Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review: CHARLOTTE BRONTE: A FIERY HEART, by Claire Harman

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman. Published 2016 by Knopf. Nonfiction. Biography.

Award-winning critic and writer Claire Harman portrays the author of Jane Eyre as an introverted genius devoted to her craft and her family in this novelistic and deeply satisfying biography.

I don't read a lot of biographies, but when I do it's usually because I'm already a fan of the person being written about, so you'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to leave me dissatisfied. In other words, the chances of me not liking a book about the author of one of my favorite novels are pretty slim. That said, I did love Harman's new Brontë biography, which covers her entire, short life, from birth to the start of her life after death.


Harman portrays Brontë's family as close and inwardly-focused, dominated by the paterfamilias Patrick, a minister with a temper and a tight rein on his five children Maria, Branwell, Emily, Anne and Charlotte. Charlotte was very close to all of her siblings and a biography of her is in large part a biography of this family. Maria died too young to be a part of the creative hive that the remaining four developed later, which continued until Anne and Emily passed within months of each other. Branwell's story is also tragic, his life lost to alcohol and addiction and a hopeless and scandalous love affair. Charlotte's career was bumpier than I realized, even after the success of Jane Eyre, and she remained haunted by a failed love of her own, until she married and briefly settled down until her premature death in her mid-30s, possibly, Harman tells us, due to complications related to pregnancy.


Charlotte Brontë is absorbing read that held my attention completely; I read it at the gym so it was competing with a lot of ambient noise and I could only read it 45 minutes at a time, but I actually started working out more so I'd have more time for it. It's a treat to hear Brontë's voice through her letters and early writing and to learn about Brontë family, especially her father and sisters. Emily in particular seemed like someone with a rich interior life. Brontë's relationship with Elizabeth Gaskell, also an important Brontë biographer, is a big part of Brontë's adult and professional life. I'd recommend the book strongly to fans of any or all of the Brontës, or for anyone who likes a good character-driven novel. It would make a great brainy summer read.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Knopf.

Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

To be honest, mostly what I'm reading today are "Game of Thrones" reviews. Last night's episode, the season finale, was so good. Just, wow. I won't talk about it in detail in case you haven't seen it yet. Let's just say my household is still recovering from epic showdowns and epic set-ups.

Book-wise, I'm 80 pages away from finishing my re-read of The Passage and have its sequel, The Twelve, all lined up. I've been able to maintain my pace of 100 pages a day simply by ignoring the TV, last night excepted. The Twelve is 200 pages shorter than The Passage so hopefully I will be ready to read The City of Mirrors by next weekend.

I'm enjoying my re-read mightily; getting re-immersed in this world has been fun and seeing connections I missed before is helping me appreciate Cronin's accomplishment. But I'm glad "Thrones" is over for the year because there's only so much heart-pounding media I can take in at once!
I'm also reading Independent People, by Halldor Laxness, historical fiction set in the early 20th century, although it feels much earlier than that. It's my subway book. The spartan setting and the harshness of the landscape and peoples' lives, and the total lack of anything modern makes it feel like it could be the 1700s or even earlier. The characters feel like pioneers. Anyway it's really good, very absorbing and very different from the post-apocalyptic viral-epidemic American-western trilogy I'm reading at home.
Finally I started The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham, which is a fascinating history of Joyce, his opus and censorship in the early 20th century. Even the introduction was riveting. I'll be on this one for a while as it's gym reading. At home we're in the process of moving, which means lots of errands and appointments for me, which means a disrupted schedule. Which will mean less gym and less reading. But I'll hang in there.

What are you reading today? Have a great week!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Re-Reading Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE

So back in May City of Mirrors, the third in the Passage trilogy, finally came out. I snagged a galley in March through a friend and didn't start reading it until last Friday. I know. Why did I wait? Partly it was other things to get to first- book clubs and such- and partly I just wanted to savor the anticipation as long as I could. But last Friday I took the train up to Boston to see author Justin Cronin do a reading (I was in California when he was in NYC) and I thought it's finally time to dig in.

I got about ten pages in and realized that, helpful summary aside, I really had no idea what was going on anymore and who the characters were blah blah blah, and needed to re-read the series.

I've never done this before. I've never re-read a series before embarking on a latest volume. I'm not really even a series person generally speaking. But The Passage is a horse of a different color. (Of course my sci-fi reading husband, who re-read the first few volumes of his favorite 14-volume series several times, probably thinks I'm a rank amateur, and he's probably right.)

Way back when, in 2010 when The Passage first came out I was an early adopter. I was lucky enough to get a galley at BEA that year, and participated in the social-media buzz around that book. My book blog was at its height and so was my activity in the literary world, and The Passage was the first real "it" book to come my way. When I met Cronin, at his Boston-area event, he signed my book "to the great Boston Bibliophile." What fun.

In many ways I think when this blogging thing is finally over for me and I log off for the last time, The Passage will be one of those books that define this experience for me. The hype, the excitement, the thrill of playing a tiny part launching a big book and participating in the opening-day enthusiasm along with my fellow readers, and helping spread the word about a new book you've just got to read is a lot of what keeps me going as a blogger. And frankly it's been missing from my blogging life for years now.

And wow. I loved that book. I gave it to my husband to read, and he loved it too. Everyone was reading it, and most everyone loved it.

A couple of years ago the sequel, The Twelve, came out, just as hotly anticipated as The Passage and maybe more so, since The Passage ends on a humdinger of a cliffhanger and everyone wanted to know what was going to happen next. Just like the first one, I tore through the second book and waited impatiently for book three.

Now I'm going back and reliving it from the beginning, and I have to say it's still a knockout. I can barely put it down. It's a huge long book and I have many books in my TBR so I'm reading it only in the evening after dinner but I'm still banging out 100 pages a night, and I'm not skimming. It's just that good. I'm loving getting to know these characters again and immersing myself in this scary, vivid, detailed and engrossing world. Eventually I'll get to the finish line, and I can't wait to see how Cronin wraps it all up but for now I'm just happy to be back in the mix.

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well last week was a very productive reading week. On the same day I finished Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, and Cinnamon and Gunpowder. Charlotte Bronte will be one of the year's best for me, no doubt; Cinnamon I'd recommend as a literary beach read or prequel to Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy. And then since I had some extra reading time I started and finished The Core of the Sun, this month's Nordic Book Club selection, by Johanna Sinisalo, which I also enjoyed as a light read. I may even have some reviews this week!

On to the next step then.
I started Haldor Laxness's Independent People at the quilt retreat a week ago Saturday; I put it aside when I got home to finish Core but I'm taking it up again today. So far I'm enjoying it a lot. About a farming family in Iceland, it's a nice return to historical fiction.

I also started Emma Brockes' searing memoir She Left Me the Gun, about her mother's life in South Africa before she became a mother. It's very readable and I'm enjoying it a lot. I always enjoy reading about South Africa and this slice-of-life memoir is fascinating and dark.

As for a nonfiction book to read at the gym, I haven't decided yet. I've got just a few options! Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses is a strong candidate though. I'll keep you posted.

What are you reading today?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Crafturday-Where Are My Dragons?

Well I finally finished my dragons quilt, now officially titled "Where Are My Dragons?" in honor of Daenerys Targeryan and "Game of Thrones" the TV show (I'm not into the books.)

I got the pattern from Maaike Bakker's wonderful book Spellbinding Quilts, which contains lots of paper-pieced patterns for dragons, witches, wizards, fairies and other supernatural and mythological figures.
This quilt is about 50x50 inches, machine-pieced and hand-quilted. The quilting was very difficult for me because the nontraditional blocks don't lend themselves to simple patterns. I didn't want to do straight-line machine quilting because that seemed bland and I thought it would disrupt the pictures. I didn't want to bother paying someone to machine quilt it either and so it sat around for a long time until I decided to just go for it and do free-hand patterns and stitch-in-the-ditch on the interior, and a Celtic border pattern on the borders.

It was also difficult because I used black quilting thread everywhere except on the dragons and wizard so I needed to quilt in excellent light!

Overall I'm really pleased with it and can't wait to display it and show it off at my next guild meeting in September.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Seattle Mystery Bookshop Books Arrive!

Finally!

The last vestiges of my vacation to the Pacific Northwest arrived yesterday- a box of books from the Seattle Mystery Bookshop!

The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is truly one of my favorite bookstores anywhere. What is it about crime bookstores? I loved No Alibis, the crime bookstore in Belfast, Northern Ireland, too. On my first visit to the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, several years ago, I even bought a souvenir sweatshirt. Along with a healthy helping of books.

The books arrived wrapped, which was fun; my husband and I got to open them up like presents. And the wrapping protects them nicely during shipping, too.

This time I picked up four new-to-me titles. Two of them were books I picked out:

Pale Horses, by Jassy Mackenzie, another in the Jade de Jong series set in South Africa, and
Seattle Noir, another entry in Akashic's Noir series.

And two were books the staff hand-sold me:
Out, by Natsuo Kirino, and
The Blackhouse, by Peter May.

I can't wait to read them all!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My First Quilting Retreat, or "My Life is Really About Books"

So this past weekend I went on my first weekend quilting retreat. This is just what it sounds like- a three-day weekend at a retreat center (in this case the Ladore Center in Waymart, PA) where we set up our machines and spend every waking moment sewing.

My work table at the retreat
It was pretty great for the most part. I didn't bring enough to do, or all the right equipment, so I was having some struggles, but it was great to meet folks from the guild I'm joining in the fall and and reconnect to my craft. (If you want to read a more detailed post about the retreat go here to my craft blog.) And I made the progress I wanted to on a quilt.

That said, it was truly bizarre for me to be in a big group of people who were passionate about something besides books. Not unpleasant- just unusual.

My quilt top, which I have to fix a little!
I've been to a lot of conferences over the past 15 or so years- longer if you count the writing conferences I went to in my 20s. But every conference I've been to has been about books, whether it be libraries, writing or the book industry more broadly (like BEA or Readercon or the day-long events I would go to as a bookseller). This was literally the first time in my life I was with a group of people who did not want to talk about books or reading. Sure I could make a little bit of small talk about it trying to get to know people but there were a lot of blank looks.

I guess I should have expected this, and it's not like I had a bad time (I had a great time). But it taught me that while I love to sew, sewing isn't my life- books are my life. I've struggled a lot to find a niche here in NYC and I was kind of hoping sewing might be it, so I could just give up on the book world.  But alas no. I need to reconnect with the book community, big time, because being away has left a big big hole in my life. This probably means being more aggressive, and more flexible, about getting a job in a bookstore, or maybe with one of the many cultural centers here in NYC doing something book-related. Maybe it also means redoubling efforts here on my blog. Or both. Anyway it was a useful thing to learn and I'll see what I can do going forward to make my life "all about the books" once again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

GWTW

One of my all-time favorite stories, both in print and in the movies, is Gone With the Wind. It was one of the first written-for-adults books I read, and I devoured it. The movie too, maybe even more so- the beautiful costumes, Vivien Leigh at her loveliest, Clark Gable as that irrepressible scamp Rhett Butler, that rat Ashley and Melanie the saint.

When I was a kid my mother had a copy of GWTW: The Making of Gone With the Wind, by Gavin Lambert (Little Brown, 1973), a smallish hardcover lavishly illustrated (in black and white) with iconic stills: Mammy lacing up Scarlett, the burning of Atlanta, acres of wounded men, Scarlett and Rhett falling in love at the ball. I loved paging through the pictures and reliving my favorite moments from the book and the movie.

I don't know if my mom still owns the book but it's one I always wanted to add to my collection. And the other day I did! I found an old copy, albeit in excellent condition, at the Strand as I was on my way out after selling some paperbacks.

In the old days I used to just look at the pictures but I've started actually reading it too, and it's a fascinating story about old Hollywood, the studio system and the travails of cast and crew alike. I never knew how hard it was for Gable to film the scene where he learns of Scarlett's miscarriage, or all the gossip back and forth between the cast members and their families about the on-set shenanigans, or how the filmmakers kept tinkering with dialogue only to go back to Margaret Mitchell's in the end, because it really was the best. So much fun.

If you're a fan of the book or movie GWTW: The Making of Gone With the Wind is really worth ferreting out.

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Let's see.

I decided to DNF Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury. Unlike a Cadbury bar the book is just not holding my attention at all. The writing is kind of bland and the story isn't very exciting (or at least it doesn't come through that way) and with a long way still to go in the book it's time to set it aside and move on. I haven't decided which book to take up next.

Still reading Cinnamon and Gunpowder though, and enjoying it. I'm about 3/4 of the way through and its politics are showing a little more. Set just prior to the Opium Wars it's about a cook kidnapped by a pirate and their adventures. It's kind of like Sea of Poppies lite, or condensed, or something. I like it.
And yes still wading through Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart. I only read a little bit each week because I read at the gym and hardly go anymore.

This week I have to continue weeding books; I have about three bags ready to go and getting rid of two of them would be great.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Shopping on the West Coast

Mountain View palm tree
Last week my husband and I got back from a two-week-long trip that took us from Mountain View, CA to Seattle, WA and included San Francisco, Ashland OR and Portland OR along the way. It was my first time to Oregon, second to Mountain View and Seattle and third to San Francisco. Overall it was a great trip.
Carlos Santana street art in the Mission district of San Francisco
We did go to Powell's, but book buying also happened in SF and Seattle. I was sad to see Book Buyers of Mountain View, a cavernous used bookstore, had closed up and moved- sad but not surprised. I was aware that they were having problems when we visited last year and while I did drop in at Books Inc. in Mountain View and Bell Books of Palo Alto, I didn't find anything to buy at either store. In SF we visited City Lights got a few things- The Barbery Coast by Herbert Asbury, Adios Cowboy by Olja Savicevic and a zine called I Work the Tenderloin, by Michael Steinberg. I could have bought out half the store but I wanted to save something for Powell's.

On the way to Portland we did an overnight in Ashland, a resort-like town with a Shakespeare festival and three bookstores that we had time for.

Again, I didn't buy anything in Ashland, although I was tempted to pick up a paperback of A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower (I own the hardcover, unread) for a comfort read but decided against it.
Oregon House of Mystery
We dropped by the Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery on our drive up the next day. This is a classic American roadside attraction and claims to be a place of supernatural activity. While I did get very very dizzy in the House of Mystery, I was not convinced by any of the claims made about the place, such as energy waves changing peoples' height and so on. It was pretty fun though and we got cool tie-dyed t-shirts on the way out.

Then, Portland.

Predictably, I was overwhelmed by Powell's, and while J bought more than I did (he found a lot of collectible editions and rare things in their science fiction section) I found some treasures. My purchases included
  • All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews,
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen (which just won the Pulitzer Prize),
  • The Sea Beach Line, by Ben Nadler,
  • Modern Book Collecting, by Robert A. Wilson,
  • Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura,
  • Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron,
  • Unmarketable, by Anne Elizabeth Moore, and
  • Bruno's Dream, by Iris Murdoch.
On our way out of town we visited the Portland Art Museum and saw a painting of cats called "My Wife's Lovers." This was kind of a thing and had been written up online. And since it was about cats I had to go. It was kind of great.

I was surprised but I wasn't that crazy about Portland as a city. I was expecting to love it- I'm a fan of the show Portlandia- but I didn't. All those trees were setting off my allergies off like crazy and the whole place felt like a hippie commune. Not my thing. But the donuts were great. And there was Powell's.

"My Wife's Lovers"
Seattle I like a whole lot better. We both dropped a bundle in the Seattle Mystery Bookstore, where I picked up Pale Horses, volume 3 in the Jassy Mackenzie series set in South Africa I'm reading now and allowed the booksellers to hand sell me some new titles. That box hasn't arrived yet and I've forgotten what's in it. J and I spent an afternoon with my book blogger pal Phil and hit the bookstores in the University District, where some real treasures were found in a used bookstore including a first edition of Davis Grubb's classic Night of the Hunter, for the bargain price of $9.00.

Used bookstore in Seattle
After that I was pretty shopped out and our luggage was full too. So I just focused on buying clothes lol. I have to have my souvenir hoodies after all and this trip was no exception. I avoided buying any in SF but did get one each in Seattle and Portland. It's what I do.

Hopefully we'll come back to the area in the next few years. There are definitely things we didn't get to see, like Bainbridge Island off of Seattle, and some friends in Eugene I would like to visit. The wonderful thing about traveling is you're never really done and there is always something to look forward to next time.