29 September 2012

Book (P)Review: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

A few years ago I picked up a book called Alice I Have Been, an interesting novel of the imagined inner life of Alice Liddell, the girl behind Lewis Carroll's famous books, and liked it very much. Thus when I heard that the author, Melanie Benjamin, had a forthcoming book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I was excited to read it.  Even now that I've finished with it, I'm not sure what, precisely, my thought are.

The Aviator's Wife started out to be both a serious drag and a disappointment: poorly edited, with lots of bad grammar unbefitting a 1920s woman who is both an ambassador's daughter and a Smithie, for such was the young Anne Morrow. After about 80 pages or so, I even put the book down with the intention of not finishing. Charles Lindbergh was an arrogant asshole and a troubled man raised to believe that showing any emotion was a sign of weakness, and I never was convinced why Anne Morrow instantly fell in love with him.  But apparently the story was sticking with me more than I thought, and I kind of wanted to at least get to the kidnapping part of the story, so I picked the book up once more over breakfast and that's when the interest level kicked in for me.

Anne Lindbergh still made me want to slap her on every other page. She's smart and bright and articulate and from a socio-economic background that could let her accomplish *anything*, yet she wastes her life complaining to herself that she lets her husband control her and push her away and mistreat both her and her children.  I had so very little patience for her.

She could write, she could fly, she could have used her power as one of the most famous women alive to wreak some good during international times of strife, and there wasn't a door in the world that wouldn't have opened to her if she'd asked.  Instead, she lurks in her husband's shadow, utterly incapable of forming her own opinions of things, even going so far as to incorporate his isolationist, anti-Semitic feelings into her own worldview, despite knowing they're morally insupportable.

On the other hand, she was often a sympathetic character: the kidnapping of her first born, the utterly foolish and asinine way her husband dealt with the kidnapping, the death of her beloved sister and father, learning about the existence of her husband's multiple secret families, and having to live the rest of her life with grown men writing to her, pretending to be her missing son, and wondering why she never searched hard enough to find them. It was truly a life where personal heartache balanced out her privilege.

So I have to wonder if maybe that's exactly what Melanie Benjamin intended all along: to present a problematic character and invoke reader sympathy just often enough to get them through the book. If so, then well played, Ms Benjamin. Well-played, indeed.

This book will be published by Delacorte in February 2013 and I received an advance reading copy upon my request from one of my sales reps.

26 September 2012

Book Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

I met Richard Kramer at BEA when I was hanging out in the Unbridled booth (a great indie publisher of good fiction and nonfiction) with my buddy Wallace.  This fellow walks up and Wallace introduces us, but I didn't know the name Richard Kramer, so I made the usual polite how-do-you-do conversation that one makes when meeting people at BookExpo. Only later did I find out that Mr. Kramer has won Emmys and Peabodys for various television shows, like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. I picked up a copy and packed it into my suitcase to take home with me and promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward to last week: Late-ish one night I'm sitting in bed, having finished one book and not wanting to walk downstairs to get a new one to read, so I sift through the piles of books on my nightstand. Seeing the Unbridled imprint on the side of this one, I pick this one up.  I don't think the cover looks very promising--it looks like it might be a dull novel about Wall Street, no? In fact, it's immediately engaging and extremely funny and I must have read a full third of the book before falling asleep.

There is no summary on the back of the book, just some blurbs and the writer's previous TV creds. I never watched the tv shows this author wrote for, other than the occasional episode of My So-Called Life, so I didn't know what to expect. What I got is a novel told from multiple points of view, including two 15-year-old boys who are best friends, that explores adolescence, gayness, and what it means to be a parental figure. I'd say that it's a cross between the humor of Joss Whedon and the dialogue of John Green--which makes for good entertainment, if not always entirely realistic characters. I don't think there is a pair of 15-year-old boys living in the US who talk like that, but that doesn't mean I think this is a bad thing.

There's a point in the book, about 3/4 of the way in, where the story starts to dissolve a little for me, but the final chapter redeems a lot. I think that Kramer addresses gayness in a way that is new, at least to me. Yes, he explores the friendship between a gay boy and a straight boy, and yes, the relationship between a straight boy and his gay father & his gay father's partner--these aren't the new territories, but they're done well and convincingly. What seems to me to be new here is the inclusion of liberal, NPR-listening, Democratic-voting, organic food-eating, sophisticated denizens of New York who support gay rights, but discover to their dismay that they're not as accepting as they thought they were when it comes to ways gayness might "rub off" on their impressionable children.

To go into it much more would be spoilerish, but I'll give this brief summary of characters & events: the book opens with Wesley, who ended up being my favorite narrator and character. He's best friends with Theo, who announces to the school during his SBA-president speech that he's gay. Wesley's parents are divorced. His mom is a successful academic who has remarried an older man who is a good step-parent to Wesley and a good person all-around. Wesley's father, now out of the closet, is an important gay rights attorney and activist who is nationally much in demand and so not very present for his son. George is Wesley's father's partner who is an actor-turned-restaurateur who is more attuned to Wesley and his needs than any of the other parental figures, but George always feels unsure what role he is allowed to play as a non-married partner; incidentally he's my second-favorite character and narrator. 
Not long after Theo's very public coming out, he and Wesley are pretty viciously beaten up in the basement of their very progressive private school where such violence and hatred are supposed to be unknown, and the aftermath of their attack is what frames the second half of the book.

A few passages for you:

Wesley, on the nature of his friendship with Theo: "He saw my point. He always does, as I see his. And his are solid, I feel. I don't know what he thinks of mine, but one can only assume that he finds them solid, as well, because we hang out, text frequently, and dislike the same people (4)."

George, being self-defeating, when his partner has just said that of course someone like him would know what Whitsuntide is and when it's celebrated: "So another small talent I'm embarrassed by, meat thrown to the Shame Buzzards; I know holidays from around the world and the festive foods that go with them, most of which involve almonds (49)."

George, if not exactly a thing of beauty, is definitely a joy forever.  He's full of pop cultural references and he can break out into any Broadway song at a moment's notice.  He feels that Maggie Smith lives inside of him, and he's kind of fabulous, and I want him to be my friend.

And here's Theo, reflecting on his coming out: "Wesley doesn't know if George and his dad are going to get married, even though his dad is always fighting for the right for Gays to do so and helped make it happen in New York. The Gays; that's one thing I'm a little nervous about, being part of a capitalized group all of a sudden, like the Hmong, or Sioux or Abstract Expressionists, whom my mom's writing a book about (104)."

This books is a very quick read--it's a slim tome and the events take place just over the course of a few days. It feels fresh and of our time, and the multiple narrators are carried off very well. In short, this is a very funny book with a few moments of gravitas that was a real treat to read.

25 September 2012

books i done got this weekend

With a nod to Raych, whose blog name was dancing about in my head when I wrote this post...

I love it when I arrive at work on Sunday mornings to find boxes and envelopes stacked high on my chair.  The book delivery pixies always seem to be hard at work on Friday and Saturdays (my days off), so my work week gets off to a great start by opening multiple shipments of free books.  If only every day started like that!

Some of these I've read before, like the two paperbacks from Algonquin, Running the Rift and When She Woke. They're wildly different but both are excellent.  Algonquin is a relatively small, independent publisher, and they simply don't waste their time by publishing crap. They also sent me a finished copy of Life Among Giants, which I've not read yet.

Macmillan sent me a finished copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which I'll be reading soon on my vacation 'cause my sales rep Bob gave me the ARC for it.

The top two books in the stack I received on request from Michael, one of my Random House reps. I've never read Jonathan Dee before, but I peeked at the first few pages and liked them. Beneath that book is a novel called The Dinner, forthcoming from Hogarth Press, and I'm excited about that one, too.

The rest of the stack came from my MPS rep, Bob, who dropped by the store to tempt me with these for more vacation reading. I loved Alan Brennert's two books set in the Hawaiian islands, but this new is a modern day domestic story. There's also the new book from Jamaica Kincaid, whose Caribbean writings I just love, but this novel seems to be a departure from her usual settings.  The Imposter Bride looks like a nice period romp through post-WWII Montreal, while the Lauren Willig is marketed as Out of Africa meets Downton Abbey. How could I resist that one? I read one of her books in the Pink Carnation series, and while I didn't love it, it was light & fun, so I have a feeling that her new book just might find its way into my suitcase.

So huzzah to free books!  Now the hard part is deciding which ones I'll read, and in what order...

18 September 2012

It's Tough Work, But Somebody Has To Do It: Choosing vacation books

Which ones will make the cut?
I'm not a particularly big planner when it comes to most things in life, but there are two things that I plan very seriously: my vacations and my vacation readings.  For the former, I spend hours and hours each week on online, scouring travel forums and villa/hotel websites to select the perfect island vacation.

Sidebar: I'm not lying; I could probably plan a better Caribbean vacation than most travel agents.

Second only to planning the vacation is what I plan to read on said vacation.  I get more reading done during those weeks when my toughest decision is whether to snorkel or kick back in a hammock than practically the rest of the year put together. Okay, so that's a slight exaggeration, but you take my point.

Snorkeling self-portrait from Virgin Gorda

The incomparable hammocks at Gwen's on Anguilla
Seriously, it's a tough call, you know? But I digress...when it comes to packing books, and I'm still talking physical books and not an e-reader, I need to make sure that they've earned their space in my suitcase. That's why I test-drive every book by reading the first 2-3 chapters. It used to be that I only read the first chapter in each book, but then I got stuck with a few duds because, as a friend in publishing mentioned, the first chapter is often the best edited. 

Backtrack up to the topmost photo in this post is a stack of books I'm tentatively taking with me on my fall vacation, but I need probably 1-3 more books, depending on how long they are.  I'll be gone seven days, and it's nice to have a book for each day, plus a buffer book or two in case I do end up with a dud. I also try to have mostly novels, with at least one YA and one work of non-fiction to round it all out.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Love the name, loved the first two chapters.  Got this ARC from my FSG sales rep, Bob. 

Safekeeping: This is a YA novel that my coworker Marika recommended. 

The Aviator's Wife: Loved the author's previous book about the imagined inner life of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's classic books, so I feel good about this one, too.  Plus it might piggyback as a book my husband will read. I think I got this one from my sales rep, Michael.

Princess Elizabeth's Spy: Really enjoyed the first book in this series. This one promises to be as light & frothy and it might piggyback as a book my mom will want to read.  This one also came from Michael.

Attachments: I was pretty excited to see that I had an ARC of this one lying around my house during my fall cleaning. This one I'm taking because Alice and her followers love this one and I want to be just like them. I have no idea where this copy came from, but I'm happy I found it.

Home is a Roof Over a Pig: The token non-fic on my list, and I'm only lukewarm about it.  The idea is good: a retired military family moves to China with their three young children (including their youngest, adopted from China) to live and teach and so their children can have exposure to a new culture and speak another language, etc. The writing is only mezzo-mezzo. 

Also under consideration is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, of which I read the first few chapters a couple of nights ago, and it's fun.  The catch being that it's already published, and I'd prefer not to take with me more than one book that's already published, and that honor must needs go to Attachments

Who has suggestions for me?  Make your voices heard and make it now, peoples. 

17 September 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores: US edition

I've been a follower for a long time (and by "long" I guess I mean about two years or so) of Jen Campbell's This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog. She's a poet, writer and antiquarian bookseller in the UK, and earlier this year she published a book called Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Since bookish people love reading about bookish things, the idea spread across the pond and soon there was an open call for American and Canadian booksellers to submit some of their bizarre encounters with customers. Overlook published it just this last week, and they were kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of the book.

 Jen's original contributions comprise most of the US edition, but it's interspersed throughout with new scenarios from the New World, including two out of the three that I submitted.  One of them was entirely too long to print, but it remains one of my most frequently read blog posts (read it here if you're interested). Here's the more interesting of the two they included:

     Customer: Do you sell swimming goggles?
     Me: No, I'm afraid we do not.
     Customer: And you call yourself a full service bookstore?
     Me: ...

I kid you not.  Now, it's true that we've branched out a good bit, particularly over the last five years, and we sell quite a few non-book items. Some are more of the usual non-book like journals, stationery, and calendars, but we also carry toys, boardgames and locally- or regionally-made crafts. Still, asking for swimming goggles seemed a little, well, weird.

Here's a call I took last week from a customer on the phone. I've submitted it for the next installment of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores:

    Customer: Yes, hello, do you sell drumsticks?
    Me: Umm...do you mean the kind you eat or the kind you play drums with?
    Customer: The kind you play drums with.  Does that mean you sell them?
    Me: No, actually we don't carry either one, but I was curious which variety you thought a bookstore        might sell.  Try the music shop just up the road.

This is a very funny book, and if you've ever worked retail then I'm sure you'll find yourself nodding along to more than one of these bizarre scenarios.  It's a nice little package, and at only $15 for the hardcover, it makes a great impulse purchase or gift.  

15 September 2012

It's Fall Cleaning Time + Multiple Book Giveaway Where Everybody Wins

Some folks like to do spring cleaning, but around my house spring = mud season, so autumn is the time of year we start to clear up the clutter around the house. My husband and I are both bibliophiles, so books seem to accumulate more than we're able to keep up with. Yesterday I started working on the downstairs level, clearing out books from my kitchen table:

...the bathroom:
Notice that the entire top shelf is clear (though not for long)!
...the end of the hallway, where we had books double-stacked on top of the case beyond the crossbar of the, er, cross
Roxie gives the photo some scale. She's 150 pounds.
and the back hallway, where both of us just seem to unload armfuls of books at a time whenever we walk in the door:
Note that there are only a few double stacks now
 At first I thought it was going to feel brutal; after all, books are friends and we don't throw away friends, do we? After the first half hour it felt easier, and not long after that I moved through the shelves ruthlessly like Sherman through Atlanta, though with decidedly less burning.  I may give books away, but I trust I'll never be a book burner.
These are for donation. 
By the end of the afternoon, I had culled the herd and rearranged the keepers, created a section of Caribbeana, created stack upon stack of books to be donated, and even four boxes of books to sell back to my bookstore's used book buyer for store credit. (Hah!  I may be getting rid of books, but that doesn't mean that I don't want more.)

These four boxes are to sell for store credit.
Now we get to the FREE BOOKS part. There's a local charity program that will accept ARCs as donations, and I'm happy to donate them, but if you see a particular title in the close-ups below that you'd like to be reading, I'll send it to you by snail mail if you live in the US or Canada. Just drop me a comment below and send me an email with your physical address.  My blog doesn't have hundreds of followers (though apparently there are lots of lurkers out there), so I don't anticipate going broke with this request, but I will set a time limit on it: one week from today's post.

YA & middle grade. Mock not the Twilight books

Stack #1

Stack #2

Stack #3

Stack #4

Stack #5, part 1

Stack #5, part 2
If you want a free book but don't know which one you want, I'll pick one for you based on what you tell me your interests are. I've got lots of literary fiction, lots of commercial fiction, and a couple of stacks of YA (do NOT judge me for those Twilight books, peoples). I've not read every book in these stacks, and some I'm only giving away because I have multiple copies (I'm looking at YOU, Wiley Cash and Andre Dubus).

So, um, yeah.  Pick yer book. Let me know. I'll send it to you.  That's pretty much as easy as it gets.
Send your address to me at ejcrowe42 [at] aol [dot] com with a subject line of Book Giveaway or similar.

11 September 2012

Book (P)Review: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

I first heard of this book back in early June at BEA, when I stopped by the Algonquin booth and their marketing guru pulled me aside and said, "Have you ever heard of hikikomori?"  "You stepped in what?" I responded.  Craig then told me about this Japanese state of being in which people, almost exclusively males in the late teens-to-early-thirties range, lock themselves up in a room and never come out. Apparently it's becoming more and more widespread, and so families rely on hired "rental sisters" to coax these young men out of seclusion. Thus began my acquaintance with hikikomori and my interest in Jeff Backhaus's debute novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister. I told Craig that he needed to send me a review copy as soon as they were ready because really, how could this book be anything but fascinating?

This is one of the books that is difficult for me to review, so I'm going to take the easy way out by first providing a Goodreads summary: Thomas Tessler, devastated by a tragedy, has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives in the next room, but Thomas no longer shares his life with her, leaving his hideout only occasionally, in the wee hours of the night, to pick up food at the grocery store around the corner from their Manhattan apartment. Isolated, withdrawn, damaged, Thomas is "hikikomori."Desperate for one last chance to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman attuned to the "hikikomori" phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. Back in Japan Megumi is called a "rental sister," though her job may involve much more than familial comforts. At first Thomas remains steadfast and sequestered, but as he grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds.

I've read a few Japanese authors before, I'm friends with westerners who have lived in Japan, AND I've read David Sedaris' excellent essay about moving to Japan to quit smoking, so it's not like I'm a scholar of that great nation or anything, but all I can say is that Japan and its culture are mysteries to me. Reading Japanese novels feels to me like I felt when I was in my second year of learning French and trying to read simple poems and short stories in that language: I could grasp the literal meaning of the words, sure. And I had a very general understanding of the piece. But it was clear to me that I was merely reading on the surface and missing out on fathoms of meaning.  That's pretty much how I feel when reading Haruki Murakami, even his most "accessible" works.

Jeff Backhaus is not a Japanese writer, but he has taken a quintessentially Japanese phenomenon and somehow managed to create an American novel that is bookended with Japanese sensibility. Thomas' tragedy is that he feels responsible for the death of his and Silke's son; Megumi's connection with Thomas is that her brother was also hikikomori, but her secret is that she left Japan after her family was torn apart by her brother's death.  Silke mostly remains a shadow of a person, one that we never quite get to know.

Backhaus chooses to intersperse chapters of Thomas's first person, present tense narrator, with a more detached third person narrator, also present tense.  As my friends and readers of this blog may know, I'm not crazy about present tense narration, particularly first person ones. They either create a false sense of urgency or they make me feel like I'm listening to a golf commentator's hushed tone narrating the book: "She kneels down to eye the green. She takes her time, she's lining up the putt, and oh, too bad, she just misses that one."  You know what I mean?

The opening and concluding chapters rely largely on words going unspoken and things left undone, where the true meaning lies somewhere between what is said and the silence surrounding it, while the middle sections are almost self-indulgent acts of selfish sharing, if you'll forgive the oxymoron. This might sound like criticism, but I don't mean it that way at all--I think that's what makes this book the perfect blend of Japanese and American sensibilities.

As conceptually bizarre as I find hikikomori, this book was both intriguing and engrossing and I found it to be a quick read.  There are a few passages that I noted, with which I'll conclude my post, but before that, a note about the cover design. The red and black are so bold as to be nearly an abstract graphic, but then you notice the letter H and I.  Maybe hi? I only have the ARC with a decorated front wrap, so I don't know if there will be a wraparound to the rear wrap. Perhaps there will be more letters?  If so, I'd guess a K. If not, then perhaps the simple greeting of "hi" stands on its own and is a brilliant design for the content. Now take a closer look: there's a small female robin perching on top of the (san-serif) second downstroke of the H. I, for one, didn't notice her the first few times I picked up the book, but she's equally important to the content.  The interior design is also easy on the eyes, with good chapter headings and the use of small caps for the first few words of the opening paragraph. Algonquin doesn't include a note on the type like Random House does (more's the pity), so I don't know which typeface is used, but it's attractive.

All in all, I recommend this book for those looking for an unusual read with a sensibility that differs from most English-language-not-in-translation books.

"Entire afternoons go missing. I sit cross-legged on the bed or on the floor reading magazines, sometimes unfolding and melting into supine sleep, but sleep is not what steals the hours. They go missing while I am awake, wide awake, so wide that I am rendered unaware. The walls of my room, what tricks they play: boxing in my wilted soul, paralyzing the clock then suddenly lurching it forward hours, even days. Sometimes weeks. Months (30)."
"'We're always looking for some sort of bigger world. Something bigger, better. Maybe this country is for me just one big bedroom, away from my family and my past. Maybe my brother withdrew to his room and you withdrew to your room and I withdrew all the way across the ocean, all the way to New York. Maybe I'm just as stuck as you are. Maybe I'm hiding from the future' (231)."

NB: This book will be published by Algonquin in January 2013. I received a complimentary ARC at my request. 

07 September 2012

Audio Book Review: Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore

Summary from Goodreads: It is the color of the Virgin Mary's cloak, a dazzling pigment desired by artists, an exquisite hue infused with danger, adventure, and perhaps even the supernatural. It is... Sacre Bleu. In July 1890, Vincent van Gogh went into a cornfield and shot himself. Or did he? Why would an artist at the height of his creative powers attempt to take his life... and then walk a mile to a doctor's house for help? Who was the crooked little "color man" Vincent had claimed was stalking him across France? And why had the painter recently become deathly afraid of a certain shade of blue?
These are just a few of the questions confronting Vincent's friends - baker-turned-painter Lucien Lessard and bon vivant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec - who vow to discover the truth of van Gogh's untimely death. Their quest will lead them on a surreal odyssey and brothel-crawl deep into the art world of late 19th century Paris. Oh la la, quelle surprise, and zut alors! A delectable confection of intrigue, passion, and art history - with cancan girls, baguettes, and fine French cognac thrown in for good measure - Sacre Bleu is another masterpiece of wit and wonder from the one, the only, Christopher Moore.

While I do think that Sacre Bleu has a fascinating jumping off point (imagining another reason behind Van Gogh's death), color me completely underwhelmed by this book. However, I cannot pinpoint if it was more due to the content or the audio experience.  I thought the reader himself was pretty good--Euan Morton, whose performance of Fool, another Christopher Moore book, I enjoyed--though the fake French accent was occasionally grating and also inconsistent. It's odd to me how a book with dozens and dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of individual sentences that were so funny that they made me laugh (or at least chuckle) out loud could be such a dull book overall.  If I hadn't had this book on audio, I would have put it down after the first few chapters to read something else, or at least heavily skimmed it to get to the end, but as it was the only book I had to listen to on my commute, it was just tolerable enough to finish.

Mostly I found the story tedious. Jokes about penises and how they can be used to scare off the housemaids only go so far, you know? Another thing that annoyed me is the inconsistency of the third person narrator in referring to the painter known as Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. Sometimes it was Henri. Sometimes it was Toulouse. Sometimes it was Toulouse-Lautrec.  These were not characters, mind you, calling him by various names; it was the third person narrator. And sometimes the reader would slip more into a British accent than into a French-person-who-speaks-English accent. That being said, I did feel that I learned a little about some of the celebrated paintings of the day, and in this aspect the audio is inferior because I believe that every historical painting referenced in the novel was printed in full color in the book itself, or at least in the hardcover version.

I'm not ready to write off Christopher Moore just yet, but I won't be rushing off to read his next book, either. I don't particularly mind crude, but the two Moore books I've listened to seem to specialize in an overbearing, heavy-handed, and pervasive crudeness, when in my opinion a lighter counterpoint of crudeness would be more effective and render a funnier and more overall enjoyable piece of fiction.

NB: I asked for, and received, a complimentary copy of the audio book from my wonderful Harper sales rep. 

06 September 2012

Audio Book Review: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

GoodReads Summary: On a desperate journey, two runaways meet and join forces. Though they are only looking to escape their harsh and narrow lives, they soon find themselves at the center of a terrible battle. It is a conflict that will decide their fate and the fate of Narnia itself.

I'm not sure there's a single thing about the summary that would make a reader unfamiliar with Narnia want to pick this book up and read it. What's up with that?

I'm torn with my review for The Horse and His Boy.  I read this book at least a dozen times growing up and I always loved it, and I just finished listening to a rather fine audio production of it, read by Alex Jennings, which I enjoyed.  I had a trip to Boston last week and I wanted a book to listen to on my drive; my bookstore had this one on sale, and voila! But it's hard for me to separate my nostalgia for this book from a critical evaluation of the story.

Oh, Jack. You have no great love for women, do you? Or at least not until Joy Gresham came into your life.  If you'd known her earlier, I think your female characters would have benefitted so much! (Clearly I'm an expert on the life of one Clive Staples Lewis from having watched Shadowlands a dozen times. Duh.)

Aravis is one of the truly interesting female characters that C. S. Lewis gave us: she's smart, savvy, sporty, refined, and of high birth. She's a snob, but also a loyal companion. Like Edmund and Eustace from previous books in the series, she also grows as a character by the time we reach the end of her story.  She is, truly, a female figure in the Narnia books I can whole-heartedly cheer for.

So is Shasta, come to that.  And Lewis himself is a fine, fine storyteller, with a good sense of narration, pace, and character.  He never talks down to his audience (I remember learning a lot of words for the first time by reading the Narnia Chronicles in elementary school).

But there is such a strong sense of patriarchal imperialism (not to mention an anti-Arabic sentiment) running through these books that it makes my heart hurt a little bit. I think I'll put this one back on the shelf for now.

On an entirely different note, I'd just like to say that I'm very much opposed to the newfangled numbering of the Narnia series.  There's no reason why the books should be read in the chronological order of Narnian time.  The books were written in a certain order, and that is the order in which I feel they should be read. None of this nonsense with starting off with The Magician's Nephew.  Goodness knows that book isn't quite snappy enough to carry the whole series on its back, unlike The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. No wonder not as many children read these books today if they think they're supposed to start with that one.

04 September 2012

Book Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Summary (from Goodreads): Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Oddly enough, I don't think this summary does much for the book, but two of the blurbs on it really work for me. Garth Stein says that it is "a compassionate look at family dysfunction, the paralysis of genius, and good old-fashioned parental love" and Jonathan Franzen "tore through this book with heedless pleasure." I had just finished reading a slew of YA books, I was hungry for some adult fare, and I had just a big enough gap of time to let myself indulge in some bookseller's guilt. That's right. I read a book that was already published, albeit recently (two weeks ago). 

Structurally the book is cobbled together, ostensibly by 15 year old Bee, from various emails, letters, and notes, with occasional first-person interjections from Bee to give a sense of cohesion. Usually I hate this kind of narrative structure, but the informality of the novel makes for a surprisingly good pairing. The epistolary excerpts are all written to, from, or are tangentially related to Bernadette, and my favorite parts were either those written by the heinous Audrey Griffin, Bernadette's neighbor and gnat-nemesis, or the ones Bernadette herself writes to Manjula Kapoor, the woman in India whom she hires to be her outsourced personal assistant.

You know how sometimes a book can come to you at just the right time and you really click with it?  And that same book, if you'd read it a month ago or a year in the future, might not have resonated with you at all?  That's how I feel about Where'd You Go, Bernadette. For whatever reason, I read this book at the right time and had so much fun doing it, but I also had the sense while reading it that if I'd come at it another time I would have simply put it down, unfinished.  Parts of it are incredibly funny, and I loved the send-up of the Seattle scene, that certain brand of parenting characterized by the "gnats," east coast elitism, Microsoft, the MacArthur genius grant, people's deep earnestness to be PC and inclusive, and everything else.

Is it realistic? Heavens, no! But I can forgive a book a good many things if it makes me laugh. There were lots of parts that I enjoyed but oddly enough I only dogeared one section. It's from a letter Bernadette has written to Manjula, asking her to make a Thanksgiving dinner reservation for her family. Clearly Bernadette realizes that it's pretty outlandish to email a person in India to call a restaurant in your neighborhood for a reservations, so she gives equally outlandish reasons for doing so:
"There's always this guy who answers the phone...and he always says it in this friendly, flat Canadian way. One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.
Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass--anything and everything--the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that....To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with a talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated accordingly. 
Yes, I'm done (26-27)."
Bernadette is full of rants just like that. I kind of love her, and I kind of want to slap her, but I don't see those things as being mutually exclusive. This book is both wry and funny with a postmodern, sly humor. I can't think of any truly great comps, but it falls somewhere along the spectrum of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, and Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small. It's not a book that has tremendous lasting power, and I'm a little surprised that it clicked so strongly with me in the moment, but like the Stones said, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

NB: I picked this book up from the ARC pile in my store after hearing generally good buzz about it. The ARC cover, which I photographed here, is slightly different from the finished cover. Rather than the blue triangles (mountains and/or icebergs) in the background, we get the same face with a yellow headscarf and no blue triangles.

01 September 2012

Last Month in Review: August 2012

I'm not entirely sure why, but I read a lot of YA this month--far more than I usually do. Perhaps unconsciously-not unconsciously I wanted my numbers to look better this month than they looked last month.  I'm competitive like that. On the upside, I wrote more book reviews this month, though. Total: 14 and 1/2. For adults: 6. For YA: 10. Audio: 3.

1. Every Day by David Levithan. First in a long stream of YA books for the month. What would *you* do if you woke up in somebody else's body every morning and had to live that life for one day? Review here.

2. Requiem by Lauren Oliver.  Conclusion of her Delirium trilogy. Another YA. Review here.

3. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  Another YA. This was an audio I listened to and it was terrific.  Really top-notch reader AND a top-notch story. I should probably review it, but it's pretty far removed from my memory at this point and may be hopeless.  It's a hard-luck kid dealing with an abusive father, an abusive and possibly larcenous older brother, another older brother who returns maimed and haunted from Vietnam, a coach who has it in for him, and almost an entire small town who decides to judge him based on his brother's actions. But he slowly learns that having just one adult believe in him just might be enough to turn his life around.  That, plus art, a cantankerous old playwright, and a smart girl named Lil.

4. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. Another YA. Huh, guess I didn't review this one, either. It was a solid read, optimal for middle grade boys, that deals with bullying, a parent losing a job, the metaphorical loss of another parent, and the agony of starting a new school.  On the upside, there's a spy club, a seriously peculiar boy named Safer, and all of the lowdown on where to find the best seasonal candy in the greater Manhattan area.

5. Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman. This one was actually for grown-ups. Review here.

6. Love Anthony by Lisa Genova. Also for grown-ups.  forthcoming.

7. Talullah Rising by Glen Duncan. Definitely for grow-ups. Review here.

8. Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook. Another YA. Review here.

9. Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone. Another YA. Review here.

10. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. Another YA, but this was a re-read from childhood. Review here.

11. Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore.  For adults. This one was another audio book, and while the reader was pretty good, the story left much to be desired.  I will possibly review it.

12. The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis. Another audio, this time a YA one.  Review probably forthcoming. I'd read the book at least a dozen times as a child, but I was in need of an audio book for a quick trip out Boston way and this was on sale in the children's department, so there you go.

13. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Another adult book. Oddly enough, I'm not sure I will review this one. I liked it quite a bit but my reading of it was so disjointed that reviewing it won't be doing it any favors.

13 1/2. When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest. I don't usually count picture books in my list, but my coworker, Caitlin, showed this book to me over lunch one day and I really, really liked it.  So sweet, so moving, so ambiguously central or eastern European and the life of an immigrant girl.

14. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.  Another book for adults. Just wrote the review on 8/31 and it's scheduled to appear here on September 4.