15 June 2010

Some lighter options for summer reading

It's no secret that I tend to be drawn to darker, literary tomes that carry some weight, both literally and figuratively, but what's less known is what a colleague of mine (not from my store, will remain nameless) refers to as my "book slumming." (She's hardcore when it comes to her reading. If there's even a hint of commercialism, she's not likely to pick it up.) I don't see it as slumming, actually. When there are so few people out there who make reading a priority in our lives, why on earth would we want want to denigrate readers who read books written by authors who will never, ever win a literary prize?

Which leads me to my post today. Books for entertainment. Books for fun. Books that might even be, dare I say it, funny. Perfect for those days when you don't really want to be burdened with more depressing insights into the human condition. These are not books where you will be blown away by the beautiful prose stylings of the artiste.

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin, published by Vintage in paperback. A woman recovering from a divorce reluctantly gets involved in helping a friend search the Yucatan peninsula for nine plants with a mythical collective power. Along the way she encounters an ethereal orchid grower, a mystical marijuana cultivator, and a man who will stop at nothing to get the nine plants first. In this delightfully distracting read, the author takes us for a romp that is equal parts romance, adventure, magical realism, and self-discovery. It’s a colorful, frothy, well-paced novel perfect for summer escapist reading. Think any of the Indiana Jones movies or Romancing the Stone and you'll have a pretty good idea where this book is coming from.

The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian, published in paperback by Harper. Ella and John, a couple in their 80s, want to experience one last hurrah. Despite their children's horror and their doctors' warnings (she has late-stage cancer and he has Alzheimer's), they head west in their RV on Route 66 in search of lost time. Full of laughter and poignant moments, this book is a reminder that a life well-lived to the very end is a rare, sweet thing, indeed.

Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith and Jane Austen, published in paperback by Quirk Books. If you thought Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was just a tantalizing in media res novel, this is the book for you. You'll discover Br. Bennet's dark past, uncover the secret of the unholy plague, and swoon with Elizabeth Bennet's debut is interrupted by a legion of the undead! Good fun all around.

13 June 2010

You've got to pick a memoir or two...

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen by Jennifer Steil, published by Broadway Books. What starts as a 3-week course teaching journalism to a group of greenhorn reporters in Yemen quickly evolves into a year-long stint as editor-in-chief of the English language newspaper, The Yemen Observer. Bewildered and smitten in equal measure with her new surroundings, Steil faces obstacles as varied as stampedes, kidnapings, and suicide bombings. But what intrigues this intrepid journalist the most is her status as "third gender" -- as a Westerner, she is free to mingle with either men or women in a country where the sexes are still strictly segregated (even at wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom are not permitted to be with each other). This memoir is both instructive and engaging, teaching this reader, at least, much about Yemeni food, culture, customs and government as Steil encounters them for the first time. A fascinating read.

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life by Ann Vanderhoof, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Everybody who knows me knows that reading, travel, and eating are my three greatest passions, and I can’t recall the last time reading a book made me as happy as this one did, as it fed all three. Unlike many travel & food writers who never stray beyond the glossy tourist areas, Vanderhoof is the real deal, seeking out and sharing the best, most authentic, down-home island recipes and experiences—whether it’s scampering after thyme-grazing goats on a Dominican mountainside, or pounding out conch with Grenadian fishermen, or learning how to “whine & shuffle” her way through a Trinidadian Carnival covered in mud, paint and sweat (and possibly other bodily fluids). I swear, you’ll scent the nutmeg wafting on the breeze as you read this book, the next best thing to sailing the West Indies yourself!

12 June 2010

Packing for summer vacation

Packing for summer vacation is no easy feat for me. Oh, the clothes aren't really an issue. We go to the Caribbean, so two pairs of capris, four bathing suits and some sarongs or coverups, snorkel gear, some tops to mix & match, and a couple of pairs of sandals are all I need. If I'm feeling fancy, I'll toss in a sundress, too. Before the days of the shoe bomber, we even got away with doing carry-on only, even for a two week vacation, but these days we generally check an additional bag with our various liquids and unguents, namely sunscreen.

No, the hard part of packing for me is paring down the list of books that I take with me. Last year I set a personal best of reading 19 books over 15 days. I don't think I'll necessarily match that this year, but I intend to pack at least 16 books for the same amount of time. And since I like having these things planned well in advance, today is the day I've dedicated to reading the first few pages or first chapter of a couple dozen books to determine which ones make the cut. The only thing worse than running out of books on summer vacation is being stuck with duds.

I try to bring at least one non-fiction title, but then my fiction really runs the gamut. I'll take short stories and novels, big thick tomes and slender volumes, typical beach reads and books so dark that the only place to read them in comfort is in the dazzling tropical sunlight. It's also a time for me to both catch up on backlist (previously published) reading and read ahead, courtesy of advance reader's copies, for the books that are coming out in the fall. This is also the first year that I'm lucky enough to have a Sony e-Reader. I don't know how easy it will be to read its non-backlit screen in the bright sunlight, especially whilst wearing my polarized shades, but we'll give it the ol' college try.

On my list of definites (at least so far):

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall
Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Great House by Nicole Krauss
The Tower, the Zoo & the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
Tinkers by Paul Harding
The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass
Jellicoe Road by Marlina Marchetta (for young adults)
Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

I still need a nonfiction book to take with me. Any recommendations?

11 June 2010

Some debut novels I recently read & enjoyed

A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei. Lin Yulan, a revolutionary leader of the Chinese feminist movement, reluctantly returns to her homeland after years of self-imposed exile for a guided tour of "the new China" with her two daughters and three granddaughters in an effort for the nearly estranged women to reconnect. Each woman arrives in China with her own agenda, and each discovers that some shameful secrets are simply too heavy to bear alone. This powerful, intricately woven first novel is a meditation on grief & recovery, strength & vulnerability, and the urgency to leave one's mark on the world. A very promising debut.

The author graduated from Amherst College, just down the road from our bookstore, and she very graciously stopped by our store one day to sign stock while she was visiting her alma mater. The sales rep had emailed her the above blurb that I wrote for their publicity department and she was very appreciative--there are so many first time writers whose works get overlooked that she seemd grateful for our store's efforts to promote her book. I really look forward to her future work. Penguin published this book new in hardcover in the spring and I hope by the time it's released in paper that it will find the audience it deserves! It would be a very good book group selection.

Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaze Mengiste is a debut novel set in the writer's homeland of Ethiopia during the 1974 military overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. As famine, chaos, and suspicion sweep the nation, one family becomes wrapped up in chaos of its own. When the matriarch dies, father becomes pitted against sons, brother against brother, and husband against wife, each deciding where his or her loyalties lie, both within the family and in the context of the political turmoil exploding around them. This moving book takes the intimate story of one family's struggle to survive a new regime and places it against the backdrop of important world events.

This book puts me very much in mind of my favorite novel of the last several years--Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. And not just because it's the story of one man's personal loss echoed in the devastations of his country--there are some absolutely beautiful phrases and startling insights about this famine-stricken nation, "a desolate valley, the sun too bright for shadows of death." Published by Norton in January 2010.