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.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Odyssey on the Air: Books, Books, Books on

We love NPR, and we particularly love WAMC, the Albany, NY, NPR affiliate because they love indie booksellers.  Every week they invite independent booksellers to join them on the air during the morning Roundtable show, and this week it was our turn.

Emily represented the Odyssey this Tuesday to talk about her favorite fiction books:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Move over, Cormac McCarthy—there’s a new post-apocalyptic gig in town!  In this rugged country,  the few surviving people untouched by the deadly virus must make test the limits of their humanity in order to stay alive. Hig relies on his dog Jasper, his old Cessna, and an uneasy alliance with a former special-ops guy named Bangley to make his way in this brave, new world.  The language in this novel is riveting, and the innovative style of the first person narration is carried off amazingly well.  This book packs both a literary and an emotional wallop—I swear that I laughed, was moved to tears, and had an adrenaline rush, all on a regular basis.  Dark, poetic, and deeply beautiful. I can’t recommend this one enough. 
(click here to read Emily's complete review) Peter Heller will be at the Odyssey on September 28 for a reading, so please give us a call or email us to let us know whether to expect you!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Believe me, this book will absolutely sneak up on you unawares! What starts off as a sweet story, peopled with quirky characters, quickly turns into a poignant study of human nature, where the peculiarity is matched only by its whimsy. Dotted with charming British humor and sparkling with spontaneity this is a book you will mull over long after closing its pages.  I recommend to anyone who enjoys a well-crafted novel, but especially for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, or The Tower, the Zoo, or the Tortoise. 
(click here to read Emily's full review) 

Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman -- This is a great read from a renowned Mexican poet and playwright featuring an autistic savant immersed in the world of fish.  Reminiscent of both Temple Grandin and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night
(click here to read Emily's full review)

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman.  Stolen baby or adopted child?  So much depends on perspective in this fine debut novel of love, loss, selfishness, and sacrifice. When Janus Island  lighthouse keepers Tom and Isabel decide to care for a shipwrecked infant as if she were their own without reporting their find, life is idyllic for this family of three...until they discover that baby Lucy’s mother is still alive on the mainland.  The adults in this no-win scenario put their own moral justifications for their actions above Lucy’s best interest, but the problem here is that any compass of moral relativism lacks one True North.  Even (or, perhaps, especially) non-parents like me will understand the choices the adults made in this riptide of a novel that sweeps characters and readers alike into cross-currents of sympathy and sorrow. Stedman is a fine stylist and an outrageously good story teller. 
(click here to read Emily's full review)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Review: Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Maggie Hope, born in England but raised in America, returns to her homeland to settle the estate of a grandmother she doesn't remember, where she must oversee the sale of her grandmother's house in order to fulfill the terms of the will. In the meantime, things are heating up all over Europe,  Hitler is cutting a wide and lethal swathe across the continent, and not enough folks are raising their voice in protest.

Determined to stay on in London, despite having to give up her PhD program in MIT's mathematics department, Maggie makes friends and takes in roommates to cover her cost of living while looking for work.  She reluctantly takes a position as a secretary at Number 10 Downing Street, knowing that her intellect could be better used as a codebreaker in the War Department rather than typing up the prime minister's memos.

There are two important people in Maggie's life who are not what they seem, and in a race against time, she must crack a German code hidden in plain sight and uncover their true selves before one of them is killed and the other one puts the entire city of London in peril.

I tremendously enjoyed this paperback original, which is the start of a new mystery series.  This book is fun and frothy, offering a little bit of everything: an evocative wartime setting, secret identities, gender politics, light romance, lots of gin drinking, a narrowly-avoided assassination, and a brilliant and saucy heroine.  Don't pick this one up if you're looking for something substantial, but if you like historical fiction or if you prefer you mysteries to be decidedly soft-boiled, give this book a spin.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: The Dogs Stars by Peter Heller

I'm about six weeks removed from my reading of this book, and already it is as a distant memory for me, but I couldn't let the pub date come and go without saying something about Peter Heller's The Dog Stars.

This is the best book of the 20 or so that I read on vacation this year.  What's more, it may be the best book I've read this year.  What's even more, it just may be the best book I'll read in any year.

If you're reading this blog, you've probably already heard something about this book already--either because you're a customer and you've already heard me raving about it, or because you're a book person and you've heard the buzz surrounding this novel.  Which means what you probably know is that it's another post-apocalyptic vision of the world.  What you probably don't know is that it is also a beautiful one.

This may be a debut novel, but Peter Heller is no stranger when it comes to writing prose.  I don't think it's possible to produce a book like this one first time out of the gate.  His background in travel and adventure writing becomes clear once you settle into Dog Stars, but it's the prose itself that sets this book apart: strong, experimental, truncated, but with a stream-of-consciousness aspect to it.

This is the story of Hig, a one percenter.  Except in this case, he's one percent of the surviving population after a terrible flu has wiped out most of the population, and a mysterious blood disease has wiped out most of the flu survivors. He lives in a state of uneasy alliance with military-hardened Bangley, a "Survivor with a capital S," at a small, abandoned municipal airport.  With Hig's Cessna and a dog named Jasper, they create a perimeter than can be defended and protected against the marauding, near-feral almost-humans who occasionally cross their paths.

It's an uneasy alliance, but a successful one, until one day Hig hears another voice on the Cessna's radio, broadcasting from a place well beyond his gas tank's point of no return, and it's that voice that starts to haunt Hig's waking and dreaming moments: are there other pockets of other people out there like him, people who have maintained their humanity, but more importantly, their hope?

I won't say more than that, other than the rest of the book is dedicated to that search, but also to the preservation of that hope. Reading this book is a singularly satisfying experience, and one that drew me in deeply and was slow to let me go.  I laughed and I cried, and my pulse was pounding, often within the same chapter, and my husband tells me that all it took was watching me read the book to make him want to, too: he could hear my sniffles and my laughs, he observed all of my white-knuckled moments, my dog-eared pages, my deep sighs, and my blank looks when I stared, unseeing, out at the point where the ocean meets the horizon when the book became too much to take in.

Believe me when I say this book is a helluva read.

I'll conclude with a few excerpted passages and then the book trailer (sorry for the poor formatting--I don't know how to make it smaller).  I read this book in ARC form, but it was published this week by Knopf. Seriously, will you please just read this?

"Bangley never drank because it was part of his Code. I'm not sure if he thought of himself as a soldier or even a warrior, but he was a Survivor with a capital S. All the other, what he had been in the rigors of his youth, I think he thought of as training for something more elemental and more pure. He had been waiting for the End all his life. If he drank before he didn't drink now he didn't do anything that wasn't aimed at surviving. I think if he somehow died of something that he didn't deem a legitimate Natural Cause, and if he had a moment of reflection before the dark, he would be less disappointed with his life being over than with losing the game. With not taking care of the details. With being outsmarted by death, or worse, some other holocaust hardened mendicant (70)."

"I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives....It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beauty was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace (67)."

"Jasper used to be able to jump up into the cockpit now he can't. In the fourth year we had an argument. i took out the front passenger seat for weight and cargo and put down a flannel sleeping bag with a pattern of a man shooting a pheasant over and over, his dog on three legs, pointing out in front...I carried him. Lay him on the pattern of the man and the dog.

You and me in another life I tell him....

He's getting old. I don't count the years. I don't multiply by seven.

They breed dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn't they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man (23, 24, 25)."

Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is a selection for the Odyssey Bookshop's signed First Editions Club.  He'll be reading at our store on Friday, September 28, and we couldn't be more excited!


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls

While the emotional content of this book is trademark Bohjalian, the writer takes on a new depth and historical perspective in Sandcastle Girls that is not usually present in his more formulaic novels. Unsurprising, since this novel is the first that delves into his own history.

The little I knew about Turkish-Armenian relations came from working at a used bookstore, where a customer of mine bought up everything he could on Armenia. Occasionally he would toss out historical facts but eventually I learned it was a topic he didn't want to fully engage in, so it was fascinating to read this book as a first attempt to fill in some of the historical blanks. 

(Incidentally, this is the third novel of genocide I've read this year: Rwandan, Cambodian, and now this one, which I guess means my taste run to the dark side, at least when it comes to historical fiction. It also happens to be the fourth novel in a row that I've picked up that features a Muslim/Christian conflict, so it's interesting to me to see these unconscious reading patterns of mine.)

The novel has two main time frames. One is a contemporary, middle-aged first person narrator named Laura living in NY who investigates her Armenian roots and reminisces about her childhood. The other is a third person narration that begins in Aleppo, Syria, in 1915, mostly following Laura's paternal grandparents Armen, an Armenian engineer who has survived the Turks' first onslaught against his people, and Elizabeth, a Bostonian blueblood who has traveled to Syria with her father to give aid and succour to the refugees. Occasionally the narration darts over to Nevart, a widowed refugee, and to Hatoun, an orphan who has witnessed such unspeakable atrocities against her family that she has become practically mute herself, as well as other, more minor characters.

War casualties are awful things and this novel's World War I setting proves no exception, but it's particularly difficult to read of the crimes perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire against some of its own civilians, and the twisted logic and false rhetoric they use to justify their actions is simply appalling.

I can't possibly pretend to know or understand the centuries-old history between the Turks and the Armenians, or how the Ottoman Empire selected the Armenians for extermination over all of the other peoples under its sway. But there is a portion of this novel presented as fact, and if it's true, then it's utterly galling, and I will excerpt some of it here:

"If you visit Ankara or Istanbul today, you will find streets and school named after Talat Pasha ["the real visionary" behind the Armenian genocide]....In other words, the nation that found Talat Pasha guilty of attempting to wipe out a race of people later named concourses after him.
   How is that possible? Because, to much of the nation--though, thankfully, not all--that genocide never happened. Even now, labelilng the slaughter of 1915 "genocide" can land a Turkish citizen in jail and get a Turkish Armenian journalist killed (179)."

If that is true (and Bohjalian did not footnote it or document it, so I don't know), then it really blows my mind.  It's impossible to imagine the German citizens of today wanting to glorify Adolf Hitler in a parallel manner, renaming any of the schools or thoroughfares for him. How is it possible that the citizens of Turkey are, as a nation, able to do so?

Chris was at the Odyssey last night to do a reading and presentation from The Sandcastle Girls, and he's as fine a speaker as any who have passed through this store.  If you missed it, let us know and we can reserve a signed copy for you!


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

It's Emerald Torrington's birthday and she's planning a lovely party for herself, her family, and some intimate friends, when nearby tragedy strikes: there's been a railway accident and Emerald's home, Sterne, must give shelter to a couple dozen of the third-class carriage survivors, as it's the closest country estate, and "needs must," as they say. Meanwhile, her one-armed stepfather has driven to town to try to save the estate, the neighboring tenant farmer may or may not be wooing her, her surly and spoiled brother has made an inappropriate friend, one of the maids has called in sick, and her younger sister is gripped with the urge to sketch her pony in charcoal on her nursery wall, in situ. What could possibly go awry?

This book started off with a bang: think Downton Abbey with an overlay of more overt humor, reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse.  Or, if you prefer your pop cultural references to take a more cinematic turn, the whole story reminded me much of the wayside travelers in the movie Clue, the ones who happen upon the great house seeking shelter from the dark & stormy night. Then things take a decidedly strange turn, and (spoiler alert--highlight the next line with your cursor to make it easily readable)   lo, it turns out that my instincts that screamed ZOMBIE! were not entirely off.  That's all I'm saying now, because nothing else I've read about the book prepared me for that aspect of it, and heaven forbid that I ruin things for another reader. 

It is funny, and it is bizarre, and by the time you come to the end, like any good English period drama, nobody is saying what they mean, much less acknowledging all of the things that went bump in the night.

Here's a fairly representative humourous scene from the beginning of the book, where Emerald's mother and the housekeeper are discussing one of their dinner guests. I'm sure you can guess which one is the self-serving and generally useless mother and which is the servant from the dialogue:

'Oh, I see. A scientist." This last was said in tones of dreary condemnation.
'With red hair.'
'Lord, yes. And a squint.'
'That's the fellow -- spectacles.'
'Hardly his fault.'
'You might say that, Florence, but although many may need them, only a certain type of person wears them. I prefer a passionate, squinting man than one who corrects his sight with wiry little spectacles and is in command of himself.'


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An amazing read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I first heard of Rachel Joyce's debut novel a few months ago--folks on Goodreads were talking it up, and so was my Random House sales rep.  Then, in early June at BEA, it had earned one of the coveted spots on the Editors' Book Buzz panel, where I was lucky enough to snag a copy of it.  I had a hunch that it would make its way into my suitcase for vacation reading, and test-driving the first chapter proved that hunch correct. As it turns out, it provided me one of the most enjoyable vacation reads I've ever had!

Over breakfast one day, recently retired pub man Harold Fry receives a letter informing him that his old friend and colleague, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer. He struggles to write a response, without knowing quite what to say, and he walks out of the house to post it at the closest letterbox.  The thing is, when he reaches it, he thinks he can come up with a better response, so he keeps walking to the next letterbox. Then the next one. Then the next one.  Once he recovers from his reverie, of what to write, he realizes he's walked out of the village.

Stopping at a petrol station, a chance encounter with a young employee there convinces him that really, the best way to do this thing is to deliver the message to Queenie in person, no matter that Harold isn't a walker, he's not in very good shape or wearing appropriate shoes for the endeavor, that Queenie is over 500 miles away, or that Harold's wife, Maureen, might have something to say about his decision. Instead of turning homeward to retrieve suitable items for such a journey (oh, you know, things like maps, water, his mobile, and a sense of direction), he calls his wife from the station to announce his intentions and heads out in a direction that he hopes is northerly.

Along his journey, Harold finds support and succor in the unlikeliest of people, and before long his pilgrimage attracts nationwide attention and more than a few hangers-on.  As he learns to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what the terrain or the state of his poor, blistered appendages, he has plenty of time to meditate on his life, his marriage, his son, his friendship with Queenie, and how he's mostly made a muck of things. At home, Maureen undergoes similar bouts of introspection, and discovers, much to her surprise, that one by one, she has gradually revoked a lifetime of recriminations towards Harold.

This is a book that has so many funny things on the surface that it might be easy to miss the emotional depth and universal human insights that it provides.  While I definitely laughed out loud while reading of the hapless Harold's exploits, more than once was I moved to tears by the wave of humanity that Joyce readily taps into.  Most of the reviews I've read of this book compare it to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and while I can see that to a certain degree, I think the more appropriate comp is The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, where the whimsy of that peculiar ensemble of characters is matched only by the poignancy the story ultimately delivers. I also love that it's a book whose main characters are all of retirement age: there seem so few really good books who feature that demographic that it always stands out when I encounter it.

To say more would spoil the sense of anticipation that I'd want any reader to have when embarking on this novel, so instead I'll just share a few passages that resonated with me as I read.  But please: do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book to read asap! The book releases in the US today, and you can come by the store to pick one up, or call/email/visit our website to order one.

"The kindness of the woman with food came back to him, and that of Martina. They had offered him comfort and shelter, even when he was afraid of taking them, and in accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility."

"He wished the man would honor the true meanings of words, instead of using them as ammunition."

"He wished no one had mentioned religion. He didn't object to other people believing in God, but it was like being in a place where everyone knew a set of rules and he didn't. After all, he had tried it once and found no relief. And now the two kind ladies were talking about Buddhists and world peace and he was nothing to do with those things. He was a retired man who had set out with a letter."


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book Review: Chris Cleave's Gold

Do you love Little Bee?  Literary fiction? Watching the Olympics?  Then boy, oh, boy--have I got a book for you! Chris Cleave returns to the bookworld with another fantastic novel. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, world-class athletes who have been friends and rivals since their first day of Elite training. They've loved, fought, betrayed, forgiven, consoled, gloried, and grown up together. Now on the eve of London 2012, their last Olympics, both women will be tested to their physical and emotional limits. They must confront each other and their own mortality to decide, when lives are at stake: What would you sacrifice for the people you love, if it meant giving up the thing that was most important to you in the world?

I thought the writing in Gold is his best so far--I've got so many dog-eared pages and I shared so many passages out loud with my husband and my extended family that my ARC is starting to look a little ragged.  I had the chance to meet Chris Cleave at dinner at Winter Institute in New Orleans, back in January of this year.  He is one of the sweetest and most delightful writers I've ever met.  And he also happens to write children better than just about any author I can think of--his character Sophie, a little girl battling with leukemia, will absolutely break your heart in this book!

Here are some of the passages I marked:

On watching her competitor on television: "Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race like this, the way a widow's exhausted heart must still leap at a photo of her dead lover."

On a sick child's trying to read the mood of her mother in a Star Wars costume: "This was the thing with Stormtroopers: they only showed the multipurpose expression molded into the face plates of their helmets--a hard-wearing, wipe-clean semimournful expression equally appropriate for learning that one's souffle, or one's empire, had fallen."

On describing a falling out between friends: "In the weeks that followed, Zoe had been incandescent with remorse. That was how it had seemed to Kate--that her friend had actually flickered with a pale and anxious light that sought to expel the shadows cast by her behavior."

On the nature of time in a modern world: "Time had been restructured like bad debt. The long languid hour had been atomized. Manifestos were shrunk to memes and speeches were pressed into sound bites [sic]..."

If you would like to meet Chris Cleave in person, please come to the Odyssey on Tuesday night, 10 July, at 7:00 pm for a reading from Gold, followed by a booksigning.  For full details, please click here.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

I am so excited to tell you about a book that debuted this week!  Jess Walter's new book, Beautiful Ruins,  is well-beloved by many Odyssey staffers, and in fact he will be at the store later this month to do a reading and sign books for our First Editions Club

I read this book so long ago now that I'm not sure I can give it a coherent review, so maybe I'll just say nice things about it instead.  I plucked it from a tall pile of teetering ARCs back in January, when it still felt like winter might be in front of us and I was craving something to take me away.  In those terms, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is much better than Calgon. 

As it turns out, there was no winter in front of us after all, but that doesn't mean I didn't deeply appreciate the sojourns in warm, sunny coastal Italy.  I have to say, I loved this book against all odds: I loathe am not a fan of using multiple narrators to tell a story; it's done entirely too often and rarely done well.  Walter not only uses multiple narrators, he also uses multiple timelines and multiple media in this novel.  We get 1960s Italy, 1980s UK, and contemporary Hollywood; a decrepit hotelier, skeazy film producer,  Hollywood starlet, frustrated assistant, ambitious playwright, and a no-count musician; straightforward third-person narratives interspersed with excerpts from a screenplay (Donner! I kid you not), a rejected memoir, and an autobiographical 3-act play. The catch is that he does it inventively and seamlessly and in a way that evokes a fresh sense of story, and not in a way that is lazy or gimmicky.

Gosh, where do I even begin?  Given all of those disparate elements, it's almost impossible to summarize this novel, and almost as difficult for me to believe that I loved it, but love it I did.  The unlikely pairings of multiple narrative styles with multiple timelines works brilliantly and I salute Walter for it.  I would even go so far as to say that he has set the bar impossibly high for other authors follow. The jacket design is perfect for this book, with the inviting image of a Portofino-like town mingled with a retro-looking typeface.  Once I picked up this book, I could hardly tear myself away from it, so much did I long to immerse myself in this world. I'm almost sad that I've read it already and don't have it to look forward to, because this book would make the perfect summer read.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway--its true religion? Wasn't the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches featured ten thousand sects with a billion sermons--but the same movie showed in every mall in the country. And we all saw it...flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but religion (21)?
The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touchups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell facial injections that have caused a seventy-two-year old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl (93).
But aren't all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos--we know what's out there. It's what isn't that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short card rides and regional jet lags--four states and twelve-hundred miles traversed in an afternoon--but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant--sail for Asia and stumble on America--and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along (284).
So if you're looking for a fantastically-good summer read that will whisk you away from your daily grind, or if you're interested in the structure of fiction and how authors play around with it, do yourself a favor and check out Beautiful Ruins.   The author, whom I got to meet in Boston a couple of months ago at a Harper dinner, is also a real sweetheart of a fella.  Thank goodness I met him then because I'll miss his reading later this month when I'm away on vacation.  But trust me on this one--this is a book you're going to want to read, written by an author you're going to want to meet.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Book Summary: Told over the course of a single day--specifically Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, as the Dallas Cowboys take the field--Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the story of Bravo Squad, eight survivors of a ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents, whose bravery and and valor have made them national heroes. In the final hours of their Pentagon-sponsored "Victory Tour," Bravo's Silver Star-winning hero, nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, will confront hard truths about love and death, family and friendship, war and politics, duty and honor.

This is one of the best books I've read all year, and one that I'd say is a real contender for 2013's round of major literary awards. The writing is terrific, and I feel that in addition to being a fresh and edgy book, this may be an important one. So far it's the only one I've read coming out of the Iraq War that subsumes itself in neither action sequences nor in an overwrought family or romantic drama. Instead it seems to be just as much about the concept of war itself as the politics behind it and how America feels about it. (Though given the book takes place mostly in Texas, especially Dallas, we're not really given a look at the dissenters' side of things.) 

Billy Lynn is a fascinating character, a boy thrust into the army (in lieu of doing hard time) after taking a crowbar to his sister's ex-fiance's car for gallant but misguided reasons. He's a thoughtful young man, fully aware that the labels of "hero" mean nothing when one's actions are guided neither by bravery nor fear, but are simply reactionary to any given situation, including Bravo's famous firefight with the Iraqi insurgents: one day you're the hero and the next day you're cowering under your humvee and refusing to come out. His thoughts are never far away from his imminent return to Iraq, nor from his buddy, Shroom, who died the day Billy was labeled a hero.

Ben Fountain's novel is also the first book coming out of the Iraq War (that I've read, at least) that seems willing to say that war is, more than anything else, a commercial enterprise. It's difficult not to draw these parallels about the US's involvement in Iraq with, say, the Dallas Cowboys franchise and the oil-steeped politics of the state in which the book is largely set, or the larger-than-life characters we meet, such as the Dallas Cowboys' owner or the man who spends the book negotiating a movie deal for Bravo. War as commercially motivated enterprise, not a political one, isn't a new concept per se, but it goes a long way in increasing this particular reader's distaste for it, because if it's really not about oil, really not about protecting our interests, and really not about freeing a people from their dictator's rule, then it's really not something I can ever understand, or wish to, for that matter. What's more, Fountain seems to be suggesting that, despite whether they're for or against the Iraq War, that most Americans only monitor it from the comfort of their living sofas, and thus we have an enterprise reduced to entertainment television.

Karl Marlantes blurbs this book, and he's not a writer whose opinion I take lightly, especially when it comes to the topic of war. He calls it "the Catch-22 of the Iraq war," and with a comment like that, I'm not sure that there's anything more to add.  I'll just conclude with some passages that resonated with me as I read it:

"So they lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches, the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and the horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random. How that shit does work on your mind (26-27)."

"Those people [movie studios, producers, etc], the kind of bubble they live in? It's a major tragedy in their lives if their Asian manicurist takes the day off. For those people to be passing judgment on the validity of your experience is just wrong, it goes beyond wrong, it's ethics porn. They aren't capable of fathoming what you guys did (57)."

I love this moment between Billy and his sister Kathryn, re: their father:
" 'He's an asshole,' Kathryn said. 
To which Billy: 'You just now figured that out?' 
'Shut up. What I mean is he likes being an asshole, he enjoys it. Some people you get the feeling that can't help it? But he works at it. He's what you'd call a proactive asshole' (75)."

Billy with his nephew on leave:
"Based on his highly limited experience with small children, Billy had always regarded the pre-K set as creatures on the level of not-very-interesting pets, thus he was unprepared for the phenomenal variety of his little nephew's play. Whatever came to hand, the kid devised some form of interaction with it. Flowers, pet and sniff. Dirt, dig. Cyclone fence, rattle and climb. Squirrels, harass with feebly launched sticks. 'Why?' he kept asking in his sweetly belling voice, as pure as marbles swirled around a crystal pail. Why? Why? Why? And Billy answering every question to the best of his ability, as if anything less would disrespect the deep and maybe even divine force that drove his little nephew toward universal knowledge...So is this what they mean by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and grusome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that--there's real power when words attach to actual things. Made him want to sit right down and weep, as powerful as that. He got it, yes he did, and when he came home for good he'd have to meditate on this, but for now it was best to compartmentalize, as they said, or even better not to mentalize at all (82-83)."

The reader never gets the full picture of exactly what happens to earn the Bravo Squad their Victory Tour back home, but here is one of Billy's ruminations on it: "All your soldier life you dream of such a moment and every Joe with a weapon got a piece of it, a perfect storm of massing fire and how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests, sights not to be believed and never forgotten and your mind simply will not leave it alone. Oh my people. Mercy was not a selection, period. Only later did the concept of mercy even occur to Billy, and then only in the context of its absence in that place, a foreclosing of options that reached so far back in history that quite possibly mercy had not been an option there since before all those on the battlefield were born (125)."

Read this book.  Seriously, just read it. And if you don't want to take my word for it, check out this superlative review from The New York Times earlier this week.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the Odyssey Bookshop's May selection for its First Editions Club. Ben Fountain will be reading at the store tonight, May 11, at 7:00 pm. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: Comeback Love

I just love the publication story of  Comeback Love by Peter Golden.  I was talking with John Muse, my sales rep from Simon & Schuster a couple of weeks ago about this book, which he "discovered" as a self-published book from the Book House in Albany. They're a wonderful indie bookstore with their own Espresso Book Machine and they offer publication possibilities for local authors. John was so impressed with the book that he pitched it to his own company, who eventually bought the rights to it, and Washington Square Press published it about one month ago. I love publishing success stories like that, and when I personally know any of the players involved it makes it even better.

Gordon and Glenna had an amazing love affair at the close of the 1960s, but their relationship was no match for Gordon's financial insecurities and Glenna's personal ones.  The political verve that marked those years also marked the beginning of the end of their love, with Vietnam pinning them in on one side and Glenna's illegal abortion activities hemming them in on the other.  Still, Glenna and Gordon never forgot each other, but when decades later Gordon decides to look her up again, the temptation to settle back into the same old patterns is strong.

I thought this was a very readable and pleasant story of first love and love renewed.  I'm almost exactly midway between the ages the characters are at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and it was interesting to me to feel similar levels of sympathy toward the younger and older selves of the couple. I wouldn't exactly say that this book changed my life, but it did encourage my mind to wander paths of nostalgia while I was reading. It even prompted me to dream about my own first love (cheers, M, wherever you are!), which I suppose is a testament the story and the power of memory.

This would make a good book club discussion book, particularly if the readers are closer in age to the older Gordon and Glenna.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Picture books starring dogs

We've received a number of picture books about dogs this spring. I don't know why, but they're all fun (or funny). Here are some highlights:

Lucy Rescued by Harriet Ziefert illustrated by Barroux

Odd Dog by Claudia Boldt

Ladybug Girl and Bingo by David Soman and Jacky Davis (there's also an adorable Bingo plush!)

Lucky and Squash by Jeanne Birdsall, illustrated by Jane Dyer
This book is a collaboration between a local author and illustrator (both based in Northampton). The starring roles are played by Jeanne's and Jane's dogs- who are best friends in real life!

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich
Nieves and I loved the first book starring Zorro and Mister Bud. Their antics are hysterical- especially when Zorro gets a superhero costume!

Silly Doggy by Adam Stower

This book isn't quite about a dog...but the protagonist certainly thinks the pet she's found is a dog!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful

I admit up front that I was not a huge fan of Robert Goolrick's previous novel The Reliable Wife, so I was a little reluctant to pick up his new one called Heading Out to Wonderful.  Luckily I had a little prompting from Craig "Call me Peaches" Popelars at Algonquin, who told me that he thought I'd love it. As usual, he was right. Damn his eyes.

If you read enough books or watch enough movies, after a while you develop certain expectations built into certain plot points. Thus, in chapter one when a mysterious drifter rolls into a small Southern town with nothing but his truck and two suitcases, and when those two suitcases are filled with nothing but cash and a set of the sharpest butcher knives anyone has ever seen, you know that by the last chapter there's no way that everything can end well.  Just a fact of fictional life.

That's essentially what happens in Goolrick's book, but he does stand certain of the reader's expectations on their heads, and that's what makes for an intense but heartfelt read.  You know something bad is going to happen, but it's not precisely clear at first just what path the badness is going to take: will somebody end up butchered & barbecued, a la Fried Green Tomatoes? Will the evil spring from the handsome stranger, or will it be exacted upon him by the small, xenophobic town? Is the handsome stranger's intense relationship with the young boy more insidious than it appears on the surface or is it completely innocent?

Add in a curious five year-old narrator, a small town full of busybodies, a racial divide, old time religion, a near-death resuscitation, and a man who's so rich and so mean, he has to buy himself a pretty young mountain girl for a wife, and you've got the makings of a pretty great story. 

The opening paragraphs are some of the best meditations on memory that I have ever read. The book is narrated by Sam, who is an old man looking back on what happened when the drifter came to town and his family took him in:

The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that. Of course, there are things that actually, certifiably happened, things where you can pinpoint the day, the hour, and the minute. When you think about it, though, those things mostly seem to happen to other people.

This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I'm going to tell it to you.  It's a true story, as much as six decades of remembering and telling can allow it to be true. Time changes things, and you don't always get everything right. You remember a little thing clear as a bell...while other things, big things even, come completely disconnected and no longer have any shape or sound. The little things seem more real than some of the big things....I'm  not young any more, so sometimes I can't tell what things are the things I remember and what things are just things that other people told me They tell me things I did, and a lot of them I don't remember, but most people around here aren't liars, so I just go on and believe them, until it seems that I actually do remember the things they say.

This is not exactly a Southern gothic tale, though  it has elements of that.  Mostly it's the story of quiet people after the war, who are on the cusp of modernity and who know their simple, seemingly charmed way of life won't last forever.  It's the story of otherwise good people who choose to let evil into their hearts, and the blinding love of a small boy for a man he calls Beebo, who instinctively knows something about protection but is too innocent to understand what happens around him. I highly recommend it. I've already passed my reading copy on to my husband and he's barely spoken to me since--that's how involved he is with it. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kids Gardening Books

It's time to go outside and dig in the dirt. Most kids are good at digging. As a kid I definitely dug a monster trap and a moat around the playhouse. But now it's time to dig in the garden. There are many beautiful gardening books for adults, but what about your little helper? Here are some beautiful and educational children's books about gardening.

For the very little ones:
Counting in the Garden written by Emily Hruby, illustrated by Patrick Hruby
This board book has over 50 pages (making it very long for a board book) and features colorful, graphic illustrations. One little boy counts the living things he finds growing in his garden, from thistles that grew by accident to strawberries to earthworms.

In the Garden written by Elizabeth Spurr, illustrated by Manelle Oliphant
In this board book, one child shovels, hoes, weeds, plants seeds, waters, and waits for things to grow. If you want to introduce a child to the work that must happen to have a beautiful garden, this is the book for you.

A little classic: 
The Carrot Seed written by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson
A little boy plants a seed. He waters and weeds and waits. Everyone tells him that nothing will grow, but the boy knows better...

For slightly older children:
Our School Garden written by Rick Swann, illustrated by Christy Hale
Poems and interesting facts all centered around a school garden.

Isabella's Garden written by Glenda Millard, illustrated by Rebecca Cool
A remixed "This is the House the Jack Built" with bright illustrations.

Plant a Little Seed
by Bonnie Christensen

Marika's favorite:
Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and Food Webs in Our Backyard written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeild, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont
Not just the story of two children and their family garden, this book also contains information about composting, leaf identification, food chains, food webs (and how to draw your own), examples of herbivore and carnivore bugs, and much more. The additional information is presented by the two chickens that live in the garden. This information is printed in a different font, so you can choose to read the children's story or all the extras, depending on the age of your audience. Perfect for classrooms, families with multiple kids, or homeschoolers, this is a book that will serve a child well as he or she grows.

Do you have any gardening favorites you'd like to share?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

World Book Night: Before and After

If you're reading this blog post, there's a good chance you've already heard from us, or another bookseller, or another bookish source, about World Book Night.  Just in case you're new to this bandwagon, here's a short recap: It started in the UK last year as a means of increasing awareness and enthusiasm for literature.  This year it hit our American shores and a big ol' committee chose 30 titles with widespread appeal for teens and adults and then printed up a bazillion of them for readers to give away FOR FREE.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Free books to give away to people who do not identify themselves as readers.  Some book givers went to non-profits, prisons, or after school programs, while others selected a street corner in their hometown and let the people come to them.  It all happened on Monday, 23 April, which happens to be the birthday of Cervantes and the birthday and deathday of Shakespeare!

On Saturday we hosted a reception for the 25 book givers who selected The Odyssey Bookshop as their distribution center, and we asked the ever-lovely Carlene to cater the reception for us.  She pulled out all the stops, creating four different pastries, one of which even dates back to Shakespearean times, and we all enjoyed her warm-weather version of high tea with an iced raspberry zinger lemon tea and sprigs of fresh mint!
Carlene's amazing treats!
I signed up as a book giver the morning I first heard about World Book Night, and I selected a YA novel called Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson as my title to share with others.  Like all of Anderson's books, it's a powerful and sensitively told story that realistically depicts teen situations without ever talking down to them. For my location, I chose Girls, Inc.of Holyoke, MA, where my part-time co-worker, Sarah, works as her day job. She and I both signed up to give books away to their teen program, and Odyssey co-owner Joan Grenier also went with me to share one of her favorite books.  When we asked for a show of hands for how many of the girls in the room loved reading, only a few went up, but there were lots of squeals of excitement when we actually started distributing the books to the girls. I even overheard a small group of them trying to decide which book they were all going to start that night so that they could read it together. Now that is what World Book Night is all about!
Girls Inc.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Holy Pulitzer, Batman!

Yesterday was an important day in American letters.  You see, it was the day the Pulitzer Prizes were announced.  For everything except fiction, that is. You know, the division that more readers care about than any other.  No biggie.

What's the deal, Pulitzer Committee People? While the official word is that the committee couldn't reach consensus, the rumors started flying right away yesterday that the committee didn't think any book was worthy of the prize. That's not the kind of elitist publicity anybody wants. (And of course, by "anybody" I mean me...and readers & booksellers who agree with me.)

Seriously, though.  What gives?  I understand that it's hard to reach consensus when three (and I probably ought not to get started on why there were only three titles short listed) books are so vastly different.  But yoo-hoo, Pulitzer Committee People? You're the ones who created the short list to begin with.  The decision was only as difficult as you made it for yourselves. I imagine there's also a lot of pressure to make the "right" decision as literary tastemakers, establishing one book above all others as being worthy of our posterity.

Which, in my view, is all the more reason to actually make a decision.  Nobody else in the real world can get by with just withholding the award when the decision-making process is too preciously difficult.  Why can they?

I don't happen to agree with the three finalists that the committee picked, but that's neither here nor there.  I would have preferred to see Teju Cole's Open City win this prize, as to my mind, it was the finest book "dealing with American life" published last year.

What about you?  What are your thoughts on the omission this year for the fiction prize? What do you wish would have won?


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

So, this is Tuesday, which means Day-of-Awesome-Book-Releases, and today I want to mention a book that both Marika and I have read.  It's called Grave Mercy, written by Robin LaFevers, which is the first book in the His Fair Assassin series. Marika was lucky enough to get a manuscript direct from the publisher, while I had to content myself with a plain bound galley given away at the New England Independent Booksellers Association last fall.  No matter, because the tagline is so groovy that I knew that I would have to read it right away: Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf? Why, indeed.

It's a rollicking good read, set in 15th century Brittany.  Ismae, marked from birth as the devil's child, passes from the hands of an abusive father to those of an abusive husband without so much as a by-your-leave, but a mysterious person comes to her rescue that eventually leads to convent of St. Mortain, one of the old gods of yore. There Ismae learns the dark arts and becomes assassin and handmaiden to Death himself.  Yeah, that's right.  Did I mention the part where I said it was rollicking? And outrageously fun?  And sinfully distracting from any real world problems you might be experiencing?

But you know the best part?  Marika read the manuscript so early and liked the book so much that her blurb is featured on the back of the dust jacket!  She says, "A romance full of intrigue, poison, and ultimately finding one's way, His Fair Assassin will be a trilogy readers of all ages will gobble up."

Because the Odyssey loves this book so much the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has given us t-shirts and buttons to give away to everybody who purchases a copy of Grave Mercy, while supplies last.  The red tees and the white buttons both feature the tagline, Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?


Friday, March 9, 2012

Not Your Father's Nonfiction

Here are a pair of brand-new nonfiction books that I've read recently and recommend; I mostly read fiction, and when I do delve into the nonfiction world it's usually of the narrative variety, but these two are outside my usual reading realm. That being said, they were both absolutely fascinating!

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.  This book is endlessly fascinating!  I had no idea until I read The Lifespan of a Fact exactly what happens behind the scenes of any responsibly published nonfiction piece. This book was born out of an article by John D'Agata that had a few too many factual inaccuracies to get published by mainstream periodicals. Enter Believer magazine, who was willing to publish the article as long as they could determine where facts left off and fiction began. They put their staff fact checker Jim Fingal on the job, and some years later, the article was finally published. Now Norton has published this wonderful behind-the-scenes book, with D'Agata's article intact, printed in black, and surrounded by the fact checking correspondence, much of which is printed in maroon.  It’s clear to me after reading this book that the unnamed fact checkers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world, no matter where we draw the line between journalism and creative nonfiction, and I’ll never take them for granted again. Take a look at this book that is both intriguing to read and a beauty to behold. 

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.  I was surprised upon picking up this book to see how much our lives are defined by story: there are the expected books of course, but also tv, movies, jokes, commercials, lies, gathering ‘round the water cooler, and even sports events; really, the list goes on. Gottschall delves into the fascinating evolutionary, cultural, biological, and even neurological reasons why our species is defined by our storytelling, both communal and individual.  This is by far the most compelling non-narrative nonfiction I’ve read in simply ages, and what’s more, it should be required reading for every single reader and writer out there. This book will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a few short weeks, but it's available for pre-order now through our website or by calling the store. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Terrific Tuesday: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

We've been madly busy updating our new website and selling Rachel Maddow tickets (hurry--they're almost sold out!), but I couldn't let one of my favorite spring books go unremarked on the blog today.

Wow.  Amazing. Stupendous.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  

Okay, is that enough of a review for debut novel The Song of Achilles, by classics scholar Madeline Miller?  Because I feel that anything else I say about it won't do it justice.  It's astonishing.  The writing is marvelous. The characters, like Athena from her father's head, leap fully-formed from their pages.  

All right, I'll at least try to tell you what this book is all about.  In Miller's words, from the back of the advance reading copy I read: "I had always been especially moved by Achilles, and his desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. But who was Patroclus? I searched the ancient texts for every mention of his name and discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.  I had not thought The Iliad had a love story; I was wrong."

Song of Achilles, then, is the story of Achilles and Patroclus, narrated by the latter.  It's a love story and a war story, and these twin narratives weave in and around each other to the point that they're impossible to separate. This is like no book I've read before! I never would have thought that there was any book that could both keep me up all hours to finish it AND send me straight to the bookstore to purchase a copy of The Iliad to read back-to-back with it. This book is beautifully imagined and written. Clearly the Greek classics are NOT dead, not with Madeline Miller at the helm. Brava! 

On a completely random sidenote: the character of Odysseus is *exactly* like what Remus Lupin would have been like, had he been sorted into Slytherin.  So yes, Odysseus is the amalgamation of my favorite two DADA teachers!

I raved about this book to my husband, which piqued his interest.  Then I forced suggested that he read it on vacation last week.  He did and he was a bloody mess about it.  The story engaged him to the point that he was distant over dinner conversation.  And forget about talking to him in the wake of the conclusion--he was a weeping shell of a man* over breakfast that morning!  I trust I don't really give anything away when I remind readers that Greek stories are usually tragic or comic, and that this one ain't comic, and we know what happens in tragedies. 

Now I'm off to go read Homer and his many epithets.... 

Madeline Miller will be at the Odyssey on Wednesday, March 21, at 7:00pm.  We hope to see you there!

*not that there's anything wrong with being a weeping shell of a man, or the fact that it was pretty much hard to differentiate that morning from any other day, given that weeping is actually a distinguishing feature of my gentle-souled DH. Hey--that's not a bad epithet, come to think of it!


Monday, February 13, 2012

Audio book review: Juliet by Anne Fortier

I actually borrowed this audio book from my mother, for whom I had bought it about a year ago when I saw it on the bargain table at my bookstore.  When I was visiting her over the Christmas hols I noticed that she hadn't listened to it yet, so I helped myself to it. Much as I love David Sedaris and Bill Bryson, I was growing a mite weary of re-listening to their audios on my daily commute, week in and week out.

The story turned out to be surprisingly satisfying, not least because Cassandra Campbell is a very good reader for this story.  I did think that it was a touch over-long, and if I had been reading the physical book I definitely would have skimmed over a good bit of it, but despite that, I give it a solid recommendation.

There are two storylines that eventually come together; one is a modern day young woman named Julie Jacobs, an American who travels to Siena to track down a mysterious inheritance that her mother may have died trying to protect, and the other is the story of Giulietta Tolomei, whose doomed love for Romeo Mariscotti haunted 14th-century Siena and was the inspiration for Shakespeare's famous play. I far more enjoyed the earlier storyline, with its intrigues and betrayals, than the modern one, where Julie seems a little whiny and ineffective.

Medieval curses, hidden statues, lying scoundrels, mystical rites, horse races, precious heirlooms, family feuds, the Mafia, and yes, two pairs of star-cross'd lovers, all have their roles to play, and while most readers (or listeners) won't have much trouble guessing the various plot twists, there's no denying that this is a frolicsome book.

Now, of course, I have to plan a trip to Siena to visit all of the fabulous places described in such loving detail and I've got an unanswerable hankering to delve into more books with an Italian setting.  It's been years since my one and only visit to that country and this book makes me yearn to return.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

They Don't Get Better Than This: The Fault in Our Stars

I met John Green a couple of weeks ago when he was participating on a panel for Winter Institute and was one of the big draws at the author receptions.  Up until then, I had only read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a book that he cowrote with David Levithan, and while I knew he was a beloved author, I really had no clear idea why until that time in New Orleans.  On his panel he kept talking about his horrifically tragic books, but he himself was so damn funny (and WG, WG tipped decidedly toward the funny end of the scale, not the tragic one) that it was difficult for me to feature.

I left work on Thursday with a signed copy of The Fault in Our Stars tucked under my arm, winging a comment back to my colleague Marika as I left that I was looking forward to the emotional ride. Little did I know! I was barely into Chapter One before the bed was shaking with laughter and my husband sniffed at me from over the top of his own, decidedly-less-funny book,  The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. My cats didn't seem to mind, though my sweet Murray did start licking my face when the laughter abruptly shifted to tears. I'm telling you, this book chewed up my heart and spit it back out again, but I had an absolutely Grand Time for the duration.

You know the movie Steel Magnolias?  I love that movie, not least for its eminent quotability, and one of the first lines I committed to memory was one of Dolly Parton's: "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." Well, this book is the pure-dee embodiment of that sentiment.  There were times my shoulders were a-shakin' and I'd be very hard-pressed to determine if it were more from the tears or more from the laughter, for I could suppress neither for very long.

Probably most of you who are reading this review know exactly what this book is about, but for my mom and my husband, and those of you who don't, perhaps, have your fingers on the pulse of YA publishing, here's a short summary: two teenagers meet and fall in love.  So far, so good.  But it's where they meet that shapes this book's content--at a support group for teens with cancer. The reader absolutely knows from the beginning that the book cannot end well, but that doesn't keep the reader from hanging herself with the hope rope. (Or maybe that's just me.) Augustus and Hazel wouldn't be your typical teens even without their missing or weakened body parts.  They're smart, curious, snarky, and introspective. Their cancer has taken them beyond politeness to that realm where fools are not suffered gladly and where the concept of pussyfooting around topics other (read: normal) people find uncomfortable is unfathomable.

The dialogue is exactly what dialogue should be in real life, if only we got to rehearse and make it perfect yet authentic. The pathos in the book is a fitting tribute to the title's source: nothing less venerably tragic than Shakespeare's Julius Caesar ("The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves").

There's book talk, video games, a friend who goes blind, some mild vandalism, a trip to Amsterdam, Two Very Important Venn diagrams, and an asshole of an author, and throughout it all the book boils down to narrative perfection. My two main critiques of the book have nothing to do with the content and everything to do with design: 1) the cover design is not very good, and in fact it's hard to read the text underneath the white cloud, and (2) The lovely-to-look-at typeface which is also, in fact, easy to read, is never identified.

Really, I cannot recommend this book enough.  Just read it, y'all!


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Good Books

Nathan Englander's new book, taking the iconic Raymond Carver story as an exercise in both homage and one-upmanship, debuted yesterday and already the book world is abuzz with it.  It's made all kinds of lists of books to look forward to in 2012 by People Who Matter, and we're happy to let our Odyssey customers out there know that it's really quite excellent and that it lives up to the buzz. Here is just some of the praise he has received for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank:

"Courageous and provocative. Edgy and timeless. In Englander's hands, storytelling is a transformative act. Put him alongside Singer, Carver, and Munro. Englander is, quite simply, one of the very best we have." --Colum McCann

 "Englander's new collection of stories tells the tangled truth of life in prose that, as ever, surprises the reader with its gnarled beauty . . . Certifiable masterpieces of contemporary short-story art." --Michael Chabon

"A resounding testament to the power of the short story from a master of the form. Englander's latest hooks you with the same irresistible intimacy, immediacy and deliciousness of stumbling in on a heated altercation that is absolutely none of your business; it's what great fiction is all about." --Tea Obreht

Mr. Englander will be doing a reading at the Odyssey on Tuesday, March 6th, at 7:00pm and this new collection of stories is our First Editions Club selection for that month, so come check out the book that Diana, Elli, and Emily are already enthusiastic about. We hope to see you there! Please see our website for full details.