Wednesday, January 30, 2013

REVIEW: The Eyes of Venice, by Alessandro Barbero

The Eyes of Venice, by Alessandro Barbero. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translation.

The Eyes of Venice is a very long, very detailed historical novel set in 16th century Venice and its environs, about the diverging fates of a husband and wife separated by chance. Michele is a master mason and just married to the lovely Bianca; the family was doing okay until Michele's father died while being pursued by the police. Michele, also pursued, escapes by jumping on board a ship and impulsively volunteering himself as a galleyman, a rower. Before long he's set sail for parts unknown, leaving his wife behind- his wife who has no idea where he is or if she'll ever see him again.

The narration then alternates between Michele and Bianca in long sections. Several chapters will focus on one, then the other, then back again. Michele adjusts to shipboard life, with all its privations and difficulties. Barbero's passages about life on ships, its rules and customs, were fascinating. He meets people from all over the Mediterranean, opening his mind and altering his perspectives. And he gets himself involved in a grisly plot to steal a great deal of money, which will put him in a great deal of danger. Meanwhile, Bianca is trying to keep herself employed and fed and avoid the abuses that await unattached women. After some false starts, she finds a good position as a maid to an influential and kind Venetian noblewoman who may even be able to reunite her with Michele.

I'm not going to lie to you. I did not read the whole book. I skipped three chapters towards the end that narrated some detailed Venetian politics not wholly germane to the central plot. This is a very long book with a great deal of historical detail concerning the social customs and politics of Venice, and students of Italian history will relish the depth Barbero brings. For me, the best parts of the book had to do with Michele's encounters with the non-Christian world and Bianca's chapters. Michele is a rather passive person- things happen to him but he takes little initiative.

I'd recommend the book to readers of the Sarah Dunant type of light, plot-driven historical fiction. I liked the book, and I learned some things, and I think it would be a great book for a vacation or a time when you can really carve out the space for it.

This is my second book for the 2013 Europa Challenge!

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Review: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. Dir: David O. Russell. Rated R. IMDB.

I've been a fan of director David O. Russell since his 1994 film Spanking the Monkey, though I haven't seen all of his movies. I loved his 1999 Iraq war film Three Kings, and I was excited that he had a new one. Of course, Silver Linings Playbook came with a lot of buzz and most of it not for him but for his stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and the novel of the same name on which it's based. I haven't read the book and can't speak to how well it was adapted, but I will say that it's a very David O. Russell film about dysfunctional families and dysfunctional love.

The story centers around a man named Pat Solitano (Cooper), a former teacher who was hospitalized for bipolar illness following a violent physical attack on a man who was having an affair with Pat's wife. But as the story opens he's been released and is moving back in with his parents until he can take care of himself again. He's still obsessed with his wife Nikki, still thinks he can get her back, and he's not quite okay- not just yet. He refuses his medication and has episodes of instability; he also meets Tiffany (Lawrence), a widow with issues of her own, and the two form a tentative and slow-moving relationship of sorts. Then he asks her for a favor, and she accepts, but there are conditions.

I really enjoyed this movie. The actors were great- I mean, I'm no acting critic, but I thought everyone was wonderful. I think I'm a bona fide fan of Jennifer Lawrence now, and I didn't find Bradley Cooper to be annoying at all. I thought the portrayal of mental illness was realistic and sensitive, and I thought the way Russell portrays Pat's family was pretty realistic as well. Echoes of his illness show up both in his brother and father, while his mother copes as best she can to both direct the three men and keep out of the line of fire too. She was a great character, even if she didn't have the flashy role that Lawrence had. Pat's therapist is hysterical too. Pat's evolution is gradual and rang true for me.

I'd recommend Silver Linings Playbook to adult audiences looking for an intelligent and funny look at tragedy.

Rating: RUSH


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive tickets  to the film or any compensation for the review.

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Still reading Ratlines. I like it- I do- but it's taking a while. I hope to finish it this week!

I started Ian McDonald's The Dervish House this weekend. I only just started it so I don't have much to say so far but I am enjoying it. It's set in Istanbul in the near future, about the fallout of an explosion which appears to be some kind of terrorist attack at first. I heard about it at Readercon a couple of years ago and bought it once it was out in paperback in 2012. I'm glad to be getting to it finally. Stay tuned for more.

I put Life, Itself aside for now and picked up Ben MacIntyre's Agent Zigzag, a real life spy story about a petty criminal who spied for Germany then changed his mind to serve his native Britain in World War 2. So far I'm finding it exciting and well-written.

This past week I finished The Eyes of Venice, by Alessandro Barbero, which I enjoyed but didn't really love. I also finished Rebecca Miller's Jacob's Folly, which I did love. It's coming out in early March and I urge you to keep an eye out for it!

What are you reading? Hop over to Bookjourney.wordpress.com to see more!

Friday, January 25, 2013

What's New On the Shelf 1/24

I bought- and read- Lydia Millet's wonderful Magnificence this week. I loved it! I'll tell you more about it soon and I'll be on the Literary New England Radio Show talking about it soon too!

I finally picked up Liz Moore's Heft this week. I've been eyeing this book ever since seeing the author read from it last spring. It sounds so good.

S is for Stitch is an adorable stitchery book. It's an updated ABC book with cute patterns and great ideas for putting them together. I can't wait to start working on a project! The author is Kristyne Czepuryk and you can see her website at prettybyhand.com.

Finally, Ludmila Petrushevskaya's new collection of short stories came in the mail for me to read. It's called There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself. I love her stories- dark and disturbed for sure but always wonderful.

What new on your shelf this week?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

REVIEW: Singing From the Well, by Reinaldo Arenas

Singing From the Well, by Reinaldo Arenas. Published 1988 by Penguin.

Singing From the Well is the first book in Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas's "secret history of Cuba," a series he called the Pentagonía. It's the story of a young boy growing up in rural Cuba, with his mother and brother and other relatives. I read it after reading his searing autobiography, Before Night Falls, and I intend to finish the series eventually. Singing from the Well, and most of Arenas's fiction from what I understand, is very different in style from his matter-of-fact autobiography. It's surreal, dream-like and fantastical; you can't quite tell what's real and what's not, what the character is imagining and what's actually happening. You get lost in the poetic beauty of the writing itself, the lyricism and music of it.

The book opens with a scene of the narrator's mother falling down the well:
There went my mother, she just went running out the door. She was screaming like a crazy woman that she was going to jump down the well. I see my mother at the bottom of the well. I see her floating in the greenish water choked with leaves. So I run for the yard, out to where the well is, that's fenced around with a wellhead of naked-boy saplings so rickety it's almost falling in.
I run up and peek over. But just like always- the only one down there is me. Me being reflected from way down there up to me above. Me- and I disappear if you so much as spit into the oozy green water.
So she didn't really fall down the well, she just threatened to, but that was enough to send her son off in a panic, to check, just in case. But the reader can see right away some of the themes that the book will explore- the terror of childhood, the beauty of the natural world, and the fear of annihilation. As the book continues we learn more about his world- his family and especially his cousin Celestino, a writer mocked by the rest of the family. But is Celestino real? Is he a figment of the narrator's imagination, or is he the narrator himself, older and wiser, looking in on his younger self:
Celestino came up to me and put his hand on my head. I was so sad. It was the first time anybody had ever cursed at me. I was so sad I started crying. Celestino lifted me up in the air, and he said to me, "What foolishness, but you might as well get used to it." I looked at Celestino, and I realized that he was crying too, but he was trying not to show it. So that made me realize that he stil hadn't got used to it either. I stopped crying a second. And the two of us went out into the yard. It was still daylight.
The book goes on in this vein, with the narrator's naive style and flights of fancy glancing over the horrors of his day to day life- the violence in his family, death, the violence of a country in transition. The family faces shame and mockery as word of Celestino's writing spreads; times are difficult and tension builds. I can't claim to understand everything that happened in the book, but reading it was a beautiful experience. I want to read it again and to continue with the series. The books aren't all that easy to find but I think it will be worth seeking them out.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

REVIEW: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Published 2004 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Cloud Atlas is a weird and intriguing book. Encompassing large ranges of time and space, and arranged in a matryoshka-doll format, it's composed of a series of short stories that nestle inside each other, connected in ways subtle and overt. The stories also represent different literary styles, and show evolution in the human condition as well as in language and expression.

The first story, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," which begins and ends the book, is a historical fiction about a man and his adventures in New Zealand of the early colonial period (I think). The next is an epistolary tale set in the early 20th century, then a crime story, then a first-person contemporary narrative, then a futuristic dystopia, then a far-future post-apocalypse. The stories go 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 and each first part ends on a cliffhanger that the second part picks up immediately where the first part leaves off.

And how are they connected? That's for you to find out when you read it. I picked it up because it's been selling like crazy at the bookstore, and I wanted to be able to talk to my customers about it and recommend what to read next when they come back. I can do that now, and I'm glad that I read it. And I really enjoyed it. It's heavier lifting in literary terms than I'd been doing for a while, and it felt good to read a hard book again- a change from the fluffy crime fiction and homeworky new releases I read too much of. The stories are delightful, and a couple are quite wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the dystopic "Orison of Somni-451," about the rebellion of a sentient robot, and "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," a flat-out hilarious adventure of what happens to an elderly and particularly myopic publisher when he runs afoul of some thugs.

I'd recommend Cloud Atlas to readers not afraid of doing that heavy lifting but I'll say I found the book a lot more accessible than I thought it would be. If you're wondering if you should read it, I say give it a shot. Stretch yourself if it's not normally your thing, and just try it. You might even like it. "'Catch you all next time.'" Luisa is going. "'It's a small world. It keeps recrossing itself.'" Just like the book.

Shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, this book also counts towards The Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, January 21, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


I'm still reading Stuart Neville's crime thriller Ratlines, set in 1960s Ireland. And I seem to have put aside Jacob's Folly, at least for the time being. I'll get back to it for sure. I finished In a Strange Room (and reviewed it) and have started reading Magnificence, by Lydia Millet.

Magnificence is a so-far-wonderful novel about a woman named Susan, whose husband has died suddenly. More or less simultaneously, she has inherited a house of wonders or a house of horrors, depending on your point of view- a mansion fitted out in taxidermy. Her eccentric loner uncle has left her the house, where she roams, daydreams, decorates, and figures out what comes next. But this is a novel unlike most, a strange and moody journey through a strange woman's mind at a crucial turn in her life.

I've also been reading The Eyes of Venice, by Alessandro Barbero, an adventure tale about an Italian named Michele who leaves his wife for a life at sea. But he doesn't exactly leave her on purpose, and life at sea isn't really what he'd had in mind for himself. At the same time, his wife Bianca must cope with her own life, taking its own unpredictable turns. The story is set just before 1600 and is very much a sea story, driven by setting both geographic and historical. The most interesting parts of the book are those describing the collision of the various cultures of the Mediterranean- Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Barbero has taken a fascinating snapshot of a complex and important cultural moment.

What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Salon 1/20

Blah. Not too much going on this week. I was under the weather for a few days but I'm back now. Nothing got done- nothing much anyway- around the house except I made a dent in the chocolate supply!

Yesterday I took my first machine-quilting lesson at my favorite quilt shop. They have a big computerized longarm quilter and offer lessons with the idea that I'll be able to rent time on it and quilt on my own after a few hours of tutorials. The class lasted three hours and it felt like information overload but I'm looking forward to my next lesson. I have a lot of unfinished quilts that are unsuitable for hand quilting for one reason or another, and I hope to be able to finish those as well as expand the range of quilting projects I can take on in the future. Between UFOs- UnFinished Objects, what we quilters call our not-done projects- and the TBR pile, sometimes I feel like life is just a lot of things I haven't caught up with yet!

Speaking of reading, I've decided my goal for the 2013 Europa Challenge will be to read 24 books- two per month- to make significant inroads in that pile of unread books. It's ambitious but I think I can do it. And then I'm not taking on any more challenges per se but it might be interesting to see, at the end of the year, what challenges are out there that I've fulfilled unintentionally!

Today I've got work in the morning and then cleaning up this afternoon. Being sick kept me from doing more to take down Christmas and right now my house is pretty sad.

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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Crafturday! A Change Purse

Here's a fun little thing I learned how to make this past week. A change purse! I bought the pattern at my favorite quilt shop, Quilter's Way of Acton, and got to work right away. I used two small pieces of fabric for the outside, and two more for the inside pockets

plus fusible fleece and interfacing, sticky-back velcro, a Hawaiian coconut shell button and the usual sewing notions and machine. The pockets hold standard-size business or credit cards. It would be a great accessory for those you headed to BEA or other functions where you'll be passing out and collecting lots of business cards. Here's the back:

Since this was my first one there's definitely room for improvement, but overall I'm pretty happy with it. I picked out a really cute cat print to use for a couple more. I used scraps for this one but you can cut enough fabric for two from a fat quarter, if you cut the long edge parallel to the selvage. I can't wait to get started. It took me about an hour to make this one; I think doing two or three at once, assembly-line style, is very practical. I'd love to get good enough at making these to sell them but for now I think they'd make fun gifts.

And I'm giving this one away to one of you if you'd like it! If you live in the US and would like a little turtle purse, leave a comment with an email address. The giveaway will be open for a week, till next Saturday.

Friday, January 18, 2013

REVIEW: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros, with ilustrations by Ester Hernández. Published 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf. Nonfiction.

I had to read and review this because I love Sandra Cisneros and because it's a Marie book. It's also about a cat, a fact I discovered once I flipped through it a little. So, that's shooting fish in a barrel right there.

But humor aside, Have You Seen Marie? is actually a beautiful little book, easy to read in a sitting and filled with lovely pastels by San Francisco artist Ester Hernández. Think of it as a picture book about grief and loss for adults. The book tells the story of a woman named Sandra who loses her mother, then loses her cat Marie.

She and her friend Roz go looking for the cat. The two women poster, knock on doors, and call and call, searching for the cat. Along the way they touch base with neighbors and old friends, and get to know their entire community.  After her mother's death, Sandra "felt like a glove left behind at the bus station." Roz is the only person she knows in Texas, but after a day of searching that's not true anymore. Losing the cat forces her other loss to the fore and she has to begin to experience loss in order to begin to learn to live with it.

"There is no getting over death," Cisneros writes in the Afterword, "only learning how to travel alongside it." This book would be a lovely, thoughtful gift for yourself or for anyone you know who is experiencing loss. I know I'll keep it on my bedside table probably forever.

Rating: BUY

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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

REVIEW: In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Short Stories. Literary Fiction.

"There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it's a long way from home."

I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself lately, and Ebert describes his early days as a film critic and his education in the art of film- time spent visiting sets, talking to stars and directors, etc., learning how to understand and evaluate a film on technical grounds. But in the end, what he had to talk about was what did the film do to him. It's something I'm trying to think about more consciously as I read and review books. What did this book do to me?

In a Strange Room scarred me. Composed of three almost independent novellas, Galgut tells the story of an itinerant South African man named Damon and his travels in Africa and India with various companions. Each of the three chapters is titled after Damon's role in relation to these companions. In one, he's a follower, trailing behind a vain and self-contained German who poses more and more difficult physical challenges as the mens' amiable relationship breaks down. In the second, Damon is the admirer of a man who is part of a boisterous group of tourists he encounters in a neighboring country and follows all the way to Amsterdam. But it's the final story that will haunt me. Here, Damon is companion and caretaker to the mercurial and volatile Anna, mentally ill and suicidal. His time with her, in India, is horrific- a nightmare that challenges his endurance, his patience, his love and his sense of himself.

The first two chapters are luminous, moody and full of description; the third is all action and plot until it quiets down after the maelstrom in India ends and Damon returns to South Africa alone. When I picked it up to start the third chapter, I didn't expect to be unable to put it down. I picked In a Strange Room as my first Europa of 2013 because I'm on a bit of a South Africa bender right now, but most of the book takes place elsewhere. And Galgut has several lovely passages on the traveler's state of mind, the particular kind of alienation and impermanence peculiar to the wanderer:

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are....Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.
And in writing. Damon is always alone, even though he is almost always in the company of others. He is alone in crowds, on bus rides and at checkpoints, and most particularly he is alone with Anna, locked in her disease and her manias. Her voracious need fills every available space, every nook and cranny of Damon's consciousness as he struggles to care for her. Her needs give his life a purpose, at least for a time. But it can't go on like this forever.

What a beautiful, heartbreaking book, a study on solitude and relationships and how to coexist with others and the world and sit apart at the same time.

It's my first book for the 2013 Europa Challenge and I loved it! Short listed for the 2010 Booker Prize, it also counts towards The Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY!

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

REVIEW: The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

The Islanders, by Christopher Priest. Published 2012 by Gollancz. Science Fiction.

The Islanders is one of the strangest and most challenging books I've read in a long time. Let's just say if you thought Cloud Atlas was easy and kind of dull, The Islanders would be a great book for you.

Christopher Priest is one of our greatest living writers of science fiction, not that I even know enough about SF to say that, but I'll say it anyway, and I challenge anyone to dispute me. Go on, bring it. He started off writing pretty standard SF but has progressed over the years to difficult puzzle books, books that you can't say you've read until you've read them at least twice. With The Islanders, I think three times is probably the minimum.

I picked it up after hearing it described as "Nabokovian" and Christopher Priest is one of the few authors who actually deserves the comparison. The book starts immediately, and I mean before the first page, with the dedication. The Islanders sets itself up as a gazetteer of a fictional place called the Dream Archipelago, a huge chain of islands stretching around an imaginary globe. No one knows how many islands there are in the Archipelago, their exact terrain, population, etc.; some of the islands have multiple names and it's hard even to say which is the "true" one. Then there's that word, "true." It's one that you'd best let go of, since absolutely nothing is what it seems in Priest's twisty universe. Or is it? Maybe some of it?

The book starts out with an introduction by a man named Chaster Kammeston, who later, um, seems like he wouldn't be in a position to write it at all. (Or...?) Then we go through many islands, one at a time, and slowly a narrative emerges about a murder and more. Characters who don't seem important turn out to be crucial; misdirection abounds. The style varies. Dry reference alternates with weird short stories that intersect and overlap. In one, Priest invents the thryme, a horrific creature which will haunt your nightmares as it has mine. Later he'll chill you to the bone with a  Lovecraftian tale of madness and solitude. We learn about a process enabling immortality, an enigmatic painter who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, a temperamental theater performer, a writer and his twin, and a woman who wants to turn the islands themselves into musical instruments. And then there's that murder.

If you've read Priest before you'll recognize some of the motifs, like twins and the theater, artists and what it means to create. If not, buckle up. This book confounded me, confused me, flipped me around and landed me back on the ground only to want to start the whole crazy ride all over again. I've only read the book once so by my own standards I can't be said to have read it at all. I need to go back to this wonderful, puzzling and infuriating book. I have to. And you need to get started on your first go-through, like right now.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Whew! Participating in this meme, I feel pressured to get books finished up each week so I have something new to tell you. Last week I finished The Suitors and My Traitor's Heart, and decided to put The Secret History of MI6 aside. This week I have three new ones started.

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut, is about a man's adventures as he travels alone and with companions. I picked it up because I'm interested in reading more South African authors and because I need to start making tracks on the 2013 Europa Challenge. So far I'm really enjoying this moody, spare novel.

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville, is a new crime novel set in 1960s Ireland, about an ex-Nazi found murdered. I'm learning some about what went on in Ireland during World War 2. Officially Ireland was neutral but that doesn't mean they weren't involved. Fascinating, and a great book to boot.

Jacob's Folly, by Rebecca Miller, is an ARC I'm borrowing from work. Due out in March, it's about a Jewish peddler who lives and dies in 18th century France and is then reincarnated as a fly in the present day, where he influences the lives of several people. I love the blend of historical novel with present-day narratives. It's so creative and different!

I'm also picking my way though the graphic novel adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. It's OK. I'll probably like the real book better.  :-)

What are you reading today? Find more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Salon- Trying to Get Back in the Swing

So as you can probably tell, 2013 has not started off well for me in blogging! Reviews have been few and spotty, and last week was like Unofficial Meme Week here, never a good sign. For the time being I'm going to put myself on a regular blogging schedule, starting with a return to Sunday Salon. It's good for my blogging soul to have deadlines and concrete expectations for myself, so there you go.

Offline I've been slowly getting back to "regular time." The Christmas decorations are coming down this weekend for one thing. Our house is pretty much fully decked out from Thanksgiving to New Year's, which means that taking it all down can seem like an onerous task. But it goes down the same way it went up- little by little. First the Christmas village, then the Santa and reindeer over the fireplace, and so forth.

I'm also trying to sort out my reading goals for 2013. I stated my explicit goals and those are helping shape my choices but I never seem to want to do what I "have" to! There are, sad to say, not many 2013 releases I'm dying for, save Margaret Atwood's new book coming in the fall. I have a few galleys to be sure, and I'll get to those just because there aren't that many of them. Otherwise I think this is going to be Year of the Backlist. For the past couple of years I've read around 30 new releases; I expect that number to be substantially smaller this year, and I'm OK with that. What counts is that I keep reading!

What about you? How are the early days of 2013 treating you, in and out of the pages?

More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What I Gave For Christmas

So yesterday's Booking Through Thursday got me thinking. What kind of books are good to give as gifts?

Buying bookish presents can be challenging! Working in a bookstore I have all day to try out ideas; it's fascinating to watch what comes across the register, what I'm stacking on the shelves or what I come across as I go about any number of my daily tasks. Even when I don't have time to browse, which I actually rarely do, I still get so many ideas all day long!

Come In, We're Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World's Best Restaurants, by Christine Carroll, was a gift to a young woman who's on her way to medical school but who has been working at a number of fine-dining restaurants part time for the past few years. It's a cookbook and a documentary coffee-table book as well.

For my crime-fiction-reading father in law, I bought a handful of first-in-series detective novels set around the world. Included in his gift basket were:
  • He Died With His Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond, a literary noir set in England;
  • Happy Birthday, Turk! by Jacob Arjouni, a comic noir with a serious underside set in Germany;
  • Death and the Penguin, by Andrey Kurkov, a surreal and funny noir set in Ukraine, and
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville, set in Northern Ireland.
For a hard-to-buy for aunt and uncle who love dogs, I picked The New Yorker Book of Dogs. How can you go wrong? And actually, I didn't- I got one of the sweetest thank you notes ever from them!

For friends with different interests, I bought copies of some of my favorite novels and passed them out as best I could. For a science fiction reader I got The Islanders by Christopher Priest, an elaborate puzzle book by one of our best living SF writers. For a friend who likes womens' fiction I bought The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton, one of my very favorite novels and my bestest selling staff pick at work, and for a book-loving relative who doesn't normally read realistic fiction, I picked Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, because I just really hope she'll love it anyway. I also gave her a homemade quilt to cuddle up in with that or any other book she'd like to read.

My husband loves to read and has almost as many books as I do, so I never run out of ideas for him. He got Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise, The Extremities by Christopher Priest and lots of Doctor Who reference books.

I gave Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) by Norman Russell, to my mother in law, because she loves Venice and cooking. The book is beautifully produced with exposed Coptic stitching and gorgeous photographs. She liked it so much we had to remind her to open the rest of her presents!

Books are the best holiday gifts. You truly can find something for everyone; even if your giftee doesn't like to read, there are cookbooks, craft books, and lots of other choices at your local independent bookstore. Don't forget about them for birthdays and other celebrations all year long!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It's Meme Week! Booking Through Thursday- Buying Books as Gifts

It’s my Dad’s birthday today, which makes me wonder … do you like to give books as gifts?
I’m usually torn. I love giving and sharing books, but it can be hard. The giftee can be difficult to please, or you don’t know what they’ve read (or what they thought of books they have read). Even people who love to read and love to get books can be hard to gift books to … so, does that make you pause and reach for the neckties or DVDs or sweaters … anything BUT a book at gift-giving time? How do you feel about getting books yourself? Are you picky or easy? (For the record, I’m told I’m VERY hard to buy for, even though I’ll read just about anything … go figure.)

I like giving books as gifts. This past Christmas just about everyone got books as gifts, even people who aren't big readers. People like my husband, who are avid readers, are easy to buy for of course. But the great thing about buying books is there's something for everyone. You can give beautiful cookbooks, coffee table books, craft books and more- puzzles, games, home improvement, photography, fashion, art, the list goes on. There's so much to choose from!

I'm easy to buy for because I keep detailed wishlists so there's no guessing. Otherwise I'd probably be very tricky to buy for only because I buy so much for myself. I work  in a wonderful independent bookstore where employees get a generous discount, so I have little incentive to wait! And in fact I'd rather buy books for myself, since it's cheaper that way. But I do keep a wishlist at a sister independent bookstore, and once a year we give a little business to it.

Update: I gave The New Yorker Book of Dogs to a relative whose reading habits I don't know, but I figured she'd like it because she loves dogs. I got the sweetest thank you note in the history of thank you notes from her today! Books make a great gift, guys! Don't be afraid to give a book!

More Booking Through Thursday here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

REVIEW: The Colour of Milk, by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of Milk, by Nell Leyshon. Published 2012 by Ecco. Literary Fiction.

"this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand."

So begins the testament of Mary, a young girl aged fifteen as she writes. It's 1831 and, instilled with a sense of urgency that we don't understand right away, she tells us she's the daughter of a bitter man with a house full of girls, cast off to be the servant of a pastor and his reclusive wife. Bright, a hard worker and just a little rebellious, Mary endeavors to work hard- making bread, cleaning, taking care of the "mrs." as she calls the pastor's wife, suffering from a nameless illness and confined to her bed. Hard work is the only life she's ever known, and all she expects to know.

But Mary has some adjustments to make at her new home. She misses her family, especially her grandfather, the only person to ever show her love. She misses her sisters, especially one who is pregnant by the pastor's son. And she has a hard time assimilating the relative luxury of the new place. She also has a hard time with the pastor, who doesn't abuse her exactly- at least not at first- but who doesn't seem to understand that Mary is not an automaton, that she has feelings and a will of her own. Too bad for him. But he does teach her to read and write, and so she is able to tell us her story.

The Colour of Milk has been compared to Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace in the way Leyshon deals with themes of power and submission, and class and gender conflict. The comparison is apt but The Colour of Milk is a much less complex book than Atwood's searing masterwork. There's no real ambiguity here, no real question about what happens- just Mary telling her tale in that naive, straightforward style. The writing strikes me as the literary equivalent of folk art- simple but masking a rich inner life. I enjoyed reading the book, watching Mary's world unfold and the course of her life along with it. The action moved at a smooth pace and the suspense, though muted, whispered its presence throughout. At a mere 176 pages, it's a relatively quick read and lots of readers will be intrigued and won over by Mary's simple story, as timeless and universal as it is unique.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


I'm reading a few things this Monday. On my nightstand is Life Itself, Roger Ebert's autobiography, which I'm enjoying despite his somewhat terse writing style. I'm listening to The Secret History of MI6, by Keith Jeffries, a history of the British international secret service. Fascinating stuff! Then I have two other books going, a memoir and a novel. The memoir is Rian Malan's searing My Traitor's Heart, examining race relations in South Africa through the examination of several murder cases. Malan is the scion of a historically important South African family as well as a dissident journalist who fled the country to avoid military service. The book is incredible. Finally I'm reading The Suitors, a galley from Other Press. It's a light novel about upper crust French people.

It's Monday! What are you reading? is hosted by Sheila at BookJourney. What are you reading today?

Friday, January 4, 2013

New On the Shelf-Post Christmas Edition


So I didn't really ask for a lot of books this year, and most of them were cookbooks or craft books, which I won't bore you with- basically slow cooking, quilting and papercrafts. I'm sure you'll be seeing the results of those books on the blog sometime soon anyway!

I got three novels- Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy; The Conspiracy, by Paul Nizan; and Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker and appealed to me as a quiet literary novel. The Conspiracy is a WW2 thriller and Tell the Wolves was a book that I found browsing and later found out a lot of my friends really loved. A no-brainer!

And since I can't stay out of bookstores, especially used bookstores, I managed to find a few things on my own too.
Between Two Seas is an older Europa Editions title set in southern Italy, about a painter. I couldn't resist!
The Obscene Bird of Night, by José Donoso, is a weird-looking book set in a mental hospital that I just couldn't say no to. We'll see how I do with it. Sometimes I find books by browsing spines for the publisher; this one came from Godine, which often does interesting and unusual fiction.

What's new on your shelf this week?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012). Directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. IMBD.

So for New Year's Eve my husband I decided to go to the movies, and we wanted a "big" movie for a night like New Year's so we picked Les Misérables, the latest film adaptation of the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo and 1980 musical based on the novel. We picked right, because this movie is an epic and a contemporary classic.

I had seen the musical once a long time ago but I was more or less unfamiliar with the story past the basic premise. The story unfolds across the bloody tableau of 19th century France with all of its political and social upheaval. Jean Valjean is a criminal who had been sentenced to years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He's released but remains on parole; as a convict, he's a pariah and cannot support himself. After stealing some silver from a church, he decides to break parole and change his life. Years later he's a mayor and respected businessman who through a series of circumstances becomes foster father to a young girl, Cosette. Years pass. More stuff happens. But shadowing Valjean throughout his life is Inspector Javert, a rigid and righteous officer of the law who promises to hunt Valjean to his grave.

The novel is considered to be one of the best ever written; the musical has been hugely popular and an iconic theatrical spectacle. And the movie is just amazing. First of all, the actors all sing their parts. Hugh Jackman is a Tony award winner so we expect him to be excellent, and he is. Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine and Russell Crowe as Javert are incredible. Hathaway in particular will break your heart. Samantha Barks as Eponine was wonderful, too, probably the breakout star of the movie. I read on IMDB that she won the roll over Taylor Swift! I can't imagine sugary Taylor as Eponine but Barks is just great.

And the film, which is sung virtually throughout, is completely engrossing. There are no titles until the end of the film so when it starts, it really starts, and draws you right in. Jackman is unrecognizable for his first few minutes on screen and his transformations are fun to watch. The story travels through the revolutions and protests of Paris as well as its streets and houses and social classes. The movie shortens and simplifies lots of aspects of the book- but at over two and a half hours long, it's still got plenty of story and character to keep you going. Sometimes it felt like each character got about 10 minutes of screen time before his or her untimely death, but that's only because time flies when you're having fun, and Les Misérables, for all is unhappiness, is one of the best times I've had at the movies in a long time. Highly, highly recommended for adults and teens, make some time for it before it leaves theaters. It's worth seeing on the big screen!

Rating: RUSH

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year! Reading Resolutions for 2013

Do you making reading resolutions, or set goals for your reading in the New Year? Do you pick books as you go, or do you have a  plan?

What about challenges? Lots of us bloggers participate in them; have you? Do you plan to in 2013? I'll re-start the Europa Challenge for 2013 of course (sign up!) and I might pick a short challenge or two but other than that I'm not good at finishing what I start, really, so I tend to avoid them.

But the fact is, my TBR pile is growing higher and higher, and sometimes I feel more like a book collector/hoarder than a reader! So I need to dig into that pile and try to keep pace with what I'm buying.

To that end, here are my reading goals for 2013.
  • One Europa Editions book per month for a total of at least 12 for the year. Probably I'll read more; I tend to!
  • Six books by author Angela Thirkell for the year. Angela Thirkell's books are largely out of print but I've been able to amass a nice collection of her delightful English country tales nonetheless. Time to make a point of digging in!
  • One audiobook on the iPod at all times; one nonfiction book on the nightstand at all times. The audiobook-listening helps me squeeze in extra books without having them take up space!
  • One book in each of the following series: Factory Series by Derek Raymond; Mollison Town Quartet by Tim Davys; World Noir series from Europa Editions.
  • Six Booker Prize winners for the year.
  • Three NYRB Classics by June.
  • One graphic novel per month.
What do you think? Can I do it? Some of these overlap; one of the Booker winners was just reissued by NYRB, for example, and the World Noir book would count towards the Europa Challenge. What are your goals for 2013 when it comes to books?