Monday, June 29, 2009

Musing Mondays - The Year-to-Date in Books

Musing Mondays (BIG)

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about mid-year reading…

Now that we’ve come to the middle of the year, what do you think of your 2009 reading so far? Read anything interesting that you’d like to share? Any outstanding favorites?

So far 2009 has been a great year in books. Where to begin?

The first book I read and really loved was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson; originally published in the 1930s and recently made into a film, it was delightful.

The first recent book to really grab me was Abraham Verghese's wonderful Cutting for Stone, which I hope everyone will read.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Doghead, The Tricking of Freya and Wild Strawberries also stand out. My favorite graphic novels of the year so far are Siberia and The Photographer.

2009 promises to continue to be a great year for literary fiction. Of course, A.S. Byatt's magnificent new novel, The Children's Book, will doubtless be in my top five favorites for the year. I'm also really looking forward to Kazuo Ishiguro's new collection of short stories, Noctures, and Margaret Atwood's new one as well.

You can read more Musing Mondays responses at Just One More Page.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Salon

I don't have any big plans for today- it's been a hectic week, and it's nice to just take some time to relax. Which means reading! I have a short stack of paperbacks next to my reading chair- a book club pick, a personal summer-reading challenge book and another just for fun. I'll be armchair-traveling to suburban New York via Binnie Kirshenbaum, to the deserts of Iraq with Millard Kaufman and to the waters of the Atlantic with Patrick O'Brian.

Yesterday my husband and I visited a new used bookstore specializing in science fiction, fantasy and horror- the very nice Seek Books, in West Roxbury, Mass. It's only been open since April; I got an email from the owner last week and decided to go check it out. It's great!

My husband, the resident science fiction buff, tells me the selection is great. The store policy is to have only one copy of every title on the shelf at a time- the better to highlight the diversity of what's available. For example, there are around 250 unique titles in the vampire section alone. The shop also stocks and sells complete series and a whole bookcase of young adult titles. The store's definition of science fiction is broad enough for Margaret Atwood and obscure enough for Cats Have No Lord, a pulp masterpiece I picked up for the title alone. Jeff got some Doctor Who Target novels and a rare Dungeons & Dragons book he didn't know existed.

The store itself is tidy and attractively laid out, with color-coded smiley face stickers denoting price. There are even some nice comfy chairs for browsing. The owner, Brad, is friendly and helpful and offers discounts to veterans. Even non-scifi-buffs like myself would find the shop welcoming and pleasant.

If you're in the Boston area and you like science fiction, fantasy, horror or alternative religion, you have to go to Seek Books. I really hope this store does well and plan on visiting again soon.

You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Finds

Here are the books I'm excited about this week:

Owly: A Time to Be Brave, by Andy Runton. Owly is one of my favorite graphic novel series for kids and I'm really excited to be reading #4 in the series.

An Almost Perfect Moment, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, is my July book club pick, about a Jewish girl obsessed with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella. Don't usually read a lot of chick lit, but I was in the K section of the used bookstore looking for the Kirshenbaum book and since I have the movie sitting at home, I thought, "why not?".

Finally, Jarrettsville, by Cornelia Nixon, is a Civil War novel and a surprise arrival from Counterpoint. I'm very intrigued by it and look forward to perusing it soon.

What are you excited about reading this week? You can find out what others are into at

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Daughters of Abraham Meeting with author Scott Pomfret

As I've mentioned before here on my blog, I belong to a book club called the Daughters of Abraham; started in Cambridge in response to 9/11, the Daughters is an organization made up of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, who meet monthly in 13 different groups across the Boston area (and beyond) to read books from our different religious traditions.
We alternate between the three faiths, so one month will be a book focusing on Christianity, let's say, and the next month will feature a book on Judaism, then Islam, and then back to Christianity, and so on.

For the month of June, the Daughters group I belong to read Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir, by Boston-based author Scott Pomfret. The book is a funny, snarky and touching memoir, which I absolutely loved and suggested to the club. Although we read books on Christianity every third month or so, it's not often that we read specifically about Catholicism and in addition to the memoir element the book just has a lot of good information about the Catholic faith and the Boston Catholic scene in particular.

When we met last week, we were fortunate to be joined by the author himself. Mr. Pomfret came to our meeting and gamely fielded questions on everything from his take on Sean Cardinal O'Malley to the future of religious orders to the sex abuse scandal that hit the Church to women priests and marriage for priests. We also talked about another prominent local critic of the Catholic Church, former priest James Carroll, whose book Constantine's Sword was proposed for our club at one point.

I know everyone really appreciated the opportunity to get his insights into both the Catholic religion and many of the ongoing controversies surrounding the Church. The photo above is our group along with Mr. Pomfret, top row second from left. It was really a great evening and we all can't thank Mr. Pomfret enough for being gracious enough to join us and answer our questions.

REVIEW: Lost in Austen, by Emma Campbell Webster

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure, by Emma Campbell Webster. Published 2007 by Riverhead Books. Fiction. Humor.

Lost in Austen is not a chick lit novel, nor is it a Jane Austen primer, and nor is it coming to a theater near you anytime soon. What it is, is a hoot.

Lost in Austen is a mix of choose-your-own-adventure and role-play style book, in which you the reader take on the persona of Elizabeth Bennett, heroine of Jane Austen's famous Pride and Prejudice. You are tasked with finding a husband, but not just any husband. At every turn in the story you are given options from which to choose and must follow the right path to marry and marry successfully. And this isn't as easy as it might seem.

Although set primarily in the world of Pride and Prejudice, the story interweaves characters and situations from most if not all of Austen's novels, including Persuasion, Emma, Mansfield Park and others, so some glancing familiarity with them will help you on your journey. For example, it helps to know, for example, that Mr. Elton is a cad to be avoided- but all you really need to know is that you're supposed to marry Mr. Darcy and no one else.

Along the way you will also gain and lose points in a variety of categories- fortune, confidence, and intelligence- which will eventually influence the success or failure of your journey, so keep a piece of paper and a pencil handy as you read. And don't take the very snarky tone of the narrator too personally. For example, at one point you may be asked to play a little music, but you demur owing to your lack of skill. The narrator has this to say: "You're not just being modest; you really do play the piano remarkably ill." And if you fail in your mission to marry successfully, you may be faced with something like the following:
That didn't take you long, did it? You have failed to complete your mission. You didn't even get NEAR completing it, in fact. You deserve to be disfigured. Be ashamed.
Not everyone will be comfortable with this level of brutal sarcasm, so just keep that in mind if you decide to enter the world of Lost in Austen!

I had a lot of fun playing/reading this book. I enjoyed the dark humor and the way all my favorite (and not-so-favorite) characters from other Austen novels make their appearance, all very true to character. The gothic-manga style illustrations give a modern twist and a breath of fresh air to Austen's world. Campbell Watson does a nice job reproducing Austen's tone and style and adapting the story to the choose-your-own-adventure format; it's a very original use of the Austen stories and it's just a really fun way to while away a little time. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I got frustrated, and sometimes I just kept track of points and pages. And when I failed to marry my Mr. Darcy- and I did fail, many times- I could always just flip back to the beginning and start over.

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

REVIEW: Valeria's Last Stand, by Marc Fitten

Valeria's Last Stand, by Marc Fitten. Published 2009 by Bloomsbury/Macmillan. Literary Fiction.

Valeria's Last Stand is a modern-day folk tale about love, aging and dealing with a changing world. Set in post-Soviet Hungary, the story follows a love triangle between crotchety, elderly Valeria, tough-necked bar owner Ibolya and the potter they both love. In folk-tale fashion, he (and almost all of the male characters, for that matter) is known only by his trade, never by his name. When the story opens, the potter and Ibolya are in the midst of a casual affair, ruptured forever one day when he falls for Valeria out of the blue. Their whole town is thrown into an uproar watching with disbelief as the two women become rivals, and a newcomer is thrown into this volatile mix.

All of this drama takes place as the country is transformed with the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union, and an important theme in the novel is this idea of transition and upheaval. These themes are alluded to directly in the person of the town's mayor, sporting a newly-minted devotion to capitalism and a very modern trophy wife. When it comes to the central narrative, the thing which surprises the gossips and onlookers is the vitality of the aging protagonists' sexuality but what surprised me is the strength of their rancor. Ibolya simply cannot accept that the potter has transferred his affections onto a woman she considers ugly and unworthy, while Valeria herself is not even sure she wants him. Meanwhile, he dithers between the two as tensions mount. Then, when Ibolya recruits the amoral chimney-sweep to distract Valeria, the conflagration ignites out of control.

Overall I found Valeria's Last Stand to be lively and entertaining. The pages keep turning even as the story darkens towards the end; it reads quickly and fluidly, but one wonders if the simple folk tale style conceals some hidden depths. At the same time, I enjoyed the blend of simple narration, iconic characters and an ending in which the good guys get to be happy and the bad guys get their comeuppance. I think it would appeal to lots of different readers and marks a fine entry into the growing canon of post-Soviet dark comedies, such as Marina Lewycka's excellent A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian. The characters weren't always appealing and the story took some twists and turns I didn't expect but in the end I thought it was a satisfying, if bittersweet, story of a world in flux and finding love where you least expect it.


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

Monday, June 22, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: A Contract with God, by Will Eisner

A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, by Will Eisner. Published 2000 by DC Comics. Literary Fiction.

As one of the founders of the comic book form, Will Eisner is deserving of attention from anyone even marginally interested in comics, graphic novels or any form of popular sequential art. A Contract with God, originally published in 1978, is a very important work in the form.

The book is made up of four short stories, all set in the same New York tenement building in the early 20th century. Characters include housewives and working stiffs, kids and parents, ambitious upstarts and lonely basement dwellers. Their stories are raw, raunchy and presented unvarnished. Eisner writes about his philosophy of realism:
...I tried to adhere to a rule of realism which requires that caricature or exaggeration accept the limitations of actuality...I set aside two basic constrictions that so often inhibit the medium- space and format. Accordingly, each story was written without regard to space and each was allowed t develoop its format from itself; that is, to evolve from the many cases, an entire page is set out as a panel. The text and the balloons are interlocked with the art. I see all as threads of a single fabric and exploit them as a language. If I have been successful at this, there will be no interruption in the flow of narrative because the picture and the text are so totally dependent on each other as to be inseparable for even a moment.
Eisner's words do a lot to illuminate the apparent chaos on the pages, brimming and bubbling over with energy and vivacity. The characters are unglamorous and real, and his writing is colloquial and rich in vernacular, including the Yiddish slang of his mainly Jewish characters. He creates a vivid tableau of time, place and culture. A Contract with God is comic book for adults covering a range of subjects including religion, sex, adultery and more. A seminal work in the history of comics, it's also essential reading for anyone wanting to get to know the form.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Salon- Happy Father's Day

Happy Father's Day!

This Sunday we have a lot going on- my husband's writing group is coming over, and later we're having dinner with my dad. I don't know how much reading I'll be doing!

When my husband's group comes over, I'm going to work on thank-you notes to all the great library marketing folks who sent galleys to last Friday's conference held by the New England branch of the Association of Jewish Libraries. I was in charge of arranging for exhibits and while we weren't able to arrange for reps to visit, several publishers were extremely generous when it came to samples and galleys. Algonquin, Gefen, Harper Collins, Macmillan and Random House all sent us some wonderful treasures, and our attendees were thrilled. Permanent Paper also sent a box of their sticky notepads, which everybody loved and scooped up quite eagerly. If you're on Twitter, you can read my conference tweets at #neajl09; if you're interested in detailed conference notes, I'll be posting to our association blog,, in the next few days.

Then later, I'll be cooking up a rack of lamb and having my dad over for dinner. Should be fun.

What does your family have planned for the holiday?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Friday Finds - On Saturday

Another great week of books!

I received In the Kitchen, Booker-nominated Monica Ali's latest, from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. I didn't read Brick Lane but enjoyed the film and I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Sacred Hearts also arrived this week, Sarah Dunant's new novel about a 16th century Italian convent. I started reading the first few pages and it looks great.

I spied The Hakawati, by Rabin Alameddine, at a local indie bookstore last week and simply had to have it. Everyone says it's awesome so I hope to get to it soon.

Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl has been on my radar for a while and I picked it up at Harvard Book Store's fabulous warehouse sale last weekend.

Gifts of War, Mackenzie Ford's novel about World War 1, also found its way into my home. I haven't read a lot of books about World War 1 so it should be enriching.

Find more Friday Finds at

Friday, June 19, 2009

Unfinished Friday: Don't Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore

Don't Call Me A Crook! A Scotsman's Tale of World Travel, Whisky and Crime, by Bob Moore.
Published May 2009 by Dissident Books.

Reviewed courtesy of Lisa Roe, Online Publicist.

Click here to buy Don't Call Me A Crook! from your favorite indie bookstore.

I didn't dog ear the pages, so I can't tell you exactly how far I got into Don't Call Me A Crook! before I gave up on it, but I think it was somewhere around the end of chapter three. Don't Call Me A Crook, originally published in 1935, is the autobiography of a drifter, petty criminal and all-around scamp named Bob Moore, a Scottish man who starts out stealing diamonds after working on a ship, and, so I'm told, moves on to bigger and better things from there. The reader is invited to follow his picaresque adventures from Scotland to America, back to England and Australia and onwards.

Two things made this book a little difficult for me. First of all, Mr. Moore is dishonest and heartless in a way that, for me, was not appealing or likable. Instead of seeing him as a charming rake, I just thought he was a jerk. The second drawback for me is the writing. It's pretty terrible and robs Moore of the only thing that could have redeemed the book- charisma. With the caveat that the book I read was an advance reader's copy, here is an example:
My wife did not seem very pleased with that first attempt of mine to get work in Chicago, and she used to cry so much that I found it very depressing, so I decided I would write to my people and ask them to pay her fare home. I said that I had had bad luck and lost my £700 in a deal, but that I would soon pull up and then she could come back, if I had only myself to fend for for a while.

So after I had written quite a lot of letters and told them how things were getting worse, and how she was looking ill, and the baby might have to be born in a charity hospital, they decided after all that it might be a good idea for them to pay her fare home.
Nice guy. Here the reader can see his narcissism (his wife's unhappiness depressed him so he cast her and their unborn child off like an itchy sweater) and dishonesty as well as his tendency towards rambling instead of narrating his story.

Having said all that, even in the small portion I read that the book is not without its redeeming qualities. Moore's casual tone and relaxed vocabulary could make the book appealing to reluctant readers and those who like the ripping-yarn sort of book; I could see young adults (i.e. adults 18-30) connecting with his fancy-free lifestyle of adventure and petty crime. He's no Jack Kerouac but Moore's book falls squarely within the genre of "outsider lit" and I could see Kerouac's readers enjoying it. Moore is like a Scottish pre-Beatnik, and I wonder if that was his appeal for Dissident Books. I'm sure Dissident will find plenty of admiring readers for Moore, but I won't be one of them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Social Media Breakfast #SMB14

This morning I had the opportunity to attend Social Media Overload - Making Sense of It All, one of a series of monthly Tweetups held in the Boston area for social media professionals and others to network and talk about social media issues. I found out about the event through @BostonTweetUp, a Twitter account that advertises these kinds of local meetings.

I attended because like many of you I'm interested in social media- its applications, its trends and its future. Held at Communispace Corporation, the event was divided into three sections- a meet-and-greet at the beginning, a presentation and some more meeting-and-greeting at the end.

Speakers are listed on the event page; I won't repeat that information here.

They spoke on various tools and trends in social networking, including the importance of
  • aggregation and integration of different social networking services,
  • knowing where you want to go as you set out in the social networking world,
  • experimentation with new social networking tools,
  • keeping control of your online brand.
There was also a little disagreement on, for example, whether or not one should shut down one's accounts on sites and services that no longer serve one's goals; some people felt that closing down such accounts prevented dilution of one's personal brand, and others felt that maintaining ownership of one's online real estate would prevent impersonation and the potential for fraud.

Personally, I'm on the fence on this issue. I have several social networking accounts for Boston Bibliophile that I do not actively use, but I am loathe to give them up because I want to keep my online "property" in my hands. On the other hand, if one went to one of these sites and saw that I had not updated it in over a year, one might get the wrong impression about my online activity.

There was also some discussion about how to "sell" social networking to people who are hesitant to expose themselves or their brand on the Internet, or who are simply unfamiliar with its benefits and uses. I blogged about this very issue last week, and the speakers made many of the same points I did.

One of the most striking points to come up was actually quoted from last week's 140 Characters Conference. This point was that Twitter and Facebook will soon account for more website referrals than Google searches; I didn't get the documentation on this claim but if it's true it's a very compelling argument for maintaining an active social network presence.

I found myself bubbling over with ideas and information; it was a great event and I strongly encourage attendance at these events in your area.

How do you use social networking? What do you see as its benefits and liabilities?

Booking Through Thursday - Science Fiction

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One of my favorite sci-fi authors (Sharon Lee) has declared June 23rd Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Day.

As she puts it:

So! In my Official Capacity as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I hereby proclaim June 23 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day! A day of celebration and wonder! A day for all of us readers of science fiction and fantasy to reach out and say thank you to our favorite writers. A day, perhaps, to blog about our favorite sf/f writers. A day to reflect upon how written science fiction and fantasy has changed your life.

So … what might you do on the 23rd to celebrate? Do you even read fantasy/sci-fi? Why? Why not?

I rarely read science fiction or fantasy; as a kid it didn't appeal to me and I never really got into it as an adult. I did read The Chronicles of Narnia series but then when I tried to read The Hobbit around age 12 I just thought it was boring and never finished it or moved on to Lord of the Rings. But I watch a lot of science fiction TV, and as a kid collected and read the V tie-in novels. In the past couple of years though, I read A Wrinkle in Time and just loved it, and this past winter I read The City and The City by British scifi writer China Mieville and thought that was pretty good, too.

I have enjoyed some of what I'd call literary science fiction and fantasy- dystopia especially, for example Zamyatin's We, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Kelly Link's short story collection Magic for Beginners. Even Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita could qualify. With my huge TBR and all of the other interests I have, it's unlikely that I'll get into any more scifi any time soon, but I'm ready to admit that it's not all schlock!

Read more Booking Through Thursday posts here

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

REVIEW: Forbidden Bread, by Erica Johnson Debeljak

Forbidden Bread, by Erica Johnson Debeljak. Published 2009 by North Atlantic Books. Memoir.

I read this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Forbidden Bread is Erica Johnson Debeljak's memoir of moving to Slovenia to be with her boyfriend, poet Aleš Debeljak. The book follows her journey and their relationship from its beginnings in New York City, when Erica, as an American, was considered "forbidden bread"- someone that Aleš wasn't supposed to fall in love with. But fall in love they do, and before long she's leaving it all behind to settle into the newly-minted country of Slovenia, fresh from its split from the former Yugoslavia.

Debeljak covers a variety of experiences and topics, from her wedding planning, language lessons and food shopping, as well as the history and culture of the region. Her treatment of politics strikes me as a tad superficial though and she's at her best when she's staying close to home; the chapters about her first pregnancy and the birth of their first child is funny and scary and easy to relate to- culture clashes range from when to wear socks to how to diaper a baby. Debeljak writes an engaging fish-out-of-water story and comes across as likable and interesting. She also peppers the book with photographs of friends and family, bringing her convincing characterizations to life.

The book is pleasant enough, though the first few chapters read more like chick lit and it took me a while to settle into the flow of the narrative. Debeljak is a fine, competent writer and the book is quite accessible and readable, but I would recommend the book to those who are interested in the Balkans and already fairly well-informed as to the region's recent history. Forbidden Bread is a personal memoir, not a history, and I think a reader with no other background in the region might feel lost. I wouldn't call Forbidden Bread electrifying reading but it's enjoyable and light, and provides an interesting glimpse into the culture of a little-known country.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from for a review to be shared with its users. LibraryThing is not affiliated with the publisher.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Musing Mondays - Awards

Musing Mondays (BIG) Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about award winning books…

Do you feel compelled to read prize-winning (Giller/Booker/Pulitzer etc) books? Why, or why not? Is there, perhaps, one particular award that you favour? (question courtesy of MizB)

I'm a big fan of the Booker Prize and if I'm browsing in a bookstore and I see that a book I'm interested in was nominated for the prize, or won the prize, I'm much more likely to buy it and read it promptly. In the 1990s, I had a lot of really good luck with Booker winners. Possession, The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, The Blind Assassin were all Booker winners I read during that decade, and all of them were stunners. In the past five or so years I've found the prize to be less consistent with my own tastes- John Banville's The Sea and Anne Enright's The Gathering were both disappointing. But then Booker won me back with The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger. So I'm optimistic for the future and I really hope that that future includes A.S. Byatt's new, incredible novel, The Children's Book, which I expect to finish this week. Prizes are a great way to find new reads, but they don't all work for everyone. You just gotta find what works for you!

You can read more Musing Mondays at Just One More Page.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Salon

After an off week, I'm trying to get back in the swing.

It's another rainy day in Boston and I'm curled up with my newly-arrived ARC of David Small's Stitches, a (so far) harrowing graphic-novel memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional, emotionally abusive family and dealing with a serious and disfiguring illness. It's an incredible read but not for the faint of heart. I'll do a full review when I'm finished with it, but for now I'd say if you didn't pick this up at BEA or from another source, run- don't walk- in September to buy this devastating book.

I have to get back writing reviews- I didn't write any last week, not because there were none to be written (I have four or five books done and ready to be reviewed) but because I had a lot going on personally and had a hard time focusing. If this were my job I'd have been fired but thankfully I cannot be fired from my blog! Part of the issue was that the next book up for review, Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, is a bittersweet, funny-around-the-edges Holocaust novel and after last week's shooting I just couldn't quite bring myself to write about it. I am hesitant to write about the shooting here, because I don't know what I have to say that hasn't been said better somewhere else.

On a lighter note, yesterday was Cambridge's annual Riverfest celebration, and literary Cambridge was well-represented.

The Boston Comics Roundtable had a booth where they sold comics and had one of their artists, Dan Mazur, doing caricatures. That's mine to the left- doesn't it look just like me? I'm actually pretty crazy about it and think it would make a fun business card or something. We'll see.

The Office of The Cambridge Poet Populist was represented in a nice airy tent, publicizing the Cambridge Community Poem, a project any Cambridge resident can contribute to. Forms were on hand for folks to write a few lines, which will be combined into one long poem later this year. Poet Populist Peter Payack and Poet Populist-elect Jean-Dany Joachim were in attendance and answering questions as well as showing samples of their poetry. It's a nice program that helps bring poetry to the attention of the citzenry. I don't know if there are any other communities that have such an office. San Franciscans, anything like that where you are?

Hope everyone is having a great Sunday. You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Finds

My week in books has been modest but meaningful. I'm happy about two things apart from acquiring books. First, I found a terrific little used bookstore, Lorem Ipsum, in a quiet Cambridge neighborhood where I frequently eat but don't usually shop. It's small and idiosyncratic, with a you-never-know-what-you'll-find selection, and a laid-back, friendly staff. In other words, it's perfect, and I look forward to lots of browsing and buying. The second thing I'm happy about is that I took some time to clean up my den and pull out a bunch of books to sell, which will mean that I'll have some additional funds to buy.

I got three new books this week.
  • Women and Judaism, an academic book of essays edited by Rabbi Malka Drucker. I received it via the Catholic Library Association, for a professional review assignment,
  • If I Told You Once, a novel by the great Judy Budnitz. I've been a fan of her short fiction for years and can't wait to read this book. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading, This Is Not Chick Lit and elsewhere, and
  • The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea. My book budget will not allow me to purchase his new hardcover book, Into the Beautiful North, so I'm going to settle for a paperback of an earlier title for now. It looks wonderful.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Niche Books

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There are certain types of books that I more or less assume all readers read. (Novels, for example.)

But then there are books that only YOU read. Instructional manuals for fly-fishing. How-to books for spinning yarn. How to cook the perfect souffle. Rebuilding car engines in three easy steps. Dog training for dummies. Rewiring your house without electrocuting yourself. Tips on how to build a NASCAR course in your backyard. Stuff like that.

What niche books do YOU read?

I read craft books, in particular quilting and embroidery, and books that focus on things that I collect, like Russian matryoshka dolls and all things Hello Kitty. I also like cookbooks that focus on baking.

With craft books and cookbooks, I don't so much read them as use them, although they are fun to page through and browse. There usually isn't much to actually read in a quilt book; there are some that cover aspects of quilting history but most are very standardized pattern books. The fun in "reading" pattern books is figuring out how to adapt one, or reading through the instructions to familiarize myself with a new technique. Good cookbooks can have a wealth of information apart from the recipes. One of my favorites is a baking book from the 1970s called The Breads of France; in addition to the recipes, this book has some great information on French regional culture and gastronomy. There's a whole beautiful country outside of Paris and I love this idiosyncratic travelogue/recipe stash.

I also have a small collection of foreign language dictionaries, which I collect when I travel, and books on cat health and books on hiking.

You can read more Booking Through Thursday posts here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bookstores, Bookstores, Bookstores

I was looking for a book meme to answer today, it being a rainy day and all. But I couldn't find one I haven't already answered, so I decided to make up my own. I'm not tagging anyone specific, but if you want to answer these questions on your blog I'd love to read the post!

Bookstores, Bookstores, Bookstores

What's your favorite bookstore?
Impossible to choose. Locally I love the Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books, two great indies.

Have you ever traveled out of state or out of the country, just to visit a particular bookstore?
Yes, I took the train to New York to visit a friend who planned to take me to the Strand, an amazing bookstore in Manhattan.

Have you ever gone on a date to a bookstore? Would you consider a bookstore to be a romantic place?
I have gone on many dates to bookstores, whether to go to readings or just to browse. There's so much fodder for conversation as you browse the aisles and stacks, and since smart is sexy, what's more romantic than that?

What's the latest you've stayed out at night at a bookstore?
I've spent many a late night at the Harvard Book Store and stayed until it closing (usually around 11 pm) on several occasions.

Do you like to go with friends or by yourself?
Either way. I love to book-shop with friends, especially those with different tastes, but I like to browse by myself too. Book shopping can be a great social activity but as an introvert I usually wander off by myself anyway!

What would your dream bookstore be like?
My dream bookstore would be devoted to fiction, travel, cooking and crafts, and would feature a carefully edited selection of classics and unusual titles- titles I couldn't find other places. The employees would not be surly college students (the norm in this college town) but skilled service professionals who would provide great suggestions and intelligent booktalking. There would be a cafe serving delicious coffee, chocolate chip cookies and croissants with comfortable chairs for everyone.

What's your favorite specialty bookstore and what does it specialize in?
My favorite specialty bookstore was New Words, a women's bookstore that closed several years ago, and now is probably Grolier Books, which is all-poetry. It's a little hole-in-the-wall owned by a Wellesley College professor which stocks poetry from all over the world. It's an amazing little gem of a shop.

Have you ever worked at a bookstore or wanted to? Do people ever mistake you for a bookstore employee and ask you questions as you browse?
I have never worked in a bookstore but always wanted to. Yes, sometimes other customers ask me questions in bookstores. Awkward!

Do you like bookstore cafes? Would you consider a bookstore a social destination as opposed to strictly a retail destination?
I like bookstore cafes as long as they have good chocolate chip cookies and there is a place for me to sit and read while I eat them.

What's the silliest thing you've ever done in a bookstore? Ever been kicked out of one?
My friend Jean and I used to make fun of very specialized poetry anthologies. I did get kicked out of a bookstore once, but I'm not going to tell you why!

Teaser Tuesday

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!
It was the festival of Simhat Torah, the celebration of receiving the law, when the silk curtains with the Hebrew letters were pulled aside, the doors of the ark opened by the highest bidder, and the ornamental caskets of the Torah brought out, cleaned, aired and carried around the synagogue by men dancing around the Teva. It was a night of fun, frolic, and food, which usually ended with a fancy dress competition.

From Shalom India Housing Society, by Esther David, a comic novel about the Bene Israel community in India and the Prophet Elijah.

Read more Tuesday Teasers at

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sharing Social Media with the Uninitiated

As bloggers, many of us are conversant in the online world- Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Flickr,, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. Nobody uses every online tool but most of us by now have picked a few favorites. My favorites are the ones that provide the most benefit for the time I have spend online- services that help me organize information, connect with friends and family, and meet new people in the library and book world.

Not every tool gets the same emphasis. I use LibraryThing, for example, to keep track of my reading first and network second. And some profiles are completely restricted to people I know personally. But other tools, like LinkedIn and Twitter, are all about reaching out, and while I'm hardly a superstar I've had some nice successes here and there. One example- The BostonBEA Tweetup. A group of book people acquainted with each other through Twitter decided to have their own get-together when they couldn't make it to a national publishing conference. We shared information, made new friends and forged connections. And felt pretty cool doing it.

When you're accustomed to doing business online, you'll find the tools and learn to use them; the online world is, after all, all about entrepreneurship, self-promotion and self-starting. And there are plenty of folks willing to offer advice.

But how do you promote online tools to people who aren't used to living online? Recently I've been fielding a lot of questions from colleagues and friends about how the online world has helped me and how it might help them. Here are a few things I've learned about how to make a persuasive case for the online world.
  • If at all possible, be at a computer for these conversations, so you can demonstrate sites live and show them in action. A hands-on lesson is so much more powerful than a description.
  • Start with the best thing the online world has done for you- in a single sentence. In my case, my online activities have put me in touch with book-industry professionals to whom I would have no access any other way.
  • Avoid jargon, even if you think your listener will understand. Clear, plain-spoken enthusiasm will push your message further. If your listener doesn't understand, you will isolate yourself and diminish your effectiveness.
  • Point to the specific benefits of a given service. " is so cool" is less helpful than " helps me find new sites for shopping/hobbies/business."
  • Emphasize that most sites give ample privacy options. Privacy is a big concern for a lot of people and it means a lot to know that users can set some limits.
  • Tell a brief story about a specific accomplishment or contact that came from an online connection. "There are so many cool people on Twitter" says less than "I met a great publishing rep who pointed me to her podcast, which I now listen to every week."
  • Make your examples relevant to your listener. "You can keep up with all your old high school friends on Facebook" might not appeal equally to all.
  • Be honest about the amount of time you spend online. Let your listener understand what you put into it, so he or she can set realistic expectations for him- or herself.
What about you? How do you talk about the online world to people who aren't in as deep as you? What strategies work or don't work? What kinds of attitudes do you encounter, positive and negative, about our online life? What else do you think is important to say to skeptics? What are your online success stories?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Musing Mondays-Time Enough to Read

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

Do you have a set reading time (before bed, perhaps)? Do you read more at night or during the day? Is there a day of the week, perhaps, that you set aside to catch up on reading?

I tend to read a lot in the afternoons and in particular on Mondays; over time for some reason I've set aside Monday afternoons as prime reading time. I have a second job as a volunteer librarian in a local synagogue (different from my other, paying job); when the library's quiet I'm allowed to read. Not only do I make progress in my books but I've had some nice conversations with patrons there who've seen me with a book or two (or three or four). Sometimes my husband and I make time for coffee and reading on Saturdays. We'll grab our books and head out to Starbucks for a latte and some bookish relaxation. I can make a tall latte last about an hour and a half and usually bring two or three books. I also read a lot on the bus and since I don't drive, I take the bus a lot!

Finding the time to read is always a challenge no matter what- but it's always worth it. What's your favorite time of the day or week to read?

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

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Salon

Happy Sunday!

I'm going to do some serious reading today. I'll admit, I've been a little lax. I have large chunks of time to read on certain days, and other days it's been a struggle. I mean, I have plenty of time- I just haven't been using it to read. But this week is going to be different. Really!

I need to:
  • make tracks on The Children's Book; I just started Part Two and need to pick up the pace;
  • keep going on Memoirs of Montparnasse, an entertaining memoir of Paris in the 1920s,
  • and get started on Valeria's Last Stand, which I've been eager to read for a while now.
I also need to do some housecleaning- gather together some books I'm either not going to read or not going to read again, and take a trip down to the used book store to sell them. I've been accumulating a bagful of them over the past couple of months and it's time to finally admit that it's over.

But mostly, I want to spend this glorious day outside on my hammock. With my books! I'm thinking there might be an ice cream involved at some point as well. What are you doing this beautiful day?

Read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday Finds

So just one "Friday Find" this week- Baking From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan.

Lately I've been feeling like my blog could do with a little shaking up. So in an effort to inject some new energy (while keeping my focus on books) I went and joined Tuesdays with Dorie, a baking meme that uses a different recipe from this book each week.

The book is terrific- it's filled with great-looking recipes of everything from scones and cookies to fancy cakes, pies and tarts. And I love to bake. This past winter I took a four-session baking class at the Cambridge Culinary Institute, and just had a blast. Every Saturday night for a month or so, I'd spend five or six hours measuring, mixing, rolling out, kneading- and eating! We had sessions devoted to pate aux choux, breads, pies and cakes; everyone made different recipes each week and then we would sample and take home a little bit of each. I always bake up a storm around the holidays, birthdays and special occasions but I learned so much in these classes, and I'm hoping that the weekly assignments will be a great way to carry that enthusiasm forward.

I'm also hoping that it will bring some new life into my blog- and some new readers, too. So if you're new here and you were brought over by Tuesdays with Dorie, I'd love to know so I can visit you and see what you're all about, too!

You can go to for more Friday Finds!

REVIEW: Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg. Published 2008 by Hyperion. Nonfiction. Memoir.

I read Annie's Ghosts courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

When I finished Annie's Ghosts, Steven Luxenberg's memoir/investigative piece about his mother's secret sister, I had tears in my eyes.

In April of 1995, as his aging mother's health was in decline, Luxenberg discovered for the first time in his life that his mother was not an only child, as she had long claimed. Later, after his mother's death, Luxenberg started to put the pieces together- slowly, laboriously, aided by his skills as a journalist and his drive to find out the truth about a disabled and mentally ill aunt named Annie, who lived for years in an asylum, with few visitors and no hope of ever returning home.

Not content to merely uncover the secret, Luxenberg wanted to know why- why Annie was institutionalized, why his mother kept her a secret, why other family members handled Annie's situation the way they did, and what other secrets ultimately lay dormant in the family. To this end, he investigated more than his family's history. He tackled the history of the Michigan mental health system, attitudes towards the disabled and mentally ill that would have informed his mother's and grandparents' attitudes, and how other family members would have viewed Annie's situation given the facts of their lives and the effects on some of the Holocaust, the Depression, and more.

Throughout this fascinating book, Luxenberg remains tightly focused on "the secret"- Annie's life and death- and his determination to find out all he can while the remaining witnesses are still alive to testify drives his seemingly boundless energy for answers. I was postively glued to the page, buoyed along by Luxenberg's easy and readable prose style. I was so impressed most of all by Luxenberg's lack of judgement when it came to his mother's decisions about her sister; it would be so easy to castigate someone for her approach, to judge her and think badly of her. I found myself in that position from time to time. Instead, Luxenberg works from a position of love to understand her and to make sense of her actions. In the end he brought me around, mostly because of his own obvious commitment to forgiveness and empathy.

Annie's Ghosts isn't exactly a light read; along with the emotional weight of his subject, Luxenberg tackles some pretty heavy topics and works in some pretty impressive detail along the way. I think the book would appeal most to those to whom issues surrounding mental illness and other disabilities are important. His research gave me some insight into the American experience of disability and mental illness as well as into American families in the early twentieth century, and I found it to be a riveting, addictive and rewarding read.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book from for a review to be shared with its users. LibraryThing is not affiliated with the publisher.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Events with Adrian Tomine, Seth, and China Mieville

It's been a busy week of readings in literary Cambridge.

Tuesday night a friend and I attended a double reading at the Brattle Theater, hosted by the wonderful Harvard Book Store and starring graphic novel creators Adrian Tomine and Seth, of Shortcomings and It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken respectively. Each man took a turn at the podium, telling stories and sharing insights into the comics world.

I particularly enjoyed Seth's "twelve stories" format, with a random display of sketches and pictures running behind him on the movie screen as he told a series of anecdotes about his life and career, punctuated by little bell rings. He started with his childhood spent creating his own superhero universe in notebooks kept hidden from everyone until he showed them to an art school admissions officer- and got in. Then he moved on to art school, career and more.

Then last night the same friend and I took our husbands to see China Mieville, whose new novel The City and The City came out recently. (Click on the title for my review. Spoiler alert! I loved it.) This event was also sponsored by Harvard Book Store. First I got to meet Heather, the events coordinator from the store; as an added bonus, she quoted from my review as she introduced Mieville.

Mieville was fantastic. The reading itself was brief; as I have already said in my review, what makes the novel is the process of uncovering it. Cognizant of that as the author, he didn't want to give too much away, and moved on pretty quickly to the Q&A.

The questions were very good; the audience was both smart and very familiar with his work. He talked about everything from his creative process to politics to funny band names. One particularly bright audience member, to whom I happen to be married, asked Mr. Mieville about his process as a writer; as someone who frequently sets his stories in invented cities, did he start with the story or the city? The city, Mr. Mieville answered, quite definitively. He starts with the city and builds the story up from there. Given the nature of the city in his latest novel, it's difficult to imagine it any other way!

Of course the highlight of the evening was the signing and the opportunity to gush to the man himself about how much I enjoyed The City and The City.

But how pleasantly surprised was I when Mr. Mieville gushed to me when I asked him to sign my book with my blog name! He shook my hand and said he read my blog and thought it was really good- wow! It was very sweet of him to say that and just absolutely made my entire day- possibly my entire week!

Booking Through Thursday

btt button

I saw this over at Shelley’s, and thought it sounded like a great question for all of you:

“This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.”

My fifteen books:

  1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  2. Possession, by A.S. Byatt
  3. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  4. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt
  6. The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood
  7. Frog and Toad Are Friends, by Arnold Lobel
  8. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  9. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  10. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
  11. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
  12. Safe Area Gorazde, by Joe Sacco
  13. Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia
  14. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
  15. Sugar and Other Stories, by A.S. Byatt
You can read more BTT responses here.

EDIT: After reading a bunch of BTT posts, I have to add a couple of how-could-I-have-forgotten-these:
  1. Persuasion, by Jane Austen,
  2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, and
  3. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.
When I was a little girl I actually picked my First Communion saint's name after Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I think that has to be on the list!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

REVIEW: The City and The City, by China Miéville

The City and The City, by China Miéville. Published 2009 by Ballantine Books/Random House. Science Fiction.

Regular readers of my blog know that while I'll occasionally read a thriller or police procedural, science fiction isn't really my beat. When I originally lucked into a galley of The City and The City, British "New Weird" writer China Miéville's latest, I passed it on to my husband, a big science fiction fan and a fan of Miéville's past work. I even asked him to do a guest review, but he raved about it so much that I had to check it out for myself.

Glad I did. The City and The City is an original, spellbinding story. Tyador Borlu, inspector in the Extreme Crime Squad of the city-state of Beszel, is assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman. After unsuccessfully trying to pass the case off to another agency, Borlu must unravel the crime while walking a delicate tightrope of law, etiquette and diplomacy between Beszel and its sister city-state, Ul Qoma.

More than this is difficult to say in a review because so much of the pleasure of The City and The City is uncovering this relationship and understanding how it impacts the (somewhat standard) plot. The reader is aided in no small measure by Miéville's sharp, clean prose. I've never read Miéville before, but nearly everything I've read about him suggests that The City and The City represents a stylistic departure for him, from more the elaborate, Victorian style of his previous novels and from a young adult orientation. In fact I wouldn't so much call The City and The City science fiction as I would some kind of contemporary urban fantasy, albeit without the standard paranormal accoutrement of witches or ghosts. Instead, Miéville has created a new kind of paranormal.

One thing that really impressed me about Miéville's writing was the amount of emotional empathy he creates between the reader and Borlu. At a certain point in the narrative, the murder victim's parents come to Beszel to identify the body and aid in the investigation. Now, here are two characters- outsiders- who, on the surface, might seem like the reader surrogates. Borlu is assigned to take care of them but they are overwhelmed- foreigners, like the reader, trying to understand this place and navigate its arcane rules and remorseless justice. But when they cross a line, rather than sympathize with them, I found myself just as frustrated as Borlu. It was then that I realized how fully I had internalized Borlu's point of view, his perspective. Mieville made the people with whom I had most in common alien to me. It's a neat trick.

I think The City and The City will appeal to many kinds of readers- science fiction fans and detective-novel readers looking for something new will appreciate its interesting premise, and literary fiction readers will appreciate Miéville's skill and the opportunity to dabble in beautifully written genre fiction. It's not a young adult novel per se but I'll bet certain kinds of adventurous older teens would enjoy it as well. I don't know if I'm going to go back for his earlier works, but I will absolutely be on the lookout for what comes next from this fascinating writer.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie- Cinnamon Squares

Okay, so today is the beginning of a new experiment for me on the web- I'm participating in a weekly baking meme, Tuesdays with Dorie.

Audrey of food from books turned me on to this great group. She has a fantastic blog, which you should definitely check out. And she's super nice.

This week's recipe is Cinnamon Squares, a delightful coffee cake made with a cinnamon batter, a filling of cinnamon, coffee and chocolate, and for some, a chocolate frosting. I passed on making the frosting today (too much to do) but the cake came out great.

It was easy to put together and came out delicious. I needed a little more cooking time than the recipe stated but that can happen sometimes.

Have a slice! A yummy treat and good book- life doesn't get much better than that.

Buy Baking From My Home to Yours from your favorite indie bookstore!