Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: BORN A CRIME, by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah. Published 2016 by Spiegl & Grau. Nonfiction, memoir.

I'm a fan of Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but I would have read this book in any case. Born A Crime is a memoir of his childhood in South Africa and a very particular story it is. His mother is African and Xhosa, and his father is European and Swiss; he was raised by his mother and later a stepfather and has straddled three worlds racially and culturally- the black South African world, the white one, and the "colored" one, which is the world of mixed-race people. And he was "born a crime" because sexual relations between races was illegal and his mother did in fact go to jail for a time.

Overall the book is a delight. You can hear Noah's voice as you read and that voice is frank, intelligent and no-nonsense. He's also very funny and tells stories both dark and humorous with a light touch. I really enjoyed it cover to cover.

So that said, Born A Crime can be choppy and somewhat difficult to follow in terms of a clear timeline but what is very clear is his sense of joy, confusion, his struggle to find a place for himself, and above all his love for his mother Patricia, an independent and nonconformist woman who taught Noah that anything is possible. But you do have to read between the lines to get a full sense of what it was like to grow up Trevor Noah; we only learn about his stepfather towards the end of the book but the experience of living with a man who was constantly trying to push him out and dominate the family must have colored his entire childhood. He doesn't tell us that, but if you look for it I bet you can find it.

He recounts stories from school, from outside of school with his friends and "entrepreneurial associates" (my term) one might say- the people with whom he established quasi-criminal off-the-books businesses pirating music and doing DJ gigs. He tells us about the time he was arrested and the truly terrifying prospects of landing in a South African prison. He tells us about his relationship with his father, a distant but loving man who accepted Noah without question but played his cards close to the vest. To this day Noah says he hasn't been to Switzerland or met his Swiss extended family, although I wonder with the publication of this book if that's still the case.

The best parts of the book, both the easiest and the most difficult to read, are those about his relationship with Patricia, who brought him up hard and awash in love and support. He couldn't, and didn't, get away with anything, even when he thought he did. Finally we meet his abusive stepfather Abel, who alternately charmed and terrorized the two of them as well as Noah's young half-brother. This abuse climaxes when Abel shoots Patricia in the head; she survives, but something died that day, even if it wasn't she herself.

Like I said I would have read Born A Crime whether or not I was a fan of Noah's, just to read a first-hand memoir of growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid and the beginning of the democratic era. There's a lot of information here; I learned a lot but like other books I've read about South Africa I'm left with plenty more questions and the realization that there is still so much I don't know. So that makes Born A Crime a terrific read on several levels. It's funny and entertaining; it's heartbreaking; it's educative, and it leaves you wanting more.

Rating; BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley copy from the bookstore where I work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. Published 2013 by Harper Perennial. Fiction.

Beautiful Ruins is a book that straddles the line between commercial and literary fiction, and between soapy and romantic. It took me a long time to get around to reading it; I had it in galley and met author Jess Walter at a prepublication event sponsored by the publisher, but it languished on my shelf and eventually I gave away my copy, even after lots of friends raved about it. It just seemed too... I don't know... commercial for my taste. But curiosity won out, and I picked a copy up after Christmas and devoured it.

For me it started off a little slow, with a disaffected producer's assistant dreaming of making "films" while stuck in the mire of Hollywood schlock. She's considering switching careers, to librarianship of all things, when an aspiring writer walks through the door and changes her life, though not in any way you might think.

The narrative moves around in time and next thing we're in Italy in the early 1960s as a young actress named Dee is taking refuge in a tiny hotel in a hole-in-the-wall town, whose owner, Pasquale, is fascinated and troubled by her presence. Then we meet a frustrated writer, an elderly producer, a troubled young man, and more. When the narrative shifts definitively to the present these characters intersect and their stories take final shape. What comes next will either having you rolling your eyes or wiping the tears away from them.

For me it was the latter. I wasn't expecting this but I was totally swept up in these characters' lives, the many lives each one leads, especially Dee and Pasquale. I know the story is kind of cheesy but Walters totally won me over with these two. The other characters were less interesting to me but I loved Dee and Pasquale's friendship, their journey, and the beautiful ending that Walter gives them both.

I would definitely recommend Beautiful Ruins as a literary beach book, or just a wonderful escapist read to help you forget about the winter weather. You will feel like you're wandering the coast of Italy with Dee and Pasquale, and the other characters too, rooting for their beautiful stories all the way.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of Beautiful Ruins from the publisher.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What's New on the Shelf? Post-Holiday Edition

Okay, so it's a few weeks past Christmas and maybe this post is overdue. But the post-holiday book haul really includes two categories- those books I received as Christmas gifts, and those I bought for myself during my post-holiday shopping. There are always some.

My friend Dave, knowing I'm interested in studying Japanese, was sweet enough to get me a book on Japanese writing, entitled simply Japanese Kanji and Kana. I can't wait to dive in!

The second of the three bookish gifts I received is Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, by Jón Gnarr, who is also the author of The Pirate, one of my favorite novels of last year. My husband got me Gnarr!

Finally my aunt got me a book on modern quilting, The Modern Quilt Workshop. I got this to start stretching my wings in the direction of less traditional piecing. I'll let you know how I do!

That's it for gifts! Now, what did I pick up for myself?

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
The Madonna of Notre Dame, by Alexis Ragougneau
Smoke, by Dan Vyleta,
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet,
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay,
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, by Kristin Dombek
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani

I've already read Beautiful Ruins and I'm enjoying Bad Feminist. And I have lots of great reading ahead of me!

What did you get for holiday gifts? I'd love to know. P.s. I've been getting spammed a lot lately so I've disabled comments for a while. So I guess you can't tell me. :-(

Monday, January 16, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Once again I've gone from not knowing what to read next, to having five books going at once. Sigh. I finished Mincemeat and Beautiful Ruins last week, and now I'm reading myself silly.

First up is Luke Harding's remarkable work of journalism, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West. I've found this impossible to put down; it reads like a thriller but it's true. It's great for anyone wanting to learn more about Vladimir Putin's regime, and anyone who enjoys books on espionage. Actually I think everyone should read it.

On my nightstand right now is Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime. You can hear his voice as you read this entertaining, moving and often surprising story about growing up biracial in South Africa. I would read this even if I weren't a fan of Noah's and again I think this is a book everyone should read.

So a while ago, I think in 2015, I was reading Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist but lost my copy at the gym. As a Christmas gift to myself I bought it again the other day and have been happily re-reading it. Now I'm actually past the point I was reading when I lost it. Not all of the essays address feminism but they are all wonderful in one way or another. Not always easy reading, but always good.

My current gym book is A Fifty Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France, by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. This is an engrossing and often sad memoir about the author's grandparents, their Holocaust experiences and secrets, and how those secrets trickle down into their family's life for years.

Finally I started Aravind Adiga's new book, Selection Day, about two brothers and cricket in modern day India. I'm just in the opening pages but so far, so good.

I'd say my reading year is off to a good start. And yours?

Monday, January 2, 2017

It's Monday! And A New Year. What Are You Reading?

Happy New Year!! I finished The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov, just before the clock struck midnight on the 31st, so it counts as my final read for 2016. And what a way to go out. I can't wait till this book comes out in February and everyone else can read it too.

What am I reading now?

I'm finally going to get to Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I actually had this in galley and let it go a long time ago but I decided to take the plunge over the holiday week and started reading it. It's really good so far.

I also finished The Most Dangerous Book (did I mention that already?) and I'm enjoying Mincemeat, Leonardo Lucarelli's chef-in-Italy memoir. It's kind of a lighter version of Anthony Bourdain. No big insights but fun.

Since it took me all week to finish The Patriots, I never got around to starting the other books I brought. Oh well! What are your first reads of 2017?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Statistical Roundup

So parsing it out I didn't quite have the dismal reading year I thought I did. I read more books than last year, and traveled around the world and through multiple cultures through my reading. Book events were few and far between, but that's OK. Considering I live in what is probably the most bookish city in America if not the world, I hardly ever leave the house! But hey, that just means more time for reading at home.

How many books read in 2016?
58. I thought this was a sad number but it's actually up 5 books from last year's low of 53.Woohoo!

How many fiction and non fiction? 44 fiction and 14 nonfiction. I attribute this to committing to read nonfiction before bed almost every day, and reading nonfiction at the gym. I'm really pleased to see my nonfiction reads in the double digits for the first time in a long time. Left to my own devices I just tend to read fiction, but I love the opportunities for learning that nonfiction provides.

Male/Female author ratio? 33 written by men to 25 written by women. That's a long way to parity but an improvement over last year. My reading is driven by what I'm interested in in the moment and I don't usually worry about ticking demographic boxes, so.

Favorite book of 2016? Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman

Least favorite? The Galton Case, by Ross Macdonald. I just wasn't the right reader.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?A few. Sadly The Sellout by Paul Beatty was one. And A Man Called Ove. They just couldn't hold my attention.

Oldest book read?The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury, originally published in 1935.

Newest? Ill Will, by Dan Chaon, coming out in January.

Longest and shortest book titles? 
Shortest title: Ill Will, by Dan Chaon
Longest title: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa

Longest and shortest books?
Longest: Either Ill Will or The City of Mirrors.
Shortest: Places of My Infancy, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

How many books from the library?
None! I didn't visit a library all year. Sad!

Any translated books?
I read books translated from Japanese, French, Italian, Russian, Danish, Finnish, Spanish, German, Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Arabic.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
I travelled to France, Greenland, Italy, Ireland, Japan, England, Algeria, Russia, Germany, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Mali, Spain, South Africa, Iceland, Israel and Dagestan. I also visited several fictional countries and another planet or two.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? 
Justin Cronin, with three books- the complete Passage trilogy.

Any re-reads?
I re-read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home after seeing the Broadway musical, and re-read The Passage and The Twelve in anticipation of The City of Mirrors, all by Justin Cronin.

Favorite character of the year? 
Felix of Hag-Seed was a guy I loved to hate, and was rooting for all the way.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
I read several because they were book club picks. I would not have read Cinnamon and Gunpowder had it not been recommended by my friend Sarah.

Which author was new to you in 2016 that you now want to read the entire works of?
Virginie Despentes

Which books are you annoyed you didn't read? I didn't quite manage the new Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Enigma, but I will soon.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
The Man Without a Face, by Masha Gessen, about the rise of Vladimir Putin. This may be required reading for us all in 2017!

Bookish Events in Marie's Life
-started working at a new bookstore in New Jersey,
-celebrated my 9th year as a blogger,
-traveled to Portland, Oregon, for the first time and visited the legendary Powell's bookstore,
-volunteered for a whole afternoon at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City and
-took a class in classic crime fiction at the Center for Fiction.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Books Against Humanity

Time for end of the year book quizzes! Yay! I found this book meme on LibraryThing.On this one you're supposed to answer the questions with titles of books read in 2016. Think of it as Cards Against Humanity with book titles.

Describe yourself: The Girl on the Train

How do you feel? Ill Will

Describe where you currently live: Fun Home

If you could go anywhere...? The Barbary Coast

Favorite form of transportation: The Passage

Your best friend is: The Pirate

You and your friends are: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

What's the weather like? So Much for that Winter

Your favorite time of day is: The Twelve

What is life for you? A Season with the Witch

You fear: The Haunting of Hill House

Best advice: Chocolates for Breakfast

Thought for the day:Let the Games Begin

How you would like to die: Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Monday, December 26, 2016

My Favorite Reads of 2016

2016 has been kind of a lackluster reading year for me. Personally 2016 has been pretty good; we bought a condo, I got a job in a local bookstore and I've messed around with background acting and even shown up on TV once or twice. But reading? Meh. I've been reading at a slower pace than usual and loving less than usual of what I've been reading. Which is not to say I haven't found some favorites. In no particular order here they are. Links are to my reviews.

2016 Releases I Loved 

Baba Dunja's Last Love. Alina Bronsky's latest is her best since Broken Glass Park, a bittersweet story about a Chernobyl survivor and her black-comedic search for meaning, dignity and family.

The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin's finale to his show-stopping trilogy is a fitting ending to a series destined to be a classic.

The Pirate, Jon Gnarr's coming of age story set in 1970s Iceland is funny, heartbreaking and wonderful.

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, Claire Harman's page-turning and fascinating biography of one of my favorite writers is now one of my favorite books.

Best of the Backlist

The Crossroads/As God Commands, by Niccolo Ammaniti is an amazing, emotionally shattering read.

The Passage, is the first book in Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy and one of my all-time favorites.

The Sparrow. Mary Doria Russell's literary-science fiction epic is a tough book but worth the effort.

Chocolates for Breakfast, by Pamela Moore, is a better-than-expected coming of age story set in California and New York.

Places of My Infancy, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa is beautiful and sweet memoir about his privileged Sicilian childhood.

A Man of Good Hope, by Jonny Steinberg, is a tremendous piece of journalism and biography set in Africa and the United States and essential reading in my opinion,

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, kept me turning the pages like mad and marveling at her brilliant prose and grasp of the psychology of madness.

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.G. Gwynne, is an immersive if too-short history of the fall of the Comanches and their charismatic standard-bearer, Quanah Parker.

So there, that gets me to twelve favorites in no particular order. What were your favorites of 2016? And what are you looking forward to reading next?

Monday, December 19, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well I finished Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.G. Gwynne, which will certainly feature on my list of favorite reads this year. And I finished a short book of fiction, A Man, Two Women and a Cat, a book of short stories from Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki. So now I get to pick some reads to get me through the rest of the holiday season.

I haven't picked a fiction read yet but I'm leaning towards The Extra, by A.B. Yehoshua, about a woman who finds herself doing background acting (like me!) and A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura. I want options for my holiday-week reading though. What do you suggest? If I pick Mizumura's book I will have two going from Other Press, which can't be a bad thing.

For my nonfiction bedside book I'm reading Mincemeat, by Leonardo Lucarelli, a cook's memoir in the vein of Anthony Bourdain. Lucarelli is an Italian chef whose book is about sex, drugs, the restaurant industry and his passion for food. It's fun and I expect it to be a quick read.

Finally I am so close to finishing The Most Dangerous Book. Like, five or six pages close. I will get to the gym at least twice this week if not three times, so there should be no excuses not to finish and start a new book.

What are you reading this week? Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 12, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well I actually made some progress this week and finished Margaret Atwood's latest, Hag-Seed, her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. It's a retelling of "The Tempest"; I don't know that play at all but I enjoyed the book very much. A friend of mine who knows the play well said Atwood did a really good job, so there's that. I definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to literary fiction readers. It's not dystopian though so if you only know her from her latest four novels you might feel like you're meeting her writing for the first time. For me it was a nice throwback to the old days.

I'm deeper into The Patriots, Sana Krasikov's novel coming out in February about generations of a Russian-Jewish family. It's picking up for me, not that it was slow, but I'm really getting into it.

Tonight I will finish Empire of the Summer Moon and I wish it were longer and went into more depth about Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief, but I've really been loving it and I'm sad to see it end. I have less than ten pages to go.

Finally I'm still working on The Most Dangerous Book, which I hope to finish by the end of the year. I just haven't been giving it much of my time but I enjoy it when I do.

So I guess overall I'm looking forward to starting some new reads and having some new things to share with you! I think I'll read a crime novel or two, short things I can blow through quickly. That always works!

What are you finishing up 2016 with book-wise?