Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays to all

It’s Merry Chaos here in Princeton. In a pleasant role reversal, the children are quietly entertaining themselves with newfound Christmas booty, while the adults are indulging in much deserved champagne, caviar, and foie gras de canard (from the Gascony Mothership, no less) while the turkey cooks.

No matter where you are and what you believe, I hope that your day is filled with peace and glad tidings!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

mission accomplished

I’m pleased to report that I have just set a PR for number of books read in a year. I just finished reading Calvin Trillin’s Feeding a Yen, a thoroughly awesome book, bringing the tally to fifty books read this year. Even when I was a publisher’s rep, getting paid to read, I only managed to read, cover to cover, around thirty-five books annually. Oh, I read a lot then, especially for the job, but I tended to read only the first fifty pages of a given book, thus ruining my average.

This is an exciting goal to reach!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

first lines meme

I like a trip down memory lane as much as the next person. And, since I've been uninspired to write much of anything—outside of work, that is—this seems like a fine time to hop on this first line meme. Here is the first line from the first post of the month for each month this past year.

January: Way back in April, as I was looking through the Coming Soon literature "aisle" at Powells.com, I made a note that Julia Glass had written a new book, The Whole World Over.

February: Before Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Chapel Hill last May, a number of friends expressed interest in it.

March:Granta has just announced their second-ever list of best American writers under 35.

I’m a sucker for first novels and for novels set in exotic locations.

May: This is my first post for the month of May, which was a somewhat cruel month for reading and writing—just not enough time.

June: zilch

The highly anticipated, final installment of Harry Potter is very close to its official on-sale date.
The Man Booker Prize long list has been announced.

Last October, I posted a list of 39 books I would endeavor to read beginning on my 39th birthday.

Admit it.

I’m the kind of geek who gets super excited when book group rolls around every six weeks or so.

I like a trip down memory lane as much as the next person.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

notable books of 2007

When the New York Times announces their annual notable books list, my list of books TBR increases exponentially. Publishers place almost as much stock in this accolade as they do some awards. Being included on the notable books list can make a title more marketable to bookstores and readers when it’s released in paperback.

Of those books chosen for 2007, I have read only two: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling) and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon). What Is the What (Dave Eggers) is my book group’s January selection, and I look forward to reading it soon.

The following will go on my list, ensuring an immediate detour from the 40 for 40 plan:

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo) In his first novel since Empire Falls, Russo writes of a small town in New York riven by class differences and racial hatred.

The Indian Clerk (David Leavitt) Leavitt explores the intricate relationship between the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy and a poor, self-taught genius from Madras, stranded in England during World War I.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Vendela Vida) A young woman searches for the truth about her parentage amid the snow and ice of Lapland in this bleakly comic yet sad tale of a child’s futile struggle to be loved.

The Maytrees (Annie Dillard) A married couple find their way back to each other under unusual circumstances.

The Ministry of Special Cases (Nathan Englander) A Jewish family is caught up in Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano) A craftily autobiographical novel about a band of literary guerrillas.

Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris) Layoff notices fly in Ferris’s acidly funny first novel, set in a white-collar office in the wake of the dot-com debacle.

Tree of Smoke (Denis Johnson) The author of Jesus’ Son offers a soulful novel about the travails of a large cast of characters during the Vietnam War.

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (Rosemary Mahoney) Mahoney juxtaposes her solo rowing journey with encounters with the Egyptians she met.

Edith Wharton
(Hermione Lee) The meticulous biography shows Wharton’s significance as a designer, decorator, gardener, and traveler, as well as a writer.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Tim Weiner) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for the New York Times.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (David Michaelis) Actual “Peanuts” cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man.

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter (Phoebe Damrosch) A memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

two short books

I have recently devoured two short books—one a novella and the other a travel essay.

A few weeks ago, my friend Krista kindly sent me a book care package. One of the books was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, which I had a week or so before it arrived, put on my reading list. Kismet. The premise of the book involves Queen Elizabeth, who was minding her own business walking her corgis one day, stumbles upon a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. She chats up the librarian, checks out a book, and becomes a reader.

I did a lot of head nodding over bits like this:
To begin with, it's true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time.

There are great passages about the queen's distressed staff that can't go about their business because of her new habit, such as when she begins to ask of commoners in receiving lines and heads of state at dinners: What are you reading?

It's a deliciously subversive and humorous book that I look forward to reading again.

In early October, John and I visited Napa Valley. Just outside of Calistoga, we took a hike up Mount St. Helena, following the Monument Trail. When we hit the monument, roughly at this spot pictured above, we learned that Robert Louis Stevenson, yes, the author of Treasure Island, lived in a cabin. He and "his bride" (according to the inscription on the monument, a book on a pedestal that was carved out of red granite) spent their honeymoon here, and during that time, RLS wrote vignettes that would become the travel essay, Silverado Squatters.

It's not unusual for me to read books set in my travel destination—before, during and after my trip. But, it has been a long time since I've read something so site specific about such a random place (actually, it's been twenty years since I read Dracula after visiting Whitby Abbey). From the first sentence, I was transported back to that mountain and to Napa Valley, where wine was already being made. RLS writes about the state of wine:
The inconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more…Chateau Neuf is dead, and I have never tasted it… A nice point in human history falls to be decided by Californian and Australian wines.
I wonder if Stevenson would be amused to learn that French vineyards recovered from phylloxera by grafting disease-resistant California vines, which allowed French wines to remain dominant until the 1976 when California wines beat Bordeauxs. Or that Australian wines didn't gain respect in this country until the 1990s.

As John and I stood on the site of the abandoned silver miner's cabin, we marveled at the remote location and wondered where the couple got water, as surely the cabin had no plumbing. It certainly was gratifying to find the answer in Silverado Squatters—RLS drilled a hole in the rock to capture run-off.

Here is a serene view of Napa from the trail leading to the monument:

Hard to find in book form, UC-Berkeley graciously offers the entire text online.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

weekend double-header

This past weekend, I had the supreme pleasure of visiting a bookstore and the library so as to gorge myself on books. Honestly, I don’t know if or when I will read all these books, but I have good intentions to read quickly.

On Saturday, John and I took the little boys to Uncle Edgar/Uncle Hugo, a joint mystery and science fiction bookstore on Chicago in Minneapolis. This place has stood the test of time with nary a facelift or tidying up. It’s sort of stunning the number of books this store packs in. In addition to the shelves that line the walls and a host of freestanding bookcases in the middle of the mystery side, piles of books form labyrinth throughout the space. The amazing thing is that buyer Jeff Hatfield knows where every single book in the store is and when they were published and by which publisher, as well as which books are available used. He and owner Don Blyly are easily among the most knowledgeable and passionate booksellers I have ever met.

I picked up the first, self-titled Modesty Blaise mystery by Peter O’Donnell and Bagman, Jay MacLarty’s follow up to The Courier, which I plan to read aloud to handsome husband on our eight-hour drive later this week. John selected a few medieval mysteries, and we found a junior mystery with a strong adventure component for eight-year-old, a budding reader.

On Sunday, John and I took the little boys to the library, where I had a book on hold (Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, his second book this year—how does he do it?). Even though I’m reading three books at the moment, a trip to the library isn’t complete without checking out a tall pile. It’s good to have choices. I found Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon (on the Conversation with Books list for January), Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (a debut novel that received glowing reviews this summer), Not a Girl Detective by Susan Kandel (a fun mystery with an amateur sleuth that riffs on Nancy Drew), and Italian Two Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, a cookbook by the owners of London River Café.

Where to start?

National Book Awards

The winners of the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. Of all the literary awards (Nobel, Booker, Whitbread, Giller Prize, IMPAC, Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle), the NBA is my favorite, as the nominees most closely match the sort of books I like to read—solidly literary but not esoteric or punishingly difficult or pretentious.
Each year, I try to read at least one of the
nominees from the fiction list, and this year I had already read the Mischa Berlinski, as well as the Sherman Alexie. I’m thrilled about Sherman Alexie winning in the Young Readers category. He really deserves the accolade. Denis Johnson’s book interests me, too.

But, mostly I'm wild about Joan Didion's lifetime achievement award. This year I was blown away by a novel she wrote in 1970—Play It As It Lays—and her more recent memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. She's brilliant, and I look forward to reading more.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Group: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I’m the kind of geek who gets super excited when book group rolls around every six weeks or so. My book group is comprised of fun, smart people, each of whom shares a love of reading, books, and food. It really doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

We all met working in the same industry—publishing. we constitute former and current publisher’s reps, book buyers, and booksellers. Talk always turns to which books—aside from that evening’s title—we’re reading. Out of necessity or preference, most of us have multiple books going at once.

Usually, we each take turns hosting in our homes, but occasionally, for variety, we like to meet at restaurants. Food is a pretty important element of our gatherings. Everyone makes and serves great food. One of our members, Amy, resigned her position at the biggest U.S. publisher to launch an upscale catering company. Almost instantly successful and overbooked, she spoils us rotten with her wonderful food, even when it’s not her turn to host the group.

Last night the group met at Grand Café* to discuss Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Many of my friends have been pressing Alexie’s books on me for years, but this is the first one I have read. I loved it, and I’m kicking myself (with apologies to Caryl) for missing him at his recent Talking Volumes event.

This young adult novel chronicles the teenage journey of Arnold Spirit—known to his family and friends as Junior—as he leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend school 22 miles away, in a white, farming community. Arnold, hydrocephalic at birth, is "poorer than dirt poor."
His life is beset by tragedies—many of them the result of alcoholism on the reservation—and the travails of being a teenager, attempting to navigate the world. Arnold's world happens to straddle two cultures.

A teacher, who sees great potential in Arnold, encourages him to attend school off the reservation. When he asks his parents’ permission to attend Rearden High, they say yes without missing a beat. While Arnold's parents support his decision, everyone else views him as a traitor (he's called an "apple," red on the outside, white on the inside). At Rearden, he befriends bookish Gordy, holds hands and attends a dance with Penelope, and plays on the basketball team.

Lest that sound too ideal, the story is peppered with the death and drinking that are a part of Arnold's reservation life. Arnold's self-imposed therapy is drawing cartoons (comic drawing supplied by the talented Ellen Forney), which is where he works out his anger, frustration, and sadness, but also where he can celebrate occasional triumphs.

I was really blown away by the power of Sherman Alexie's masterful writing. The San Francisco Chronicle agrees: "Alexie doesn't break character to educate uninitiated readers about the realities of American Indian life." So does the National Book foundation as this book has been nominated for an award in the young people's literature category.

This is a really moving story—at turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking—and, ultimately, uplifting because Arnold takes a chance and doesn't look back.

*A few words about the restaurant. Located in south Minneapolis, Grand Café resides in a beautiful, quiet space with whitewashed walls and hardwood floors, yet nothing coming out of the kitchen is understated. Wafer-thin cracker bread virtually melts in your mouth and serves as a pleasant alternative to the bread basket. I’ve eaten here a number of times (its previous carnation—Bakery on Grand—was a favorite for a while) and have always felt that the food had yet to reach its potential. Well, I think it’s getting very close. I’ll be thinking about the artichoke-romesco spread, as well as the butterscotch custard and the chocolate flourless cake with blackberries and crème anglaise, for some time to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

book meme—my first

This easy, short meme looked like just the thing to reinvigorate posting on this blog!

Take the nearest book next to you and answer the following questions:

Title and Author:
The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson

Is the book dedicated to anyone? If so, whom?
To Virgil Williams and Dora Norton Williams (these sketches are affectionately dedicated by their friend, the author)

What is the first sentence?
“The scene of this little book is on a high mountain.”

Turn to page 47. Please share the first sentence of the first full paragraph.
“There was no stove, of course, and no hearth in our lodging, so we betook ourselves to the blacksmith’s forge across the platform.”

Join in if you want! (via Verbatim)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

40 for 40

Because I cannot resist making lists, here’s another for a new Reading Year.

1. What Is the What (Dave Eggers)
earlier this year, reviewers called this book important; my friend Suzanne highly recommended it
2. Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)
Neal Stephenson is a genius, and it's time to read a really long book
3. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
L’Engle has been on my mind since her recent death
4. Cliffs of Fall (Shirley Hazzard)
found a remainder of this story collection, which looks more approachable than The Great Fire
5. Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
sequel, which I’d like to read, was just released
6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
friend Caryl recommended it, and I've been impressed by strong reviews
7. Suite Francaise (Irene Nemirovsky)
a 2007 Conversation with Books selection, friend Caryl recommended it
8. Suffer the Little Children (Donna Leon)
a 2008 Conversation with Books selection
9. Summer (Edith Wharton)
Another 2008 Conversation with Books selection
10. The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
Spain, bull-fighting, 20th anniversary of when I first read Hemingway
11. Taxonomy of Barnacles (Galt Niederhofer)
Great review in the New York Times last year, shelf-sitter
12. Appointment in Samarra (John O’Hara)
moody and atmospheric, 1950s manners and morals
13. On Beauty (Zadie Smith)
strong reviews, shelf-sitter
14. New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)
trying to satisfy an Auster craving with these classics
15. The Wicked Position (Dawn Powell)
shelf-sitter; purchased almost ten years ago at Prairie Lights in Iowa City
16. Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)
classic espionage
17. Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
class 1950s ennui
18. Murder in the Marais (Cara Black)
gritty mystery in wonderful Parisian setting
19. Architecture of Happiness (Alain de Botton)
architecture; popular writing to inspire my profession life
20. Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh)
a favorite author; about the Mitfords
21. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (Vincent Lam)
linked stories about medical students and doctors , read a strong review recently
22. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (Barbara Kingsolver)
beyond eating locally and seasonally, this is Kingsolver’s account of growing her own food
23. Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
I don’t know anyone who hasn't loved this
24. Where I Came From (Joan Didion)
Didion nonfiction, California setting
25. The Last Thing He Wanted (Joan Didion)
Didion was my discovery author for ’07; picked this up at City Lights recently
26. Man Who Walked Through Time (Colin Fletcher)
classic walking book
27. In Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin)
Argentina, classic travel essay
28. Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
for "family book group"—my dad and sister will read too
29. Fried Eggs with Chopsticks (Polly Evans)
enjoyed It’s Not About the Tapas and would like to read more Polly Evans
30. Four Seasons in Five Senses (David Mas Masumoto)
my sis gave this to me last year for my birthday, food and nature
31. Every Eve (Isobel English)
a lost classic published by Persephone, a gift from a friend
32. The Silverado Squatters (Robert Louis Stevenson)
1880s Napa lifestyle, inspired by recent trip to Northern California
33. Big House (George Howe Colt)
sustaining my interest in architecture
34. Judgment of Paris (George Taber)
recent trip to Napa and continuing wine education inspire me
35. Kingdom by the Sea (Paul Theroux)
Theroux is a favorite and we’re going to England, summer ‘08
36. When French Women Cook (Madeleine Kammen)
culinary essay
37. Collected Stories of Carol Shields
short stories and an opportunity to read Shields
38. Adventures in the Rocky Mountains (Isabella Bird)
delightfully packaged travel essay in a new Penguin series
39. A Romantic Education (Patricia Hampl)
shelf-sitter, which I last tried to read in 1999; George Janecky loved this
40. A Time of Gift (Patrick Leigh Fermor)
another classic walking book

The list reflects some of my current interests—reading books set in Napa Valley and books about walking, architecture, and travel. Here is a short list of books that didn't make the main list but that might make guest appearances:

The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), read enticing flap copy recently
Stet (Diana Athill), a recent purchase
A Year in the World (Frances Mayes) a 39 for 39 leftover
Poet of the Appetites (Joan Reardon), a 39 for 39 leftover
something by MFK Fisher, a 39 for 39 leftover
The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke), a 39 for 39 leftover
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh), a 39 for 39 leftover
Gone-Away Lake (Elizabeth Enright), missed this one when I was a kid
The All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor), loved this series, would be reading now with daughters
Jane Austen Book Club (Karen Joy Fowler), a 39 for 39 leftover, want to read before I see the movie
Feeding a Yen (Calvin Trillin), a 39 for 39 leftover
White Ghost Girls (Alice Greenway), a 39 for 39 leftover
Liquor (Poppy Z. Brite), NOLA
New Orleans Noir, anthology, NOLA
House of Blues (Julie Smith), NOLA mystery
Best American Travel Writing 2007, anthology
Death by Pad Thai, anthology compiled and edited by Douglas Bauer
Granta's Best of Young American Novelists 2, anthology with some of my favorite writers
Bacchus and Me (Jay McInerney), wine writing

booker prize winner!

Outsider beats favorites to scoop prize for tale of dysfunctional family life set in IrelandAnne Enright's The Gathering is the 2007 Booker Prize winner

Thursday, October 11, 2007

fall=literary-awards season

The fall is a great time to be a reader, for so many reasons. Not only do you have all the heaviest-hitting, highest-quality books being released in time for the holidays, but you also have the announcement of major literary awards. This week alone has yielded a bounty.

The National Book Award finalists were announced. Hands down, the NBA is my favorite literary award. It represents the best American literature. As with many awards, it is not without its faults, but year after year, the nominees are the sort of books I want to read. And unlike the Booker Prize (present list excepted), you've likely heard of at least a few NBA finalists.

From this year's fiction group, I have read Mischa Berlinksi's Fieldwork. My book group is about to read the Sherman Alexie, which is on the children's list. In between, I have designs on the Joshua Ferris and Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great.

Also this week, the Nobel Prize for Literature was bestowed upon Doris Lessing, an author I have had good intentions to read for over twenty years.

The National Book Award will be announced on November 14, at which time Michael Cunningham will also present the foundation's lifetime achievement award to Joan Didion, who so deserves it! This is a great time to discover Didion if you've never read her. If you have read her bestselling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, do yourself a favor and dip into her earlier fiction (such as Play It Where It Lays) or reportage (such as the essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem).

The Booker Prize winner will be announced next week, on October 16. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

chelsea cain blogging at powells.com

Chelsea Cain is this week's guest blogger at Powells.com.

Go check out her posts—she's very funny, and you're in for a treat!

Monday, October 01, 2007

september round-up

Admit it. You thought the reason I haven't posted for eons was becuase I was so busy reading books that couldn't possibly have any time to blog. How I wish that were true.

The first month of school has proved to be brutal. And, no, I'm not in school. My awesome sons—ages 5 and 7—are both school-agers. The school year has historically been my favorite time of year. Perhaps I've mentioned before that I was one of those geeky kids who preferred school to either weekends or summer, both of which made me feel at loose ends.

Even though I finished my formal education nearly twenty years ago, I still prefer the school year. I like our routine, which begins early with school start times and ends with the boys' bedtime and is interspersed with little pockets of time when I might dip into a book. Au contraire.

I’m more likely these days to fall asleep reading, to work through my lunch break—which is a great reading opportunity—or to be interrupted by my (sweet but demanding) little family. I harbor deep fantasies of reading unimpeded for an hour, knocking off a chapter or more.

Even though I failed to finish a single book during the month of September, I am diligently working my way through four books:

Mommy Tracked by Whitney Gaskell
A refreshing, lighthearted novel about four friends who happen also to be mommies. Situations—bleak and humorous, alike—hit close to home.

French Fried by Nancy Fairbanks
The second book in this culinary mystery series I have read. I like the protagonist, the attention to food, and the setting, which is Lyons, where I spent ten delightful days in 1998.

Sweet Revenge by Diane Mott Davidson
I’ve read every book in this mystery series featuring caterer Goldy Bear. Again, I read the series for the highly likable protagonist, the attention to food and the setting, a fictitious mountain town in Colorado.

United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Michael Ruhlman—a god among nonfiction writers—gave this a nod on his blog. Ruhlman claims he read it on a flight. I also started the book on a flight, with small children, and managed 20 pages. It’s a sweeping history of the American food revolution, and it’s easily consumed.

On my radar
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (a children's novel by Adrienne Kress)
Not that You Asked (a collection of off-beat essays by ever-humorous Steve Almond)
A Wrinkle in Time (a classic children's novel by Madeleine L’Engle, recently deceased)
Bridge of Sighs (a new novel by a favorite writer, Richard Russo)

Friday, September 21, 2007

drawing to a close

Last October, I posted a list of 39 books I would endeavor to read beginning on my 39th birthday. As I’m nearing my (gulp) 40th birthday, I thought I’d evaluate the project.

How did I do? I read ten books, almost a quarter of the list! As I mentioned in the post that introduced the project, I’ve never been able to follow a reading list. Also, when it comes to books, I’m easily distracted by word of mouth, reviews, and other reading opportunities that pop up when I least expect it. Which is all to say that I'm pretty pleased with a 25% "sell-through" rate.

Here are the books I finished (each one is linked, at right, to Powell's):

Memento Mori (Muriel Spark), a 2006 discovery
The Big Oyster (Mark Kurlansky), delicious micro history about Manhattan and oysters
The Keep (Jennifer Egan), fall ’06 new release from a favorite author
Heat (Bill Buford), summer ’06 hardcover purchase
Play It As It Lays (Joan Didion), shelf-sitter and 2007 discovery
Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon), spring ’07 Talking Volumes selection
The Whole World Over (Julia Glass), 2007 Conversation with Books selection
The Places in Between (Rory Stewart), best NYTBR review I read in ‘06
Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier), word of mouth made me read it
Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon), another shelf-sitter

Can I cram in a few books over the next few weeks? Doubtful. I’m currently reading four books, one of which is due back to the library soon. The others I’d like to wrap up before my vacation so that I may start new books. I have yet to start the next book group selection and my book group meets next week. There is a remote possibility that I will finish
Pride and Prejudice, which I’m listening to on my commute, but I don't want the story to end.

As the Reading Year draws to a close, I somewhat regret not getting to M.F.K. Fisher or Carol Shields, yet again. But, there's always another list.

Over the next week, I’ll compose my 40 at 40 list. I have already started culling the random titles I’m known to jot down on scraps of paper. I have the 2008 Conversation with Books list in hand, and I'm contemplating an Internet reading challenge or two. I'm open to recommendations, so feel free to leave them in comments.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"under the radar" books

Nancy Pearl delivers another armload of "under the radar" books.

My reading list grows exponentially.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reading week of August 13

I've been working on the same three books for a few weeks now, which is totally wrecking havoc on my goal of finishing twenty books this summer.

HP and the Deathly Hallows—I'm reading this aloud to John, which is a considerably slower way to read a book. It also ensures that I can get him to look up characters and terms online when we stumble upon one we can't remember.

~Angelica by Arthur Phillips—My book group will be discussing this coming Thursday, and as I'm at the half-way point, I need to motor. However, I am getting a boost from the unabridged audio during drive-time. Much to my surprise, I am enjoying this Victorian ghost story and look forward to the discussion. I'm also thinking about adding Wilkie Collins (Woman in White, Moonstone) to my reading list.

~The Places in Between by Rory Stewart—This fantastic travel essay is lunch-break reading, and I'm enjoying it so much that I don't want it to end. Stewart writes about his walk across Afghanistan, just after the Taliban has fallen in 2002. The walk is part of a larger walk the author has taken across Central Asia. I appreciate travel essays that are insightfully written by keen observers. Stewart supercedes most in the genre as he scrupulously records details about history, politics, religion, geography, topgraphy, culture, and more. My interest in reading classic walking/travel essays is piqued, and I've just added Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin, and Colin Fletcher to my burgeoning TBR list.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Booker long list announced

The Man Booker Prize long list has been announced. I am familiar with exactly one of these books (the McEwan), but haven't read it, which is not all that surprising since only two of them have been released in the States.

The Booker Prize website received a face lift to coincide with this year's announcement. The prize's chair has a bit of fun writing a blog that is worth checking out. The shortlist will be announced in September, just in time for finalists to make my 40 at 40 reading list.

Friday, July 20, 2007

T minus five hours—and counting

The highly anticipated, final installment of Harry Potter is very close to its official on-sale date. I'm pretty excited and relieved. For the better part of three months, I have been assiduously avoiding all press releases, websites, blogs, articles, and general speculation about the book. My hope is that I can keep my imagination keen from the very first word, sentence, chapter. And, it hasn't been easy.

An internet retailer messed up their shipping schedule so that customers who pre-ordered the book have already received it. Someone has already photographed each page and posted the photos online, including the conclusion. Some other person has attempted to sell their illegally obtained copy on eBay. In a pretty dumb publicity stunt, a KS95 DJ claimed he would read the final chapter on air, which he did albeit silently. And, Kakutani has already reviewed HP7 for the NYT—bad girl.

Mr. Bibliotonic and I have attended midnight parties for each of the last three books and were set to go to one tonight. However, Mr B. is on vacation. I thought about going with the kids, but I'm very apprehensive about keeping the little Bibliotonics awake long enough to attend a party, then wrangling overtired kids, who are too young to care yet. Instead, my friend Caryl is going to meet me tomorrow morning at The Red Balloon, our local children's bookstore, which is opening its doors at 7:21. I've already pre-purchased my book so really I could pick it up any time, but I'd like to catch a little bit of the buzz.

I. Can't. Wait.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May recap

This is my first post for the month of May, which was a somewhat cruel month for reading and writing—just not enough time. It took me nearly a month to complete a 300-page mass market mystery. So I thought I'd touch base here and resolve, again, to get into a better writing groove.

Leading into May, I traveled to New Orleans on the last weekend of April to meet my friend (and former Holtzbrinck co-worker) Krista for Jazz Fest. A few notable items about the trip:

1. reading for hours, uninterrupted by the needs of children, on the plane (Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead, which I highly recommend)

2. listening to hours of incredible music at The Fest—Dr. John, Charmaine Neville (sparkling), Trombone Shorty (brass-tastic), Bonnie Raitt (wailed), Van Morrison (still has it), New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (had a packed audience doing circle dances), Terence Blanchard, Norah Jones, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, to name but a few

3. eating amazing food—pig at Donald Link's Cochon; crayfish boil (crayfish, potatoes, corn, juicy kielbasa-style sausages); raw oysters, crawfish Monica, pheasant-quail-andouille gumbo, and red velvet cake at The Fest; beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde; softshell crab at Crescent City Brewhouse

4. drinking—hurricanes and hand grenades on Bourbon Street; French 75s at Arnaud's elegant French 75 Bar; sazeracs at Cochon

5. not drinking absinthe (my liver thanks me) at the pirate bar

6. walking, shopping (Hove parfumerie, art galleries on Royal Street, a fantastic cookbook store), touring (the National Park Service ranger station offers an interesting—free—walking tour of the French Quarter)

Since returning from NOLA, I've attempted to prolong the experience. John and I threw a dinner party for some friends and served French 75s, jambalaya, and red velvet cake, among other Southern food items. And, I read the first book in Julie Smith's series set in New Orleans, featuring Skip Langdon, New Orleans Mourning. Vivid descriptions of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras transported me right back to this steamy, exotic city. Depictions of a rigid class structure, a compelling mystery, and a likeable sleuth rounded out the pleasure of this book. Yesterday, I read the first chapter of House of Blues, another book in the series.

Another high point this month was hearing Michael Chabon talk about and read from his latest book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, as part of MPR's Talking Volumes series. I may write more on this later, but it was a really satisfying evening despite the annoying host/moderator. Chabon is smart and funny, nerdy and sexy—just like Mr. Bibliotonic! He cited Pride and Prejudice as one of his ten favorite books, which just may inspire me to pick it up again soon.

Son Number One and I are working our way through Beverly Cleary's masterpieces, starting with the books featuring Henry Huggins (Henry Huggins, Henry and the Paper Route, Henry and Ribsy). When Simon's teacher heard we were reading Cleary, she let him bring home Ramona the Pest. I knew my love for Mrs. Cochran was boundless! Reading Ramona took me right back to when I read the book, at eight. I remembered Susan's boing-boing curls, Ramona's crazy Qs that had cat's ears and whiskers, and the Dawnzer Song.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that one of my Mother's Day gifts from Simon was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver's new book. In it, Kingsolver details a year spend growing and raising the food her family ate. Simon could tell by the cover that the book was about food, and he knew I would like it. By golly, I am raising him right!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I’m a sucker for first novels and for novels set in exotic locations. So when I noticed a few people on the book forums talking about Fieldwork, my interest was immediately and irrevocably piqued. What’s not to like about a first novel involving anthropologists, missionaries, demon possession, sexual taboo, and murder, that is also set in deepest, darkest, steamiest Thailand (near the Burma border).*

Mischa’s girlfriend has accepted a job teaching English in Thailand, and our protagonist has followed her there. He spends his days writing men’s fashion and movie reviews for a Thai English-language weekly. One night over dinner, a fellow expat tells Mischa a story about another American expat found dead in prison, an apparent suicide. Compelled by the unforgettable tale, and with nothing taxing his time, Mischa is soon engaged in investigative journalism.

His hope is to learn more about the circumstances under which Martiya van der Leun, an academic anthropologist, came to be imprisoned and dead. Martiya arrived in remote Thailand, straight from Berkeley, to do fieldwork—literally the time anthropologists spend in the field, observing Native groups and gathering research around which the anthropologist may build a career.

By conducting interviews with Martiya’s friends, family, and lovers, Mischa learns more about her life in academia and among the fictitious Dyalo tribe along the Thai-Burmese border. He uncovers more about this isolated tribe, as well as their rice planting ritual, their superstitions, and their sexual taboos. He also spends time with key members of the Walkers, a big missionary family that has been saving souls in Thailand for four generations. It is the Walkers’ prodigal son, David, whom Martiya has killed.

One book reviewer compared Fieldwork to other titles in the “backpacker lit” genre, a label I’ve not heard before now, though I like and understand it intellectually. An example of such is Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, since I’m a fan of time and place—when and where one reads books—I will note was the book I read while in labor with Son Number One) and Katy Gardner’s Losing Jemma, which appears to be out of print. Another reviewer called Fieldwork a “mystery novel with literary leanings” like John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Perhaps.

I’d like to offer up a few comparisons of my own: John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 (for the steamy, exotic setting and a murder investigation) and Arthur Phillips’ Prague (for self-consciously hip expat fiction—though Berlinski is a much stronger writer or had a better editor, or both).

Ultimately, Berlinksi exceeds expectations as a first novelist with this intoxicating story.

* Well, here’s one thing—and it’s a pretty minor thing, but it bears mentioning: The protagonist shares the author’s name, Mischa Berlinski. But since the novel is told in first person, our protagonist is rarely referred to by name.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Potter news

Hard to believe there's still breaking news about the most anticipated book of the year, but audio details are in. I have heard wonderful things about the Jim Dale narrations. Audio could be the perfect way to "re-read" the series before #7 lands in late July.

"The audiobook version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be unabridged, clock in at more than 21 hours, be priced at $79.95, and take up 17 CDs and 12 cassettes.

Random House's Listening Library, which has North American audio rights, is publishing the title simultaneously with the hardcover on Saturday, July 21. Books on Tape, also a division of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, will distribute the title in the library and educational markets.

Jim Dale, who narrated the audios of the first six Harry Potter titles, is recording this one, too. (Listening Library notes that besides winning a Grammy and several Audies, Dale is a member of the Order of the British Empire, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth II.) There are over five million copies of the first six Harry Potter titles in print in Listening Library editions."

[thanks Shelf Awareness]

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blue Arabesque

Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education was one of a handful of books about which George Janecky raved when we were working together at Odegard Books St. Paul. He loved this elegant memoir in which the St. Paul author travels to Prague to connect with her family’s roots. I have been meaning to read Hampl for a long time and was pleased when her latest, Blue Arabesque, was selected for my book group.

This slim volume consists of a meditation on a Matisse painting, which catches Hampl’s attention at the Art Institute of Chicago as she’s running past it to meet a friend. The painting becomes one of the author’s obsessions, and she examines it and the odalisque in painting, as well as the quality of light in the South of France and North Africa. She diverges to other art topics, such as St. Paul natives F. Scott Fitzgerald and filmmaker Jerome Hill, and weaves in her Catholic upbringing throughout.

Blue Arabesque
was, not surprisingly, widely and highly reviewed last year. It was a NYT Notable book and received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.
It may surprise you then to learn that my book group, collectively, found the essay pretentious and boring. Some quality of Hampl’s writing is really bloated and difficult to read, especially at the beginning of the book, such as this nugget on page 27: “A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized—to be art.”

Occasionally Hampl hits a graceful note—for example, the chapter about Katherine Mansfield, who was the Sylvia Plath for an earlier generation. The most flattering reviews concur that Blue Arabesque is a paean to art and to the act of contemplation. I think Hampl has potential, she’s smart and a good observer, and I’m hopeful that her skills as a memoirist are strong so when I finally get around to reading A Romantic Education, I find that quality that, fifteen years ago, inspired George J. to put the book into customer’s hands.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Shadow of the Wind

Years ago, I received an advanced reading copy of The Shadow of the Wind, which had been a major Spanish bestseller. The marketing copy on the jacket was compelling enough to make the book a keeper, but I put it on the shelf and forgot about it for a few years.

Last summer I chose the novel as my airplane book for a transatlantic flight.
A potentially lethal dose of rave word-of-mouth recommendations and glowing print reviews set my expectations unreasonably high. Naturally, I would choose to read this sweeping mystery set in the cold, drizzly postwar Barcelona on a vacation that offered little time for reading, managing 50 pages. Finally, I finished it this January—five months after I started it— during a most satisfying, four-hour marathon reading session.

This novel, which has been compared to Borges and to Victor Hugo, is about Daniel, who at 10 is taken by his bookseller father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Here he is allowed to select one book, and he chooses a novel by the obscure Spanish writer Julian Carax. A few years later, a series of events prompts Daniel to want to know more about the author so he begins a journey that twists and turns, pokey during the first half of the book and at a galloping pace for the last half.

The journey is full of deception and echoes and ghosts and richly drawn, eccentric characters. And, there’s romance and a number of storylines that all come together by the end. The plot is so convoluted—in a multilayered good way—that I recommend reading Richard Eder’s review in the
New York Times, which offers a thorough plot synopsis. Here is one of the only quotes that I wrote down: “A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”

If you like sprawling, bleak, and atmospheric novels with supernatural touches—and haven’t already read this—run, pick up a copy of The Shadow of the Wind now.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

round one, match one

The Morning News Tournament of Books has begun! You'll find the brackets here, as well as the first match of round one—Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's ambitious second novel about Biafra's struggle in the 1960s to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart's hilarious second novel, a political satire of emerging capitalism in Eastern Europe.

Check in daily!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Granta's best young American writers

Granta has just announced their second-ever list of best American writers under 35. The first list, published over ten years ago, included such luminaries as Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, and Lorrie Moore. The new list is pretty stellar too, with a handful of authors whose writing talents I have been following for some time (notably Judy Budnitz, who was introduced to me eight years ago by her then editor Reagan Arthur when I was at Holtzbrinck). Nell Freudenberger, Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn, and Budnitz are among some of the best novelists—of any age—that I have read in the past few years, and I look forward to reading Kevin Brockmeier (who is on my 39 at 39 list), Jonathan Safran Foer, Maile Meloy, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Gary Shteyngart (who is an '07 Morning News Tournament of Champions contender), ZZ Packer (whose "Brownies" short story knocked my socks off), and Karen Russell (whose St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves I have from the library right now).

Who have you read?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February round-up

February is generally considered a good reading month around these parts. Between illness—sometime mine, usually my children—and weather, one is often housebound and forced to read. Not such a bad thing. Thumbing through the list of books I have read (since 1993), 2004 must have been a banner year for sick or for cold or both. In February of that year, I set a PR (for you nonsports folk that's personal record), finishing seven books.

This year, I managed to finish five books, and I'm pretty pleased. Here's what I read:

The Peril of Paella by Nancy Fairbanks, a lighthearted foodie mystery set in Barcelona
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the sweeping mystery set in Barcelona (full disclosure: I've been reading this in fits and starts since June '06)
Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a long essay about art that I read for book group
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, which I read aloud to the boys
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which I listened to on audio during drive time

The first two on the list are technically shelf-sitters (
Perils since this past summer; Shadow since I received an advanced reading copy in 2003), and the last two were library impulses.

Announcing the Tournament of Books

While it's too late to vote for the readers choice—Zombie—round, you can still read Kevin Guilfoile's opening remarks and begin to anticipate the literary world's own awesome March madness!

This year's list of candidates is outstanding. I've read half of
Arthur and George; I just finished The Road; and I can't wait to see which book(s) make my TBR as a result of this competition (Atkinson, Powers, Shteyngart, and Messud are already on it).

Who will have had enough time to read the Pynchon?

2007 contenders:
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson
Arthur and George, Julian Barnes
Brookland, Emily Barton
English, August
, Upamanyu Chatterjee
The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
Pride of Baghdad, Niko Henrichon, Brian K. Vaughan
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Peter Orner
The Echo Maker
, Richard Powers
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
, Sam Savage
Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart
Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali
Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead

Monday, February 26, 2007

I've never faked it*

but I've thought about it plenty, especially when feeling tired or uninspired. I'll bet you've thought about it too.

Now, there's hope—and an ambitious** French guy to thank.


* In the interest of full disclosure, I have faked it at least once. I only managed to read 50 pages of Bleak House for that Dickens tutorial I took junior year in London, but wrote a paper about it nonetheless. Even though I passed with flying colors, I don't think I fooled my tutorial adviser.

**Oxymoron alert. Pierre Bayard, a literature professor at Paris University, has devised a useful system for talking about books that you've never actually read. Here is his inspiration: "We are taught one way of reading," he said. "Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It's a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. 'You have to read all of Proust.' They were traumatized."