31 January 2015

Last Month in Review: January 2015

I'm a little surprised how much reading I was able to accomplish in January, as I felt a little slumpy.  Or rather, I read quite a bit but didn't get super-excited about any new book in particular. However, I re-read some fan fiction and listened to the audio of a book I'd read previously, and all of those I loved, so there's that. I bought a new camera in January, so I've been spending some time learning how to use it -- it's my first digital SLR and it's got more bells & whistles than any of my previous cameras. That's one of my photos above.

I'm also pleased with myself that I've been blogging at a more regular pace than in previous years. In chronological order, here is what I read:

1. The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein.  Alas, I'm not sure I was the best reader for this book.  Interesting-sounding and featuring an exotic landscape (tiny Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle), and with all of the literary cred one could hope for in a novel, but I just didn't get it. The book will pub in June and I will be meeting the author in about one week at Winter Institute. I probably will not end up reviewing this one.

2. Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. This was an audio book that I started at the beginning of December, but it took me quite a while to get through.  I probably would never have selected this for myself, but I received a complimentary copy from Random House Audio.  The reader was good, and I think Lethem is a helluva writer.  When it was good, it was very, very good but when it was bad, it was boring.  Most of the time I didn't care one whit about the characters or their situations.  I don't think I'll do a review of this one, either.

3. The Best Revenge, parts I and II by Arsinoe de Blassenville.  My disappointing fiction made me turn to fan fiction, and this story doesn't disappoint.  What if Severus Snape had been Harry Potter's first contact in the magical world?  This novel-length work eliminates the Gryffindor and Slytherin biases from the original series, while still keeping most of the key players firmly in character.  Harry gets sorted into Hufflepuff, Hermione into Ravenclaw, Draco into Slytherin, and Neville into Gryffindor, and these four, plus Harry's Hufflepuffian cohort create ickle firstie mischief.

4. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Review here. I liked a lot about this epistolary book but felt it would have been SO much better at half the length, or with some actual character development, or something. This felt like the literary equivalent of a brilliant SNL sketch that got expanded into a full length film -- great material stretched far too thin.

5. Girl at War by Sara Nović. This debut novel explores the Yugoslavian civil war through the eyes of Ana, a girl whose life is utterly changed by it. We get a dual portrait of Ana as a girl during the war and again 10 years later as a university student in America, as she tries to reconcile her very different lives within herself.  Highly recommended. This book will be published in May 2015. I hope to review it eventually.

6. Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian. Another war novel, this time set during the Armenian genocide in Turkey, told from the POV of a young Turkish boy & an Armenian girl during the conflict, and from the POV of the grandson of the Turk in modern times. This is the second novel I've read (after Chris Bohjalian's Sandcastle Girls) that deals with the Armenian genocide, and it reminded me once more how often fiction informs my knowledge of world history. This one will be published in the upcoming months, and I hope to review this one eventually, too.

7. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I often find that listening to an audio book provides a very different experience from reading the book, and this was no exception.  I'd read this book almost two years ago in ARC form and liked it quite a lot.  Recently I decided to purchase the audio because Ann herself was reading it, and I fell in love with this book. She's an excellent reader and the book had a much deeper emotional resonance with me after listening to her. I'm a bona fide fiction girl from way back, but this book is now my favorite book Ann has written.

8. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison.  I liked this one significantly more than her last 2-3 novels, and it might even be my second favorite of her books, after The Bluest Eye.  This one is spare, either all plot or all character, with very few descriptors in between.  It's almost like she said, "Fuck it.  I'm 83 and I don't have time for any filler."  This book will pub in April and I hope to review it one of these days.

9. Survivors by Dyce.  This is a novella-length work of Harry Potter fan fiction (probably about 75 pages, so I'm counting it) set after the war.  It's the development of a friendship between Hermione and Snape, then a gradual romance, inspired in part by Jane Eyre. Fluffy but good.

10. The Given World by Marian Palaia.  Here's another novel that just wasn't the right book for me.  If you think you'd like the literary love child of Rachel Kushner & Lena Dunham, though, it might be the right book for you.  It's a story of loneliness and finding oneself, it's redefining what family can mean, and it takes a hard look at how the loss of a loved one at an early age can haunt you for the rest of your life.

11. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce.  This is a companion novel to her previous book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and definitely not a standalone read. Pretty good book, and I hope to review this one, too, but my original review of Harold Fry is here. If you loved Harold Fry (and I really did), you should definitely read this one, but if the first one left you wondering what all the fuss was about, this one won't clear it up for you.

Eleven books isn't bad, but only one of them (the Toni Morrison) qualifies for a spot on my diversify-your-life shelf, and only one of them is non-fiction. What about you, gentle reader? What delighted or surprised or disappointed you in your January reading?

30 January 2015

Crazy Customer Requests

    Glory gets it.     
As anybody who has ever held a customer service position knows, you can get a lot of crazy requests.  It's not our job to judge, but to help the customer obtain whatever it is that s/he is looking for. So be it. I made it all the way through the Holiday 2014 season without getting much flak, but this afternoon I had a curious conversation.

We get crazy questions at the bookstore all the time, but usually they're prefaced with something like, "This is probably a long shot, but do you have..." or "You probably don't carry X, but I thought I'd check, just in case."  I like these questions.  I LOVE that customers think of our little independent bookstore as a place that might carry unlikely items: frisbees (seasonally), nail polish (sometimes), chemistry goggles (yes, during textbook season), swimming goggles (no), drumsticks (no), glitter glue (obviously), scented markers (usually), wine bottle stoppers (usually), giant carabiners (only recently), or novelty socks (always).  I could go on, but you get the picture.  Bookstores carry a lot more than just books these days, and I can't tell you how gratifying it is when a customer expresses amazement over our non-book selection.

It's when they get really ticked off when we don't carry something that I have to shake my head.  I've been told off for not carrying swimming goggles (see above) or drumsticks (ditto).

Here's a rough transcription of my conversation with a customer today on the phone:

Woman (with a severe case of up-speak): Hi? I'm calling to see what kinds of things you might have on wrestling for kids?

Me: Sure, I can look into that for you.  How old is the child?

Woman: He's five?

Me: Okay, great. So, ah, wrestling...um...did you have in mind something like a book about the WWF, or maybe something more like greco-roman wrestling?

Woman: What?

Me: I mean, do you want something like the kind of wrestling you might see on tv for entertainment? Or more like wrestling as a sport?

Woman: I just want stuff on wrestling?

Me: Okay, let me get your name and phone number, and I'll see what books are out there, and I'll give you a call right back.

Woman: Actually, I want wrestling DVDs.

Me: Oh, I'm sorry, we don't carry DVDs but I will see what I can order for you.

Woman: You don't have any wrestling DVDs in stock?

Me: No, I'm sorry, but our warehouse might have just the thing if you'd like me to research it for you.

Woman: Well, what books do you have in the store?

Me: I'm afraid we don't carry much in stock in terms of wrestling books for 5 year olds, but I can see what...

Woman: *Interrupting me and mysteriously losing her up-speak*  Oh, no.  I need it today. Are you telling me you can't help me at all? I called you because I thought you were supposed to be a good bookstore. I should have just called Barnes & Noble!

Yeah, I'm sure the Barnes & Noble the next town over has plenty of wrestling DVDs suitable for a five year old.  Good luck, lady. I could hear the dudgeon in her voice as she slammed the phone down.

I should have just directed her to the internet to find suitable gifs, for they are a-plenty!

28 January 2015

Mini Book Review: Aquarium by David Vann

So, remember those cupcakes I mentioned earlier this week, vis a vis the superiority of some mini-things over their regular-sized versions?

Readers, I now give you pygmy goats, in case you weren't convinced of the beauty of the abbreviated:

Leapgoat is the new leapfrog.
Image found here.
Now that I've established beyond a shadow of a doubt the superlative status of small things, here's another mini book review for you.

David Vann's newest novel, Aquarium, is a work of beauty, albeit a complicated one, on multiple levels.  Caitlin narrates her own coming of age story from the vantage point of adulthood, lending it a certain Scout-from-To Kill a Mockingbird feel. All Caitlin's life, it's been just her and her mom, so when an older man befriends twelve-year-old Caitlin at the local aquarium, it sets in motion a peculiar and horrifying sequence of events.

Besides her mom, Caitlin's main source of security is the aquatic environment she surrounds herself with each day after school.  Studying fish behavior and their habitats provides both comfort and structure, and she applies the lessons of ichthyology to her own life to better understand other people. The pages of the book are interspersed with photographs of different kinds of fish, lending a physical beauty to the book not often encountered these days in fiction.

David Vann is an author much more widely read in Europe than in his own country, and I'm not entirely sure why. This book ventures into emotional territory that is dark enough to please readers of Cormac McCarthy and is luridly bizarre enough to entice those readers seeking something out of the ordinary in their novels.

Aquarium will be published by Atlantic Monthly in early March, and I read an advance reading copy provided to me at my request by the publisher. This book also qualifies for a spot on my diversify-your-life shelf because at least one main character is LGBT.  It's also printed in two colors throughout (text in black, with running heads, title, and the initial letter at the open of every chapter in aqua), with, as I mentioned above, the full-color fish reproductions dotting the text.  Here are some photos:

25 January 2015

Mini Book Reviews! I love cupcakes and GOD LOVES HAITI

What does one do when one has dozens of books already read, not enough time to review them all, and lacking the motivation to write them all even if I had nothing but time?

Mini reviews!  Mini-versions of things are often so much better than the full-sized ones, anyway.  I give you cupcakes as evidence:

Why don't I have these in my face right now?  Life is hard.
Image found here
Now that we're agreed that mini things are often the best things, I feel good about giving y'all a couple of mini book reviews this week, starting with this one:

Dimity Elias Léger's debut novel, God Loves Haiti, opens with a scene of devastation moments after the 2010 earthquake ripped open the capital city of Port Au Prince. Natasha is newly married to the president of Haiti but in love with a young man named Alain, and we get chapters told from each point of view in the days leading up to and the weeks immediately following the quake.

This book put me very much in mind of Junot Díaz's writing, and his blurb, in fact, graces the front of the book.

Told with equal parts warmth and black humor, this novel is, more than anything else, a love song to the complicated and problematic nation and its resilience. As somebody whose cultural home is the similarly complicated and problematic state of Mississippi, I could immediately relate to and appreciate Léger's simultaneous love and frustration for a homeland that is not likely to be easily understood by outsiders.

I greatly admired this book, and if it weren't for the last few pages of epilogue, I could even say that I wholeheartedly loved it. That not withstanding, I believe that Léger is well on the way to writing a name for himself.

This book was published earlier this month from Amistad, a division of HarperCollins, and I read an advance reading copy provided to me at my request.  This book also qualifies for my diversify-your-life shelf because the author and the three principal characters are all POC. 

21 January 2015

Book Review: Descent by Tim Johnston

I don't read a lot of thrillers.  I used to, back when I was first a bookseller.  I loved the the adrenaline rush, but when I reached my thirties, something changed.  Now, instead of that excitement, what I experience is a much more dreadful feeling.  My overactive imagination keeps me from sleeping for days (or more precisely, nights), and I no longer look forward to those moments when my heart races in time with the plot.

I've also become a much pickier reader, especially now that I'm in my forties.  Where I once would have tolerated formulas and shabby writing for the sake of a plot, I don't have much patience for bad writing any more. I don't need beautiful writing every time out of the gate, not by any means.  But I do need writing that is serviceable, that carries the reader along without drawing attention to itself by how bad it is. In my experience, good writing and thrillers don't always, or even often, go hand in hand.

Reading Tim Johnston's new novel, Descent, was an act of great trust, and one bound by affection, too, when I got the request from Algonquin. I know I've said this before, but I love the folks at Algonquin.  You know the old joke about when being asked to jump, the correct response is, "How high?"  Well, when it comes to Algonquin and their requests for me to read something, my immediate response is "How soon?"

Thus it was that I curled myself up in bed one rainy afternoon back in...when was it? [Checks Goodreads] yes, August...with this book.  I read and read. I dragged myself from bed to shower, and then back to bed to read some more.  By the time I was 75 pages from the end, I'd grown a little stiff from reading in bed, so I moved to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. More the fool, I.

Learn from my mistake, peoples. Do NOT allow yourself to be interrupted during the last seventy-five pages of this book. My husband interrupted me not once, not twice, but three times.  By the third time, we had a Situation on our hands.

That's really just the mark of a good book, isn't it? A book that is so engrossing that you're actively contemplating homicide as an alternative to being interrupted?

Hmmm, by now you might be wondering what this book is about. That is an excellent thing to be wondering about. Let me tell you:

Caitlin is a young cross country star, and when she graduates from high school, her parents take her and her brother Sean on a trip to Colorado to celebrate.  One morning she sneaks out of the hotel room with Sean to go for a run, but she never comes back.  In the meantime, a Good Samaritan calls their parents because Sean's been found on the side of the road, injured from a hit-and-run, but when he comes to in the hospital, he has no clear recollection of what happened to him or to Caitlin.

This starts the nightmare years for the family. Mom, Dad, Sean, Caitlin, the Sherriff, and others in the small Colorado town all take a turn at the narrative helm as time goes on. Mom eventually moves back home, Dad stays in Colorado to keep searching for Caitlin, but how can they possibly return to normalcy when their lives will never be normal again?

As a psychological portrait of a family torn apart, particularly with Sean who is wracked with survivor's guilt, Johnston does a great job. Their descent [see what I did there?] into destructive behavior is both gritty and convincing, and the portrayal of a town who wants to move on vs the father who won't let them is moving.

Taut and tense in all the right places, filled with heartbreakingly quotidian scenes in between as life goes on, this story of a daughterless family, a girl, and her years-long captivity is that rara avis: a truly literary thriller. 

19 January 2015

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

I read this book months ago, and therefore my memory will skew this review to the fuzzy side of the spectrum.  But it was very charming and I wanted to share my thoughts about it. In fact, my distance from reading this novel may, in fact, make my review gentler than it otherwise would have been.

Emma Hooper is a Canadian writer living in England, so one of the first things I noticed about this book was the subtle shift in sensibility.  I read largely American writers, and while there's no such thing as a single American sensibility when it comes to fiction writing, Emma and Otto and Russell and James doesn't feel American. The second thing I noticed about this book is that all of the major [human] players are octogenarians.  Since I've long held that age is the final frontier in fiction, this book earns a spot on my diversify-your-life shelf.  (Seriously, name the last book you might have read where most of the characters were over 75. There aren't that many.  I bet you can name many more books where the characters are non-white or GLBT, which are the two more common earmarks for diversity.)

Anyway, Etta and Otto and Russell are three closely knit old friends.  Quick backstory: Otto and Russell have been best friends, raised almost as siblings, since they were small boys in a backwater farming community in Saskatchewan.  Back before WWII, Etta was their teacher, not much older than her oldest students.  Otto went to war, but Russell, having suffered from a tractor accident in his youth, did not.  Otto fell in love with Etta via the letters they wrote back & forth while he was away, while Russell fell in love with Etta when they were the only two young people left behind.  This does not mean, however, that we have a love triangle à la dystopian YA novels.  No, indeedy. Otto comes home from the war and marries Etta, Russell buys the farm adjacent to Otto's, and they are lifelong companions

The present story: Etta is 82 and ever so slowly sinking into dementia.  One morning, Otto wakes up to find that Etta has left him a note, saying that she wants to see the ocean.  Not to worry, she'll walk there so he can keep the truck, and she'll try to remember to come back.


You want to know the strangest thing about this book?  That Otto just lets her leave. I confess that this was a disbelief quite difficult for me to suspend.  I don't know about you, but I'd never be able to let my much-beloved lifelong companion with dementia wander off on her own, on foot, for thousands of miles, to try to find the ocean. This story is otherwise rooted very much in reality, but there are flights of allegory and fanciful moments that the reader must simply accept before being able to proceed.

The story begins with Etta's letter to Otto, then uses alternating chapters to tell Etta's and Otto's and Russell's stories, both in the past and in the present.  And as for the titular James?  Well, he's a coyote. A singing coyote who becomes Etta's friend and protector on her journey across the Canadian provinces to the Atlantic Ocean. ("James liked singing; he was always singing. Coyotes have voices a bit like oboes; they are not unpleasant. Etta would sing along with him sometimes, and sometimes she would just listen.  Mostly he sang cowboy songs.")

While Etta is on her pilgrimage to the sea, Russell strikes off to the Great North and Otto stays home, trying to re-create recipes that Etta left behind for him, writing letters to Etta that he will never send, and creating a yard full of papier mâché animals. Each one has a task at hand, each one feels driven to complete it, and like the vagaries of the human heart, the reader couldn't possibly determine which is the more real, the more correct, thing to do.

I confess that my biggest issue with the book, other than having to accept Otto's neglect when Etta leaves, was that while reading, I felt like I'd covered much of the same emotional territory (and a similar plot line) a few years ago when reading Rachel Joyce's wonderful novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If I hadn't read Joyce's novel first, I have no doubt that I would be far more delighted with Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

That being said, there is much to recommend about this book.  There's a real sweetness and charm to this novel, a certain quirky awkwardness in the characters. The emotional arc of the story is very satisfying, even if I couldn't always suspend my disbelief.  Above all, Emma Hooper has written Etta's dementia and periods of lucidity with such tenderness and beauty that she absolutely broke my heart.

This is a quiet book, but a book that is well worth reading.  The prose style is serviceable and solid, and I think it would appeal to fans of those other, quiet books with similarly unwieldy titles: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise; and the aforementioned The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

This book has already been published in the UK and Canada and, I think, Turkey, but Simon and Schuster will publish it here in the US this week. Out of curiosity, which cover do you think is better? The image at the top is the cover on my Advance Reading Copy and the image at the bottom is the final  dust jacket cover.

16 January 2015

Book Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Let me say this first: Holly Black's new novel, The Darkest Part of the Forest, is the first YA fantasy that I've read in a few years that I loved.  (Quite possibly since she published The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which I liked a lot, but didn't love quite as much as I love this book.)

Hazel Evans and her brother Ben have grown up in Fairfold, a town that is to the faerie world what Sunnydale, California, is to the vampire world. People occasionally disappear, and if they happen to be outsiders, well, then there doesn't need to be too much fuss.  The people of Fairfold know the rules and raise their children to know them, too. They've reach an uneasy détente with the Fair Folk.

In the woods just outside of town, there's a glass coffin with a boy inside -- a heartbreakingly beautiful boy with horns, locked in an enchanted sleep. It just so happens that Hazel and Ben are both in love with the boy, pouring out their secrets and desires to him as the years go by.  The others kids in Fairfold like to party 'round (and on top of) the coffin, but occasionally one of them goes too far, with unfortunate consequences.  The glass itself is unbreakable, or so they all think, since the glass coffin endures through generations of drunk kids doing their best to shatter it.

Then one day, the glass coffin lies in shards, the boy inside gone missing. That same morning, Hazel wakes up with bits of the forest covering her and her bedclothes, and she doesn't know how they got there.  Oh, and maaaaaybe there's a sword. And maaaaaybe she's been losing time and blacking out about certain things.  And did I mention that in her youth, Hazel made a rash bargain with the Faerie King and that for days she's been receiving mysteriously ominous messages regarding her promise?

In the mean time, strange things are beginning to happen in Fairfold.  The balance between the townspeople and the faerie world tips and the people need a scapegoat.  Perhaps they've found it in Jack, who is Ben's best friend and who also happens to be changeling.  Sorry, should have mentioned that bit earlier!

Here are some other bits that might be important to know: Ben has a magically-bestowed gift of music! And as a child, Hazel plays at being a brave knight while her brother sings, and together they drive off the dark spirits of the forest! But then Hazel kisses the boy her brother loves, or rather, maybe that boy kisses her (aside: Hazel kisses a lot of boys.  It's kind of her thing.). But from that day onward, Hazel and Ben's relationship changes.

Really, there is so much going on here.  Holly Black plays with standard tropes, standing many on their heads and letting a few run the expected course, which constantly kept me guessing.  Which ones would she keep intact? Which ones would turn off at a 90 degree angle? And which ones would she invert altogether? Holly's writing is good and solid, never taking the reader out of the story, and she hits just the right blend of plot, character and pacing, overlaying it all with a cloak whose warp is humor and whose woof is darkness, so you can never really separate one from the other.  It's a coming of age tale, it's love and romance, it's a high quest adventure, and at the end of the day, it's also a story of loyalty and family.  It's brilliant.

My bookstore was lucky enough to host the book launch for Holly earlier this week.  Some fellow booksellers from Brookline Booksmith made the trek to our store for the launch, and we went all-out for it, dressing up in costume, serving faerie wine (drink it if you dare!), and even creating our own glass coffin so that attendees could use it for selfie photo ops. We had a grand and glorious time!  Standing room only, and a room full of fans, friends, and other great authors.

Holly, signing stock in the back.  This is
where the magic happens!
Showing a fellow bookseller how to
create my custom spiral display
Beware the faerie wine, ladies!
Here I am in the glass coffin
My amazing coworker, Hannah, who planned the
event and co-created the coffin
Holly trapped in a device of her own making
(photo courtesy of Hannah Moushabeck)
You can see authors Sarah Rees Brennan
and Cassandra Clare in the audience here. Not
pictured, but in also attendance, were Kelly Link,
Gavin Grant, and Deborah Noyes
How many booksellers can you fit into
 a glass coffin with Holly Black?
NB: Little, Brown published this book in the US on Tuesday, 13 January, and I read an advance reading copy provided by the publisher at my request several months ago. This book qualifies for my "diversify your life" label because there is one main character who is gay and a secondary character who is bi-sexual, at least by human standards.  My guess is that the fair folk don't gauge sexuality the same way we do.

11 January 2015

Book Review: Dear Committee Members

Julie Schumacher has written an epistolary novel set in academia. Jason Fitger is a creative writing professor in the English department at a "second tier research university,"  and it's his various letters of inquiry and recommendation that comprise the book.  He, perhaps rightly, feels that Payne University is   unfairly marginalizing the humanities, and he spends much of his time writing letters of complaint to the various deans of the various schools bemoaning this fact.  The rest of the time he writes ironic, satiric, and generally completely unhelpful (and often inappropriate) letters of recommendations for his current and previous students in their efforts to enter law school, MFA programs, writing residencies, divinity school, or just to get a campus work-study job.

Fitger is clearly beleaguered, which isn't helped by the facts that his department chair is a professor of sociology, for Christ's sake, that his building is under renovation to benefit the more profitable Econ department while being a health hazard for the English department, and that he isn't well-liked at Payne.  No doubt the latter has something to do with his writing inappropriate letters to his ex-wife and ex-lover, also employed on campus, and his thinly-veiled fictionalized accounts of both women in his most  recently published novel. Or maybe the general dislike of Fitger on campus stems from his own general misanthropy.

As much as I appreciate the tagline about a book that "puts the pissed back into epistolary," this was not the book for me.  It was just too much of the same thing, page after page.  Reading the letters one or two at a time might be a better way to approach the book, but reading it in one sitting made me often wonder why I was bothering.  Sure, the narrative voice is both smart and snarky, but there are only so many times I can read variations on a theme of the same 2-3 letters.

This book would have been much more successful for me if it had been presented either in a much shorter format (an epistolary short story, if you will), or not presented as a novel at all.  Since there is no character growth until the penultimate letter in the collection, this could just as easily have been published as a humor book, a collection of bogus letters from the frontlines of academia, etc. That way, most people wouldn't be tempted to sit down and read the book straight through.

It's not that I do not recommend this book, per se, but I do recommend taking it in short doses. Here's one particularly good letter, written on behalf of a student applying for a job at a liquor store:

Steve Geng is a senior here at the university, an English/Spanish double major who finagled his way into an independent study (typically I manage to dodge such requests) -- namely, the creation of a mini-anthology of short hallucinatory narratives, each of which begins with a young male speaker (coincidentally named SteveGeng) who has ingested a controlled substance. I believe narrative #1 relies on Adderall, numero dos on mushrooms, and #3 on gin.  
Comely and articulate, Mr. Geng is prone to dreamy non-sequiturs that have endeared him to his peers. I predict that young women will flock to your store in the hopes of hearing him decipher the labels on Chilean and Argentinean wine.

If that excerpt floats your boat, then give this book a try.  Just not all at once.

NB: This book was damaged in transit to my bookstore, where we are informed by the publisher that we must either donate or destroy said damaged items.  I "donated" it to myself to read it this weekend because we've been selling quite a few copies of this book and I wanted to see what it was all about. I will "donate" it back to the store where it will get boxed up with other damaged books to be donated to a local non-profit.

08 January 2015

Review: Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

I have a small problem: I will read a book, like it, and intend to review it.  "Intend" being the operative word in this scenario. Then, three months later when the book is actually published, I've forgotten most of what I want to say about it.  Also, I read the book on a digital ARC to begin with, and anything that I highlighted disappeared along with the entire text on the publication date, so that's just one more layer of obfuscation that I'm dealing with in trying to write a review.

I could resolve to review books I read in a more timely manner, I suppose, but I know myself well enough to know that it will never happen.  Not unless by some miracle I got hired for big bucks so I could quit my day job in order to write really vague and occasionally unprofessional reviews, and that ain't likely to happen.

Yup, that's me all right.
Thus, I give you an incoherent and rather hazy review of a book that I enjoyed when I read it in October: Almost Famous Women, a collection of short stories from Megan Mayhew Bergman. She takes as her jumping-off point the lives of real historical women who had their moment in the spotlight, but for whom their fame, if it ever came, was fleeting.  A few of these women I'd had actually heard of before: Beryl Markham, the aviator; Butterfly McQueen, the actress who played Prissy in the film Gone With the Wind; and Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde, whose name became familiar to me in 2014 as the nom de plume of the protagonist in Caitlin Moran's novel, How to Build a Girl.   Oh, and I'd heard of Shirley Jackson, the author who is most known for her short story, "The Lottery," but I'd never read her before.

The other women comprising the characters in these stories were just as interesting: a set of Siamese twins from the 1930s; a daredevil boat-driving woman; Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma; Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra, who was relegated to a convent; the artist Romaine Brooks; a troupe of integrated musicans traveling through the Jim Crow South; and in a chillingly poignant 2-page story, the nameless women liberated by Allied forces in the Bergen-Belson camp.

Bergman jumps around in her point of view with each story, sometimes narrating in a first person or close third person of the woman in question, sometimes through the eyes of their lovers, or from somebody entirely on the periphery of the woman's story. For the chapter on Shirley Jackson, she actually does a retelling of "The Lottery," and sacrilegious though it may sound, for my money, I prefer Bergman's. (I went back and read the original after I read the updated version, and to be fair, once the reader reaches the climax in one story, it's inevitably anti-climactic in the other.)

Each story is a snapshot, and an intriguing one at that, highlighting moments ranging from the quiet to the sublime. I also love that each chapter, with the exception of the ones on the Bergen-Belson women and Shirley Jackson, open with an portrait of the subject, and in most cases, literal snapshots. As with any story collection, the stories here are occasionally uneven, and some of them certainly resonated more with me than others, but this is a strong collection. I loved the concept behind it and would recommend it to any reader who enjoys historical fiction, literary fiction, short stories, or biographies of interesting ladies. So, pretty much everybody, in other words.

NB: This book was published by Scriber on 6 January 2015, and I read a digital advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by the publisher. It qualifies for my "diversify your life" listing because many of the characters are women of color OR fall under the LGBT spectrum.

05 January 2015

Another Book Survey!!!

It's that time again, folks.  Survey time, that is.  And what could be more fun than reading another bookish survey?  This time, Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner is hosting, and I thank Laura and Sarah for turning me on to this one.  I'm still visiting family in Wisconsin for the holidays and haven't had time to devote to a book review, so here's a way of easing me back into blogging for the new year. I did a full post here about my year of reading for 2014, along with some notable titles, but surveys are so much more fun to do!

Number Of Books You Read: 108
Number of Re-Reads: 17 (most of these were either Bill Bryson/David Sedaris audio books or novel-length works of Harry Potter fan fiction)
Genre You Read The Most From: literary fiction
 best-YA-books-20141. Best Book You Read In 2014?

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Hmmm...quite a few, actually. But I'll go with The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, simply because I loved his first book so much.

 3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read in 2014? 

There were a few of these, too.  Maybe Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings for a pleasant surprise and Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests as an unpleasant one

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did) In 2014?

Not sure if this counts, but in my day job as a bookseller, I pushed The Rosie Project into dozens of readers' hands.  Nearly everybody loved it.

 5. Best series you started in 2014? Best Sequel of 2014? Best Series Ender of 2014?

This is a little tough.  I didn't begin or end many series this year, and many of them I didn't care for. I'll go with The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan, which is the first book in a proposed series, but nothing else has been published yet.

 6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2014?

I reckon that would be the author who wrote the best book I read this year: Cynthia Bond

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

Lexicon by Max Barry, a sci-fi fantasy thriller

 8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

"Unputdownable" and "action-packed" don't always, or even often, go hand in hand for me when reading. Maybe Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven

 9. Book You Read In 2014 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

Most likely some novel length piece of Harry Potter fan fiction

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2014?

Hmmm...maybe the cover of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks

11. Most memorable character of 2014?

THis would be a three-way tie: Holly Sykes from The Bone Clocks, Jude from A Little Life and the elephant from The Tusk that Did the Damage

 12. Most beautifully written book read in 2014?

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2014?

Well, I cannot stop thinking about Jude from The Little Life, which I finished about one week ago, and I can't remember getting hung up on any other character like that this year.  So let's go with that.

 14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2014 to finally read? 

There's no book that I read in 2014 that I had put off reading.

 15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2014?

This is *obviously* too much work to answer. 

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2014?

I read lots of 32 page picture books in 2014 that didn't count toward my books read.  I read a lot of picture books when I'm shelving.  Longest was probably A Little Life at around 700 pages.  Either that or The Bone Clocks

 17. Book That Shocked You The Most

Probably Ruby. Gah, I'm starting to sound like a broken record. 

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)

I don't even know what this means and obviously don't care enough to look it up.  Something -shippy.

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

Probably a Snape/Harry mentor/student relationship in one of my fanfics. 

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2014 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

Invisble Love by Eric-Emmanuel Scmitt

21. Best Book You Read In 2014 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure:

That would probably be The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, thanks to Alice at  Reading Rambo, among others.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2014?

Don't think I have a new crush.  My old crush on fanfic Severus Snape remains as active as ever, though.

23. Best 2014 debut you read?

See above, re: my mention of Ruby about a bazillion times

24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

Eh, I don't know.  Maybe The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven?

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

All of my Bill Bryson audio books

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2014?

Too many to list.  I can pretty easily cry in books.

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

This seems too redundant to answer.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Again, Ruby

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2014?

I can't answer this question based on the incorrect usage of "unique." 

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

I got pretty irritated with The Flamethrowers.  And I definitely didn't like it.

02 January 2015

2014: My Year in Books

I love reading lists, particularly bookish ones, and I love compiling my own. As a bookseller, I'm often asked what my "Desert Island" list of books would be, and while that continues to be an impossible question to answer, I'm definitely more comfortable creating my personal Best Of lists every year.

For 2014, I reduced my reading goal on Goodreads from 125 (in 2013) to a more manageable 104 -- that is, a steady reading pace of two books per week, on average.  I'm happy to say that I met, and even exceeded, my goal for the year with 108 books read.  Before I launch into my list of my favorite books of the year, I'd like to devote a little space to my reading statistics.  Some books can qualify for more than one category, so occasionally the percentages will add up to more than 100%.

Of those 108 books, here is the basic breakdown:

Fiction 92% (99)
Nonfiction 8% (9)
Short Stories 5% (6)
YA/Middle Grade 20% (22)
Ebooks 12% (13)
Audio Books 19% (20)
Books in Translation 5% (6)

Okay, now here's where it gets interesting. I'd always figured that I read more books by women than by men, and my anecdotal evidence is borne out by my numbers.

Books by women: 63% (68)
Books by men: 37% (40)

But what gets me is that all year long, I was actively trying to diversify my reading.  There's been a look of talk in the book world about diversity (you can find a lot at #weneeddiversebooks, or you can watch this excellent YouTube video of BookRioter Amanda Nelson), and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was.  Or at least put my reading time where my mouth was, since most of the books I read I don't actually pay for. The thing is, even with trying, and even with expanding my definition of "diverse," fewer than a third of the books I read in 2014 qualify for my new shelf on Goodreads called "Diversify Your Life." To earn placement on that shelf, a book must be written by OR feature a main character who is either a person of color, or LGBT, or differently-abled.

Thirty-three books.  33.  In other words, about 30%. That's the number that I've been striving for all year, folks. It's damned hard.

That being said, I do find it fitting that the best book that I read this year was a debut novel, written by a black woman, about a black woman.  Cynthia Bond's incredible debut novel, Ruby, is one of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read, but it's also one of the most brutal.  Think Toni Morrison by way of Cormac McCarthy's Southern gothic novels, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the dark places this book might take the reader. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted that this book isn't making more of a mark on the literary world.

The other books I read this year that earned a spot on my favorites list, in chronological order of when I read them, are:

I technically didn't read this book in 2014, but it was published that year, so it goes on the 2014 list.  This is another debut novel that doesn't read like a debut novel.  Also dark and bleak, but told in expansive prose.  It's set in upstate New York and it explores themes of family, vengeance, and loyalty. I never reviewed this one, though I certainly meant to.

This is another book that I read near the end of 2013 but which was published in 2014, so it goes on this list. A quiet novel set in a small town in eastern Tennessee, just days before it's scheduled to be flooded in order to bring electricity to the region. When a young girl goes missing, the few people who hadn't already evacuated help search for her while her mother accuses an itinerant ne'er do well of taking her--or worse. Very well written but not in any kind of showy way. You can see my full review here. 

I was very surprised how much I liked this book, told in the twin narratives of two women: Sarah Grimke, born to a life of white privilege in antebellum Charleston, and Hetty, the slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. I learned about the real-life Grimke sisters who were instrumental in the abolitionist movement in the US.  You can find my whole review here.

This is another debut novel that feels extremely self-assured.  I thought this book was bleak and disturbing, but then I read Cynthia Bond's Ruby!  Still, this is an excellent first novel, set in the mountains and plains of the west in the 1980s, exploring one man's efforts to save children through the foster care system while failing to save his own daughter. I intended to review this one but I never got around to it.  C'est la vie.

This is another book that surprised me. My year end lists of favorite books don't typically have commercial writers cracking the Top Ten spot, but Jodi Picoult's novel that explores elephant empathy and elephant grieving held me spellbound.  I didn't care nearly as much about the human aspects of the story, but her pachyderm research for this one was extensive.  My full review is here.

I've been a fan of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's short stories since The Most Beautiful Book in the World was translated into English.  The first story in his newest collection may just be the finest short story I've ever read: war, dogs, family, redemption.  I think he's one of the finest short story writers we have today. My full review of it is here.

I was a total newbie to David Mitchell when I sat down to read The Bone Clocks. This book sometimes felt like the literary equivalent of the movie Inception. Literary, substantive, fantastical, and producing one of the finest character portraits I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.  This book isn't perfect, but wow, it's pretty impressive.  You can read my full, rather gushing review, here.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is a book that I feel personally invested in. I've been following Emily's career since her first book, Last Night In Montreal, which was published by an indie press a number of years ago.  Now she's gotten the critical acclaim that I've been wanting for her, earning a spot on the list of finalists for the National Book Award in 2014.  I think what I liked best about this post-apocalyptic book was the way she portrayed some of the finer things about civilization that endured: drama, art, and the power of storytelling.

I became a devotee of Mariynne Robinson years ago when I read Gilead, the first of three books that she wrote featuring the Reverend John Ames and the small Iowa town of Gilead.  So I was pretty sure that I would love Lila, the final book in that grouping. I didn't write a full review of this one, but I do talk about it quite a bit here in my discussion of the five fiction finalists for the National Book Award.

I wouldn't say that this was one of the best written books I've read this year, but Caitlin Moran's first novel, How to Build a Girl, was probably the funniest, not least because I had the pleasure of reading it with more than a dozen other book bloggers in a pre-publication readalong. This is the coming of age book that I wish I'd had when I was a teenager, trying to figure out how to build myself, over and over. (I probably still don't have it right.) You can read about our collective reading adventure here.

There were a lot of other excellent books that I read in 2014 (All Our Names, Boy Snow Bird) that didn't emotionally resonate with me, and there were some great books that I started but didn't finish, for a variety of reasons (A Brief History of Seven Killings and All the Light We Cannot See).

There have been quite a few excellent books that I read in the last few months of 2014 that won't be published until later in 2015, and they will have to wait until next time to make my list, but they include A Little Life by Hanyah Yanagihara, S. M. Hulse's Black River, and Tania James's The Tusk That Did the Damage.

I also had some extremely disappointing reads in 2014, including The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, and the new Haruki Murakami book, Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage, all three of which I actually took the time to review. Actually, I didn't find The Flamethrowers disappointing so much as I just found it terrible.

What about y'all?   Did you read any of my favorite books on this list? What books kicked ass for you in 2014?  What disappointed or surprised you?