Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Finds - Some More Books to Read

I do actually read the books I buy and acquire, lest you think that all my finds just pile up. I mean, some of them pile up, but lots of them get read, too. But I do keep getting them. Here are some that crossed my threshold this week.
I finally bought Robin Black's short story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This. It's just out in paperback and I can't wait to read this.
I picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad after it won the Pulitzer. I have a good track record with Pulitzer winners and I'm looking forward to this.
It wouldn't be a week in books without something new from Europa Editions, one of my favorite publishers; I got their newly released novel French Leave, by Anna Gavalda, and Gourmet Rhapsody, an oldy-but-goody by Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Both look great!

Have you read any of these? Do you want to do? Let me know what you're reading today and what's new on your shelf!

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Newburyport Literary Festival!

If you're in the Boston area I want to encourage you come out to this weekend's Newburyport Literary Festival! It promises to be a great weekend of readings, talks and more with many of the area's literary stars. Some participating authors include:
  • Brunonia Barry (The Map of True Places, The Lace Reader),
  • Michelle Hoover (The Quickening),
  • Matthew Pearl (The Last Dickens),
  • Paul Harding (Tinkers),
  • and more!
There will also be a panel on book blogging, which I'm honored to be a part of, along with great area bloggers Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, Kevin of Boston Book Bums and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets. We'll all also be recommending (and selling) some of our favorite books. We each got to pick two titles to have on sale at our talk; mine are going to be Jeanine Cummins' The Outside Boy and Herve Le Tellier's Enough About Love; if you want to see Dawn's or Kevin's or Sarah's, you'll have to come to our panel!

In addition, there are events on children's books, poetry, local history and more. If you can't make it, I'll have a post next week with pictures and more. It's going to be such a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: THE DORK OF CORK, by Chet Raymo

The Dork of Cork, by Chet Raymo. Published 1993 by Warner Books. Literary Fiction.

I'm not exactly sure anymore where I heard of The Dork of Cork, by Chet Raymo, or even where I got it (though I know it wasn't a review book); over the past year or so though it's survived several rounds of weeding and has remained tucked on a back shelf of my TBR pile. I pulled it out in March to read during Irish Month and found it to be an unforgettable gem.

The Dork of Cork tells the story of Frank Bois, a 43-year-old dwarf who has just published a memoir; Frank is a reclusive man now on the brink of literary stardom, and the narrative alternates between the present-tense story of his rise to fame and the past-tense story of his mother, Bernadette, a young Frenchwoman who washed ashore pregnant in Cork and stayed to raise her son and make a life for herself. Bernadette is a beautiful woman who attracts a series of lovers but remains mostly inwardly-turned, showing little interest in relationships beyond the physical. Frank is raised mostly by Jack Kelly, the first man to fall for her. Older and married, Jack is nonetheless besotted with the enigmatic Bernadette and he and his family, especially his daughter Emma, come to be key figures in Frank's life.

Jack and Bernadette's relationship ends quickly but Raymo's description of their affair is typical of much of the lyrical and erotic prose:
He sat on the unmade bed in Bernadette's room and listened to the stories he had heard twice or three times before because he was in love with the green eyes of the storyteller...And Bernadette, who did not own a looking-glass, admired herself in the full-length mirror of Jack Kelly's eyes.
As we learn about Frank's memoir it becomes clear that the story we're reading is almost like the story behind the story- all the little things he leaves out of the book he writes. The present-tense narration includes some tidbits about the publishing world and the life of a writer but mostly the book is about the search for, and power of, love in all its forms- to guide and shape people's lives and to heal them. Frank is a misfit- he's Irish but not Irish, and he's someone who will always look different but who comes to realize his heart needn't shrivel; just when he's ready to give up, love saves him after all. I thought the book lost some steam in the final third but overall I loved it and I hope more people can discover and enjoy this unusual and beautiful novel.

The Dork of Cork was adapted to the screen in 1995 as Frankie Starlight.

This book counts towards the Ireland Reading Challenge 2011.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

REVIEW: Season of Water and Ice, by Donald Lystra

Season of Water and Ice, by Donald Lystra. Published 2009 by Northern Illinois University Press.

Donald Lystra's debut novel, Season of Water and Ice, is a coming-of-age story set in the woods of northern Michigan in the late 1950s; 15 year old Danny DeWitt lives with his father, an unsuccessful salesman, in a cabin. His mother has left them for Chicago after her husband's failure to make a comfortable life for the family, and Danny befriends Amber, an older pregnant teen who's been ostracized by her family and the larger community. She wants to be an artist and raise her baby but faces unyielding pressure to either give the baby away or marry her unborn child's father, Wayne, who doesn't seem like a very good catch.

Lystra tells the story from Danny's point of view. We see his deteriorating relationship with his father, a well-meaning man who just can't seem to make a go of life, and his growing relationship with Amber, who struggles to find her own way. Danny also struggles with a difficult, painful relationship with his mother, a distant and elusive figure whose motives remain cloudy.  The story comes to a head late in the novel during a brutal snowstorm when Danny and Amber are trapped in a cabin after a car crash. The novel winds down quickly from here with a tragedy that nonetheless seems to have few consequences for the characters.

I was not crazy about this book. I found Danny to be whiny and dull; his father was kind of useless and ineffectual, a weak man who never finds his stride. I hated the ending, and I didn't like the way Lystra handles the female characters generally. The four women in the book are all striking characters but none are particularly strong. Amber's mother is a horror of a parent who all but abandons her daughter; Danny's mother is an enigma, and an unsympathetic one at that; his father's erstwhile girlfriend seems like a predator and a tramp, and Amber herself is just plain lost. I like Amber the best of all the characters and I really dislike the ending Lystra gives her, backing her into a corner with no way out. She deserves better.

So, yeah, this one's not one I really can recommend very highly. Danny isn't a particularly charismatic character and he seems unable to process a lot of what goes on around him, which doesn't make for engaging reading. And that ending could have been a lot better, too. If you're a dedicated reader of coming of age books you might like it and it might have some young-adult crossover appeal but the book has a great deal of adult content that you may or may not find appropriate for the teen in your life. It's not that it's a bad book, but I've read a lot of really excellent coming of age books in the last year or so and this one just struck me as average at best.

Rating: BORROW

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

Monday, April 25, 2011

Musing Mondays: Who Influenced Your Reading?

This week’s musing asks…
Do the members of your family read? Do you think it was passed down to you? ((or, if you want you can answer this: Who do you think influenced you as a reader?))

My family are readers but I'm definitely the nerdiest of the bunch! The biggest influences on me as a reader were my teachers and friends. I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid and was just always drawn to read- librarians were very important to my development as a reader, too, especially the librarians in the children's room at my local public library. Sad to say, I don't even remember my school librarians. I started reading things that we kept around the house but quickly moved on!

More Musing Mondays at

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Salon- Happy Easter and Happy Spring

Flowers are finally coming up in my back yard- tulips and crocuses. My yard is always kind of a mess- I'm not a gardener at all and I hate digging and getting dirty. My husband did some tidying up a couple of weeks ago and planted some grass and put some bricks around the flower beds. It looks nice now, and it will be great once it's warm enough to put the hammock out and use it. But for now I'm happy to look out every now and then and see some modest progress.

I finished reading Fosca, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, this week. It was pretty good; it's about a man who becomes obsessed with a very ugly woman while his love affair with a beauty winds down. I didn't love it but I thought it was a neat little time capsule of a read. I'll have a full review next week. In the meantime today I'm reading The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah; it's about a young boy on the island of Mauritius during World War II and the friendship and tragedy he shares with a young Jewish boy who's interred there along with other Eastern European Jews escaping the war and on their way to Israel. I didn't know anything about this particular chapter of WW2 history and it's fascinating. And the book is terrific!

As usual I've quit my monthly reading project early; I worked my way through several review books and several "me" books, and now I'm on to May's project, reading some 2011 releases. The Last Brother is the first of these; then I'm on to Ghost Light and The Tiger's Wife and others. Of course I'll keep you informed! If there's a 2011 release you think I would love, please tell me in the comments!
Next weekend is the Newburyport Literary Festival; come back Thursday for more details about what's going on, and next week for a full wrap-up.

And it's Easter! I love Easter. Happy Easter to everyone who celebrates it. It's such a great family holiday. We'll be at my in-laws having lamb and cheesecake with family and friends. I'm anticipating an awesome day and I hope everyone has a great day, no matter what you're up to.

More Sunday Salon here!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Finds- Long Overdue!

What's even more overdue is a vlog, and I hope to do another one of those soon. In the mean time here's a few of the books that have come my way over the last two weeks.
Zulu, by Caryl Ferey, is a prize-winning thriller set in South Africa. I won it from a Facebook giveaway by the wonderful Europa Editions. Thanks EE!
Alfred and Guinevere, by James Schuyler, is about two children; I found it at a local used bookstore.
No Angel is Jay Dobyns' memoir of being an undercover Federal officer in the Hell's Angels. I can't wait to read this!
Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest, is a great-looking memoir sent to me for review by the also-awesome Other Press. Thanks OP- love you guys!
Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home came for review as well. What sold me on it was that apparently David Sedaris is a fan of hers. That has to be a good thing!

That's it for me. I'll be back next week with more Finds. In the mean time I hope those who celebrate it have a great Easter. What's new on your shelf this week?

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, April 21, 2011

REVIEW: Backseat Saints, by Joshilyn Jackson

Backseat Saints, by Joshilyn Jackson. Published 2010 by Grand Central Publishing. Fiction.

Backseat Saints isn't normally the kind of book I'd pick up but I got to see author Joshilyn Jackson speak at Book Expo last year and I just thought she was so neat and funny that I had to read her book. Sometimes that happens- I hear an author and just kind of like him or her enough to read outside my comfort zone. So here I am with Backseat Saints, a light book about a serious subject, domestic abuse and family violence. And I loved it.

Ro Grandee, a former runaway is married to the awful Thom, a terrible but terribly charismatic man who regularly beats her; one day, an airport gypsy tells her to kill him. She's just come out of the hospital after his latest violent outburst and comes up with a plan. When she fails, she knows she has to leave, and leave now. The book follows her journey and tells the story of her life before and with Thom and his gruesome family in flashback. Ro's own mother left her own bad husband who abused little Ro too, teaching her what to expect from men- and Ro learns all too well. But hopefully it's not too late for her to make the better life she deserves and be the woman she always believes she can be.

Backseat Saints is a tough book that manages nonetheless to be funny and hopeful and even a little heartwarming. First of all she's made a great, likable and even lovable heroine in Ro, and I was pulling for her with every step. And Jackson has a firm handle on the way someone's mind works when all they've ever known is being hurt by those they love and depend on. It's scary and sad but it rings true. Ro's mother reappears and tries to protect her daughter in the end- and it may or may not be too late. You'll have to read this winner of a book to see how it all ends and it's Ro and her own irresistible charm and charismatic voice that will keep you turning the pages. For me it was a terrific read.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

REVIEW: The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine. Published 2010 by Picador.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a take-off of Jane Austen's classic Sense and Sensibility, about an impoverished family consisting of a mother and her daughters. In Austen, it's three daughters and here it's two, but that's just one of many little tweaks that author Cathleen Schine has made to the original. This being modern-day New York and not Regency-era England, the Weissmann family is impoverished not by sexist inheritance laws but by a useless husband who's left his wife of many years for a younger woman. Joseph and Betty Weissmann were a model married couple until Joseph falls for vampish Felicity; now Betty's been thrown aside and lives in a tiny cottage on the charity of her friends. Her two daughters, Miranda and Annie, move in with her and try to take of her, each other, and themselves.

Annie and Miranda, unlike Austen's Dashwood sisters, are grown-up career women with troubles professional and romantic of their own. Miranda, the impetuous Marianne stand-in, is a literary agent whose career is ruins and whose love life is non-existent; stolid Annie, standing in for Eleanor Dashwood, is a boring librarian with grown sons. They need their mother as much as she needs them, or so it seems. They each meet a man who may or may not be Mr. Right; Schine ticks off many of the plot points of Sense but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that this is no play-by-play repeat of the original. Rather, Schine adjusts the story for modern times in ways I found believable and fresh enough.

Although she does keep the broad outlines the same, the characters have enough of a life of their own to keep the story off balance. The love stories certainly don't work out the same way, and Miranda and Annie grow and change enough to make the book worthwhile. You don't need to have read Sense and Sensibility to enjoy The Three Weissmanns but having read it will make it easier to see where Schine departs from the original as well as the debt she owes it. This is a light beach read; unless you're really interested in seeing what someone does with a modern retelling of Austen (the reason I read it) it's not a book I'd pick for literary fiction readers looking for something light. I enjoyed the book well enough but I read it for a specific reason. Popular-fiction readers (Jodi Picoult, etc.) will probably find this right up their alley and enjoy it as a good summer read- which is what it is.

Rating: BEACH

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

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

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is your most precious book?

A few days ago, Sheila over at Book Journey (a great blog, by the way) wrote this terrific post entitled What is Your Most Treasured Book? where she shared her treasure, the dictionary her late father used when he was in Vietnam; it was recovered after his death, one of only a few things she has of his. First of all, thank you Sheila for sharing such a moving and personal story with us; I was really touched.

Of course I got to thinking about what my own most treasured books are. I can't think of one that towers above the rest, but a few things come to mind. There's my childhood copy of Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, with my name written in crayon on the inside cover, and my mother's copy of Gone With the Wind, which I don't own but it was one of the first grown-up books I read and I was thrilled recently when I found a copy of the same edition in a used bookstore. And there are my precious first editions- Possession, by A.S. Byatt, signed even, and The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, which I splurged on this year, and some of my other signed books, like Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris and others.

Then a week ago I found a first edition of one of my recent favorites, Gestures, by H.S. Bhabra, in a used bookstore. I think I wrote about this in one of my Friday Finds posts; it's not a particularly well-known book and the first edition isn't valuable but it's valuable to me, and that's what really counts when it comes to precious books. 

What's your most treasured book? Is it something from childhood, from your family or a loved one, or something that you just love because you loved the book when you read it?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Salon - I'm Back Here Somewhere

So last week I wrote all my blog posts for the week over the weekend and that worked well so I'm trying it again this week. Work is keeping me on my toes but so far I'm able to get things done. Last week seemed incredibly busy- I think I was out every night for something- and I'm hoping that this week will be a little more laid-back. I would like, for example, to come home after work and be able to just relax! We'll see.

Reading? I've been reading review books this month but alternating between review books and "me" books to make progress on both sides of the shelf, so to speak. And to not feel depressed that most of the review books I've been reading are turkeys. I finished Season of Water and Ice, by Donald Lystra, which is an oh-kay teen angst book. I got it for review almost a year ago (I'm not that far behind on everything!) and I read it quickly. These days coming of age stories have to be pretty special to hold my attention and this one is holding it, but barely. This is another one of those that I think a lot of people would like a lot more than I do not because it's not good but because I'm just being cranky or something. So I started Igino Ugo Tarchetti's Fosca, a love story set in 19th century Italy, as my new "me" book.  So far so good!

What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

REVIEW: Death's Dark Abyss, by Massimo Carlotto

Death's Dark Abyss, by Massimo Carlotto. Published 2006 by Europa Editions. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

Death's Dark Abyss is sort of what the title suggests- a dark and gritty and violent tale of grief and revenge. Silvano Contin is a grieving widower whose wife and child were killed in a bungled robbery; previously a successful career man, he now ekes out a solitary, dreary living repairing shoes.

Fifteen years after the tragedy, he's miserable, bitter shell of himself; then one day he gets a letter from the lawyer of the man in prison for the crime, asking for Silvano's help in getting his client a humanitarian pardon. Raffaello Beggato, imprisoned for life, has cancer and asks to spend his last days at home with his mother. Silvano is plunged again into a new inferno of rage and decides to take his revenge against the man who destroyed his family.

It should be sort of obvious that this is not a feel-good story; it's the story of damaged, desperate and desperately unhappy people pitted against each other in a battle for the survival of their souls. It reads incredibly quickly; a slim volume of only 150-odd pages, I read it in two days and could barely stand to put it down the suspense gripped me so. Carlotto kept me firmly in a vise with his white-hot plot and irresistibly compelling characters.

Having said that though, I don't think I could ever read another one of his books! Although the journey was unforgettable, the violence present in the book, the edgy and somewhat misogynistic sexual content and the sheer misery of the characters made this my first and probably only foray into his world. Which is all not to say that Death's Dark Abyss won't have an audience. Fans of dark noir and crime fiction will love this; it will pull the right reader in like gravity. For me, although I do enjoy crime fiction, it was just a little too much.

Rating: If you like crime fiction, BUY.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from Europa Editions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

REVIEW: A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, by Atiq Rahimi

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, by Atiq Rahimi. Published 2011 by Other Press.Translated from Dari.

Filmmaker, teacher and activist, Atiq Rahimi has made his name in the literary world with short, surreal novels about people struggling to survive in his shattered native country of Afghanistan, and his latest, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, is sure to please his many fans.

His first book to be released by Other Press, The Patience Stone, is the revolutionary story of a woman left alone with her dying husband; it won the Prix Goncourt and established Rahimi as someone to watch. The next book, Earth and Ashes, follows a father searching for his son. This latest novel tells the story of Farhad, a young man trying to escape Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and resist the lure of forbidden love. It's probably my favorite of his books, and I loved all of them.

The reason I like Thousand Rooms the most is that it has the clearest and most linear plot and lots of characters. Rahimi's books are like gorgeous prose-poems, seductive and absorbing and lush, but sometimes it's easy to lose track of what's actually happening. Often, he focuses on a sole protagonist cut off from society in some way, and the reader gets locked inside the individual consciousness of that character. Then plot seems secondary to mood and thought. And that's fine, but I read for story and when a poetic, beautifully-written novel with fascinating characters also has a compelling story, I'm hooked.

And I was hooked on A Thousand Rooms. All of his books are suspenseful in their own way, especially Patience Stone, but like I said, Thousand Rooms is my favorite for having a strong central plot. I'd recommend it to his fans first and foremost but if you're new to Rahimi Thousand Rooms is a great place to start. Then, if you like it, move on to his more meditative and dream-like books. I hope you get as hooked on him as I am.

Links above are to my reviews.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

Monday, April 11, 2011

New Category: YA or YA Crossover

As you may know, for the most part I read and review books written and marketed for adults. Once in a  while, maybe for Banned Book Week or if something just happens to catch my eye, I'll read a young-adult title, but not often. This is not to suggest that I don't respect young adult literature, just that for the most part it's not my thing. However, once in a while I'll read an adult title that I think might nonetheless be a good fit for the young adult reader, maybe because it stars a teen or it's a great coming of age story, or for any number of other reasons.

Until now I've had no really good way of indicating when I feel this way, other than to say somewhere within the text of the review itself. I want to do better than just hope you notice this as you read a review. and since I'm always looking for ways to improve the usefulness of my blog, I've decided to create a new tag, YA or YA Crossover, which I'm now applying to those reviews for which I think it's appropriate.

Major caveat: I am not a young adult librarian and these opinions represent no more than just that- my own personal opinion. Books written for young adults will bear this label along with those written for adults that I think are suitable, and books bearing this label may still have some adult content of some kind, be it mild sexual content or suggestiveness, adult language or mild violence. You as readers and/or librarians are free to disagree with any or all of my choices.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about what you think constitutes a YA crossover novel. What's your favorite adult novel that you think has YA appeal? What does it take for an adult novel to appeal to teens?

So going forward, you can look on my sidebar for the tag YA or YA Crossover to see what might be there. I hope it's a good way of directing curious readers of all ages to literary fiction and nonfiction that will appeal to readers of many ages.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: Changes Afoot, At Least For Now

So, now I'm that I'm pretty busy, at least for the time being, with the whole work thing, there will probably be some changes on the blog. I've had pre-planned content for the last two weeks but that's all used up; for the next couple of months I'll be posting somewhat less frequently and probably getting around to visiting you all and commenting less. I'll do the best I can but don't be surprised if you see a little less of me.

Having said that, I plan to spend some time today working on some reviews for the upcoming week. But that's the thing- pretty much all the time I'll have for writing reviews and other features for the blog will be on the weekends. I might be able to squeak out a little now and then during the week, but not much.

So for today, I'm planning to write a couple of book reviews and do a little reading. I'm reading The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine, which is not high literature but is a fun-ish light read, a takeoff on Sense and Sensibility. I decided to read it because the book I've been working on is also a Jane Austen update and I wanted to see how someone else tackled the same idea. Mine isn't S&S but I'm curious nonetheless to see how another writer interprets Austen for a modern audience. It's a fun read and I hope mine will be, too, when it's finally done. Schine has made some changes, of course, in the specifics of the structure but I like it. I'm reading this for review and hopefully I'll have something by next week.

What are you reading today? I hope you have a great Sunday.

More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Weekend Cooking: REVIEW: Alice's Tea Cup: Delectable Recipes for Scones, Cakes, Sandwiches, and More from New York's Most Whimsical Tea Spot, by Haley Fox

Alice's Tea Cup: Delectable Recipes for Scones, Cakes, Sandwiches, and More from New York's Most Whimsical Tea Spot, by Haley Fox. Published 2010 by William Morrow Cookbooks.

I'm starting to develop a mini-collection of cookbooks from my favorite New York City restaurants, and the latest addition is the wonderful Alice's Tea Cup from the equally wonderful eponymous restaurant and tea shop.

Alice's Tea Cup is a small chain of eateries in NYC; I've visited two, several times, and it's just one of my favorite places. Ultra-girly with an Alice in Wonderland theme, big girls (and boys) can enjoy wonderful sandwiches, soups, salads and incredible baked goods, along with teas from their phone-book-sized tea menu. The cookbook includes a variety of their most notable offerings, including Lapsong Souchang Chicken, various salads and of course their incredible, unforgettable scones.
 I made the Mixed Berry Scones, which uses their basic scone recipe but handfuls of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. They were delicious! I would make them again in a heartbeat and look forward to trying more recipes!

The recipe was easy to follow and sensible, and of course the resulting scones were fantastic. The recipe did not give the yield but I made about 13 scones from one batch. They took longer to cook than the book said they would (17 minutes versus 12) but I think the reason is that I baked all the scones on one sheet rather than breaking them up into two batches. A friend was on her way over and I didn't have time to bake the batches separately! But they came out perfect and since there is no egg in the recipe, it was just a matter of cooking them long enough for the ingredients to settle together.

I highly recommend the book if you like to make sweet treats. I haven't tried any of the savory recipes (yet) but I can't imagine they're anything but wonderful. It's a great way to get a little taste of New York in your own kitchen.

Weekend Cooking is hosted at Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Finds-What Else? More New Books

After my series on Europa Editions ended last week, I went out and refreshed my collection of Europa titles with three new ones:
The Companion, by Lorcan Roche, is one of the books that editor in chief Michael Reynolds specifically mentioned as being one of his favorites; I started reading it in the bookstore and when I realized I was 50 pages in I knew I had to buy it! It's written in addictively-readable Irish-English and I think it will be wonderful.

Limassol, by Yishai Sarid, is a taut thriller set in Israel that I'm looking forward to.
Cooking with Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton Patterson, is a Europa I've had my eye on for a while. It's set in Italy and I believe it is funny.

Then, just for variety's sake, I picked up The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G.B. Edwards, an NYRB Editions title-also a reliably great name in literary fiction. This book is the life's story of a man who lived through most of the 20th century on the Isle of Guernsey and promises to be a wonderful take on the English-man-who-lived-through-the-20th-century subgenre.

That's it for me! What's new on your bookshelf this week?

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, April 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse. Published 2009 by Free Press. Paperback.

Winner of the 2011 Hemingway/Pen Foundation Award, The Madonnas of Echo Park is a novel of interconnected short stories about Mexican and Mexican-American men and women in Los Angeles. The characters include a day laborer, a maid, a teenage girl or two, a woman who collects coats, a bus driver, and more.

Each of the characters occupies a slightly different niche in the community in and around Echo Park, a traditionally-Mexican area on its way to gentrification. Felicia, a hardworking housecleaner, has a strange relationship with her lonely employer, a woman who wants to bond with Felicia and keep her at a distance at the same time. Efren Mendoza is a rule-abiding bus driver whose narrative starts off crisp and contained, then gradually becomes angrier and more chaotic as he slowly loses control. His story was one of my favorites because he undergoes such a dramatic transformation- or maybe he doesn't. I also loved the final story, "La Luz y La Tierra," about Aurora Esperanza, a young woman trying, like everyone in the book, to find her place in the world. I think this story is the most successful in creating a wonderfully sympathetic character and weaving together stories of the other characters in the book.

I thought overall Skyhorse's greatest strength in the book is his setting. The Madonnas is like a lot of interlinked-short-stories books (think Olive Kitteridge among others) in the way he weaves his characters in and out of the stories; there's always at least one connection between the focal character of a given story and the larger narrative and I came away with the sense of a complex community populated by lots of different kinds of people. I liked his characters too but some were definitely more memorable than others. The teenage-girl characters have a kind of sameness about them, all obsessed with this or that pop star; I wish there was a little more variety there. Efren the bus driver is a scary creation, and Beatriz, the woman who thinks she sees the Blessed Virgin, was unforgettable. I liked Skyhorse's use of Catholic mysticism in her story and others.

I'd recommend The Madonnas to book clubs and to people interested in contemporary immigrant fiction and stories about California. It was a pretty quick read for me and one that I enjoyed, although I can't say I loved it. But it's the kind of book that I think lots of readers will enjoy and find moving and memorable.


The Madonnas of Echo Park
by Brando Skyhorse
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Special Feature: Interview with author Elena Gorokhova

Today I'm honored to be able to present an interview with author Elena Gorokhova, whose wonderful memoir A Mountain of Crumbs is now out in paperback.

1.Why did you decide to write this memoir? Why is it important for an American audience to learn about day to day life in Russia in the Soviet era?

I wrote this memoir to exorcise my demons. Chekhov once said, “If you are able not to write, don’t.” I wasn’t able not to write, I suppose, and over the years I kept writing essays about my life in Russia. I wanted the American audience to see how similar we all are, despite our different social systems and the ocean between us.

2. Why did you decide as a child to start studying English?

There was something captivating about the sound of English when I first heard it at age ten coming from a record called “Audio-lingual drills.” There was something mesmerizing: all those rolled R’s and soft L’s and the intonation that soared at the end of sentences. It was so foreign, so rarely heard. It sounded like music. It sounded like magic.

3. Who were your literary influences? Whom do you love to read?

I was brought up with books by Russian classics: Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. We all were; these writers were part of our high school curriculum. My friends and I craved contemporary English and American literature, but very few books from the West were allowed into Soviet Russia. We read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms because it was an anti-war novel. We read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath because that book, as Pravda put it, “exposed the ulcers of capitalism.” Now I read both in English and in Russian. I love to read poetry: from Ovid to Boris Pasternak to Iosif Brodsky to Billy Collins. I love the prose of Ursula Hegi and Mark Doty. I love to read both fiction and nonfiction by J.M. Coetzee, the finest writer alive.

4. Was there any subject you found particularly challenging to write about? How did you approach it, or did you avoid writing about it after all?

The most difficult chapter to write about was “Simple Past,” where my father dies. I was 10 and he was in the hospital (children were not allowed in Soviet hospitals). I made a call one day and heard the clerk say, “Died last night.” No matter how difficult that chapter was to write, it made me feel relieved. It felt as if a heavy rock had lifted off my heart.

5. What's your writing process? Do you write every day? Are you working on something now?

I would like to write every day, but I teach full-time. I write as often as my schedule allows. I’m now working on my second memoir about coming to the U.S., about the first year or two living as a lost stranger in a strange land.

6.  Have you been back to Russia? How do you feel about the changes in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union and what do you think is the cards in the future?

I go back to Russia for a visit every year, and I have witnessed many changes. My country is no longer locked behind the Iron Curtain; people can travel abroad and read anything they like. Yet, in a way, it is the same country. The communist apathy has been replaced by the general apathy, allowing the Kremlin to consolidate their influence over the national media and discourse. The government controls all television and all but one radio stations. Russia’s governors are not elected but appointed by the president. The new generation of Russians are too busy traveling and making money to pay attention to the freedoms being stealthily stolen away from them.

Ms. Gorokhova, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and best of luck with your next book. I can't wait to read it!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Confessions of Another Common Blogger

A week or so ago, Eva of A Striped Armchair wrote a great post about how she writes her blog entries, and ended with some questions for us, her readers: 

So what about you: how do you go about blogging about books, both on the practical and philosophical levels? Do you have neat rows of pre-scheduled draft posts just waiting for their turn (if so, I’m jealous!)? Do you regularly edit your posts or just type whatever comes into your head? Do you aspire to any particular ‘style’ when you’re writing about books? If so, why? And if you’re a blog reader rather than a blog writer, what kind of approach do you enjoy most?

It got me thinking about how I write my posts. I honestly don't know if I've ever thought it through on a philosophical level, or even what that would mean. My blog is a platform for my opinions, my ramblings and my love of books; I write about things I read and things I'm interested in, things that I hope my readers are interested in, too. I try to be topical when I can, like when I wrote about Borders or when I asked my husband to work with me on a post about the FTC regulations; it makes sense to maximize your interest and mine by staying on top of what's going on in the book world.

On a practical level, I try to plan my posts out, if not actually compose them, a few days ahead of time. So my average week consists, if I'm lucky, of a couple of memes (not more than three and that's a lot, including Sunday Salon, Friday Finds and maybe something else if it's a slow week), a couple of reviews and if I can think of something, a discussion post like this. I have tried using my Google Calendar to keep track of when I plan to post specific posts; I started using it when I did the series on Other Press last year, because it helped me to have the posts almost physically laid out so I could be confident that they went together in a way that felt right. I still use it sometimes (for example for my latest, series on Europa Editions, and for another two interview-review series I have in the works) but not on an everyday basis.

I almost always pre-write and pre-post Sunday Salon and Friday Finds; those are the two memes in which I participate consistently and there's no reason to wait to do them if I have material. Then, my blog does the heavy lifting while I sleep in! Everybody wins.

Apart from a little scheduling, though, my reviews tend to be pretty spontaneous. I have a Moleskine just for jotting notes once I finish a book, because sometimes it's weeks after I finish before I post a review and I want to make sure I remember key points, passages or quotations. These notes help me a lot when it comes to composing a review, particularly because my response to the book at that time is so immediate and fresh. Four weeks after the fact I may remember the book differently! I tend to write short reviews of three or four paragraphs, because those are the kinds of reviews I most like to read- short and to the point. If I love a book I usually write more.

When I write, I don't have a style in mind per se, except to sound like myself and to write in a way that seems "good" to me. I'm not sure I can articulate what that means exactly! I want my posts to show some personality, some humor and (hopefully) some intelligence. Nobody wants to read dull-as-dishwater, badly-composed posts full of grammatical and factual errors by someone who doesn't seem to know, or care, what he or she is talking about. I don't like to read posts like that and I don't like to write them.

Editing? Yeah, I do that, sometimes. At the very least I'll run a spell check but usually what happens is I post the review, tweet out the link and then look at it and say, oh I need to change this, that, and this, too, and then feel embarrassed that I sent something out half-baked. So I should probably edit more before posting or promoting a review (or any post) but sometimes the time is there and sometimes it's not. I will probably edit this post extensively before I publish it; I like to really fine-tune opinion posts so I'm saying exactly what I mean to. With reviews, I fly by the seat of my pants more often than not.

When it comes to reading blogs, I like bloggers who write well the best, and bloggers who write about the kinds of things I read. I have a lot of faithful readers whom I love and appreciate dearly who write about genres totally outside my reading bailiwick, and sometimes I just don't know what to say beyond "Glad you're enjoying it! Sounds great!" And I know how trite my comments must sound but it's just a way of saying "Hi!" because, you know, it's just kind of not my thing but I want you to know I stopped by. But I love you! I do! And please keep commenting here because I love you!

I think the "how" of blogging comes down to "Just do it," and you'll find your style and a rhythm that works for you. Then just keep at it!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Salon: It's Almost Feeling Like Spring

Well the weather's been a little milder these past couple of days (ignoring Friday's snow storm) and I've been enjoying this weekend very much. Yesterday my husband and I went shopping for a bunch of things and today we're finishing up some preparations for the week ahead. Tomorrow he's giving a talk at one of the synagogues I used to work for, about the Snyder v. Phelps case; it should be a great evening. I'm really looking forward to it.

Today? Today I'm off to the gym first thing and then hopefully I'll have time to read. I tried to read Talia Carner's Jerusalem Maiden, which I was given by LibraryThing from their Early Reviewers program. Bo-ring. It's one of these very by-the-numbers girl-from-ultraconservative-religious-group-rebels books. I put it down after two days. It's not horrible- it's just not for me. I'm trying desperately to knock off some review obligations; I read Atiq Rahimi's A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear and now I'm reading Funeral for a Dog, which is weird and funny and different. After that I need to read a Booker winner for my challenge, probably J.M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K. I can't wait for that!

Things are a little slow on the bookish-events front; I haven't really been keeping track of who's been coming around for readings. With the spring getting going, I need to find out what's coming up. The biggest thing on the horizon for me is the Newburyport Literary Festival, where I'll have the honor of being on a panel about book blogging, along with Kevin of Boston Book Bums, Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets. That's coming up at the end of the month and it should be great.

That's it for me. What's going on with you today? Reading anything good? Or bad?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Finds-Waking Up with News of Books!

It's been a long week but I managed to stagger up from my desk to tell you about some new books that came into the house recently.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy, is a new novel from Free Press, which has published some great things including The White Tiger, a particular favorite of mine. Can't wait to read this one!

The Bee-Loud Glade came for review from Steve Himmer. This book looks like fun; Himmer is a Twitter pal of mine and was nice enough to offer me his book. I gather he's local too so that's always a plus.
I found Voices in the Garden, by Dirk Bogarde, at a used bookstore in Cambridge, on my lunch break. I actually saw it the day of my interview and promised myself I would get it as a present to myself if I got the job. Luckily it was still there! I guess novels by 1970s art film movie-stars don't exactly fly off the shelves. I had a crush on him when I was a teenager so how I could I refuse?

Finally, I found a first edition of one of my favorite books, H.S. Bhabra's Gestures, at the same used bookstore. It's not valuable or anything (I paid $8.00 for it) but it's valuable to me. And if you haven't read Gestures and you love beautiful literary fiction, I highly recommend it!

More Friday Finds at