Tuesday, February 24, 2009

library haul

While I was at the library picking up holds today, I stumbled upon Little Bee, the highly buzzed (pun unavoidable) book by Chris Cleave. Read my friend Daniel's interview with the author. If the novel wasn't already on your TBR list, it will be.

Also, I'm pretty excited to finally get to State by State and couldn't believe that there wasn't a waiting list. Script and Scribble, a survey of handwriting—cursive, I hear, is making a comeback—looks pretty neat too. I like the trim size and overall packaging, and will likely comment more later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

reading now

Death and Judgment
Two separate tragedies kick off the fourth book in Donna Leon’s successful police procedural series. First, a semi truck, with Romanian license plates, jackknives and spills female “mannequins,” only the mannequins laying in blood-stained snow. Second, a prominent judge, Avvocato Carlo Trevisan, is murdered. The latter ends up on Commissario Guido Brunetti’s desk, and it isn’t long before he begins to connect the dots linking the two events. I’m at the book’s halfway point and many of my favorite characters—Vice Questore Patta and Brunetti’s wife, Paola—are quiet. The food and wine aren't as prominent as in previous titles. Much of the novel is set in a seedy area of Venice, far off the tourists’ beaten path, and I miss descriptions of the canals. That said, reading Death and Judgment is very cozy, much like hanging with old friends.

Cold Comfort Farm
For a long time, Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm has been on my TBR list. Back when I was at SMP, a favorite editor acquired a number of books that were compared favorably to CCF or to its author, Stella Gibbons. And, although I made a point to see what the fuss was about, it’s only now, ten years later, that I’m finally reading CCF. It’s a hoot, following the fortunes of Flora Poste, whose parents have died and left her with no property and only a small annual allowance. Flora concocts a delicious scheme to find relatives who will take her in, and as she explains to her dear friend Mrs. Smiling, “When I have found a relative who is willing to have me, I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his or her character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then, when it pleases me, I shall marry.” I’m at the point in this pastoral parody where Flora has arrived at Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders have taken her in and Flora has begun to plan her course of action. Plenty of allusions are made to a deep dark secret involving Flora’s father.

CCF is such a treat to read. I was hoping to finish it quickly, especially since the novel is a bit of a page turner, but now I’m lingering over sentences and paragraphs. I’m confident I will re-read CCF regularly.

Although my reading dance card is relatively full, I’m casting about for some short nonfiction, to balance the load. Any suggestions?

Friday, February 06, 2009

2009 tournament of books

The Morning News announced the contenders in their fifth annual Tournament of Books.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
2666, Roberto Bolano
A Partisan’s Daughter, Louis de Bernieres
The Northern Clemency, Philip Hensher
The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon
My Revolutions, Hari Kunzru
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart
Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris
A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Steer Towards Rock, Fae Myenne Ng
Netherland, Joseph O’Neill
City of Refuge, Tom Piazza
Home, Marilynne Robinson
Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas

The list was announced a few weeks ago for the benefit of those, such as me, who would like to read some or all of the books prior to the contest, which starts in March. I've already read Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and many of these books are on the TBR list I made from the '08 New York Times Notables, the Booker Prize, and the National Book Award nominees. The unabridged audio version of Netherland just came in at the library, thus sparing me the worry of where to begin.

You can read more about the Tournament of Books and see past contenders/winners here.

Monday, February 02, 2009

January recap

books read in January: 4

Dressed for Death (Donna Leon)
Commissario Brunetti is called in on a case, just as his family is escaping to the cool mountains for the August vacation. Venice is vividly described as hot, sticky, and stinky. Leon’s descriptive powers are on overdrive so you can see and smell the algae blooming on the canals. Brunetti’s vacation will wait as he investigates the brutal murder—is there any other kind—of a transvestite, whose face is bashed beyond recognition. As always, the investigation treads on politically sensitive ground, involving powerful people in high places. The inimitable Vice Questore Patta is involved in his own public scandal when his wife takes up with a porn film director—a delicious twist. We’re also introduced to Patta’s new administrative assistant, the delightful Signora Elettra, who brings a distinctive flair to the office. No. 3 in the series.

Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Despite the industry buzz and strong reviews upon publication, I was highly skeptical of Hunger Games. Also, right up front, I’ll tell you I have grown weary of every children’s book worth its salt being part of a series. Doesn't anyone write stand-alone novels any more? That said, I found Hunger Games utterly gripping. This young adult novel is set in a post-apocalyptic North America and follows sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who is a contestant in the Capitol’s annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death with teenagers representing other districts. It has shades of Ender’s Game and, to a lesser degree, Lord of the Flies. The novel’s premise is cruel, to be sure, which was my initial hesitation, but the author handles her story and characters sensitively. I loved Katniss, who, in addition to facing her survival, asks many of the tough coming-of-age questions. Occasionally suspenseful, I found myself holding my breath through a six-page section near the end. Lots of discussion points make it good for a book group. I am over my disappointment that this book is the first in a series. I am totally hooked and eager for the next book.

Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott)
I chose Ghostwalk for my book group following a spate of testosterone-driven fiction. It was instantly appealing to me because it was historical with a literary mystery, has a female author, and was smart but not overly clever. I’m far too tired to write my own synopsis so I’m going to copy what the publisher has provided Powell's:
A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy-the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century-remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother's book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth's house-a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth's research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton's alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled-the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first-century woman who is trying to discover their secrets.
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Based on unflinching admiration for Jhumpa Lahiri (I think I’m one of the few who didn’t hate her mostly uneven first novel, The Namesake), I bought Unaccustomed Earth the day it was released in hardcover. Nearly a year passed though before I cracked the spine, and when I did, I savored each word, phrase, and image. Lahiri trods familiar ground here—immigrants, multigenerational relationships, and familial expectations—but she does it oh so well. Just as in Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, my favorite story was the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” in which Ruma, a young mother, receives a visit from her widowed father as well as a new prism to see that the choices she has made for herself are the same ones she criticized her mother for making.

Unaccustomed Earth was a title for the 2009 Conversation with Books at my alma mater. One of the panelists appreciated the uncertain endings that carry a hint of hope. I am delighted to see that Unaccustomed Earth is a contender in 2009 Tournament of Books.

books purchased in January: 3
At the same time that I am operating under a self-imposed ban on buying books, I have made a vow to buy at least one book a month from an independent bookseller. About a week ago, I found myself at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s St. Paul bookstore, thinking that I’d done a great job not buying books all month and celebrating by purchasing Fiction on a Stick, a collection of stories from Minnesota writers. The moment I pulled out my credit card, I had a flashback to earlier in the month when I picked up the paperback release of Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country. Oh well, I tried. I also picked up a condensed paperback copy of American Masterworks by architecture critic Kenneth Frampton.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Today is the birthday of Muriel Spark, born February 1, 1918.

I don't know how to adequately express my Muriel Spark love, though I once tried here. A few years ago, my friend Caryl and I made a study of Spark, selecting a handful of her early novels to read and discuss. We started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most well-known novel though not necessarily my favorite*, and quickly moved on to read more. The following year we chose a few more books, and this year we'll read Spark's memoir, Curriculum Vitae. My goal is to read Spark's entire works, including her poetry, plays, and short stories.

What I love most about Spark's writing is her dark humor, quickly succeeded by sparse but accurate language, with a chaser of sophisticated psychology. Her biography is interesting, fraught with spectacular drama, such as denying her Jewish heritage and an estrangement from her only child. Like Graham Greene, Spark was a convert to Catholicism, a subject which features prominently in her work. For more information, please refer to the National Library of Scotland's archives.

*Girls of Slender Means is my favorite Spark novel, to date.