Friday, October 31, 2008

REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Published 2005 by Penguin.

I didn't know this when I started reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's utterly absorbing book, but The Shadow of the Wind is the perfect book for Halloween. It's about a young boy named Daniel in post-civil war Spain who finds a mysterious book, The Shadow of the Wind, in a labyrinthine library, by which he is entranced- so much so that he dedicates himself to learning as much as he can about the book and its enigmatic author, one Julian Carax.

His search brings him to a haunted mansion filled with secrets, a creepy hospital whose patients aren't quite what they seem, and through a Barcelona barely recovered from a bloody, traumatic civil war. There are stories within the story, about another young boy lifted out of an unhappy family by a strange benefactor, a doomed, forbidden love affair and a frustrated, unhappy woman who dies tragically. Daniel himself is haunted by a dark, disfigured stranger on a mission to burn every last copy of Carax's works, and a vengeful, psychotic police detective who has already left a long trail of misery.

Into this marvelous, fireside-worthy ghost story Zafon has added an impressive cast of characters, major and minor. Particularly memorable are the deeply traumatized and yet still charming Fermin Romero de Torres, who provides both pathos and comic relief, and the snake-like Francisco Javier Fumero, the bloodthirsty policeman with a history of viciousness and violence. Zafon has also created three erotic, emotionally-charged love stories that add a great deal to the story. Perhaps the most memorable character of all is Spain itself; Zafon sprinkles the book with details that remind the reader how the trauma of the civil war still reverberates for his characters- a wall pockmarked by bullets, the ever-present threat of the secret police and the wounds and scars on the bodies of the survivors, including Daniel's confidant Fermin.

Without giving anything away, let's just say it all ends a lot better than I expected. Literary in style and generally serious in tone, The Shadow of the Wind isn't necessarily a quick read or an light read, but it was a very satisfying and very rewarding read. Though one major theme of the book is the idea of being haunted by the past, it ends up very much about hope for the future. Zafon takes us through some pretty steep twists and turns to get there, and I'd definitely recommend it for readers who like an intelligent, suspenseful thrill ride leading to a satisfying and optimistic conclusion.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Mariel suggested this week’s question.

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

I do dog ear my books, and I have also been known to use them as coasters. I used to be much rougher on them than I am now- I don't bend the spines back as far or crack them as much- but I have no expectation that my books, paperbacks especially, will remain in pristine condition. I don't go out of my way to trash them, but for the most part I'm more attached to the stories or the ideas in my books than I am to the physical objects themselves. I have certain rare or collectible books that I take good care of though. It doesn't matter to me what other people do to their books, unless they're library books from my library!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

REVIEWS: Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster. Published 2007 by Picador.

Click here to buy Travels in the Scriptorium via IndieBound.org. I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

I'm usually a big fan of Paul Auster, a dense, serious writer whose books I've enjoyed since college; one of my prized possessions is a signed copy of his wonderful New York Stories, which he autographed for me back in 1993 (or thereabouts) at a reading at MIT. I hadn't read him in several years when I opened up the slim, enigmatic Travels in the Scriptorium this past summer. Either he's changed, or I have, because I ended up disappointed.

Travels in the Scriptorium is a little book that I'm sure is full of big ideas. The story is about a nameless man who wakes up in a spartan bedroom in an unknown location. He doesn't know who he is, or where he is, or why he is there. Memories (or are they?) come in spurts and he relies on his visitors, whom he also doesn't know, to fill in the gaps and make sense of his world. As he goes about his daily routine, he stops from time to time to read a manuscript left for him, purportedly a story, which may or may not be fictional, about a man in wartime.

Little by little tiny pieces of information are revealed, but we never really get the whole picture, and in the end I found the constant drumbeat of conundrum after conundrum dreary and unsatisfying. It would have been nice to have these ambiguities resolved and have at least some things explained; it would make the man's situation more tangible and emotionally involving to know more of what is going on. It's really hard to work up empathy for a nameless, generic injustice or irony. I say I'm sure the book is full of big ideas because I have confidence in Auster as a writer and I'm sure the ambiguity is deliberate but I think I prefer my literature a little more concrete. I'm not sorry I read Travels in the Scriptorium but it certainly will not rank among my favorites.

Rating: BORROW

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuesday Thingers


This week's question: Legacy libraries. With which legacy libraries do you share books? Tell us a little about a couple of them and what you share.

To find which books you share with Legacy Libraries, click on "Statistics" from either your profile or your home page; then click on "Legacy Libraries" in the second row of clickable choices.

My answer: I share a couple of books with a bunch of legacy libraries; I share 3 books with Marie Antoinette, 18 books with poet Sylvia Plath and 8 books with Marilyn Monroe, among others. I also share five books with Tupac Shakur and one with Harry Truman. I like this feature because it's interesting to see what different people in different walks of life liked to read. Tupac Shakur and I share the following:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

One Hundred Years of Solitude (P.S.) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1984 (Signet Classics) by George Orwell

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by James Trefil

All in all I think I like his taste in books!

I have another question for you all as well: what other topics would you like me to cover in these questions? I'm happy to take suggestions and give credit (and links) to those who suggest questions I end up using. This is for all of us, after all!


Monday, October 27, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: Best American Comics 2008, edited by Lynda Barry

The Best American Comics 2008 (The Best American Series). Edited by Lynda Barry. Series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover.

Click here to buy The Best American Comics 2008 from your local IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller. I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

The Best American series has been publishing annual volumes covering the best in diverse genres of literature for many years- poetry, short stories, humor, sports and science and nature writing, among others. Several years ago, a volume called The Best American Nonrequired Reading was introduced, which featured a variety of off-the-beaten path short fiction and journalism, as well as some comics. In 2006, the first volume of The Best American Comics appeared on its own, edited by Harvey Pekar author of American Splendor and The Quitter. This year's entry is edited by Lynda Barry, another underground comics artist and author of books such as What It Is and One Hundred Demons.

So what is The Best American Comics? It's an anthology of graphic novels and comics published in English in North America. It's a collection of high-quality comics, including some complete stories and some excerpts; it's a way to sample a variety of authors and artists from different publishers and different points of view; it's a quick introduction to some of the best people working in comics today.

This year's treasure trove includes an excerpt from Gene Luan Yang's award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, several strips from Alison Bechdel's excellent Dykes to Watch Out For series, a series of cartoons by The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening and other entries by less well-known artists. My favorites were Graham Annable's heartbreaking comic Burden, and Evan Larson's funny and adorable Cupid's Day Off. Subject matter ranges all across the board, and the book is not without sexual and violent content- in other words, this book is one for the grownups only. But what better way to see what's going on in comics today?

The Best American Comics series is a considerable step forward in advocating for and legitimizing graphic novels and comics as a literary form deserving of serious attention. Now, each year, a selection of great visual works are included alongside the best poetry, fiction and other writing coming out of American publishing, giving readers the opportunity to sample emerging as well as established voices in the genre. Anyone interested in getting to know the genre- or getting to know it better- should absolutely not pass this one up.

Rating: BUY

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

Saturday, October 25, 2008

REVIEW: Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay. Published 2008 by St. Martin's Press. Fiction.

Sarah's Key contains the seeds of a great novel- an overlooked, under-written-about aspect of an important time in history, some compelling characters and a setting rife with both beauty and destruction. It's historical fiction set mainly in present-day Paris, about an American woman who discovers her husband's family's connection to the Holocaust, and specifically to one little girl whose family was deported and killed during the barbaric (but little known) roundup of French Jews in 1942 to the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium and then to Auschwitz.

The first half of the book alternates between the perspective of little Sarah Starzinsky, the Jewish girl who goes to the Vel d'Hiv (the shorthand form by which the stadium was known) with her parents, and the American. As the French police come to arrest the family, Sarah stows her little brother Michel in a locked cupboard. Believing the family will come home shortly, the children agree that Sarah will keep the key with her and release him on their return. Much of the suspense of this first half concerns Michel's fate; I plowed right through to find out what happens, and Sarah's chapters are tight, brisk, and literary- just my thing.

Unfortunately to get to Sarah's chapters the reader will have to contend with Ms. Julia Jarmond, the aforementioned American. Her chapters (and character) are as light and weightless as Sarah's are dense and moving. Her side of the book is written in a style more resembling chick lit and Julia comes across as narcissistic and dull. Her boss is a boor, her marriage is brittle and unstable, she doesn't get along with her French sisters-in-law and despite her insistence that she loves France and feels at home there, she never really seems happy. A magazine writer, she is assigned to write a piece on an anniversary of the roundup and soon discovers that her husband's family is intimately connected to Sarah's.

From here, Julia's voice takes over and Sarah is lost. The story takes a few twists and turns before lurching to a conclusion I found deeply unsatisfying, if only because it seems so movie-perfect and pat. Don't get me wrong- I really wanted to like Sarah's Key and Sarah's chapters are wonderful. But I think de Rosnay took a great idea and chose the wrong way to frame it and the wrong person to tell it. Julia's husband's connection to Sarah has nothing to do with Julia and her appropriation of Sarah's story struck me as wrong somehow. I think Sarah's story would have more resonance if told by someone with a real stake in it, like her own family or the family who hid her. I think Sarah's Key is valuable in that it covers a subject that doesn't get written about much- the Holocaust in France- but if you want a really wonderful, recent treatment of that particular subject, I would suggest Philippe Grimbert's lovely Memory, another, much more powerful, book about family secrets. But Sarah's Key is a worthwhile, if imperfect, entry nonetheless, and will doubtless appeal to many readers for its quick pace, its light tone and its unusual subject matter.

I reviewed the 2011 film Sarah's Key (Elle s'appellait Sarah) here on my movie blog.

Rating: BORROW

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

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Finds, Part Two

So I got some good news today, and like any good bibliophile I decided to celebrate with a little book-buying binge.

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems, by Frank Bidart. I don't read as much poetry as I used to, but I've long been admirer of Frank Bidart and his particular, spare, elegant and precise poetry. His 1999 book Desire: Poems, was haunting and lovely. I look forward to this one.

The Last Chicken in America is a collection of linked short stories by Russian-American writer Ellen Litman. I saw Ellen do a reading not long ago with Joshua Henkin; she read from a story called "When the Neighbors Love You" and I wasn't in a buying mood that day but I thought the story was enchanting and I can't wait to read more.

Finally I got The Best American Comics 2008 anthology, edited by comics queen Lynda Barry. I've already started poking through it- it's fantastic!

Of course these three books represent but a small portion of my actual reading wishlist- no Isaac's Torah today, or What Happened to Anna K, or hardcover My Father's Paradise, or that new Osamu Tezuka manga that just got translated or ... well, you get the idea. But it's a start. Of course now I have to read all this stuff!

Friday Finds

This week I added three new books to the collection:

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker. This is an advance reader copy courtesy of Hachette; it's coming out in January in hardcover and looks like fun.
Next up is just-announced Booker Prize winner The White Tiger, by (as it turns out, friend-of-a-friend) Aravind Adiga. (Moazzam, do you think after he's done talking to Oprah he'd do an interview for my blog? Hahaha.)

Last but certainly not least, there is Francois Payard's Chocolate Epiphany. M. Payard owns a fancy bakery in New York that just happens to have a branch at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where I stayed this summer, and where I spent a lot of time (and money) on the many delectibles on offer. So naturally I could not say non to this ravishing cookbook. Can't wait to start cooking!

REVIEW: My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar

My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar. Published 2008 by Algonquin Books. Nonfiction.

It's hard to know how to begin a review of a book like My Father's Paradise, because a book like this doesn't come around very often. It's very special.

My Father's Paradise is the story of two men, Yona and Ariel Sabar, father and son. It's the story of Yona's family, among the last generation of Jews to live in the mountains of Kurdistan and speak Aramaic as a native language. It's the story of Yona's life in Iraq, and his journey to and life in Israel and the United States. It's also the story of his son's journey to bridge and close the generational and cultural divides separating him from his father, and ultimately from his own heritage.

Ariel Sabar is frank about how, growing up, he wanted to be the consummate California guy and was embarrassed by his nerdy, misfit dad, who drove a cheap car and dressed funny, not like the other dads. Like many kids, he needed a little maturity to appreciate his family, and in order to develop the curiosity leading him to take time away from his career as a journalist and immerse himself in his family's story. He does so beautifully.

The first few chapters of My Father's Paradise, in which he speculates on the story of his grandmother Miryam's girlhood and married life, read like accomplished historical fiction, rich in detail and human feeling. Later chapters are less speculative but retain all the charm of the early chapters. As he goes along, Sabar mixes in social and political history to help situate the reader and explain why Yona Sabar and his family had to leave everything behind in Iraq and start again in Israel, where being a Middle Eastern Jew with funny clothes and a language no one else spoke were hurdles to overcome. Eventually Yona moves to the United States, enrolls at Yale and his life takes off- he gets married and begins a wildly successful career teaching, researching and writing about the language, folk tales and culture of Kurdistani Jews. His diverse accomplishments include writing a Neo-Aramaic dictionary and providing Aramaic dialogue for "The X-Files."

Sabar's writing is wonderful throughout. Fluid and rich, his writing is sometimes serious and dense with facts, sometimes deeply emotional, and sometimes even humorous, but it's always punchy and full of verve. He's refreshingly honest about his behavior and the unflattering light in which he saw his father for many years, and the ways in which maturity has mellowed him and changed his perspective. He divides the book into quick little chapters, which I always believe is very helpful in a history book for laypeople. This structure allows the reader to stop and start and take the book in bite-size portions- no long, interminable chapters to wade through, no unscalable mountains of names and dates. He creates vivid characters- real, complicated people the reader can feel for and understand.

As much a biography and a story of a family as a history, My Father's Paradise is also a story about change- changing communities, changing cultures and changing relationships. It's a story about taking something you believe is a liability- in this case, belonging to an isolated ethnic group speaking a near-dead language- and turning into the very thing that saves you and helps you make a life. It's a book about nostalgia and the surprises that await when you try to go home again. It's about a father and a son, and how the two may be more alike than different, more alike than either might think at first.

Everybody should read My Father's Paradise even if you think you have no interest in Kurdistani Jews. It's a book about a very specific culture that's filled with universal themes that anyone can appreciate. And it's so well-crafted that it's an absolute pleasure to read- a really beautiful, special book. I hope everyone reads it.

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

REVIEW: The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard

The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard. Published 2008 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

I first heard of Louis Bayard's latest mystery/thriller The Black Tower through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program; I wasn't selected to receive an advance copy but managed to get my hands on one anyway thanks to the generosity of a fellow LTer who shared her copy with me. I was looking forward to reading it because the plot concerns the fate of the Dauphin Louis Charles of France, who would have reigned as king but for the French Revolution. In real life, Louis Charles was imprisoned along with his sister in the Temple prison but disappeared; his true fate remains a mystery.

A murder plot acts as the premise, and a flimsy one at that; the real mystery in The Black Tower is the identity of an enigmatic naif who may or may not be the Dauphin, living quietly and seemingly unaware of his true identity. Although the book is fiction, several historical figures make (highly fictionalized) appearances- not only Louis Charles but his sister Marie Therese, sometimes referred to as Madame Royale and the Duchesse d'Angouleme (Madame Royale was a traditional honorific used for daughters of kings) as well as Eugene Francois Vidocq, an early private investigator, who drags the narrator into the mix. The narrator, Hector Carpentier, is a doctor whose father, also a doctor, ministered to the young Dauphin in the Temple prison. Could the elder Carpentier, haunted by the boy's cruel mistreatment, have been involved in a plot to free the Dauphin? You'll have to read to find out.

I found The Black Tower to be a light, quick read, suspenseful but not highly substantive. Bayard's book appealed to me based on my interest in French history and because I've been reading Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette for a while now. I needn't have bothered. Although I kept reading to see how it would all turn out, I found Bayard's prose to be on the whole pedestrian and fluffy, and neither mystery really engaged me all that much. When Bayard finally got around to solving the murder mystery, I'd almost forgotten about it as a plot point, and while it's interesting to speculate on the fate of the Dauphin, that's all it is- speculation. I'm sure there are better treatments out there, fictional and nonfictional, of this particular subject. I suppose The Black Tower was entertaining enough but the writing just wasn't up to the task of telling this story well, and mediocre writing can sink even the best ideas. Overall I was disappointed and would only recommend it to committed readers of historical fiction and those with a very strong interest in the French Revolution. Most others can probably pass.

Rating: BORROW

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tuesday Thingers


Today's question: Series. Do you collect any series? Do you read series books? Fantasy? Mystery? Science fiction? Religious? Other genre? Do you use the series feature in LT to help you find new books or figure out what you might be missing from a series?

My answer: The only type of series I really read is manga series, which are serialized comic novels from Japan. So far I've started about a half dozen or so: Love Hina was my first, a prime example of shonen or teenage-boy manga. It's a great silly love story and I really enjoyed it. I've also been reading Nana and Happy Mania, manga series aimed at young women, and I've started a few others that I haven't wanted to continue with for one reason or another. Kare Kano was a teen-girl manga I started and gave up on, for example. I love trying new series and different genres of manga. I subscribe to Shojo Beat, a magazine specializing in shojo manga which is aimed at teen girls. Manga series can be upwards of 20 volumes long or more, so I read them in between other things or when I'm on the bus or just need something light. Manga can be serious too but I like them as a light indulgence. I've taken a look at the series feature on LT but when it started it looked like it had a lot of errors so I haven't used it much.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: Safe Area Gorazde, by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95, by Joe Sacco. Published by Fantagraphics Books, 2000.

Click here to order Safe Area Gorazde from your local IndieBound-afffiliated independent bookseller.

Weird as it may seem, I have a soft spot for Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde. Sacco's journalistic, non-fiction graphic documentary about the war in Bosnia was the first graphic novel I ever read or bought; about eight years ago I became intensely interested in the Balkan wars, because there was so much about them in the news and I knew so little. Feeling ignorant and out of touch (I couldn't even locate the former Yugoslav republics, or Yugoslavia, on a map), I read everything I could get my hands on. To this day I have a bookshelf devoted to the subject.

In the process of all this self-education, I read Sacco's graphic novel depiction of the war and the damage it caused to the people and landscape of Bosnia. Gorazde was a so-called United Nations-designated safe area, which was nonetheless surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops and whose people were suffering desperately. Sacco travels throughout the area, as well as to Sarajevo and elsewhere, reporting with modesty and self-deprecating humor as he surveys the wasteland. He lets the Bosnians speak for themselves- their hardships and their hopes shine through every page.

Though Sacco provides enough historical background for the casual reader, I was glad to have some modest background nonetheless; the thing about the Bosnian war to me was how illogical and irrational it was, even more than most wars, but then of course there were real people suffering through what seemed like someone's sick joke. The war was unusual in that so much of it was fought not by professional militias but by regular people taking up arms to protect their own homes and towns; the result was chaos, and civilians all around subjected to every conceivable form of abuse and atrocity.

Sacco's art is black and white throughout, in a comic-book style which felt comfortable to me as a first-time graphic novel reader. He uses structured panels but varies them according to the needs of his storytelling, and his characters as well as his backgrounds and scenes are detailed richly. His characters' features, often distorted and caricatured, reminded me of the absurdity of their situation. Sacco portrays himself as a near-featureless lump whose defining feature is a pair of round, empty eyeglasses- ironic since it's through his eyes that we see this story, but fitting in that he means to keep the focus away from himself.

Safe Area Gorazde certainly has a lot to offer those interested in the war in Bosnia, but it's important to me because it was the graphic novel that taught me that graphic novels can be more than superhero stories or serial cartoons for children- they can be smart, intellectually-challenging and engaging reading for adults as well. I know I make this point over and over in my Graphic Novel Monday posts but it can't be made often enough. Even if you think there isn't a graphic novel out there that would appeal to you, trust me- there is!

P.S., Safe Area Gorazde won the Will Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Salon


So today should be a fun day. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows the fun hasn't exactly started yet, at 7 am, but I'm optimistic.

After work today I'm going to a shrine-making workshop at a local store specializing in Mexican folk-art imports, to make one of those sparkly, glittery shrines to the Virgin Mary that you see sometimes. I'm really looking forward to it. I think it should be a lot of fun.

I got an offer recently to write book reviews for a start-up website geared towards women, and I think I know what I'm going to say to them at this point, but over the past week or so that I've been corresponding with one of the principals I've had to think about this whole blogging thing. The woman I talked to wanted to me to write one review a week of a current book, for no compensation except a link to my blog. It sounded tempting at first- all that exposure, a byline of my own, etc. But just for a link? At the BlogHer conference, one of the speakers talked about how as women sometimes we are too quick to give ourselves and our skills away for free, and that it's important to assign value to what we do, because nobody will value what we do if we do not value it ourselves.

Now, I wouldn't expect to get paid a fortune to write reviews for her website, but it shouldn't cost me anything either, and if someone is going to assign a workload he or she should not expect me to be satisfied with a link to my blog as "compensation". So review copies would be the very least of what I'd like. (Never mind that reading a book a week for someone else is more than I'm willing or able to do.) If I'm going to add value to someone's business, it's reasonable to ask for value in return. I explained all of this and this woman was very reasonable and responsive, but it got me thinking. I'm sure that she could find many, many bloggers who would be willing to be exploited in just the way she was proposing, just because they might not know that they are entitled to more. So my message today is, don't sell yourself short. When you provide a business service to someone, make sure they treat you right and compensate you appropriately. If you're getting involved with a for-profit business, remember that the only cause is the owner's pocket. I have a feeling that as time goes by, more and more of us will be fielding similar offers so it's good to start thinking about these issues now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Finds!

Not a lot of new books this week. The two I'm most excited about are Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, which I've had my eye on for a long time, and Samarkand by Amin Maalouf, which I mentioned the other day when I talked about my book club.
I also picked up What My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She has always been one of my favorites and I'm looking forward to reading this intriguing book.

That's it!

I hope everyone has a great Friday.

What are you reading today?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book club!


So I finally joined a book club, and last night was our first meeting. The club is called the Daughters of Abraham, and it's made up of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women. The club reads books on religion, alternating between the three faiths.

October's pick, The Ritual Bath, is about an Orthodox Jewish community which goes into upheaval when a woman is raped at the mikvah, the ritual bath of the title. I can't say I was crazy about it- it's basically a popular-fiction potboiler of a mystery, but it was engaging enough and had a lot of information about one type of Orthodox community and Judaism generally. At the meeting, the book was used as a jumping-off-point for us to talk about Judaism, ask questions and share insights. The discussion was terrific and I'm excited to find this group of women to share with.

November's pick is going to be a Muslim selection, Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf. It's a novel, a fictional history of The Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam. And then in December we'll read a Christian book.

If you're interested in the Daughters and what they do, you can visit their website for more information.

Booking Through Thursday


Okay–here was an interesting article by Christopher Schoppa in the Washington Post.

Avid readers know all too well how easy it is to acquire books — it’s the letting go that’s the difficult part. … During the past 20 years, in which books have played a significant role in both my personal and professional lives, I’ve certainly had my fair share of them (and some might say several others’ shares) in my library. Many were read and saved for posterity, others eventually, but still reluctantly, sent back out into the world.

But there is also a category of titles that I’ve clung to for years, as they survived numerous purges, frequent library donations and countless changes of residence. I’ve yet to read them, but am absolutely certain I will. And should. When, I’m not sure, as I’m constantly distracted by the recent, just published and soon to be published works.

So, the question is his: “What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?


There are a few long-unread books sitting on my shelves, but not many. Eventually either I read something or I part with it, and as much as I love my books, I don't mind cleaning the shelves once in a while. As far as long-unread books, what comes to mind right away is Gandhi's autobiography (which I read several times in high school but not since, and not the spiffy new edition I got for Christmas a couple of years ago) and some big Russian novels I really should have read when they were assigned to me in college! Otherwise not much.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

REVIEW: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. Published 2007 by Doubleday. Literary Fiction.

On Chesil Beach, the latest by acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan, is a very short novel about what may be the worst wedding night in the history of wedding nights. McEwan has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize six times, and won once, for his 1998 novel Amsterdam, also a short book about a troubled relationship. At least two of his novels have been made into movies- 1981's The Comfort of Strangers became a creepy film starring Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson, and of course 2001's Atonement, in my opinion McEwan's best book, was adapted recently into a movie starring Keira Knightly.

On Chesil Beach has something of the cinematic about it as well- a novel that, while jumping back and forth between the past and present, takes place mostly on a single night, in a single place, enacting a very intimate drama between a man and a woman who understand each other very little and empathize with each other even less. It is the 1960s, and Florence and Edward, two very innocent young adults, have courted, married and arrived at their wedding night with very little understanding either of sex or of each other. Let's just say it doesn't go well for them.

First of all I am a fan of McEwan's, but I don't think all of his books are winners. I loved the Booker-winning Amsterdam right up until the end, when I threw it on the floor after one of McEwan's twist endings ruined the story for me, and have always had mixed reactions to his signature use of violence and psychological horror. Having read some of his darker books, I will never, for example, read The Comfort of Strangers after the claustrophobic menace of the film. Here the horror is almost all psychological; the physical eruption that marks the climax of the book also marks the height of Florence's panic, and leads to the night's denouement. The true horror of the novel comes in a slapdash piece of dramatic irony at the very, very end, when the narrator tells the reader something very important that Edward never learns, something which could have changed everything about their lives together. The fact that Edward never learns this crucial fact is McEwan's final act of cruelty towards characters who seem never destined for much happiness.

I can't say I loved On Chesil Beach but I respect McEwan's accomplishment in creating these vivid characters and enacting this heartbreaking, frustrating drama with his customary panache and skill. I don't think anybody these days writes as well and as consistently as he does. Even though I have issues with him from time to time I think McEwan is one of the best writers in English today and I am always so happy to see a new book of his on the shelf, because I know one way or another he will make me feel something and he will make me think. Next time let's hope he treats his characters a little better than he did On Chesil Beach.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

News: Just Announced, this year's Man Booker Prize winner!


Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger has just been announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize!

Congratulations, Mr. Adiga!

I haven't read it yet myself but I'm sure I'll buy it sometime soon. It looked the most interesting to me of all the nominees and I'll definitely add it to my TBR pile in the next month or two.

Tuesday Thingers


Today's question: Early Reviewers- do you participate? How many books (approximately) have you received through the program? Have you liked them generally? What's your favorite ER book? Do you participate in the discussion group on LT?

My answer: I've been a participant in the program since August of 2007, and so far I've received 8 books through the program. I haven't received a book in several months though- I think since February of this year! The books I've received through the program have been a mixed bag- there have been a few that I really liked, like The Genizah at the House of Shepher, and a couple I've hated too. But it's fun to see what's coming out and once in a great while snag a freebie. And oftentimes the books I'm interested in go on my Bookmooch list and I've read a few that way as well. I don't really participate in the LT discussion group.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga

Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. Published 2007 by Sparkplug Comics.

Click here to buy Bookhunter from your local IndieBound affiliated independent bookseller.

Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga, is a brief graphic novel about a special agent from the Library Police, tracking down a missing, rare manuscript that has been stolen from the fictional Oakland Public Library. As a librarian, graphic novels about libraries and librarians always catch my eye, so when I saw Bookhunter in my local comics shop it was basically a no-brainer as to whether or not I'd read it.

It's a fun book, full of action and activity, as well as a detailed, funny look at library procedures and technology- preservation, security, circulation. Shiga has fun with the "behind the scenes" of the library, and presents the staff as knowledgable, smart and cagey when it comes to tracking down the thief. The dinosaur displays added a bit of humor, although Shiga has written the whole book with tongue firmly implanted in cheek. Shiga utilizes library jargon liberally and smartly, and I enjoyed the action scenes- the chase, the investigation. Character development is fairly thin in Bookhunter- I think the investigator is supposed to be a funny, noirish character but he came off flat. The other characters are just placeholders. And I think Shiga draws scenery and activity with a little more verve than he does the people, and the sepia-tinted panels gave the whole comic a slightly old fashioned feel.

Well, Bookhunter is a good time of a graphic novel. People who like libraries will get a kick out of it for sure, and there is very little in the way of violence or sex (basically none) so it's a fine choice for teens as well as adult readers. It reads quickly, and it's full of movement. Not the best thing I've ever read, but fun and worthwhile.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Salon

So that's me from a couple of years ago, feeding a camel and doing what I'm going to do today- go
to the Topsfield Fair!


The Topsfield Fair bills itself as "America's Oldest Agricultural Fair," having started in 1818. All I know is I've been going for just about my entire life and it's awesome.

They have petting zoos, all kinds of exhibits- flowers, turkeys, rabbits, cows, pigs, dogs, crafts, award-winning vegetables, beekeeping, junk food, rides, games- and more. It's one of my favorite fall traditions. I can't wait!

Tradition dictates that we arrive early, hit the B'nai Brith foodstand for hot chocolate and snacks, and then dive in head-first.

But I have to talk about what I did yesterday as well- the BlogHer Reach Out tour. BlogHer, which works for development and community-building among women bloggers, held a day-long mini-conference in the Boston area yesterday, attended by what seemed like several hundred bloggers. It was both fun and productive. I got some good tips on improving my blog and met a bunch of really great women. Here are some links to the women I met:

Liz and Janice of The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers;
Naked Anarchists, a Vermont-based mom blog;
Sally HP, author of Sex and the Knitty and Knitty Reviews and "wannabe mama blogger";
Chester County Moms, a blog of community and resources for Pennsylvania mothers;
Elicia of 360 Public Relations LLC;
Candelaria Silva Collins, a Boston-based writer, facilitator and consultant;
Cora Cooks, a food blog;
Kimberly of LadyGypsy.net, "wasting bandwidth since 1994";
Renee of Almost Foodies;
Melissa of The Collection Space;
Megan of Megan's Minute, "quirky commentary around the clock"; and
Alissa, of PersonalLife Media.

Thanks for a great day, ladies! It was so much fun meeting you all and exchanging ideas on making our blogs better. I'll be adding all of you to my blogroll in the days to come.

Reading? Yeah, I might do some of that today too!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

REVIEW: The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent. Published 2008 by Little, Brown. Literary Fiction.

The Heretic's Daughter is the debut novel by Kathleen Kent, a Texas writer and descendant of Martha Carrier, one of 19 people hanged to death as a witch during the infamous Salem Witch Trials 0f 1692. The novel recounts Martha's story through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah, who was around 10 years old and imprisoned as a witch herself.

First of all, full disclosure. I was born in Salem, Mass., and grew up in the next town over; the stories of the Salem witch trials are stories I've heard many times, stories deeply embedded in the region and its history. I've been to the gallows area, heard the stories of the slave Tituba, the preacher Cotton Mather and the innocents who were tortured and died for nothing- Rebecca Nurse, Giles and Martha Corey, and the rest. Salem has made a name (and a lucrative tourist industry) for itself on the back of the witch trials, and is also home to rich scholarly resources for those with serious interest. As a casual student of local history, I've heard all kinds of speculation on the origins of the hysteria, on why it blossomed and consumed so many lives- some people blame a bacterial infection the accusers may have had that caused the tics and fits, others blame gender politics and an atmosphere of resentment against wealthy, outspoken women and a wish to put them in their place, among other theories.

The Heretic's Daughter takes the latter theory as its theme, and brings it to life in the story of tough, no-nonsense Martha Carrier who, while not wealthy, is an assertive woman embroiled in a bitter land dispute with her cousin Allen. Allen and a vengeful indentured servant named Mercy Lewis accuse the Carriers of witchcraft, and Kent implies clearly that the family's persecution is a direct consequence of the bad blood between Martha and these people.

It's young Sarah who tells the story, and I have mixed feelings about the way she tells it. The story starts off slow- I found the first two or three chapters tedious, and nearly stopped reading. Sarah is a precocious, if unreliable, narrator who engages in far too much clumsy, heavy-handed foreshadowing. I can't count the number of times she says something along the lines of "And that would be the last time we were happy for a long time." Yeah. The ending is abrupt and I wish Kent had spent a little more time on Sarah's life after the trials, as well as those tantalizing family secrets that never really amount to much.

I'm glad I didn't give up because once The Heretic's Daughter picks up steam it doesn't let go. Kent's depiction of the absurdity of the trials and the cruel, squalid and humiliating conditions of Salem prison were harrowing, gritty and detailed- I could almost smell the dank and darkness of the cells and see the women's desperation in Kent's vivid prose. What got to me the most was the inhumanity of it, and the callousness of a community that would destroy peoples' lives over that kind of irrational fearmongering.

(But then, it's not like things just like that haven't happened over and over throughout history. Who are the witches of today?)

Just as important to The Heretic's Daughter are the kindnesses people do- a little extra food when it counts, the women who care for Sarah as she lies dazed and feverish in the dirty prison, and the doctor whose attentions save her, body and soul. In the end I'm glad I read The Heretic's Daughter and I think it will stay with me for a long time. Reading it makes me want to take another drive up to Salem, maybe visit the Witch Museum and hear those stories all over again. It's Kent's story, and her family's story, and it's a story that belongs to all of us.

Rating: BUY

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

Booking Through Thursday


I’ve seen this series of questions floating around the ‘net the last few days, and thought it looked like a good one for us!

What was the last book you bought?

The New Adventures of Jesus: the Second Coming, by Frank Stack (it's a graphic novel).

Name a book you have read MORE than once

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, and The Bible.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

Book covers can grab my attention, blurbs get it engaged, and first pages sell me or don't; I also look at reviews and recommendations but mostly if I pick something up and it looks interesting to me, I'll think about reading it.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Fiction. I don't read a lot of nonfiction but once in a while I like a good biography or memoir.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

I like books with both a page-turning plot and gorgeous, literary writing.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Jane Eyre.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser, Pocket Canons, and See Under: Love by David Grossman

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

City of Thieves by David Benioff. I finished it about a week and a half ago. I'm pages away from finishing The Heretic's Daughter at the moment.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Many times!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

REVIEW: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey

Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey. Published by Vintage International in 1997. Literary Fiction. Booker Prize winner.

Oscar and Lucinda is the best book I've read so far in 2008, and with a mere two and a half months left, it's likely to be the best book I will have read all year.

Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, it's the story of two misfits who fall in love in nineteenth-century Australia, a wild time of speculation in a wild frontier, when, if Carey is to be believed, Great Britain was in the process sending out missionaries, capitalists and criminals in hopes of establishing its dominance on the island continent. And sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.

But the story starts in the English countryside, in the modest home of Oscar Hopkins and his strict religious father. As a child, Oscar, whose lifelong gambling addiction will wreak havoc on his life for the rest of his life, lets a child's game determine his fate when he changes religious adherence, leaves home and goes to live with an impoverished clergyman and his unorthodox wife. Oscar's loyalty to this erstwhile preacher sets him up for a lifetime on the margins- in school and later on in professional and personal life. Lucinda Leplastrier is also the daughter of an iconoclast- in her case her mother, who teaches her not to think herself limited by her gender, and from whom Lucinda inherits enough money to make her independent and unbeholden. Unfortunately what neither inherits is understanding of how each is judged by others, and how those judgements affect the course of their life.

Eventually the two end up in Australia and meet- Lucinda by now the owner of a glassworks and Oscar a struggling priest. Their love story is tender and sweet and fraught with tension; keenly aware of propriety their behavior follows the letter of propriety if not its spirit, and there's something of Edith Wharton's deluded Lilly Bart in their blindness to how they appear to others, even as appearances fail to reflect the reality of their relationship. They even lie to each other- it's frustrating and alluring at the same time, this narrative of missed connections and missed opportunities. Soon after the story begins it becomes clear that the narrator is no detached third person or authorial voice, but a character with a very personal interest in the outcome of the story, but it's not until almost the very end that the reader can begin to understand what story the narrator is telling, and whose. The story comes to a tense, taut climax when Oscar and Lucinda make a foolhardy gamble which ends up destroying them both.

Carey does an amazing job with Oscar and Lucinda. The writing itself is gorgeous, literary and loaded- more like a nineteenth century love story than one written in the nineteen-eighties. I like that he chose a style that reflected the time and place of the story's setting rather than a more modern style. It's a wonderful throwback to the days when characters were rich and nuanced and novel structure more formal and stylized. It's also highly readable, with an engaging plot and characters you come to know well and care for. Carey evokes his settings beautifully as well; Australia comes across as an anarchic frontier of gamblers and predators, victims and saints. The action keeps going right to last sentence, and I didn't want it to end. I wish every book could be this good!

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday (Late!): Burma Chronicles, by Guy DeLisle

Burma Chronicles, by Guy DeLisle. Published September 2008 by Drawn & Quarterly. Nonfiction. Memoir. Graphica, Translation.

Burma Chronicles is an autobiographical account of the time French-Canadian cartoonist Guy DeLisle spent in that country in 2005 with his wife, an administrator in Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Previously, DeLisle published two graphic novels documenting his travels in Asia, Shenzhen (2000) and Pyongyang (2003).

This book is a somewhat lengthy collection of cartoons spanning their year in Burma, from the couple's departure to the isolated Asian country, till their departure from it.

In between, DeLisle covers a lot of ground. He talks about day to day life- shopping, taking care of his infant son while pursuing his comics career while his wife works- in country where censors cut articles out of newspapers before the public can read them and you can go to jail just for knowing the wrong people. Although DeLisle has the opportunity to witness many of the peculiarities of life in Burma, including the hard political and social realities he comes up against at every turn, I got the feeling that he only ever really skimmed the surface of Burmese life. As a foreigner, and an unemployed one at that, he saw a lot, certainly, but his life also came across to me as privileged and somewhat sheltered. Even the cover drawing- DeLisle walking by with his baby while Burmese people interact in the background- speaks to his status as an outsider. To his credit, he seems to be aware of his position and plays with it in self-deprecating, humorous ways.

For the most part, DeLisle's observations are succinct but emotionally neutral, almost reporterly in their preference of fact over emotion. Much of what he sees- and he witnesses tragedies and travesties and injustices- seems to leave him untouched. Strong emotions are centered around issues of creature comforts, like the misery of a long hot bus ride or the relief of a cool shower. The style of the artwork echoes this sense of detachment. Presented as line drawings in washed out black and white, his characters are simple and iconic. He is a distinct character himself, but his face is more a series of lines than a distinctly human visage. His Burmese characters are also more collections of features than individuals. DeLisle's background drawings are sometimes quite detailed and lovely, but the lack of color prevents the reader from experiencing the landscape as exotic or glamorous, and instead focuses the attention on the nitty-gritty of the Burmese people's difficult, impoverished lives. I wonder if this choice doesn't represent his politics showing through just a little. His writing is simple, clear and strong, but he tells stories just as well through silent panels too.

Burma Chronicles would be of interest in particular to people with an interest in southeast Asia, a part of the world that receives little attention in American popular culture. DeLisle includes quite a bit of material on political life in Burma/Myanmar insofar as its effect on everyday people- everything from government censorship to tacit complicity in growing heroin addiction and HIV epidemics. It's actually quite horrifying and DeLisle's matter-of-fact tone brings the horror home in a understated fashion. I would place DeLisle's work here alongside that of Joe Sacco and other journalistic comics artists- although it has its funny moments, Burma Chronicles is I think intended to be on the serious side. It's a good read if you're up to it.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday Thingers


This week's question: -LibraryThing's Recently Added feature: do you look at it? Do you use it for ideas? Is there something listed there now that looks interesting to you? What have you added to your LT library recently?


My answer: I look at Recently Added every now and then; sometimes the updates scroll by so quickly it's hard to concentrate on it for long! Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust is up on my home page as recently-added right now, and it looks like an intriguing if academic work. Lately I've added a few things, though nothing today. I added the second collection of the Pocket Canon series, a set of slipcased miniature books. Each book covers a section of the King James Bible and includes commentary by writers and thinkers like Meir Shalev, A.S. Byatt and the Dalai Lama. I'm hoping its bite-sized presentation of a work which has long intimidated me will help make the Bible more approachable for me. And you?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Salon

Another Sunday, and it's really fall here in the Boston area. I know it's been fall officially for a couple of weeks, but now it really feels like it. Yesterday my husband and I drove out to a nearby farming town for our annual fall picnic- we get fresh apples, cider, pastry, cheese and other necessaries, gather up our picnic basket and quilt and have lunch outside on a pretty town green. Fall is such a great season- starting with our wedding anniversary yesterday and ending around New Year's, it's just so much fun. Next weekend we're going to the local county fair, an event I've been attending every year of my life, and it just gets better from there as we head into the holidays.

Reading? Oh yeah, that! I'm still working my way through The Heretic's Daughter and My Father's Paradise; I'm finding Heretic a little tough going but when I can focus on it I enjoy it. My Father's Paradise is fantastic so far, and I'm finishing up Guy DeLisle's The Burma Chronicles for tomorrow's graphic novel review. So I'm traveling to Salem, Iraq/Israel and Burma via books this weekend, all the while I'm snacking on my seasonal treats and enjoying the beautiful weather we're having this weekend. Not bad!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Friday Finds- Late!

So this week has seen some interesting things come into the house. I was lucky enough to snag four volumes of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel series Buddha from Bookmooch- volumes 5-8- which made me really happy! It's an eight-volume series about the life of the Buddha by a man who basically founded the manga genre in Japan. He was heavily influenced by Disney in terms of his artistic style and I'm told the Buddha series is quite an accomplishment. I will probably review it once I finish the entire series, rather than go volume by volume, which means it will probably be a very long time before I blog about it.

My two other new additions come from a visit I made to a local used bookstore, one of those great hole-in-the-wall places we should all have access to. The first of my two finds there was Pocket Canons: Books of the Bible. This is a slipcased set of 10 miniature books, each covering a different book of the King James Bible and introduced by writers ranging from Meir Shalev to A.S. Byatt to the Dalai Lama. My edition is unfortunately missing one of the ten books but I'm going to try to pick it up on the online used book market sometime soon. The Books of Ruth and Esther, pictured here, is the volume I'm missing.

The second thing I found was Sunflower, a pre-World War II Hungarian novel by Gyula Krudy. I don't know much about it except it just piqued by interest.

But I think the best thing I got this week was Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. As a child I loved watching Sagan's series on PBS and I don't know why but I just never managed to get my hands on the book. Today is my and my husband's fifth wedding anniversay and this book was his gift to me. What makes it double-sweet is that he gave me his own first-edition hardback copy. Aww!!!

Banned Books Week - Wrap-Up

Okay, well I've talked about Banned Books Week, listed banned books, reviewed banned books, and seen what other folks on the web and in the world are doing for the cause of free speech and access to information. As the week wraps up, the question arises- what next? What can we do for the other 51 weeks of the year to protect our freedom to read? For today I've compiled a list of organizations that we can turn to and to whom we can offer our support.

First off, ALA. The American Library Association is one of the most important voices when it comes to advocacy. Join ALA, support ALA, and get involved with ALA.

The American Civil Liberties Union is another important partner in the ongoing battle for free speech.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. They're big on digital freedom and issues pertaining to the online world.

ChillingEffects.org, an organization dedicated to helping people understand their rights in the online environment.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
exists to "defend the First Amendment rights of comic book professionals throughout the United States."

The Media Law Resource Center, for law nerds, provides bibliographies and case information about First Amendment and intellectual property cases nationwide.

All of these resources themselves contain extensive links and information about other resources. So look them up and support the ones that do the things that matter to you.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Banned Books Week - Other Web Sites and Happenings

So, you're interested in Banned Books Week but my humble little blog isn't satisfying your craving for information and involvement. Okay. So I've assembled a list of resources and articles to give you more information.

I Love Libraries.org. A website run by ALA for non-librarians, this site has a feature on Banned Books Week and lots of links on advocacy, library issues and "Ask the Librarian" to answer your questions.

The Forbidden Library. A website run by an anti-censorship person, listing various banned books and the reasons they were challenged including specific instances. I couldn't quite figure out the creator's background/qualifications but the site looks like it's informative.

Google Book Search has a page on Banned Books Week too.

Amnesty International
uses Banned Books Week as an opportunity spotlight the plight of those "who are persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read."

Surfing the Net with Kids has produced a kid-centric feature on Banned Books Week.

The Online Books Page
has an information-rich feature on banned or censored books with an emphasis on classic literature including Shakespeare and Whitman and others not on lists of more recent banned or challenged works.

There are more sites and resources out there, too, of course; these are just a few. Happy reading!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Banned Book Week REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


First published: 1985. Click on the cover to buy from your local independent Indiebound-affiliated bookstore.

I first read The Handmaid's Tale for Banned Books Week in 2003; I finished it in about a week and it freaked me out.

The plot concerns a young woman called Offred, living in Boston, Massachusetts, whose American society has disintegrated and been rebuilt as the hyper-Christian Republic of Gilead following the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Her husband has disappeared and she has been forced into sexual slavery as the "handmaid" of a government official. Her only task in life is to give birth to his child and her life depends on her ability to carry out this task. This is her last chance. If she fails, she faces becoming an "unwoman" and being sent to clean nuclear waste. If she succeeds, she gets to live.

Like many Atwood novels, the narrative goes back and forth between the past and the present, or rather several pasts and a singular present that she alludes to only subtly every now and then. It takes getting to the end of the book to find out what her real present tense is, and what exactly the novel is. I won't spoil it.

Also like many Atwood novels, the theme centers on women, sex and power. I can't say I'm surprised that the book was challenged so much, given the sexual content and the extremely unfavorable portrayal of the Christian right-wing. According to Atwood in this novel, what they had in mind in the 1980s is eerily similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban. Women aren't allowed to work, own property, handle money or even learn to read. All they're good for is a functioning uterus.

The Handmaid's Tale was one of the toughest, most powerful books I've ever read. I remember sitting across from friends at my bachelorette party the day after I finished it, shellshocked trying to describe the impact the book had on me. That night my best friend and I went to a bookstore to find a "light read" and I actually bought a copy of a Harry Potter book. Anyone who knows me knows that means I was extremely desperate for something to take my mind off what I'd just finished. It's an amazing book. I don't think I could re-read it but I went on a three-year Margaret Atwood binge as soon as I could keep down heavy books again. She's an incredible writer and The Handmaid's Tale is one of her most powerful books. Wow!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

REVIEW: Nation, by Terry Pratchett and GUEST BLOGGER

Nation, by Terry Pratchett. Published 2008 by HarperCollins.

Click here to buy Nation from your local IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller.

Today at Boston Bibliophile I'm featuring a review by a science fiction and fantasy enthusiast who also happens to be my husband. Jeff is a local attorney and has been a fan of Terry Pratchett's for several years, having read all available Discworld books as well as Pratchett's non-Discworld fiction, essays and short stories. He also proselytizes Pratchett heavily, although in my case his efforts at literary conversion have yet to succeed! In any case he's the ideal reviewer for any of Pratchett's efforts, and what follows is his review.

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Fans of Terry Pratchett's work need not fear that Nation, Pratchett's first novel since 1996 that is not part of his long-running Discworld fantasy series, lacks the humor, intelligence, and very readable prose to which they ahve become accustomed.

Nation is set on a remote tropical island at the height of the British Empire's expansion. (All right, as I am sure Mr. Pratchett would be the first to point out, the island would not seem remote to those people who had lived and died on it for thousands of years before it became a dot on a European's map, but you get the idea.) But while Pratchett's book might be "historical" (more on that below), he has not fallen prey to the common traps of historical novels, such as flat characters set in a text filled with facts and dates intended solely to impress the reader that the author has done his homework. The setting serves the story; it does not overwhelm it.

Those who have read Pratchett's earlier work (particularly such books as Small Gods and Pyramids) will see much that is familiar in Mau and Daphne, the protagonists of Nation. Mau is a no-longer-a-boy/not-quite-a-man member of an island nation; Daphne is a young woman who was formerly one-hundred-fortieth (and is now, unbeknownst to her, second) in the line of succession to the British throne. The story follows their adventures after a tidal wave destroys Mau's people and wrecks Daphne's ship. While the plot proceeds in predictable fashion (Mau and Daphne encounter one another on the deserted island, learn to communicate, struggle to survive and then build until the outside world intrudes once more), it is the development of Pratchett's characters that sets Nation apart from hundreds of Robinson Crusoe knock-offs. Mau struggles to understand why the tidal wave occurred, and what it means to the beliefs and customs that are central to his people, now that he is the only one left. Daphne seeks her own center and must face her own traumas, after being freed from all of those social forces that dictate how she should think and act. And both of them must come to terms with their roles as leaders of a new nation, as others arrive following the great wave: the lost, the dispossessed, the desperate, and, eventually, the hostile.

If not for the paucity of footnotes (there are only five), one could be forgiven for mistaking Nation for a Discworld novel. Nation revisits themes that have been explored extensively in the Discworld books, such as the relationship between humanity and the divine, the origins of custom and the perils of orthodoxy, and the independence and strength of the human spirit.

This raises one minor criticism of the novel. Pratchett seems at times to be struggling with the fact that this novel is not set on the Discworld. While the story is set at the height of the British Empire, it is not the British Empire we know. The plot of the novel involves major world events that would not be familiar to most readers, such as the sudden deaths of one hundred thirty-eight members of the British line of succession, and features plants and animals not yet discovered in our own world, such as the tree-climbing octopus and the Lonesome Palm. In the fantasy setting of the Discworld, which Pratchett has often used to hold a wry, flat mirror up to our own spherical world, the inclusion of such highly improbable, arguably fantastic, elements would raise no eyebrows; however, their inclusion in a "historical" novel occasionally strains credulity.

(Pratchett himself seems to recognize the tension. At one point, he weaves another of his favorite tropes, the many-worlds hypothesis, into the novel, as if to suggest that our unfamiliarity with the events and creatures of the novel does not mean that they are not historically accurate in some parallel universe. There is no "does not happen," warns Pratchett; there is merely "happened somewhere else.")

The fact that Pratchett feels free to include ideas lifted from quantum physics in the book should indicate that while Nation is being marketed as a young adult novel, it does not condescend to younger readers. Rather, Pratchett trusts his readers with complex concepts of personal and societal identity. The themes of secular humanism that often appear in Pratchett's work appear here as well, but Nation avoids spoon-feeding its messages. Thus, while Nation would be very accessible to a teen audience, it has enough in it to keep adults thinking as well. And, as his long-time readers have come to expect, it's a funny, enjoyable read.

-Jeff