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Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson is a popular British middle grade author that I had not yet gotten around to reading when she died last October. I had always been aware of her as a writer (most notably with "Which Witch"), so when I received an early copy of her book "The Ogre of Oglefort" I was very excited to have the opportunity to read it.

I would have loved this story as a kid. Talking animals are always a plus and a little girl who wanted to be turned into a bird? I could relate to that.

The story begins with a hag and a troll as they search for their new familiar, who ends up being a friendly young orphan. The beginning is sweet and I like a story that casts typically bad or scary characters in bumbling, likable roles as this one does. The characters we've met quickly receive a mission that sends them to Oglefort to slay the famous ogre. Misunderstandings ensue but there is no real action in the story until near the end.

This is a very cute book and sweet story full of unlikely heroes. However, because of the lack of fast paced action I would not recommend it to reluctant readers. Fans of fantasy and kids that dream of talking to, or becoming, animals (like myself) will definitely enjoy it.

Advanced Reading Copy reviewed from Penguin Young Readers Group

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Call and Response

I've written before about how I made it out of school without encountering a lot of the classics. One such book is "Jane Eyre." In fact, I had never read any of the Brontes until I read Charlotte's novel. I wonder if I can possibly express to you how deeply I got in to this book. I followed the characters. I was Jane. I loved Rochester. I was fully present in this novel and could barely put it down. But reflecting on it made me think about the appeal of the classics. What is the draw of the literary canon? Is it that these books are all just "that good" and have managed to stand the test of time? I rather doubt this as "good" is really subjective and I've read a great deal about how "Jane Eyre" is not a technically good novel (we don't have to go into why I disagree with that, do we?). I have a feeling that the more true answer lies in the canonical books as cultural touchtones.

Reading a book like "Jane Eyre" would be enjoyable in a vacuum. It is a good book on its own terms but more than that (for me, anyway) is being able to stake my claim in the novel's cultural landscape. I don't find that I get the same satisfaction in reading modern "it" novels as I do from completing a classic. I'm not as interested in the discussion surrounding the current ubiquitous titles. I wonder why that could be? I imagine it must have something to do with the history of the discourse. The classics have years of study and written response to them.

One way in which the classics have a cultural leg up on the front list is in parallel texts. I mentioned "Jane Eyre" specifically not only because I enjoyed it but also because I read it along with Jean Rhys 1966 novel "Wide Sargasso Sea." Rhys' novel is a modern response to Bronte's and tells the story of the other Mrs. Rochester. A direct literary response like this will not be found for a current popular title (books tend to take a while to write and such) and it can add so much to the earlier work. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is a feminist, anti-colonial look into Jane Eyre's world and it will make you look at the characters within an entirely different light. A close reading of a text will give you a look at the characters but to have someone else rearrange and re-imagine them can open doors of understanding that may have previously been closed. I definitely felt that way about these two novels (though nothing could put a damper on my irrational, romantic love of Rochester ... I admitted it was irrational!).

Flavorwire recently put together a list of 11 parallel texts that's worth checking out. Many of these have been added to my TBR pile. Anyone interested in taking over my bookstore duties? I just want to stay home and read this summer!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

SIBA's 2011 Book Award Winners

Cavalier House Books is a proud member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. SIBA is awesome; it's one of those resources that my customers don't really hear about but that helps me to function as a better bookseller everyday. When John and I opened the store we were so excited to join SIBA, and we've basically been excited about it ever since. From the yearly tradeshow to the camaraderie between our regional bookselling peers ... it's just fantastic.

So having said all that, I would like to share with you this year's SIBA Book Award Winners followed by a short quote from the nominating bookstore. To be nominated by for an award the book must be southern in nature (either written by a southern writer or dealing with a southern topic/setting).

In the Children's Category: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Catlin will touch your heart. What more is there to say?” –Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC
In the Young Adult Category: Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Oh, this story brings back memories!” –Two Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC
In the Fiction Category: Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Ron Rash can’t write a false word.” –Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, NC
In the Nonfiction Category: The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family by Jim Minick
A captivating look into a couple’s efforts to create an organic blueberry farm in Central Appalachia. . .sit back and savor the sweetness of his blueberry story.”—Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC
In the Poetry Category: A House of Branches by Janisse Ray
These poems are about waking up, looking around at the world, and discovering how to live within it.” –Kathryn Stripling Byer
In the Cookbook Category: Southern My Way: Simple Recipes, Fresh Flavors by Gena Knox
Gena’s cookbook shows quicker ways to make traditional southern dishes from a fresh angle!” –Page & Palette in Fairhope, AL

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson made a somewhat hasty decision to go for "A Walk in the Woods." He'd already committed to walking the Appalachian Trail (to friends and neighbors, to his publisher, etc) when he began to research the trail. By then he had to go through with it and (thankfully) write a book about it. Bryson is at his best in the beginning of the book when he is nervous and uncomfortable while traveling with his long lost friend, Katz. It's then that we get lines like this: "All the books tell you that if the grizzly comes for you, on no account should you run. This is the sort of advice you get from someone who is sitting at a keyboard when he gives it. Take it from me, if you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly comes for you, run. You may as well. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life."

I really like that side of Bryson, when he's funny and a bit sarcastic but not too snide. To me Bryson always feels like he is reveling in his discomfort - as though the draw to his books is more what he didn't enjoy about an experience than what he did. And that's totally great, as long as it's funny. It's when Bryson becomes too biting or complains too much that reading becomes a drain. Thankfully, that's relatively absent from most of this book. Instead we hear that, "there is nothing more agreeable, more pleasantly summery, than to stroll along railroad tracks in a new shirt." He seems to have genuinely enjoyed his time on the trail. To have really gotten something out of becoming a "mountain man."

I couldn't help but be a little proud and a little jealous. Hiking the trail is definitely not for me. I love nature. The beauty, the austerity, the solitude. But I'm terrified of it as well (as I am terrified of most things). At the height of his discomfort during one of his hikes Bryson begins to worry that he might die even as he knows that he is in a safe situation. He starts to worry about how much he's worrying. "Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to know that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me - and here was an arresting notion - unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion." And that my friends would be my thought process in the woods, which is exactly why I would not survive.

I can't neglect to mention how much we learn from "A Walk in the Woods." Of course, this book is the story of Bryson's walk, but he also packs it full of interesting history about the trail itself as well as the Forest Service (who knew bureaucracy in the woods would be such a bad thing?) and the general failings of the American people and government when it comes to nature. Also, he's got an unhealthy interest in the people who have died on the trail, and if you thought I wasn't going to attempt this 2,200 mile hike before, well, imagine me now. I really enjoyed "A Walk in the Woods." The book is full of pitch-perfect trademark Bryson, and in the end I feel that I have "gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of the woods."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The internet has me thinking...

There is a series of recent articles swirling around in my head right now (not the least of which is this one - no more Oxford comma? I'm a fan of all commas!). I know how they all fit together in my head; I'm just looking for a way to connect them to yours. You know, without the convenience of The Matrix.

The first is a recent discussion on NPR's Talk of the Nation regarding our limitations in media input called "You Can't Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying." The title basically says it all and I don't know if I can possibly explain to you how this made me feel. As a means of understanding I'll share an anecdote from my childhood, when I was a kid I once asked my mom how long she thought it would take me to read every book in the world. She told me that I couldn't possibly, ever. This hit me pretty hard. Frankly, I'm still getting over it. And I'm still trying to read every book ever, which is probably why I have over 1,000 books at home. But back to the show, one of NPR's culture critics, Linda Holmes, suggests that you must either cull or surrender when it comes to imbibing books (or culture or mass media at large). To cull is to make a broad swipe and say this is not good/relevant/worth my time/whatever and ignore whole sections of artistic output while surrendering is to say this may be great, but I've already got all this other great stuff going on over here so I can't possibly get to it.

I'll call myself an approaching surrenderer (yeah, I just made that up). I'm not a cultural elitist, so I wouldn't say that I judge wide swaths of culture as beneath me and thus cull them. That being said, I can tell the difference between art and entertainment and I think that's a really important distinction that often gets lost in the shuffle. So, what I mean when I say that I am an approaching surrenderer would be that I try to balance the art with the entertainment (perhaps what my more highbrow peers would cull). I don't think being well-read means that you've read all of the Russians or Milton or whatever; it seems to me that being well-read means being widely read. I've read Milton and I've read Christopher Moore, for that I consider myself rather well-read. There's a cultural playing field when it comes to literature that I feel comfortable stepping out on. I know that there are holes in my literary background but I'm striving to fill them. That's just gotta be enough for me because, as my mother told me years ago and Linda Holmes reminded me Monday, I can't read everything.

Now, why am I sharing this with you? Before I go there, let me share the next article. Author Ann Patchett will be opening a bookstore in her hometown, Nashville. Apparently, Nashville doesn't have a bookstore anymore. The indie that had been in town for 30 years has closed, the chains have fled, and Nashville is left with nothing but the internet (and here's hoping a thriving library system but somehow I doubt it; are "thriving library systems" even allowed exist anymore?). I'm hoping you are starting to catch my drift here. This is going to be one of those "bookstores are important!" posts. I heard Patchett's news and I immediately thought of Holmes' discussion.

When you know that the number of books out in the world is really too much to fathom, how do you deal with the question of what to read? For some the answer is simply the recommendations of friends, for others it's the NYT Bestseller's List, but one that I think is really important is the community bookstore (as well as the library; I'm a huge library fan). Sure, a website can tell me what books customers purchased together, but is that all the information I want? What if I want a recommendation that's geared to me and my immediate literary community? That's not going to happen without a conversation. Then there's the limitless possibility. Not all limitations are a bad thing; in her interview Patchett says "I think we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000." The word typically used for stocking a small bookstore is "curating," as though it were a collection. When you have such a small amount of space a great deal of care goes into how you fill it, trust me on this one. When I consider whether or not to put a book in my store I am taking into consideration whether or not I would recommend it to someone. I don't have enough space (or funds) to dedicate it to books I don't believe in.

That is how I'm helping you to surrender to the vastness of the literary world. I spend most of my time reading books or reading about books because that's my job. I do it so that I can act as a guide through this vastness and in that way you can still have time to, you know, do your job.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Middle School by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

I have finally read my first James Patterson novel. I know you're thinking "Patterson? With your delicate sensibilities?" Okay, so maybe you aren't thinking that, but I will tell you that I shy away from Patterson and his ilk. I find detective fiction (as riveting and pageturning as it gets) to be far too violent for my tastes. So now you really are asking, "why Patterson?" It all started with a book in my mailbox.

Little, Brown and Company sent me a copy of a book called "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life," I flipped through it, read a little, and decided to take it home with me. It looked cute and funny enough to pass the evening with. I did not expect to enjoy this middle grade novel as much as I did, nor did I expect it to come from the man I later found to be its author, you guessed it - James Patterson.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" is Rafe's story, he's an average kid with an average disdain for middle school. Plus he's got a friend who's kind of a bad influence, but you can't help but enjoy him. Rafe and Leo are the kinds of kids whose lives at home are sometimes difficult and they remain mostly obscure in school until they come up with a plan. The plan is to break every rule in the Hills Village Middle School Code of Conduct. Rafe and Leo make a game of breaking all the rules, assigning point values (the more dangerous the rule breaking the higher the points) and lives (only three, which can be lost by neglecting an opportunity to break a rule or not acting swiftly enough). Rafe immediately endears himself to the reader by making a rule of his own: no one is to be hurt by consequence of his rule breaking.

This is a great story with a lot of sweetness, heart, and humor. I would definitely recommend it to reluctant middle grade readers, especially those who like the Wimpy Kid books as it shares with that series the journal-like first person narration with plenty of humor and illustrations. "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" is a good story with a great character. Rafe is a perfect blend of fragile kindness and young rebellion.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've started writing this review several times now and the words that come to mind as I begin every intro are "surprising" and "complex." I feel that I can really sum up the whole of Ishiguro's novel with those two words. "Never Let Me Go" opens with the first person narration of Kathy H which is creepy enough since we are told that the setting is "England, late 1990s" and I know no one in England is simply named H. Then Ishiguro begins to drop terms that the reader is unfamiliar with noting that Kathy is a "carer" and she takes care of those who have made "donations." The opening of the novel is not exactly confusing but it is disconcerting, especially for those familiar with Ishiguro's prose. He's famous for being a good writer, and I mean that in the beautiful language sense. So the odd references and the incredibly simplistic language set the reader up for what is going to be a very different reading experience in only the first paragraph.

The novel opens with Kathy reflecting on her life thus far as she prepares to make a big change and step down from the carer position she has held for eleven years. She explains that she wants to talk about her childhood as she has recently reconnected with two close friends from the past. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were incredibly lucky kids. They were students at the elite Hailsham school. While most of the donors Kathy cares for had horrible childhoods in schools they'd rather not discuss, Kathy and her friends lived in a basically care-free world throughout their early lives. Kathy is curious about her memories. She is constantly questioned about them by individuals who did not attend Hailsham and it is as though her reflections have begun to weigh on her.

And that's the thing, as a reader you are following along as Kathy describes life in Hailsham. The Guardians, the Gallery for creative works, the Collections of student possessions ... you hear about all of these things and Kathy describes their importance, but all the while you keep thinking that something else is going on here. There are hints and clues that allude to the fact that not all is right with the world, even in the idyllic Hailsham. This just doesn't sound like 90s England. Then all is illuminated to Kathy and the reader. It makes sense of the entire experience of reading the novel. Everything has been slightly off-kilter for a reason and we learn why when we find out just what it was that was special about Kathy, her friends, and the others like them. But I'm not going to tell you what that is ... I'll let Kazuo Ishiguro tell you in his own time as you read the novel.

So, there's the surprising. Here's the complex - this novel is not really even about that surprise. It's not really about the moral and ethical questions Ishiguro is posing through his characters. "Never Let Me Go" is a coming of age novel. It's the story of Kathy's journey away from and then back to Ruth and Tommy. Following these three very different characters as they navigate similar situations and relate (or fail to relate) to one another is the true goal of the novel. The three of them are close friends but I couldn't help but think that their ties seem to be more along the sibling lines. There was a need for one another that grade school friends don't typically feel. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are like the three sides of a triangle - they can be objects on their own but without the other two they will never be whole. Even with two all they will ever be is intersecting lines, it's the third that makes them who they are as a unit. Finding out what was going on in this world was what kept the pages turning, but reading about the characters relationships with one another was what made the whole book worth it. It's difficult for me to say whether or not I liked "Never Let Me Go." I enjoyed reading it, but I enjoyed thinking about it moreso and sometimes found myself setting the book down to think in depth about a passage.

I haven't had any time to read lately, and I was so far behind that I actually neglected to finish (or really start) "Never Let Me Go" before our bookclub met to discuss it. I was disappointed about it then, but now having read the novel I am so sad about it! I wish I could have really participated in this discussion instead of fielding the questions and making a weird reference to a side character in True Blood. Having read the novel, I can no longer even see how I fit that reference comfortably into the conversation; though thinking about it now I have a feeling we had gone off on a tangent about living forever and I was all "Godrick was such an awesome vampire you guys!" (don't judge me, readers - that show is TV's version of crack). What I'm trying to say here is that I want you to read Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" and then I want you to come talk to me about it.

Friday, June 17, 2011


For those not familiar with Twitter lingo the # before a word or phrase tags it and is called a hashtag. Using a hashtag makes searching for a subject easier. After the publication of Meghan Cox Gurdon's WSJ article someone, I've heard it was YA author Maureen Johnson, created the hashtag #YAsaves. The entirety of the YA community caught on to the tag and twitter was ablaze with stories of the good that comes from YA. This isn't love, kittens, and sparkly vampires good; this is actual "this book saved my life" good. Today, I'm not even going to talk about how all YA is not dark. I covered that earlier. There's plenty of love and kittens and those sparkly Cullens. All that is well and good but today I've got an answer to this question: "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"

Darkness in YA literature (darkness in any literature, in any art) is a response to the darkness in society. Let's face it, the daily news is a whole lot more grim than many of the books that Gurdon calls out in her article. She calls these dark and violent books smut (she uses that word - without irony. Who does that?). If it's called smut when it is fiction what are we to call the nonfiction? Lauren Myracle's "Shine" is one of the dark and violent books Gurdon specifically calls out, noting that it opens with a gay teenager being "savagely beaten." So, what are we to call Judy Shepard's book "The Meaning of Matthew" about her life (and the world) after the murder of her son? Or, is it okay for Shepard's book to deal with darkness because it was not aimed at a young audience? Are we to assume that teenagers are so oblivious to the world that they don't know hate crimes happen? I should hope not. Then, isn't it right that they should be able to read a book about it? A book that may help them to understand the world even if it's in response to a completely non-understandable situation.

This is the problem with challenging the acceptance of dark subject matter: if you are not interested in it then it is not meant for you. Maybe your life has been relatively free of darkness; you haven't experienced it and you don't want to read about it so why should you? You don't have to. That's a perfectly valid option. But don't judge those who do. As Sherman Alexie pointed out in his response to Gurdon's article:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Life is difficult for just about everyone, especially teenagers. To combat that some people escape into "hyper-violent" dystopias like "The Hunger Games" or maybe they relate to the damaged characters in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian". That's why I think "abuse, violence and depravity" are a good idea in young adult literature. Not only is it a good idea, but it is absolutely necessary. These books are needed; they are doing actual good. These books are saving lives. And really, do I have to say this, are we actually complaining about kids reading?

I know I stated that I don't really read YA, but one of the YA books that I have read is Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak". "Speak" is a genuinely good book and an important book, and Laurie Halse Anderson is awesome. For the tenth anniversary of the publication of "Speak" she wrote a poem in honor of the feedback she received from the book, which is about a girl who was raped. The poem is called "Listen" and you can watch her read it below. After you hear this poem you will fully understand just how #YAsaves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Who is YA?

By now, everyone's heard of the Wall Street Journal article about YA literature with the byline "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?" At first, I wasn't even going to respond to this article. I am neither a reader nor writer of YA literature. I've started reading more of it since we opened the store two years ago and since I made a friend who blogs about YA books (and forces the best of them into my TBR pile), but I'm not connected to this genre in the way that others are. Now I'm gonna talk about it anyway.

In my opinion, YA literature is for young adults. Isn't that what those two letters, Y.A., stand for? Meghan Cox Gurdon's article refers to a 13 year old girl. As a bookseller, I would not point the mother of a 13 year old kid to the Young Adult section. 13 to me means kid ... it doesn't mean Beverly Cleary kid but it doesn't mean House of Night teen either. It's somewhere in the middle, and where appropriate reading material for one 13 year old kid falls may not be appropriate for another 13 year old kid. In her article Gurdon writes, "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18." She admits that the genre is broad. So broad that maybe we shouldn't be calling it a genre anymore; YA literature has become literature in which the main characters are younger than 20. It's got as many genres within as Adult literature and is read by 13, 16, 18, 20, 30, and 60 year olds. That opens up a lot of doors.

Guess who's here to help you navigate that multitude of doors: booksellers! librarians! teachers! These are people who live to help young people find not only age appropriate titles but titles that are appropriate to the specific person in question. Personally, I focus on middle grade literature. Send me any kid, give me a few specifics as far as likes and dislikes and I can recommend a book they will love. Parents of reluctant readers have told me that I work some sort of magic. It's not magic - it's my job. I read a lot and I research even more so that I can recommend the right books to the right people. I love creating that perfect coupling; that's why I'm in this business. It's not a fancy algorithm, it's just me being a passionate reader and someone who likes to share my passion. I can guarantee that every good bookseller, librarian, and teacher feels the same way. All the ones I know do.

And let's talk about censorship for a moment. Gurdon claims that those she calls "gatekeepers" operate in contrast to the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to sell books and "smut" (her word) is what sells best to teens, so her gatekeepers (the same teachers and librarians I was just talking about) must operate to keep that smut out of the hands of precious, corruptible children. Gurdon even includes a colorful quote from an unnamed editor about the sacrifices publishers have to make to satisfy these gatekeepers. I'm sorry, but that's just not the way it works. Yes, eliminating some of the bad language from a book aimed at teens may get a wider acceptance in the school curriculum. But not every book is meant for the school curriculum. Publishers know that. That's why when I have a discussion with my publishing sales rep she says "this is a great title for you to bring into book fairs!" She's read the books; she knows what's best for the diversity of a school and a bookfair where there's less hands-on bookselling. That's not censorship. A class has anywhere between 20 to 30 students. A teacher may have 7 classes. That's over 200 possible students. Of those 200 students some will be comfortable with bad language (or dark subject matter) but many (and their parents) will not. I think it is just as bad to censor a book as it is to force a child or young adult to read something that they are not ready for.

I don't consider teachers or librarians (or booksellers!) to be gatekeepers. That sounds like a negative term. I prefer to think of us as individuals who open doors, not those who seek to keep them closed. My favorite teachers were the ones who taught me on my level. They recommended outside reading. They exposed me to books and authors I wouldn't have found and ideas that challenged me. I was ready for that, but not every kid is and good teachers know it. A friend recently told me that she borrowed a copy of "The Stand" from me in middle school and it terrified her. I loved Stephen King at that age; she didn't. We are different people with different ideas. There's nothing wrong with that. Stephen King shouldn't be published just because I liked him and he shouldn't be banned just because she didn't. King's novels are published because there is a market for them. The market wasn't created. No one forced me to buy that copy of The Stand - I wanted to read it. As long as teens want to read dark books there will be dark books because the market demands it.

I wish that the mom described in Gurdon's article had come to my store instead of the chain she went to. I would have talked to her about her kid. Learned about her interests and recommended a stack of appropriate books that I was enthusiastic about. She wouldn't have been overwhelmed by the amount of darkness in YA literature because once she told me she wasn't interested in dark books I wouldn't have recommended them and she wouldn't have even noticed them.

I had originally wanted to talk about this article and #YAsaves but sometimes my brain goes otherwheres. Maybe tomorrow I'll write about my ideas as to why the market demands such dark subject matter.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Post-BEA Post

If you follow a lot of book blogs then I'm sure you will have seen plenty of BEA wrap-up posts over the weekend. I'm going to add my voice to the chorus (are we a chorus? Maybe 'teeming horde' would be the more appropriate phrasing). For anyone reading who doesn't follow other blogs (that would probably just be my Nonna), BEA is BookExpo America. It's definitely the biggest book trade show in North America thus it is the biggest book industry event on the continent. That's impressive. Also, it's overwhelming. I thought about titling this post "On Being Horrible at Networking" but I'm hoping it will turn out to be more than that.

So, BEA. I went into this whole thing totally blind. Frankly, the internet was not very helpful in telling me what to expect. All I read about BEA from years past in other blogs was "wear comfortable shoes" (that I did, my friends, that I did). Not knowing what to expect leads to no expectations, and if you have no expectations you can't be disappointed, right? That's a good thing. The only thing I really expected out of BEA was to get an advance copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' new book "The Marriage Plot" which I have been waiting for since 2003 when I read "Middlesex" (also known as one of the best books ever). That didn't happen. But I wasn't that disappointed because in his speech at one of the author breakfasts BEA hosts, Eugenides said "I just finished it yesterday." Hearing him talk about the process was almost as good as reading a new book, so I can wait a little while.

I'm getting ahead of myself again...Day One of BEA was, for me, on Monday. It was the American Booksellers Association's Day of Education. I cannot tell you how awesome this was. I love, love, love getting together with other booksellers and discussing what's going on in our stores. Literally, it is exhilarating. Everyone shares ideas and talks about what's working in their corners of the world. And everyone is passionate about exactly what I am passionate about: books! Talking about books and sharing books. It makes me understand things like ComicCon (that's a kinda true joke). I learned so much and came back with so many new ideas to integrate into my store. If the whole week had been like this one day it would have been one of the best of my life.

Then on Tuesday the floor opened. The floor is the (monstrous, gargantuan) area where various publishers and vendors set up booths to display their wares. I was originally looking forward to this. Having no idea what to expect I guess I sort of started to expect what I wanted to happen. In my mind, I would walk into a booth, talk about the upcoming books and their authors, schedule some signings, get some ARCS. Basically I thought I would be courted by the publishers. Publicists would see my badge and think "she's a bookseller! My authors will want to go to her store!" That's not really what happened. That's actually not what happened at all.

I spent the entire first day wandering around like a lost kitten wondering why no one wanted to talk to me. Then I realized that one must be assertive. There are thousands of people here (that is not an exaggeration); the pubs can't talk to everyone - make them want to talk to you. Well, as stated earlier, I am bad at networking. Luckily, I'm part of a team. John (aka the husband and co-owner in this bookstore endeavor) and Jaime (aka totally awesome new friend, blogger at bookmarkedblog.com, and future employee of CHB) each talked up publishers and authors and made connections to score future events. That's what BEA is all about.

BookExpo was a pretty intense experience. It's huge and a bit overwhelming. But it can be a lot of fun if you are ready for it. From hearing authors speak every morning at breakfast to being one of the first to get your hands on the IT book of next season to making those all important contacts, BEA definitely offers a lot. I just wasn't quite ready for it. Next year though, it's on New York.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review (plus some): The Guggenheims by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

I spent my 22rd birthday in Venice. You would think that would have been enough but it wasn't; I wanted to to spend my birthday with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection at her Venetian Palazzo. John and I traveled through the canals across tiny, beautiful Venetian bridges and arrived to find the museum closed. I was disappointed. Flash forward to this Christmas (almost four years later), John has a crazy glimmer in his eye when he hands me my Christmas present. I can tell it's a book, but what book would he be so excited to give me? I unwrap the package and find "The Guggenheims: A Family History" by Irwin and Debi Unger.

I'm still a bit confused at this point. It does look like an interesting book, but it's not one that was on my radar and I don't see why he'd be so excited about it. Then, the real present comes out: I'm going to Book Expo America! My Christmas present was that he went to all the trouble to orchestrate a week off for the two of us (a grand feat when your bookstore has exactly two employees - the two owners!). I am thrilled beyond measure by this. I mean, it's BEA - I don't have to tell you how big of a deal that is, right?

For anyone confused as to how the two preceding paragraphs relate to each other: he also got me advance tickets to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which is conveniently located in NYC - the city that hosts BEA. Feel free to ohh and ahh over how cute and sweet he is. He's pretty awesome. Anyway, the book ...

"The Guggenheims" is a group biography that you can read as a flash through modern history. The family definitely lived through it and more often than not they touched it beginning with Meyer Guggenheim's entrance into industry in the 1850s. The Ungers rather nonchalantly deliver lines such as "in ten minutes of conversation, the fate of the American rocket program was settled." The participants of this ten minute conversation were Daniel Guggenheim, Harry Guggenheim (by proxy), and Charles Lindberg and they went on fund Robert Goddard's research on rockets. Goddard's grant from the Guggenheim family allowed him the freedom to develop new rockets that when on to influence World War II. I just can't get over that - a ten minute conversation.

That's probably what I enjoyed most about this book, it read as a historical text but added names and faces to the events. In my opinion that's what good nonfiction does, it links story and history into something cohesive. I find that easier both to digest and remember. In the case of "The Guggenheims" the narrative is indeed historical (it's a family history after all) but not linear. I would call it more tangential. The Ungers focus on one aspect of the Guggenheim's life and follow it through to its conclusion then move on to the next aspect, which may have had its temporal beginning in the center of the previously described events.

The book starts in the 1800s with the first Guggenheim's immigration to America, follows Meyer's rise into industry, and the family's decline as an industrial player. This was the part I as a bit leery of. I'm not incredibly fascinated by the mining industry and I worried that I would find most of the book dry until I got to the part I was interested in, Peggy Guggenheim and her involvement in the art world. Let's be honest, parts of the beginning did drag a little as the Ungers described the ups and downs of the Guggenheim's business interests. But the book never became a chore to read because of the characters it was peopled with. Every time you begin to be bored with business prospects and contracts the Ungers throw you a bone in the form of an interesting historical aside such as the fact that Meyer's son Benjamin was a passenger on the Titanic. He was the guy you see in James Cameron's movie who is dressed in his tuxedo, having a drink in the dining room as the ship goes down. That actually happened. Benjamin's last known words, were "we've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." Or, a chapter or so later you'll get this gem of a quote from Meyer's grandson, M. Robert Guggenheim: "Every wealthy family supports at least one gentleman in leisure. I have elected to assume that position."

The later half of the book deals with the aspects of the Guggenheims I was more familiar with. Solomon's museum, Harry's fellowship, and Peggy's liaisons. The Ungers point out in the beginning of their chapter on Harry that the lasting influence of the Guggenheims is not their contributions to the world of industry but to that of art. The family has started museums, newspapers, art gallerys, even a publishing house. It was fascinating to see how far their influence reached. It wasn't that they were famous creators of art (though many in the family did become artists) but they surrounded themselves with and supported many of the modern creators of great art. At one point the Ungers provide a list of famous recipients of Guggenheim fellowships, and seriously these are the names that everyone recognizes.

By the time I reached the section on Peggy Guggenheim (the Guggenheim I was originally most interested in) I was a little disappointed (but just a little). Her salacious lifestyle couldn't hold a candle to the stories of Harry Guggenheim influencing multiple strains of history or the many stories of family politics gone awry. All in all, this was a really good read. It's kind of a beast in length but definitely worth the time - and while you're reading it it won't feel like much time. Fully recommended.

So, BEA was this week and I'm sure I'll be posting about it next week, but for now here's a picture of John and me in front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, "a daring and adventurous building."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Sometimes a book comes in to the store that looks so good I have to put aside everything else I'm reading and devour it right then. Tayari Jones' novel "Silver Sparrow" was definitely one of those. Not only did the blurb contain the opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist" but it also compared Jones to Toni Morrison . You don't set something like that aside, you cradle it to your chest and take it home to begin immediately.

"Silver Sparrow" takes place in 1980's Atlanta and tells the story of James Witherpoon's two families through the eyes of his "secret daughter" Dana and her legitimate sister Chaurisse. The this story of life and lies is made all the more heartrending and intense by the fact it is being told by the two blameless characters caught between their father's actions. The first half of the novel is told by Dana and as a reader you very quickly sympathize with her. Dana's revelation that she is a part of a "secret family" and that she and her mother often perform surveillance on her father's other family brings to mind many questions of identity. While Jones never really tackles the identity issue head-on I found it to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. Who we are has so much to do with who we are in relation to each other.

At one point in the novel Dana begins a conversation with a man she knows to be her grandfather who knows her only as a stranger passing his house on the street, until he says "please excuse my clothes and such... I was just doing yard work. I didn't figure on meeting you." Dana realizes that her grandfather has known who she is, her identity has been revealed not only through her looks but also through their "surveilling." Jones may be suggesting components of identity in this way, that it is made up of both who we are and what we do.

Dana is not lost by being a secret child. She has more control over her identity by the virtue of her familial history, while her sister, Chaurisse, has been sheltered from the truth of her father's lifestyle and leads a life of not so blissful ignorance. Chaurisse may have a legitimate family life but she is desperately lonely and insecure. Her dream is to be "silver," which is what she "called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn't how they looked, it was how they were" (there's the question of identity again). Thus Dana enters into Chaurisse's life. They meet in the cosmetics aisle of a pharmacy. Dana is irresistibly silver and Chaurisse longs to be her friend, to catch her silver properties. For her part, Dana has grown tired of surveilling and is looking for an opportunity to experience more of Chaurisse's life.

I'm sure you can imagine where a friendship between these girls leads, but it's not really the happenings in the plot that matter. It's in the way Jones has them unfold. This is a story of families, both typical and not-so. The characters are real and true. "Silver Sparrow" is a beautiful story for all of it's sadness, within its pages Tayari Jones delves into the meaning of love and family, secrets and betrayals and comes away with a novel that tells a story that is simultaneously unique and universal. You should definitely read this book.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Algonquin Books

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

So, "Cutting for Stone." I'm still quite weak on the whole book review thing. Mostly I just want to jump up and down while telling you that you must read this book. This is a novel that I truly want to curl up and live inside. It's not that I want to experience the particular events described, which are often tragic, but I want to live in Abraham Verghese's prose. I want to surround myself with it, immerse myself in it, and be swathed in its protective force.

I know it seems that I am getting down with the hyperbole, but you've got to understand - I love this book. I read a review (I can't remember who wrote it, sorry) that said each chapter in "Cutting for Stone" is like its own short story. I thought that was such an apt description of this novel. In 600 pages it spans 70 years and after completing I could flip to any chapter and reengage with its story.

The story itself is of twin brothers who grow up in Ethiopia surrounded by love of family and love of medicine. The family life of the boys is absolutely idyllic, and I dare you not to fall in love with their adopted father. It's simply impossible; you will love Ghosh from the first. A doctor with a love of literature, is it too presumptuous on my part to say he may be a little of Verghese himself? (Probably, but will that keep me from pretending it is so? Nope.) Verghese is indeed a practicing physician who has written an earlier book, "My Own Country," about his experience with the AIDS epidemic while working in Johnson City, Tennessee.

"Cutting for Stone" is a novel that I am reluctant to describe. What is great about the novel transcends the plot. It is indeed the story of the two brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, it is about family and love, loss and relationships, coming of age... but it is more than that as well, it is a deeply varied and layered novel that is incredibly affecting.

I want to share with you just a small piece of the novel as Marion describes how he feels about being initiated into the field of his parents, learning medicine, and the comfort it provides:
I loved those Latin words for their dignity, their foreignness, and the way my tongue had to wrap around them. I felt that in learning the special language of scholarly order, I was amassing a kind of force.
How perfect a description is that for passion? Not just Marion's passion for learning about medicine but for all of our passions whatever they may be. I surround myself with books, all day every day, it is the force I have amassed. My passion for them and the noble protection they provide is written in that passage.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente

I'm going to start this review with an appeal to you, reader. Please do not just give "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" by Catherynne M. Valente to a child. Please share it with them! My sincere hope for this book would be that you and the child in your life enjoy this magical fairytale together. Preferably on a stolen day in the springtime, a day that was meant to be spent at work or school or anywhere else but you spend it doing something better. On a stolen day I feel like I've escaped from life's tedium, and to spend it with a book (especially this book shared with a kid on their own stolen day) is to add fantasy to an ordinary life.

"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" is the story a September, a young girl who is spirited away to Fairyland just after her twelfth birthday. I really don't want to divulge too much of the plot, but I will tell you that there is a wicked Marquess, a romantic Green Wind, and a Wyvern (a dragonlike creature) who claims that his father is a library. There are, of course, battles and tricks and lies but there is also great courage and kindness as September travels throughout fairyland.

I simply adore this book. The language is fantastic. This is Valente's first book for children, but she hasn't miniaturized her vocabulary. For instance, September is described in the beginning as "an ill-tempered and irascible child." What I kept coming back to while reading it was that I haven't read a children's book like this since I read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" - Valente is definitely harkening back to Lewis Carroll here in a big way and the results are amazing. Note this passage in which a cat named Iago is speaking to September:
I wouldn't even consider it if I were you. But then if I were you, I would not be me, and if I were not me, I would not be able to advise you, and if I were unable to advise you, you'd do as you like, so you might as well do as you like and have done with it.

The story has both the heart and feel of Alice in Wonderland and shares Alice's appeal to adult readers, but it is certainly not derivative of Carroll's works. It speaks to them as a modern relative. The language and vocabulary will not make for simple reading, but kids will definitely find this book rewarding. I will repeat myself here and say that this is a book to be shared - to be read aloud and discussed. Not picked apart but reveled in.

On an adult level, this book for kids felt a lot like a coming of age novel. The end of the book deals very heavily with growing up, spoiled childhoods, and the idealization of childhood and innocence. My reading it just happened to coincide with the coming birth of my brother's first child and my realization that my own childhood is effectively over (yeah, I'm 25, I probably should have come to that realization sooner). The reason I point this out is to say that "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" is a book for all ages. It caused me to both lose myself in the fairytale and later to ruminate over the way in which I approach my life.

You should definitely read this book, but first watch this totally creepy and awesome trailer that showcases the illustrations by Ana Juan:

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Feiwel and Friends

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: EllRay Jakes in Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

First off, I must admit to being a relatively new reader in the world of children's or middle-grade books. When I do read them they tend to be more along the fantasy track, thus a middle-grade book about a normal, contemporary kid is a very new thing for me. So when I say that Sally Warner's "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" surprised me, I'm not sure if it is because I am new to this or if elements of this book are truly surprising.

EllRay Jakes is eight years old. He's also the smallest kid in his class, so it comes as no surprise when he has problems with a bully. EllRay has kind and attentive parents and teachers, even many of the girls in his class tend to look out for him (including Emma McGraw of Warner's Emma series), but there is no escaping Jared Matthews - the class bully. EllRay doesn't know what he's done to cause this war with Jared, some kids are just mean he guesses, but if EllRay wants to make it to Disneyland he's going to have to stay out of trouble. That means staying away from Jared.

All of this sounds pretty typical, right? A cute story with funny illustrations (by Jamie Harper) and a bullying theme. What struck me about the book were EllRay's observations. He's at an age where he is recognizing the subtle differences between the interactions of girls and those of boys, mainly being that girls talk about their problems while boys ignore them. EllRay also makes clever judgments about the thoughts and lives of his teacher and parents. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Sally Warner has written a book that says to kids, "hey, this is how life is, so let's be nice to each other" without being overbearing about it (and consequently being ignored).

The other thing that really surprised me about this book was the mention of racism. Of course this is something that kids deal with, but how many middle grade authors can deal with it without racism becoming the story or worse yet becoming the soapbox that kids will ignore. EllRay Jakes is an African American kid new to a majority Caucasian town and school; when his father finds out about the bullying he worries that race may be the reason behind it. I didn't expect to see this touched upon and then handled so well by the author and her characters. "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" is a lessons book without feeling like one. It outwardly teaches about bullying, how and why it happens (hint: in EllRay's case it has nothing to do with race). However, it teaches more subtle lessons about communication and equality, from the biggest and lightest to the smallest and darkest, in a fun and often funny package. This is a great book for kids to read on their own and learn from or to discuss with their parents.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Penguin Group

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: All Facts Considered by Kee Malesky

I, like most readers I know, am a huge fan of random facts and who better to deliver them to me than one of NPR's many reference librarians. Kee Malesky's book, "All Facts Considered," is written as a series of interesting facts grouped together under three main categories (History, Science, and Art). Each fact is explained in a few paragraphs or less. Malesky says that librarians have to be well versed in a wide range of facts because on any given day they are questioned about countless unrelated subjects. Now, that's an idea I can get behind. I majored in liberal arts - I appreciate a broad interest in knowledge and learning.

There's a great jacket quote from "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" host, Peter Sagal, saying in reference to his relationship with Malesky, "every one of us 'media figures' who appears smart or well prepared in public has somebody standing behind the curtains, knowledge at the ready, covering for our ignorance." Reading this book is like having a knowledge mouse perched in your pocket ready to dazzle friends and foes alike with interesting factoids. And you don't have to be a 'media figure' to enjoy the man behind the curtain - little old you can experience a sense of intellectual superiority through this "Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge."

I loved this book. I learned a lot and definitely refamiliarized myself with things I have known and forgotten. Malesky's chosen format makes this great for casual reference or an afternoon of nerdy reading. Bonus, every fact has at least one source listed that you may use to delve deeper into the subject. As the author states in her introduction to the source material, "the not-so-hidden agenda of any librarian is to get you to read."

While reading is great, one of the best parts of reading a book is discussing it and this one prompted several discussions for me. I even called my mom one night to have her look up a reference in a book I knew she had. We stayed up talking about it until late that night. But the best, I must say, was having this conversation with my grandmother:
Me: Are you familiar with Abelard and Heloise?
Her (questioning look): Yes.
Me (dubious): Well, I want to read this to you anyway. "[Abelard and Heloise] fell in love, had a child, and were married (secretly, and over her objections) to protect the advance of his career. Her family sought revenge and arranged to have him castrated. Heloise and Abelard fled Paris, each taking monastic vows, and rarely saw each other again. But they did correspond by letters..." (a beautiful and tragic letter follows)
Her: That's so sad. ... I thought you meant Heloise the cleaning lady.

My grandmother. She's the best. Following this conversation she told me I must give her this book when I finish. If that's not a topnotch recommendation I don't know what is.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.

I finally did it - I embraced my Southern sensibilities - I read "Gone with the Wind." Okay, so I didn't particularly enjoy it. I guess I just like my Southern fiction to be dark and gothic, words I would not quickly apply to Margaret Mitchell's opus. None of this is to say that "Gone with the Wind" was bad, it's just that it wasn't my cup of tea, or my brand of Whiskey (should Scarlett prefer). Now, you are wondering why I chose to read this book so obviously out of step with my usual literary tastes, right? Well, the first reason has got to be that I viewed "Gone with the Wind" as a novel to be conquered, much in the same way I will one day conquer "Moby-Dick" or "War and Peace." It is a culturally relevant work that I wanted my own piece of, with this year being 75th anniversary of its publication I felt that now was the time to tackle this beast.

The second reason, perhaps the greater reason, why I chose to read "Gone with the Wind" now was my interest in Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.'s new book "Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood." I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this one at the Southern Independent Bookseller's Alliance tradeshow back in September, but I felt it would be unfair to both myself and Mrs. Mitchell to read it before cracking the spine of Scarlett and Rhett's tale. I'm glad I guilted myself into waiting because reading the two together was a great experience.

Fans of GWTW will surely enjoy this new book, but anyone with an interest in writing, publishing, or bookselling will find something to appreciate in this look inside the industry. Mitchell's book had quite a life of its own and reading about it from conception to publishing phenomenon to international copyright horror is endlessly fascinating. Margaret Mitchell alone imbues the book with such a charming and vivacious spirit I felt I couldn't get enough of her.

One would assume that a book about contracts, agents, and copyright laws of the 1930s would be both uninteresting and irrelevant to a modern audience, but Brown and Wiley's narrative not only maintains interest it keeps the pages turning. Who knew the life of a novel could make for such engrossing literature? I would love to know the stories behind a few other megablockbusters, i.e. JK Rowling's Harry Potter Series: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Edinburgh to Orlando. I've heard that a film version of Rowling's life is in the works and I can only hope that the screenplay is written with as much attention and care as that offered by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr. to Margaret Mitchell and her classic.

Advanced Reading Copy reviewed from Taylor Trade Publishing

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I'm not one to write negative reviews. Just because something doesn't resonate with me doesn't mean it won't with someone else. For example, I hate detective fiction. Literally, I hate it, yet it remains one of the bestselling genres. What I'm saying here is that just because I'm a bookseller or just because I write reviews that doesn't mean I am always right about books. Mostly because there is no always right about books. Literature is an art - the appreciation of art is entirely subjective.

Now, on to my first bad review. I did not like Chris Cleave's "Little Bee." I say this knowing that I am not going to hurt Cleave or his book sales by doing so. This thing is flying off the shelves - not just at my store but everywhere. It was that mountain of sales, along with the very cryptic blurb, that made me recommend "Little Bee" to my mom (aside: my mom is a crazy-fast and voracious reader; if I have a question about a book or am on the fence about whether or not I want to read it I make her read it first. It's a pretty awesome system). She loved it and raved about it for weeks (see what I mean about the whole subjective thing?), which directly contributed to it getting thrown in to the CHB bookclub ring. Mom's glowing review and, again, the cryptic blurb led to the book being chosen by the group.

I now want to share with you said cryptic blurb. It begins:
We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book. It is truly a SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.
Followed by a very brief (only forty words) synopsis. Enticing, right? You're expecting to read some rare and "magical" story. Eh, not so much.

I won't say too much because the blurb specifically asks me not to divulge the plot. But I will say this, Chris Cleave is dealing with some deep ethical and moral issues in the novel. I'm not afraid of an issues novel and I generally prefer sad books to happy ones (my favorite book ends with the now completely friendless main character shooting his only friend (his dog) and ruminating for a while on the shattered skull and then turning his gun on himself - but it's good!). However, all through "Little Bee" I felt like Cleave was dragging me through the muck and saying "Look at this! This is muck!" Instead of letting me see it for myself; letting me feel the sadness, hopelessness, of the characters and learning of the grim truth through them.

I don't think it hurt the story to tell you that the eponymous "Little Bee" is a refugee seeking asylum. Chris Cleave both rightfully and obviously has a heart for refugees like her. However, he never fully formed her as a character. It was supposed to be enough that she was a refugee juxtaposed against an affluent English couple. For me, that's not enough. I need characters to believe in and care about. This book was utterly devoid of them.

"Little Bee" is all issues and questions of morality but no soul. I commend Cleave for writing about a difficult subject, but the sum of his labors amounted to a contrived mess. I do think he's an author to watch though, I expect he'll grow in his talent and I look forward to more and better books from him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Reading Life*

I went to Twitter this morning to post my #fridayreads and noticed that some people were using the amended hashtag #goodfridayreads. Some people say it's in regard to Good Friday others say it's Goodreads. Whatever the case may be it got me thinking. My reads during holy week should be a bit more, well, holy. I'm currently reading a fantastic middle-grade fantasy/fairytale by Catherynne M. Valente called "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" but I'll talk more about it when it comes out next month. All of this leads me to today's post: I'm usually a one-book-at-a-time kind of lady, but I've got a little book polygamy going on this year. It's all because...

I'm finally doing it! I'm reading arguably the most culturally important book in the western world. You probably have a copy in your house even if you haven't read it (I have six) - it's The Holy Bible. When I told John I was going to be writing about the Bible today he said "are you going to review it? Because you could start with 'really impressive debut!'" and knowing that I'm currently working on the Old Testament he added "and I'm looking forward to the sequel." My husband being a cute and funny idiot aside, no, I am not reviewing the Bible. Who would even want to try? Moreso, I want to write about my experience.

I was raised in a religious household, so I've always been familiar with the Bible; I've even read various bits and pieces throughout the years, but I've never read it through. A few months ago I searched and researched looking for the right study Bible for me. In a philosophy class in school I was introduced to Robert Alter's translations. I can tell you from both a scholarly and spiritual reading perspective they are awesome. Trouble is, he hasn't translated the whole thing. I've got the books he has translated to read later, but for now I wanted the whole thing. I wanted to watch the spine break and hear it groan as I made my way through this 2,000+ page trek, so I kept looking.

I finally settled on "The Harper Collins Study Bible" in the New Revised Standard Version. This particular study Bible is well suited , much like Alter's translation, both to spiritual and scholarly study. Having grown up Southern Baptist it was hard to leave King James behind, but I'm sure you will be happy to know that this translation totally lacks the word begat. Everyone is the better for that.

I've only just finished Exodus (hint: that's only the second book) and at the rate I'm going (five chapters a day, which averages just under ten double columned pages) I'll finish in a year. This is a grand endeavor and I'm really glad I've started it. Every book I read I approach with the goal of bettering myself from having read it. This book just happens to be meant for that. Plus, my dad is really proud of me, so there's that. The only downside is that now all I really want to talk about is the Bible and people are starting to think I'm a weirdo. So, should you want to go on this journey with me - please do! I am dying to talk to someone about it, and difficult tasks are always made easier through the buddy system!

*Yes, I stole that phrase from Pat Conroy's new memoir. But it's perfect!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Experimental novels often flounder within their own conceit (can you say "House of Leaves"), "The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips is not one of those novels. It triumphs over it, sucks you into it, and almost has you believing that Phillips' father either wrote or found a Shakespearean play. I say almost in my case, but I've seen a few other reviewers who are questioning the veracity of this tale. The web has been conveniently wiped clean of Phillips' familial history, but I've read him before and I know how fantastically unreliable his narrators can be.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, you haven't even been properly introduced yet. Arthur Phillips' new novel "The Tragedy of Arthur" is prefaced by a note from the Editors of his publisher, Random House, stating that what you have in your hand is a copy of a lost (and previously unheard of) play by one William Shakespeare (maybe you've heard of him?) titled "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain." The Editors go on to tell you to dive into the play and skip the 250+ introduction by the guy, Arthur Phillips, who delivered it to them. The first line of the introduction makes it obvious why they may suggest this particular reading route.

Phillips begins with, "I have never much liked Shakespeare." Only then to delve into a memoir, not at all a proper introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play. Phillips goes through the whole memoir kit and caboodle (the difficult childhood, the deadbeat dad); all leading up to this - his dad was a forger. A man who believes that forged documents and faked crop circles are a kind of modern magic. Trickery and sorcery as one, he practices what he sees as victimless crimes in order to make the world more interesting.

You may find yourself asking why this is relevant. Well, Phillips' father is the one who gave him "The Tragedy of Arthur" and this introduction cum memoir is his way of hashing out for himself and you, the reader, rather or not it is real. Of course, "once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare" but if it sounds enough like Shakespeare maybe we could make-believe that it is. Isn't that a bit of magic in our postmodern world?

I loved this novel. It's the type of smart-funny book that you don't read too often. As I said in the beginning, it fully owns its conceit. Within the memoir/introduction Phillips takes shots at academics, Anti-Stratfordians, and memoirists (he even name checks James Frey). The faux memoir goes on effortlessly. So much so that even though a lot of it is unfortunate or even horrible, you kinda want to believe it's true.

Then there is the Shakespeare stuff. Obviously this guy wrote a Shakespeare play. In iambic pentameter. Seriously. That alone is impressive. The play is good too, more impressive. Some lines are really great as is this couplet that caught my attention, "And so do kingdoms fall by vice's art/ When righteous men in conscience stand apart." Phillips' mentions these particular lines in the introduction, I think he was quite impressed by them himself.

Beyond the play itself I really enjoyed Phillips's discussion of Shakespeare. He goes from being bored by the Bards' worshipers to bemused by his detractors and eventually, with the upcoming publication of the play, surrounded by groups of Shakespearologists. But I think more than the idea of Shakespeare, the idea behind the novel pertains to experiencing something new, living some of that magic Phillips' father tried to create. He describes this best when explaining how his twin sister felt upon receiving a copy of the play from their father after having completed Shakespeare's body of work:
She had already, at that young age, experienced something coming to an end, a love affair's first flush, and now, to discover that there was still (possibly) one left: she was torn between wanting to stay up all night reading it and rationing her last virgin pleasure over weeks or months.
Arthur Phillips has come away from all this having written a fantastic tragi-comic novel, a faux memoir, and a freaking Shakespeare play (alliteration unintended but remaining unchanged). You have to appreciate that. Definitely a good read.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Random House

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nonna's Review: Swamplandia by Karen Russell

My Nonna (it's Italian for grandmother which is weird because her family is German) is awesome. Seriously, upon meeting her you will wish that she was your grandmother. Nonna has a purse and a candy drawer from which she freely delivers gifts to her thirteen grandchildren, of whom I am obviously the best. She's 71, hysterical, and can do the Charleston like nobody's business. She also reads books and talks to me about them.

This is what she had to say about Karen Russell's "Swamplandia"

It was very different. A little suspense in there and a tiny bit of romance, not really romance but sweet moments, even between the sisters. I thought it was well written. It was just so different that it kept my interest - after the first 20 pages or so I really got more into it and it was hard to put it down. You really didn't know what was going to happen in the end. It was one of the first books in a long time I hadn't read the end first and I couldn't figure out what was going to happen. I really liked the way it ended. It was just different; I've never read one really like it. The story was told by a twelve year old girl. I was impressed once I got into it. I really enjoyed it; it just didn't catch me right off. I would recommend it to both young adults and older adults. It's a good book for anyone who likes to read for pleasure.

I know that's piqued your interest, so here's a basic sysnopsis of the book from Goodreads:
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamp landia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Reading Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” really felt like having a conversation with her. While that is awesome, the only problem was that it felt like she was having a conversation with,well, me. Instead of speaking to an intimate friend in whom she could reveal her most guarded beliefs and opinions. But then, this is my first celebrity memoir so I didn’t really have any expectations unless you count “oh my god, I love Tina Fey” as an expectation.

“Bossypants” is really less of a memoir and more a collection of remembrances by “an achievement-oriented, drug-free, adult virgin,” as Fey describes her younger self. You won’t find any essays on Fey as a feminist icon or any talk about her cultural relevance at all. What is laid out for you here in 275 pages is an expose on awkwardness. And Tina Fey owns it.

The book begins with a letter to the reader outlining reasons why you may be reading her book of which my favorite must be:

Maybe it’s seventy years in the future and you found this book in a stack of junk being used to block the entrance of an abandoned Starbucks that is now a feeding station for the alien militia.

I mean, that’s why I picked it up. After our letter we get an “Origin Story” and a love letter to her father, Don Fey, which features my favorite line in the book: “Don Fey is not going to put up with that. Don Fey is a grown-ass man! Black people find him stylish!” Basically, Don Fey sounds awesome and suspiciously a lot like Jack Donaghy.

As she enters her discussions of her time in improv and on SNL, we see Fey discuss a little about life in the boy’s club. She touches on her participation in the expansion of women’s roles on the show and behind the scenes, but mostly just to say that she was proud to have participated in the expansion of women’s roles on the show and behind the scenes. I would have liked to see a little more of her reaction to the changes, but I think the point she may have been making was to see for yourself. Tina Fey left the job of head writer at SNL to star in and produce her own show (30 Rock), obviously things went well – even if she does have a vagina.

Those who were looking for some kind of feminist manifesta and those looking for a celebrity tell-all will surely be disappointed in "Bossypants" but those of us who love Tina Fey's brand of self-deprecating humor will find plenty here to enjoy. I read it in one sitting then called my sister and husband to rehash my favorite bits. Like I said on Twitter, I agree with the Trees quoted on the jacket, "Totally worth it."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Forgotten Friday #1

Forgotten Friday is a weekly meme started by Jamie at bookmarked to feature backlist books that we’ve always wanted to read but keep forgetting about.

This week’s featured book is …

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Yeah, I know, I’m hanging my head in shame over these. I somehow missed Mark Twain in high school and in college. I’ve read plenty of his essays (which are all fantastic), but these two? Nope.

With all the controversy over the censorship of Huck Finn a few months ago it really brought these two titles to the forefront of my mind and moved them towards the top of my never ending to-be-read list.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Aristophanes' “Lysistrata” serves as the center but not really the source of Meg Wolitzer's new novel “The Uncoupling.” For those who need a refresher on the ancient comedy, the eponymous Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex from men until they end the Peloponnesian War. The play is rather bawdy to say the least, which was one thing that bothered me about Wolitzer's book – no high school would perform this play. That's not really the point though, is it?

In “The Uncoupling” a high school in Stellar Plains, New Jersey does indeed perform “Lysistrata” to curious effect. The play casts a spell over the town, from lusty teenagers to bored middleagers, all of the women turn their backs on sexual activity to the general bemusement of their partners. It's funny and sometimes sad. I kept going back and forth with this novel: did I like it? Did I not?

The more I think about it the more I realize I did enjoy it. The writing is really great and moves quickly plus I like and believe in most of the characters. However, what I like most about the book is that I am still thinking about it. Wolitzer uses a clever story and loads of wit to delve into the reality of relationships at many levels. We see new love, dying love, stable love, and just plain lust dissected once the spell takes hold of the town. Whether or not I agree with Wolitzer about the importance of sex in these relationships (in every instance once the sex ends the relationship comes to a standstill – my biggest beef with the book) is not really the point. “The Uncoupling” made me think about relationships, how we treat our partners, and the value of joined lives.

A book that gives me pause to evaluate my life? That's a winner. Not to mention the fact that Meg Wolitzer is a good writer and this is an interesting, funny, and entertaining read. I would definitely recommend you try this one.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Riverhead Books

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Starting a new blog…

Within every incarnation of our website (there have been many, starting in 2005 and hopefully coming to a close with the newest version in our partnership with Indiebound) there has been a blog component. I have started and abandoned several blogs about my life with Cavalier House Books and my reading life in general. It is always kind of sad to leave one behind and move on, but I never transfer my archives. I like a clean break.

So here we are, with this new blank slate. I’ve decided to go with a blog that is separate from the website. I’m really looking forward to writing for this blog, especially in regards to our partnership with another book blogger (Jamie at bookmarked) which I will be writing about soon.


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