As You Wish: Cary Elwes

as you wish

Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, October 2014

 

Some people think of reviewing books as solitary, quiet vocation and often, they are right. How nice then, to attend a book event that ends up feeling like a movie premiere—complete with large crowds, screaming fans and people in costumes. This was the fun-filled case earlier this week when I was at the University Book Store to see actor Cary Elwes talk about his new book, As You Wish. It is a memoir about the making of the movie, complete with behind-the-scenes photos and reminiscences from the cast and crew.

Now, in case you don’t go to many book events, let me fill you in: 40 people is a really good crowd. I’ve been to events for authors and books I loved and only 10 people have shown up. However, when you’re talking about the lead actor in a movie with staying power that has expanded over the last twenty-five years it’s a different scenario. Namely, when Elwes first appeared, people (men and women) screamed. Yes, jumped up and down and screamed. I was fortunate enough to be in the front row as evidenced by the fact that I now know Mr. Elwes’ jeans’ size and that he wears a very nice spicy, woodsy aftershave, but I was a little scared. There was a surge behind me as the enormous crowd (I’m guessing around 200 people) moved towards the star. Here is  the first shot I was able to take where he was far enough away that I could get my camera to focus. He had just admitted to drinking Starbucks which, although it is based in Seattle, is frowned upon by Seattle coffee lovers (don’t ask me why, I drink tea). His excuse? “I’m British and don’t know any better.

as you wish

From the moment he entered he was charm personified, joking and recounting personal stories about The Princess Bride with Nicole Brodeur from The Seattle Times. These are the stories that make up the book, As You Wish, which if you were born on Mars and didn’t know, is his most famous line in the movie. Most famous but not his favorite. When asked about that he admitted, “I’d have to say, ‘Anybody want a peanut?’” He also talked at length about Andre the Giant who became a close friend during filming and with whom he stayed in touch until Andre’s death.

as you wish

Elwes humor and graciousness—in the face of so many fans of all ages, with questions that spanned his personal life (what was it like kissing Robin Wright) to challenges (do you remember all the steps from the fencing scene with Inigo Montoya)—made the time pass quickly, but it was this young boy who captured everyone’s heart, including Elwes’. Just another Princess Bride fan!

as you wish

as you wish

 

This book can be purchased online at:

In Search of the Perfect Loaf

in search of the perfect loaf

Viking, September 2014

 

Carbs have fallen in and out of favor throughout the years but never with me. Bread is one of my favorite food groups and always will be! Samuel Fromartz feels the same way and documents his love in In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. His story begins when he travels to Paris to work for a boulangerie known for their baguettes—a type of bread Fromartz has been unsuccessful trying to bake at home. It ends with his being invited by Alice Waters to bake the bread being served at a charity dinner at Bob Woodward’s house. In between he travels much of the country speaking with some of the finest bread bakers and working in their kitchens.

 Fromartz starts with the macros of bread—namely the different kinds—and then moves down to the micros: the ingredients, all the way down to the types of grains that are used now and those used long ago. In particular, I am fascinated by his discussion of the extraordinary increase in the population that is now gluten-intolerant or has the more severe celiac disease. In earlier times, bread was the staple of many countries and the food most often eaten. How is it then, given that we eat so much less bread/gluten now that this problem is one of the modern age? According to Fromartz it is not the gluten itself, it is the kind of gluten we eat. As strains of wheat have been changed and modified throughout the decades to become more productive and disease-resistant there is evidence to suggest it has also become toxic for people pre-disposed to immune-system reactions.

By the end of In Search of the Perfect Loaf Fromartz has taken the reader from the initial quest to make a good baguette and expanded it to cover baking breads of all types and understanding the process. He goes all the way back to the grain itself and its migration from Europe to America and how we’ve gone from a diverse variety of seeds to a monoculture of one type of grain. This information is not just theoretical—he includes recipes and information to help both beginning and experienced bakers. In other hands this could be overwhelming but Fromartz knows his ingredients and how to handle them and the result is delicious and healthy reading that encourages home bread baking.

Who might like this book for Christmas: In Search of the Perfect Loaf makes a wonderful gift for anyone who appreciates a scientific approach to food (like Alton Brown fans!) and loves to bake bread.

 

This book is available for purchase online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Favorite Books of 2014

Happy Monday, everyone! I usually wait until the last days of December to write about my favorite books of the year but as I’m free-range reading this month I’m not reading any new releases. In short, I’m ready to call it a year!

 2014 was an interesting year in reading for me. It started off so strong, with books where my biggest problem was deciding ‘5 stars or 4 stars’ because they were so great, but then trailed off (way off) in the second half of the year. Given that September and October are two of the biggest release months of the year this should not be the norm—and maybe it wasn’t for everyone else—just  me.

On the positive side, I’m tickled to report that humorous fiction not only made it into my favorite ten books of the year but that two of those novels warranted five stars. In a year that was personally quite trying to find authors who write intelligent, sharp AND funny fiction these novels were a wonderful surprise.

And because culling books to find favorites is so awfully hard, these ten awesome books are from returning authors. I’ll have a list of my favorite debut authors later in the month.

 

favorite books

The Diamond Lane: 5 stars of whip smart, snarky satire about the tarnished tawdriness of Hollywood. Loved this book from start to finish. Review

Dear Committee Members: What’s better than a pedantic but oh-so-sly professor pleading the case of students, colleagues, and even strangers in letters of recommendation? Another 5 star favorite. Review

The Stager: My love of this sarcastic tale of real estate hell mixed with magic realism, addiction, and spoiled child syndrome may have to do with having seen one too many staged houses in the last year. Still hilarious reading even if you’re tucked safely in your own home. Review

 

favorite books

Mambo in Chinatown: Growing up Chinese American and trying to find yourself. 5 stars for Jean Kwok’s beautiful, uplifting novel. Review

The Moor’s Account: America long before it was America and through the eyes of a Moroccan slave. Review

Above the East China Sea: Past and present combine as two young women try and find their way back home. Review

Euphoria: Anthropologists and a love triangle? Yes. And it works powerfully. Review

 

favorite books

How to Build a Girl: Not for everyone but this one hit me hard with all its filth and vibrancy. Review

Station Eleven: If you were going to read dystopian fiction this year, this was the one to read. So close to recent reality it will make you nervous. Review

Dept. of Speculation: A wisp of a novel that follows the circuitous path of love, marriage, children. A laugh and cry book. Review

You can also use this list as a Christmas shopping guide for the reader in your life. Each title links to Powell’s where the books can be purchased online and free shipping is available.

The Paris Winter

paris winter

St. Martin’s Press, November 18, 2014

 

In The Paris Winter, Maud Heighton is a young British woman in 1910, escaping the conventions that bind by moving to Paris to train as an artist at the renowned Academie LaFond. Unfortunately, unlike a number of her classmates she does not have a family fortune to support her Parisian life and so must find employment to continue to stay in Paris. When a friend finds her a job as a live-in companion to a sickly woman Maud thinks her troubles are over.

 Christian and Sylvie Morel are brother and sister but due to an addiction to opium, Sylvie doesn’t leave their apartment. With time, Maud’s presence helps her while the Morel’s wealthy lifestyle brings Maud into contact with some of the higher strata of Parisian society and as time passes she is able to relax her fears about poverty and the struggle to make ends meet. When one day an old woman visits the house and accuses the Morels of killing her husband and stealing their diamonds, Morel shrugs it off to Maud as demented ravings. Comfortable in her new life, Maud gives it no more thought but events occur that leave her wondering how crazy the woman really was. It takes the horrible flooding that occurred in Paris in late 1910 to bring resolution to the tricks and games Maud finds herself drowning in.

 Author Imogen Robertson fills The Paris Winter with deception against a background of the Belle Epoque—with all the best of Paris on display. By layering people from all walks of Parisian life with accurate historical details she creates a world that is both light and charming but dark and unstable underneath. Which one prevails?

This book can be purchased online at:

The Paris Winter
by Imogen Robertson
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

We Need to Talk About Kevin

we need to talk

Harper Perennial, 2011

 

The point is, I don’t know what exactly I’d foreseen would happen when Kevin was first hoisted to my breast. I hadn’t foreseen anything exactly. I wanted what I could not imagine. I wanted to be transformed; I wanted to be transported. I wanted a door to open and a whole new vista to expand before me that I had never known was out there.

The holidays are not generally the time for this type of thing but the subject of challenging reading is one that comes up in the blogging world. It pertains to books that, for whatever reason, leave you feeling out of your element—uncomfortable. Some people believe the quality of the work and the fact that the mind is being forced to think are good things. Others prefer never reading anything that doesn’t uplift or provide enjoyable escape. By and large throughout my reading life I have been one of those who can and will read difficult and/or unpleasant books if the writing is worth it. Examples of this would be Emma Donoghue’s Room, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea—all of which I admired despite their very difficult premises.

 However, like anything in life, there may come a time when we push ourselves too far or cross some inner line we didn’t even know we had. For me this occurred recently, when I read Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, her 2003 award-winning and bestselling novel about a fifteen-year-old who commits mass murder at his school. Shriver writes We Need to Talk About Kevin in the form of letters from Kevin’s mother Eva to her husband Franklin in which she covers the ground from the couple’s early married life to present day. The narrative captures the path of their son’s life with a grinding difficulty that leeches off the page into the reader’s mind. It is an unflinching fictional look at one woman’s life in the aftermath of her son’s decision to become a mass murderer.

 …Kevin has introduced me to a real foreign country. I can be sure of that, since the definition of a truly foreign locale is one that fosters a piercing and perpetual yearning to go home. 

There is no mercy in how Shriver displays each of the family members. Eva is a successful travel guide writer and the decision to have a child is not one that comes naturally. From the time Kevin is born she is unable to form any sort of attachment to him except a growing resentment and frustration. For his part, Kevin is not any of the things one hopes for in a child. He spends much of his infancy screaming, even when his needs are met. He is slow to meet developmental markers but even more so seems to take a delight in ignoring them; ignoring anything in fact. He still wears diapers in kindergarten forcing his mother to come to the school 4 or 5 times a day to change them. As he gets older he continues to show no interest in school but clearly has a mind bright enough to manipulate virtually everyone in his life. In this way he confounds the standard portrait of a bullied teen who breaks. Shriver could go even further and make him outlandish in his behavior—a demon– but Kevin is simply disaffected and to the doting eyes of his father, misunderstood.

I can’t unread We Need to Talk About Kevin and yet, it’s imprinted on me. I feel as if I need to find a bunch of children’s picture books to read to regain my equanimity. This novel mentally and emotionally hurt. Shriver batters hard at the doors of two protected rooms in the human psyche: maternal love and unalloyed evil. And to do so by making the combination one of a mother who freely admits she does not like her own child and a son whose diffident maliciousness grows as he does means there is no safe place in the novel. Well written? Yes. Brutally intelligent? Absolutely. Did I need to read it? No.

Shriver puts together a potent novel that confounds most expectations and beliefs about school killers. This is intense reading yet profound for what it tells us about the only question anyone wants answered when these horrible things happen: Why? There is no answer. There never will be.

How do you feel about novels with difficult subject matter? Do you read them or prefer to stay away?

*This novel is my December reading for the TBR challenge from Roof Beam Reader

Free Range Reading: Tinkers

tinkers

Bellevue Literary Press, 2009

 

Tinkers opens with George Crosby, lying on a bed in the living room of the home he built himself, as his mind swirls and flows between the reality of his family gathered to bid him goodbye to the most exquisite ruminations on life itself and his place in its great tiled framework.

…I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than a smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color… 

Author Paul Harding takes George’s story and intersperses it with his father Howard’s tale. For Howard it is a difficult life working as a tinker, a man who travels by horse from farm to farm selling necessities to people who don’t have the means or the time to trek into the nearest town. Winter in the forested depths of rural Massachusetts is nothing more than a time of survival and things like love, whimsy, and extravagance are unheard of and yet he carries a few small pieces of jewelry wishing that as the death grip of winter approaches some woman will buy a trinket to give her hope

…as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too deep to chop through with the axe as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it…

George’s life, in comparison is a much different one, spent largely working in a high school as a guidance counselor until he retires and becomes known as a man with a way with broken antique clocks. He finds an elegant simplicity in their complexity; a perfect explanation for the workings of life. In the way that gears click forward, connecting with other gears moving backwards, all hidden behind a quiet face, so Harding lets George’s narrative unspool seamlessly.

Tinkers is a deceptively slender novel, yet holds the breadth of two full lives with a bittersweet intimacy. It is no surprise that, despite being Harding’s first book, it won the Pulitzer Prize. A quiet novel, there is no plot or pacing, only the gentle flow of these men moving through their lives as they converge and split apart. It is some of the most exquisitely conveyed writing I’ve ever read. At a time of year when hectic and harried are the norm it is meditative reading, soothing, calming, and profoundly centering.

Harding’s next book, Enon, follows George’s grandson on his harrowing journey after the loss of his daughter. It was one of my 5 star favorites for 2013.

 

Both of these books can be purchased online at:
Tinkers
by Paul Harding
Powells.com
Enon
by Paul Harding
Powells.com

 

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Woman with a Gun

woman with a gun

Harper, December 2, 2014

 

Stacy Adams wants to write a novel but is finding it difficult while stuck in a dead-end job as a receptionist at a NYC law firm. When she comes across a provocative photo of a woman wearing a wedding dress clutching an antique gun behind her back at the edge of the ocean she is instantly inspired and decides that this photo will be the basis for her novel. She learns it was taken on the Oregon coast so she decides to shed NYC and head to Portland to learn more about the photographer and the photo. And so, Phillip Margolin leads us into his newest novel, Woman with a Gun.

Once in Oregon, Stacey learns that the photo is of a socialite, Megan Cahill and was taken the night of her wedding to a man who turns up dead the next morning. Slowly she begins finding the people involved in that case, which was never solved and as she tries finding answers someone starts trying to stop her. Margolin moves the plot back and forth from present day to the original murder case and finally, back to a drug case where an untested attorney humiliated a hotshot from the D.A.’s office. With each layer it becomes clear that what was an artistic photograph actually contains the answer to a murder.

As a veteran mystery writer and former attorney Margolin keeps Woman with a Gun moving quickly with no missteps. The characters and backstories pile up but they do so with the precision of a Tetris game—each block fits together to form a cohesive whole. This makes for speedy reading but as more and more ancillary characters appear, each with their secrets and unsavory pasts, the novel moves into a realm that while not cliché does feel mechanical and a bit heavy handed. Not one of my favorites but still good mystery reading.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy lynn

Imagine you are a nineteen-year-old soldier and while stationed in Iraq your squad came under insurgent attack in an isolated area. You commit a heroic act of bravery and leave your vehicle to try and save a friend who is being dragged away by the enemy. A Fox news crew captures the entire attack and when it goes viral you are all brought back to the United States to be honored. The culmination of this tour is on Thanksgiving day at a Dallas Cowboys game and all you want, all you desperately need, is some Advil for your hangover and yet despite repeated requests, in the midst of fervent praise from all sides; food, drink, and even women being pressed on you, no one, not one single person can manage to bring you Advil. The absurdity of this situation is just one of the many that razor through the narrative of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that plumbs the depths of one young soldier’s aching mind as he tries to reconcile the world he sees stateside with the one he’s left behind in Iraq.

It is pretty safe to say that I don’t read a lot of fiction about America’s recent forays into the Middle East nor do I have a lot of familiarity with fiction written from a soldier’s perspective but Fountain emulates the soldiers’ patois and slang, their almost sing-song crudity, so perfectly I could hear their voices as I read. Billy goes to Iraq to avoid going to prison but there is not much in the novel about his life there with the exception of the moments before the attack and the loss of a comrade with whom he’d become close. This is Billy’s reality and Fountain juxtaposes it against the naïve bravado of every self-satisfied American he and his squad meet. They yammer about God’s will being done in Iraq but not one of them would send their child over there to fight. And these young men know it, know that they are expendable because their lives have put them in a position of either having to fight or needing to fight for the paycheck.

Some of the more surreal aspects of the novel involve the football team as the troop is feted by the team’s owner and all its wealthiest fans. Billy and his sergeant are shown the equipment room where hundreds of thousands of dollars of clothing, shoes, helmets, and other gear, designed to protect and pamper the players, are shown off…to men who make do with port-a-potties, limited body armor, and dehydrated meals. Billy can only think

They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought—send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is largely an internal novel and it is thoughts like these that make it clear Billy is under no illusions about the party going on around him. Everything about his situation is unreal and all he wants is one person to talk to him honestly about what is happening and why. Instead, by using some of America’s glitziest economic institutions—the NFL, Hollywood, Madison Avenue—Fountain illustrates, with a grave sensitivity, that honesty is as elusive as Advil for Billy Lynn.

This book can be purchased online at:

 


The Elliott Bay Book Club

The Other Typist

other typist

Berkley Trade, Paperback, April 2014

 

Suzanne Rindell sets her novel The Other Typist in 1920s New York City where Rose is one of a new kind of working woman, earning her living as a typist for the police department. She is an orphan living a quiet simple life despite working in a job that exposes her to some of the roughest men in the city. When Abolition begins, the department needs additional typists as political pressure means increased arrests for anyone caught with alcohol. Odalie is one of the new typists and a source of fascination for everyone in the department due to her expensive clothes and elegant appearance. Rose in particular is mesmerized.

With a world view that is sour and sanctimonious Rose believes that those who have the nice things she’s never had are weak and venal for wanting them. In this way, she is an easy target for the seductive glamour of Odalie, who is everything she is not.

Her background of religion and poverty make her so rigid in her beliefs that she has no ability to bend to keep them intact and so when Odalie beckons, with her plush apartment, dinners out, and the life of a Jazz Age girl, Rose cannot resist. In this way, despite her eagle eyes and a mind that calculates every action as being either good or evil, she does not slide into a more dissolute life, she crashes. And as Odalie’s lies pile up around her, Rose herself begins to compromise the prudish values she holds dear. We watch as her straight edges blur with every night out and borrowed silk gown.

They may say whatever they want about me and they do. They refuse to believe she might have bewitched me, but I can think of no more fitting word by which to describe the effect Odalie had on me. Simply put, I have met no one more magnetic than Odalie, and I doubt I ever will.

Even when she figures out that Odalie is involved in the speakeasy business she doesn’t turn away from her new found benefactress. When Odalie goes from giving to taking, Rose feels she has no choice but to do as Odalie asks—even though it involves the business. And from there, the lives of both Odalie and Rose get far more complicated than even the most sophisticated reader could imagine. Using the ever reliable unreliable narrator, Rindell takes The Other Typist to the edge and beyond. Everything is called into question and I do mean everything. Beyond this point, virtually anything else I write would be a spoiler so I’ll stop, except to say: The Other Typist is one of the most mind-bending psychological thrillers I’ve ever read. A week after finishing it, I’m still discussing it with other bloggers because so many theories abound as to what really happened. And that would be my only caveat—this is a strongly written novel and Rindell deserves praise for its execution but a part of me almost feels as if she got lost in the labyrinth as well and could not decide the ending. Whether this is the case or not, the novel cleverly plays with the trope of poor plain girl being befriended by pretty young thing and turns it inside out. The Other Typist will leave you guessing long after you’ve finished reading.

If you’ve already read The Other Typist or if you want to check back once you do, here are some sites that discuss the novel’s ending:

  1. booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog
  2. Goodreads
  3. Amazon

This book can be purchased online at:

The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Shop Small and Independent

Today is Small Business Saturday so just a quick reminder that as you begin the shopathon that may constitute your life leading up to Christmas please keep your local retailers in mind.  Especially (of course!) the book stores. I happened to stop by the University Book Store here in Seattle and was dazzled and enthralled by how creative they are with their displays and what adorable and fun options they have for gift-giving.

shop

First stop on my way through the store- book trees, a charming and creative use of old, damaged books!

 

shop small

One of many adorable ornament displays throughout the store- Christmas penguins, raccoons and mice!

 

shop small

I love these wrapping paper cut-outs of birds leading you to the books for bird lovers.

 

shop small

One of the most dangerous tables in the store- Christmas treats. Ostensibly for Santa but in my house there’s no way the dark chocolate bars are going to last until Christmas Eve.

 

shop small

More calendars and day planners than I’ve ever seen in one place. A perfect gift because who doesn’t want to be more organized? And they’re pretty, too!

 

shop small

More fabulous book art as well as a paper tiger, both fittingly found on top of the art books.

 

shop small

Candles, tea mugs, and gingerbread, all watched over by a blinged out toy soldier. Add a book and it’s the perfect way to spend a holiday afternoon.

 

shop small

 The final piece of proof that book stores carry so much more than just books. I want everything on this table.

 

Do you have stores where you shop small and independent? What are your favorites for holiday shopping?

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