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.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Many Covers of A Wrinkle in Time

You may have heard that this year is the 50th Anniversary of Madeleine L'Engle's science-fiction classic A Wrinkle in Time.  L'Engle received tons of rejection letters for her book which many editors thought was not a children's book.  However, since publication, it has won the Newbery and had handfuls of different covers.  Rebecca Stead's 2009 Newbery Award-winning book When You Reach Me is even an homage to L'Engle's classic.  My mother's bookshelf has three copies of this book- each with a different cover.   Check out the covers below...which did you grow up with and which are your favorites?

 This is the original cover.  If you take off the dust jacket of the hardcover 50th Anniversary edition, this is the cover you'll find underneath. 
 The most recent paperback cover.  The entire series was released with covers by the same illustrator, and they're all wonderful.  I love the texture of the prints. 

 A pulpy, sci-fi classic sort of cover.  I know my mom has one of these. 

 A cover by Peter Sis.  I think it captures a surrealistic quality in the book. 

 This cover has the feel of a classic fantasy novel . 

 A cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.  I love all their work and have the set with their covers.  I think this cover works well for both adults and children. 

 A more realistic, classically children's, cover.  My mom has a copy with this cover, but it's never been a favorite of mine. 
 I'd never seen this cover until today, and I think it paints a very happy, idealistic image at odds with what's actually inside. 
 Also a cover I'd never seen before. 
And, finally, the dust jacket for the 50th Anniversary edition.  The rings are highlighted with gold and the type is raised.  I love this cover and the original (printed on the boards beneath the dust jacket). 

What do you think?  Which covers are your favorites? 


Monday, February 6, 2012

We Are All Korean: A (borrowed) Guest Blog Post by Adam Johnson

If you've  been in the bookstore over the weekend, you probably noticed large carts full of one particular book, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, which is the Odyssey's First Editions Club selection.  We weren't quite able to get Adam to the store for a reading, much to our disappointment, but our heroic sales rep, Michael Kindness, was able to figure out a way for us to take books to the author instead.  Yay--we have signed first printings for sale now!

I met Adam at Winter Institute in New Orleans a few weeks ago and have been following media on his book since its publication in mid-January (it's *amazing* and one of those books that really stays with you).  I was delighted to see the following guest blog post at Lemuria Bookstore's blog that Adam wrote for his author appearance at that fine store, so I asked the good folks at Lemuria if we might be able to use his guest post, too.  With Lemuria's and Adam's blessing, here it is:

"We are all Korean”
Upon arriving in Pyongyang, one of our first stops was the National Museum of Korean History. It was a large museum with no one in it. To save electricity, which was quite scarce, the museum used motion sensors that turned out the lights when you left a room and flashed them on when you entered the next, so the cavernous journey was taken one flashing glimpse at a time. The first exhibit they showed me was what they claimed was an old skull fragment. It was displayed in a Plexiglas box atop a white pedestal. They informed me that the skull was 4.5 million years old and that it had been found on the shores of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. I was new to such tours, so my brain was filled with dissonance. I asked the museum docent, a middle-aged woman wearing a beautiful choson-ot, if humanity didn’t originate in Africa. “Pyongyang,” she said. I’d taken a course on human origins when I was an undergraduate, and a hazy memory came to me. I said, “So is this a skull fragment from an australopithecine?” She said, “No, Korean.” And I understood that she was a person trained to give a tour and recite prescribed information, not a scholar or curator. In North Korea, whenever evidence is lacking for something, they use a big painting or an elaborate diorama as proof. They had both on hand to explain via arrows and diagrams, how humanity had originated in Pyongyang, with the following Diaspora moving north into Asia and west into the Middle East and Europe. Finally, according to the diorama, humans populated Africa and North America. We had several minders with us, all watching my response to this new information. Finally, our tour guide concluded her lecture by informing me that the World was Korean (by which she meant North Korean) and by informing me that I was actually Korean. A friend of mine, a fellow professor on the tour with me, turned to me and said, “Did you hear, Professor Johnson? You are Korean. Do you feel suddenly Korean?”
I pat my arms and sides. “Yes,” I said, “I feel a little more Korean.”
He said, “You look a little more Korean.”
I rubbed my cheek and chin. “Yes,” I said, “I believe I’m a little more Korean.”
Our tour guide and minders all nodded, with some gravity, at my dawning realization.
So the lesson I learned in the National Museum of Korean History was that there was no irony in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
*      *     *
Adam Johnson is Associate Professor of English with emphasis in creative writing at Stanford University. A Whiting Writers’ Award winner, his fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, Paris Review, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award. 

~Emily Crowe