Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #9 - Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell

Sorry for the late-ish post. Better late than never, yeah?
Pulitzer-Prize-winner Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a beautiful memoir of friendship and love. And while Caldwell wrote it using her memories, her happiness and heartache, the novel proves itself as a universal exploration of the way in which we build families out of those not related to us by birth - people, pets, places, things, through good times and bad. The marriage of two minds between Caldwell and Caroline Knapp, their memories together, and the grief that follows, provide essential cadences in this beautiful, melodious story of friendship and the way it makes our hearts beat. It's a quick enough read, but it will pull at the heartstrings sooner than you know. Bring tissues.


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #8 - Minor Snobs, by Daniel Amory

At 128 pages of text, and with excessively large margins, Daniel Amory’s self-published Minor Snobs seems a little short. But the fashion in which this story of friendship, dreams, and loss is told makes up for the lack of ink on the page. 

It’s the story of a summer – a group of friends, acquaintances really, recently graduated from law school; they thrive and despair in their studies for the bar. Despite what would seem an inane subject (honestly, how much can we read about a group of post-grads sitting around a coffee shop, answering practice questions about injury law and taxation??) Amory manages to take the day-to-day drama and actually make it somewhat interesting, painting a wonderfully realistic picture of Chicago in the summer. 

It’s a quick read and the disintegration of the character group seems to happen rather quickly, but that’s kind of the beauty of it – Amory manages to embrace contemporary America with all of its fast-pace twittering facebook-un-friending quirks. As one character makes the point: “‘Sometimes I think people are just going to stop hanging out one day,’ she said. ‘We’re just going to sit in a room in front of Facebook and interact on-line.’” And yet Amory also manages to perfectly grasp the chaos (read: love) in the family’s make-up celebration of Fathers’ Day. 

And while Chicago isn’t exactly where you might wish yourself while at the beach, passages like “As I watched the water sparkle in the mid-afternoon sun, it looked like it held a thousand secrets…” might be enough to change your mind and convince you to book your next trip to sunny Lake Michigan.


Monday Mailbox #14

Whoops. I slipped up, here. Sorry. I was a little busy this weekend. I would have put this off until next Monday, but since I'm reviewing one of the new books in this week's edition of Summer Sundays: Beach Reads, I figured I should take care of it now.

Minor Snobs
by Daniel Amory

This would be it. Came to me via librarything... kind of late, but better late than never. AND it's the read of a few hours, so no big loss. Look for the review on Sunday!

True Prosperity: How to Have Everything
by Yehuda Berg

Now now, no laughing...until I tell the story behind this one. 
I was at a street fair on Lexington Avenue this past Sunday, with my friend Phil. We were walking up one of the blocks and this man approaches me kind of from behind and to the left. I don't think I ever actually saw his face. Phil was to my right. So the man comes up and holds this book out in front of me, and I stop. And he says "Can I interest you in a free book?" 
Have you met me? 
Of course I said "Sure."
After I took the book and we had taken a few steps, Phil asks "So does this make you a scientologist now??"
And we laughed and laughed. 
It wasn't until Tuesday when I was rooting through the contents of my bag (thanks, melted dark chocolate reeses peanut butter cups!) that I realized it's actually about Kabbalah, not Scientology. 
Now, I'm not religious. I think religion's kind of a sham. But between the free book and the celebrity appeal, they've got a pretty good marketing scheme going. I wish them luck. Will I read this? Yes. Eventually. Not soon enough to be encouraged to attend the free seminars in August, but maybe just in time to find some inner peace the next time my sister and I have a smack-down nail-clawing hair-pulling fight. 


Review: Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, by Jonathan Yardley

These days, with the Internet so practically accessible, we rely on critics (both professional an un-) for everything from what "musical do I want to see in the spring?", to "what detergent should I use on my baby's clothes". How does the saying go-- everyone's a critic? But not everyone is Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, who has spent most of the last fifty or so years as a book critic, author, columnist and teacher, and who has, in that time, read more books multiple times than most adults can claim in an entire lifetime. And it is with that literary experience that he established his "Second Reading" column in the Washington Post, now in collected form, care of Europa Editions.

This is a book to be taken on lightly. As earnestly as you may wish to plough through it, beginning to end may not be the best course. This is 360 pages of one person's opinion of many topics, and may easily alienate a reader if read straight-through. Keeping that in mind, I personally sorted the 60 essays into groups - those books that I had already read (only 4!), books I had heard of (16), books that sounded interesting (25), and then what I dubbed "last, but not least" (15). Working through the pieces in that fashion, I found Yardley increasingly agreeable. Once I was able to trust him (based on his exploration of those books I already know), it became easier to understand his point of view on books I had never heard of.

And, I should point out, it's not just about the books--neglected, or otherwise. He writes most astutely about the authors, providing brief enough biographies that it's not a collection of them, but establishing their places in the world, and contextualizing them. I've spent a week reading this book in small batches, and it's the best literary course I've taken in ages. It's easy to appreciate it when you see how clearly Yardley's passion for literature and for reading, and for these books shines through.

You can almost see him moving back and forth in front of a chalk board circling title after title, and sighing as he says "now this is a terrific book" or skipping to the other end of the board and underlining an author's name saying "you would not believe how this one's been mistreated," and then watching his eyes light up as he wipes the chalk dust from his hands and says "oh! but have you read this one?!"

I will add, as Yardley has in the book, that not all of the books from his column (which ran from 2003 to January 2010) are in the book. Thirty-seven of them were left out. However, all of the reviews from that column (including those in this book) can be found via link from Yardley's website. I have a feeling he saved the best for this collection, but considering The Count of Monte Cristo and Pride and Prejudice are both on the left-out list, I know I'll be checking out the website for myself!


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #7 - Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

On the surface, restaurant and food critic Ruth Reichl’s third novel Garlic and Sapphires appears to be merely a catalogue of events – a New York Times restaurant critic going from restaurant to restaurant, expounding on the assets and misfortunes of each, like reading a collection of her reviews over the years. But really, it’s much more than that. Ruth Reichl is not any old critic.

Reichl revolutionized the way many people see New York and its most notorious restaurants. And while a number of her original reviews are included in the text, it’s the circumstances that made each review that she’s really focused on. It’s in these circumstances, stories really, that you realize this isn’t really about food, or even about writing about food. Amid the innumerable plates of foie gras and glasses of Syrah is a woman’s journey to finding herself.

Reichl began writing for The New York Times in the early nineties, before “Top Chef,” before the new, glassy, surprisingly climbable Times Building on 8th Avenue, before the reinvention of Times Square. Having lived in California for a number of years, her return to New York was one laden with lost memories and the ghosts of her childhood in the Village. In an attempt to capture genuine experiences for her reviews, Reichl built herself a wardrobe of characters that slipped in and out of restaurants less noticeably than she.

It is in these guises that she managed to discover some of her best and worst aspects, the facets of her personality that had dictated her life up to that point. She compares the experience to being “so absorbed in a novel that you disappear into the fiction and feel emotions that are not your own.” True, her characters were all a part of herself, but they each had specific tastes and attitudes, which makes this novel seem a little more populous than it actually is.

In endeavoring to find the truth about restaurants that had previously been ignominiously touted, Reichl manages to find out truths about herself. She’s helped along the way by her husband Michael, her son Nick, and a veritable mixed salad of friends, including other reviewers, chefs, cook-book writers, actors, and also Carol, a secretary at the Times who worked with Ruth until Carol's health made that impossible. As Reichl has been incredibly successful one can imagine that the story, where it ends, ends well – a hint of sadness mixed with the absolute pleasure of the foreseen future.

As her son Nicky says very wisely, at the prospect of consuming a very large and painstakingly crafted lollipop: “I don’t think I will…This isn’t one of those foods that you eat. It’s one of the ones that’s only supposed to make you happy.” The same applies to this book – it’s not the kind of book you pick up and consume for its literary value. It’s one of the ones that’s only supposed to make you happy.


On Harry Potter

I had this whole blog written about why I read Harry Potter when I read it, and how it's not so much the monsters and the magic that managed to suck me in, but the nuances of character development that exist, even if you see Rowling's writing as sub-par.

I was going to write about how I tossed and turned over book 6, and how I wrote in the margins, trying to find contextual patterns.

But the fact is, none of that is very interesting. You either love the Harry Potter saga, or you don't. And I, despite my book snobbery and general assumption that I am right, and the masses are wrong, really love it.

I just wanted to take a moment, on this the eve of the final film's release, to acknowledge that.

Also, I'm really excited to read book 7 again. I won't be seeing the film for another few weeks (I'm waiting for my best friend to come to town, as a matter of tradition) which gives me time to re-read it. My copy has never actually been opened. I went to the midnight release four years ago (at the Time Warner Center. Lifehouse performed on a tiny stage. It was strange.) And when I finished the book (in, like, a day) I lent it to my roommate, who somehow managed to spill chocolate sauce on the cover, so she bought me a new one! And I haven't read it since then.

So it'll be kind of like reading it for the first time...which is exciting and heartbreaking all at once...


Review: Tales of the Islanders, by Charlotte Brontë

Tales of the Islanders, 2011
(Hesperus Press)
In her introduction to this volume of Charlotte Bronte’s juvenilia, Jessica Cox explains that, while composing the Brontë biography, author Elizabeth Gaskell dismissed the juvenilia as insignificant, wild writing. But as with any writer, the germs are there, the inspirations are there, and should not be ignored.

Patricia Rozema, in her somewhat controversial film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park emboldened the character of Fanny by giving her a writer’s mind – by giving her authorship of Jane Austen’s own material. And it’s almost seamless, believable, because it also came from Jane’s hand. Similarly, you can almost see Brontë’s romanticizing of the Duke of Wellington and others in the youthful wiles of Jane Eyre’s childhood escapism, and in the folly of Rochester’s past. 

The island is described as “more like the region of enchantment or a beautiful fiction than sober reality. In some parts made terribly sublime by mighty rocks, rushing streams and roaring cataracts with here and there an oak either scathed by lightning or withered by time and, as if to remind the lonely passenger of what it once was, a green young scion twisting round its old grey trunk.” Readers may, as Cox points out, identify the “tree scathed by lightning” as the seed of the old chestnut, cleft in two by lightning in Jane Eyre.

As with Austen, though Tales of the Islanders, et al. were written when Charlotte was only 13, there is a sophisticated vocabulary at work – almost as if she were taking all of the “adult” words she knew from a list, and incorporating them into her writing (i.e. in the quote above, how many 13-year-olds know what a cataract is? Or a scion for that matter?) She listened to her father read the paper, she and her siblings read voraciously – they had a large and expansive vocabulary, which they put to good use. At that age, Charlotte was playing with adjectives, almost using as many as possible in a passage, to make an image very clear to the reader. She was still painting with heavy, broad strokes, rather than practicing the art of darkness by omission.

Her Gothicism is fresh and evident in the dark romance of a kidnapping, the mystery of figures who appear and disappear, and mischief in general seems prevalent. This, as well as the four previously published volumes written by Charlotte and published by Hesperus Classics, are neither dismissible, nor insignificant, and are worth a  read for any Brontë lover, but especially for those who, like Jane Eyre, sought childhood escapism in the far-off places that books so often, and so willingly, provide.

The Green Dwarf, 2003
(Hesperus Press)
The Spell, 2005
(Hesperus Press)
The Foundling, 2004
(Hesperus Press)
The Secret, 2006
(Hesperus Press)


Monday Mailbox #13

I'm penniless this week, so I didn't buy anything, but I did have a nice surprise in the mail:

The Foreigners
by Maxine Swann

So much for "I won't be getting this one for a while!" Riverhead seems to be very good about getting their review copies out in good time. This book is due out in August, so to the top of the August pile it goes!


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #5 / #6 - Under the Boardwalk, by Carly Phillips

I feel like a jerk. A week ago I posted my brief review of Carly Phillips' Under the Boardwalk. The review, as posted, was snide and condescending. The fact is, it was written more than a week after I'd finished the book, it was written late at night, and I wanted to meet my self-imposed deadline. It wasn't until this afternoon that I realized my stupid mistake: I had actually written another brief review immediately after finishing the book, and I had saved it to one of my jump drives at work, and then proceeded to completely forget about it. In that version, the version I'm posting this week, the tone is softer, more willing to accept some jaunty chick-lit that never pretends to be anything more than it is. And while my opinion is still consistent (i.e. it still lacks much of a beach, and it still lacks some believability), I think it only fair that I now post my original (very brief, very to-the-point) review, as was intended.

Review: Under the Boardwalk, by Carly Phillips

Ah, finally we arrive at the chick-lit portion of this week's programming. And there’s a beach in it. Kind of. It’s really thrown in for somewhat dramatic effect, but it doesn’t factor in to the book too much. All the same, it’s got your undercover cop, your twin sister with opposite personalities (although it turns out that both of them are kind of hiding a personality, which is their twin’s personality, so…yeah). There isn’t too much to it, and there are some definite missed opportunities (i.e. I wanted the single-mother waitress to turn out to be a gangster, and I wanted the monkey – yes, there’s a monkey – to redeem herself by finding some buried family treasure or something bizarre like that) but the plot is fairly solid (though why the gangster implicitly trusts everyone, I’m not too sure….like I said, missed opportunities) and there’s some gratuitous sex, but not too much. Just enough to make it a steamy beach read for a breezier day. 


Monday Mailbox #12

Hey hey hey, sorry for the delay. I didn't mean to be remiss in my posting last week, but I've been waiting for a book to arrive (Minor Snobs, by Daniel Amory) and it hasn't. It was member giveaway on librarything.com and, as it sometimes happens, it seems to be temporarily lost in the wind. But never you fear! For I have two additions to my library this week:

The Hottest Dishes of
the Tartar Cuisine
by Alina Bronsky
which I won in an anagram contest over at Confessions of a Book Lush. I also won a Europa Editions tote bag, on which I've received many a compliment. It makes me happy because I adore Europa. I *plan* on reading this one in the fall. If I get through more books sooner rather than later, I'll read it sooner. 

Say Her Name
by Francisco Goldman
This one was half-impulse buy, half-well-meditated buy. It is uncommon for me to gravitate so strongly to a book in the Sunday Times Book Review. But the story speaks to me so vehemently that I've been almost afraid to ask for it. I walked into Posman Books at Grand Central Station Friday night... I love this store. They may be more expensive than, say, ordering from Amazon (and only some of the time, really) but their staff is very well-read and friendly and so helpful - not like the confused minimum wage employee I saw at B&N a few weeks ago who had to have the customer repeat the spelling of J-h-u-m-p-a-L-a-h-i-r-i no less than three times. I had managed to put this book out of my head for a few weeks, but as I was riding the crosstown bus last night, the story came into my head again. And of course as soon as I walked into Posman, I'd forgotten the title. I wandered a little bit, but they were closing shortly, so I sidled up to the info desk and gave as much information as I could, hoping they'd know what the hell I was talking about. It took some creative googling while also searching through a pile of Sunday Times Book Reviews, but once we found the title an employee knew exactly where it was. By then I was so excited, I nearly ripped it out of the poor girl's hand and tossed it onto the checkout counter. I can't even tell you how much I want to read this book RIGHT NOW. But. I'm on a mission. I have other books on my list that need reading. Now, assuming that Minor Snobs comes awful late or never comes, and figuring that Maxine Swan's The Foreigners might not get to me for a while (it's due out mid-August) I *might* be able to squeeze this one in. But I'd much rather enjoy it at the very end of summer. I'll have to lock it up or something, to keep me from gnawing on it. 


Summer Sundays: Beach Reads #5 - Under the Boardwalk, by Carly Phillips

Don't let the illustrated beach nor the bikini top fool you. There are no steamy beach scenes to be had here. There's barely any beach. Definitely some sand at one point. A boardwalk? There might have been one early on... in fact I'm pretty sure the male love interest (a cop who grew up in foster care) jumps from the boardwalk and miraculously saves the female lead from being shot by someone who thinks she's her twin sister. And for the record, that's about as complicated as it gets. Girl with too much family meets boy who never had enough family. Sparks fly, boots get knocked, and the resolution (her sister was an FBI agent undercover) is almost too predictable. It's your basic beach chick-lit. Oh, and there's a monkey. Perfect.


Review: The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films, Edited by Amy M. Clarke & Marijane Osborn

Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Get it out now. Yes, we're talking about Twilight. More specifically, we're talking about some critical analysis of Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster teenage vampire series that has taken the world by storm. Meyer has set the literary world spinning in a tizzy, and The Twilight Mystique explores how, and why ¹.

But first, a little backstory. For those of you who perhaps weren't bitten by the Twilight bug - perhaps you suffer from agoraphobia, or maybe you're just too wrapped up in the Casey Anthony trial ². Here's the lowdown:
Twilight tells the story of a teenage girl who falls in love with a "vegetarian" vampire, and whose life is turned upside down by her involvement with him and his veggie vamp family. There are threats to her life by an ancient group of non-veggies, attacks by a tracker and his crew, and then (not to give away too much or anything) she is killed by her human/vampire offspring while in utero (she's then turned a vampire). There are, of course, good vampires and bad vampires, werewolves, as well as your regular run of the mill, though stupendously oblivious, humans.
Meyer has gotten a lot of flack for her work of teenage angst, a work that borrows from Native American tradition, from vampire lore and fairy tales, from classic literature (Romeo & Juliet, Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights ³), and even borrows some from Mormon theology. True, her writing has its flaws. Yet her stories have (here comes the pun) sucked in thousands. This isn't just YA Fiction or chick-lit, it's a kind of phenomenon.

So why? Why do these books draw in untold numbers of teenagers and middle-aged women alike? Clarke & Osborn have assembled a fairly good collection of works that help explain the fanaticism. Basically everything from it being escapist, to its roots in moral values. Surprisingly, though, only one or two of the pieces is in any way negative. With all the publicized negative criticism, you'd think they'd have been less exclusive to only writers who have something nice to say. That's what I thought at first. But when I think back to the 3 year period between the first book coming out, and my giving in to the hype, I realize that many of the anti-Meyer naysayers have either never read the books, or don't care enough to write about them.

For one, I personally liked the McElroy essay on "Eco-Gothics for the 21st Century" and how it explained the excessiveness of the veggie vampires and their irresponsible lifestyles - lazily capitalistic, exhaustive of resources, etc. And I liked it almost more than I enjoyed the essays on literary allusion and fairy tales.

As someone on the outskirts - yes, I read the books, but I'm a little ashamed - this collections is an enjoyable read. If you're like me, you might even figure out why you read them in the first place. If, however, the ticker in your mind reads something like "OMG LUV TWILIGHT TEAM EDWARD BLAH BLAH BLAH" you may not yet be mature enough (and, let's face it, you may never be mature enough) even for the lightest criticism. And if you hate/avoid the books, you can basically forget it. Read the McElroy essay, and then read the essay on the economy of Forks, WA, and then put it away. Otherwise, you might actually find something to convince you to finally read the books and see what the hype's all about ⁴.

PS - Happy July! I've now finished 12 books since the start of summer reading (and all but one of those was actually on my reading list. Brava, myself.
[1] Perhaps they should have answered the question, "Does anyone actually give a crap?"
[2] If, somehow, you've avoided the unending saga that is the Casey Anthony trial, I applaud your inability to read. Of course, if you can't read, you're not really reading this, and so in fact, I don't believe you've avoided it up to this point. I mean, c'mon. It's the second article in "Latest News" on CNN.com. Right below "Maria Shriver files for divorce" and right next to "Best Viral Videos - Sleepy Kitty." 
[3] And those are just some of the ones she mentions in the books. 
[4] Do yourself a favor - save yourself. Go watch Buffy instead.