Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION, by Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. Published 1996 by Anchor. Audiobook narrated by Donal Donnelly. Nonfiction.

I've been to Ireland before, but I really don't know that much about Irish history so I thought it would be interesting and fun to listen to How the Irish Saved Civilization since it's one of the few books on the subject I was able to find on audio. It doesn't quite live up to its title but it's still a lively, informative and fascinating book.

The book starts off with a lengthy recap of the last days of Rome- its culture, political life and the reasons for its decline. This narrative leads into discussion of the barbarian invasions and the early Catholic Church, with particular emphasis on the influence of St. Augustine. From there we head north, and get to know a little about ancient Ireland- its economy, culture and literature. We learn about the Tain, an ancient Irish epic and through it gain access to the distinctly Irish joie de vivre, still alive in the culture today. Then, we meet a British man kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave, Patricius. He becomes St. Patrick, not the first but the most influential early Christian missionary, who converts the Celts. Afterwards we learn about Irish monastic life, the influence of the Irish monks on continental religion, and finally hustle through the Vikings, the British, and modern-day Ireland.

I really enjoyed this book. It is not an academic history by any stretch of the imagination but rather a fun and effervescent retelling of how Christianity become established in the western-most edge of Europe and how those religious men and women preserved the knowledge of the classical world that still informs ours. Along the way I learned how joyful and vibrant the early Irish church was, and by extension how different from its later incarnation. Cahill doesn't make the point himself but anyone familiar with the Ireland of the last and current century cannot help but notice the contrast.  It's a short book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in that lovely country, or in early Catholic history. Donal Donnelly is a great reader who held my attention and I recommend the audio. I learned that I want to learn more about Irish history, too, which is a great take-away from any book.

Rating: BEACH

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: BETWEEN FRIENDS, by Amos Oz

Between Friends, by Amos Oz. Published 2013 by HMH. Literary Fiction. Short Stories (Interconnected). Translation.

It's been a while since I completed reading a collection of short stories. They have a tendency to gather- they always seem like a good idea- but I usually never get beyond one or two. Not so with Amos Oz's quietly brilliant collection, Between Friends.

Between Friends is set during the 1950s on the fictional Israeli kibbutz of Kibbutz Yekhat, somewhere in the wilds of that young country. Its residents are a mix of young and old, from different backgrounds and experiences. There are young people and old, married couples, single people, parents, children, an orphan.

Kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz) are collective farms established in the early days of the Israeli state to promote the growth of the country and its agriculture under collectivist principles and are often secular rather than religious in orientation. Kibbutzniks, as they are called, live communally or nearly so, participate in all aspects of running the community including farm work, industrial tasks and whatever else is needed. They are united by their commitment to the kibbutz and the principles that back it. Or at least, that's the theory. Oz shows that there are very distinct individuals running this collective farm, each with his or her own dreams and aspirations, which sometimes conflict with the overall mission of the place.

Oz's series of interconnected short stories focus on characters both at the core of the life of this kibbutz and its periphery. David Dagan is a teacher and ersatz spiritual leader, who tries to maintain the status quo among the people while answering to no one himself. He takes up with a 17 year old former student, much to the chagrin of her father, the kibbutz's electrician. He appears in nearly every story and has a profound influence on the lives of the kibbutzniks. Zvi Provizor is a bachelor in late middle age, works as the kibbutz's gardener and repository of bad news. Osnat deals with her husband's infidelity by writing letters to his lover, for whom he leaves her. Little Oded struggles with bullies and bedwetting and the harshness of collective life for children who don't fit in. Yotam dreams of making a life in Italy with a rich uncle, far from the kibbutz, but he can't quite bring himself to openly rebel. Or can he?

Oz tells the stories of these and other characters with delicacy and beauty. Each story stands on its own but together make for a lovely novel-in-stories about a time and a place that stand alone in recent history. To be honest I could not tell but for the blurb when the stories took place; the where is definite down to the smallest physical details but the lives of the kibbutzniks are disconnected from popular culture or even current affairs, save for Zvi's obsession with tragedies far away. That said, landscape is the real star of this show, both geographic and psychological. I felt like a member of this community by the time the book was finished. Pick it up; you will, too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Booker Prize Opens to Americans

I was very disappointed to hear the news last week that the Man Booker Prize would open to American books and writers. On the one hand, as proponents of the move have said, half of this year's nominees live in the United States, plenty of books nominated in the past have been set here and there are lots of dual-citizen types who enjoy the benefits of being associated both sides of the Atlantic, so in effect, it already is open to Americans.

I like that the Booker has been a British award. I like that the award recognizes- and publicizes- a lot of books and writers who don't otherwise get a lot of play here. Howard Jacobson, for example, was a writer of whom I had never heard before his novel was nominated for, and ultimately won, the prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question. That book wasn't even scheduled to be published here until it reached the short list. I love that the Booker brings over books like his, because sometimes I forget just how much good stuff never gets here at all.  As a reader, I love having a window into contemporary British literature and world literature- the Booker includes the entire Commonwealth after all, even though in practice its nominees tend to come from about six or seven of them.

Over the years I've found a lot of my favorite novels thanks to the Booker Prize. I would never have picked up The English Patient years before it was a movie, or Disgrace, or The Sisters Brothers (a nominee), whereas hearing about well-regarded American books is easy thanks to resources like the Indie Next list and reviews.  I definitely will look twice at a book that has been nominated, and I have made it a life project to read all the winners. I think what attracts me to the books bearing the prize's imprimatur is this idea that the prize represents a very high caliber of literary fiction from outside my own cultural milieu, that I have to leave the comfortable confines of American literature and travel to another part of the world, listen to another voice besides the ones I hear every day. As much as it's culturally diverse, the award is also culturally distinct, and it's not my culture either, and I love that.

So I worry about the impact of this change. Maybe the award will become more exciting, but unless the committee will be reading works by smaller American presses I don't see how that is going to happen. I wonder if quiet books like Offshore or The Story of Michael K. would get noticed amongst the more hyped American heavyweights. I worry that quirky books will be binned for the same kinds of books that currently win our big book awards. And since I mentioned it, it's not like U.S. authors don't have their own very prestigious prizes, like the Pulitzer or National Book Award- and the Man Booker International, whose most recent winner was American Lydia Davis.

Speaking of those other awards, the National Book Award longlist was announced the other day, and it was noted that there was not one book on the list from a small press. And it struck me that the books on its list look a lot like the kinds of American books Man Booker might recognize, too. Maybe, if my conjecture is accurate, other awards, like the National Book Award to pick one example, could make it its mission to focus on small presses. Sort of pass the recognition, and thus the boost in sales, around a little?

So, I can't come up with anything more specific that's wrong exactly, but it just doesn't sit right with me either.  It just leaves me shaking my head and hoping that it doesn't become a bland, overbroad award that carries less punch and pushes aside lesser known voices in favor of those that get plenty of attention already.

What do you think? Is the Booker one you watch, or do you not get into awards? What do you think about awards recognizing mainstream versus small press books? Do the best books get picked anyway? Does it matter, or is it just a bunch of New York eggheads posturing and much ado about nothing?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Margaret Atwood Event & Store Signing, Oh My!

Margaret Atwood reading at the First Church, Cambridge, on September 19 from her book MaddAddam. Which is really great, by the way.

A blurry picture of yours truly with Ms. Atwood after the reading and after she signed the two totes of books I brought. Yay!

 Ms. Atwood is a big fan of the IgNobel Prize! Here she is with Marc Abrahams, the award's founder. And that's my husband taking a picture of them from the other side. (Jeff is Marc's lawyer and introduced them!) I think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The following day, Ms. Atwood stopped by Porter Square Books to sign some stock! We were so delighted to have her visiting the store.

And here she is signing with our Canadian bookseller and Atwood Super Fan, Megan (the other woman in the photo is Lynn, Ms. Atwood's Random House publicist). A customer who happened to be a big fan of hers happened to be sitting at the table with us and was so thrilled to meet her favorite writer too! Wow!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA, by Hanif Kureishi

The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi. Published 1991 by Penguin.

Hanif Kureishi's novel about a British-Indian teen finding his way in 1970s London has become a kind of iconic portrait of the city at that time, and a sort of counterculture classic. I picked it up for both reasons, and it was well worth my time.

Karim is one of two sons of a white British mother and her Indian husband, Haroon. As the novel opens in the London suburb of Beckenham, Haroon is making a name for himself as a guru, making the rounds of suburban houseparties as "the Buddha of Suburbia." But before long he gets involved with Eva, an arty woman with her sights on high society, and Haroon leaves his wife to start a new life- a life filled with sophisticates, better parties, and glamour, or so he hopes. Karim and his brother Allie are devastated; Karim chooses to live with his father, whom he adores, and though he is torn between the life his father represents and his mother's love, he finds himself more and more enmeshed in Eva's glitzy pretensions, as well as the drugs, sex and excitement that go with them.

The Buddha of Suburbia often struck me as a London version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but with better writing and more interesting characters and situations. Please don't bother telling me I didn't like Perks because I'm O-L-D. I didn't like it because it's not a very good book. Buddha manages to communicate the pains of growing up, growing apart from your family and falling in and out of love for the first time, without the vulgarity of that other book, and with a lot more intelligence. It covers issues like economic and racial tensions in 70s London and teenage sexual ambivalence without angsting over it so. I like this about some British books; people have their issues, and their struggles, but they manage to not be so gosh-darn melodramatic about it. I don't know about you, but I have enough melodrama in my day to day life without having to live someone else's, too, so I appreciate that.

The Buddha very plot-oriented; you get to know characters through their actions and the character you will know best is Karim, who narrates in a matter-of-fact style. His adventures take him from his mother's house to his father's, to the world of the theater, to America, to and from various friends, relatives and lovers, and back again, to himself at last. His brother Allie joins cousin Jamilla, her unforgettable husband Changez and a varied mix of characters for a ride you'll enjoy. London is a character in the book, its neighborhoods and streets, its social mores and conflicts. I'd recommend The Buddha to readers of edgy, eccentric fiction who like unusual characters and a strong sense of place.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: MADDADDAM, by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. Published 2013 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Okay, if you've ever read this blog before you know I am Margaret Atwood superfan. I'm not going to go all Misery but she is my favorite author. So when she has a new book, everything else just stops.

MaddAddam is her latest, the third in the trilogy that began in 2004 with Oryx and Crake. In that book, we met a guy named Jimmy, who was in love with a former prostitute named Oryx; sadly she was in love with Crake, a brilliant scientist. The three of them lived in a gloomy future in which corporations controlled life, people were breeding bizarre animals and life was just generally pretty bleak. I appreciated this book more on my second read; you can read my thoughts here. In 2009 she followed it up with The Year of the Flood, which told the story of this world from the point of view of a group called God's Gardeners, a sort of hippie sect that rejected the man-made and tried to opt for a way of living closer to nature. I loved YotF and have been waiting for this third installment ever since.

I have to release some gentle spoilers.

The flood referred to in the title of book two is a pandemic that wipes out most of humanity. MaddAddam picks up just after the "flood," when a small group of survivors from the first two books comes together along with some creatures made by Crake, a race of gentle, mango-colored beings referred to as "Crakers." Crake made them to replace humans, to be perfect, at least as he understood it, and to take better care of the Earth than he felt humans had. Toby, a middle-aged woman who had holed up in a spa during the outbreak and whom we got to know in The Year of the Flood, returns along with Zeb, a former Gardener turned rebel, Jimmy himself, still reeling from the final events of Oryx and Crake, and more, plus some of those genetically designed animals, one species of whom plays a crucial and unexpected role.

The big plot point is the showdown between our gang and a group of three men called Painballers. Painball is like a souped up, hyper-violent paintball crossed with the Hunger Games, and the people who survive it have nothing left but the need to hurt, rape and kill. As the survivors regroup they know the Painballers are out there and that there will be a confrontation. In the mean time as we wait, we get a full and extended backstory for Zeb and by extension his brother Adam, founder of the Gardeners. In the present day, Adam has disappeared and understanding Zeb's relationship to Adam is crucial for the final denouement.

I usually have two or three books going at once, but when I picked up MaddAddam not only did I put them all aside for the duration, I wanted to go read all of Atwood's books again. She's really that good, folks. So yeah, I loved it. I loved learning Zeb's crazy life story, seeing his relationship with Toby play out, and watching the interactions of three different species, all of whom have to navigate some pretty crazy stuff. Some bloggers have complained about how lovelorn for Zeb Toby is after seeing her as self-sufficient in The Year of the Flood. I wasn't bothered by the shift in her characterization because I didn't see it as a shift. She always loved Zeb; she loved him in that book, too, but he wasn't present with her for most of the action. When she sees him again, all these feelings are reignited and I thought the nerdy pair were charming and their relationship genuinely moving. It was the best part of the book for me.

And I did love it. I will say that you should read the first two first though. Atwood includes a thoughtful and thorough plot summary at the beginning but... read the first two first, but it doesn't matter which of the two you read first. In MaddAddam Atwood provides a beautiful and fitting end to the story. I don't have to tell Atwood fans to read this; they have already. But the rest of you- get on it!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure:  I received a copy of MaddAddam for review.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: BLOOD & BEAUTY, by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant. Published 2013 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Being a big fan of 2009's Sacred Hearts, I was thrilled to get my hands on a galley of Sarah Dunant's latest foray into Renaissance Italy, Blood & Beauty. But where Sacred Hearts focused on women shut up in convents far from the world, Blood & Beauty is about women and men whose lives are fully engaged with the world. This book is about the notorious Borgia family, particularly about Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI and his family- his young lover Giulia, the aging courtesan Vanozza, mother of his children, and most especially those children- Lucrezia, Cesare, Juan and Jofre.

Renaissance Popes were like kings in more ways than one, and Alexander is the ultimate power broker. His children are his pawns and agents; they do his bidding while he orchestrates and finesses and schemes. Lucrezia is destined for a series of political marriages, and she has to learn along the way that love is the one luxury she can never afford. Cesare starts off as Alexander's agent inside the Vatican as a young cardinal. Alexander plans for Juan to act for him in the world, and Jofre is, well, Alexander loves Jofre.

Dunant starts with historical fact (and includes a bibliography) but that's just where she starts. She creates believable psychologies for her real-life characters, fleshes out their relationships and draws a fascinating portrait of life at the Vatican court. Dunant includes a family tree at the beginning and I used it to track the complicated interrelationships of Italy's noble families. I found the book totally riveting. It's rich in historical detail- some readers call it textbooky and it is sometimes, but these people were living history, so to understand their lives it's important to follow the ins and outs of politics and military strategy and maneuvering- but she always gets back to the people at the heart of these events.

In tone Blood & Beauty reminds me of Wolf Hall but with more sexual content. One bookstore customer came in after listening to the audio ranting that it was a "bodice ripper" and I can see his point. Also, I think the book would probably sound different than it reads. Overall though- not even "overall," because that sounds like I'm hesitating to give it a full endorsement- I really enjoyed the book, and I would recommend it for most readers of historical and literary fiction. I loved the characters- scheming Alexander, maturing Lucrezia, angry and mercurial Cesare and charming, doomed Juan. I loved watching their games and struggles and shenanigans. Dunant's writing a sequel and I would start reading it right now if I could. Check it out, okay?

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, September 9, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, I'm finally starting to finish the books I've been working on for weeks. Sarah Dunant's excellent Blood and Beauty is off the nightstand and ripe for review; I am still reading, and will be for a while, The Art of Joy, but I finished my audiobook, How the Irish Saved Civilization, so I'm looking for another one. If you know of a good nonfiction audio about English history, please tell me in the comments! I want to emphasize that I'm looking for nonfiction, so please save your historical fiction favorites for another day and thanks!

But on to the new books!
I got The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, in the mail and I'm super excited about it. It's another chunkster and I'll be with it for a while but that OK because I love her stuff. This is the follow up to last year's My Brilliant Friend, about a pair of girls growing up together in early-20th-century Naples. I love her books.

I'm also finally starting Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam. I've had it for a while but I wanted to wait to closer to her event in Cambridge to read it. September 19- be there or be square!

That's more than enough to keep me busy for now. What are you reading today? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What's New on the Shelf? You-Can't-Go-Wrong Edition

I've added lots of books to my shelves since the last time I posted this meme, although I do think my rate of book acquisition has slowed. That's okay! Like many of you I have no shortage of books.

The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest, came from Bookmooch from a reader in Australia. I love Christopher Priest. You can't go wrong with him if you love complicated, intellectually challenging reads. I've read three of his books so far- The Prestige, The Islanders and Inverted World- and they're all winners.

Cesar Aira's latest to be translated to English, The Hare, also found its way into my shopping bag. You can't go wrong with Aira if you love surrealist, absurdist and just plain crazy fiction that leaves you scratching your head and confused, yet somehow happy as well.

Pamela Erens' The Virgins caught my eye at work as it's about young love. It's published by Tin House, and you can't go wrong with Tin House if you love well-wrought, understated literary fiction by exciting new voices that aren't the ones that get hyped all over the place.

There's more, too- but too many to list right now. Maybe I'll do a galleys edition or something soon. What's new on your shelf?