20 April 2014

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

It is so great when books incorporate characters who are underrepresented in the media without making readers feel that they're just ticking off boxes and filling quotas, and Cammie McGovern's first book for young adults, Say What You Will , does just that.  It's the story of Amy, a girl with cerebral palsy, and Matthew, one of her peer helpers who gets her through the day at school.  You see, Amy cannot walk unassisted, or speak without her voice box & computer pad, or even eat most foods.  Up until now, her schools have always provided professional assistants to help her with all of these functions, but that has left her friendless and isolated with only adults interacting with her all day long, whether it's her parents, her teachers, or her aids. Now that it's her senior year, she has talked her parents into hiring peer helpers in the hopes that she will become better socially adjusted and make her first friends.

Sounds like this could be an After School Special, right?  Except that McGovern does a great job of keeping things pretty real and not too sappy.  Much of the book is told in a close third person narrative, getting into the heads of both Amy and Matthew, but McGovern fills in the gaps with both text messages and emails that are sent back and forth.

Before long, Amy becomes closer to Matthew than to any of her other peer helpers, and she starts to fall in love with him.  He plays his cards a bit more closely to the chest, and even if he recognized his feelings for Amy as love, his increasingly erratic OCD behavior and thinking keep him from acting on anything.  So you've got the agony and ecstasy of falling in love for the first time, but obviously in this case there are major complications. Matthew is not sure Amy is capable of having a physical relationship, and he's not sure that he's capable of even holding her hand without having to wash his hands obsessively both before and after. Amy, for her own part, tries to give out decreasingly subtle hints to say that she's ready to take their friendship to the next level, sex and all.

To complicate matters even further, Amy's parents don't really approve of her feelings for Matthew and want to push her in the direction of Sanjay, another of her peer helpers, because he's ambitious and capable and self-confident: everything that Matthew is not.  Brilliant Amy is college bound, spoiled for choice with her acceptances at Stanford and multiple Ivy League schools, while Matthew feels that he might be capable of taking a correspondence course but not much more. Basically, it's Pretty In Pink where academics play the role of class.

McGovern has a deft and comic touch when writing Matthew and Amy.  Most of the time I identified with both of these young people, and I particularly admired the ways Amy was both philosophical and practical in the face of her physical limitations. The book takes a slightly soap-opera turn in the last quarter, but even that was resolved quite well and ended up being more hopeful and pragmatic than most teen book.  I really recommend this book for all folks who enjoy YA novels, but beyond that, it's a solid read for anybody searching for an unconventional protagonist or an under-represented one.

Here's an email sample from the first chapter of the book, from Amy to Matthew, that I think gives you a flavor for the style and direction this book takes:
To: mstheword@gmail.com
From: aim high@comcast.net
Re: I'm happy! 
I just slipped into my mother's office to look at the names of my new peer helpers, and I'm so happy! Your name is on the list! I thought maybe I'd scared you by coming right out and asking you to apply.  I realize it's an unusual setup, but try not to think of it as my parents offering to pay people to be my friend. I know there's something unsettling and prideless in that. I prefer to think of it this way: my parents are paying people to pretend to by my friend.  This will be much closer to the truth, I suspect, and I have no problem with this. I'm guessing that a lot of people in high school are only pretending to be friends, right? It'll be a start, I figure. 
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by the publisher. It will be available from Harper Teen in June 2014.  The author also happens to be somewhat local to my bookstore, but I read it out of my own interest and not at the behest of either author or publisher.

16 April 2014

Book Review: Til the Well Runs Dry byLauren Francis-Sharma

It's not often that my two discrete audiences for this blog read the same posts.  My Book Blogger posse like the bookish ones, my Anguilla posse like the travel ones, and rarely the twain do meet, but I hope that today's post might find common ground between the two. It's a novel set mostly in Trinidad during the 1950s and 1960s, a time of political upheaval and change all over the Caribbean.

Author Lauren Francis-Sharma is the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, and after visiting her grandmother's homeland, she decided to set her first novel there.  Though I've traveled up and down through the Caribbean, I've never been to Trinidad & Tobago, a dual island country unique in the region for its multi-ethnic heritage and industry beyond the usual tourism. Oh, and of course its tradition of Carnival. Trini Carnival makes all of those poor folks in New Orleans who celebrate Mardi Gras look like a child's clumsy efforts in comparison.

'Til the Well Runs Dry opens in the tiny village of Blanchisseuse in the 1940s, where Marcia Garcia is a 16-year-old seamstress trying to earn enough money to keep food in de bellies of what's left of her family. We soon meet Farouk Karam, the man whom she will grow to love and hate in equal measure, often simultaneously.  Farouk and Marcia share the narration for the first part of the novel until their second daughter adds her voice to the chorus.

If I were to describe this book in terms of its plot, it might sound very eventful--there are secrets here that politicians might kill to keep, not to mention rape, incest, murder, imprisonment, black magic, corruption, and abandonment--but that would give the wrong impression.  These plot points are present, but they're not the defining aspects of this novel.  It's much quieter and more intimate than that.  It's the story of a family: a mother whose hard knocks began long before her first two children go missing and her husband leaves her; a father whose thrall to his own parents prevents him from being the father he is capable of being; the four children who are the issue of this relationship that is more defined by tumultuous obsession than love.

Take this family and drop them in an ever-shifting political setting as Trinidad seeks its own way in the world separate from the British Empire, and you end up with a story that is as colorful and multi-layered as the book cover would suggest.  Francis-Sharma's writing is so evocative of this tropical island that I could see, hear, taste, and smell everything she was describing. Though the narratives themselves are third person, limited points of view, the dialogue is rich with the speech patterns and idioms of Caribbean patois.

I loved reading this novel and I was completely swept up in the complications of this family and their ties to each other, knotted up so tightly and frayed by the coastal salt water that it would take a machete to hack them apart.  More than anything, Francis-Sharma was able to convincingly portray what it might be like to love somebody so fiercely that surviving such a love could only change and harden and temper you into a fierce creature yourself.

I recommend this book for readers who value strong and complicated female characters, those who enjoy historical fiction in an unusual setting, and those who, like me, have an unquenchable thirst for Caribbeana.  There was much about this book that reminded me of early Toni Morrison, and honestly, is there higher praise that I could offer on that score?

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book that was provided at my request by the publisher.  It will be published in the US by Henry Holt on 22 April 2014. 

11 April 2014

Pulitzer Predictions: 2014

Yay! It's Pulitzer Time!    
I do not believe I've actually ever done a prediction post like this before, but for some reason I feel emotionally invested in several contenders this year.  So let's have some fun, shall we?  I've been trolling many websites that are predicting the Pulitzer Prize winners this year.  I think some of them are right on the money and some of them are delusional (they apparently don't know the criteria for being considered for the prize).  Some of them, frankly, make me want to cry with their predictions. For good or for evil, we will know the results as of the afternoon of Monday, April 14.

The following books are all either books that I think are deserving of the committee's nod, or are likely to get the nod, or both.  I hope that y'all will chime in with your favorite picks and the most likely contenders for this year.

But first, let's explore why the Pulitzer books generate so much speculation and debate.  Why more so than the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award?  My hunch is that, unlike other major awards for book published in the US, it comes down to two points: (1) Unlike those other free-for-all awards, the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to an American writer [which means that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fine novel, Americanah, is ineligible. not that you'd know it from the various prediction lists on the interwebz.]. (2) More importantly, also unlike those awards, there is no longlist, much less no shortlist, published ahead of the award ceremony.  The winner and the finalists are revealed at the same time.

Okay, so here goes (knuckles cracking)...My top pick for either the winner or one of the finalists is Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I go on about it here, but it's earned tons of accolades from nearly everybody except the First Lady, who seemed to think that her review of the book was a platform for talking about nutrition in privileged families.

My other favorites would be, in no particular order, The Son by Philipp Meyer, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Woman Upstairs by Clair Messud, and  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

There are other books I loved from 2014 that I think are worthy of the prize, but are total long shots: Flora by Gail Godwin and Benediction by Kent Haruf. I'd love for either of them to win, but I doubt it will happen.

Then there are the books out there that I haven't read, but which I think are strong contenders.  Namely George Saunders' story collection The Tenth of December and The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  While I would prefer that the prize go to a book I've already read and loved, I wouldn't be either upset or surprised if one of these won.

And then there are the books that I am actively hoping will not win, because if they, I will probably have to slit my throat.  Actually, in this case it comes down to just one book: Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers.  I hate and revile that loathsome book. Seriously, I might have been exaggerating for effect, but this book was laughably bad, which is why it is so completely mysterious to me for it to be getting the kind of critical attention that it's been getting.  Some betting operations have even listed this book as the odd-on favorite. Ugh.


Which brings me, at last, to the other categories.  Other than the winners themselves, who really cares about the other Pulitzer winners beyond the fiction awards, or at least cares as much?  Harsh but true.  In a twist of irony, novels get all of the glory in a prize that was originally created to acknowledge outstanding journalism.  I don't really have a stake in the other categories, other than general nonfiction, for which I'm hoping that Sheri Fink's excellent  Five Days at Memorial puts in a good showing. It was without a doubt the finest nonfiction book I read last year. (Hint: I only read 17 works of nonfiction compared to the 100+ works of fiction, so it's not like I'm drawing from a wide base. Even so, Fink's book would stand out.)

What about you, gentle reader?  Which books that you read from  2013 deserve to be recognized by the Pulitzer committee?  Or if you want to be wicked, which books do not?


 Edited on 14 April 2014 to gloat add: Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner!  I'm really quite pleased about this.  I'm also delighted that Philipp Meyer's excellent novel, The Son, turned out to be a finalist.  The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis wasn't even on my radar, so shame on me.  In fact, it was so not on my radar that I returned a copy of this book two weeks ago to the publisher. 

08 April 2014

Book Review: The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain

A fellow bookseller just created a new section in our bookstore called Read the World, featuring fiction, poetry, and essays translated into English.  He's a big proponent of translation and is in fact helping to put together a symposium on the importance and the future of translation.  Sadly, browsing the new section in my bookstore made me realize that I don't read many books that were not originally written in English.  Now, a large part of this is not so much my fault as it is the nature of the American publishing industry.  According to a 2007 study done by the University of Rochester, a scant 3% of the books published in the US are in translation. A quick survey of my Goodreads stats shows that I've read three books in translation over the last twelve months, and now that I'm aware of the situation, I'm going to see what happens when I actively seek out works in translation to read this year.  Thank goodness for Europa Editions and other small publishers who make world literature available to those who read only English!

One that I have recently read is called The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain, which I picked up not because it was originally written in French, but because it sounded fun and had actually been selling fairly well in the store.  Lucky for me, it turned out to a delightful little novel. It's set in France in the 1980s when Francois Mitterand was the president of France, and it is basically the story of what happens when you believe than an object can empower you to take control of your own life.

It opens with an accountant named Daniel, who decides to treat himself to a solo dinner at a fancy brasserie one night when his family is out of town.  Not long after he's ordered, President Francois Mitterand sits down with a small party at the table next to him. The President accidentally leaves his hat behind on the banquette between himself and Daniel, so Daniel surreptitiously picks it up and leaves with it, thinking of it as an accidental souvenir of the night he sat next to the President.  But lo and behold, after he starts wearing the hat, Daniel begins acting a bit differently at home and at work.  He takes charge during a business meeting, he gets a promotion, he acts more confidently and with authority--that sort of thing.  He's just beginning to attribute his new success to the President's hat when he accidentally leaves it behind on the train...

...Enter a young woman named Fanny, who notices an abandoned hat on the luggage rack of her train. It's clearly going to be next to impossible to find the owner, so she dons that hat herself, little knowing what is in store for her.  Now she is feeling empowered and emboldened in new ways.  Fanny finds a way to break off an unproductive affair with her married love, and then the short story she submits to a national contest wins the grand prize. Now she in turn leaves the hat on a park bench, where it gets picked up by Pierre, a once-mighty perfumeur who has fallen on hard times...

...You can guess what happens when the perfumeur puts on the President's hat, n'est-ce pas?

We see various people whose lives are changed by this presidential hat, and the big question is, does the power lie within the hat, or does it simply awaken the power in each individual who wears it?  I ended up thinking of Mitterand's hat as a cross between a benevolent version of Tolkien's One Ring and Mary Poppins, transferring its attachment from one owner to the next, always going where it happens to be needed.

For a small novel (it barely reaches 200 pages), it really covers a lot of territory both large (love, life, work, politics) and small (random chances can change your life, and so can accessorizing). Though I read it in two short sittings, the quiet contentment that pervades these pages stayed with me for days--a kind of magic all its own.  I recommend it to just about any reader, but especially if you're looking for a book that is life-affirming without being hokey, or gentle without being dull. The President's Hat got lot of raves in France and it won both the Prix Landerneau Decouvertes and the Prix Relay des Voyageurs in 2012.  Sadly, the translation is not attributed to any one person but to Gallic Books in general.

What about y'all?  Do you seek out works in translation to read? Have you read anything marvelous lately that was not in its original language?

NB: I read an uncorrected proof version of this book that I found in the ARC pile at my bookstore.  It is  published in the US by Gallic Books, which is distributed by Consortium.

04 April 2014

Ode to Everything Nashville

The Parthenon  
Did y'all know that Nashville has its very own Parthenon?  The first time I visited the city (maybe seven or eight years ago), this came as a complete surprise to me. Since the original Parthenon has been shattered by ordnance and the ravages of time, the Nashville replica stands proud.  It may not have all of the architectural wonders and illusions of the original, but at least it does offer visitors a sense of scope.

I mention this because last week my husband I visited Nashville at the behest of Vanderbilt University, whose library had purchased a large collection of my DH's work (alas, not from us but at auction!), and so we journeyed south for a few days. DH taught a couple of micro classes and visited with students in the special collections and in the divinity school, and then he gave a couple of talks, including one in conversation with Ann Patchett.

The view from our hotel room. Too bad we're not football fans! 
Because our schedule was largely driven by our hosts, I really only had a few hours of free time to call my own;  a nasty headcold, in conjunction with the unseasonably cold and rainy weather, contrived to make me want to nap my free time away.  I managed to explore a little, including a visit to Patchett's wonderful bookstore, Parnassus, and a quick stop at an old Union fort from the Civil War.

Parnassus is beautiful, and like all of the best spaces, it combines new and old elements for a timeless and comfortable feel. You'd never guess that the bookstore has only been in place for about three years. It also has hundreds of personal touches, so that even though the store is part of a strip mall, once you step inside, you're a world away from that box-store feel.  I particularly liked the memorial benches down the center of the store: obviously for sitting and reading, but also firmly anchoring this space in a local community.

The memorial benches down the center of the store
One bench was in memory of a loving dog. I just loved that.

Or this piano, which is used to good effect for creating displays in the music section, but is also played during some events--or whenever a small child simply cannot resist the urge.

In the tradition of Narnia, Oz, and Wonderland, the children's department at Parnassus has a special child-sized access point.  I love how it also evokes both the local icon of the Parthenon and the store's own eponym:
Of course I ducked through here
And what bookstore would be complete without a four-legged mascot?
I also love the way that the bookstore augments the standard overhead lighting with unexpected bits of whimsy:
Stars for the children's department
Or these bird fixtures in a non-fiction alcove
Parnassus also offers a small selection of cards.  Most of them are beautifully printed by letterpress, and thus on the pricier side ($5 and up). I was reminded once again that I was in the South when I saw  two rows of cards like these:

I didn't even know they made cards for this!
My visit to Parnassus wouldn't be complete without mentioning the fun staff they had there and my opportunity to chat with Karen Hayes, Patchett's co-owner. I knew her from my days as a bookseller at Lemuria, lo, these many years ago, so we had a late lunch talking books, shop, and travel.  It was also the occasion of my first bento box, so naturally I had to take a picture.
Isn't it beautiful?  And it was only $8.95!
By then there was just time enough for me to take a quick tour of Fort Negley before heading back to the hotel before the lecture that night. I wish I could say that it was amazing, but it wasn't. I suppose I could say it was at least worth the price of admission (it was FREE). I've visited a few forts before, all of which were much older that Ft Negley (by a couple hundred years), so I was definitely expecting more.  Once you've seen any of the old forts in the Caribbean, particularly the two excellent ones in Old San Juan, I suppose most others would be a disappointment.

What I got was a small hill, a view to downtown and a baseball stadium, some crumbly walls that I mostly couldn't get near, and some boardwalks. Oh, and lots of wind and some intermittent drizzle.
Visitors must stick to the paved paths or boardwalks at all times.
A distant stone wall
I think these trees are actually more interesting than the fort itself
In one direction you could semi-visualize what the view might have been like for the Union soldiers defending the fort:

But mostly the fort is encroached on all sides by the city of Nashville.  There's one building in particular that looks like it would be better suited to Gotham:

Can't you just imagine the bat signal emanating from there?
Still, I learned a little bit of history and took a walk that I otherwise wouldn't have taken, so that's a victory in the face of my inherent laziness.

By 3:00, though, my cold was getting the better of me, so I went back to the hotel to get my nap on before dressing for the big lecture that night.  Not much to tell about that, other than it was very entertaining to hear Ann and my DH in conversation about books, reading, e-readers, bookstores, writers, reviewers, publishing, working, discipline, the myth of writers block, and just about any other subject related to the production of a book.

The rest of our time in Nashville was either taken up with university stuff or with family, but DH and I had one evening free for dinner together just the two of us.  Thanks to the help of the Nashville forum on TripAdvisor, we were lucky enough to get a next-day reservation for an early dinner at Chateau West, just up the road from our hotel. We chose wisely, for although the ambience at this new restaurant wasn't a match for Tin Angel, where we had dined with one of the deans earlier in the week, the food was better.

It had been a long time since we had partaken of a full-on French meal, so we made a pact to eat lightly all day on Friday so that we'd have belly room to appreciate the various courses. For an appetizer, DH ordered the escargot and I chose the charcuterie platter because it featured one of my favorite cheeses, St. Andre.  But when our plates arrived, I was promptly filled with food envy: his snails were served in puff pastry.  My charcuterie was good--it could have benefitted from some flatbread or crackers--but the escargot were fabulous:

For our main courses, we had trouble making up our minds but DH eventually settled on the coquilles St. Jacques while I decided on the duck Chambord. Both were dreamy.  His scallops were huge and tender and came with a sweet potato soufflé. The sauce, unlike every other sample of that dish we've had, was not at all heavy (but no doubt still very calorie-laden).  I don't order duck very frequently but I basically did that night because I was skeptical of how Chambord would work with it.  It was amazing.  The potatoes added an earthiness that balanced the sweetness of the sauce perfectly.  I was surprised that I didn't love the sweet potato cake, which was actually too dense to be rightfully called a soufflé, and it was overburdened with nutmeg, a spice I normally love.

Coquilles St Jacques
Duck Chambord
The dessert menu was the piece de resistance. I love dessert and while I will eat almost anything sweet, I will laugh in your face if your restaurant puts on airs about its desserts for offering a cheesecake, a creme brûlée, and a variation of Death By Chocolate.  Puh-leeze. Those are so pedestrian that every major chain restaurant offers those. No, if you want to impress me, you have to do a little better than that.  Chateau West impressed me. We selected a strawberry mille feuille and a hazelnut Paris-Brest.  The former was quite good, and beautiful to boot.  But the latter? It was pure heaven. I'd never heard of a Paris-Brest dessert, but it's a puff pastry with hazelnut cream and it was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

The strawberry mille feuille
The Paris-Brest
I reckon that concludes my trip to Nashville.  I hope I get to visit again with more time to spare, for seeing more sites, eating more good food, and maybe going to hear some live music, which we didn't do at all on this trip.  And, of course, I'd love to have more time for visiting family & friends in the area!

01 April 2014

Last Month in Review: April 2014

Probably my favorite book of the month  
The first two months of 2014 were not stellar reading months for me, but I'm happy to say that March turned that around.  Three cheers for March!  Hooray, huzzah, o frabjous day!

Okay, enough of that.  Expending all of that energy just wore me out.  You see, I have a cold.  Or, if you heard me say that aloud, it would sound more like, "I hab a code." Into every life a little virus must fall, but I'm a tad resentful that said cold interfered with my enjoyment with my visit last week to Nashville. Boo.

Anyway, here, in chronological order, is what I read in March. Some of 'em I even reviewed.  Wonders will never cease. Three audio books and a YA novel helped increase my stats for the month, but there's not a single work of nonfiction here. Gotta work on that for next month!

1. Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.  The first story in this collection still haunts me, but I wasn't the right reader for most of the others. I don't believe I will review this one.

2. The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith.  A sweet YA book.  I liked it a little less than The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, but it's still a quick, easy read. Two teens form a connection when they're stuck in an elevator during a power outage in NYC.  They really click, but they both end up moving away from NYC soon after that chance meeting. You know the drill.

3. The Painter by Peter Heller.  Read this one as an e-book, so I'm eager to see if the finished copy of this novel will have full color illustrations of the paintings referenced at the head of each chapter.  So there's this guy, and he's a painter, and life is complicated.  His daughter is dead, he's killed a man who was trying to kill a horse, and he possibly is being stalked by the man's brother.  It's a really interesting book, and if you liked the disjointed inner monologue from Heller's previous novel, The Dog Stars, you'll feel like you're settling into familiar territory with this one.

4. The Horse and His Boy by C S Lewis.  I re-listened to this one on audio because I was in a pinch and needed something for a short trip but didn't want to buy something new.  Here's my older review of this one, but suffice it to say that the reader is very good, and while I was filled with nostalgia listening to this one, there are a lot of complicating factors listening to this book as an adult.   Namely the Islamaphobia and anti-Arab sentiment running through it.

5. One Plus One by Jojo Moyes.  Review here.

6. Tease by Amanda Maciel.  An unconventional novel featuring teen suicide.  I expect this one will raise some eyebrows upon publication.  Review here.

7. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones.  Despite the frivolous-sounding title and the light cover, this is NOT a funny novel. It's good, but definitely not funny.  Review here.

8. The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd. This novel has both head and heart.  It's so, so satisfying and engaging and informative and entertaining. Review here.

9.  The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland. Slightly disappointing. A woman who works as a transcriptionist for a prestigious NYC newspaper decides to investigate the death of a blind woman who apparently committed suicide by breaking into a lion enclosure at the zoo and being devoured. Sounds like it would be awesome, but it's just so-so.

10. The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain.  Finding and wearing the president's hat can change your life, but then it seems to deliberately detach itself from you to find the next person in need of its special powers.  It's kinda like Mary Poppins meets Tolkien's One Ring, but with benevolence. I hope to review this one soon.

11. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.  This was a re-read via audio.  I loved the listening experience so much that I updated my original review of this book, found here.

12. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith.  Fascinating collection of short stories that incorporate traditional Vietnamese ghost stories into the modern Vietnamese experience.  Mini review here.

13. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Listened to this one on audio, read by Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey.  Enjoyed it to bits, not least because Dan Stevens is one excellent, not to mention dreamy, reader.  I'd love to see a modern film version of this, so somebody please make this movie.  

14. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson.  Holy shit!  This book is truly excellent and dark and disturbing and I hope to write a review of it eventually.  I finished it on the plane back from Nashville.

26 March 2014

Reprise: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I'm off to Nashville, y'all. Home of the imitation Parthenon, country music and my husband's extended family, among other things. I'm trying really hard to post twice a week to the blog, so what follows is my original review of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which I first read book back in August 2012.  I'm updating this review to include some information about the audio book, which I have recently listened to.  When I first read Bernadette, which I really liked, I claimed that it was the right book for me at the right time. Now, however, I might go so far as to say that it was simply the right book, full stop.  A book that I liked a couple of years ago has now become one of my favorite audio book experiences.  I absolutely loved it and I had several moments where I lingered in my car long after reaching my destination, just to stay immersed in the story.

Summary (from Goodreads): Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Oddly enough, I don't think this summary does much for the book, but two of the blurbs on it really work for me. Garth Stein says that it is "a compassionate look at family dysfunction, the paralysis of genius, and good old-fashioned parental love" and Jonathan Franzen "tore through this book with heedless pleasure." I had just finished reading a slew of YA books, I was hungry for some adult fare, and I had just a big enough gap of time to let myself indulge in some bookseller's guilt. That's right. I read a book that was already published, albeit recently (two weeks ago). 

Structurally the book is cobbled together, ostensibly by 15 year old Bee, from various emails, letters, and notes, with occasional first-person interjections from Bee to give a sense of cohesion. Usually I hate this kind of narrative structure, but the informality of the novel makes for a surprisingly good pairing. The epistolary excerpts are all written to, from, or are tangentially related to Bernadette, and my favorite parts were either those written by the heinous Audrey Griffin, Bernadette's neighbor and gnat-nemesis, or the ones Bernadette herself writes to Manjula Kapoor, the woman in India whom she hires to be her outsourced personal assistant.

You know how sometimes a book can come to you at just the right time and you really click with it?  And that same book, if you'd read it a month ago or a year in the future, might not have resonated with you at all?  That's how I feel about Where'd You Go, Bernadette. For whatever reason, I read this book at the right time and had so much fun doing it, but I also had the sense while reading it that if I'd come at it another time I would have simply put it down, unfinished.  Parts of it are incredibly funny, and I loved the send-up of the Seattle scene, that certain brand of parenting characterized by the "gnats," east coast elitism, Microsoft, the MacArthur genius grant, people's deep earnestness to be PC and inclusive, and everything else.

Is it realistic? Heavens, no! But I can forgive a book a good many things if it makes me laugh. There were lots of parts that I enjoyed but oddly enough I only dogeared one section. It's from a letter Bernadette has written to Manjula, asking her to make a Thanksgiving dinner reservation for her family. Clearly Bernadette realizes that it's pretty outlandish to email a person in India to call a restaurant in her own neighborhood for a reservations, so she gives equally outlandish reasons for doing so:
"There's always this guy who answers the phone...and he always says it in this friendly, flat Canadian way. One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.
Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass--anything and everything--the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that....To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with a talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated accordingly. 
Yes, I'm done (26-27)."
Bernadette is full of rants just like that. I kind of love her, and I kind of want to slap her, but I don't see those things as being mutually exclusive. This book is both wry and funny with a postmodern, sly humor. I can't think of any truly great comps, but it falls somewhere along the spectrum of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, and Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small. It's not a book that has tremendous lasting power, and I'm a little surprised that it clicked so strongly with me in the moment, but like the Stones said, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

(end of original review)
The audio book is read by Kathleen Wilhoite, and I'll be honest with you: I didn't like her at first. Not at all.  By the time I came to the end, however, I was very impressed with Ms Wilhoite's rendering of the various characters (a few New Zealanders not withstanding). I laughed out loud so many times when listening to this book, which I expected since I laughed many times while reading it.  What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the number of times I wanted to cry while listening to it, since the book didn't have that effect on me at all. I was also completely caught up in Bee's excitement over things, and with Bernadette's anguish over the Twenty Mile House (you'll just have to read/listen to know what I mean) and the sheer ridiculosity, for lack of a better word, that just keeps on building and building until that particular bubble bursts. 

Seriously, I ended up loving this book on audio, to the point where I actually gave it a 5-star rating on Goodreads. I rarely do that. Hachette has recently lowered the price on the unabridged audio to just $14.99, so I bought one for myself and I encourage everybody who loves audio books to rush out now and buy it for yourself at that price. 

The only caveat I have for the audio is that if you're listening to it without having read it first, you will have to really pay attention to the epistolary parts: in other words, who is writing to whom. I occasionally skimmed over that in the book and had to go back to look things up, which is clearly more difficult to do with an audio.  

So, I'm curious.  Any of you readers have different experiences when reading vs listening to a book?  I know I read differently when I'm reading an e-book vs a physical book, so I guess it shouldn't come as quite the surprise to me that listening and reading engage different parts of the mind. 

24 March 2014

Three Mini Reviews: Literary Fiction

Well, I had three lovely mini-reviews all written out to my satisfaction.  I had them saved and ready to post on Monday morning. And now they're all gone.  I am supremely unhappy with Blogger and Google. To say that I am feeling quite put out would be to engage in careless understatement.  But I will try to retrieve them from my memory, if not from my bloody computer, and re-create them for you.

The whole reason I was doing three mini-reviews is because of how little time I have left in March: I have to go to Boston on Sunday for the Boston Gift Show for work, I have to drive to Albany on Tuesday to talk about books on the radio with the good folks at WAMC, and then on Wednesday I leave for Nashville for four nights with my husband to visit Vanderbilt, Ann Patchett, Parnassus Books, and my husband's nephews, not necessarily in that order.

Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is one heckuva novel.  I started reading it back in January during Tika's minithon and became enthralled. Oyeyemi takes the Snow White fairy tale as a jumping off point for exploring a small 1950s town in Massachusetts. Boy, our narrator, has just escaped a terrible living situation in New York City and has gone off to seek her fortune on the train. Her narrative voice reminded me quite a bit of Katey Kontent's from Rules of Civility. In other words, she is self-assured, a little less worldly than she'd like her readers to think, bright, a little grating, a wee bit unreliable, and perhaps just the tiniest bit on the make.

Boy marries a man and becomes stepmother to Snow, a beautiful child. But when Boy has a daughter of her own, Bird is born with dark skin and it becomes clear to Boy that her husband and step daughter are Passing for White. This revelation unleashes the inner wicked step-mother in Boy, and the rest is mostly history. Oyeyemi stands things on their heads, the entire time stunning the reader with peerless prose. What is identity? What is beauty? What does it mean to be the fairest of them all?

I was so impressed with this book that it became my store's March selection for its signed First Editions Club.  But don't just take our word for it: read this review from the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and see why other readers can see the rising international literary star that is Helen Oyeyemi.

I feel similar warmth towards Dinaw Mengestu's new novel, All Our Names, which I also first started reading at the same minithon as Boy, Snow Bird. Before I say anything about the novel, I first have to quote from The Millions: "A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat because it's one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu." Seriously, why aren't you reading him?  He is, without a doubt, the hottest ticket writing in the English language today.

Isaac (which may or may not be his real name), an immigrant from Ethiopia, by way of Uganda, and Helen, his social worker in a small unnamed college town in the American midwest of the early 1970s, are our two narrators.  They may or may not be in love; they are certainly a couple, but being in love implies a passion that neither one is really capable of showing, at least not there, at least not then. Isaac may or may not have been involved with the government overthrown in Uganda; Helen may or may not be deluding herself that life is satisfactory for her and that she and Isaac have a future together.  Very little is what it seems on the surface of this novel, and that's the brilliant subtlety of Mengestu's writing. He writes between the spoken and the unspoken. His characters live between present and the past. And their lives are haunted by the living and the dead.

I didn't pick up on this as I was reading the novel, but when Mengestu was at my store last week, he touched on the parallels between America and much of Africa during the early 1970s.  Both places had just undergone periods of major upheaval in the previous decade--the Civil Rights era of the US, the anti-colonial movement in much of Africa--and yet those years were also marked by hope and idealism. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the hope had given way to disillusionment in both places.

Mengestu's new novel is also a pick for my store's signed First Editions Club.  I couldn't have been prouder to welcome him to South Hadley.

I first requested a copy of Violet Kupersmith's short story collectionn, The Frangipani Hotel, when I heard that the author was a 2011 graduate of Mount Holyoke College. My interest stayed piqued, however, once I delved into the stories themselves. Kupersmith takes traditional ghost stories of Vietnam and re-creates them in a modern setting.The blend of supernatural lore and the country's history wouldn't be complete without the presence of that other, all-pervasive specter: the Vietnam war.

Most of the stories take place in Vietnam, either the countryside or in Ho Chi Minh city, and while the ghosts take many forms, they seem comfortable interacting with Vietnamese and visitors alike. The blend of creepiness and whimsy is balanced perfectly, and I love what publisher Cindy Spiegel writes in the note to the reader at the front of my advance reading copy: the spirits are "as ordinary as the neighbor next door, and yet they carry with them the weight of history in the Vietnamese immigrant experiences and are informed by a rich storytelling tradition."

I don't read much horror, and this isn't Horror with a Capital H anyway, but the more subtle, slowly-get-under-your-skin variety. If you've read the excellent story collection by Yoko Ogawa called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, you'll have an idea of what to expect, but whereas those stories weren't really rooted in the specific culture of Japan, Kupersmith's are richly evocative of the atmosphere of Vietnam.

NB: I read all three of these books in advance reading copy form, which were provided upon my request from the publishers: Viking, Knopf, and Spiegel & Grau, respectively. The first two books are available now and the last one will be published on April 1, 2014. No foolin'. 

20 March 2014

Book Review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals

You know how sometimes you see a book cover, or you read a title, or occasionally you see the two in tandem, and you think, "I've got a good feeling about this"?  Well, that is precisely how I felt upon seeing this book for the first time.  I mean, just look at it.  How can a book with a title and cover like that not be just the most delicious thing?

It turns out that my expectations for what this book contains and what it actually contains are two very different things. The title is so ridiculous that I was expecting a lot more humor, quirky situations, a great ensemble cast of characters, and perhaps an ending whose poignancy would take me by surprise. Basically, I was expecting something rather like Oscar Wilde meets The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  What I got was a lot more like Thomas Hardy meets The Remains of the Day, but with fewer pages. Which is obviously still a pretty good thing, but not what I happened to be expecting.

The novel opens at a picnic in the village of Narberth in Wales in 1924. So far, so good.  It's been a little quiet, a little awkward, as Wilfred doesn't have much experience with young ladies, and he's never seen a butter-yellow dress such as the one Grace is wearing. He's been brought up properly, so he knows he cannot let his gaze linger on inappropriate places on her person, and yet for the life of him, he yearns to know how she can take that dress off, it's so fitted around the bodice, with no buttons going up the back.  Grace catches him off-guard, staring at her, and instead of asking what he really wants to know (which is clearly improper), he instead asks her to marry him. Uh, oh.  Worse, Grace says yes.

Awkward, that. And by the time Wilfred muster up the courage to tell Grace that he didn't actually intend to propose, and that it's ridiculous to get married after going on one picnic, Grace has told her parents, and the whole village knows.

Clearly author Wendy Jones has laid the perfect groundwork for a comedy of manners, but she takes the book in an entirely different direction. I'm not saying that Wilfred Price is devoid of humor altogether, but it is definitely not a distinguishing characteristic of this novel. It's far more a tragedy of predestination, where the characters' secrets are burdens that can never be lightened and whose utter lack of birthright, by dint of gender or class, dictates the course of their lives.

Grace is pregnant after being raped but knows she cannot go to her parents or the magistrate about it, so  marriage to Wilfred would be her saving grace. Wilfred has fallen in love with somebody else who lost her fiancee in the Great War, but not only is he honor-bound to marry Grace now, his and his da's livelihood depend on it. You see, in a village like Narberth and for miles around, no righteous family would trust their dearly departed loved ones to a man who abandoned his own fiancee and her baby.

More than anything, Wilfred Price is a novel about limited horizons and a time when what your neighbors thought of you was more important than pursuing your own happiness. It's a good novel but overall a pretty sobering one. The jacket flap tells me that the producers of Downton Abbey have optioned the rights to this novel to create a mini series, which I look forward to viewing.

NB: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, by Wendy Jones, was published in February 2014 in the US by Europa, though it has been available for some time in the UK already. I read a copy that was sent to me by the publisher at my request.

17 March 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I'm not sure why, but when I heard last year that Sue Monk Kidd would be publishing her novel in January of this year, I wasn't especially excited about it.  I'd read The Secret Life of Bees and liked it pretty well, so I'm uncertain where this feeling of disinterest stemmed from, other than after dissecting Kathryn Stockett's book, The Help,  I was a little leery of another one of those Southern novels where white women become the heroes in the story of black women's struggle. (Full disclosure: I loved The Help but I was fully aware after reading just how much the author had appropriated someone else's story in a not-so-nice way.)

But then I read a review of The Invention of Wings on Alice's blog, Reading Rambo, and it totally changed my mind about this book. For starters, Alice gave me a better understanding of what the book was about--I'd no idea, for example, that the Grimke sisters in this book were actual historical figures of great import in the abolitionist and proto-feminist movements. The thing is, these Grimke sisters did some pretty kick-ass things, so how is it that I'd never heard of them before reading Alice's review and then reading this book? In fact, I'm pretty sure my review here is mostly just gonna be a summation of the story and how much I liked it, so please read Alice's review to get a better sense of things. She's way funnier than I am and you'll enjoy it more. She's basically already said everything I want to say anyway, including excerpting one of the same passages that I'm going to use and commenting on how the Australian book cover is infinitely superior to the US one.

So, The Invention of Wings opens in Charleston in 1803 and is told in alternating points of view from Sarah Grimke, a daughter of one of the city's most prominent families, and Hetty/Handful, the little slave girl who is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. I don't know if it's white guilt, or our contemporary inability to truly grasp the horrors of slavery, or the general disinclination of writers to describe terrible things happening to children, but Sue Monk Kidd avoids the temptations to backpedal that other writers before have succumbed to.

In other words, she doesn't simplify the relationship between Sarah and Handful, even when they are children. In their own words:
Handful: "It was hard to know where things stood. People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It was never a simple thing (54)."
 Sarah: "I saw then what I hadn't seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I'd lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I'd grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There's a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it (115)."
Sarah's first act of defiance is to try to free Handful on the first night she's been given to her, but her family, who owned seventeen slaves in their Charleston house alone, not counting the ones working on their Low Country plantation, will not hear of it. Her second act of defiance is teaching Handful how to read, and these bold courses of action as a girl lay the groundwork for the woman she eventually becomes.

Handful, on the other hand, keeps a weather eye out for Sarah's mother, a rather harsh mistress, and learns at her mauma Charlotte's right hand how to sew and how to channel the feelings of rage and impotence that are a slave's birthright into something productive: making a story quilt and secreting money away to buy their freedom. Charlotte, clever and talented in equal measure, gets up to her own acts of defiance until one day she's caught, with truly terrible consequences.

Sarah's and Handful's chapters alternate seamlessly, and Kidd serves both voices well. Eventually both girls grow up and their lives take on radically different directions; Sarah's to the North, where she falls in with the Quakers, and Handful's to the new, radical African Methodist Episcopal church where both slaves and free blacks secretly work to create an uprising in Charleston.  Both moves turn out to be disastrous until each woman decides, with a certain grim determination, on the course of action she must take.

The book ends in 1838, twenty-five years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, and by the time Kidd concludes her story, there have already been many inroads made against slavery in the United States, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Grimke, upon whom half of this novel is based. While I wouldn't say that The Invention of Wings is particularly literary, it does exactly what literature is supposed to do: inform, entertain, disturb, and engulf the reader in a story that is not the reader's own. I loved this book and found it nearly impossible to put down. I unreservedly recommend it to anybody who likes historical fiction, novels with strong female characters, and stories with a true emotional heft.

NB: Viking published this book in January 2014 and I read an advance reading copy that was sent to me at the publisher's initiative.