Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

More than ten years ago I heard Sherman Alexie speak at The New Yorker Festival. He was so engaging and entertaining that I bought his book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, even though I normally hate short stories. I finally read it two years ago and it fulfilled its promise. I immediately bought his acclaimed YA novel.

Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation with his parents. He draws cartoons and plays basketball with his best friend, Rowdy, who protects him from being beaten up (Junior was born with a few medical problems that have led to him looking a little funny.) Then a teacher who taught his older sister, Mary, tells him something important: he is too smart for this reservation school. He decides to go to the local white school. He can't get there and occasionally has to walk the 20 miles home, no one there wants him to come, and no one on the reservation wants him to go (not that they like him, but to them it's a betrayal.) But Junior wants to go to college. He sees his sister, Mary, sinking into a depression and not able to do anything useful with her promising mind.

Naturally a lot of fitting-in issues come up, and Junior learns some interesting, not-so-usual lessons including that the white kids might not have the same problems but they have different problems, and that you can't always tell a bully by how he looks. He learns lessons about loyalty, about love, about terrible loss (there's a heartbreaking passage where he realizes none of his white classmates have been to a funeral aside from a grandparent, and he's been to more than 20, which is average for kids his age on the reservation.) This book is told with brutal honesty, Junior's voice is 100% dead-on a teenager, and it's a fascinating look into a society that is so similar, yet with vital differences, living right alongside a white community. I think if I'd read this book as a teenager, it would have made me sob. It's touching, personal, and true. Every teen should read this book.

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 the independent bookstore on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Beginnings: Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme 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.

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green

"It was a crisp autumn day when I stepped off the porch of my parents' slate-blue house in Farmville and walked a block to the home of a man I had known most of my life, a man who founded the white private school I had attended."

This book is an interesting combo of memoir and history. It's rare that a reporter covering an issue has such a personal tie to it. The story of this Virginia county that closed its public schools instead of desegregate after Brown v. Board of Education is riveting and shocking.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice

I am drawn to all things Australian. I heard about this book years ago and asked my mother to track it down. It's an odd little story. I'm not sure why it was published as a stand-alone and not as a novella in a collection of short stories, but it was. By itself, it is powerful, though.

Kellyanne has two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan. Everyone in their small opal-mining town in the Outback indulges her, giving her three lollipops instead of one, so Pobby and Dingan can each have one, too. Her brother, Ashmol, is frustrated that Kellyanne won't let go of these silly childish ideas, but it doesn't bother him much. His father's mine doesn't produce much, his parents fight a lot, and his mother wants to go back to England and stop working in the local grocery checkout. But one day, Pobby and Dingan disappear. Then Kellyanne takes to her bed, stops eating, and begin wasting away from depression. Ashmol organizes the entire town to look for Pobby and Dingan, which he thinks will make Kellyanne better.

The story is sad. I'm not sure if it's meant to be an allegory. Or if the invisible friends are really real. It leaves a lot up in the air and would  be good for discussion. Ashmol feels like a real boy, but as our narrator we see everything through his eyes and it's effective at also giving us an idea of his parents' bad relationship, the ludicrous hopelessness of their situation with his father literally hoping to strike it rich, and yet the hope and friendship shown by all the townspeople toward Kellyanne. This book still has me thinking about it, a couple of days later.

I was given this book as a gift by my mother.

“Waiting On”: The Muralist

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

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Alizée Benoit, an American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), vanishes in New York City in 1940 amid personal and political turmoil. No one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her artistic patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-knit group of friends, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who while working at Christie’s auction house uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind recently found works by those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt?

Entwining the lives of both historical and fictional characters, and moving between the past and the present, The Muralist plunges readers into the divisiveness of prewar politics and the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entrance to the United States. It captures both the inner workings of today’s New York art scene and the beginnings of the vibrant and quintessentially American school of Abstract Expressionism.

B.A. Shapiro is a master at telling a gripping story while exploring provocative themes. In Alizée and Danielle she has created two unforgettable women, artists both, who compel us to ask, What happens when luminous talent collides with inexorable historical forces? Does great art have the power to change the world? And to what lengths should a person go to thwart evil?

Publishing November 3, 2015 by Algonquin Books.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: The Natural History of a Yard by Leonard Dubkin

This book is one of my mother's favorite books. She talked about it a lot for years and then forced it on me. And I was trying to come up with a book to fill the "a book your mom loves" slot of my reading challenge. So it was a natural fit.

I am so thrilled I had to read this! It was excellent! It is a quiet, meditative book that left me feeling peaceful and calm. The author, along with his daughter Pauline, hangs out in the small front yard of his Chicago apartment building, and he analyzes and tracks the natural history of that yard. He discusses the elm tree, the ants, the pigeons, and the squirrel. He studies them at length and over a period of three years. The building's super, Emil, occasionally helps or is simply a passing addition. The author notes that it would be weird for him, a grown man, to be laying in the grass all summer without a small child running around, so Pauline really allows him to be able to do this unencumbered by curiosity of neighbors.

This book was a delight, a gem. I don't know why it isn't considered a modern classic, except that it's likely too slow for many people. It is worth seeking out, as, to my knowledge, it is sadly out of print.

My mother loaned me this book.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: Siegfried's Murder by Anonymous, translated by A.T. Hatto

My last name used to be a trial to me. But as I grew up, it grew on me. And one day I was at a random picnic with my mother of French speakers (I took German, thanks to my last name) and one of the few people who could and was willing to speak to me told me the story of Siegfried. I was familiar with the fact that he was a German mythological hero, a la Achilles or Hercules--not a god. But what this guy explained was how the myth came to be. That if you get a few hundred or thousand men with metal shields and have them all hold up the shields at once along a flank, it would look an awful lot like a dragon. And if they were doing things like shooting arrows tipped with fire, it could be come a fire-breathing dragon. Cool, huh?

Well this book is one in a line of ancient classics from Penguin, and it is an excerpt from the story of Siegfried, the inspiration for Wagner's Nibelungen, just about his murder. It leaves out most of the cool battle stuff. Because like Achilles, Siegfried has a weakness. He bathed in the blood of the aforementioned dragon after he killed her, but a leaf had fallen onto his back and it stuck and so there is a small spot between his shoulder blades that is not invincible like the rest of him. And when he and his wife go to visit her brother (Siegfried's best friend) and his wife, the two wives get into a spat, mostly about whose husband is better. And the other wife's men get offended by something she says, but they smooth everything over. Or do they? One guy stays pissed, but he acts like he isn't, and in the guise of needing to protect Siegfried from enemies, he gets Siegfried's wife to tell him the weakness. Well, you can guess what happens next.

This is translated from Middle German, from around the same era as Gilgamesh, and so the language is stilted and awkward. I don't know if a translator like Robert Fagles or Robert Fitzgerald could do more with it. But the story itself was pretty fast-moving and captivating. Some things were weird, like how both Siegfried and his future wife kept talking about how in love they were with each other before they ever met. But if you just go with it and overlook those weird things, it's an interesting ancient classic to add to your background. And at such a short length, the weirdness and awkward parts of a very old translation are easy to skim over in a way they wouldn't be at several hundred pages.

A friend who works at an independent bookstore sent me this book.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Beginnings: What Is Visible

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme 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.

What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

"How little they trot me out for show these days, and yet here I am this frigid morning, brought down from my room to meet a child, and me not out of my sickbed two weeks."

Boy, we can tell a lot about our narrator, Laura Bridgman, from just this one line. She both is annoyed by and yet misses being used as a symbol, and she has an imperious tone about her, seeming to be very irritated by being asked to do something when she's only been well for two weeks (which seems quite a long time to me.

Considering that Laura Bridgman was the first famous deaf and blind person to be educated, can you make a guess as to who this child is that she's being introduced to?

Book review: What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

Laura Bridgman was the first deaf and blind person to learn to communicate, not Helen Keller as you may have believed. In fact, she met Helen Keller late in life. The method of spelling letters int he sign language alphabet into her hand that Annie Sullivan used with Helen Keller, was first used with Laura Bridgman, whom Annie Sullivan briefly roomed with at the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

This novel based on Laura's life is mostly narrated by Laura, but also by Dr. Howe, the director of the institute, and by his wife, Julia Ward Howe (if you are, like me, wondering why you know her name, she later wrote, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the Civil War.) The book mostly takes place in the 1840s-1860s, but continues to the end of Laura's life. Laura's relationships were fraught with emotion and tantrums and inappropriate behavior. She also did not have a sense of taste or smell, so to be without four of her five senses left her quite cut off and desperate for connection. The author has invented a lover for Laura, which several members of my book club did not like (although I was the only one who had read the book to the end and so knew the denouement and I think that might have changed things for them. When I explained the how and why of her invention, some of them came around or at least were less skeptical.) A historical novelist must not only adhere to known facts, but instead, when emotional logic calls for a character or an incident that makes sense of the main character's reactions and choices, and it doesn't conflict with the historical record, I am fine with the addition (provided that, as the author did here, there is a thorough and detailed note explaining the line between history and fiction.)

Laura is not an easy woman to like. It is easy to feel pity for her situation, but she is prickly, demanding, and difficult. I admire Dr. Howe's commitment to her, even if it occasionally came with strings attached and with a toll for all parties. She comes across as a very real person, with her myriad flaws and struggles. It doesn't make for a very easy read, but it is worthwhile and was an interesting piece of history I didn't know anything about before.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book review: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, narrated by Jennifer Ehle (audio)

I love Geraldine Brooks's books. I heard her speak at the Southern Festival of Books about her latest novel and I was annoyed I hadn't read her last one yet so I decided to listen to the audio on the drive. What pushed me over was seeing that the narrator was Jennifer Ehle, best know as Elizabeth Bennet from A&E's P&P. At first I was a little confused by an English narrator for an American novel, but as it's set in the 1660s, it makes sense. The colonists then still would have spoken with an American accenobviously much mroe talented girl not only be overlooked, but be actively scoffed at for wanting an education.t, even the ones not born in England.

In this novel Brooks takes a real-life figure, Caleb, the first Native American to go to Harvard, and creates a fictional character to tell the story through, Bethia.Bethia lives on "the island," known to us as Martha's Vineyard, with her family. Her father is a local minister trying to convert the area "Indians" (one of the nicer terms they use for the native peoples.) Caleb is a native boy that Bethia meets. Bethia, gifted with languages, had been eavesdropping on her father's lessons in the native tongue, and picked it up easily, so she could converse with the boy. He, likewise, has a way with languages and quickly picks up English from her. They are friends for a few years, although they know no one will approve, so they hide their friendship. Years later, Caleb turns up as a boarded and student in her house as his English skills have been discerned and he is to be taught, to see if he, and another Indian boy, Joel, can get up to speed enough to go to a prep school and then to Harvard, alongside Bethia's brother, Makepeace. When Bethia and Makepeace's father dies, nearly penniless, Bethia must go with Makepeace as an indentured servant, to cover his tuition and costs. Bethia would have much more appreciated and utilized the lessons, but as a girl, that's impossible. Still, she manages a pretty good education from her eavesdropping and she knows that her mind is an important thing to her and she can't be happy in life unless she finds someone who appreciates her intellect.

I was surprised, given the title, that Caleb wasn't the narrator. In fact, he's not in large chunks of the book. It truly is Bethia's story. And it is frustrating to sit by and see the obviously much smarter sibling not just be overlooked, but be openly prevented from learning, even if that was perfectly in keeping with the time.Some of the historical elements are amusing--Harvard was imposing with its brick 2-story building and it has all of 33 students in its four years, which is impressive to them. The narrative voice felt very true and honest. Ms. Brooks really has a way with making historical figures feel real and relatable, without making them anachronistic.

While fiction on audio often doesn't work for me, this one did. I felt completely immersed in this world and I was rooting for Bethia, and for Caleb, the whole way.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

“Waiting On”: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

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

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein

Synopsis from publisher website:
From the guitarist of the pioneering band Sleater-Kinney, a candid, funny, and deeply personal look at making a life—and finding yourself—in music.

Before Carrie Brownstein became a music icon, she was a young girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest just as it was becoming the setting for one the most important movements in rock history. Seeking a sense of home and identity, she would discover both while moving from spectator to creator in experiencing the power and mystery of a live performance. With Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her bandmates rose to prominence in the burgeoning underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s. They would be cited as “America’s best rock band” by legendary music critic Greil Marcus for their defiant, exuberant brand of punk that resisted labels and limitations, and redefined notions of gender in rock.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is an intimate and revealing narrative of her escape from a turbulent family life into a world where music was the means toward self-invention, community, and rescue. Along the way, Brownstein chronicles the excitement and contradictions within the era’s flourishing and fiercely independent music subculture, including experiences that sowed the seeds for the observational satire of the popular television series Portlandia years later.

With deft, lucid prose Brownstein proves herself as formidable on the page as on the stage. Accessibly raw, honest and heartfelt, this book captures the experience of being a young woman, a born performer and an outsider, and ultimately finding one’s true calling through hard work, courage and the intoxicating power of rock and roll.

Publishing October 27, 2015 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book review: Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox (audio, abridged)

First to say, I hate abridgments. I think they shouldn't exist anymore. And if they do, Overdrive should be more upfront about them (Overdrive also should give me the total number of hours and let me sort by category but this isn't a review of Overdrive.) That said, this is one I can kind of understand because Michael J. Fox narrates it himself, and I imagine that wasn't the easiest thing for him to do. I of course always love it when an author who is a professional performer does their own narration, but due to his Parkinson's disease, it likely was taxing, and I expect his clarity might have suffered. However, I had no trouble understanding him. You could certainly tell that he wasn't the free-flowing snappy Fox of the Alex P. Keaton-era, but that's a huge part of his story so it made perfect sense.

Michael wasn't very good in school, and early on caught the acting bug. It wasn't something he was driven to as much as it was something he was good at, and one summer in high school in the 1970s, he made $6000 acting. He had a convincing argument for his parents to let him drop out of school, and since his father was career military and he was the first in his family poised to go to college, that wasn't an easy thing to do (he did get his GED in his mid-30s). But his father helped him move to Hollywood from Canada, and he started working right away. Soon after, there was a big strike and because he was not American, he couldn't do any other job aside from acting, so he struggled quite a bit financially. And then came Family Ties. The producer and the director fought over him, but luckily he got the job and was perfect for it. And I really admired his loyalty to stay on the show to the very end, even through all the success (and the 20-hour days while filming) of the Back to the Future series. He met his wife on Family Ties, and everyone from that show has stayed tight.

While filming an unmemorable movie in the late 1980s, Doc Hollywood, Mike noticed a twitch in his little finger that wouldn't go away. It unnerved him and he looked into it much more than I would have, but in the end did not go see his assistant's brother, a neurosurgeon. Luckily, his wife is a bit of a hypochondriac and she kept pressing him when he had other odd symptoms. Eventually he was delivered the unlikely diagnosis of very early onset Parkinson's disease. For ten years he hid the diagnosis from most of the public and his coworkers. He created the sitcom Spin City in order to have an easier, regular job which was better for managing his disease, but it still eventually became untenable. Eventually he had brain surgery to stop the twitches and convulsions on his left side. He only had a couple of weeks of complete freedom before his right side started to twitch. He had to retire. And he used that opportunity to tell the public why. Most people with Parkinson's are elderly and not in a position to do fundraising or lobbying. The 10% of the people with early onset who could help with that are afraid of losing their jobs and income and insurance if they do. Mike felt he was in a position to be able to influence the public about this disease and help thousands. Many of us remember him testifying before Congress, unmedicated.

The first few years after the diagnosis were rough. He was partying hard already, and he went through the typical stages of grief including denial. But he hit a low point, when he realized his wife was probably going to leave him, and he quit drinking and quit ignoring his health. His family has been very important and an invaluable support.

Mike really feels like a regular guy. You can see being friends with him, hanging out at a backyard cookout, and its nice for a nice, regular guy to have such success. But it does feel like karma kicked him in the teeth with this illness. But now, he's doing even more important work, between fundraising and awareness raising for Parkinson's, the fact that he's continuing to act on respected shows like The Good Wife (which wasn't mentioned on the audiobook which was published in 2002) expands the options for everyone with disabilities. He is such an accessible and likable star that it feels like, if he can get this illness, anyone can. And if he can soldier on through his troubles, anyone can. He never feels sorry for himself and in the end, the book is inspiring without being maudlin or sappy.

I checked this book out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris

Now I love David Sedaris. I've been to see him 4 or 5 times (so many I've lost track!) in 3 different cities. I have read all of his books of essays. Until this one. Because it wasn't essays--it was stories. At the last reading I went to, he did read a couple from this books, and I was underwhelmed. But David Sedaris is an author for whom I am a completist, and since I am trying to read #15in31 this month and the book is short, I figured this was the time to give it a shot.

And it's okay. Several of the stories are punny. Several more are kind of gross. In some, the animals are very anthropomorphized so it's odd when they haven't heard of something fairly normal ("jazz?") Some are aggressive, others are cheerfully ignoring their instincts. The book is fun and slight and perfect for a light afternoon when you're in the mood for something inconsequential and not thought provoking. Nothing ticked me off or annoyed me, although I may have rolled my eyes a couple of times at the puns. It was enjoyable, but not his best.

I bought this book at one of David Sedaris's events (I've forgotten which one.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book review: How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

Although I find them unrealistic, I do very much like books about college or childhood friends who stay friends through adulthood, through thick and thin. I wish life really worked that way and I'm not 100% sure I buy that this trio would have stayed together in reality but I'm glad it did in fiction.

In college, roommates Kate and Anna stumble across George one night, splayed out in the lawn on a fraternity, looking worse for wear. As George is a member of the women's basketball team, it is no easy trick for Kate and Anna to help her back to a dorm but they manage (with the help of a grocery cart). The next day the roommates take George on their already-planned trip up to Northern California to check out the redwoods. And a fast friendship is made. Kate, a med student from a posh family, spirals down into alcoholism and drug abuse. Anna is betrayed by a family member and spends many years post-college being a barista and TV addict. George, a forest ranger, marries one unfortunate man after another, having a series of little boys. All of them strive to fill gaping holes in their lives instead of patching the holes themselves, which is always a recipe for disaster.

I loved how three-dimensional and real these three women were. I especially loved how both Kate and George plunged headlong into their lives and how desperately they tried to stay ahead of their various poor coping methods. Anna I greatly appreciated, as she showed how one doesn't need to make colossally bad life-altering decisions in the face of emotional trauma--instead one can sink into a quiet ennui. Each of them grow and mature in their own ways, eventually finding better, less destructive coping methods as they grow up.

The book bounces around in time, over the course of about twenty years. And it bounces from character to character. I had no trouble telling them each apart although I greatly appreciated the dateline. Sometimes we were shown the aftermath of an incident well before the incident itself was revealed, as a trick to keep the big reveals for the end without having the climax midway through the book. And I think that was an excellent choice here, as the climax often has repercussions and fallout that can't be adequately covered in a more conventionally-plotted book, as it would feel like a peculiarly long denouement.

An excellent story of female friendship that stands the test of time (and boy, is it tested!)

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: How to Start a Fire

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme 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.

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

"'Are you lost?' the man asked.
"'No,' she said."

Kate is, at this point in her life, traveling around the country alone, looking for specific people. She's somewhat of a loner and also doesn't appreciate unsolicited help. She has at other points in her life, been lost, but this trip is the beginning of Kate become found.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Witches

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

The Witches by Stacy Schiff

Synopsis from Goodreads:
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an 80-year-old man crushed to death.

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, The Witches is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.

Publishing October 20, 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas

When I lived in New York, I lived in the Greek neighborhood, Astoria. Even though I have dark brown hair and brown eyes, they all somehow knew before I ever opened my mouth, that I was not one of them. My hairdresser, Anastasia, would speak in Greek to her colleagues and other Greek customers while she was doing my hair, even though her English was as perfect as mine. But the Greek ex-pat community is tight and inclusive in a way that keeps a large part of their culture alive, even in America.

Stavros Stavros Mavrakis owns a Greek diner in New Jersey and a goat appears one day. He understand this goat to mean that he is going to die in ten days. So he writes an email to his ex-wife and three daughters, telling them what they are doing wrong in their lives and how to fix it. Understandably, the women in his life don't appreciate the unsolicited advice and fights break out. Stavros Stavros doesn't understand why they misunderstand his good intentions and why they won't help him pick out a casket.

While the book is funny, it naturally has undercurrents of pain and sadness.I particularly liked the long flashback to Greece when Stavros was a youth and his bad first marriage and when his daughters were young. I wish there'd been more about the youngest daughter, Ruby. The book felt like it was 90% about the daughters from his first marriage, Stavroula and Litza, and only 10% about Ruby. But Stavroula and Litza do seem much more interesting so it makes sense to focus on them (I was just thinking that perhaps it might have made more sense to not have Ruby in the book at all. But she's not even in it enough to be a distraction so she's fine.) It's fascinating to see what parts of America they like, what parts they reject, what parts of being Greek they hold onto with their fingernails, and how they've adapted (or not.) Stavroula is an executive chef at a high-end restaurant, in love with the owner's daughter. Litza processes insurance claims and has a habit of assigning everyone to an insurance category based on what problems she thinks they have (or are). Their ex-step-mother Carol, their mother Dina, and the chef at the diner, Marina, round out the chorus. They try to process years of troubles and maladaptive coping techniques and the usual family traumas in just a few days, despite not believing the goat is a harbinger of death, but not willing to risk if it is.

This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of Greek coffee and a plate of baklava. I have been craving spanikopita since I read it. It's funny and heartbreaking and honest and real. And it is especially for those of us with imperfect families.

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: Let Me Explain You

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme 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.

Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas

"Dear, Family. Daughters & Ex-Wife: Let me explain you something: I am sick in a way that no doctor would have much understand."

That's because Stavros Stavros hasn't been to a doctor. But he thinks he is dying in ten days because a goat has showed up at his Greek diner in New Jersey. The book is written in a witty way that takes into account the cadence and sentence structure of a long-ago immigrant who never mastered English 100% but in a completely understandable and easy-to-read way.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

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

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes, a humorous and insightful account of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette--the one Frenchman we could all agree on--and an insightful portrait of a nation's idealism and its reality.

On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a humorous and insightful portrait of the famed Frenchman, the impact he had on our young country, and his ongoing relationship with some of the instrumental Americans of the time, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and many more.

Publishing October 20, 2015 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew by Jen Chaney

I adore the movie Clueless. I think it's the best Jane Austen movie adaptation (although it is a tight race.) Every time I see it (and that's A LOT), I catch some new tiny reference to Emma that I hadn't picked up on before and I am newly impressed. I owned it on VHS. Now I own it on DVD. And yet every time I see it come up on the TV or in my Netflix feed, I am tempted to watch it again. I've never before read a book on a movie. I usually skim those articles in Entertainment Weekly. But this is a special movie. It always makes me happy. And after many dozens of viewing, I've never spotted a continuity problem.

It was originally conceived of as a TV series. But it didn't get anywhere until it moved to a movie. And once super-producer Scott Rudin got on board, it was a done deal. The book takes us through the entire casting process, through the locations and costuming. It rained throughout the winter-time shoot, which put them behind by a few days, and they did have to digitally enhance the blue sky in some shots. But otherwise, the shoot went crazy-smoothly, everyone liked each other, and there was no juicy gossip. The closest to juicy gossip was that in the party scene, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones did get progressively drunk, but they continued to perform and did their job. And I loved the story that, because movie scenes are shot out of sequence, when they shaved Murray's head, Donald Faison was forced to keep the hair on the sides of his head so that he still looked like he had hair for earlier scenes (where he wore a hat) and so he sported a hilarious George-Jefferson looking haircut for about a month. After the movie was such a wild success, it ironically was turned into a TV show for three seasons, with about half of the original cast.

While I didn't learn anything surprising or unexpected, this movie makes me happy, and reading about this movie made me happy too. It was not life-altering, but it amused me. If you love the movie, you'll love the book.

I checked this book out of the library.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, translated by Cathy Hirano

I read this book, knowing I was not in a mind-space nor had the time to do a major "tidying" (what Americans would generally call organizing or even a purge.) But I was hoping the book would be inspiring and bring me a feeling of calm and a Zen-like mental state. It did not.

It's short book and starts off by the author, Ms. Kondo, giving a long history of her own attraction to tidying, her history of different methods tried, and how she came up with her own personal method, which she calls Kon-Mari. And it kind of makes sense: it involves sorting items not by room but by type, so that instead of sorting books in your living room, later in your bedroom, and later in your office, instead you will just sort all of your books. If you work this way, you are more likely to see the volume of books that you have, find any duplicates, and be able to better categorize books and see which ones truly bring you joy. That's the key: only keep what brings you joy.

But that's where things stopped making sense for me. If Ms. Kondo truly has never had a client have any regression, then that's great. But I cannot subscribe to her statements that this is the only organizational method that works. Also that you must--must--reduce your belongings to a minuscule amount or else you'll never be happy. I think that it's necessary for me to keep neutral cardigans that don't bring me joy but go with everything. I have a green dress that I've never been thrilled with but every time I wear it I get tons of compliments. So the dress doesn't bring me joy, but the reaction to it does. And I'm sorry, I just can't take seriously a professional organizer who thinks an extreme number of unread books in a house is 40. I have 450. And she's so dismissive when she makes statements like, If you haven't read it yet, you never will. Not true. This year I have read a book I got in 1995, another one I bought in 2009, and 15 more books that sat on my bookshelves for more than a year. (Normally this number would be much higher but this year I've really focused on reading new books from the library.)

I appreciate where she's coming from, and I suppose if you truly own more than you can handle, more than fits comfortably in your home, this might make sense. But as someone who feels like 600+ books IS appropriate and who has made her home a place where they do fit, I found her judgmental and rigid. (And I say that as someone whose clothes all fit in her closet and where they are organized by type of clothing and by color, so I'm not defending living in a pig sty or in a mess.) The book did not make me happy. It made me anxious. I did not enjoy it. Yes, it could certainly help some people, but not me.

I checked this book out of the library.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

October Reading Challenge #15in31

On the blog, Estella's Revenge, I saw a reading challenge that really appeals to me. Instead of reading any particular types or genres of books, it's just about reading more books. I need to read more. I know I read a lot but reading helps me with stress, worry, and I just like it.

So in the #15in31 challenge, I just need to read 15 books by the 31st. Naturally, this makes me tilt towards shorter books. I thought I'd take a look at my TBR list sorted by page count. Here's the top of that list, books on my shelves under 200 pages that aren't children's books:

The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing by John E. McIntyre
Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice
Siegfried's Murder by Anonymous
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
That Should Be a Word: A Language Lover’s Guide to Choregasms, Povertunity, Brattling, and 250 Other Much-Needed Terms for the Modern World by Lizzie Skurnick
I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman
The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island by John McPhee
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
Being Dead by Jim Crace
Austenland by Shannon Hale

Sometimes, short books are dense and can read like long books. I suspect this of the Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, and McPhee. Sometimes I can read 200-350 page books in just two hours. I expect a large number of the books on the above list will be knocked out by November 1 but by no means all of them. Probably at the top of the list will be the Sedaris, Skurnick, and Lipman. I also will be listening to a couple of audio books on my drive to Nashville for the Southern Festival of books later this week. And I will likely read a couple of YA novels. I did read 13 books back in July without trying, so this should be do-able! See you Nov. 1 for the summary!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book review: The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers by Noah Charney

I heard this author on NPR and thought the book sounded interesting, but I had no idea until I got it in my hands how impressive the production of the book is. The book has color images throughout, therefore the entire book is printed on bright white, heavy-stock paper (it weighs a ton). And there are blue pages tipped in at the beginning of each section (and they are different shades of blue.) It really is a well-designed book that must have cost the publisher a fortune, showing how much they believe in the book.

The images are key. It brings so much to the book when we can look at a painting and a fake of it side-by-side. I didn't as much care about the occasional images of some of the forgers, but the artworks they created are impressive, even (or especially) the fakes. I liked how the book was organized around motivations instead of around types of artwork or types of forgeries. Looking at the personalities behind the forgers brought a new level of fascination. I've read about a couple of these forgers in the past like in Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo but I never understood why they did it, aside from the money. It's interesting that money is often a secondary reason. It's much more common that the forgers are failed artists who want to embarrass the art world or prove the experts who rejected them wrong. And for that to truly work, they have to be caught. Their forgeries have to be exposed, or no one will be embarrassed, no one will be proven wrong.

The breadth of work some of these forgers create is astonishing. Some can replicate the style of hundreds of artists across centuries and genres. It does seem as if they are very talented and it does make you wonder about why some people succeed and others fail. Are they truly missing that extra something, that passion, that frisse? Or are they only successful when copying someone else who was honestly inspired? It's also interesting to look at times when the art world really shouldn't have been fooled by forgers obviously using the wrong media, and yet it was overlooked.

If you have any interest in the art world, this book is a must-read. Exhaustively researched, but accessibly written, this book was fascinating and hard to put down.

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: The Art of Forgery

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme 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 Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers by Noah Charney

"Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men's brains!"

This is a quote from Albrecht Durer, chastizing those who might forge his works. He created what some consider the first artist's trademark. Durer actually sued a forger of his works.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

My September in review

The It’s Monday What Are You Reading meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I’ve started compiling my lists monthly instead of weekly.

Books completed this month:
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (audio)
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers by Noah Charney
Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Capital Dames: the Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts
As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew by Jen Chaney
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, translated by Cathy Hirano

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

What I acquired this month:
At our first fall WNBA-Charlotte event, the chapter president raffled off some tote bags full of ARCs and I won one of them! It's almost like the books in it were picked out just for me. I picked a non-fiction bag. Here's what was in mine:

Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders by Cole Cohen
Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel
Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family's Lives Forever by John Marshall
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris
Sisters in Law: Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Friendship That Changed Everything by Linda Hirshman
Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

I then went to SIBA in Raleigh to promote National Reading Group Month (October). My compatriot at the event, Kristen, and I had a short break and we went to Quail Ridge Books. I always buy at least one book when I go to an independent bookstore and in this one I had trouble buying only one. I in fact did buy two but one of them was for our SIBA display:
Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet. One I got just for me was On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. If you ever go to this excellent store, be sure to stop in the bathroom. Trust me.

Then, we were at SIBA!! I got quite a haul. Here's the list in no particular order:
Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy
Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain
The Drunken Spelunker's Guide to Plato by Kathy Giuffre
Dear Carolina by Kristy Woodson Harvey
Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham
The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale
The Expatriates: A Novel by Janice Y.K. Lee
All the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
The Portable Veblen: A Novel by Elizabeth Mckenzie
We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick
Noah's Wife by Lindsay Starck
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington
A Man of Genius: A Contingent Life in Four Chapters by Janet Todd
Twain's End by Lynn Cullen
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout
The After Party: A Novel by Anton DiSclafani
The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson
The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Terrible Virtue: A Novel by Ellen Feldman
Playing Days by Benjamin Markovits
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
Barefoot to Avalon by David Payne
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (a Great Group Reads Selection)
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Now I have to find space for all these books! This month I have acquired 40 books, which is entirely too many for my bookshelves to absorb. I'll have to go with a stack on the floor next to the bookcase for now. I might cull some in a month or two when I've had time to process these. I have a bunch of books checked out of the library at the moment so I can't even begin to tackle these yet! October should be fun. After all, it's National Reading Group Month!