Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: JACOB'S FOLLY, by Rebecca Miller

Jacob's Folly, by Rebecca Miller. Published 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Literary Fiction.

"I'm a fly on plane.
I've got a lot of dreams.
I never counted on a rolled up in-flight magazz-"
-Christine Lavin, "Fly on a Plane."

You guys. It's early in the year, but I'm ready to add another book to my Best of 2013 list. Rebecca Miller's novel Jacob's Folly comes out next week and I urge you all to race to your independent bookstore and pick it up.

Jacob's Folly has one of the funnest, most original premises I've come across. Jacob Cerf is a dead Jewish peddler from 18th century France come back to life as a fly on the wall- literally- of two modern day New Yorkers. Leslie Senzatimore is an inveterate goody-two-shoes living on Long Island with his family. He's practically a saint, between volunteer fire-fighting and caring for his extended dysfunctional brood, and he drives Jacob crazy with his do-gooder-ness. Enter Masha, an Orthodox Jew with dreams of the stage and screen. She's a beauty with the voice of an angel, and she longs to use her talent the way she believes God intended. Jacob has the power to influence their thoughts and actions, and he uses it.

As we watch these two misfits figure out the meaning of their lives, we also see Jacob's own story unfold, from his disaster of a marriage to his adventures as a peddler, actor and man-about-town.  I think this book would appeal to readers of historical fiction, contemporary family stories and Jewish fiction (obviously). Miller makes Masha's family and beliefs accessible without a deep knowledge of Orthodox practices, and makes Les a complicated man with a deeply troubled past who is nonetheless sympathetic even as he does something truly terrible blinded by desire for Masha.

Miller's writing sparkles at every turn. I can't remember the last time I had this much fun reading a serious literary novel. I did not want to put it down. I think I read it in about four days, shorter than a book of this length would normally take me, because I just didn't want to stop reading it. I had to find out what happened to these people, even to Jacob the fly. I loved it loved it loved it. No that was not a typo. I loved it!

Rating: BUY! Like, now, okay?

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

REVIEW: Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag: The True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre. Published 2008 by Broadway. Nonfiction. History.

Espionage is something that has always held a certain fascination for me, and lately there seem to be a lot of books coming out about the history of spying. Keith Jeffrey's The Secret History of MI6 takes advantage of newly-declassified materials to tell the backstory of British foreign intelligence, but I found that book dry and textbook-like. I wanted something with a little more action and tradecraft, more of a plot-driven narrative if you will. I definitely found that- and more- in Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, one of three books he's written on various aspects of British intelligence during World War 2.

Agent Zigzag is a book about a singular character who rose to the occasion for crown and country at a crucial time in history. Recruited by the Germans to spy on the British, career criminal Eddie Chapman turned on them to  become one of Britain’s most valuable assets. Combining espionage, adventure, true crime, love, World War 2 and more in a gripping, page-turning package, Chapman’s story is incredible, crazy and unforgettable. Barred from publishing his memoirs in his lifetime- and probably just as well, considering that Macintyre makes a convincing case for Chapman as an unrepentant, inveterate teller of tall tales- and the subject of a film that distorted his story, Chapman's story can finally be told in all of its unlikely glory.

Eddie Chapman was a handsome, charismatic criminal with a penchant for explosives, the dramatic and charming the ladies. In jail on the island of Jersey when the Germans occupied it, he was recruited by the Abwehr to spy on the British. They took him to France and after they tutored him in various aspects of tradecraft including extensive training in all kinds of bombs, he was dropped in to the British countryside via parachute and promptly picked up by MI5. You see, the British had cracked all the German codes and were expecting him. Once back in his homeland, MI5 re-educated him about the progress of the war (seduced by the lavish lifestyle of his Nazi spymasters and personally fond of his captors, Chapman had believed their propaganda about the state of the war) and convinced him- they hoped- to double cross his new friends. They kept Chapman on a short leash as they worked with him in Britain, but sooner or later they knew they would have to send him back to France, where his loyalty would be tested over and over.

Agent Zigzag is a really fun read if you like adventure, espionage, or World War 2 history propelled by powerful suspense and a colorful central figure. I had a great good time reading this book and really look forward to more of Macintyre's spy stories. I also recommend this book as a YA crossover for kids interested in history who would be captivated by the story of a most unlikely hero. Macintyre tells Chapman's story with humor, verve and respect. I think a lot of teens would really enjoy reading about Chapman and his exploits. And I think a lot of adults would, too!

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, February 25, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Whew! It was a productive reading week for me. I finished Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre, which I enjoyed so much I made it my staff pick for March at the bookstore. I'll have a review this week. What a fun book. I also read Happy Ending by Francesca Duranti, an Italian novel about a family gathering at a country estate. It had a lovely ending (of course) and I wonder if a movie has ever been made because it would make a great one.

So now my bedside book is Role Models, by John Waters, a funny and tender collection of reflections by the famed filmmaker of the people who have influenced him. It's half memoir, half appreciation, but all delightful. 

In my purse is Coronation Summer, by Angela Thirkell, one of her early novels, about two upper class young ladies and the summer they spend in London to see the coronation of Queen Victoria. It's yummy Downton Abbey-esque fun.

I also started a new audiobook, Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home, a memoir of her friendship with the late Caroline Knapp, a fellow Boston writer.

What are you reading? Head over to to see what others are reading this week!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

REVIEW: Life Form, by Amélie Nothomb

Life Form, by Amélie Nothomb. Published 2013 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

So, I've read two of Amélie Nothomb's books in the past (Hygiene and the Assassin and Tokyo Fiancée) and loved the first and was kind of lukewarm on the other. I think Nothomb is one of those writers whose every book is a little bit different and whose only consistent feature is that they always contain the unexpected.

Her latest to appear in English, Life Form, is more like Hygiene in that it's about a conversation, but rather than be in the same room and confront each other with violence, the speakers in Life Form converse via letter. Set in the present day, the characters are Amélie Nothomb, a writer, and Melvin Mapple, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq. Mapple is a fan of Amélie's and reveals his secrets to her over the course of their correspondence. Amélie is a life-long letter-writer who makes a habit of writing back to her fans. But she doesn't quite know what she's getting herself into with Mapple.

Melvin is morbidly obese. He says that his overeating is an intentional form of protest against the war, that what started off as a response to trauma transformed itself into an intentional provocation of the military, and that he's been heralded by his compatriots and joined by some of them. Amélie responds by encouraging him to think of his project, and his body, as a kind of work of art.

Nothomb's book raises a lot of issues. Obviously there are the issues around fat acceptance, complicity in validating dangerous and life-threatening behavior and the obesity epidemic in the U.S.  The book brings up responses to war and the damage war inflicts on soldiers, which makes it an interesting bookend novels like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, or Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, even Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's The Watch. But then there are lots of other issues, too, like issues around authorship, the difference between truth and fiction, what makes a work of art. Because Melvin isn't being completely honest with Amélie and it's worth asking if his performance represents a kind of authorship, or if you can just dismiss him as a liar.

I kind of love this book. It's edgy and weird and asks some difficult questions, and it has a very bizarre and surrealistic ending- the sense of a new story beginning, a story to which all we have read is mere buildup. The characters of Amélie and Melvin are complicated and nuanced. Amélie narrates but since we are seeing the story through her eyes it's worth asking if the story she's telling is any more more or less made up than Mapple's. I don't know. It's a really odd little book, but one bound to raise a lot of questions and stick with you for a while. It's definitely renewed my appreciation for Nothomb.

It's my third book for this year's Europa Challenge.
Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

REVIEW: Never Mind, by Edward St. Aubyn

Never Mind, by Edward St. Aubyn. Published as The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, Picador. Literary fiction.

Never Mind is the first of five novels by English writer Edward St. Aubyn to focus on the highly dysfunctional Melrose family- paterfamilias David, a monster of the declining British upper class, his fragile and drunk American wife Eleanor whose money props the family up, and little Patrick, just five as the story opens.

The book covers just a day and a night at the family home and gives enough back story to set the reader up comfortably. You might not be as comfortable with the people, only because they are so unfortunately awful. Really awful. If you need to like the characters you read about, or approve of their choices, or sympathize with their point of view, this isn't the book for you, although you probably will feel for little Patrick, at the mercy of horrible David and useless Eleanor.

The setting is a dinner party, and the cast of characters includes, in addition to the nuclear Melrose family, an older aristocrat and his young girlfriend, and a philosophy professor and his very nice lady friend. Each of these people has a complicated relationship with the others, and St. Aubyn's economical and stylish prose establishes these relationships crisply. He switches perspectives often, so we get to know how they see themselves and each other. It was fascinating.

And then there's the writing. Oh my, the writing. St. Aubyn is a marvelous stylist. On some pages I wanted to quote every other line. Describing David Melrose's appearance, and his personality, St. Aubyn writes, "the expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing  room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David's face." Describing the Melrose marriage he says "At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded." Sometimes St. Aubyn's tartness takes on the tone of horror, like when David muses that his only crime as a parent was "to set about his son's education too assiduously. He was conscious of already being sixty, there was so much to teach him and so little time." This reverie will sound innocent enough until you read the book and understand exactly what he considers educational.

As horrified as I was by the behavior of the Melroses, I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more. I love that Picador published the compendium of the first four books. The final installment, At Last, is out in paperback now. If you're up for some adventurous and edgy literary fiction, check out Never Mind.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, February 18, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished two short novels, Never Mind, by Edward St. Aubyn, and Life Form, by Amelie Nothomb. I loved them both in different ways. Never Mind is the first of the Patrick Melrose series; I definitely want to finish reading all the books now. Life Form was a strange and wonderful book about authors, writing and creating fiction. I'll write reviews this week.

Now I've got two new books going. Happy Ending by Francesca Duranti is about a weekend gathering of family at an Italian estate. I could see it as a very arty movie. More Beer, by Jakob Arjouni, is the second Kemal Kayankaya series crime novel, about environmental activists and the murder of the owner of a chemical plant. It's entertaining and enjoyable.

What are you reading? Stop by for more.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Salon: What Me Blog?

Last week was the laziest week I've had in blogging in a long time. One post?? Ridiculous. And no reviews! Crazypants!

I think I need to set up a schedule for writing my posts since the casual approach is not getting the job done. So that's going to be my Monday task for the foreseeable future, just to make sure it gets done and I have some actual content to show for myself.

This past week I've continued my short-book project and I have to say it's going really well. After I finish my current book I'll read some crime novels and make some progress on my goals for the year in that department. I haven't decided what my March theme will be. It'll either be Irish books or 2013 releases. There are some galleys that I should get to, like Herman Koch's The Dinner and others, but then again I'd love an excuse to finally read Skippy Dies. So we'll see.

Today I'm working at the bookstore in the morning and then doing who-knows-what this afternoon. Probably napping, and/or cleaning up after the birthday party I had last night. Either way coffee will play an important role in my Sunday!

What's going on with you? I hope you're having a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Crafturday- Etsy!

I have an Etsy store! It's called Pandora's Craft Room and you can find it by clicking. I've been doing so much sewing and experimenting with fabric lately I decided to start selling some of what I'm making. I'll be adding more items as I go, but right now you'll find some pretty tissue covers, a change purse, some bookmarks, unfinished quilt blocks and more. I hope you stop by and I hope you find something you like!

The most recent addition to my inventory is this tea wallet:

which I made with some Hawaiian fabric. It's really cute and it's the first of several I'll be adding to the shop. If you'd like to see more pictures you can click to the listing. I hope that this proves to be a popular item as they are easy to make and use up a lot of scraps!


Are you on Etsy? Let me know so I can follow you there!

Monday, February 11, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, this short-book thing is working out really well! Last week I read two books and started two more. I finished Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Klies, and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis. The Murderess was a weird book. I doubt I'm going to write a full review because I don't quite know what to say. Set in rural Greece in the early 20th century, it's about an elderly women who decides that a girl's lot in life is so bad and hopeless, and girls such a burden to their families, that she goes about drowning children, until one day fate catches up with her. It's really a downer.

On to even darker things, I started Never Mind, by Edward St. Aubyn, first in the Patrick Melrose series. It clocks in around 132 pages and qualifies for my short-book challenge even though it's part of a compendium including the first four books of the series. It's pretty bleak too, although St. Aubyn's delicious writing more than makes up for the horrors contained within the book. If it's important to you to like the characters you read about, these books are not for you. If you enjoy beautiful, stylized prose and can overlook some of the meanest people in print, I encourage you to check it out.

And I continue my re-read of Rebecca.

What are you reading today? Check out for more!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Salon: Blizzard of '13

That's what my front porch looked like yesterday around noontime, after the snow had finally stopped!

This isn't the worst blizzard I've ever lived through; I think it ranks 6 or 7 for the most recorded snowfall in Massachusetts- but the timing has special significance. When I was five, actually just about on my fifth birthday, Massachusetts experienced the Blizzard of 1978, and tomorrow I'll be turning 40, so I know I'm always going to remember this as the Birthday Blizzard. The bookstore was closed Friday as the snow started and Saturday as it stopped, so I had two days of staying inside, watching movies, cleaning, doing crafts, and of course reading. We were very lucky and didn't lose power or experience any real hardship. My husband did a little shoveling but that was it. It's been heavenly, I have to admit.

I've been doing a re-read of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, a great choice for a snowbound day. Reading it again, knowing what's going to happen, I'm seeing foreshadowing and experiencing du Maurier's luscious prose for its own sake. Re-reading is something I rarely do; looking at all the books on my shelf, floors and furniture that I haven't read, re-reading feels like a real indulgence. Rebecca is a book I know I'll re-read periodically forever. It's just so compelling and entrancing. If you haven't tried it I urge you to; it's a real classic and a tale of psychological suspense you'll never forget.

I go back to work on Tuesday and until then I'll be reading, sewing, cleaning and keeping busy as usual. What are you up to today? Did you experience the blizzard? Let me know in the comments and have a great Sunday!

More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

REVIEW: Magnificence, by Lydia Millet

Magnificence, by Lydia Millet. Published 2012 by W.W. Norton. Literary Fiction.

Magnificence is a quiet novel, luminous and strange, about a woman dealing with grief and making a new life for herself after the sudden death of her husband in a foreign country. This premise did not sound promising to me as I picked the book up, as I'm not overly fond of coming-to-terms-with-grief stories about husbands dying, but once I gave it a chance, i found it to be a truly remarkable and lovely novel.

Susan Lindley goes to meet her husband Hal at the airport. He's supposed to be coming back from a trip to South America to rescue her errant boss T., midlife-crisis victim. With her is her daughter Casey. Casey is disabled following an accident and this is important because Casey's side of the story is also about finding her place in the world. But we'll get back to Casey later. So, Hal does come back, but he comes back in a box. At the same time, a distant relative of Susan's has also died, and he has left her a surprise- an inheritance in the form of a mansion filled with taxidermy.

Susan decides to live in the house and little by little learns its secrets and takes it on as a way to immerse herself in something. Susan has a lot of issues to deal with, including her own serial adultery and guilt concerning her daughter. But Casey is better than her mother thinks, and may even surprise her by the end of the book. Meanwhile the house becomes a kind of gathering place for misfits of various kinds- Susan's new lover, T.'s mother and Susan's envious cousins who want to take the house away from her.

I don't want to say much more. I didn't know anything about this book when I picked it up and found that I really just loved it, and I loved all the twists and turns and surprises it offers. The writing is beautiful and literary in style; it's driven by character first and foremost but Millet is a lovely stylist and offers some nice insights into what it means to be a wife, mother, lover, and woman. I felt kind of sorry for Susan and her transgressions didn't bother me because they seemed to be a way of searching. The house is really what she was looking for all along, the house and what's housed in side, who's housed, and what it all means. Magnificence is the third book in Millet's series about these characters; the previous two, How the Dead Dream and Ghost Lights, focus on T. and Hal respectively, and I do want to read those and see how they all fit together. I would say though that Magnificence stands beautifully alone.

It'll almost certainly show up in my top favorites of the year.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

REVIEW: Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson. Published 2011 by FSG. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

Comedy in a Minor Key is a slender novella about a Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who hide a Jewish man they know as Nico in their home during World War 2. He's dead. This fact is revealed almost immediately, that he has died while in their protection. The story travels back to his arrival and his stay, then catches up with the present and the consequences for Wim and Marie of Nico's death.

While he's with them, Nico isn't some pale shadow lurking in a closet or a basement. He's part of their day to day lives, and some of their family even know he's there. No blank slate upon which is reflected the goodness of his gentile helpers, Nico is a fully-drawn character with complex feelings towards this couple who are risking their own lives to hide him. He's grateful of course, but he's also miserable, resentful and frustrated. Keilson explores the psychological impact of being hidden on both the hiders and the person hiding, and this exploration takes on an extra dimension when Wim and Marie are forced into hiding themselves.

This novella, a spare and haunting little thing, is a quick read but will still manage to take up a lot of space in your thoughts. The three characters are little more than pencil sketches but Keilson still makes us understand and care for these people. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the Holocaust but also in human nature, in what lengths people can and cannot stretch themselves for their own and others' survival. It's a memorable, thought-provoking gem.


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

Monday, February 4, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I had a busy reading week. I finished Ratlines, by Stuart Neville, finally! I also finished my first two short books of February- The Father and the Foreigner, by Giancarlo De Cataldo, and Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. The Father and the Foreigner is a crime novel of sorts, but more about the bonds of parenthood. It was fascinating in its way. Comedy in a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who hide a Jewish man during World War 2, then have to go into hiding themselves. It was wonderful.

Now I'm still working on Ian McDonald's The Dervish House, a not-short book set in near-future Istanbul, and I've started Alexander Papadiamantis's The Murderess, a novel set in rural Greece. I  only just started it so I can't say too much yet but I have a good feeling!

What are you reading? Check out what others are reading this week at

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Salon: Staying Cozy this Winter-And Busy

I had a good reading month in January; I read 10 books or so, and enjoyed most of them. But how did I stack up against my goals? Here are my goals for the year:
  • One Europa Editions book per month for a total of at least 12 for the year. Probably I'll read more; I tend to! Check! I actually read two.
  • 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! Nope.
  • 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! Check, although I haven't found an audio I wanted to finish yet. I DNF'd two and am looking for a new one. Any recommendations? I also DNF'd one nonfiction bedside book and started another that I'm loving, Agent Zigzag by Ben McIntyre.
  • 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. Nope.
  • Six Booker Prize winners for the year. Nope.
  • Three NYRB Classics by June.Nope.
  • One graphic novel per month. I DNF'd one graphic novel in January. Onto bigger and better things in February.
Well, not necessarily bigger! This month I'm concentrating on short books. My rule of thumb is that the spines can be no thicker than 1/2 inch. The purpose of this rule is to force to me to read some of the little things that have been lurking in my TBR pile, both old and new. NYRBs tend to be small, so I'll likely start on my goal of 3-by-June. Also, crime novels tend to be short.  So far I've already completed one thin book, The Father and The Foreigner by Giancarlo De Cataldo. It was very good. I'm starting Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson, today. I'm also reading The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald, which is not short but I started in January so I'm allowed.

How are you doing with your reading goals this year? Do you have any? I'm not sure how all this is going to work out but sometimes giving myself goals helps me to remember to read things that I would put off, and I'm almost always glad. I hope you have a great Sunday! More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Neil Gaiman Alert!

Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out in June, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Starting today, you can preorder a signed copy from Porter Square Books. They will ship anywhere in the U.S. If you're local you have the option of picking it up in-store. Unfortunately they cannot ship internationally, but Porter Square Books is the only independent bookstore offering pre-orders of signed copies.

This is a really wonderful thing Gaiman is doing for the store. If you're interested in the book and would like a signed copy, please consider buying it from Porter Square Books!

They will ship on the release date, currently June 18.