Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: The Debut of an Amateur Sleuth

What to say about Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie besides I absolutely loved it? I had to get through 260-something people on the New York Public Library hold list before it was finally mine to read, but it was worth the wait.

Bradley creates one of the most amusing narrators I have read in a while. Flavia de Luce is kind of like an English Harriet the Spy—an 11-year-old super sleuth and chemistry genius growing up in the 1950s. She lives on a huge estate called Buckshaw in the English countryside with her widower father and two older sisters. Flavia has a rousing imagination that keeps her entertained, but it also gives her spunk and fuels her detective side when a full-blown murder mystery lands on her doorstep.

First, a dead jack snipe is found on the doorstep with a postage stamp bizarrely skewered on its beak. A few hours later, Flavia finds a dying man in the cucumber patch and witnesses his dying breath. “Vale!” Once the police arrest her father for the man’s murder, Flavia enters detective mode as she believes the two events must be connected and her father’s name must be cleared. Flavia’s not like any other 11-year-old girl; to her, the murder marks the beginning of a real adventure, and she is delighted:

“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

I haven’t read too many mysteries in my day, because I feel like they, for the most part, are formulaic. Sure, the premise can be different, and a conclusion will be reached through its own, unique journey, but you’re always going to reach the end: mystery solved. A good mystery needs something more than its plot, and Bradley succeeded in writing a mystery with enough to like outside of it. As the author states: “It’s a book about how far youthful idealism can carry you if it’s not stamped out, as it so often is.”

Flavia is a delightful character to read, and she alone is enough to give this book an edge. In hearing the story from her perspective, we get to solve the mystery with her every step (and mistep) of the way. But one can tell that Bradley also put a lot of effort into creating all of his characters and their relationships with each other. Colonel de Luce’s grief for the wife he lost has led him to the life of a recluse and distanced him from his daughters. Flavia’s two sisters, like Flavia, spend their time entertaining themselves with their own interests. Their relationship with Flavia is typical of older sisters—they split their time between torment and apathy, and Flavia fights back with her secret plans of poisonous revenge.

Sometimes you have to wonder how realistic a character as Flavia could be—an 11-year-old that knows the anatomical effects of a dose of carbon tetrachloride. But Bradley doesn’t give you time to even consider doubt. You’ll immediately jump on board and enjoy the ride.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won the 2007 Crime Writers’ Associate Debut Dagger Award. The second book in Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is due out in 2010. Visit his website at

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Evaluation of a Reviewer

My sister once laughed and said she didn’t understand the motivation behind a book blog. She hated writing book reviews in school, and she doesn’t see how this is much different. Granted, she and I are very different when it comes to books. She reads a few a year, I read a few dozen; my beach read of choice is a good book, and she’d be happier with a magazine. But her comment got me thinking that a person must really love books to think about, and especially discuss, them afterwards.

I read this great questionnaire by J.C. @ The Biblio Blogazine that she found on author Shannon Hale’s blog. Every book blogger has his/her own method of reviewing, own rating systems, own criteria. Hopefully you can learn a little bit more about us and the thought that goes into our reviews. I can’t speak for the other authors, but maybe they’ll comment with some thoughts of their own (*hint*). 
1. Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing [a] book has changed your reading experience?
It’s definitely changed it for the better. I have always been a huge reader, but before reviewing, I tended to forget details about a book almost immediately. That was actually one of the main reasons I decided to start a book blog; I wanted to remember what I’ve read. I also pay closer attention when I read, so I’ll have evidence to back up my points. I used to speed through books, and now I spend a little more time on them.
2. Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?
I don’t judge a book completely until the end. My opinion is influenced throughout, and I remember points of interest to use in my review. I’ve read too many books that either make it or break it at the end. Sometimes the ending ruins the whole book for me. Sometimes it ends and I look back and realize it was a better book than I was giving it credit for throughout.
3. Does knowing you’ll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?
Not at all. I review every book I read, and I’m never going to pick up a book that wouldn’t interest me in the first place (unless it has so much buzz surrounding it that I want to know what all the hype is about…ie: Twilight. Still hated it). I think my favorite thing about the book blogging community is gaining awareness about titles. I can walk into a bookstore now and be familiar with so many more books than I used to.
4. Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?
Sometimes. I never want to give just a summary of the book. And I don’t want my “review” to be only a sentence or two long. To me, that’s not a review. I try to think about what the author was trying to say and why he was trying to say it in the way that he chose. Sometimes I’ll be in the process of reading a book and I’ll be bored or confused. But when I finish it and think back on the real meat of the story, I’ll understand and appreciate it a little more. I’ll still tell you if I was bored, but I want to give you more my than initial reaction.
5. What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?
If this question is defining “rating” a something like stars or a grade, I don’t do that. I prefer discussion. I detest movie reviewers because their analysis and commentary always get lost behind a starred review. There are a huge number of factors that can influence an individual’s opinion of a book, and my personal rating is not going to apply to a larger audience because they don’t have my experiences or my thoughts. It’s my rating, and I don’t want it alone to influence another person. I will state whether I liked the book or not, but I try to discuss much more about it than my own opinion. Then, I believe, my review could be beneficial to another reader.
6. If you review a book but don’t rate it, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?
See above. I feel my role is to instigate open discussion. I’m not here to tell you what to think about a specific book. I’ll find points of discussion so I can hear what other readers thought about the same story. I’ll tell you what you may like or dislike about the book by analyzing its style, structure, or characters. I want my reviews to influence other readers to pick up a book and think about what they’re reading. Sure, I’ll recommend a book if I thought it had a lot to offer, but I’ll never tell you not to read something. Your opinion may be different than mine and it’s worth finding out!
I think bookworms are bookworms because we personally get more fulfillment from reading than other people might. I read for a lot of different reasons; I read to hear other perspectives, to learn about different realities, to increase my vocabulary, to keep my brain fresh, to find topics for conversation, to fill downtime throughout the day, and to entertain myself. As a result, I feel I am a much more well-rounded, educated individual. My head is full of stories of other people, places, and times. I can have more interesting conversations; books even help start conversation [as opposed to the people on the subway that tune everything out with their iPod or Blackberry]. If I’m not constantly in the middle of a book (a situation that hasn’t happened in as long as I can remember), I feel lost.
What makes you a reader? Why do you do it, and what do you get from it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: In Soviet Russia, joke ruins YOU!

Moscow, 1939 – Stalinist Russia. There’s no such thing as free speech any longer. In schools people are afraid of teaching Chekhov and Tolstoy because they’re not politically aware enough. They don’t emphasize the mores of the Communist Party, and therefore they don’t represent the new Russian people. Persons go missing in the middle of the night by mysterious cars that come pick them up but never return.

These are some of the ideas and images within Travis Holland’s début novel, The Archivist’s Story, which reads well (I finished it all in one sitting), but feels like a novice’s work as story lines are almost forgotten and, when remembered, are placed haphazardly into the text. There isn’t a sense of rhythm, or the rhythm that is created is a bit off beat.

Pavel Dubrov works in the Fourth Section as an archivist, taking care of the papers of those brought in for interrogation, reading through them and destroying them when need be. He was a former teacher of literature, which is brought to the attention of his supervisor, Radlov, who finds this a bit suspicious – why Pavel was thrown to his department if he was a grand teacher at his respective Academy. It turns out that Pavel left as he helped defame a fellow teacher and cohort for not being with the Party, and this is his sort of atonement.
And atonement it is as Dubrov has to burn texts of major and minor poets and novelists. One of them he happens to come across is Isaac Babel, whose unfinished story he hides under his bed in order for it to have some sort of longevity. Dubrov feels like he needs to save this author, who will later die in a Siberian prison camp.
Although The Archivist’s Story is told well enough, as I was able to pound this off in an evening, I thought that the juxtaposition and the ideas were very easy. The concept that no one in Soviet Russia truly had freedom of speech – there’s a peripheral remark that Osip Mandelstam lost his life due to the fact that he called Stalin’s moustache a cockroach – which haunts our beloved narrator Pavel is mirrored by the fact that Pavel’s mother may have a tumor in her brain and if operated upon may lose her ability to communicate. She says tenderly, ‘What are my options? Let this doctor drill into my skill? And if he does find something there, what then? He’ll have to cut out part of my brain. So I can live out the rest of my life with the mental capacity of an infant. . . . People come out of these operations, Pasha, they’re changed. They can’t speak, they can’t read. They can’t recognize faces. They’re alive but their minds are gone. . . . they’re not who they were before.’ This could be said of any of the characters who experienced pre- and post-Stalinist Russia and it’s as if the author is making sure that we see this quite explicitly.
It’ll be interesting to see where Travis Holland goes from here, because he’s obviously a capable writer. I personally would like to see a collection of stories, for it looks like he can craft a short tale quite well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: …PSYCH!

Mishna Wolff’s memoir I’m Down has all the ingredients for an awkwardly hilarious coming-of-age story. Mishna grew up in the early eighties as a poor white kid in a poor black neighborhood with a white, ex-hippie father who truly believed he was black…and expected his kids to grow up as if they were black, too. 

Mishna’s story begins with a humorous snapshot of her life. We meet her dad, who spends most of his time playing dominoes with four old black men that are all apparently her “uncle.” Her mom, unlike Dad, stayed in the hippie phase, and a divorce was soon inevitable. Mishna and her younger sister Anora live with their dad, John, whose method of child-rearing resembles throwing them out in the ocean so they learn to swim. 
Mishna is a self-defined “honky.” She can’t sing, can’t dance, she has no rhythm or soul or whatever quality her dad and “uncles” think a 6-year-old should possess. But Dad thinks that “your neighborhood is where you live,” therefore Mishna should make friends with the neighborhood kids that you just know are going to put her through hell before accepting her.
She quickly learns that the only way for her to survive is as a tough smartass that isn’t afraid to “cap” (termed as the social art of insult) even the toughest boys with “Your mom” jokes and the “…PSYCH!” tactic. Just as Mishna’s made her place in the neighborhood, Mom drags her out of public school and puts her in an upscale “smart-kids” school where she’s the only one that has ever experienced racial diversity. Suddenly viewed as the poor, stupid kid, Mishna has to find her place all over again in a new environment, much to the resentment of her father who seems to be viewing his daughter more as “the man” than his own child. On top of all this social awkwardness, home life is made even more difficult with Mishna’s younger sister Anora, who seems to always be in their father’s good graces—she has “soul” and possesses every quality Mishna seems to lack.
I’m Down begins with this scenario that just seems so ridiculous, it has to be side-splitting hilarious. But we eventually see a dark side to the story. Mishna’s father quickly becomes a villian of sorts, as he seems to have no sense of compassion. He seems more concerned about how his kids will make him look in the eyes of his peers than their own well-being. And it takes Mishna a long time to realize that her home is a toxic environment. For a good portion of the book, she is constantly seeking her father’s approval. She runs track and joins the swim team, and, most embarrassingly, joins an all-black girls basketball team that seems to resemble an Amazonian tribe. I shuddered a lot during this book as I remembered how terrible it felt to be out-of-place during middle and high school, and I never had it anywhere near as bad as Mishna.
Wolff’s writing style contributed a lot to the story; she uses a voice that seems to say, “Look how ridiculous my life was. I’m just going to look back on it and laugh.” And that makes it very easy and enjoyable for the reader. However, for me, the story kind of lost its charm about halfway in. It started out as a series of anecdotes, and it seemed to turn into more of a narrative. It ended with me wondering what happened after age 14. 
One of the best parts of this book was being able to finish it and find out more about the author and her life growing up. It had such an offbeat premise that I was glad to see Mishna has grown into a successful writer, model, and actor-comedian. I recommend as a comedic look at a life fit for a sitcom.
You can visit the author’s website at

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: The roof falls in

It’s a rare occasion when you get metafiction and philosophy completely infused into a poetic volume without it feeling too pragmatic or instructional. Usually it comes out harsh and bitter to the tongue, a piece of burnt toast upon which rests soggy eggs. And rare it is when careful cadence and diction, argument and anecdote are the focus of such a book.

Nominated for the National Book Award, Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw is that volume. Lerner, a young poet from Brown University, has produced something that reverberates in the mind long after the pages of the book have closed and rested upon the shelf. Borrowing from Russian formalism – if I may dare – Lerner is able to defamiliarise his subject (and readers) to make the writing process, the concept of films and media, the world of theory fresh and anew. Never a dull moment cuts across the pages: ‘The fruit is star-shaped when cut in cross section and is therefore called star fruit. Our people often name an object after the manner in which we destroy it.’
Lines that seem to be throwaway shards of wisdom, pregnant with philosophy may grace each stanza, but it doesn’t make this volume overbearing or ponderous or even self-important. Angle of Yaw is split into five parts, two of which are eponymous to the title of the book. ‘Begetting Stadia’, the first canto or part, is the most jarring. The poems within aren’t as related to each other, but they create the initial push for waves that will echo later on in the volume. A sense of positivity and negativity start with the first poem, and Lerner’s poetic narrator commences with his project’s aim – as if invoking it from the gods: ‘Resembling its shape / and therefore suggesting its function: // a wave. // Or repeating its shape / and therefore undoing its function // a wave, // which I will here attempt to situate / in the broader cognitive process / of turning the page.’ The reader thus is actively involved as his lines come to light, as the narrator goes on to say, ‘Reading is important because it makes you look down, an expression of shame. . . . When you window-shop, when you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.’
As the book goes deeper and deeper into thoughts, it becomes more unified – although mysteriously, as the amount of subjects Lerner tackles grows too. Perhaps the part/canto that is most impressive is ‘Didactic Elegy’, which is basically a philosophical essay in verse that begins peripherally but then makes it central as theme and subject the towers of the World Trade Center falling. Unlike some who perhaps use it as a crutch, Lerner brings a sort of theory into the image, suggesting that the art of memorialising in fact does the opposite, makes it common. The more we watch the video of the towers crash down, the less real it becomes: ‘The critic watches the image of the towers collapsing. / She remembers less and less about the towers collapsing each time she watches the image of the towers collapsing. // The critic feels guilty viewing the image like a work of art, / but guilt here stems from an error of cognition, / as the critic fails to distinguish between an event / and the event of the event’s image.’
The argument of ‘Didactic Elegy’ builds a wonderful discussion, and Lerner guides us in not such a didactic way. We feel confident of our decisions about what his narrator is saying throughout. And then he drops a bombshell in the end, which basically sums up the wonderful paradoxes and issues brought up in Angle of Yaw, as if straight from a JM Coetzee or TS Eliot work:
When violence becomes aware of its mediacy and loses its object
it will begin to resemble love.
Love is negative because it dissolves
all particulars into an experience of form.
Refusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly.
The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?
Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Awards Update

Thank you to Elena @ With Extra Pulp for awarding us with the Zombie Chicken Award. [Ha, what a ridiculous name! I would like to know the story behind this one!] 

“The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken – excellence, grace and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least 5 other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or not choosing at all.”
I’m passing on to:
I was also informed that we here at the Five Borough Book Review have been nominated for the Most Collaborative Blog in this year’s BBAW Awards! Thank you for the nomination, readers! I am excited for all the action and excitement that this year’s BBAW promises, seeing as how our blog is too new to have participated last year.

Review: Israel’s formative years

Remembering Abraham is a very cursory look at the world surrounding the Hebrew bible. Using large strokes, Professor Ronald Hendel describes the importance of Abraham, Moses, and Solomon – leaders whose significance cannot be understated, who are always in discussion. The six loosely connected essays that compose this book don’t do a great deal of biblical analysis; they rely more on other scholarly works in order to make points. Unfortunately I think that that makes this book only a good recommender of other texts necessary to understand the Jewish religion and the ancient Hebrew people.

Hendel goes into the idea that the Hebrews were originally a spread out group, much like the city-states of Greece where there was some cultural overlap but every neighbourhood was basically autonomous. It wasn’t until outsiders threatened their peace and security that the tribes joined together and started creating a unified political centre.

Interestingly Hendel also goes makes the case that the Hebrews were the first to be interested in historical identity – the first people who looked to the past in order to understand who they are today. According to Arnaldo Momigliano’s study The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, ‘The Greeks liked history, but never made it the foundation of their lives. The educated Greek turned to rhetorical schools, to mystery cults, or to philosophy for guidance. History was never an essential part of the life of a Greek. . . . To the biblical Hebrew, history and religion were one.’ Which is why there are so many lineage passages in the Hebrew bible (which is also to prove that certain characters in the bible aren’t outsiders, Babylonians or Philistines or Egyptians). Abraham himself has the word father ‘ab’ in part of his name (that is in the ancient Hebrew language).

Tribal genealogy was apex, for as Momigliano goes on: ‘If the common man does not know his origins, he is like a mad ape. He who does not know his great and right family connections is like an outsized dragon. He who does not know the circumstances and the course of actions of his noble father and grandfather is like a man who, having prepared sorrow for his children, throws them into this world.’ And this is an example that the more interesting material within this book comes from external sources.

The only eye-opening research that I found fascinating within this text was the subchapter ‘Moses: Mediator of Memory’, where Hendel goes into the concept that ‘Moses presents the figure of mediator, someone betwixt-and-between, “with one foot inside and the other outside Egypt.” . . . he is the multifaceted man, he is able to unite together all of the stories of Exodus, Sinai, and wanderings into a coherent collective memory.’ As in Moses was born a Jew but was raised by Egyptians from birth; he should have been born a slave but was raised in royalty; he had two masters, two kings: Pharaoh and Yahweh. I’ve never thought of Moses in this light before, but it is kind of staring you in the face when reading the Hebrew bible.

Overall Remembering Abraham was a quiet book that made few ripples. As mentioned before, it’s worth a look to see what other texts are out there in order to further study in Judaic studies.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: I’m Down!

Teaser Tuesday is hosted every week by Miz B @ Should Be Reading. You are asked to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. And don’t forget to share the name of the book! This serves as a great, quick source for recommendations.

I am currently reading I’m Down by Mishna Wolff, a quirky memoir about a poor white girl growing up in a poor black neighborhood with a white dad who truly believed he’s black. Cringe-worthy awkwardness ensues!
My teaser is from page 5 as Mishna is setting the scene of her life.

“Instead I got my dad, sitting around playing dominoes with four large black men, who were all apparently my uncle, and who agreed that the only way to discuss affirmative action was—at the top of your lungs. They also thought kids were beer-fetchers crossed with remote controls and that there was something seriously wrong with my rhythm.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: The South’s Gone Mad!

First off, I officially completed the Southern Reading Challenge 2009 on its very last day! Three books in a week and a half—I’m going to call that an accomplishment. I really enjoyed this challenge, because I loooove me some southern literature. Plus, I loved every book I read for it!

Crazy in Alabama is pretty much the perfect title for Mark Childress’ 1993 New York Times Notable novel. You could use any adjective to describe it and you’d be accurate in some regard—hilarious, tragic, bizarre, and most definitely outlandish. It makes for one heck of a unique story.
We follow two alternating stories in this novel, that of Lucille and Peejoe, aunt and nephew. The opening is quite a shocker—Lucille has murdered her husband Chester and cut off his head, which she carries in a Tupperware lettuce bowl, and Peejoe is the only witness to her confession before she leaves town. 

Lucille is a changed woman—thirty-three has lost its old-age feeling once she’s free from the shackles of her marriage. She leaves small-town Alabama and heads to California, fueled by a life-long dream of celebrity. Lucille is determined to make it to Los Angeles and star in ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ at any cost, no matter what she has to steal or who she has to seduce along the way. She feels free and alive for the first time in her life.

It’s 1965 and Industry, Alabama, is deep in racial tension. The law is corrupt, and the federal government is forced to intervene. Peejoe and his older brother Wiley are sent to live with their uncle Dove when their Meemaw takes over Lucille’s six children. Dove is the town coroner and undertaker, and by helping out around the funeral home, Peejoe’s eyes are opened to the realities of life outside of his. Dove, a man with good morales, gets caught up in fighting for civil rights while still trying to maintain business in a racist town. Peejoe witnesses inequality exemplified through violence and the loss of innocent lives and decides to fight segregation to his full ability. 
You never know where this story is going to turn next. The stories are, for the most part, independent with only the occasional overlap, but they, of course, come together in the end. You meet so many oddball characters, yet with just enough realism that you can empathize with even a husband-killer. Emotions are so strong throughout the story. I wanted to cry at all the horrible things Peejoe witnessed during the fight for integration, but I also had to laugh out loud at Aunt Lucille’s off-the-wall logic. The historical setting is very intense, and Childress did an excellent job of presenting two very different sides and, most notably, all the grey areas in between. 
After the initial shock of the beginning wore off, I couldn’t get enough of this book. As I was trying to finish the last 50 pages, outside circumstance kept distracting me, and all I wanted to do was finish this book! When I finally did, I looked back and realized what a powerful story it was. It may be a bit quirky and sensational, but it has a very strong message. Definitely a recommended read.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review: ‘I want to believe’

When I think back to the time of Jesus, what usually comes to mind is Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a tale of a man who is mistaken for a prophet. Born the same time as Jesus, originally receiving the gifts that the Magi were to later bestow upon Jesus, being a cult sensation who is followed as he drops his shoe and his gourd, Brian runs around Nazareth during a time when preachers on the street were ten a penny, lepers don’t want to be cured (otherwise they’d have to get real jobs), and people were just fanatical to find a leader. Life of Brian is an alternate source of history that his completely brilliant as it rips apart humanity’s need for religion, order, and government.

Nobel Prize-winner Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is another alternate source of history which tells the story of the man set free instead of Jesus, Barabbas. The narrative begins as Barabbas watches Jesus get crucified, thinking how the Jews wanted him sent back to them even though he was the convicted criminal. He feels the earth quake when the man they call Saviour dies. And with that he returns back to his village where he’s greeted at first as a ghost, then as a welcome prodigal son. Except all of a sudden he notices certain people praying to this Saviour who is supposed to rise and free humanity. Barabbas himself goes to where they buried Jesus and gets to see the mystery of his return, which he later relates to fellow slaves/workers, getting them to believe further in Jesus. With all of this in mind though, Barabbas – when put to the test – can’t admit that he believes in the Saviour. A Roman guard queries him and the only other named character in the book, Sahak, whether they serve Caesar or Christos Iesus, Sahak strongly affirms his faith in God. Whereas Barabbas can’t say anything and shakes his head, destroying the relationship with Sahak (who later is crucified) but saving his life from Caesar.

The prose in this novella is sparse, perhaps as minimalist as it gets. The characters remain anonymous, spirits almost. It paints a portrait of Barabbas as a hurt man, a man searching for answers rather than a spiteful, villainous creature that most Biblical interpretations take. Most notably, I’m thinking of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, who creates Barabbas as a soulless Machiavellian creature who takes advantage of any man, woman, or child – who is in it for money and glory and nothing else.

And because of the brevity in length, the narrative’s echoes – of crucifixion, of characterisation, of theme, and of plot – are able to resonate strongly in the reader’s mind. Who we know to be Peter, who denies Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, is played out again when, as mentioned above, Barabbas can’t admit to believing that Christ is his Saviour. And this reverberates when Barabbas, in order to make up for this lack of faith, hallucinates and sees Christians burning Rome decides to join them and torch the city for his god, believing that this act will make up for his misconduct earlier. (It only gets him a sentence of his own crucifixion, which is where the narrative ends.) In that, these mirroring devices, the novel is haunting and wonderfully subtle.
Barabbas is certainly an interesting tale of one of the extenuating stories of Jesus, an apt one that perhaps fits our time – where there is such a schism between religion and science, belief and high culture – that it’s interesting to see someone trying to pull it all together.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Bad Books

A weekly question to provoke discussion—it’s time for Booking Through Thursday!

This week’s question is…
What’s the worst book you’ve read recently?

This is easy. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I’d read two Jodi Picoult books prior to this one. Her books are very formulaic, but they still keep me entertained [as long as you don’t read one after the other; they’re so similar that they bleed together]. They all deal with the grey areas of law and relationships, creating a gripping plot. They’re so well researched that I feel like I learn something as I read. This one, though…ugh. The majority of the novel was fine, but the end angered me so much that I threw the book across the room. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book in which the ending ruined the entire novel for me, but I hated it that much. It was just so cliché, unbelievable, and unnecessary. UGH.
I know the ending was changed for the movie, but I haven’t seen it. I’m curious, nonetheless.
Have you read/seen My Sister’s Keeper? What do you think about it? 

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Books on NPR

As part of my own personal project to stay attune to NPR podcasts, I’ve been spending a good portion of the day at work catching up on last week’s programs. And lo and behold, they talk about books an awful lot! Here are a few programs I thought would be of interest to the booking world. The Julia Child interview is particularly enjoyable!

Have you seen Julie & Julia? I’m curious about how the characters are each portrayed on screen in contrast to the book, based on the reviewer’s comments.
It’s also refreshing to hear positive criticism of chick-lit!
And do you have anything to add to the ‘Must-Read’ children’s classics?

Review: The Mark of Illegitimacy

Dorothy Allison’s debut novel was a NY Times Notable Book, a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, and a National Bestseller. It was adapted to the screen and directed by Anjelica Huston. And it’s generally regarded as a great southern novel. Allison claims to tell the story “you may not want to hear,” and Bastard Out of Carolina hits that nail on its head. It’s a pretty hard story to hear.

In her semi-autobiographical first novel, Allison tells the story of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Bone was an accident and born in one, too, as her fifteen-year-old pregnant mother shot through the windshield during an auto accident and proceeded to give birth to her first daughter. The ‘ILLEGITIMATE’ slapped across Bone’s birth certificate marks her for life, earning her a rightful place with the rest of the Boatwright clan.

The Boatwrights are a somewhat notorious family in their South Carolina town, known for their beer-guzzling, confrontational men and indomitable women. The men cheat on their wives while the wives pretend they don’t know, and manhood is defined by how much time you’ve spent in jail. The rest of the town views them as “trash.” They are dysfunctional but loyal, messed up but proud.

When Bone’s mother Anney marries Glen (husband number two and still under 21), the real trouble begins. He seems like a nice enough guy at first—deeply in love with Anney, gentle and fatherly towards her two girls. But Glen’s devotion to Anney leans more on the obsessive side, and his desire to be on the level of a Boatwright man (mixed with his own “father issues”) turns him sour, violent, and cruel. Bone becomes the target of Daddy Glen’s jealousy and frustrations that manipulate into physical and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, all Bone wants to do is get OUT.

Allison has created a complex novel here. Anney is torn between her husband and her children; Bone can’t decide if she loves or hates her mother. The inner turmoil that these characters feel really shows through on paper. We hear the story through Bone’s perspective, and though her understanding may be limited, we immediately see the full picture and understand the environment surrounding Bone. The voice is convincing as a pre-teen, and the dialect is not over-the-top. Though the story takes place in the late fifties, the situations and emotions are so raw and universal that it could be anytime, anywhere.
Bastard Out of Carolina will take you on an intense ride, and it is definitely worth reading.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It’s Monday!

…and what are YOU reading? This weekly event is hosted by J. Kaye.

Books I read last week…both for the Southern Reading Challenge:
  • The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Books to read this week (or, books on the top of my ‘to read’ list):
  • Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress (to complete the Southern Reading Challenge!)
  • I’m Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • The Ballad of West Tenth Street by Marjorie Kernan (all three of these finally available from my library hold list)
What are you reading this week, and what’s on your ‘to read’ list?

Review: The Well and the Mine

Fannie Flagg said about Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine, “When you close the book, you’ll miss these characters.” And she was right; I didn’t want to stop reading! I fell in love with these characters so much that I was sad to leave them as I finished the last page.

Set in rural Alabama (Carbon Hill, to be precise) in 1931, this book is more a snapshot of the era and setting than anything else, but Phillips makes the reader fall in love with the characters who are giving you this picture. The story is told through the Moore family: Albert, Leta, and their children—Virgie, Tess, and Jack. The book opens with Tess, the younger of the two daughters, witnessing a woman throw a baby down their well. From then on, Tess and Virgie are on a mission to find out who the woman was.

But don’t get caught up in thinking this story is just a mystery; the baby in well only serves as an overarching motif that runs throughout the book. The real meat of the story is the day-to-day thoughts and actions of the Moore family as we get to know the heart and soul of each of the five characters.

Albert has mined coal all his life. There’s not much else to do in Carbon Hill, Alabama—it’s what fuels the economy. Leta is his hardworking, yet compassionate wife, and their love is solid, yet subtly displayed. Their eldest daughter, Virgie, has hit adolescence, and though she has a stunning beauty, she is thoughtful and timid. Tess is the outspoken one of the family—a nine-year-old that is always looking for adventure. And Jack is the youngest at seven, a bit ornery but with a positive nature. Families don’t get much closer than the Moores, and their loyalty has no end.

Beyond the personalities, there’s so much more to the picture painted by Phillips. Race and poverty…these issues are woven into the narrative without being overtly addressed. It gives a realistic enough tone that I feel like I knew how life was in the South during the Depression.

The narrative alternatives perspectives of each of the five family members, and the changes were quick and frequent. Some readers may get annoyed with it, but I loved the way it kept the story moving. I felt like I got to know each character equally as well. I especially loved the purpose of Jack’s voice. While the rest of the characters spoke in present-tense, Jack’s voice was from the future and more reminiscent. While reading, I found myself desperate to know what was going to happen to all of these characters once the story ended, and Jack appeased my curiosity by letting us know how some things turn out. It’s such a subtle change in time perspective that you barely realize it’s happening, and I assure you that you’ll appreciate it.

This is Gin Phillips’ debut novel, and she certainly started strong! It’s quite a feat to get Fannie Flagg, reigning Queen of Southern Lit, to write an introduction, and for this novel, it is well deserved. I highly recommend The Well and the Mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from this talented author.

Friday, August 7, 2009

AUGUST Booking Events: New York

Normally, I would’ve had this up at the actual beginning of the month, but this week has been a bit CRAZY. So, I apologize for the delay in release of the August booking events! It won’t happen again, I (hopefully) promise!

Tues 8/11, 7:00pm: That Old Cape Magic w/ Richard Russo & South of Broad w/ Pat Conroy, B&N Union Square

Thurs 8/13, 6:30pm: “Food as Fuel & Memory” w/ Moira Hodgson & Tim Stark, Madison Square Park

Mon 8/17, 7:30pm: “Just Working on My Novel” w/ Emily Mandel, The Tank (W 45th St)

Tues 8/18, 7:00pm: The Big Machine w/ Victor LaValle, McNally Jackson

Tues 8/18, 7:00pm: Tales Designed to Thrizzle w/ Michael Kupperman, Strand

Wed 8/19, 7:00pm: A Mercy w/ Toni Morrison, B&N Union Square

Tues 8/25, 7:00pm: Spin w/ Robert Rave, B&N Tribeca

As always, please add anything new!

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Hello!

The first of many activities to come from Book Blogger Appreciation Week, this is a bit of a “getting to know you” exercise. Hopefully in the coming weeks, you’ll get to know a little more about the people behind the words you read on this blog. Maybe the other authors can respond with their answers (hint)!

1) What has been one of the highlights of blogging for you?

Mostly, I’m just excited to be able to talk about books with a community that will listen and contribute to discussion. Oftentimes, you can find a fellow reader somewhere in your everyday life, but they may not know about the specific book you’re reading. The online book community creates such a larger group of people with the same interest, and usually, someone knows of or has read the book you want to discuss.
I also am way more in tune and up to date with the booking world. I recognize many more books on the shelves now. And I actually remember the things I read!

2) What blogger has helped you out with your blog by answering questions, linking to you, or inspiring you?

I’ve done a lot of lurking to give me ideas on layout and content, and there are so many book bloggers that have been inspirational; Dawn @ She is Too Fond of Books has been particularly helpful by going out of her way to give me response. Other than that, I think my fellow authors on this blog are my biggest inspiration. We end up discussing our book blog when we’re hanging out at a bar. We kind of feed off each other in terms of what to write about, what kinds of books to read.
3) What one question do you have about BBAW that someone who participated last year could answer?

How do you get more people to comment? I see the stats, and I see how many people are consistently lurking!

Review: Far out, man

A haze falls over Southern California. A dope haze. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is visited by his ex-lady friend Shasta. She’s worried about her new love interest, a real-estate investor named Mickey Wolfmann, is part of a plot that ends with him getting kidnapped. All of a sudden Mickey is missing, and Shasta. In search for them, Doc (who decides one day to fro up his hair) ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting involved in a murder mystery that brings in one of LAPD’s finest doorbusters, Bigfoot Bjornsen, to his home. Believing Doc to be central to Mickey’s disappearance, as well as the death of one of Mickey’s thugs, Bjornsen is doing everything in his power to get Doc to squeal – yet he won’t accept a single word he says due to Doc’s Doper’s Memory. A cast of characters and corporations (though none as memorable or as amusing as Yoyodine) from LA to Las Vegas create subtle labyrinthine mazes for Doc as he tries to find out who kidnapped Mickey (and possibly Shasta), and why this mysterious vessel, the Golden Fang, might be a cover for corrupt dentists who enjoy picking off people in freak trampoline accidents. 

Inherent Vice is Thomas Pynchon’s eighth book, and a slow and aged one – as if you can tell it was written by an older man when compared to the antics of The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, two earlier novels that share characters, ideas, and locations. There isn’t just the same kind of energy of paranoia running behind this novel. But that’s not a detraction. In fact it allows for more instant rumination on characters and situations, on circumstances and on the hysteria that pump through this work. As long as you’re able to part the clouds of the drugs everyone seems to be on. Perhaps including the narrator. Because his voice and detail makes the reader question, what’s the cause of this amusing and comprehensible lethargy when compared to the rest of the Pynchon oeuvre? Is it old age? Is it that we’re just following Doc and he’s all muddled up? Is it the narrator’s own love of drugs?

Rightly so, this novel has already been compared to the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski - a nihilistic kidnapping mystery that becomes not about a kidnapping mystery at all that rides itself on loose interconnections and a whole lot of marijuana. Doc and the Dude have a lot in common – both men of LA, caught in a world of conspiracy and drama, none of which they usually have in their respective lives. Republican leaders are messing up their lives. They have no interest in money, always seem to have a joint ready and an answer for everything. Doc may have more of a ‘day-job’, but truly as for the reason why he does this PI thing remains a mystery.

To discuss this book would require much more space, but it’s quite interesting that Pynchon decided to write a psychedelic detective tale. Only because The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland are like detective stories just without detectives – a lot of strange and seemingly connected things happen to these protagonists and they go on some inane quest in order to figure out why it’s all happening to them. To place a detective in the mix is now to give the narrative some sort of idea of closure. Detective stories, normally, end with the the perpetrator behind bars or shot; the detective, although somewhat scathed, saves the day, sort of. And all the confusion and mystery that shrouded everyone’s actions throughout the narrative is understood and comes together as the detective figures everything out. That kind of happens here. In doing that though, Pynchon is actually rationalising the world instead of defamiliarising and confusing us by it. Inherent Vice is a much cleaner narrative than any of his other books. It’s as if there wants to be peace through the paranoia – as if Pynchon’s narrator has come to terms with the insanity of the world and can close the book on it.

Perhaps though it’s just a paean to marijuana and the thought that even though you may get high that doesn’t mean you’re ineffective. Because Doc may be the most productive stoner you’ve ever come across.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Whuh-Whuh

Teaser Tuesday is hosted every week by Miz B @ Should Be Reading. You are asked to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. And don’t forget to share the name of the book! This serves as a great, quick source for recommendations.

I’m currently reading The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, and it is very good so far. I’m just sad I fell asleep while reading last night, otherwise I probably could’ve finished it! To give a synopsis in one sentence, it’s about life in rural Alabama during the Great Depression.

My teaser comes from page 78, at which point the Moore family is attending church.

“During prayer, all you could hear was those paper fans whuh-whuhing through the air, and the old men hacking up phlegm. (I asked Papa about that one time and he said it was the mines that did it, made your spit hard and solid where it caught in your throat…)”

I can’t wait to finish reading this one!

Review: Of Human Folly

This was my first reading of Paul Auster, and frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. He’s one of those authors that has a dedicated following, and his fans are probably his toughest critics. In regards to this book in particular, I know there was a lot of love and a lot of hate thrown its way, but I haven’t read a book about New York that captures the intricacies of its individuality as perfectly as Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies

Nathan Glass is a retired insurance salesman who moves to Brooklyn to die. He’s recently divorced and has been diagnosed with lung cancer (though we quickly learn his prognosis is in no way as dire as his introduction would have us believe). Nathan’s plan is to simple wait out the rest of his time in Brooklyn, writing a book of stories on human folly, but his plan quickly changes after a coincidental encounter with his nephew, Tom.
The subplots of Auster’s novel grow exponentially with every new person Nathan meets, quickly making his life a lot more interesting and eventful than he expected. The encounter with Tom brings an ex-convict bookstore owner into the picture, one who is always looking for a quick fortune. The sudden and unexplained presence of Tom’s nine-year-old niece, Lucy, creates a family mystery that introduces us to more of Nathan’s clan. Then there are those everyday people that end up playing a much bigger role in your life than you would have ever imagined—the B.P.M. (Beautiful Perfect Mother) down the street, the owner and his daughter of a Vermont bed-and-breakfast. It almost makes you think that everyone you meet will end up staying with you forever and shape the rest of your life.
The narrative moves quickly, though some of the subplots are more entertaining than others. The characters are all quite likable, and Auster ends up creating an optimistic tone while dissecting human behavior and the truths of life. From reading about the author and his other works, I get the feeling this book takes quite a turn away from his normal style. I’ve heard and read comments on how the ending is indicative of a stylistic change—this one ends on a positive note! I’m interested in reading Auster’s more popular novels, but I liked the message of happiness that he presented in this one.
Plus, this line can’t be beat:

“One should never underestimate the power of books.”

I’d like to hear other opinions on this novel or Auster’s others. Have you read this or any other Auster?

Review: Read and then Lead

I just finished reading Tribes by Seth Godin, author of my favorite blog, and one of the most intelligent marketing minds out there. His book is pretty basic. It reads almost exactly like his blogs – in fact, it looks like just a long series of blog posts (I wonder whether he just set aside specific things he wanted to post on that fell under a general category and then published it as a book).

Either way, post for post, this book is one of the more thought provoking and readable business books I’ve opened in a long time. I need to read it again just to make sure I review and remember the important things I’ll want to return to and think about.

The basic premise of the book is that as tools like the internet make connecting people far easier, the potential to become a leader and indeed, the need for more of us to fulfill that potential has increased tenfold for every single one of us. The best idea I got out of the book was the idea that there’s a huge difference between being a manager and a leader. I expound upon it here, but the point is that people listen to managers because they have to – it’s their job. People listen to leaders because leaders inspire them to think, act and live a certain way.

If you’re at all interested in marketing, leading, or just in changing something – this is an easy, energizing read – something you could step into a bookstore and spend an hour reading, and then walk out ready to take action and make things happen.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Southern Reading 2009 Challenge

The Southern Reading 2009 Challenge is hosted by Maggie over at Maggie Reads. The deal is to read three fiction or non-fiction southern books between May 15th and August 15th, 2009. I’m starting late and only have a couple weeks to read the books, but I saw the word ‘southern’ and I have to participate in anything related to my homeland. It’s too good to pass up!

I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple weeks, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to take on the challenge or not. However, the New York Public Library pulled through and I have possession of all three books I plan on reading. So, now it’s time to get down to business by taking a break from Buffy season 2 DVDs (sad)!

My three books are:
  1. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips – I won this as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer, but due to a FedEx mishap, I never actually received it. I wanted to read it, though, and thanks to the library, it’s on my list.
  2. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison – National Book Award finalist…seems worthy of my time.
  3. Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress – adding some humor to the mix. I hear it’s better than the movie.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review: Anything Goes

Recall New York in the 90s. People were afraid to jog in Central Park. The outer boroughs had yet to be claimed truly by hipsters. Window-washers approached your car in the Bronx as you waited to get on to the Second Avenue Bridge. Prostitutes stood at street corners on Tenth Avenue, at Times Square, the first people to greet tourists as they came to this city of cities.

In The Extra Man, the second novel by Jonathan Ames, this is all ‘romanticised’ – to a degree by bringing in the idea of the 1920s gentleman, Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, and Cole Porter’s tunes. This is a New York that only the tough could love, that only the eccentric could live in. And somehow millions of people were still able to deal with it.

As with all of Ames’s work, there is a certain interest in non-‘mainstream’ sexuality: men who enjoy dressing in women’s clothing, men who believe they’re really women (uranians), transsexuals hyped up on hormones, people who are not homo-, hetero-, a-, or even bisexual but trisexual. The list obviously goes on. And in Ames’s capable hands, these people don’t feel like tools made for us to understand a particular point of view; they’re actual flesh and blood characters whose company we can enjoy, whose pain we can feel. Through that, and a writing style that is always direct and humorous, Ames is able to create a world that moves so quickly, that is so enticing, that it’s a pleasure to engage yourself into it.

After getting caught wearing a fellow teacher’s brassiere in the school lounge, Louis Ives was not invited to come back to Princeton’s Petty Brook Day School. On a whim, he decides to move to New York; by discovering an advertisement looking for a writerly roommate, he falls upon Henry Harrison, an eccentric old man – former actor and playwright whose plays were stolen from him and might be up on the stage in Yugoslavia by a treacherous old acquaintance – who has the most curious of habits. He flushes before he finishes urinating. In order to get ‘free’ tickets to the opera or Broadway show, he waits until the second act, when touristy patrons are unlikely to go back in to see the end of the show and takes their seats. He can quote Wilde, Keats, and Fitzgerald (I guess that’s not curious, but perhaps to some). He can charm women to buy him dinners. He has a car that is always on empty, just in case he has to dump it somewhere, he doesn’t want to feel he lost money to gas.

Henry decides to take Louis in as his protégé, to teach him how to be a gentleman in New York society without really spending a penny. So begins a Don Quixote-and-Sancho Panza-like relationship. And like Don Quixote, The Extra Man is like an episodic novel (with an arc) that follows the humorous, ironic, sad, and slapstick tales of these two bumbling gentlemen.

Louis, as he is getting pushed up socially (at least in the geriatric socialites’ eyes), starts putting on a costume of suits and hats. But simultaneously he is still intrigued by wearing women’s clothing (notably bras). The New York Press runs advertisements for spankers and for transsexual bars, one called Sally’s which is across the street from the (old) New York Times building, where he walks and talks with various queens. He seems like he’s being raised and submerged simultaneously; it’s hard to make out which path is which though. But in the end it’s all experience, all enlightenment of some sort or other, for Louis has attachments to people – something of utmost importance.

Filled with literary anecdotes from Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald, Anglophilia, and absurd axioms spouted by Henry, The Extra Man is an amusing comic novel that is malleable enough to hit both the high and low culture.

The film version of this story has just finished shooting in New York, starring Kevin Klein, John C Reilly, Paul Dano, and Katie Holmes – which should make an exciting cast. I would be more amused if Holmes ends up playing a transsexual. The film has been adapted for the screen and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team that brought you American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries. The movie is set to be released in 2010.