Monday, March 3, 2014
hardcover, 256 pages
Speigel & Grau
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
The best of Violet Kupersmith's short stories create a kind of prickling sensation along the reader's arms...or maybe the back of her neck. The Frangipani Hotel is a debut collection of stories by Violet Kupersmith, a Mount Holyoke graduate who spent a postgraduate year teaching and conducting research in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. The daughter of an American father and a former boat refugee from Vietnam, Kupersmith blends tales of the spirit world with contemporary realism in these stunning and witty stories.
"Boat story" opens the collection, and sets the tone for The Frangipani Hotel: a high school student is interviewing her grandmother for a school project; she asks her grandmother for a "boat story." The grandmother asks: "You really want to know the country you came from?"..."And you want a story about me on a boat?" The grandmother then proceeds to tell a supernatural story, one that gives the listener "everything you need to know...The first rule of the country we came from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want."
The stories in Kupersmith's collection combine the mundane and the ghostly in ways that can be humorous, chilling, or both. In "Reception," a young man finds a break from the tedium of working in his uncle's hotel when he finds an unregistered guest in one of the rooms: it is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, resting in an overflowing bathtub, lapping at the water with her little pink tongue. The discovery of who or what this woman really is leads the young man to confront his past, and the past of his country.
One of my favorite stories in The Frangipani Hotel is "Guests." In this story a bored and self-absorbed young American living and working in Ho Chi Minh City confronts the mystery and mixed loyalties of her own place in Vietnam, as well as the colliding cultures (she doesn't seem to fit into either). "Split Mia," as she calls herself at one point in the story, works in the immigration department of the U.S. Consulate, filing dual citizenship requests for mothers who claim their children have been fathered by Americans. What happens in the story can't be entirely explained but leaves a curious feeling of karma.
In The Frangipani Hotel people easily turn into snakes or serpent women; much that happens is inexplicable and deeply unsettling, and yet the two worlds--the spirit world and the material world--seem seamless. This collection is filled with beautifully told tales that have the mark of a talented writer. Highly recommended for readers of stories, and those who are interested in the meeting of cultures.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Bookish Things I Love
1. Independent bookstores like Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. I love going into a bookstore and knowing that I will be surprised, that I will see a selection of books personally chosen by a real book lover, a selection that reflects the passion and intelligence of another reader.2. Staff Picks. As a former bookseller, I well remember the pleasure I took in choosing books for the Staff Picks section--and my excitement when a customer bought one of my staff picks. This personal recommendation from Janet at Avid Bookshop ends with the words every passionate reader wants to say when it comes to a book they have loved: Read It! And so I will.
What three bookish things do you love?
Monday, February 17, 2014
hardcover, 352 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Laura Lippman has always been my go-to author when I am craving a fast-paced, witty, gritty mystery. Lippman's writing is artful, entertaining, and funny, and she writes about a town where I've lived. Baltimore is the home town of Tess Monaghan, Lippman's series character, a former newspaper writer turned private investigator. Lippman's stand-alone novels are also set in Charm City (title of one of Lippman's books, and a moniker for the city of Baltimore). In After I'm Gone, Lippman cleverly links this stand-alone novel to her series character, without having Tess Monaghan really involved in the plot.
After I'm Gone is a story about a man who disappears, and the effect his disappearance has on five women. Felix Brewer, a businessman with legitimate and not-so-legitimate operations, vanishes on the fourth of July in 1976, just as he is about to start a long prison sentence. Felix leaves behind his wife, Bambi, his mistress Julie, and three young daughters, Linda, Rachel, and Michelle.
Lippman moves seamlessly back and forth in time, weaving her story of love and betrayal, and drawing the reader into the heart of this mystery. The love of Felix Brewer's life was Bambi Gottschalk, a luminous beauty he met at a high school Valentine's dance. Even though Felix shows up at the dance accompanied by his lawyer and his future bail bondsman, Bambi falls for him instantly. They begin a family, and Bambi turns a blind eye to Felix's affairs--he's a serial adulterer who remains devoted to his wife in his own strange way.
Ten years after Felix disappears, his mistress, a former exotic dancer who inherited a small business from Felix, vanishes. Everyone who knows her assumes she's gone to join Felix. Bambi and her daughters are left to struggle on and wonder. The mistress, Julie, has always believed she was Felix's true love--she went so far as to convert to Judaism for him. The antagonism between Bambi and Julie is deep, and when Julie's remains are eventually found, there's no shortage of suspects. Bambi and each of her three daughters have apparent motives, and they aren't the only ones.
The retired police detective working this cold case--twenty-six years after Julie's disappearance--is Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez. Lippman gives the reader quite a bit of back story on her sympathetic and methodical detective...which should come in handy, since there are hints toward the end of the novel that Sanchez may appear in a Tess Monaghan novel. Sanchez is a widower, a loner, and it is through his careful eyes that the reader examines the behavior and motives of the many possible suspects in Julie Saxony's homicide.
For much of After I'm Gone I nearly forgot that there was a mystery to be solved--I got so caught up in the characters and the intricacies of their relationships and their lives. At the center of the book is the stunning beauty, Bambi Brewer, a woman so alluring that she never seems to lose her magnetism, even as she ages. The daughters she and Felix had together are seen growing up throughout this novel, as the narrative dips back and forth in time: the youngest, Michelle, was only three at the time of Felix's disappearance, and she is the daughter who most resembles Bambi. Michelle is also the most seductive, and sometimes corrupt of the three daughters (her character is definitely the most fun, and she has the most fun).
One thing I want this kind of novel to do is pull me into that almost trance-like state where all I want to do is read. Lippman is expert at achieving this effect, and I certainly was mesmerized by After I'm Gone. This novel hits that sweet spot between maintaining suspense and creating engrossing characters, and it had me in its grip from the first page. The ending was unexpected in several ways, and I appreciate that in a mystery too--there's nothing worse than guessing the ending halfway through a book.
After I'm Gone is the work of a fine writer who just happens to write mysteries. If you appreciate well-wrought mysteries with compelling characters, get ready to be addicted.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Is It February Already?
Do you ever feel just kind of ....overwhelmed? Two weekends in a row I was at professional conferences, and then I felt like I hit a literal wall. Okay, I really mean a figurative wall. This weekend I finally got some much needed rest, and had some time to look over my recent acquisitions.
I might as well admit that I am incorrigible. I don't even want to change.
Two recent releases activated the *want* and *must have* areas of my brain:
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser
Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, and has written eight books of nonfiction and one novel. Books about books, and, more specifically, books about the pleasures of reading (some of my favorites are books by Michael Dirda, Francine Prose, and Jane Smiley) offer, well, endless pleasure for me. So I can't wait to get to this one.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Are you kidding me? I should have written this book! Except I'm not a writer for The New Yorker. But I did write this post: "Middlemarch My Love."
Middlemarch is my favorite novel. I've read it five times (at least). Love. So of course....I hope that Rebecca Mead's love for my favorite novel will somehow mirror/enrich my own.
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman
I picked this up at the wonderful indie bookstore Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. It is a collection of interviews with novelists, many of whom I love insanely and worshipfully, others whom I hope to adore:
Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, David Foster Wallace, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk, Jennifer Egan.....
How did I not know about this book? How wonderful is it that I happened upon it in a bookshop (yay for bookstores!)?
There's more, but in an attempt to look less obsessive and more normal, I'll stop there. It's a kind of theme, anyway, books about books and reading and writing.
Do you have anything on your bookshelf you're especially excited about?
Sunday, February 2, 2014
So it wasn't really a snow day (our official forecast was "wintry mix," which sounds like something you might serve in a bowl at a cocktail party) but still it did snow down here in the Low Country of South Carolina. That was (I think) the third time it has snowed in the fifteen years I have lived here on Hilton Head Island.
Now I'm not really a southerner, no matter how long I've lived in the south. I was born in Maine, and spend most of my childhood in snow country: New England, with stops in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. But I was absolutely transfixed by the sight of little white flakes floating down out of the sky and settling on the rooftops and cars (not much stuck to the ground).
I call it "snowcrastination." There I was, getting reading to go to a professional conference to present. You would think that I would have seized this unexpected gift of time and gotten to work. But no, I gazed out the window and curled up with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Which I loved. Lurved.
I was trying to explain this book to my high school sophomores: Well, the main character goes off to college and she's not adjusting....Her identical twin wants some space to carve out her own identity, and the main character feels lonely and abandoned...She writes fanfiction about a fictional series clearly based on the Harry Potter series (eyes light up all over the room). The girls in the class are saying "I love fan fiction!" (It's a genre I knew nothing about until now)....
When I explain that in Cath's fan fic character Simon (the HP-like character) falls in love with his nemesis Baz (who is, of course, a vampire) a girl in the back fist-pumps and shouts out "Even better!"
I'm so glad I picked up this book by Rainbow Rowell.... I finished it over the weekend, rushing back from conference sessions to read (how lame, kind of like Cath). I was convinced to read Rainbow Rowell by a girl in a bookshop in Athens, Georgia. The bookseller was saying to a customer "I just love the way Rainbow Rowell writes. She takes the ordinary lives of people our age and somehow makes them kind of beautiful." I thought that was a wonderful recommendation. On that basis I picked up Fangirl, and wasn't disappointed.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
hardcover, 368 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
If you were to take Cormac McCarthy's prose and imagery, add a whole bunch of commas, with maybe a hint of William Faulkner's rushing imagery and sense of familial doom, you might end up with a writer something like James Scott.
The Kept is a daring book. I put it down, and for a moment just thought--why? And then the images and characters came rushing back to me. Scott begins his novel with a devastating scene: it is winter of 1897 in upstate New York, and midwife Elspeth Howell is trudging through the snow to the remote farmhouse she shares with her husband, Jorah, and her five children. She has money in the toes of her boots, and gifts for the children in the bottom of her pack, But what she discovers is a massacre: Elspeth's husband Jorah lies dead in their bed, and four of the five children are scattered about the home, all dead of gunshot wounds.
Caleb, Elspeth's twelve-year-old son, is the only survivor. But before Elspeth learns of Caleb's survival, there is more pain and bloodshed, and then a long journey toward revenge. And honestly, if this all sounds like too much to bear, you may not want to read on, because things don't get measurably better. Caleb and Elspeth walk toward a town called Watersbridge, perched on Lake Erie, where Elspeth poses as a man, wearing Jorah's clothes, and Caleb takes a job in a brothel.
There is one other important thing about Elspeth. She is unable to have children. All five of her children were kidnapped, each stolen from another mother as Elspeth acts out a pathological, obsessive urge---or, as she puts it, a sin.
The Kept is full of arresting and beautiful images, dark and violent acts, and the redemptive passion of many varieties of human love--all of them flawed and still somehow stirring.
James Scott creates an unlikely story that becomes entirely believable in this gifted writer's hands. The Kept is neither as doom-filled and apocalyptic as Blood Meridian, nor is it quite so unremittingly bleak. But The Kept did remind me of Cormac McCarthy's most violent and beautiful novel. The Kept is not nearly as stark and godless as Blood Meridian, but Scott does seem to aspire to the same kind of uncompromising vision as McCarthy. The Kept is stark and bleak, but there are human relationships, especially the relationship between Caleb and Elspeth, that offer a sense of redemption and hope. James Scott is a writer to follow, and I'll be seeking out any other work he has published. Readers who admire Cormac McCarthy or who liked True Grit, the novel by Charles Portis that spawned two feature films, will find a new writer to love in James Scott.
The author has a website here:
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Is it really Tuesday again? That was fast.
Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish.... This week's list is the top ten things on your reading wish list.
1. I wish there were more readers who would buy, read, share, and rave about short stories. There are so many amazing short story writers at work now (Greg Spatz, Robin Black, Anne Leigh Parrish, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus III, Edward P. Jones....I could go on and on).
2. I wish Bonnie Jo Campbell would write another book already.
3. The entire world could just slow the heck down, and read big fat books. I wish that would happen.
4. I wish that I could magically turn all of my students into ardent readers. And I am seriously working on that.
5. I wish there were a John Steinbeck for our times.
6. I wish John Green would visit my classroom. My students would be like *squee*! Because John Green is the awesomesauce.
7. Benedict Cumberbatch could visit my classroom too, just because *swoon*...and Sherlock.
8. I wish I could write it all down in a book. And get it published. That has been my dream for almost as many years as I've been living. I write it down, but it is like....fragments.
9. This is, like, totally unrelated, but I wish I could have a paper-grading robot. So that I could spend more hours reading books.
10. I've had this long-standing fantasy about having my own bookstore. It would have new and used books, a cat, and a fireplace. That's about as far as I've gotten. Is that a business plan? Oh, and coffee.... lots of coffee.
My bookstore would be kind of funky, like this one.
What are your bookish wishes?