Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Danger! Book Buying!

So over the weekend, Lesley and I decided to leave the men at home with Leah and do a little book shopping. Fredericksburg is home to two great independent bookstores, Riverby Books (used books in a great old store) and The Griffin (a newer place to buy mainly new books--they have a coffee shop within AND a book club I am considering joining). We also both had a 40% off coupon from our Borders Rewards memberships, and they were making our palms itch, so Sunday we hit Riverby and Griffin and Monday we hit Borders.

Lesley was kept honest by the constraints of her suitcase. I, on the other hand, have not been book shopping in a long, long time and am only constrained by my husband's feigned crabbiness over the number of books in the house (I know he doesn't mean it!). So I picked up a good number of books and to make matters worse, Melissa showed up with one for me on Sunday!

So here's what I picked up:

1*. Imagined London (Anna Quindlen). Best-selling novelist and Newsweek columnist Quindlen has always been an "indefatigable" reader, and British novels set in London, "indisputably the capital of literature," have been a particular passion. Quindlen acquired a vivid impression of the city from absorbing Dickens, Eliot, Galsworthy, Doyle, Woolf, and Lessing, writers for whom London was as much a living character as their indelible protagonists. But she admits she was reluctant to travel there and obliterate the imagined with the actual. Finally, a book tour sends her to this fabled place, and she does revel in London's evocative complexity as she undertakes pilgrimages to literary landmarks. Deftly contrasting "the London frozen in the amber of great fiction" with today's city, Quindlen discerns the key lesson of English literature: the "unvarying nature both of social problems and personal dramas."

2. So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell). On an Illinois farm in the 1920s, a man is murdered, and in the same moment the tenous friendship between two lonely boys comes to an end. In telling their interconnected stories, American Book Award winner William delivers a masterfully restrained and magically evocative meditation on the past.

3. At Large and At Small (Anne Fadiman). Fadiman begins her second essay collection by quoting her father, the waggish intellectual of page, radio, and television Clifton Fadiman, lamenting the impending demise of the "familiar essay." Decades later, Anne is happy to report that the essay has survived, even if the familiar essay is now less, well, familiar than the critical or personal essay. A familiar essay is a confiding, inquiring, and witty reflection on a passionately considered subject. This intimate form was perfected by Charles Lamb, a writer Anne adores. With Lamb and her father serving as muses, Fadiman writes funny and keen essays that seemingly without effort mesh the personal with the literary and historical to surprising and edifying ends. Fadiman finds lessons for living in the contemplation of ice cream and coffee, the adventures of an Arctic explorer, and the collecting of butterflies. A master of the tangential, a close observer, and a lover of language, Fadiman is blithely brilliant in her pursuit of beauty and meaning as she wrestles with questions of life, death, and rebirth.

4. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives. In the two main characters, the white-shouldered, irresistible Scarlett and the flashy, contemptuous Rhett, Margaret Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she also created two of the most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet.

5. Dear American Airlines (Jonathan Miles). This crisp yowl of a first novel from Miles finds despairing yet effusive litterateur Benjamin Ford midair in midlife crisis. Bennie is en route from New York, where he shares a cramped apartment with his stroke-disabled mother and her caretaker, to L.A., where he will attend his daughter Stella's wedding. He gets stranded at O'Hare when his connecting flight—along with all others—is unaccountably canceled. In the long, empty hours amid a marooned crowd, Bennie's demand for a refund quickly becomes a scathing yet oddly joyful reflection on his difficult life, and on the Polish novel he is translating. Bennie writes lightly of his dark years of drinking, of his failed marriages, about his mother's descent into suicidal madness and about her marriage to Bennie's father, a survivor of a Nazi labor camp. Bennie's father recited Polish poetry for solace during Bennie's childhood, inadvertently setting Bennie's life course; Bennie's command of language as he describes his fellow strandees and his riotous embrace of his own feelings will have readers rooting for him. By the time flights resume, Miles has masterfully taken Bennie from grim resignation to the dazzling exhilaration of the possible.

6*. Foreign Correspondence (Geraldine Brooks). The leap between dreamy child living in a provincial Australian neighborhood and journalist hopscotching through war zones is massive. In Foreign Correspondence, Geraldine Brooks unravels the rope that pulled and tugged her toward adventure and away from "a very small world" where her family had no car and had never boarded a plane or placed an international phone call. "I'd never imagined myself as someone whose packing list would include a chador, much less a bulletproof vest," she says. Preserved in the cellar of her parents' home in Sydney were letters Brooks had received as a teenager from several international pen pals, around whom she spun a romantic view of the world. Wondering about the reality of their lives and the progression of her own, she tracks them down in France, Japan, the Middle East, and New York. En route, Brooks delivers a wonderful meditation on childhood and adolescence lashed with rich details and quirky humor.

7*. The Memory of Running (Ron McLarty). Smithy Ide is a really nice guy. But he's also an overweight, friendless, womanless, hard-drinking, 43-year-old self-professed loser with a breast fetish and a dead-end job, given to stammering "I just don't know" in life's confusing moments. When Smithy's entire family dies, he embarks on a transcontinental bicycle trip to recover his sister's body and rediscover what it means to live. Along the way, he flashes back to his past and the hardships of his beloved sister's schizophrenia, while his dejection encourages strangers to share their life stories.

8. The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers). The Member of the Wedding tells the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother's upcoming marriage. Bolstered by lively conversations with the family maid, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin--not to mention her own unbridled imagination--Frankie takes an overly active fole in the wedding. She hopes even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to become part of something larger, more accepting than herself.

9. Beautiful Boy (David Sheff). From as early as grade school, the world seemed to be on Nic Sheff's string. Bright and athletic, he excelled in any setting and appeared destined for greatness. Yet as childhood exuberance faded into teenage angst, the precocious boy found himself going down a much different path. Seduced by the illicit world of drugs and alcohol, he quickly found himself caught in the clutches of addiction. Beautiful Boy is Nic's story, but from the perspective of his father, David. Achingly honest, it chronicles the betrayal, pain, and terrifying question marks that haunt the loved ones of an addict. Many respond to addiction with a painful oath of silence, but David Sheff opens up personal wounds to reinforce that it is a disease, and must be treated as such. Most importantly, his journey provides those in similar situations with a commodity that they can never lose: hope.

10**. The Stepmother (Carrie Adams). Adams follows up 2006's The Godmother with a perceptive chick noir, once again debunking the notion that everything's smooth sailing once you've found the love of your life. Tessa King (heroine of Adams's first novel) has finally nabbed hers: James, an older man with three charming daughters from a previous marriage. These daughters—including daddy's girl extraordinaire, 14-year-old Amber—don't seem so lovely once stepmother-in-waiting Tessa has to deal with their dirty school uniforms and petty jealousies. Nor did Tessa sign up for the emotional baggage of James's ex-wife, Bea, who broke James's heart. With all the angst, how's a girl supposed to plan the perfect white wedding? Meanwhile, Bea—who shares narration duty—still has a torch burning for James and has buried years of regret and guilt under binge eating and, soon, compulsive drinking. Family dramas and crises bring Bea and Tessa together with surprising results.

11. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows). Traditional without seeming stale, and romantic without being naïve” (San Francisco Chronicle), this epistolary novel, based on Mary Ann Shaffer’s painstaking, lifelong research, is a homage to booklovers and a nostalgic portrayal of an era. As her quirky, loveable characters cite the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, Shaffer subtly weaves those writers’ themes into her own narrative. However, it is the tragic stories of life under Nazi occupation that animate the novel and give it its urgency; furthermore, the novel explores the darker side of human nature without becoming maudlin.

12. My Husband's Sweethearts (Bridget Asher). Faced with the imminent death of her charming, cheating and estranged husband Artie, Lucy Shoreman decides to call the names in his little black book and invite the ladies to his Philadelphia home to say a final farewell. For her part, 30-ish Lucy, who's 18 years Artie's junior, can't decide whether she loves or hates the man, while her much-married mother insists he deserves forgiveness. As a broad spectrum of his ex-lovers arrives, including a surprised mother-and-daughter duo and a troubled young woman Lucy takes under her wing, Artie's previously undisclosed and estranged grown son, John, shows up and seems as wickedly appealing as Dad. Asher, a pen name of prolific author Julianna Baggott, takes the edge off her sharply drawn characters with a succession of familiar sentiments. But flashes of wit and a parade of memorable women keep pages turning as Lucy grows increasingly and endearingly confused about her feelings toward Artie, John and the rest.

12. How Starbucks Saved My Life (Michael Gates Gill). In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a mansion in the suburbs, a wife and loving children, a six-figure salary, and an Ivy League education. But in a few short years, he lost his job, got divorced, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With no money or health insurance, he was forced to get a job at Starbucks. Having gone from power lunches to scrubbing toilets, from being served to serving, Michael was a true fish out of water. But fate brings an unexpected teacher into his life who opens his eyes to what living well really looks like. The two seem to have nothing in common: She is a young African American, the daughter of a drug addict; he is used to being the boss but reports to her now. For the first time in his life he experiences being a member of a minority trying hard to survive in a challenging new job. He learns the value of hard work and humility, as well as what it truly means to respect another person. Behind the scenes at one of America’s most intriguing businesses, an inspiring friendship is born, a family begins to heal, and, thanks to his unlikely mentor, Michael Gill at last experiences a sense of self-worth and happiness he has never known before.

* means Lesley recommended the book with such vigor I was helpless to not purchase it
** means Melissa dropped it off

I'm going to have A LOT of reading to do. Fortunately, I've already read Guernsey, but I needed a print copy for book club--I read it on audio with an amazing ensemble cast. I am giving Anne Fadiman another chance to impress me, I really didn't like Ex Libris very well. I've wanted to read the Starbucks book for a long time, and when it was a BOGO deal at Borders with Beautiful Boy, I leapt at the chance to get both books for $4. I also came home with a healthy list of books to try and get from PaperbackSwap. Sheesh! Am I a glutton for punishment? You should see my "to be read" shelf as it is!

Lesley and I laughed a lot over how we have nothing in common but get along so well--our reading tastes are drastically different, our taste in music is radically different, you name it, we are probably on opposite ends of the spectrum. But we love each other like sisters, so that's all that matters. :-) To that end, she and I are going to work on a little project that I'll say more about soon when we get ourselves organized.

Happy page turning!

2 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Sarah said...

Let me know if you like the essay collection! Also, if you like Beautiful Boy I can pass along "Tweak," which was written by Nic Sheff. Tweak is a bit harsher/more graphic, but it's interesting to get the dad's point of view *and* the son's point of view.

Lesley said...

means Lesley recommended the book with such vigor I was helpless to not purchase it

LOL! I'll have to remember that line the next time I go on a book-buying spree. "Susan made me!"