Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Tops on my TBR for Fall

This week's topic for The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday is Top Ten Books That Are On The Top Of My TBR List For Fall. If you know me at all, I'm not one to hold myself to a very strict reading plan, so really, I have no idea what I'll actually be reading as fall rolls around. That said, I thought this might be a great opportunity to give a little love to the ARCs I brought home from BEA, many of which will release this fall. Here are 10 of the ones I'm most excited about, and I certainly hope there will be time for several of them in my fall reading "plan."

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown and Co., Sept. 7) - I'm a huge baseball fan, so when I heard about this story of a would-be big leaguer playing ball at a small college where a throw goes awry and changes the lives of five people, I knew I had to check it out.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, Sept. 13) - I'm also a sucker for a circus story. There's just something about them. And this one's got some magic to it, too. Two magicians who have been raised to compete are dueling and...falling in love? Yes, please.

3. The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen (Mulholland Books, Sept. 28) - I advertise this author's last book like I'm getting paid to do it (I'm not, I swear!). I'm going to rein myself in this time and just talk about this book. It's about Zed, an agent from a future where there are no problems. To get to that future, though, all the crises that ever happened, must, well, happen. It's Zed's job to see to this. Sounds deliciously mind-bendy.

4. Touch and Go by Thad Nodine (Unbridled, Sept. 27) - Not that I wholeheartedly recommend it, but if you're cruising around BEA and stumble upon the booth of a publisher whose books you have failed to ever actually read but recognize from all the praises bloggers have been singing about their titles, you can, um, say that. Sure you might look like an idiot at first, but then you might actually have a decent conversation and walk away with a book about a blind guy going on a road trip with his friends to deliver a handmade casket. Sounds different, right? And good.

5. How the Dog Became the Dog by Mark Derr (Overlook, Oct. 13) - I stumbled upon what looked like the last ARC of this book on Overlook's table the first day of the show. I couldn't manage to wipe the "I want" look off my face, and I was thrilled when they offered me the copy of this book about how our canine friends evolved to be, well, our canine friends. Derr suggests that dogs being "man's best friend" was somehow evolutionarily meant to be. I'm definitely curious!

6. How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Oct. 18) - Let's forget for a moment what this book is even about. This book has such a great cover that I would read it for that alone. For sure. Not enough for you? Well, then it's about a teen whose dad dies and whose mother then goes and adopts a baby, presumably to fill the hole. Plus the young birth mother of said baby looks to be the other main character. Sounds good and like it could be really profound.

7. The Future of Us by Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher (Razorbill, Nov. 21) - It's a story about a girl who, in 1996, installs AOL for the first time and stumbles upon the Facebook page of her future self. I started reading this while I was in line for signings, and I got a huge kick out of all the references to early internet. It's a super clever premise, and I can't wait to finish it.

8. You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik (Europa/Tonga, Aug 30) - I've got a growing fascination with Europa Editions books after reading two big winners this year thus far. You Deserve Nothing is the first published under Europa's new Tonga imprint that uses prominent contemporary writers as guest editors. Alice Sebold is the editor of this one. The idea of this is enough to draw my attention, but this book about a teacher in Paris who brings out the ethical sides of his students, but can't quite live up to the ideals he teaches sounds good all on its own merit.

9. Child Wonder by Ray Jacobsen (Graywolf, Sept. 27) Okay, I'll be straight with you. I'm in love with this cover, too. The book's about a kid growing up in 1960s Norway. Because I love getting my fix of books that happen in places that aren't...here.

10. Calling Mr. King by Ronald De Feo (Other Press, Aug. 30) - A hit man gets passionate about art and architecture which isn't a great plan because, well, he's a hit man. It's about a hit man who wants to be someone else, who's curious?

What will *you* be reading this fall?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reading at Random: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

I had big plans for this weekend that involved New Jersey. Unfortunately, a certain hurricane had some different plans, so now I am home "enjoying" a rainy (but mostly uneventful) Pennsylvania weekend with mountains of books, a stack of which have been not-so-patiently waiting for me to review them, looking at me with evil intent. I spent last weekend attempting to root out some books I consider myself less and less likely to read from a collection that has become so overwhelming that it actually makes it hard to sit down and read one book because the pressure of hundreds of others is such a dreaded distraction. I culled a pitiful 50 from the stacks, leaving hundreds more. It's a good start, I guess, and a good way to avoid the fact that I've been having terrible "reviewer's block" (if that is even a real thing), but now it's time to try and free myself from the review backlog. First up, since this is going to be a pretty wet weekend in the northeast, I thought I'd tackle a book that takes place in a much drier location.

That Old Ace in the Hole is my very first experience with author Annie Proulx. Proulx is one of those authors whose work I've been collecting, but not really reading. When I came back from BEA this year, I felt kind of ARCed to death, so I fled to my LibraryThing catalogue, and with the help of Random.org picked out a random book from the many books I own that were not published this year. Random.org helpfully chose That Old Ace in the Hole from an overwhelming array of options, and I could not have been happier with the choice.

That Old Ace in the Hole features Bob Dollar, a hapless recent university grad from Denver, Colorado. Armed with a diploma and a desire to work at a position better than clerk at his Uncle Tam's junk shop or a lightbulb inventory manager, Bob more or less aimlessly stumbles into a job scouting out hog farm sites in the Texas Panhandle for a company called Global Pork Rind. Since hog farms are not exactly pleasant to have next door or otherwise upwind, Bob's task is to clandestinely infiltrate a Panhandle community and do his scouting under the radar.

That's how Bob finds himself in Woolybucket, Texas crashing for $50 a month in the rundown bunkhouse of the ever-loquacious LaVon Fronk. Bob's sure that scouting out a site for GPR will be a piece of cake, especially considering he's bunking with the town gossip who surely will give him some tidbits about who's looking to sell out of failing, too-dry ranch land. Soon, though, Bob is losing sight of his purpose as he falls into Woolybucket's rhythms and begins to find that, this place, seemingly destined for hog farms and drought, is beginning to feel like the home he never had.

Proulx's Woolybucket is full of outsized characters whose parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them have their histories woven inextricably into the Panhandle. In his adventures, Bob finds himself chatting with a quilting circle of ladies who produce one quilt per year depicting a religious scene to be raffled off at the town's Barbwire Festival. He works part time for Cy Frease who opened his restaurant, the Old Dog, because he was sick and tired of "the pukiest shit-fire-and-save-the-matches goddamn grub this side a the devil's table." He listens to LaVon Fronk go on about the history of ranching in the Panhandle in between town gossip. He listens to old-timer Tater Crouch's barely true memories of his cowboying youth. Proulx brings to life a community, a way of life, a landscape that seems to be utterly unique and unfailingly entertaining. Proulx imbues the town with personality and captivating characters who get themselves into some ridiuculous small-town situations, but it never comes off as too quaint or sugary-sweet like some small town stories that seem to try too hard. Rather, it's easy to fall in love with the people who have staked out a tough life in the Panhandle, who have steely strength below their mostly friendly and welcoming exteriors. I was so absorbed in Proulx's small town and so in love with its characters that when the book ended, I was sad to see them go.

In case you couldn't tell, I loved That Old Ace in the Hole. It is a story that serious and funny at the same time. The people are real, if exaggerated, and the rip-roaring tales they tell smack of the sort campfire-side story-telling that I've always loved.

Here's to taking a few days off from the new and digging into the stacks for some of that older gold.

What's the best book you've read recently that wasn't published recently?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Unreviewed Books

Okay, so, I haven't written a post since my last Top Ten Tuesday. Major blogger's block. But I'm back, and here's hoping this will get my blogging juices pumping again. This week the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish are asking for our Top Ten Books We Loved But Never Reviewed. Most of mine come from the books I read before I started blogging. Here are some "oldies" but goodies!

1. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers - This book gave me a lot to think about, and I wish that I had been blogging when I read it because I think a review would have really helped me sort out my thoughts about what I ultimately found to be an excellent read.

2. Small Island by Andrea Levy - I read this very shortly before I started blogging, and it might be among the first books that I thought, "Hey, this might be fun to review!" I always moan and complain about books that use several narrators but offer up no meaningful distinction between their voices. Small Island is my poster child for multiple narrators done well.

3. Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis - I'm a nut about circus stories, and I loved this one about a girl with extremely low self-esteem who has an extremely traumatic experience and then runs away to join the circus. There is circus stuff and redemption and it's very excellent. And I am super-bummed because the author has since passed away, so I won't get to enjoy any more of her work. =(

4. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene - A book I must re-read. It's about the last priest in Mexico. I've never read a book that's simultaneously so hopeless and so hopeful.

5. Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty - This is one of the few leisure reading books that made their way into my time in college. I read it in one night. It's all in letters and notes between mother and daughter as well as the main character's best friend, and many tongue in cheek made up organizations (i.e. The Cold Hard Truth Association) with important and hysterical advice and instruction for Elizabeth, the protagonist.

6. That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx - I intend to actually getting to review this one. This is my first time out with Annie Proulx and surely won't be my last. It's all about a hapless young man called Bob Dollar who gets a job trolling the Texas panhandle for noxious hog farm sites, but ends up falling in love with an unusual community and way of life instead. The characters are super well-drawn and some of the tangential stories remind me of the sorts of tales you might hear around the campfire.

7. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger - I wish I'd reviewed this book because I loved it, but now I barely remember what happened in it. All I remember is it being about miracles and faith, and it's sort of To Kill a Mockingbird-esque and there's a scene where the father is pacing on a truck bed while praying fervently with his eyes closed, and even though he walks off the edge of it, he never falls. It's a scene you don't forget.

8. Kindred by Octavia Butler - I loved Kindred. For one, I am a huge sucker for historical fiction/time travel stories and Kindred has got to be among the best. It's one of those books that I definitely feel like I should go back and read again because there was so much going on in it. The protagonist, Dana, an African American woman, is transported back in time to slave-era Maryland where she has to suffer as a slave until her unexpected return to the present. Why's she time traveling? To save a white child of slave owners from dying...again and again. See what I mean? It's good.

9. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh - Why do I wish I would have reviewed this one? Because, really, I'm so surprised that I even read it much less liked it. This book is so not me. It's written in nearly incomprehensible Scottish dialect. It's profane. It's gritty. It's full of disturbing pictures of addiction. It's gross really. And I thought it was fantastic. It was gritty in a very real way. I felt unexpected sympathy for the scumbag narrator. Even the nearly incomprehensible Scottish dialogue was entertaining once I got the hang of it. (Reading it? I recommend spending some time alone and reading it aloud until it stars to make sense. Worked for me!)

10. The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett - I have very few "favorite authors." I am just not a huge "author" person who falls in love with an author and must read all their books, so being considered one of my favorites is a rare and dubious honor. Bel Canto is great, but I prefer this story of the magician's assistant who falls in love with her gay best friend and employer. The relationship is so well brought to life and the journey she takes to discover his dark past is compelling.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Books

I'm breaking with tradition today and actually doing another Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish before, like, a month or two has passed since the last one. Today we're singing the praises of the books we think are underrated or underloved.

1. The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen - This is the book that I always use to answer this question. Mullen's other book, The Last Town on Earth, seems like it was huge compared to this one which I repeatedly moan and groan that more people haven't read. It's about Great Depression bank robbers. It's action-packed, there's an interesting love story, and plus, the protagonists keep, well, not dying, at least not for good. You can read my further ravings both here and here.

2. Black & White by Dani Shapiro - I read this a few summers ago, I think, and it sticks in my head. It's about a daughter who has continually been the subject of her mother's art and the very considerable strain that has put on their relationship. When the mother falls ill, the daughter has to confront the past. I recall it being well-told in flashbacks and asking interesting questions about whether the mother really loved the daughter or loved the inspiration her daughter provided.

3. City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell - I read this story of a missionary couple in early 20th century China last summer, and I was totally blown away. It's an incredible portrait of a marriage, a penetrating look into historical China, and and a beautiful picture of faith in action. I cried repeatedly. I loved it. Why haven't you (and you and you) read it?

4. The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque - This is All Quiet on the Western Front's unloved step-child, or something like that. I bet you didn't even know Remarque had written another great book, unless you've read about it here where I'm always shoving it in people's faces. It's a really excellent read about post-World War I Germany and the soldiers trying to fit back into civilian life after many years at brutal war.

5. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute - Nevil Shute's other books (e.g. On the Beach) are much more popular than this one seems to be, but Pied Piper is fantastic. It's the story of an elderly man on holiday at just the wrong time who unwittingly ends up helping a bunch of children escape World War II occupied France. The juxtaposition of the danger of occupied France with the innocence of the children while the old man tries to account for the two is pitch perfect. I get the impression that both this and the previous book aren't widely available, but they should be because they still could find a great many appreciative readers, in my humble opinion.

6. The Cactus Eaters by Dan White - The author's memoir of his adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is hilarious, but also informative in a way that is not clunky and awkward. He also does a fine job with portraying the kooky trail regulars without judging them, because, hey, the trail makes him kind of kooky, too.

7. Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer - This book captures the spirit of New York City and the draw it has for dreamers who are sure it's the place to make something of themselves, all this against the New York City that's a little crueler and tempts the dreamers to sell out to the highest bidder just to get by. Plus, there's this quote. That I love. A lot.

He still loves the sense of possiblity that permeates every building and block. He loves the view of the Hudson from Riverside Park, loves watching the ducks paddle in the Central Park pond, loves the almost-too-pungent scent of gingkos on Manhattan Avenue in the summer. He loves watching his dog's tail wag when he pulls Ike toward Strangers' Gate. He loves the sounds of baseball games in Morningside, mah-jongg tiles on 107th Street, playing cards outside the Frederick Douglass Apartments, the subway underfoot, the flutter and clang of the flags atop the Blockhouse -- every bit of it is music.

8. The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service - This is a leftover from my middle school years. There is Egypt and Egyptian princes and Egyptian artifacts and time travel and a race against time, and I could read it again and again (and again!)

9. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers - A story with so many compelling layers that I (the non-re-reader) kept it to re-read. It's about a psychotherapist and his suicidal patient and how they help each other uncover their tragic pasts. Plus, it totally gave me a thing for Carravagio paintings.

10. Open Wounds by Joseph Lunievicz - The, um, 4 of us who rated this on LibraryThing all really loved this book. I met the author at BEA. He is super nice so I'm so happy that I loved his book which is historical YA set in New York City. There are lots of fascinating, unusual characters, great friendships, Shakespeare, sword-fighting, and coming of age. If you want to read some YA that is next to nothing like all that other YA you've been reading but is still incredibly awesome, read this. If you're looking for some YA for the slightly older teenage boys in your life, look no further, and rest assured that if you happen to be a not so YA girl, you will certainly like it, too, of course!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Shameless Gushing about The Call by Yannick Murphy

I didn't mean to read The Call the day that it came in the mail from Harper Perennial. Really, I didn't. I had other plans. I had another book started already, and I am monogamous with my books. I don't *do* two at a time. I made a mistake, though. I opened it up, as I am wont to do, and read the first few sentences...and found myself reading the first few pages...and then the whole book.

It was all wholly unexpected. I was sick and grumpy and on the cusp of a massive funk, reading and otherwise, and thoroughly credit The Call with rescuing me from my funk. I finished it and immediately began recommending it to my friends. I am fully prepared to gush shamelessly about its awesomeness but am failing to see a way to do so that's coherent...at all. Maybe someday I'll write a real, decent review with skillful writing, penetrating thoughtfulness, and maybe the tiniest bit of objectivity. Today, though, I'm opting for the gushy post, signified by me writing in the second person to tell you how you should/will feel about The Call. Consider yourself warned.

So, there's this vet in rural New England and he keeps a journal of his daily calls to farms to treat various large animals, but soon it gets more detailed, including not only his calls but the details of his daily family life, his musings as he drives from place to place, his fascination with what he is sure is a spacecraft looming over his house with blinking lights. When tragedy strikes, his journal becomes even more detailed covering hopeless days at the hospital, asking for answers from the mysterious spacecraft, all while carrying on with motions of daily life.

Okay, it doesn't sound exciting. In fact it sounds a little strange when you try to summarize it, which is one of the obstacles I'm facing when recommending it. But let me assure you, it is great. It is fascinating. It is heartwarming. You will hear your own internal musings in David the vet's mental wanderings. You will wholly believe that there is a spacecraft hovering over his house, and when a mysterious stranger shows up and he starts seriously referring to him as the "spaceman," you will totally buy it. You will laugh at the antics of his wife, son and two daughters and the assorted creatures he treats as well as the ones who live in his house, but more than that you will fall in love with the way he talks about them. In short, you will fall in love with the unusual way Murphy has chosen to tell her story because, with the characters she's created, everything about it just works.

Murphy's story is heartbreaking and heartwarming. In 200 or so short pages, she creates a family that you wish lived next door, that you won't be able to get enough of. You will be sad when it's over. You will certainly laugh, you might very well cry. You will be blown away by the story's simple wisdom, its respect for the joys of a simple life with a family you love, and its lighthearted, honest dealing with life's really hard stuff.

The Call is the oddest sort of book. It's a quiet, understated story, not so very earth shattering at all, but every little bit of it leaps off the page. Finishing this book made me feel good about life and love and families and everything and like even when things get hard, good can still win (or at least not lose), and we can all make it to the other side if we can just remember to laugh at life once in a while, stick together, and do the right thing when the opportunity comes along.

The Call is, for certain, one of the best books I've read this year and one that you just have to read to believe. Look for it at your bookstore or library. It's got a bright orange cover. You can't miss it, and, really, you shouldn't.

If my gushing doesn't convince you, here are a couple more articulate views...

Beth Fish Reads
A Musing Reviews

(Thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for sending me a copy for review!)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

How can you not be curious about a book title like this? There's something even in the title that is tantalizing and a little haunting. The title, the cover, the many wonderful things I heard about his stories, which I've not yet read (but intend to!) all conspired together to make sure I requested Everything Beautiful Began After from Harper Perennial.

For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home. Places where lonely people can live in exile of their own lives - far from anything that was ever imagined for them.

Everything Beautiful Began After is the story of the unlikely friendship of three people who meet in Athens, three people running from their pasts and trying to find themselves and create new lives in an old city. Rebecca, a shy girl and talented artist from the French countryside loses herself as she caters to her passengers on Air France flights. She comes to Athens to find inspiration for her painting and to find her true self that she had locked tightly away. George, from the American south, grew up in boarding schools where what love could be found was always at a distance. Even in Athens, he buries his sorrows and loneliness in liquor and his passion for ancient languages. Henry, an archaeologist, searches for the bodies of the long dead for clues to lost civilizations, but really is searching for absolution from an unspeakable tragedy from his past.

Together, the three find the love and joy that have been missing from their lives. Their time together in Athens shines bright as the one time they can remember that they were all truly happy. However, when tragedy strikes, both the strength and the fragility of their bonds are revealed, the secrets of three people who hardly had the chance to know each other at all bubble to the surface, and send the characters on unexpected journeys that will change the courses of their lives forever.

The real Rebecca lay beneath, smuggled onboard each flight inside her uniform, waiting for the moment to reveal herself.

But such a moment never happened, and her true self, by virtue of neglect, turned from the world and slipped away without anyone noticing.

If a philospher and a talented novelist got married and had a baby, it would be Everything Beautiful Began After. At first the prose seems like it could be too much; too flowery, too overwrought, but then you realize it's kind of delicious and you want to roll around in it. At first, the dialogue seems the slightest bit unrealistic. You find yourself thinking, "Are there people that really talk this way?" But then you think that maybe even if people don't talk this way, they still could. Perhaps in a surreal Athenian summer ordinary people could give voice to the extraordinary thoughts rolling around in their heads that they might otherwise leave just as thoughts. Then you realize you are absolutely relating to these big things that they're saying that you don't imagine people say. Everything about Everything Beautiful Began After feels slightly exaggerated to great effect. There's a purity of emotion in it that will take readers by surprise, perhaps confuse them, but ultimately leave them satisfied.

"Loneliness is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here."

Van Booy's novel is a triumph. Athens comes alive in his hands, a place with softened edges that seems almost unreal and is the perfect context for Van Booy's tale. Van Booy doesn't settle for telling his story in just one way but easily shuffles between third and second person narrations, and even first person by way of Henry's typewritten letters from around the globe. Rarely have I been so impressed with a second person narration as I have in this book. It brings to life the immediacy of grief and the surreal distance that accompanies it. The book deals heavily in the pain of grief but never abandons moments of humor in favor of total melancholy. On the whole, Everything Beautiful Began After is a beautiful, richly textured work that chronicles the lives of three unforgettable characters brought together and torn apart by a summer in a city that will always feel like home.

Humans may come and go - but the thread of hope is like a rope we pull ourselves up with.

Highly recommended!