The Might Queens of Freeville — Review by Chris

Everyone is writing memoirs these days. That's fine, but it begs the question: what does anyone have to write about regarding her or his life? (Whether they're making up information in their memoirs is a different question altogether.)

Amy Dickinson is an advice columnist who raised her daughter as a single mother in a strong matriarchal clan in a small town in New York. It had potential. I didn't exactly like her column, but every once in a while she hit the mark with great accuracy. I figured I'd give it a shot.

I had my first laugh on page 83, and I stopped reading.

Why? Why stop with my first chuckle? Well, it was too hard-earned. The story was almost completely second-person narrative for the first 60 pages or so, with an occasional quote (usually her side of the dialogue). It was self-deprecating, depressing, self-effacing and rather boring.

She told, rather than showed, her story — at least until Chapter 4, "Nothing's Too Much Trouble." By then, however, she had lost me.

Not to mention that in the first half of the book was I introduced to the aforementioned queens in the book title, except in passing.

To be fair, the book could have improved after page 83. However, I didn't want to invest any more time to find out.


The Graveyard Book — Review by Chris

I don't know why some books are labeled "juvenile" or "young adult" fiction. Oh, I'm sure there's a marketing reason — but such indications may warn us away from books we will enjoy, even if we weren't the intended audience.

Take The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It's a Newbery Award winner, which relegates it to a certain section of the library. However, I never met a Gaiman book I didn't like, and I have found Newberys very enjoyable reads — so I went to the graveyard. And I'm glad I did.

In the hands of Gaiman, anything is possible. Son of a god? Sure! Traipsing around an alternate universe just because you helped an injured stranger? Why not?

Growing up in a graveyard? In the hands of Gaiman, it's plausible.

Nobody Owens wound up in the neighborhood graveyard under nefarious circumstances. He toddled into the dark, hallowed ground and became a resident of the graveyard. He wound up with parents who loved him and a guardian who saw to his needs. He lived in a community full of disparate personalities who help him grow and learn about life.

Gaiman doesn't insult the reader by coming right out and stating the obvious. Instead, he paints a picture. Who is Silas, this person who can walk among the living and yet be a part of the dead? What kind of name is Ms. Lupescu, and why does she want to teach him how to call a Gaunt? How can a living, breathing person spend years living in a graveyard and never be "caught"? What exactly is the Indigo Man? Is Bod still in danger? Where is Jack — or better yet, who is Jack?

Gaiman patiently builds this world, imperturbably weaving strong, rich fibers into an indelible tapestry that one marvels at even during its creation. And the finale! Gaiman brings the story to a crecendo that made me cheer — with a tinge of regret, if only because it was too good to end.

Unlike a few reviewers who blurbed on the book jacket, I don't want a sequel. I like it the way it is. Gaiman knows how to leave a reader sated. I wouldn't reject a sequel, but considering it took a couple of decades for this story to be told, I wouldn't want to rush the storyteller — if, of course, he was inclined to take us a little further. Gaiman is worth the wait.


Bookish News: "Can 'The Reader' Win Best Picture at Oscars Without an Editing Nomination?"

This particular piece of Bookish News caught my eye. As an editor, my short answer is "No".

But this begs a larger question to me: Should The Reader be nominated for Best Picture at all? Chris and I read this book together at the beginning of our blog, and we both found it loathsome. We spent an entire afternoon trashing this book as we consumed pie (we need consolation after reading a book we hate). We were dismayed to find that it was being made into a movie. And now it is up for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. How discouraging is that?

Populated with unlikable, unsympathetic characters, this story is depressing, but for all the wrong reasons. Bernhard Schlink's tells us the story of a young boy who is seduced by an older woman. She has a dark past to atone for--she was a prison guard at a Nazi concentration camp. But we're supposed to feel bad for her, you see, because she can't read. Huh? (Oh, and by the way, NO way this character looks like Kate Winslet, who plays her in the movie.)

I'd love to hear that you think I'm wrong--someone please enlighten me. What am I missing here that others find fascinating and worthy of note?


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Discussion with Chris and Carole

Another book with no chapters? This was my first thought as I approached The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. The third such book I had read in as many weeks, I'm beginning to think that chapters are going out of vogue. For the record, I like chapters. They let you know that it really is time to put down the book and go fix dinner. Without them, I just keep reading and people in my house go hungry. So for any authors who are reading this, everyone in my house likes chapters too.

Once I got over that, however, this book enthralled me. Imagine learning that you have a great-aunt who you never knew existed. The aunt has spent the last 61 years in a mental institution. The hospital is closing and the aunt is being discharged. You are asked "What would you like to do with her?" "Huh? What?" I don't think most of us would be very well equipped to deal with this situation.

This tightly written tale by Maggie O'Farrell shows us this part of the story, but also the aunt's life and what transpired to lead to these circumstances.

Chris and I had fun discussing this book, and my daughter was intrigued by my description so she picked it up and read it right away too.

Other than one problematic element (and the fact that the cover does not match the descriptions in the book--a personal pet peeve of mine), we all found the book fascinating. This is a quick read-in-an-afternoon book.

We get three different narrative perspectives in the story: the niece's, Esme's, and Esme's sister. The sister is in a nursing home for Alzheimer patients. Her repetitious loop of thoughts is quite interesting as she fixates on certain key memories that enlighten the reader; she gives us a perspective that Esme doesn't have.

Without giving away the story, this is a story of betrayal. We were all dumbfounded at the complete betrayal of Esme. I'm currently reading another story (One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd) where the main character had been committed to an insane asylum by her family. How common a practice was this, I have to wonder. I know that family members can drive us a little batty sometimes, but that's pretty extreme, don't you think? As a plot device, there's NO way that this doesn't lead to hard feelings among characters!

Chris and I both felt that the niece's personal story, which involves some pretty messy relationships, was more of a distraction than an asset to the story. I kept wanting her story to somehow make her more sympathetic to Esme, but that isn't what it's all about, so I still wonder why O'Farrell added it.

O'Farrell's ending is quite spectacular, and it left me wondering what happened from there. Chris, on the other hand, found the ending so beautifully written that she didn't question what happened next. But when we talked about it, and when my daughter finished, we all agreed on what we thought happened from there, so maybe that was O'Farrell's intent. We would love to hear what you think.


Bookish News: Random House Prevails in Battle for Diane Keaton's Memoir — Comments by Chris and Carole

Random House Prevails in Battle for Diane Keaton's Memoir
by Leon Neyfakh
The New York Observer, February 10, 2009
A long competition over Diane Keaton’s memoir, which compelled some of New York’s busiest editors and publishers to clear their schedules last week and fly to Los Angeles to meet the actress, drew to a close Friday night.

The winner—sorry HarperCollins, Ecco, and Little, Brown—was the flagship imprint of Random House. David Ebershoff, who has edited Norman Mailer, Gary Shteyngart, and Charles Bock, will work with Ms. Keaton, who intends to write the book herself instead of using a ghostwriter.

William Morris agent Bill Clegg, who sold Ms. Keaton's book and presided over the meetings, said last Monday that Ms. Keaton's book "could be an enduring book about mothers and daughters and the choices that women of her generation and her mother’s could make and did." .....

No word as of yet how much Random is paying for the book, though as Crain's reported at the beginning of the process late last month, the first round of bidding—which determined who got to take those meetings with Ms. Keaton in Hollywood—inspired at least one house to offer an advance worth $2 million.

Oh, my stars. What is the publishing world thinking? Associated Press maintains the book will be about her relationship with her mother, who died of Alzheimer's disease last year.

That's a touching tribute, but is it worth a $2 million advance? Publishers are reducing their titles and laying off workers, retail costs for books are skyrocketing (Stephen King: 28.95!) — and an actor is being paid millions for her memoir. The story is tragic, yes, but not original or even unique.

Finally, I'm out of the loop and she's an enduring beloved mother or daughter figure, but that wouldn't be what I'd be looking for between the covers of Keaton's memoir.

Will we really pay that kind of money for anything penned by anyone famous or notorious? Are we that smitten by celebrity, or that desirous of lurid details of a private life of a non-private person?

What do you think?

Carole's Comment:

Sadly, it seems we will pay large amounts of money to find out what celebrities think about any one of a number of topics. This goes back to my pet peeve about celebrity moms (e.g., Kathy Lee Gifford, Jamie Lee Curtis, Madonna) who get to get their children books published, ahead of any other worthy children's books. Why do they get to jump to the front of the line? Their claim to fame is NOT writing children's literature and yet, there they are with a hot selling book.

I think that is the whole thing--the publishers know it will be a hot seller, so they publish it. Never mind if it's rubbish. Never mind if the celebrity didn't actually write it. Never mind that they have better proposals on their desks. So, I'm sure that if they forked over $2 million for Keaton's book, it's because they know that they'll make at least $4 million back.

Addendum 2/11/09:
FYI: Liz Kelly of the Washington Post agrees. (Thanks, Liz!)


The Serpent's Tale — Review by Chris

She's back, that feisty, clever, relentless coroner of the 12th century. In The Serpent's Tale, readers encounter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortiz Aguilar nearly two years after her first experience with the English crown and has settled in the fens with a couple of familiar faces (Glytha, Mansur) and one very special one we've yet to meet.

Alas, her idyllic life in Oxfordshire as the local doctor is short-lived. Henry — King Henry II of England, to be precise — has a problem only Adelia can solve: someone has killed Rosamund, Henry's beloved mistress. Adelia needs to find out who.

Oh, if only it was that simple.

First of all, she is a woman in primitive England, little more than chattel and certainly not all that valuable, except to a couple of men (and thank heavens one is a monarch). Second of all, she's educated, which was singular enough in her hometown of Salerno — but in the backwaters of England, it's unheard-of. Third of all, she is on the king's business. And anyone who's anyone knows that heavy is the head that wears the crown — and all the easier to topple said crown, or even said head.

So, she again teams up with Mansur — er, Doctor Mansur — to examine Rosamund and investigate the murder. For it is murder, complete with a mysterious hag in the forest providing delectible morsels for the king's "pretty." Rowley, the king's man to the end, heads the traveling party and again proves invaluable.

This second investigation takes Adelia and her entourage to Godstow Abbey, a cloister of smart, educated women (nuns and pensioners) who are as rare a treat as Adelia. With Adelia's keen eye and clever mind, we meet Mother Edyeve, whom author Ariana Franklin describes as having "the disinterested calm of elderly people who had seen everything and were now watching it come around for the second time." She is surrounded by interesting people, as the abbey is its own village with two churches and many villagers.

So much happens, from the moment Adelia assures Rowley of Rosamund's fate, to the arrival at Wormhold Tower with its labyrinth (and innuendos that are worth a chuckle or two), to the surprising arrival of an unexpected visitor and the aftermath.

More than fair Rosamund fall prey to the brutality of murder, and Adelia sees the series of unnatural deaths as a progression. Why are they being killed? What is the connection?

Who is foul enough to take another's life: Queen Eleanor, on the cusp of a civil war with a country less than a generation past its last such internal battle? Was it Lord Wolvercote, who hungrily eyed the abbey for its land and cursed the women who ran it (and who protected the young woman whose parents promised her to be his dowery, er, wife)? Was it Master Warin, whose young cousin befell his own treacherous (and suspicious) end? Could it be the Abbot of Eynsham, whose ambition was as bright as his cruelty?

Woven into this tale is a new perspective: the life of royalty and its court. From the moment members of the royal court sweeps in with too many people and an incredible amount of expectation, the world changes for everyone.  Not only are the king and queen's sycophants swept along in the wake, but also the innocents who become temporary toys. One learns that the only thing worse than being ignored by the rulers of the land is being noticed by them. Adelia does not escape Eleanor or Henry's attention, and she pays dearly for every moment in which she draws their eyes. However, Franklin shows the distinct difference in personality and expectation between the monarchs locked in their dance of power, intrigue and love — and the people who surround them.

The book sweeps along at a quick pace, but it never loses its readers. I personally fell very much in love with Henry, a man Adelia rightly sees as too far ahead of his time and his people — but in the right place for a monarch. Adelia herself admires and appreciates him, and I share her sentiment. The final scene of the book is revealing and delightful, and leaves me hungry for the next tale of our Mistress of the Art of Death.

One last thought: while you needn't read the first book to understand this one. However, you may choose to, if only to revel in the characters — and you won't be disappointed. Just don't let it hold you back from this delightful volume.


Bookish News: Business Brisk at Area Libraries — Comment by Chris

Business Brisk at Area Libraries
In Bad Times, Free Resources are a Hot Commodity
by Annie Gowen
Washington Post, February 2, 2009

In the past few months, [the Germantown, Md., library] has become even busier. The library, like most in the Washington area, has had a rising tide of users as patrons look for free computer access, DVD loans and activities for children during the recession. Circulation in the last six months of the year rose as much as 23 percent in libraries around the region, records show.

The influx comes just as county managers are preparing budgets for the coming fiscal year in a time of huge shortfalls. Libraries, like other services, face drastic cuts that could mean reducing staff and hours or even shuttering branches.

This reporter made it sound like only in "bad times" do people stoop to visit the library. In "better times," they have their own books, apparently, as well as their own computers and their own Internet.

This is a fallacy. Libraries are not a shelter during bad times but a place where resources are used all the time. Part of the draw is the changing face of libraries: more are getting wireless Internet access, giving people a place besides Panera or Starbucks to visit.

Speaking of which, libraries are changing with the times — and the patrons. While they still have the "Shhhh!" factor, more are allowing the amenities that draw and keep people coming back. My local regional library allows covered drinks, offers plentiful meeting rooms, holds community activities and has the vaulted ceilings and bright lights the reporter describes.

Many municipalities have invested in their infrastructure, upgrading their libraries from the energy-efficient windowless cubes popular in the Sputnik-era School of Architecture to the fast, bright, window-rich environments. They're moving from the quiet corner of the 'burbs to the bustling downtown. Libraries are starting to come to us, rather than expecting us to flock to them, unbidden.

Finally, libraries are providing many of the books people want to read. Of course, this isn't new — however, more people mean more popular books, and that's not a bad thing. They're not getting rid of the classics, but they are examining the checkout rate of books and removing from circulation books that are not checked out on a regular basis. I'm not sure if there's a better way of culling the herd, but anyone with a bookshelf understands only so many books fit on the shelf.

Libraries also are providing reading material in the manner in which we consume it. I have friends who live on recorded books. Others have gone e-bookish. (Frankly, I probably should consider it, what with the amount of time I already spend on my computer.)

So, while I think the facts speak for themselves — circulation is up, libraries are full — I disagree with the reporter's observations that this is a new phenomenon. Libraries are in, libraries are cool — still. We can argue about whether members of the public uses them because they've decided to "cut back" or whether they just love their new libraries. In the end, they're full, and you can't argue with that.