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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

World Book Night: The Third Batch

Among the thirty titles on last year's World Book Night list loneliness was definitely a theme. Whether that was intentional or not I have no idea, but I have found another running theme within this year's crop. The fighting spirit. These books are full of fight and strong will.

So, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is about children caring for a litter of pitbull puppies in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Yes, they make these dogs fight each other and yes, there is a twenty+ page description of a dog fight near the end of the book and no, I do not ever think dog fighting is forgivable. That being said, this book is fantastic. I felt literally all the feelings. The subject of this novel is such a “look away” one, but Ward wrote about it with absolute grace and it is so compelling. Often the book was difficult to read because I wanted to stop what was happening to the characters, but I had to finish it because I cared too much for them to not know what happened.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was a surprise for me. I was expecting a somewhat staid romance novel, but what I got was a full impression of 17th century Delft. Chevalier's novel absolutely succeeds as a historical work. The characters are not fully drawn, but this makes sense in the context. Mainly because we have few details about the life of Johannes Vermeer, the artist who painted the eponymous girl. More importantly though, the characters are not what matters in a story like this. The setting is more important – recreating the world. This is a novel that strongly evokes place and time through the first person narration of a young maid living in a famous household.

Best book on this list bar none would have to be City of Thieves. David Benioff told his tragic story with a humor that made it bearable. This levity added to the story of the siege of Leningrad is exactly the type of humor it takes to survive not only during the events being described but to live with them afterwords. This novel is a testament to humanity. It is introduced as a fictionalized version of a time in the life of the author's grandfather. Fictionalized because Benioff's grandfather could not remember the details necessary to a work of nonfiction, but it is with novels like this that we realize the job of fiction – to tell the greater truth.

As I said, all of these novels center around a fighting spirit but none so much as Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Alice Howland is a fifty year old Harvard professor that is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The novel describes the disease as it takes the life and career of a deeply intelligent and ambitious woman. Alice fights the encroaching darkness of her diagnosis with every fiber of her being, but Genova describes her slipping away in such a thorough and heartbreaking way. This novel made me uncomfortable at every turn. It was hard to see this battle played out, but I definitely see why it is an important one and a story that needs to be told because it is so difficult to understand.

Lisa Scottoline's Look Again was another case of a book that is just not meant for me. I never really became invested in the characters so their struggle never set in with me. Ellen Gleason finds information that suggests her son may not be the child she thought he was, and her adoption of him is called into question. Within the confines of a thriller, Scottoline does a good job of pondering motherhood. What is a mother? Is it emotional or biological? Who does a child really belong to anyway? These thoughts are interesting but a little heavy handed and I like my novels a tad more subtle. Look Again is a good read, just not really for me.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

World Book Night: The Second Batch

This year's World Book Night list was not peopled as heavily with my own TBR list as was last year's. The bulk of these were books I would probably not have encountered, so it has definitely been interesting reading.

To begin by admitting what is probably my greatest readerly sin, I have never read a novel by Mark Twain. Yes, that means I have never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I know. I know. But if anything, reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has made me realize that I must rectify this error post haste. There is a part in this novel where it is recommended that we replace royalty with cats because they are basically the same. I laughed at this joke for two days. Connecticut Yankee is satire at its absolute best. The story is that of a 19th century man (from Connecticut) being transported to the 6th century (and King Arthur's court). The novel is humorous all the way through, but where it really gains its footing (both as a satirical work and as classic literature) is in the moments that it becomes blatantly obvious how little human nature has changed from the 6th to the 19th to the 21st century.

Almost as transportive as the time travel in Connecticut Yankee, Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency made me feel what it was like to be in Botswana. Precious Ramotswe uses the money she inherits from her father to open the first ladies detective agency in Botswana. She sees this as her way of helping people, and while she is able to help her customers the agency really serves as a way for readers to encounter Africa. Mma Ramotswe deals with people from every walk of life in Botswana, and Smith describes them all with care and an obvious devotion to his setting. Reading this book on a warm spring afternoon made me feel like I was traveling around the countryside in Botswana and more than anything it made me want to travel there.

Hillary Jordan's Mudbound is the social justice book on this year's WBN list (in case you are wondering, I have been looking at each book and comparing it to last year's list to decide what makes a WBN selection), but it could not stand up to last year's The Poisonwood Bible. There is a missing emotional element in Jordan's tale. Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson are soldiers returning to Mississippi after serving in WWII. One character is white and the other is black. Mudbound is the story of their very different homecomings. This novel often made me angry and sometimes made me sad but I never felt a genuine connection to the characters. All I had to hold on to was the horror of the story (and the deeper horror in knowing that things such as it described did happen time and again to families all over the south), and for me that just wasn't enough. Mudbound is a solid novel and very well written, it just did not resonate with me on an emotional level.
My Antonia by Willa Cather was a reread for me. This was one of those novels that I was assigned in high school which I was clearly not ready for. I hated it then and thought it a terrible novel. Oh, how wrong I was. I absolutely adored the descriptions of Nebraska and the fairytale quality of the stories told by the immigrant characters. The novel ends with the line “whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past,” such a beautiful sentiment about the people of our childhood. The novel is one that looks heavily at memory and time past. Jim Burden tells the story of Antonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants that grew up near his grandparent's farm. Antonia has come to mean childhood, excitement, and freedom to Jim as an adult and he tells his story of her with an abiding passion.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers was another book that just was not for me. Much like Grisham's Playing for Pizza, my disdain for the main character kept me from enjoying the novel. Victoria is an orphan who grew up in and out of the foster care system. The novel tells her story in an attempt to detail the cracks in the system and the troubles people who fall through are left to face alone. The problem was that in making Victoria troubled and flawed Diffenbaugh failed to make her real. The only way in which I did connect with Victoria was through flowers. She had been taught the Victorian language of flowers and they were both the lens through which she viewed the world and the way she forged emotional connections. Victoria's feelings about flowers and the way she communicated through them were absolutely the best parts of the book.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Start Here: Read Your Way into 25 Amazing Authors by Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky (Ed)

I'm a regular reader of the the blog Book Riot. I am also a book lover, so books about books are obviously one of my favorite things. When the editors of Book Riot announced that they were publishing a book about books I knew that I would have to read it.

Start Here: Read Your Way into 25 Amazing Authors is a collection of essays that are meant to be suggested reading lists to get into authors whose backlists are often perceived as overwhelming. It is an admirable goal. For example, there is an essay on Herman Melville. Many people never read Melville because their instinct is to start with Moby Dick, but in Start Here blogger Nicole Perrin suggests you begin with Benito Cereno because it is a “faithful taste of the author” but of a less intimidating length.

Some of the the essays or “pathways” are quite obvious and a few of the essays were, I felt, superfluous. Do we need someone introducing us to Edgar Allan Poe as Linda Fairstein does here with “The Raven”? Is Zadie Smith really an author with a daunting catalog (she has only published five books)? Putting aside the few essays that fail, most read as enthusiastic recommendations, and there are some that really shine. Joe Hill's essay on Bernard Malamud made me want to read absolutely everything both authors have written. In fact, I immediately purchased copies of Malamud's The Assistant (Hill's recommended first step to Malamud) and Horns (Hill's 2010 novel about a man who sprouts horns after murdering his girlfriend).

This essay collection is a great way to build a To-Be-Read list - I defy you to read this collection and not come away with a tottering stack of books to buy and read, but it is best in creating a sense of community around each author. Part of what makes Book Riot such a great blog is the community around it; reading is absolutely a solitary pursuit, but it does not happen in a vacuum because we are never the only one experiencing these works. Start Here not only added immensely to my on TBR list, but it made me reflect on some of my favorite authors and the books that introduced me to them. This is a book for all readers and I can only hope that the editors choose another 25 authors who deserve the same treatment.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

World Book Night: The First Batch

My reading comfort zone is pretty wide. Being a bookseller forces me to read all over the spectrum, but even with that these thirty titles are tugging at the edges of my regular reading areas. I wanted to get to the titles that were furthest from my usual fare within the first five so I conquered Nora Roberts and John Grisham – to mixed results.

There were two titles on the WBN list that I had never heard of. One of these was Glaciers by Alexis Smith. I was really intrigued by this pick. Smith is a bookseller at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon and Glaciers is a small press title. Unlike most, if not all, of the books on this year's list Glaciers has not been a bestseller. I had to know what hoisted this slim volume onto the list and I knew it had to be my first WBN read. Glaciers is a brief novel about a single day in Isabel's life as a twenty something librarian living in Portland. Through ruminations on time, place, and a complicated love interest the short span of the novel is able to reflect on the life of a young woman. Smith has written a delicate, lyrical work that is both deeply sad and charming. I didn't love this novel, but it definitely captured the spirit of young adulthood and I can see myself recommending it to a lot of people (anyone who watches HBO's Girls for example) which makes it a great pick for World Book Night.

Looking for Alaska was John Green's first novel and his big book before the release of The Fault in Our
Stars. As I've said before, it is also a book I have been frequently chastised for having not read. So, thanks WBN for forcing me to correct another reading error! This book is an emotional roller coaster; it made me feel like a teenager again. There is so much up and down, depression, mania, and all of the emotion is just so raw. Miles is suffering the ennui of all sixteen year old kids, and his obsession with last words spurs him on to seek the “Great Perhaps” of Francois Rabelais. He meets Alaska Young on his first day at his new boarding school (obviously not the first place I would seek Greatness, but what are your options at sixteen?). The series of boarding school hijinks that follows is elevated by Green's understanding of young people and his belief in their worldview (most heavily evidenced in Alaska's impressive analysis of Garcia Marquez). Green is definitely one of the best YA authors I have read, and I cannot foresee anyone having trouble passing this novel out on the 23rd.

Okay, here's the thing, I enjoyed reading Nora Robert's Montana Sky. Believe me, no on was more surprised than myself. The novel begins with the line “Being dead didn't make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch,” and really it only gets better from there. This is the story of three estranged sisters and the ranch they must work together to maintain. And there's murder. And sex. And it's all pretty fun. There was a lot in this novel that felt odd to me (it is basically all plot for one) but reading it made me understand a lot about genre fiction. The bulk of which can be explained thusly, it's comforting to read. It's nice to know what's going to happen and just follow the author as she weaves the narrative together. Montana Sky is not a novel that you work at or need to digest – it's just entertaining to read. And that's great.

I can say with confidence that Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street is the most beautiful book onThe Book Thief on last year's list, that begs to be felt. What I can tell you about Cisneros' novel (or series of short stories) is that it will make you ache. For the loss, for the fight, and for the shame and the pride of the characters. Cisneros' tells a story that is real and true.
the WBN list. The language is so poetic and full of life. It is a novel that is composed of a fluid poetry that I look forward to reading again and again. This is another novel, like
This last novel and I did not get along. John Grisham's Playing for Pizza is just not a novel for me. It completely lacks a plot and the main character is as unsympathetic as they come. No really, I have felt more towards murders described in novels than I ever felt for Rick Dockery. The novel is a mere recitation of football games and Italian meals (the novel is about an American football player who moves to Italy). I never felt lost while reading Friday Night Lights last year because the author did not set out to write a story for just football fans; Grisham obviously felt differently – I did not know what half of the football terminology meant. Clearly this is my own opinion and football fans and Grisham fans may love this novel, but I could not help but wish WBN had chosen a legal thriller as I would have much preferred that introduction to Grisham's work.


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