Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Most Beautiful Book in the World

The Most Beautiful Book in the World:  Eight Novellas by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated by Alison Anderson
Published:  2009 by Europa Editions
Source:  Purchased

  I am by no means an expert about books, especially about books in translation; but since I do read a lot I am often asked by friends and colleagues to suggest something to read.  If I am ever asked to suggest a book in translation for someone who has not read one before, I will tell them to pick up The Most Beautiful Book in the World.  Immediately.

  Though the title of this collection comes from one of its stories (side note: they are referred to as novellas, but their length suggests short stories to me), it is an apt description for the entire book.  Each story is quite different, but all of them are engaging and - for me anyway - take you from happiness to sadness and back again all within a few pages.  Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt does an amazing job of creating interesting and identifiable female characters as well.  Several times I found myself in a story, because I could completely relate to the situation being faced.

  I can't claim a favorite story in this book because I really and truly enjoyed them all.  The good thing about a short story collection is that you can dip in and out as you have time; but I raced through all eight in an afternoon, and I know I will return to them.

  Highly recommended.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The Submission by Amy Waldman
Published:  2011 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Source:  Purchased (e-book)

  Few historical events have had the widespread impact of the attacks on September 11, 2001.  It seems everyone's life changed to some extent - from the minor inconveniences of airport security searches (my opinion:  they aren't a problem if you have nothing to hide) to the much greater effects of "average" Muslims being persecuted and the loss of family members and friends.  And it became an event that caused division and conflict, which Amy Waldman so wonderfully portrays in her novel, The Submission

  I loved this book.

  The book opens about two years after the attacks, where a jury of artists and political appointees are reviewing blind submissions for a memorial to the attack that will be built in New York City.  One of the members of the jury - Claire Burwell, widowed due to the attacks and the only family member on the jury - aggressively fights for one of the entries, a garden design.  Eventually, the jury agrees with her and votes for the garden, but when the name of the winning designer is revealed, all are shocked to find out that he is Mohammed Khan, American born and raised, but Muslim.
  So begins the conflict arising from this choice.  Although the jury is sworn to secrecy until they decide what to do about this issue, the name is leaked and Khan becomes a public figure to be denounced by anti-Muslim and 9/11 family groups and to be lauded by Muslim activists.  Mohammed (Mo, to his friends)  and Claire not only are the center of attention in this controversy, they are also conflicted within themselves, wavering between maintaining support for the garden or giving up and bow to the detractors. 

  Through the novel we see the issue from three other perspectives:  Sean Gallagher, the ne'er do well brother of a firefighter killed on 9/11 and who is now trying to do right by him; Asma Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant whose husband - a custodian at the World Trade Center - was killed and who wants recognition of her loss; and Alyssa Spier, a journalist trying to establish her career on this story.  What I found so engaging about the novel is that Waldman weaves everyone's narratives together; so that even though you may be reading one perspective at a time, you also see one or more of the other characters and gain insight into their opinion as well.

  As I read this book, I was at times happy, sad and angry.  The whole issue of what constitutes a proper memorial and who has the right to create it becomes polarizing rather than unifying.  One reviewer mentioned that she wavered back and forth on who she supported, and while I didn't do that I can completely understand that feeling.  The novel does not provide answers,  but it does show that ugliness can reveal itself anywhere. 

  Highly highly recommended (and it would be perfect for book group discussions)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Help! What Should I Read Next?

  I have a few books on my to-read shelves.  Well, a more than a few.  A lot.  And it has caused me to be paralyzed with the overabundance of choice -- how to choose what to read next?  In a brief moment of clarity I thought of an idea (yes, it does happen occasionally) -- why don't I let others decide for me? 

  So ...... introducing my first readers' poll!
  Since I read both fiction and non-fiction, I've selected three of each from which to choose:

  You have until September 30 to vote in the polls to the right.  The winning books will be on my October reading list - and I promise to read and review them.

Thank you in advance for your assistance!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What's in a Name Challenge - Quickie Reviews

I've been a bit lazy (ok a lot lazy) and have a stack of books sitting next to my computer patiently waiting for me to compose review posts.  Several of them are for reading challenges so to kill two birds with one stone I am going to do quickie reviews for my remaining books of the What's in a Name Challenge 4:

The Monster of Florence  by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi.  This is a bizarre true crime story about a serial killer in Florence.  Preston, a fiction writer, moved his family to Florence to research a book when he discovered that his home was near the scene of one of the murders.  With Spezi, a prominent journalist who had followed the case since its beginning, he describes the crimes and the bizarre, seemingly inept search for the killer/killers.  I normally don't read true crime but I did find this story quite interesting and would recommend it to those who enjoy thrillers.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea.  This is a wonderful novel about a young Mexican girl, Nayeli, who with three friends makes an expedition from their small village to the United States to convince the village's men - and specifically for Nayeli, her father -  to return and help protect them from the drug-dealing gangs that are harassing the residents.  The issue of immigration - legal and illegal - is the underlying theme of this novel and as a result there are some not-pleasant moments, but unlike such books as  The Tortilla Curtain, to me the tone of this book was uplifting.  If you enjoyed The Tortilla Curtain, then I would definitely recommend this novel as well.

Woo hoo!  I've completed a challenge!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Far to Go by Alison Pick

Far to Go by Alison Pick
Published:  2010 by House of Anansi Press/Harper Collins Canada
Source:  Purchased

  This novel begins with a prophetic sentence:  "I wish this were a happy story."  Given that much of the narrative is set in Czechoslovakia at the time of Nazi occupation just before the beginning of World War II, one can immediately assume what type of unhappy story this will be; but it is more than that.

  The novel interweaves the narrative mentioned above - the story of Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, a prosperous Jewish couple who waver on sending their young son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport, and Pepik's nanny, Marta - with that of an unnamed narrator.  This narrator is a professor of Holocaust studies at a university in Canada and her area of interest is the children who were evacuated from Eastern Europe to England in the Kindertransports; she is obviously a lonely person and through her story we start to see the connection between this and her area of specialty.  She has a particular interest in the Bauer family, and she has kept a detailed file of their archived correspondence. 
  Marta is the focus of the historical narrative, and she is an interesting character.  Working for the Bauers after fleeing an apparently abusive home life, she finds comfort with them, and even though she questions the logic of her loyalty once persecution of the Jews begins, she realizes that the Bauers are the closest thing to a family she has known.  Pepik adores her - as she does him - and Pavel and Anneliese treat her as more than just a servant. 

  As the first sentence indicates, this novel is not a happy story.  That said, Alison Pick writes it so well that it is a pleasure to read - not only for the language she uses, and the interweaving narratives with copies of some letters from the archive; but for the mystery she creates, so even though you have an idea of the outcome, there are lingering questions throughout the novel that keep you reading. 

Highly recommended.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week -- Reading and Blogging

  So it's Book Blogger Appreciation Week!  For some strange reason there isn't a Hallmark card for this occasion, but greetings to one and all nonetheless.

  I've missed much of the activities earlier in the week because I had some stuff going on, but I thought I needed to write something about today's topic -- how has blogging changed your reading habits?

  I have always been a reader, but I always did it quietly.  My tastes are somewhat eclectic and all over the map, and very rarely did I ever find anyone who had read a book I was reading or had read.  When I discovered book blogs and podcasts, though, it seemed like a whole new world opened up to me, and I felt comfortable expressing my passion for books and for reading; at first just in post comments, and eventually into my own blog, and I now will easily talk about books to anyone who will stand around long enough to listen.

  Book blogs have also introduced me to books that I might not have tried on my own, and to books that I never would have heard about otherwise.  As a result, my to-read list is long and the piles of books to be read on my shelves never seem to get smaller (my name is Suzanne and I am a bookaholic).  It occurred to me that I started a feature called A Blogger Recommended last year but didn't do more than a few posts - I think I need to resurrect it to properly highlight the contributions of so many bloggers to my reading life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

5 Best Books: (Recovering from) Tragedy

The 5 Best Books is a meme hosted by Cassandra at Indie Reader Houston.

  To coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, this week's topic is the 5 Best Books on Recovering from Tragedy. 

  1. The Submission by Amy Waldman.  Ok, I've only just started this book but I think its subject matter is directly related to the healing process surrounding such a massive tragic event. 
  2. Far to Go by Alison Pick.  I've just finished this novel (review to come) and it shows a different perspective of recovery from the tragedy that was the Holocaust.
  3. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.  I don't know that the tragedy of slavery is something from which one can recover, but Hill's Aminata is an amazing strong woman despite what she endured.
  4. Night by Elie Wiesel.  Just the fact that Wiesel lived to tell this tale is a testament to some sort of recovery of his experiences
  5. Season to Taste:  How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum.  A wonderful memoir by an aspiring chef who lost her sense of smell (and almost her life) after a major car accident.  Inspirational story of making lemonade when life gives you some lemons.

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Accident in August by Laurence Cosse - Review and Giveaway!

An Accident in August by Laurence Cosse (translated by Alison Anderson)
Published:  2011 by Europa Editions
Source:  Received from publisher for review

  In probably the most well-known traffic accident of history, Princess Diana, her boyfriend, Dodi al Fayed, and their driver were killed when their Mercedes crashed in a Paris tunnel.  The paparazzi ruthlessly stalking the Princess were blamed for the accident, but what if there was another cause?  What if a car driving slowly in front of the Mercedes spurred the driver to try to pass it, in turn losing control of the car?  This is the scenario speculated on in Laurence Cosse's latest novel translated into English, An Accident in August.

  The young woman driving the slow moving Fiat Uno, named Lou, knows she was in an accident in the tunnel as she was returning home from work late Saturday night, but it is not until the next day when she hears about Diana's death that she realizes the implications of her leaving the scene.  Video surveillance in the tunnel eventually reveals the existence of a Fiat Uno in the crash scene, and the search begins for the car and its owner.  Lou makes some impulsive decisions in her effort to avoid association with this global news event. 

  I honestly wasn't sure what to expect of this novel, as I didn't want to read a re-hash of a 14-year old news story.  But I was pleasantly surprised with the direction Laurence Cosse took the story; sure, Diana's death is the crux of the plot, but the story is essentially about Lou's escape, not only from the accident's aftermath but from her unsatisfactory life as well.  And her flight at times reads like a thriller; especially when she encounters a shady car repairman who has visions of the dollar signs Lou's version of the story can bring.


  The publisher of An Accident in August, Europa Editions, generously sent me an additional copy of the novel which I would like to give away to a lucky reader (open internationally!)  Simply leave a comment below with your e-mail address and on Saturday, September 17, I will randomly select a winner. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Practical Jean by Trevor Cole

Practical Jean by Trevor Cole
Published:  2010 by McClelland & Stewart
Source:  Purchased

  Jean Horemarsh is the kind of woman you wouldn't normally notice.  She lives a quiet life in Kotemee, the town in which she was born and raised; with her husband Milt and a group of close female friends, many of whom she has known virtually her entire life.

  After spending three months caring for her mother in the last stages of cancer, though, Jean has an epiphany: 

Death didn't have to be slow and agonizing and bleak.  Suffering was not a given.  A person could have a last poem.  And it wasn't something that had to come by chance.  That was the revelation.  It could be guaranteed. 

With that, Jean takes on a project that she hopes will ensure her friends will not endure the same painful end as her mother.  Describing the plot any further I think would spoil the pleasures of this novel for a reader, but I think this quote from the prologue should give an indication of where this story will take you:

And here in Kotemee, all anyone can now say is, "Thank God I was never a good friend of Jean Vale Horemarsh."

  Jean's intentions are certainly admirable, but they are unorthodox, and I think for that reason this book might not be everyone's cup of tea.  Practical Jean is a dark novel, yet humorous; and it made me think about death in a different way. 


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

Published:  2011 by Penguin
Source:  Received from publisher for review

  I consider myself to be a bit of a font geek.  Although my life in the real world that requires my writing production to be professional and (ahem) mature, I love playing with fonts on whatever report or project I am working on.  That said, I found my knowledge of fonts to be sorely lacking; the fascinating book Just My Type by Simon Garfield highlighted these gaps but rapidly filled them in for me as well.

  From the beginning of moveable type printing with Gutenberg's press, to the choice of fonts unleashed with Apple's Macintosh computer, Garfield describes the history and evolution of fonts, which is surprisingly rich:  for example, Nazi Germany's decision in 1941 to outlaw Gothic script - the traditional font used in Germany -   because of its association with Jewish bankers and Jewish-owned printing presses in addition to the lack of proper Gothic fonts in the countries they occupied.  There is also some really interesting stories about the use of fonts in branding -- for example, the fonts used in The Beatles' iconic logo and their album art; and the controversy surrounding IKEA's switch from Futura to Verdana in their signage and advertising.

  "Font piracy" is also discussed, which is something I never realized was an issue.  Owners of fonts do make money from licensing, but as Garfield notes:  "... if your font is any good, it gets copied."  And one of my favorite fonts, Arial, is deemed to be one of the biggest copies of them all - created by Microsoft as an alternative to Helvetica to save money on the licensing fees.  The differences in the two fonts are there but subtle but I suppose one could be mistaken for the other and that it must matter to some people.

  Included throughout the book are "fontbreaks", highlighting certain fonts and their creation and popular use,  and some (to me) incredibly insightful nuggets of information about symbols - I never knew that the ampersand (&) is a combination of the letters "e" and "t" (Latin for "et", which in modern French is the word for "and").  There is also a chapter devoted to the worst fonts in the world, which I'm sure in font-geek circles causes no end of heated discussion.

  Given my natural curiosity of seemingly-trivial topics, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and now find myself trying to guess the fonts on signs, posters, and other printed matter I encounter during my day. 

  Highly recommended.

  Be sure to check out the other stops on Just My Type's TLC Blog Tour:

  Monday, August 15th: Melody & Words
  Tuesday, August 16th: Mockingbird Hill Cottage
  Wednesday, August 17th: Chaotic Compendiums
  Thursday, August 18th: Books Like Breathing
   Monday, August 22nd: A Home Between Pages
  Tuesday, August 23rd: Steph and Tony Investigate
  Wednesday, August 24th: 1330V
  Thursday, August 25th: 2 Kids and Tired
  Friday, August 26th: Amused by Books
  Monday, August 29th: Unabridged Chick
  Wednesday, August 31st: Simply Stacie
  Thursday, September 1st: BookNAround
  Tuesday, September 6th: Bibliosue
  Wednesday, September 7th: Man of La Book
  Thursday, September 8th: My Book Retreat
  Monday, September 12th: Lit and Life
  Wednesday, September 14th: In the Pages

Friday, September 2, 2011

What's Wrong With This Picture?

  Allow me to get a bit political for a moment.

  I receive a daily political cartoon via e-mail from (sidebar:  I did a project on political cartoons in high school and have been interested in them ever since).  Yesterday's cartoon upset me for some reason:

  Now, I am most definitely NOT a fan of Dick Cheney or his politics, but the woman's response to him irks me because this is exactly what is the problem with politics in America.  People on both sides of the fence have no desire to hear the other's viewpoint; and while certainly you can't agree with everyone on everything, I think it's also impossible to disagree with everyone on everything, and that is what is happening, if only in principle.

  Last week when I was back "home" in Canada, the Leader of the Official Opposition, Jack Layton, passed away after a battle with cancer.  He was mourned by the entire country, regardless of political leaning, and was given a state funeral.  Many people disagreed with his politics, but they all respected him.  Perhaps I'm too idealistic, but I feel that is what is lacking in US politics these days; I certainly don't think a Democrat would honor a Republican in this manner, and vice versa -- at least not in public.

  And to show I'm not a complete hypocrite:  While I had no intentions of reading Cheney's memoir, In My Time, after seeing this cartoon I went to my library's website and put a reserve on the book.  I don't know when it will be available to me, but I'll keep you posted.

*getting off my soapbox now*

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September Reading List

Upon returning from my visit with my nieces and nephew, I had grand ambitions of catching up with posts I wanted/needed to write and in general get more serious with my blog.  Then all the child germs I was exposed to over the week hit me all at once and I've come down with a nasty cold and fever.  So in an effort to at least keep some of my momentum I will post what books are on tap for me in September:

For Reading Groups:
For Reading Challenges:

For Review:
What do you plan to read this month?