Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: STONE MATTRESS: NINE TALES, by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood. Published 2014 by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Literary Fiction. Short Stories.

I don't know what I can say about the incomparable Margaret Atwood that hasn't been said already. She's probably the most prolific of my favorite living writers (A.S. Byatt doesn't publish that often; Ludmila Ulitskaya only has a handful in English, etc.) so not a lot of time goes by before there's a new opportunity to enjoy her wonderful storytelling. Stone Mattress is her most recent book, a return to the short-story form after a bunch of wonderful novels. It's also the first story collection of hers I've read; I'm not a big short-story reader generally. And it's a great collection, of course.

The first three stories are interconnected, focusing on a writer named Constance W. Starr whose fantasy series Alphinland has made her famous. The stories wind in and out of a group of artists and writers, telling events from different perspectives. Subsequent stories have the feel of fairy tales or nightmares, dark and by turns comic and ominous. "The Freeze-Dried Groom" was probably my favorite, about a man who wins an auctioned-up storage space only to be confronted with a nasty surprise. I absolutely love how this story ends, the final words. The title story is about a woman on a trip to the Arctic who takes revenge on the man who hurt her a long time ago. "Torching the Dusties" is an over-the-top dystopia that makes the final chapters of The Bone Clocks look optimistic. One of the stories acts as a sequel to her 1998 novel The Robber Bride, a bonus to long-time fans. Several of the stories touch on the dangers of underestimating a woman's power, whether that power be to create or destroy.

Atwood fans need to read this; I'd also recommend it to readers of dark fantasy and scary tales. I had a lot of fun with these stories. They're caustic, funny, disturbing and wonderful. They're classic Atwood, and maybe just plain classic.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: THE INFINITE WAIT AND OTHER STORIES, by Julia Wertz

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, by Julia Wertz. Published 2012 by Koyama Press. Graphica. Memoir.

I've been a fan of Julia Wertz since reading her first book, The Fart Party, which I reviewed here back in 2008. I got to interview her once for this blog, and when my husband went on a business trip to Brussels, the thing he found to bring me was a French translation of her comics.  This book isn't her most recent (that would be 2014's Museum of Mistakes, a collection of Fart Party comics) but it's a great introduction to her style and sensibility.

The Fart Party books are about her relationship with and breakup from a man named Oliver, as well as about her life in San Francisco and moving to New York City. (I just moved to New York so maybe I need to re-read that one.) They are crass, childish and full of swears. They are also very very funny and I love them. This book has less scatalogical and swear-word content than the Fart Party books but it's still definitely one for the grownups. I say this because there are still lots of people who think graphic-books are for children.

The Infinite Wait is comprised of three stories- two longer stories, one about working in restaurants and the other about how she started writing and drawing comics after coming down with Lupus at the age of 20, and a short about her love of libraries. As a librarian this last story warmed my heart of course but I loved the first two for telling me more about the woman behind Fart Party. Her adventures in restaurant work remind me of mine in retail and I'm grateful that she shared her personal struggle with chronic illness. Chronic illness is an issue that is often misunderstood and the people who suffer from it don't always get the understanding they need and deserve. I hope that Wertz's story can go some way to changing some perspectives.  She tells her story, plain and unpretentious, and that's what I've always loved about her writing.

So, I think you should pick this up if you like graphic memoirs and slice-of-life style graphic books. Obviously if you're a fan of hers you should read it. I'm a fan, so.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, I pulled myself out my slump and started or started and finished a few things. I really have to thank the New York City subway system and our outer Queens location for giving me so much time to read. This past week I read All Days Are Night, a moody novel about a woman disfigured in a car accident that kills her boyfriend, by Peter Stamm, and finished The Infinite Wait, a book of graphic short stories by the always-enjoyable Julia Wertz, and Between Two Seas, which ended up being really good. I also finally finished Sonechka, short stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya, which was uneven for me but she's one of my favorites, so that's OK. She's got a new one coming out in English in the fall and I plan to drop whatever else I'm doing just as soon as I can get a copy (which should be earlier because the publicist has been promising me a copy since early last year).

My friend Jeanne who writes the great blog Necromancy Never Pays was in NYC a few weeks ago and when we met up for a walk around the Strand bookstore and lunch at Japanese ramen place Ippudo, she recommended The French Lieutenant's Woman, so I started that book this week. In some ways it's a very "me" book- mannered and literary, Victorian in temperament- and I'm trying to like it but something feels a little off. No matter. I'll keep pushing through.

I'm also reading Blood Brothers, by Ernst Haffner, originally published in German in 1932 and subsequently banned by Hitler. It's being republished in English by Other Press in March. One of my pals at Other Press gave it to me for my birthday and it was really the perfect gift. It tells the story of a group of young men living on the margins of Weimar society, kind of a pre-Beat generation of disaffected youth involved in drugs, crime and anarchy. It's fun, and lively reading.

That's about it for me this week. What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Monday, February 16, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm not going to lie to you, I haven't been doing a lot of reading this past week. :-(

I did finish The German Mujahid, which is an outstanding and challenging novel.
But I'm in a bit of slump right now. I started reading Carmine Abate's Between Two Seas, which is a nice book, and I'm still poking my way through The Infinite Wait. But honestly that's how I'm feeling about reading right now- like I'm in a holding pattern. Job-searching is taking its toll on me, I'm dealing with a calf injury and my birthday and Valentine's Day kept me busy a lot this week. I celebrated my Hitchhiker's birthday with a small group of friends, my husband and a delicious chocolate cake from a great NYC bakery, Amy's Breads. That and all my sewing was pretty much my week. Things will pick up on the reading front sooner or later I'm sure!

What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com and have a great week.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Crafturday- A Recessed Zipper Purse


I passed a major sewing milestone this week- I made my first recessed zipper purse.

I started with this "curvy bag" tutorial, and then found several guides to creating recessed zippers elsewhere online (just google "recessed zipper tutorial" if you're interested. People have different presentations but the basic principles are all the same).

It's not perfect; the lining is a little warped because of an interfacing mistake, and the zip ends are messy, but overall I'm very happy with how it turned out. I used fusible fleece on the outside and a thinner interfacing on the lining. In the future I would use a layer of thin interfacing as well as the fusible fleece on the exterior just to give it that extra bit of bulk. I tested it with my wallet, phone, keys- even a book- and it held up fine with all that stuff, so I know it will be a great purse as-is too.

But this one I'm giving way to someone, because it's really not my style.  It's a fun print- from the "Las Senoritas" line from Alexander Henry- but it's not really me.
I used a little less than a yard of fabric; you can get away with a 1/2 yard if you don't fussy cut the design like I did. It may not be my style exactly but it did come out cute!

I already have a couple of fabrics in mind for the next time I make this pattern. Can't wait!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: UNBECOMING, by Rebecca Scherm

Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm. Published 2015 by Viking. Fiction.

Think of Unbecoming as the anti-Goldfinch. The commonalities are as follows: a coming of age story, set in New York, about art and restorers and getting away with fraud. Where The Goldfinch was redemptive, Unbecoming is unrepentant; where The Goldfinch slogged and took forever to get to the point, Unbecoming keeps you flying through the pages. Where The Goldfinch's protagonist finds freedom in telling the truth, the lead of Unbecoming becomes her true self only when she stops trying to be respectable.

Unbecoming tells the story of Grace, a young woman from Tennessee with some secrets. As the story opens she's living in Paris under a new name, trying to hide from friends back home who are about to get out of prison for a robbery in which she could be implicated. She works for a shady dealer doing restoration work on antiques- the kind of place where no one asks too many questions about sticky things like provenance or legality. The details of Grace's roll out slowly and I don't want to spoil anything, but the narrative goes back and forth between Grace's backstory- growing up in Tennessee, her relationship with her boyfriend Riley, a sweet boy from a prominent local family, her time in college in New York, her introduction to the world of appraising and how it all shakes out when she gets the idea to capitalize on her new skills. Meanwhile, in the present tense, fishy things are going on in the restoration studio, more like a fine art and jewelry chop shop, and Grace fears her number may be up sooner rather than later.

It sounds like a lot of information but Scherm relates it economically and the book reads very, very quickly. I read the book in two or three days; Grace is a complicated, fascinating character and things didn't really go the way I expected- and I liked that. Her relationship with Riley's family is particularly poignant, the story of an abandoned child who tries to belong somewhere that doesn't really want her. And her journey is that story writ large, until she finds the one person with whom she can be herself, and she accepts that self, and revels in it.

Unbecoming sits for me somewhere between literary and commercial fiction and would make a great beach read for readers of either genre. It's trashy in the best way, page-turning and engaging about the risks and rewards of bad behavior. At the same time Grace's story is moving and fun. Unbecoming is a terrific fun read, unpredictable and entertaining. I'd love to see a movie made of Unbecoming, and I can't wait to read what Scherm writes next.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: Two by Marco Malvaldi

Game for Five and Three Card Monte, by Marco Malvaldi. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

In 2014 Europa Editions came out with the first two volumes in the Bar Lume mystery series, by Italian writer Marco Malvaldi. If you love light, funny crime fiction that isn't dark or gory, that fits right in your beach bag and can be read in the time it takes to eat an ice cream cone, these books are for you.

Game for Five and its follow-up, Three Card Monte, star bar owner turned amateur detective Massimo, who gets drawn into investigating crime in the first book when a young woman turns up dead near his bar. The crime becomes an instant and irresistable subject of gossip among his crowd of grey-haired regulars, a quartet of old guys who hang out all day chatting and playing cards. The police are clueless and incompetant (though not as overtly corrupt as they are sometimes portrayed by others), benign bumblers who can't put the pieces together. So Massimo, who doesn't want to play detective, who just wants to be left in peace to judge his customers by what kind of coffee they drink, ends up getting involved, much to his chagrin. The second book is about a Japanese scientist who turns up dead during a conference and shows us another side to Massimo- his mathematics background.

Both of these books are great fun for the crime reader. I would recommend them in particular to readers who don't want gritty or depressing books- these books are light as a feather and well-crafted and entertaining to boot. Massimo is a great character and his cast of hangers-on are ornery and funny and real. Malvaldi makes you feel like you're sitting under an Italian umbrella nursing an espresso of your own as you listen to their back-and-forth. Great stuff.

These count as books 2 and 3 of the 2015 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received these books for review from Europa Editions.

Monday, February 9, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


I've had a busy reading week. I'm mere pages away from finishing Ludmila Ulitskaya's short story collection Sonechka, and I finished three books for the Europa Challenge- Ian Holding's Of Beasts and Beings, set in Zimbabwe as a white teacher is preparing to leave the country, alternating with the story of an unnamed man who has been taken captive by other men and used for their ends- and Flavia Company's The Island of Last Truth, about a man who was stranded on a desert island for years and has returned. I also finished Arctic Summer, early in the week. And I decided to DNF Vestments for now. If it's sitting on my nightstand I don't want to pick it up for a week or longer, I'm probably not interested in it for now, and many other books await.

On our big NYC snow day a couple of weeks ago we ventured outside for some book shopping, and I picked up The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, a collection by one of my favorite cartoonists, Julia Wertz. I'm loving it, what can I say. I really like her sarcastic and slightly bitter take on life.

I'm still reading Bury Me Standing but I got hurt a week ago and haven't been to the gym for a while so that one's sort of on hold while I recover.

I also started The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal, billed as the first Arabic novel to take on the Holocaust. It tells the story of two brothers of mixed nationality- born in Algeria to an Algerian mother and German father, blond white people who live in Paris, albeit one in the Paris of the banlieue ghettos and one in the Paris of business trips and the middle class. One of the brothers commits suicide and leaves behind his diary, opening up some serious questions for the brother left behind. It's a very strong book and though it's an older title and might be hard to find, I think it's one I'm going to be recommending a lot.

And I'm looking for my next recent book to read. I have my eye on Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneallly. We'll see!

What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Crafturday- Mermaid Friends

A few weeks ago I bought a pattern on Etsy from a seller called Bit of Whimsy Dolls, for this mermaid doll. Bit of Whimsy sells easy sewing patterns for a variety of toys and small dolls; I whipped up this doll from my scrap bag on a snow day. It took about an hour.

I made this mermaid out of scraps too (it's a very scrap-friendly project). She was made to match the doll quilt you see behind her, itself made from the scraps of a larger project.  I still have bits of the shell and tone-on-tone peach fabric left; maybe I'll make a little doll for the doll!

Bit of Whimsy has a lot of great patterns; I want to try the Jane doll next. She's designed to look like a Jane Austen-type Regency lady, but also looks relatively easy to sew. I'll let you know how it goes!


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: THE GIRL WHO LOVED CAMELLIAS, by Julie Kavanagh

The Girl Who Loved Camellias, by Julie Kavanagh. Published 2013 by Random House. History. Biography.

As much social history of 19th century France as a biography of the life of courtesan Marie Duplessis née Alphonsine Plessis, Julie Kavanagh's book has romance, glamour, high society, low life, and tragedy. Much like the life of its heroine, Kavanagh's book is short and interesting and just a little sad.

Marie Duplessis, as she came to be known, was the woman on whom Alexander Dumas fils based his book, La dame aux camélias, or The Lady of the Camellias, a book that was adapted for the theater, the opera, the ballet, and the screen. The book came out in 1848, a year after Marie's death at the age of 23. While she lived, she enjoyed wealth and an enviable position in Parisian demimonde society, the lover of many prominent men and a woman respected, to a degree, for her own intelligence and love of literature and learning.

You might not think there would be so much to say about the life of a courtesan (read: prostitute) who died so young, and you wouldn't really be wrong, but Kavanagh manages to string a pretty interesting book out of Marie's story, which is as much about the social and economic life of Paris in the 19th century as it is about one woman and her lovers. Personally I have always found that time and place fascinating. So much great literature and art came out of the period, and it had such an influence on modern life. European and American society was transformed; revolutions and economic shifts created the world we know today. And somewhere in all of that flux were the lives of women who enjoyed considerable economic power for the first time.

Now, granted, that power came at a price, and prostitution at the level at which Marie practiced it had its benefits but we have to be careful not to glamorize it too much. So it's important to read The Girl with a slightly critical eye. I still think it's worth reading if you're interested in the period or in French social history more generally. Prostitution at her level was an established part of Parisian life and she was only one of many women who lived this life. Kavanagh tells Marie's story with energy and good documentation; a glance at the bibliography shows histories, memoirs and novels of the period as her sources. She has a chapter on her sources at the end, and an introduction explaining why we should be interested in Marie's life in the first place with an emphasis on the longevity of her life's story in multiple art forms. It's definitely an entertaining read, a history book for the beach bag. The sad part for me is that even though she died young, she would not have had much to which to look forward had she lived. Her life may have seemed enviable in some respects, but like many women in her position, it was more doomed than it was ever charmed. Kavanagh's book doesn't quite shout that message, but I think it's there anyway.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review.