Tuesday, June 29, 2010

REVIEW: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, by Kelly O'Connor McNees

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, by Kelly O'Connor McNees. Published 2010 by Amy Einhorn Books. Fiction.

Growing up in Massachusetts and in the Boston area, Louisa May Alcott, her books and the story of her family are just about ubiquitous. Her home, the town of Concord, is a short drive from my home and her most famous novel, Little Women, is a quintessentially New England tale of family and growing up, and yet somehow, despite all that, I've never read it!

Still I was intrigued by Kelly O'Connor McNees's book, a fictionalized version of Louisa May Alcott's youth, about a "lost summer" during which she fell in love with a young man named Joseph who bears a striking resemblance to the character of Laurie in Little Women, the handsome neighbor who falls in love with Jo, the main character. Young Louisa is a budding writer living in a household impoverished by her father's unsuccessful career as a philosopher and writer. She struggles along with her mother and sisters to make do, all the while dreaming of a future as a writer. One summer, her family moves to New Hampshire, where living is less expensive. Here, she and her sisters fall in with the local young people and decide to put on some amateur theatricals. She meets Joseph, an intelligent and intriguing young man.

Now, anyone who knows Alcott's real life story knows how this affair turns out, but I don't know much about her, and I didn't know how it would turn out. I enjoyed the slight element of suspense, although I suppose there was never really any doubt as to what would happen. Overall the book is charming. It's a fairly quick read as the plot and the lively characters kept me turning the pages. Written in a light and accessible style with lively characters and a vivid setting, it's the perfect summer hammock book. An obvious choice for fans of Little Women, The Lost Summer would be a great choice for popular- and women's-fiction readers looking for a delightful, sweet way to pass a few hours.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Resistance: Book 1, by Carla Jablonski & Leland Purvis

Resistance: Book 1, by Carla Jablonski & Leland Purvis. Published 2010 by First Second. Graphica. Fiction.

Resistance: Book 1, is the first in a projected series of three graphic novels by author Carla Jablonski and illustrator Leland Purvis about the invasion of France by the Nazis during World War 2, and the brave men and women who fought back. This book centers on a small village in the free zone, where young Paul Tessier and his sister Marie work with the Resistance to save his friend Henri Levy, a Jewish boy whose family has disappeared.

Their journey takes them all the way to the sewers of Paris and the Jewish resistance hiding there, but along the way the kids face some daunting challenges. Paul and Marie's father is a prisoner of war, and their town is suffering under the privations and stress of the invasion. There are Resistance members among the villagers who can help them, but it's not easy to know whom to trust, and danger is everywhere. And neither the violence nor the trauma of war is spared as Jablonski and Purvis tell their breathtaking tale.

I would describe the visual style of the book as varied and cinematic. Paul is a budding artist and "his" sketches are used side by side as a contrast to the more polished narrative art, to show the raw emotion he feels at different moments in this tense and suspenseful story. Greens and yellows dominate the color scheme, lending a somewhat dated look appropriate to the historical setting. Visuals range from establishing shots and crowd scenes to closeups and action sequences, all rendered with drama and panache.

I think Resistance is a terrific book and would make a great read for middle school readers and above interested in learning about World War 2 and more specifically how it was experienced in France. It includes some very good messages about taking risks and standing up for what you believe in, and doing what's right even when it's not easy. The Author's Note at the end also includes good historical background and topics for discussion or reflection. I'm really looking forward to the next books in the series.

Come back next Monday for an interview with author Carla Jablonski.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Salon - Another Week in Books

So I'm a little late to the party today; please forgive me. It's been another fun, bookish week. Monday night I joined some pals to see author Luis Alberto Urrea at the Harvard Book Store. He was great; smart, funny and charming. He passed out postcards he and his wife Cindy made based on locations in his novel Into the Beautiful North; folks could keep the card and mail it to someone or write an address on it and the Urreas would mail it back from another place. Mine came back to me with his signature postmarked Texas. Very fun.

Tuesday I got to meet Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, at a packed event at the Brookline Booksmith. Wow! That had to be one of the best readings I've been to so far this year. He did a great job of selling his novel and he was very kind and courteous when I met him in the signing line.

Thursday I started an "Artist's Bookmaking" class at my local adult education center. Over the next eight weeks I'll be stitching, gluing, binding and decorating all manner of little books and leaflets. On the first night we stitched our handout packets together using a simple stab stitch. My plan is to blog the class and my creations every Thursday so I'll have a full report then.

Yesterday my husband and I went to the semi-annual warehouse sale at the Harvard Book Store, where they open up their warehouse facility and sell lots of cheap, wonderful things. They have both remaindered and used books and there are always treasures to be found. I got only four books, but they were high quality- three novels and a comics collection. I'll have a full report on my Friday Finds post later this week.

Then, last night, we went out to neighboring Dedham, where a new Borders opened up. It's amazing! They are doing all kinds of giveaways and contests this weekend, giving away baskets of books, e-readers, gift certificates and more. I probably won't win anything but there's always hope!

Today? Today I'm reading Gina Ochsner's The Russian Dreambook of Color & Flight, and going out for an ice cream cone sometime soon. Have a great Sunday!

More Sunday Salon here

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Finds- A Book I'm In and A Bunch of Other Stuff

This week's book haul includes a book I've already read, some review copies and some serendipity.

You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr, came out last spring; I reviewed it and interviewed the author. I bought the paperback because I'm in it- my interview with Burr was excerpted and published in the P.S. section at the back, along with an interview by fellow blogger Carla Castelar of Bibliolust. Thank you Chandler & HarperCollins for this honor and congrats to Carla!

Yosl Rakover Talks to God, by Zvi Kolitz, is a Holocaust novella I found at a local used bookstore. Looks fascinating.

The Wrong Blood, by Manuel de Lope, comes out in September and came to me in ARC form courtesy of Other Press.

Wherever You Go, by Joan Leegant, came to me for review from the author.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, and Blue Nude, by Elizabeth Rosner, are two recent releases I picked up this week at the bookstore.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What's new on your shelf?

More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Special Feature: Interview with Alina Bronsky, author of Broken Glass Park

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Alina Bronsky, author of the luminous Broken Glass Park. You can read my review here. I loved her heartbreaking story about the consequences of domestic violence on a Russian immigrant family. My Q&A with Bronsky follows.

Can you tell us a little about the setting- the cultural conditions for Russian/Russian-Jewish immigrants in Germany?

AB: In real life, there is a broad range of different immigrant groups. There are more and less well educated people with very differnt backgrounds, personal stories, language skills, and chances of success. For my novel I picked out a rather special, but tragically very realistic setting: a housing project populated by Russian-born immigrants who haven’t succeeded in gain a foothold in Germany; their lives on the edge of the society are full of frustriation, addiction and violence.

Why did you decide to tell this particular story? What research did you do? I was very impressed with the realism with respect to the psychology of abuse in the book.

AB: Thank you very much. I wanted to tell a story of survival, to describe a girl rebelling against her destructive environment. It was natural for me to choose a heroine who is born in Russia and grew up in Germany like me. I did not need any special research for this story. The novel is based on my own experiences and observations.

Who influences your writing?

AB: Every book I read influences me - I am always aware of what I like or dislike while reading. I also love listening to other people telling the stories of their lives. Nothing is as interesting as emotions.

Near the end of the book, Sascha has a beautiful epiphany over a game of chess. Her subsequent actions, which end the novel, seem to me to contradict the hopefulness and joy she feels. Do they? What's the final message of the book? What does the future hold for the Saschas of the world?

AB: Yes, Sascha is a contradictory character. She is torn between hope and desperation, joy and the wish for destruction, love and hatred. I prefer not to indicate any messages but to let every reader free to feel about Sascha in his or her own way. As far as I am concerned, I am optimistic about her future. Girls like Sascha will decide their own road.

Thank you so much for your participation. I hope your book continues to get lots of attention and readers, and best of luck with your writing. I hope to see many more books from you!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

REVIEW: Broken Glass Park, by Alina Bronsky

Broken Glass Park, by Alina Bronsky. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translation.

It's hard to believe that Broken Glass Park is Alina Bronsky's first novel. It's a searing, raw portrait of a young woman, teenage Sascha Naimann, whose mother was murdered by her stepfather, Vadim, now in prison. Sascha lives with her younger siblings Anton and Alissa. Anton, nine years old, is deeply troubled and traumatized; Alissa, the baby of the family, bears her own scars but it's seventeen year old Sascha who feels responsible not only for her siblings but for exacting revenge on Vadim. Together, the three are cared for by Maria, Vadim's cousin, a sweet but ineffectual woman with the thankless job of holding this fractured family together.

Bronsky begins the novel with Sascha's fantasies of killing Vadim, and follows her through her stressful day to day life. A poor Russian immigrant in Germany, Sascha tries to navigate school, social life and family while grieving for her mother and bearing the stigma and shame that come with surviving a family tragedy. She befriends Volker, an older man who treats her with otherworldly tenderness and teaches her that not all men are bad, and has a tentative romance with his son Felix, another outcast. Maria struggles to adjust to life in Germany and befriends her neighbor Oleg; they share an understated romance that tells another side of the immigrant story.

What impressed me the most about Broken Glass Park is Bronsky's psychological accuracy. She gets these damaged people just right. Sascha's grief is transformed into anger towards her mother, for being vulnerable to Vadim, and her attraction to Volker makes sense in the context of her search for a supportive and caring father figure. Sascha's hostility towards Maria and Oleg's relationship fits with the disgust she feels towards romantic love, having seen where it got her mother. Having been immersed in something so toxic, she can't process anything else. And Sascha's fantasies about killing Vadim are just an adolescent's way of redeeming her guilt over her mother's death. But hardest for her to process is her ambivalence towards Vadim:
I reach my hand out and open the leather briefcase...At the bottom are photos. Four photos. A big print. A red-headed woman...I turn the photo over and read the description...My wife Marina in her theater. Another big one. A young blond boy...On the back: My son Anton's first day of school. A smaller photo. A smiling baby...The back: My daughter Alissa tries solid food. An even smaller photo. A dark-haired girl on a bench with her feet pulled up on the bench...It looks very familiar to me, but I can't seem to place it...I turn over the photo and need a long time to read what it says. Despite the fact that there's just one word: Sascha.
Even the people you hate can break your heart.

It's these moments of sadness and shame that make it so easy for the reader to love Sascha, brittleness and anger and sharp edges and all. She's not really mean, or violent, or hopeless; she's a bright girl who wants to do right by herself and those she loves, but she has a lot on her plate, and while the ending is optimistic and hopeful, it's going to take her a while to work it all out.

Broken Glass Park is a beautiful book about the consequences and impact of family violence on children. It's not always an easy read but I've yet to read anything that speaks so honestly and movingly about the damage inflicted on children and families. I'd recommend it to readers of literary fiction and coming of age stories but you can probably already tell that this isn't a typical coming of age story; most children don't have such a heavy cross to bear. In the end she learns that redemption won't be so easy or so simple, but still possible, and that's the message of hope with which Bronsky leaves us.

Click here for my interview with Alina Bronsky.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, June 21, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: What IS a Graphic Novel?

I think very few people would disagree that the term "graphic novel," almost universally accepted as a broad description of long-form graphic fiction and nonfiction, is an insufficient and unsatisfying term to represent the form. First and most obviously, the use of the word "novel" suggests that graphic works are exclusively fiction- not true at all. As a matter of fact, as I try to show each week, the form is populated by every genre of fiction and nonfiction out there, from family stories, to personal diaries, to journalism, to history, to fictional stories for children, teens and adults in every genre and stories fictional and real that defy genre. And is every story told in pictures a graphic novel? What about works with no story? How do collections of comic strips fit in? Or media tie-ins? Does the term "graphic novel" suggest something lofty and erudite, or does it just make you think of superheroes?

I was thinking about these questions for a couple of reasons. First, I read a review recently of a book (I forget which one) consisting of a collection of comic strips; the reviewer referred to it as a "graphic novel" even though it's one of a series and lacks a conclusion. And I was thinking about my own review policies when it comes to graphic novels. I rarely review collections of comic strips; I do sometimes, but I tend to avoid them for stories created as a single, cohesive unit. I'm also just not interested in most comic books and likewise avoid them in collated form. I never review manga. Manga series can be up to twenty or more volumes long; I don't see the point in reviewing, say, volume five of a series of fifteen, or waiting a year or more while I work through a whole series. (Besides, manga really is a different animal in many ways.) I also won't review media tie-in books, particularly for children. So no Disney books or Prince of Persia here, because I want to concentrate on decent literature and not books created as a part of a larger franchise of products. Now, just because I stay away doesn't mean it doesn't count, but it got me thinking about how I think about graphic novels in general.

Does a collated series of comic books count as a finished work, when it's clearly unfinished? Is there a difference between Peanuts anthologies and a book like Persepolis, which was written as one story from start to finish? And yes, I know Persepolis has a sequel, but a sequel is not the same as a story written and designed to be published in serial form and then collected into a single volume. But then, literature was published serially for many years- literary mainstays like Dickens and Hugo were published serially, as were others. Still, although I've read several Peanuts collections and just about every Calvin and Hobbes book ever published, I can't bring myself to call them "graphic novels". Maybe those are more like graphic anthologies. Books with no story are harder; last year I reviewed a very unusual book called milk teeth, by Julie Morstad. It's an essentially silent collection of sketches and drawings of various kinds with no narrative to tie them together. Yet it's marketed and shelved as a graphic novel. Is it?

I hope we've moved past the point where when one hears the term "graphic novel" and assumes that the book is about superheroes, or for children, or based on comics. I still get comments on almost every Graphic Novel Monday post from someone who says, "I've never read a graphic novel, I thought they were just for kids" and the like- and I'm so glad that you're out there and letting me know, and every time I publish a review I hope that this will be the first one you read, because I love the form so much and think- and know- it has so much potential to enlighten, inform and entertain in a way that can't be matched by conventional writing, if only readers would give it a chance. And the best ones do just that. But at the same time it's such a young medium and artists and writers are still cutting their teeth on it. While they do, readers are also figuring out what they like, what they want and how the form can or can't meet their expectations.

So what should we call them? Break it down by genre? Graphic fiction, graphic nonfiction, graphic journalism, graphic chick lit? Is there a problem with the word "graphic"? Pictorial fiction and nonfiction? Something else? How do you think of graphic novels?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday Salon - Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day!

I'm getting together with my dad later this afternoon for brunch, but I have the morning to relax.

Yesterday my husband and I drove to Niantic, Connecticut, to visit the famous Book Barn used bookstore. What a place! It's actually three stores- a main store and two satellite shops. The main store features at least a half dozen barns housing individual genres of fiction and nonfiction- the Hades barn houses mysteries, for example, and a barn called The Last Page has sports and nature books. There is a huge fiction barn including a separate section for romance, and little outdoor bookshelves with all kinds of things scattered all over the property. There are also turtles, goats, cats and even a play area for children. Wow! The main house on the property stocks nonfiction, children's books and some rare books. They also have complimentary coffee and snacks, and chairs to sit and enjoy them outside.

We went to one of the two satellite stores as well, to find science fiction for Jeff. Very cool. The second store also had great selections of books on film, nautical history and fiction, music, dance, and more. Out of all this I bought two books, Philip Henscher's The Northern Clemency and an old volume of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Next time I'm going to bring my Bookmooch wishlist!

Today for what time I can I'm going to relax with Oscar Hijuelos's Beautiful Maria of My Soul and Marcel Möring's Holocaust novel In a Dark Wood, a truly bizarre but beautiful book. I'm about 1/3 of the way through and wondering where it's going, but it's one of those books that meanders in a way that only heightens the reader's anticipation of what's next.

What are you up to today?

You can read more Sunday Salon here. Have a great day!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Finds - More to Add to Mt. TBR

Some neat things this week.
I picked up Monique Charlesworth's interesting-looking novel The Children's War at Raven Used Books in Harvard Square; it's about a child lost in the chaos of World War II-era Europe and North Africa. I read the first few pages; it looks wonderful.

Proust's Overcoat is a short nonfiction book about a man obsessed with collecting the personal belongings of the legendary French writer. The coat was his prized possession and this is the story of how he wheedled his way into Proust's family, who were ashamed of their famous relation, to preserve his letters, personal items, and yes, his coat.

The Quickening is a new book out this summer from Other Press, written by Michelle Hoover. I won it from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

The North of God is a novella by Steve Stern, author of The Frozen Rabbi, which came out this spring from Algonquin. I still haven't read that (although I will) but in the mean time I found this entry into "The Art of the Novella" series, set during the Holocaust.

Bookmooch also brought me The Blood of Flowers, The Night Train to Lisbon, gods In Alabama and The Meaning of Night.

Have you read any of these? I'd love to know what you think. Have a great weekend!

Friday Finds is hosted at ShouldbeReading.Wordpress.com.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Booking Through Thursday: Now or Then?

Do you prefer reading current books? Or older ones? Or outright old ones? (As in, yes, there’s a difference between a book from 10 years ago and, say, Charles Dickens or Plato.)

Before I started blogging I hardly ever read current fiction; for one thing, I didn't get advance copies or buy hardcovers. And hardcovers are still an indulgence. I do enjoy reading current fiction, especially by favorite authors, and it's hard not to get caught up in the hype of the latest-and-greatest from a favorite publisher or in a favorite subject. Having said that, I still love reading 20th century fiction, especially Booker Prize winners and other classic fiction. I have A Confederacy of Dunces on my TBR shelf right now, as well as The World According to Garp and The House of the Spirits, among many others. Basically, it's just really hard for me to turn down a good book!

More Booking Through Thursday here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

REVIEW: Bonjour, Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan. Published 2008 by HarperPerennial Modern Classics. Literary Fiction. Translation.

Bonjour Tristesse is one of those little cultural classics that everyone should probably read at some point, and luckily enough it's short, so a cup of coffee and a Gauloise will probably be enough to get you through the experience.

It's a coming of age story set amidst the privilege and wealth of the French Riveria; a young girl named Cécile is spending the summer with her father and his mistress, a Titian-haired demimondaine by the name of Elsa. He is also waiting on the arrival of another woman, Anne, his late wife's friend and now his.

The summer passes as Cécile et. al. play on the beaches and casinos of the Riveria, and Cécile entertains her own friend, Cyril. Games are played, rivalries develop, and the story ends with a tragedy right out of a soap opera.

A lot has been written about the influences of an on Bonjour Tristesse; some say it's an existentialist classic and others find it maudlin and dull. I'm probably in the latter camp. Even so, I think it's an essential read if for no other reason than to appreciate its echoes in modern literature. Every girl's coming-of-age story published since owes it something and it's well worth the time it takes to read.

The next time you're in a café and want to feel oh-so-Continental, you might give it a try. You've nothing to lose.

Rating: BORROW

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

I'm going to start by saying that if you were a fan of Life of Pi and you expect Beatrice and Virgil to be anything like Life of Pi, you will be disappointed. So try to set your expectations of what a Yann Martel novel, or any novel, usually is, aside.

The first time I read the book through, I didn't really care for it. The story is about a novelist named Henry who encounters a taxidermist named Henry, an aspiring playwright. The play is a Holocaust allegory starring a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil. Puzzled and intrigued by the taxidermist and his play, Henry agrees to help him. Slowly certain things become clear to the writer, and the story ends abruptly, with a tragedy that seems to come from nowhere.

The story unfolds, as one reviewer put it, in a Russian-nesting-doll style- a story within a story within a story. Martel's style is unaffected to the point of blandness, to the point of banality. But even after finding the book unspectacular on the first read-through, I had the feeling that more was going on here, that there was something just under the surface and that I just needed to be a little more open-minded, relax my expectations a little, and work a little harder than I might be used to with most books.

The real story is about coming to terms with evil- how Henry the writer is faced with it in the form of the taxidermist, how the taxidermist comes to terms with his role in evil, and how the modern man (or woman) can begin to understand, in rational rather than emotional terms, the irrational evil of the Holocaust. I chose to describe Martel's style as "banal" because it is, and because I think it's tied to the idea of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt's theory of the ordinaryness and everyday-ness of the unspeakable (which I'm oversimplifying). I think Martel is trying to tap into that vein of the everyday, of a story that is mostly ordinary and mostly matter-of-fact, until the very end, when the Henrys collide with the face of evil in very concrete ways.

I know that reactions to Beatrice and Virgil have been highly polarized and I'm not surprised. It's not really a reader-friendly book in many ways; it's what I think of as an "art novel"- a book that uses a bizarre and somewhat unbelieveable story to make an artistic or political point. My own opinion shifted significantly on the second reading, and I'll bet if I read it a third time I would come up with something else. Martel makes his point using a deliberately undramatic style, a choice not destined for universal appeal. It's certainly not light reading, and it lacks the lyricism of Life of Pi as well as the Booker Prize winner's narrative sweep. Beatrice and Virgil is about the everyday rather than the mythic, the quotidian rather than the divine.

So, who should read it? It belongs with serious readers up to the task of doing the work to appreciate a great work of literature, and anyone with a serious interest in Holocaust literature. But just as it's not a typical narrative novel, it's not a typical Holocaust novel, either. No historical realism, no litany of horrors, no eyewitness accounts here. This is a book about understanding the Holocaust, not reliving it. Despite the many negative reviews I believe that in time Beatrice and Virgil will be appreciated for the important work that it is.

I had the privilege of interviewing Martel under the aegis of the Association of Jewish Libraries; if you'd like to listen, click here. It's in four parts and clocks in at about 30 minutes. If you listen, I encourage you to leave comments on the interview on the AJL blog.

Heather at Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books has a great post on the book and roundup of other bloggers' reviews as well.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Safe Area Goražde, by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995. Published 2002 by Fantagraphics. Hardcover.

Click here to buy Safe Area Goražde via IndieBound.org.

Over the last few years, I've read a number of graphic novels, and while I'm by no means an expert in the form, it's something I enjoy and return to often. Once in a while I come across one that changes my perceptions of the form, of what it can be and what it can do. Safe Area Goražde is just such a book.

And, as a matter of fact, it was the first graphic novel I ever read. For some reason, these standout graphic novels always end up being nonfiction- think of David Small's family story Stitches, or Emmaneul Guibert's amazing The Photographer, about a journey through Afghanistan. Safe Area Goražde is also nonfiction, a journalism piece by writer Joe Sacco, who has since written (and drawn) extensively about the war in Bosnia. This book chronicles his time in an eastern enclave under a nominal cease-fire but cut off from the rest of the country and still experiencing zealous ethnic cleansing and violence. Christopher Hitchens' introduction helps place the reader with the necessary background information on Sacco and on the political and military situation while Sacco's narrative and artwork focus on the people and the trials of everyday life under siege.

And the art is amazing. Strictly black and white and pen and ink, it's nonetheless incredibly detailed, varied and expressive. Moments of stunning violence and quiet despair are rendered with equal skill; crosshatching creates quiet shadows while bodies lay in pools of inky blood. But again it's his characters who steal the show with their careful, detailed faces. The reader can feel the tension in a basement refuge from something as simple as someone's slightly downcast eyes or head tilted just so. Scenes of people running or in a panicked crowd put the reader right in the middle of the action and panels zoom in and out almost cinematically. A picture of freezing rain or snow makes me feel cold, too.

I was stunned after reading this incredible book; as an introduction to the graphic form it's harsh and difficult but when you put it down you'll never again doubt the form's potential for communicating both information and emotion in a mature, intelligent, adult-friendly way. I've since read a number of Sacco's other books and while they're all wonderful and retain his characteristic style, none have had quite the same impact on me as Safe Area Goražde. If you're interested in a serious, unflinching book, it's a great read.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Salon- Current Reading and Reading Coming Soon

I'm enjoying a nice laid-back weekend after another crazy week. I attended a mini conference on Friday at which I had to give a talk on upcoming Jewish books through the rest of the year. I'll do a post on this soon; I can't wait to share some of the interesting things coming out.

Yesterday Jeff and I went to a big library booksale in the neighboring town of Concord; it was total chaos! Tables everywhere, books everywhere, people everywhere. And it was raining. I love library booksales but affluent suburbanites can be very competitive when it comes to cheap books. I got three things- Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (signed!), The Jerusalem File by Joel Stone, and Snow by Orhan Pamuk. We got there about an hour and a half after it started and it was already pretty picked over. I'm happy with my finds though!

I've now got three books going: The Colony, by Jillian Weise; He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, by Trish Ryan; Beautiful Maria of my Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos. Last night my husband and I spent some time relaxing and reading our books with coffees at our local Barnes & Noble cafe; I love doing that. I added a couple of books to my wishlist of course, most notably Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which just won the Orange Prize, and Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which is going on my "When it Comes out in Paperback" list, because I can't quite bring myself to buy any more hardcovers right now. But if one of you has read it, I would love to know what you think.

Today's big plan? I'll go to the gym and spend time with Jeff; probably, a bookstore will be involved somehow! I also need to catch up on all your blogs. What are you up to?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Finds - Just a Few

So a few new things to add to the stash.
I won Glorious in a giveaway on Raging Bibliomania, one of my favorite blogs. Thank you Heather! And if you're not reading her awesome blog, go!
Beirut 39, an anthology of Arabic writers, came from Bloomsbury and is really great so far.

I treated myself to the illustrated edition of Yann Martel's Life of Pi on a recent trip to a local Borders. It's just beautiful. If you love Life of Pi you have to get this amazing version. The paintings are incredible!

Finally, Ekaterina Sedia's second novel, Alchemy of Stone, arrived via Bookmooch. I'm a big fan of her first book, The Secret History of Moscow, and I can't wait to read this one too.

What great books did you add to your TBR pile this week?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Booking Through Thursday: Signed Copies

Do signed copies excite you? Tempt you? Delight you? Or does it not matter to you?

I love signed copies. I've been collecting them since college and I think it's really fun to get a book signed. Here's one of my favorites:

and one of the prettiest:

According to my LibraryThing catalog, I have 62 signed copies now.

If I'm going to buy a book and I see signed copies at the store, I'll buy the signed copy, and I love going to readings and meeting authors to get my books signed. It's a great memento of the occasion, and an opportunity to tell an author I appreciate his or her work. I won't buy a book I'm not interested in just to have it signed but I've been known to make the occasional impulse buy at a reading. I have a special bookshelf in my office for my signed copies- and it's filling up fast!

And this is an old picture- I'm now on to three shelves!

More Booking Through Thursday here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

GUEST POST: Mr. Boston Bibliophile Reviews The Passage

Dear Readers of Boston Bibliophile.com,

The BB has asked that I provide a “counter-review” of sorts for The Passage from the perspective of a genre reader familiar with tropes in post-apocalyptic stories. So, here goes.

On one level, The Passage explores ground that has been well-trodden in the past by countless hordes of shambling zombies. It is difficult to provide a review of this novel without giving spoilers; however, suffice it to say that when reading a novel set in a certain type of post-apocalyptic future, there are things that a genre-savvy audience might expect to see, including:

1) An ill-considered and unethical government experiment gone wrong

2) A sweeping biological cataclysm that defies the efforts of the military to contain it

3) A rampaging army of improbably durable and infectious undead

4) A tight-knit colony of human survivors scraping out a bare and depressing existence against the threat of inevitable extinction

5) The sometimes-sad, sometimes-humorous misinterpretation of our own culture by people on the other side of the apocalyptic divide

6) A bold quest through the wasteland in response to a gleaming light of hope

7) Encounters along the way with other survivors who might not have maintained quite the same level of civilization as our heroes

8) A discovery that the past is not quite as dead as believed

9) An ending replete with last-minute plot twists

Sure, the undead aren’t quite zombies, vampires, or other easily-identifiable undead from the Monster Manual. Nevertheless, there were many moments where I felt like I was ticking boxes in my head, or where I was able to predict what would happen next in the book simply by following the narrative conventions. To his credit, the author is plainly aware of the debt he owes to genre, and gives nods in that direction throughout the book; I appreciated a certain appearance of a shopping mall in the story (on the other hand, there is one movie reference late in the book where it seemed to me that the author was trying a little too cutely to point up the differences between his creations and a more familiar monster).

Okay, so the plot is derivative. Then why did I enjoy this book so much? Very simply, it is excellently written. The Passage is a fast-paced novel with gripping action sequences that nevertheless manages to depict realistic (if often disturbing) people. There were few if any main characters that seemed like thumbnail sketches (except for one character who appeared to have been added as a convenient love interest). Moreover, the author creates vivid and minutely-detailed depictions of the world at different times in its future history; the two main eras shown in the book are distinct from one another and from our own, but the differences are presented in a subtle and skillful way that creates almost photographic images of the world in its various phases rather than smacking the reader over the head with the message, “This is not the world you know.” And while the broad strokes of the plot were very familiar, the originality in the scene-by-scene details is striking, and kept me interested. With writing of this caliber, I was able to let the general plot fade into the background of my mind as sort of a reliable frame for the story, and focus instead on the characters and the action.

The story itself is told in an intriguing variety of voices and methods: third-person limited perspective dominates, but we are also treated to sweeping passages in third-person omniscient and narrative through the device of “archival evidence” recovered by a civilization at some point in the distant future (the identity and nature of this future civilization is one of the many mysteries of the book). As a student of ancient history myself, I enjoyed deducing the details of the cultures depicted from source documents.

There were some drawbacks to this approach, however. The author’s use of broad overviews and archival materials distances the reader from the grittiness of the story at times; on occasion, the use of an abstracted perspective led me to detach emotionally from the story. The Passage is epic in scope and it was clearly necessary to fast forward at times to keep things moving, but this was not just an issue in the places where the story skipped between eras. Instead, I felt like the author had a bit of a tendency to pull his punches rather than go into uncomfortable or emotionally intense detail. The convenient love interest mentioned above seems to have been inserted into the story for little reason other than to let a love triangle dissipate amiably without an emotionally-rending conclusion. Certain climactic scenes are narrated retrospectively, and the after-the-fact summary prevents the reader from experiencing the events as they unfold and feeling first-hand the level of terror that the characters would have. There is also arguably a little villain decay later in the book, where a threat that was presented as immediate and omnipresent appears to have been scaled back slightly to allow for the survival of the main characters in more dangerous situations. There is a legitimate plot-coherent explanation of this, but there is nevertheless a drop in the tension at certain points.

There is also, and let me be clear that this is not necessarily a complaint, very little gore in the book. The Passage will inevitably be compared by genre fans to Stephen King’s seminal work The Stand, given that The Passage ticks many of the same trope boxes as The Stand, echoes The Stand’s themes of scientific horror and spiritual hope, and sees its characters trekking across very similar geography. (I cannot quite decide whether the author’s choice to have Colorado and Las Vegas feature prominently in The Passage is an homage too far.) However, readers who are turned off by the kind of grisly detail that King does so well will have little to fear from The Passage. The Passage discreetly cuts away from certain kinds of violence where a horror novel would linger. In other words, The Passage is a thriller, not a horror novel. There are disturbing moments and revelations, but the author was clearly trying to inspire an adrenaline rush, not fear. On the whole, he succeeds remarkably.

-- Mr. Boston Bibliophile

You can read Marie's review here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

REVIEW: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published 2010 by Ballantine Books. Literary Fiction. Science Fiction.

I have been waiting for months to tell you about The Passage. I know some of you have read and/or reviewed it already; I read it back in January and debated about whether to post my review early or around the release date. Well, the release date is here, so here I go.


I'm not a genre reader. It's relatively rare that I read a thriller or a science fiction novel but something about The Passage just hooked me like a fish and reeled me in. The story is about a post-apocalyptic future in which the U.S. government has tried to create superhuman soldiers but instead has turned much of humanity into mindless killers. A few survivors remain, and a hundred years on human society as we know it is virtually nonexistent. History is forgotten; culture is forgotten. Day to day survival is the only thing that matters- the only thing to do is to live one day to the next. And for all they know, they're the only ones left.

Into this wreck walks a young girl. She is special somehow, but we're not sure quite why. A band of survivors gather around her and together they set off to find they know not what.

But before the post-apocalyptic period is the apocalypse, which makes up most of the early part of the novel. The story begins with a single mother and her child, a nun, a group of death-row prisoners and a pair of FBI agents on separate but intersecting paths. The story takes shape as paths converge, and Cronin spends a lot of time building these characters in meticulous detail. I love the attention Cronin pays to character throughout, and how he layers the character-building between hints of what's to come. The razor-sharp plot kept me turning the pages but it's the people that really make this book what it is.

If you couldn't tell, I loved The Passage. It has some plot holes, certainly, and it's not perfect, but it's pretty amazing. It's a long book but it reads like something a third its length. I was reading it during commercial breaks with the TV on, I carried it around in a tote bag for days, I couldn't let a spare moment go by without getting just a little further along. It's been compared to Michael Crichton and Stephen King; I wouldn't know about that. The first in a planned trilogy with a suckerpunch cliffhanger ending, for me it was a firecracker.

You can read another take by Mr. Boston Bibliophile here. He's a science fiction and horror reader, who will review The Passage in the context of genre fiction.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Robot Dreams, by Sara Varon

Robot Dreams, by Sara Varon. Published 2007 by First Second. Graphica. Fiction.

I discovered Robot Dreams on a recent foray to one of my favorite comics shops, Cambridge's Million Year Picnic. I went in search of comics by women and came up with a few fun titles; Robot Dreams is a sweet, quick read written and drawn by Chicago native Sara Varon, also author of Sweaterweather and Chicken and Cat.

Robot Dreams is a silent comic, meaning there is no dialogue; instead, simple art in a pastel palette of grays, blues and greens tells a bittersweet story of a doomed friendship between a dog and the robot he builds to keep himself company. The dog and robot go to the beach, but the robot gets wet and rusts; the dog, unsure of what to do, abandons him. Months go by; we watch the dog's attempts at forming new friendships and see the robot, immobile, dream of escape. After a time both the dog and the robot move on in their way, but fond memories of their friendship will stay with them both forever.

This is a really adorable book about the power of friendship and forgiveness, and the ways life changes us in ways in we don't expect. It's beautiful to look at and Varon does a great job of telling the story through pictures alone. The feelings evoked range from happiness to loneliness to bittersweet sadness as the settings vary from beautiful sunlight days to cold, snowy landscapes to snug domestic interiors. The colors are gentle and muted and reflect the understated emotional tone of the story.

Robot Dreams is a great choice for just about anyone interested in graphic novels. As a silent book, it would be a nice book for a parent to read with a child, or for a child to read on his or her own. Silent comics are terrific for helping a pre-literate child develop his or her storytelling skills; since there are no words, the child (or any reader) has to concentrate on the pictures and consciously tell him or herself the story as the child goes along. And the book is perfectly family-friendly. But like I said, I'd recommend this winner of a book to just about everyone.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Salon - Following Up and Falling Down

It's hard to know what to say about this past week. I tried to catch up on sleep and on my blog, and got slammed with work, and by Friday I just wanted to hide under something. I'm determined to find some time to relax soon!

I started reading Joshilyn Jackson's Backseat Saints this week, one of the titles I picked up at BEA, and I'm enjoying it so much I've already ordered one of her other books, Gods In Alabama. I more or less organized my other BEA books and I'm looking forward to a great summer of reading, starting with June books like Beautiful Maria of My Soul and Peep Show and Kraken. I have six books marked with June release dates, and they actually all look wonderful, so I'm going to try to get through as many as I can.

Yesterday Cambridge had its annual River Fest, a day-long arts festival held on the banks of the Charles River. It was sweltering hot but otherwise a great day for it; artists and vendors lined the street along with musicians, food vendors and more. My husband and I try to go every year.

Today? Today my husband's going off to his writing group and I'm looking forward to some quiet time with my books and maybe some tea. It's about time!

What's going on with you today?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

BEA and Book Blogger Con- The Books

That's my stack from BEA, not including the Book Blogger Con swag bag and a few assorted things I got for my husband and a stack I got for the conference I'm speaking at next week. (I'm going to do a raffle giveaway of a dozen or so Jewish-interest fall and summer titles culled from what was on offer at Book Expo last week.)

What am I looking forward to?
Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty;
Paul Auster's Sunset Park, which I got signed;
Jane Gardam's God on the Rocks,
Joshilyn Jackson's Backseat Saints, which I'm reading now and enjoying;
The Great Lover, by Jill Dawson, which was on my wish list before BEA and then showed up in the Book Blogger Con swag bag,
The Outside Boy, Jeanine Cummins's book about Irish Travellers, also a BBC swag bag offering,
The Debba, by Avner Mandelman,
A Curable Romantic, by Joseph Skibell,
and so much more.

It's going to be an incredible summer and fall for books. Bring it on!

What are you excited to read this year?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book Blogger Con

I can't find my program from the first annual Book Blogger Con, so I'm going to be a little short on details- anyway, I'm sure you can find full accounts of the convention elsewhere, so I'll keep it simple.

Friday at the Javits Center, Michelle from Galleysmith and Trish from Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin, along with several other bloggers, organized the first convention exclusively for book bloggers. BlogHer runs its own conventions every year for bloggers, including a separate con for food bloggers, but even at the local BlogHer con a few years ago, I felt sorely outnumbered as a book blogger. So I really appreciate having this convention just for us. And what a convention it was.

Let me just say, the organizers did an incredible job and the day surpassed my expectations in every way. The swag bags were amazing- books, book lights, all kinds of knicknacks- the food was generous and delicious and the sessions were great.

YA author Maureen Johnson gave a great keynote- I'll admit to being nervous at the prospect of a 90-minute address to start the day, but her humor and wit made the time fly. Ron Hogan delivered a thought-provoking discussion on bloggers and professional ethics, and while I didn't agree with everything he said I respect him and his viewpoint.

Lunchtime was laid-back and chatting with fellow bloggers, as well as meeting some of the publicists I've worked with, was a treat. It was great to put faces to names and get to know each other a little better.

After lunch, the panels started. Panelists spoke on topics such as creating content, negotiating relationships with authors, marketing your blog, and social responsibility. I had the honor of moderating the panel on social responsibility and working with awesome, impressive bloggers Wendy of Caribou's Mom, Terry of The Reading Tub, Stephen of Band of Thebes and Zetta of Fledgling. What a treat.

The fatigue from the whole crazy week finally caught up with me and I guess I sort of hurried out at the end of the day, but I had a first-class seat on the Acela waiting for me and it was time to wind down. The whole week was incredible- it was such a great opportunity to turn online friends into real friends, and make new ones, too. Thank you so much to the organizers, the authors and publicists and everyone who contributed to the conference in any way- I feel blessed to have been a part of such a fantastic event.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Expo!

Where to begin?

This, is, of course, the question I asked myself over and over during my first time at Book Expo America.

I've been to ALA's annual conference before, so I'm not unfamiliar with the concept of the large conference, but BEA is something else entirely.
I got in line bright and early on Wednesday morning to get into the exhibit area; we were herded into the HarperCollins booth and there it seemed like the crowd just stopped still as people pawed over giveaways of books, totes, t-shirts and even umbrellas. From there, it was slow going as I tried to make my way to booths on my list. I came prepared with a list of booths to visit but I was not prepared for the sheer masses of people going this way and that. Things got worse if there was a signing line- thick snakes of people just standing still in the middle of everything.

But once I got used to the crowds, there was so much to see and do. I was there as much as a librarian as as a blogger. I work for the Association of Jewish Libraries and I'm a volunteer organizer of the spring conference of the New England branch of the Association; therefore I had professional as well as personal tasks to which to attend. I picked up catalogs and galleys for the conference, and talked to anyone I could about AJL and the work I do for them.

One big issue at BEA was the author signings. As I planned my trip, I decided to avoid the signings as much as possible. I figure, I live in Boston, where we get lots of good author events; most people I'd be interested in will come here sooner or later. So I put one signing on my calendar (The Debba, in the Other Press booth) and left the rest to serendipity. I did not, I told myself, come here to stand in line all day. I ended up going to one other signing at Other Press and then ran into Paul Auster, a favorite since college, in the Macmillan booth.

Other publishers I talked to included Random House, Europa Editions, New York Review of Books, Jewish Lights, and more. I also tried to meet up with Twitter friends and other bloggers; I ran into my friend Allison, a New York City librarian, at Other Press, and got to say hi to Melissa Krug (@permanentpaper on Twitter) at her corporate booth.

One of the highlights of the day was when I got to meet Steve Sheinkin, author of the Rabbi Harvey series of graphic novels, at the Jewish Lights booth.

I also attended Librarians' Book Buzz, a new-titles presentation held speed-dating style; we librarians sat at round tables while publishing reps from different companies came around and presented their new titles to us in a forum where we could ask questions and chat more informally. It was a really nice alternative to the usual lecture-style presentation.

Wednesday night I attended the book-blogger reception at the historic Algonquin Hotel, sponsored by HarperCollins. It was a great evening and I got to meet a lot of bloggers as well as some publicists and even an author or two- Alix Strauss, Simon Van Booy and more were in attendance.

The next day I was back at it, beginning in the morning with the Adult Author Breakfast emceed by Jon Stewart. Condoleeza Rice, John Grisham and Mary Roach rounded out the panel.

More exhibits, talking and walking followed breakfast. I spent some time with Susan Dubin, President of the Association of Jewish Libraries and we toured children's' exhibitors and got a poster signed by Mo Willems and a book signed by David Wiesener.

The Adult Author Luncheon followed, hosted by Patton Oswalt and including Christopher Hitchens, William Gibson and Sara Gruen. Oswalt was hilarious- I think I have to get his book, when it comes out in January, and Gruen offered some fascinating anecdotes about her research into Bonobo monkeys for her new book.

After lunch, Susan and I attended a small-group meeting of librarians with Macmillan CEO John Sargent. Susan and I were invited by Macmillan Library Marketing, along with a group of librarians, to talk about electronic publishing and libraries with Sargent, who was involved in a well-publicized dispute with Amazon earlier this year. It was a fascinating discussion!

As for the rest of Thursday, I spent a little more time walking the floor but as the show wound down, I shipped out my boxes and said my goodbyes and took a much-needed break. I went to "Librarian's Shout 'n' Share," in which librarians shared their favorite upcoming titles and added a few to my own lists. I spent some time at the book blogger reception held immediately after the show and in preparation for Friday's Book Blogger Con. Afterwards, I met up with my friend Jean for dinner at Max Brenner Chocolate by the Bald Man and had a burger and some nice fondue for dessert.
Overall? It was a great show. I did a lot of work and had a lot of fun- and discovered some great books. You can read about Book Blogger Con here and see the books I picked up here!