Thursday, June 30, 2011

Weetzie Bat prequel

I just found out through Francesca Lia Block's facebook page that she has written a prequel to Weetzie Bat! I'm so excited!!! According to Amazon, it's set to be released on January 24, 2012 and the title is
Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 : Personalized reading suggestions

   If you're like me, sometimes you know you want to read a book that is funny, or dark, or epic (whatever your mood is), but you just don't know exactly which book to choose. Well, has solved this problem.  This site has several sliding scales that you can personalize to fit your mood or desired reading experience, and then it generates book suggestions based on these choices.  But the great thing is that you don't have to just pick "happy" or "sad" or "short" or "long." You can narrow your choices down through 12 different sliding scales to find book suggestions that are just right for you.

   This site is seriously awesome!!  I tried out a few different combinations and it generated a lot of books that I had never heard of before.  Their database is very large and very diverse, which is great when you know you want to read something, but you're just not sure how to narrow it down.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

   Rose is just 9 years old when she realizes that she has a unique ability.  She can taste people's emotions by eating the food they prepare.  She discovers this while eating a slice of lemon cake her mother baked, and even though the cake is delicious, it also tastes of "smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother" (p 10).

   After several years of eating food that tastes like sadness, guilt, anger, desire, etc., Rose decides to try and stick to food that is highly processed and made by no one in particular.  She is only a child, and the strain of feeling these adult emotions is too much to bear sometimes.  Rose becomes reclusive and "suspicious of people and all the complications of interior lives" (p 125).  The novel chronicles Rose's life into her twenties as she struggles in finding ways to cope with her abilities, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

   I really like the premise of this book.  It's unique and interesting with the potential to be an amazing novel, but for me, it just did not live up to its potential.  I know a lot of people really loved this book, but I had trouble getting past the clunky grammatical structure.  Aimee Bender did not use quotation marks in dialogue scenes, so there were a lot of "he saids" and "she saids" on every page.  I thought this was very distracting and limiting to the dialogue.

   I also felt that the novel ended very abruptly without working out many of the central conflicts.  I know we can't expect all novels to be wrapped up in a neat little bow with an epilogue, but in order for characters to be dynamic, there needs to be at least some growth and change.  Sometimes authors write flat characters on purpose, in order to make other characters stand out in contrast, but I found all of the characters in this book to be stagnant, which made it difficult to stay committed to the book.  Overall, I think Aimee Bender came up with a really unique concept for this novel, and I really tried to love it, but I found it difficult to relate to the characters and was often distracted by awkward dialogue and the general lack of cohesiveness throughout the plot.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

American Rose by Karen Abbott

   American Rose is Karen Abbott's biography of Gypsy Rose Lee - one of the first Burlesque performers in America.  But this book is more than just a biography of one woman and her family.  It chronicles the fall of Vaudeville, which led to the rise of Burlesque in live theatres all over the country around the time of the depression.

   Gypsy Rose Lee spent her childhood touring the country with her mother, Rose, and her sister, June (actress June Havoc).  Traveling was extremely difficult on the girls, as was the long nights of exhausting performances, but Rose would accept nothing less from her daughters - they were her ticket to fame and fortune.  Needless to say, Gypsy (Louise) and June had a very distorted childhood, and their relationships with Rose remained tumultuous.

   Karen Abbott's research for this book is amazing (the bibliography is over 50 pages long, which includes interviews with June and Gypsy's son, Erik).  At times, it reads like a history books, but that does not make the story any less interesting.  If you're someone who admires old Hollywood and the art of Burlesque, then you will definitely enjoy this book. If you don't know much about this time period in performance theatre history, then American Rose is a great place to start.  Gypsy Rose Lee is widely recognized as America's first famous stripteaser (the original Bettie Page or Dita Von Teese) and with this book, Karen Abbott has provided us not only with a history of the art itself, but also of the woman who practically invented it.

Further Reading:

Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper - Gypsy Rose Lee and Eric Preminger
  -Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography, co-authored by her son, Erik.  These memoirs inspired the musical

The G-String Murders - Gypsy Rose Lee
   - Gypsy Rose Lee's mystery novel

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson

Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel

  If any book deserves a spot on your summer reading shelf, let it be this one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Belle Weather by Celia Rivenbark

   If you're the type of person who wants to enhance your knowledge of Southern American culture and improve your Southern accent, then I suggest reading Belle Weather out loud.  Now, since I'm from Tennessee, y'all know my twang is natural-born, but I did notice my speech becoming much twangier as I read this book out loud to my husband.  I have read all of her books to him, but I think this one is my favorite.  Celia Rivenbark's sharp wit and sarcasm could come across as bitchy, but not when it comes from a Southern woman - then it's so endearing that you don't know what hit you.

   Topics in this collection of essays include home renovation, ballroom dancing, "customer dis-service," and a particularly hilarious account of how Mrs. Rivenbark survived her daughter's first major slumber party (she sure is creative when it comes to getting kids to shut up!).  Like I mentioned in my Laurie Notaro blog, a lot of crazy folks mistake Celia Rivenbark's books for "chick lit," but there are enough fart jokes to keep my husband coming back for more!  If you're from the south, you'll absolutely adore her books, and if you're not, you'll probably consider moving down here.  After all, our bugs are cuter, our tea is sweeter, and the weather is "Mostly Sunny With a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits."

   Celia Rivenbark's newest book, You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl, will be released this August and can I just say? Best. Title. EVER!
You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl: Observations on Life from the Shallow End of the Pool

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Francoise Sagan

 Bonjour Tristesse (Penguin Essentials)
   Francoise Sagan died in 2004, but if she were alive today, she would be 76 years old.  In honor of her birthday (and because she is one of my favorite writers), I thought I would mention a few things about my favorite book of hers, Bonjour Tristesse, which translates as "Hello Sadness." 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Literature Map

Want to know how to discover new authors? This Literature Map is a site similar to Pandora that generates author suggestions based similarities between an author of your choosing and other writers.  According to the map, "the closer two writers are, the more likely someone will like both of them. ." It's just about the coolest thing I've seen in a while.  And it works waaaaayyyy better than  The have a music map too, which is also very cool.

My New American Life by Francine Prose

    This new novel by Francine Prose tells the story of Lula, an Albanian immigrant who moved to the U.S. just after 9/11.  When we meet Lula, she has landed a job as a "nanny" to a wealthy New Jersey man's 17 year-old son.  Mr Stanley and his son, Zeke, welcome Lula into their home and treat her like family, but even so, Lula is bored, which may be why she takes to lying about her past and the state of affairs in her homeland.  While Albania is still ruled by a strict, militant government, its citizens are not under quite as much distress as Lula claims.  But these exaggerations work to her benefit, as her employer and legal adviser feel so sorry for her that they put her on a fast track to obtaining a green card, and eventually citizenship.  She already knows more about American history and the English language than most natural-born citizens, so she looks pretty good on paper, too.

   Lula's life has become quite predictable (an American trait she considers bittersweet) until one morning, a black SUV parks outside of Mr. Stanley's home and three men emerge and ring the doorbell.  They tell Lula that they are friends of her cousin and could she please just do one small tiny favor for them?  Could she just hang on to a handgun for an unspecified amount of time with no explanation as to why the gun should be hidden?  This is how bored she is...she actually agrees to their shady request.  Needless to say, the subsequent events cure her of boredom in very unexpected ways, and Lula's new life takes on many different dimensions.

   This book offers poignant (and sometimes satirical) commentary on the lives of American immigrants - desperate to fit into American culture coupled with the deep roots of their own homelands and the desire to maintain that connection.  Often an unavoidable identity crisis ensues.  Lula's character is a great example of this condition and Francine Prose does an excellent job of presenting Lula's two selves - her Albanian self and her "new American" self, both converging somewhere around New Jersey.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Birthday Books (part 2)

Here is the list of books I got for my birthday, either as a gift or something I purchased with a gift card, book store credit, etc... And I must say, I am very pleased with my birthday haul this year!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Birthday Books (part 1)

I had a wonderful birthday and received many new books that I can cross off my ever-growing list. But this one is by far my favorite!

Penguin released this really awesome collection of book covers and their histories, which includes commentary from authors and designers. It is pretty much the best coffee table book ever!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shirley Jackson: Beyond "The Lottery"

   Shirley Jackson is probably best known for her short story, "The Lottery," which has been on practically every high school reading list at some point.  But I really fell in love with her writing after reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her novella about the eccentric Blackwood sisters.  The story is narrated by 18 year-old Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) as she tells the mysterious and tragic tale of her family's murder.  Several years ago, they were all poisoned at dinner one night, except for Merricat, here sister Constance, and their uncle.  The crime is officially unsolved, but most of the town suspects Constance, and therefore the two sisters and their elderly uncle are isolated from the community.  Constance has not even left the house in more than 5 years.  The sisters live their lives on the fringe of society, but through Merricat, we learn the truth about her family's history, including what really happened at their last meal.

   We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a very quirky little book and is reflective of Jackson's own personal fears and social anxieties.  It is a quick and entertaining read, and I have no idea why it is so often overlooked.  For me, this book contains one of the most memorable literary characters of all time, and I am grateful to my friend Amanda for introducing it to me a few years ago.  Plus, every single edition of it has a really cool cover!

   For some people, Shirley Jackson's tone as a bit too dark and grim, so if you're looking for a lighter read, Life Among the Savages is a great choice.  This book contains semi-autobiographical tales of motherhood, highlighting the unique and humorous challenges she faced as a woman trying to raise young children while also working from home.  Life Among the Savages recounts some hilarious conversations between Jackson and her 4 kids during the 1940s and 50s.  Kids say the darndest things don't they?  Seriously, Bill Cosby would have loved her children!  Her other book, Raising Demons, runs along the same lines and is also a great read, but it's really hard to find for some reason.  I borrowed my mother-in-law's paperback from the 1970s, which had to be transported in a ziploc bag to prevent it from completely falling apart.  So if you see a copy of Raising Demons in a used bookstore or something, pick it up!  Not only is it a wonderful book (whether you have any experience in motherhood or not), but it's also pretty rare and would make a great addition to any book collection.

   In 2010, The Library of America released a collection of her work, titled Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.  The collection is edited by my all-time favorite author, Joyce Carol Oates, and contains short stories and her 2 novellas, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

UPDATED: Laurie Notaro: Stories from a self-proclaimed underdog

   With titles like The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death, We Thought You Would be Prettier, and I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies), how could you not want to read Laurie Notaro?  Her collections of autobiographical essays are simply hilarious, mostly because she has no sense of shame and is completely incapable of embarrassment.  Laurie Notaro is painfully honest about herself, her relationships, her family, and yes, even her personal hygiene.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard

   If you're easily scared (like me), then you probably shouldn't read this book right before bed (like I did).  The first 50 pages of this book seriously creeped me out.  In 1987, Rex Shellenberger, his brother Patrick, and his father Nathan stumble across the dead body of a beautiful young woman.  She is completely naked and barely visible under the snow drift that covers her.  The Shellenberger boys are shocked by the scene, and they all deny that they recognize this young woman.

   Meanwhile, across town, Mitch Newquist and Abby Reynolds are in high school and very much in love.  But the discovery of the body causes Mitch's parent to send him away the morning after she is found.  With no phone call or explanation from Mitch about why he left, Abby is completely heartbroken, and the town of Small Plains begins to suspect Mitch of being involved with the crime.

   Flash forward to 17 years later.  Life has mostly returned to normal and the young girl who was murdered has become a bit of a legend in the town (meaning...people believe she performs miracles from the grave).  But after all these years of the young girl's story being buried with her body, Mitch returns to town unexpectedly, determined to reveal what happened on the night of January 23, 1987.

   Ok so I know the plot sounds fairly typical for a mystery, but the way this girl's body was found and what happens to it after she is "recognized" is seriously gruesome.  If I were just a little more sensitive than I am, I probably would have had to put the book down for a while.  But Nancy Pickard has a gift for storytelling, and I just could not stop reading it.  Things really start to pick up around page 75 or so, when you realize that certain people of the town know exactly who this Jane Doe is, but for some reason, want to keep her identity a secret.

   The only problem I could find with this book was that the writing was sometimes a little underdeveloped, and the romantic scenes between Mitch and Abby were pretty cheesy (they're hot and heavy...we get it). But, the story is well-organized and written in a way that makes it very very difficult to put down.  So my conclusion is that, while Nancy Pickard may not be the best writer in the world, she sure has a knack for storytelling (and for freaking out her audience for that matter).  Even if the imagery in this book is intense sometimes, it is well worth pushing forward and making it to the final chapters of the book, which will take you completely by surprise.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My summer reading list (subject to change)

   Now that I have read Weetzie Bat, it is officially summer in my literary life.  About this time every year, I begin to set aside books that I want to read over the summer.  I may not actually get to them all, but like I said, my list is subject to change.  Here are some of the books I look forward to (probably?) reading over the summer...some are old...some are new.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Monday, June 6, 2011

Waterproof Books! Hooray!

   I don't know about the rest of ya'll, but down here in Tennessee we are in the throes of summer.  Men are sweating...women are glistening and even my cats start panting from time to time.  Yesterday I was reading by the pool, and when I realized how sweaty my book had even become, it reminded me of The Beach Book.  I bought it several years ago in preparation for a trip to Miami, and I still take it with me every time I go on a trip to the beach.

   The Beach Book is completely waterproof (the pages feel like some sort of thin plastic) and it features sea-themed short stories from authors such as Roald Dahl and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It was published in 2005 by Melcher Media, and in 2007 they published Poolside, which is a second collection of waterproof short stories.

   I don't know about you, but I don't get to the beach as often as I would like, so when I'm there, I really like to immerse myself in the environment (pun intended!), and The Beach Book is a perfect way to do that.  Plus, the short stories feature beaches from all around the world, so it's kind of like a little travel book too.  I have taken this book with me to Miami, Destin, Panama City, and Charleston, and I just love the fact that when I open the book now, little grains of sand still fall out from in between the pages, which is why it's hard for this book not to become a very nostalgic symbol for anyone who owns it.

   If you like this "Durabook," Melcher Media also produces lots of other Durabooks ranging in subjects from kids' bath-themed books to a waterproof bible.  Most of them are pretty inexpensive, too (except for the bible).  I just bought a used copy of Poolside for 75 cents and The Soothing Soak: A Bathtub Reader for $1 on Amazon.  My husband and I are going on vacation to Arizona next month and I cannot wait to take Poolside with me, as I plan on spending lots of time at the pool cooling off from that desert heat.  The only downside to these books is that, since they're not made of paper, they are quite a bit heavier than regular books, so I'll have to remember that when I'm packing my luggage.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Uncoupling - Meg Wolitzer

The Uncoupling

Passion, sex, and romance prevail in this novel...until a mysterious spell enchants the characters.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

  So I just finished The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry today, and it was quite an entertaining book.  It's about a young woman, Ginny, who has Asperger's Syndrome and is forced to deal with the unexpected death of her parents.  As she and her sister, Amanda, disagree on her level of independence, Ginny finds solace in cooking from old family recipes.  She soon finds out that she has the power to conjure the ghosts of her dead relatives, just by cooking from their recipes (as long as it is in their handwriting and she follows the directions exactly).  As shocking as this is, Ginny uses this power to solve the mysteries that her parents left behind, such as a cryptic letter hidden in the chimney, or a box of photographs depicting a woman she has never seen.  Ginny may have been sheltered and overprotected her whole life, but these new-found abilities inspire her to become more assertive and explore a new world she has never known.

   I first thought this book was going to be mostly about family conflicts (disagreements with her sister, learning things about her parents she never knew), but it really turned out to be a lot more than that.  Ginny's character is quite endearing, as she struggles with being "normal" and gaining respect from her sister.  We also see Ginny transform from a girl who hides in closets during anxiety attacks to a young woman willing to step outside of her comfort zone for the sake of making a friend.  Plus, if you enjoy cooking, you'll love The Kitchen Daughter.  Many of the chapters feature the full recipes that she uses to conjure ghosts, which is great unless you're superstitious.  The ending of the book contains a shocking twist, and I won't ruin it for you, but for me it was pretty unexpected.

   The Kitchen Daughter is quirky, and the supernatural aspect may not appeal to everyone, but the story is more about Ginny's personal journey than anything else.  If you're looking for an absorbing book to add to your summer reading list, you should definitely check out this one.

Thursday, June 2, 2011