Saturday, January 31, 2015

Argosy Book Shop, and the American Folk Art Museum

This week's NYC adventure was a long walk down 59th Street from 1st Avenue, where I had breakfast after an appointment, all the way to Columbus Circle and then on my to destination of the day, the American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Place. I like taking these kinds of walks just to see what turns up, because it's always something interesting.

I had heard about Argosy Book Shop as one of those must-visit NYC used and rare bookshops but hadn't made the pilgrimage yet, so I was delighted that my route took me right by. After browsing the windows and the outdoor drama displays I went in and took a little walk around.

They sell all kinds of rare books, plus prints, autographs (I saw Dan Quayle's signature on an envelope, a check signed by Bob Hope among others), low-priced paperbacks and even single sheets of marbled endpapers and old book covers. The atmosphere was quiet and studied and one hesitated to bother the staff, absorbed as they seemed in their tasks.

I'll definitely be back though- my head was starting to spin just thinking about things I could make from the endpapers and book covers. There is a basement filled with general-interest used books that I didn't have time to explore, so you know I'll have to check that out.

Peter Jennings Way is at the end of the block from the American Folk Art Museum
The American Folk Art Museum is a small and charming set of rooms. The current exhibition is called "A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America" and features sculpture, paintings and other decorative items from early America, often created by craftspeople newly arrived from Europe.They provide an audio tour via phone- the visitor calls the specific phone number and then dials stop numbers for items on the tour. I thought this was an ingenious way of doing an audio tour and I got a lot out of it.

Being a sewer, I loved seeing the stenciled quilt on display, a rarity I hadn't seen before. Stenciled quilts were made by painting fabric using the kinds of stencils one might use for decorating walls, furniture or other housewares. The quiltmaker would pounce the paint with a stiff-bristled brush, the same way someone might stencil today. It was an alternative means of decorating fabric with intricate designs if one didn't have a great deal of colored fabric on hand or didn't have the skills to create appliqued designs. And some people just liked to decorate that way. Stenciled quilts are rare because the paint that people used tended to corrode fabric and very few of them survived for long. Today if you want to create a stenciled quilt you can use fabric-safe paints, but such things were not available to the quiltmakers of early America. The quilt on display was stunning, decorated in elaborate floral designs, and I only wish they had let me take a picture of it to show you.

Overall I enjoyed my visit and plan to return to see future exhibits.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW, by Paule Marshall

Praisesong for the Widow, by Paule Marshall. Published 1983 by Plume. Literary Fiction.

Praisesong for the Widow is one of those books I've had lingering for a long time, one of those "I should really read that someday" deep backlisters that I finally got around to after moving to New York and having a lot of subway time to read all those books I've been meaning to read. It was well worth my time and yours, too.

Paule Marshall's book tells the story of Avey Johnson, a well-off African-American widow who abandons a Caribbean cruise with her similarly well-off friends for a spontaneous excursion to Grenada and its neighboring island of Carriacou. When she gets off the boat she intends to be on a flight home the next day but she ends up going on another trip, participating in the annual "excursion" of the Carriacou natives and their descendants to that island. Over the course of this time she reflects on her life, her marriage to Jay and its highs and lows, how she got to this place of privilege and how she can reframe her remaining years to bring her back to a more genuine sense of herself and her place in the world.

The narrative moves between the years of her marriage and the days of the excursion. We see her happy young years, the sacrifices her husband made to secure their affluence and the toll it all took on their relationship and on the two of them as individuals over the years. In her mind she reaches back to her childhood and a time when she saw the ghosts of African slaves on the way to their deaths. This moment had a before-and-after impact on her and she longs to understand its meaning and figure out how to incorporate that lesson in the flow of her life.

This book is one of those modern classics you should definitely make time for. A kind of fictionalized memoir, it touches on themes of identity and the impact of the large waves of history on individual lives. Regret, memory, acceptance and family are the threads interwoven in its panels, as well as love, individuality, the definition of success and the American dream. I like that Avey's experience doesn't cause her to reject her life but think of ways to open it up and enrich it. It's a wonderfully wrought story of society and the ripples each of us makes.

Rating: BUY

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE, by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch. Published 2011 by Canongate Books. Literary Fiction.

So, I read Jamrach's Menagerie for my book club, which focuses on books that were nominated for or won the Man Booker Prize. Jamrach's Menagerie was nominated for the prize in 2011 when it was also longlisted for the Orange Prize. The story is about the coming of age of Jaffy Brown, a London boy who gets a job with a zookeeper and is sent on a mission on a whaling vessel, to help bring back a dragon.

The story starts as a lively and entertaining vision of 19th century London life. Jaffy knows the city inside and out, and London is almost a character in the book, so vividly does Carol Birch bring it to life. Jaffy takes right to working with animals and befriends Tim and his sister Ishbel, a beautiful and precocious girl. Charles Jamrach is a larger than life figure and Jaffy loves his work. Life on the boat is hard but Jaffy does his best to adjust. He gets to know the ship, gets to know about whales and whaling, and he meets Dan Rymer, who will have a lasting impact on him in ways he can't imagine right now. Finally they arrive in the south Pacific, and face the dragon.

What happens from here I won't tell you, but it's unforgettable. It's also grisly and grim, and we only have hope because we know Jaffy survives. Carol Birch spares us no detail of the horrors that await these men. I skimmed parts of it, because it was a little too gruesome for me.

It takes about an hour to get from my apartment to the meeting location of my book club, and unfortunately I fell asleep and missed my departure window that Sunday. Just as well. The moderator said she chose this book as a lighter selection after Richard Flanagan's graphic The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The first 3/4 of the book qualify as light but the final quarter eclipses it completely and it's just about dark as dark gets. After the trip Jaffy tries to return to some semblance of normal life, but nothing will ever be the same. I don't feel quite the same either after finishing this deeply disturbing book.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished The Hilltop, The Girl Who Loved Camellias and Blood-Drenched Beard last week (the third I finished just last night) and now that New York City is basically shut down due to the snowstorm that's starting any minute I will probably spend the day diving into a new set of reads.

I'm still working my way through Ludmila Ulitskaya's short story collection Sonechka; I have two stories left to finish.
I also started Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer, a fictionalization of the life of E.M. Forster, and I'm enjoying it. It's not an easy read. Forster, or Morgan as he's called, is portrayed as deeply introverted and misogynistic. But the narrative is addictive and I'm flying through it.

Finally I started John Reimringer's 2011 novel Vestments, about a priest from a blue collar Midwestern family who comes home for a visit after being involved in a scandal. It's about the day to day life of a man of the Church, family dynamics and the city of St. Paul. I'm not very far into it but I like its moody, introspective tone.

That's it for me. What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: SWORN VIRGIN, by Elvira Dones

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones. Published 2014 by & Other Stories Press. Translated from Albanian. Literary Fiction.

Hana Doda is a bookish young Albanian woman, an ambitious student who is being pressured into an arranged marriage by her dying uncle. Distraught, and wanting to be independent, she takes advantage, if you can call it that, of an old rural Albanian tradition. Hana is reborn as Mark, and goes to live alone and work as a shepherd- and as a man. In Albanian tradition the way Dones tells it, this is an uncommon but not unheard-of path, the only catch being once you choose it you can never go back to being a woman. But Hana can't abide this tradition either, and decides to emigrate to America- as a woman.

Elvira Dones' narrative takes us back and forth between Hana's new American life and her old Albanian life, first as Hana and then as Mark. Throughout both stories, we read about a young woman trying to figure out who she is and where she fits, confounding expectations and crossing and re-crossing boundaries. Mark is not a transsexual in the sense of believing that he is a man born in a woman's body, and he is not stigmatized or mistreated as a man. And he does not have sexual relationships of any kind while he is Mark- he's forbidden to. When Hana takes on Mark as an identity, celibacy is part of the bargain. And Hana, as a woman, is not gay and is not making the switch to have a relationship with a woman, although such a thing is not unheard-of among women who make this switch. So it's not about sex, and it isn't really about gender identity either. It seems to me to be about finding a way to exist in a society so strict about its gender roles that it would rather see a woman deny her gender than see her in pants or behind the wheel of a truck.

When she moves to America, she lives with a relative and finds a job in a parking garage at first, but eventually she finds her footing and a job selling books. And she's learning how to be female again- how to shop for clothes, how to comport herself, and even making baby steps towards intimacy with a man she meets at the bookstore. The American side of the story feels like a traditional immigrant tale with this very unusual twist. I have to say I really enjoyed this story.  The premise is one I haven't encountered before and the writing is good enough to carry the reader along, make us care about Hana and begin to understand the issues she faces. Actually, I couldn't put it down. I'm really glad I came across this little gem.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Movie Review: Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

Lacombe Lucien (1974). Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler. Dir: Louis Malle. R. IMDB.

Lacombe Lucien is one of those classic French movies that has been on my radar to watch forever, but I just needed a reason. That reason came last year when Patrick Modiano, who cowrote the screenplay with director Louis Malle, won the Nobel Prize in literature. It's set near the tail end of World War 2, in the southeast of France. Lucien Lacombe is a hick from the sticks if you will, a farm kid from the Lot region, who wants to join the resistance but is turned down because he is too young. So he joins the Gestapo instead, and the first thing he does is rat out the local resistance leader, the very man who refused him.

He joins the Gestapo, I think, because they'll take him, because they seem glamorous to him, and because being attached to them gives him status and power where previously he had none. Soon after, he meets a Jewish family living in hiding nearby. The family consists of the father, a tailor who makes Lucien his first real suit, his daughter France and his elderly mother. Lucien is fascinated by them, and becomes infatuated with France. What follows, follows from that.

After having read even one Modiano novel, I can feel his fingerprints all over this film. The ellipses, the things left unsaid, the dropping of hints is all so like Missing Person. There is so much left unsaid. Watching this movie, controversial on its release because of its portrayal of French collaborators, you have to do some mental gymnastics to catch the subtext, the subtle things Malle and Modiano show and don't. Lucien does bad things; he makes bad choices, and he will pay for them. At the same time there is this slow reaching towards the light. He knows everything we know.

It's an emotionally and intellectually challenging film.

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished My Mother-in-Law Drinks early last week, as predicted, and read two more quick crime novels as well, Marco Malvaldi's Game For Five and its followup Three Card Monte. Those were fun, short books, definitely recommended for the beach bag. My next Europa Challenge book is probably going to be Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer, which I'm long overdue to read.

I'll finish The Hilltop, finally, today or tomorrow; I have about ten pages left.

I'm loving Daniel Galera's Blood-Drenched Beard, a slow-moving atmospheric crime novel/thriller about a young man searching for the truth about his grandfather's mysterious death. It's set in modern-day Brazil and comes with a twist- the protagonist, who so far is not named, has a neurological disability that prevents him from remembering faces. So he's a kind of unreliable narrator but it's not his fault. I probably have another week or two left on this. I'm in no hurry to finish.
Finally in the nonfiction world I'm reading Julie Kavanagh's The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. This is the story of a notorious Parisian courtesan of the mid-19th century whose life formed the basis for a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, La dame aux camélias, and operas including La Traviatia, Carmen and others. I'm finding it to be an interesting exploration of the social mores of the time. Parisian social culture of the 19th century had a huge impact on what followed and is well worth reading about even if the subject of courtesans doesn't interest you.

A few weeks ago I rearranged my TBR pile and pulled all the nonfiction, what there is of it anyway since I read about 80% fiction, into its own pile so it's easier to find books for the gym. There's some good stuff waiting to be read in there!

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crafturday - Makeup Bags

I love making these makeup/cosmetic bags. I've probably made close to a dozen by now. They take me about a half hour after I'm done cutting (2 each of outer fabric, lining, two kinds of interfacing, so it's like 8 pieces).  It's such a versatile pattern and can have so many different looks and uses. Use a fabric with sewing supplies on it and it's a craft pouch. Use flowers and it's girly. Use fabric depicting the New York subway system, and it's got some cool.

Here is the same bag in the Alexander Henry Fulham Road fabric I used for a shoulder bag, and here it is in Laurel Burch cat fabric:

Once I can pull together some fabric and order matching zippers I want to make a bunch of these for my Etsy shop. It just takes some planning is all.

You can find the pattern I used here. So-Sew-Easy.com is a great sewing blog. You should follow it and you should make this bag. Once you make one, you'll want to make a million. Two fat quarters, interfacing and a 9 inch zipper is all you need.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New on the Shelf

Awhile ago I got it into my head to re-read Oblomov, a favorite from college, so I found a copy of the most recent translation and added it to my TBR pile. The only correct way to read this book is to read it in bed, so I'm looking forward to doing just that over the upcoming weekend. It's about a lazy but goodnatured Russian aristocrat, and the shenanigans in which he becomes embroiled. I love the cover photo; it captures the character so well.

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter, is coming out in March from Hogarth/Random House. The publisher described it thus: "In the tradition of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, a spellbinding, hauntingly poignant novel about the remarkable ties that bring our pasts to the present." If you can make a valid Byatt comparison, I'm sold.

Wee Wonderfuls, by Hillary Lang, is a craft book with a bunch of doll patterns. I'm spending a lot of time this month learning some basic doll-making and I thought this looked like a really fun book to help me. I'll let you know how it goes.

And while we're on the subject, The Making of a Rag Doll, by Jess Brown, is a course in creating one particular doll and her clothes and accessories. I think between the two books, I should have plenty of basic instruction.

Book-acquiring has definitely slowed since the move. Book-reading has not, so I might be able to actually make a dent in that huge pile of TBRs I brought with me from Boston!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: MY MOTHER-IN-LAW DRINKS, by Diego de Silva

My Mother-in-Law Drinks, by Diego de Silva. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction, Crime. Translated from Italian.

My Mother-in-Law Drinks isn't really so much a crime novel- there's no particular mystery, or crime that's being solved- as it is one very dramatic day in the very dramatic life of one Vincenzo Malinconico, an Italian criminal defense lawyer whom readers may have met in Diego de Silva's wonderful 2012 book, I Hadn't Understood. Vince', as he's called, is a bit of a loser. His law practice is a joke, and while he's had lots of problems with women in the past, things seem to be looking up. As this second installment opens he's living with the very desirable Alessandra Persiano, won in the first book. He's getting along better with his kids now and he's sticking up for himself with his ex-wife Nives. And he's got a great relationship with Assunta, his mother-in-law, who's just found out she has cancer.

All this comes into play in the aftermath of a very difficult situation in which he finds himself one day at the grocery store. Armed with a gun, an otherwise unremarkable computer engineer has taken control of the store. He has become unhinged after his son was killed in a case of mistaken identity and his killer allowed to go free thanks to the Italian court system. He tracks down the man he believes is responsible, a mafioso on the run but hiding in plain sight. And he takes Vince', the mafioso and another supermarket employee hostage, intending to try the man with Vince' acting as defense attorney. The aftermath of the hostage situation makes Vince' a temporary celebrity and while it seems like things might be looking up, Vince' is falling apart.

The story is told through the normally fractured Vincenzo's even more manic than usual narration owing to the trauma he's suffered. A characteristic of this series is his tangents and stories that pepper the narrative; he can't just tell you what happened, he's got to relate analogies and anecdotes and examples, and if you like his voice it's immensely enjoyable. I love these books; I love the asides and parentheticals and all his talk and nonsense. It's fun. The story itself is pretty simple; man tries to put his life back together after a trauma, and succeeds more or less, even if he doesn't come away unscathed. De Silva leads one important thread dangling at the end of the book, and I really hope he picks it up in the next one. And I hope there is a next one!

This is my first read for the 2015 Europa Challenge. Come on over to the blog & check it out.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Monday-What Are You Reading?

I didn't finish any books this past week but decided to start two more- an optimistic move, I believe.

I'm almost done with The Hilltop and My Mother-in-Law Drinks; I should finish Mother-in-Law today.
I started Daniel Galera's literary thriller Blood-Drenched Beard last night and I am having a hard time putting it down. Set in modern-day Brazil, it's about a young man who wants to solve the mystery of his grandfather's strange death, related by his father on his deathbed. It's moody and descriptive, a slow read with an underbelly of menace. I wish I could stay home all day and do nothing but read. I wouldn't need a cup of coffee to get my heart racing!

I also started Sonechka, by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a collection of short stories and one (the titular) novella. Reading Ulitskaya is always a treat, and I felt like a treat. She's got a new book coming out in English soon but I couldn't wait to read one of my very favorite writers.

In the non-fiction department, I actually lost my copy of Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, so until I can get one from the library I'm out of luck. I think I left it at the gym somewhere but they didn't have it at the lost and found. I also lost a nearly-full bottle of facial cleanser. So someone has a good book and a clean face thanks to me. I'll pick something off the shelf to bring to the gym this week but I'm not sure what that will be yet. Sad face.

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Crafturday- A Bookish Tote

I made this shoulder bag this week; it has some problems (darts not perfect, handle inside-out) but overall I really like it. I used the Alexander Henry Fulham Road fabric and a coordinate for the exterior and lining of the handle.The lining of the bag is plain pink.

It's called the "Phoebe Bag" and you can find the pattern here on Craftsy.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: MISSING PERSON, by Patrick Modiano

Missing Person, by Patrick Modiano. Published 2004 by Godine. Literary Fiction. Translated from French.

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014 I, like a lot of people, rushed out to get the one book of his that was currently in print in English, Missing Person. It was so much in demand that the copy I had had reserved at a local bookstore was sold out from under me before I could buy it, and on a day when every bookstore in my town (granted, that's 3) was sold out of him. I did finally track down a copy in the more plentifully-stocked New York City and when I did, was able to treat myself to this hypnotic and engaging story about a man looking for himself.

Set somewhere in the late 1950s, Frenchman Guy Roland is trying to find out who he is, or who he was. His name and identity was given to him by his employer, a gentlemen called Hutte, who put him to work in a detective agency. He's going to need all of his skills and smarts to solve the toughest mystery he's seen yet.

He does find out who he was, what life he lead, and as much as he will ever know about the woman in that life. The answers to his questions are tied up in World War 2, the salons and art rooms of the wealthy, political machinations that stretch across the sea and a desperate flight across the snowy fields of Europe.

In tone the book is a noir, all dark corners and dirty secrets, but its themes are wider and deeper than most. This is definitely a book to linger over and savor over a long rainy afternoon. I'm looking forward to reading more from this author and I'm glad the Nobel brought him to my attention.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: THE BELL, by Iris Murdoch

The Bell, by Iris Murdoch. Originally published 1958. This edition 2001, Penguin Classics. Literary Fiction.

Reading Iris Murdoch is always a treat. Her novels are luminous little worlds with unique and beautifully-drawn characters whose relationships with each other are intricate and carefully wrought. Reading her books is to be reminded how good novels can be.

This novel tells the story of an English religious community and what happens when an unhappily married woman blunders in and sets off a chain of events that change it utterly. Dora Greenfield is returning to her husband Paul after a separation. As we get to know the community fissures start to show. Dora doesn't quite fit in, true, but then no one quite does. Paul is rigid and judgmental and claims to love his wife but you'd never know it. Michael, the leader, is there after more than one failed career and he is about to be confronted by the young man, Nick, who was the reason for one of those failures. Nick's unstable sister Catherine is about to become a nun in the abbey attached to the community, and young Toby finds himself discombobulated after an encounter with Michael. No one embodies the ideal of serenity and contemplation one might expect.

To top it off, the community is bracing for a major public event, the installation of a new bell, when the old bell, an ancient symbol of faith, is rediscovered by the unlikeliest of people.

The Bell is a pleasure to read. Part tragedy, part comedy, part meditation on human weakness and folly, it's just rewarding and enjoyable and suspenseful and fun. Murdoch's books feel like clothes that fit just right, and I am always glad to have read her.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Over the past week I read one book, Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm, which comes out at the end of January. I liked it and I will post a review closer to the book's release date of January 22.

My current reads are the same with one new addition, Diego de Silva's latest My Mother-in-Law Drinks. This book kicks off this year's Europa Challenge reading; every year for the past four I've run this challenge, which asks bloggers to read and review books published by Europa Editions. It's a great challenge and everyone should participate, in my opinion. I typically read 12 books for the challenge but you can read as few as 2 to qualify, and books you read for other challenges count.

My Mother-in-Law Drinks is about a hapless Italian lawyer and his various problems-romantic and family, but also that he's being held hostage in a grocery store by a deranged engineer who's set up a mock trial with a Mafioso the engineer believes killed his son. Vincenzo Malinconico, the lawyer, has to "defend" the Mafioso, much to his chagrin. It's hilarious. I loved de Silva's last book, I Hadn't Understood, and I'm loving this one too. It's a great start to the year and to the Europa Challenge. You can find more information about the Challenge at EuropaChallenge.blogspot.com.

And I'm still rambling through The Hilltop and Bad Feminist. What are you reading?

See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com and have a great week!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Join the Europa Challenge in 2015!!

Starting January 1, 2015, the Europa Challenge will be entering its fifth consecutive year. Do you like Europa Editions books, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog or the Elena Ferrante series? Do you love authors like Alina Bronsky, Gene Kerrigan, Stav Sherez or Jane Gardam? Do you love high-quality literary fiction or heart-pounding crime fiction from around the world?

Then we want you to join the Europa Challenge!

Sign up here with Mr. Linky, then come back to the blog whenever you post a review of a Europa book on your blog and leave the link on our monthly Mr. Linky post.

The Challenge levels have been revised and you no longer need to post on the Europa Challenge blog to participate, although if you would like to, email europachallenge@gmail.com and I will tell you how.


Books you read for any other challenge can count toward your Europa Challenge total. And the first level is only two books! Check it out, and sign up!