Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Doctor Zhivago Group Read: Week 3- I Haven't Finished

Okay, today was the due date to finish the group read of the new translation of Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago. I have not finished it. I plan to, but I haven't yet.

Not that I'm not enjoying the book. I am. But I confess I'm finding it a little more molasses-like than I remember the first time. I'm about halfway through the last part, which means I have just under 200 pages to go. That's not a lot. That's a short novel. I can read 200 pages.

But will I? That's the question. I have many, many pages to read in my TBR pile, and many more will be added by Santa. Why would I feel compelled to finish these particular 200 pages? Because it will affect my self-esteem if I don't.

The good doctor has landed in some hot water, separated from his wife and his lover. One thing I forgot about the story is just how short and fragile his sexual relationship with Lara is. But then everything in the doctor's life is fragile, tenuous and delicate. I love the passages from his diary, when he and his wife Tonya first move to Yuriatin, the village where he'll re-discover Lara and consummate their affair. I love his lyricism, his love for nature and physical activity, and the way his love for Lara combines all the things he loves. I noticed also how his attraction to Lara peaks at a time when his wife is pregnant and less attractive to him physically; this is the one time I didn't like him.

Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
Anyway it's a beautiful book and I will finish it. I will. Just not today.

You can find more links to the Group Read at NonSuchBook. Thanks to the magnificent Frances for hosting this and the Madame Bovary read last month! If you love literary fiction and you haven't been to her wonderful blog, what are you waiting for?

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Non-Bookie Holiday Gift for the Bookish

I received a $25 gift card from HomeGoods & BlogHer to shop for a holiday gift and share my finds.

Every year when my husband's aunts, uncles and cousins come to visit for Thanksgiving, we eat, hang out, play games, spend time together- and shop, because, well, it's kind of fun. And while I do a lot of book shopping, sometimes I like to have little accessories to make my reading and relaxing time even better.

First of all, if I'm going to settle in with a good book, I need to be comfortable:
I found this great pillow at HomeGoods for $16.99. It matches my sofa nicely and it's very, very comfortable. But as anyone who knows me, knows well, I also love to bake and curl up with a nice hot cup of coffee or tea when I read. So I needed these, too:

I collect Christmas cups and mugs and thought this little matched set was adorable. At $3.99 each, they were also a great bargain.

Here I am enjoying my finds:

Now all I need is a book! I wonder where I can find one of those.

FTC Disclosure: I received a $25.00 gift card from BlogHer and HomeGoods.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Salon- Today I *Am* Going to Read!

Every Sunday I talk about what I'm reading but Sunday always ends up being busy and I usually get very little reading time in. Not so today. I've got By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a soft pillow and some coffee, and I'm not moving until I'm done with this novella, recommended to me by my friend Michele Filgate of RiverRun Books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Today is the end of the Thanksgiving weekend festivities in my family, a four-day marathon of family, food, shopping and more. The official activities ended this morning at breakfast; in addition to the holiday celebration itself, we had a bunch of relatives visiting Friday through today. Friday night we went shopping and had Thanksgiving dinner leftovers; Saturday my husband and I hosted a brunch and went out shopping afterwards. Saturday night most of us went to see the new Harry Potter movie, which we all enjoyed. I haven't read any of the books nor seen any movies since HP4 but I had no trouble following this one. I enjoyed the way this movie seems to bring together a lot of different threads from the earlier films and the way the story has evolved. I can't wait for the final part!

But now I'm going to get back to my book. Hope you all have a great day!

More Sunday Salon is here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Guest Post: A&A's Movie A Day Presents NIGHT WATCH, continued!

This is part two of a guest post series by Andy and Amanda, movie bloggers at A & A's Movie A Day. Click here for part one, Andy's post. Here's Amanda's take on this weird, fun and always-thought provoking Russian film!

You can read Amanda's original post here.

A few years ago when we went to visit family in California I bought the book this movie is based on. I’d brought several books with me for the flight there and back, but as I might have mentioned I am usually a very fast reader and I whipped through the books I’d brought. And no, they weren’t children’s novels. They were fairly heavy books, actually, but by the time we landed in San Francisco I’d finished all but one, and that one only had a few chapters left. So we hit a book store before we headed home two weeks later and I bought this book because it was thick and Russian and dense and I figured it would last me. Boy was I right. It lasted me so well it’s still unfinished. I found it far too dense for an airplane flight and ended up writing or sleeping for much of the flight instead. I feel somewhat ashamed of this. Having seen this now, perhaps I will go back and pick up the book and finish it.

The thing is, it really is a dense story. I only got through a couple of chapters of the book and it was a few years ago now, but I remember it okay. Not perfectly, but well enough to have the impression that while the movie does set up the world and story fairly well the book went into a hell of a lot more detail. I’m not really comparing the book to Tolkien, but when looking at the transition from book to movie there had to be a similar truncation of the world building. It had to be done in a visual manner that would condense all of the pages and pages of details in the book into a few minutes of scenes on a screen. That’s tricky. It ends up meaning that the background between the Light and the Dark is explained in an expository prologue and the whole major plot with a woman who’s been cursed, bringing down a vortex – not to mention the meaning of the vortex itself – is also explained through some expository dialogue and kind of glossed over. Vortex = bad. Got it. But it’s expressed much more eloquently in the book if I recall correctly. I definitely found myself thinking back to what I could recall of the book to fill in my understanding of the scale of the danger here.

It’s not that the movie does any of this stuff poorly. It’s that there’s just so very much to pack into one movie and some bits are going to get lost. As I’ve said, things that work on a page don’t necessarily work on a screen. And really, I was pleased by the world-building work done in this movie. Anton, the main character, gets some background and we’re really introduced with the modern Night Watch and his personal conflicts and troubles through a job he goes on. He’s got a drinking problem, both with alcohol and blood. He’s working for the Light side of things, but he’s friendly with a few vampires and seems to be a little too close to them for comfort. He gets himself into trouble while dealing with two vampires who’ve used their powers to lure an innocent boy to them to feed on and while looking for them he encountered a woman with a vortex forming above her. And a vortex is a bad thing indeed, dooming all of those around her. So we’ve got the vampires and we’ve got the vortex and there’s definitely something deeper going on in the world that the movie has built. The whole world is put together in such a way that you know that the Truce between Light and Dark is a fragile thing indeed, with both sides pushing and testing and using loopholes. It’s implied that the Dark is chafing against the rules imposed by the Light and the Light may perhaps be a little hypocritical at times. Nothing is clear cut.

The whole Light and Dark thing isn’t a new concept. One of my favorite series of books when I was a child (and still to this day) are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. In those books the Light is clearly very good. It’s a simple thing. The Light is good and does good things and the Dark is bad and does bad things. Sometimes people in the Light make mistakes, but they’re rare and for the most part it’s all very easy to tell one from the other. The world of this movie has much fuzzier lines. Yes, there is one team and there is another, and they have different general directions they’re pointing in. But it’s harder to draw clean lines between them at times. It’s a lot dirtier and grittier, as befits a more realistic world. I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine why someone would choose to go with the Dark in this world. After all, the Light isn’t necessarily so appealing all the time.

The specific plot of the movie is kind of complex. It’s not that it’s this intricate spiderweb of a story, but it relies heavily on the world it takes place in and on things that I’d have to make asides to explain. Suffice it to say, there’s a big climactic battle between the Light and the Dark coming, and Anton is closely connected to a key figure in that battle. But Anton himself is a flawed figure, and so his actions can have devastating consequences. And the movie handles him in a wonderfully close way. He’s far from perfect. His apartment is filthy, he’s a mess much of the time, he sort of seems to have fallen into the job he has. There’s the blood issue. The vortex plot and the vampire plot run together for much of the movie, back and forth. But in the end it’s a good vs. evil plot. I know I heard this in a creative writing class – that there are two stories: good vs. evil and a stranger comes to town – but who said it? I have no idea. Still, it holds true here. Good vs. evil. But here it’s a messy battle with a messy hero and a messy visual presentation.

I mean that in a good way. The visuals are frantic in places, with awkward camera angles and quick pans and zooms and things frozen in time. The world Anton and his fellows (the Others, both Light and Dark) inhabit is one where the rules that apply to the rest of us don’t always exist. So the visual style seems to seek to capture that, and in my opinion it works. It’s disorienting and scattered, but it fits both the world and Anton himself. The one thing I’d criticize visually is the whole medieval knight theme that gets pulled out from the opening prologue and superimposed over the big battle at the end. It felt a little forced to me in a movie where the odd visuals didn’t otherwise feel out of place.
Brought to you as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
Other than that and the frustrating glossing over of Olga, I really felt the movie did a good job with the world of the story and then placing the story into it. It’s not an easy thing to take a dense and well-built background and put it on film in a concise manner that still feels rich, but this movie does it. I’m looking forward to the sequel now, and I’m definitely going to go finish the book.

Visit their great blog anytime at aandamovieaday.wordpress.com.

Friday, November 26, 2010

15 Authors- Russian Month Edition

Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
The Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

I picked Russian/Soviet and Russian/Soviet-American authors and books that I love for different reasons. There are so many more I could list!
  1. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych was the first really amazing work literature I read. I have a battered paperback I picked up for less than a dollar in a used bookstore when I was a kid and it will always, always be my favorite.
  2. Dostoevsky- a teacher in high school encouraged me to read The Idiot and Crime and Punishment, both favorites and amazing books.
  3. Vladimir Voinovich- his Monumental Propaganda is one of the funniest and best satires I've read.
  4. Ellen Litman's The Last Chicken in America is a wonderful and under-appreciated collection of short stories on the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience in this country at the end of the 20th century.
  5. Ludmila Ulitskaya- another wonderful novelist whose beautiful Medea and Her Children is a heartbreaking, gorgeous family saga.
  6. Vladimir Nabokov- It just doesn't get any better than Nabokov.  Read him. Please. I recently reviewed The Real Life of Sebastian Knight but anything will do.
  7. Elena Gorokhova- A Mountain of Crumbs, her memoir about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s is a fluid, fascinating tale from the perspective a child through that of a young woman.
  8. Nikolai Maslov's graphic novel Siberia is simply amazing.
  9. David Benioff- I still tear up thinking about the wonderful twist at the end of his entertaining thriller City of Thieves.
  10. Ekaterina Sedia's urban fairy tale The Secret History of Moscow is a wonderful, light tale of the power of love in a world of chaos.
  11. Tina Grimberg's memoir Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet covers some of the same ground as Gorokhova's but for a young-adult audience. It's also unforgettable.
  12. Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan will always be one of my all-time favorite novels with its lively voice and lovable, flawed and crazy Mischa.
  13. Sergei Lukanyenko's vampire novel Night Watch, first in a series of four, was a well-crafted and fun break from ordinary litfic reading for me.
  14. Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is a classic of dystopian literature.
  15. Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is an amazing satire of religion, politics and more. I recently added a first edition of the English translation to my collection!
I found this meme on Facebook; if you want to give it a go I'd love it if you commented with the link!

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza: REVIEW: The Accompanist, by Nina Berberova

    The Accompanist, by Nina Berberova. Published 2003 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

    You know, I'm really getting to like New Directions, the publisher of Nina Berberova's novella The Accompanist. This is the fourth book of theirs I've read, and the fourth intriguing, off-the-beaten-track high quality literary offering I've read of theirs, too. This is the story of Sonetchka, a talented young woman who works as a piano accompanist for a beautiful and charismatic star, Maria, and travels with her and her husband to Paris. Raised by a disgraced single mother and having little to recommend her but herself, she gives up love and a life of her own for the only life she thinks she deserves, one of subservience to the glamorous couple.

    But this subservience comes at a cost, and over the years, as Sonetchka gives up more and more, her resentment grows. Quietly, unnoticed and unappreciated, she takes the measure of what she's lost, and what she might do to extract revenge. When Sonetchka suspects Maria of an infidelity to her long-suffering husband Pavel, Sonetchka begins to get ideas about the form this revenge might take. But things quickly escalate out of control, leaving Sonetchka in a place she never imagined she would be.

    Read as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    The Accompanist is a short, haunting novel about sacrifice and ambition, about how circumstances beyond our control shape our lives and rule our hearts. Every character is tragic in his or her own way; even the vaunted Maria seems empty inside. Berberova is a compassionate but cold-eyed realist and her observations are complicated and nuanced. Sonetchka is pitiable and contemptible at different times; Maria is, too. Most of the action takes place outside of Russia and Berberova communicates the limitations and the sense of missed possibilities that haunt her throughout her days. It's a subtle, moving and horrifying portrait of a frustrated young life, recommended for readers with a serious interest in Russian literature and literary short fiction.

    Rating: BACKLIST

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

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    Graphic Novel Monday: REVIEW: Ruts and Gullies, by Philippe Girard

    Ruts and Gullies: Nine Days in Saint Petersburg, by Philippe Girard. Published 2010 by Conundrum Press. Graphica. Memoir.

    Well, how long has it been since I did a graphic novel review? Ages.

    This one is the story of a Canadian comics artist named Philippe Girard and the nine days he spent with his friend Jimmy Beaulieu in Saint Petersburg, Russia, touring around and meeting with other comics artists from all over the world. It's cute.

    There were a couple of things that bothered me about this book. The art is kind of bland. With a travelogue, one hopes for art that makes the place portrayed come alive; I want to see architecture, pretty scenes, something to bring me into the place. I didn't really get that here. Also, there is no translation offered for the occasional Romanized and Cyrillic Russian speech and signage; I can read Russian well enough to puzzle out street signs and simple things but I would have liked the dialogue to be at least translated into English. There isn't a lot of Russian in the book, but I just wish that what there was, had been translated, even as a footnote.

    Read as part of Russo-Biblio-Exravaganza
    That said, there's still a lot to like about Ruts and Gullies. Girard writes a pretty fun, light, engaging story about his time in Russia, very fish-out-of-water, and there are some real laughs to be had. He portrays his hosts with warmth and affection. I got a sense of the culture in terms of the people if not in terms of the sights and sounds, which is probably more important anyway. I love the "twenty Russian minutes" expression he comes up with to describe how long it takes to do anything, go anywhere, etc., in this strange and unfamiliar country. He really captures what it feels like to feel at sea in a new world.

    So yeah, cute and light but not the best or deepest book I've ever read. But it's a good read and I think it would appeal to newer graphic novel readers and anyone interested in Russia.

    Rating: BEACH

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

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    Sunday Salon- Holidays are Almost Here

    I can't believe it's almost Thanksgiving here in the US, and that by this time next week, I'll be hip-deep in Christmas.

    But for today it's still pre-holiday-season. Late this morning I'm attending a book-launch party for a friend whose book about class-action lawsuits just came out, and then in the afternoon I'm helping to decorate the house for Thanksgiving. We host a small brunch for out-of-town visiting family on the weekend after Thanksgiving so we like to have the house looking nice.

    Those of you who know me on Twitter will know that one of the main dramas of my life over the past few days has been the loss of my Moleskine Book Journal; well, I found it last night, thanks in no small part to the cleaning we've been doing! I was going nuts looking for it; I've written detailed book lists in it and have been really missing it! The next step would have been to buy a new one, a step which would have guaranteed its retrieval, but thankfully it didn't come to that.

    As for reading, I've got Doctor Zhivago going and I'm close to finishing Moscow 2042. I also have one chapter to go on Salman Rushdie's new book, Luka and the Fire of Life. Every Sunday I have big plans when it comes to reading but for some reason I hardly ever spend any time at all reading on Sundays. We'll see if today is any different.

    I read through all my short Russian books for Russian Month, and now I'm working my way through two normal-sized novels, Moscow 2042 and The Sacred Book of the Werewolf.  I'd like to finish those two for Russian Month; I don't know if there will be time to read anything else. Of course I've also added one or two to the pile since I started but overall I've made good progress through my stash.

    What are you reading today? Getting ready for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas? Have a great Sunday!
    More Sunday Salon here.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    Guest Post: A&A's Movie A Day Presents NIGHT WATCH

    The following review was written by my good friend Andy, who reviews movies with his wife Amanda at the great blog A&A's Movie A Day. The movie "Night Watch" is based on the first of a series of modern-vampire novels by Sergei Lukyanenko, also called Night Watch. It's been too long since I read Night Watch to write a proper review, but let it suffice to say it's fun, light and enjoyable urban fantasy without too much gore. 

    But that's the book. Here's the movie:

    Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)
    Our good friend over at The Boston Bibliophile has decided that for the month of November she will be reviewing Russian books, so in a show of solidarity we decided to watch a Russian movie today. We have relatively few Russian films to choose from and this is a movie I’ve been looking forward to re-watching and reviewing for the blog for a while.

    Before we put this in Amanda commented that she was surprised that it was not really that long of a movie. She’s right – it comes in at under two hours. Which is odd because in my memory it was at least four hours long. I think that must be because it is so dense. There’s a lot of world-building going on there – a whole mythos that needs to be established with its own rules and prophesies. I’m not altogether sure that it works for me, even on the second viewing, but that could be the result of the translation or some cultural divide as much as anything else.

    There are some deep themes being explored here. Ideas about what is good and what is evil and what is the nature of choice. Do we chose our own destinies or are they chosen for us even when we are supposedly free? These are questions I enjoy being asked, but although they are central to the plot of this movie I feel as though they are somewhat glossed over. This movie is a jet-powered steamroller that rumbles inevitably over everything in its path, and by the end I’m feeling flattened and drained.
    The background for the movie is established Lord of the Rings style with an epic battle between forces of good and evil sometime in the dark ages. Only in this movie neither side is victorious – instead there is a perfect stalemate and so the two sides establish an uneasy Truce that has lasted up to the present day. For the most part the action of this movie follows a hapless average Joe named Anton Gorodetsky. As the movie starts we are in a flash back to twelve years ago. Anton visits a woman in an attempt to win back his wife, who has left him. This woman, a witch, tells him that he can bring back his wife, but to do so he must consent in the casting of a spell to kill the unborn child that his wife is bearing. He consents to the spell, but has second thoughts, at which point all hell breaks loose. A trio of mysterious people appear out of thin air and restrain the witch, arresting her for attempting black magic in violation of the Truce. She accuses them of entrapment in their use of Anton to draw her out. And all of them are surprised that Anton himself can see them – an indication that he is not really Human, but is Other – like they are. He is a seer – with the ability to see the future in some way. This means that Anton must choose a side – he must freely choose if he is to be a part of the Night Watch or the Day Watch. The Night Watch monitor the activities of the forces of darkness, just as the Day Watch keep an eye on the forces of light.

    Flash forward to present day Moscow. Anton has chosen to join the Night Watch, so he’s sent by his superiors to find a boy who is being summoned by a vampire. The vampire girl is using the Call and Anton should be able to tune in on that call and hopefully catch her before she feeds. The problem is that Anton is clearly unsuited to this work from the very beginning. He’s a bleary-eyed blunderer drunk on pig’s blood who can barely stand, much less act any kind of hero. The way that the movie is put together does a wonderful job of making you feel Anton’s disorientation. We are thrown into this situation along with him and I get the sense that were are meant to understand that his transition into a larger and darker world has not been a smooth one.

    As he tracks the boy who’s being Called he encounters a mysterious woman caught ins a metaphysical vortex. It transpires that this vortex is more than just an incorporeal phenomenon – this woman is some kind of indicator of the start of an apocalypse. She is an innocent under a curse that presages the coming of the Great Other and the end of the Truce that has bound all supernatural beings for centuries.

    Although this movie borrows a whole lot from other vampire films and such it really is building a whole new universe here. There are witches and vampires and seers and shape-shifters and all kinds of strange people among the Others. It’s a grimy, sad kind of underground existence for both sides of the truce. The Night Watch are operated using a power company for a front, tooling around in souped up company trucks. The Day Watch rule from the streets, from the alley ways and from the shadows. There are some fun tweaks on the vampire standards (such as a great action scene where Anton is doing battle with a vampire who is in the Gloom, and therefor invisible and can ONLY be seen in mirrors.) The Gloom is a great concept too – it’s a sort of dark dimension that the Others can go into that allows them to travel invisibly or through looking glasses. It’s a dangerous place to venture into and can destroy somebody who is ill prepared or untrained.
    Where the movie begins to lose me though is in its depiction of good and evil. I think it’s intentionally ambiguous on this point. Part of the whole point of the movie (and what I’m imagining would really resonate in the Russian psyche) is that the forces of light are bureaucratic, unforgiving and officious. Yes, the forces of dark are constantly trying to break the rules, which means killing innocents and such, but it’s pretty much stated that it’s only really evil because the Night Watch have decreed it to be so. The vampires blame their sins on the oppressive regime of the Night Watch. This is kind of where I lose track of things. I can sympathise with a downtrodden group kept in check by an iron-fisted regime but at the same time the vampires that Anton does battle with are pretty clearly not nice people. He has some neighbours who are basically good folk – law abiding vampires who obey the truce and are his friends, and they’re the most sympathetic people in the movie.

    I suppose that it’s kind of part of the morally ambiguous nature of the movie that nobody is really right or wrong. I can go with that. But if that’s the kind of world you’re trying to depict then perhaps you shouldn’t use terms like Good and Evil. In my mind absolutes like that don’t really apply. Are the forces of light meant to be corrupt and evil? Are the some of the forces of darkness basically good people? I think that’s what is supposed to be going on here but it’s all very muddy and confusing. As I said, it could be to do with the translation.

    The visual presentation of the movie is bewildering as well, but in a good way. Director Timur Bekmambetov has a flare for edgy effects laden action and this was the film that really brought him onto the international stage. There are recurring motifs throughout the movie (the branching of blood vessels for example are echoed in the tines of lightning.) There’s a lengthy special effects shot depicting the travels of a screw torn loose from a disabled passenger jet that reminded me very much of City of Lost Children. The disorienting feel of the Gloom is marvelously captured through a variety of digital effects and camera trickery. I would hazard a guess that this movie is one of those crazy accomplishments where there is not a single shot in the whole production that doesn’t have some form of visual effect or other. No wonder this movie was hailed as Russia’s response to The Matrix.
    Presented as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    I also appreciate the effort taken to make this adaptation special for non-Russian audiences. This movie does something with the subtitles which I have never seen before. They are integrated right into the film. The voice of the Call is blood red and dissolves into the screen like blood in water. The text on the screen often wipes behind characters in the foreground or fades at different rates so that key words linger just a little longer. It drops down off the bottom of the screen as the camera pans up. It’s as though an effort has been made to make the subtitles almost part of the movie. I’m used to subtitles being a passive thing added in post, more an obstruction than anything else, so it took some time for me to get used to this new concept. In the end however I felt like it added to the whole viewing experience.

    Come back next Saturday for Amanda's review and visit their blog anytime here!

    Friday, November 19, 2010

    Friday Finds Continues on Video

    Sofia Petrovna, by Lydia Chukovskaya (Northwestern UP)
    Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage)
    Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb (Europa Editions)
    From the Land of the Moon, by Milena Agus (Europa Editions)

    Also mentioned:
    The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (link is to my review)

    More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    REVIEW: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

    There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Published 2009 by Penguin.

    Nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award last year and written by one of the most important living Russian writers, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, should be required reading for anyone with an interest in either Russian literature or modern fairy tales.

    These fairy tales combine a modern-day setting in a Russia defined by social and economic chaos, fractured families, poverty and disappointment, and traditional fairy tale elements- magic, mysterious visitors and the thin line between the land of the living and that of the dead. Petrushevskaya talks about universal fears- dying, losing life, life, home and family, going to war, disease- through the lens of the supernatural. The stories themselves are short and weird rather than scary; her deadpan style and matter-of-fact tone resist put-on atmospherics. Sometimes what she recounts seems almost banal, until the reader remembers what it is she's recounting.

    People come back from the dead, often in dreams, to guide left-behind loved ones; spells are cast; lovers are disappointed or defeated. The title story is truly bizarre and frightening and there are lots of scares, twists and chills to be had. But sometimes the stories are happy, in their way. In "The Cabbage Patch Mother", a lonely woman whose child has died finds someone to love in a mysterious little girl she names Droplet. In "Marilena's Secret", my favorite story, an obese circus performer who's been cursed by a disappointed beau finally finds redemption. And "My Love" is a complex, subtle and sad tale of adulteries layered on adulteries.

    Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    Politics are largely absent from Petrushevskaya's stories, at least on the superficial level; they could be taking place in any time or place, and seem to take place on the margins of history, in ordinary life. Fans of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the fiction Kelly Link or Neil Gaiman, and fantasy and modern fairy tales are the obvious audience for There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby but I think readers of literary fiction and some YA readers would enjoy this collection, too. Petrushevskaya is a really wonderful writer who I wish I knew better and who I wish was better known generally. It's a really neat and a really unusual book,  and really rewarding, too.

    Rating: BUY

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

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza Interview with Lisa of Lizok's Bookshelf

    Today I have for you an interview with Lisa Hayden Espenschade, professional translator who blogs about Russian books at Lizok's Bookshelf and everything else she reads at Lisa's Other Bookshelf. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa at Book Blogger Con back in May and have been reading her blog avidly ever since. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about herself, her blog and her favorite Russian books.

    1. How old were you when you started to study Russian? Why? What interested you about studying the language and culture?

    I didn’t start learning Russian until I was a sophomore in college but I’ve been interested in Russia since I was a child. I asked my parents to renew my Jack and Jill magazine every year solely because I loved their occasional “Baba Yaga” stories. I wrote my first paper about the Soviet Union in sixth grade, which was also the year I read my first piece of Russian literature, Chekhov’s “The Bet.” In college, I wasn’t a particularly serious student until I started taking Russian history, which fascinated me so much that I couldn’t stop studying.

    2. What are some of your favorite novels in Russian? Favorite author we probably haven't heard of but should have? What would you recommend for nonfiction for someone trying to get situated in Russian culture and history?

    My favorite novel in any language is War and Peace: I love Tolstoy’s scope as he describes life. Even the war scenes get more interesting with each new reading! I’ve read War and Peace four times now, twice for classes, and twice on my own. I’m sure Gary Saul Morson, the professor who taught me the book both times, is one reason I love it so much; Dr. Morson also taught me a lot about literary theory and writing. I like Doctor Zhivago, too, but it’s a book I enjoy most as a literary puzzle. Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Translator is a favorite post-Soviet novel.

    There are many, many Russian writers available in translation that I wish were better known here! Here are three whose short novels I’ve enjoyed very much: Irina Grekova, Vera Panova, and Vladimir Makanin. I also recommend Varlam Shalamov’s stories about prison camp life. Two favorite classics that don’t get enough attention are Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, a novel in stories, and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s supremely depressing Golovyov Family. One more: I love Alexander Pushkin’s Belkin Tales. Pushkin is known as “our everything” in Russia.

    I don’t read much nonfiction now but always like to recommend James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe as a comprehensive introduction to Russian culture and history; Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird is informative, too. I should also mention Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers, which provides an excellent picture of the effects of the Stalin-era Great Terror.

    3. You read a lot of English-language novels, too; you have a whole separate blog for them. Do you have a different experience reading in one language or culture versus the other?

    Yes, it’s very different! I’ve picked up speed in reading Russian but still read about twice as fast in English. A friend who took Russian with me used to say she gave each Russian word individual attention… I still do even when the vocabulary’s familiar because I’m always watching for new uses of words and phrases, particularly in contemporary literature with lots of slang. Reading in Russian is a much more intense experience for me than reading in English, both because it’s my second language and because it’s so colorful. Russians like to call their language “great and powerful,” and I can’t argue! My English reading has become more analytical since I started translating fiction. I think more about word choice and usage now, especially when I read English translations.

    4. Who is your favorite character in a Russian novel?

    Back to War and Peace! I love Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov. Sure, the young Natasha is a little bratty, but there’s a reason Tolstoy gives her so many wonderful scenes: she’s curious, loyal, intuitive, and dares ask what’s for dessert. Pierre, whose last name means “without ears,” gets in trouble for a boys’ night episode with a bear, bumbles his way into awkward situations (such as marriage), and is always looking for meaning.

    5. Have you done a lot of traveling in Russia/the former Soviet Union? What are some of your favorite places? Do you have a favorite bookstore (or bookstores)? What is your impression of the literary scene?

    I traveled a lot when I visited Russia in the ‘80s and lived in Moscow during the ‘90s. Some of my favorite places are Arkhangel’sk, Portland, Maine’s, sister city; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, which I caught at its most colorful during foliage season; and Moscow, where I lived for six years. I like St. Petersburg’s architecture, but Moscow has a busy, more chaotic feel that I prefer… probably because I was fortunate to have a quiet but centrally located apartment! I worked on several interesting projects in Minsk but my favorite non-Russian city was Baku, which I visited several times and enjoyed for its old city.

    I haven’t been back to Russia since I left in 1998 so don’t know much about bookstores these days. Back then, I bought books everywhere, from vendors on the streets, in a used bookstore that sold difficult-to-find editions, and in state shops with routine selections. A sentimental favorite is Dom knigi (House of Books) on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. My friends and I went there as students in 1983, naively asked for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky novels, and got laughed at because they weren’t in stock!

    Presented as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    One of my favorite Moscow literary events was a reading with Vladimir Voinovich. The room was so crowded that I sat almost next to him; his melodic voice mesmerized me. I have a favorite literary place, too: Boris Pasternak’s dacha. The dacha is now a beautiful museum, and every year there’s a concert on May 30, the anniversary of Pasternak’s death. That’s my birthday, and I went every year. There was always music and poetry, often read by Pasternak’s neighbors Evgenii Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. Once or twice the museum even served tea and cake. There’s no better way for someone like me to spend a birthday afternoon.

    Lisa, thank you so much for answering these questions! It's been such a pleasure to learn more about you and your love of Russia and Russian literature!

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Doctor Zhivago Group Read: Week 1- What's In a Name?

    I'm participating in Frances's Group Read of Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago, released in November in a new translation by acclaimed translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I've read Doctor Zhivago before and loved it; it's an epic novel about love and war and life, lyrically written by a poet with a searing love story at its center. It's been several years since I read it and it's coming back to me slowly. Certain things I remember but I'm going to try to do this spoiler-free.

    One of the things that's interesting me about this read is Pasternak's use of names. In Russian there are lots of different ways to say someone's name. You can use just a first name, you can use a familiar, you can make up a nickname, you can use a formal first-name-plus-patronymic construction, you can use a last name, you can use a title, and so on. The name you use says something about your degree of familiarity and even your feelings about a person. Two of the characters forming the heart of the book are Doctor Zhivago himself (Yuri Andreevich, Yura, Yurochka, Doctor Zhivago, and so on) and Lara (Lara, Larissa, Larissa Feodorovna, Larissa Guicharovna, Antipova, Nurse Antipova, etc.) have, because they are referred to by all these different names, a kind of chameleon-like quality. Each name means something different. Lara is the name Pasternak uses when talking about her as a young woman. Antipova is her more formal married name, Nurse Antipova her professional name, Larissa her given name, and so on. Yet all of these names refer to the same person. She's an enigma, someone who appears and reappears in the plot and in Zhivago's life, at different times, under different circumstances, and under different names. If you haven't read the book I won't spoil it but let it suffice to say there's a big surprise coming soon having to do with how one character is named and not named. When I first read it, it knocked me out of my chair.

    Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    Overall I'm enjoying the book so far. I don't know how I feel about this translation. My memory of the other version was that it wasn't so portentious as this one but it's been a long time. There are times when my attention falters under the weight of it. It's not really a book that's long on plot- it's about the internal lives of the characters and the way they're affected by the chaos around them. We'll see how it goes.

    What do you think so far?

    Go to Nonsuchbook for more Group Read links.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair

    This weekend I attended the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, which ran from Friday to Sunday at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. What a bookish lovefest! Dealers from all over the world lined the aisles, displaying their wares, chatting with customers and fellow dealers, while collectors of all stripes roamed the floor in search of a great deal or a great treasure.

    I have two main collections- Booker Prize winners and vintage editions of Jane Eyre. The kind of Jane Eyres I typically buy are inexpensive and not particularly valuable; therefore, there was not going to be anything for me at this fair, full of high-end and pricey books. There were many Booker Prize first editions (and lots of modern first editions generally) but I didn't end up buying anything despite being tempted by more than one delectable-looking literary morsel. I saw first edition copies of favorites like The English Patient, The White Tiger and The Remains of the Day, all very tempting but none of which were really in my price range.

    That's the thing- going to a show like this is like visiting a museum, and unless you come with a fat wallet, it's mostly just about the lollygagging. But there were some pretty impressive treasures. I saw a first edition of Lolita from Olympia Press offered at $1,000, a first edition of Jane Eyre for a whopping $50,000 and lots of rare and collectible science fiction and literature. Some of the other titles I saw for sale include Rebecca, Animal Farm, lots of Ian Fleming, The Time Machine, and more. The fair also had a lot of old children's books on offer, like old editions of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Prince and other favorites.

    On Sunday afternoon two used-book experts set up shop as appraisers for customers' own books. My husband and I brought in two rare science fiction first editions he found at local used bookstores and while the valuations were not what we had hoped, we walked away with some new information about our books, which we will treasure nonetheless.

    And that's another thing- even without a formal appraisal session, fairs offer a great opportunity to talk to booksellers and get your questions answered. If you're interested in collecting, you probably have questions about whether you should be looking for this over that, or what makes a book collectible, what difference a signature makes, etc. My question for this session was about book club editions; one dealer was selling a book club edition of a favorite Nabokov so I asked how collectible they were. Not very, turned out to be the answer, which explained the relatively low price of this item. And that's just one question. Booksellers are usually very friendly and happy to chat with you and you can really learn a lot.

    Overall we had a great time. I love bookhounding any time but the chance to see a world-class selection of truly rare and precious books is an opportunity not to be missed!

    FTC Disclosure: I received two complimentary tickets to the show in return for a promise to write up my experience at the event.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Sunday Salon- Guess What? I'm Reading.

    It's Sunday and I'm reading. What else, right?

    Well, I'm also attending the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair today, which runs from 12-5 at the Hynes Convention Center. I went yesterday, too, to browse, but today I'm going for the appraisal session. I don't want to say too much more since I'll have a full write-up tomorrow.

    The past week was a busy bookish one for me, with readings by two major and favorite authors- Paul Auster doing the only reading outside of New York City for his new novel, Sunset Park, and the inimitable David Sedaris reading from his new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Both were fabulous. Sedaris even took time during his event to promote someone else's book, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. I don't know if that book would be my cup of tea but I thought it was fun and very classy of Sedaris to do that. The event was huge; Harvard Book Store closed for the duration and there was overflow seating all over the store. We got great seats in front of one of the big TVs they set up for people who didn't get seats in the room with Sedaris. He signed books before and after his talk, and I got my books signed, and got to meet him, while I was still waiting to get into the store. It was quite a memorable night! None of which is to take anything away from Auster, of whom I'm been a fan since college and who I was thrilled to meet (again). He's also a really terrific reader and really whet my appetite for his new book.

    In December I'm going to be catching up on 2010 releases (and probably in January, too) and I'm starting to work up my list. To the End of the Land, The Swimming Pool, The Bells, Sunset Park, just to start.

    Today? Today I'm reading Salman Rushdie's new one, Luka and the Fire of Life, and working on The Sacred Book of the Werewolf and Moscow 2042 for Russian month. I'm loving Moscow 2042. Vladimir Voinovich has to be some kind of comic genius. This book is political satire crossed with time travel and contains several riffs on the literary merits of science fiction even as he plays with its conventions. Very fun. I was going to wait till December to start the Rushdie but I couldn't sit on it any longer.

    What are you reading today? More Sunday Salon here.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    It's Friday Finds! Another Video Edition

    The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Z. Davis (Harvard UP)
    Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown)

    Also mentioned:
    Brain Candy Book Reviews
    Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, Friday-Sunday at the Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Mass.

    More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    REVIEW: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg

    Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Published 2010 by Random House. Nonfiction. Memoir.

    Running the Books, Avi Steinberg's new memoir about his time as a prison librarian at Boston's South Bay House of Corrections, is definitely my favorite nonfiction read of the year and both a moving human story and a rare look at a little-known corner of the world- the prison library.

    In my own experience, the closest I've come to the prison library world was my first internship at Boston's AIDS Action Committee's HIV Health Library, where we regularly received correspondence from inmates and had therefore to be familiar with some of the regulations that govern prison libraries, but I didn't know much more about it than that. When I had the chance to read Steinberg's book in conjunction with my current job, I jumped at the opportunity because the book struck me as off-the-beaten path and a natural fit for my audience.

    Steinberg got the job with no MLS after doing some freelance obituary work and other writing and worked in the library with another librarian and an ever-changing assortment of inmate assistants. He also taught creative writing classes and ran various programs in the library, including film screenings and other activities. In the book, he recounts memorable inmates, officers and events that took place both inside and outside the prison, and  interleaves the story of his own life- his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Israel, Cleveland and Boston, where he attended the Maimonides School and Harvard, and the story of how he grew up in prison.

    In one very moving passage, he contrasts a traditional Shabbat celebration with a typical Friday night in prison, and later he talks about his grandmother, a reserved woman who survived Eastern Europe of the 1930s only to refuse to share her stories with her family in America. He talks about run-ins with inmates and officers that taught him, at different times, both assertiveness and compassion, and other incidents that stripped away his naivete or bolstered his faith in those around him. It's these human stories combined with Steinberg's balance of realism and compassion that make the book really sing. Many of the stories he retells have tragic endings; the inmates often traveled difficult paths to prison and once out, were not always able to go someplace better. Steinberg doesn't lose sight of the inmates as human beings, however flawed, troubled or imperfect, and his humility and empathy and willingness to learn from his environment transform this book from a do-gooder story into something reflective, thoughtful and moving.

    Running the Books is as well-written as any nonfiction memoir I've read. Steinberg has an eye for detail and an ear for tone and style; the book is alternately snappy and sweet, punchy and funny one minute, devastating the next. Steinberg drew me in immediately with the attention-getting first line "Pimps make the best librarians," and it just got better from there. In addition to its natural audience ofl librarians, book lovers and memoir readers, Boston-area readers or afficianados will enjoy the history he shares of South Bay and Deer Island Prison, which South Bay replaced, as well as his sharp commentary on the swanky Liberty Hotel, itself a former prison. Let's just say, I doubt he'll have his book launch there. Whatever he does, I just hope this beautiful memoir gets the readers and enjoys the success it deserves. Books like this don't come along often!

    I had the privilege of interviewing Steinberg via phone for the Association of Jewish Libraries; you can listen here. The interview runs about 30 minutes.

    Rating: BUY-NOW!

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

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    REVIEW: The Dacha Husband, by Ivan Shcheglov

    The Dacha Husband, by Ivan Shcheglov. Published 2009 by Northwestern University Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Russian.

    The Dacha Husband is a short satire of bourgeois married life in nineteenth century Russia, centering on a couple with a home in the country and a husband who works in the city. As the railway grew in Russia during this time, such arrangements were common. The characters in Shcheglov's little comedy are archetypes and stereotypes- the overworked, harried man and the silly, spoiled, social-climbing wife. Think of it as Madame Bovary from the husband's persepctive, but written as a comedy.

    The book is broken up into several parts, including an introduction to the concept of the dacha husband, a sort of philosophical meditation on the subject and a melodrama about what happens when the couple takes a vacation to a spa and the wife encounters handsome hangers-on vying for her attention. Let's just say matrimonial bliss is not in the cards for these two. I will say that I found some of the comedy to be slightly misogynistic from time to time, determined as our narrator is to portray himself as a martyr and his wife as an ungrateful wretch. But it's supposed to be funny and for the most part it is.

    Read as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    So who should read The Dacha Husband? I'd suggest it to people who like satires and black comedy. Readers with any kind of semi-serious interest in Russian literature would find it worthwhile. It depicts the rise of the middle class in a way that I haven't really seen before and its characters are all unlikeable in one way or another as the book depicts a hollowed-out marriage based on material goods and consumerism. If you wanted to find a serious message here it's probably possible but for the most part it's just a light little after-dinner mint of a novel.

    Rating: BEACH

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

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    REVIEW: The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova

    The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. Published 2000, New Directions. Literary Fiction. Short stories. Translated from the Russian.

    A mere 144 pages, The Ladies from St. Petersburg is a collection of three short stories, the title story being the longest, almost a novella. Taken together, the three stories track the progress of the Russian Revolution from the days before it was even called that to the life of an emigre living in New York City after having fled its aftermath.

    But writer Nina Berberova packs a lot into this slender volume despite the low page count. All three stories are beautiful, evocative and emotional; the first tells the sad story of young Margarita, whose mother dies while the two are on vacation at a boarding house in the country. All at once her world collapses, because her country and way of life fall apart at the same time that her family does. The second story, "Zoya," is the harrowing tale of an aristocratic woman taking shelter from the violence of the revolution in a boarding house where she faces the mocking hostility of everyone around her. "Zoya" is truly chilling and far more frightening to me than anything I've read in any so-called horror story; it's the horror of cruelty and indifference. The final story, "The Big City," is set in New York and tracks the attempts of an immigrant man to find friendship and community when it seems he's lost everything. "The Big City" brings the collection full circle when he strikes an unlikely friendship.

    Read as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    Berberova has written a series of realistic short stories in which the chaos of the revolution is played out in small ways in the lives of ordinary people. She shows us how a young woman tries to find a casket for her dead mother, and how another tries to find a little peace and quiet in her rented bedroom- and how social upheaval gives licence to shocking cruelty. Finally she shows how one man finds peace in the appearance of the miraculous and surreal. The Ladies from St. Petersburg is a short, lovely book that would be a marvelous choice for readers of literary fiction and short stories. I have three more books of hers waiting to be read and I can't wait to step back in her strange, difficult and ultimately magical world.

    Rating: BUY

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

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    Go, Go #NaNoWriMo

    So it's November, and that means one thing for a lot of folks interested in books and literature- it means it's time for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's the time when would-be writers everywhere put their fingers to the keyboard and try to pound out a fifty-thousand word book in the span of 30 days.

    It shocks me sometimes, the amount of negativity heaped on NaNo writers. One guy I know openly mocked me last year when I said I was participating, in effect saying that everyone who merely participates in NaNo is the same as, you know, this one girl he knew, who bound her manuscript at the end of the month and then walked around with it and touted herself as a published writer. Um, no. First of all, while I do think that people who think their NaNo novels are ready for the big time just because they met the word count are seriously misguided, we don't all think like that. Even if I did, it's my problem, not yours. And that girl wrote a book, polished or not. That's more than I've done.

    Writer and columnist Laura Miller, who I really respect and whose columns I usually enjoy, took time out of her schedule to bag on NaNo writers, echoing my friend's disdain and all but lumping us all together as lazy, slipshod nerds who otherwise lack the motivation to be real writers, since real writers, by implication, don't need NaNo to find the wherewithall to write- and real writers revise, which she says most NaNo writers don't. Not only that, but according to Miller, NaNo's progeny are cluttering up the literary world and making editors and agents shiver in their boots over the prospect of all those terrible books surely on their way.


    If someone has a dream to write a book, I would never- never-discourage him or her from giving it a go, even if he or she wanted to participate in NaNo. And I would never paint every NaNo writer with that same, condescending brush.  It's probably true that many NaNo writers don't revise, but maybe writing this book means the next one will be better-  and, maybe some will get the bug and buckle down and really make something good.  And if not, they're still trying. They're putting themselves out there, giving themselves a really ambitious goal and a lot of them meet that goal. How can you tell someone not to try? What gives someone the right? In some cases I think it's a case of sour grapes. I couldn't do it so I'm going to try to drag you down to my level. In some cases (and this may be the case with Miller- I don't know her so it's hard to say) it sounds like dreck fatigue- I'm tired of reading bad manuscripts and NaNo produces bad manuscripts, therefore NaNo must be stopped. Which I think is an unfortunate conclusion to draw.

    But whatever.

    What's it to you, really, if I want to try to write a book? If a community event like NaNoWriMo helps me or someone else get started, what's it to you? True, I didn't finish last year's NaNo project but I've been writing steadily since then and now I'm up to over 40,000 words on my current project- and I'm not participating in NaNo this year, just for the record. I'm just writing. What do you gain by discouraging me?

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    Sunday Salon- Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza and Bookish Events

    So far my month of Russian books is going swimmingly. I've finished a handful of smaller books:
    • The Shadows of Berlin, by Dovid Bergelson,
    • The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova,
    • There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and
    • The Dacha Husband, by Ivan Shcheglov.
    Most of these were tiny. Today I'm reading The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, by Victor Pelevin, which I'm loving and which I already think would be a great choice for scifi/fantasy and urban fiction readers. If you are familiar with Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch, it's like that only grittier, sexier and more violent. Anyway. I'm also working my way through the first section of Doctor Zhivago for Frances's group read at Nonsuchbook. And I'm eyeing my stack of books and deciding what to read next, because I'll be done with Werewolf soon. But I don't want to be!

    There's still time to enter my giveaway of Russian Winter. I haven't read this yet but I've heard great things. The giveaway post has some links to reviews. In December and January I'll be reading 2010 releases I haven't yet read and I'm planning to read it then. I'd read it this month but with Zhivago I didn't want a second chunkster.

    In bookish events in the week coming up there are two major readings taking place- Paul Auster and David Sedaris. I won't go into the sad story of my failed quest for a decent seat at the Sedaris reading. There are tickets for seats where you can see him, and tickets for seats where you can't. Guess which one I got? And I'm lucky to have that. But not for lack of effort, believe me. Oh well. I've only been looking forward to this for ages, so, you know, it's not like I'm bitterly disappointed or anything. At least I got in & can get my books signed.

    What are you reading today? I hope you all have a great day. More Sunday Salon here.

    Saturday, November 6, 2010

    Moleskine Book Journal - Because You Always Need Another Notebook

    This week I treated myself to the new Moleskine Book Journal, a new addition to their "Passions" line of six new specialty notebooks: Recipes, Wine, Book, Film, Music and Wellness.

    I was naturally intrigued by the Book Journal (although I just love saying the French version, "carnet livres"- so evocative) when I saw a sample at the NEIBA conference a few weeks ago. I've been looking for one ever since and was delighted to find that Blick Art Supply carries them.

    (None of the bookstores I've visited which carry Moleskine appear to have had it,  although by now they probably do.)

    So here's the product: a standard medium-sized Moleskine with a black embossed cover and insides broken up into three main sections. The first is a brief chapter called "Planning" which give you space to list events and appointments; I'm using it to list readings.

    The next, and largest, is divided alphabetically A-Z (you decide if you're going to list alpha by title or alpha by author) with room for one book per page, and the last is a series of five user-defined tabbed sections, each page containing five blank horizontal divisions. You could use them to annotate readings, lists, collections- whatever you want. There is also a section of blank pages and a section for a personal index at the end.

    So far, I'm using my user-defined sections for
    • keeping track of gift ideas,
    • creating themed book lists,
    • and tracking Friday Finds.

    The book comes with four accessories- three sheets of stickers and a bookmark. Two sets of stickers are identical but for color- one is gray and one is teal. Some are descriptive- I Loved It! Amazing!; some are pictorial- stars, pencils, thumbs-up, etc. The third set is for the user-defined tabbed sections and includes 35 suggested categories ("My Favorites," or "News Sites," for example) and five blank tabs. The book has three ribbon bookmarks so you can bookmark different sections at once, and has the standard black elastic closure on the outside. The book has two pockets on the inside back cover and a booklet translating a bunch of bookish terms into various languages.

    So what do I think? I think it's adorable. At $20.00 it would make a fun gift for a favorite bibliophile, or a great way to keep records and notes for yourself. I use blank Moleskine books to take notes on books (and keep lists, and daydream, and- you get the idea) and I love their glossy, beautiful paper; it's just about the nicest surface I've ever written on, whether it be a poem or a grocery list. I also love their compact sizes and the elastic to keep it closed, and I appreciate the pockets and other thoughtful features. I like the idea of having a more formal dedicated space for record keeping; maybe it'll become a sort of hub for my blog and a record of bookish events and people. Come to think of it, I'm busy enough these days that I could really use a command-central for everything bookish in my life. This might just be the thing!

    Where to buy Moleskine notebooks. I am not affiliated with Moleskine.

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

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Friday Finds- Video-Only Edition

    Finds mentioned:
    In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions)
    Dersu the Trapper, by V.K. Arseniev (McPherson)
    The Road, by Vasily Grossman (NYRB Editions)
    Vladimir Nabokov, Alphabet in Color, by Vladimir Nabokov and Jean Holabird (Gingko Press)
    Visit Jean Holabird's website at www.BirdHollow.com.
    The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson (Mariner Books)

    Also mentioned:
    The Tiger, by John Vaillant (Random House)
    Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Modern Classics)

    I've started a YouTube channel for my Friday Finds videos! You can subscribe here. I'm going to use the YouTube page to collect book trailers and other literary content, too.  Hope to see you there!

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    REVIEW: A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova

    A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova. Published 2010 by Simon & Schuster. Memoir.

    A Mountain of Crumbs is Elena Gorokhova's memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, covering the period from her early childhood, when she'd pick mushrooms in the forest with her mother and play with her sister Marina, to her early adulthood and her move to the United States with her first husband. It's a wonderful book.

    Though beautiful in many places, Gorokhova's life is certainly far from idyllic. Her mother, a doctor, is a strong but difficult woman; her father dies young. Life in Leningrad is hard and privations are many. A bright girl, Gorokhova tries to follow the rules and make a life for herself; learning English is what finally gives her a way out. In the meantime she grows up, tries to fit in socially and in the world of work and keep her head down. But in the end she decides she has to leave or suffocate.

    I loved this book. Gorokhova is a talented writer and the book reads beautifully. She writes with tenderness about her family and her struggles growing up. Her sister's story is fascinating in and of itself; a beautiful, charismatic girl who decides to buck her mother's wishes and become an actress, her rebellion plants a seed in her sister Elena. Gorokhova has a great eye for detail and picks out telling anecdotes and miniature story arcs that pull the narrative along smoothly. I love how the tone changes subtly as little Elena ages; early passages from her childhood have a more naive tone that shifts little by little as Gorokhova grows up.

    Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    I think A Mountain of Crumbs would appeal to a lot of readers. It's a great story, first and foremost, and people who enjoy memoirs generally would like it, as well as readers interested in the time and place. Gorokhova has a lot to tell us about a world that was pretty closed off to the West, a lot about everyday life and ordinary people in a place that doesn't really exist anymore, with the bonus of a very happy ending. It was a privilege for me to peek into her world, if only for a little while. I hope you get a chance to look, too.

    Rating: BUY

    I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    REVIEW: The Shadows of Berlin, by Dovid Bergelson

    The Shadows of Berlin, by Dovid Bergelson. Published 2005 by City Lights Books.

    The Shadows of Berlin is a small, slim book of short stories by one of the Soviet Union's most important Yiddish writers, Dovid Bergelson, who wrote several novellas, novels and essays before his execution by Stalin in 1952 as part of Stalin's purge of Yiddish culture.

    The book is made up of six short stories, each one sort of dark and modernistic, covering the lives both secret and public of emigres in a colorless and flat Europe. Two stories that stand out for me are the first, "Two Murderers," about a man who comes to board with a woman whose dog has killed a child, and who is himself responsible for a pogrom in Ukraine, and "Among Refugees," about another young man who is in Berlin looking for an infamous pogromist who he believes is living nearby.  The third, "Blindness," is about a man who finds a diary written by an unhappy wife as she relives a youthful infatuation; the reaction of her husband at the very end is chilling.

    Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
    All of Bergelson's stories here are dark and moody and challenging, all the more so for being so brief. Bergelson creates tight, tiny worlds in his pages, and there's never a happy ending or even much sign of hope for his characters. Set exclusively in Europe but dealing with the inner turmoils of refugees and emigres, there is a sadness that permeates this volume and a nostalgia for better times. Definitely not casual or light reading, I'd recommend The Shadows of Berlin for readers with a serious interest in Soviet or Soviet-Jewish literature; although I enjoyed them and think they're very accomplished, I don't think this book will appeal to most general readers.

    Rating: BACKLIST

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

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza Giveaway- 3 *signed* copies of RUSSIAN WINTER

    As part of November's Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza month of Russian books and reading, I picked up THREE SIGNED COPIES of Daphne Kalotay's new novel RUSSIAN WINTER to give away.

    RUSSIAN WINTER is an exciting new novel about a Russian ballerina, her jewelry collection and her collection of memories, memories that she lingers over one by one as she auctions off her precious jewels, collected over a lifetime. It goes back and forth through time and has garnered many rave reviews.

    I have three copies to give away to three lucky winners. Here are the rules:
    1. This giveaway is open the U.S. only.
    2. To enter, leave a comment here with your email address. No email address, no entry- no exceptions.
    3. Link to the giveaway on your blog, Facebook or Twitter and leave me the link here for two extra entries each.
    4. Followers old and new get two extra entries.
    5. The contest is open until midnight EST November 30. I will select the winners with Random.org. You have the whole month to enter. I will contact the winners sometime the following weekend; each winner will have 48 hours to respond with a US mailing address. If I don't hear back in 48 hours I will select another winner.
    BiblioSue reviewed Russian Winter here.
    See She Is Too Fond of Books' review here.
    Boston Book Bums reviewed it, too. 
      If you have reviewed the book and would like me to link to it on this post, leave it in the comments even if you don't want to enter the giveaway and I will update the post periodically with your reviews.
      Good luck!

      Monday, November 1, 2010

      November's Theme: Russian/Soviet Literature

      This month I'm going to do something different for me- a month-long reading challenge focused on Russian and Soviet literature. (I'm going to use the term "Russian" as a broad term though I realize it's not strictly speaking correct to do so. Please forgive me.)

      Russian literature has been a lifelong interest for me. One of the very first adult books I read was Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych and other Stories and I still have my beat-up paperback I bought at a used bookstore when I was probably 13. Next came Dostoevsky's The Idiot and from there I was hooked.

      This month, I'm going to dig deep into my TBR pile and read as many Russian-authored and Russian-themed books as I can.There's the photo of the stack. The stack includes short stories, a graphic novel, and novel-length fiction long and short, old and new. Probably, Life and Fate will come last if I get to it at all.

      I don't expect to finish it all!

      Over the course of the month I'll blog reviews of books as I read them and also review a few other books that I've read and not reviewed that fit. (I will also post reviews of non-Russian books as needed to fill in gaps now and then.) Memes will be answered with Russian literature in mind. I also have a couple of great interviews lined up- one with an author with a great new book, and one with a fellow blogger. Hope to see you back often for this fun series!