Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: THE LINE OF BEAUTY, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. Originally published 2005 by Bloomsbury USA. 2004 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Reading a book like Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty really spoils you for other books, and no matter when you read it, you wonder what took you so long to get around to this luminous, sad and melancholy treasure.

Set in the 1980s among the political and social elite of London, it's basically a coming of age story about a character named Nick Guest, a gay man living in the home of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden. The Feddens are the epitome of political and social elite; father Gerald is a Tory MP whose star is on the rise, and it's the heyday of the Thatcher era. Toby and his friends are rich and carefree; they party, do drugs, have sex. Nick's background is more modest but he seems to fit right in. He's closeted, which in this time and place goes without saying, and coming out during the first flush of the AIDS crisis. But he's also anxious to be part of the gay life of London and begins a relationship with a man whom he meets through a personal ad. Later he and a member of the Feddens' set have a relationship too.

Nick is at the Feddens' because during college he was enamored of Toby and the two were friends, though nowadays it's Toby's sister Catherine to whom Nick is closest, and she's the only one who knows he's gay. She is also unstable and will cause the avalanche that brings everything down in the end.

Reading other reviews, the biggest problem other readers seem to have with the book is how unlikeable the characters are, and this is not a book to read if you're looking to meet your next literary best friend. But that consideration is as shallow as some of the characters in the book. This is a book in which the characters are just who they are, flawed and imperfect, just trying to make the best of things. Nick's boyfriends are the most sympathetic characters, to the extent anyone is. The Feddens are pretty much terrible people, with paper-thin loyalty and wholly beholden to public opinion, not the least because Gerald's career is that of an elected official. Nick is alienated from himself, trying to keep up a front while also trying to figure out who he is in the world.

What makes the book is Hollinghurst's incredibly beautiful writing, his detailed characterizations and his command of psychological nuances. It's like a Victorian novel set among 80s party kids. I can't pull out individual quotes because it's such a whole, every sentence flowing into the next. Reading it I just felt like, why can't every book be this good? It's definitely going to be among my favorites for the year and it's one of my favorites among the Booker winners, too. The story is tragic and sad, a love letter to an era that had its share of joy and pain, but it's that writing that will get you hooked and move you and make you feel for these deluded and difficult characters. It's so worth your time to read.

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Challenge for Challenge Blogs

I participate and/or manage two group blogs- the Complete Booker Challenge, where I'm a participant, and the Complete Europa Challenge, which I started with a friend (who no longer participates) several years ago. Both blogs have been extremely active in the past- lots of members, frequent posts, etc., but in the past year or so participation in both has dropped off. The new manager of the Booker blog is looking for ideas, and so am I.

I love group blogs because you get lots of points of view and one place to read reviews on a theme. Doing the Europa Challenge has helped me get to know awesome people at a great publisher and has just been a lot of fun. Both blogs have helped motivate me to read great books and share my thoughts and get others' opinions. I love that I have places where folks like to read the same things I do, and we all talk about them together.

But as I said, things have been slow on both. Both blogs have loyal posters but there are an awful lot of tumbleweeds too.

Do you participate in a challenge or multi-reader blog? Do you have any tips or suggestions about how I can re-energize these? Are there any resources out there for leading group blogs?

How do folks run blog challenges these days? I don't really even know what's out there anymore. In the past I've done Irish literature challenges, Jewish literature challenges, World War 2 literature challenges, Pinterest challenges, etcetera. Granted I'm not a big joiner and sometimes I forget what I sign up for. And then my priorities change too.  So I understand what happens. But what can I do about it?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: DOUBLE NEGATIVE, by Ivan Vladislavić

Double Negative, by Ivan Vladislavić. Published 2013 by And Other Stories Press.

A while back the publisher of And Other Stories Press came to visit the bookstore where I work, to tell us about his company and the kinds of books they publish. And Other Stories is a small press based in London which specializes in translations and literary fiction- in other words, just the kinds of things I read. Double Negative is a recent novel by South African writer IvanVladislavić, about a photographer dealing with post-Apartheid South Africa through the lens of his camera, and that other another and more famous photographer whom our protagonist, Neville Lister, met when he was young.

Neville didn't just meet the famous photographer, one Saul Auerbach. He went out on a shoot with Auerbach and watched as Auerbach photographed ordinary people in their homes, in a particular poor area of Johannesburg. Auerbach asks Neville to choose three houses to visit and they visit two of them. The stories the residents tell are beyond sad. The photos become famous, and Neville becomes a professional photographer although a commercial one and not an artistic one (or so he claims). Years pass. Neville moves away from South Africa to avoid military service and returns when Apartheid has been overturned. He has the opportunity to meet Auerbach again, at an exhibit of Auerbach's work. And he has become an unofficial archivist in his own right, holding a collection of dead letters. But over the years he's remained curious about the people they visited that day, and the one house they never did.

Author and photographer Teju Cole wrote a great introduction to this book where he talks about how Vladislavić uses metaphor to underscore the themes of memory, loss, growing up and coming to terms. The plot in this book is very thin; it feels like a memoir, like someone just telling you what happened, without adornment. The structure of the book and the use of metaphorical language throughout undercuts this plainness though. The book is a very carefully crafted meditation on truth and identity, but couched in a way that allows the reader to relax.

I enjoyed reading Double Negative a lot and I want to read more of Vladislavić's books and more of And Other Stories' books too. It didn't have the big emotional impact on me that books set in South Africa tend to- it lacks melodrama and harshness that one can find- but it was well worth reading and I look forward to more from Vladislavić and his publisher.


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

Monday, July 21, 2014

What's New On The Shelf?

I don't have any new reads to tell you about- I'm still reading all the same books I was reading last week (maybe I need to just read one book at a time?) so I thought I would tell you about some new things that I've bought or found lying around.

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney, is a newish book from Europa Editions based on a true spy story, about an elderly woman who was found to be one of the oldest living KGB operatives at age 87. It sounds really great! Europa sent this to me for review and I'm going to start just as soon as I finish Take This Man.

Naming the World is a book of writing exercises edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This and husband of my friend Jennifer. I'm hoping that it will help me get my own writing kick-started.

The Patron Saint of Ugly, by Marie Manilla, is about a red-haired Italian-American girl living in Sweetwater, West Virginia, who becomes the object of both veneration and fear for her healing powers and a trauma visited on her town. It seemed quirky and different and the reviews have all been glowing, so I decided to give it a chance.

Fluent Forever is a galley I found at work. Gabriel Wyner's book is a how-to on learning a foreign language efficiently and well. I've read the first few chapters and it's really interesting. I'm going to finish reading it and put its suggestions to use- and then report back to you! Language learning is a hobby of mine and I'm fascinated by different approaches and I definitely believe anyone can do it if you only put in the effort. So we'll see!

That's it! My book-accumulating has slowed to a trickle lately.  What are you reading today, or what have you picked up lately?

Friday, July 18, 2014

ThrowBack Thursday Review: THE LAST POLICEMAN, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters. Published 2013 by Quirk Books.

The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy and tells the story of Concord, New Hampshire detective Henry Palace, recently promoted after 15 months on the force. He's investigating the death of one Peter Zell,  an introverted accountant found hanged in a McDonald's bathroom. It looks like he killed himself. I mean, it really looks that way, and everyone thinks Palace's crazy to investigate, because these days everyone is killing himself. It's the end of the world, after all.

No, it really is. In the book, scientists have predicted that a mammoth asteroid is six months away from destroying life on Earth. Anarchy is settling in. People are pulling up stakes, going "bucket list" to do the things they always wanted to do. Cults are forming. Hopelessness abounds. And suicides are way, way up, so much so that no one even questions Zell's death. No one does, except for Palace.

The Last Policeman is more than just a mystery. It asks some searching questions about the choices that people make- would make, could make- when faced with the collective, inevitable, date-is-on-the-calendar end. It also asks us about our own lives, since each of us faces the inevitability of death with or without an asteroid. Society's steady dissolution is a major feature of the book; Palace struggles with the cynicism around him and inside him as he pursues Zell's killer. He almost gives up. Who could blame him? It looks just like a suicide; maybe it is.

I was totally glued to this book from page one. It was a staff pick of a fellow bookseller and I'm so glad she recommended it because I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. I liked the combination of pre-apocalyptic science fiction and crime, and the setting of small-town New Hampshire was perfect. When the world ends, it won't just end in New York City; it'll end for all of us and Winters makes us consider the figurative impact of this asteroid through different levels of society and in places that don't normally come to mind when we think of catastrophe. And he wraps it up in a truly riveting mystery that will keep you guessing. Highly recommended!

P.S. Volume 2, Countdown City, is out now; there is no release date that I know of for #3 but I plan to read them together. I have to know how it all ends!

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: WORLD OF TROUBLE, by Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters. Published 2014 by Quirk Books.

So World of Trouble was for me one of the most hotly anticipated books of this year. It's the third in a series called The Last Policeman, about Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, New Hampshire police department, and some very unusual circumstances. The world is going to end- a comet called Maia will collide at a certain date and it's definitely going to happen. The first book, also called The Last Policeman, takes place about six months out; the second, Countdown City, 77 days before impact. This one starts merely two weeks from Maia's slated arrival. All three are fairly standard procedurals but what makes them different is the premise. Why solve a murder, or resolve a disappearance, if everyone is going to die in six months? Why do anything anymore, when nothing you do will matter?

The answer to these questions is one that Hank pursues along with his perps. Before the world ends though, it falls apart little by little. People go "bucket list," leaving jobs and relationships to chase last-minute dreams. All over the world anarchy is taking hold. The poor in parts of the world that will be affected most immediately by Maia flock to the United States and other richer countries in hope of salvation. People stockpile food, weapons, whatever. Currency becomes meaningless, and so does life, for a lot of people.

For Hank, hanging on to his sanity, and his humanity, means taking the time to care for Maia's first victims, these murders and disappearances that happen before the impact. So he insists on investigating an apparent suicide in the first book, at a time when suicides have become commonplace, and a man who disappears from his devoted wife in the second, when everyone and their neighbor is going "bucket list". 

In this final volume Hank is chasing his sister, Nico, who has taken up with a group of survivalists who believe they can save the world. Hank is skeptical to say the least but his sister is all he has left and he's determined to find her and be with her when the impact happens. Because as much as he hopes, he doesn't doubt that it will. He leaves a communal home he's been sharing with other police officers to bike to Ohio to find her. What he finds changes everything and nothing.

From a whodunit perspective this book was right up there with The Last Policeman for providing satisfactory twists and turns although I did guess who did it at an opportune moment well before the big reveal. But this book is still a great page-turner filled with lots of colorful and surprising characters. The big question is, does the world end? I won't tell you but I will say the ending is beautiful, poetic and just- and this just might be one of the best reads of 2014.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters, third in the Last Policeman series. It was so great. The whole series was great, especially the first and last books, and the ending was so fitting and beautiful. I strongly recommend this series for mystery readers but I think lots of people would enjoy it.

Gosh, what am I reading now? I started a whole bevy of new books this past week.

First up is Take This Man, by Alice Zeniter. It came out in 2011 from Europa Editions and it's about a young French woman who marries her African best friend to keep him from being deported back to Mali. Will it change their relationship forever? Will she even go through with it? Will he? It's written the way a young person would talk, all energy and emotion and all-over-the-place. It's obviously also very political and I'm really enjoying it.

Next up is Climates, by Andre Maurois, published originally in 1928 but brought out in English by Other Press in 2012. It's an emotional story about a man and his failed relationships over the years. It's very moody and well-written, and very readable.

I've temporarily misplaced The Line of Beauty but I'll continue when I find it.

I'm three discs into Lawrence in Arabia the audiobook and loving it. It's fascinating and well-drawn history, not just about T.E. Lawrence but about several other notable figures who influenced the modern Middle East. 

What about you? See more at

Thursday, July 10, 2014

ThrowBack Thursday Review: ROLE MODELS by John Waters

Role Models, by John Waters. Published 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I've never seen a John Waters film so I guess you'd say I'm a fan of the idea of John Waters' films rather than of his work itself.  That's okay. I don't plan to see his films. But he is a cultural icon, not only a notorious purveyor of filth but an advocate for the marginalized, the outcast, the people who don't quite fit in. And that's what I find so appealing.

His book Role Models is an appreciation of the people he admires for all kinds of reasons. He starts off with Johnny Mathis, the reclusive legend who keeps a low Hollywood profile and a very private personal life. From there he moves on to some figures famous, notorious and obscure, from a Manson family killer still in prison to fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to high society artist Cy Twombly and marginalized pornographers who captured Waters' imagination with their depictions of gay male sexuality at a formative time in Waters' life.

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot, mostly owing to Waters' charming and engaging voice. Reading the book is like listening to him talk, enthusiastically and at length, about the people and things he loves and appreciates. He shows the same love and respect for the everyday people he talks about as for the celebrities, and while I don't always share his admiration for some of his subjects, he comes across like a genuinely nice and caring person. He's also funny, raw, obscene and everything else you'd think, so if you do read this don't go in expecting him to be someone else. There were some parts of the book that I found I could not really read, either because they crossed a line with me in terms of being very explicit or because they were just over my head. I love his appreciation, for example, of artist Twombly but knowing nothing about modern art, much less graffiti painting, I'm not in much of a position to share it. But I do love his sense of humor.

On the subject of celebrity perfumes:
Or better yet, maybe you could be the first on your block to sell a perfume I'm planning on marketing with my attached...Whenever I say my name in Paris, the French laugh because to them it means "toilet waters." So my perfume would have to smell like, what? The humorous absence of God mixed with the odor of a piece of 16 mm film getting caught in the projector gate and burning?
 Elsewhere, on the subject of moral dilemmas:
If someone was racist and really cute, could you still have sex with him? I had to admit the answer is yes. I have. You just change the subject or shout, "La la la la la la la," covering your ears when he speaks his nonsense. If all else fails, stick something in his mouth to shut him up.
As someone with a number of friends who, though I love them dearly, have political views that make me want to duck and run for cover, I can say the "la la la" approach works well. And these are but two examples of his philosophy of life. In one chapter he discusses a number of books that he loves or that influenced him; several are books that I've either wanted to read or tried to read, but I was sad to find that we had no favorites in common. The chapter "Baltimore Heroes" talks about the ordinary people in his life whom he admires and the final chapter, "Cult Leader" is about his own legacy.

But who's this book for? Film buffs, Waters fans, and anyone who's ever felt like mainstream American life passes them by. Ultimately what I got from this book was his love and loyalty to people who don't live at the center of celebrity, wealth or fame but who live honestly, try to be kind and to create some kind of meaning with their lives. And that's a pretty good standard to live by, I think.


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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: CARSICK, by John Waters

Carsick, by John Waters. Published 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Audiobook narrated by John Waters.

Oh my God, you guys. So, I have never seen a John Waters movie (I might have seen "Serial Mom," but that's it) but I'm a fan of John Waters the writer and cultural figure- the outsider, the pusher of boundaries, the purveyor of things-that-make-people-squirm-uncomfortably. I think that's a good thing in a free society and after reading his 2010 book Role Models I was definitely interested in reading his latest, a combination of memoir and fiction recounting what was basically a stunt he pulled, hitchhiking across America from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco.

The first two parts of the book are fiction. The first, "Good Rides," recounts the best-case scenarios- hilarious, often raunchy, wish-fulfillment scenes involving resurrected film stars, generous drug dealers, retired porn stars and magical body parts. He encounters an exhibitionist bank robber and a race car driver who gets a little too involved in his racing. He meets a collector of the same kinds of pulp novels he loves, books with titles like Chain Gang Chicken and Womb Raiders. He takes a ride from a singer he loves, and joins her in a rendition of his favorite songs. His hair grows back. He makes a new best friend. It's awesome.

Part two is "Bad Rides," or "the worst that could happen." In this section things get ugly very quickly after a bad ride with an obsessive fan who only speaks in quotations from Waters' own movies. He gets a scary tattoo, he gets sick from tofu served by a vegan extremist and sleeps in a dog house owned by an animal lover who hates people. And he meets a man with a very bad opinion indeed of cult film directors. The "Bad Rides" section was truly awful in places; I listened to the audio version of the book so I listened to everything, but I would have skimmed if I had been reading paper. And it's here, I think, that Waters' sense of humor and sense of the gross and grotesque really come out to play.

Finally the rubber hits the road in the "Real Rides" section, which documents Waters' actual trip. This section was the most fun because it was the truth. And the truth is, when you're John Waters, hitchhiking is mostly boring, and tedious, and mined with privations, and you  miss your Evian water, and your La Mer skin cream, and marvel at the lack of room service at Days' Inn hotels. But you get picked up more than the average person and generally have a good time meeting folks from different walks of life and parts of the country. And Waters did make a real new friend, a young Republican city councilman, as well as a host of other traveling companions.

I enjoyed the whole book, even the real cringe-worthy chapters of the "Bad Rides" section, with one exception. I'm glad I did the audio because Waters' narration is so worth the price of admission. He is hilarious but also sweet and adorable and just plain fun, even when he's complaining about the lack of amenities at cheap hotels and the difficulty obtaining his La Mer skin cream. I like his books because he just seems like a fun person with whom to spend time, and if you have a warped sense of humor and don't mind a fair serving of raunch, please don't miss Carsick. It's a great ride.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well in four days on Nantucket I finished three of the five books I was reading, read another one and started a fifth. So that's not too bad!

Late last week I finished Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, about the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who is involved in a violent incident at his school, and the repurcussions of trauma through generations. It's a meditative and thoughtful book that ends on a pretty hopeful note.

Over the weekend I finished Laidlaw, a very good crime novel by William McIlvanney, considered a classic of "Tartan Noir" or Scottish crime, and a book that paved the way for the likes of Ian Rankin. I also finished Arimathea, by Frank McGuinness, an Irish novel about an Italian painter who comes to remote Donegal to paint the Stations of the Cross for a local church. I'd love to see one of our great small presses bring this little gem to the U.S. Next up was Double Negative, by Ivan Vladislavic, about a photographer and post-Apartheid South Africa. And I finished Carsick, John Waters' memoir/fiction about hitchhiking across the country. That was on audio and I finished it last Tuesday.

After finishing all these books I read a galley I had on hand, Avi Steinberg's The Lost Book of Mormon. It comes out in October. I am a fan of Steinberg's from his 2010 book Running the Books, a memoir of his time as a prison librarian. This is a book that really deserves a second life after Orange is the New Black has been such a success. But anyway his new one is great too, as much about writing and the act of creation as about traveling through the lands of the Mormon holy book. Great.

Now on to some new books!
I picked up a galley of Ben H. Winters' World of Trouble, final book in the Last Policeman series, and will be reading that and only that until I'm finished. Somewhere around here is my copy of The Line of Beauty and I'll get back to that eventually but first I must finish World of Trouble and find out if the world really comes to an end after all!

Finally, in audioland I started Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson. I listened to about half of the first CD last week but I probably should start again since it's pretty in-depth history and I've had a five-day gap now. But I liked what I heard so far!

What are you reading? See more at