Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Finds- Christmas Vlog Edition

Finds mentioned:
Corrag, by Susan Fletcher (W.W. Norton)
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)
Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, by Ola Rotimi (University Press PLC Nigeria)
Something to Answer For, by P.H. Newby (Faber)
The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens (Little, Brown)
Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth (W.W. Norton)
Fireflies in the Mist, by Quarratulain Hyder (New Directions)
Mariana, by Monica Dickens (Persephone Books)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie (Penguin Non-Classics)
Sonechka, by Ludmilla Ulitskaya (Schocken Books)

Other finds not mentioned:
The Russian Passenger, by Gunter Ohnemus (Bitter Lemon Press)
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain (Vintage)
Almost Dead, by Assaf Gavron (Harper Perennial)
Reuben Sachs, by Amy Levy (Persephone Books)

Also mentioned:
Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie (Random House)
Blogs: ImageNations and NonsuchBook blog

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What I'll Be Reading in 2011

I have a handful or so of 2011 galleys right now and these are the ones I'm looking forward to the most!
The Matchmaker of Kenmare, by Frank Delaney. The follow-up to Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is my most anticipated book of 2011 so far. Random House, February.

The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas. Looks really good. About a little girl who becomes advisor to the Sultan in the Ottoman Empire. Harper, February.

Enough About Love, by Herve le Tellier. I actually read about half of this book at the NEIBA conference where I picked it up. Frothy fun about French people falling in love. Other Press, February.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Looks like fun from Random House. February.

West of Here, by Jonathan Evison. Can't wait to read this highly touted book from Algonquin Press. February.

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard. Pittard's book is this month's Indiespensable selection from Powell's, so it has to be good. Ecco, February.

Tourquai, by Tim Davys. Another in the series of books including Amberville and Lanceheim about goings-on among a community of stuffed animals. I should probably read those, too! At least I own Amberville. Harper, March.

Click Here to Search for any of these books, or anything else. I'm a Powell's affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

But you know what? I want to spend most of my 2011 reading things off my shelf and not worrying quite so much about new releases or the flavor of the month. I think that would be nice for a change. But if A.S. Byatt or Margaret Atwood have new books this year all bets are off!

I'm also planning several theme months- Irish Month in March, and science fiction/fantasy in July, among others, to help me work through some of my backlog. It worked well in November when I did Russia Month so why not try it again.

So let me ask you- what are you looking forward to? Is there anything you'd recommend for me?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Top 11 2010 Releases- and Five Favorites from the Backlist

2010 has been a great year in books and bookish life. When I was trying to come up with my top 10, I couldn't get past my top 16- 11 of which were released in 2010 and five of which were not. So rather than whittle it down further I decided just to tell you about all the books I loved this year.

I came up with this list by running through the list of this year's reads, which you can see on the sidebar of my blog at any time, and when one of them elicited a big smile and a great memory, I wrote the title on a list in a notebook.  I had 16 books and decided I couldn't really fail to mention any of them.

This list of my favorites this year is in no particular order. There's no way I could choose a #1 favorite!

My Favorite 2010 Releases:
  •  Eddie Signwriter, by Adam Schwartzman. If there is one truly hidden gem of 2010 it's Eddie Signwriter. It wasn't nominated for any big awards and I don't even know if anyone besides me even read it. But it's wonderful. Please read it. Please. Please.
  • The Tiger, by John Vaillant, a breathtaking pageturner, part adventure story, part history, part window into a little-known part of the world and part ecological plea on behalf of the Amur tiger.
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, a somewhat light but incredibly sweet and moving love story and story of the changing face of Great Britain.
  • The Passage, by Justin Cronin. A fab literary-pop page-turner about a post-apocalyptic America and the little girl destined to save it.
  • Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, by Frank Delaney. The sequel, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, is due out in February and not a moment to soon to follow up this fun and very Irish novel about the theater, the family, love and history. If I could interview anyone in 2011 it would be Frank Delaney!
  • Running the Books, by Avi Steinberg. A winner of a memoir about a prison librarian and the challenges he faces on the job.
  • The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer. A wonderful epic novel about Hungarian Jews trying to survive in World War 2-era Europe.
  • The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. I don't care what anyone says- this serious and sophisticated novel about being Jewish and British deserved its Booker Prize win.
  • To the End of the Land, by David Grossman. A brilliant epic about family life and the life of a country.
  • The Debba, by Avner Mandelman. A really engrossing thriller about contemporary Israel and the meaning of identity, nominated for Canada's Giller Prize.
  • Broken Glass Park, by Alina Bronksy. A searing and psychologically honest portrayal of a young woman whose life and family have been shattered by domestic violence. Heartbreaking and all too real.

The Backlisters I Loved:
    • Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Booker-Prize winner and stunning work of literature about scandal and its consequences. Not for the faint of heart!
    • The Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji. A paean to childhood and growing up set in Iran, both sweet and tragic, tender and bittersweet.
    • The Halfway House, by Guillermo Rosales. A book I wish everyone would read, a difficult novella about the fight to live with dignity against impossible odds.
    • Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Hands-down one of the best books I've read about childhood, a brilliant and beautiful book; a little girl and her brother come out of isolation to face the world separately and together.
    • Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon. Wow. Just, wow. I sped-read this in two days and it still haunts me. A gripping story of that elusive thing called identity.
    Click Here to Search for any of these books, or anything else. I'm a Powell's affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

      Tuesday, December 28, 2010

      REVIEW: The Tiger, by John Vaillant

      The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survivial, by John Vaillant. Published 2010 by Random House.

      A bookseller friend of mine asked me once what three subjects (nonfiction) would I always be interested in reading about, no matter how many books I already had in my library on those subjects. My answers were France and Russia (I couldn't think of a third) and she immediately recommended I pick up John Vaillant's then-forthcoming The Tiger, a gripping story of life and death in far-Eastern Russia. I ordered it that day from my bookseller of choice and tore into it as soon as it arrived and it remains one of my favorite nonfiction reads of this, or any, year.

      The main subject of the book is a tiger attack on a Russian man, Vladimir Markov, in eastern Siberia. He was stalked and killed by a tiger he attacked, a tiger which then continued its assault through the densely wooded, sparsely populated and very poor region; this behavior, apart from being very dangerous, was also considered very unusual and therefore attracted the attention of an organization called Inspection Tiger, headed by Yuri Trush, an outstanding outdoorsman charged with protecting tigers and humans from each other. Trush assembled a team to hunt the tiger; the story of the hunt, of Markov's death, and of the cultural, economic, political and natural circumstances of the tiger and Siberia are what makes up this remarkable book.

      The story of the hunt itself is relatively brief and is just the basis for this wide-ranging study of a place and a people that may be unfamiliar to many readers. My own education on Russia and the former Soviet Union is mostly self-guided and I missed much of the material Vaillant covers so carefully here. The story of Russian expansion into the east, the indigenous people and animals already there, the economic forces that push and pull these populations and the cultural forces that push back were all entirely new to me. Vaillant's passionate advocacy for the preservation of the tiger and its habitat are moving and the action is page-turning and riveting. I love how he peppers the story with mythology, history, and anecdotes and stories large and sweeping, and minute and personal. He also asks hard questions of his readers, aware that his audience of presumably largely middle-class Americans will have a hard time relating to the hardscrabble existence he's describing, and forces us to really ask what it means to have to survive under the hand-to-mouth circumstances of the far eastern Siberian forest.

      As you can probably tell, I loved this book, and I think there are a lot of other readers who would, too. People interested in Russia are the obvious audience but I would recommend this book to anyone who likes nature stories, adventure stories, true crime and thrillers; I'd also recommend it to people interested in learning about little-known cultures and marginal communities. It's just a good story, well told, with lots of fascinating information and unforgettable people. I'd put this book in the hands of everyone I know if I could. Pick it up; believe me, once The Tiger gets its claws into you, you'll never be the same.

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

      Rating: BUY

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

      Monday, December 27, 2010

      REVIEW: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch

      Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch. Published 2010 by Amulet Books. Graphica. Fiction.

      Hereville is a charming graphic novel by writer and artist Barry Deutsch, author of the webcomic of the same name. Its heroine is plucky young Mirka, an Orthodox Jewish girl who has a secret life as a superhero battling trolls. She also has a regular life as an awkward preteen, navigating her family and her life as best she can.

      Mirka is growing up in the town of Hereville, populated by mostly Orthodox Jews, and she goes to an Orthodox school. Her family, including her father, her stepmother Fruma and her brother and sisters, are observant but otherwise ordinary, and Deutsch makes his story accessible to general readers by including definitions for the Yiddish words and phrases the family uses and explaining the basics of Orthodox observance. I love the lively, expressive and varied artwork, the sense of activity as well as tranquility that Deutsch creates in scenes of adventure, daily life and quiet ritual. I particularly enjoyed the tender relationship between Mirka and Fruma; no evil stepmother is she, but a warm and compassionate woman who cares deeply for her children.

      Hereville is really a winner of a graphic novel, family-friendly and great for kids and adults alike. Mirka gains a great deal of self-confidence battling the local trolls and my only kvetch is that I wish Mirka had used it for something less domestic than merely determining to learn to knit, but this quibble is a minor one. If you're looking for a smart, sweet and knowing look at observant Jewish life, Hereville is a great place to start.

      Click here to see an interview with Deutsch on the blog of the Association of Jewish Libraries, along with more examples of artwork from the book.

      Rating: BUY

      FTC Disclosure: I received this book for professional use in conjunction with my work for the Association of Jewish Libraries.

      Sunday, December 26, 2010

      Sunday Salon- Happy Boxing Day

      So Christmas was pretty awesome and now my husband and I are just relaxing at home for the day. He arranged our presents artfully under the tree and we have no plans for the day beyond relaxing. And reading.

      I'm still working through To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, a wonderful book that's just a very leisurely read. I got a bunch of new books under the tree; I'll have a full report on Friday but among the treasures were signed first editions of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, and a first edition (not signed) of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. I'm going to find a special place for each.

      The holiday itself was pretty laid-back. Jeff and I opened presents at home in the morning and then headed out to his parents' house nearby for the day. It was a small crowd but a nice party capped with a spectacular dinner cooked by my mother-in-law. Now it's time to get to that relaxing thing.

      Update: Congratulations to Natasha, who won my Christmas giveaway of From the Land of the Moon. I'll be shipping your book off to Malaysia soon! Thanks to all who entered. I used to select her as the winner.

      Have a great Sunday! More Sunday Salon here.

      Wednesday, December 22, 2010

      REVIEW: From the Land of the Moon, by Milena Agus

      From the Land of the Moon, by Milena Agus. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translation.

      Set during and just after World War II but in a backwater of Italy far from the front lines, From the Land of the Moon is the haunting story of an unnamed woman, the narrator's grandmother, who, unable to have children, is sent by her husband to a spa where she falls in love for the first time.  The man, a fellow patient, is known only as the Veteran; his past, bound up with the war and its attendant tragedies, is full of secrets and passions. The grandmother has a secret of her own: she writes. Her family thinks she is worthless, an eccentric spinster who marries late the only man who will have her, she's from "the land of the moon" as far as they're concerned.

      The grandmother is a beautiful, passionate and brilliant woman whose story of repressed vivacity could easily have turned maudlin, but under Agus's light touch turns into something else. The novel, barely more than a novella, tracks her entire life through the eyes of her granddaughter; time moves back and forth, and the narrator weaves in her own memories and those of her father, mother and other relatives in a delicate net of memory, secrets and love. Despite never being given a name, the grandmother and indeed all the characters, are far from generic or even archetypal; Agus presents their emotions and personalities so convincingly, and sets them in such a vividly rendered time and place, that I felt like I was reading about real people. The grandmother's trip to Milan with her husband, years after her time at the spa, was heartbreaking and real, and the final twist brought tears to my eyes and made me question almost everything I'd read.

      From the Land of the Moon is a beautiful family story and love story that readers of European literary fiction will absolutely love. It's short and Agus has a light touch but it's not a light novel. The writing is careful and the book requires a careful reader; it took me much longer to read this than I would have guessed for such a short novel. It's a timeless story rich with detail of time and place, about nameless characters who are nonetheless as real and memorable as any you'll meet on paper.

      Because I loved this novel so much I'd like to share it with one of my readers. Comment with your email address for a chance to win my copy; the giveaway is open worldwide and ends at midnight, December 25. Call it my little Christmas present to one of you!

      Rating: BUY

      FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

      Tuesday, December 21, 2010

      REVIEW: Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman

      Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman. Published 2010 by McSweeney's. Literary Fiction.

      Misadventure is a comic noir about a a real estate agent entangled in a very messy domestic menage-a-trois leading to several murders and other shenanigans. Stylishly written with a cast of eccentrics and losers, it's like GlenGarry Glen Ross crossed with Fargo.

       It's California and it's the 1950s, and local real estate mogul Tod Hunt wants to be rid of his gorgeous but treacherous wife Darlene; he hires Jack Hopkins, a bitter, cynical ex-Marine and himself an unhappy real estate agent. At the same time, Darlene hires Jack to kill her husband, and the two become embroiled in a tempestuous relationship. When Darlene turns up dead (don't worry, it's not a spoiler- look at the cover), all heck breaks loose as Jack tries to juggle Tod, his boss, his wife Gayle, and more. Meanwhile, his boss at the real estate agency wants him to spy on their rival. There's a private island, a young mistress and misadventures galore in this witty romp.

      Reading Misadventure is just plain fun. Kaufman, author of 2009's Bowl of Cherries and co-creator of Mr. Magoo, passed away last year and left us two terrific, eccentric novels. Misadventure was the better one for me, because I like noirs and thrillers over picaresques like Cherries; Misadventure has more twists and turns than a bendy straw and tight, excellent writing to boot. This guy knew how to string a sentence, that's for sure. Jack narrates a scene midway through the book:
      In the tub I lay like flotsam, my mind a faulty projector reeling off flashbacks to San Dismaso and flashforwards to Darlene. Gayle [Jack's wife] should have been home by now, but there was no sign of her. I was resigned to passing out alone, maybe just sinking under the waterline and succumbing, when the phone rang. I sped to the receiver balls-ass naked.
      I think the thing to do would be to pick up the pair of Kaufman's books, either for yourself or a memorable holiday gift for the hipster on your list. And if you do, get the beautiful hardcover editions. McSweeney's has a nice tendency to publish their books as very attractive, well-designed hardcover volumes; take advantage of it!  I'd absolutely recommend Misadventure for the litfic reader looking for something off the beaten path, or the thriller junkie with a sense of humor. If you fall into either of those categories, you kind of can't go wrong.

      Rating: BACKLIST

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

      Monday, December 20, 2010

      The Year In Books- The Statistical Roundup

      I did this meme last year and it was really fun to take a data-driven look at my reading. 

      How many books read in 2010? 84 as of December 17. (Down 3 books from last year. Thanks, The Passage and To the End of the Land- you chunksters should count as 3 book each!)

      How many fiction and non fiction?
      79 fiction versus 5 nonfiction. I think my preference is clear! (Last year I read 14 nonfiction books!)

      Male/Female author ratio? 
      Split down the middle- 42 male, 42 female. I don't pay attention to the demographic distribution of the authors I read so believe me, I did not plan this!

      Favorite book of 2010?
      My favorite 2010 release was Eddie Signwriter, by Adam Schwartzman, and my favorite backlister was Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. South African writers FTW!

      Least favorite?
      Ugh. Something I didn't finish and have forgotten about.

      Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
      Several. The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Just didn't hold my attention. Parrot and Olivier in America, a picaresque and I don't care for picaresques. Sorry Peter Carey- I love you!

      Oldest book read?
      Vivant Denon's No Tomorrow, originally published in the 18th century.

      To The End of the Land, by David Grossman.

      Longest and shortest book titles?
      Longest: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic. Shortest: Solar, by Ian McEwan.

      Longest and shortest books?
      Longest: To the End of the Land or The Passage. Shortest: No Tomorrow or The Dacha Husband.

      How many books from the library?
      None! Sad but true.

      Any translated books?
      The Halfway House (Spanish), No Tomorrow (French), How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (German), The Patience Stone (French), Broken Glass Park (German), Earth & Ashes (Dari), The Wedding of Zein (Arabic), The Wrong Blood (Spanish), The Door (Hungarian), Death's Dark Abyss (Italian), The Ladies from St. Petersburg (Russian), The Shadows of Berlin (Yiddish), The Dacha Husband (Russian), There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby (Russian), The Accompanist (Russian), Ruts and Gullies (French), Moscow 2042 (Russian), Doctor Zhivago (Russian), Madame Bovary (French), From the Land of the Moon (Italian), To the End of the Land (Hebrew).

      Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
      It's a tie, two each from Nina Berberova (The Ladies from St. Petersburg and The Accompanist) and Atiq Rahimi (The Patience Stone and Earth & Ashes).

      Any re-reads?
      Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, if the new translation counts.

      Favorite character of the year?
      Major Pettigrew of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I just loved him, contradictions and all.

      Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
      Ireland, Germany, Russia, Sudan, England, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Spain, Afghanistan, China, Cuba, South Africa, Bosnia, Iran, Canada, and Jordan. And the United States!

      Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
      Any Human Heart, by William Boyd, recommended by Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand.

      Which author was new to you in 2010 that you now want to read the entire works of?
      Howard Jacobson. His The Finkler Question was great and made me want to read everything else he's written.

      Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
      I wish I'd gotten to The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. But it's tops on my list for Irish Month in March.

      Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
      Yes. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, finally!

      Paul Auster in Cambridge, Mass.
      2010 TOP TEN Book Events in Marie's Book Life - in no particular order:
      10. BEA and Book Blogger Con! So. Much. Fun.
      9. Other conferences- NEIBA, ALA Midwinter.
      8. ReaderCon. Love ReaderCon.
      7. Any time I'm honored to interview a favorite author, which I did a lot this year.
      6. Visiting great bookstores in Seattle, Philadelphia and South Carolina.
      5.Seeing my interview with Chandler Burr published in the paperback of his novel, You or Someone Like You.
      4. Meeting authors Adam Schwartzman, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, Justin Cronin and Paul Auster, among many others, at readings and events.
      3. The Boston Antiquarian Book Fair.
      2. Being mentioned in Professional Blogging for Dummies.
      1. Reading all of your blogs & comments!

      Sunday, December 19, 2010

      Sunday Salon- Not Much Reading Today, and An Intriguing Bookish Rumor

      Today is the last weekend day before Christmas and the day I start my cookie baking. Today I'm making chocolate chip cookies; every day for the rest of the week, up to and including Friday, I'll be baking something. I have a list; I have a schedule; I have ingredients. I'm ready.

      Reading? Well, this week I read the very short and very haunting From the Land of the Moon, Milena Agus's novel about the life and loves of an Italian woman in the early 20th century. I loved this book and I need to read it again. I'll have a review shortly. I don't want to wait to tell you more. I'm still working my way through David Grossman's To the End of the Land (I know, similar titles) and I'm really enjoying it but it's a slow read and a long book, which is why I have to take breaks with shorter (if not necessary lighter) books. This is the second such short book I've read in the last week or so; earlier I read Bad Marie, a very different book but one that I enjoyed as well.

      Today most of the reading I'll be doing is on the back of the Ghirardelli chocolate chip package, where I get my cookie recipe.

      From the Rountree Alice
      It's kind of a non-sequitur but I heard a very intriguing book-related rumor recently. About a year ago  I came across an incredibly striking illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland with pictures I'd never seen before, by an illustrator named Harry Rountree. A little research told me that his version is relatively rare, particularly this one, the 1908 edition with 92 color plates. This book was over $300 and I couldn't afford it but I never forgot about it and my husband has been checking around different places in hopes of finding a more affordable copy. Recently, a bookseller told him that he had just sold an intact copy to someone who purchased it with the express purpose of republishing it, spectacular illustrations and all, which this person believes are out of copyright.

      If a new edition of the Rountree Alice ever sees the light of day, run don't walk to buy it- I know I will. The pictures are stunning and nothing like the traditional Tenniel pictures. If anything, they look like something out of Hayao Miazaki. Some of the pictures could have come straight out of Spirited Away or one of his other films. I really hope something comes of this.

      Anyway that's it for this Sunday Salon. Have a great Sunday, whatever you're up to!
      More Sunday Salon here.

      Friday, December 17, 2010

      A New Kind of Friday Finds.

      I do a weekly link roundup on the blog I run for work and often I come across things I think are neat but not a good fit for that blog. So that means you, my lucky and brilliant readers, get the benefit.

      Brian Solis has an interesting article on The State of the Blogosphere 2010. What do you think?

      I heard about the Out with a Bang Read-A-Thon at Book-Savvy. I kind of love this, the idea of clearing out the 2010 stash. I can't possibly read them all but I've been trying to work my way through mine this month and failing, thanks to the mammoth but wonderful To The End of the Land. I haven't signed up for this challenge yet; do you think I should? Will you?

      A pretty for Francophones and Francophiles: An article in French about the history of different ABC books: Abécédaires: ordre et commencements.

      The fab ResourceShelf blog ResourceBlog has a piece on Endangered Languages: New Online Database from the World Oral Literature Project.

      A funny for the holidays: Santa Killerz: a handy guide to dealing with People who are Annoying at Christmas. I know some of these people. I'm related to some of them. I am some of them. Are you?

      Finally, the bestest article I've read so far about the future of books and publishing. Do you ever get tired of everyone tripping all over themselves to predict the demise of the book? Because I do. From Terrible Minds, The Future of Publishing 2010 Prognostication Wank Snargh Pbbbt *Poop Noise*. Read and be validated.

      I'll be back with Friday Finds in a couple of weeks. I have a feeling Santa may be bringing me a book or two.

      Thursday, December 16, 2010

      REVIEW: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

      The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Published 2010 by Bloomsbury. Literary Fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize.

      The upset winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, The Finkler Question is nonetheless not exactly a crowd-pleaser. A serious, sophisticated novel about emotionally and intellectually challenging problems, focusing on a niche topic (how to be Jewish- and not- in modern day Great Britain) and a satire to boot, it's simply not destined for universal adulation. But that doesn't mean it's not a good book.

      The center of the novel is the identity crisis of a loser named Julian Treslove. Julian Treslove has failed at just about everything. He's failed at a conventional career with the BBC. He's failed in love; he's failed at being a parent. Now a fairly successful impersonator of the famous, about the only thing he is good at is pretending to be someone else.

      One night as Julian comes home after an evening out, he is mugged. He believes that his attacker was a woman, which makes him feel like a failure as a man, and he believes that his attacker called him a Jew. This gets Julian to thinking. He has two close friends- Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Sam is successful and rich, a younger man who's made a career as a writer and Libor is an older emigre from Eastern Europe, recently mourning the death of his wife. Julian admires them both and both Sam and Libor are Jewish. Somewhere in the back of Julian's mind, something takes hold, and, hanging his hat on the belief that his mother may have been of Jewish descent, he decides to be Jewish, too. And things start looking up for Julian. His sons, estranged and contemptuous of their father,  take a little more interest. Julian falls in love with the voluptuous, artistic Earth-mother Hephzibah, who seems to love him back.

      But this, too, will probably not work out.  Sam is a lackadaisical activist in an anti-Zionist group and tries, in his personal and public life, to define the boundaries of what gentiles can do and how he will allow or not allow them to participate in Jewish life; he doesn't support Julian on principle. In one scene, Sam excoriates a gentile woman for having an opinion on the Israel/Palestine dispute, saying in effect that because she's not Jewish she has no right to comment. Libor can't figure out why Julian would want to be Jewish in the first place. Julian wants Hephzibah to be a kind of uber-Jewess but she just wants to be herself. The more Julian tries to participate in his friends' Jewish world, the more he's excluded from it and the more bitter he becomes. In the end it's a tragedy that bursts his bubble and forces all of them apart.

      Being Jewish, it seems, is not as simple as putting on a kippah and flashing your mother's DNA like a ticket. Ultimately Julian's problem is that it's a pose, like his celebrity impersonation business. It's just not who he is. He idealizes the Jewish world only to be disappointed by the reality as he experiences it. For me, Julian's internal process figuring out his place in this new-to-him world is fascinating to watch. The experience of the gentile in the Jewish world is not a topic often addressed in literature (the only other example I can think of is Chandler Burr's very different novel, You or Someone Like You) and the degree of empathy and insight that Jacobson has into his confused protagonist is pretty impressive. He nails it; he really does, and he does it with some humor, too. This is not an easy thing to talk about- not without sounding like a jerk, anyway, and some people might still think Julian is a jerk. I think he merely allows himself to be mislead by his own failures and weak sense of self into a fight he can't win.

      A character-driven novel for the literary reader, I'll admit The Finkler Question is not the most exciting page-turner out there. It's not the right book for the page-turner crowd anyway. And I know there were other Booker nominees that received more universal applause. So what. It's a brave, important book and I'd recommend it for readers who are willing to stretch themselves a little to take on a challenging subject. You're not going to love Julian; you may not even like him. You may think he's dead wrong and in need of a good smack upside the head. And Jacobson's book may make you frustrated and uncomfortable, but it may also make you think, and that's what great literature is really all about.

      See also: Melissa's great review at Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books.

      Rating: BUY

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

      Wednesday, December 15, 2010

      Persephone Secret Santa- Revealed!

      Today's the day when we participants in Paperback Reader's Persephone Secret Santa open our packages...

      Here is the beautifully-wrapped book, gorgeous tin and pretty card I received:
      ...and when I opened them up...
      Wow! Reuben Sachs, by Amy Levy, along with an incredibly generous (might I say, extravagant?) tin of homemade chocolate shortbread cookies. And they're delicious, too!

      And whom do I have to thank for this very thoughtful and lovely gift? Why, it's Karen of Karen's Books and Chocolate. She says these cookies are her family's favorite during the holidays and I can certainly see- and taste- why. They're wonderful! Thank you so much, Karen, for such a sweet and thoughtful present!

      And thank you to Paperback Reader for hosting. There are a lot of book-blogger gift exchanges out there but what I especially love about the Persephone swap is that it takes place among a smallish group of bloggers, many of whom I know already, and I know my giftee will like what I send. And I know I'm going to like what I get, too! It's also a great opportunity to support a specialty small publisher whose books I love. It's just such a nice, cozy community activity and I've met some great people because of it. So thanks to Claire for organizing it and to everyone who takes part!

      Monday, December 13, 2010

      REVIEW: Moscow 2042, by Vladimir Voinovich

      Moscow 2042, by Vladimir Voinovich. Published 1990 by Harvest Books. Originally published in 1986. Science Fiction. Translated from the Russian.

      Moscow 2042 was by far the longest book I read for my recent Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza, and probably the funniest as well. A story about what happens when Kartsev, a 20th century expatriate Russian writer living in Germany, travels 60 years into the future, it's overlong sometimes, and repetitive sometimes too, but it's also a really memorable political satire about what the USSR might look like in the year 2042.

      As it turns out, the future that Kartsev finds is an absurdity. I don't want to give away too much, because a lot of the novel's fun is seeing things through Kartsev's eyes. Right away, he's greeted like royalty and given a new name to reflect his literary status in the country: Classic. Later though, Voinovich reveals the real reason these latter-day Soviets are being so nice. It has to do with a writer named Karnavalov, a friend of Kartsev's back in the old days. Karnavalov is a parody of the Soviet dissident writer, a kind of clown version of Solzhenitsyn, who believes one day he and his writings will be revered. At first it seems to Kartsev that Karnavalov has been forgotten, but that turns out not to be the case.

      The future that Voinovich has created doesn't resemble Moscow's actual future at all; it's an extreme communist society that owes something to just about every major dystopia from Zamyatin to Huxley to Orwell. The sense of humor, though, is distinctly Voinovich. No topic is too small or too personal to avoid his, and the government's scrutiny and it surprised me how quickly Kartsev internalizes the crazy logic of the place.. Voinovich throws in some little self-referential touches here and there but it's really Kartsev's wide-eyed wonder (and horror) that carries the book along.

      Read for Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
      Moscow 2042 isn't going to be a book for everyone. The book feels a little dated only because we know that this isn't how Moscow's future turned out, even though we're not at 2042 yet. I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy satire, political dystopia and black comedy. My favorite passages occurred at the beginning, when Kartsev and his friend are debating the merits of literary versus science fiction, an obvious in-joke in a book that falls somewhere in between the two genres. Voinovich creates some genuine suspense as the reader wonders if Kartsev will ever make it back to his time; his trip is supposed to be one of limited duration but it quickly becomes clear that there may be no way out of this world gone mad. I'm a big fan of Voinovich's particular brand of satire and while I didn't love this as much as the wonderful, unforgettable Monumental Propaganda, I enjoyed my visit to the Moscow of the future.

      Rating: BACKLIST

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

      Sunday, December 12, 2010

      Sunday Salon-Full Swing with Christmas

      This weekend was my husband's family's annual weekend getaway trip to Stockbridge, Mass., which they've done every year for the past 30 or so. We stay at the same inn and spend the weekend shopping, eating and getting into the holiday spirit. I'm home now, and we all had a great time.

      There aren't a lot of bookstores out here; the Stockbridge Bookstore closed several years ago, but we managed to visit a few:
      • The Bookloft (322 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington) a nice indie specializing in new books,
      • Berkshire Book Company (510 South Main Street
        Sheffield) of Sheffield, an excellent used-and-rare bookstore, and
      • Yellow House Books (252 Main Street, Great Barrington) of Great Barrington, also a nice used-and-rare place.
      We wanted to visit the very nice-looking North Star Books, a fancy-looking store where the used and rare books were stacked neatly on tidy shelves and everything looked precious and expensive, but I think they are an open-by-appointment kind of place. Oh well.

      What did I buy? Not much. But I found a treasure- a first edition of Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, for a price so low it's shameful. I mean, a yard-sale price, not a rare-bookstore price. The shop was having a 90% off sale. I actually felt bad about paying so little for it, like I should leave a 20 in the tip jar something. I have to start keeping track of what Atwood firsts I've collected because the shelf is getting full, yet I know I'm still missing a bunch. Anyone got a first of The Blind Assassin they don't want? I mean a Canadian or British first! LOL, I'm willing to negotiate on price.

      And reading? I brought along David Grossman's To the End of the Land to read and I'm enjoying it. I've heard more than one person say that they gave up on it before finishing chapter one and I'm sorry to hear that because it changes dramatically after that first chapter. It moves forward in time and picks up. So if you're considering it, or if you've got it and you've started and you're not crazy about it, do me a favor and don't give up until, say, page 100. Give it a chance to grow on you because it just might. That said, Grossman's not for everybody and I can't really blame you if you decide he's not for you.

      That's it for me. I hope you're having a great Sunday.

      More Sunday Salon here.

      Friday, December 10, 2010

      Friday Finds- Last-Minute Vlog Edition

      I didn't think I was going to have time to do a vlog this week but at the last minute I got it together. Sort of.

      Finds Mentioned:
      The Gourmet Cookie Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
      Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray (Faber & Faber)
      Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Philips (Vintage)

      More Friday Finds at

      Thursday, December 9, 2010

      Ireland Reading Challenge 2011

      The awesome Books and Movies blog is hosting this year's Ireland Reading Challenge. To participate, you just have to commit to reading books about Ireland and/or by Irish authors sometime in 2011. I have a whole month of Irish reading planned for March, 2011, so this challenge is perfect for me. Among the things I'd like to read are:

      The Matchmaker of Kenmare, by Frank Delaney,
      Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray,
      The Dork of Cork, by Chet Raymo,
      The Midnight Choir, by Gene Kerrigan,
      The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummings, and more.

      I have a small stash of Irish books just waiting for something like this; I'm going to read as much as I can in March but I'm sure I'll be reading all year long here and there.

      I'm so excited to be participating! Thanks to Books and Movies for hosting

      Wednesday, December 8, 2010

      REVIEW: Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by Natasha Solomons

      Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by Natasha Solomons. Published 2010 by Reagan Arthur Books. Literary Fiction.

      Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, Natasha Solomons's first novel and a tribute to her grandparents, is the kind of bittersweet story that will probably be made into one of those adorable English comedic films where the colorful, eccentric hero (in this case) has a dream and battles the small-mindedness and prejudice of his or her neighbors to make it a reality. I'm kind of looking forward to seeing that movie.

      The story is about Jack and Sadie Rosenblum, German-Jewish immigrants to post-war England. More than anything, Jack wants to fit in. He wants to be English in every way and even makes a list of the things he must do- where he must buy his clothes, what kind of car he must drive, and what hobbies he must have (the original British title of the book was Mr. Rosenblum's List). In some ways the Rosenblums prosper; Jack runs a successful carpet manufacturing concern and he and his wife have a (materially) comfortable life. But no matter how hard he tries, he's still German, and he's still a Jew, and neither of those things work to his advantage when it comes to settling into a homogeneous island country still reeling from Hitler's assault.

      Over the years he manages to tick off just about every item on the list; he has the clothes, the car,  and a successful daughter at a top school. But there's one thing left. He can't get admitted to a single country club. The final prize, the final confirmation of his entree into English society, is barred to him. So what does he do? He decides to open his own country club, on a parcel of land far away from the city life to which he and his wife have become accustomed. That's when everything goes haywire.

      I liked Mr. Rosenblum but I didn't love it. It's well-written and enjoyable and covers ground both light and dark. His country neighbors are a mix of friends and foes, cartoonish villains and stereotyped eccentrics, and his adventures trying to build the course by himself are dramatic and funny and sad.  It was this split personality that gave me pause. I wasn't sure if I was reading a comedy or a tragedy sometimes; the author didn't commit to either approach but rather veered back and forth between the two. She covers a lot of the same ground as Helen Simonson's wonderful novel from earlier this year, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (sure to be in my Top 10 of 2010) but this book feels less polished and less complex.

      Having said that, I do think it would make a great movie and it is a fine book. I think there are a lot of readers out there who would really enjoy this and I'd suggest it to readers of light fiction, Jewish fiction and sweet English stories. I love the tenderness and affection which Solomons feels towards these unmoored characters trying to fit in in a new place, and the portrait the book offers of post-war English life. The story of the Jews who moved to Britain post-war isn't something I've seen often in fiction so this book was a welcome addition to that canon of writing. I hope to see more from Solomons in the future, whatever she decides to write next.

      Rating: BACKLIST

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

      Tuesday, December 7, 2010

      REVIEW: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

      Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, by David Sedaris. Published 2010 by Little, Brown.

      I first experienced David Sedaris's new collection of short stories, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, via audiobook, which is somewhat unusual for me. I listen to very few audiobooks but I was offered this one by a friend and figured, why not. Later I read the print version and while I enjoyed both, I think this is one book that was practically made to be read aloud.

      If you know Sedaris's work, you know the subtitle, A Modest Bestiary, is ironic at best. Sedaris writes both fiction and nonfiction but this collection is purely fictional, animal tales of his own creation about cats, dogs, birds, insects and other creatures great and small, but for the most part, not really wise or wonderful. Sedaris's animal world, like the world he portrays in his other fiction, is cruel, heartless and often undignified. A hippo has a problem with his rectal residents; a crow works to hoodwink a lamb out of something precious; a narcissistic bear learns what it really means to be pitied, and so forth.

      I enjoyed this book very much but I think you either have to be a die-hard Sedaris fan or have a really twisted sense of humor to enjoy it, too. It's definitely not going to be for everybody; there's not a lot of lightness or sweetness to Sedaris's animal tales- they're raunchy, ribald and heartless, just like his other fiction. In the past I've always preferred his memoir to his fiction for this very reason; his fiction has always struck me as formulaic and filled with cruel characters lacking self-awareness who behave with utter selfishness towards their fellow human beings. And this book is no different but when these behaviors are placed among animals they lose much of their sting. Nature is cruel; animals are heartless; they do lack empathy in a way that would be psychotic if we were talking about humans. So it doesn't bother me that that's the way Sedaris portrays them.

      And like I said, this was made to be an audiobook. Narrators like Elaine Stritch and Sedaris himself make the biting dialogue and occasionally shocking plot twists come to dark, sinister, hilarious life. Reading these stories on the page paled to hearing them read aloud. If you're not an audiobook person but you're interested in this collection I would really urge you to at least check the audio version out of the library and give it a try alongside the print version, which I would urge you to buy in any case. (The audio version also has a bonus story unavailable in the print version and downloads of Ian Falconer's equally twisted illustrations.) At least, that is, if you have that aforementioned twisted sense of humor.

      Rating: BUY

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

      FTC Disclosure: I did not receive either the print or audio version of this book from anyone for review.

      Monday, December 6, 2010

      It's Monday- What Are You Reading?

      It's Monday, What Are You Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

      I'm reading David Grossman's engrossing To The End of The Land. It's about an Israeli woman, Ora, whose son Ofer has just left for a voluntary military callup. He's just been released from military service when the emergency callup happens and the two were about to take a trip together; she decides to take the trip anyway, first by herself and then accompanied by her former lover, Avram, whose unhappy life is the result of a gamble he made with her and Ilan, their friend and Ora's now ex-husband. I'm only at the very beginning but I'm really loving this book. I'm a big fan of Grossman's from his wonderful novel Someone to Run With; this book is much more overtly political and was dedicated to his son Uri, who was killed in the IDF. Grossman is well-known as an anti-war activist and this novel is meant to reflect that. So far it's fantastic and I can't wait to read more. This book is the reason I haven't posted any Top 10 lists yet because I have a feeling it's going to be right up there.

      You can see an interview with Grossman on America Abroad Media here.

      What are you reading?

      Sunday, December 5, 2010

      Sunday Salon-December's Goals

      Here we are again, another Sunday, another Sunday Salon. It's been another busy bookish week for me; I went to the Salman Rushdie reading at Harvard Book Store on Monday, skipped a bunch of things midweek while I was shuttling between doctor's appointments for my latest foot injury, wound up at Paul Murray's reading for Skippy Dies at Brookline Booksmith on Friday and then on to the Harvard Book Store's semi-annual warehouse sale yesterday morning. Whew! And of course I came back with some good stuff from the warehouse sale!

      And then there's reading. I wrapped up Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza and started my December project, reading through the 2010 releases I haven't read yet but have been meaning to get to. I started off strong with The Swimming Pool, an April release by Holly LeCraw, which I read in two days and could barely put down. I'm deep into David Grossman's To the End of the Land now and I expect that will take me a little while.

      Some other titles I hope to get to this month:
      From the Land of the Moon, by Milena Agus,
      Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett,
      The Same River Twice, by Ted Mooney,
      Room, by Emma Donoghue,
      Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay,
      Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart,
      Sunset Park, by Paul Auster,
      and more. I'm giving myself through January for this because there are just so many.

      But today I'm going to continue with the Grossman and just try to chill out a little! Hope you have a great Sunday!

      More Sunday Salon here.

      Friday, December 3, 2010

      Friday Finds Vlog- Isn't This Fun?

      Finds mentioned:
      Heliopolis, by James Scudamore (Europa Editions)
      The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer (Other Press)
      Stella, by Siegfried Lenz (Other Press)
      By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart (Vintage)

      Have a great week!

      More Friday Finds at

      Thursday, December 2, 2010

      REVIEW: Barnacle Love, by Anthony De Sa

      Barnacle Love, by Anthony De Sa. Paperback edition published 2010 by Algonquin Books. Paperback.

      Barnacle Love, a finalist for Canada's Giller Prize, is the story of the Manuel Antonio Rebelo, a Portuguese immigrant to Canada, and his family. It touches on familiar themes of assimilation, family and estrangement and is told at first from Manuel's perspective and later from that of his son, Antonio, who tries to survive in a chaotic, abusive family stuck between two worlds.

      The book is divided into stories, each highlighting a specific time or event in the life of the family, beginning with Manuel's arrival in Canada. The favorite son and the hope of his family, he leaves Portugal on a fishing boat and nearly drowns; he's pulled from the sea by a strange father-daughter duo to whom he becomes quickly attached. From there he battles disappointment after disappointment, trying, with limited success, to integrate himself and his family into Canadian society. He is challenged by those who have come to Canada and those who have stayed behind in Portugal as well as by his own attitudes and personal limitations.

      Antonio's chapters, towards the end of the book, will seem familiar to those who have read a lot of immigrant fiction; you've heard this story before. Unlike some reviewers, I thought Manuel's strange, slightly surreal adventures in the New World were more compelling than Antonio's standard child-of-immigrants-trying-to-fit-in point of view. Manuel looms large throughout the book- it struck me as being more about the father than the son- and he becomes decidedly unlikeable in Antonio's chapters, which also limited their appeal for me.

      On balance I liked the book but I didn't think it was particularly outstanding. De Sa depicts Portuguese culture vividly and colorfully, but the overall tone is one of hopelessness. The best thing about the book is De Sa's characters; his portrayal of Manuel's domineering, cruel mother in Portugal, and the slick newcomer Mateus Almeida in Canada are particularly memorable, but most memorable of all is the story of the girl Pepsi and her father, the people who rescue him from the ocean only to betray him with heartbreaking callousness. De Sa sets his hero adrift in a cruel and unforgiving world, then sets his son up to hate him for what it does to him and the family. I'd recommend it to hardcore readers of immigrant or Canadian-immigrant stories but most other readers can probably pass.

      Rating: BORROW

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

      FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

      Wednesday, December 1, 2010

      Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza: The Wrapup and The Winners

      Read and Reviewed:
      The Shadows of Berlin, by Dovid Bergelson. Great for readers interested in Jewish literature.
      A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova. A wonderful memoir.
      The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. A moving collection of short stories.
      The Dacha Husband, by Ivan Shcheglov. A bitingly satirical novella about the bourgeoisie.
      There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Does what it says on the label.
      Ruts and Gullies: Nine Days in St. Petersburg, by Philippe Girard. A cute graphic novel.
      The Accompanist, by Nina Berberova. A somewhat disturbing novella.

      Other features:
      A&A's Movie A Day Reviews "Night Watch," based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko. Part 1 by Andy and Part 2 by Amanda.
      Doctor Zhivago Group Read post one and post two.

      I also finished Moscow 2042, by Vladimir Voinovich; look for a review sometime in early December. I tried reading Victor Pelevin's novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf but have put it aside for now.

      That's the wrapup. Now, the winners!

      The people who have each won a signed copy of Daphne Kalotay's novel Russian Winter are:
      Belynda, aka MrsCnC

      I'll be in touch with each of you in the next day or so for your mailing address.

      Thanks so much to everyone who entered. I hope those of you who started following for extra entries will stick around now that the giveaway is over!

      Also, thank you to everyone who commented on Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza. I have enough left in my stash for another month-or-two-or-three- of Russian books. Let's do it again sometime!