Sunday, July 31, 2011

Here's to Borders 120

Once upon a time, just shortly before my life as a book blogger began, I sold books at Borders. If it had paid maybe even $4 more an hour, I'd be about to lose my job, too. Instead, I sat in the Boston bedroom that I was subletting for $500 a month and thought, "there's no way I can make it through the winter on this paycheck." So, I quit the best job I've yet to have and beat a path home to Pennsylvania to work as a soulless healthcare underling, but that's another story.

Borders 120 is the really big one with the perpetually malfunctioning up escalator at Downtown Crossing in Boston. The first time I saw it, I was on my way to a temp agency for my initial interview trying to find someplace to make a few bucks so I could keep making rent while I looked a for a "real" job. What better way for a booklover to soothe their pre-interview jitters than by perusing the bookshelves of, perhaps, the largest bookstore she'd ever laid eyes upon?

Life went on as scheduled. I got my first temp job, but I also applied for a job at that Borders. Before long I was having an interview with a guy named Alex who, of all the many interviewers I've faced in all my job hunting, was, oddly, the most intimidating because of the total lack of rhyme or reason to his interview. I left feeling like a moron, but within days I was blowing off my next shot at a temp job because I was about to start working at a bookstore, the biggest bookstore I'd ever seen. Within a month I was selling books, brewing Seattle's Best, and enjoying a 33% employee discount with the few extra dollars I could manage to save from things like food and housing.

I'll admit that this Borders has a warm, glowy spot in my memory, which is not to say it didn't face its share of problems. For one, if you've been there and seen the up escalator working, you're one of the few and the proud. For two, the homeless population was allowed to enjoy the same sitting around sipping coffee rights as everybody else which, while humane, was also stinky and sometimes a bit druggie and you wouldn't be feeling terribly benevolent about it while reshelving the 50 magazines a lady your fellow employees had christened "Smelly Nelly" had grabbed to keep her company for a long day on the mezzanine. For three, there were those few times with the front of store smelling like sewage and the elevator smelling like....okay, it wasn't an olfactory paradise. Okay, it wasn't probably wasn't paradise-y at all, but you'd be hard pressed to get me to believe it. It just had....personality. Yeah, that's what we'll call it.

It was, however, packed with books and music and intelligent well-read people with the passion and talent to sell them, who all had the sense of humor you needed to deal with the swarms of impatient business people, non english-speaking tourists, homeless folks, and the occasional outright scumbag that downtown Boston has to offer. This was a place where, if somebody came in looking for a yellow book about world leaders someone had profiled in the paper last week, someone would be able to help you find it. A place where it was so busy most days that if somebody said "excuse me" to you on the street while you were on your way home, you turned around ready to find them a book. A place where I spent a whole day doing nothing but ringing up copies of the last Harry Potter book for everybody in the city, or so it seemed. A place where if somebody came in looking for a periodical that your brain couldn't have imagined existed even in the most twisted of fever dreams, you could call out over the walkie talkie and one of ten guys named David could take you straight to it. A place where all the early employees went to lunch at the same time and could all sit in the break room for an hour and read our own books without speaking a word or spend the whole time talking about books or music or what was going on in pop culture regardless of the different backgrounds we were coming from.

It was a place that served as a waystation for people chasing bigger futures or earning a few extra bucks after their day jobs, it was a place where marriages started, it was a place where I made the most unlikely of friends, not the least of which was the guy they skeptically put me to work with making lattes on Saturday mornings. A guy who couldn't have been less like me, but who I literally had the best times with talking over political conspiracy theories while sampling out frozen drinks that didn't even exist on the menu.

In short, it was the place where I learned that even when the people around me were nothing like me, books made us into a creepy little family. My job at Borders made me appreciate all different kinds of people, all different kinds of books. I'll miss all the Borders stores, including the one closest to my hometown which will leave a huge hole in an already bookstore-light area, but there's a special spot in my heart for the old action-packed 120 and all the wacky characters that I came to know and enjoy when I was working there. Somehow, losing 120 isn't just losing a bookstore, it's the passing of an era.

Here's to you, Borders - you were great while you lasted. You gave me six months of a surreal dream job coming true, years of great book shopping, and a lifetime of appreciation for a diverse community of people who know that if you're not reading, you're not living.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Tackling Tough Issues

Well, it's been a while since I did my last Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish, so I was racking my brain to come up with 10 good issues novels to make a list for this week's "Books Tackling Tough Issues" topic. That got me nowhere, but eventually I remembered that non-fiction books are books, too (I know, I know, I'm sick okay? Cut me a break!), and it so happens that a fair few of my favorite non-fiction reads deal with some tough issues. Fear not, though, I didn't forget to include the few novels I scraped up for my list.

1. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta - This is the first book I thought of when I thought "issue" book. Perrotta tackles abstinence education in such a balanced way that you won't be able to help being pissed off regardless of which side you're on.

2. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir with this one. If you haven't read this YA about a girl dealing with her rape, you probably don't need me to tell you to because those other thousand people probably got to you first. But, you know, just in case.

3. Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. - Another YA, Dreamland tackles dating violence. It wasn't my favorite Dessen, but she handles the issue well.

4. Complications by Atul Gawande - The US healthcare system is an issue right? Gawande doesn't take on the whole thing at one shot, but his essays address issues like doctors' fallibility and uncertainty. The book is entertaining and useful should you ever need the attention of medical professionals.

5. Banker to the Poor by Muhammud Yunus - Yunus writes about realizing how the field of economics does so little to help the desperately poor and proposes the solution that became the micro-credit movement.

6. No Matter How Loud I Shout by Edward Humes - I read this for a class while I was still in college, but I'd read it again in a heartbeat. The juvenile justice system is a huge issue, and this book talks about it in a way that is totally engaging and gives you the real human stories behind the failing of the system.

7. Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton - Okay, I've got a thing for justice system issues, perhaps. This one is about a woman who mis-identified her rapist and sent him to prison for years before the mistake was discovered and the verdict reversed. It calls into question our reliance on eyewitness testimony as well as our ability to be impartial when it comes to judging guilt or innocence and explores its consequences for the justice system.

8. When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert - This one does an excellent job of exploring how, when we try to help people/communities/countries we feel are less well off than us, we tend to go about it all wrong. It questions our motives - to help others or feel good about ourselves? To help people create workable systems of their own or make them dependent on us?

9. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman - This one is an approachable, engaging memoir about the author's time in low-security women's prison that deals with the issue of how prisons are preparing inmates to re-enter society, or, well, not, as the case seems to be and the obvious repercussions of that failure.

10. The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine - Ok, one more novel. This is an unflinching look at sexual slavery/child prostitution.

How do you think? What books do a fantastic job of highlighting issues?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

This is the second time this year that I've done this. You know, the one where I think an author is one I should like, so I acquire practically their whole catalog, never actually read it, then request a review copy of their latest release because I've somehow deluded myself into thinking I'm a huge fan of the author's work. Luckily, I must know what I might like because despite the fact that I own several of Pete Hamill's books and hear great things about them, I'd never actually read one until Tabloid City, and now I'm glad to have more of Hamill's work already waiting on my shelves. I could be wrong, but from what I've read about his books Tabloid City seems like it might be slightly off Hamill's beaten path. Most of his titles seem to have a historical aspect, but Tabloid City is very current but for some of its characters' nostalgia for the New York City of their youths.

Tabloid City is a day in New York City, and what a day it is. It starts just after midnight with Sam Briscoe, editor of the last slowly dying afternoon tabloid in New York City, contemplating the next day's headlines. He's a newspaperman from way back who longs for the days when the papers weren't being encroached upon by an army of websites. He pines for the days of smoky newsrooms filled with activity, for headlines that people were eager to read instead of the same old bad news. But Sam is just one of many characters that populate the pages of Tabloid City. Its pages are filled with characters ranging from a wealthy socialite and philanthropist to a Muslim extremist to a war veteran bent on revenge to a police officer whose own son has gone wrong all of whose paths will cross in the shadow of murder all in Hamill's one day in New York City.

Tabloid City is not told in chapters but in minutes. The story is not written in first person style, nonetheless every few pages, marked by the new time, the perspective changes to a different character, covering dozens of characters. This style is perfect for the story Hamill is trying to tell. It, plus its present tense storytelling, conveys the urgency, the quickness with which momentous changes occur in a city that pulses with life at all hours. It captures a cross-section of the city's denizens and their complicated, often distant, relationships. Hamill is a champion at bringing his city to life. Many of the things that make New York unique find their way into the pages, and the gritty daily grind of the city that never sleeps is palpable through the eyes of longtime residents who have grown weary of their anonymous struggle against its changing face. Hamill paints a picture of New York struggling in recession and of people who are relentlessly nostalgic for lives that they used to live in a New York that was, if not simpler, than at least more real.

Tabloid City is about New York, a city where changes are always only minutes away, but a city that longs for its own past. It's also about humanity. The characters here are anything but lovable. They are angry, they are mysterious, they are hurting, needing, lost, vengeful, but, above all, real. Each is hurtling along toward their destiny in an unforgiving place, a place they can't help but love. Tabloid City does have somewhat of a thrilling end, but the journey is the better part.

(Thanks to Anna at Hachette for sending me a copy for review.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Photo Credit

This is one of those posts that after I've written and posted it, many of the kind and forgiving bloggers of the world will assure me was totally unnecessary. I've decided that it is necessary, if only for my mental health, but if, for your mental health, you elect to pass it on by in favor of bloggers actually writing about books and reading and things, I can't say that I'd blame you. There, you've been duly warned.

I don't know if my absence around the blogosphere and maybe even especially right here on my own blog has been as glaring as I tend to think it is when I'm getting down on myself about not being a consistent enough blogger, but I feel very absent from all things blogging. I feel like I keep either phoning in posts or not writing them at all, and when I do write them, I end up not replying to my commenters despite my best intentions. Usually, it would be easy enough to blame these sorts of things on my own personal failings, of which I have plenty, but this summer, I'm just struggling with so many stupid things that it's making it hard to keep up with the things that I love.

I love reading and I love blogging, and I promise you this is not one of those, "I'm about to scrap my blog - please talk me back from this dangerous precipice!" sort of posts either. Ever since returning from BEA, I've been excited about the prospect of being a better blogger as that sort of thing always does to me, just one of the many reasons why I go. Unfortunately, since then, I have been really sick not once but twice (the worst of which has been just this past week - nothing serious though), had family members who have been really sick that I've been trying to help out where I can, I've injured my back badly and aggravated my previously injured wrist, applied for and interviewed for a new, hotly contested, position within my company that ended with me still in my current position but not before turning into an ugly mess resulting in a department where the morale is now worse than ever. It seems like it took summer so long to get here this year, and now that it's here it's an incomparable suck-a-ganza that just won't stop. It's gotten to the point where my mounting frustration over not being able to blog the way I want, and the ever-growing list of posts I want to write is overwhelming me so much, that when I do have the time to write, I can't seem to find my voice.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I love this blog. I've come to terms with the amount of time I can give to it regularly, which, though it is not the amount of time I'd like to give to it, is still some of the best time I have to give. It makes me feel like what I have to say is worth something. It gives me a part of my life that I'm still passionate about, and it connects me to people who understand what it is to find life in books. If I'm not here because I'm giving time to my family or my friends, I can deal with it, but it eats away at me when the reason I'm nowhere to be found here is because I'm giving all my good time to my thankless job or to housework or running errands or, even better, to seeing doctors, laying on a heating pad, or picking up other people's prescriptions. So, to everybody who has commented lately and been disappointed by my lack of response, to everybody who thinks I must have given up reviewing books completely (since it's been so long), and to everyone whose e-mail has gone unreplied to while I've been trying reset the bowling pins of my life (and failing) thanks for your patience. I am beyond frustrated that the crummy stuff of life has kept me from doing things here like they ought to be done, and I apologize.

Thanks for bearing with me through this message and through my very flaky blogging behavior, of late. I feel like I've been lumbering along laboring under a weird, amorphous burden of guilt that nobody's forcing me to carry, and I'm hoping that the simple act of posting this post will clean the slate for me, and I'll be able get up, dust myself off, and get myself back to the blogging at hand.

Okay, back to your normal programming. Thanks, everybody!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Girl Who Loved Books Too Much

It's library book sale season in the land without bookstores. I shouldn't go, I can't go. I don't even have places to put the boxes of books anymore much less actual shelf space. Alas, my mother has begun an endeavor to sell used books on Amazon, and she desires "moral support" on her inventory gathering quests. I told her she should find someone else because taking me to a book sale is something like taking an alcoholic to the bar, and she frequently finds that rather than helping her, I've slunk away to, um, have a drink, we'll say. Let's just say, I've been supporting the local libraries with some abandon, and the kind givers of books to such causes read really good books.

Now, the rundown in pictures, commentary, and even some blame!

The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass - I liked Three Junes away back when I read it, and would like to dip into Glass's other work.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver - The blogosphere's been abuzz about this YA hit for so long that I snatched it up hastily.
Dream When You're Feeling Blue Elizabeth Berg - Sheila made my do it!
Faithful Place by Tana French - Lesley's fault I bought this one.
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell - It's probably Rebecca that really made me want to give Sarah Vowell a shot.
Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Zoo Story by Thomas French - I'd seen this one around a few times, but I think it's Diane's review that made it jump off the shelves and into my hands.
This is Where We Live by Janelle Brown - I discovered this one on the public bookshelf at work. I read the author's other book All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. That plus both her book covers have desserts on the covers, which seem to be totally irrelevant to the books but somehow also unexpectedly appealing. And did I mention it was free?
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick - There may be a few book bloggers out there that haven't raved about this one. I'm not sure I've met them, though.
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham - Horrors! How did this get here, especially given my lingering unlove of Maugham? Methinks Amanda's to blame for this madness, whether she's still blogging about books or not!
How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman - This one was really popular when I was in charge of maintaining the health section while working at Borders. Now I work with lots of doctors, so I'm even more curious.
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich - Yeah, I totally bought this one before. Oops.
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving - That Book Lady made me by this one, too. Plus, John Irving is one of those authors whose books I seems to collect and rarely read. My mom usually likes them, though...
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper - Here's some blame for Debi's blog 3 to 4 incarnations ago.
The Story of Edgar Swatelle by David Wroblewski - Curious about modern day re-telling of Hamlet. That *is* what this is, isn't it?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman - This is another from my days babysitting the health section at Borders. I've got a thing for bio-ethical quandaries, and I've heard numerous good things about this book.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - The Booker Prize made me do it.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave - I don't know what this is even about, but sooo many people recommend it.
The Little Book by Selden Edwards
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss - Okay, I'd never heard of this one when I picked it up, but I was still in my "western" happy place from reading Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole that it called out to me.
What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones - Because I totally read novels in verse (like, once ever)
Garden Spells Sarah Addison Allen - It's about time I tried SAA, right?
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn - This and previous are both LibraryThing Early Reviewer books that apparently stuck in my head!
Tinkers by Paul Harding - Hello, Pulitzer winner!
The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese - Hey, it's that guy that wrote Cutting for Stone!
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen - Can you believe this popped up on the community shelf at work? All the talk about it got me just curious enough to lug this massive hardback around in my purse for a day.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray by Walter Mosley
Clara's War by Clara Kramer - I'm all in for good books about the Holocaust, and Becky said this is one. I had to wrangle this one out of my mother's bookselling hands. Phew, close call.
Eulalia! by Brian Jacques - I've been in love with the Redwall books since I was in middle school, but I've still got a few left to read.
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich - Wendy made me get this one. Plus, my lingering happy feelings over The Master Butchers Singing Club by the very same author.
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian - Read and liked Midwives once upon time, and now I'm back for more.
(not pictured)Lottery by Patricia Wood - I remember a very glowing review from Lesley back when I was a baby blogger turned me onto this one. Not pictured because by the time I took the picture, my mom had already snatched it out of my hands to read.

All right, that's it for now. But there may or may not be another book sale coming up next week...

So, book lovers, how'd I do? =)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Nanjing Requiem

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin
Pantheon, October 18, 2011


In 1937, with the Japanese poised to invade Nanjing, Minnie Vautrin-an American missionary and the dean of Jinling Women's College-decides to remain at the school, convinced that her American citizenship will help her safeguard the school and the welfare of the Chinese men and women who work there. She is painfully mistaken. In the aftermath of the invasion, the school becomes a refugee camp for nearly 10,000 homeless women and children, and Vautrin must struggle, day after day, to intercede on behalf of the hapless victims. Even when order and civility are restored, Vautrin remains deeply embattled, and she is haunted by the lives she could not save.

With extraordinarily evocative precision, Ha Jin re-creates the terror, the harrowing deprivations, and the menace of unexpected violence that defined life in Nanjing during the occupation. In Minnie Vautrin he has given us an indelible portrait of a woman whose convictions and bravery prove, in the end, no match for the maelstrom of history. At once epic and intimate, Nanjing Requiem is historical fiction at its most resonant, from one of the most acclaimed Chinese American writers of our time.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

It's a coming of age story! And a love story! It's set during World War II! It was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize (my go to prize!), and I'm reading it for Orange July! By rights it should have been a book that I loved, but I have to admit that it might not have been the book for me.

"I wonder what becomes of the Annas of this world."
"They find it hard to meet anyone who will take life as seriously as they do."

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison starts off with 8-year-old Anna Sands being evacuated, like many other London children during World War II, to the English countryside to escape the impending German attack. Anna pictures herself on a sunshine-filled beach holiday but instead finds herself in a school set up in a sprawling Yorkshire mansion, Ashton Park. There, wealthy, childless Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton are attempting to rejuvenate their lives and their love by surrounding themselves with children in need of their help. During the course of her time at Ashton Park that spans several years of the war, Anna finds herself much more entangled in Thomas's tragic love story than even she will ever understand.

The novel gets off to a promising start with Anna embarking on a new adventure. Alison's lush prose evokes a magical, if practical, refuge in the far-reaching grounds of Ashton Park. Anna is taken with Elizabeth, who is all beauty and poise in public, and with Thomas, whose gentle demeanor and impeccable manners cover over a lifetime of pain and heartbreak. As the story wears on, Anna begins to glimpse the darker underbelly of life with a couple whose union was fragile at best, and put under stress by Thomas's struggle with polio, his inability to walk afterwards, and finally the couple's inability to have children. It seems that Anna is always on hand to witness the unfolding of events as the couple disintegrates and each begins to search for fulfillment from others. Elizabeth throws herself at any man that might impregnate her, while Thomas discovers a love that stimulates his heart and his mind in a way he never believed possible.

By its midpoint, the book had begun to frustrate me. Alison's writing is technically beautiful, but at times it seemed an excess of words kept me from ever truly engaging with the characters, who never really came to life, or becoming involved with their situations. A steady stream of commentary from an overintrusive narrative voice built up a wall of words that made the mid-section of The Very Thought of You, the part that depends on your sympathies to succeed, boring and trite. Instead of being captivated at Thomas's joy at finding his one true, if forbidden, love, I was eager to put the chapters of their mooning over each other with an army of true love cliches (fluttering limbs, a world lit up with love, the pressing of flowers into books with sentimental messages) behind me. That, and Anna's popping up at the most inopportune and inappropriate of times to bear witness to adult drama well beyond her years was bothersome to me.

In its final chapters, The Very Thought of You gains back some ground as it follows its characters into a later time. Thomas's lasting love and the profound impact the wartime years at Ashton Park had on Anna well into her adulthood are far more compelling. While I didn't love the book, by the time I turned the last page, I'd arrived at a fragile acceptance of the story's imperfect, broken characters who so often failed in their search for love. The Very Thought of You, is, as it promised to be, a haunting story, but never for the reasons you might expect.

Want some other opinions?

Books in the City
The Magic Lasso
Eve's Alexandria
Books Please

(Thanks to Cristina at Atria Books for sending me a copy for review!)