Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Ten on Tuesday: Ten Best Books about Friendship

This evening I'm having dinner with a set of friends that I don't see nearly often enough. I think it's been four or five years since we got together. That's just too damn long!

In honor of getting together again (and because it is the theme for this week's Top Ten on Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish) here are some books with friendships that stand endure, even through time apart, across species, through war, and even death.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Karkov -- who says a penguin can't be a friend?

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik -- Temeraire is as faithful, thoughtful and warm a friend as anyone could ever want. Smarter and wiser than most people, the only issue in having a friend like Temeraire is finding the space and food supply to support a 20+ ton dragon.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch -- there are lots of good reasons to read this fictional recounting of the disaster of the whaleship Essex, not least of which is the complex friendship between Jaffy and Tim that travels across the world.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon -- Joe and Sammy are thrown together and then tear themselves apart, only to come back to save each other in the end. That's how I remember it, but given how uncertain I am of the plot, it must mean it's time to reread this great book.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt -- Boris!! Hobie!! Theo's relationships to his friends, for good and for ill, drive this novel. Glorious.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline -- Can you be friends with people you only meet within the confines of cyberspace? This book answers that question with a 'YES'. It's a treasure hunt, but it is also a story of a band of unlikely heroes that come together to best an evil corporation for control of the world.

City of Thieves by David Benioff -- Like Jamrach's Menagerie and Ready Player One this is a quest tale. Lev and Kolya meet in a jail cell during the siege of Leningrad and are given a chance to save themselves. The quest is an impossible one in a starving city: a dozen eggs. Their tale is filled with horrors and hardships, but is also rich with humor and unlikely camaraderie.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein -- Female spies and pilots during the second world war. This is on a lot of bloggers' lists today and for good reason. Well on its way to being a classic of YA literature, as it should. If you haven't read it, please do.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott -- Megan Abbott is brilliant at mining the dark intricacies of female friendships. Competition, love, and power are mingled together in Addy and Beth's relationship which is at the center of this mystery. The book is disturbing and haunting while at the same time delving into the strength girls derive from one another.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brien -- I admit it, I haven't read this one (I am part way through listening to Simon Vance's audio narration from Audible and it is wonderful). I did see the movie, and I know many non-sailing folks who adore these books precisely because they provide a sweeping look at the long friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.  If you like Novik's Temeraire novels (see above), this magnificent series is a logical next step.

What are your favorite books about friends?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Bout of Books 10: The Finale

So the week of reading intensely turned out to be...pretty much like any other week of reading for me.

I had all sorts of grand aspirations which was fun to fantasize about, but in the end I meandered around reading this and that, finishing some books, starting some others and never getting near most of the books I listed.

I'm not saying it was a failure or that I failed, because that's not how I see it. Because the Bout of Books is about fun and I had lots of fun.

First off, I finished four books:

  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora
  • Mothership by Maritn Leicht and Isla Neal (and led a book group discussion with the authors taking part. They were charming and funny and smart and ate the cakes that my daughter made using the recipes in Isla's (aka Lisa Graff's excellent middle grade book from last year, A Tangle of Knots).

Plus, I made a good bit of progress with a four others:

  • Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott
  • Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Over the course of the week, I read 1,337 pages which seems like a lot more pages than it did while I was reading.

Other Bout of Book activities:

A big highlight of the week was hosting a challenge here that asked participants if to propose a pairing with a book and anything that they felt went with the book: a drink, a food, a film and even another book. Thanks so much to everyone who stopped by and put thought and creativity to come up with some great pairings. I had a great time reading and commenting on the 90+ entries.

I learned a lot about running a good challenge contest from checking in on, and participating in (Cover Treasure Hunt, Rename Your Current Read, If You Like X, Try Y), the great challenges that other bloggers ran during the week. I very much hope to be able do it again in a future Bout of Books round.

The great random number generator (aka Excel) has spoken and the winner was Mandy Zani of My Reader Life! Mandy, the gift card is on its way to you!

Now it's back to the regularly scheduled reading and reviewing, until Bout of Books 11.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bout of Books 10: 'This' Made Me Think of 'That'

So, it's the Bout of Books this week. If you are one of the 1,200 intrepid participants, it means you'll have room on your shelves for some new books next week. Okay, here's a chance to replenish your TBR pile before the covers are even cold on the books you finish this week.

Just think about the book you are reading now, or one you've read before, and tell me something you think goes with it and why.

The something can be another book, a movie, a song, a ballet, a drink, a special food or meal...no need to get Proustian about it, but if madelines are involved, it's okay.

If you're like me, books always make you think of other experiences, real or fictional. For example, over the past two days I've been finishing up Andy Weir's debut novel The Martian, and as I've read it's become closely tied to my memories of Ron Howard's 1995 film, Apollo 13. The two not only share a focus on a space mission gone wrong, one fictional and one real, but also a love for engineering geekery and problem solving. It's not the most original pairing -- it's in the Goodreads blurb and other marketing material -- but it's a powerful one nonetheless. If you've seen the film, I guarantee it will come to mind as you read The Martian!

I'm quite sure the rest of you will be more original.

Take a break, free associate and let the world know what your bookish loves bring to mind.

The Rules

1. Choose a book and something to pair with it.
2. Share your combination and why you think the two go together on your blog, Facebook, twitter, or Goodreads.
3. Link to your posting in the comments, with your BOB 10 participant number so I can verify your registration.
4. If you tweet about this challenge (and I hope you do) make sure to mention me, @KnittingGromit, and use the hashtag #boutofbooks.

That's it. I'll be using a random number generator to pick a winner.

Prize? Right, the prize. A $30 gift certificate to my local indie bookstore, Main Point Books, in Bryn Mawr, PA. They can get just about anything and ship it anywhere.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Children's Book Week: May 12 - May 18

There's so much happening in the Philly area for Children's Book Week that it doesn't make sense to list everyday's literary events day-by-day, the list would just be too long. Instead here are the links to local stores, library's, etc. that will be sponsoring special events this week. Where possible, the link will take you to the listings for Children's Book Week Events.

Children's Book World, 17 Haverford Station Rd. Haverford, PA

Big Blue Marble, 551 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, PA

The Doylestown Bookshop, 16 S Main St., Doylestown, PA

Booktender's Secret Garden, 42 E State Street Rear, Doylestown, PA

Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Library, Philadelphia, PA

Towne Book Center & Cafe, 220 Plaza Drive, Suite B-3, Collegeville, PA 19426

In addition, Indie Bound the organization that works to bring together Independent Bookstores is sponsoring its first annual Story Time festival on May 17th. Authors from around the country will be volunteering to read from their books to showcase the vibrant role independent bookstores fill in communities around the country. A bunch of Pennsylvania stores are joining in the fun. Check the listings here to find out who's participating.

If you are looking for events for adults, there are some of those coming up too!

As always, please feel free to let me know of events I may have missed -- I know I don't catch every listing or every venue. Today especially, lack of sleep has left me heavy-lidded and sure that I'm overlooking something...

Tuesday, May 13

Sandra Tsing Loh | The Madwoman in the Volvo
Free Library, Central Library
7:30 PM

Wednesday, May 14

Marie Bostwick | Apart at the Seams 
Chester County Book Company, 967 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA
7:00 PM

Thursday, May 15

Christopher Buckley | But Enough About You
Free Library, Central Library
7:30 PM

Sunday, May 18

Adam Pelzman | Troika
Wellington Square Bookshop, 549 Wellington Square, Exton, PA
11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bout of Books 10 Goals, Aspirations or What Have You

My first bout of books is around the corner and while I read all the time, I'm hoping I can be a bit more focused next week. Even an extra few books will help make a dent in the paper and electronic books piles that seem to keep expanding rather than shrinking.

Thus far in 2014 I'm averaging just under three books a week, which sounds pretty good until you realize I buy more than that each week! For Bout of Books I'm hoping to spend more time reading and less time checking Twitter and Facebook, as fascinating and educational the links I find in both places end up being.

My goal is to read ten books from May 12 - May 18.

It's not as much of a stretch as it might seem since I plan on including several middle grade books in the mix. I'm also planning on using this concerted push to be a better NetGalley user by finishing and providing feedback to five titles publishers have granted me access to -- I want to build my credibility.

Here's the list (though I retain the right to change it as my mood strikes me):

Life Drawing by Robin Black
The Fever by Megan Abbott (I've started this and want to get back to it)
The Chronicle of Secret Riven by Ronlyn Domingue
One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva
The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal (this is a re-read for a book group)
Equilateral by Ken Kalfus (again, for a book group, but Ken is the guest of honor so I want to make sure I read this one twice before the meeting).

Plus, I plan on being here on Wednesday to answer questions and comments on the Bout of Books challenge I'm hosting that day!

I'm looking forward to seeing how this week unfolds.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parenting is Painfully Funny: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro
St. Martin's Press
Hardcover: 336 Pages
Publication Date: May 13, 2014

Everyone warned me when I was pregnant – your life will never be the same, your life is about to change forever, etc.  Did I believe them? Really believe them?

No. Of course I didn’t. Does any first time parent not use denial as psychological armor to lessen the trauma of transforming from a self-centered narcissist to a self-abnegating caregiver? I survived the transition, as most everyone does, though there were some close calls – it was not a graceful passage.

At the time I was still trying to climb the corporate ladder but was consumed by jealousy for everyone who was able to find a way to leave the paid workforce to become a primary caregiver. The years since I’ve come to realize that as difficult as juggling work and parenting are, becoming a stay-at-home parent has tradeoffs and sacrifices I never fully understood.

It’s not just the constant focus on the care and feeding of a helpless being, it’s not just the sleepless nights and new worries that every bang and scrap and virus will wreak serious havoc. There’s the grappling with how to explain your life to everyone who knew you based on your career choice or avocations, choices they shared or respected, and by which they still define their lives. There’s also grappling with the uneasy work of renegotiating the terms of your relationship with your partner, which is never smooth sailing, even if both of you fully support the change in roles. Becoming a stay-at home parent may seem like a luxury, but while it can be rewarding and fulfilling, it is also complicated and oftentimes isolating.

Because face it, going from talking about the complexities of law, finance, literature, marketing, etc. to coaxing a small person to eat another bite of broccoli and negotiating screen time is a shock. What can you do to avoid having entire days where your only conversation with another adult is in the supermarket checkout line?

You join a playgroup.  You bond with the other parents in the group because they are experiencing many of the same emotions, concerns, and experiences that define your day-to-day existence. But, guess what? Playgroup relationships are just as complicated and political as a life in the diplomatic corps.

Julia Fierro’s fierce and funny new novel, Cutting Teeth, exposes the delicate lattice of assumptions and negotiated allowances that bind together a seemingly idyllic Brooklyn based group of parents and children. On the surface the families are poster children for the new hipster/yuppie urban cultural juggernaut that Brooklyn has become. There’s Nicole, a novelist; Rip a stay-at-home father with a successful banker wife; Susannah a lesbian who has just married her long-term partner, Allie; aristocratic Leigh; and Tiffany, the high maintenance group member who runs toddler music classes.

As Cutting Teeth opens, it’s Labor Day weekend and Nicole is preparing to host the group at her parents’ ramshackle house on Long Island. That’s if Nicole’s extreme anxiety, only partially controlled by a daily dose of marijuana, doesn’t lead her to cancel the whole thing.

The recipe is classic: take a group of loosely tied people with hidden agendas, insecurities, secrets and longings, place them in an enclosed hotbed environment, shake and wait for the explosion. The results can be either farce or tragedy, but in the stage and film variations that Fierro’s novel brought to mind – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Big Chill, even The Breakfast Club – the interior thoughts and longings are not be mined as effectively as she manages here.

The weekend’s events unfold in a series of brief chapters told from the alternating perspectives of the playgroup members, as well as Tenzin, a Tibetan nanny who has left her own children behind in exile in India to care for other people’s children, and Susannah’s wife Allie. All of them have secrets and vulnerabilities that they hide from one another with varying degrees of success.

Nicole fuels her obsessions by trolling online parenting boards and attempts to get her writing back on track by stopping her medications.

Leigh tries to cope with a son who suffers from a sensory input disorder while nurturing her infant daughter whose longed-for birth was only possible via IVF, the cost of which was prohibitive given the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 on her family’s circumstances.

Rip, who has only felt successful in his role as a parent wants another baby, but his wife doesn’t.

Susannah pregnant for the second time, as a surrogate carrying Allie’s fertilized egg, wants to move out of the city to raise their family in the suburbs while Allie, who is ambivalent about motherhood, is entrenched in the New York art scene and doesn’t want to move, ever.

Tiffany has scrambled to remake herself in light of a past that the other members can sense, but cannot understand, is hoping to get her daughter into an elite private school and wrest Tenzin away from Leigh to give her more time to build her business.

Tenzin, meanwhile watches the swirling mess of rivalries and shifting affections among the group, loves the children without reserve, and hopes to maintain her own peace of mind and find a way to bring her family to the United States.

As deeply flawed as these characters are, and despite their selfish and self-destructive ways, they are easy to relate to and root for. I cringed at their missteps and cheered when they achieved greater insights and took baby-steps towards maturity. This playgroup may be filled with Brooklyn hipsters, but they are also emblematic of any group of middle-class parents struggling to define themselves while navigating the unstable shoals of adulthood.

The action builds, as you might expect, to an alcohol fueled climactic party scene that will change the group forever in some ways I could foresee and in others I didn’t expect. There are no simple resolutions and as the weekend ends little is fully resolved, but a tidier conclusion would feel overly contrived and veer what is a sharp and affecting book into the realm of the cute. I do admit that I was confused by the epilogue as it is written, or perhaps its ambiguity is intentional. The fault may be mine and my confusion may be swept away upon re-reading, which, given how much I enjoyed this novel, I plan on doing soon.

This is the perfect book to throw into your bag as you head off for a relaxing Memorial Day weekend, unless you are planning a getaway with your playgroup. In that case, you’ll want to wait until you get back.

P.S. Check out the Tumblr Julia’s novel begat: http://parentingconfessional.tumblr.com. It’s the perfect spot to vent if you can’t spill the beans to your playgroup!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top Ten on Tuesday: Book Covers Worth Framing

Many thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for these prompts and coordinating this meme! Go check out what other bloggers have posted -- it's a great way to find new reads and new blog writers to follow.

This week is devoted to celebrating the art of book covers. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? I know I have and while sometimes it hasn't worked out, the practice has also led me to some of my all time favorite books. So here are ten books that have covers that are spectacular and content to match. There's a broad spectrum of literary styles and genres represented here, some of which are well known and others that deserve to be more widely read, but all are gorgeous to look at.

Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey (for that matter, this list should include any book cover for his own work or others that he designed)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (This cover is here to represent all of the magnificent Penguin Hardback Classic editions created by Coralie Bickford-Smith -- collecting them will yield a wonderful library of timeless books and they look amazing together)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

What covers do you love? Are there covers you love for books that you don't?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bout of Books 10 is Coming Up!

A bout of books, it sounds bloody doesn't it? Makes me envision Moby Dick squaring off in a ring against Dubliners. A bell signals the opening of the round and Moby lumbers out of its corner, while the lighter, very nimble set of stories at first leaps into the fray and then retreats just as quickly to contemplate an elegant turn of phrase...

No, wait, that's not what The Bout of Books is about, as fun as that image is.

In real life (online real life, that is):

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 12th and runs through Sunday, May 18th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 10 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team.

I discovered this blog event at the end of the last round and signed up to be alerted when Round 10 was on the horizon. As a newish blogger this online event looked like a fun way to broaden my community and make my online life more interactive. So, come the week of May 12th I'll be posting my reading goals and progress reports here. I read a lot, but my TBR pile still grows and grows. Fingers crossed that I get through at least one reasonable sized stack as a part of Bout of Books, it will make my husband very, very happy. Thank goodness I have until the 12th to pick out which of the many books on hand to target.

Plus, I will be hosting one of the challenges (there's a prize!). On Wednesday, May 14 I'll be asking participants to share ideas for pairing favorite book(s) with another book, a drink, a meal, a movie, etc. It should be a blast and I fully expect that it will lead to additions to my reading list far in excess of the number of books I will manage to read during the week, but that's just what I am hoping for!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Blessings by Elise Juska: Many Voices, One Family

The Blessings by Elise Juska
Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover, 272 pages
May 6, 2014
Review Copy via Netgalley

Elise will be at the Philadelphia Free Library on Tuesday, May 6 with Akhil Sharma, and Sebastian Barry @ 7:30 pm

Main Point Books, 1041 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr will be hosting a launch party for Elise on Saturday, May 10 @ 4 pm (I'm pretty sure there will be cake and probably wine)!

Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with the statement, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve always doubted the soundness of this premise, as entertaining and quotable as it is. Certainly unhappy people abound in literature, and families are often a big source of misery, but it’s rare that a book is really about a family qua family, miserable or happy. With her new novel, The Blessings, Elise Juska challenges these preconceptions by putting a family at the center of her story and also demolishes the notion that happy families are not worthy subjects for literary fiction.

This eponymously titled novel follows the Blessings – a large, Northeast Philadelphia Irish Catholic clan – over the course of two decades from the early 1990s until the present. We are introduced to the  extended, multi-generational cast in 1992, at a post-Christmas party viewed through the eyes of Abby, a college freshman who is preparing to return to New England later that night. Distance and exposure to classmates from different backgrounds combine to make her see that the closeness and chaos of her family she took for granted is not universal. As Abby ponders her conflicting desires  -- to stay close to or to run from her past -- Juska introduces us to Abby's parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins while foreshadowing the changes that are going to buffet the family and test its members in the coming years. Just as Abby is on the cusp of adulthood, the Blessing family is on the cusp of changes that will reverberate through their lives in ways they cannot see during this comfortable and, for Abby, too predictable, holiday gathering.

Within two months the family’s patriarch is dead. A year later, his eldest son, John, succumbs to cancer, leaving behind a young wife and two small children. These events affect choices and color the experiences of his mother, surviving siblings, his wife, his children and even his nieces and nephews. These are not the only hardships and trials the family encounters, but through it all, the Blessings support one another, maintain closeness through a ritual calendar of celebrations that keeps their idea of kinship alive, even as its members drift away from their roots in the Catholic Church and original neighborhood.

Juska’s choice to change narrative point-of-view in each chapter is a gamble that makes sense. The boundary line between a novel and a story collection can be a porous one, but Juska structures the cycle of stories here into a cohesive whole by complementing Abby’s opening by closing with the story of her cousin Elena. A toddler in the opening pages, Elena is now older than Abby was at the beginning. She has graduated from college and is preparing to travel, but in that moment of pulling away is realizing how much she shares with and values her family despite her differences from them. The cyclical structure and shifting protagonists is what make this truly a novel of the Blessing family, not just a collection of interconnected short stories. 

Despite the book's episodic nature, the various characters are threaded throughout and the sense is of a continuous narrative.  It’s often interesting to see how the Blessings perceive each other and comment on changes in character or circumstance. Juska often focuses on periods of transition – moving to a retirement home, solo parenting, divorce, and illness. Seen from a distance, these pivotal moments could feel artificial and clich├ęd, but the inner life of each central figure is given the depth that makes each person a true individual. I was often left wishing I had more time with many of them – until I was engrossed in the next tale.

The one member of the familial chorus I wished was given a chance to speak for herself is Meghan, Abby's younger sister, whose anxiety and eating disorder claim so much energy from her parents and siblings. Hers would be a difficult perspective to inhabit, but one I think would have added tension and depth that would have made the book even stronger. 

Despite her care in making each Blessing realistic and individual, there are several occasions where Juska loses her empathic distance creating, not villains exactly, but characters who sit on the outside of the inner family circle. 

In particular, she stumbles into stereotype in her depiction of Kate, the Bryn Mawr* educated wife of Patrick Blessing. Kate, while nominally Catholic, was not raised to be observant in the way the Blessings of her generation were nor is she as devoted to duty. Her family had money, while the Blessings did not. These differences, which are part of what attracts Patrick to her in the first place, end up distancing her from the rest of the family and lead to strife with her husband. It is believable that Kate’s class background and education could be a source of friction, but what I object to is that she feels assembled from a set of paint-by-number negative attributes in contrast to the beatific portraits of her sisters-in-law.

Nevertheless, what shines through The Blessings and enables it to succeed is reverence for the power of a family to survive, grow and strengthen even as it changes. Elise Juska has gives us a novel that shows that a happy, if imperfect, family is unique and worthy of our time and interest.

*I will admit that I was infuriated that Juska uses Kate’s Bryn Mawr degree as shorthand to denote an affluent, self-centered woman who uses feminism as a shield or excuse. The commitment to transforming women’s lives that permeates the culture of Bryn Mawr is not, and has never been, this reductive. 

In my experience Bryn Mawr is an institution of intense academic seriousness and the women who go there are smart, committed to intellectual inquiry and social justice. After graduation they pursue advanced degrees and careers in law, medicine, social justice, academia, science and the arts because it is important to them to make a difference to themselves and the world. Juska’s Kate is far more materialistic, and far less ambivalent about leaving a career to raise a family, than the Bryn Mawr graduates I know. Nor does going to Bryn Mawr equate to not cooking – some of the best cooks I know are Mawrters (yes, that is a real word).

There are certainly any number of women living in the suburbs of Philadelphia that are home to Bryn Mawr, who, at least externally, resemble the woman Juska portrays here, they just didn’t go to Bryn Mawr.