Wednesday, May 30, 2012

REVIEW: Varamo, by César Aira

Varamo, by César Aira. Published 2012 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.

I have no idea why it's taken me so long to get around to telling you about this delightful gem.

Varamo, by Argentine writer César Aira, is honestly one of the funnest and most charming books I've read this or any year. Slender and unconventional, Aira tells the story of a government clerk in Panama and his dark, hilarious night of the soul. The clerk, Varamo, is, when the book opens, already a famous poet and the book recounts the story of the night just before he composed the poem that made his name.

It all starts when he's paid in counterfeit money and goes on a long ramble about the shady economics of his country. From here, anarchists, embalmed fish, gamblers, smugglers and more play a part in the poem's creation and the poem itself. The night is reconstructed from the poem itself, as well as the why and the how the poem came to be. Along the way we're treated to a crazy fun romp through the mind of an accidental poet via the observations of a later admirer. Questions abound about the reliability of literature, the writing process and the publishing world, and it's all wrapped up in this sparkling, irresistible comedy of errors.

You can tell I liked, it right? Oh my goodness, now I want to read everything by this guy!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New Directions.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

REVIEW: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This edition published 2011 by Penguin.

What can I possibly say about a book like The Secret Garden? It's a classic. Just, a classic.

As some of you may know I'm absolutely bonkers about the Penguin Threads series, a collection of six classics published with incredible embroidered covers; this edition of The Secret Garden was included in the first batch, which came out last year and features illustrations by fiber artist Jillian Tamaki. And what's fun too is when you open the book the back of the cover shows the back of the stitching! As a stitcher myself I just love these books and while I wanted to collect them all, I settled on The Secret Garden because it's one of those books I've always meant to read.

Now, I've seen film adaptations so I knew the story, but what I didn't know was just how marvelous the book is. If you're not familiar with it, it's the story of little Mary Lennox, a spoiled rich girl living in India with her parents. Her parents die, and she is brought to England to live with her gloomy uncle, Archibald Craven, in his rambling and gloomy estate in Yorkshire. But Mary soon finds that Yorkshire agrees with her, and she discovers a secret garden, locked and abandoned since the death ten years ago of Archibald Craven's wife. She left something else behind when she died too, which Mary hears crying in the house's long hallways.

This book was just wonderful from start to finish. Burnett's narration is compassionate and knowing, loving and clear-eyed at the same time. She doesn't romanticize the children or childhood but presents the children with respect and realism. At the same time though, she draws us into the incredible world that they discover and then create for themselves. Her lush and vivid descriptions of the house, the Yorkshire moors and of course the garden itself make the setting come alive for the reader just as they do for Mary and Colin and Dickon (Archibald's forgotten son and his servant's son respectively). The adults in the story are also complicated and interesting people, though Burnett saves the richest interior lives for the children.

Everyone should read The Secret Garden. Everyone!

"And delight reigned."

Rating: BUY!

Buy it online from Powell'
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Snapshot

A pink flamingo made from a gourd. This picture was taken at a fall harvest fair but flamingos always remind me of summer and warm weather so I thought it was appropriate!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

REVIEW: Limassol, by Yishai Sarid

Limassol by Yishai Sarid. Published by Europa Editions 2010. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Hebrew.

Limassol is a noir unlike many you've read or will read. It tells the story of an unnamed Mossad agent involved in an operation to snare a terrorist connected to a once-famous writer named Daphna. The agent, a troubled interrogator with a fizzling marriage, presents himself to Daphna as a writing student, but she knows something is up. To get to the terrorist, the agent must get to know Hani, Daphna's close friend and the terrorist's father. Daphna asks for the agent's help with Hani, who is dying, and with her son Yotam, wasting away from drug addiction and in trouble with some thugs. The agent agrees to help. Meanwhile, the man, whose marriage is falling apart due to the stress of his job, finds himself drawn more and more to Daphna and sympathizing with Hani in ways he hadn't expected. But he has to do his job. Or does he?

This is not the easiest book to get into. The tone is dry and matter of fact, almost distant, yet sticks very closely to the agent's thoughts and point of view. It's almost as though he's alienated from himself, from his own feelings. He's doing difficult, dangerous work interrogating prisoners, and it doesn't always go well; in fact, everything he does seems to go wrong more than anything else. At the same time he's treading water at home, trying to connect to his wife and son who are ebbing away from him. Then, there's Daphna, and Hani, and even Yotam, to whom the agent feels drawn and in whose lives he quickly becomes deeply involved.

That said, I still really enjoyed Limassol and would recommend it. I say it was hard to get into but I was halfway through before I knew it, and totally committed to seeing how this story ended. And author Sarid asks some difficult questions about the Israel-Palestine relationship/conflict. He presents a pretty bleak picture of how different peoples' lives have been affected and sometimes ruined by the stress inherent in their society, but he does offer a little hope for our unnamed hero. Limassol isn't the kind of book that will having you madly flipping pages, but it's one you'll want to finish once you start.

It's been nominated for a 2012 Impac Award.

This is my seventh book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.


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

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Graphic Novel REVIEW: Jobnik! by Miriam Libicki

jobnik! by Miriam Libicki. Published 2008 by real gone girls studio. Graphica.

I seem to be spending a lot of my reading time in Israel these days!

I picked up jobnik! quite a while ago; I'm always attracted to graphic novels set in Israel for some reason and I found Miriam Libicki's memoir of her Israel Defense Force service at my local comics shop. I love this particular store because they always stock interesting small-press graphica and comics I can't find at other bookstores, and jobnik! appealed to my interest in graphica by women as well.

Miriam is an American Jew who moved to Israel in her late teens and joined the army, but military life is tough on her. Written diary-style in detailed and captivating pencil drawings, the reader follows Miriam's time as a secretary in the IDF; her depression has disqualified her for combat and she's serving as a jobnik, an IDF soldier on office duties. We see her relationships with fellow soldiers, her visits home, time spent with friends, and her interior struggles with depression and sexual relationships.  Unfortunately she has a pattern of getting involved with men who take advantage of her and treat her badly.

She also struggles with her religious identity and sense of belonging. She comes from an observant household but finds herself on the outs often, trying to adhere to modesty rules and establish boundaries with men. This, as you maybe can tell, she has little success with. She doesn't offer any insight into the reasons for her evident lack of self-worth but she seems to find a place for herself in the army, and some things to value and friends to care about. I liked Miriam and rooted for her but I was frustrated by her poor self-esteem and patterns of poor choices. I was gratified to see her grow some during the course of the book though.

I think what I enjoyed most about jobnik! was Libicki's art. There's just something very arresting for me about pencil-drawn panels and art; it feels more immediate to me than inked pictures, like you can really see the artist's hand at work. Her art reminded me of Nicolai Maslov's staggering Siberia, also entirely pencil-drawn. Libicki creates some very atmospheric scenes of the outdoors; the night sky depicted cover of the book in particular is staggering in its pencil version about a third of the way into the book.

jobnik! is moving and interesting as a coming-of-age story but I think most of its appeal will be to readers who are interested in Israel and depictions of life in the IDF. Throughout the book and playing like background music to Miriam's personal trials is the Al Aqsa uprising and other political and military troubles associated with the occupation, and the stress of army life weighs heavily on her. Not being intimately familiar with the events to which she refers, it was a little difficult for me to get involved emotionally in that aspect of her story, but I think readers more fluent in Israeli current events would get more out of it.


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

Monday, May 21, 2012

Traveling By the Book

So, working in bookstores for the past few months, one of the most interesting parts of the stores I've worked in is also one of the most specialized- the travel section.

Who uses travel books anymore? I hear you ask. Don't we all use our iPads and smart phones? Many of us do; this article quotes a 28% drop in print travel sales in the past few years. But those old fashioned paper books still sell like hotcakes.

And why not? They're easy to carry, annotate, refer to, and read- no batteries or chargers required. If you're going for a 3 day business trip you can get something basic; for a family vacation, something more in-depth. The web can't be beat for up-to-the-minute weather, conditions and attraction schedules, but I wouldn't know how to begin to plan a vacation without a book.

One of the things I've learned about is the sheer diversity in travel books. Sure, my parents have their good old fashioned Frommer's, and hipsters have their Lonely Planet. In preparing for a trip to Italy this fall, I've encountered all kinds of interesting guides. I found a Blue Guide to Literary Rome, and an Oxford archaeological guide to the city's ruins, even a book devoted to Florence's cafes, and never mind the scores of guides to traveling with children, pets and more. And that old standby Baedecker seems to be making a comeback as well.

Moleskine is getting into the game with their City Notebooks, mini Moleskines that include maps, transit information and of course plenty of space for you to jot down memories and notes. Included in the series are notebooks for Paris, Berlin, London and New York. Moleskine also offers a really cool product they call Postal Notebooks and Note Cards, which are fully mailable slim notebooks in which to write short and longer letters and notes. Remember letter writing?

(I'm linking to the Moleskine site so you can see the products and descriptions but these are widely available from booksellers, including the one where I work.)

One of the funner and more unusual things I've come across is a series of travel books that literally turn sightseeing into a game. Whaiwhai is a game that you play with your smartphone and a book; you get a code via text message, and read the story it gives you. It will tell you to go to a particular place, then lead you on a kind of a scavenger hunt through the city with the book as your companion. The game can be played in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and New York; each city has its own theme though some of the Italian games are related, for travelers spending time in more than one city. I wish we had enough time in Rome and Florence to play it!

And that's not even to mention some of the gems you can find besides plain old planning guides. Let's not forget travel writing, those memoirs of building a house or spending a year somewhere pretty or exotic. I've been amazed and fascinated by some of the things I've come across. Along with the essays and memoirs you've heard of, you can find treasures like Richard Paul Roe's The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, which combines literary criticism and Italian travelogue. Coffee table books abound, and there are books of inexpensive, suitable-for-framing illustrations of Paris, London and Rome to bring a little European history into your home.

  My favorite is a travel book I'll probably never use- The Atlas of Remote Islands, a beautifully produced hardbound volume describing places like St. Helena, Cocos Island, Rapa Nui and more. Each island has two pages of illustration and anecdote; it's a beautiful book and a treat for the mind as well as the eye.

So don't give up on books when it comes to travel. And remember that there's more to the travel section of your local bookstore than you might think!

Books I mentioned:

Barber, Annabel. The Blue Guide to Literary Rome. ISBN 9781905131396.
Claridge, Amanda. Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides). ISBN 9780199546831.
Levitch, Timothy Speed. New York: The PegLeg. ISBN 978-8895836164.
Roe, Richard Paul. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels. ISBN 978-0062074263.
Schalansky, Judith. The Atlas of Remote Islands. ISBN 978-0143118206.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Salon - I Still Believe

We got some big, bad news in Boston this week- WFNX, a 29-year-old independent alternative-music radio station (one of the last in the city) was sold to Clear Channel Corporation. I have been an FNX listener since my teens- 20+ years of its run- and I just don't know what I'm going to do.

I love books and reading, but I love music too, and I can't imagine growing up without the music I love, so much of which I heard on FNX. I didn't have angsty YA novels to get me through college and high school; I had The Smiths, and The Cure and The Ramones. I remember getting ready for school everyday to Morning Guy Tai and Henry Santoro's news. I remember the time when Tai was late for his shift and the overnight DJ vowed to play Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" over and over until he arrived- and did, for about forty minutes. I remember learning about Boston's gay community by listening to the weekly radio show One in Ten. I remember when FNX did its live on-air reading of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I remember driving through Boston on a spring day with FNX on, making me feel at home in the city.  I remember joking with my husband that we couldn't tune FNX in in a western suburb because that town "wasn't cool enough" to get the signal. And how for a full minute he believed me! I remember falling asleep to Dr. Drew and "Loveline," and wrapping presents on Christmas Eve to FNX's amazing mix of alternative Christmas music, and all those long afternoons and mornings and nights, as recently as this week, just living my life with the radio on the in the background.

Along with its media sister, the weekly newspaper The Boston Phoenix, FNX taught me that there was a world beyond my suburban home town and showed me how to be a part of it. Without One in Ten I never would have volunteered at AIDS Action Committee or explored gay bookstores or read Alison Bechdel's comics 15 years before Fun Home. Without their annual Christmas show I wouldn't have known that Fountains of Wayne really wanted an alien for Christmas, or that punk bands could lighten up for the holidays. I went to see movies they talked about on-air, read books they mentioned (including Howl), shopped with their advertisers and never mind how much of my music collection and how much of my day to day listening they've influenced. FNX wasn't just a radio station; it was a part of my identity. Pretty soon though, all it's going to be is a playlist on my iPod to which I will never add another new song.

From news coverage on the sale, it seems Clear Channel wants to turn the station into something else- talk radio or country music or who-knows-what. Boston doesn't need something else. Boston needs WFNX. It needs independent alternative radio because music matters and the people who pick it out, curate it and narrate it matter too. In the words of Francis Edward Turner,

And I still believe in the need
For guitars and drums and desperate poetry,
And I still believe that everyone
Can find a song for every time they've lost and every time they've won.

So just remember folks we're not just saving lives we're saving souls,
And we're having fun.

Now who'd have thought that after all,
Something as simple as rock 'n' roll would save us all...
Who'd have thought that after all, it's rock 'n' roll?

The station will be broadcasting for a while yet while the sale goes through. Listen on the air or online while you still can.

More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday Snapshot

Pretty tulips in my backyard! The previous owners planted these and they have continued to thrive. I do exactly no gardening! These have already come and gone in my yard this year.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

REVIEW: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. Published 2012 by Ecco. Literary Fiction.

I don't read a lot of contemporary war novels, that is, books about wars that happened during my lifetime, and I hesitated a long time before picking up Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I guess I'm always just a little worried about the point of view I'm going to encounter and how that's going to affect my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I'm not sure what it was exactly that pushed me over the line and persuaded me to give it a try, but I'm glad I did.

The book takes place over the course of one very long day. The men of Bravo squad, recently returned to the United States after their heroic acts in battle in Iraq were captured by an embedded journalist, are spending the day at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are at the tail end of a long "victory tour" across the country- mostly in swing states, as it happens- and they are all wiped and worn out. They've been feted and fussed over and Hollywood wants to tell their story. Word has it Hilary Swank wants to star. Now, though, they've got one day to get through before the next phase of their journey- not back home, but back to war.

The reader spends the day in the head of Billy Lynn, a private at the center of the action that went down, the action for which they're famous. Other members of the squad come in and out of the story, especially Dime, their commanding officer, an antiauthoritarian authority figure who provides a backbone of cynicism and skepticism but has his mens' love and loyalty absolutely. These guys are a unit, truly; whatever threatens one, threatens all, and as the day unfolds the men learn who is and is not truly on their side. In the mean time, they go through their day; they meet Cowboys honchos, flirt with cheerleaders and receive, not always happily, adoration, worship and appreciation for their service.

Tension builds slowly as we traverse Billy's memories, his family and his time in the service. The most important day of the story and maybe Billy's life, the day of the battle, plays like music in the background as the men negotiate the mundane events of this day at the stadium. Everything leads up to the halftime show, when the football field becomes another kind of battlefield for these men whose pent up stress and exhaustion threaten to overwhelm them.

The book is so completely engrossing that sometimes I forgot I wasn't reading about real people. I read it quickly; often the narrative slips into a sort of stream of consciousness but one that still kept me glued to the book. I think Ben Fountain has written a very brave and difficult book that takes a hard look at the cost of war both for our country and for the men and women tasked with fighting it. It undercuts a lot of the blind obedience and herd-following that goes on in civilian culture with respect to attitudes about the military while showing a great deal of empathy and respect for the private struggles of the armed soldier. It reminds of the sections in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, the parts where we see a character's cynicism around attitudes about soldiers and veterans. It's a book whose implications and meanings I know I'll struggle with for a long time, and one that I'd highly recommend to every reader.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

REVIEW: The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers. Published 2012 by HarperPerennial. ISBN 9780062130808.

This year's winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award and originally published by the small Scottish publisher Sandstone Press, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a book that will definitely get you thinking, and talking.

Veteran writer Jane Rogers tells the story of a 16 year old British girl named Jessie, who as the book opens is being held captive by her father. The story takes place in the near future after the spread of a deadly disease called Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS, which kills every infected pregnant woman. And everyone on Earth is infected. Panic spreads; scientists race to find a solution to the extinction of man while factions protest and regular people try to figure out what to do next. Jessie's father is a scientist at work on one of the most controversial projects, the Sleeping Beauties. Sleeping Beauties are young women- girls, really- who are impregnated with embryos then left in a coma until they deliver, and die.

When the book opens Jessie is tied up in a neighbor's house. She writes the book to keep herself occupied during her captivity, as a kind of reminiscence about the onset of MDS, the ensuing panics and reactions of her friends and family, and worldwide responses and consequences. Rogers lets Jessie give us a pretty good idea of the kind of chaos and uncertainty spreading through her society and her circles. Her aunt Mandy, childless and single, latches onto a cult for what she believes is her last chance at happiness. Her parents quarrel; her friend is raped and joins a feminist group. Jessie finds herself confronted with all kinds of conflicting ideas and input, and, eventually, comes to the decision that will land her in her cell and change her life forever.

I have to say I was very impressed by the novel. It's a genuinely creepy and disturbing dystopia, with a heroine who exhibits all the symptoms of teenage narcissism and still decides to take an active role in what's going on. She has no idea how her actions are impacting those around her; right up to the end she's blind to the effect she's having, totally cocooned in her own solipsistic righteousness. But the reader can see, and it's chilling, this single-mindedness of hers. I was totally engrossed and engaged from beginning to end. A paperback original, I think Testament would be a fantastic and very challenging book club selection, and a great read for lovers of dystopias and literary science fiction.

Rating: BUY

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

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

Monday, May 14, 2012

REVIEW: Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith

Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith. Published 2012 by Tin House Books. Literary Fiction.

Glaciers is a quiet, lovely little book from writer Alexis M. Smith and Tin House Books, a small publisher of off-the-beaten path novels. This book tells the story of Isabel, a 20-something archivist who likes vintage clothes and a quiet boy named Spoke, who works down the hall from her. The book follows a single day in her life, a day in which she goes to work, buys a beautiful dress and dreams of wearing it at a party for the boy she likes.

Set in Portland, Oregon, the book traverses the backwaters of Isabel's memories of growing up in Alaska, her parents, and her present-day life going between a quiet office, a low-key apartment and the store with the old clothes she loves so much. She's a dreamer; she collects postcards and ephemera and has a postcard picture of Amsterdam she found in a junk store:
Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.
Smith gives us a very atmospheric book drenched in itself, in its poetic imagery and memory-rich musings. The plot isn't anything much; a girl goes to work, buys a dress, pines for a boy. But it's a gem of a book anyway, beautifully written and unforgettable in its own way. It's the perfect book for a quiet afternoon, an indulgence with a cup of tea, a little marvel like an old ring that catches the light and makes rainbows on the ceiling.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pin It and Do It!

I've signed up for a quick May challenge, Trish's Pin It and Do It Pinterest challenge. I'm signing up at the Timid Pinner level, which means I have to do 1-3 of the tasks/crafts/recipes/ideas I've pinned to my Pinterest boards.

My Pinterest board is here if you want to check it out. I've collected tons of crafts and ideas around decorating, food and, of course, books.

Are you on Pinterest? I'd love to follow you if you are. It's a fun utility to bookmark pictures and ideas from all over the web. I'm not on it everyday but I check in from time to time, add pins and see what my Pinterest buddies are up to. I look forward to actually making and doing some of the ideas I've been tagging and I'd love to see what you're up to as well!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saturday Snapshot

Stairs to Nowhere at the Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, Calilfornia. Jeff and I went there on a trip to San Francisco several years ago!
Built by Sarah Winchester in the early 20th century and partially destroyed by a San Francisco earthquake, the house is a rambling, meandering structure full of windows that face floors, doors that don't open, stairs that lead to nowhere, and more. She was a Spiritualist and wanted to appease the ghosts of those killed by Winchester guns after the deaths of her husband and child. She spent the rest of her life and much of her wealth on the house which included custom Tiffany windows and other appointments.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Review: The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

El Secreto de sus ojos (original title) R 129 min. Directed by Juan José Campanella and starring
Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil and Pablo Rago. IMDB page. In Spanish with English subtitles.

The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Foreign Language Film in 2010 and oh my, did it ever deserve it. What a great movie.

Based on the 2005 book by Eduardo Sacheri (published in the U.S. in 2011 by Other Press), who also worked on the screenplay, it's a crime story crossed with a love story and you can read my review here for a fuller description of the plot.

And as much as I enjoyed the book, I think the movie is even better. Some small changes were made here and there but the basic story and structure are the same.  In other words, if you read the book first you'll notice some differences but there won't be any big surprises.

So anyway, the movie. Wow. First of all, the actors are amazing. The relationship between the leads, Soledad Villamil as Irene and Ricardo Darín as Benjamin, is low-key and repressed and passionate at the same time, and you see every emotion play out across their faces in the past and the present tense of the film. I loved both of them and rooted for them every time they were together on screen.  

The crime story plays out essentially as it does in the book. The film lacks some of the detail behind exactly how things unfold but director Campanella tells you what you need to know to get the point. He also plays up the social class difference between Irene and Benjamin and their relative positions in Argentine society, and how that affects what happens to Benjamin when the murder case becomes ensnared in the politics of the time.

I loved this movie. It has two endings, one to the crime story and one to the love story. One ending is chilling; the other is wonderful and perfect. Whether or not you decide to read the book, you should see the movie, like, today, even if you think you don't like arty subtitled Oscar winners. It's a winner!
It's rated R and includes gun violence and a graphic rape scene at the very beginning of the film.

Rating: RUSH to see it! (the movie equivalent of Buy!)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

REVIEW: The Secret in Their Eyes, by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret in Their Eyes, by Eduardo Sacheri. Published 2011 by Other Press. ISBN 9781590514504.

The Secret in Their Eyes got my attention because it promised a riveting crime thriller combined with a moving love story and it delivers on both counts.

Set in Argentina in the 1970s, Eduardo Sacheri's book tells the story of a gruesome rape and murder and its lingering aftermath in the lives of an investigator, a judge, the victim's husband and the killer. Benjamin Chapparo is retiring from a long career as a court clerk; he decides to write a book about the killing of a beautiful young woman and at the same time renews a friendship with Irene Hornos, a judge he has been in love with for years. The story alternates the past with the present, the story of the crime with the story of writing about it.

Benjamin is hit hard by the horrific crime, and by the toll it takes on her devoted, loving husband, and, unsatisfied with the lack of interest in solving it shown by his office, he undertakes his own investigation, assisted by his best friend and coworker. The two of them make a colorful, unlikely detective pair but they find the killer and get him convicted. However, Benjamin has made some enemies along the way and the country's political corruption and along with a personal vendetta get in the way of justice. At least, that's the way it seems to Benjamin, until he learns the shocking truth years later, leaving him with even more disturbing questions to ask of those he thought he knew.

It's a terrific book. I will admit the present-day side of the story had a little less urgency for me but I never got bored. The cast of characters coupled with the challenges they face make for really compelling and emotionally involving reading. I'd recommend The Secret in Their Eyes to readers who like a good dark crime novel mixed with politics, love, and an ending I guarantee you will not see coming.

Click here and I'll tell you about the Oscar-winning 2009 film which might even be better than the book.

Rating: BUY

Buy it from Powell's online:
The Secret in Their Eyes
by Eduardo Sacheri
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Hunger Games: My Take

So, just before the film came out in late March I finally broke down and read The Hunger Games, all three books of Suzanne Collins' much lauded and hugely popular young adult dystopian series. I got a hardcover set for Christmas and kind of thought I was never going to get around to it, but as opening day of the movie approached, I got sucked in. For one thing, it was just selling like hotcakes at the bookstore and I felt like I needed to be able to talk to customers. Seriously, for about two weeks, literally every other customer was buying one or more of the series. And, the hype just overwhelmed me. So I decided, what the heck, I have the books anyway, why not just go for it.

And I loved it. I mean, I loved the first book. I enjoyed Catching Fire and I got through Mockingjay in one piece. Yes, I cried at the end, but the ending was just as manipulative as the rest of the series so of course I did. I cry at coffee commercials, so what do you expect.

I will admit that while I was reading the books, especially the first two, I was totally obsessed. I went to the movie opening weekend and saw it with a packed crowd of very jazzed up fans, including some people to whom I'd sold the book earlier in the week. And I enjoyed the movie. It's a solid adaptation of the first book though I agree with those who said that reading the book made the movie a richer experience; I think the movie would have felt thin to me without having read the book. And though it's rated PG-13 and the violence was kept to a minimum, it's not really a movie for kids, at least not young kids.

Once I started thinking more about the books I started to be less impressed. There are significant plot holes, issues with the writing and characters, and the whole thing feels derivative and a little stale. The basis behind the society of Panem- the decadence and violence, etc.,- felt like too little to motivate so many people to support it so blindly. But it is riveting nonetheless and will totally suck you in.

So should adult readers of literary fiction bother with it? Well, on the plus side it will take you 10 minutes to read the first book. You will probably want to read the second book, for which you should allocate about 20 minutes. So for a half hour of your time and around $25 (the books are still heavily discounted at lots of bookstores) you can be up on the zeitgeist and feel trendy, which, if you read Euro fiction all the time like I do, will be a novel and appealing sensation. The third book you can pass on. In fact I will tell you what happens so you don't have to waste your time. The evil empire is overthrown, two of the three main characters marry and live angstily ever after. There. You can thank me in the comments and spend the money on something else.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bookstore Blogging: How to Get It Done

Do you read blogs from bookstores? As a new bookseller I'm interested in getting to know what you like or don't like about blogs written by booksellers on behalf of their stores. I confess I don't read that many; once in a while I read the Green Apple Core, a blog from the wonderful Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I visited the Green Apple when I was in San Francisco several years ago and started reading their blog afterward. They did a hilarious video series on the book vs. the Kindle and they always have interesting, fun articles about the book industry and the weird and wonderful books they stock. I've read the Porter Square Book Store blog off and on (and now that's where I work, so I'll be reading it more consistently!) and some library blogs.

What do you look for in a bookstore blog? Do you want to interact with the booksellers? Do you want a convenient way to find out about events? Do you want to see staff picks or new arrivals? What holds your attention? Or if you don't read them, why not? What have you seen on a bookstore blog that you don't like?

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a Twitter chat on the subject of bookstore blogs and the consensus from booksellers seemed to be that their customers want to know about events and want a blog that transmits the personality of the store while offering customers content they're interested in. Sounds simple, but how do you get it done, and how do you evaluate results?

As a bookstore customer, I like engagement and unique content; I don't want to read the same promotional blurbs I'm seeing everywhere else. I want to hear about idiosyncratic arrivals, selections that make that particular bookstore unique, and I want to interact with the blog. From a customer perspective, I think it's nice when the comments are posted quickly so I can see my comment on the blog and if the blogger wants to respond in the comments, great. I don't want to talk into a void!


If you're a bookseller, how do you view store blogs? Does your store have one? How do you delegate or divide up the workload? Writing a blog is a lot of work; you have to come up with ideas, come up with a schedule, write the posts, respond to comments, and keep it going over time. When you also have to wait on customers, stock shelves and do all the things you have to do to run or work in a store, blogging may be the last thing you have time for.

I'm fascinated to learn more about blogging for a bookstore and I hope you'll share your thoughts and experiences, whether you sell books or buy them!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Vintage Science Fiction & Cataloging Fun

This is one of about 100 vintage science fiction paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s that my husband received as a very generous gift from a family friend. Right now we're in the midst of cataloging them all on If you're on LibraryThing you can find our collection here!  It's been really fun to take a look at all these books, many of them anthologies and many of them classics of the genre. Jeff has even been dipping into a few and reading them!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday Snapshot

Lydgate Park, Kauai, Hawaii. I wish I were there now! We went to Kauai several years ago on our second trip to Hawaii. I often use this picture as my computer's desktop background.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jane Eyre Board Book Alert!

How cute is this? It's baby counting book based on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I bought it for my Jane Eyre collection. It counts from 1 to 10 using motifs from the book, like the four towers of Thornfield Hall for the number 4. It's written by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver. Part of the BabyLit series, it's so sweet and perfect for Jane-ophiles everywhere.

You can find Alison Oliver's work at her website,, and more BabyLit books at the publisher's site here. Other books in the series include Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet. The books alone or in a set would be so nice for a baby shower gift or a 1 year old birthday. Adorable!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

REVIEW: Divorce Islamic Style, by Amara Lakhous

Divorce Islamic Style, by Amara Lakhous. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

If you're a fan of Amara Lakhous from Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, you have to read Divorce Islamic Style. If you like post-9/11 novels that make you think, you have to read Divorce Islamic Style. If you like post-9/11 novels that make you laugh, you have to read Divorce Islamic Style. If you like- well, hopefully you get the message :-)

Divorce Islamic Style is a satire set in Rome about contemporary Italian life, immigration, post-9/11 anxiety, Muslim life and the status of women and more. The narrative alternates between two characters- Issa, or Christian, a Sicilian who speaks perfect Arabic who's gone undercover in an immigrant neighborhood as a Tunisian. He's trying to ferret out a terrorist cell for his handlers, shady men who keep secrets of their own. Then, we get to know the extremely charismatic and funny Safia, or Sofia as she is sometimes known, an Egyptian woman with a double life of her own. Christian/Issa's adventures are alternately funny, scary, weird and surreal, but it's really Safia who carried the book for me. She's married to Said, and she wants out; she just doesn't love him, and she wants a life of her own. And now that she's living in Rome she sees no reason why she shouldn't have it.

As it happens, she and her husband are on the verge of a final divorce; as she explains it, a partner in a Muslim couple has to say "I divorce you" three times for a divorce to be final. Said has already said it twice; once more and she's free. In the mean time, she keeps crossing paths with Christian/Issa and the two become infatuated with each other.

The title of the book is obviously a takeoff on the 1961 comedy "Divorce Italian Style," starring Marcello Mastroianni, and Safia finds Christian/Issa so handsome that she refers to him privately as "the Arab Marcello," but their romance might not have the brightest future. I have to say though that this is one of the funnest books I've read so far this year and I positively adored Safia. She's tough and thoughtful and smart, as well as sort of naive and funny and sweet too. I liked Christian but I was always waiting for the story to get back around to Safia. Amara Lakhous is turning into one of my favorite Europa authors and the book is really one of those that will make you laugh and make you think, and keep you turning the pages to find out what happens next. What more can you ask?

This is my sixth book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

REVIEW: Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua

Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua. Published 2012 by Grove Atlantic. Literary fiction. Translated from the Hebrew.

I picked up Second Person Singular after reading a notice about in on the website of the Jewish Book Council; author Sayed Kashua has written two other books that have done well and he himself is a Palestinian who writes in Hebrew and in this book, takes as his subjects two Palestinian men who are each stuck between cultures. First we meet the lawyer (we never learn his name), an upper class Arab-Israeli with a perfect life- beautiful wife, great kids, friends, and an enviable position. Juxtaposed is the story of a lower-echelon Palestinian social worker who becomes entangled in the lives of a troubled Jewish family.

The center of the book is a mystery, a note the lawyer finds in a book, written in his wife's handwriting to another man. The lawyer goes into a tailspin; he imagines and believes the worst, running through elaborate scenario after elaborate scenario to convince himself that his wife is having an affair. The possibility of adultery unhinges him, makes him question everything he thought he believed about women, about sexual politics, about his religion, about the world. While working to uncover the truth, he ventures into some very dark and frightening territory and it's not clear that he'll ever come out.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we read the social worker's story. Living in a cramped apartment with two Arab roommates, he becomes bored and disenchanted with the hopelessness of trying to help recovering addicts and he becomes the caretaker of a comatose young Jewish man. Over time, he learns more about the man, Yonatan, once a promising student, now a vegetable. And he too goes down a path he never imagined. And in the middle is the story of the note- who wrote it, why, and what it means now.

I really loved Second Person Singular. Kashua takes on some very difficult issues about living in a divided society. He explores stereotypes of Arabs and Jews, how the two groups see each other and how they interact. Both men speak perfect Hebrew and Arabic, allowing them to pass in and out of Jewish and Arab society, hear what everybody says, and what you hear when you're a fly on the wall isn't always pretty. In the end, it's an open question whether anything has changed; both men are trying to live up to somebody else's idea of what they should be, what they should value; neither is secure. Everyone wears a disguise, hiding from others or from him or herself. One man explicitly takes on another's identity; another takes on the form he thinks society demands only to have his ideas about himself shattered. But only one character seems completely untroubled by his or her identity, and it's this person whose true character is the most in question. Kashua also asks us what it matters, this idea of identity. Maybe identity is what you can get away with. Second Person Singular is an impressive and challenging book, and one that I would recommend to just about any reader.

Rating: BUY

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