Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: LET THE GAMES BEGIN, by Niccolò Ammaniti

Let the Games Begin, by Niccolò Ammaniti. Published 2009 by Black Cat/Grove Atlantic. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Literary Fiction.

In Ammaniti's 2009 satire on celebrity culture, a washed-up writer and a group of half-assed Satanists attend an over-the-top bacchanalia thrown by a mafioso. Toss in a pop singer with a heart of gold, a group of feral Russian Olympians and a zoo's worth of wild animals and buckle up.

Fabrizio Ciba is a one-time literary success now resting on his aging laurels but yearning for real literary respectability. Saviero Moneta, aka Mantos, is the leader of a Satanist society called the Wild Beasts of Abbadon, frustrated with his life and yearning for another kind of "I'll show them" notoriety. Ciba gets an invitation to an elaborate soiree and decides it's just the thing to help him relaunch himself; Moneta sees the opportunity of a lifetime too, for mayhem and fame, and he targets a pop singer for assassination.

Pretty much all of the characters in this black comedy are unlikable jerks; you need to know going in that you are not going to like anyone here, except maybe the sweet singer Larita. But Ammaniti's most recent book to be translated into English is still a really good time. Raucous. A little raunchy. Definitely politically incorrect. And not everyone gets the ending they deserve.

I couldn't put this book down once it got going. There are parts of it that are sort of ridiculous. Especially towards the end. But it's really fun, if you can suspend your moral center for a little while, and overlook the horror of what goes on at times. The suspense towards the end is actually pretty suffocating. It is definitely not as serious as Ammaniti's other books and probably not as serious as most things I read. There was a little sadness at the end, but I laughed a lot. You might too.

Rating: BEACH

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

Monday, September 26, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished Niccolo Ammaniti's devastating The Crossroads (also published as As God Commands) and I'm going to have to write a full review soon because it's an amazing book. But for now I'll just say he's quickly become one of my favorite authors in any language.

Then I picked up another book to read until I realized I'd actually read it about two years ago and forgotten everything about it. Oops!
So now I'm on to The Long Room, a galley I received as part of a Tin House Books program to promote its books to reviewers through ARCs. It's about an intelligence officer who falls for the subject of his surveillance activities. I'm enjoying it quite a bit. It comes out in November.

In non-fiction land I'm still on The Barbary Coast and probably have at least another week and change. I've been busy and sick and all kinds of things, so I haven't been to the gym much but I am still reading The Most Dangerous Book when I do get on a cross-trainer. And that's still a great book!

What are you reading today?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Charlotte Brontë at the Morgan Library

One of Brontë's day dresses
Now through January 2, book lovers have a rare opportunity to view the personal artifacts and early editions of Charlotte Brontë at the Morgan Library in New York City.

The exhibit, called "Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will," showcases her writing from childhood on, including the tiny notebooks she created with her siblings, her artwork, her early published works including her handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre, visiting the U.S. for the first time, and personal effects like her writing desk and a day dress. It's an amazing treat.

Brontë's portable writing desk
I went to the show on a busy Saturday afternoon and jostled with fellow Brontë fans for up-close views. Beginning with a portrait of her father Patrick, the exhibit showcases her work in non-chronological order and features several items she collaborated on with her siblings Anne, Emily and Branwell. Visitors can also view several of Brontë's drawings and paintings; like many girls of her social class she was raised to be a competent visual artist. The exhibit ends with the Jane Eyre manuscript, open to one of the most moving and important scenes in the book- Rochester's proposal to Jane. Seeing that scene in Brontë's own hand was a truly emotional experience.

Visitors are allowed to photograph everything but the manuscript. Visitors can also download an app that accompanies the exhibit for transcriptions of some of the handwritten items on display- letters, stories and manuscripts. You'll need those transcriptions- Charlotte and her siblings filled notebooks with handwriting so tiny it's difficult to believe. And the Morgan gift shop offers various Brontë-related souvenirs.
A tiny book Brontë wrote and illustrated
This exhibit comes on the heels of the release of Claire Harman's excellent biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, and I recommend reading that book whether or not you see the show. The book offers a pretty detailed understanding of the family and having read it enhanced my appreciation of the show, which offers sufficient information to understand what's on the display but can't reach the book's depth.

Overall it was a fascinating, wonderful exhibit and a rare chance to see Brontë's own things, her own writing in her own hand, and gain an insight into one of the most influential writers in English literature. I urge anyone who's going to be in the NYC area between now and the end of the year to check it out!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: BABA DUNJA'S LAST LOVE, by Alina Bronsky

Baba Dunja's Last Love, by Alina Bronsky. Published 2016 by Europa Editions. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Literary Fiction.

Alina Bronsky is one of my favorite contemporary writers; she's had four books translated into English and I've enjoyed them all, starting with the searing Broken Glass Park and continuing through her bittersweet and sad latest, Baba Dunja's Last Love. Set in modern day Eastern Europe in an area damaged by the Chernobyl disaster, she's part of a community of people who try to eke out a life despite the radiation and ongoing danger. Into this world come a father and daughter; Baba Dunja takes a liking to the little girl, for whom she fears, but soon something happens to the father and it's the fallout from that which determines the fate of the town and Baba Dunja herself.

Baba Dunja meanwhile is mother to two children who've left to make lives for themselves elsewhere; her daughter is in Germany and her son in America. She's fairly close to her daughter, who sends packages of food and other necessities. But it's news of her granddaughter Laura that keeps Baba Dunja afloat, and lately there hasn't been much of that. Baba Dunja does have a single letter from Laura, which she is unable to read and the search for a translator is always on her mind.

Baba Dunja's Last Love is a short book that will leave a deep mark on your heart. She's not really a crotchety-loner-with-a-heart-of-gold like Ove or Major Pettigrew; she's pretty golden right on the surface, suffused with love for her family and community even as they hurt her or drive her a little bit crazy. And she sticks up for them when it counts.

This is probably my favorite book of Bronsky's since Broken Glass Park and I urge readers to check out this moving and ultimately very sweet story about family and learning when to step up and when to step aside. I love this book a little more every time I think about it.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished Let the Games Begin, by Niccolo Ammaniti, which was very good. It's definitely a satire though, filled with some pretty awful characters, but it actually works out well in the end.

I decided to read another Ammaniti, The Crossroads, which is better known by the title As God Commands but I have an international edition with the alternate title. It won the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award, and it is about a 14 year old growing up in a fractured family whose father asks him to do something life-changing. It's a difficult but so far rewarding read.

Still on The Barbary Coast and I will be for a while. It's slow but fun.

I actually have some posts to share this week- one review and a post about a NYC exhibit which I think will interest a lot of you. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

September Jewish Book Carnival

Welcome to another edition of the Jewish Book Carnival, started by Heidi Estrin and the Association of Jewish Libraries to help Jewish interest bloggers connect and share posts and information. Here is this month's collection of links.

Writer and editor Deborah Kalb interviews a wide variety of authors on her website, Please take a look at her Q&A with Lyla Blake Ward about Ward's memoir, Broadway, Schrafft's and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side

Author Laura Amy Schlitz appears on The Book of Life Podcast, talking about her triple-award-winning diary format teen novel, The Hired Girl.

At HUC-JIR’s Needle in the Bookstacks (, we are featuring an interview with one of our faculty, Dr. Bruce Phillips. A long time ethnographer and demographer, Dr. Phillips was recently awarded the Marshal Sklare Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. 

Barbara Krasner from The Whole Megillah | The Writer's Resource for Jewish Story interviews author Rich Michelson about his new acclaimed picture book, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy.
Author’s Notebook | Richard Michelson, Author of Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

The Fig Tree Books blog continues its series of features on books that have won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Up this month: Eileen Pollack's In the Mouth: Stories and Novellas.

Over on My Machberet, Erika Dreifus introduces Twenty Girls to Envy Me, selected poetry by Orit Gidali, translated from the Hebrew by Marcela Sulak.

Returning: Reflections & Resources on Teshuvah.
A free discussion guide for the month of Elul examines some of the difficulties and dilemmas facing those who seek to heal the wounds of their own souls—especially self-inflicted wounds. These topics are explored through a series of dialogues between a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and a rabbi. Foreword by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.

Lorri M.'s Writings contributed the following:

From Chava Pinchuck at Life Is Like a Library, the annual Elul reading list includes books about "Blessings and Gifts."

Samuel Griswold contributes an article entitled "Historical Fiction as Midrash."

From Deb Miller and BooksandBlintzes

If you're interested in participating and didn't this time, or would like to get updates about future Carnivals, you can email this address!

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week was a busy reading week for me. I finished Apocalypse Baby in holding on a sitcom set; it was really good for a sort of trashy summer read. It had a literally explosive ending that I found truly shocking though.
After finishing Apocalypse Baby I started Niccolo Ammaniti's Let the Games Begin, a satire about consumerism and modern life, about an outlandish party and a plot to murder a pop singer. I'm kind of loving it. Ammaniti is a terrific writer; I read his Me and You a couple of years ago; it was beautiful and bittersweet and while Let the Games is really different, it's very strong.

I'm still reading The Barbary Coast and it's a fun read about miscreants and shenanigans in early San Francisco.

What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Bookish Goings On

-It's been announced that a new bookstore, Belmont Books, will be opening in Belmont, Mass., in March 2017. I'm excited about this because (a) new bookstore in my old neighborhood (Belmont is right next door to Cambridge) and (b) the owners are two of the smartest and nicest people I know. Chris Abouzeid is a YA author and former bookseller at Porter Square Books and his wife Kathy Crowley is an author as well; both have been friends for a couple of years. Their store is going to be spectacular.

-My friend and fellow blogger Lisa Espenschade has been short-listed for the 2016 Read Russia Translation Prize for her translation of Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin. If you don't keep up with her blog Lizok's Bookshelf you should- it's a must-read.

-In the world of adaptations, the Merchant-Ivory E.M. Forster adaptations, as well as the duo's other films, are returning to the big screen this fall as part of a 50th anniversary retrospective. This is going on all over the US and I was lucky enough to catch "Howards End" in New York with director James Ivory in attendance to answer questions. I can't wait to see more of my favorites and I hope you get a chance to check them out too.

-Finally Publisher's Weekly reported that book reading is steady while e-book reading has stayed the same. Whenever I tell someone that I work in the book world, almost the first response is "books are going away, what are you going to do?" I always say that if books are going away I'm about to have a lot more room in my apartment but until then I'll keep reading and selling them if I can. Nice to have some validation for what we all know- that plenty of people still read real paper books.

-One last thing! Facebook tells me it's been 2 years since my last day at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. I miss those folks! 

Monday, September 5, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished The Man Without A Face, Moonstone and Baba Dunja's Last Love last week, so I'm on to a new slate of reads this week.
I am enjoying Virginie Despentes' Apocalypse Baby, a slightly trashy crime novel about a reluctant private eye and her slap-happy sidekick investigating the disappearance of an affluent French teen. It may be more than slightly trashy, but it is very well written and fun.

The Street Kids, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is likewise rompy in nature, about a group of boys in not-for-tourists early 20th century Rome. It's the city like you seldom see it, with characters you seldom get to know.
Finally my nightstand book is The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, by Herbert Asbury. Huh, I'm sensing a theme to my current reads.

What are you reading this week? Happy Labor Day to my readers in the US. Grill something, eat pie, enjoy.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What's New on the Shelf?

Here's a roundup of the latest things to hit my TBR pile. As usual lots of Italians, translations and crime.
But to start things off is Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, which is none of those things. 19th century author Gaskell was also the first biographer of Charlotte Brontë (relied upon heavily by Claire Harman in her wonderful book, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart) as well as an accomplished novelist in her own right. Cranford is a series of interconnected vignettes showing life in a woman-centric community.

Eva Sleeps, by Francesca Melandri, is an Italian novel about which the publisher  calls" a story of family, passion, conflict, and forgiveness that embodies the history of nations." As my regular readers know I am a sucker for Europa Editions.
So to continue with the Europa theme, I received Massimo Carlotto's latest translation from them for review. For All the Gold in the World looks like another great installment in the Alligator series.

 The last new Europa is one I just bought yesterday, The Street Kids, which Europa calls "the most important novel" by filmmaker and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. I became a fan of Pasolini's in college after an Italian-film class I took and I can't wait to read this.

And last but by no means list I picked up Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun a week or two ago, a crime novel from Japan I've been meaning to read. I was going to wait for paperback but I found the hardcover in the "half price review" section of the venerable Strand bookstore.  That sealed the deal!

What's have you added to your TBR shelves recently?