Friday, June 29, 2012

Movie Review: The Matchmaker (2012)

As I Once Was (original title)  112 min. Directed by Avi Nesher and starring
Adir Miller, Maya Dagan, Tuval Shafir. IMDB page. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
The Matchmaker is a coming of age story set in 1950s Haifa, Israel, about love among the loners and the marginalized of Israeli society as well as its privileged young. Arik is a well-off teenager with nothing to do for the summer; a prank lands him a job with Yankele Bride, a self-styled matchmaker working on the docks finding love for those whom life has left behind. His clients are misfits and outcasts, nerds and weirdos. Yankele, a Holocaust survivor, counts himself among them. He's in love with Clara, a fellow survivor who also finds herself on the margins of the young and ambitious Jewish state. It seems that there's a certain divide between the newcomers and established Israelis; those already settled in view the survivors with mistrust and skepticism. The newcomers just want to be left alone, allowed to build a life and find happiness, something that might not always be so easy.
Yankele (Adir Miller), Clara (Maya Dagan) and Arik (Tuval Shafir) strategize over coffee.
Tension builds when Meir, a lonely librarian, becomes a client of Yankele's and falls hard not for the woman Yankele picks for him but for lovely Clara. Clara views Meir as nothing more than a client and finds Meir's unwanted attentions creepy at first, then outright threatening when he tries to rat Yankele out to the police for his off-the-books lifestyle. Arik, who brought Meir to Yankele, has to choose a side, and fast. Meanwhile, Arik has his own adventures; he finds he likes the job of spying on Yankele's clients, ferreting out information about them and bringing it back. And he's got a major crush on pretty Tamara, an Iraqi Jew spending the summer with her relatives before her father takes her back to America.
Meir (Dror Keren) and Arik on one of Haifa's many stone staircases
As you can tell there's a lot going on, and the movie is a long almost two hours. There's a subplot about an Orthodox girl Arik is assigned to watch that ends up involving Tamara and her cousin, presenting another conflict for Arik, which probably could have been eliminated without consequence to to the film. Otherwise I found the movie to be a fairly light and enjoyable distraction. There are some interesting, discussion-worthy things going on about various racial and cultural tensions between Ashkenazic Jews like Arik's family and Middle Eastern Jews from Iran and Iraq, as well as the mistrust between some earlier-arrived Israelis and the Holocaust survivors, not to mention the reticence around the Holocaust at this time in Israeli history, a stark and surprising contrast to the omnipresence of the subject in later years. Arik's parents and friends actively discourage him from learning about the Holocaust; nobody, particularly the survivors, want to talk about it or deal with it. It will take time and distance for folks to want to open up about their experiences, but right now, when the film is set, people just aren't ready to deal with either their personal or collective trauma.

So other than it being a bit on the long side, I enjoyed The Matchmaker on several levels. It was entertaining and beautiful to look at; director Nesher makes both the middle class and down-and-out parts of Haifa look great, with lovely seascapes, city steps and rooftops at every turn. The characters, especially Yankele and Clara, were engaging and Tamara, the bold country cousin, was delightful, tough and smart as played by Neta Porat. Arik was a little dull and generic-privileged-white-boy but whatever. And there's lots to think about and talk about, too. 
The movie is not rated; there is some female nudity and adult themes.

Rating: RENT (movie equivalent of Backlist)

FTC Disclosure: I received complimentary passes from Menemsha Films in exchange for my review.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Summer Reading Part Four: LGBT Reads

June is LGBT Pride Month and to round it out I've decided to use today's post to offer some suggestions for great reads by or about LGBT people. My list leans heavily on the L/G side; that's probably something I need to change so if you have any suggestions for books with bisexual or transgender themes I'd be interested to know.

I decided to run this post at the end rather than the beginning of the month to give you a jumping-off point for reading LGBT books all year long, not just one month out of the year.

As usual this is an idiosyncratic list of mine and not a comprehensive bibliography by any stretch!

The Journals of John Cheever might be one of the best books I've ever read. Cheever, a renowned writer, was bisexual and his journals are intimate and raw, as well as incredibly beautiful, covering every aspect of his life, not just his sexuality. But that was a big part of who he was and his relationships, and it's important.

Dearest Anne is a beautiful literary novel by Israeli writer Judith Katzir, about an affair between a young girl and her female teacher. The controversial nature of the subject is matched by the luminosity of the writing.
Daniel Arsand's poetic novella Lovers is a book I reviewed recently, about a young man and the love of his life, set in pre-Revolutionary France.

Andre Carl van der Merwe's heartbreaking Moffie is one of the best books I've read this year, and one of the best LGBT books I've read ever. Set in South Africa, it's a brutal and raw portrait of military life and the terrible burden of being gay in an extremely conformity-oriented society.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is probably my favorite of David Sedaris's books. In this collection of memoir-essays he focuses on his relationship with his partner Hugh, including how they met and setting up house in the French countryside. I laughed so much when I read this that people who saw me asked me if I was OK or needed help.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is Jeanette Winterson's fictionalized autobiography, about growing up and coming out. It's a searing, incredible and unforgettable book, and one that everyone can relate to. Yes, I do have her memoir on my TBR  pile and yes I do plan to read it soon!

My favorite of Winterson's novels is Written on the Body, an erotic, poetic love letter from a genderless narrator to a married woman. I dare you to read this and not be moved.

Boston author Scott Pomfret's memoir Since My Last Confession should be required reading for Catholics and anyone interested in the issue of gay marriage. Pomfret details his own conflicted relationship with his faith and recounts the struggle for the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts in a touching, hilarious and totally irreverant memoir that manages to be deeply respectful of the Church even as he questions the actions of some of its most powerful leaders. I loved this book!

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Alison Bechdel, not for Fun Home or her latest, Are You My Mother? but for her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, which I started reading in syndication in a local paper while I was in high school. It opened up a whole world to me and for that I will be forever grateful to her. If she never wrote either of her two very popular and acclaimed memoirs she would be immortalized for Mo and the gang at Madwimmin Books.

Want more? Look on my side bar and click on LGBT under Subject Tags.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer Reading Part Three- Great Stuff Out in Paperback

For Part Three of my Summer Reading series, I want to tell you about some great things now out in paperback, great reads that may not be "beach reads" but are still perfect for a summer's day.

Michael Ondaatje's brilliant The Cat's Table is out in a beautiful paperback edition. I loved this book and if you like thoughtful literary fiction, you will too.

David Abbott's accomplished fiction debut The Upright Piano Player is a haunting, Ian McEwan-esque thriller about a retired executive who attracts some unsavory attention.

Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow also got a great cover in its paperback release. But then again, it's a great book. I loved this book too, about a young girl whose father is a bigamist.

 Margot Livesey's engaging Jane Eyre retelling, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is also out now and is something I recommend.
What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Munoz, is a wonderfully atmospheric and heartbreaking read about young love, hope and disappointment. And if you read the blurbs at the front, you might see someone you recognize!

A darkly comedic Western and one of my favorite books this year, The Sisters Brothers is an unabashed delight, with just a smidge of darkness and violence.

I'm only halfway through Jan-Philipp Sendker's delightful The Art of Hearing Heartbeats but I just know it's a great sweet book for summer. Set in Burma, it's a love story and mystery, and it's super.

Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun is one of my favorite historical fiction reads this year, about a young girl sentenced to life in a nunnery in 19th century Italy. If you like Sarah Dunant, you'll like this more.

Some things I haven't read myself but that are getting a lot of traction in paperback and might be right for you include:
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
IQ84, by Haruki Murakami
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Hopefully you'll find lots of all of these books at your local independent bookstore. If not, place an order and let them do what they do best- sell you great books.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Reading Part Two: My Summer Reading Plans!

Now, first of all I rarely keep to my plans when it comes to reading. I have great intentions but I almost always get distracted by something. So here's what I'd like to read this summer- we'll see what actually happens!

You all know I'm deep into The Twelve, Justin Cronin's followup to his smash The Passage. So I don't need to talk about that any more! (October, Random House)

The key phrase for July will be "crime fiction." I've been collecting different authors and reading some of them but of course I'm way behind. Here's my stack:

I don't expect to get through all of these. I don't expect to get through most of them. But I will get through some. I will be reading some new releases as well. That can't be helped. I'm always tempted by the new-book table and my galleys.

First and foremost, I'll be participating in a pre-publication readalong of Michael Chabon's new novel Telegraph Avenue. I can't wait to dig into this. The readalong is hosted by Emily of As the Crowe Flies (And Reads). (September, HarperCollins) Look for the posts on Tuesdays in July.

Some recent and upcoming titles I'll be sampling this summer include
The Dead Do Not Improve, by Jay Caspian Kang (August, Hogarth Press),
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne (September, Hogarth Press),
Laura Lamont's Life In Pictures, by Emma Straub (September, Riverhead)
Yok, by Tim Davys (July, HarperCollins), and more.

Otherwise, and for August, I'll be pulling things off my TBR shelf at random. Some of things I'm considering:

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn
The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun
Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam
I Hadn't Understood, by Diego da Silva
The Inquisitory, by Robert Pinget
The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

And so much more!
But enough about me. What are you reading this summer?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Summer Reading Part One- and Matching Snacks

So, summer's here, right? And you need something to read on your vacation, or your weekend, or just on your lunch break. What's it going to be? All this week I'll be featuring different lists of possibilities. Today it's what I think you should read. Tomorrow I'll tell you what I'm reading; Wednesday will feature some great new paperbacks and Thursday will feature books with LGBT themes as we round out Pride Month.

The number-one thing you have to read this summer if you haven't already is
The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Yes, it's a few years old. But. The sequel, The Twelve, is coming out in October and you want to be ready. I'm reading The Twelve right now (thank you, ARC fairy) and I'm telling you, you do not want to be behind on this! Get caught up now. A heart-stopping, gripping, can't-put-it-down post-apocalyptic literary treat, it's in paperback.

Read it with: a blanket and a decaffeinated beverage. You won't need anything to help keep you awake!

For something a little more, shall we say, risque, I have two for you. In hardcover, my summer pick is History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason's thinking-person's beach book about Gilded-Age Vienna and a social climber who will use his charms however he needs to, to get where he wants to go. Full of period detail, upstairs-downstairs shenanigans and more, it's fun.

Read it with: ice cream, in your favorite flavor, in a cone.

From the backlist, and in paperback, 2010's Enough About Love, by Herve le Tellier, is equally delightful. It recounts a series of interlocking love stories among a smart set of modern-day Parisians.

Read it with: a buttery, flaky croissant

 For some help with your BBQ or summer party, or with your vacation planning for that matter, you must pick up Lonely Planet's The World's Best Street Food: Where to Find It & How to Make It. This is the funnest, coolest cookbook I think I've ever seen, chock full of appetizer-portioned recipes for meat pies, rice balls, cheesy corn on the cob and more- snacks and goodies from all over the world. The recipes are short and achievable and look oh-so-delicious.  I will confess I haven't cooked from it yet but it won't be long!

Read it with: your grocery list handy!

For a fun foodie fiction read, pick up James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca, a laugh-out-loud romp through the Italian countryside with a bumbling Englishman and his enigmatic, hilarious neighbor.

Read it with: arancini from the Lonely Planet cookbook and some prosecco.

Finally, for some nonfictional armchair travel, I loved David Grann's The Lost City of Z, the story of Percy Fawcett's last and mysterious trek into the Amazon, and the many attempts made over the years to find him. I guarantee it will make you very thankful for things like citronella candles and screened-in porches! It's a great, fascinating page-turner that you'll learn a lot from, too.

Read it with: a nice thick sandwich.

There are so many great books that are perfect for summer reading. Mysteries, bestsellers, romances, science fiction, what have you. What are some of your favorites? Tell me in the comments.

Tomorrow, find out what I'll be reading in the warm weather to come and share your picks, too.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Crafturday!

Here's my latest quilt, made with a fat quarter pack of French-themed fabrics. It's a small throw but just big enough for me to cuddle under with a book and maybe even a cat! Don't look too closely at the bumps and wrinkles; I didn't do a very good job machine-quilting it but it still works!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

REVIEW: History of a Pleasure-Seeker, by Richard Mason

History of a Pleasure-Seeker, by Richard Mason. Published 2012 by Knopf. Literary Fiction.

Piet Bartol is a smart young man trying to make his way in early 20th century Vienna; lower-middle-class in origins but frightfully ambitious, he takes a job as a tutor in the home of a wealthy hotel family, the Vermeulen Sickerts, whose youngest son is obsessive-compulsive and virtually impossible to teach or discipline. Piet's job is to bring the young boy out, but that won't be his primary occupation. That would be ingratiating himself in the family and most particularly with the boy's sexually repressed mother, Jacobina.

At the same time, Piet is navigating household politics, getting to know Jacobina's daughters and fending off a predatory manservant. Piet himself is sort of functionally bisexual, and happy to trade his charms for the occasional favor. But soon enough he grows dissatisfied with life at the Vermeulen Sickerts house and decides to take off for greener pastures. He spends virtually all of his money on a voyage to South Africa, a frontier country with lots of opportunities, and it is on this trip that he meets his true match, a showgirl as ambitious as himself. Could it be that this callow social climber has actually found love?

There are lots of interesting things going on in the book. It's very erotic, and Mason tells the story in prose like whipped cream studded with strawberries. Set in Edwardian-era eastern Europe and featuring a grand house with upstairs-downstairs shenanigans, it's a natural fit for the Downton Abbey fan. More subtle themes include the rise of the middle class and what exactly it takes for a striver like Piet to succeed. Raised by a cultured French mother and a boorish Dutch father, Piet struggles to find his true self, although he doesn't struggle very hard since it's pretty clear which side he favors. But it's a little harder than he thought it would be to leave his father's legacy behind.

That said, don't get the impression that this book is too serious a read. It's not. It's a frothy literary beach book, with lots of sex and scenery and bibelots to keep your mind off the deeper themes for the most part. Highly recommended for the hammock and properly accompanied by a fancy drink sipped through a straw, History of Pleasure Seeker will help you while away the summer in contentment.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

REVIEW: Ivan and Misha, by Michael Alenyikov

Ivan and Misha, by Michael Alenyikov. Published 2010 by Northwestern University Press. Literary Fiction.

Ivan and Misha is a novel composed of interrelated short stories, about two Russian-American men and their father. Ivan and Misha are fraternal twins, born in the Soviet Union, who came to America with their father as small children. Their mother is dead. Now, the brothers are approaching middle age and their father is elderly and dying. Both brothers are gay and Ivan has mental health issues as well. When the book opens, Misha has a live-in lover, Smith, and Ivan is struggling to earn a living as a taxi driver while their father approaches the end of his life along with his friend and neighbor, a fellow ex-Soviet Jew.

Each story is told from the perspective of a different character, so we learn a lot about what each man thinks and how he sees the world. The stories also shuffle back and forth in time so we don't get a straight narrative so much as a series of impressions and scenarios. Characters come in and out of the story, and they don't always say what you expect. There is a mystery around the boys' mother's death, and much uncertainty about their future, but there is also a strong undercurrent of love and loyalty in the family. They might not understand each other, but they will be there for each other no matter what.

The book is also a bit of a love song to New York City; from the moment they arrive, New York is a land of wonders:
And on their first night in New York, Papa said there was only one way to start this new life: in Central Park, seen before only in movies, he rented a horse and buggy. Clippety-cop, clippety-clop, the horse trotted on roads covered with yellow leaves. Wherever he looked Misha saw trees, branches barren of leaves, coated white with snow that fell from a bright gray sky, rose colored along its edges and pierced by unimaginably tall buildings. Once, the horse lost its footing in the leaves and slush and Misha felt his heart clenched as if in a handgrip- now I will wake up from this dream.
The whole book has this dream-like, lyrical feel, driven by the characters and their feelings more than plot per se. Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction, Jewish fiction, LGBT fiction and any fiction, it's a wonderful, moving and emotional story about brothers and fathers, love and family, alienation and belonging.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review I won it in a giveaway from Dolce Bellezza.

Monday, June 18, 2012

REVIEW: Lovers, by Daniel Arsand

Lovers, by Daniel Arsand. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

A hypnotic, erotic story about the love affair between a French aristocrat and a young farmer he plucks from obscurity, Lovers is a little gem. Balthazar and Sébastien meet the day Balthazar is thrown from a horse and Sébastien saves his life with medicinal herbs. Sébastien Faure is a sensitive farmer's son who becomes aware of his homosexual attractions when he stumbles up on two men making love. Balthazar de Créon is an aristocrat who finds a purpose in Sébastien as well as a love he can't deny.

The two are besotted with each other and Sébastien soon moves into Balthazar's chateau to learn healing arts; but Sébastien decides he wants to be a painter instead, and Balthazar, who scorns his position and refuses to go to Versailles to attend to the king, finds himself dogged by ugly rumors and is brought to trial and condemned to death. When Balthazar's story ends, Sébastien takes to the road but finds that some things aren't so easily let go of.

Lovers is like a prose poem about passion and a love that defines the lives of two men. It's a quick read but one that will leave you entranced and enchanted.

It's my 9th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the galley room at the bookstore where I work.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Snapshot- My Favorite Thing About Summer

Fried clams from the Clam Box in Ipswich, MA served with a side of onion rings. Pure seafood deliciousness! I hope to get me a plate soon.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Read More About Afghanistan

If you're interested in The Watch or have already read it, and you're looking for some more books about Afghanistan here are a few suggestions.

This list is far from exhaustive; these are just some other books I've read about Afghanistan in the last year or so that I think would make great companion pieces to Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's brilliant novel.

The Photographer, by Emannuel Guibert and Didier LeFevre is an outstanding blend of photography and graphic narration of a trip that photographer LeFevre took deep into the Afghan countryside with Doctors Without Borders. LeFevre's photographs and Guibert's drawings are unforgettable, most especially the photographs. This book will take you places few of us will ever see with our own eyes, and the story- tense, suspenseful and harrowing- brings you into the heart of the chaos and beauty of this country.

From the heart of a landscape to the heart of a woman, Atiq Rahimi's masterful short novel The Patience Stone, winner of the French Prix Goncourt, brings us inside a fractured culture. It takes place entirely in one room, where a woman cares for her nearly comatose husband, injured in an unknown war. She remembers her childhood and girlhood while dealing with this crisis and navigating an uncertain future.
Rahimi's followup is the equally wonderful though very different Earth and Ashes, this time about a man searching for his grandson after their village has been bombed. It's more plot-oriented than The Patience Stone but carries just as much emotional resonance.

Finally, there's Daniele Mastrogiacomo's chilling and unforgettable Days of Fear, a memoir about the 15 days he spent held captive by the Taliban. It's an unbelievable document, an trip into the heart of evil written by a man who I think knows how lucky he is to have escaped. This is a book that will keep you up at night reading- and remembering.

Like I said, just a few things I've read that I think would go well with The Watch. If you're looking for history, books about the current or earlier Afghan war, biographies or other fiction or nonfiction, I'm sure your local independent bookseller or librarian can help you find something great.

What are your favorite reads about this country? Fiction? Nonfiction? Anything in between?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press. Literary Fiction.

If you want a book that's going to pull you in a dozen different emotional directions, confuse you, intrigue you, then rip your heart into shreds, The Watch is the book for you. It's a brilliant, multi-dimensional examination of the war in Afghanistan told from different points of view- an Afghan woman, a translator, a military doctor, a commander, and more.

The basic story centers on a troubling, ambiguous incident taking place in the middle of the Kandahar plains. After a brutal firefight between U.S. forces and Afghan insurgents, a lone woman, legless, wheels herself towards a U.S. military outpost to demand the return of her brother's remains for burial. Her brother was killed in the battle and she wants to bury him according to her culture's requirements. A Tajik translator is sent to talk to her, to explain that the U.S. military will not return it to her. They fear that she is a suicide bomber and that she is lying, and they have orders with respect to the body.

The book shifts the point of view among an array of characters- the woman, first, then a lieutenant, then the outpost's doctor, then the translator, and more military personnel, and shifts a little through time, too. We get back story and extended narratives from some of the characters, and we meet the Kandahar storyline at slightly different points on the timeline, too. I liked that Roy-Bhattacharya did not just tell the same story over and over from different points of view Rashomon-style but gives us different segments and facets of the story as well as the characters. Telling the story this way, a little broken up, helped keep it interesting and fresh for me.

Then there's the incident itself, and the woman's intentions, which Roy-Bhattacharya wisely keeps us guessing at right till the end. And I do mean the end, as in the very last words. There's so much going on around this character- so much drama swirling, emotional issues, issues about the nature of military service, the demands on soldiers for obedience, the psychological stress of battlefield life and the specific right- or wrong-ness of the Afghan war- that it's easy to forget that she's what the story is about, that her mission is the embodiment of the mess that is this war. Roy-Bhattacharya draws all of his characters with a devastating humanity- you can't help but feel for all of them, what they're all going through, from the conflicted translator and the overworked doctor and even the rule-bearing commander. But it's this woman who carries the most devastating burden of all.

It's very challenging and not always easy to read in terms of the ideas and psychological complexity of its universe, but it's a really incredible book. It will truly stay with you for a long time after you put it down, and you won't want to. I was not intending to read it to the end when I picked it up; I thought I was just going to be dipping in and maybe coming back later, but Roy-Bhattacharya hooked me from page 1. So here I've written a lot about this book, and in the final analysis what I want to say is that it's a brilliant novel.

Click here for some other recommended reads about Afghanistan.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.

Monday, June 11, 2012

REVIEW: Pure, by Andrew Miller

Pure, by Andrew Miller. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

Pure is the kind of book that reminds me why I love Europa books. First of all, it was probably the most anticipated Europa of the year so far for me; I'd been hearing about it from their publicity department for months and couldn't wait to get a hold of it. It's an award winner (Costa, 2011, for Best Novel and Best Book), it's about France, and it has that cool cover.

And, as it turns out, it's pretty awesome. Set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, It's the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer from Normandy who comes to the big city to oversee a large and challenging project- dismembering a cemetery, les Innocents- in the heart of the city. He gets the assignment from a powerful minister at Versailles and knows this project will make or break his career. In Paris he finds lodging with the Monnards, a local bourgeois family, befriends the church's organist Armand, and sets about his tasks.

First thing's first though, and he needs some new threads- his father's musty old suit just won't do- so he and Armand head to a tailor who fits him out with a pistachio-green silk number whose color adorns the book's cover. Miller uses Barratte's clothes as a motif throughout the book to show Baratte's mood and feelings about what he's doing. The pistachio suit represents his optimism and his hick enthusiasm at taking on Paris; when he visits his family back in the sticks though, he changes:
On Christmas Eve, they go to mass at Bellême.  They put on their best things, compliment each other, though Jean-Baptiste is not wearing his pistachio suit, having, at the last moment in Paris, not quite the nerve to face his family in Monsieur Charvet's [the tailor] vision of the future. He had considered, briefly, going back to the place des Victoires and seeing if his old suit was still there (his mother has already asked after it), but let himself be unnerved by the anticipation of Charvet's scorn, the unvoiced judgement that the young engineer was one of those timorous creatures who leap forward one day only to scurry back the next. Instead, he has on a suit borrowed from Monsieur Monnard, something pigeon-colored and respectable., the sort of costume that might be worn to the annual Guild Cutlers dinner. It fits him well; better perhaps than he would have wished it to.
He never really goes back to the pistachio after all. But he continues his work, his year in Paris, as one trouble after another befalls himself and the project. He recruits miners from Bellême to carry out the work but exhuming the cemetery is the least of his challenges. There is resistance to the project, and pressure from above, and problems big and small get in his way. There are deaths, and scandal, and tragedy, and love.

Miller writes in a crisp, straightforward style that is laced with a wry humor and gentle sadness. Baratte changes slowly but believably; something is passing away, some part of himself as well as some part of Paris. There are larger rumblings of discontent as well; this is the time just before the fall of the French monarchy after all. But Miller is unconcerned with the upper echelons of French society and takes as his subject the very lowest, physically and politically- the dead and those tasked with their removal.  He finds the beauty and the humanity in those living and dying on the margins of Parisian society- the workers, the prostitutes and the bones and bodies of the dead.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully crafted and fascinating book. It should be in the summer tote of every reader of literary fiction, especially but not exclusively those with a particular interest in France. Miller's storytelling will keep those pages moving and his characters will keep your emotions engaged. It's a fresh and original story told with verve and compassion.

It's my 8th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Saturday Snapshot- Summer Tart

Made from a recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours, I made this tart for a cookout a couple of weeks ago. It was my first attempt making pastry cream and I can safely say it will not be my last!

Edit: Jeff did the decoration!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Armchair BEA Wrapup & The Future of Blogging

First of all I'd like to thank all the organizers of Armchair BEA for a great week and a great community event. I had fun at the Twitter parties, read a lot of terrific new-to-me blogs and learned about a ton of books. Mostly I think I learned how much so many of you enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars! If there's one takeaway for me it's that I need to read that book!

Seriously, the takeaway for me is how many of you there are out there, how enthusiastic you are about blogging and how bright the future of blogging is. I don't know if blogging will become more or less involved with the publishing industry- certainly blogging is and will continue to be a conduit for many of us to become more involved in a paid kind of way, whether it be via freelancing, bookselling or working with publishing companies and literary agencies, but already many of us have made the leap from hobbyist to professional and I expect that that will continue. And I think that those of us who don't, will continue to connect with our fellow readers and booklovers whatever else we're doing.

I also think that lots of the conversations we've seen this week will continue and that as a community we'll continue to come up with thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions. And I think we'll continue to take those conversations outside of our blogs as well. Already we're seeing bloggers included in literary festivals and other events, and I think that will continue as well.

I hope that the blogging community will continue to act as ambassadors for books and reading with our friends, our families and our schools and libraries. I hope that we'll continue to support independent bookstores and vote with our dollars for the service, selection and community value that they provide. I hope that bloggers will advocate for library funding in their communities. And I hope that we'll continue to support the reading formats we use and enjoy, whether they be print, electronic or audio.

Blogging itself will change as social media formats change. Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc., are influential right now because they're popular generally but if MySpace has taught us anything it's that social media formats come and go. I don't think longer-form reviews and posts will disappear but I think that trendy and popular utilities will be used and discarded over time, replaced by something else as something else comes along.

As I said I think the future of book blogging is really bright and I can't wait to see it unfold!

More on this topic at ArmchairBEA Central.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Armchair BEA: Networking in Real Life Do's and Don't's

Today in Armchair BEA we're talking about networking offline- working with bookstores, attending author readings and meeting-and-greeting with publishers and other book professionals. I've had lots of opportunities to do different things over the years and wanted to share some thoughts about how to proceed.
  • Do act with humility and gratitude. Bloggers are enthusiastic amateurs; show respect to people who do this for a living and have been doing it for years. 
  • Do keep it classy. I've seen a lot of tweets and chatter in the last few days about how much some people plan to drink at BEA, or how many galleys they're going to scoop, etc. Don't be that person who gives someone a reason to lose respect for bloggers.
  • Do be enthusiastic about the books and authors and publishers you love. Sincere appreciation makes a great impression!
  • Don't put your ARCs on eBay. Ever. Donate them to the library if/when you no longer want them.
  • Do approach the publishers you like to express interest in the books. But don't make it all about you. Do let them know how you can help them spread the word about their great books.
  • Do shop indie. Independent bookstores are your local link to the larger book world. Get to know them, support them, take advantage of what they have to offer.
  • Do attend local author events. It's so incredibly fun to meet writers in real life! And do introduce yourself as a blogger when you have a chance to chat. Do buy books at events when you can.
  • Do see if there's a way to work with your local indie, maybe offering picks or helping out with something in-store. But again, don't make it all about you. Remember that you're new on the scene and they need to get to know you so do let them know what you can and will do to help them. Then do follow through on your commitments! Don't walk in demanding ARCs or other perks. Do respect their staff and business. Do be prepared that they might not need you. (Same goes for libraries.)
  • Do get involved in advocacy opportunities like World Book Night or Banned Book Week. Help spread the word to your community about reading!
Visit Armchair BEA Central for more stories and advice about networking in the real world!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

ArmChair BEA: Best of 2012 So Far- And What's Coming Up Soon

Today's topic for ArmChair BEA is "Best of 2012 Releases" including upcoming books that we hope will be our favorites.

I have to say so far 2012 has been a really good reading year for me. I'm behind on writing reviews, so I haven't told you about all the books I've loved but there have been quite a few.

My favorite release of 2012 so far is without a doubt (and as I said yesterday) Patrick Flanery's Absolution. This is a guy to watch; Absolution is only his debut novel and it's as good or better than what many established writers have done. Flanery is American by birth but there's been talk that his U.K. citizenship might make him eligible for a Booker nomination. I hope so!

Varamo, which I reviewed last week, is another favorite from this year. A world away from the intensity and violence of Absolution, Varamo is a comic delight about a government clerk and the night that changed his life.

Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith, is a slim, arty novel also about a day in the life, set in the hipster heartland of Portland, Oregon.

Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua, is a wonderful novel about identity and authenticity and the lives and lies we build for ourselves and others.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, is a deeply disturbing and thought-provoking dystopia about righteousness and survival.

Divorce Islamic Style, by Amara Lakhous, is a great dark comedy about contemporary Italy.

Coming up later in 2012 I'm looking forward to

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, the sequel to his smash hit The Passage (October),

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, about which I know nothing except that it's by Ian McEwan- and really, what more do I need to know? (Fall)

In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner, a novel based on her experiences escaping from the Khmer Rouge (August), and

the rerelease by NYRB Classics of Kingsley Amis's Booker Prize winner The Old Devils (September).

I'm also looking forward to dipping into the crime novels of Andrea Camilleri, new international crime from Melville House, lots of new things from Europa Editions, reading more older books and lots more great adventures in reading.

Go to ArmChair BEA Central for more favorites!