Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Finds

A quick Friday Finds this week.

You or Someone Like You came for review courtesy of author Chandler Burr; I've heard a lot about this book and I look forward to it. I picked up Olive Kitteridge, finally, at a local bookstore, and wasted no time whatsoever snagging The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson's second book, as soon as I could. Of course, I should probably read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of these days!

What great reading do you have in store for the weekend?

You can read more Friday Finds here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

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What’s the funniest book you’ve read recently?

The funniest book I've read recently was Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You. The themes of the book are serious- death, the end of a marriage, growing up- but the voice and tone are sarcastic, hilarious and laugh-out-loud funny. It's also raunchy and irreverrent- a great book for the beach, and you'll read it in two or three sittings. It's out next week.

You can read more Booking Through Thursday answers here.

New Ratings System

I've never used a ratings system before with my reviews, but I'm going to experiment with starting one, because I wonder if I could make my reviews more helpful with some sort of succinct and consistent system or shorthand to accompany what I know are often verbose reviews. Here's an idea:
  • BUY- run right out and buy this fantastic book. Five stars, top rating.
  • BACKLIST- wait for the paperback- worth owning but don't rush. Four stars. Good but not great.
  • BORROW- it's worth reading, but I wouldn't shell out for it. Two to three stars. Average. Okay. Meh.
  • BURY- No stars. Did not like at all.
What do you think? Would a system like this help you or are my reviews clear enough without the ratings? Do you use a ratings system on your blog? What do you use? How does it work out for you?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

REVIEW: Godmother, by Carolyn Turgeon

Godmother, by Carolyn Turgeon. Published 2009 by Three Rivers Press/Random House. Fiction.

It's easy to believe in a bookstore as the setting for a book about magic, fairies, legends and lore- a book just like Carolyn Turgeon's Godmother. Lil, the main character, is just the kind of female eccentric that fairy tales tell us live in such places. She's single, older and dowdy, and she's a fairy- and not just any fairy but the fairy, the fairy godmother of Cinderella- now banished and eking out a life in Manhattan. Every day she tucks in her wings and leaves her modest apartment for an enchanted bookstore run by a prince and visited, one day, by a young woman who just might be his princess.

Lil mourns the loss of her fairy life- her fairy sister Maybeth most of all- and longs for the day when she will be allowed back into the fairy world. Slowly she recounts the story of her banishment- how she fell in love with Cinderella's prince and ruined the fairy tale- and works to bring together her boss, George, with a lovely and free-spirited hairdresser named Veronica, whom Lil believes is his destined true love. If she does this, she thinks, she'll be forgiven, and readmitted to her sacred, special world.

And 90% of the book is just as sweet and charming and sugar-spun as I expected it to be, and I enjoyed that 90% very, very much. Turgeon's writing is light and engaging, and Lil, despite being a bit of a spinster stereotype, is highly sympathetic. Veronica and George are charming and likable, and made to be together in a believable way. Sometimes Turgeon has Veronica express some very un-princess-like insecurities that make her even more real and realistic but never break the spell. Godmother is also a compelling page-turner and I couldn't wait for this modern fairy tale to end as only fairy tales can, with happy ending for all.

And that's where it fell short for me. There is a significant twist at the end which has to change the reader's understanding of the entire book, and I was very disappointed that Turgeon chose to break the spell the way she does. Otherwise I would recommend the book with much greater enthusiasm but as it is I'll say this- read Godmother if you like light women's fiction but be prepared for a shock as you round the final corner! It turns out it's a very different fairy tale from the one I thought I was reading.

Rating: BORROW

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

REVIEW: Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Published 2009 by Random House. Literary fiction.

Sacred Hearts, author Sarah Dunant's latest, is an engrossing, fascinating story about cloistered nuns set in 16th century Italy in the fictional convent of Santa Caterina. Inside the walls of this world apart, a community of women works, prays and lives out its life. While many women heard the call of God and followed, many were placed without their consent, by families unable or unwilling to pay a marriage dowry in a time and place where women had no options apart from marriage.

As the novel opens, a young woman named Serafina has just arrived; gifted with a rare singing talent, and one of those confined against her will, she rails against what she believes to be imprisonment and pines for her lover, a music teacher. Serafina is ministered to by Suora Zuana, the convent's de facto doctor and a middle aged woman cloistered since the death of her father years ago. Zuana is charged with helping the young novice to adjust by Madonna Chiara, the powerful and skilled abbess, who has her own hands full with the political and religious turbulence of the counter-Reformation and a rival within the convent, her second-in-command Suora Umiliana.
What follows is an immensely satisfying novel, full of rich characters, suspense, intrigues and twists and turns. Dunant drew me in from page one and held my attention throughout; her style is nimble and graceful- readable and intelligent without being too dense or heavy. She paints a picture of a largely contented community of women, full of people who may not have chosen the veil but who have found a way to make a life within its limitations. Chiara is as skilled and wily as any politician and Dunant shows a place where the women are encouraged to use their natural gifts for the betterment of all, whether they be gifted singers, artists or diplomats. There is also mystery and mysticism, and somewhere, real faith on display as well. It's a book about religion- and about a particularly oppressive form of religion- that manages to critique it quietly, with respect for those who embrace it. Sacred Hearts is a beautifully written novel that captures what we fear- and was fascinates us- about a life we will never know, and a world that no longer exists.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bloggers and Commercialism, Part Two

First of all, I want to thank all of you who commented on my Bloggers and Commercialism post last week; I really appreciate hearing from all of you and it gave me a lot to think about. So one of the responses I got, from blogger King Rat of Rat's Reading, was particularly thought-provoking. He said that if we bloggers want to be sure we're blogging with integrity, we should stop accepting review copies and just review books that we buy (or, presumably, borrow or trade) ourselves, whether they be new or used, bargain-tabled or full price. But no more freebies- no more purely promotional work. What would that mean for our blogs? For our reading? Is the only reason we blog to receive free books?

Receiving free books is not the only reason I blog. I would be lying if I said that when I started my blog, it never occurred to me that I might snag a freebie or review copy here and there, but I started Boston Bibliophile mainly to improve my writing and to meet and talk to readers who like what I like. If I got on the galley train, great. If not, so be it.

Like many of you I've been fairly successful in parlaying my reviewing and blogging into some freebies now and then, although probably less so than some. Some star book bloggers seem to almost never buy their own books! As for me, to borrow a metaphor from comedian Kathy Griffin, I definitely consider myself to be a book-blogging D-lister. I don't do blog tours, I don't get a lot of glitzy interviews or do fancy multi-volume book giveaways, and there are still entire, major publishers from whom I have never had an offer or received a book.

The contact with authors, the chance to do interviews, and the ability to supplement my professional reading with current fiction and nonfiction has been wonderful. And I've read a lot of great books I would never have read otherwise. Much of this would disappear were I to stop accepting and requesting review copies.

And of course I enjoy it- interacting with authors and publishers, and those flattering emails saying how much they enjoy my blog- whether those emails are sent to me alone or to a thousand other bloggers at the same time. And I won't lie- I love the access I have to galleys.

So how much do I depend on freebies? It's hard to quantify exactly, but I'll take a somewhat random, totally non-representative sample to get started. I'll list the 20 most recent books I've read and tell you where they came from. It's not 100% representative but I hope it gives an idea:
So out of the last 20 books I've read, I received eight free for review- three from LibraryThing, which encourages reviews, three review copies that I requested and two that were offered to me, all of which I've promised to write about. I read two books that I took from the library, got three through professional channels, traded for one and bought the remaining six at a variety of bookstores.

With the exception of library books, books that I receive for free tend to be recent- upcoming releases or just-outs, which makes perfect sense. Most of the books I buy are paperbacks and backlist- among other things I am cheap, and I have to really want to read a book right now to pony up for a hardcover- and that does not happen often! I believe that I use the library often for graphic novels and speciality books- and this lists bears that out, too.

So my blog is profiting from free books- no doubt about it. But personal buying and borrowing still makes up a decent percentage of what I'm reading and writing about.

But what would happen to my blog- to my writing- if I stopped accepting review copies? First, since I still have a professional obligation to stay current on the literature in my field, I would continue to receive and read galleys. I just wouldn't review them here. So the quantity of reviews I post would lessen.

The books I would review would be things that I bought, and so would probably be older- paperback backlisters instead of brand-spanking-new-releases. Freed from the distractions of trendy "it" books (and the competition to get them) my reading would probably be more diverse in some ways (more idiosyncratic personal choices, less "everyone is else is reading it") and less diverse in others (more "Marie" books and less outside-the-box experimentation).

I might even be able to get back to my original reason for starting the blog- sharing the kinds of books I love with people who share my interests, instead of just reading the same books everyone else is reading. I'd miss being in this giant virtual book club and sharing opinions about the books we're all reading, but I wouldn't miss being part of the marketing machine.

This is sounding better all the time.

But in reality, it's not going to happen. I'm not going to stop asking for and accepting review opportunities- and neither should you. I do think that we owe it to ourselves to do some real thinking about ethics behind it all and make sure that it squares with our sense of fairness and honesty. I think we should think about how we're treating our readers- if we're being honest with them or acting as shills- as well as how we treat publishers and authors- if we're taking advantage of a trend or providing something valuable to them in return. And we should pay attention to how they're treating us. I think if we feel like someone is taking advantage of our time, or our good nature, or just being a nag, we should call them out on it and not worry that the gravy train is going to dry up. Because even if it does, I read books before I started blogging and I'll continue to read them when I stop. And I think most of you will, too.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Salon

I don't know quite what today has in store, but I know I'll be baking a cake for my mother in law's birthday tomorrow, and maybe working on a crossword puzzle or something.

This past week was a blur, between some much-needed home repairs, nursing a cold and taking care of my sick cat. Actually this whole year has been a blur between one thing and the other! I have one contractor visit coming up this week, which I hope will be the last for a while.

As far as reading, my husband sorted out a bunch of his books last night and like me, has dozens of TBRs that needed organizing. He weeded out some manga that were claimed instantly when they went up on Bookmooch last night, and we found a few new Doctor Who books to add to his collection as well. I have a whole pile of books to send out in Bookmooch trades; I'll probably spend part of today packing them up.

Next week I'm starting a temporary project at a local archive- I'll be working on organizing some donations for a small internal library. It should be interesting and fun. All the bus rides back and forth will mean lots of reading time!

You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Finds

Three things new to the TBR shelf this week:

I got This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper, in the mail from the author's publicist; I'm about 3/4 of the way through this quick, bittersweet, raunchy beach book and enjoying it thoroughly.

Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture has been on my radar for a while- ever since it was nominated for last year's Booker Prize- but I found a hardcover on the bargain table at one of my haunts this week and picked it up for a song.

The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven, was a surprise from my LibraryThing friend Irene. It's an Israeli novel and I think I'll like it because all but one of the books LT reccomends for readers of this book, are books I've read and enjoyed. But I'll let you know!

Otherwise, this Friday finds me weeding my book collection, putting some things aside for vacation in a couple of weeks, and finding even more books I'd love to read in my local bookstores. You?

You can read more Friday Finds at

Thursday, July 23, 2009

King Rat's Fundraiser

So I just wanted to give a shout-out for fellow blogger Philip Weiss, a.k.a. King Rat at Rat's Reading, who is running a fundraiser for A.L.S. at his personal blog, to raise awareness of Bulbar onset A.L.S.

If you go over there, read about ALS and leave a donation, you can choose a book as a thank-you gift. He's also offering prizes for publicizing the fundraiser, so if the spirit moves, you could also tweet the fundraiser or put a note on your own blog. He's also encouraging folks to participate in the 2009 Walk to Defeat A.L.S.

Booking Through Thursday

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Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date)

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious? Serious.
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers? Paperbacks.
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction? Fiction.
  • Poetry? Or Prose? Prose.
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies? Biographies.
  • History? Or Historical Fiction? Historical fiction
  • Series? Or Stand-alones? Stand-alones.
  • Classics? Or best-sellers? Classics
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose? Straight-forward.
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness? Plots.
  • Long books? Or Short? Long.
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated? Huh?
  • Borrowed? Or Owned? Owned!
  • New? Or Used? New.

(Yes, I know, some of these we’ve touched on before, and some of these we might address in-depth in the future, but for today–just quick answers!)

Read more Booking Through Thursday answers here!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

REVIEW: Rachel Calof's Story, by Rachel Calof

Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains, by Rachel Calof. Published 1995 by Indiana University Press. Nonfiction. Memoir. Translated from the Yiddish by Jacob Calof.

Rachel Calof's Story is a remarkable piece of Jewish-American history. It's the first-person narrative of a Russian Jew who came to the United States for an arranged marriage and ended up moving to North Dakota to homestead with her new husband and family. It's filled to the brim with personal recollections and details of everyday life.

Originally written in Yiddish and translated by Calof's son, the memoir tracks Calof's early life in Russia, her emigration, a brief stay in New York City and travel and life in the Midwest. She was born in 1876, came to America in 1894 and started writing her story in 1936; the book is centered on the time between 1894 and 1904. At barely 100 pages in length, her memoir does not recount the time in detail but nonetheless offers the reader a great deal of information about what it was like to eke out an existence in incredibly challenging conditions- daily life in a one-room house with her husband's family in close quarters, particularly in the wintertime; the early days of marriage and emigrant life; pregnancy and childbirth with little or no medical help; and the challenges of Jewish observance on the frontier.

Upon arrival in North Dakota, young Rachel is overwhelmed:
Dear God, I thought, whatever your reason, haven't I suffered enough in my nineteen years to pay for the rest of my life? The home I had always so desperately sought still eluded me. The people, the overwhelming prairie, America itself, seemed strange and terrible. I had no place to turn...Yet as always, a spark of resistance to my lot and a core of determination remained with me...Thank God. I would have great need of it before long. Time and again my resolve was to be tested to the limit.
She describes indescribable pioneer conditions and shows her resourcefulness in setting up a house, finding food to eat among the region's plants- mushrooms, wild garlic, etc.- and building a relationship with her husband Abraham, a stranger to her when she arrived in New York.

Life darkens when Rachel starts to have children and is left in the care of her mother-in-law, whom she describes as a "religious fanatic" who fills her head with superstitions and fear, the "force" of whose "dark beliefs and suggestions found [her] terribly vulnerable in [her] already-distressed state of mind." Childbirth and childcare present nightmare scenario after nightmare scenario, made all the more challenging by illnesses and injuries to Rachel and her growing brood, as well as basic difficulties in finding enough food to eat and keeping clean under unbearable conditions.

Rachel finds some relief in a nearby friend and some (very) slowly accruing affluence, which allow for more, needed food and even some religious observance- but not enough for her mother-in-law, who finds Rachel's home is impure:
My mother-in-law became increasingly agitated. She insisted that the shochet [butcher responsible for seeing that animals were killed consistent with Jewish dietary laws] had betrayed his office [in allowing Rachel to eat non-kosher meat because she and her child were in mortal need of nourishment]. As for me, she promised that she would not even drink water in my house which would now be considered polluted. What a wonderful bonus. Everything worked out for the best, I thought. I had a delicious thought that maybe now she would refuse to move in with us next winter, and this proved to be the case. It would be an understatement to say that I was pleased.
I like that Rachel shows a little tartness here; having suffered so much at the hands of this woman, her honesty is refreshing and real. Overall I found her to be very likable- tough, smart and determined, but also often realistically sad, angry and full of human feeling. Her account is often graphic and explicit when it comes to bodily functions and the very tough conditions under which she and her family lived- and, ultimately, thrived. But she offers a lot of first-hand information about pioneer life and immigration, and I think anyone interested in these themes in American history, and in the Jewish experience of them in particular, should run out and buy or borrow this amazing little book. I read it in two sittings, including the very illuminating supplemental information about the rest of Rachel's life and Jewish settlements in the Midwest.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

September 14-18, 2009 will mark the second annual celebration of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, a web-wide celebration of book bloggers, books and reading. The official site is here, and it's hosted by My Friend Amy and others.

I will be participating for the first time this year, and so can you. Here's how.
You can also download goodies like logos and graphics and participate in giveaways and contests.

Sounds like fun to me!

Bloggers and Commercialism

MotherReader posted a very informative article on her blog last week on the subject of new regulations that may be coming down the pike from the FTC that would obligate bloggers and other word-of-mouth advertisers to disclose their commercial relationships, i.e. when they are given books for review by publishers/publicists/authors, and what kinds of other commercial relationships they may have related to their blog, for example if the blogger is an Amazon affiliate or will profit from selling something.

First of all, I am an IndieBound affiliate; every review I post has a link to my IndieBound account and theoretically if enough books were sold through it, I would make a percentage. I say theoretically because I don't believe that I ever will! I'm sure I would make more money if I linked to Amazon, but I would rather support independent bookstores, which I believe are the heart and soul of the book business.

I don't always disclose when I'm reading a book that I received in exchange for a review. I do make a habit of acknowledging LibraryThing for Early Reviewer books, and Barnes and Noble for books I receive as part of their First Look program; I also acknowledge Lisa Roe for the books I receive from her Online Publicist business. Otherwise I don't always disclose what I've received gratis versus what I've paid for, and honestly I don't really have a good reason for this decision- it's just a habit I've fallen into.

As a librarian I have access to galleys every now and then, and those are usually not books I'm obligated to review per se, so if I do review them I don't feel compelled to say where I got them. And I would say in those cases, it's nobody's business where I got them. I receive relatively few review offers and accept a small percentage of them, and I rarely request books directly from authors or publishers apart from the above-mentioned commercial sources, so there really isn't much to disclose.

MotherReader asks the question "are we serving less as reviewers and more as an unpaid marketing machine?" I think the answer is "both," with the balance shifting depending on the situation. Book marketers are smart enough to know that they can get some good publicity by working with bloggers, enthusiastic readers who are happy to give of themselves to promote books they love. That's great, but there's something a little out of balance about it too.

Take blog tours. I don't do them anymore because it felt too much like advertising and too little like honest reviewing. I know the blog tour operators and publishing representatives say they want objectivity but when I did blog tours I felt pressured to, at a minimum, provide unrestricted space for the author to promote his or her book, and, at a maximum, take an active role in shilling for the work. I also felt that the work involved for me was more than could be compensated for by a free book. How about a more monetary form of compensation for my work? My time is valuable, and operators get paid to line up authors and organizetours while a small army of bloggers diligently reads, posts, links, interviews, comments and promotes the book- in return for a "free" book. If they're lucky, they might even get the opportunity to do even more work for the operator by running contests or giveaways. There's something wrong with that equation.

Compensation is a thorny issue for bloggers in general, whether it be books or cash, due to the way it may impact objectivity. I can tell you that it doesn't take a check to make someone feel obligated or pressured to deliver a positive review- all it really takes is a flattering offer and a personable, persistant author or publicist. When I started blogging, I wrote a couple of positive-leaning reviews for books I wasn't really crazy about, because I felt like someone was standing over my shoulder. Nowadays when I'm working with someone and I'm not crazy about a book, I'll email them in advance of posting to let them know what to expect, but I don't let myself get intimidated anymore. And that's why, at bottom, I don't feel the need to disclose- because I'm confident about my objectivity and honesty. But if it helps my readers to have more confidence in my reviews, disclosure is a small change I'd be happy to make.

Monday, July 20, 2009

AJL Conference, Part 2

You can read my recap of Part One here.

Day Two of the Association of Jewish Libraries conference started bright and early with a breakfast round-table of job-seekers and those with resources to share, who met to network and exchange resources. You can see a fuller write-up of the breakfast at the AJL09 blog here.

When it came to sessions, the day was (almost) all about childrens' books and services.

I got started with Adventures in Book Reviewing: The Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee Tells All, Parts 1 and 2. Author Richard Michelson and illustrator Raul Colon (author and illustrator respectively of the Sydney Taylor winner As Good As Anybody, about the friendship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) each had time to talk about their book and their lives and experiences.

Following their talk, members of the committee went back and forth discussing their picks in the latest crop of Jewish kids' books. They also did a segment called "Hot-Not" during which one person would say why he or she would recommend a particular book, and then another member would say why he or she would not. It was fascinating to see different perspectives on the same books. The discussions often touched on the eternal question- "is it a Jewish book?" with opinions ranging widely. With the book Boys of Steel, about the (Jewish) creators of Superman, one committee member felt that it was a Jewish book because it was the life story of two American Jews, and part of Jewish-American history; another felt that it was not, because religion was not shown to play a major role in the lives of these particular men. It was an interesting example of the way personal priorities and agendas influence one's definition of "Jewish".

The next section of this session focused on books on the Holocaust, again with a "Hot-Not" angle. Some of the books under discussion included Ann Clare LeZotte's T4 a novel, about a deaf girl and Hitler's campaign to kill people with disabilities, as well as Irene Watts' Goodbye Marianne, a graphic novel, and Betty Joan Stuchner's Honey Cake.

During Part 2 of the session, Brooklyn Bridge author Karen Hesse spoke about her book and the extensive research she did while writing it. Then it was back to the committee and more new books for kids, this time on the topic of Israel. Barbara Sofer's Keeping Israel Safe and Allison Ofanansky's Harvest of Light were among the titles discussed. The committee also discussed new books for teens, including Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman, Nothing, by Robin Friedman and Carol Matas' The Freak.

After lunch, I attended Social Media: How I Learned about Amazing Jewish Books through Social Media, a discussion hosted by librarian and Book of Life podcaster Heidi Estrin (Congregation B'nai Israel, Boca Raton) and Mark Blevis, podcaster at Just One More Book. They talked about blogs, podcasts and other social media outlets and encouraged audience members to learn and get involved.

The final session of the afternoon (and the conference) was professional storyteller Susan Stone's wonderful Storytelling in Jewish Libraries: Sharing the Meises. Stone put on a lively, fascinating show giving audience members really useful hints and tips about how to brighten up our storyhours with acting and enthusiasm. I was so busy paying attention and listening that I didn't take any notes but I hope I will be able to retain enough from this session to help me in my own storytimes. We had to practice telling our own family stories and break down the elements of her storytelling to articulate specific elements so we could bring them into our own work. I'm hoping this session will end up making a big difference for me!

So that's it! It was a great conference- I learned a lot, got to meet new friends and see old friends as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Salon

This Sunday finds me sidelined with a sinus infection and a foot injury- so I think I'll be doing a lot of reading!

I'm about 100 pages shy of finishing Ursula Le Guin's wonderful Lavinia, and I think next up will be Shulamit Lapid's Valley of Strength, about an Israeli kibbutz. I also have some blog posts to work on, about the Association of Jewish Libraries conference, ReaderCon, and more. So I'm going to pull up an ice pack and a box of tissues and settle in for the day.

I picked up another blogging gig for a local synagogue, Boston's Temple Israel, where I'll be blogging their Summer in the City lecture series; you can read the first entry, a lecture by travel writer Steve Jermanok, here. The blog is at

Just for fun, here's a picture of my cat Sasha with a shaved belly. He has a liver infection and went to the vet for an ultrasound earlier this week. They gave him a little air conditioning:
Now he loves to stretch out towards the fan or the breeze with his belly up in the air.
You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

ReaderCon Part One- And A Sad Note

I have a lot to say about ReaderCon but I want to start by noting the passing of Charles N. Brown, the publisher, editor and co-founder of Locus, a prominent magazine in the genre. Brown was also a speaker and moderator on several panels I attended and while I was not familiar with him before this weekend, he struck me as an incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and dignified advocate of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am sure he will be missed. You can read the notice of his passing in Locus here.


This past weekend my husband and I attended ReaderCon, an annual convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy literature. This year was the first time I attended the convention, as I don't really read a lot of genre fiction. It occurred over the same weekend as the annual conference of the American Library Association, and since I was unable to attend ALA I went to ReaderCon as a kind of consolation prize- and because I hoped to learn something new and familiarize myself with current trends in science fiction and fantasy writing.

I attended sessions on Friday only; our schedule did not permit us to attend either Saturday or Sunday. Nevertheless, after 9+ hours of science fiction and fantasy programming, I got some good information- I certainly got pages and pages of notes!


The first session I attended was on psychology and science fiction, a talk by Robin Abrahams, the Boston Globe's "Miss Conduct" advice columnist and author of Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners. (She and I also have a personal connection in that her husband is a client and friend of my husband's, but she and I have not met.) You can also read her blog at The subject of her talk was, broadly speaking, how personality influences what we read and how genre helps us to interpret the stories we read as well as ambiguous events in our own lives. During a study she did for her Ph.D. thesis on personality and literary genre, she discovered two divisions in literature- realism (i.e. books oriented towards real life and ordinary people, such as self-help) and escapism, which she says is defined by the relationship of the book to the reader. If the reader feels he or she is smarter than the book, then the book qualifies as escapist. She broke personality types into five main dimensions and through her research, aligned them with traits and preferred reading:
  • Introverts/Extroverts- Extroverts tend not to like "classic" literature;
  • Neurotics- the least predictive of the personality types, there is no clear correspondence with genre here;
  • Conscientious/dutiful people- Conscientious people gravitate towards mysteries and books with clear good/bad guys, where the good are rewarded and the bad are caught or punished;
  • Agreeable people- Agreeable people gravitate away from horror;
  • People open to experience- People who rate as open to experience tend to gravitate to science fiction and other speculative fictions.
I find this topic extremely interesting and I could probably write a book with my own, rather less scientific, observations and opinions. At the very least the topic merits its own blog post! What do you think of all this? Do you find that people you know fit this model or not? Do you think literary taste is in part a function of personality type?

I certainly fit the model; I'm an introvert and I love the classics. But I also know science fiction fans who are extremely narrow-minded, and sweethearts who relish gory fiction. I'm sure that literary taste is in some way determined or influenced by personality- it only makes sense. What a fascinating subject to think on and study.


I think I'm going to leave off for now. I'll post again in a day or two with more. There's just so much to talk about!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Finds

A good week in books, and I'm already half way through one of the four new books to grace my home this week.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, has been on my radar for a long time and I finally decided to pick it up this week.

The New Weird, an anthology of speculative fiction, and Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia were finds from ReaderCon.

Notes from the Underwire, by Quinn Cummings, came to me via a Twitter friend.

They all look great, and Lavinia is fantastic so far- more on that later! And my first post about ReaderCon will be up on Saturday.

You can read more Friday Finds at

AJL Conference - Part One

This year's conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries was held in sunny Chicago and for me it was three days of fun, sharing, and learning.

Day one was Sunday, when my husband and I arrived. We spent some time walking around the hotel area and hit a local bookstore where we picked up some treasures. I got Victor Erofeyev's Life with an Idiot, a collection of highly metaphorical political short stories, and Yoram Kaniuk's Adam Resurrected, historical fiction about Israel and the Holocaust. Sunday night was the big welcome reception and dinner, at which I connected with my friends and colleagues, made some new friends and settled in with a keynote speech by Northwestern University professor Peter Hayes entitled The Holocaust: Myths and Misconceptions.

Sessions got rolling Monday morning with Good Reads, What's New in Adult Jewish Literature, moderated by librarian Marga Hirsch (Park Avenue Synagogue) with librarian Nancy Rivin (Temple Emanu-El) and Michlean Amir (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). Rivin brought to our attention some recent favorites like People of the Book as well as 2009 titles like
  • The Believers, by Zoe Heller,
  • You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr,
  • America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story, by Bruce Feller,
  • Day After Day, by Anita Diamant,
  • Home Repair, by Liz Rosenberg,
  • Drawing in the Dust, by Zoe Klein, and
  • This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper, which I'll soon be reading courtesy of Penguin Books.
Amir spoke on Hebrew-language books recently translated into English, highlighting the efforts of Toby Press to bring Israeli literature to English-language readers. Some recently translated books she mentioned include
  • To This Day, by S.Y. Agnon,
  • Dearest Anne: A Tale of Impossible Love, by Judith Katzir,
  • Valley of Strength, by Shulamit Lapid, and
  • Laish: A Novel, by Aharon Appelfeld.
Next up was a panel called Writing the Jewish Children's Book, a panel moderated by librarian Norma Newman (Hebrew Academy, Montreal) and including authors Esme Codell, Ilene Cooper, Brenda Ferber and Esther Herschenhorn. The general topic of discussion was the eternal question, what makes a book Jewish. This topic is one that could merit a whole series of articles or discussions, but the consensus seemed to be, from this group of authors whose work ranges from explicitly Jewish to solidly secular, that a book is Jewish because, to paraphrase one author, I am Jewish and the books are a part of me. Well said.

After lunch, librarian Lisa Silverman (Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, Los Angeles) gave a talk on Teaching the Holocaust Through Picture Books. I found her talk extremely illuminating and useful- probably the best hour and change I spent at the conference. She gave a very hands-on, detailed breakdown of different kinds of Holocaust books for kids, and how (or if) to use them with different age groups, as well as some great practical suggestions on programming and how to bring books into the classroom. I appreciated that she discussed questionable or hard-to-use books as well as favorites; a few of the books she mentioned were new to me but most I've read over the course of my time in a synagogue library. It's just as important to highlight what not to do sometimes when working with a difficult and emotionally volatile subject.

The final program of the day I attended was Synagogues and Centers Roundtable, moderated by librarian Eileen Polk (Prentis Memorial Library of Temple Beth El). Here we synagogue librarians gathered to discuss various issues affecting us, including fundraising, book clubs, book sales, economic difficulties, building relationships with clergy and different programs and ideas that people had for building interest and momentum for our libraries.

With no official functions to attend Monday night, my husband and I headed out for some deep-dish pizza and more bookshopping. What else is a librarian to do?

You can read Part Two here!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

btt button

Follow-up to last week’s question:

Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

Most of my most recent TBRs are on the shelves pictured above, in the den (minus those nearby on the floor), although there are still four other shelves of TBRs in a larger bookcase in the living room! There are also several volumes scattered among the books I've already read; one of these days I'm going to have to admit I'll probably never read 90% of these and get rid of them- because more keep coming in!

You can read more Booking Through Thursday posts here

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

REVIEW: American Eve, by Paula Uruburu

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu. published 2008 by Penguin. Nonfiction. Biogrpahy.

American Eve, Paula Uruburu's retelling of the murder of famed architect and high-society flaneur Stanford White, should more properly be titled Evelyn Nesbit: Stuck Between a Pedophile and Madman because at the end of the day it's a sad tale of a young girl pushed into a career known to be a way-station for prostitution, used a pawn in a one-sided grudge match, married off to a psychotic and scapegoated for murder.

Evelyn Nesbit was a small-town girl from a poor family who possessed uncommon beauty. She was pressured as a young teenager to provide for her impecunious family through modeling, first for paintings and drawings and later for photographs- advertisements, postcards, etc. Soon she attracted the attention of Stanford White, a glamorous figure of turn-of-the-century New York. They become lovers under the neglectful eye of her mother. Her relationship with White drew the eye of one Harry Thaw, scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family and documented psychotic and sadist. (I use the term "psychotic" as an informal descriptor, not as a term of medical diagnosis- but I'll leave you to judge.) Thaw was obsessed with White and seemed to have fixated on Nesbit as a means of venting his anger towards White. Thaw eventually murdered White (no spoiler here- the murder is referred to in the book's title, after all), with Nesbit shouldering much of the blame in the media and popular imagination. It all adds up to a near-irresistible tale of lust, beauty, taboo, and murder.

I wish the book itself were as much fun.

I'll give it this- American Eve is definitely a page-turner. If nothing else, I wanted to see what happened to Nesbit- how she was drawn into a relationship with White, how and why she married Thaw, and what happened to her after the trial, and Uruburu provides satisfactory answers to at least the first two questions. The main difficulty I had with the book was with the writing. There is a lot of repetition- I lost count of the number of times Uruburu refers to White's lecherousness, or Nesbit's beauty, or Thaw's various peccadilloes. At a certain point I wanted to say, Okay, I get it- she's pretty- enough already! I also found her overly salacious tone tiresome and dull, as well as her habit of indulging in speculation. About her wedding to Thaw, Uruburu writes,
The reason for the choice of costume, Evelyn explained to reporters later on, was that she and Harry had to leave immediately for their honeymoon, so it was more sensible for her to wear the traveling outfit. But perhaps she was already in mourning for the life she had to deny ever existed. Or perhaps Harry had instructed her to wear black as a rueful reminder that he was willing to take her as his bride even though Stanny [Stanford White] had taken her first. Whatever the reason, if one were superstitious, it seemed more an unhappy omen than a practicality.
She later describes Thaw as a "demented avenging angel of death in his black coat and broken white halo of a hat," and Nesbit as a "sacrificial lamb chop." The stereotypes even extend to anonymous crowds speaking in what Uruburu describes as an "Irish whisper". Is the ethnic slur really necessary?

Uruburu seems to want to tell Nesbit's story from her own point of view, and in that she succeeds. She portrays Nesbit in a very positive light throughout as an innocent victim of two men who knew no boundaries with respect to their own behavior or their treatment of her, and she argues for the most flattering (to Nesbit) interpretation of events in every case. She relies heavily on Nesbit's published memoirs for much of her documentation (and extensive quoting), which leads me to wonder how deeply Uruburu questioned what might be self-serving or biased in Nesbit's memoirs. Uruburu also whitewashes certain aspects of Nesbit's biography, such as her two pregnancies by Jack Barrymore and the true parentage of her son Russell.

I think what Uruburu wants to do, in addition to giving Nesbit a voice, is to write an entertaining social history about a particularly juicy and tragic true story. Full to the brim with sex, money, class, gender and the early days of glamour and celebrity, American Eve would be a fine book for someone looking for a light beach read of social history of early 20th century New York- with the emphasis on light. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, but not much more than that.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Chers amis francophiles (et vous savez qui vous êtes), today is the French national holiday, Bastille Day, celebrated every July 14 to commemorate the storming of the notorious French prison during the French Revolution. It's therefore the perfect day to share some of my favorite French reads, old and new.

Just about my favorite classic French novel is Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses- what better portrait of pre-Revolutionary upper class decadence is there than this delicious tale of love, lust and ambition among the aristocracy?

If you've seen the wonderful film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, you have some idea of the wonderful treat you're in for here.

I first read it in French in college and found this epistolary novel eminently readable and superbly enjoyable.

The best and richest period of French literature, though, has to be the nineteenth century. Classic authors like Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert are can't-go-wrong favorites; if you like Dickens or Trollope you'll be very comfortable.

For poetry, you might try 20th century masters like Jacques Prévert and Paul Éluard; my favorite volumes of French poetry are Prévert's Paroles and Éluard's Capitale de la douleur; they're very different in style but each wonderful in its own way.

I love Prévert for his rhymes and lyricism, and Éluard for his verbal elasticity and skill with modernistic verse. I can spend hours reading either book.

Prévert was also the screenwriter for the wonderful movie Les Enfants du Paradis, (Children of Paradise) about a 19th century troupe of theatrical performers. The movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France under very difficult conditions, and the screenplay is full of double meanings and coded politics- besides being an incredibly heartbreaking love story and beautiful portrait of a lost world.

Moving on to contemporary literature and another heartbreaking love story, I can't say enough good things about Sebastien Japrisot's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) about a young woman who simply will not accept that her lover has been killed in the bloodbath of World War 1. Full of twists and turns and told from the point of view of one very scrappy and determined woman, it's a page-turner with characters you'll remember for a long time.

Lovers of French literary fiction will want to pay attention to the Prix Goncourt, celebrating the best in French novels every year. A recent nominee was Phillippe Grimbert's unforgettable Memory, about secrets from the Holocaust.

Another recent prizewinner in the world of French letters was J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Wandering Star is one of his recent novels.

In the world of graphic novels, French artist and writer Joan Sfar has made a splash with his delightful The Rabbi's Cat series. Not for children, these books follow the adventures of a talking cat and his rabbi owner in Algeria and then, in volume 2, all over Africa. He also wrote and illustrated a children's graphic novel, Little Vampire, which is delightful.

Lucy Knisley's French Milk is a light little romp through Paris, a graphic memoir peppered with photos of the City of Light.
But just about my favorite book of drawings of Paris comes from artist Jean-Jacques Sempé. His sketchbook A Little Bit of Paris is just a feast for the eyes.

For nonfiction, the following are some of my favorites:

Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, a very accessible and sympathetic portrait of the doomed queen;

Otto Friedrich's history Olympia: Paris in the Age of Monet, a great history for those interested in the art and social history of the 19th century. Olympia is actually one of my all-time favorite books about France- full of wonderful detail and insight into the trends, fashions and culture of that most formative period of French history.

Bernard Clayton Jr.'s out of print cookbook The Breads of France and How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen is both a treasure trove of recipes and a tour of every region and province of the country- a cultural as well as a gastronomic gem.

Finally, Jean-Benoit Nadeau's The Story of French is an entertaining and readable account of the history of the French language- its origins, its influences and its future.

Can you tell I love the subject? I could go on and on. Happy Bastille Day, and Vive la France!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Salon - Time to Rest

A new day, a new week.

This past week has been long! I went to Chicago for a four-day whirlwind to attend the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries. Aimed at Judaica librarians, it was a great event and I'm glad I got to go. I have loads of notes and things to tell you about in the coming days; the conference gave me a lot to think about and of course I want your thoughts on everything. I attended lots of sessions on children's literature because children's services represents a huge component of my job, but there were also sessions on adult books, social media and other topics.

Then, later this week I went to ReaderCon, a science fiction literature convention aimed at readers and writers. This one was thankfully closer to home, in Burlington, Massachusetts- a twenty minute car ride as opposed to a day of air travel! I'm not a big science fiction reader but my husband is, and I thought I would have the opportunity to learn something new. Besides, unable as I am to attend the American Library Association's conference this year, ReaderCon served as a consolation prize. I'll be writing about that soon as well.

Finally, those of you who saw my Meme-holic post earlier this week know to expect some changes around here- i.e., many fewer memes. My mid-year resolution is to make a greater effort to write more original posts and fewer meme posts, as I've been thinking the memes have been getting out of hand lately. The conferences should give me a good start on that!

I also owe the AJL a post to their conference blog about an event I helped orchestrate at the conference- a round table discussion for job-seekers and those concerned about the state of the economy and how it's affecting libraries and librarians. I created a wiki for folks to use, which I need to update as well.

In the mean time, my big plan for today is to slump on a couch rather than stuff myself into a conference chair! It will be a nice change!

You can read more Sunday Salon posts here.

A quick note- fans of the film and/or book Julie and Julia might like to know that Susan at Susan's Literary Cafe is doing a giveaway of the book. You can enter here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Finds

I may have been busy at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference this week, but that didn't stop me from adding to my bookpile!

While I was in Chicago, I managed to hit a couple of bookstores in between sessions. Powell's, a three-store chain which I believe is not related to the famous Portland, Oregon, store, had a basement stocked with remainders; there I picked up Yoram Kaniuk's Adam Resurrected and Victor Erofeyev's Life with an Idiot.

I got T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville at Borders in downtown Chicago. I've always wanted to read this so I'm excited to have picked it up. It seems like most bookstores only stock Boyle's latest book and I've had a hard time finding it.

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier's classic, came via Bookmooch. I'm looking forward to this one too.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven, was an unsolicited mailing from Penguin. Looks neat.

Finally, an ARC of Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars came to me from... someone. This is a complete mystery to me. I've wanted to read this book since came out in February but I didn't order it and since it came from a bookseller rather than a publisher, I'm a bit confused. I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth though- so, if you sent me this, THANK YOU. I would love it if you would email me and tell me who you are so I can thank you properly.

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