Monday, April 28, 2014

Did I just... Yes, I did just say that

Three books I'm excited the kids section got in:

1. It's An Orange Aardvark by Michael Hall
I giggled the entire time I read this book. It delights me with how absurd it is.

2. Beauty and the Beast by Ursula Jones
The illustrations in this book are a wonderful mix of paper cut silhouettes and beautifully simple art illustrations.

3. Lulu's Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst
I love Lulu and her adventures with both the brontosaurus and the dogs. Just flipping through this one I was laughing.

"You're a troublesome wee beastie!"

That is a phrase that I snapped at my roommate's cat the other day. Almost instantly I stopped, startled that the phrase had come out of my mouth. That's not exactly common Amy-lingo. Not as far off as a lot of things but not an everyday occurrence. I was even more startled to find that I'd been thinking in language like that for longer than I'd realized.

The thing is, I know exactly where I got it. The book series I'm currently reading as a number of Scottish main characters. Phrases like that are not sparse. And as embroiled as I've been in the books they've just sort of taken up residence in my head.

And, as surprised as I was, it's not the first time something like this has happened.
A Couple of years ago I listened to the Beautiful Creatures audio book on my way to and from work. A couple of days in I was thinking in a Southern accent like the narrator. I'm really not good with accents when speaking but apparently I don't have this problem in my head. Mental Amy was from Gatlin, South Carolina for a few weeks.

I apparently went through a distinctly snarky phase after reading Michelle Hodkin's The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. I'm pretty sarcastic in general but Mara has me beat by a mile. I got more than one eyebrow raise from my equally-as-sarcastic mom. But Mara's voice lingered in my head so my instinctual response to everything was my own sarcasm only dialed up to 12.

There is one line in Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series where Neal greets everyone by saying "hello, ducks." I have been saying that since I read that series in middle school. I never made the conscious decision to do so and I don't even notice when I do it anymore.

It's never a decision to adopt the language of characters that I'm reading (or hearing) but it happens. I haven't yet figured out what it is about certain books that sticks in my head like that. Some of it, I'm sure, is just prolonged exposure but that doesn't account for all of it. Maybe one day I'll figure it out but right now, I'll just keep adopting a strange assortment of slang and accents.


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


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 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 many exciting books...

1. Noggin by John Corey Whaley
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.


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.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Norton Juster is a rock star.

I arrived at the Boston Public Library about an hour early to hear Norton Juster, a children's author best known for a gentle 1961 fantasy called The Phantom Tollbooth. I was seventh in line. I was not the oldest one there, nor was I primarily surrounded by people in the children's book biz (though plenty of them soon joined the line). Several generations of Juster's fans eventually filled the lecture hall, abuzz with twenty-, thirty-, forty-year-old memories of discovering his work and with plans to hand signed copies to children and grandchildren.

Juster, in conversation with Megan Lambert, showed off a sense of humor that echoed a nearly-bygone generation of comedy (think Mel Brooks or Rodney Dangerfield). But amid all the friendly pot-shots at himself was a sense of wonder, of joy in the realization that everything we learn is connected. In particular, he exuded wonder in wordplay (punder, if you will). Much as we all enjoyed Juster's answers to Lambert's questions, he had three pun-laden passages to read from TPT, and until he got those puns out, he cut every tangent short with a "but let's get back to the story."

As often happens in Q&A sessions (am I right, events team?), many of the audience members began their questions with comments. And by "comments," I mean "gushing." Everyone had stories of growing up with Milo or of sharing his adventures with children. One mom said that her seventeen-year-old daughter had read TPT recently and had asked her to share that it had made her less "jaded."

So what is it about this book? I think its core lies in the title of Chapter 9: "It's All in How You Look at Things." Milo sees life as boring until he encounters new ways of looking at words, numbers, sight, sound, height, hunger, rhyme, and reason. Juster looked at The Phantom Tollbooth as a way to put off a more technical writing project. And I look at Norton Juster as a rock star.

Check out the BPL's Lowell Lecture Series here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Discovering New Old Favourites

Sometimes, I forget how much I love an author until they come out with a new book. There are some (I’m looking at you, Maggie Stiefvater and Margaret Atwood) whose book news is downloaded into my brain – checking constantly for updates on their newest publications and looking for things I haven’t yet read. Some, however, linger in the back of my mind - favourites whose appearances on the bookshelves aren’t anticipated, but are sweeter in their surprise.

 A couple of days ago, I got one of those surprises. Bart Ehrman, probably best known for his books Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem, has a new book out called How Jesus Became God. It deals with the transformation of Jesus Christ from Jewish prophet to god figure. Bart Ehrman was an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian whose faith was challenged by going to Princeton seminary and who now identifies himself as agnostic. There are few authors, however, who handle the conflicting needs of being true to the problematic original texts and sensitive to the faith of believers in such an astute manner.

 I became a religious studies major in college because of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, but I stayed in that field because of authors like Ehrman. He writes books that challenge the ways both faithful and non-believers read the Bible. He asks the reader to reexamine their long held assumptions about the Bible and the origins of Christianity. When Bart Ehrman starts explaining how minor typos or unreadable notations change the way Christianity is practiced, I can’t help but be absorbed. The presence of one smudge in the original texts that might be a dot signifying a vowel has created the significant debate about whether Jesus is God or is of God. One dot! Fifteen hundred years of debate and schism is because of one tiny smudge, which I think is just fascinating.

Now, I’ll admit, his books have the distinct whiff of academia, however, I consider them onramps for people who haven’t studied in this field. They present popular, well-researched theories in theology without being radical in their representation. His books are accessible, but meant to be springboards to further reading. The indices and bibliographies of his books are almost book length themselves.

 I can’t wait to curl up with this book and really delve into the intricacies of faith with Ehrman. By the end of it, I’m sure I’ll have a long list of new books to read. He may even make me change my mind about what I want to study in grad school. He sure did in college.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Destination of the Month: Greece

Like lots of precocious teenagers, I too had a Nietzsche phase. I even obsessively read The Birth of Tragedy, his first one, much milder than his later tracts and ostensibly his jumping off point from philology to his own brand of philosophy. The book likes to hammer home the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian arts - that is the "plastic" arts like sculpture and its opposite arts like music and poetry that came afterward and celebrate the more unconscious frenzied and liberated side of things. It is the opinion of your humble narrator that this dichotomy exists in all the best stories. "Beauty and the Beast." Jane Eyre. Narcissus and Goldmund. Lady Chatterley's Lover. Brothers Karamazov. And Zorba the Greek, one of my favorites of all time is no exception. (Though Zorba is from Crete and not exactly Greek I have to mention. But Aristotle is Macedonian, so I say Greek is a state of mind, man, live and let live). Zorba is a refreshing, effervescent novel, a shot of ouzo with a hint of lemon on a beautiful beach. It's a love letter to life, and to enjoying one's work and seizing the moment, and if there's anything that this long winter, now finally fading has taught us hardy New Englanders is to be like Zorba's foil Basil and run for the sun! Enjoy it while it lasts! So stop by and get inspired to see the ruins of the Delphic oracle, find true happiness in Aristotle, learn to ask for saganaki in Greek or meander your own maze sans minotaur, and let Kazantzakis be your oracle for a fantastic new adventure:
“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.” -Zorba the Greek

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

A few weeks ago, I finished teaching a ten week fiction workshop at Grub Street. The class met every Wednesday night, from early January until mid-March, an extra week tacked on at the end due to a canceled class during one of the storms. I have been teaching for a couple of years now, and I've noticed that teaching three hours once a week for ten weeks makes me acutely aware of time. As the instructor I had to divide our three hour sessions into 40 minute intervals, each interval focused on discussion of a student's story, and then those 40 minutes were split in half so the student being workshopped could redirect our conversation. I began to count Wednesdays as numbered weeks. Week 1, Intro to Workshop, Week 2, Characterization, Week 3, Plot - until the weeks began to take on the color of whatever craft element we were discussing: stranger's quirks became character traits, conversations overheard on trains examples of direct dialogue. And then there was the season. What a winter to teach. But as each week passed by I noticed that the sun lingered a bit longer. First, accompanying on my walk, then waiting with me for the bus, eventually trailing me up Boylston Street on my way into class. Pretty soon it was spring, no major snow storms were forecasted, and I had to send twelve people back out into the world hopefully a little wiser about writing fiction.

I bring up time because nearly every workshop the question came up - how do you find the time to write? when do you write? Predicting this question, I tried something new. Periodically throughout the course, I assigned excerpts from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

Natalie Goldberg preaches only one thing in Writing Down the Bones: writing practice. To her, writing practice is like a warm-up. Timed writing sessions where you don't lift your pen, where you don't pause to think, where you just let the act of writing - of translating thoughts to page, of shifting what is in your mind to your hand and onto a piece of paper - take over.

Goldberg spends the first few chapters discussing writing practice and then the rest of the book contains two-three page personal essays about her own experience with writing. In that way, Writing Down the Bones is less of a guide and more like a companion. She's become my friend this past year, as I try to steal hours away for my own work. I have this enormous desk. It's a dining table, really, that my husband and I bought at a thrift shop down the street and then hauled up and down our hill to our apartment. I love having a big desk, and on it I have short stacks of books for research, for inspiration, scribbles, stories and essays covered in red ink.  Those mornings when I'm sitting at my desk, tempted by the novel that I'm currently reading (reading is my favorite form of procrastination), I instead reach for Writing Down the Bones. Almost every time, I put the book down after reading less than ten pages and start with my daily writing practice. 

I'm not sure why, after all these years, she's the one who gets me to the page faster than anyone else. Maybe it's how she talks about filling spiral notebooks with writing. Spiral notebooks - the kind that you get at the supermarket during back to school shopping, with cartoon covers. She doesn't take herself too seriously, or what comes out during practice too seriously, because it's about "keeping in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running." Or maybe it's because she answers that question about when and how do you write most simply: you just do it, you find the time, you make the time, and if all you can give is 15 minutes that day then make them a good, focused, fifteen minutes. Her style and method are not for everyone. But there are plenty of books on writing for all different styles of writer. And, if you're a (struggling) (young) writer, I think it's important to find that book. Ultimately, when you're alone at your desk, they will be the sole advocate for what you're doing, the only book that will encourage you, gently, to put them down and to pick up your pen.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Coolidge Corner is full of pedestrians, and I'm one of them. After being born and raised in suburbia, this ability to walk everywhere is a delight. Every day I run into someone I know, whether it be on my way to work, at the coffee shop, or when I'm getting a sandwich. I know you, you know me, we keep an eye out for one another. This is a very tangible community, and I'm glad to do my part in keeping it that way. 

During yesterday's event with Boston Globe's Scott Helman and Jenna Russell, I was standing next to one of our event coordinators and looking out at the crowd. It was a little after 7, and Katie was waiting for the right moment to start. I was getting worried because one of our regular event attendees, a polite older gentleman, hadn't shown up yet. He had sworn he would attend, and I asked her to wait a little bit longer. A few minutes later, we heard footsteps on the stairs and there he was. Katie started the event, no one was the wiser, I breathed a sigh of relief.