Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moving to New Location!

Hi Everyone! All book-related content and posts have been moved to my new blog, The Evening Reader. If you have linked to this blog or saved it in a feed, please update the location to the following:

I'll be posting regularly there starting Sunday, March 1.

Sweet Diva will remain online as a perfume blog. All other links and info will be moved to the new blog over the following week.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Reader’s Journal: Isabella Moon

Being somewhat new to the thriller genre, I want to say first that I realize I might not be this author’s ideal reader. Authors, of course, don’t really get to choose who their readers are, unless they publish and distribute their books themselves. Even though I was hopeful--I really wanted to like this book--I find myself disappointed. I found Isabella Moon through Laura Benedict’s blog, and she seems so nice, like someone you’d want to have in your circle of friends. All the time I was reading this and thinking about composing my thoughts, I wondered: if one of my friends wrote a book (actually, some of my friends are writing books) that I read and didn’t exactly like, would I tell him or her the truth? Well, yes.

Isabella Moon tells the story of a woman visited by the apparition of a young girl who has been missing for two years. Isabella Moon appears in Kate Russell’s dreams to tell her where she’s buried, information Kate takes to the town’s sheriff, an incident which kicks off a series of murders that reveal secrets hidden beneath the town’s quaint, friendly veneer. We meet a lot of characters and witness a lot of twists and turns.

I suppose that’s my main problem with the book: it never focused on any one thing long enough for me to feel invested. It seems at the beginning like this will be Kate’s story, that she has some connection with the girl, either real or psychic. Most of the first half of the book does focus on her, unfortunately in flashback. I say unfortunately because these flashbacks, which tell the backstory of Kate’s relationship with her abusive husband Miles, detract from the present story. They’re too long, and instead of making us understand her better, they serve to make her seem like a stock character, and sort of an aimless, empty-headed one at that. We never get a real sense of what keeps her with Miles--the money? Her desire for stability? She doesn’t come across as insecure so much as apathetic, which makes her come across as flat. Of course, the abuse is terrible, but beyond not wanting to see her suffer, she’s hard to care about.

Another thing that bothers me about the flashbacks--they’re in italics. To authors and editors everywhere: please learn to write (or edit) solid transitions between the past and present, and assume your readers are intelligent enough to follow along with you. Plenty of writers have done this quite successfully. Also, if you must use italics to show us when you’re going into the past or into the head of one character, don’t suddenly start using the same technique for other characters. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Benedict gives Miles a flashback chapter, and then she goes on and gives other characters flashback chapters. I was left wondering, why the transition from Kate?

And speaking of that, the whole book transitions from Kate, but it’s unclear why, except for the fact that Benedict has placed all these other characters in the story, and she has to somehow wrap up everything that’s happening with them. Even though it does come back to Kate in the final chapter, we never get a sense of why Isabella Moon chose her to communicate with in the first place. In fact, Isabella Moon seems to be nothing more than a plot device (and a title). She appears only to a few characters, but why? And another character who dies also appears several times, but that’s never explored either. I’m not sure if Benedict had ideas about making this a paranormal thriller and then she got caught up elsewhere, or what.

The book also focuses on the relationship between Kate’s best friend Francie and her secret lover, Paxton Birkenshaw. Francie is black, from a decent family, and Paxton is white, from one of the town’s best families. Francie and Paxton themselves are dull characters (usual small Southern town racial tension, and they both like coke--not the drink), but their mothers are both interesting characters, and I wanted more of them and less of their children. Delving more into the town’s past--and less into Kate’s--would have made for a more interesting book. And one nitpicky thing: at one point, Kate, who’s from South Carolina, seems puzzled that the little Kentucky hamlet in which she lives has an area still called “Darktown” by some of the town elders. Nobody who lives or grew up in the South would bat an eye at that or need to have it explained. The vestiges of racism still exist all over the South. (I live in Georgia, by the way.) To say she looked offended, yes--but puzzled? Hardly.

I’m finding it hard to write a focused review about such an unfocused book, especially without either giving something away or having to go into detail about the various plotlines, which would make this post way too long.

The writing itself is okay. Looking for passages to quote, I tended to notice things that bothered my internal English teacher: lots of “wryly” and “idly,” lots of unnecessary intricate description, wordiness. The one sentence that bothered me more than any other in the book (seriously, I kept thinking about it): “His skin wore a healthy-looking tan and there were faint, whitish lines at this temples where his sunglasses had been.” Skin does not “wear” a tan. Skin is tanned. It’s a process that occurs that changes the skin--not something that one puts on and takes off. Grr. I know I sound like a picky bitch, but I hate when writing detracts from the story, when I feel like I want to get out a pencil and start marking things up. (I have a friend whose mother actually does this, by the way.) I know many people don't notice this sort of thing. I've been in a book club for five years, and not once have we discussed the language in a story. (I tried, and I gave up.)

Honestly, I don’t mean to pick on Laura Benedict too much. After all, this is her first novel, and as I said in my post about Goldengrove, writing is difficult, and I think writing a mystery is doubly so. The author must keep the reader guessing--and Benedict did this pretty successfully--and that’s not easy. This book had great potential, and I still would like to read her latest book, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts (although if she reads this, she may write and ask me not to, or at least to keep my mouth shut). I feel here like she must have had a book with so much going on, she and her editor ended up doing the best they could. Then again, as I said at the beginning, I’m not the target audience, not a person who usually reads thrillers, so the fault could be mine. I may be too blind to the conventions, or simply not understand what the audience wants.

*image from

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

9 for '09 Challenge: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

My first pick for the 9 for ‘09 challenge was in the category Long, which had to be a book longer than the books one usually reads, and for that I chose Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I remember very well reading the review of this in the New York Times and thinking it sounded intriguing--although not for me. My mother-in-law was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series, so when I saw the headline “Hogwarts for Grown-Ups,” I scribbled down the title and resolved to give this to her as a Christmas present, which I did. And I never heard a word about it until she handed it back to me two years later, in a shopping bag full of books she thought I might want to read. Well.

Now, I myself have no basis for comparison, because--brace yourself--I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter books. Yes. It’s true. About eleven people in the Western world have not read the Harry Potter books, and I am one of them. I resisted them at first because they were too popular (Have I talked about that yet--about how I’ll avoid something just because it’s popular?), and now I resist them because my TBR list is already too long and the commitment seems too daunting. And because they’re still popular, and I am stubborn. I’ve seen the movies, but movies aren’t books, so I’m not going to spend any time comparing the two.

Where was I? Oh, the book!

Giving a summary of this tome seems next to impossible, but I’ll try:

The first part of the book is dedicated to the introduction of Mr. Norrell. Some members of a Yorkshire society of theoretical magicians learn of a great library of rare magical books, all kept by Mr. Norrell. The theoretical magicians would like access to the library, but Mr. Norrell is reluctant. He makes a bet with them: if he can perform an act of practical magic--practical magic had disappeared from England hundreds of years before--then they will retire from their studies and cease to call themselves magicians. Mr. Norrell is successful, and all of the magicians save one are forced to retire. Upon Mr. Norrell's success, he determines he should go to London, and we learn that Mr. Norrell hopes to use magic to curry favor with the government, and also to help them end the war against France.

Upon arriving in London, although Mr. Norrell is welcomed by society (although they find him rather dull and are disappointed that he refuses to perform any tricks), he finds that the government wants no part of what he has to offer--until, that is, he is able to resurrect the fiancee of a powerful man, Sir Walter Pole. The problem: upon resurrecting the future Lady Pole, he calls forth an evil faerie, the man with the thistle down hair, and is forced to make a bargain with him for Lady Pole’s life. Mr. Norrell offers the faerie half of the next seventy-five years of Lady Pole’s life (assuming that Sir Pole will have passed by then, as he’s quite a bit older than Lady Pole). The faerie agrees, but what Mr. Norrell does not know is that the faerie places her under an enchantment to take her nights (as his half), leaving her like the walking dead during the day.

In the meantime, Mr. Norrell has great success helping the British defeat the French, and all of England celebrates him as a hero. Mr. Norrell, however, finds himself with a real conundrum on his hands, because with every successful magic act he performs, the more curious people become about magic itself, including the practice of magic. Nothing frightens Mr. Norrell more than the idea of other people besides himself--with one exception--practicing magic, because he believes people are incapable of controlling the outcome.

The exception, of course, is Jonathan Strange, who, on his way to propose marriage to his beloved, is stopped along his journey by a man named Vinculus (a shadowy street magician cast out of London by Mr. Norrell) who prophesies that Strange will be one of two great magicians in England:
“Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
“The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”
Vinculus also gives Strange two spells, and that very evening Strange performs one of them, “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently,” which conjures for him an image of Mr. Norrell:
Well, Henry, you can cease frowning at me. If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.
The second part of the book deals with Strange and his wife, Arabella, moving to London so that Strange can study with Mr. Norrell. Strange’s comment about having conjured a banker sets up the difference between these two, because Strange is more charismatic, more curious and eager to perform spells than simply to study them, as Mr. Norrell does. But this section also sets up the relationship, because Mr. Norrell is eager to have someone with whom he can discuss and share magic. Even without all the fundamental texts--Mr. Norrell keeps the choicest selections of his library at his Yorkshire estate, and never lets Strange see it voluntarily--Strange proves to be a better, more adventurous magician, as we learn as he travels with the British army as they work to defeat Napoleon. He becomes more and more independent of Mr. Norrell, and eventually, he decides to part, for they disagree over one fundamental aspect of English magic and its practice, and that is the summoning of the last King of the North (the "human" King of England ruled the South, or the area around London), a Faerie king named John Uskglass, who was said to have control of all the realms of the world, of Faerie, and even of Hell. Strange believes that they can uncover the spells and the origins of magic by this summons, and Mr. Norrell believes it to be too dangerous, which is the crux of the entire book.

The third part of the book is called “John Uskglass,” and it deals primarily with Strange working to call forth John Uskglass as a means to release Arabella from the same faerie enchantment that grips Lady Pole. I’m oversimplifying this part because it contains all the answers, and only as events unfold does it become clear who is performing what magic and why. Of course I cannot give away the ending, but nothing is revealed until the very last few pages, and Clarke does a terrific job of keeping up the pace, of keeping the reader guessing. Many other characters play a part--a large part, even, but they are too numerous to list here, their stories too involved to tell. Clarke also provides generous footnotes to educate us about the “history” of English magic, and these are both necessary and as interesting as the story they support.

This is a terrifically enjoyable book, and I had a great time reading it. The language is wonderful, and the detail is stunning. Some reviewers seemed to think all the detail detracted from the action (Janet Maslin described it as “[both] action packed and unhurried”), and here I have to disagree. I think the “get to the action already” attitude is a modern one. While I assume that Ms. Maslin would make allowances for “old” books, her annoyance stems mainly from the fact that this is a modern author, but she’s not doing a modern author’s “thing.” In other words, she hasn’t written something literary that could be easily adapted into a screenplay, without having to cut too much of the story. I think it would be next to impossible to make this into a film (although apparently they are trying, and perhaps I‘ll stand corrected), but I also think it would be completely unnecessary to do so: something about the way Clarke tells the story makes it completely visible to the mind’s eye. Her descriptions of places and people are so straightforward that they both reveal the scene and allow the mind to dress it up a bit, as it likes.

Also (and here’s where I geek out completely), I loved the tension between Norrell and Strange, because it reminded me of Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed that writing should not be taught, that people could only do more harm than good for themselves by practicing it, that it could lead them morally astray. Aristotle believed writing was a tool, that poetics (drama) and rhetoric were necessary for man to understand and live life. I’ve no idea if Clarke intended this parallel, but it stuck with me throughout the book.

Finally, even though the book deals with magic and some sections are rather dark, only one part really scared the pants off me. It was the very last sentence on the next to the last page: “This is her first novel.” Terrifying. I can’t wait to see what she does with the next one!

Read an interview with Susanna Clarke here.

*book image from

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ten Random Tunes 02.24.09

Still working out player issues. If anyone has suggestions, please leave a comment or contact me at the email address listed in the sidebar.

“Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix. Experience Hendrix - The Best of Jimi Hendrix. This is a track I actually own already (on Are You Experienced?), but I bought it as part of a playlist created by Patti Smith. Other people’s playlists are fascinating to me because I like, well, to hear through other people’s ears, to hear how they connect the songs, and what the elements are. It gives me an aural “vision” of the person’s world and outlook.

“Not Even Jail,” Interpol. Antics. My favorite song on this album. I love this album. I don’t care about any of the criticism I’ve heard about how they’re trying to be Joy Division or blah blah. I like Joy Division, too, but I can only take so much, whereas I can listen to this over and over again.

“Farewell to Earnest” (From Merchant Ivory’s Film “The Householder"), Jyotirindra Moitra & Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. The Darjeeling Limited Soundtrack. Has anyone ever seen The Householder? They have it at Netflix. It was released in 1963, apparently. I feel dumb, because to me, Merchant Ivory films entered my consciousness with Passage to India. I had no idea.

“Where Do You Go to (My Lovely),” Peter Sarsdedt. The Darjeeling Limited Soundtrack. This is one of my very favorite movies, and one of the ways I knew was this song, which plays during "The Hotel Chevalier," the “prequel” to The Darjeeling Limited. I love the literary feel of this movie, the three brothers, and all the colors of India.

“Vampira,” Misfits. Walk among Us. “Come a little bit closer…” This album gives me so much energy, I like to listen to it when I run on the treadmill. I hate running, but this makes it go by faster.

“Walk You Home,” Super Furry Animals. Love Kraft. I have no idea where I got this song. Probably off another playlist years ago. It’s kinda lounge-y, kind of modern 70s fern bar music, at brunch with a bloody mary, after Saturday night at the disco. Where’s my eggs benedict?

“Close to Me,” The Cure. Standing on A Beach: The Singles. Speaking of soundtracks and such, I’ve always thought this song would be perfect for a movie ending. Maybe not as perfect as the next song, but I’d have to see the movie first.

“Just Like Honey,” Jesus & Mary Chain. Lost in Translation Soundtrack. Tokyo is in my top three places I want to see. Sofia Coppola must have done wonders for tourism, because the movie is so beautiful. I actually just like to look at the city’s night sky on the DVD menu. This song sets the perfect tone, the melancholy feeling of leaving some extraordinary place to go back to ordinary life.

“Freaky Styley,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Freaky Styley. This reminds me of college, of crushes on guys on skateboards, of going to see this band at Club Clearview (In Dallas. In March, 1989. Wow.) and having the crowd dancing and moving so much, the stage was bouncing. I also remember thinking back then that I got more information about what was inside men’s heads from listening to this band than from any article in a woman’s magazine. After all, the refrain is “I f#%k ‘em just to see the look on their face…”

“Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes. The Ultimate Collection: Diana Ross & The Supremes. Oh, Miss Ross. Could this be a more perfect juxtaposition to the last song? Baby, where did our love go? Well. Oh, folks, I’m not that cynical. I have the greatest husband in the world. But you could do a mash-up of these two songs and have a Sex And The City episode…of course, it might be Samantha singing “Freaky Styley,” and not one of the guys. Ha!

*images from

Monday, February 23, 2009

Catching Up

Today I am working on my post about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I completed for the 9 for '09 challenge. I'll probably also spend some time looking at a terrific new (to me) blog about books and music that I found this morning: Largehearted Boy. It has a feature called Book Notes, where authors discuss music they associate with their books, as well as a section called Note Books, where musicians discuss books. How cool is that? A large chunk of my day just disappeared, I can already tell.

I'm also dedicating some time this week to read about and research the wonderful world of freelancing. I've got a couple of books, The Four Hour Work Week and My So-Called Freelance Life, that I hope to talk about next week.

In reading, I've moved onto Isabella Moon, and after that I'll be picking up Falling Leaves for the World Citizen challenge.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Salon: Favorite Books, vol. 1

When I dislike a book, even if I have plenty of reason to do so, I still feel bad about it. Last night I kept thinking about Goldengrove and whether I had been too harsh, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was having the same feeling I get when I watch a film with a favorite actor or actress and I realize that person is just phoning it in. Had Goldengrove been a first novel, I probably would have kept reading. Mind you, I would have continued to curse the editor, the agent, and everyone with whom the writer had shared the manuscript, but I would have understood the precariousness of the situation. With a seasoned writer like Francine Prose, I would think someone would tell her the book wasn’t up to snuff.

I’m not here to dwell on that, though. Instead I want to talk about my favorite books--or one of them, at least. Favorite books aren’t necessarily the best books, the classics, the books that make “must read” lists, or even best sellers. They’re books that speak to our own experience, that seem to be a response, maybe, to the voices in our own heads. They are like glasses we don that make our view of the world clearer, sharper. They tell us their secrets, and they hold ours.

One of my favorite books happens to be a first novel: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I remember, very distinctly, reading an interview with Tartt in Vanity Fair, just before the book was released. I was in my first semester of graduate school, and the notions I held regarding higher learning and teaching were as romantic as the notions Richard Papen, the book’s main character, has about Hampden College:
Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of little mission towns. For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with weak, academic light--different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known--a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence.
Never mind that I went to a state university only thirty miles from home, that its library was an ugly brick rectangle situated in the middle of campus. I shared offices with the other teaching fellows in the musty basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus, from a time when the school had been a state teachers college. It housed an auditorium with a large pipe organ, and when music students would come in to practice, I would feel as though I were in New England instead of Texas.

In The Secret History, Richard Papen looks back to tell the story of his time at Hampden, where he is drawn to an elite, exclusive group of students who study Greek. As they slowly warm to him and accept him into their ranks, he discovers they have a secret. This is a mystery of sorts, less about the murder that takes place on the first page than about love and longing, and wanting to belong. The first part of the book deals with Richard’s journey to Hampden, his involvement with the Greek students, and the acts that lead them to the murder. The second part of the book deals with the eventual unraveling of this tight-knit circle, as they struggle to conceal what they‘ve done.

Even as the horror of what they’ve done dawns on Richard, he remains so enthralled that even as he looks back to tell the story, his view of his friends remains gilded:
[I] have trouble reconciling my life to those of my friends, or at least to their lives as I perceive them to be. Charles and Camilla are orphans (how I longed for this harsh fate!) reared by grandmothers and great aunts in a house in Virginia: a childhood I like to think about, with horses and rivers and sweet-gum trees. And Francis. His mother, when she had him, was only seventeen…and, as Francis is fond of saying, the grandparents brought them up like brother and sister, him and his mother, brought them up in such magnanimous style that even the gossips were impressed--English nannies and private schools, summers in Switzerland, winters in France. Consider even bluff old bunny, if you would. Not a child of reefer coats and dancing lessons, any more than mine was. But an American childhood…an upbringing vitally present in bunny in every respect, from the way he shook your hand to the way he told a joke.

I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except the knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company.
Plot-wise, if Tartt were not so strictly in control of Richard’s character--his longing, his ambivalence--the events would seem implausible, but the characters are so well-drawn, and Richard’s vision is so clear that what happens seems not only possible but necessary. Almost everyone longs for exclusivity of some sort, to belong at the core of something, to be a part of a group that makes them more than the tiny individual soul suffering alone. This is the reason churches and political parties exist, why nationalism and patriotism are popular, why high school students become athletes and cheerleaders, why we spend our lives searching so hard for others with whom we identify.

The book definitely has its flaws, the main one being that the second part seems to slow to a crawl about halfway through, as the characters begin to break down, and there’s a jarring character development and event at the end that seems to package things up in a way that seems to go against the book’s sensibility. Still, as a whole, it works. Like Richard, I spent so much time as a child and a teenager wishing for a life far different from the one I had, and books always carried me away, let me be somewhere else for a while. Like Richard, I only wanted to be somewhere beautiful and to belong. I’m not sure anymore if I love this book because it reminds me of who I was at a particular time, of if I love it for itself. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

You can read the Vanity Fair interview (from September 1992) with Donna Tartt here.

More passages:
I honestly can't remember much else about those years except a certain mood that penetrated most of them, a melancholy feeling I associate with watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day--early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong--but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom.
It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside--airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the tables, on the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor...Everywhere I looked was something beautiful--Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels--a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.
I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loves to wander from the subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind in narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a qulaity of intelligence one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
We had so many happy days in the country that fall that from this vantage they merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. Around Halloween the last, stubborn wildflowers died away and the wind became sharp and gusty, blowing showers of yellow leaves on the gray, wrinkled surface of the lake. On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers.
*image from

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reader's Journal: Goldengrove

I very rarely abandon a book. Sometimes I will set a book down because I am distracted or not in the mood for it, but usually I have every intention of picking it up again. Abandoning a book, for me, is a deliberate and aggressive act. I do it because I feel like the author is wasting my time.

Goldengrove is the story of thirteen-year-old Nico, who loses her sister (she dies of a heart-attack in the first chapter) and then over the following summer becomes involved with her sister's boyfriend. Blah blah blah what it means to be a grown-up. Blah blah blah art and life. Blah blah blah things aren't what they seem...heartache shall ensue, as shall wisdom.

I abandoned Goldengrove at the end of the second chapter. I'm trying to keep in mind the rule set forth by Updike: "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt." Question: can I blame him (or her) for not achieving what he (or she) did attempt? Let's assume I can, because that will make things easier. The number one problem I have with this novel is the fact that Francine Prose has created a first-person narrator, a thirteen-year-old girl, and her voice is completely inauthentic. Apart from the fact that Prose has created the cliche "wiser-than-her-years" budding teenager, she's also given her a prop vocabulary. She's sure to throw in references to the Internet, to BlackBerries, to global warming, to yoga, to Goth. For real? It sounds like someone, you know, trying to be "hip to the kids." Just listen, as Nico stands outside the cemetary after her sister's burial:
Who'd drunk that Diet Coke? A mourner? A cemetary worker? Cheating couples? Goth nerds who haunted the graveyard for fun?
Yes, yes, Diet Coke: choice drink of cheating couples and "Goth nerds" everywhere. Even a young teenager knows that cheating couples would probably have been more likely to abandon a wine bottle than a Diet Coke can.

Goth nerds? I have a vision of Prose hiring a teenager to guide her through a mall and asking questions like, "And those kids, with the black clothes and black nail polish and the math textbooks and the tape on their glasses? What do you call them?" And on that note, how about a Red Bull can, or Mountain Dew? Oh, I know, I seem off the point here, because Nico's just wondering who it was who left the can (because she's trying to distract herself from the pain), but it just sounds so stilted and silly, I can't get past it.

After the funeral, Nico explains: "My parents worked it out so I could skip final exams and get the As I would have gotten anyway." Well. It's a good thing Nico doesn't seem one-dimensional, like one of those precocious stereotypes you see in movies. I'm sorry, but someone struggling to pass science or history is just more interesting. Making her a straight-A student just seems to be setting up one of those "summer I bloomed emotionally" stories, where the heart catches up with the head. I don't mind those stories, but only if the character has depth. I started thinking that maybe Prose--who apparently also writes YA--needed to read more Judy Blume, so she could get a sense of an authentic teen voice.

Oh, and the sister. The dead sister, the torch-singing seventeen year old, the great beauty with the flawed heart (literally--she dies of a heart attack), beloved of Aaron, master painter of the senior class:
Margaret was the singer, Aaron the artist. They were the glamour couple, their radiance outshone the feeble gleam of the football captain and his slutty cheerleader girlfriend.
Oh yes, teen painters are revered in high schools all across America. We care little for sports. Still, way to play to stereotypes, even by way of comparison. And mind you, Margaret is no Britney Spears. Oh no. She makes grown men cry by singing the classics, like "My Funny Valentine." And still, the kids love her too! Revere her! Not an eye rolling in the house. I find it kinda implausible, in case you can't tell.

Let me not forget to point out the terrific use of cliched metaphors: "One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse," or "I nodded like a bobble-head doll." Bobble-head doll! The kids love those!

But the part that made me finally just close the book and give up entirely was this:
One thing I would never tell them was that Margaret's last words were 'Smoke this.' That was her special present for me, the hair shirt she'd left me to wear until time and age and forgetfulness laundered it into something softer.
Yes. Done in by the image of the laundered hair shirt. Until Downey breaks it down, she carries the burden that she mentioned to her fabulous sister with the heart problem that she shouldn't smoke. Don't get me wrong. Writing is difficult. But if Prose dragged this into an undergraduate writing workshop, she would probably be called out. One wonders why or how the bar lowers just because someone's a recognized name, a published writer. She should fire her editor.

If you want to read a good coming-of-age story about two sisters, I'd suggest The Invisible Circus, by Jennifer Egan.

*image from

Friday, February 20, 2009

Miller Harris Fleur Oriental

Today, for the first time in well over a week, I put on makeup and fixed my hair. Not to say I’ve been a complete slob, in my unemployed state: I shower daily, I wash and brush all the necessary parts and pieces. And it just so happens I love makeup. Even though I don’t pile it on, I love even the slightest transformative power it has: a shimmer here, a gloss there, a bit of color to liven things up. If I don’t wear it, it’s either because I’m too lazy to take it off, or because I want to be invisible. Lately, I don’t wear makeup due to the latter, for I don’t feel unemployed so much as untethered. Every morning I wake up and think not, “What am I going to do?” but “What am I going to be?”

I realize that’s a bit deep for a perfume post, and all that is just to say, today I felt like being seen. I’m not any closer to having an answer, but I can feel the little gears whirring away in the back of my brain, running through the possibilities, calculating and tallying all the options, and it gives me hope. So today, makeup. Makeup and perfume.

The notes in Miller Harris Fleur Oriental are carnation, Turkish rose, Indian jasmine, amber, vanilla, sweet musk, heliotrope, orange flower. This is a soft, powdery oriental, perfect for a cold February day. The carnation lends it a bit of spice, but I find that the heliotrope and vanilla tend to dominate. Upon applying this, I was reminded immediately of Guerlain’s Shalimar, although I think Fleur Oriental is a bit more timid, less sensuous without the Guerlainade underneath. It has a faint whiff of a lady’s handkerchief, the smell of something distant, like spring. Maybe timid is a bad word, because to me Fleur Oriental has the quality of one of my favorite Miller Harris perfumes, L’Air de Rien. I think maybe melancholy is a better word. Melancholy and lovely. Like these days.

You can find Miller Harris perfumes at Luckyscent.

*image from

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reader's Journal: Delicate Edible Birds

Several years ago, bookstore shelves suddenly seemed crammed full of story collections about twenty- and thirty-something mini-skirted women who were unable to love, unable to hold down a job, unable to commit, unable to lose weight, unable to find a boyfriend. After tearing through four or five of these collections--all interchangeable, really--I found myself unable to read anymore. The characters in these books were little more than overwrought, angst-ridden, boozy versions of the girls on Friends, and at some point I wondered if book publishers were starting to suffer from the same disease as record labels, the disease where they find one band or album that’s a hit, and then try to recreate it, over and over again. This formula works well for creating popular books that sell, but probably does not work so well for supporting art.

What a shame, then, for Lauren Groff, because Delicate Edible Birds is art. The nine stories in this collection all focus on women at different stages in their lives, at different points in history, even in different countries. These stories read like tiny novels, self-contained worlds, even as ideas bounce and echo between them, so that the collection as a whole reads as a sort of palimpsest, a complicated history of women’s experiences that transcends both the personal (or domestic) and the political and enters a sort of nether region: these stories read more like allegories or fairy tales--an element Groff relies upon heavily--than traditional short stories. Groff reminds me of another favorite writer of mine, Margaret Atwood. As in Atwood’s work, there always seem to be darker forces at play, bits of magic shaping fortune.

If I did not have to return this book to the library, I would keep it and read it again, probably more than once, because I can find no way to come at it head on. This collection is like some complicated piece of furniture from the Eighteenth century: it looks like a table, but flip that lever and up pops a set of shelves, some drawers. Open the drawers or pull another lever and find more drawers, little slots, secret removable boxes. It’s both wondrous and infuriating, because I feel as though I’ve taken it all apart, but I have no way to put it back together again so I can show it to you.

So I’ll talk a bit about the stories. Although I enjoyed almost every story in the book and would like to talk about all of them, I’ve picked a few: “Lucky Chow Fun,” “Majorette,” “Sir Fleeting,” and “Blythe.”

In “Lucky Chow Fun,” a young woman, Lollie, looks back to tell the story of a sex scandal that gripped the small town where she grew up; “The year,” as she puts it, “we natives stopped looking one another in the eye.” Like a lot of teenagers, Lollie believes herself to be wise beyond her years: “I imagined myself a beautiful Cassandra, wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophecies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them to come tragically true in the end.” In truth, Lollie is always looking in the wrong direction, imagining danger when there is none, and missing the most obvious signs. For example, her younger sister, Pot, owns an ever-expanding collection of taxidermied birds, but Lollie never stops to wonder how Pot--a fourth grader with no friends to speak of--is adding items to her collection with such regularity, even as she worries that Pot will be abducted or raped by someone in the woods. And at the Lucky Chow Fun, the Chinese restaurant at the core of the scandal, she thinks only of the greasy food and whether one of the boys on the diving team will ask her to the winter dance, missing altogether the signs of what’s really happening.

After the town scandal breaks, Lollie tells her mother, “ ’…I don’t think people are made to take truths straight-on, Mom. It’s too hard. You need something to soften them. A metaphor or a story or something.” Lollie is the person who needs the fairy tales, the folklore, and the myths. She cannot face the truth of her father leaving, of what happened to her town, even as she looks back as an adult to tell the story.

“Majorette,” my favorite story in the collection, outlines the life of a woman from birth into middle age. Such a simple thing, it seems, a life where nothing spectacular happens: siblings arrive; parents drink and fight; girl discovers a dream, dates, stops dating, studies, twirls, goes to college, meets a boy--meets the boy--marries, has children of her own. Everything about this girl--she has no name--is in the details, the moments Groff chooses to frame, from the banal to the resplendent:
“On Saturdays the girl pushed the littlest three in the swings at the park when her mother was in the church basement, waiting for a boxful of dented cans and dandruffy cake mixes. At home, there were endless projects, her mother bent over the sewing machine crafting trousers out of curtains, remaking some little Anabaptist’s dress into something the girl wouldn’t hate, perhaps even a skirt the other girls would finger with envy, wondering what boutique it was from.”
“She took that hollow ringing in her and twirled it away, twirled in the basement in the foulest weather, when her hands stuck to the metal in the cold and she could not practice on the lawn. In her bed at night, her fingers flicked imaginary batons in the air. She sent batons spinning up like whirligigs into the night sky, batons flipping around her body like ions to her atom, batons spinning about her like glittering wings. She twirled through her legs and over her body as if her batons were her very own limbs.”
“Sir Fleeting” tells the story of a woman’s involvement with a rich playboy throughout the course of her life. The woman--we never know her name, only the playboy’s moniker for her, la bergere, or the shepherdess--meets Ancel de Chair on her honeymoon with her first husband in Buenos Aires. She says of her husband: “I knew my husband, knew he had always congratulated himself for seeing the allure of a farm girl he thought other men would overlook.” But the truth is, throughout the story, even through her second and third husbands, after she has dropped weight and gained money, after several--if you will, fleeting--encounters with Ancel de Chair, after she finds herself in a high rise apartment with a respectable art collection, preparing for her granddaughter’s wedding, she still thinks of herself as the farm girl, and it is her final visit with Ancel de Chair that releases her from the spell, enables her to see herself as she really was, really is.

My least favorite story in the collection was “Blythe,” and I admit this is probably because the sort of dysfunction on display in this story holds no interest for me in life or on the page. In this story, Harriet, a lawyer-turned-housewife, attends a poetry workshop where she meets a fellow student, Blythe, and is swept up into a tumultuous friendship. Blythe resembles some sort of Anne Sexton feminist** nightmare: smoking, drinking, pill-popping, plagued by anorexia. She becomes a performance artist, in a very Cixousian “write the body write the blood” sort of way, and as she develops and performs her pieces, alienating her husband and her children, growing ever more uncontrollable, Harriet trails along behind her, picking up the pieces and putting them back together again, sublimating her own wishes to write for the sake of her friend, which she explains as "midwifery":
“I admired how Blythe used her body, the shock of her, there was too much Milton and Frost in me for my own stabs at such dramatics to be anything but undignified. While Blythe created new pieces at a fevered pitch throughout the summer and fall, I wrote of gardening and politics, of sense and memory, of things safely domestic. I saved the secret thrill of transgression for Blythe’s work, proud to help her birth her strange little creatures, because it was midwifery. I was the one to contact the galleries, to drive Blythe to the theaters, to call the press, to organize. I was the woman behind the camera for the videos of her performances, Blythe’s very first audience. All the while I scribbled poem after poem in the ragged notebooks I salvaged at the end of my daughters’ school year, and only dared show Blythe the best.”
She’s like a stage mother of the damned. Of course, I didn’t skip a page. The writing was too good, and the whole time I was reading these stories, I worried that I might miss something. I’m sure there are drawers I didn’t open, knobs I missed, buttons and levers overlooked. Read this yourself, and see if you can uncover all the secrets, scrape away the layers, find the magic.

*image from
**I have nothing against Anne Sexton, by the way, or feminism

TBR List 02.19.09

Time for more items from the TBR list, three fiction picks this week. Feel free to comment if you’ve read one of these and want to recommend it (or dissuade me). And, of course, feel free to add to your own list. I’m here to serve.

Dear Everybody, by Michael Kimball. From the author’s site: “Jonathon Bender had something to say, but the world wouldn’t listen. That’s why he writes letters to everybody he has ever known—including his mother and father, his brother and other relatives, his childhood friends and neighbors, the Tooth Fairy, his classmates and teachers, his psychiatrists, his ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife, the state of Michigan, a television station, and a weather satellite. Taken together, these unsent letters tell the remarkable story of Jonathon’s life.”

The description makes me think of The Stone Diaries, which wasn’t an epistolary novel, but still dealt with a character (a wonderful unreliable narrator) in charge of shaping her own story. Do you ever wish you could see the old letters and notes you wrote to people? Do you wonder if you really were the same person then that you are now? The idea of character through correspondence or diaries always gets my attention. The only epistolary novel I’ve picked up recently--We Need to Talk about Kevin--I was unable to finish. I wished I could have written “Return to Sender” on the book and put it in the mail. That’s not fair to say without a complete discussion, I suppose, but it’s my gut reaction. Feel free to try and change my mind. I like to give books a second chance most of the time.

You can watch the trailer for Dear Everybody here. Am I the only person who finds trailers for books a little bit strange? I’m an excerpt kind of person. I like to get a sense of the writing. I’m not going to “watch” the book, and I also don’t want any associations with other things, like voices or pictures, because it drives my impression. Seriously, am I weird? About this, I mean?

Servants of The Map, by Andrea Barrett. Synopsis: “Ranging across two centuries, and from the western Himalaya to an Adirondack village, these wonderfully imagined stories and novellas travel the territories of yearning and awakening, of loss and unexpected discovery. A mapper of the highest mountain peaks realizes his true obsession. A young woman afire with scientific curiosity must come to terms with a romantic fantasy. Brothers and sisters, torn apart at an early age, are beset by dreams of reunion.
Throughout, Barrett's most characteristic theme — the happenings in that borderland between science and desire — unfolds in the diverse lives of unforgettable human beings. Although each richly layered tale stands independently, readers of Ship Fever (National Book Award winner) and Barrett's extraordinary novel The Voyage of the Narwhal, will discover subtle links both among these new stories and to characters in the earlier works.”

Ever since I read Ship Fever, I’ve been meaning to pick up another Andrea Barrett book. This is another collection of stories, but I’d also like to read one of her novels. I love the way she blends science and history into the narrative. I’ll post about Ship Fever sometime, but just for the moment, I want to complain about the W.W. Norton site. If I were an author, I don’t think I’d be too happy, because A) it looks like the person in charge of the site gave this project to their seventh-grade kid who was trying to learn HTML; and B) it contains no excerpts or author interviews. I cannot think of a better way to promote a book--even if it wasn’t recently published--than excerpts. Get people hooked on prose! Books cannot survive by synopses alone!

Read a great interview with Andrea Barrett here.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald. review (the publisher’s synopsis is terrible): “[The Blue Flower] is the story of Friedrich von Hardenberg--Fritz, to his intimates--a young man of the late 18th century who is destined to become one of Germany's great romantic poets. In just over 200 pages, Fitzgerald creates a complete world of family, friends and lovers, but also an exhilarating evocation of the romantic era in all its political turmoil, intellectual voracity, and moral ambiguity. A profound exploration of genius, The Blue Flower is also a charming, wry, and witty look at domestic life. Fritz's family--his eccentric father and high-strung mother; his loving sister, Sidonie; and brothers Erasmus, Karl, and the preternaturally intelligent baby of the family, referred to always as the Bernhard--are limned in deft, sure strokes, and it is in his interactions with them that the ephemeral quality of genius becomes most tangible. Even his unlikely love affair with young Sophie von Kühn makes perfect sense as Penelope Fitzgerald imagines it.

The Blue Flower
is a magical book--funny, sad, and deeply moving. In Fritz Fitzgerald has discovered a perfect character through whom to explore the meaning of love, poetry, life, and loss. In The Blue Flower readers will find a work of fine prose, fierce intelligence, and perceptive characterization.”

I’m pretty sure I found this book through an interview with another author, but for the life of me I cannot remember out who it was. Something the author said about it must have attracted me, because it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I would pick up without a recommendation. I love the fact that Fitzgerald didn’t get started on her writing career until she was 59 years old. That gives me hope for all us late bloomers out there.

Read the archived New York Times review here.
Read a fun article on late bloomers here.

*images from

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Just Pay The Ten Cents

Hello All. I know I promised a review of Delicate Edible Birds today, but due to some interruptions yesterday (welcome) and this morning (unwelcome), I did not finish the book until this afternoon, and I need more time to gather my thoughts. Library late fees be damned! After all, the book deserves it! Let that be hint. Have a lovely evening!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ten Random Tunes 02.17.09

I'm trying out some new MP3 players so you can hear the songs. This player may not work if you're using Google Chrome or IE. Try Firefox! I'll keep troubleshooting.

“Crossed Paths,” Arto Lindsay/Caludio Ragazzi. Next Stop Wonderland Soundtrack. First, this is a wonderful collection of Latin music. I remember going to see this movie in the theater. I wanted to be Hope Davis, in her amazing Boston apartment, being all sad and literary and wearing brown lipstick (the 90s!), searching for words in poems that would crack open the future. Have a listen:

“Discotheque,” U2. Pop. I am pretty sure I’m one of five people who love this album. In fact, it’s my second favorite U2 album, right behind Achtung Baby. I thought it was an interesting departure, and I admire U2 for not just putting out version after version of The Joshua Tree.

“Deep,” Pearl Jam. Ten. I can’t get over the fact that this album is almost twenty years old. Sometime around 1998 I grew tired of Pearl Jam, but lately I find myself going back to No Code and earlier albums and remembering how great they were. Just a note to radio DJs everywhere: “Daughter” and “Can’t Find A Better Man” are not the only Pearl Jam songs out there. Thanks.

“Silver,” Pixies. Doolittle. I swear, I have bought music since the 1990s. Remember the other day when I said I could never remember my favorite things when asked? Let’s just put it on record: The Pixies are one of my favorite bands.

“The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon & Garfunkel. Garden State Soundtrack. I swear, my iTunes thinks the only music in my library is Beck and this soundtrack. I let this one play because it’s Simon & Garfunkel, whom I saw at the Cotton Bowl in August 1983, drenched in the rain from Hurricane Alicia. Paul Simon had just married Carrie Fisher, and he brought her out on stage to wave at the crowd. Princess Leia! Oh yes.

“Invisible City,” The Wallflowers. Bringing Down The Horse. Jacob Dylan is not his father, but he does a fine job of being himself. “The imitation of good faith, is how you stumble upon hate…”

“Pouring Rain,” Fishbone. Truth and Soul. If I had a soundtrack for my college years, Fishbone would feature on it more than most. This is a pretty, sad, sad song: “He had one foot in the gutter/Another on dry land/ His ship had sailed without him/ Across life’s burning sands/He cried out in the distance/ And non one, no one heard a word…“ Back then it made me think of inequality and injustice. Now it makes me angry that things never seem to get any better. But maybe they still will. I have hope. They sing it better than I do:

“Man in A Suitcase,” The Police. Zenyatta Mondatta. In middle school I had a friend who went nuts for Duran Duran in general, and John Taylor in particular. She bought every magazine and cut out every picture she could find, even teeny tiny ones from ads in the back of the magazine, and these would float out of her scrapbooks like confetti. Her walls were covered with posters. Me? I had two posters in my room in high school only: one of The Police, and one of Sting. Zenyatta Mondatta is my favorite Police album, and they were another band I got to see, in 1983. Good grief. Fourteen was a good age for music.

“Try A Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding. The Otis Redding Story. For my generation, this song will always evoke Jon Cryer serenading Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. My grown-up self now sees that Ducky should have been the man, but in all honesty, no one could beat James Spader. Sorry. Andrew who?

“I Don’t Want to Know,” Fleetwood Mac. Rumours. Sorry. Can’t type anymore. Have to sing: “I don’t want to know the reasons why love keeps/Right on walking on down the li-ine…”

*images from

Monday, February 16, 2009

Repeat Performance

This post, "The Promiscuous Reader," originally "aired" here on March 22, 2008. I'm almost through Delicate Edible Birds, so look for thoughts on that Wednesday of this week.

How many of you out there are promiscuous readers?

Not sure what I mean by that? Let's say you go to the bookstore or to your favorite online bookseller, and you carefully select four or five books that you've had on your wish list for a while. As you're driving home with your books, or as you're waiting daily for the books to be delivered, you develop a plan. You know, for example, exactly which book you will read first, and it makes your heart pound just to think about it.

When you arrive home with your books, or when they are finally delivered to your door, you plan the best time to read, a time when you know you'll have minimal interruptions for the longest possible stretch of time. If you're the impatient type, like me, you may flip through several of the books and read the first few pages. But "the chosen one" remains in its virgin state, spine uncracked, until the appointed hour.

Finally, the moment arrives. You're in your favorite chair, or propped up with pillows in some cozy reading spot. You have the right lighting; you have a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of wine or a Diet Coke. You open the book. You read the dedication and acknowledgments, just to make that divine suspense last a leeetle bit longer, and then: There it is. The first page.

As you settle in and start to read, you think to yourself, "This is so exciting. I'm finally reading this book! The use of language...oh, that phrase there! That dialogue!" But in the back of your mind, something else is happening. You notice that your enthusiasm feels forced. You keep reading and hope it will begin to feel more natural. After all, haven't you been waiting for this moment for hours, days, or weeks on end? Didn't you picture how great it would be a thousand times over when you finally settled in and started to read, how you would be carried away, forgetting work and chores and all the troubles of the world for a few hours?

You keep reading, but the more you read, the more conscious you become of a most disturbing fact: You're faking it. Sure, you're looking at the words and turning the pages, but be honest. You're not really present. And why is that?

Because you're thinking about another book, that's why. You might even be thinking about several books, or a whole other genre. "This book is so serious," you say. "Beautifully written. Amazing. But maybe I need something lighter. I had such a long day at work, and I just need something to help boost my mood." Maybe you're reading a novel and you realize you're more in the mood for short stories. Maybe you're reading fiction but you also bought a couple of new biographies you've been wanting to dig in to for a couple of weeks. Or maybe, just maybe, you got a new copy of your favorite magazine in the mail that day, and you can hear it calling to you from the coffee table.

You put your bookmark (always use a bookmark, people!) in the book to keep your place and set it down. You tell yourself you'll come back to it tomorrow, or on the weekend, or next week when you're off for a few days and have more time. Then you start the search. You go through your TBR pile, your bookshelves full of things you've already read, your magazines. You think it's only going to be this one time, but it continues for days, weeks, this restlessness.

You cannot commit to a book. The book you thought you wanted sits untouched where you left it, gathering dust. All over the house are books you've picked up and discarded, bookmarks noting the exact moment you abandoned them. You think maybe you should just stop reading for a while. You should watch movies or television. You should listen to books on your iPod. You should go for a run, clean out your closet, wash your car, or repaint the house.

As you go on distracting yourself in any number of ways, something happens. One day, a book pops into your head. Maybe you hear someone else mention it, and like a word or song that suddenly seems to be everywhere, it's constantly on your mind. It makes you a bit nervous and concerned. What if it happens again? What if you pull the book down from the shelf, or make a special trip to the bookstore ("If they have a copy, I was meant to read it now," you think.) to buy it, and the same thing happens? You get so far, and then you start thinking about other books? You wait, but eventually you decide to throw caution to the wind. Maybe you and the book can make a go of it. Maybe this time will be different.

Oh, sweet relief when it works! The book is just the thing you needed! You read and read it; you think about what will happen next when you're away from it. You recall your favorite scenes during boring meetings, think about especially well-turned phrases in chapter fifteen as you drive. You finish the book, and you can practically hear the Rocky theme song playing as you snap the book shut after the final page. You did it! You finished a book! You are back on your game! Things will be different now! You will pick up other books and read them in full. You will be committed and serious. You will not cheat.

Okay, so, I've been using "you," but I suppose you all know: I'm talking about myself. Perhaps you've noticed the Winesburg, Ohio image that's been in the sidebar for--oh, I don't know--a month? Six weeks? I haven't changed it because at certain points it would have meant changing it almost daily. Here's a list of books I've started and stopped in the meantime: Conversations with Woody Allen, The Emporer's Children (Claire Messud), Away (Amy Bloom), Quakertown (Lee Martin), Jenny and the Jaws of Life (Jincy Willett), Rare and Endangered Species (Richard Bausch), Remembering Ray (essays about the late, great Raymond Carver), two current issues of Real Simple and Domino, plus several back issues, and Getting Things Done, for work, by David Allen. I've also listened to Selected Shorts on my iPod, short story readings that go on at Symphony Space in New York, and I've actually listened to Ron Carlson's "Towel Season" and John Updike's "Walk with Elizanne" repeatedly. I also got addicted to Project Runway, but as soon as it ended...well, let's just say it was difficult, and I seriously considered renting the first three seasons.

The book that finally broke the spell for me, as you probably know because of the image on the post, was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read this when it was first released, as a "summer read," and I remember being surprised at how good it was, how solid and non-chick-lit it seemed. I've always meant to re-read it, and a week ago I decided to give it a shot. I had nothing to lose (as long as I ignored my ever-growing TBR pile). And I'm happy to say I'm finding it quite good the second time around, and I'm almost finished with it.


*image from

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Salon: I’m Reading As Fast As I Can!

Today I had hoped to talk about some of my favorite novels, but between Valentine’s Day and home improvement projects, I couldn’t pull it together in time. For me, compiling lists of favorite anything is difficult. When people ask me about favorite books or movies or bands, I typically draw a blank. Every title of every book I’ve read or movie I've seen, every name of every band I’ve heard, recedes like the taillights on a speeding car, and I end up saying something like “Nancy Drew” or “The Turtles.” Um, yeah. Still, because I’m new to Sunday Salon, I thought it would be a fun “getting to know you” post. I’ll try again next week. If you see Nancy Drew in the list, you’ll know I panicked. (Not that I don’t love Nancy! I do!)

A small progress report: I have 130 pages left to read of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, my first book for the 9 for ‘09 challenge, and I’ll be posting my thoughts later in the week. Wednesday I have to return Delicate Edible Birds to the library so I’ll finish and post thoughts on that as well.

Most likely I’ll choose something for the World Citizen challenge next--I’m thinking Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah--so I get a good balance. I am amazed, looking at other people’s blogs, how far along some people are on these challenges. Of course, I’m only doing two (three, if you count trying to keep up with Andrew’s Book Club), so I suppose I have the leisure of spacing things out over the year, which is a fine because I have three other books to get through before I start the next challenge book. Taking books out of the library forces me to read the books I bring home instead of just putting them all over the house, so I’ll be reading:

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose. I enjoyed Blue Angel, so when this was released last year, I added it to my list. Goldengrove is a coming-of-age story about a girl dealing with the recent death of her sister. You can read the first chapter here, and you can read a review here.

Isabella Moon, by Laura Benedict. Long story short: I found Laura Benedict’s blog Notes from The Handbasket through another blog I read called The Swivet. I liked her personality, so when it turned out she was a writer, I put her books on my TBR list. Also turned out that Laura happens to be a friend of one of my very best friends, Michelle. Small world! Isabella Moon is a thriller about a woman with a secret past and how her arrival in a small Kentucky town unravels the mystery of a nine-year-old girl's death--and unlocks some of the town's darkest secrets. You can read an excerpt here.

The Pact, by Jodi Picoult. This is my book club read for March. Generally I stay away from these books because I hear they’re formulaic, taking popular controversial topics and spinning fictional stories around them with a twist. Law and Order has been doing this for well over a decade, so what the heck. The Pact deals with the always-fun topic of teen suicide. I’ve only read one other Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper (also for book club, and it was entertaining), so we’ll see how it goes. You can read an excerpt here.

Have a wonderful week, and happy reading!

*images from

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy [Valentine's] Day

For fun, head over to NPR's Monitor Mix blog and see what kind of Valentine's Day song you are, or what not to put on a mixtape for a loved one.

Or visit the Discover Magazine blog to view images of astronomical Valentine events. The image to the left here is the Mars Valentine Crater. Who knew Madison Avenue's power was so great?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lalique Le Parfum EDP

This is the time of year I get anxious for spring, especially when we have such beautiful weather. I know it's a cruel trick, the spring equivalent of an Indian summer, lulling us all into complacency with slight warmth, bright blue skies, buds on trees. 

I find it impossible to wear anything too heavy on days like these. Instead I want to use perfume like a spell to call forth more fine weather. Lalique Le Parfum serves nicely for this, the way it seems to mimic spring deepening into summer.

The notes in Le Parfum are:
Top: bergamot, bay leaves, red pepper
Heart: jasmine, heliotrope, almond
Base: patchouli, vanilla

The opening is pale green and tender, and before I saw the notes I thought for sure I detected lily of the valley. After the first few minutes, though, the juiciness of the bergamot peeks through, and the bay leaves keep the young spring feeling alive underneath. I must admit, my nose detects very little of the pepper. As it moves through the heart, the scent sweetens with the jasmine and heliotrope, but the green remains and this is less powdery than you might expect, what with heliotrope and almond. The base is deep and lovely, sweetening further but remaining fresh. Le Parfum starts off as the palest blush of pink and moves into a deep fuschia. It's quietly elegant, and if you stood near someone wearing it, you might be tempted to believe someone had left the window open to let the spring breeze blow through.

*image from

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Big Giveaway! BIG!

Random House has teamed up with Lisa at Books on the Brain to sponsor a giveaway celebrating 100K hits on her blog! To enter, head on over to her blog and leave a comment by Thursday, February 19. (And psst...if you have a blog and mention the giveaway, Lisa will give you three extra entries! That means four chances to win!)

The books are:
Welcome to The Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother by Meg Federico
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Gardens of Water by Alan Drew

Lisa has full descriptions and rules listed on her site. She'll have TWO grand-prize winners who'll receive a copy of each of the three books, and nine more winners who will each receive a copy of a single title. (I want American Wife, myself. Who am I kidding. I want them all.) Go! Go now!

And congratulations Lisa!

TBR List

Every time I venture out into the vast vastness that is the "internets," I manage to find something to add to my TBR list. Mind you, my list is different from my pile. (Does that sound icky? My pile?) My list contains books I want to read but have yet to acquire, whereas my pile consists of actual physical books in my possession that are, well, piled around the house. While I’ve made a firm agreement with myself not to add to the pile, I am free to add to the list as much as I please. I thought I’d share selections of this list with you, so either you can add items to your list, or so you can say things like, “I read that. It sucked.” Then I can make space on the list for something else. Or maybe you’ll say, “You must read that now!” and then I can get it from the library, because we all know library books can never be part of the TBR pile because you have to return them eventually. I love loopholes.

Without further ado, here are this week’s TBR list items:

Any Bitter Thing, by Monica Wood
Synopsis: “After surviving a near-fatal accident, thirty-year-old Lizzy Mitchell faces a long road to recovery. She remembers little about the days she spent in and out of consciousness, save for one thing: She saw her beloved deceased uncle, Father Mike, the man who raised her in the rectory of his Maine church until she was nine, at which time she was abruptly sent away to boarding school. Was Father Mike an angel, a messenger from the beyond, or something more corporeal? Though her troubled marriage and her broken body need tending, Lizzy knows she must uncover the details of her accident — and delve deep into events of twenty years before, when whispers and accusations forced a good man to give up the only family he had.”

It occurs to me that even as I’ve compiled a TBR list, I haven’t kept track of where I found these books. That might help me remember why I picked them, because I’m not sure what drew me to this one. I think I may have picked it because it has what sounds like a good story and also some suspense.

The Dart League King, by Keith Lee Morris
Synopsis: “An intriguing tale of darts, drugs, and death. Russell Harmon is the self-proclaimed king of his small-town Idaho dart league, but all is not well in his kingdom. In the midst of the league championship match, the intertwining stories of those gathered at the 411 club reveal Russell's dangerous debt to a local drug dealer, his teammate Tristan Mackey's involvement in the disappearance of a college student, and a love triangle with a former classmate. The characters in Keith Lee Morris's second novel struggle to find the balance between accepting and controlling their destinies, but their fates are threaded together more closely together than they realize.”

As a former league pool player (Oh yes. It was quite fun and I was actually good at it, so naturally I had to quit.), the framework of this novel intrigues me. You always hear that everyone has stories, and I used to find myself sitting in the pool hall, wondering about the people I saw once a week, both on my own team and on our competitors’ teams. Morris actually took the idea and did something with it. Imagine! You can read an excerpt here.

Comedy at The Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, by Richard Zoglin
Synopsis: “In the rock-and-roll 1970s, a new breed of comic, inspired by the fearless Lenny Bruce, made telling jokes an art form. Innovative comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Robert Klein, and, later, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Robin Williams, and Andy Kaufman, tore through the country and became as big as rock stars in an era when Saturday Night Live was the apotheosis of cool and the Improv, Catch a Rising Star, and the Comedy Store were the hottest clubs around.

In Comedy at the Edge, Richard Zoglin gives a backstage view of the time, when a group of brilliant, iconoclastic comedians ruled the world — and quite possibly changed it, too. Based on extensive interviews with club owners, agents, producers — and with unprecedented and unlimited access to the players themselves — Comedy at the Edge is a no-holds barred, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most influential and tumultuous decades in American popular culture.”

Back in 1986, between my junior and senior years of high school, I got the idea that someone--well, I--should write a book about Saturday Night Live and the impact it had on comedy in America. At that time, I still thought I would be a writer for Rolling Stone, you know, instead of a person who writes about books other people have actually written on thissere blog. I had this idea that Saturday Night Live was to comedy in the 1970s as Paris was to American fiction in the 1920s: it was the place all the talented people gathered to create. While this book is not exclusively about Saturday Night Live, it is about the growth of a comedy culture that made it possible.

So share if you like. Any opinions on these? Other suggestions?

*images from