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I haven’t been blogging much lately because of some extracurricular activities: gardening, taxes and research for a writing project. Now that one of those is finished, I thought I should share some of the gardening/landscaping books I’ve found the most useful and genuinely helpful in my landscaping projects.

Last year I built a patio, this year I’ve built several stone retaining walls. The book I relied on last year for stone work tips was David Reed’s The Art and Craft of Stonescaping (from Asheville’s own Lark Books).

It’s a very good book, and features some great projects, but focuses mainly on the craft of dry stone stacking. Several of the projects featured were major projects at the NC Arboretum and elsewhere, and as such are more aspirational than practical for a beginner like me. However the advice is sound and the pictures are inspirational, so it confirmed my desire to build a natural flagstone patio rather than an artificial brick surface, and provided enough direction for me to do the job properly.

This year I got a copy of Stonescaping Made Simple by Kristen Hampshire & David Griffin and found it’s much more step-by-step oriented and less purist (it’s OK to use concrete if you want to). Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have done very much differently when laying the patio, but I’ll be recommending Stonescaping Made Simple to beginners from now on. The projects in this book are much more down to earth, the directions are well illustrated, quite detailed and represent a more realistic assessment of what beginners can achieve.

For some reason, Stonescaping Made Simple is branded with the John Deere logo (doubtless the result of some expensive study that recommended “extending the brand”). What exactly John Deere has to with the average homeowner’s landscaping needs, I don’t know — I guess they make the large sit-on lawn movers that so many people buy even though they don’t really have enough lawn to need them. There are two gratuitous pages of tractor porn showcasing John Deere’s farming products, if that’s what floats your boat. But, unless you own the Biltmore Estate, you’re unlikely to need a tractor to build your backyard patio…

Anyway, both books get my thumbs up. Stonescaping Made Simple really does what it claims, and is my recommendation to all novice backyard stonemasons. The Art and Craft of Stonescaping is perfect once you’ve got some experience and really want to focus on an impressive piece of stone work.


David Reed’s website

I’m a terribly undisciplined reader, so working in a bookstore is the worst thing I could possibly do. Rather than sticking with the good novel I’m currently reading, I’m powerless against every shiny new book that catches my eye at work. As I’m currently working on various landscaping projects, my eye was caught by Debra Prinzing‘s Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, a beautiful book about people (including novelist Amy Bloom) who either built from scratch or transformed ramshackle outbuildings and sheds into whimsical yet practical buildings: greenhouses, writing sheds, chicken houses or outdoor living rooms.

While there are the usual couple of outlandish or completely over the top constructions, most of the “sheds” are simple barns or old cottages transformed with love, effort and a good eye into what are likely the most used rooms in their respective homesteads. I have an old two-car garage that I just use for storage. This book has me eying it for other possibilities.


Debra Prinzing’s garden blog:

I loved Lalia Lalami’s first book, Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits. It’s either a novel or a collection of linked short stories — I’ve seen it called both — about four young Moroccans’ individual attempts to flee their homeland for the opportunities of Europe. It’s a fascinating book, full of vivid details about Moroccan life, and you feel like you know exactly why those characters make the decisions they do. Secret Son, Lalami’s new novel, focuses on one young man living in the slums of Casablanca who thinks his dreams are coming true when he discovers his biological father is a wealthy businessman. However, his changed circumstances strain his relations with his family and friends, and bring him unwelcome attention from a local Islamic group.

Lalami again surrounds us with the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, but goes deeper into the circumstances of her protagonist’s life, and the political realities of Morocco at the present time. Youssef el-Mekki believes his father dead. He grows up poor, but with an unassailable sense of his place in the world stemming from the family history his mother teaches him. Everything comes crumbling down when he discovers his father is not only alive, but a wealthy industrialist. Despite his success in winning a place at college, Youssef has to scratch the itch of where he really comes from, and he contrives to meet him.

Nabil Amrani, Youssef’s father, harbors a secret pain: he has no sons, only a daughter away at college in the US. Initially Youssef is a blessing, the answer to his secret prayers. But, when his family learn of the son, conflict arises over the questions of inheritance and position others thought settled. Youssef must choose which parts of his impoverished, but rooted existence, to hold on to (if any) and how much he is prepared to risk chasing the dream of the opportunities and family life his distant father might provide.

The narrative drive of Secret Son is more ambitious than the relatively straightforward storytelling of Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, and the ending has a twist that feels perfectly real yet isn’t obvious from early on. All in all, Secret Son is a captivating story, told with fierce passion and acute understanding, which provides a vivid and eye-opening look inside contemporary Morocco.

Be sure to check out Lalia Lalami’s great blog. She recommends some fabulous books there.

Watch the book trailer for Secret Son

Lalia Lalami reads from Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits

Colm Tóibín‘s new novel, Brooklyn, is a deceptively simple story of one young woman packed off to Brooklyn in the 1950s.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (US cover)

Eilis Lacey is a younger daughter with no firm prospects for either work or marriage living in a small town in Ireland during the early 1950s. So, her spinster sister and widowed mother arrange a new life in Brooklyn for her through a visiting Irish priest. When she arrives in this strange land, Eilis finds a job, a room at a boarding house, and church duties all waiting for her, but she feels bereft of the generations-old social network that surrounded her at home. Much to her surprise, she gradually makes a place for herself in Brooklyn, and even strikes up a relationship with a well-intentioned Italian man. However, despite the material success, she can’t fully commit to her new life in Brooklyn because her heart is still in Ireland.

When tragedy brings her back home, she discovers her time away has made her appear exotic and interesting to the men of her town, and her American experience makes her more attractive to employers. Of course, along with the good there’s also a newfound appreciation for the bad, as she has a new understanding of small-town spitefulness. Finally she has to decide between assuming the role others would choose for her, and the life she could choose for herself.

“She would never have an ordinary day again…”

The most striking thing about Tóibín’s Brooklyn, besides the beautiful prose and atmospheric evocation of both communities, is the terribly unfashionable lack of irony. Despite the hardships and unfamiliarity, the possibilities represented by emigration are painted in a positive light. Eilis may dwell on the differences and mourn her easy friendships and almost unconscious understanding of the least aspects of social life in Ireland, but despite herself she is thrilled by the differences: the amenities of a big city, the mix of nationalities, and the opportunity for interesting work.

Eilis lives in a boarding house with a group of women representing the range of accommodations immigrants make to a new culture: form stubborn denial through total capitulation. Despite the opportunity to attach herself to the established ex-patriot community, Eilis seeks out new experiences and company. Tóibín cleverly underlines that even these seemingly daring choices are easy when in a completely new community. It’s only when Eilis goes home, ostensibly just for a month’s holiday, that she discovers how even small changes can be judged harshly by the community. She must choose whether or not to embrace her new life fully, or else deny her experiences in Brooklyn like a summer fling, and take her place in the unchanging routine of the small town. The decision is a hard one, and one that most novels about emigration either never broach or telegraph on the first page through an ironic tone and constant degree of condescension towards the old world.

It’s a tribute to Colm Tóibín that his even-handed treatment of both communities allows the reader to feel the full weight of Eilis’ decision.



Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn has been adapted as a film starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, with Jim Broadbent, Julie Waters, and the in-demand Domhnall Gleeson.

Author’s website (a little out of date)

If you enjoyed Brooklyn, you must read Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, which is fabulous. (Review…)

With the awesome news that the wonderful Kelley Eskridge (author of the novel Solitaire) has a novella nominated for the Nebula Award, I dug through the hard drive to find a short review I wrote about her excellent collection of short stories, Dangerous Space, a year ago — the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted it in the header graphic above. It turned out to be very short, so I picked up the book, reread the brilliant “Dangerous Space,” and wrote a longer review.

The opening line that I wrote last year is still true: this is the best collection of short stories I’ve read in forever. Cutting edge in every sense, Eskridge mines the raw edges of emotion — love, lust, and fear — and places her characters in settings just a little bit different to our own — the near future, the recent past, or the slightly fantastical. It’s odd that I respond to a collection of short stories, because I usually find the form disappointing: just when I’m getting to like a character or understand their world the story is over. But the fault lies with me, not short story writers: I guess I’m simply a story fan, and shorts generally don’t have enough story to keep me happy.

This isn’t the problem in Kelley Eskridge’s fiction. It’s quickly apparent that she knows the minutia of each milieu she depicts in incredible detail. After reading stories like “Strings” and “Dangerous Space” I am impressed by her knowledge of music, both the specialized vocabulary of the aficionado, but also the technical knowledge of a professional sound engineer. Eskridge may be neither of those things, but she completely convinces the reader that her characters are, and makes the world they inhabit fully real and vivid. Like her partner Nicola Griffith, Eskridge understands violence at a bone-deep level, the casual, understated violence of conversation, the accepted institutional violence of office politics, as well as the thin line between pleasure and pain often present in physical violence.

Nebula–nominated “Dangerous Space” concerns the romantic entanglement of Mars, an in-demand sound engineer and music producer making her way in the sexist music business. [Edit: it turns out the question of Mars’ gender is entirely up for grabs – see comments. You can make a case for the character being male or female, which makes the story all the more amazing. I’m sticking with my initial, gender-biased response because the comments would make no sense if I changed it;-)] Mars is highly competent and very successful, able to pick and choose the bands she produces. She agrees to work with Noir, an up-and-coming rock band fronted by a charismatic lead singer. While Mars isn’t willing to be another notch on his bedpost, she feels that the process of making music with him is as intimate as anything they might get up to in the sack. The sexual tension in the story is stretched tighter than guitar strings and the narrative arc is not your conventional opposites-attract love story. Eskridge plays with gender boundaries by introducing F-tech, a new technology that allows an individual to experience everything another individual does. Developed initially for the medical field, the adult entertainment industry quickly exploits it. Mars feels she has no need of it, because she knows “how the best sex feels. It feels like music.” “Dangerous Space” is a brave and convincing meditation on love, on sexuality and the possibility of truly connecting with another human being. (But don’t take my word for it, the whole story is available online. Go read it.)

Another story that explores the tortured path to sexual and emotional fulfillment is “Eye of the Storm,” a tale about a group of mercenaries perfecting their fighting techniques and seeking stable employment. One soldier is conflicted about his guilty secret: he’s turned on by the violence. Starved of physical comfort or affection as a child, he grows to manhood knowing the touch of others only through the use of force.  The small group of mercenaries, male and female, he bonds with come to understand his enjoyment, and must decide whether they can accommodate it. This is probably the story in the collection that most screams out to be expanded into a novel, as it features a rich cast of characters and wrestles with taboo themes.

Published by the tiny feminist publishing house Aqueduct Press in Seattle, Dangerous Space is a book you’d be hard pressed to find in a chain bookstore, and is just the combination of high-quality storytelling and unorthodox perspective that independent bookstores should be promoting in order to set themselves apart. There isn’t a bad story in the whole book, and all reward rereading. If you (or your customers) like the work of Kelly Link, Nicola Griffith or Neil Gaiman, you’ll love Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space.


Kelley’s blog

Interview with Kelley Eskridge about Dangerous Space.

Aqueduct Press

Taqwacores are Muslim punks; and just like kids from any other religious or cultural background, they are reacting against the dictates of their parents and community and searching for their own truth. Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores is set in Buffalo, in a run-down student house on the cheap side of town, where a group of young Muslims live. The inhabitants of the house are pulled between two opposing poles: the anarchic punk philosopher Jehangir, and the strictly observant, yet heavily tattooed Umar.

Our narrator and guide to the Muslim punk subculture is Yusef Ali, a young engineering student, habitually observant, but fascinated by the freedom of the punk ethos. Circling these three are a collection of characters in various stages of debauchery and experimentation: a white woman influenced by Rumi who thinks she might want to convert; a punk Muslim girl who wears a burqa covered with patches for punk bands, a homeless party animal; a Muslim stoner obsessed with Rastafarianism; and, a completely debased 23-year-old frat boy, who hangs around the college scene in search of meaningless sex.

Yusef Ali attempts to navigate his way between the competing currents of observance and debauchery, understanding that the laws of Islam that developed centuries ago in a very different place are not necessarily relevant to his generation living in America today. The taqwacore ethos represents an extreme rejection of the past, that not all the characters are willing to wholeheartedly embrace: all except for Jehangir, a mad-Sufi saint with a mohawk, the Kurt Cobain of Buffalo taqwacore, a 21st century god of love to those with eyes to see.

The plot concerns Jehangir’s attempts to bring the top taqwacore bands from California to Buffalo for a punk rock show that will, he hopes, drop the barriers between non-Muslim punks and taqwacore. As Yusef Ali grows to know Jehangir better, he understands that Jehangir considers himself irredeemably soiled by the sins of the flesh, by alcohol, by life in the 21st century, and the show is his great roll of the dice, his attempt to live by his own terms. Knight succeeds in drawing us so completely into the lives of his characters that some of those who initially appear to be one-dimensional, drug-fueled wastrels are revealed to have considerably more going on in their conflicted lives than their chosen means of release would indicate.

The Taqwacores will be an eye-opening book for anybody who thinks Islam is some sort of monolithic entity with believers inhabiting Stepfordville-like communities no matter where they live, and in the same way, it’ll likely be news to many older, more traditional Muslims. Knight is a vivid and direct writer, and this madhouse and its inhabitants are as real to me as the actual madhouse I lived in during college. This is a book that you power through, it almost demands to be read in one sitting. It’s probably blasphemous, obscene in places, and sure to offend conventional sensibilities of all persuasions, in other words, it’s gripping, very real and utterly fascinating.


Connect with Michael Muhammad Knight on MySpace

NYTimes on Taqwacores

Osama Van Halen — Michael Muhammad Knight’s next taqwacore novel, coming in July ’09

Without resorting to too much hyperbole, let me say that Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel Last Night in Montreal is a fairly rare achievement, a gripping, mysterious and original literary novel about family secrets and the unbearable weight they place on young shoulders. Lilia is a rootless twenty-something who has been running from her past since she was a small child, leaving a trail of broken relationships, abandoned apartments and false identities behind her. When her naive, hopelessly idealistic boyfriend follows her to Montreal after her latest disappearing act, the details of her past begin to come to light.

There are so many unexpected and memorable images in this novel that they keep coming to mind weeks after I finished reading it:

– A girl strings a rope between two apartment buildings to make a tightrope, which she walks across alone, in the night, in the middle of winter, just because it’s how she centers herself.

– A lonely, confused young man stands in the middle of a crowded dance floor and holds a white shirt aloft so a mysterious correspondent will find him. Everyone dances on oblivious, lost in their own worlds.

– A young girl, arm bandaged heavily, happily walks out of her house at night into the snow. She runs to her father, who has lost custody. He hugs her and they walk away. Her young brother watches from the window as they disappear into the snow.

I can’t do the complexities of the plot justice without giving something away, so let’s just say that Emily Mandel is a wonderful and refreshingly unorthodox writer, with a deep compassion for the misfits of society. I hope this is the start of a brilliant career.

Read chapter one at the author’s website.

Well, I picked Gerald Durrell’s Fillets of Plaice up thinking it was ‘just’ a Gerald Durrell reader (and given the fact that most of his books are out-of-print or unavailable in the U.S. I’d be happy for a Durrell reader), a collection of snippets from his other works. Happily, it turns out to be a collection of “bonus features,” scenes & stories left out of other books for various reasons. As usual, all are polished and very, very funny. “The Birthday Party” is a Corfu tale about an ambitious boat trip to celebrate his long-suffering mother’s birthday. All the beloved Corfu characters are there — coarse but fiercely local fixer Spiro, absent-minded Dr. Theo, and Gerald’s singular family — aided and abetted by some archetypical British visitors. The other stories track through Gerald’s life: post-Corfu time in London, young man-about-townhood in Bournemouth (which seems to have been a more fashionable destination in the late 1940s than it is today) and animal collecting in Cameroon, which makes this book a great introduction to Durrell’s world. (Although, anyone interested by what I’ve described so far should immediately run and buy a copy of My Family & Other Animals — one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Would that Augusten Burroughs and rest of the current crop of ironic memoirists would read it and learn how to poke fun at your relatives without resorting to inventive obscenity or revealing the unattractive chips on their shoulders!)

One of my favorites is “A Question of Promotion” a tale about the expat community in a remote African outpost banding together to help the competent-but-socially-awkward District Officer (the British civil servant in charge of the area) host a dinner party for his boss, who’s come to inspect the area. The officer is clumsy without being drawn as a buffoon, and Durrell finds amusement as well as virtues amid all his characters’ foibles. The one thing Fillets of Plaice lacks is an introduction or afterword detailing when the various pieces were written and what larger works they were originally intended for, becasue I’d love to know where to find more about District Officer Martin and Durrell’s time in Cameroon.

You’ve got to admire Martin Millar‘s creative powers. He can spin a tall tale with the best of them, and leave you hiccuping with laughter and smiling ruefully in recognition. Millar is the creative genius who brought us the irreverent and hilarious Good Fairies of New York. His second book to be publishing in the US, Lonely Werewolf Girl is about a confused young werewolf overwhelmed by the pressures of life, who gets taken under the wings of two well-meaning, but very naive students. One is an obsessive record collector, the other a romantic, new age Goth. Both are blissfully unaware that their exotic new friend is under sentence of death from her werewolf family, and that the werewolf world is just about to be torn apart by civil war.

As usual, Millar’s focus is on the outsiders, the uncool, and the clueless. His werewolves have flaws, vices and addictions, and they’re all the more human because of them. On the one hand, Lonely Werewolf Girl concerns a feud between two brothers, the heirs to the Thane of the werewolves. On the other, it’s a book about family, about fractured, flawed people trying to find their place in the world and most often finding that the obstacles they must overcome are the expectations, theirs and others’, of what they should do or be. Happily, Millar is well aware that laughter is the best medicine, and he ensures that his books are above all fast, funny romps populated by vivid characters.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is just as offbeat and wonderful as Good Fairies, and displays a sympathy and understanding for outsiders, the lost and the lonely that reminds us that seriousness and sobriety are often the enemies of great writing. Fans of Terry Pratchett take note, the heir is at hand.

An excerpt from this review appeared in the Book Sense Spring – Summer 2008 Reading Group Picks list.

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