Thursday, April 24, 2014

On AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you were to ask the question “what is Americanah about?” you’d get a list of broad ideas – Americanah is a book about race, about love, about the immigrant experience. And you should read Americanah for the characters' take on those subjects. The novel's protagonists, Obinze and Ifemelu, are sharply observant, turning everyday occurrences - conversation at dinner, two neighbors sitting on a porch, a couple of flipping through fashion magazines, and even a woman going to the salon - into fascinating scenes. Every day, on the train, browsing at a bookstore, you are among people who you know almost nothing about, who have had vastly different experiences than you and who are carrying the weight of their day, of their emotions. Interacting with strangers is always a practice in empathy. And after reading Americanah I was reminded how when you lack certain tools, like a common language, talking to the person behind you in line at the grocery store can be a very tense moment, full of misunderstanding.

***

I was talking to an old friend the other day. We were close friends through our teenage years, our college years, and we had recently drifted apart. During our conversation she jokingly referred to her friend’s house as a place she liked to think of as her “country home.” That phrase struck me, the term “country home” one I once knew but no longer heard regularly. Her use of that phrase was evidence of how differently we now perceived the world, how we no longer really shared a common language.

I told that story to my friend Liz and she said it reminded her of this scene in Americanah. Obinze, new to England and uncertain of his future there, visits a friend, Emenike, who he had grown up with in Nigeria. Obinze is at Emenike's house attending one of his fancy dinner parties and is uncomfortable by his friend's showy wealth. He makes this observation:

"...When Phillip complained about the French couple building a house next to his in Cornwall, Emenike asked, "Are they between you and the sunset?"
            Are they between you and the sunset? It would never occur to Obinze, or to anybody he had grown up with, to ask a question like that."

This dinner exchange gets at what I think Americanah is really about, which is something broad yet universal: the longing for connection. Obinze and Emenike grew up in the same city and went to the same school. They shared references, a place, and a language, and for Emenike, his language was what he consciously changed about himself when he moved to the UK.  It was how he decided to separate himself from what he was and take him closer to who he wanted to be. Obinze and the novel's other main character, Ifemelu, are childhood sweethearts and after they part, they suffer various disconnects with the new people they meet. But most painful are the times when they are with someone from home, someone who they feel will finally understand them, only to realize that growing up and moving away has changed them.

At the start of the novel Ifemelu, who has been living in the US for a number of years, decides to return home to Nigeria, where Obinze now lives. But it isn't until much later in the novel that Ifemelu deals with getting on that plane home. The middle of the book takes you back in time, and you get to know and love Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple and then as individuals. As they navigate adulthood in new countries, their sharp observations about daily life keep each page interesting, but it is the promise of their reunion, their longing for the one person they truly connect with, that keeps you reading through to the end.

I finished Americanah last week, stretching the last seventy-five pages in a way I've not stretched the last seventy-five pages of a novel before. I did not want it to end. Americanah is one of those rare books that is smart and topical and also a love story. And it's one of those rare books that becomes its own point of reference, that deepens the way you look at strangers and friends.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Moore-mania

I've loved the work of Christopher Moore for years. I remember reading Fluke in the summer between high school and college, not sure what to make of it but also being astounded that you can write that in a book and get away with it. Absurd, glorious, bawdy--I thought it was all fantastic.

As a full-fledged adult, I've been lucky enough to meet Christopher Moore and even luckier to meet his legion of equally irrelevant fans. They've made bad jokes and I've made worse jokes, but it makes me love them all even more. Over the years I've collected bits and pieces of publisher-distributed Christopher Moore paraphernalia: bookmarks, a Fool t-shirt, a poster with the cover of Sacré Bleu. Yesterday morning, though, I found my favorite Chris Moore item, a three-pair of stockings sent to me from the man himself.

Christopher Moore-commissioned stockings, a copy of The Serpent of Venice, and a little gnome just because.
We have a whole box of them, which Chris will be randomly distributing during the event. Want some of your own? Well, get your tickets at brooklinebooksmith.com/tickets and head to Coolidge Corner on May 7. You'll know you're there when you find yourself among a legion of rabid fans, all wearing thigh-high stockings and clutching their own copy of The Serpent of Venice.

Monday, April 21, 2014

There's one thing on all our minds today.

 

Happy Marathon Monday from the kids' section and from all of us at Booksmith.
 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Everyone loves to get something in the mail

Two of my best friends (April and Steph) live in the UK. We don’t see or call each other very often, for fairly obvious reasons, but we’ve developed a love of sending packages. We write short emails or Facebook posts to each other, but more often than not, they’re quick “Hey – did you get my letter yet?” We scour stationery stores and thrift stores for fun things to add to our next box (the card and gift room has helped on a number of occasions – my friends love the Slap Happy cards I send). I’ve taken it to a whole new nerd level by purchasing a wax stamp to hold each of my letters closed and writing with fancy pens. But most importantly, we send books.

Right after graduating college, I experienced the all too common “Well, now what?” that most people that age do. I started doing yoga as a way to get out of the house and maybe get some exercise. My yoga teacher recommended a book she had read called Real Happiness, which helped ease some of my frustrations and fears. I sent April a copy right after I finished reading it and she experienced the same sort of relief. When Sharon Salzberg came to the store earlier this year, I had her sign a copy of her new book for April and grabbed a copy of Real Happiness for Steph. April sent me a beautiful print of a poem by Hafiz when I confessed my lack of direction and Steph followed up with some Neruda.

Steph is an artist. She puts postcards of her latest art shows in her packages and her letters are almost always on sketch paper with doodles in corners, sometimes obscuring the words entirely. I keep meaning to frame them. She sends books by authors I barely know whose names I can’t pronounce – Milosz, Szymborska, Akhmatova. I send her Man Ray necklaces, pamphlets from local art shows, and The Art Forger.

We send childhood favourites. I was absolutely aghast that April had never read A Wrinkle in Time, so I sent her my copy. She in return couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of the Just William series and so sent me one of hers. April is studying music in grad school and plays the harp, so I sent her a copy of Maggie Stiefwater’s Lament, about a young harpist (and some homicidal faeries). I just found out that Steph never read any E.B. White, so she’ll be getting Charlotte’s Web in her next package.

There’s just something about getting a well-loved copy of a book from a friend. Knowing that it’s changed the life of someone you love and who loves you makes the reading experience different. There’s also something special about knowing that you are the reason that someone is delving into a world for the first time. We inspire each other to be better women, better artists, better readers. I can’t wait to see what I get in my next box. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In Three Bookmarks

After lugging my borrowed copy through four countries, I finally finished The Goldfinch just in time for its Pulitzer Prize win. I borrowed it from Lydia, who borrowed it from Natasha, who had grabbed a galley copy of the book over a year ago. It has been loved, very, very loved, with three bookmarks, unintentionally bent pages and all.



Bookmark #1

When I was in Boston Logan waiting for my first of (too) many flights, I opened the book and discovered this bookmark on page 37, holding Lydia's page. It was made by the insanely talented Julia while she had a broken arm, and I'm not surprised that while wobbly, the entire image is legible! I'm happy to say Julia is completely healed (yes, it took me that long to finish this book) and is in tip top shape. I used it for my bookmark for a little bit, until I realized that meant Lydia would be at a loss when I returned the book.



Bookmark #2

I have to go to bookstores wherever I go. In Jakarta, I was attempting to navigate a mall with a friend and extremely limited knowledge of Bahasa (terima kasih!) when we happened upon a machine next to the mall directory. After using the touch screen to type out 'book,' out came this slip with very careful directions to the closest bookstore.  I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a touch screen in my life. This slip of paper made me so delighted, and in my desire to keep it forever I put it in the safest place I knew--the book I was currently reading.


Bookmark #3

Once I had gotten back to Boston, I put The Goldfinch on my kitchen table in an attempt to read it during breakfast. Almost immediately my roommate noticed and mentioned that she wanted to read it, so we started reading it in tandem. It was fun to see our respective bookmarks jump ahead bit by bit.

My roommate's bookmark of choice is a Brookline Booksmith bookmark (of course), continually supplied by me.


I'm glad to part from it. I have held this book in my hands, used it as a pillow among a sea of airport sleepers, been furious at myself for carrying a four-pound book with me when I am notorious for going over my luggage weight--in short, spent more than enough time with it. The Goldfinch is now safely nestled in Lydia's box, sans duct tape, ready to be read again.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Perseverance of Faeries

First books...so many exciting books...

1. Noggin by John Corey Whaley
IT'S HERE!
Before I say something about this book there are two things you should know about me:
1. I am not a Boston native. 2. I don't have a smartphone so I get around by walking around with Googlemaps directions written on post-it notes. If I get lost I can't easily find my way out. This makes me extra neurotic about knowing where I am.
I was so caught up reading this book I got on the wrong train, going the wrong direction.While not the most egregious error, it's pretty notable for me. This book is AMAZING.

2. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
The conclusion to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Do I need to say anything else?

3. Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
This book is adorable. It doesn't hurt that Beekle looks like an Adipose. But my favorite is the Day-of-the-Dead-looking Octopus.

There have been a number of trends in the YA book world. Some of them are noticeably big. Some of them are thought to be "the next big thing" but never quite make it. Others are a constant stream through the YA world that never really seem to make a huge splash, even if they're always there.

One of these undercurrents that I've always loved are the faerie books. Faeries have made appearances in popular series and even have quite a few of their own.

They've always seemed like such an obvious choice of topic to write about. There's so much myth and legend readily available to play around with that I've always felt like there should be more books that utilize it. I think it's easy for people to dismiss the idea of faeries as little balls of light with wings and flower skirts, or even the little fiery pixies like Tinkerbell. But the faeries of myth of dark, bitter, blood-splattered things .

In many traditional stories these creatures are cold and cruel. They can't lie so they play games with people, revealing truths in ways that hurt others. They're tricksters. They steal children and replace them with faerie children.

This sort of dark, cynical cruelty is right up the alley of the sort of stories that are popular now.

That careful, tense, knife-edged diplomacy that's become so big in response to Game of Thrones' popularity can be easily transferred to the Seelie and Unseelie (roughly, light and dark) or season based faerie courts. The relationships between these courts are always strained, at best.

The eternally attempted retellings are often seen in alterations or flat revamps of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. And as big as mythology and folklore is now there are plenty of other books that just explore the Celtic ideas of the fae. The trickster ways and the old lore of how they are warded against, or summoned, or controlled.

There's so much material to work with and so many amazing things that people can do with it and I've read some really awesome and original work.

Some of my favorites are:
Holly Black's Modern Faerie Tales (Tithe, Valiant, Ironside) Heavily involved in the politics of the Seelie and Unseelie courts and how lore impacts faerie/human relationships

Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series. (Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange, Fragile Eternity, Radiant Shadows, Darkest Mercy) Season bases courts and politics.

Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series (Iron King, Iron Daughter, Iron Queen, Iron Knight) Season based courts with a definite twist and some Shakespeare thrown in for good measure (I mean, Puck is in it! You can never go wrong with Puck).

O.R. Melling's Chronicles of Faerie (Hunter's Moon, Summer King, Light-bearer's Daughter, Book of Dreams). Heavily based on different Celtic myths and lores.

Maggie Stiefvater's Books of Faerie (Lament and Ballad) Lesser known Celtic myths with a music twist.

Leslie Livingston's Wondrous Strange series (Wondrous Strange, Darklight, Tempestuous) Some season courts, mostly Shakespeare.

All of these books are such different tones and utilize such different parts of the faerie lore. At the same time they've all a darkness to them that I think appeals to readers right now.

I'd love to see Faerie books really get their chance to rise and show people just how amazing they are.

-Amy




Friday, April 11, 2014

The German Word for That Permanent Expression on Jason Segel's Face

By now most of the internet has seen the on-set snaps of Jason Segel costumed for his role as David Foster Wallace in the upcoming film adaptation of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Things look awkward to say the least, so let's get the requisite nail-biting and seat-squirming out of the way now.
Photo credit Vanessa Andrade
I tend to agree with George Lazenby on this one:
If I wanted to design a personal hell for David Foster Wallace, I would
  • summon a golem from the ashes of his strangled body,
  • put a $ on its forehead,
  • deprive it of the third dimension,
  • reduce it to a quaking shadow,
  • and project it on screen after screen after screen,
  • to prop up a road movie with the kid from facebook.
BUT since so much of DFW's work struggles against the modern tendency toward bitter cynicism and ironic detachment, I'll reserve judgement on this one until it hits the box office.

Haven't read DFW yet? Most (all) people start with (and quickly give up on) Infinite Jest, the author's 1,100+ page opus. Our staff STRONGLY recommends you instead try A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - the author's best essay collection is every bit as brilliant and biting as his fiction, and much shorter.