Tuesday, November 23, 2010

comfort reading

We all have a few books that we hold dear to our hearts. Books that we make sure to keep close at hand, but are careful not to reread too often. Books that we want to share with others, but do so almost reluctantly because we'd be devastated if we learned that others hated them.

All We Know of Love by Katie Schneider is one of my books. For some reason it just speaks to me. I happened across it at a big box book store in 2003. It's cover design is calm and beautiful, the back-cover blurb made the story sound promising so I picked it up. I loved it. I gave away my paperback and when our discount book store had them briefly, I bought out all the copies they had so I'd have more copies to share. I procured a hardcover for myself.

The image I've included in the post is Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, which is part of the Uffizi's collection and features prominently in the novel, which I've just reread because I wanted some comfort reading.


I'll admit that historically I have not always read my Chicago alumni magazine regularly, but lately I have been. The most recent issue included an article about professor John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist whose research has lately been focused on loneliness.

So often the research being done at universities seems disconnected from everyday life (at least to those not involved in the research or knowledgeable about the field), Cacioppo's research on loneliness is not.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo

University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo unveils his pioneering research on the startling effects of loneliness: a sense of isolation or social rejection disrupts not only our thinking abilities and will power but also our immune systems, and can be as damaging as obesity or smoking. A blend of biological and social science, this book demonstrates that, as individuals and as a society, we have everything to gain, and everything to lose, in how well or how poorly we manage our need for social bonds.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

I had a hard time coming up with a book to feature as the book of the month for the student services blog this month. Because I used The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa last month (see post) I couldn't justify fiction for November. I had two books checked out because they sounded interesting (one was a comparative cultural history of dreams, another about women in the Middle East), but when I started reading them I found them less than compelling. The newer nonfiction titles I thought would be perfect (like The Emperor of All Maladies) weren't (yet) part of the libraries' collections.

I had another idea. I wanted to feature The Book of Beginnings and Endings, but I couldn't find the book on the shelf. Now I can't recall how I came across The Book of Beginnings and Endings, but the description I read somewhere was compelling enough to make me dig around in the stacks on numerous occasions over the course of the month searching all the logical places the book could have been misfiled. Eventually I admitted defeat and brought a print-out of the book's catalog record over to those more familiar with the collection than myself. Guess what? The book was in the stacks on the shelf where it belonged, it had just slipped behind the other books housed on the shelf.

The Book of Beginnings and Endings: Essays
by Jenny Boully

Poet and essayist Jenny Boully is known for her eloquent and innovative writing. Her 2002 The Body: An Essay, for example, consists only of footnotes, leaving the body of the text to the reader's imagination.

The Book of Beginnings and Endings is compromised of twenty-six essays. Each is two pages long: the first page is a beginning and the second, an ending (the final page of the narrative), the middle (the bulk of the text), left out. The beginnings, however, don't always seem to match the endings leaving the reader to wonder whether they are the first and last pages of two different works.

This all sounds quite complicated, but in practice it is both strange and beautiful much like the image on the book's cover (a photograph of White Cabinet and White Table a sculpture by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, held by MoMA). While the book can be seen as an author's exploration of form and of what it means for something to be complete, reading The Book of Beginnings and Endings is a very personal experience. The beginnings and endings highlight the missing middles and the reader doesn't interpret the text so much as imagine it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bitter is the New Black

Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

The book's subtitle--Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office--should give any potential reader at least a taste of what the narrative will be like. Lancaster's books always seem to have these crazy subtitles that are very her (as they say).

Bitter is the New Black was the November selection for the library book club. It's Lancaster's first book, a memoir about being laid off from her cushy sales job and how the experience changed her life. One of the things she does under her unemployment is start a blog. That blog, which no longer exists, kept her from getting at least one of the jobs she applied for, but it eventually led to finding a literary agent and publishing Bitter is the New Black. (her current blog is Jennsylvania)

Lancaster is very smart and very snarky. She has no illusions about herself and is very open about her various faults. At the beginning of Bitter is the New Black (before her layoff) I wasn't sure I was going to like Lancaster because her overcritical overconfidence really turned me off (more than her fashion obsession or her attitude toward money). Over the course of the book, though, she becomes much more sympathetic because she mellows (the wind was definitely knocked out of her sails) and we as readers get to know her better.

Everyone seemed to like the book even though a couple of us didn't manage to finish it in time for the meeting. We all agreed that Lancaster's boyfriend-turned-husband is a saint for putting up with her (one of the times that I appreciated Lancaster's excess of chutzpah was when she wouldn't take no for an answer when Fletch needed something). We also found her trip to the convention center to pick up a friend's registration packet for the Chicago marathon to be the most revealing episode recounted in the book.

It seems to me that this book should be getting a lot of attention right now with so many people struggling with unemployment. Even though readers may not always be able to relate to Lancaster, Bitter is the New Black is a good reminder that others have gone and are going through the same situation.

I have a copy of her third book, Such a Pretty Fat (One Narcissist's Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big, or Why Pie Is Not the Answer), and I plan to read it sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

inspired to read Agatha

I have to admit that I haven't read much of Agatha Christie's work. I know I've read Murder on the Orient Express and that I've listened to a few others on audio, but I really haven't made a dent. She was quite prolific after all.

While driving today I heard an interview with actor David Suchet on Talk of the Nation (NPR). Suchet has played Agatha Christie's most famous sleuth, the eccentric Hercule Poirot, in the aptly named British television series Agatha Christie's Poirot since 1989. Hearing Suchet talk about Poirot and the challenges inherent in bringing the character to life made me want to read more of Christie's work.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Doctor

Book Doctor by Esther Cohen

Arlette Rosen is the titular character of Book Doctor. As a book doctor, she is part psychologist and part editor, helping her clients put their ideas onto the page and reigning in unruly manuscripts. On the subject of fees, Arlette is quite philosophical:
My fees, first of all, are yours. I receive what you get per hour. [...] I am providing a service that is hard to evaluate financially [...] What is a novel worth? One dollar? One million dollars? Somewhere in between? What is it worth to you to write your novel? Fifty dollars? Three thousand? I'm afraid the way I resolve this question for myself and for my clients is to suggest that my work is equivalent in value to theirs. (28-29)
Peppered with often-eccentric inquiry letters from potential clients, Book Doctor chronicles Arlette's relationship with an unexpectedly enigmatic literary novitiate and how it changes her work and her life.

The novel's secondary protagonist is Harbinger Singh, a tax lawyer wants to write a book to compensate for the demise of his marriage. To his first meeting with Arlette, Harbinger wears a seasonably inappropriate wool suit (because he likes the color and how it plays off the color of his skin). While his occupation, choice of attire, and naïveté about how "simple" writing a book are strikes against him, the more time Arlette spends with Harbinger the more she sees his hidden depths and the more his unconventional modi operandi begin to effect her.

I like Book Doctor for the concept behind it and the author's writing, rather than for the story it tells. I didn't find the story particularly compelling nor the characters particularly sympathetic (to me, they were curious rather than relatable). I did, however, appreciate the composition and found myself making note of quotes that struck me forcefully. I shared one is in an earlier post. Here are a couple of others:
There was a time a while ago when I wrote letters all the time. [...] I stopped writing letters for a few reasons, I guess. I stopped being sure of what I wanted to say. Once I didn't have the easy material that being away provided, I really felt at a loss. (91-92)
I love to read. Love the endless stories. I like the hopefulness in stories, the romance and wariness and all the narrative past. What we remember, and how those memories become who we are. [...] 'There is no human being who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship.' For me, that's what writing really is. Any writing. (62-63)
On a side note, while reading Book Doctor I found myself wondering whether (and to what extent) it might be autobiographical.

Monday, November 15, 2010


srah at srah blah blah is giving away a copy of Sandition by Jane Austen and "another lady."

Synopsis: When Charlotte Heywood accepts an invitation to visit the newly fashionable resort of Sanditon, she is introduced to a full range of polite society, from the local reigning dowager Lady Denham and her impoverished ward Clara, to the handsome, feckless Sidney Parker and his amusing, if hypochondriacal, sisters. A heroine whose clearsighted common sense is often at war with romance, Charlotte cannot help observing around her both folly and passion in many guises. But can the levelheaded Charlotte herself resist the attractions of the heart?
Publisher comments: "Out of print for more than 20 years, this novel--an 11-chapter fragment at Austen's death completed with seamless artistry by an Austen aficionado and novelist--is a wonderful addition to Austen's beloved books."

Head over to srah blah blah to enter.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Hunger Games series

I really loved Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series so much so that it inspired me to create my first treasury list on Etsy (the image in this post is a sneak peek).

If you haven't read the series yet, I'd strongly recommend that you give the first book, Hunger Games, a try. The target audience is young adult, but I know many adults who have enjoyed the series. I'll admit that the concept sounds horrific, but trust me when I say that the books are extremely compelling. I'm going to be giving my sister (who doesn't read this blog and doesn't particularly enjoy reading books) a copy of the audio for Christmas.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Garden of Eve

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going

I read and enjoyed Going's Printz Award-winning Fat Kid Rules the World. The Garden of Eve is for a younger audience, but it is just as good. The novel deals with death and the grief of those left behind, but the issue and its take-away is incorporated so fully into the story that it never feels heavy-handed.

After the death of her mother, single-child Evie Adler is unmoored. While she loves her serious and hardworking father, she has always been closest to her loving, whimsical mother. When her father inexplicably decides to relocate the family from Michigan to New York, the family has the opportunity for a fresh start. Their new home, however, is decidedly strange. People of Beaumont stay far away from the Adler's farm and the trees in the apple orchard haven't born fruit in years. Evie meets a ghost in the cemetery next to the farm. The last owner of the farm left Evie gift, but the box only contained a seed. Though it seems strange, with this seed Evie may be able to save the farm and bring peace to her ghost.

I'll be giving one of my nieces a copy of The Garden of Eve. She's the same age as Evie and she loves to read so I'm sure she'll enjoy the book.

Friday, November 12, 2010

hiding in the bookshelves #5

When looking through one of our partially-obscured bedroom bookshelves I came across Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. With it I found Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. Not paying much attention to the cover of Mama Day, I assumed it was one of Hopkinson's novels since I remember trying to get my hands on more than one of them after reading The New Moon's Arms (see post). I simply read the synopses from the back covers of both books to decide which one I'd post about. It wasn't until I was at the computer looking up the book's online to create links for this post that I realized that Mama Day was by a different author.

I don't doubt that those who read the book descriptions posted below will wonder how I could possibly confuse the authorship, assuming these two very different novels were written by the same person. The answer is quite simple. While Hopkinson's early work is very much in the realm of science fiction, her more recent novels feel different, like southern fiction with a dash of magical realism (like, if I may be so bold, Gloria Naylor's novel). Both women have had their work described as being in the tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. So, now that I've explained that, I feel a little less silly about my mistake.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

The Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint celebrates Carnival in traditional fashion, and Tan-Tan, a young reveler, is masked as the Midnight Robber, Trinidad's answer to Robin Hood. But after her father commits a deadly crime, he flees with her to the brutal New Half Way Tree, a planet inhabited by violent human outcasts and monstrous creatures known only through folklore. Here, Tan-Tan is forced to reach into the heart of myth and become the legendary heroine herself, for only the Robber Queen's powers can save Tan-Tan from such a savage world.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

The bestselling new novel from the American Book Award-winning author is set in a world that is timeless yet indelibly authentic - the Georgia sea island of Willow Springs, where people still practice herbal medicine and honor ancestors who came over as slaves. On Willow Springs lives Mama Day, a matriarch who can call up lightning storms and see secrets in her dreams. But all of Mama Day’s powers are tested by her great-niece, Cocoa, a stubbornly emancipated woman whose life and very soul are now in danger from the island’s darker forces. Mama Day is a powerful generational saga at once tender and suspenseful, overflowing with magic and common sense.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Playing for Pizza

At my last Rochester bookcrossing meetup, I picked up two books that aren't my usual fare. I tend to collect books that fall into the categories that I like and read most, but I love variety so when I manage to procure unusual (for me) books I sometimes end up reading them right away.

I'll write about one of the books. The other book I picked up was Hold Tight by Harlan Coben. I'm not going to write anything substantive about it because I found it forgettable (thrillers shouldn't be forgettable should they?). I didn't even remember what it was about until I peeked at the synopsis when I was preparing the link for this post. I read both of these books in late September or early October.

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

While I know that Grisham has branched out, I have to admit that I associate him exclusively with the legal thriller genre. Not that legal thrillers are bad (I read a bunch of Grisham's early novels when I was a teen), but I don't find myself drawn to them. I picked up Playing for Pizza because the title, cover art, and synopsis were enough to help me get past the author's name.

Following quarterback Rick Dockery during his most successful season as a professional athlete, Playing for Pizza is the story of a delayed coming of age.

Dockery's NFL three-season career has been an unmitigated disaster. After he blows the AFC championship game for his team by throwing three interceptions in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter he is blacklisted by every single NFL team. The only team willing to take a chance on Dockery is the Panthers, the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League. Though he isn't keen on the idea, Dockery heads to Italy because he needs to get as far away from Cleveland (home of his ex-team, the Browns) as possible.

Both Parma and the Panthers are nothing like Dockery expects. Once he decides to give the country, the city, and the team a chance, his life begins to change. The longer he stays, the more he realizes what is truly important in life. He becomes more curious and less selfish and finally is able to think about what life will be like after his professional career is done.

I have to admit that I liked Playing for Pizza more than I thought I would. It's relatively short, but light and charming. As Dockery develops over the course of the novel he becomes a truly sympathetic character. And, while the novel is about football, it isn't so heavy on the jargon that it will put off readers who don't know much about the game.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

an update

I haven't been posting much lately. I've been busy and overwhelmed. I have been reading and I do have quite a few half-written posts here, there, and everywhere. I need to get back into the habit of posting regularly (even if my posts are short and imperfect) and that's my short-term goal.

To that end, I thought that I'd share a quote from Esther Cohen's The Book Doctor, which I'm reading right now:
She closed her eyes, and tried to imagine the glass contained an actual potion that could, in minutes, transform her into a chain-smoking Czechoslovakian novelist whose novels revealed a faith in love, in county, and in human kindness in the face of ever-increasing political disillusionment. Black and engaging. (127)
Love that.