Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

The other night I sat in bed and read David Sedaris's newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, in one big gulp. Like his earlier books, this is a series of essays about Sedaris's life--in fact, though he admits that his work is only "realish" and "97 percent true", his body of work feels like it adds up to one long memoir. This book was also hilarious, as all of Sedaris's books are. I kept laughing aloud, which made my husband look up from his book and say, "What?", which meant I had to read the paragraph to him. But it was okay, because the jokes were often better the second time around, and spoken aloud.

Sedaris's books often make me laugh out loud, but I'll admit the laughter is sometimes uncomfortable. This is because Sedaris is not just self-deprecating, he is unrelentingly honest. He says the stuff the rest of us are afraid to say, or at least to say out loud. And he has a finely-tuned sense of the absurdity of human nature. His observations often reveal his acceptance of the dark side of humanity, too. Yep, dark and absurd, that's what we people are, and Sedaris doesn't shy away from showing it.

Sedaris is the ultimate outsider. He writes about his painful and painfully funny childhood, his adolescence, his parents, his addiction to drugs, his homosexuality, his marginal jobs, his life as an expat, and it feels as though all of this has created an outsider in Sedaris, or it all comes from Sedaris feeling like an outsider originally. It's chicken and egg, I suppose, but that outsider's viewpoint is what makes Sedaris so funny and so sad. It's a wonderful perspective for a diarist to have, and while Sedaris's writing is self-aware and sometimes a little depressing, it's never bitter.

This book is also about mid-life, as Sedaris is approaching 50. He is obsessed with death and dying, and his mid-life crisis also includes his attempt to quit smoking. The end of the book is devoted to the three months Sedaris and his partner Hugh Hamrick spent in Japan while Sedaris was trying to quit smoking. Again, his outsider's perspective spears the absurdities of Japanese culture, but he also spears himself, as a westerner trying to learn the language and failing miserably, and trying but never succeeding in understanding Japan.

The outsider in me loved this book and will always like Sedaris's work. It's not a comforting read for anyone approaching middle age, but it will make you laugh.

And the Winner is...

Litlove! You win a fabulous new paperback copy of Joshua Henkin's novel Matrimony, signed by the author. I'll be contacting you via email with the details...

Everyone, thanks for playing! I hope to have more giveaways in the future, so stay tuned!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Giveaway: Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin, and an offer to book groups

It is finally my turn to give away a copy of the new paperback release of Joshua Henkin's novel Matrimony! The author has kindly offered to inscribe the book for my lucky winner!

Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book for 2007, is a really lovely story about relationships, and how they change and grow over the years. I reviewed it here, and there are also reviews at some of my favorite blogs:

Bookfoolery and Babble
The Literate Housewife
She is Too Fond of Books
Books and Cooks
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?
A Reader's Journal
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Also, you can read author Joshua Henkin's guest posts on these blogs:

Books on the Brain
Planet Books
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
The Elegant Variation (several posts)

If you want to put your name in the hat for an inscribed copy of Matrimony, just leave me a comment on this post. I'll be conducting the drawing, in my very scientific way (letting one of the kids draw a name out of a colander) this Friday, September 26, after 8pm Pacific Time.

UPDATE:  A special offer from Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, for all book groups.  If you've read anything about Joshua Henkin on the book blogs, you know he is a big supporter of book groups.  And now, Henkin and his publisher are offering something special for all you book groups out there--in Mr. Henkin's words:
I wanted to let you know about a special time-bound offer that my publisher, Vintage, is making to book groups. Sign up by midnight September 30 and Vintage will set up a phone chat for your book group with me to discuss MATRIMONY. Normally, only five book groups are chosen among the entrants, but I have agreed to talk to all book groups that sign up. Here's the link to learn more, and to sign up: Randon House book group offer. I would be delighted to talk to your book group.
What a nice guy!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Challenges, Challenges

I have to admit, I am challenge challenged. I have joined several reading challenges over the last year or so, but have yet to actually finish one. I don't think it's the pressure of the challenges that shuts me down. I think it's just that I don't like to follow any sort of reading plan. I like to pick up my next book on a whim, and I'm easily distracted by the next exciting thing that I hear about. Or it could just be that I have the attention span of a gnat.

I've been resisting joining in, but I'm starting to hear the siren song of the challenges once again. This time I think I need to be very particular, and pick some challenges that I have a shot at finishing. Or if I don't finish, at least the attempt will be satisfying.

First of all, I've signed up for The Orange Prize Project, hosted by Wendy. It's "a reading challenge which challenges participants to read all the winners and shortlisted authors honored by the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers."

It's probably too darned ambitious for me: the ultimate goal is to read all the Orange Prize winners and the books shortlisted for the prize..but hey, there's no time limit! You can see the guidelines here, and you can peruse the lists: the Award for New Writers winners and short list, the Orange Prize Fiction Winners and short list, and the Fiction Prize long lists.

At the heart of it, I decided to join up because so many of the books on the lists are books I already want to read. And it gives me a chance to talk about a bunch of books that I have already read, that I liked very much. So off I go...

My first few reads will be, in no particular order:

Purple Hibiscus: A Novel, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
Unless: A Novel, by Carol Shields

More on my new challenges later...

Monday, September 15, 2008

BBAW Begins!

The Book Blogger Awareness Week festivities have begun! Hosted by My Friend Amy, this week features book blogger awards and many, many book giveaways.

There are too many raffles and giveaways for me to mention them all here. But My Friend Amy is giving away books and chocolate today--a winning combination, if you ask me. Head on over My Friend Amy to check out the action!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: The Mercy Rule, by Perri Klass

I was sent a copy of Perri Klass's novel The Mercy Rule by the publisher. I hadn't read her work before, but I had heard good things about her. I also was intrigued by the fact that Klass is a practicing physician as well as a novelist. I thought that would bring an interesting perspective to her work, and I was right.

The Mercy Rule is about a pediatrician, Lucy Weiss, who lives with her professor husband in a suburb of Boston, where she is busy working and raising two kids who attend private school and play weekend sports, and trying to find a balance between all these things. But, surprisingly, Lucy is also a child of the foster care system. Her mother died when she was small, and her father gave her over to be raised in the foster care system. Now, as a doctor, Lucy serves children like her, who are in the foster care system, or who are at risk for being put into that system.

The novel's narrative is split between Lucy's home life and her professional life. Part of the time Lucy is dealing with addicted or otherwise neglectful mothers and trying to assess the needs of their children, and part of the time she is struggling to raise her own two children. But the parts are tied together by the central theme of raising children, and how difficult it is under the best of circumstances.

As a mother of three, I really related to this novel. Lucy's demographic is in some ways similar to mine, and I laughed and cried over many of the poignant parenting moments in the book. It feels very authentic, almost like a memoir (though I know I'm making an inference here, as Klass is a physician, and clearly a parent, as well as a writer, and the main character is also a physician and parent who writes, at least as a hobby), and its genuine quality was part of what made it involving.

I recognized so many of the parenting challenges that Klass details in the book. Lucy has two difficult children, a girl going from tween to adolescent, and a 7-year-old boy who is eccentric, to put it kindly. Klass wisely resists "diagnosing" or labeling the kids, but they definitely have some issues. And, like Lucy, we all face bewildering issues as parents, even if they aren't exactly the same as the ones Lucy faces, and we all wish we could smooth the way for our children and help them navigate every awkward social situation, even though we know we shouldn't.

While I enjoyed the parts about Lucy's family life, I was also completely drawn into the parts about Lucy's professional life. The interaction between Lucy and the families of her patients was fascinating, and I would have liked to see even more of this. My problem with the book was that it lacked a clear story. Yes, many things happen, but there is no arc to the story--it's made up of a series of episodes, but it doesn't quite have a cohesive plot. However, since I found the episodes compelling, the lack of plot wasn't a major problem for me--it's more just an observation about the style, and a warning for those who don't like books that aren't story-driven.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how involving I found this warts-and-all look at parenting, and how much I related to its main character, a modern woman trying to balance work and family, and sometimes just barely hanging on to both.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


I grew up reading Judy Blume's books, especially those written with girls in mind. I started with Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret, and I worked my way through them up to Forever . . ., which was titillating and much talked about, mostly because the teenage protagonist had sex. I didn't read her novels for adults, and I didn't read the Fudge books until I had kids of my own to read them to. But now I love Fudge, too.

But Judy Blume had a profound effect on me as a tween girl, because her books talked frankly about all the things we girls thought about, but were sometimes too embarrassed or afraid to talk about openly. Of course, this is probably why her books were sometimes banned--how crazy is that?

When I was in the fifth grade, my soon-to-be sixth grade teacher (an amazing teacher, I still remember how great sixth grade was) handed me a copy of a book by Judy Blume called Deenie. It was about a girl with scoliosis who has to wear a brace on her back. I, too, had scoliosis and had just gotten my back brace, so it was amazing for me to receive a book written about my very situation--especially since I knew exactly zero people who wore back braces at that point, and had no idea what I was in for.

So when I opened my email the other day, I was excited to see this flyer telling me that Jill Soloway, a hilarious writer and comedienne, is participating in this tribute to Judy Blume (full disclosure--I know Jill and she's fabulous). Looks like it's a night of "readings, performances and reflections" about Judy Blume's books. What a great idea, wish I'd thought of it myself. Anyone in the L.A. area--should be a great event.

Judy Blume has a great website, by the way. It has resources for kids who are doing reports, her thoughts about censorship, her advice about writing, and a blog. Definitely worth visiting!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lucia Redux!

Author Guy Fraser-Sampson approached me with the news that he has written a new book in a very popular old series--the Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson. He is reviving Lucia, the beloved fictional social leader of the small English town of Riseholme, and her friend Miss Mapp, from the town of Tilling, written about by author E.F. Benson in the 1920s and 30s. I read some of the books in this series long ago--Queen Lucia and Lucia in London--and loved their wonderful, eccentric English atmosphere.

The new book, published by Troubadour, and endorsed by E.F. Benson's estate, has just been released. Author Fraser-Sampson says that the new Mapp and Lucia book will be called Major Benjy, and it "fills in the chronological gap between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia, that is to say that it is set in the earlier part of the summer that Lucia and Georgie first arrive in Tilling."

I'm sure Benson has been compared to Wodehouse, and certainly, like Wodehouse, he created memorable, charmingly idiosyncratic characters. I'm glad Fraser-Sampson has been able to continue the series, and look forward to reading his offering.

Here is a quote from Queen Lucia that gives a humorous glimpse into the main character:
Though [Lucia was] essentially autocratic, her subjects were allowed and even encouraged to develop their own minds on their own lines, provided always that those lines met at the junction where she was stationmaster.
The Troubador site has more information about the book (and a place to buy it), and here is a link to the author's website. He also has a literary blog!