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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Pansy at the Palace: A Beverly Hills Mystery

I love children's books. Especially now that so many of my friends have children, I am always looking for great gifts. Books are high on that list (read, kids!)--as shocking as that may sound to you!

So when I received an email about Cynthia Bardes and Kim Weissenborn's Pansy at the Palace: A Beverly Hills Mystery, I jumped at the chance to read it and to post about it.

A dog in a shelter sees everyone around her being adopted. Finally, the perfect owner comes in! When she sees hernew home, she is super jazzed. But what is up with that sneaky white cat? Why does he always smell like fish?

This book was positively adorable and I had a ball reading it. It's a children's book so it is short--but wonderfully so. Colorful illustrations, a solid and quick story-line, and a positive attitude throughout. I loved the character of Pansy--she made me giddy and happy. Adorably illustrated, she is a lovely character who is a solid companion. The story had a good moral and the illustrations grabbed my attention.

I will be getting this book for all of those lovely little ladies in my life as their first and second birthdays approach. I hope to see more Pansy adventures in the future!


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore stuck out to me in the reviews that came out several weeks ago and I picked it up during Hurricane Sandy.

What is the history of life and death? It's much simpler, and far more complex, than you could imagine. It involves children's sections in libraries, the right to die (and the right to life), breastfeeding, Stuart Little, cryogenics, and everything in between. In this wildly intriguing look at life and death, Lepore explores what makes those two things what they are.

This book was so much more than I thought it would be. To be honest, I was expecting a dry, didactic treatise on life and death but I got a literary whoopin'. This is not at all what this book was. Lepore is a catchy writer who explored this in depth with a detailed eye.

The flow of Lepore's book began with birth and ended with death but explored ideals and beliefs related with these overarching ideas. What do we as humans, not just Americans, believe about the right to life? What is the history of breastfeeding? I have to say, I loved to chapter on E.B. White and the rejection of Stuart Little as the lovely piece of literature it is by the very librarian who encouraged White to write for children. This was in line with the history of children's sections of libraries--I had no idea that before this convention children were expected to stay away from libraries and, by extension, books. Also, Life the board game may not be what you think it is.

Really, this was just such a fascinating read that I can't tell you in more plain words to pick up this book for yourself. It was a jolly read and my mouth dropped a few times with the amount of information provided that I had no clue ever existed. Seriously.

Worth your time.

Get your copy. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Brothers: George Howe Colt On His Brothers and Brothers In History

I was drawn into George Howe Colt's Brothers by the historical aspect--how would he compare his fraternal relationships with such famous as the Marx brothers and the Booths?

What is the historical relationship of brothers? That is the large question at hand in this book exploring the facets of fraternal relationships. Colt uses his experience with his three brothers as a basis for exploring ways that famous brothers in history have related to one another. The dark horse/white knight relationship of the Booth brothers, the extreme sibling rivalry of the Kellogg brothers, the dependent relationship of the Van Gogh brothers, the collaboration of the Marx brothers, and the undying love of the Thoreau brothers make up the story of this book.

This book is a bit on the hefty side--and no detail is spared in the history of brothers. Colt consults psychologists and historians to paint as close to an accurate picture of these famous fraternal relationships as possible. The different relationships across history were fascinating, and it was particularly interesting reading about the Booth brothers after reading James L. Swanson's two books about the assassination of Lincoln and the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth following. (This was before the Sassy Peach book blog--can you imagine a time where I read books and didn't blog about them??? Impossible, say you!)

The most interesting parts of this book were not the famous brothers--it was Colt's telling of his own familial relationships that was the most fascinating portion of this book. Or portions, you might say, since every other chapter introduces the next with a tale from the Colt household to set up the next group of famous brothers. I appreciated the connection to the larger questions of relationship types, but I was the most moved when he was speaking of his adult relationships with his three brothers. He was so open about the good and the bad without sparing us what we know, as readers, exists in families. It was with so great an ease that he opened up his family to me, the reader.

The bond of brothers is something I will never understand, being a female and having both a sister and a brother. I love that this book gave me insight into a relationship that is beyond that of my own with such detail and with such obvious care.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Heart Is An Idiot

A book called My Heart is an Idiot written by Davy Rothbart, the founder and editor of Found magazine? Sounds delish. Yes, please!

Rothbart's book of essays focuses on his idiocy in love and his belief in the human spirit. He falls in love fast and often gets his heart broken just as quickly. He is a dreamer and a creator, and his writing style fits his openheartedness. He creates Found magazine in his basement; he publishes found objects such as love letters, shopping lists, or receipts sent from readers.

This was a genuinely fun set of essays about love and the human condition. I loved Rothbart's essay, "Ninety Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall," where he exacts revenge on a scammer through a very long and winding process of pee collection. I was also quite moved by his essay on his journey to New York and interviewing regular people immediately following 9/11. I found his essay on his friend, Byron, to be moving and alternately horrifying in that Byron may (or may not) have been wrongfully convicted of a friend's murder. Either way, I truly appreciated Rothbart's ability to lay down his raw emotions for his readers.

This book was positively lovely and it made me feel as though Rothbart truly poured his soul into his writing. I am very glad that I heeded warnings to pick up this book.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silver Sparrow: A Novel

I can't recall where I picked up the recommendation for Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow, but if I can ever remember I will send him or her (or it, if it is a magazine) a thank you note for their genius suggestion.

Dana knows from as far back as she can remember that her father has another family. It isn't until she is a little older that she comes to realize that the other family isn't a secret--she is. She and her mother get along in life seeing her father once a week and spying on the other family as much as possible until one day in high school Dana boldly befriends her sister. Dana tries get away with her secret but she risks it all--and is found out in the most hurtful way, losing what little family she has in the process.

I fell in love with this book only a few pages in. It is gorgeously written and beautifully crafted. I want to find Tayari Jones and give her the biggest hug ever and thank her for writing this book for me to dive into with such an open heart. It was outstanding.

This book is told in two parts--the first half by Dana, the second half by Chaurisse, the other daughter. The voices are distinct yet related, not unlike these two young ladies. I found myself pulling for Dana in the first part then sympathizing with Chaurisse in the second, knowing full well the extent of the secret throughout. It was amazing holding all of the information in my head as I read; you as the reader have an outside view and that makes it easier to have your heart broken when the truth is reveled.

I felt so full and yet so hurt when the book ended, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. That's the sign of a great story and fabulous writing. I was sucked in and loved the world in which I lived for a few days. There is a great NPR article on the book, and you can even read the first chapter on the website. Do not blame me if you get hooked.

Get this book for yourself. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Heads In Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jay Tomsky practically called my name. It called to me and I picked it up. I heeded the call.

In this memoir, Tomsky recounts his experiences in the hospitality industry starting as a valet and working his way up to seniority on the front desk. He finds himself in New Orleans after college taking a job at a brand new luxury hotel as a valet--and soon he is bumped up by management to the front desk. He excels there and is quickly bumped up to again--as the night housekeeping manager, that is. Lower pay and longer hours. When he has had enough, he bums around Europe for a while before searching for a new industry in New York City. He soon discovers his skill set doesn't lend itself to much--except hospitality. Off he goes, and we get to ride the fun train with him.

I had a great week-long stay with this book. Tomsky writes the way I believe he would sound in conversation, so I was drawn in by the friendliness yet formality of his tone. He treated me like one of his honored guests of which he speaks--it's like he gave me his personal email. I loved hearing about his adventures, the guests about whom he came to deeply care, and his decline into frustration with new management. I was as horrified as he was by the new management at his New York hotel--it was clear that the decline in service was parallel to Tomsky's declining love for his job.

I have definitely been there, so I was able to completely relate to this read and to Tomsky's experience. I love the little twist that came in at the end (of which I will not spill the beans) because it gave me a little giggle. I appreciate the tips that Tomsky passed on (re: tipping and general appreciation), which I hope I was already doing but I will ensure to do moving forward. There was a great tip on what to do when booking through a third party hotel booking site which I will not share with you since you need to read the book for yourself. I am now in the know--will you be too?


Friday, November 16, 2012

A Time To Kill

I was surprised to find out that A Time To Kill was John Grisham's first novel; I always thought The Firm was his first. It turns out this was an quiet novel until the success of his the latter.

A young black girl is brutally raped on her way home from the grocery. Two white rednecks are arrested that night after bragging about it in a bar. Just a few short days later the girl's father shoots them both dead on the courthouse steps. He is put on trial and this is where the big questions begin. Will an insanity defense fly with the jury? Can an impartial jury even be found? Will the newly resurrected Klan in the county sufficiently intimidate the jurors and the lawyers enough to bring forth a guilty verdict?

It's a show stopper for sure. The story is incredibly intricate and complex, and there are many times where the story feels more detailed than it needs to be for non-legal readers. There are some occupational hazards to being a lawyer-turned-novelist, I would assume. I also become frustrated with what I felt was the overuse of the n-bomb as a casual description in the narrative. It went beyond use as a character foible (such as a racist redneck using it in conversation or in a thought description) and entered into the realm of regular usage in narrative to refer to black people in general, and that bothered me immensely by about page 120. I absolutely buy into the overt racism of small-town Mississippi in the 1980's, but I began to question if it was truth in the story or if it was Grisham himself.

Looking beyond that, I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the story. I wouldn't say that Jake Brigance, the lawyer who defends the vigilante father, was entirely sympathetic or had much depth to his character, but I appreciated him for what he was. I couldn't get the picture of Matthew McConaughey out of my head as Jake (since I did see the movie first many moons ago). I really enjoyed the addition of Ellen Roark, the third-year law student as a foil for Jake. I was happy with the story's ending and was even a little surprised by a twist. Was it on the fantastical side? Oh, sure, a little--but isn't that why we read stories? Because sometimes life needs a little fantastical-ism.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Great House

Great House by Nicole Krauss is one of those books that everyone who reads good books recommends.  So what did I do?  Check it out from the library, of course!

A desk is at the center of this novel--it holds emotional depth to four stories but is a piece of furniture that represents something much greater than a physical piece of material.  The desk passes through four sets of lives--a woman who escapes the Holocaust as a chaperone on the Kindertransport; a young fan who reminds an author so much of her long-lost child; a man who desperately wants to piece together his past, piece of furniture by piece of furniture; and a man who wants to reconnect with his son in light of his wife's death.

I agree with all of the recommendations--this book is beautifully written and an incredible piece of literature.  Ms. Krauss has a way with words so that when she strings them together they weave a tapestry of intensity and yearning, love and desperation.  It's quite an outstanding feat, actually, and I was wowed when finishing this novel.

This novel is split into two sections, and each of the four stories gets two chapters--a beginning and an end (well, actually...the lack of an end).  If you are looking for a satisfying story that will give you a beginning, a middle, and an end, look elsewhere.  This is all middle and it never ends.  This is a story that will devastate you and break your heart and leave you so desperately wanting to hold your loved ones near.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Life Among Giants: A Novel

Life Among Giants, by Bill Roorbach, is a slew of things: murder mystery, star-crossed love story, family history, and epic tale.

David "Lizard" Hochmeyer is a pushing seven feet and is a superb football player--so superb, in fact, that when he refuses to cut his hair and gets kicked off his high school football team senior year he is still offered a full scholarship to Princeton. His parents are mighty proud of him and his sister, Kate, even though she can sometimes be right off her rocker. They all pluck right along until the Hochmeyer parents are mysteriously gunned down in the restaurant parking lot--in front of Lizard. Who is responsible for these murders? Does it have to do with his father's shady boss, or possibly with the world-famous ballerina and her deceased rocker husband who live next door? As decades pass, the mystery deepens and Lizard must go to great ends to keep what is left of his family together and search out what--and who--was truly behind his parents' double murder.

I didn't think things in this novel could get more topsy or turvey--until it did, over and over. I mean this as an absolute compliment, because this book was so full of intrigue and mystery that it was hard to set it aside to do everyday things, like eat and sleep and run my subway card through the turnstile. The murder happens early in the story as a setup for everything that comes after--everything that is so intertwined that it is near impossible for an event to be unrelated to the ultimate, and inevitable, ending.

Roorbach is quite a writer--he obviously cares deeply about his characters as he creates them with such intimate detail and loving tenderness. Kate is bipolar and Lizard is so patient with her; there is such pathos in the character development that I, too, grew to love and root for Kate. I grew to know Mr. Hochmeyer, their father, and I tried to read his mind along with his children to solve the mystery that pulled apart their family. I desperately wanted to believe Kate's delusions (or where they?) about what her father left behind, and I wanted Lizard to love and be loved in return. I knew Sylphide, the world-famous ballerina next door, as an intimate friend and loved one. I rooted for these people and I was rewarded at the end.

Roorbach has truly pulled together a lovely novel that is worth picking up and spending time with the world he has created. You will leave it satisfied.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Bookstore

It's no secret that I love books. And while purchasing loads and loads of books to line the walls of my apartment is not within my budget, I could spend hours upon hours in bookstores just walking and reading and loving. So I had to pick up My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop edited by Richard Russo. 

This book is a collection of essays by writers you might know and writers you may not. Anne Patchett has an essay in here as does Dave Eggers and Chuck Palahniuk. There are also writers of books I have posted about on this blog, such as John Grisham. In each essay the writer tells a tale about their favorite bookstore and why they love it.

If you, too, love bookstores, then you, too, will be drawn in by their tales. The one thing all of these essays have in common is love--love of the written word, love of the feeling of a good bookstore, and love of the independent bookseller. No bookstore in this tome is a big-box retailer. Some writers will drive hours to get to their favorite store and others will fly to get there. Some have the ability to just walk up the street. No matter, they will all get there somehow.

In about a third of the essays the writers go out of their way to bash e-readers, which I have to say bothered me a bit. They certainly have the right to hate those newfangled contraptions, but I happened to be reading this very book on an e-reader. I understand their loathing, but I think that they are also being somewhere closed minded. Several essays sing the praises of both the printed word and the electronic word, stating that there is no reason they can't both live simultaneously in the world.

Overall I enjoyed this collection. I could read an essay, pick up another book, and never lose my place in this one. I was able to use it as a pick-me-up when my days got me down or I needed a reminder as to what I love and why.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Flame Alphabet: A Novel

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is one of those books that hooked me right from the start with its incredible earnestness.

A disease is affecting adults, causing them to wither away into unrecognizable lumps of their former selves. It's only when it becomes too late that scientists can pinpoint the cause--it's the sound of childrens' speech that breaks down the immune systems. After it becomes too much, Sam and Claire must run from their own daughter, Esther, who has become a nightmare in and of herself.

I just dove right into this book head first. There was no other way to do it. Marcus has such an incredible rhythm to his prose that it is difficult to step away from the ocean of his words. He tells this story so thoroughly and intensely that putting the book down becomes a difficult experience. I was so intrigued by the premise and I was so taken with Sam and Claire as characters that coming to despise their daughter was inevitable. I wanted to push Sam forward as he searches for a cure or even just an answer so that I could rest assured that all would once again be right with the world.

This book took me three checkouts from the library to finally read, and it was well worth the effort. The intensity of Marcus's story and the care he puts in his characters makes you a part of this mad, mad world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pray the Gay Away

Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays by Bernadette Barton drew me in with it's promise of an ethnographic study of gays in the Bible Belt. I was sold and ravished this book so quickly in just a matter of days.

Barton is a professor at a university in Kentucky, and she lives with her partner in the same town. One afternoon she was told on her very own lawn that she is an abomination, and this, among other instances of intrigue, prompted her to do research on what life is like for gays and lesbians living in a region where religion has such a stronghold on every day life. What she found was not surprising but not entirely expected, ether. So much of the hatred and violence came from the victim's very own families.

This was a great read that was interesting and flowed well. The most intriguing of chapters for me was the one looking into the ex-gay faction: a huge industry that believes they can "pray the gay away" from people. With only hard prayer and deep focus, you too can look toward your faith in order to rid yourself of feelings of attraction toward the same sex. There is even a huge annual conference supporting this very notion (where, it is to be said, so many participants just end up sleeping together--no surprise there).

I was also fascinated with the chapter on Barton's class trip to the Creation Museum. It was one part fascinating and two parts horrifying. You have to read it for yourself to properly understand, but once you do I promise you will never forget it.

If you are at all interested in this topic, pick up this book. You will be grateful for your time with it and you will leave with answers to questions you didn't know even existed.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things

I had been hearing about Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus for a while, but I don't know why it took me so long to pick up tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.  Shame on me.

Sugar is an advice-giver in an advice column that answers letters of all shapes and forms.  She is intrepid and honest and strait-forward.  She inserts experience from her own life to accentuate what she needs to tell the advice-requester.  She writes compellingly and speaks with decades of wisdom yet is still young enough to have small children at home.  She lost her mother at a young age which profoundly affected her psyche.  Her father disappeared at a young age.  Her first marriage ended in divorce before her mid-twenties.  She is real.

This book devastated me.  I couldn't put it down.  I read the whole book in a Saturday.  Not because I had that much time but because the words that strung together in sentences that became paragraphs that all together became a reality that broke my heart and healed me and made me want to curl up in Sugar's lap and have her tell me it will all be ok while patting my head.

Sugar told me to write like a motherfucker, leave when you know it's time to leave, and always do what's best for my life.  She told me I am worth it.  She reminded me that relationships are messy and to expect nothing but the perfection is hurtful and harmful and unrealistic.  She reminded me that things will always be all right because they just have to be.  I knew these things already; see, I have lived them and learned them and am still continuing to live them and to learn them everyday.  But, most importantly, she reminded me how to just be.  Sugar isn't perfect, but she sure is honest.

And she sure knows how to write one hell of an advice column.

Get yourself a copy. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right: