29 April 2013

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

It's difficult to summarize a book like Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, or more precisely, to summarize it and make it sound as interesting as it really is.

Nora is a woman on the cusp of turning forty who fancied herself an artist during her high school and college years, and is thus dismayed with herself two decades later when she is still teaching elementary school. That is, until a certain family moves into town and she falls a little bit in love with all of them and with the potential that each one--mother, father, and son--represents to Nora.

Nora narrates the book in first person, looking back on her life from her formative years through college and onward, but spending most of her time relating in precise detail what her mundane life was like Before and After.  That is, before and after Reza Shahid becomes one of her students and she gets to know his parents, Skandar and Sirena, a couple whose Lebanese-Italian background, by way of France, seems exciting and exotic even in worldly Cambridge, MA.

I had never read Claire Messud before, so I came to this book with no particular expectations, and I ended up being blown away with her insight and sense of language.  The writing is frequently gorgeous and my advance reading copy is full of dog-eared pages. I think what stands out most, however, is Nora's voice.  Nora is a woman whose slow-burning anger has reached a tipping point, and the narrative sears with a rage that is so incandescent that it illuminates her specific character but also Every Woman.  It feels thoroughly modern, but as my coworker Caitlin rightly pointed out to me in a discussion one day, there's also a very classic, almost timeless, feel to it. As if The Woman Upstairs, given a change of setting, could just as easily have been penned by Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf or any woman whose life is circumscribed by her time.

Nora's voice is searing, to be sure, but she casts her same critical gaze inward, too, so this is not just a world-done-me-wrong narrative, but also a hard look at the choices she has made for herself, learning to live with those choices, and deciding which ones are worth the time, effort, or courage to change.

Some sample passages for the flavor of the writing, including some where she invokes the Reader, like Jane Eyre does in her narrative:

"I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was in love with her--which I was--but in a romantic way--which I was not. You're thinking, how would I know whether I was romantically in love, I whose apparently nonexistent love life would suggest a prudish vacancy, uterus shriveled like a corn husk and withered dugs for breasts. You're thinking that whatever else she does, the Woman Upstairs with her cats and her pots of tea and her Sex and the City reruns and her goddamn Garnet Hill catalog, the woman with her class of third graders, and her carefully pearly smile--whatever else she manages, she doesn't have a love life to speak of. Just because something is invisible doesn't mean it isn't there. At any given time, there are a host of invisibles floating among us.  There are clairvoyants to see ghosts; but who sees the invisible emotions, the unrecorded events? Who is it that sees love, more evanescent than any ghost, let alone can catch it? Who are you tell me that I don't know what love is (69)?"

Regarding herself and the members of the Shahid family: "Each of them wanted something, and their wanting made me believe that I was capable. Not that I was an extraordinary woman, exactly, but only not exactly that. Something quite like that. Which always since childhood I had secretely wanted to believe--no: had always in my most deeply secret self believed, knowing that the believing itself was a necessary precondition...My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would (119)."

And this little bit, which somehow reminds me of part of Eliot's Four Quartets: "With the distance I have now, I can see that it was one small thought among all the other thoughts that drift like dust motes through a cluttered mind. But it was a thought I made an object, and held on to and turned over and over in my hand, as if it were an amulet, as if it gave meaning to what had come before; and holding on to it changed everything again (135)."

"I was happy. I was Happy, indeed. I was in love with love and every lucky parking spot or particularly tasty melon or unexpectedly abbreviated staff meeting seemed to me not chance but an inevitable manifestation of the beauty of my life, a beauty that I had, on account of my lack of self-knowledge, been up till now unable to see (141)."

This book was a fine, fine read and if there is any justice in this literary world, it will make both the year-end Best Of 2013 lists as well as the awards circuit when the times come.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided to me at my request by my sales rep. Knopf published it last week. 

26 April 2013

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: Readalong Part Deux

My various Harry Potter editions:some UK, some US, some Spanish, some audios
Since I didn't do the reading this week, I planned on not posting anything.  But then I started reading Rayna's and Ally's posts and felt like it was too much fun to miss out on.  This will be very brief and slanted and mostly based on my memories of my last read-through a couple of years ago.  Thanks, as always, to Alice for hosting this read along, for it is THE BEST.

Chapter Nine: Rayna has already pointed this out, but it's one of my favorite Neville moments in the book, when Minerva recognizes Neville's worth: "It's high time your grandmother of the grandson she's got..." We've been on the Neville Appreciation Bandwagon all along; it's nice to see some textual support for that finally happening.

Parvati has a crush on Firenze, which must have inspired some truly raunchy fan fiction. Hmmm...best not to think on that too long.

Snape's introduction to DADA: The man was poetically passionate about potions, but now that he's teaching DADA, he's poetically passionate AND insinuating danger with every syllable. Makes me wonder all sorts of things, but mostly makes me wonder how the world would collectively feel about Severus Snape if this story had been told from a non-Gryffindor's POV.

Oy, clearly I'm spending too much time with this.  That's three points for the first chapter we read, and I'm not even through...must move faster.

Chapter Ten: Poor, poor Merope.

Chapter Eleven: Hermione, that confundus charm is beneath you.  It seems odd to me that she doesn't consider that explicit cheating when later in the book she's very upset when she thinks Harry used the Felix Felicis in quidditch.

Chapter Twelve: I'm glad to see that Minerva isn't ready to jump on the anti-Draco bandwagon because of the flimsy testimony Harry gives her; however the irony kills me because this time Draco actually is up to something terrible. I'm so conflicted.  Well done, JKR.

Chapter Thirteen: Speaking of conflicted, I'm generally pretty conflicted about young Tom Riddle. I think it's rather unfair for JKR to harp on that whole "it's not what we are, but our choices, that define us" angle when Tom is clearly born a sociopath. I'm not an expert on the subject, but it's my impression that the true sociopath is incapable of working within the strictures of a normal, moral society, so in this case, young Tom never had a choice, per se. How much more powerful a villain would he be, then, if Tom had not been born that way, but had chosen to become that? I don't mean to make light of the terrible things that Tom has already done in his young life, or what he will grow up to do, but I think JRK's authorial intent is a little bit misguided here.
Tom Riddle, Jr: Born This Way
Also, Dumbledore doesn't like Tom, and he has a bad feeling about him, but how on earth can it have been the smart choice to send a muggle-raised child to Diagon Alley on his own?  For the first time? It can't have been.

"The mouth organ was only ever a mouth organ." SO much homo-erotic subtext to that statement, no?

Chapter Fifteen: Unbreakable vows.  Luna's general awesomeness. Taking down the ministry via unexpected channels like gum disease.  That's like defeating the Mayor of Sunnydale with hummus.

I'm out of time now.  Can't look up more gifs, cannot respond to Ron's being poisoned. Or talk about cauldrons full of hot, strong love that need to be stirred. But it's funny that Harry remembers the bezoar from his first potions class, isn't it? Oh, and Wilkie Twycross, whose name I inevitably end up saying as either Twycwoss or Trycross. But enough for now...

25 April 2013

Walkin' Round New Orleans, or Where NOT To Stand for the Gay Easter Parade

Image found here
Our last full day in New Orleans was beautiful--sunny, high 70s--albeit with ultra high humidity.  I've been living outside the South for so long that it was actually a treat to experience it, but I had no great love of near-100% humidity when I lived in Mississippi. We had started the day with a three-course Easter breakfast at Brennan's. Unfortunately, whilst descending the stairs after eating, I looked a lot like the above gif, except, you know, with less prancing at the start. Bruised dignity and some later soreness aside, I was fine. But I do seem to have a habit of falling in New Orleans after breakfast

I promise: I hadn't had the soup of the day when I fell
AW, Carla, and I went back to the hotel to change into some more comfortable clothing & shoes and hit the town again, popping into any little store, gallery, or boutique that looked interesting and pausing to listen to many of the street musicians.  I made a few photos along the way, keeping my fingers crossed that we might run into Kora Guy before the afternoon was over. 

Your guess is as good as mine
This boutique was giving out tiny cups of some kind of daiquiri
We paused once, mid afternoon, to grab a cold beverage and sample the wares of La Divina Gelateria, which lived up to its name.  An Orangina and some cucumber & mint sorbet were even more refreshing than a turn about the room, and we were happy to sit down for a few minutes in the shade of the buildings that surround the cathedral. Shortly after abandoning our table, we finally saw Kora Guy, where I made a short video and bought one of his CDs for DH, who loves the kora as much as I do.
La Divina Gelateria
Kora Guy
We were also pleased to learn that there were two Easter parades in the Quarter that day, so we planned our afternoon around the latter one, the Gay Easter Parade, which dovetailed with the Easter Bonnet Contest.  We saw the tail end of the first parade when leaving Brennan's that morning, and were looking forward to seeing the Gay Easter Parade as it snaked its way down Bourbon. Unfortunately, I didn't pay quite enough attention to is starting point, so I led Carla & AW astray. We stood for close to an hour on an elevated stoop on Bourbon street that we figured would be the perfect vantage point for the parade.  And it would have been, had we been on the parade route.  As it was, we saw a few people who were on their way to compete for the Easter Bonnet Contest.

We stood on the stoop here for the parade that never was.
But at least this nice woman let me take her picture
Dinner that night was at NOLA, one of Emeril's restaurants in New Orleans and one which came highly recommended from Carla & AW's friend, Kathleen, who said it was her favorite meal of the week.  Our reservation was at 6:15, which is a tad earlier than we would have preferred, but it was either that or a seating at 8:30, which was too late, so we simply made do. 

The restaurant is a converted warehouse and has the industrial decor that seems to be so trendy these days. Our  primary server was a little smarmy and reminded me quite viscerally of the laundry detergent ad director guy at the end of the Calendar Girls movie, especially the way he'd say, "Hello, ladies."  Our bread guy, who told us to call him "Bread Guy," was terrific, though, and we eventually got it out of him that his friends called him Bud. 

Carla & me at NOLA
Once more, there weren't a ton of vegetarian options on the menu, so AW made do with ordering a salad and a couple of sides; there was a vegetarian special that night not on the regular menu, but for some reason that I no longer recall, it didn't appeal to her. Carla ordered a BBQ shrimp & smoky cheese grits dish that I really loved, but it's worth noting here that BBQ shrimp in Nawlins-speak usually means pretty spicy and not at all what most people think of as BBQ. I still remember the fire in my mouth from the first time I ordered a BBQ shrimp po-boy in New Orleans.  I opted for a simple salad, followed by the small plate of duck confit & fried egg pizza.  They were both good but nothing out of the ordinary.  We were pretty full so we opted to take dessert back to the hotel to eat--we chose the pina colada cheesecake dessert special because we thought it would travel well, and it was fine but nothing special. I'm afraid that I mislaid the receipt from NOLA, so I cannot recall what our dinner came to, but I left thinking that our meal was pretty good but nothing approaching extraordinary. 

The BBQ shrimp & smoky cheese grits
The duck confit & fried egg pizza
We got back to the hotel room and Carla presented me with a gift that I LOVED: a t-shirt promoting literacy in the city of Memphis proclaiming, "I like big books and I cannot lie." So true.  Thanks, Carla!

We wanted to make our last night, well, last, so we stayed up talking as late as we could.  It's tremendously difficult being separated from my best friends from high school, especially when they both live in the same city (Memphis) and even work together, so it's vitally important to me to have these get-togethers, come what may.

Coming up next: my last morning in New Orleans, plus some concluding thoughts from our trip.

23 April 2013

Book Giveaways: I Haz Them.

Found here

The first one I shall call the All Zelda, All the Time giveaway:


A couple of months ago I read Z and was surprisingly drawn into it. As I say in my review, I wasn't aware of loving it while I was reading it, but there was something about the book that made me want to take action.  It prompted me to locate a copy of Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald so that I can give her her due, and not a lot of books provoke action like that.  I haven't read Call Me Zelda, so I cannot comment on that one, but considering the Zelda-Hemingway antagonism, it seems ironic that the author of Hemingway's Girl wrote it.  Anyway, I shall give advance reading copies of these two books away in a package deal. This giveaway is open only to US and Canada.

My other giveaway is for a book with a little bit of everything sensational in it. If you happen to be looking for a book that has a religious cult, arson, polygamy, incest, the Dust Bowl, illiteracy, motor accidents, and love, look no further.  You can read more about it in my review, but let's just say that these characters will not be the poster children for mental stability any time soon. This is also a paperback advance reading copy of the book, but I am willing to ship this one anywhere in the world if it costs me no more than US $20.

To enter, just be a follower of my blog and leave a comment below on which giveaway you're interested in.  For purpose of closure, let's say that the giveaway is open through the end of April. 

22 April 2013

New Orleans, Where You Can Get Lit AND Lit at Breakfast

Breakfast at Brennan's has been a time-honored New Orleans tradition for many decades, and one in which we were happy to participate for Easter Sunday brunch.  It's hard not to love a place (by which I mean both the city and the restaurant) where it would be unusual not to drink and set your food on fire. At breakfast.

A sculpture of their signature rooster in the courtyard
So we were a tiny bit dismayed when we arrived at Brennan's for our 10:30 am reservation (no second breakfast nonsense this time around) to have our cheerful "Good morning!" greeting be returned rather curtly by a harried-looking host. We were directed with an impatiently pointed finger to wait at the bar or in the courtyard for our table until they were ready for us.  Far cry from our reception at Commander's Palace the day before, where everything was the epitome of graciousness!

About 10 minutes later we were led to an upstairs table in a nondescript room.  Again, minor disappointment compared to the charming ambience of Commander's garden room. Lest you're afraid this will be nothing but a woe-betide-me review, fear not.  Our primary server, Dan, was highly personable, and the food itself was amazing.
AW and Carla
AW avec moi
Making our selections for the 3-course breakfast was daunting--even AW had the luxury of two different delicious-sounding vegetarian entrees. AW and I started off with a cocktail called the Fleur de Lis, an exotic combination of champagne, Lillet Blonde, and Grand Marnier, and though they were very elegant, I was a little disappointed in the taste.
Baked apple--the photo is quite deceiving!
I eventually settled on the baked apple, the Eggs Hussarde, which is one of their signature dishes, and Bananas Foster, another signature dish. My mama didn't raise no fool!  While I was fully expecting to enjoy all of it, I was really blown away by the baked apple, served in double cream, and topped with the caramelized sugar from the baking process.  It doesn't look like much in the above photo, but it was one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth--which just goes to show that sometimes what's simple is what's best.
Eggs Hussarde
Eggs Ellen
AW chose the Eggs Portuguese, which is a flaky pastry with poached eggs, tomatoes and gravy and other good things, while Carla opted for Eggs Ellen, a salmon, poached eggs, and Hollandaise concoction. My Hussarde was similar to a traditional Benedict, but with a richer marchand de vin sauce. I liked it very much, but I don't think it was as good as the Eggs Sardou that I'd had there on a previous visit.
Bananas Foster. Again, not pretty, but absolutely fabulous!
Dessert is the course where Brennan's shines, quite literally.  There are at least two flambé options and ordered both of them: Bananas Foster (x2) and the Crepes Fitzgerald.  I wonder how many flambé carts  the restaurant owns, because we saw several "performances" during our visit.  Dan gave the most animated and engaging performance--some of the other servers in the room did it rather perfunctorily.

Here's Dan performing with our Bananas Foster
Another server with a different table's flambé
Our bill was about $50 less overall than our experience the day before at Commander's Palace, but that's simply because our alcohol bill was significantly reduced.  The food prices were comparable. On the way out, we overheard one employee say that they were serving 1,100 people for brunch that day, which may go a little way to excuse the harried greeting we had upon arrival.  That would be an impressive enough number if Brennan's put on a buffet brunch, but for a 3-course, full service meal?  Hard to imagine.

20 April 2013

Book Review: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

I had never read Maeve Binchy before and had no real intentions of starting, but I somehow ended up on a mailing list for Random House Audio, and now those good folks send me a few audiobooks each month. Or at least, for the last two months.  I sure hope it continues!

Knowing very little about the book or the writer, other than she died last year and wrote the book Circle of Friends, the movie adaptation of which I have seen, I didn't really know what to expect, beyond the vague notion of Something Irish. A Week in Winter is the story of several disparate characters who come together for a holiday week at a place called Stone House in the west of Ireland (A-ha! I was right!). Each chapter tells the story of a different character, sometimes beginning in childhood, sometimes picking up in adulthood, and the reader learns of their hopes/dreams/aspirations.  Something happens to each character, ranging in scale from mild to pretty intense, that, conveniently enough, only their time at Stone House can heal.

Some of the characters were quite interesting, especially Chicky Starr, the Irish woman who returns to her homeland after a few decades in the US, nursing a secret and looking for a way back to her roots.  It is she who purchases Stone House and turns it into a charming inn, despite having no background in the hospitality industry.  She entered into the enterprise so naively that I had to quite forcefully suspend my disbelief, but I enjoyed her character nonetheless.  I would have greatly preferred that the book followed her instead of devoting each chapter to a new character, incorporating the stories each new guest who stayed at Stone House in a more organic way.

The audio reader, Rosalyn Landor, was perfectly serviceable. I would have preferred a greater differentiation in accents, as the people from Ireland, America, England, and Sweden all sounded roughly the same, but she rendered her male voices pretty well (I find that voicing a gender opposite of one's own is the hardest to do convincingly, among the scores of audio readers I've listened to).

I don't think ever would have purchased this book to read, but I am often willing to listen to audio versions of books I would never pick up, so in that case I'm happy to have listened to it.  A Week in Winter is not the book for me, but I can think of a lot of people for whom it would be.  If you don't mind reading books with a constantly shifting point of view, and if you tend to enjoy stories where nothing truly terrible happens and it all works out in the end, this just may be the book for you.  In light of the events in Boston this week, that might hold a greater appeal than usual right now. 

19 April 2013

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Part the First

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of my favorite books in the series -- it's got the most Snape action, you see. It's been several long weeks since I fully participated in Alice's Harry Potter Readalong, so I'm very happy to have the time to do it this week. She is officially the bestest for hosting it.

Chapter One: Info dump.  Bor-ing.  Though I always enjoy getting chapters written without the dubious benefit of the Harry Filter.

Chapter Two: I think we can all agree that this chapter is made of undiluted awesomeness. If I didn't already love Snape, this chapter would still make me swoon.  Bellatrix's passionate hatred met with Snape's snarky parries each time. "Of course, you weren't a lot of use to him in prison, but the gesture was undoubtedly fine."  And the interplay between Bella and Narcissa--so terrible, so revealing about each sister.  There's very little I don't love about this chapter. But it makes me wish quite desperately that Narcissa had reached out to her other sister before it was too late. I think it's clear that Narcissa has no allegiance to the Dark Lord at this point--her not reconciling with Andromeda is one of the missed opportunities in this series that makes me most sad.
Chapter Three: So much good stuff in here, and I'm not saying the Dursleys don't deserve it for their legacy of abuse toward Harry, but it seems to me that Dumbledore is engaging in a bit of muggle-baiting here.They're terrified of Dumbledore and don't trust to eat or drink anything from a wizard, thanks to the twins, but the glasses of mead keep rapping against their heads in an increasingly violent manner.  Poor form, Dumbledore.  Poor form. But the phrase "but sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often" is pure gold. But this one is one of my favorites in the entire series:
Chapter Four: How did Dumbledore know that Slughorn was still there, transfigured?  Does he know Slughorn's style so well, or is it that he was picking up on some sort of magical signature from his black, deadened hand? Probably both.

Chapter Five: Mollywobbles. I don't even want to know what bits of Molly that were so appealingly wobbly that Arthur made it his pet name for her.

Chapter Six: U-NO-POO. Those twins, bless 'em.

Every time I think of Hermione as brilliant, she does something so insanely un-thought out that I want to shake her.  Trying to learn more about that opal necklace is one of those times.  But of course her foibles make her much more real than most of the other characters.

Chapter Seven: As if we didn't know Neville's sexual status of virgin, he proudly declares that his wand is made of cherry and unicorn hair.  If Book Neville looked like Film Neville, this joke would be meaningless.
But on to more serious matters: Luna.  Oh, Luna.  Harry, you're blind not to value her as much as you value Ron and Hermione.  Neville, too, for that matter. But at least in this book you're learning, vis a vis his response to Romilda Vane.

Also Chapter Seven: Who the hell throws a luncheon party on a train like that?  Slughorn fawns over Harry the way Lockheart used to fawn over himself.  But at least Ginny keeps on being the coolest kid on the block, so there's that.

Okay, seriously.  There's something I have to say.

Too good not to use past OotP
If I could turn back time: the Weasley twins are this generation's Marauders.  I missed out on most of the OotP discussion, so please pardon my digression.  If y'all did discuss this, please let me know so that I can check out your posts and respond in the appropriate places.

Anyway, I think we have a pretty good idea what James & Sirius might be like if we had the chance to read their stories: Fred & George.  I've always liked the twins' comic relief in the series, and though I think the application of their intelligence is often misguided, I think they may be the smartest characters in the series.  Perhaps even moreso than Hermione, but I'm not 100 % certain.  Anyway, they blithely stuff Montague in a broken vanishing cabinet for the sake of 10 house points.  Maybe a total of twenty (10 per twin). A broken vanishing cabinet where he could have died of dehydration or starvation, I might add (In the twins's own words: "That could take weeks. I dunno where we sent him."). And while Umbridge no doubt would have expelled both of them for far less, I'm not at all convinced that Dumbledore would have. So there you have the parallel: two bright Gryffindor boys who value their own cleverness almost condemn to death a Slytherin boy. Montague had to try to apparate out of it. Since you cannot apparate on Hogwarts grounds, one can only imagine how he managed to do that... ("he nearly died doing it," Malfoy will tell us later in this book). Fred and George might not have known precisely what would happen to Montague, but it's clear that they knew something would. Weeks? A student missing for weeks?!  But if it's just a Slytherin, then it doesn't really matter, does it?

JK Rowling claims to be anti-bully and that's why she doesn't like Snape, but it seems she can overlook terrible bullying in her Golden Gryffindors. (True: a teacher bullying a student is a different magnitude from a student bullying another student, but why are all of the exceptions made for Gryffindors? 

17 April 2013

Book Review: The Son by Philipp Meyer

It took me quite a while to work my way through The Son. Partly this was because I picking up and putting down lots of other books between my readings of it, and partly because the book gets off to such a violent and wrenching start that I had to take it in very small doses.

But let me back up. If I had only one sentence to describe this book, I don't think I could improve upon this one-sentence summary from the publisher: a "multigenerational saga of power, blood, and land that follows the rise of one unforgettable Texas family from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the border raids of the early 1900s to the oil boom of the 20th century."

This book is powerful and fierce and extremely well written.  Cormac McCarthy seems to be the writer to whom most other reviewers are comparing Philipp Meyer, and I get that. I really do.  If you're a writer of literary fiction that features the American west, and if you don't shy away from depicting the violence of that time and place, then comparisons with Cormac McCarthy are inevitable.  I, however, find more of Philip Caputo's mark in Meyer's book than I do McCarthy's. That is, there is a stronger, driving narrative at work here, and Meyer seems far more concerned in moving his story along than he is in dazzling the reader with stunning but circuitous prose.

The Son jumps back and forth in narrative and time frame, and I was thankful more than once to have the McCullough family tree listed in the front of the book. The three primary narrators are, in birth order: Eli McCullough;  Eli's son, Peter; and Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne (J.A.). We get points of view ranging from Peter's journal entries to Eli's more straightforward first person narrative to the third person omniscient sections about Jeanne Anne.

Eli is by far the most compelling character, and most complicated to boot--both in terms of his life and my feelings towards him. Terrible things happen to him and to his family, but in turn he exacts some pretty dastardly violence on other characters. Kidnaped by Comanches as a boy and forced to endure the torture and slaughter of his mother, sister, and brother, he eventually becomes part of their band. When a few years later terrible straits necessitate his return to the white man's life, he is utterly self-aware of how ill-suited he is to this world. Adrift and caught between two very different codes of honor, he makes his own rules, and woe betide those who stand in his way, be they friend or foe.  The world, however, soon takes him to be man of action and a man of honor. I'd say they're only half-right.

Peter seems to be the least reliable narrator, but that might be because he is the character I have the least use for and thus I am inclined to dismiss him. His father's life of action completely overshadows and unmakes him. In his diary he pretends disgust regarding the wholesale slaughter of their neighbor and his entire extended family, but not so much that he actually does anything to keep it from happening. Still, the very act of journaling seems to expiate him of his guilt. If he records that he feels such unease, then it must make him a better man than his fellows.

Jeanne Anne, while not likable, still managed to elicit my sympathy as a woman competing in a man's world in Texas in the 1950s and later decades. Dismissed by her father and buoyed through adolescence only with the misty memories of her great-grandfather Eli's fondness for her, she is an interesting mix of traditional and modern. Sharp-minded and sharp-tongued in a time and place where neither was valued in a woman.

These people are largely unlikeable, but their collective story is certainly a compelling one. I was always aware while reading The Son that it was a good book, but it was really only when I came to the end that I realized just how good it was. I didn't love it, but somehow that feels completely irrelevant in the face of what Philipp Meyer has accomplished. He has de-romanticized the West as many people think of it, laying bare the basest of our collective instincts without lionizing any of them. And it's about here that I get into discussions of authorial intent with my coworkers--I feel that Meyer makes it clear for the reader just what a complicated piece of work that Eli and his family are, while at the same time Eli's peers have romanticized and lionized his life and actions. I don't think Eli labors under any illusions of himself, though.

Some passages I noted:

Jeanne Anne: "People made no sense to her. Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs, their lives lost in interior decorating, other people's outfits, and proper seating at parties. There had never been a place for a person like her (7)."

Jeanne Anne again: "She wondered how people would remember her. She had not made enough to spread her wealth around like Carnegie, to erase any sins attached to her name...The liberals would cheer her death. They would light marijuana cigarettes and drive to their sushi restaurants and eat food that had traveled eight thousand miles. They would spend all of supper complaining about people like her, and when they got home their houses would be cold and they'd press a button on a wall to get warm. They hated big oil, they hated Texas. But life as they knew it did not exist without Texas (85)."

Peter: "It occurred to me, as I watched the oil flow down the hill, that soon there will be nothing left to subdue the pride of men. There is nothing we will not have mastered, except, of course, ourselves (400)."

Eli: "You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it to protect people you loved, it never mattered. You did not see the Comanches with the long stare--there was nothing they did that was not to protect their friends or their families, or their band. The war sickness was a disease of the white man, who fought in armies far from his home, for men he didn't know, and there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion (435)."

I would not say that this book, as a rule, is humorous, but every once in a while it slyly sneaks in there, such as in these passages:

Eli: "Over many of the wagon trains heading west, away from the war, the Confederate flag could be seen flying proudly. They were in favor of the war as long as they did not have to fight it themselves, and I have always thought that is why California turned out the way it did (445)."

Jeanne Anne, on older men with younger lovers: "She wondered what it would be like to look into the mirror and see yourself, white haired, slough skinned, your wilting everything and uncountable skin tags; right next to some perfect young specimen of the human race. On the other hand, they were men. They likely thought their fiber drinks and sagging bellies were just as fine as cream gravy (545)."

This is one of those commitment books--if you decide to read it, it's going to take a goodly amount commitment on your part. But I think that if you're the kind of reader who likes to sink your teeth into an old-fashioned, epic-length book chock full of complications and contradictions and darn good writing, this is exactly the kind of book that you'll admire.

NB: I read an advance reader's edition of this book provided by my sales rep at my request. Ecco will publish the book in June 2013.

16 April 2013

Pulitzer 2013, or Thank Goodness They Picked a Winner This Time

Pulitzer winner, fiction 
The moments during the Pulitzer announcements were fun today--and they were the last peaceful moments before I heard about the bombs in Boston. My coworkers, Caitlin & Nieves, and I had some fun wagers going over which fiction titles we thought might make the cut. Not only that, but we were preparing unpleasant voodoo doll torture to the Pulitzer committee if they decided to pull a stunt like last year and not award any prize for fiction.

I walked around the store prior to the announcements, considering some of my favorite fiction from last year and reviewing my store's First Edition Club picks. My list's frontrunner, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk didn't even make the shortlist, much to my surprise.  It was both a personal and odds-on favorite for the award considering its award history.  And of course I gave a nod to Louise Erdrich's The Round House for its previous showing in award season.  Again, not a finalist.

Pulitzer finalist
I was quite surprised at the announcement of The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson -- not, I rush to qualify, because I didn't think the content deserved it, but because it doesn't adhere to that last little bit of Pulitzer-speak, "preferably dealing with American life." I actually had read it back in the fall of 2011 (mini review here) and  I had considered putting it and the other finalist, Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (my mini review of it is here), which I eliminated from my laminated list for being a story collection. Shows what I know.  I happen to admire both of these books when I read them, and they were both selections for our First Editions Club, so I imagine that our members are pretty happy about the news today. And just for the record, I happen to think that the hardcover design of The Orphan Master's Son is infinitely superior to the paperback's design.

Pulitzer finalist
Kudos go to my coworker Caitlin, who was the only staff member in our store who put The Snow Child on her list.  Plus, isn't that a fun cover?  I really am drawn to it. Still haven't read that one yet, but I've got a signed ARC around somewhere that I should track down...

What about y'all?  Were you surprised with the results or were you expecting those titles to win all along? What books were you hoping would win that didn't?

15 April 2013

Book Review: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Oh, my goodness.  I've been in a bit of a book-reading slump lately.  I say "book-reading" not to be redundant but rather to differentiate from my fanfic reading, which has most decidedly not been in a recent slump.  Up until today, it was taking me on average about three weeks to finish a single book, not least because I was actively reading about a dozen different ones and making no good headway in any of them.

Today, though, I began and finished David Sedaris' wonderful new essay collection, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls. Maybe it's because it was purely fun to read and not something I had to read for work is what did the trick, but my goodness, I was positively chortling through most of it.  Much to my husband's and my cats's dismay; the former because he actually has to do work today and the latter because it's much more difficult for them to sleep on my lap when I'm doubled over and shaking with laughter.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sedaris once when he was on tour for Me Talk Pretty One Day, a terrible day in July in Jackson, MS, when the store's air conditioning wasn't working and there were no windows to open. He was a serious trouper and very good natured about it, and for which I admired him.  Since then, I've listened to most of his books on audio, and a couple of years ago at the same bookstore, I attended another reading: this one in the comfort of air conditioning, accompanied by $2 beers.  Sedaris told a bizarre poo-in-hand story that prompted me to write one of my favorite blogposts [because apparently I never moved beyond the scatological phase, developmentally speaking], which you can find here.)

 That same night, I remember that my husband and I were the first to laugh at one of jokes in his "book titles that take on a whole new meaning when you remove one letter" sketch: The Count of Monte Cristo. Since it was in Mississippi, perhaps the crowd initially went to Crisco (which admittedly isn't all that funny) and it wasn't until Sedaris, waiting for the other shoe to drop, kept saying, with emphasis, The *Count* of Monte Cristo. At which point the crowd just hooted.

Speaking of owls, I loved this book.  I almost wasted a perfectly good cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee over breakfast this morning by snorting most of it through my nose. My husband, driven to distraction, actually had to crank up his music in the studio today while working in order to drown out my laughter. (Though this gesture somehow loses some of its potency since it was Sibelius he was cranking up.)

As with any collection, some pieces are stronger than others, and I particularly loved "Author, Author" and "Laugh, Kookaburra." There are some darker, "imagined pieces" (for lack of a better term, since "fiction" doesn't quite fit) in between the first person essays/anecdotes that sometimes veered beyond Sedaris' traditional balance of humor and sardonicism into uncomfortable territory.

Anyway, here are some passages that spoke to me.  Maybe they'll speak to you, too.

On things he wants to say to parents when their children are being obnoxiously whiny: "Listen, I'm not a parent myself, but I think the best solution at this point is to slap the child across the face. It won't stop its crying, but at least now it'll be doing it for a good reason."

On those creepy old men at church who constantly ask young people if they're dating yet: "[They'd] even refer to newborn babies as "lady-killers" and wonder how many hearts they had broken. Like it wasn't enough to be dating at the age of three weeks, you also had to be two-timing someone."

"Gambling to me is what a telephone pole might be to a groundhog. He sees that it's there but for the life of him doesn't understand why. Friends have tried to explain the appeal, but I still don't get it.  Why take chances with money?"

On mocking people: "It was one of those situations I often find myself in while traveling. Something's said by a stranger I've been randomly thrown into contact with, and I want to say, 'Listen. I'm with you on most of this, but before we continue, I need to know who you voted for in the last election.' If [the person's] criticism was coming from the same place as mine, if she was just being petty and judgmental, then we could go on all day, perhaps even form a friendship. If, on the other hand, it was tied to a conservative agenda, I was going to have to switch tracks."  (Oh, God, that's so true of me, too, that I read the passage twice and was embarrassed for both Sedaris and myself.)

Sedaris doesn't pull any punches when it comes to his observations of human behavior.  He must be uncomfortable to live with sometimes, but then he turns around and skewers himself with the same sense of vicious patheticism and I think, "well, okay, then."

NB: Little Brown will publish Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls later this month. I read an advance reading copy that was provided at my request from my sales rep. I will probably seek the audio version, too, for my car so I can enjoy it all over again!

14 April 2013

New Orleans (cont'd)

So, if you're just tuning in: in my previous New Orleans post, we were rolling ourselves in from second breakfast at Commander's Palace...we get back to the hotel and change into our Walking Around Clothes (as opposed to our Gussied Up For Special Meal clothes).  Most importantly this involves a change of footwear: the sidewalks and streets are notoriously uneven, so you need comfortable and sturdy shoes.  And despite the heat, I tend to wear closed-toe shoes because I have a pretty good idea of what comprises the puddles in parts of the Quarter--let's just say it's not primarily rainwater.

Alley view of St. Louis cathedral
Anyway, we walk around, listen to music, browse in shops, and in general bemoan the fact that we ate so much. We poke into the small but charming Faulkner House Books in Pirate's Alley behind the cathedral.  I once bought a first printing of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust there--near fine, in a very good dust jacket. Spent more money than I had, but the book has gone up in value since then, so I feel quietly justified. In a completely out of character move, I left without buying anything, first edition or otherwise, but did take some photos.

I believe this entire case is filled with Faulkner first editions.
The beautiful fiction section in Faulkner House Books
My friend Carla buys shoes the same way I buy books: with impeccable taste and great abandon. So when we found a store called Shoe-Be-Do, she was in heaven. I was mostly agog at the designs (and prices). I would swear that some of those shoes were more architectural wonders than something to  adorn the feet. I was pleasantly surprised that in the back they had actually had some Walking Around Shoes.  I tried on a pair, and while the sole felt divine, the straps caught under my outside ankle
in a decidedly abrading way.

I mean, really: who could wear these?
It was hard to drag Carla away from ShoeBeDo, but there were other stores calling our names. Along the way, I was pleasantly surprised to see the fellow I hereby dub Kora Guy playing on one of the street corners.  We paused to listen for a while, at which point he mentioned that he had CDs for sale for $15.  Feeling oddly shy, I walked away, but before I gained the following block I was feeling full of regret.  I vowed that if our paths crossed again that I would buy one.

Kora Guy
Eventually we wandered back to the hotel room to rest a bit and freshen up--not for dinner, as we were feeling decidedly antagonistic towards food.  But our friend Patrick came over again, so we visited for a couple of hours in the air conditioned confines of our room before heading out again. Carla was feeling a little ill, and also had a ton of work to do, so she stayed behind while Patrick, AW, and I ventured out.  Here is where things became a little comical.  AW is a vegetarian, all I wanted was a light salad or maybe some fresh veggies, and Patrick, who is at the best of times a somewhat picky eater, had given up breads and pastas for Lent. You'd think that in one of the culinary capitals of the US that we might be spoiled for choice, but that's where you'd be wrong. We walked around for nearly two hours looking for a place where we might all sit down together to eat, but we found nothing.  As I noted before, New Orleans is surprisingly vegetarian un-friendly.
Cafe du Monde
Naturally we wound up at the one place where we said at the beginning of the night we wouldn't go: Cafe du Monde. I think our exact words were, "Ugh--fried dough.  WAY too heavy after our other meals today. Let's go anywhere but Cafe du Monde." Poor Patrick had to content himself with a large chocolate milk.  I tried to make my meal a bit more healthful by getting milk and fresh-squoze orange juice. (You may say squeezed if you like.  I prefer squoze, with a nod to Jill Conner Browne.)

Anne Walton and I were actually debating sharing one order of beignets (they come 3/order), then wondered aloud who we were trying to fool?  Of course we couldn't share an order. That would just be silly. I mean, why hold back now?

Covered in a light but comprehensive dusting of powdered sugar, we walked back to the hotel, laughing and carrying on, while I was keeping a stealth eye (and ear) out  for Kora Guy.  No joy.  I'd have to keep my fingers crossed for the next day.  And by that, I mean Easter Sunday, where we had 10:30 reservations for another three-course brunch at Brennan's. Tune in next time for flaming breakfasts, outrageous Easter bonnets, and where not to stand for watching the French Quarter Gay Easter Parade.