The Sunday Salon: Short Stories Redux

The Sunday When I started participating in the Sunday Salon, I had the brilliant idea to rotate weeks, doing short stories one week, essays the next, then poetry, etc. My master plan has fallen by the wayside (I'm easily distracted); but I had a hankering for a short story day, so decided to revive it for this Sunday. I've been barreling through so many books lately, it's nice to pause and read a variety of story-ettes from here and there.

I've read or am reading:

  • From Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood: "The Art of Cooking and Serving."
  • From Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship by Alice Munro: "What is Remembered."
  • From Heart Songs by Annie Proulx: "Heart Songs."

In the connected short story genre, this week I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. All 13 stories in the book have Olive in common, sometimes as the central character, sometimes just making a cameo appearance. The stories take place in a small town in Maine and involve relationships, human foibles, growth and change. It reads like a novel; the ending is wonderful. Highly recommend. Also read: Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, both excellent.

There are so many opportunities around for getting free books, it's quite astonishing! There's always a giveaway going on in the book blog world (e.g. check out Jen's giveaway of Matrimony or this one by Irish, giving away Last Night I Dreamed of Peace). And thanks to Wendy and Paola, I've discovered Shelf Awareness, where you can often request books right from the publisher. I received one yesterday I don't even remember requesting! I've received a number of books via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. And, of course, booky friends are always willing to pass along something they know you'll love. In fact, looking at the first couple of pages of my catalog on LibraryThing, about half of the most recently acquired books came from one of these sources. Not bad!

I hope you have a joyful Labor Day holiday; and thoughts are with all those in Gustav's path. Be safe.

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Weekly Geeks #14 and 15 - More Photos 'n' Books

This week's challenge:
Take close-up photos of book covers and see if our readers can guess which books they are.
Since WG has been gone for a few weeks and I've missed the last few, I'm combining this week's with last week's offering:
When I mentioned that I was moving, someone asked if I would be showing a book photo tour of my new place. That gave me the idea to ask Weekly Geeks to post book photo tours of their own.

And since I've posted lots of photos of my bookshelves, I thought I'd post photos of my favorite reading spots instead. These are all in my little cottage/studio:

The couch, for reading which usually leads to napping here.

My reading chair.

This is my meditation loft, where I do some morning reading.

My new writing spot

Now, for the book covers. I love this game, What Am I - I've done this with some other close up photos of plants and food. My only hint: these are all in my library. Can you spot them? (Edited to add the titles that have been correctly identified.)

1. Wicked

2. Oscar and Lucinda (no one got this)

3. The Thirteenth Tale

4. The Master and Margarita

5. Tipping the Velvet

6. The Quincunx (no one got this)

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Wordless Wednesday 08-27-08

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The Sunday Salon: The Best of Books, the Worst of Books

The Sunday Good Sunday morning! This week I read one of the best and one of the worst books of the year, and one in between.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (the one in between) turned out to be a pretty good book. It started out slowly for me and I wasn't sure I was going to like it. The book takes place in two time periods: one during the siege of Leningrad in WWII and the other in present day Pacific Northwest, focusing on Marina, a Russian immigrant who has Alzheimer's. Dean's treatment of the present day story felt stilted to me at first; I was wishing it was just the Russian story. But either it improved as the novel progressed or I got used to her style.

In Leningrad, Marina works as a tour guide for The Hermitage - a massive art museum that contains some of the world's most precious art. When it becomes clear that Germany will invade Leningrad, the staff and hundreds of volunteers work day and night for weeks, packing up the art (millions of pieces) and sending it off to an undisclosed location. Most of the painting frames are left on the walls. Marina lives with her aunt and uncle and many others in the basement of the museum during the bombing raids - survival is hand to mouth with both food and heat becoming scarce through the long frigid winter. Dean's descriptions of the desperation of the refugees is stunning.

Marina learns from an old cleaning woman the importance of keeping the art alive by storing it in her "memory palace." Marina spends her weeks wandering the museum, recalling details about every painting that hung in the museum -- and even some she'd never seen.

In present day Seattle, Marina is attending the wedding of her granddaughter. Her daughter Helen hasn't seen her for many months and is shocked at her memory loss and distressed that neither her father, Dmitri, nor her brother Andrei have told her about her mother's Alzheimer's. Marina, who had never spoken of the war, begins to reveal some of her life in Leningrad.

Dean's use of the devastation of Alzheimer's is an effective vehicle to weave the two time periods together. Good writing, wonderful characters with a bit of magical realism tossed in. Recommended.

As for the worst -- Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is a book I looked forward to reading. I enjoy witchy stories and magical realism. Suffice it to say I found this book trite and predictable and a bit ridiculous. I can't recommend this book unless you enjoy cliche and pretty bad chick lit. I was stunned by the rave reviews this book got on Library Thing.

To be fair, Garden Spells had a tough act to follow, as I had just finished one of the best books of the year (or possibly the decade), The Girls by Lori Lansens. Rose and Ruby are identical twin sisters. They've never seen each other's faces, except in mirrors. They are conjoined twins, joined at the skull; separation is impossible without both of them dying. This book grabbed me from the first paragraph.

As the story unfolds, the girls are approaching their 30th birthday. Rose is writing her autobiography, which of course, must include Ruby's story too. Reluctantly, Ruby begins to add to the book; neither of them read what the other has written. Rose tells the story of their birth - it happens during a rare tornado in southern Ontario; their birth mother abandons them and they are adopted by the nurse who delivers them. Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash give them a loving home and a strong sense of self. Lovey defends them fiercely -- and will not tolerate self pity.

Rose and Ruby's relationship is complex and touching and sad and lovely. They literally don't see the same things and their stories don't always jive. Their personalities are quite different, and they struggle with the same issues as most children, teens and young adults.

One reviewer thought this book was morbid. I thought it was stunning; Lansen did a remarkable job of staying true to each character's voice and of addressing the unique challenges of Rose and Ruby and still portraying them as so normal in their responses and emotions, as they should be. Another reviewer thought that Lansens had no right to tell this story -- because, presumably, she isn't a conjoined twin--?? I couldn't disagree more. She tells it with great compassion, tenderness, humor and respect. Highest recommendation.

Next up: Olive Kitteredge and Sweetsmoke (an Early Reviewers book).

Have a great week! I am on vacation this week, which doesn't hold quite the same excitement for me as usual, since my retirement is a mere 67 days away!!!!

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Booking Through Thursday - Early Memories of Libraries

The Booking Through Thursday questions today were suggested by Margaret:

Whether you usually read off of your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. (There’s no way my parents could otherwise have kept up with my book habit when I was 10.) So … What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

The BookMobile came to our neighborhood every couple of weeks in the summer, when we didn't have access to our school library. It was exciting - almost as exciting as visits from the ice cream truck! I remember it feeling like a special treat to walk the few blocks to the van to discover what treasures it held this time. (There was always a chance I might run into Jimmy O'Brien there too!)

It was tiny. It was hot and cramped. It smelled of dust and diesel and sweaty little bodies. And I loved it. During those summers I discovered the stories of Helen Keller and Anne Frank, Clara Barton and Little Women. Here were adventure, inspiration, girl and women role models that were far out of the norm of my little 1960s suburban neighborhood: escape, all lined up on a few small shelves in an old van.

We lived quite a distance from the brick and mortar public library, so having the BookMobile come to the neighborhood probably saved me from an overdose of MAD and TEEN magazines and daytime television.

Read Elizabeth's skunk-book connection here and Angela's Nancy Drew memories here.


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Wordless Wednesday

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The Retirement Thang

It really is happening! Monday I got all the paperwork filled out for my retirement system application, made some decisions about rolling over accounts, buying back time... so much to think about, but it's well on the way to a done deal! And I've been working on writing up my job description and job posting. All these concrete tasks take the surrealism out of the thoughts of retiring and make it a reality.

Everyone asks, "What are you going to do?" Good question! I have no grand plans other than devoting time to getting healthy, reading, writing and catching up on sleep. At least for the first six months. Maybe take a class or two and explore volunteering for Write Around Portland and/or Growing Gardens.

I feel so fortunate to be able to do this at age 58; I've been in the state retirement system for 28 years, quite by accident! Certainly not by design, as I'm not much for long term planning.

On with the countdown!!!

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The Sunday Salon: Camping Out

I'm not really here today. I'm out in the woods camping with some friends - our annual women's campout. Sounds like the shady woods is one good place to be this weekend, with temps expected to be over 100. I don't think we'll be having any campfires! When I'm not talking, laughing, singing or eating, I'll be sitting in the shade of some tall Douglas firs and cedars reading. Hopefully I'll get to Olive Kitteredge sometime this weekend. I've read rave reviews of this book, with some comparisons to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. First, though, I'll finish The Madonnas of Leningrad - started it Wednesday night and so far I feel pretty lukewarm about it.

Books I've read this week:
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. This is a quirky little book! I feel like I need to read it again to take it all in. I would probably rate it higher on a second read. Written in 1961, it explores the influence of an unorthodox teacher on her students in an Edinburgh girls' private school. I was expecting laugh out loud humor, which this is not. Made famous by the movie starring Maggie Smith, which I've never seen (but plan to watch soon).
  • Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, "a totally unique memoir about growing up in Iran after the Shah left power." This is a powerful graphic memoir, and Satrapi and her family are remarkable people. Marji's parents were very open and honest with her about what was happening in their country and encouraged her to express her opinions and take part in demonstrations against the fundamentalist government - to a point. I learned a lot about the Iran-Iraq war and the civil war in Iran in the 1970s -- and the people of Iran -- from this book. I'm looking forward to reading Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return next week.
You can read more about this remarkable book and an interview with Satrapi, "On Writing Persepolis," at this website. This is another movie I intend to watch soon.

I've come to appreciate the graphic novel - or memoir - as a very effective way of conveying story and emotion. It's more than just a sophisticated comic book. One of my favorite books last year was another graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, brilliant author of Dykes to Watch Out For.

I hope you're have a wonderful Sunday wherever you are!

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Booking Through Thursday - Sports Watching or Reading?

This week's questions:

Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general? Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both? Do you consider yourself a sports fan?

I've been staying up waaayyyy too late this week watching gymnastics and swimming. I don't consider myself a sports fan, but I do have several events through the year that I always watch: tennis (the US Open and Wimbledon -- did you SEE the men's finals this year???), baseball (the World Series, especially if the Yankees are playing) and parts of the Olympics, summer and winter (not much interested in track and field).

I don't read books about sports per se unless it's an incidental part of the story -- like The Brothers K by David James Duncan, which is about baseball, but so much more. One of my all-time favorites.

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The Sunday Salon: Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

The Sunday
There's a reason I don't fly anymore -- well, more than one reason, but I'm not sure I'd survive an ordeal like Benjamin "Bennie" Ford did, spending 24 hours in O'Hare airport after his flight from New York to LA was cancelled mid-air.

Bennie is trying to get to LA for his daughter's "wedding" (he uses quotation marks because he's not sure what to call his lesbian daughter's commitment ceremony). The flight lands in Peoria and passengers are bussed to O'Hare in Chicago where they are forced to wait it out overnight for a flight out.

Poor Bennie; he hasn't seen his daughter since she was a baby. This is his chance to begin a relationship with her. He desperately wants to get to LA for the "wedding." While he's stuck in the airport, he writes a scathing letter to American Airlines, demanding a refund for his airfare. The letter ends up as a memoir of his rather pathetic life.

Miles has written a smart, witty, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad and moving novel. I started reading this in bits and pieces, thinking it would be a light read, but realized I needed to devote full attention to it as it reached to depths that surprised and delighted me.

Highly recommend.

I haven't felt very bloggy this week, but I've read some amazing books, in addition to Dear A.A. Also read: Restoration by Rose Tremain and March by Geraldine Brooks, both fine works of historical fiction.
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The Sunday Salon: Orange July Wrap-up

The Sunday Salon.comI was almost sorry to see July come to an end, I so enjoyed the Orange Prize reads for the month. Not that I can't continue reading great contemporary women writers; but it was fun to dedicate a whole month to it. Thanks to Jill for coming up with the great idea and for hosting it.

I started with a list of twelve books to pick from; the titles in orange are the books I read:
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • Property by Valerie Martin
  • Sorry by Gail Jones (my review)
  • The Girls by Lori Lansens
  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  • The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (my review)
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  • What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (my review)
Only two of these I rated below a 4 (out of 5), and those were both 3.5s, still pretty good books (...Tractors in Ukrainian and The Namesake). It would be hard to pick a favorite from these eight. They're all so different - writing styles, emotional impact, character and narrative styles - which says a lot for the Orange Prize selections; there is variety! If I were forced to pick a favorite, it would be When the Emperor Was Divine, for its uniqueness, its sparse, poetic narrative and its emotional punch.

I'll be reading at least one more book from my list this month - The Girls is the first book picked for my new face-to-face book group, and we'll be discussing it the end of August (which is why I didn't read it in July, given my memory...or lack of). I'm intrigued by this story of conjoined twins.

Jill is adding Orange January to the mix, so this will become a semi-annual tradition; it's a great way to focus on some really outstanding books.

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