Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Giveaway & Review: Life Without Parole by Clare O'Donohue

Life Without Parole is the second Kate Conway mystery novel. I was unfamiliar with the series and when the publisher asked if I'd like a review copy I said yes primarily because it's set in Chicago. It's seven months after the death of Kate's ex-husband who'd been having an affair, which seems to have been the focus of the first Kate Conway mystery. Kate is still grieving and eventually comes to a critical insight about herself (which I won't reveal here), but it seems to point toward a more engaged life in the future for our protagonist.

Kate Conway is a freelance TV producer. She's working on a story featuring two prison inmates when she's offered a second job covering the opening of a swank new upscale restaurant in Chicago. It turns out the person who recommended her for the new job is her dead ex-husband's mistress, Vera. Readers know no good can come of that, right? Between the two inmates who are playing upon Kate's emotions and the dramatic egos of the half-dozen or so restaurant partners, as well as the two guys that form Kate's TV crew, there's a lot going on in this novel, which makes for a quick and enjoyable read.

There are some interesting Chicago tidbits, such as this: anyone with as little as a 5% interest in a Chicago restaurant must be finger printed, get a criminal background check, and submit information on their finances. That seems like more than some presidential candidates are willing to do. There are also brief bits that Chicagoans can relate to, like how it never fails that when you're driving and need to make a phone call, a cop car suddenly appears. It's illegal in Chicago to drive and use a cell phone unless you have a head-set/hands-free device.

And then there are some interesting investigative tidbits such as fingerprints of a roommate's showing up on an item that arrived on the scene after they say they'd left the premises (like a pizza box with a time-stamped receipt), and how people with a sense of entitlement can kill when their privilege is threatened, not intentionally, but someone just got in their way.

But there were a few things annoyed me, such as Kate's lying to help Vera, her ex-husband's mistress. The first lie I can begrudgingly accept, but the second time and beyond it became unbelievable. And a pet peeve of mine in amateur sleuth mysteries is when they think they're outwitting a seasoned homicide detective. At one point Kate thinks she "captured the queen" in conversation with Makina, the detective on the case. I understand it's a common device, but it grates on my nerves. And the cover, other than the snow, has absolutely nothing to do with the story line or location.

Overall, however, I'm happy to have read this novel and get a sense of Kate Conway. I hope she'll have a long and happy life in Chicago.

Plume books has graciously offered two copies for readers of WildmooBooks. Enter to win one of two copies below via Rafflecopter!
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Quick thoughts: Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis

I avoided reading this book for the longest time because of its reputation (at least in academic circles) as a simplistic and not very revealing portrait of Willa Cather. It is probably a good thing that I waited to read it because my younger self would have been disappointed by the lack of "juicy bits" as so many before me seem to have been. I plan on working on a longer review/reflection, but for now want to say that I think this is a wonderful book. I read it slowly and took time to reflect and imagine. I learned a lot about Cather and it makes me want to learn more about Lewis, Cather's partner of over 40 years.

The book was published in 1953, six years after Cather’s death at the age of 74. Lewis was 65 when Cather died and 71 when this book was published.

They met in Nebraska in 1903 when Cather was 30 and Lewis 21. Six years later they moved into an apartment together in New York. Lewis writes, "I believe it was in 1909, after she returned from her first London trip, that Willa Cather and I took a small and not very comfortable apartment together on Washington Place, just off Washington Square" (74).

Lewis refers to Cather as "Willa Cather," never Willa, never Cather. Always Willa Cather. It is at times charming and at other times annoying, but one thing's for sure: the number of times you read the name Willa Cather starts to feel like an incantation. The spell certainly ensnared me.

And there is something about the way Lewis phrased that sentence about the two of them moving in together that made my heart flutter. I think had they been "just friends" that Lewis would have offered more about why they moved in together or why they hit it off in the first place.

The thing not named, indeed.

Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record
Edith Lewis
Ohio University Press, 1989 (reprint, originally published by Knopf, 1953)
ISBN: 0-8214-0913-1
Source: bought it at Powell's Portland, June 2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Giveaway: Theft By Chocolate by Luba Lesychyn

Thanks to the good folks at Attica Books, WildmooBooks is offering its second book giveaway for your summer reading pleasure: Luba Lesychyn's comic new cozy mystery Theft by Chocolate, which was inspired by a real-life, never-solved heist at a Canadian museum in the 1980s.

See details below about how to enter-to-win the book (it involves commenting on this post). You can also enter to win a $150 gift card to an online chocolate retailer (this involves entering via the Rafflecopter form below).

About the Book:
Chocolate addict Kalena Boyko wasn’t prepared for this. Heading to work at Canada’s largest museum as an administrator, she hopes for quiet and uninterrupted access to her secret chocolate stash. Instead she’s assigned to manage the high-profile Treasures of the Maya exhibition with her loathed former boss, Richard Pritchard.

With no warning, her life is capsized and propelled into warp speed as she stumbles across an insider plot that could jeopardize the exhibit and the reputation of the museum.

After hearing about a recent botched theft at the museum and an unsolved jewel heist in the past from security guard and amateur sleuth Marco Zeffirelli, Kalena becomes suspicious of Richard and is convinced he’s planning to sabotage the Treasures of the Maya exhibition.

Her suspicions, and the appearance of the mysterious but charming Geoffrey Ogden from the London office, don’t help her concentration. The Treasures of the Maya seems cursed as problem after problem arises, including the disappearance of the world’s oldest piece of chocolate, the signature object in the exhibit.
About the Author:
Soon after finishing her graduate studies in history, Luba Lesychyn (le-si-shin) landed on the doorstep of Canada’s largest museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, where she worked for more than twenty years as an educator and consultant. Theft By Chocolate is Luba’s debut novel, though she has been amusing people with her writing since the age of eight. Her love of chocolate precedes this age and she has been in and out of chocolate rehab for most of her adult life. She currently works in the educational sector and teaches yoga in her home town of Toronto. When not writing or looking for her next chocolate fix, Luba can be found in dance classes, trekking to remote waterfalls in the mountain rain forest in Puerto Rico, running through the streets of Paris or doing any other number of calorie-burning activities that help offset the calories consumed in her chocolate intake. 

How to win a copy of the book:
Answer this question in the comments section below and be sure to provide your email: If you were stuck on a desert island, which five books would you choose to have with you? In five days, a lucky winner from this blog will win a free copy of Theft By Chocolate! The winner will be chosen by and contacted by the publisher.

How to win the grand prize $150 Gift Certificate:
Enter via the Rafflecopter below. Do you love chocolate as much as Kalena, the heroine in Theft By Chocolate? Here’s your chance to indulge in $150 US worth! The Giveaway Grand Prize is a gift certificate to a delectable online chocolate retailer. Winner chooses from one of three sites:, , or

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Good luck, everyone, and thanks for entering!

Additional Links:

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Professor's House: Thoughts & Comments

Hello again, Cather fans! For those of you who haven't yet read The Professor's House, you might like to check out the intro post on it here.

My Thoughts
The first time I read The Professor's House I liked the Professor and didn't like most of the other characters. I generally took "his side" on the issues. I felt like he was misunderstood and needed to be left alone to work.

This time around, however, I saw the Professor and other characters in a more complex light. 

I couldn't help but see the Professor as a bit of a victim. He never says what's on his mind or takes the risk to open up to his loved ones. He's judgmental and critical of everyone around him, and yet he accuses others of being intolerant. 

He also seems rather selfish. He's always in his office, going to his office, or wanting to be in his office. He even spends Christmas day in his office. One of the saddest scenes is of his six year old daughter sitting outside his office door, waiting for her father to come out and take care of her after she was stung by a bee. She patiently sits there with swollen fingers, not daring to disturb her father at work.. He says that she's shown him great consideration. Some might say he's shown her great neglect. 

"The great pleasures don't come so cheap."

The Professor's decent into depression is so well done. Cather's writing is subtle and profound and compact and you can't pin things down very easily, even when things seem obvious. Nothing is simple, even if it seems simple at first glance. Is he depressed because he's burnt out, he'd "burned his candle at both ends?" (28). Or is it Tom Outland's death? Is it the increasing commercialization and politicization of American life in general, or specifically the use of Tom's invention and the university environment? Or is it tensions within his family? Or is it his age or his career?

It seems to me that whatever the primary cause, each of these issues contributed to his depression which I saw as being exacerbated by the accumulative effects of fifteen years of living a disconnected life. With the exception of a few sabbatical years, the Professor lived with his family while he worked on his multi-volume work, Spanish Adventurers in North America. However, he spent all of his time at home in his upstairs sanctuary (or in his garden or swimming or playing tennis). There's no indication that he regularly played with or actively engaged with his daughters, although he watched Outland play and talk with them. Even in the early years of his family, he was merely "conscious of pretty little girls in fresh dresses" and he "was not insensible to the domestic drama that went on beneath him" (101), but he did not engage with this life. 

As a father of two young children, the sewing room, which became his command center, was the "one place in the house where he could get isolation, insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life" (26). By the time his daughters are married young women, his office has become "his shadowy crypt" (112).  Later his desk is referred to as "a shelter one could hide behind, it was a hole one could creep into" (161).

As we see the Professor deal with his family and coworkers he seems to never speak his mind or connect with anyone on a personal, emotional level. And then he gets a visit from Mrs. Crane informing him that she and her husband are starting legal proceedings to get some of the money they feel is owed them for her husband's work with Tom Outland. It seems to be the last straw for the Professor. Walking home from visiting Dr. Crane, he takes a detour through the park and his mind wanders:
"The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him; the lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton small and tight and airless. The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little word, on its voyage among all the starts, might become like that; a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings or revolutions."
It is the Professor who is sad, not the world, but he can't admit it so he projects his feelings onto his surroundings. Just like he projects his own intolerance onto his wife and family.  The Professor is so disconnected from himself that he can't even admit his own feelings to himself.  He "brought himself back with a jerk" (150) from these thoughts and chalks it up to Crane, "that was the trouble." 

Not long after this scene, sometime around December, his son-in-law Scott notices that the Professor doesn't look well, "he had never before seen the Professor when he seemed absolutely flattened out and listless" (153). The Professor has now bodily taken on the description of sadness that he earlier had projected onto the scene around him.

Then in March his other son-in-law, Louie, proposes a family summer vacation in Paris. Everyone is excited, except St. Peter, who knew "that he would never be one of this light-hearted expedition, and he hated himself for the ungracious drawing-back that he felt in the region of his diaphragm" (159). He justifies his decision to himself and concludes, "Besides, he would not be needed" (160). It's not so much that he is not needed, but rather he has pushed others away from him so that he feels he is not needed. When he tells his family that he won't be going Louie "readily conceded that the Professor's first duty was to his work. Rosamond was incredulous and piqued . . . . His wife looked at him with thoughtful disbelief" (161). Everyone seems to know that all is not well with the professor. 

Later his wife asks him what it is that makes him draw away from his family. She says, "Two years ago you were an impetuous young man. Now you save yourself in everything. You're naturally warm and affectionate; all at once you begin shutting yourself away from everybody. I don't think you'll be happier for it" (162). He tells her that he feels like he's put a great deal behind himself and that he seems to be tremendously tired. He ends the talk by saying he'll get his second wind. 

And then Tom Outland's story is told. With this reading I felt that Tom's story is completely organic to the novel as a whole. Tom's name and memory and stories about him and snipes about Louie's use of Tom's discovery are all over Book One, much more so than I caught on in my first reading of the novel. It almost begs for a telling of Tom's story, even if you don't expect to be swept off to the Southwest.

In Book Three when we find out that the Professor was supposed to have a vacation with Tom Outland in Paris which never happened due to the outbreak of World War I and Tom's subsequent death, it makes sense why he wouldn't want to go to Paris for a "light-hearted expedition." Tom's appearance had given the Professor a second youth and in contrast it makes sense that Tom's death would make the professor feel old beyond his years. He's only 52 but feels himself as old as his grandfather was when he was in his 80s.

Book Three made me question everything in Book One, at least everything that came from the Professor's perspective. I think that's as Cather intended it. Depression is a tricky foe and you don't know what it does to your perception until you're on the other side and can look back.  If you're lucky enough to be able to look back, as is the Professor. Even then things are murky and confused.

When the Professor runs into Scott who tells him that he has to decide where he's going to live because his wife is coming home soon, it throws him into the deepest depths of his emotional crisis. He can't image himself living in the new house and then recalls a Longfellow poem about death that starts him thinking about himself in a coffin. He's no longer afraid of death, but rather "now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort" (272). He almost dies by giving himself to the gas fumes, but Augusta, the family's trusted seamstress, arrives despite his earlier claim that she won't go out in the storm. She saves him.

The Professor undergoes a sort of emotional death and rebirth.

As the Professor recuperates under Augusta's care, he ponders living life without joy and reflects on how Tom Outland "escaped" from having to sustain a career and a marriage. In other words, adult responsibilities. But there seems to be a glimmer of hope. For the first time in months (or maybe years) the Professor is lonely and wants Augusta to stay with him. I think this is a big break through. 

He contemplates Augusta and thinks about how she's never been afraid to say "things that were heavily, drearily true, and though he used to wince under them, he hurried off with the feeling that they were good from him . . . . Augusta was like the taste of bitter herbs; she was the bloomless side of life that he had always run away from" (280). This gives me hope that the Professor might be able to starting reflecting on his feelings rather than escaping into "ideas" and that he may start having some difficult, but true conversations with his family members that will help him reconnect to them and reengage life.

Things I've Been Pondering
Will the Professor live a life without joy or will he get that second wind? Or has something been irreparably broken in him? Tom Outland had given him something like a second childhood, had brought back freshness into his life and now he's reconnecting to his own younger self. Will the Professor's first grandchild bring back some freshness, too, or will he stay disconnected from his family?

Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of The Professor's House? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it's just a sentence. And don't feel like you have to agree/disagree or even comment on what I had to say.

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Monte Cristo Bookshop, New London, CT

Have you heard of Indiegogo or Kickstarter? They're internet platforms whereby people who are trying to raise funds for a project can collection donations toward their goal. Early this year a new bookstore opened in Chicago with the help of such a campaign. That would be Uncharted Books which was recently voted Chicago's best new bookstore by the Chicago Reader.

Gina Holmes and Chris Jones are in the process of opening the Monte Cristo Bookshop which will be the only bookstore in New London, Connecticut. They need to raise $10,000 by July 31, 2012. I don't know Gina or Chris, I live about 900 miles away in Illinois, and although I am planning to move to Connecticut sometime in the future, I don't know if I'll be near New London or not.

So why donate?

Because who doesn't want to see more bookstores in the world, especially those that seek to be actively engaged in their communities? Because resources like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are beacons of hope for people with a dream, and who doesn't like to support dreams that are in-line with one's own values? Gina and Chris have put themselves out there and asked  for help from strangers. It also seems like they have done their homework and have a plan (the link below has details).

You can donate as little as $5 to help the Monte Cristo Bookshop open its doors. As of July 21 people have donated $6,382. They have 11 days left to raise $3,618. If they don't make it to $10,000 everyone gets their money back. If they do make the $10,000, you'll know that you've helped open a bookstore that will hopefully be around for many years to come. It will certainly be a place that fosters a love for reading and life-long learning.

Go to this link for more information-- the video, click links to related newspaper stories, and then donate if you can. If you can't, at least head over to their Facebook page and wish them luck.

FYI: I found out about this project via Shelf Awareness, an informative and free book related e-newsletter. Nobody knows I'm writing this post and I'm not getting any sort of kick back.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bent Road Winners & 2 More Upcoming Giveaways

Congrats to Sheila and Cayt who won copies of Lori Roy's brilliant first novel, BENT ROAD! Thank you both for getting back to me so quickly. I've sent your address to the publisher and your book will arrive soon. I hope you both enjoy it as much as I did. 

Thanks to everyone who entered to win! If you didn't win this time around, WildmooBooks is hosting two more give-a-ways in July:

On Tuesday, July 24th look for a chance to win a copy of Theft by Chocolate by Luba Lesychny (Attica Books). About the book:  After hearing about a recent botched theft at the museum and an unsolved jewel heist in the past from security guard and amateur sleuth Marco Zeffirelli, Kalena becomes suspicious of Richard and is convinced he’s planning to sabotage the Treasures of the Maya exhibition. Her suspicions, and the appearance of the mysterious but charming Geoffrey Ogden from the London office, don’t help her concentration. The Treasures of the Maya seem cursed as problem after problem arises, including the disappearance of a key artifact - the world’s oldest piece of chocolate... 

On Tuesday, July 31st look for a chance to win a copy of Life Without Parole: A Kate Conway Mystery by Clare O'Donohue (Plume). About the book: After the death of her ex-husband, things are finally returning to normal for Chicagoan Kate Conway—so normal that she’s gotten a little bored. Out of the blue, the television producer is offered a documentary gig about lifers in a state prison. Kate jumps at the chance. The only problem is that she’s also just been asked to produce a reality show about the opening of a new restaurant—one backed by Vera, her dead husband’s mistress. Reluctantly, she agrees to both.But when one of the restaurant’s investors is murdered and Vera is the chief suspect, Kate must ride a treacherous psychological edge, relying on the minds of death row killers to help her solve the case.

Have a great weekend Everyone, and Happy Reading!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Iowa City Book Festival Road Trip Recap

This past weekend I attended the annual Iowa City Book Festival. It's a three day celebration of books. Friday morning Ruth, Cayt, and I made drive from Chicago to Iowa City in just under four hours. We talked non-stop about what we've been up to since our last literary road trip together, caught up on news regarding former coworkers (from the good old days at Borders), talked about blogging (Cayt recently started writing a blog, lumiere pure), but mainly we talked about books we've read and books we want to read.

In Iowa City we met up with out friend Missy, who lives near Des Moines, Iowa, and much later in the evening her friend--and now our friend--Stacy joined our merry band of book lovers.

Carved relief print from the carnival.
After lunch our first order of business was a bookstore visit, or two. The first book stop was a new used bookstore in the Sycamore Mall, Defunct Books. Everyone bought something there except me. I can count on one hand the number of times I've left a bookstore empty handed. I think I was worried about loading up too soon.

That's only partially true.

As I packed the evening before, my partner, Laura, asked how much spending money I was taking. What she really meant was: how much book money do you need? I actually said none, that I wasn't going to buy any books. She laughed, said sure, and asked again. No, really, I'll only buy one book I said. She knows me too well and needless to say, I left the house with book money in pocket. While at Defunct Books I was still thinking I wouldn't buy any books this trip. Or maybe just one.

Our second bookstore was The Book Shop. We were thrilled to get inside this cute little shop as last year it was closed when we made our first literary pilgrimage to Iowa City. I haven't seen such a stuffed bookstore in a long, long time. This is a used bookstore where you can dig. And you might well have to dig if you're looking for something specific.

My mind was overwhelmed by the disproportional book/space ratio which cured me of my temporary 'I won't buy any books' insanity. I purchased a mass market copy of James A. Michener's Poland and a worn but sturdy cloth copy of Arnold Bennett's Literary Taste: How to Form It: with Detailed Instructions for Collecting a Completed Library of English Literature.

I wasn't familiar with Literary Taste before spotting it, but I love old books about literature--the pomposity of opinion (now that I'm no longer knee jerky about literary canon arguments) humors me and I've found that such books often contain nuggets of insight that help me see books or literary history from a new angle. If nothing else, they feed my thirst for talk about books, even if I don't agree with the author's opinion.

The festival officially kicked off on Friday evening at 6 or 7pm (depending on what ticket level purchased) with a carnival at Hotel Vetro that featured food, games, activities, and prizes. We won t-shirts playing Plunko, made prints from original book related carved relief art, tried the wine toss, and played book darts where I won an advance readers copy of Robert Goolrick's Heading Out to Wonderful. I've never won a book playing darts before. Mr. Goolrick was at the carnival, but I didn't want to disrupt his conversation to ask him to sign the book.

There was also free ice cream, a Fifty Shades of Grey photo booth, a tarot card reader, a live band, and a cake walk. The cake pictured below looked like the grand prize to us. Later in the evening after we left the festival and were savoring crepes at our go-to restaurant, Crepes De Luxe Cafe, we saw the winner walking down the street carrying this cake.

After crepes we went back to our hotel where Stacy joined us. The five of us got wild and played Booktastic! for a couple hours.

The cake!

The next morning, Saturday, started with breakfast at the hotel and, for a couple of us, morning pages on the patio. Then we drove downtown and re-oriented ourselves with bookstore locations in relation to the University of Iowa campus (where the festival was held) before parking and getting coffee. Missy went to UI and was a campus bus driver, so she is our official Iowa City driver and guide.

After that, our first book stop of the day was Prairie Lights. We didn't have much time to browse since we arrived shortly after 9am and the first author events started at 10am. I walked out with a copy of John Boyne's The Absolutist, which I've recently heard praised on several book podcasts.

And I just realized that once again I did not make it upstairs to their cafe. Guess I'll have to go back.

Our group of five split up into various directions for different events. Cayt and I headed to Seamans Center for "Literary Friendships" with Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville. I wasn't familiar with either writer, but my friend Cayt saw Dean Bakopoulos's sister at Printer's Row in Chicago last month. We were interested in hearing what they'd have to say on literary friendships and ended up excited about both writer's work. Bakopoulos, he's the one in the checkerd shirt in the picture below, spoke first and talked about how important it is for a writer to have a friend who understands the feelings of futility that come up when writing, the anxiety about how you spend your time in general and, more specifically, how the novel you're currently writing sometimes seems like a stupid waste of time. Such friends are also there to talk you down after a bad review of your work.

Bakopoulsos is in the checkered shirt, Somerville wearing cap.
Dean read from his novel My American Unhappiness and explained some of why he came to write it. Then Somerville read from and talked about his recent novel, This Bright River. During the Q&A session someone asked him about the recent brouhaha regarding Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times and his piece in Salon. I hadn't heard about, and it good to get the inside scoop from the man himself.

Cayt and I both bought copies of Bakopoulos's My American Unhappiness and Somerville's first novel, The Cradle. Prairie Lights was there selling the books and both authors personalized and signed our copies. They're both interesting guys and I'm excited to read their books.

Next it was lunch time. The five of us had lunch together before breaking up again into various groupings for various events and/or bookstore visits.  Ruth, Cayt, and I headed toward Murphy-Brookfield Books. Ruth peeled away from us during the walk to visit The Haunted Bookstore and caught up with us later. Murphy-Brookfield has an outstanding fiction section (as well as literary criticism and history). Ruth and Cayt did their thing in the store and took off for a 2:30 author event. I stayed a bit longer and eventually left with a copy of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter.

I should note that when I say I "left with a copy" of whatever book that it does indeed mean that I actually paid for the book.

The next author event I was going to was at 3:30, but I left time for a stop at The Haunted Bookshop which was the first bookstore I'd visited in Iowa City a couple years ago (recommended to me by Missy). It's my favorite Iowa City bookstore. The staff is always so friendly and not in that artificial, empty manner that reverberates with waves of the boss's most recent reminder to be friendly.

After a ridiculously short 15 minute browse, I walked out of The Haunted Bookshop with Stuart Dybek's I Sailed with Magellan and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night and headed back to the Seamans Center for Christopher Farnsworth's talk.

Farnsworth is a funny guy with a gently self-deprecatory sense of humor. He talked a bit, read from his latest Nathaniel Cade thriller, and then took questions from an audience. I just finished his first book in this series, Blood Oath, last week. During the Q&A I asked Farnsworth if he was a monster/vampire geek as a kid or did he come to the genre as an adult. First, he thanked me for not assuming he'd always been a geek, but then said that he's always been into monsters because he hated vampires. He was traumatized at 2 or 3 after watching a Scooby-Doo episode with a vampire. After that he really wanted to know how to kill vampires and read the usual books, comics, and watched all the classic vampire movies.

Christopher Farnsworth
I took a breather after Farnsworth's talk and sat and relaxed for a bit, looking over the books I'd purchased throughout the day and had a nice conversation with a fellow first time festival attendee from Kansas City who was attracted to my stack of books. It was her first visit to Iowa City and she was impressed by its dedication to books.

Our last event of the day was Zach Wahls. I was one of the millions who watched his testimony at the Iowa House of Representatives after it went viral last year on YouTube (here's a link). Wahls has a book out, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, and he really packed 'em in at the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. It was a standing room only crowd. The rest of my group had been in that same room for Ridley Pearson's event and saved a seat for me or else we'd have been sitting on the floor or listening in the hallway. As it turned out, we were sitting in front of his moms. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. It was a pleasure to meet them.

After brief introductory remarks, Wahls read several passages from his new book that sparked both laughter and some sorrowful head shaking. He's a passionate and charming young man, and so well-spoken.

After this inspiring event, it was time to head back to Chicago. First, however, we asked someone to take a picture of the five of us. Here we are:

Stacy, Missy, Cayt, me, and Ruth.
We walked back toward the parking garage sharing highlights of our day, got another round of coffees to go, and said good-bye to our Iowa friends. The book talk continued on the way home, with talk of our next book get-together.

As I think about the weekend, I'm thankful for the friends that books have brought into my life. I've heard people talk about how book lovers are or can be antisocial (or, more kindly, introverts), and while that might be true for some, at various times in their lives, me included, my love of books has given me some fabulous experiences and life-long friends. We don't necessarily like the same kinds of books, but there's enough overlap and commonality in "the book life" to cross bridges and make connections. Books can and do open doors, both to the new worlds they contain within their pages and to the world around you.

If you're looking for some bookish destinations check out BiblioBuffet for a list of US and International book festivals.

Do you go on book adventures with friends?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Giveaway & Review: Bent Road by Lori Roy

Bradbury’s most well-known works . . . were so successful precisely because they dealt with images in the mind, the stuff of poetry, says Professor Slusser. “He is the last of the great American writers who evoke that kind of Midwestern American world,” he says, artists that include other American greats such as painter Edward Hopper and novelist Willa Cather.
From The Christian Science Monitor,"Ray Bradbury, a passionate sci-fi writer with the gifts of a painter," June 6, 2012

When I read the above tribute to Ray Bradbury I thought of Lori Roy's debut novel, Bent Road, which I recently read. It beautifully evokes the starkness and beauty of the rural Midwest of the late 1960s. I've been re-reading the novels of Willa Cather this year and while I was reading Bent Road I thought that Roy has the potential to be a modern day heir to Cather and her ability to depict the rural Midwest and its people. There are also shades of In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird.

Bent Road won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It has a gritty, almost gothic atmosphere, and characters that I almost immediately cared about.  I struggled between wanting to devour the novel for the plot and slowing down to savor Roy's masterful writing. She conveys so much with so little that I got the chills a few times.

If you've driven the back roads in the rural Midwest, particularly in the Plains States, you can easily picture the setting for this novel. Roy's writing makes you feel the flat openness of the land, how houses stick out, particularly in winter, like either beacons of warm safety or like cages where people are trapped like sitting ducks. From early on in the story there's a lurking sense of isolation and vulnerability underneath the surface solidity of rural homes. 

Bent Road takes place in 1967. It's the tale of Arthur Scott and his family. Arthur is a white man who left his home state of Kansas twenty five years ago. He's now married, with three kids, and living in Detroit. Racial unrest is heating up and Arthur is upset by black boys calling his house and asking for his teenage daughter. The violence didn’t chase him away, but the prospect of interracial dating is the final straw. He moves his family from Detroit back to his home in rural Kansas on Bent Road.

From the opening scene, Bent Road is a dangerous road where things don’t always seem like what they are, and any level of imagination, overactive or not, can take the mind places, sometimes to fear, sometimes to fantasy. Here's a scene from early on in the novel. Evie is the youngest child in the family. She's just spend the last two days with her older brother in the car that her mother drove from Detroit to Kansas. Her father and sister drove ahead of them in a pickup truck. They're just about at their destination.
This isn't at all what Evie thought Kansas would look like. Mama said it would be flat and covered with yellow wheat. She tosses her arms over the front seat and stands on the floorboard for a better look. At the top of the hill, a fence follows the gentle curve of the road like a giant lazy tail draped across the field. The tumbleweeds, hundreds of them, thousands maybe, snagged up by the barbed wire, look like a monster's arching spine (7).
What I admire about this short paragraph is how much it says about Evie. She's not a sit back kind of kid and she has a great imagination. She's also starting to see the gulf between what her Mom says and what she sees with her own eyes. And the time period is obviously a few decades back: the car is roomy, the seats large enough for a child (or two) to comfortably stand and hang over the front seat. It harkens back to another time when kids were free to roam around the back of the car without seat belts. The lack of seat belts amps up the tension of the scene for readers who grew up with seat belts being a mandatory.

Contrast Evie's younger, narrower world view with her old brother, Daniel's awareness of the social, political, and personal changes his family is experiencing and how stuck he feels about it all. In the scene below Daniel is in a field across the road from his house with his friend Ian who is teaching him to hunt prairie dogs. They see a big black sedan drive over the hill and Ian asks if that's Father Flannery. Daniel says yes and asks how he knows who it is, to which Ian replies that everyone knows he was coming over today.

"Everyone knows everything," Ian says, "Everyone knows everything about everybody." You can hear the grumbling, discontent and frustration of Daniel's thoughts when he thinks:
In Detroit, nobody knew anything about anybody. They were too busy worrying about the Negroes who wanted to work side by side with the white people. They were too busy worrying about the color of their neighborhood and kids who couldn't play outside anymore. Nobody had time to care about someone like Father Flannery or why he was visiting on a Saturday afternoon. People in Kansas have nothing but time. That's what Mama says whenever Grandma Reese shows up without an invitation (86).
There are so many cues in this short paragraph. How frustrated Daniel is with his life from his time in Detroit and now. He's having to adjust to new social expectations and is literally seeing what his mother means with her statements about time. And there's a nod towards Daniel thinking his parents are too busy to pay attention to him like he needs them to. There's also the irony that adults worried so much about "Negroes" in Detroit, yet in Kansas they have no idea that their young son is across the street playing with a loaded weapon.

His parents, meanwhile, are adjusting to their new life as well. The only one not having much of a hard time is the eldest daughter who almost immediately finds a boyfriend. Then a young girl disappears which causes great stress for the parents. Celia is Arthur's wife:

While Celia tries to rein in her anger and frustration since Julianne disappeared, Arthur has unleashed his. His temper explodes without warning as if he thinks Julianne must have been careless, irresponsible, and that these two things led to her disappearance. He won't have the same happen to his children (52).

The tension in the story at that point makes you wonder if Arthur is going to snap. His sister was murdered twenty five years ago and it was shortly after that when Arthur left Kansas. Now he returns and a young girl goes missing. 

I could go on and on, but don't want to risk giving any spoilers, so I'll just say Bent Road is a great read and I'll stop talking about it. 


I am thrilled to offer Bent Road as the first giveaway that I'm running on WildmooBooks.

How to enter: simply leave a comment below to be entered to win one of two free copies courtesy of Plume/Penguin. Contest ends at midnight (CST) on July 18, 2012. Winners will be chosen randomly and contacted by me on July 19, 2012. Winners will have to provide me with a mailing address that I'll forward to the publisher who'll send the book directly to you. U.S. addresses only. Winners will have 48 hours to acknowledge their prize, after that the book will be offered to another randomly chosen winner.
Good luck!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Are you a book stacker?

For five years now I've been trying to organize and/or keep my home office clean. If admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery, I will do it here, publicly: My name is Chris and I'm a pack rat and a stacker. Especially when it comes to books.

I couldn't tell you what was in most of the stacks of paperwork and other detritus that had been sitting around the office, but the stacks of books . . . those I could tell you about. Sometimes they were small stacks, sometime large, but they each held a memory of where and when I acquired them: There were stacks of books purchased at various bookstores, library sales, on vacation, during a first visit to a lovely new bookstore, you-name-it.

Sometimes the stacks were simply overflow--my shelves were full and I didn't have space for the new arrivals. But I recently purged my shelves and kept only what I truly wanted and made room for future arrivals. Yet this book stacking behavior continued.

As of this writing, I am almost stack free. There's just one stack left, pictured above. Of the 112 books purged, this is what's left. I've already taken boxes of books to sell/trade to two different used bookstores, The Frugal Muse and Half Price Books. The stack in the picture has some ARCs (advance reader copies) in it and I'm always a little unsure what to do with those. Donate them to the friends of the library sale? I have come across bookstores (both new and used) selling ARCs and I have to say that makes me a little uncomfortable. Most of them say right on the cover: not for sale.


Let me tell you about a few of the last remaining stacks.

The Uncharted Books Stack
I recently visited Uncharted Books for the first time which was voted Chicago's Best New Bookstore by the Reader. What I brought home:
  • Willa Cather: Her Life and Art by James Woodress. This book, published in 1970, was the first "ebook" that I ever read. I put "ebook" in quotes because it was actually in the form of a Word document that I put on my Palm Pilot (remember those?) and read during breaks at work.
  • A Tide Water Morning by William Stryon. Because I love the Tide Water region.
  • New Cardiff by Charles Webb. The word Cardiff caught my eye because there was a scene in Cardiff in S.J. Bolton's novel Now You See Me, which I recently read. And the first few pages of New Cardiff pulled me in as I stood there reading it in front of the shelf from which I pulled it.
If you're in/near Chicago, check out Uncharted Books. I met Tanner, the friendly owner, and his adorable dog, Ramona. Uncharted Books is a smaller bookstore, but the fiction selection was very rich. Good LGBT non-fiction, biography, and writing sections, too.

The Powell's Stack
From last month's visit to Powell's in Portland:
  • Bram Stoker: A Bibliography of First Editions by Richard Dalby. This a small, but very cool book designed to help collectors identify first editions of Stoker's books (not that I'm such a collector, but a girl can dream).
  • The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker. I love Stoker.
  • Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis. I've wanted to read this one for some time now. Edith Lewis was Cather's friend/companion/partner (depending on who is doing the labeling) for over 40 years.
  • On The Good Life by Cicero. On my To Be Read list forever because I'm from Cicero, IL and I do like philosophy although I don't read near enough of it.
This was my second visit to Powell's. I was overwhelmed the first time and walked around in a drooling, dazed state. On this visit I was more prepared and had a few books in mind to look for and knew what sections I'd focus on, in order of priority, for the three hours I got to spend there. Every book lover should make at least one pilgrimage to Powell's.

The Case of the Three Year Old Stack
After the dismantling of stacks, purging of books, and reorganization of bookshelves, I noticed there still remained a small stack of four books on top of the file cabinet. These four books where purchased at three different bookstores in Alaska. In 2009. This stack of books has been kept together and moving to various perches around the office for three years.

These books are:
  • A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece edited by Jane Jacobs (purchased at Parnassus Books when it was on Creek Street)
  • The Blue Bear: A True Story of Friendship and Discovery in the Alaskan Wild by Lynn Schooler (grabbed at Rainy Retreat Books in Juneau just as they were closing)
  • Cold Water Burning and The Angels Will Not Care by John Straley (purchased at Old Harbor Books in Sitka)
Did I keep these books together to commemorate the trip? Or was it that they are books set-in Alaska and actually purchased in Alaska, a place so far away and remote and that still smacks of high adventure?

The idea of commemoration may be what my book stacking behavior was generally about. Maybe it was some sort of magical thinking, like that if I kept the books together that were purchased at a particular store, then that store would always be there, at least in my mind, it would never close.

I've started putting a sticky note with the purchase date and location on the inside cover of each new arrival. I'm hoping this will help me quickly shelve all new arrivals in their appropriate section on my organized shelves. Well, perhaps they can spend at least one day as a stack on my desk.

What do you do with new books that come into your home? Do they go straight onto your shelves? Or are you a stacker, too?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Professor's House: Book #7 Intro

First edition (pic from The Manhattan Rare Book Company)
Read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.

Our seventh novel of the challenge is The Professor's House. Read it over the next few weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, July 23rd. (This is the 4th, not 3rd, Monday of the month this time around. With the 1st falling on a Sunday and Independence Day on the 4th, I thought an extra week seemed warranted.)

About The Professor's House:
  • Cather started writing it in November 1923 after returning home from a six month visit to friends in France. She finished it in late 1924.
  • Serialized in Collier's beginning in June 1925.
  • Published in book form by Knopf in September 1925.
  • 20,000 copies were printed and the book sold for $2. The first edition pictured here is currently selling for $2,000.
From the Vintage Classics paperback:
A study in emotional dislocation and renewal--Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a man in his 50's, has achieved what would seem to be remarkable success. When called on to move to a more comfortable home, something in him rebels.

  • Sometimes difficult to find new, but I've been noticing copies available in used bookstores and, of course, in libraries.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.
  • Read it online via Project Gutenberg of Australia here.

The Professor's House is a novel that features a story within a story. Unlike O Pioneers! where two short stories were "mashed up" into one novel or My Antonia which is a series of stories within a narrative framework, Cather explained in 1938 that she had been experimenting with something different in this novel:
Cather with her nieces, July 1924 (Willa Cather Archive)
Just before I began the book I had seen, in Paris, an exhibition of old and modern Dutch paintings. In many of them the scene presented was a living-room warmly furnished, or a kitchen full of food and coppers. But in most of the interiors, whether drawing-room or kitchen, there was a square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships, or a stretch of grey. The feeling of the sea that one got through those square windows was remarkable, and gave me a sense of the fleets of Dutch ships that ply quietly on all the waters of the globe—to Java, etc.
In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour. (from Willa Cather On Writing, 31-32)
How does this experiment influence you as a reader? What does it make you feel? Does it seem organic to the story or artificial?

I'll share my thoughts on reading The Professor's House in a new post on Monday, July 23rd. At that time let's start our conversation--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place.

Happy Reading!
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