Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Another End-of-an-Era in NYC

One of my favorite bookstores anywhere in the world is the Strand Bookstore in Union Square NYC. For years I've made a habit of dropping by any time I visited the city and when I moved here three years ago the realization that I could just get on a subway train and go anytime I wanted was... well, awesome.

And one of my favorite things about the Strand, that made it different from other awesome bookstores, was their "review books" section in the basement, where they had shelves and shelves of half-price new-release hardcovers. I would go in sometimes just to browse that particular section, being as it was a curated and discounted selection of new releases. Located in a corner of the basement level, it was a quiet break from the bustle of the new-books floor above and always promised some treasures.

But now it's gone. I went in to the Strand the other day to sell some books and after getting my freshly-minted store credit slip went downstairs to see if there was anything great to take home. And it was gone! Now over the years the section has become smaller- two aisles at last count, down from four in my time coming to the store. But now it's gone. I asked at the information desk if it had moved (it has in the past), and the bookseller told me the books were still in the store but "reallocated" to their subject sections. So the Strand still has its half-price new releases, but they're all mixed in all over the store now.

I'm sure this integrated arrangement makes more sense for actually selling the books, which is after all the point. In the past, if you went in looking for certain new releases in hardcover, you might not find them in the general new-release section or in the fiction section dominated by older releases and paperbacks, and you might think the Strand doesn't stock them.  The review section was dominated by popular fiction and general nonfiction, books that some readers might not associate with the store. And since most people don't ask if they can't find something, and you might never think to look in the review section, you might just assume you're out of luck. Now, it's right there in alphabetical order. Makes sense, right?

But it also makes me sad, because the review section was, like I said, one of things that made the Strand special, and I'll miss it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished Lisa Riggin's The Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, which was interesting and something I'd recommend for someone interested in San Francisco history.

I'm thisclose to finishing The Golem and the Jinni; it's really good but I have to really force myself to settle down and read sometimes. 

Still working on The Possessed at the gym. I like it. It's fun.

I also started Alissa Nutting's new book, Made for Love, on audio thanks to libro.fm's bookseller program. It's a very engaging book, about a woman running away from a disastrous marriage to a tech overlord that reads like science fiction sometimes. I can't wait to see where it goes and I definitely recommend it for fans of edgy ladies.

What are you reading today?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What's New On the Shelf?

For once in my life I think I'm reading (and weeding) books faster than I'm accumulating them. But I have added a few things to my shelves over the past few weeks, after the heady indulgence of BEA back in May and the cartons of galleys I routinely take home from the bookstore.

My most recent acquisition is a galley of the upcoming "fictional memoir" by my favorite living author, César Aira, called The Linden Tree. It comes out in the spring from New Directions. Sorry Kerry. :-(

On my last shopping trip to the Strand Bookstore, I picked up The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard, 1935-1936. It's one of the only known journals by a Gulag guard that's been found. Ivan Christyakov, the author, was by all accounts a pretty average guy but he left behind some extraordinary insights.

I also got The Shape of Bones, by Daniel Galera, the latest from the author of 2014's Blood-Drenched Beard, a Brazilian thriller I really loved.

Finally another Aira came my way, The Little Buddhist Monk, the most recent book to be published by this wonderful Argentinian author.

And this afternoon I plan to purchase What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

I won't get to the Gulag book till next year, but hopefully I'll crack one or two of these as we start to wind down and head into the fall and winter holidays. What's new on your shelf?

Monday, September 11, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished Hunger, by Roxane Gay, and Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast, so things can only get better from here. Each of those books was agonizing in its own way, and yet also essential reading.
I'm still enjoying The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, which is a great fantasy-tinged fable I think I'll be able to recommend to lots of readers. Set in Manhattan in the early 20th century, it's a somewhat familiar immigration-era story whose mythical elements distinguish it. Also distinguishing is the whipped-cream writing, so easy to lap up.

On my nightstand is Lisa Riggin's The Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, about San Francisco's leading lady abortionist, a fun and fascinating portrait of a woman, a city and a time in history that I certainly hope never comes again. I always enjoy San Francisco history and this book, set in the 1940s and 50s, has an appropriately colorful cast of folk heroes, swindlers, hustlers and villains. I'll let you decide who's who among its roster of cops, abortion practitioners, prostitutes, hangers-on, society high rollers and everyday people just trying to get by. It comes out in October and I expect to be done reading it this week.

And still slowly reading The Possessed, Elif Batuman's light and enjoyable memoir about studying Russian literature. It's fun. I don't have another audiobook picked out right now but I'd love to hear your suggestions.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

Monday, September 4, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Got through a few things last week; finished Monsieur Proust's Library and read A Game for Swallows, by Zeina Abirached, a moving graphic memoir about Beirut at war. And I finished Jon Papernick's very good collection There is No Other. I have one of his novels hanging around; I'll get to it soon (famous last words).

On Sunday I finally started The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker, a very popular book that's been outstanding in my TBR pile for a while. I'm really liking it. It's about two magical creatures who come to life in early 20th century New York City. I'm only about 70 pages into this 500-odd page book but I can already see why it's done so well.

I'm struggling to finish my audio copy of Roxane Gay's Hunger, which is agonizing. I have about an hour to go.

On my nightstand now is Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, also a tough read but less so than the aforementioned audio memoir. I love her work.

At the gym I'm about halfway through Elif Batuman's academic memoir, The Possessed, which is fun, and features cover art by Roz Chast, so there's that.

Friday, September 1, 2017

You Should Definitely Read These Books This Fall

There are so many good books coming out this fall. This list isn't really everything you should read this fall- it's just my top picks. But you should read all of these, even if there are also other things you should read too.

Fiction

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas (September)
The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whitall (September)
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (September)
Belladonna, by Daša Drndic (September)
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (September)
Fever, by Deon Meyer (September)

Ferocity, by Nicola Legiola (October)
Madonna in a Fur Coat, by Sabahattin Ali (October)
Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn (October)

The Night Language, by David Rocklin (November)

Nonfiction

Marita: The Spy Who Loved Castro, by Marita Lorenz (September)
The Madeleine Project, by Clara Ledoux (September)


The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen  (October)
Renoir: An Intimate Biography, by Barbara Ehrlich White (October)
San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, by Lisa Riggin (currently on my nightstand) (October)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: THE BURNING GIRL, by Claire Messud


The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud. Published 2017 by WW Norton. Literary Fiction

It's too bad that this book, a consummate literary beach book, is coming out now, as summer is coming to end.

The Burning Girl is a novel by Claire Messud, author of the much-lauded The Emperor's Children and somewhat controversial The Woman Upstairs; when the latter was released, Messud did an interview defending her choice of an angry, unlikable protagonist: "Well, I think women's anger is unacceptable. We live in a culture that wants to put a redemptive face on everything, so anger doesn't sit well with any of us. But I think women's anger sits less well than anything else. Women's anger is very scary to people, and to no one more than to other women, who think my goodness, if I let the lid off, where would we be?"


In The Burning Girl, the angry girl, Cassie, is held at a distance and we see her only through the eyes of her friend Julia. The two girls are both only children, though Cassie's family is fractured and Julia's more traditional; they have known each other since they were little and are inseparable as the book opens.
Cassie and Julia start the summer volunteering at an animal shelter; Cassie is bitten by a dog and the ER doctor who treats her, a taciturn loner, ends up in a relationship with Cassie's needy mother. Things go downhill from here. Anders Shute, the doctor, is a difficult step-parent, and Cassie's image of her long lost father may or may not be a fantasy. And the girls, as different as they are similar, drift apart as growing up does its inevitable work.


The Burning Girl reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, another sharp novel about growing up and the delicate friendship of girls. It would also be a good follow-up for readers of Elena Ferrante. I think The Burning Girl will make a wonderful book club selection; largely character-driven, there's a lot to talk about. It's beautifully written and will appeal to readers looking to maybe recapture a piece of their girlhood, or just those looking for a thoughtful and moving exploration of the fragility of youth.


Rating: Backlist


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.

Monday, August 28, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well I decided to DNF The Essex Serpent. So many books, you know?

I started reading Jon Papernick's There is No Other, a collection of short stories, and I'm really loving it. Each story is its own little world, with its own voice and sensibilities. Love it.

Otherwise the books are the same as last week- Roxane Gay's Hunger on audio and Anka Muhlstein's Monsieur Proust's Library on the nightstand. I expect to finish both this week. And then I'll have to choose two new books read!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review: THEFT BY FINDING, by David Sedaris

Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris. Published 2017 by Little, Brown. Nonfiction. Memoir. Humor. Audiobook.

Oh how I love David Sedaris's memoirs. Way back when I remember splurging on a hardcover edition of Holidays on Ice, because I just had a feeling it would speak to me. And it did.

Anyway after reading his books steadily for the past 18-odd years I've decided the best way to enjoy him is on audio- he is a great narrator of his own work and really adds a whole new dimension with his expressions and voice. Thus even though I did run out and buy a hardcover of Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 as soon as it came out, I also jumped on a free audio version that Libro.fm offered to booksellers. What a treat.

At the very beginning Sedaris informs, or warns, us that this book is a very selective and incomplete edition of his diaries, which are far more voluminous than even this weighty tome would suggest. But what remains is vastly entertaining, bittersweet at times, at times obscene, crazy, or just plain silly and weird. It's also mundane, tender, jumpy, and intimate, and all these contradictory things at once. The narrative feels disconnected at times, since there is no real narrative, just a selection of events over time that give the reader some insight into Sedaris's priorities when it comes to observation, as well as his creative process and eye for detail. Some characters stand out; his relationship with his siblings always sits front and center, as well as his parents and his partner Hugh, who comes on to the scene about midway through this volume. Sedaris is cagey and economical about what he includes about the relationship; they meet, meet again, and the next we hear they are moving in together. It's not a lot but the particulars he chooses are enough to give a sense. I don't know why I'm particularly fascinated with this aspect of his life, but there you go.

Sedaris's voice joined me for a couple of weeks of bus rides and walks and he is a great companion. He says in the introduction that he doesn't expect readers to listen all at once, but "dip in and out" and this is just about what I did, listening for a few minutes here and there as I did errands, traveled around the city or relaxed at home or worked on crafts. I listened to quite a bit of it in the car, as my husband and I drove to and from Washington, D.C., two weekends ago. But for the most part I consumed the book in stolen moments.

And this approach worked well for a diary, written as it is in fits and spurts and crystallizing individual moments in time. Readers will travel with Sedaris all over the United States, to England, France and elsewhere, and from his early days of housecleaning and fruit picking through to his success as a writer. You'll get to know his family, especially his sisters and parents, and of course Hugh. You'll listen to experience his first successes and occasional struggles, like learning French or losing his cat Neil. Poor Neil.

Theft by Finding isn't laugh-out-loud funny like his polished memoir writing but it's so very enjoyable in a more low-key way. I could listen to him all day.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary audio copy from Libro.fm.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review: THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTEN, by Devoney Looser

The Making of Jane Austen, by Devoney Looser. Published 2017 by Johns Hopkins UP. Nonfiction.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, and thus this year will see the publication of several books celebrating her life. Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State and an Austen scholar, and she has produced an interesting and entertaining look at how we the reading public have come to understand and appreciate Austen's wonderful novels.

More academic in tone than Helena Kelly's Jane Austen: Secret Radical, Looser's book focuses on visual representations of Austen through the years, and how those representations have shaped the public's understanding of Austen and her works. She also touches on the ways, sometimes contradictory, that Austen's name and legacy have been appropriated for social or political ends. Kelly's book might actually serve as an example of someone interpreting Austen to serve a political agenda. But that is another discussion for another day.

Looser starts with a survey of early illustrations accompanying the novels, and tells us about the life of each artist who was important in establishing Austen's visual representations, as well as how the artwork itself served to create expectations in the public. She goes on to talk about theatrical productions and how they both defined Austen's works in their (the productions') own time and how those productions influenced the later adaptations that came to the silver screen. I wish she had spent more time on the cinematic adaptations of the modern day and how those continue to shape and direct the understanding of the general public of Austen and how they influence readers' understanding of the novels.

And she talks about how Austen was used by politicians and social activists, particularly during the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Overall I thought the book was interesting and offered some worthwhile insights into the way we've read Austen over the years. I learned a lot about the weight the early illustrations carried, and how the theater was so important in both keeping Austen's books in circulation and shaping and evolving the understanding of womens' roles in the books. I will admit to finding it a little dry at times but Looser has written a book for the serious Austen fan rather than the casual one. But for that person, who is interested in digging deeper into the history of the novels and their popularity, The Making of Jane Austen is a great choice, and there is a lot to be learned from this volume.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.