Monthly Archives: October 2009

A Literary Halloween

-I love the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Forever haunted by big old creepy Boo Radley, I couldn’t overlook him or his behind-the-door presence as I thought up some spooky literary titles to pass on for the Halloween holiday.

-If you are in it for the fun, try Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader. I wouldn’t call it “evocative” or “layered”, but it is perfectly fun for Halloween. Even if you are not interested, link over and see her very cool website.

-NPR puts forth a few of their choice haunted suggestions in Laura Miller’s piece, Three Hauntingly Unforgettable Literary Houses. Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, and House of Leaves are covered in this “houses have souls” review.

Amazon.com’s Top-Ten-Scariest-Books carries two of the above NPR titles. Not being a reader of scary books, I might just try one of these; I am definitely intrigued.

-I haven’t read it since I was in my early teens, but The Amityville Horror plain scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t go in my basement or look at a fly the same way for years!

-Closer to home is the haunted Dream House by Valerie Laken. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s Creative Writing program, Laken’s first novel tells the story of a young couple who discover that their new historic “dream house” was the site of a domestic homicide. Laken’s novel was written after she and her husband took up residence in a similar home where a murder took place.

The Haunted Travels of Michigan is the first book in this series written by authors Kat Tedsen and Bev Rydel. Focusing on “their investigations and research into Michigan’s most haunted locations”, this guide includes restaurants, bars, hotels and bed and breakfasts, which all claim strong paranormal activity.

* What is the scariest book you have ever read? Please feel free to comment and add your own favorite scary, creepy, eerie, or bizarre title to the list.

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Homer, Langley, and a Half-Broke Horse

QUICKIE REVIEWS

There are a couple of books that I’ve recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are all newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely buy books. A hardcover purchase takes much plotting and thought before I’ll take the plunge. With one of my criterion being “passability”, imagine my pleasure in the pay off of Homer & Langley. I don’t know who to give it to first. How can a book about pathological hoarding hold such beauty within its pages?

Doctorow’s prose is breathtaking as he evokes the pathos of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer. Lending dialogue as voice to the reclusive brothers, Doctorow allows you to take up literary residence in Collyer’s Fifth Avenue mansion to witness the bizarre decline of a once prominent family. This freakish, true story of the brothers is told with  a compassion and grace that allows the reader to perhaps comprehend the incomprehensible.

*A beautiful book. I feel this is one of those books that raises the bar for a reader. The vocabulary and language is wonderful and will probably throw a few “unknowns” onto your list (I hit the dictionary a number of times). As a book club choice, you will have plenty to discuss even after you get past the clutter. Instead of getting too caught up in the physical story, focus on the sensuous writing instead.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

*Enjoy my full review on Bookbrowse.

Following her bestseller The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls brings us more eccentric family lore. Calling it a “true-life novel”, Walls admits that even with her considerable research and cross-referencing, the dialogue left her uncomfortable claiming it as a memoir. Taking small liberties with the voice of grandmother Lily Casey Smith, Walls spins the true-life tale of her grandmother, and her incredible ranching days of the Old West. Though I had my doubts that Walls could pull off a second bestseller, I suspect she might have another one on her hands with Half Broke Horses. I absolutely loved this book for its laugh-out-loud common sense and personality.

*This book is really fun. From a literary standpoint it won’t change your life, however, the western voice is tough and engaging. This is an entertaining read for yourself or as a book club, and reading The Glass Castle isn’t necessary for its enjoyment or understanding.

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Messer Comes Home With ‘Grand River and Joy’

Having grown up in Detroit, it’s no wonder Susan Messer was drawn back to her roots for the setting of Grand River and Joy; she clearly knows her old stomping grounds well. From streetlights to schools to museums and waterfront views, Ms. Messer takes us back to a Detroit simmering with indignation and urban unrest. Packed with social and political detail, it is impressive she was able to flesh it all out in just over two hundred pages.

Riding shotgun as shop owner Harry Levine attempts to navigate the racial turmoil of Detroit, we peer out the passenger side and straight into the boiling pot that ultimately spills over into the race riot of 1967. Through the characters of Harry, his wife Ruth, and the tenants residing above his store, we bear witness to the Jewish/Black relationship and their respective points of view as they move around each other at this juncture in history.

Through sharp dialogue, Susan Messer tackles the origins of the impending riot while revealing her characters’ varied angles of perspective. By fitting the jagged  pieces of economic inequality, housing discrimination, black militancy, police brutality, and white flight into the larger puzzle of Detroit’s race relations, Messer brings her readers closer to the frontline of understanding.

Brimming with Detroit’s colorful history, Grand River and Joy holds plenty of “I did not know that” points of interest. Not only does Messer lift by touching on the finer arts and culture of both Judaism and the city, but also doesn’t fear taking us into darker territory with her chapter “Boiler”, which educates on the angrier art of the racial epithet.

Despite the heavy nature of the novel, it achieves in its examination of conscience. Providing each character with a distinct point of view facilitates Messer’s goal of “getting to emotional truth.” Raw and insightful, Grand River and Joy is a literary journey of understanding as it covers this seminal time in Detroit’s history.

*Freelance writer Megan Shaffer hosts the blog Night Light Revue and reviews for the online publication BookBrowse.

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Sunday, Lovely Sunday

– A Weekly Post By Megan Shaffer

October 25, 2009

Of Note

-The New York Times Magazine’s cover story The Audacity of ‘Precious’ discusses if America is ready for this tough movie by director Lee Daniels. Based on the 1996 novel “Push” by poet and writer Sapphire, this graphic movie takes on abuse, incest, and obesity. Sound appealing? Apparently the book is rougher. Sapphire recently appeared in the Michigan area promoting this difficult novel and the shocking realities it brings to light. For more, check out this story on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Of National Interest

-When the Game Was Ours, the new book by Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson and Jackie MacMullan, is already making quite a stir in the sports world. Forget the literary reviews, the book has been sucked into the media spotlight for slander railed against Isiah Thomas. Thomas told SI.com, “I’m totally blindsided by this.” The book is to be released Nov. 4th.

-If you missed either the book by Douglas Preston, or my review of The Monster of Florence on the site, you’ll be able to catch this grisly true-life thriller at the theater. The movie adaptation of The Monster of Florence is slated for release sometime in 2010 and will star Tom Cruise. The screenplay was written by award winning Christopher McQuarrie (Usual Suspects).

-Other film adaptations coming soon include The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), and The Lovely Bones which is based on the novel by Alice Sebold.

-The documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone:  Kerouac’s Big Sur by Curt Worden will bring Jack Keouac’s words to the big screen. Hoping to “allow the audience to connect with the author’s words”, Worden will bring in big guns Tom Waits, John Ventimiglia, and Patti Smith to voice Kerouac’s work. For a full interview with Worden, try this NPR interview on Morning Edition.

Local Voice

-Today October 25th, Susan Messer will be at Book Beat from 2-3:30 to discuss her book Grand River and Joy. Her first novel tackles racial tensions in Detroit circa 1967. The photographer Bill Rauhauser, whose photograph of the intersection covers the book, will display a small selection of Detroit images. The cover is a beauty!

-Continuing with the Great Michigan Read, the Michigan Humanities Council will sponsor  an on-line discussion with Bich Min Nguyen from October 26-30th. Providing “virtual dialogue on Stealing Buddha’s Dinner with individuals from other Michigan communities…will be posed to stimulate dialogue on immigration stories, cultural understanding, and contemporary history.”

-Laura Kasischke, author of In a Perfect World, will appear at the Baldwin Public Library on October 26th as part of the Celebrate National Reading Group Month. Sponsored by the WNBA as an “…opportunity for reading groups to reflect on their accomplishments and plan for the future-”,  Ms. Kasischke will appear at 7:00. See my post on Ms. Kasischke’s Borders appearance under Authors.

-On October 28th, Michael Zadoorian will talk at the Rochester Hills Public Library at 7:00. Zadoorian is the Detroit author of The Leisure Seeker and The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit. (links to Book Beat)

-On October 29th, Patricia Gussin will be signing her thriller The Test at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.

Bestseller Lists

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Indie Bestsellers

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American Wife Falls Flat

Divided into four addresses, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld walks us through the corresponding seasons of Alice Blackwell’s life. From humble beginnings in rural Wisconsin to Washington, DC’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we are taken on a journey which starts in uptempo earnest, but ends awash in lamentable self-discovery.

Beginning in idyllic Riley, Wisconsin, Alice lives with her mother, father, and notably liberal and eccentric grandmother, Emilie. Living the life of the stereotypical American family of the 50’s (her father holds a 9 to 5 job at Wisconsin Bank and Trust while her mother happily keeps house), Alice’s innocence and small town way of life literally come  to a screeching halt when her car hits and claims the life of a friend. This momentous event leaves Alice withdrawn and heartbroken, and left to forever contemplate the totality of the loss.

After finishing college Alice becomes an elementary school librarian.  Content with her job and living comfortably alone, her tranquil life is suddenly disrupted by one Charlie Blackwell. Like a tornado, the privileged, handsome, and charming, Charlie storms into Alice’s life, sweeping her off her feet.  After a hasty courtship and marriage, the Blackwell family ushers Alice into the elite lives of the rich and politically well-connected. While Alice navigates fresh waters, a swell of unease begins to rise as she attempts to justify living at odds with her own liberal ideology.

As Charlie climbs his way up the political ladder, Alice never imagines he will be victorious in his Republican presidential campaign. However, when he wins, Alice finds herself married to the president of the United States at one of the most turbulent times in history.  As our reluctant first lady, Alice lives a life she has never asked for nor desired.  While Charlie’s popularity among Americans wanes, Alice realizes that she is found guilty by association. It is not until she is called back to the midwest, that she regains the pieces of herself that have been chipped away over the years.

Coming out strong from the gate, Alice is a likable and sympathetic character and we merrily ride shotgun as her life unfolds. What a shame that the trip stops short of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The colorful dialogue that first captivates us turns sour as we go from engaged reader to sounding board.

Giving voice to the antiwar movement through sympathetic characters like Edgar Franklin, one must wonder if Curtis Sittenfeld has found a literary platform to express her political sentiments. Not wanting to alienate her audience, Ms. Sittenfeld goes to great lengths to present both democratic and republican views.  As we see-saw between party lines, the reader is inundated with facts and figures, ultimately turning Alice into one of the political pundits she so despises.

Politics aside, this voyeuristic approach into the life of a first lady is insightful and intriguing. Based loosely on the life of Laura Bush (who as a teen did cause a fatal accident killing her boyfriend), Curtis Sittenfeld gamely envisions the thoughts and actions of our former first lady; something not typically considered in the shadow of the president.  Does she really have a book hidden in her lap while the president is addressing the American people?

It is clear that author Sittenfeld has moved between the worlds of the middle and upper classes.  Like Lee Fiona in Prep, Alice also gives us a glimpse into the world of affluence.  Her dialogue is rich and knowing.  From the affectations of Princeton alumni to the locations and decorum of those who “summer”, Sittenfeld has obviously spent time in such circles.

After eighth grade Sittenfeld left her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend Groton, a boarding school in Groton, MA, and went on to attend both Vasser College and Stanford University. It is likely that her academic endeavors also introduced her to the social schooling of the upper classes. Though she does not conceal her appreciation of the midwest, one must assume that the east coast holds a certain siren’s song for her.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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Tin House

I love getting my quarterly journals, so imagine my happiness when I saw the sunny cover of my new Tin House (Volume 11, Number 1) smiling up at me from the stack in my mailbox. With a big, blue HOPE boldly positioned on the front, I “hoped” its innards would match the margarine sun steadily smiling at me from the cover.

From a literary standpoint, its been a rough few days for me. After the unsettling news about Walmart’s retail of online books (not acceptable), topped by Target’s more recent name in the price-drop game (more acceptable than Walmart/still not acceptable), I desperately needed some of that emblazoned HOPE. So, consider my joy as I tore off the plastic and  found this awaiting me…

Editor’s (Hope) Note

The clouds are parting. We have escaped global economic disaster. It’s a bright day; across the globe, people are cleaning up and cooling down, and wars over oil, land, and tribe are so overrated…for culture, it is a time to rejoice, as the internet has gifted us with the ability to transcend the borders of race, politics, and religion that have always divided us. We are now recognizing each other’s humanity, are connected and transformed by each other’s experiences.

A shot in the arm, this reassuring little paragraph at least convinced me that there was much to rejoice over, regardless of what I fear will be the armageddon of literary retail. But I digress…

My Tin luck continued when I scanned the Fiction contents and spotted senior editor Michelle Wildgen’s interview with author Lorrie Moore. Eagerly anticipating my e-notice for Moore’s new title, A Gate at the Stairs (queued up at #2, public library style), I tossed all else to the side and got down to reading this fine journalistic endeavor. Upon finishing the piece, I realized it was really, really good. Notably so. Quite colorful and enjoyable, in fact.

With a nod to Tin House (no, I’m not affiliated with them in any way), I tackled the rest of my day with optimistic gusto. I ticked off my “to do” list with an extra step in my stride, inwardly content knowing that the world of fine literature would continue in spite of corporate competition.

As the day wore down, I put my feet up and began my scan of blog favorites, startling at the title of the day’s post on NYT’s Paper Cuts. Like some sort of Tin House Twilight Zone, I see Stray Questions for: Michelle Wildgen, the very same crafty senior editor Wildgen of Moore’s interview. With that, I decided to call it a day by tossing my Tin House talisman to the side.

Now as we all know, life is a heads or tails kind of affair. A world of chance and opposing forces. So as I got up to turn out the light, I noticed my Tin House was staring back at me, not with a HOPEful sun, but with a bedeviled DREAD written in Infernal red. Unbeknownst to me, my mailman had inadvertently saved my day. Had he put my Tin House in the box on the flipside, life would have taken on a much more fatalistic tone: dual covers offering dual perspectives. Chalking it up to fate, I flipped it back to the sunny side, switched off the light, and went to bed while pondering the potent powers of persuasion.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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From Kavalier to Clay

Manhood for Amateurs

Manhood for Amateurs

I recently picked up Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, and it seems I have unleashed a beast.  Everywhere I turn, I either see something about this latest work or this seemingly new genre of paternal confession.

Chabon’s latest work is a series of reflective essays on what it means to be a husband, father, and son in today’s world. Chabon’s interview on NPR digs into his personal life and attempts to explain the motives behind the essays and the sometimes painful experiences of his youth.

An additional featured review of Chabon’s book, First-Person Masculine in Sunday’s New York Times, David Kamp coins the genre “Dad Lit”. He also throws in the term “Dadsploitation”, which he notes has recently seen talented writers such as Michael Lewis and Adam Gopnik “…turn their attention to the domestic front – the idea being that in their skilled hands, the non-unique experience of fatherhood can be turned into a rollicking, revelatory ride worthy of your scarce reading time.”

So what’s the draw? Is being a father or raising children actually something new? As Kamp notes, not really. However, for the increasing number of men who now stay home and have taken on these roles in tandem, such books could provide this male demographic with some true genre relief; sort of a buddy-system for the paterfamilias.

Selfishly, I thought there was nothing in it for me. A mother. A wife. A daughter. But after reading The Loser’s Club, the first entry of Manhood for Amateurs, I acquiesced. Beautifully written, Chabon’s sharp, masculine wit kills with its sincerity:

Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness, and insufficiency, in particular in the raising  of children.

Hmmmm… perhaps there’s something for me here after all.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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