Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Favorites of 2008

I think 2008 was a banner year for me in terms of reading. I read- and wrote- probably more than I ever have. And more widely- literary fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, manga, mysteries, Christian fiction, popular fiction. Sometimes I made great discoveries; sometimes I tried something new and it fizzled. I used my reading and writing to document my personal interests, make new friends and to enhance my career. My blog took off (along with many others) and I got the opportunity to do author interviews and giveaways, and to review many great books. I attended a blogger's conference, and had one of my reviews reprinted in a high school textbook. And I met some great people- on-line and off-line.

So, on to the top ten- actually the top eleven. It's so difficult to pick, so I'm going to do the best I can and break it out by category. Some books fit into more than one but I wanted to highlight different books in different ways. I'm calling these picks "Favorites" rather than "Bests" because that's what they are- my favorites for the year. Links are to my reviews.

Favorite overall: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey. A Booker Prize winner from the 1980s and beautiful love story and literary page-turner. I didn't want this book to end. Don't you love when that happens? An old-fashioned story of love and loss, I wish every book was as accomplished and well-crafted as Oscar and Lucinda.

Favorite literary fiction: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. This year's Booker winner is a gripping literary page-turner with a unique protagonist and challenging themes.

Favorite ARC/New Release: The White Mary, by Kira Salak. I don't know if it's destined to be a literary classic, but it's one of those books I just couldn't put down. I was totally hooked from word one- loved it.

Favorite nonfiction: My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar. Beautifully-written and highly accessible history and a lovely family story, this one's a winner. I can understand why people might hesitate to pick it up but I promise if you read it you will love it!

Favorite Jewish-interest: The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman. A moving collection of short stories about the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience. I was drawn in by Litman's voice and handling of her characters' emotions. I can't wait till she writes a novel.

Favorite manga: Nana by Ai Yazawa. Nana is a terrific manga series written for young women about two roommates and best friends, both named Nana, trying to make a go of life and love in the big city. Think Sex and the City in the Tokyo rock scene. Light-as-a-feather fun. (I don't write reviews of manga- too many of them, and they're all part of lengthy series- and it's only once in a great while that I finish a whole series.)

Favorite book about Boston and New England: Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir, by Scott Pomfret. I really enjoyed this funny, snarky, angry and loving book about the Catholic Church and Catholic faith.

Favorite Francophile Fun: Death in the Truffle Wood, by Pierre Magnan. I'm not a mystery buff and this book didn't change that, but it did give me a few laughs and a good time.

Favorite Graphic Novel: The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, by Steve Sheinkin. Sweet, fun and great for all ages, it's a graphic novel that serves up wholesome lessons with a chuckle and an unusual visual style.

Favorite Random Thing I Picked Up at a Bookstore: The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia. Sedia mixes a variety of elements- history, mythology, love, and growing up- into a bittersweet fantasy about post-Soviet Moscow.

Bonus Book: Favorite Book That Fit A Bunch of Categories: The Genizah at the House of Shepher, by Tamar Yellin. A slow, thoughtful literary family story about a lost book of the Bible and the family that has harbored it for generations, this book is destined to be a classic. (Jewish Interest, ARC/New Release, Literary Fiction)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Today’s question: Here is a list of the main areas of Library Thing:
1. Home (, before you log in)
2. Home (once you log in, contains Your Home, Your Profile, Connections, Recommendations, Reviews, Statistics, Clouds, Gallery, Memes)
3. Profile (Recent activity, tags, comments, members with your books)
4. Your Library
5. Your Tags
6. Add Books
7. Talk
8. Groups
9. Local
10. Search
11. Zeitgeist (Stats, Top Lists)
12. Tools (Widgets, Store)
13. Blog
What area are you most familiar with? What area is your favorite? What area are you curious about? Are there any that you have not really looked at?

First of all, thanks to Wendy for hosting Tuesday Thingers and for the nice intro she did. I'm pretty familiar with most of LT (I think!) but I don't use the Zeitgeist page that often, and I have an RSS feed on the blog so I read new entries when they pop up but I don't check it otherwise. I've tried to look at just about everything in the past few months or so; I'm sure there's something (lots of things!) I've missed though! I'm looking forward to Wendy's questions to help me get better familiarized with LT!

REVIEW: Since My Last Confession, by Scott Pomfret

Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir, by Scott Pomfret. Published 2008 by Arcade Publishing. Hardcover.

Click here to buy Since My Last Confession via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

Author Scott Pomfret is a Boston-area attorney who, along with his partner, also runs a publishing company specializing in gay porn. Until very recently, he was also a lay lector at Saint Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts. His book Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir, chronicles much of his time there as well as his involvement in the fight to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts.

It's a terrific read.

By turns funny, snarky, angry and full of love and affection for the Catholic religion- if not always for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church- it's as full of contradiction as any Catholic life can be. Pomfret does a wonderful job illuminating the conflicts and commitments besetting a dedicated, faithful liberal Catholic. He talks about his family life, including his inter-faith relationship with partner Scott (a- gasp!- Protestant), the multifarious purposes and meanings behind the pew that decorates their home, and the business they run together.

He also presents a vivid and entertaining picture of the Boston Catholic community- its leaders, its acolytes and its zealous watchdogs. He talks instructively about Catholic liturgy and ritual, offering a mini-education in the nuts and bolts of Catholic worship. He talks about priests both loyal to the leadership and dissidents, and the different organizations that exist to serve gay Catholics, both within and outside the Church. Part of the purpose of the book is to humanize the gay marriage debate and really send the message that a Church that refuses to embrace its gay believers, and then takes that intolerance outside the Church doors by involving itself in secular political battles, causes real damage to real people. Through his involvement in gay Catholic organizations he tries to show how the Church's policies on homosexuality affect the lives of gay Catholics. He succeeds on all fronts.

I devoured Pomfret's book in about five days. I laughed when he made jokes, I got angry with him at Cardinal Sean O'Malley and others in the Church hierarchy, and I sympathized at the plight of priests who tried to do right and were punished for it. In the end that's what happened to Pomfret as well- not long after I finished the book, I heard the news that Pomfret had been removed from his post at Saint Anthony Shrine. Their loss. What I loved most about Since My Last Confession is how Pomfret's love for the Church shines through every page- even at his angriest, he's angry because he loves the Church so much and wants it to be the best it can be, but is continually frustrated as he hits dead end after dead end in his quest to make Church leaders understand his point of view. I can sympathize with many of his struggles as a liberal Catholic myself and was happy to see someone criticize the Church out of love and respect, as opposed to pure bitterness and rancor. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in gay marriage debate (on either side of the aisle) and to those interested in the state of religion in America. It's a great story of a battle right from the front lines.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: Milk Teeth, by Julie Morstad

milk teeth, by Julie Morstad. Published 2007 by Drawn & Quarterly.

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

milk teeth is one of the stranger little things I've picked up lately- a small, slight, wordless collection of sketches arranged into silent stories. I find something about Morstad's surrealistic images to be arresting and unforgettable.

There is no dialogue in the collection, and barely a narrative. What there is instead is several series of miniature drawings, executed in a dense, detailed style that appear to me to be pen and ink and watercolor. Morstad's visual style resembles Edward Gorey to no small degree; her pictures of children and animals in fantastical situations and poses is slightly macabre and Victorian, although her pictures are not as dark as Gorey's. There is something of the fairy tale in her pictures. Common motifs include faces, animals and especially hair- long hair that binds, connects, contorts and overflows. Morstad's penstrokes flow in rivers of hair. She also draws elaborately-patterned clothing and detailed animal fur.

Many of the drawings could be seen as disturbing; there is little real violence or sexual content but there is a certain sensuality to her style. The book is most likely appropriate for older teens and adults. I wouldn't recommend milk teeth to the graphic-novel newcomer but for those interested in unusual and dream-like visions it's an interesting book to peruse. For me it is a quick read to which I'm sure I will return.


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

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Finds

I didn't buy any new books this week, but I did receive a package from Hachette containing the booty from the Jewish Book Giveaway:

The titles included are:

Life is a Test, an audiobook by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis,
To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, by Harold Kushner,
Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, by Rabbi Alan Lew,
Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People, by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, and
In the Beginning : The Art of Genesis, by Chuck Fischer.

In the Beginning is actually a pop-up book, and really, really impressive. It was a little difficult to get good pictures, but the pop-ups are really gorgeous and I think it would be a great choice for Christians and Jewish people alike who are interested in the Bible. I included the title page, the Creation page and the page on Noah's Ark. It's really stunning!
(I wonder if there is a problem with the depiction of God violating the Jewish tenet against graven images- but then again, what do I know?)

I will have my Christmas bookpile as soon as I can get a good picture. Bibliophile Santa was good to me! I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas had a wonderful day yesterday. I did!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

REVIEW: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Published 2008 by Simon & Schuster. 2008 Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Literary Fiction.

The White Tiger is a difficult, morally challenging novel, told in the first person by one Balram Halwai, a complicated and unreliable narrator. The story is told in a series of letters to a Chinese official who may soon be visiting India, ostensibly intended to be Balram's life story and an introduction to Indian culture, but it's more than that. Among other things, it's an indictment of a ruthlessly class-driven society where a great part of the population is underfed, undereducated and underdeveloped, a paean to capitalism and entrepreneurship; an understated critique of the United States, and lastly (and by no means least) a detailed, lengthy self-serving justification for murder.

Raised in poverty and employed by as a chauffeur by wealthy (if somewhat ineffectual) coal magnate Mr. Ashok, Balram narrates the story as part Dale Carnegie, part Raskolnikov and part Nietzschean Superman. He is filled with contempt for the upper classes but serves them with fealty. As a chauffeur he sees Mr. Ashok's private life in intimate detail and is subject to all manner of mistreatment, condescension and privations. He's also whip-smart and observant, learning ruthless opportunism from his front-row seat to Mr. Ashok's wheedlings and briberies. Balram's first step up occurs when he replaces Mr. Ashok's primary driver by exposing him as a Muslim; the driver is fired and Balram is rewarded with a bed to sleep in. Later, after a series of humiliations and breathtaking betrayals, he makes a devastating choice that changes at least three lives forever.

Balram is a difficult man to admire, but it's easy to be lead along by the reins of his screwy logic and breezy self-confidence. The thing to remember about The White Tiger is that it's a satire- in other words, it's supposed to be over-the-top and overstated. Balram is a charming sociopath but he's more than that- he's a monster created by the screwed up world he describes even as he deconstructs and manipulates it- simultaneously marginalized and deeply assimilated. And he's a relentless narcissist. The one person in the world he loves- his nephew Dharam- is a younger version of himself, another cagey, smart little boy who could end up as another servant, but Balram wants better for him. And I think Balram wants better for India and for all of us but has only the limited tools of his "half-baked" education and morality to guide him.

I picked up The White Tiger because it won the Man Booker Prize and I generally enjoy Booker winners, and because it's about India, a long-standing casual interest of mine, and because it had a nice blurb by another satirist I admire, Gary Shteyngart, on the back cover. Shteyngart wrote the wonderful Absurdistan, one of my favorite books of last year, and if he liked it, how could I go wrong? The White Tiger is a fantastic, gripping, disturbing, page-turning and challenging novel of the new world economy- a story of those it uplifts and those it crushes. It's not an easy read and it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea but I think it's amazing.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Today's question: Holiday gift-giving. Do you give books for the holidays? Did you participate in LT's SantaThing, either this year or last, or in other blogging gift exchanges? Were you happy with what you received?

My answer: I like to give gift certificates rather than books for the holidays, so people can choose what they want. I've had limited success picking books out for others! I did SantaThing last year and got a great collection of short stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro, who I'd never read before but who turned out to be right up my alley. I participated in one gift exchange on the blogosphere this year, but since I have neither sent (sorry!) nor received anything yet, I don't know if it's fair to say I "participated". More like "meant to". I did not do SantaThing, because I decided it was out of the family budget. (There was a "career interruption" in the family. Um.) Oh well. Between one thing and another it's been a stressful season and I just haven't gotten around to everything. It happens! I will probably do my end of the exchange this week.

As far as the future of Tuesday Thingers. At this point it looks like this is the last week of Tuesday Thingers. A couple of enthusiastic people wrote to me last week saying they wanted to take it over, but both of them backed out, so it looks like this is it. If one of you would like to pick up the mantle, go for it. But you might want to publicize it on LT or Book Blogs or one of those places so people know. And I'd love to know just to be able to participate. It's been fun- and I think it's been a good community builder for us book bloggers, but all good things must come to an end.

Thank you very, very much for all the wonderful kind words you shared with me last week. I do appreciate it and I know we'll all stay connected in the blogosphere.

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and a 2009 filled with blessings!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Salon

I'm under the weather today, but work has been canceled and it's still snowy outside, so how about some reading?

I started Surprised by God yesterday, which is going to be my book club's pick for January; so far it's terrific- very well written, fun and interesting. It's about a suburban punk-rock girl who rediscovers religion and becomes a rabbi. It was my choice for the club so I hope other folks like it as much as I do.

This week I read Aravind Adiga's stunning, Booker-Prize-winning debut, White Tiger- wow. Wow. I will write a formal review soon but I think I need to re-read the beginning first. It was the kind of book you want to drink down in one gulp. Absolutely un-put-down-able.

Today I think I'll work on Surprised a little more, and relax with some tea and a box of tissues. And maybe pick up a new novel too- lots of goodies await on the TBR shelf.

What's going on in your part of the world today?

Friday, December 19, 2008

REVIEW: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker. Published 2009 by Grand Central Publishing. Fiction.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the story of Truly Plaice, an unusually large woman whose size seems to be the result of some genetic fluke; her sister, Serena Jane, is the picture of petite feminine beauty, and Truly spends just about her whole life in Serena Jane's shadow one way or another, until she discovers a long-forgotten family secret hidden right under her nose.

The story starts before Truly's birth- and the simultaneous death of her mother- with a mother, a father and pretty little girl living an ordinary life. Truly changes everything. Her mother dies; her father becomes taciturn; and Serena Jane tries to act as if Truly doesn't exist. Teased by classmates and teachers alike, Truly finds comfort in two friends- Amelia and Marcus, two misfits like Truly, who will remain with her for years to come. Serena Jane marries the town scion, Bob Bob Morgan, who is destined to be the town doctor like his forebears. But Bob Bob's family is destined to be unlike any Morgan family before.

And that's all I want to say about the plot. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the debut novel by San Francisco-based writer Tiffany Baker, and it's pretty impressive. The writing is lyrical and literary; Truly speaks in a voice both dignified and beautiful, with a minimum of self-pity. Characters are developed skillfully and I came to like them all- Baker even manages to make the detestable Bob Bob not completely inhuman. I think Serena Jane, so cold towards her sister and her family, was the hardest to like. The resolution of her story was also the hardest to swallow for me. Her son Bobbie, another misfit, gives the story an additional twist or two and I'm glad Baker doesn't leave him the background.

The one thing that bothered me about the writing is that Baker has Truly tell the story in the first-person omniscient voice- a very unusual choice. What this means for the narrative is that Truly tells the reader things she can't possibly know, like events taking place far from her and the thoughts and feelings of other characters that they never share with her. Baker wants Truly to tell the story in her own beautiful voice, but she wants to express the inner lives of all of her characters as well. These goals are incompatible and the execution is choppy and distracting- not to mention confusing when the question of Serena Jane's fate comes up. From Bob Bob's thoughts, I knew how he plans to deceive the town (and Truly), and since it's Truly narrating his thoughts I had to keep reminding myself that Truly didn't know what I knew, even though she was the one telling me- otherwise, it wouldn't make sense later when Truly discovers Bob Bob's betrayal. This choice also means that what could have been the book's biggest surprise loses much of its punch.

I enjoyed The Little Giant a lot, although I felt like it loses some steam towards the end, when Truly ventures into Jack Kevorkian territory. I think the book is at its best in Truly's childhood, as we watch her navigate the cruelties she encounters, as well as the warm friendships of Amelia and Marcus. The romance with Marcus is a nice, humanizing touch and I'm glad Baker shows us that this woman Truly is worthy of love. I would have liked to see more of the love story and maybe less of some of the other stuff, but on balance The Little Giant is a satisfying read and a great choice for readers who enjoyed the likes of The Lace Reader and other such popular fiction with a twist or two. No big surprises here, but the little ones were enough for me.


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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Do you give books as gifts?

To everyone? Or only to select people?

How do you feel about receiving books as gifts?

I love giving books as gifts, but it can be difficult to gauge peoples' taste- sometimes I do well and hit it just right, and sometimes my ideas fizzle. There are a couple of people in my circle of family and friends whose taste I never seem to get right, and I've stopped buying books for them, because there are only so many times I can hear "I hated that book you gave me" before it gets tiresome. So I only give books to certain people whose taste I'm confident I can accommodate.

I love getting books as gifts, but what I love even more is getting gift certificates! My own taste is eclectic so I'd much rather be able to choose. Of course if someone wanted to buy me something from my wishlist that would be just fine!

What books do you want for the holidays this year?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Today's Question: The LT Home Page feature. How are you liking it? Or not? Do you go here when you log into LT or do you use your profile page more?

My answer: I like the new home page feature. I use it to keep track of the discussion groups I follow, as well as my LT friends and interesting libraries. The only feature I didn't care for was the "hot reviews" section- I don't really read reviews on LT, at least not often enough to warrant keeping the feature.

On another note: After this week I would like to discontinue hosting Tuesday Thingers. I am experiencing blogging burnout and would like to relieve myself of the obligation of hosting the meme. (Some of you may have noticed it's been a while since my last Graphic Novel Monday...) It's been a lot of fun, and it's given my blog some great exposure and introduced me to all of you wonderful bloggers (for which I am grateful) but it's time to pass the torch. Whoever takes it over is free to change the name, change the logo- whatever you want.
UPDATE: We have a new Tuesday Thingers host- but you'll have to tune into Boston Bibliophile one last time next Tuesday to find out who!

I'll post one last question next week.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Salon

So this weekend my husband and I went away for an annual family getaway, and I brought Naomi Ragen's The Ghost of Hannah Mendes to read and... it kind of fizzled for me.

It's about an elderly Jewish woman who is visited by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor, telling her to enlist the help of her two granddaughters to go to Europe, to unearth some family secrets. The granddaughters are unmarried and dysfunctional, and the plot promises socially-appropriate romance and a deeper appreciation of one's heritage.

Well, okay. It's an easy enough read- fluid and well-written but the plot is so transparent I'm having a hard time getting into it. So I may not bother for the time being. I think I've gotten as far as I'm going to, although I may hang on to the book for a while. Gonna start something else tomorrow though.

In other news, today was Day #2 of the temple's book sale and I think we did well. The final figures aren't in, but I'm optimistic right now that it will have been a success.

Finally, I found out that I won a Jewish book giveaway sponsored by Hachette! I'm going to receive 5 books. Now, I spammed my entire email list trying to win this contest so it just goes to show- spam pays! Oh my goodness what a terrible lesson!

Hope you all had a great Sunday!

Friday, December 12, 2008

REVIEW: The Believers, by Zoe Heller

The Believers, by Zoe Heller. Published 2009 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

I read an ARC of The Believers courtesy of Barnes & Noble's First Look program.

The Believers is a domestic drama centering on the solipsistic Litvinoff family, a leftist, secular activist Jewish clan living in New York and made up of hard-charging trial lawyer Joel, his loyal wife Audrey and their adult children Rosa, Karla and Lenny. The Litvinoffs are dedicated social activists who want to make the world a better place, but who seem to have forgotten that charity begins at home. Joel and Audrey are as dedicated to solipsism as they are to activism- rarely in literature have I seen such a shallow, selfish, unhappy pair. When Joel is felled by a sudden stroke, it's up to Audrey to hold the family together, a task she fails at utterly.

Karla, Rosa and Lenny are adrift as adults, each finding something to substitute for the love they missed at home- food for Karla, religion for Rosa and drugs for Lenny. Karla is overweight and stuck in a loveless marriage; she embarks on an affair with a coworker that I think was supposed to be empowering, but just felt to me like another crutch. Rosa becomes interested in Orthodox Judaism, but she struck me as rather naive. When we meet her, she is preparing to spend a weekend with an Orthodox family, on a kind of extended Shabbat, when religious Jews take a step back from certain worldly activities, like using electricity or spending money. She seems to regard the weekend as some kind of suburban camping trip and starts out blissfully ignorant of even the most basic components of Shabbat-keeping, which struck me as hard to believe. I think someone spending a weekend with an Orthodox rabbi might, you know, read up a little on what to expect, you know? So she lacked credibility for me. Lenny's character was the least developed of the three, and as Audrey's favorite I wish I got to know him better.

But nothing about the various dysfunctions of the children compares with the blistering boil of misery that is Audrey. Self-centered, bitter and completely lacking in empathy for others, she's a textbook narcissist- and not one of the charming ones. I kept hoping that somehow that Heller would redeem her or show us another side of her, but she never did. At one point Audrey is confronted with a secret from her husband's past but reacts in the same old angry Audrey way and doesn't change or grow, so I wonder what the point of the whole storyline was supposed to be. It doesn't contribute anything, nobody grows, and there's plenty going on otherwise.

The Believers was a book I wanted to like- I kept waiting for it to get better, I kept waiting for the characters to change, or grow, or something, but it never happened. Heller's writing isn't bad, and I think that's probably what kept me going, because in many ways she's made a well-crafted novel. I just wish she'd crafted likable characters, embroiled them in a compelling plot and brought them to a satisfying conclusion. That's all.

Rating: BORROW

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

Friday Finds

Another slow week for book acquisitions- with Christmas coming up, I'm trying to put the breaks on buying books because I have a feeling that Santa may bring me one or two. Having said that, it's not as though I could actually go an entire week without getting a new book. To wit:

I found Little Saint, by Hannah Green, in a used bookstore last Sunday. The title got my attention, but I really paid attention once I saw that it is a memoir about an American woman who spends some time in tiny hillside town of Conques, where I once spent a few days on a hiking trip in the south of France.

Conques is this really neat place- half tourist trap, half Catholic shrine to Saint Foy, a martyr who was killed for her beliefs when she was only twelve, in the Middle Ages. The city is the site of her reliquary, one of the last saint's reliquaries in France. Because of the reliquary, Conques was an important stop on the old pilgrim's trail that leads to coastal Spain and the traditional burial site of Saint James. A drawing of a shell is used in the book as a motif for the first page of each chapter; in the Middle Ages, when pilgrims travelled to Spain to make the pilgrimage, they would wear shells as a symbol that they were making the journey. Today you can buy gold and silver shells in Conques as a souvenir of your own journey on the pilgrim's trail.

I've started reading it already, because really- how could I wait? So far it's good. More to come!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Time is of the Essence

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

(I’m guessing #1 is an easy question for everyone?)

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

No, I don't get as much time as I want to read. Who does? :-)

If I had more time to read, I'd just keep plowing through my TBR pile- get past the review obligations and recent releases, and tackle some of the larger books on my shelf- Middlemarch, The Golden Notebook, a re-read of Crime and Punishment, and so on. Then there's the back end of the TBR pile- the stuff that's been there forever. I'd love to knock off a few of those. And manga. I can't even remember the last time I read a manga. I don't need extra time for magazines because I read those at the gym.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

REVIEW: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. Published 2006 by Anchor. Nonfiction.

I picked up Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser, on impulse at a library sale, after having seen Sofia Coppola's movie based on the book. But it wasn't just the movie tie-in cover that got my attention. The book is also pink. Pink is a girlish color, and it's an interesting choice for this lay person's history of one of history's most controversial and mythologized women. Just who was Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia of Austria, married at fourteen and executed at the guillotine at age 38, at the height of the French Revolution? A lioness or a lamb? A sexually promiscuous harpy or an undereducated, over-privileged girl of the upper-most upper class, shoehorned into a marriage and a political alliance she was ill-equipped to handle, who grew into maturity with motherhood, only to have her life cut short?

I don't know, but Fraser would have us think the latter. The book begins with Maria Antonia's, or, as she was known to her family, Antoine's birth, the last daughter of the imperious Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary, so dedicated a leader that she continued to sign royal papers shortly following the delivery of her "small archduchess". Fraser describes Antoine's childhood as a mixture of pampered neglect and fierce obedience, right up to her marriage to the French dauphin. The alliance was political; Maria Teresa parceled off her children to various European capitals, with Antoine winding up in France, where there was no great love for Austria. Fraser describes her as lacking the education and maturity to fulfill her political role, and it would be some years before she fulfilled her biological role as a mother. In the meantime the young girl, now Marie Antoinette, indulged herself with clothes, music, friends and parties, spent money and generally enjoyed herself.

Once her children were born, she settled down, but then the French political situation started to deteriorate. This is where I started to lose track of events. The book held my attention much better when Fraser talked about the French royal family and their relationships; once the family of Marie Antoinette, the king Louis 14 and their two surviving children have to leave their home at Versailles and live at the Tuileries in Paris, their situation takes on real poignancy and from there it's all downhill. Fraser does a great job of making the reader feel the tragedy of what happens to this family, to how they suffer and to the cruel ironies of their dashed hopes and foiled plans, as well as the indifference of other European royals to their plight.

Fraser argues throughout that Antoinette's excesses- her dress bills, hair dressing, furniture and gambling debts, and other lifestyle expenses, not mention the expenses involved in maintaining a royal household- were nothing more than typical for a woman of her station. She grants that some of her actions were unwise, for example her patronage of the Polignac family, which would later contribute to public anger towards her. She tries to clear Antoinette's name concerning the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and refutes charges that Antoinette was insensitive to the plight of the poor, especially as France's economy worsened. She also argues that Antoinette was a loving and attentive mother, and, her love affair with the Swedish Count Fersen an exception, a faithful wife.

On balance, for me, a Francophile but no history expert, I found the book to be a pleasure to read and generally convincing. It is also clear through Fraser's strong voice and repetitions that she works her agenda of restoring Antoinette's image vigorously. I had trouble following the politics, but maybe that's just because I read the book at bedtime. The plethora of footnotes and extensive bibliography shows that Fraser, primarily known as a writer of fiction, did her research. And the book reads easily and fluidly, like historical fiction without the dialogue. It's no light read, but I'd recommend Marie Antoinette: The Journey to anyone interested in this puzzling, contradictory woman and the troubled times in which she lived and died. It would make a great holiday gift for the Francophile or royal-watcher in your life.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

Most of us book bloggers like to write book reviews- if we don't love to write book reviews- but here's today's question. When it comes to LT (and your blog), do you review every book you read? Do you just review Early Reviewers or ARCs? Do you review only if you like a book, or only if you feel like you have to? How soon after reading do you post your review? Do you post them other places- other social networking sites, Amazon, etc.?

My answer: I review most books that I read, especially if I have strong feelings. When it comes to my blog I try to review every book I read, or at least every adult book (I don't write formal reviews for the mountains of childrens' books I read for work). Right now I'm a little behind on reviews but I will probably get to most of them eventually! Early Reviewers and ARCs get priority but these days I'm more focused on the "me" books. I'll review a book whether I liked it or not, and I'll usually post my review within a few days of finishing it. Usually I'm thinking about what to say while I'm reading! I post links to my reviews on my LT account and on GoodReads. My blog feeds into my Facebook account and my Livejournal as well.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Salon

So today is the book fair at the temple where I work- wish me luck, because we're going to need it! One of the vendors we worked with shorted our order by about 2/3 and we have very little to sell. What we do have is a small selection of adult fiction and kids' books, and a larger table of books that can only be special-ordered. The proceeds of this sale will represent our book budget for the winter.

My other reading-related task today is to get my new nightstand set up, which has bookshelves in lieu of a drawer. So I get two little bookshelves in my bedroom, for all that bedside reading. I finished Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which was my nightstand book for the past few months, and just started The Story of French. See a theme?

I have a small stack of have-to-reads that I'm working my way through, and I just found out the other day that I've won an ARC of Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross. Can't wait!

Friday, December 5, 2008

REVIEW: Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler

Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler. Published 2008 by Harper Perennial. Fiction.

I received this book courtesy of Jennifer at

Who By Fire is basically a family melodrama about a secular Jewish family in which a young man named Ash, now Asher, runs off to Israel to join a yeshiva (basically a school for in-depth study of the Torah) and become an Orthodox Jew. His sister Bits, who's nice but a bit messed up, and their mother Ellie, overprotective and vulnerable herself, team up to rescue him. The story goes from Boston to Jerusalem and back again. But everyone finds out that when you try to rescue someone, things don't always go the way you planned, and sometimes what you find is yourself.

Author Diana Spechler tells the story in alternating first-person narratives, shifting between the three characters. She creates compelling, believable characters with distinctive voices and personalities. The book is a fast-moving, well-crafted page-turner that I didn't want to put down.

The heart of Who By Fire is its narrators- Bits, Asher and Ellie. All three are fanatics in their own way- Asher with religion, Bits with personal drama, and Ellie with grief. The grief that ties them together, and fuels their journeys, stems from the disappearance years ago of a third sibling, little Alena, who vanished without a trace. Asher feels responsible, Bits feels lost, and Ellie feels devastated and believes that she has also just lost Asher to his new-found religious faith.

Who By Fire is a terrific read that I believe would appeal to many readers. Fans of domestic dramas, those interested in Judaism and those who enjoy character-driven books may enjoy it. Spechler broaches themes of family, love, loss and forgiveness- especially forgiving onesself. She also shows conflicts between religious and less-religious Jews, and gives some insight into the world of yeshivas as well, but the themes she addresses are universal and extend beyond the setting. She handles her characters with affection and gives the reader a lot to think about, making Who By Fire also a nice choice for book clubs. I'm glad I got around to reading it!

Rating: BUY

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

Friday Finds

First of all, I want to apologize for how slow I've been at replying to comments for the past couple of weeks. I'll get caught up eventually!
But thank you to everyone who has continued to comment.

This has been a slow week for book-acquiring; I only bought one book, Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows, and only because I found a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble in a drawer.

I received an ARC of Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age the other day, courtesy of Barnes and Noble's First Look program; I look forward to starting it soon.

Although family financial setbacks have limited the number of books I've bought, they have not limited the number of books I want! I still go book-browsing several times a week and added two more books to my wishlist today, Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs and Ehud Havazelet's Bearing the Body. Did you put anything new on your wishlist this week?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

1. Do you have a favorite author?

2. Have you read everything he or she has written?

3. Did you LIKE everything?

4. How about a least favorite author?

5. An author you wanted to like, but didn’t?

I have two favorite authors- A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood. I haven't read everything either woman has written- I haven't read Atwood's short stories, and I haven't read all of her novels yet (still two or three to go); I haven't read all of Byatt's novels either although I have read all of her short fiction. I haven't liked everything either woman has written- some of Byatt's novels I've found dull, and I felt the same way about a couple of Atwood's. I think A.S. Byatt is a better short story writer than novelist in general; her Possession is my favorite novel of all time (followed by Atwood's Alias Grace), and while her other novels pale in comparison, her short fiction is luminous. I also have a lot of respect for Iris Murdoch although I've only read three of her many books.

I don't have a least-favorite author; if I'm not enjoying someone's work I probably wouldn't bother to continue to read him/her- what's the point, right? An author I'd like to like? Michael Chabon, but I haven't read any of his books yet. I know I should, I know everyone loves him etc. etc., and I have a couple of his books hanging around the house, but I just never seem to get to them. Oh well!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

REVIEW: The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman

The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman. Published 2008 by W.W. Norton. Literary Fiction. Short Stories.

The Last Chicken in America, which author Ellen Litman bills as "a novel in stories," is a lovely collection of interrelated tales focusing on the Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Her characters are teenagers, young and old men and women from different walks of life, recent arrivals to the United States, American and Russian, Jewish and not; together they people a dense, close-knit and slightly claustrophobic community. Some want to leave and some want to stay, but they all work to survive and find love and meaning under challenging circumstances.

The stories follow a whole cast of characters but several center around one young woman, Masha, a teenager applying for college, working a series of unsatisfying jobs and yearning for something better. I could almost feel her trying to push her way through the world, looking for someone to understand her suffocation and her need for freedom. Her parents, whose problems are addressed later, in their own story, want to keep her close; a wealthy woman for whom she works wants to make Masha her kind of Jew without bothering to understand Masha for herself, and her teacher, a non-Jewish Russian, can't deal with who she is either. Masha's stories form the heart of the book; they bring to the surface rifts in understanding and missed connections, but ultimately her story is optimistic and hopeful.

Other characters, like Natasha, who tries content herself with what she finds easily attainable, like an uncomfortable (but readily proffered) friendship with a coworker, or an unsatisfying but available boyfriend, or Tanya, who lives vicariously through her boyfriend's glamorous friends, speak to the theme of alienation and discomfort and bring a range of emotions to life. The characters appear and reappear in each others' stories, so the star of one, like Vika in "When the Neighbors Love You," might show up as a background character in others. When Vika reappears in the last story, her appearance has the feel of a throwaway line until you remember how economically that throwaway line works to resolve her story and her fate. Major themes include immigration, adjustment to a new world with new rules, post-Soviet life outside the Soviet Union, and the harmonies and dissonances of everyday life.

With a good number of stories and a variety of characters, Litman has created a vivid little world inside her slim volume of stories. I loved her fluid prose and her gently literary style. She describes the Squirrel Hill neighborhood so vividly I felt like I was walking down its crowded sidewalks with her characters, past its shops and restaurants. I could see them right down to their clothes and hairstyles, to their cigarettes and lipstick. It was a world I could engage in right away, even if I put the book down for a few days here and there; it was a pleasure to savor these lovely stories. I hope that she has a novel in the works but it doesn't matter- I think I would read anything she writes, I enjoyed this book so much. I'd recommend it to readers interested in sensitive, character-driven short prose, to readers who like solid writing on Jewish and Russian topics, and really to anyone. The Last Chicken could be read as a companion piece to Sana Krasikov's fine debut One More Year, another volume of short stories about Soviet immigrants, which came out earlier this year as well, but it stands beautifully on its own. It's a wonderful little book.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tuesday Thingers

What's the most popular book in your library? Have you read it? What did you think? How many users have it?

My answer: The most popular book in my library is Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. I took a course on Jane Austen in college and had to read all of her books, and while I love many of them, honestly I've never finished Pride and Prejudice- I just couldn't get through it! I found it schmaltzy and I thought Elizabeth Bennett was a boring goody-goody. 23,259 other LibraryThingers have the book, and it's been reviewed 324 times. It's listed as the 10th most most-shared book overall.