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?