It's been ages since I've done a review, so I thought I'd spend a little time today talking about author Karen Russell. I received both of her books recently (one for Christmas and one for Valentine's Day) and I enjoyed them quite a bit.

Russell's prose is unusual -- almost lyrical -- and the imagery she uses is very strange, but I think I might love her. I've certainly never read anything like her before, and in a saturated market, you can't beat good, old-fashioned creativity.

According to The New York Times, Swamplandia! is "a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at “alligator wrestlers” — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list."

Cute as it is, reducing Russell's book to this list of "noxiously fanciful" oddities, even for the purpose of proving a point before going on to shower the book with praise, which the NYT article does, does her a disservice.

Certainly, the aforementioned images and characters appear in Swamplandia!, but they're not what the book is about. Not even a little bit. The book is about a grieving family, recovering from the loss of their matriarch while trying to deal with financial ruin and teenage growing pains.

At it's heart, this is universal stuff.

For all the talk about the strangeness of Russell's settings, her story is ultimately about a very average family. They simply happen to live in very unusual circumstances. The "Bigtrees" live on the fringe. They're island-dwellers who home-school their children (and the children are, as a result, seriously unsocialized). But the drama of the story grows out of loss, grief, poverty and assimilation. It's a book about things you know, wrapped in a shell of things you are unfamiliar with (say, the alligator wrestling) and the result is extremely compelling, and very, very sad. (Look out for very serious stuff such as possible suicide attempts and rape.)

I really don't want to give too much away except to say that the impression I got from this book was similar to what I felt while reading Peter Rock's My Abandonment (which I raved about last year). If you read that book and liked it, I highly recommend you read this.

P.S. If you decide to try Russell, you might not want to start with Swamplandia!

I started with the novel because it's the book I was given first, but it might have been better to begin with the 2006 short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. The stories will give you a good idea of Russell's style and you won't have to commit to a longer piece. Also, St. Lucy's contains a prototype or seed story that seems to have germinated into Swamplandia! as a whole, so that's another good reason to read it first. (The story won't be as compelling if you read it after getting to know the same characters in the longer novel.)

On Tuesday, I promised to post about the last four books I read while on vacation last week and I'm nothing if not a promise keeper (and okay, sometimes breaker). Regardless, in this instance, I'm keeping my word. Here are some more mini book reviews:

Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner      ** 1/2

I wish there was a nice way to explain this book without invoking the words "chick lit." But there isn't.

That said, Weiner's work is some of the best in the genre. It gives you the warm fuzzies, it features young women in New York, but it's not completely predictable.

This one tackles the world of infertility, from egg donation, to IVF, to surrogacy. Women's lives intersect. Things get a bit tense, there are several red herrings, and ultimately,  a happy (and unbelievable) ending. It's a decent beach read, but I wouldn't say it's more than that.

Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg    ***

I liked this book. It read like very (very) light and accessible version of Unless by Carol Shields. It features an aging writer-narrator, still dealing with the sudden death of her spouse a year ago, who must also face her writer's block while navigating her relationship with her adult daughter (who often finds her exasperating).

The best thing about this book is the voice of the writer/narrator. She's appealing, and I felt like I could relate to her, even though she's more my mother's age than my own. I'd recommend this, but I'd warn readers not to expect too much.

Lemon by Cordelia Strube     *** 1/2

This is probably one of the "best" books I read all week, in that it is very well written, and very literary, but I'm not sure it's mainstream or accessible enough to warrant a full-on endorsement.

Title character - Limone (aka Lemon) is a 16 year old girl with a whole lot of angst. No false optimism for her. Sounds predictable, but it's not. For one thing, the book's written in a stream-of-consciousness-esque teen-speak that twists and turns in unpredictable ways. For another, the basic plot is ultimately WAY more upsetting than any teen-focused book you're likely to encounter in the main stream. Expect disturbing sexual assaults, for one thing.

My one quibble is that I'm not 100% convinced that teens like Lemon even exist. She's a bit too literature/history obsessed. A bit too Holden Caulfiend.  As I said, this book isn't for everyone, but I do think it's good. It was on the Giller Long List. Make of that what you well.

Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz     ** 1/2

This is definitely the weirdest book I read all week. The premise is this: protagonist Gordon Small dies and (failing to notice his death) seeks new employment. He gets a post-mortem job at Heaven -- the world's foremost publisher of romance novels.

Bizarre, right?

The rest of the book is about Gordon realizing he's dead and trying to figure out exactly how "Heaven" works. It's kind of funny, I guess. And ultimately pretty light.

In the end, however, I'm not sure what to make of it. I thought the book was okay, but I didn't feel edified by it. I finished reading on the plane ride home and closed the cover thinking... nothing. Little about it resonated.

The book's strangeness makes it kind of interesting, but even having finished it, I'm on the fence about whether I liked it or not.

Anyway. There you have it. Four  more mini-reviews to round off my week of holiday reading. I've begun Eve Ensler's Insecure At Last now, but I'm not sure how that's going to go. I think I need a book break. I sort of feel like watching TV and reading some magazines instead.
Nate and I just got back from a week-long trip to Cuba, filled with nothing but surf, sand, food and books. I burned my way through eight solid tomes (plus a couple of magazines). I read fast. It's not always a good thing. When I go on holiday, it means taking a very heavy suitcase. (No e-reader suggestions, please. Not for me. Not yet.)

Anyway, here's what I read and what I thought about it, in two parts. I'll post about the first four books today and the last four on Thursday. None of these books are really new, but that just means each will be a little cheaper if you want to pick one up yourself.

(P.S. Nate read Game of Thrones over the course of the week, for which I teased him mercilessly.)

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff      *** 1/2

This one is a heavy memoir about a parent's relationship to his son's addiction to crystal meth. I think both author father and addict son were on Oprah once, so maybe you've heard of it.

Sometimes people ask me about why I haven't had kids yet. The answer is in this book, to some extent. Because having a child is TERRIFYING. You never know what might happen. You can do everything right (or as right as possible). You can try your best. Your kid may still become a meth addict. Anyway, like I said, this book is heavy. A little dense, and not for everyone, but I thought it was very smart, and very worth reading.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks      ****1/2

This was the best thing I read all week, by far. It's historical fiction about a small town in 17th Century England (1665-1666) that is beset by plague.

Over the course of one year, more than half the population dies. The novel is narrated by a housemaid who survives.

It's incredible. Really. Totally engaging. Totally disturbing. In some ways, hard to read (because bad thing after bad thing happens, with almost no relief), but I couldn't put it down.

3 Willows by Ann Brashares     ***

By the author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, this book is about a "new sisterhood" of three eighth-grade girls.

It's not an adult book, and it's not great literature, but I enjoyed it. The struggles each girl faces are fairly predictable, but then again, I'm in my 30s. The girls in the story are familiar, and that's a good thing in YA literature.

If you have a younger teen daughter, I'd recommend this to her. (It also contains lots of interesting facts about willow trees. Bonus.)

The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele     **

Not terrible, but the weakest thing I read all week. It's about the relationship between two (predictably different) sisters. One sleeps with the others husband. Drama ensues. But you know how it is... relationships are complicated. There's family history to consider. Sisterhood. Blah blah blah.

The thing that bothered me most was the book's obsessive weight chatter. Body type was regularly noted as if it was important to the plot. At one point, the narrator describes a woman (who weighs 160lbs, FYI - Gabriele actually tells you that) giving her a "fleshy" hug. Eesh. Such things ruined an otherwise average book.

Okay, so there's the first four books down. Like I said, I'll tell you about the last four shortly. Happy reading.
Even though I don't have kids, I have a habit of buying old children's books, and as a result, I've built up quite a little library.

In part, I do this because I want to have a store of positive, charming, beautiful children's books on hand once my own spawn have spawned. It's not that I'm only interested in the old. It's more that I don't want to be stuck with and dependent on Goodnight Moon and I'll Love You Forever. Not that there's anything wrong with those books. I'd just like to offer my kids a wider selection. And let's face it: the children's book industry isn't exactly putting out a lot of titles these days. So many of the best books are long out of print.

I came across just such a book this past weekend in Port Rowan -- Julia Cunningham's Macaroon.  
Now, how cute is that? And not only is it cute, filled with lovely, painterly illustrations, it's also respectable and timeless.

Remember the controversy that arose when I wrote about the problematic racial depictions in The Cricket In Times Square? This book has none of those issues.

The story is about a raccoon who spends each winter in a different human home. (He "adopts" a new child to take him in every year.) But each spring, Macaroon is forced to part from these children when he returns to his life in the forest, and this parting is, as you might imagine, difficult. So Macaroon decides to solve the problem of painful partings by spending the upcoming winter with a "disagreeable" child -- the most disagreeable child he can find -- so that, come spring, he won't mind leaving. The child he finds is a wealthy, spoiled, lonely little girl with named Erika. She is very disagreeable indeed! Drama ensues.
The ultimate messages of this book are simply put, but so much more thoughtful than a lot of what I've found in the contemporary children's marketplace. For example, the story of Macaroon -- which is really the story of Erika, the disagreeable child -- tells us the following:
  • Sometimes, when a person is disagreeable, it's only because they're unhappy.
  • No matter how wronged you may be, forgiveness is necessary for your own future contentment.
  • Friendship is important, but loyalty and fidelity to friendship are more important.
  • Money can't buy love or cure loneliness.
  • Compromises are necessary if you want to have a long-distance relationship.
Now, show me a contemporary book of this length, charm or simplicity that tackles all that and I'll give you a nickel. A whole nickel!
I really didn't want to like this book. I mean... I really didn't. REALLY really.

I picked it up with the intention of hating it. After all, Crosley is my age. (Or close enough.) She's annoyingly pretty, with shiny, perfect hair, a cherubic little face, and a teeny, tiny waist.

And she's a book publicist, so clearly, she's connected. Just look at the cover! The cover of her first book compares her to David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell! (High praise, likely undeserved, I thought. Harumph.)

Worse still, the thing was a NY Times bestseller. Bestseller! And HBO has purchased the rights. Rumor has it, Crosley is writing the pilot herself. Herself!

God, I wanted to hate her.

And I REALLY wanted to hate her book. But I didn't.

I loved it.

Jealousy is burning black, smoking hole in my heart as I write this, but Sloane Crosley is funny. Very funny. Sarcastic, a little sardonic, but charming as well. Seemingly kind. And (goddamnher)... smart. That's the worst part. She's smart, too. I felt I HAD to hate her. Or compel her to be my new best friend. One of the two.

Neither option's worked out (yet).

I Was Told There Would Be Cake, a series of personal essays in the vein of (yes, I admit it) David Sedaris, starts a little slow, but as I traversed the worlds of awful first jobs, strange collections of children's toys, the horrors of moving in Manhattan and (worse) the horror of having to serve as bridesmaid to some chick you haven't clapped eyes on in ten years... it grew on me. Fast. Like an out-of-control tumor.

I want to tell you more, but I don't want to give anything away. I will say this much: once, someone shat on the woman's bathroom floor. And she wrote an essay about it. So clearly, she's not universally beloved, but her experiences do make for some fine story-telling.

I read the whole darn thing in a single afternoon and I laughed out loud not one, not two, but THREE times.

Drat. Now I'm going to have to buy How Did You Get This Number, her second effort, which came out in paperback just last week.

The jealousy might kill me.

Anyway. Here's a clip of Crosley being interviewed by Craig Ferguson, in which she illustrates just how annoyingly perfect and charming she is, even when he's hitting on her. It's not a bad interview. Curse her!
I really wanted to like this book. The premise seemed cool. A grumpy, lefty, anti-mainstream post-punk writer delves deep to explain seveal suicide attempts and the emotional impact of going blind. I was all ready to sympathize, all ready to feel.

But I didn't.

I didn't feel anything but irritated with Jim Knipfel. The dude just seems like... a jerk. A whiny jerk! And the book is about how he went slowly blind.

He attempted to kill himself numerous times, went slowly blind, and I STILL couldn't make myself care about the guy.

Don't you think that's a pretty bad sign?

There's nothing particularly  wrong with the prose in Slackjaw. It's clean and accessible. It's also boring. Reading it is sort of like listening to the ramblings of a fuck-up friend who's always complaining and who you don't like very much, but who you feel obligated to keep seeing. In other words, it's a drag.

Anyway. If you see this book around and you're lured by the fun substitle and the rather impressive blurb by Thomas Pynchon, don't be fooled. Slackjaw is a stinker.
I finished this book several days ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I try to put it out of my mind, to work, to sleep, to watch television... but it keeps crawling back in. I think I even dreamed about it last night.

Here's the deal: My Abandonment is the story of 13-year-old Caroline, who has been living off the grid with her father in Forest Park, Portland, Oregon for the past four years.

The story is loosely based on the story of a young girl and her father who were actually found living in Forest Park back in 2004. Author Peter Rock followed their tale in the news. The daughter had been homeschooled and was healthy and well-educated. The pair was relocated by Portland authorities to a more traditional home and gifted with material goods by Portland community.

And then one day, they disappeared.

The novel is about their imagined experience, both in the park and afterwards. And it's at once hopeful and inspiring while also frightening and disturbing. The beginning of the book, which describes the pair's somewhat utopian and naturalistic life in the park is slow moving, but from the moment they are discovered, the plot races along.

Since the story is told from the first-person perspective of a girl who doesn't fully understand the world, a lot of questions are left unanswered, and some readers might find that frustraing, but in my opinion, the unanswered questions are the best thing about this book. It leaves you thinking about what might have happened, what really happened, what might happen next.

Like I said, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

Here's a video of Peter Rock talking about his inspiration:
My Abandonment takes you out of what you think you know in an affecting, mesmerizing way. I absolutely recommend it.

It forces  you to imagine a different kind of life. And that's a good thing.
Amy Efaw's After is one of the best YA novels I've read in years. So many teen books deal with "issues" - eating disorders, abuse, unwanted pregnancy - but few are as compelling, balanced, or as real as this.

After is suspenseful, literary, raw and heartbreaking. It's also both accessible and incredibly complex. Devon, the 15 year old heroine, is the mother of a "dumpster baby" and the book travels through her experience, beginning just after the birth and moving through her incarceration in a juvenille detention centre and the first stages of her case in court.

The book raises a lot of serious questions, the most serious being: what does Devon deserve?

She certainly gave birth to a baby that she attempted to dispose of in a public dumpster, but is knowing that enough? Isn't there more to the story? (Isn't there more to every story?)

After is a Point of View (POV) novel (as they say in school), which means the only perspective we get is Devon's, but she is a sympathetic and well-balanced character, neither villianized nor forgiven. To form an opinion about what Devon did, you have to take into account eveything the book tells you, from her status as a straight-A student to her limited sexual experience to her mental state during the pregnancy. Efaw presents a many-faceted look at Devon's life though a single perspective - no small feat.

The best thing this book is that Devon is just a regular girl. She's a regular girl in a terrible, complicated situation at least not entirely of her own making. Her story is about how she got there, and if you can't relate to how social factors, parenting, anxiety/denial and the myth of the American Dream might have conspired against her, you might not have much of a heart.

Devon story is a cautionary tale, but Efaw's made Devon an aspirational character and that's a pretty impressive thing. Worth reading, for sure.

While pottering around my local Goodwill on the weekend, I came across a few promising books. In particular, two Mark Haddon novels that I'd been tempted to read several years ago: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. At $2.49 a piece, I decided to take them home.

I spent the next few hours burning through Curious Incident and I've determined that it's something I should have read sooner.

I don't know why I hesitated. Maybe because of something Nick Hornby said in The Polysyllabic Spree about being unsure about it. Something about whether or not it fairly represents autisum spectrum disorders.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the narrator,  15 year old Christopher, is clearly painted as a savant, and everything in the story works out quite well in the end, which is, if not unrealistic, then certainly unlikely, but nonetheless, I liked the book.

Haddon's writing is crisp without being simple. Christopher's internal voice (even if you think of him as a teenager and take the Austism/Asperger thing out of the equation) is completely believable. The stream of consciousness style narrative is punctuated by bits of well-crafted dialogue and plenty of dramatic and suspensful moments, which provides a bit of relief. And all in all, it's just good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time won both the Boeke Prize and the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year award, and was a major bestseller. Haddon has expressed annoyance at all the hoopla surrounding whether or not the text paints an accurate picture of anyone in the autism spectrum - he says he's not an expert - but I'd suggest you put that out of your mind. 

Haddon iis an expert at expressing the mind of the teenager. Readers who dislike YA stories or youthful perspectives might not take to this book easily (though it's not a YA novel), but I'd recommend it to almost anyone else.

What do you do when a book you loved as a child turns out to be... well... a bit racist?

Not in an over the top way. Racist in a general, generational, wide-spread, common sort of way. But nonetheless... racist, or as Melissa Bank once wrote, if not racist, then race-ish.

The Cricket in Times Square is also charming. Published in 1960, it was a runner up for the Newbery Medal and is illustrated (beautifully) by Garth Williams. Suitable for readers 9 or 10 years old, the story is about Chester (a cricket) who accidentally travels to New York City from the Connecticut woods. In New York, out of his element, he befriends Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, and a boy named Mario, whose family owns a newstand in the Times Square subway station.

Oh, and it turns out Chester has perfect pictch and can play symphonies with his chirps. He becomes a musical phenom - the most famous cricket in the world!

It's a silly, nonsensical and wonderful little story.

But... it's also disturbing. The book relies heavily on racial stereoptypes. There's the working-class Italian family from the newstand (Mama, Papa and Mario Bellini), who are the most subtle racial characters. And then there's plucky Tucker, an old-time New Yorker, money and fame obsessed. Tucker becomes Chester Cricket's musical manager and at one point, says it would be a dream come true to sleep on a bed of money and diamonds. He's a caricature of a New York Jew. Even worse is Sai Fong, an elderly Chinatown shop owner who helps Mario feed and house his new pet cricket. Highly exoticized and mystical, Sai Fong talks like this:  "You got clicket! Eee hee hee! Velly good! You got clicket!"

I'm not even kidding.

I think The Cricket in Times Square is the sort of book that can make only a subtle impact on a child, but an impact nonetheless. And it's very appealing. In a way, it's appeal is what makes it problematic. You read it, you're charmed by it, and the ideas seep in. Disturbing, problematic ideas.That's what happened to me. And it's taken more than a decade to push them out again.

So what do I do? Do I say, 'George Selden was a bit of a racist' and toss the book? Or do I keep it, remembering that once upon a time, I read it and loved it, and still managed to turn out okay?

It's a hard question, don't you think?