown, but strangely, the author on my CD is listed as Matthew Dicks, not Matthew Green as the book jacket above indicates.  The book will be released in the US in August. 

06 May 2012

Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

I admit up front that I was not a fan of Robert Goolrick's previous novel The Reliable Wife, so I was a little reluctant to pick up his new one called Heading Out to Wonderful.  Luckily I had a little prompting from Craig "Call me Peaches" Popelars at Algonquin, who told me that he thought I'd love it. As usual, he was right. Damn his eyes.

If you read enough books or watch enough movies, after a while you develop certain expectations built into certain plot points. Thus, in chapter one when a mysterious drifter rolls into a small Southern town with nothing but his truck and two suitcases, and when those two suitcases are filled with nothing but cash and a set of the sharpest butcher knives anyone has ever seen, you know that by the last chapter there's no way that everything can end well.  Just a fact of fictional life.

That's essentially what happens in Goolrick's book, but he does stand certain of the reader's expectations on their heads, and that's what makes for an intense but heartfelt read.  You know something bad is going to happen, but it's not precisely clear at first just what path the badness is going to take: will somebody end up butchered & barbecued, a la Fried Green Tomatoes? Will the evil spring from the handsome stranger, or will it be exacted upon him by the small, xenophobic town? Is the handsome stranger's intense relationship with the young boy more insidious than it appears on the surface or is it completely innocent?

Add in a curious five year-old narrator, a small town full of busybodies, a racial divide, old time religion, a near-death resuscitation, and a man who's so rich and so mean, he has to buy himself a pretty young mountain girl for a wife, and you've got the makings of a pretty great story. 

The opening paragraphs are some of the best meditations on memory that I have ever read. The book is narrated by Sam, who is an old man looking back on what happened when the drifter came to town and his family took him in:

The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that. Of course, there are things that actually, certifiably happened, things where you can pinpoint the day, the hour, and the minute. When you think about it, though, those things mostly seem to happen to other people.

This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I'm going to tell it to you.  It's a true story, as much as six decades of remembering and telling can allow it to be true. Time changes things, and you don't always get everything right. You remember a little thing clear as a bell...while other things, big things even, come completely disconnected and no longer have any shape or sound. The little things seem more real than some of the big things....I'm  not young any more, so sometimes I can't tell what things are the things I remember and what things are just things that other people told me They tell me things I did, and a lot of them I don't remember, but most people around here aren't liars, so I just go on and believe them, until it seems that I actually do remember the things they say.

This is not exactly a Southern gothic tale, but it has elements of that.  But mostly it's the story of mountain people after the war, who are on the cusp of modernity and who know their quiet, charmed way of life won't last forever.  It's the story of otherwise good people who choose to let evil into their hearts, and the blinding love of a small boy for a man he calls Beebo, who instinctively knows something about protection but is too innocent to understand what happens around him. I highly recommend it.

04 May 2012

Old Friends, Good times

Sunset over Boone
Last weekend I made a quick trip down to Boone, North Carolina, to visit my oldest friend in the world.  Tracie was the first friend I made when I moved to Mississippi from Wisconsin in the fifth grade, back when that new world I'd landed in felt quite alien to me, but perhaps not quite as alien as I seemed to my new classmates.  We drifted apart after college, but thanks to Facebook, we reconnected a few years ago and now when we get together, it seems as if no real time has passed.  You're lucky when you have friends with whom you pick back up where you left off, and Tracie is one of them for me.

I hopped a little USAirways nonstop flight from Hartford, CT, to Charlotte, NC, where my whirlwind weekend began.  I lived in North Carolina for two years while pursuing my master's degree in English at Wake Forest University, and I've visited Asheville a couple of times for work, but I'd never visited as deep into Appalachia as Boone before.  It's a staggeringly pretty part of the world, and it's easy to see why the city of Boone is such a mecca: it's a university town, with all of the grand funkiness and variety that that moniker implies, but it's also a a cultural center and a liberal oasis among the sea of conservatism that marks most of the rest of the state.

This is the view from Tracie & Rene's back deck.  I know, right? Pretty shabby.
Tracie and I had a grand old time reminiscing about the town of Petal, MS, where we had grown up.  Though I didn't graduate from Petal, I was very interested in learning everything about my former classmates and where the are now, and as Tracie was part of the planning committee for the 20th reunion last spring, she was armed with information and happy to comply.

At baseball practice
I also had the great pleasure of meeting Tracie's two adorable children and getting to know her husband a bit more (I had met him once, about 15 years ago, over a quick lunch). I spend quite a bit of time en famille, eating dinner, baseball practice, playing Matchbox, reading books, blowing bubbles, and just limin'. The rest of the time we were on the go, driving around to see the scenery, checking out Grandfather Mountain and its many enticements, and even meeting up with another friend from grade school who lives in eastern Tennessee for breakfast one morning.

Bob's Dairyland doesn't look too promising from the outside (that is, if you're in the market for some breakfast, not bbq), but it delivered. We chose it because it was approximately halfway between Boone and where Kristi lives in TN.  I ordered a chicken & egg biscuit and that biscuit was *amazing*.   There are many things I miss about the South, and food is definitely one of them.

Kristi & Tracie loaded up on grits and other Southern breakfast delicacies.  I kinda blew it by ordering coffee, which was nothing special, instead of getting sweet tea.  The three of us spent a good bit of time catching up and chatting about our former embarrassing moments with boys, etc, and then it was time for us to part ways.  Kristi had to get back to her family, and Grandfather Mountain was calling our names.  Tracie's daughter "helped" by taking our photo outside Bob's Dairyland so that we could all have a memento of our time there, but I'm afraid that she missed our faces altogether.

I can't recall the height of Grandfather Mountain at its absolute summit, but there's a suspension cable bridge atop it that is one mile high, and that's where we ended up that day.  I never thought I'd feel vertigo or anything like that while crossing it, so it surprised me when I was a little bit nervous when I was out in the middle of it. 

The Singing Bridge on Grandfather

More of Tracie's daughter's camerawork!
I stayed here while Tracie and Co went onward to explore
We spent some time admiring the view and then made our way homeward to get ready for dinner preps that evening.  Tracie & Rene were getting ready to regale me with some good old-fashioned NC barbecue with MS side dishes, and they didn't disappoint!  Before dinner I read books with the kids to keep them occupied 'cause goodness knows I'm no help at all in the kitchen.  Before long we were sitting down to a supper with ribs, pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, homemade pickles, and more. Which made my husband jealous in the retelling, but what he envied most was our after-dinner beverage.  You see, Tracie has these connections.  And with these connections she traded some of her yummy homemade pickles for some peach shine.  It was a little rough at first but it smoothed out enough after a few tentative sips to finish it.  Tracie assures me that she will let it age a bit in her freezer and that she'll bring some with her on her next visit to New England. 

We stayed up that night poring over old yearbooks and watching an extremely dated video of the Junior Miss pageant for the class of '91.  Holy cow, but did we ever make some misguided sartorial choices! Not that I was in the pageant, mind you, but I can attest to the fact that at the time I deeply admired what all of the contestants wore. Ahh, the early nineties.  Good times.

I woke up the next morning to another gorgeous day, so after packing up my suitcase, we downed a quick breakfast and spent some time outdoors: big wheels, weeding, and hoeing were on the agenda, but then we settled down to blow a bubble or two, as Tracie's son demonstrates:

After that we made a quick trip into town for lunch and for one or two more photo ops in Boone before having to head back to the airport.  Boone is definitely a wonderful town that needs further exploration, and I was sad to be heading back to New England. If I had but world enough and time.  You know?

Local legend Doc Watson, encased in carbonite like Han Solo.  Or maybe this is just a bronze statue...

Okay, I loved this general store.  There were three row of barrels filled with old-fashioned candies.

I guess they don't call these the Blue Ridge Mountains for nothing

01 May 2012

Last Month in Review: April 2012

M'aidez. M'aidez.  Or May Day, May Day if you prefer!  I just got back from a near-perfect weekend down in the mountains of North Carolina, so my blog has been quiet for a few days.  In lieu of actually thinking and writing about stuff, I'll just start in on my reads for the last month.  Once I catch up on sleep I can get back to book reviews and travel blogging!

1. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach.  This book was neither as sweet as I hoped, nor as offensive as I feared.  It was pretty good, but not much more than that.  Its most memorable quality for me is the presence of elderly protagonists, who don't get much playtime in books these days. Review/musings here.

2. Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn.  Fun and unexpected little debut of a novel.  Perhaps there will be a review forthcoming.

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  This is a review of the audio book.

4. Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. It's hard for me to believe just how much I got out of this book.  Review here.

5. Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick.  Gosh, I loved this book.  I hope I have the energy and memory to write up a review some time. Probably my favorite book read in April.

6. Comeback Love by Peter Golden.  My sales rep from Simon & Schuster "discovered" this self-published novel and pitched it to his publishing company, and they bought the rights for it.  I hope to review it one of these days.

7. Looking for Alaska by John Green.  I borrowed my bookstore's Nook for a test drive and this is the book I chose.  With luck I'll get around to reviewing this one, too. 

So, only 7 books this month, including one YA and one audio.  That's basically a personal worst, but I'll try not to beat myself up about that. It was a very busy month at work. 

What did you read this month?  What was your favorite?