Saturday, December 29, 2007

REVIEW: The Complete Guide to Manga

Click on the cover to purchase from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

2007 was the year I finally broke down and started reading manga, those Japanese comic books that are so popular right now with teens and adults. No longer just for nerds, if you're a librarian serving teenagers and you want to be hip and trendy, manga literacy is a must. For me it started at this year's Massachusetts Library Association conference, where I went to a talk featuring Bettina Kurkoski, a local Massachusetts manga-ka (manga writer) and author of My Cat Loki. I read her book and I was hooked- all of a sudden, those little books I kept seeing all over didn't seem so weird or threatening. So I started reading. The first series I read was Love Hina, a fluffy shonen (teen-boy oriented) story about a hapless loser living in a girls' dorm. Then I discovered the magazine Shojo Beat (shojo is manga aimed at teen girls) after attending the American Library Association's annual conference and that was it.

Over the last few months I've been exploring other manga series but those walls of manga at my local bookstores still intimidate me- how can I choose what to read next, or what to recommend?- but I think I may have found the solution. The Complete Guide to Manga, by author, editor and manga nut Jason Thompson, is just the resource I've been looking for.

Lauded by Library Journal, The Complete Guide is a really great resource both for personal enjoyment and for the librarian wanting to learn for professional reasons. The book covers over 900 Japanese manga translated into English (but not output from other Asian countries or original-English-language manga) and includes plot summaries, reviews, star ratings, information on number of volumes, dates, publishers, authors and artists, and includes age-appropriate guidelines and notations on explicit content, such as the level or sex, violence or adult language. The reviews also mention when a manga has been censored or changed in its English-language version and the correct order of volumes that may have been published without numbers.

The Complete Guide came out in October of 2007 and is pretty current with manga published up through that time. However, one particularly nice feature is the URL for updates- on manga released between the book's original publication and any updated editions that may come out later. Although it's published by Del Rey, a leading manga publisher in the United States, the book includes manga from every major publisher including Viz Media and TokyoPop, among others. There are also very good articles about the history of manga, what characterizes manga and the four major categories of manga- shonen, shojo, josei (for adult women) and seinen (for adult men). The manga titles themselves are listed alphabetically by title, and sprinkled throughout the reviews are genre reviews (science fiction, horror, children- just to name a few), also alphabetical, with overviews and corresponding titles. There are also separate sections for yaoi (gay manga) and adult manga. There is a chapter explaining age ratings, another giving an overview of the Japanese language, and a glossary, bibliography and artist index.

I can see all kinds of uses for The Complete Guide to Manga. I found the reviews of manga I know to be sensible and on-target, so I think I can use the book for browsing and buying with confidence. I looked up the review of a very well-known manga series I haven't read, and found it informative and helpful- even if I never get around to reading the manga, I know something about it now. I read the article on science fiction manga, then looked up some of the corresponding titles and learned about lots of new things, including a Star Trek parody manga that was withdrawn after Paramount Pictures threatened the publisher with legal action and is now a rare collector's item. Great for anyone wanting to learn more about this popular form of storytelling, The Complete Guide to Manga is a terrific, informative, fun and useful volume.

Friday, December 28, 2007

My Top Ten of 2007

So here's my list of the top ten books I've read this year.

Up until a few weeks ago, the best book I'd read this year was the second book I read- Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. I read the book because I loved the movie but the book was even better. Darker, more morally complex and less hokey, with more complicated characters yet dizzying in its verbal virtuosity, it is an incredible work. The movie I loved, but found uneven; it starts off as a very funny fish-out-of-water story and then about three quarters of the way through takes a sharp left turn into the gloomy world of the Holocaust and never really recovers. Some of the problems I had with one of the characters were resolved by the book, which is to say this character received a flattering makeover by the filmmakers but I found the book's version more convincing. The movie is good (and the soundtrack is fun too) but the book is great.

But the best book I read this year was Gestures, by H.S. Bhabra, which I reviewed earlier this month. It's a moving and fascinating character study of a deluded diplomat at the end of his life, full of regret but really not sure why. It's a portrait of a life that was full in some respects but so bitterly empty in others. The writing is absolutely beautiful and deserves to rank up there with much more famous writers like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. In fact, having recently seen the film Atonement, based on McEwan's Booker-nominated novel of the same name, I was reminded again of how good good writing can be and it really is a shame that Gestures has not received more recognition. Can someone explain this to me, because I really don't get it.

So here's the list, with links to my reviews where applicable:
  1. Gestures by H. S. Bhabra
  2. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  3. Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo
  4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  5. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engel
  7. The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
  8. Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person by Miriam Engleberg
  9. Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
  10. My Cat Loki by Bettina Kurkoski
Breakfast with Buddha was a very well-written, very satisfying read. Roland Merullo just keeps getting better and better. Life of Pi was suspenseful and fascinating, a real page-turner. The Gum Thief was fun and moving and very good. A Wrinkle in Time is a treasure of a book and I wish I'd read it as a child. Absurdistan was touching and funny and sad, and I loved its protagonist and the note of optimism on which it ended. I'd love to see a movie made of it, directed with energy and joie de vivre. Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person is a raw, real and vivid cancer memoir in graphic-novel form. Miriam Engleberg's rough drawings were a great compliment to her spare yet poetic writing. Night Watch was suspenseful and fun with a very likable narrator- the best and only vampire novel I've read. And I just loved My Cat Loki.

So there it is, my best of 2007. I'll start up again after the New Year with some new books, some resolutions and some other stuff too. Oh yeah, and I have to get started on War and Peace!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

SantaThing Arrived!

My SantaThing book arrived today, and it's Carried Away: A selection of stories by Alice Munro.

I've never read her before but I'm looking forward to it. I'll keep you posted!

All in all the whole SantaThing experiment was fun. I'd like to know what the person I bought for thought of my gift (I got him Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer- my first choice, Gestures by H.S. Bhabra, was unavailable from Amazon for some bizarre reason) and it took longer than the LibraryThing folks promised, but not by much, and it's always fun to get presents no matter what. I'd do it again for sure.

If you want a copy of the Alice Munro book, click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Bibliophile Christmas

To the left is a picture of the books I got for Christmas.

It was a good year! Some graphic novels (Rex Libris, Chicken with Plums, The Squirrel Mother), a manga (Hibiki's Magic), a cookbook (Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking), professional reading (Children & Libraries: Getting it Right, Judaica Reference Sources, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center) and some fun things (Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief) and some novels (The Italian Lover, The Diary of Dora Damage). And some other things too.

Yesterday in between opening gifts, eating and socializing, the book I spent the most time with was Judaica Reference Sources, by Charles Cutter, published in 2004 and given to me by my in-laws. It is an extended bibliography of mainly scholarly reference sources but it lists all kinds of things. Did you know that there was a volume out there called the Yiddish Anarchist Bibliography, cataloging memoirs, propaganda and other writings by Yiddish anarchists? I did not. Yet here it is. Need a dictionary of Old French words used in Rashi's commentaries with their Hebrew equivalents, with Latinate and Hebrew spellings? Only look here. And there are more mundane (but potentially valuable as additions to the right kind of library) things like dictionaries of biography, atlases, genealogical sources- all kinds of stuff. I couldn't put this book down yesterday and every few minutes I would interrupt my husband's cribbage game with, "oh look at this!", "oh check this out!".

The book has been lauded by the Association of Jewish Libraries as a great source of information for librarians and it seems pretty terrific but I have two little complaints. First, I wish the author had included ISBNs with the listings- it would be much easier to search Amazon and add things to my temple's wish list because sometimes Amazon does not list things intuitively or helpfully. Secondly I wish the language of the work was included. Oh I know, in most cases it's pretty intuitive- if the title's in French, probably the book is too. And if I can't figure out the language from the title, then the answer is "some language I do not recognize." But it would help me out just that extra little bit. Otherwise it's fantastic.

Weirdest present? The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster by Bobby Henderson. I only became acquainted with the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pastafarianism (the religion of the FSM) recently through some web search. I know he's been around for a while. The Gospel is the FSM's Bible. Basically the FSM is a spoof by a comedian wanting to make a point about the debate on whether or not to teach Intelligent Design alongside or in place of Evolution because Evolution is essentially unprovable despite being a very credible theory with a lot of scientific backing. Intelligent Design is also unprovable but has no scientific backing so if you're going to teach ID alongside Evolution, why not also teach that the universe was created by a being made of pasta? At least I think that's the idea.

I am such a nerd. But I had a great Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Twelfth Book of Christmas

So we come to the end of this little series of mine with a distinctively adult title- David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice, a small, pithy collection of short stories, part-memoir, part-fiction, about the holiday we call Christmas.

I love this book. I treasure this book. Or rather, I treasure the first entry, a short memoir piece called "The SantaLand Diaries," about the time Sedaris spent one December working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand in New York City. Far from an idyll, it's raunchy and hilarious, with so much to relate to even if you've never been an elf. This story made me literally roll with laughter the first time I read it, and every time I've re-read it. But really the same can be said for me of any of Sedaris's memoir-essays. In fact, I can no longer read Sedaris in public, because the last time I did, someone offered to get medical assistance for me because she thought I was having a some kind of fit. No joke.

His short stories I'm not so crazy about. My impression is that while they are entertaining enough they tend to be formulaic and often center on characters who are narcissistic and devoid of both empathy and self-awareness to an extent that is truly bizarre and disturbing. So my general rule is, skip the fiction and focus on the memoir. The short stories in this volume, like "Seasons Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!", about a family dealing with the arrival of a long-lost daughter, follows this pattern and I always enjoyed the more autobiographical pieces more.

I would also like to add one thing about "The SantaLand Diaries." There has been a stage play made of this story, which I have seen. I wouldn't bother with it if I were you. Stick to the prose on the page. It's magic, just like Christmas.

I'm not going to be blogging for a few days as I enjoy the holiday with my family. Whatever you'll be doing for the next few days, make it good.

Oh yeah, and if you want to buy the book click on the cover.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Eleventh Book of Christmas

This edition originally published: 1948

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, I needed to take a little "me time" and relax with some eggnog and cookies, and read a Christmas classic.

It just doesn't get any better than The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore. The edition I own is special to me because it's illustrated with folk art paintings by artist Grandma Moses, painted just for this book.

When you first open the book, the binding pages covered in a big, idyllic country winter scene in varying shades of grayish blues- it feels so wintry, I want to pull my quilt a little closer just looking at it. As you go through the book and read the poem, each page is illustrated with another folk-art scene showing country life. Sometimes the painting spans two pages; sometimes they're as simple as a candy cane or a toy drum interspersed with the poetry. The beauty and simplicity of the painting style is a perfect reflection of the poetry.

In my mind, no Christmas is complete without a reading of The Night Before Christmas. And this is just about the nicest edition I've seen.

(There is no link to purchase on the cover; the poem, a classic, is widely available in many editions but this particular version has not been republished to my knowledge and is unavailable new. If you want to find it I'd suggest Bookfinder or another used-book source.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tenth Book of Christmas

On the Tenth Day of Christmas I was stuck inside again as the result of an unexpected Nor'easter- the weather people predicted 2-3 inches of snow and we got more like 4-6 in an afternoon. So in between enjoying a marathon of "X-Files" reruns I looked around at some of the cute Christmas children's books we have in little piles around the coffeetable.

The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia Scarry (illustrated by J.P. Miller) is a scratch-and-sniff book about a little bear looking forward to Christmas and enjoying the pleasures of the season, such as fresh-baked apple pies and gingerbread men, and fresh-cut Christmas trees. It's a cute book, very secular in orientation as Christmas children's books go, and would appeal to and is probably meant for very young children. It would be a cute book to read to a small child and little kids would probably enjoy the scratching and sniffing.

It's cute, sweet fun for the very young, or the very young at heart. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ninth Book of Christmas

Published: 2004. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated bookseller.

On the Ninth Day of Christmas my husband and I finally got out to my favorite antique shop to look for Christmas tree pins. I've been collecting them for about four years now; there's this one little shop that I just love, and we haven't had the time to get out there. But tonight, we made it!

It turns out that lots of people share my hobby and there have been several books published focusing on Christmas jewelry as a specialty of costume jewelry collecting. My favorite it Christmas Pins Past and Present by Jill Galina. Galina is a long-time collector who has assembled a terrific reference book.

The book specializes in Christmas tree pins but is divided into several sections- signed pins, unsigned pins, different kinds of tree pins (blue, white, partridge-in-a-pear-tree, etc.) and includes sections on figurals such as candy canes, wreaths, reindeer, Santa and cats and dogs. Each pin is identified with a maker when known and assigned a value.

Even though the book is relatively recent, I think the valuations should be taken as guidelines only. Some of the retail values of currently-available pins did not reflect prices in my area but that is probably to be expected to some degree. Galina does include a caveat about variations in pricing. What it comes down to is what you want to pay for a given pin but the valuations are helpful in relative terms. For example, it's good to know that certain brands tend to be priced around $20-30 and others are more like $200-300 or higher. And it's fun to compare what I paid for something to what she estimates as the value; almost every time I've found a given pin for less than the price she lists. The valuations also tell the collector what a given dealer knows about the market for the pins, especially those on the very high or very low end.

Christmas Pins Past and Present is great at showing the diversity of the Christmas jewelry out there and for introducing the curious reader to brands and resources that might be of interest. There is a section at the end listing web sites of various sellers and most of the links still work as of today. And there is a great section at the beginning giving background information on many of the manufacturers whose pins are featured. It's useful, and it's also one of those books that's fun to put out on the coffee table and browse. Mine is pretty marked up but I still use it every season!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eighth Book of Christmas

On the Eighth Day of Christmas, I looked around my craft room and realized I had, as usual, started more crafts than I will ever finish- at least this holiday season. Which brings me to today's book, or books, anyway- the Christmas from the Heart series by the respected crafts magazine publisher Better Homes and Gardens.

If you like to make gifts and decorations, or do yummy baking at Christmastime, you really can't go wrong with any of the books from this series (I couldn't even find out how many volumes there are; pictured is Volume 16, published in 2007 and probably the most recent. There is a link to purchase the book if you click on the cover).

Each volume features easy- to moderate-in-difficulty projects on various themes, like "country Christmas" or "white Christmas", and every volume is different but there are likely to be projects involving glue guns, stitchery, sewing, glass ornaments that you paint or decorate or fill, decorative painting, crafts with pinecones or candles, or any number of other crafts. Better Homes and Gardens publishes general crafting magazines as well as an excellent quilting magazine and there is usually a quilt project of some kind as well. Basically there's something for almost anyone. There are usually also one or two projects related to Hanukkah but in the past I've noticed errors in some of their projects- mislabeled Hebrew letters and such- so if you need suggestions for Hanukkah I do know of a few good resources. I just wouldn't suggest BH&G in that case.

But these books are a fine source for easy, attractive Christmas crafts. Many crafts in these books are kid-friendly or good for kids and parents to do together. One book features Christmas cards decorated with press-on stars found at office supply stores, for example. And many of the crafts are challenging enough for adults. So it's just good clean fun for all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

REVIEW: Frangipani, by Celestine Vaite

Frangipani, by Celestine Vaite. Published 2006 by Back Bay Books.
On the Seventh Day of Christmas I started to get really tired of the cold and snow and ice, and remembered that Celestine Vaite's novels set in Tahiti are a great way to get a little bit of summer any time. Frangipani is a fun, frothy "hammock book" about a lively, scrappy woman and her rebellious teenage daughter.

Vaite was the first Tahitian author to win the Prix Littéraire des Etudiants, for the first book in the Materena Mahi series, Breadfruit, and Frangipani is an entertaining second entry. It continues the story of Materena and her family- her husband Pito and her children, but especially her teenage daughter Leilani. In the first book, Materena and Pito, already live-in partners and parents of three children, get married, almost despite each other. In the follow-up, the family dramas continue, and daughter Leilani, a smart girl distracted by a boyfriend, keeps Materena on her toes. A cleaning woman, Materena wants better for her daughter but Leilani may have other ideas.

I really enjoyed Materena's friendly, casual tone, the strong sense of voice and place created by Vaite, and the details of life in Tahiti- the Chinese store, grabbing truck rides from place to place and the importance of family and culture and traditions. Vaite grew up in Tahiti and now lives in Australia but she visits several times a year and stays in close touch with her family and it shows in the detail and the genuine love and affection which she obviously has for her country and its people.

Sweet and charming, Frangipani will take away the winter blahs even if you read it curled up on the couch under a blanket rather than lazing in a hammock on a summer's day. Frangipani is second in a three-volume series about Materena Mahi and her family; the final book is called Tiare in Bloom and just came out last year. They're all terrific fun. 

Rating: BUY

Click on the picture to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller. I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

I received this book for review.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

REVIEW: Gestures, by H.S. Bhabra

Gestures, by H.S. Bhabra. Originally published: 1984. Reprinted 2003 by Godine. Literary Fiction.

Before he committed suicide in 2000, author H.S. Bhabra had wanted his only literary novel to be retitled Faust when it was reissued. The publisher demurred after Bhabra's death, because, as is explained in the Foreword, the publisher believed that it would be confusing for the book trade and disappointing for the book's admirers. I think that if I had read this book prior to Bhabra's death and were told of plans to retitle it I too would be disappointed. Gestures is a book to fall in love with, and while by any other name would be as bittersweet, there is something to be said for preservation.

Gestures, the fictional autobiography of a retired British diplomat, is one of the best things I have read in a while and certainly the best book I read this year. The story of dutiful, politic and accomplished Jeremy Burnham, the book is set in pre- and post- World War 2 Europe. It opens in 1920s Venice, where Burnham starts his first foreign diplomatic post. He falls in with a small community of expatriates- worldly and world-weary widow Jane Carlyle, learned and Jewish Anthony Manet, and enigmatic Eva van Woerden, a Dutchwoman of cloudy origins. Anthony's Jewishness is important as a major theme of the book is the origins and effects of anti-Semitism. After a grisly series of events in Venice, the narrative picks up again in post-war Amsterdam where Burnham becomes involved with a shady Dutch industrialist and his daughter, and secrets, romantic entanglements and whispers of tragedy abound.

It all sounds very cinematic and indeed there is a lot of action; the narrative moves along at a good clip despite the weighty themes behind it- love, loss, memory and secrets we keep from ourselves as well as others. Gestures reminded me of that other classic of the self-deluded memoirist, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and I may have to re-read that book in the near future. Burnham is a good person and generally likable but he does miss so much. Burnham merely hints at the events of World War 2, particularly the Holocaust, but these facts and their consequences color the twists and turns of the plot so completely it's easy and impossible at the same time to forget that they're there. I think Burnham is in deep, deep denial about the soil the post-war world is built upon and is unable to help his friends, or even empathize, because he is so blind to everything that should be so obvious. He's the epitome of the stiff-upper-lip Brit, preferring the conventional and the safe, and although he cares deeply for Anthony and Jane and his lover Elena he lacks the courage to get too close.

In addition to a page-turning plot, engaging characters and gripping suspense that actually comes with a pretty good payoff, Gestures is characterized by beautiful, highly-skilled writing rendering all of these elements into a breathtakingly accomplished work of fiction. It's shocking to me in a sense that the book isn't more well-known than it is- it was Bhabra's only literary work (he wrote three thrillers as well) and it really is extraordinary. Its beauty and tragedy and sheer luminosity puts some more recent and more acclaimed novels to shame. Why can't they all be this good?

Rating: BUY

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

Sixth Book of Christmas

On the Sixth day of Christmas, I woke up and found that a Nor'easter had completely snowed me in and decided it was a good day for an at-home film fest.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies from 1897 to the Present is a really fun resource for the science fiction fan and really for any film buff. It's arranged in an intuitive encyclopedia format with entries alphabetical by title and ample cross-references. Written by noted author and critic C.J. Henderson, the book covers over 1,300 movies from all over the world and the entries includes plot summaries as well as production information and available formats. There is trivia, information on literary sources, an interview with Dune author Frank Herbert, and even a foreword by Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. Remember, that job he had before Boston Legal?

I got this book for my husband when it came out in 2001 and have referred to it regularly ever since. Given that it came out in 2001 the format information- i.e., what's available on DVD- is probably out of date. And the section on Star Wars ends with The Phantom Menace, since it was published before the other two prequels were released. So it wouldn't be the worst thing if it was updated. I know, it's only six years old, but that can be an eternity in the world of movies and it would be nice to see the Star Trek section updated and to have some information on more recent scifi movies like Serenity, a spin-off from the cult Firefly television series.

But the volume is far from worthless. It's a great compendium of the little-known and the famous, covering early years that don't often get play in other resources. I like it as a tool for finding neat movies to watch- you can browse through it and say, "oh, that's the one I want to rent next." I'm a big advocate of resources that allow independent learning and exploration at any age and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies from 1897 to the Present is a great place to begin or continue your exploration of science fiction cinema. Click on the photo to purchase from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller and start your journey today.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fifth Book of Christmas

On the Fifth day of Christmas I realized I needed to play catch-up a little so you get two books today.

Hello Christmas! is nothing more than what it looks like- an adorable little picture book showing Japanese character-goods powerhouse Hello Kitty in a variety of wintry holiday poses with her family.

It's cute, and it includes cut-out ornaments for your tree. I have Kurt Adler glass Hello Kitty ornaments on my tree, and I didn't want to damage the book, so I've left them intact.

I have way too much fun this time of year. Click on the cover to share in the cuteness, i.e. purchase from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller..

Fourth Book of Christmas

On the Fourth day of Christmas I realized that it is in fact the Fifth day of Christmas.

Today's book is the utterly charming and sweet Christmas is Together-Time, a Peanuts book by Charles M. Schulz. I have an old copy that I purchased at a used book store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on one of my husband's annual family outings. Click on the cover to purchase from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

It's a small format hardcover whose pages alternate red and green and it's just as wholesome and sweet as you'd expect. The entries range from funny ("Christmas is a bowl of hard candy... that always sticks together.") to the adorable ("Christmas is when you hug your little brother.") to the poignant ("Christmas is a box of tree ornaments that have become part of the family.").

And, as is characteristic of Peanuts, it's honest about childhood ("Christmas is losing your mother downtown in a crowded store.") and reminds us to be kind to others ("Christmas is giving your last two nickels to the Salvation Army... cheerfully.") It's a sweet reminder of what the season is supposed to be about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Third Book of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas a messy snowstor

m reminded me of my childhood (the Blizzard of 1978 hit Boston on my fifth birthday) and naturally lead me to think about how important books were to me as a child- especially with a foot of snow outside! For families without a great deal of money, organizations like RIF (Reading is Fundamental), which give out free books to children, can be a crucial link in the chain of lifelong learning. The Art of Reading, published in 2005, is a collection of illustrations by renowned childrens'-book artists celebrating RIF's 40th anniversary. And it's just lovely.

It's printed in picture-book format- a large size hardcover featuring 40 artists with illustrations and their reminiscences about the importance of books and reading, and includes an index and artist biographies. Artists featured include David McPhail (author and illustrator of The Teddy Bear, which I just read to a class last week as a lesson on good deeds), Mary Azarian, David Wiesner and Paul O. Zelinsky.

I think the book is appropriate for the holiday season for several reasons. It's a beautiful volume with gorgeous artwork that would make a great gift for the childrens'-book-lover in your life, and it reminds us why we value books and reminds us to count our blessings and help those less fortunate. It also gives us a way to help- royalties from the book go directly to support RIF and its projects. You can click on the cover to buy it from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Well my part of SantaThing is done- I got the name of the person for whom I'm selecting, and I selected a book.

Luckily, my giftee has tastes remarkably similar to my own- I was a little worried I'd get someone who read horror, or science fiction, or historical fiction, or romance, or westerns, or some other genre that would present a challenge. Even so, I'm a librarian, and I could always tap my good old readers-advisory resources if need be. But in this case, he likes literary fiction! And he hasn't read the second-best book I've read this year. So that's what he's getting.

I don't want to say what my selection was because there is an off-chance he might read my blog. One thing I really like about this SantaThing thing is the opportunity to explore other users' libraries and chat with them. It's been fun to read about what people like, make new LibraryThing connections, check out their libraries and come up with ideas. Well done, LibraryThing!

The Second Book of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas, I realized I was really far behind in my holiday baking and decided it was time to learn how to make a croquembouche, so I pulled out my copy of the classic French encyclopedia of food and got even further behind as I spent the afternoon leafing through it.

The Larousse Gastronomique is a fantastic resource for both the casual and serious cook. And yes, although the title is in French the book is widely available in English. (Click on the cover to buy.) The focus is on French cooking but it contains entries on food and cooking from all over the world. There are a lot of recipes as well. I am a competent cook and a semi-serious baker, and most of the recipes seem on the advanced side to me but doable as an adventure. I've made a few little things from the book that turned out fine, but it's not a conventional cookbook- it's a reference work on food. Entries are alphabetical and unsigned but the contributors represent a good mix of viewpoints and areas of expertise- everyone from journalists to restaurant managers to cooking-school bigwigs and French government officials from the Ministry of Agriculture contributed their knowledge to the creation of this opus.

In addition to being a great reference when you have a question about food, the Larousse Gastronomique is also a great book to relax with and flip through and enjoy. It's also the kind of thing that I think people don't often think to buy for themselves and would make a wonderful gift. Oh and the croquembouche recipe is great!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

LibraryThing's SantaThing

So I'm participating in LibraryThing's Secret Santa promotion, SantaThing. The idea is, you pay $25 and someone sends you a book that that person thinks you will like, based on your library and your preferences as stated in a form you fill out when you sign up. Sounds neat.

I'm scared!

It's probably my control issues- I hate surprises. Then why did I sign up? To work on my control issues. And because I thought it would be fun to pick something out for someone else. I've already spent a little time making suggestions for other users. The promotion closes tomorrow and we have to pick out books by Friday. I'll let you know how it goes!

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Okay, so each day for the next twelve days I'm going to write about a book that I think is great for Christmas. Some days the books will be explicitly about Christmas but not all of them will be.

Today's book is Christmas at the New Yorker: stories, poems, humor, and art, originally published in 2005 and still widely available. This book is a terrific collection of essays, short stories, poetry and artwork (including cartoons) from the pages of the The New Yorker magazine, a Christmas anthology for grownups.
(As usual you can click on the cover if you'd like to buy it from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.)

I've been reading The New Yorker steadily since high school and what has impressed me is the consistent excellence of the writing, the breadth and depth of the articles and of course, the fact that, despite the title, it isn't really about New York at all. Of course the magazine has always had about it a certain urban sensibility but I've always loved it for how sophisticated and worldly the coverage is, as opposed to being parochially and provincially always about New York. Now, I have nothing in particular against New York- I'm just not one of those people who thinks it's the end-all be-all.

But anyway, back to the book. It's a fun book to put out on the coffee table and leaf through during a quiet moment. Sit back with a cup of tea and read a piece by John Updike or H.L. Mencken or Brendan Gill, or a poem by Robert Pinsky or John O'Hara. Vladimir Nabokov, Patrick Chamoiseau and Adrienne Rich are also among the authors included. Finally, what we all love about The New Yorker- the cartoons. Many favorite cartoonists appear in the book- Charles Addams, J.J. Sempe, William Steig and Art Spiegelman, among others. Great to own or to give, it's a collection to treasure for years.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Best of 2007

Another best-of-2007 list for your perusal, this one from the National Book Critics Circle. Enjoy!

I like these lists a lot. There are a lot of similarities between them sometimes but it's neat to see that overlap, as well as to see where different groups differ. And the more categories the better!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

REVIEW: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Published December 10, 2007 by Little, Brown. Click on the photo to check availability with your local Booksense-affiliated bookseller.

Think of Gods Behaving Badly as Bulfinch's Mythology meets Frenemies. Gods is a playful, and at times suspenseful and moving, story about Greek gods and goddesses, faded and forgotten but alive and sharing a flat in London. And getting into all kinds of trouble with the mortals.

By all accounts, the deities are managing to get by all right in 21st century Britain. Aphrodite works as a phone sex operator. Athena is a pie-chart-toting, Powerpoint-presenting brainiac. Dionysus runs a hip nightclub. We get our first hint that world is in trouble when Demeter, goddess of plants, can't make her garden grow. Then vain, domineering Apollo falls hopelessly in love with mousy, sweet Alice, a mortal cleaning woman. Trouble is, Alice loves Neil, a nerdy engineer devoted to her. But Apollo, god of the sun, is used to getting his way.

The plot takes us from a TV studio to a dirty, falling-down townhouse to the underworld and Hades' palace, and then back again for a very satisfying finale. I loved all the details from mythology, and the way that the myths are reimagined and incorporated into a contemporary setting. My favorite detail was the way the dead get to the underworld- via a special Tube station behind a false wall. The underworld itself is a fascinating place- in Phillips' version, the dead have their own society with its own rules and conventions. It's almost just as interesting to be dead as to be alive.

I enjoyed Gods Behaving Badly a lot. It's a romp- funny and sweet, it features a full pantheon of gods and Phillips puts them to appropriate, amusing and plot-enhancing use. It's a fun read, and there's not much more to say. It's well-written, well-plotted, and has engaging characters and a sweet romance at its core. I'm glad I got to read it.

Rating: BEACH

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