Jul 23, 2014

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris

David Sedaris really is a magnificent essayist. There's not a single one of the chapters in this book that isn't funny and poignant and expertly crafted. He has the kind of writing skill (and memory) that booksellers dream of: oh, the stories we could tell about our bookstores, if only we could write as well as Sedaris. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing him speak at my college several years ago, and hearing his voice and delivery in my head while reading his essays only makes them better. His essays definitely have a pattern - funny story about himself or a family member, then incredibly touching and insightful denouement at the very end - which with other writes would seem trite, but with Sedaris, the knowledge of what will come at the end increases one's anticipation of it, as well as the humor of the rest of the story. I need to read his work more often.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

A group of us at the bookstore (employees and customers) decided that we'd always wanted to read "Anna Karenina" but never quite got up the motivation to do so, and that scheduling a book club to discuss it would provide the proper instigation. Having finished this tome of 19th Century Russian literature, I'm still a little unsure of what to say about it. I enjoyed it, but without having read much else that was contemporary, I can't tell what is distinctly Tolstoy and what is merely cultural. As a history major, I definitely liked peeking into a society and time so very different from my own: Russian society is a fascinating subject, and the length of the novel allows one to become almost familiar with it.

At several junctures, I pondered why Tolstoy chose to call it "Anna Karenina," since the eponymous character is really only one of several main characters. Towards the end of the book, I realized that it's because her actions produce a profound effect on each of the other main characters' lives. Also, I'm pretty sure she is bipolar, or manic-depressive, or suffers from some such kind of mental illness. Anna is capricious and even cruel at times, violently self-centered and needy. As the book goes on, reading her sections becomes rather more painful, whereas the sections focusing on Kitty, Levin, or Oblonsky are far more pleasing. I suppose this is the point.

I'm interested to hear what the others have to say about it, though I think "War and Peace" would have provided us more fodder for discussion. I've heard many people list it as one of the best, if not the all-time best, novels ever written, so that will definitely have to be tackled at some point.

Jul 11, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

I picked up the advanced reader's copy of this book with some trepidation, though the premise intrigued me: "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932" is built around a famous photograph of a lesbian couple at a nightclub known for its boundary-pushing clientele, and was taken by a young Hungarian photographer. The picture can be seen at https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRYxWtsv4-ZdiVMzbSDfxOdABsxOeJd8pZHfm3a8xKInXeG7qmI. Sorry for the website gibberish. Prose doesn't just write a novel, she uses several different invented mediums to tell a fascinating story. The book centers on Lou Villars, a champion race car driver and butch lesbian who becomes an informant and torturer for the German occupiers of France during World War II (yes, I've read of lot of WWII books lately, I think I'll hold off on more of those for a while). We read from a biography of Lou written by the grand-niece of an acquaintance of hers; we read letters from the photographer sent to his devoted parents back in Hungary; we read from published and unpublished memoirs of ex-pat writers and French industrialists. All of these people circle around Lou in some fashion, and each has a distinctive voice.

Prose's accomplishment is incredible. I had thought of her as sort of a thinking woman's chick lit writer, but this book proves me very wrong (and I'm not sure how I even came to that assumption in the first place). Her writing is hilarious in many places, poignant in others, and she demonstrates a remarkable ability for concocting many different voices convincingly. It really makes you think about what convolutions a person's brain will twist into in order to justify his or her actions, and whether evil is really so simple a concept as it seems. I was enthralled by this book, and am left with a sincere desire to read her previous works as well.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

I've been hearing for months about this book, with other booksellers saying it's one of the best books they've read in a long time. This is extremely high praise from booksellers, so I had very high expectations for this novel. "All The Light We Cannot See" takes place before and during World War II. We follow Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who goes blind at age six, and whose loving father constructs a model of their neighborhood so she can confidently get around on her own. Her father is also the locksmith at the natural history museum, and most of the action revolves around the possibility that, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Paris, he is entrusted with a priceless gem from the museum's collection. At the same time, we follow Werner, an orphan in Germany who has a particular genius for radios. He's drafted into the Hitler Youth, then quickly sent to the front to help triangulate insurgent radio transmissions. The chapters are very short, and we bounce back and forth between these two characters, with a couple of additional points of view thrown in every now and then. My favorite parts were Doerr's description of Marie-Laure's blindness, the way she experiences the world: in sets of numbers, in sounds and feelings from her deft fingers. It's a beautiful book, and astonishingly well-researched. I wouldn't say that it's one of the best books I've read in a while, but I certainly think it's very good, and would readily recommend it to most readers.

Mirrored Time, by J.D. Faulkner

Full disclosure: Faulkner is a very good friend of mine, so I've tried to remain unbiased while reading this, her first self-published novel.
"Mirrored Time" is a fantasy novel about a criss-crossed timeline and a young woman trying to find her place in life. It's a good first effort, fun to follow, with a clever backstory and premise. Like most first novels, it's a bit choppy at times, and (though this may be only because I know the author well) I thought her writing voice sounds a bit too much like her speaking voice. Every writer has his/her particular style, and I'm certainly not saying that she should erase hers, but I expect that over time, it will develop itself more fully and become less recognizably "her." The twist at the end was great and a good cliffhanger, while remaining satisfying, that makes us want to read the next installment. I look forward to reading more of Faulkner's work and watching her writing develop.

Jun 10, 2014

Brazen, by Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is having an event at my bookstore, so we decided to base the first meeting of our teen book club around her three young adult novels about women living at court during the reign of Henry VIII. "Brazen," her third, comes out in a couple of days, so as soon as we got it in the store, I started reading it. And didn't stop. I read the entire thing in less than 24 hours, which I think might be some kind of record for me. It's a really fun book, with a charming, interesting heroine.

Mary Howard is married to the king's illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy when they are both just 14 years old. Forbidden to consummate their marriage until they have reached adulthood, Mary and Fitz spend the next three years playing an incredibly awkward game of romantic hide-and-seek. Told in the first person by Mary, we wonder along with her whether this marriage, which dramatically raises her social standing, will free her from the grasp of her horrific mother or instead become her new prison. Mary must often decide between duty and loyalty, self-interest and selflessness, and though the Tudor court is very different from our own culture, these decisions are faced by teens everywhere, all the time. I especially loved the way Longshore gives Mary a type of synesthesia: Mary loves poetry and words, and each word has a distinctive taste. These synesthetic remarks are sprinkled throughout the book, and they give the narrative a lovely richness. I can't wait to talk about this with the members of our teen book club, and to meet Longshore at her reading!

Jun 9, 2014

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition), by Ernest Hemingway

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I, a bookseller, have never read Hemingway, and that it took someone else picking this for our bookstore's book club for me to read anything by him; but it's the sad truth. I had a bit of a problem with the first chapter, which I found myself reading in the voice of the actor who played Hemingway in Woody Allen's movie "Midnight in Paris," but that quickly disappeared. He certainly had a distinctive writing voice; few contractions, fewer commas, long sentences. I enjoyed it, it was very interesting to get a glimpse of one of history's most fruitful moments, and I especially enjoyed his description of Scott Fitzgerald. I really look forward to discussing this with our group.