Small Business & Indies First Saturday 2014!

Tomorrow, Saturday, November 29, 2014 is “Small Business Saturday” and “Indies First Day,” in which authors and book lovers are being encouraged (including by an open letter from Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman) to support their local independent bookshops. I once again encourage all local bookworms to visit Charleston, WV’s only independent bookstore, Taylor Books, on that day or any day. You can also order books and ebooks/epubs from Taylors online, but it’s worth the trip for the bookshop’s atmosphere.

Taylors is my favorite bookstore on this side of the Atlantic and has the best coffee in Charleston. If you don’t like books or coffee, I really don’t know how you live.

If you do like books and are looking for recommendations for Indies First Day, my personal favorite books of all time are: Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and pretty much everything else written by Kurt Vonnegut or Edith Wharton. More modern favorites have been Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Book Thief and anything by Brian Morton, Kate Morton, Maggie O’Farrell, Samanatha Harvey and Victoria Hislop.

I also highly recommend the more modern classic The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is now being adapted for a movie. You can read my rave review of it here. I first heard about the Guernsey book from a former manager of Taylors and it was a longtime staff pick on the shelves there. I’ve since given copies of the book to several friends, all of whom loved it as much as I did.

Other favorite bookstores of mine on both sides of the Atlantic: Empire Books in Huntington, WV; Two Sisters bookery, Old Books on Front Street and Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, NC; and The Winding Stair, Hodges Figgis and Chapters in Dublin, Ireland.

It would be very nice if independent bookstores get the kind of support from Indies First/Small Business Saturday that Record Store Day brings to indie music shops.


Stewart O’Nan: The Odds

Stewart O’Nan has become a favorite author in the Muruch household. I (Vic) first fell for his writing in 1994 when his stark and mesmerizing debut novel, Snow Angels, was released, and Brendan loves O’Nan’s 2007 novel Last Night at the Lobster enough to re-read it every winter. We both recently read (and loved) O’Nan’s new book, The Odds: A Love Story, within a few days. The novel follows a middle-aged American couple on the brink of bankruptcy and divorce on their troubled second honeymoon in Niagara Falls. But all is not what it seems. The true motive for the journey and real causes of their disintegrating romance are slowly revealed through each spouse’s thoughts and actions during their two turbulent days at the falls.


The final weekend of their marriage hounded by insolvency, indecision, and, stupidly, half secretly, in the never-distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country. North, to Canada.

The marital plot and short timespan of The Odds reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (one of my Best Books of the Decade). The delicate mix of resigned affection and tension born of unspoken frustrations in particular make O’Nan’s Art and Marion seem to be the aged counterparts to McEwan’s newlyweds Edward and Florence.

Stewart O’Nan’s prose and character insights are so heartfelt, intimate and exquisitely human that even his saddest moments hold a small ray of hope. The Odds is a very quick, enjoyable, beautifully written read.

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John Wesley Harding: The Sound of His Own Voice

John Wesley Harding’s new album, The Sound of His Own Voice, will be released on October 11, 2011. The melodic acoustic pop and clever lyrics found on The Sound of His Own Voice fall somewhere between Pulp and Elvis Costello. The album features guest appearances by members of Decemberists and REM as well as Roseanne Cash and Laura Veirs.

The opener, “Sing Your Own Song,” is an especially catchy Brit-pop number, while “The Examiner” sets John Whitworth’s poem to a haunting melody.

I appreciate the sentiment of the humorous “There’s A Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” given that a local chain restaurant recently completely demolished their building only to erect a “Coming Soon!” sign for the exact same restaurant.

The British singer-songwriter has also authored several novels under his real name, Wesley Stace. Coincidentally, I had just begun to read his most recent novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (so far an intelligently written thriller about a classical composer), the day before I received his album from Yep Roc Records.

John Wesley Harding – Sing Your Own Song (mp3)*

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep

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John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace Official Site

Jamie Ford: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford’s book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a great work of beauty and eloquence. The split-narrative novel flows gracefully through heartwarming romance and heartbreaking tragedy in the turbulent war-torn past and the drastic changes and second chances to be found in the modern era.

The story centers on Chinese-American Henry Lee, alternating between his chaotic adolescence in 1942 and his aging present in the mid 1980s. Ford uses historical elements surrounding the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II as the setting for Henry’s childhood romance with Japanese friend Keiko, and the factual discovery in Seattle’s Panama Hotel of belongings of Japanese immigrants from that time as the catalyst for adult Henry’s memories.

The idea for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was initially inspired by the childhood experiences of the author’s father – Ford wrote a short story that would evolve into the novel about the “I Am Chinese” button his father wore as a child. The button is as much a character in the novel as Henry and Keiko, who are the only students of Asian descent in an otherwise all-white private school in 1942 Seattle.

Henry’s overbearing, nationalistic father (who also insists Henry only “speak his American” at home) forces Henry to wear the “I Am Chinese” button to distinguish his son from “the enemy” Japanese during a time when even American citizens of Japanese heritage were rounded up as suspected spies and sent to “internment camps.”

Henry’s blossoming love with Keiko becomes a victim of such prejudice, first within his own home and then in the frightening outside world. The story is brimming with a wide array of emotions – the sweetness of Henry’s feelings for Keiko, the kinship he finds with a black jazz musician, the torment he experiences from school bullies, the frustration born from his strained relationship with his father, and the gut-wrenching sorrows and separations born of war.

The unique plot would be interesting and strong enough on its own, but Ford’s writing style brings it vividly, beautifully to life. The love story is touching without being overtly sentimental, the hurtful consequences of war and prejudice are subtly portrayed without being graphic or disturbing, and the inaudible soundtrack of 1940s jazz woven throughout the story gives the novel a palpable atmosphere of sophistication and elegance.

The book also has the rare ending that is truly satisfying. So often it seems even the best of novels lose steam by the end, but Ford prevented this by writing the final scene before the rest of the novel. The lovely paperback edition I bought includes “A Conversation With Jamie Ford” (you can read it at Ford’s site) in which the author is quoted as saying: “that ending is all-important for me. And by ending, I mean a real, unambiguous, nonmetaphorical ending. I look at storytelling as either banking or spending emotional currency with the reader. Good or bad, happy or sad, the ending is where those emotional debts are paid.” He more than accomplished that goal.

I can’t emphasize enough how extraordinary this novel is, everyone should read it.

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Jamie Ford’s Official Site

Richard Currey: Lost Highway

Lost Highway by Richard Currey is one of the best novels I have ever read, and I’ve read more books than I can remember. I highly recommend it to fans of Crazy Heart. Lost Highway‘s protagonist Sapper Reeves may be a tad more sentimental and genteel than old Bad Blake, but he’s every bit as authentic and enthralling. And Richard Currey’s prose is refreshingly eloquent without detracting from the simplistic nature of this country musician’s story or its rustic Appalachian setting.

Lost Highway spans the life of fictional West Virginian banjo player Sapper Reeves, starting with his optimistic early days as leader of the bluegrass band The Still Creek Boys. The story follows the band from their starving but enthusiastic musical beginnings through their brief brush with fame and subsequent disillusionment – all the while artfully portraying their struggle to survive the arduous life on the road.

As his band and his mental state slowly disintegrate, so does Sapper’s previously happy marriage. He soon finds himself seeking solace from the bottle as all that he formerly loved slips away. This is only the beginning of the drastic changes and heart-wrenching losses the aging musician will face before the end of this beautiful novel. Just as he is dealt his most crushing blow, life grants Sapper a bittersweet second chance.

I checked out Lost Highway from the library last week and read it in two sittings. I’ll be buying my own copy after publishing this review, because this is the kind of book I will re-read and relish for years to come.

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