Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Reading Roundup

If I've learned one thing this month, it's that it is truly impossible to stay current with every book that comes into the house. I might have had a good shot at it but I got a little slowed down with Dissident Gardens, which I spent well over a week and a half reading.  Keeping up with new arrivals just isn't a reality so my little mini-challenge just fizzled. Oh well!

Here's what I did manage:

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent
American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (discussion soon)
Lost Luggage, by Jordi Punti (discussion soon)

odd/weird fiction 

crime fiction/mystery
Ruin Value, by J. Sydney Jones
Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri 
A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Piňeiro 
Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook 


still reading
The Kills, by Richard House 
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers, ed. S.T. Joshi
just stuck my nose into
The Abominable, by Dan Simmons (thanks, Em!)
And now, the  other book-related stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    -- Unlike many other things in life, for you, this deal is absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to get it to its new home.  All you need to do is to be the first to leave a comment here, and then email me at with contact info INCLUDING A HOME ADDRESS, PLEASE!! 1st come, first served. No address email, no book:

books are posted on the side, but if you can't see them, here they are:
1. MaddAdam, by Margaret Atwood (bought 2 by mistake, so one's up for grabs)

(Night Film has been taken!)

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month (subtitled: huh? never heard of those!):

 crime fiction:
The Good Suicides, by Antonio Hill
Murder in the Dark, by Dan Turell

 general fiction:
Black Flies, by Shannon Burke

The Dog Fighter: A Novel, by Marc Bojanowski 
Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
At Fear's Altar, by Richard Gavin
Omens, by Richard Gavin
Lovecraft's Monsters, by Neil Gaiman
American Supernatural Tales, ed. S.T. Joshi


From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation, by Umberto Eco

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II, by Farah Jasmine Griffin 
Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, by Carla Kaplan
The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, by Sasha Abramsky
 3) Books bought this month (subtitled: I read strange books)
  • Disappeared, by Anthony Quinn (crime fiction) 
  • The Breath of Night, by Michael Arditti (fiction/literature)
  • Helium, by Jaspreet Singh  (fiction/literature)
  • Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem (fiction/literature)
  •  Supernatural Noir, ed. Ellen Datlow (weird/supernatural fiction)
  • He Arrived at Dusk, by R.C. Ashby (weird/supernatural fiction)
  • Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, ed. Jack Dann (weird/supernatural fiction)
  • Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King (horror)
  • Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by Stanley Crouch (nonfiction)

4) The book group read  American Rust by Philipp Meyer, and while we had a superb discussion, most of the group felt that the novel was too bleak. I didn't.   I loved this book absolutely and can't wait to dig into Meyer's newest novel.  

That's it for September.  Happy reading!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

*Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 2013
384 pp

"To be, unlike Rose, married to her last instant to the first and only man who'd had her.  Yet at the same time to discover, as did Rose, but to bear the knowledge more capably, that every cell is infiltrated in the end." 

Dissident Gardens has definitely earned a place on this year's list of my favorite books.  Not that I got every single subtlety or nuance in this novel -- I'm sure I missed a lot -- but I do love irony, and this book is filled with it.  I spent a long time on this novel, reading incredibly slowly to get the most out of it that my casual reader self is capable of,  and I was hooked from page one.  I'll say this up front:  it's not a novel complete with traditional plot or a story that moves cleanly through linear time/space, so if the lack of the normal doesn't do it for you, you'll probably want to pass. For me, it's all about the characters, the ideas, and the writing.  And I absolutely loved it.

Just very briefly, because this book is so difficult to summarize and because it's a book a person should really read for themselves, the novel examines three generations of the family and the legacy of Rose Angrush Zimmer,  Jewish, single mom, community-minded activist and ardent Communist, the consummate “Party-made New Woman, unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.” It spans several decades, moving through the history of various radical movements and changing faces of ideologies, all the while building on each generation, their worldviews and their reactions to what's happening in their world. It's also a novel examining relationships, especially, but definitely not limited to,  the one  between Rose and her daughter Miriam.   There are three generations at the heart of this book, but it is also peopled with a variety of other colorful characters.

Rose Zimmer, who at the beginning of the novel is being tossed out of the Communist Party for having slept with a black detective who lives in her neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens,  is the mother of Miriam, who quits college and Rose after discovering the Greenwich Village scene at seventeen.  She's also an activist in her own right, tries hard "not-to-be-Rose," but
 "mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses.  Her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed." 

While Miriam tries to do her own thing, she's still deep down very much Rose's daughter; she also loves her. It's an odd relationship -- she hates Rose, yet she loves her, for example, in
  “the ceaseless arrangement of mother and daughter coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together inside this apartment against the prospect of anything and anyone else outside.”

Miriam marries Tommy Gogan, a staunch pacifist and Irish folk singer who with his brothers plays the club scene; she changes his life when she convinces him that he needs to go solo and write more political songs, starting with catching the life stories of the downtrodden in his music.  Together they live in a commune housed in a brownstone, participate all the sit-ins, boycotts and protests of their era, and have a son, Sergius, who they send to a Quaker school in Pennsylvania where he lives a more quiet life and learns the guitar.  His birthright, as the author notes, is "full hippie and half secular Jew." When Sergius is older, he looks to Cicero Lookins, a protégé of Rose, a "child-prisoner of her stewardship,"  who is trying to exorcise her from his mind as well, a college professor and son of the black policeman Rose had slept with in the 1950s. Sergius wants to connect with his now-dead mother, whom he last saw as a little boy,  by trying to find out about her from people who knew her.  Woven in and out of their stories are the stories of others in their respective orbits, as well as a look at a New York City over the decades.

Dissident Gardens is a story of  ideologies, revolutionaries and radicals and the disappointments they often bring, held fast by some while often collapsing in the bigger scheme into dreaded anachronism as the world moves on,  and it's a story about a family matriarch and how a piece of herself and her legacy, even if unwanted,  continues through each succeeding generation and in the lives of others she's touched.  I absolutely loved this book, and from a casual reader's perspective, the only negative thing I really have to say about it is that while I enjoyed how the author just lets loose sometimes and allows his characters their respective spaces to muse and ponder, sometimes these parts get boggy and detract from the topic at hand.  Otherwise, this is truly one of the best novels I've read this year.  I loved the characters, the ideological backdrop, the mother-daughter struggles, but most especially I loved watching the movement of history and change.  There's so much in this book that as I noted, it's difficult to summarize or to even provide a feel for what you might expect here - so it's a book best experienced rather than read about.  It's also a novel that is getting mixed reviews -- but a review, no matter who writes it, is a matter of opinion, and mine is that it is most incredible. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

*Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2013
originally published as La caccia al tesoro,  2010
translated by (who else!) Stephen Sartarelli

278 pp

"... it wasn't a fiction, but a reality, though a reality so absurd as to be very nearly a fiction."

My first love in reading is crime fiction, something I've loved since I was really young.  Not just the run of the mill stuff -- I have an ongoing love affair with international crime which honestly, with the exception of real domestic noir (a la Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson), is head and shoulders above any other.   For me mystery series come and they go; sometimes I might try one or two before I beg off and move on looking for something better than the last -- but Camilleri's Montalbano novels are among my favorite books in my gigantic crime fiction library.  It's not so much because of their "whodunit" quality or for the crimes contained between their covers, but because of the people who populate  these books.  I've been with Montalbano and his crew since the beginning, so by now, in my head,  they've become sort of like old friends.  Treasure Hunt marks the 16th installment of this fantastic series, and while it's not my favorite of the bunch, it's still quite good, filled with all of the familiar components that make these novels consistently unique and a pleasure to read. 

When I opened this book yesterday afternoon, I knew that everything else on the planet would just have to wait because it was going to be my best friend for the next few hours. I even got up at 4:30 this morning to finish it because I wanted absolutely no noise, no interruptions, no nothing to come between me and the latest exploits of Inspector Salvo Montalbano.  You can read about them here, on the crime page -- but by no means let this be your intro to the series. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

dear spammer people disguising yourselves as commenters

 Please stop spamming me. 

a) I won't buy anything you advertise so pick on someone else
b) I won't click on the link you leave behind so pick on someone else
c)  you're not as clever as you think and actually, you're downright annoying.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

just checking in -- middle of the month and all that, and an official "surprise"

It's the 18th of September and  it's probably going to rain today, so it's another fine reading day. That's one good thing about living in the land of stormy weather -- lots of reading ambience. Throw in a freshly-ground cup of coffee and some Charlie Parker to make it an ideal day.
  •  Right now I'm starting Part Two of Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens,  and so far, so good.  The night-time read is still The Kills by Richard House, which I'd set aside earlier, but a comment from a goodreads friend made me feel bad about abandoning it for a while, so I'm back at it. It's not my usual thing but it's getting tougher and tougher to put down.  I still haven't written about Night Film, by Marisha Pessl because of time issues, but until I have a few moments, let me just say that I personally really liked it -- not what I'd consider great literature, but just a book that really absorbs you and keeps you stuck inside. I'd stick it in my "peachy beachy" category.   Thing is, after reading a ton of reviews about it, it's coming across as something readers really like or really don't.  I did.  But definitely more later.
  •  I've finally finalized the book group list for the year: 
September:  American Rust,  by Philipp Meyer
Oct:   The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
combined Nov/Dec:  Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam
January:  The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje
February:  Empty Mansions, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
March: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent 
April:  How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
May:  Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook
June:  Philida, by Andre Brink 

I love the people in my group, but sometimes it's tough, even with their input, to find books to satisfy everyone.  A couple of people don't like to read anything beyond 300 pages, some prefer nonfiction, and some of the women have told me that they don't like "unhappy" fiction (try to find "happy" fiction that doesn't classify as chick-lit -- it's impossible) because of all the crap going on in their lives.  One woman wanted to read Shakespeare plays, and I have to say that I think it's not such a hot idea, considering some of them had a hard time with Jane Austen because of language issues.  Aaarrgghh!  I find myself going a little middle of the road to try to please everyone -- but as Larry keeps telling me, I have a lot of other books to read that have nothing to do with the book group.  He's so right.

That's about it for now -- oh wait! This just in via email: The Man Booker Prize has officially announced "expansion" -- not that I care, but someone might: 

"From Chicago, Sheffield or Shanghai the Booker Prize Foundation announces changes to the rules of eligibility for the Man Booker Prize to celebrate and embrace all authors writing in English. 
The trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation have today (18 September 2013) announced that the Man Booker Prize is to expand eligibility for entry for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of their author.  This change will come into effect for the 2014 prize. The Man Booker Prize trustees are confident that their decisions are in keeping with the increasingly international nature of publishing and reading and believe that these changes will encourage traditional and new publishers alike, and bring yet more excellent literary fiction to the attention of readers around the world."

Well, this news ought to keep people busy arguing for a while and the tweets coming in!  

-- ta

Monday, September 16, 2013

*A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Piñeiro

Bitter Lemon Press, 2013
originally published as Las grietas de Jara, 2009
translated by Miranda France
 218 pp


I absolutely love Claudia Piñeiro's writing and this time she's outdone herself. A Crack in the Wall is absolutely superb.  The only bad thing about Piñeiro's books is that there aren't more coming out in rapid succession.   Let me just say up front that I picked this up because I've read Piñeiro's other books which have been labeled as "crime fiction," but this isn't simply a novel of crime fiction per se.  The crime that does occur has a great deal to do with the rest of the story, which, metaphorically,  is a story about a man whose personal and moral ground undergoes a seismic shift, leading him to decide to  "rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost."   You can read more at the crime page, but before you do that, let me just say that frankly, the book is amazing.   Highly recommended, and you don't have to be a regular reader of crime fiction to enjoy this novel.

Friday, September 13, 2013

a "modern-day Boo Radley:" *Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Ballantine/Random House, 2013
456 pp
 Empty Mansions is a book that proves the old axiom that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and,  I would add, just as captivating.  The centerpiece of this book is Huguette Clark, a privileged, incredibly wealthy woman who chose to live her life happily by staying hidden. Huguette's story may seem to some to be the stuff of madness, but the the authors disagree, calling her  a "modern-day 'Boo' Radley," someone who shut herself away  in order to remain "safe from a world that can hurt."    Huguette died in 2011, at the age of 104, two weeks shy of 105, but her death isn't the end of this story.  As of yesterday, according to a report from one NPR station, jury selection began in the trial to decide who gets what from her estate.  Empty Mansions takes you from the wide Montana prairies to the smaller world of the privileged elite; from a beautiful mansion topped with a golden tower on Millionaire's Row in New York City  to a hospital room next to a janitor's closet in this strange but well-told and thoroughly-researched story.

The book takes the reader through the life of  W.A Clark,  former senator from Montana and self-made multimillionaire known as the "copper king," and his family -- his wife Anna La Chapelle, daughters Huguette and older sister Andrée.  Clark had other older children from a previous marriage, but lived with his second family on New York City's Millionaire's Row in a six-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-seventh street.  The sisters grew up in opulence and lived privileged lives, all before tragedy struck with Andrée's death at the age of 16. After having lost her sister and best friend, Huguette was sent alone to a school for the "daughters of elite," where her dance teacher was Isadora Duncan.   In 1925 her father died, but due to the terms of his will, Anna and Huguette moved to an apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue. Huguette married in 1928, but it didn't last, and she was divorced by 1930.  As time went on, Huguette began to stop seeing visitors, becoming reclusive, and eventually stopped leaving her apartment.  Anna died in 1963, and Huguette "throws herself" into her art -- which consisted of painting and meticulously furnishing dollhouses, or more accurately, storyhouses where she could move her dolls (a massive collection) through the rooms, having them do different things, and studying cartoons frame by frame. She spent tons of money on these projects, and was also very generous with her money among friends and supporting worthy causes (along with paying for upkeep of the "empty mansions" she'd inherited) from her "fairy-tale checkbook,"  but above all valued her privacy, trusting in her attorney and her accountant to handle all business transactions.  But Huguette had also been getting treatment for skin cancer, and when her doctor died in 1990, she didn't look for another one, and all the while she was getting worse. A friend persuaded her to go the hospital for treatment, and she ended up at Doctors Hospital,  a "treatment center for the wealthy,"  in New York City.

The story of the Clarks, the author says, is also  "like a classic folk tale" in reverse, with
 "the bags full of gold arriving at the beginning, the handsome prince fleeing, and the king's daughter locking herself away in the tower."
Now, as if the dollhouses weren't weird enough, this is where the story starts getting just plain strange and even worse,  just plain sad.   At the age of 85, within two months of  Huguette's surgeries, she becomes an "indefinite patient," at Doctors Hospital,  choosing to remain there for the rest of her life, never telling family where she was, ordering everyone to respect her privacy at all costs.   According to the authors,  within a month, one of her doctors alerts the hospital's powers-that-be Huguette is the daughter of a multimillionaire, and that he'd be willing to help develop an "appropriate cultivation approach." Behind her back, they made fun of her, but the hospital officials hold meetings to figure out how to get her to give up some of her money.  The president of the hospital, again according to the authors, boldly says that
"Madame, as you know, is the biggest bucks contributing potential we have ever had."
The doctors go all out trying to get her to cough up in a number of measures that can only be described as coercive.

[As an aside, I'm a notetaker when I read, and going through them now, I see I had a "holy sh*t" moment that I noted in the margins when I came upon a scheme to get her to sign over her assets in a "charitable gift annuity"  scheme --

that carried much more risk than benefit for this 98 year-old woman.]  

It wasn't just the officials or her doctors who got part of her money, either, one of them outright blackmailing her into loaning him  an extra $500,000 on top of the million she'd already given him.  Her private nurse/companion is Hadassah Peri who also came to benefit from Huguette's generosity, as Huguette gave her and her family several "gifts" of cash and property, coming to over $30 million dollars.  Every now and then Peri would just happen to mention some monetary issue she was having, and Huguette would take care of it.  For example, Peri once told Huguette that her kids have asthma and there was a flood in the basement.  Huguette tells Peri she should really move, and hands her $450,000 for a new house. Christmas gifts came in the form of tens of thousands of dollars, she paid for Peri's children's schooling, their summer camps, back taxes the family owed to the IRS, a new house for Hadassah's brother and family to use when they were in town, and the list goes on and on and on.  She was being taken advantage of by pretty much everyone, including Citibank, who'd earlier lost millions in jewelry she'd had in safety deposit boxes, and only allowed her to settle for a maximum amount, playing on her need for absolute privacy and knowing she'd never take them to court.  By the time of her death, Huguette was cash poor, and had been selling off extremely valuable possessions  to pay for the little "gifts" she gave out as well as the taxes attached to the gifts. 

The empty mansions of the title refer to the places that had been acquired by the family over Huguette's lifetime, and then rarely, if ever used, and the chapter headings carry the names of the properties. Each one, including Woodlawn Cemetery, had been kept up by Huguette as places to preserve memories, and were left frozen in time with orders to the caretakers not to be disturbed in any way. 

This is truly an incredible story, and I've thrown it into the book group mix this year.  I will say that the first parts of the book that went back to the days when W.A. Clark was making his fortune and building up a tarnished reputation as a Montana senator were pretty dull, and that I almost put the book down.  Once the early history was finished, however, the story picked up with a vengeance.  There were parts that shocked, parts that made me downright angry, and parts where I couldn't tell whether Huguette was mentally disturbed, easily taken advantage of or coerced,  or whether she was just exercising her right to spend her money the way she chose to. I just wanted to know her story and how she got to the point where she chose to stay in a hospital for twenty years, but it turned into much more than that.  There are some really good points raised  in this book, but in the end, I discovered that it actually raises more questions than it answers.  That's not a bad thing, and there are probably things that will never be known, even when this upcoming trial gets underway.  

Definitely recommended, and while not all reviews have been positive, I don't really pay attention to them when I find something I've really liked reading.  If you are looking for something beyond the ordinary, you'll definitely find it here.

-- reposted at my nonfiction page, The Real Stuff.

Monday, September 9, 2013

*Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent -- a definite yes!

Little, Brown and Company, 2013
314 pp

pre-release edition from Little, Brown/Hachette, thank you!

Funny thing about this incredible novel -- I preordered it eons ago, and was eagerly awaiting its arrival, and then out of the total blue, the mailman who hates me for getting so many books every day drops this one on my front porch  just last week.  Then, I wander over to Book Passage to see what the Signed First Editions Book Club entry is for this month, and it's (ta-da!) Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent.

The dustjacket description of this lovely novel of historical fiction doesn't quite do it justice. Burial Rites is based on true events that happened in Iceland in 1828, when  Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jónsson were both murdered at Ketilsson's farm in North Iceland.  Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson were charged with the crimes and sentenced to be executed by Ketilsson's brother.  There was a third person involved, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, who was also arrested, sentenced to death but then had her sentence commuted to life in prison. Agnes was first held at Stóra-Borg, and then the authorities moved her to Kornsá, where she stayed with a family until she was taken to be executed in January of 1830.   According to the author's note, some of the historical accounts of Agnes Magnúsdóttir view her as "an inhumane witch, stirring up murder," but in Burial Rites, Kent sets out to provide Agnes with a more "ambiguous portrayal."  While the blurb inside the cover gives you a taste of the story to come, it doesn't begin to cover just how good a writer Hannah Kent really is.  She has filled this book with so much more than the story of a murder.  Through her excellent use of language,  she brings out  how nature, the seasons, and the Icelandic landscape not only defined the way that people lived and survived in this time and in this place,  but also how people were often left helpless, stranded and in the dark when nature was less than cooperative.  Above all, her writing brings out the psychological damage caused by isolation, loneliness and abandonment in an unforgiving environment.  If I had to describe this book in one word it would be this one:  haunting.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, abandoned at an early age,  spent most of her life moving farm to farm, working as a servant. As the novel opens, she has been sentenced to die along with two others for her part in  killing two men at a farm along the sea in Northern Iceland. She'd been kept in irons and chains at the first place after her trial, but then the District Commissioner decided she should be moved to the farm of Kornsá to spend her last days, and the family will be compensated for taking her in.   The family at Kornsá is shaken by the news; Margrét, the farmer's wife, protests that she does not want to share her home with "the Devil's children."  As Agnes comes to her final home, it upsets the family dynamic, but Margrét puts her foot down, telling Agnes that she will be put to work, and if there is any "violence, lazing, cheek, idleness" or theft, Agnes is gone. A young assistant reverend, Thorvardur Jónsson  nicknamed Tóti, also receives official word --  he will be Agnes' spiritual advisor during her final days of life, and is urged to get Agnes to repent and confess before she dies.Tóti, who is inexperienced and counseled by his father not to take Agnes on, becomes the vehicle through which Agnes first starts to unspool her tale, and the rest of the book takes the reader through Agnes' story  from her childhood through the fateful day at the farm of Illugastadir, and on to Agnes' last day of life.  Each chapter begins with some form of real official document, or a poem, or in one case, an Icelandic saga, all of which have relevance to what's happening in that particular section.

Alternating voices, dreams and portents, superstitions, haunting imagery, and seasonal routines also help to shape this story.  It is filled with descriptions of the rhythms of farm life, from communal harvesting and slaughter to living in cramped quarters in a turf-walled croft.  But standing above everything that the author writes about is the way she writes it.  It's a book that didn't let go of  me until the very end, and even then I wasn't finished thinking about what I'd just read. You may be tempted to zip through it for the murder story, but don't.  Definitely recommendedConsidering that Burial Rites is the author's first novel, it is highly intelligent, sophisticated, and a novel that readers across the spectrum will enjoy.
 fiction from Australia

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September: staying current.

I'm caught up in that cyclical thing where I start thinking I need to get a grip -- that I have way too many books in my house and that I'm never going to get them all read and it gets a little overwhelming -- almost like being caught up in a whirlpool.  After thinking about it, it seems like a good plan to try to keep up with what's coming in the door -- so this month I'm going to try to stay on top of every book that comes here in September -- either in the mail, delivered by UPS (the delivery guy absolutely hates me)  or from visits to the bookstore.  I'm starting to get a number of ARCs again, some unsolicited, so we'll see how long my good intentions  last.

First up: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent -- I just got a pre-release copy from Hachette, not 5 minutes ago!  Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!