The Vacationers

18641982The Vacationers
Emma Straub
Published May 29, 2014
292 pages (hardcover)

The leaves are turning, the days are sunny but cool and breezy, the evenings are crisp. Perky pansies and magnificent mums are blooming everywhere. Spooky jack-o-lanterns decorate the stoops of every house in the neighborhood. And I have been indulging in pumpkin-spice lattes and pumpkin doughnuts and pumpkin-spice martinis and Pumpkin Pie Blizzards.

Fall is my favorite. And it’s finally here! Hooray!!

And, yet, I just made a rookie mistake. I’d had a hold at the library on Emma Straub’s debut novel, The Vacationers, since June, and, last week, it finally became available. In an incredibly untimely move, I decided to go ahead and read it.

Take one gander at this book’s cover, and you will rightly surmise that this is the quintessential summer book. Need further proof? Scan any “best of” list from this past summer, and The Vacationers is bound to be on the list (I’ve included a smattering in “the hype” section below to give you a taste). Continue reading

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Land of Love and Drowning

9781594488337_custom-c4ee149dfb87d33a5d20818ae98fde2c0a193b22-s99-c85Land of Love and Drowning
Tiphanie Yanique
Published July 10, 2014
355 pages (hardcover)

The other day, my mom remarked that I’ve been giving a lot of books high ratings lately. She’s right. In the last month or so, I’ve given a 4/5 to The Girls from Corona del Mar, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, and Americanah. She jokingly questioned whether I had gotten soft.

So, what’s the deal? Have I been in an exceptionally good mood and feeling generous lately? Perhaps. But my rating for each of those books has since been confirmed by people who read the posts and subsequently read the books (thanks Erin, Shana, and Tina, respectively!). I’m inclined to think, therefore, that I’ve just been having some really good luck with some really good books lately.

Land of Love and Drowning continues that streak. When I finished reading it, I was a bit concerned about giving a 4/5 to yet another book. For me, a 4/5 can only be achieved by a really good book—a book that is not only exceptionally well written, but also one that has a big impact on me (it either makes me think a lot or feel a lot or both)–and I certainly don’t want that rating to get diluted or seem easy to achieve. But, after ruminating on it for a bit, I decided that I had to give this book a 4/5. It deserves it. Continue reading

The Queen of the Tearling

UnknownThe Queen of the Tearling
Erika Johansen
Published July 8, 2014
434 pages (hardcover)

As a general rule, it’s fair to say that I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy as a genre. It tends to be too long and drawn out, overly complicated, and requires too much suspension of disbelief.

That said, I do make exceptions. For example, I have seen every episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. But I draw the line at reading the books. Honestly, I’d rather listen to South Park’s “A Song of Ass and Fire” for a day straight than read the GoT books.

Why am I so opposed to reading Game of Thrones? Continue reading

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line

UnknownSous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
Michael Gibney
Published March 25, 2014
210 pages (hardcover)

On Friday night, Bryan and I had some friends visit from out of town. These friends appreciate good food and wanted to go somewhere fun, so we took them to Gunshow. Gunshow is Chef Kevin Gillespie’s (you may have seen him beat Art Smith on this episode of Top Chef Duels) restaurant in Atlanta. But it’s not a typical dining experience. Here’s how it is described on the website:

Inspired by Brazilian churrascaria-style dining and Chinese dim sum, Gillespie combined the two for a decidedly fun and delicious result. Dishes are presented on rolling carts and trays to diners at their tables where they can then choose what to order.

A team of chefs works in a very open kitchen mere feet from the closest dining table. Each chef prepares his or her own dishes and, once prepared, brings them out of the kitchen. The chef approaches a group of diners, shows off a beautifully prepared dish, and explains its components and preparation.photo-24 If the diners think it looks and sounds good, they keep the dish; if not, the chef moves on to the next group of diners and tries to entice them.

Gunshow, with its open kitchen and personal interaction with the chefs, helps debunk some of the mystery of how restaurant food goes from raw ingredients to the complex and delicious dishes that arrive on your table. But it’s pretty easy to see that the Gunshow chefs’ experience is not the norm. They are not working together to ensure the perfect timing of a certain table’s order or cooking meat to specific temperatures or dealing with substitutions or special requests. They work individually on their own dishes at their own pace. You get the feeling that what they’re doing might be a little easier and calmer than what a typical restaurant chef does on a normal night. Continue reading

The Cure for Dreaming

20702018The Cure for Dreaming
Cat Winters
Released October 14, 2014
354 pages (ARC e-book)

About fifteen years ago, my mom and stepdad took my brother, stepsister, and me on a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Grand Princess (which, at the time, was the largest cruise ship in the world). We had never cruised before, but we discovered very quickly that we were very good at it. We toured during the day (the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Acropolis in Athens, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona) and gambled, partied, and generally raised a ruckus at night. Every evening, we scoured the next day’s list of cheesy cruise-ship activities and planned accordingly. We entered a Pictionary competition (my “nose job” drawing remains legendary to this day), we ruled at trivia, we sang karaoke, we played bingo. And, one evening, we decided to check out the hypnotist’s show.

The show began with the hypnotist asking for volunteers to come on stage to be hypnotized as part of the show. When my stepsister raised her hand, my brother and I went crazy. At that age, my brother (John) and I had no qualms being loud and obnoxious. My stepsister, Lindsay, on the other hand, was a little quieter and more reserved. She was every bit as hilarious and ridiculous . . . she was just a little more polite about it. So, my brother and I were surprised that she was volunteering to go on stage in front of a roomful of hundreds of her fellow cruise passengers. And we were determined to make it happen. We whooped and pointed and screamed, “Pick her! Pick her!” And pick her he did. Continue reading

The Girls from Corona del Mar

18518285The Girls from Corona del Mar
Rufi Thorpe
Published July 8, 2014
242 pages (hardcover)

When I was three or four, I got in a fistfight with my best friend during Sunday School. Her mom was the church organist; my dad was the preacher. It was scandalous, unladylike, un-Christian behavior. But we were pissed, and that seemed like the best way to resolve it.

I’m certainly not suggesting that fistfights are the best way to handle problems with your BFF. As we get older, we learn that communication resolves conflicts in a more reasonable (and, usually, more satisfactory) manner. I simply relay this story to illustrate that female friendships aren’t all rainbows and walks in the park. They are fulfilling and hilarious and amazing, yes, but they are also messy and complicated. There are spats—triggered by jealousy or selfishness or flippancy. There are Mean Girl moments and ­­­betrayals and the occasional Sunday-School fistfight. Sometimes these emotional peaks and valleys make a friendship stronger; other times, they are just too much for a friendship to endure.

Largely, books about female friendship don’t capture these complexities. They tend to be chick-lit fluff that focus on the joys and minimalize the hardships. But there are exceptions, and Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, is a standout. It is a book in which “female friendship gets its literary due” (or so says Vogue). Continue reading

Kids Make Author Readings Way More Fun: An Evening with B.J. Novak

I have been to a number of book readings in my day. They are usually fairly staid affairs. The author reads an excerpt using his or her best read-aloud voice, all the correct inflection, and just the right amount of feeling. The audience listens raptly, chuckling good-naturedly when appropriate, nodding respectfully in agreement at all the poignant parts, and otherwise just smiling attentively. When the reading is complete, the author takes questions. “Tell us about your method. Do you have a writing routine?” someone will ask. Or: “Who are your inspirations?” All in all, author readings are predictably calm affairs.

This past Tuesday, however, I went to a very different kind of reading. B.J. Novak, of The Office and The Mindy Project fame, was in town. He is the author of One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, which I reviewed in March, shortly after it was released. But this reading was to promote his new book, The Book with No Pictures, which came out last Tuesday. Continue reading