When you wish fiction was real: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr Penumbras 24 hour bookstoreThis is one of those books that I like even more the more I think about it. I can’t get the creativity of the story out of my mind. Defying any easy categorization, it’s Harry Potter, meets Dan Brown thriller, meets a bunch of book nerds, all set against a backdrop of Google-era hackers. It’s mysterious and funny and fresh and charming. It’s so hard to believe that this was Sloan’s debut novel.

Down on his luck graphic designer Clay Jannon is literally wandering San Francisco in search of a job when he stumbles into an unusual bookstore. Before long he’s cracking codes, embroiled in a secret society and smitten with a high-powered Google exec. This plot description doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but there’s something quite magical about Sloan’s storytelling. I really can’t tell you any more about it without giving away the developments and moments that make this such a compelling book.

“This girl has the spark of life. Thus is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay. I’ve tried many times to figure out what ignites it — what cocktail of characteristics comes together in the cold, dark cosmos to form a star. I know it’s mostly the face – not just the eyes, but the brow, the cheeks, the mouth, and the micro-muscles that connect them all.”

While Sloan uses this passage to describe personal attraction, I would use it to describe this novel. It has life — the mysterious combination of factors that brings a book from black and white text to something that reaches inside my soul.

Loved it. I’ll have to add Sloan’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969, to the reading list. Sloan has definitely left me wanting more.

Quoting the Quill: Why Read?

 

I’m back with my weekly round-up of great quotes. I’ve changed the name, inspired by the art and the brilliance of Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic which I found this week. She’s invited people to participate so here I am, jumping on board in my own way.

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From Haruki Murakami

“Have books ‘happened’ to you? Unless your answer to that question is ‘yes’, I’m unsure how to talk to you.”

This is the first Quoting of the Quill I stumbled upon and what drew my attention. These words could form my life motto! It’s not as if I think everyone needs to read as voraciously as I do, but when I meet someone who doesn’t “get reading,” I know we can be friendly but never really friends. Sad but true.

From Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.

A follow-up to the first quote from one of my favorite writers, this is today’s Goodreads Quote of the Day. I’ve walked in so many other worlds and so many periods of history thanks to books. I can’t imagine living any other way. (If you haven’t yet read The Namesake, I highly recommend.)

From Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”

I adore this distinction between print and audio books (as I adored the entire book). I’m relatively late to the audio game and confine my listening to my daily commute. I still prefer the printed word because I like to do some of the creative work, but the image of the “fuzzy knit cap” is one I can’t shake. That’s exactly what it’s like to listen to a really good audio book.

From Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

“Reading fiction, I see through the prism if another person’s understanding; reading everything else, I am traveling…The one entirely benign mind-altering drug.”

Do you sense a theme in this week’s quotes. Yes, I love reading writers who love books as much as I do. Lively is an author I can always count on for great writing, so it’s no surprise that her memoir relishes her life in objects that include lots and lots of books. I want to be her friend.

From Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

And a departure from the reading theme, but I couldn’t help including this great paragraph from the brilliant Joan Didion. When I first read this collection of essays a couple of years ago, it blew me away for its precise, straight-to-the-heart observations on living. So much of what she writes about in terms of politics, sexuality and self-knowledge is timeless.

Looking for more great quotes?  Check out: More Quoting the Quill at Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic or Thursday Quotables at Bookshelf Fantasies.

I’d love to know what lines have caught your attention this week.

Teaching Failure

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ―  Maya Angelou

I never set out to teach my sons to be failures. Yes, it’s a part of life and we learn from our failures, but come on…don’t we all hope that the successes will outweigh the failures? I do. And, luckily for me, my sons’ failures have been manageably few and far between.

But not this year. Not in youth sports. In 2014, throughout Basketball and Baseball seasons, we’ve been cheering on the underdogs, hearing a lot of “good try” from the stands, and returning home with dejected players in the back seat.

And I am here to tell you, it sucks.

My boys want to win as much as anyone else, work really hard at whatever sport they’re currently playing and show up ready to give 100%. These are all fine qualities in young men, but when they lead to losing results it presents a problem. Why is the hard work not paying off? If you study, practice, try…you should achieve success, right?

I don’t have the answers.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a loss here and there. My oldest son’s basketball team played the entire season without a single victory. My youngest’s travel baseball team managed only two wins this summer.

Game after game, day after day, late night after late night, I was left with nothing but platitudes about effort to offer my children. I got tired and repeating them and they sure got tired of hearing them. Yes, they were trying hard and their individual skills were improving, but they were frustrated and frankly, embarrassed.

Even in “recreational” sports, kids keep score. They no who the losers are. Wining matters to kids, mine included. We’re well past the “everybody’s a winner” just for playing leagues.

Still, ever the optimist, I tried a million different ways to boost morale. Pep talks, realistic expectations, even jokes, all stop working after a while. As Pat pointed out to me, he got sick of hearing that he had a good game, “Mom, what does it matter if we can’t ever win?”

That was a heartbreaking moment, but not nearly as bad as the few times they took personal responsibility for tough losses, blaming themselves for a shot missed or base runner walked-in. (This is not the kind of “personal responsibility” character education I planned.) No words of reason or explanations of team responsibility could assuage their guilt when they truly believed the team could have won “if only.”

I was thrown back to my own childhood, always one of the last ones picked for team sports, struggling with the Presidential Fitness Test, choosing to cheer from the sidelines instead of participating so that I wouldn’t fail in front of my peers. My sons were living my junior high nightmares. I was treading very close to that “living out our dreams through our children” line I vowed never to cross.

I learned to back off a bit. They know I have their backs. I’m there to cheer them on. I know I need to give them more personal space to work through their frustration as they learn to keep it in check.

By the time each season was over, we felt battered and bruised as a family. But they were not broken. It’s not what I would have wished for, but I have witnessed how my sons come out from the other side of failure. I’ve seen them stand by their teammates, never-say-quit and continue to shake hands with their opponents no matter the outcome. Maybe they’re not completely gracious in defeat, but I’m OK with that.  I’m ready to help them pick themselves up and rise again.

Team sports are finally (mercifully) over and we have a couple of months off before the cycle starts all over again with soccer and fall baseball. Meanwhile, we’re still Cubs fans, so lessons in failure continue to abound.

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W…W…W…Wednesday: Books past, present & future

I offer a heartfelt thank you to the members of the blogging community who offered words of encouragement and support last week when I was feeling stuck in the reading mud. You inspired me to push through (and made it OK if I had decided to give up.) I did finish Americanah, and I’m glad I didn’t give up. Now on to more books, more plans and more reviews.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting. I have discovered so many other wonderful blogs through this book-loving meme.

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I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

the secret life of ceecee wilkesWhat are you currently reading?  The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for a couple of years. I finally chose it because one of my Goodreads reading groups is doing a Diane Chamberlain author challenge. Right away I know that it’s not a typical Alena read, but it feels good to read something easier to digest after some of the heavy reads lately. I’m not sure I’m buying the premise behind this story, but I’m curious to see where it goes.

 

What did you recently finish reading? I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (another title that had been languishing on my TBR) for my in-person Book Club and I’m so glad I did. Dan Brown meets Harry Potter meets book nerds all set against a computer geek backdrop. A really enjoyable read. I also finished the above-mentioned Americanah, The Invention of Wings (reviewed yesterday) and the audio version of The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress, which moved a little slowly for my taste.

What do you think you’ll read next?  I’m beyond excited to dive into Close Your Eyes Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian’s first foray into YA fiction, which is getting incredible reviews. I’ve been slowly making my way through this author’s enormous body of work while still keeping up with his new releases. He’s a solid writer who tells really interesting stories. Hope to start that this weekend. Also beginning a new audio today. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is the 6th installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries, which have charmed me each time. Outstanding narration of really great books. Looking forward to getting in the car each day.

All in all, I got a lot of reading done this week.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

the invention of wingsSince I’m one of the last people I know to read this book, I was familiar with its premise and prepared to find something emotional, powerful and inspiring (the words that pop up most often). I found a good and emotional read, but I didn’t get the powerful and inspiring. Is it me?

According to the author’s note, she set out to write about the Grimke sisters, real life abolitionists and women’s rights activists, mostly forgotten by history. Much of the novel is told by Sarah, a fictionalized account of the sisters’ journeys from slave-holding southern belles to Quakers, writers and public speakers.

To add perspective to the novel, Sue Monk Kidd also creates the character of Hetty/Handful, a young slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Like Sarah, Handful has a strong-will, intelligence and determination. I fell in love with her from page one.

“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”

I love a character whose wisdom comes from the heart and not the head.

“you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”

It’s a good story, a slave and her mistress, neither of whom wants to be tied to the other, developing a friendship that can only lead to pain. In the tradition of good historic fiction, there are many details of life in Charleston in the early 19th century and as Sarah makes her journey northward, the novel is populated with historical figures.

But, as much as I was engrossed in the story (I flew through this novel in 2 days), I was bothered by the emotional distance between me and the characters. Handful and Sarah seem to be telling their stories as recollections from some unnamed point in the future which lacked immediacy for me.

I also kept waiting for the action of Sarah’s story to begin. It’s not until the last third of the novel that she becomes fully animated and involved in her own life. This might be the trouble in basing fiction on real people. The author is somewhat beholden to the slow pace at which real life takes place.

“I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”

I wanted so much more of her story once she’s out from under her mother’s cane and her relationship with Nina once they’re on the road speaking. There seems to be so much undiscovered drama in the tension between women’s and slaves’ rights.

But that’s not the book Sue Monk Kidd wrote. She wrote the story of two women trapped and struggling to break free.

“My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

Paperback Picks – July

Summer really is the season of paperbacks isn’t it? Some of my favorite titles have been/are being released in paperback this summer, so if you haven’t read these, I highly recommend the following:

Gone GirlGone Girl, Gillian Flynn

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away, but with all the buzz around the novel and the upcoming film adaptation, I’m pretty sure there are few people left who haven’t heard about this book. I chose it for my list because Flynn’s talent for storytelling has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers. Flynn investigates the bonds of marriage, obsession and identity in the modern world. She uses language to expertly pull her characters apart and put them back together.

“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless amount of characters.”

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

Another thriller that is well-written, well-crafted, surprising and engaging! I wouldn’t have guessed it was Rowling, but in retrospect it has the same depth of character and setting I’ve felt in her Harry Potter novels. Just a terrific mystery. And now, with the release of The Silkworm, is the perfect time to get hooked on this series. (Just a side note: the hardcover edition’s cover was so much better than the cheesy paperback cover. Don’t let that distract you.)

“But the lies she told were woven into the fabric of her being, her life; so that to live with her and love her was to become slowly enmeshed by them, to wrestle her for the truth, to struggle to maintains foothold in reality.”

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini writes with such agonizing beauty that I could have stopped every few pages to copy his words, pull apart sentences and admire his gifted storytelling. Using the complicated politics, displacement and fractured lives in Afghanistan, he manages to both expand the setting to Europe and America and make it more intimate by so closely examining the lives of his characters. At its core, this is a book about family. Who are they? What are the bonds that tie? What does it mean to love someone?

“Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.”

The LowlandThe Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri has such a light touch in her books, it’s almost as if you forget there’s an author behind the story. She treats her characters delicately, simply placing them in front of the reader without judgment and seemingly without premeditation to get them from the beginning of the plot to the end. Nothing ever seems forced or contrived in her books. She also evokes setting better than almost anyone I’ve read. Her sketches of Calcutta and Rhode Island were so real to me that I feel I’ve been to both places. My one criticism is that I never fell in love with any of the characters. I felt for them, but not as deeply as I hoped.

“The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator.”

Best Quotes of the Week — Independence Day edition

I thought I’d change up my Friday post this week in honor of Independence Day. Liberty and Independence are complicated ideas upon which to found a country as our history has proven. Here are my favorite quotes from founding fathers, classic writers and even a fictional president.

 

Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life & writings of Benjamin Franklin

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Abraham Lincoln

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

Thomas Jefferson (affectionately known as TJ in our house)

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child

“This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself.”

Emma Goldman

“People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”

Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement speech, 2005

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

And, finally, my favorite fictional presidential speech of all time: Andrew Shepard, The American President

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, because it’s going to put up a fight.”

Check out the video here:

Saying good-bye to World Book Night

I write this with a broken heart. As many of you have heard, World Book Night has suspended U.S. operations due to lack of funding.

My WBN 2014 choice was Kitchen Confidential.

My WBN 2014 choice was Kitchen Confidential.

After three years in which thousands and thousands of you distributed over a million and half specially printed World Book Night paperbacks across America, we are sad to announce that we are suspending operations. The expenses of running World Book Night U.S., even given the significant financial and time commitment from publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers–and you, our amazing givers!–are too high to sustain.

I read the rest of the email in a state of shock. I have championed WBN for three years, as a giver, on social media, recruiting other givers, as a blogger, suggesting books and generally shouting from the rooftops. I loved being one of tens of thousands of volunteers spreading out across the country for the sole purpose of giving away half a million free books. What could be cooler than that?

Kathy and I in our WBN shirts. April 23, 2014.

Kathy and I in our WBN shirts. April 23, 2014.

But, and this is a big but, I didn’t put my money where my mouth is. As generous as I could be with my time and talent, I did not share my treasure. Shame on me.

Do I think my $25 or $50 or even $100 would have made a significant difference? Probably not, given the tone of WBN’s letter:

For three years, the publishing industry and book community have very generously footed the bill and contributed enormous time and effort, and we are so very grateful for all the support. We did receive some funds via individual donations, and we worked very hard to get grants. We did get some, but there are a lot of other worthy causes out there and only so much money available. We can’t carry on without significant, sustainable outside funding.

I don’t have the means to provide “significant, sustainable funding,” but I might have slept better last night if I knew I had done everything possible to make sure World Book Night survived. Instead, I wondered how we book lovers, collectively some of the most passionate people I’ve ever encountered, couldn’t rescue this sinking ship.

I don’t have any answers. I’ve worked in sales and/or fundraising for not-for-profits for much of my life and understand the obstacles. I give enormous amounts of credit to everyone at World Book Night and all of the publishing houses who worked together to grow this effort for the past three years. I sincerely hope that some organization or individual will be moved to step in and solve the immediate crisis so that this post will serve only as a cautionary tale.

As optimistic as I am, I don’t feel confident that will happen. So I am left with my memories. And they are awesome ones. I overcame my fears and talked to perfect strangers about books I love. I placed printed books in the hands of dozens of people, young and old, asking them to give a new title a chance. I take some comfort in knowing we all made a difference.WBN_passiton_300x250_020912

YOU, the givers, made it possible for WBN to reach its full potential. For us here at World Book Night, this experience has been life-changing, as we hope it has been for you and recipients of the books. Our gratitude to you is simply immeasurable.

Naturally last night I also went back to revisit my posts about World Book Night (further saddened that WBN 2013 was during my hiatus in blogging):

World Book Night with a little help from my son 

World Book Night 2014 – A Perfect Pub Crawl

I shared this experience with people around the country and felt myself an ambassador for reading. That will have to be enough.

W…W…W…Wednesday or Confessions of a Stuck Reader

I look forward to sharing the latest reads with the blogging community, but this week I have NO CHANGES from last week’s post. I decided to admit that right up front. I can’t remember the last time I’ve spent an entire week with one book. It’s not that Americanah is not good, or interesting, or engaging — it’s all those things; but I can’t seem to get through more than 50-60 pages at a time.

Is it strange that I feel a little like a failure for not finishing a book this week? What am I going to write about?

Anyway, enough about that. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting — hopefully you can click through to some readers who’ve finished books this week.

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I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

AmericanahWhat are you currently reading?  Almost 400 pages through Americanah.  The writing is great but it’s dense. The Nigerian names and culture are very unfamiliar to me, so instead of devouring it, I am forced to take my time. I think the other issue is that I’m not excited by the two main characters. The novel has lost the intensity I felt in the beginning. (I am also slowly making my way through the audio version of The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress – an interesting, based-on-real-life story set in the 20′s. 80% complete, but I just haven’t had enough time alone in the car to finish.)

the book of unknown americansWhat did you recently finish reading? The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez still remains my most recently completed book. I loved it and posted a review here.

 

 

 

The Invention of WingsWhat do you think you’ll read next?  The Invention of Wings iss the summer read for the high school where I work and I’ve been wanting to read it since it’s release.  I loved The Secret Life of Bees, but didn’t love The Mermaid’s Chair. I have high hopes for this one. I’m a little nervous that it’s another chunkster because I also need to get to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore before my Book Club meets on the 16th.

Feeling the pressure.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Anyone else stuck in neutral?

June Reading Wrap Up

The month of June offered a pretty terrific mix of books to read, both in new releases and me finally settling down with some “meant to reads.” I spent time with two of my favorite authors, Jonathan Tropper and Dan Chaon, plus cemented my love for Ruth Ozeki. I found three new authors and started the beautiful Americanah, which I’ll undoubtedly review in July.

June 2014 Reads

Here’s my June reading list, best to worst.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki — already reviewed

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride – already reviewed

Among the Missing by Dan Chaon

I love best Chaon’s ability to tap into our innermost insecurities for examination. From the insecure widow looking for comfort from an inflatable torso in “Safety Man,” to a survivor wracked with unspeakable guilt in the title story. He doesn’t cross the line into magical realism but his stories retain an other-worldliness that appeals to me. It’s the stuff of deepest fears and imaginings, our dreams and nightmares, and even our everyday weaknesses. All of these stories somehow hinge on a seemingly random twist of fate.

“It’s not like it ruined my life, I was going to say, but then I didn’t. Because it occurred to me that maybe it had ruined my life, in a kind of quiet way–a little lie, probably not so vital, insidiously separating me from everyone I loved. ”

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez — already reviewed

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement – already reviewed

Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper (audio)

Not his best work, but any Tropper is good reading. The story felt familiar — Zach is a 30-something Jewish guy with serious father issues who faces a life-altering crisis. Drama, humor and fist-fights follow. It’s the standard Tropper mix but I’m OK with that. Sometimes I want something familiar and not too challenging. I like that Tropper’s protagonists, for all their self-pity, are smart, acerbic and disarmingly self-aware. (Scott Brick is a great narrator for Tropper’s work.)

“Somewhere there’s a therapist alone in his office staring wistfully at the door, just waiting for a patient like you.”

China Dolls by Lisa See — already reviewed

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

It’s a great premise — a family trapped in the car together as they drive from Alabama toward California to witness the Rapture, which is scheduled for Saturday. The narrator is a 15 year-old girl, insecure in comparison to her bombshell sister and in search of life’s meaning before it all ends. Religious fervor. Coming of age. Sexual awakening. Family drama. These are all components I love, but it never quite came together.

“Why didn’t I feel things the way others felt them? It wasn’t that I didn’t care about people. It was more like I couldn’t really believe they were real.”

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James – already reviewed

Bark by Lorrie Moore

I really did not like this story collection despite the quality of the writing, which is often brilliant. Once again, I have finished reading Lorrie Moore and wondered why her work does not appeal to me at all. Instead of feeling engaged and satisfied and moved, I feel like I’ve just gotten off a roller coaster. I went for a crazy ride, zig-zagged and looped, but in the end I got nowhere and have a slight headache. I know Moore has passionate fans, some of whom are my good friends, but I saw none of the humor or tenderness or truth they find in her work.

“Rage had its medicinal purposes, but she was not wired to sustain it, and when it tumbled away, loneliness engulfed her, grief burning at the center in a cold blue heat.”