Monday, April 25, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, which was good and kept me reading. It was about the relationship between Isaac, an insecure Orthodox man and an even more insecure Muslim janitor and what happens when Mustafa, the janitor, finds ancient Jewish artifacts at a Muslim building site. In the mean time Isaac is dealing with some changes and a growing romance blossoms as well.

I started reading A Man Called Ove, which I know a lot of you liked, but I couldn't finish it. I started it for my Nordic Book Club but since I didn't finish I'll be skipping tomorrow's meeting. I can't rail about people who show up to book club without having read the book, and then attend a club for which I haven't completed the reading.

In better reading news I'm loving Mary Doria Russell's science fiction Catholic epic The Sparrow. If I were still in that religious book club I would definitely recommend it as a Catholic/Christian selection. Jesuits in space! No but seriously it's really amazing fiction.

Still working on my two nonfiction choices, Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. I should be done with the latter in a week or so and then the former will take a while yet but that's OK. I have to say I'm loving all the nonfiction I'm getting to this year. Last year was pathetic with like 5 nonfiction books or something; I'm doing much better in 2016!

And you?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

An Outdoor Reading Room at Bryant Park

So yesterday afternoon on the way to my book club I was walking by Bryant Park and noticed a bunch of book carrels set up and filled with books sitting in a cluster, along with designated tables and some big signage announcing the Bryant Park Reading Room project.

Through August you can come to the park and read from 11am to 7pm daily, and there will be readings and other public events held here throughout the spring and summer.

I took a moment to check out Mort(e), by Robert Repino, a book which had caught my eye at local bookstores. It's a science fiction novel told through the eyes of a cat.

I definitely want to continue reading it, and I love the idea of this kind of open-air library. And Bryant Park is one of my favorite parts of NYC so I'll definitely be back!

If you come here to read, be sure to tweet @bryantparknyc #readingroom and let the folks running this great project know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do We Need the Mystery Section?

In the past few years I started reading crime fiction and in particular I enjoyed getting to know the mystery/crime section and recommending from it when I worked with readers, especially once I realized how passionate my readers were about their crime reading. I also realized quickly that not only are crime readers passionate, they are picky as all get-out. They like what they like. If they read cozies, or Holmes, or Italian, or British, or Canadian, or supernatural, or whatever- that's what they want. Out of all of the categories of readers, they consistently struck me as the least likely to read outside their comfort zones.

I'm no different. This winter I enrolled in a crime fiction reading group and read eight crime novels by different writers, from different eras and representing different styles. Frankly most of the time the books have been a struggle for me, because most of them are outside my bailiwick of gory European crime and antihero books. My favorites were in line with my typical tastes- antihero books and Mediterranean noir. All those hard-boiled noirs we had to read? Puts me to sleep. Classic procedurals? I need a little more, you know? But that's just me, and my reactions are not a reflection of the quality of the books, just my own taste.

But why is this? Why are crime readers (myself included) so difficult and yet so easy to please? Because if you give a cozy fan a new cozy series, he or she will be pleased as punch. But try to sell that person on something even a little grittier and you are plumb out of luck. So what do you do if you have a cozy fan asking for a book and you have nothing new to offer?

I don't think you say come back later. If you know the person likes cozies, for example, you already know something about their tastes and now is the time to introduce them to similar books in the general fiction section. It works the other way too. The person who likes hipster fiction from small presses will like hipster crime, too. (I've seen that play out so I know it's true.) Take that fedora-and-skinny-jeans-wearing-coldbrew-drinker to Melville House. My husband reads science fiction and fantasy, but he also likes crime- the right kind of crime, crime with supernatural or fantastical elements, like Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri series. So the kind of crime someone likes has a lot to do with the other books someone reads.

All of which leads me to ask, do we need a crime section?

Crime readers know the authors and series they enjoy, and they know to hit the shelves looking for those things. When they run out is when they ask for help. So that's the opportunity for the bookseller or the librarian to come up with suggestions, either crime or not, that the reader would enjoy, and we can do that from the general fiction shelves as easily as from the genre shelves if we know our stuff. Moreover, eliminating the crime section would give readers the chance to browse the entire fiction selection and therefore the chance to find all kinds of things they might enjoy. I know one man whose tastes in crime are so specific he will only read mysteries set in Venice. If he only ever browses crime, how will he find the other fiction set there, which he would probably enjoy to? The list of examples goes on.

In New York City I've encountered bookstores and libraries that shelve by genre and those that do not; sometimes it's a matter of space if a place just doesn't have the room or the setup to separate them but I've found a lot more serendipitous selecting going on in those that do not shelve by genre. It also saves the reader time if he or she only has to search once to find a particular book that in another store might be shelved in either fiction or crime (since the distinction can be a fine one at times). I'd rather have just one place to look for a book and not have to guess or ask for help. Many readers won't ask booksellers for help so it pays to make it easy to find things.

So I'm going to advocate for blending the crime into the general fiction more generally, if you will. Doing so would give readers the chance to encounter more, make searching faster and make recommending more seamless, too. It would also communicate the idea, valid in my opinion, that genre distinctions can be capricious and superficial, and often have more to do with someone's ideas about marketing than about making true distinctions between books. Sometimes I think the distinctions set up by sectioning do more to keep readers away from great books than they do to help them find anything anyway.

Monday, April 18, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I've had a really fun and productive reading week.

I finished Distant Star, by Roberto Bolano, which I truly enjoyed and have started re-reading in advance of Wednesday's book club conversation. Speaking of my book clubs, Wednesday is the last meeting of my crime reading group and I'm all sad because it's been so much fun and the people are great. Contrast that with a book club I attended for the first time last week, a general fiction book club, which was so bad I will never return. The problem? The people were incredibly not-nice. One woman even made fun of the way I speak, because apparently my bland non-New-England-accented speaking voice is hilarious to Upper West Siders. Ugh!

I also finished Anne-Marie O'Connor's The Lady in Gold, about Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which was at the center of a highly contentious legal case to restore it to its original owners after the Austrian government took it away during the Nazi era. It was pretty good; great story anyway. I've seen the painting at the Neue Gallerie in New York and now I want to go back and see it again. Extraordinary.
This week I'm still working on In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman, which I'm enjoying and hope to finish.

On the nightstand this week is Joshua Hammer's The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, a neat book with a dumb title about the struggle to preserve precious manuscripts from Al-Qaeda in Africa. I got it for review from Simon & Schuster. It's a mix of history, suspense, current events and bibliophilia, a nearly impossible-to-resist combination.

And I'm still working through Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman. I picked up a hardcover copy at HousingWorks Books because my galley copy is getting trashed at the gym- I tend to bring my galleys to read at the gym because the books always wind up in terrible shape after several months of sitting on the elliptical. This time I really want a nice copy for my shelf though!

That's it for me! What are you reading this week?

Monday, April 11, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I've been reading a ton lately. Last week I read two books, and I've been reading for my book clubs and at the gym and at night and all that. Right now I'm down a reasonable three books.

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman, is a novel set in present-day Israel about Isaaac, a religious Jewish man who works for a rebbe and his Muslim acquaintance Mustafa, and the troubles that ensue when Mustafa finds an ancient relic at a construction site, which he passes on to Isaac.
My bedside book is The Lady in Gold, by Anne Marie O'Connor, about the people behind Gustav Klimt's famous painting and their fates as well as how the painting ended up in its current home, the Neue Gallerie on the upper east side of Manhattan. The writing is kind of so-so but the story is harrowing and page-turning.

Finally I'm really enjoying Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman. I'm actually going to the gym more so I can spend more time reading this engaging biography.

What are you reading?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday Salon

I've been busy! New York does have a lot to offer and I've been trying to get out more.

A lock from the Mossman Lock Museum
Some highlights of the past few weeks include
  • a visit to the Mossman Lock Museum, a collection of locks at the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of NYC,
  • eating at the iconic Russ & Daughters cafe and deli,
  • two traumatic and painful medical appointments (I'm fine, just routine stuff),
  • a quilt show in Brooklyn and a quilt guild meeting in Hell's Kitchen,
  • Macy's flower show, 
  • several movies,
  • two book club meetings and
  • finishing a quilt.
So there's all that. And I've been reading up a storm, and sewing lots too. I made a new purse for spring with some upholstery fabric someone left at the take-it-or-leave-it table at the guild meeting and I'm trying something called a New York Beauty block, a complex design that I've never done before, but I think it's time to push myself to try more difficult patterns.

Today we're going to try to get to a movie and maybe do some poking around in Soho.  I think my husband may have been spoiled by the magnificent Russ & Daughters bagels and I may be obligated to go back for more.

This week actually looks to be pretty quiet. I have an acupuncture appointment on Tuesday and a book club meeting at the end of the week. We'll see how it goes!

Friday, April 8, 2016


I couldn't get a good shot with me in it, but here is my collection of Jane Eyre editions for #JaneandMe, an internet meme going around today to celebrate Charlotte Brontë and her upcoming birthday, April 21.

I mostly collect illustrated standard versions but there are a couple of board books and alternate versions too, just for fun.

The doll of Jane comes from the Etsy shop UneekDollDesigns, which I recommend. The artist also does custom work if she doesn't stock your favorite character or celebrity.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

New On the Shelf, March Edition

I added a bunch of new things to my bookshelf in March. Partly this is because I went home to Cambridge for Easter and did the rounds at my favorite bookstores, and partly it's just because I've been a little more shoppy than usual in NYC.

I finally picked up My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Knausgaard, and The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante. I've been curious about My Struggle for a while, and feel an obligation to complete my collection of Ferrante's Neapolitan novels as well. They both came from HousingWorks Books.

I bought Stockholm Noir at the event for the book at Scandinavia House. I'm planning to bring this on the plane with me when I go to San Francisco in May. I think it will be perfect airplane reading.

The Best Place on Earth, stories by Ayelet Tsabari, is the current winner of the Sami Rohr Prize given by the Jewish Book Council. I have a great history of loving Sami Rohr books so I'm excited about this collection of short stories.

Jassy Mackenzie's The Fallen came from Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. I love her and got this as a sort of treat to counterbalance some of the less-fun crime I've been reading as part of the crime reading group I joined. Maybe this will come on my trip, too.

The other day I was at Kinokuniya Books, my favorite midtown bookstore, and picked up two things- Mick Jackson's Yuki Chan in Bronte Country and
Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask. The former is a fun-looking book about a young Japanese girl solving a family mystery in England and the latter is a more serious treatment of being gay in Japan.

Finally, Random House sent me a galley of Emma Cline's summer smash-to-be The Girls, about young women joining a cult. I can't wait!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Club Pet Peeves

I've belonged to a bunch of book clubs, and I'm in two now. In general I really enjoy the opportunity to discuss books with other readers, to add a social element to the usually-solitary activity of reading. But there are definitely some things that drive me crazy about book clubs.
  • When people who haven't read the book drive the conversation. Look, the rest of us took the time to read the book and come prepared. You didn't have time? Fine. Don't come to the meeting! Or just listen and don't offer your opinion when you don't know what you're talking about.
  • An unfocused moderator who lets one dominant person take over. Usually in the group that dominant person is myself. So book club leaders, watch out for Marie and people like her. She just never shuts up.
  • People who hated the book and won't talk about it except to say how much they hated it. When I hate a book so much I have nothing more to say than that, I just don't go. Because what's the point? It's almost the same as not having read it, because you only have one thing to say. If you're going to go, just say it once and let people with more nuanced opinions talk it out. Folding your arms and scowling doesn't add very much to the conversation.
  • When the snacks are no good. Haha just kidding. Or if there are no snacks.
  • Picking out of print books. This has happened a couple of times. If you're selecting a book, just make sure it's available. Learn how to read online listings so you understand the difference, or ask at your local independent bookstore. The best thing is to see it on the shelf. If you don't, ask and make sure people will be able to get it. Then check your library to make sure it has copies too.
  • Going off-topic. We're here to talk about the book, not your personal issues, so put away the tales of childhood trauma or bad relationships or vacation or whatever. And please don't bring in politics or religion unless those are an integral part of the book.
  • Telling someone their ideas about what to read are unwelcome, for any reason. If someone wants to contribute, at least listen and be respectful. If the group wants to pass, fine, but treat people with courtesy. You don't have a group if everyone leaves. 
  • Picking the same kind of book over and over. Unless your club specifically specializes in YA, or dysfunctional family memoirs, mix it up.
That's all I can think of right now. What are your book club pet peeves?

Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I realized the other day I haven't written a review since some time in February. Huh.

I finished Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright, early last week, and I'm still reeling from it. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning about this controversial organization.
This week I'm still reading The Madonna on the Moon, by Rolf Bauderick, which I'm really enjoying now. The plot has picked up a lot over where it was last week. I need an excuse to go somewhere on the subway so I can have some solid time with it today or tomorrow. It's about changes in a fictional small town in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s. Bauerdick gives us a vivid tableau of the people and goings-on in this place and time. I feel like I should be reading it accompanied by some Gypsy jazz or something.

My nightstand reading is Places of my Infancy, a slim memoir by Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the houses he's lived in. Lampedusa was the author of the wonderful Italian/Sicilian novel The Leopard, about the last days of aristocratic rule of Italy before the unification. That book is a true masterpiece and a must-read for historical fiction readers- really anyone- and this memoir is delightful and moving. It's very short and I anticipate finishing this week.

I didn't get to the gym last week what with the strep, so I haven't made any progress in the Charlotte Bronte biography.

For my crime fiction reading group I'm reading Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard, which I hate. I have six wretched chapters to get through today. We meet on Wednesday and it can't come soon enough.

That's it for me. What are you reading this week?