Tuesday, March 31, 2009

REVIEW: Someone to Run With, by David Grossman

Someone To Run With, by David Grossman. Published 2005 by Picador.

Someone To Run With, by Israeli author David Grossman, is the story of two Israeli teens, Assaf and Tamar, who are brought together by a dog, but it's so much more than that.

Assaf has a summer job working for Jerusalem's City Hall; he's assigned to the dog pound, his task being to return strays to their owners. On his first day he's given a lively yellow lab named Dinka and as he chases the dog through the city, he becomes embroiled in the mystery of her owner's disappearance- a girl his age named Tamar. He meets people important in her life and finds himself determined to track her down.

In a parallel storyline Grossman shows a plucky young woman enmeshed in a bold plan to rescue another boy from the throes of heroin addiction and itinerant street life. Tamar knows where the boy, Shai, is- a musician, he's been taken in by a mafioso-like hustler named Pesach who runs a "home" for street performers, where he offers them shelter, sells them drugs and brutally extorts from them. Tamar is a talented singer herself and is soon able to sneak into Pesach's lair. Her hope is to get Shai out and help him overcome his addiction.

Equally driven by plot and character, I found Someone to Run With to be a lively, engrossing page-turner; it starts off slow as Grossman takes his time establishing the characters. But then, about a third or so of the way through- watch out! The story takes off like shot. There's a lot of sadness here- the situation of the runaway street kids and addicts is distressing and Pesach and his parents are genuinely creepy- but there's also a lot of cleverness and suspense, coincidence and even a little humor. Not everyone gets a happy ending but on balance it's a very hopeful story.

For myself I really enjoyed it. Grossman's style is literary but accessible and I think it would be a great choice for young adults as well. It's remarkably apolitical- at least on the surface. While the English translation I read was beautiful, I'm told Grossman is an amazing Hebrew writer so if you can read the original I'd recommend it. The city of Jerusalem is practically a supporting character in itself- Grossman gives the reader a great sense of place, with sights, smells and street life flowing through every pore of the story. And the characters are terrific- cagey, tightrope-walking Tamar and genuine, dogged Assaf really come alive, as do a myriad of supporting characters, most memorably the Greek nun Theodora whose story is its own mini-novel. With lots to keep you going and make you think, Someone To Run With is a winner.

P.S., it's also a great book club pick. I helped lead a great discussion on the book several weeks ago at an area synagogue; the discussion could have gone on for hours!

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: Mr. SPIC Goes to Washington, by Ilan Stavans with illustrations by Roberto Weil

Mr. SPIC Goes to Washington, by Ilan Stavans with illustrations by Roberto Weil. Published 2008 by Soft Skull Press.

Click here to buy Mr. SPIC Goes to Washington from your favorite indie bookstore.

Ilan Stavans' and Roberto Weil's graphic novel Mr. SPIC Goes to Washington is a clever satire of race and politics in the United States. The title is a clear reference to the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," about a small town man unprepared for the dirty dealings of our nation's capital (and there is a direct allusion to the film late in the book), and Stavans' and Weil's story follows a similar trajectory. Mr. Spic, more properly known as Samuel Patricio Inocencio Cardenas, is the mayor of Los Angeles, struggling to implement various reforms. When California's senator dies suddenly, Mayor Cardenas, or Spic, as he likes to be known, is offered the chance to serve California on the national stage in the U.S. Senate. He accepts.

When he gets there, though, things don't go well for him. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform and by his fellow senators' racism and condescention, he declares a sit-in on the Senate floor. Along the way, we learn about Mr. Spic's background- his youth as a gang member, his immigrant-laborer parents, and his idealism derived from Hispanic activists and leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Che Guevarra. As time passes, and his enemies in the Senate move to have him declared mentally incompetant, Mr. Spic's position deteroriates and in the end his journey is less Frank Capra and more John F. Kennedy.

Writer Ilan Stavans interjects himself into the narrative now and then, as well-wisher and background observer. Stavans is the Jewish son of Russian immigrants to Mexico, who is now a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and a prolific author and editor of everything from Resurrecting Hebrew, about the rise of Hebrew as a modern language, to the anthology Tropical Synagogues to The Poetry of Pablo Neruda and Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Artist Weil is a painter and artist from Venezuela who has drawn several collections of cartoons and other artwork. You can see his website here. In Mr. SPIC, Weil uses a style that reminds me of a combination of editorial cartoonists like Tom Toles and Dilbert, but his style is uniquely his own. He uses a black and white and gray palette, mixing in photographs and other media and his distortions and contortions reinforce the narrative's satire and black humor.

Enjoyable if a little heavy to be one of my favorites, Mr. SPIC is a clever, smart and well-put-together leftist satire of American politics. The book touches on several hot-button topics- race, immigration, the financial crisis, the slow pace of change and the unreliability of the press. There is some violence but no swearing or sexual content; I think it would be a fine choice for high school students and above, and though there is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue I think it's comprehensible to non-speakers in context. Definitely overtly political with a strong point of view, it gives the reader a lot to think about and discuss.


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

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about recording your reading…

Do you keep track of what and/or how many books you read? How long have you been doing this? What's your favorite tracking method, and why?If you don't keep track, why not? (question courtesy of MizB)

I use LibraryThing to keep track of what I'm reading. I enter my books as soon as I get them home, and then rate them as soon as I'm done. I've had my LT account since May, 2007 and I really enjoy it. My username on LT is BostonBibliophile if you want to friend me there.

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca at Just One More Page.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Salon

So it's a rainy day in Boston and who knows what I'll get up to.

After work, I'll do some reading- I'm loving Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, about a Jewish man who lives in a European town that changes hands several times over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, between the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland, the Soviet Union and so on. I'll have more to say later. After this, I'm on to Dara Horn's latest, All Other Nights, about Passover and the Civil War. Should be good.

Then it's on to housework and mundane stuff like cleaning and sorting- maybe some crafts if I'm good. I'm almost done with my first of four dragons, the project I started last weekend. Life got in the way this past week and I couldn't stick to my intended piecing schedule, so I am a little behind.

I'm also reading Water Ghosts, a galley I received in a Twitter giveaway, and I'm thinking of stopping with it. It looked good at first but I'm finding the writing to be sort of dull. The story itself, about three mysterious Chinese women who arrive in California of 1928, has movie potential and I'm sure the book will be a success, but I don't think it's my cup of tea. Anybody want it? Because I'd be happy to give it away. First person to leave a comment asking for it, gets it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

REVIEW: After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance, by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien

After Ghandi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance, by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien. Published 2009 by Charlesbridge Books. Nonfiction. Biography. Young Adult.

After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance, by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien, profiles sixteen world leaders who practiced nonviolent resistance to various political regimes in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, beginning with Mohandas Ghandi in 1908 Johannesburg, South Africa, up to protests against the Iraq War in America. It is aimed at 9-12 year old children and is illustrated with black and white pastel artwork.

Authors Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien have selected a pantheon of leaders from all over the globe- the reader goes from South Africa to Vietnam, to Alabama, Belfast, Prague, Beijing and more. There are names likely to be familiar to many readers, such as Muhammad Ali, profiled for his protests against the Vietnam War, and Desmond Tutu, the South African priest, and names likely new to many readers, such as Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and Charles Perkins of the Australian Aboriginal Rights Movement. Nelson Mandela is profiled as much for his nonviolent resistance to his prison conditions as for his anti-apartheid activism, which, the authors acknowledge, wasn't always exactly non-violent in nature. They provide a brief biographical sketch of each leader and discuss their activities in terms of what each leader gleaned from Gandhi's teachings. For example, they discuss how Cesar Chavez employed the hunger strike to help gain better working conditions for migrant laborers. This analysis helps build a picture of activists of different stripes and working on different issues, learning from each other to build a better world.

The authors use clear, age-appropriate language and an attractive presentation style to communicate with their readers; the illustrations add texture and interest, but I would have liked to see a photograph or two here and there. Since the purpose of the book is to encourage young people to engage in social activism, and the authors are activists themselves (as shown in the Authors' Note at the end), the authors don't even pretend to be objective and that's fine as long as the reader knows what he or she is getting into. The book also contains an annotated bibliography and index to help young readers find source material and reference specific topics in the text.

After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance would be a good choice for families and libraries looking to add to their collection of social-justice nonfiction. I'm debating whether or not to include it the collection I manage, mainly because none of the activists profiled are Jewish (the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, would have been a great choice to profile alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks in the fight for racial equality in the United States) but the book would be fine addition to many collections nonetheless.


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

Friday, March 27, 2009

REVIEW: The Funeral Party, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

The Funeral Party, by Ludmila Ulitskaya. This edition published 2002 by Schocken Books/Random House. Literary Fiction. Translation.

The Funeral Party is another little gem by Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, who as it happens was recently nominated for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, along with other luminaries such as Peter Carey, V.S. Naipaul, Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa. With names like that, the list of nominees for the 2009 prize reads like a who's-who of international literary fiction and Ulitskaya deserves to be among them. She's the only author I've found through book blogs to become a mainstay on my bookshelf, and I'm glad I found her. (Last year I read and reviewed her novel Medea and Her Children; click here for my review.)

This little novel (just 160 pages) is the story of the last days of Alik, a Russian Jewish emigre wasting away of an unknown ailment. An artist, he lives with wife Nina in a bare-bones apartment paid for by someone else, with a steady stream of friends, well-wishers and lovers both past and present flowing through the building and the narrative. The drama of this very laid-back novel concerns Nina's efforts to get Alik baptized before he dies, so they can be together in the afterlife; a Russian Orthodox Christian, she is apoplectic that they might be separated forever when he dies. To this end, she enlists a priest, and, at his request, a rabbi as well, to help convince him to go through with it. This plot in particular provides a bit of the bittersweet farce which actually characterizes the novel as a whole.

Meanwhile Alik is the center of the emotional lives of his lovers Vera and Valentina as well, and each woman jockeys for the central position in his life, viewing the others with a mixture of pity and scorn. The novel goes back and forth through time as each woman's story is told, with Alik always an engima at the center of their lives. His apartment is portrayed as a kind of way-station for misfits, friends, and hangers-on, a microcosm of his life. Ulitskaya is a very skilled literary writer who populates his world with eccentric, vivid characters- even the minor characters are drawn with a skilled eye and economical use of detail. She writes in a style both matter-of-fact- "The landlord of the building was a louse," she states flatly at the opening one chapter- and wholly readable.

Character-driven and meticulous, I won't say The Funeral Party is page-turner but you'll want to know how these characters end up, how Alik ends up, and how his community deals with the loss of this charismatic man. It's a literary story of the modern European immigrant experience and of relations between men and women, and I think readers who like Ulitskaya's fellow Man Booker International nominees will enjoy it.


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

Friday Finds

I'm still acquiring books faster than I can read them; this week is no different from any other!

The Music Room, by Namita Devidayal, arrived from Macmillan; it's a very interesting memoir about a young woman's music lessons in urban India.

Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brian, came from Bookmooch; I saw this at the bookstore and for some reason it just grabbed me. I tweeted about it earlier in the week and was really happily surprised at all the wonderful things people had to say about it. I've already tagged it "want to read" in my LT account, which gets anything bumped up to near top of my list.

Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent also arrived from Bookmooch; it's another I've wanted to read for ages.

A trip to the New England Mobile Book Fair over the weekend left me with Julian Barnes' Arthur & George, and Angela Von der Lippe's The Truth About Lou; the Barnes book was something I wanted to read last year and the other is a new discovery.

I won a HarperCollins giveaway for Michael Chabon's book of essays, Maps & Legends, and Sonata for Miriam came via Penguin.

I played around with my LibraryThing tags and created a new one, "summer reading," to help me with some reading priorities once the weather gets better. I picked out a bunch of fun-looking books, including some light reading and some French stuff, to keep me busy on those warm afternoons to come. After all the snow we've had this year, I can't wait!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

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Suggested by Janet:

The opposite of last week’s question: “What’s the best ‘worst’ book you’ve ever read — the one you like despite some negative reviews or features?”

The best 'worst' book I've read is probably James Patterson's Kiss the Girls. The book is plain trash- but I couldn't put it down! I picked it up at an airport and I haven't read Patterson before or since. I read this one because the movie with Ashley Judd was about to come out, and I have a long-standing crush on Miss Judd.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Announced

The Jewish Book Council announced today that Sana Krasikov is the winner of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize, a $100,000 award for the best in contemporary Jewish writing, for her debut short story collection, One More Year.

You can read my review of One More Year here. I loved it!

The other finalists were:

Elisa Albert for The Book of Dahlia (Free Press)

Anne Landsman for The Rowing Lesson (Soho Press)

Dalia Sofer for The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco)

Anya Ulinich for Petropolis (Viking Penguin)

Congratulations to Ms. Krasikov on her well-deserved honor.

REVIEW: City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Published 2008 by Viking. Literary Fiction.

City of Thieves was actually one of my favorite reads of last year, and I can't figure out why I never got around to writing a review. So, I'll try to make up for that oversight now!

Benioff's novel follows the adventures of one Lev Beniov, a young Russian Jew trying to get through the siege of Leningrad during World War 2; after stealing a knife from a dead German, he ends up in prison along with Kolya Vlasov, a soldier also being punished. Convinced he is about to die, he ends up, much to his surprise, paired with the confident and casually anti-Semitic Kolya on a mission to find enough eggs for a Soviet official's daughter's wedding cake. Succeed, and they go free. Fail- and, well, this isn't the kind of mission either man can afford to fail.

The premise has something of a fairy tale flavor- in the middle of the siege, when people are eating glue and paper to survive, they help make a wedding cake for a princess. Lev and Kolya set off together, following rumors and hunches and fighting hunger, cold and fatigue. They take up with a band of young civilian-soldiers who help them fend off Germans here and there, including a beautiful, redhaired sharpshooter named Vika. She claims to be NKVD- a precursor to the KGB- and seems to have the chops to go with it. Lev is smitten, but does she feel the same way?

City of Thieves hums along at a good pace, and kept me interested and reading avidly the whole way. Well-written, it's on the light side and Lev and Kolya are charismatic and engaging. Their adventures were outlandish but believable, set in a world gone mad, where anything is possible. Once I picked it up, it was almost impossible to put down, from the beginning, when Lev's adult grandson asks to hear his grandfather's recollections of the war, to the very last sentence, where Benioff gives the story a twist I won't give away. City of Thieves is a terrific, plot-driven page-turner with great characters and, despite the horrors the characters endure, a real sweetness and optimism. I'm glad I picked it up and if you like a light thriller mixed with a little black humor, you'll like it too.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, March 23, 2009

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about bookstores…

How many bookstores do you frequent? Do you have a favourite? If so, which one and what makes it so?

I am blessed to live in a town with many great bookstores, both independent and chain, and I can barely go a day without visiting one of them! Where to begin? Porter Square Books is a great little indie- everything an indie should be. The Harvard Coop (short for Harvard Cooperative Society), Harvard University's bookstore, is run by Barnes & Noble but has to be the best Barnes & Noble in the country with standout selections in just about everything. The New England Mobile Book Fair in nearby Newton is a huge reading wonderland of new and remaindered books. The new books are separated by publisher and they carry everything. The remaindered books are diverse and cheap, cheap, cheap. The Bryn Mawr Bookstore is a medium-sized used bookstore located in a tony neighborhood where folks drop off some real treasures. There are others- this is just what occurs off the top of my head. In my neighborhood there are specialty bookstores for poetry, travel, foreign language, science fiction, manga, comics, and other things as well. I love Cambridge!

My favorite bookstore, though, is the Harvard Book Store, an indie unaffiliated with the university. The first floor houses a fantastic selection of new books, specializing in fiction and academic nonfiction. They have great displays and great taste, and I can never walk in there without wanting to buy the place out. Downstairs houses a fabulous selection of used book and remainders- bargains galore. They host tremendous, frequent readings and events. They're awesome, they're open late, and I can walk there from my house. What more can you ask?

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca at Just One More Page.

GRAPHIC NOVEL MONDAY: Siberia, by Nikolai Maslov

Siberia, by Nikolai Maslov. Published 2006 by Soft Skull Press.

Click here to buy Siberia from your favorite indie bookseller.

Siberia, by Russian artist and writer Nikolai Maslov, is a beautiful, haunting work- the story of an average man that nonetheless touches universal themes of loneliness, confusion and alienation.

The work is autobiographical and covers Maslov's life from young adulthood and induction into the Soviet army through years in art school and earning a living. After growing up in a bleak Siberian village, Maslov joins the army and is stationed in Mongolia where he guards barracks, takes political indoctrination courses and just tries to survive the hostile, brutal realities of Soviet military life. Soldiers drink away their feelings and an afternoon wandering through the woods by himself to appreciate the beauty of the countryside earns Maslov "15 days in the can". After the army, Maslov returns to city life and goes to art school but continues to struggle with the grim realities of Soviet life, including family tragedies and the tragic past of the Soviet Union itself.

Although his storytelling is very fluid and his struggles are moving, what really makes Siberia stand out is Maslov's artwork. The book is drawn entirely in pencil sketches, at times shadowy and smudgy, at others, meticulously detailed and precise. I'm so used to seeing inked comics that Maslov's pencil sketches looked almost raw and unfinished to me- incomplete. As I read this book there were times I almost thought the pencil would rub off on my fingers! But coupled with the storytelling, the artwork becomes an appropriate, fitting and elegant accompaniment to Maslov's themes of alienation and hopelessness.

Siberia is a stand-out graphic memoir that would no doubt appeal to those interested in Soviet life, but it's a very hopeful story as well, and its very publication was something of a miracle. At the end of the book there is an epilogue detailing how Maslov approached a bookseller with drafts of the book and convinced him to give Maslov an advance to finish the work and get it published. Not a lot of graphic novels come out of Russia so Maslov's unusual, lovely book would be of interest to Russophiles as well as graphic-novel afficianados. Highly, highly recommended!

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Salon

I don't even know what's up for today!

I'm off to work soon; I'm hoping there will be some new books waiting for me in the mail when I get there but I have a feeling it's going to be reading-lite afternoon. I am going to bring Mudbound in my purse for reading on the bus ride home though. I'm 3/4 of the way through it and I'll have my review soonish. The author, Hillary Jordan, graduated from the same college I did (she's Wellesley class of '84; I'm '95), and I'm hoping to do a quick interview with her for the blog as well.

What I really want to do today is work on some crafts- I have a bee in my bonnet to do some paper piecing. I have this great pattern book called Spellbinding Quilts, which has patterns of dragons and wizards and that sort of thing- I want to make a dragon and wizard quilt for my husband. I made a couple of wizards already so I could easily use one of them in a dragon quilt.

I just have to remember to be patient- one wizard took me five hours since I'm a beginner at paper piecing. But I think I can do it!

What challenges have you taken on lately?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Finds

Really, really neat week of books. I know I don't get as many books as some people, but I have to say- I get some good stuff. And I'm thankful!

Soft Skull Press sent me a couple of terrific graphic novels, Siberia by Nikolai Maslov and Mr. Spic Goes to Washington, by Ilan Stavans and Roberto Weil. Siberia will be next Monday's Graphic Novel Monday feature and Mr. Spic the following week.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a short story collection by Nathan Englander, came to me via Bookmooch. Should be good!

All Other Nights by Dara Horn came courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. I am very, very excited to read this one!

Last but certainly not least, Water Ghosts came courtesy of Penguin. This book looks particularly intriguing and once I'm done with Mudbound I'm going to pick it right up.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book club meeting

So my book club, Daughters of Abraham, met last night to discuss Leila Aboulela's wonderful novel, The Translator, and it was a great discussion. We always have great discussions though- our group is composed of a lively and intelligent group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish women, and we always have a good time laughing and learning about each other.

I was particularly pleased this month because for the first time since I joined, I really enjoyed the month's selection and we had all three faiths represented. For some reason for the past couple of months there's been a dearth of Muslim participants as folks have been off traveling or just busy, but not so last night- which was good, considering The Translator is a "Muslim" book, so they could share the benefit of their insights and point of view.

From my own point of view it was a lovely, literary love story about a woman struggling to incorporate herself into the world while keeping her faith intact; I was also happy to learn that the Muslim women felt like it was a very sensitive and realistic portrayal of Islam. Some women felt that the last "Muslim" book we read, Samarkand, did not portray a dogmatically-correct version of Muslim life; personally I just found it dull and although I don't demand rigid adherence to dogma in my reading I do understand the point of view that if you're there to learn about Islam, you might as well read something that teaches you about it. On the other hand, if you're there to learn about people, which is also a valid reason to be in an interfaith book club, and you agree that people aren't robots who always behave in rigidly dogmatic fashion, it might be okay to read about characters who don't always behave in rigidly dogmatic fashion. So there are different ways to look at it.

Me? I fall somewhere in between. I'd like to learn about correct religious practices through the various selections, but I know I don't adhere particularly rigidly to the demands of my religion, and I don't really expect others to either. It's great to learn about the diversity of practice and belief that's out there, to see how different people wear their faith out into the world and make it work in their own lives- because that's what we all have to figure out how to do.

Booking Through Thursday

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Suggested by Janet:

How about, “What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?”

Tough question. I like most of the "classics" that I've read, so I can't go that way. You'll never hear me complain about high school required reading! I think the answer for me is probably The Time Traveler's Wife, which is this sci-fi/chick-lit hybrid that I thought was just awful. It's hard to even begin to articulate all the things I didn't like about it- the amateurish writing, the author's habits of dropping brand names and pop culture references instead of actually defining the characters by their behavior, the off-key sexual content, the narcisstic characters, etc. Reading the book's Amazon reviews I know I'm not alone here but I also know I'm in the minority! But you know what? I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

REVIEW: Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick. Published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Literary Fiction.

Set in Depression-era New York, Heir to the Glimmering World is the story of young Rose Meadows, 18 years old and on her own in a heartless world.

She's an employee in the home of the Mitwissers, a family of immigrant German Jews headed by an imposing scholar of an ancient heretical Jewish sect, and his wife, mentally ill and secluded. They have five children and Rose becomes a nanny, nursemaid and secretary all at once.

She's ended up with the Mitwissers after the death of her neglectful father and abandonment by her cousin Bertram, enamored of heartless Communist Ninel nee Miriam, who turns her out. In fact, one theme of the novel is abandonment and the callousness of just about every character in the book towards Rose is enough to make me blanch. Another theme of the novel is inheritance in its various forms- inheritance of culture, of money, of history and of a place in the world, and the title, although most directly applicable to one character in particular, is in one way or another a reference to all.

This character most directly referred to is James a'Bair, the grown-up heir to a children's book fortune. He is a mercurial man whose fame and wealth has alieniated him from the world and left him on its margins; something about the Mitwisser clan attracts him, and he becomes their benefactor. He pays for their home, their food, Mr. Mitwisser's scholarship, and everything else the family might need. And he has an eye on their oldest daughter, Anneliese, a cold young woman who is kept at home away from the influences of America and assimilation.

Heir to the Glimmering World is the first novel I've read by author Cynthia Ozick, and it was something of a revelation. She's an absolutely magnificent writer; she has an erudite, literary style and has created a compelling character-driven novel of ideas. And it the nuances of character and personality that drive the book; very little happens in the way of plot. The story is propelled by the indignities large and small the characters visit upon each other, fueled by the desperation of the times and the characters' individual vulnerabilities. It's not a sunny story, and I would characterize the end as merely inevitable rather than happy.

Heir reminds me a little bit of The Believers (click the title for my review), Zoe Heller's just-published novel about another unhappy family of Jewish intellectuals, but where Heller's characters fail to engage, Ozick succeeds in making the Mitwissers, and even James, tolerable by investing each one with some singular passion- scholarship, or family, or freedom, and by making Rose such a sympathetic, intelligent and careful observor. Readers who enjoyed The Believers would probably find Heir to the Glimmering World to be a more highbrow, more accomplished story in a similar vein. I wouldn't call it my favorite book, but I admire Ozick her evident skill and look forward to reading more of her work.


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

St. Patrick's Giveaway- We have a winner!

Random.org has helped me select Candy of the blog Twisted as the winner of my Saint Patrick's Day Giveaway!

Congratulations to Candy, and be sure to check out her new blog!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!
In celebration of St. Patty's Day, I'm giving away a gently-read copy of Irish Girls About Town, a paperback anthology of short stories about Irish women edited by Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly.

Authors include the editors, as well as Joan O'Neill, Catherine Barry, Mary Ryan, Sarah Webb and others.

Subjects include life, love, families, children, marriage and career.
It's a great book and a great way to acquaint yourself with a variety of contemporary Irish women authors and their varied work.

The rules:
  • Leave a comment on this post with your email address. Entries without an email address will not be counted.
  • Tweet or link for an extra entry.
  • This contest is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only.
  • The giveaway will close tonight at midnight EST.
  • I will contact the winner sometime tomorrow. The winner has a week to get back to me with his/her address.
  • I will mail out the package as soon as I have that information. I will mail it media mail.
So that's it- just a quick 24 hour giveaway. Good luck!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. Graphica. Nonfiction. Memoir. LGBT.

Fun Home isn't hot off the presses, but it's a book that I believe will be remembered as one that helped graphic novels gain respectability as a literary form at the beginning of the 21st century. It's just that good.

In Fun Home, writer and illustrator Alison Bechdel tells the story of her family; her father was a high school teacher/funeral home director and her mother an amateur actress. The family lived in an old Victorian house that Dad was constantly redecorating and renovating. Her parents were distant, self-involved people, whose relationship to each other is even more distant still than that which they have with their children, and the result is a disjointed, dysfunctional family, full of shame and secrets.

Bechdel's father's secret, which Bechdel believes eventually killed him, is that he was gay. Later, in college, Alison comes out as well, but her life as an out lesbian is very different than her father's closeted existence, and although she is able to extend empathy towards him after his death, she wonders how her homosexuality affected him. It's a very sad story, but also a story of redemption as Alison comes to terms with her father's death, with the reality of his life, and with the good that can be taken from their relationship.

And it's so beautifully told. Bechdel is a skilled storyteller with years of serial comics work behind her- her long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For has been published in something like 15 volumes at this point, with a big compendium just released (The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For) this past November. In her series she created a funny, vibrant world with a motley cast of characters; in Fun Home she's taken it a step further in terms of accomplishment at the same time she's taken a step back into her own life and into a deeply personal story that really isn't funny at all. (The name comes from the funeral home that was the family business.) But she's written a literary, moving and wonderful autobiography nonetheless, layered with literary allusions and references, both written and visual.

Then there's her accomplished, expressive black and white artwork- her ability to communicate moods and emotions, and to create rich, 3-dimensional characters and settings out of mere pen and ink. You can probably tell I'm a big fan; I read her strip for years before this book came out, and I was thrilled to read a different, more serious kind of story from her. My expectations were not only met- they were exceeded brilliantly. There is a good deal of explicit sex and once again it's not a book for children, but it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in graphic novels. At 232 pages it's also unusually long, but that should also tell you how involved and detailed the story is. As a graphic memoir, it's right up there with Maus and Persepolis, and destined to be a classic of the genre.

Rating: BUY

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

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about talking to strangers…

We were all warned as children to 'never talk to strangers', but how do you feel about book-talk with random people? When you see people reading, do you ask what it is? Do you talk to people in the book store or the library? Why or why not? What do you do if people talk to you? (question courtesy of Dena)

I don't initiate book-talk with strangers very often- I'm just shy I guess! When I see someone reading I might try to see what it is they have but I won't often start a conversation. If I'm on duty at the reference desk it's my job to book-talk with patrons and that's a pleasure; sometimes when I'm at the library as a patron, people will come up and ask me for help (I guess I just radiate librarian vibes or something!). If people initiate a conversation with me I just try to be polite; at my local library branch it's fun to chat with the librarians and my neighbors but I'm pretty introverted so I'm just as likely to hide behind my book!

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca at Just One More Page.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Salon

I don't know how much reading I'll be doing today. After work we're going to a friend's house for a Saint Patty's Day party. We'll probably miss the parade but the party should be a good time.

I will be doing an Irish giveaway on Saint Patrick's Day only so come back then & enter!

Do you have any favorite Irish writers? My favorite Irish novelist is the incredible Iris Murdoch, author of many wonderful novels including The Black Prince, The Sea, The Sea and others. Other names you might recognize include Eoin Colfer, C.S. Lewis, Maeve Binchy, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and John Banville.

Looking over my TBR shelves I can only find one Irish book- J.G. Farrell's Troubles, which I picked up used a few weeks ago. It's not contemporary- it was written in the 1970s and set in the 1920s (I think- I'm too lazy to check at the moment)- but it looks good. I just finished a book yesterday so I could start this one next... Well, we'll see.

Have you finished or started anything this weekend?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

2666- Finished Volume 3

It's been several weeks since I last picked up Roberto Bolano's opus 2666- at a certain point around the middle of Volume 3 I got a little bored and put it aside. However, after hearing in the news this week that scholars believe they have found another volume of the book among the authors papers, I thought I should take another stab at it.

The third volume is called "The Part About Fate," Fate being Oscar Fate, an African-American reporter sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match for a Harlem paper. True to form, Bolano takes a long time with Fate's backstory before Fate arrives in Mexico, and Bolano has Fate circle around the story of the multiple killings for a while before settling in on it near the end of the volume.

Fate meets a Mexican reporter researching the killings and, intrigued, is drawn in. Along the way he meets Rosa Amalfitano, the daughter of the academic from Volume Two. Critics have suggested that this volume is the weakest overall of the five making up the book; I found it to be actually rather more engaging than the first two. All three sections so far take the approach of densely detailing the backgrounds of the protagonists who are only tangentially involved in the story of the killings, but Oscar's section strikes me as the most plot-oriented of the first three and Oscar himself the most likable character.

So three down, two (or three?) to go, and though I was thinking of giving up on this one, I think I'll stick with it a little longer.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Finds

So I got a really fantastic batch of books in this week. Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan, came from Algonquin Books and looks really, really great.

Towards Another Summer, by Janet Frame, came from Counterpoint and I can't think of a nicer surprise. Janet Frame was an acclaimed writer from New Zealand and the subject of Jane Campion's film "An Angel at My Table", based on her autobiography; I'm excited to read it (next!) and am thrilled that they thought to send it to me.

Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell, came via Bookmooch. All I know about Thirkell is that she wrote a series of light novels about the English countryside; I forget what more I read about her that made me want to read her books but after a long, long time on my wishlist one of hers came up and I managed to snag it. Yay!

Finally, Bookmooch also brought me Strange Ways (of fremde Vegn), by Roklh Faygenberg. Faygenberg is (I believe) the only woman to have written a novel published in Yiddish and I look forward to expanding my knowledge of Jewish literature with this unique book. Strange Ways was a LibaryThing Early Reviewer selection a while back, and another that I've waited a long time to get my hands on.

What are you waiting on this week?

Congratulations to Ariel Sabar

Congratulations to Ariel Sabar, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography, for his incredible My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

You can read my review here.

My Father's Paradise was one of the best books I read in 2008, and one of the best nonfiction books I've read ever. And every single person I know who's read it, has loved it. It doesn't matter what your background is, or how much you think you might be interested in the subject. It's a wonderful book. Read it. And congrats to Sabar.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Yvonne at Socrates' Book Blog gave me the Proximidade Award- thank you so much!!! :-)

Now for the explanation of the Proximidade Award!

"This blog invests and believes in the PROXIMITY-nearness in space, time and relationships. These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement! Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award."

My choices:
1. Celine of Have Cake, Will Travel.
2. Karen of Scobberlotch
3. Michele - Only One "L"
4. Shana at Literarily.com
5. Lorri at Jew Wishes
6. Susan at Seaside Bookworm Blogger
7. Serena of Savvy Verse and Wit
8. Anna of Diary of an Eccentric

Thank you Yvonne!

Booking Through Thursday: Movie Potential

What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?

I would love to see either Cutting for Stone or The White Tiger made into a movie- I think Cutting for Stone could be one of those grand epics, maybe two and a half hours long, and The White Tiger would be a quick, biting satire of 90 minutes. A book that should never be made into a movie? That's tougher. I think most fiction can be adapted successfully- it just depends how it's done. Books that are heavily character-driven sometimes need a little tweaking to bring out the plot, since movies tend to be better when they're plot-driven. Both books I mentioned are heavily plot-driven but also rich in character.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

REVIEW: The Translator, by Leila Aboulela

The Translator, by Leila Aboulela. Published 2006 by Grove Atlantic. Literary Fiction.

The Translator is a short book that can take a long time to read- but I mean that in a good way. It's a love story. Sammar is a Sudanese Muslim widow living in Scotland, working as a translator for a secular Scottish academic named Rae. Their relationship, convincing and sweet, develops slowly, but Sammar struggles because as a religious Muslim she can't marry a non-Muslim, and she won't have a relationship with him outside of marriage, so either Rae must convert or they must part.

The novel, told entirely from Sammar's point of view, covers a lot of ground. We learn about her marriage, her child, her extended family. We also learn a good deal about Muslim religious practice through Sammar's daily life and thoughts. Sammar is foreign in Britain and misunderstood in Sudan; author Aboulela draws a convincing, touching portrait of immigrant life and its complications. Supporting characters lend depth and alternate points of view. After a falling-out with Rae, Sammar returns to Sudan for a time, to reconnect with her family and to see if Rae will join her; this section of the novel is particularly emotional and poignant.

The Translator is beautifully written in a slow, literary style- it's definitely character-driven and not heavy at all on plot or action. But a few things happen nonetheless. But what? Does Rae convert? Do they get back together? I won't tell. You'll have to read this little gem of a novel to find out. For me, The Translator was a very satisfying, very enjoyable read.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: And From There You Shall Seek, by Joseph B. Soloveitchik

And From There You Shall Seek, by Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Published 2008 by Ktav Publishing House.

Click here to buy And From There You Shall Seek from your favorite indie bookstore.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, also known simply as "the Rav," was a seminal figure in the Modern Orthodox movement in Judaism. He wrote several influential books, taught in Boston and New York, and founded the Maimonides School, a K-12 day school in the Boston area, to carry on his beliefs by educating young Jewish girls and boys according to his worldview.

In this book, published in 1978 in Hebrew and appearing now in English for the first time, Soloveitchik uses The Song of Songs as the starting point for an extended argument on the necessity of following Jewish law, or halakah, in order to build a meaningful relationship with God. Soloveitchik's writings reflect many aspects of Modern Orthodox theology and philosophy- the importance of education, of engagement with society at large and of combining studying and living halakah with the performance of good deeds and righteous acts.

Soloveitchik begins his treatise with an analysis of the Song of Songs as the longing of man for God- man constantly cleaves to God, constantly longs for God, but God is elusive and slips away just as man believes he will finally unite with Him. So how then to join with God? Soloveitchik argues that man joins with God through engagement with the world, the study of Torah (including both recitation and studying the works of other Torah scholars) and obedience to halakah. He ends by suggesting that man stays close to God by being part of a larger community and identifying with the fate of the Jewish people.

Soloveitchik's purpose is not to explain or justify individual aspects of halakah but to present an argument which advocates for its adoption as a whole and connects halakah to a deeper relationship with God; this he does persuasively and passionately. His work here is intellectually rigorous and challenging but still accessible and it is highly recommended for academic collections of Judaica and for those seeking a greater understanding of Modern Orthodox theology and principles.