Category Archives: publishing

The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM (Ferris and Dexter, eds)

So this isn’t really a book you LIKE. It’s a book I personally read to see how writers handled the subject (a point in your life about which you are ashamed). I wanted to study them, from style to emotion to word choice.

Some of them handled it very well, and others left me feeling like the story they had to tell wasn’t the one they were telling.

This book is a collection of short stories/essays by women who have felt shame for something, ranging from divorce to making fun of people to being bad in school. The stories tend to focus on women who have influence and affluence (discovering her husband was having an affair, one writer lobbied his Emmy at his head, if that gives you an idea).  They’re not “on the ground” stories of not being able to provide, etc.

They’re also not as no-holds-barred as I was expecting as a whole, although in some cases they’re so intense that much is demanded of the reader. I read this book because Seal Press, who published it, have a great reputation for women authors with meat on their wordy skeletons. These women have things to say, and because I was dealing with a point in my own writing where shame came up, I wanted to see how they could do it graciously, conversationally, without justification or haranguing.

Well, some did and some didn’t, but when one reads for instruction and edification, one gets those things. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a sit-down and feel-good book. In fact, at the risk of sounding demeaning or facile, this is the kind of book one keeps in the smallest room in the house, and ponders piece by piece. To do otherwise might be overwhelming. I found that reading a chapter a night dragged me down, whereas a bit here, a bit there, with time to ponder and piece together ideas and smell the flowers between, was better for my mental health.

So this is less half-hearted endorsement than an upfront admission that I read this for personal reasons, to gain insight into good writers talking about bad stuff, and I got what I came for. If you’re not interested in how shame holds us, or you’re more interested in the inspirational side a la Brene Brown, you may not like this book. But it certainly got interesting.

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The Monday Bo0k: 29 GIFTS by Cami Walker

Walker’s memoir tells her story of being diagnosed with MS about 15 years after she could have been, and what changes it brought to her life. She had a medical emergency that became her diagnosis just a month after getting married.

This book first lays the groundwork for the 29 days: her spiritual advisor suggested she take this giving approach and talked her through some of the dos and don’ts – like giving out of abundance mentally and emotionally, not out of desperation. The groundwork is pretty interesting.

Then she goes day by day through the gifts, from a quarter for a parking meter to flowers for strangers on the street to seashells on the seashore. The gifts don’t tend to be large, but her analysis of what they did for her, what’s going on around her that day, etc. fall into something of a pattern.

This makes the book good for bedside reading, or casual dipping in and out. The gifts and the interactions with people around her are charming, and insightful in some cases. Those with MS or dealing with any loved one learning new lifestyle limitations due to illness, will probably see deeper meanings than casual readers.

Those looking for a feel-good gift for someone coping with a new diagnosis, or just a book for your bedside table to satisfy casual evening reading, would find that 29-gifts29 Gifts is a good choice.

 

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The Monday Book: MALLED by Caitlin Kelly

malled.pngWhile transferring our memoir section between bookstore shelves, this cover caught my eye so I packed it along on my last business trip. This book is informative but not narrative. Lots and lots of information, not a lot of storytelling.

Kelly is a journalist who has worked for some great papers, but her financial situation in this print downturn forced her to get a second job. So she what writers do when you’re in a situation you’re not sure you want to be in: redeem it by writing about it.

The info is intense, but it pops out in a journalistic style, and the narrative isn’t a story, but a human interest article. While I’m glad I read MALLED it’s not a book driven by character or plot; it’s statistics changed into a word flow so as not to scare us. I’m not a stats person and I would never have gotten this info had it not been for Kelley’s careful compiling and trying to make it work for word people. Kudos to her for this!

MALLED is a nice weekend read, but it will probably make you angry. Retail work is scut work, as all of us who got Christmas jobs or summer mall work know. There’s not much more to say than, avoid it if you can. Which Kelly does pretty well.

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The Monday Book: WAFFLE STREET by James Adams

True confession: I found this book from the movie. During my recent writing retreat in Florida, I was looking for “mindless entertainment” to fall asleep by. With my trusty laptop propped on my stomach, I surfed Netflix, and found that people who liked The Big Short tended to watch Waffle Street.

Fair enough; I wasn’t looking for much. What I got was way beyond expectations. The heartwarming story of white guys finding redemption in places they wouldn’t normally hang out (a la that Starbucks saved my life book and all) turned out to be something between a financial handbook for dummies and a quirky character sketchlist for small towns. I loved the film and the book.

A lot of the really good explanations of financial stuff (using chickens and waffles) fell out of the movie, but when you find out that James’ best friend at the restaurant was an ex-con grill cook, you have all the straight man set-up you need for the best lines ever about financial misconduct.

The book is heartwarming, sadly, but it’s also that wee bit unpredictable. Adams’ wife isn’t the sweet supportive pushover the movie makes her out to be. The restaurant owner isn’t a self-made down home boy. Throw in the crazy lady who keeps counting change to buy her favorite waffle, the evil midlevel manager who turns out to be human, and a few other stock characters who don’t quite fulfill their archtypes due to a few surprise moves, and pour syrup over the top – but lite syrup. Neither movie nor book are sticky with sentiment.

I did feel a twinge or two, reading the the book, that Adams was describing without solving. He isn’t saying “fight the system.” He’s saying “wow, look how funny the system is.”

He’s probably right about not wasting energy. Two pancake turners up for Waffle Street. waffle-street

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The Monday Book: THE DOG MERCHANTS by Kim Kavin

dog-merchantsKavin wrote Little Boy Blue, the story of acquiring her puppy and tracing his trail from her house back to how he became a rescue dog. I could not bring myself to read this book for a long time, and I’m still inching my way through it. It is not for the faint of heart.

But Kavin’s journalistic style is well-suited to the one-step-removed-personally nature of THE DOG MERCHANTS, which investigates the big business of dogs in breeding, buying, and rescue. Yes, rescues can be big businesses. In fact, big businesses pit some rescuers against breeders in order to ensure dogs are big business. That’s just one of the many stories Kavin uncovers in her research.

Kavin’s style of writing, like that of any good journalist, disappears inside her subject. A book one reads for the information it contains rather than its fine writing, Kavin nevertheless is a fine writer. So good that she gets out of the way and lets her story tell itself.

One reviewer said DOG MERCHANTS would become The Omnivore’s Dilemma for pet lovers. This is pretty apt; if you read this book, you’re going to look at your puppy, and your friends’ puppies, the same way you started looking at diamond wedding rings – yours or anyone else’s – once Blood Diamonds had enough publicity.

But this book is not all doom and gloom and “you don’t want to know” voyeurism. Kavin lays out some compelling arguments for how to make things better, and some hopeful stories of how they are becoming so. More for information than entertainment, THE DOG MERCHANTS will leave you changed. Educated. Perhaps even motivated for more change.

I don’t often warn people off reading books, but I will tell you, you might not want to read this one unless you’re ready. The mysteries of dog business are deep and ugly. Be prepared to become the person others edge away from at parties. The next time you ask a friend where they got their dog, you might mean something different.

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The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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