22 November 2014

Minithon Failure! Sort Of!

Today's Mini Readathon is brought to you by Tika at Reading the Bricks. It's her fourth semi-annual readathon, and the theme here is...MINI. Tiny.  Keepin' it small, including our snacks, our level of effort, and our reading time.  The only thing outsized about this is our devotion. And possibly our laziness.

In other words, this is my kind of readathon and these are my people.

I usually spend some time shopping for the all-important snacks, but by the time I knew about this 'thon, I had just gotten back from a mini-vacation (heh, it's like I was psychically anticipating it) and was hard at work.  I had no time to shop and will thus forage for my mini snacks. Looks like I can create a peanut butter theme to my mini snacks, courtesy of the gluten-free pb cookies my friend Liz made for me yesterday, some pb & banana frozen yogurt, and some peanut buttery Butterfinger minis.  Not too bad for a few minutes' worth of scrounging in the pantry. And hey --  peanut butter = protein!

For my reading, however, I intend to tackle the forthcoming collection of short stories from Charles Baxter, There's Something I Want You To Do. Short stories are obviously mini novels.

If I need something else to mix it up, I may dip into the last of the Pippi books that I had left over from the last mini readathon (a-ha! Continuity!).  It's a book for children, aka mini readers, and I haven't read it since I was myself a mini-reader. Obviously this is not the edition I read as a child, but the mini-reader in me still snorts, because fährt/fart jokes will never grow old.

Fährt.  Tee hee. 
At first I was a little distraught that I wouldn't be able to participate in the mini-thon for its duration since I already had some plans today, not all of which could be changed.  But then I realized that my very participation in this 'thon was going to be mini, so BAM.  I'm fulfilling the challenges of this mini readathon on a meta level.  In other words, I can 'thon with the best of 'em.

How 'bout you?  How will you be honoring the mini in your reading today?

21 November 2014

Anguilla, or There And Back Again

Recently my husband and I took one of our grandchildren to Anguilla for a short, four-night trip.  We take the kids in the family on a special trip once they become teenagers.  It gives us a chance to know them outside the hustle & bustle of the larger family and share with them places that are special to us. Ava was the perfect candidate to take to Anguilla because she's a young person who can entertain herself and because, well, there's no delicate way to put this: the kid can eat.

Up at 4:00am to catch the airport shuttle, we were pretty bleary-eyed and subdued for our two flights to get to St Maarten. For the first time ever, we flew USAir via Charlotte, and because our incoming flight was delayed a bit, we really had to hustle to get to our connecting flight, which was boarding when we arrived at the gate. We had paid a bit extra to sit in the front rows of economy because we knew the connection might be tight, but unlike the commensurate seats on American, I was disappointed to note that these did not have extra legroom.

The rep from Anguilla Air Services met us before we went through immigration in St Maarten to provide us the transfer boarding passes.  NB: they do not use immigration cards any longer in St Maarten, but they do require you to show your boarding pass upon entering.  We only had one to show and we got fussed at a little.  Oops.
Ava loved the small plane
We did have the wonderful experience of landing on St Maarten, going through security, and immediately boarding our connecting flight. Pleasant change from last time, when we were delayed more than an hour while waiting for other passengers.  Before we knew it, we were up in the air and landing again at our favorite spot in the world: Anguilla.

Our plane's shadow over the beautiful water 
Anguilla in the distance
Ronnie Bryan left our rental car in the airport lot, and before long, we were zipping down the road, with Ava exclaiming at regular intervals along the way.  It was hot and we knew dinner wouldn't be for a few more hours, so we stopped to visit Pamela at Sea Spray for a quick smoothie before heading to Caribella.  Ava declared hers to be the best smoothie she'd ever had.  Promising to visit once more when we had more time to chat, we hurried off to the west end.

When we arrived at Caribella, the entire staff was hard at work trying to clean things up from the hurricane and other recent storms.  While our unit was certainly comfortable enough, it wasn't looking its best in some places, particularly out on the balcony where much of the newly-applied paint had been stripped off by an unexpectedly vigorous storm.

Ava and I immediately changed into bathing suits and walked down to our usual swimming cove at the west end of Barnes Bay, but it was a far cry from the serene spot I'd left behind in July. The entire face of that part of the beach had radically changed and now the water was churning around.  Once we were in the water, it wasn't so bad, but between the increased waves and the sand erosion, it was a little tricky entering (and exiting) among the exposed rocks!  In the meantime, DH had gone to Best Buy to pick up some essentials: water, sunscreen, bug spray, gin, and Ting.
Panoramic sunset show from our balcony
Mango's, where we usually eat on our first night, hadn't yet opened for the season, so wanting something easy, I tried to make a reservation at Picante via their website.  However, I never got a confirmation back, so we ended up at Jacala, which ended up being a perfect choice. Because we were traveling with a younger companion and because the Anguillan sunset was an hour earlier than what we're used to in June, we had dinner reservations around 6:30 each night and thus were almost always the first diners to arrive in each restaurant.
Interior of Jacala at night
Which suited us fine, thank you very much.  We had the undivided attention of gracious waitstaff and we could take all the time we wanted to consider the menu and enjoy our cocktails/mocktails. I love rum punch, but only when it's not too sweet.  The very idea of putting amaretto and/or cinnamon in a rum punch makes me want to gag, frankly. Which is why I always inquire with the staff how the rum punch is in any establishment before ordering one.  If they're coy about the contents, I flatly state that I don't like sweet rum punches that are served with cinnamon or amaretto and see where that gets me. The one at Jacala was still too sweet, but I asked for extra lime juice and that did the trick. It was very pretty, though:
My rum punch
In the meantime, our server brought over an amuse bouche of asparagus soup with a crispy wonton.  I thought it was pretty good, Ava didn't care for it much, and DH thought it was jusssssst right, so he finished hers, too.

The evening was beautiful, with just the right amount of breeze coming in to keep everything comfortable. Fighting off exhaustion, we managed to do some damage to our food nonetheless. DH opted for the cucumber soup with spicy tomato sorbet (possibly my favorite soup, anywhere in the world) and a steak (pretty uncharacteristic of him), Ava had a lobster soup and the fettucine, while I settled on the grilled crayfish, no starter.

With the exception of DH's steak, it was all wonderful.  His steak was completely pedestrian and a little overcooked, but that chilled cucumber soup makes up for a world of other ills, as far as I'm concerned.  Not to mention that we all loved the asparagus that came with the steak.  We're trying to figure out how it came out the way it did.  Parcooked then flash-fried, maybe?

Ava got off to a slow start with her lobster soup as her palate adjusted to the new flavors, but before long, every last drop was gone.  She also handily polished off the fettucine and helped me with my crayfish. Seriously, this kid could eat us right into the poor house on this island.

My crayfish were delicious, simply grilled and served with a choice of a lemon butter or a garlic butter sauce.  Not being willing to choose, I asked if I could have a bit of each sauce.  The accompanying rice was also good, which surprised me.  I can take or leave plain rice, but this was flavorful and a little nutty.

That night at Jacala it was technically my birthday, but even if it hadn't been, I would have selected the rum baba with banana sorbet anyway.  I'd been dreaming of that dessert ever since I read about it on the Savannah Gallery blog that Frank writes.  It was absolutely incredible, and that night I proved definitively that you can have your cake and drink it, too!

Yum!  Happy birthday to me!
Ava's pièce de résistance was some kind of chocolate-upon-chocolate concoction called the Jacala cake. One bite was enough for me, but she managed to polish the rest off on her own, including the yummy caramel sauce on the plate.

All in all, a wonderful start to our trip.  We were sufficiently tired from our travels that when we got back home to Caribella at 9:00, we promptly retired to bed.  It rained a bit in the night, and that, combined with the noise of the Barnes Bay waves crashing on the exposed rock, made for perfect sleeping and dreaming conditions.

16 November 2014

Book Review: How to be both by Ali Smith

 I'm away for a few days, so I've written a book review and scheduled it to post while I'm in Anguilla.

Ali Smith's new novel, How to be both [sic], is unlike anything I've ever read.  It's a bit metafiction, yes, but it also is self-referential and self-reflective to an extent I've never seen.

Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up:

This book was a finalist for the Booker Prize and it's getting lots of attention because of the way it's being published.  There are two narratives in the novel, and half of the books are published with one narrative first, while the remaining books have been produced with the other narrative first.

The "Camera" narrative (one story has a surveillance camera icon at the beginning) is a contemporary story of a teenage girl whose mum has died. In the midst of narrating her present grief, she has constant asides in which she reminisces about the past when her mum was still alive, particularly a trip to Italy where her mum expounds on the genius of a certain fifteenth century artist.

The "Eye" narrative (whose icon is a pair of eyes on a stem, like opera glasses), is that of the fifteenth century artist who has been transported to our time, but who, amidst his present voyeurism, is recounting the story of how his first mural was painted.

Interesting, eh? It's a little gimmicky, but it gets the point across.  I was told a couple of months ago by my Random House sales rep that the order in which one reads the two halves makes a difference in how one sees the book, and glancing through various reviews on Goodreads confirms that. Most people seem to be more drawn to the story they read first. I happened to read the contemporary story about the teenage girl first, and that ended up being the story that resonated more with me.

The thing is, the two narratives of the book do form two halves of the whole, which might seem self-evident, but they're also a bit like the twin strands of DNA: they're doubling back on the other, and layering over the other, and informing the other.  The question of the titular act of being "both" can be open to interpretation, and the answers are pretty wide ranging: how to be past AND present (or present and future, or past and future), how to be male AND female, how to be life AND art, how to be fragmented AND whole, how to grieve AND love, how to create AND destroy. I suspect that every reader will bring her own existential pairings to the text.

To say more about the plot would almost be pointless, as the ideas and Heraclitean pairings are what is important in this novel.  This book definitely isn't for everybody, but if you are drawn to unconventionality, or if you like a little pop-philosophy in your fiction, take this book out for a spin. I think you'll find much to think about if you do.

NB: This book is already available for purchase elsewhere in the world, but it goes on sale on December 2, 2014, in the US from Pantheon, a division of Random House.  I read an advance readers copy that was provided at my request by the publisher. 

11 November 2014

Bookish Things: Vacation Reading, Shorter Edition

Lately I've been counting down the days until my next island vacation, and now it's quite imminent. My husband and I usually travel to the Caribbean over his October fall break because (1) it's when he can get the time off from teaching and (2) it's super-low season and therefore more affordable. The empty beaches are just an accompanying perk.  This year, however, we've mixed it up in a couple of ways.  Last year, too many of our favorite restaurants in Anguilla were closed during October, so when we found really reasonable airfare for travel in November, we decided to sacrifice a fifth night on the island that an October stay would have afforded us and booked for four nights in November instead.

(And did I mention that this year I will be celebrating my birthday in Anguilla?  That also might have had a factor in our decision to travel in November!)

In addition to a change of calendar, we're bringing along a travel companion this time around: our about-to-be-14-years-old granddaughter.  We've begun a tradition of taking our grandchildren on a special trip with us when they're teenagers, and now it's Ava's turn.  Her older sisters and cousins have visited New Orleans, Vieques, Tortola, and St. John with us, and all of those places were well-suited to their various travel styles.  We knew that, like her sister Kate before her, Ava would appreciate Anguilla because she's the kind of laid-back kid who can create her own entertainment AND she loves to eat.  Restaurant prices being what they are on Anguilla, she very well may eat us into the poorhouse, but introducing her to our favorite spots on our favorite island will be worth it.

Anybody who knows me knows that second only to planning my actual vacation, planning my vacation reading is my favorite activity. I spent a couple of very happy hours over the past weekend test driving potential vacation books, and the photo above shows the ones that have made the cut.  I do realize that taking six physical books on a trip that only last four nights is verging on the ridiculous, so I will probably take three of these and rely on my e-reader for the rest.  Running out of books on vacation ranks right up there with other nightmares such as appearing naked in school. Since I will probably need more than one book for each long day of travel, and one book for every day that I'm there, this is a very real fear.

The ones that I know for sure I'll take the physical editions are The Martian, since I can't get a free e-book download (because it's already published), and just about everybody I know has already raved about it, and The Book of Strange New Things, for the same two reasons.  It's curious to me that both of them feature space travel, a topic I wouldn't necessarily claim as holding much interest for me. It's also curious to me that both books are written by men, as the overwhelming number of books that I read are written by women.

That leaves:

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw -- the first 50 pages are well written and it's a prep school setting.  Pretty much my jam.

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link -- she's supposed to be a literary and creepy writer.  The first story I read hints at more promising things to come.

Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller.  I loved both of her previous memoirs.  Books set in Africa (in her case, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya) are also my jam, but this one is set in Montana. So I'm torn.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby.  Because Nick Hornby.

They're all advance reading copies, all to be published in January or February of 2015, and I'm looking forward to all of them. But what do you think, Gentle Reader?  Do you have opinions about any of the above books? Which ones should earn a spot in my travel bag?

08 November 2014

Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

I'm feeling a little whiny today -- in the "writing books reviews is hard" kind of way -- but it's a good coping/procrastination mechanism for me.  It's been over three weeks since I last posted a book review, and the longer I go in between those posts, the more difficult it is for me to sit myself down and talk about a book.  I often wonder why that is, since I'm obviously comfortable working with books and talking to customers every single day about them as a means of supporting myself.  Part of it results from finding so many other things to do with my time on my precious days off, but let's be perfectly clear: most of it is the result of laziness and an utter lack of self-discipline.

So, I'm going to ease back into book reviewing with a book that I liked, but whose content has become a little vague because I read it five months ago on the train ride home from BEA in May. I'll preface it by saying that while I've read a handful of Jodi Picoult's novels over the years, I've never self-identified as a particular fan of hers.  She is, I think, a good storyteller but overall is a bit too commercial to dovetail more than occasionally with my own reading preferences. The first book of hers that I've ever read was My Sister's Keeper, and until now, that one was probably my favorite, despite my serious dislike of the book's ending.

With the publication of Leaving Time, Picoult has changed publishers, and therefore editors, and I think that, combined with the fact that her new book revolves largely around elephants, has created a new reading experience for me.  Picoult never has been, and perhaps never will be, a writer of literary fiction, but she has an easy style that moves the story along without getting in the way of itself.

A psychic, a private investigator, and a teenage girl walk into a mental hospital...

...it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but this scenario actually plays a crucial role in Leaving Time. Jenna is said teenager who has retained the services of a psychic named Serenity Jones and a private investigator named Virgil Stanhope, both of whom are down & out, to help find her mother, Alice.  Alice disappeared one night after a traumatic accident in the elephant sanctuary where she worked, leaving her husband so mentally unbalanced that Jenna is left to be raised by her grandmother. This trio of unlikely comrades combs through Alice's journal and her papers on elephant research as a means of tracing her current whereabouts.

Along the way, the reader is treated to astonishing situations of elephant empathy, grief, and memory. Picoult's research for this book is amazing, and when I was invited to an author dinner with her a few months ago, she regaled our table with stories, including many that didn't make it into the book.  I have always loved elephants, and no doubt that is partly why this book resonated with me in a way that none of her previous books have.  But I'd also suggest that incorporating animal empathy into her novel gives it an emotional heft that is lacking in her previous books.
I mean, really. Look at that little tyke go.  
Picoult uses her trademark multiple narrative storytelling here, mostly to good effect, and there are the usual twists and turns along the way.  I anticipated many of the minor ones, and if I had been as enthralled with the human elements as much as I was to the elephant ones, I might have anticipated the major reveal at the end, but I did not.  I think it's pretty clear that if you already love Jodi Picoult, this book will renew your love for her, but if you've never read her, I think this book's depths may pleasantly surprise you. I admit that it took a goodly amount of suspending my disbelief to accept some of the plot at face value -- count me among the population who is skeptical about psychics, for example -- but in the end, my enthusiasm for All Things Pachyderm completely overruled my feelings for everything else.

It is my earnest hope that that this novel will do for captive elephants what the shocking documentary, Blackfish, has done for captive dolphins & whales around the world.  It is perhaps naïve of me to think so, but Picoult's readership is so large, and so international, that they could easily effect a social change in the way elephants are treated around the world. I hope that it becomes true. In the meantime, she educates her readers about the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the only place in the US (and maybe the world? I'm not sure) where circus and zoo elephants can be rehabilitated (or can retire to), and for now, at least, this book has moved me to make donations to help sustain them.  Fuck zoos and circuses, and don't even get me started on poachers and the Asian markets that keep said poachers employed.  For them, my sentiment is more like, poke out their eyes and skull fuck them.  Not that I have strong feelings about these things.

The cute factor here -- I just can't even.

05 November 2014

National Book Award Fiction Finalists: My Thoughts

While I'm an avid reader and a reasonably good bookseller, I've never claimed to have my finger on the pulse of the book award circuit.  So I was as surprised as anybody when I discovered that for the first time since I've started paying attention to these things, I have read, or at least read in, all five of the finalists for the fiction award.

Of them, I only have completed two: Emily St John Mandel's excellent break-out novel, Station Eleven and the Marilynne Robinson's literary masterpiece, Lila. But just because I didn't finish reading the other three doesn't mean that I didn't like them.  On the contrary, I very much liked what I read of them.  One of the things about being a bookseller that might seem strange to a civilian, is that in addition to reading the things I like, I also have an obligation to read widely, beyond my personal preferences, so that I can better serve my customers.

I also am one of the four readers for my bookstore's signed First Editions Club, where we select one work of literary fiction each month and send signed copies to our club members. For this part of my job, I have to read the first 50-75 pages of an additional 6-8 books each month (on average), all on my own time outside of work.  For obvious reasons, I cannot finish them all, so even when I like a book, if I have a coworker who has finished it, I'm less inclined to spend more of my time to complete it. Why? Because now I have a secondary repository of book knowledge to rely on: I can recommend a book to a customer when I know that Nancy (or Hannah or whomever) has loved it and why she has loved it.

(On a slightly braggadocian note, of the five NBA books on the short lit, our First Editions Club committee picked three of them.  And if we'd had our way with getting signed copies of another one, there would have been a fourth, but the author either wasn't touring or wasn't in the US when we wanted to pick the book. Go, us!)

So, with all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the National Book Award finalists for fiction in 2014:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is wonderful, telling a very quiet story of older woman living in Beirut who has translated one book per year from the world literary canon into Arabic.  I read about half of this book and very reluctantly put it down. Not only does the author paint a vivid portrait of the cultural importance of Beirut, along with its devastations during the wars, but we get the importance of translation itself, along with its intricate give and take.

I read the first 100 pages or so of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during World War II. I've noticed tons of reviews of this book popping up since it was published in April of this year, and two of my coworkers read it and loved it, so I felt less guilty putting this one down than I otherwise would have.

Short story collections don't often go head to head with novels for the major literary awards, but Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment, is handily able to take on the powerhouses.  As the title suggests, these are soldiers' stories, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I read the first two of them and they were extremely well done, and though ultimately this was not the book for me, I'm happy I bought a signed, first edition of it when I visited Nashville earlier this year.

I've been reading Emily St John Mandel's books since she first published Last Night in Montreal in 2009. I'm thrilled for her that her hopeful post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, is getting the critical acclaim that indie booksellers have been giving her for years.  I think this book ties with the Anthony Doerr for having the most widespread appeal to general readers. I would put either book into the hands of almost any fiction reader.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson concludes her trilogy set in the small town Gilead, Iowa, of yesteryear.  Like the Alameddine, it's a quiet story, largely the imagined inner life of the title character. I also happen to think that Lila ties with An Unnecessary Woman for being the most literary of the finalists, and thus if I had to make a prediction for the winner, it would be one of these two.

NB: Edited to add this -- It doesn't hurt that Marilynne Robinson is basically the winningest American novelist, ever.  For her last four books published (3 novels, one nonfiction), she has won six major literary awards: PEN/Hemingway, the Pulitzer (2x), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Orange Prize. That's not counting the lesser-known awards, or the major awards she was a finalist for but for which she didn't win.  Dayum.

03 November 2014

Yet Another Bookish Quiz/Meme. How Refreshing!

Because I'm trying to find some quick & easy blog posts, and because it's been over two weeks since I've written a review and I'm not quite ready to wade back into that miasma yet, here's a fun questionnaire. Or quiz. Or book meme.  Call it what you will. I found it via Alley at What Red Read, who found it via Sarah at Sarah Says Read, whom I also follow but apparently missed.

1. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

2. The Last Dragon Slayer by Jasper Fforde

3. This one is kinda tough, as beyond the Curious George books, I can't recall a main character by that name. I suppose that claiming that Pride & Prejudice as being about George Wickham is a bit of a stretch, eh? Okay, then, I'll go with the newest book in the series, Curious George Visits the (a?) Bookstore, which we obviously have on display in my bookstore.

4. Luckily I recently wrote my "What I read in October" post, so I quickly remembered How to be both [sic] by Ali Smith. Otherwise I'm sure my head would have been stuck on Alley's response of Zadie Smith.

5. The Rosie Project  by Graeme Simsion was one of my favorite books last year. (Even though Alley and Sarah both answered this one, I feel I can rightfully claim it.)

6. The Three Junes by Julia Glass.  Okay, had to use the ol' mental Rolodex on this one so that I could avoid what Alley and Sarah said.

7. Ummm...not sure about the knife answer.  Does Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife have an image of a knife on the cover? What about that nonfiction book from a year or so ago that was a history of the table fork?  Can't remember its title. Guess I fail on this one.

8. I read Jojo Moyes's book, One Plus One, earlier this year.  Can I get double points for that one to make up for my lack of knife answers?

9. I reckon I'll go with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, which is his memoir about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.  He called himself The Thunderbolt Kid as a child. (I had to work a Bryson book in there somehow!)

10.  I guess that #10 is a gimme. I'll choose the film I most want to see this fall: The Imitation Game is the nonfiction book that the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie is based on -- Alan Turing and the Enigma Code.

I read so much (not to mention am surrounded by books every day at work) that the only one of these questions that was remotely challenging was the one about the knife on the cover.  And even so, I was really compelled to cheat.  Like looking up the real title and the cover of the fork book to see if there was a knife on the cover. How about you?  Have you done this quiz?  Which answer(s) did you find most challenging?

01 November 2014

Last Month in Review: October 2014

Oh, October.  You were off to such a blazing start in terms of reading.  But then I went to Memphis for a long weekend, and then I got sick, and then my mom came to visit from Wisconsin, and my reading time collapsed under the pressure of other things. This is my first blog post in two weeks, egads.

Here, in boring ol' chronological order, are the books I managed to read last month:

1. How to be both [sic] by Ali Smith.  Well, at least I got my reading off to a great start.  This book was a finalist for the Booker Prize and it's getting lots of attention because of the way it's being published: half of the books are bound first with the contemporary story of a teenage girl who's mum has died, followed by the story of a fifteenth century artist who has been transported to our time. The other half of the print run is bound with the artist's story first.  Interesting, eh? It's a little gimmicky, but it gets the point across.  I'm told that the order in which you read the two halves makes a difference in how you see the book.  I happened to read the contemporary story about the teenage girl first.

2. Allegiant by Veronica Roth. (ebook). Final book in the Divergent trilogy.  This was pretty fun, and I knew the big spoiler at the end before I picked up the book.  I like this series.  It's not as polished or as profound as many of the other dystopian books out there, but I don't really understand why Tris Prior is reviled simply on the basis that she's not Katniss Everdeen. It seems to me that in the same way that there's more than one way to be a feminist, there's plenty of room in this world for different kinds of heroes.

3. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. (audio book)  My friendly sales rep gave me her copy of this audio.  She didn't like it because it was too much ballet for her, but I found it fascinating.  Well-written, covering the 1970s up to the 2000s, and following the life of one ballerina who leaves the corps to have a baby, with detours into the lives of the people who have been important to her over the years, including a Russian ballet wunderkind whom she helped to defect. The only part that was a little jarring for me was the narrator, Rebecca Lowman, who is quite good, but I have her firmly fixed in my head as the voices for Rainbow Rowell's characters, so it took me at least 2-3 discs before I stopped hearing Regan, Levy, and Cath from Fangirl, for example, and stopped expecting humor from the dialogue and narrative.

4. Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper.  Oh, this book is delightful and charming, and it was a welcomed break from the darker fiction I tend to be attracted to. Etta & Otto are an old married couple in their 80s, and one day Otto wakes up to find a note on the kitchen table from Etta, informing him that she's going to travel to see the sea for the first time.  Never mind that they live in a landlocked Canadian province. Russell is their long-time neighbor and near-family, the boy who kept Etta company when Otto went off to war, and he is eventually leaves to follow his own calling.  James is the coyote who may or may not be a figment of Etta's dementia-burdened mind, keeping her company on her trek.  This book put me very much in mind of the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the film The Straight Story.

5. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham.  This is the only nonfiction I've read this month, and I didn't have time to write up a review, so here's the shelf talker I wrote for my bookstore: Often referred to as a voice of her generation, Dunham covers topics ranging from work to sex to friendship to careers. Her essays are thoughtful and well-written, even if they do seem to flit about between past & present, and her bold voice, filled with proclamations both mundane and profound, is entirely her own. Dunham is occasionally honest to the point of readerly discomfort, but she's so smart that it's easy to look beyond her confessional mode to the heart of this essay collection that is a must-read for all young (or not so young) feminists.

6. The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. Ditto the time for reviewing this book, so here's another shelf talker: Think of this book as Graham Greene meets The Heart of Darkness. Roland Nair is a man of dubious everything: national origin, loyalty, motive, and scruples. When he returns to Sierra Leone to reconnect with Michael Adriko, his erstwhile friend and a soldier from various countries' armies, ostensibly for a money making scheme, neither is sure if the other man can be trusted. In this post-colonial world, the CIA and other underground organizations have carved up the African continent just as brutally as in the days of imperialism, and Johnson's take on this world fills the reader with a grim fascination.

7. I Was Here by Gayle Forman (YA).  This is a slightly different twist on the popular teen suicide genre. Emotive, but less so than her earlier book, If I Stay.

8. Nocturne by Dutchy.  (fan fiction). I can always tell my stress levels from my reading habits.  Reading some Harry Potter fanfiction back to back with a YA novel? Definitely a higher stress level than usual at work. That being said, this is a good one from the Ashwinder site. The author's description: The unthinkable has happened. Voldemort has won. Now, one Severus Snape must find a new way in this dark and twisted world, one seemingly devoid of all hope.

9. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (audio/physical book). I don't usually read much commercial fiction, but I've been invited to meet the author at a dinner in Boston coming up in January (2015), and the publisher asked that I read it. I started off listening to this audio book, and though the reader's voice was fine for all of the narrative bits, she was apparently directed to read all of the dialogue with a French accent.  It started getting really ridiculous when she was trying to voice a German officer, who was speaking French with a German accent, but all written in English. The audio was so mock-worthy in parts that I couldn't concentrate on the story, which was actually pretty good, and I ended up reading the book for the last 150 pages or so.  Who doesn't love that internal swoop of nerves that you get from reading about women in the French Resistance during WWII? Hannah's book is based on a real-life heroine who risked her life to save downed Allied pilots by leading them across the Pyrenees on foot.

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.