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 BookJourney.wordpress.com.

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. 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 BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: THE UNKNOWN BRIDESMAID, by Margaret Forster

The Unknown Bridesmaid is one of the best books about the dark side of childhood I've ever read. It's the story of a girl who grows into a troubled teen and then a deeply dysfunctional adult who helps others without realizing how much help she needs herself.

Julia is raised by a secretive, authoritarian mother who belittles and shuts her daughter out. Nobody will talk about her father, who died when Julia was five. Julia grows up with her mother's sister Maureen, Maureen's beautiful daughter Iris and later Iris's family, consisting of her second husband Carlo and daughters Elsa and Fran. But before there is a family with Carlo there is a wedding to Reginald, Iris's first husband and Reggie, her little son, who die, and nobody will talk about them, either.

This ordinary family holds a lot of secrets, and Julia grows up believing she has the most devastating secret of all. This secret gives her guilt and shame, but it also gives her power. Julia is a deep introvert who cannot find a way to fit into the warm, extroverted family with whom she must live after the sudden death of her withholding mother, who taught her to disdain her cousin.  Her feelings of insignificance are transformed into bullying and aggression towards Elsa, Carlo and Iris when her mother's death leaves her feeling abandoned and alone. As an adult, Julia becomes first a teacher and then a counselor to troubled children, but it takes meeting an unhinged adult who strikes Julia as another version of herself, to get her to face her childhood demons.

Of course in her chosen profession Julia is reliving and dealing with her issues every day, even if she doesn't realize it. And here's the thing. Julia is not a nurturer; she is clinical, detached and strategic, and even to the end she cannot fully understand or admit to the damage she's done to the people who loved her, because she cannot admit her own importance to them. Margaret Forster's genius is convincing us how it happened, how powerless she felt, how frustrated by the silence around her, and how her actions made her feel like she mattered, made her feel like she could have an impact when all around she was told to be quiet, not ask questions, sit on the sidelines. It's painful to see how different things could have been for her. She can't understand, even into middle-aged adulthood, that she did matter to her cousin's family, and to her only friend. It might be too late to undo some of the damage, but not too late to make it better for somebody else.

Forster has written a quiet and devastating novel about how the wounds of childhood carry over into adulthood and how hard it is to let go of the image one has created of oneself, no matter how strenuously others contradict it. And it shows how precarious our lives are, how one person takes a wrong turn when someone else, equally flawed and vulnerable, doesn't. It also offers hope that it doesn't have to be this way, that healing and help are possible, if only one reaches out. It's a tough read and a beautiful one, too.

You'll find yourself thinking back on this book for a long time after you're done reading. It'll definitely show up in my favorites list this year.

It's the 11th book I've read for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: RED JOAN, by Jennie Rooney

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction; historical fiction.

Red Joan is an excellent novel based on the true story of an octogenarian British woman who was revealed to be the KGB's oldest living British operative. Of course what everyone wanted to know was, why? In the case of real life, the woman was a die-hard Communist true believer, but Jennie Rooney has decided to make her heroine an entirely different person and has crafted from this rich premise a tense and absorbing tale about love and what it means to be loyal.

Rooney alternates the narratives between the past and present, the present being when elderly Joan is brought in for questioning after the sudden death of a fellow spy. She is living a quiet life in England and her son, a successful lawyer, rushes to her aid. He doesn't believe that she could be guilty of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets but as her story unwinds she gradually lets down her guard.

Set starting just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, Joan is not a true believer, but rather an ordinary lower-middle-class girl making her way at Cambridge. She encounters Sonya, a glamorous Russian who takes the mousy Joan under her wing and introduces Joan to her cousin Leo, a magnetic young man with whom Joan becomes infatuated. They become lovers. Leo is a committed Communist and Joan accompanies him to rallies and meetings, and while the philosophy behind Communism is not unappealing to her, she is largely apolitical. What she believes in is Leo, at least until she learns she can't. When war breaks out she is offered the opportunity to work in a lab doing nuclear research. The man who runs this lab is married but in love with Joan; she returns his feelings but is torn. At this point Leo, Sonya and their associate William step up pressure on Joan to spy for them.

Meanwhile in the later timeline, Joan slowly buckles to the pressure to tell what she knows, and has to explain herself to Nick.

I really loved this book. The last few chapters are tense page-turners as Joan's activities lead to consequences she doesn't expect and she has to work her way out of a very tight spot indeed.  Joan is an interesting character, an ordinary woman caught up in events and just trying to keep her head above water for much of the book. Then, when the waves crash too high, she has to pick a side. Rooney doesn't exactly convince us that Joan was right, but that what she did made sense for her at the time she did it, for the reasons she did it. Nick is the skeptical reader's stand-in and doesn't understand her, but Rooney shows us the past is another country. The story is more about relationships than politics,  the triumph of real love and the power of love to save ourselves, and others.


The readers I would have in mind for Red Joan like literary fiction, British war stories and a good love story, too. For me it was a winner.

This is the 10th book I've reviewed for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of Red Joan from Europa Editions for review.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

Dir: David Fincher. Starring Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens. Rated R.

Are you Team Amy or Team Nick? Or have you not read the 2012 bestseller by Gillian Flynn on which this startlingly good movie was based? I read it and I loved it- it's a crazy-good thriller with twist after crazy twist, right to the bitter end. On the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne goes missing, and her husband Nick finds himself under suspicion. The story is set in Missouri after Amy and Nick have moved there through a combination of money problems and family illness. Amy is a trust-fund baby who's lost her trust fund, a native New Yorker who's not happy in a flyover state, as well as a woman with a deep well of anger towards her husband and men in general. Nick is a deeply flawed man who is also struggling to put their lives back together. Nick has secrets; Amy does too. Amy and Nick have had problems- serious, serious problems, and their relationship is one of the most disturbed fictional marriages I've seen. There is a trail of clues- actually more than one- and it seems like Amy might not be coming back.

But what's really going on here?

Gone Girl the book was a phenomenon when it came out and remained so. It was a hardback that became a book club staple (rare) and one of those books it seemed like everyone was reading. It's extremely well-crafted guilty-pleasure reading that touches on powerful themes- female anger, male anger, marriage and family- in dark, dark ways. And the movie has been one of the most anticipated of recent years for the bookish. Would David Fincher do it right? What about casting Ben Affleck as Nick? Gillian Flynn's writing powers the book; how would the filmmakers translate that to the screen?

Well, I'm happy to report that as an adaptation of the book the movie is more than solid.  I enjoyed every tense minute; it's well-paced and atmospheric, and Trent Reznor's musical score does a lot to enhance the creep factor. At 2.5 hours it hits all the plot points even if it doesn't go into as much detail with them as Flynn does in the book. The actors are great; I particularly liked Kim Dickens as the lead investigator and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's creepy stalker ex. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were excellent as Nick and Amy; Tyler Perry provided a little reality check as Nick's lawyer. The buzz was wrong; the movie is very faithful to the book, so if you've read it, there aren't going to be any surprises. If you loved the book, you'll love the movie too, I think. If you didn't like the book, maybe you should skip it, and if you haven't read it, what are you waiting for?

Here's my review of the book in case you're interested!

Monday, October 6, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well it's Monday and I'm back to my favorite meme. I've finished a bunch of books since I posted this meme back in August sometime. I'm going to try to catch up with the reviews over the next few weeks; I'd really like to share a lot of these with you! In the mean time this is what I'm reading now.

I'm reading Margaret Forster's The Unknown Bridesmaid, first of several fall Europa releases I'm interested in. It's about a child and an accident, and that child's life as an adult working with troubled children. It's fascinating and I want to spend all day reading it. I can't wait to see where it goes.

I'm also reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth, her modern classic of multi-racial Britain. I like it a lot. I'm not very far into it but I like her writing and her attention to nuance.

There are so many books I want to read right now. Margaret Atwood's new one, Ian McEwan's, Assaf Gavron has a new one. Not to mention the Europas- Stav Sherez, Damon Galgut, two of my favorites. So much good stuff! I can just take one at a time, right?

See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.