Friday, May 24, 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple and Last Night at Chateau Marmont by Lauren Weisberger

First, some book news from my home state of Iowa about the three bookstores they have in Sioux City (I am so envious!):
The Sioux City Journal profiled three bookstores in the Sioux City,
Iowa, area
all of which use hybrid bookstore models.
In Sioux City, Book People
the back of the store, a legacy of Chriss Camenzend, who in 2003 bought
the store, which was founded in 1977, and has worked in the travel
business more than 40 years. "It was one of my favorite places to shop,"
she told the paper. "I just didn't want to see it close after that many
In Cherokee, Iowa, the Book Vine, which
opened in 2007, features wine from around the world. Owner Mollie
Loughlin commented: "We can't compete with the Barnes & Nobles of the
world. We have to create our own niche." The Book Vine has "high
ceilings, a fireplace and sliding ladder [that] give the
2,000-square-foot store a distinct ambiance, providing a quiet place to
read," the paper wrote. "To get customers to linger a little longer,
Loughlin stocks wine accessories, stationery, a wide array of jewelry
and other novelty items throughout the store."
In Sheldon, Iowa, Sara Beahler and her husband opened Prairie Moon Books in 2007. Last year, the couple bought
a struggling clothing store and moved the bookstore and coffee bar into
the clothing store's building. As if those weren't enough businesses,
they also opened a bicycle shop in the basement. The small retail empire
is now called Contents.
Beahler said customer service is the store's most important offering:
"We remember what book we sold you a week ago. We know what to
recommend. You don't get that service when you shop online or shop at
the big-box stores."
Second, Powells, my favorite bookstore in Oregon is undergoing renovations!
Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., unveiled plans
for a renovation of its flagship store at 1005 West Burnside St. next
year. The project will focus on "seismically updating the southeast
quadrant of the city block the store occupies, commonly known as the
Green and Blue Rooms," according to the bookseller.
"This is the last piece of a long-term movement towards fully upgrading
the entire Burnside Building," noted Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz in a memo
to staff. "Back in 1990, we started the project by building a
three-story building in the northeast quadrant of the block. From there
we upgraded the parking structure and the Gold and Coffee Rooms in 1997.
In 2000, we upgraded the old Orange Room, replacing it with the
seismically upgraded four-story building."
The renovation will maintain the location's current footprint and
one-story design. In addition to the necessary seismic measures, the
project includes new lighting, new windows and a new roof. The design
review process will take place during the summer in preparation for work
to begin next January. During construction, the store will continue
normal operations. The Green and Blue Rooms will be closed, with books
currently in those areas temporarily moved to other locations in the
This past Thursday morning I picked up my copy of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria  Semple, for my usual morning hour of reading, when I discovered that I could NOT put it down. I read it all the way through in roughly 7 hours and some odd minutes, which is unusual for me, because I prefer to savor books and read several at a time. 
But Semple has created a story told through modern methods, such as emails, letters, texts and mundane items like invoices and clinical notes, that truly rivets the reader, taking you on a journey of discovery that leaves the reader, like the characters, breathless by the final chapter. 
It's the story of genius architect Bernadette, her husband Elgin and their daughter Bee as they attempt to build a life together in Seattle, though Bernadette, in particular, hates Seattle and the Pacific NW, and, as a Californian, is somewhat of a judgmental, arrogant snob.  Along with those traits comes an eccentric way of living, where Bernadette buys an old children's reformatory that is nearly condemned and then lives outside of it in an airstream trailer her daughter dubs "Petite Trianon" after Marie Antoinettes little escape place when she lived in Versaille. 
Elgin is also a genius, but with computers, so he works for Microsoft once the company buys his own robotic software startup. He's a bit of a cypher, but, like most men, seems to stumble along making mistakes with emotional issues and dealing with his family on a daily basis. While Elgie, as he's called, isn't good with people, other than nerds who speak his language, Bernadette is too cynical, angry and sarcastic to get along with any of her neighbors, so she becomes a misanthrope and hides herself away behind sunglasses and snark, while her neighbors plot and gossip about her.
Unfortunately, Bernadette has some seriously crazy neighbors who drive her to retaliate in cruel, if hilarious, fashion. Bee, who was born premature with a heart defect, adores her mother and has come to understand her rants and raves, but still considers her a great parent, since her father is away most of the time. Following some very Seattle circumstances that go wrong, Bernadette's husband tries to have her committed to a mental institution and at the same time ends up getting his admin assistant pregnant, though he doesn't love her and is still in love with his brilliant wife. Meanwhile, Bernadette thinks she has hired a virtual assistant in India, when in reality, she's given all her financial information to the Russian Mafia, who are coming to Seattle to kill her and take over her identity. The FBI and local authorities show up to try and catch the RM in action, only to find that Bernadette had no idea what was going on and is in the middle of an "intervention" to get her committed.
While the whole family was supposed to take a trip to Antartica, Bernadette ends up escaping all her troubles on the ship while her daughter is sent to a fancy boarding school and her husband tries to figure out where it all went wrong.  Soon, Bee has gathered interviews with old professors and collegues of her mothers, along with emails and texts and invoices, in order to make a book that she believes will lead her to find her mother, who is considered dead after drinking too much and supposedly going overboard on the ship. When Bee and Elgie undertake the journey to Antarctica for "closure," things wind up being even more complex than previously thought. 
If I had one criticism about this book, and it's a minor one, it would be that Bernadette doesn't actually disappear until the last third of the book, so we are treated to all these materials about her prior to that, which really isn't a bad thing, since they're all so interesting. But it would have been great if Bee and Elgie had been looking for her before the book was almost over. I realize that is somewhat of a plot style choice, but still, it is just a wee bit frustrating. Still, the book has a wonderfully happy ending, and we're left feeling as if we actually know these people, and have learned to love them, quirks and all. A solid A, and I would recommend this book to those who enjoy satire that is somewhere between Voltaire and David Sedaris. 
Last Night at the Chateau Marmont was a book that I've read for the library's Tuesday night book group, and I was expecting it to be much more literary than it actually was. As it is, the book read like a cross between a Helen Fielding novel and a Candace Bushnell book, with a touch of Danielle Steel thrown in for good measure. Melodramatic, pot-boiler, chick-lit, whatever you want to call it, the story revolves around Brooke, a redhead who is a bit ditzy but has great stylish friends, and Julian, her musician husband, whom she's been working two jobs as a nutritionist to support for 5 years. 
Here's the official blurb review from B&N:
Brooke loved reading the dishy celebrity gossip rag Last Night. That is, until her marriage became a weekly headline.
Brooke was drawn to the soulful, enigmatic Julian Alter the very first time she heard him perform “Hallelujah” at a dark East Village dive bar.
Now five years married, Brooke balances two jobs—as a nutritionist at NYU Hospital and as a consultant to an Upper East Side girls’ school, where privilege gone wrong and disordered eating run rampant—in order to help support her husband’s dream of making it in the music world.
Things are looking up when after years of playing Manhattan clubs and toiling as an A&R intern, Julian finally gets signed by Sony. Although no one’s promising that the album will ever hit the airwaves, Julian is still dedicated to logging in long hours at the recording studio. All that changes after Julian is asked to perform on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno—and is catapulted to stardom, literally overnight. Amazing opportunities begin popping up almost daily—a new designer wardrobe, a tour with Maroon 5, even a Grammy performance.
At first the newfound fame is fun—who wouldn’t want to stay at the Chateau Marmont or visit the set of one of television’s hottest shows? Yet it seems that Brooke’s sweet husband—the man who can’t handle hot showers and wears socks to bed—is increasingly absent, even on those rare nights they’re home together. When rumors about Brooke and Julian swirl in the tabloid magazines, she begins to question the truth of her marriage and is forced to finally come to terms with what she thinks she wants—and what she actually needs.
I found the book easy reading, and fun in spots, though the constant detailed description of every scrap of clothing the couple wears, and the shoes, and the coats, etc, got to be a bit much, and was tedious by the time I finished the novel. The thinly-veiled celebrity send-ups were fun, but nothing revelatory, and I found Julians weaknesses, (and they were many) to be annoying and unrealistic. I wasn't surprised at all when he got 'caught' with another woman, and I wasn't surprised that his manager had the whole thing set up. Neither was I at all surprised that the couple got back together. Love conquers all in books like this, especially when there is fame and fortune on the line. The prose was decent, if a bit breathless in spots, and the plot moved along at a metered pace, only slowing for the endless fashion descriptions. I'd give this novel a B-, with the caveat that it is what it is, a chicklit feelgood book that runs along the same lines as a Candance Bushnell novel. Sweet, but not horridly so, not enough to give you a cavity or diabetes. I'd recommend it to those who like a light, fluffy beach read.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgeway and Dante's Inferno

This past weekend, I just finished reading a book called "The River of No Return" by Bee Ridgeway, and immediately began comparing it to "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson. "Life After Life" was about reincarnation, true, but it also had something of a time-travel element to it, as the main character ended up at different places in history depending on the choices she made in each new life, which were informed by the mistakes she'd made in the previous life. Unfortunately, the protagonist learns nothing from her mistakes, and each life ends up being worse than the last, and readers are treated to grim scenarios in each chapter that remain pointless until the end, when we're left wondering why the author bothered to have the protagonist reborn at all. The plot was also turgid and the prose flat and boring.

So I was thrilled when "River of No Return" turned out to be nothing like "Life After Life," with lots of great characters who are fascinating and funny and full of vigor. Though the protagonist time travels 300 years into the future, he soon learns that the Guild that brought him forward isn't the only time-traveling organization in town, and he soon discovers that there's a dark underbelly to the organization, and that the war for the future is being waged with each group believing that they can find the talisman and stop the future from destroying itself. The plot is swift and sure as the river of time, and the prose is juicy and bouncy. My only problem with the novel was the ending, which read as if the author just got tired and decided to end the book mid-chapter. There are loads of unanswered questions and unsolved problems, so I can only assume that there is a sequel in the works. Here's a tidbit about the book from Shelf Awareness:

The River of No Return: A Novel by Bee Ridgeway (Dutton, $27.95,
9780525953869). "This romp in time has it all! There's a dashing hero,
several feisty heroines, some really nasty bad guys, plenty of mystery,
suspense, humor, and romance as Ridgeway navigates her eminently
plausible route along the River of Time filled with paradoxes and
switchbacks. A must for fans of Gabaldon's Outlander and Harkness' A
Discovery of Witches." --Annie Leonard, The Next Chapter, Knoxville,
 I love the idea of these booksellers putting together an Inferno-themed display in their bookstore!
"Fired up by the release of Dan Brown's Dante-inspired new thriller,
Inferno," the staff at BookPeople
Austin, Tex, "put together a massive display on our first floor honoring
all nine circles of Dante's hell: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger,
Heresy, Violence, Fraud & Treachery. From Fifty Shades of Grey (Lust) to
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Violence) to The Vanishers (Fraud,
Treachery, actually that one covers a few...) to Garfield Weighs His
Options (Gluttony) to Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut was an
atheist--Limbo!), you are invited to gleefully descend into the fiery
pits of damnation with us. Come on, you'll like it. It's warm down

Even though I don't own a bookstore or work in one, I find that I often have to restrain myself around people, too, to keep myself from giving them book recommendations, or begging them to drop that awful book that they're reading and pick up something better, with better prose or plot or by an author who can actually write.
Reaching Out to the 'World Beyond Our Front Doors'

"What does bother me is thinking about all the people out in the world
beyond our front doors who would thoroughly enjoy being here but still
haven't found us.... As a person who enjoys being sociable I have to
restrain myself constantly from approaching total strangers and saying,
'Hi! You don't know me but I've been watching you and I think you'd have
a wonderful time at the bookstore where I work.' The liabilities that
could result from this behavior clearly outweigh any imagined benefits.

"It's frustrating because I see potential Annie Bloom enthusiasts
everywhere; they're in supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops and
sometimes they're in the car stopped beside mine at a red light. You
would not believe how hard it is for me NOT to open my car door and hand
the driver next to me a bookmark from the store. Yes, I carry bookmarks
around with me and sometimes I hand them out to people who already know
me such as bank tellers and baristas."

--Jeffrey Shaffer, a bookseller at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, Ore., in a post on the PNBA's NW Book Lovers


Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Shopping in a Real Bookstore, Books to Plays and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

First, a couple of paragraphs that will remind you of the joys of shopping in a real bookstore (vs a virtual one, like Amazon):
In her Ploughshares essay "How to Shop at a Bookstore: An Easy 20-Step
Guide for Authors,"
Rebecca Makkai offered suggestions for visiting writers. A few of our

"First, smell it. Look at the new arrivals, lined up like candy. See if,
for just one second, you can remember what it was like to walk into a
bookstore as a reader. Just a reader, a happy, curious reader. With no
agenda, no insecurities, no history of bookstores as scenes of personal
failure and triumph. Wish for a time machine."

"Nervously check how the store seems to be doing. Are the lights still
on? Do the employees look well-fed? Thank God. The world isn't over

"You cannot afford all seven of the books that have somehow wound up in
your arms. Acknowledge that you will buy them anyway."

"As you cross the street with your bag of new books, remember the first
time your mother took you to a bookstore and told you to pick something
out. To keep, not borrow. You were overwhelmed by choice and wonder.
Remember how you pulled things off the shelf at random because every
book was equally unknown and fresh and promising."

And this about the latest bookish plays coming out, which fascinates me, as a former theater major and veteran bibliophile:
Robert Gray: Silence, Voice & Books on Stage

Although we write about book-to-film adaptations often in Shelf
Awareness, bookish theater gets less attention. So let's change that.
Book-to-musical productions are hot right now. Matilda
based on Roald Dahl's novel, earned a dozen Tony nominations this week.
Currently in various stages of development are musical versions of
Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude
Doyle's The Commitments
and American Psycho
by Bret Easton Ellis.

It's not just musicals. The London production of The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time
based on Mark Haddon's bestselling novel, won seven Olivier Awards. The
Royal Shakespeare Company is adapting Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall
Up the Bodies. William Goldman has written a new theatrical version of
Stephen King's Misery
even a Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production of Michael
Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
in Paris.

All giving voice to the written word, and to the complex silence of
reading. "As a writer of fiction, it is my job to work through silence,
to enter the minds of my characters, to create voices for them, to give
them a life that will matter emotionally and intellectually to others,"
Colm Tóibín writes in an author's note inserted in
for the stage adaptation of his novel The Testament of Mary (Scribner).
I saw the production, starring Fiona Shaw, last weekend at the Walter
Kerr Theatre in New York City.

Both the novel and play are stunning to me in very different ways, and a
perfect illustration of what happens when the voice (as well as silence)
in your reader's mind is interpreted by a brilliant actor on stage. I
had a similar reaction a few years ago to Vanessa Redgrave's
breathtaking performance in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

While reading The Testament of Mary, I'd conjured a woman who was
reflective yet fierce in her stillness and captivity, entangled in the
web of a developing narrative not of her own conception, immaculate or
otherwise. Shaw's Mary is more impatient, unable to rest as she tells
her story while moving objects, including herself, about the stage.  

And we are complicit in that story, too, witnesses to her confession as
well as traditional portrayals of Mary. Pre-show, the audience is
invited on stage to explore the set, with Shaw sitting rigidly inside a
glass box, dressed in the colorful robes we recall from depictions of
the iconic Madonna in paintings and sculptures.

As the play opens, however, Mary wears the drab clothing of a poor woman
and speaks to us in an all-too-human voice--alternately mournful,
scared, cynical, funny, angry, yet always piercingly observant. The
voice of a mother who has lost her son.

"It is written for a voice
Tóibín has said. "And it is written for an actress' voice.
And I had in mind as I was working a voice like Fiona Shaw's voice that
would have a huge level of commitment to loss." Both voices--Shaw's and
the one I imagined as a reader--now inhabit my mind with equal force.  

Earlier this week, Tóibín learned that even though The
Testament of Mary has earned a Best Play Tony nomination
it will close Sunday after just 43 performances due to poor ticket

How did he deal with the loss? "I think dark laughter might be the best
way to put it," he said. "And when in doubt, consult Oscar Wilde.... He
has a quote--success is merely a preparation for failure. Anyone who
works in the arts knows, if you're writing a novel or a play or
anything, you have to be ready for someone to say, you're time is up."
Poet and critic Robert Bly, whose most recent book is Airmail: The

He also noted that "about 30,000 people will have seen the play over a
6-week run by the time it closes, with a standing ovation every night.
In European terms, that's a huge success. In Dublin I'd be walking
around with everyone saying, what an amazing success you've had with
your play."

I bought my ticket months ago, when I first learned the play was coming
to Broadway. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Shaw told NPR
that while she is "on the stage alone, I suppose what happens is, I feel
I'm surfing the story with the audience.... I tell this particular
story, and I follow it as I'm in it, and the audience follow it with me.
So I do feel a great communion, dare I say, with the audience." This is
how it felt to me, too--her voice, her silences, Tóibín's
words and, somewhere in there, myself as reader and then as audience.
Communion. --Robert Gray 

This is interesting, as Robert Bly is an amazing poet and writer.
Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer (Graywolf), was asked in a
recent New York Times Book Review interview to name his favorite

"The best is Birchbark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, and run by a great staff that sometimes includes her
family members," he replied. "The store is near us, and we can walk
there. There is always something excellent to take home. Just down the
street we have some good used-book stores. Magers & Quinn [which also sells new books] is one.They have had a fine reading series off and on."

Finally, a brief bit about a book I just finished over the weekend, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.
Written in something of the same lighthearted prose style as Bridget Jones Diary, Me Before You is a deceptively simple novel at first blush. However, the further into the novel that you travel, the more intense and dramatic the plot becomes. The novel is about a young woman who is leading a somewhat feckless life, working at a cafe because it is the path of least resistence, and she's required to work to help support her family, who only have one  other working person, her father, while her mother stays home to care for a disabled parent and her sister goes to college and raises an illegitimate child. When the cafe closes, our protagonist, who dresses like a theater major and is used to being the butt of family jokes because of her clumsiness and outrageous fashion sense, finds a job caring for a wealthy young quadrapeligic man in his mansion. This young man is bitter and cynical, and having lived life to the fullest with trips around the world, mountain climbing and other dangerous sports, he no longer wants to live a limited existence in a wheelchair. Our heroine Louisa Clarke finds herself falling for Will, and attempts to do everything in her power to show him that life is worth living. A Love Story for this generation, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart? 
I found myself turning pages long after my bedtime, and I also was rather shocked at the ending, which I'd assumed would be the standard HEA. Still, a very satisfying story that will make readers think and evaluate what constitutes a life worth living? A solid A.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Great Gatsby Movie and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I am really looking forward to seeing the latest adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" at the movie theater, because it looks like a lavish, beautiful production.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald's handwritten ledger
his film payments from 1919 to 1938, the author earned $16,666 for the
film version of The Great Gatsby
"Math wizards can computate what these numbers mean in today's dollars.
But, hey, isn't that price for a treatment what MGM is still paying?" wrote regarding the documents, which were released as the
May 10 opening of Baz Luhrmann's new adaptation of the classic novel

Also Warner Bros. has unveiled "a plethora of images
to further illustrate that the film "is a literal feast for the eyes,
and it's detailed no better than in these still images. The opulence,
the bright colors, and the wealth literally dripping from the ceiling is
all highlighted, and set against the flawless cast that includes
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan," Indiewire wrote.

This idea of a book club on the ferry boat makes me want to go live on Bainbridge Island or Vashon Island.

Books Afloat on the Bainbridge Ferry

On April 25, Susan Wiggs, author of The Apple Orchard (Harlequin), held
a reading in an unlikely place--on board the Seattle/Bainbridge ferry in

The reading was the first in a new program organized by the Kitsap
Regional Library, called Books Afloat. Every Thursday, on the 3:50 p.m.
ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle and on the return trip to
Bainbridge Island at 4:40 p.m., an author or a librarian will hold a
book talk. The Kitsap Regional Library will also be operating a "Ferry
Tales" book club. All Books Afloat programs are free for ferry riders.

More information about Book Afloat can be found at the Kitsap Library

 "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson has gotten a lot of good ink and hype in the book world, with many of the latest "It" authors blurbing the book and going on and on about how dazzling it is, with all these magnificent characters and clever prose.
So I started reading it, and was hard-pressed to stay awake for the first 75 pages, which are pretty boring, with prose that merely details, but doesn't examine anything of value. The main character, Ursula, dies in every chapter, and then is resurrected by the next page, after which she uses the knowledge from her past experience to avoid the same fate in this next life. Except she soon discovers that taking a different path or preventing someone from bringing the Spanish influenza into their home only makes for her to have a more difficult and tortuous life that ends in death for herself and/or any children or spouses she's had. It's like watching a train wreak over and over, but watching it happen at different times with slightly different causes. There's still going to be death and mayhem, but the vehicle that brings the death is in question, so as to keep the reader turning pages, one supposes. In one life she marries a Nazi and after his death, when it is clear that Germany has no food and has lost the war,  she takes cyanide capsules with her daughter and dies. In another life she is killed during the London Blitz. In another she commit suicide by gassing herself. You get the idea. This book is an endless litany of wasted life and meaningless death. Ursula has a wonderful father, whom she adores, several brothers and sisters and a mother Sylvia, who is a horrid snob and a b*tch. They live in the English countryside in a home christened "Fox Corner" and though they seem to be out of the way, a surprising number of dangerous people, and viruses seem to lurk around every tree, from rapists to pedophilic serial killers to influenza, TB and war. In fact, Atkinson manages to get both World Wars into her novel, which should be re-classified as horror fiction, in my opinion. 
I didn't feel any sort of connection to the protagonist, Ursula, other than a mild curiosity to see how she was going to die in this chapter. She seemed rather witless, graceless and depressed most of the time, and we never did discover if she had any sort of talent that she could shape into a career before she made another mistake and took up with yet another awful man who would either abuse her or set her on the path to distruction. The horrid mother spends most of the book judging everyone and finding them wanting, saying cruel, rude things to everyone and generally being the kind of character you pray will get killed off during childbirth.
I honestly didn't see the point of the novel, unless it is to say that if you're living a worthless existence, don't think that reincarnation will save you, because really, every existence is just a worthless, dull, drab slog through horrible circumstances until a bomb with your name on it finds you. There's a strong fatalism that runs through the novel that really makes you want to toss either the book or yourself out a window. The prose is fairly standard, not lithe or glamorous at all, and the plot plods along on tired legs until the predictable ending. I'd give this book a D, and I would only recommend it to someone elderly who has lived through both wars and finds reincarnation fascinating.