28 November 2011

Book (P)Review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Let me be frank: I didn't like this book when I first picked it up.  I've been a fan of Lauren Groff's since I read The Monsters of Templeton however many years ago and when I first picked up Arcadia it didn't speak at all to me.  Then I picked it up again a couple of months later when I had less going on in my life and I'm glad that I did.  Groff's writing is amazing, and I wish there was a breakdown of ratings on book review sites like Goodreads similar to what Trip Advisor offers: I'd like to rate it separately for writing, plot, characters, and overall achievement.  But hey, this is my own blog, so I can do what I want!

My issue with this book stems largely from a bizarre distrust of commune-utopian communities and the fact that I'm not aware of any that were actually successful and true to the ideals upon which they were founded.  Despite the forward thinking and the intentions of true gender equality that most of these communities seem to be founded on, they inevitably seem to unravel to the point where women get the shit end of the stick.  Every. Single. Time.

Arcadia wasn't much different in that sense, but as this story follows Ridley "Bit" Stone, first child born in Arcadia, through his childhood, adolescence, and finally middle age (yes there are large gaps), it focuses more on his experience growing up as a sensitive, undersized boy in this alternative lifestyle, living his own particular circle of life, both within Arcadia and in the outside world.

Groff's writing is great, and her character development is just as it should be; that is, they're worthy of all five stars.  I was even surprised by how emotional the last quarter of the book left me, strangely moved by this book's sly spirituality.  I just have a distrust of the narrator, who despite the disbelief expressed by his friends who also grew up in Arcadia, reflects back on those years as golden, conveniently forgetting the poverty, illness, near-starvation, malnutrition, and hallucinogens that scarred their collective experience.

In fact, I think that the UK cover of this book is a better fit for the book's content.  Instead of the psychedelic colors and symbols of metamorphosis and idyllic childhood, we get a waif, solitary and in black & white, not unlike the photos Bit himself is known for exhibiting.  Since Bit's life is mostly lived on the fringes, both within Arcadia and on the Outside, and since he's given to suffer large bouts of debilitating depression and self-imposed muteness, this lone Nature Boy is a far more apt representation of his life.

If you're looking for a book that is chock full of plot, this ain't it.  Arcadia is a book where nothing much happens beyond an ordinary life, albeit an ordinary life outside the boundaries of most readers.  It's quiet and introspective, and like many well-wrought novels, by the time one comes to the end, it feels like a much bigger book than it really is.  With the exception of the constant present tense used in narration (just a personal pet peeve of mine) and an unreliable narrator, I'd say this is a very fine novel indeed--and the moment Groff takes on a more epic, more universal subject and puts all her strengths to bear into writing it, we just might have the first great American novel of the 21st century.

Here are a couple of excerpts that I dog-eared:

"...[Maria] turns away to privately make a four-pointed sign from head to belly to shoulder to shoulder, which Bit mimics again and again from behind a tree, loving the gesture's solemnity.  He doesn't want others to see.  Superstition, snorts Hannah when the others talk about God. Though people here have private rituals, Muhammad kneeling on a bit of carpet during the day, Jewish Seders and Christmas trees, religion here is seen much like hygiene: a personal concern best kept in check so as to not bully the others (41)."

And a semi-spoilery one:

"For a moment [Bit] he has felt relief at the idea of Helle being an enemy of the state, that she hadn't been abducted, sold into slavery, raped, murdered; that she hadn't fallen off the wagon and passed out in some ugly motel room, the needle in her vein under the rubber thong. Worse than those awful possibilities is the thought that she walked away in health and sanity.  And what hurts him most is the gleam of peace he'd had: he would rather imagine his wife tortured in a secret cell than imagine she chose to not love them anymore (192)."

This book is forthcoming from Voice in March 2012 and I read an Advance Reading Edition courtesy of my wonderful sales rep. 

25 November 2011

Bookstore Rants, or Lady, You Crazy!

I've been sitting on this blogpost for a few days, wanting to calm down a bit before sitting down to skewer a particular parent I interacted with at the store earlier this week.  Our store is in a pretty smartsy-artsy-fartsy (you like that term?  I just made it up) area, where the population density of people who hold PhDs is higher than average.  Probably much higher than average but I'm not about to spend time researching figures or anything like that.  But anyway, because of where our store is located we're pretty used to parents who come in to buy books for their little darlings who learned to read in utero and are basically culturally sophisticated geniuses who excel in sports, languages, sciences and arts, all in equal measure, and do we have any books that might be good enough for them?

I'm sure you know the kind of parents I mean.  Sure, these parents are tiresome and apparently blind to the fact that their children are frequently nasty little shits in desperate need of a good spanking meaningful time out.  But these parents are completely grounded in reality compared with a mother I was dealing with the other day.

Mommy Dearest: (to me) I'm buying the last book in the Eragon series for my high school daughter because she just loves it, but I need suggestions for my other brilliant daughter. She's nine but she reads on a high school level, so I need a book that will challenge her but also be age appropriate.  (to daughter): Why don't you start looking at the books?

Lowly Bookseller: I understand completely.  Let's take a look over h...

MD (interrupting me): We don't have a television, you understand.  My children have all been readers from a very early age, which is why I've got one daughter at [insert Seven Sisters college here] and another applying to [insert Ivy League college here].  My youngest, though.  She just gets it in her head sometimes that she wants to read something but I won't have her filling her head with crap.  Not like what my students read.  She's better than that.

LB: Uh-huh.  Why don't we look at these books right he...

MD (interrupting again): And don't even get me started on graphic novels.  They're such trash--I can't believe she keeps trying to read those Wimpy Kid books at school. I'd like to give a piece of my mind to the creators of these so-called graphic novels...

LB (hah--interrupting her!): Well, actually, there are lots of great graphic novels, and one that sells well to both children and adults is this retelling of Homer's The Odyssey.  Since your daughter enjoyed the Percy Jackson books, she might enjoy learning more about the classics.

MD (looking down her nose): I don't think so.

LB (to the daughter directly): Sweetie, what others books have you liked besides the Percy Jackson ones?

Downtrodden daughter:  Harry Potter, Emily Windsnap, books about animals, books with f...

MD (interrupting AGAIN): She definitely didn't like those Series of Unfortunate Events books

DD: I thought they were pretty good

MD (to DD): No you definitely didn't like them. And they're too young for you anyway.  (To me):  What else do you recommend?

LB: Well, if you like fantasy stories with strong girl characters, I'd suggest maybe Madeleine L'Engle for a classic or maybe The Emerald Atlas, which is more fantasy-adventure and more modern.  For animal lovers, A Ring of Endless Light is a magical read with all of the dolphins in it, but A Wrinkle in Time is also great--it was a Newbery award winner that pairs well with a recent winner, When You Reach Me.  They both feature smart girls dealing with confusing times in their lives, plus they learn about time travel.

DD: The one with the dolphins sounds pretty good...

MD (to daughter): No, you won't like that one, I don't think.  Too old-fashioned.

DD (to mom): But I like dolphins.

MD (to daughter): No, I said you wouldn't like it.  Keep looking for something else. (To me): What about that Atlas book?  What's it about?

LB: It's a wonderful fantasy adventure about three siblings who are orphaned but come to discover some amazing things in their new ho...

MD (she's the interruptingest!): Orphans?  No, that sounds too much like those other books, those Unfortunate ones.

LB (losing patience): Actually, they're nothing at all alike.  Yes, they are both about siblings who are orphaned, but beyond that they're much more fantastical, with homages to C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

MD: You mean they're derivative?  I don't want her to read anything derivative.

LB (frustration showing through the cracks): No, actually, I don't mean derivative.  I mean that it uses similar tropes from classical fantasy series in a way that pays homage, but still creates a wonderful story for a young reader to get lost in.  If you don't want books that are derivative and poorly written, you should reconsider that Paolini book for your older daughter.

MD (slightly taken aback): Well.  I didn't mean to offend you.  I just have high expectations for my daughter.  (to daughter): Did you find anything?

DD: This one looks good.  I read the part on the inside cover and then I started reading the first chapter and I really like it.

MD (to daughter): Were there at least six words you didn't know in the chapter?

LB (to mother): Well, if she's reading on a high school level, there's a good chance that she'll know all of the words in this book.  But it's from a very reputable and literary publisher of children's bo...

MD (interrupting again): No, I don't think she'll like this.  She only thinks she will because she's read a little of it so far, but I know her better.

LB (to myself): WTF, lady?  How can you possibly stand there with a straight face, full of righteous indignation, and talk over your child and tell her that you know better, just by looking at the cover of a book, about what she likes to read? You're a monster and a nightmare and I can say these things in a blogpost later, which will make me feel better, secure in the fact that, like Miss Elizabeth Lefoldt in The Help, you'll never recognize yourself.

LB (dejectedly): How about The Mysterious Benedict Society?  Do you think you she would like that?

The lady kept apologizing for her daughter's "talking back" and bad behavior.  I wanted to hold a mirror up to her instead.  She was clearly insane.  And what's more, because it wasn't a school day, there were a handful of children in our kids' area, sprawled out on bean bags and reading graphic novels (mostly Wimpy Kid books, but some of the Origami Yoda/Darth Paper ones, too) while she was talking about how trashy and beneath her daughter they were.

So, gentle readers, have you ever encountered such an overbearing parent, in either a personal or professional capacity?  I've read about them, of course, but dealing with one in person AND still providing good customer service was a difficult row for me to hoe.  

23 November 2011

You Are Always On My Mind...

Our girl, Roxanne.  She's a sweet, sweet mastiff. And very large.
It's been a relatively quiet blogging month here at As the Crowe Flies & Reads.  Not too unusual for November, when the days get shorter, the darkness creeps in a little earlier each night, and my attention gets directed towards surviving the craziness of the winter holidays (and the customers who go hand-in-hand).

It has also been a relatively slow reading month for me, for all of the reasons listed above. I'm sure it has nothing at all to do with the fact that my last two weekends have been dedicated to watching the BBC show Being Human, courtesy of Netflix streaming. Nope, not a bit.  And if I were cool and tech-y like Reading Rambo, I'd be providing you little moving photos of the show for your viewing pleasure. But there are two books that are really staying with me, never far from my thoughts, since I've finished them this week.

I was awake very early this morning, courtesy of my dog Roxanne who needed to go outside around 5:00 a.m. She's a big girl, and when she's earnest about going outside, you don't want to call her bluff.  Believe me, she  leaves very big messes behind if we don't read the signs accurately. At first I grumbled about it but then I realized that in fact she gave me the perfect opportunity to finish reading a riveting new book I'd picked up a couple of days ago called Running the Rift. It's Naomi Benaron's Bellwether Prize-winning debut novel, set in Rwanda in the 1990s.  I'd been reading it in 100-page chunks but I didn't want to push through to the end last night when I was so sleepy. 

Well, it was a thoroughly engrossing read.  I'll need to mull it over a bit before posting a full review 'cause right now I'm still reeling from it.  It's one of those books where you know exactly what's going to be happen, even if you don't know the particulars, and the narrative tension builds both from within the story and from without, based on your own knowledge of actual historical events.  Like a novel that opens in Honolulu in 1940, or one that features the Warsaw Ghetto in the late 1930s, you know what you're gonna get with a book featuring Rwanda of the early 1990s.

All I can say is, read it if you believe in the importance of literature in understanding the human condition and the role it plays in creating empathy & dispelling fear.

The other book that has been always on my mind just lately is The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson.  Just finished this book a few days ago after wrestling with it for about a week.  It's a pretty dense book, so despite its political intrigue and rather action-y plot, this was not a fast read for me.

The Orphan Master's Son is unlike anything I've read before.  Then again, I've never read a book set in North Korea before.  The entire country is impossibly mysterious and exotic and disturbing to me.

I'll put more thoughts together on this one later, too, but for now suffice it to say that this is a book that will raise eyebrows and turn heads and generally make itself known in the world.  I think it's poised for something big.

15 November 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on the Nightstand

Ooh, this is twice in a row for me on the Top Ten Tuesday list.  This week, the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish ask us to list our top ten books on the to-be-read (TBR) list. 

Not every list is as easy for me to compile, but I have literally hundreds (quite possibly thousands, actually) of unread books sitting around my house.  That's what happens when you're a bookseller who gets a generous employee discount and/or have worked as a publisher's sales rep and/or are married to another bibliophile and/or you have wonderful sales reps who send you almost any book you express interest, gratis.  I chose a semi-random sample of them; semi-random in the sense they are books I'd actually like to read eventually, and I tried to get at least one new book and a couple of non-fiction choices on there.  Otherwise I could be listing books ALL night.  Or all week. 

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  I never read this as a kid and my husband read it for the first time last week.  Since this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication and since Norton will be at my bookstore next week for a signing, this book might move very quickly from my TBR pile to the stack of books actually completed.

2. Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.  I like Brooks's fiction and I was a religious studies minor in college, so this seems like a no-brainer.

3. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta.  Love his quirky characters and dark humor.  Plus, this is a signed first edition.

4. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.  This has been shortlisted for a few awards already this year.  And it has a pretty awesome cover.

5. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende.  I love Caribbean literature and I'm a little surprised that this book has languished on my shelf as long as it has.

6.  Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx.  Yeah, this was before she dropped the "E." Another signed first edition that I had to have but never read.

7. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore.  I have an ARC of this book that I never got around to.  Maybe one day.

8. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.  Another signed first edition that I still haven't cracked.

9. One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman.  She gets blurbs from writers I love but I still haven't read her.

10.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie.  My oral comprehensive exams in college were dedicated to the Orpheus myth in literature through the ages, which is why I bought this book.  Well, that and the fact that the cover is shimmery-shiny!  But did I read it?  Alas, no. 

14 November 2011

It's My Party and I'll Blog What I Want To...

Or, October: In like a lamb, out like a lion

Or, Ode to a Bookish Month

Today is the anniversary of my natal day, which means instead of beating myself up for not writing this post when it would have been more timely, I'm just going to post it and let timeliness be damned.  

October in New England is usually my favorite month, but this time around it threw a wrench (or several) into people's lives.  My DH and I had a lovely time in the Caribbean with our granddaughter during that month, and it's entirely possible that the good weather we had there during the height of hurricane season came back to bite us in our collective ass by the end of the month.  
Our driveway, complete with deer tracks (not taken during this storm)

Our house, buried behind the snowy trees

On the Saturday of Halloween weekend, the first snowstorm of the season hit us with a vengeance.  We had 12" of snow in about 8 hours, and because most of the trees still had their leaves, it wrought all kinds of damage.  We lost roughly one hundred small trees on our property and a handful of very large ones from the weight of the snow.  We even had one tree split into two parts, one of which hit our house, but we were extremely fortunate not to have house damage from that.  Unbelievably, our driveway (which is nearly half a mile long and has three switchbacks) only collected branches and debris that my husband and I could clear out on our own.  We lost power for four and a half days, but worse than that, we lost our running water.  

Here be books

Grey Matter & Troubadour are housed together in this old mill
But aside from our trip to the Caribbean, October was full of other joys, too.  My husband and I spent part of his birthday weekend exploring bookstores, including the best used bookstore in Massachusetts: the combined open shops of Grey Matter books (which, let's face it, should update its website more frequently) and Troubadour (which doesn't have its own website, but this will take you to a groovy blog post about the store).  Full disclosure: I used to work at Troubadour in its Hatfield location, the one shown in the above blog post, so I am not evaluating these places 100% objectively.  On the other hand, I've been working in the book business since 1997 and I've been an avid reader all my life, so I have a large enough sample set to speak authoritatively on the subject. Here are some reasons why Troubadour/Grey Matter together comprise the best used bookstore in the state:
Great selection of LPs, plus a listening station

I mean, come on.  Look at this awesome davenport!

They *always* have some kind of snack on hand for customers
This *entire* section is all poetry, all the time

Seriously--they must have the largest poetry section in the northeast, outside of The Strand.  They even have an entire bookcase labeled The Beats & The Offbeat.  LOVE this place!  And in what other bookstore can you find a bookcase labeled The Circus, Etc?
My DH, rounding the corner next to the chess section

An entire room of art books

Need some medieval art?  Here's an entire case of it!

have you been looking for Loeb in all the wrong places? Check out Troubadour's classics section!

Yes, this is an amazing bookstore.  I can't recall what my DH picked up that day, but I bought a beautiful hardcover edition of Miss Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, Murakami's Dance, Dance, Dance, which I confess I'd never heard of, and in preparation for a 2013 trip, The Reader's Companion to Ireland.  So, dear reader, if you are a book lover of the highest order and you find yourself within a day's drive of this biblio-Mecca (almost rhymes with biblioteca, no?), do yourself a favor and make the pilgrimage to Troubadour/Grey Matter books.  I guarantee that no matter what you like to collect or read, you'll find something here to please. 

In other bookish October news, my friend and boss Joan and I drove to Albany, NY, one day to talk about books on the regional NPR affiliate, WAMC.  Every Tuesday morning, God bless 'em, they host independent booksellers to share their favorite titles across the radio waves.  And if you're absolutely twisted and sick and have too much time on your hands, you can listen to us here

Though we had to get up *really* early to drive to Albany, we were rewarded with these views.  Technically this is part of the interstate system, but this is an exceptionally pretty stretch:

Heading west on I-90

Not bad, eh?
And in still yet other news, October was the month for the NEIBA fall tradeshow for New England Independent Booksellers.  I love seeing my friends and colleagues that I only get to see a few times a year at these sorts of things.  I lucked up because Broche of Wildly Read (it's a great bookish blog) shared her hotel room with me, which meant I could get books signed by Chad Harbach for our First Editions Club and then stay to enjoy the author cocktail reception. Two out of my three sales reps named Ann(e) promised to buy me a drink, which gave me leverage over the third one.  Gosh, I love bookselling!

Seated: Harbach. Standing: Odyssey Booksellers
 And afterwards, Broche and I were lucky enough to snag an invitation to Algonquin's dinner party, featuring authors Martha Southgate and Hillary Jordan.  It was an intimate venue and smashingly fabulous in every way.  Oddly enough, I don't have many photographs to commemorate it, except this one of author Hillary Jordan and bookperson (and soon-to-be-chef) extraordinaire, Megan (aka Bookdwarf).  Here they are on the streets of Providence, RI:

I love my job.  And I love October.  And that's all I have to say right now.

11 November 2011

Bookstore Rants

Not my image. Found at JustforScientists.com

Okay, okay, I know that everybody who has ever worked in retail can lay claim to outrageous/stupid/offensive customer stories and that booksellers have no corner on this market, but this morning I wanted to share with you a few recent encounters I've had that might make you smile.

Scenario I

Woman: I'm looking for a bestseller I read about?  [NB: She used upspeak, indicated by the question marks I'm using for her]
Me: Do you know the title or author?
Woman: No, I can't remember?
Me: That's okay.  Just tell me what it's about and I'll bet I can pinpoint it. 
Woman: Umm, it was about these children and then they grew up?
Me (in my head): So, that covers roughly 75% of all of fiction then. Are you an idiot?
Me (out loud): Hmmm, can you be a bit more specific than that?
Woman: I think they were boys?
Me (in my head): Yup, definitely an idiot!
Me: (out loud): Do you remember where or when you heard about this book?
Woman: I think it was in the newspaper a few years ago. 
Me: Can you give me anything else to go on? 
Woman: No, not really
Me: Was it The Kite Runner? It's about two boys in Afghanistan who then grew up. But in different places and under vastly different scenarios. 
Woman: Maybe.  That doesn't sound very good.
Me (pulling hair out): Why don't I just make a few suggestions for you, then?

Scenario II

Woman: I'm looking for that book about cancer.
Me: Could it be The Emperor of All Maladies, the book about cancer that just won the Pulitzer Prize?
Woman: No, I don't think so.  It's old.
Me: Is it a health book or informational books that tells you about cancer and how to live with it?  Is it a novel?  A memoir? 
Woman: I don't know if it's a novel or memoir
Me: Can you tell me a bit more about it? 
Woman: This woman got diagnosed with cancer and then her friends were sad. 
Me (in my head): So basically every book about cancer, ever written?  
Me (out loud): Anything else you can tell me?  That's still pretty broad
Woman: No, I don't remember anything else
Me: How 'bout I just make some great book suggestions for you, then?

Scenario III

Woman walks into the shop.  She's standing between a large stuffed giraffe with a yellow hat (as in The Man with the Yellow Hat) and a shelf of picture books and toys: Do you have a children's department? 
Me: Why, yes.  Yes we do!
Woman: Where is it? 
Me: Ummm, you're standing right in the middle of it.  

For reference, she was standing between here: 
4' tall giraffe with Yellow Hat (photo from store's website)
And here:

Our hard-to-spot children's department (photo from store's website)

It's too long to include here again, but I happen to have a post for Scenario IV that involved a woman looking for Shakespeare who apparently doesn't know her ABCs.  You can read it here if you'd like.

08 November 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Unexpected Pleasures

It's been quite a while since I participated in The Broke & the Bookish's weekly Top Ten List and this morning I've got a little extra time before heading to work, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  This week asks us to list the top ten books that we've read outside our comfort zone.  I'll have to modify this a little because as a bookseller, I have to read things all the time that I wouldn't necessarily pick up for my personal reading pleasure.  So my list this week will instead be the slightly modified top ten list of books I was surprised how much I enjoyed, considering they were outside my own reading preferences.

1. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.  I can read dark things all day and into the night, but creepy and scary I do not like.  Thus I was surprised how much enjoyment I got from this YA novel.

2. The Midwife of Venice by Robert Rich.  I don't read a lot of historical fiction, romantic or otherwise, and this book was very chick-lit.  But it was easygoing and fairly engrossing and before I knew it, I didn't want to put it down, despite its not being a particularly good book.

3. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  Frankly, I wasn't expecting to like this debut novel, despite its literary cred.  I mean, come on--a book about small town liberal arts college baseball and the boys who play it?  But as I soon discovered, it's really a book about life with baseball as the conduit.

4. Chaucer -- almost anything he wrote.  I didn't read anything from Middle English until I went to grad school and I was immensely surprised how much I liked reading Chaucer for the first time.  Part of it the pleasure back then was the challenge of actually reading Middle English, but even now to this day, with academia far behind me, his stories linger in my mind.

5. Jodi Picoult -- So probably the opposite direction of Chaucer, literarily speaking! Until a few years ago I was a big book snob about Jodi Picoult.  Ugh--too commercial, not well written, etc. But then my husband's daughter gave me a copy of My Sister's Keeper for Christmas one year and I read it out of obligation.  You know what?  It was fun and engaging.  A fine prose stylist, Picoult ain't. But I do understand now why she's so well-beloved by so many readers.

6. The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan.  I've grown so weary of the paranormal romance featuring the vampire or werewolf du jour that I almost passed this book up entirely.  Glad I didn't 'cause it's covered with awesome sauce.  It's chock full of existential philosophy, literary allusions, humor, sex, and violence. 

7. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog.  I don't read a ton of nonfiction, for starters, and what I read is usually out of obligation to my bookstore or to assuage my readerly guilt for being all-fiction, all-the-time. But this book blew my socks off.  I talked about it for days after reading it.  I read passages out loud to my husband.  It's thought-provoking and a good read for anybody, no matter where they are on the vegan-vegetarian-pescatarian-omnivore sliding scale.

8. The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan.  I usually hate gimmicky prose style or structures (Georges Perec and Ella Minnow Pea, I'm talking to y'all) so I was completely ready to dismiss this one until a good friend reviewed it on her blog, Wildly Read, and I thought, well, maybe I should give it a try before dismissing it outright.  Glad I did. 

9. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  I can't recall exactly how old I was when I first read this book, but I'd definitely reached the stage when I was all about judging a book by its cover and title and I was going to have none of that.  This book sounded as insipid as Pollyanna and I roundly refused to read it.  Meanwhile, my mother roundly refused to drive me to the library until I cracked it open.  The standoff lasted a while but I eventually gave in and discovered one of the most delightful characters in all of English language literature.  I now re-read this book every other year or so and I recently indulged in watching the mini-series adaptation.  I've rarely been so happy to have my mother be right about something!

10.  What about you?  What's the top book on your list this week? 

07 November 2011

Challenges for 2012...

Despite having a book blog for the better part of three years, I've not really been savvy when it comes to signing up for challenges.  This past year I tried out the South Asian challenge, hosted by S. Krishna, which I want to try again as soon as it opens.  And while spending time reading blogs today, I stumbled across another one I want to try in 2012: New Authors, Exploring New Boundaries, hosted by Literary Escapism for which I have set my goal at 40 new-to-me authors to read in the upcoming year. 

What challenges are you thinking about participating in for 2012? I think I'd like to sign up for one more for the new year.  Do you have any suggestions?  I'm interested in reading literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, YA, and regional fiction of Africa & the Caribbean.

06 November 2011

Book Review in Brief: The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

I think Thrity Umrigar is a tremendous writer.  I discovered her when she published The Weight of Heaven, which was one of the best books I read that year, and I've since gone back and read The Space Between Us, which is frequently touted as her best book.  Her newest book, The World We Found, will be published in January 2012 from Harper, and I liked it very much, indeed. 

Ahh, our college years--those halcyon days characterized by intense friendships, fierce ambitions and a determination to change the world.  Umrigar delves into the heart of those days at university in 1970s Bombay, as remembered by four women whose lives have ended up radically different from their collegiate dreams: one divorced and dying in America whose last wish is to see her three friends, two married and living in upper middle class Mumbai, and one whose difficult marriage has led to her long-time estrangement from their circle.  Painful secrets, both past and present, threaten to prevent their reunion in America and the author beautifully answers the question: what wouldn't you do for your deepest friendships when the call comes?  Blood may be thicker than water, but in this case Umrigar proves that friendship is thicker than blood. Pair all of that with her trademark clear-eyed probing into the socio-religious-political concerns of modern India and you end up with a marvelous novel that is fascinating and disturbing by turns. 

There's that old cliche: Good friends help you move. Great friends help you move bodies.   This is a book about metaphorical body moving (and eerily close to literal at one point) that shows that among this group of four women, there is no statute of limitation on friendship.  

NB: This book qualifies for my South Asian Challenge participation and I read it a few months ago in ARC form, free from my Harper sales rep. 

05 November 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Does Lit Crit Sucketh the Joy?

Literary Blog Hop 
It's been a while since I have participated in any blog hops or other weekly memes.  Last week I was floundering around in the cold and dark, in a house without ekeltricity, as Mr. Weasley might say. And the last few hops that I saw before the transformer blew weren't book related at all (really?  what's my favorite candy?).  But now I'm back and happy to participate with the good folks at The Blue Bookcase, whose literary blog hop is now monthly instead of bi-weekly, and this time they ask:
To what extent do you analyze literature? Are you more analytical in your reading if you know you're going to review the book? Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your readerly experience?
I wish that I had more sophisticated answers this week, but I'm afraid my response will make everybody think I'm a poseur who doesn't deserve to participate in the literary blog hop.  But the short answer is no, not really.

Of course, I'm a Southerner so I can't really let the short answer stand on its own.  Like many book bloggers, I was an English major in college and I went on to study literature for my master's degree, too.  There was a time I knew the ins and outs of the various schools of literary criticism.  I never learned to appreciate postmodern and deconstructionist thought, though I suppose I probably still read with mild undercurrents of feminist and reader response and cultural criticism unconsciously informing my opinions.  

But for the most part now I read for pleasure even if it's something I'm also reading for work and I do not read with a particularly analytical eye. Since I earn my living (at least for now) as a bookseller, it's usually impossible to put most of the books I read into discrete categories like "work" and "pleasure" reading.  Unlike most book bloggers, though, I often read with other people's tastes in mind--just because a book isn't my cup of tea doesn't mean it wouldn't be perfect for certain customers of mine.

I'm not a more analytical reader if I know I'm going to review a book because often I don't know whether I will review a book until after I've finished it--according to GoodReads I've read 132 books this year but I've probably written fewer than fifty reviews on my blog. Sometimes I don't want to waste more time on a book that I had little reaction to, but sometimes it's just because I want to blog about other things, like my travels, my bookstore, author events, and other nifty things happening in the book industry. 

I sometimes regret this loss.  Right out of college and grad school I was happy to tackle difficult topics and I was never put off by books I had to work hard to understand and appreciate.  Now, though, I sense that I have become intellectually lazy, or at least intellectually unengaged.  I still have friends in academia and I notice that we talk about books very differently these days.  On the other hand, academia made its reputation as an ivory tower the old-fashioned way--it earned it--and I am not entirely sorry (or even very sorry) that I am no longer strictly surrounded by the life of the mind.

04 November 2011

Book Review: Two YA Duds

I am so happy to be able to write this blog post.  Why is that?  I'm so glad you asked.  Our power went out during a freak October snowstorm last Saturday and only came back on yesterday (Thursday).  Yes, it was cold.  Overnight temperatures dropped to the 40s overnight in the house.  But the real kicker was not being without heat, it was being without running water.  You see, we live in a house on a hill in the middle of the woods and our water comes from a well.  So we actually had to scoop up huge kettles of snow to melt on our stove top (gas, thank goodness!) just so we could flush our toilets.  Dirty dishes stacked up in the sink.  And by the week's end we'd nearly run out of candles and batteries for our flashlights.  Uncharacteristically, we were well-stocked with bottled water because of the hurricane scare back in August, which was surely fortunate because by the time we could get down our driveway and into civilization, bottled water couldn't be found in stores for any amount of love or money.  Let me just say, it was a rather trying time.  But stinky bathrooms aside, it was also cozy.  We rose at dawn, retired just an hour or two after sunset, and never have I cuddled so much with my husband as we did this week.  Our three cats reached a detente and all piled up on the bed with us, sweet purring bundles whose gentle vibrations warmed us seemingly from the inside, out.

It also gave me time to read, and I selected two books for the express purpose of transporting me away from our cold, cold house to a place where I could forget about my surroundings and be completely immersed in the story.  Sadly, neither one lived up to the promise I saw in them. And both of them are well-beloved books, so I'm likely to get flamed here.

The first one was Fracture by Megan Miranda, the story of a girl who falls through the ice when crossing a pond and is without oxygen for 11 minutes.  After several days in a coma, she wakes up--basically a medical miracle, considering how much brain damage her MRI shows.  Everyone cautiously rejoices and she goes home, guarding the secret that whilst in the hospital, somebody tried to kill her.  And oh, yeah--now she can see dead people sense people dying.

I'm growing weary of wishy-washy heroines who cannot seem to react properly when somebody menaces them. Did they just not get the memo?  You're not supposed to feel sorry for, kiss, or fall in love with young men who try to kill you, then act like it's no big deal, then try to kill you again.  These don't seem like difficult concepts to me.  I expected this book to fall somewhere on the spectrum between If I Stay (a great YA novel) and The Sixth Sense. It was much less engaging than it should have been.

The second book, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, I fully expected to be enthralled by.  The premise: in a futuristic society, they've found a cure for love, the most dreaded of all ailments.  On your 18th birthday or shortly thereafter, you undergo a procedure that saves you from all of the passions and pitfalls of love so that you can live a calm and sedate and pleasant life, pair yourself with a compatible partner, raise your children with the proper sense of civic duty and detachment, and fulfill your role in society. 

I loved the premise of this book and after the first 250 pages or so, I thought it was excellent.  But isn't there something wrong in and of itself if you have to wade through 250 pages before becoming truly engaged? Honestly, if I hadn't been housebound and without extraneous entertainment, I never would have stuck with this book long enough to get to the good parts.  I read Matched by Ally Condie not long ago, which pubbed about a year before this book did.  I know enough of publishing to realize that Oliver couldn't have possibly read Matched before this book came out, and yet from start to finish it felt completely derivative of Matched. If I hadn't devoured Condie's two books in her dystopian trilogy, I probably would have enjoyed Delirium a good bit more than I did, but sadly it suffered greatly in comparison. 

NB: A sales rep gave me an ARC of Fracture some time ago and I picked up a comp copy of Delirium (and its sequel, Pandemonium) at the NEIBA fall conference last month. 

01 November 2011

Last Month in Review: October 2011

As I sit here on this, the 29th day of October, to compile my list of books read (or listened to) this month, there's a wild storm a-raging outside my window.  The light has almost failed outside and we've had three inches of snow in just as many hours.  It may prove to be dangerous, too, since most of the leaves are still on the trees and we've already had two branches break in our yard--hopefully none will break over the driveway or our power lines! Since moving to New England I've grown accustomed to (but very weary of) these 5-month-long winters of ours, but this is unusual even for here.

I've got a total of 16 books read this time 'round, and not a single work of online fanfiction, which is a bit out of character for me as of late.  Four books of non-fiction, which raises my monthly average by a factor of two, five works of YA, which is also higher than usual, and two audio books, one of which doubles as a non-fiction read.

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  This book was very hard for me to read but I relished writing the review, found here.

2. Dead to You by Lisa McMann.  This is one of my YA books, read in ARC form.  I'll at least do a blurb/shelftalker for it, but probably won't do a full review.

3. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris.  Ahh, David Sedaris.  This was my multi-tasking nonfic/audio book of the month.  He's such a good reader!

4. Matched by Allie Condie.  This has been reviewed everywhere, so I probably won't do one for myself. First book in a YA trilogy that I bought & read on vacation.

5. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.  I also bought and read this on vacation.  Good  memoir, but I preferred her recent release that I reviewed here.

6. The Possessed by Elif Batuman.  Another work of non-fiction, which I bought & read on vacation and reviewed here.

7. What Would Mr. Darcy Do by Abigail Reynolds.  That's right--a published work of fanfiction that picks up in Pride & Prejudice at the point where Darcy comes about Miss Elizabeth in the inn at Lambton, and after she confesses what has happened to Lydia, he takes her in his arms, where they are caught out by the Gardiners.  Good times ensue.  Won't review it, but it was a fun airplane read.

8. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel.  I'm a BIG fan of her work and this, her third novel, did not disappoint.  Review forthcoming, as is the book itself.

9. Crossed by Ally Condie.  The sequel to Matched, and while I probably will not review it, I will say that once I got over the dual narrative (I hate multi-person narrators), I found it among the better of the "Book Twos" that I've read.  More like The Empire Strikes Back (my favorite of the original three Star Wars films) than Catching Fire (the weak book two of The Hunger Games franchise).

10. The Midwife of Venice by Robert Rich.  Reviewed here.

11. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston.  Reviewed here.

12. Fool by Christopher Moore.  This was the second audio book of the month, and while I thought that the reader was simply outstanding, I wasn't entirely enamored with the story.  Comic and graphically crude retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, with good doses of MacBeth thrown in.

13. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.  Another YA, reviewed here.  This one pretty much scared the pants off of me.

14. Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan.  Another YA, which I might review.

15. The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate.  I met Martha at NEIBA at the Algonquin author dinner and then she came to my bookstore this past week.  She's nifty!

I am deeply smitten with this writer (Verghese)
16.  The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese.  Verghese has written my favorite (and I think the best) book of this century so far -- Cutting for Stone.  This book, his second memoir, is about his time living in El Paso, working at Texas Tech teaching hospital, and the friendship he developed with the young man he was mentoring at the time--and the frustrations when that young doctor started shooting up again after a year and half of sobriety.  This is definitely the best book I've read this month and Verghese convinced me once again that his prose towers over that of the so-called grand masters of American letters.