Thursday, January 30, 2014

Depressing Books

The Telegraph recently published its list of the Top 15 Most Depressing Books. Scrolling through, I find only two that I've read- Jude the Obscure and Never Let Me Go. And they were both pretty depressing, but not the most depressing I've ever read.

That dubious honor belongs to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a book so depressing that I had to go onto Wikipedia to come up with the title, because I repressed it. The story of Lily Bart, literature's ultimate self-saboteur (saboteuse?), it starts of bad and just gets worse and worse. And when you think it can't get worse, it does.  Ethan Frome wasn't a laugh a minute either, but The House of Mirth is just punishingly depressing. It holds you down until you're too beaten to fight anymore. It kicks you in the ribs and then laughs while it kicks you some more.

Literary fiction has produced some recent downers. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being is pretty bleak although it ends well, but you can't say that for James Scott's The Kept. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Hooray. (James, you're a doll and your book deserves all the success in the world. But man.) Patrick Flanery's Fallen Land spirals down to some very dark places too.

Not surprisingly crime fiction is pretty good at producing depressing books. Massimo Carlotto's Death's Dark Abyss was so depressing I thought I'd never read him again. But then that book just does what it says on the label so it's probably my own fault for reading it. Gene Kerrigan's The Midnight Choir made me want to cry for humanity but I'm sure I'll come back for more.

I like books that shake me up emotionally, and I don't mind depressing books if they're good at being depressing, but looking over my shelves I find that I don't gravitate towards them. Or at least if I do, I discard them and then erase them from my long-term memory, and have to look them up again on Wikipedia. I like some hope. I like some redemption, some possibility of a future for characters I've come to care about. It's a tough act to pull off, to create characters your readers will want to follow till the end of your book only to flagellate them and by extension the reader.

How do you feel about depressing books? Avoid? Seek? Tolerate okay or throw across the room?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: SAVING MOZART, by Raphael Jerusalmy

Saving Mozart, by Raphael Jerusalmy. Published 2013 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction. Translation.

Saving Mozart is a short, epistolary novel made up of the journals and letters of Otto Steiner, an elderly music critic slowly dying of tuberculosis in a nursing home in Germany between 1939 and 1940. He is a non-practicing Jew and lives in constant anxiety of being found out, but he has a lot of other problems besides that, including deteriorating finances, worsening living conditions, the death of friends and crumbling health. The only thing that keeps him going is music- his records and phonograph, his memories of music and his ability to participate in public musical life.

His friend Hans is his link to the outside world, and when the book opens Steiner is still able to attend concerts and publish articles but over time he becomes more and more isolated. His isolation is reflected conversely in his living conditions; as he becomes more cut off financially and socially from the outside world he transitions from a bed in a single room to one in a shared ward. Introverts like Steiner can be alone in a room full of people and most fully connected to themselves when by themselves.

Above all though Steiner loves music and the music of Mozart most of all. So he is naturally very upset to learn that Mozart's music will be featured at an annual concert that will also function as a propaganda opportunity for the Nazis whom Steiner detests. And so he comes up with a way to make a very public statement at this event, a statement which may go undetected by the very people it was meant to show up, but not by all.

Saving Mozart is a quick read about a topic familiar to many readers but it is an original take on the subject at the same time. I enjoyed the suspense as events lead up to the concert, and the suspense over the changes in Otto's life and fate. It is a moving testimony to an act of rebellion and the refusal of one person to be cowed by or submit to cruelty and horror. Jerusalmy keeps us tottering on a precipice. We know what could happen, what is happening in the background. The musicians play not as Rome burns but as people do.

Rating: BACKLIST

This is my first book for the 2014 Europa Challenge. Want to join?

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

Monday, January 27, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I didn't finish any books last week; despite this winter being brutally cold and me spending a ton of time indoors, my reading has been slow.

I'm continuing on with Remember Me Like This and The Ghost Road, but I've also started Saving Mozart, by Raphael Jerusalmy, a short epistolary novel set in Germany in World War 2. An aging musician named Otto Steiner is living out his last days in a convalescent home, where he is terrified that he'll be found out as a Jew, but that's not his only problem. His financial situation is deteriorating too. The only comfort he finds is in music, and he's appalled to learn that a Mozart concert will be used to promote Nazi propaganda. Is there a way for him to foil the Nazis' plans?


In audio land, I'm listening to Neil Lochery's Lisbon, an interesting account of that city's role in World War 2. Ben Macintyre's Double Cross featured a lot of action in Portugal, and I'm learning that neutral doesn't mean uninvolved when it comes to global conflict.

I got the Europa Editions catalog for the summer season the other day, and I was delighted to find out that Deirdre Madden's book Time Present and Time Past will be published by Europa in May.  I bought a paperback of Time Present in Dublin while on vacation last year. I should bump it up the pile right away, don't you think?

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Small Presses and Translated Fiction

Lately there have been a few articles floating around on the difficulty and importance of promoting and reading translated fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri made some well-publicized comments about this and the over-hyping of American ficiton, and the Guardian ran an article about what small presses are doing to promote their offerings of translated fiction.

Both articles discuss the overcrowding of the marketplace and the stiff competition for readers, but I like the solution that's offered by Pereine and the other presses mentioned in the second Guardian article, the pro-active things that small presses are doing to promote themselves. We already know that authors have to work harder than ever on self-promotion; there are books written nowadays just for authors on how to promote books and how to do a successful launch; writers have to be fluent in social media and project a personality to match. They have to do readings, often traveling at their own expense if they're not A-listers who get ever-rarer sponsored tours. They have to cozy up to bloggers, booksellers, book clubs, and libraries. Winning an award or too doesn't hurt either. It's not just about writing the book anymore.

Now let's say you're a writer who doesn't live in the UK or the US and you don't write in or speak English. You don't have many connections in the literary world, but because you wrote a particularly arresting book you are very lucky and you get translated. But then what? How do you reach that readership of English-speaking readers if you're unable to do any self-promotion? Well, that's where your publisher comes in if they are able and willing to do some innovative work like subscription services, pop-up stores and other things mentioned in the Guardian article.

Now go back to being a reader. Do you read small presses? Do you seek them out? Have you ever subscribed? I have been tempted to subscribe to the Persephone and Pereine services, and I have wished Europa Editions would offer such a service. It hasn't really been in my budget and I'm a little nervous about accepting books sight unseen; I have so many TBRs already. So I love the idea of it, but loving the idea doesn't do them any good if I don't subscribe.  I think my ideal subscription service would allow me to choose a year's worth of books from a catalog of upcoming releases. I like the idea of getting a book every month, but I'm not big on surprises!

Which is not to say I don't read, and review, and promote, small press books, all the time. I do. I love them. I love traveling the world through reading and the best way to do that is with books that come from all over the world, written by people from all over the world. Those books don't always appeal; over the years I've found out there are certain styles of writing I enjoy more than others, certain places I like to read about and other places in which I'm less interested.

What about you? Do you treat translated books like any others- you'll read if you're interested, or not if you're not? Do you avoid them? Do you have positive, or negative, associations with them? Why? When you read comments like Lahiri's how do you respond? What are your thoughts on the changing marketplace demands on writers and publishers? As bloggers and people who work in the book industry, we are both audience and producer in different ways. We're readers, and we actively promote books to other readers. We buy books and sell them. So I'm wondering how we're impacted, and what impact we can have too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: RANDOM VIOLENCE by Jassy Mackenzie


Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie. Published 2010 by Soho Crime. Crime fiction.

I have another great volume 1 for my crime peeps.

Random Violence is the first in a series of mysteries by South African writer Jassy Mackenzie, starring Jade de Jong, a private detective who's just moved back home after some years abroad following the death of her policeman father in a gruesome car accident. Jade gets involved in the investigation of the murder of Annette Botha, a seemingly random attempted carjacking. Botha was shot outside her home trying to open a locked gate, and at first the case seems like just another act of violence, just another attack in a country where crime is rampant and nobody feels safe.

Jade thinks that something else might be up, though, and works with police detective- and friend- David Patel to find the truth. The search will take them through South Africa's corrupt police system, its brutal military and its absolutely bloodthirsty (literally) real estate speculation industry. Mackenzie has created a truly chilling villain in Whiteboy, a sadist responsible for many crimes, including many that no one even knows about. Alongside all of this, Jade is out to get revenge on the man she believes to be her father's killer, a man about to get out of prison, and for this she needs to reach back into the underworld. She's also got some interpersonal stuff with David.

I have to say I really enjoyed this book and want to read more in the series. I liked Jade a lot. She's complicated and tough and real. She gets some things wrong, and she learns and tries again. I bet her adventures will be fun to follow. The book is deeply atmospheric and gives a real sense of the paranoia and danger that South Africans live with, something I've noticed in a lot of books about the country. If you've read Absolution by Patrick Flanery you'll have noticed it there too.

I picked it up because she has a newish book out in the series that got a good write-up on NPR and since I enjoy reading about South Africa and I enjoy crime, I thought this would be a great fit. And it was. It was very hard to put down once the plot got rolling and though the violence could be gruesome at times, the horror of why these things were happening was almost worse than the violence itself. It ends well but it is dark, dark, dark, so take that into consideration. But for you dark-crime readers, Random Violence would be a great choice.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I think I'm reading too many books right now, because it seems I can't really finish anything or feel like I'm making any progress, so I'm going to cut down the number of books I have going and see if that helps.

Last week I read a quick-hit crime novel, Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie, which I enjoyed. Set in South Africa, it's a page-turner for sure. I'll write a review soon, because I think you crime readers would like it.

I'm still reading The Kept, which I expect to finish today or tomorrow, and Skippy Dies, which I'm kind of putting aside till I finish something else. I started two new books recently:

Remember Me Like This, by Bret Anthony Johnston, which is coming out in May. I don't know if I should say more, because Johnston is the husband of my friend Jennifer, with whom I work at the bookstore. But it's really good! It's about a missing child who is returned to his family after years of being lost.

I also started The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, which won the Booker Prize in 1995. It's set in World War 1 and concerns a psychiatrist and his patients. It's the third in a trilogy and I'll probably read the other two at some point but I'm enjoying this one for now.

That's it for me right now. What about you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Nonfiction. Memoir. Published 2012 by Grove Atlantic.

So it seems to be Jeanette Winterson Week here on Boston Bibliophile. Could be worse. I mean, Winterson is one of the best living writers in English. I bought this book, her memoir, when it came out but it took me until late last year to read it. After I read The Daylight Gate I knew I couldn't wait any longer, and I'm sorry I waited as long as I did.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really the story of Winterson's three mothers- Constance Winterson, who raised her and who is referred to throughout as "Mrs. Winterson," Winterson's biological mother, and her third mother which is literature, which first saved her life and then gave her a living.

Winterson is adopted as a baby by a working-class Manchester couple who are religious fundamentalists and abuse her horribly. Mrs. Winterson locks her out of the house repeatedly, beats her, instructs her husband to beat her and torments her psychologically. Young Jeanette takes refuge in books and reading, forbidden in her house as all she's allowed to read is the Bible. She has a relationship with a female friend and soon realizes what she's always known, that she has to leave home. As a teenager Jeanette runs away and with the help of teachers gets accepted to Oxford. From there she begins to develop as a writer and as a person. Not surprisingly she has a lot of anger to deal with.

As adult Winterson decides to take on the task of finding her biological mother, and this process occupies the final third of the book. The narrative structure is more or less chronological but not strictly so, and the tone and style of the book feels similar to much of her fiction, at times highly descriptive and impressionistic and at others more focused and forward-moving. Winterson's painful relationship with Mrs. Winterson is hard to read sometimes; my heart broke repeatedly for the little girl looking for love from a mother incapable of giving it.

The book has obvious appeal for adoptees but I think Winterson's search, which is for home in many senses of the word, is something almost everyone can relate to in some ways. The depth of alienation she feels from her parents is profound, and she does not find much solace in her biological family, but I got the impression that she has found a home and a family in her adult relationships and the book ends on notes of hard-earned peace and contentment. I was very moved and affected by her story, and I would recommend it to her fans and those of memoir but also to any reader looking for a beautifully written, if sometimes dark, family story.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: THE DAYLIGHT GATE, by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson. Published 2013 by Hammer. Literary Fiction.

The Daylight Gate is a book made for Halloween but guaranteed to give you a chill on the hottest day of the year. British author Jeanette Winterson delivers a quick, powerful punch blending historical fiction, horror, sex and suspense in the tale of Alice Nutter, a wealthy woman being persecuted for witchcraft in 17th century Lancashire. And the thing is, it's not entirely clear she's innocent.

Winterson based her novel on real people and events and the book includes an introduction to clarify how she blended fact and fiction. But it doesn't really matter. What matters is the story that follows, about Reformation politics and anti-Catholicism, ("Popery, witchery, witchery popery"), powerful women, powerful men, and men and women who wish to be powerful when economics and social stratification has rendered them powerless. It's also about sexual relations and how some kinds of sex act as currency while others are vilified as devilry. And it's about the power of passion and the power of love.

The Daylight Gate is a quick read, intense and incredibly suspenseful even as the end is already written. Pick it up when you have some time to yourself. Winterson's writing is more clipped and plot-centered than I think is typical for her but she puts her powers to good use and the result is unforgettable.

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Salon

Not much to say about this past week. A girlfriend and I went to see the John Singer Sargent watercolor exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, which was absolutely spectacular, but otherwise it was pretty ordinary. My husband and I made plans to attend this year's SXSW conference in Austin, where he'll be a speaker, so I'm pretty excited about that.

What are you planning to read in 2014? Like, what new releases? I've got to tell you, I'm having a hard time finding 2014 releases I'm interested in. The galley room at work is overflowing, but I'm like, eh, I'd rather read a Booker winner from the 80s than anything here. I need some guidance.

This morning crime writer Stav Sherez, whose book A Dark Redemption was one of my favorites of 2013, published this list of crime novels that aren't crime novels. Are any of your favorites here? Anything to add?

Another article I enjoyed was this one about hits and misses from 2013. Guaranteed to boost your TBR pile, different publishers weigh in on the books that should have been hits, and the ones that were.

I think that's it for me. I hope you have a great Sunday! Sunday Salon is now a Facebook group.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: STAYING ON, by Paul Scott

Staying On, by Paul Scott. Originally published 1977. This edition 1998 by the University of Chicago Press.

Tusker and Lucy Smalley are an elderly English couple living out their last days in the rural town of Pankot in India of the early 1970s. The novel opens: "When Tusker Smalley died of a massive coronary at approximately 9.30 a.m. on the last Monday in April 1972 his wife Lucy was out, having her white hair blue-rinsed and set in the Seraglio Room on the ground floor of Pankot's new five-storey glass and concrete hotel, the Shiraz."

 This opening tells you everything and nothing. Tusker is dead, but we won't return to the reasons for his death until almost the very end of the novel. Right now we're seeing events through the eyes of Mr. Bhoolabhoy, manager of the Smith's Hotel, on whose property the Smalleys have lived for years. Minor figures in the British raj, the Smalleys decided to "stay on" in India after independence because they figured their meager means would afford them a better standard of living there than back home in England. By 1972 they have become stranded. Mr. Bhoolabhoy is another kind of post-independence figure, a figure of the rising Indian middle class. His wife owns the hotel and has bigger ambitions too. And those ambitions are about to clash with the Smalleys.

From this opening chapter the story goes back in time, to the events leading up to Tusker's death. We see the couple's deteriorating relationship, Lucy's weak striving for an independence of her own, Tusker's guilt over staying in India despite her, and their shrinking world of fellow British. Lucy gets a letter from a woman named Sarah (who figured prominently in Scott's Raj Quartet, to which this book is a kind of coda) asking would she, Lucy, agree to host a friend of hers who will be traveling in the area? Lucy is excited to have some connection to the old days, to England, to someone who remembers her, but the visit will lead to all kinds of problems, too.

I really loved this book. It's quiet and character-driven and the Smalleys aren't people you will necessary like (they are stodgy, stubborn and hold antiquated political and social beliefs) but they are also very human and real, and I felt compassion for them. The ending is nothing short of perfect as the circumstances around Tusker's death are revealed and Lucy finally gets that independence she wanted so badly. Just not the way she wanted. The book ends on a beautiful meditation on grief and loss and what comes after. It made the whole thing worthwhile. Staying On won the Booker Prize in 1977 and is a book I highly recommend, whether or not you've read the Raj Quartet.

It counts for the Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished Staying On last night. Wow. Just, wow. More later this week.

I started reading London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. It's my bedside book and I anticipate reading a few chapters a week. It'll take me a while to get through it!

I also started reading Michael Frayn's Skios this past week. It's a farce by the author of "Noises Off" and so far it's pretty farcical. The whole thing hangs on a case of mistaken identity. If you can't buy that, the book will not work for you at all. I'm trying to hang in there and see where it goes.

Skippy Dies is coming along. I'm enjoying it OK, and I'll keep going.

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

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday Salon: No More Looking Back

Well, the last Christmas cookie has been eaten and the tree and the decorations will soon go away, probably by the next Sunday Salon. For today we're still relaxing amid the chaos of it all and savoring the last days of the holiday season. But it is definitely the new year, both on the calendar and in my state of mind. Last week's blizzard certainly knocked us into the present! We got about a foot of snow and stayed in for about 24 hours to let it settle out. I didn't end up missing work, which was good, and my Friday night shift was actually a little busy as folks ventured out.

This week I have some fun stuff to look forward to, first and foremost being a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the John Sargeant exhibit. I really love the MFA but don't go often at all because it's so expensive these days- $25 a pop. Ouch!

I read an article about the likeability factor when it comes to characters in fiction, particularly women, Not Here to Make Friends. Last night my husband and I watched "World's End," the latest Simon Pegg movie, about a group of middle-aged friends who get together for the pub crawl of a lifetime only to have it derailed by an alien robot invasion and it occurred to me that Pegg's character, a highly dysfunctional loser, could never be portrayed by a woman, and yet how interesting it would be if he were. For one thing she would have to end the movie married and pregnant, not simply sobered up and content. But maybe that's not a conversation for today. Or is it? What do you think?

Sunday Salon is over on Facebook nowadays. Happy Sunday!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: EQUILATERAL, by Ken Kalfus

Equilateral, by Ken Kalfus. Published 2013 by Bloomsbury. Literary Fiction.

Equilateral is a nearly-perfect novel. Mind you, that doesn't mean it's going to suit every reader. But you'd be hard-pressed to find as carefully-chiseled a gem. I first read about it in Kirkus and immediately set about securing a copy. It took me a while to actually read it- it was the last book I finished in 2013- and I advise you to not waste another moment.

The story concerns an astronomer, Professor Sanford Thayer, and his quest to make first contact with the inhabitants of Mars. He and other scientists are convinced that there is intelligent life on the red planet, and he comes up with the idea of building a perfect triangle in the desert, filling it with petroleum and lighting it on fire like a giant smoke signal at the time when Mars will be closest to the site of the triangle (the Equilateral, as it's called), located in Egypt.  The book is set in the late 19th century and peopled with characters who each have his or her own distinctly personal motivations- love, profit, etc.- for working on the project. But none has Thayer's unyielding passion, and none will go as far as he does to pursue it.

The recent laudatory review in the Daily Beast gives a great overview of the novel's historical basis.  I really enjoyed how Thayer and the other characters were people of their time, not modern-thinking people transported to the past, but real stuffy Victorians with all the baggage that entails. Social commentary plays a large part in the narrative and the events that transpire therein; all does not go smoothly for Thayer and company. In fact things go very badly indeed. Among the complications are Thayer's secretary Miss Keaton who is in love with him; his obsession with the Arab serving girl who ministers him when he becomes ill, and the shenanigans of the project's sponsors, various shady political figures and the huge and restless labor force underpinning the whole project.

I have to say this is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I've read in a while. It's very difficult to classify- part historical fiction, part science fiction, and part puzzle, it's a literary treat for the reader who won't mind a slow-moving, meticulously written and very unusual book. Its dry tone belies the slow pressure of suspense that creeps in and takes over the narrative's momentum little by little. And that ending will knock your socks off.

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Book of the Year 2014

Sheila of Book Journey is doing a great meme today and I decided to participate by sharing the first book I'm reading in 2014.

It's Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, a novel I've been meaning to read forever. Well, just since it came out in 2010. So not really forever. But you understand.

Set in Ireland in the present day (more or less) it's a coming of age story about a group of boys in a private school. I toyed with the idea of making 2014 an all-Ireland-and-Britain reading year but of course that's not realistic; even so, I can start off strong with a book from my favorite country.

So after I get home from work today (yes, I'm working) and back from dinner with my in-laws, I'll settle in and get started!

What are you excited about reading in 2014?