Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Salon: Bookkeeping - Status Reports

The Sunday Salon.com
I have had neither the time nor the brainpower to work up a Sunday Salon discussion this week, so I'm resorting to the "lists and updates" thing - an extended Status Report.

Update #1: The Handmaid's Tale Group Read
The Handmaid's Tale: A Novel
A few months ago, I mentioned wanting to read The Handmaid's Tale this year (a re-read for me, but it's been over 20 years since the first time) and, hoping to do it as a group read, posted a sign-up form; I didn't have a date yet, but thought it would be in August. Several folks did jump on board then - thanks Jill, Kath, Vasilly, and Carrie! - and now that we're getting closer to a start, I'm posting the link to the form again. We'll start reading the week of August 21 and wrap up with posts around September 12. More details to come, but hopefully that's enough to help you decide whether to join in!

Update #2: Indie Lit Awards
Nominations for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards - the bloggers' book awards - will open on September 1st and run through December 31. I hope that as you've been reading new books this year, you've made note of books you'd like to see considered for these honors! Members of the ILA judging panels are not permitted to make nominations ourselves, so we're counting on you to participate with lots of great recommendations! As a reminder, here are the genres we'll be considering:

The * categories are new this year.

I'm on the Biography/Memoir judging panel, and even though I can't make nominations, I've made an extra effort to read within that category so I'd be up on it. I haven't read as many 2011 memoirs and bios as I'd hoped to, but I haven't done all that badly:

As I said, I can't nominate...but I can lobby, and I'd love to see nominations for the first, fourth, and sixth titles on this list. 

Reviews posted since the last report

Upcoming Reviews

New to the TBR
For review:

For me, acquired at Comic-Con 2011:

Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Talk: *Happens Every Day*, by Isabel Gillies

Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story
Isabel Gillies (Twitter)
Scribner (2009), Hardcover (ISBN 1439110077 / 9781439110072)
Memoir, 272 pages
Source: received secondhand from another blogger
Reason for reading: personal

Opening lines: “One late August afternoon in our new house in Oberlin, Ohio, my husband, Josiah, took it upon himself to wallpaper the bathroom with pictures of our family.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Isabel Gillies had a wonderful life—a handsome, intelligent, loving husband who was a professor; two glorious toddlers; a beautiful house in their Midwestern college town; the time and place to express all her ebullience and affection and optimism. Suddenly, the life Isabel had made crumbled. Her husband, Josiah, announced that he was leaving her and their two young sons. "Happens every day," said a friend. 
Far from a self-pitying diatribe, Happens Every Day reads like an intimate conversation between friends. It is a dizzyingly candid, compulsively readable, ultimately redemptive story about love, marriage, family, heartbreak, and the unexpected turns of a life. On the one hand, reading this book is like watching a train wreck. On the other hand, as Gillies herself says, it is about trying to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness, and loving your life even if it has slipped away.
Comments: The quote above opens Chapter One of Isabel Gillies’ memoir of the end of her marriage. The chapter ends with this line: “Josiah left me and the boys a month later for a new member of the faculty. A female professor in his department hired to teach eighteenth-century English literature.”

Isabel never saw it coming, although she admits that she may have ignored some potential danger signs, such as the knowledge that Josiah had left his first wife - who was pregnant with their child - for someone else (not Isabel). And even when she was forced to see it - when Josiah told her directly, more than once, that he couldn’t be in their marriage anymore - she made every effort to avoid looking. But eventually one has to see what’s really there - and what’s on its way out.

Gillies is frank, forward, and not always particularly self-flattering in her depiction of this extremely difficult time. Happens Every Day was a painful, too-close-for-comfort read for me, because so much of what she describes about the last few months of her first marriage is shockingly similar to what happened in my own (although mine dragged it out a whole lot longer). My first marriage ended nearly a decade ago and I’ve processed it all by now, but there are things about that breakup that I’ll never forget, and the emotions associated with that time can still be stirred up when I’m exposed to reminders. A few particulars about Isabel and Josiah’s situation were especially, and uncomfortably, familiar. I had the sense that at times Isabel was fighting to stay married, period, more than trying to stay married to Josiah specifically; and despite Josiah’s repeated declarations that he “couldn’t do this anymore” and efforts to avoid being around Isabel whenever possible, it took him a while to get around to actually leaving. But he did leave, although I don’t believe that the new faculty member was the only reason why. Having been there myself has not changed my belief that relationships can’t be broken up by a third party unless they were shaky to begin with. I do believe that the third party can be a catalyst that forces one or both members of a couple to see that they really are shaky, but it's not necessarily what shakes them apart.

These days, very few people are likely to ask me how my first marriage ended, but should it happen, I’m inclined to give them a copy of Happens Every Day - it would give them the framework, and I’d just have to fill in the differences and details. Isabel Gillies’ story is all too true, and all too common - but it’s not all here. A follow-up memoir of her life after divorce, A Year and Six Seconds, is out in August.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bye-bye, Borders - for real, and for good

Before too long, I will be living in a town that doesn’t have a bookstore. I’ve known it was a possibility since early this year, but I didn’t want to accept that it might actually happen. But the liquidation sales started on July 22, and when I drove by the store a few days later, I saw the sadly familiar yellow-and-black banner. This one didn’t say “Store Closing,” though - the new wording is “Going Out of Business.” Sadness washed over me.

I’ve talked about Borders here before, and I’m not sure I have a lot to add to what I said the last time:
Some time in the mid-1990s, the way I shopped for books changed. Borders Books and Music opened their first store in the Memphis area. Just inside the Germantown (Tennessee) city limits, it was located at Carrefour along Kirby Parkway, between the Poplars (Poplar Avenue and Poplar Pike). I’d never seen a bookstore that offered its variety of titles and genres - and it was a five-minute walk from the apartment I lived in at the time.  
It wasn’t long before I became a regular shopper there, and it became hard to fathom that I’d once been content with mall bookstores. The store was always bustling but rarely felt crowded, and you didn’t feel like a loser hanging out there on Saturday night.
I haven’t been to my first Borders in nearly nine years - since I moved to California - but I’ve shopped in plenty of other ones, and it’s remained my favorite of the big bookstores. I was excited when a new Borders - the first “real” bookstore in Simi Valley - opened not long before I moved here. It was smaller than my original Borders, but the vibe was much the same. It quickly became a popular place to meet friends and browse, and that’s continued up until the very end.”
The “very end” is where we are now. While stories of the decline of bricks-and-mortar bookstores have become very familiar to many of us, the ones I visit most often still appear to be pretty active places. I realize that they’re just a small sample and that my statement is merely an anecdotal observation, but based on it, I can’t help believing that a customer base for consumption of the printed word continues to thrive. 

Having said that, and based on what I’ve read about the company, I also believe that Borders’ problems stemmed from a faulty understanding of how to connect with and nurture that customer base. In recent years, the company’s senior management turned over frequently and rarely came with a background in the book business. The company was deeply in debt and committed to long-term, expensive leases on many of its stores; inability to renegotiate some of those leases was a major factor in its collapse.

My point is that Borders’ failure is ultimately much more the result of corporate missteps than any wholesale rejection by the reading, book-buying public - a public that remains strong. Even as the ways that we access books are changing and digital books on e-readers close in on their dead-tree cousins, our appetite for reading itself looks pretty healthy to me; it’s feeding that appetite that seems to be the challenge.

As a reader and a book buyer, I mourn the loss of a bookstore I appreciated and supported for many years and in a variety of locations. I'm truly sorry that it came down to this. And as a resident of Simi Valley, I hope someone will be up for the challenge of giving my community a new bookstore of its own - I look forward to supporting that, too.

Photo sources: Borders.com Store Selector (stores #114 and #589)

Monday, July 25, 2011

(Audio)Book Talk: *American on Purpose*

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot
Craig Ferguson (Twitter)
Read by the author
It Books (HarperCollins) (2010), Paperback, 288 pages (ISBN 0061998494 / 9780061998492) (Audio edition 0061961450 / 9780061961458)
Source: Purchased audiobook
Reason for reading: Personal
Book description, from the publisher’s website: “In American on Purpose, Craig Ferguson delivers a moving and achingly funny memoir of living the American dream as he journeys from the mean streets of Glasgow, Scotland, to the comedic promised land of Hollywood. Along the way he stumbles through several attempts to make his mark—as a punk rock musician, a construction worker, a bouncer, and, tragically, a modern dancer. 
To numb the pain of failure, Ferguson found comfort in drugs and alcohol, addictions that eventually led to an aborted suicide attempt. (He forgot to do it when someone offered him a glass of sherry.) But his story has a happy ending: in 1993, the washed-up Ferguson washed up in the United States. Finally sober, Ferguson landed a breakthrough part on the hit sitcom The Drew Carey Show, a success that eventually led to his role as the host of CBS's The Late Late Show. By far Ferguson's greatest triumph was his decision to become a U.S. citizen, a milestone he achieved in early 2008, just before his command performance for the president at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. In American on Purpose, Craig Ferguson talks a red, white, and blue streak about everything our Founding Fathers feared.”
Comments: Maybe it’s part of a mid-life identity crisis, but as a second- and third-generation American, I’ve discovered that I’m becoming increasingly interested in immigrant stories. Craig Ferguson has quite the immigrant story. He’s also got an addiction-and-recovery story; a true Hollywood story; a not-quite rags-to-riches story; and a couple of “triumph of hope over experience” stories (he’s on his third marriage after two divorces). All of those stories are his own life story, told in this straightforward, traditional autobiography, and I found it very funny, occasionally shocking, and surprisingly moving.

Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland as the third of four children in a working-class Presbyterian family, Craig Ferguson hated school and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life - until he discovered America. A visit to New York City as a young teenager firmed up his ambition: he would live in America one day. He had no idea how he’d get there, or what he’d do once he did, but it was going to happen. And it did, eventually, although there were quite a few rocks and forks in the road, and the first attempt didn’t take.

While Ferguson became an American on purpose, much of his early work came about by accident and/or by acquaintance - that is, there were people he wanted to hang out with, and he was drawn to try the things they did. Ferguson left school at sixteen, but he was an avid reader and eager to educate himself on his own, and he gravitated toward creative people - musicians, actors, writers, and artists. He also gravitated toward illicit drugs and, especially, alcohol, and the combination led to an increasingly unstable life of small successes and larger disappointments until he finally admitted he had a problem and that he needed to make it stop.

Sober for almost 20 years now, and in America for almost that long (as a naturalized citizen since 2008), Craig Ferguson has had varying degrees of success in a range of show-business jobs - actor, screenwriter, novelist, producer, director, stand-up comic, and currently as the host of a late-night TV talk show. I’ve been watching that show for a little more than a year (via DVR - I am NOT a late-night person) and I’ve really grown to like it. In addition to the humor, I think one of its strengths comes from Fergsuon’s genuine interest in having real conversations with many of his guests.

In this book, particularly in the audio version, Ferguson’s genuine interest seems to be in taking an honest, warts-and-all look at where he’s been and who he’s become. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes deeply self-critical, and sometimes seemingly awed by the turns his life has taken, he’s a good writer and an engaging narrator, and I found his story far more interesting than I expected to - I listened to it at every opportunity. I appreciated his openness about his less-laudable life choices, and his generosity toward those who’d been particularly significant both professionally and personally, including a few long-term girlfriends and three wives. In spite of - or perhaps partly because of - his somewhat regrettable past, Craig Ferguson strikes me as being a genuinely decent guy, and America’s lucky to have him.

My husband read American on Purpose in paperback last year and has been after me to read it for months now. The book’s still on my nightstand, but thanks to audio, I get to move it to the “read” column; I’m glad I listened to it - and to my husband.

Rating: 3.75/5

This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gee, who'd have guessed?

Truthfully, I would have been bowled over if I had not gotten this result:

You Are a Book

You are a deliberate thinker. You don't like to gloss over anything, and details matter to you.

When times get tough, you get philosophical. You never forget the meaning of life.

If you're facing a problem, getting away for a couple days always helps you clear your mind.

You always consider the past, present, and future. You believe every little event shapes your life.

We're off this morning - so early it's before "bright and early" - to San Diego, to take in books, movies, TV, and all the pop-culture nerdiness of Comic-Con! Reports and photos to come...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Shelf Awareness review: *Kindred Spirits* by Sarah Strohmeyer

Kindred Spirits by Sarah Strohmeyer
Kindred Spirits
Sarah Strohmeyer
Dutton Adult (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0525952225 / 9780525952220)
Fiction, 304 pages

The following review was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (7/12/2011 edition) and is reprinted with permission.

One of the things that keeps long-term relationships interesting is that there are always new things to discover about the other person. The Ladies' Society for the Conservation of Martinis, which grew out of a PTA meeting postmortem, learns this after the death of one of its members. The friendship among Carol, Mary Kay, Beth and Lynne--the kind of connection that can feel deeper and more reliable than family--is shaken when Lynne suddenly leaves her friends behind, asking them to do two last favors for her. Although shocked by what those requests turn out to be, the other three women want to honor their friend's requests, and so set out on a road trip from Connecticut to Pennsylvania to fulfill their promises.

The trip is not only a source of revelations about Lynne's life before they knew her, but a time for the remaining members of the Society to discover each other's secrets as well, most of which are connected to things they've not yet shared with their husbands and partners.

Sarah Strohmeyer hits all the right women's-fiction notes in Kindred Spirits, but manages to avoid making readers feel like they've heard all of this before. The framing device she uses is, perhaps, a bit contrived, and some of the plot points are predictable, but her characters are convincing and the bonds between them feel true. Kindred Spirits is a novel about friends that readers will want to share with their own friends

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Tangents: Google + Carmageddon = Comic-Con??

It's been quite a while since I posted Tuesday Tangents - actually, they've been more likely to show up on Wendy's blog lately than here - but I've got a few things I've been wanting to talk about that just won't stand as blog posts on their own, so here we go.


Are you trying out Google+ yet? (If you'd like to and need an invite, leave me your e-mail and I can send you one.) I've been playing around with it for a week or two now, and I'm still trying to sort out exactly how I want to use it. Right now, the majority of the people I've connected with there are people I'm also connected with on Facebook and Twitter, and there are both good and bad points to that. I think one of the good points is that, in order to avoid dumping on those friends in multiple places, I have to think about what I want to share in which venues.

Google+ seems to have some of the best points of both Twitter and FB - conversations are very easy, and the "circles" feature that allows sharing with limited groups is great - but there a lot of features it doesn't have yet, and a lot of people it doesn't have yet either. I've met some new people thanks to their being part of the "circles" of people I know already, and it feels more natural to add them to a circle of my own (I usually use the "following" circle for those I'm just getting to know) than to ask them to be "friends" Facebook-style - more like Twitter following, but with "lists" already in place.

I know some people have already tried Google+ and dropped it. As it stands now, it looks like something I'd like to include in my social-media repertoire, but I want to see how it develops and who else shows up to the party. If you've tried it, what do you think of it and how are you using it?


Sometimes you need a break from all that interaction, though. Here's one: Saturday, August 6 is Do Nothing But Read Day 2011. I can't commit to doing nothing but reading all day that day, so I'm not officially joining in, but I'd like to do nothing but read for at least a couple of hours if I can swing it. If you can fit a day of nothing but reading into that particular weekend, though, you can sign up!


via Sigalert.com
Apparently all the warnings about this past weekend's full closure of the I-405 Freeway through west Los Angeles made a dent - by all accounts, #Carmageddon didn't rain down upon us. (We should have known - nothing rains down on Los Angeles at this time of year.) The biggest traffic-related nuisance was the media helicopters hovering over the bridge-demolition site all weekend. The 405 is open again now - and that's lucky for us, because we're driving down to San Diego first thing Thursday morning to join the nerd stampede at  Comic-Con!

We'll be attending three out of the four days (couldn't get tickets for Saturday, stupid
EpicFAIL online ticket sale, grumble grumble - but we hope to fix that for 2012 via on-site pre-registration) and haven't worked out everything we want to see and do yet, but we're definitely excited! If you're going, tell me now - it's not likely we'll stumble across each other in the mass of people there, including the costumed hordes - but we can trade contact info and see if we can arrange to meet up for something (hopefully, by the time this posts, plans will already be in place to see Amy and Natasha there)!

So these are some of tangents my thoughts are wandering along these days - what about yours?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Goodbye again, Harry

It's ended now. But it will never really end.
One of my earliest reviews here - back in July 2007, when about six people knew this blog existed - was the seventh and final book in Harry Potter's story. After seeing the eighth and final movie installment this weekend, and saying goodbye to Hogwarts all over again, I thought I'd revisit and re-post it (with some minor edits and changes, but still in the format I was using at the time).

For me, this is a series in which the books will always come first. I like most of the movies, and I appreciate the way they've helped me visualize the world J.K. Rowling created, but she created that world in books. I've read all but the last book at least twice, and I think I need to make a full series re-read a priority during the next year.

If you've only known Harry Potter's world through the movies, there's a lot you don't know. Read the books, or listen to them - all seven are on audio CD, all except Book 7 are available for download (my futile attempt to find it in downloadable format was what led me to my recent exploration of audiobooks), and the narrator is supposed to be outstanding.

Of course, that narrator was working with some great material, all the way to the end.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J. K. Rowling
Arthur A. Levine Books (2007), Hardcover (ISBN 0545010225 / 9780545010221)
Fiction (children's, fantasy), 784 pages
The major event of this weekend was reading the grand finale of this saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I've done since ...Order of the Phoenix, I pre-ordered the book as soon as they started taking orders, but this time I bought two copies - Tall Paul wanted his own. The package landed at our front door at around 1 PM Saturday, and since we didn't have the kids this weekend, we each grabbed a copy and staked out a comfortable seat in the living room to hunker down for the next 759 pages. I read faster than Tall Paul does, but I also took more breaks from reading (just to get up and have change of scenery, or do some chores, or for some other reason), so he got ahead of me and ended up finishing the book about an hour before I did. It was a great way to spend the weekend, and I'm glad we're both done so we can actually discuss this topic around the house now!

I'm not really sure I want to discuss it in too much detail right here, though, since I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone. I stayed away from reading blog posts about the book until after I'd finished reading it, and I suggest that approach for anyone (unless you don't plan to read it anyway - and honestly, then why would you read the blog posts either?). But having said that, here's the framework...

This would have been Year 7 at Hogwarts, but Harry Potter is making good on his vow at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - after the death of Albus Dumbledore, he declared his intention to leave school. He has a final mission from Dumbledore - to find the remaining Horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort and destroy them. As of his seventeenth birthday, which opens the book, Harry is officially "of age" as a wizard and can legally practice magic off school grounds, as can his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, who won't let Harry undertake this task without them. (The idea that Hermione, probably Hogwarts' finest student, would voluntarily not return to school for her final year is one of the more minor shockers, but Harry and Ron are very fortunate to have this book-smart witch accompanying them.) They undertake this mission without much direction, and Harry frequently finds himself frustrated by what Dumbledore never told him. They're also operating under increasingly dangerous conditions, as Lord Voldemort and his followers have gained power in the Ministry of Magic and in other institutions of the wizarding world, including Hogwarts itself. It's hard to know who to trust, and Voldemort's own mission to find and kill Harry in order to save himself has become more urgent, as Harry knows through his scar and its connection to the Dark Lord.

While there are light moments and episodes scattered throughout the book - a wedding, reunions with old friends - the overall mood here is definitely tense and dark. And rightly so, since there are literally matters of life and death at stake here, and lives are indeed lost. The general sense of oppression in a world where the bad guys seem to be winning feels very modern and uncomfortably familiar.

There are some elements in this book that are less familiar, though, particularly the lack of structure around the school year. We do eventually make it Hogwarts, but it's only in the last quarter of the book that we encounter old favorite characters like Professor Minerva McGonagall and Neville Longbottom - but it's worth the wait. Some old non-favorite characters reappear too (hello, Dolores Umbridge!), and of course we meet others that are new or previously mentioned mainly in passing, such as Albus Dumbledore's younger brother Aberforth. And even those we know best - Harry and his closest friends - are growing and changing through the course of this quest.

While most of the Potterphiles I know are adults, there are a few things that I like about Rowling's writing that relate to the fact that these are "officially" considered children's books. She's very strong at physical descriptions of people, places, and objects, which kids often want to know so they can picture the story in their minds as they read. She also does well with recapping information from previous books in a way that doesn't interfere with the narrative, since there are probably things that the reader has forgotten by now. Because kids do tend to want and need to be given answers and have things explained for them, she does that - you just have to be patient and wait till she's ready. And perhaps most importantly here, she not only writes a fantastic plot (in more than one sense of the word), she tells it through characters you truly engage with. This is one heck of a page-turner, and there are plenty of surprises.

I think this was a very satisfying finale, and that Rowling has done a remarkable job of answering the many questions raised over seven books - I can't think of any major loose ends left untied. I teared up over some of the characters who didn't make it to the end, and cheered the outcomes for others. I think I need to make time for a re-reading of the entire series pretty soon (or at least everything from ...Prisoner of Azkaban forward, since the first two really do feel more like kids' books to me at this point). And I know I'm going to miss Harry, the Weasleys, Hermione, and Hogwarts very much.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Salon: Diversifying...or trespassing? An awkward circular argument

The Sunday Salon.com

Every time I read a post about someone’s plans to “diversify” their reading I feel a little awkward. I haven’t always felt this way, but I’ve noticed it over the last decade or so, and I was reminded of it while reading Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow last week. My reading choices tend to have a cultural sameness...and I’m mostly OK with it, except when I branch out and then start questioning it.

In my post-college years and into my thirties, I recall more readily seeking out and read fiction by authors of color and different cultures - but I don’t recall it being that much of an effort, because I don’t recall literature being as sub-classified and segmented (I hesitate to use the word “segregated”) as it seems to be now.

My early adult years coincided pretty closely with the onset of “political correctness” and increased awareness of cultural diversity, and I think those developments have been much more good than bad, overall. But at the same time, there’s been increased fragmentation in society - it’s become a “niche” world. For my part, increased awareness and sensitivity to cultural niches outside my own has come with a uncomfortable feeling that I’m trespassing if I explore them those niches too deeply - because they’re not my own. I wonder if the growth in art and literature produced by people of other cultures is primarily meant for the previously neglected audiences within those cultures, and whether outsiders are really even welcome to partake of it.

And so it becomes a circular thing: I find myself reading more within my own cultural niche. That becomes my comfort zone. And because it’s comfortable, I feel even less comfortable when I try to step out of it.

But when I do step out of it, it’s usually worth it; I become aware of new stories and different worldviews, and I question myself about why I don’t get out of my reading comfort zone more often. (See the preceding paragraph for the answer to that - I’m going in circles again.) I wonder if I’m engaging in that word I hesitated to use, but against myself.

I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to get to a place where I feel less awkward, and I’d love to know your thoughts about reading diversely.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

(Audio)Book Talk: *Bossypants*, by Tina Fey

Tina Fey
read by the author
Reagan Arthur Books (2011),  Hardcover (ISBN 9780316056861 / 0316056863) (Audio edition 1609419693 / 9781609419691)
Memoir/essays, 288 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook
Reason for reading: Personal
Book description, from the publisher’s website: “Before Liz Lemon, before 'Weekend Update,' before 'Sarah Palin,' Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.
She has seen both these dreams come true.
At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.
Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.
(Includes Special, Never-Before-Solicited Opinions on Breastfeeding, Princesses, Photoshop, the Electoral Process, and Italian Rum Cake!)
Comments: I’ve referred to celebrity memoir as my “guilty-pleasure genre,” but my two most recent experiences with the genre have given me very little to feel guilty about. Perhaps it’s not the genre itself that’s guilt-inducing; it could be the celebrities. If the memoirs I read are actually written by celebrities who are interesting people best known for appearing in places other than TMZ and the tabloids - and are competent writers to boot - I suppose none of us have any reason to be embarrassed. For example, I suffered very little guilt reading Simon Pegg’s Nerd Do Well.

I intended to read Tina Fey's memoir/personal essay collection Bossypants (we bought it in hardcover) eventually. However, last month - June was Audiobook Month - I read quite a few solid reviews of the audio version, several of which suggested that audio was the perfect format for the book. That guidance led me to make it my first download from Audible.

There was no guilt involved in this one, either. This is definitely not a "tell-all" - there are some things that Tina Fey does not intend to talk about in this book, and she states that up front. However, she doesn't mince words when it comes to the things she does want to talk about.

Tina Fey's autobiography isn't terribly remarkable. She had a middle-class upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs as the younger child and only daughter of parents who are still married to each other; college; a move to Chicago to work, study improvisational theatre, and eventually join the Second City comedy troupe, which led to another move - this time to New York and a job as a writer for Saturday Night Live; creation of and a starring role in a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning sitcom inspired by her experience on SNL...and marriage and a family. Okay, some parts of her autobiography are pretty remarkable.

Fey’s recollections of career and life milestones are mixed with observations about life, society, and the challenges of being a woman who loves both her work and her child in early 21st-century America. Bossypants may strike some readers as being a little short on personal insight and reflection, but Fey’s opinions on the bigger picture are a worthwhile trade. It’s not entrirely clear to me whether she self-identifies as a feminist, but her worldview is clearly informed by feminism. As befits the title of the book, Fey does spend much of the second half discussing work, and repeatedly expresses a preference for the collaborative management style that tends to be more associated with women; she is a boss, as creator of 30 Rock, and is fully aware of the perks, the stress, and the responsibility that go with being the source of 200 people's paychecks.

But it’s not all serious gender politics or management theory - in fact, most of it’s not serious gender politics or management theory. Most of it's humorous and real. Tina Fey’s experience is in writing and performing comedy, and this makes Bossypants, as read by its author, ideally suited to audio. If you’re a Tina Fey fan, which I am, you’d probably hear her voice in your head while reading the book anyway, so why not just hear it for real? She mines her own story for the funny, mixes it with smart observations and self-deprecating reflections, and comes across as pretty down-to-earth and genuine. My stepdaughter is in a six-week teenage theatre workshop this summer, and I want her to hear Tina’s stories of her two high-school years in "Summer Showtime." I particularly liked her work stories and the tale of her ill-fated honeymoon cruise. I was intrigued to discover just how much Liz Lemon is Tina Fey (a lot). And I appreciated the way her appreciation of certain people in her life - most notably her parents, her mentor Lorne Michaels, and her friend and SNL colleague Amy Poehler - came across so clearly.

I should also mention one feature of the Bossypants audiobook that’s not part of the print version: it includes the full audio of her first "Sarah Palin" sketch for Saturday Night Live. While that’s not the only reason to “read” this on audio, it’s definitely something to consider if you’re torn between this and the print version.

I’m very glad I chose this for my very first audiobook - it really was ideal in almost every respect.

Rating: 4/5

This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge and is eligible for consideration in the Biography/Memoir category of the 2011 Indie Lit Awards.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What defines a writer - being someone who writes?

I encountered this Thought Catalog piece piece via one of the Tumblrs I follow. I liked some of it, and thought some of it was snobby, elitist BS. I'll share a few quotes and my reactions to them; you may want to go read the whole thing before you weigh in with your own. (Emphasis added in certain places.)

photo by Caitlinator on Flickr
The Difference Between A Writer And Someone Who Writes « Thought Catalog

"A writer is not just someone who writes. In her head, it’s words all day. She sees the world not as a place made up of things but of words about those things." Yes.

"A writer’s mind is sticky, cavernous... In the infancy of the day, or as it’s expelling its final breath, an errant phrase will show up there unannounced and become lodged in some furrow." Yes.

"Someone who writes writes from a place of common experience in a common language, beleaguered by tired phrases and obvious similes..." "Someone who writes writes as herself. A writer’s voice, on the other hand, is chameleon-like." Eh, maybe. I think that may depend on what and where the writer is writing. One the one hand, a writer of fiction must convincingly convey the voice of a character, but some writers can do that while retaining a consistent, distinctive voice that's clearly their own. On the other hand, writers of personal narrative nonfiction write as themselves almost by definition.

"Someone who writes understands writing in terms of something she does, not in terms of something she is." The implication, of course, is that a writer understands writing as "something she is"...and that this is the superior understanding. Says who?

"A blogger writes for the Facebook share; a writer writes for mind share." Excuse me? This is where my "snobby, elitist BS" alarm went off. The implication, again, is that the blogger is "someone who writes"...and, therefore, is lesser than a "writer."

I can concede that there may be a genuine difference between "a writer" and "someone who writes," and that the difference might be defined as this piece suggests. I might also suggest that there are also people who fit the definition of "writers," but don't write, and in this context, I am not sure what that makes them. Maybe I'm being oversensitive. But as someone who tends to see herself as both "someone who writes" and a "writer" - sometimes at the same time, sometimes more one than the other, mostly on a blog (or two), and very rarely for any tangible reward - I have to admit that I take some exception to the tone of this piece. 

I'm reasonably certain the person who wrote that piece defines herself as "a writer" rather than "someone who writes." Do you write? Are you a writer? What do you think?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Talk: *Silver Sparrow*, by Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow
Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1565129903 / 9781565129900)
Fiction (contemporary), 352 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for reading: Everyday I Write the Book’s summer Book Club

Opening Lines: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website: Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, Silver Sparrow revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters—the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle—she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives.
At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.
Comments: Chaurisse Witherspoon described certain people - naturally pretty girls who took their beauty to another level - as “silver girls.” When she encountered Dana Yarboro in the cosmetic aisle in a mall drugstore during an aborted shoplifting attempt, she immediately recognized her as a silver girl. Dana recognized Chaurisse too - as her half-sister. Chaurisse is drawn to a friendship with Dana; Dana is drawn to something a little different.

Tayari Jones’ third novel, Silver Sparrow, is an unusual take on a not-entirely-unusual story. Plenty of people drift into (or deliberately choose to have) affairs. Sometimes those affairs result in children. It’s less common for the mother of one of those children to insist on marriage to the father while the father remains married to, and refuses to leave, his wife - who, by the way, is also expecting a baby. But marriage to James Witherspoon is what Gwen Yarboro wanted, and for years of Wednesday nights, she and her daughter Dana had James and his “brother” Raleigh with them as family; those were the nights that James’ wife Laverne and daughter Chaurisse believed the men were working. While Gwen and Dana are constantly aware, and frequently resentful, of James’ other family, Laverne and Chaurisse have no idea it exists.

Jones tells the first half of the story through Dana’s first-person narration, and then switches to Chaurisse’s voice before bringing the two girls - teens born just a few months apart - together. It’s an effective construct that allows the reader to have the same “secret” knowledge about Chaurisse that Dana has before meeting her; once we do meet her, that knowledge filters the reading of her side of the story. For me, that added both poignancy and a sense of foreboding to the second half of the book - it was pretty clear that before it was all over, everyone was going to know the whole truth.

Jones’ writing keeps Silver Sparrow from being as melodramatic as its plot suggests it could be, and telling the story through the daughters is one way she achieves that. She has also created a full set of memorable characters, each of whom can evoke the reader’s sympathy even when they’re not entirely likable, and given both of her narrators distinctive voices and perspectives without significantly changing her writing style when she shifts. Her depiction of 1980s Atlanta feels true to time and place. A couple of reviewers have suggested that the novel has crossover potential to older YA audiences, and while I hadn’t immediately seen that myself (as I did with Girl in Translation and The Local News), I’m inclined to agree.

Silver Sparrow was an absorbing read, and I’d like to read more from Tayari Jones.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: Now hear this! Or, When Florinda Met Audiobooks

The Sunday Salon.com

I listened to my first audiobook ever this week. I don't think it will be my last. It was this one:

It actually wasn't my first choice for my first audiobook, a format I've resisted for years and have only recently begun to give cautious consideration. I started giving the idea serious thought just a couple of weeks ago, when I accepted the fact that it was unlikely I'd get to re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before ...Part 2 opened at the movies and thought maybe I'd try listening to it instead; several experienced audiobook listeners have suggested that books you've already read can be good choices for audio newbies. However, I was unable to locate that particular Harry Potter book on audio in a format that I could download directly to my Apple devices (I have an iPhone and an iPod nano, and planned to listen on one or both of them), and that was quite frustrating. However, my search did whet my appetite for audio, and one Audible membership and an app download later, I was in.

I have a hardcover copy of Tina Fey's memoir/personal essay collection Bossypants in the house; the assumption was that my husband would read it first (he hasn't yet), and I'd get to it eventually. However, last month - June was Audiobook Month - I read quite a few solid reviews of the audio version (read by the author), several of which suggested that audio was the ideal format for the book. That guidance led me to make it my first download from Audible. I'll post a review of it later in the week, but in short, I was not unhappy with my choice - those suggestions were right on target.

My next audiobook is waiting in progress during my work commute on my iPhone now, and it's in a similar vein: Craig Ferguson's American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot. My husband has already read this one and has been after me to read it for over a year; this seems like a more efficient way to accomplish that. Meanwhile, Tall Paul has downloaded the Audible app and Bossypants - he'll get to it sooner that way too.

Based on my very limited experience, read-by-the-author nonfiction seems to work pretty well for me in audio format. I'm a little more cautious about trying fiction on audio, but I'm pretty sure that'll happen at some point. In the meantime, I'm open to audiobook recommendations of both fiction and nonfiction, so if you've got some, tell me in the comments!

Reviews posted since last report:

Upcoming reviews:
Kindred Spirits, by Sarah Strohmeyer
Where You Left Me, by Jennifer Gardner Trulson

Also upcoming:
Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones

New to TBR:
For review:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Shelf Awareness review: *Love Child* by Sheila Kohler

Love Child: A Novel
Sheila Kohler
Penguin (2011), trade paper (ISBN 9780143119197)
Fiction, 256 pages
The following review was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (7/1/2011 issue) and is reprinted with permission.

Sheila Kohler's Love Child centers on the theme of domestic complications. This novel packs a lot of story into its pages: Bill is a South African woman in the pre-apartheid years, a relatively recent and relatively young widow with two teenage sons in boarding school. Her late husband left her very well provided for, and her lawyer is now urging her to make a will of her own. He assumes it will be a simple thing, with her sons as primary heirs and possibly smaller bequests to her siblings and servants. He assumes incorrectly.

Bill's lawyer is unaware of her short-lived, impulsive first marriage--the one that required her parents' consent because she was still underage. And almost no one knows the highly unusual circumstances surrounding her second marriage, matters that wind up affecting what might become of her estate. Plus, her siblings have become financially reliant upon Bill, and things are much more complicated than anyone could have imagined.

Aside from some references to the "color bar," the South African setting and its racial climate at the time don't factor heavily into Kohler's novel, a personal story could be set almost anywhere. While Kohler's spare prose doesn't really evoke a sense of place, it does create an interesting emotional landscape, and the novel's nonlinear chronology piques the reader's curiosity. Despite an ending that feels a little too neat and a sense that some elements could have been fleshed out more, Love Child is an intriguingly messy story with an unusual perspective on family dysfunction.

Have you subscribed to Shelf Awareness for Readers yet? (If the sign-up asks you how you heard about it, please feel free to give them my e-mail!)