Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Trailer: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Table of Contents: In the Woods

In the WoodsAuthor: Tana French
Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2008
Synopsis: As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled shoes, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.

Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox – his partner and closest friend – find themselves investigating a case with chilling links to that long-ago disappearance. Now, with only snippets of buried memories to guide him, Rob has the chance to unravel both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.

What Others Have To Say

The Times
"Sharply written and insidiously creepy, this is a mesmerising read that grabs hold of the reader from the very first page and doesn’t let go until well past two in the morning."

The New York Times
"Drawn by the grim nature of her plot and the lyrical ferocity of her writing, even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods."

Literary Review
"The interplay between detective partners, the portrayal of the people involved, the atmosphere of tension and suspicion is skilfully described while the reader’s attention is tightened and slackened with a masterly hand."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review: Andre Agassi, Open

Publisher/Year: Knopf, 2009

Open: An Autobiography (Vintage)
Tennis is a sport I know almost nothing about. Over the years I have come to know some of the names in the sport in passing--McEnroe, Navratilova, King, Graf, Sampras--if not the sport itself. What I associate most with tennis is the ping of the ball off the racket and the encompassing silence of the games beyond that. As an avid player of badminton in my youth, I can get behind the awesomeness of hitting that perfect folly over the net punctuated by that glorious sound. I don't understand the rules of the game, though it seems simple enough to play for fun. Given my somewhat apathetic attitude towards tennis, it is curious that I should pick up Andre Agassi's autobiography Open during my latest library trip.

I recall Agassi in terms of the popular culture referencing that we likely all have at some point. The hair, oh that hair and then none. The women--Streisand, Shields, finally Graf. The rock star attitude. These are all pieces within a much larger puzzle, I thought as I picked up the book. I would come to learn that while Agassi is indeed a larger puzzle these few pieces are rather quite large and take up consider space in his story.

When I finished this book, it was obvious to me that Agassi did not have to write it. Okay, lots (most) people don't have to write their autobiographies. But with Agassi, I can’t help but wonder what he thought could be gained from revealing a year-long crystal meth dalliance? To me, it is the setup to explain that he lied about the usage when confronted by a failed drug test (the book is title 'Open' afterall). He claimed "I drank a friend's spiked soda!” and the ATP bought the explanation. For this reader, this story resonated more about the wisdom, or rather failed wisdom, of a professional organization that allows a player to write a mere letter to defend their actions. It opens the door to ultimately letting the organization actively off the hook for conducting a proper investigation by letting an athlete let himself or herself off the hook.

But enough about this. I could go on for volumes about integrity or lack thereof in sports.

What Agassi gained in telling his story was an opportunity to negate or debunk some of the myths about him and possibly to also propagate others. It is sweet to know that Stephanie (Steffi) Graf was a significant feature is his personal life long before they became romantically involved. It comes through loud and clear that in her Agassi has found his other half. And the relationship between him and trainer-mentor-guru Gil Reyes is heartening to read about. Both threads of the story are not surprising though; it would be a different type of cheating on Agassi’s part to not have such archetypes factor into the story. Unfortunately for him, Hollywood as stripped out some of the sincerity of such archetypal relationships through melodramatic retellings in lesser fare. This makes the more emotional components of the story ring a bit hollow despite the obvious sincerity.

Two themes were clear to me throughout Agassi's detailed tellings of his professional and personal struggles. One, his insecurity. It would be easy to lay blame for this at the feet of his borderline abusive father but Agassi does not do this and nor can I. He simply seemed like a kid in an adult body until his 30s, much like many of our generation where self-confidence is often mistaken for self-esteem in our pursuit to be somebody. Sure, Agassi had lots of success and lots of defeat yet he spends considerable time retelling his many steps to the precipice of wanting to figure out why either would happen and then his rushing away from the edge. He seems afraid to know what was really lurking underneath the rebellions that lead to a pink mohawk or denim shorts or his first marriage. If I had to venture a guess, Agassi having to listen to his brother Philly repetitively being told by their father that he was a born loser had more impact on him than Philly.

Second, his sensitivity. This comes through crystal clear in the discussion around his first marriage. He and Shields connected based on a similar background but obviously there was not enough similarity to make it last. I had always thought Shields to be quite cold, and the image rendered here reinforces my thoughts. For example, when she questions why he got involved in the medical troubles of an acquaintance, it almost feels like a verbal slap in the face. And not just to him.

A clear outlet for this sensitivity was the establishment of his charter school for at-risk children in Las Vegas. Besides his family, this school is his haven and heaven. For a kid who brashly dropped out of school at 14 to open such an institution demonstrates a heightened acceptance that he was capable of more than tennis. The pedigree he brings to the school—eight grand slams, one Olympic gold medal, 60 titles, 1,000 matches—provides for a stability and a location of excellence that he himself craved throughout his career.

I must admit though to being bored when reading the passages dedicated to recounting matches. Technically these are the most action packed in any sports biography I've come across to date yet they read dry as clay when put to paper. I suspect you need to be a tennis fan, or have more than a cursory interest in the sport to truly get the grit within the passages. The only match of his that I recall fully watching was from the 2006 US Open against Marcos Baghdatis. I didn't really know what I was watching but it felt like history in the making (which it was) and I couldn't turn away.

His recounting of the physical and emotional pain endured then underscores my long respect for his passion for the sport. He often recounts in the book that he hates tennis but one does not risk permanent injury time and time again without some desire or passion fueling the fire within. And it underscores his respect for the sport and his fellow players. They do not always come across favorably but they are rendered fairly within his perspective. One does not get the feeling that Agassi despised any of them though, I’m sure there were times when he felt he did.

Overall, Open feels like Agassi on a quest. To where or to what I ends, I am unsure. There is plenty of information and details from which to drawn many different conclusions but the only one that matters is his own. As with all autobiographies, the literary goal is to demonstrate that a person has come "full circle" in some fashion. Same is true for Agassi. And having achieved so much personal and professional success by the age of 36, including this book, seems pretty full circle to me. May he keep questing and being 'open'.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Table of Contents: Bossypants

BossypantsAuthor: Tina Fey
Publisher/Year: Reagan Arthur Books, 2011
Synopsis: Tina Fey’s new book Bossypants is short, messy, and impossibly funny (an apt description of the comedian herself). From her humble roots growing up in Pennsylvania to her days doing amateur improv in Chicago to her early sketches on Saturday Night Live, Fey gives us a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of modern comedy with equal doses of wit, candor, and self-deprecation. Some of the funniest chapters feature the differences between male and female comedy writers ("men urinate in cups"), her cruise ship honeymoon ("it’s very Poseidon Adventure"), and advice about breastfeeding ("I had an obligation to my child to pretend to try"). But the chaos of Fey’s life is best detailed when she’s dividing her efforts equally between rehearsing her Sarah Palin impression, trying to get Oprah to appear on 30 Rock, and planning her daughter’s Peter Pan-themed birthday.

What Others Have to Say

The Guardian
"Fey is out of her genre, and it shows: it takes an age to get going, and it's less like prose non-fiction than a sketch comedy in book form, with a disproportionate number of one-liners, not all of which work. What it does have, though, when you eventually get to it, is a good old-fashioned mission statement."

National Post
"Because for all the jibes about how to deal with right-wing internet commentators and arch-less Greek eyebrows, Tina Fey refuses to discuss her role in contemporary culture. Maybe she doesn’t understand it herself. The result is a joke-driven memoir that resonates like a punchline without the setup."

The New York Times
"It’s a spiky blend of humor, introspection, critical thinking and Nora Ephron-isms for a new generation."

The A.V. Club
"Even as she declares her effortlessness to be an illusion, Fey makes her potent combination of wit and attack look easy."

Book Mark: Excerpt from "Those Guys Have All the Fun"

A book heavily anticipated by people other than me (books about sports are not high on the reading list), Those Guys Have all the Fun seems to have lived up to the hype. I found an excerpt online from GQ that provides a very brief picture of what the rest of the 700+ page oral history is like and I admit to being interested. Not enough to buy it but maybe pick it up from the library in a couple years.

Check out Those Guys Have All the Fun and see if it is going to hit your bookshelf.

ESPN began as an outrageous gamble with a lineup that included Australian Rules Football, rodeo, and a rinky-dinky clip show called Sports Center. Today the empire stretches far beyond television into radio, magazines, mobile phones,the internet, video games and more, while ESPN's personalities have become global superstars to rival the sports icons they cover. Chris Berman, Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann, Hannah Storm, Bill Simmons, Tony Kornheiser, Stuart Scott, Erin Andrews, Mike Ditka, Bob Knight, and scores of others speak openly about the games, shows, scandals, gambling addictions, bitter rivalries, and sudden suspensions that make up the network's soaring and stormy history. The result is a wild, smart, effervescent story of triumph, genius, ego, and the rise of an empire unlike any television had ever seen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Mark: Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America, per Amazon.com

Amazon press release, May 26:

Just in time for the summer reading season, Amazon.com announced its list of the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America. After compiling sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents, the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities are:

1. Cambridge, Mass.
2. Alexandria, Va.
3. Berkeley, Calif.
4. Ann Arbor, Mich.
5. Boulder, Colo.
6. Miami
7. Salt Lake City
8. Gainesville, Fla.
9. Seattle
10. Arlington, Va.
11. Knoxville, Tenn.
12. Orlando, Fla.
13. Pittsburgh
14. Washington, D.C.
15. Bellevue, Wash.
16. Columbia, S.C.
17. St. Louis, Mo.
18. Cincinnati
19. Portland, Ore.
20. Atlanta

In taking a closer look at the data, Amazon.com also found that:
  • Not only do they like to read, but they like to know the facts: Cambridge, Mass.--home to the prestigious Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology--also topped the list of cities that ordered the most nonfiction books.
  • Boulder, Colo., lives up to its reputation as a healthy city by topping the list of cities that order the most books in the Cooking, Food & Wine category.
  • Alexandria, Va., residents must be reading a lot of bedtime stories - they topped the list of the city that orders the most children's books.
  • Summer reading weather all year long? Florida was the state with the most cities in the Top 20, with Miami, Gainesville and Orlando making the list.
"In anticipation of the summer reading season--one of our favorite times to catch up on pleasure reading and unwind with the new titles being published this season--we're excited to reveal the Most Well-Read City list," said Mari Malcolm, managing editor of Books, Amazon.com. "We hope book lovers across the country enjoy this fun look at where the most voracious readers reside, and that everyone gets the chance to relax with some great summer reads."

Book Mark: Excerpt from Mindy Kaling's "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"

Mindy Kaling, aka Kelly Kapoor from The Office, is releasing her first book this fall. It is intended as a collection of short essays, though reading through the 27 pages recently posted online, they may be better described as advice columns or extra long Twitter entries (Kaling is a huge Twitter-phile). What I have read thus far is not very funny (more cutesy), and is more generic than expected. Given that The Office episodes she has written were great (Lecture Circuit 1 and 2 are classics), my expectations were perhaps a little too high for this first look. Here's hoping the rest of the book builds on the slow beginning.

Check out Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and see what you think!

Adaptation: X-Men: First Class

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakePublisher/Year: Doubleday, 2010

There are those books that stay with you throughout the years. Then there are those books that dissipate away as soon as the back cover is closed. For me, An Invisible Sign of My Own falls into the former category; it is a book that will not go away. It is seared into my brain with such force and prominence that I sometimes wonder that if I start talking about it, I may just start spilling forth its prose in fandom exaltations. A situation, no doubt, that would be fraught with embarrassment for all parties involved.

Such adoration of this novel is one reason why I can only recall a single instance where I verbally recommended it. Sure, I wrote a review of the book and published it in a couple places but that is more of an impersonal method of pushing forward a recommendation. To pass along an adored book to others so that they may too praise its awesomeness 'in person' gives the sharing experience an additional sheen of camaraderie and tangibility. The truth is though…I want to keep Aimee Bender all to myself. I want to be like a two-year yelling “mine” whenever they point at or pick up something - “Oh, Aimee Bender? Mine!” The luscious weirdness, the ruthless artistry, I want it all just for me.

This greediness came to the fore again with the recent absorption of Bender’s latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I say absorption rather then reading because I don’t believe one ‘reads’ magical realism. The verb is too passive, too sulky to be associated with the emotional mash-ups that occur within such writing. Not that this novel is just magic realism; I should be clear about this. It is rather a mixture of magic realism, surrealism, and realism. There’s a whole lot of “real” going on that needs to be attended to here. You need to read a bit, take a pause, and then read a little more; let your psyche absorb what it is consuming.

The narrative belongs to 8-year old Rose Edelstein, who encounters the lemon cake referenced in the title the day before her birthday. When she arrives home from school her mother suggests that they have a practice run for the next day, and the two set about a comforting routine to make the aforementioned lemon cake. Upon the first bite of her practice birthday cake however, Rose discovers a peculiarity to the cake; she tastes something beyond the known ingredients. She tastes loneliness and sadness, her mother’s “absence, hunger, spiraling, hollow.” It all comes as a surprise and creates a traumatic experience through which Rose must fashion a unique culinary life.

"I knew if I ate anything of hers again, it would likely tell me the same message: help me, I am not happy, help me -- like a message in a bottle sent in each meal to the eater, and I got it. I got the message."

Every bite of food from this point on infuses Rose with the feelings of those who produced the food. She becomes so attuned to the feelings that soon she can identify where a product is made, how a piece of fruit is picked, if a cook is angry or happy or sad. The wealth of emotion she receives through food forces her to subsist largely on vending machine treats, much preferring their dulled feelings to the possible hysteria lurking in freshly prepared dishes.

As with most families, Rose keeps her unique talent hidden. The complexities of Rose’s relationships with food serve to provide insights into the workings of her family—her adulterous mother, her disengaged father, her oddball grandmother, her disappearing (literally) brother. She indulges early on in trying to articulate her dilemma to her brother Joseph, whose genius is not his only talent she comes to discover. It is Joseph’s friend George though who, although skeptical, becomes her ally (and first love) following a fateful trip to a local bakery. He even proclaims her a “magic food psychic.”

You may, as I did, associate this book in passing to Laura Esquivel’s brilliant Like Water for Chocolate. Both are about the magic realism lingering within the dynamics of human emotion and the items we consume. However, the significant difference between the novels is the narrative construction. Tita pours her emotions in her cooking, emotions that actively overtake all who smell and eat it. Conversely, Rose is the passive recipient of the emotions here; the tasting of food and identifying the accompanying emotions becomes something of a game to her.

Through this culinary game, Rose struggles with finding her place on either side of the blessing or curse divide and the reader struggles right alongside her. Her talent isolates her, as the emotions encountered through food are at times unbearable. She retreats into the world of processed food, an action that mimics her social and familial withdrawal as well. The solace provided from this withdrawal helps her handle other people’s emotions but at the same time triggers an inability to properly deal with her own.

Rose’s withdrawal is paralleled by that of her brother Joseph, who spends most of his time in his room alone. He has one friend George, who fulfills some of the brotherly duties that Joseph eschews. Joseph’s behavior is odd, which their mother attributes this to him being a genius rather than suffering from something much deeper. Both Rose and Joseph are alone by choice, but only Rose acknowledges in small ways that she is also lonely. It is this acknowledgement that serves to highlight the intensity of human disengagement that exists within her family.

It would not be wrong to casually refer to Rose’s journey as a coming-of-age tale. We do follow Rose from age 9 to 22 throughout the story. But the story fits somewhat uncomfortably under that literary umbrella. The story feels more like a quest, albeit one without a clear goal. Rose learns to manage her psychic ability well enough early on and chooses to embrace the limitations rather than its possibilities. It is only near the end of the novel that she starts to turn 45 degrees in the other direction and slightly fracture the loneliness and sadness that engulfed her for so long.

There is no clear and happy ending to Rose’s story; it just continues on. This partly because of the lack of sentimentality within Bender’s writing. And this is a good thing, as this lack allows the story to build angst and anxiety within the words. Bender articulates Rose’s complexity masterfully, knowing when to take a light-hearted turn and knowing when to let the darkness seep in to colour the experience. She is, as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language.”

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is, ultimately, about a family traumatized by its own familial confines. Bender skillfully harnesses these traumas into characters that outlast and outgrow the pages of the novel. I can only hope that there is another novel on the horizon that will tell Joseph’s quest too. The glimpses into his world left me craving more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Mark: 2011 Nebula Award Winners

For all you science fiction lovers out there, the 2011 Nebula Award Winners were announced over this past weekend. And even a non-sci fi reader like myself can get excited with the success of Connie Willis. She took top honours for not one but two books - Blackout and All Clear. The novels are considered a single work split into two separate books to account for the length (501 and 656 pages respectively). Her novel Bellwether is one my favorite books, and was the perfect introduction to her writing.

All the winners (courtesy of SFWA.org):

Winning Novel: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Spectra)

 Blackout All Clear 

Also Nominated:
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson (Spectra)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit UK; Orbit US)
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Echo by Jack McDevitt (Ace)
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Winning Novella: “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer ’10)

Also Nominated:
The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (Audible; Subterranean)
“Iron Shoes” by J. Kathleen Cheney (Alembical 2)
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s 9/10)
Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” by Paul Park (F&SF 1-2/10)

Winning Novelette: “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog 9/10)

Also Nominated:
“Map of Seventeen” by Christopher Barzak (The Beastly Bride)
The Jaguar House by in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s 7/10)
“The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara” by Christopher Kastensmidt (Realms of Fantasy 4/10)
Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s 12/10)
“Pishaach” by Shweta Narayan (The Beastly Bride)
Stone Wall Truth” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Asimov’s 2/10)

Winning Short Story (tie): “Ponies” by Kij Johnson (Tor.com 1/17/10) and “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison (Realms of Fantasy 2/10)

Also Nominated:
Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed 8/10)
I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan (Lightspeed 6/10)
The Green Book” by Amal El-Mohtar (Apex 11/1/10)
Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland (Dark Faith)
Conditional Love” by Felicity Shoulders (Asimov’s 1/10)

Ray Bradbury Award: Inception

Also Nominated:
Despicable Me
Doctor Who:
“Vincent and the Doctor”
How to Train Your Dragon
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Toy Story 3

Andre Norton Award: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (Gollancz; Harper)

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld)

Also Nominated:
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
White Cat by Holly Black (McElderry)
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press; Scholastic UK)
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (Amulet)
The Boy from Ilysies by Pearl North (Tor Teen)
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner (Greenwillow)
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Table of Contents: Supreme Courtship

Supreme CourtshipAuthor: Christopher Buckley
Publisher/Year: Twelve, 2008
Synopsis: The unpopular President of the United States is unable to get his Supreme Court nominees past the senator who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Dexter Mitchell. Frustrated, he outmaneuvers Mitchell by nominating Pepper Cartwright, a judge on a television reality show. She's so popular that her nomination breezes through the Senate. Once on the court, she begins an affair with the chief justice. Mitchell is so undone by her nomination that he leaves the Senate and takes a role on a television show where he plays a fictional president. He becomes so popular that he runs for the presidency for real. The election is so close that it ends up before the Supreme Court.

What Others Have To Save
The New York Times
"His villains are Washington’s ideologues, left and right, whose principles always boil down to self-regard. Buckley’s heart belongs to the outsiders, outcasts and mavericks who see through all the spin. Each of his novels may be as light as air, but bit by bit they’re building up into a significant social portrait, the beginnings of a vast Com├ędie-Washingtonienne."

The Washington Post
"You don't read a Buckley novel for the depth of character development."

Christian Science Monitor
"It is more silly than sleek satire, more sophomoric than sophisticated, late-night stand-up jokes."

Los Angeles Times
"Buckley is too witty not to give us some of those luscious moments that force us to laugh at something we know we shouldn't, like the chief justice of the United States arguing case law with Pepper as she discovers him trying to hang himself above the table in the justices' conference room."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Line By Line: Cory Doctorow, For The Win

For the Win"The fact is, almost everything you do is collaborative. Somewhere out there, someone else had a hand it it."

"It's the stupid questions that have some of the most surprising and interesting answers. Most people never think to ask the stupid questions." 

"The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack."

"The future's a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Table of Contents: While I'm Falling

While I'm FallingAuthor: Laura Moriarty
Publisher/Year: Hyperion, 2009
Synopsis: Ever since her parents announced that they're getting divorced, Veronica has been falling. Hard. A junior in college, she's fallen in love. She's fallen behind in her difficult coursework. She hates her job at the dorm, and she longs for the home that no longer exists. When an attempt to escape the pressure, combined with bad luck, lands her in a terrifying situation, a shaken Veronica calls her mother for help - only to find her former foundation too preoccupied to offer any assistance at all. But Veronica only gets to feel hurt for so long. Her mother shows up at the dorm with a surprising request - and with the elderly family dog in tow. Veronica soon finds herself with a new set of problems, and new questions about love and independence.

What Others Have To Say
Jodi Picoult, Author
"[It] deftly captures the moment a child realizes that growing up means being responsible for your parents' mistakes--and preventing yourself from making the same ones."

Dallas Morning News
"The conflicts, although they have broader social implications, are on a small scale. It’s Moriarty’s eye for detail and smart observations that elevate the novel above the level of mere domestic drama."

Chicklit Reviews
"...despite being slow, with barely any action, the story itself is very well written..."