Friday, June 22, 2012

Speculative Review of the Week: Touched By a Child: A Principal's Story by George Towery

As a reviewer, I'm constantly receiving emails from all over the place with requests to review a variety of books...and I've noticed the vast majority of the requests I get are to review the most tragic looking memoirs.  I've also noticed a trend in the many press releases that flood my inbox.  I like to call this trend "shock and schlock." The adversity faced by the memoirist is pitched as "shocking" and "tragic," and the contents of the press release are thoroughly schlocky, relying too heavily on cheap emotional pandering.   So I've decided to go out on a limb and write a speculative review of some of the memoirs sent my way based on cover art and pitch letters.

This week's pick:  Touched by a Child: A Principal's Story by George Towery

Title:  -100  HOLY INAPPROPRIATE INNUENDO, BATMAN!!!  How could the author NOT have realized the double entendre?!?!  Gross gross gross!!!

Cover art: -10.  Windows?  Clouds?  What do they have to do with serving as a principal in two "modest income" elementary schools?  

Writerly chops/street cred: 0  Towery served as a principal for 40 years, which is no small accomplishment, and he's received many awards for his work in education.  But is he a talented writer?  Who knows.  One trap he didn't fall into, thankfully, is the self-published writer's tendency toward the over-writing.  At 230 pages, maybe it's been edited!!! 

Shock: How adverse the adversity?  +10  As a former teacher, I worked in and with title 1 schools for over 6 years, and it's challenging, exhausting work.  

Schlock: How triumphal the triumph?  +10  Not many principals make it 40 years, let alone make the kind of impact, according to the press release, he seems to have made.  Kudos to him :)

God factor: +10 Besides the heavenly-inspired cover, seems to be devoid of God talk.  (Just a matter of personal taste, I like my memoirs light on the preaching and relatively Jesus free).  

Alternate title:  40 Years in School, But So Much To Learn About Appropriate Educational Memoir Titles

Highly scientific speculative tolerablility rating:   -80.  Despite its awful AWFUL title and horrendous cover art, the premise of this memoir is strong and compelling.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bibliophile Style: Desk envy...

A few more inspirational work spaces...
A mixed media wall, gorgeous wallpaper AND built in bookshelves?  Yes please!
Yellow chair!!  Love a strong pop of color!
 The chairs are visually stunning, but I can't imagine they're super comfortable...
What a great use of the abundance of wall space!  And such clever & stylish storage solutions!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Literary Link List

Links to pieces, old and new, on literature:

(image via Huff Post Books)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

title:  The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books 
and the People Who Read Them [purchase here]
author:  Elif Batuman
genre: literary nonfiction essays
pages: 296
published: 2010
source:  New York Public Library

"In fact I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one.  It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn't care about truth; I cared about beauty.  It took me many years--it took the experience of lived time--to realize that they are really the same thing."  (page 10)

I added Batuman's The Possessed to my 30 Before 30 Literary Bucket List for several reasons: 
1) I follow her on Twitter and find her tweets hilarious and endearing (and her twitter handle is nothing short of amazing).
2) I LOVE narrative nonfiction.  I personally feel like I absorb more information when it's contextualized within the author's personal experience.
3) I've read her work for The New Yorker before (I especially liked her piece on the Davilov bells).
4)  I'm rereading Anna Karenina this summer, and figured a refresher course of sorts on Russian literature was probably in order.  I read Crime and Punishment in high school and a few Chekhov plays in college, so my Russian lit experience is fairly limited.  Any additional historical/biographical content/context can be nothing but helpful.

I was not disappointed.  Batuman is nothing short of delightful!  The Possessed was perfectly balanced between incredibly interesting information (from Babel to Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and back again) and Batuman's anecdotes, and was completely accessible.  The flow, the pace, the just worked.

My favorite chapter:  "Who Killed Tolstoy?", in which Batuman shares her experience staying at Yasnaya Polyana (which is the estate where Tolstoy was born, spent most of his life, and wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for the International Tolstoy Conference and weaves in research to support her hypothesis that Tolstoy could have potentially been murdered.  Very funny.  Absolutely fascinating.

Fun fact:  
Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate : snakes :: Earnest Hemingway's Key West house : three toed cats.  

"'There are no cats at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana,' begins Amy Mandelker's well-known study, Framing Anna Karenina:

'Curled, or rather, coiled in the sunny patches in the Tolstoy house, protecting it from pestilential infestations, instead of the expected feline emblems of domesticity...[are] snakes...The ancestors of these ophibian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy's ailurophobic wife, Sofia Andreyevna [Sonya], to rid the house of rodents.'

I was contemplating these lines on the second morning of talks, when I counted a total of four cats actually inside of the conference room.  That said, in fairness to Amy Mandelker, you couldn't accuse Yasnaya Polyana of a shortage of snakes.  At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy's editions of Kant: he had seen a snake right there in the archive." (page 117)

Rubric rating: 8.5.  I really hope she's working on another book!!!  Or revives her blog.

Update:  I've now finished 6 of the 30 titles on my 30-before-30 literary bucket list, with a few more in progress.  I need to pick up the pace!!!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald **
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger **
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy **
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

Arcadia by Lauren Groff  (in progress)
Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Blindness by Jose Saramago **
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruiki Murakami
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart 
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta   
 (in progress)  
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson **  
 (in progress) 
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notely **
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
The Old Child and Other Stories by Jenny Erpenbeck 
Spirit Seizures by Melissa Pritchard


The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Zona by Geoff Dyer
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

** rereading

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bibliophile Style: Library Lust

Your weekly dose of library porn...

This library belongs to Karl Lagerfeld.  I would expect no less from the genius at the helm of Chanel.

 That bed looks so big and cozy! But what's with the sink in the wall?  I hope those pillows aren't blocking a toilet from view!
 This space combines two of the three dream library essentials:  floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and floor-to-ceiling windows.  Now if there were only a big comfy couch...
 Great use of space!  And the chandelier is a cute touch!
I swear my to be read pile looks like this from time to time...ooops...

Source:  Pinterest.  I *wish* I could credit the original sources, but they'd been re-pinned so many times!!

Monday, June 11, 2012

A bit star struck...

Just wanted to share, as I just squealed like some 12 year old with Bieber Fever...

Elif Batuman (who, btw, has the absolute perfect twitter handle of @BananaKarenina)  RETWEETED ME!

The Possessed won that deliberation (it is on my 30 Before 30 Literary Bucket List) and I'm almost finished...and I have a bit of an intellectual crush on Elif Batuman.  

So. Geeked. 

Bibliophile Style: Bachelorette Weekend

I'm sorry I've been a bit negligent with my posting this past week, but I was helping to throw a bachelorette weekend for my dear friend R.  

I've known her since college and she is one of the warmest, kindest, most genuine people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and the privilege of calling my friend.  And the man she's marrying is pretty spectacular as well!  If soul mates exist, he's hers.  They just FIT and compliment each other so well!  The highlight of the bachelorette party last night was the game with the questionnaire:  the groom to be is given a list of questions, and he answers them as the bride would answer them.  At the party, she's asked the same set of questions and she has to answer how she thinks he'd answer them as her.  Still with me?  Most questions are sweet, like "What was the most romantic date you've been on?"  or "When did he first tell you he loved you?"  It was eerie but incredibly heartwarming to see R answer each question with such accuracy!!!  They are absolutely meant to be together and I'm so excited to play a small part in the start of their life together.

Now, A is the supremely talented legit event planner of the group, and after she threw a gorgeous shower, the less talented of us took over for the bachelorette. I was assigned "decor," and since R is classic, I went for all white decor (white table cloth, plates, napkins, etc) with candles floating in wine glasses, Christmas lights, white paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and fresh mums, white with vibrant pops of purple (the bride's colors are purple and white).  I'd post pictures, but what happens at the bachelorette party stays at the bachelorette you'll just have to make due with my inspiration board...

Bachelorette Party Inspiration

Book related posting resumes tomorrow!  Cross my heart!



Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bibliophile Style: The Giving Tree Mani

Oh man.  I do not have the talent to try this myself, and I have mixed feelings about the book (the tree gives, and she gives, and she gives, but gets nothing in return!), but still:  HOW COOL IS THIS?????  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

title:  Desperate Characters [purchase here]
author:  Paula Fox
genre: literary fiction
pages: 156
published: 1970
source:  New York Public Library

"Monday had always been a terrible trouble--once she had tried to stay awake all Sunday night to forestall her mother's grim and unforgiving presence in her doorway--but she had fallen asleep just before dawn, to be awakened two hours later by her mother clapping her hands relentlessly over the bed, her face shining from her morning scrub, dressed in a starched house dress, saying over and over, "Early risers are the winners."  It had been thirty years since Sophie had been roused by that derisive applause; she had not yet discovered the nature of the prize her mother's words had once led her to believe existed.  Perhaps winning had simply meant the tyranny of waking others."  (p. 147)

Some authors are amazing at creating a compelling story.  Others, at creating compelling, realistically-rendered characters.  Few are adept at both.  Paula Fox's Desperate Characters places her firmly in the character-development camp, and inhabits a place in the spectrum somewhere between Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a novel that is super character-driven but where a ton happens, and Teju Cole's Open City, which is almost entirely character-driven and very little happens.  

As I read this book, the opening line from Anna Karenina kept popping into my head ("All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."). Jonathan Franzen loves Desperate Characters, and its influence on his writing is obvious.  Franzen is the patron saint of unhappy-middle-class-white-families, and often his characters are so intricately and realistically rendered that they're often polarizingly (I like to turn things into adverbs) unlikable.  In fact, I know of more people who stopped reading The Corrections because they hated everyone in it, than I know people who finished it.  All of Fox's characters that make up Desperate Characters' unhappy-middle-class-white-family are fairly self-involved, which, at least for me, created enough space that I found it hard to empathize with them.  Usually, self-absorbed characters can be a turn off for me, but Fox's skill was so evident that, for once, surprisingly, it didn't matter.  

The story follows Sophie and Otto, a middle-aged married couple, who are each unhappy in their own way. I would argue that it's not that they're unhappily married; it's that they're unhappy, and also married.  Their unhappiness seems to go beyond how they feel about the other.  In the first few pages of the story, Sophie, the main character, is bit by a stray cat.  The entirety of the action takes place over the course of several days, during which the bite swells and everyone and their mother tries to persuade her to get it checked out by a doctor, an idea Sophie staunchly resists.  At the same time, Otto, a lawyer, has parted ways with his longtime legal partner, Charlie, and Charlie isn't taking the separation well (i.e. he gets drunk. And makes creepy phone calls).  For such a short span of time and only 156 pages, a lot happens.  Otto and Sophie attend a party.  Charlie gets bombed and shows up on their doorstep in the middle of the night.  Sophie has lunch with an old friend who has one of the most dysfunctional, codependent divorce situations I've ever encountered in literature.  They catch the stray cat.  No one gets much sleep.  

As I mentioned, I struggled to like both Sophie and Otto.  Sophie, through her persistent passivity, seems to be her own worst enemy.  Otto is all opinions all the time, though he doesn't come across as the most reflective person.  But even for their unattractive qualities, both were wholly presented and developed over the course of the narrative; even if I didn't like them per se, I still found them compelling.  I wanted to see what happened to them next, not because I cared about them, but because I wanted to follow Fox where she was going.  I can see why Franzen returns to this piece again and again.

Also, in terms of craft, Fox is a technically astounding:

"Sophie stood motionless in the hall.  The living room looked smudged, flat.  Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace.  Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions.  There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion." (p. 47)

I mean, damn.  What an image!

Rubric rating:  7.5.  Strong.  I'll definitely pick up more by Fox in the future.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bibliophile Style: Desk envy...

These stylish work spaces inspire me to clean...and do some major damage at the container store ;)

Fuzzy chair!
The bowl of fresh flowers:  a bit impractical, but very sweet!
What a great use of a small space!
Loving the vintage whitewash on the desk!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Speculative Review of the Week: The Lady is a Champ by Carol Polis & Rich Herschlag

As a reviewer, I'm constantly receiving emails from all over the place with requests to review a variety of books...and I've noticed the vast majority of the requests I get are to review the most tragic looking memoirs.  I've also noticed a trend in the many press releases that flood my inbox.  I like to call this trend "shock and schlock." The adversity faced by the memoirist is pitched as "shocking" and "tragic," and the contents of the press release are thoroughly schlocky, relying too heavily on cheap emotional pandering.   So I've decided to go out on a limb and write a speculative review of some of the memoirs sent my way based on cover art and pitch letters.

This week's pick:  The Lady is a Champ by Carol Polis and Rich Herschlag

Title:  -4  (for the awful Sinatra song title appropriation) 

Cover art: -5  See what they did there? It's about boxing.  But it's pink.  Because she's a lady.  How original...

Writerly chops/street cred: -5  Polis has no previous publications that I could find, and it looks like "collaborative writing" (or ghost writing) is Herschlag's thing.  Also, judging by his previous work, I think it's safe to assume he came up with the title:

Shock: How adverse the adversity?  -5   Not super shocking.  According to the press release, Polis was the first woman professional boxing judge.  Yes, she broke into and was successful in a male-dominated profession which is significant, but I'm not really sure I count having a vagina as a form of adversity.  

Schlock: How triumphal the triumph?   -5   To quote the pitch letter, Polis triumphed against "long odds."  Not sure I've heard the phrase turned quite that way before.  And those long odds were, again, vaginally-centric.  

God factor: +5  Seems relatively god-talk free.  (Just a matter of personal taste, I like my memoirs light on the preaching and relatively Jesus free).  

Alternate title:  She Hits Like a Girl:One Woman's Triumph Over Having a Vagina.

Highly scientific speculative tolerablility rating: -19