Thursday, February 28, 2008

TBR Challenge: The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, by P.D. Ouspensky

The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, by P.D. Ouspensky. Originally published: 1915. Published 1988 by Penguin.

The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky is a thin little novel I picked up in a used bookstore a long time ago, because I like Russian literature and it just looked interesting to me. I'd never heard of the author- no surprise, since The Strange Life was his only novel- but it looked intriguing, so I took it home.

And then it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Since it is so small I always figured if I wanted to, I could read it quickly. And indeed it turned out to be a quick, satisfying and fascinating little book.

Ivan Osokin's life is made up of a series of disappointments- mostly of a man disappointed with himself as he manages to throw his opportunities away one by one. He comes to a crossroads after losing his lover and asks a magician to send him back in time so he can live his life again and correct all the mistakes he made that lead up to this final, colossal mistake, letting the woman he loves leave him and marry someone else. But will it make any difference? Will he change? Does he have the will to avoid the pitfalls he knows are coming? Or will he do everything the same way?

Overall the novel is characterized by a sense of despair and inevitability; Ivan is a sweet but feckless man who tries to get out of his own way and just can't seem to do it. In that way he's a lot like many people. He means well, and he tries hard, and sometimes that's enough, but most of the time it's not and he's always stuck with himself at the end of the day. I felt Ivan's frustration and his ennui and thought that Ouspensky did a good job of creating a likable character with whom it's easy to identify. Ouspensky was a philosopher and I think he wrote the book intending to espouse a particular theory about human behavior but the book never felt heavy or weighed down by an agenda. It's a bittersweet story that would appeal to Russian literature buffs or anyone who might like a book that is both brief and challenging.


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

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Short Story Challenge

Originally published: 2003. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Irish Girls About Town is an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers like Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Catherine Dunne, and by and large it's very good. My favorite story is "Your Place or Mine?", a sort of chilling story about an Irish family who buys a vacation home in France and learns that what's theirs is sort of everyone's.

The other stories vary in quality but are entertaining enough. I loved the first story, Marian Keyes' "Soulmates," about a married couple that gets a long a too well for their friends. There's a lot of chick-lit type stories- breakup fantasies and such- but it's good fun and there are some real gems.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A New Challenge- The TBR Challenge

The goal of the TBR Challenge is to dig into that pile of books I've been piling up and actually read some of them. It's hard, between what I read for work, for review and for fun, to balance it all out, and it's not like I ever stop buying books. So here is my list:

The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, by P.D. Ouspensky (done)

Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking, by Stephen Alter

Scarlet and Black, by Stendahl

Death in the Truffle Wood, by Pierre Magnan (done 3/5)

A Little Love Story, by Roland Merullo

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Fatelessness, by Imre Kertesz

Klezmer, by Joann Sfar

The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones

The Fairy Gunmother, by Daniel Pennac

Shosha, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I think there is a good variety here- long books, short books, classics, new books, a graphic novel, some nonfiction too. I'll keep the pile near where I read, and little by little go through them. Should be a fun year!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jewish Literature Challenge, 3 of 5

Bagels from Benny, by Aubrey Davis and illustrated by Dusan Petricic. First published: 2003. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Bagels from Benny won a Sydney Taylor Book Award and is suitable for elementary-school-aged children.

Bagels from Benny is a very sweet picture book that tells the story of Benny, a little boy who loves to help out at his grandfather's bakery and wants to find a way to thank God for his grandfather's wonderful bagels. He hits upon the idea of leaving a bag of bagels in his synagogue's ark- where the Torah is kept- because it just seems sensible to leave a gift for God in with His book. A poor man who comes to pray finds the bagels- and believes they are from God. When Benny's grandfather finds out what Benny has been doing with his bagels, grandfather and grandson share an important lesson about the transformational power of kindness and generosity. It's a really lovely story with an important lesson, based on an ancient Jewish legend from Spain. Petricic's illustrations in watercolor and pencil are by turns funny and beautiful and echo the emotional tones well. I love Bagels from Benny!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

REVIEW: The Moon in the Mango Tree by Pamela Binnings Ewen

The Moon in the Mango Tree, by Pamela Binnings Ewen. Published 2008 by B&H Books. Advance Reader Copy read as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Fiction.

The Moon in the Mango Tree is based on the story of the author's grandmother, who married a doctor and lived for many years in Thailand (here called Siam) and Europe, and based in part on her letters and journals. I really wanted to like what I hoped would be a colorful story of travel, adventure and a woman's search for meaning, but what I found was a very dull novel about some very dull people.

Set in the Roaring Twenties, Barbara Perkins lives a privileged life and is happy to marry herself a handsome young doctor. She is a talented singer, and her teacher offers her the opportunity to go to Chicago to train to be a professional, but, as her upbringing has taught her, she abandons her ambitions to live at her husband's side as he works as a missionary doctor in rural Thailand. A former suffragette, Barbara (or "Babs," her husband Harvey's annoying nickname for her), doesn't fit in the with the uptight missionaries and misses her music and her family. They return to America briefly, then return to Thailand where Harvey works in a large Bangkok hospital and ministers to the king. City life is more to her liking but eventually Barbara needs more, and decides to go to Europe. Her choices are fairly predictable from here and the ending is neat and tidy.

What stands out the most about the book is Ewen's vivid descriptions of place. The Moon in the Mango Tree would be a great book for the armchair traveler, or the reader who loves books with specific and beautifully-rendered settings. Nan, the rural Thai village in which they first live, Bangkok, Paris and Rome are intricately and vividly described- they are almost characters in and of themselves. Ewen manages to capture the spirit of the places, as well as their distinctive physical features. I felt like I was meandering streets of Rome along with her, or rushing through a Paris rainstorm, or negotiating all those jungle trails on horseback, and these rich passages make pretty good reading.

Unfortunately Ewen's characters lack the depth and richness of her settings. Barbara is an empty shell. I know a lot about what she does, but little about how she feels, apart from her constant self-pity. And she doesn't do much. She's not much of a partner in missionary work- while in Nan, she does little besides decorate her home and feel sorry for herself. She's not much of a mother- she leaves her daughters to babysitters and boarding schools while she parties, flirts and takes her singing lessons. And she's not much of a wife- not that Harvey is much of a husband.

Their relationship reminds me of the way Prince Charles once described his love for his first wife, Princess Diana- yes, he said, he was in love with her, "whatever that means." Harvey and Barbara's marriage struck me as cool and distant. They claim to love each other but they do not treat or talk to each other with respect or compassion, each apparently too enmeshed in his or her own needs to notice that the other person just might have thoughts and feelings of his or her own. He doesn't listen to her, shows little interest in her concerns and trivializes her feelings. She complains of his indifference but relies on him to bankroll her "independence". She blames him bitterly for abandoning her during a monsoon, then almost doesn't want to hear the very good explanation. Where Harvey is equal parts saint, doormat and cipher, most of the other characters, apart from the cartoonishly evil Mr. Breeden and his equally cartoonish, frigid wife, are indistinguishable and unremarkable.

This book also represents my first real foray into the genre of "Christian fiction," although I'm not exactly sure what to make of that distinction. Certainly The Moon in the Mango Tree is a clean-as-a-whistle marital love story, whose protagonist only experiments with stepping outside the lines (and is ultimately guided back by a Catholic priest) but I think my main gripe with the book is Barbara's limited grasp of the possibilities of life. It's all or nothing- either she can study music or she can be a dutiful wife. There's no middle ground. Ewen sets up Barbara's choices so starkly that there's no real choice at all, and I was continually frustrated with her lack of imagination. Why not make it possible for Barbara to find a satisfying compromise? And don't tell me, because Ewen's grandmother didn't. Ewen chose to write fiction, not a biography, and could have given her heroine any number of outcomes. As it is, Barbara's conclusions left me disappointed and wondering why she goes to all that trouble in the first place. Overlong, overdone and ultimately a let-down, The Moon in the Mango Tree simply wasn't for me.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jewish Literature Challenge, Part 2 of 5

The next book I read for the Jewish Literature Challenge is All-of-A-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor. Originally published in the 1950s, Sydney Taylor's classic book for middle readers is set in the Lower East Side of New York City and depicts the life of a traditional Jewish family in the early 20th century. All-of-A-Kind Family is the first in a series of novels about the lively group and is a sweet, charming read. The story takes the reader through most of year and involves not just the family but their friends and acquaintances, too. The book opens with a chapter about going to the library, and the children's librarian (or "library lady," as the girls like to call her) is a gentle, recurring presence. The children's adventures include a trip to the market, scarlet fever and an outing to Coney Island, where one of the girls gets temporarily, and happily, lost. Meanwhile the story meanders through a year of Jewish holidays and teaches the reader a little about each one. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Shabbat and how Taylor contrasts the hubbub of shopping and preparations with the simple serenity of the day itself. The family relationships struck me as very true and believable- for example, Papa's ambivalence regarding the present the girls get for his birthday and his quick turnaround struck me as realistic and human. I can imagine any parent reacting the way he did initially and then rallying in the end. I appreciate Taylor's honesty about her characters throughout the book, too. So often childhood and parenthood are romanticized and sentimentalized and it's always refreshing when a writer resists that temptation. It's a great book for anyone and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series and sharing in the further adventures of this fun, busy family. And All-of-A-Kind Family Downtown, another in the series, is on its way to me soon!

Sydney Taylor, by the way, is quite an important woman in the world of Jewish books. Not only are her books justifiably considered beloved classics, but the Association of Jewish Libraries has named a series of book awards after her, to recognize the best in Jewish books for children. You can learn more about the award at the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog or at the AJL's website. Both are terrific resources for recommended titles in the world of Jewish kids' books.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Bibliophile Birthday

Happy Birthday to me! Today is my birthday and this morning I got a great present for someone who loves to read- more books! My husband packaged a sweet mix of manga and graphic novels into a basket and here it is. Thanks so much, I can't wait to dig into these!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

REVIEW: The Translator : A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur, by Daoud Hari

The Translator : A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur, by Daoud Hari. Published 2008 by Random House.

Advance Reader Copy obtained as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Click on the cover to buy via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

The Translator : A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur is a light, thin volume on a heavy subject- the ongoing genocide against non-Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan. The narrator/author, Daoud Hari, worked as a translator for aid agencies, reporters and United Nations officials, after escaping attacks on his own village and fleeing to neighboring Chad. His story is amazing.

I didn't know much about the specifics of the origins of the war in Sudan when I opened the book but Hari offers a pencil-sketch history which was enough to get me started in an appendix. The book opens in the thick of the action with an anecdote showing Hari and a reporter being stopped by some troops and having to do some fast talking- just another day on the job. Then Hari backtracks, talks about his life and some adventures before the war, but before we know it the attacks have started, Hari must flee, and everything has changed. In the refugee camps and elsewhere he is witness to evidence and aftershocks of unbelievable brutality marking him and his companions indelibly. Throughout it all are vivid anecdotes and descriptions of a close, communal culture fractured by corrupt politicians, racism, trauma and greed. In the final chapters Hari details his harrowing capture, along with a reporter and their driver, by the Sudanese military and his eventual evacuation from Africa.

The writing style is all the more powerful for being so simple and direct. His friendly, light tone made me feel comfortable right away- the literary equivalent of the tradition of hospitality to which he refers again and again. It's like he's inviting us into his home, sharing customs and traditions with us over the page. He often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly- what would you do in this situation, how would you react if that happened, etc.- drawing the reader closer and creating empathy. His matter-of-fact style helped bring home the horrors and the absurdity of what he faced, as well as some very humorous and very human moments from time to time. Hari himself comes across as thoughtful and pragmatic, doing what he needs to in order to stay alive and always devoted to helping in any way that he can.

At this point, using his story to attract attention to his cause is the method he chooses. The book's uncomplicated style worked well in chapters where there is a lot of action and activity- after the first few chapters I couldn't put it down it kept me going so. The ending seemed a little rushed though and I wish he had written more about his companions' fate and about his life in America. An extra chapter would serve nicely and would not overwhelm this brief volume. The situation leading to his emigration lasted for several chapters and he lingered over it so that when the ending came, it felt abrupt, almost like something was left on the cutting room floor. That quibble aside, it's a good book and a solid, engaging read for anyone interested in Darfur, Africa or genocide. Hari articulately describes a society on the verge of collapse through a range of emotions, from frustration, anger and shock all the way to gratitude and hope. His hope is that people who read the book will act on behalf of the people still suffering in Darfur. My hope is that he's right.


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

Friday, February 8, 2008

Book Challenge Curmudgeon

Okay, so I'm doing this Jewish Literature Challenge- five books by Passover. I work in a Hebrew school library and probably read 5-10 qualifying books every week, not to mention what I include in my personal reading, so it's going to be a pretty easy challenge to meet, which is probably why I'm participating. I've never been much for reading challenges, and I see them tossed around all the time on book blogs. It's just not "me". I'm not a joiner. I have enough to read without having to meet some arbitrary goal set by someone else. I don't read that many blogs so I don't get into the whole sharing/bonding aspect. I just like to do my own thing.

I see the advantages though. You always have something to read. You never have to decide what to read next- just pick up the next biography, or kids' book, or whatever. You learn about a specific genre or topic. And you can use that opportunity to either deepen your knowledge of something with which you're already familiar, or to branch out into something new. Participating in challenges might also help increase the visibility of my blog. The problem I had with my reading, before I became a librarian and had access to advance reader copies, was staleness. I liked what I liked, but I didn't always know how to find the next book or the next author. At that time, reading challenges would have been welcome, but ARCs fill that role now and I feel overwhelmed. Books to read for work, books to read for review, books to read for fun, books to read to keep up with what's new in books. Right now my active reading pile includes the following:

The Translator by Daoud Hari, to review, courtesy of LibraryThing,
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, for work,
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, for work,
Fall in Love Like a Comic v. 2 by Chitose Yagami, for fun, and
The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson, for fun,

not to mention Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell and The Moon in the Mango Tree by Pamela Ewan (also from LibraryThing), both for review. Dreamers of the Day isn't a top priority and The Moon in the Mango Tree hasn't arrived yet, but they're out there. Waiting.

And then there are all those things I want to read, that are either sitting on my shelf or I haven't bought yet.

No wonder I don't have time for War and Peace. Or challenges that mean adding more books to my list!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Book Challenge!

So for the first time, I'm going to participate in a reading challenge.

I'm a little late to the dance, but the idea is to read at least five books on Judaism or Jewish subjects between Hannukah and the end of Passover 5768, or December 4, 2007 to April 26, 2008. I read five Jewish books yesterday, so I think I'm good.

The hardest part is deciding where to start, so I'll start with the most recent.

Hana's Suitcase, by Karen Levine, published in 2007, is the true story of a young Czech girl named Hana Brady, who was taken away by the Nazis along with her older brother George, and that of her suitcase, which through a chain of events ended up in Japan. It is also the story of a Japanese woman's efforts to find out about Hana- who she was and what happened to her. The book is incredibly moving. Illustrated with photographs of Hana and her family as well as the Holocaust center in Japan where her suitcase is found, Levine tells Hana's story in parallel with the story of the efforts to learn about her. This structure sets up two crushing waves of emotion that left me in tears by the end. It's bittersweet tragedy, told with beauty and sensitivity.

Click on the picture to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated bookseller. I'd highly recommend it.

You can learn more about the Jewish Literature Challenge here.

Monday, February 4, 2008

REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka. Published 2005 by Penguin.

Click on the cover to buy via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

If all you ever do is read the blurb on the front cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, you will never really know what the book is about: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade..."

I really question the wisdom of including these, the book's opening lines, on the cover because they are so misleading. Yes, the subject of the book is the doomed relationship between the aforementioned octogenarian and his younger lady. But the metaphor- the "fluffy pink grenade"- makes the story sound like something sweet and adorable that might have Hello Kitty on it. And it really is anything but.

The narrator of the story is Nadezhda, the man's daughter, and she tells the story of her father Nikolai and ladyfriend Valentina; all are immigrants from Ukraine to England, but Nadezhda, her sister Vera and her parents came years ago, and Valentina is fresh off the boat so to speak, an escapee of the post-Soviet Union where she and her husband were comfortable Communists unable to adapt to the capitalist anarchy that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Leaving her husband behind, Valentina emigrates with her adolescent son in search of a better life, which she expects will be provided to her by a new, wealthy husband, which she expects to find in the frail widower Nikolai. To say she is disappointed is an understatement, and Nadezhda and her sister quickly see through her father's flimsy relations with Valentina and undertake to rid her from the family as little by little Valentina fritters away both Nikolai's money and his sanity.

Coupled with Valentina's and Nikolai's story is that of the family and of their life in Europe and their traumas and secrets, buried for years. Nadezhda, born in Britain, never knew first-hand of her parents' and sister's struggles except through scattershot stories, and learning more becomes critical to repairing her relationship with Vera, fraught for years with envy and resentment which came to a head with their mother's death two years before the story opens. Since that time, the two women have barely spoken and never met, but they find themselves allied over Valentina and slowly rebuilding their bond.

I liked this book a lot. It was very well-written, flowed well and kept me going- it's a short book, around 300 pages, and I picked it to read next because I hoped it would be a quicker, lighter read than Victor Serge's opus on Stalinist Russia, and because I hoped it would be good, since it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. The tone of the book was on the light side but the themes, including family dysfunction, elder abuse, exploitation, the traumas of the Soviet Union, desperation and loneliness, make it pretty grim going at times. It was short, so it didn't last long, but it got to be pretty dark and uncomfortable now and then. Nothing fluffy here except for Valentina's slippers.

In the end though it was a very satisfying read. Nadezhda, Vera and Nikolai were all believable, likable characters and their relationships felt very real- the sibling rivalry played out into adulthood, the way parents sometimes play siblings off against each other, and the way they came together in the end, in a way that was real and not syrupy or contrived. Lewycka also manages to make Valentina more than a fat, pathetic, ill-dressed monster, though maybe not much more. I think I would have liked to see a little more insight into her personality; Nadezhda does admit near the end of the story that while Valentina was certainly "greedy" she was not inhuman, but I have to admit that Lewycka could have provided the reader with a little more evidence. Her character would make a great basis for a book club discussion when taken in with her historical and cultural circumstances. Who knows what anyone would do in her place?

All in all I'd definitely recommend A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian to anyone looking for a solid, literary page-turner about families or about the former Soviet Union. I might even put it alongside books like Monumental Propaganda and Sergei Lukyanenko's vampire trilogy (Night Watch, Day Watch, and Twilight Watch) for those interested in literary reactions to the fall of the Soviet Union. As soon as I have time I'm going to read another book in this vein, Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow; I'll let you know how it goes.

Rating: BUY

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

Friday, February 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge

The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge. Published by NYRB Editions. Originally published: 1950. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Russian.

Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Kibalchich, an anarchist and supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution who was born in Brussels, traveled in anarchist circles all over Europe and went to prison for his beliefs. He wrote many books of history and fiction and worked very hard to bring the evils of the Soviet system to light. The Case of Comrade Tulayev is his most famous novel and an ambitious attempt to do just that.

Comrade Tulayev, a highly-placed Communist official, is killed one night, and his murder throws all of Stalinist Russia and even Europe into disarray. Officials manufacture conspiracies out of whole cloth, accusing other officials both major and minor, people wholly innocent of the crime but guilty of other, less public sins. The real killer is no mystery. Serge shows an investigation out of control, trapping everyone from a spy to a provincial governor to a young woman living in Paris. Serge shows the inanity of the charges, the hopelessness of the system of justice and the inevitability of defeat for everyone except the one man we know actually committed the crime. It's fascinating and depressing, but highly readable and suspenseful at the same time.

The book's structure is roughly circular- it starts with the crime, then moves one character at a time through the rogue's gallery of suspects, then comes back around for the conclusion. One by one they are hauled in like fish, not so much guilty as unlucky to have fallen into the net. Once ensnared there is no escape. The first half of the book reads like a series of short stories about different men with no connection to each other but through Comrade Tulayev, who himself remains a cypher. In her excellent introduction, Susan Sontag compares one particularly good chapter to a Chekhov novella for its complexity and richness of character, and she's right. The chapter, focusing on a hard-nosed provincial official named Makeyev, is excellent- Serge has a talent for precision and economy of detail and the chapter flows beautifully from a brief biographical sketch to his unavoidable fate. I did not admire these men but in a way I pitied them as bystanders who don't deserve what happens to them.

The whole point of the book is underline the absurdity of the Stalinist Soviet Union, how it devoured the very people who brought it to life, and Serge does a good job, but it's not a very uplifting message and since it doesn't end very well for most of the characters, there's not much to take away. More and more people circle the drain as the book wears on, for Tulayev's death or for their role in the investigation. Soon no one is left unscathed, except the killer.

I liked the book well enough. I didn't love it and there were times when I found it dry and had to push myself through to the end. What captured my attention to begin with was the beginning- Serge starts the book with a fresh, lively anecdote about an ordinary man named Kostia, who, after having scrimped and saved for new shoes, splurges impulsively on a pretty trinket, just because it makes him happy. Later, another burst of emotion will explode this drab world like dynamite, but the opening anecdote is sweet and sad at the same time, and has a lot to say about regular people trying to find beauty and meaning in a world that is otherwise colorless and routine. When I read the opening in a bookstore I found it so charming I bought the book immediately and I wish that Serge had maintained some of that spirit throughout, and that he had written it with more of a continuous narrative. I found the short-story approach fractured and the tone dismal overall. In the latter half he circles back around to the men found guilty, and to the guilty man, and while a little of that initial freshness finds it way back into Kostia's story, for the rest there are no surprises and no hope, and I suppose that is the point after all.


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