Friday, October 31, 2014

Une Nouvelle Librarie à New York! - And A Giveaway!

Recently the French Consulate in New York launched a new cultural project- a bookstore!

Albertine is a beautiful bookstore located on Fifth Avenue- 972 Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park, to be exact- selling books in French and English from around the Francophone world.

That means there are books from over 30 countries represented, including translations to and from English. So you can find the latest French bestsellers, classics and gift books in French and translated from French, but you can also find French translations of English-language books like Stoner (translated by bestselling French author Anna Gavalda) and Philipp Meyers' The Son, as well as childrens' books, coffee-table books and more.

The store occupies two floors in a gorgeous building and is itself remarkably beautiful and attractively designed. There are leather armchairs for browsing or taking a break, and a lovely atmosphere throughout.
You can converse with the staff in French or English- moi, j'ai été un peu timide to speak French to them but maybe I'll give it a try the next time I'm in. I picked up The Last Days, by Laurent Seksik, a novel translated from the French about the end of the life of writer Stefen Zweig. It was on my list to buy and I was happy to find it here, but there were so many great things here, it was hard to choose!

In celebration and appreciation, I'm offering my readers a giveaway of an advance reader copy of Daniel Anselme's recently-translated book, On Leave. Click on the title for my full review but it was one of my favorites this year and I'm delighted to be able to offer you an ARC copy that they let me have. The giveaway is open to the United States only. Just leave your email address in the comments and I'll pick a winner on November 8.

The Consulate General of France is just down the street at 934 Park Ave. The French Embassy has its own site and events calendar as well.

You should visit Albertine if you're in the area, or visit their website if you're not. It's a gem!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Published 2014 by Penguin. Translated from Russian. Short stories. Literary fiction.

Despite the funny title, you need to know right away that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's tales are anything but funny. These are not stories about people you're going to like very much. Petrushevskaya writes tough, relentless stories about women whose lives would be unimaginable if she did not imagine them for us. But she breathes such life into these sad people that they become real, and unforgettable.

It's almost hard for me to summarize the first story, "Time is Night". A woman's life spins around her like a centrifuge. Her elderly mother is being hospitalized for a mental illness and the narrator wants to spare her the slow suffering death of the wrong institution; her daughter is pregnant again; her son is a useless drunk; her grandson Tima is the light of her life but sets her aside for his mother, as useless as her brother. All of these unfortunates live in the same tiny apartment, making demands, taking up space, poisoning each other with anger and spite and bitterness.

In the second story the poisoning is more literal. "Chocolates with Liqueur" tells the story of a woman desperate to save herself and her children from murder at the hands of her husband. It's hard to say which of the three stories is the bleakest, but this one broke my heart with its nightmarish portrayal of lives gone horribly wrong.

Finally there is "Among Friends," about a mother who abandons her child to a group of friends including the child's father after being diagnosed with a fatal illness. She tries to convince us, and herself, that his future will be bright. But she doesn't quite manage it.

This is the third collection of Petrushevskaya's tales that Penguin has published in the last few years and has by far the darkest and most difficult stories. Other collections have dabbled in the supernatural and played with Russian folk tales. This collection is strictly realistic, each tale shot through with panic and inevitability. There is that little sliver of hope offered at the end, but only a sliver. Petrushevskaya has been described as a kind of Solzhenitsyn of the home- someone who doesn't write about politics, isn't a dissident writer in the classical sense but who exposes everyday horrors inside a way of life both oppressive and chaotic, which leaves people feeling out of control and therefore taking control the only way they know how- by acting out their rage and hopelessness on those closest to them. With the torments and brutality of everyday life she creates a searing and indelible lexicon with which to understand and imagine a country so much of whose history and stories are so familiar. She takes that familiarity and takes it apart, conjuring images and emotions sure to burn themselves into your memory and stay with you forever.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Movie Review: IDA (2013)

Ida (2013). Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik. IMDB. PG-13.

Ida tells the story of Anna, a young Catholic novitate who is about to take her final vows in 1960s Poland. She is very young and was raised a Polish convent, an orphan. Just before she's due to take her vows, the Mother Superior tells her to visit her only surviving relative, an aunt, who has some things to tell her.

Her aunt Wanda is a woman haunted by death. Deeply troubled, she has nonetheless forged a successful career as a judge in post-war Poland but nothing can fill the emptiness inside her. Anna, or Ida, as is her real name, is Wanda's only hope. Together they try to uncover the last secrets surrounding the fate of Ida's parents, and of someone else special to Wanda, too.

Ida is a quiet movie, very compelling and very tragic. Visually it's arresting; filmed in stark black and white, the people are often dwarfed by nature, by architecture, and ultimately by the weight of history and the secrets it bears. It's just over an hour long (82 minutes) but it feels longer, and not because it's boring. It's the kind of movie that forces you to pay attention every moment to every nuance. The two lead actresses give incredible performances each in her own quiet way and draw in the viewer completely. Everything is so quiet, and yet the women give off so much energy they might as well be screaming.

I strongly recommend Ida to people who find themselves liking the kinds of books I like. It reminds me of Philippe Grimbert's Memory especially. Anyway it's an unforgettable film.

FTC Disclosure: I rented this movie from Netflix.

Monday, October 27, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

With all the time I spend on subways these days I have been burning through books.

This week I finished The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald, which was well-written but bleak, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's new collection, There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family. I assure you despite the amusing title this book is anything but funny.

Now I have three books going. I made significant headway into Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, which I'm enjoying. It's about a middle-aged, affluent African American woman who leaves her friends at a port of call on a cruise they're taking together, and the adventures that await her outside her comfort zone. I like it a lot; it has an urgency and a sense of almost panic about it so far, which reflects the character's state of mind.

I also started Alina Bronsky's new book, Just Call Me Superhero, about a support group for disabled and/or disfigured adults. Told from the point of view of Marek, a young man disfigured in a rottweiler attack, it's also a little brittle and hard to access, again owing to the narrator's angry and distrustful state of mind. I want to muscle through though, because I've loved Bronsky's earlier books, especially her debut Broken Glass Park. That remains one of the truest examinations of family violence I've ever read.
Finally I started Patrick Modiano's Missing Person, a noir about finding oneself. Modiano is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the book was a little tricky for me to track down but I seem to have managed it. Largely out of print in English, Godine Press had a small quantity that were quickly in high demand and I was unable to get it from the bookstore where I used to work. But now I live in New York, so the Strand was able to fix me up. It's atmospheric and strange, and I'm only a few chapters in but I like it.

What are you reading?

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: SEVEN HOUSES IN FRANCE, by Bernardo Atxaga

Seven Houses in France, by Bernardo Atxaga. Published 2012 by Graywolf Press. Trans. from Spanish. Literary fiction.

Seven Houses in France is not like any book you've read in a while, no matter what you read. Set in the Belgian Congo in 1903 at the height of Belgian colonial presence, it's a satire about a bunch of pretty unlikeable people- racist, violent, ignorant- and the story tells of sex, murder, revenge and greed. Captain Lalande Biran smuggles mahogany and ivory to satisfy his wife Christine's voracious need for money and status; the "seven houses" are hers. Fawning Donatien wants to open a brothel back in Belgium and is haunted by the voices of his possibly non-existent siblings. Coco lusts after the captain's wife after seeing a photo in the captain's quarters and schemes to win her for himself. Livo, their African servant, seethes with hatred and the new guy, Chrystosome Liege, is an uptight and fervently religious sharpshooter from the sticks (Brittany) who throws everything out of whack with his piety and his love for an African girl.

That said, the book is essentially a comic farce in which comeuppance comes in heaping bowlfuls and revenge is a frozen dessert.

I really enjoyed this book for the satire and the character studies. It's like Atxaga threw his characters in a blender, flipped the switch and just tells us what happened. It's more accessible than Obabakoak, the last book of his I read, which was a collection of loosely-related anecdotes and stories, but reading Seven Houses makes me want to give Obabakoak another chance. Atxaga is a Basque writer but doesn't always set his books in the Basque region, although he writes in Basque and either translates to Spanish himself or collaborates on the translation. His books typically come to English from their Spanish translations. Which doesn't mean anything, but it's interesting. Seven Houses isn't a book I'll keep forever, but I'm glad I read it, and I want to read more Atxaga. He's different, and fun.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Get Your Look-Away Look Ready- Here's Some Reading to Creep You Out

As the fall creeps in and the temperatures drop and the leaves begin to change, we reach for a good spinetingler to curl up with along with our cardigans and hot apple cider. I always love a good creepy thriller, and so I'm going to share with you some of my favorites.

For great horror you can't beat the grande dame, Shirley Jackson. I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the short but oh-so-scary tale of Merricat and Constance, two sisters who live with their cat and elderly uncle. Everything is fine- just fine- until Cousin Charles arrives to destroy the castle the sisters have built.

Last year one of my favorite writers published one of my favorite creepy books. Jeannette Winterson's The Daylight Gate is a modern classic almost-true witch and ghost story set in 17th century Lancashire. You simply must read this book this month if you want a scary time between the covers.

William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley is a fantastically scary crime novel set amid circus folk during the Great Depression. The American backwaters of the 1930s never seemed so sinister!

Mallock's The Cemetery of Swallows is a scary crime novel set in the Dominican Republic and France that includes elements of both supernatural and all-too-real horror, about a man murdered by a total stranger for no apparent reason. It will have you clinging to the edge of your seat and turning the pages wildly for sure.

For a more comedic horror experience, can I suggest the "Bad Rides" portions of John Waters' recent memoir/fiction, Carsick? Because some of those bad rides- and even some of the so-called "good rides" are the stuff of nightmares for sure. He gives us stalkers, serial killers, mutilation, disease and more. And the stuff that won't gross you out is pretty funny. Oh, and- get the audio. His narration is worth every penny.

Finally, I'd like to recommend Jeff VanderMeer's genuinely creepy Annihilation, first of his Southern Reach trilogy, all of which are out and
available now (I have yet to finish the series). This first book takes place in a future world where a group of scientists must chart an uncharted region and report back on what they find. But how uncharted is this place, and what is it? And what happened to the last dozen research teams sent there? This book asks- and starts to answer- some very scary questions. Arresting, absorbing and disturbing fantasy about Area X, a secret place filled with the bizarre and supernatural. The book was like a cross between Christopher Priest and Lovecraft, strange beings and happenings written in a luminous, complex and immersive style. It will certainly affect the quality and quantity of your sleep!

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, I finished the three books I was reading last week- Stav Sherez's Eleven Days, a crime thriller set in London, and Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin, a very unusual novel with an unusual topic, which I'll tell you more about soon. They were both really good and both coincidentally about the country of Albania in one way or another. And I finished White Teeth. I wonder if kids read this in high school yet because it is a quintessential read-in-high-school kind of book. I enjoyed it a lot too.  I didn't plan that! I also bought and flipped through and used a fun book called Queens: A Culinary Passport, which is a guide to ethnic restaurants in the borough of New York City in which I live. This is not the kind of book you read cover to cover necessarily; it's more of a reference, and it's great. More on that soon too!

This week I'm treating myself to two backlisters: in celebration of a new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald coming out next month, Random House has reissued three of Fitzgerald's novels in a new Everyman's edition and I'll be reading The Bookshop from that volume. The Everyman's edition also contains The Blue Flower and The Gate of Angels and I look forward to those, as well.

Alongside, I'm starting Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, which is just one of those always-wanted-to-read books.

Finally, I'll start reading Ludmila Petrushevskaya's new collection, There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family. Her work is always edgy, tough and awesome. I can't wait!

What are you reading? See more at

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: THE FALL, by Diogo Mainardi

The Fall: A Father's Memoir in 424 Steps, by Diogo Mainardi. Published 2014 by Other Press. Translated from Portuguese. Memoir.

The Fall is the author's memoir of his son Tito, who developed cerebral palsy following medical malpractice at an Italian hospital. It is, as blurb says, a history of the Western world with Tito at its center, as he is the center of his father's life. It is about acceptance, anger, and what "normal" means.  Tito's birth and all its attendant struggles is the consequence of a long line of "falls" and his life as an example of what it means to get back up.

Because falling is only one half of the story. There's also those 424 steps. For several years when Tito was a child and learning to walk, he fell constantly. His father would count the number of steps Tito could take without falling. 424 was the record number of literal steps that Tito took and the point at which his father stopped counting. Because as much as the book is about Tito's disabilities, it's also a love letter to his son and to that moment when Mainardi could let go and stop counting his son's steps, the moment when it became unremarkable for his son to walk.

Mainardi breaks the book into 424 sections, most very short, and intersperses personal memories with historical anecdotes and stories. He talks about art and architecture, about other people who lived with cerebral palsy, and about the Holocaust and how Hitler's program to exterminate the Jews started with exterminating the disabled.

He also raises the sensitive question of exploitation via a section about a politician who spoke publicly about his son's cerebral palsy and was criticized. In doing so he implicitly asks whether this book represents exploitation of Tito, I think. I don't think so. I think people are uncomfortable with illness and difference and often react by blaming their uncomfortable feelings on those doing the talking. Rather than deal with people who are different, and deal with their own discomfort, it's easier to point the finger and try to shut someone up with accusations like "exploitation.". I think as a writer and as a person,  Mainardi needs to talk about his son, and deserves to, with the same pride and love as any parent.

The thing I love most about this book, and the thing I'll take away with me, is when Mainardi talks about how Tito is "just a person I know," how when you love someone with a disability you don't think of the disability, you just think of the person as a person. This is so true to my experience. Whether or not you have experience with people with disabilities, I can't recommend Mainardi's memoir highly enough. There is so much compassion and love flowing through the pages of this marvelous book.

Rating: BUY!

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

East Village Walking Tour

Houston and Bowery art mural wall
Last Sunday Jeff and I took a walking tour of the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, offered by the Strand, the legendary bookstore in Union Square. We spent two hours going through the main streets and side streets and seeing former flophouses, bars, theaters and libraries. I was particularly interested in the neighborhood's street art.

Our tour started at the corner of the Bowery and Houston streets, where there is a big art mural.
Mural Detail

What's now the John Varvatos store was once the legendary CBGB nightclub. We saw the former home of the Fillmore Theater and an apartment where Trotsky lived, along with the first public library, a former German shooting club and more.
Everywhere we went we saw neat graffiti art. Some of it was informal and spontaneous, like Cost and ENX's stuff, which always appears together.

 Some of it was clearly sponsored/commissioned.

Some of it is community-approved and changes regularly. This mural of Joe Strummer replaced an earlier version. The mural itself is a large canvas attached to the wall near Tompkins Square Park.

One of the best examples of street art I saw was this decorated mosaic lightpost. They are all over the East Village and the product of a man named Jim Power, "Mosaic Man" of New York City.

Here is a detail of one of his mosaics:

This mosaic wall of his is one of the oldest installations in the city.

We actually got to meet the Mosaic Man himself, who happened to be working on a mural outside of Tompkins Square Park. He was so friendly, and even complimented by blinged-out Hello Kitty cell phone. Fun!

We strolled through colorful St. Mark's Place, full of restaurants, shops, tattoo parlors and more. There is a legendary vintage clothing store that sells to the likes of Lady Gaga and a former theater where you can see the handprints of Joan Rivers and Kitty Carlisle.

After passing through Astor Place we finished up the tour at the Strand, where we browsed for a while. Jeff and I spent some more time in Union Square and then wound up back at St. Mark's Place for dinner, where we went into one of the many Japanese restaurants on that street for a delicious bowl of ramen. It was the perfect ending to a really fun afternoon!

Monday, October 13, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well it's been a pretty good reading week for me. I finished and reviewed The Unknown Bridesmaid, which will be a favorite of the year for sure.  Both of my current books are set in London, one in the 80s and one in the present day. It's one of my favorite cities and I always enjoy going there through books.
I'm close to finishing Zadie Smith's modern classic White Teeth, which I'm thinking should be required reading somewhere. Very much in the vein of The Buddha of Suburbia, Smith creates a fascinating work about modern day English life. Its prose is something you can just sink into.

I also started Eleven Days, by Stav Sherez, the followup to A Dark Redemption, one of my favorite recent crime novels. It's the second in the Carrigan/Miller series and so far it's great, about gruesome murders at a London convent.  British-mystery buffs need to tune into this great talent in the crime genre.

That's it! I'm just reading the two right now but that's plenty. See more at