Friday, September 30, 2011

Picks of the Picks- Great Books for Fall 2011 (and Beyond)

Last week I got to attend a session run by the Book Publishers Representatives of New England, in which reps from various presses and distributors named their top picks for the remainder of the fall book season. What follows is my picks of the picks, and some picks they didn't pick.

Without question, my #1 most anticipated title of the season is River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. I loved Sea of Poppies, first in the Ibis Trilogy; River of Smoke is number two in the series and although I've just started it, I can tell you a couple of things.
  • You don't need to have read Sea of Poppies although it probably helps, and
  • this one is every bit as good as the first book.
It stars a motley cast of characters making their way through the waters, mountains and cities of India and Asia. The book is out now; run don't walk to pick it up. It's amazing and I'm sure will be one of my top picks this year.

Robert K. Massie's massive biography Catherine the Great tops my nonfiction list. I've never read about this most fascinating of Russian monarchs and this book looks great. Massie wrote Nicholas and Alexandra, and other definitive works of nonfiction on Russia and its tsars and tsarinas. Sounds like an essential read for the Russophile to me! (November)

The Cat's Table is the latest novel by Booker-Prize winner Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, one of my all-time favorites. It comes out next month. It's about a boy named Michael on a sea voyage from Sri Lanka to Britain, just like Ondaatje did himself- although the author swears it's not autobiographical. (October)

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood. This collection of essays documents her thoughts on the genre of science fiction and her often controversial place in it. I love her, so of course I can't wait to get this. Coming in October. And if you have an advance copy of this, I'm wildly jealous. (October)

The Dovekeepers looks like fascinating, engrossing historical fiction from Alice Hoffman, an author I've not read but from everything I've heard, this is the place to start. The book takes place in Roman Empire-era Judea. (October)

Finally, Umberto Eco has a new book coming, The Prague Cemetery. Eco is one of my favorite writers; this book, about conspiracies and mysteries in 19th century Europe, sounds like a literary page-turning winner.  (November)

Other neat things coming soon:
The Sense of an Ending, Booker-shortlisted fiction from the eminent Julian Barnes (October),
The Stranger's Child, by Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst (this book was longlisted this year), (October), and
Drama: An Actor's Education, autobiography by John Lithgow (September).

I'm also looking forward to reading Anna Solomon's The Little Bride, which is out now. It's a story about a Russian Jewish woman coming to frontier America and making a life for herself and her family in the plains. It was inspired by the wonderful memoir Rachel Calof's Story and I'm sure it will be great.

Going out a little farther, to early 2012, keep an eye out for All that I Am, by Anna Funder, a World War 2-era story; The Nun, historical fiction about an Italian cloister, from Simonetta Agnello Hornby (coming late December 2011) and Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, coming in January.

Check out more fall picks from fellow Boston bloggers the Boston Book Bums! What are your top picks for fall and beyond?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Publisher Spotlight Weavers Press: REVIEW: To Be With Her, by Syed Afzal Haider

To Be With Her, by Syed Afzal Haider. Published 2010 by Weavers Press.

To Be With Her is the story of Rama, a young Pakistani man who comes to the United States in the 1950s for an education and finds himself in the process. Rama is a cinephile and film is a constant metaphor and theme, a lens through which Rama tries to understand his life. He's enamored with Leela, a young woman from his hometown, and wants to marry her, but her parents disapprove and he must get an education and show that he's worthy of her. But when he comes to the United States, he begins to question what it is he really wants.

He falls in with a duo of Pakistani students at his Oklahoma college, VJ and Latif, who between them represent two very different ways of thinking and living. VJ is religious and traditional; Latif maintains his cultural identity but tends to the more secular. Then, Rama falls in love with Sabina, who is Jewish and a hippy. He is flummoxed; truly in love now for the first time, he wants desperately to make her a permanent part of his life but he struggles with his duties and ties to his Muslim faith and family. Sabina is a basically good woman who fetishises South Asian cuisine and culture but has a hard time understanding what's holding Rama back from making a total commitment to her and their relationship. In the end, he has to make a decision and live with the consequences.

Rama's struggle is genuinely moving and suspenseful, and the book is effective as both a coming of age and fish-out-of-water story. There are some positively comic passages near the beginning, as Rama struggles onboard the ship taking him to America with food and customs. And there is a lot that's genuinely bittersweet; on the journey over, Rama clings to the belief that he'll return home for good one day. He doesn't know how much his life is about to change:
Sitting beside Hanif, I wonder how he knows that he won't be going back home. There is something about the way he spoke that I admire like a real hero in a cowboy movie, claiming his homestead. Maybe there is something about life he knows that I don't. I'm already counting the days to when I get back home.
The story has subtle political undertones as well. Sabina's involvement and alignment with leftist hippy causes brings her into conflict with the more traditional Rama and the questions about the sixties are still relevant today. Book clubs could have an interesting time digesting their debates and talking about how they could be analogous to conversations taking place today.

At its heart though is the beautiful and realistic love story between Rama and Sabina, and lovely ending Haider gives it. I really enjoyed To Be With Her. I love how Haider balances Rama's external struggles and adjustments with those he makes internally. Rama is very likable character who changes gradually, believably; by the end of the novel he's a very different man than the boy who began his voyage with his eyes on America and his heart in Pakistan, but we believe him because we see how he gets there, step by step. There were times, particularly towards the beginning, when I felt like the language was a little rough but I love how this character develops emotionally and I think Haider has a great grasp on his character's maturation process. I would love to see more by this intriguing writer.

To Be With Her is not only the first novel by an accomplished short story writer, a Pakistan native now based in Chicago, but the inaugural title of Weavers Press. For more on Weavers Press see its website or the interview I conducted with publisher Moazzam Sheikh.

Rating: BUY

To Be With Her
by Syed Afzal Haider
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Publisher Spotlight: Introducing Weavers Press & Publisher Moazzam Sheikh

Today I have the distinct pleasure of presenting an interview with writer Moazzam Sheikh, short story author, librarian and now publisher of Weavers Press, a new small press based in San Francisco and specializing in South Asian literature. 

I've known Moazzam for a couple of years now and it's a real privilege to have a front-row seat to this new venture of his. Tomorrow, I'll have a review of the first book Weavers Press has published, To Be With Her, by Chicago-based writer Syed Haider. I think Weavers Press is a name you'll want to look for!

What’s the story behind Weavers Press? Why did you decide to start it? What is the press’s mission?

Well, I have always been attracted to a streak of independence in art and literature. South Asian writers have had tremendous success in getting published by mainstream presses. But if you look at how many translations of works of fiction from South Asian languages have been published in the US in the last five years, for example, the result is very depressing, verging on insult. Many have felt there needs to be an alternative window. We chose the word 'weavers' to honor a specific poetic tradition in medieval India where poets wrote in the register of people living on the margins and used weaving as their central metaphor and identified with the female sex as the most oppressed by the system. This is very prominent in the Punjabi language. The poets distanced themselves from status quo and court power. I see modern black, Jewish, gay and lesbian, labor, Latino, feminist presses akin to those Punjabi poets who see mainstream, commercially compromised output not fully representative of important issues and not encompassing the complex, multi-layered experience of a people. The press is primarily dedicated to allow space for serious quality writing by South Asian writers; and will consider works by others if they their work engages with South Asia in a complex way. We'll certainly consider translations of literary works written in South Asian languages.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background in literature and in life?

I grew up in Lahore and have lived in San Francisco for the last 25 years. I began writing on the late side, since early nineties. I have translated fiction across Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and EngIish. I am a librarian by profession. My first book of short stories The Idol Lover was published by an independent press in San Francisco. I have published short stories in Urdu as well. I am currently working on translating a few poems from the Punjabi by the noted poet/critic Najm Hosain Syed, which will be published in one of the coming issues of Chicago Quarterly Review.

The Small Press Distribution link to my book with a blurb:

Who have been your influences in literature and publishing?

This is a difficult question to answer. With regards to publishing, I have already mentioned a tradition of independent publishing in the US. No one can deny the important role the black press in the antebellum America had played in addressing a terrible inequality between blacks and white in this country. The same goes for Jewish presses for combating anti-Semitism and for other marginal/minority groups in this country. Alternatives presses/publishers play an important role in shaping popular consciousness. But if I have to mention one person whose dedication has inspired me is none other than my friend in Karachi, Ajmal Kamal, who has managed to produce one
of the finest Urdu literary journal introducing so many international writers to the Urdu readership. He has also published many wonderful writers under the banner of City Press. If it weren't for him, readers in Pakistan wouldn't know who Naiyer Masud or Uday Prakash is. Down the road, Andre' Schiffrin's New Press (NY) would publish translations of Masud's short stories in 1999.
And to answer your question about literary influences, well, there are too many to list, but in the context of South Asians writing in English [Salman] Rushdie's name cannot be discounted. Perhaps I should also mention Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer, for the only two books he wrote hold a special
place in my heart. And Dostoyevsky is the ultimate kind of fiction, though I extremely detest monarchy. One of my recent favorite novels is Vyasa and Vigneshwara, a brilliant post colonial work originally written in Malayalam by Anand (which is a nom de plume). Recently I have also come to admire very much a living legend of Punjabi literature, Najm Hosain Syed. His poetry, his plays and literary critique should be read by every Pakistani at least. Among American poets I have always admired Adrienne Rich's work. Currently I have been savoring the superb Zone by Mathias Enard.

What kinds of books are you interested in publishing?

We are primarily interested in publishing literary fiction, though we did recently publish a book of poems written in Punjabi in English translation.

What have you published so far? What’s forthcoming?

Well, we have published two books so far; one novel, To Be With Her, and one book of poems, The Circle of Illusion. The third book is about to come out, The Aim of Art (which takes its title from Oscar Wilde). It is a very well written, literary novel, not a South Asia specific book. This is a long
story, but the only exception we'll probably make. I was so impressed by the language and the theme! It's a WWII novel and part of it takes place in Iceland and a chunk of it in different parts of USA. It's a tale of a friendship between an educated, gay Jewish man and straight Christian man from a poor and broken down family background. Their friendship is centered around their attraction to art and literature as one educates the other.

My own manuscript (my second collection of stories) is also ready but I am not sure if Weavers Press would be the home. Then we have Roshni Rustomji-Kerns stories we have been working on. After that we would like to do some kind of anthology but no final decision has been taken yet. We also
have a few young writers in mind.

What niche do your books fill? Who is your target reader? Would you say your books fall to the more literary or popular end of the spectrum?

We at Weavers Press aims to stick to what we think has a literary merit, which is of course always very subjective. Mainstream publishers have a very different agenda. We believe there's always a sizable readership that craves for original, serious, non-exotic literature and we would like to reach them.

What plans do you have for the company?

It's a very modest and humble effort. We would like to gauge our effort and journey by the quality and not the number of books we will publish. We would love to strike a good balance between translations and works originally written in English.

Where can readers find your books?

Small Press Distribution is representing us. The books can purchased either on their website: or Weavers Press' website: directly.

Bookstores can get the books from the distributor also. To Be With Her is also available at some independent bookstores in San Francisco such Modern Times, Alexander Books, Book Shop, and Birds and Becket, and in Chicago for sure. It can also be purchased on Amazon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Salem Literary Festival!

The 3rd Salem Literary Festival was held this past weekend in historic Salem, Mass., with events taking place in various locations around the city. Events took place from Friday night through Sunday; the star of the show was Erin Morgenstern, author of the recently-published and much-fêted book The Night Circus. Erin was the star of Friday night's cocktail hour and Saturday night's dinner.

I attended the Festival Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday I attended two panels, one featuring literary agents offering advice and tips. They gave their do's and don't's for writing query letters, emphasized the importance of researching individual agents and tailoring your query to each one, and defined different markets for fiction. "Upmarket women's fiction" was a category I hadn't heard of before; according to the panel, it refers to fiction about women that falls somewhere between chick lit and literary fiction. Next up was a panel with authors Brunonia Barry, Julia Glass and Katherine Howe, talking about writing about strong women in the context of fiction.
Barry, Glass and Howe at the Salem Five Community Room.
Both events took place at the Salem Five bank's community room, a beautiful room featuring model ships and nautical paintings. It used to be the bank's main teller area. You can see the vault behind the speakers.

The authors emphasized the difficulty of writing about womens' lives believably at different points in history, and the centrality of conflict and personal growth the stories they tell. Audience members asked questions about writing about women in different genres and about the panelists' own books and the choices they made.

On Sunday, I was honored to take part in a panel on book blogging, along with Kevin of Boston Book Bums, Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books and Therese Walsh of Writer Unboxed. (Sarah of Archimedes Forgets was scheduled to appear but had to cancel due to illness. We missed you, Sarah!) Local reporter and award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan moderated, and we talked about why we started our blogs, our approach to writing about books and the kinds of choices we make on our blogs and elsewhere in our social media activities. We recommended two books each to the audience (mine were Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo) and had a great, lively conversation.
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Kevin, Therese, Me, Dawn
After our panel and lunch, Jeff and I decided to call it a day. I felt a cold coming on and decided to head home rather than risk running myself down. Thanks to the organizers for inviting us, to Ryan for doing a wonderful job as moderator and to everyone who came out to see us and support the festival all weekend long. It was great!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Salon- The Salem Lit Fest

Well today is the second day of the Salem Literary Festival! Yesterday Jeff and I attended two sessions, one a panel of literary agents and the second a panel on writing strong women, with authors Brunonia Barry, Katherine Howe and Julia Glass. Both were very informative; I'll have more detail tomorrow or Tuesday on the whole event. Today is the blogger panel at 11:00 and I hope to see some of you there!

This week has been pretty busy. On Thursday I attended a half-day of the Online News Association 2011 Law School for Digital Journalists conference at Harvard Law School; I attended sessions on copyright and access; the copyright session was the most applicable to what I do but both were very interesting and I learned a lot. Later in the day I attended a booksellers' afternoon hosted at the New England Independent Booksellers' Association offices and put on by the Book Publishers Representatives of New England. Reps from seven publishers and distributors presented their fall books and passed out galleys and prizes. I picked up a galley of Robert Massie's Catherine the Great, among other things. I'm looking forward to the NEIBA show in mid-October along with a lot of other great bookish events.

Today I'll be spending most of the day at the Salem festival and doing a little reading if I get the chance. I'm working my way through In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul, which I am not enjoying but I'm not going to let that miserable geezer defeat my effort to read all of the Booker Prize winners! For fun, I'm reading Nairobi Heat, an entertaining crime novel set in Kenya about a Rwandan humanitarian hero, modeled on Paul Rusesabagina, who lands at the center of a murder investigation in America. It's very good and I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

What are you reading today? Any fun activities your way? Or an ordinary Sunday? Whatever you're up to I hope you're having a great day.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Salem Literary Festival is This Weekend!

And I hope you'll be there!

Now obviously I want you to come to the totally awesome blogging panel on which I'll be speaking along with three other great local bloggers- Kevin of Boston Book Bums, Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books and Sarah of Archimedes Forgets. Obviously. But you should check out the entire schedule of events- there's just so much going on! Readings, talks about writing, about books- you name it.

To see a schedule of events, click here. It's recommended that you use the EventBrite link to reserve spaces to individual events, to ensure you'll get a seat.

There's a fancy dinner Saturday night with authors including Erin Morgenstern, whose new book The Night Circus is making a big splash. There's an auction for the opportunity for an agent to review your manuscript. There's a Scrabble tournament. There's so much going on.

I really hope you can make it, and that you have a great time! The Festival runs Saturday and Sunday, September 24-25, in Salem, Massachusetts. EventBrite and the Festival website have specifics on times and venues. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

REVIEW: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss. Published 2011 by FSG. Literary Fiction.

When I stumbled across The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by South African writer Jacques Strauss, it just sort of looked like the kind of thing I'd like. I have had some great luck with South African writers in the recent past, and I liked the book's description: a kid coming of age, a tragic mistake, and a rich, fascinating cultural landscape.  And so it seems my instincts have served me well yet again.

It's 1989 and Jack Viljee is 11 when the story opens, a bright child lacking understanding. He lives with his parents and sisters in South Africa in the twilight years of apartheid. Change, as it were, is in the air but it's not here, not yet. His is a mixed Afrikaans/English family, putting him in the dead center of South African white cultural conflict and giving him an unclear sense of his own identity.

He torments Rachel, the younger of the two, and is mostly ignored by the older.  Susie, the family maid, is like a second mother to him. His best friend, Petrus, is a "moffie" (slang for gay) who's growing up with rigid, tough parents. Conflict takes place when Susie's son Percy sees Jack doing something very personal one day. Jack, distraught that he might say something to someone, says something first, and what he says and what happens to Percy in the aftermath make up that from which Jack seeks salvation.

Jack V. is author Jacques Strauss's debut novel and the story is a compelling character study of a time and a place. He immerses the reader in South African life, albeit a privileged version of that life. He senses the power he has in his society but he's unsure about how, or if, to exercise it; he may think of Susie as a surrogate mother but he needs to understand that her point of view, and that of her son, is very different, and he needs to understand how his own position within South African society has shaped how he understands these things. That's a tall order for an 11 year old.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The writing is crisp and entertaining, humorous and dark at the same time. Strauss has written a very good first novel. I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for whatever comes next from this promising new talent.


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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

REVIEW: Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta

Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta. Published 2011 by Harper Perennial. Literary Fiction. Short stories.

I got Quarantine a while back and in an effort to catch up on my short story reading (and some review obligations) I've taken to reading a short story every day that I work on my own writing. Doing so has been very useful in getting me back into the habit of reading short stories and it was nice to start with this enjoyable collection.

Granted, the subject matter of Quarantine is not exactly light. Rahul Mehta writes with grace and suppleness about the lives and conflicts of various Indian-American, gay male characters both in the United States and India. One story is about a man on vacation in India with his boyfriend and their adventures with another young man who claims to be an artist and wants to sell them his work. In another story, a young man tries to help his grandmother qualify for U.S. citizenship. In another, a man takes his boyfriend home to West Virginia to meet his family, including an abrasive grandfather and put-upon mother. Each story represents a slightly different niche in the Indian-American immigrant and gay experience.

I enjoyed most of the stories, but I didn't love them. Sometimes the characters seemed a little bland or indistinct; it wasn't always easy to tell what distinguished one narrator from another apart from geographic movements or particular relationship status. A theme throughout the collection is deception- how the characters lie to each other and to themselves. In "What We Mean" a young man recounts a failed relationship and the lies that are left behind:
The letter is all lies, especially the last part. If it were true, if it isn't me, then why didn't he leave the note somewhere else: on the kitchen counter, where the muffins should be, or taped to the screen of the television set, the one we bought when Sangeeta didn't give us hers? Why did he leave it in the bathroom for me to read and have nothing to look at except myself in the mirror? Why has he left me alone?
The reason to read this collection is to get to the last, luminous story, "A Better Life," about a young man named Sanj from a Virginia town. He's well-off; his best friend from high school, Sylvie, hoped her beauty would take her to New York and a modeling career. Now, she's older and living in sweatpants, and her dreams are just dreams. Sanj made the move to New York but he hasn't amounted to much, either, but he can't admit it. Their friendship is this delicate thing fraught with tension and disappointment, two people who have let themselves down and can face neither each other nor others in their life. It's enough to make me want to read Mehta's debut novel, which will be published by Harper in 2014. In the mean time, this collection is well worth checking out.


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

Monday, September 19, 2011

What's Old is New Again- A New Alice, Rescued from 1901

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. Illustrations by Harry Rountree. Published by Calla Editions, 2011; reproduction of 1901 Thomas Nelson edition.

Okay, we've all read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or at least we all know the story; a familiar, beloved story, it's everywhere in our culture.

There are dozens upon dozens of illustrated versions of Carroll's famous story; there are even books about all the different versions. So what's so special about this one? The pictures.
I first encountered the Rountree illustrations in a musty attic in the Berkshires where a used bookseller had tucked away the 1901 masterpiece containing 92 stunning color plates. I was besotted, but the $300 price tag was too much for my budget. There are abridged versions with fewer illustrations, but who wants that? My husband made a hobby of checking, and one day a bookseller told him that one of his customers was planning to republish the book!

This was wonderful to hear but no more than an idle rumor; we had no idea when or if such a book would be available. Then, a week ago, in the weekly newsletter from Dover Publications, I found out that it had happened- Dover was republishing an unabridged facsimile of the entire 1901 edition complete with all 92 color plates.

And here it is! The new hardcover volume is beautifully bound and the illustrations are just gorgeous. Trippy and weird, they're like no other Alice I've seen; some of them resemble Hiyao Miazaki anime style pictures more than the traditional, ubiquitous Tenniel pictures to which we're all accustomed. 

I'm telling you, if you love Alice, you have to buy this book! It's a treasure and it's so wonderful to see Rountree's pictures restored and made available again.

Rating: BUY

Click here to buy Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Harry Rountree, from I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Salon - Ultimate Autumn

Can't wait to get these into a cake!
This whole weekend has been the ultimate fall weekend for me. Friday was one of the nicest days we've had all year and my husband got to take the day off, so we went apple picking and had a picnic in a beautiful town square. It was wonderful! Now, I love all things apple- baking with them, cooking with them, eating them right off the tree- and we discovered a new variety of apple to love, the Ginger Gold apple. Bright yellow, they look like lemons but taste like a slightly sweet Cortland. Delicious! We got a bunch of Ginger Golds and a bunch of Macintoshes; the Cortlands weren't quite ready but we plan to come back for some of those soon. On Saturday we headed over to a nearby town for a huge multi-family yard sale followed by a great library book sale. We found lots of treasures at each.
Ginger Golds on the tree ready to picked- and eaten!
Today we're sticking to our town and heading into Harvard Square for the third annual Urban Ag-Fair, a festival of locally-grown and made fall food. If you're in the area, check it out!

Reading? I'll be doing some of that. I'm almost done with Alexander Maksik's You Deserve Nothing, first in Europa Editions' new Tonga line of books. It's great! It's engaging and absorbing, a story about a teacher in a Paris high school and the students who love him. But the book is no sentimental Mr. Chips, don't worry! When I'm done I think I have to dive into Michael Ondaatje's new one, The Cat's Table. One of my friends generously sent me her galley; I can't wait. And then after that we'll see.
A Fresh MacIntosh!
I want to thank everyone who helped put together this year's Book Blogger Appreciation Week; it was so fun and I found bunches of new blogs to follow. If you're a new follower here, welcome! I hope you comment often and let me know what you're thinking! And congratulations to all the award winners! How fun to recognize our favorite blogs with these special awards.

Also coming up is Banned Books Week, starting at the end of the week. I'll be participating in ALA's Virtual Read-Out, so this week I'll be preparing a video of myself reading from one of my favorite banned books, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. Look for the video next week, or on the special YouTube channel where participants will be uploading. And upload your own video!

What are you up to today? Reading anything good- or not so good? You can find more Sunday Salon here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Finds- A Cool Week in Books

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, Beryl Bainbridge's last novel, came for review from Europa Editions. I'll be reading it either later this month or in early October for the Europa Challenge. I've heard such wonderful things already.

I picked up Oil on Water, by Helon Habila, and Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov when I was out with Dawn and Sandy last Friday, at Trident Books and Raven Used Books, respectively. I've always meant to read Speak, Memory, Nabokov's autobiography, and Dawn made Oil on Water sound fantastic. Book pusher! Dawn also gave me a galley of Stephen Kellman's Pigeon English, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I hope it wins so I can have the galley for my collection!

I got The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa, after reading about him in Carmela Ciuraru's wonderful Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. It's different- more of a series of reflections than a story per se. But I like it.
I cheated a little and ordered A.S. Byatt's new book, Ragnarok, from Britain because there was no way I could wait until whenever it comes out here. It's part of the Canongate Myths series; other entries include Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson's Weight. I don't know if I should review it here yet; what do you think?

More Friday Finds at

Thursday, September 15, 2011

BBAW #4: Readers & Reading- How Blogging Has Changed What I Read

Today's topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is Readers. BBAW asks,
Has book blogging changed the way you read? Have you discovered books you never would have apart from book blogging? How has book blogging affected your book acquisition habits? Have you made new connections with other readers because of book blogging?
Book blogging has definitely changed the way I read! Right from the start I made an effort to read more new releases and current books, because I thought that would give me something to offer- a reason for people to stop by. I mix that up with older books and books that dovetail with my personal interests; these days I'm trying to swing it back towards the latter but I think I can show my personal taste through which recent books I choose. Recently I started tagging my reviews by publication year so a visitor to my blog can see not only that I read lots of new books but which ones I pick.

I have discovered lots of books that I probably never would have noticed and have found myself encouraged to go deeper in areas that I'm already interested in. The challenges I'm doing, especially the Complete Booker Challenge and the Europa Challenge, have helped me dive into those books and I've made it a project to eventually read all of the Booker Prize winners. Having the support of the challenge group has made a big difference in both cases. Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge encouraged me to explore more of those books that had already caught my eye and introduced me to the wonderful publisher Melville House. And getting to know bloggers in different genres, especially science fiction, has encouraged me to be more open-minded about stepping outside my lit fic home turf.

One of the best things about blogging, as I've said ad nauseam, is the friends I've made. I can go to practically any major city in the US have at least one friend to meet up with if I want to, and I've met lots of bloggers who either have traveled to or already live in my local area, including folks in my own neighborhood. I love talking to fellow readers about books and I've found having a blog is a great gateway to a lot of awesome conversations with smart people. Blogging has strengthened old friendships and helped me make lots of new ones, too.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

BBAW: Your Book Blogging Community Building

Today's topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is finding and building community.  If you're starting off as a book blogger these days, welcome aboard! You're joining a vibrant, busy, diverse group of readers and writers and we call can't wait to see what you have to offer.  Probably, you'll accrue followers and fans pretty quickly, and you'll get on board with the publicists and publishers who work with bloggers. Before long you'll have lots of books to read and lots of new friends with whom to share them. That's the good news.

The other news is that finding your place in all this is going to take some work on your part. But how to get started? The first thing I think any new blogger needs to do is define him or herself. Why are you blogging? What kinds of books are you interested in? From there, you can seek out community leaders in your niche via Twitter or LibraryThing or GoodReads. Connecting with the social-media-sphere will make a big difference, especially the specialty book sites. Prominent, popular bloggers will help you connect to others; check out their blog rolls, see who comments on their posts and check out the blogs they recommend.

Then, start talking to people. Get on Twitter and reach out; Twitter is like a giant chat room that gives you the opportunity to have more personal, more casual conversations. Join a meme or two, like Sunday Salon or Musing Mondays or find another one at the Daily Meme. Memes are a great way to put yourself on the map when you're just getting started. Sample lots of different blogs and comment like crazy- but try to avoid generic commenting ("Great post! Check out my blog at!). Participate in community events- like BBAW. Run a giveaway- everyone likes free stuff and doing so will draw attention to your blog.
Joining a challenge, like the Complete Booker Challenge, will put you in touch with like-minded readers right away. Challenges are amazing for bringing together readers who share interests. From the get-go you're in with people who want to explore the same kinds of books- instant book friends.

For advanced community building, you could start your own blog challenge. My friend Liberty and I started The Europa Challenge earlier this year, and this effort has introduced me to lots of great bloggers who love the books I love, and it helped me get to know one of my favorite publishers better, too. (Yes, I'm pimping out my own project- but that's how it works. Promote yourself! People won't come to you if they don't know you're there.)

Finally, try to connect with bloggers in your community. If you're headed to a reading, put something out on Twitter or Facebook asking if anyone else wants to do a meetup. The very first tweetup I attended was one I suggested as a half-joke and I ended up meeting one of my best friends in the local literary community. Nothing beats turning those online chat-room pals into real-life friends. Channel your inner extrovert and make an effort to make friends by showing an interest in others. It works!

Just be patient, and be consistent, and be open to trying new things all the time. Before long you'll be swimming in new books, new friends and more fun than you could have imagined.
After reading some comments and some other posts I wanted to add a few things.
  • Read-alongs are another great way to get to know other bloggers. Is someone you like setting one up? Join up even if the book isn't something you normally read. Stretch yourself and make new friends.
  • If you don't live in an area rich with other bloggers, try getting involved in a book club in your neighborhood or house of worship. People like me who live in major metropolitan areas forget that we live in a bubble, and that folks in other areas have to try harder for IRL friendships.
  • It's all about your personality (and thanks to Sandy of You've Gotta Read This for reminding me!). People will come to your blog out of curiosity or because of a common interest. They stick around (and link to you and recommend you) because they like you.
  • It's supposed to be fun. If it's not, scale back and readjust. It's ok!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Interview Swap Day with Amy of Amy Reads

Today is Interview Swap Day! I signed up to interview Amy of Amy Reads, a terrific blog that focuses on GBLTQ lit, African lit and more. Amy hosts Nigerian Literature Fridays and has started a database of Nigerian literature, among other neat projects. She's also started a project called The Real Help, to "to read the books recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians in their statement on The Help". She's a fantastic blogger who's doing some important work to advocate for the literature she loves, and I feel privileged to have interviewed her!

1. What motivates you to keep blogging?  
The community - it's all about the community! (And the books!) Every time I read a good book, especially a lesser known work, I just want to share it with others. And I often find some point or other in a book that I really need to discuss. 

2. How do you organize your time to make room for blogging among the other demands of your life? 

Ah this is a hard one! Or embarrassing ;) The truth is that I don't have a lot of balance. I suppose that because I travel so much for work it is a little easier for me - I know no one in the city, usually, and have nothing to do in the evenings other than work or read or be online working on blogging things. When I am home I am finding it more difficult now that I live in a city that actually has fun things to do (Toronto) and am still working on finding a balance. I often read blogs before I start working, during lunch break, and then in the evenings I devote a few hours to reading / writing posts / commenting. I try to schedule ahead so that when other demands do come, I don't fall too behind.  

3. Why is blogging about books important to you?

I read a lot (shocking I know!) but I never had anyone in real life with whom to discuss books. When I stumbled across the book blogging world in 2008/2009 I was so happy and couldn't believe such a community existed. When I finally started my site in 2010 it was because I wanted to take part and discuss the books that I was reading - that often no one else was. It's important to me to be able to share my love for these books and actually get the chance to talk about them with others who are equally passionate about books. 

4. What genre do you like the best? What are your favorite reads of 2011 so far? What are you looking forward to?

I love non-fiction best, but also African literature and GLBTQ literature. I've read so many fantastic books that it's hard to pick. A couple would be Arrow of God by Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe, IN DEPENDENCE by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight. The books that I am most looking forward to for the rest of the year are those I'm reading for my various projects - be it The Real Help, Year of Feminist Classics, or my Nigerian Lit Fridays feature. 

5. Who influences your choices when it comes to reading, and who influences the way you think about books? 

So many bloggers influence what I read, and that is really where 90% of any influence comes from. I often pick up books just on a whim, but if there was anyone who convinced me to read someone I can guarantee it was a blogger! Some of these bloggers are listed in my BBAW post yesterday.
Thank you Amy, for taking the time to answer my questions! If you'd like to see her interviewing me, you can go to her blog today!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week- My Favorite Blogs

For me, the best part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week is the opportunity to recognize some of my favorite bloggers- those new to my reader and the favorites I return to again and again- and promote them to my readers. To me, that's the essence of what BBAW should be about- appreciating our fellow bloggers.

This year I've added some great blogs to my blogroll.
My perennial favorite blogs include:
  • A Guy's Moleskine Notebook. Matt's and my tastes in books are very closely aligned; reading his blog is like reading about the books I haven't read yet and the books I already love.
  • Nonsuch Book. Frances is the queen of the literary blogosphere, period.
  • Fresh Ink Books. Sandra's blog is another top-tier literary fiction blog.
  • ImageNations. I always learn something new and fascinating from Nana's blog about African literature.
  • Lakeside Musing was one of the first blogs I read and it's still one of my favorites.
  • Lizok's Bookshelf provides awesome coverage of Russian books.
  • Scobberlotch, about reading and writing and all things literary.
And, you know, just go check out my blogroll on the right-hand side for more. What are your favorite blogs, old and new? I hope you find a new favorite or two here!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Salon- Another Beautiful Sunday

Well it's definitely fall now- next weekend my husband and I plan to go apple-picking, a sure sign of the season.

This past week was almost all rain here in Boston, though it cleared up beautifully on Friday, when I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, and Sandy from You've GOTTA Read This!, who was visiting from Florida. The three of us had lunch in Boston's Back Bay at Trident Booksellers and Café, one of the last independent bookstores in Boston proper, and followed that up with some book-shopping at Trident and Raven Used Books down the street.

Here's the three of us at Raven. The clerk there was very patient about taking pictures for us!It was such a pleasure to see them both and I'm just reminded how thankful I am for the community of booklovers that I've found through blogging.

On that note, this week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I'm participating on a limited basis; I haven't decided how many of the daily posts I'll do but I am doing the interview post on Tuesday with fellow blogger Amy of Amy Reads. I can't wait to share that with you! Beyond that we'll see. I'll do a post later this week about some of my favorite blogs new and old, and maybe something else.

I have two new reviews up on my movie blog: The Debt and Mysteries of Lisbon. I wasn't nuts about either one, but each has some good qualities, too.

As far as reading, I'm about two-thirds of the way through The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss, a coming of age story set in South Africa. I have had very good luck with South African writers in the past and I'm enjoying this. I'm also reading Amara Lakhous's Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, a comic crime novel about diversity in modern-day Italy.

And of course today is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My 9/11 story is nothing special; I was at work, on one of the upper floors of Boston's Prudential Center when it was announced that we'd be closing for the day and we were to go home immediately- no explanation. It was only once I arrived back at my then-fiance's apartment and turned on the news that I found out why.

I hope you all have a wonderful, peaceful Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Do You Love Your Librarian?

ALA is running a contest to recognize a librarian in your community! Here's the press release from ALA:

Library patrons encouraged to nominate a local librarian to win $5,000 national award
(CITY, STATE) – Librarians in our nation’s 122,000 libraries make a difference in the lives of millions of people every day.  If a local librarian has made a difference in your life, now is the chance to tell your story.
Nominations are open through September 12 for the Carnegie Corporation of New York/New York Times I Love My Librarian Award. The award encourages library users to recognize the accomplishments of librarians in public, school, college, community college and university libraries for their efforts to improve the lives of people in their community.
Nominations are accepted only at through an online form.
Up to 10 librarians nationwide will be selected to win $5,000 and will be honored at a ceremony and reception in New York, hosted by The New York Times. Winners will be announced in December.
Over the past three years, 30 librarians from across the country have won the I Love My Librarian Award. Last year, more than 2,000 library users nationwide nominated a librarian. Previous winners have been lauded for starting community gardens, helping students with severe disabilities read classic works of literature, for helping non-traditional students learn new technology to get better jobs and more. For more information on previous winners, visit
Each nominee must be a librarian with a master’s degree from a program accredited by the ALA in library and information studies or a master’s degree with a specialty in school library media from an educational unit accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.  Nominees must be currently working in the United States in a public library, a library at an accredited two- or four-year college or university or at an accredited K-12 school.
The award is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and The New York Times and administered by the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world, and The Campaign for America’s Libraries, ALA’s public awareness campaign about the value of libraries and librarians.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Finds! Clever Headline Here.

I'm running out of clever headlines for Friday Finds posts. Maybe you can help?

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, by Susan Gregg Gilmore, was a win from Raging Bibliomania. It looks awesome! Thanks Heather!
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss, is a comic coming of age story set in South Africa. I think it's about to get un-comic soon, but we'll see. It came for review from FSG.
Good Offices, by Evelio Rosero, is an interesting-looking, small book from New Directions, a favorite publisher of mine, that I picked up at my local indie Porter Square Books, along with

The Truth About Marie, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, from the Dalkey Archive press. It has my name in the title, so I have to read it.
Death and the Penguin came from Melville House, along with The Train, by Georges Simenon, as a thank-you for completing the Art of the Novella Challenge. Thank you, Melville House! I really want to read both but I'm particularly looking forward to Death and the Penguin. It's a Russian crime novel with a comic twist, and a book I was going to request for review anyway. Sweet!
Finally, I found My Friend Sancho, by Amit Varma, a fun-looking detective novel, at the Harvard Book Store. This book is set in India and just looks like a good time.

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

Thursday, September 8, 2011

REVIEW: Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz

Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz. Published 2005 by Europa Editions.

Minotaur is a strange little book. Roughly speaking, it's the story of a woman named Thea as seen through the eyes of the men who love her at different points in her life. There's G.R., her ill-fated fiancé, a privileged young man who meets her at a party after admiring her from a distance. And there's Nikos, a Egyptian of Greek descent, a scholar who falls in love with her in England and wins her with stories of the Mediterranean. But through it all is one Alexander Abramov, an Israeli spy obsessed with the young woman, sending her letters and haunting her footsteps for years.

I have to admit this is one of the more unusual books I've read lately. The book is divided into four parts; for the first, we stick with Thea's relationship with Abramov from her point of view, then, little by little, we see how this man has infiltrated himself into every aspect of her life. They never meet, at least not as far as she knows, but he remains a palpable presence in her life until his death. Subsequent chapters cover her other lovers until the final chapter which focuses on Abramov's life's story and we learn what has made him this way.

I read the book knowing it was about a certain type of obsession and hoping to see some insight into the minds of the partners in this relationship-of-sorts. Benjamin Tammuz explores Abramov's character in detail, but Thea remains an enigma. I found it to be an absorbing and relatively quick read, suspenseful and intricately plotted. It's definitely difficult to put down, especially when the narrative turns to Abramov and his fascinating story. It's a fine, substantial novel that literary-fiction readers will enjoy, something pretty different from a lot of what's out there.

Minotaur counts towards the Europa Challenge. It's book 4 of 14 on my way to Amante level.

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

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