Sunday, April 14, 2013

Three Mini Book Reviews

Frances & Bernard by Carlene Bauer. Has a letter ever changed your life?  When Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony, they are not quite certain what to make of each other, but one letter changes everything. Bernard’s first letter to Frances leads to a deep and intense friendship. Not-so-loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, Frances and Bernard navigate the tricky waters of publishing, romance, religion, and mental illness in this hauntingly beautiful story. If you enjoy the works of Marilynne Robinson or 84 Charing Cross Road, or if you appreciate the bittersweet aspects of life, give this one a spin. 

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore. I had to remind myself several times while reading this book that it’s a novel and not a memoir—that’s how realistic and heartbreaking it feels. After years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, Jesse and Ramon desperately want to adopt a child, but they never could have imagined the difficulties lying in wait for them in the process, not least of which is determining how willing they’d be to adopt a child born with Down’s syndrome, fetal alcohol, blindness, deafness, spina bifida, or any combination thereof. This is an emotional and compelling read.

The Dinner by Herman Koch.  What starts off as a rather Bourgeois novel quickly takes a darker turn and descends into the realm of menace, both underhanded and overt.  Clearly there is more to our unnamed, mild-mannered narrator than first meets the eye, and as he learns more about his son’s new and disturbing hobby, the reader learns more about him.  The further this insidious father-son story unfolded, the faster I was compelled to turn the pages.  This book is a bestseller in Europe and recently translated for English-speaking audiences. 


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review: A Tale for the TIme Being by Ruth Ozeki

For my job, I receive books every day with an editor's letter tucked inside, exhorting the 101 reasons why I should read that particular book.  (Why, yes, I do love my job. Thanks for asking.)  But what I do not receive every day is a book with letters from ten different editors around the world, exhorting the 1,001 reasons why I should love this book, and that's the first thing that made me sit up and take notice about Ruth Ozeki's new novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The ARC that Viking sent out included notes from editors in the US, UK, Canada, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Australia, Greece, and the Netherlands. I had not read Ozeki before, but I thought, "A-ha, clearly this is a book to be reckoned with."

And I was right.  Mostly I just want to heap superlatives on this book, but I'll try to tell you a bit about what the book is about, though that will be tricky.  Like the quantum physics that infuse (infuses? Is the word "physics" singular or plural?) the story, it's a book that alters as one reads and observes. Because a summary would be too complicated, I'm going to borrow the publisher's own marketing blurb here:
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Nao has become one of my favorite narrators in literature.  She is very much in the vein of Midori from Haruki Murakami's novel, Norwegian Wood, which is to say she's bubbly, bright, and annoying-but-endearing. Her father is suicidal, and the cruelties she endures at the hands of her classmates (shockingly, with the tacit permission of her teacher) make every American YA novel about bullying look like a bonny good time. It's no wonder that she wants to follow in her father's footsteps and try to end it all.  Yet she has this wonderfully indomitable spirit and sense of humor that juxtaposes in a fascinating way with her avowed fate.

Jiko, Nao's great-grandmother, is also a terrific character. Though there are some secrets she has guarded all of her life, she serves mostly as Nao's sole source of stability and as such, she guides her in the way of  Zen Buddhism. Nothing Nao says or does can offend or surprise her, despite Nao's best efforts.

With the character of Ruth, Ozeki starts to break down fiction's fourth wall. Character Ruth splits her time between New York and an isolated island in the Pacific northwest, just like Author Ruth. Character Ruth is a practicing Buddhist novelist, just like Author Ruth. And the similarities go on.... Ruth (the character) is something of a Japanese scholar trying to defeat a bad case of writer's block, so her obsession with Nao's found diary becomes a way for her to sublimate her anxiety. Her husband is a quantum physics-quoting botanist, so there's that, too.

Top all of that off with the fact that Nao's diary excerpts as they appear in the book are amply footnoted for the benefit of a non-Japanese audience, and that the footnotes are attributed to Ruth--but is it Character Ruth or Author Ruth? It's hard to tell sometimes, and that's the whole point, I think.

I love the opening lines to Nao's first section. They put me a little bit in mind of the Emily Dickinson poem, "I'm Nobody!Who Are You":
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you're reading this, then maybe by now you're wondering about me, too (p. 4).
I also love this: "I don't mind thinking of the world without me because I'm unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko. She's totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind. But please don't get me going on the topic of species extinction because it's totally depressing and I'll have to commit suicide right this second" (25).

And this bit about Nao's time living with Jiko at the temple:
They bowed and thanked the toilet and offered a prayer to save all beings. That one is kind of hilarious and goes like this: As I go for a dump/I pray with all beings/that we can remove all filth and destroy/ the poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness.
At first I was like, No way am I saying that, but when you hang out with people who are always being supergrateful and appreciating things and saying thank you, in the end it kind of rubs off, and one day after I'd flushed, I turned to the toilet and said, "Thanks, toilet," and it felt pretty natural. I mean, it's the kind of things that's okay to do if you're in a temple on the side of a mountain, but you'd better not try it in your junior high school washroom, because if your classmates catch you bowing and thanking the toilet they'll try to drown you in it. I explained this to Jiko, and she agreed it wasn't such a good idea, but that it was okay just to feel grateful sometimes, even if you don't say anything (167).
That gives you a pretty good flavor for Nao's narrative sections, equal parts earnestness and impishness. There is so much that is extraordinary about this book, but I fear I'm not doing it justice.  I think I will close with the blurb that I wrote up for Publisher's Weekly Galley Talk, as sometimes it's easier to say more with fewer words:

Zen philosophy and quantum physics blend seamlessly in Ozeki’s brilliant new work of metafiction, where sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the author’s attempts to build up and break down the fourth wall. Or as Jiko, the wise and wizened Buddhist nun from the book might say, “to raise or to raze, they are the same.” Jiko’s calm, hard-earned acceptance of contradictions contrasts brilliantly with the life of her great-granddaughter, Nao, a bullied schoolgirl with a suicidal father, adrift in a sea of emotions she is incapable of navigating. When Ruth, on the opposite side of the Pacific, discovers Nao’s diary among the post-tsunami flotsam and jetsam, she becomes obsessed with Jiko’s and Nao’s stories—to the point where she’s convinced that solving the diary’s puzzles will ease her restlessness and dissolve her writer’s block.  I’ve rarely encountered a novel that has made me think about our world quite as much as this one has, where distance and time are mutable depending on the observer, and what is a reader if not the ultimate observer? Ozeki’s novel feels, impossibly, both timeless and utterly of our time, but I suspect that might be the hand of Jiko guiding me. 

Ruth Ozeki will read at Odyssey Bookshop tonight, Wednesday, 13 March 2013, at 7:00 pm. We hope to see you there!  It is also our March selection for our signed First Editions Club.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: After Visiting Friends by Michael Haines

(It's not your eyes--the photo on the cover is intentionally blurry)
Another friend in bookselling recently made a comment on her blog that there are just too many memoirs being published.  I tend to agree. She also went on to note that there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Again, I tend to agree. The problem with most memoirs is that the authors either don't have a good enough story to tell or they're not skilled enough to tell it well.  And don't even get me started on celebrity memoirs (Steve Martin's Born Standing Up being an exception to any rule. That man is a genius.).

So when I first saw the bound galley of Michael Hainey's After Seeing Friends, I was inclined to dismiss it.  Unknown author. Nondescript title.  I almost put it in the communal staff kitchen where all of the other unwanted galleys go, but then I saw who sent it to me: Wendy Sheanin, the adult marketing director at Simon & Schuster, whose tastes I trust.  And she'd tucked a handwritten note inside of the first page.  I'm a sucker for a handwritten note. And then I see an envelope hand-addressed to me tucked into the middle of the book.  Turns out that unknown-to-me Mr. Hainey is the deputy editor at GQ magazine and he's written me a note by hand on his letterpress stationery (I'm also a sucker for letterpress anything).

Naturally, After Seeing Friends made it into my tote to take home at the end of the day. Luckily for me, Mr. Hainey is possessed of a writing gift AND an interesting story to tell.  By the end of the first chapter I had dog-eared about half a dozen pages. That pattern continued throughout the book.  The GoodReads summary begins: "Michael Hainey had just turned six when his uncle knocked on his family’s back door one morning with the tragic news: Bob Hainey, Michael’s father, was found alone near his car on Chicago’s North Side, dead, of an apparent heart attack."

But was that the entire truth? Various obituaries in the city mention that the elder Hainey had died "after visiting friends," but who were these friends, and why didn't they attend the funeral? It is only when Michael has attained his father's age when he died that he decides to bring his full investigative journalism skills to bear to inquire into the circumstances surrounding his father's death. In Michael Hainey's search for what really happened the night his father died, it's not the 25-year-old cold trail so much as the stymying efforts of his father's former friends and colleagues that nearly prevent the story coming to full light.

Hainey travels from New York to the midwest and back so many times that I lost count, tracking down leads not only in Chicagoland, but in Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, and many points in between. Along the way, the reader gets a front-row show to the golden age of Chicagoland journalism: old school, hard core, and with a code of honor that makes the Mafia look like they're merely playing at it.

Eventually Hainey does get the information he's after, and his main reward is that in losing his lifelong idea of what his father was, he is lucky enough as an adult to truly know his mother; the facade she maintains for her children's sake finally crumbles. For me, though, the real turning point of the story is when he reconnects with his cousin and older brother, and then later attends what would have been his father's 50th high school reunion, where he comes to know his father and where he himself fits within the generations of Hainey family. While Hainey's is a very specific and intimate story, there's an element of the universal permeating his quest: how can we know ourselves if we don't know where we come from? How can we know ourselves if we don't consider our impact on the next generation?

If you are interested in the nature of memory and how it intertwines with history, do yourself a favor and read this book. 

Some of the passages I enjoyed:

On visiting his grandmother in the nursing home: "I gave her a chocolate cream. She raises it to her mouth. A tongue emerges, takes the candy. Like a tortoise I saw at the zoo. She bites, almost in slow motion, chews so slowly I swear I can feel her tasting it ."

A description of Chicagoland as America's meat processing capital: "This was the land of Swift, the kingdom of Armour. It was the beauty of the Industrial Revolution's assembly line turned inside out. Chicago as the disassembly line. Chicago--how fast and how efficiently as creature could be reduced. Rendered. Broken down."

A terrible truth, laid bare, when he and his brother are told about their father's death: "In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life up until then, my bother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he's always teased me, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, 'Cry-baby! Cry-baby!' "

"So often I wonder--Do all brothers end up at Kitty Hawk? Flipping a coin to write history. One will fly. The other stands slack-jawed with awe. Maybe chasing his brother. The wind in his face now. The wind that lifts his brother."


Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: You Before Me by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes' new novel Me Before You should come with a warning: do NOT pick this book up unless you have a box of tissues by your side and several hours to spare. Because once you start reading it, you're not going to want to put it down, and once you do put it down, you're going to be a soggy, wet mess. Believe me, my cat Murray was quite concerned with my state of mind. Then again, anything that interrupts the administering of chin scratches concerns him.

Up until the motorcycle accident that made him a quadriplegic, Will Traynor was both a go-getter and a player--wealthy, handsome, charismatic, and a thill-seeker to boot.  Lou, on the other hand, is from an economically challenged working class family--bright enough to have gained university admittance, but required to join the workforce to help her family pay the rent when her sister gets pregnant and her father gets laid off. When the cafe where she's been working as a waitress for the last several years closes, she desperately accepts a six-month contact taking care of Will. Will and Lou couldn't be more different on the surface, so when they form an uneasy alliance that grows into the truest friendship either has ever known, nobody is more surprised than they are.

The catch, and of course there's a catch, is that Will and his mother are keeping a secret from Lou, and when she discovers what it is, she reacts with her characteristic passion, matched only by her pigheadedness.  But might Will's secret haunt Lou to the point she makes the biggest mistake of her life?

Let me clear: this is not a book with complicated twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing.  If you pick this book up to read, you will have a fair idea of the story-arc before you're even fifty pages into it, as it's the story itself that pulls you in; but the class issues, the family relationships, and the importance of having somebody to believe in you when you no longer believe in yourself give this book a heft that matches its heart.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Home Is a Roof Over a Pig

I find that most memoirs fall into one of two categories: a good story told by an okay writer, or an okay story told by a good writer, and Aminta Arrington's book falls into the former category.  Home is a Roof Over a Pig is her family's story of adopting a baby girl, whom they name Grace Amelie, from China and then moving there with their three small children in an attempt to give Grace a connection to her birth country. They also want their other two children to grow up with a wider world view than the typical American child's, as well as to give Grace's siblings a chance to know Grace's homeland and create a way for all of the children to share both American and Chinese identities.

Arrington's narrative style is mostly a conversational one and it serves her story well enough, though it does verge into the land of repetition on a regular basis.  It's when she tries to be more "writerly," for lack of a better word, that the writing really sticks out, but not in a good way. The chapters are more episodic rather than a linear narrative, and occasionally she jumps forward or backward in her timelines. That's okay, though, because her story is so interesting and unusual that I'd forgive the writing great deal more.

Aminta's husband Chris decides to retire from the military, giving them both a chance to re-invent their lives.  They can choose anywhere in the world to start over, and as Chris is facile with many languages and Aminta has always been interested in international relations, they know that the US is not where they want to be.  When Chris's older sons from a previous relationship move beyond their teens and their daughter Katherine is a baby, they decide to adopt a sister for her from China. During the adoption process, Aminta unexpectedly gets pregnant again with their son, Andrew, and soon the couple have three children under the age of three.

Now that Grace is a part of their family, deciding they should pick China as the place to raise their children is the easy part. The hard part is finding job placement for two adults with three small children, but in time a regional university in Shandong province called Taishan Medical College find teaching spots for Chris and Aminta, together with a tiny two-bedroom apartment in family housing. Though there are many frustrating moments when they doubt their decision to move to rural China, overall the family adapts fairly well to their new country, with the children adjusting in varying degrees and at varying speeds.  Soon they become entrenched in their neighborhood and in their teaching and church communities.

The title of the book comes from the Chinese character for "home," which Aminta learns is esentially the pictogram for 'roof' combined with the word for "pig," and that pig-farming was one of the earliest non-nomadic occupations for the ancient Chinese.  Thus, if you had a roof over a pig, you stayed put there and it was your home.  Learning tidbits about language like this is what made the book so fascinating for me. Like most Americans, I am not fluent in any language beyond my own, despite my own interest in language, dabbling in French, Spanish, and even Latin during high school and college, and taking an introductory course to linguistics in graduate school.  I may have no facility with it, but language has always interested me; learning a bit about a language whose characters are conceptual meanings rather than based on letters that combine into phonemes to create words was endlessly fascinating.

Beyond the language lessons, I especially enjoyed Arrington's stories about the young people taking her English classes--the cultural divides that become smaller and smaller as the book goes on, such as politics or the importance of family and maintaining cultural traditions, but also those that grow even wider, such as feminism, their respective views on Tibet, and the importance of independent thinking. Learning to understand (and respect) a worldview that is radically different from your own may be difficult, but both teacher and student know that it's essential to try, even, or perhaps especially, if you do not agree with it.

I'd recommend this book for people who are casually interested in China, international adoption, travel memoirs, memoirs about parenting or teaching, or simple readers looking for an unusual perspective.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cookbook: Sweet & Easy Vegan

Chronicle Books has a great blog (check it out if you haven't). I loved their post on Sweet & Easy Vegan and tried two recipes from the book, both breakfast cookies.

The first recipe was for Maple-Peanut Breakfast Cookies. I substituted the flour with a gluten-free mix so that my boyfriend could try them. We're both peanut butter lovers and the cookies were a great breakfast. Author Robin Asbell recommends storing the cookies in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. Despite my doubts, the cookies were crispy straight from the fridge and I didn't even warm them up before eating. They made a quick and easy breakfast (for the 2 days they lasted!).

The second recipe was for Coconut Mango Breakfast Cookies. Due to the almond butter, they have protein, add the oats and the mango, and you have a pretty balanced breakfast. These, too, were good straight from the fridge, though I like them better warm. As good as these are, they are more expensive to make (due to the coconut and dried mango). However, I do hope to make them again.

Robin uses sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, and agave, so though the recipes are sweet, they're not too sweet and avoid granular sugar. There are a host of bookmarks marking recipes I'd like to try and after these two, I'm certain they'll be superb. 


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores

I've been a follower for a long time (and by "long" I guess I mean about two years or so) of Jen Campbell's This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog. She's a poet, writer and antiquarian bookseller in the UK, and earlier this year she published a book called Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Since bookish people love reading about bookish things, the idea spread across the pond and soon there was an open call for American and Canadian booksellers to submit some of their bizarre encounters with customers. Overlook published it just this last week, and they were kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of the book.

 Jen's original contributions comprise most of the US edition, but it's interspersed throughout with new scenarios from the New World, including two out of the three that I submitted.  One of them was entirely too long to print, but it remains one of my most frequently read blog posts (read it here if you're interested). Here's the more interesting of the two they included:

     Customer: Do you sell swimming goggles?
     Me: No, I'm afraid we do not.
     Customer: And you call yourself a full service bookstore?
     Me: ...

I kid you not.  Now, it's true that we've branched out a good bit, particularly over the last five years, and we sell quite a few non-book items. Some are more of the usual non-book like journals, stationery, and calendars, but we also carry toys, boardgames and locally- or regionally-made crafts. Still, asking for swimming goggles seemed a little, well, weird.

Here's a call I took last week from a customer on the phone. I've submitted it for the next installment of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores:

    Customer: Yes, hello, do you sell drumsticks?
    Me: you mean the kind you eat or the kind you play drums with?
    Customer: The kind you play drums with.  Does that mean you sell them?
    Me: No, actually we don't carry either one, but I was curious which variety you thought a bookstore might sell.  Try the music shop just up the road.

This is a very funny book, and if you've ever worked retail then I'm sure you'll find yourself nodding along to more than one of these bizarre scenarios.  It's a nice little package, and at only $15 for the hardcover, it makes a great impulse purchase or gift.