Wednesday, March 31, 2010

She Likes Us, She Really Likes Us!

Sue Grafton is the woman! While in Portland, Maryellen and I made sure to purchase tickets to a dinner sponsored by audiobook sellers featuring Sue Grafton and Kinsey Milhone's alter-ego, Judy Kaye. I've never listened to any of Ms. Grafton's alphabet mysteries but intend to now after hearing about the long relationship between Ms. Kaye and Ms. Grafton.

You may have read about our disappointment when we spoke with Elizabeth Berg a few weeks ago and realized that she hadn't a clue as to who we were or where the Southwest Florida Reading Festival was. But Sue Grafton remembered when we approached her after her hilarious talk that would have put any stand up comic to shame. Not only did she remember, but she reminded us of her relationship with Kelly Lange, and how they had decided ahead of time to ask Elizabeth to dinner if they liked her enough. They did.

Sue Grafton is just as warm and gracious as can be but also bitingly funny. She reminded me of Joan Rivers. Rather than talking about her books, she talked about her life. I can't help but be amazed at the optimism a writer would have to exhibit to plan a book series that involved committing to 26 titles, one for each letter of the alphabet. With U is for Undertow just out, and Ms. Grafton not getting any younger, the pressure must be on to complete the series with five more books. Unless, that is, she had them all in her mind right from the jump.

Speaking of optimism, we must be out of our minds to have walked away with so many ARCs. WHEN will we get to read them? Maryellen kept telling me not to worry, this wasn't going to be like Book Expo and there wouldn't be too many giveaways. Not! I actually had to say no to some authors who were offering autographed copies (Ted Dekker in particular actually looked sad when I turned down his book) because my arms were full and my back twitching with the strain of carrying two bags full. 

What did I absolutely have to have?

  The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
Elegy for April by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Red Thread by Ann Hood
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (audio) by Heidi Durrow
My Father, Maker of the Trees (audio) by Eric Irivuzumugabe

I'm currently reading four books simultaneously and will be writing about them all very soon. That is, as soon as I come down to earth from the library conference and the great feeling that comes from being around so many authors, publishers, editors and like minded readers; a reminder of why we became librarians.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Buzz from Portland

Hi all.
I've been terribly remiss in not having written for 2 weeks but, if you could have seen my schedule, you'd cut me some slack. My neck is in a turmoil of pain and stiffness from the airplanes and the inability to move a few inches one way or the other any more for fear of raising suspicions among the cabin attendants. Oh for the bucks to blow on first class!

I scarcely know where to begin. The authors or the food? Oh, ok, I know this is a book blog so I'll forgo the descriptions of the glorious food - Portland is a totally foodie city. Who knew? They must be one of the most communally politically correct cities in the country. Free transportation within the city limits? Bike lanes that are respected. Miles and miles of parks, walking lanes, gardens, memorials and the friendliest people, not just tolerating but welcoming all those librarians with their ubiquitous orange bags from Innovative. (You can bet your boots that Maryellen and I did not allow ourselves to be seen walking the streets with one of them!)

If you've been reading my blog for a while then you know that Nicholas Kristof tore my heart out with his book Half the Sky, about empowering women in developing countries, freeing them from sexual slavery, offering micro-loans for business start ups and healing those suffering from the injuries caused by rape and childbirth in women too young to be bearing children. He was the keynote speaker for the opening session last Wednesday and one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Portland and the conference in the first place. (not to mention, of course, my niece Rebecca and her hubby whose first baby boy is due any week now.)

I was so pleased that he didn't spend half of his lecture time pandering to the librarians as some tend to do. A shout out is enough. I think we know by now how much a free public library means to so many and we love to hear about how it changed your life but it can get almost embarrassing. I wanted to hear about him and his work and what we could do to help and I now have an idea. For what we spent on a few day's food, we could have provided one fistula surgery for a young woman ostracized from society. I promise to send a check to one of Kristof's recommended foundations after payday Wednesday. Read more:

If you'd like to read about some of the workshops we attended you can read my blog posts at

Authors we heard? Oh, so many! Books we picked up? I couldn't bring back one for all of you without going over the 50 pound limit for my suitcase but I came close! Booths visited? We haunted the publishers: Harper-Collins, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Penguin. They are so generous with their ARC's. Polaris? Avoided them!

Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you about Scott Turow (whose new book I won!!) and Sue Grafton. My shoulders may have healed by then.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Evening with Elizabeth Strout

My librarian in crime, Maryellen, very fortunately has an "in" at the rather exclusive Sanibel Public Library, (should one use the words exclusive and public library in the same sentence?) and was able to score two tickets to a high class meet and greet with Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout on Thursday evening. In unusual fashion for me, I began reading Olive Kitteridge just the other night, after watching the paperback languish on my computer desk for about a year now, and have been burning through it.
WOW! I know, what an unprofessional assessment, but words fail me. I love this book and I love Olive. I know this woman. Except for her size, she is my stepmother Edith; smart, tough, difficult, misunderstood, often judgmental, then suddenly surprisingly soft.

And now, having listened to her talk with us for over an hour just as if we were all hanging around the kitchen having coffee, or perhaps something a little stronger,  I love Elizabeth Strout too. I watched her sitting in her chair on the stage, being introduced in superlatives, and looking a tad formidable. Then she got up to speak, slowly removed the glasses that all of us "of a certain age" are taxed with, and her thousand watt smile lit up the room dropping 20 years from her face.

I loved her because of her honesty. I loved her because she's been writing since she was 4 years old, laughing at the perception that she was an "overnight success." I loved her because she adamantly defends her sentences, obsesses over their structure, turning in manuscripts that require little or no editing. I love her because she agrees that words DO matter, that fiction is necessary and will always be so. I love that she cares for her readers so much that she'd prefer to hear that she looked into someone's soul (please don't think about Bush and Putin here), than to receive a Pulitzer Prize, but still takes pride in the prize. I love her sense of humor.

I know that I'm late to this party but, if for some reason you haven't read Elizabeth Strout yet, run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and pick up anything by her. Maryellen's favorite was Amy and Isabelle. Abide With Me sounds intriguing. I'm definitely thinking that I'll be discussing Olive Kitteridge with our group in the near future.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Frank Bruni and Me; Born Round

I began this book, Born Round; The Secret History of a Full Time Eater, for a number of reasons, one of which was to take a much needed break from all the heavy, depressing material that I tend to wallow in. But what started out as a light-hearted look at the food obsessed life of the big, Italian Bruni family, soon devolved into a painfully honest, open look at the life of a man living with and eventually overcoming, a serious eating disorder.

Readers, and in this case, listeners, can't help but fall half in love with Frank Bruni. He narrates his own story with a mix of self deprecating humor, a deep love of family and tradition, and an amazing amount of self-knowledge acquired along the way, apparently without the aid of years spent on a psychiatrist's couch. As a crazy mad foodie myself, and a lover of Ruth Reichl's fabulous trilogy beginning with Tender at the Bone, I've known of Mr. Bruni through his association with the New York Times and his position there as a food critic, following in Ms. Reichl's footsteps.

I had no idea, however, of the rather illustrious career that preceded the food critic gig, the years spent following George W. Bush's presidential campaign and first year in the White House (yikes, what a dearth of insightful articles he must have found to write), his assignment in Rome as a bureau chief (ah mama mia!) and the difficult decision to return to the states as a food addict who would now be paid to eat. How terrifying that must have been to a man who was on the Atkins diet at the age of 8, binging and purging through high school and college, exercising like a man possessed only to return home to multiple orders of Chinese take-out.

Having been born round myself, hovering somewhere in the vicinity of 10 pounds at birth, and being raised in a family where food and yes, booze, was at the center of all milestone celebrations, ( no one threw funerals like our family) I totally empathized with Frank Bruni's dilemma, how to stop eating for the sake of putting something in your mouth, but rather, pausing  to savor the delights of a rosemary garnished pork tenderloin and the accompanying swallow of a delightful pinot noir. All things in moderation.

I remember how hard my mom worked as a teacher when we kids were growing up while very few mothers in our crowd worked outside the home. Her biggest treat in the world was the Thursday evening buffet at the F-2 restaurant in Sheffield. Not having to cook on a work night was the ultimate luxury in our house and my dad was always happy to oblige a night out since my mom was a very plain cook indeed.

Family vacations revolved around restaurants. Every summer our one week at Bayberry Bluff in Dennisport involved a special night at the Christopher Ryder House and another evening eating on the dock at Thompson's Clam Bar. My own vacations and  business trips as an adult have involved weeks of Internet searching for the finest restaurants in Seattle, Chicago, New York or Washington. Going to Italy? France? Spain or Greece? Sure, museums are edifying but eating around the world is as much of an adventure for me as reading around the world is!

However, I also found some unlovely truths in Frank Bruni's analysis of our relationship to eating. I look in my now stuffed refrigerator and can be overcome with a deep sense of guilt when I think of those who have so little. At the same time I recall several unhappy years when the cupboard was bare and friends fed me, as I struggled to support myself with three menial jobs while a philandering husband disappeared for 5 or 6 months at a time without a word let alone a paycheck.

I noted the irony of listening to Born Round while preparing for the once every ten years colonoscopy the other day. I realized how easy it is to fast, how quickly one can assuage hunger pangs with a bowl of broth and some apple juice for a sweetener. How virtuous I felt! Suddenly the "reward" I had promised myself, brunch at Mimi's after the anesthesia wore off, didn't seem as exciting as it had when I had planned it. My ever-supportive Don didn't really understand the pleasure I got from contemplating the croissant provencal but he went along for the ride, even fasting along with me and ordering eggs benedict for brunch so that I wouldn't have to eat alone. I'm pleased to report that we both brought home doggie bags.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

From Oslo, to London, Hong Kong to LA

My reading over the past few weeks gives new meaning to "read around the world!" Just when I was thinking that I should shorten the title of my blog and increase hits, I realized that I truly do read all over the place. I received my latest book from Library Journal last week and have read it twice just to be absolutely sure I wasn't giving it short shrift. As you know by now, I can't talk about it here until the review is published but I suspect that Norwegian superstar Per Petterson's title speaks for itself: I Curse the River of Time.

Meanwhile, my man Michael Connelly threw me for a complete loop with his latest entry in the Harry Bosch series, Nine Dragons. As gritty as Connelly has been in the past, this one seems to top them all in unforeseen surprises. At one point I almost had to pull to the side of the road and say "WHAT?" as Connelly offed a character who's been on the periphery for the entire series.

I have to admit that this may be the last book I listen to by Connelly as I'm tiring of Harry's "dirty Harry" routine, always taking pride in bending the rules. I no longer find it an admirable quality when Harry gets to the heart of the crime by throwing away first amendment rights. No wonder I'm so terrified when I see a police cruiser behind me, on the side of the road, flying past me at 90 miles an hour, even though I know I have nothing to feel guilty about.

The interesting thing about Nine Dragons was learning so much about Hong Kong as a friend's daughter has just gone to China for a semester of study abroad and my friend Don is such a lover of all things Asian. From the senseless murder of a liquor store salesman in LA, the trail Harry's on leads him to an ancient Chinese mafia-type organization called The Triad. Harry inadvertently involves his daughter Maddy, who is now living in Hong Kong with her mom, a professional gambler, by sending her an email with a photo of a tatoo of Chinese characters on the victim's leg. All he wanted was a translation but what he got was a world of hurt.

Yesterday I started reading my next book discussion selection, Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. Customers are always asking me what I think of the books I choose to discuss and are surprised when I tell them, "I haven't read it yet." I like to read it fresh, when they do, and come to the discussion hot from just reading the book. I can usually tell from reviews and pre-publicity just what I'm going to enjoy and what will bring conflict to the group - a must for any discussion.

Little Bee is surpassing all expectations! For someone whose battery usually winds down at the stroke of 10 pm, no matter what, the fact that I was reading for over 2 hours last night is a remarkable feat. Thanks Mr. Cleave! The title character, Little Bee, is a most delightful narrator. A Liberian refugee who's just been released from a British immigration detention facility after a two year incarceration, the resourceful Little Bee has used her time wisely, learning to read and speak the "Queen's English" with aplomb. Her quirky sense of humor, though, masks a pain so deep, she refers to herself as a refugee but explains to readers that there is no refuge for her.
Still she has the smarts to contact Andrew and Sarah, a British couple she met several years ago under mysterious conditions that the author has yet to reveal, while the Brits were vacationing at a Liberian beach resort. Bee's phone call out of the blue sets in motion a catastrophic series of events that will form the core of this book that I can't wait to get back to. I'm on it - more later.