Monday, May 31, 2010

Armchair BEA- We have a winner!

I'm thrilled to announce the winner of my Armchair BEA giveaway- Marlene, of the fantastic blog Book Lover and Procrastinator. What a great name for a book blog! It's a new favorite of mine for sure and I hope you all go check it out.

Thanks to everyone who entered and thanks to the organizers of Armchair BEA for the event. I was glad to be able to share some of the fun of going to a big conference with you all, and I hope some of you new followers stick around. I look forward to getting to know you and your blogs!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Salon- Recovery Mode

After a whirlwind five days in New York for Book Expo and Book Blogger Con, I came home late Friday night and spent yesterday (and plan to spend today) resting and reading. I shipped home three boxes of books from the exhibit floor, many for a giveaway I'll be doing as part of the upcoming conference of the New England Association of Jewish Libraries; my boxes should arrive on Tuesday and I can't wait to get them.

What did come home with me was the fabulous swag bag from Book Blogger Con- a stack of novels and other goodies I've been having fun combing through.

Of course the best part about all of this was the fabulous time I had with the great people I met. I'm going to write a fuller post about the week for tomorrow but for now I'll just say- wow. It was incredible.

Today? More resting, more reading. I think the cold I was fighting before my trip came back and I'm going to settle in to finish Jane Gardam's Old Filth, and then start The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. That's a short book and I expect to finish it quickly; I think The Frozen Rabbi has to be up after that. Naturally I'll keep you posted! What are you up to today?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Unfinished Friday: Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

It's killing me, but I have to admit I'm not going to finish Peter Carey's new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America.

I picked my copy up at ALA Midwinter. Right after the Random House "Book Buzz" presentation, where library marketing reps introduced the spring titles, I sprung to the exhibit floor, and waited in front of the stack of Carey galleys for the moment when the cover would be lifted and the books given out. I'm a huge, huge fan of Oscar and Lucinda and said that no matter what, I wasn't leaving ALA without his new book. And I didn't.

Then I started reading, and it kills me to say this, but I thought it was just boring. Not badly written. Not terrible. Just, not for me. It's a picaresque and I find picaresques notoriously dull. This story told in alternating voices, of two men voyaging to the young United States in the mid nineteenth century, just didn't hold my attention. Olivier is a French aristocrat modeled after Alexis de Toqueville, sent to America to report on its prison system; Parrot is his English servant, and his half of the narrative is much livelier and his voice much more engaging. I gather that Olivier is meant to be a bit of a bore, a bit of a snob and a bit of a dullard. Unfortunately Parrot wasn't enough to keep me going and as much as it pains to admit it, I'm probably not going to finish this book.

I'm also not going to get rid of it, so who knows. I may very well pick it back up again but for now I must admit defeat.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

ArmChair BEA Giveaway- YA Grab Bag

My ArmChair BEA Giveaway is for the stack of YA galleys pictured below. These are winter and spring 2010 titles from a variety of publishers, all in new condition. I'm giving away all of the titles to one winner, like a real galley grab. I'll also thrown in a gently-used conference-floor totebag I picked up at ALA Midwinter (which is also where these books came from), and maybe an extra surprise or two.

The titles:
The Popularity Papers, by Amy Ignatow
The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, by Heather Brewer,
The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped, by Yxta Maya Murray,
Fang, by James Patterson,
Dragons of Darkness, by Antonia Michaelis,
The Prophecy, by Dawn Miller,
Magic Under Glass, by Jaclyn Delamore (with the embargoed "white washed" cover, FYI),
Night Runner, by Max Turner,
Emily the Strange: Stranger and Stranger, by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner,
Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, by Andrea Beaty,
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger,
Enchanted Glass, by Diane Wynne Jones.

The rules:
  • Open to U.S. entrants only.
  • Open only to those attending neither BEA nor Book Blogger Con.
  • The giveaway is for the whole pile. If there's something in it that you don't want, you're free to dispose of it as you see fit. You're free to do whatever you want with all of the books.
  • Leave a comment with your email address. Entries without email addresses will be disregarded.
  • Tweet the entry for an extra entry; become a follower for two extra entries.
  • The contest is open now until midnight, Sunday May 30. I'll pick the winner during the day on Sunday and announce the winner on Monday.
  • I will pick the winner using and will notify the winner immediately. The winner has 48 hours to get back in touch with me with a shipping address. If I don't hear from the winner in that time, I'll choose a new winner.
Good luck and happy Armchair BEA!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Special Feature: Interview with author Maxim D. Shrayer

Maxim D. Shrayer ( is professor of Russian, English, and Jewish studies at Boston College. Among his books are Russian Poet/Soviet Jew and the literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. Shrayer won the National Jewish Book Award for the Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature.

Author's photo by Aaron Washington.

Maxim D. Shrayer in conversation with Marie Cloutier about his new book, the collection of stories Yom Kippur in Amsterdam.

7 May 2010

1. “Yom Kippur in Amsterdam” is a collection of eight short stories about a diverse group of characters, people at different points in their lives and different settings, many of them on the verge of one transition or another. Can you elaborate some of the themes the stories share? How do these eight stories form a whole?

MDS: This sounds both alluring and mysterious. Thank you, Marie, for reading the collection. You’re right that the eight stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam aren’t connected by narrative threads. At the same time, thematic ropes and tethers of identity hold the stories together. Seven of the eight stories are set—and the eighth is presumably remembered and told—in Russian America. All of the protagonists but one are Russian immigrants or their children. In these stories, I trace various obsessions and aspirations of Russian (Soviet) immigrants in America. There is humor and tenderness in the stories, and also heartbreak and nostalgia. There are boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and culture that my characters desperately try yet often fail to cross. The identities of my characters are overloaded (Jewish, Russian, Soviet, almost or partly American) and therefore unstable, volatile. It’s not simple or easy to generalize about one’s own book or one’s beloved characters. I think my new book offers a collective portrait of Jews in America struggling to come to terms with ghosts of their Russian and Soviet pasts.

2. What was it about these themes that intrigued you? What were you trying to work through or think about as you were writing?

MDS: As you know, there are about 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union living in North America, and about a million in Israel. It’s difficult to imagine the fabric of our communities without ex-Soviet Jews. And yet, our stories (or is it our story?) are only now entering the cultural mainstream. Several years ago, in my memoir Waiting for America, I wrote about Soviet Jews waiting in transit, in Austria and Italy, to become Americans. As I worked on the stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, I kept asking myself: Why is it that in America Soviet Jews and their children have been so successful professionally (think, for instance, of the inventor of Google), and yet have not been fully integrated or acculturated as either Jews or Americans? In creating my characters, I wanted to get to the bottom of what it feels like to be constantly wrestling with the mix of prosperity, professional pride, cultural loneliness, and insecurity that defines the lives of many ex-Soviet Jews.

3. A the end of the title story, Jake, the protagonist, has what struck me as a near-mystical experience, this moment of "piercing clarity." What was this clarity? Does it come from within him, or from an external source? What prepares him (and us) for the change about to overtake him?

MDS: You’re absolutely correct that Jake Glaz undergoes a mystical experience while attending the Yom Kippur service at Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue. We should also remember that Glaz comes to Amsterdam in the aftermath of having broken up with his Catholic girlfriend Erin, who wouldn’t convert (he still has strong feelings for her). And let’s also keep in mind that upon arriving in Amsterdam (he stops there on the way home from Nice so as to avoid having to atone in flight), Jake Glaz visits the Red Light district and finds some answers to his dilemma of marriage and identity in a paid-for conversation with a part-German, part-Jewish prostitute. Since the experience Jake undergoes during the Yom Kippur service is a metaphysical one, his “clarity” is quite beyond words—either in his native Russian or his acquired English. It would be presumptuous for me to overinterpret in discursive terms what I have related in the story though a combination of metaphors and a lyrical digression.

I will tell you this much: Jake’s realization relieves him of some of his doubts about his own identity. Allow me to offer a brief quote from the scene (this is on p. 141 of the book): “Jake was no longer thinking of Yom Kippur, of Erin, of Jewishness and Christianity. Those matters he had already understood, if not fully resolved in his heart, and this knowledge comforted him. He arrived at a plan—in the streets of Amsterdam: he would return to Baltimore, where after seventeen years his immigrant family had rooted themselves; they had even brought back from Moscow and reburied the remains of his father's parents. In four years, when Jake turned forty, he would have lived in America for half his life. Leaving Russia at nineteen, he had carried with him on the plane baggage so heavy that it took him years to unload it and so lofty that there were still times he couldn't stand solidly on American ground. That first flight over the Atlantic was also a flight from all the demons, monsters, and sirens a Jew can never seem to escape.”

4. How does your book fit into the growing, and fascinating, body of fiction emerging from the post-Soviet landscape?

MDS: That’s certainly not for me to judge, Marie. Take a look at this very amusing flyer (attached). A colleague of mine found it in a blog devoted to things Russian, American and literary. As you can see, this list of younger writers (how young is younger—in the Soviet Union it was 35, sometimes even 40), includes 5 authors born in the former USSR and writing in English, 1 author born in the USSR and writing in both English and Russian, 1 American-born author of Turkish descent with Russian literary interests, and 1 American-born author (whose origins I honestly don’t know) who writes fictions about Russian characters. What do you make of such a category of writers “on notice”? I certainly agree that the Russian-American literary landscape is beginning to expand again. But people sometimes forget that the Russian presence in Anglo-American letters goes back to the 1800s, and also that we have yet to climb peak Lolita or to descend to the bottom of canyon Fountainhead.

5. Tapping your expertise as a scholar of Soviet and Jewish literature, what are some recent Jewish/Russian fiction and nonfiction that Judaica librarians might consider adding to their collections?

MDS: Volume 2 of Antony Polonsky’s The Jews in Poland and Russia is a must (it was just released), along with the previously published volume 1. It would also make me very happy if Judaica librarians got to know my Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature.

6. Would you be willing to share a personal memory about a library that helped shape you as a scholar and a writer?

MDS: In the spring of 1993 I spent almost two months in Prague gathering materials for what would eventually become my first book, The World of Nabokov’s Stories. I was renting a section in the house of Viktor Faktor, a vintage ’68 Czech dissident. Every morning I would have breakfast in an overflowing cherry orchard and then take a tram to town. I would walk across the Charles Bridge and then disappear in the cloisters of the Slavonic Library. I was researching aspects of Russian émigré culture in then the recently opened holdings of what had remained of the Russian Historical Archive Abroad. Dr. Milena Klímová, at the time director of the Slavonic Library, introduced me to a saintly archivist by the name of Helena Musátova.

A Prague-born daughter of Russian émigrés, Ms. Musátova was herself a living legacy of the great interwar émigré culture which had been destroyed and dispersed by the fires of World War 2 and the Holocaust. With Ms. Musátova’s help, I was able to read though the complete runs of dozens of émigré newspapers and magazines. I made small discoveries. To the librarians at the Slavonic Library—and to other dedicated librarians with whom I’ve had the good fortune of working- I owe a debt of gratitude. So imagine, I would spend the day perusing the time-yellowed émigré publications, and then I would wander around Prague, coming onto vestiges of its Jewish and Russian past- now Kafka’s grave, now a cottage where Tsvetaeva had stayed in the 1920s. That “Prague spring” of research and discovery has influenced me profoundly, and I have yet to cast these impressions and memories into creative prose.

It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Marie. Good luck.

7 May 2010.

Maxim D. Shrayer’s answers copyright © Maxim D. Shrayer.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

REVIEW: Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, by Maxim D. Shrayer

Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, by Maxim D. Shrayer. Published 2009 by Syracuse University Press. Literary Fiction. Short stories.

Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, Maxim D. Shrayer's collection of short stories, was yet another impulse purchase from one of my favorite local indie bookstores, Porter Square Books, and just the sort of slightly unusual, idiosyncratic thing I look for in indie bookstores.

Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, is local to the Boston area and this collection of eight stories, many set in or around college campuses, uses various kinds of love stories to cover themes of identity, immigration and religion. Interfaith relationships figure prominently in these stories as various Russian Jewish characters try to figure out where they fit in America. My favorite story, "The Disappearance of Zalman," about a young man experiencing problems with his non-Jewish girlfriend while at the same time learning Hebrew with a young Hasid by the name of Zalman, ends with a surprising twist; others, like "Horse Country" and the titular story "Yom Kippur in Amsterdam" have a mystical quality. "Sonetchka" and "Last August in Biarritz" are darker and more violent.

I liked Shrayer's careful, detailed writing and emphasis on character over plot in much of the book. At least, having finished it, the characters have stayed with me more than what happens to them. I think this is a great collection for the reader of literary fiction and readers of Jewish fiction and books on the Russian-Jewish experience in America will certainly want to add it to their TBR pile. It fits in nicely with other recent collections such as Sana Krasikov's award-winning One More Year and Ellen Litman's wonderful and under-appreciated The Last Chicken in America. Like Litman's book, Shrayer's takes place almost entirely in the United States and although the stories don't focus on the same characters the way hers does, the stories fit together nicely and I almost felt like I was reading a novel in stories even though I really wasn't. It's a very thoughtful, satisfying read and one I'm glad to have pulled off the shelf.

Click here for my interview with Dr. Shrayer.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer Reading

This past weekend I did a major weed of my TBR shelves- I can't even tell you how many books I weeded out, but I donated three bags of books to my favorite charity shop, Boomerang's in Boston, and I have at least as much left over to sell. The end result of this sorting out is giving up on a host of old books (if it's from 2008, I never think about it and I haven't even entered it into my LibraryThing catalog, am I going to read it? No.), finding things on my shelves I haven't laid eyes on in literally months, and moving some of those buried treasures up to the front of the pile.

Foremost among the buried treasures is my NYRB Classics edition of J.G. Farrell's Troubles, which just this past week won the Lost Man Booker Prize award. I picked this up ages ago, at another local charity bookshop (Bryn Mawr Books of Cambridge) on impulse. It's about Ireland and it looked literary- sometimes that's all it takes to sell me. And now I certainly feel validated!

Then there are all these great books coming out this summer- Gary Shteyngart's new one, Super Sad True Love Story, China Miéville's Kraken, and more. Moved those to the front of the pile.

I was happy to be reminded that I own The Jewish Husband, Lia Levi's novel published by Europa Editions, which also looks really great. And I re-found Stephanie Cowell's Claude and Camille, which I picked up at ALA Midwinter and have heard great things about.

I'm not looking to add a ton of books to my stash right now, but I'd love to get a hold of The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer, which I heard about on the Books on the Nightstand podcast. A story about the Holocaust in Hungary, it sounds like it's right up my alley and I'll definitely be on the lookout for it in the bookstores of New York this week. BOTN host and friend Ann Kingman said it was the best book she's read so far this year, comparable to Cutting for Stone- that's like saying, "hey, Marie, you need to read this!"

With Memorial Day weekend coming up soon, I need to start thinking about my summer reading. Summer is a time when I like to pick up idiosyncratic reads- not necessarily the hot new things (although when favorite authors like Shteyngart and Miéville have new books out, they're irresistible) but those books lingering at the back of the shelf, the books published years ago that just strike a chord. And then when I'm lucky and I get the chance, I fill a tall glass with a cool drink, head out to the hammock in the back yard, and read.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Salon - BEA-Bound

So as we speak I'm putting the final touches on my preparations for Book Expo America. I'm almost packed and ready to go, and I can't wait. My calendar is full to overflowing so let me say now- if I promised to be somewhere and I'm not there, please accept my apologies in advance. Although I've been to large conferences before, this is my first time at BEA and while I'm going to do my best to be where I need to be, I'm sure something will fall through the cracks. If that something is something I promised you, please forgive me- and don't take it personally!

I'm looking forward to the parties, the people and the fun- and the books! I'll get to spend some time with friends before the Expo, meet lots of on- and offline friends during the Expo, and then head off to Book Blogger Con on Friday for even more bookish fun. I'm moderating the Blogging with Social Responsibility panel at BBC, which should be great. The panelists are some of the most interesting people I've come across in the blogosphere and I'm honored to be able to work with them.

So what about Boston Bibliophile? Tuesday I'll have a review of author Maxim D. Shrayer's book of short stories, Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, an interview with Shrayer on Wednesday, and a giveaway affiliated with Armchair BEA on Thursday, just for folks not able to attend BEA and/or BBC. Then on Friday I have a surprising Unfinished Friday to relate.

I'm still trying to come up with something for tomorrow!

The interview I did with author Yann Martel is up at the Association of Jewish Libraries' blog. And if the subject of Jewish books interests you, you just might want to bookmark that site and come back because you never know what we'll have.

Today I'm reading Jane Gardam's Old Filth, a great novel about Britain's 20th century. I'm bringing my ereader on my trip, which actually works with my computer now, and I'm going to start by reading A Mountain of Crumbs, a memoir by Elena Gorokhova about growing up in Soviet Russia in the 1960s. If I finish that, I'm on to Transgression, a novel about forbidden love in World War 2 by James W. Nichol.

Have a great week! I know I will. More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Finds- Short & Sweet

Three great finds this week.

A galley of China Miéville's new book, Kraken, came from my friends at Random House. I'm going to start on it the minute I get back from BEA and if I hadn't sworn to myself not to bring any print books with me I would start sooner.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, is one of those American classics I've always meant to read, so I got it from Bookmooch. Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things also came via Bookmooch, from Poland; I'm looking forward to both.

I'm going to substitute an Unfinished Friday next week as I'll be away at BEA and all my posts will be done in advance, but I hope you come back next week anyway.

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, May 20, 2010

REVIEW: The Night Counter, by Alia Yunis

The Night Counter, by Alia Yunis. Published 2009 by Shaye Areheart Books. Literary fiction.

I picked up The Night Counter several months ago, more or less on impulse, because I had recently finished Rabih Alameddine's The Hakawati, about the stories and secrets of a large and scattered Lebanese family and I was looking for more of the same. Lighter and less literary than The Hakawati, The Night Counter is a great read.

The Night Counter follows the days and nights of 85 year old Fatimah Abdullah, who has left her husband in Detroit and gone to live with her actor grandson Amir in Los Angeles. Fatimah has regular visitations with Scheherazade, the mythical spinner of stories; when the novel opens, Fatimah is on night 992 of stories and believes she will die on night 1,001.

In the mean time, Alia Yunis's warm and funny narrative takes the reader all over the country and all over the world as Scheherazade visits Fatimah's large, far-flung family. Amir is trying to work out his acting career, his love life and his contentious relationship with his hippie mother Soraya. Pretty Texan Dina, one of Fatimah's many grandchildren, goes to Beirut on a school-sponsored trip ostensibly to study Lebanese law but really to follow handsome Jamal and escape her pushy hometown boyfriend Jake. Fatimah's husband Ibrahim sits lonely in Detroit, missing his wife and reminiscing about their love story. Their daughter Laila is recovering from cancer while taking care of her aging father and her own brood of boys. And Fatimah spends her days attending Arab funerals, talking to herself and bemoaning the absence of her family. But it's Fatimah's granddaughter Decimal née Aisha, teenaged, troubled and pregnant, who shows up on Amir and Fatimah's doorstep out of the blue, who brings Fatimah unexpected happiness at the end of her life.

The Night Counter is a sweet and well-crafted light read. I found it to be more approachable than the (for me) over-written Hakawati and I loved all the characters and their stories. I couldn't even begin to pick a favorite. Well, I mean, of course Fatimah is my favorite character and I loved watching her thorny-but-loving relationship with Amir in the present and her own love stories with her two husbands in the past. Bittersweet and lovely, its stories are immersing and its spell enchanting. Readers of both light and literary fiction will delight in this lovely book.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

REVIEW: Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Published 1999 by Penguin. Literary Fiction. Booker Prize Winner.

Winner of the 1999 Man Booker Prize, Disgrace is a stunner of a novel. It's the second Booker Prize winner by South African author J.M. Coetzee (the first was Life and Times of Michael K, a winner in 1983) and almost as soon as I started it I could see why it won. It's one of the those novels that really has it all- a strong plot, great characters, distinctive style and strong setting. The plot? David Lurie, a Cape Town college professor, ruins his life after an ambiguous affair with a student, then goes to live with his daughter Lucy, a homesteader in rural South Africa. There, they endure an unspeakable tragedy. The rest of the novel is fallout from these two life-changing events.

Also omnipresent in the book are the racial and sexual politics of South Africa as the characters wrestle with guilt and the consequences in this landscape of living the lives they want for themselves. If you read Solar and thought Michael Beard was an unappealing character, you're going to hate David Lurie, a stubborn, difficult man bitter about his diminishing prospects with career and women who refuses to see the reality of every situation he's in. At the same time, though, Coetzee makes the reader care about him first by punishing him and then by showing his slow crawl back to humanity via the growing compassion that builds through his work in a veterinary hospital.

Gender, sexuality and race are but a few of the themes running through this dense, economically written novel. Coetzee races through the affair and Lurie's downfall then lingers over Lurie's new life with Lucy and its brutal fallout. His recreation of life on Lucy's farm was so vivid I felt like I was there; Lurie's ostracism from his academic life is equally vivid and moving. Lucy and Lurie are both unforgettable characters, so entrenched in their points of view and so unwilling to see any but their own way out of their predicaments. I read the book in about two days and couldn't put it down once I started. For the reader of literary fiction who can like an unlikeable protagonist, Disgrace is a must-read. I received the book in a Bookmooch trade and it came with a sticky note on the title page that read "Phenomenal piece of literature. You will not be disappointed!" I couldn't agree more.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Musing Mondays - Movies and Books

Musing Mondays2Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about movies based on books…

What happens when you see a movie based on a book/story, especially one you’ve not read? Do you feel the need to track it down and read it?

It depends. If I like the movie a lot, I'll be curious about the book; for example, when I saw Revolutionary Road, I decided to track the book down right away. I had to read Gone with the Wind after seeing the movie, and The Godfather too. If the movie left me with some questions about the characters and their motivations, or the plot, or anything else that's bothering me, I'll look around for the book. That's what happened with The World According to Garp. I might not get around to reading it right away, and there's always the danger that the movie is different enough from the book that I'll be disappointed or my questions won't be answered, but usually the book is a better experience for me than the movie. But then if the movie didn't appeal I won't bother with the book.

Musing Monday is hosted by the fabulous Rebecca at Just One More Page.

Graphic Novel Monday will return in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Salon- Bookhounding in Boston

So yesterday my husband and I stopped by a favorite bookstore we haven't visited in about a year, Seek Books, in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. It's a used bookstore that specializes in science fiction and fantasy. It only opened about a year ago and we visited last summer but for some reason haven't gotten around to going back.

My husband collects a series of Stephen King novels, The Gunslinger, that were published as limited special editions; until yesterday he was only missing the first of the series' seven volumes, which, yes, he found for a great price. He also found a pile of the Doctor Who paperbacks he collects, including some choose-your-own-adventure Doctor Who books he didn't even know existed. He was so excited! Later in the day I found my own little treasure, a first edition of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, at a nearby charity shop.

Seek Books has this incredible collection of scifi for two reasons- it's run by a bona vide nerd who said he built the kind of bookstore he would want to shop in, and because he has a policy of only stocking one copy of each title for maximum selection.

Today we're going back to make sure he got all the Doctor Who books he's missing. Should be fun.

Reading? I started J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace last night and can't wait to get back to it. It's a Booker Prize winner and so far, I'm not surprised. It's incredible!

I'm also getting ready for a busy week of work, including my first author interview over the phone on Tuesday, and a lot of posting for BEA week. I'll have a giveaway connected to Armchair BEA and lots of other great content for while I'm away.

I hope to see lots of you in New York!

You can read more Sunday Salon here

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Finds- A Short Stack, and a Special Treat

In the short stack we have:

Dovid Bergelson's collection of short stories, The Shadows of Berlin. Bergelson was considered one of the pre-eminent Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union; Stalin had him killed for it. My husband picked up this City Lights publication for me on his trip to San Francisco last week.

Paul Harding's Tinkers just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I got it at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Magda Szabo's novel The Door intrigued me after I heard about it on the Almost Insider blog. It came to me via Bookmooch. And seriously, if you love European literary fiction, you have to start following this fantastic blog.

Stendhal's On Love, in a beautiful Hesperus Press paperback edition, came via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott was almost lost to me; I was supposed to get it for review back in March, but it got lost in the mail and the publicist rushed me another copy. Thank you! I started reading it already and I'm really enjoying it.

And my special treat? A first edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Despair. I found this ex-library copy
at the wonderful Lorem Ipsum, a used bookstore in Inman Square, Cambridge, for a very reasonable price. I don't think I ever imagined I would own any first-edition Nabokov, so I am over the moon to have found this little treasure.

I read Despair on my big college Nabokov kick, when for a summer I would go back and forth from the Harvard Coop every so often to read my way through his novels. To be honest I don't remember much about it but I'm really looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. Yippee!

What are you thrilled to have found this week? You can find more Friday Finds at

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Booking Through Thursday- Influences

btt button

Are your book choices influenced by friends and family? Do their recommendations carry weight for you? Or do you choose your books solely by what you want to read?

My book choices aren't really influenced by anything except my own interests, both personal and professional. My husband will occaisonally suggest a science fiction title that I'll read, and sometimes even enjoy, but for the most part my family's tastes are very different from mine and I tend to be a more self-directed reader rather than one who relies on others' suggestions.

You can find more Booking Through Thursday answers here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tales from the E-side

So as I wrote a month or two ago, I got a Sony Touch ereader for Christmas. I had a few problems with it connecting to my computer; Sony support was useless and the problem still isn't resolved. But, in the mean time, I've actually really been enjoying using my little toy.

In its pretty little envelope, it's light and easy to use. I love it when I travel; no more paper books when I'm on the road. When I go to BEA in two weeks, it's going to be my constant companion.

Ebooks themselves? I like them. The convenience is the biggest appeal for me- being able to carry a shelf of books in my purse. But it doesn't feel like a real book; the experience of reading electronically isn't as satisfying for me as reading paper books. I can't quite put it into words, but it just feels weird. Unnatural. If convenience isn't an issue, I'd rather be able to take notes, flip back and forth easily, get books signed, collect them and watch them line up on my shelves.

And, I have a lot of questions about ebooks and ereaders. I wonder how ereading will change in the short term when it seems like every other week a new manufacturer comes out with a new device. When the devices change, how will that affect the ebooks we already own? If I bought something from Sony and for some reason buy an iPad, could I port my Sony ebooks to my new device or would they become inaccessible? What I hear about Amazon tracking what people highlight in Kindles is just creepy. And I would hate to have a retailer rescind access to something I'd paid for. And I wish I could give my ebooks away when I'm done with them as I often do with paper books.

I wonder about the book-buying experience when your choice of device ties you to a retailer; Sony ereader owners buy from the Sony store, Kindle owners from Amazon, etc. There are some indie bookstores that sell ebooks, but not very many, and even those that do, don't publicize it well. I emailed one indie asking if they sold ebooks and they didn't even bother to respond. I wonder about libraries; I know some libraries lend out ebooks but I wonder about the future and how rights and pricing will affect what libraries are willing to stock in electronic form.

People love to try to convince me that paper books are on their way out, that ebooks will replace them completely, just as the iPod and electronic music has decimated the CD industry. I think that argument is a canard, and I think some people just like to be polemical and contrarian. Ereaders are still fairly expensive luxury items; I think when you're a book person surrounded by book people it's easy to forget that most people aren't, and that something like an ereader might not have the same universal appeal among the general public as it might among one's own nerdy, relatively affluent friends.

Mp3 players are cheaper and more plentiful; even if you can't afford a fancy iPod, you can play music on cell phones or cheaper mp3 players. Books aren't music; reading a book is more of a commitment than downloading a song, and music has a longer lifespan than a book in terms of its use. When you're done with a book, you're done, unless you're a nerd like me who rereads. Who needs the ebook when you're done with it? Nobody. And you can't give it away. Paper books have a huge advantage in terms of recycling. If I download a song I might listen to it 100 times and share it with a friend (legally) while still keeping my own copy.

I have to laugh a little whenever I hear an ereader owner complain that they can't afford to pay full price for ebooks. If you can afford a luxury device like an ereader, you can afford books. Maybe you don't want to pay full price, but not wanting to isn't the same as not being able to. When Amazon and Macmillan tussled over the price of ebooks earlier this year, I was 100% on Macmillan's side and thought it was preposterous when Amazon complained about Macmillan's "monopoly"; it's not a monopoly when you assert control over your own property. I took it as another instance of too-powerful, overreaching Amazon trying to assert its own monopoly on the book business. It was gratifying to see the debacle have the side effect of pushing more people over to the side of the indie bookstores.

Nowadays when people ask me what I think of ebooks, I say ereading is a great new format on which to enjoy the books we love, and works well sometimes, for some people, just like audio books work well for some people and paper books work well for others. Ereading isn't my favorite format but I enjoy it and it works for me in certain circumstances. For me, paper books will always be my favorite. The best part is, it doesn't have to be one or other other.

I do, however, love my ereader cover unreservedly. I bought it from Elizabeth David Design at

Monday, May 10, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Emiko Superstar, by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston

Emiko Superstar, by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston. Published 2008 by Minx. Graphica. Fiction.

Emiko Superstar is the latest Minx title to reach the top of my TBR pile; it's adorable.

Emily is a Canadian suburban teenager who's feeling down. She quits her coffeeshop job after a whipped-cream mishap and plans to "spend the summer sulking"; instead, she ends up working as a babysitter for a picture-perfect suburban couple, and life seems hopeless in that way that life can when you're in high school and a long, dull summer stretches out in front of you.

She longs for excitement and thinks she may have found it when she encounters The Factory, an after-hours arty nightclub where edgy, artsy types experiment with performance art. There, she meets nerdy Henry, a kid on the margins of this exciting place, and she tries to negotiate her way into the scene with the help of a pilfered diary and her grandmother's vintage clothes. But all is not as it seems at The Factory, and even the spotlight has a dark side.

I've reviewed several Minx titles in the past, and it's definitely an uneven bunch of books. Having said that, Emiko Superstar is a great light little read. In fact, it's probably my favorite Minx so far. Emily is a sweetheart and a very believeable young lady, her teen angst is well-conceived and feels genuine and her experiments with the alternative scene reminded me of people and places I've known. One of the features of the Minx line is a diverse cast of girls- different races, religions, body types and lifestyles. Emily is mixed-race and clearly not Barbie-skinny but neither of these elements even merit a mention in the book itself- a good thing, I think, to show characters of different backgrounds without defining them as this or that. I like this one a lot, and I think it would be a terrific choice for the teen girl in your life, or for the grownup looking for something quick, sweet and distracting.

Rating: BEACH

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

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Salon - Happy Mother's Day!

It's been a busy week in books for me, but next week looks to be a little more laid-back. Last week I went to two author events- on Wednesday Maxine Kumin read from her latest book of poetry Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, and the next night, Brunonia Barry from her new book, The Map of True Places. I got a bunch of books signed as well, of course. I'm putting together a little giveaway for later in the week; stay tuned.

Barry was charming and talked about the evolution of her writing career and the ideas behind her new book and shared what some of what she learned about celestial navigation during her research for Map. Her first book, The Lace Reader, was the first book that was sent to me as a blogger and I'm a big fan. It was a great night and a pleasure to meet her.

I've been doing various interviews for the blog I'm assisting with for the Association of Jewish Libraries, and I hope to share some of those with you soon. My interview with local author and academic Maxim Shrayer should be ready for prime time soon and there are more to come.

I had fun participating in Persephone Reading Week this past week; at this point I think I'm ready to add every book in the Persephone line to my wishlist!

Today I don't know how much time I'm going to have for reading but I'll do the best I can. I've started reading Alina Bronsky's wonderful, heartbreaking Broken Glass Park, but I have a family Christening today and I think that will keep me pretty busy.

What are you doing today? I hope whatever it is, you have a great day.

You can read more Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Persephone Reading Week: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

I heard about Persephone Reading Week, a week devoted to reading books published by Persephone Books, from Frances at the great literary blog Nonsuch Book. It's hosted at the blog Paperback Reader. Since I have a number of Persephone titles waiting to be read, I decided to make a concerted effort to participate.

For my week of Persephone reading, I chose the wonderful Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. Panter-Downes was a prolific journalist and short story writer who was published regularly in the New Yorker magazine during the first part of the 20th century; the stories in this book appeared there October 1939 and December 1944. All of the stories take as their subject domestic life in Britain during World War 2.

Reading this collection was a pleasure, albeit often of the bittersweet kind. Tinged with sadness and irony, the stories feature many types of people- single, married, mistresses and adulterers, children, the poor and the wealthy and the middle class. The characters experience loneliness and brief moments of connection as they manage the isolation, privation, anxiety and more- all the many disruptions and chaos and helplessness of English life during the war. A young working woman living alone tries to reach out to a neighbor for companionship; a well-off woman cheerfully rids herself of a boarder who no longer needs her, only to feel an unnameable remorse at rebuffing another woman who does; an upper class woman simply cannot understand why the poor mother she tries to help can't seem to keep herself or her children in tolerable order. In the title story, a young woman having an affair with a married man who's left for the war must decide whether to contact his family to find out if he's still alive.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is a tender, affectionate portrait of people doing their best in difficult times- even if their best isn't the best. Panter-Downes shows loving empathy for her characters and writes with impressive economy. Each story is no more than six or seven pages but she creates vivid characters and immersing worlds. Of course, reading it straight through, the mood from one will shadow the next and what emerges is more than the sum of its parts. The collection reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Strout's wonderful novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge; this book isn't a novel in stories but detail and emotion slowly accrete as each story acts as a mosaic piece in a larger picture of wartime English life. It's a beautiful collection from a skilled craftswoman from whose work I hope to see more collections in the future.

Rating: BUY

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

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Finds- Finally, a Few!

A few finds- but enough for a post!

Now, it's not like I haven't found anything I wanted to read this week, but for some reason I've been slow to buy. I was in one of my favorite bookstores yesterday browsing and could easily have had myself a little shopping spree, but I just haven't been in a buying mood. I did get a couple of things though.

Penelope Lively's Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger came via Bookmooch.

A trip to the used-book section of Brookline Booksmith yielded two novels, both Europa Editions- the detective thriller The Midnight Choir, by Gene Kerrigan. It caught my eye because it's set in modern-day Dublin. I also found Jane Gardam's Orange Prize-nominated Old Filth. I'm not sure exactly why I bought it, but it just seemed like something I'd like.

What looked good to you this week?

Friday Finds is hosted at

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Atiq Rahimi at Harvard University, April 29

This past Thursday I was able to attend a talk given by Afghan writer, teacher and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi. The talk was given at Harvard University's Department of Comparative Literature as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. The afternoon event consisted of a talk by Rahimi followed by a Q&A and a signing and reception.

Rahimi, a native Afghan who moved to France via Pakistan following the Soviet invasion, spoke at length (and in French, translated extemporaneously by his publisher, Judith Gurewich of Other Press, who did an A+ job) about his Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Patience Stone. He began by reciting a well-known folktale often used to comic effect but which he turned into a bittersweet allegory about exile. A man looks for a lost key on an illuminated sidewalk, at night. The key isn't there- he knows the key is at home but says he's looking on the street because "that's where the light is."

Rahimi went on to talk about the differences for him of writing and speaking in different languages, especially French and his native Persian, and about how the rules of grammar dictate writing choices and methods. He talked about his experience of returning to Afghanistan for the first time after the fall of the Taliban and being "shocked" by the decline in Afghan culture and the corruption in politics. He talked about his work in television, where he's helping to produce a soap opera (and train young men and women in filmmaking) as a means of influencing a "cultural revolution" among the people, especially the women. He said television was his medium of communication to the Afghan people because of the country's low literacy level, and said he tried to get his show, peppered with subversive messages about politics and gender, broadcast at a time when women would be alone in the house and have the opportunity to reflect without someone watching them. Cultural revolution via soap opera sounds a little funny but I found his reasoning quite astute.

Overall I found him to be brilliant, inspiring and fascinating. The problems in Afghanistan resonate worldwide and I admire and applaud his efforts to effect change through art and culture. Rahimi said that changing the political system requires changing the culture- and that changing the culture requires changes in the political system. I will definitely look out for his earlier novel, Earth and Ashes, and would encourage anyone to give him a try.

Sponsored by PEN America, the event was technically open to the public but unfamiliar as I am with the Harvard campus it was a little difficult for me to find, and it seemed like a very Harvard-only audience. And although Gurewitch did a fantastic job translating off the cuff (not easy!) I was glad that my French was good enough to understand him without her assistance. Having to pay such close attention to his words helped engage me that much more in his talk.

You can watch the opening credits to his soap, "Raz ha een Khana" (Secrets of this House) here:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

REVIEW: The Patience Stone, by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone, by Atiq Rahimi. Published 2010 by Other Press. Translated from the French.

Winner of the 2008 Prix Goncourt in France, where it was originally published, Atiq Rahimi's little masterpiece The Patience Stone is a stunning, powerful novel. Taking place entirely inside a single room somewhere in Afghanistan, it tells the story of a nameless woman taking care of a man, her husband, returned from a nameless war and virtually comatose. Also there, in the background, are her two daughters. The woman reminisces about her girlhood, her married life and her future. She makes confessions and tells her secrets, and fantasy and reality weave together and come apart.

The Patience Stone is one of those books that's easy to read in one sitting but it takes more than that to see past the obvious emotional reaction and into its dense and finely crafted structure. It could be seen as a stage play; narration like "She leaves the room, inspects the whole house" sounds like stage direction and there is a temptation to visualize the novel as a play as one is reads. But it's really more cinematic; time shifts back and forth and though she can't travel physically, she escapes her confinement through memories and stories that take on a layered, dreamlike quality. Rahimi, speaking recently at Harvard University, talked about having listened to music as he wrote his book, to add that emotional experience to his writing. It's quite beautiful.

Written as a statement on the situation of women in Afghanistan, The Patience Stone can be dark and somewhat difficult and the novel's brevity belies its emotional impact. For me it was like a long, lovely prose poem with an ending that surprised and saddened me. I'm still not sure what exactly happened, to be honest, but life is like that a lot of the time. You can't know everything. But sometimes a hint is all you need. The Patience Stone offers a glimpse into the heart of a woman and the heart of a country.

Rating: BUY

Click here for a post on Rahimi's recent talk in Cambridge. It was one of the best author events I've been to in a while and deserves its own spotlight.

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

Monday, May 3, 2010

Musing Mondays-Used Bookstores & Used Books

Graphic Novel Monday is on hiatus again. It'll be back next week.

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about used books.
Do you frequent second hand book stores? Have you ever brought a book home only to find something interesting within its pages?

I do frequent used bookstores; one of my favorite indies, Harvard Book Store, is sort of famous for its used-book basement and I also love Raven Used Books in Harvard Square and the Bryn Mawr Bookstore just outside. I've spent many a late Saturday night in Raven and HBS. I grew up haunting the aisles of a used bookstore in my town and I still think used bookstores are often more interesting than new bookstores for the variety and surprises you find there. I bought a used copy of Sholem Aleichem short stories once and found this,which I determined to be a ticket to a High HolyDays (Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur) celebration in Tel Aviv in 1936 pre-state Israel- a little historical artifact. I had some help figuring this out!

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

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sunday Salon - Lots of Bookish Stuff Going on in Boston

Every Sunday I come here and write about a book I'm reading today or planning on reading today, and every Sunday I almost never read, or read very little. Maybe today will be different, but I don't know.

I'm still working my way through Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, which I want very much to like. So far? Eh. I'll keep plugging away though. I'm going to make another attempt to start Olga Slavnikova's 2017, which I have to read for LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. I've tried a couple of times now, and have never got past the second page.

It's been a busy week- it seems like every springtime there's one week when every reading I want to attend takes place, and I just get to as many as I can. After the Newburyport Literary Festival last weekend, this past week local appearances were made by Peter Carey, Alina Bronsky, Helen Simonson and Atiq Rahimi, and I got to the first and last of those; my book club met the night Bronsky was here, and Simonson and Rahimi were appearing the same day and I couldn't get to both. I'm going to have more to say about the Rahimi event later in the week- it was one of the best book talks I've been to in a long time.

Yesterday and Friday was also the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, held over at Boston University. I spent a fun hour or so browsing among the exhibits. To be honest, there was almost nothing that I was interested in buying, although I did have a great conversation with a Canadian bookseller (and fellow Margaret Atwood fan) about which books are and aren't collectible. One question was on the commercial viability of personalized signed books. I said I thought they were worthless and she said no, to some collectors they're more valuable because they show the human touch. I get books signed and personalized because I'm a fan, not because I'm trying to build up some fortune in collectible books, but I still appreciated hearing that.

My husband came home with some treasures- some books on Roman history he was interested in. So between that and my chat with the Canadian bookseller, it was a fun day. We saw lots of neat things- collectible children's books, various editions of Alice in Wonderland- including one signed by Lewis Carroll for about $2,500- but not one Jane Eyre in the whole room. Oh well. Someone was selling a nice set of Jane Austens, though. But I don't collect those.

I've also been sewing a little again lately. Here's my cat on a quilt I'm making for him. I'm not done with it yet, but it's nice to know it's already kitty-approved:
Hope you're having a relaxing Sunday too. More Sunday Salon can be found here.