Friday, February 26, 2010

A Brief Conversation on EATING ANIMALS

I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals a few months ago, but I was unable to put my thoughts into a coherent review. Foer and the topic of his book were things I’ve argued many times before and I didn’t feel like rehashing it again. Then Sal read the book and seemed to have the same reaction. So, I convinced him to write this article with me in attempt to alleviate my reviewer’s guilt.

COLIN: Jonathan Safran Foer’s work elicits many unique and diverse responses. With EATING ANIMALS Foer has injected himself into issue that has as many opinions as critics do of his work. I avoided starting this conversation because I wasn’t sure where to begin. For the first time in his young career Foer writes a non-fiction piece using various techniques to develop his point. Vegetarianism is an extremely delicate subject with some people which makes writing about it very difficult. I think Foer’s best attempt at avoiding his own opinions was during the definitions portion of the book. Though this glossary was littered with views and spin, it was still the most neutral portion of the book. Given as facts, Foer’s statements are clear and concise as he defines the various words associated with factory farming and vegetarianism. As there were definite sections to EATING ANIMALS, when did you think Foer truly hit his stride and made his best points?

SALVATORE: I really think that Foer was at his best when he was describing his own personal relationship to food and how that’s evolved throughout his life, the reason why he was writing this book, the reason why he’s decided to agree to a vegetarian diet after thirty or so years of toying with the idea. In the opening chapter, which I think is the most solid, Foer reminds us that food goes beyond simply us eating it. There is a story that goes along with recipes, that there is a history that ties along to a prepared dish – whether it’s something aligned with our religious beliefs (as in the absence of pork in a Jewish diet) or with our family’s interests and backgrounds. One’s choice to eat something is in the end a personal one, and being that this is a book written by someone who is foremost a novelist, the personal and the interior thoughts of the writer should come out strongest. That being said, I may not be a vegetarian but I sympathize with the concept; yet I don’t feel that Foer made any strides in the general persuasion argument.

‘We are made of stories,’ Foer writes; ‘We are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.’ Foer may gain sympathy for this point, but did the facts of the narrative bog down the book? Being that Foer is a novelist first and not a nutritionist or a fervent animal rights activist, can he effectively write a personal narrative that can convince readers to support his claims about vegetarianism?

COLIN: I think readership is an interesting topic with EATING ANIMALS. I haven’t had the time to fact check his work (nor the proper endnotes) but I wonder if any readers will delve that far into the piece. Does this work require such investigation, or are we to be swayed by his opinions at face value? If it’s the latter, why write non-fiction in the first place?

To return to your initial response, I agree the introduction is compelling but it felt like just that–and introduction. The later portions lost Foer’s personality and at times I couldn’t tell if he was paraphrasing or quoting subjects directly.

SAL: With a topic like vegetarianism, and with someone like Foer writing it, I would imagine that he is preaching to the choir. People who are vegetarians or vegans are going to read it in order to bolster their life-choice and increase the fury of their argument. Those who don’t buy into that either aren’t going to read it or will find alternative answers to the questions and images that Foer presents. Or they’re going to say that meat is just too tasty to give up.

A good question then as to why write. Foer mentions that this is really for his son, a rationale for why he’s having him grow up not eating animals. In essence, this book isn’t for our consumption. This might be why it feels as if there’s the tenuous divisions of Foer’s personality, paraphrasing, and direct quotes. Like writing an e-mail to a friend, your quotations may not be within those inverted commas. But then the question is, why publish?

In the end though, I have to say that for me it’s important to read books like these – those on the topic of cruelty towards animals – every so often, because it does remind me to think about where my food is coming from. Being someone who does enjoy cooking (though baking more), I wonder if I would be able to have a farm, to kill a chicken, to bleed a cow. Maybe these queries aren’t the best coming from Foer, but then is there a writer that I would want these from?

COLIN: I agree to keep one’s research balanced. Despite my own proclivity towards meats, it is important to be reminded of differing views. I suppose that’s true in all fields. EATING ANIMALS might not be the best argument for vegetarianism, but reading it could be beneficial.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: Palindromes and layered history

Anne Michaels’s début novel, Fugitive Pieces, is an intense one. Character is of utmost importance; place just seems to be happenstance. It’s the story of the Polish Jew Jakob Beer, who narrowly escapes a massacre by hiding in the cupboard of his home as the rest of his family is killed by the Germans. He hears the shots, bowls and buttons falling to the floor, sees the deceased and blooded bodies of his parents (though not of his sister). He describes his hiding from the Germans during this period through a lens that Irish poet Seamus Heaney would later use to describe what was unearthed from the bogs of Ireland: ‘I squirmed from the ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road . . . Afterbirth of earth.’ As exemplified by this quote, Michaels’s language is richly poetic, deeply aware, and highly thought out.

Jakob is saved by a Greek geologist, Athos, who brings him across several borders and showcases  the humanity of humankind. Under Athos’s aegis, Jakob is brought to Greece and is taught language, history, cartography, meteorology; he learns that they are not independent studies but rather are interconnected, no matter how distant they may seem. Jakob, as he develops, becomes intrigued by the playfulness of language, by corny puns and impressive palindromes, that create the greyness of language – the bizarre behaviours of words, the complexity and the magic of the arrangement of letters.
Jakob has his fair share of hardship and love, pain and elation. And then all of a sudden, in the second part of the narrative, a new narrator enters the story, a young man who we find out has crossed paths with the poet Beer, who has stumbled upon his memoirs. This man, Ben – not Benjamin, but Ben, after the Hebrew word for son – comes from a Jewish family that escaped the Holocaust, who emigrated to Toronto but refused to live in the Jewish section, so that if another pogrom happened, they would evade it. The connection to Jakob isn’t the focus of Ben’s narrative. He, rather, writes about his own life – and as if by magic, we start to see loose parallels, we begin to understand how love saves. Nothing is blatant. But our minds start to take the refuge left over from these broken and incomplete lives, and we start filling in the blanks, start understanding why these narratives are side by side, how time and history repeat themselves.
It’s a novel that resonates well after you’ve finished it, simply because the answers aren’t given within the text itself. It’s when you think back to a moment, said moment feels like a reverberation of another moment in the novel, which is then tied to yet another, ad infinitum. The cleverness in this book is its ability to be elusive yet descriptive, hermetic yet open-ended. It may not be the most pleasant of works to read, or even the most engaging, but it certainly is something to attempt. Fans of Michael Ondaatje, especially of his In the Skin of a Lion, might enjoy this.

The Guardian used it as a book club pick back in May 2009. And Random House has a discussion guide for the weary and faint of heart when it comes to novels like these. A review on this site of Michaels’s most recent novel, The Winter Vault, can be found here.
Would a novel like this, one that seems to have no beginning or ending, no explanation for most of its decisions, be bothersome to you? For those who have read it, why do you think this was so successful in the marketplace, as usually experimental works like these don’t have much of an audience?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Latency in Jerusalem

Last month’s Idlewild book club selection was School for Love by Olivia Manning, another in the NYRB collection. It’s 1945 and Felix, a recently orphaned teenager, goes to live with a distant relative in Jerusalem to await passage back to England. Felix arrives at Miss Bohun’s boarding house naive and free of biases; he still craves the attention given to him by his coddling mother but is forced to grow up and fend for himself. As Felix meets and interacts with an eclectic mix of characters, he learns that first impressions are not always accurate, personalities are not always genuine, and perhaps his mother sheltered him too much—all in all, his own learning in the “school for love.” It’s a coming-of-age story for Felix, but perhaps more interesting are the characters he encounters.

While Felix is the voice of the narrative, the story arguably centers around Miss Bohun. She’s a miserly middle-aged spinster, devoted to her Christian group the “Ever-Readies” (as in, “ever-ready” for the coming of Christ) with intentions that are never as selfless and genuine as she would have them appear. She allows Christian duty to guide her actions though sometimes exhibits very un-Christian behavior. Initially, Felix champions Miss Bohun’s perspective as she deals with other tenants and employees in the house.
The arrival of Mrs. Ellis, a young widow, to the boarding house causes a dramatic shift in Felix’s thought processes. With another opinion present, Felix is caught between the incompatible Miss Bohun and Mrs. Ellis and finds himself questioning the thoughts and opinions of which he had felt so certain. As the discordance escalates, Felix matures and gains independence as he recognizes the flaws in those around him.
The story did not really blow me away, but it was enhanced by a fascinating setting. Jerusalem in 1945 was full of war refugees—people essentially just waiting to get somewhere else. You get the feeling that the people there, the way of life is very temporary. Conflict between Israel and Palestine was in the early stages, and, for the most part, Arabs, Christians, and Jews are peacefully coexisting in the same city. Environment and setting ultimately shape the mentality—thoughts and actions—of the characters. Unfortunately, the novel is extremely character-driven to the point that very little attention was paid to the political setting, which would have been interesting. But I guess that wasn’t the author’s point of focus.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

GIVEAWAY Winners: Flawless!

Wow, this was the best response to a giveaway we’ve ever had! I’m sure it’s all thanks to the stellar timing with the book’s release and the wonderful help of @SterlingBooks.

So thanks to, the two lucky winners of a copy of Flawless are….

#5 and #22

Which are…

Bcteagirl and Julia!

Congrats guys! I’ve sent you both an email requesting your mailing address. Thanks, everyone, for participating, and thanks to Sterling Books for hosting this giveaway.

Friday, February 19, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: Falling From the Sky

Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is proving a little difficult for me to review. It’s only been on the shelves a few days but has already made quite an impression on the publishing world, thanks in part to winning The 2008 Bellwether Prize, an award established by Barbara Kingsolver that recognizes literary fiction addressing issues of social justice.

The story centers around Rachel, a half-Danish, half African-American girl who is the only survivor of family tragedy that takes the lives of her mother and two siblings. With an absent GI father, Rachel moves to Portland, Oregon, to live with her strict African-American grandmother. As a sixth grader, Rachel struggles to define herself when the rest of the world seems comfortable classifying her by race—and an incomplete classification at that, only considering the side of her that is Black. As Rachel grows up, she must work through the complexities of racial identity while maturing into her own person and dealing with her own grief.

This book reads a lot like juvenile fiction, based on the voices from which we hear the story. Most frequently, we hear Rachel’s voice as she travels through adolescence, but we also hear from some other characters—Jaimie (aka Brick), a peer of Rachel’s; a librarian who was Rachel’s mother’s supervisor; and Rachel’s mother, Nella, through diary entries. The best part is the prose Durrow uses to eloquently and honestly voice the sentiments of the characters. My favorite passage:

“It’s easy to smile just to make other people feel better. But when a person fakes happy, it has edges. Regular people may not see, but the people who count, they can see edges and lines where your smile ends and the real you, the sadness (me) or the anger (Grandma), begins.”

With chapters that alternated in perspective between participants and observers, Durrow is able to put the reader both inside and outside Rachel’s world. I felt that the main character (Rachel) always seemed rather detached, but to a degree, I could feel the reasons for her distance. She’s constantly living on the line between what is stereotypically white and what is stereotypically black, so how could she attach herself to anything?

The ending left me a bit unsatisfied and wanting more, but it was a powerful read none the less. Durrow manages to combine stories of both internal and external identity and creates a thoughtful statement on the modern definition of ‘race.’ It was very hard to put this book down, and I look forward to hearing more from this great new voice in fiction.

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good Ol’ Girls Gone Wild

One very important thing about me that you may or may not already know: I am Southern. I did grow up with running water (contrary to the belief of my Northern friends), I am not Republican, and I barely have an accent, but the South is in my blood. It’s the characteristic about myself that I cling to the most while living up here in Yankee-land.

Another thing you may have noticed: Jill McCorkle is one of my favorite authors because she reaches out to that Southern part of me. She’s able to capture that distinct Southern-ness without being too overt, by just describing day-to-day life.

So imagine my joy when I find out that a musical is opening Off-Broadway that is based on the stories of Jill McCorkle and fellow Southern author Lee Smith! And even better, my boyfriend Colin works for the theater agency that represents the writer and director, so he got us tickets during the show’s previews!

Good Ol’ Girls is a musical about life and love told through the stories and songs of five women of various age. For the most part, it celebrates life from beginning to end, including just a hint of the troubles everyone faces. To define it as a typical musical with a plot would be incorrect—it’s more a series of vignettes broken up with songs that are just enough to get a deep look at one small aspect of a woman’s life before it changes focus.

The music was great and the venue is small enough that the audience is real connected with the women and musicians on stage. And I found them all to be fabulous. Colin claims that parts felt a bit exaggerated…and maybe if I actually lived in the South, I’d feel a bit like it was portraying us a bit inaccurately. But you know what…I live in the North where people drink Pepsi and complain about humidity so I got a kick out of it all, exaggerated or not.

If you’re in the NYC area, check it out sometime between now and April 11th!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It’s a Flawless GIVEAWAY!

If you’ve been buzzing around Twitter this morning, you may have seen a bunch of stuff from @SterlingBooks about their new release, Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History.

And if you live in NYC, you may have seen their street team in yellow vests handing out issues of Metro and offering a free eBook download of the book in its entirety (which you can find at
BUT, if you haven’t seen any of this and you’re more of a hardcover copy gal or guy like me, the great people at Sterling have offered a copy of Flawless to one two of our lucky readers!
This is a short run contest, running from now through Friday the 19th at 11:59PM. To enter:
  1. Comment below and leave your email address.
  2. Tweet about this contest! (Win a free copy of FLAWLESS from @fiveborobooks and @SterlingBooks!
Good luck!

Wordless Wednesday: Praha

Charles Bridge, Prague

For more Wordless Wednesday, go here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: The starving of the artist as a young man

Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is probably one of the most famous Scandinavian novels. And when you recall that it was written in 1890, it makes it all the more remarkable. It takes on the bleakness of Dostoevsky with the spare prose of someone like Hemingway. While people were still reading the longwinded prose of Dickens, this must have come as a shock – especially since the subject matter isn’t terribly reader friendly.

The nameless narrator is roaming the streets of Christiana (now Oslo). He is a writer who only occasionally gets to write for the local papers and journals. He doesn’t seem to have a great relationship with any of the city’s publishers: they know him, they take pity on his plight, but there’s no jocularity, no friendship between them. He doesn’t get assignments from them; he’s the one pitching the essays he pens with a measly pencil – one of his main possessions.
Thus the narrator refuses to live or write by any one else’s standards but his own. Which of course makes him live on the edge of existence: he can’t pay rent and is thrown out by his kind landlady, he doesn’t have money in a bank account and eats whenever he pawns one of his few belongings (first, his waistcoat). On top of this he refuses to beg, to take money that isn’t earned, which makes this project even more difficult.
The narrator isn’t someone that we want to sympathise with, as the introduction by Paul Auster tells us: ‘Pity plays no part in Hunger. The hero suffers, but only because he has chosen to suffer. Hamsun’s art is such that he rigorously prevents us from feeling any compassion for his character. From the beginning, it is made clear that the hero need not starve. Solutions exist, if not in the city, then at least in departure.’ This is clear and apparent as one wades through this book; there’s something obnoxious about this writer – is it his ‘standards’? is it his voice? is it his eccentricities and inability to connect truly with anyone else in Christiana? – but there’s something compelling about his self-created pain that makes the reader want to continue on his masochistic journey.
For no one understands him, not the prostitutes, not the shopowners (who don’t understand his generosity-turned-layaway payments). Maybe his ‘Freedom of the Will’ – the first piece of writing he talks about – is just too ‘free’ for others. Though this kind of runs against some of his more insightful observations: ‘The sorrowful, flutelike sound of the organ shivered in me, my nerves began to vibrate like a sounding board, and an instant later I slumped backward on the bench, whining and humming with the music. What odd things the feelings stuck to when one was hungry! I felt drawn up by the notes, dissolved in them, I began to flow out into the air, and could see very clearly what I was flowing over, high over mountains, dancing on in waves over brilliant areas . . .’
Hunger for the modern audience may not be as affected as Hamsun’s own cohorts. It’s hard to imagine this plight of the artist – it almost feels too romantic in its pains, in its aesthetic concept: ‘Everyone fails once in a while, and they always fail precisely in the most simple problems: that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just chance.’ The existentialism presented here doesn’t resonate as intensely as that found in something like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger. But it’s certainly building towards those pillars of literature.
As aforementioned, the introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition ($15) has an introduction by Paul Auster, which can be found in his Collected Prose trade paperback original – a definite volume for the Auster fan (and one that, after reading his memoirs, you’ll understand why he has such an interest and love of Hunger). Though I wonder if the Penguin edition/translation would be better…

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Blogger Convention

Book Blogger Convention

Ok people, I did it. I registered for the first ever Book Blogger Convention. I figured, Hey, I already live in NYC. And what’s one of my 25 or so available paid days off? And (most importantly), I just got my tax return. So, in attendance I will be.

Now the real work/fun begins. Until May, I will be:

  1. Brainstorming embarrassing icebreakers to use in a room of book nerds.
  2. Hunting down photos of every blogger in attendance and making/studying flashcards so I will actually know faces before I get there.
  3. Plotting ways to get my boss to allow me to use work hours to attend BEA as a company representative the prior three days without actually manning the company booth.
  4. Bombarding attendee blogs with frequent obnoxious comments like, “OMG yes I totz agree, we should def discuss in May!” that express my excitement. But don’t worry: I will not say words like “totz” or “def” in person.
  5. Twittering so I feel up-to-date on all attendee convention chat. Nah, even this can’t get me to use that thing regularly. Sorry, Twitter. I just don’t like you much.

Woohoo, I am pumped! I’m excited to meet the people behind the blogs I read and participate in an all day total book geekout! HOLLA.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chunkster: His Paper Chase

Journalist Harold Evans’ memoir My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read for months. And I’ve been mulling over its review for almost as long (meaning a few days). At first glance, this looks like an intimidating read—600 pages about journalism by a journalist…OH BOY. You think, “Is this going to put me to sleep? Is it going to be a political rant? Or is Evans just gonna ramble his way through the decades?” And if he sucks at writing, you might as well give up before you begin.

Luckily, none of these things happen. First of all, this isn’t an autobiography. The distinction I have recently made between autobiography and memoir is that an autobiography will focus on a whole life (probably starting with “I was born here, and my parents did this, and I went to school there”) while a memoir has more of a focus—usually the author’s experience with something much bigger than him. In this case, Evans tells us about his life with journalism.
Evans was born in 1928 in the English countryside and decided early on that he wanted to be a journalist. He got his first job as a newspaper reporter at sixteen, and his drive, ability, and understanding of the profession led him quickly through the ranks. Evans is a Renaissance man of sorts—in his 60+ year career, his titles have included editor of the Sunday Times, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, and president and publisher of Random House (just to name a few).
One of the book’s strongest points is the detail with which Evans tells his stories. How can an 80-year-old man possibly remember all that he remembers? [Oh right, he’s a journalist. He probably wrote it all down]. He flavors the major time periods of his professional life with the stories that defined them. During his tenure at The Northern Echo, he campaigned for preventative tests for cervical cancer; The Sunday Times gave him the most action, including a major campaign for the British Thalidomide Children, the investigation of a Soviet spy, the unsolved murder of a Times reporter, and the eventual clash with Rupert Murdoch; his life in the U.S. led him to new industries and a new relationship with publishing power Tina Brown.
Evans does such a great job of storytelling within a frame of context that I always understood the importance of what he was saying, despite my lack of existence during about 80% of the book’s timeframe. You can tell he knows how to write, and he writes in a way that keeps people interested. I was never bored, and he’s never bogged down by his words. For a book about a man I’d never heard of, I was pleasantly surprised by how engrossed I was in his story. This is a book that will make me feel cool to have on my shelf in 30 years and say, “Yes, I read it.”
Side note: I was a journalism major [for about 3 months until I decided I didn’t want to interview strangers about sensitive topics and switched to the much broader Communications], so the subject matter interested me from the beginning. But the most memorable thing for me was when Evans said he went through a rigorous interrogation prior to being named Editor of The Sunday Times. The Board of Directors actually made him vow to not let the parent company’s other business interests influence his report of the news! My, how times have changed!
NPR did a nice little feature when the book was released in November.
Review copy provided by the publisher–Little, Brown, and Company.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: There’s a blizzard in NYC

Fun on the beach

For more Wordless Wednesday, go here.

How do you rate the ratings?

You may notice or have heard me say that we don’t rate books here with a number or star count or grade or any other method. This is because I think people read too much into ratings. We’ll see a low or even so-so rating and say, “Eh, not worth my time,” and never give the book a chance [for my previous rant about this, please read a post from about 6 days ago]. BUT, tonight at my book club, another member and I were urging everyone to get onto Goodreads, and we mentioned its star rating system. It turned into a fun discussion on how you’d classify your reads with a star rating of 1-5. Everyone has their own standards and criteria for each level, so I thought it’d be fun to find out some of yours.

These are mine.

★ – I detested this and wanted to throw it across the room frequently. I will specifically recommend people not read it.
★★ – Didn’t like it, but maybe someone else will. Surely someone else will.
★★★ – I liked it, but I’m sure not I can give you a reason why. Or rather, I can give you a reason, but it may not be enough of a reason for you to pick it up. Or, it wasn’t wasting my time, but it’s not going to really stick with me. Or, it was alright, and I see it has literary merit. Or, I like it just enough to avoid saying I don’t like it.
★★★★ – This was a great read, and I’ll probably recommend it. Usually, recommendations in my verbal world would have to earn at least a 4 on my Goodreads rating scale.
★★★★★ – Omg omg, love love love. BUT, unlike 4-stars, 5-stars has a personal quality to it. Either it really touched me in some way, I can really relate to it, or it’s a childhood favorite. Oftentimes, other people won’t love my 5-stars as much as I love them, because I have some specific reason for loving them.

I’d say most of the books I read earn 3 or 4 stars. How do ratings work for you?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: Grand subtropical poverty

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, published today, is the first collection of stories from twenty-six-year-old writer Justin Taylor, and it’s what you’d expect from a writer of his generation. Most of the stories are concerned with family members and relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, breaking away from the norm and yet trying to find roots somewhere. None of the pieces in this collection feel big, nor do any of them truly stand out, but most make for interesting reading.

Like Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Taylor here opts to create his titles after found words on sidewalks, graffiti artists’ tags, random throwaway lines that would have otherwise gotten lost in the shuffle. The eponymous phrase ‘everything is the best thing ever’ is spray-painted and ‘nobody from the city ever came to clean it up’. ‘Estrellas y Rascacielos’ is a line from a song in that story. And like O’Connor, Taylor is interested in storytelling mainly of the South, of Jews in the South, and occasionally of characters feeling a bit displaced in New York City.
In ‘In My Heart I’m Already Gone’, the second story in this collection, and one that almost mimics a Joyce-like epiphany moment, the narrator has found a father figure in his Uncle Danny who one day asks him to kill family’s cat. The narrator is sick of being in town, has always dreamed that he is better than what he’s become, and believes he is embodying the concept of the title: ‘though in my heart I am already gone, am calling my mother on her birthday or sending a Christmas gift to Vicky, I don’t know where I’ll go or how I’ll get there.’
Although the plan to kill the cat works, somewhat vicious in its description and coldness, the unfortunate doesn’t end there. Going into his cousin Vicky’s room, in an Ian McEwan-like bizarreness of sexuality, he commences smelling her underwear, which stimulates the imagination: ‘if she were standing in front of a boy, as Sara stood in front of me last night, he would fall to his knees in worship–how could he not?–and maybe Vicky will not miss just a single pair…’ But the problem is that he gets caught by Vicky’s mother, his aunt, as he’s sniffing the absent crotch.
‘Finding Myself’, the shortest story in this collection, almost feels like a paean to why Taylor has decided to write, his own tiny manifesto:

I find myself in places I don’t expect me, such as outside churches, lurking, peering in their dooryards, or inside my own hollow skull, living a life to which the term hardscrabble might be astutely or ironically applied. Luckily, there are no ironists or astuticians around to subject me to application. It’s just me in here–I’m not even wearing socks. . . . I am not a casual observer. Of the few things I do well, casualty is not one of them.

Overall, this début isn’t bad, and it’s somewhat impressive that someone as young as Taylor has been able to write and publish as much as he has. At the same time, there are few true challenges that seem to be set up by the author: there aren’t really any stylistic techniques that jolt the reader into attention, and sometimes the stories feel easy – especially when it comes to Jewish jokes or particular themes and settings. But then again his depiction of New York City, the Alphabet City in ‘Whistle Through Your Teeth and Spit’, seems wildly accurate while being wildly amusing. So it’s a collection that rides several borders. It’s like listening to someone reciting an anecdote at a bar. Sometimes you’re listening and laughing along; sometimes you just don’t feel like paying attention and nod to appease the storyteller; sometimes you can’t hear over the sound of the speaker system; sometimes you wonder how you got to that place to begin with.
Review galley generously provided by publisher.

Monday, February 8, 2010

GIVEAWAY Winner: Between Here and April

Thanks to everyone who entered to win a copy of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s Between Here and April, courtesy of Algonquin Books.

And the winner is…


Congrats, Linda. Check your mailbox soon!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

FEBRUARY Book Events: New York

Why oh why do I always seem to forget about this until a couple days into the month?

2/4, Thursday
  • “Secrets of Eden” Chris Bohjalian, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
2/5, Friday
  • “Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter” Michael J. White, B&N Park Slope, 7:30 pm
2/8, Monday
  • “Hot Springs” Geoffrey Becker, McNally Jackson Books, 7:00 pm
2/9, Tuesday
  • “Brava, Valentine” Adriana Trigiani, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “The Other Side of Paradise” Staceyann Chin, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History” Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, McNally Jackson Books, 7:00 pm
2/10, Wednesday
  • “The Postmistress” Sarah Blake, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Lowboy” John Wray, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
2/11, Thursday
  • “The Room and the Chair” Lorraine Adams, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival” Ken Wheaton, B&N Park Slope, 7:30 pm
2/16, Tuesday
  • “Union Atlantic” Adam Haslett, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
2/19, Friday
  • “The Man from Beijing” Henning Mankell, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
2/22, Monday
  • “What Makes an African American Classic?” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” Cathleen Schine, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm
2/24, Wednesday
  • Launch party for Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, Maria Finn, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
2/25, Thursday
  • “Horns” Joe Hill, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Snow in Philly

Candid shot

Normally I don’t participate in these weekly things, but I think I’m going to start with Wordless Wednesdays. Photography’s always been my other big hobby besides books, and I’m trying to get the most out of my Flickr Pro account!

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

Blog Improvement Project: Week 1

I am very excited to participate in this year’s Blog Improvement Project (from henceforth abbreviated as BIP for the sake of my fingers). I started this blog last April and by the time I actually heard about the 2009 BIP, it was around July, too late to start, and the blog was still kind of in the late stages of development anyway. So, I’ve anxiously awaited February 2010 so I could finally start an organized method of improving the Five Borough Book Review for you, the reader.

So let’s start with what I like about the blog:
  1. It’s the collaborative effort that I have always intended it to be. I initially started this as a place for my friends to discuss our reads; that it has gained a wider audience is just a special added bonus!
  2. We don’t rate books. We don’t want to tell you if you will like a book or not; it’s usually not that simple. We want to foster discussion, so we’ll always suggest you read it and form your own opinion. 
  3. The layout is organized. Poor web and graphic design hurts my eyes, so I want to make sure our page is (hopefully) pleasing to its viewers.
Now for some things I want to change [aka, these are my overall GOALS for the BIP!]:
  1. Thanks to Google Analytics and Feedburner, I know we have a loyal readership. However, our comments don’t reflect that. I don’t need comments for validation, but when we’re trying to start discussion and don’t get much of one in return, it starts to feel like we’re talking to ourselves in the deep, Internet abyss.
  2. Along with that, it could be that my posts just aren’t interesting enough. When talking about books, it’s hard to break the habit of just writing a review rather than typing commentary that will get people to think and respond. So I want to work on quality of posts. I know that some bloggers spend hours on a post and I basically jot down whatever’s in my head. Maybe I should spend more time on it.
  3. Along with THAT, I don’t have a very wide range of topics I cover in posts; it’s usually book reviews with an occasional random post on something else book related. I’d like to write about more, but for two big reasons, I don’t. One, I often lack inspiration. The only time I work on the blog is during my eight working hours during the day; once I get home, by no means do I want to open my computer and stare at a screen any longer. And two, books are my biggest hobby, but I’m 24 and living in New York City. While I love blogging, it’s not a super high priority—I do read a lot but I also work, eat, sleep, drink, go to the gym, and hang out with my friends. [That’s why being collaborative is great, because if it was only me writing this, there would be days between posts]. I would like to diversify the content of my posts, but I don’t want to make this too much of a personal blog because I already have one of those. Plus, it’s not just my voice you’re reading (back to that whole collaborative thing). 
  4. I want to brand the blog a bit better. This will involve a layout change, which I have been wanting to do for a while.
So now questions for you, the reader. Take a couple minutes and give me some feedback! It’ll be a great start to the BIP!
  1. How many book blogs would you say you read regularly? What keeps you coming back to those blogs?
  2. What are your favorite types of posts to read? Book reviews, discussion questions, fun extras, non-book-related posts?
  3. When reading a blog post, what triggers you to hit that comment button?
  4. Would posing questions after a review inspire you to participate in a discussion of the book?
  5. How much do you want to know about the blog author? Do you just want to read reviews or do you want to feel like you know and have a connection with the blogger?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chunkster: Dodgy history

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is one hell of a ride. And I must admit that out of all the Pynchon books I’ve read (which is all of them sans Against the Day) I think this is the one I’ve enjoyed most from a first reading. Which is an oddity since I generally don’t enjoy the historical novel, especially one that’s set in colonial America. And although the time period is something Pynchon had not tried before (although he did technically write a Renaissance play, the furthest I back in history he has tried to replicate emphatically, for the third chapter of The Crying of Lot 49), it comes off as almost magical – an anachronistic book that doesn’t lose any of the high-strung humour that Thomas Pynchon is known for.

As suggested by the title, the novel is about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two British surveyors whose names are now known for the the Mason-Dixon line, most prominently used during the Civil War and after to describe a cultural divide in the United States of America, but then used to end a debate between what belonged to Pennsylvania and what belonged to Maryland, since there was a bit of overlap and vagueness on which colony got what territorially. Leave it to Pynchon to take this and make a mockery of it.
Mason & Dixon is told somewhat through the eyes of Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, a reverend of god-knows-what, who has come to a house as a special guest to distant relatives. In order to entertain them, he – like Scheherazade – decides to tell a story, in this instance what would be a 780-page tale of Mason and Dixon, keeping young and old alike in intrigue. Though it’s quite uncertain as to how the Reverend has such privy information is kept humorously uncertain (and questioned by a couple of the listeners in his party), the Reverend regales his audience – and us – by detailing ripped bodices, how Thomas Jefferson stole ‘the pursuit of happiness’ from Jeremiah Dixon, George Washington and his wife’s ridiculously memorable banter, and how – especially in a time like the Age of Reason, in which this novel is set – the connection between science and speculation, Romanticism and darkness, the will for freedom and acts of racism basically are the foundation of America, for better or ill.
We follow Mason and Dixon from their modest beginnings in London to a wild naval battle on their way to the Cape of Good Hope to their carnal lusts (and those bodices in twain) at said Cape. Then the bulk of the book – part two, entitled simply ‘America’ – details their insane stay in Philadelphia, meeting the American soon-to-be-revolutionaries aforementioned, and discussions on whether coffee or tea is better and scientifically more interesting. Being a tea drinker myself, I still side on Mason’s love of tea; however, Dixon’s description of the precision needed for brilliant coffee-making almost makes me want to side with him.
Of course the novel is so much more than what is suggested here; it has the wonderful ramblings and sidestories that any Pynchon novel normally has. What makes this an anachronistic work is that Pynchon has written this as if it were written in 1789, with all the typographical entities that would be found in something of that time (the ‘ds that would be used for past tenses: starr’d for starred; random capitalisations for nouns, like in German; old (mis-)spellings like philosophickal; the refusal to spell out God’s or the Devil’s name, as well as a handful of curse words – though not fuck for some reason).
Mason & Dixon at the very least is a book about the art of storytelling, as the Reverend Cherrycoke’s framing reveals: for as certain parts of his audience leave the room, he adapts his narrative to suit those remaining: lots of adventure and violence for the young boys (Pitt and Pliny, so named so that they could be called the Elder and the Younger, one of the more memorable early jokes in the novel). It’s a great buddy novel, as John Leonard in The Nation suggests, like Ulysses or Huckleberry Finn; but I think the better comparison would be Don Quixote, for it is much more episodic (and quixotic) like Cervantes’s masterwork, as just as humorous (though not as cruel). Mason is made out to be a worrisome, morose, and laconic man, mourning his wife’s untimely death; Dixon meanwhile is the boisterous, heavy-drinking, and jocular one, looking forward to the experience. With a set up like that, and with the shady historical facts that Pynchon presents, the narrative could entertainingly go on forever.
Definitely one of the best reads I’ve experienced. And one I look forward to returning to in due time.