Saturday, January 31, 2009

Between Books...

It's nice when the literary stars align so that you finish one book and the next one is right there waving its hand wildly in the air saying, "Pick me! Pick me!" But just as often (probably more often) you finish your book with a satisfied sigh, look up to find the next one, and...nothing. Crickets...crickets... 

It's a listless feeling, this whole drama of being between books. 

The picture above shows the current state of my coffee table. Those piles are the direct result of this Between Books Phenomenon. I've been wandering around my apartment for days, picking up books and then ultimately abandoning them. I imagine the books quietly consoling each other, "'s ok. It's just not your time quite yet. She'll be back."

It would help if I knew what I was looking for, but it's an ineffable feeling, isn't it? The last book I read was Origin by Diana Abu-jaber, which was a fairly action packed thriller that had me biting my nails until the very end. Finishing it was a rush of adrenaline and relief. I have a feeling that I need something a little calmer for my next book, but equally gripping. Plus, life has been stressful lately (as it's been for many of us, I think) and I'd like a book that I can escape into for a few hours.

The search continues. I know the right book will ultimately make its way into my hands and until then I just need to be patient. But this business of being between books is a pickle, for sure.

What's the last book that really grabbed you and swept you away?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

February Book Group: The Animal Girl by John Fulton

Next meeting: Wednesday February 25 at 7pm

In our ongoing effort to support local writers, we have chosen The Animal Girl, a short story collection by J.P. writer John Fulton, as our next book group pick. While we typically discuss novels (and, once in a blue moon, non-fiction), here we give a much-deserved nod to the art of the short story.

I continue to be puzzled by the short story's relative lack of popularity, given how amendable it is to our busy lifestyles.
Consider the challenges faced by the short story writer:
  1. Forget grabbing the reader with the opening chapter; you better grab them with the opening paragraph, or sentence!
  2. The novel affords the writer the luxury of character development, which is why so many readers prefer that form--you get to know a character, often over the course of many years (of their life, not yours!). The short story writer only has time for a snapshot or two.
  3. The short story writer doesn't have the luxury of putting their hero through a gauntlet of varied experiences and reversals of fortune; the plotting must be accomplished with great precision and economy.

Given these challenges, the short story writer must excel at his or her craft in order to pull the reader in, and make the reader care. A well-written short story is like a breath of pure oxygen, in that it distills basic truths with a minimum of words.

From the back cover, here is a brief description of Animal Girl: "Here are people in extremis, struggling mightily, and often failing, to keep it together. These powerful stories approach the often sentimentalized subject of romance with tenderness and insight into the heart-worn perspective of characters who have failed at love in the past. In lucid, revelatory prose, Fulton navigates the complexity of both mid-life courtship and adolescent rage with humor and intelligence."

Sounds to me like perfect Valentine's Day reading.

If you haven't tried (or liked) short stories before, we hope you'll give this collection a try. If you're interested in delving deeper into the world of the short story, we have a number of other stellar collections on hand to recommend, including Why the Long Face? by another local writer, Ron MacLean.

We hope you can join us for the discussion...

Monday, January 26, 2009

One (ok, Two) Trends in Fiction...To Which We're Ready to Wave Goodbye

Things happen in trends. Skinny jeans, sweet-voiced British singers, foie gras - point is, it's natural. It doesn't necessarily mean that the folks at the beginning of the trend were geniuses or that those at the end are unoriginal (necessarily).

But one thing that all trends have in common is that eventually have to go, if only so that they can come back again in 15 years when it becomes retro-cool. And here's one I'm ready ready to usher on its way:

Novels set in small town America.

I came into the store this morning and saw Chuck Klosterman's new novel, Downtown Owl. Here is the first line of the dust jacket description: "Somewhere in North Dakota, there is a town called Owl that isn't there." Sigh. I want to like this book, I even want to read this book, but I was doomed the second I read that line and realized that this was another novel about the private struggles of small town American folk. There's probably a twist that makes it vaguely different from The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen or Empire Falls by Richard Russo, but I'm afraid I still can't over the gut feeling that I've read the novel before I've started it.

Well-written or otherwise, these "small town, blue-collar, Nowhere, USA" novels are  inevitably the same. They're usually about middle-aged people who are struggling to understand where their dreams went and who are living out their lives in emotional isolation without realizing the connections lying just beneath the surface. Want to know why these novels are basically all the same? I'm pretty sure it's because small blue-collar towns are basically all the same. I know this because I grew up in small blue-collar towns and I recognize myself in every one of these books.

Small towns deserve their heroic novels, too. But really, I think we've had enough for the moment, don't you?

While we're on the subject, here's another trend that I think could take a breather:

Epic novels that span entire lifetimes, and also sometimes generations! 

These are the novels that aren't satisfied with presenting a small, pivotal slice of someone's life with a few flashbacks or flashforwards thrown in for context. Instead they show the whole gritty thing from start to finish. This way, by the end of the novel we can't help but agree that "Yes. Yes! This really is the only way things could have happened!" And hopefully we've also learned something about ourselves in the process. (Cue music, aaaand fade out!)

The epic novel has had a good run. This trend gave us great works like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Nasland. Many epic novels are quite masterful - if only because it takes an author of particular skill and strength of character to see the project through to completion. 

But here's the thing. These epic novels also require readers with particular strength of character. Starting one of these novels takes a real commitment. You're promising to see it through, to remember all the characters and their personal dramas, and to not lose track of the decade or the continent. I have no problem tackling one or two of these novels a year. It's like eating a bran muffin for breakfast after a few weeks of frosted maple-nut scones. Good for the system.

But lately, it's gotten to be too much. My backpack is heavy. My "Books To Read" shelf is sagging. I look at these doorstops and my gaze drifts over to the copy of Twilight a friend loaned me last week. All I'm asking is for these authors - these great, wonderful, brilliant, award-winning authors - to just get together and agree on some sort of time-table. Please?

And P.S. - A little shout-out to Louise Erdrich. She's got the right idea. Notice how each of her novels tells a little bit of the story? How her body of work as a whole becomes her epic tale? So nice. So bite-sized. I love you, Ms. Erdrich.

On a final note...

If you're an author with a half-finished epic novel about small town America sitting next to your keyboard as you read this, take heart. Finish your novel. Put it in the bottom of your filing cabinet. And then set yourself an Outlook reminder to go off in 15 years reminding you to find an agent for your manuscript. You'll be at the top of the NYTimes list within the week, I promise.

(Image: Dzian-Dzian via Flickr Creative Common)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Excited For...Dark Was the Night

We just got a sampler for this new CD at the store and I've been playing it kinda sorta non-stop. 

It features songs by all the cool kids on the block like, oh, Bon Iver, Feist, David Byrne, Andrew Bird, and the New Pornographers. You know, just to name a few...  It's kind of like your best friend wanted to make you a mixed tape, except instead of mashing up songs from different albums, they just went straight to the artists with a tape recorder. What's extra cool is that some of the artists teamed together, so we get some fabulous experimentation with sounds and styles that we're not likely to get elsewhere.

The compilation is produced by the Red Hot Organization, a charity dedicated to increasing awareness of HIV/AIDs and raising funds for its research, and proceeds from sales go back to the organization. All songs were written exclusively for this project, though from what we can tell from the sampler, the songs aren't specifically about HIV/AIDs (you're allowed your own interpretation of the lyrics, though!)

This compilation is available as a double CD or triple (triple!) vinyl with a release date of February 17th, 2009. Both are available for pre-order at Rhythm & Muse. 

• Check out the full list of songs and artists at Dark Was the Night.
• Hear more about the Red Hot Organization at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Crooners: What's in a Name?

Perhaps you can help settle something for me. See, my fiance and I are in a heated debate over what, exactly, defines a crooner. Yes. Laugh all you want, but this is a Serious Argument. Evidence has been presented. Positions have been stated. Resolution is not in sight.

For me, this is a broad category. Basically, if you sing, if it feels like you're singing right to me, and if it feels like you're wooing me with your eyes (whether you're across the room or on my iPod), then you're a crooner. You can be a Serious Crooner, a la Ben Harper or Frank Sinatra. Or you can be an Ironic Crooner, a la Robert Goulet or even John Legend (both are a matter of perspective, sure, but you can't watch this clip and tell me there isn't some Ironic Crooning going on).

My boy, S., on the other hand, only believes in the Serious Crooner. He wants to hear the crooning and really feel it, you know? He enjoys a good ironic croon from time to time, but considers that a different and as-yet-unnamed category of singing. He can get pretty torn up about Lounge Against the Machine, actually. It's kind of funny to watch.

So where do you stand? Is there room in this crazy world for two types of crooner? What do you think makes a crooner?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down By Anne Fadiman

Without Giving Too Much Away: When three-year-old Lia Lee arrives in the emergency room at Merced County Hospital in California in the grip of a massive epileptic seizure, a series of events is set into motion that will pit Western medicine against traditional Hmong medicine and that will leave all participants in the drama forever changed. Lia Lee is the daughter of two Hmong parents, refugees from Laos, and is diagnosed by the American medical system as an epileptic. However, her parents believe that Lia’s condition is spiritual in nature and resist the attempts of Lia’s American doctors (and ultimately the California state government) to interfere. The story of Lia and her family is at the center of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and is the crucible in which Hmong and American cultures collide.

Our Musings: I tend to approach any book or article written by a person attempting to explain a culture other than their own to an audience also not of that culture with a great deal of skepticism. At best, these books tend to be dry academic texts with little or no ethos, and at worst, they portray the cultural Other as noble savages clinging adamantly to their societal roots and native systems of belief. A very few of these kinds of books, and the very best, focus not on comparing and contrasting each culture, but on bridging the gap. This is what Anne Fadiman does in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and she does it fantastically.

Throughout the story of Lia Lee’s illness and her progress through the American medical system, Fadiman ties in details on the history of the Hmong people, explanations of their medical and spiritual beliefs, and explorations of their community relationships. She makes no attempt to rationalize or otherwise “Westernize” Hmong behavior, and often outright admits that she remains baffled on several points. Instead, Fadiman lays everything out as best she can, supplementing snippets of interviews and excerpts from books and articles where needed, and gives guidance on how to best understand the information. Fadiman is fair in her portrayal and examination of both American culture and Hmong culture: she praises and criticizes both with equal measure, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Beyond the content itself, Fadiman’s skills as a writer are what bring this story to life and give it the authority needed to carry through with such a difficult, complicated subject. Her pace throughout the book is steady, pulling the reader forward at a stately progress that is never so slow the reader loses interest, but not so fast that details are lost in a blur. Fadiman’s voice throughout is firm and respectful. She is confident of her facts and her research, but not assumptive or overly didactic. Fadiman is also clear in her goals for the book and doesn’t overreach herself (as other books of this genre sometimes attempt) by trying to create a singular text on Hmong culture and history—the bibliography at the back gives an eager reader plenty of material to continue their edification.

Whatever your cultural background, it’s easy—no, that’s not the right word—it’s natural to accept behaviors from within your own cultural without question. You grew up with these behaviors and ways of thinking. Even basic things like looking before you cross the street and knocking before entering a person’s house are ingrained behaviors. In 
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman asks the reader to make an effort to examine and identify those ingrained behaviors and assumptions, whether from an American background, a Hmong background, or any other background. It is not (always) necessary to change our behavior or to ask another to change their behavior; the simple act of becoming aware of our own assumptions and increasing our sensitivity of other people's and other culture's assumptions will ultimately help to bridge cultural gaps and make it possible to find common ground.

What did you think of this book?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happy New Year from Rhythm & Muse!

Hello and Happy New Year!

Sorry for the long absence at the end of December, there. As you can imagine, it got pretty crazy in the store for a while and we're only now beginning to emerge from the chaos!

I, myself, traveled home to Minnesota and ended up re-reading all my old children's books one after the other, which seems to have become a ritual of mine whenever I'm home. It's so lovely to read an entire book from cover to cover in a single afternoon while sitting next to a crackling fire!

I didn't get any books for Christmas - my family is too scared to buying books for someone who works in a bookstore, it seems. But I did manage to score a copy of The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield when my parents accidentally double-ordered the book, each thinking to give it to the other for Christmas (aren't they cute?). This is a book of the teachings of Buddhist psychology as explained by one of the most preeminent Buddhists and thinkers on the block. I've read some of his writings before (After the Ecstacy, the Laundry and some short pieces) and am excited to hear his take on the core principles of Buddhism.

Anyone else get any good books or music for the holidays?

(Image: Stuart Pilbrow via Flickr Creative Commons)