Book Festival: Bargain Book Haul

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You know the best place to find books when you live in a big city? A Book Festival! In April, I was very jealous of my old stomping ground in Southern California celebrating another year of the L.A. Times Festival of Books. It’s the largest book festival in the United States, and I usually am standing in lines for author signings and attending panels on fiction, food, publishing, podcasts, you name it.

With that said, pretty much all the books there are full price. The cost of a booth for book stores or indie presses is high, so there doesn’t tend to be much of a discount on anything. The novelty is the atmosphere, and supporting the community through, well, paying for the books full price since the event itself is free.

I was not going to let jealousy get the best of me this year! In a quick online search, I discovered the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, CA that took place May 4th – May 5th. While it didn’t quite have the same massive amounts of speakers and panels, it did have something a little different.

A focus on actual, physical books and filling your tote bag to the brim.

Mission accomplished.

Here’s my haul of what books I got and which booths!

Half Price Books Booth (Free)

Half Price Books was the first booth, with a great kick-off. They gave out free children’s books, with totes to carry. You could choose up to five. While my friend more responsibility chose books for her child, I selfishly chose YA titles for the teenager I sometimes feel like.

  • This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis
  • The True Meaning of Cleavage by Mariah Fredericks
  • Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot

Moe’s Books Booth ($9)

This was the fancy booth with the full MSRP sticker on their front table. Nearby, a cart featured used books for a price written in pencil on the inside cover. Since I had already gotten a few books for free, I didn’t feel guilty paying a little extra for a book of translated poems.

  • Rumi The Book of Love – Translations & Commentary by Coleman Barks

The Prison Literature Project Book ($2/book)

This was one of my favorite stopping points (and it shows with how many books I bought!). The booth was pretty simple: just a table full of books. Each book sold helped support their mission of supporting literacy and reading in prisons. This was a win-win. Plus, they had probably the highest caliber of author quality. I had to put books away in order to support the straps of my tote bag.

  • Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The North China Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • The Last Time I Wore a Dress by Daphne Scholinkski
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Alibris.com Booth (Free)

This was a random free tote / free book slush pile. The books didn’t really have any consistency in terms of theme, but I found a Michael Crichton that I thought someone else might like. Sure enough, it was picked off of my apartment shelf a few weeks later.

  • Airframe by Michael Crichton

TOTAL COST: $19

TOTAL BOOKS: 10

AVG. COST PER BOOK: $1.90

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The Couple Next Door

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On my nightstand, I have a tidy stack of books I’m reading across genres. I’ve got classic literary fiction (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith), nonfiction (Complications by Atul Gawande), poetry (A Study of Hands by Edwin Bodney), and even my Kindle with a whole library of digital content. I think any passionate readers can relate to this problem though — even with an entire stack of books next to your bed, you still don’t feel like you have anything to read. 

Why? Because I was missing the page-turner! When I discovered The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, the concept seemed simple enough — baby goes missing — and the marketing pull-quotes were just the right formula to convert me down the buying funnel: “razor-sharp”, “twisty”, “shocking”, “exquisitely tortuous tension.” The kind of reviews I would love to get as a writer myself.

Plus, it was half-off! Books Inc. (a bay-area based bookstore chain) has become one of my favorite go-to’s for sale books. They regularly switch out the shelves, and the offerings are almost all quality (I also picked up a Truman Capote book). The final price was $7.98, from the original mark-up of $16.00. The best part is I got to please both of my passions: bargain books and supporting independent book stores!

In one sentence: A couple’s baby is kidnapped, and then blame each other for losing it.

Favorite Line: They will be judged, by the police and by everybody else. Serves them right, leaving their baby alone. She would think that, too, if it had happened to someone else. She knows how judgmental mothers are, how good it feels to sit in judgement of someone else.” — p. 11

Review: SERIOUSLY, WHERE IS THIS BABY? I absolutely loved how simple this story was. One of the reasons the novel is an effective thriller is because it takes a very simple premise, and allows it all to unravel through the character’s choices. The point of view shifts between the wife, husband, and detective–and each do an excellent job of bringing you a new perspective as alliances shift and the truth is revealed. My ONE grievance is the red herring which relies on vague mental health disorders to deliver some cheap thrills, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. (That and there could have been a better title as the “couple next door” don’t quite serve at the heart of the tension, neither as characters or as a theme.) If you are looking for that book you can’t put down, and you enjoy a good mystery, this novel is for you.

This Book Would End a Lot Sooner If: the couple had one honest conversation with each other.

The Intersection of Marketing and Publishing:

It turns out the fact that I was sold by the packaging of this book is no coincidence.

Check out this article featured in Publishers Weekly all about how the packaging helped launch the book into the bestseller’s list: “Inside the Success of The Couple Next Door”.  

 

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Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol #1

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I’ve been on a graphic novel kick, as of late. Currently in my discount books queue is the series Maus and the memoir My Friend Dahmer. Their critical acclaim and genuine “heft” make me excited to jump in. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good comic, but I never spend that much time looking at single issue comics…

I’m not sure if anyone else has this problem, but often I’ll look at the sticker tag of a single issue of a comic or the first volume of a series and be partially put off by the thought of spending so much money on something I can sit down and read in 15 minutes. Plus, reading a comic is essentially the same as watching one episode of a TV show. Catharsis is limited in those 15 minutes.

However, in a half-off bookstore in Berkeley (literally called Half Price Books) I stumbled upon Marvel’s Star Wars: Darth Vader series, volume one. Practically a steal, a brand new edition for only $7.

Okay, okay, I know I should be grabbing the Princess Leia series–women power/ Carrie Fisher/ and all that. BUT Anakin Skywalker, in my millennial-minded perspective, is truly the one character of the series that changes the most and has the most tragic, redemptive arcs in the space opera epic. 

In One Sentence: Darth Vader is sad, but don’t tell him or he will kill you.

Favorite Lines: 

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Review: This was AMAZING. Obviously, Star Wars works really well in comic book form where it can primarily focus on the visuals and hyper-details of different species and characters. My one “But….” is only that it’s so hard to distill this story into one volume, and reading “Vader” was much like watching a really good pilot episode. The story is to establish relationships and stakes–the real catharsis will come much later. The part that was surprising was how much humor was well balanced with the darkness. Darth Vader has always been a naturally humorless character on screen. It was fun seeing how characters played off of Darth Vader’s stiffness, and on the other hand how Darth Vader could hold his own with the sass. At the same time, it was never trite or heavy handed with making moments funny instead of important (see: every Marvel movie after The Avengers). I also loved that it wove in the films’ narratives and visuals as part of the canon, but just as with The Clone Wars series–it offers another dimension the films are unable to express to the complexity that is the character of Anakin Skywalker. Who, to me, has always had some of his creator’s image once Lucas made the creative decision on who Vader really was behind the mask.

This Book Would End a Lot Sooner If: Darth Vader had made different choices in Revenge of the SithThen again, a lot of things would’ve ended sooner in that case.

Here’s to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening at Disneyland in 2019!

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Son of Rosemary

I’ve been going through a horror binge faze, one that probably started about 15 years ago.  But in the past few months, even more so. I sat in theaters on the edge of my seat for Annabelle: Creation and It. I had movie nights at home hiding under a blanket with Ouija: Origin of Evil and Lights Out. At a summer pool party, a friend noted that I had mentioned horror stories at least three different times in the course of an hour. 

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So, when I was shopping around The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles, I spent the most time in the horror section. The Last Bookstore is a noted literary treasure in LA. It has a mix of new and used books, all together spine-by-spine. The first thing I look for in any large independent book store?

IRA. FREAKING. LEVIN.

I bought three Ira Levin books, including the sequel to my all time favorite Rosemary’s Baby — Son of Rosemary. (Side note: This Perfect Day is now the only novel I’m missing in my Levin collection. Christmas is coming…)

In One Sentence: Rosemary wakes up in 1999, after an almost 30 year coma, to realize her son of Satan has become a more powerful and richer Jesus figure.

Favorite Line: ““Andy,” she asked him, holding on to one of his gilt buttons, “have you been totally honest with me?”

His hazel eyes—which were nice, now that she was getting used to them—gazed earnestly, unswervingly into hers. “I swear I have, Mom,” he said. “I know I lied when I was little. And I do now—plenty. But never again to you, Mom. Never. I owe you too much, I love you too much. Believe me.” …

They pecked, and she watched him go out with the cooler on his shoulder. She closed the door, frowning.” – Ch. 4

Review*: I actually knew this was going to be bad. It’s Ira Levin’s last novel, written late in his life, an apparent cash grab, and possible love letter to Mia Farrow? Plus, the Goodreads reviews speak for themselves. It still has his signature sparseness, focusing on the external to communicate the internal. My favorite line is actually “She closed the door, frowning.” because it’s simple yet shows a building tension right from the start of Rosemary and her son Andy’s new relationship. I’ll probably steal that trick for my own writing. But outside of that, the novel is mehhh. The entire plot is driven around whether or not people will LIGHT CANDLES. (Oh, and incest, lots of incest because I think in the editing process someone realized lighting candles was not enough so someone else pitched incense and Ira Levin heard incest). I’m still glad I read it, in that way Sandra Bullock fans bought tickets to Speed 2. However, no one else needs to read it. Watch Damien: Omen II instead.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Rosemary had died in the coma.

Something That Will Actually Give You Nightmares:

The short film “Lights Out” from David F. Sandberg that inspired the 2016 feature film.

*Note: Ira Levin is still one of my favorite authors. I encourage everyone to read Ira Levin. 

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Sarah’s Key

If you want to read a bestseller, just wait a few years after its hay day until it finds its way into Goodwills and used book stores. The book you are looking for is guaranteed to pop up, because it will be bought as gifts and recycled through office Christmas parties. If it’s sad? Even better, because people don’t tend to hang on to books that make them uncomfortable unless it also dramatically changed their world view. That’s why after I write this review, I’ll be doing the same and sending Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key to its next life by donating.

I picked up Sarah’s Key at a fancy Goodwill that printed labels for each item. I was drawn to the story because it reminded me of the books I used to be obsessed with in middle school–the stories of Jewish young women trying desperately to escape the fate of the Nazis. From Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars to The Diary of Anne Frank, even not too long ago I had dove into Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief–all of these works had been compelling for their glimpse into trauma and tragedy from the point of view of a child. With so much acclaim, Sarah’s Key seemed like the natural progression to reading more into the Holocaust genre of literature.

In One Sentence: A journalist must research the historic (and near undocumented) Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which French police arrested thousands of Jews to send to concentration camps, and ends up connecting to the story of a young girl who tried to escape to save her family.

Favorite Line: “What was wrong with being a Jew? Why did some people hate Jews? Her father scratched his head, had looked down at her with a quizzical smile. He had said, hesitatingly, ‘Because they think we are different. So they are frightened of us.’ But what was different? thought the girl. What was so different?” – p. 88

Review: Sarah’s Key has two parallel story lines: young Sarah as she escapes a camp outside of Paris to reunite with her brother who she has locked in the closet and Julia, a married woman who in discovering the story of Sarah also deals with a crumbling marriage. It’s an interesting structure to play with how the past can change us in unexpected ways. I loved every passage dedicated to Sarah’s story, and while the moments it spilled into Julia’s worked well–I never quite felt as captured by Julia’s journey. By the second half of the novel, it’s really all about Julia. In a way, I understand why. In many ways, Julia directly connects with the reader as she learns of Sarah’s story at the same time and her response helps the reader reflect on their own. On the other hand, it’s also like having a built in commentator. Julia’s perspective shapes how we understand Sarah’s. I completely understand why this book has so much praise, but I wouldn’t recommend this book against others in the genre that made me feel more connected to the protagonists.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: either Julia had taken another assignment or Sarah let her brother be captured.

More on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup:

Entrance to the Vel’ d’Hiv (The Winter Stadium) where Jews were detained en mass before being deported

NY Times: France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews  (2012)

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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I was in a used book store in Berkeley, CA and looking for a graphic novel. The store, though expansive, strangely did not have Art Speigelman’s Maus, which is on my reading bucket list. As I searched through the spines, I decided to look for what else was out there. Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl stood out. It was a piece promising the best in multi-genre: hybrid fiction and graphic memoir. 

I had just finished the amazing Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and while it was clear this book would be very different–there is something intriguing about the childhood of an aspiring female cartoonist growing up in a man’s world. Admittedly, though I was at a used book store, the pricing was still a bit steep since the book was in good condition (retail: $18.95, used book store: $14.97). But it was a book in a unique genre about a girl growing up in San Francisco Bay Area–so in a way I was really celebrating this trip to Berkeley, wasn’t I?

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In One Sentence: A teenage girl grows up in San Francisco in the 1970s during a time of a lot of sex and drugs.

Favorite Line: “I love Monroe. Sometimes I watch him as he sleeps, and I feel so much love for him that my heart feels like it might burst. I wish that the minute he comes of the plane I could run up to him and hug him tight. But I can’t, darnit, because my mother will be there. It’s just not right that we have to hide our affection. Do you think it’s right? Or do you think that Monroe is just some old lecher who is taking advantage of me? And if he’s not taking advantage of me, do you think it’s a horrible sin all the same? I wish Monroe had a diary so you could read both sides of the situation and tell me what’s what.” – p. 142 – 144

Review: This is similar to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in that both are roughly based on the real life story of the authors. Phoebe Gloeckner shares exerts of her real teenage diary at the end of the book, and it’s clear that the line between the protagonist Minnie and Phoebe is pretty thin. So while there isn’t a lot of movement in the story (but there is a lot of sex. A LOT OF SEX. If that’s what you’re into.), the reader gets a close meditation on what growing up means to this young woman. As Minnie spirals into sexual relationships with multiple partners, abuses drugs and alcohol to fix her depression, and generally makes other unhealthy and unsafe decisions–her voice is so intelligent and strong, you can’t help but know that if she survives adolescence, she can survive anything. I loved how the images and comics enhanced the story and overall the ending pulls off something resembling closure. For those looking for strong feminine voices, this is the book for you. However, don’t expect any catharsis. Does anyone get that while they are in high school?

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: there was never an affair between Minnie and Minnie’s mother’s boyfriend, Monroe.

Dramatic Adaptations:

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The original cast of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Play

Before the book was made into a movie, it was first adapted into a play! Writer/ director of the 2015 film adaptation Marielle Heller created the off-Broadway play in 2010 in which she also starred as Minnie Goetz. I love this interview with Indiewire in which Heller explains her decision to turn the novel into theater and later into film:

INDIEWIRE: How did you come to write the play?

HELLER: I wanted to play the part. I felt connected, felt she was in my bones. I was connected to the theater, it was my first love, where my career was focused, on interesting ways to tell stories. I had no plans to do it as a film. It wasn’t until I ended the play and let it die–they end and vanish–that I realized I wasn’t finished with it and thought of doing it as a film. It was not my original plan.

 

 

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The End of the Affair

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Sometimes, I find a book in a place unexpected. On a hot Saturday earlier this summer, I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is essentially a collection of objects donated by people across the US. Each object represents a relationship since passed–whether romantic, platonic, or even with the self. Walking through the space, reading the stories of so many painful memories, it just made me want more.

The museum’s gift shop had quirky magnets and tote bags, but of course I was drawn to the book section. Between summer reads and hard-core classics, I chose the classic The End of the Affair by Graham Greene for two reasons: 1) it wasn’t very long and 2) John Updike and William Golding had recommendations on the back cover.  

In One Sentence: A writer pines for a lost relationship.

Favorite Line: “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too? Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” – p. 89

Review: The End of the Affair is a well-crafted and introspective piece of fiction. With some autobiographical nods (Graham Greene wrote this after the end of his own illicit affair and even vaguely dedicates the book to who might be his former lover), there is a feeling of emotional truth to the main character’s struggle to work on his next novel through the turmoil. The novel takes place two years after the affair between Maurice and Sarah has ended. The characters are sad and bitter, and while this can easily fall into gloomsday reading, there is always an undercurrent of hope that the pain will go away. In the end, this book turns out more to be about a broken relationship with society and God, which ultimately makes this work timeless. For readers that sunk their teeth into Maugham and Fitzgerald, Greene is the writer for you.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: Sarah was less superstitious and listened to a medical doctor.

More on the Museum of Broken Relationships: 

Article from NPR in 2016: “Art of Breakups: Museum Enshrines Relics of Relationships Past” 

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