Category Archives: about books

Things I’ve written about books.

The Great Escape


Yup, that’s Steve McQueen reading a book. My photo editing skills are a little rusty.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post,* but I figured we could all use some reading suggestions to act as a little break during this stressful time. Here are some of mine. These books are some serious diversionary tactics.

I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade. I sank into that book and let it close over my head. A wise choice, fifth grade being what it is.** Jaqueline Woodson talked lovingly about this kind of immersive reading a recent Ted Radio Hour interview — the way a book’s world can become our world for a little while. It’s worth a listen; click the link!

In that spirit, I’m recommending some books to lose yourself in; novels that, if they appeal to you, can open their covers like a door. I wish you a great escape.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith  This novel takes you to 7th century Britain. Griffith’s research is deep and seamlessly applied. A young girl’s future hangs on the political machinations of her family and her own wits as kingdoms squabble and war and a new religion comes into the land. Every bit of this book shines like a gem — a dragonfly seen at the edge of a pond.

A Stranger in Olondria and Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar  Don’t let the covers fool you — Samatar’s award-winning work is more like magical realism than fantasy, with characters and places that open up like flowers as you move more deeply into the story. Both novels are complex and wonderful. Though their plots are somewhat intertwined, you can read either one first. If I could recommend just one book to you, it would be one of these. What they say about history –the people who make it and those who simply inhabit it– will stay with you a long, long time.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson  This is one of my favorite novels. Set during the Napoleonic wars, the story moves from France to Russia to, finally, Venice. It’s got star-crossed lovers, madness, the sweep of history — all told in lambent prose and with insight that will take your breath away. What more could you want?

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons  This one is funny. You will flat laugh. Flora Poste goes to live with her Very Dramatic cousins on a decaying farm in Sussex. Though she seems to have stepped into the pages of a particularly depressing D.H. Lawrence novel, F. Poste is not letting that kind of nonsense go unchecked. Watch out, gloomy, brooding, passive-agressive relatives: you haven’t got a chance. They also made a really fun movie out of the book in 1995 with Kate Beckinsale. Absolutely worth watching!

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin  I have read this beautifully strange collection of linked novellas, stories, poetry, and fictionalized anthropological detail many times now. It never fails to enchant me and gets better every time. What if you could write an anthropology of the future? Le Guin has, and it is various and revealing and somehow comforting and wise. It’s a weird format, but don’t be put off. The first time I picked it up I didn’t quite know what to do with it. My advice is to start with “Stone Telling,” and then skip around as you like. That novel, told in parts spaced throughout the work, will suck you in and spit you back out with new thoughts to think. There is also a new, expanded edition from Library of America, which I covet.

I hope you’ll enjoy some of these, and that they’ll take you –however briefly– to another time, another place, or another world. Stay home, stay safe, read books.

*Like a decade? The banner photo is of a window at the Learned Owl Book Shop, where I used to work.  They’re awesome! Buy books from them! Or buy books from your local, independent bookseller by clicking one of the book links above — they’ll take you to that book’s information at IndieBound, a great site that lets you search by town or zip code to find your local book shops.

**It is entirely possible that fifth grade is much nicer now. In 1979 it was basically long stretches of boredom punctuated by Presidential Fitness Tests and license-to-kill dodgeball.

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The Second Time Around

Did you miss me? I have not been blogging for a bit. This is because I am hibernating, like a bear — or a chipmunk. It is quite frankly amazing that any of us live through winter here in the upper reaches of the Midwest at all. Whose brilliant idea was it to leave equatorial Africa, anyway? But fascinating things do happen in wintertime. For a good dose of stellar improbability, I recommend reading an old(er) book that I really liked:  Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich.

I snapped this up when it was new (in 2001), but am only now telling you about it. I know, I’m like that. The rest of these delightful literary indulgences are things that I missed when they were new because I was hanging out under my rock. If you missed them too, haste to remedy that.

Jeanette Winterson

Her new memoir is wonderful. But then, all of her things are wonderful, as I discovered when, upon finishing the ARC of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, I embarked on a program of obsessively reading of all her other stuff.  The Passion is my favorite, set in France & Venice during the Napoleonic wars. It is at once a deeply sensory book (you feel like you can smell the chicken cooking and feel the snow and move with the sway of an imagined gondola) and a deftly philosophical one. Wry lyricism abounds. Wow, that’s a pretentious sentence – but how many times do you get to say, “Wry lyricism abounds”? Twice, apparently.

The Rumpus

It’s an on-line literary magazine! One that I, happily, can sometimes read at work under the pretext of staying up-to-date (which we know is a sham – see rock, above). Anyway, it is witty and fun and has real writers saying real things on a regular basis. Also: comics. I love comics.

We Will Measure Our Loss

Penguin stopped letting libraries lend their eBooks a week or so ago. This is not really news now. But this *is* a compelling portrait of changing technologies and how they affect people at all levels of society.

More Web-based Fun

Lindy West writes a film column for the Seattle Stranger. She is incredibly funny. My favorite article involves that inexplicable cinema-atrocity, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. It made me laugh out loud on a day when even smiling did not seem to be in the cards. I caution you against her drinking game, though (she is right – and no one likes to have their stomach pumped). Sometimes West’s reviews can be a leetle too raunchy for me, but then, I do live under that rock.

From movies to TV

Did you see the BBC series, Black Books? You should. Watch the pilot episode. The later ones are heavy on the slapstick, but that first one… oh, pure comedy gold.

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Skunk Puppy

The dog has been skunked. Strangely, when he came zooming into the house at 4 a.m. after his close encounter with the skunkly kind, he smelled like… onions. Like a lot of onions – like he had been mugged by a roving band of onions gone to the bad; A Clockwork Onion, even.

Which I thought was weird, but was why I let him back into the bed — believing that he had just gotten into a patch of onion grass in the yard and comforting myself with the thought that the next day was laundry day. Despite repeated rounds of scrubbing, my bedroom can still only be described as “musky.” I did try incense, making the house smell like a skunk who wears tie dye.

This all got me thinking about books and smell. No, I will not be covering

Proust; this is not that kind of blog. We’re a little more lowbrow here. You can make your own madeleines if you want.

The Lantern

An homage to Du Maurier’s Rebecca, set in Provence. After a few chapters, I began to think that I could smell the lavender. In addition to being an elegant, creepy mystery with tons of style, The Lantern also gives the reader a smattering of fun-facts about the origins of lavender farming in the region.
The whole novel was so much fun I wish I could pick it up and read it again for the first time. It’s still in hardcover and is not getting nearly the amount of press it deserves. This means that you should just buy five or ten copies now, wrap them in holiday paper and be done in time to laze through both Halloween and Thanksgiving with an imperturbably superior air.
This one is getting a lot of press. It’s a fun romp and very atmospheric. The scents here are caramel apples and bonfires, ashes and falling leaves, exotic perfumes and spun sugar, snow, and the vanilla whiff of old paper. It’s perfect to read on a crisp autumn night and is supposed to be made into a movie. The book is so visually lush that I expect great things from the film. The plot has to do with treachery and magic, artifice and attraction, imagination and romance (But not in a goopey way. And for the guys: it is safe to read this. You’ll like it).
Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series follows a fae P.I. through San Francisco crime scenes. By fae I mean that she’s a fairy, as in “the fair folk,” “the people under the hill,” “those folks who steal babies and sour milk.” There are a lot of paranormal detectives out there in fictionland these days, so I should clarify: If you were thinking, “pink and sparkly?” Not so much. Daye’s world is peopled by just about every living thing in western myth. There are centaurs and pixies and plenty of weirdnesses you’ve probably never heard of unless you had a Welsh grandmother who liked to tell stories and try to scare the crap out of you.
McGuire’s mysteries are always fun and always full of good sensory descriptions. For instance, the magic produced by an individual carries a characteristic scent – so does their blood. There’s a good deal of humor in these books too. Sometimes it’s dark, but sometimes it’s just funny. With this, her 4th mystery in the series, McGuire’s really on top of the game – One Salt Sea is a tight, layered, fast-moving who-done-it that nicely evokes the Northern California landscape. You can start with the first one, Rosemary and Rue, or jump in at the last – but keep in mind that these novels get better and better from book to book. Also, check out this writer’s blog. It is just flat smart. I particularly admire this entry and this one.
Back to de-skunking the dog. It’s a good thing he’s cute, because he sure is smelly.

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My Stars

Please let me preface this by saying that I don’t know beans about Bristol Palin’s life, but I would not want to slam anybody who is a single mom. Single momming is all kinds of hard work.

That said, people who write jacket copy for the memoirs of single mothers are fair game. So from the front flap of B. Palin’s new book, Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, I give you:

“…Through all of these ups and downs, Bristol learned how to face her challenges head-on with courage and grace, [WAIT FOR IT!] traits she put to good use as a contestant and finalist on Dancing with the Stars.”

People are generally said (if they emerge from such horrors not actually having descended into a permanent state of jibbering idiocy) to have faced things like life-threatening disease, natural disasters or hostage situations with courage and grace. Dancing with the Stars? Really?

I would prefer to face Dancing with the Stars with gin and tonic.

Other things that make me giggle, but in more of a laughing-with-you kind of way:

The Practical Napper: Tips, Facts, and Quotes for the Avidly Recumbent, by Jennifer Eyre White.

My favorite:

Napping is good for world peace. When you’re napping, you’re not:

  1. Behaving like imperialist swine.
  2. Trying to convert other countries to your religion and/or political system and/or fashion sense.
  3. Calling other countries mean names.


The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs

Every once in a while, somebody will bring up that old hypothetical question, “If you could have a dinner party and invite anybody you wanted, living or dead, who would you ask?” People generally get all earnest about this one and come up with a guest list that includes Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Personally, I think having Ralph Steadman, Rabelais and Christopher Moore over for pizza and booze would be a laugh riot. Ooh — and Django Reinhardt. Maybe he’d jam. I’d ask Hunter S. too, but he might wander off with a bottle of drugged wine and a shotgun to lie in wait for the delivery guy.

Steadman’s latest goofy collection of canine drawings is a hoot.

That's some hat.

Anything by Angela Thirkell

I first discovered Thirkell during a dark, scary, I-can’t-read-anything-distressing-my-life-is-distressing-enough-what-if-I’m-doing-everything-all-wrong-probably-it-would-be-better-for-everyone-if-I-just-hid-here-under-the-couch-wow-I-should-really-vacuum . . . time in my life. She seemed the perfect antidote to my then-reality: a sort of buttoned-up, post WWI Jane Austen knock-off.

Thirkell is a gentle and forgiving observer of every-day people doing every-day things in an English village. She’s also got an out-of-nowhere-surprise hit of snark when you least expect it. Literary quotes from Dickens and Thakeray sneak up and bite you when you’re not looking. She wrote for money, starting in the 1920’s and continuing into the 50s. She didn’t expect most of her “society” friends to like, or even read, her novels. She’s classist and sexist and funny and kind — sometimes, upsettingly, all at once. I like her Barsetshire books the best. If you’re a guy, you will very likely hate them (I didn’t say in what way she was sexist). If you’re not, or you’re up for something different, give them a try.

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Books to Mend a Broken Heart – and One to Break It Again

Recently, a customer was asking about a copy of The Bell Jar to send to her granddaughter. “Do you think she’d like it? She’s been going through a very rough time lately with her young man.”

“NOOOOOOOO!” we booksellers cried as one, throwing our bodies in front of the classic literature stacks.

Alright, that’s the dramatized version. What actually happened was, Nancy said, “Um, well, I’m not sure that’s a very good…er…” and Reid fled to the basement, and I said, “You really have to be in an emotionally secure place for Plath. She doesn’t want to read that now. Let’s find you something cheery.”

Years ago, I made the mistake of giving a copy of The Bell Jar to a good friend who was sad. Needless to say, this did not help. Individuals currently on pain meds, starting birth control pills or other hormone-based therapy, beginning a regimen of blood pressure regulating drugs, being treated for depression, anxiety or other emotional ills, or even just having an off day should avoid Plath like the plague. Her writing – both verse and prose – has great power and emotional heft and is best left for better days. The Bell Jar does have one of my very favorite (and supremely creepy) opening lines though:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

If you don’t know the story, it’s not like it gets any sunnier from there. Not good stuff to read while experiencing heartbreak.

What is? Here are some ideas – all safe as a hot cuppa, comforting as a pint of Ben & Jerry’s:

Kaya McLaren’s novels, The Church of the Dog and On the Divinity of Second Chances, are both uplifting in a non-goopy way.

I also like Peculiar People: The Story of My Life by Augustus Hare, for pure it-could-be-worse-you-could-be-him value. He laments the Decline of The English Eccentric. His stories are enchanting, but I can’t share his reluctance to see these people go. Loons, every one. I have also sometimes wondered if Augusten Burroughs wasn’t influenced by this writer, or if he might even have chosen his name based on Hare’s, but then I think that Augusten Burroughs can hardly be a pseudonym, because who would do that to themselves?

Anything by Henry Mitchell. I first came upon his Essential Earthman, a collection of his gardening column for The Washington Post, when I won a copy from the lavishly generous people at Indiana University Press (long story). His non-garden stuff is even better, though not much of it is still in print. He writes tenderly, with great understanding, and with the humor necessary for same. Try Any Day.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield is funny and diverting and contains little mention of love. Plenty of polite snark, though.

I Don\’t Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner and My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me (Hilary Winston) are good for general grrl power rallying and the exorcising of bitterness. Band is better, but the quote on the back of Boyfriend is, all by itself, worth the cover price. Oh, marketing department at Sterling, are there t-shirts? Can there be t-shirts?

 F**k You, Box is, sadly, only available from the author as a digital download now, but is superb for this (or really, any) situation. Who doesn’t love a swearing cat?

Thus supplied and with plenty of chocolate, a girl can make it through some trying times.

But this, this is a book to shatter your heart and make you weep:

On Canaan\’s Side, by Sebastian Barry.

You don’t want your heart shattered? You don’t feel like weeping? You will. This is the sort of novel to make you glad you speak English. It is what our language is for. A haunting story, the book is unmatched for sheer lyricism. It is poetic, colloquial, and full of a wrenching beauty that will keep you reading, your mouth hanging open for more. Barry has been shortlisted for Man Bookers before and he won a Costa in 2008, so you open this book expecting something pretty good. And then Barry makes you fall in love with a suicidal 80 year old living on Long Island and leaves you praying that her talk will never cease. It comes out in September. Don’t’ miss it.

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Once More onto the Beach, Dear Friends!

I know it hardly seems possible with the unceasing rain we’ve got but summer, I am told, is coming – and with it, beach books.

Many of us are loath to lug hardcover books with us on summer travels, but here is one that will repay its schleppage in full:

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller.

Written by the author of the popular memoir, Don\’t Let\’s Go to the Dogs Tonight Cocktail Hour is certainly not one of those my-childhood-was-horrifying-please-feel-free-to-gape-in-wonder-and-revulsion kinds of family recollections. It is, above all, wonderfully funny. Fuller’s mother (a central figure in Dogs) is portrayed with warmth and understanding, and her courage and wit are borne forth in her daughter’s wry, deft style.

Part of an Anglo-African family that disdained the capers of the Happy Valley Set,* Nicola Fuller led an extraordinary life by any measure. As a newlywed, she fell in love with equatorial East Africa. With her husband, she weathered family tragedy and civil war. Somehow, through the grace of forgiveness and good humor and the “liquid equatorial light” that so captivates the Fullers, this family –broken time and time again—repairs and reinvents itself and comes to enjoy a time of peace: a cocktail hour under the tree of forgetfulness.

The only bad thing about this book? It doesn’t come out until August, so we will have to save it for Labor Day, rather than Memorial Day Weekend reading. On the plus side, if your personal beach-time is spent on the East Coast of the U.S., the water will be nicely warm by then. All the rest of my Beach Books are available now.

Portably in Paperback:

Angelology, by Danielle Trussoni   –A beach book if there ever was one. Adventure, ancient secrets, intrigue, drama, the supernatural: Think The DaVinci Code, but with angels. Or read what I had to say about it when it came out in hardcover here.

Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay is a glittering saga that starts in Stalin’s Russia and ends up in one of New York’s most prestigious auction houses. It’s big and thick, so if you can only tote one book beachward, this is a good choice: Fast off the block and chock full of details that will draw you in. Now (hooray!) in paperback. You can read more (recycle, reuse…) here. And: it comes with discussion questions if you want to use it as a book club pick  -and-  it is also available in large print.

Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman is a good old gothic-type ride. It’s set in Upstate New York at a tony boarding school, home both to artistic young people and old and sinister mysteries. Can the new professor untangle the antique knots of deception in time to save her daughter from something about Arcadia that seems bent on murder?

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes received critical acclaim when it first came out. Now available in (a big) paperback edition, this gripping and sensitive story of a Marine Lieutenant and his company dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam like so much cargo was written by a veteran over the course of 30 years. It spent 16 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for a reason.

 Not New, But Notable:

The Samurai\’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama is as delicate and deliberately plotted as a classical Japanese garden. Meditative in tone but richly sensual, this story starts with a young Chinese man recuperating from TB in a Japanese seaside town, and goes on to explore the strange history of local lives which intersect his — lives sculpted ultimately into unexpected beauty like the graceful, twisted pines of the coast.

*If you don’t know about the “Happy Valley Set” of (roughly) 1920s – 1940s Kenya & Uganda, here’s an uncharitable synopsis:   Rich white people carried on with each others’ spouses and let everybody know about it, all the while drinking too much, abusing various pharmaceuticals, playing polo, wearing eccentric clothing, attempting to keep wild animals as pets and driving hell-for-leather about the countryside, whining about how terribly bored they were. Sometimes they got murdered – surprisingly, only by each other. Because some of them were titled, the whole world was interested. Except the actual Kenyans & Ugandans who, sensibly, did not care much one way or the other.

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Sex and Robots

I have two new books to tell you about. One is Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson. It comes out in June. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m a fan of speculative fiction (A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Difference Engine, The Windup Girl), but usually, things with “-opocalypse” in the title just don’t speak to me.

Robopocalypse is a fast-paced, smart thriller. It’s good fun and very, very hard to put down. Run out and grab a copy this June. And if you’ve got a quirky graduate to buy for: This is it. You will be “The Cool Relative who got me This Awesome Book.” Engineering student? Perfect. Reads the Onion? Wrap this puppy up. But honestly, everyone will be hooked. I’m thinking it will be The Book of the Summer. A guilty pleasure? Yes, in the exact same way that Clancy and Grisham were, at the top of their game.

The jacket promotion on my reader’s copy tells me that Stephen Spielberg is supposed to be making a movie of the novel in 2013. It will probably make a great film. If you’re a fifteen year old boy. It’s not a short book, so I envision it reduced to loud and incessant Transformer-like effects. I will go see it, and (thanks to my old college roommate and her fondness for high-volume hair metal) will probably sleep soundly through the second half.  A girl can dream though…  And since movies, as a rule, need bear no relation to the book they are named for, I wish for this closing scene:

Humphrey Bogart turns to his unlikely automaton companion and watches as the machine tosses a can of Vichy Brand Motor Oil into the wastebasket. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” says Bogie, as they stroll down the runway into the Moroccan night.

Sex with Presidents

Larry Flint and Harvard professor David Eisenbach have recently published One Nation Under Sex, a look at how the sex lives of the powerful have molded American politics and history. Did you know they think Lincoln was gay? Yeah, that’s an old one. And except for the feather it ought to put in the caps of everybody who fights the good fight for gay rights, I really don’t care. Tom & Sally sittin’ in a tree is pretty much yesterday’s news too, but I did not know so much about James Buchanan before.

It’s an interesting book. Because most of the people in it are dead, it was less salacious than I expected, and also more put-down-able. Still, a worthy read. And the last chapter makes it an important one, in a nation which has tended in recent years to think that who somebody sleeps with is more important that who they call airstrikes on.

I’m never sure how I feel about Larry Flint. As a full-on Freedom of Speech geek, I kind of like him. As a girl… meh. I’ve got nothing against the young women who pose for things like Hustler. Good for them; they are making money. And I guess that the fellas who purchase the mag are paying their wage, but really? It just kind of perpetuates this weird disconnect between what guys are led to think goes on inside women’s heads and what really does. What goes on in guys’ heads? No idea. Ask Lincoln.

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Adventures in coffee drinking

This morning in my zeal to get to work uber-early and place our book order, I went and spilled coffee right down my front. Often, this would produce no visible effects (other than grouchiness) since I tend to dress in shades of black and brown (I have worn my breakfast before), but today I was feeling teal. I tried to blot my sweater with a wet cloth once I arrived at the shop, but wound up drenching it. Now it’s draped over the step stool in front of the space heater, drying. I hope. Because my t-shirt (not intended to be seen except for cuffs & collar under the sweater) is just a little too tight. Thank you, Cadbury chocolate eggs.


Drying-out clothes at the office always makes me think of my brief stint at the Fed. One of the economists used to dry his socks on the lovely old radiator behind the desk in his office. I don’t think he ever wore galoshes, or those things they call “rubbers” in England (you know, goofy overshoes for men – Do they even make those anymore?) when it rained. Nope, just draped the socks over the radiator and they dried. It made for a pleasant, homelike atmosphere.


Which brings me to our latest money management -type acquisition. Suze Orman\’s newest is all the rage, but am I the only one who thinks that her cover photo makes her look like she needs a trip to the Betty? She’s always looked sort of scarily over enthusiastic, but now seems to have crossed over into true Speedy the Squirrel mania. Maybe she just needs to cut down on the caffeine. Maybe it’s her photographer. Who knows? In any case, that is all that I know about her book. Which is selling like hotcakes. And which I could probably use. But I would so much rather eat Easter candy and read one of the following:


First Grave on the Right  It’s a mystery. The narrator is the grim reaper. Yes, I know… you’re tired of the paranormal. But really, she’s funny and snarky and noir. You’ll like this one. It’s great for Sookie Stackhouse fans & smart enough for devotees of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman & Christopher Moore to enjoy.


Rawhide Down  I never was much of a Regan fan, but this

play-by-play of his almost-assassination looks pretty fascinating. The inner workings of the secret service, the fact that he was much closer to being dead than we were ever told, the jolly, brave face he put on the whole thing, lend insight into the man’s character – not to mention lots of drama, and make it seem worth slogging through the exhaustive details.


Furious Love  Normally I can’t be bothered with actor bios, but the photos alone make this a lovely way to remember Elizabeth Taylor.


War Horse  Did you miss this wonderful children’s book when it first came out? Have you heard about the amazing stage production of it in London? Do you know they are making the book into a movie? Even if you don’t give a fig for all the hype, this is a deeply touching story of the mutual affection of a horse and his boy during The Great War. Generations away, we tend to think of WWI… well, not very much at all. But this was a conflict that scarred people in a whole new way – something like the Vietnam of its time. I’d love to take a class on WWI in fiction someday. The Lord of the Rings would be among the obvious choices for something like this, but War Horse gives an interesting window into this terrible time as well.  Besides all that, the horse is really, truly horse-ish. Like all the best fictional animals, he makes us better somehow. And his boy – well, you’ll just have to read it, won’t you? 


Having read thus far, you may be thinking that my take on politics, both present and past, is a bit dicey. I am about to exceed your worst fears.


Theories of International Politics and Zombies  I just ordered this for stock today and I cannot wait until it comes! If you’re looking for a poly sci run-down with a clever dose of satire, I’m thinking this is your book. Possibly for the title alone…


And now my sweater is dry. Whew!

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Stories for an Early Spring

This season, two extraordinarily fine novels have come out. One is about Hemingway’s first wife and her life in Paris with the writer. The other is about dissident art in Vietnam. Both are more than worth your time.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain distills the expatriate life of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway – it’s the world of A Moveable Feast experienced from a woman’s point of view. Lots of people call Ernest Hemingway a misogynist. I think nothing could be further from the truth. He reserves both his most tender and most scathing characterizations for the women in his novels. They don’t get as much ink as the men, but they are much more telling. (How can Lady Brett not break your heart at the end of The Sun Also Rises, with her summation of the Almighty, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”) Hemingway’s years with Hadley were some of his most productive and most interesting. Her presence and personality inevitably colored his writing. Scattered with characters like Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds, The Paris Wife is a feast indeed, and the Paris it draws –the bars, the cafes, the clamorous neighborhood surrounding the Hemingways’ deeply crummy little apartment– seems a character too, gathering artists, writers, thinkers together under wings as dusty and soft as the pigeons scratching in the Tuileries.*

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a glorious book with a horrible title. Even some marketing folks at Penguin think the moniker is pretty bad. The story is a delight.  Here too, the setting is almost a character in itself. Moody, ever-changing, improvising like an actor, it remakes itself from a past of infinite sadness with great courage.

Here is a story of the divide and connection between survivors and their children, between foreigners returning and those who never left, between artists and their legacies, the living and the dead. It’s beautiful and sad and revealing and, once you’re done with it, the title doesn’t seem so stupid after all.

Since Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir came out, we’ve all had to hear again about how some things you know you know, and some things you know you don’t know, and some things you don’t know that you don’t know. And yes, we all had a good laugh at his strangely poetic expense. But I have to say, like him or hate him; that is what novels are all about. Fiction – stories – are about telling each other what we don’t know that we don’t know. There are so many things in this life that it never occurs to us to ask. Sometimes we don’t know the right questions because one of us is male and one is female, or one of us is old and one of us is young – because we come from different places or different pasts. The best fiction doesn’t just tell the truth – it reveals mystery.

It’s spring now. There are crocuses coming up through the mud. The dog is shedding and daylight savings will soon be here. It’s time to celebrate crunchy-granola-type things like new beginnings and getting up in the dark. In that spirit, let me suggest this:  Ask someone today, “Tell me a story.” You never know what you might hear.

And now, a little poetry from Donald Rumsfeld:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing (Stolen from Slate Magazine)


*And yes, in case you were wondering, Hemingway did say that he used to shoot and eat them (the pigeons, I mean).


Filed under about books

Reading for the end of February

Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like you may have morphed (a la Gregor Samsa) into somebody’s ancient aunt Hilda – the one who stopped soaking her dentures after her husband died? For those of us with an advanced case of the mullygrubs, or who are feeling a bit like Miss Havisham, but without all the dough on this icy February afternoon, here are some books to make you laugh. None is exactly new, but I think of them as essential equipment for the late-winter blahs.
We start with the juvenile (but in a good way – it’s young adult literature): Away Laughing on a Fast Camel, by Louise Rennison will make anyone with a pulse positively bray. It’s the fifth in her Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series, but there’s no reason you have to read them in order. Skip right to this one. They’re all good, but I think it’s the funniest. Who is Georgia Nicholson? She’s a self-obsessed British teen with a great attitude and a horde of killer one-liners. Think Bridget Jones\’ Diary except that you don’t want to smack the narrator. (Sorry, Bridget fans:  I seriously wanted someone to drop that girl with a tranquilizer dart & have her wake up in therapy by the end).
Then there’s Janet Evanovich. Enough said. She’ll make you giggle. She also always makes me gain about 5 pounds per novel. I’m from Jersey, and between the descriptions of Garden State pizza (none better) and the Tasty Pastry Bakery I generally need to do a face-plant in some junk food by Chapter 3.
Tom Robbins. My fave is Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, but any will do.
P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell is a delight. If you are not as old as I am, you may not get some of the pre-Glasnost era jokes, but he is just one fine humorist. I’m about as left as he is right, but I love his writing. I also recommend his guide to housekeeping, Bachelor Home Companion, which includes the Tuna Casserole recipe that I use to strike terror into the hearts of small, misbehaving children.
Want a classic? P. G. Wodehouse is your man. The Code of the Woosters is my favorite.
Prefer your laughs straight-up and unadulterated? Try one of these comics collections. Sheldon is a web comic that’s a lot like the early days of Calvin & Hobbes. Dave Kellett doesn’t sell to the trade, so you can only get it hereUnshelved is set in a library, so it’s perfect for fellow book-nerds. You can read it daily on the web, here. Or buy one of the books.
Last but not least, I give you,  You Are a Dog by Terry Bain. Want to know what your canine companion is really thinking? Are you sure? This will have you rolling – but it’s also an incredibly touching book, so you may want a hankie in places.
This is your bookseller, signing off and headed for the tub.


Filed under about books