Tuesday, January 31, 2012

REVIEW: Stoner, by John Williams

Stoner, by John Williams. Published 2006 by NYRB Editions.

The other day I was looking for what to read next and I remembered that I had this book Stoner on my shelf, and that it had been there for a while. I also remembered that a couple of my good book pals (Matt of A Guy's Moleskine Notebook and bookseller extraordinaire Michele Filgate) had read it and really enjoyed it, so I decided to pull it down and give it a try. A day and a half later I was done with this remarkable little book.

Stoner reads like a fictional biography of one William Stoner, born dirt-poor on a hardscrabble farm in Missouri. His parents send him to college to study agriculture and agronomy, but he becomes enchanted by literature and decides to abandon the farming life for an academic one. He marries a young woman from a well-off family but the marriage founders; he has a daughter, but her life is a sad replay of her parents'. His career never really takes off; his stubbornness and his love, late in life, for a fellow instructor doom whatever modest ambitions he may have had.

So the book is definitely kind of a downer (Stoner reminds me of Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's depressing The House of Mirth, a woman not quite capable of the ordinariness she covets) it's also a luminous and moving novel about one man's life, albeit a quiet life filled with a steady stream of disappointments. What saves the book for me, and the reason I'm going to recommend it to readers of literary fiction, is that incredibly beautiful writing. His love affair with Katherine Driscoll represents the high point of his life:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being, to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity, he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented an modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Intelligence and heart are what characterize this lovely little novel. Equally beautiful passages can be found elsewhere, particularly about the other love of his life, his daughter Grace, ruined by her mother's anger and Stoner's own powerlessness over his wife. The story is very sad, no doubt, but it's also very beautiful and Williams' prose will hold your heart tight all the way to the end.

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

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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Musing Monday: What to Read Next?

This week’s musing asks…
How far along are you in your current read before you start thinking about what you’ll read next?
I'm usually thinking about my next read (and the one after that- and the one after that) immediately, but I often change my mind. For example, I think I told you a couple of weeks ago that I was planning on reading American Dervish next- well, that kind of fell by the wayside and I started From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, by Alex Gilvarry. After that, I thought I'd start To Say Nothing of the Dog but ended up with Stoner. And next I figure I'll read The Long Song, but I'll probably change my mind at some point too! Theme months help me a little with keeping organized but there's still a bit of wiggle room when it comes to what to read next. Nothing's ever written in stone and once I've started a book I very well may put it down in favor of something else! I guess what I'm saying is I read as the spirit moves me.

More Musings at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon - Fun Stuff Coming Up

So I'm a little stuck in winter doldrums right now but bright things are on the horizon. My husband and I have a quick trip to New York coming up in the next few weeks; we've already made reservations at my favorite NYC hotel and have lined up dinner at a restaurant I love. I hope that some of my NYC friends will be able to join us but it will be great no matter what. I'm also looking forward to doing a little uptown bookstore tourism.

On the blog, sometime in the next couple of months, probably in March, I'll be doing a Publisher Spotlight series on the wonderful Capuchin Classics, a British publisher of lost gems. I'm reading one of their March releases, When I Was Otherwise, by Stephen Benatar, right now and let me tell you it is fantastic. And I'm going to have the opportunity to interview Benatar, who wrote numerous other books among which is the great Wish Her Safe At Home. I'm so excited to have the chance to talk to him and I want to thank Capuchin for setting it up.

I had a good reading month in January; I read a Booker winner and a Europa for my challenges, and lots of other great stuff as well. In February I'm going to dedicate myself to review obligations and I think March may be an early Science Fiction Month. I've got a couple of ideas for additional Publisher Spotlight series I'd like to do, so I need to send out some emails and see if some of the folks I have in mind would like to work with me. And some of my February reading will be in support of those projects.

Tentative reading schedule through the first half of 2012:
February: Review obligations
March: Science fiction
April: 2012 releases
May: Whatever/been-meaning-to-read-forever
June: LGBT books

I'm still reading a Europa and a Booker winner every month regardless of theme.

I've been on a semi-book-buying-ban which I've violated several times now, but it has helped keep my impulse buying in check. And let's face it, I have bazillions of books in my TBR mountain (let's not even bother calling it a "pile" anymore, right?).

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

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Finds - I Know I Said I Wouldn't Buy Anything Till My Birthday...

But did you really expect me to wait that long?
I decided it's OK if it's already on my wishlist and it's used or very, very cheap. :-)

The Possibility of an Island is a science fiction/dystopia novel along the lines of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, written by French author Michel Houellebecq. I know he has a new one out and I'm interested in it, but I've never read him before so I thought I'd start with something that would probably feel familiar and then see if I like it enough to seek out more of his books. I've decided to do Science Fiction Reading Month again, probably sooner rather than later, and this book looks like a fine addition to my lineup.

The Secret in Their Eyes, by Eduardo Sacheri, looks to be a little more of a traditional Marie book- a love story, translated, from a small press (Other Press). I always meant to pick this up at my old job and never got around to it. Then I found it used! Yay! (Now that I mention it, I think all three of my finds this week are foreign fiction. Huh.)

Another small press book, Varamo, by Cesar Aira, came my way via the wonderful New Directions, which sent it to me for review per my request. It comes out in February and I'm planning to make it one of my first reads next month.

That's it for this week! What have you added to your pile lately? I'd love to know! More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.org.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

REVIEW: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Published 2011 by Random House.

Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize and latest novel by acclaimed British writer Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending is a must-read for any reader of literary fiction. The book tells the story, in his own words, of middle-aged Tony Webster and his lifetime of regret around his relationship with two people- Veronica, an ex-girlfriend, and Adrian, a close friend from school. Lifetime of regret isn't quite right; he doesn't find out until very late in his story that he has any reason to regret but when he does, it's as though the weight of all of his decisions crashes upon him and he's left to sort through the rubble alone.

The theme of the novel is laid out early, as a high-school-aged Adrian is talking to a teacher about how to write history fairly: "That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that's being put in front of us." And herein lies the central challenge of this book. Tony is telling this story from the future, after the events have taken place; in the opening pages, as we're getting to know the characters, their futures, and Tony's, is hidden from us but not from the man telling the story. He knows things we don't yet, and these things color the way he tells the story. We can't understand anything he's saying until we know everything and we don't know everything until the very end.

Therefore, re-reading The Sense of an Ending is mandatory!

However the book is short enough, and more than wonderful enough, to make a reread easy and worthwhile. Soon after this point in the story, Tony meets Veronica, and their relationship forms the basis of the rest of the book. Even after their romance ends, they continue to interact in meaningful ways; one could say that Tony's relationship with Veronica is the central and defining one of his life, even as he tries to argue that other women were more important. That lie is one of many, maybe not lies exactly but self-deceptions Tony tries to sell the reader. The final secret is revealed obliquely, which tells us something about Tony's ability to process what he's learned and face it.

The Sense of an Ending is a wonderfully, intricately crafted unreliable-narrator story starring a perfectly ordinary man who, through one act of cruelty by whose impact he himself seems baffled, upends four lives for years to come. It's also the story of his reckoning and acceptance of what he's done as well as his ultimate irrelevance. And it is a book that deserves an immediate re-read. But you'll want to- you really will. It's just that good!

This counts towards the Complete Booker Perpetual Challenge.

Rating: BUY
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

REVIEW: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston. Published 2011 by Ecco.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a delightful little trifle, a novel told in vintage ephemera- fashion plates, ads, photos, postcards and more. It tells the story of Miss Frances Pratt, a young lady of lesser means from New Hampshire. She meets a dashing gentleman, absconds to Vassar and then to Paris. She has a scrapbook and an old typewriter when she leaves high school in 1920 which she uses to record her adventures and make her way in the world.

Caroline Preston tells Frankie's story with concise, witty first-person narration, so that we feel that we are reading Frankie's own diary. We see her insecurities and mishaps, and her tentative steps towards adulthood. We share in her friendship with the glamorous Allegra Wolf, her Vassar roommate, and her near-romance with Allegra's brother. We see her time in Paris and what happens when she comes back, and her ultimate happy ending as well.

The book is charming and unusual. The pictures illustrate rather than tell the story, so while it's tempting to describe it as a graphic novel for adults, it really isn't. Preston has written this sparse tale with skill such that neither the characterizations nor the story feel thin. Nonetheless, The Scrapbook is a quick read, maybe two cups of tea long with enough left over for a scone if one were in the mood. It's a fun, funny and sweet book with a winning heroine at its helm. Pick it up for a light, enjoyable and visually engaging read.

The American Library Association agrees and awarded the book a 2012 Alex Award for Best Adult Book for Teens!

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2012

It's a Cult Classic!

What does the term "cult classic" conjure up for you? Last week Ellie Robins of Melville House wrote this great post on the subject, responding to another article on the subject in El Pais. Robins asks whether the term is something that marketing folks apply to a book (and in doing so, do they strip the term of its meaning?) or if it's something that just gets applied to a work or an author. And in either case, what exactly does it mean?

The subject of cult books and cult classics has been on my mind lately because not too long ago I picked up a book called 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, by Gina McKinnon and Steve Holland. It's one of those books-about-books, a long list of books the authors consider to be classics, albeit not the kind you were required to read in school. These books are the underground classics, the ones that got passed from friend to friend, or the ones you picked up in a used bookstore and read when you should have been doing your homework. Or the ones you read because your education was self-directed. When I was a teenager, I read all kinds of crazy things because nobody was really telling me what to read outside of school and my appetite for books was insatiable. Or they were the books you read because you felt a little outside the mainstream for some reason, and these were the books that spoke to you, the ones that made you feel like you belonged somewhere, or the books that let you step outside the lines from time to time.

A lot of the books McKinnon and Holland list trade on that alienation and marginalization or cover some kind of out-of-the-lines experience or idea. And I would bet almost none of these books were marketed initially as alternative or edgy or "cult." Books achieve cult status because they find a niche audience, fans who adore the and carry them around like totems and share them with friends. The aura of otherness, of specialness, grows up around them and as the books stand the test of time, become indelibly imprinted upon them.

So yeah, I don't think a marketer can tell me which book is a "cult classic" only because there's no way to know! How can a salesperson predict the future? I think it would be unfortunate if that term became just another piece of ad copy, just another trendy buzzword to apply to whatever flavor of the week someone in publishing is being paid to push.

I had a lot of fun paging through 500 Essential Cult Books; I found something in almost every chapter that I'd read and lots that I own and haven't read. Some of my favorites listed in the book include
  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa,
  • The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles,
  • The Prestige, by Christopher Priest,
  • Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson, and
  • The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
When I realized that I had neither read or nor owned any books in the Religion chapter I bought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the broken spine and dogeared pages on my battered, well-read used copy testament to its importance to at least one other reader. No marketer can tell me which books are really going to speak to me or last through the years; only readers themselves will make those determinations in the end.

What do you think? What does the term "cult classic" mean to you? What are your favorite "cult" books?

I had an idea to run a challenge based on 500 Essential Cult Books; any interest?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Salon- A Day of Rest and Activity

So today my husband and I are finally putting Christmas away! He got the boxes down from the attic yesterday and today we're going to un-decorate the tree and put all the gewgaws and nicknacks back in their containers, and even, maybe, take the tree itself down. It's a fake tree so it doesn't get dried out or anything but it's funny how after a certain point after Christmas I just stop noticing it's all even there, despite the huge amount of real estate it all takes up.

If you stopped by on Friday you know I got a couple of great-looking books from Capuchin Classics; I started reading the Stephen Benatar book the other day and I'm enjoying it. It's about the strange relationship between a brother and sister and the widowed wife of their brother. Starting off with a bizarre obituary about the two women, we go back in time and launch into an extended narrative about the long history these people share. The book is told largely in dialogue which gives the reader an opportunity to see these characters from the inside out.

I'm also reading Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron, about a boy growing up in Rwanda at the time of the recent genocide in that country. I'm enjoying it as well; I've been hearing so many wonderful things about it from my fellow bloggers lately, I finally decided I needed to pick it up and read it.

And so today I'm going to try to get some r&r in, maybe a trip to a coffeeshop or a bookstore or a bookstore that serves coffee (two great things that go great together) and pore over my books, but there will be some chores and errands mixed in, too. What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Finds- Two for Review, from a Great Small Press

Awhile back I did a Publishers Spotlight series on the Dalkey Archive Press; afterward, I was approached by several small presses interested in doing a similar series on the blog. One of them, Capuchin Classics, sent me a couple of books to read and review to prepare for just such a series. They arrived from England this week! They are

The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. From Capuchin's website:
Henrietta, privileged and sheltered, expected a smoothly comfortable society life in Washington when she married Sam Pollitt, a handsome self-made biologist.
Ten years later, Henny is a skinny, screaming drudge with five children, a raging wreck of a woman driven by ‘hate, horror, passion or contempt.’ But Sam, whose impractical idealism has brought his family to near-ruin, is unchanged: still at sea in all adult affairs, an absurd hypocritical buffoon but a genius with children … except Louie, his eldest daughter, an ugly brilliant adolescent who is forced to take a drastic, final step to save herself and the children from lasting tragedy.
The Man Who Loved Children is an astonishing account of the decline of an American bourgeois family. Intimate, accurate and savagely funny, it is also unforgettably moving. 
It just sounded really good to me!

The next book is When I Was Otherwise, by Stephen Benatar. I loved Benatar's book Wish Her Safe at Home, (the link is to my review) so I couldn't resist requesting this one. Capuchin says:
This novel opens with a macabre impact, as a newspaper report describes the discovery of two dead women - one of them a skeleton- in a North London house. The women are revealed to be the sister and sister-in-law of the man who shared the house. The story of these characters' lives is told through a blend of powerful characterization and social satire, and summons the mingled tragedy and humor of old age to powerful effect. 
Sounds great!

What did you get this week? More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

REVIEW: 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth, by The Oatmeal

5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides) by the Oatmeal. Published 2011 by Andrews McMeel. Humor.

The Oatmeal is a webcomic written and drawn by Matthew Inman, and 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides) is the first collection of his comics.

So, okay. First of all, this is not a cartoon collection for the meek, or for children. It's hilarious, but it's also violent, raunchy and obscene in places. In other places, it's not. Topics of the comics include random facts about cats and cheese, things that can go wrong in web design, and yes, those five good reasons to abuse a dolphin. But it's all pure whimsy- no animals were harmed in the creation of these comics. I think.

Before you decide whether or not to buy this beautifully illustrated and well-produced book, you should definitely check out the site and sample some of Inman's comics. The site is up-to-the-minute current with lots of comics not in the book, including a very funny (and very adult) animated piece about the SOPA legislation. The site also includes other Oatmeal merchandise.

I'm a fan of the Oatmeal. He's funny. And raw, and full of swears and other things children shouldn't see. So if you think you might like that kind of thing, check him out, and the book, too. The book is brilliant and funny and you'll laugh until you cry.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

REVIEW: Moffie, by André Carl van der Merwe

Moffie, by André Carl van der Merwe. Published 2011 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

It's been kind of a while since I read a book that blew me away like Moffie did. It's a searing, heartrending story about a young white South African man called up for national service and hiding the fact that he's gay.

The kind of opposition that the main character and narrator, Nicholas, faces, is almost a little difficult to understand in the liberal bubble I live in. His father is a hyper-masculine chauvinist. His mother is more sensitive but cowers behind her husband. His father pressures him relentlessly to be conventional and successful, beats him when he steps out of line, ridicules him endlessly. Being nonathletic or artistic is bad enough; if Nicholas were unsuccessful his father says he would pass him by on the street. But if Nicholas were gay, a "moffie" in South African slang, his father says it would be "the end." Nicholas doesn't even want to know what his father means by that. The army is the solution, according to his father, the thing that will make a man out of his unsatisfactory son.

When Nicholas enters the army he enters an environment even more ruthless and punishing than his home. But it's in the army that Nicholas meets gay friends, falls in love, and comes to believe in himself. He encounters unspeakable brutality, scarring tragedy and horrors beyond his imagination, but he also learns about loyalty, friendship and bonds that will last a lifetime. He also learns how to use his religious faith to get him through the trials of army life and how to move forward with pride and confidence.

Moffie is the kind of book that tears you to shreds only to piece you back together. A longish book that reads like lightning,  it's not perfect; the tone can be a little overwrought at times, and there are a couple of unlikely coincidences that are poetic in their way but maybe unrealistic. That's okay. The narrative alternates between Nicholas' army time and his childhood, showing how he became the man he is, and ends on a dual note of horror and hope. An intense, demanding book, Moffie should be required reading not just for LGBT-interested readers but for anyone. If you're doing an LGBT- or African-literature challenge this year, I urge you to add Moffie to your reading list.  I think it may have replaced Broken Glass Park as my favorite Europa and it will certainly show up in my top reads of 2012. What a book!

It's my first read of 2012 for the Europa Challenge!

Rating: Are you kidding? BUY

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Today I'm reading a few things. I have one story to go in Dan Chaon's new collection Stay Awake, and I'm reading one story a day in Etgar Keret's collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories. I started Susan Sherman's The Little Russian yesterday; it's a new novel from Counterpoint about a Jewish woman who moves from the glitter of life in Moscow back to the boonies of Ukraine, and the attendant difficulties. And I'm still reading Obabakoak, a collection of linked short stories set in the Basque region of Spain. I finished up Leaving the Atocha Station yesterday and I'll have a review soon! Of the four books I'm currently reading, I'm really crazy about the Keret!

What are you reading this Monday?

See what more folks are reading at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Salon- Settling in for the Winter

This past week was pretty quiet, so I don't have too much to talk about as far as goings-on with me. I spent some time sorting out my TBR pile and ended up losing the book Leaving the Atocha Station for most of the week; I decided I wanted to read it after digging it out of the piles and then couldn't find it for days. I did find it eventually and started reading it; it's a moody, style-driven novel told in the first person by a young American man living in Spain, writing poetry with a fellowship. Mostly he seems to be drinking, doing drugs and spending time with his girlfriend. I think the plot is about to pick up though! I'm also reading Obabakoak, another book set in Spain, although this one is set in a Basque village and was originally written in the Basque language- one of only about 100 books to come to us from that language. It's a collection of interlinked short stories, and very fun to read.

I've been trying to decide if I want to do any challenges in addition to the Europa Challenge and the Complete Booker Challenge, and I think I probably won't, but it's still early in the year. This past week I completed one book for each of those challenges: the wonderful The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, for the Booker Challenge, and the staggering blistering Moffie for the Europa Challenge. Moffie should be required reading for anyone doing LGBT books- or just for anyone. It knocked my socks off!

This week? Well, after I finish Atocha Station I'm thinking about dipping into American Dervish, a 2012 release out now about Pakistani family in the United States. It looks really, really good to me and I'm looking forward to it. I'd also like to try out Tyrant Memory, a newish book by Horacio Castellanos Moya and published by the wonderful New Directions press.

What are you reading this week? Any 2012 releases you're starting now, or waiting on your nightstand or bookshelf?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Finds!! What's New on the Shelf This Week

I did a major weed of my TBR shelves this weekend- I got rid of about 2/3 of the overflow off the shelves themselves. And I'm vowing to slow my rate of acquisition as well. But we'll see how that goes!

Of course that starts next week!
I got Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by comedian/actress Mindy Kaling. Yeah, I just gave in to the hype. This was another one that was flying off the shelves at my former workplace and I couldn't resist the opportunity to buy it from another local indie, Back Pages Books.

Stay Awake, Dan Chaon's latest collection of short stories, arrived via LibraryThing. I'm mostly done reading it and it's great, especially if you loved Await Your Reply, his last novel. And I did!

I picked up The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien, at the great Pazzo Books in Boston. It's a comic novel that I've always wanted to read and have had trouble tracking down. Now it is mine!

What about you? What's new on your shelves this week?

More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

REVIEW: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. Published 2010 by Picador. Nonfiction.

I picked up The Hare with Amber Eyes for no better reason than that I kept seeing it and hearing about it at work, and was curious about it. Competently written by ceramicist Edmund de Waal, the book tells the story of the wealthy Ephrussi family and its changing fortunes from the late nineteenth century until the present day. De Waal, a descendant of the family, tells the story through the eyes of a netsuke collection that he now owns, which originally came to the family through his great-grand uncle (if I'm reading the family tree correctly) Charles.

The Ephrussis were a phenomenally rich banking and mercantile family, peers of the Rothschilds, with their origins in Odessa. They spread throughout Europe, with various relations ending up in France, Germany, Austria and elsewhere. Charles, a Parisian flâneur and art collector, bought the netsuke at a time when Japanese art was all the rage in Paris. He was one of the models for Proust's Swann of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. This I guessed before de Waal confirmed it so closely does Charles match Proust's fictional creation. From there, the netsukes traveled to Edmund's great-grandparents, a wedding gift from Charles. His great-grandmother Emmy was a fashionable society woman who let her children play with the tiny ivory figures. After the war they ended up with his great-uncle Ignace ("Iggy,") whose life tracks the changes in the 20th century and who would have made a fascinating subject on his own. I sort of wish de Waal had written a biography of his great-uncle rather than a biography of his stuff.

And while I liked the book- de Waal is a decent writer and tells the story with a talent for description- it felt like a book about things rather than people. An artist and aesthete, de Waal treats us to lengthy, detailed descriptions of clothing, artwork, interiors, architecture. And I was fascinated and entertained most of the time. He makes the times about which he writes come alive. I loved reading about the ins and outs of nineteenth century Paris, a subject in which I've always been interested. A little art history background helps but is not necessary to enjoy this section. Later chapters, focusing on the family's life and hardships in Austria before and during World War 2, cover ground that will feel more familiar to many readers. But sometimes it just seemed a little frivolous.

The Hare has been wildly popular with readers. At the bookstore where I used to work, it would sell out as soon as we put it on the shelf, and it's a fine book, great for readers interested in Jewish-interest nonfiction and well-suited to book clubs. It's light and accessible and written with grace. I can't say it's the deepest or most original story you'll ever read, but it's enjoyable and if you think you might be interested, I'd say go for it.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

REVIEW: Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. Published 2009 by NYRB Classics. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.

A classic of modern Arab literature, Season of Migration to the North is dark, disturbing and unforgettable. It's the story of two men and a woman. The narrator, unnamed throughout the book, is a young man just returned to his native Sudan from England where he's been educated in poetry. As he readjusts to his village, he meets a man named Mustafa Sa'eed, a newcomer to town with a shady past that also includes a Western European education and career. Mustafa befriends the young man, tells him about his life and particularly about how his relationships with women have shaped him and the course of his destiny. Now, though, he's living a quiet life with a wife from the village. One day he disappears, leaving the narrator to look after his wife and children. Another local man decides to wed Mustafa's widow; she, however, has ideas of her own and what follows is tragedy and disillusionment.

Author Laila Lalami explicates the themes of the novel well in her beautiful introduction- colonialism and its lingering aftereffects, religion and the relationships between men and women. She also discusses the very interesting relationship between Salih and his translator Denys Johnson-Davies, characterizing it almost as one of collaboration. Salih has lived in the United Kingdom for many years and nevertheless still writes his books in Arabic but has worked closely with Johnson-Davies to produce works that sing in both languages. The book is shot through with lyrical passages rich with description of and affection for Salih's homeland. I love this description of the narrator's home:
This large house is built neither of stone nor yet of red brick but of the very mud in which the wheat is grown, and it stands right at the edge of the field so that it is an extension of it. This is evident from the acacia and sunt bushes that are growing in the courtyard and from the plants that sprout from the very walls where the water has seeped through from the cultivated land. It is a chaotic house, built without methods, and has acquired its present form over many years: many differently-sized rooms, some built up against one another at different times, either because they were needed or because my grandfather found himself with some spare money for which he had no other use...A maze of a house...if one looks objectively at it from the outside one feels it to be a frail structure, incapable of survival, but somehow, as if by a miracle, it has surmounted time.
A metaphor for something else, maybe?

Sing though it does, there's no getting around the fact that Season is one dark book. If you read the other novella of his published by NYRB Classics, the delightful Wedding of Zein, be prepared for a very different experience. This book is not without its lighter moments but overall Season depicts a more conflicted, deeply tormented and deeply ambiguous landscape; the narrator is pleased with his education but returns home to find it useless. Once a point of pride, it now paints him as an outsider and someone ill-equipped to help his country. Meanwhile the people and the system the Europeans have left behind are mired in corruption and short-sightedness. And Salih depicts the problems associated with the status of women with insight.

Downer though it may be, I would still highly recommend Season of Migration to the North to anyone with an interest in African and/or Muslim fiction. No doubt it's a classic and a beautiful, poetic work in many respects. It's a short book that requires attention and rewards it, a literary book for a reader unafraid of a little sadness. It reminds me a lot of Atiq Rahimi, sort of like a less impressionistic version of The Patience Stone. It's a character- and setting-driven book about a country in transition and people trying to make sense of it all.

Rating BUY

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading Goals for 2012 and Bibliodiversity

I first heard the term "bibliodiversity" on the wonderful Books on the Nightstand podcast and it got me thinking. It can mean a lot of different things; in Books on the Nightstand, host Ann Kingman talked about an article she'd read in an academic journal, where the term referred to the number of books published in different languages. But then Ann and her co-host Michael Kindness found other ways to define the term: reading books in print or electronically- or audio; genre- going outside your comfort zone, reading biographies if you don't normally, of self-help. You could also define it as reading books from different cultures, translated from different languages, from different parts of the world.

I have to admit I do not normally consciously practice bibliodiversity.

As far as format goes, with rare exceptions I'm a print reader. Audiobooks are great for the car and ebooks are great for travel, but 99% of the time I don't bother with alternative formats. I just don't.

Oh sure, I read books from lots of different countries, translated out of different languages and from different cultures, but I rarely do so on purpose. Some bloggers track the racial and gender and sexual-orientation and national breakdown of their reading, then consciously go back to fill in the gaps. Honestly, I don't care. I just read what I'm interested in.  If a book appeals to me, I read it. Or at least, I buy it and plan on reading it. But I don't keep statistics (except for the end of year wrapup, which I do out of curiosity only) I don't worry about covering bases or ticking off boxes on a checklist.

Somehow despite my lackadaisical attitude towards diversity, I've ended up with a pretty diverse reading list. When I bought a Moleskine Book Journal last year I decided to start listing books that I owned in different categories and it amazed me to see the different areas my to-be-read library covers. I have lists of Italian books, Irish books, Eastern European books, South Asian books, Hispanic books, books about Boston, Jewish books, Islamic and Arabic literature, Christian religious fiction (but not "CF" per se necessarily), as well as the aforementioned science fiction, young adult and other categories, even nonfiction (it's true!).  I know there are topics I'm missing. So what?

Last year I read very consciously by category. I listed out the months and assigned a category to each. In January I read new releases; in March, books about Ireland; in June, backlisters I've always meant to get to. And so on. I don't know what I'm going to do yet in 2012. I have a good number of 2012 galleys and recent releases from fall 2011 that I still want to read, but what's catching my eye now are the oddball finds and longtime bookshelf bridesmaids that have been waiting for my attention for ages- some literally for years. So we'll see. Maybe I'll end up with lists and plans, or maybe I won't. Or maybe I'll make a decision later today and change my mind tomorrow. Either way I'll still be reading!

What about you? Do you approach your reading with goals and intentions, or do you pick up whatever suits your fancy? Do you worry about cultural and/or racial diversity? Have you taken measures to correct what you felt were gaps in your reading? How and why did you decide that your reading had gaps in the first place? If you're reading steadily, what does it mean to have gaps? Sometimes I think there's a kind of me-too mentality that drives a lot of the urge people have to show how diverse their reading is, or make their reading more diverse, like they have something to prove. Do you read to prove a point? Is that what reading should even be about? I say, expand your horizons if you're inclined to (and books are a wonderful way to do that) but reading shouldn't be about proving yourself to others. It should just be about growing in new directions, but doing it for you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Salon- Putting It All Back Together

So this past week was my first real week out of work- my last day may have been the 23rd but the week after Christmas felt like vacation, not unemployment. My husband was on vacation from work and we spent a fun week together with family and then this past week he went back to work and I was just home. I tried going to the gym and cleaning up some, and reorganizing my office/craft room, but it was a struggle to get back in the swing. I did manage to tidy up enough to get started on a new wool felt project, a little candle mat for Valentine's Day, and I picked out some other patterns to do afterwards. I also found a ton of stuff to get rid of including such treasures as
  • sample photos of flower arrangements left over from my wedding planning nine years ago,
  • old recipes pulled from cooking magazines which I'll never make, and 
  • notebooks filled with five-year-old conference notes.
I also packed up a shopping bag's worth of books for discard/donation and straightened up my signed book shelf. And cleaned off my desk.

I've been reading like a maniac. I read Julian Barnes' masterful The Sense of an Ending and started Ellis Avery's interesting The Last Nude. I've also tentatively decided to do another day-long graphic novel readathon; anyone interested in joining? I don't have a date in mind but if any of you think it would be fun to join up, send me an email and let me know.

In the mean time, my husband and I are going to see the Tin Tin movie tonight and catching up with some friends. Should be fun! What are you up to? I hope you have a great Sunday.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Finds - The Highlights

I still haven't done a what-I-got-for-Christmas post and I'm not sure when I'll get around to it at this point, but let it suffice to say that I got a lot of books for Christmas. Some of the highlights include The Mozipedia, The Encyclopedia of Morrrisey and The Smiths, by Simon Goddard, and the Hunger Games trilogy, and two hard-to-find Booker Prize winners, Saville by David Storey and Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I was very well-provided-for as usual!

Of course that did not stop me from shopping.
I found William Golding's 1980 Booker Prize winner Rites of Passage at a used bookstore in Cambridge; it's very hard to find and I was thrilled to get a copy! Now, the only Booker winner not in my possession is The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis. I may have to go on Bookfinder.com and solve that problem sooner rather than later!

I found Victorine, by Maude Hutchins, in another used bookstore. It's a coming of age novel set in suburban America and I gather it's quite unusual. So naturally I want to read it.

I picked up A Sleep and A Forgetting, an intriguing-looking entry in Melville House's wonderful Art of the Novella series, and one that hadn't come to my attention during the challenge last August. So I'll try it now! 

Last but by no means least, I got a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex via Bookmooch. I've just heard so much about this book that I finally gave in and got it.

What's new on your shelf this week? Have you read any of the books I picked up? What caught your eye the last time you went to the bookstore? I'd love to know!

More Friday Finds at ShouldBeReading.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Out Now: Sense and Sensibility: The Bath Bicentenary Edition

Sense and Sensibility: The Bath Bicentenary Edition. Published 2012 by Palazzo Editions. Distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing from IPG.

So, a while back I was pitched to review the newly published Bath Bicentenary edition of Jane Austen's classic novel Sense and Sensibility.  If you're not familiar with the story, it's about the Dashwood sisters, Eleanor and Marianne, and their search for love and marriage in Regency England. Eleanor is the more rational of the two; Marianne, the more emotional and creative. Each has a man she is pining for, and each has a man pining for her. The Dashwoods are living in genteel poverty and need to find good husbands to support them as well as their mother and younger sister Margaret. The two young women have many qualities to recommend them, but being poor is a disadvantage that they may or may not be able to overcome.

It's a delightful novel- not my favorite Austen, granted, but a wonderfully entertaining one nonetheless. As the publisher says, "As much a commentary on social etiquette as a story about love and belonging, this timeless favorite illuminates Jane Austen’s world."

Here are some of the specifics:
  • Full unabridged text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel
  • 11 color and black and white illustrations by Niroot Puttapipat
  • Introduction by Katharine Reeve
  • Hardcover with quarter-binding (332) pages
This new edition is gorgeous, with pretty endpapers and beautiful illustrations throughout. It's also just a nice book to hold and read; the pages and binding lay comfortably in the hand. It's a fine edition for readers, not just collectors. It also features an informative chronology of Jane Austen's life and some background on the city of Bath and its influence on Austen. It's not scholarly but Jane Austen's many fans will enjoy the presentation and the content equally. I'm just sorry it wasn't out in the United States in time for holiday gift-giving because it would have topped my list!

Here's a video about it:

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

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

REVIEW: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. Published 2011 by Europa Editions.

Okay, so I miscounted and late last year found that I still needed one more book to complete Amante Level in the Europa Challenge. I'm glad I realized this when I did, or else I'd be up the creek and it would be too embarrassing to start a challenge I couldn't finish myself.

Luckily I had Treasure Island!!! in my TBR pile; a hilarious comic novel, I read it in a day and just did not want to put it down. I finished this book late on the 30th and posted my review to Europa Challenge blog that day! The narrator, an unnamed 25 year old woman, isn't an unreliable narrator so much as a mad narrator. Unreliable narrators typically have a reason for the deceptions and half-truths they unleash on the reader; an unreliable narrator is often in control of the narrative and is covering something up, or making a case for him or herself, or telling the story a certain way for a particular reason. This narrator is simply delusional and appears to have no idea or concern about how she comes across either to the reader or to her longsuffering family and friends.

She starts out as a somewhat typically aimless young adult, working a demeaning job (at something called the Pet Library) and trying to figure out her place in the world. It's not working for Nancy, the Library's owner, and the narrator proves her point by stealing money and buying a parrot, who she then abuses flamboyantly. She is equally abusive to her patient and loving boyfriend Lars, her parents and her sister, all of whom love her and all of whom become her victims in one way or another. She becomes obsessed with the classic Stevenson novel Treasure Island and tries to live according to her interpretations of its lessons with disastrous results.

Is this woman likeable? No, but she's hilarious. Full of self-pity, endless self-serving justifications and boundless illusions, she's nonetheless pitiable, lonely, and searching for love. She just doesn't know what to do with it when it comes her way. I laughed my way through all 172-odd pages of this quickly moving, addictive little pageturner. Read it when you need a good long chuckle on a day when you're not feeling too judgemental. It'll do you some good.

Okay, now I've completed Amante Level! Now, onto the Europa Challenge for 2012!

Rating: BEACH
Treasure Island!!!
by Sara Levine
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.