25 December 2010

And so this is Christmas...

Stonehenge on a snowy day (image found online)

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  But there's a song lingering in my mind that I listened to on an endless loop on the way to and from a Chinese restaurant tonight where we met friends for dinner.  No, I'm not Jewish.  But I'm not Christian, either.  Agnostic, I suppose is the proper term.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. A lapsed Whiskeypalian if you want to get playful with it.  Whatever it is that I am, it's reinforced by listening to traditional ecclesiastical music and looking deeply into my dog's eyes and listening to my cats purr.  And whatever spark of the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my soundtrack for the drive to dinner tonight was listening to Loreena McKennett perform Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.  Okay, so maybe a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that.  But what does that mean for today, all those angels and mangers (bacon creche!) and glorias in excelsis deo *? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, yet so sorely lacking.  With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a link that will take you directly to McKennitt's website so you can get a taste of her rendition of it.

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

24 December 2010

Literary Blog Hop: Under-appreciated books

Literary Blog Hop

This week's Literary Blog Hop question, sponsored by The Blue Bookcase, is this: What literary title (fiction or nonfiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated? ... What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?
For recent publications, I'm an ardent proselytizer advocate for Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which has everything a serious reader could want: it's epic in size and scope, beautifully written, and full of grand tragedy & passion.  All set against the background of important world events, it's the story of one family's struggles with betrayal and abandonment and trust, especially between brothers.  It's also peppered throughout with a good bit of medical philosophy & ethics.  It's well-paced, fully developed, and moves from India to Ethiopia to the United States and back again.  It is almost the perfect novel, and for my money it's the best English-language novel published in the last five years, possibly the last decade. 

 I have a long list of 20th century-or-earlier publications that I don't feel have received the attention they deserve, whether they're books overshadowed by an author's more famous title, or whether the author himself or herself is mostly overlooked. Among them are Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Jim Harrison's The Legends of the Fall, L. M. Montgomery's Emily series, Ron Hansen's The Chess Garden, Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, David James Duncan's The River Why, Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.  I really could go on, but since I need to head to work, I think I'll end it there.  

What about y'all?  

22 December 2010

My Top Ten Books for 2010

Since I read on average about 2-3 books per week (I include listening to unabridged audio here in this total), by the end of the year I've read somewhere in the range of 100-150 [would that I were a speed-reader and could get through that many more!].  Narrowing down to ten favorites is pretty difficult sometimes, but I love the chance that it provides me of revisiting beloved titles and characters that I encountered months ago, in the long, dark nights of January and the long, hot days of summer vacation.  Because I'm a bookseller and frequently read books months ahead of their publication date, I'm modifying this list to reflect the best books published in 2010, even if I might have read 1-2 of them in 2009.  By the same token, books forthcoming in 2011 that I've already read and loved will have to wait for next year's list. I did consciously try to include both fiction and nonfiction as well as some books published for young adults. In no particular order, other than my ability to recall them:

1) The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.  For its heart, its whimsy, and its British charm & sparkle. Published in cloth in August 2010 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, given to me by my sales rep, Ann Kingman.

2) As Always, Julia: the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon.  For its intimate look at two extraordinary women who wrote marvelously entertaining and worldly letters.  Published in cloth in November 2010 by Houghton Mifflin.  I picked up a comp copy of this book at NEIBA.

3) Little Bee by Chris Cleave.  For asking the haunting questions: how far would you go to save a stranger's life, and what would you do to preserve or sever that connection afterward?  Published in paperback in February 2010 by Simon and Schuster.  I bought this book to read on summer vacation, only to belatedly discover that my sales rep, John Muse, had given me a finished copy when it was published in cloth the previous year.

4) At Home: A History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  For being a new book by Bill Bryson.  Does it need more reason than that to make my Top Ten list?  Okay, for being a non-fiction book written with his trademark humor and for his ability to draw startling & fascinating connections between two seemingly unrelated pieces of history.  Published by Doubleday in October 2010.  My Random House rep, Ann Kingman, pressed an advance reading copy into my hot little hands as soon as they were available (and for which I am forever grateful) AND she gifted me with a finished copy the day I met Bill Bryson because I was so pathetically enthusiastic about driving 4 hours to spend 30 minutes in his company.  I also purchased outright the audio version of it, ostensibly to give my husband for Christmas, but which in reality will take up residence in my car.

5) Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay.  For being a beautiful novel whose sense of place completely drew me out of my own circumstances and into the harsh world of dancing for the Bolshoi, whose glittery surface belies the treachery and betrayal and hunger lurking just beneath.  Published in cloth by HarperCollins in September, my sales rep Anne DeCourcey suggested I read the book for my store's signed first edition club.  I did, and we promptly selected it.

6) The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow.  For being a splendid debut novel that probes what racial identity means to a girl who seems to fit neither here nor there.  Published in cloth in March by Algonquin Books, one of my favorite small publishers, and given to me by Craig Popelars, who is the heart and soul of that company.  We also picked this book for our signed first editions club.

7) Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  For being a 21st-century novel of manners and for being so utterly delightful, charming, and old-fashioned.  Published in cloth by Random House in March 2010, I think I requested this book from my sales rep, Michael Kindness, but it's also possible that it arrived in the "White Box."

8) Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog.  For being the most provocative and readable book I've ever encountered on humankind's complicated relationships with animals.  No other single book has made me think more about what I'm eating or made me consider the socio-economic implications of our treatment of animals. Published by HarperCollins in cloth in September 2010 and discovered in the staff kitchen in the bookstore one day over lunch--it was an advance reading copy left by our sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.

9) Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.  For being one of the best boarding school books I've ever read and for having a deliciously complicated protagonist in Taylor Markham, who is simultaneously curious & indifferent, strong & vulnerable.  This book was published in paperback in March 2010 by HarperTeen and I purchased it for a summer vacation read after the enthusiastic recommendation by Rebecca, my store's former children's buyer.

10)  White Cat by Holly Black.  For being such a pure-dee fun romp through magic and organized crime.  I love heist stories and this one was really good.  Published in cloth by McElderry books, a teen division of Simon & Schuster in May 2010.  I'm fairly sure that my sales rep, John Muse, gave me a copy of this one in advance reading copy form, but I also picked up a complimentary finished copy at a NEIBA educational session.

And one to grow on, because I couldn't stop at just ten, and because this book really was extraordinary:

11) Room by Emma Donoghue.  For being an utterly gripping and inventive book, for keeping my attention even when I became frustrated with the 5 year-old narrator, and for braving the psychological depths and twists inherent in long term hostage situations and their aftermaths.  Published by Little, Brown in September 2010.  I grabbed a galley of this book that came in the "White Box" and read it during a weekend of travel this summer.

I'd like to thank all of the wonderful sales reps in western New England who keep me in books all year long, those I've named here and all of the others who are always quick to send me titles I express interest in.  Without them, my reading life would be all the poorer!

19 December 2010

Book Review: Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

I think Stewart O'Nan must reinvent himself more than any other modern US author.  Many, if not most, writers have a modus operandi and they stick pretty closely within a certain range.  Philip Roth likes to write about the lives of Jewish upper middle class men.  Jodi Picoult picks an "issue" and then uses multiple narrators to write around it.  William Faulkner liked to chronicle lives in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County.  Flannery O'Connor was peerless at finding the gothic in the quotidian.  You can be sure that characters in Barbara Kingsolver's fiction will advocate for social justice.

With Stewart O'Nan, however, you get a different book every time he's at bat.  In A Prayer for the Dying, set in post-Civil War Wisconsin, he pulls off a beautifully, if tragically, conceived novel in what may be the only successful use of a second-person narrative I've ever read.  In Everyday People, he narrates vignettes from various African-American perspectives from the inner city neighborhood of East Liberty, PA.  The Circus Fire is a narrative nonfiction piece about one of the worse tragedies in Hartford, Connecticut's history.  In Songs for the Missing, he explores the psychological ramifications that a missing girl has on her family and in her small town at large.

So I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up his new novel, Emily, Alone, forthcoming from Viking in March 2011, but I knew it would be worth my time.  It turns out to be the story of Emily Maxwell, a woman of a certain age, who muses alternately on her loneliness and her newfound independence in widowhood.  (What I did not know until after finishing the book is that it is also a sequel to O'Nan's previous novel, Wish You Were Here.  I had no idea when I picked up the advance reading copy that it was the case, so I can assure you with impunity that it's not necessary to read WYWH before reading E, A.)

There aren't enough pieces of good fiction being written about older generations (2009's The Leisure Seeker, while dealing with a pair of octogenarians, was not particularly well written) and Emily, Alone goes a long way to fill that gap.  It is thoughtfully done, getting into the mind, heart, and memory of an elderly woman in a thoroughly convincing way, evoking her loneliness poignantly but without resorting to emotional manipulation or sentimentality: it's just a simple fact that once you reach a certain age, you must face the possibility of outliving your circle of friends.  But there are warm moments, too.  Emily learns to drive again, trading in her husband's behemoth of a gas guzzler in favor of a Prius, so that she might zip about town, visiting the art museum and planetarium on their senior discount days with her sister-in-law, Arlene.  She has ongoing conversations with her dog, who is also old and gray and full of sleep. She muses on the changing demographics of her once upper middle class neighborhood and of Pittsburgh in general.  In short, she tries to live a full life, consciously reaching beyond her loneliness to add both meaning and structure to her days.

O'Nan is one of the most versatile storytellers I know, and this book further clinches his place in the modern American pantheon of writers.

NB: My sales rep, Karl Krueger from Penguin, gave me an advance reading of this book a few months ago and I finally got around to reading it.  I'm hoping that we'll be able to schedule another author reading with Mr. O'Nan at the Odyssey in the spring!

16 December 2010

Book Blogger Hop: Plot or Character? Character or Plot?

 Book Blogger Hop

This week's hop question, sponsored by Crazy for Books, is a difficult one for me to answer...

What do you consider the most [sic] important in a story:
the plot or the characters?  

Though I generally don't care for dithering or wishy-washy responses, I'm afraid my answer is both.  Good plotting and good character development are both essential for me to love a book.  I may devour a book that is nothing but plot (think: The Da Vinci Code) and enjoy myself while I'm reading it, but as soon I put it down, I find it utterly forgettable.  On the other hand, emphasis on character or craft to the exclusion of plot makes for a dull reading experience for me (think of this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, whose prose was exquisite but otherwise left much else to be desired). I suppose if I had to say one element were more important, most of the time I'd give the edge to good characters, well developed. 

What about you?

15 December 2010

Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

You Know When the Men Are Gone, a debut work from Siobhan Fallon, is a collection of loosely related short stories told mostly from the point of view of the women left behind at the army base of Fort Hood, TX, when their men deploy. (And yes, in this book it is invariably women who are left behind.) Unlike, for example Olive Kitteridge or In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which are really more novels told in stories, Fallon's stories are more disjointed, and though the theme of waiting is carried on throughout, the effect is one of disconnect, which serves to highlight the alienation that all of the characters seem to feel.

Occasionally we get a man's perspective, but I found those narrative shifts a bit jarring, especially a story called "Leave," in which a soldier breaks into his own basement to stalk his wife during an unannounced leave because he suspects she has been seeing somebody else.  In "Inside the Break," a woman waits to hear whether her husband has survived an insurgent attack; delirious with worry, she logs into his email account and is bewildered to find evidence that he is not only alive, but is possibly having an affair.  Her short-lived relief takes on the ugly edge of suspicion, leaving her feeling worse than before. In another story, the reader learns why one widow avoids the Gold Star reserved parking--the words of gratitude and sympathy contrive to make her feel like she has lost her husband all over again.

Every once in a while, Fallon strikes literary gold with her insight into the double burdens of being part of a military couple, leaving me wanting to know so much more than the short story format is able to provide.  It makes me wonder how she might fare if she set her sights on a novel instead, really freeing herself into the lives of her characters instead of restricting her access in a short story.  I suspect that the longer form might be her strong suit and I look forward to reading more from her.

You Know When the Men Are Gone is forthcoming in January from Amy Einhorn Books, which is part of Penguin.  I received my copy from my sales rep, the lovely Karl Krueger, who raved about it to me and pressed it into my hands.  It's good, verging on the very good, and I think we can expect more work that is provocative from Fallon in the future.

10 December 2010

Why I read and what I live for

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question, hosted by Crazy for Books, is about why I read book blogs.  Is it the reviews, articles, giveaways, or something else entirely? 

Well, as an unapologetic and inveterate reader, I mostly read book blogs to see what other people think about books I've already read and to confirm my suspicions on books I've not read yet.  Despite a large online presence in the blogosphere, there just aren't that many people I know in "real life" who make reading a priority in their lives (my coworkers, my family, and a couple of friends being exceptions).  I work at a bookstore, so I'm fairly on top of what's being published now and in the next quarter, what's hot, and what's getting good reviews in the NYTBR and other places.  I'm lucky enough to be spoiled for choice by all of my wonderful sales reps so that almost any book that comes in an Advanced Readers Copy I'm able to read well ahead of publication.  I search for more book talk online because there's not enough in my real life. 

So I crave book talk.  But as a person who's relatively new to book blogging, I also read other book blogs because I want people to read mine, too.  Seems only fair.  So I'm trying to read as many new-to-me blogs as I can each week, following them when it seems like their reading interests dovetail enough with my own to be constructive to both parties.  Hoping that they'll follow me in turn for the same reasons.  

Literary Pet Peeves: The rise of the multiple narrator...

Literary Blog Hop  
This week I'm switching hosted memes and opting to join the one hosted by The Blue Bookcase:  What is one of your literary pet peeves? Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge?  Be specific, and give examples if you can.

Jordan does multiple narrators the right way!
Ask me tomorrow and you might get another answer, but aside from bad copy editing and ill usage, which are far more rampant now than even just ten years ago, my literary pet peeve of the moment is the use of multiple narrators.  It's a phenomenon from the last 25 years or so, and I think it's ultimately a sign of laziness.  In some writers' hands it can be an effective tool for exploring voice.  For one recent example, Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound and winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, used multiple narrators to good effect in her book because each narrator's voice was discrete and true.  

 In most cases, though, I feel that writers who use multiple narrators are just too lazy to connect the necessary dots that an omniscient third person narrator demands.  Jodi Picoult is a current author whose writing MO is multiple narrators (and multiple typefaces to depict them--ugh!).

I'm not certain, but my guess is that nobody writing before the 20th century used discrete, multiple narrators like that. I couldn't guess when it sprang up, and no doubt the first few writers to experiment with it were bold and innovative, but now it just seems a litle too prevalent for my reading comfort.  It doesn't mean I won't read novels with multiple narrators, but if they are clearly meant to be more literary works and less commercial ones, they'll leave me sighing with frustration. 

04 December 2010

Book Challenges for 2011

Being relatively new to the bookblogging world, I've never signed up for any of the yearly challenges, but 2011 will change all of that for me.  The first challenge I'm signing up for is the South Asian Challange 2011, hosted by S. Krishna's Books, which I found through this weekend's blog hop.  I'm looking forward to rounding out my reading of some favorite authors like Thrity Umrigar and Amitav Ghosh as well as discovering some new ones.  And since the challenge this year encompasses travel literarure and cookbooks, too, it will be an experience all the more rich.

Thrity Umrigar came to our store in 2009 for her book, The Weight of Heaven, which I just loved--so much that I begged, cajoled, and bribed other readers on the committee to make her our First Editions Club selection that month.  Okay, so it didn't take a lot of begging, cajoling and bribing, as the book is amazing and tragic and beautiful, all wrapped up into one compelling read, and as soon as my fellow committee members read it, they all agreed that it was perfect for our FEC.  Thrity was as lovely as can be, giving a great reading followed by a provocative Q&A session,  promising that she would return to our store for her next book.  Thrity, we're going to hold you to that promise!

 I can pretty much guarantee that it will be one of her books that will launch my participation in this challenge--it's always nice to know that the authors you love to read are also monumentally terrific people!

03 December 2010

BookBloggerHop--Overhyped Books

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question from Book Blogger Hop: What very popular and hyped book in the blogosphere did you NOT enjoy and how did you feel about posting your review?

I generally don't post reviews on my blog for books that I don't care for.  Some may say that's the coward's way out; I say it's the courteous one.  Foremost, I'm a reader, not a book reviewer.  Secondly, I'm a bookseller, which means I frequently need to read books that aren't really my thing in order to do my job well.  Just because I'm not a fan of a book doesn't mean it's not a good one (and vice versa).

Of all of the hype in bookselling this past year, however, there is one title that looms large for me as being a shuddering disappointment.  Books that try too hard to appeal to everybody by crossing as many genres as possible almost inevitably fail, in my opinion.  And this year there was one book that had everybody buzzing: it was epic, it was literary, it was a thriller, it was a survival tale, it was apocalyptic, it was a biting commentary on the military industrial complex and humanity's overweening pride, it was part one of a trilogy, it was VAMPIRES like you've never seen before.  Of course, I'm talking about Justin Cronin's book, The Passage.  Did I read?  Of course.  I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a job requirement, but it was pretty close.

Did I like it?  Well, bits.

Did it keep me up at night?   Perhaps a few minutes.

Could any book have lived up to its hype?  I seriously doubt it.

Will I read the continuing trilogy?  Probably.

But here's the thing.  You can't have a page-turning thriller AND a book that waxes on about dust for several paragraphs.  You can't be literary AND be filled with trite language.  You can't be all things to all people.  And that's mostly why The Passage was hard to get through.  I skimmed at least 200 of its pages.  It needed a much better editor.  And I think the author should decide which audience he really wants to play to, since it's impossible to play to all of them with any level of success.

01 December 2010

Which came first--the ABCs or Shakespeare?

(not my image--found online)
Yesterday was one of those nightmare retail days when the bizarro customers crawled out of the woodwork.  I'm not sure if Jupiter was misaligned with Mars, or if folks were just anticipating the next full moon, or if something was in the water, but every single one of us working at the counter had a customer tale to tell.  Here's mine:

Woman (while walking downstairs to the fiction & children's department): Hello?!  Is anybody there who can help me?  Hello?

Me (from behind the counter. You know, where I'm supposed to be): Yes, I'm right here.  What can I do for you?

Woman (looking around): Oh, there you are.  I'm in a rush.  Where is your Shakespeare section?

Me (walking around the counter to show her the exact shelf): It's right over here, arranged alphabetically by title.  Which one are you looking for?

Woman: Oh, it looks like he wrote a lot.  I don't know -- what do you recommend? 

Me: Well, are you thinking a comedy, tragedy, or one of the histories?  Or maybe you're looking for his sonnets?

Woman:  Oh, I think a history.  Do you have Hamlet?

Me: Well...yes, many people would say that if you're only going to read one Shakespeare play, Hamlet would be the one.  But it's not technically a history--it's a tragedy.

Woman: I thought it was history.

Me: Well, it certainly took place a very long time ago, so in that case I suppose you could call it historical, but it's definitely a Shakespearean tragedy.  Not based on actual history like his historical plays. 

Woman: Oh.  Well, I definitely want history.  What do you recommend?

Me: Well, I personally like Henry V, but it's the last book in a tetralogy, so maybe you'd like to begin with the first one, which is Richard II, which continues with Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2.

Woman: Ummm, I'll take Henry.

Me: Okay, which one?  Do you want to start with the first one, just take the last one, or do you want all three?

Woman: What about the middle one?

Me: Well, I personally wouldn't recommend starting with Henry IV, Part 2 because it would put you in the middle of things, but yes, you could do that. 

Woman (kneeling on floor in front of shelf): I'll take all of them.  Where are they?

Me (standing a little behind and to the side of her, peering over her shoulder): They're arranged alphabetically by title on that shelf.

Woman:  I don't see them.  Where are they?

Me: They're right there, under H.

Woman: Where's the H?

Me (tempted desperately to say, "It's usually after the G but before the I"):  Ummm...move your hand to the left a little.

Woman (pulling a book off the shelf): Is this it?

Me: Actually, that's Hamlet. Here, let me get down there and grab them for you. [I kneel down, grab three and stand up again, handing them to her.]

Woman: Are you sure these are the right ones? They all seem to look alike.

Me: Well, yes, they're all published by Pelican, so this edition will have a pretty uniform look to it.  But see, here on the front cover you can see the titles, and then if you turn the book sideways, you can see the titles on the spines, too.  [Glancing around to see if anybody else is witnessing this insanity. Hoping that maybe she's buying these as a gift for somebody else...] Would you like me to giftwrap these?

Woman: No, they're for me.  I'll just take them upstairs to buy, okay? 

Me (to my coworker, after the coast is clear): WOW.  Just wow.

Coworker (holding back laughter): Well, when I walked in, you did say it was shaping up to be one of those days!

Okey-dokey.  So, maybe this is a totally radical notion, but it seems to me that anybody who buys Shakespeare for herself should already have a working knowledge of, oh, the alphabet.  I'm just sayin'. 

Methinks she was an artless, idle-headed strumpet!

Things that make you go hmmmmm...