Monday, February 24, 2014

Harriet Turns 50 Years-Old & Bookish Stuff in and Around Philly: Feb. 24 - March 2

How will you celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Harriet the Spy this week? Do something bookish -- read, write or support an author by going to a signing.

And although it may not directly relate to Harriet's big birthday, I'm celebrating another fierce female character through moderating the first of two book club discussions of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr. Join me on Thursday, 2/27 @ 7:00 pm or, if you can't make that meeting, I'll be leading another session at the store on Thursday, March 6 @ 1:00 pm. There's still time to read the book and join in!

James Patterson's commitment to independent bookstores made national news this week he announced that he was awarding $267,000 to 55 independent booksellers as the first step towards distributing $1 million to community stores with an emphasis on those that promote a love of a reading in children. But, did you know that three area independent bookshops were among those receiving grants? Congrats to Children's Book World in Haverford, The Doylestown Bookshop and Booktenders Secret Garden both in Doylestown!

I think I'll have to read a James Patterson book now.

Monday, February 24

Gary Shteyngart | Little Failure
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

This is rescheduled from late January when snow interfered with everyone having a really fun time with a charming and friendly writer. Go if you can!

Tuesday, February 25

Samuel G. Freedman | Breaking the Line with Ericka Blount Danois | Love, Peace, and Soul 
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Two very interesting and different books on African American cultural experiences -- breaking the color line in college football and an behind the scenes chronicle of Soul Train -- during the Civil Rights era.

Wednesday, February 26

Susannah Cahalan | Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Towne Book Center, Collegville
7 pm
RSVP: 610-454-0640

Warren Hoffman | The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical
Location: Head House Books
619 South 2nd Street
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Robin M. Kevles-Necowitz | Go Take A Bath!: A Powerful Self-Care Approach to Extraordinary Parenting
Location: Newtown Bookshop
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Thursday, February 27

Anna Quindlen | Still Life with Bread Crumbs
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

Jon Muth | Hi, Koo!
Location: Children's Book World
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Saturday, March 1

Multiple Authors | Death Knell V
Location: Chester County Book Company, 967 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA
Cost: Free, but please purchase books to be signed in the store or online from Chester County Books
1:00 pm

Per Goodreads:
A collection of mystery stories --psychological suspense, historical mystery, paranormal, humorous, horror. Longtime favorite novelists, like Charles Todd and Robin Hathaway, as well as those just beginning to make their mark--J.D. Shaw, Augustus Cileone, and Kathleen Heady, among others--but also, many fresh new voices, in print for the first time. The settings take you to three continents.

Next week offers up some great events that are worth noting now so you have time to plan. For lovers of YA the Story Crush Winter 2014 Tour will be coming to the Barnes & Noble in Oxford, PA on Monday, March 3, while Martin Amis will be doing a talk and a signing at Haverford College on Wednesday, March 5.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Poetic and Moving Portrait of A Village

Title: The Spinning Heart
Author: Donal Ryan
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Steerforth
Publication Date: February 25, 2014 (originally pub. in U.K. in 2012)
Hardcover 160 pages

How I Read This Book: e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley

Synopsis per Goodreads:
In the aftermath of Ireland's financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds. 
The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.
My Review:

Donal Ryan's exploration of village life after the collapse of the Irish economy is full of beautiful writing and interesting characters. It's easy to see why this debut made the Booker Prize longlist last summer as well as being named the Book of the Year by the Irish Book Awards. Since it is unlikely that many people in either the U.K. or the United States would have discovered this talented writer without these honor this is an instance where the literary vanguard has done readers a great service.

The Spinning Heart has gotten a fair bit of attention for portraying the devastation unleashed when Ireland's economy folded, but it does so not with great sweeping sociological pronouncements, but by illuminating the haunting personal tragedies that arise from long term resentments and dysfunction compounded by economic dislocation.

Ryan unfolds and reveals his tale through a series of internal monologues by inhabitants of an unnamed village whose lives are disrupted when Pokey Burke, a property developer, flees when his dubious business dealings result in bankruptcy. His disappearance leaves the men who worked for him through the boom years unemployed and at a loss for alternatives. Making matters worse, Pokey was never the most upstanding of business people and he never paid the necessary employment taxes, leaving his former employees without a safety net.

Sudden idleness ripples through the lives of the men and their families as everyone begins to question not just what to do, but how they came to live as they are. Who am I? And, what does my life mean? These questions roar like flood waters around and throughout this book. The chorus Ryan creates with his multiple narrators provides a multi-layered portrait of the multitude as well as different perspectives on key figures in a violent drama that unfolds over the course of several months. Each narrative voice is unique and brilliantly imbues life into characters across classes, ages and nationalities. Even the dead have a voice here. Ryan gives each man, woman and child a tale of their own that supplements and deepens our compassion for all the victims of the economic implosion.

As beautiful, engaging, and brief, as this novel is, at times it feels as if there are too many voices, too many stories. While it is easy to keep track of the central actors as they each have a chance to tell a part of the tale, Ryan may have gone overboard in his bid for all encompassing social commentary. For example, I felt that there was no need given the structure of the novel to include narration from a nomadic Russian laborer. Yes, many immigrated to Ireland as workers while the Celtic Tiger was on a rampage, and while his tale was affecting, it was structurally extraneous. Perhaps it was this reliance on creating a collective folk tale instead of a more controlled narrative structure that prevented it from being included on the Booker Shortlist?

Structural concerns aside, this is an entertaining, emotionally affecting book as well as an introduction to a new and impressive talent. We all should hope to write anything that approaches the level of truth and beauty Donal Ryan makes look so easy. The good news is that his second novel will be published in the US soon and I definitely plan on reading it as soon as I can.

Bottom Line:

A book for lovers of literary fiction where language is character and heartbreak goes hand-in-hand with beauty. The Spinning Heart will engage and haunt you for far longer than it will take to read.

Note: I received a galley of this book from the publisher via Net Galley, but rest assured, this review reflects my own opinions and all my own typos.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Learning the Ways of the World

Moral ambiguity, shifting allegiances, murky motives, global politics, ruthless ideologues -- these are phrases that usually bring to mind the work of John Le Carre, not a work of Young Adult fiction. In this case, they are all evoked by the excellent YA debut by another former intelligence officer, "The Tyrant's Daughter" by J. C. Carlson.

The story opens as fifteen year old Laila, her mother, Jasmin, and six year old brother, Bastien, are trying to adapt to a new life near Washington, D.C. after fleeing their home country. They've gone from a life of cloistered luxury as members of the ruling family in an unnamed Middle Eastern state because of a coup that left the leader of the state, Laila's father, dead. In a suitably Shakespearean reference, the coup and assassination were engineered by Laila's uncle, who has now assumed power in his brother's stead. I can only assume the echoes of Hamlet are deliberate. For like Hamlet, Laila is forced to discover her own moral compass and act upon her beliefs and she is not sure who to trust. Should she believe the members of the opposition that begin to visit her mother in their new apartment? What does the CIA agent who managed to get them to the US want? Why is her mother talking to the uncle who assumed power when they were always at odds with one another in the past? What can a fifteen year old girl, the invisible child, do to make the world a better place? This may seem a bit cryptic, but I hope it will give you a flavor of how the book evolves.

And evolve it does. The opening sections are focused on Laila's introduction to a life without servants, where she goes to school for the first time, where girls and boys mix easily and teenage fashion exposes vast amounts of skin. Carlson does a masterful job of making Laila's sensory dislocation and bouts of panic viscerally realistic. Even better is the journey of discovery that Laila undertakes when a new friend refers to her father as a deposed tyrant. For Laila, her father was her father and all she saw of him was good. The vocabulary she was exposed to painted her father's actions in the best possible light, but now she discovers that her version of events is not what she thought.

The ending is appropriately ambiguous. Carlson follows Laila's story to a new inflection point and it is up to the reader to determine how the future will unfold. There is a very helpful essay by a scholar of middle eastern politics that will give this novel's readers some very insightful and thought provoking hints of different possibilities and I was glad to see it included.

There are a few minor missteps here -- the portraits of the American teens that Laila comes to know seem shallow, and more importantly, while the story is told in the present tense, Laila's voice feels older and reflective in a way that made her narration feel as if it was coming from an older person looking back rather than as a teenager experiencing these events as they unfold. But, as I said, these are minor quibbles and ultimately do not take away from this excellent debut novel.

I don't know if this is a book that every thrill seeking teen will find captivating, but I hope many do for it is a great introduction to the 'grey zone' that is central to political realities the world over. I would automatically refer any teen that finds the discomforting ambiguity of Laila's story to be sent off to read "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", they're ready.

Just a Teaser

Last week was more than a bit disrupted for me, and for any number of other people affected by the ice storm in the mid-atlantic. We were out of power for a mere 48 hours while some of our friends just got service restored last night and at least one family we know sees no end in sight (they have a generator which helps, but still I hope PECO gets to them soon).

Besides the power disruption, I have spent the last few days out of town as for family reasons*. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I haven't posted the reviews I've been meaning to get to and the rest of the weeks literary doings will be posted tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you are looking for something book oriented to do this evening there are a couple of great ones.

At the Free Library there is a powerhouse double header: Rachel Kushner who's second novel, The Flamethrowers has been a huge success in literary and commercial terms will be appearing with Philipp Meyer who was also been high on the list of breakout writers last year with his novel The Son.

Event details:

Free Library, Central Library
Free (free!! -- I'm always amazed that writers I think of as part of the world's elite are accessible for free)
7:30 pm

But, while these two are likely to be thought provoking and interesting, I'm heading up to The Doylestown Bookshop to see Glen Duncan!

Duncan is the writer I voted least likely to enjoy reading based on author photo.  I almost didn't read The Last Werewolf because I felt he looked to over the top. Well just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't judge an author on a photo. As soon as I picked up and read the book I was hooked. I loved the first sequel, Talulla Rising and am very much looking forward to picking up my copy of By Blood We Live later this evening and getting it signed. I think this is his first US book tour and he's only appearing at this one venue on the east coast. I'm psyched!

Event Details:

Glen Duncan
The Doylestown Bookshop
6:30 pm

Tickets are free, but registration is required.

*I might have visited Politics & Prose while in the DC area. It's reputation is well deserved, but I still love my hometown shops.

P.S. Heads up, tomorrow Matthew Quick will be launching his new book, The Good Luck of Right Now, at the Free Library. I saw him at Children's Book World when he appeared this fall in support of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, and he's charming and as sweet and quirky as his books.

Monday, February 3, 2014

This is the Week That Will Be

I can't believe it's February already. I'm not sure how that happened. I did manage to read ten books in January, but given how quickly they pile up around here, I don't think that even kept me at shelf stasis. Now we head into that worst of months, the one that is too short, too brutal. At least a lot of great authors will be making the rounds to provide something to do as the cold grey days and nights make it ever more imperative that I get out of the house.

Where is all the snow coming from this winter? All I can say is it gives me even more reading time than usual.

Monday, February 3

Armistead Maupin | The Days of Anna Madrigal
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

As of this posting this event is going on as planned, but please check the Free Library website before you venture out this evening.

Tuesday, February 4

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Debut Author Extravaganza | Towne Book Center & Cafe
Location: Towne Book Center, 220 Plaza Drive, Suite B-3, Collegeville, PA
7:00 pm
Cost: Free, but please RSVP to 610-454-0640

A panel of east coast debut authors in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre! These all look great and are on my "To Read" pile so I'm planning on finding my way to Collegeville to catch this trio. Here are the links to the Goodreads listings for each of the books:

James Cambias | A Darkling Sea
Brian Staveley | The Emperor's Blades
Ramona Wheeler | Three Princes

Philip Schultz | The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

Wednesday, February 5

Storytime with Carol Roth | Children's Book World
Time TBD, Please call the store at 610-642-6274
Aimed at ages three and up

Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Thursday, February 6

Robert Hass | Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet
Location: Bryn Mawr College
Goodhart Hall, The Music Room
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Betty Medsger | The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Laurel Forte | Little 'Ol Me
Location: Wellington Square Bookshop
549 Wellington Square, Eagleview Town Centre, Exton, PA
Cost: Free
5:30 - 7:00 pm

Here's the Goodreads description:
After being struck by lightning, Laurel Forte, finds out she is pregnant. Throughout the pregnancy and delivery, an array of events occurs, quickly changing Laurel’s perspective on life. After her shot gun marriage and divorce, she begins dating Bryan Cease. Bryan and Laurel had what seemed to be a perfect relationship… Until, Bryan became famous. He and his crew from ‘Dumbass’ performed dare-devilish stunts and stupid human tricks. When Laurel ended the relationship with Bryan, they decided to humiliate and harass her on national television, radio and the internet. Because of the crew’s intentional malice, Laurel lived in fear for herself and her son. She was stalked, harassed and bullied by not only the celebrities from ‘Dumbass’, but their fans as well. This novel not only tells the story of ‘the other side of fame’, but the commitment, dedication, and love of a mother.

Friday, February 7

Kathryn Craft | The Art of Falling
Location: Chester County Book Company, 967 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA
Cost: Free, but please purchase books to be signed in the store or online from Chester County Books
7:00 pm

Per Goodreads:
One wrong step could send her over the edge.

All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
Kathryn Craft’s lyrical debut novel is a masterful portrayal of a young woman trying to come to terms with her body and the artistic world that has repeatedly rejected her. The Art of Falling expresses the beauty of movement, the stasis of despair, and the unlimited possibilities that come with a new beginning.

Roddy Doyle | The Guts with Wesley Stace | Wonderkid
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

This is an duo I've been looking forward to so I'm planning to meander downtown for this talk, assuming I've recovered from the trip I'm taking up to NYC to catch my friend Penny Jackson's new play Bitten on Thursday evening.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pythagorean Pizza, Scottish Tapas, and Open Minds

Imagine living in a world where the food you eat is intrinsically linked to your ideological and philosophical affiliation?

Oh, right, we already live in that world. We buy organic and local. We pursue kale recipes with ardor, avoid carbs, or meat, or fat, or gluten, or dairy depending on what we think we should or shouldn't be eating.* That is, if we are economically privileged enough to be in a position to choose.

I don't mean to get sidetracked into a debate on food politics in the 21st century, I'm only trying say that the future that Rachel Cantor paints in her debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario or, A Neesta Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, is not as outrageous as it may sound. She takes our obsessions with food politics to an unlikely, and very funny extreme, by dropping us into a future where fast food is explicitly political. In these pages a Pythagorean Pizza chain competes for minds, and stomachs, with a Heraclitan grill and eateries serving up Scottish Tapas under the name of Jac-O-Bites.

Leonard, our hapless and naive hero, is a reclusive complaint line listener for the titular pizza chain. Each night he retreats to his "White Room" where in his white clothing, he waits to ease the pain of dissatisfied customers. His only foray out of the house each day is to retrieve his nephew from the "caravan" stop after school while his Neo-Maoist sister is at her job at the Scottish tapas chain serving up such tasty morsels as haggis tarts.

As the story begins, Leonard is suddenly facing a suspicious dearth of calls, making him wonder if this is some form of test of his suitability by his employer. His anxiety grows as the only calls that are put through to him are from a man who is under the illusion he is existing in the 13th century and has just returned from a long expedition to Cathay, but is now languishing in a Genoese jail cell. What is Leonard to do?

Leonard listens, it's what he's good at. As he listens, it becomes clear that neither is his caller insane, nor is he undergoing some strange form of corporate assessment. Through some unspecified mystical magic, he is actually conversing with Marco Polo. What also becomes evident is that it is Leonard's coaching, with the help of his dead grandfather and a blind rabbi, that will prevent Marco from revealing secrets of mystical knowledge that, if published, will result in the end of the world.

I won't go any deeper into what happens from there, but trust me, things only get more interesting. And, while much of the marketing of the book has focused on the zany world Cantor has crafted and the use of science fiction devices such as time travel, these are surface attributes. Even the introduction of the basics of Jewish mysticism which are the secrets that must be hoarded lest the world end, are in some ways mere diversions. Entertaining diversions, but they are razzle-dazzle to pretty up the underlying and simple story of a young man who learns more about who he is and how to reach beyond himself to connect with and guide the people he loves.

Leonard, who starts out as someone who listens, but doesn't really hear, by the end of this diverting book, grows into someone who can listen deeply and through listening communicate with others so as to help them better understand themselves. What has stayed with me as I reflect on Cantor's charming and thoughtful book, is that there is objective knowledge that may be worth hiding for the good of the world, but that self-knowledge should always be explored. I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with the first part of that philosophy, but I certainly do find the second insight to be a piece of wisdom worth hearing.

I highly recommend this highly unlikely book to anyone looking for an intelligent and funny novel of ideas with an optimistic heart.

*I am one of these picky folk since I seem to be allergic to citrus and tomatoes, so I do understand that not all food preferences are determined by belief system, but by biological imperative.

I am also well enough off to live in a neighborhood with good access to a variety of fresh foods, organic foods etc. Not too far away are some massive food deserts that make it virtually impossible for people to source nutritious foods at reasonable prices. I am always staggered by the tenacious hold hunger and malnutrition have in this country and do not take for granted that everyone has all the food they need or the food choices that they would like.