Archives : June 2011

Book, Interrupted: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

June 29, 2011 

Sometimes you just have to put a book down and tell the whole world about this great sentence/ paragraph/ page.

I admit it; I bought this book for the cover. I love the vintage photograph of a young girl in a princess tiara hovering effortlessly a few feet off the ground. And there are more photos — at times quirky, at times downright weird — interspersed throughout the book.

After his grandfather’s violent murder, sixteen-year old Jacob heads to the remote Welsh island where his grandfather hid out from the Nazis during the War. There he encounters the Peculiars, a band of children with extraordinary abilities: an invisible boy, a girl who can conjure flame balls, a headmistress that morphs into a bird. The Peculiars are stuck in a time loop, living every day as the same day: September 3, 1940, the day a German bomb kills them all. This young adult novel by debut author Ransom Riggs, is perfect when you’re looking for something highly entertaining but with a significant creep factor:

Someone shushed me. The children were all standing silently with their necks craned, pointing at a section of the sky. I looked up but could see only clouds of smoke, the flickering orange of fires reflected against them.

Then I heard a single airplane engine cut through the rest. It was close, and getting closer. Panic flooded me. This is the night they were killed. Not just the night, but the moment. Could it be, I wondered, that these children died every evening only to be resurrected by the loop, like some Sisyphean cult, condemned to be blown up and stitched back together for eternity?

Something small and gray parted the clouds and came hurtling toward us. A rock, I thought, but rocks don’t whistle as they fall.

Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run. I would’ve but now there was no time; all I could do was scream and dive to the ground for cover. But there was no cover, so I hit the grass and threw my arms over my head as if somehow that would keep it attached to my body.

I clenched my jaw and shut my eyes and held my breath, but instead of the deafening blast I was bracing for, everything went completely, profoundly quiet. Suddenly there were no growling engines, no whistling bombs, no pops of distant guns. It was if someone had muted the world.

Was I dead?

I uncovered my head and slowly looked behind me. The windbent boughs of trees were frozen in place. The sky was a photograph of arrested flames licking a cloud bank. Drops of rain hung suspended before my eyes. And in the middle of the circle of children, like the object of some arcane ritual, there hovered a bomb, its downward-facing tip seemingly balanced on Adam’s outstretched finger.

The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge

June 23, 2011 

I recently blogged about the awesomeness that is indie publisher Melville House’s Neversink Library. Melville House has another series that is equally inspired: the Art of the Novella series which, in the publisher’s own words, is dedicated to celebrating this “renegade art form”, often with titles “presented in book form for the first time.” In honor of Valentine’s Day this year, Melville House offered a 6-novella collection centered around the theme of tragic love. I snatched up the offer but, because I was still living in Argentina at the time, didn’t get a chance to read any of the books. Well, now I have my chance.

Frances at Nonsuch Book, who clearly is a masochist, has decided she will be reading all 42 Art of the Novella books during the month of August. For those of us with lesser aspirations, there are a variety of other levels at which you can participate. You can find the guidelines here.

I’ll be participating at the Captivated level (6 novellas) and will be reading:

  • Honoré de Balzac, The Girl with the Golden Eyes: “perhaps the most outlandish thing [Balzac] ever wrote . . . in a rendering nearly baroque with erotically-charged details”
  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening: the story of “a New Orleans woman trapped in her marriage . . . recognized as one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century”
  • Fyodor Dostoevesky, The Eternal Husband: a “remarkably edgy and suspenseful tale”; “a man answers a late-night knock on the door to find himself in tense and puzzling confrontation with the husband of a former lover”
  • Gustave Flaubert, A Simple Heart: written as a tribute to George Sand, this is a “heart-breaking tale of a simple servant woman and her life-long search for love”
  • Italo Selvo, The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl: a “deceptively light, fable-like story of an old man’s sexual obsession with a young woman”
  • Ivan Turgenev, First Love: “the electrifying transformation of a young man’s first love . . . set against the background of the decaying artistocracy”

Melville House will be giving away prizes to participants. I hope you’ll join us!

Book, Interrupted: Your Voice in My Head

June 21, 2011 

Sometimes you just have to put a book down and tell the whole world about this great sentence/ paragraph/ page.

Lately, the memoir has been getting a bad rap. Writing in the New York Times, a commentator referred to the memoir as an “absurdly bloated genre” in which (apparently) having cancer or coming from an underprivileged childhood is not enough to merit a book about one’s self. While it is true that the memoir — like any genre — has its share of badly written, over-indulgent books, I think its critics under-estimate the reader’s need to connect and to feel understood. While fiction certainly can accomplish this goal, there is a degree of intimacy in reading the memoir of someone who has experienced similar feelings of love and loss — and survived it all — that feels necessary and vital.

I have wanted to read Your Voice in My Head since reading Maud Newton’s wide-ranging interview with Emma Forrest at The Awl. The memoir — an account of Forrest’s struggle with depression and suicide and a love letter to her remarkable therapist who died unexpectedly — is, in equal measure, dark and introspective, but also funny and self-deprecating. Above all, it is well-written and has something to say.

A few of my favorite lines:

  • “I am caught between childhood and va-va-voom. My dark hair is pixie cut, with little wisps of blond and orange at the tips. I’m trying to look like Roxy, my old tortoiseshell cat from childhood. I’m trying to look like a dead cat. I’m trying to look like an elderly movie star no one cares about anymore. I was tring to figure out what the hell I looked like. I envied women with signature hairdos, signature perfumes, signature sign-offs. Novelists who tell Vogue magazine: ‘I can’t live without my Smythson notebook, Pomegranate Noir Cologne by Jo Malone, and Frette sheets.’ In the grip of madness, materialism begins to look like an admirable belief system.”
  • “In New York City, a mutual fire escape feels infinitely more profound than a mutual orgasm.”
  • “Do not try to kill yourself without insurance, because if you survive, you will be in so much debt, you will want to die.”

Book, Interrupted: State of Wonder

June 16, 2011 

Sometimes you just have to put a book down and tell the whole world about this great sentence/paragraph/page.

I lived for a few months in the Monteverde rainforest in Costa Rica and just recently visited Iguazu National Park on the Argentina/Brazil border, so I understand what it feels like to arrive in a tropical climate, where the heat hits you like a wall and the insects are everywhere. This is Ann Patchett on the first time her heroine, Marina Singh, steps off the airplane into the Amazonian climate:

The minute she stepped into the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning, Marina smelled her own wooliness. She pulled off her light spring coat and then the zippered cardigan beneath it, stuffing them into her carry-on where they did not begin to fit, while every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North.

My Summer Reading List

June 15, 2011 

Read-Alongs: Group reads-alongs are a good idea if a book seems really long and you’re afraid you won’t get through it, or if you want to discuss it with others while you’re reading it. I’ll be participating in two read-alongs this summer: a group read of Justin Cronin’s 700+ page post-apocalyptic tale The Passage sponsored by Cassandra at Indie Reader Houston, and a group read of George Eliot’s 800-page classic Middlemarch, as part of a reading group dedicated to reading “old, unreasonably long books.”

Book club: The Rumpus has a great book club. Every month they send you a new book (pre-publication); you have the opportunity to talk about it all month with other members of the book club; and then they do a Q&A with the author at the end of the month. I’ve been a member of the book club for about nine months and so far, they have a great track record for picking books. Previous selections have included The Instructions, The Chronology of Water, and The Convert. This month we’re reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Huck Finn, but narrated by a sixteen-year-old girl.

Literature in translation: Granta Best Young Spanish Novelist Santiago Roncagliolo just won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Red April (translated by Edith Grossman.) According to the book jacket, it is “a chilling political thriller set at the end of Peru’s grim war between Shining Path terrorists and a morally bankrupt government counterinsurgency.” As an added bonus, it is less than 300 pages, which is pretty rare for novels these days. I’ll also be catching up on books from new favorite indie publisher, Europa Editions. Europa publishes primarily literature in translation in these fabulous paperback originals with great designs that make you want to collect all of them. They recently published their 100th book, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which I reviewed on this blog. This summer I’ll be reading three of their titles translated from the French: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin, and Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore.

Indie publishers: In addition to my new found love for Europa Editions, I have the biggest crush on Other Press, who published my absolute favorite book of the year so far — Galore by Michael Crummey (review coming soon). Other Press has a great summer lineup including Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away – set amid the poverty and violence of the Niger Delta — and John Miliken Thompson’s The Reservoir — a nineteenth century Southern murder mystery.

Indie publishers, Part II: The folks at Melville House are also up to some interesting things. They have initiated a series called the Neversink Library, dedicated to championing overlooked and underappreciated books. The first in the series is Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, originally published in German in 1937. Keun has a fascinating biography. After being arrested and interrogated by the Nazis, she fled Germany and wrote After Midnight in exile while having an affair with the writer Joseph Roth.  In 1940, she faked her own suicide and re-entered Germany under a false identity. Jessa Crispin (aka The Bookslut) has said of Keun: she “has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naivete is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away.” (Incidentally, Other Press will be publishing another of Keun’s books this summer, The Artificial Silk Girl. This just makes me love them more!)

Indie publishers, Part III: I am fascinated with former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash’s new publishing community, Red Lemonade. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what it’s all about yet, but I love its emphasis on the interaction between reader and writer. One of Red Lemonade’s first books is Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen. Writing for Kirkus Reviews, Michael Schaub (also of Bookslut) called the book “a masterpiece. It is not just a novel about pain; it is a novel against pain.”

Women of letters: Two of my favorite female authors — Ann Patchett and Kate Christensen — have new books coming out this month, and both are getting great reviews. Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002 and is one my favorite books of all time. In her new book State of Wonder, a research scientist travels to the Amazon to track down the eccentric inventor of a fertility drug that would allow women to bear children into old ago. In this month’s Elle magazine, Christensen, also a PEN/Faulkner award-winning author, has a great essay about unleashing her “inner dick” (i.e., writing in a male voice). Of her new novel, she writes, ” [E]xactly two years ago, I fell in love with a much younger man and left New York to live in his farmhouse in the wild mountains of northern New England. I quit therapy, which had become more traumatic than helpful. Suddenly, my life was quiet and happy and calm. It was as if, after being in a decades-long hurricane, I could hear the leaves rustling in the sunshine. It was out of this state of strong emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth famously described it, that the voice of Harry Quirk emerged to narrate my latest novel, The Astral.”

Sequels: Two of BEA’s hottest late summer/fall books are sequels: Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (Aug.) and Luis Urrea’s Queen of America (Dec.). Since I’ve never read either of their predecessors, I’ll be catching up over the summer. Grossman’s 2009 bestselling The Magicians has been called Harry Potter for adults, which I guess sounds enticing if you like Harry Potter and doesn’t if you don’t. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, so I plan on judging the book on its own merit. As for Urrea’s 2005 The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I can’t believe I’ve never read it. Writing in the NYTBR, Stacy D”Erasmo called it, “a mix of leftist hagiography, mystical bildungsroman, and melancholic national anthem.”

Werewolves: It is not something I would normally pick up, but the Twitterverse is all abuzz about The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. It’s being published in mid-July and is about — yup, you guessed it — the last werewolf left in the world. While the premise sounds somewhat trite, I have heard from multiple bibliophiles whose opinions I respect that the writing is amazing. If werewolves are your thing, you might also want to pick up Wolfsbane, the second in the Nightshade series by Andrea Cremer. While this is a young adult book with a Twilight-reminiscent love triangle, Cremer has a PhD in early modern history so it’s werewolves with an intellectual bent. A perfect beach read.

Short Story Catch Up Month: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

June 03, 2011 

It feels like every book I pick up these days has some sort of escapist element — vampires or werewolves or a magical circus — so it’s refreshing to read something involving real people confronting real situations. And even more refreshing to read someone who has something original to say about the relationships that monopolize most of our quotidian existence — childhood, parenthood, marriage. Indeed, it is Robin Black’s ability to look at commonplace situations in a new light that makes the stories in If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This so memorable.

While the characters in the collection may be conventional — the father getting ready to send his daughter off to college, the aging wife who doesn’t want to trouble her family with her health problems — they are never boring. The first story, “The Guide,” manages to push the reader off-kilter almost immediately:

As Jack scans the road for signs, Lila is proclaiming to him in those certain tones of hers that, if it weren’t for being quite so blind and having to have one, she’d definitely never get a dog. Never. Never ever. And her father is trying to follow her, trying to respond appropriately; but thoughts of Miranda Hamilton compete with the girl’s words. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning her jeans the night before, sliding them down her thighs, stepping panty-clad from the denim pooled at her feet. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning his suit pants, leaving them bound around his legs until he kicked them off. Miranda’s cropped blond hair fading into soft, colorless down along the back of her neck. Miranda laughing as she filled her mouth with bourbon from Jack’s glass and held the fluid there, smiling while it drizzled from her lips until he kissed her and swallowed it himself. Miranda whispering to Jack, her mouth still whiskey damp, just to lie back, lie still, while she moved her hips in something close to perfect circles over him. Just lie still. Just lie still. Just lie still.

I particularly enjoyed Black’s use of repetition here — the contrast of teenager Lila’s protests that she would “never, ever” want a dog with her father’s fantasies of the night before, “just lie still, just lie still.”

In “Tableau Vivant,” Black looks at a similar situation in reverse. An aging woman’s adult daughter comes to stay for the weekend and smuggles a man with whom she is having an affair into her childhood bedroom:

[I]t wasn’t parental squeamishness that made her turn the TV on now. And it wasn’t a disinclination to hear evidence, further evidence, of her daughter’s infidelity. Something else was producing this feeling, this pebble in her shoe, this grain of sand between her teeth. It was possibly, simply, the presence of sex in her home, when for several years she had tried to forget it existed at all. An absurd, impossible task, maybe. But what choice did she have? What choice but to pretend there was no such thing?

The daughter, Brooke, has the man to dinner with her parents and he helps them set some ant traps. Then, predictably, the affair ends. But the truly heartbreaking core of this story is watching the mutual deception that the mother and her daughter create around that dinner, the falsehoods they tell each other to ease the pain they both feel — the daughter for the loss of her lover and the mother, Jean, for the gradual decay of her own marriage to Cliff:

Brooke only wanted to hear this, over and over, like a child delaying sleep: he had been there. She had cooked for him. He had set traps. Remarkably effective traps. Jean had liked him, very much. And after a time, Jean could see them there, herself the four of them. She hadn’t earlier, not in the winter, when she had only listened as Brooke needed her to; but as weeks passed, she began to see them sitting there around the maple table, where Cliff was younger, much younger than he had been, those opened years between them back in their buds, closed tight; and though they were at the cottage, the scene seemed to crackle again with his restlessness and with their desires.

The other stories in If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This are equally as deft, equally as insightful: an artist mourns the loss of a lover as she paints the portrait of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s; a young mother grapples with the suicide of her mentally ill father; and, in the title story, a woman dying of cancer unleashes a quiet tirade against the callous neighbor who builds a fence right up against her house.

I seen many reviewers describe Robin Black’s writing as quiet and understated, and I can’t help but wonder what they mean — to me, the suffering and loneliness of these characters is screaming off the page. But if quiet and understated means incredibly spot on about human nature without a lot of intricate plot lines and ornate language well then, there you have it.