16 October 2014

Book Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Forgive my rustiness, but I read this book on vacation back in July and neglected to review it then, so this review will be necessarily brief and vague. I've read a number of Lauren Oliver's books for YA, but Rooms is her first book written expressly for an adult audience.  I've enjoyed her books, including Delirium trilogy (incidentally, my review of which has had more hits on this blog than any other) and Panic, but I've always said that I wished she would write a book for adults that had more nuance than her books for teens.  With Rooms, it's as if she heard my plea.

Like her other novels, Rooms has multiple points of view, but unlike the pernicious and ever-pervasive present tense used in YA, this one actually dips into the past tense. Oliver also breaks her mold a bit by using both humans and ghosts to tell the story.  Two ghosts are first person narrators, and then Oliver mixes things up a bit by slipping into a third person narration for the various humans involved.

Minna and Trenton are siblings with a sizeable age gap, and when their father dies, they head to his rambling and slightly ramshackle country house to make arrangements.  Accompanying them are Caroline, their manipulative and alcoholic mother, and Minna's young daughter, Amy, and to say that they arrive at the house with a lot of emotional baggage is to engage in the most careless of understatement.

Alice and Sandra are two ghosts who have been trapped in this home for decades. They don't like much -- not the house, not the family, not each other -- and their bitterness comes across when it's their turn to narrate.

Moving from room to room in the house, the reader gradually gets a fuller picture of this broken family's lives, and the further along we go, the closer the story gets to taking a dark turn.  This is not a thriller of a ghost story, designed to raise hairs or shackles or whatnot. But it is a satisfying and occasionally creepy read whose real scariness lies in highlighting the existential alienation that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our time of hyper-connectivity.

Here's an early excerpt from one of Alice the ghost's sections:
I like making bets with Sandra. It breaks up the space -- the long, watery hours, the soupiness of time. Day is no longer day to us, and night no longer night. Hours are different shades of hot and warm, damp and dry. We no longer pay attention to the clocks. Why should we? Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk. Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew. And night is shivering, and the feel of mice snuffing around our skin. Divisions: that's what we need. Space and lines. Your side, my side. Otherwise, we begin to converge. That's the greatest fear, the danger of being dead. It's a constant struggle to stay yourself (3).
Oliver is a good writer and a very smart woman.  I had the pleasure of meeting her and listening to her read when she visited my bookstore a couple of weeks ago.  There were a lot of aspiring writers in the audience, and the time she spent answering their questions and the thought that went into her responses really impressed me. Frankly, I was flabbergasted when the publisher decided to send her to our little corner of western Massachusetts, considering that her other tour locations were place like Boston, Miami, Chicago, and New York.

I think that one of the reasons our store's event proposal stood out was our promise to have a ghost photo booth for the event.  Here's a photo with Lauren Oliver gamely posing in our photo booth, with a ghostly little girl emerging from the blowup of her dust jacket image.  (And here's a shout-out to my friend Liz, whose suggestions and props ensured the event's success!)

14 October 2014

Walking in Memphis... And Drinking in Memphis...And Eating in Memphis

One of many lovely cocktails that we consumed
This one had a crème de violette base 
Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Memphis to visit two of my oldest friends.  The three of us have known each other since we were sixteen and we attended high school and college together.  Ostensibly I made the trip south so that the three of us could plan our upcoming trip to Ireland in 2015, but naturally we did a good bit of those things we do best: eat, drink, and reminisce.

I miss the South on an almost daily basis, despite having lived in New England for more than a decade now, but comestibles are some of the things I miss most: sweet tea, cheese grits, biscuits, BBQ, and honeysuckle-infused vodka. Luckily in between our discussions of Dublin vs Belfast and the many allures of County Kerry, we had lots of time to indulge my cravings.

One of my favorite places I've visited with my friends is Brother Juniper's, and no trip to Memphis would be complete for me without stopping in for breakfast. Their cheese grits are superb (and of an ample serving), and I loved my open face Desperado omelet. It's only in recent years that I've taken to eating really savory breakfasts, but we were dining so late that the salsa and avocado helped ease me into lunch. I took half of my food home for snacking on later.

The world's best grilled cheese sandwich

We also hit up the Memphis farmers market early one afternoon when I heard that there were food trucks there.  I live in a pretty small town with no food trucks at all, so I'm always excited to sample what's on offer during street fairs, etc. My friends introduced me to what they referred to as the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world, and they weren't exaggerating. Or at least not much.  It's a simple grilled cheese sandwich, made sublime by the addition of an egg, a slice of tomato, and arugula.  The recommended hibiscus tea was the perfect accompaniment, not to mention a lovely, deep shade of crimson. Just to mix it up a bit, I ordered the chicken tacos with sliced avocado with homemade roasted tomato salsa and handmade corn tortillas.
My vegetarian California benedict
This vegetarian frittata was fantastic
On Sunday after church, we did a traditional jazz brunch with cocktails at The Majestic Grille in downtown Memphis. Their cocktail menu was so fetching that we resisted their fantastic mimosa prices.  For $15, you can get an entire bottle of sparkling wine and a large carafe of orange juice to make your own!

You'd think with all of that food that we'd be too full to order dessert, but when the desserts are served in tiny little shotglasses, who could possibly resist? And clearly I had to order the bubbly Prosecco cocktail that was created with a honeysuckle-infused vodka, made right in my home state of Mississippi.  So pretty!

Of course, it wasn't all eating and drinking and trip planning that weekend.  We took long walks around Carla's neighborhood, and while they were not quite as refreshing as a turn about the room, they did aid greatly in our digestion.  We also saw a couple of Little Free Libraries...

...And some lovely autumnal displays. Who says New England gets all of the color this time of year?

We poked around downtown and saw some interesting store fronts.  We also drove by the National Civil Rights Museum -- the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  My next trip to Memphis, I'd like to visit it properly.

We also went miniature golfing on the world's most disappointing course. Not a single windmill or water hazard in sight, even on the course that was allegedly challenging. Carla won. Still, the day was beautiful and even a little unseasonably cool.  (Which meant it was a high of 75 and not 100% humidity.) Naturally we had to reward our hard work with a stop at a famed Mexican gelateria. We may or may not have ordered a cool dozen cream popsicles in a dazzling array of flavors (we did), and I may or may not have eaten three of them the next morning for breakfast (I did). Avocado, sweet cream, pine nut, rum raisin.  They were all great, but the coconut was so damned amazing that I tried to figure out how I might get a lifetime supply home with me on the airplane...

These are amazing, y'all.  For realz.
One night we even acted like sophisticated grownups. We began our evening at the rooftop Twilight bar downtown to catch the sunset.  We thought since it was Sunday that it might be less crowded. Silly us.  It was packed, and we were lucky to find a small couch to sit together in the middle of the throng, much less along the railing for the actual sunset.

The "M"Bridge across the Mississippi

Still, we showed them. We waited until three women got up from their table to get to the Katy Perry. It was a beautiful evening, and we counted ourselves quite fortunate as we enjoyed the view, watching the barges make their way up the river as darkness fell. It was quite breezy up on the roof, and once the sun went down, we were all grateful for our wraps. We appreciated the fire pits that the bar lit, too, though perhaps the mood lighting could have been slightly less purple.

During our sundown conversation, it somehow came up that I'd never seen the Peabody Hotel, so we made our way there so I could see its splendor.  Their famed ducks were all tucked away safely for the night, but its public spaces were quite lovely. We enjoyed the live jazz piano for a while before heading back home. 
Rumor has it that they change out these
fresh flowers every single day.

Saw the ghost of Elvis...
Just a random nighttime scene downtown
Even though I had four nights in Memphis, the time flew by.  Then again, any time spent with loved ones not often seen will seem necessarily short.  I never did get my bbq, but that will have to wait for another time. Thus I leave you with a video of the song that lingered on the periphery of my consciousness during my trip.  

11 October 2014

Book Review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

I've been away in Memphis (about which, more anon), and before that I had an extremely busy week at work, so I've fallen behind with the bookish and bloggish things.  I don't know why it's always so difficult for me to jump back in with book reviews after being gone for a couple of weeks, but it's rainy and cold outside, so I'm going to spend my day writing posts, treating myself to episodes of Gilmore Girls interspersed between the actual work.  Should be fun.

I don't usually review books months before they're published, but it's already been a month since I've read this one, and if I wait much longer, I won't be able to write a review at all.  And this book is just so damned weird that frankly, I'd be doing you all a disservice if I held off, so here you go. You're welcome.

Let me preface this by saying that I've never read Miranda July before.  I had the vague notion that perhaps her fiction was a little experimental, or that something about her books was nontraditional, but beyond that?  No firm idea.

Meet Cheryl.  She's our first person narrator of this book, and she's a little bit crazy, but mostly in a garden-variety sort of way.  She's obsessed with her coworker, Philip, and she believes that they've been locked in a great love of destiny over many centuries, but that the right moment hasn't brought them together in this lifetime yet. She also has a bizarre connection with random babies, convinced that the spirit of a person named Kubelko Bondy is trapped inside the bodies of various babies and that she must rescue, or maybe liberate Kubelko, from the parents who claim him/her as theirs.

Okay, so perhaps Cheryl's craziness is more bonafide and less garden-variety.
Cheryl is the Cheese Man equivalent in that episode of Buffy
She works from home for a company that uses pseudo-Japanese customs, and one day her bosses inform her that their daughter Clee will be coming to live with Cheryl. Neither party is happy about this, and Clee is downright abusive to Cheryl, up until the moment they decide that reenacting self-defense scenes from self-help/workout video tapes is the perfect foreplay. Foreplay that takes months to lead anywhere, I might add.

And in the meantime, Philip, Cheryl's lover-from-many-lifetimes-but-not-this-one-yet, asks for Cheryl to be the decision maker for when he and his new teenage girlfriend may consummate their relationship. Because Cheryl is so very balanced between yin and yang. Her masculine and her feminine. She is clearly the right person to arbitrate Philip's sex life. So he keeps texting Cheryl updates on their non-penetrating sexual activity while waiting for her go-ahead.

And in the other meantime, Cheryl has started having all of these outlandish and occasionally violent sexual fantasies involving almost everybody she sees.

Spoiler alert, sort of.  We learn this about 45 pages into the book, but this information would directly color your reading of the early part of the book, so here's fair warning:  Cheryl is a transgender character and is pretty marginalized among her office workers in the book. It's sometimes difficult to tell if she is marginalized among them because she's transgender or because she's really, really crazy. 

There's also a gardener, who may or may not be homeless, who had an arrangement with the previous owner of Cheryl's house, and a complicated bit about a vat of live snails. And that's all before Clee gets pregnant and has her baby. Who may or may not be another Kubelko Bondy. Really, I'm just getting started here.

This book is bizarre.  It's also really funny, but more than the funny bits and the bizarre bits, it's mostly just disturbing. Here is a sampling of some of the writing so you can get the flavor of Cheryl's narrative:

It was Rick, the homeless gardener who came with the house. I would never hire someone to lurk around my property and invade my privacy, but I couldn't think of a way to fire him when I moved in, because then he would think I was less open-minded than the previous owners, the Goldfarbs. They gave him a key; sometimes he uses the bathroom. I try to find a reason to leave before he arrives, which is not so easy at seven A. M. Sometimes I just drive around for the whole three hours until he's gone. Or I drive a few blocks away, park, and sleep in my car. Once he spotted me, on his way back to his tent or box or whatever, and pressed his smiling, stubbly face against the window. It had been hard to think of an explanation while still half-asleep (11).  
The conclusion I came to -- and it was important to come to a conclusion because you didn't want these kinds of thoughts to just go on and on with no category and no conclusion -- was that girls these days, when they weren't hugging boys unromantically, were busy being generally aggressive (42). 

Should you read The First Bad Man (which incidentally takes its name from one of the characters in the aforementioned self-defense videos)?  Sure.  But maybe in smallish doses so that the sheer absurdity doesn't overwhelm you. By the time I got to the middle of this book, I was pretty much squirming constantly and feeling uncomfortable, but I also suspect that is one of the author's intentions.

NB: This book will be published in January 2015 by Scribner, and I read an advance reader's edition that was provided at my request by the publisher. 

04 October 2014

CHEER AND ROVING IN LAS VEGAS: A Guest Post by Chrysler Szarlan

Our guest author, Chrysler.   

Hi, y'all.  I'm away in Memphis for the weekend, but I bribed asked my co-worker, Chrysler Szarlan, to  fill in for me with a guest post.  Chrysler's new book, The Hawley Book of the Dead is a wonderful and richly atmospheric debut, and I hope to post my review of it soon.  It's the story of real magicalism, intrigue, and witchery, and it's one of the funnest books I've read in a long time.


When the heroine of my novel, The Hawley Book of the Dead, let me know that she was a magician, and a famed Las Vegas illusionist at that, I said, "Really? Las Vegas? Wouldn't you rather be a poet in Key West or something?"

For I am a writer, and a reader, most inspired by place. I love traveling while reading of the places I'm traveling to. For trips to California, I bring Steinbeck and John Muir. For Ireland, I stock up on Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen (though she was Anglo-Irish). For Europe, Henry James. When I do research for my writing, I love to immerse myself in the places I write about. And I had zero interest in Las Vegas. Especially since my reading set in Las Vegas had been limited to Stephen King's post-apocalyptic version in The Stand, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the chapter in Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which, oddly, also mentions my tiny hometown of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. 

In my mind, the city was not pretty. It was as seedy as it was glitzy, and just as crime-drenched as sun-drenched. But I was compelled by my characters. So I went, husband and friend Leon in tow, to help me navigate. We found ourselves in Vegas on a windy March morning. 

And I LOVED it, almost immediately.

It was over the top, the neon city rising from the desert, as if by magic. It was magical at every turn. Our hotel room balcony had a view of the New York City skyline, the Chrysler building, and the Statue of Liberty at 1/3 scale, but plenty impressive.

There were jaw-droppingly befeathered showgirls in the bathrooms.

And very cool retro neon on the old Fremont side of town, more than I could have imagined in one place.

We rode horses in the desert.

And got our photo taken with a million dollars, for free.

We even went for gondola rides at The Venetian. Altogether, we found Las Vegas to be a cheery, sunny place for roving.

And I found books about Las Vegas, and the surrounding desert, books I could love and sink myself into, as I sank into the huge Jacuzzi in the bathroom of our suite, after a long day of touring the world in miniature. The Art of Disappearing, by Ivy Pochoda, about a magician in Las Vegas whose magic is as real as the magic my heroine possesses, just grittier and even more troublesome. Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, brilliant, stark stories of the city and the desert, reminding me a little of Annie Proulx. For non-fiction,Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone, the story of his quest to win at the Magic Olympics and become a master magician.
So, altogether it was a great trip. I found inspiration for my magical heroine and the series she would inhabit, at the big illusion shows of David Copperfield and Criss Angel, at Area 51, and the very ancient, petroglyphed Valley of Fire. But I expected inspiration from those places. What I hadn’t expected was the vibrancy and the real, true beauty that the shining city held, and the fine books about it that I discovered. As unexpected as the proverbial white rabbit pulled out of a hat, the first time you ever saw it. 
Chrysler with an Evil Rabbit
So, to spice things up, Chrysler and I are doing a joint giveaway for a signed, first edition of The Hawley Book of the Dead.  All you need to do to enter is leave a comment here and hop on over to Chrysler's author website, www.chryslerszarlan.com, and sign up!

01 October 2014

Last Month in Review: September 2014

Hi, y'all.  So, September was not a stellar reading month for me, or at least not in terms of the number of books I completed.  Part of this is due to my having simultaneously started reading LOTS of books in the second half of the month, all of which I'm still working on.  But part of it because I watched a lot of excellent television.  God bless Netflix, where I've been introduced to the various joys of Call the Midwife, True Detective, Lark Rise to Candleford, and Lena Dunham's Girls. All wildly different, but all well done. Also,

In chronological order, here's what I read:

1. Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  This is the only book that I read and reviewed in September and I wasn't crazy about it.  Though I'm glad I was able to get another book in translation under my belt for the year.

2. Descent by Tim Johnston.  Debut novel, literary thriller.  Girl gets abducted one morning when out for a run in the woods.  The book then gives us the perspectives of her family, her abductor, and even the girl herself in alternating chapters.  Really well done and I hope to get around to reviewing it.  Soon.  Ish.

3. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton.  This one's getting LOTS of pre-pub buzz among booksellers, but the more I think about it, the more "meh" I feel about it.  Not sure if I'll review this one or not.

4. The First Bad Man by Miranda July.  I have no idea what to make of this book.  It's funny and weird and disturbing in pretty equal measure.  I reckon I ought to review it, with a tagline like that.

5. Yes Please by Amy Poehler.  The long-awaited memoir/humor book from a favorite comedian. I liked it, but it really should have had a stronger editorial hand behind it. I won't review this one, as there will be plenty of others out there singing its praises.

6. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.  Oh, wow, I really thought this book was terrific, though my opinion did vacillate a bit over the duration. This was probably my biggest surprise of the month, as I'd spoken to a couple of other readers who really panned it. Because of that, I never would have picked it up to read, but then it made the short list for the Booker prize this year, and then I needed to acquire a new audio book for a road trip, and, well, it just happened. I hope to review it soon.

So, not entirely shabby but not impressive either.  I'm having a great time with all 5 of my current reads right now, so I hope October will be good.

What about y'all? What books surprised or delighted or disappointed you in September?