25 April 2012

World Book Night: Givin' All Night Long!

If you're reading this blog post, there's a good chance you've already heard from me or another bookblogger or another bookish source, about World Book Night.  Just in case you're new to this bandwagon, here's a short recap: It started in the UK last year as a means of increasing awareness and enthusiasm for literature.  This year it hit our American shores and a big ol' committee chose 30 titles with widespread appeal for teens and adults and then printed up a bazillion of them for readers to give away FOR FREE.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Free books to give away to people who do not identify themselves as readers.  Some book givers went to non-profits, prisons, or after school programs, while others selected a street corner in their hometown and let the people come to them.  It all happened on Monday, 23 April, which happens to be the birthday of Cervantes and the birthday and deathday of Shakespeare!
Here I am , next to Carlene, our wonderful caterer/customer
On Saturday my bookstore, the Odyssey Bookshop, hosted a reception for the 25 book givers who selected us as their distribution center, and we asked the ever-lovely Carlene to cater the reception for us.  She pulled out all the stops, creating four different pastries, one of which even dates back to Shakespearean times, and we all enjoyed her warm-weather version of high tea with an iced raspberry zinger lemon tea and sprigs of fresh mint!
Carlene's amazing treats!
I signed up as a book giver the morning I first heard about World Book Night, and I selected a YA novel called Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson as my title to share with others.  Like all of Anderson's books, it's a powerful and sensitively told story that realistically depicts teen situations without ever talking down to them. For my location, I chose Girls, Inc.of Holyoke, MA, where my part-time co-worker, Sarah, works as her day job. She and I both signed up to give books away to their teen program, and Odyssey co-owner Joan Grenier also went with me to share one of her favorite books.  When we asked for a show of hands for how many of the girls in the room loved reading, only a couple  went up, but there were lots of squeals of excitement when we actually started distributing the books to the girls. I even overheard a small group of them trying to decide which book they were all going to start that night so that they could read it together. Now that is what World Book Night is all about!
Girls Inc.

24 April 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Characters

I'm jumping back on the Top Ten Tuesday bandwagon this morning to participate in this week's question, asked by the good folks over at The Broke and the Bookish: What are your top ten all-time favorite characters?

Well, I rather despite the construction "all-time favorite" since it implies that from here on out, I will form no more opinions about my favorite things, or that nothing I encounter later in life will equal what I've encountered so far.  So I'm modifying it to mean my top ten characters I've encountered in literature so far. Some are the protagonists and some play a supporting role, but all of them are wonderful in their own way. In no particular order:

1. Thursday Next from the Jasper Fforde series.

2. Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.

3-4. Samwise Gamgee and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings.

5. Meg Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time.

6-8. Luna Lovegood, Minerva McGonagall and Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series.

9. Katniss Everdeen  from the Hunger Games trilogy

10. The Murray Twins, Poppet & Widget, from The Night Circus. (I'm counting them as one since they're twins and, you know, inseparable)

Oddly enough, there are no Austen characters on my list this week.  Usually Austen appears on all of my TTT lists, but I figure she's getting enough airtime from the rest of y'all this week that I can give Elizabeth, Darcy, and Colonel Brandon a skip for now without feeling too guilty.  :)

Who's on your list this week?

21 April 2012

Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Nobody could be more surprised than I was that I picked up this book to read, much less found it engrossing from start to finish.  Pamela Druckerman's memoir, whose subtitle is One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, was both eye-opening and jaw-dropping by turn.  Let me clear: I am not a parent, and I have no plans to become one.  While babies might intimidate me, I actually really like children, so this is not coming from the perspective of some misanthropic grumbler who thinks children are the bane of an orderly and sophisticated existence. I consider myself rather fortunate that when I married my husband, I married into a family with grandchildren (ten at the current reckoning), so that I have all of the benefits of being a grandparent without first having been a parent. It's a pretty good gig if you can get it, that's all I'm sayin'.

But back to Bringing Up Bebe....I am astonished at the core differences between American and French parenting styles.  As someone who works with the public sector in a place that caters to families and children, it's been clear to me for quite some time just how different parenting is today from when I was raised.  Somehow American children have become tyrants over their parents, and parents seem to wear it as a badge of honor just how much they're willing to suffer for their children.  I can't tell you the number of times a family comes in to my store and the kid immediately kicks their shoes off.  The parent or nanny or guardian gently says, "Don't you want to put your shoes back on?" and has to ask it several times, and each the time the child refuses.  After all, the child is being asked if she wants to put her shoes on.  It seems like she has a choice, doesn't it?  And it's this endless stream of "choices" that are representative of the systemic problems in American parenting today, at least as I see it.  Because these commands in the form of requests seem to grant the child the right to say no to everything, and lo & behold, the parent actually backs down.

In my childhood, I wasn't given the option of not wearing a jacket when it snowed or of taking my shoes off in a store to run barefoot around it. "No" meant the same thing the first time I asked something as the fifth time I asked something (and I learned very quickly not to ask more than once). My mama had no truck with wheedling or whining with any of her kids.  But I see parents today constantly giving in to unreasonable demands from their children and I don't really understand how that paradigm shifted.

Yes, I understand that it's quite comfortable to criticize something when I'm on the outside looking in, but criticize I must.

Actually, for the first three months, French and American parenting styles are quite similar, as least as laid out by Druckerman: no sleep, multiple nightly feeds, all things revolve around baby, and breastfeeding. After that, though, the differences rear their ugly heads.  After the age of 3 months, French babies are taught to "do their nights" and to learn to live on the overall family's cycle while for Americans, the family usually continues to live on the baby cycle.  According to Druckerman, if a French baby isn't sleeping through the night and eating only four times a day by the age of 6 months, it's a cause for concern.   At first it sounded a little selfish and cruel, but I was eventually convinced that the French way is the saner way to do things.

Then there's the government-run support that that the state provides that lets French families get back to a normal lifestyle, except that the creche program is far superior to anything offered in the States (except, notably the day care run by the Department of Defense, which "accepts kids from the age of six weeks" and where "fees are scaled according to the parents' combined income" [104]), not least because the creche is subsidized.  Meaning that working class families can afford quality care for their children.  What's more, caring for children in France is a profession, a highly trained and licensed one at that, and it doesn't have the stigma that daycare does here in the US.  When children outgrow the creche program, they move on to preschool, which is also subsidized by the state.

The best single illustration I can give is the daily lunch preparation for creche attendees. This particular example was for a table of two-year olds:

 First, the teacher uncovers and displays each dish. The starter is a bright-red tomato salad in vinaigrette. "This is followed by le poisson," she says, to approving glances, as she displays a flaky white fish in a light butter sauce, and a side dish of peas, carrots, and onions. Next she previews the cheese course: "Today it's le bleu," she says, showing the kids a crumbly blue cheese. Then she displays dessert: whole apples, which she'll slice at the table. The food looks simple, fresh, and appetizing. Except for the melamine plates, the bite-sized pieces, and the fact that some of the diners have to be prodded to say "merci," I might be in a high-end restaurant (112).
Here in the States, it's mostly only the privileged who eat that well every day for lunch.  In France, that's a standard state-sponsored meal for all children. 

The United States likes to give a lot of lip service to so-called family values and how much children are held dearly.  We waste time and rhetoric focusing on the definition of family when we should be emphasizing what the values are.  Compared to other first world countries, we're shamefully behind.  Until we can provide a comparative level of health care, nutrition, and family support to all children regardless of socio-economic background that nations like France provide, we have no business talking about how we (as a state, not as individuals) value children.

One somewhat alarming thing noted by Druckerman is that the people of France haven't exactly embraced feminism, but she goes on to note that the state, at least, has:

There are structural reasons why Frenchwomen seem calmer than American women. They take about twenty-one more vacation days each year. France has less feminist rhetoric, but it has many more institutions that enable women to work. There's the national paid maternity leave (the United States has none), the subsidized nannies and creches, the free universal preschool from age three, and myriad tax credits and payments for having kids. All this doesn't insure that there's equality between men and women, but it does insure that Frenchwomen can have both a career and kids (192).

The only thing that I fundamentally disagreed with vis a vis the French parenting approach that Druckerman lays out is how quickly mothers stop breastfeeding their children (most give it up by the time their children are "doing their nights."  Aside from that, I was practically cheering in each chapter for the commonsense approach to raising children with autonomie, as it is called. I recommend this book for parents and non-parents alike, and I suspect I may get myself into hot water more than once by giving this book to any parents to be--or worse, handing it out to parents I know who are expecting a second child.

NB: I picked up an ARC of this book at Winter Institute, but the book was published by Penguin in February of this year.  Also, Druckerman seems to prefer the use of "Frenchwomen" to "French women" and I'm not sure why, since it's not considered standard English any longer, at least here in the US.

18 April 2012

Audio Book Review: The Night Circus

If you read my blog with anything resembling regularity (so yeah, basically if you're my mom. Hi, Mom!), you might recall that last year one of my favorite books was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I was lucky enough to be an early reader and proponent for it, and my review was about as gushy as I've ever gotten over a book.  I also dyed my hair red in honor of Morgenstern's appearance at my bookshop, and then treated myself to a re-read of the novel before the year was out.

Thus, it was a little over-the-top even for me when I decided to listen to audio book of The Night Circus.  But wait!  Before you get all judgy-McJudy on me, you need to know who performs the book, and that is the great, the inimitable Jim Dale.  That's right, as in arguably the best reader of audio books produced in the US. (Alas, I can't quite pit his readings of the Harry Potter books against Stephen Fry's.)

Reading and listening to The Night Circus turned out to be two vastly different experiences.  There are always some differences, of course, with the two media.  The audio version is always a more leisurely read because you can't skim ahead like you can with physical books.  The surprising difference for me is the emotions that this audio book evoked in me: while I loved reading the book, I was more or less emotionally removed from the story, but Dale's performance of it moved me to tears on a couple of occasions.  I also found that the audio version lacked the magic for me that it held during my reading of the book (both times), and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why.  My best guess is that when I am caught up in a story, racing to turn the pages, that the act of suspending disbelief is both intensely personal and immediate: I am part of the story.  I think perhaps that the listening creates a slight remove from the source.

Because I had already read The Night Circus, it was relatively easy for me to maintain where in the overall story arc we were during the audio.  The book jumps back and forth in its timeline so often that I think I would have had a good deal of difficulty figuring out when something happened if the audio had been my first experience with the store. However, the strangest effect the audio had on me was a lessening of my passion for the story, and I think that is the first time that that has ever happened to me, as a good audio version of a book only serves to increase my fondness for the story.  And rest assured, Jim Dale cannot create anything other than a good audio book.

NB: I listened to two Jim Dale-read books back-to-back: this one and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If I hadn't done that, I might not have noticed that Isobel and Hermione are voiced almost identically to each other, as are A. H. and Dumbledore. 

17 April 2012

Holy Pulitzer, Batman!

Yesterday was an important day in American letters.  You see, it was the day the Pulitzer Prizes were announced.  For everything except fiction, that is. You know, the division that more readers care about than any other.  No biggie.

What's the deal, Pulitzer Committee People? While the official word is that the committee couldn't reach consensus, the rumors started flying right away yesterday that the committee didn't think any book was worthy of the prize. That's not the kind of elitist publicity anybody wants. (And of course, by "anybody" I mean me...and readers & booksellers who agree with me.)

Seriously, though.  What gives?  I understand that it's hard to reach consensus when three (and I probably ought not to get started on why there were only three titles short listed) books are so vastly different.  But yoo-hoo, Pulitzer Committee People? You're the ones who created the short list to begin with.  The decision was only as difficult as you made it for yourselves. I imagine there's also a lot of pressure to make the "right" decision as literary tastemakers, establishing one book above all others as being worthy of our posterity.

Which, in my view, is all the more reason to actually make a decision.  Nobody else in the real world can get by with just withholding the award when the decision-making process is too preciously difficult.  Why can they?

I don't happen to agree with the three finalists that the committee picked, but that's neither here nor there.  I would have preferred to see Teju Cole's Open City win this prize, as to my mind, it was the finest book "dealing with American life" published last year. The point is, now I don't have a winner to champion or to rail against, and I'm pretty sure that's my God-given right as an American reader, book blogger, and bookseller.

What about you?  What are your thoughts on the omission this year for the fiction prize? What do you wish would have won?

10 April 2012

Vacation Reading: What to Bring, What to Leave Behind?

Ahhh, Anguilla!
I love planning my vacations almost as much as I love the vacation itself. One of the best things about planning vacation, after that small, pesky detail of location has been settled upon, is choosing which books will earn a space in my bags--that, and whether to purchase an e-reading device before we travel. Since DH and I have settled upon 16 glorious days in Anguilla, I can now move on to the other most important items.

I brought home a stack of books from work the other day.  Most of them are ARCs, with a handful of finished copies.  I have become better about only asking my sales reps for books I am reasonably certain I will read, but that doesn't mean that publishers don't send me dozens of books each week that languish on my shelves.  So I've brought home bunches & bunches of them, and I think this year I'm going to prioritize books I actually really, really want to read for myself over books I really, really ought to read for work.  That might sound like a no-brainer for most of you, but there's this bizarre bookseller guilt that accompanies any book I crack open that has already been published or is, gasp, an honest-to-goodness backlist title.

I do have some guidelines to make sure I don't end up with too many books that are same-same.  There's always at least one YA title, one nonfiction title, and one collection of short stories.  I also really enjoy reading travel writing when I myself am traveling. Otherwise it's all fair game.  Here's the stack that I took with me last year, which includes two 20th century classics, two YA, 8 not-yet-published works, 11 already-published, 2 short story collections, one travel memoir, and 14 adult novels:
Guess I'll need more books this year for the extra 2 days we're down there!
Here are some of the titles that I am considering for the summer vacation. Anybody read any of them that you recommend? Light or dark, I'm happy to tackle just about anything.  Let me know!

On the Outside Looking Indian (memoir) by Rupinder Gill
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood
By Love Possessed (stories) by Lorna Goodison
Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny
The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

Not sure what to bring for other nonfiction.  Maybe 360 Degrees Longitude, a memoir about sailing the world.  I'm also hoping to score an ARC of the new Barbara Kingsolver book and the sequel to The Last Werewolf before my trip. And if I get to go to BEA, there might be some goodies there to choose from, too.  My YA will likely be another John Green book, because I want to jump his bones on his bandwagon after reading The Fault in Our Stars and meeting him at Winter Institute earlier this year. 

09 April 2012

Has Age Become Fiction's Final Frontier?

I finished reading Deborah Moggach's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this weekend, and while it was neither as fun & fresh, nor as offensive, as I was expecting, I came to realize as I was reading it that it just might be one of those "final frontier" books of fiction.  That is, a book about old people.

I read a lot--not unusual for either booksellers or bookbloggers, of which I am both.  And like many readers, I read to broaden my own experience. In the years since I've been blogging and bookselling, I've read hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of books whose main characters span various races, religions, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual preferences, and socio-economic backgrounds that are different from my own. I've even read a collection of short stories about deeply religious, gay Indian men living abroad, which is about as "other" from me that you can get in one book. I've read tons of books about children, teens, young adults, and middle-aged adults, but in the last several years, I've think I've only read three books that feature main characters over the age of 70. Isn't that strange?

One of them is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which tries and fails on many levels to adequately address the issue of otherness, but where it succeeds is in creating a believable community of characters over the age of 70.  If this book hadn't been turned into a movie featuring the fabulous Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and the no-less-fabulous but not-yet-knighted Penelope Wilton, I doubt this book would have ever crossed my radar, and thus my grand total of books read in the last decade featuring main characters of post-retirement age would have been reduced from three to two.

Oh, sure.  There have been plenty of books featuring a matriarch, a paterfamilias. There are lots of plucky grandmothers and great aunts out there who inspire the younger heroine and provide much-needed life lessons. And I've read span-of-life books that follow the characters from youth to old age.  But the only other two books I can recall with certainty that featured bona fide oldster protagonists are The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian and the excellent Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan, both of which put octogenarians front and center.

But why are there not more? If the United Nations' statistics are right, the world's over-65 population is growing at an unprecedented rate, why are there not more books that reflect the world's aging population? To put it in (potentially offensive) majority/minority or dominant/marginalized terms from my own country here: Americans read about other nationalities, white people read about people of color; straight people read about non-straight people; middle class people read about both poor  and rich people, Christians read about non-Christians, men read about women; so why don't younger people read about older people?

'Cause age is the final frontier.  That's why.  Or at least that's my theory.  If we're extremely lucky, we're all going to grow old.  I think authors of all ages should take that to heart and provide readers with richly-textured and substantive books featuring at least septuagenarian, if not older, characters.  If, in addition to broadening our experience, we read to know we're not alone, then we're going to be needing lots of those kinds of books, posthaste.

What books  of fiction have *you* read that feature older protagonists?  I'm sure there have been others published that I'm simply not aware of. Please share them here and we will all be the richer for it.

06 April 2012

Which e-reading device should I get?

I guess the title of my post says it all.  It's time for me to get an e-reading device, and I should specify right now that it won't be any Kindle product.  I want to be able to buy my e-books anyplace that I want, and I will buy a book from Amazon only when it becomes the last source for books on this planet.

So here's the scoop: I used to have a Sony E-reader, and it was okay.  I currently read e-books on my smartphone, but I'd like a bigger screen.  What I don't know is whether I want some sort of tablet reader or a dedicated e-reader, so I'd like folks to share with me what they use and why (or why not) they love it.  If you have a Kindle product and want to share that love with me, fine, but just be forewarned that I will not purchase one. 

Right now I'm leaning towards the Nook.  But I don't know if I want the lowest-tech, non-color Nook with e-ink technology for ease of reading, or if I want to upgrade to something flashier.  If I go for a tablet, should it be a Nook tablet or other? I like the idea of doing more things on my e-reading device, but part of me wonders if that just means I would read less because I would be distracted by other things on a tablet-type of device...

I still intend to keep physical books as my primary reading material, but I want an e-reader for travel/vacation and I'd like to be able to download advance reading copies from NetGalley and other publisher sources. 

What say you, gentle reader?

03 April 2012

Last Month in Review: March 2012

March sped by in a blur.  Partly because work was so busy (think: preparing for Rachel Maddow event and conducting interviews for two job openings at the store), partly because both my husband and I contracted whatever gastrointestinal nastiness that was going around.  Let me put it this way...if I didn't have access Goodreads, I'd never be able to come up with a list of what I read last month!

1. Frances & Bernard by Carlene Bauer.  This was a manuscript that a buddy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asked me to read, and it impressed me.  It's an epistolary novel involving two writers and it's serious and heartbreaking and lovely. I believe it is slated for publication this fall.

2. The Innocents by Francesca Segal.  Review here.

3. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Review here.

4. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier.  I didn't expect to be caught up in this story, but I was.  I hope to review it one of these days.

5. The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  I expected to love this one, but I didn't.  I did like it, however.  It's a quiet domestic story of a young woman from Bangladesh and a man from upstate New York.  They meet online, then in person, and rush into a marriage that is almost impossible for any outsider (including the reader) to understand or be sympathetic to.

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Holy cow, but this just might be the best narrative non-fiction that I've ever read.  I know I'm late jumping on this particular bandwagon, and I probably never would have picked it up if my husband hadn't asked me to read it for Christmas (we do that each year as a gift: read a book of the other's choosing).

7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Technically this was a re-read.  Comments here.

8. The Collective by Don Lee.  Very good novel, forthcoming from Norton.  Hopefully a review will also be forthcoming.

9. My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese.  I started this book back in December because my Book Blogger Secret Santa sent it to me, but I only read a chapter or so at a time.  I didn't love it, but I loved many things about it.  Verghese's novel, Cutting for Stone, is the best novel I've read in years and thus I wanted to be a Verghese completist.  It's also unusual in that it makes the second work of nonfiction I finished this month.

10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Review here.  This was one of two audio books I completed in March.

11. Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling.  This was the second audio book I put away this month. This was a re-listen.  Musings here.

12. Love Story by Eric Segal.  Love means never having to say you're sorry you read this book.   As hard as it is to imagine, this book did NOT live up to my memories of it when I was a teenager.

13. Silver Swan by Jacynthe.  This is a Harry Potter fanfiction story of novel-length, narrated by Padma Patil and therefore unlike any other fanfiction I've read.  It features Cho/Ginny and has a bleaker than average ending, but it's fairly well written and I just wanted a pure escape at the end of the month during all of the Rachel Maddow madness.  If you want to read it, you can find it here.

Also-rans: I started but did not finish a collection of stories called Aerogrammes by Tania James.  I like short stories but I did not like these.

02 April 2012

Who's your daddy? Rachel's my daddy, sir!

Rachel Maddow (photo credit: S. Etelman)
 This blog post title is taken from the friend of a friend at a military school a number of years ago.  There were different squads, and the commanders of the various quads would make the plebes respond to various questions.  When seniors of the Charlie squad asked their plebes, "Who's your daddy?" the response (including a salute) had to be, "Charlie's my daddy, sir!" Since our entire audience was in thrall to Rachel Maddow on Saturday night, and she was there to discuss her book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, this title seemed quite appropriate.

Odyssey Staff with Rachel (photo credit: J Weissman)
Anyway, my own little bookstore, Odyssey Bookshop, played host to Rachel Maddow, in conjunction with the Five College Women's Studies Research Center, held at Chapin Auditorium on the campus of Mount Holyoke College. She performed to a sold-out audience of just over 1100 folks and she was, quite simply amazing.  I've rarely encountered a person who is so bright, so witty, and so able to engage in substantive discussion during a Q&A.  Ms. Maddow is also something of a native daughter to western Massachusetts, and most of the audience were looking upon her with a mix of pride and adoration, with not a few folks with more amorous attentions in mind.  I'm pretty sure that the audience members submitted multiple marriage proposals to her.  I won't name names, but there's at least one staff member who might be among them.

Flowers, candy, marriage proposals: All these were collected from fans on Saturday night