Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Monday (Or Tuesday!) What Are You Reading?

So I waited a day to update because I was thisclose to finishing Selection Day and I wanted to have something new to tell you about. I did finish it late last night, and started on a new book to boot.

I decided to treat myself to a César Aira book, since I need a little self-care at the moment. Dinner is another short one, really a novella, and I hear tell it is about zombies. I just started it and it opens with a rumination on names- how in conversation and memory, one name leads to another. You mention someone, and that leads to "oh isn't that so-and-so's what-have-you, who used to live next door to this one, who went to school with that other one," and on and on. In typical Aira fashion he meanders from one topic to the next with no real plot in sight- at least until it gets to the zombies. So that's where we are now.

Everything else I'm reading is the same this week. Still enjoying Food City although I've been crashing and burning at night and not reading it consistently, and I'll probably finish A Fifty-Year Silence later this week.

Again with the no-comments, but I hope you're enjoying your reading and your life this week.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK, by Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham. Published 2015 by Penguin. Nonfiction.

Reading The Most Dangerous Book is probably the closest I'll ever get to reading Ulysses, and that's fine with me.

I've never really been interested in reading Ulysses or Joyce generally, although I have read some shorter works in college. The people I know who've read it seemed to have done it as a kind of dare or means of showing off; I can't think of anyone who's read it just for enjoyment. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe one of you has? But to me novels are to be enjoyed first and foremost, not studied or pondered over or carried around like an adult-sized merit badge. So.

That said, I'd heard good things about The Most Dangerous Book and it appealed to me because I'm interested in the history of censorship. As it turns out it's a pretty great read.

Because the story of Ulysses isn't just about the story of its publication; that's only the middle of this story.  First it had to be written, and that means Joyce needed the time, space and support to write it, not to mention the prospect of publication. The Most Dangerous Book is about 1/3 Joyce biography, 1/3 social history of early 20th century bohemian culture and 1/3 censorship law and the growth of the First Amendment into what we understand it as being today. These elements combine to tell the story of how one book was published, distributed and sold, and what all that meant to literature, law and society.

So there's a lot to learn and Kevin Birmingham tells the story in prose that's passionate, articulate and gripping; it reads like a thriller sometimes, like an invective at others, and sometimes just entertaining social history. At the beginning of the book, talking about late 19th and early 20th century bohemians and their relationship with the establishment his prose has a kind of prissiness about it; he describes Anthony Comstock and other censors as tight laced villains and Joyce's early publishers as brave and daring ladies-about-town. At other times employs dry wit to describe how a conservative judge came to be one of the architects of modern First Amendment jurisprudence. The changes in tone keep the reader engaged and listening; this could be boring stuff in the hands of a less skilled writer. Throughout he engages in a robust defense of freedom for artists and readers alike.

But it's the characterizations of Joyce and his circle that kept the book interesting to me. Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway all had crucial roles to play, as well as the magazine publishers, booksellers, publishers, printers and smugglers who worked to get the book written, printed, distributed and brought into the United States. Because before Joyce could publish Ulysses he had to write it, and he was writing it almost till the last minute. We learn about the foes, which included judges, inspectors, and even the post office. It's an amazing drama above all, and Birmingham's prose will have you pinned to the pages. At times it almost seems like Joyce's own role was less significant than that of the varied and diverse team of booklovers who worked tirelessly to see his work come to light.

Along with all this drama Birmingham offers us plentiful excerpts from Ulysses and a mini course on the structure of the book, so readers can get a taste of just what was causing such a fuss. He includes personal papers of Joyce's too, letters and such, and papers from many of the other players in this drama. I learned things about Ezra Pound I never knew, and a lot about the literary scene that supported Joyce even as Joyce sometimes drove his supporters to distraction. And Birmingham tells us about the man himself, his relationship with this wife and children, his impecuniousness and his failing health and eyesight.

I highly recommend The Most Dangerous Book to readers of many stripes. History buffs, bibliophiles, Joyce fans and more will find time spent with this book to be rewarding, fascinating and fun. It's really terrific.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley from the publisher.

Monday, January 23, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well it's been quite a week all around. I finished Born A Crime (reviewed on Friday) and A Very Expensive Poison (coming this week). So that leaves room for some new reads!

I'm full-bore into Selection Day, by Aravind Adiga, which is a darkly funny story about two boys being raised to be cricket champs and their ambitious father. One day a new kid comes on the scene, Javid Ansari, and something is going to happen next.

On my bedside table is Food City, by Joy Santlofer, a history of food manufacturing and trade in New York City. I am fascinated to learn that NYC has always been a place where people bought their food versus cooking it themselves; this is certainly reflected in today's culture where you can easily, if not inexpensively, exist with a kitchen used only for storing leftovers. It's a fun and absorbing read.

At the gym I'm working through A Fifty Year Silence, which I'm enjoying, and reading Bad Feminist at home. Which everyone should read.

I'm leaving comments turned off for a while but I hope you're having a great week with lots of great books.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: BORN A CRIME, by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah. Published 2016 by Spiegl & Grau. Nonfiction, memoir.

I'm a fan of Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but I would have read this book in any case. Born A Crime is a memoir of his childhood in South Africa and a very particular story it is. His mother is African and Xhosa, and his father is European and Swiss; he was raised by his mother and later a stepfather and has straddled three worlds racially and culturally- the black South African world, the white one, and the "colored" one, which is the world of mixed-race people. And he was "born a crime" because sexual relations between races was illegal and his mother did in fact go to jail for a time.

Overall the book is a delight. You can hear Noah's voice as you read and that voice is frank, intelligent and no-nonsense. He's also very funny and tells stories both dark and humorous with a light touch. I really enjoyed it cover to cover.

So that said, Born A Crime can be choppy and somewhat difficult to follow in terms of a clear timeline but what is very clear is his sense of joy, confusion, his struggle to find a place for himself, and above all his love for his mother Patricia, an independent and nonconformist woman who taught Noah that anything is possible. But you do have to read between the lines to get a full sense of what it was like to grow up Trevor Noah; we only learn about his stepfather towards the end of the book but the experience of living with a man who was constantly trying to push him out and dominate the family must have colored his entire childhood. He doesn't tell us that, but if you look for it I bet you can find it.

He recounts stories from school, from outside of school with his friends and "entrepreneurial associates" (my term) one might say- the people with whom he established quasi-criminal off-the-books businesses pirating music and doing DJ gigs. He tells us about the time he was arrested and the truly terrifying prospects of landing in a South African prison. He tells us about his relationship with his father, a distant but loving man who accepted Noah without question but played his cards close to the vest. To this day Noah says he hasn't been to Switzerland or met his Swiss extended family, although I wonder with the publication of this book if that's still the case.

The best parts of the book, both the easiest and the most difficult to read, are those about his relationship with Patricia, who brought him up hard and awash in love and support. He couldn't, and didn't, get away with anything, even when he thought he did. Finally we meet his abusive stepfather Abel, who alternately charmed and terrorized the two of them as well as Noah's young half-brother. This abuse climaxes when Abel shoots Patricia in the head; she survives, but something died that day, even if it wasn't she herself.

Like I said I would have read Born A Crime whether or not I was a fan of Noah's, just to read a first-hand memoir of growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid and the beginning of the democratic era. There's a lot of information here; I learned a lot but like other books I've read about South Africa I'm left with plenty more questions and the realization that there is still so much I don't know. So that makes Born A Crime a terrific read on several levels. It's funny and entertaining; it's heartbreaking; it's educative, and it leaves you wanting more.

Rating; BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley copy from the bookstore where I work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. Published 2013 by Harper Perennial. Fiction.

Beautiful Ruins is a book that straddles the line between commercial and literary fiction, and between soapy and romantic. It took me a long time to get around to reading it; I had it in galley and met author Jess Walter at a prepublication event sponsored by the publisher, but it languished on my shelf and eventually I gave away my copy, even after lots of friends raved about it. It just seemed too... I don't know... commercial for my taste. But curiosity won out, and I picked a copy up after Christmas and devoured it.

For me it started off a little slow, with a disaffected producer's assistant dreaming of making "films" while stuck in the mire of Hollywood schlock. She's considering switching careers, to librarianship of all things, when an aspiring writer walks through the door and changes her life, though not in any way you might think.

The narrative moves around in time and next thing we're in Italy in the early 1960s as a young actress named Dee is taking refuge in a tiny hotel in a hole-in-the-wall town, whose owner, Pasquale, is fascinated and troubled by her presence. Then we meet a frustrated writer, an elderly producer, a troubled young man, and more. When the narrative shifts definitively to the present these characters intersect and their stories take final shape. What comes next will either having you rolling your eyes or wiping the tears away from them.

For me it was the latter. I wasn't expecting this but I was totally swept up in these characters' lives, the many lives each one leads, especially Dee and Pasquale. I know the story is kind of cheesy but Walters totally won me over with these two. The other characters were less interesting to me but I loved Dee and Pasquale's friendship, their journey, and the beautiful ending that Walter gives them both.

I would definitely recommend Beautiful Ruins as a literary beach book, or just a wonderful escapist read to help you forget about the winter weather. You will feel like you're wandering the coast of Italy with Dee and Pasquale, and the other characters too, rooting for their beautiful stories all the way.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of Beautiful Ruins from the publisher.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What's New on the Shelf? Post-Holiday Edition

Okay, so it's a few weeks past Christmas and maybe this post is overdue. But the post-holiday book haul really includes two categories- those books I received as Christmas gifts, and those I bought for myself during my post-holiday shopping. There are always some.

My friend Dave, knowing I'm interested in studying Japanese, was sweet enough to get me a book on Japanese writing, entitled simply Japanese Kanji and Kana. I can't wait to dive in!

The second of the three bookish gifts I received is Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, by Jón Gnarr, who is also the author of The Pirate, one of my favorite novels of last year. My husband got me Gnarr!

Finally my aunt got me a book on modern quilting, The Modern Quilt Workshop. I got this to start stretching my wings in the direction of less traditional piecing. I'll let you know how I do!

That's it for gifts! Now, what did I pick up for myself?

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
The Madonna of Notre Dame, by Alexis Ragougneau
Smoke, by Dan Vyleta,
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet,
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay,
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, by Kristin Dombek
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani

I've already read Beautiful Ruins and I'm enjoying Bad Feminist. And I have lots of great reading ahead of me!

What did you get for holiday gifts? I'd love to know. P.s. I've been getting spammed a lot lately so I've disabled comments for a while. So I guess you can't tell me. :-(

Monday, January 16, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Once again I've gone from not knowing what to read next, to having five books going at once. Sigh. I finished Mincemeat and Beautiful Ruins last week, and now I'm reading myself silly.

First up is Luke Harding's remarkable work of journalism, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West. I've found this impossible to put down; it reads like a thriller but it's true. It's great for anyone wanting to learn more about Vladimir Putin's regime, and anyone who enjoys books on espionage. Actually I think everyone should read it.

On my nightstand right now is Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime. You can hear his voice as you read this entertaining, moving and often surprising story about growing up biracial in South Africa. I would read this even if I weren't a fan of Noah's and again I think this is a book everyone should read.

So a while ago, I think in 2015, I was reading Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist but lost my copy at the gym. As a Christmas gift to myself I bought it again the other day and have been happily re-reading it. Now I'm actually past the point I was reading when I lost it. Not all of the essays address feminism but they are all wonderful in one way or another. Not always easy reading, but always good.

My current gym book is A Fifty Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France, by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. This is an engrossing and often sad memoir about the author's grandparents, their Holocaust experiences and secrets, and how those secrets trickle down into their family's life for years.

Finally I started Aravind Adiga's new book, Selection Day, about two brothers and cricket in modern day India. I'm just in the opening pages but so far, so good.

I'd say my reading year is off to a good start. And yours?

Monday, January 2, 2017

It's Monday! And A New Year. What Are You Reading?

Happy New Year!! I finished The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov, just before the clock struck midnight on the 31st, so it counts as my final read for 2016. And what a way to go out. I can't wait till this book comes out in February and everyone else can read it too.

What am I reading now?

I'm finally going to get to Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I actually had this in galley and let it go a long time ago but I decided to take the plunge over the holiday week and started reading it. It's really good so far.

I also finished The Most Dangerous Book (did I mention that already?) and I'm enjoying Mincemeat, Leonardo Lucarelli's chef-in-Italy memoir. It's kind of a lighter version of Anthony Bourdain. No big insights but fun.

Since it took me all week to finish The Patriots, I never got around to starting the other books I brought. Oh well! What are your first reads of 2017?