Tuesday, May 31, 2011

REVIEW: The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson. Published 2011 by Simon & Schuster. Literary Fiction.

"He's just an old soldier who needs a home," one character says about another towards the end of this extraordinary novel about how one Midwestern family weathers the last third of the 20th century, and really the phrase could be used to describe just about anyone in the Erickson family, on whom the book centers. The Year We Left Home starts with the wedding of Anita, the oldest daughter, to Jeff, an outsider in this extended Scandinavian Iowa farm family.  Her brother Ryan, disaffected, forms a friendship with his wayward cousin Chip, a loner newly returned from Vietnam. The chapters follow these characters and others through three generations.

There was so much about this book that I loved. Primarily it strikes me as a character-driven story and Thompson creates beautiful, fitting arcs for each of her characters. The endings aren't always happy or perfect, but she gives each character the right ending. Individual chapters read like interlinked short stories; by telling the stories of their lives from different points of view, we learn how these people think as well as how they see each other. The two characters who made the biggest impression on me were Chip, the alienated vet, and Torrie, his cousin who suffers a tragic accident that sends her in a direction no one anticipates. Thompson gives us only one chapter from Torrie's point of view then gradually fades her out until one of the two ends up creating a miracle for the other, and I ended up in tears.

But every character has his or her own moment of miracle. The Year We Left Home reminded me a little of a kind of Midwestern version of A.S. Byatt's character-driven family tapestry The Children's Book in the way that it shows richly drawn and colored people over time- the course of their lives, the way those courses are affected by larger forces and the way they interweave and affect each other. Ultimately the theme of The Year is that search for home and belonging and the different way these people grope their way towards it; the title could refer to any one of the chapters, any one of the transitions and turning points these characters take. In any case The Year We Left Home is a must-read and a beautiful, moving and rewarding example of American literary fiction.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, May 30, 2011

Musing Mondays- Reading Slumps

This week’s musing asks…
Describe the last time you were stumped for something to read, and you took measures to remedy that — either by going to the bookstore, the library, or shopping elsewhere. What book did you choose? Did it get you out of your slump?

It's hard for me to remember the last time I hit a real slump- not being able to find anything to read- but it used to happen occasionally and I'd just go browse my local bookstores. I'm very lucky to live in an area with many great new and used bookstores, in all kinds of categories- within walking distance, I have four great used bookstores (at least), two general-interest independent bookstores, one amazing chain bookstore, and independent and small-chain bookstores that specialize in poetry, travel, science fiction and leftist political books. And I have enough interests that I can walk into any of them and find something to read. I also keep a Moleskine book journal with lists of books by categories in case I forget something that's on my TBR pile that might fit my mood in any given instance.

More Musing Monday answers at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Salon - My Own Boston BEA

I hope those of you in the U.S. are having a nice holiday weekend and enjoying some good weather- it's very nice here in New England, with some much-needed sunshine and warm weather. I'm thoroughly enjoying my three day weekend!

It's been quite a week; while some of you were at BEA in New York, I had a little mini Book Expo of my own. Tuesday night I attended a reading by British author China Miéville thanks to Harvard Book Store; he gave a great performance in support of his new book Embassytown- and with him, it really is a performance. There were so many memorable moments and quotable quotes. For example, every time someone prefaced a question with "I haven't read The City and The City yet but..." he would say "you should read it, it's awesome." He talked about some of the philosophical themes in his new book and in The City, and talked about the "thousands" of emails he gets every time he "defeats" someone according to the website Could They Beat-Up China Miéville?" (And I love how that site found a hugely pugnacious-looking photo of Miéville, who is actually a really, really nice person.)
Here's a really grainy picture of me with him during the signing. I had him sign my husband's book to Boston Bibliophile and he actually remembered meeting me two years ago at his last Harvard Book Store appearance!

The next night, Wednesday, brought me to a reading by the charming and incredibly smart Holly LeCraw, in support of the paperback release of her great book, The Swimming Pool, at Newtonville Books, also a wonderful independent bookstore. Holly was gracious enough to let me interview her here on my blog earlier this year, and I have to say it was a real pleasure to meet her in person. She read with author Sarah Gardner Borden; both were excellent, and Holly even gave us a sneak preview of her as-yet-untitled next novel.
That's Holly after we got to chat for a few minutes about the books we're enjoying right now. She's re-reading The English Patient, one of my personal favorites, in anticipation of Michael Ondaatje's new book and his visit to Boston this fall.

Then later in the week I got in some good book shopping at some of my favorite stores, like Raven Used Books in Harvard Square, Rodney's in Central Square and Lorem Ipsum in the Inman Square neighborhood of Cambridge as well as  Pazzo Books and Seek Books in West Roxbury.  I found some unexpected treasures in each! I love all our local used bookstores.

So maybe I didn't get to BEA but I had a great bookish week.

And- here's something. If you're in the Boston area, I will be appearing alongside several area bloggers to talk about some of our favorite books for summer reading, at an event hosted by Porter Square Books of Cambridge. The event is this Friday, June 3, at 7pm. The event will last about an hour and we'll be around to chat afterwards. There is a display up at the store now with our choices if you want to do some early shopping! I hope to see you there!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Armchair BEA: My Favorite Blogging and Bookish Events

On this, the final day of Armchair BEA, the focus is on the book-blogging world. In New York many of my fellow book bloggers are attending Book Blogger Con; I attended BBC last year along with a number of other blog- and book-related events:
  • ALA Midwinter was held in Boston, and as a librarian I attended not only the exhibits but some sessions as well,
  • The New England branch of the Association of Jewish Libraries held its annual meeting in June and I gave a talk there on upcoming books for summer and fall, and
  • I attended the New England Independent Booksellers' Association conference in the fall along with
  • The Boston Book Festival, a public event celebrating books and reading.
ALA Midwinter wasn't in Boston this year and I had to pass on NEAJL due to conflicts with work but I did get to the Newburyport Literary Festival, where three other bloggers and I appeared on panel to talk about- guess- book blogging. I try to make it to rare book shows and sales when I can, too, and go to readings and signings as often as I can.

But how do these events impact my blog? Well, all of them help keep me up to date with the latest books and celebrated authors and offer the opportunity to spend time with friends and network with book-industry professionals. And there are books either for sale or giveaway at all of these events, too. But of course above and beyond all of that they keep my enthusiasm for books and the book industry high, and they recharge my batteries when I get book fatigue. (Yes, it does happen!) The library industry events help remind me what got me into all this in the first place- my own role as a book professional- and help keep me excited about all the library world has to offer.

What about you? What book events take place in your area each year? What are your favorites? Have you been able to participate directly, as a speaker or a volunteer? What's your favorite part about attending?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Armchair BEA: Nurturing Relationships

Today's topic on Armchair BEA is the relationships we've built as a result of book-blogging, whether it be with other bloggers, or with publishers, or with authors.

What a topic. First of all, the friendships I've made as a result of my blog are the best part of blogging. I don't want to name names because I don't want to leave anyone out so I'll just say you know who you are! What a treat it's been to get to know local bloggers, to have pals to hang out with when I travel to other parts of the country, to get to know local writers, publishing execs and authors. What a treat to get to go to book launches, parties, and special events and signings. And it's so wonderful that first time you meet an online pal in real life and that Twitter-chatter becomes a real friendship.

And yeah, I have a little portfolio of me-with-famous-author photos to commemorate meeting some of the people I idolize, like Margaret Atwood and Justin Cronin.

Two years ago, the first time I didn't go to Book Expo (once I became aware of it and it was even an option), I got together with a bunch of Twitter pals for a "Boston BEA Tweetup" at a local indie bookstore, an occasion that marked the first time I attended a group meetup of Twitter friends. Many of the folks I met there are still pals, and a couple have become a couple of my closest friends in the Boston book community. I've also made great, lasting friendships at library conferences and other annual events.

If I were to give advice about building relationships in the book world, it's to be yourself, do good work and be a friend to others. That's how you make friends and build relationships in any context!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Armchair BEA: Some of My Favorite Blogs & Bloggers

Many Armchair BEA participants are interviewing each other today but I missed the cut-off to take part in the interviews. The alternative today is to make a list of some of our favorite blogs and bloggers- so here I go.
  1. Lakeside Musing is one I've been reading almost from the beginning. I love JoAnn's easy going style and great taste in books.
  2. Nonsuch Book is one of my favorite literary-fiction blogs. Frances reads many of the same kinds of things I do and I almost always add to my wish list when I read her posts.
  3. The Crowded Leaf is another great blog covering all kinds of books. Alayne reads a nice variety of things and always has something interesting on her shelf.
  4. Dolce Bellezza is another great blog focusing literary fiction. It's also a great-looking blog and I love Meredith's recipes and personal stories, too.
  5. The Blue Bookcase is a relatively recent addition to my blogroll, another great litfic blog.
But you know what? I love all the blogs in my blogroll and lots more to boot. There are a bunch of blogs that for some reason I never got around to listing on my sidebar but I read them all the time anyway. Many of them are real-life blogging pals like Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, Jason of Brain Candy Book Reviews and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets. Go visit all of them!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Armchair BEA: Best of 2011 So Far

Today is giveaway day at Armchair BEA but for those of us not hosting a giveaway the theme of the day is Best Books of 2011 So Far, or What's Being Promoted at BEA and Looks Good.

My Best Books of 2011 So Far includes books published this year and some older things:
  1. Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner, winner of the Booker Prize in 1984,
  2. Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb,
  3. The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins, which I was lucky enough to get in a swag bag at last year's Book Blogger Con,
  4. Drinking at the Movies, by Julia Wertz, a great graphic novel,
  5. Troubles, by J.G. Farrell, winner of the Lost Man Booker from 1971.
There are a few more that I loved this year so far but that will do for now!

As far as what's being promoted at BEA, I'd love to get my hands on a copy of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, and We the Animals by Justin Torres, and I'm sure anything on offer from Other Press and Europa Editions will be great. Then, later this year favorite authors of mine Roland Merullo and Michael Ondaatje have new books, too.

Go to Armchair BEA Central today for links to more posts and those giveaways!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Armchair BEA Day 1: Introductions

Last year I got to go to Book Expo and had a wonderful time, but this year I can't make it to NYC so I'm participating in the week-long book-blogging community event called Armchair BEA,  from my home in Massachusetts. Every day this week I'll have a post with a theme designated at Armchair BEA Central. Today's post is meant to be an introduction for folks visiting my blog for the first time, so here goes.
I've been blogging here for 3 1/2 years or so (actually closer to 4- my blogiversary is in August). When I started blogging, the book blogging community was pretty small; it's since grown a lot! As far as what I read and review, mostly I read and write about literary fiction and some nonfiction; lately the balance has been tilting more and more towards fiction though.

My interests include Jewish fiction and fiction from the Balkans, India, Ireland, France, Italy and the Middle East. I read graphic novels now and then but not as often as I used to. For a while I did a Graphic Novel Monday post almost every week, and way back at the beginning my blog was the original home for the Tuesday Thingers meme, where people answered a question about their use of the website LibraryThing.com.

I'm participating in two challenges this year- the 2011 Complete Man Booker Prize Challenge (and reading a Booker winner every month) and the 2011 Ireland Reading Challenge.  Lately I've been doing theme months to help work through neglected areas of my TBR pile; this month I'm reading 2011 releases. Next month is "anything goes" but my intention is to read some older books. I review almost everything I read.

I also have a movie blog called Marie's Movies which I post to occasionally.

Blogging has been great for me so far; I've made so many wonderful friends, discovered great books and authors and even had a professional opportunity or two cross my path. And it just keeps getting better! I'm so excited to be participating in Armchair BEA this week and I can't wait to meet you and visit your blog, so leave a comment and let me know you were here!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Salon- Rapture Edition

Well, it looks like we all survived the end of the world!

Today, I hope, will be one of those rare relaxing Sundays. After the gym, and the groceries, and the cooking. Okay, so maybe not!

Reading? I started Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home on Friday and I'm really enjoying it. Compulsively readable is the term I would use to describe the book, a novel about a struggling family that almost reads like interconnected short stories. I'm also working my way through Robin Black's amazing collection of stories If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. If you're a short-story fan you need to check out this great book.

And I may not be going to BEA this year but I have two great bookish events to attend this week- China Mieville's reading at the Harvard Book Store in support of his new book, Embassytown, and Holly LeCraw's paperback launch for The Swimming Pool, at Newtonville Books, a great indie I seldom visit.  I hope those of you attending BEA have a wonderful time. I'm wildly, wildly jealous! I'm participating in Armchair BEA all week, though, so come back for my posts if you have the time.

That said, time to get back to things here. Have a great Sunday!

More Sunday Salon here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Books I'll Never Read

I saw a fun post at the Village Books Blog (thanks to Shelf Awareness) on books some of the staff has never, and will never, read. We all have them- books that it seems like everyone in the universe has read but that we'll just never get around to. Or refuse to. Or tried once and gave up.

Here's my top 10:
  1. The last two books of the Millennium Triology. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I enjoyed it. Tattoos, rape, murder, psychological dysfunction. Check. I've seen the second movie but don't plan to see the third, or to read either of the other two books. I get it. No need to continue. I find this happens with series often with me. I read the first one, get the gist, and I'm done.
  2. Anything with the words Harry Potter in the title. I remember when the books were coming out and there was this resurgence of interest in YA among adult readers. And I get that there are lots of great books written for children. But there are a lot of great books written for adults, too.
  3. The Help and
  4. Freedom. The rest of you can read them for me. Pass.
  5. The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's followup to the fabulous Shadow of the Wind. I don't think I heard one positive review of this book, whether or not the reviewer was a fan of his earlier book. And everyone I know who read Shadow loved it. So that's kind of sad.
  6. Ulysses. I'm sorry, I know I should but I'm just not gonna. I've read other Joyce but... no.
  7. Proust in French. I want to read A la recherche-in English- and I've been collecting the Penguin translations but I think it's time to admit that reading him in French was a conceit for college and nowadays I'm just not up to the task.
  8. Faulkner. See #6.
  9. Most of the science fiction my husband wants me to read. I'll read some of it though.
  10. Every single book I want to read. But I'm gonna try anyway!
What are your "I'll-never-reads"? Do you feel guilty about passing on trendy books or giving up on series? Or for neglecting entire genres, entirely? What's the best book you'll never read?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

REVIEW: What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Munoz

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz. Published 2011 by Algonquin. Literary Fiction.

What You See in the Dark, Manuel Muñoz's new novel, is one of those moody California books about lost souls finding their way in an inhospitable landscape. The narrative revolves around two women: Teresa and Arlene, and how their lives are turned inside out by the same man. Teresa is a pretty girl who works at the shoe store until she catches the eye of Dan Watson, the town catch of Bakersfield, California, but the affair, which becomes the talk of the town, goes bad. As his mother Arlene slides into late middle age, the tragedy Dan, her son, sets in motion triggers something dark in her, too, leaving her unable to cope with the changes and decisions she faces. Meanwhile, a famous actress comes to town to film a movie about a gruesome murder.

The book is absolutely steeped in atmosphere. Everyone is striving for something, hungry for love, for respect, for something better than what they have. Teresa wants Dan and the trappings of middle class life he represents; Arlene, the book's most moving figure, seems to feel herself slipping into obsolescence and wants to be relevant- important- to someone. Muñoz contrasts their lives with that of the actress, trying to carve out her own place in the film. She struggles to flesh out the character she's playing, a woman at the end of bad love affair, only to find out that she may not really be that important to the important Hollywood movie she's filming.

I really enjoyed reading What You See in the Dark. I love the way Muñoz gets into the head of these women. I loved the scene in the shoe store when we learn that Teresa is required to enter through the back door whereas her pretty coworker Candy can come in through the front, and have her boyfriend wait outside, too. When Teresa responds to this humiliation, and others, by stealing a beautiful pair of boots, we can understand her anger even if we don't quite agree with her response. Later, when Arlene misses out on a chance for love, we can feel the sting of her regret as easily as we can understand how she makes her decisions. Teresa's story is sad but I think the real tragedy lies with poor Arlene, who's left to deal with the aftermath alone. What You See is a moving, engaging and well-written read perfect for a hot summer's day- preferably a muggy one, with a dense rolling fog coming in off the ocean. Read it for the atmosphere, the characters and the heartbreak.


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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

REVIEW: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Published 2011 by Viking Adult. Literary Fiction.

Geraldine Brooks' new novel Caleb's Crossing is a detailed fictionalization of the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard as told through the eyes of his (fictional) neighbor and friend Bethia. The story really centers on Bethia and Brooks shows Caleb's journey through her eyes. Bethia is a smart young woman who befriends Caleb on the island of Martha's Vineyard and through various contrivances of plot shadows him through his career in Cambridge. Her own path is difficult; indentured to pay for her brother's education and almost forced into a marriage she doesn't want, she bristles at authority and does her best to take care of herself when it seems no one else will care for her.

Brooks provides a lot of interesting historical background on 17th century New England. Brooks clearly did her research to write this book, and it's an interesting if not entirely page-turning narrative. I thought Caleb's character was not well-defined beyond his being sort of blandly wise and good; Bethia was an interesting person but she also seemed to be a little by-the-numbers. Brooks includes an author's note at the end about the real Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck with what little is actually known about him and his circumstances, which I appreciated.

Overall I have to say I was disappointed with this novel, somewhat dull after the wonder that was People of the Book. This book has none of the magic that made her last so special; it struck me as a pretty ordinary if well-executed historical-fiction piece. I'm sure the book will be very popular among Brooks' fans but her brand of light-ish historical fiction didn't really work for me this time.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for a compensated review from BlogHer.com. You can see the review on the BlogHer Book Club site here. I also received a copy of this book for review from the book's publicist.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Salon- Back on Track

Well we all seem to have survived The Great Blogger Outage of 2011. I lost comments on my Thursday post, but that was about it. Today? Another lazy Sunday... yeah right! I've got the gym and my improv class this afternoon, so this Sunday will be anything but lazy! Saturday is my lazy day these days. This week has been another busy one, with some progress made on various projects as well as a full week of work. And it just keeps coming. But that's okay- that's the way it should be, right?

So if I get a chance to read today, I'll be reading A Storm at the Door, by Stefan Merrill Block, which I'm about a third of the way into. It's a fictionalized version of his grandparents' life story, particularly about his grandfather's struggle with mental illness and his stay at the Boston-area McLean Hospital. It's a very good book that reminds me of his debut, The Story of Forgetting, which I read about two years ago. Or was it three? I can't remember exactly when it came out but in any case it was excellent and so is this one.

Since my theme is 2011 releases I'm taking the time to read more review books since they're all 2011 releases, too.This way, I can stick to my plan for the month, check some obligations off the list and feel less guilty when I spend next month reading a bunch of deep-backlist "me" books I've been looking forward to, like Election, by Tom Perrotta and The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. I know Perrotta has a new one out soon and I hope to get a copy but in the mean time I really want to read Election. I follow McCracken on Twitter, reviewed one of her earlier books, saw her speak at a writing conference years ago and have just generally been curious about this book for years. So it's time.

I'm also doing some more weeding of the collection, which is difficult but necessary. It's particularly difficult to weed books I haven't read yet but at a certain point things get pushed so far to the back of the list that I really have to admit that unless I'm going to pick up a particular book next, I'm never going to pick it up. And some of the things I have lingering on the shelves, I can't even remember what about them interested me in the first place. Time to go!

Finally, I'm working on clearing out my manga collection and using the shelf space for my short story anthologies. I've been reading a story a day for a while now, in an attempt to work through that part of my library little by little. It's nice to unwind with a story at the end of the day; it's a limited commitment for a time of day when I'm not up for an engrossing novel. And I'm getting to actually read some of these books!

What are you up to today? Have a great Sunday whatever it is.

More Sunday Salon here.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Simon Says: Give Me Five

I got this meme from Matt of A Guy's Moleskine Notebook; it was originally created by Simon, whose great blog I discovered thanks to this fun meme!

1. The book I’m currently reading:

To Be With Her, by Syed Afzal Haider. I like it so far! It's about a young man from Pakistan moving to the United States in the 1950s. It's very engaging and I'm learning a lot, too.

2. The last book I finished:

The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew. I think a lot of people would enjoy this coming of age story set in the South, also during the 1950s as it happens.

3. The next book I want to read:

I really want to read Stefan Merrill Block's latest, The Storm at the Door. I loved his debut, The Story of Forgetting and his new one is up next for sure.

4. The last book I bought:

I bought Refresh, Refresh, a collection of short stories by Benjamin Percy, at a used bookstore over the weekend. I read the title story in my writing class and while I read a couple of stories I liked better during the class, there was just something about his writing that made me want to read more, and I can't say that about any of the other authors to whom I was introduced during that class. So even though it wasn't my favorite story, he was doing something right!

5. The last book I was given:

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan was a gift from the wonderful Heather of Raging Bibliomania. She's one of my favorite bloggers and one of those with whom I share a lot of favorites, and this was her special recommendation to me- she even sent me her copy! What higher recommendation is there than that?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

REVIEW: Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively. This edition published 1989 by Harper Perennial. Booker Prize. Literary Fiction.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1987, Moon Tiger is the bedside confession and life story of Claudia Hampton, writer of popular histories now on her deathbed. She says she will write the history of the world so she tells her own story and that of her family- her brother Gordon and his wife, who knows Claudia to be the most important woman in his life; her daughter Lisa, the doggedly average daughter of the larger-than-life Claudia; Lisa's father, distant and aristocratic; and her lover, Tom, who she meets in Egypt during World War 2 and loses almost as soon as she finds him.

First of all, Lively's writing is incredible. Her descriptions of characters and her eye for detail bring the most everyday situations to life. You know these people; you can feel Lisa's pain especially at growing up in the shadow of her flamboyant mother, a woman who doesn't want her daughter to call her mother because it's just too ordinary, and ordinary is what Claudia can never be. Although Tom is the lover of her life, the man for whom she pines to her dying breath, the real love of her life is her brother Gordon, the only relationship that lasts. 

The segments of the book taking place in Egypt are the most colorful; Lively makes you feel the heat, the crush of crowds, the empty and yet seductive power of the desert. It's also where Claudia experiences the only real love she ever feels and her passion for Tom bring the landscape alive. England, Europe and America feel duller, flat, because she has no emotional ties there- no connective tissue. Tom's journals, which she reads at the end of her life, have about them a quiet tenderness that ease her final days.

At heart Moon Tiger is a character study of a strong and difficult woman; Claudia is a wonderfully, vividly drawn character- as are all the characters in the book. She's not perfect, but the book is, in its way, a perfect, gentle, subtle portrait of an unusual woman and her unusual life. I relished every drop of Lively's beautiful writing and thoroughly enjoyed this fantastic, moving novel.

I read this book for the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

REVIEW: Life & Times of Michael K., by J.M. Coetzee

Life & Times of Michael K., by J.M. Coetzee. Published 1985 by Penguin (Non-Classics). Literary Fiction.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1983, Life & Times of Michael K. is a short yet deeply engrossing novel about a young man, Michael K., wandering alone through the deep countryside of South Africa amidst war and chaos. Michael is a youngish man living with his aging mother in the city as the story opens; hare-lipped, under-educated and somewhat simple, he works as a municipal gardener until his mother takes ill and asks him to take her to the countryside farm where she grew up. Along the way she dies, and Michael is left on his own with little money and few resources. He subsists off the land and passes through a prison-like camp for the poor and dispossessed, all the while trying to maintain his independence and dignity despite a society determined to strip these things away.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first is told entirely from Michael's point of view and Coetzee tells his story meticulously, in great detail and without pause. I thought the lack of chapter breaks would exhaust me but I found his story absolutely riveting. One thing follows on the next, day by day, bit by bit, until Michael has shed almost all the trappings of human society. Then the book changes gear, and Coetzee introduces a new voice and provides an altogether different point of view on Michael. Having spent so much time with him and in such intimate circumstances, it's jarring to have him removed so, pulled away if you will, but I loved this new perspective and the information Coetzee shares with the reader in this way. When we return to Michael in the final section, it's with a renewed appreciation for the challenges he faces and his resources to succeed.

I can't say I was as emotionally challenged by Michael K. as I was by Coetzee's later novel Disgrace (also a Booker winner) but I found Michael K. to be just as riveting, and in some ways, just as draining. We spend so much time in such close proximity to this man and his transformation is so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable, and so convincing as to be inevitable. The excellent second part adds another layer of depth and fascination- not to mention suspense. The fact that Michael's race is never mentioned in a country so charged by racial tension adds another challenge for the reader; Coetzee doesn't make it easy for us to place Michael, or judge him, or anticipate how other characters will do the same. I love how Coetzee can challenge us to think about race without handing us an easy answer.  Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction, Coetzee once again proves himself to be a master of it himself.

I read this for the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Salon - Back After a Break

I decided to take last week off from blogging when I realized on Monday or Tuesday that I had been out every night since the previous Tuesday and would be out every night for the remainder of the week, leaving me exactly zero time for online anything. Some of the stuff I was out doing was fun, like the Newburyport Literary Festival, going to my improv class and having dinner with friends; some of it was heavier but it was all important. But rather than clutter up my site with memes and filler I thought better to just step back. Now things are settling down again and hopefully my normal schedule can resume.

My theme this month is 2011 releases and I've been reading steadily despite the drought in blogging! I read The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew, a coming of age story about race in the South that manages to be powerful without being yet another treacly rewrite of To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah, required reading for lit fic readers and those interested in the Holocaust; I gave up, finally, on The Tiger's Wife, which just wasn't holding my attention, and finished the engaging What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Munoz. Then, after all that, I started The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens, this month's Booker winner about a London Jewish family dealing with drug addiction. After I'm done with the Rubens I'll be taking on Stefan Merrill Block's new book, out in June, called The Storm at the Door; I won it from LibraryThing and I'm going to put everything else aside to read it immediately.

So as far as what to expect on the blog this week, I'll be reviewing Life and Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee, and Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively, to catch up on my Booker winners, and see what else I can come up with. Maybe a post on summer reads? I'm working behind the scenes on a new blogging project which I hope to be able to tell you about soon, too! And soon I'll have some reviews of a couple of the 2011 releases I've read recently.

It's nice to be back with you. I'm going to spend today relaxing and trying to catch up on your blogs. Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there. What are you up to today? Have a great Sunday whatever it is.

More Sunday Salon here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

Musing Mondays: Do you care about realism?

This week’s musing asks…
Do you care if the book’s storyline is unrealistic? Will you keep reading, or will you set the book aside?
 Depends on what we're talking about. If it's fantasy or magical realism, or just completely outlandish, no, I don't care. If it's historical fiction, I think it should be grounded in historical reality- in other words, get the known facts right and invent what history leaves out. I'm not a fan of alternative histories or books that re-write history but I like historical fiction when the author can create a richly imagined world that works within the framework of what's known about a period or a person. Having said that though, I'm often bored by books that fictionalize real people even if the books aren't bad. Loving Frank was one that, while I enjoyed it, I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction even though it was fiction about a real person. I think I'd rather authors just create a fictional character based on a real person rather than inventing things about real people. If I'm confusing you it's because I get confused!

More Musing Mondays at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday Salon - Newburyport Literary Festival!

Well I'm home now from the phenomenal Newburyport Literary Festival, the sixth annual celebration of books and letters held in the beautiful seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Right on the border with New Hampshire, Newburyport is a picturesque New England town with old houses, fun shopping and great restaurants.This year was my second attending the festival and my first as an honored participant. Jeff and I arrived in Newburyport Friday night for the opening-night dinner; traffic from the city kept us away for the opening ceremony presentation. Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, Kevin of Boston Book Bums and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets joined us for dinner and the next day on a Saturday morning panel to discuss the ins and outs of book blogging for an audience of about 50 people. I was thrilled with the turnout; there seemed to be all ages in the audience and we got great questions on everything from time management to the best ways to promote yourself online.

We met up with Jason of Brain Candy Book Reviews, who was in the audience as well, for a great lunch afterwards and then went our separate ways until late in the evening and a party at the magnificent home of author Andre Dubus III, whose new book Townie was featured at the festival. For the rest of the time, my husband and I attended a session with author Michelle Hoover on writing what you know, a reading by Paul Harding from his Pulitzer Prize winner Tinkers, and the closing ceremony poetry performances. Later I got to meet Mr. Harding and chat with him for a few minutes at the party. What a day! What a weekend!

Now I'm back home and trying to figure out what's next! I have the first session of my advanced improv class this afternoon and then I have to see a friend this evening; I don't know if I'll have any time to read but if I do I'll be tackling The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, which I'm liking if not loving so far. We'll see how it goes!

I hope you're having a great day! Let me know what you're up to and enjoy it.

More Sunday Salon here.