Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Salon - July's Reading and Plans for August

The big thing this weekend is we have our car back. Several weeks go my husband was involved in a crash near our home (no one was hurt, thank God) that resulted in significant damage to the car; it was in the shop for nearly two weeks and we got it back on Friday. We didn't have a car for that time and it is so nice to have it back. We are lucky to live in an area with great public transportation and convenient amenities, but still! What a difference! We spent yesterday driving around just kind of everywhere, finishing out the day with a performance of Twelfth Night at a nearby park, starring a good friend. And that was wonderful.

Today I'm continuing to read Embassytown; I have about three chapters left to go, and it remains a slow but steady read. I also started The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's book and Random House's big fall release. I'm enjoying it so far. It's all written in the present tense, something I find a little precious, but I'm trying not to let that bother me too much. Personal taste and all. Oh well.

As far as my reading challenges, I finished two books this month for the Europa Challenge- Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton and The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanual Schmitt. I'm behind on my Booker challenge- I didn't finish In a Free State this month so I'm going to have to read that and another winner to catch up in August. I'm excited about this year's longlist and I hope I get some time to read at least a couple of the books, but I will certainly read the winner towards the end of the year. And even though I didn't finish my whole science fiction reading list, I'm calling this month a success anyway.

August? In August I'm reading more 2011 releases and catching up on my challenges. At the top of the pile are Roland Merullo's The Talk-Funny Girl, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson and Everything Beautiful Began After, by Simon Van Booy. I haven't decided on my next two Europas but I'll keep you posted! For the Booker challenge, I'm going to finish In a Free State and give Heat & Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a stab.

What are you up to today? How was your July for reading?
More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Finds: Two New Releases and a Classic

Yvette Edwards' Booker-nominated A Cupboard Full of Coats came unexpectedly this week; this is about an adult woman haunted by her mother's murder fourteen years earlier. I'm so excited to have received this!
Hillary Jordan, the award-winning author of Mudbound, has a new novel out in October from Algonquin, When She Woke, a dystopian take on The Scarlet Letter. I'm interested to read her second novel after having a mixed reaction to her first.
Finally, one of my blogging friends, Enrique Freeque, recommended One Day of Life, a classic novel by Manilo Argueta set in El Salvador and focusing on political strife there. Argueta is a well-known poet and the book is supposed to beautifully written. Also, you should check out E.F.'s very cool blog, Enrique Freeque Reads.

So that's it! A slow but good week for books. And I'm weeding again, so I should be able to find room on the shelves for these, though I think none of them will be on the TBR pile for long!

What's new on your shelf this week? More Friday Finds at

Thursday, July 28, 2011

REVIEW: Quiet Chaos, by Sandro Veronesi

Quiet Chaos, by Sandro Veronesi. Published 2011 by Ecco. Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore.

Quiet Chaos is the devastating story of a man who saves the life of a woman he does not know only to be immediately confronted with the death of the most important woman in his life. Enjoying a day at the beach with his brother Carlo, TV exec Pietro Paladini rescues a woman drowning in the ocean. When he comes home, he finds out that Lara, his partner and the mother of his child,  is dead. He is then faced with confronting his own grief and take care of his young daughter Claudia.

What he decides to do next is nothing. He waits in his car in front of his daughter's school, first just for the day, and then everyday. His life swirls around him but he keeps it at bay. Unwilling to accept help or even sympathy for his loss, he avoids the people who know what happened to him. Passive while his career and workplace in transition, Pietro takes meetings with colleagues in his car and just waits for things to sort themselves out. He sorts through his difficult relationship with Carlo and his partner's sister curbside, gets tangentially involved with schoolteachers and other parents, makes friends with denizens of the park near the school and does all he can to keep his life and his feelings at a distance.

So the book really lives up to its title; it's a quiet story about the storm of chaos inside a man who works at nothing so much as refusing to deal with the unpredictable tides of his emotions. He even confronts the woman whose life he saved from the safety of his car. Veronesi has Pietro narrate the book in the first person and gives us long, detailed monologues in which Pietro will talk about his daughter's gymnastics, her friends, his past girlfriends, his career, his brother's career- anything to avoid the only thing he can't stop thinking about- Lara's death:
For two days, it's been raining. The summer ended all at once, the temperature dropped, and the amenity of this corner of the world seems to have dissolved. But not for me. I had thermal paper inserted in the car fax, put on warmer clothes, bought a nice new umbrella, and waited in front of the school in the rain. I observed the changes that the beginning of fall had brought to the neighborhood, all of them for the worse, but I continued to feel good. I worked, doing the little you can in a company that's paralyzed; I received people in my car, or at the café opposite the school, and I signed the contracts I was supposed to sign...I'm supposed to be grieving: all of a sudden, a finger pointed at me and a voice thundered, "You, Pietro Paladini! Grieve!" But I'm not grieving, you see, and I can spend all my time with my daughter, which is what I want, and retreat from the daily bedlam that is wearing out all my colleagues; and I can remember, compile my lists, look at people on the street, and go home to watch TV and eat and sleep like before..."
But it's not like before, and never will be again, and Pietro's calm, hard and smooth like burnt sugar, has to crack eventually.

Quiet Chaos won the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award, in 2006 and I would describe the book as highly character-centered and slightly experimental. Veronesi succeeds at creating a rich portrait of a very sad man who pretends to be anything but. There are several long passages of stream of consciousness-type writing and little to nothing actually happens, and 400-plus pages could be a lot of nothing if you're not engaged with the character. It's definitely not a quick read and sometimes it felt labored to me; I had to really push through to the end but I'm glad I did because the payoff that awaits is beautiful, moving and poetic.


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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

REVIEW: The Upright Piano Player, by David Abbott

The Upright Piano Player, by David Abbott. Published 2011 by Random House.

A short novel in the style of Ian McEwan, The Upright Piano Player is the story of one Henry Cage, a man at a crossroads. An elderly executive, he's been pushed out of the company bearing his name; his ex-wife is dying; his children are alienated from him. One night after a party he crosses paths with a very bad man and a series of events unfold that will cause him pain and notoriety. But all this comes before a shocking act of violence narrated at the beginning of the book, involving the tragic death of a child.

The act of violence, its timing and its relation to the other circumstances of Henry's life make up the emotional core of this literary novel. Artful and well-paced, Henry's story unrolls bit by bit; loss and death chase Henry through the streets of London, its cafés and office buildings, and all the way to America. He's attacked and stalked and suffers two heartbreaking deaths. Henry himself is bookish, uptight and not entirely likable, and when presented with alternatives, always seems to make the wrong choice. Abbott, though, always makes the right ones when it comes to his elegant style. Writing about Henry's favorite bookstore, Abbott tells us
The shop seemed to order only books that Henry wanted to read and he quickened his step eager to see what treasures were on the tables. The store was busy and he browsed for half an hour, careful as he moved from one pile of books to another not to hurry the customer next to him. Good manners are a given in bookshops. "I don't suppose you have a copy of..." The tone is invariably considerate. Between a book's covers there may be passion, bile, mayhem, or murder, but in the quiet spaces where it awaits its fate (either acceptance of indifference) all is calm. For Henry, bookshops had always been restorative, and buoyed by his visit he bought Thom Gunn's latest book of poems and left.
Such could also be said of Henry's life- that no matter what chaos rains on him or around him, he remains relatively calm himself. Even his ex-wife's funeral is a straightforward affair with little in the way of emotional demonstration, a stark contrast to the violent outbursts committed by and upon him. It's almost as if these outbursts take the place of the stable emotional life of a healthier person. The Upright Piano Player is a melancholy but nevertheless highly accomplished novel (the author's first) that I strongly recommend to readers of literary fiction. It's also a rather quick read, being highly suspenseful despite the author's composed and mature tone. Even if you don't end up loving Henry, you'll care about him enough to want to see how it all turns out, and you'll relish Abbott's beautiful writing along the way.

Rating: BUY

The Upright Piano Player
by David Abbott
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, July 25, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This Monday, I'm deep into China Miéville's latest, Embassytown. I am loving this book so far! It's a slow read that requires the reader's attention; filled with neologisms and detailed character- and world-building, about a third of the way through the plot is picking up, too. But it's a plot unlike anything I've read before, about a far-future interplanetary society where humans share space with enigmatic aliens called Hosts who speak and impossible language who can only be communicated with through equally strange Ambassadors. I won't tell you why the Ambassadors are odd- I enjoyed discovering that piece through the pages- but soon enough a conflict develops with a new Ambassador that puts the main character, Avice, in an awkward position, not least of which because as a child, she became part of the Hosts' language. Interested yet? I hope so, because so far this is one fabulous book!

Completed last week:
Song of Time, by Ian R. MacLeod
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (audio)

Also Reading:
In a Free State, by V.S. Naipaul
My Fair Lazy, by Jen Lancaster (audio)

Up Next:
Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

Find out what more people are reading at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading the Summer Away

So how's Science Fiction Month going? Let's see:
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu (finished),
  • Song of Time, by Ian R. MacLeod, (finished)
  • The Wind-up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (DNF),
  • Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle,
  • The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia, 
  • Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts,
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeannette Winterson (finished), and
  • Embassytown, by China Miéville (reading now)
In other words, I'm making some progress but I won't finish them all. The important thing is, I've made a dent! I hope to have time to squeeze in one more book this month but in a way I hope I don't,  because it's going to be so hard to choose.

I want to also tell you about a great movie that's out now, La Rafle (the link is to the review on my movie blog). It's a nonfictional account of the Vel d'Hiv roundup of French Jews detailed fictionally in the hit book Sarah's Key. It's a wonderful movie and I encourage you all to go see it if it's playing in your area or add it to your DVD queue if it's not. The distributor, Menemsha Films, invited me to a pre-release screening a couple of weeks ago; I'm glad I can finally tell you about it!

Today I'm enjoying Embassytown and plan to spend as much time as possible reading it! No other plans, except maybe a workout this morning. Our car is in the shop so I'll be sticking close to home; maybe we'll head into the Square for some dinner or dessert- anything's possible, but it's going to be a laid-back day. What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Finds! Always Something New

So, I visited a local Judaica bookshop that I haven't visited for a while, and before I knew what was happening, their very able and persuasive bookseller got me to walk home with The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, a short story collection by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. I've always wanted to read him, so I guess now I will! From Kolbo Fine Judaica, Brookline, Mass.

Heart of Iron is a newish book by Russian urban-fantasy author Ekaterina Sedia, about a university student and things gone awry. I loved her first book, The Secret History of Moscow. I picked it up at the Prime Books table at ReaderCon last week.
Finally, for the Europa Challenge I picked up The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leila Marouane, a novel that, I think, kind of does what it says on the package- about a Muslim woman living in Paris. From the Harvard Book Store.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What's new on your bookshelf this week? More Friday Finds at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

REVIEW: The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson

The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson. Published 2009 by Mariner Books.

I've been a big fan of Jeanette Winterson's for a long time; I've been reading her since I was in high school, starting with her acclaimed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and continuing with Written on the Body, The Passion, and more. One thing you can always say about a Winterson book is that it will be beautifully written; few fiction writers can match her for sheer poetry. She's also a serious thinker and her books are often ruminations as well as narratives. It's been a couple of years since I last read a book of hers (I think the last one was Lighthousekeeping) and no matter what, I always look forward to peeping between her pages.

The Stone Gods is a little bit of a departure for the literary Winterson, being, as it is, a science fiction dystopia about a future in which humans have ruined Earth and must find a new world to inhabit. The main character, Billie Crusoe, takes off with a small contingent of colonizers to investigate Planet  Blue. Along the way, Billie falls in love with Spike, a rebellious Robo sapiens, a new breed of artificial life. Love is something Spike isn't supposed to feel, and Billie herself is tormented by the idea that everything that's happening has happened before, and will happen again.

It pains me to say this, because I love Jeanette Winterson's books in general, but I really wasn't crazy about The Stone Gods. Its premise is intriguing and the first part of the book is an engrossing page-turner; I also enjoyed the second part, a kind of reimagining of the diaries of James Cook, an early European visitor to Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Here Winterson explores themes around colonialism, environmental use and the impact of religion both indigenous and imported on the island's culture and its famed stone faces. It's also a deeply poetic and sensual exploration of the relationship between "Cook" and a native islander. After this part, though, the book veers off again into a really heavy-handed post-apocalyptic scenario, and I kind of lost interest. If you've read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed I dislike didacticism and political correctness in my reading, both of which this book has in spades.

So who should read The Stone Gods? Winterson fans for one, because whatever you want to say about the plot, her writing remains as gorgeously styled and wonderful as ever. I'd also recommend it for dystopia fans and people who want to read a fictional, vaguely SF take on our impact on the earth. It's short and it has a lot of redeeming qualities. Even if I can't say it's my favorite book of hers, I can't really rag on her too much. She's just so good and any book of hers is going to be better than most other things out there, even if I've read other things of hers that I liked more. I'm sure it's something the matter with me!

Rating: BORROW

The Stone Gods: A Novel
by Jeanette Winterson

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Goodbye, Borders

So it's final- Borders is closing. All of the remaining stores will be shuttered, some starting as early as this coming Friday.

It seems like this has been coming for a long time. Everything I've read suggests years of mismanagement lay behind the company's failure and that the writing has been on the wall for at least the past two years. Supply chain issues, executive issues, and the company's failure to compete online all seem to be contributing factors, as well as the shift towards e-books and the diminishing bricks-and-mortar bookselling business more generally. NPR offered their take yesterday.

A while back I wrote a post about Borders from my own perspective, but now that the store's demise is imminent, I'm wondering, what will you be doing for your bookshopping? Amazon only? Independent bookstores? Are there any indies left in your area? Or any other book-buying options besides those online?

I'm lucky to live in an area rich with independent bookstores and I have a Three Wolf Moon shirt so Amazon has nothing more to offer me. The indies will continue to enjoy my patronage and I'll continue my occasional visits to Barnes & Noble, of which there are several in my area.

If you're a Borders customer with remaining gift cards or you're thinking about taking advantage of the liquidation sales, Consumer Reports has an article containing some advice.

So I guess I'll offer my humble thanks to the company and the employees that did so much to put great books in front of me and support the careers of so many writers. I can't imagine this is good for writers, for readers or for much of anyone. I wonder how publishing and writing will fare in a shrinking market. Someone suggested farming books out to other kinds of retail and doing away with bookstores entirely- so presumably all you'd be able to buy are cookbooks and, I don't know, hiking manuals? Scratch that! We need bookstores because we need a literary culture. I'll do what I can to keep that culture going; what about you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

ReaderCon 22 - A Lit Fic Snob Dabbles in SF

This past weekend I got to attend the 22nd annual ReaderCon, a fan-supported convention of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers. The convention is held in Burlington, Mass., and every year attracts fans and authors known and unknown for four days (Thursday-Sunday) of bookish fun.

Although I'm not a big reader of science fiction/fantasy myself, I like to dabble, and the 2011 con was my third year of enthusiastic dabbling. I attended Friday and Saturday; Thursday is a half-day and Sunday I had other plans, namely going to a local Star Trek convention and meeting William Shatner. But I digress. My favorite session, Biblioholics Anonymous, was held Thursday night and I missed it due to illness; basically, people sit around and compare the size of their libraries. It's pretty fun. Last year British author Rob Shearman entertained us with stories about his 17,000+ volume personal collection and one year collectors of Hugo Award first editions traded tips on tracking down sought-after volumes. I wish I'd been there for this year's!

Friday I spent the day and went to sessions on Russian folktales, another called "Surrealism and Strong Emotion" and "Improv for Writers and Readers." Having just come from 12 weeks or so of improv classes, and having found ways to apply some of those skills to my writing, I was fascinated to attend this brief session. It was very interesting and funny and found some of the tidbits I picked up were reinforced. A very popular session running at the same time was entitled "Still Waiting for My Food Pills: Science in the Kitchen" and the conference showed some emphasis on non-Western science fiction/fantasy writing in sessions like "African Graphic Novels" and "Still in Kansas: SF in Developing Countries."

And the critics' best-of lists reflected this interest in books set in non-Western countries and written by a diverse authorship. My favorite session is always "The Year in Novels," wherein critics from a variety of publications (usually featuring the storied journal Locus) share their favorite novels of the past year. It's also where I draw up my own scifi shopping list.
The books I want to read are:
  • The Islanders, by Christopher Priest, which comes out in September and doesn't have a US publisher so this will be some kind of special order from Powell's most likely. Rising calls it "a tale of murder, artistic rivalry and literary trickery; a Chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems; a narrator whose agenda is artful and subtle; a narrative that pulls you in and plays an elegant game with you," and the Readercon speaker compared him to Nabokov and the book to Pale Fire. My husband read and enjoyed a previous book of his and he wrote the novel on which the wonderful film "The Prestige" was based. I think I need to read this guy!
  • The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. I'll pick this up as soon as the paperback is out. It's a kind of history of Istanbul, "a vivid portrait of the ancient city of Istanbul, layering it with political, cultural, and religious strata, as well as an ingeniously imagined world of practical nanotechnology" (from Bookmarks Magazine).
  • Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord. This is published by Kelly Link's Small Beer Press; it was available at Readercon but I couldn't get to the Small Beer table because Link herself was there are holding court to her many fans. I'll have to find it at a bookstore! From the Small Beer website, Redemption is "bursting with humor and rich in fantastic detail...a clever, contemporary fairy tale that introduces readers to a dynamic new voice in Caribbean literature. Lord’s world of spider tricksters and indigo immortals is inspired in part by a Senegalese folk tale—but Paama’s adventures are fresh, surprising, and utterly original."
Some more books that panelists mentioned were:
  • Quantum Thief, by Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi,
  • Nightshade, by Kameron Hurley,
  • Blackout, by Connie Willis,
  • Home Fires, by Gene Wolfe,
  • 7th Sigma, by Steven Gould,
  • Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor,
  • The Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan,
  • The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman,
  • The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford
Have you read any of these? The critics are one thing, but I'd love to know what you think!

The last session I attended on Saturday was called "I've (Fallen) Behind and Can't Get (Caught) Up!" In this session, author Jennifer Pelland, Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, writer and editor Don D’Ammassa, writer Craig Laurance Gidney and writer and critic Rick Wilber talked about their burgeoning book collections, obsessive reading and what to do when you realize you can never read it all. They shared their tips on managing a voracious reading habit and audience members shared their own stories as well.

So another great year at ReaderCon, and I'm already looking forward to ReaderCon 23!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Call for Help

My friend Danielle, who blogs YA books and other things over at Frenzy of Reads, asked me to spread the word about a school in Washington, D.C., that needs our help! The text of this post came directly from her.

A library in need...

"The literature section of Ballou Senior High School's library in Washington, DC has 63 books, not enough to fill five small shelves. In the area marked "Pure Science," there are 77 volumes. The generally accepted standard for school libraries is 11 books for each of Ballou's 1,104 students."
Why we should care:

"It's a challenge for kids to take their literacy seriously when they don't even have books to read. Ballou is located in the most dangerous ward in our nation's capitol. Right now, the library serves as a physical safe space and a refuge for students in off school hours, but wouldn't it be great if they had something to read while they were there--even choices across genre?....This is not the only school in the country with needs, but when the flare went up we saw it and chose to respond."
What they need:
Everything.  From Shakespeare to Octavia Butler to Richard Wright. Fantasy, sci-fi, YA, adult fiction, history books, poetry, classic literature, science. Basically anything and everything suitable for teens. She said they would take anything as long as it is in GOOD condition and has no writing in it. 
I've asked if they would accept ARCs (new or old), and the director of the book drive, Lisa, said YES. 

How to donate:
If you have books you want to give, please mail them directly to:
Perry School
c/o Margaret Pegram
128 M St. NW suite 318
Washington, DC 20001
Inside the box put a note that says "c/o Lisa P. Ballou Book Drive".

The school will be accepting books until August 22nd.

(Also, if you'd like to include some kind of quick note for the kids, words of encouragement, that would be awesome!!)

Spread the word!
Reblog this post on your blog. Tweet this post. (we're on twitter at #HSBookDrive) Tell everyone. Send books

UPDATE 7/23/11: I heard from Danielle that they've run out of room for books! THANK YOU to everyone who donated!!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Salon - I'm Not Sure What's Going On Today!

Happy Sunday! Today I'm either enjoying the final day of ReaderCon, an annual science fiction/fantasy literary convention, or I'm hanging out at a fairly major Star Trek convention in Cambridge where William Shatner will be appearing. I don't know yet which we're going to do!

It's been a pretty quiet week; my husband and I were both battling summer colds, me at the beginning of the week and him towards the end. I'm starting to get back to the gym more and continuing my writing.  I feel a lot more focused vis-a-vis what my book is about and I'm confident that I'll continue to make progress. It's amazing how you can write for months and only sort of figure out what you're writing about!

I'll be appearing at the 2011 Salem Literary Festival the weekend of September 23-25, along with my fellow bloggers from the Newburyport Lit Fest panel, Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, Kevin from Boston Book Bums and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets. Our moderator is going to be local TV investigative news reporter and award-winning mystery author Hank Phillippi Ryan- wow! I'm so excited about this event; it's going to be awesome! The whole Salem Lit Fest is going to be awesome, though, with appearances by Joshilyn Jackson, Brunonia Barry, Holly LeCraw, Katherine Howe as well as Erin Morgenstern, whose book The Night Circus is poised to be the "it" book of fall.

Today, like I said, I'm deciding between more ReaderCon or paying a lot of money to hang out somewhere within eyesight of Captain Kirk. And reading- I'm enjoying- really enjoying- Ian R. MacLeod's Song of Time and finishing up Get Me Out of Here. It's always wonderful to have two great books in the works at once!

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

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Finds! It's Been A While

Or at least it seems that way! I have a few things to share with you that I've picked up or received over the past few weeks:
I received an ARC of Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner, from Europa Editions. I expect to get to it next month for the Europa Challenge.
When the World Spoke French is an anthology of essays about and letters and historical material written by Francophones of various nationalities in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Old Dog Barks Backwards is a collection of humorous poetry by American poet Ogden Nash. He was a childhood favorite of mine and I was delighted to find a beautiful copy of this book in a local used bookstore. Nostalgia FTW!
Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors is one of those novels I've always meant to read, so when I came across a used copy this week I had to get it. It's set in New Zealand among the Maori of the modern day.
Finally, I bought myself a treat- In Revere, in Those Days, by Roland Merullo. Merullo is one of my favorite writers; I have a copy of his new book, The Talk-Funny Girl, a must-read for August, but while there were signed paperbacks available I picked this one up because again I've always meant to read it. It's a coming of age story set on the North Shore of Boston. If you haven't read Merullo, read him- he's probably one of the best writers in America today and totally underappreciated!

That's it for me- what are you reading today? More Friday Finds at and have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Joyeuse Fete de la Bastille!

Chers amis francophiles (et vous savez qui vous êtes), today is the French national holiday, Bastille Day, celebrated every July 14 to commemorate the storming of the notorious French prison during the French Revolution. It's therefore the perfect day to share some of my favorite French reads, old and new.

Just about my favorite classic French novel is Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses- what better portrait of pre-Revolutionary upper class decadence is there than this delicious tale of love, lust and ambition among the aristocracy?

If you've seen the wonderful film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, you have some idea of the wonderful treat you're in for here.

I first read it in French in college and found this epistolary novel eminently readable and superbly enjoyable.

The best and richest period of French literature, though, has to be the nineteenth century. Classic authors like Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert are can't-go-wrong favorites; if you like Dickens or Trollope you'll be very comfortable.

For poetry, you might try 20th century masters like Jacques Prévert and Paul Éluard; my favorite volumes of French poetry are Prévert's Paroles and Éluard's Capitale de la douleur; they're very different in style but each wonderful in its own way.

I love Prévert for his rhymes and lyricism, and Éluard for his verbal elasticity and skill with modernistic verse. I can spend hours reading either book.

Prévert was also the screenwriter for the wonderful movie Les Enfants du Paradis, (Children of Paradise) about a 19th century troupe of theatrical performers. The movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France under very difficult conditions, and the screenplay is full of double meanings and coded politics- besides being an incredibly heartbreaking love story and beautiful portrait of a lost world.

Moving on to contemporary literature and another heartbreaking love story, I can't say enough good things about Sebastien Japrisot's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) about a young woman who simply will not accept that her lover has been killed in the bloodbath of World War 1. Full of twists and turns and told from the point of view of one very scrappy and determined woman, it's a page-turner with characters you'll remember for a long time.

Lovers of French literary fiction will want to pay attention to the Prix Goncourt, celebrating the best in French novels every year. A recent nominee was Phillippe Grimbert's unforgettable Memory, about secrets from the Holocaust.

Another recent prizewinner in the world of French letters was J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Wandering Star is one of his recent novels.

In the world of graphic novels, French artist and writer Joan Sfar has made a splash with his delightful The Rabbi's Cat series. Not for children, these books follow the adventures of a talking cat and his rabbi owner in Algeria and then, in volume 2, all over Africa. He also wrote and illustrated a children's graphic novel, Little Vampire, which is delightful.

Lucy Knisley's French Milk is a light little romp through Paris, a graphic memoir peppered with photos of the City of Light.
But just about my favorite book of drawings of Paris comes from artist Jean-Jacques Sempé. His sketchbook A Little Bit of Paris is just a feast for the eyes.

For nonfiction, the following are some of my favorites:

Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, a very accessible and sympathetic portrait of the doomed queen;

Otto Friedrich's history Olympia: Paris in the Age of Monet, a great history for those interested in the art and social history of the 19th century. Olympia is actually one of my all-time favorite books about France- full of wonderful detail and insight into the trends, fashions and culture of that most formative period of French history.

Bernard Clayton Jr.'s out of print cookbook The Breads of France and How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen is both a treasure trove of recipes and a tour of every region and province of the country- a cultural as well as a gastronomic gem.

Finally, Jean-Benoit Nadeau's The Story of French is an entertaining and readable account of the history of the French language- its origins, its influences and its future.

Can you tell I love the subject? I could go on and on. Happy Bastille Day, and Vive la France!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

App Alert! Penguin Classics

Penguin Group USA, that venerable publisher of fiction and nonfiction, has a new app promoting their Classics line. The Penguin Classics: A Complete Annotated Listing, is a must-have for the literary fiction reader. With the app, you can explore the complete line, buy books and take timed quizzes testing your knowledge of literary classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Candide.  You can annotate what you've read or would like to read, get suggestions and share your picks on Facebook.

Like everything Penguin does, it's stylish, beautiful and full of useful information. Sorry, iPad users- right now it's only available for the iPhone.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

REVIEW: The Woman with the Bouquet, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

The Woman with the Bouquet, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction. Short stories. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

A collection of five short stories by French writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Woman with the Bouquet deals in secrets and mysteries and with people searching for meaning in their lives, often by trying to ferret out the secrets of others.

Most of the stories deal with love affairs, and often, a crime. In one, a writer listens to an elderly invalid tell an implausible story about a passionate affair she had with a prince; could it be true? But how? In another, an average-looking woman who finds herself ugly, falls for a blinded photographer, who, in finding her attractive, teaches her to love herself. Another woman kills her husband only to have second thoughts, and yet another waits at a train station every day, titular bouquet in hand. But for whom?

My favorite story though was the only one without a love affair at its center, "Trashy Reading," about a cynical professor who reads only highbrow nonfiction until he finds rapture between the covers of a potboiler detective story. On vacation with his beloved cousin, he steals her grocery-store page-turner and becomes engrossed in the adventures of a certain fetching, fictional lady detective, but the story transmits to him a growing anxiety, leading him to a tragic error of judgement and a terrible outcome for his innocent cousin. I liked the suspense built into this story; Schmitt had me turning the pages as fast as the luckless protagonist turned the pages of his fat thriller.

The rest of the stories are delightful, if somewhat similar to each other; "Getting Better," about a nurse infatuated with her blind patient, was also wonderful. It's a personal-transformation story about someone learning to see herself through someone else's eyes, until that viewpoint becomes her own. All of the stories have about them a sort of wistful romantic quality, and except for the poor leads of "Trashy Reading," there are lots of happy endings, too. The collection is a quick read; a story or two a day was a very doable pace for me and considering there are only five stories, I went through it in under a week. Europa fans and readers of short stories will want to add this one to their piles!

It's book one of fourteen towards my challenge goal of Europa Amante!
This book counts toward the 2011 Europa Challenge.


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

Monday, July 11, 2011

It's Monday-What Are You Reading?

Well, this Monday I'm reading three books.

For the Europa Challenge, I'm reading Get Me Out of Here, by Henry Sutton, a recent Europa title about an alarming gentleman with a habit of prevarication, obfuscation and possibly, murder. And he likes designer clothes a lot, too. It's been described as a 21st-century American Psycho and I can see why! It's a lot of fun and I can't wait to see where it all winds up.
I'm also enjoying the tail end of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods, a strange literary/science fiction novel about exploration, the future, the past and the planet. It's a lot to pack into a slim volume! After that, probably later today, I'll be starting Song of Time, by Ian R. McLeod, about a mysterious man who comes up out of the sea. It was highly touted at the 2009 Readercon as "literary SF." I've had it on my shelf ever since and reading it was one of the major motivations behind SF Month.

Finally, I'm still working my way through the audio version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I'm doing a listen-along with Jen of Literate Housewife and Jason of Brain Candy Book Reviews, and I'm so pitifully far behind that the group discussion was postponed a week to give me time to finish. So I'd better get back to it! It's one of my all-time favorite books- I read it in print years ago- and I'm enjoying the audio very much.

Head over to One Person's Journey Through a World of Books for more Monday reads!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: Progress and Updates and Other Stuff

So the Europa Challenge launched a little over a week ago and we already have lots of participants- and we're always looking for more. I promise I won't post about this constantly but I will probably be talking about it often so please bear with me if it's something you're not into! My first challenge post is up on that blog and will appear here on Tuesday.

In the mean time I'm also working my way through my personal month-long science fiction challenge. So far results are mixed. I enjoyed How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe but gave up on Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. I just... wasn't feeling it. The lack of exposition made the story hard for me to follow and my favorite character died halfway through. And it was hard for me to feel sympathy for the titular windup girl, a horribly abused machine. I have this mental block about being able to sympathize with artificial life forms. It's why I didn't like that Spielberg movie, "A.I.". Yes, the robot tot was cute- but it's a robot. And yes, the toaster in The Windup Girl is a pitiable toaster indeed, but still a toaster. So, not for me. Moving on, I started The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, in many respects similar to Windup but takes off thanks to Winterson's masterful writing into something sublime and beautiful.

Today I have my last improv class and the usual Sunday errands and whatever time I have for reading will be devoted to the Winterson book and Get Me Out of Here, by Henry Sutton, a crazy little thriller from Europa Editions. I'm taking the Sutton slowly- a chapter a day, since my goal for the month is two Europas and I've finished one already. So much fun, as always.

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

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Europa Meme!

  1. The rules:
    • Bold the books you've read (you can link to reviews on your blog if you want),
    • Italicize the ones you own but haven't read,
    • Underline the ones you'd like to buy. 

      1. Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment
    • James Hamilton-Paterson, Cooking with Fernet Branca
    • Benjamin Tammuz, Minotaur
    • Wolf Erlbruch, The Big Question
    • Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos
    • Massimo Carlotto, The Goodbye Kiss
    • Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
    • Sélim Nassib, I Loved You for Your Voice
    • Edna Mazya, Love Burns
    • Chad Taylor, Departure Lounge
    • Ioanna Karystiani, The Jasmine Isle
    • Matthew F. Jones, Boot Tracks
    • Wolf-Belli, The Butterfly Workshop
    • Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Dog Day
    • Jane Gardam, Old Filth
    • Carlo Lucarelli , Carte Blanche
    • Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love
    • Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo
    • Massimo Carlotto, Death's Dark Abyss
    • James Hamilton-Paterson, Amazing Disgrace
    • Stefano Benni, Margherita Dolce Vita
    • Wolf Erlbruch, The Miracle of the Bears
    • Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flaminia
    • Sélim Nassib, The Palestinian Lover
    • Christa Wolf, One Day a Year. 1960-2000
    • Massimo Carlotto, The Fugitive
    • Gene Kerrigan, The Midnight Choir
    • Altan, Here Comes Timpa
    • Carlo Lucarelli, The Damned Season
    • Peter Kocan, Fresh Fields
    • Jean-Claude Izzo, Solea
    • Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Prime Time Suspect
    • Altan, Timpa goes to the Sea
    • Alessandro Piperno, The Worst Intentions
    • Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Lions at Lamb House.
    • Jean-Claude Izzo, The Lost Sailors
    • Jane Gardam, The Queen of the Tambourine
    • Michele Zackheim, Broken Colors
    • Steve Erickson, Zeroville
    • Altan, Fairy Tale Timpa
    • Carmine Abate, Between Two Seas
    • Katharina Hacker, The Have-Nots
    • Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter
    • Gene Kerrigan, Little Criminals
    • Stefano Benni, Timeskipper
    • Peter Kocan, The Treatment & The Cure
    • Carlo Lucarelli, Via delle Oche
    • Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Death Rites
    • Gail Jones, Sorry
    • Jane Gardam, The People On Privilege Hill
    • Roma Tearne, Mosquito
    • Helmut Krausser, Eros
    • Jean-Claude Izzo, A Sun for the Dying
    • Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
    • Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
    • James Hamilton- Paterson, Rancid Pansies
    • Francisco Coloane, Tierra del Fuego
    • Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée
    • Joel Stone, The Jerusalem File
    • Domenico Starnone, First Execution
    • Shashi Deshpande, The Dark Holds No Terrors
    • Salwa Al Neimi, The Proof of the Honey
    • James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds
    • Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome
    • Giancarlo De Cataldo, The Father and the Foreigner
    • Roma Tearne , Bone China
    • Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. Eight Novellas
    • Muriel Barbery, Gourmet Rhapsody
    • Valeria Parrella, For Grace Received
    • Lia Levi, The Jewish Husband
    • Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid
    • Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta, Poisonville
    • Romano Bilenchi, The Chill
    • Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat
    • Helmut Dubiel, Deep In the Brain.
    • Ioanna Karystiani, Swell
    • Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Ides of March
    • Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Days of Fear
    • Alina Bronsky, Broken Glass Park
    • Linda Ferri, Cecilia
    • Caryl Férey, Zulu
    • Jenn Ashworth, A Kind of Intimacy
    • Leïla Marouane, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
    • Lorcan Roche, The Companion
    • Carmine Abate, The Homecoming Party
    • Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore
    • Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Woman with the Bouquet
    • Massimo Carlotto, Bandit Love
    • Fay Weldon, Chalcot Crescent
    • Rebecca Connell, The Art of Losing
    • Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
    • Amélie Nothomb, Hygiene and the Assassin
    • Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks
    • James Scudamore, Heliopolis
    • Yishai Sarid, Limassol
    • Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon
    • Luis Sepúlveda, The Shadow of What We Were
    • Anne Wiazemsky, My Berlin Child
    • Kazimierz Brandys, Rondo
    • Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
      What have you read? What are you interested in?

      See other participants in the Europa Meme here and join the Europa Challenge here!

    Thursday, July 7, 2011

    App Alert: My Favorite Bookish Apps

    Recently I broke down and got an iPhone, and I have to say, I love it. But being who I am, I had to find out what applications were available for the bookish. It turns out there are lots; every e-reader seems to have an app, as do many websites and books. But there are a few that I turn to over and over and I wanted to share those with you, in case you're wondering how to load up your own smart phone with gadgets to enhance your book life.

    And, as of this writing, all of these apps are free through the iTunes store!

    Overdrive Media Console is a must-have for the audiophile. Overdrive allows you to download and listen to free audiobooks from your local public library, and it's so simple to use- you just find your library, sign in and start browsing their audio collections. When you find something, add it to your cart and check it out. Just like that, you have a new audiobook.

    Out and about looking for a bookstore, LibraryThing's Local Books app is indispensable. You can search locations near and far for libraries, bookstores and other venues, check out events and link directly to their websites. The app also hooks into LibraryThing to make use of its LibraryThing Local tools.

    If you like poetry, there are two must-have apps. Poetry Daily is an app version of the website that posts a new poem every day, and the app allows users to read the daily poem, save favorites and link to sponsors. Poetry, created by the Poetry Foundation, allows users to search its database of poems by theme. You can mix and match moods and subjects- combining categories Doubt and Work & Play returns 35 poems, for example; change the mood to Insecurity and the app returns 103 poems. I could spend hours on this app!

    The home-cataloguing and social-reading site GoodReads has a great mobile version built into their app, allowing you to use your smart phone's camera to scan books directly into your library wherever you are. You can also check your library and add new books at the touch of a button.

    Finally, for the literary fiction loving smart phone user, the Man Booker Prize app is a must-have. Not only can you see lists of all winners and long- and short-listed books, but there are tons of bonus features like audio samples, interviews with authors and video content. It's a one-stop shop for Booker Prize information. The app also links to bookstores based on your location.

    Which bookish apps do you use? Which are your favorites? Do you find they enhance your reading experiences, or, is all you need to enjoy reading a book?

    Check back here from time to time for more App Alert posts- whenever I come across a new bookish app I'm infatuated with, I'll be sure to tell you about it!

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    Europa Challenge! My Goals

    I started reading Europa Editions books in 2009 with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I picked up after looking it over many times at the bookstore, and I loved it. Then I started noticing the distinctive-looking books all over. The next one I read was Alina Bronsky's masterful Broken Glass Park, which offers as true a depiction of the effects of family violence on children as I've ever seen. After that I was hooked! To date I've reviewed 8 of their books on my blog but I've read about four  more that I haven't reviewed yet; once Liberty and I settled on starting this project I decided to save them up to post as part of the challenge.

    I also did a Spotlight series on Europa earlier this year, including interviews with authors Alina Bronsky and James Scudamore, as well as with Europa's editor in chief, Michael Reynolds.

    As far as the challenge, my goal is to read 14 more Europas this year (Amante level, and I'll probably sign on to the Perpetual Challenge too- who am I kidding, right?) and post reviews of the remaining books I haven't reviewed yet, as well. I just finished Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's book of short stories The Woman with the Bouquet, and after that I'm going to pick through my stash of 30-odd Europas to fulfill the challenge. In other words, I haven't decided what exactly I'll read yet!
    Good bets for me are:
    • Get Me Out of Here, by Henry Sutton, which EE sent me for review,
    • The Companion, by Lorcan Roche (also qualifies for the 2011 Ireland Challenge),
    • In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut (also qualifies for the Complete Booker Challenge),
    • The Art of Losing, by Rebecca Connell, and
    • The Jasmine Isle, by Ioanna Karystiani.
    I'm not going to count any of the books I've already read and not reviewed towards the challenge. Those are:
    • Old Filth, by Jane Gardam,
    • Tokyo Fiancée, by Amélie Nothomb,
    • French Leave, by Anna Gavalda, and
    • The Lost Daughter, by Elena Ferrante.
    I'm so excited to be doing this blog challenge with all of you and I can't wait to read everyone's posts & reviews! Want to join? Go to to find out how.