Monday, October 24, 2011

I'll give you such a pinch!

The last book I read was Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, by Don Peck. Like most things being written about the current state of the economy, it's a bit depressing, but fascinating and important. The book opens up with a look back at other economic downturns in American history. I enjoyed the fact that when trying to put the Great Recession into a historical context Peck spent time not only on the Great Depression, but also on the Panic of 1893 and the stagflation of the 1970's. (I tend to think we could stand to see more comparisons to 1893 in the press, I would've bought this book out if only for that section!)

Since my other job is at a federal budget research group, I find myself surrounded with statistics detailing exactly how bad our economy is on a daily basis. While the statistics Peck points out are terrifying, I was more interested in the stuff I don't see every day, which was the psychological effects of recession and unemployment. Taking a look at what recession does to people's values explains a lot about some trends we see in politics today, with people more interested in immigration issues and less willing to have government money go to programs that help the poor. In a way it's almost comforting to step back and think about this trend of people becoming more self-interested as part of the normal life cycle of a recession.

The other part of the book I found fascinating was when he took a look at what effect the recession has had (and will have) on different age groups. I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but I had a bit of a rude awakening when reading the section on my age group, those just out of college. I was reading about the ways the recession has changed the way "millennials" think, and of course believing that the downturn hadn't significantly changed my thoughts on my future career. Of course I realized that I was in deep denial and now value job security over my past plans of moving to another city and making a brand new start. I'm not sure if you'll have the same sort of revelation while reading Pinched, but it definitely prompted some soul-searching on my end.

It's not too long, so it doesn't go as far into depth as some subjects deserve, but the book probably would be unbearably long if it did. If you're looking for more about how exactly the Great Recession came to be, I would suggest 13 Bankers. Anyways, if you're looking for a nice overview of our economic situation, this is it. Enjoy!


An Odyssey Spouse Makes Shelf Awareness news!

Review: Salomé

Odyssey Bookshop Spouse, Barry Moser, was featured in Friday's issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily emailing of news from the book industry.  In it, John McFarland reviews the brand-new translation into English (by UMass professort Joseph Donohue) of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome.  The University of Virginia Press has put into this book all of the beautiful design and production values that we expect from our university presses, and you can read all about Moser's illustrations below, but you can click here if you want to read the entire issue of Shelf Awareness.

Salome: A Tragedy in One Act by Oscar Wilde, trans. by Joseph Donohue, illus. by Barry Moser (University of Virginia Press, $24.95 hardcover, 9780813931913, November 2011)
During an 1891 sojourn in Paris, Oscar Wilde was inspired by discussions with Stéphane Mallarmé and other Symbolist poets to set himself a challenge: he would take a tale from the Bible and set it as drama, but he would write it in French, not English. Like the Symbolists, Wilde was drawn to tales of decadence and beauty and he couldn't do much better than the story featuring Salomé. A teenage princess of Judea, she became obsessed with John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod, her stepfather, and ended up demanding John's head on a platter in exchange for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. Wilde had a ball piling on out-of-control lust, family dysfunction, artsy striptease, beheading of a prophet and necrophilia for maximum theatrical effect. He did so, however, in highly stylized language that Joseph Donohue argues makes the drama in French one of "the greatest prose poems of them all."
While the play met with success at its French premiere in 1896 and captured the attention of Richard Strauss (who then composed his 1905 opera version), when a German translation from the French was produced in Berlin, Wilde was less well served by the Lord Alfred Douglas English translation that came out in 1894 and has since dominated all discussion of English versions, to the detriment of the actual worth of the piece. Before unveiling his new English translation, Joseph Donohue provides a fascinating essay on Wilde's serious errors of judgment on that score, and readers will take away lessons from Wilde's mistakes, including not hiring your boyfriend for a job when he has no experience and not commissioning Aubrey Beardsley to illustrate a tale that happens somewhere other than an opium den.
Donohue has set himself the task of rendering Wilde's French tragedy in "an up-to-date, colloquial yet spare English translation" that could be performed on stage today. His work reads smoothly, and he's breathed life back into the play (compare his version of Salomé's declaration before she kisses the lips of John the Baptist's severed head: "And that tongue, that red serpent spewing out poisons, it's not wagging any more, it says nothing now," with Douglas's 1894 "And thy tongue, that was like a red snake darting poison, it moves no more, it speaks no words"). The ominous Barry Moser engravings also establish the time and place mercifully free of a single Beardsley peacock feather. --John McFarland

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Caroline Preston's  book is a little unusual amidst the world of adult novels--the only reasonable comp I can think of would be the Griffin & Sabine books by Nick Bantock.  It's not quite like the graphic novels we're already familiar with, but it's not entirely dissimilar, either.

It's a gentle book, an old-fashioned book, both in the best senses of the words.  Frankie leaves home in Cornish, NH, in the 1920s and makes her way first to Vassar College, then to NYC and Paris, before she returns home to Cornish.  The text is minimal; instead we get copious amounts of vintage memorabilia and ephemera to illustrate Frankie's journey.

Along the way sheltered Frankie encounters romantic love (doomed and otherwise), privilege, antisemitism, and modernism for the first time in her life, and she's also witness to many important events of the 1920s, such as the publication of Ulysses & The Sun Also Rises, Charles Lindbergh's trans-atlantic flight, and the bohemian expat life of Paris's Left Bank.  (Frankie lives in an apartment above the iconic bookstore, Shakespeare & Co, and I was interested to read that its propietor, Sylvia Beach was the real-life godmother of the author's mother.)

This is an utterly charming adult novel that will have a wide crossover appeal for teen girls. I read an ARC, (advance reading copy) which is reproduced only in black & white, but I know the finished copy will be very pleasing to the eye with its full color spreads.  Adriana Trigiani called this book "a literary bottle rocket--loaded with whimsy, pizzazz, and heart" and I concur.  This book will be published in November by Ecco, and I received a galley of this book from my sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.  I look forward to meeting the author when she's at the Odyssey Bookshop next month! Odyssey favorite author Elinor Lipman, who will be on hand to do the author introduction for us that night, said of this book: "There is magic here and genius. I marveled at every page: at first, just the astonishing collection of souvenirs and memorabilia and then the story—so wry and smart and literary and historically fascinating.”


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hot Damned! It's a New Book by Chuck Palahniuk

Are you there Satan? It's me, Madison.  Thus starts each new diary entry from Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel.  Madison is awkward, nerdy, privileged...and dead.  She's narrating her story from the confines of Hell, and along the way she's trying to re-create the cast of The Breakfast Club from among her fellow damned.  Intrigued yet?  You should be.  This tongue-in-cheek tale of the afterlife, with all of its cliques and demons, is a must-read for fans of the offbeat and unexpected.

P. S. Need coaching on how to pronounce this dude's name?  It's like saying the two names, Paula-Nick.  Or at least that's close enough for government work.

P. P. S. You want to get the skinny on the hottest author party this fall?  It's all happening at my old bookstore, Lemuria, in Jackson, MS.  It's gonna be totally awesome, and if you can't be at Hal & Mal's for this hootenanny to end all hootenannies, you can still reserve a signed book from them.  I'm 100% bummed that I cannot make it!


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hark, A Vagrant!

I have to briefly gush about one of the books we have in right now, Hark, A Vagrant! Seeing it on the counter a few weeks ago was definitely one of the most pleasant surprises I've gotten working here. Hark, A Vagrant! in its original form is an excellent webcomic by Kate Beaton, and I had forgotten that it was being collected into a book. For those that have never spent entire afternoons going through Hark comics, they're mostly about historical figures and events, with a heavy dose of classic literature as well. Whether you're more into the history or literature side of things, this book definitely provides plenty of entertainment.

One my favorite things about Hark, A Vagrant! is the little notes on many of the pages giving some of the historical context behind the joke. For example, the strip about Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne is funny by itself, but is even better once you know that Verne wrote Poe "fan mail" - by way of writing an entire sequel to one of Poe's works. These notes are especially useful for the occasional Canadian history comic, as I have to admit I'm not exactly up to speed on the finer points of former Canadian prime ministers. At any rate, I wholeheartedly recommend Hark, A Vagrant! for anyone that enjoys both history and laughing, preferably at the same time.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Letter of Introduction

Hello! My name is Sheila, and I'm new on staff at the Odyssey. This post is to introduce myself a little bit, and to give you an idea of my usual reading habits so you know where I'm coming from if you see a post or shelf tag by me! (My first staff pick is definitely going to be Wanting Sheila Dead by Jane Haddam. I hear it's great.)

I grew up in Springfield, moved to South Hadley just before 8th grade, and have been around ever since. In May I graduated from UMass with a double major in music and political science, which are two subjects that will pop up frequently on my reading list. After graduation, I started an internship at the National Priorities Project, a federal budget research group based in Northampton, MA. At the end of the summer, I joined the staff there part time, and was luckily able to fill up the rest of my time with a new job at the Odyssey! Outside of my various jobs, I play a lot of music. The project I'm spending most time on right now is a Tom Petty cover band, Your Father's Mustache. We would love to play your uncle's birthday party, stop by the Odyssey sometime and we'll talk.

As far as reading goes, it was my favorite pastime when I was a kid, and have been a huge book lover ever since. I love a good novel, but mostly tend to read non-fiction. If a gun were pointed at my head and I had to pick three favorite books, they would be Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Silence by John Cage, and The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. 

Invisible Cities is built around imagined conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, with Marco's descriptions of fantastic cities in the Khan's empire in between their discussions. It's a great book to keep in your bag to read in little spurts while you're waiting for the bus or the doctor simply because the divisions are so short, most of the cities are only a page or two. Each description of a city plays with something that we take for granted, for example the fact that cities stay in one place and that we breathe air and not dirt. The world Invisible Cities lives in has no restrictions from the laws of physics, and it's just so much fun imagining life in these mysterious places.

Silence is a collection of writings by John Cage, a still-controversial 20th century composer. You can walk into any university music department in the country and start an argument about his music and philosophies, with some people passionately defending his value and some saying that his music is not music at all. My tent has been firmly staked in the pro-John Cage camp ever since I read this book, and would love to discuss him with you if you find me at the Odyssey! I firmly believe that people should read this book with an open mind before making up their mind either way about him and his music. This book changed how I listen to the world, and the people that I've recommended it to have reported back the same result.

Alex Ross is the classical music critic for The New Yorker, and is a fabulous music writer. Whether it's his reviews and essays or either of his two books, his writing just makes you need to go listen to whatever he's talking about. Reading The Rest is Noise introduced me to more great music than I could possibly list, and his second book Listen to This has had the same effect. The Rest is Noise takes you through the music of the 20th century in a way that is completely accessible for everybody, not just those with a degree in music history or theory. The book gives insight into some of the most interesting stories from the last century of classical music, and puts it into context with the general history of each time period. One of the most gripping sections of the book deals with World War II, telling the stories both of Richard Strauss, who led the Reich Music Chamber for the Nazis to protect Jewish family members, and Olivier Messiaen, who wrote his most famous piece from inside a German prisoner of war camp. I would suggest this book to anyone, and especially to music and history lovers.

That's all for now! I'm currently reading Pinched by Don Peck, which is about the current economic turmoil we've found ourselves in. It's been fantastic so far, can't wait to finish it and write something up!

See you around,


Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Language of Flowers (audio)

Looking back over the list I've kept of the books I read each month, September has been surprisingly busy, topping every month except the summer vacation month of June with a whopping 18 books read (about which more anon).  Four nights ago on my way home from work I finished the unabridged audio book of The Language of Flowers, written by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and read by Tara Sands.  Even though it has been on the IndieBound Bestseller list for the last several weeks, I knew next to nothing about this book, and I certainly wouldn't have guessed based on the cover or the title that its characters would be distinguished by their misfortunes.  So when a freebie copy arrived in the "White Box" from the ABA, I jumped at the chance to listen to it. 

Summary, courtesy of the publisher: "The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them."

Yes, Victoria is a victim of the world, exposed to its caprices and cruelties both large and small.  For one year in her life, she had a fleeting chance at happiness with her foster mother Elizabeth, but her inability to trust and love, combined with her finely-honed survival skills of hostility and a ten-year-old's reduced world view lead to disaster and heartbreak.  While I never could quite identify outright with Victoria (happily--I've never had to doubt my family's love for me) or her choices, it was certainly easy to sympathize with her.  

The novel mostly alternates the timeline every other chapter, starting the day Victoria turns 18 and "emancipates" from foster care with the narrative continuing onward from that day, and going back to Victoria's childhood, particularly the year she lives with Elizabeth, her last best hope to be adopted before being relegated to group homes for incorrigible foster children. About halfway through the audio it became pretty clear to me just how the earlier narrative would inexorably and heartbreakingly resolve into the later one. Neither narrative is particularly easy to listen to--it's hard to believe that the foster care system in this country fails to protect and care for so many children like Victoria, and her "adult" self is so misanthropic that frankly it's amazing that she makes it.  

And yet there are points of beauty in this novel.  The flowers themselves, certainly.  Elizabeth is a devoted gardener who teaches Victoria the language of flowers, and after she emancipates Victoria gets a job working for floral designer, Renata (who, despite her Russian background, reminded me of nobody so much as Minerva McGonagall).  But the small kindnesses Victoria encounters are also small points of beauty.  Meeting Renata's mother and being drawn into that gregarious family for Christmas mark the first time Victoria can recall feeling wanted at any family holiday.  She meets a young man of few words at the flower market who is the first person since Elizabeth left her life ten years ago who can read her flower messages. 

To say more of the plot would give too much away, I'm afraid, but it must be said that this is a novel about giving and taking chances, it's about abandonment and love, forgiveness and making amends.  In all, it was extremely satisfying.  I also liked the sly social justice interwoven into this story, with its tales of the foster care system, both woeful ( plentiful) and redemptive (not as many as one might like for a happier ending, but probably realistic). Tara Sands did a very good job reading this audio book, pulling off the sullen adolescent tones of young Victoria and the eastern European inflections of Renata & her family with equal aplomb.  I don't recall a single moment where I listened to the audio and wanted to rewind to enjoy a particular turn of phrase again, so I can't speak to the exquisite prose style very much on this one, but I can say that its strength lies in the fullness of the story.