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?