Shelf Control #125: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Published: 2012
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.

How and when I got it:

I finally picked up a Kindle edition a couple of years ago, after having this book on my wishlist since it first came out in 2012.

Why I want to read it:

Books about books and books about bookstores are always a treat! This book sounds wonderful and weird… and now that I’ve read the author’s newest (Sourdough), I’m kicking myself for not having read Mr. Penumbra yet.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #124: The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Story of a Marriage
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Published: 2008
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the bestselling author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a love story full of secrets and astonishments set in 1950s San Francisco.

“We think we know the ones we love.” So Pearlie Cook begins her indirect and devastating exploration of the mystery at the heart of every relationship, how we can ever truly know another person.

It is 1953 and Pearlie, a dutiful housewife, finds herself living in the Sunset district of San Francisco, caring not only for her husband’s fragile health but also for her son, who is afflicted with polio. Then, one Saturday morning, a stranger appears on her doorstep and everything changes. All the certainties by which Pearlie has lived are thrown into doubt. Does she know her husband at all? And what does the stranger want in return for his offer of $100,000? For six months in 1953, young Pearlie Cook struggles to understand the world around her, most especially her husband, Holland.

Pearlie’s story is a meditation not only on love but also on the effects of war—with one war just over and another one in Korea coming to a close. Set in a climate of fear and repression—political, sexual, and racial—The Story of a Marriage portrays three people trapped by the confines of their era, and the desperate measures they are prepared to take to escape it. Lyrical and surprising, The Story of a Marriage looks back at a period that we tend to misremember as one of innocence and simplicity.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy after reading The Confessions of Max Tivoli (which I loved), probably about 10 years ago!

Why I want to read it:

I’ve had this book for so many years! I’ve read two other books by this author, Confessions and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (also loved!), and I want to read Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about time that I go back to The Story of a Marriage. I always love reading books set in San Francisco, and this one is set in my neighborhood! The synopsis sounds really interesting, so all in all, I have high expectations for this book!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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When is local too local?

San Francisco. As in, I left my heart…

San Francisco, CA, USA

I’m a transplant, as are a good chunk of the people I meet here in SF. I grew up on the East Coast, but San Francisco has been home for 20+ years now. And obviously, I must love it, since I’ve stayed and put down roots.

It always amuses me when I read books or see movies or TV shows set in my fair city. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I really don’t. Which brings me to the question:

When is local too local?

Is there such a thing as having too much local content in fiction? When does it enhance, and when does it distract?

SF cableI’ve read plenty of books by now that are set in San Francisco. Because, let’s face it, San Francisco is one of those places that get instant recognition. Golden Gate Bridge, Victorian houses, Alcatraz… they’re all so picturesque, while also being worldwide tourist magnets. So sometimes, key scenes in books will take place with the bridge or the skyline in the backdrop, and that’s about it. But sometimes, the city itself is a part of the story, and that can be a wonderful thing.

Some of my favorites take place in San Francisco. Take for example the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, which is pure and simple an ode to the history and soul and flavor of the city. On a different note, there are the works of Christopher Moore, who sets remarkably weird and wacky supernatural tales in the City by the Bay — and it totally works. I mean, vampire parrots of Telegraph Hill? The Marina Safeway as a key plot location? A heroic Golden Gate Bridge painter? Moore’s books are hilarious, and the way he uses the city’s oddities and quirks (and notable personae, especially the Emperor) are just delightful.

I’ve also read a few great books where the city is just a subtle presence, but one that adds flavor without hitting the big tourist attractions. A recent example is the delightful YA novel Up To This Pointe, which delights in the quieter parts of SF that only residents really know and love — West Portal, the Outer Sunset, and Ocean Beach (my side of town!). The places here aren’t the point of the story, but they do add a sense of home and connection that give the main character roots and a point of origin.

SF grpahic 2Still, sometimes, the local flavor can feel like it’s inserted in order to check items off a list. Maybe it’s when the details are overdone — in one book, every time the characters take public transportation, the specific bus route is named — and I’d find myself veering out of the story and into an internal dialogue about how the N doesn’t actually stop there or no, that’s not the best way to get from the avenues to downtown. In a recent urban fantasy book (which I didn’t enjoy as a whole, and which shall remain nameless), whenever the main character would rush off to save the day, I felt like the story was being narrated by GPS: She took a left on Van Ness, then turned right on Sutter and continued onward for a mile and a half. Not only was it not engaging writing, but again, it completely took me out of the story and into recontructing street maps in my head.

My most recent foray into San Francisco fiction is the new novel All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer (reviewed here). In this book, catastrophic earthquakes that ravish the city serve as a backdrop for a study of characters and their loves and losses. The relationships are interesting enough, but once the quakes hit, all I wanted was to know more. The book does a great job of describing the reasons why huge quakes in SF would be devastating — the crowded design, the unstable ground, the drought, the understaffing of local emergency response, and the reliance on bridges for 2/3 of the entry points to the city. I was interested in the characters, but I couldn’t maintain my focus on them once the local landmarks started coming down and the fires started destroying Chinatown and North Beach. At that point, the SF resident in me just wanted to know more — what was still standing? Did they get the fires out? What happened to the bridges? … and my interest in the main storyline, the characters and their fates, dwindled in the face of the destruction of the place I call home. (I had a quibble with the end of the book as well, which jumps forward a few months and shows the city bouncing back — which is nice, but doesn’t tell me how they got there, and left me feeling that it was a little too rosy to be realistic.)

Don’t even get me started on San Francisco in film. Have you noticed how much movie folks love to destroy San Francisco? Quick, need a scene to show horrific destruction due to aliens/melting of the earth’s core/rampaging apes? Cut to the Golden Gate Bridge! Seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous how often movies use the bridge as shorthand for letting us know that life as we know it is now at serious risk. Can’t they destroy something else once in a while?

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For me, the local setting in fiction is a mixed bag. When well done, it can absolutely enhance my enjoyment of a good story. I love when the essence, sights and sounds and smells, of a particular neighborhood are used to give texture or groundedness to a story. Rooting the characters in a real place and time can make them seem more alive, and can make the story feel like it could be happening just around the corner. But when the place overrides the story elements, or when the background events seem more attention-worthy than the actual plot, that’s when I start to have trouble with it all.

How about you? How do you feel about reading fiction that’s set in your real-world location, or a place that you know and love? Does it add to your enjoyment, or does it distract you from the plot and characters?

Please share your thoughts!

A note on images: I’d love to give credit where credit is due! All images were found on Pinterest, but original sources were unclear.

Book Review: All Stories Are Love Stories

all storiesSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In this thoughtful, mesmerizing tale with echoes of Station Eleven, the author of An Uncommon Education follows a group of survivors thrown together in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that strike San Francisco within an hour of each other—an achingly beautiful and lyrical novel about the power of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the enduring strength of love.

On Valentine’s Day, two major earthquakes strike San Francisco within the same hour, devastating the city and its primary entry points, sparking fires throughout, and leaving its residents without power, gas, or water.

Among the disparate survivors whose fates will become intertwined are Max, a man who began the day with birthday celebrations tinged with regret; Vashti, a young woman who has already buried three of the people she loved most . . . but cannot forget Max, the one man who got away; and Gene, a Stanford geologist who knows far too much about the terrifying earthquakes that have damaged this beautiful city and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

As day turns to night and fires burn across the city, Max and Vashti—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium—must confront each other and face the truth about their past, while Gene embarks on a frantic search through the realization of his worst nightmares to find his way back to his ailing lover and their home.

My thoughts:

All Stories Are Love Stories has some beautiful writing, but using the destruction of San Francisco to set the stage for an exploration of love, commitment, and abandonment might be a step too far.

The characters in this book have all suffered through childhoods characterized by loss, and all feel some sort of aching hole in their lives. Max and Vashti both yearn for what they’ve lost, despite building lives apart from one another. Gene and Franklin have a happy and loving relationship, but loss lurks around the corner, as Franklin has recently been diagnosed with MS and the resulting deterioration frightens Gene no end.

Much of the core of this novel is interior, as we live within the heads of the characters and witness their ruminations on how they’ve reached this particular moment in their lives.

And then disaster strikes. I was both horrified and fascinated by the depiction of the earthquakes and the utter destruction left in their wake, and yet we see so much of it strictly in terms of how it affects this particular group of people.

The comparison to Station Eleven in the synopsis is wishful thinking, in my opinion. Station Eleven was gorgeous and epic in scope, while maintaining the intimacy of personal experience. In All Stories Are Love Stories, we do get these intense personal stories, but somehow, it feels like the biggest stories are always happening off-screen.

The book does do a very good job of showing love in many different forms — between sisters, between lovers, between parent and child — and the risk one takes in loving. Is loving someone and sacrificing for them worthwhile, even when it ultimately must end in grief?

If anything, All Stories Are Love Stories seems to reinforce the sentiment: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In the sense that this book can also be described as a love letter to San Francisco (a very over-used phrase, but it really applies here), the quote works as well. Despite its geological faults and its sociological flaws, there’s something unique and magical about San Francisco — enough so that people continue to rebuild the city every time it gets knocked down. For San Francisco, and for its people, it’s the loving that matters most, not the loss.

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The details:

Title: All Stories Are Love Stories
Author: Elizabeth Percer
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: March 22, 2016
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: Secondhand Souls

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

I realize that I haven’t done one of these wishlist posts in quite a while… but how could I resist?

Secondhand Souls

This week’s pick:
Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore
(to be released August 25, 2015 )

In San Francisco, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing—and you know that can’t be good—in New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s delightfully funny sequel to A Dirty Job.

Something really strange is happening in the City by the Bay. People are dying, but their souls are not being collected. Someone—or something—is stealing them and no one knows where they are going, or why, but it has something to do with that big orange bridge. Death Merchant Charlie Asher is just as flummoxed as everyone else. He’s trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meat” waiting for his Buddhist nun girlfriend, Audrey, to find him a suitable new body to play host.

To get to the bottom of this abomination, a motley crew of heroes will band together: the seven-foot-tall death merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl. Now if only they can get little Sophie to stop babbling about the coming battle for the very soul of humankind…

I love Christopher Moore pretty much always, and I’m really looking forward to this sequel to a book that thoroughly entertained me. Now I just need to squeeze in a re-read of A Dirty Job before the end of August!

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays? Come join me for my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. You can find out more here — come play!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!