Thursday, June 30, 2011

Five For the Beach Bag

With the Fourth of July weekend- and the entire summer- on the horizon, I thought now would be as good a time as any to pass along some summer reading recommendations.

All of these books are available in paperback now so feel free to relax, bend back the covers and get sand between the pages. But don't do that if it's a library book!

Enjoy and happy summer!

My picks:
  • The Swimming Pool, by Holly LeCraw, a smart and steamy story of sex and murder set in the beaches and backyards of Cape Cod;
  • The Passage, by Justin Cronin, a post-apocalyptic literary thriller about a little girl set to save the world. And uou should read The Passage now because its sequel (the first of two sequels) is coming out next year and it's a big book so better to play catch-up now!
  • Beautiful Maria of My Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos, the very racy story of the woman who inspired the musicians in Hijuelos's hit novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Beautiful Maria is erotic, lively and a great time, starring a winning woman you won't soon forget.
  • French Leave, by Anna Gavalda, a frothy amusement about siblings who get together for- and then ditch- a friend's wedding (review coming soon). It's a quick read from the reliable Europa Editions sure to bring a smile to your face.
  • The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, a wonderfully entertaining true story of an intrepid Amazonian explorer who disappeared mysteriously, and the people who set out to find him. You'll be entertained, you'll count your blessings and feel automatically cooler and more comfortable wherever you are!
Any of these would be great choices for the thoughtful reader looking for some serious fun in his or her armchair, hammock or poolside deck.

Support a great indie bookstore- buy from Powell's. I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June is Audiobook Month: REVIEW: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. Published 2010 by Random House. Audiobook narrated by Edward Herrmann.

This review contains some spoilers with respect to the fates of certain individuals whose lives are documented in the book. However, these facts are readily available and well-documented elsewhere.

When Unbroken came out in fall of last year, it was pretty much the "it" nonfiction book of the season; everyone was raving about the story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American Olympic runner and World War II prisoner of war, and his inspiring story from backstreet shenanigans in Torrance, California to the 1936 Munich Olympics to the POW camps of Japan, and finally, to redemption and peace.

It's hard to know what to say about Unbroken that hasn't already been said- good and bad. Yes, it's very inspiring. I welled up when Louis won a major race, cringed at his gruesome ordeal lost at sea for more than 40 days and his horrifying times in Japanese prison camps. Then, I rejoiced at his rescue, and rooted for his recovery as he started to come to terms with it all. The stories of the people who accompanied him on his journeys- and whose own journeys are recounted- are equally fascinating in their own way. His nemesis, prison guard Matsuhiro Watanabe, is a stunning villain; his friends have their own happy and unhappy trajectories, with their own victories and failures. And the story of the Pacific theater during the war is one that sometimes gets forgotten alongside the bloodbath that was Europe. (My own high school education on World War 2 basically started and stopped with Europe and I knew very little about the Pacific at all.)

I had a couple of issues. Hillenbrand recounts brutalities committed by the Japanese in great detail, telling us that 37% of POWs in Japanese camps died, as opposed to 2-3% in German and Italian camps; that statistic is chilling enough without the meaningless comparison to Germany and Italy. It's not as though the Nazis and the Fascists were somehow nicer. They had the Jews to enslave, starve, torture and experiment on; they could afford to go easy on POWs and still serve out horrifying inhumanity. A different comparison might have been more appropriate. As another reviewer noted, there's a little American exceptionalism at play, too. She quotes a US serviceman who says that, with respect to the death and destruction the US unleashes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that "the ends justify the means" as a way of putting a stop to the war and by extension Japanese brutality.  Really? On the other hand, when Watanabe evades capture as a sought-after war criminal, Hillenbrand never even breathes a whisper about the possibility of the complicity of authorities in his escape. And to my mind she goes pretty easy on the US government for consenting to drop all charges and commute sentences of many Japanese war criminals- a bitter irony when you consider that leniency against Nazis is, and should be, to this day, unimaginable.

On balance, I enjoyed the book for what I learned about the Pacific war, the Japanese war machine and the compelling, inspirational personal stories of Zamperini and his compatriots. Edward Herrmann narrates the story with aplomb on the audio version and the story flows along very well. As you can see I have some issues with the way Hillenbrand handles certain aspects of the history and with her unclear point of view. I don't expect history to be objective by any means but I do expect a historian to take a position and stick with it. I think Unbroken is probably more along the lines of popular history anyway, and that's fine if that's what you're looking for, and it certainly will stir emotions and generate tears and smiles by the end.  I liked the book; I didn't love it, unlike most readers, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to those looking for a good page-turner about an interesting person who lived a most unusual life. The ending is beautiful and poetic and the journey is well worth the effort.


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

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June is Audiobook Month: REVIEW: The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. Published 2010 by Vintage. Audiobook version narrated by Mark Deakins. Nonfiction.

The Lost City of Z is a fascinating book of history and memoir, the story of adventurer Percy Fawcett and his obsession with a lost city deep in the Amazon jungle; his last failed mission to find it; and the people and times that made the Amazon what it was- and what it is today. It's also the story of author David Grann's efforts to make his own attempt at solving the mystery of Fawcett's final disappearance into the jungle along with two others, his son and his son's best friend.

Along the way, the reader is treated to some Victorian social history, the story of South American colonization and exploitation and much information about the conditions of jungle exploration, in the days when the Amazon really was almost completely untouched. With all the bugs, disease, heat, starvation, dehydration, dysentery and hostility, it's enough to make this New England girl want to never leave the city again! In all seriousness though, Grann conjures up images at once frightening, fascinating, breathtaking and heart-stopping. Listening to narrator Mark Deakins rattle off the litany of insect menaces, tropical diseases and apparently non-stop dangers the explorer faced, one wonders how anyone could be prepared to take it on.

Telling for me is the comparison Grann draws between Arctic and Amazon exploration; in the Arctic, stress comes not just from the cold but from the absolutely unchanging landscape. You look at the same thing, all day, every day, with no variation. In the jungle, you're bombarded by a never-ending series of dangers, always changing and never letting up.

And when Fawcett, a fearless and gifted explorer of the jungle, brings along an equally gifted explorer of the Arctic, as he does in what makes for one of the most riveting stories in the book, you can believe it doesn't end well. Also compelling is the story of James Lynch, a modern Brazilian finance man who takes an interest in Fawcett's final mission and endeavors to find out what happened to him. To find out what happens to Lynch, you'll have to read the book. Grann tells the first half of Lynch's story at the beginning, to hook the reader in, and it works; you'll want to stick around for the end of this tale!

Finally, there's the story of Grann's own attempt at Amazonian exploration. There was a touch of Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods in Grann's adventures, which start at his local outdoors store and take him some places he doesn't quite expect. All in all, I'd strongly recommend The Lost City of Z for the reader interested in the outdoors, in the history of science and the history of indigenous peoples in the New World- and for any reader who wants to do some armchair traveling with a great storyteller. I liked listening to the audio over reading for this one; Deakins' narration helped me to visualize the settings and all the crazy things these people go through in pursuit of their obsessions. It's a great summer read, however you choose to enjoy it. And you'll appreciate your can of OFF more than you ever thought you could!

See more information about June is Audiobook Month here.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Should Bookstores Charge Admission for Events?

In the New York Times article "Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet," a number of booksellers talk about their reasons for and against the trend of independent bookstores charging admission for author events. In some cases, bookstores charge a nominal $5 or $10, redeemable for store purchase; in some cases, they charge more, usually for a particularly big-name author and often include a copy of the book.

As often happens with me, I have both an emotional and a rational response to this trend. Rationally, I understand why some bookstores feel the need to charge. Oftentimes, attendees don't buy a book at the event. (I don't always. Sometimes, after hearing the author,  I don't want the book; sometimes I'm just not in a buying mood. Sometimes my budget doesn't allow it. Sometimes- yes- I got it somewhere else and have come as a fan to meet the author.) Oftentimes people do treat independent bookstores disrespectfully as, as Harvard Book Store marketing manager Heather Gain is quoted as saying, an "Amazon showroom."And bookstores need to make money- they need to see some return on the time and money they invest in events. Freeloaders are a burden and a detriment. The rational side is why I don't mind paying $5 or $10- and I rarely remember to cash in coupon value if it's offered.

I get bothered when it goes beyond that. For big-name authors, I've paid upwards of $50 per event to attend with my husband or a friend. One event cost $21.99 per person- the cost of the author's latest book. In that case a copy of the book came with the ticket, but it's not like my husband and I needed two copies. Anyone want a signed copy of Squirrel Meets Chipmunk? Just kidding. But I had to buy an extra just to get him in and I wish he could have joined me without having to cough up for a superfluous book.

I've also heard of bookstores charging for signatures. So the reading is free but if you want to get your book signed and shake hands with the author you're going to have to pony up. Really? Because that just makes me sad. Having a moment with an author can be important in the life of a reader- it can bond a reader to an author and his or her work for life.  It would be a shame to take special time and commodify it. What if money's tight and that's the only chance someone might ever have, and he or she misses a memory to cherish over a little money? Are independent bookstore events to become insiders-only receptions for the affluent only? Maybe privileged customers will start clamoring for more services or perks or something in return for paying for what used to be gratis.  Or maybe those on the edge will give up on indies all together.

(Regarding charging for signings, I have a different opinion when it comes to people who show up with armloads of copies of a single title obviously destined for secondary sale. I see those people, usually the same people, at virtually every event I attend. They should pay per signature!)

So I don't mind paying a little but it bothers me to pay what feels like a lot. And I don't like being required to purchase a copy of the book. What if, after the reading, I don't want the book? Can I give it back for a refund? As a book lover and someone with time on her hands now and then, I like being able to attend readings when I need something to do. It keeps me coming into the store- it keeps the store important to me and it encourages me to shop there. The other night I went to listen to Michael Bronski read from and discuss his book A Queer History of the United States, a book which, alas, I am unlikely to buy, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn about it and browsed the store while I was there to get some ideas for later. I can't possibly afford to buy a copy of every book whose author I see or want to see and my life and my social calendar is made so much richer by the presence of bookstore events. So I do the best I can to buy what I can and what I want, and I do try to treat indies with the respect they deserve. We should all do the same.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon- Save Bookstores Day, and Upcoming Posts

Happy Sunday! I hope everyone is having a nice weekend. Yesterday was Save Bookstores Day, a day on which book lovers were encouraged to visit their favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore (Amazon doesn't need saving, alas) to buy a book or two. That's every Saturday for me, it seems, so I can't think of an easier assignment. And, as it happens, yesterday and today the wonderful Harvard Book Store is having its semi-annual warehouse sale, where they open the doors of their enormous showroom of remainders, used and collectible books at discounted prices. I came home with a small stack of treasures- a rare collectible Ian McEwan book ate up most of my budget but I got a few little treats, too:
Cider with Rosie, a memoir of Cotswaldian England at the turn of the 20th century, by Laurie Lee;
Resurrecting Hebrew, by Ilan Stavans, a history of Hebrew's growth into a modern spoken language, and  
The Door, a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood.

I'm really happy with my little haul! The sale continues today so if you're in the Boston area I encourage you to check it out. You can find hours and the location of the warehouse on their website,

Today? Today's the usual- groceries, my improv class, maybe some relaxing if I'm lucky. I'm almost done reading The Bone People and I'm still reading Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, which I like but oh boy it's long. After that, I've got two books on deck to round out the month: Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid, and The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan. 

Tomorrow I have a post on bookstores charging for events and I'll be reviewing all audiobooks this week, in celebration of Audiobook Month, which is coming to an end. Look for those on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday I'll have some summer reading suggestions.

And watch for an announcement on Friday! I'm starting a new challenge blog and it launches at the end of the week; if you like European and world literary fiction you'll want to take part!

What are you up to today? More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Finds- Other Press!

My new books this week all come from a prize pack I won from the fabulous Other Press; they gave away a collection of upcoming books plus a tote bag through their monthly newsletter for folks who didn't get to attend BEA. So here's my pile:
 Calling Mr. King, by Ronald De Feo
Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam
The Reservoir, by John Milliken Thompson, and
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, by Christie Watson

The bag, which is gorgeous, is based on the cover of Tiny Sunbirds. I get compliments on it every time I take it out and I've been taking it to work ever since it arrived. All the books look great and thank you thank you to Other Press for your generosity in offering this great prize pack!

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Booking Through Thursday: Soundtrack

btt button
What, if any, kind of music do you listen to when you’re reading? (Given a choice, of course!)

I listen to internet radio stations through iTunes; my favorite is Anwarock, a station playing an incredibly diverse mix of rock and pop from mostly English-language performers. The station is based in Morocco and occasionally plays French, Spanish or Arabic music but its mission is to promote English-language rock for a North African audience.  I love the crazy mix of stuff they play; it could be Cat Stevens one minute or Metallica the next or Bénabar or Gypsy Kings or James Blunt. If I have the station on for more than a few minutes, I almost always end up buying a song or two for my own collection. And having a little music on in the background helps keep me alert and awake while I'm reading!

More Booking Through Thursday here!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

REVIEW: Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Published 2011 by NYRB Classics. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translation.

So I guess this week has become, unofficially, NYRB Classics week at Boston Bibliophile! I did not plan this, but I can hardly think of a worthier publisher to focus on. I should have planned a spotlight week!

Well, there are plenty more NYRB titles in my TBR pile so maybe I will someday.

For now, I'll tell you about Fatale, a new release by French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, a crime novel focusing on a young woman who calls herself Aimée, a career criminal who's set her sights on a small French town and its unsuspecting denizens. The novel follows her as she prepares to launch a crime- what crime, and why, we don't know until the end. But we watch her lay her groundwork. She rents an apartment; she shops; she gets to know the locals. Where is this going?

Fatale is a very short novel so you won't have to wait long to find out. In the end, as the blurb will tell you, her plot is undone but not before some staggering violence and scandal even she doesn't suspect. She becomes attached to one of the townspeople in a way she doesn't expect, and she gets more than she bargains for in this provincial backwater- and so do we readers.

Fatale is another one of those great beach books for the literary reader. It's expertly crafted and will pull you right along from its ambiguous beginning through its gruesome dénouement. Aimée is a compelling creation and her story will keep you turning the pages. I just wish there were more pages to turn; it's barely a novella, and I would have loved to watch more of her adventures unfold.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

REVIEW: Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar

Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar. This edition published 2009 by NYRB Classics. Literary fiction.

Originally published in 1982 and rediscovered by the wonderful NYRB Classics publishers recently, Wish Her Safe at Home is one of those strange little novels that makes a big impression.

The story is about Rachel Waring, a young woman with a dead end job, a roommate she doesn't like and a blah life, who inherits, sort of out of the blue, a Georgian mansion in another town. She quits her job, ditches her friend and reinvents herself as an elegant lady of leisure. And all this is fine, except she doesn't have the income or the mental stability to handle it and slowly but surely she descends into genteel madness.

She spends her days prancing about town imagining herself to be the envy of all. She attaches herself to a young couple, Roger and Celia, who have a young son; Rachel invents a whole fantasy family life around this trio and from here it's all downhill until she really can't tell real from imaginary any more.

I have to admit first of all that it's been several months since I read this book and for some reason I didn't take notes on it so I'm doing my best to reconstruct my thoughts, but I enjoyed reading this book a lot.  It's very well-written, and Rachel is a wonderfully unreliable narrator. Benatar writes the book in the first person from her warped point of view so we can read between the lines and see her delusions unfold ever so slowly- although it's clear from the beginning that she doesn't quite see things as they are. Filled with bitter black humor and highly recommended for literary fiction readers, Wish Her Safe at Home is a relatively quick read and an offbeat choice for the beach bag.


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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Salon- Happy Father's Day!

Another weekend is upon us, and not much is going on. I'm planning to see my dad for dinner this evening but other than that? No big plans. I'm reading The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, which is proving to be a slow if very satisfying read so far. I think I'll be able to finish this week. I'm also reading Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, another been-meaning-to-read-forever, and enjoying it very much. I'm sneaking in one recent release as well- The Upright Piano Player, by David Abbott, just for variety's sake.

I managed to get out for a book event this week; Harvard Book Store hosted Michael Bronski, a local professor whose book A Queer History of the United States, is out now; this looks like a good candidate for audio enjoyment for me. But not yet; the next audiobook on my list is Stacey Schiff's Cleopatra, which I own in print but haven't gotten around to. So audio it is! I love that I'm able to check off some nonfiction via audio these days. Anyway Bronski was entertaining and interesting, and I'm sure his book will be fascinating. There's usually a bit of a lull in book events during the summer but the local indies seem to have some great stuff going on. Of course the highlight will no doubt be meeting favorite author Roland Merullo in July at Porter Square Books. Can't wait!

But for today I'm going to head back to my paper stack and make tracks in The Bone People. I hope to have a review for you soon. It's pretty incredible.

What are you reading today? Have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Finds- Just a Few

"A smart beach book" is how I've heard French Lessons, by Ellen Sussman, described. Sounds good to me! It's set in Paris and looks like frothy fun.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers is about a foster child who grows up into tenuous adulthood; it looks to be a wonderful book and I've heard great things already.
Finally, I picked up The Homecoming Party, by Carmine Abate, another Italian novel published by Europa Editions, for my ever-expanding collection.

I also found a first edition of Tim O'Brien's classic The Things They Carried, at the very moment when I was thinking about how much I would love to find one. And it was on sale!

What did you add to your bookshelf this week? Have a great Friday. More Friday Finds here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens

The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens. This edition published 2001, Little, Brown Book Group. Literary Fiction. Winner of the Booker Prize.

The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens, won the second Booker Prize in 1970, and it's a good book but kind of a downer. It's the story of a Jewish family in roughly contemporary London, struggling as Norman, the son and prize of the family, falls deeper and deeper into chronic drug abuse.

When the book opens, Norman is relapsing once again, after the family has tried again to get him to quit. He hallucinates; he's paranoid; he manipulates his father and sister through guilt and love. His father, Rabbi Zweck, is an old man in his declining years still mourning the loss of his wife Sarah and his daughter Esther, although Esther is not dead. His other daughter, Bella, lives with him and Norman and helps take care of them both. She is deeply dysfunctional herself, a kind of overgrown child in ankle socks. As the story progresses and Norman is institutionalized, we learn what lays behind Norman's drug use, Bella's stunted growth and Esther's exile.

Much of the book takes place in the mental hospital where Norman is sent to try once again at recovery, and these scenes have about them the air of a bitter black comedy. Rather than recover here, Norman finds fellow patients to enable him and continues to manipulate Bella as well. Rabbi Zweck and his daughter visit him while Esther comes out from the shadows to try to help, too. It takes a family tragedy to bring the siblings around but even then the future is uncertain, with Norman taking comfort in a most unlikely quarter.

The Elected Member is a beautifully written novel about a deeply troubled family on the brink; it's not a feel-good novel and the ending isn't particularly happy but I found it nonetheless to be a very satisfying read. The characters were very well-drawn and convincing, and I like the way the secret at the core of the book unwinds itself slowly. The issues it raises haven't aged; it's just as relevant as ever and might make an interesting and off-beat book club pick for brave readers. But I think any reader of literary fiction should seriously consider adding it to his or her reading list.

Rating: BUY

I read this book for the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

REVIEW: Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor

Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor. Published 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Fiction.

Ghost Light is an enjoyable and somewhat experimental novel about the love affair between Maire O'Neil, née Molly Allgood, an Irish stage actress of the early 20th century and the playwright J.M. Synge. Although the two apparently did have a relationship, this story is a highly fictionalized account which moves back and forth through time from the early days of their affair through Maire's death years and years later as a faded and solitary alcoholic.

I say the book is somewhat experimental because as it shifts in time it also shifts in perspective, moving from a standard third-person to an interior monologue and back out again. I had a little trouble following the shifts at first but soon found myself deeply engrossed in the story; in other words, it was a slow read for me but one that I found very satisfying in the end. O'Connor tells a very lyrical and sad story between two people who seem both deeply dysfunctional and perfect for each other, but Maire's life doesn't end with the end of her relationship with Synge. O'Connor gives us hints that she finds some happiness before her life enters its final descent into obscurity.

I think of Ghost Light as another one of those intellectual beach reads. It's very Irish, and people who like Irish literature and the literature of the stage will really enjoy it. I liked the scenery of the theatrical world with its colorful characters and shenanigans and the details of time and place that O'Connor uses to enrich the story. I found it engaging but it can also be a little confusing, which is why I suggest taking it slow. Lit fic for a summer's day, Ghost Light is a fine entertainment of a book.

I read this book for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2011.


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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Musing Monday- Can't Put it Down

This week’s Musing asks…
What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
The last thing I couldn't put down was Assaf Gavron's page-turning and brain-stimulating Almost Dead. Almost Dead is about an Israeli man who survives three suicide bombings only to become a media celebrity- and a target. The narrative is told from two perspectives, that of the victim and the terrorist, and shows the two men circling ever closer and closer together until the final denouement. It was awesome!

More Musing Monday at

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Salon: Another Week, Another Book

So if you read my Friday post you know I've started listening to audiobooks. I've done audiobooks before, in the car mostly, on long drives; on the way to Philadelphia last fall my husband and I listened to David Sedaris's new one, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, and then we listened to Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island on the way home. It worked out pretty well, so I decided to give audiobooks another try since I'm doing some things that leave me with long stretches of time in one place.

I found out that one of my local independent bookstores rents audiobooks, and since I really don't have time to go to the library to borrow them (ironic since I work in one, but I work far from the books themselves), renting has turned into a good solution, at least for the time being. Last week I listened to David Gann's The Lost City of Z and now I'm on to Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. It's been fun; I don't know how much longer I'm going to need them but we'll see.

And I'm reading print books alongside the audiobooks, too, and I've been reading at a good clip lately. I finished Assaf Gavron's awesome book Almost Dead last week and just finished The Giant's House by the lovely Elizabeth McCracken. Wow.  If you like Israeli fiction there is no excuse for not reading Gavron. It's a black comedy that knocked me off my feet. And McCracken's book was every bit the wonderful classic it's been billed as. Today for whatever time I have to read I'm going to settle into The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, which I started last week but only just. Last night I started The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, which I've been meaning to read forever. That's my theme for June- the "I've-been-meaning-to-forever" books. So far it's going well! I seem to have good taste when it comes to what to procrastinate on.

EDIT: THANK YOU to Cass who alerted me to free audiobook downloads from the Boston Public Library. Genius!

What are you reading today? Have a great Sunday! More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Finds- Audiobooks!

This week I added two new books to my collection- both audiobooks! They were also both rentals from my local independent bookstore so I don't know you could say I added them so much as briefly incorporated them, but- details!
First up is David Grann's fascinating The Lost City of Z- I've already finished listening to it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember being sort of interested in it when it came out but then I never quite got back around. But it was terrific! I'll have a full review soon.
Then I also added Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, which I'll be starting today. I'm looking forward to this of course as well. I like reading nonfiction via audio- I like to focus  more on nuances of language with fiction so paper books will always be my first choice there. But when it's a matter of conveying information via a story, I find audio works just fine.

What about you? Do you like audio? For fiction or nonfiction, or both? Do you have any nonfiction recommendations for me for my next audiobook? And what did you find this week that you're excited about?
More Friday Finds at

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

REVIEW: The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew. Published 2011 by Kensington Books. Fiction.

The Dry Grass of August is a lovely and heartfelt story about segregation and racial injustice in the South of 1954. Young Jubie Watts is a young daughter of a troubled family; one summer, her mother takes her and her other children from their home in North Carolina deeper south to Florida to stay with relatives. They bring their maid, Mary Luther, an African-American woman who has worked for the family for many years. One night, after Mary takes the girls to a religious meeting, a tragedy befalls the Watts and Luther families both, and Jubie is left to sort out the consequences on her own.

I will admit that I don't read a lot of fiction that deals with racial issues in the United States; when I have, the books often strike me as didactic and heavy-handed, which is something I don't like in fiction. I like books that present the world as a complex place, where life lessons are difficult to wrestle with and people are not reduced to stereotypes, even good ones. I was happy to find that The Dry Grass of August is such a book. What happens to Mary is unambiguously wrong, but it's the responses of those around her and the family that make for thought-provoking reading and probably interesting discussion, too.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I like Mayhew's writing style, clear and lyrical at the same time, and I like the rich characters she creates, especially of course young Jubie but I thought her mother was also a fascinating character. I like the tender friendship between Jubie and Leesum, a member of Mary's "church family," from which Jubie learns a bittersweet lesson. Mayhew wraps Jubie's coming of age story into the overall narrative alongside her father's troubles and the family's difficult future. I think Dry Grass would be a great choice for book clubs as well. A great book for summer, I'm sure that lots of readers will enjoy and appreciate Mayhew's satisfying and graceful novel.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah. Published 2011 by Graywolf Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan.

The Last Brother, by French-Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah, is a haunting and elegiac novel about a friendship between two boys on the island of Mauritius during World War 2. Young Raj is a native of the island and, while ignorant of the war going on elsewhere in the world, fights a battle of his own in a family destroyed by death and violence. His two brothers, who he worshipped, are killed in an accident, and his father, a puny, insecure man, uses his fists to take out his disappointments on Raj and his mother. Meanwhile Raj tries to live day to day, to survive and even thrive.

One day Raj follows his father, a prison guard, to work, and finds that the "criminals" his father guards are in fact emaciated and frightened Jews who have escaped from Eastern Europe on their way to Israel. Years later, Raj learns their story- they were deported to Mauritius after British administrators in Haifa decided they were illegal immigrants. In the mean time, though, he finds a friend- David, a young boy his age. He and David play together; he teaches David the secrets of the island and soon he helps David run away. Their friendship is sweet but unbearably tragic, one that will mark them both indelibly.

The Last Brother is a really beautiful novel and a must-read for literary fiction readers and absolutely anyone interested in World War 2 or the Holocaust; it's one of those gems that illuminates a little-known corner of history and brings it to beautiful life. Having said that, it's Raj's story more than it's David's, the story of how a boy deals with tragedy and death, how he grows up with shame and sadness and how becoming a teacher and a father helps him find peace. And that's a lot to pack into 160 pages or so but Appanah has written an engrossing and economical novel that offers a richly detailed sense of place both physical and emotional, told by a character who will win your heart. I hope you get a chance to pick this one up- you won't be sorry!

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mailbox Monday

 Here are some books I've received in the mail in the past couple of weeks:
Child Wonder, by Roy Jacobsen, came from Graywolf Press. It's a prize-winning novel from Norway about childhood and growing up.
Alice Hoffman's new novel The Dovekeepers arrived as well. I've never read her before but I've heard so many good things about her that I've decided to finally give her a try. This book comes out in October from Scribner.

The Soldier's Wife, by Margaret Leroy, is a love story set in Guernsey during World War 2; it comes out in July from Hyperion Voice.
The Vices looks like another fabulous novel from the very-reliable Other Press, about a wealthy family hiding a dirty secret; its unnamed narrator investigates the death of a well-known philosopher and art collector and finds himself drawn into the family's past. Doesn't that sound awesome? It comes out in August.
Finally, David Abbott's The Upright Piano player is new from Random House, about a man dealing with retirement and an unsavory character causing him trouble. Fun.

Mailbox Monday was created by Marcia of A Girl and Her Books and is being hosted by Mari of MariReads this month.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sunday Salon: May's Accomplishments, June's Goals

So I ended up having a really good month of reading in May; my goal was to read only/mostly 2011 releases and I managed to restrict myself in all but one case, and that was to read a Booker winner (it was Bernice Ruben's The Elected Member, the second book to win, I think).
The list:
  • If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black
  • The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson
  • French Leave, by Anna Gavalda
  • The Storm at the Door, by Stefan Merrill Block
  • Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette
  • To Be With Her, by Syed Afzal Haider
  • The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew
  • The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens
  • Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor
  • The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah
Technically, Robin Black's book came out last year but I got a hot-off-the-presses 2011 paperback so I say it counts. I'll be reviewing all of them eventually! I'm starting on Tuesday with The Last Brother, which as far as I'm concerned should be the next book you pick up!

For June, I'm reading backlist books- or trying to. I read Election, by Tom Perrotta, first; it took me a day. Then I moved on to Assaf Gavron's Almost Dead, a black comedy about a man who keeps almost being killed in suicide bombing attacks in Israel, until he becomes a minor celebrity and an actual target. So far it's really good; it's told from the perspective of the erstwhile victim and from that of a potential bomber languishing in a coma. Then I'll pick a Booker to read, then go on from there with something else off the shelf.

Speaking of the Booker pick, I was going to read V.S. Naipaul's In A Free State, which won in 1971, but I'm thinking I'll choose something else for now. Maybe Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 1975 winner? Or The Conservationist, by Nadine Gordimer, which won in 1974? Or maybe The Bone People, by Kerri Hulme, which won in 1985. So many choices. What do you think?

But for today I'm going to keep going with Almost Dead, although with the gym and my improv class it promises to be a busy day. What are you up to today? Have a great Sunday no matter what!

EDIT: It looks like the verdict is unanimous from the comments and Twitter: The Bone People it shall be, and soon! Thanks to everyone for your input!

More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Blogger Event at Porter Square Books

Last night's blogger event at Porter Square Books in Cambridge went really, really well! First I want to thank the store and Josh for arranging it, and gathering such a great group of bloggers. I was honored to sit with Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand and Melanie Yarborough of The Things They Read; missing for various reasons but present in spirit were Kevin of Boston Book Bums and Jason of Three Guys One Book; we missed you!! And I want to give another big thanks to everyone who came out- we had a packed audience- and especially to my readers and friends who were there (and even to those of you who wished you could be). You know who you are!

So what did folks recommend?

My picks were
  • The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer, a wonderful epic love story about Europe, especially France and Hungary, during World War 2;
  • Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson, a beautiful novel about the wonder of childhood and more a literary take on the ground covered in Emma Donoghue's much-more-lauded Room, and
  • Heliopolis, a fab literary page turner by James Scudamore about the city of Sao Paolo and the people who live there.
An audience member asked us for one book that we would want anybody to read, regardless of genre preference and my answer to that question was clear- the extraordinary My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar.

I'll be honest- I didn't get notes on the other speakers' picks (or take any pictures- how lame am I?). But I'm sure if you visit their wonderful blogs you can find out!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Finds! So Many Great New Books

To start my summer reading off right, I picked up Role Models, the memoir by director John Waters. I started reading it in the store and I'm in love with it already. His voice is approachable, funny and wholly unique; the book promises to be a treat.
Two new NYRB Classics Originals came into my home this week, both via awesome used bookstores. The Post-Office Girl is a love story set in early 20th century Eastern Europe, by Austrian master Stefan Zweig. It's been on my wish list forever.

The Child was an impulse buy, and a book I didn't know about until I saw it sitting on the shelf. It's a 19th century French novel, translated into English for the first time, about a young man who endures all kinds of abuse at the hands of his teachers and parents but manages to thrive nonetheless.
Finally, I added a new Europa Editions title to my collection- The Jasmine Isle, by Ioanna Karystiani. It's a love story too, set in modern Greece. It looks wonderful.

Some galleys and new releases came in this week too, and I'll do a separate post on those maybe for Mailbox Monday or something. Come back tomorrow for a recap of tonight's blogger event at Porter Square Books- and let me know what you're excited about reading!

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tomorrow's Blogger Event at Porter Square Books

Tomorrow, Friday June 3 at 7pm, I will be appearing alongside several great area bloggers at the wonderful independent bookstore Porter Square Books to talk about some books we're suggesting for your summer reading. The event lasts an hour, all the books presented will be on sale and we will be around after the event to chat.

Go here for a complete list of the bloggers attending. It's a terrific lineup! Thanks to Josh at Porter Square Books for organizing this event.

There is a parking lot adjacent to the store and a cafe inside. And books!

I'll have a post on Saturday about the evening if you can't make it and of course I will include a list of my picks and more.

If you are in the area, it's a great opportunity to talk books and support a local independent bookstore.

Porter Square Books is located at 35 White Street, Cambridge near the Porter Square Red Line MBTA stop and the #77 bus.

I hope you can make it!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books You Don't Need in a Place You Can't Find

This Memorial Day, my husband and I took the opportunity to visit the delightful Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in pretty Montague, MA, a ruralish town in the north-western part of the state (440 Greenfield Rd. Montague, MA 01351)

We arrived around lunchtime and settled into the Lady Killigrew Cafe for sandwiches and sodas; I had curried chicken and it was pretty good! It was a beautiful warm day and we were able to get a nice shaded table for lunch.

But then it was time to hit the store- and what a store! Used books in a myriad of subjects fill this pretty house set on a rushing river:

Naturally I settled into the fiction room, which was smallish but had a nice selection of mainstream fiction, graphic novels, mysteries and science fiction. We wandered around the rest of the store, too, perusing all the different sections. The staff were nice enough to set our books aside as we wandered so we weren't traipsing up and down stairs with our bundles!

Scattered throughout the house are cute little reading nooks and chairs set by open windows; the main entrance is filled with tables and chairs for people to settle in with a book (or a laptop). They even have free WiFi!

At the end of the day we walked off with a modest stash of books; I found a pile of six Angela Thirkell paperbacks and another random book, all of which I'm excited to have found and look forward to reading.

The complex also contains a movie and music store, a dinner restaurant called The Night Kitchen and a gallery selling higher-end crafts next door. If you're ever in the area I'd definitely recommend you stop by and spend a nice afternoon or evening in this fun place.