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Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

6 Sep

Confession: sometimes I write reviews of books that I only have vague memories of because I’m a horrible procrastinator but I kind of wing it because I remember how the book made me feel and I can recall the details as I write. Not so with Timothy Schaffert’s novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. Published by Unbridled Books, I bought the ebook of Coffins for my nook, and it was – hands down – the first book I’ve read on my nook that made me forget that I was not reading an actual book. That’s how complete and enchanting the experience Schaffert creates is. Narrated by Essie, the spunkiest obit-writing octogenarian I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, The Coffins of Little Hope tells the story of a small town embroiled in big drama. While the town seems like an Everytown on the outside, the characters that populate are anything but ordinary. There is so much plot in this novel and so much I want to discuss, but don’t want to give away, that I’m cheating a little and using Unbridled’s plot summary:

When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town.  And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of YA gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper’s presses.

In most books, the story of a missing child would seem to be the main plot focus, the details of which every other narrative arc in the story would revolve around. But that is not the case here. Schaffert manages to make the disappearance a minor detail; it is the actual existence of the child in question that becomes the crux of the story. It’s one of many unexpected but charming twists that make up this tale. The multiple narrative arcs at times appear to be confusing but in actuality are all so intertwined that it’s difficult to pick apart all the threads that make up the larger story. There are elements that I personally love – the downfall and impact of a small-town newspaper’s closing, the power of shared experience in reading, the attitude of a teenager that means well but is still a teenager – but there are so many other pieces that it’s impossible to pin them all down. In this way, Schaffert manages to do what few authors (at least in my opinion) accomplish: he tells a story.

I find a distinct difference in being a storyteller rather than a novelist, and I honestly can’t explain the distinctions. It’s more of a “know it when you read it” kind of style, but I felt like I was being told a story, and the emotion I felt while reading it was akin to the feeling of being a child and listening to a bedtime story. I was charmed and bewitched by the tone, the setting, the characters, the plot — even the way Schaffert describes the seasons is enchanting! Here’s an excerpt:

This began not as a book but as an obit of a kind for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation. The longer we went without seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope despite all the signs that she’d never existed, that she’d never been anybody—never, not even before she supposedly vanished?

By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bickering and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore’s death. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.

You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.

Some of you may say I’m just as bad as the worst of the people who’ve exploited the summer, fall, and winter of Lenore, that I’ve played this story like an accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I’ve so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.

Isn’t that language gorgeous?? I’ve tagged this as Summer Reading, and the book begins in the summer – the kind of hot and hazy summer feeling that’s so familiar in DC – but it transitions through the seasons over the course of a year or so and it’s perfect right now, as we move from summer to fall. And while I read it in the peak of summer, I am sorely tempted to read it again now to get an entirely different seasonal effect. I have no trouble at all calling this one of my favorite books of the year. Check out some of the other accolades it’s gotten here and buy a copy here or here. Highly recommended.


Review: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

8 Aug

Prepare yourselves: Matthew Norman’s debut novel, Domestic Violets, is that book that I’m going to be really annoying about for the rest of the year (and probably some of next, as well). And this is going to be less of a review than a fangirl gushing session. Okay, not entirely true. I’m going to try to review it, but I’ll tell you right now, it’s going to be all good.

In stores tomorrow, Harper Perennial is responsible for this funny, wry, and incredibly poignant look at modern family life and the frustrations we all feel about existing in a workforce that seems to be falling apart around us. In particular, Norman’s book takes place in DC during the height of the recession, and it looks shockingly familiar to me as someone who worked in DC during the height of the recession. It also looks brilliantly like the plausible fantasy of anyone who has hated their job (or not hated their job) and has decided to do something about it. I feel like I’m rambling, but Harper’s more eloquent and informative summary states:

Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.

The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh . . . and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.

Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.

Tom Violet is an Everyman; but he’s an Everyman unlike any I’ve ever read before. He’s that guy we all know (or wish we knew) – sarcastic, trouble-making, flirty, sensitive, insecure, authentic. He’s vulnerable, but his vulnerability is comforting and familiar because we’ve all seen that kind of vulnerability staring us in the mirror. It’s funny, but not pathetic. It might sound strange to say that I can relate to a man in his mid-thirties who’s struggling to stay afloat in his marriage and in his career – our vulnerabilities are quite different on paper. This is the genius of Matthew Norman.

Matthew Norman – I know – would deny my use of the term “genius” but I think it most definitely applies. I have actually had the pleasure of meeting Norman. Independent Virginia bookstore One More Page Books and Harper Perennial hosted several local bloggers to meet and talk to Matthew and his wife, and that event only served to confirm for me that Matthew Norman is exactly the kind of guy I want to have a bestselling novel, if for no other reason than he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he’s written a novel that absolutely deserves to be read by lots and lots of people. In the vein of Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Tropper (not my comparison, but apt and accurate nonetheless), Norman has created a character – and around him, a life, a family, a job, an ambition, a wife, a father, a host of insecurities, and physical and emotional hurdles – so complex and so relatable, I was rooting for him from page one.

Take this excerpt, from

I creep down the stairs holding my nine-iron, which is the best weapon I can come up with. This seems like a better option than Anna’s hair dryer or, for that matter, it’s better than leaping from our bathroom window and fleeing off into the night by myself. I’ve got some clothes on now, a T-shirt and pajama pants, and Anna is at the top of the stairs in her sexy outfit with her cell phone.

“Who is it?” she whispers. Apparently she believes that I can see through walls and ceilings.

I’m nervous, but, more than that, I’m annoyed with the cosmic order of things because there isn’t an adult here to take care of this — a real adult, instead of an impostor like me. At this moment, I’m clearly fooling no one.

See what I mean? I often think, I need a real adult, because clearly, I am not one and rarely feel like I’m fooling anyone. (Go read the rest of the excerpt – it’s just as wry and astute as these three paragraphs).

I love this book. I laughed out loud many, many times in the process of reading this book, and I’ve been waiting to write and publish this review until the week of publication because I cannot state more clearly: GO BUY THIS BOOK. And I want you to do it right now. Here’s the most glowing review I can give this book: I was given a review copy by the publisher, but I am going to buy this book. I’m going to spend my money and buy this book, because I believe in it and in Matthew Norman. I also think it’s damn funny. And isn’t a good laugh reason enough to buy a book?

Summer Reading: High School Lists

6 Aug

I am missing my 10-year high school reunion this weekend. Since I now live in DC, and I went to high school in South Carolina, it’s a long trip to make and I just couldn’t justify it with the ubiquity of Facebook.* But thinking about the reunion, it did make me wistful for high school, especially after I read yesterday’s post by Meg (of write meg!) about summer reading that didn’t suck and one of her commentor’s posts, The Best Books I Read in High School. I was thinking about my own favorite summer reading, and just for the hell of it, decided to check out my high school’s website for their summer reading lists.

Notably, Pat Conroy makes an appearance in several grades and for a couple of reading levels – I guess reading a local author is important but I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to read the Prince of Tides when I was 16. Otherwise, I love the list of books for what would’ve been my reading level (AP Literature and Composition) when I was a senior:

Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man, James Joyce
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Madam Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

The assignment is to read three books from that list. I know when I was in high school, I probably would’ve chosen five or six if not more. I love seeing one of my favorites, All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, on this list, as well as some newer selections. I somehow feel like I didn’t get assigned much modern fiction in high school.

And the AP Language and Composition Summer Reading List is even better!

British Literature-Choose two from this list.
1. Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen
2. Heart of Darkness-Joseph Conrad
3. The Power and the Glory-Graham Greene
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray—Wilde
5. Brave New World—Huxley

Nonfiction-Choose one from this list.
6. A Walk in the Woods—Bill Bryson
7. Mountains Beyond Mountains—Tracy Kidder
8. The Perfect Mile—Neal Bascomb
9. Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption—Laura Hillenbrand
10. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America—Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m sure the Summer Reading tables at the book stores will be picked over this weekend as students (myself included) get ready to start school in a few weeks. I’ve linked the IndieBound logo below to this complete booklist with each of these titles, in case you want to make a last-minute attempt at your own summer reading. I’ll expect oral reports and accompanying essays on my desk by Sept. 1st!

*Sidenote: I wonder how many people of my generation make this same justification. Is there a need anymore for traditional reunions if we’re all so connected online?

Looking Forward: August

29 Jul

I’m starting a little early with my anticipation on August reading. Fitting, since I’m taking a road trip to my college campus this weekend for a wedding in the chapel. One of my best friends from college is making it official with his long-time girlfriend and I can’t wait to celebrate with him and a bunch of my other college friends. What a great way to kick off what’s sure to be an epic August.

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

The drive to campus is a long 7-hour car trip one way and I’ve downloaded a couple books to keep me company: I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (nothing like a good mystery to keep me distracted from the miles clicking by) and Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck (a good roadtrip book and a classic to cross off my list).

Then the weekend after, I’m heading up to Boston for a bachelorette party and wedding shower, and I’ll have a good long train ride to catch up on my reading as well. I’m thinking Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close or How to Love an American Man: A True Story by Kristine Gasbarre will be particularly fitting for a weekend filled with wedding plans and girlfriends. Or if I’m feeling particularly single, something to take my mind off the theme of the weekend, like Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield (check out my blog on Aug. 22nd – I’ll be a stop on the tour for this one!) or The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts (nothing like war to take your mind off love, right?)

After that, August is calming down a bit (but just a bit!). I’m not traveling any more until September, but mid-August, I’m having surgery to have my gallbladder removed. Not a big deal, I promise, but I’m taking a week off work to recover, and I will have nothing to do but read! (Am I crazy for actually looking forward to this medically-imposed stay-cation where I’ll have to lay on the couch and not do anything? I know I’ll be in pain, probably, and will need help moving around for a few days, but really, I’m not that concerned and I could use the break and the opportunity to catch up on reading and blogging.)

I think I’ll finally, FINALLY, get to dig into East of Eden or maybe I’ll catch up with The Magicians and its sequel The Magician King. I’m sure a YA or Middle Grade book will make an appearance like Fury by Elizabeth Miles or Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis.

Clearly I’ve got a jam-packed reading month ahead of me. I can’t wait, since I officially start classes for my Master’s on August 29 – rounding out a full reading month with more academic books to come. What are you looking forward to in August, books or otherwise?

Summer Reading Giveaway: Sugar in My Bowl by Erica Jong

13 Jul

I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog, on my roll
I can stand a bit of lovin’, oh so bad,
I feel so funny, I feel so sad
—Bessie Smith

I’m a big fan of books about sex. I’ll just get that out of the way. I’m also a big fan of books that discuss and acknowledge intelligent female sex drives. There’s an academic explanation behind my fandom: my sociology major in college focused on gender and the media, I participated in several performances of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and I took enough women’s studies classes and did several workshops to qualify me for a second minor. But let’s be real: the interest came before the academics. I absolutely count myself as a feminist, but not in the stereotypical man-hater way, or that “I’m going to objectify myself because I think I’m empowered by feminism to do so when I’m really just falling in line with male-focused ideas of objectification” way. I’m a feminist in that “it’s my party and I’ll take home whoever I want to” kind of way. And it just doesn’t get any better than in Erica Jong’s new anthology Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write about Real Sex. Here’s the editorial description:

When it comes to sex, what do women want? In this eye-opening and courageous collection, Erica Jong reveals that every woman has her own answer. Susan Cheever talks about the ‘excruciating hazards of casual sex,’ while Gail Collins recounts her Catholic upbringing in Cincinnati and the nuns who passionately forbade her from having ‘carnal relations.’ In ‘Everything Must Go,’ Jennifer Weiner explores how, in love, the body can play just as big a role as the heart. The octogenarians in Karen Abbott’s sharp-eyed piece possess a passion that could give Betty White a run for her money. Molly Jong-Fast reflects on her unconventional upbringing and why a whole generation of young women have rejected ‘free love’ in favor of Bugaboo strollers and Mommy-and-me yoga. Sex, it turns out, can be as fleeting, heavy, mundane, and intense as the rest of life. Indeed, Jong states in her powerful introduction ‘the truth is—sex is life.’

I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s next on my list, perched on the bedside table (because where else would I read a book about sex but in bed? Maybe on the kitchen table? Or in a secluded corner?). I mean check out this list of contributors:

Erica Jong
Karen Abbott
Anne Roiphe
Jessica Winter
Jann Turner
Julie Klam
Susan Kinsolving
Susie Bright
Fay Weldon
Linda Gray Sexton
Elisa Albert
Barbara Victor
Daphne Merkin
Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Min Jin Lee
Honor Moore
Jennifer Weiner
Gail Collins
Liz Smith
Rebecca Walker
Jean Hanff Korelitz
Eve Ensler
Meghan O’Rourke
Rosemary Daniell
J. A. K. Andres
Molly Jong-Fast
Susan Cheever
Ariel Levy
Margot Magowan

It’s a varied and fascinating list of writers and I can’t wait to dig in (that’s what she said*). Also, yes, this totally counts as summer reading. Cause what’s more fun when you’re stuck inside because of heat advisories and you’ve got air conditioning to take advantage of?

(Read, obviously. What were you thinking, dirty mind??)

Want a copy? I know you do ;).

Leave a comment and make sure the email you provide is accurate so I can get in touch with you if you win. For an extra entry, tweet the giveaway, and make sure you use my Twitter handle – @homebtwnpages – so I can see your tweet.  And if you left a comment on my Summer Reading post, you’ll be automatically entered once. If you’d like to comment again and also tweet it, you’ll get two more!


UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I’ll be choosing a winner next Wednesday, the 20th.

*Come on…a book about sex and you expect me NOT to make a “that’s what she said” joke?  Pleeeeease! Also, I can’t wait to see the spam/search terms that get people to my blog from this post!

Review + Giveaway: State of Wonder by Anne Patchett

12 Jul

Much has been said about Anne Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder, nearly all of it praising the story and lauding Patchett’s talent. All of the praise is, in my opinion, well-earned.

Under the narrative voice of Dr. Mariana Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher in Minnesota, Patchett explores the strings that exist between a world that is known and understood and a world that is absolutely foreign and, at times, mystifying. The opening of the novel sets out the premise: Dr. Singh’s research partner and friend, Anders Eckman, has been sent by their pharmaceutical company to check up on the progress of a mysterious drug research project in the Amazonian basin, being conducted by Dr. Singh’s former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson is not a woman who likes to be “checked up” on and has really gone off the grid, without any reports to the company or anyone else for that matter on the drug’s progress, even though she keeps sending bills for her work to them. After Anders has been gone several months, Dr. Singh’s boss and lover receives a letter from Dr. Swenson, informing them that Anders has died and they’ve buried him in Brazil. Encouraged by both her boss/lover and Ander’s widow, Mariana travels to Brazil in search of any information about Anders and his death, and to complete the mission he was originally sent to accomplish. But first she must find Dr. Swenson, with trepidatious fears about her personal history with her former teacher and a sense of well-reasoned discomfort at persuading this notoriously private and intimidating woman to let go of any information whatsoever about both Anders and her research.

The premise of Patchett’s novel is complicated, I’ll admit. And her narrative thread, moving Mariana from the cold of Minnesota winter to the scorching sun of Brazil and the Amazon, is sometimes difficult to keep hold of. But in the end, the story is quite simple. Inventive…but simple. It’s a story filled with massive snakes, wandering hippies, the business of drug research, fertility, mortality, giant snakes, orphans, and cannibals. But at it’s heart, Patchett has written a story about belonging and love and sacrifice. And about how when you think the story is over, it’s only just taken another turn and landed you here you didn’t expect to be at all.

Published by Harper, Patchett’s novel has the potential to be one of my favorites of the year. I suspect I will not be the only one that will be putting it on their short list for Best Books of 2011 come January, and already the praise it’s received has been loud and ardent. The thing about this book – and the reason for the largely-summarized review here, rather than my normal discussions of character and structure – is that this book is all about how you feel during your reading of it. If there exists a book that transports you more fully to its setting, I’d like to see it, because I felt distinctly IN Brazil, IN the Amazon, while I was reading it, and the book is so aptly named, Patchett must have been describing both the atmosphere around Mariana and the sense of mystification you as a reader leave the story with.

However, the story is slow-moving in parts and while there is a certain amount of suspense that develops, it is quiet and urgent, but totally unsuspecting. You don’t even realize you’re racing to the see how it ends until you’re pausing during a particularly gorgeous piece of writing, and going, “Oh my God. Oh my…God.” That being said, I also was left with a bit of blah-ness. I was enthralled with the language, the story and the atmosphere Patchett creates, but I also wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about any of the characters. And as much life as Patchett breathes into setting the mood, the conclusion of the book was… confusing and questionable at best. At worst, it was implausible, in the larger context of the rest of the book.

One more point I’d like to make that Patchett touches on in the second video I’ve posted below is the idea of the author consciously being aware of her readers and generating questions in it’s writing that would arise in a group setting, like a book club. I’m both skeptical of whether it’s a good idea for authors to consider the ways in which their readers will approach the book in the process of writing it, and grateful to be, in a way, given permission to ponder the questions that came up for me personally. Like the ethics of pharmaceutical research and how far is too far when you’re talking about what biology is and isn’t designed to handle.

State of Wonder is mostly on target, and while I did have a few problems with the narrative voice or the pacing of the book, they had mostly evaporated by the end. Unfortunate that the ending of the book wasn’t what I was expecting – though my expectations of the book were pretty much blown out of the water from the beginning. I’d only ever read Patchett’s memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, detailing the friendship she had with author Lucy Grealy, which is absolutely beautiful. (Also, highly recommended.)

Watch Patchett read the opening pages here:

Watch Patchett discuss State of Wonder here:

This is the point at which I’d normally tell you to go buy a copy, but I’ve got one…for free! FOR YOU!!

Thanks to Harper, I’ve got an extra pre-release galley copy of State of Wonder. All you need to do is leave a comment and make sure the email you provide is accurate so I can get in touch with you if you win. For an extra entry, tweet the giveaway, and make sure you use my Twitter handle – @homebtwnpages – so I can see your tweet.  And if you left a comment on my Summer Reading post, you’ll be automatically entered once. If you’d like to comment again and also tweet it, you’ll get two more!

I’ll announce the winner of this giveaway next Monday, July 18th! Good luck :).

Summer Reading: New Releases!

30 Jun

I love summer reading. I really, really do. I’m not entirely sure why though. I know as a kid, I was that nerdy student that wanted to go get all the books on my summer reading lists as soon as possible so I could start them early. Summer meant a blanket and lemonade in the backyard with a pillow from my bedroom that would always come back in grass-stained. Even throughout college, I thought of summer as a time to catch up on my pleasure reading (even though as an English minor, I read plenty during the school year), in between lifeguarding shifts and babysitting jobs. There were family vacations and road trips to look forward to. Because I was a military brat, we always moved during the summer, every two or three years, and as a kid, I had a stomach like iron and could happily sit in the back seat with a backpack full of books while we crisscrossed the country. I’ve never thought of summer as a time to dig into big tomes of literature – I’d rather pick up Anna Karenina or Great Expectations during the cold winter months – and summer reading felt like a time to read books that are just as easy-going as the season itself.

But as a working, professional adult who even has to work on the Fourth of July this year (I KNOW…Kill me now!), summer reading doesn’t really have the same magic. I’m reading on my commute, on the weekends, and after work, the same as every other time of the year. I still want a book that’s going to fit my mood, though. That probably means this is the summer for a Steinbeck – like Cannery Row or East of Eden – along with my standard fare. Here are some New Releases for the summer I’ve already read or I’m looking forward to:

With so many books listed, this might seem a silly question. But what am I missing? What are you most excited for this summer? Should I pick up Robopocalypse or Bright’s Passage by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter? I’ve already got plans to read the Shiver series this summer since I’ve now got books two and three as well. Give me your best recommendations in the comments below and I’ll make it worth your while.* Anything goes! (Clearly by the collection above I’m not that discerning when it comes to genre).

*My bloggoversary is coming up in July, and I’ll be giving away three of the books pictured above over the course of my anniversary week. Which three books? You’ll have to wait and see! But leave me a recommendation here, and you’ll be automatically entered in each of the three giveaways 🙂

Summer Reading: Bossypants by Tina Fey

17 Jun

I’m gonna try something a little different this summer. I know we’re already halfway into June, but I always make a big deal about summer reading around here and I thought that it might be a good idea to actually spotlight good, summer reading options throughout this, our most oppressive of seasons. A great book is, after all, a perfect way to take your mind off of 90+ degree temperatures.

One of my favorite parts of summer is road tripping. I used to go on impromptu road trips when I was young, stupid and irresponsible, and I would almost exclusively listen to music or the rare podcast by connecting my iPod to the car with a totally cool tape-deck adapter.  I hadn’t really given much thought to audiobooks because I was a reader with pages and actual books, but then I drove with my mom to North Carolina for a triathlon I was running in and a spa weekend and we bought the audiobook of The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, because there were absolutely no radio stations in the mountains of N.C. I was completely enchanted by the book, which was only enhanced by the shared experience of listening to it with my mom while we traded off driving duties. Now, I tend to road trip for more important things, like weddings, which in the land of late 20-somethings, are extremely frequent. And audio books are becoming a more frequent companion.

Since that trip, I haven’t really jumped onto the audiobook train like I’d like to but I no longer look down my nose at them. Recently, I decided to give the audiobook of Bossypants by Tina Fey a try, for no other reason than I signed up for and had a credit to use. Oh, and because Fey narrates the book herself and she’s hysterical. I was also traveling quite a bit and had been getting slightly nauseous from reading too much in moving vehicles. This seemed like the perfect solution, and sure enough, I completely fell in love with Fey’s collection of personal essays on audio. Even though I’d intended to listen to it while traveling, I ended up enjoying it at the gym and on my metro rides to and from work (and pretty much everywhere). You’ll note that both of these are very public places. I think people may have thought I was slightly insane because I would giggle loudly every couple of minutes.

Here’s a couple of particularly snort-inducing quotes from the book:

About Photoshop and magazine photo shoots (btw, Fey says her best Photoshop job was from feminist magazine Bust. Judging from the photo, I totally agree):

I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society…unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.

About Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential campaign “snafus”:

Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’

About the insane week where she taped the Oprah episode of 30 Rock, started her run on SNL portraying Sarah Palin, AND planned her daughter’s birthday party:

By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.

These are just a couple of the countless gems sprinkled throughout the book.

The essays themselves run relatively chronologically through her life, starting at childhood and continue through her run at Second City, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. These personal essays are also interspersed with random essays about things that are just plain funny. Like when she responds to some of her internet critics, and by internet critics, I mean people that leave nasty comments on message boards at 2am.

This is one of those places where the audiobook just shines. Because there is no font for sarcasm.   There’s also no font for saying something under your breathe or in an aside or even in a really snide tone of voice. The print version of the book has quite a few footnootes. Footnotes don’t really translate into audio, right? Wrong. Fey says those “footnotes” under her breathe and in such a way that it feels like this is a book that was really made to be audio first and foremost, and the print book was the “alternate” format.

While Fey’s essays about her own life  are funny, especially the chapters about her dad Don Fey, her rendition of the epic Sarah Palin SNL skits, her relationship with Amy Poehler, and family holidays, they’re still guarded in regards to how much she’ll say publicly about certain topics. The most notable example is this is how she mentions the scar on her face but then pointedly refuses to explain it. Which is fine with me. I wasn’t really expecting a tell-all, but I did think it was interesting that she obviously was expecting the criticism and tried to nip it in the bud. I’m not sure if it was successful or not though. Her more random essays were more funny to me, because they felt like her commentary on all things pop culture. Like this quote for example:

Gay people don’t actually try to convert people. That’s Jehovah’s Witnesses you’re thinking of.

It would’ve been easy for Fey to make this all sarcasm and one-liners, but the thing I most enjoyed about the book is also why I loved her movie, Mean Girls. There’s this subtle message (and by subtle, I mean not at all) that chicks rock and that society is just trying to make us all think these things about ourselves that aren’t really true. And that women-on-women prejudice is the worst of it all. I particularly loved this quote:

This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.

And this:

Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

(That last one is great on the audio because she turns her voice into this weird, whiny thing that sounds like a 13-year-old girl.)

I think that it’s pretty obvious I loved this book. I had a few issues with it in terms of content – the same issues I think several people have had with it. But listening to the audio I think probably canceled out those small problems I had. I never quote from books in my blogs (it’s a serious problem I’m trying to resolve), but I use them liberally here because I think the book best speaks for itself. Or Fey best speaks for herself. So it’s probably a good thing I had the audio.

Summer reading tends to mean lots of things to lots of people, and for those people who think summer is the perfect opportunity to read War and Peace, more power to you. For everyone else, this is a great multi-situational read. And even for those War and Peace-ers, maybe take a break for a few hours and read this instead.

Other audio on tap for this summer:
Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Beach Reading

19 Jul

I’ve talked about beach reading on the blog before — it seems every summer there’s a debate about what constitutes good beach reading. And no one can agree. I’ve decided to just make everyone happy and say that good beach reading is anything that you want it to be.

For example, on Saturday, I decided that I needed to get away from it all. You ever have those moments where you can’t be stuck doing the same thing, weekend after weekend, and you want to shake it up and have some alone time? I have those a lot and I haven’t been able to take advantage of them because I’ve been so busy with school work and with the normal summer obligations. On top of that, I never made it to the beach last summer, and this one was quickly passing me by without a trip to the ocean too. Considering I live only a few hours from the coast, I thought it was pretty sad that the last time I dipped my toes into a body of water, I was on Block Island, RI, in September (jeans and a hoodie — no swimming!). Before that, I was in Israel and it was the Mediterranean. I was still fully clothed, and that was last August. Before that, it was northern California where the water is unswimmable (I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt in July), and before that was Miami…and somewhere in there was Cancun. Oh-kay. So there’s been lots of beaches. But rarely any swimming, and NONE nearby. The beaches have always sort of just been there…almost all of those trips were for weddings, and I wasn’t exactly hanging out all day.

So Friday afternoon I decided to make the 2 1/2 hour drive to Cape Henlopen, DE to bake in the sun and read as much as possible. Sadly most of my reading was school-related, but I spent the five-hour round trip listening to Anne of Green Gables, thanks to a free download from Lit2Go (via iTunes). I’m not a huge fan of audio books, but I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables before (it’s on my Must Read: Classics list) and this was free. I had the time, and it felt like a waste to just listen to music. I didn’t get to finish it, but I plan on getting through the rest in September when I have to drive up to the Catskills for what will surely prove to be an epic weekend with college friends. I totally get now why people adore Anne, and why it’s a beloved book for little girls everywhere. I wasn’t into historical fiction as a little kid, so it’s understandable why I didn’t read this one. But I’m glad I’m finally getting around to it.

Once I got to the insanely crowded beach, I picked a spot and SPF’d up (though not nearly well enough, it turns out) and allowed myself two chapters of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan before digging into homework. So this is how I spent my Saturday:

Lovely, huh? Too bad I couldn’t spend the whole day with Mr. Westerfeld. I’m about half-way in and just LOVING it so far. I need to hurry up and finish though — the library due date was on Saturday, and I’m totally keeping it long enough to finish it. I will take the late fees. I don’t care :).

Have you had any great beach reads lately?

Don’t forget about my two giveaways! Enter here and here — they end one week from today!