Foreign Affairs

Book cover: Foreign Affairs by Alison LurieVinnie Miner is an American professor living in London for six months to work on her new book of children’s rhymes. She was never considered attractive when she was growing up, a fact that she made her peace with over the years. Instead, she focused on cultivating her career and her image as a refined anglophile; she actually disdains her fellow Americans. Now that she’s in her mid-fifties, she’s secretly pleased to see that she’s aged better than her peers. While still no great beauty, she has her own modest place among London’s intelligentsia and theatre community. She has a feeling that others might consider her prim and sexless — not true; she’s had her share of lovers! — but it’s a thought that she prefers not to dwell on.

On her flight to London, Vinnie finds herself sitting next to a talkative man from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Chuck Mumpson. He’s the epitome of everything she detests about Americans: he may be well-off, but he’s loud, brash, and uncultured. He didn’t even bring a book to read on the overseas flight! Desperate to shut him up, she offers one of her books to him and settles in for the flight.

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The Initiates

Book cover: The Initiates by Etienne DavodeauÈtienne Davodeau’s The Initiates is a graphic memoir about the time when he and established vintner Richard Leroy worked closely together to learn about each other’s professions. Davodeau knows nothing about wine or winemaking; Leroy doesn’t read comic books. The two work in strikingly different worlds, but as they get hands-on experience in the other’s field, the parallels in their lives become apparent. Each is an artist in his own right.

Over a period of about a year, Davodeau shadows Leroy at his vineyard. Rain, snow, or shine, he participates in all of the backbreaking work that goes into organic winemaking. During downtime, Leroy teaches Davodeau all about wine tasting — everything from cheap bottles to wines that cost hundreds of dollars. He takes Davodeau along on business trips, and the two visit other vineyards in the French countryside. The vintner community is small and obsessed with their craft, and long, animated discussions about winemaking often ensue.

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Sea Lovers

Book covers: Sea Lovers by Valerie MartinValerie Martin’s latest book, Sea Lovers: Selected Stories, features previously published works that span her career. The twelve stories in this collection usually start out firmly based in moody realism, then end up taking a couple of steps into dark whimsy. They’re organized into three different themes: animals, art, and transformation.

Content-wise, the first section, “Among the Animals,” was probably the most difficult for me to get through (and yet I couldn’t look away). Let’s just say that nature — human nature, animal nature, life in general — is not terribly kind, and Martin explores this theme from different angles. The first story in the collection, “Spats,” is an excellent example not just of the section on animals, but of the atmosphere of book as a whole. In it, the narrator is struggling to move on after the break-up of her marriage. Her husband has left her for another woman and is in the process of settling into his new life, so she spends her days dreaming of ways to get revenge.

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Two Across

Book cover: Two Across by Jeff BartschWhen Stanley Owens and Vera Baxter first meet, they’re rivals on the stage of the 1960 National Spelling Bee. Vera thinks Stanley is smug and privileged — he lives in the fancy hotel where the spelling bee is being held — while Stanley thinks Vera is pale and strange. Regardless, both are brilliant teens who find themselves the last ones standing on that stage. It’s a life-changing day for both of them, and initial impressions aside, they form a friendship that will last for many years to come.

Both teens are pushed hard to succeed by their mothers: Mrs. Owens has grown steadily more anthropophobic since her husband died in battle in Normandy; she never leaves their hotel room and is terrified of the world at large. She pushes Stanley to excel and has his whole life mapped out for him: he’ll attend Harvard and become a senator. Period. Meanwhile, Vera and her mother live out of hotels as well; Vera’s mother logs a lot of hours traveling as a salesman’s assistant and has goals of breaking the glass ceiling and having her own IBM sales career. She also expects Vera to go to an Ivy league school, but unlike Stanley — who is resentful that he has no say in his life and instead wants a career creating crossword puzzles for national newspapers — Vera wants to go to school and become a brilliant mathematician.

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Among the Ten Thousand Things

Book cover: Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julie PierpontDear Deborah,

Do you go by Deborah? It sounds so uptight. I bet you hate Debbie. I hate Debbie, too.

Jack calls you Deb.

This is a letter about Jack.

I began sleeping with your husband last June. We were together for seven months, almost as long as I’ve known him.

Julie Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, opens with a devastating letter from a lover scorned. The letter is placed on top of a stack of printed correspondence spanning the duration of the affair and left with the doorman of Deb’s building. But instead of going to Deb, the package makes its way into the hands of her curious eleven-year-old daughter, Kay, a sensitive girl who is bullied at school. Her father’s sexually explicit emails stun Kay, as do his occasional references to his wife and children: he actually talked about them — about her — to The Other Woman.

It doesn’t take long before Kay shares everything with her fifteen-year-old brother, Simon, a moody teen who’s desperate to be seen as an adult. He, in a fury, automatically takes the damning evidence to his mother and expects her to immediately file for divorce. She doesn’t: she’s horrified that the children read those emails and she’s furious at Jack, but she’s hit with so much so fast that she needs time to figure out what to do.

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