The Moment of Everything

moment of everything

Grand Central Publishing, September 2014

 

First of all, if you tell me a book is about a young woman who gets a master’s degree in library science, loses her job and ends up spending her days hanging around the local used book store, I’ll have my credit card out before your words disappear. Librarian? In. Unemployed? In. Book store? All the way in. So, there was no doubt I was going to read Shelly King’s The Moment of Everything when I came across it. Maggie Duprés job search consists of hours as a so-called customer (who never buys anything) in the Dragonfly book store, reading romance novels.  After finding a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover with love notes between two strangers penned in the margins she gets invigorated and starts using her unique combination of library and PR skills to bring the store into the 21st century. She designs a site, introducing the love notes as clues, that goes viral and gets the owner Hugo and his surly sales person Jason to organize the inventory and start tracking sales. When her success comes to the eyes of a local investor she is offered a chance that seems right on paper, but may take her somewhere she’s no longer certain she wants to go.

The Moment of Everything is one of those books that please on multiple levels. There is the bookishness of the secrets found in an old copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the familiarity to be found in Kelly’s descriptions of the Dragonfly’s chaos and comfort, and the angsty feeling that comes as the big-box book store across the street tries to shut them down. The characters are a believable but quirky cast of misfits, from Lothario hippie Hugo to coding hotshot Dizzy, Maggie’s best friend from childhood, to Maggie’s beauty queen mother who lives a life of such perfect exactitude back in South Carolina that

Her letters looked as if they’d practiced walking with unabridged dictionaries on their heads until their posture was perfect. The o’s were never too fat and the l’s were never too skinny. It was the handwriting of a woman who had never doubted where she belonged and woke up each day knowing what it held in store.

Each appears and plays their part perfectly without getting campy or kitschy—no small feat with such a wide-ranging cast of lively characters, but King pulls it off perfectly, using the confused, self-deprecating Maggie as the glue. The Moment of Everything is so well-balanced between humor and soul that reading will hit the sweet spot in any book lover’s heart.

This book is available for purchase online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

How To Be a Good Wife

how to be a good wife

Picador, November 4, 2014


When Marta and Hector married, his mother gave her a book of domestic lessons entitled How to be a Good Wife. By the time they’ve been married for over thirty years Marta knows it by heart and knows that bread must be baked fresh every day, that only the husband belongs in the outside world, and that ”catering to his comfort will give you an immense sense of personal satisfaction”. What she is less certain about is her life before she married Hector. Her memory is almost nonexistent and when she begins seeing a young blonde girl moving through the house that no one else sees, his only suggestion is that she take more of the pink pills he makes her take every day…but which she secretly throws away. And so with conflicting stories author Emma Chapman builds a twisting tale of marriage and mystery in How to Be a Good Wife.

Marta’s married life is a quiet and simple one. Her husband found her on the street: disoriented, beaten and starved and nursed her back to health. Despite the twenty-year difference in their ages she married him when she was better as, to the best of herknowledge, she had no family left alive. When the quiet of her days is interrupted by the smells, sounds, and sights associated with a thin young blonde haired woman she fears their house is haunted but has no one to talk to about it. The visitations become stronger with the girl appearing more frequently and even interacting with Marta. She can hear in her head and rather than being scary there is something about the young woman that seems familiar and she wants to help her. Unfortunately, events in her personal life become more stressful and she finds herself defending her emotional stability not just to her husband but to her grown son as well.

How to Be a Good Wife is Chapman’s debut novel and yet the ease with which she plays with the reader is seasoned. Marta perfectly fits the description of an unreliable narrator and so there is always doubt about what she sees and what it means. By keeping us firmly embedded in her mind and viewpoint Chapman creates an almost unbearable sensation of confusion. Is Marta crazy or being gaslighted by her husband? Or is there something worse, something even more terrifying going on? Even as Marta’s situation reaches its climax Chapman draws us in more closely, forcing us to look at the aftermath of the events and to cringe, wondering ‘what was the truth?’

This book can be purchased online at:

How to Be a Good Wife
by Emma Chapman
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Free Range Reading: Divergent and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Earlier this month I mentioned an event that Tanya at 52 Books or Bust was hosting called Free Range Reading. Basically, it’s an opportunity for book bloggers to take advantage of the lack of new books coming out at the end of the year and read anything they want. Crazy, right?! I’m embracing the concept by beginning with two books that are about as different from each other as possible but I enjoyed both.

divergent

Divergent is the second series to give YA dystopian fiction massive power in both the book world and in movies. I read Hunger Games and loved it, so was cautious about another similar trilogy. Happily, Divergent has the same qualities I like from Hunger Games—namely a strong teenage female whose interests lie far beyond boys and shopping—but with author Veronica Roth’s unique take on a future world.  Instead of starting out dystopian the world of Divergent is based a utopian hope that by dividing people by one of five characteristic traits (Amity, Candor, Erudite, Abnegation, and Dauntless) they can avoid strife and war. At the age of sixteen each person chooses the quality they want to embody for the rest of their life. Into this concept comes Beatrice, raised in a selfless family, who chooses the Dauntless group. In doing so, she is taken out of her element and forced to fight for her life.

Divergent is definitely worth pursuing as a reader, especially if you’ve reached your limit with character-driven, literary fiction that requires a lot of thought. I love that type of reading but Divergent is plot, plot, plot with the only emotional element being a female protagonist who begins the book with little confidence in her own skills and ends by discovering her mental and physical strength—which is a real bonus when compared to the plethora of contemporary fiction that showcases young woman who are lost in cycles of self-abuse. This is good, quick, enjoyable reading, enough so that I will be continuing the series.


Algonquin, April 2014

Algonquin, April 2014

In The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin A.J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a bereaved husband who loves books but people not so much. It was his wife, Nicole who was the people person and got the books sold. With her gone, he runs on auto-pilot and has little to no patience with the book industry and a penchant for drinking himself to unconsciousness every night. When he has to deal with an overly enthusiastic publisher’s sales rep, his first edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane being stolen and someone leaves an unwelcome package in the store, it’s enough to make him want to shut the doors and close himself up forever.

Instead, it turns out that the sales rep’s recommendations are books he enjoys and his customers buy. More importantly, he begins to enjoy her. In dealing with what life has given him he finds himself opening up rather than shutting down. And on a small island with an even smaller population people begin to notice a change in Fikry and his store.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a charming book, thanks to the cast Zevin creates around Fikry. For book lovers and those who are fortunate enough to have an independent store nearby it feels like a glimpse into the inner workings of a bookseller’s life. When it goes even further, into the inner workings of the heart, the novel becomes one a reader will cherish.

cleveland loganberry books

Perfect, unplanned book promotion photo, taken by me, at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio!

The Blazing World: A Novel

The Blazing World came out in paperback last week. This is my original review.

blazing world

Simon & Schuster, November 2014

 

Sometimes all it takes is a name and the die is cast. For Harriet Burden, the fact that her father called her Harry from a young age felt like a challenge; one that she grabs onto with all the tenacity of a pit bull, even when it causes her nothing but pain. Harriet is the protagonist in Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, a tour-de-force of one woman’s determination to get recognition in the male dominated world of art. Harriet is already deceased when an aesthetics professor decides to write about her greatest project—the use of three male artists as beards for her own work. To do so, Professor Hess gets access to Harriet’s copious journals, interviews with the male artists, art critics, her children, and numerous other key people in her life. What we get is a fantastical mashup of Harriet’s personal life, art history, psychiatric schools of thought, gender history and a novel that provokes and rewards.

From its opening sentences The Blazing World is a novel that will challenge the reader on numerous levels. It’s intellectually rigorous with references and footnotes from people real or created, yet irreverent and wry. Initially, this feels intimidating (ala David Foster Wallace), but Hustvedt layers the demanding and dominating part of Harriet’s personality and it’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge with the quieter and more human aspects of her life. The novel starts hard and big with one woman’s desire to prove everyone wrong and, as posited by her lover, Bruno, for the sole reason that

”I want to be understood,” she would wail to me.

If artists one and two make any headway in her theory artist three, Rune Larson (who goes only by his first name), destroys the project. He refuses to give her any ownership to her final piece and causes her entire project to collapse into the ravings of a mentally unstable woman. None of the people she hoped would finally come to see her gift ever take her seriously. Rune is yet another example of how exhaustive Hustvedt has been in crafting the reader’s experience—everything warrants the reader’s attention—even the linguistic acrobatics surrounding the character’s names. There is Burden, Lord, Brickman, and then Rune, with its multiple meanings—one of which could be the hill country pronunciation of the word ‘ruin’.

Harriet’s machinations in pursuing this belief make her vulnerable to the theories of others about her mental state. Even the accounts of people who knew her well indicate that once Rune reneged on his agreement with her, she became paranoid. Without the gift of a highly intelligent and imaginative writer, The Blazing World could devolve into a one-note about the gender inequities within the artistic community but while Hustvedt stakes Harriet’s claims in that territory she then leads us, quietly, to see Harriet the person. This is what makes this pastiche of time, place, perspective, and character so engrossing. Just as Claire Messud captured Nora’s “unseemly anger” in The Woman Upstairs so does Hustvedt unleash the emotions that both invigorate and imprison Harriet.

“I wanted to fly, you see, and breathe fire. Those were my dearest wishes, but it was forbidden, or I felt it was forbidden. It has taken me a very long time to give myself permission to fly and to breathe fire.”

The fire breathing virago, who would as happily throw a chair as walk away from a disagreement, is brought to life, just as is the woman who loved her children and her husband, who still suffered the insecurities of being an ungainly girl, who had a screaming need to be understood. If this does not frighten you, then The Blazing World is a marvelously constructed work, with authorities who disagree on the same subject, eye witnesses who contradict each other, mass confusion and by the end, utter simplicity. It is about the humanity in art and the art in being human.

The Madwoman in the Volvo

madwoman volvo

W.W. Norton, May 2014

 

I don’t generally begin a review by telling people to stop reading but if you are a man hand the laptop/iPad to your better half and go watch ESPN because I’m about to talk about a book about m-e-n-o-p-a-u-s-e. And, really, not even we women want to talk about it so I’m saving you a world of hurt. Now go away.

Yes, it’s a natural part of life but while pregnancy is something discussed ad nauseaum and results in a new life, menopause is not something most women want to talk about, much less go through. Even if you were one of those (like me) who thought it would be a relief to finally be rid of all that monthly yuck and so looked forward to menopause only to be cruelly disappointed because it’s your period minus the mess but it lasts for YEARS. Really, we’d all rather be sipping daiquiris on the beach but since that’s not possible one of the most hilarious ways to enter or get through the hormonal hell is to read Sandra Tsing Loh’s new memoir The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones. In it she recounts the year she started experiencing the trifecta of menopausal symptoms: hot flashes, the disappearance of her metabolism, and mood swings that pinball from rage to manic ups to an ennui that leaves you inert.

 According to statistics by 2015 almost 50% of American women will be menopausal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t feel so much like a “hear me roar” moment as it does a “someone please turn up the a/c” one. We’re not roaring we’re shvitzing. For Loh she begins to notice “the change” as a literal change when she has an affair, gets a divorce, and then watched her lover go back to his wife, only to end up marrying him later.

She bemoans the fact that modern day menopause is significantly less satisfying because compared to her mother throwing a glass baking dish against the wall in front of her, she can’t go into full on rage in front of her daughters for fear of “damaging their feelings of security.”

The Madwoman in the Volvo follows Loh’s experiences as she tries to rediscover the woman she used to be. With one friend she embarks on the happiness project until it devolves into shopping for new nail polish at Target and feels like too much trouble. She decides that it is the mothering and wife-ing that is weighing her down and so visits a wealthy, unmarried friend for a day and experiences being the recipient of care as opposed to the giver. Loh mixes these personal experiences with the medical facts of what is happening within a woman’s body in menopause. Namely, that estrogen gives women the nurturing energy necessary to give birth to and raise children and when it goes away, we revert back to the behavior of everyone else—or as Loh puts it

And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: She can be the same selfish, nonnurturing, nonbonding type of person everyone else is. 

 When she’s told exercise and diet are critical components to feeling better she embarks on a rigorous regimen with a personal trainer but finds that

 My days are already interminably long. To get up before dawn to do something miserable like spinning and then to have even more day left over afterward? Which they wanted to fill with—something?

does not work for her. To make matters worse, her husband does none of these things but loses weight anyway.

 Loh’s wry, snarky humor infuses The Madwoman in the Volvo, making what is a not-so-humorous time in a woman’s life, wildly amusing. This is NOT a medical guide but there is useful, factual information throughout. The fact that it comes coated with laughs makes it that much better to read.

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

What the Lady Wants

New American Library, November 4, 2014

New American Library, November 4, 2014

 

For almost as long as I have loved books I have loved fashion and before my career in the book world I was a buyer for a large department store in Atlanta called Rich’s. Remember the good old days when department stores had a name other than Macy’s?! One of the best known in the Midwest was Marshall Field’s and in her new novel, What the Lady Wants, Renée Rosen captures its history and the history of Chicago itself, beginning with The Great Fire in 1871. At the time Chicago was viewed as the dirty upstart trying to take on New York City but for Delia Spencer it is a grand and exciting place. She comes from a family of wealth and through her eyes we watch the city fall and be rebuilt again and again—each time with more opulence, especially in its stores.

Rosen propels Delia’s story with the same speed as the fire that swept through the timber structures of Chicago. When it is time for her to marry and start her own family she does so to Arthur Caton, a lawyer who has made his fortune by selling his telegraph company to Western Union. Through their social lives both Delia and Arthur become well acquainted with Marshall Field and like the rest of the city, watch him build a store whose main purpose is to “give the lady what she wants”. Marshall enjoys Delia’s perspective on improving his store and their relationship becomes an affair that stretches for the next three decades and causes a furor in Chicago society. For modern day readers it’s interesting to see how something so scandalous plays out in the society of the late 1800s. In our electronic age we have “flaming” and “trolling”—largely anonymous ways to attack people, but what would it be like to walk down the street, enter a store, or go to party and have people turn away or refuse to acknowledge you? Delia experiences this and her love for Marshall costs her many of the relationships in her life.

Rosen is careful to point out that What the Lady Wants is by and large fiction, as society families of the time were fiercely private. Her research into Field’s professional life and accomplishments is accurate as are the names of the main characters and the events occurring in Chicago throughout the span of the novel but beyond the broadest strokes she is creating fiction. Fiction populated with characters and events that provide a perfect escape back to a time when shopping was an experience. And just like stepping away from everyday life and being pampered in one of those grand old stores What the Lady Wants is a delicious and extravagant take on one of the cornerstones of Chicago history.

Postcard of Marshall Field's store

Postcard of Marshall Field’s store in early 1900s



This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

we are all completely

Plume, paperback release February 2014

 

Narrator Rosemary Cooke begins We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the middle of her family’s story, which is a quick indication of how this unusual and highly imaginative novel is going to go. The year is 1996 and she’s in her fifth year of college. A gregarious child she has morphed into a quiet and secretive young woman, largely due to the circumstances regarding the disappearance of her sister Fern. Despite it being the middle of the story Rosemary drops clues about the beginning, when she, her brother Todd and her sister Fern all lived on a farm and what seemed like a relatively normal childhood. But by 1996 both Fern and her brother are gone, her brother seeming to have embarked on a career as a domestic terrorist fighting for animal causes.

In Rosemary author Karen Joy Fowler gives us a narrator who relates her life with a great deal of self-deprecating wit but whose stream-of-consciousness style means we move quickly from one time period to the next in a way that can be disorienting. She herself acknowledges

This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. 

Although only five years old at the time she believes herself to be the cause of Fern’s disappearance, the event that caused the end of life as she knew it and drove each of the family members off into their own corners. It is also when she stopped talking so much because talking could lead to recognition of and explanations about her family which was something no one wanted. Instead, much of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated from inside Rosemary’s irreverent, knife-blade sharp mind as she brings forth memories of her sister and their life and the almost inevitable loss of Fern. It is only as she reconciles her inner perceptions and outer world that Rosemary begins to find answers.

Fowler creates a novel in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves that is fantastical and yet grounded in some of the sensational news of recent years and it is easy to see why she made the Man Booker Award shortlist for 2014. What happens to Fern and the truth of Rosemary’s childhood comes to light in bits and pieces while Rosemary slogs through the present day in hopes of seeing both her brother and sister again. To lay out such a novel (where to review most of the plot results is a spoiler alert) is no small task but in Fowler’s hand it flows freely from incredulity to sadness, not just for Fern, who was taken, but for Rosemary, who was left behind. For her, childhood is both a burden and a joy to remember and leaves her emotionally split down the middle.

It’s hard to overstate how lonely I was. Let me just repeat that I’d once gone, in a matter of days, from a childhood where I was never alone to this prolonged, silent only-ness.

It is Fowler’s quick, fresh prose that gives Rosemary her mocking humor about herself and lures the reader into her perceptions about her childhood. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quirky and, for some, may not make sense but there is no denying the power of Fowler’s inventive mind and how plausible she makes Rosemary’s world, until it is not.

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Michel Faber and The Book of Strange New Things

Recently, I reviewed Michel Faber’s new novel The Book of Strange New Things. My greatest sense of the story was a feeling of disconnection and I used descriptors like emotionally sterile, carefully controlled, and, in regards to the main character’s mindset “dreamy apathy”. Then, earlier in the week I came across this interview Faber just did with NPR. I don’t want to paraphrase here so please listen to it—it’s less than 3 minutes long.   Michel Faber Interview

Yes, Faber wrote this novel while his wife was dying of bone marrow cancer. I’m not back today today because I think my lackluster review ever reached Faber’s eyes or even matters in the larger scheme of things. I’m writing because, for as much as I feel bad about not “getting” the book I also wonder just how much an author’s personal life should play into reviews of their books. For me, now knowing that Faber constructed this world where a man is separated from his wife by billions of miles and so cannot truly understand the hardships she is going through back on Earth, makes perfect sense. It casts the entire novel in a whole new light. And yet, this overwhelming sadness I see now in much of the story is only me imposing myself on a situation I know nothing about.

I have no idea what it is like to be a professional reviewer for a book publication and so, don’t know if the people reading novels for The Guardian, The New York Times, or any of the other big publications are given personal author background information when they read a book for review. Or is it considered irrelevant and the work is to be judged on its own merit? Given that the mainstream media make no mention of Faber’s personal life in their reviews it seems to me that it is not a factor to be considered and by and large I agree, but for me much of my perception of The Book of Strange New Things has changed. I may be confused and conflicted on what is fiction and what is tinged with reality but there is no doubt about the novel’s last sentence when the protagonist quotes from the Book of Matthew, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. For me, this heartbroken statement lends more weight to the story than it previously held and knowing of Faber’s loss, gives the book deeper meaning. I’m not so sure whether this is a good thing for readers or whether the story itself should have evoked emotion on its own—what do you think?

Let Me Be Frank With You

let me be frank

Ecco, November 4, 2014

 

Frank Bascombe is back in Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and I, for one am happy to see him again. Ford’s last novel, The Lay of the Land, covered Bascombe’s travails through his mid-fifties in a way that perfectly encapsulated the middle-age process of fight and accept. In Let Me Be Frank With You, Bascombe moves through four vignettes that are comprised of encounters with a business acquaintance, a stranger, his ex-wife, and an old friend. It’s the two weeks before Christmas in 2012 and we follow him through meetings that are both odd and innocuous. He goes to the Jersey shore to meet the man who bought his beach house years ago and survey its wreckage after Hurricane Sandy, lets a stranger into his new home because she lived there as a child, visits his ex-wife Ann in the expensive assisted care facility where she now lives due to Parkinson’s, and goes to see an old acquaintance who is dying of colon cancer.

In and of themselves these chapters do not capture anything extraordinary. There are certain books and movies where conversations occur with words so profound we wish we could say them, but the reality is we don’t because really, they’re just amazing dialogue but not likely to ever occur between two people. This doesn’t happen in Let Me Be Frank. Instead, there is the reality of the awkward pauses and words left unsaid, the times when you’re not sure what you should say. There is no sage advice or long delayed realizations, no bringing forth of profound insights. Instead, in each of these events it is not so much what is happening or being said as what is not. Ford shows us these moments, when Bascombe wonders why exactly he is in a situation or what is expected of him and they provide more relief than the perfectly turned phrase or spot-on sentiment.

Let Me Be Frank With You doesn’t have the heft of The Lay of the Land but doesn’t need it. Instead, the slimmer length of the novel feels appropriate for what Ford is conveying about Bascombe’s life. This is the winding down, the summing-up, the way the mind goes when a certain point in life has been reached. For Bascombe, at sixty-nine, after the death of a child and prostate cancer it’s more about letting go than piling on and Ford writes his sentiments with exactly the right amount of gravitas and acerbic humor. Let Me Be Frank With You is not the pontifications of an older man who now believes himself to possess all the wisdom and insight the years should have bestowed, but, instead, is the quiet musings of someone who sees himself quite clearly in the mirror and is simply going to play through as best he can. Ford makes this clear right from the title with the simple request ‘let me be Frank with you’ because this is all there is. Frank Bascombe is not a man to linger too long on the what-ifs or the past. He holds true to an ethos of accepting and getting on and if he does so with an astringent attitude, so much the better for us. There is no self-pity and no excess of emotion in this man, just a quiet stating of the facts. And for that, I’m grateful. I don’t know if he’ll be back, but for this middle-aged woman Frank Bascombe reflects much of the inner communication of all Boomers as they face the back nine. We are who we are.

What isn’t ignited by stress? I didn’t know stress even existed in my twenties. What happened that brought it into our world? Where was it before? My guess is it was latent in what previous generations thought of as pleasure but has now transformed the whole psychic neighborhood. 

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Free-Range Reading Time!

free-range-reading

It’s fortunate that as we head into the busiest time of year for family, shopping, travel and gatherings, the book world slows down. By and large throughout the year we book bloggers are held to a schedule of release dates and have to plan our reading and writing accordingly but November and December are quiet months for new book releases. I had already decided to use this time to get caught up on all the reading I wanted to do but had no time for when I saw that Tanya at 52 books or bust came up with a great idea: Free-Range Reading! In her infinite wisdom there are NO rules to this event—it is whatever I decide. So from today through December 15th I’m choosing to read books from the Roof Beam Reader TBR challenge from the beginning of the year (at which I’m failing), my Goodreads to-read list and whatever else catches my eye. Here’s what I’m thinking so far but there will be more to come:

  • Stoner
  • Divergent
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
  • Slow Motion
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Daring Greatly
  • 740 Park

 

How about you? Do you find you have time for reading during the holiday months? If you’re a blogger is there any book you’re really looking forward to?

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