Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Reads of 2009

It's that time again- when bloggers everywhere list their top favorites of the year. Here are mine, in no particular order because I loved them all.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
, by Winifred Watson. Sunshine on the page. Loved it. Lively fiction set in England between the wars.

Cutting for Stone
, by Abraham Verghese. Amazing instant classic and beautiful surprise. A sprawling epic about love and medicine.

Someone to Run With
, by David Grossman. Fantastically well-written literary fiction about contemporary Israel, it's a story about a young girl trying to save herself and her friends.

Siberia, by Nikolai Maslov. Published in 2006 and a true story, it's far and away the best graphic novel I read this year. A stunner.

The City and The City, by China Mieville. Expertly written politico-science fiction. I really enjoyed this neat, unique novel.

Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell. Light, lovely fun for a summer's
day- an English countryside comedy of manners.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. A beautiful, luminous novel-in-stories about a complicated and fascinating character.

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. Gorgeous achievement by one of the top writers in English today.

School for Love
, by Olivia Manning. Wonderful lesser-known novel about exiles in Jerusalem in the early 20th century.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Beautiful, suspenseful story about Renaissance-era nuns.

Lavinia, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Can't say enough good things about this post modern take on The Aeneid starring one of its minor characters.

Valley of Strength, by Shulamit Lapid. Fine historical fiction about pre-state Israel about a young mother homesteading with her new husband.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. Great dystopia from one of the genre's best practitioners and a fine follow-up to her Oryx and Crake.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Beautiful, brilliant young adult coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up on and off the reservation.

Slumberland, by Paul Beatty. A fun, lively, cracking good read about an African-American man searching for a composer in modern Germany.

In 2010 I'm going to pay less attention to current releases and hype and spend more time pursuing my own interests- literary fiction, Russian and Jewish fiction, and those classics I've been meaning to read forever. So that means fewer ARCs and fewer review requests. We'll see how it goes!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

REVIEW: The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine. Published 2008 by Anchor Books/Random House. Literary Fiction.

I picked up The Hakawati at my local indie bookstore because it looked the like the kind of book I usually like- exotic, vaguely literary, and different. It's about a Lebanese family whose paterfamilias is dying, and about the culture of stories and storytelling surrounding the family and the mixed Arab, Armenian and Druze culture they come from.

Osama al-Kharrat, a college student, returns to Beirut to sit by his father's deathbed; as he confronts various relatives and friends, the narrative cycles through the generations with stories both real and imagined. We hear love stories and coming of age tales, sibling rivalries, successes and disappointments, stories of parents and children, husbands and wives, as well as lengthy mythologies and folk tales of legendary kings, demons and assorted sprites and spirits. Alameddine does a nice job of keeping it all straight and making all these tangents and stories and characters come together.

It's a dizzying read, and while I can't say it's a favorite, I did enjoy it and I think it would appeal to readers with a taste for the exotic and the flamboyant. It's a fairly long book, and alternates between modern and fantastic settings; each interlude is relatively lengthy which gives the reader time to become engrossed in the goings-on. The stories that run through the book are also very detailed and elaborate so the reader can really get drawn into Alameddine's tales. There were times it dragged a little for me but in general I enjoyed being swept along in Alameddine's swirling storytelling and bittersweet family struggles. It's a captivating, entertaining read for the hammock or for a cold winter's night.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, December 28, 2009

IndieBound for the Holidays - How Did It Go?

I like to think I put my money where my mouth is most of the time, literally so when it comes to my support of independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores over the chains and Amazon. When it comes to my day to day book shopping, there's no question that I shop indie- or at least, bricks and mortar- over online. But then there's the question of the holidays. Every year our family shops online for gifts for my husband and me, and books represent a large proportion of what we all buy- several hundred family Christmas dollars. He and I buy bookish gifts at indies without question, but given that they prefer to shop online, in years past we've both made up wish lists at Amazon to make things easier for them.

This year though, both of us switched our wish lists to #Amazonfail was the last straw for me, and I closed my account at Amazon and eliminated my wish list; he continues to use Amazon for videos and games but has also stopped buying books there. We decided to use's wish list feature, which you can save to and search on; the site links to independent bookstores all across the country and you can choose the bookstore you want to buy from and then either pick up in-store or have them ship the books to your home, just like an online bookstore. It sounds like it should be simple, and while overall it was a good experience, there's room for improvement.

The ordering process itself could have been smoother. First, you search for the wish list and select a book to order; you're asked to choose a bookstore to shop from and then you're taken to that store's site to place the order. After I ordered a book from my husband's wish list from the store I chose, I had to go back to IndieBound to select the next book and then go back to the store's site to add it to the cart; then go back again to IndieBound for the next book, unless I happened to remember what it was. It worked out fine, but I was worried that the books wouldn't all show up in my shopping cart because it wasn't clear to me that IndieBound was communicating to the store that everything was part of the same order.

I wish the process was streamlined somehow so that users could specify a preferred bookstore and so I wasn't switching back and forth. I wish the IndieBound site would also delete or hide the books as they're bought, like Amazon does. I had to ask my husband for his password and then manually delete what I bought so that no one else would buy the same books. But I checked out and chose my shipping method (store pick-up), paid and got an email from the store within the hour telling me that most of my books were in stock and held for me at the checkout counter.

Pick-up was simple; only one book was out of stock, and the bookstore got back to me within two or three days to say it had come in. I picked up everything at once and that was that. They had a record of my prepayment and I had no problems. My husband used a different bookstore and had some issues with their record keeping. They didn't have a record that he'd paid for one of several books ordered; he paid at the counter, realized he'd paid twice and then had to get it corrected. Later, after I'd picked up my entire order, I got a call that one of the books had come in; thinking maybe I'd overlooked something, I went back to the store but nothing was held under my name. It took more checking to figure out that that call had been made in error. Meanwhile the clerks at my store were indifferent-to-difficult to deal with; as much as I love the store for its selection and history, they really need to work on their customer service!

Neither of these snags were a big deal, and neither had to do with per se, but I felt like both reflected a little lack of preparedness on the part of the bookstores and made me question whether or not I'd do my holiday shopping through IndieBound again. I know that some of my family members were a little uncomfortable with IndieBound's interface and needed assistance to use it. I got the message that they would prefer not to use it again, or at least not without someone to help them. The shuffling back and forth, the lack of clarity with respect to shipping and just the sheer number of layers between IndieBound and the actual order process made it difficult for them.

I think IndieBound has a good, if imperfect, system for helping people order online which could be improved by a smoother interface and a streamlined ordering process. Participating bookstores also need to ramp themselves up a little bit to handle the online business- if they want it. At the end of the day, would I shop indie online again? Yes, I would, but I would only use one of the two stores we dealt with and I would lower my expectations a little. Which I shouldn't have to. I'm committed enough to shopping indie that I'm willing to put up with a few snags but most people aren't, and if indies are going to make a go of online selling they need to make sure their bricks-and-mortar resources are up to the task. Otherwise people just won't use them.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Salon- A Bibliophile Christmas

I hope that everyone who celebrates Christmas had a great one last week; I know I did. Good times with friends and family, including great bookish gifts given and received. The best gift I gave was The Elements, by Theodore Gray, a fabulous coffee table book that went to my husband and to a family friend- both of whom loved it. A cross between an encyclopedia and a picture book, it goes through the entire periodic table with beautiful photographs and fascinating stories about the elements that make up our world. Did you know that Howard Hughes was sent on a secret mission by the CIA to recover a sunken Russian ship with a cover story about harvesting manganese nodules from the ocean floor? Or that certain kinds of pre-1942 Fiestaware will set off a Geiger counter? Neither did I, but you'll find these and many other neat anecdotes in this gorgeous and fun book.

I heard about it from the Books on the Nightstand podcast. Thanks Ann and Michael!

The best gift I got was my huge stack of new books and a Sony Touch e-reader to add even more new books to the mix. I think 2010 is going to be a great year in reading!

The details:

Five Finger Fiction, by my Twitter pal Brooks Sigler.
The Ladies of St. Petersberg, by Nina Berberova,
Rasskazy: New Fiction from the New Russia, an anthology of short stories,
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann,
Song of Time, "literary scifi" by Ian R. MacLeod,
The Last Jew, by Yoram Kaniuk,
a new translation of The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy- one of my all-time favorite and formative books. I read this when I was a teenager and it's one of the books that formed my taste,
The Klingon Hamlet, a paratext translation of the play by William Shakespeare,
The Making of a Marchioness, by Frances Hodgson Burnett,
Mavis Gallant's Paris Stories,
The Halfway House, by Guillermo Rosales, a "forgotten Cuban masterpiece,"
Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie,
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, by Victor Pelevin,
Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker,
Normal People Don't Live Like This, by Dylan Landis,
Buddha, vols 2-4, by Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga,
The Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji,
No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon, a French novella,
The Last of the Angels, a novel from Iraq by Fadhil Al-Azzawi,
and to top it all off,
Chocolate: A Love Story, by Max Brenner, a cookbook from the restaurant Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man- one of my favorite places in New York City.

I also got the album of music inspired by Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. Fun fangirl fun for me!

I haven't bought any e-books yet but with a $25 gift certificate in my hands, I'm sure it won't be long! In any case I think I'll have plenty to keep me busy into the new year and beyond. For now I'm going to pour a glass of eggnog and hang out and watch TV. My husband gave me a DVD of my favorite Jane Austen movie, "Persuasion," and I really, really want to curl up and watch it today!

You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Friday Finds- A Day Late

A very slow week book-wise, but that's okay- Santa made up for it!

One Hundred Great French Books, by Lance Donaldson-Evans, came via Meryl Zegarek Public Relations; glancing through it, it looks like a decent primer on the history of French literature. I recognize a lot of the titles from my days as a French major in college, which makes a certain amount of sense since the author is a college French professor. I'm looking forward to perusing it at greater length.

Santa came with books too- but that's for tomorrow!

You can find more Friday Finds at

Friday, December 25, 2009

Unfinished Friday

My unfinished pick this week is Victor Erofeyev's book of short stories, Life with an Idiot. I picked it up on a bargain table on a trip to Chicago; I'm always interested to read contemporary Russian literature so naturally it caught my eye. I got through the first story and put it down- it was weird and violent and frankly distasteful. I read the extensive footnotes at the back and I gather it was supposed to be some kind of political allegory but I like my art fiction a little less, well, gross, so this one didn't work for me! But I'm not sorry I tried. That's the thing- even when a book really bombs for me, I'm never sorry I tried!

So do you have a book you haven't finished that you'd like to tell us about?

I know most of us endeavor to finish everything we read, but we don't have to, and sometimes it's impossible- it just doesn't work for us, for one reason or another. But it's still possible to get some mileage out of that work for your blog- by sharing it with us here on Fridays!

So comment below if you have an unfinished find to tell us about and we'll visit and comment on each others' posts, just like we do on Musing Mondays and Waiting on Wednesdays and all those other great bookish memes. Feel free to use the graphic I made as well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Historical Truth or Historical Fiction?

btt button

Given the choice, which do you prefer? Real history? Or historical fiction? (Assume, for the purposes of this discussion that they are equally well-written and engaging.)

Tough one! I'm more of a fiction person generally but I think if I really wanted to learn about something I'd choose nonfiction. Historical fiction is fun but you have to take it with a grain of salt and it's not all created equal. Some of it is alarmingly disconnected from historical reality; some of it is quite faithful to it. To get anything out of historical fiction- to be able to distinguish the good from the bad- you have to be pretty well-informed about the period you're reading about. If I'm not well-informed, I treat historical fiction like pure fiction and leave it at that.

There's more Booking Through Thursday here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

REVIEW: The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel

The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel. Published 2009 by Harper Perennial. Nonfiction.

The Red Leather Diary is the story of a woman named Florence Wolfson who was a young and affluent New Yorker in the 1920s and '30s; author and reporter Lily Koppel rescued her diary from a dustbin and, fascinated by Florence's day to day recollections of her daily life including parties, theater and nightlife, tracked her down, got to know her and got her permission to create this book.

Florence's diary covers her late adolescence, from age 14 to 17, and the narrative continues into her early twenties. She's a precocious, intelligent girl who went to college early and was part of the burgeoning literary and theatrical scene in 1920s New York. She got to know actresses and writers and intellectuals; she worked on her college literary magazine and dreamt of a career as a writer. Later, she voyaged to Europe by herself, where she met a dashing Italian prince and wound her way across the continent before coming home to settle into marriage and adulthood.

When The Red Leather Diary first came out, I was eager to read it, but now I admit I was disappointed. Koppel's writing is rather spare and journalistic; it seemed to me that such a florid life might have been rendered in a prose more colorful than what Koppel chooses most of the time. Florence herself, while I'm sure a lovely woman, comes across in the diary as a vapid and self-centered girl, overprivileged and underinvovled in the world around her. Obsessed with clothes, boys and parties, she's certainly not interested in politics or social issues and held an isolationist and self-absorbed view of the world.

And Koppel's approach doesn't help. She underplays or ignores so many issues that could have enriched this otherwise straightforward story. The issue of Jewish assimilation is explored only obliquely; I read dozens of pages before I realized that Florence was even Jewish. Koppel makes repeated references to "the old country," where Florence's family came from, but never tells us what this "old country" was. When you're talking about an early 20th century American immigrant family, this is not a minor issue. Some of Florence's adventures were downright scary and I was often stunned by Florence's naivete. For example, while Florence is exploring Austria in the 1930s she befriends a pair of Austrian men who think she is "the perfect Aryan girl"; "Florence's parents," Koppel tells us, "had forbidden her to go to Germany. Usually one to speak her mind, Florence was reluctant to tell them that she was Jewish." No, really? "Reluctant" shouldn't even begin to cover it. She also manages to discuss in rather explicit detail the comings and goings of Florence's rather active sex life, again without addressing any larger issues. Just the facts, please- I guess.

I think Koppel and I have a fundamental difference of perspective when it comes to Florence and her adventures, and this difference explains my reaction to the book. Where she sees bravery and chutzpah, I see narcissism; where she sees brilliance, I see adolescent drama and angst typical of a bright girl with too much time on her hands and not enough to do:
In a blind and utter stupor- all day- home is wretched- to pity my parents is futile and destructive- and unless I fly from here- I think I have been cheated of rich beauty.
Show me a teenager who hasn't expressed these same thoughts. Impossible, I say. Impossible. I will say that The Red Leather Diary does present a vivid and interesting portrait of the New York City of the time, and anyone interested in New York history would enjoy the book for that reason. I would also recommend it for readers of light nonfiction in general, and those who enjoy reading about women's lives at different times in history. I just wish that Florence had written her own story instead, and applied her own self-awareness and hard-won wisdom to the telling. Material at the end, when the reader gets a little between-the-lines insight into the complicated and very different woman Florence became, suggests that such a book would be a wonderful, rewarding read, but that's not the book I read.

If you're interested, you can read a presentation by Koppel and an interview with Koppel conducted by Heidi Estrin of The Book of Life Podcast by clicking on the links above.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Me, the Book Snob

Last week I read a really great post over Rebecca Reads, where Rebecca talked about the need to be picky about what one reads. If you look at my welcome statement, I say the following: "I read and review literary and Jewish-interest fiction, and graphic novels. And whatever else I feel like!" I made this statement so that I don't get review offers for books I'm not interested in reading- I used to have a statement that read something like "I don't read science fiction, thrillers, YA, romance, Christian fiction or most other genre fiction most of the time." I simplified it to keep the focus on what I do want to read, and to keep things positive but the fact is that I don't read most kinds of genre fiction most of the time. Does this make me a snob?

Before you get out the pitchforks, it's not like I have never read these genres, or that I think nothing of quality gets produced within them. Every genre has its masters and I've read science fiction that I respect, and chick lit I thought was well-crafted, and YA that I thought was brilliant and beautiful. But how much time am I obligated to spend ferretting the good stuff out? How many mediocre space dramas or elf adventures do I have to read, how many didactic religious novels, how many sexist romances, how many write-by-numbers potboilers do I have to get through to find the good ones? Or before I'm excused from reading them at all? I'll confess- once in a while I like a good thriller and I have been known to lay down cash money for James Patterson and Joseph Finder. But there will be a blizzard you-know-where before I read Dan Brown, or Harry Potter, or Twilight, or anything with shopping bags or shoes on the cover. It's just not going to happen. I'm just not interested.

There's only so much time in the day, you know? Nobody has time to read everything. And at this point in my life, I've developed pretty good instincts for what I'm going to enjoy and what I'm not. Thanks to blogging and the outside-the-box reading I've done over the last couple of years, I'm even learning which publishers to avoid and which to cozy up to. And I have a lot of interests of my own that I want to pursue. I try to stay current on Jewish literature for my professional life, I want to read the Booker Prize winners, I want to read Sherman Alexie's books, and I want to read some more Russian literature and some more contemporary classics. I have over 200 books in my TBR pile right now, so the likelihood that I'll step outside my comfort zone gets smaller and smaller with each new book I buy, borrow or swap.

I've discussed this issue many times both online and in real life, and the truth is that I've been called a snob many, many times because I make no bones about my preference for literary fiction and classics, but at the end of the day I think this kind of accusation says more about the person making it than it does about me. I think I get called a snob when someone feels that I am not validating his or her own taste in books (or movies, or whatever). In other words, it's a reaction borne of insecurity and lack of confidence. If we truly respected each other and felt secure about ourselves, there would be no need for childish name-calling and angry, defensive complaining about how I'm limiting myself, or missing out on so much. Maybe so, but so what? So are genre readers who don't read award-winners. There's nothing wrong with reading what you like and refusing to apologize for it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Salon - Getting Ready for the Big Day

So with Christmas coming up, this week's going to be pretty busy! I have most of my shopping done but I still have to wrap and send out those last few cards. We send out our cards the day after Thanksgiving but I always get a few back and send them out the week before Christmas; I hope they get to their recipients on time!

My big plan for today? Bake cookies, and then bake more cookies. Friday I made sugar cookies shaped like Hello Kitty; yesterday was chocolate chip cookies and today is peanut blossoms. Tomorrow I'll make cranberry pinwheels and Tuesday I'll make gingersnaps and coconut macaroons. Finally, on Wednesday I'll make something else- what, I don't know yet. Most of the cookies are traditions but I always like to try something new as well. Then on Christmas day I have to make an upside down cake for dessert, garnished with pomegranate seeds. Yum!

We also have to take my cat to the vet today- a challenge considering the amount of snow outside! We're fairly buried here in the Boston area today! Those flamingos are in my backyard and that picture is from about 10 a.m. this morning!

What are your holiday traditions?

You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Unfinished Friday - Back for Round Two

We're back for another round!

My Unfinished Pick of the week is Jarretsville, by Cornelia Nixon.
I got it for review from the publisher, Counterpoint; I decided to give
it a go and told the publicist to expect a review in October or November. Well, now it's almost the end of December and I haven't gotten past the first chapter, so... yeah. I love Counterpoint but I don't think this one's going to happen! The book is a novel about the Civil War, in which a woman murders her fiancé. It's based on a true story from the author's family and I'm sure it's really good. It just didn't hold my attention.

And you? Do you have an unfinished book you'd like to tell us about? Leave a link with the URL to your post!

Friday Finds

A variety of finds this week!

Minx graphic novels Kimmie66 and Confessions of a Blabbermouth came via Bookmooch. I'm trying to collect as many of the Minx comics as I can get my hands on- discontinued by creator DC Comics, I want to read the whole run eventually.

My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, was a fabulous win from Nonesuch Book, which has been giving away Overlook editions of Wodehouse for a while now. Thank you!! I love Wodehouse and I was so excited to win this.

Finally, Justin Cronin's The Passage, coming out in June, came from my friends at Random House. Thank you!

You can read more Friday Finds at

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Booking Through Thursday- or, Do You Book Through Your Books?

Suggested by Barbara H:
What do you think of speed-reading? Is it a good way to get through a lot of books, or does the speed-reader miss depth and nuance? Do you speed-read? Is some material better suited to speed-reading than others?

I know there are people who read 20 books a week and swear to God that they have perfect comprehension and appreciation for the literary arts, but I don't believe them. I think speed readers miss a lot, never mind that I don't think that reading should be a race, or an endurance test, or a quantity-over-quality, don't-stop-till-you-drop marathon. Reading should be a pleasure, and should be taken at the pace of enjoyment. I read because I enjoy good writing; speed reading misses the point. I read, on average, one book per week- or rather, I finish one book per week and usually take 1-2 weeks to read an average-length book. Wolf Hall took over a month, being 400+ pages and a challenging literary read; on the other hand, I blazed through Secret Son in three days because it was short and light. Some things just go faster than others but reading fast as a habit defeats the purpose of reading.

REVIEW: Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan. Published 2007 by Viking. Literary Fiction.

Last Night at the Lobster is a short, quiet novel about a man named Manny, the manager at a Red Lobster restaurant in a down-at-heels New England mall. A few days before Christmas, its corporate masters have decided to close the restaurant, but before they close Manny and his crew have to get through one last day.

Author Stewart O'Nan creates a sweet, poignant and very real story. Manny wants to do right by his people and his family as Christmas approaches and he thinks about moving on to his next restaurant, another nearby chain, and settling his relationships both personal and professional at this one. There's drama in the kitchen and on the floor; one of the waitresses is a former lover; his current girlfriend is pregnant and then there's the shopping to do, too.

I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of the kind of realistic fiction that O'Nan tends to write (I found his more recent Songs for the Missing sort of unsatisfying as well). I like to read for escapism, and while I appreciate the empathy and respect he shows for his characters, Last Night at the Lobster is a little too close to real life for me. Some readers will enjoy the realism more than I did; some may also like it as a novel about the feelings that can come up around the Christmas holiday or as a novel about restaurant life. I enjoyed the slight dramatic tension and comedy around the antics of customers and staff and the poignancy of turning off those lights for the last time but for me Last Night is more a book to appreciate quietly and less a book to love enthusiastically. O'Nan is a fine writer but this book just wasn't a favorite.

Rating: BORROW

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Persephone Secret Santa - Revealed!!

First of all, thanks so much to Stacy of Book Psmith for organizing this great swap!

The idea behind Persephone Secret Santa was for bloggers to send and receive books from the Persephone Books line:
Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 86 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups.

My package came on Friday from Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life; go check out her blog if you haven't! Her package included a cute card, a sweet frame and an adorable pin (perfect because I collect Christmas pins!) and the book Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, by Mollie Panter-Downes. This is a collection of short stories about the experience of World War 2 in Great Britain. I think it will be a perfect addition to my library! (As you can see, my cat Sasha had to get in on the photo.)

If you'd like to see what I sent to Dolce Bellezza, you can check it out here! (Stick around to check out her gorgeous blog while you're at it!)

Is this a great swap, or what? You can see more Persephone swappers here. Thank you so much Stacy for your work organizing it!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: Maybe Later, by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian

Maybe Later, by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian. Published 2006 by Drawn & Quarterly.

Click here to buy Maybe Later via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

Maybe Later is a charming volume by French artists Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, whose normal modus operandi is to collaborate on both the art and writing of their famous Mr. Jean series. In this series, they separate and create individual journals in which they talk about their lives and their art.

I'm not familiar with Mr. Jean but I enjoyed reading this book. It wasn't spectacular or anything, but the I found the art funny and light and thought their self-deprecating humor was infectious. My eye isn't really good enough to distinguish the two styles and both journals are characterized by a similar style of loose line drawing. I found the yellow paper the comics are printed on a little hard on my eyes. As far as content, a running joke is their relationship- they're strictly business partners but they often discuss how people assume that because they work so closely that they must be close in other ways. They talk about how they collect stories from all over, how people tell them their stories and make assumptions about them.

As you might be able to tell, the stories contain some humor and sexual references that make the book appropriate for older teens and adults. Overall it's a fun book, not one of my favorites but worth a look if you're familiar with Dupuy and Berberian (or even if you're not) or want to get to know more about the French comics scene.

Rating: BORROW

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

Note: After this week Graphic Novel Monday will be on hiatus until I catch up on my backlog of books. See you back here in 2010!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Salon - A Weekend in the Berkshires

This weekend my husband and I traveled to Stockbridge, Mass., for his family's annual retreat at the Red Lion Inn, a beautiful and historic hotel in the heart of the Berkshires. Not that I sound like ad copy or anything. Usually he and I go with his parents and two other couples, along with their children, for a weekend of family time, shopping and holiday tradition. This year it was just his parents and us, and that was fine. We still had a great time. The photo on the right is the candy castle in the main dining room of the inn; it sits at the very back, near a long table. It's been there for years.

The living room is also the entryway; there's a wonderful fireplace and lots of comfortable places to read, sit and relax; I used to bring little handcrafts to do during our visit, but this time I just brought a book to read, Peter Manseau's Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, which I'm enjoying very much.

Any time we didn't spend in the dining room or the living room we spent exploring the area's shops and scenic vistas.

I have a few favorite stores to visit- T.P. Saddlebank in Great Barrington, home to designer Tasha Polizzi's beautiful clothes, The Yellow Barn bookstore, also in Great Barrington, a wonderful used and rare bookshop, and Berkshire Books, in bucolic Sheffield, another used and rare bookstore. I also love Inspired Planet in Lenox, home to a truly unusual and varied mix of artifacts and artwork from all over the world- not to mention a very friendly and chatty shopkeeper who we enjoy visiting every year. I picked up a silver pendant from India that I had seen last year- I can't believe it was still there after a year! I think it was waiting for me. At Berkshire Books, we saw some great things- a gorgeously illustrated, very old version of Alice in Wonderland with incredible illustrations by Harry Rountree that reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki, and an old book of Irish folktales, and more.

I bought a little stash of Margaret Atwood stuff- a first edition of The Blind Assassin, a copy of The Journals of Susanna Moodie (a collection of poetry) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, a children's book of all things. I would have loved to buy the Alice book but I didn't have the necessary $350-plus-tax in cash. Probably just as well. Oh well! A pretty successful weekend, I'd say!

We've been decorating the house this afternoon and tonight we're headed to the Brattle Theater in Cambridge for their annual showing of "It's a Wonderful Life." I've been going every Christmastime since I was 17!

You can read more Sunday Salon here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Unfinished Friday - First Edition

So I'm doing a test-run of a new meme this week, Unfinished Friday. The idea came up last week when I did a post about a book I hadn't finished, The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina de Robertis.

So do you have a book you haven't finished that you'd like to tell us about?

I know most of us endeavor to finish everything we read, but we don't have to, and sometimes it's impossible- it just doesn't work for us, for one reason or another. But it's still possible to get some mileage out of that work for your blog- by sharing it with us here on Fridays!

So comment below if you have an unfinished find to tell us about and we'll visit and comment on each others' posts, just like we do on Musing Mondays and Waiting on Wednesdays and all those other great bookish memes. Feel free to use the graphic I made as well. Who's going to be first?

Friday Finds - Early Holiday Presents for Me!

A big book week for me.
From the Harvard Book Store's warehouse sale I got:
Classics for Pleasure, by critic Michael Dirda. I saw Dirda speak at ReaderCon last July; this is a book of his picks of classic literature new and old, and why he thinks you should read them.
Dirda also wrote the really excellent introduction to Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is about the World War 2 experience of North Wales, and has been on my radar for a long time.

The Princess Bride, by Willian Goldman, is just one I've always wanted to read.

The Messengers of Death is another in the Commissaire Laviolette series by the very funny French mystery writer Pierre Magnan. I reviewed his Death in the Truffle Wood last year.

The Rat-Killer, by Alexander Terekhov, looked like a good entry in my contemporary-Russian-literature collection, and

It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken is a graphic novel by Seth that I've wanted to read for awhile. I saw him speak in Cambridge a while ago and have been intrigued by his work ever since.

Other finds:
Sicilian Tragedee by Ottavio Cappellani came from LibraryThing as an Early Reviewer win.

I got Ruby's Spoon, by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, in a gift bag from the Harvard Book Store at their holiday Wine-Down; it's coming out in February.

I picked up Rashi's Daughters III: Rachel, by Maggie Anton, and A Pigeon and A Boy, by Meir Shalev, at the book fair at work, and the anthology Israeli Stories from the used-book table, and

Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley's trilogy-in-one-volume came unsolicitied from the publisher.

They all look great; it's so hard to know where to start. I have a feeling The Princess Bride might make its way to my nightstand sooner rather than later but they all look fantastic.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Booking Through Thursday- Marking the Spot

Suggested by Tammy:

What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I found this in an old copy of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman I bought at a library booksale:

So if you can read this and tell me what it is, I'd love to know! But whatever it is, it's definitely the most unusual thing I've found in a book!

UPDATE: After consulting with a colleague of mine in the Jewish library world (my boss, actually!) I've confirmed that the document is a ticket to a High Holy Days service held in Tel Aviv, in pre-state Israel. HaZafon is a neighborhood there and all of the other geographic markers check out. Thanks for everyone who wrote in with their ideas and translations!

As for what I use, mostly I just dog-ear. I know- I know. Bad!

More Booking Through Thursday answers can be found here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

REVIEW: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Published 2009 by Henry Holt. Literary fiction.

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and big weighty tome, I can understand why a lot of folks would be intimidated by Hilary Mantel's latest, Wolf Hall, about the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. I was intimidated. After all, I'm not a regular reader of historical fiction of this period, and I know only its barest facts. But that's okay, because despite its formidable size and considerable depth, Mantel has written a lively and accessible piece of fiction that will reward those who attempt it with a rich literary experience.

So who was Thomas Cromwell? A blacksmith's son who rises to be Henry's top adviser; a loving husband and grieving widower; a crafty and wily politician. Wolf Hall covers the period of time from 1500 to mid-1535, with an emphasis on the latter five years or so. The drama concerns Cromwell's role in the English Reformation and the remarriage of Henry to his ladyfriend Anne Boleyn, as well as the roles and fates of Cardinal Wolsey, who opposed Henry's efforts to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine, as well as that of Katherine, her daughter Mary and Lord Chancellor Thomas More. The book opens with a five-page cast of characters and two pages of family trees, but you'll hardly need them thanks to Mantel's wonderfully vivid characterizations. I needed to flip back a couple of times to remind myself just who a particular character was in the grand scheme, but even relatively minor characters are distinct and individualized.

Particularly vivid are Henry, Anne and her sister Mary and Cromwell's own family. Anne is like a viper among the roses, quiet and determined to be queen, and Mary's distinguishing characteristic becomes clear with the repeated emphasis on her sexual escapades. Henry is a star- fitting as he is the king- a resolute and confident monarch:
[Speaking to Cromwell], Henry stirs into life. "Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm." He drops his voice. "Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.
I love this passage for what it shows of both Henry and Cromwell, as well as their relationship- stormy and sometimes difficult but driven by respect one for the other.

Wolf Hall is a long book and not a particularly easy or quick one but well worth the time and effort it demands. It took me about a month and a half to read carefully. I can't say I loved it exactly, but I admired it and think that for those of you who read historical fiction of this period it's required reading. I would also strongly recommend it for readers of character-driven literary fiction. You absolutely do not need to be well-versed in the history of the period to understand or enjoy it, but be prepared to take it slow. There is a sequel in the works as well, covering the rest of Cromwell's life. So if you think you're up for it, give it a try. You won't be sorry.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: Klezmer; Book One- Tales from the Wild East, by Joann Sfar

Klezmer; Book One- Tales of the Wild East, by Joann Sfar. Published 2006 by First Second. Graphica. Translated from the French.

Joann Sfar's graphic novel Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East is a charming and funny book with a hopeful message. Set in pre-war Europe amid the shtetls of Eastern Europe, two groups of musicians meet independently and have some comic adventures; when they meet onstage, hilarity ensues.

Yaacov, a runaway yeshiva boy, meets Vincenzo, who was kicked out of his yeshiva for stealing. Yaacov takes a banjo he finds from some dead musicians. The two boys meet Tshokola, a Gypsy musician, and proposes starting a band. Elsewhere, Noah Davidovich, the sole survivor of a group of massacred klezmer musicians, takes up with Chava, a runaway singer grown weary of the confines of shtetl life. He plays harmonica and together they head to Odessa to seek their fortune. When the two groups meet, the Gypsy Tshokola surprises everyone with a unique "Jewish" story, and love is in the air.

Klezmer is a delight from start to finish, with Sfar's trademark wit and extroverted and colorful artwork. If you've read The Rabbi's Cat or its sequel you'll already be familiar with what to expect, but the rest of you will be in for a treat if you decide to make this your first venture into Sfar's exuberant, joyful world. The occasional profanity and sexual references make it appropriate for teens and older; most of Sfar's work is not appropriate for children, as delightful as it truly is. A fun comic romp and window into a lost world, Klezmer is a terrific book.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Salon

In contrast to the last few weekends, this one has been relatively quiet. Yesterday my husband and I went to the Harvard Book Store's every-now-and-then warehouse sale, where they open up their enormous storage facility to the public and sell. We went bright and early and got an armload each of fantastic books- and the best part? We paid for it all with store credit from selling some of our old stuff a couple of weeks ago. Perfect!

That's the stash- just a few things but choice, you know? I'm very happy with my finds and looking forward to reading everything!

I love going to their warehouse sales- so much good stuff so cheap. And great service- they had tons of canvas bags to carry your finds and even the owner himself was out on the floor and helped me. We bought more than what I'm showing in the picture- those are just my books. My husband got some great things and we found some gifts as well.

Last night we attended a dessert reception and tour at the newly-renovated Cambridge Public Library; it was amazing! I've been to the library several times since it reopened last month, but there were still huge parts I hadn't seen at all, like the teen room and the children's room- and they were incredible. I also got to see some of the behind the scenes staff areas and hear a lot about the construction process. Fascinating! And the chocolate pie was pretty good, too. They even gave us tote bags with chocolate-covered fortune cookies as party favors. The fortune?

"There is a book in your future." Truer words were never spoken!

But today the weather is lousy and with not-much on the agenda, I'm looking forward to a quiet day at home. Of course I say that every Sunday and then it never turns out that way, so we'll see! I'm ten pages shy of finishing Wolf Hall; afterwards, I'm on to Mathilda Savitch, I think.

What books are in your future today?

Friday, December 4, 2009

UNFINISHED FRIDAY: The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina de Robertis

The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina de Robertis. Published 2009 by
Random House. Hardcover.

Click here to buy The Invisible Mountain via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a percentage of the sales price.

I won an advance reader's copy of The Invisible Mountain in a Random House promotion and I was pretty interested in reading it, especially after hearing great things about it on the Books on the Nightstand podcast, of which I am an avid listener (and you should be, too!).

It's an intergenerational story of three women- mother, daughter and granddaughter- in an Uruguayan family, starting with Pajarita, an herbal healer who marries a charismatic Italian, and continuing through her headstrong troubled daughter Eva and Eva's daughter Salome.

Overall it struck me as a rather mediocre book that felt like it was written quickly and driven by over-familiar tropes- the put-upon wife who finds liberation through a community of women, the drunken husband, the abused young woman and the magical healer. And how many books have we read this year about herbalists? The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Sacred Hearts, The Year of the Flood. And these are all really good books- superior to The Invisible Mountain, to be sure. Maybe if I hadn't read it right next to these, better, books, it wouldn't have bothered me so much.

I put the book down about halfway through, partly because I lost my copy and partly because I was bored and didn't feel like looking for it. It's not a bad book as these things go; it's interesting enough and competently written, and it will appeal to many readers. In fact, as I was reading, it struck me as one of those books almost tailor-made to be marketed to book clubs and readers for whom buzzwords like "intergenerational" and "exotic setting" and "story of women" both resonate and motivate. And that's me, to a certain extent. But the magic didn't quite happen for me this time.

Like the idea behind Unfinished Friday? Want to do your own and link back here, so we can all read each others'? Starting next Friday let's give it a go!

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

But enough about you, what about ME?

Today’s question?

What’s your favorite part of Booking Through Thursday? Why do you participate (or not)?

I participate because it's fun way to build community and meet other bloggers, and because I like having a random question to answer each week that gets me to think about some aspect of books and reading. I've been making an effort lately to do more opinion pieces on the blog and Booking Through Thursday helps inspire me! And it's nice to have a pre-made topic once a week- kind of like a little break! What about you? Why do you participate (or not) in weekly memes like BTT?

More Booking Through Thursday here.