Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History"

Book Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Viking 2008, hardcover $24.95); The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (Harcourt, Inc. 2007, paperback $14.95)

We've all heard that "well behaved women seldom make history." Well, it also seems that well behaved women seldom make good novels. On the other hand, give me a complicated, defiant woman, place her in a 19th or early 20th century novel, and you've got the foundation for a great read.

This is the case for both The Secret Scripture, a 2008 Man Booker prize nominee, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, now in paperback. It was just coincidental that I read the two books back to back, but I'm glad I did. They were a great fit.

These books certainly made me grateful I didn't live back then. Aside from missing i-pods and microwaves, I could have run into trouble with the apparent cultural tendency to have unconventional women committed to insane asylums against their will. Thank goodness we live in the 21st century, where spunky women can dye their hair pink and sing catchy tunes about life as a rock star. Or where opinionated women can become litigators, Senators, or stars on The View.

However, if you were a young, beautiful Irish girl of the 1800's like Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture, and your only crime was to defy and alienate the parish priest, then you too could end up in a mental hospital in County Sligo until your 100th birthday. Similarly, if you were a troubled young English girl who never quite recovered from witnessing your little brother's death, rendering you a bit too quirky and "unfit" for marriage, then you could have shared the fate of Esme Lennox, who found herself in a mental hospital for 61 years.

Coincidentally, in each book, the mental hospital is scheduled to close. The hospital staff begin to search patient histories to find next of kin, and the patients themselves began to piece together their past. In each case, a fascinating story emerges about the times and events that led Esme and Roseanne to their fate.

Despite suffering decades of undeserved isolation, both Roseanne and Esme emerge from their mental hospitals with new freedom, new narratives and newly discovered relatives. Which gives hope to all the not-so-well behaved women out there, no matter what your age.

Both of these books would be terrific for book club discussions, but I really loved The Secret Scripture for the beauty of the writing and its irresistable Irishness. I'm definitely picking up Sebastian Barry's other novels.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Celebrity Chef Art Smith and Author Helen Puckett De France at Cookbook Signing

Cookbook author Helen Puckett De France came to The Bookstore on Sunday, Dec. 14th to sign copies of her newest cookbook, At Home Cafe. Accompanying her was her good friend and celebrity chef Art Smith, who wrote the forward to her book. Art Smith has been Oprah's longtime executive chef, and is rumored to be on the shortlist for White House chef. Extra signed copies of the cookbook are still available. Just call (630)469-2891 and we will hold one for you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fancy Nancy Holiday Parties Sparkled!

Thank you to all the sweet little girls who joined us for our Fancy Nancy Holiday parties this past week! We are sorry we didn't get to post everyone's photo, but here are a few! Aren't they cute with their little fancy elf hats? Please make sure your daughter is signed up for our new Fancy Nancy Club starting in January, 2009. Just call The Bookstore at (630) 469-2891 or e-mail us at with the heading "Fancy Nancy."
We plan to have a newsletter, offer coupons, more parties, and a Fancy Nancy treat bag for all little girls who come to The Bookstore looking fancy!

Fancy Holidays to one and all from your friends at The Bookstore! See you again soon!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Intriguing Read: Travel Writing by Peter Ferry

Travel Writing (Harcourt, Inc., $24.00), is a new novel by Peter Ferry, an Evanston, Illinois author/teacher/travel writer. It's a great mind-bending kind of a read, like an Escher painting. I highly recommend it.

The narrator is an English teacher and travel writer named Peter Ferry (hmm...) who is trying to show his students how to tell a story. He tells them an intriguing story (he claims he's making it up off the top of his head) about a woman he saw get killed in a car accident on Lake Shore Drive. He feels guilty because he thinks he could have prevented it. As a reader, you think, wow, this character's a really good teacher; that's a clever way to get your class to practice using their imagination: take a possibly real event and spin a complicated, regretful tale from it.

But then he launches into minute details about the accident and his obsessive interest in the life of the victim, Lisa Kim. The book takes off with several chapters about his creepy investigation into the cause of the accident, and the problems this obsession is having on his relationships. You forget that it all supposedly started "off the top of his head."

Just when you're on a roll with the (real?) story, the narrator takes a break for a segment back in his English class, and he is having a conversation with his students about his fictional love for Lisa Kim. It's like waking up from a vivid dream and realizing none of it ever happened. But then the story advances further, with so much detail that he couldn't be just making it up. So, did it really happen, or is the teacher just using it as a launching point for his imagination?

As the book jacket says, this novel explores the idea that "the line between fact and fiction is negotiable." It's a clever premise, and the mystery is a compelling page-turner. And if the plot isn't disturbing and intriguing enough, there is the dedication page: to Lisa Kim. I have this creepy feeling that if I googled Lisa Kim I'd find her obituary. Read the book and then post your thoughts. It's so weird you can't just put it down and forget about it!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Available in paperback, translated from French, $15.00.

This is a surprising, enchanting love story about a curmudgeonly concierge, a precocious, suicidal teenager, and a wealthy Japanese man who live in the same apartment building in Paris. It’s about all the big things in life: our search for beauty, meaning and love; our deep human longing for art, music, literature and philosophy. But the magic of the book is revealed when these flawed, lonely people learn how to recognize and respond to this longing in each other.

The story starts out slowly, with a couple of irritating chapters that might make you feel impatient or stupid or both, as if the author is just showing off, but then the story blossoms and the characters become absolutely irresistible.

If you’ve ever been struck by a perfect line of Tolstoy’s prose, brought to tears by a beautiful Vermeer painting (okay, not tears - but maybe you were just a little "verklempt"?), or deeply bothered by some nitwit’s bad grammar, then you must read this book and get to know the endearing little hedgehog of a concierge named Renee. Then, like me, you’ll be passing the book on to friends, insisting that they take the time to enjoy this elegant little story.

My favorite things: "happy families are all alike," camellias on the moss, synchronized diving, yellow carpeting, pure kindness. Sue, how 'bout you?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Margie's Book Review: Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books 2008, 292 pages, $24.95) Available at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn. [Now available in paperback.]

I loved this book so much I even highlighted the hardcover. But I couldn’t resist. When the author is an official “MacArthur grant genius” (wouldn’t that be great on your resume?) I guess it’s okay.

The Lazarus Project, shortlisted for the 2008 National Book Award, is a smart, wry, and insightful immigration story that somehow manages to both honor and challenge our pride in America as a “beacon of hope” to the rest of the world. The novel weaves between the stories of two Chicago immigrants: Lazarus, a Russian Jew who came over in 1908, and the other, Brik, a Bosnian writer who navigates his way in an anxious post-9/11 America. They escaped ethnic cleansing in their homeland, from pogroms in Kishinev to slaughter in Sarajevo, with the hope of melting into the warm pot of the City of Broad Shoulders. Instead, they are confronted with more prejudice and misunderstanding, and learn that a new passport cannot erase their past.

The author was an outsider too, having arrived in Chicago from Sarajevo in 1992, and thus understands both sides of the coveted blue passport. One of the characters tells a feels-like-a-true story about the members of a Moldovan “underwater hockey team” who can’t even swim, but join a faux Olympic team in order to get a visa into Canada, and then promptly disappear before opening ceremonies. When Brik takes a road trip through Eastern Europe, Brik realizes his American passport is “my soul.”

At the same time, Hemon knows that while America still represents the promise of freedom, there is an enormous gulf between arriving and assimilating. It seems like Brik will be able cross that bridge and live the American dream; he meets and marries an American neurosurgeon named Mary. However, the reader slowly learns about the crevices in their marriage: they have a bitter fight about the Abu Ghraib pictures from Iraq. His wife couldn’t comprehend evil, but Brik saw “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death.” As dishes flew, he told his wife that “to be an American you have to know nothing and understand even less. . . .” Later in the book, Brik reveals they also argue about having children. Brik’s afraid his own children would become “too American for me,” that he would “hate what they became; they would live in the land of the free, and I would live in fear of being deserted.” Through Brik and Mary’s marital discord, we can begin to understand how immigrants view our world and why they can’t just be more like us. And more understanding is always a good thing.

There's so much more to enjoy about this book. There are photographs integrated into the story line, supposedly taken by Brik's road trip pal, a Sarajevo-born photographer with fascinatingly hyperbolic war stories; there's the true story of Lazarus Averbach, fictionally expanded from his surviving sister's tender point of view, and there's the story of Sarajevo, all contained in this one novel, like Russian dolls.

This book would be a great for an intense book club discussion. It’s like a cross between Everything is Illuminated, with its tragic but comical road trip through Eastern Europe, and The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, about American peacekeepers in post-war Kosovo. I highly recommend it. It's the work of a genius. (No pressure if you don't like it!)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Books Make Great Christmas Presents

Bookstore Thought for the Day:

Why books are such a great Christmas present:

"Longer-lasting than a fruitcake, cheaper than a flat screen, more fun than a partridge in a pear tree."

"Why a book?: Because a new tie never changed anyone's life."

(Thanks, Shelf!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gingerbread Friends Cookie Party at The Bookstore

Kids Had A “Sweet” Time
At the Gingerbread Cookie Party at The Bookstore
On Sunday, November 9th

The Bookstore kicked off its holiday season with a Gingerbread Cookie Decorating Party for children ages 3-6 on November 9, 2008. The party was inspired by Jan Brett’s beautifully illustrated books, Gingerbread Baby (hardcover, $16.99; board book, $7.99) and the newly released Gingerbread Friends (hardcover only, $17.99).

As the children listened to a reading of Gingerbread Friends, they played a contest offered by Jan Brett’s fun and fabulous website, Jan Brett is offering to donate one of her new books (1,000 in total) to the library of your choice when you enter the “hedgehog spotting contest.” The children wiggled with excitement every time they spotted one of the four hedgehog illustrations. We sent our answers in through Jan Brett’s website, and chose the Glen Ellyn Public Library to be our hopeful recipient of one of the free books. Winners will be selected on November 20, 2008. I promised the kids I would let them know if our very own local library will be one of the lucky 1,000 winners! In the meantime, check out Jan’s website with your child – it’s an amazing resource filled with alphabet coloring sheets, bookmarks, recipes, crafts and games. You can even print out beautifully illustrated animal masks! It might be the great place to get ideas for a holiday or birthday party.

As exciting as the hedgehog contest might have been, there was no doubt the kids’ favorite part of the party was when they got to decorate their very own gingerbread cookie (fresh out of the oven!) with frosting, peppermints, m&m’s and raisins. It was fun to see how the frosting worked like glue!

Please check our website or our most recent newsletter for more details on upcoming children’s parties at The Bookstore, including a “Fancy Nancy Holiday Party” on Sunday, December 14, 2008. To sign up, call us at (630) 469-2891. In addition, The Bookstore offers free drop-in story times for preschoolers at 10:30am every Tuesday and Friday. It’s a great way to teach your child how much fun books can be!

Book Review and Commentary: Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

If you’re like me, you’ve started going green, but you know you could do more. Read Thomas L. Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat and Crowded (Why We Need A Green Revolution- And How It Can Renew America), $27.95, and I guarantee you’ll be motivated!

Hot, Flat and Crowded is a shocking but good read. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, has a great way of explaining some pretty complicated issues to a popular audience without dumbing it down. I can’t count how many times I stopped to think, wow, I get it now! The good news is that this book isn’t just alarming, it’s a call to action. Friedman compares a new Green Revolution to the Space Race in the 1960’s, and suggests we commit to the climate/resource crisis with the same creative and scientific energy that we did in our quest to put a man on the moon.

This book will probably motivate you to go greener faster. I’ve noticed that Glen Ellyn folks are starting to go green, and that life in our little village is starting to change. We’re making the conscious effort to buy local. We’re shopping at the farmer’s market, and we’re toting around reusable bags. You’ll notice that The Bookstore will be reducing paper and going more electronic in the months ahead. Look for us on this blog and on our website at We’re gearing up to shift many of our newsletters from paper to e-mail. So we’re getting there, but we have a long way to go.

A Green Revolution has to start at home. This book is a great place to start! Buy one for yourself, one for a friend, and one for your favorite politician. Suggest it for your next book club selection. Then let’s get out there and save the earth, one little village at a time!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dervishes, A Compulsive New Read!

Dervishes by Beth Helms (Picador Paperback Original, 2008, $14.00)

I have an enormous stack of inviting books, but Sue insisted I put this one at the top of my pile -- and now I know why! What a compulsive read.

Dervishes is a great title, because you can just feel everything spinning out of control in the secretive, off-balance lives of American diplomats stationed in Turkey in the 1970’s. The story is told in turn by a 12 year-old girl named Canada and her unmoored mother Grace, an original “desperate housewife.” It involves sinisterly sensuous houseboys, flirtatious riding instructors, and unreachable husbands who disappear in the middle of the night on unexplained assignments. The tension and jealousy in this novel are palpable; they feel like threatening characters lurking around each corner.

Beth Helms is an author with stunning talent. I will definitely be picking up her earlier story collection, American Wives, the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Thanks for the recomendation, Sue!

If this book sounds good, just give us a call at (630) 469-2891, and we'll put one aside for you!


Thursday, October 23, 2008

We Can't Stop Thinking About Little Bee

Our advance copy of "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave (Random House) has been passed from one employee to another with the same feverish, drooling excitement of my springer spaniel awaiting a treat. We had to carefully choreograph each hand-off, as we each darted in and out of town. Sue actually left it on her doorstep for Jenny to grab on her way to the airport. Jenny tells me she read it it one sitting, then had to call the bookstore for my cellphone number, because she just had to talk about the ending!

Our only regret is that we have to wait until February, 2009 to sell it, although it's been available in the U.K. since July under the name "The Other Hand." As for me, the title "Little Bee" is much more fitting because it connects the reader with a character that they will not be able to stop thinking about. We loved Little Bee as both a character and a metaphor for the refugees from Nigeria she represents. You can choose to see a bee as a pest, and swat it quickly before it stings, or you can let the bee fly back to the garden, where it will polinate your flowers.