Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

This is a book I dove right into without needing to come up for air. Ms. LeCraw has packed the pages with enough sustenance to read the book in one sitting. (Ok, maybe just ONE of those Mint Juleps that Cecil is pedaling at the pool party would be welcome during the read)

I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader's copy of "The Swimming Pool" (TSP) through the Early Reviewers Group at Apparently, when I request a book the LibraryThing search engine goes to work matching my previous tastes, based on my posted Library, to the books I request. According to said engine, TSP was a good fit for me. The engine proved itself to be quite reliable in this pick.

My partner, Book Lover, will also be quite happy to hear that my advanced reader's copy had NO reader's guide. We, consenting adults, in a free country are left to ponder the themes, characters, and plots all on our very own. I am wondering if all this free thinking could get us in trouble. Will we be tempted to talk about things that the author never intended? Will the book be subject to our own life stories and experiences instead? Will it end society as we know it? (A bit over the top, but still a concern)

TSP was full of lush characters that flew off the pages in three dimensions. Seeing yourself in Ms. LeCraw's characters is not always flattering but it is certainly revealing.

When I first saw the cover and the blurbs (I try not to read the blurbs but it's hard on an advanced reader's copy not to) I thought I was destined for some fluffy chick lit (no offense to chickliters) but this was not to be the case. The novel delves into the deepest of family secrets and how each of the characters is ultimately affected; whether a secret teller or a secret keeper.

Under the What?

I thought it would be fun to be a guest blogger and be able to embarrass my partner with my less than literary repartee about the books I am reading or have read or might be thinking about reading.
Most recently I dove into Stephen Kings new novel "Under the Dome", which could be called a "Tomb", I suppose. Eleven hundred pages of good versus evil with evil having profoundly more victories that then aforementioned good.
Mr. King has no problem killing off characters that we know and love. In fact, I believe that Mr. King sits at his desk thinking up ways to make the characters he is going to dismember more likable to us, his dear readers.
My favorite part of "Under the Dome" is that he has included three dogs that figure predominantly in the story and he actually lets one of them live to the very end.
The storyline itself is what happens in a community when an impenetrable, clear dome comes down around a city. Let's just say that not being accountable to anyone on the outside of the dome does not seem to enhance the character of those living under it. Stephen writes the story like a contagion of evil was released there and most people neglected to get vaccinated.
I have heard a lot of talk about this book being compared to "The Stand", a book that still haunts me and has characters I will never forget. I can see why the comparisons are being made but can't say that "Under the Dome" is of the same caliber.
The Stand is a classic and Under the Dome a book that will be revered by carpal tunnel specialists everywhere.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Brief Woundrous Life of Oscar Wao

Is it important not to die a virgin? In this book, if one is from the Dominican Republic (DR), it is vitally important. Did I care if he died a virgin or not? Well, not so much.

I liked that the book was told from the point of view of a friend, even if said friend did seem pretty darn omniscient, in that he knew the whole entire history of Oscar's family, as well as detailed history of the DR. My favorite part was about Abelard, Oscar's grandfather, and his dealings with Trujillo (brutal dictator). I liked the sprinklings of Spanish, even though I missed a lot of meaning because my Spanish is so poor. I liked the sci-fi references. I was afraid I'd miss a lot of them, not being a sci-fi geek myself, but no, I think I got them.

Did I love this book? This Pulitzer Prize winning book? Well, not really. I'm glad I read it, glad in a "glad-it's-under-my-belt" kind of way. Good to learn more about the DR and Trujillo. None of the characters were particularly likable, though that isn't necessarily always a goal. These people went through shit and, for the most part, came out the other side. So...resilience, survival. A bit grim.

Now onto Impatient With Desire...about the Donner Party. Which won't be grim at all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Impatient With Desire

I just read Gabrielle Burton's comment on the blog (!), author of Impatient With Desire, one of the books I have been planning to read. I'm delighted that she wrote, and for her (and your) information, I did choose to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao first, only because it just seemed more appealing at the moment I was choosing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a timing thing.

(Perhaps GB's book title is apt...might she be impatient with desire for people to read her book?)

I am about halfway through Oscar, and it did take me a little bit to get into it. The style is unusual, though I like it, told sort of from a friend's point of view of looking in on Oscar and his family. My sad (and very distant) two years of high school Spanish isn't near enough for me to understand all of the sprinklings of Spanish in the book, which is a bit of a drawback for me as a reader. I look up the Spanish words I don't know when I'm near a computer, but so often I am reading on the train or somewhere my computer isn't, so miss some of the meaning. Diaz also uses lots of footnotes, mostly telling more detail about the political situation in the Dominican Republic, which is helpful, though sometimes they are rather dense. I am reading most of them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Between Books

I just finished Chris Bohjalian's Secrets of Eden. I did quite enjoy it, though the teenager's voice was not always convincing to me. Good story, it kept me guessing until the very end.

And yes, they included a readers' discussion guide and frankly, if you can't find anything to discuss from this book without a readers' guide, then you're an imbecile. This book is teeming with things to discuss.

Domestic violence and abuse is a main theme (and sometimes pretty graphically described). My favorite line: "There are no people in the world who are better at keeping secrets. You want to find a good spy? Pick a battered woman. There are things they won't tell a soul. And they can really take a punch."

So what to read next? I am deciding between Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gabrielle Burton's Impatient with Desire (about the Donner party).

I am kind of drawn to Oscar Wao...for one thing it was sent to me by a Bookcrosser ( - one of my favorite sites) from Scotland so it has a different (and more appealing to me) cover. The US cover is off-white with a pink silhouette on it. The UK cover has a pudgy boy of about 6 years old wearing a red superhero mask pushed up off his face, sitting at a table with toys, sandwich and a comic book as he's putting something in his mouth. Evidently there are lots of sci-fi/fantasy references, many of which I'm sure I'll miss, not being a huge sci-fi fan. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for this book (which doesn't automatically mean I'll love it), and many other awards. It sure has been a good seller at the bookstore (which also doesn't necessarily mean I'll love it).

Burton's book about the Donner party interests me too, though frankly the cover and the title make it look like a historical romance, and I'm not sure I want to read about the 1800's right now.

Another one I'm interested in is A Reliable Wife, though that is also a period piece. However, I don't HAVE that book right here. So it shall have to wait.

I'll be giving Oscar Wao a try. It looks like a pretty quick read.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Secrets of Eden

     Secrets of Eden: A Novel
Am reading Chris Bohjalian's Secrets of Eden and it is delicious. I'm about halfway through, and have met two narrators...

The first is Stephen Drew, pastor of a small church in a small town in Vermont. One of his parishioners has just been murdered in an apparent murder suicide the day after he baptized her. From the first page, the reader knows that he is not your stereotypical nice pastor, which drew me into the book right away, (seeing as I myself have a history with pastors and yes I daresay I do have 'issues' with organized religion but that's not what we're talking about here so back to the book...)

The second narrator is Catherine Benincasa, state attorney investigating the case. She believes there is a lot more to the story than Wife Beater Kills Wife Then Self.

Another character, who I suspect will become a narrator later in the book, is Heather Laurent, well-known author of books on angels, whose own parents died when her father killed her mother and then killed himself. Heather inserts herself into this small town drama, feeling drawn to Katie, daughter of the dead couple.

I probably made the mistake of reading the back cover and a few online reviews, as they alluded to some plot points I would rather not know ahead of time. My astute partner never reads them before reading a book...she looks at the title and cover and then starts reading. If it grabs her - especially the first sentence - then she'll read it. I've read back covers to get at least a sense of what the book is about, AND I have been frustrated when I've been told too much.

So far I'm really enjoying this...find myself eager to get back to the book whenever I can. The characters are interesting, the story is engrossing, I want to know what happens next. That's always a good sign...

Chris Bohjalian came into the store a week or so ago...he was in town for a book signing, and came in to sign stock. I heard him before I saw him...he was quite loud. I didn't know he was coming, so didn't know who it was being so loud in the store. I heard a man talking loudly about how he'd been to 9 of our bookstores in 3 days and it was exhausting and he'd been to nine stores. It seemed as though he was trying to let us (booksellers? because we'd be impressed???) how hard he was working? What a hardship it was? I don't know. I didn't have a chance to meet him as I was on a lengthy call with a customer the whole time he was in the store. In spite of the slightly less than positive impression I got of the author, I am really enjoying the book.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Valentine Customer

First customer of the day was a nice looking man in his 30's, wearing a fleece jacket and a knit cap. He came in and said, "Got any Valentine gift ideas?"

J said, "How about a gift card?"

I asked, "What does your significant other like?"

Customer said, "I dunno.", as he shrugged.

I asked, "Does she like mushy stuff? Hearts and candy?"

Customer said (again), "I dunno. Oh, wait, I think she's reading this...(Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)"

"Well, there's another book like that, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters...", I said.

"Oh, that'd be good.", he said.

As he walked over to my register, he picked up a copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazine and started thumbing through it, as he was taking a long call on his cell phone that brakes and the importance of brakes because he tows a big boat behind his vehicle. After he got off the phone...

"I'd sure like to take this home, but I have a five and a nine year old at home, and they'd probably look at it."

"They probably would.", I said.

"Oh, boy, these girls are HOT! I wish I could take this home. Can't with the kids. The wife wouldn't mind. Hey, do you gift wrap? Oh, I'm looking for a book for me, do you have a book that teaches you how to ski jump?"

"I don't think so, but I can check and see what might be available."

There weren't any listed at all.

"I don't think they recommend learning how to ski jump from a book.", I said.

"Got any bookmarks?", he asked?

"Yes, we do, right over here", I said as I showed him. He chose a red leather bookmark that said Love on it.

"Can I get a gift receipt?", he asked? And, "Do you gift wrap?"

"Sure thing."

Put a lotta thought into the whole Valentine's Day thing, didya?

Friday, February 12, 2010

One Amazing Thing

I just finished Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing. I have to say that I am a little unsatisfied...

The premise was intriguing...nine people in an Indian visa and passport office when an earthquake hits and they can't get out. Amid injuries and their deteriorating situation, they each tell "one amazing thing" from their lives.

When I read the title as one AMAZING thing, I guess I expected that what they shared would be great, or good things in their lives. That was not the case. Each of them shared pivotal moments, and often the background leading up to those moments, including one woman's decision to try to commit suicide. It felt pretty misnamed to me. One IMPORTANT thing, maybe, or one illuminating moment.

Also, the author did not have the characters tell their stories in the first person. Most of them were told in third person, except for the one (if there could be said to be one in the cast of nine) main character, which felt a little distant to me, and not as powerful as I think it would have been had the characters been allowed to speak in their own voices. Just my opinion.

Each of the stories were compelling, however, and I liked how most of the stories seem to relate to why they were in the passport and visa office, that their intent to go to India, or their resulting career within the passport and visa office seemed to be culminations of their lives, or results of each of these one "amazing" things. So I liked that. The characters were quite well drawn, even in this rather short book (220 pages).

I remember liking Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams more than this, though these characters and their situations were almost haunting.

To sum it up...I felt a little misled by the title, and I would have liked to have the characters tell their stories in their own voices. It was a little hard to keep track of whose story was being told as it was written. At the same time, the stories and characters were compelling and intriguing. An interesting read.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

More on those pesky readers' guides

One of the readers' guide questions in the book I just finished was:

"The novel featured many references to circles throughout. For example, Mary eats her sandwiches in circles, Cobb describes himself as a circular kisser, and birds circle around carcasses. Identify the ways in which circles appear in or influence the story and discuss their significance."


Again, bringing back my beef about readers' guides, if one is in school and one is supposed to learning about symbolism or mythology or Thoreau (and yes, there are questions about mythology and Thoreau in this readers' guide), then questions like these are what you want.

However, If I am reading for pleasure (which I am), I may or may not care about circles or mythology. I may find something utterly wonderful on my own. The reader questions seem to assume that readers don't know how to find their own insights in a book. Give us a little credit!

I think the more interesting questions are:
    What did you like about the book?
    What didn't you like about the book?

That way each reader can add to the discussion what was important to THEM about the book, which may or may not have to do with mythology or Thoreau.

So. I will answer my own questions about Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger, which I just finished reading.

I'm going to start with the second question first...

What didn't I like about the book?
The two main characters meet and fall in love within the first 24 hours of meeting each other. This bothered me as I was reading, it just seemed too quick, too easy, too pat. Not that it can't happen, I believe that it can, it just annoyed me while I was reading the rest of the book.

The author tells the end of the story in the beginning. Mary, one of the main characters, has Huntington's disease and is going to die. She is found dead on a river in Maine. I'm not giving the story away here, it's on the back cover and on the first page. The rest of the book tells the story of what exactly happened, how she got dead on the river. That was fine, I didn't mind that. What I didn't like was how the author dealt with time...again, the two characters meeting and falling in love so fast, and later in the book there is a huge span of time that he covers in about a page and half. I didn't care for that, it just seemed too quick and I wanted more...

Also, Mary has Huntington's disease. We know this, we know she will die from this, and at the end of her life, her partner, Cobb, has to let her go. Maybe it's because I recently took care of my mom before she died, but I didn't get a sense of the awfulness of Mary's disease. My mom didn't have Huntington's, but she did have dementia, and the decline was awful and sad and heartbreaking. In this book, it seemed as though Mary's dementia from Huntington's was intermittent, we never really got to see what it looked like at her worst (she would go to sleep and was very tired, but that didn't seem so horrible) and maybe that's how it is with Huntington's. But that whole huge time gap I mentioned above, where Mary was getting worse, seemed to gloss over the illness and its effects on Mary. Toward the end of her life Mary was often quite lucid and profound and insightful, which also didn't seem realistic to me. I KNOW how awful it is to watch someone die, and the awfulness didn't come through for me in this book, which made it seem idealized.

I guess it felt kind of like a fairy tale...

That said...
What did I like about the book?
I loved all the characters and the relationships. Mary and Cobb were wonderful, well-drawn, and lovely together. All of the secondary characters were great too...Mary's brother, Freddy, lives in Indonesia and takes care of sea turtles and their habitat. I am wearing a gold turtle necklace because I got to see a sea turtle on a recent trip to the Caribbean, which was absolutely stunning. Freddy was a great character anyway, and that he loved turtles made me like him even more.

I loved that Mary loved crows (and ravens and magpies), she was a biologist, but also loved crow lore.

I can like something and not like the same thing about a book...I said it kind of felt like a fairy tale...the wonderful relationship between Mary and Cobb, the decline and death that seemed pretty calm and peaceful, the friendships and relationships they had with their relatives, the Chungamunga girls...the whole book had a magical quality about it, which was lovely.

All in all? It was a good read.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Every Day

Every day at work I see something new I'd like to read. Customers say, "I could never work here, I'd spend my whole paycheck.", and that sentiment is so true. I don't spend my whole paycheck, but I could very easily.

Today I wanted...
The Magicians by Lev of my friends from our meeting last night mentioned that she is reading it and loving it. It's sort of a Harry Potter crossed with Narnia for adults. I looked it up on the computer at work and yes, I want to read it.

A Reliable Wife by Goolrick...lots of people have been buying this recently, so today I finally took a longer look at it today and it looks intriguing. An 'honest' woman plots to kill her husband, but he has ideas of his own...I want to start reading it, see if it reads as well as it sounds.

Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow...I hadn't seen this before, it was on a display and it looks fascinating. Written by a lawyer who defends people on death row, he details the emotional toll capital punishment takes on everyone...I didn't have much time to look at it and yes, I want it.

Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa...about the cat who lives in a nursing home and somehow knows when someone is going to die. When a patient gets close to death, Oscar goes into their room and lies on their bed and stays there until they pass. Usually this cat doesn't spend much time in any one room...until someone is ready to die. I'd read an article about Oscar, and now there is a book. It looks like kind of a longer version of the article (so it makes me wonder how well written it is), but it is intriguing. I'd heard about Oscar when my own mother was dying. Compelling story.

I did not come home with any of these books. I did, however, snag an advance reader copy of Tamsen Donner by Gabrielle Burton, a novel Burton wrote about the Donner party. When I was a kid I read quite a bit about the Donner party...and here is a new book about it!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book Groups and Inner Libraries

I will be meeting up with a couple of friends this evening. And we will talk about books. Instead of all reading the same book, we bring what we're reading and have sort of a Show-and-Tell, talking about the books we've liked, as well as ones we haven't.

I like this better than what seems to be a more conventional book group, where everyone reads the same book and then talks about it. These groups have resulted in the ubiquitous, and to me annoying, readers' group guides at the end of so many books these days. The readers' guide questions often seem to be comprehension questions, the kind of questions a teacher would devise to make sure that the students read the book (and I oughta know, I used to be a teacher). These kind of questions seem to suck the life out of a book. If I have the choice of getting a book with or without a readers' guide, I'll choose without.

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, the author talks about our inner libraries…
“We might use the term inner library to characterize the set of books – a subset of the collective library – around which every personality is constructed, and which then shapes each person’s individual relationship to books and to other people…
“That it is that in truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries – built within us over the years and housing all our secret books – come into contact with the inner libraries of others, potentially provoking all manner of friction and conflict.
“For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing suffering. …comments that challenge the books in our inner libraries, attacking what has become a part of our identity, may wound us to the core of our being.”

The whole inner library thing is really sticking with me…what a perfect term. We all have inner libraries, and what an interesting job I have to be able to talk to people about their inner libraries, as well as my own.

So tonight I'll be bringing:
Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger (almost finished, am enjoying it)
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
Cowboy and Wills by Monica Holloway
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (haven't read it yet, got an advance reader copy)

I'm interested to see what my friends will be bringing!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett

Lucy Grealy's book, Autobiography of a Face, was in the woman's stack of books she was buying.

"Oh, I've wanted to read that one.", I said.

"Do you know the story behind it?", the customer asked?

"I'm not sure," I said, "I read Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett", (which was Ann Patchett's book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a woman she met in college who had cancer that horribly disfigured her face.) "Is there more to the story?"

"There sure is.", the woman said, "I read Truth and Beauty too, and loved it..."

"Me too!"

She said, "After I read Patchett's book, I read an article that said that Lucy's family hated that Ann Patchett wrote Truth and Beauty. That by writing about Lucy, Ann 'stole their grief.'"

"Oh, no, I hadn't heard that. Interesting and strange, I thought Ann Patchett did a stunning job of portraying Lucy and their friendship.", I said.

"I know, I thought so too.", said the woman, "Especially so since some of the things Lucy did toward the end of her life weren't very positive or flattering. Ann Patchett wrote a pretty glowing book. I'm not sure how Ann Patchett's book, 'stole the Grealy family's grief', but hey."

"Yeah, me neither, unless by Ann writing her book, and Ann not being a blood relative it took the emphasis away from their particular family? I don't know. Though in Truth and Beauty she mentions Lucy's book and that made me want to read it then. Now I really want to read it!", I said.


An interesting follow-up to Self-Made Man happened yesterday at work...

A young Asian came into the store in jeans, a dark purple hoodie, glasses, short, kind of fringy haircut, with some of the hair dyed, almost striped. Approaching my counter...

"Do you have any books on um, androe, um, I don't know how to say it, and..., androe-gynous?"

"Androgynous?", I said.

"Yes.", with a sigh of relief that I knew the word.

It seemed an apt request, as I could not tell this person's gender - here was androgynous standing in front of me. I tried to clarify exactly what was needed...

"You'd like something on androgyny? Something about gender identity?"

"Yes, something like that."

"Well, we have several different areas in the store...some biographies might be helpful, there are some novels, though they are more about the story, less about the actual struggle (I was thinking of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex as well as Wesley Stace's Misfortune). There are also some books that might be helpful in the gay and lesbian section or cultural studies, though those are more sociological and might be kind of textbook-y."

I printed out a list that came up after I typed in the key words 'gender identity'. Another one of the books that came up was As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl, which was excellent (about a boy whose genitals were damaged in a surgical procedure and his parents decided to raise him as a girl. The book was compelling and fascinating, though ultimately sad, as the subject of the book committed suicide in his 20's. I didn't tell my customer about the ending on that one.) Another biography came up that we had in stock, so I took the customer to all the possible sections (biography, cultural studies, science, fiction, sociology, and even fashion, as the customer wanted to see if there was anything on androgynous fashion).

I was very comfortable talking about androgyny and gender identity (and surely there will be a book about Chastity/Chaz Bono and her transition from female to male, which would have been mighty handy today).

Later, during my break, I was reading more of Zadie Smith. One of the pieces was a collection of movie reviews she did for one of the publications she wrote for. One of the reviews was about the movie Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, depicting a man transitioning to a woman. If our store had a movie department, I certainly would have recommended that movie to this customer.

Self-Made Man was Norah Vincent's choice to live as a man. She doesn't say that she identifies as a male, or wants to live as a male. She wanted to find out, from the inside (going undercover, as it were), how men are treated in our society, and how men treat others.

My young customer (late teens, maybe?) seemed to want to find out more about how one identifies as one gender or other, or perhaps how to transition from one gender or other, or maybe how NOT to identify as a particular gender, and maybe what that means.

I don't know if my young customer wanted to find out how to actually transition, or was wanting to know how one identifies with one gender or another, and here I am, just because I couldn't tell the customer's gender, I assumed that the customer has an issue. This is not necessarily so. I don't know what s/he ultimately purchased, if anything. I often don't know the outcome...