Wednesday, May 30, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Skios


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Skios by Michael Frayn

The great master of farce turns to an exclusive island retreat for a comedy of mislaid identities, unruly passions, and demented, delicious disorder.

synopsis from Goodreads:
On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. He turns out to be surprisingly youthful, handsome, and charming—quite unlike his reputation as dry and intimidating. Everyone is soon eating out of his hands. So, even sooner, is Nikki, the foundation's attractive and efficient organizer.

Meanwhile, in a remote villa at the other end of the island, Nikki's old friend Georgie has rashly agreed to spend a furtive horizontal weekend with a notorious schemer, who has characteristically failed to turn up. Trapped there with her instead is a pompous, balding individual called Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has lost his whereabouts, his luggage, his temper, and increasingly all sense of reality—indeed, everything he possesses other than the text of a well-traveled lecture on the scientific organization of science.

In a spiraling farce about upright academics, gilded captains of industry, ambitious climbers, and dotty philanthropists, Michael Frayn, the farceur "by whom all others must be measured" (CurtainUp), tells a story of personal and professional disintegration, probing his eternal theme of how we know what we know even as he delivers us to the outer limits of hilarity.

Publishing June 19, 2012 by Metropolitan Books.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

I loved Seabiscuit and I heard wonderful things about Unbroken but hadn't had a chance to read it until now. It's a perfect coincidence that I finished it the day before Memorial Day! I really loved it and couldn't put it down.

Louie Zamperini was a hoodlum as a kid and luckily when he got to his teen years, his older brother Pete helped him channel his energy so instead of running from the cops and the neighbors, he started running track. He won a track scholarship to college and went to the 1936 Olympics, even snapping a photo of Hitler while he was there. He was easily on the way to breaking the 4-minute mile years earlier than it actually was broken, when WWII broke out and he went to war as a bombadier. He actually had a lot of fun goofing around with the other soldiers while training and in their first bombing runs, until of course the day his plane went down. Louie was one of three survivors drifting West, into Japanese-controlled waters with no food, little water, in two small and disintegrating rafts for weeks and weeks.

One difficult thing about nonfiction is maintaining suspense when the outcome is known, but Ms. Hillenbrand mastered that in Seabiscuit and uses her skill well here too. You know that Louie survives, so that part isn't where the suspense comes in - but you don't know how bad things will get and how he will survive. So it's not a spoiler for me to tell you he survives the raft at sea - setting a new record while he was at it - but he is rescued by the Japanese at the height of the war, and things go downhill from there.

The stories are nearly unbelievable and luckily this is an example of when truth is stranger than fiction. Ms. Hillenbrand has done extensive research to back up everything with is amply evident in her endnotes, but also simply in instances where she says things like that the reports of how much weight Louie lost at sea vary in different media and gives you all 3 reported weights. It is very fortunate she found this man with such an amazing backstory, a horrific wartime experience, a wonderful memory, and a long life. At the end, I was expecting the last chapter and the Afterward to be just simple wrap-ups, but I ended up loving those chapters the most! After the war his life didn't just suddenly turn into "Leave it to Beaver" and I loved how Ms. Hillenbrand didn't just drop the story at the end of the war but went on to show the war's impact after the fact ("post-traumatic stress disorder" existed long before we'd invented the phrase) and how Louie did - and didn't - cope with it. That was almost more inspiring to me than how he survived the raft and being a POW.

Ms. Hillenbrand's writing is smooth and compelling and easy to read. She does have a perfect subject in Louie, but she brings so much to the story, in the fluidity and ease that makes reading a joy, not a chore. The opening page is so gripping, I read it aloud to my BF. The other characters were well-developed and three-dimensional (even though many of them she was unfortunately not able to meet, as they are not still alive), the how of the survival was quite tense, and you count down to the fall of 1945, knowing that this will end, even though the POWs do not share this knowledge that there will be a finite and successful end to their trauma. This brilliantly written book was likely many a Father's Day present last June and should be again (it's just recently in paperback.)

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Books I gave up on:
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin (audio)
I know, I know, this is shocking to me too. I normally love comedians/humorists reading their own books and I normally find George Carlin quite funny - I've been quoting his routine on sports for over 25 years now! But this audiobook was just torture. The material isn't very funny - it's a lot of general old-person crankiness ("Don't put nuts in my ice cream! It's supposed to be creamy!"), bizarre complaints about changing terminology making the English language more PC (he is annoyed that waiters and waitresses are now "servers"), and occasionally offensive tirades with unnecessary profanity mixed with what must be funny mock-ads that don't translate well to audio and fall flat. It's only 7 hours but after more than a month I haven't even made it halfway through. In fact whenever I turn it on, I feel like I'm being tortured. It's time to let it go.

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes

Up next:
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Friday, May 25, 2012

Historical Novels? The Debate!

Yesterday on my way to book club, I was listening to my favorite books podcast, Books on the Nightstand, and they were discussing Historical Novels. Normally I agree with Ann and Michael, but this time I was yelling at the radio. They both said they thought the definition of a "historical novel" included only books that spanned many decades, multiple generations, like Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I think that's completely wrong - those are called "sagas".  Sagas would include books by authors such as Edward Rutherford and James Michener. I think this definition is already pretty set, so I was baffled by their definition and their complete agreement on this matter.

At book club, we were discussing The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin which I consider a historical novel despite taking place over only 3 years, but it's set in the 1890s, so I brought up the topic.  And much to my shock, half the women in book club have a different definition of historical novels as well! The think a historical novel but involve historical figures, like The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Much to my surprise, they didn't even consider The American Heiress or Pillars of the Earth to be historical fiction!

Personally, I have always thought that any novel set in the past is a historical novel, like The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. My only question was whether or not to classify books that were written a long time ago but were contemporaneous at the time as historical, like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins or Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I know I shouldn't really, after all there's a real immediacy to reading about World War I in Rilla of Ingleside when they have no idea there will be a World War II. But it's hard for me to separate books written a hundred years ago by their original pub date, particularly when you throw books like Gone With the Wind into the mix (set in the 1860s, written in the 1930s).
Also on the podcast they mentioned a book had to be set at least 60 years in the past to be "historical," and again I disagree. I think a book set in the 1970s or 1980s even can be historical, particularly if the era of the time is an important part of the story.

So, I think I need to fix my list of historical novels on Goodreads - I think I definitely need to separate out the books that weren't historical when they were written, and I like the idea of making books based on historical figures a category, but I still completely disagree with Ann and Michael's definition of a historical novel - those are sagas (and my book club agreed on this point)! I had no idea there were so many potential definitions of historical novels.  I didn't even realize there were multiple interpretations of that genre - and knowing about genres is a part of my job! What do you think of all this?

Book Beginnings: Unbroken

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader.

Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

 Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

"All he could see, in every direction, was water."

Ms. Hillenbrand starts off terrific with a suspenseful, ominous beginning. In fact, I read the first paragraph out loud to my boyfriend, as I thought it was just great and sets up the story so well!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

synopsis from GoodReads:"I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery, and for a poor woman—bodily and morally the husband’s slave—a very doubtful happiness." —Queen Victoria to her recently married daughter Vicky

Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.

No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts—and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane—in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted—passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella's intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of "a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal." Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

As she accomplished in her award-winning and bestselling The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale brilliantly recreates the Victorian world, chronicling in exquisite and compelling detail the life of Isabella Robinson, wherein the longings of a frustrated wife collided with a society clinging to rigid ideas about sanity, the boundaries of privacy, the institution of marriage, and female sexuality.

Publishing June 19, 2012 by Walker & Company.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: Unbroken


Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand p. 27

"Louie Zamperini was on his way to Germany to compete in the Olympics in an event that he had only contested four times. He was the youngest distance runner to ever make the team."

Ms. Hillenbrand certainly found an unusual and outstanding young man to write about - he went from running from the police for petty crimes, to setting national and worldwide running records. I'm also horrified and impressed to see in the photos that he appears to be running in leather dress shoes like men wear with a suit! I am not sure that athletic shoes had even been invented yet

Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Are you a fan of "Downton Abbey"? This novel is basically the story of the mother, the rich American heiress who comes over to England to marry royalty and gain a title. The Brits need American money, and Americans desperately want titles; it was a match made in heaven.

In the 1890s, Cora Cash is the richest, most desirable young debutant in America. Loosely based on the true story of Consuela Vanderbilt (although the Vanderbilts are mentioned in  passing), Cora goes to England to find a good match, and while out of a ride she hits her head and is knocked out. Conveniently she is found by the Duke of Wareham (Ivo), nursed back to health, and he proposes. Her meddling mother and his striving mother along with other characters come to England to see how Cora would navigate the particulars of a British upper society eager to see her fail. To increase the Upstairs/Downstairs parallels, you also get the perspective of Cora's lady's maid, an African-American, who is pretty unique in England and in fact experiences less racism there, if she's even more of a novelty.

This book was a very fast read, I zipped through it in just a few days despite its length (helped along by a largish font). This era was somewhat new to me, so it was intriguing to learn about. Plus, the extravagance and opulence are so much fun to read about. Cora has her unappealing side, being spoiled and obsessed with, but as time goes on, you become very sympathetic to this young woman who everyone has such great expectations for, who wants to marry for love but is pressured to marry for status, and who has no real allies in her life.

I will be intrigued to see how our discussion goes at book group. There are a lot of potential topics, such as class issues, race issues, money vs. love vs. status, and of course if you think Cora did the right thing at the end. I can't of course explain what I mean by that without giving away spoilers, but it's a very intriguing situation she ends up in and I suspect a controversial decision she comes to. The book might seem like light fluff, and if that's what one wants, one doesn't need to look further, but there is more beneath the surface than at first appears.

I bought this book at Park Road Books.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin (audio)
The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes

Up next:
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Review: The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

When a friend writes a book, you always cross your fingers when you read it, hoping it will be as good as you hope and luckily Mariah has succeeded again!

Rain has always been very quiet, trying to just stay out of the way at her school. She has a speech impediment which she has let more or less silence her. In 9th grade, her two friends both leave the prep school Rain goes to, leaving her alone, and also very open to Wendy, a new transfer student. At first things go great. They become best friends despite Wendy's incredible desire for popularity. Thanks to Rain's intense observations, she's able to tell Wendy exactly how to go about it: start with the most popular girl's third-tier friends, and slowly work your way up. Wendy however is impatient. She goes straight to the top and when she gets rejected, she wants revenge. As she starts to act out, hitting on other girls' boyfriends and partying hard, Rain pulls back and they're not good friend anymore after 9th grade. Two years later, Wendy's mother calls to see if Rain knows why Wendy didn't come home last night. A few hours later Wendy's body is found in Central Park.

Despite not being best friends anymore, or perhaps because of it (could she have prevented Wendy's death if they had stayed friends?), Rain feels compelled to look into Wendy's death, especially when she starts to think someone from the school is somehow involved. But to help Wendy, Rain's going to have to learn to finally speak up, which is something Wendy had always encouraged her to do.

I read this book in one day. Every opportunity I had - while at the farmer's market, while at the driving range - I was reading this book. My boyfriend had to literally pry it out of my hands so that I could do the work I had intended to do yesterday. I'm not quite sure how to sub-categorize this book, perhaps YA noir? The mystery angle truly kept me turning the pages hypnotically, trying to figure out along with Rain, whodunit. The red herrings were quite good I thought, having been totally fooled by one of them. And the actual culprit was hinted at along the way, if subtlely, so at the end you don't feel like the revelation came out of left field. The toxic atmosphere of high school is very well depicted, without being over-the-top or stereotypical. It's very neat to see the story told from the point-of-view of the outcast, but not the scapegoat - just a girl on the outskirts.
I think teens would love the book for its honesty and for the excitement. It is partly inspired by the real life "party-girl murder" from the 1980s, as Ms. Fredericks was a teen herself in New York when that high-profile murder took place. This book was a joy to read, and the next day I still can't stop thinking about it. 

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I bought this book at B&N.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: The American Heiress

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

"The visiting hour was almost over, so the hummingbird man encountered only the occasional carriage as he pushed his cart along the narrow strip of road between the mansions of Newport and the Atlantic Ocean."

Only in a place like Newport are people rich and eccentric enough for there to be someone actually called "the hummingbird man"!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Sweet Tooth


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy by Kate Hopkins
A cultural history of candy—how it evolved from medicine and a luxury to today's Kit Kat bars and M&M's

Told through the Kate Hopkins' travels in Europe and the U.S., Sweet Tooth is a first-hand account of her obsession with candy and a detailed look at its history and development. The sugary treats we enjoy today have a prominent past entertaining kings, curing the ill, and later developing into a billion-dollar industry. The dark side of this history is that the confectionery industry has helped create an environment of unhealthy overindulgence, has quelled any small business competition that was deemed to be a risk to any large company's bottom line, and was largely responsible for the slave trade that evolved during the era of colonization.

Candy's history is vast and complex and plays a distinct part in the growth of the Western world. Thanks to the ubiquity of these treats which allows us to take them for granted, that history has been hidden or forgotten. Until now. Filled with Hopkins' trademark humor and accompanied by her Candy Grab Bag tasting notes, Sweet Tooth is a must-read for everybody who considers themselves a candy freak.

Publishing by St. Martin's Press on May 22, 2012.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: The American Heiress

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin p. 76

"The Duke, of course, had not seen her looking like this, at her best. It was possible that he had not quite taken in the extent to which she, Cora Cash, was as beautiful as she was rich." 

And boy, is she rich!  The richest ever!  And pretty (nice combo as they rarely go hand-in-hand.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
none. The Fatal Shore is very long and dense!

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin

Up next:
Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
The Slap: A Novel by Christos Tsiolkas
The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves by Dr. Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and the New York Times bestselling author of The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational, examines the contradictory forces that drive us to cheat and keep us honest, in this groundbreaking look at the way we behave: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.

From ticket-fixing in our police departments to test-score scandals in our schools, from our elected leaders’ extra-marital affairs to the Ponzi schemes undermining our economy, cheating and dishonesty are ubiquitous parts of our national news cycle—and inescapable parts of the human condition.

Drawing on original experiments and research, in the vein of Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, and Survival of the Sickest, Ariely reveals—honestly—what motivates these irrational, but entirely human, behaviors.

Publishing by Harper on June 5, 2012.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: The Fatal Shore

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes p. 38

"Clearly transportation [of criminals] must begin again--but to where? They chose the least imaginable spot on earth, which had been visited only once by white men."

Do you know why they had to begin transporting criminal elsewhere? Because their previous penal colony - Georgia - was in America which had revolted and thrown off the crown. And it was actually preferable to the conditions in British jails.

Monday, May 7, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel by Susan Vreeland
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin (audio)
The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes
Up next:
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse by James L. Swanson
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris


Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: The Fatal Shore


Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes
 
"In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonize Australia." 
 
The continent had only been discovered 17 years prior and was on the other side of the world.  I'm going to Australia this summer so I'm tackling this history again.

Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert


I don't know the last time I took so long to read a book, and I never gave up on it!  You might be expecting me to rate low a book I spent over 6 months reading, but I did enjoy it. An awful lot of information lies between these covers and so it's perfect for small snippets here and there as you can certainly use the time to digest what you've learned.

Basically the book is about how our imagination works (or doesn't) and how its flaws can lead us to erroneous assumptions, wrong decisions, and to think we're less happy than we are. For instance, we imagine that being fired will feel wretchedly horrible, but when it actually happens we don't report feeling that bad, because we rationalize what happened ("I didn't like working there anyway.") We make bad predictions about the future, we misremember the past, we don't take advice, all because of the way our imagination works. It might not be perfect, but it is one definite thing that sets us apart from other animals and does allow us to plan for events. 

While the book stuffs a heck of a lot of ideas into a small space, it's totally accessible, if a little dense for large doses. Mr. Gilbert's writing is straightforward and very funny. For example, "With the exception of Wilt Chamberlain, nobody picks friends and lovers by random sampling" (181) or "we could average those measurements and feel reasonably confident that a tyrannosaurus is indeed bigger than a root vegetable."  His examples are hilarious, and the book is peppered with optical illusions and other tricks. He quotes everyone from Freud to Frank Zappa to Plato and if you really wanted to, you could learn from this book how to make better decisions (or at least less skewed ones). I doubt I will be so proficient - I mostly just read it for amusing anecdotes and explanation of seemingly absurd behavior, but you could if you wanted.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Louis Comfort Tiffany is known as the creator of the famous Tiffany lamps which we all hope that Antiques Roadshow will tell us that leaded glass lamp in the living room really is. He aspired his whole life to supersede his father's success with Tiffany & Co., but he failed. Despite numerous accolades, awards, and thousands in sales, his expenses always outstripped his income and his father always had to supplement the expenses of Tiffany Glassworks. Tiffany experimented with opalescent glass and enameling and frequently shifted his focus, leaving past projects behind, except for his enormous leaded glass windows, which he thought would be his legacy. Ironically, his legacy has proven to be those lovely lamps, which weren't designed by him at all but by Clara Driscoll, the head of his women's department, who also may have come up with the idea in the first place.

Tiffany was progressive in even having a women's department, which other glassworks certainly did not at the time. But he was a man of his times, and he only allowed single women to work there, so Clara had had to leave when she got married. However when we meet her, her husband has died leaving his money to a child she didn't know about from a previous relationship, and leaving her broke, so she returned to Tiffany who immediately rehired her. She had an idea for a lampshade that used a floral motif, instead of the simple geometric designs the men's department specialized in, and Tiffany let her do it. She designed dozens and dozens of lamps, experimenting with shapes and bases and how the lead lines were worked into the designs. Along the way, we see how Clara's staff of very young girls (some only 15) from a wide variety of backgrounds get along, even occasionally going to their homes when they had problems Clara needed to deal with directly, which gives us a glimpse into the poverty of the recent immigrants 100 years ago. We also see their plight through Clara's fiancee who works with recent immigrants, helping them get jobs and housing and other help. Clara experiences all the late 1800s, early 1900s New York has to offer, including bicycles, the subway, and skyscrapers. Through it all, her loyalty to Tiffany is tested, her artistic bounds are stretched, and she has to figure out who she really is and what's truly important to her in her life.

Ms. Vreeland is known for her research and it certainly shows here, perhaps a tad too much. She describes everything in intricate detail, from the kind of headlamp Clara's bicycle uses to the steps for making a leaded glass window to the squalor of the Lower East Side. Some of these details, such as regards the glasswork, were certainly needed if a little confusing, but some were a bit much, as when a gentleman, taking Clara and a friend to his apartment in the Tenderloin to deal with a potentially dangerous situation, momentarily pauses to note his favorite Ragtime song coming out of a nearby window. In addition, a couple were actually wrong regarding the Flatiron Building (where I used to work).  It is 22 stories but you cannot take the elevators to the 22nd floor - you can take them to the 21st floor and there is a separate elevator (or take the stairs) to the topmost floor. And when you get there, you can't look down on look down on rooftops, as the top floor is half the size of the other floors and you would be looking at the roof of the 21st floor, and a balustrade of very fat newel posts that completely obstruct the view.  You can see rooftops, but at a very shallow angle, so they'd be a couple of blocks away and would be unlikely to make anyone dizzy, even if you were unused to being up that high.  If you went down a floor, you could more easily see down, but still not straight down, even with the windows open, as the ornamentation of the facade blocks a straight-down view everywhere in the building (as far as I know). Also, it was not called the Flatiron building when it was built.  It was the Fuller Building (which is still engraved on the front of the building) and the nickname of "Flatiron" did come quickly, but not immediately. Not to mention the true origin of the phrase "twenty-three skidoo" is unknown and the theory that it has to do with winds whipping up women's skirts at 23rd street and Broad way is just a theory. Ms. Vreeland mentions in the afterword in a discussion with her editor that in her one trip to New York for research, she did not make it to the Flatiron building, and I sorely wish she had.

I also wish she had left it out entirely. I wish I could read a book set in turn-of-the-last-century New York, and have them not mention the Flatiron building. Speaking as a former resident of the city, I didn't go everywhere and do everything. I didn't ever go up the World Trade Center (yes, I regret) and I didn't go to the UN and I didn't go to Ellis Island. People who live there don't do those touristy things. Not to mention Clara likely was stretching her budget to go to the Jersey shore so frequently. But she seemed to bump into famous people (or her friends did) and go to famous (or not-yet-famous) landmarks and try the latest technologies. I also didn't like how she and her friends referred to themselves as Victorian - did Victorians know they were "Victorians" at the time? I feel like period designations usually come after the fact. And it was distracting to have her going to lunch with a couple of girls in the office and to tell them that a man they were passing was poor and wrote stories and his name was O. Henry. How would she know that? He wasn't successful yet - how on earth would she have recognized him? 

I liked the story a lot, I loved the details of how the Tiffany studios worked, the difficulties in the era with women not being allowed in the unions and the men competing with the women for jobs within the studio, and so on. But there was too much showing off of the research done and too many "Forrest Gump" moments in my opinion. The book would have been stronger if she had edited her details more assiduously.


I bought this book at Park Road Books.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events--the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don't by Jennifer Gilbert

Synopsis from HarperCollins:
When Jennifer Gilbert was just a year out of college, a twenty-two-year-old fresh-faced young woman looking forward to a bright future, someone tried to cut her life short in the most violent way. But she survived, and not wanting this traumatic event to define her life, she buried it deep within and never spoke of it again.

She bravely launched a fabulous career in New York as an event planner, designing lavish parties and fairy-tale weddings. Determined to help others celebrate and enjoy life's greatest moments, she was convinced she'd never again feel joy herself. Yet it was these weddings, anniversaries, and holiday parties, showered with all her love and attention through those silent, scary years, that slowly brought her back to life.

Always the calm in the event-planning storm—she could fix a ripped wedding dress, solve the problem of an undelivered wedding cake in the nick of time, and move a party with two days' notice when disaster struck—there was no crisis that she couldn't turn into a professional triumph. Somewhere along the way, she felt a stirring in her heart and began yearning for more than just standing on the sidelines living vicariously through other people's lives. She fell in love, had her heart broken a few times, and then one day she found true love in a place so surprising that it literally knocked her out of her chair.

As Gilbert learned over and over again, no one's entitled to an easy road, and some people's roads are bumpier than others. But survive each twist and turn she does—sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter, and often with both.

Warm, wise, alternately painful and funny, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is an inspiring memoir of survival, renewal, and transformation. It's a tale about learning to let go and be happy after years of faking it, proving that while we can't always control what happens to us, we can control who we become. And instead of anticipating our present in a goodie bag at the end of an event, we realize our presence at every event is the real gift.

Publishing by Harper on May 15, 2012.

Book Review: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

This was the assigned book for my book club and I wasn't crazy about the selection - a book described as having magical realism, blurbed by T.C. Boyle (who I don't like), and set in Eastern Europe, just wasn't my cup of tea.  I wasn't exactly cringing, but it wasn't on my list to read, despite its amazing reviews and word of mouth and being a National Book Award finalist.  However, I was actually kind of glad about the assignment because of all of these things.  The book is hot right now in literary circles, and I ought to read it.  And I'm glad I did.

Natalia is a young doctor, traveling to a small town to administer vaccines to poor children. While she is gone her beloved grandfather, who only she knew was sick with cancer, dies in another small town, away from home.  The book is filled with flashbacks to Natalia and her grandfather while she was growing up.  He once got her up in the middle of the night and took her out into the street to see a marvelous thing - a circus elephant walking along.  Devotees of the city zoo, they both really appreciated her regal appearance as she lumbered slowly through town.  Her grandfather always wanted to go see the tiger, and Natalia knew it was because of an experience he'd had as a small child growing up in a remote, isolated tiny village, and the story, which is told throughout the novel, is the story of The Tiger's Wife.  Her grandfather never got around to telling it to her, but she sought it out later, as it explained so much about him.  He did however, tell her the story of The Deathless Man, which I loved. 

I would dispute anyone who considers these stories to be "magical realism" as I don't think we're supposed to believe them.  I think they're Tall Tales, knowingly embellished, told 4th- or 5th-hand, and the parts that are obviously fictionalized, we're supposed to know are fictionalized and take them at face value, nothing more.  I hate magical realism for simply bending the laws of reality when its convenient, and you're supposed to believe that a man can just make himself so heavy that ten other men can't lift him.  You're not really supposed to believe here that a tiger is the husband of a woman, and can unzip his tiger "clothes" and become a man at night for her.  It's a story, and a great story, but also a very foreign one to me.  I did love both these Tall Tales, but overall the foreignness of the book made it hard for me to identify with and really get into. 

The author just jumps into the story and gives very few details and no exposition at all.  You have to figure out where we are (the former Czechoslovakia) and when (late 90s?) and with whom (Natalia's name isn't mentioned until 50 pages in) which on the one hand it nice - she trusts the readers to figure these things out without being spoonfed, but for me it was distracting as I spent a lot of effort trying to answer these questions, which kept me aware of the fact of reading and didn't allow me to become immersed and caught up in the story.  The book is a lovely meditation on death without being maudlin.

Beautifully written, unique, and stirring with great topics to discuss, it was a great selection for book club, and I imagine it will stay with me for time to come.  I do wish I'd been able to identify with it more and hadn't felt so foreign reading it, but those are minor flaws, and I suspect I'll find myself recommending it a lot in the coming months.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Review: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John



I heard about this book when it first came out from Books on the Nightstand, and having loved the author's previous book, I immediately added it to my list. I knew it wouldn't be like his other book, which is very funny, and right off this book's topic doesn't at all lend itself to humor, but I figured I'd still like his reporting style, which I very much did.

Luma Mufleh, a Muslim woman from Jordan, went to college in Massachusetts and never went home. While trying to find her place in America, she ends up in Atlanta owning and running a restaurant, and she finds out that a nearby town, Clarkston, is in need of a youth soccer coach. An avid soccer player and fan her whole life, she saw the need within this community and committed herself, mind, body and soul to this cause. The reason the need was so great? Clarkston had become a town where refugees were resettled. And unlike other refugee resettlement communities in the U.S., in Clarkston the refugees are from all over - it is the melting pot America claims to be, with mixed results.

Luma isn't an easy coach and she isn't always the easiest person to like. She's strident, demanding, and judgmental. But she's also passionate, loyal, and incredibly generous. She buys the families of her players food and coats if they need them. She arranges free, mandatory tutoring for all her students. She lobbies the town council for better playing conditions. The kids who follow her plans succeed.  The ones who don't usually get kicked off the team and cut out of her life, for a while (anyone can get back in her good graces by agreeing to follow her rules), but you can see her heart breaks for them.

The motley crew from Somalia, Iraq, Liberia, and Afghanistan do well under her tutelage. She makes sure the kids don't only mix with other kids of their nationality - which helps their English and helps them pass to the best teammate, not just the one they know. She follows up with kids who miss practice, she checks on their lives outside of soccer, she schleps all over Georgia when she's able to get them into a tournament, she spends all her time and money on these young boys with such great need.

The book is well-written.  What could have been confusing isn't, a large cast of characters is pretty easily distinguished, various ethnic, cultural, and national differences are explained simply, and while the author does mostly keep himself out of the narrative, when absolutely necessary he does acknowledge that he too was there and experienced and saw these things, and even the best reporter can't stay on the outside of the action for so many months, if not years of work.  It was obvious he wasn't trying to insert himself into the story, but only did so when to do otherwise would be silly and/or awkward.

While the book is fairly earnest (normally a kiss of death for me), the flaws of Luma and others are made quite plain, and there were one or two moments of levity that brightened things, and the story wasn't told with reverence or undo seriousness.  I would have preferred more humor of course, but in a story such as this, I'm probably lucky that it wasn't more depressing, given the poverty, danger, and hopelessness these families live with every day. It's tragic that scenes like this play out across America every day, but I hope there are more Lumas out there, ready to step up and give her all to a group of kids who didn't ask to be in their unfortunate situation, but who need a helping hand, a caring heart, and a loving adult to turn to when everyday life might otherwise seem bleak and demoralizing.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.