Monday, February 29, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

As predicted I finished The Hunter by Richard Stark, and I tried and DNF'd another book. I liked The Hunter but appreciated it more after my book club discussion. I don't know if I'm going to read any more in the Parker series but it was fun to read the first one.

This week I'm a little bit at loose ends. I started Therese Bohman's new book, The Other Woman, which I have to read for March's meeting of the Nordic Book Club. I'm enjoying it so far- it's moody, sort of like the other book of hers I read, Drowned, and I'll be interested to see where it goes.

In the nonfiction realm I'm still reading and enjoying Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. This is another case of me enjoying a book so much that I almost don't want to read it, because I know it'll have to end. The documentary based on the book is also really good and you should check that out if you're interested in the subject.

That it for me. What are you reading this week?

Monday, February 22, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished a bunch of books last week, starting with A Man of Good Hope, by Jonny Steinberg, which I loved, and Sunil Yapa's The Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, which I did not love. I will be reviewing the former soon.  And I finished my re-read of Alison Bechdel's wonderful Fun Home. I need to read more graphic novels.

I started (and will soon finish) Richard Stark's (pen name of Donald E. Westlake) The Hunter, first in the Parker series of crime novels. I'm sure Parker was a big influence on my favorite bad boy of crime, Massimo Carlotto's gleeful psychopath Giorgio Pelligrini, so this is kind of fun in a grim-and-joyless kind of way. I'll be done by Wednesday when my book club meets to discuss it. 

I'm continuing to read the engrossing Going Clear, Lawrence Wright's exposé of Scientology. I am taking my time here so it may be a while before I finish.

Finally I'll be starting a new gym book this week and I'm not sure what that will be, but it will be nonfiction. What are you reading this week?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: THE PIRATE, by Jón Gnarr

The Pirate, by Jón Gnarr. Published 2016 by Deep Vellum. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith.

In the followup to Gnarr's The Indian and the second in a trilogy of fiction/memoir about 1970s Iceland, a young teen with learning and social difficulties finds himself attracted to punk rock and all it represents as he tries to find his way through school and family life.

Jón is a middle school kid stuck in the middle. At school his fellow students mercilessly bully him while his teachers barely register his presence, and at home his parents struggle in vain to control a child who's experimenting with drugs and drinking. Jón has an especially difficult relationship with his father, a police officer. He finds consolation in music and becomes drawn to punk rock with its heady mix of freedom, rebellion and camaraderie. Instead of going to school he hangs out with other disaffected kids- runaways, dropouts and misfits- where he starts to find community and a purpose.

Gnarr the writer does an incredible job of telling the story from a kid's perspective, showing Jón's naivete and idealism, along with poor judgement, tortured kid-logic and blasé cynicism and emotional detachment. When his grandmother dies, Jón takes it in stride: "She was from another world, a shadowy, ancient world where it was always cold and everyone was wet and either hungry or very ill the whole time. So they tended to die sooner or later." His relationship with his mother is summed up in the opening paragraphs: "She had a downcast expression. 'Come have a chat with me, Jón.' She wasn't angry. I hadn't done anything. I'd even been unusually quiet. But whenever I heard that tone in her voice it meant she blamed me for something, like the time she found cigarettes in my pocket." And his father is just "weird."

Gnarr goes on to describe the intolerable abuse he suffered at the hands of his schoolmates who stalk and beat him daily. He doesn't know what to say to his parents. It's as though the world is split in two, between what goes on inside and outside his home. He makes friends with a bus driver and finds a group of kids to hang out with with issues similar to his own. Little by little he finds some purpose, some things to believe in, rooted in the belief that he's different somehow:
My brain was like a nuclear power plant producing endless ideas and words. The words were three-dimensional, and under each word were sentences, new meanings, possibilities. The words swapped, merged, formed new sentences. the words played on the emotions like harp...But others didn't see me with my eyes. They wouldn't. They just saw me with their eyes. The lived in prison. but I was outside. I was free, but they were closed off...They were blind because they did not see.
Ah, yes, that wonderful child's belief that they know things adults don't, like the adults had never been kids or had utterly forgotten what it was like and are incapable of empathy. It takes a child's narcissism to believe that you know more about what someone else is thinking than they do, and I love how Gnarr replicates this state of mind so perfectly. It stands alone well but would probably be rewarding to read as part of the series too. The Pirate is brilliant, heartbreaking and so true to a kid's brain it's painful sometimes, great for adult readers of adult or YA fiction.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: LEAVING RUSSIA: A JEWISH STORY, by Maxim D. Shrayer

Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, by Maxim D. Shrayer. Published 2013 by Syracuse University Press. Nonfiction. Memoir.

Leaving Russia is a detailed account of one family's struggle to emigrate from Russia, set in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Shrayer in 2008 when I worked for the Association of Jewish Libraries and featured his collection of short stories Yom Kippur in Amsterdam on their blog and mine; I have since kept in touch with him via social media including Facebook and while I have not met him in person, he is someone I know a little bit and I thought you should know that up front.

Anyway, that aside, I finally got around to reading his memoir recently, and it's pretty excellent, especially for readers interested in Soviet refuseniks and Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union. The book covers Shrayer's life from his teen years through age 20, when he left with his parents David and Emilia. It's quite a searing portrait both of Soviet life as the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and the very daunting struggles of Jewish refuseniks to carve out a life while they waited to leave. He and his family live at the mercy of a capricious bureaucracy capable of both arbitrary and systemic antisemitism. They find community with other refuseniks but Shrayer lives a double life, a good student and ordinary kid outside the home, and a persecuted rebel at home. And then there are the times when his two lives overlap.

He writes with great affection about his friends and especially his family. The love he has for his parents radiates from the pages. He clearly idolizes his father, a fellow writer and his role model in so many parts of his life. And his admiration for his mother and her sacrifices, including the physical danger she has from time to time put herself in to support their refusenik cause is also quite palpable. He also shares the vivid world of the friendships and adventures that sustained him and have stayed with him. At the same time there is no doubt that the USSR was a hostile place for him and his family.

I enjoyed reading Shrayer's book a lot for both the refusenik story and the details about Soviet life it offers. This is after all a disappeared world, and I would place it alongside the other leaving-the-USSR memoirs I've read, like Elena Gorokhova's Mountain of Crumbs and Tina Grimberg's Out of Line. As a story about Jewish emigration Shrayer's story has more in common with Grimberg's but Grimberg's book was written for a middle-reader audience while Shrayer's book is unambiguously written for an adults. That said, I don't think there's anything inappropriate for a teen reader interested in the subject of the refusenik movement. It's a very moving, detailed and fascinating story about one family's experience of something that happened to so many families, as well as one young man's coming of age.

And on a personal note, as a Cold-War-era kid I will say that until I started working in synagogues I was completely unaware of the extent to which the story of Soviet dissidents was the story of Jewish people who wanted to leave due to antisemitism. For some reason this "detail" was left out of my public-school education, and I would therefore recommend this book very highly to anyone else who doesn't know very much about this subject, regardless of background. It may seem like a "niche" issue but it really isn't, because it's about the big issues of freedom and the power of the imagination to shape the world.

This counts towards the Read My Own Damn Books Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished The Pirate and Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story this week. Both were good in their own ways. Reviews coming soon.

On Friday I started Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic account of the controversial "religion." I'm enjoying it a lot and look forward to delving further in. A while back I listened to an episode of the Worst Bestellers podcast taking on L. Ron Hubbard's tome Dianetics. Listen here if you want.

On the fiction front, I started Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa, about the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.  I'm about 100 pages in and it's good, very plot-oriented and one plot twist already. My goal is to finish by the end of the week so I can get started on my next crime fiction reading group book in time.

I also decided to re-read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which I read in 2006 when it came out. It's such a great graphic novel/memoir. She's a rock star.

That's it for me! What are you reading this week?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Salon

It's been a fun week.

Wednesday I had my crime fiction reading group, which involved a lively discussion of Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith. I am very glad I read The Talented Mr. Ripley before the meeting. Ripley Under Ground works OK as a stand-alone but the better you know Tom the more you get out of it, I think. The instructor, crime writer David Gordon, picked the sequel because he thought most of us would have read Talented and most everyone had.

 I celebrated a birthday this week with a pedicure and a Broadway show- "Fun Home," based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about her father's suicide and her relationship with him. My review of the book is here. I enjoyed the show. It was very emotional but we did not have great seats- we were in the orchestra section, which meant the performers had their back to us much of the time. Our section was the only one that didn't give them a standing ovation. What was kind of funny was that my husband and I just finished watching the TV series "Fringe" on Netflix last week, and "Fun Home" starred Michael Cerveris, who was one of the stars of that show. Just a coincidence but it was kind of neat. Anyway he was great and the singing was very entertaining; I just wish we could have heard it better. Oh well!

Then on Saturday night we had a coconut cream cake from one of my favorite bakeries, Amy's Breads.  There were a lot of other things that went on in NYC last week, bookish events I couldn't make because of other commitments, including three events in a row celebrating the release of Muriel Barbery's new novel The Lives of Elves. I do hope to read it soon and was kind of disappointed to have to miss all three events. What can you do, it's busy here.

Today it's freezing cold in NYC and I doubt we'll be going out. We usually don't go out for Valentine's because my birthday is around the same time and somehow the restaurants are not as busy the week before.

Anyway I have exactly nothing big planned this week beyond some time spent with friends. Which actually sounds pretty great.

What are you up to today? Have a great week!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review: PURPLE NOON (1960)

Purple Noon (Plein Soleil). (1960) Dir: René Clément. Starring Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet and Marie Laforêt.

Concluding Unofficial Ripley Week, I wanted to write in more detail about René Clément's adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which he called Plein Soleil but comes to us in English as Purple Noon.

 Clément changed a few things- the characterization of Dickie (here called Philippe) and the ending- but for the most part it's a pretty straight-up (no pun intended) adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 classic crime novel about the man who comes to Europe to bring home the errant son of a shipping magnate but instead becomes obsessed with him and his idle-rich lifestyle. What happens next is murder.

The movie starts full tilt in the middle of the story- when Tom and Philippe/Dickie are having a wild night together in Rome. Little by little the backstory unravels and we learn how little Philippe knows about Tom. Philippe's girlfriend Marge is no fan of Tom, and she and Philippe have issues too, like his skirt-chasing, which Tom tries to use to drive a wedge between them. The homoerotic elements of the novel are touched on just enough. Then the violence, then Tom's time passing himself off as Philippe, then the grisly ending that I for one did not see coming.

Purple Noon is a great movie to watch right now in the Northeast US as we struggle under temps in the teens and frequent snowfalls. Nothing will make you forget winter like Clement's sun-drenched Rome and Amalfi Coast, all that beautiful sunlight. But it's a dark movie despite the sunshine. Tom Ripley is full of spite and envy, beautiful but sinister and evil.

Definitely make some time for Purple Noon this winter. It's available to stream on Hulu, or on DVD from your favorite rental outlet.

Rating: RUSH

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: RIPLEY UNDER GROUND, by Patricia Highsmith

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith. Published 2008 by Norton. Crime fiction. Literary fiction. Crime Fiction.

Settled in the French countryside with his new wife Heloise, Tom Ripley enjoys a quiet life of gardening, painting, and art forgery as he lives off the proceeds of his prior bad acts and commits some new ones in this enjoyable and well-structured sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley we met Tom, the American who finds his calling in crime when he's sent to retrieve shipping-company scion Dickie Greenleaf from his carefree life in Italy. Now Dickie's dead and Tom, having made himself Dickie's heir, lives quietly but comfortably. But things start to unravel when an American art aficionado suspects (correctly) that one of his pictures is a fake. The man, Mr, Murchison, goes to visit Tom thinking Tom is a fellow collector but when Tom realizes that Murchison's nosing is going to bring down the whole scheme, something has to be done. Luckily there is a blunt object handy, and we're off to the races.

The rest is cat-and-mouse with the police, Mr. Murchison's widow and an unstable painter named Bernard who tries to kill Tom not once but twice. What's going to happen? Is Tom going to come out on top or will he be caught? And what about those lingering suspicions around Dickie Greenleaf's death? When Dickie's cousin comes visiting, what could that imply for our antihero?

You'll have to read to find out. Ripley Under Ground is a fun follow-up but doesn't come close to the first book's genius. Tom is still in control, but maintaining that smooth facade is more difficult than he expects. There's no real doubt as to how it's going to end up (there are two or three more Ripley novels in Patricia Highsmith's canon so he's not going anywhere- yet) and the fun is seeing how he gets there. Tom has some real opponents in this book, and he eludes them again through cunning and luck. I don't think Under Ground is essential reading but it's fun and worth it if you want to follow Tom Ripley's further adventures.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. Originally published 1955. This edition 2008 by Norton. Literary Fiction. Crime Fiction. Required Reading.

An aimless young man heads to Europe to bring home a wealthy prodigal son from the Amalfi coast, only to find his true calling in murder and deception.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a classic everyone should read. I don't know what took me so long, honestly. Never mind the stupid 1999 film adaptation starring Matt Damon (!) as Ripley; read the book, it will take you just as long because you won't be able to put it down.

It's the late 1950s in New York City, and Tom Ripley is a young man living from one day to the next on the fruits of labor both honest and dishonest when Herbert Greenleaf approaches him a bar and asks him to go to Italy to bring home his layabout son Dickie. Tom knows the Greenleafs slightly through the New York party circuit and he takes the job, figuring he can parlay it into other opportunities once his errand is complete. But he has no idea what lay ahead, either for himself or the Greenleafs.

Tom becomes obsessed with Dickie and Dickie's lifestyle and wants no less than to have it- all of it- for himself. And if can't have Dickie and Dickie's money, then... Tom is a mesmerizing character, not only because he's so evil but because we get to watch his transformation from front-row seats. The signs are there from the beginning if you look for them, the instability and the temper, but also the intelligence and cunning. The best part for me though was the fact that his greatest successes come from his greatest mistakes. His success depends on others' ignorance as much as his own smarts.

This is book is required reading for sure. So much of modern crime fiction depends on Tom Ripley. Even a character like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl is a child of Tom Ripley. By the way the only film adaptation worth bothering with is René Clement's 1960 adapation Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) starring the beautiful Alain Delon as Tom, although that movie wimps out at the end. But you have to read The Talented Mr. Ripley. You just have to.

This was part of the Read My Own Damn Books Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, February 8, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sigh. Another Monday. I had a great week in reading- I finished Ripley Under Ground and then blew through The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first in Patricia Highsmith's series about the famous sociopath and killer-with-all-the-skills. What a book. Seriously you guys- required reading. I also saw the French movie version of Talented Mr. Ripley, with Alain Delon. Swoon. Seriously, I lived in Cambridge for 10 years and I love Matt Damon like any good Cambridge girl but he can't hold a candle to Alain Delon.

This week I'm reading The Pirate, by Jón Gnarr, a semi-autobiographical novel by the former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland. It's very chatty and fun. I'm about 30 pages in and I'm reading it for my upcoming book club meeting.
I'm two chapters away from finishing Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, by Maxim D. Shrayer. I'll do a full review but I think it's an interesting book for anyone interested in reading about the everyday life of a refusenik family in 1970s/1980s Moscow.

And I'm still poking my way through A Man of Good Hope, a really excellent piece of journalism and biography. Whatever I'm reading at the gym I'm reading very slowly.

What I read next depends on what I can find on the TBR pile. I also need to go through my galleys and see what's new that looks interesting. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Salon

This week in Marie's Life in New York includes bookstores, food, exploring neighborhoods and finding a new place to hang out. In other words, it was pretty typical. 

I went to the Grolier Club to see an exhibit on "blooks," things that look like books but are not.  The proper title of the exhibit is "Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren't." The items are taken from the private collection of Mindell Dubansky, a cheerful New Yorker with a passion for books. When I visited she was on hand to guide a large crowd through the exhibit and shared stories of her favorite items. Her collection includes things like exploding books, gag books, and just about anything you can imagine shaped like a book, everything from greeting cards and spice containers to banks and flasks and travel souvenirs, jewelry, clothing and more. It was a lot of fun. It's open until March 12 and free tours are offered on Thursdays at 1. More information can be found at the Grolier Club's website.

Otherwise things were pretty routine but we've got some fun things going on this week, including some birthday stuff and a book club meeting. I'm really frustrated because there are three events this week for Muriel Barbery's new book The Life of Elves and I don't think I can make any of them. It's even more frustrating because she will be at at least one event and I would love to get my books signed, but alas, it's not going to happen. Sigh. :( That's what I get for keeping myself busy sometimes!

Today there is some game on the teevee or so I understand. I have a quilt to finish up and photograph, and a couple of other small sewing projects to work on. And I'm starting my new book club book today too. I hope you have a great Sunday whatever you do!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What's New On the Shelf, January 2016 Edition

I added several titles to my collection in January. The thing about weeding ten before buying one? Whatever. That lasted all of minutes.

I did sell a bag of books this month though I definitely bought more than one book.

Apart from Ripley Under Ground, I bought two books and received two galleys:

Green Island, by Shawna Yang Ryan, came in the mail from Knopf. It comes out in February. It's historical fiction set in Taiwan.

One of my friends snagged for me the ultimate bookish prize, an ARC of Justin Cronin's highly anticipated The City of Mirrors, volume three of the Passage Trilogy. It comes out in May. I've started- slowly! :-)
Winter, by Christopher Nicholson, is new from Europa Editions and looks like a great read about Thomas Hardy towards the end of his life. I picked it up at Greenlight Books, one of my favorite NYC bookstores.

The Pirate, by Jon Gnarr, is a quasi-autobiographical novel by an Icelandic politician. It's volume 2 of a trilogy and I'll be reading it for my Scandinavia House book club at the end of February. I picked it up at the Strand, with credit I earned selling some books.

That's it! Not so bad, right? Listen, there are some incredible places here to get books very cheaply- you don't know how hard it is for me to fight temptation! So most of the time I don't.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: FATES AND FURIES, by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. Published 2015 by Riverhead Books. Literary Fiction.

Fates and Furies, the latest book from celebrated author Lauren Groff, has been all the rage since its release last fall. It's been likened to Gone Girl with its his-and-hers story of the marriage Lotto, a wealthy bottled-water scion, and Mathilde, a young woman of murky background. They meet at Vassar and go on to live a charmed life, first in genteel West-Village poverty and later as Lotto becomes a lauded playwright and Mathilde his loyal and devoted helpmeet.

Or that's the story you could glean from the first half of the story, told from Lotto's perspective. And even in that first half the reader can see how self-centered he is and how many things might look different from Mathilde's point of view. In the second half some of those gaps get filled in.

I have a lot of thoughts about Fates and Furies. I would join a book club just to talk about it, because I feel like I need to talk about it with someone. There were things I loved about the book, like Groff's insight into Mathilde's character, the writing itself, so descriptive and lush, and the skill with which she both draws and skewers Lotto, a decent if myopic man. But I had some problems with it too, mostly to do with the amount of melodrama larded over situations that don't need it. I think there is a trend in the literary world right now towards overwrought emotional and sexual melodramas (hello A Little Life) and if you loved Hanya Yanagihara's blockbuster you will probably like this one too (although I admit I haven't read Yanagihara's book and probably won't, the talk about it is roughly similar to what Fates has to offer).

I was a big fan of Groff's last book, Arcadia, which also centered around a young woman shaped by abuse; I thought that book was excellent and very insightful, and I admire Fates but I think too often she just went to far in investing her characters with uber-angst. Mathilde's childhood as Groff shapes it is the stuff of nightmares; it's hard to believe she would walk away from that. I think a young woman who's been neglected the way she is, and who has had the lack of parenting she's had, would be drawn to bad relationships and have the attitude towards childrearing she does, but it's all so overwrought. And that's assuming she just physically survived it, which I don't think is a given. I don't know what to say without big spoilers- this is why I need people who've read it.

And the comparisons to Gone Girl are off the mark too. Mathilde isn't evil or a schemer or a murderer, and if anything the revelations about her role in the marriage seem overcooked. Her emotional detachment is both extreme and uneven; Groff tells us Mathilde loves Lotto, is devoted to him, but she lies to him in shocking ways, driven by more than just fear of not being loved for who she is. Again I don't buy that this person would be able to do what she does, given what she's been through. I think toning down or reshaping the melodrama of her childhood and early adulthood would have helped to make her more  believable overall.  I don't know that I'd recommend it to Gone Girl fans just based on the two-sides-of-a-marriage premise. I think that Fates might be a little overwritten for die-hard crime fans too and there is no real element of horror here, telenovela-worthy sexual melodrama aside.

So yeah, ambivalence from me. I get why people like it; I get why they don't. Just before I finished the book I glanced through GoodReads reviews to see what folks were saying, if it fit with how I was feeling about the book and I found that I agreed more or less with the good reviews and the bad. Should you read it? I have no idea. I'm glad I satisfied my curiosity about it though.


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

Monday, February 1, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Not much has changed since last week; I'm ahead of the curve on my crime book club and have been lingering over Ripley Under Ground. I'm just really loving it. I have two other Highsmiths in my TBR pile and I want to at least read The Talented Mr. Ripley before next Wednesday.

Still working on Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, by Maxim D. Shrayer. It's weird reading the memoir of someone I kind-of-know through social media. Like, I've seen this guy's vacation photos and stuff, and now I'm reading his life's story.

I actually never started Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, though I did mean to. I thought saying I started would help me get started. I do want to read it, but I'm very firmly in Ripleyville right now.

What are you reading, or hoping to read? Have a great week.