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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...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book Expo America

Hi crazy kids!

I realize I am super behind on posts this week; you can blame that on finishing up the insane semester I just had. In the meantime I am spending the week at Book Expo America here in New York City. I will do an official wrap up post next week, but follow me on Twitter in the meantime. I am live tweeting some amazing moments.




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Friday, May 23, 2014

Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom

Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa was all I was told and more.

Have you ever had such a huge fight with your bathroom that you chose to pee in cereal bowls rather than deal with the consequences of using the toilet? No? Well then you just don't understand. Comedian Sara Benincasa takes on her agoraphobia, mental breakdown, taking down of a spiritual guru, voyaging to Texas to teach hardscrabble kiddos, and living in New York City. You may just never be the same.

Reading this book was a combination of laughing hysterically then feeling horrible about said laughing because that which Sara is discussing isn't supposed to be funny--I mean, she is losing her &%$^. But her characteristic wit and her deeply ingrained pathos makes it easy to laugh and feel like it could just as easily have been you. (You know, that whole, "There but for the grade of God go I" thing.) It was amazing, really, that someone who went through such hell could come out on the other side and be so absolutely charming, self-deprecating, and all-around winning.

I also have to say that this is the perfect mid-semester book. Reading Sara's writing is like sitting around with a friend on a night in enjoying a glass of wine...or whatever you don't spit out your nose in the process of trying to stifle your uncontrollable laughter. It's not super heavy but has enough meat to keep you on your toes. And taking a couple of days off between chapters isn't a totally big deal, because you can always pick back up with Sara's insane life. Whether she is telling tales of woe about losing her long-term boyfriend whom she didn't really like anyway or she is putting up with a raving lunatic of a boss,  I just wanted to hang with her for a little while longer.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

You Should Have Known: A Novel

This book has been a hot ticket for a while and I was so thankful when I scored it from the library. I was looking for a book to not put down. This is Jean Hanff Korelitz's You Should Have Known.

Grace is a successful couples therapist who is about to publish her first book, You Should Have Known. She lives a wonderful life with her doctor husband and talented young son until the day her husband disappears and a woman whose son goes to school with her own is found brutally murdered. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, Grace must face the truth of her situation. As she rebuilds her life from the ground up, she must ask herself honestly--truthfully--if she should have known.

I am not lying when I tell you that I could NOT put down this book. I was up until 2am racing through the pages because I just simply could not believe that this was happening to her. The web of lies that Grace finds herself tangled in is thick and difficult to escape--and it turns out none of them are her own. It was incredible watching this story unfold and become a tale that does not seem as farfetched as you might initially believe.

Grace is such a relate-able character in that she is down to earth regardless of her success. She is a woman who cares deeply about everyone in her life from her immediate family to her clients that she counsels. She is a selfless woman who must find a way to be selfish in order to save herself and her child. She was the driving force in this story, the one that made everything so much more horrific. The book is a fantastic read all around, and I am so happy I finally got my grubby little paws on it. Seriously--I could not put this book down. If a book keeps me up all night I am happy to stick a pin in it.

I often wonder if we never really know the people in our lives, regardless of how we close we think we are. Yet deep down we suspect the truth--we only just want things to be great and easy. If this story doesn't find you questioning those in your life then you weren't reading closely enough. Pick it up. Now. GO!

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The UnAmericans: Stories

Talk about getting punched in the face by a literary piece of astoundment. (I just this very moment made up this word specifically for this book, y'all.) This is Molly Antopol's marvelous collection of short stories, The UnAmericans. 

A father fears that his daughter's Off-Broadway play will reveal his inadequacies as a parent. A woman smuggles art out of Moscow and becomes one of the greatest collectors of the dissident art movement. An actor tries to reconnect with his young son after serving time for his communist ties in the McCarthy era. A young journalist in Jerusalem takes up with a widowed father only to find that he needs her help in understanding his own daughter more than he actually needs her.

This collection was outstanding. Wholeheartedly, honestly, painstakingly outstanding. It is clear how much heart Antopol has put into each and every story and how dearly she understands and protects and sets free each of these characters in turn. Each is written with such openness and such pathos, each with an Achilles heel for family and for what it means to be human. It is a collection of stories that is insightful and moving, all while still being so raw and open about each character's humanity.

The first story in the book, "The Old World," is about a middle aged widowed owner of a dry cleaning buisness who meets a younger Ukranian immigrant; she clings to him based on their shared heritage, even though the businessman has never been to his family's home country. He asks her to marry him; she agrees. On their honeymoon to her hometown, he realizes that he will never be able to compete with the ghosts of her past. It is a shattering story that broke me. The love and the openness that this man has for his new young wife, and the willingness to go to battle with his daughter and his son-in-law over it, is enough to also break you when this mismatched couple steps into their hotel in Kiev and the walls come crumbling down.

My absolute favorite story, however, was "The Quietest Man," which tells of a man whose daughter is coming to visit. She will bring with her the draft of her soon-to-be-produced-Off-Broadway play, and he has every intention of finding out how she chooses to portray him. He is convinced this family drama must be his own nightmare, and this feeds the first days of his daughter's visit. It takes him finding a willingness to speak with his daughter as an autonomous young daughter to discover he has been walking down the wrong path the whole time. It is him that she admires, not that she despises. I found this to be a moving and heart-stopping tale of a relationship gone wrong, one that should never have been so ill in the first place but which sometimes cannot be helped. I adored this story to the depths of my soul.

I was blessed to be able to speak with Molly via webcam thanks to the MashReads hangout, and I asked her if she had ever thought of turning one of these stories into a play. Her work was so theatrical in its telling that I could see any one of these stories as either a film or a play. I could especially see the nuanced tale of "The Quietest Man" retold on stage. All of these stories were so genuine and lovingly told; I would recommend this collection effusively.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Remember Me Like This: A Novel

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston had an incredibly interesting premise--CRIME. A missing child. I was sold. Shocking, huh?

Justin disappeared when he was 11 years old. His family spent the next four years never giving up on the search but consistently disappointed. That is, until the day they are called to the station and in walks their fifteen year old son--cool, calm, and happy to be heading home. What happened to him while he was away? How could he have existed just a few miles away all these years without anyone knowing? Is he still their own? Justin's return exposes the delicate balance that his family has been holding up, and as the summer passes and his assailant's trial draws near, his family will continue to be tested--possibly to the point of no return.

This book was incredibly fascinating and a fantastic read. I bought into the characters almost immediately, and I had to keep my nose in my Kindle to find out what was happening to them. I entirely bought into Eric's, the father's, resistance to yet another hope-raiser when he is first called by the police. That hope against hope that it is actually his son but still cautiously optimistic in that hope. It was gut wrenching to watch this family that was a glass egg barely held together with Elmer's Glue balance on the edge of a concrete wall when Justin returns. His mother has bought him gifts for every holiday he was gone, saved his mail in large plastic bins, and never even made his bed, all in the hopes that he would return as any normal day. He does in fact return, but there is nothing normal about it.

Every family has its secrets for staying afloat, so it's not hard to relate to Eric and his wife Laura, and to their boys. Griff is the younger brother. He worshiped Justin even after he disappeared. He missed him; he begged a higher power for his return. But what happens when your idol returns and you don't even know who he is? Justin's family lived lives while he was gone, coming up with nicknames and family inside jokes and references that don't make sense. The undercurrent of his return leads to an explosion that will rock their lives.

Hard copy only below.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Transcriptionist: A Novel

I was intrigued by the premise of Amy Rowland's The Transcriptionist, so I let myself become incredibly engrossed over the weekend.

Lena has been a transcriptionist for the Record for four years. She lives in other people's words, taking them in and putting them in writing. When she hears that a blind woman has been eaten to death, suicide by lion, she is unequivocally affected, unable to concentrate on anything else. She met the woman just days before her death on a bus on the way home. What was the truth of this woman's world, one that drove her to commit that final act? Lena steps out on a journey to discover the why of that choice that will ultimately lead her to seek out truth in every area of her life.

This book was hauntingly lovely. It is a story about a woman who wants the truth and needs to take action. She is haunted by the death of this woman who affected her profoundly in just a few short minutes, and it causes her to step out of her comfort zone to seek a way to be more human. It's hard not to relate to that desire. Lena lives a stilted life on a schedule with very little veering off course. She even gets the Gramercy Park key returned within the hour time limit as to avoid her building's matriarch's harsh words at her lack of timeliness. Everything has a place and a place for everything.

The story had a beautiful flow to it and was surprisingly tight. This could have easily wandered off in meandering directions, but Rowland has a strong understanding of how to keep the story moving and of how to weave a tale so that it tells you everything you need to know, lays out all of Lena for the reader to see, and opens up the raw vein of hope in just enough words to get it right. Lena isn't going crazy in the traditional sense; she is only trying to get a grasp of what it means to be human rather than a robot.

Hard copy below.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Associate: A Novel

Oooohhhh, you know my love affair with my book candy guru, Mr. Grisham. This is his 2009 novel The Associate.

Kyle McAvoy is a hard worker in his last year of law school, editor of the law journal and about to take a job working in poverty law. One cold winter night he is visited by a group of men who bring up a part of his past he wish would just be forgotten. He is blackmailed into taking a job he doesn't want--that of a first year associate at the largest law firm in the world. He is supposed to finagle his way on to the most important case to ever cross a court's threshold, spy on the inner workings, and illegally pass on information to the other side--or else. Billions of dollars are on the line, not to mention Kyle's career. The choices are slim, making Kyle face the possibility of prison...or death.

THIS IS VINTAGE GRISHAM. What I mean by this is that I feel over the years our good friend John has moved onto the route of morality tales, which is all fine and good and I have stuck with him on his journey, but I love vintage Grisham. I love harking back to the days of The Firm, where the bad guys are simply bad and the good guys have to find a way to overpower them with wits and wiliness. So yeah, this is vintage Grisham.

I love feeling positively outraged at the elaborate ruses one law firm will go to win a case. I love the intricate tale of intrigue and boldness that Grisham has woven in this book. The detail is outstanding and borderline insane in regards to how the web weaves together. I loved it. I love having to pick back up the book even though Downton Abbey is premiering tonight because I can always watch the episode tomorrow but I have to find out what's happening to Kyle tonight.

What I love most about John Grisham, and why I continue to pick up his books, is the heart he puts into his stories. He cares about his protagonists, and Kyle is no different. Kyle is conflicted. He can deal with his horrible secret hitting the airwaves, but his desire to protect his friends (also involved) is greater. However, as the reader, I could sense that there was a piece of Kyle that wanted to protect his own back. That's the thing about being human--there is no black and white in our decision making. You can feel Kyle waver in the book. He comes across as willful, and ethical, but it could easily go the other way at the turn of a dime. That's what makes the best characters, isn't it?

Kindle version on right, hard copy on left. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Little Failure: A Memior

I love Gary Shteyngart, so when I found out he had a memoir coming up I jumped on it. I got Little Failure back in January and have been so bogged down with work that I only just got to it this weekend--which made me feel like a big failure.

Gary Shteyngart was actually born little Igor, and his parents changed his name as a young boy after immigrating to America to avoid the expected humiliation that comes with that. Raised in Leningrad until he was of school age, little Igor was a staunch communist. When he discovers that his parents now had permission to emigrate out of the country, he tries to make sense of his new world--going to live with the enemy in America. His worldview changes dramatically after his arrival in Queens--it turns out he is the enemy, not them. As we follow now-Gary through his childhood with his ill-matched yet hilarious parents, the world of an immigrant child is opened to his readers and told with all of the charm, wit, and honesty that Shteyngart is known for.

This was one of the most heartwarming and funny books I have read as of late. It's not just funny-ha-ha, which it most definitely is as only Shteyngart can be. It's the kind of funny that pokes fun at oneself yet is still so easy to relate to regardless of circumstances. It's fair to say we all have crazy somewhere in our immediate or at the very least our extended family, so it's not terribly hard to relate to Shteyngart's sharp-witted tales of family woe.

It's incredibly fascinating to watch Gary grow up to be the writer that he is; how every encounter created the man he is now. He tells tales of how relatives bragged on him until they read his book, one even throwing it on the floor and spitting on it. Gary's parents called him "Little Failure," leading him to believe that he would fail throughout his life and succeed at nothing, not the least of which included career, relationship, and being a successful son. It is pretty well understood that you create the child you want to have by shaping his or her worldview with your words, but this is a relatively modern understanding. His mother's words greatly affected his identity throughout his childhood and early adulthood.

I was so taken by the man that Gary presents himself to be in this book. He lays out for us exactly who he knows himself to be, and at times I felt myself wanting to jump through the page and tell him that he can be whatever he wants to be, but to stick with the writing thing because he is super good at it. My heart hurt for him as he dealt with the inevitable teasing that happens when you don't speak the language, both verbally and physically, and I was particularly moved by his story of finding out that Russia was the enemy, not America, when he discovered that the world didn't view his beloved motherland the way that her citizens were indoctrinated to believe. His story of abundant bananas in America? Priceless.

Hard copy only below.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bark: Stories

When Lorrie Moore comes out with a new collection, you get it. Because. Her latest is Bark.

A divorced man explores a new relationship only to find that his newly beloved may be mentally ill. A woman loses a friend and is taken to visit her ghost. After twenty years of marriage, a woman goes on one last family vacation in denial over her husband's apathy. A dinner party takes a turn toward malice over politics. A boiled-over musician forms a bond with an elderly neighbor and finds out what she never knew she always wanted. A wedding finds some uninvited guests and some unexpected self-discovery.

These stories all form Bark, which takes on a myriad of meanings you can seek out for yourself because you should grab up this book. I have had a penchant for short stories as of late, and I have discovered the amazement that is Lorrie Moore. (Yes, I am a bit late to the party with famous literary figures.) I was so taken with each and every one of these characters. They all hit me with a different force, some light, some hard. It's difficult to choose a favorite, but I would have to say the first story, "Debarking," is one of them. Discovering Zora's incredibly unhealthy relationship with her son and how off her rocker she really was, all through the eyes of a poor divorcee who happened upon this relationship while in denial over his own divorce and trying to emotionally reach his own young daughter. The story was snappy and witty and smirky; the characters where head-tilting and wild and uneven--and I loved it.

The other story that I would list at the top of my favorites was "Foe," the literary dinner party gone politically awry. A man and his wife are invited to Washington for a literary magazine gala, only to be sat at a table with a lobbyist. While the wife is busy speaking to the people to her right, the husband ends up in a political discussion with the lobbyist who is a Birther and a believer in the current presidential candidate as a terrorist. Sound familiar? It was amazing.

I was very struck by the undercurrent of aging as a theme in these stories. Not aging as in, "Oh, I'm getting old," but rather what happens when we step back and realize that time has gotten away from us. What happens when you are a fully grown adult, no longer able say that you were just finding yourself the way you can get away with in your 20's? Adults deal with adult-like things, and they are crazy and weird; the events that happen as an adult are very meta and often make you think, "Is this for real?" At least, that's my take.

Maybe it turns out that my life is a Lorrie Moore short story?

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, May 5, 2014

By Any Means: An Ash Rashid Novel

I picked this novel up on a whim because I love crime and it was well worth it. In fact, I am looking forward to grabbing a few more of Chris Culver's Ash Rashid novels. This one is By Any Means. 

Ash Rashid just wants to go home. It's Ramadan, he's hungry and tired, and now he has spied a car accident. What he doesn't know as he calls it in is that he is about to face one of the biggest, most sprawling cases of his career. A couple is dead, shot in the front seats, a young mother is missing and the 911 tape doesn't sound good at all, and Ash quickly receives a tip that human trafficking may be involved. Is it really all in a day's work?

I whipped through this sucker like nobody's business. I had such a hard time finding the will to put it down in the face of work. It was fast-paced and interesting while still being full of information and thoughtful in its story. The detail was precise while still allowing me as the reader to expand my imagination, and to explore a world that I (very thankfully) know little about. It was realistic enough for me to buy it and fascinating enough for me to stretch my own ability to believe. That is what I loved about this book.

I also found the character of Ash to be well worth coming back to in other novels that I haven't yet read. He is a human, through and through. He has flaws but he means well; his marriage faces issues like all others, and his job takes a toll on his psyche like any high-stress job does. He is a real person (although he is a fictional character--I know, I know, I haven't lost my mind), one with high points and low points, a person who faces trials and makes mistakes and is raw and real and upfront about it. I love this in my characters.

I also found it incredibly interesting that Culver has put such a strong and respectful emphasis on Ash's religion. He addresses it upfront and honestly, and Ash deals with it as a part of the story without it being a focus. It is weaved in beautifully with the narrative and gave me as the reader a real understanding of Ash's backbone and why he does what he does.

Hard copy only below. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

We are wrapping up DFW week, and I wanted to end with Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. This was my first experience with the man and I fell in love with his wordiness and his genius and his copious use of footnotes. It was love at first read.

At the Maine lobster festival, DFW contemplates the finer points on whether lobsters actually feel pain. Everyone has a 9/11 experience--what was yours? What is proper grammar usage and why do we get it all wrong? After spending time on the campaign trail with McCain is 2000, will either survive? These are just some topics explored in essays that force you to consider new sides of topics about which you never knew you had an opinion.

DFW shines when it comes to his narratives, but I also have a soft spot for his essays. I think they are the perfect fit with his love of footnotes (and mine...I love footnotes like nobodies business).

I have simplified the premises of several essays, of course, because DFW can not be boiled down to a simple blurbed description. His work is full and nuanced; it's a fine meal of the greatest delicacies you can find with paired wines for every course. The first essay I read was "Consider the Lobster," and if you poke around online you can find the original publication in which it was published. It is full of care and research because the man loves facts. Whether it's dates and times or scores and averages, he puts in details that are so minute you wonder if they are even necessary--then you read on and realize that they are whether you know it or not. Have you ever wondered if lobsters feel pain? Even if you actually have, you haven't pondered it in this way before. Deep and thoughtful with a dab of facts in your melted butter.

The other essay that really took me for a ride was "Host," which is about talk radio, specifically The John Ziegler Show. I am sure many of us have mixed opinions on talk radio, so I appreciate that DFW has this way of wanting to know all of the facts, not just the ones that drive him to form an opinion and then support it. He digs deep into the psyche of why people do what they do, and even if you don't agree with their reasoning, you find out what it is. He asks questions that make you go, "I hadn't even thought of that!" They are deep and inviting, making me want to step even further into the recesses of his mind.

Which I guess is something that could be said of all of his work, and it's one of the most loveable things about the man as the brilliant writer that he was.

Hard copy only below.