Thursday, September 13, 2007

Flower Children by Maxine Swann:

Maxine Swann’s story “Flower Children” won both an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and was included in The Best American Short Stories. Nearly a decade later, that story forms the first chapter of her lyrical novel, Flower Children, about four siblings raised by their living-off-the-land hippie parents in the 1970s. Everything about this short novel is beautiful, from the occasional and (successful) experimental plural third person protagonist to the stunning descriptions of how children with unlimited freedom yearn to conform.

Consider this passage from when the children first go to school and learn penmanship and rules:

“They learn not to swear. They get prizes for obedience, for following the rules down to the last detail. They’re delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things and they examine them closely and exhaust their teachers with questions about the mechanical functioning and the hidden intricacies of these beings, the rules ...”

Gosh, you know, that whole section was delightful when I first read it. The problem with posting it here, out of context, is that it might not actually entice you into reading this book. That’s always a problem with excerpts, though.

This is the kind of writing I used to revel in. Too often these days, I read for a different kind of escape, where I want to get whisked into a story or involved with the characters. Now, don’t get me wrong – I cared a lot for the four kids in this book. But it was the writing that I most looked forward to each time I opened the book, the way that Swann let me in to observe this family and their friends, never making a judgment. I think this would be an exceptional fictional companion read for The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

It's Mii! (A Wii me, for the uninitiated.) I love love love Wii tennis. You can probably tell how good of a player I am by my focused, determined look and my smooth two-handed backhand.

I'm way behind in posting about books and vacation. We just got back from two weeks in Belize. Our first trip to Central America, first trip to the Caribbean, and first trip to the jungle. I'll post a couple of pictures later, but the real travelogue will be on Flickr.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Year of Fog
By Michelle Richmond

Photographer Abby Mason and her fiance’s daughter, six-year-old Emma, are enjoying the day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Abby stops to photograph a dead baby seal, a diversion that lasts maybe 20 or 40 seconds – seconds that will replay endlessly in Abby’s mind during the next year; a few seconds that were long enough for Emma to disappear. When Emma isn’t immediately found, the assumption is that she must have drowned in the unpredictable currents. Most people give up, but Abby continues to believe that Emma is out there – she just needs to be found.

Memory plays a big part in this story, as Abby examines how we remember things, confabulation (filling in gaps in memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts) and how memories disappear. Abby struggles to find Emma, struggles to keep her relationship with Emma’s father and struggles to understand why Emma’s mother, who has been absent from the little girl’s life for three years, is back in a picture that has no Emma.

The plot recalls Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean, but I think this book does much more on a literary level. The writing is spare, managing to be more vivid and emotional than you assume. My friend Susan said it’s “underwritten,” and that is a perfect description. Emotion, too, is off the pages, as if hiding in the margins and waiting to unfold in your head. The Year of Fog has a perfect balance of story and underlying philosophical ideas.

I Love You, Beth Cooper
By Larry Doyle

I kid you not, this is seriously the funniest book I’ve read in the last four years. During his graduation night speech, Denis Cooverman, valedictorian at Buffalo Grove High School, urges his fellow classmates to leave with no regrets for the things they wanted to say but could not. Our hero pauses for dramatic effect, and then blurts out, “I love you, Beth Cooper.” Beth -- voted Most Popular and Best Looking by 513 BGHS seniors – is, predictably, a cheerleader; Denis’s team of choice is debate and his recreational reading includes the Journal of Juvenile Oncology. Graduation night heads a different direction after Denis’s memorable speech, and soon Beth and her two sidekicks are meeting up with Denis and his best friend, Rich (who, he says, is not gay and who also makes reference to his “female fiancĂ©e” who works at Hooter’s). The characters and plot may be a tad predictable, but I laughed so much I’m not sure I noticed.

The author wrote for The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Daria. (He also writes for The New Yorker, but since those articles are too long, I am more familiar with his multi media endeavors.) I Love You, Beth Cooper is packed with lines to savor and quote, just like an episode of The Simpsons. This is total movie material in the spirit of Dazed and Confused, and it didn’t surprise me at all to see that the book was optioned and may hit the big screen in 2009.

Here’s Dave Barry’s blurb on the back cover: “This book made me laugh out loud. I’m not saying it will make you laugh out loud. But I am saying that if it doesn’t, something is wrong with you.”

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Lucky Library Day

When there's a book on hold ready for me to pick up, the library sends an email. Sometimes I check the hold shelf even if I didn't get a message -- just in case something should arrive. I miss the days when I browsed the shelves, just looking for a book that sounded interesting or coming across a title that I'd meant to read but hadn't had the time. The pure serendipity of discovering a new book or author seems rare these days when what I usually do is put things on hold, and then pick them up. Check the hold shelf "just in case" is about as near as I get to surprising myself with what I'm going to read next. Anyway, today a wonderful surprise was waiting for me: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. Lucky me!

I also picked up: I Love You Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle (good reviews and cover) and Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer .
Talk about Books: Four Big L’s

Laura Lippman and the Three Lisa’s – Lisa Gardner, Lisa Unger and Lisa Scottoline – are four mystery and suspense writers I depend on for page-turning stories with strong women characters.

In one month I read the newest titles from these four with a 75 percent success rate.
What the Dead Know by Lippman is her best stand-alone novel yet. (In fact, it deserves a separate blog entry. I’ll get right on that.) Hide by Lisa Gardner brings back D.D. Warren , a thinking woman’s kind of detective. Sliver of Truth, a follow up to Beautiful Lies, presents Ridley Jones, a magazine reporter still caught up in the mystery of her own identity.

But Daddy’s Girl? That’s the latest from Lisa Scottoline. I can’t believe I even read a book with that title (and check out that cover. Ug!). Natalie “Nat” Greco teaches law at Penn. She’s not exactly an inspired lecturer, and she offers even less when trying to save herself from being framed for a murder. Not only can I not believe I read a book with a title like this, I can’t believe I finished this one. Nat bumbles along – and not in an endearing way -- to the last page, making me wonder how she ever got a job at an Ivy League school, let alone as a main character in a Scottoline novel.
Back to talking about books ….

My intent with the Reading Undercover blog was to talk about books and reading, and it’s time I get back to that.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Introducing the Metro Core Workout

Down on the 41, back on the 303. That was my commute yesterday. Both Metro buses were SRO, which is fairly typical. It’s precisely for that reason I came upon a new workout that engages my core muscles and challenges my balance. In the old days when I had to stand up on bus rides, I’d grab hold of a strap or a bar, and then grip tightly in some weird contortion. My body would swing occasionally, and I’d use my arm/shoulder/back to stay upright. No more. Not since I watched a woman on Metro Bus 41 who wasn’t hanging on – not at all, not even for a second -- for the entire ride downtown. I was not only impressed by her performance, I was determined to achieve similar graceful results. I imagine myself in a zen state, maintaining my balance as the massive bus rolls, turns and brakes.

I’ve been working on this for awhile, but yesterday on the 41 was the best. I got a prime standing spot (how sad that I get excited about getting a good spot to stand on the bus; what about getting to sit?) – near the side exit doors. This is ideal for leaning if you’re reading, and also as a bit of a safety net if you’re doing the Metro Core Workout. Hanging on to nothing, I lifted the pit of my abdomen, stood firm with my quadriceps and wiggled my toes to slightly shift and maintain balance. I was all Tadasana. (Mountain pose-ish.)

Now that I’ve proved to myself I can ride a crowded bus while standing up and without using my hands, I’m back to reading on the bus. Today I let a crowded 41 depart without me so I had a better chance getting a seated reading position on the next one. (This isn’t as much as a sacrifice as it sounds. The 41 comes about every five minutes.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Owen, our dog, reacts to the words "dog park" the same way canines of the world do when they hear "walk" or see their owners putting on shoes that signal "I'm going outside and maybe, just maybe I'll take you with me." But his view of Doggie Disneyland may be changed forever after a dog attacked him at Magnuson Dog Park last weekend. We'd just walked into the park -- seriously, this happened in the first 90 seconds -- when a mid-sized dog rushed over. I assumed it was going to be the traditional exchange of sniffing greetings, but this dog pounced on top. Unfortunately, we didn't know how much damage the dog had done until later. Now, look at Owen, pictured here in his favorite chair enjoying a classic book: Can you imagine this guy in a scuffle? He is completely loveable and optimistic, assuming that all dogs and people are good. Anyway, a day at the vet and some antibiotics and Owen is on the mend. Worse than his eye and neck injuries was the change in his behavior. We knew he'd reached the depths of depression when the UPS truck (his absolute favorite vehicle) drove by and he didn't even bother with a single bark.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I've had lots of jobs I've liked, but only three that I loved. Those three are: being a librarian (my current job), working for a public TV station, and selling books at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle. How great is it that now I get to sell books through this incredible bookstore? Last Thursday I did a reading and a signing at the Ballard Library, an event sponsored by the Secret Garden. I met such nice kids, and my friend Lee brought her lovely dog Piper (who is a character in my book). I always get super nervous that no one will show up for a book event, and I figured that if I was boring, those who did come could play with Piper. If I was boring and no one showed up, then I could play with Piper. (Yippy! Lots of people showed up!)
Anyway, to advertise the event, the Secret Garden devoted an entire window to the Hannah West books, creating a version of Fremont, the setting for
Hannah West in the Center of the Universe. But the piece de resistance was the life-sized cardboard rendition of Elvis, the basset hound star of the book, complete with leash and ready to roll. (Sort of like a Dogzilla Hound, since he towers over the trees and buildings in the window.) My husband made the Cardboard Elvis, and let me tell you, it was ADORABLE. I wanted to keep it. But we gave it away at the book event. Elvis went home with a totally cool girl named Halley. I know he is in good hands and they'll make a great duo.

Elvis, the fictional basset, has the personality of Owen, my nonfiction basset hound. He's a free-thinking love muffin of a dog, with a long wiggly body, jiggly epidermis, and the velvetiest ears you could ever pet. Owen was a little apprehensive when he met Cardboard Elvis, but he is always a friendly guy, so he went over to give the sniffing greeting. Alas, Cardboard Elvis lacked the distinct hound aroma. I'm hoping to make more Cardboard Elvises to have as giveaways at book events this spring and summer.

I'm still riding high on this month's release of the third book in the Hannah West mystery series: Hannah West in the Center of the Universe. It came out in March and it's been a great month for activities, starting with an event at Kirkland Parkplace Books in honor of Dr. Seuss's birthday and Read Across America Day. I couldn't believe my good fortune to be sharing an author table with Kirby Larson , Newbery honor author of Hattie Big Sky; Kevan Atteberry, illustrator extraordinaire, whose most recent book is Lunchbox and the Aliens, Carole Lexa Schaefer , author of nearly 20 picture books, including Down in the Woods at Sleepytime (published in 16 languages!).

The next week Nancy Pearl was the keynote speaker at the King County Library System Foundation’s “Literary Lions” event. The authors included in this event were a nice mix of people who write fiction, nonfiction, picture books, and children’s novels.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I've had this blog for awhile, but my postings were spotty, so I deleted them and decided to start over today, March 19. This is the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. On my bus this morning, a recorded message from Metro officials played over the PA system. It said, in effect: Please be advised that due to protests in the downtown area there will be significant delays in traffic and Metro bus routes. Metro advises riders to avoid the downtown area between 3 and 6 p.m. …"

This is what I think the announcement should have said:

"Please be advised that there are planned protests against the War in Iraq this afternoon. Metro advises you to leave work early – take vacation time, if necessary – and join in the peaceful marches through the downtown streets. Metro advises riders to come downtown between 3 and 6 p.m."