Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Finds!

A few new things found their way into the house this week. Of course!

I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva, is a spring release from Europa Editions about an Italian lawyer in all kinds of trouble. I gather it's quite funny. I didn't think I was going to get it but after reading some reviews it started to grow on me!

Normance, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, is a novel about the bombing of Paris during World War 2, written almost entirely in a stream of consciousness style. I eyed it at the bookstore and left it a couple of weeks ago, then went back for it and luckily it was still there. Probably waiting for me!

Beautiful Ruins is a June release from HarperCollins that looks intriguing. I got to meet the author, a Seattle native,  a few nights ago. The story is about an Italian innkeeper looking for his long lost love.

Ben Fountain's long-awaited novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been described by no less a literary personage than Karl Marlantes as "The Catch-22 of the Iraq War." I got to meet him as well and I'm interested in dipping into his book, scheduled to come out in May.

What about you? What's new on your shelf this week? Find more Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

REVIEW: Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. Published 2012 by Voice. Literary Fiction.

Arcadia, writer Lauren Groff's latest after the critically acclaimed The Monsters of Templeton, tells the story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, child of hippies and born on a commune. What a lovely book it is.

The book follows Bit's life from early childhood through midlife. When he's a child, life on the commune of Arcadia is young, too, and fresh and exciting. He's the adored only child of Hannah and Abe, idealists who've helped found a community based on high ideals. Hippies living in tents and mobile homes have found a large house in which to make a home; Arcadia House is an impossibly large and rambling mansion which the community transforms. Tasks are divided, a thin leadership structure is developed and over time the community takes shape.

But as it takes shape, and as Bit grows, chaos and interpersonal conflict eat away at the community like mold. Arcadia becomes famous and attracts more people than it can handle, people who don't share the founders' ideals. And the founders themselves grow apart as power struggles and conflicts over drugs and money create impossible rifts. Heretofore idyllic-seeming families fracture; the long-term effects of the lifestyle prove themselves to be not as wholesome as was hoped. Bit is in love his entire life with the mercurial, damaged Helle, daughter of Arcadia's leader Handy, himself unstable, charismatic and a key player in the community's dissolution.

Bit's life orbits around three women- Helle, his mother, and later his daughter Grete. One will disappear, one will decline, and one will flourish but all are the walking wounded, refugees in one way or another from Arcadia. Groff writes with great beauty and grace about the life of this place and the people who make it come alive. The book is lyrical and poetic but Groff doesn't get lost in mere style. She uses her beautiful writing to create unique, fresh characters. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was reading fiction so well does she bring these people to life. She renders the setting vividly as well, both in terms of the physical descriptions and the idealism that drives the Arcadians to work so hard on their fragile community. But this is a novel that will stay with me for a long time pondering the trajectories both sad and triumphant of its members and its heirs. Arcadia is a must-read for literary fiction readers this spring and summer. I hope you get a chance to check it out!

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Interview with Author Alex Gilvarry

Alex Gilvarry is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and the founding editor of the website Tottenville Review. He's written for The Paris Review and other publications. From the Memoirs is his first novel and he joins us today for a brief interview. He can be found online at alexgilvarry.com.
1. What inspired you to write From the Memoirs of a Non Enemy Combatant? What issues were you trying to get at it?
The imprisonment of men without due process, particularly those in Guantanamo Bay. I think novels can still incite change, or change the way we think. Or at least they can be a big doorstop of a reminder that things need to change. 
 
2. What kinds of reactions have you had to the book? When I met you at your Cambridge reading with Liz Moore, the crowd seemed confrontational and even a little rowdy. Do you have any stories from the road- odd encounters at readings, etc.- that you’d like to share with my readers?
Ha! That's Cambridge for you. Our readings here can get rowdy. But it's the non-fiction writers I feel for. They get it the worst. I think at the reading you attended at Porter Square Books, it was suggested that I was a Nazi sympathizer for using a quote by Coco Chanel as the epigraph to my novel. I fumbled the question a little because who would ever expect to be linked with the Nazis at their book reading. But the quote is a good one for our time. "Since everything is in our heads, we had better not lose them."

 3. Why did you present Boy as essentially a dupe? Should it matter to the reader if he’s innocent or guilty? Are the tactics used against him in prison more or less acceptable based on his innocence or guilt?
It was important to me that he have a certain naivete to the character for him to be real. I think one of the pleasures of this book and books like it are for the reader to determine Boy's level of guilt or innocence. And it changes with every reader, every experience.
 
4. What kinds of research did you do for the book? At your Cambridge you mentioned reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; how did that book influence yours?
That book is at times a moment to moment telling of what it's like to actually be in a Russian prison. This was something I had to imagine--being in prison. And it was something I had trouble with. So books were the only thing that helped create that. I read several books worth noting, and I recommend them to anyone with a further interest in the situation in Guantanamo or simply American injustice. The Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side by Clive Stafford Smith, Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power by Joseph Marguiles. Five Years of My Life, Murat Kurnaz. All very powerful and infuriating. The villain in all of these is us. But I also studied the prison novel as told by Kurt Vonnegut and Max Frisch.

 5. Do you consider writing to be a political act? Is this book political?
I think writing is both a moral and a political act, and that this should be exercised much more than it has been in literary fiction today. Maybe it's not the same as it was in Solzhenitsyn's day--because books are no longer the dominate medium. But HBO is certainly not going to deliver the next Catch-22 or the next Gulag Archipelago, because television--while it may be called the "new novel" even by many novelists--abides by investors and advertising. It's still primarily entertainment, where as the novelist answers to no one but his own moral compass.

Thank you Alex for this great interview- and book! Read my review of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

REVIEW: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, by Alex Gilvarry

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, by Alex Gilvarry. Published 2012 by Viking Adult. Literary Fiction.

Alex Gilvarry's debut novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is the kind of book that creeps up on you. It starts off as kind of a light and kind of silly, but little by little transforms into something dark and uncomfortable. Gilvarry tells the story of Boy Hernandez, a Filipino fashion designer trying to make a go of it in New York but when the book opens, Boy is incarcerated on Guantanemo Bay, being held for unspecified charges for an indefinite period of time. Hernandez narrates the story and it becomes clear that his life has split in two- the time before prison, when he was struggling to make a name for himself as a designer, and in the process, hooked himself to a very shady character indeed, and the "now" time, in prison, and after.

Boy comes to New York with a head full of dreams and dresses. He's enamored with the city, with fashion, with the women in his life, with his prospects, but he needs money to make his dreams come true. His bombastic neighbor Ahmed Qureshi offers no-questions backing- sets him up and pays for his supplies and shows. With Ahmed's help, Boy starts to make a dent in the fashion world. Oh sure, he knows Ahmed isn't what he claims to be, knows somewhere in the corner of his mind that his backer has some under-the-table business going on, but he doesn't care- he's living the dream.

Meanwhile, in prison, he's slowly losing his identity and connections to the outside world. When he arrives, he's watched by a Marine officer who takes exactly zero interest in Boy, but Boy wants this guy to know who he is, to know that he's someone who matters:
Just the other night, while I was lying on my bed watching Cunningham [the Marine] read a Maxim, I caught a glimpse of my past on the cover. It was Olya. My darling Olya, who once shared a bed with me so openly and would remain a dear friend over the years..."You know, I know her," I said to him.
"Who?" he said.
"Her, Olya. The girl on the cover."
"You don't know her," he said, as if it was totally impossible for a man like me to have known a girl like Olya.
"Of course I do. I'm a designer of women's wear in New York. Olya is a friend. She's even worked for me on several occasions."
"Bullshit."
"We're friends," I said.
This makes him laugh.
Little by little though the Kafkaesque ordeal of not knowing what the charges are, having no one to trust, no lawyer and no prospects of release wears him down until the man he was is destroyed.  In the mean time, we watch his career take off until the moment of his life-changing collision with post-9/11 law enforcement, his confinement and the rest of the story.

From the Memoirs is both a brilliant, scathing satire and a very enjoyable read. It's a political novel that takes a side and stands by it without being heavy-handed or didactic. I don't know how Gilvarry managed to pull that off, but he did. Normally I dislike issue-oriented fiction, even when I agree with the position the author takes, because I don't like being preached to. But Gilvarry doesn't preach; he just shows, by telling one man's story, how a naive man goes wrong in a dangerous world. Gilvarry gives the reader a lot to think about regardless of political persuasion; I hope lots of readers pick up this sneaky, funny, smart book.

Click here for my interview with Alex Gilvarry.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm reading a whole bunch of books this week.

James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca is this month's Europa Editions Challenge book. It's a comic romp about mismatched neighbors in Tuscany- a clueless Englishman and a sharp-tongued woman from a fictional Eastern bloc country- and the shenanigans they get up to. It's fun.

Melissa Pritchard's collection of bizarre short stories The Odditorium is an Early Reviewers book from LibraryThing.com. I'm reading a story a day every day I'm not working, so that means I'm due to read one today.

I'm also reading one short essay a day from Alan Epstein's amusing As the Romans Do. These are stories about his family's time spent living there.

I started Eduardo Sacheri's compelling The Secret in their Eyes the other day. It's a mystery about a brutal rape and murder in Argentina and I'm loving it.

I'm also slowly digging through Mockingjay to finally finish up The Hunger Games series and looking to pull one more 2012 galley off of my TBR pile. I don't know which one it will be!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Salon- Hunger Games Books and Movies, Oh My

So this week at work has been all about The Hunger Games. Probably every other customer bought either the first or one of the other two books, mostly the first, and of course the movie debuted this weekend. The books have been just flying off the shelves, making me glad I finally got around to reading the series (I'm about ten pages into Mockingjay) when I did, since it's been essential that I be able to talk to customers about them. I'm going to review the whole series eventually; I decided not to review the individual books after it seemed to me that they really comprise one long narrative.

And I did go see the movie last night, and it was pretty great. It wasn't perfect- I think it helps to have read the first book to get a better idea of Katniss's circumstances and thought processes- but it was pretty fun. I went to a late-night showing after work and saw the movie with a jazzed-up, enthusiastic crowd. I will say though that the cinema chose just about the worst previews to show with it. My husband wants to go see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with his friends but other than that there was just nothing I'd ever want to see. The audience broke out in laughter at the ridiculous trailer for the final Twilight movie, showing Bella eyeing up a deer. Whatever!

March is winding down; it's been a pretty bland reading month for me but I'm hoping to end on a good note as I finish up Lauren Groff's beautiful Arcadia and James Hamilton-Paterson's fun Cooking with Fernet Branca. I also started Eduardo Sacheri's promising The Secret in their Eyes, a mystery set in Argentina from Other Press, much more my thing than a lot of what I've been reading this month.  While I love China Mieville to bits and pieces, I'm sorry to say I was not wild about his latest, Railsea. I'll have a review for it in a few weeks when it hits the shelves.

For today I'm lounging in a little (late night with the movie and a long day at work) and heading to a family party later this evening. In the meantime I hope to get a little Fernet Branca in but no big deal if I don't. What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hunger is Just a Game When You're Lionsgate Entertainment

Does piggybacking on a Hollywood blockbuster-to-be in support of anti-hunger advocacy deserve a takedown notice? Apparently so if you're Lionsgate Entertainment, which is trying to prevent Oxfam and the Harry Potter Alliance from running a campaign entitled Hunger is Not a Game.

Here's an article which ran yesterday on ThinkProgress.org about Lionsgate's efforts to shut down the campaign.

If you've read The Hunger Games and/or its sequels, you know that a major theme in the books is social commentary about the state of our world today- how first-world luxuries are made on the backs of the poor in large parts of the rest of the world. The books present an opportunity to get all readers, and younger readers in particular, to think about these issues and act on them through different forms of advocacy and civic involvement. Oxfam's and the Harry Potter Alliance's efforts don't discourage anyone from reading the books; if anything, attaching The Hunger Games name/brand to their efforts might bring more attention to the series and the issues with which it deals. And I think it's fairly appalling that Lionsgate feels the need to act like the villain and trample on the admirable efforts of two respected organizations to encourage activism on the very issues that make the books such worthwhile reading.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Finds- Lots of Good Stuff

I got to meet literary star Jeanette Winterson at an event on Monday night at the great Brookline Booksmith, and picked up her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. She's one of my all-time favorite writers and I look forward to getting to know her through her book.

There's a whole story behind why I want to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which I'll share when I review the book sometime later this spring. I've been meaning to get it- or get it back- for ages and I finally found the Vintage International edition I was looking for in a used bookstore.

Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury) is a history of the Cadbury chocolate company and of the chocolate industry. I found this while shelving at work at thought it looked fascinating!

Alan Epstein's amusing As the Romans Do is the story of his family's time spent living in the eternal city. I got it to prepare for my upcoming trip to Italy this fall. It's cute.

That's it for me this week. What's new on your shelf? More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Read-along

So there's a read-along going on, starting April 7 for Carson MCullers' classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I remember falling in love with this book the summer before my junior year of high school, when I had to read it for the following year's English class. I haven't read it since then though I recently acquired a copy and hoped to find time for a re-read. Well, here's my opportunity. The LibraryThing group The Clocks Have Stopped is running a read-along.

Go here to join and start reading on April 7!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

REVIEW: The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby. Published 2011 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

The Nun is a book that I really hope historical-fiction readers will flock to buy. Set in nineteenth century Italy during the unification period, it's the story of teenage Agata, the bookish daughter of a noble family fallen on hard times. She's the second-to-last daughter; her family is out of money but she is in love with Giacomo, a neighbor who loves her back but whose family wants him to marry a wealthy girl with a dowry. Agata's mother is desperate to marry her off but when no agreement can be made with Giacomo's family and Agata resists an arranged marriage with a much-older man, the only option left is to put an unwilling Agata into a convent.

And this it seems was not an unusual fate for Italian girls of her station for several centuries. Two years ago I read a solid, if lighter, novel called Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, also about a young girl secreted to a nunnery against her will while she harbored a passion for a man her family didn't want her to be with. The Nun covers a lot of the same ground but with more of a literary bent. Dunant's heroine is wholly opposed to the cloistered life; Agata is conflicted. She tries to make a life for herself "on the inside," learning baking and apothecary skills, trying to make friends and allies among the many relatives she finds in the convent world. But far from being bastions of piety, the convents are rife with luxury, gossip, bullying and secrets, and when she finds herself on the other side of powerful priests, her hope of escape wastes away. Agata has her own secret: a longstanding friendship with an English man who sends her books and who may even offer more- love, salvation, and escape.

I thought The Nun was a really terrific read and deserves to make its way into the hands of historical fiction fans as well as readers interested in Italy. The research that must have gone into the book is very impressive. I loved all the colorful detail Hornby includes about convent life, Italian religious celebrations and the politics of the time. But most of all I love the complexity of the characters, especially Agata, who has so much to work out while all customs, politics and social changes stream around her. I love that she's not simplistic or single-minded; I love that she really struggles with herself. Sometimes she finds contentment in ritual, routine and a preordained life; sometimes she rebels and works hard to find a way out. You'll have to read the book to find out her ultimate fate, but I really hope you do!

This counts towards The Europa Challenge. I've now read 3 books this year towards my goal of 12.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Decade Later, And Still Essential Reading: FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser: An Appreciation

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser. Published 2001 by HarperCollins.

Every once in a while I read a book that does more than entertain me for the moment, or give me something to chat about with friends, or post about here on my blog. Sometimes I read a book that actually changes the way I look at something, enriches my understanding of the world around me and might even make me change how I live. The first book like that was Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States; in college, it was Michael Harrington's The Other America. In my twenties, I read the mind-blowing Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's brilliant, thought-stirring, perspective-changing jeremiad on the ubiquitous fast food industry and the ripples it creates all across our society with every hamburger we eat.

In this recent article from the Daily Beast, Schlosser reflects on the 10-year anniversary of his groundbreaking book and how the world has and hasn't changed since it came out. He talks about how the government has continued to block reforms that would make our food supply safer, how labor conditions are still appalling and dangerous for those who process our meat, and how we're having public dialogues about things like obesity and marketing to children in ways we never did before. For me, the book was a true wake-up call to reconsider how my actions impacted and were impacted by the food industry and society.

Schlosser presents a broad cross-section of the industry and reveals some scary facts in the process. Unlike Morgan Spurlock's great documentary "Supersize Me!", which focuses mainly on the nutritional dangers of fast food, Schlosser's book covers everything from the origins of fast food restaurants in California car culture, to corporate agriculture, to conditions on the slaughterhouse floor, to the flavor and scent industry, to food safety, environmental impact and more. He talks about schools and about marketing to children, and tells us things that shocked me, like how early brand preferences are formed and how marketing executives seek to manipulate even the smallest children. He takes on all these issues to give the reader a primer on the affect of the industry on different facets of American life. Readers will hear from executives, farmers, workers, scientists and marketing professionals- and more.

And the writing? It's firecracker good. Schlosser writes in a punchy, confrontational style that's not afraid to take sides and pass judgement. Don't mistake Fast Food Nation for an objective assessment of the food industry. From a section called "the worst," about the meatpacking trade:
Some of the most dangerous jobs in meatpacking today are performed by the late-night cleaning crews...Three to four thousand cattle, each weighing about a thousand pounds, have been slaughtered [at a plant] that day. The place has to be clean by sunrise. Some of the workers wear water-resistant clothing; most don't. Their principal cleaning tool is a high-pressure hose that shoots a mixture of water and chlorine heated to about 180 degrees. As the water is sprayed, the plant fills with a thick, heavy fog. Visibility drops to as little as five feet. The conveyor belts and machinery are running. Workers stand on belts, spraying them, riding them like moving sidewalks, as high as fifteen feet off the ground. Workers climb ladders with hoses and spray the catwalks. They get under tables and conveyor belts, climbing right into the bloody muck, cleaning out grease, fat, manure, leftover scraps of meat...They routinely spray each other with burning hot, chemical-laden water. They are sickened by the fumes...Jesus [a worker Schlosser interviewed] says the stench in rendering is so powerful that it won't wash off...the smell comes home with you, seeps from your pores...Although official statistics are not kept, the death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinarily high...The nation's worst job can end in just about the worst way. Sometimes these workers are literally ground up and reduced to nothing.
And he's got 60 pages of detailed notes with sources and a bibliography to back up everything he says.

As for the effect all this had on me, while I don't have it in me to be a vegetarian or a vegan, I have stopped eating at McDonald's and its ilk, and I do pay attention to where my meat comes from and buy organic and local when I can. It's been more than 10 years since I passed under the golden arches for anything more than a shamrock shake, and I don't even miss it. So if you haven't read Fast Food Nation I would urge you to add it to your reading list right away. It's a fascinating, highly readable evisceration of an industry that affects everyone whether you consume the stuff or not. Read it because more people are hurt by ignorance than by information.

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

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Salon- Not Much Going On

Well it's Sunday again and I'm glad to be off my feet! St. Patrick's Day was fun but it's good to be home and getting a little relaxing time. Jeff is making oatmeal for breakfast and I plan a good long lie-in with some old Portlandia episodes and some tea.

Reading-wise, I'm deep into China Miéville's latest book Railsea, coming out in May. I got the egalley version, which I rarely do; I only get egalleys if the print galley is unavailable and I'm willing to drop everything else and read it right away. That almost never happens! The book is interesting and dense; the plot is moving very slowly but it is moving. I'm also reading James Hamilton-Paterson's comic Cooking with Fernet Branca, about a pair of mismatched neighbors in rural Tuscany. It's a fun book.

I'm not sure what today will hold. I almost didn't bother doing a Sunday Salon today because I don't have too much to say. My family is doing a delayed St. Patrick's Day dinner, delayed because I worked last evening, and that should be fun. Otherwise I'm doing some errands and seeing some friends. I'm not sure there will be time to read until much later tonight!

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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day! My Favorite Irish Books

Happy St. Patrick's Day! There is no shortage of "wit and wisdom o'the Irish" type books on displays in bookstores and we all know about Joyce and Yeats. Here's some of my favorite Irish books.

The Outside Boy is a wonderful coming-of-age tale set among the Irish Travellers, about a young boy trying to find the truth about his mother and ultimately about himself. I wish everyone I know would buy this book!

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell, is a heavier but still wonderful novel about frustrated love and politics around the time of Irish independence. An English major arrives at a dilapidated hotel to marry one of its inhabitants, but nothing is as he expects. What follows is funny, bittersweet and tragic.

The Dork of Cork is a strange, enchanting and unforgettable tale of a dwarf named Frank Bois, a writer and recluse who loses himself in the beauty of the night sky.  He's about to become a star himself; as the book opens, he's about to publish his memoir. The novel is a beautiful poem to the power of love to shape our lives and heal our wounds.

And since it's not fair to talk about Irish literature without mentioning poetry, my favorite book of Irish poetry is certainly Eavan Boland's In a Time of Violence, a lovely volume about women, war, Ireland, memory, and more.

What's your favorite Irish book? What else do I need to read from the Emerald Isle? Don't forget to wear green and have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Finds- Just Two!

I'm so excited that Clair de Lune, by Jetta Carleton, is out. Carleton only published one book during her lifetime, the luminous The Moonflower Vine; this book was among her papers and was just brought out by HarperCollins. This book is also set in Missouri and about a woman struggling to find happiness as best she can. I'm looking forward to reading this very, very soon! And you should read The Moonflower Vine if you haven't already!

On another tack entirely, Bitter Fruit is a novel set in South Africa of the post-apartheid years, about a family coming to terms with that country's history and heritage. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and has conflicting reviews on LibraryThing, which makes me think it will be a thought-provoking read one way or the other.

I spent my discretionary money on things other than books this week, so that's it. What about you? What's new on your shelf? Find more Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

REVIEW: Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts. Published 2010 by Gollancz.  Literary Fiction. Science Fiction.

If you don't speak Russian you should start by knowing that "yellow blue tibia" is a verbal pun for Я мебя люблю (ya tebya loobloo) or "I love you". Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts' fun, fascinating and engaging novel is a love story of some sweetness as well as a science fiction romp through the waning days of the Soviet Union.

It takes a while to get around to the love story, nested inside the memoir of one Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, an elderly, washed-up translator and erstwhile science fiction writer. In the 1930s, Skvorecky was part of a group of science fiction writers recruited by Joseph Stalin in an effort to create an alien threat around which he could mobilize the Soviet people. World War 2 was over, Germany was defeated and Stalin (at least the Stalin of this book) believed that U.S. was on the verge of collapse. He therefore feels that the Soviet people needed a new enemy, something to galvanize and unite them. He bring the writers together in a dacha and where they make up a story about aliens made of radiation. Suddenly, mercurially, the story is buried and the writers dispersed. Fast forward to the 1980s and Skvorecky is a lonely old man waking from a slumber of many years only to find that the fiction he helped create may be reality after all.

Yellow Blue Tibia has been compared to the science fiction of Margaret Atwood but a think a more just comparison would be to that Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, whose novel Moscow 2042 this one resembles, at least in tone. It's a fun book and very well-crafted but it kind of dragged for me around the middle third, as Skvorecky is bounced around from KGB officers to jail to hospitals to Chernobyl and back again, the unwitting victim of failed assassination attempt after failed assassination attempt until he finally learns the truth behind the people manipulating him as well as the truth about his companions on his crazy journey, American Scientologists James Coyne and Dora Norman. The Americans are recruited for a mysterious, latter-day role in the same project that we learn Skvorecky has been a part of for years. I admit I found the whole thing kind of murky.

I may not have been the right reader exactly for this book but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to literary fiction readers looking for something definitely off-beat and a little crazy. I can think of a couple of friends in particular I think would like this, people who like their science fiction with a good dose of humor and satire and readers interested in fiction about the Soviet Union and its collapse. And Voinovich fans, please buy this book.  If you fit into any of those categories, go ahead and seek out this unusual and challenging novel, and I wish you luck.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

REVIEW: Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones. Published 2011 by Algonquin Books. Literary Fiction.

Have you ever kept a secret? Have you ever been someone else's secret?

Secret families are not an uncommon theme in fiction; cheating and illegitimacy are motifs that crop up often as devices to engender conflict and rip open the seams of a happy-seeming family.  François Mitterand, former president of France, famously had a mistress and a child with her who would openly identify herself as the daughter of the president. I think in real life such things are maybe less common, and when they do happen, those involved probably keep the secret better.

I can't recall any novels on this theme in particular but it seems to me that when I've seen this situation explored in movies of television, it's usually from the perspective of the wife or child who finds out about the second family. Author Tayari Jones takes the other tack in her beautiful and bittersweet Silver Sparrow, telling the story from both sides, and starting with the story of the secret child.

Jones sets the novel in 1980s Atlanta; Gwen Yarboro met James Witherspoon, married man, in a shop. The two have an affair and Gwen has a baby, Dana. Around the same time that Dana is born, James's wife gives birth to his other, "legitimate" daughter Chaurisse, but he maintains a relationship with Gwen, who tries to make sure he does right by both of his children. Dana knows about James's other family but at first, doesn't quite understand it.
"What happens in my life, in my world, doesn't have anything to do with you. You can't tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can't tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain't nothing but a country town, and everyone knows everybody," [Dana's father tells her one day.]
"Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?" I asked him.
He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. "No. You've got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that's a secret."
And with that her world changes. From now on she'll learn that her place in the world is, to an extent, to sit behind her half-sister, who will always come first in her father's heart. Dana can only have what Chaurisse doesn't want; they can't attend the same camp or school or activities. As she grows up, Dana becomes fascinated with Chaurisse and wants to get to know her, something both her parents forbid. When Dana learns that Chaurisse may have her heart set on attending Dana's dream college, things come to a head.

The second half of the novel is from Chaurisse's point of view and tells what happens when the families collide. Seeing Dana through Chaurisse's eyes is jarring and poignant; the girls form a weird friendship colored with dramatic irony as long as Chaurisse doesn't know who Dana is. I turned the pages quickly, anticipating the clash and the fall-out I knew was coming. When Chaurisse, sheltered and ignorant, does find out the truth about her father and her friend, I hoped for a better ending for the girls but Jones gives us the one we'd probably get in real life instead, and I'm glad.

Silver Sparrow is a really terrific, moving, sad and wonderful novel. I didn't read it until I saw Jones read from it mostly because I didn't know what it was about. I found the plot and the presentation to be really fresh and engaging; she really gets to the heart of Dana and the resentment and anger that drives her to disrupt the very unfair position in which she's forced to live. It would be a great choice for book clubs for its emotional complexity and shattering ending. I really loved this book and I'm so glad I got a chance to read it!

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?

Well, I finished up Yellow Blue Tibia and I'll have a review this week. Now I get to pick my next reads, and I think I'm going to go for two small press books.
Three Weeks in December is Audrey Schulman's latest novel, following two storylines taking place in Africa, one in the present day and one in the 19th century. I saw her read from the book last week at the Harvard Book Store, and the book has received some great reviews. I'm a few chapters in and enjoying it so far. From Europa Editions.

Then, today I'm going to start Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith, about a day in the life of an archivist. It's from Tin House and was recommended to me by some very reliable bookfriends.

This meme is hosted by Sheila from One Person’s Journey Through a World of  Books so stop by and join in!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Salon- Working Hard As Always

I don't know what to say about this past week. It just sort of came and went. I worked some, I did some other stuff. One thing is for sure, I need to finish some books because I'm running out of things to review. I have a list of 2011 reads still unreviewed but most of them will stay that way. This week I will probably review Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones and something else from this year but like I said, I'm running out. In a couple of cases I'm delaying reviews while I wait on interview answers but I just need to finish more books! I'm now reading three with a particular effort to finish Yellow Blue Tibia, a science fiction satire that has just started to get interesting about 3/4 of the way through. Anyway my reading definitely needs a shot in the arm and once I finish something I'll hopefully find something more electrifying than my current reads.

(If you're wondering why I'm struggling with books I'm not loving to pieces, the answer is "review obligations.")

In the "other stuff" category, I've been working on my quilting more lately. I'm ready to baste two quilts, one for machine quilting and one for handquilting. I should finish the machine-quilted quilt in the next couple of weeks; handquilting takes a lot longer but you have to do what's right for each quilt. I've taken to going through my stash and craft room looking for unfinished projects I can complete with materials on hand. In quilting we call these "UFOs" or UnFinished Objects. Between my UFO pile on the one hand and my TBR piles on the other, sometimes my life just feels like lists of things I haven't done yet!

What have you finished this week? What's on tap for this week? I hope to have a photo or two of a quilt to show you soon. In the mean time I'd love to know what you're up to. Have a great Sunday whatever it is!

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Finds - Italian Edition (Sort Of)


So if all goes to plan, my husband and I are going with my inlaws on a trip to Italy this coming fall. Rome is definitely on the agenda; other destinations are TBD but for now I got a couple of travel guides and this literary history of the eternal city. If you've been to Rome and have a "must do" to share, I'd love to know!

Coincidentally, my other two finds this week are from my favorite Italian publisher, Europa Editions, though they are not as such Italian books. Boot Tracks by Matthew E. Jones is a crime thriller; Europa Editions call it "A commanding, stylishly written novel that tells the harrowing story of an assassination gone terribly wrong and the man and woman who are taking their last chance to find a safe place in a hostile world."

I also picked up the recent rave These Dreams of You, by Steve Erickson. Folks on the Europa Challenge blog and LibraryThing have been talking up a storm about this unusual, unconventional novel and I thought it was about time I checked it out!

That's it for me this week. Do you have a favorite book about Italy or by an Italian writer? I'd love to know, and I'd love to know what you found, too!

More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

REVIEW: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Published 2011 by HarperCollins.

I picked up The Sisters Brothers because I had time to kill at the airport one day and because my friend Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand said it was great. Well, it is. It is great.

Set in the Gold Rush days of California and Oregon, The Sisters Brothers tells the story of a pair of hired killers and their last big job. Eli and Charlie Sisters are sent to kill Hermann Kermit Warm; Warm has invented a formula for finding gold and their boss wants the formula. Eli narrates the story, and he is a wonderful fictional creation. I don't know how to describe Eli except to say he's a nerd who ended up in the wrong profession. Overweight and bumbling, with a horse as desperate as himself for love and affection, he grows in self-confidence as events go slowly and tragically awry. When the story opens, Charlie is the "lead man," the one who fancies himself in charge. But little by little, slowpoke Eli takes the reins. Eli has a quiet charm and likability that almost make me forget he's a serial killer on a mission.

I have to say, I really loved this book. The story follows their adventures as they chase, and eventually find, Warm and his companion. Along the way they stay in flophouse hotels, shop for clothes, try to seduce women and even learn to brush their teeth. It's a picaresque that never gets dull and never ever loses its way. I can see why it was shortlisted for 2011's Man Booker Prize, although as a Western it seems at first glance an unlikely choice for a prestigious European literary award. But it really is that good.

And it's funny. Like, not exactly laugh-out-loud funny but chuckle-enough-to-get-attention funny. Eli has a terrific sense of humor and the situations the brothers find themselves in are frequently absurd to hilarious. Reading The Sisters Brothers makes me want to pick up my Charles Portis stash, or try something else outside my comfort zone. It's just as great a time as I've had reading all year. I'd strongly recommend it to just about any reader. There is some violence but nothing too graphic- although that one scene where the horse's eye- well, you'll see what I mean, no pun intended, if you take my advice and pick up this wonderful novel.

And it counts towards the Complete Booker Challenge!

Rating: BUY
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
Powells.com
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.


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

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

REVIEW: Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, by Inès de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, by Inès de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet. Published 2011 by Flammarion. Nonfiction.

If you know me, you know my style mantra is basically "If it doesn't come from Eddie Bauer, I'm not interested." Don't get me wrong- I like clothes and I enjoy shopping, but I have no idea how to put an outfit together, only the vaguest sense of what looks good on me and little sense of fashion. And I'm lazy. Even when I know what the trends are, I can't really be bothered to follow them. I would love to put some of my meager clothing budget towards something besides hoodies and jeans, but I wouldn't even know where to start.

I picked up Parisian Chic not because I think a wealthy French model from an aristocratic family is the final word on fashion but because I thought it would be fun and maybe give me a pointer or two on how to take my characteristically relaxed style (there's a euphemism for you) and polish it up a little. And that's about what you can expect from this frothy volume.

Fressange is a former Chanel model who was also chosen to model for as Marianne, the national emblem of French values and culture. She continues to work in fashion, on the runway and consulting for high fashion houses like Gaultier and Vivier. So, she knows a lot about clothes.

And appropriately enough the book is stylishly attired in a red cover and accessorized with Fressange's own cute illustrations. The fashion advice takes up about one half of the book, where readers will learn her formula for building a wardrobe around a collection of basic pieces. These pieces can be expensive or not, and Fressange offers advice about how to style them and integrate them into your wardrobe. She includes a chapter on fashion "don'ts," most of which I was relieved to find I don't do anyway. I was glad, for example, to hear that I am not the only one who thinks leggings are tacky. I also liked her advice on dressing as it relates to aging. But the one "don't" that I do, I'm not giving up. Nobody messes with my Hello Kitty pajamas, not even Inès.

The latter half of the book contains notes on her favorite places and things to do in and around Paris, as well as advice on home decorating which I found less helpful. American home style is quite different from tiny-European-city-apartment living! It's still fun to look at, but I'm not likely to put much of this advice into practice the way I am with the clothing tips. And since I'm not going to Paris anytime soon, the travel stuff isn't useful at all.

Overall I thought her advice was simple and easy to put into practice. Style, I think, is more about building a mindset than building a collection of pieces. It's about flair and fun and enjoying yourself through what you wear, but you still have to know where to start. The book communicates a sense of fun while also laying down some guidelines. She's not going to dress you head to toe, or even offer suggestions for different body types. She's looking at universal items for every woman and pieces that are classic and classy rather than trendy. So her advice is sometimes vague but still usable. Each section also includes specific brands and stores that she likes, though some of those are more affordable than others. I think it's OK to get your cute trench at Target if you're not a Burberry girl like she is. But if you can afford a $600 raincoat, good for you.

The parts of this book most useful for me could have been summed up in a magazine article, but nonetheless I'm glad I bought it. It's fun to page through and have on hand, and I will take some of the advice.  I think the book would have worked better (1) without the travel and home sections and (2) accompanied by some blank workbook pages where the reader could list things she has, would like to buy, places to shop, etc. I'm getting a vision of Moleskine-like journal for the fashionista, with Fressange's tips and illustrations alongside. Now that would help this fashion-impaired nerd get it together!

Update: doing some further research I learned that there is a 2013 planner coming based on the book! I'll add that to my wish list!

Rating: BEACH

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