Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Have Mother, Will Travel* by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Have Mother, Will Travel: A Mother and Daughter Discover Themselves, Each Other, and the World
Claire and Mia Fontaine (Facebook)
William Morrow (July 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0061688398 / 9780061688393)
Memoir, 320 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (July 27, 2012).

Opening lines, from the Introduction:
“‘One word, Mia--schistosomiasis.’
“An occupational hazard of writing is research; you look up the risks of eating sushi and five hours later you’re an expert on the Loa loa eyeworm and the E. japonica flatworms that are teeming in rivers like the one my grown daughter, my only child, wants to plunge into today.
“I’m holding the bathroom stall door closed for Mia at Kuala Gandah, an elephant rescue sanctuary located in the rain forest of Malaysia’s Pahang region, where we’ve come to ride the elephants and learn about their rescue programs. They allow a handful of visitors to ride the big gals into the muddy river and cavort with them as their handlers scrub them down. My devil-may-care daughter is among the select.
“Look, I’m a big risk-taker, an intrepid traveler, but I stop at taking home larvae as souvenirs.”

Comments: Ten years after the events described in their earlier mother-daughter memoir, Come Back, Claire and Mia Fontaine’s connection has grown shaky. When she’d had to, Claire stepped up to the mama-bear role and got her daughter--drug-addicted and out of control, acting out in response to sexual abuse by her biological father--on the road to recovery. Mia’s now a healthy, independent twentysomething finding her way into adulthood, and as Claire’s role in her daughter’s life has changed, she’s losing her own footing. The Fontaines decide to address their respective and shared crises by going abroad together; they begin with a round-the-world, month-long scavenger hunt, followed by a season living in France.

As they step out of their comfort zones and embark on foreign adventures (in more ways than one) together, Claire and Mia interact with one another in ways they never have before. Often, parents and children are ill-prepared for the natural shifts in their relationships as those children become adults, even when those relationships have not been tested by crises as the Fontaines’ was. Under rather abnormal conditions, they’re working toward a sense of normalcy.

The narration of Have Mother, Will Travel alternates between Claire and Mia, and even if the shifts weren’t signified by changes in font, their voices and styles are distinct. Claire is both chatty and philosophical, often reflecting on the universal experiences of motherhood and characteristics of the mother-daughter bond in particular as she observes it across cultures; Mia’s sections are more introspective and focused on the personal. Have Mother, Will Travel offers a unique perspective on the growth of the parent-child relationship.

Rating: 3.5/5 

Book description, from the publisher’s website
A mother, a daughter, and a life-changing adventure around the world . . .
Their bestselling memoir, Come Back, moved and inspired readers with the story of Mia Fontaine's harrowing drug addiction and her mother, Claire's, desperate and ultimately successful attempts to save her. Now it's a decade later and Claire and Mia each face a defining moment in her life, and a mother-daughter relationship that has frayed around the edges. At fifty-one, Claire's shed her identity as Mia's savior but realizes that, oops, she forgot to plan for life after motherhood; Mia, twenty-five and eager to step outside her role as recovery's poster child, finds adult life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Determined to transform themselves and their relationship once again, the pair sets off on a five-month around-the-world adventure.
What awaits them is an extraordinary, often hilarious journey through twenty cities and twelve countries—one that includes mishaps, mayhem, and unexpected joys, from a passport-eating elephant to a calamitous camel ride around the Pyramids—and finally making peace with their tumultuous past in the lavender fields of France, where they live for the last four months of the trip. 
Wiser for what they've learned from women in other cultures, and from each other, they return with a deepened sense of who they are and where they want to go—and with each embracing the mature friendship they've discovered and the profound love they share.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Stream of Consciousness Edition

It's a mostly lazy Sunday around here, and that includes staying out of the kitchen! We went out for breakfast and will be going out again for dinner--my stepkids are about to start two weeks' vacation with their mom, so we asked them to pick a special place to eat tonight. Right now, they're playing on the Wii with their dad and I'm in my reading chair in the corner, although I haven't done much reading yet today. I've prepared some pictures for August's #photoaday meme (yes, I think I'm doing it again--it's pretty addictive!), played a little Words With Friends, and worked on this post.

Speaking of #photoaday, today's prompt is "last thing you bought." My most recent shopping that wasn't at the grocery store fed my two biggest addictions--clothes and books:

This will be a slow posting week on the blog, but I hope to start picking up the pace again next month. The big work projects are winding down, which should open up more reading-and-writing time, and I'm taking a long weekend off two weeks from now. Unfortunately, Tall Paul couldn't get the same time off, so our getaway plans got away from us--but since we'll be staying at home, I may seize the opportunity for bookish escape instead. August 10-13--Mini-Readathon, anyone?

Time to put the iPad down and put this post up. The book I'm reading for my next Shelf Awareness review is starting off well, and I'm off to spend some more time with it now. Hope you're having a good Sunday!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, July 26, 2012

At the Movies: the Spider, the Bat, and the Summer of Superheroes

During the past decade or so, the “summer movie season” that once began on Memorial Day weekend--as does almost everything else “officially” summer, despite the fact the season doesn’t officially start before June 20th--has shifted its opening to early May, and superheroes have had a lot to do with that. 2012 has been a particularly “super” season at the movies, starting with Marvel’s The Avengers (which I saw three times), and hitting critical mass this month, with a revisit to the origins of Spider-Man and the conclusion of the “Dark Knight” interpretation of Batman’s story.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN poster download (via official movie site)

The Amazing Spider-Man
Rated PG-13
Action/adventure, drama (2012)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alan Sargent, Steve Kloves
Directed by: Marc Webb

Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
The Amazing Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker, an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. When Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents' disappearance - leading him directly to Oscorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), his father's former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors' alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero. -- (C) Sony
I’ve seen The Amazing Spider-Man twice. After the first viewing, I really wasn’t sure I had much more to say about it besides “Andrew Garfield is so freaking adorable!” so I didn’t say anything, but seeing again made me give it some more thought (although I still think he's adorable).

Spider-Man is probably my favorite of the comic-book/movie superheroes, but it’s not so much Spidey I love as it is Peter Parker--super-nerd as super-hero. That said, I was as dismayed as many fans by the idea that Spidey was being “rebooted” within a decade of originally making the leap to movies; on the face of it, it seemed pointless and cynical. And it’s probably still rather pointless, honestly--I’d probably still say “no” to the “Is this movie necessary?” question that continues to accompany The Amazing Spider-Man--but I don’t see it as cynical any more. It strikes me as quite the opposite, actually; I find Spidey/Peter Parker’s story works more on an emotional level than many of the other superhero tales, and this take on it doesn’t misfire on that score.

There’s only so much you can do in retelling a superhero origin story; they started how they started, and some details are fixed in the canon. Peter Parker will always get his powers from a spider bite (although the spider is usually “genetically altered” now rather than “radioactive” as a concession to a change in the scientific times), and he’ll always be dealing with the loss of father figures. But you can tweak the details. The Amazing Spider-Man presents some new backstory about how Peter came to live with his aunt and uncle, and mines the comic-book history to pair him up with his real high-school girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (he didn’t meet Mary Jane Watson until years later). These relationships are my favorite parts of the Spidey story, and my favorite parts of The Amazing Spider-Man; Peter and Gwen are convincing and charming in both their attraction and their awkwardness. Credit the casting--both Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so freaking adorable, but they’ve got much more than that going for them as actors, too, and thanks to them, I thoroughly enjoyed both viewings of The Amazing Spider-Man.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES poster download (via official movie site)
The Dark Knight Rises
Rated PG-13
Action/adventure, drama (2012)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com
It has been eight years since Batman vanished into the night, turning, in that instant, from hero to fugitive. Assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, the Dark Knight sacrificed everything for what he and Commissioner Gordon both hoped was the greater good. For a time the lie worked, as criminal activity in Gotham City was crushed under the weight of the anti-crime Dent Act. But everything will change with the arrival of a cunning cat burglar with a mysterious agenda. Far more dangerous, however, is the emergence of Bane, a masked terrorist whose ruthless plans for Gotham drive Bruce out of his self-imposed exile. But even if he dons the cape and cowl again, Batman may be no match for Bane.. -- (C) Warner Bros.
Batman/Bruce Wayne is a superhero with a lot of baggage, and baggage seems to accompany the movies about him too. The Dark Knight was made slightly darker by its legacy as Heath Ledger’s last film (and made stronger by his outstanding work in it). The Dark Knight Rises--the “epic conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy”--and its scenes of a besieged Gotham City will be sadly associated with a shocking episode of opening-weekend violence. And I’ll be honest: the shootings in Colorado did color some of my reaction to seeing the film just a day after they took place, but not as much as I was afraid they might.

I’ll also be honest in saying that as much as I do have an emotional attachment to Spider-Man and Peter Parker, I don’t have one to Batman or Bruce Wayne, and the approach Christopher Nolan has taken with the characters in the Dark Knight series really hasn’t helped foster one. Brooding intensity is the hallmark tone of these movies, and it works very well for them. However, I tend to prefer a little more balance of light and darkness, and the stakes in The Dark Knight Rises don’t exactly tip it toward the light.

In consideration of the spoiler-phobic among us and the fact that this film’s been out for less than a week as of this posting, I won’t discuss too much of the plot. But the stakes are indeed high. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse and Batman hasn’t been sighted in Gotham for eight years, but thanks to the laws passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death, he’s really not needed, as thousands of criminals and would-be criminals have been taken off the streets during that time. But that’s about to change with the arrival of the formidable mercenary Bane and his lawless “army,” who promise to “return Gotham to the people”--before they obliterate it with a nuclear weapon. Batman is about to be forced back out of the shadows to, once again, protect his city.

It’s an intriguing premise, and it was one of the aspects of the film that made Bruce Wayne/Batman more interesting to me than he’s ever been before (and Christian Bale less bothersome to me, although I still can’t explain why he bothers me at all). For me, two new characters contributed to the “more interesting” factor as well: Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (never actually referred to as “Catwoman”), a character whose skills, smarts, and shifting loyalties made her fascinating to watch, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's police office John Blake, seemingly the last person in Gotham who still believes in Batman. However, I’m sorry to note that I did not find the villainous Bane very interesting at all, and for me, the movie worked more in spite of him than because of him.

I think that as it reaches its finale, The Dark Knight Trilogy’s ending was ultimately satisfying, but as a series, its middle installment is strongest (call it “The Empire Strikes Back Syndrome"). If you were planning to see The Dark Knight Rises, I hope you won’t be deterred from going to the theater by what happened in Colorado...but if you’d rather wait it out, watch your DVD of The Dark Knight again in the meantime. 

(Or just see The Avengers one more time--it's probably still playing somewhere.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Picturing July, part 2: #photoaday and #DailyBookPic

My posting in the #DailyBookPic meme has dropped off a bit in the latter half of July, since I'm not participating if I don't have something appropriate to the prompt. However, I did make it into the roundup on Book Riot on one of the days when I joined in last week!

#DailyBookPic day 19: Reading Glasses

#DailyBookPic day 14: Picture book (THE WIZARD OF OZ, pop-up edition)

I haven't missed a day of #photoadayjuly, though, and I'm having a lot of fun with it. I haven't yet decided whether I'll do it again next month, but I don't guess I really HAVE to decide yet, do I? Here are a few of my favorites from the last couple of weeks.

#photoadayjuly Day 16: Sign

#photoadayjuly Day 21: 9 o'clock (or close enough!)

#photoadayjuly Day 18: Plate

#photoadayjuly Day 20: Eyes

--Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *Stories I Only Tell My Friends*, by Rob Lowe

cover of STORIES I ONLY TELL MY FRIENDS by Rob Lowe (St. Martin's Griffin, PB 2012) Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography
Rob Lowe (Facebook) (Twitter)
audiobook read by the author
St. Martin's Griffin (2012), Paperback (ISBN 1250008859 / 9781250008855)
Biography/memoir, 320 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Audible ASIN B004XXVSS8)
Reason for reading: personal, Audiobook Challenge

Opening lines: “I had always had an affinity for him, an admiration for his easy grace, his natural charisma, despite the fact that for the better part of a decade my then girlfriend kept a picture of him running shirtless through Central Park on her refrigerator door. Maybe my lack of jealousy toward this particular pin-up was tamped down by empathy for his loss of his father and an appreciation for how complicated it is to be the subject of curiosity and objectification from a very young age. That said, when my girlfriend and others would constantly swoon over him, when I would see him continually splashed across the newspapers, resplendent like an American prince, I wasn't above the occasional male thought of: Screw that guy.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
A teen idol at fifteen, an international icon and founder of the Brat Pack at twenty, and one of Hollywood's top stars to this day, Rob Lowe chronicles his experiences as a painfully misunderstood child actor in Ohio uprooted to the wild counterculture of mid-seventies Malibu, where he embarked on his unrelenting pursuit of a career in Hollywood. 
The Outsiders placed Lowe at the birth of the modern youth movement in the entertainment industry. During his time on The West Wing, he witnessed the surreal nexus of show business and politics both on the set and in the actual White House. And in between are deft and humorous stories of the wild excesses that marked the eighties, leading to his quest for family and sobriety. 
Never mean-spirited or salacious, Lowe delivers unexpected glimpses into his successes, disappointments, relationships, and one-of-a-kind encounters with people who shaped our world over the last twenty-five years. These stories are as entertaining as they are unforgettable.
Comments: For years, celebrity memoirs have been my guilty-pleasure reading--in fact, they were the source of so much reading guilt that I rarely indulged in them at all. But I've been exploring audiobooks during the past year, and I've discovered that they're an excellent medium for this particular genre. Thanks to audios, I've shed some of the guilt--partly because I listen alone in my car, and partly because there are no glossy covers to expose me--and shared some surprisingly fun commutes with familar voices. But I'm still pretty picky about whose stories I want to hear, and this is a genre where I give extra weight to reviews and recommendations. I'm not sure I would have chosen Rob Lowe's Stories I Only Tell My Friends if I hadn't read a lot of good things about it first, and that definitely would have been my loss.

It feels like Rob Lowe has been around all my life; in fact, he’s just 12 days older than I am, so he has, but he’s been a working actor since we were both barely high-school age, which adds up to a pretty long carer at this point.

Lowe first decided he wanted to be an actor as a kid in Dayton, Ohio, and when he moved to Malibu, California with his mother and brothers after her second marriage broke up, he discovered a very different environment from the community theaters where he’d started out. Malibu was already famous for its surf scene and beach culture, but the town was a more economically diverse place in the 1970s than it is now, and while some of his public-school classmates had rich and famous parents, many residents, including his own family, had no connection to or real understanding of “the business.” He had to learn a lot on his own and on the job, but he was driven to do it (sometimes literally, at least before he turned 16), starting in commercials, landing a short-lived sitcom at age 14, and scoring some steady work in ABC’s Afterschool Specials series of TV movies. His first big film role came as part of the large cast of up-and-comers in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the frequently-banned YA novel The Outsiders in 1982, and by the mid-80s, he’d reached Next Big Thing status as part of another iconic ensemble cast in St. Elmo’s Fire. Anyone who’s that successful, that young, and that lacking in wise guidance is likely to make some unwise life choices, and Lowe’s pretty honest about the ones he made throughout his twenties--although they did give him some terrific stories to tell. The fact that he sobered up, grew up, and settled down is why he’s around to tell them now.

As he moved beyond his teen-idol, pretty-boy years (although he has by no means lost his looks...and true confession, I have a weakness for the pretty boys), Lowe worked regularly, but his public profile rose and fell as he spent most of the 1990s moving between movies and theater, and developing an unexpected flair for comedy. And just as his young family was making him less interested in traveling for work, he got a chance at a role that required nothing more than daily freeway commutes...and the occasion location shoot in Washington DC. For me, Lowe’s portrayal of speechwriter Sam Seaborn is one of the reasons that the first three seasons of The West Wing are some of the best hours of drama ever on television. (Disclosure: I am an unabashed, partisan Wingnut whose one-time desktop wallpaper was an oversized “Bartlet for President” campaign button, but my love waned when Sam, one of my favorite characters, left during Season 4.) These days, he combines off-camera projects with television work, always looking for good stories.

I can’t really imagine experiencing Stories I Only Tell My Friends in any format but audio, and it couldn’t be narrated by anyone other than the author. These are Rob Lowe’s stories, and they’re revealing, personal, intimate (although rarely gossipy), surprisingly relatable, and almost never dull. He presents himself with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor and genuine emotion, and I found him and his stories thoroughly charming. In all honesty, I’ve liked him for years, but I really enjoyed listening to him tell me the stories he’d previously saved for his friends during my own commutes over the course of a week.

Rating: Book 3.75/5, Audio 4/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: Reading, 'Riting, and a Side of Silliness

logo of The Sunday Salon

This past week was on the slow side blog-wise, as I talked about highbrow fan-fic and posted a pub-day Book Talk. The coming week will probably be on the light side as well, with a busy period ahead at work and required reading in the off-hours taking big chunks out of blogging time...so if it doesn't get prepared today, it most likely won't be posted before next Saturday!

Speaking of "required reading," let me ask a question that may be controversial: As a blogger, do you feel a responsibility to be informed about the "drama/controversy of the week" (and there's always a new one)? I have the feeling that an increasing number of my blogging friends, especially those who've been around for a while, would say "no"--we've heard variations on much of it before, and/or it's irrelevant to how we want to blog. My answer's still "yes," because even though I seem to have less time for it lately, I still view reporting and assessment as part of my role as a blogger. Therefore, even if I don't get around to discussing hot-button topics, I still want to know what's going on. Readlists is a new tool I'm using to collect posts on those topics. it lets you compile a list of links and send them to a device as an e-book for offline reading, embed them in a post, or share them with a public link. My newest Readlist is on the "Goodreads Bullies" brouhaha--if you care about getting up to speed on that, give it a look-see.

On the other hand, maybe you consider all of these dramas just a lot of silliness. I've got some sillier silliness for you, via my e-mail. If you share my abiding weakness for terrible wordplay, I hope you'll enjoy these too!

I changed my iPod's name to Titanic. 
It's syncing now.

When chemists die, they barium.

Jokes about German sausage are the wurst .

A soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.

I know a guy who's addicted to brake fluid.
But he says he can stop any time.

How does Moses make his tea?
Hebrews it.

I stayed up all night to see where the sun went.
Then it dawned on me.

This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I'd never met herbivore.

I'm reading a book about anti-gravity and I can't put it down.

I did a theatrical performance about puns.
It was a play on words.

They told me I had type A blood, but it was a Type-O.

PMS jokes aren't funny, period.

Why were the Indians here first?
They had reservations.

Class trip to the Coca-Cola factory.
I hope there's no pop quiz .

HEADLINE: Energizer Bunny arrested: Charged with battery.

I didn't like my beard at first. 
 Then it grew on me.

How do you make holy water?
Boil the hell out of it.

Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn't control her pupils?

When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.

What does a clock do when it's hungry?
It goes back four seconds.

Broken pencils are pointless.

I tried to catch some fog.
I mist.

What do you call a dinosaur with a extensive vocabulary?
A thesaurus.

England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool .

I used to be a banker, but then I lost interest.

I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.

All the toilets in New York's police stations have been stolen.
Police have nothing to go on.

Haunted French pancakes give me the crepes.

Velcro - what a rip off.

HEADLINE: Cartoonist found dead in home. Details are sketchy.

Venison for dinner?
Oh deer.

I do not enjoy computer jokes.
Not one bit.

Be kind to your dentist.
He has fillings, too.

Enjoy the rest of your (hopefully just a little silly) Sunday!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Talk: *Small Damages*, by Beth Kephart

Opening lines: “The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. I roll the smeary window down, stick out my arm. I run one finger against the crumble-down of walls. Touch them for you: Hello, Seville.”

Because I consider Beth Kephart a friend (and it goes both ways, I’m happy to say), I don’t feel I can present my thoughts on her new young-adult novel, Small Damages, in my usual book-review format. So I’m doing it backwards--you’ll find the book data and publisher’s information at the end of this post instead of in the lead-off positions, and my impressions up in front.

The catalog copy for Small Damages  describes it as “Juno meets Under the Tuscan Sun,” and I suppose that’s an effective shorthand. The sun (and the food) here is that of Spain rather than northern Italy, and Kenzie Spitzer is less in control of her situation than Juno MacGuff (and also less blessed with supportive parents)--but if you need a point of reference, it’ll do.

The whole idea of sending a pregnant teenager away until she has given birth--and given away her baby to adoptive parents, so that she can then return home from her mysterious trip and pick up her life where she left off--is an oddly old-fashioned one, and while the novel is clearly contemporary, its time frame isn’t quite of-the-monent. It’s also an interesting angle on the question of “choice” debate, in which adoption seems to be the least-discussed choice much of the time--but unlike Juno, Kenzie doesn’t feel much ownership of this particular choice. Feeling resentful and out of control, her stay in Spain seems like exile, and her inadequate knowledge of the language is only one source of her discomfort as she struggles to come to terms with the turns her life has taken.

Beth Kephart, on the other hand, seems to operate very comfortably within this foreign setting, and Small Damages  is among her best work. Having said that, even less-stellar Beth Kephart is still pretty darn good, but I think this is her richest, most resonant novel since The Heart is Not a Size (also set in a Spanish-speaking country). It’s not hard to get caught up in the beauty of Beth’s writing--well-constructed, evocative description is among her particular strengths--and it serves an especially compelling story here. Her Kenzie isn’t always easy to like--she’s angry, confused, and comes off a bit spoiled at times--but her emotional growth over the course of the novel is convincing. Her voice is distinctive--less articulate than some of the author’s prior teenage protagonists (or Juno MacGuff, for that matter), maybe, but that suits both her general confusion and the foreign-ness of her setting. Influential cross-generational relationships are becoming another hallmark of Beth’s fiction; her teens struggle with their parents (one of whom may be absent or dead), but there are grandparent surrogates who play important roles, like the elderly lesbian neighbors in You Are My Only and Kenzie’s cooking teacher/guardian Estela here. Kenzie and Estela’s relationship develops believably from mutual irritation to real affection, and significantly affects Kenzie’s decisions later in the novel.

Looking back over previous posts about Beth Kephart’s books, I’ve called several of her books “the best one yet”--and I’m saying it again, but something feels different about Small Damages. I think it brings the author’s gifts as writer and storyteller (which are not always synonymous or co-occurring things) together more effectively than any of her earlier fiction has, and I feel that it will stay with me longer. If you haven’t gotten around to reading Beth Kephart yet, start here--Small Damages is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s in bookstores and libraries today.
Book description, from the publisher’s website:It's senior year, and while Kenzie should be looking forward to prom and starting college in the fall, she discovers she's pregnant. Her determination to keep her baby is something her boyfriend and mother do not understand. So she is sent to Spain, where she will live out her pregnancy, and her baby will be adopted by a Spanish couple. No one will ever know.

Alone and resentful in a foreign country, Kenzie is at first sullen and difficult. But as she gets to know Estela, the stubborn old cook, and Esteban, the mysterious young man who cares for the horses, she begins to open her eyes, and her heart, to the beauty that is all around her, and inside her. Kenzie realizes she has some serious choices to make--choices about life, love, and home.

Small Damages
Beth Kephart (Twitter)
Philomel (July 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0399257489 / 9780399257483)
Fiction (YA), 304 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, via the author w/personal inscription
Reason for reading: Personal

Small Damages was reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 15 edition)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Talk: *The Flight of Gemma Hardy*, by Margot Livesey (TLC Book Tour)

cover of THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY by Margot Livesey (Harper Perennial trade PB) The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel Margot Livesey (Facebook) (Twitter)
Harper Perennial (June 2012), Paperback (ISBN 0062064231 / 9780062064233)
Fiction, 480 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour

Opening lines: “We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year. The Christmas snow had melted, and rain had been falling since dawn, darkening the shrubbery and muddying the grass, but that would not have stopped my aunt from dispatching us. She believed in the benefits of fresh air for children in all weather, Later, I understood, she also enjoyed the peace and quiet of our absence.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
The resonant story of a young woman’s struggle to take charge of her own future, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a modern take on a classic story—Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Taken from her native Iceland to Scotland in the early 1950s when her widower father drowns at sea, young Gemma Hardy comes to live with her kindly uncle and his family. But his death leaves Gemma under the care of her resentful aunt, and she suddenly finds herself an unwelcome guest. Surviving oppressive years at a strict private school, Gemma ultimately finds a job as an au pair to the eight-year-old niece of Mr. Sinclair on the Orkney Islands—and here, at the mysterious and remote Blackbird Hall, Gemma's greatest trial begins.
Comments: The literary sub-genre of “re-worked classics” seems to offer a good deal of potential discussion fodder. Are these works a more highbrow variant of fan-fiction? Do they have a built-in audience thanks to their basis in known source material, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? My short answers to those questions would be “depends,” “probably,” and again “depends,” but longer, more thoughtful ones are certainly warranted.

Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy reworks a particularly enduring classic, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’ve read the original just once, during a university-era project to fill gaps in my literary experience. My response to it was largely indifferent (although I greatly preferred it to her sister Emily’s sole novel, Wuthering Heights) and my recollections of it are vague on details (although they were sufficient to get me through Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair). For the most part, I like Jane as a character, but I really don’t find Rochester or her relationship with him appealing (although I appreciate having an opportunity to link to Rhapsody Jill’s outstanding analysis of that appeal); for me, ...Gemma Hardy’s inspiration wasn’t a compelling reason to read the novel. But as I learned more about the book’s merits apart from its source material, I grew more interested, and I’ve been meaning to read Margot Livesey for a while.

...Gemma Hardy follows the basic framework of Jane Eyre: A bright young orphan is exiled to a terrible boarding school where she is treated more as laborer than student. When the school closes and she is forced to leave, she has few options and fewer resources, and takes a job as a live-in nanny/teacher at a remote estate, where she becomes intrigued by its mysterious master. However, Livesey has relocated the story’s place and time to Scotland in the mid-twentieth century, and for me, the more modern setting was an asset to both plot and character development. She also uses Brontë’s model of first-person narration, but gives Gemma a distinctive voice and a unique history; our Scottish orphan was born in Iceland, and is deeply curious to know more about her native land and whether she has family remaining there.

Perhaps it’s because I did only read it once and my memory is faulty, but I think of Jane Eyre as primarily a romance...and one that I don’t find particularly romantic or convincing. ...Gemma Hardy’s involvement with her employer/fiancé Mr. (Hugh) Sinclair is the Jane/Rochester plot, and while I found it somewhat more appealing here--mainly because I think Sinclair is a more interesting character than Rochester--I still didn’t find it terribly romantic or convincing. I preferred the novel before and after that, and was drawn to Gemma on her own, with her resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive. I didn’t entirely buy the events of the last several chapters of the novel, but considering how Gemma came to them, they felt right.

I’d like to revisit that fan-fiction question another time, but I do think that fiction based on other fiction does have certain potential advantages in attracting an audience. On the other hand, those same qualities can have the opposite effect, either turning fans of the original against the retelling or discouraging interest from non-fans. I fell into the second camp for a while with The Flight of Gemma Hardy and its Jane Eyre connection, but I’m glad I got over myself--for me, this was a more satisfying read than its inspiration.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour

Tuesday, June 26th: The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, June 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, June 28th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Monday, July 2nd: Twisting the Lens
Tuesday, July 3rd: Walking With Nora
Wednesday, July 4th: Bibliosue
Wednesday, July 4th: Bibliophiliac
Monday, July 9th: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, July 10th: Book Club Classics!
Wednesday, July 11th: Laura’s Reviews
Thursday, July 12th: Broken Teepee
Wednesday, July 18th: My Bookshelf
Thursday, July 19th: Lit and Life
TBD: Book Reviews, Fiction Reflections, ‘ More!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: A "Reading and Weeding" Staycation (with a side of rambling)

logo of The Sunday Salon

I've been mostly hanging out at home for the last several days. Tall Paul and I had submitted vacation requests for this time months ago, in anticipation of attending San Diego Comic-Con this weekend. So much for that--we couldn't get tickets. But we weren't about to give back the time off, either, and so we've been "staycationing." (And although we aren't taking pictures in San Diego, I've been playing with pictures this week--I'll be sharing a few of my #DailyBookPic photos in this post.)

#DailyBookPic Day 12: "I keep meaning to read..." these long-past-"advance" ARCs#DailyBookPic Day 11: New Release(s) (brought back from BEA)

It's been awhile since I've been home during a vacation and didn't have a huge list of "stuff I need to do on my days off," and I've been enjoying it...particularly the parts where I've been able to spend good chunks of time reading. As I write this late on Saturday afternoon, I've almost finished my second book since my "staycation" started on Wednesday, and I don't go back to work until Tuesday, so the third one is on deck. I'm planning to do some writing on Monday--books read must also be books reviewed, after all--but I want to get some more reading in too, and with luck, I will!

I need to make a confession, though: my reading this week really hasn't included many blogs. My "books blogroll" feed folder long ago exceeded critical mass, and although I did some reorganizing on it a month or two ago--the group blogs that post multiple times a day got a folder of their own--I'd find myself deliberately avoiding it until the number of unread posts reached my "nuclear option" threshold so I could justify hitting "mark all as read" and starting over. So I did some long-overdue pruning this week...and I hated it. I hate doing it, because it always makes me feel like I'm letting someone down when I let them go. I have abandonment issues going both ways, apparently. But I also have control issues, and I do feel a little more in control of things now that it's done. Odds are that I'll find I've accidentally dropped some blogs I didn't mean to--and I'll resubscribe to those when I realize I miss them!--but blogs that I don't interact with at all probably don't need to be in my feed reader. (I also did some weeding out on Twitter, but probably need to do a good bit more if I want to get it back to something that feels useful again!)

#DailyBookPic Day 9: Not a book (my iPad feed-reader app, Early Edition 2)

And on a related note, some blogs may not be in your feed reader any more because you're getting their posts from other sources, like links on Twitter and Facebook. The 3 R's Blog Facebook page is creeping up on 100 "likes," and I'd really like to see it cross that threshold, so would you please consider "liking" it if you haven't already? I just might have to do some sort of giveaway to mark that milestone...

One reason I really don't do link roundups here any more is that I'm sharing links on social media instead, and it felt redundant. The more bookish ones get posted to The 3 R's Blog FB page (which is one more reason to "like" it!), and sometimes even generate discussion there. Here are a few I've shared there recently:
As much as we book bloggers love and value what we do, for many mainstream readers, mainstream review outlets still matter. There's a reason Jennifer Weiner cares about what the New York Times says (or doesn't say) about her books. And so Beth Kephart is understandably thrilled that the NYT Sunday Book Review has reviewed her newest, Small Damages, which is out this Thursday. (My own review posts then, which will understandably be far less thrilling.)

#DailyBookPic Day 14: Picture book (THE WIZARD OF OZ, pop-up edition)

This afternoon we're off to a chocolate-themed birthday party for my nine-year-old nephew, but I hope I'll have some time to read before we go. Hope you have a great Sunday!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *Rules of Civility*, by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility: A NovelAmor Towles
Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman
Penguin Books (2012); Paperback (ISBN 9780143121169 / 0143121162 )Fiction, 352 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (ISBN 9780142429273, Audible ASIN B005EJFUYI)
Reason for reading: Personal, 2012 Audiobook Challenge. #JIAM (June is Audiobook Month)

Opening lines (Chapter 1): “It was the last night of 1937.

“With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.

“From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year's Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.
Comments: For about a week, during my daily drive to and from work across 2012 Los Angeles, I was simultaneously transported to 1938 New York City via the audiobook of Amor Towles’ 2011 novel, Rules of Civility, as read by Rebecca Lowman. I’m still pretty new to audiobooks, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed nonfiction audios more than fiction, but this novel was a joy to listen to. That’s partly because I’m a sucker for books set in not-so-old New York, but Towles’ protagonist Katey Kontent is an original, and they way Lowman gave voice to her story stuck in my head and actually made me eager for my commute. It takes something special to do that.

Rules of Civility opens in 1966, when a woman unexpectedly spots a familiar face in the photos on display at an art opening and finds herself remembering 1938, the remarkable year when she knew its owner. At 25, Katey (originally Katya) Kontent (accent on the second syllable) had already made her way out of the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and into the secretarial pool of a Lower Manhattan law firm, and was getting to know her city better in the company of her roommate, Midwestern transplant Evelyn (originally Evie) Ross. When the girls crossed paths with Tinker (originally Theodore) Grey a few hours before the start of 1938 and they all share a New Year’s toast to “getting out of ruts,” they had no idea that the end of the year would find them all in very different places.

Personal reinvention has long been part of the mythos of New York City, and it’s a primary theme of the novel; the title comes from a list of “instructions for living” that George Washington compiled for himself, and which serves as a personal guidebook for Tinker. Eve and Tinker’s purposeful reinventions have effects and repercussions for Katey, shaping and redirecting her own less calculated self-making. 1938 is a year in which Katey experiences much of New York life for the first time, and she gets the opportunity to choose which aspects of it she wants to carry forward. She works hard and well, she’s wry and observant, she’s smart, independent, and open to taking calculated risks...and she never goes anywhere without a book. I don’t think she was created to be instantly lovable, but I found her thoroughly engaging and would have been happy to follow her story through decades, rather than just one year (although we do get an epilogue).

But having said that, I rather hope there won’t be a sequel; as much as I adored Katey, I felt that Rules of Civility told the story it meant to tell in full, and told it well. Like its protagonist, Amor Towles’ debut novel is assured, smart, and well-observed, and openly wears its mid-20th-century influences. Audiobooks can amplify weaknesses in writing, but aside from an over-reliance on similes, I didn’t find many here. Rebecca Lowman managed to give distinct voices to nearly every character, and her interpretation of Katey--and her city--sounded perfect to my ears. Rules of Civility is distinctly and proudly a New York story, with a distinctly, proudly New York cast of characters, and I was thoroughly immersed in its world.

Rating: Book and audio: 4 of 5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Picturing July: #photoadayjuly and #dailybookpic

This month, I jumped on the photo-meme bandwagon--not once, but twice. My husband has been participating in #photoaday on Instagram for a few months, and I thought I'd join him in July. (If you're on Instagram and want to follow, we're both using our Twitter handles there: I'm florinda3rs and he's RamsesTMagnum--the only only place where he's Tall Paul is around here!)

I'm sharing my #photoadayjuly pictures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, but wanted to put a few of my favorites here too. (I'm captioning my pictures with the Phonto app, which is available for both iPhone and Android.)

Since I was already in a photo-hunting, picture-posting mode, I thought I might as well sign on for #DailyBookPic, which was launched this month by Cassandra at Book Riot, while I was at it. I'm not doing this one every day, but when I do, I'm putting my pictures on Twitter, The 3 R's Blog Facebook page, and the #DailyBookPic Pinterest board. Here's a small sample:

Are you participating in any photo memes this month? Tell us where, so we can follow you!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, July 9, 2012

LA's Summer Reading Guide (according to me)

Oceanside, CA June 2012
I'm an occasional contributor to the "Best of LA" section of CBS Los Angeles' website, and even more occasionally, I get the opportunity to make my contributions book-related. My first feature for the site, in August of last year, was a late-summer-reading roundup featuring books and authors with prominent Southern California connections.

I was pleased to be offered the chance to put together another summer-reading guide for 2012--and we got it done much earlier this year! Once again, the books and authors featured have a local/regional slant, but this year I've included a few selections that won't be out until September (technically, that's still summer, even if vacation's over!).

Here's a sneak peek at my list:

Model Home, by Eric Puchner
The Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar
When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle
The First Husband, by Laura Dave
How To Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway
So LA, by Bridget Hoida
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner

Descriptions, links, and a few more of my book picks are in "LA's Summer Reading Guide" at CBS Los Angeles--I hope you'll go on over there to read more about them! And if you can think of any recommendations to add--books set in Southern California and/or by authors from around here--please mention them in the comments.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

(Late) Sunday Salon: Book BLAH This Weekend!

The Sunday Salon

There's a rather surprising number of book bloggers in Southern California for a region that's only occasionally known for being particularly bookish, but (no) thanks to the traffic and sprawl, we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like. But an out-of-town visitor is always a great excuse to get together. Thanks to the fact that Rhapsody Jill was visiting for the weekend, I got to meet up with her, Amy, Softdrink (Fizzy Jill) and Ti for a little BLAH (Bloggers' L.A. Happening) on Saturday.

(l-r) Amy, Softdrink/Fizzy Jill, Rhapsody Jill, Ti 

We met up for refreshments in the bookstore cafe at the Americana at Brand, a charming themed outdoor mall in Glendale, and then moved on to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (where, believe it or not, no one got dessert).

After lunch, back the the bookstore! And I didn't leave empty-handed:

Photo originally posted to the #DailyBookPic board on Pinterest 

Coffee and lunch and a lot of bookish. bloggy conversation--Rhapsody Jill even gave us talking points (!)--are a fine way to spend part of your weekend. If you're visiting the Greater LA Area, shoot an e-mail to your blogging friends out here--we'd be happy to see you, and each other too!

(l-r) Amy, Fizzy Jill, me, Ti 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

10 Years in L.A.: The Loathe List

I've lived in Southern California ten years as of this week, and that seems like an appropriate time for some reflection on a place I wouldn't have expected to find myself before this decade started. Sometimes I still wonder at the fact that I'm here at all, but I've rarely questioned my decision to come here.

There are so many ways in which my life here is better than I had any reason to expect a decade ago--and there are irritations and aggravations that weren't part of my life before I lived here. While Los Angeles and its environs have their virtues, they have some pretty big drawbacks too.

And so, on the occasion of our tenth anniversary together, here's the second half of my SoCal Top Ten, which effectvely constitutes the Bottom Five.


THE TRAFFIC. "Car culture" was born here, and it continues to rule. A driver's license is considered a right more than a privilege, and a car is a necessity in a metropolis that is seriously lacking in public transit. But the five- and six-lane freeways built decades ago are inadequate for the volume of cars that use them now, and a prudent person will always allow an extra 20-30 minutes for potential traffic snarls when going anywhere. Sadly, too many people aren't prudent, and that tends to make them cranky, careless, and rude. 

THE SPRAWL. The car culture goes hand-in-hand with the familiar archetypes of suburbia, and this is a city without a real core. It seems to be comprised of lots of oversized neighborhoods and poorly-defined subdivisions that leak and bleed into one another, without much to distinguish them individually. Stuck in traffic, sometimes it's alarmingly easy to lose track of where you are.

THE INSULARITY. When it's all here--the coast, the beach, the mountains, the desert, the forest, the city, the suburbs, the farmland--there's not much need to go anywhere else. And when a day's drive barely gets you across the state line anyway, why bother? As someone who grew up in the opposite corner of the country--in the Northeast, you can pass through three states over the course of a morning--the scale out here is still a wonder to me, but I can understand why it might discourage exploration. What I don't understand is the lack of curiosity about exploration or interest in what's beyond the borders of the nearest freeway...unless it's just been beaten out of people by the sprawl and the traffic. I'd understand that

THE OUTSIZE SELF-ESTEEM AND SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT. The "star system" was born here too--although "Hollywood" is more of a concept than a place nowadays --and it seems to have rubbed off on far too many people, even if they have no connection to Hollywood at all. There's very little reluctance to ask for privilege or special treatment, because people really believe they deserve it. Not everybody is a star here, but anybody can demand to be treated like one--and they frequently get their demands met. 

THE POLITICS. I have issues with the state as a whole on this matter, not just my region. The level of political dysfunction here is hard to fathom and even harder to explain, although almost everyone has a theory on it. All I can tell you is that our elected representatives don't represent, and considering how much lawmaking is placed directly in voters' hands through the initiative process, I'm not sure what they actually do at all. However, among other things, I'm sure they're at least partly responsible for the steep decline in the quality of public education here during the last couple of decades. When I moved here from Tennessee, I thought the political climate would be more compatible and the schools would be much worse. Although my blue-party leanings are a better fit here, I was way off about the schools.

All things considered, however, I could be in a much worse place, literally and figuratively. I don't love my two hours a day in commuting traffic, but I have a good job and a nice home (that I'll probably never be in a position to own, but that's another issue). And if I hadn't come here in 2002, I wouldn't have the second family that I joined in 2006--and having family around is the thing I love most about living in Southern California.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

10 Years in LA; The Love List

The Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, CA, Feb. 2012I've lived in Southern California ten years as of this week, which is as long as I've lived anywhere in my entire life, and it's one of the last places I'd ever have imagined I'd end up. Granted, I still might not end up here, literally; I hope I've still got a few good decades left, and I certainly I hope I'll be spending them with the native Southern Californian I married almost six years ago, and so any move I make away from this region will be one we make together.

Having said that, this is the first and only place I've ever lived in by my own choice, and it's the only place I've ever lived on my own. Even if I don't spend the rest of my life here, Los Angeles and its surroundings will always be meaningful to me because of that. I entered my forties here, but in many ways, I've grown up here

And so, on the occasion of our tenth anniversary together, here's the first half of my SoCal Top Ten: the good stuff.


THE WEATHER. Yes, it's a cliche. And yes, we have mudslides and wildfires and earthquakes (but there's no such thing as "earthquake weather"). But we have days and weeks and months of cool, clear mornings and evenings, days that don't get unbearably hot, and minimal humidity. It's easy to adapt to it, and hard to think about readjusting to less perfectly temperate climate.

THE GEOGRAPHY. The variety within less than a hundred miles in any direction is marvelous. The coast, the beach, the mountains, the desert, the forest, the city, the suburbs, the farmland...it's all right here, and it's not hard to get to any of it.

THE ODD SENSE OF FAMILIARITY. Most of our visually-based popular culture--that is, movies and television--is created here, and it's not uncommon to visit someplace new and feel like you've seen it before. You probably have--it was on a screen somewhere, but it's not so new to you after all.

THE PEOPLE-WATCHING. That visually-based popular culture has done a lot to establish a particular L.A. "look"--and it's real. But on any given day, you'll probably see more people who DON'T conform to it than who do, and many of them--bless their hearts--are perfectly comfortable cultivating a look all their own. 
THE SENSE OF POSSIBILITY. The "California Dream" has probably always been just that, to be honest, and most people probably don't manage to get all that close to it. But it continues to have a hold on those who were born here and those who come here from everywhere, and it still encourages reinvention and exploration.

I came here ten years ago because my marriage was over (my first one--at that stage, I had no expectation there might be a second), my son was about to go off to university, and my extended family--my sister, her husband and kids, and our father--had already migrated to the West Coast. If you're going to reengineer your life, it's good to have a support system at hand, and it's very good to do it in a place that thrives on the very idea. It's not perfect, though--and that will be my next list.

(Note: Edited and re-posted to correct some serious formatting issues that were probably obvious only if you came here to view to post.)