Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

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On a recent visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, I was perusing the crime/mystery section and Korean author, Young-Ha Kim’s short story collection, Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories, caught my eye. I like to go opposite with my reading seasons, disturbing in the summer, and light-hearted in the winter. You can’t feel too dark when you’re sunbathing with a Mai Tai in one hand and crime novel in the other!

The collection begins with the title story, Diary of a Murderer. This is the longest story in the collection and it was my favorite for its strong narrative voice and intriguing premise. It follows a former serial killer, who has gotten away with his crimes, but now has Alzheimers. He is cognizant enough of his disease to worry that he might accidentally reveal himself, yet far gone enough to be living in a fantasy world, where he believes that his daughter’s new boyfriend is a fellow serial killer. His daughter is also a secret that he keeps, as he adopted the girl when she was a child, kidnapping her after killing her mother. His unreliable memory forces him to walk on egg shells. This serial killer who has caused so many people fear, now fears himself. It’s a great story idea and Kim does a fantastic job at keeping the tension. I felt both disgust and empathy towards the main character. He is a great anti-hero.

The second story in the collection is called, The Origin of Life. This story details a love triangle, where a woman in an abusive relationship manipulates her childhood friend to help her. I felt this was the weakest story in the collection, although Kim’s writing is so skilled, that it still kept my interest.

Missing Child explores the idea of a kidnapped child being returned to his parents after many years. The son is now a preteen and he is not the boy that his parents imagined that he would become. Would he have been like this all along? Or did the nurture part of the upbringing that he had with his kidnapper, over take the nature, the biology from his parents? What happens when your missing child is returned and it is not the happy occasion that you imagined? This story was fascinating and intensely emotional. The lives of the characters are utterly destroyed from one incident. The theme of child abduction is also carried over from Diary of a Murder, making these two stories solid companion pieces.

The last story is The Writer, about a novelist with mental health issues. The novelist is an unreliable narrator who is spiraling out of control, imagining a torrid relationship with the ex-wife of his would-be publisher. This is also a great companion to the title story, as both deal with unreliable narrators and mental health.

Kim is a new-to-me writer discovery. I enjoyed the intensity of his stories and surprising story arcs. He crafts vivid, emotionally wrought characters that I will not soon forget. I highly recommend Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories.

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

Brick and Mortar: The Closing of Samuel French on Sunset

A few days ago, I heard that Samuel French Film & Television Bookshop, is closing its Sunset Boulevard location at the end of this month. I felt crushed by this news. Samuel French, especially the Sunset blvd. location ( other locations still live on,) has been one of my favorite places since I was a teenager. Bookstores are magic and for a theatre lover, Samuel French is the most magical of all.

My love of theatre and plays began well before I discovered Samuel French. It started in elementary school, when I was about ten and I found the play section at our local Crown Books. My mom and I used to have an amazing ritual, where every Friday night we would go the bookstore and she would buy us each a new book. As soon as I discovered theater, I began to amass quite an impressive collection of plays. Neil Simon, especially his Brighton Beach Trilogy, was the first playwright that I really loved. I read plays and became familiar with playwrights, before even attending my first play. My mom had instilled a love for books and movies (our Sunday morning ritual was a trip to the cinema), but she wasn’t a fan of live theater.

As soon as I saw my first play, I was hooked. It was a production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. I would guess that many Los Angeles kids of my generation had this same show as their first musical or theatre experience. It ran at the Ahmanson Theatre for four years and to say it was a big deal in Los Angeles is an understatement. I ended up seeing it seven times during its run.

Shortly after, I auditioned for The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and was accepted to begin my sophomore year as a theatre major. I love theater and respect the art of acting, but acting was never for me. I love my high school, the friends that I made, and the many incredible experiences that it afforded me, but I wish at the time that my school had offered a writing department. It would have been a better fit for me. I did take the optional playwriting classes, where I worked on abysmal experimental theater pieces that I’d be mortified if they ever come back to haunt me!

It was through LACHSA, that I discovered Samuel French Bookshop. It changed my life. My passion for plays was no longer relegated to the single bookcase that most bookstores offered, but now I had an entire store of theatrical books. AN ENTIRE STORE!!!

Samuel French had two locations in Los Angeles. The smaller location was in Studio City and it’s lovely, but the real prize was the Sunset Boulevard location in Hollywood. Both bookstores were located about a twenty minute drive from my house, but asking my mom for a trip to Samuel French, was akin to asking her to drive me to Florida. She hated it. I think worse, she knew that it wasn’t as simple as a quick shop, that she could leave me to browse all day. She would agree to quarterly visits or if I desperately needed something for school ( this was the early/mid 90’s, before online shopping was a thing) and she would wait in the car with a novel, while I had about an hour to shop.

When I had my first car and could drive myself, it was bliss. I would spend hours discovering new playwrights. Samuel French on Sunset blvd was my happy spot. I continued to be a regular customer for many decades and it was a bookstore that not only brought me so much joy, but opened me up to new writers and new worlds.

Learning about the closure, I’m not only sad for what will no longer exist, but I feel guilty. Through changes in my life and reading habits, I have not been a recent customer. I have not visited Samuel French in over five years. One of the reasons that the store is closing, is because more customers are shopping online, they cannot justify a brick and mortar store. The delight of browsing and the thrill of discovery is a unique aspect of physical bookstores. I am using this as a stark reminder, to keep shopping at physical bookstores, to keep spending my money in the stores, rather than online. As much as I love the convenience of online shopping, it simply does not replace the magic of a physical bookstore. Online stores cater to well-known authors, rather than exploring new or lesser known talent. The experience for a book lover does not compare.

Samuel French will continue to exist in other physical locations and online, but it hurts that the Sunset location is closing. It really hurts.

See What I Have Done

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Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s novel, See What I Have Done, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTSee What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s historical fiction retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt alternates between the narration of Lizzie, Emma Borden (Lizzie’s older sister), Bridget ( a disgruntled Irish housekeeper), and Benjamin ( a stranger hired by Lizzie’s uncle to intimidate and possibly kill Andrew Borden). Although Lizzie was arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, was she the one with the best motive? Who was really guilty in this still unsolved case?

LIKE- I love both true crime and historical fiction, so I was eager to read Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Like most people, I’ve heard of the Lizzie Borden story and I know the gruesome school-yard rhyme about her whacking her parents with an axe, however while reading this novel, I realized that I didn’t know much about Borden or her family history. For example, I always thought this took place on a farm, but although Andrew Borden had an interest in farming, they were not primarily farmers. The Borden family was wealthy and Lizzie had even been sent on a “Grand Tour” to Europe. I suppose the fact that they were a prominent family, made this case all the more shocking.

I liked how Schmidt focused on the sister dynamic between Lizzie and Emma. It’s fraught with tension, jealousy, and even fear. I found it interesting that after such a close relationship, even sharing a house after Lizzie was released from jail, that they became estranged. This twist leads me to believe that Emma felt that her sister likely committed the murder and perhaps felt nervous for her own safety. Schmidt writes Lizzie as someone calculating and unstable. Although other people had motive to murder the Bordens, it seems like Lizzie is the most likely culprit.

Schmidt’s writing style is effortless to read. She is masterful at setting scenes and using rich sensory images. It’s quite gruesome when she gets to the details of the murder, specifically the carnage.

DISLIKE– Schmidt overlaps many of the plot points to show a different view with a switch in character perspective, and although this is often effective, it can also feel repetitive. I wish there had been more on the actual trial and Lizzie’s perspective when she was in jail. These are minor complaints though, because overall, I was captivated by Schmidt’s novel.

RECOMMEND – Yes, especially for true crime and historical fiction fans. If you even have the slightest interest in Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done is a must read.

American Housewife

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I was browsing in Powell’s City of Books, when Helen Ellis’ short story collection, American Housewife, leaped off of the shelf, demanding to be read. Just take a minute to admire the awesome cover. It looks just like a photograph of my mom from the 50’s. if my mom had cotton candy hair. Those glasses, that tangerine sweater-set, the enormous curlers = if a book can be judged by its cover ( and I like to judge), I know that Ellis’ stories are going to take me on a fun ride.

PLOT American Housewife is Helen Ellis’ collection of short stories, all involving the title subject. What defines an American housewife? Ellis’ housewives are smart, snarky, and occasionally highly disturbed.

LIKE– Ellis is a fabulous writer with a gift for crafting unique sentences. For example, here is a sentence regarding the discovery of a new independent bookstore, that absolutely delighted me: from How to Be a Patron of the Arts =

It’s like you’ve found a unicorn grazing next to the dry cleaner that a friend told you could get cat barf out of cashmere.

It made me laugh-out-loud-

For five minutes-

In an airport.

Ellis fills all of her stories with this type of humor. There wasn’t a single clunker in the collection, but there were standouts. Here are the ones that I thought were stellar.

What I Do All Day – A less than three page laundry list of the activities that the narrator does in her typical day as a housewife. It’s hilarious, but what I admired most is Ellis’ pacing, and the way her story builds to the climax of forced dinner party conversation. As an American housewife myself, I found the idea of justifying my day to be extremely relatable.

Dumpster Diving with the Stars – The narrator, a not-quite-famous writer, goes on a reality show that involves dumpster diving and challenges akin to Antiques Roadshow. I loved all of the pop-culture references, including John Lithgow as a contestant. The title rocks, and makes me wonder if a show like this has ever been pitched. Yes, is the likely answer.

The Fitter – The narrator’s husband is a famous bra fitter, with women angling to make him their next husband, while his wife is near death, after first having a mastectomy. Although there is humor in this story, it was very dark, and the emotional pain of the narrator was palpable. The ending was very much a surprise.

My Novel is Brought to you by the Good People at Tampax – A cautionary tale of an author who signs a contract with Tampax to endorse their products in her novel, and then faces a combination of writer’s block and procrastination. She learns that Tampax will not accept excuses, and that not just her writing, but basically her life, is theirs, until she fulfills her contractural obligation. This made me feel paranoid about my own writing schedule. Miley Cyrus and Paula Deen make appearances as poster-children for reinvention.

DISLIKE– Nothing. American Housewife is a highly-entertaining collection by a gifted writer.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Helen Ellis is a treasure, and I will be on alert for more of her stories. I can’t recommend this author or American Housewife, enough. A fabulous story collection!

Our Visit to Amazon Books

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After nearly a week of cabin fever due to Portland’s “Snowpocalypse,” Dan and I decided to risk icy roads and drive to the Washington Square Mall. We are still fairly new to Portland and this was our first visit to the Washington Square Mall, which is fabulous. I was pleased to see many of my favorite stores, including an enormous Nordstrom. However, our specific purpose was to check out Amazon Books, the third in a growing chain of traditional “Brick and Mortar” bookstores that Amazon.com has opened.

I feel it’s safe to say that most people in the book community, whether they are book lovers or industry professionals, would vehemently agree that “Print is Not Dead,” and to that end, the idea of new bookstores opening is a happy sign. However, when I attended the 2016 AWP Conference, there was a lot of buzz regarding Amazon and worries over what their new bookstores would do to our beloved independent bookstores. Is there room for both to co-exist?

My initial impression of Amazon Books is that it’s incredibly welcoming and inviting. The store was full of shoppers, but the aisles are easy to navigate and the products are spaciously displayed. Nothing is crammed or out of place. Amazon Books was impeccably organized.1484609437165

Notice that all of the books face-forward? This is throughout the entire store, with every book. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, in it, Lahiri writes about moving abroad, and since she has so few posessions in her new home, she faces her books forward, using the covers as art. It forced her to really think about book covers; what goes into making them, and how they represent what is between those covers. I thought of Lahiri as I browsed, really taking a look at all the beautiful covers and noting how certain authors have become so recognizable from the style of their covers, with a font or palette that is used from book to book.

 

Facing the books forward, also limits the space for inventory. Amazon Books is a carefully curated store, and the stock seems to be exclusively popular books and classics. The thing I love most about browsing in an independent bookstore, is the odd-ball discoveries, the books from small presses or ones that the owner of the store stocks out of love. I like the sense of risk in stocking books that are not well-known or already popular. This isn’t to say that I don’t read plenty of bestsellers, I do, however it’s not as much fun to browse amongst bestsellers. The sections of a bookstore that I usually shop from are Fiction, Travel, and Non-Fiction/Memoir; in Amazon Books, I was familiar with a majority of the books stocked in these sections. I saw plenty that I wanted to buy, but I didn’t have a single discovery. This made me realize that Amazon Books is not directly competing with the independent Bookstores that I treasure. If anything, they are more closely competing with Barnes and Noble, which may have more stock, but is not nearly as pleasant of a shopping experience. I’ve not visited a Barnes and Noble in Oregon, but the ones that I had near my home in California, were always messy and increasingly filled with non-book related items.

I appreciate that Amazon Books has sections dedicated to local authors and employee recommendations. Although it’s primarily a place for bestsellers, it’s not devoid of a personal touch.

What about the Kindle? I was a reluctant Kindle owner, when a first generation Kindle was gifted to me from my aunt and uncle in 2008. My aunt worshipped at the shrine of Oprah, and when Oprah featured the Kindle on her annual Oprah’s Favorite Things, my aunt immediately called Amazon and got on a waitlist. When I opened my present on Christmas, I had no idea what I was holding. I had never heard of the Kindle. My aunt, by no means a technology expert, was chuffed to have presented me with not only the year’s hottest gadget, but one that was book related. She spent the rest of her life gloating about being in “the know” about the Kindle, before her young-ish niece.

I say I was reluctant, because I didn’t want to give up my physical books. I barely used that first generation Kindle. It took me years to realize that e-readers are awesome for travel, and easier to read in bed. I’m now on my fourth Kindle and I’m a fan. Amazon Books dedicates a small corner of their store to Kindles, and other Amazon technology, like Alexa ( Alexa has been another woman in our house for over a year, we love her). What’s great about this, is it serves as a place to go with your Kindle questions or problems. Sometimes it’s just nice to get help from a human standing in front of you, rather than dealing with customer service over the phone. In a clever move, Kindles are set up around the store, so that you can check one out, without feeling like an employee is hovering. This said, I found all of the staff to be friendly and helpful, without giving any type of sales pitch.

All of this sounds great, but what about prices? If you are a member of Amazon Prime, you will get the same price as Amazon.com. If you’re not a Prime member, the price was as marked on the book, which I found a little high. Price checkers are scattered throughout the store. Like the stock market, the prices on Amazon.com are always shifting. The Amazon Prime price is where Amazon Books destroys other bookstores. Unless a book is on special offer, it’s rare to see prices quite this low. Also, it seems that the Kindle prices are often higher than the print prices.

 

Check-out was a breeze. I used the same credit card that I normally use for my Amazon Prime purchases and my account was located immediately. An email receipt was sent, without me having to provide any additional information.

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I purchased Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, and the book was automatically removed from my Amazon Wishlist.

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I was impressed with Amazon Books. The store is inviting and a pleasant browsing experience. The prices cannot be beat, yet I’m relieved that they are currently not positioning themselves to compete with the things that I love about my indy bookstores. I feel like each has their own place and each can gain my business for different reasons. The world is a better place for having more bookstores.