Monday, February 20, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished The Maids by Junichiro Tanizaki, which took just a couple of days to read. And I decided to DNF the nonfiction read I had going at the gym- an upcoming collection of essays that just wasn't doing it for me at all. I haven't picked a new gym book yet but I will soon.

In the mean time,
I'm still on Eva Sleeps, by Francesca Melandri, which I expect to finish this week. I'm enjoying it more and more as we go.
My bedside book is Véra, by Stacy Schiff, her biography of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov. I'm enjoying it so far. It's dense but interesting and I'm looking forward to continuing.

So I'll have to pick two new books to read soon!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: SELECTION DAY, by Aravind Adiga

Selection Day, by Aravind Adiga. Published 2017 by Scribner. Literary Fiction.

As a big fan of Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger, I was really excited to get a hold of an early copy of his latest, Selection Day, and I didn't hesitate to read it. While I didn't think Selection Day has the same bite as Tiger, it's a worthy entry and well worth the time to read.

Set in contemporary India in the world, which I don't understand at all, of cricket, the book concerns two brothers and their ambitious father. Radha Kumar is the older brother, passionate for cricket and supremely gifted; Manju, the younger brother, is an up-and-comer who is good but not quite as good. And he idolizes his brother. Their father pushes them hard to become cricket stars and both boys resent him. Then Javed Ansari arrives on the scene- talented, Muslim, and handsome, he shakes Manju in ways he never expects and forces him to figure out who he wants to be, and who he is. As "selection day" nears, it becomes clear that only one brother will have the shot at stardom they are both told to want. The fallout from selection day will change the lives of not just the boys and their father, but the scouts, investors and friends who surround them.

I don't really know the first thing about cricket and I'm sure I missed a lot of fine points but I got the general gist of a sports-obsessed parent pushing his children, and ultimately pushing them away. For me certain swathes of the book moved slowly and while I'm glad I stuck with it, I almost didn't. That said, the book picks up momentum about 2/3 of the way through and from there until the end it doesn't let up. The action is all in the relationships between the three cricket players and how each one chooses a path.

Like I said for me it didn't have the kick of The White Tiger but I think Selection Day is a very strong novel, very well-written with great characters and a vivid setting which is immersive even if I didn't get every detail. I'd definitely recommend it to literary fiction readers and I think its emphasis on character growth would make it a great brainy book club pick. Check it out.


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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bookish Distractions: What's New On the Shelf

Well it's time for a new edition of "What's New on the Shelf." This month I've added a cookbook, two novels and a memoir.

2084 is the latest from Boualem Sansal, of Harraga and The German Mujahid fame. It's an homage to 1984 and a dystopia set in a country called Abistan. I'm looking forward to reading it soon. I'm a big fan of Sansal's and always love to see what he's up to.

The Asian Slow Cooker, by Kelly Kwok, is a cookbook that does more or less what it says- Asian food in your slow cooker. The recipes are sweet but more or less healthy versions of takeout staples and homecooked fare. I've made a couple of things from it already and enjoyed them. And I look forward to trying more!

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel is the short memoir of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Russian short-story writer extraordinaire and author of volumes in English such as There Once Was a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, and There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. Her stories are tough and magnificent; I'm looking forward to this and plan to read it the next time I finish a bedside book.

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, is a book a customer at work sold to me, about the history of a German house and its inhabitants over the course of the 20th century. Looks great. I love it when customers sell me on a book!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON, by Luke Harding

A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West, by Luke Harding. Published 2017 by Vintage. Nonfiction.

If you want to read something that will keep you up at night, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West is as good as any thriller out there- with the additional zing that this is a very true story about an inept but ultimately successful plot to kill a journalist and the investigation that went all the way to the top of the Russian government.

Alexander Litvenenko was a journalist who became an enemy of the Putin government when he threatened to expose its role in scandals that shook Russia, in particular an apartment bombing that killed several hundred Russians and may have been orchestrated by the Kremlin to promote public support for the war in Chechnya. Litvenenko ended up fleeing Russia with the help of oil oligarch Boris Berezovsky, himself an enemy of the state, and lived for a time in London with his wife and son until two bungling henchmen poisoned him with polonium, a radioactive element that is only produced at a couple of labs within Russia. So while from an official point of view no charges have been pursued against Putin, from another point of view there's really no question who's responsible.

Journalist Luke Harding tells this harrowing and tragic story with verve and enough detail that the reader will feel fully immersed in the details of the killing, the investigative aftermath and the bureaucracy and corruption surrounding the whole affair. It's also incredibly frightening on any number of levels. Litvenenko's is not the only dead body in the story and though I will say it loses some momentum about 2/3 of the way through it picks up again right towards the very end.

I really couldn't put the book down. It probably took me about a week to read it and I wanted to be reading it every waking minute of that time. Last year I read Masha Gessen's scary The Man Without a Face, her story of Vladimir Putin's rise, and the Litvenenko murder was part of that story; this book fleshes it out and gives us a level of detail Gessen could not, but you don't need to have read her book for this one to chill you to the bone. If you're interested in the current head of the government who is so admired by the head of our own, A Very Expensive Poison will make it hard to sleep at night, one way or the other.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: DINNER, by César Aira

Dinner, by César Aira. Published 2015 by New Directions. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. Literary Fiction.

So, as regular readers of this blog may know, César Aira is one of my favorite contemporary writers, but he's definitely not for everyone. One way or another, reading him will change your life; if you love his books, he will change your life for the better. Either way, buckle up.

Dinner is going to go down as one of my favorites of his, and certainly one of my favorite reads of 2017. It's short, as per usual- short and sweet. It's about zombies.

Specifically, it's about a zombie invasion of Pringles, Argentina, where all (?) of Aira's novels takes place. The narrator, who is not explicitly named, has dinner with his mother and then after dinner turns on the television to see the zombie invasion take place. Then he has a conversation with a friend about it. That's it.

Dinner is certainly one of Aira's more plot-centric books; after an opening digression on the importance of names to creating a community, he launches into a virtual blow-by-blow of the zombie invasion, from the moment the dead of Pringles rise from their graves to the moment they go back. It's very suspenseful; Aira does a masterful job building tension and leaving you wondering how it will be resolved.

Ultimately the solution is silly, sweet and makes perfect sense. But then there is a wrinkle at the very end which may keep you up at night after all.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I read two short books this week- Dinner, by Cesar Aira, which I can already tell you will be on my list of this year's best reads, and The Gun, by Fuminori Nakamura, which will be on some kind of list but I'm not sure what. And I finished A Fifty Year Silence, which is a perfectly solid memoir.

So I'm starting two new books this week.

Eva Sleeps, by Francesca Melandri, came out last year from Europa Editions. I can't tell you that much about it right now; I just read the first chapter. But I like it. More next week.

Food City continues to be interesting and educational, about the rise and fall of different food industries in New York City. It's fascinating to learn about all the brands that started here, and how the industries have changed. I'm reading about a city that isn't much like the city I know.

I haven't picked a new gym read but I'll let you know what it is next week! Hope you're having a great week in books and in life!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Monday (Or Tuesday!) What Are You Reading?

So I waited a day to update because I was thisclose to finishing Selection Day and I wanted to have something new to tell you about. I did finish it late last night, and started on a new book to boot.

I decided to treat myself to a César Aira book, since I need a little self-care at the moment. Dinner is another short one, really a novella, and I hear tell it is about zombies. I just started it and it opens with a rumination on names- how in conversation and memory, one name leads to another. You mention someone, and that leads to "oh isn't that so-and-so's what-have-you, who used to live next door to this one, who went to school with that other one," and on and on. In typical Aira fashion he meanders from one topic to the next with no real plot in sight- at least until it gets to the zombies. So that's where we are now.

Everything else I'm reading is the same this week. Still enjoying Food City although I've been crashing and burning at night and not reading it consistently, and I'll probably finish A Fifty-Year Silence later this week.

Again with the no-comments, but I hope you're enjoying your reading and your life this week.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK, by Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham. Published 2015 by Penguin. Nonfiction.

Reading The Most Dangerous Book is probably the closest I'll ever get to reading Ulysses, and that's fine with me.

I've never really been interested in reading Ulysses or Joyce generally, although I have read some shorter works in college. The people I know who've read it seemed to have done it as a kind of dare or means of showing off; I can't think of anyone who's read it just for enjoyment. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe one of you has? But to me novels are to be enjoyed first and foremost, not studied or pondered over or carried around like an adult-sized merit badge. So.

That said, I'd heard good things about The Most Dangerous Book and it appealed to me because I'm interested in the history of censorship. As it turns out it's a pretty great read.

Because the story of Ulysses isn't just about the story of its publication; that's only the middle of this story.  First it had to be written, and that means Joyce needed the time, space and support to write it, not to mention the prospect of publication. The Most Dangerous Book is about 1/3 Joyce biography, 1/3 social history of early 20th century bohemian culture and 1/3 censorship law and the growth of the First Amendment into what we understand it as being today. These elements combine to tell the story of how one book was published, distributed and sold, and what all that meant to literature, law and society.

So there's a lot to learn and Kevin Birmingham tells the story in prose that's passionate, articulate and gripping; it reads like a thriller sometimes, like an invective at others, and sometimes just entertaining social history. At the beginning of the book, talking about late 19th and early 20th century bohemians and their relationship with the establishment his prose has a kind of prissiness about it; he describes Anthony Comstock and other censors as tight laced villains and Joyce's early publishers as brave and daring ladies-about-town. At other times employs dry wit to describe how a conservative judge came to be one of the architects of modern First Amendment jurisprudence. The changes in tone keep the reader engaged and listening; this could be boring stuff in the hands of a less skilled writer. Throughout he engages in a robust defense of freedom for artists and readers alike.

But it's the characterizations of Joyce and his circle that kept the book interesting to me. Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway all had crucial roles to play, as well as the magazine publishers, booksellers, publishers, printers and smugglers who worked to get the book written, printed, distributed and brought into the United States. Because before Joyce could publish Ulysses he had to write it, and he was writing it almost till the last minute. We learn about the foes, which included judges, inspectors, and even the post office. It's an amazing drama above all, and Birmingham's prose will have you pinned to the pages. At times it almost seems like Joyce's own role was less significant than that of the varied and diverse team of booklovers who worked tirelessly to see his work come to light.

Along with all this drama Birmingham offers us plentiful excerpts from Ulysses and a mini course on the structure of the book, so readers can get a taste of just what was causing such a fuss. He includes personal papers of Joyce's too, letters and such, and papers from many of the other players in this drama. I learned things about Ezra Pound I never knew, and a lot about the literary scene that supported Joyce even as Joyce sometimes drove his supporters to distraction. And Birmingham tells us about the man himself, his relationship with this wife and children, his impecuniousness and his failing health and eyesight.

I highly recommend The Most Dangerous Book to readers of many stripes. History buffs, bibliophiles, Joyce fans and more will find time spent with this book to be rewarding, fascinating and fun. It's really terrific.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley from the publisher.

Monday, January 23, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well it's been quite a week all around. I finished Born A Crime (reviewed on Friday) and A Very Expensive Poison (coming this week). So that leaves room for some new reads!

I'm full-bore into Selection Day, by Aravind Adiga, which is a darkly funny story about two boys being raised to be cricket champs and their ambitious father. One day a new kid comes on the scene, Javid Ansari, and something is going to happen next.

On my bedside table is Food City, by Joy Santlofer, a history of food manufacturing and trade in New York City. I am fascinated to learn that NYC has always been a place where people bought their food versus cooking it themselves; this is certainly reflected in today's culture where you can easily, if not inexpensively, exist with a kitchen used only for storing leftovers. It's a fun and absorbing read.

At the gym I'm working through A Fifty Year Silence, which I'm enjoying, and reading Bad Feminist at home. Which everyone should read.

I'm leaving comments turned off for a while but I hope you're having a great week with lots of great books.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: BORN A CRIME, by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah. Published 2016 by Spiegl & Grau. Nonfiction, memoir.

I'm a fan of Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but I would have read this book in any case. Born A Crime is a memoir of his childhood in South Africa and a very particular story it is. His mother is African and Xhosa, and his father is European and Swiss; he was raised by his mother and later a stepfather and has straddled three worlds racially and culturally- the black South African world, the white one, and the "colored" one, which is the world of mixed-race people. And he was "born a crime" because sexual relations between races was illegal and his mother did in fact go to jail for a time.

Overall the book is a delight. You can hear Noah's voice as you read and that voice is frank, intelligent and no-nonsense. He's also very funny and tells stories both dark and humorous with a light touch. I really enjoyed it cover to cover.

So that said, Born A Crime can be choppy and somewhat difficult to follow in terms of a clear timeline but what is very clear is his sense of joy, confusion, his struggle to find a place for himself, and above all his love for his mother Patricia, an independent and nonconformist woman who taught Noah that anything is possible. But you do have to read between the lines to get a full sense of what it was like to grow up Trevor Noah; we only learn about his stepfather towards the end of the book but the experience of living with a man who was constantly trying to push him out and dominate the family must have colored his entire childhood. He doesn't tell us that, but if you look for it I bet you can find it.

He recounts stories from school, from outside of school with his friends and "entrepreneurial associates" (my term) one might say- the people with whom he established quasi-criminal off-the-books businesses pirating music and doing DJ gigs. He tells us about the time he was arrested and the truly terrifying prospects of landing in a South African prison. He tells us about his relationship with his father, a distant but loving man who accepted Noah without question but played his cards close to the vest. To this day Noah says he hasn't been to Switzerland or met his Swiss extended family, although I wonder with the publication of this book if that's still the case.

The best parts of the book, both the easiest and the most difficult to read, are those about his relationship with Patricia, who brought him up hard and awash in love and support. He couldn't, and didn't, get away with anything, even when he thought he did. Finally we meet his abusive stepfather Abel, who alternately charmed and terrorized the two of them as well as Noah's young half-brother. This abuse climaxes when Abel shoots Patricia in the head; she survives, but something died that day, even if it wasn't she herself.

Like I said I would have read Born A Crime whether or not I was a fan of Noah's, just to read a first-hand memoir of growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid and the beginning of the democratic era. There's a lot of information here; I learned a lot but like other books I've read about South Africa I'm left with plenty more questions and the realization that there is still so much I don't know. So that makes Born A Crime a terrific read on several levels. It's funny and entertaining; it's heartbreaking; it's educative, and it leaves you wanting more.

Rating; BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley copy from the bookstore where I work.