Friday, November 30, 2012

REVIEW: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. Published 2012 by Little, Brown.

First of all I have to apologize for the absurdly long time it's taken me to write this review. I thought I had reviewed it already but turns out no.

A war novel set in Iraq and elsewhere, The Yellow Birds is a haunting, poetic and elegiac prose poem about the unknowabilities of war, life and death. John Bartle tells the story of his friendship with Daniel Murphy, a fellow private stationed at Al Tafar, Iraq. Chapters move around in time, from the war to their training in New Jersey, a stint in Germany and Bartle's life after discharge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother, where his disaffectedness and alienation will remind some readers of the furloughed servicemen of Ben Fountain's brilliant Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. But mostly, this book won't remind you of any other book you've ever read.

I think what stands out for me most is Powers' direct tone. He's chosen every word with care, every nuance of phrase with intention. You can open it up to any page and find quiet, simple sentences that get under your skin with their fluid movement, an almost liquid quality to his writing. I don't even know what paragraph to pick out to show you the best, since just about the entire book has this suppleness to it. I feel like Powers worked this material over for a long time, with a poet's eye for detail.

And the story itself is of course profound and profoundly sad, disturbing and real. The difficulty of the material combined with the silkiness of the writing produce a dissonance, maybe like the mental disconnect felt by Bartle as he tries to come to terms with all that's happened, and with the future, too. It's a relatively short book that still takes a long time to read, because of this detail and the slow pace at which Powers rolls out the story of Bartle and Murphy and whatever became of the promise he made to Murphy's mother to bring back her son. Once you pick it up, you'll want to stay to find out, and when you do, you'll be changed in some way too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

REVIEW: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Published 2012 by Random House.

So, after a spate of dark and heavy books, I was asking around on Twitter one night for some what-to-read-next suggestions. One of my Twitter friends mentioned a book she loved, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, which had been longlisted for this year's Booker Prize and a galley of which happened to be nestled in my piles of books somewhere. I'd dipped into it earlier in the year and was interested enough to keep it around, but this recommendation was enough to get it out of the pile and into my hands.

I really loved it.

One day Harold Fry gets a letter in the mail from a nurse caring for his old friend Queenie Hennessey. Queenie and Harold had worked together at a brewery; Harold was an introverted salesman, a loner in a jocular, hyper masculine culture, and Queenie the lone woman. They share a secret, a secret of Harold's; a long time ago, she did him an unfathomable favor, and now, as she lay dying from cancer, Harold feels a need to see her, to thank her, to make sure she's okay, so, without really meaning to, he starts walking the many miles from his home to her bedside.

As Harold's walk progresses, Joyce tells the story of Harold and his wife Maureen, a late-middle-aged couple whose marriage has basically disintegrated. Harold is a good man but emotionally stunted by abuse and abandonment by his own parents; Maureen had expectations for her life that were different from the way things turned out. Their relationship with their son David is at the heart of their troubles as a couple, and their story is explored gradually and quietly as Harold embarks on his pilgrimage.

Joyce alternates her narrative between Harold's walk and Maureen's own, private journey at home, as she reevaluates herself, her marriage, her husband and her son. The past and the present intermingle as Harold and Maureen make their way through terrain interior and exterior. Maureen starts off in denial of what's going on; she tells her neighbor that Harold is inside. Harold likewise has no idea what he's gotten himself into and finds himself beset by injury, hunger, loneliness and cold. He tells people what he's doing as he goes and soon finds himself to be a kind of celebrity, while Maureen actually starts to miss her husband and rethink their relationship.

I found the story, which is actually quite dark, to be moving but what I really admire about the book is how tightly it's structured. Everything is a metaphor for everything else; Harold's physical journey mirrors his psychic journey, his physical injuries and lack of preparation mirror his development from childhood to adulthood. The lack of affection and direction from his parents left him unprepared for adult relationships, for parenthood, for success at work. Now that part of his life is over and he has to figure out how to face his remaining years, what remains of his marriage and his understanding of his only child. And he's hanging it all on the success or failure of the visit with Queenie.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has the potential to be a big success with lots of different kinds of readers. It's a natural fit for people who liked Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, or Natasha Solomon's Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English but it's a good deal more melancholy than those books. A meditation on grief, on what it means to succeed or fail, and on what it means to grow up and love other people, it's a wonderful and wonderfully engrossing story of an all-too-human man and his struggle to accept himself and what life has dealt him.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Boston Bibliophile's Holiday Gift Guide

Well Cyber Monday is upon us, so it's time to heat up the computers, smart phones and tablets and start shopping online in earnest. Unless you've already been doing that over the weekend. In that case, continue!

Here are some suggestions for gifts both bookish and fun for the reader in your life.

 Some of the "it" books of 2012 are still out in hardcover. Any of these would be well-received.
  • Canada, by Richard Ford; 
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, 
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, 
  • The Twelve, by Justin Cronin,
  • Broken Harbor, by Tana French,
  • Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, and
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.
For the literary reader I'd recommend
  • Alice Munro's new collection Dear Life: Stories,
  • The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne, a sleek and page-turning suspenser,
  • Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, this year's Booker Prize winner,
  • The People of Forever are not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu, set in Israel and focusing on female IDF soldiers,
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, and
  • The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.
I recently read and loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, and though it's dark it's a wonderful story that I'd recommend to just about anyone but particularly fans of Helen Simonson's recent Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

Some recent paperbacks that would make great gifts include

  • Elza's Kitchen, by Marc Fitten, for foodies and Eastern-Europe buffs,
  • Pure, by Andrew Miller, for historical fiction fans, 
  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, for readers interested in the Iraq War,
  • Bossypants, by Tina Fey, a great, funny memoir,
  • Drowned, by Therese Bowman, if your gift recipient liked Gone Girl,
  • The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, last year's Booker Prize winner,
  • Arcadia, by Lauren Groff, about the demise of a hippie commune and the fate of its members, and
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville, for crime fans.
Ask your local independent bookseller for more and personalized suggestions!

Non-Fiction Gifts

My number-one, can't-miss nonfiction gift of 2012 is The Hare With Amber Eyes: The Illustrated Edition, by Edmund de Waal. This book has been a best-selling sensation for over a year now, and this gorgeous, lavishly illustrated hardbound edition should be in every gift pile this holiday season! The book is a great read about the history of a famous Jewish family, from the late nineteenth century through the present and the mountains of photographs, documents and other ephemera included in this version make it a real treat.

Deb Perelman's The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is definitely the "it" cookbook of the season. Based on a popular blog, it's been flying off the shelves and is sure to be a hit for lots of cooks.

Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook is my pick for hidden treasure in the cooking department. It's a restaurant cookbook by chef Norman Russell, and it's one of the most beautiful books I've seen, with a gorgeous cover and beautiful exposed Coptic stitching on the spine.

For the baker, I love Laduree: The Sweet Recipes, by Philippe Andrieu. It's beautifully presented in a small, square box and the book itself is wrapped in tissue. It would make a lovely, thoughtful gift for the lover of sweets or all things French.

The conclusion of William Manchester's 3-volume opus on Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, is out now and this or the set would be a stunning gift for the history buff in your life.

The recent biography of musician Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons, would be a great choice for the music fan in your life.

It's also worth noting that Robert Massie's Catherine the Great is now in paperback but Steve Jobs alas is still hardcover only.

Humor and Pets


Francesco Marciuliano's I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats is a must-get for the cat lover in your life. I mean, just look at the title. I own this book and it's hysterical.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a no-brainer for the canine connoisseur you know. It's a big coffee-table sized book and wonderful.

Dan Wilbur's How Not to Read is also a great gift for the book lover in your life. It's so funny. Just get it, for yourself or a friend.

Bookish Gifts Besides Books-Etsy and Beyond

Etsy is a boon to the book lover. I don't know where else you can find so many customized and unique items for the bookish! All of the shops I'm spotlighting are favorites of mine.

Did you buy an e-reader, either for yourself or a gift, at one of this weekend's many sales? Don't buy the generic cover made by manufacturer. Get a one-of-a-kind design from one of the many artisans on Etsy. I bought a cover that I love from Elizabeth David Designs. She makes beautiful, sturdy and customized covers from her huge stash of gorgeous fabric. And she's very prompt and nice.

Great for a diary, scrapbook or what have you, I love blank notebooks "upcycled" from old book covers. You can find just about any book made into a notebook; I'm giving them out like popcorn this year to friends of all ages. One of my favorite Etsy shops for these notebooks is Heaven Sent Crafts.

One of my very first Etsy purchases was an Alice in Wonderland book purse from Chick-Lit Designs. I love my purse! It's so cute and always gets me noticed. She now sells iPad and other tablet and e-reader covers as well.

For something really different, find an art doll of a favorite fictional character, historical figure or author at Uneek Doll Designs. I have one of her Jane Eyre dolls; I love it! Artist Debbie Ritter makes beautiful, detail-rich miniatures of many, many people both real and imaginary and they are

Totes and Branded Gifts. Publishers Penguin and Melville House sell branded tote bags for the imprint fan in your life; both are high-quality, durable and very attractive.

Many bookstores- biggies like Powell's and the Strand as well as many of your local independent bookstores- sell branded totes, mugs, t-shirts and other goodies. If you know someone loves Porter Square Books in Cambridge (just to pick a random example *cough*) get them a tote and see their face light up!

Out of Print Clothing has a well-known line of totes, shirts and accessories featuring famous book covers like Lolita and The Master and Margarita. 

Reading Life  

OK. You've got your book. You carried it home in a great purse or tote, and you've got a cute doll or notebook to decorate your table. Now what? Now you need to curl up and read. 

Pick up perennial favorite Novel Tea from Bag Ladies Tea Co. for yourself or an easy office gift. At $12.50 for 12 bags, they're priced to give! Novel Tea is a yummy English breakfast blend of caffeinated black tea.

Protect that beautiful dust jacket with mylar covers to keep it safe from dust and tears. Demco, Brodart and other library suppliers have a great selection and good prices.

Hit a bargain store like TJ Maxx or Homegoods for pretty pillows, fun mugs and warm throws so your favorite reader can really get comfortable with that cup of tea!

For the crafty reader, consider a book-making kit. Lineco brand kits are sold in many arts and crafts stores and feature projects from Japanese stab-binding books, to checkbooks, to photo albums, boxes and blank journals. And that is but one of many brands of bookmaking kits and supplies!

Or give the gift of time. Take your friend (or child) out to a bookstore and a cup of something warm and yummy. Make a day of bookstore tourism and find a new-to-them-or-both-of-you store to explore. Use LibraryThing Local or to find your next destination.

Finally, for the book lover who has everything, and the gift-giver with it all to spend, consider Paper Passion perfume, created by Geza Schoen, Gerhard Steidl, and Wallpaper* magazine, with packaging designed by Steild and Karl Lagerfeld, the latter of Chanel. Supposedly it smells like paper. $98.00 is a lot for a gag gift, but what the heck, right?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Crafturday- Baby Quilt

Here's a throw-sized quilt I made for my friend's new baby. The pattern is called "Yellow Brick Road" and it's a favorite of mine for fast quilts that show off pretty fabric. I used six fat quarters cut into various sized rectangles and sewn together by machine. I quilted it on the machine as well with variegated purple thread. The backing is a peachy batik.

Here you can see a little bit of the backing fabric and quilting along with the label I made. I have a book called Claire's Cats, which contains a bunch of patterns for appliqued cats. I embroidered one, appliqued it down by hand and added the baby's name and birthdate along with a message. I mailed it out last week and it should have arrived earlier this week. I hope she likes it!

Friday, November 23, 2012

What's New on the Shelf-Black Friday Edition

I've slowed down on book buying as I've been shopping for Christmas presents, but here are some recent additions to my TBR piles.

Greene on Capri is a memoir by writer Shirley Hazzard about the literary culture on the Italian island of Capri in the mid-20th century. Greene is Graham Greene. It looks interesting to me because I visited Capri earlier this year and I'd love to learn more about it.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton is an older Europa Editions crime novel that I'd seen around a few times and passed on; I decided to pick it up this time because, well, it's one of those books I keep seeing and picking up and putting down. You know how it goes.

Voss, by Patrick White, just came out in Everyman's Library and intrigued me, but I didn't want to buy the expensive hardcover so I got the cheaper Penguin Classics edition. It's about a German man who leads a trip across Australia in the middle of the 19th century, when much of the continent was unexplored by Europeans. I think I'm going to love it!

I also picked up The Eyes of Venice, by Alessandro Barbero, a big sweeping-looking historical novel about Italy. It's not going to be my next Europa read but probably next-after-the-next.

What's new on your shelf this week? Does holiday shopping mean you slow down your book buying or does it stay about the same? Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

A very happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! I hope you're enjoying the day with family and friends. And lots of good food!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

REVIEW: 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool, by Viola di Grado

70% Acrylic 30% Wool, by Viola di Grado. Published 2012 by Europa Editions.

So, another Europa I'm going to have a hard time reviewing. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is the story of Camelia Mega and her mother, Italians who have been living in the town of Leeds in England for several years. Her father is dead; he died in a very undignified manner, in a car accident with his lover. His death has shattered his wife and daughter. Camelia's mother has not spoken in ages; nor has she left the house. Camelia herself is barely functional, with a marginal job translating for a washing machine company and a hobby of mutilating discarded clothes.

The clothes show up in a dumpster periodically, left there by Wen, a young Chinese man who runs a shop with his brother Jimmy. Camelia was once a student of Chinese; when she meets Wen he offers to give her lessons, and her relationship with him has some hope of lifting her out of her emotionally catatonic state. A marker of her mental condition is her attitude towards the passing of time:
One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before. It snowed all day, except for a brief autumnal parenthesis in August that stirred the leaves a little and then went back to whence it had come, like a warm-up band before the headliner.
She hates Leeds, hates its dreariness and cold, but when she resumes her Chinese lessons and develops affection for Wen, time starts to move again: "The next day was Tuesday. I remember the day distinctly because it was then that December suddenly began to specify itself in days of the week." Meanwhile, unknown to Camelia, her mother is making her own attempt at surfacing from her own torpor. Her mother likes to take pictures inside the house with a Polaroid camera so Camelia, trying to help her mother, enrolls her in a photography class. The results of this move will color both of their lives for a long time to come.

So what did I think? Viola di Grado won the Campiello First Novel Prize for this, her debut novel; the closest American prize I can think of for this book would be the Shirley Jackson Award. There was something of We Have Always Lived in the Castle in this claustrophobic, suspenseful and difficult story; maybe We Have Always Lived in a Hovel In Leeds. I mean this as a compliment, but it does almost strike me as a work of psychological horror. It's so incredibly dark, so very full of frustration for Camelia and for us, and it doesn't end well. It has an arc similar to Jackson's novel, though the intruder appears rather late in the game. I enjoyed reading it but this slim little novel felt very heavy indeed as I put it down.


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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: SKYFALL (2012)

Skyfall (2012). Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem. IMBD. R.

Want a good time at the movies this Thanksgiving season? Go see Skyfall.

I'll admit I'm not the world's biggest Bond afficianado. I still haven't seen the previous two Daniel Craig Bond flicks from start to finish, and this is the first one I've seen in the theater. They show up on cable constantly and I've caught enough of Casino Royale (2006) and Quantam of Solace (2008) to understand the general plot. Plus, it's James Bond, right? How hard can it be?

I think Skyfall represents a bit of a departure though. The movie opens the way all Bond movies open, with an elaborate chase scene that sets up the film. In this one though, it looks like Bond is, well, killed. Cut to a bloody, skull-strewn opening credits sequence and a lush, frowny-faced theme song with lyrics like "this is the end" and you start to thinking this might not be a typical adventure. And it's not; it marks a definite transition for Daniel Craig's Bond.

It's probably the darkest Bond I've seen in my life. Even the locales are dreary; I'm convinced the chill I felt in the theater wasn't the overactive air conditioning but the damp of the Scottish moors themselves. MI6 is under attack. Terrorists have hacked it, blown it up and sent its agents scurrying underground.  Silva, the mastermind, is going after M personally. MI6 also fighting for its survival from within as the British government questions its competence in a world where the genius out to destroy you could be anybody with a laptop. The Bond girl du jour is a miserable captive of the international sex trade, and Q is a sarcastic hipster with a Scrabble mug. Bright spots are Javier Bardem as the reptilian Silva, less charming than the film's Komodo dragons,  and Naomie Harris as Eve, the leggy and brainy spy who has Bond's back if not the best sharpshooting skills. But even she's kind of a dullard.

Then there's Bond. Presumed dead, he comes back when he hears of MI6's troubles but he's a wreck- out of shape, drunk, messed up in the head, though how someone can get winded swimming a lap when his biceps are the size of my thighs is an open question. Anyway the point is now he's an underdog and the question is, can he hack it or is it time for the legendary superspy to hang it up?

I'll let you figure it out. Go see it. It's fun.

Rating: RUSH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive complimentary tickets to the show.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Watching, Listening and Watching

A few weeks ago I started watching the 1984 BBC adaptation of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, called "The Jewel in the Crown." I watched it a couple of times when I was in high school- I was a big fan of "Masterpiece Theater" but I was probably too young to understand some of the show's more adult content. Homosexuality, adultery, alcoholism, drug use, abortion- you name it, it shows up in Scott's tale of the waning days of the British Empire. I haven't seen it in years and it's been fun to watch it again. I got the idea because one of the stars, Charles Dance, has an important role in "Game of Thrones" (he's Tywin Lannister) and when I saw him I thought, "hey, it's Guy Perron!" I have the books- the Raj Quartet series- in my to-be-read pile and I would love to read it. I read the first book, also called The Jewel in the Crown, after I saw the show for the first time but like I said it was probably a little too heavy lifting for me at the time. I'm sure I'd do better with it now!
The latest thing in on my iPod is this song by Aurelie et Verioca, a duo blending French and Brazilian music, with lyrics in both French and Portuguese. The result is a very relaxing, mellifluous music that I've just been loving.  It's great chill-out music with some tea at the end of the day.

I've also been watching the TV series "Angel," slowly, maybe two episodes a week for the past several months. I'm almost to the end of Season Four. Don't tell me what happens next! I like the show sometimes. I started watching because I kept tuning in for random episodes on one of the cable networks, and got intrigued enough to want to see the story from start to finish. Right now the plot is pretty ridiculous. Angel's son, Connor, is pretty useless and I keep hoping someone will put him out of his misery. Don't think that's going to happen, though!

Friday, November 16, 2012

REVIEW: The Book of Jonas, by Stephen Dau

The Book of Jonas, by Stephen Dau. Published 2012 by Blue Rider Press. Literary Fiction.

The Book of Jonas is a lot of things. It's a coming of age story, a war story, and a story about coming to terms with your past and your secrets. It's also about letting them go, and letting go of the people who have made you who you are, even as you know they will stay with you forever.

Jonas is a teenage boy from an unnamed Muslim country, adopted by an American couple. His new family is well-meaning but cannot understand him or the difficulty he has assimilating into American life. He tries to make friends, fit in with other kids from his part of the world, kids who share his religion and culture to some degree but who remain nonetheless apart from him.

He's deeply traumatized by his last experiences in his own country, including the death of his family and the death of an American soldier, Christopher Henderson, who saved his life. He relives the story of the night the American died as well as the events leading to his death as he tells it to a court-appointed counselor. We also learn the story of Christopher's mother, transformed by her son's death into an unwitting activist for other bereaved military parents, and we see what happens when their two paths intersect.

I found The Book of Jonas to be a very quick and very absorbing read. Very of-the-moment in subject matter and thought-provoking as well, it's an unusual entry into recent war literature in that it considers the fates of those left behind the wake of American war. Dau does not demonize the military or its servicemen, but rather focuses on ordinary people and the tangential effects of battle, far outside the battlefield itself. If you've been reading books like The Yellow Birds or The Watch, you'll want to add The Book of Jonas to your pile as well.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review: LIFE OF PI (2012)

Life of Pi (2012). Directed by Ang Lee and starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Rafe Spall. IMBD. PG.

This movie is amazing. Amazing.

Based on the bestselling, Booker-Prize winning novel by Yann Martel, Ang Lee's gorgeous film tells the story of a teen boy trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger after his ship sinks, killing his entire family and most of their menagerie of zoo animals. The family was moving from India to Canada, zoo owners hoping to sell their animals and start a new life. What happens next is an adventure you'll never forget.

If you've read the book, rest assured that the movie is very faithful to the book. If you haven't, I would urge you to see this movie in incredible 3D while it's in theaters, and then get to the book when you get a chance (but do get to it).

So, where do I begin? Lee makes great use of 3D, including the stunning opening credits sequence and the horrific sinking of the ship. Another reviewer mentioned Titanic (1997),  as in this sequence was the best ship-sinking on film since that memorable film. It's breathtaking and horrific. Then we settle in with Pi and the tiger Richard Parker for a long and trying voyage, replete with the suffering and beauty of the book. Lee creates some truly magnificent visual passages- a sea alight with jellyfish, a whale breaching, and one scene showing the sky indistinguishable from the water and the small boat looking as if suspended between the two. Suraj Sharma is great as Pi; for long stretches of the film he's the only person on screen but it always felt full. There was too much tension between him and the tiger, not to mention the ocean itself, to admit more characters.

The only thing I could have done without was the awkward and redundant framing device of having an older Pi tell his story to a Canadian writer. It just didn't need to be there, and distracted from the flow of story. I don't need to hear someone talking about telling the story. Just tell the story. I've said it before and I'll say it again; we don't need to have narratives filtered through the eyes of some Caucasian person in order to understand them. It's just not necessary. Martel didn't think it was; I don't understand why Lee made a different choice.

If you can ignore the frame, or if you're not bothered by it, you're in for a treat when you go to the movies starting November 21. There were tears and applause at the end of this film; it was that good. I can't wait to go see it again!

A word about the rating: the film is rated PG but I would not advise taking kids to see it. It doesn't have anything I would call adult content per se (there is violence among animals) but the kids present at the screening I attended were audibly unhappy. They were probably also confused. It's not a children's movie. Its themes are sophisticated and the narrative is mostly about death and loss. So just keep that in mind.

Rating: RUSH (the movie equivalent of BUY)

FTC Disclosure: I attended a free screening of the film as a professional courtesy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

REVIEW: How I Became A Nun, by César Aira

How I Became A Nun, by César Aira. Published 2007 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Spanish.

To paraphrase Butters Stotch, how I can review that which is unreviewable?

This book is seriously messed up and crazy, but crazy in a good way. But also, in a crazy way.

The story is about a child named César Aira who experiences a profound tragedy the day that César's father takes César for an ice cream. The scene is a parody of the opening of the opening scene Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the protagonist, about to be shot, remembers when "his father took him to discover ice." So it has that allusive quality, slightly otherworldly and abstracted, like it comes from another planet.  It departs from here into some truly bizarre fictional territory.

For one thing, it's pretty clear César has some gender-confusion issues. What's not clear is why, or what we're to make of it. It's not, I'm pretty sure, simply a matter of the character being transgendered. César also has some difficulty fitting in at school though César takes pains to always use terms like "normal" and "ordinary' with respect to others' perceptions of César. One gets the impression that this may not actually be the case, but who knows.

The ending is truly bizarre and no doubt metaphorical. At least, I really hope so. César Aira the writer is often compared to Borges and Marquez. These comparisons are no doubt justified, but he reminds me more of that other Latin American fantasist, Reinaldo Arenas, whose novels are filled with much of the same surrealistic black comedy. Mind you I'm not referring to elves and wizards type fantasy but otherworldly fantasy, fantasy in which the speaker is unable or unwilling to distinguish the real world from that of his or her imagination, if such a distinction can even be drawn.

Aira's books have a real charm to them. You get drawn in despite the insanity, but this book is not for the meek. I love his books but you need a real sense of adventure- and the willingness to give most traditional elements of the novel a wide berth- to take him on.

Rating: BUY

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Crafturday- The Elegance of the (Paper-Pieced) Hedgehog

Here's a little thing I made, a 4x6 paper pieced hedgehog. The pattern came from and their collection of cute paper piecing patterns. I embroidered a message on the back (it's a gift) and finished it with a 2 1/5 inch binding like a regular little quilt. I want to make another one now!

I've been doing a lot of sewing lately. A long time ago, I pieced blocks for a queen-sized, double Irish chain quilt. When I realized how big it was going to be, I got a little freaked out and left the blocks in a pile for a long time. I ressurected it about two weeks ago and have been piecing the blocks into rows, and the rows into sections. It is nine rows down so I've been sewing units of three rows. I'm almost done with the third section, and then I'll piece them together. At that point, I'll take a picture and show you. I still need to find border fabric and a backing. I have a queen-sized Alpaca batting for it, just waiting to be used!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

REVIEW: My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.

So, this is a tough review to write, though not because I didn't like the book in question, My Brilliant Friend. I liked the book, admired it even. It's challenging, like all of her books, but in a different way from the others. The novel opens with the disappearance of Lila, the oldest and best friend of the narrator, Elena.The two haven't been in touch for a while but Elena hears from her son often. She's used to Rino's demands for money, but when he calls up one day and tells her that his mother is missing, Elena decides it's time to write the story of their friendship, right from the beginning.

And it's the story of this friendship that takes up the rest of the book, along with three sequels. It's a long story of rivalry and competition between the two girls, their families, the boys who desire them and different ways of life. Lila (or Lina, as Elena calls her) is a top student when they're kids but she's taken out of school to work in her father's shoe business. Lena, always a good student but second to Lila, shines when her talented friend is out of the picture but Lila studies on her own, still outpacing her friend. As they enter their teen years, Lila starts to attract attention from boys, attention that will inject drama and lead to life-altering decisions. Elena narrates the story, imagining or speculating about the often enigmatic Lila. Reading My Brilliant Friend, I always felt like the overly straightforward "then this happened, then this happened" style was concealing something else, a second narrative hidden in the first, which is Lila's real story, a story that Elena only sees and understands from the corner of her eye.

After Lila leaves school, for example, Elena imagines Lila having a sort of grand time working in the shoe shop, teaching herself English to outshine Elena, but sometimes I started to wonder about that. After all, shoemaking was considered a low-status profession, and it was to this that she's consigned while Elena pursues a formal education and does well, too. Elena starts to wonder the same thing:
During that period [her early teens] I felt strong...I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighborhood, I went to high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers. When she talked to me about Dido or her method for learning English words...I saw with increasing clarity that it made her somewhat uneasy, as if it were ultimately she who felt the need to continuously prove that she could talk to me as an equal.
My Brilliant Friend lacks the kind of shocking bluntness that characterizes books like The Days of Abandonment or The Lost Daughter. The book's power comes from this accumulation of detail, of day to day life and the slowly diverging trajectories of the two girls. I feel like in that way it's a more subtle and artfully crafted book. and one that I look forward to continuing with the eventual English publication of the sequels. I will say the book ends on a very powerful note of Ferrantean shock, both for the reader and for the two main characters. Though nothing material has changed- nobody dies or anything like that- a small gesture becomes enough to change each girl's understanding of the present and the future. The reader will put the book down pondering what's to come as well.

Rating: BUY

I'm all done with my 12 books for the 2012 Europa Challenge. Join in for 2013, okay?

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

REVIEW: Murder in the Marais, by Cara Black

Murder in the Marais, by Cara Black. Published 1999 by Soho Crime. Crime Fiction.

Murder in the Marais is the first of an eleven-book series starring Detective Aimée Leduc, a French-American private detective whose beat is the streets of Paris. A Jewish woman, Lili Stein, has been found murdered with a swastika carved into her forehead; Leduc is called in to investigate by a local synagogue based on her late father's reputation and his relationship with the man who approaches Aimée. Aimée for her part is up to her neck in debt and can't say no to a lucrative job.

Since this is the first book in the series, Black spends a certain amount of time establishing Leduc's character and background. The daughter of an American mother who abandoned her and a French father, she's a chameleon. She can blend in with skinheads one minute and dress up in designer duds and fit in to high society the next. She can totter on Paris rooftops in high heels or she can sit quietly by the bedside of a dying man, pulling the wool over the eyes of hospital staff. But she can't seem to untangle the identity of the killer.

Of course she does, eventually, but not before we're treated to a kind of snapshot history of French anti-Semitism and how it lingers into the present day. Lili, the dead woman, managed to stay hidden during the war along with her friend Sarah, who was the lover of a Nazi soldier turned present-day diplomat. But Sarah's relationship with Helmut was far from simple and when he returns to Paris to take part in sensitive treaty negotiations on the status of immigrants, they find they have some unfinished business after all.

I had fun reading this first entry into the Leduc series. It's gripping and suspenseful and gritty. I enjoyed watching the conspiracy at the heart of the story unfold and I think it's a great choice for crime readers. A customer of mine at the bookstore liked this book so much she called me the next day to say she stayed up all night reading it. If you like crime and mysteries, you should definitely add Aimée Leduc to your list of detectives worth investigating.

Rating: BEACH

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

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Crafturday: Pumpkin Carving!

Every year my husband and I like to carve pumpkins.  I keep it simple, but he likes to carve elaborate patterns that take hours to complete. Last year he did the Star Trek Enterprise; this year, he created his own pattern out of a photo of actor Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. It took him about 8 hours from start to finish! He uses woodcarving tools to help get the shading just right. Nice job, Jeff!

My pumpkin was easier! It took me about an hour to complete. Many people who know me know I love Hello Kitty so I thought an HK pumpkin would be a fun one for me to do.

Both pumpkins started with a paper pattern that we transferred onto the pumpkins with a small plastic poker, to make little dots on the pumpkin's skin. Then we connect the dots with water-soluble marker and label the areas to be cut through completely, like the Doctor's bow tie or most of Hello Kitty's outline. After that we hollow out the pumpkins and it's carving, shading and more scraping till it's done. And then of course we have to sort out the seeds and roast them. It's best to carve as close to Halloween as possible so the pumpkins don't cure or start to rot before they go on display. I did mine on Halloween and Jeff transferred the pattern for his the night before, then carved during the afternoon of Halloween. Both were ready by trick or treat time!

What should we carve next year?

Friday, November 2, 2012

What's New On the Shelf, 11/2

A few new things turned up on my shelves in the past week. I'll admit there aren't a lot of new releases I'm dying to buy; I'm waiting for November and a paperback by Ludmila Ulitskaya and the new book from Ian McEwan. But "not a lot" isn't the same as "none."

Kingsley Amis's Booker Prize winner The Old Devils is out in a new edition from NYRB Editions. Two great things that go great together- the Booker Prize and one of my favorite small presses!

Hogarth Press, a new imprint from Random House, sent me two awesome galleys this week (and a tote-thanks!). The Dinner by Herman Koch is about a dinner party and the shocking things that get revealed. This looks so amazing and so right up my alley. Gillian Flynn blurbed it, so how could I go wrong? It comes out in February.

The kind folks at Hogarth sent a bonus, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about the war in Chechnya, by Anthony Marra. It's out in May.  I love Hogarth and if you're any kind of reader of literary fiction, do keep an eye out for their colophon as you browse the shelves.

Bookmooch brought me Happy Ending, by Francesca Duranti. She's an Italian writer whom a friend recommended after we talked about how much we both liked Niccolò Ammaniti. Can't wait for a nice evening to dip into this book!

Finally, I treated myself to The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, by César Aira, one of my new favorites. I got a New Directions catalog yesterday and saw they have another translation of one of his books coming out in the winter. I'd better get reading the three I have in my TBR!

That's it! What's new on your shelf this week?