Monday, April 30, 2012

Should Adults Read Adult Books?

I'm sure you've read writer Joel Stein's recent polemic on the subject of adults reading young-adult literature:
"The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing."
You can find the full article here.

I kind of agree with him, at least as far as my own reading goes; I don't judge people for what they read but I do cringe a little too when a grownup tells me I should read a book written for a 10 year old. And I'm sure it's a wonderful book. Really, I am. I have nothing but respect for the passion of YA and children's authors, booksellers, librarians and readers. But I'm not going to read the book.*

When I was a teen there was very little YA literature- nothing like what there is today. When I finished with middle-reader chapter books I had these choices:
  • science fiction,
  • Sweet Valley High,
  • adult books.
I think somewhere along the line I read Dicey's Song and The Outsiders and Island of the Blue Dolphins too, but once high school hit, virtually all of our required books were "adult" books- Jane Eyre, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Of Mice and Men, and others. The books I read on my own were adult books too- and not always highbrow. I had a romance novel phase and I'm only a little ashamed to admit it. But YA? Today? As an almost-40-year old? I'll pass. I hate to generalize about YA because
  • I haven't read that much and
  • I'll get flamed for a thousand years,
but I will anyway. It just seems so angsty. I don't need teen angst. I don't relate to it and I don't really want to spend my time swimming in it. I had enough teen angst as a teenager to last me the rest of my life and anybody who doubts that can read my diaries. (Not that adult books don't have it too. One of the first adult books I remember reading was Gone with the Wind. I mean, Scarlett O'Hara, self pity much? But read on.)

Maybe the difference is perspective. Books written about growing up from an adult perspective, for an adult reader, often have a little bit of maturity to back up the melodrama, and a little maturity goes a long way. These books don't just recount the horrors of adolescence but try to understand how those experiences made the grownup the person he or she has become. As adult myself I appreciate that insight. I find it missing in books that are more inwardly focused and focused on the moment of growing up, before insight is achieved. I think of books like Asta in the Wings, or Me and You, or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as great coming of age stories lacking in excessive melodrama. I understand that teens need fictional characters to relate to, especially those teens with chaos and dysfunction in their lives. I am glad that kids have books that show the pain of childhood, jagged edges and all, so they know that whatever they're going through, they're not alone.  And if that helps you, great. I wish I had some of those books when I was a kid, and today you have lots of choices. But I don't need to be dragged back into that.

I think I don't read YA because it feels like going backwards. I want to move on in my life and I want my reading to reflect where I am now, not where I was when I was 15. I wonder if that may be what Stein was really getting at but didn't say. It's not a matter of the quality of the writing or the craft or the complexity of the ideas.  It just seems weird for grownups to be so stuck on childhood. If you like angst, grownups have plenty too. Why not read novels about middle aged angst? I can give you some suggestions if you need them.

That said, what you read is your business and I respect differences in taste and have no wish to shame anyone for their reading. But we may have to agree to disagree on this one.

*unless it's a bona fide phenomenon and I have to read it for work. In which case I'll love it and hand-sell it with wild abandon.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Salon- Ch-Ch-Changes

I'm back, for now. My break was great- it gave me time to think and time to rest. I also pre-scheduled a bunch of posts for the next couple of weeks, so I guess that means I've extended it. Anyway along with changing the look and layout of my blog, I'm making some other changes too.

Over the past couple of years I've fallen into a rut when it came to posting- two book reviews a week, maybe something else, several memes and rare features and interviews.  I want to start doing Saturday Snapshots to inject a little more personal life into the blog from a different perspective, but otherwise I won't be doing any memes on a regular basis. There will be an occasional Friday Finds or Sunday Salon if I have something special I want to tell you about. I'm also going to start including movie reviews here once in a while- not every movie I see, but just stuff that fits alongside my book reviews, and there will be more quick, Tumblr-style content as well. Finally, I'm working on a self-paced social media course that will require occasional posts here, so you'll see those once in a while.

Speaking of book reviews, that's the only thing that will stay the same. I'll continue to review books and give you my unvarnished opinions. I won't review every book I read; sometimes I just have nothing to say. And I won't review books by authors who are appearing at the store where I work now, or books by people I meet at work events. Otherwise my review policy will remain unchanged.

I've started working at another independent bookstore, one that I think will be a really good fit for me and where I hope to stay for a long time, and my involvement in the local book scene may change or become more limited. But I'll be here, off and on, and at the store, so drop by if you want to know what's going on.

More Sunday Salon here.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

REVIEW: Absolution, by Patrick Flanery

Absolution, by Patrick Flanery. Published 2012 by Riverhead Books. Literary Fiction.

I didn't break my hiatus to talk about The Hunger Games, or Joel Stein's article about adults reading YA, or even World Book Night. But I couldn't wait another minute to tell you about what might end up being my favorite book of 2012, Absolution, the debut novel by American expat writer Patrick Flanery.

The book tells the stories of Clare Wald, an elderly and celebrated author living in a kind of gilded prison in modern day South Africa, alone except for her maid. Sam Leroux is a writer and academic who's come to write Clare's biography, and she doesn't seem happy to have him there. Their relationship starts off testy and tense but nothing is as it seems.  The story of Clare Wald and Sam Leroux and the secrets, lies and truths that bind them and tear at them is riveting and beautifully written; Patrick Flanery may be a debut author but he tackles these prickly, unpredictable people and writes about difficult social, political and personal issues like a seasoned veteran.

A biographer faces off against a seemingly unwilling writer; we've seen this before but in this case it's not so much a battle of wits as a slow unraveling. The perspective shifts between Clare, Sam, the book that Clare is writing about her dead daughter Laura, a disappeared activist who was taking care of the child Sam just before she vanished, and more. Memories are told, retold, and imagined; sometimes the tellers are lying, sometimes they just don't know the whole story. The death of one character, a man named Bernard who looked after the child Sam for a time after his parents' death, is told four ways, and in the end the truth eludes us and the characters, too. And that's not all. Laura isn't who she seems; Clare carries a burden of guilt over the death of her sister and brother-in-law that may not even be hers to carry, and there are some things only hinted at that we never know for sure. Absolution is a lot of things in this book; it's the title of Clare's last book and the theme of course, the thing that everyone wants and some find more successfully than others.

So Absolution is really a four-pronged success. Flanery's writing is mature and elegant; the book reads like Margaret Atwood with its layers and complexity and craft. The characters are vivid and three-dimensional, complex and elusive. The plot keeps you turning the pages; what happened to these people, what's going to happen? The setting, contemporary South Africa, is rendered as a frightening dystopia where people live in constant fear of murder and death; middle-class people live in 24-hour terror of a predatory underclass and install panic buttons in their showers and bedposts in case of attack. I wonder if the panic buttons and burglar bars serve as a metaphor for something inside these people, their vulnerability to guilt and abandonment, their yearning for love and forgiveness. Sometimes the measures people take to protect themselves save them; sometimes nothing can. And the plot clicks along at a very satisfying, page-turning pace. I can't recommend this book highly enough to readers of literary fiction. It's a staggering, wonderful and accomplished book. I hope his subsequent books live up to the promise of his astonishing debut.

Rating: BUY- like, now!

Buy it from Powell's:
by Patrick Flanery
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from as part of their Early Reviewer program.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sunday Salon- Happy Easter, and I'm Taking a Break

It's been another busy week. Work has been crazy and the store had an Easter egg hunt yesterday. Oh my. I'm so glad for the holiday! Happy Easter and/or Passover. We made some coconut cupcakes with cream cheese frosting for Easter dinner dessert; despite my Lenten ban on baked goods I tried one to make sure they're good. They are!

I doubt I'll have much time for reading today but I've been juggling a bunch of books for the past few weeks. April is young yet but so far it's a much better reading month for me than March! I'm going to try to mix it up with more nonfiction as well, and more graphic novels. I keep buying them so sooner or later I need to read them, right? I might do another mini read-a-thon on some day off to get a little caught up and save up some more reviews.

But I won't be blogging them for a while. I've decided to put the blog on hiatus for the rest of April. In four and a half years of blogging this will be my first break. Lately I've felt like things have gotten kind of stale; comments are way down, which leads me to think I'm not doing a good job keeping you engaged. My writing feels dull, the writing itself has become routine in a bad way and I think I need some time off. I do have a couple of outstanding commitments and will continue to manage the Europa Challenge blog. I'll keep reading and commenting on your blogs. I'll be around on Twitter. I'll be back soon.

More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

REVIEW: The Goodbye Kiss, by Massimo Carlotto

The Goodbye Kiss, by Massimo Carlotto. Published 2006 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction.

One thing you can say about the crime novels of Massimo Carlotto is that as dark and as violent as they are, they will make you feel better about your life, because nothing that's ever happened to me holds a candle to an ordinary day in the life of Mr. Carlotto's protagonists.

In The Goodbye Kiss we meet gleeful psychopath Giorgio Pellegrini, a career criminal who prances from one trainwreck to the next but always comes off without a scratch. The one-time revolutionary is back on the scene in Italy after some time in Central America and stint in prison and all he wants is respectability. To get it, he's willing and able to indulge in all manner of bloody, violent, nasty shenanigans. But the thing is, he's a lot of fun. Hilarious. I might be tempted to call him an unreliable narrator but the fact is he's scrupulously honest with the reader about who he is and what's he about, even when he's lying his pants off to everyone else.

Most of the book is taken up with a big heist he's planning, which he hopes will net him a hefty payday and bankroll his new "respectable" life. The only hitch is, he can't leave any witnesses. Along the way he plots with a veritable rogues' gallery of accomplices, amuses himself with various women who aren't always amused with him, and generally acts nice right up to the point where the bullets start flying and the bodies start piling up. It sounds grim, but it's a riot. And having just read Cooking with Fernet Branca I had to laugh when a bottle of the stuff turned up in this book under very different and for one character, highly unfortunate circumstances.

Which brings me to the only thing that doesn't make me laugh about Giorgio, and about Carlotto's books more generally- the way Carlotto's female characters are routinely degraded and tortured. I suppose one could say he's being all Stieg Larssonish about it, showing us the horrors perpetrated on women in order to expose them. So we get ample helpings of rape, prostitution, and other manner of violations against just about every woman in this and Carlotto's other books (at least the three I've read). But unlike Larsson, Carlotto's brutality isn't presented as fantasy porn. And the truth is, as badly as his women fare, they're no worse off than the men.

So, I really enjoyed The Goodbye Kiss. Giorgio is appalling- a horror of a human being. But Carlotto creates such a charismatic bad boy that his adventures are just a roller coaster good time. Turn off your inner feminist and come along for the ride!

This counts towards the 2012 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BEACH

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

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Finds!

Bury Me Standing is writer Isabel Fonseca's portrait of the Roma people based on time she spent traveling and living among them in Eastern Europe.

Europa Editions kindly sent me a review copy of Divorce Islamic Style, the latest from writer Amara Lakhous, author of the terrific Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.

Second Person Singular is an interesting-looking novel by Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian Israeli writer, about a lawyer with the perfect life, until he discovers a love letter in his wife's handwriting inside a book in a bookshop.

The Book of My Mother, by Albert Cohen, is a French novel sent to me for review by Archipelago Books. It's about a man's relationship with his mother. As if that were not obvious.

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

Thursday, April 5, 2012

#IndieThursday- Are You In?

Are you on Twitter or Facebook? If so, you have a great opportunity to advocate for independent bookstores each week. Jenn of Jenn's Bookshelves has started a great hashtag campaign called #IndieThursday.

Each week on Thursday, tweet out the books you've bought from independent bookstores that week along with the name of the store and if you know it, the store's @Twittername.

The Facebook #IndieThursday page is here.

This week, I bought Mirage by Matt Ruff and Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca from the Harvard Coop.

If you need to find an independent bookstore in your area, go to and use their Indie Store Finder feature. Many independent bookstores offer online shopping and will ship to your home- so distance is not excuse!

And don't forget to use the tag #IndieThursday so it shows up with all the other posts. It's a great way to show your support for independent bookstores and remind your followers to shop indie, too!

Then come back to Twitter and Facebook on Friday for #FridayReads!

(You can always find me on Twitter at @bostonbibliophl.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

REVIEW: Cooking with Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson

Cooking with Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson. Published by Europa Editions 2009. Literary Fiction.

What a hoot this fun, fast-reading novel is. Set in the Tuscan hills, so full of British ex-pats that some call it Chiantishire (and our hero calls it Tuscminster), it tells the story of mismatched neighbors Gerald and Marta.

James Hamilton-Paterson alternates the points of view to comic effect. Marta comes from the fictional Eastern bloc country of Voyde, recently liberated from Soviet control. She's a musician composing a score for a sleazy yet charismatic film director. Gerald is a ghostwriter/biographer preparing a book for a vacuous celebrity. Both just want a quiet place to work; their shady realtor assures each that the other will be no trouble. But Gerald is also loud off-key singer and cheerful drunk always getting into scrapes and Marta has noisy late-night visitors and puzzles Gerald no end. Gerald thinks Marta is a frump and a hag. She thinks he's a fool and a pain. They hate each other, yet they can't stay away from one another. Let the shenanigans begin.

I really enjoyed the book. I didn't love it to pieces but it was fun. It didn't strike me as Wodehousian as some reviewers have commented; it was certainly funny and satirical though. I don't know, it just didn't have that Wodehouse light touch. There was a lot of hostility between the two, and Gerald in particular could be quite nasty and mean-spirited. Marta came off better if only because Gerald is so off in the way he sizes her up, and so superficial. So I didn't like him very much. But he was fun to watch. And oh my, those recipes look truly affreux, as the French would say.

If you're reading Europa books, this one is probably required at some point. I'm glad I read it. I'm going to read a bunch of Italian Europas for the next few months since I'm going to Italy in the fall with my family. This was a great book to get me going.

This is my 4th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.

See reviews of Cooking with Fernet Branca at Desperado Penguin, and BookNAround, not to mention the Europa Challenge blog.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, April 2, 2012

Are Translations Really "Literary Broccoli"?

Do you read translations? Do you avoid them? Publishing Perspectives published an article called Why Cliches About Translations Hurt Books, and it got me thinking.

If you're a reader of my blog you know I enjoy reading books from all over the world and I'm not put off by the phrase "translated by" on the title page. I wouldn't say that I seek them out, but it seems like especially when I'm browsing in a bookstore, the books I'm attracted to are often translations. My favorite publishers- Europa Editions, New Directions, Dalkey Archive Press, Other Press- frequently publish work from other languages. They just seem to show up on my radar a lot.

What do you think of when you think of a translation? There's more than just one kind of translated book of course. Literature from around the world comes in every shape and style, from gritty crime novels that sit comfortably next to American stars like Dennis Lehane and James Patterson to conventional literary fiction to experimental books that break narrative form, voice and plot. The recent trend of Scandinavian crime novels has certainly opened up space on American bookshelves for foreign writers, and publishers like those I mentioned above are bringing a diverse array of voices to our stores. Why then is there so little translated stuff out there, and why do readers tend to avoid it?

Translated books are looked at like foreign movies. Just by virtue of being from another country I think they're seen as "arty" or "difficult" despite that many of them are just as readable and approachable as anything by your favorite English-language author. Europa publishes some edgy stuff, but they also publish a lot of books that are just well-crafted good reads that would appeal to lots of readers. The fact that they come from Europe or the Middle East doesn't mean that they're stories you won't relate to, or characters you won't understand. People are the same everywhere; translations just bring us new friends. It's like having a penpal in a foreign country. You think you're different but soon you find out that you're both struggling with boys and clothes and life. The settings might be different, the cultural details might be different, but people write about all the same things no matter where they're from or what language they speak. With a foreign book you get the added benefit of learning something along with the great story.

But what if you don't want to learn? You don't want your "literary broccoli"- you just want a nice story that isn't going to tax you or stretch you or teach you anything new. Well, why are you reading at all then? I think there's no point to picking up a book if what you really want is a mirror.

And you know what else? Foreign fiction is just plain fun. It's armchair travel, a chance to see the world from your living room and better than a television travel show because your imagination gets to fill in the gaps, see that sunset, that architecture, smell that amazing food your protagonist is eating, feel the snow leaking through his shoes or the water lapping her ankles.

Maybe people worry that they're not getting the "real" book when they read a translation, and different translations do frame a work differently. The translation that came out a couple of years ago of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's opus, was highly anticipated and written by two recognized master translators, but a lot of readers (myself included) found it virtually unreadable. I remember trying to convince a friend who had tried it and given up to try the older, standard one. For me, the older version, translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, has a poetry and beauty that the newer and supposedly more faithful version can't match. Penguin has been publishing new translations of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, each volume by a different translator. What impact will that have on such a long work? I'm looking forward to seeing how the volumes will vary in style and how they will work together. It's a risk to retranslate a classic! On the plus side,  Lydia Davis's recent translation of Madame Bovary was a triumph that made a wonderful French book come alive in English.

When you consider that most translated books aren't translated more than once, it's hard to know if the translator got it right, and there's always this worry that the translation I pick up won't be a good one or that I won't be able to tell if I don't like the book or don't like the translation. But you know what? Most of the time these worries are simply unfounded. Translators know what they're doing. Most of the time a translation is just a new favorite waiting to be discovered.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Salon: March's Accomplishments, April's Goals

March was one of the duller reading months I've had recently. I blamed it on review obligations but that's not really fair, since I'd read the same books anyway! For April, I'd like to focus on 2012 releases but I'm sure I won't stick to that 100%. It seems like every time I say I'm going to stick to a particular theme I end up going off course almost immediately! One thing I miss reading is nonfiction. So far this year I've read fiction almost exclusively. I still haven't read Steve Jobs, or Vera, or Travels in Siberia, or Roger Ebert's autobiography. I need to!

Today I'm finishing up the Hunger Games trilogy- I have about three chapters of Mockingjay and then I'll be able to write about the series sometime soon. I had a blast reading the hilarious Goodbye Kiss earlier this week; if you like noirs and crime fiction and you're not reading Massimo Carlotto, you really need to. I'll have a full review this week. It's the first one of his books I'd call funny but it really is.

Here's a question for you. What's the one 2012 release you think I have to read?

I'm fighting back a head cold and decorating the house for Easter today, as well as getting passport photos for our fall trip to Italy. What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.