Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Salon

This Sunday I'm up in Maine at a wedding (the wedding was this morning) and we're going to follow it up with some relaxing and shopping and sightseeing in the area. I brought two books with me:
Julia Stuart's The Matchmaker of Perigord, and Ronna Wineberg's Second Language, a collection of short stories.

Last week I finished two significant books: Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, probably the best book I've read all year, and Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, which was good but not as flashy-fantastic as Oscar. My American Wife review will be up on Tuesday, when the book is slated to come out. I'll get around to Oscar soon; I think I'm 7 reviews or so behind at this point!

So now that I've finished Oscar I get to pick out a new read-for-me book. This is the way it works. I have three books going at once- a "me" book, a book I've agreed to review, and a new or recent release. Oscar was a "me" book but it was long and I took my time with it; it's one to be savored. My next "me" book is Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich. I actually started it on the plane last week and it's terrific so far.

What are you up to today?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Finds

Here's my stash of books from vacation, including the package I got the other day from City Lights Bookstore.

Yay, books!

I've got a bunch of graphic novels, some poetry, and some plain old fiction.

The only thing missing from this picture is the small selection of zines I picked up; those are tiny and hard to photograph.

As you can see I did not restrict myself to much. New books, used books- all kinds of books. Not a huge stash but not bad. I'm planning on ordering a cookbook that was sold in the restaurant in which I had breakfast each morning in Las Vegas but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Also new this week, The Pages in Between : A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home, a recent nonfiction work by Erin Einhorn, which I received for review. I have one review obligation in line ahead of it but I'm looking forward to reading it.

Finally, the mail brought me galleys of Sarah's Key and The Gone-Away World. Should be enough to keep me busy for a while!

Interview with Hava Ben-Zvi, author of THE BRIDE WHO ARGUED WITH GOD

On Wednesday I featured my review of Hava Ben-Zvi's wonderful new book The Bride Who Argued with God; today I'm following up with an interview I conducted with her this past month.

1. As a way of introducing my readers to your wonderful collection of Jewish folk tales, tell us about Israel Folktale Archives, the “A Tale for Each Month” series and what inspired you to work on this volume. What was your motivation, and what role did you play in selecting in selecting and preparing these stories?

I have always been fascinated by Jewish folk tales. Many of them convey to me our ideas and values, hopes, fears and dreams., the many-hued traditions of Judaism, the texture of Jewish life, the customs and mode of perception, while also reflecting the universality of the human condition.

The Israel Folktale Archives, part of the University of Haifa, served as my primary source and reservoir of tales, for which I am very grateful. I also used folk tales from various anthologies found in the United States.

The ingathering of Jewish immigrants after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 presented a unique opportunity to discover, gather, record and preserve tales from diverse Jewish backgrounds and cultures, yet sharing common Jewish religious and ethical traditions. This, therefore, became the goal of Israel Folktale Archives (IFA), founded by professor Dov Noy in 1955.

Israel Folktale Archives published a series of selected tales in Hebrew in their “A Tale for Each Month” series. For my present volume I have selected, translated and retold folk tales from that series, published between 1961-1978. I believed that many of these mostly unknown tales ought to be translated to afford another window into Jewish culture for English speaking audiences.

To translate and retell them I have read many versions of each story, sometimes revealing different physical and cultural environments. Conveying their essence, I hope I have made them interesting and accessible to a new generation of readers.

2. What are some of the special qualities of Jewish folk tales in general, and can you name some stories in your book that show them particularly well?

Jewish folk literature usually conveys a message, frequently of a religious and moral nature. The messages, sometimes strong, may at other times be subtle, barely touching the reader’s consciousness.

Jewish folktales in general and those in this work in particular are distinguished by their unique populations of characters: rabbis and scholars, students and sages, marriage brokers, magicians and physicians, demons, tzaddikim (righteous men) and angels, all in the service of one God. And, of course, by a population of women.

Jewish folk tales differ from other tales by their predominant themes: piety, the value of education and charity breathe from every page. Some tales portray reverence without end. Others suggest rebellion against the deeply ingrained, established attitudes (The Bride Who Argued With God).
There is a remarkable lack of violence, except in tales reflecting the suffering and persecution of Jews. The stories offer hope for a better world, and the possibility of atonement and renewal.The supernatural has a place in Jewish folk tales, and magic is frequently wed to faith, but most of the time our protagonists work for and deserve their miracles. Occasionally God works His will through human intervention.

Folk tales were used for information, education, entertainment, and as vehicles to transmit ideas, sometimes political and too dangerous to express openly, and thus to affect behavior. Folk tales served as agents of change. Norms of behavior change slowly, especially if attributed to the will of the One Above. But life goes on, and folk tales reflect and mirror the true ideas and customs of their times. Slowly, by force of custom, prevailing ideas are humanized, bringing the accepted norms up to date.

Some of the tales in this collection are uniquely Jewish, meaning that there would be no tale, but for its Jewish content. Other tales are known in world folklore. They were adopted and adapted to Jewish needs by according them Jewish names, Jewish settings, such as synagogues, Jewish occasions, such as weddings, and by weaving them into Jewish historical events. They became part of the Jewish tradition. These distinction are obvious or subtle.

3. Many of the tales focus on love and marriage and the role of women, in their various aspects. Why did you choose to highlight these themes?

Women were not equal in ancient cultures and in later generations, and in many respects are not equal even in our times.Within the cultures surrounding the Jews women were sometimes valued not higher than an ox, and could even be sold. I wanted to discover and present images of women emerging from Jewish culture and tradition, their position and role in the family and community, and their relationships as wives, mothers, daughters, providers and scholars.

Talmudic sages comprehended the vital importance of marriage and family life, and devoted several tractates specifically to the relationship between husband and wife, stressing love, trust, peace in the home, the protection of women and the resulting welfare of children and the community. Marriage was divinely sanctioned. In Hebrew the term for marriage is Kiddushin, meaning sanctification or consecration.

Echoes of Talmudic voices speak loudly:

“ Never have I called my wife by any other word but my home (adapted from the Talmud, Shabbat 118b).

The ketubbah (marriage agreement), a sociological-cultural-legal document protects the material interest and welfare of the woman. This was necessary in a patriarchal society, where most rights were vested in the male. Love and romance were not neglected. Family lineage and scholarship were vitally important. In the tales I have selected there is no mention of sex, even though it is a frequent subject and a powerful factor in biblical literature.

The Talmud, in its many utterances, expects uncompromising modesty in act and speech. Chastity before marriage was deeply implanted in Jewish youths, and adultery after marriage was a sin against God and a transgression against family and community, whose control was absolute , zealous and sometimes devoid of compassion.

Polygamy surfaces in one tale: “The Two Wives of Our Teacher Rabbi Gershom”, only to teach us about its dangers. Even though permitted in ancient times, it was seldom practiced among Jews, and only by the very rich. None of the known Talmudists had more than one wife. Polygamy was abolished among the Jewish population of European lands in the 11th century. This prohibition did not extend to Jews living in Moslem lands, who usually followed the customs of their neighbors. Jewish dispersion and adaptation to the surrounding cultures sometimes resulted in practices foreign and conflicting with Jewish teachings, as reflected in “The Woman Who Might Not Weep.”

Each tale in my work presents an image of a woman as seen by her contemporaries, and reflecting their perceptions of her role.

4. What is you personal favorite folk tale, and why?

I love them all. The tales I did not like or thought as unworthy of retelling were not included in my book.

However, I do have some favorites – tales embodying some of the qualities and ideas I wished to emphasize.

“The Bride Who Argued With God” is one of them. The bride’s name was not given in the earlier versions of the stories, and the title was: The Story of Rabbi Reuben. It was quickly apparent, however, that the real subject of the tale was the young bride of his son, Amos. The early storytellers told their audiences about a teenage girl who was brave enough to take even God to task, to protect her husband. To her, God was accountable for His actions.

Girls were not expected to be educated, but obviously the audience respected and applauded her scholarly argument, thus questioning the status quo. “Batya, the Beast Maiden” is another girl-scholar the audiences must have admired.

“To Whom Does The Hump Belong” sheds light upon Jewish customs, such as “tenaim,” the premarital agreement and the bride’s freedom to reject the match. It also presses home the value placed on education, character and wisdom.

“Her Husband’s Crown” humorously shows who truly is the head of the home and the family .

The entire chapter on “Daughters” flies in the face of the common desire for and preference of a sons over daughters.

“The Circumcision That Wasn’t” reflects the helplessness of the Jews in the lands of their dispersion and demonstrates how an authentic Jewish historical figure, Dr. Lieberman, was woven into a tale that could be of any ethnic group.

“The Wiesel and the Well” demonstrates a great concern for “the woman scorned.”

“The woman Who Spat in Rabbi Meir’s Eye” presents the Jewish serious attitude to vows, but it ridicules the husband’s dominance and his preserving the letter of the law, while violating its spirit. The image of Rabbi Meir reflects humility and concern for “peace in the home” above his own dignity.

And audiences never tire of “A Promise Is a Promise.” It sounds contemporary and close to home.

“The Glowing Robe” usually stimulates a lively discussion. On its face, it is a story about charity. But is it truly a Jewish tale? Some consider it a foreign import, arguing that the Robe is too tangible for Jewish belief in a purely spiritual deity. And selling a wife would not be part of a truly Jewish tale.

5. Why would it be beneficial for non-Jews as well as for Jewish readers, to read you book and familiarize themselves with the tradition of Jewish folk tales? Are the lessons they teach universal or particular to Jewish culture? Who did you have in mind as the audience for your book?

Due to Jewish dispersion throughout the world and the resulting various influences, Jewish culture is diverse and truly international. And yet every story touches upon universal human feelings and needs, such as love, hate, ambition, fear, compassion. The tales, therefore, can be appreciated by all, Jews and non-Jews alike. I wrote them for a wide and varied audience: the general reader, women who may be particularly interested in them, the clergy and youth leaders who may utilize them in the course of their work. But I did not neglect the scholars, by providing accurate source notes and various indices, a glossary and a bibliography.

The position and role of women in our lives, and the complex and often thorny relationship between men and women are also familiar and of interest to all. This is not a children’s book, even though it may be used with older children.

Both Jews and non—Jews will appreciate the characters populating the tales and their dilemmas, not so different from our own. The attitudes of the Talmudists, frequently displayed, will, I hope, afford the readers a closer glimpse and understanding of Jewish values, character and soul. Could it, perhaps, somewhat influence perceptions?

6. How do you think different readers might use the book? For example, children, teaches, librarians and the casual reader?

I hope the book will give hours of pleasurable reading to all. Teachers, youth leaders and librarians may use some of the tales as springboards for discussion. Some suggested questions for discussion are included in the volume.

7. The tone of the tales is lively and accessible; why did you choose this style over a more literary or didactic style?

I have retold the tales for our time, for the contemporary reader, and suitable for reading aloud. And yet, I was respectful of and, hopefully, preserved whenever possible, the linguistic flavor of the tales, the atmosphere, the culture, the environments, and, above all, the meaning, spirit and message of each tale. I will be pleased if they bring joy and pleasure to all readers.

Ms. Ben-Zvi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and share your thoughts with my readers!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next?

Or, um, is it just me?

At a library conference this past spring I had the privilege of attending a talk given by librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl, who spoke about the four general appeal factors that books have for readers- character, plot, setting and language. In other words, most readers, most of the time, will prefer books that emphasize one or two of those aspects of storytelling. Some people like strong, page-turning plots; some people like rich characters; some people like to armchair-travel to exotic places and some people like gorgeous or particularly stylized writing. For me, books appeal that are strong on character or strong on plot, and are written in a literary style. So if my reading preferences were to be expressed in Boolean terms (yeah, I'm a nerd) it would go like this:

(plot OR character) AND (language)

So it's not just you! But sort of.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

REVIEW: The Bride Who Argued with God, by Hava Ben-Zvi

The Bride Who Argued with God: Tales from the Treasury of Jewish Folklore, compiled, translated and re-told by Hava Ben-Zvi. Published 2006 by iUniverse. Fiction. Short Stories. Translation.

The Bride Who Argued with God is one of those really special books that can be pored over, read a little at a time and just savored. Librarian and Jewish folk literature enthusiast Hava Ben-Zvi worked with the Israel Folk Archives, founded in 1955, to bring this collection of lively tales to an English-speaking audience. As Ms. Ben-Zvi explains:

The Israel Folktale Archives, part of the University of Haifa, served as my primary source and reservoir of tales, for which I am very grateful. I also used folk tales from various anthologies found in the United States.
The ingathering of Jewish immigrants after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 presented a unique opportunity to discover, gather, record and preserve tales from diverse Jewish backgrounds and cultures, yet sharing common Jewish religious and ethical traditions. This, therefore, became the goal of Israel Folktale Archives (IFA), founded by professor Dov Noy in 1955.
Israel Folktale Archives published a series of selected tales in Hebrew in their “A Tale for Each Month” series. For my present volume I have selected, translated and retold folk tales from that series, published between 1961-1978.

I believed that many of these mostly unknown tales ought to be translated to afford another window into Jewish culture for English speaking audiences. To translate and retell them I have read many versions of each story, sometimes revealing different physical and cultural environments. Conveying their essence, I hope I have made them interesting and accessible to a new generation of readers.

Reading this book was a real treat for me. I enjoyed the stories themselves and the accessible tone in which Ms. Ben-Zvi tells them; I also appreciated her extensive introduction and the explanatory "Author's Notes" which often appear at the end of each story. Other features useful for the lay reader include a glossary and discussion questions; scholars will appreciate the bibliography, the notes regarding similar and parallel tales held by the Israel Folk Archives and indices listing tales by country of origin, major tale types and major motifs.

Part of the fun of reading The Bride Who Argued with God is seeing stories I've seen elsewhere retold and learning a little more about their origins. For example, the very last story, called "Cruel Words and Feathers: A Yom Kippur Tale," about a town gossip, has been retold several times in children's-book form; one of those versions, Yettele's Feathers, by Joan Rothenberg (ISBN 9780786811496), is a favorite read-aloud story at my temple library. I enjoyed seeing this version in Ms. Ben-Zvi's book because I learned a little about the origin of the story (it appeared in The Jewish Child, in 1912) and I learned that it is associated with Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, which I did not know.

And the book has so many potential uses- parents could read the stories to their kids, librarians could read them to patrons or use them as the basis of ongoing programming, scholars could use it for reference and research, and so on. Jewish people could use it to become more closely acquainted with their folk tale heritage and non-Jews could use it to learn. Mostly though I think it's just a great treasure of folk tales and stories, great fun to read and great fun to have.

p.s. I will have the rest of my interview with Ms. Ben-Zvi on Friday. Come back then!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Newsy News

Two things today: first thing, sometime last week while I was away, I received Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, from Random House via their imprint Crown Publishing's Read It Forward program. I signed up for the program a month or two ago and I was so pleased to receive Last Night; it's the diary of a young woman named Dang Thuy Tram who worked as a doctor in the Viet Cong, written between 1968 and 1970. I started reading it yesterday and it's absolutely riveting.

I also wanted to draw attention to a book I reviewed last year, Swim to Me by Betsy Carter, now out in paperback.

You can see my review here. It may strike you as a sort of lukewarm response but consider that I trade books all the time, and I still have my battered little ARC of this one- I have a soft spot for it I guess you could say.

If you're interested in buying either book, you can click on the cover to go to the IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller of your choice.

Tuesday Thingers

Today's topic: LibraryThing authors. Who are your LibraryThing authors? What books of theirs do you have? Do you ever comment on an author's LT page? Have you received any comments from an author on your LT account?

My answer: My LT authors are Pamela Binnings Ewen, who wrote The Moon in the Mango Tree, Mort Zachter, author of Dough, and Dave Boling, author of Guernica. I have never received any comments from LT authors, nor have I left any on LT. Occasionally like many of you I get a comment or two on my blog, however.

Monday, August 25, 2008


This week I'm giving away a copy of the 2008 sampler from Top Shelf Comics, publishers of Johnny Boo, Korgi, the Owly series and many other fine comics and graphic novels for children and adults.

What's great about a sampler is that you get a few pages of lots of different comics- different styles, artists and subject matter- and you can use it like a catalog at your local library or bookstore. I use mine that way all the time, and it's how I find some of the titles I feature on Graphic Novel Mondays.

They give these away for free at comic book stores routinely but most of the stores I've visited lately are out of this sampler so it may not be easy to find it now. Which is not to say it's not current- the 2008 sampler showcases a full range of what's new and great from Top Shelf this year.

So leave a comment with your email address if you're interested in winning the 2008 Sampler; I'll do a drawing on Monday, September 1st and announce the winner the next day. Extra entries for mentioning the contest on your blog and another entry for mentioning Graphic Novel Monday on your blog as well. Good luck!

Graphic Novel Monday: Ropeburn, by Jeremy Smith

Ropeburn, by Jeremy Smith. Published 2007 by Fragile Press. Graphica. Fiction.

Ropeburn is one of a bunch of graphic novels and zines I picked up over the past week while I was on vacation in the book mecca of San Francisco. As a publication it falls somewhere in between the two- almost too short to be a real book, but too polished to be a zine, it's short (about 30 pages) and small (quarter size) but manages to pack a punch nonetheless.

It was published in 2007 with a grant from the Xeric Foundation, which seeks to help promising comics artists with the process of self-publishing their work; in practice it also helps recognize outstanding artists and brings attention to their work. This book collects a number of strips and sketches, many of them a four panel size that would fit comfortably in a newspaper, about the adventures of a pizza delivery guy and his friends. The tone is self-deprecating and a little cynical as the main character deals with rude customers, bitter coworkers and the various human tragedies he witnesses in the course of his workday. It sounds depressing but there is something uplifting about watching him soldier on despite it all.

I think this little book is something kind of special. Smith's simple black and white line drawings let the emotions shine through the dialogue and the details. Occasional full-page color one-off cartoons provide interest and contrast as well. It will take you about ten minutes to read through the whole thing but it's still worth checking out.


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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Salon

I think today what I'm mostly going to do is sleep!
I got home early this morning from San Francisco, and I've unloaded my books and clothes and assorted other stuff, put the new books on LibraryThing and picked up my cat from the boarder's; now I rest!

I read five books over vacation, mostly short ones, and I liked them all. So I made a minor dent into my TBR pile and got even further behind on reviews!

I actually have another box of books in the mail from San Francisco; when I went to City Lights bookstore I had everything shipped back from the store. In general throughout the trip I mostly bought graphic novels, but I picked up a couple of used hardcovers of recent books, and at least one new hardcover I could get anywhere. By the end of the trip I was being less and less discriminate with my purchases. I started off saying I'd only buy things either about San Francisco or things that I think I would have trouble finding at home. But by the last day I was like, if I want it, I'll buy it. So I did. Total number of books purchased, not including the City Lights purchases- about 11. A lot of these are graphic novels or zines. I got to see Thorina Rose of The Heartbreak Diet fame do a reading at a bookstore on Friday, which was pretty neat.

Favorite purchase? Hard to say. Maybe the used hardcover of David Benioff's City of Thieves. Or one of the graphic novels. Ropeburn, by Jeremy Smith, is a good one. I'll probably write more about it tomorrow. I think my real favorite purchase will come from the City Lights swag and honestly I can't remember most of what I bought there. A graphic novel, two Russian novels, a French novel, some poetry... we'll see when the box gets here.

All in all I visited around 13 bookstores and comic book stores. My favorite was Green Apple Books, which has new and used books of every stripe as well as music and DVDs. We went there twice in all. I also picked up one of their tote bags because we needed another bag for the stuff we bought (my husband had his own haul of stuff from SF as well). You'd think they didn't sell books in Massachusetts for all we brought back!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


So I just wanted to apologize for the fact that I'm pretty much not responding to comments this week- I'm away!

I am loving San Francisco- it's like I've died and gone to heaven. Bookstores, books, fun places to walk and see, etc., etc. Love it!

I know one or two of my readers live here- and I am so jealous! I've been here since Sunday night and it's just been fabulous. The first person I talked to here was actually a transplant from my own neighborhood in Cambridge, which I took as an excellent sign. So far I've been to three bookstores in the Haight and I'm off to North Beach and City Lights today- can't wait! When I get home I'll blog my bookish adventures more thoroughly!

Oh and I have time for visits- email me!

Tuesday Thingers

Today's question: LT and RL (real life)- do you have friends in real life that you met through LibraryThing? Have you attended any LT meet-ups in your area? Would you be open to attending meet-ups or is LT strictly an online thing for you?

My answer: I don't have any friends that I met through LT but I have a few real-world friends who are also LT friends. I haven't attended a meet up but I'm open to it. There was a get-together in Cambridge a few months ago but I was busy or something and didn't get to go. I would make more of an effort next time though since I'd be interested to meet some folks on LT and many of them are local. I'm always a little nervous meeting people from online but I'd give it a try.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Finds

This Friday finds me under a stack of August releases and some new-to-me things, too.

Notables added to my library this week include:

Second Language, a collection of short stories by writer Ronna Wineberg. The collection was runner-up in 2007 for Reform Judaism's Best Jewish Book award. I can't wait to start reading it! When she sent me a review copy, Ms. Wineberg was also kind enough to include an additional copy as a donation to the temple where I work. Thank you!

The View from Garden City, a new release this month by Carolyn Baugh, looks to be a very interesting novel which means to "[lift] the veil of privacy to explore the stunning inner strength of women torn between their dreams for the future and the sometimes harsh realities of the past and present."

Finally, because you know I can never get enough of Stalinist Russia, I finally picked up Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's Booker-longlisted novel about a missing child. I was going to wait until this came out in paperback (really I was!) but I gave in. I will read it shortly, after I get through a couple of other things. But it's definitely in the "soon" pile, as opposed to the "maybe someday" pile if you know what I mean.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

You, um, may have noticed that the Olympics are going on right now, so that’s the genesis of this week’s question, in two parts:


  • Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general?
  • Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?

And, Second:

  • Do you consider yourself a sports fan?
  • Because, of course, if you’re a rabid fan and read about sports constantly, there’s a logic there; if you hate sports and never read anything sports-related, that, too … but you don’t have to love sports to enjoy a good sports story.
  • (Or a good sports movie, for that matter. Feel free to expand this into a discussion about “Friday Night Lights” or “The Natural” or whatever…)
I think I almost never read books about sports. The closest I've come is American Shaolin, which I reviewed last Friday (I timed the review to coincide with the start of the Olympics in China) about an American college student who goes to the Shaolin Temple to learn martial arts. I'm trying to remember if there's anything else like that I've read, but at 4:26 am it's not easy!

Am I a sports fan? Not really. I've had some fun following the Michael Phelps hype and watching a woman from my area win a silver medal in gymnastics (and it rocked when the Celtics won the championship this year) but otherwise... nope.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Today's question: Favorite bookstores. What's your favorite bookstore? Is it an online store or a bricks-and-mortar store? How often do you go book shopping? Is your favorite bookstore (or bookstores) listed as a favorite in LT? Do you attend events at local bookstores? Do you use LT to find events?

My answer: My favorite bookstore is the Harvard Bookstore, in Harvard Square in Cambridge. It's an independent bookstore that is amazing. It has a great selection of fiction, especially literary fiction and off-the-beaten path books. It has a nice children's section and some graphic novels as well as extensive nonfiction, although I use it mostly for fiction. It also has a whole floor in the basement devoted to used books and remainders, including a lot of graphic novels and manga. They have an online presence but I've never shopped online. One time I did reserve a book online though.

I go book shopping whenever possible! My husband and I go to Borders and Barnes and Noble frequently in the evenings. A few of my favorites are favorited in my LibraryThing, like Porter Square Books (also in Cambridge), Borders, Schoenhof's (a foreign-language bookstore) and Globe Corner Bookstore (specializing in travel books). I love the LT local feature; I used to attend a lot of readings but over the last few years I don't seem to get out as much.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: The Fart Party, by Julia Wertz

The Fart Party, by Julia Wertz. Published 2007 by Atomic Book Company. Graphica. Memoir.

A fellow LibraryThinger summed up Julia Wertz's collection of web comics and zines thusly: "Wildly inappropriate."

The Fart Party is absolutely hilarious. Wertz is a comics artist originally from California, who's published most of her work online at her website,, and in a number of self-published zines. In fact, after I got The Fart Party home I was going through my small zine collection and found one of hers, so I guess that means I really like her work.

Yeah. In the introduction Wertz describes herself as a 23 year old living in San Francisco who likes "nerd stuff" and "wanderin'"; this book tells the story of her breakup with her then-boyfriend Oliver who she describes as liking "lushing and swaggering." The comics also cover her family, childhood and various adventures in and around her town. For example, she bikes around and gets rained on, which leads her to question why God hates her, or lolls in the tub feeling sexy but then gets angry because Oliver doesn't come quickly enough when she calls, and by the time he gets there her mood has become as frizzy as her hair. You know, the kinds of things that happen to all of us.

Except that when it happens to her, it's much funnier than when it happens to me, because I can't write and draw as expressively as she does. The art is definitely crude and simple, but it's a simplicity that works because of the crudeness of much of the subject matter. Raunchy, a little violent and laden with swears, The Fart Party is a lot like South Park- a cartoon for grownups, not appropriate for anyone. But still really funny.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Salon

My big plan for the day involves heading slightly north to the city of Lowell, which is hosting the Lowell Quilt Festival this weekend. Quilting is my other hobby, and this annual festival brings together quilts and quilters (not to mention vendors) from all over the region and all over the country. It's not a huge festival on the order of those which take place in Texas and Kentucky but it's the biggest thing around here and it's a lot of fun. I plan to gape at the beautiful quilts and shop for patterns. Should be good!

As far as reading, I'm still working through Oscar and Lucinda and I'm about to finish Sana Krasikov's wonderful book of short stories, One More Year. I think The Glimmer Palace, by Beatrice Colin, is the next August release on the agenda for me, though I won't start that until I'm back from California. I've picked out a selection of books for the trip, including

The Reader, by Bernard Schlink,
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan,
Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster, and
Summer Lightning, by P.G. Wodehouse.

All of these are thin little novels I've been wanting to read for a long time. I know I'll buy books while I'm away but those I will have shipped home. I'm bringing little books because I'm hoping I'll have time on all the flights to knock a few titles off my TBR pile and read some things just for me. Because that's what vacation is all about, right?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday Finds

This Friday finds me in the midst of negotiating with contractors and listening to French music on an internet station I just found, They play Francophone music from 1890 forward, by artists who have passed away. Their goal is to preserve and promote great French music from the past. It's pretty cool.

Anyhow that's not why you're here.

New on the bookpile this week:

When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops, by everyone's favorite late heretic, George Carlin. Because I need a laugh once in a while.

Harvey Pekar's American Splendor Anthology. I can't believe I got this from Bookmooch. Anyway I'm very excited about getting my hands on Pekar's graphic novel compendium.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, by Ariel Sabar. Just what it sounds like- a Jewish Iraqi-American on a journey to find out about his family's past in his father's homeland. I am also very excited to get my hands on this book.

Then, we circle back around to the French, with The Matchmaker of Perigord, which looks to be a fun little romp of a novel.

REVIEW: American Shaolin, by Matthew Polly

American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the new China, by Matthew Polly. Published 2007 by Gotham Books. Nonfiction. Memoir.

American Shaolin is a memoir by a young man named Matthew Polly who spent two years at the Shaolin monastery in a remote, rural area of China, studying martial arts. It's part adventure story, part cross-cultural experiment, part bildungsroman. But it's almost all fun.

When Polly decided to drop out of Princeton University and go to China, he did so without a net- little money, no firm plans, and no real idea where he was going. He gets off the plane, makes his way to the Shaolin temple without even knowing where it is, talks (or more to the point, buys) his way in, and starts his new life as a student of sanda, a kickboxing sport and the only one someone his age (early 20s) and size (over 6 feet) can master. What he did have on his side was decent Mandarin, without which his adventures would have been impossible, and blind determination.

How else to explain all the challenges he overcomes- not just the language barrier but the grueling physical and mental challenges of his training in a sport where most participants peak in their early 20s and burn out by the time they're 26 or 27. Not to mention the cultural barriers and misunderstandings. The book is filled with hilarious, often wince-inducing anecdotes of his dealings with the Chinese government, health care system and social customs. The stories about his less-than-successful love life were very funny. There's a lot of pathos here too, and a lot of surprises. He learns that most monks enter the monastery not out of devotion to the Buddhist religion, but due to rural China's grinding poverty. He learns a lot about himself in the process as well.

And Polly does a good job putting it all together. His writing is varied and on point; the tone ranges from matter-of-fact narration to engaging self-deprecation to comedy to surprise to humble respect for the hard life that many Chinese live. Sometimes the narrative structure becomes formulaic, for example when he ends several chapters with clunky foreshadowing. He starts the book with an anecdote about a sanda match in which he was chosen to challenge another athlete, then leaves the story about halfway through; when he comes back to the story several chapters later there is nothing linking the two and I had to ask a friend about the connection. So I wish he had made that particular connection a little clearer, but that's a minor quibble. The final chapters are a little heavy on the sports-talk for me and I'll admit I skimmed some passages in which he details which jab he used when and where it was placed- I was reading it for the fish-out-of-water story, not the kickboxing analysis- and I found those passages dull and hard to follow.

But the nice thing about American Shaolin is that it will appeal equally to different kinds of readers- those interested in athletics and martial arts, and those interested in China or in a good story about an American abroad. The violence in the story is relatively mild, as is the sexual content (although both are present to some extent) and it would be a fun book to hand to an older teen wanting to learn about China or about sports, as well as a fun light read for adults. The cultural analysis may be somewhat dated at this point, but probably not much. It's a great story and makes for a delightful read.

Rating: BEACH

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

Thursday, August 7, 2008

We have a winner!

The winner of my giveaway of Toni McGee Causey's Bobbie Faye's (kinda, sorta, not-exactly) Family Jewels is...


Check out her great blog and congratulate her.

Thanks to everyone who commented and blogged about the contest!

Booking Through Thursday

Are there any particular worlds in books where you’d like to live?

Or where you certainly would NOT want to live?

What about authors? If you were a character, who would you trust to write your life?

I don't read fantasy, so I can't think of any fantastical worlds. When I was little I probably would have answered "Narnia" though. Nowadays... I don't know. I read a lot about Stalinist Russia, and I wouldn't want to live there! Places like Rome and Paris are often portrayed as very romantic and chic- Proust's France is lovely- but that's too easy. I'm reading about 19th century Australia right now, all wild and developing, in a very exciting stage of development. There is something romantic about that kind of chaos and anarchy.

If I were a character I would want Margaret Atwood or A.S. Byatt to write my life- two women writers who I think really get women.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

REVIEW: Dough, by Mort Zachter

Dough, by Mort Zachter. Published August 2008, by HarperCollins. Nonfiction.

Dough is a quiet book centering on two very emotional subjects- family and money. It's the story of Zachter's family and the family store, a bakery in the Lower East Side of New York City, in business for much of the last century. Zachter's uncles Harry and Joe ran the store, with assistance from Zachter's parents and then Zachter himself. A bolt out of the blue came when his uncle Harry took ill and Zachter took over his affairs- he discovered that his uncles, who he had always believed to be very poor, were actually millionaires.

It's quite a story. The narrative alternates between the present tense as he sorts out his uncle's property, including finding him a nursing home and cleaning out his dilapidated, overstuffed apartment, and the past, when the store was in its heyday and the family slaved at earning a meager living. Zachter talks about the opportunities he missed because he believed his family was poor, and his disappointment and anger towards his uncles and his parents for hiding this secret wealth. But the rancor never gets out of hand, and what shines through is his love for his family and gratitude for what they've given him, material and otherwise.

I've heard a lot of people describe the tone of the book as neutral or non-judgmental; I disagree. There are plenty of times when Zachter uses words like "selfish" and talks about his uncles "shafting" his hard-working mother and the like. I think what these reviewers are getting at is the overall understated tone of the writing. In the supplementary material at the end of the book, Zachter talks about how much he relied on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style in writing the book; he even calls the author's "my new best friends." Now, The Elements of Style is a great style manual but I think Zachter followed its guidelines, which are apropos only of one particular, concise style of writing, a little too closely. Writing is an art, not a science- following the rules does not great writing ensure. Sometimes you have to break the rules, or even make up your own- you know, use a few unnecessary words, or a few fancy ones, now and then. It's really okay.

Overall though I think Dough has a lot to recommend it. It's a moving, interesting family story that ties into some engaging themes- family secrets, immigration and assimilation, family business, family love, and forgiveness. I enjoyed the passages on the history of the store, its customers, its anecdotes. It is a quiet book but its themes have broad appeal and I think the book would interest lots of different readers. Finding out that you're a millionaire is not the worst thing that could happen to a person but it is life-changing; I appreciated Zachter's honesty about adjusting to his new found fortune and I'm glad he decided to share his story with us.


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

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Today's question is only marginally about LibraryThing but I thought it might be a fun question anyway. It's more about blogging. Everyone who participates in Tuesday Thingers has a blog- some have a book blog, some have several, some have blogs that are more personal, etc.- and we've all chosen to participate in this particular way of networking to build traffic, get to know each other, etc. So my question is: what other weekly memes or round robins do you participate in? Is this the only one? Why Tuesday Thingers and not some other weekly Tuesday meme? Or do you do more than one?

Also, if you feel like you don't have enough memes, you can visit The Daily Meme for even more blogging options for different days of the week. I know- like you don't have enough to do! :-)
My answer: In addition to Tuesday Thingers, I participate in Booking Through Thursday and the Sunday Salon. Three seems like a good number to me- not too many, but enough to get my blog out there and meet and interact with different groups of bloggers. There are so many though! And doing three leaves me enough other days of the week for reviews, gives me a couple of quick-hit entries per week and helps me keep my blog updated almost daily. I've been pretty faithful to all three memes since I started doing them, but I have skipped a week or two of one or the other if I've been particularly busy. Having hosted this meme, I understand how hard it is to come up with clever questions every week and I really admire those bloggers who make and keep that commitment!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: Owly 2; Just a Little Blue, by Andy Runton

Owly Volume 2: Just a Little Blue, by Andy Runton. Published 2005 by Top
Shelf Productions. Click on the cover to buy from your local IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller.

Owly 2 is the third and final installment in my three-part series on comics for kids, and what can I say? This nearly-silent all-ages adventure is adorable.

The cast of characters includes the industrious little Owly, his friend the worm, and a family of birds. Owly decides to build a birdhouse for the family after a misunderstanding with the birdy paterfamilias; apparently the bird family is not excited to see an owl in its territory. Does Owly win them over or do hostilities continue indefinitely? Read the book to find out!

So yes, it's terrific for kids. Like Korgi, Owly is nearly wordless, making it an appropriate choice for kids who aren't reading yet; they can follow the story through the pictures, which are simple but expressive. Runton makes occasional use of words for things like a "welcome" sign and instructions for the birdhouse so it might be handy for an adult to read this book along with a child who really has no reading skills at all. Otherwise the art does all the work. Runton's black and white panels are small and focused so that each one represents a simple, understandable forward movement. The pacing is steady and clear, with a great deal of emphasis on the characters' face and emotions. And the story has a sweet happy ending.

Owly 2 is a great choice for kids of all ages. Runton has two other Owly titles, Owly Volume 1: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer, and Owly Volume 3, Flying Lessons, and a website at for more information.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Salon

Well the weather here in the Boston area is unsettled today- sunny sometimes, rainy sometimes, and right now we are having a small thunderstorm- so it's perfect for reading.

I don't have much new to report- still working my way through (and loving) Oscar and Lucinda, American Wife and So Long at the Fair; I'm plenty backed up on reviews of books I've finished so I will certainly finish one of those three before I run out of reviews to write!

My husband and I took a drive out to a nearby suburb to visit Willow Books, a pleasant enough independent bookstore. It was fine- it had all the bestsellers and new books- but I found it a little dull and generic. But I am spoiled living in Cambridge. The smallest independent bookstore here, Porter Square Books, which is about half the size of Willow, has a much richer selection of just about everything.

I picked up a new graphic novel today as well, The Fart Party by Julia Wertz, which I'll be reviewing on a Monday sometime soon. It's actually fairly prophetic because it's about a young woman living in San Francisco, which is where I'm going in two short weeks. So maybe I'll try to have the review ready for that week. Blogging that week is going to be tricky- I'll have a computer but I don't know how much I'm going to able (or inclined) to get done. I suspect when I return I will have lots of things to blog about though.

I hope you all are having a great Sunday!

Friday, August 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Demon From Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson

The Demon from Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson. Published 2008 by St. Martin's. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Swedish.

I'm not a big mystery-suspense person, and The Demon from Dakar isn't my normal reading fare, but as a librarian I try stay current on trends in publishing and one thing that's stood out for me in the last year or so is the influx of Scandinavian crime novels into the American literary scene. Authors like Jo Nesbo, Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum and Asa Larsson have been heating up bookstores and making readers' pulses race with their tight, suspenseful crime writing, set in places that I normally associate with clogs and fjords.

One of the best voices to emerge is Kjell Eriksson, whose mysteries have made a big splash, garnering praise and selling well. My father in law is a mystery/suspense addict and he gobbled up the selection of Scandinavian crime writing I picked out for him last year based on conference notes and press coverage, including a prior Eriksson hit, Cruel Stars of the Night; when I got my hands on Eriksson's latest, I did the same.

The Demon from Dakar is set in Upsala, Sweden, an urban area about which I know very little; Eriksson presents it as a bustling multicultural city, cosmopolitan and very European. The Dakar is a restaurant around which the action revolves; the characters include seedy owner Slobodan Andersson, his right-hand man Armas (the murder victim), guileless waitress Eva, and Manuel, a Mexican man who comes to Sweden to visit his brother in prison. Dakar also features Ann Lindell, Eriksson's serial detective, who has appeared in several of his previous books.

The reader is present at the murder so the only mystery is if and when Lindell will catch the killer. Eriksson does a nice job of creating a believable universe of people, each with his or her own problems, baggage, weaknesses and foibles; the characters are multifaceted and complex, and it's difficult to judge any of them too harshly- even the killer. For me Dakar was as much about watching the characters' personal struggles work themselves out as it was about the murder. Indeed, sometimes the murder felt almost tangential- it's the reason for the book, but it's not really what the book is about. The way the murder is resolved reflects its place in the novel's hierarchy of importance.

I had a good time reading The Demon from Dakar- as I said, not my usual fare but I enjoyed how the different plots and characters interacted and intertwined, and I liked the moral ambiguity the characters possessed. Who is the demon of the Dakar? By the end I really wasn't sure. But I know I read a pretty good book.

Rating: BEACH

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

Friday Finds

What's new on the TBR pile this week:

The Covenant, by Naomi Ragen, a novel about a woman living in Jerusalem whose husband and daughter go missing amidst the violence in Israel. I picked this up in Salem over the weekend and it looks like a great read.

Sweet and Low
, by Rich Cohen, about the family behind the artificial sweetener. I've been meaning to pick this up for a long time and I think it will make an interesting bookend to Mort Zachter's Dough. My review of Dough is coming up next week.

Finally, Bonjour Tristesse, a slim little slip of a roman, by Francoise Sagan. The book is an icon of French ennui and ideally I would spend the afternoon with it in a sidewalk cafe whilst pretending to be very chic and continental. Today however, I will be waiting on an insurance adjuster coming to survey water damage to my living room. How glam.

Where does this Friday find you?