Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Great Book Club Choices for Spring

The Moonflower Vine:
Midwest Bookseller's Association April Pick

First of all, I must admit we don't deserve any credit for discovering The Moonflower Vine (paperback, $14.95). It even says on the cover that it's a "rediscovered classic" and a former New York Times Bestseller from 1962. It has a forward by Jane Smiley, who included it on her list of 100 great novels in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I also have to admit with at least some embarrassment that I'd never even heard of it before. Of course, back when it first came out, I was busy reading Dr. Seuss and playing with Barbie, Ken and Midge, but still.

Now that I've read it, I can't help but think: where's this book been all my life? This is a deeply satisfying novel. It’s nostalgic without being na├»ve, and reminds us that the early 20th century women of the Midwest were more complicated, more rebellious, and more savvy than we’ve ever given them credit for. My only regret is that my mother and grandmothers aren’t still alive to share it, because, oh! the talks we would have!

It's about a Missouri farm family in the early 1900's, and it's structured like a family portrait taken from completely different angles. Each family member gets their turn, and it gets better and more complicated with every new point of view. There are secrets, rebellions and betrayals that you never would have imagined from the surface, along with acceptance, forgiveness and intelligence. It's like going through your grandmother's things after she died and realizing that you underestimated her all your life. This would be a great pick for a book club meeting around Mother's Day.

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff:
Beautiful Stories by a Talented Young Voice

I know a lot of book clubs prefer novels over short story collections, but don't let that stop you. This book has such a unique and interesting voice that it made every story feel like part of a larger, cohesive whole. I could see assigning one story to each club member (there are nine) to make sure each story gets the attention and discussion they deserve. They're that good.

You can enjoy this book on so many different levels. Do you like really interesting plot? Check. Beautiful prose? Got it. Same thing for the strong, complicated female characters and the fresh insights into women's lives at different times in the last century. Not to mention some fairy tale allusions thrown in for good measure. I've never actually wondered about Hansel and Gretel's parents before, but when Lauren Groff weaved that question into a story about young immigrants working at the local Chinese restaurant (Lucky Chow Fun) I was really impressed. Reading these stories feels like watching an Olympian who has that rare combination of technique and artistry. I know, I'm gushing a little too much, but I loved this book and I admire the talent it took to create it.

Lauren Groff says she was inspired to write one of my favorite stories in the book (L. DeBard and Aliette) while she was working on her MFA at UW-Madison, surrounded by Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. I'm a Badger myself, and I too spent a fair amount of time supposedly studying down by Lake Mendota. Groff explained that the Madison lakes made her think about swimming, and helped her create a character based on a real female Olympian who took swimming lessons to recover from polio. (What she doesn't say is that the beer they serve at the Union Terrace is the more likely source of all lakeside inspiration!) Read more of the interview here: http://flavorwire.com/9894/exclusive-lauren-groffs-delicate-edible-fiction.

The really interesting thing about this book is that the women in the stories are definitely not delicate little birds. They're strong and smart and independent, but not self-consciously so. They're post-Title IX girls who don't even blink about being equal to boys, they're World War II journalists who are just as tough as the guys, they're young but modern brides. And yet they're still vulnerable. They still worry about Prom dates, being single too long, or the unique danger of being a woman in wartime.
It's a book that makes you feel good and hopeful and confident about women's place in the world. It feels a little surprising and maybe a little humbling to hear this message from a younger writer, but then again, it's great to see a new generation wearing their self assurance so naturally. I feel a Virginia Slims moment coming on, but I'm not going to say it. That would be old and corny, so unlike Lauren Groff.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Twilight As A Welcome Gateway Drug for Teen Reading

When the whole Twilight series started, concerned parents and grandparents used to ask us whether we thought these vampire books were really appropriate for their teens. We assured them that they were, that the author is actually a fairly old-fashioned Mormon, and that the romance in the books is a pretty tame breathless-crush variety compared to what most teens could be exposed to every day on MTV and CosmoGirl magazine. When some parents still seemed doubtful, they usually gave in when they admitted: "anything that gets my teen to read books!" "Yes," we'd say conspiratorially, and maybe with a smidgen of bookish snobbery, "maybe it will lead them to more and even 'better' books!"

Well, I'm here to report that it has. I just spent spring break at the beach with my daughter and her friends, and I was amazed to see what they were reading. Yes, of course they passed around a sunscreen-smeared Teen Vogue magazine (and Tucker Max, more on his popular book in another post some day), but they also had their noses buried in Wuthering Heights, Dracula and Pride and Prejudice. As Stephenie Meyer fans know from Eclipse, the third novel in the series, Bella is a huge fan of Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. I didn't realize it, but one of the girls also pointed out that the Twilight series books adopt many of the vampire "facts" and assumptions from Dracula. Once these girls discovered Emily Bronte, they couldn't wait for a break from their heavy chemistry textbooks to follow up with more 19th century British lit. (I was so excited I nearly drove them over to the nearby Barnes & Noble.)

This confirms a recent story in http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (March 16, 2009, books) in which it reported that Wuthering Heights is experiencing an "unexpected renaissance" in France, where sales of the book went up 50% last year and continue to rise this year. Some French bookstores are even selling copies of Wuthering Heights right next to the Twilight series, just to help teen customers make the connection.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, teens have always loved romance, suspense and (their italics, not mine:) drama. And of course they're familiar with the whole "goth" thing. They just needed a good book recommendation from a trusted source. It turns out it wasn't a librarian, their mother, their English teacher or their bookseller. It was Stephenie Meyer. The new gateway drug (or possibly the next Oprah?) for teen readers.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Valerie Laken, Author of Dream House appearing Saturday March 14

Come meet Valerie Laken, the highly acclaimed author of Dream House (HarperCollins), a novel the New York Times Book Review calls "the perfect haunted house story." She will be appearing at The Bookstore on Saturday, March 14th at 1pm, where she will sign copies of her new book.

Valerie Laken is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the UW-Milwaukee, and just happens to be the niece of Glen Ellyn's own Jessica Pekny, owner of Renaissance Art Studio, just a few doors down from The Bookstore on Main Street in Glen Ellyn. Clearly, creative talent runs in the family! Come give Valerie Laken a real Glen Ellyn welcome. E-mail us at justbook475@yahoo.com or call us at (630) 469-2891 to reserve a copy of the book.

Valerie's new book has received terrific reviews from both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. Click here to see what the New York Times had to say just this past Sunday: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/books/review/Crime-t.html?_r=1&ref=books. Anybody who already saw the NYT review is probably wondering about the cool faux mug shot photo of Valerie featured in the article. I had a chance to interview Valerie recently about this mug shot, and this is what she said:

Q: Are you a little worried about your photo in the NYT Book Review that makes you look like a criminal? Is there anything you'd like to disclose?

A: Yea, it's surreal! I always dreamed of getting a good review in the New York Times, but who knew they would also include a sort of mugshot of me? I love it. Especially because I look so carefree and unfazed by my apparent arrest.

Valerie Laken is a true midwesterner and a Big 10 gal. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Iowa and received an MFA from the University of Michigan. In fact, Dream House is based on a fixer-upper house she and her husband bought in Ann Arbor. Even more interesting, I thought, was the fact that she'd studied Russian as an undergrad, so I asked her the following question:

Q: I notice you have a background in Russian and Slavic languages. Any chance you'll be utilizing these talents in a future book? Did you ever think about joining the CIA and doing covert ops in Eastern Europe?

A: Ha! When I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, the CIA actually used to come to our building trying to recruit people. But we ignored them (as far as you know). I have used that background to write a few short stories set in Eastern Europe, which are included in my next book, a story collection called Separate Kingdoms. The collection deals with characters whose bodies are failing them, and the ways that people attempt to cope with disability and loss.

So, there you go. The tabloids could read as follows: Acclaimed author Valerie Laken, once recruited by the CIA, is unfazed by her apparent arrest! Come to The Bookstore on Saturday and meet this fascinating person!

Slightly more serious Q and A's about her book can be found here:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March Madness Bracketology for Books! The Morning News' Fifth Annual Tournament of Books

It's March, and if you're anything like me, that means it's almost time to fill out your NCAA brackets with a hilarious lack of information. Aside from the seedings, my criteria include such factors as whether I know anybody who went to college there, or if the team mascot is cool, naughty or just plain bizarre (that would include Bucky Badger, the Stanford Tree, and George Mason's Oscar the Grouch). I often do better in the pool than the real sports fans in the family, which of course drives them absolutely crazy.

If I can do that much with my mascot methodology, I'm thinking I just might have a real chance with a bracketed tournament for books, the wacky brainchild of the folks at The Morning News, http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/the_rooster/the_2009_tournament_of_books.php.

Every March, they start with a roster of 16 books matched up in brackets. Hand-picked judges, including many noted authors, choose one book in head-to-head competition to advance to the next round.

The folks at The Bookstore thought it would be fun to join in. Any customers who would like to participate, click here to print out a bracket:
http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/2009/ToB-2009-Brackets.pdf, and bring your completed brackets to The Bookstore by 4pm on Sunday, March 8th. Subscribe to The Morning News for judge's picks, and then check in at The Bookstore or here on the blog at the end of March to see if you beat out The Bookstore staff!

Scoring as folows: 1 point for each correct first round entry, 2 points for each in the second round, and so on. The grand prize: a guided tour of the backroom Advance Reader's Copy shelves with your choice of three courtesy copies, along with an official Rooster T-shirt from The Morning News. For anyone who can outscore any of our Bookstore staff in total points, your name will appear in a special list of "Rooster Champions: Customers Who Are Definitely Smarter Than The Bookstore Staff" on our blog. And then of course you would put that on your resume.

Don't be deterred by the fact that you haven't read all the books in the brackets, because neither have we! However, if you're one of those goody two-shoes who always did their homework, come on in and purchase any of the Tournament of Books titles at a special 10% discount. Just remember the secret password: "Cockadoodledoo." (I apologize -- that's an entirely meaningless joke unless you followed the link to The Morning News.)

If you won't be able to read them all, you might want to pick some other arbitrary critieria, such as pretty book covers, funny titles or authors from places you'd like to visit. Hey, like my mascot-ology, it just might work! For a sneak peak at the odds on each book, along with a chance to place a bet that goes to a worthy book related charity, go to: http://www.coudal.com/tob2009.php.

We'd love to hear the reasons for your selections -- did you love one book and hate the other? Do you love to play in a Dart League at Home with a Partisan's Daughter? If so, your picks will be easy! Feel free to comment below on your strategy. The loopier the better. If you're basing your picks on book covers, here you go:

No Image Available for Steer Toward Rock-
Wild Card Entry? Happy March from The Bookstore!