Featured Post

Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Thousand Splendid Suns: A Novel

I had read The Kite Runner quite a while back, and Khaled Hosseini's follow up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, has been on my list since then.

Mariam is the daughter of a thrice married man and his former maid in 1970's Afghanistan. She is raised away from her brothers and sisters, she and her mother banished to the outskirts of town with her father visiting at regular intervals. When Mariam is sent away to marry in her teens, her life becomes a living hell with her husband. Their young neighbor Leila grows up into a beautiful young woman on the brink of a life and a love--until things change politically and their neighborhood is bombed. The lives of these two women converge in ways that will change the trajectory of their futures.

Oh em gee, this novel was heartwrenching. It was killer. But not until the very end. So here's how my reading schedule broke down with this book:
  1. First 100 pages - "Ok, I can get down with this story.
  2. 80 pages later - "Wow, this is a great story."
  3. Next 50 pages - "You weren't expecting me to put this down, were you?"
  4. Final 100 pages - ... "Nicole, where are you?" "Crying like a rich girl just had her pony taken away on her birthday."
So it won't be a surprise when I tell you how wonderfully I was surprised to be swept away by this book. I did read The Kite Runner and while I liked it I was not bowled over; I was hesitant to pick this book up for that very reason. So hesitant in fact that this book has been sitting on my shelf for three years. I am so thankful I picked it up.

I was overtaken by the beauty of Hosseini's writing. His two female lead characters were strong and lovely and so well-designed. Their character arcs were lovely and amazing. This story was epic in scope yet read so quickly, which I admit might be more about my need to eat this story alive than anything else. Seriously, I was addicted.

Basically I could spend all day telling you how much I loved this book. I just did. I love stories that reel me in, intrigue the daylights out of me, then hook me by mid-book with a well-crafted and invest-worthy story. It's even better when they leave me broken-hearted yet so satisfied. Then they allow me to gush then make you read it for yourself. Kindle on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Teleporation Accident

What on earth do I call this novel? A roller coaster ride of awesome, I would say. This is Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident.

Egon Loeser is a set designer in 1930's Berlin who is having difficulty getting his play produced and getting any woman to sleep with him. When a young woman formerly in his tutelage returns to town quite, ahem, grown up, he falls madly in love and follows her throughout Berlin (while avoiding introducing her to that louse, Brecht), Paris (while getting caught up in an American's shenanigans), and Los Angeles (while getting into his own shenanigans).

This book was hands down the best laugh I have had this year. Beauman's writing felt so similar to Jonathan Ames, and we all know I am a huge fan of his work. I found myself laughing out loud on the train at Egon and his poor decisions--but I was so thankful for them! I found myself stopping to just bathe in the sharp-witted writing and the incredibly well-developed lead character of Egon. I kid you not when I tell you that I found myself wave-laughing--as in you feel the laugh coming from your gut but you try to stop it so it ends up being a mouth-buzz-like laugh which only makes you laugh harder as you step back and realize that this book is awesome.

This book felt art deco, speakeasy, and metropolitan. I seriously, seriously, seriously loved it. I loved Egon's trip to Los Angeles (where he walked the length of Sunset Boulevard thinking Americans are ridiculous with their need to drive everywhere and ended up in shambles). I loved his obsession with the young woman he was chasing whose name I will not give away because it's a part of the book's charm; it was delightful and light and airy yet still a literary meal. I loved this book.

I want to hunt Ned Beauman down and marry him--any man who writes as witty as this is someone I must find and charm and make love me back.

You must read this. Kindle on the left, hard copy on the right:

Friday, February 22, 2013

With or Without You: A Memoir

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta came across my email I was highly intrigued. Memoirs float my boat, so I picked it up.

Domenica "Nikki" Ruta grew up in the outskirts of Boston unaware how odd her upbringing was. Her single mother was an addict and a dealer, her father was out of control abusive with a jealous wife, and her grandmother was the only stable force she could find. Family history was touch and go because no one really told the truth, like ever, and family secrets were kept at all costs--even when they hurt their own. As Domenica matures and begins to find the world outside her own, she realizes the painful truth of what her life has become by her own hands. 

Ruta has shared her life story honestly and painstakingly. She makes it easy for her reader to hurt with her. Ruta's reality is far different than mine will ever be: she struggles with sexual abuse by an uncle whom everyone knew was capable of such acts and instead chose to ignore them; her mother is not just an addict and a sponge of the system but also appears to be bipolar; and Ruta herself struggles for years with alcoholism that began as a way to dull the pain of her everyday existence. She writes her story with such clarity and open-mindedness that I felt able to safely enter her world.

I enjoyed the time I spent with this memoir, although it feels wrong to use the word "enjoy" when speaking of someone else's hardship. I am thankful for Ruta sharing her words and opening up her heart to me as her reader. At times her humor (sarcastic an knowing and poking at the absurdity she recognizes exists in her story) made me guffaw out loud. At other times her raw assessment of her choices made my chest hurt. It was an experience that I will continue recommending again and again.

For you! Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops

I try to read one book a month related to my field, and I have had this one on my shelf for quite a while.  I keep picking it up then have some other library book due, so this poor soul ends up getting pushed aside.  Since an Off-Broadway company revived an updated Carrie this season, I thought that it would be appropriate to take this with me to Los Angeles while on a business trip and indulge.

Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops is a lovely ditty from Ken Mandelbaum who happens to be a pretty fantastic theatre historian.  The title comes from what is arguably the most famous Broadway flop, Carrie, which is often referred to when speaking of other flops: "Rarely seen, not since Carrie."

This book, however, covers so much more than that (as can be assumed from the "40 years" portion of the subtitle).  If you are as big of a theatre nerd as I happen to be you will not want to miss this book.  Chances are good that you haven't missed it since it often makes "must read" lists of theatre books.  It's up there with Fre for All by Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp as well as Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon as far as I am concerned regarding the history of our business as we know it.  It is worth owning on your shelf at work/home.

You might be surprised at the big names who had even bigger flops. I won't give anything away because you need to purchase this book for yourself.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy

When I read the blurb about Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy I thought it would inform my practice and give me some tips to pass on to my students. I was blown away by what I was able to take out of this book.

Bullying has not, in fact, been on the rise lately regardless of what the media tells us. It has become more profiled in the media for sure--making "bully panic" all the rage in schools. But what is actually behind this centuries-old phenomena, and what makes dealing with it so hard? Emily Bazelon expands upon her Slate article, going in-depth into three bullying stories that follow similar trajectories. What makes a bully? How do you deal with one? And how do we even define "bullying", anyway?

I was expecting a book that bought into the "bully panic", so I was more than pleasantly surprised after finishing the introduction to this book. It was clear that Bazelon wanted to go into her research (and this book) with an open mind and with a a journalist's eye, not taking anything at face value. I found her writing to be very easy to read and I found her research and synthesis to be incredibly well-done.

This topic is like a spider's web--once you get into the thick of it you might never get out. It's so complicated and full of so many land mines. The bullied are targets because they are perceived as weak. So how does one fight back? With fists? With words? With the law? There is no easy answer, and there probably never will be. I do, though, appreciate the investigation Bazelon has put in to the new norm that schools have to face--bridging the gap between the real world and the virtual world at levels they have never had to before. At what point are our out-of-school activities subject to in-school punishment? It's a tricky question and a slippery slope, but Bazelon has found some answers that may or may not be it--but they are answers.

This book has a bazillion resources that take up a quarter of the back of the book. There is a Q&A for students, parents, and teachers answers questions about where to turn and how to seek help. There is a resource guide which is incredibly helpful. I have been recommending this book to my fellow ed psych students, and I will be recommending it to my undergraduate teacher candidates when we get to the appropriate unit in my course. It's a must-read if you work with children, if you have children, or if you care about children.

You need this book in your arsenal. Kindle on left, hard copy on right:

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Lifespan of a Fact.

The premise: a man writes an essay filled with incorrect facts and the fact checker who makes his life hell. The Lifespan of a Fact. by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.

In 2003, D'Agata submits a relatively short essay to a magazine for publication. Fingal is charged with fact-checking it. What ensues is a years-long debate about the use of facts in narrative journalism, what exactly each mans job is, and what "truth" really is in storytelling. D'Agata's essay is here in full, and Fingal's notes and correspondence with D'Agata appear in this book in the exact order of the essay.

This piece of work was utterly, completely, and indulgently fascinating. It's not a long book; I easily ate this up in one sitting. I was riveted by the work Fingal did on fact-checking and the detail he was expected to reach in his work. I was enthralled by D'Agata's storytelling, and when these two were thrown together is was an orgiastic level of fascination in two men who go to bat for their deep-seated beliefs.

There is so much to talk about after reading this book; the line between truth and lie, the difference between journalism and storytelling, when it's OK to stretch or twist the truth and when it instead becomes disrespectful and unethical. All of these debates play out in the margins, and it's not quite so black and white as right and wrong.

Don't miss this outstanding piece of work, only in hard copy:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs)

It sounded interesting--a treatise on marriage and infidelity. This is Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) by Wendy Plump.

Every marriage has its ups and downs. But have many marriages seen the number of infidelities of Wendy's? Three on her end, a few on her husbands--then, in 2005, Wendy discovers that Bill actually has another family just a mile down the road. Their marriage has weathered a lot, but this breaks it. Wendy captures the range of emotions that run through the mind when a spouse cheats on either end.

This  book was a quick and dirty read with some hard-to-face insights into marriage in reality, not just in concept. Of course I would never say that I understand what it means to be married--I most certainly do not--so I found Plump's assessment of long-term relationships to be interesting and informative. Also having never dealt with infidelity (of which I am aware, anyway), I was engrossed in Plump's explication of feelings, emotions, and breakdowns from both sides of the aisle, having been the cheater and the cheated-on.

The most fascinating portions of this book were when Plump revealed her relationship with Susan, the other woman. It felt like Plump held back enough to be able to reveal this relationship slowly and fully, like a tulip opening into full bloom. Plump holds nothing back--I felt her disdain toward the other woman and the absolute shock of the audacity of Susan's communication. 

I was happy that I picked up this book last week. I found it to be eye-opening and a worthy investment. 

How to purchase (Kindle on left, hard copy on right):

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Dinner: A Novel

Oooooh, as soon as I read a synopsis of Herman Koch's The Dinner I knew knew knew I needed it in my life. My hunch was not wrong.

A dreaded family dinner between Paul and Claire and Serge and Babette in Amsterdam leads to revelations that each knew, and didn't know, about their children. Paul despises his brother, Serge, and knows a secret about their two sons that no one else does--or so he thinks. It's a secret that could ruin Serge's campaign for Prime Minister and could destroy the pseudo-peace that runs through their relations.

What a wild ride was this book! Holy cow, I sped through this thing. The stakes were so high yet the book took its time in the revelation--everything I love in a good book.

Seriously, every time I find a story that holds out on me I fall in love. This book was definitely that. I loved the first-person narration of the story and how I could see Paul's deep despising of his brother for all that he is and all for which he stands. Family dysfunction when done well sends a story into the realm of superb. I was horrified when the secret was revealed yet I completely understood Paul's desire to shield his child from the abject consequences that would come about if the outside world discovered the truth.

I also loved Amsterdam as the setting. It's one of my most favorite places on earth and I loved that I could picture the entire story happen. This book follows the trajectory of dinner (appetizers, salads, main course, dessert) with the stakes being raised higher and higher with each serving, which I thought was an excellent approach to this story.

So yeah, it's safe to say I loved this book.

Yours--now! Kindle on the left, hard copy on the right.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles: A Novel

Ron Currie, Jr.'s first book, Everything Matters, was passed on to me not so long ago. When I found out Currie's next book, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles was on it's way out, I scored a review copy faster than you could blink an eye. Here's what shook out.

Ron Currie is a writer who had a monster success with his second novel--only the success came after he was dead. Funny thing--even greater notoriety came post-death-life. "How is that?" you ask. It's because, in the depths of despair over his one true love, Emma, Ron attempts suicide. He fails, but no one knows that--everyone thinks he is dead. After the suddenly-discovered runaway success of his book that he resurfaces, only to find himself in a pickle. His book has spurned a rash of suicides for love just as his manifesto ignited his. What is the role truth in writing? When we find out a memoir is really just a novel, does that change what we loved about the book, or does the truth really make it what it is?

I enjoyed this book the whole way through, but I have to say that it was the final 25 pages that I found myself highlighting almost non-stop. The entirety of the book is a lead up to the understanding of why it is we believe what we do and what the role verity has in our enjoyment of and dependence upon literature. Ron's book is a runaway success strictly because of the story that goes along with it ("oh, poor man! killed himself because of a girl! his love, how beautiful!"). Ron actually does love Emma in real life and does feel everything he writes in his novel, but it's only because of his "suicide" that the novel is published and thereby a success.

I was reminded of the James Frey debacle many years back. I maintained that my enjoyment of the book and my belief that the it was well-done was not contingent upon it being a memoir, therefore when it was discovered that some "facts" were elaborated or fabricated I didn't feel that it took away from the excellent story that was told--it only made it more fiction than memoir. This made it easy for me to relate to the character of Ron and his establishment of novel over memoir.

So yes, I absolutely do recommend this book. When you start to waver midway through and think to yourself, "So where is this all going?", just hang tight and know that it all wraps up in the end to a spellbinding and intense conclusion to which you will have a visceral reaction. Currie's writing does not disappoint. Thank goodness.

You can get this yourself! Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Burn Palace: A Novel

Stephen King sure knows how to recommend a book. In his Entertainment Weekly article of books he about which he was excited in 2013, this made the top of the list. Holy cow--this is The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns.

In the middle of the night, Nurse Spandex walks into the nursery to check on the babies and notices a squirming little one. She walks over to adjust his blanket and finds that it is not a baby at all; rather, it is a snake. This turn of events in a sleepy Rhode Island town leads to utter turmoil in the town. People are dying, coyotes are attacking, people are shape-shifting, and witchcraft abounds flummoxing the police and sending residents into a panic. This captivating mystery involves everyone in town--and you will never believe who is on which side.

Holy shamoley--this book blew my ever-loving mind. I was not even two-thirds of the way through the book before the adrenaline kicked in and I was in reading overdrive. Putting down this book was simply not an option--what was happening was too strange and insane to leave behind to do normal things like eat or seep. It was manic book reading--heart racing, eyes throwing themselves across the page, breathing momentarily stopped. At one point while I was reading on the train my jaw dropped, and I could see the curious look from the man across from me wondering what I was reading. This book was that good.

Dobyns covers what feels like almost every character in this small town of Brewster but never once was I confused about who was whom. He creates clear and starkly contrasted characters in which I found myself heavily invested. The story itself is truly mind-blowing. It's not quite a horror book but it certainly gets close; it's not quite a mystery although it really is. There are so many awesome twists to this story that I want to share with you, but I can't because I will not for one second take away your reading enjoyment of watching the events unfold in this town.

Seriously, I can't recommend enough this book. Pick it up and indulge yourself. It is absolutely wild and worth your weekend time. Genuinely. Really. For sure.

Run, don't walk, to get yourself this book. Kindle on left, hard copy on right. Worth every penny.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The List: A Novel

One thing I don't mention often is my keeping-up-with-the-joneses love of politics. So I am offered a novel about politics by a former Politico journalist? Yes, please! No need to twist my arm! This is Karin Tanabe's The List.

The "List" of the title is not a paper listing things to do; rather, it's short for The Capitolist, a Washington paper for which twenty-something Adrienne Brown has just left her cushy Town & Country job. She wanted writing with more substance, and she is about to...not entirely get it. She is the newest reporter in the style section, making her low woman on totem pole of the least-respected section of the up-and-coming paper. Working six days a week from five in the morning until eight at night, Adrienne forgoes her love life, her family, and sleep to write her way to the top, five articles at a time. When she discovers the illicit affair of someone close to the paper, she realizes that this could be the impetus that could change everything. Will she have the guts to see it through? Or will the demands of the job kill her first?

This was a fun read for the weekend. It was super chick-lit-y and I felt like I was treating myself to a secret latte in an off-the-beaten-path coffee shop where no one could find me. I love me some book candy, and this certainly fit the bill.

Adrienne was a generally likable character and I bought into her emotions and choices as she gave up a great job in New York City for what she thought was going to be more substance and a devotion to the greater good. I was rooting for the protagonist--I wanted her to find love and life and happiness in her new world. I also wanted her to move out of her parents' house (a longstanding joke). There are a ton of references to pop culture in this book which was fun.

Pick up this book for your spring reading! Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales

Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales by Ali Wentworth has been on my list for quite some time. I finally spotted it on the library shelf and snapped it up in a hot second.

Ali Wentworth is the daughter of a former White House social secretary and Washingtonian-insider-like cadre. She stepped out of the box and pursued comedy (and thank goodness she did--she's funny!), starring in In Living Color among others. She married a famed political journalist, but before she did this she lived a wild and crazy life on both coasts that involved boarding school shenanigans, a mugging in LA, and several engagements. She shares them with us for our very own rollicking good time.

I had a blast with this book. It's on the short side and it makes for a great beach read. Ali (yes, we are on a first-name basis in this post) is an absolute riot. She writes for my sense of humor--irreverent, in off-topic binges, and with no regard for bad language restraint. I appreciate that in a humorist.

Her essays are about everything--her thirty (ok, or maybe three) engagements (including the one with the Frenchman that was destined to go wrong when he came to visit her family), the time she called 911 when she was under the impression that a death threat came via a hang-up phone call, and the time she stole an entire bag of cocaine from the Mexican drug cartel by accident. It's like Ali and I are soulmates.

I had such fun with this book on a rainy afternoon. I laughed out loud, enjoyed a cup of tea, and reminded myself to take life with a grain of salt, just like Ali.

This book is yours for the taking. Kindle version on left, hard copy on right: