Sunday, April 20, 2014

What's What in the (Easter) Sunday Salon

Happy Easter, and my apologies for being a missing person here last week! However, I had a very good excuse–Kim will back me up, and I will provide additional evidence in this week’s Gratuitous Photo.

Sunday Salon badge

What I’m reading
  • in print / on screen
I’ve been trying to be more proactive this year in making specific requests from the monthly lists Shelf Awareness sends to reviewers, and it seems to be paying off–some of my best reading this year has come along that route. That’s new to me, and I like it. I’m also liking the book I’ll be reviewing there in May, The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of the novel that was the basis for the movie The Descendants.
  • on audio
I finished The Headmaster’s Wife last week and am catching up on podcasts while I ponder what to listen to next. Any suggestions or recommendations? Comment, please!

What I’m watching

Sticking with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be bearing some fruit, at long last. But Arrow is still doing comic-book TV better.

What I’m writing

I’m hoping to get a couple of reviews written today–we don’t have a big day planned, so time may permit. However, I expect that blogging will continue at a poky pace for another few weeks, so I hope you will lower any of your own expectations accordingly.

What caught my eye this week (or maybe the week before)

Just a couple of shares, since the reading side of blogging has been almost as poky as the writing side:

“10 Reasons I Still Blog” at Ann’s Rants
"1. A conversation with an audience. I don’t write only because I love to write. I specifically love to write because I love interacting with an audience—whether online, on paper, or in real life.
“5. An antidote for perfectionism. Forcing publish is how I get through writer’s block, THE END. As Cheryl Strayed said “Surrender to your own mediocrity.” This is the special sauce on my pickles-onions on a sesame seed bun. I keep surrendering–letting good enough stand in for great. I keep creating, and cool things keep happening.”
“Secrets of Success: How Reading Gives You an Edge”, via Alli Worthington (we probably suspected this, but validation is nice)
“4. Reading gives you a psychological boost. There’s nothing like diving into the story of a person who lived life well to remind us that life is more than the (sometime depressing) images and messages we see on TV, life is beautiful and full of opportunity to live it well. Studies show that reading self-help books can also help lessen depression.”

What Else is New?

I haven’t signed up officially for next weekend’s 24-Hour Readathon, but it looks like I may actually be able to participate for at least a fraction of it this time. Even if it ends up being unofficial, I’ll be glad to join in at all–I’ve missed the last few!

The Amazing Story Generator, by Jason Sacher
I found The Amazing Story Generator at the Chronicle Books booth at #bookfest last weekend. I’m thinking about using it as the basis for a new participatory blog feature (let’s not call it a “meme”), but I’m still kicking around just how it might work, so watch this space…

Gratuitous Photo of the Week

LATFoB collage
Signing lines and stages--scenes from the LA Times Festival of Books, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Talk: EXODUS, by Deborah Feldman

EXODUS by Deborah Feldman
Exodus: A Memoir
Deborah Feldman
Blue Rider Press (2014), Hardcover (March 25, 2014), ISBN 0399162771 / 9780399162770
Memoir, 304 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (4/8/2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

In her 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman chronicled her upbringing in the insular, fundamentalist Satmar sect of Orthodox Judaism and her flight from its practices with her young son. Twenty-three years old at the time she left her Brooklyn community, Feldman had a long new life ahead of her–and very little idea of what it would look like, or who she would be within it. In Exodus, she explores where the first few years of that journey have taken her, and the perspective she has acquired since it began.

While no longer considering herself Orthodox–and some responses to her earlier book suggest that the “rejection” is reciprocated–Feldman continues to identify herself as Jewish. However, she must work out what that will look like for her as she moves forward, and she decides that moving backward needs to be part of that process. Much of Exodus follows Feldman as she travels through Europe along the path of her Hungarian-born grandmother, a survivor of the concentration camps, working at coming to terms with the ways in which she herself could be called a survivor.

Exodus is a companion piece to Unorthodox, and while it’s not necessary to read both memoirs in chronological order, those who have read one will likely want to read the other, as they clearly inform each other. Exodus has the feel of a coming-of-age story, tracing the protagonist’s steps toward self-discovery. It meanders at times and feels somewhat unresolved in the end, leaving the reader with a sense that Feldman is still at the beginning of things, still searching and sorting out…but she’s not yet thirty, and that seems right.

Book description, via the publisher’s website:

In 2009, at the age of twenty-three, Deborah Feldman packed up her young son and their few possessions and walked away from her insular Hasidic roots. She was determined to forge a better life for herself, away from the rampant oppression, abuse, and isolation of her Satmar upbringing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Out of her experience came the incendiary, bestselling memoir Unorthodox and now, just a few years later, Feldman has embarked on a triumphant journey of self-discovery—a journey in which she begins life anew as a single mother, an independent woman, and a religious refugee.

In her travels, and at home, Feldman redefines her sense of identity—no longer Orthodox, she comes to terms with her Jewishness by discovering a world of like-minded outcasts and misfits committed to self-acceptance and healing. Inwardly, Feldman has navigated remarkable experiences: raising her son in the “real” world, finding solace and solitude in a writing career, and searching for love. Culminating in an unforgettable trip across Europe to retrace her grandmother’s life during the Holocaust, Exodus is a deeply moving exploration of the mysterious bonds that tie us to family and religion, the bonds we must sometimes break to find our true selves.

From Chapter One:
"There she is, just across the street, sulking on the stoop. Seven years old, skin pale almost to the point of translucence, lips pursed into a sullen pout. She stares gloomily at the silver Mary Janes on her feet, the tips of which catch the last rays of sunlight quickly fading behind the three-story brownstone. 
"She has been scrubbed and primped in preparation for Passover, soon to arrive. Her hair hurts where it’s been pulled too tight into a bun at the top of her head. She feels each strand stretching from its inflamed follicle, especially at the nape of her neck, where an early-spring breeze raises goose bumps on the exposed skin. Her hands are folded into the lap of her brand-new purple dress, with peonies and violets splashed wildly on the fabric, smocking at the chest, and a sash tied around the waist. There are new white tights stretched over her thin legs. 
“This little side street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, usually bustling with black-clad men carrying prayer books, is momentarily silent and empty, its residents indoors making preparations for the evening.”

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

WW: Penguin Feeds Readers

Penguin book truck LATFoB 2014
I promise this is not completely off topic for this week's Wordless Wednesday theme, "Eggs." The Penguin Book Truck was at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend. It's based on a food truck. Eggs are food. And penguins lay eggs. Works for me!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Talk: GOING OVER, by Beth Kephart

GOING OVER Beth Kephart
Going Over
Beth Kephart (Twitter)
Chronicle Books (Aoril 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 1452124574 / 9781452124575)
Fiction (YA), 264 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, for blog tour tied to launch

Someday, I may stop saying that each new Beth Kephart book I read is the best yet, but in order for that to happen, she’ll have to stop outdoing herself. She hasn’t reached that point yet. Going Over, Kephart’s latest work of young-adult fiction, is as ambitious and daring as the young characters, Ada and Stefan, she has placed at the center of it.

The Berlin Wall is vague history for most of Going Over’s target readership, but it’s only been gone for 25 years, which is less than the amount of time it divided a city politically, culturally, and personally. On the west side of the Wall, Ada lives among squatters with her mother and grandmother, caring for immigrant children by day and depicting daring escapes from the other side in graffiti, on the Wall itself, by night. Her art is her message and effort to inspire Stefan, stuck in the East: come across and be with me, like they did. But Stefan has already lost half of his family to escape attempts, and he knows the potential price of failure.

This is the primary plot thread of Going Over, and I have to admit that it made me a little nervous–young love thwarted by feuding, with opposing political systems standing in for families? But I trust Beth Kephart as a storyteller; she hasn’t let me down yet, and she gives readers much more than that. The threats to Ada and Stefan’s future together are real, and really dangerous, and that’s never less than clear. What’s also clear is that their relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Stefan delays his response to Ada out of his sense of responsibility to the grandmother he would be leaving behind; while she waits (with decreasing patience) for him, Ada becomes entangled with another endangered family on her own side of the Wall.

Kephart succeeds in creating two narrative voices, switching chapters between Ada and Stefan, without losing the distinctive flow and effective, evocative word choice that are trademarks of her writing. However, this time she’s applied those gifts to a story that is more than engaging–it’s genuinely gripping, and the last chapters had me racing along too fast to savor the writing as much as it deserves savoring. Building your novel up to an attempt to an escape from East Berlin makes it inherently suspenseful, I suppose, but it’s not just the plot that’s gripping–it’s the emotional stakes for the characters that Kephart’s language brings to life.

Going Over is young-adult literature for adults of all ages from an author who keeps setting the bar for herself ever higher. If you haven’t read Beth Kephart yet, start here, and start now.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

book talk 3rsblog

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
It is February 1983, and Berlin is a divided city with a miles-long barricade separating east from west. But the city isn’t the only thing that is divided. Ada lives among the rebels, punkers, and immigrants of Kreuzberg in West Berlin. Stefan lives in East Berlin, in a faceless apartment bunker of Friedrichshain. Bound by love and separated by circumstance, their only chance for a life together lies in a high-risk escape. But will Stefan find the courage to leap? Or will forces beyond his control stand in his way? National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart presents a story of daring and sacrifice, and love that will not wait.
Opening Lines:
"We live with ghosts. We live with thugs, dodgers, punkers, needle ladies, pork knuckle. We live where there’s no place else to go. We live with birds—a pair of magpies in the old hospi-tal turrets, a fat yellow-beaked grebe in the thick sticks of the plane trees. A man named Sebastien has moved into the Kiez from France. My mother’s got an eye on him. 
“’You’ve had enough trouble, Jana,’ Omi warns her. Mutti shakes her head, mutters under her breath. Calls her own mother Ilse, like they are sisters, or friends. Like two decades and a war don’t divide them. Like sleeping, dreaming, waking, breathing so close has quieted the one to the other. 
“We live in a forest of box gardens and a city of tile. We live with brick and bullet holes.”
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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WW: (Going Over) The Wall

Beth Kephart's new YA novel, Going Over, takes place in Berlin during the decade before the Wall came down, and is coming out in time to commemorate that event's 25th anniversary. This is a suitably graffiti-covered piece of the Wall at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.

Berlin Wall Reagan Library

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

GOING OVER Q's & A's with Beth Kephart (Blog Tour + Giveaway)

going over blog tour banner

I rarely do blog tours these days, and I’m not sure I’ve ever done an author interview in seven years of blogging here, but when I was invited to participate in Chronicle Books’ blog tour for Beth Kephart’s newest YA novel, Going Over, I wasn’t about to say no. And because Beth and I have grown to be friends over the last few years, I felt pretty comfortable about engaging in a little Q&A with her. (Question number 4 is something I was especially curious about, since the reference in question is to one of my all-time favorite songs.)
  • You’ve referred to Going Over as “the Berlin novel” for years. How is the city significant to you? Which came first–the desire to set a story there, or a story that couldn’t be told in any other setting?
Well, first, may I say that I just love all your questions. You know me so well, dear Florinda, my honorary publicist.

I have always called this the Berlin novel. I still do. I think I’ve begun to refer to my overseas stories by their geographies—Seville, Berlin, Florence—because, when writing or speaking of them, I return to those places in my mind.

But Going Over is a story that could be told in many places, even today. There are walls everywhere. A wall between Palestine and Israel. A wall between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. New trenches and anti-tank barriers between east Ukraine and Russia. A wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Walls have an impact, they create tension, drama, story, shadow worlds. I chose to write about Berlin because I fell in love with that city, because the graffiti spoke to me, and because this year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s fall. Proof that sometimes divisions can be knocked down.
  • The target readership for Going Over was born years after the Berlin Wall came down. How do you think they’ll connect with the novel, and what do you hope they’ll learn from it?
How many of us have been separated from the thing we love, the people we need to see, our own dreams and ambitions? All of us, in some way or another. Going Over takes place in a particular time, a particular city. But its themes transcend. Its themes are right now and always. The questions are: What risks will we take to move closer to our dreams, our hopes? And what are the consequences of desire?
  • What elements does Going Over share with some of your previous YA fiction? What does it do differently? And do those similarities and differences correspond at all to the experience of writing it?
beth kephart
I really try to approach each book as a brand-new something. To not repeat myself. To try something new. This can get me into trouble. This isn’t always the smartest move commercially. But I don’t want to bore myself, don’t want to bore my readers. So Going Over is written by me, and I write in my funny Beth way, and there’s no getting around that. It celebrates a foreign place, which I tend to do. It is written in two voices, like You Are My Only, but one of those voices is second person, which I’ve never done before. Place is a character here (place is always character for me). And I have, as I always do, written not just of teens but of families and communities.
  • Going Over had a different title earlier in its life, one that referenced David Bowie’s song “Heroes.” Coincidence or connection? On a related note, what do you think of the Going Over playlist that Chronicle Books has compiled (and which includes that song), and did you contribute to it?
Yup. Going Over was going to be called We Could Be Heroes, and the book began with the Bowie lyrics (“Heroes” had been written while Bowie was in Kreuzberg, a few years before my story begins). Then I began, shall we call it, a legal process with David Bowie’s folks. The first several people I talked to were really nice and very open and said that it would be no problem at all to use that title. Then I talked with another individual who said, emphatically, that using the words would be a problem. Now the book has a new title. I actually like this one much more. It’s mine. It hasn’t been used before (indeed, later I learned that the “Heroes” lyrics were being used all over the place for various things) And it has two meanings—the graffiti meaning and the literary one.
The very fine Chronicle folks did put together that playlist, but I added some songs to it and I’ve actually written about the music of that time in a blog post for Chronicle—the music that affected me as I wrote.
  • What is the one thing you most want people to know about Going Over?
I want people to know that this is more than a simple love/adventure story. It is also a story about a very important group of Turkish people who were deeply affected by the building of the Wall. It is, in other words, also about a frightening reality that permeated Kreuzberg, which is to say that an important character here is named Savas.
"It is February 1983, and Berlin is a divided city with a miles-long barricade separating east from west. But the city isn’t the only thing that is divided. Ada lives among the rebels, punkers, and immigrants of Kreuzberg in West Berlin. Stefan lives in East Berlin, in a faceless apartment bunker of Friedrichshain. Bound by love and separated by circumstance, their only chance for a life together lies in a high-risk escape. But will Stefan find the courage to leap? Or will forces beyond his control stand in his way? National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart presents a story of daring and sacrifice, and love that will not wait."
Watch the book trailer

Thanks to Beth for taking my questions, and to Chronicle for arranging this tour to support Going Over! You can read an excerpt on Scribd, find the playlist on Rdio, and check out the official teachers' discussion guide (which would be just as useful for discussions in book groups as in classrooms).

All hosts on the Chronicle Books Blog Tour for Going Over are authorized to offer a signed copy of the novel and the audiobook to one lucky reader! Enter the giveaway here (US/Canada only, please). The winner will be chosen at random no later than April 20, 2014.

(This is my official stop on the blog tour, but I have a special related Wordless Wednesday post going up tomorrow and a review to post later this week, so please check back for those!)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What's What: Sunday Salon 4-6-2014 (Pre-FoB edition)

SundaySalon badge 3rsblog

What I’m reading
  • in print / on screen
It felt like most of what I read last week was spreadsheets! I’m in my work’s annual storm cycle, when things converge so that I’m closing the accounting records on a month and a year at the same time, and trying to juggle demands from both the external auditors and internal management. I’ve been short on time for reading books or blogs, and while I did make my blog-tour date last Monday, I missed Thursday’s (I’ll make it up next week).

If all goes as it’s supposed to, I’ll be out from under most of this in six weeks or so…
  • on audio
I should have finished A Short History of Nearly Everything last week, but there were a couple of days when my brain was too fried to focus on it and I listened to podcasts on the commute instead. I think I have less than two hours of it left, though, so it won’t be much longer.

What I’m watching

I know I talk about Doctor Who and Sherlock a fair amount around here, but my biggest TV obsession is probably Mad Men, and next week it returns for the beginning of the end. AMC is prolonging the final season by splitting it across two years–the same thing they did with Breaking Badso we’ll get less of it each year, but we’ll get to have it around longer.

What I’m writing/blogging

This blog is the official stop for the blog tour of Beth Kephart’s Going Over on Tuesday, but I’ll be unofficially extending its stay with related content through Thursday, and you’re welcome to linger for that.

What caught my eye this week (a surprising amount considering how little time I've had for blogging, really!)
"And the main reason I don’t miss wedding planning? Because I really love being married...
The wedding was just the beautiful beginning.
All the great stuff comes after."
--"Why I Don't Miss Wedding Planning" (Write Meg!)
"Observation #5: The audience will forgive you anything — as long as it’s funny.
"This was something Johnny told the writers, and I think it’s still true, despite observation #3. But because funny is in the eye of the beholder and we’ve become a much more fragmented culture, I don’t think we’ll have many more comedians like Johnny Carson, who appealed to such a wide swath of Americans. My nephew thinks Comedy Central’s Tosh is a riot, while I think he’s simply obnoxious."
--"Comedy Is Hard" (Donna Schwartz Mills, SoCal Mom)
"This is the day the embattled field of book criticism has long feared… the day it’ll be taken over by swarms of opinionated amateurs with an international platform and no need for a paycheck. Kids, we’re talking about. BiblioNasium, the book-focused social network for children, has added a new feature in response to user demand. Children will now be able to post reviews..."
--"'Goodreads for kids' to spawn terrifying legions of underage book reviewers" (MobyLives)

  • I've actually been intending to share this for a few weeks, as I've been fascinated by Julie's series on for-profit schools, based on her five years as an employee at one. However, the post I'm linking here includes links to all of the prior ones, so I think it's finally covered. The entire thing will open your eyes and/or confirm your suspicions about this particular segment of the higher-education industry.

What Else is New?

I may not be posting here next Sunday, because I’ll be doing something even more bookish all next weekend–it’s time again for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books! Anastasia posted a great user’s guide to LATFoB on Saturday, and tickets for the panel discussions and conversations are available as of this morning. I’m glad to be going back after missing it last year, and even more excited because I get to host Kim on her escape to a bookish weekend somewhere warm!

And so, this week's Gratutious Photo--a collage from the 2012 FoB--is a little less gratuitous than usual.

LATFoB 2012

How's your weekend?