Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Salon- Boston Book Tweetup

Well I didn't make it to BEA, but a group of Twitter folks from the Boston area got together and had our own little mini-BEA, complete with publishing industry pros and a book exchange. About seven or eight literary agents and authors (and me!) met at Porter Square Books, a local indie, for coffee and bookish conversation. The main topic was the outlook for young adult books- trends both recent and projected, and the state of the YA publishing industry in general.

I don't want to quote anyone too extensively, because it was a very informal gathering, though some interesting points were made about the continuing proliferation of the paranormal in YA fiction following on the success of Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, and a projected forthcoming trend in so-called "foodie lit" for young adults- fiction about cooking and food, coming off of the success of television shows like "Top Chef".

Another topic of interest was the difficulties associated with promoting young adult literature; as a blogger, albeit one who does not specialize in YA, I was interested in their perceptions of the role of blogs in promoting books. The consensus seemed to be that blogs are important in aggregate, on the macro level rather than the micro. Which is to say, getting attention from a wide spectrum of blogs helps drive buzz more than, say, any one blog in particular. This idea gels with what I believe about the influence of blogs, and I'll certainly be very interested to read what people have to say coming off of BEA on this topic. Please feel free to comment, of course, if you have an opinion because I know what a hot topic it continues to be in the blogging community.

And there was a book exchange! I forgot to bring a book, but I came home with participant and author Mitali Perkins' Rickshaw Girl, a book for young adults, and Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, which looks like a good Francophilic read. Mitali also brought a camera, which I did not, and thus I don't have a photo to share. But it was a terrific gathering and I certainly hope, only the beginning of a some great conversations.

Read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

REVIEW: Strange Ways (of fremde Vegn), by Rokhl Faygenberg

Strange Ways (of fremde Vegn), by Rokhl Faygenberg. Published 2007 by Gefen Publishing House.

Buy Strange Ways via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

Strange Ways, originally published in Yiddish in 1925, is one of a very few novels written in that language by a woman, and one of even fewer to be translated into English. Although it's not a perfect novel, I hope it will be the beginning of a trend that will see more literature of this period made accessible to a wider audience.

Rokhl Faygenberg stepped outside the lines of early 20th century shtetl life when she decided to become a writer, and her heroine, Sheyndel, also steps outside the lines, but her transgression is moral and sexual rather than professional. Sheyndel is a beautiful young woman, intelligent and from a respectable family. She is also highly sought-after as a wife, but she does not wish to marry. She turns down handsome Borukh at first, but falls for him full-force once he is married to mousy and family-oriented Minne. Instead of marriage, Sheyndel wants an education and a career, beautiful clothes and material things, which Borukh underwrites. Borukh is deeply conflicted about his own role; drawn to traditional Jewish life, he is also seduced by worldly things and smitten with his friend Leon's more secular, cosmopolitan lifestyle, which includes a beautiful wife who tolerates his many infidelities. Borukh wants his own wife to follow suit, but neither woman is satisfied with her lot. Minne is depressed by Borukh's affair, and, shamed by the stigma of an adultery, Sheyndel desperately wants the respectability of marriage and for Borukh to take her to Palestine and a new life. Blinded by passion and complacency, she chooses to believe him when he says he will.

Borukh and Sheyndel's confusion is emblematic of their community, which itself is confused and teetering between tradition and modernity. Their quiet village becomes a bustling commercial center when a railroad is built into the town, bringing in all kinds of people, and their ideas and customs. Things are going so well that emigration to America slows, with some families even recalling those who have made the journey, and others embracing the future. Others, like Sheyndel's father, retreat into tradition and religious study.

I think Strange Ways will best appeal to those with a serious interest in Jewish or women's literature. Written in a folk-tale style reminiscent of some I.B. Singer, her tone often strikes me as dated and stilted- it's definitely a period piece. It's engaging enough but hardly electrifying; I found it somewhat didactic as well, with Sheyndel's slow downward spiral sad to watch. Equal parts Lily Bart and Anna Karenina, she makes out as well as either woman in the end. Overall I think the book is an important addition to the canon of shtetl literature, and aficionados will enjoy it, but most general readers could give it a pass.

Rating: BORROW

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

Friday Finds

So what's new this week in the book pile?

The Dork of Cork, by Chet Raymo, came from Bookmooch. Someone recommended it to me- and I really need to start keeping track of where I get these recommendations!

Gossip of the Starlings was a surprise from Algonquin. Looks interesting- a prep school novel by Nina de Gramont. It's received some good reviews on LibraryThing, so we'll see.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain's well-known memoir, also came via Bookmooch. This is definitely a sooner-rather-than-later read.

I picked up Lost in Austen at the Harvard Coop over the weekend; Emma Campbell Webster's book is not really a novel, but a choose-your-own adventure role-playing game based on the works of Jane Austen. It is not chick lit, and it is not coming to a theater near you any time soon, but it is terrificly nerdy and fun. More soon.

Finally, the folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me Valeria's Last Stand, Mark Fitten's comic novel about post-Communist Hungary, which I am dying to read. As soon as I'm done with one of my current reads, it's what's up next.

What's up next for you?

To read more Friday Finds, go to

Thursday, May 28, 2009


A couple of my fellow bloggers were kind enough to give me a couple of blogging awards, and although I am unforgivably slow when it comes to acknowledging them and passing them out to some other fellow bloggers, it's never too late.

Thank you to Anna of Diary of an Eccentric for giving me the #1 Blogger Award!

Naida of The Bookworm created the award, and made this adorable button with a picture of her dog wearing one of her own hand-crocheted creations. So cute.

Thank you so much Anna!

Jules at Jules' Book Reviews gave me the Let's Be Friends Award:

Blogs that received the Let’s Be Friends Award are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in 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.

Thank you so much to both Jules and Anna. Please accept my apologies for being so slow to post! I really appreciate your taking the time to tell me that you enjoy my blog- it means a lot.

I'm going to give out both awards to ten terrific bloggers:
  1. Jan of Steps From the Beach, Surrounded by Fur
  2. Sharon of Sharon Loves Books and Cats
  3. Vasilly of 1330V
  4. Amy of Life by Candlelight
  5. Rebecca of Just One More Page
  6. Gwendolyn of A Sea of Books
  7. Jill of Breaking the Spine
  8. Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books
  9. Odette of Reading Proust in Foxborough
  10. Audrey of Food From Books
These are all fantastic blogs with great writing, written by really nice people. Go read them!

Booking Through Thursday

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In the perfect follow-up to last week’s question, as suggested by C in DC:

Is there a book that you wish you could “unread”? One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?

There are certainly plenty of books that I've disliked, but honestly, it's probably impossible for me to answer that question because I probably have forgotten about them already! Not to sound like a total nerd, but I'm glad that I've read everything that I've read, even the books I hated. There's something to be learned from even the worst book- even if it's just that I never want to read a certain author again, or a certain genre. So, no!

Go to the Booking Through Thursday site to link to more answers!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

REVIEW: Doghead, by Morten Ramsland

Doghead, by Morten Ramsland. Published 2009 by St. Martin's Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Swedish.

Doghead is an odd, yet curiously endearing novel about a dysfunctional Norweigan family, headed by Grandma Bjork and Grandpa Askild, a mismatched couple whose own tumultuous love story merely forms the backdrop to this tale of eccentrics and nutters. Told from the perspective of their grandson Asger from his grandmother's deathbed, it's less a narrative than a collection of family stories, told more or less chronologically, culminating in the tragic death of one family member and the self-recrimination of another.

Wildly heralded in Europe- winner of the Danish Best Novel and Best Author awards, as well as Book of the Year, the Reader's Prize and the 2005 Golden Laurel Prize- Doghead has been slow to catch on stateside. I think it's gone unnoticed largely due to the title, which manages to both capture the spirit of the story and tell the reader exactly nothing about what to expect.

The most telling thing about the novel is the detailed family tree which accompanies it, not just because it will help readers keep the names and relationships straight, but for the sake of all those nicknames. That Asger's father Niels Junior, for example, is alternately referred to as "Jug Ears," "The Nut Kicker" and "Dad," and that his sister Anne Katrine goes by such descriptors as "Stupid Tomato" and "The Little Bitch" should begin to tell you a little about this family. Asger's mother's family lacks colorful appellations, but they too have enough family issues to fill a newsstand.

I think Doghead would make for an offbeat book club read, character-centric and slightly long-winded as it is; not a lot happens, outside of the recitation of various adventures and family secrets, but it's a fun little ride. So many images and stories stay with me- the suit Jug Ears has to wear, which his mother thinks will prevent beatings by the neighbor kids, young Askild ("Crackpot") saving money in a mattress to be worthy of his beloved Bjork only to wind up in a Nazi concentration camp for smuggling, and Bjork hiding letters from beguiling bad girl Marianne to lovelorn Jug Ears. And Bjork's obsession with medical romance novels. And more. I had a lot of fun following this family's adventures and misadventures alike, and I hope more people get a chance to wander down Ramsland's meandering trails.


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

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Summer is short- read a story." -Ann Patchett

Harper Perennial is putting out some "public service announcements" to advocate for reading short stories. You may have seen this around already, but here is short-story writer Simon Van Booy's take on why you should choose this form for your summer reading:

But what's out there? I hear you ask. Here are some of my favorite short story picks, with links to reviews where applicable.

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link. Like Neil Gaiman? You will love Kelly Link.

The Djinn in the Nig
htingale's Eye, by A.S. Byatt. Literary fantasy your thing? Look no further.

New Stories from the South 2009, edited by Madison Smartt Bell. Out in August. Great collection of recent fiction from top writers.

The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories, by Ellen Litman. My personal favorite book of short stories from last year, about the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience.

The Idol Lover and Other Short Stories of Pakistan, by pal and fellow librarian Moazzam Sheikh. Literary armchair travel, sexually and politically charged and skillfully crafted.

Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Read it in college; loved it. Rough-around-the-edges fiction from the celebrated author.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, by Edith Wharton. By the author of classics like Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence.

The Best American Non-Required Reading, any year, various editors. A series of anthologies of off-the-beaten-path fiction, journalism, comics and more.

This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers, edited by Elizabeth Merrick. Curtis Sittenfeld and Judy Budnitz are among the many talented writers featured.

And of course, Love Begins in Winter, by Simon Van Booy. Literary, beautifully written stories. The title story made one librarian tear up and call his husband to say "I love you" in the middle of the day. What better endorsement is there than that?

I keep a stack of short story anthologies on my nightstand and sometimes it's just the thing. Anthologies are also a great way to sample lots of new-to-you writers and collections allow you to get to know a writer's style in depth. Lots of writers use short stories as a run-up to writing a novel, but for some, it's an art form in and of itself. I hope you find something great this summer- and I hope you'll come back and tell me!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about gift certificates…

Do you give gift certificates to book stores as presents? If so, do you give for actual stores or online stores? Do you like to receive them yourself?

Yes, I often give gift certificates to bookstores as presents, almost always to bricks and mortar stores. I don't buy from Amazon anymore, either for myself or for gifts. You can buy online from Barnes and Noble and Borders, as well as from most indie bookstores, either through their own websites or through

I love receiving book store gift certificates! Everyone knows I'm a big book nerd and I often receive them for all kinds of special occasions.

You can see more Musing Mondays answers at Just One More Page.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Salon

Sunday, Sunday...

It's Memorial Day weekend and it's been pretty quiet around here. I've been more or less sidelined with seasonal allergies, which is great for reading but bad for anything else!

Yesterday my husband and I attempted to go to Anime Boston, a huge anime and manga convention, but without having pre-registered. BIG MISTAKE. The line was about 2 hours long to get in without a pre-registration. Considering we only went to go to the vendor area, we decided to bail. We were there to see a specific artist, Bettina Kurkoski, author of the English-language manga series My Cat Loki. My Cat Loki was a projected 3-volume series that was cancelled after volume 2, but Ms. Kurkoski had said on her blog that she might have an abbreviated version of volume 3 for sale at cons- and there's no bigger con than Anime Boston, and she's there. But between allergies and a foot injury I was not prepared to stand in line for that long, especially not without more assurances that I would get what I came for.

Disappointing, but what can you do? My Cat Loki was the first manga series I read, and it's really adorable. I would love to know how it ends but I may have to just find a way to go on living without that closure.

We're not trying again today! Today I'm going to the gym, and my husband is going to his writing group, and I'm going to spend some quality time with my current reads- The Children's Book and American Eve. I'm also going to go through my LibraryThing account and pull out some books I've tagged "summer reading"- since it's Memorial Day weekend, it's time!

What are you looking forward to this summer? Click here to find out what other Saloners are up to today!

Friday, May 22, 2009

REVIEW: Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell. This edition published by Moyer Bell, 2008. Fiction.

Summer for me always starts with Memorial Day Weekend, and here in Boston we are experiencing perfect weather at the moment- warm, sunny, no humidity. So since it's a lovely almost-summer day, and since we have a long weekend ahead of us, what better time for the perfect summer-long-weekend book?

Wild Strawberries, by British writer Angela Thirkell, is just such a book. Originally published in 1934 and set in the upper-class countryside of stately homes and delicate constitutions, it's part of a larger series called The Barsetshire Novels, about the relationships of several genteel families over time. This particular outing has for its subject the romances and intrigues of the Leslie family, headed by Lady Emily, a matriarch with a fondess for handcrafts and meddling. Her family, including her feckless husband, her devotedly domestic daughter Agnes and her charming layabout of a son David, form the center of various lighthearted hijinks.

Two main dramas unfold over the course of a few summer weeks- Agnes's niece Mary is come to visit, and falls for David, while John, a widower, falls for her. Meanwhile, Lady Emily's grandson Martin has fallen in with a family of French monarchists staying at a house nearby. Around this family flutters a variety of eccentric characters, including a mooching horticulturalist, a London career woman and Agnes's perpetually naughty children.

Wild Strawberries is a charming, light, thoroughly enjoyable little romp. Beautifully crafted and filled with vivid characters and sharp turns of phrase, I don't know how I went so long without it. I heard about Thirkell a long time ago (I forget where) and this is the first book of hers I've read; I've already bought another Barsetshire novel and I know it won't be the last. If you like P.G. Wodehouse, light romances and English countryside comedies of manners, Wild Strawberries will be just your cup of tea.

Rating: BEACH

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

Friday Finds

So I only got one new book this week, but as far as I'm concerned it's the only one that matters- the ARC of A.S. Byatt's new novel, The Children's Book.

I have started reading it but at over 700 pages it will be awhile before I'm done!

It's being released in October and right now the plan is to write a review when I finish, then repost it when it's released along with a week of reviews of other Byatt novels and short story collections.

The book is already out in Britain and I know some of you have purchased the hardcover and I eagerly await your reviews, as well as reviews from those of you who have also received an ARC.

Certainly there are other upcoming releases that are exciting- Kazuo Ishiguro has a new collection of short stories coming out, Margaret Atwood has a new one soon as well- and while I'm certainly very interested in those, nothing for me can compare to a new Byatt. Thank you so much to Random House for sending me this book!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

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What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

(Interestingly, I thought that I had thought this one up myself, but when I started scrolling through the Suggestions, found that Rebecca had suggested almost exactly this question a couple months ago. So, we both get credit!)

Tough question. I would love to be able to read all my favorites for the first time! The first thing that came to mind was of course Possession (A.S. Byatt), and then East of Eden (Steinbeck); those were both deeply satisfying reading experiences not replicated elsewhere in my reading life. Great Expectations is another I'd love to read again for the first time. Hey- they're classics for a reason, right?

Link to other Booking Through Thursday answers here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! ;)
From Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, by Carolyn Turgeon:

It took me a second to orient myself. This was not the old kingdom. The silver palace had long ago been destroyed. In its place was a whole city.

I'm enjoying Godmother and will probably finish in the next couple of days. It's an enjoyable, romantic read, about Cinderella's fairy godmother, now banished to the human world and working in a used bookstore. She meets a beautiful young woman and believes it is her mission to set up this new Cinderella with a handsome prince. She also finds an intriguing book about fairies with the inscription All your old loves will be returned to you. What does it all mean? I'll keep turning pages to find out.

REVIEW: Spiced, by Dalia Jurgensen

Spiced : A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes On in the Kitchen, by Dalia Jurgensen. Published 2009 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Click here to buy Spiced from your favorite indie bookseller.

Spiced, pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen's memoir of her formative years in the restaurant world, is a fun read, light as a pate aux choux and sweet as fresh cream. I read Spiced in about a day and a half and enjoyed every morsel and bite.

Jurgensen takes us from her decision to change careers, leaving the publishing world in her twenties to enroll in culinary school and work as an intern at Nobu, a high-end Japanese restaurant in New York City. It quickly becomes clear to her that experience, not schooling, is what makes a chef, and she immerses herself in the restaurant world. She also discovers that the work of a pastry chef is, for her, immensely satisfying. Her book follows her progress as she takes on the long days, the physical exhaustion, the sexism endemic to the restaurant world, and other challenges for the satisfaction of perfecting her craft and building a new life.

I had a lot of fun reading Spiced. As I said, it was a quick read for me but one that I enjoyed very much. Jurgensen has had quite a varied career that's taken her from underling status at upscale eateries to television to the hotel business and neighborhood restaurants. It was fascinating and fun to follow her progress and see where she went next. I think Spiced would be great for the beach or the hammock- a yummy treat of a summer read.

Jurgensen also has a fun blog at with a journal, recipes and more.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, May 18, 2009

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays (BIG)Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about early reading…

Do you remember how you developed a love for reading? Was it from a particular person, or person(s)? Do you remember any books that you read, or were read to you, as a young child? (question courtesy of Diane)

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Musing Mondays post, or share your opinion in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks

I actually don't remember how I developed a love for reading. I learned to read at young age, and I think once I started I just never stopped. My favorite books when I was little were Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (this little red-haired girl loved books about other little red-haired girls), and Ferdinand, about a bull who didn't want to fight, and anything Frog and Toad. I still have all of them, and the best is when I can read them to a kid.

GRAPHIC NOVEL MONDAY: The Photographer, by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier LeFevre

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre. Published 2009 by First Second. Nonfiction. Memoir.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders is simply a stunning achievement. A combination of photo-journalism and graphic novel, The Photographer documents the journey into and out of a remote Afghani village by a French photographer, Didier Lefevre. He's travelling to document a medical mission by Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans Frontiers), and travels in from Pakistan with a caravan of MSF doctors and staffers; when he decides to leave, he travels back to Pakistan on his own.

The story is set in 1986, while the Soviet Union was still trying to take control of Afghanistan. The book is divided roughly in thirds- the trip in, the time spent in the village, and the trip out. None of it is easy. We follow Lefevre's struggles with everything from the food and his busted footwear to near-lethal showdowns with blackmailers and kidnappers. We also see first-hand the work that MSF is doing - again, managing everything from household accidents to severe disease and life-threatening injury, on a shoestring budget in makeshift conditions. Throughout the atmosphere is one of tenuous balance. The MSF doctors and staff, almost all Europeans, are forever forging alliances and negotiating with all kinds of characters in this wild and beautiful country, as their safety and survival demand strict adherence to and respect for cultural norms and expectations.

Nowhere is this adherence more important than when Lefevre attempts to return to Pakistan on his own, without MSF protection. Accompanied only by a ragtag caravan and guides whose loyalty is never certain, Lefevre's personal fortitude, command of the local language and willingness to endure hardships are put to the test over and over. One of the most chilling sequences for me was, on one level, quite mundane- chatting with Afghani men about his religion and lifestyle. He figures out very quickly that when someone asks him what his background is, for a non-Muslim European there's only one correct answer- Christian, and religious at that, and married, and a father. He acknowledges to the reader that only the "Christian" part of his standard-issue answer is accurate, but he fears for his life if he answers honestly. He believes that someone would likely put a bullet in his head if he said he wasn't religious (or if he said he was Jewish), or look askance if he said he wasn't a married father, so rigid are his companions' cultural expectations, and so vulnerable is his position in this veritable wilderness.

And that's just the narrative side. The visual side is incredible. The book is simply filled with Lefevre's photographs- some just contact-print-sized thumbnails, some gorgeous two-page spreads of landscape. He documents both journeys and the time he spends in the village, snapping anything he can to tell his story. Because he is with a medical mission, some photos are graphic and raw images of injury and illness; others are sweeping vistas and panoramas, and some can tell a whole story in the picture of a horse or a homestead or a squatting child.

Guibert's illustrations do the hard work of telling the story in between the photographs- and except for the back flap, we only see Lefevre through Guibert's drawings. Guibert's style is rough and almost cramped; compared to the photos, it felt to me like he had to squeeze so much into his small panels and the effect is almost claustrophobic. Guibert's drawings also have a raw quality which I think fits the wild-west atmosphere of both rural Afghanistan and the busy Pakistani city of Karachi, where LeFevre and the MSF team depart and return.

The Photographer is the kind of graphic novel that should give the genre a good name, and its combination of drawn art, photography and narrative punch pushes the limits of what the genre can do- just as Lefevre and MSF show us what we're capable of, too. A while back I reviewed The Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, a cartoonist married to an MSF worker who used his cartooning skills to document his time in that little-understood country, and I'm glad to see another memoir coming from a similar milieu. It's the gift of the visual artist to be able to take what he or she sees and share it with the rest of us, to help broaden our knowledge and understanding of the world. To this end, the book also includes a primer on recent Afghani history to help situate the reader. I'd unreservedly recommend The Photographer for teens and adults wishing to get a better understanding of Afghanistan, or just looking for a great true adventure story about pushing your own limits and making the world a better place.

Rating: BUY

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

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sunday Salon

So this past week was a little bit busy with events and reading. I started on a small stack of books from my TBR pile and my conference stash- I got started on Godmother, by Carolyn Turgeon, as well as Strange Ways by Rokhl Faygenberg and The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

In addition to The Cellist of Sarajevo, the week brought me into contact with more literature on or from the Balkans. LibraryThing sent me Forbidden Bread, a memoir by an American named Erica Johnson Debeljak, about her love affair with and marriage to Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak, and I got to see Bosnian author Aleksandar Hemon read from his new collection of short stories, Love and Obstacles, at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Hemon read part of a story and answered really interesting questions from the audience- questions about his influences, his ideas about literature, about identity, and more. He was funny and charming and self-deprecating in turns; I had him sign my copy of The Lazarus Project, which I still haven't read. But I think that it may work its way closer to the top of my pile sooner rather than later!

There was also a nice event at the same bookstore with Polish author Eva Hoffman, who read from her new novel, Appassionata. Appassionata is the story of an itinerant musician who has a passionate affair with a Chechen militant, and becomes implicated in his actions. The selection she read was lyrical and literary and lovely. I may or may not read the book; time will tell. But she was neat and I'm glad I went.

While I was in the store to see Hemon I picked up a couple of tickets to an upcoming event with author China Mieville in June. That one I can't wait for!

Today? Work, then reading, and more reading. And maybe some quality time with a frappuccino.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Finds

This week's new books are actually last week's new books- I didn't do a Friday Finds post last week because I wasn't home for most of the week and didn't get the mail until late Friday. And by then, I just needed to rest!

A Lucky Child, a Holocaust memoir by Thomas Buergenthal, arrived via Carey's giveaway on The Tome Traveler. This hardcover copy is going to my library's Holocaust collection; I have my own ARC copy to read myself.

American Eve, by Paula Uruburu arrived via the publisher, for review. I had seen this book around in hardcover and was thrilled to have it offered to me. I'm going to start it as soon as I'm done with my current read.

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and The Blue Notebook, by James Levine, also arrived; I know many of you have read and reviewed these already and I can't wait to get to them.

Finally, The End of the Jews, by Adam Mansbach, arrived via Bookmooch. It's a novel about several generations of a Brooklyn family; I'm looking forward to it.

This week I did something unprecedented- I didn't buy any new books. Don't ask me how that happened- I have no idea! What's unprecedented in your life this week?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

Mariel suggested this week’s question

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

What a question. My eyes are definitely bigger than my stomach when it comes to books. I have a huge backlog of TBRs and I have not curbed my book-acquiring at all- if anything, I've gotten "worse". Books come to me, as to many of you, through several sources- buying new, buying used, trading, review requests or review solicitations and professional resources- so, at least in the short term, I don't expect to run out or even catch up any time soon. I love books, and I love reading, and I can't imagine losing interest in literature old and new. I just wouldn't be the same person!

Click on the logo above to read more Booking Through Thursday answers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Interview with Laila Lalami, author of Secret Son

Here is the interview I conducted recently with Secret Son author Laila Lalami. She was kind enough to answer my questions about her terrific novel over email a couple of weeks ago.

Click here to read my review of Secret Son.

1. Secret Son is a short novel that packs a punch, and covers a lot of ground in terms of social and political issues in Morocco. Why did you decide to situate your main character, Youssef, the way that you did in terms of his position in Moroccan society?

I remember clearly the moment, six years ago, when I started writing Secret Son. I had this image in my mind of a young man, walking back home in the rain to the shack he shares with his mother, having just watched a movie at a nearby theater. I followed that image for years, trying to figure out who this man was by putting him in increasingly intense dramatic conflicts with people around him. The fact that various social and political issues come up in the novel is probably because these are big concerns of mine. In the process of writing about a troubled character I naturally tend to create a larger context for his personal troubles.

2. What role does religion play in contemporary Moroccan society and why did you make the choices you did about the characters' largely secular Muslim orientation? Were you writing with a Western audience in mind and if so did that influence the choices you made about how to portray Islam?

I would say that religion plays about as large a part in life in Morocco as it does in America, actually. In both countries, for instance, there are politicians who make God and religion a cornerstone of their agenda, and others who are more cagey about it, but there are very few dare to take God and religion completely out of their program. The difference, of course, is that in America state and Church are separate (or, rather, they are supposed to be) while in Morocco there is not as much of a separation. My characters vary in their religious commitments: Youssef and his mother are distinctly less religious than Youssef’s friend Maati or than the activists Hatim and Moussa.

3. What might the non-Muslim reader need to know about Islam to understand the social relationships in the novel? For example, what is a hadith and what role does it play in Islam? What is significant about whether one character drinks alcohol or not? Why did you choose to portray the conservative organization some of the boys join as slightly sinister?

I don’t think the non-Muslim reader needs to know anything at all about Islam in order to understand the social relationships in the novel. That is the beauty of fiction. Fiction takes inside the mind and hearts of characters who can be just like us or entirely different from us, and connect us through imaginative empathy. When a Japanese teen or Chinese mother or an Egyptian teacher is reading a novel by Philip Roth, they don’t need to understand the intricacies of New York society in order to feel a connection with the characters.

4. Youssef's relationship to his father's family is also about the relationship between traditional Moroccan society and Western European and American culture; how does the way this relationship play out reflect this theme? What does it say about a character, for example, that his French is good or bad? Why is this an important social signifier? What other themes were you exploring here and elsewhere in the book?

I think Youssef’s relationship with his father plays out on various levels—personal, social, and political. It’s the personal story of a young man who has an awkward reunion with the father he has never known, but also the story of what happens when Youssef’s eyes are opened to the opulence and corruption that exist within his society and at the stark class differences. For instance, fluency in French is one of several class indicators; the elite in Morocco often speak exclusively in French.

5. A large theme of the novel is the role of social class in determining a person's fate. Is there any hope for Youssef? For his generation or for young people of his social class?

There is always hope, but hope needs to be fed with constant work for social justice. I think what Youssef needs is a stronger stake in society.

6. Without revealing the ending, can you tell me why you decided to end the novel the way you did? I was so surprised when I read the galley that I almost wondered if I might be missing a chapter. Can you talk briefly about what you had in mind for Youssef?

I think that the novel ends when Youssef finally comes to term with his own identity; it is in some ways a tragic ending, but in other ways I think it’s also hopeful, because Youssef finally accepts responsibility for his actions and for who he is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

REVIEW: Secret Son, by Laila Lalami

Secret Son, by Laila Lalami. Published 2009 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click here to buy Secret Son from your favorite indie bookstore.

Secret Son is the new novel by Moroccan writer Laila Lalami, author of the lauded short-story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. It's the story of Youssef, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks in present-day Morocco, and follows him as he comes to terms with a family secret- the identity of his father, Nabil, a wealthy businessman- and what it means for his identity and his future.

I was drawn into Youssef's life right away; Lalami creates vivid characters, a beautiful setting and a page-turning plot. Youssef is a ordinary kid trying to figure it all out- university, friends, his goals in life- when Nabil explodes Youssef's expectations. Youssef and Nabil form a tentative relationship based on a form of exchange- Nabil will give Youssef money and a foot in the door of his business, and in exchange Youssef will give Nabil the son he never had. Except Youssef wants more than money- he wants his father's love and acceptance. He wants to be a part of his father's family. But Nabil already has a family, and that may not be so easy.

And Lalami isn't content to leave it at that. While trying to sort out this new development, Youssef and his disaffected friends are drawn into an almost cult-like conservative Muslim religious organization called the Party, which has taken over property that used to be a movie theater. His friend Maati gets a job as a security guard there, and it becomes the friends' new hangout. But someone there has plans for Youssef.

A major theme running through the novel is social class and economic stratification in Morocco, and how one's social class influences one's prospects in life. When Youssef meets Nabil, Youssef quickly comes to expect big changes; whether or not these changes materialize is a driving force behind Youssef's decisions, and, eventually, his fate. I would call the ending pessimistic but perhaps inevitable. On balance, though, I really enjoyed Secret Son. The world Lalami creates for her characters is rich, detailed and accessible, including characters from different strata of Moroccan society who behave convincingly. I think Secret Son would be great for book clubs and for anyone looking for a compelling read; I certainly enjoyed this little look into another culture and another part of the world.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Laila Lalami!

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

Monday, May 11, 2009

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays (BIG)

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about boys and reading…

Have you ever finished a book, then turned around and immediately re-read it? Why? What book(s)? (question courtesy of MizB)

No, I don't think I've ever immediately re-read a book I just finished, but I've re-read books plenty of times. These days I'm just happy to finish something and move on to the next book! Sometimes I'll re-read the first few pages- I did that with Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, and Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Both of these were first-person narratives and it was interesting to me to listen to how this person, who I'd gotten to know really well over the course of the book, started telling the story at the beginning- that is to say, once I knew the character and all he'd been through, I wanted to see how the narrative voice sounded to me at the start of the journey rather than at the end, and if my impressions of the character, or my understanding of his viewpoint, had changed.

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

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Salon & Conference Wrap-Up

So I know how much you all have missed me over the past week, but rest assured- I'm back!

I was away at the Massachusetts Library Association's annual conference, three days of books, authors, and librarians. I go every year, because it helps keep me in touch with the wider library world and because, as a local event, it's great for networking. I'm also in the midst of helping to plan a conference as well- the New England chapter of the Association of Jewish Libraries is having an event in June- so it was a great time to chat with publishing folks and other vendors.

All in all it was a great success. Highlights included
  • getting a line on a potential speaker for the NEAJL conference,
  • meeting several publishing reps who will be assisting NEAJL with promotional materials,
  • seeing friends,
  • listening to a variety of authors from different genres, including the great Lynda Barry and several new-to-me folks like literary short-story writer Simon Van Booy, novelist Thrity Umrigar and urban-fantasy goddess Kim Harrison,
  • a fun presentation by author Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours,
  • picking up armloads of galleys and freebies, and
  • getting all the latest on what's going on in the Massachusetts library world.
It was a great three days. The bag pictured above was given out by library-services company and book jobber Baker & Taylor, an outfit many libraries (including my own) use for discounted ordering and other services. In addition to having cute pictures of cats, their bags are sturdy enough for a convention's worth of galleys and giveaways:
Those of you going to BEA or (ALA for that matter) will doubtless come back with more but I'm very pleased with my little haul. And with the whole event!
Today I'm looking forward to diving into my stash and figuring out what to read first!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Salon

So Free Comic Book Day was fun yesterday; I went to Harrison's Comics in Salem, Massachusetts, and came home with an armload of samplers and specials- super hero stuff, kids' stuff, all kinds of stuff. I haven't really had a chance to look through it all thoroughly but I'll get there.

In other Sunday news, I'm reading Harriette Arnow's 1954 classic The Dollmaker, a longish novel about a rural family forced to move to World War II-era Detroit, when the husband of the family gets a factory job. The family, headed by matriarch Gertie, is uprooted from their Kentucky farm and must make do amidst harsh urban poverty. It's beautifully written and I'm enjoying it; I'm not sure it's supposed to be exactly uplifting but it is a lovely example of American literary writing. More later.

Just as an FYI, I won't be posting much over the next few days. Memes and reviews and such are on hold while I get ready for the Massachusetts Library Association Conference this week. I'll have lots of news and posts afterwards, and maybe one or two little posts during the conference, but in the meantime I won't be posting much. I hope you all have a great week and I'll be back in a few days!

Click on the Sunday Salon button to read more posts!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Free Comic Book Day

Don't forget- today is Free Comic Book Day, an annual event put on by the comics industry where participating comic book shops all over the U.S. give out comics for kids and adults, mangas an more- Samplers, premiere issues, and extra stuff. It's great fun.

For those of you who don't read comics or graphic novels, Free Comic Book Day is a great no-risk way to try out a new genre. For those of you who do, it's a great way to see what's new and exciting from your favorite publishers.

Click to the Free Comic Book Day site to find participating shops in your area. I'm going to head out to Harvard Square soon and hit at least three different participating shops. I'll be back later today or tomorrow with my finds.

Have a great Saturday!

Friday, May 1, 2009

#Buy Indie Day

So the big day is here- Buy Indie Day.

Where did you go? What did you get? I'm so excited to hear about what you all are up to.

I went to the fabulous Porter Square Books in Cambridge, where I bought Esther David's Shalom India Housing Society. It's a light-looking novel about the Bene Israel Jewish community of India and the prophet Elijah, who comes to visit.

It's published by the Feminist Press at CUNY, which has a series on Jewish Women Writers. The Feminist Press also published the very good Dearest Anne by Judith Katzir and I'm optimistic that I'll enjoy Shalom India as well.

Porter Square Books is quite simply a great neighborhood bookstore. They have a good, standard selection of Indie Next picks and the like, but you can tell as you browse the shelves and displays, that they go the extra mile and hand-select wonderful, neighborhood-perfect small press and unusual books- a short story collection about Portuguese-Americans, novels that look homemade, poetry from around the corner, and more. I do a fair amount of book shopping and Porter Square Books is one of the very few general-interest indies that always has an ample selection of books I haven't seen anywhere else.

So I hope that lots of you will get the chance to buy indie today (or over the weekend, or anytime). Remember, if there isn't an indie near you, you can always log on to and find one that can ship to you. Happy reading!

Friday Finds

I'm so excited about this week's new additions to my library.

First up is the incredible The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, drawn & written by Emmanuel Guibert with photographs by Didier Lefevre. I'm about halfway through it; it's an amazing combination of photojournalism and graphic novel. You'll be hearing more about this incredible book on an upcoming Graphic Novel Monday.

Next up, The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina de Robertis. I won this galley in a Random House giveaway. Thank you RH! I'm looking forward to reading it.

Finally, I borrowed Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls, by Stephanie Wellen Levine. Levine is a member of my book club and her book is next month's selection; it's a series of profiles of young Lubavitcher Hasidic women discussing their lives, hopes and dreams. It's really great and I'm sure it will make for a terrific discussion.

Now I'm off to the bookstore to participate in Buy Indie Day. I'll be back later with my new book!