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Although we take satisfaction in being a safe place for people to tell their stories, please don't get the impression that running a bookshop is all bittersweetness and light. Much of it is dusting and heavy lifting.
from The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, by Wendy Welch (St. Martin's Press, 2012)
A charming tale of "friendship, community, and the uncommon pleasure of a good book," this memoir is about two newcomers to a small Appalachian town who open a used book shop. Wendy Welch writes with compassion and smart-ass humor as she describes her and her husband Jack's adventures in "being independent booksellers in the face of big-box stores and e-readers." I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Bookstore, and had to finish it in a hurry as my eightysomething mother had already asked me twice to borrow the book.
from Susan: For the fourth year in a row, my husband, Norman, has written about his favorite books of the year. He's the reading-est guy I know, so seeing him hard at work on his list always makes me happy, knowing that I'm about to read—and share—some great recommendations. Hit it, Norm.
the year 2012 comes to a close, I am happy to share with Susan’s readers my
list of the best books that I’ve read over the last 12 months. The three most
powerful were The Yellow Birds by Kevin
Powers, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in
a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. These books were so well-written and
engrossing that they were hard to put down and stayed with me long after I
finished them, despite the difficult topics (the effects of war in The Yellow Birds; the devastating poverty
of people living in an Indian slum in Behind
the Beautiful Forevers; and the hard life of a young girl growing up
in a trailer park outside of Reno, Nevada, in Girlchild). The Yellow Birds
and Behind the Beautiful Forevers
received the wide critical acclaim and recognition they deserved; one was a
finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction and the other was the
nonfiction winner. I hope that over time more people will read and appreciate
the excellent writing and unique storytelling in Ms. Hassman’s book.
two more to come up with my top 5 reads of the year is easy: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz and The
Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Díaz’s collection
of stories about love and family is at times moving and at times laugh-out-loud
funny, but always smart and entertaining. And Colm Tóibín is just a beautiful storyteller, and this novella about
Jesus’ mother is both courageous and thought-provoking.
With the exception of Girchild,
I’d expect that most people who like to read will have heard of the above books.
So, now I’ll turn to some very good, solid books that were not as widely
discussed and publicized. On the top of my “next of the best” list is A Partial History of Lost Causes by
Jennifer DuBois. This fascinating book, with a great title, moves between time
and place as it tells the story of a young woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
who, like her father, has Huntington’s disease, and a young Russian chess
champion looking to unseat Vladimir
Putin. Taking place over a non-linear span of 30 years and two continents, this
story is a must read. Other good
novels that took me to less familiar places are Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (set in Rwanda), The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
(set in North Korea), All That I Am
by Anna Funder (set in Germany and London, largely in the 1930s), and The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
(partially set in Bangladesh).
excellent books with young protagonists are Me
and You written by Niccolò Ammaniti and translated by Kylee Doust, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green,
and The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau.
The first was a best-seller in Italy, and with good reason; the second, which came to me via a recommendation from a children’s librarian at the
Westport Public Library, is a young adult novel that could be read by anyone—or I should say should be read by everyone—over 15 years old; and the third is a hard-to-read yet hard-to-put-down story of a teenager whose family is
killed in an unnamed Muslim country and a mother in the United States who wants
to find out about the death of her soldier son. Though not quite as memorable
as those three, I would also recommend The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont, which is a suspenseful coming-of-age
story set in a boarding school. On the other end of the age spectrum, I enjoyed
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce, which tells the story of a retired man who walks across
England to visit a terminally ill old friend and co-worker, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively, a well-crafted
work centered on a woman in her 70’s.
what would a year be without a few good family sagas and dramas? My top choices
are The O’Briens by Peter Behrens, I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits, Those We Love Most by Lee Woodruff, The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Heft by Liz Moore, Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, The
Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, and The
Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg.
I’ll pass along some other titles well worth the read:
Jacob by William Landay (best crime drama I read all year);
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne
Frank by Nathan Englander (I found the short stories of Englander and Díaz to be far
more satisfying that Alice Munro’s stories in Dear Life);
- Watergate by Thomas
Mallon (best historical fiction);
- Catherine the Great:
Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie and To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through The Civil Rights Movement by
Charlayne Hunter-Gault (both excellent non-fiction books);
- The Coldest Night by Robert
Olmstead (a romance and a war story not to be missed); and
- Gathering of Waters by
Bernice L. McFadden (most imaginative book I read in 2012).
As always, I’d like to thank Martha, Maggie, and David, who make
up our little book group of four and are three of the most well-read and
intelligent people I know; my friends and fellow riders in the Tuesday morning
Spinning class at the Wilton Y who arrive before our 6 a.m. class and sometimes
stay after class ends so that we can discuss life and books (if only we didn’t
have to cycle like fiends for an hour!); and my wife, Susan, and our son,
a.k.a. Junior, both of whom share my love for reading and make me realize that
life is way more interesting beyond the pages.
Happy reading to all in 2013!
Junot Diaz's latest book is This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, released in September by Riverhead. Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual awards, the so-called "genius" grants, one of which went to Diaz. $500,000, no strings attached.
On the day before the grants were announced, the New York Times Magazine ran a short interview with the author, focusing on short fiction. I was intrigued by the collections Diaz cited as influential; I have not read any of them. He mentioned
Aha! Books to look for on the next trip to the library. Walking the dog in the rain this afternoon, I coped with the downpour by coming up with a roster of short story collections I admire. Everyone's lists are so different! Here's mine. What's yours?
Image borrowed from Powell's Books. Links go to Powell's, also. I do not get any money from the store for linking. I have had good experiences ordering books there.
I'm borrowing this format from the What Do We Do All Day? blog, who employs it on Fridays.
Listen: Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Cool book, set in Revolutionary War-era New York and told by an enslaved girl. I am loving the history. 12-year-old Jr. and I listen to this one in the car.
Read: Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. I am actually listening to this on audiobook, too, as I read the text. My first time with Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur. I am using a BBC Radio recording (rawther expensive at $14.95 on iTunes), and right like it.
Puzzle Over: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Brits in India. Forster's syntax confuses me more often than I'd like to admit, but I think I'm going to stick with it. Something terrible is going to happen, yes?
Think About: Books for second graders. (I'm a volunteer classroom reader.) This year's Top Three were Bark, George, by Jules Feiffer; Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems; and SpongeBob and the Princess, by David Lewman (Clint Bond, illustrator). Several children knew the first two from kindergarten, and everyone knew SpongeBob. I'd like to find slightly longer books that the group will like as much as these for next year. Also popular was playing Mad Libs with the students.
Add: To the library list: Quinn Cummings' The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling. Due in August. Quinn Cummings! If you were a kid in the seventies, you remember this very funny writer as a child actor ("Family," "The Goodbye Girl"). She blogs at The QC Report. Hat tip: Melissa Wiley.
Recommend: 1. Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Essays, profiles from magazines like GQ and the Paris Review. The collection includes a somewhat disrespectful but fascinating piece on the Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle. Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times, "Most of the essays in 'Pulphead' are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as 'the tragic spell of the South.'" 2. " 'Not Everyone Can Read Proof': The Legacy of Lu Burke," by Mary Norris, at The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. A copy editor leaves a million dollars to a library. A town vs. library dispute ensues. Mary Norris is a friend of mine, and I am a huge fan of her always excellent writing and storytelling.
A few highlights from this week's reading:
Tanita S. Davis, author of the newly released YA novel Happy Families, pens a wonderful tribute to the late Jean Craighead George's novel My Side of the Mountain. I loved that book when I was a kid. Loved it. Jean Craighead George died recently at the age of 92.
In tomorrow's New York Times Book Review (available online now), Judith Shulevitz writes about listening to audiobooks with her children. I smiled at her choices, "...or they’re books we’ve always meant to read but needed children as an excuse to do so" because I've felt the same way. See "Let's Go Reading in the Car."
The Nonfiction Detectives review Kelly Milner Hall's Alien Investigations: Searching for the Truth About UFOs and Aliens. I added the title to our library list immediately; my 12 year old can't get enough of this subject. Don't miss the other articles on the Detectives' blog; you'll find all kinds of good recommendations for young nonfiction fans.
After following a link from Page-Turner, the New Yorker's revitalized book blog, I was happy to add Rohan Maitzen's Novel Readings: Notes on Literature and Criticism to Google Reader. In a recent post, she makes the case for Middlemarch and book clubs, providing a number of helpful tips to taking on George Eliot's 1,000+-page classic. Maitzen is an English professor at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University.
I'm bookmarking this post from Misadventures of the Monster Librarian because of the folktale recommendations for second graders. "My" second graders (the class I read to once a week) like folktales a lot.
Speaking of second graders, I read Lita Judge's excellent nonfiction picture book Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why to them a few weeks ago. My crew was particularly delighted by the scat-bombing Scandinavian Fieldfare, mentioned by NC Teacher Stuff in his review. In our conversation after the read-aloud, I found out that several of the kids own parrots. Parrot stories abounded.
I've been to Graceland a couple of times, and even wrote a little gift book about Elvis for a book packager years ago. The following passage, though, which comes from Darcey Steinke's memoir, Easter Everywhere, strikes me as about the truest thing I've ever read about E.P.
In Graceland light seems to come at you from all directions, as if the sun has liquefied and flowed into the floor, walls, and ceiling. I recognized in the glittery decor a longing for transcendence that is often labeled as tacky.
"A longing for transcendence." Beautiful.
She [Rosamond Vincy] was admitted to be the flower of Mrs. Lemon's school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female—even to extras, such as the getting and and out of a carriage.
I laughed when I came across that passage in Middlemarch; "the getting in and out of a carriage" was just too delightful. I've recently begun George Eliot's novel for the fifth or sixth time, but this go-round feels like I'll read all the way through. My copy, a Bantam Classic paperback, features an introduction by Margaret Drabble, but I'd like to finish the book before reading Drabble's words. Sometimes authoritative opinions can color what I read. At any rate, a literary classic seems just right for the cold spring that usually constitutes April around southern New England.
Image courtesy of Powell's Books
"I'd loved books in my regular, pre-PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] life, but on the trail, they'd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear."
from Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2012). I highly recommend this new memoir/quest story.
I remember when I could be sliced to the core by the words, "Grow up." Delivered with an offhand, disdainful superiority that only a teenager can perfectly master, it was a phrase from my past. But not anymore.
After reading the NYT opinion piece on how adults should read adult books, the phrase jumped into my mind as clearly as if the author Joel Stein was sneering it over his shoulder in the high school cafeteria. Grow up. And I heard it like the wake-up call it was. Yes, it is time to grow up.
It's time to give up children's books. And I'm doing it.
Seriously, I'm not even sure what I've been doing all this time with apparently three thousand years of adult literature just waiting for me. Kidlit and YA can't give me the adult things that an adult needs in reading. For instance, sometimes there aren't enough big words. You know, like pretentious. And while there might be some sex in teen books, it's always played down and rarely described with "throbbing" or the naughty words for our... parts. Okay, so maybe that's not the literary argument, but it is adult.
How is it I've been straying from the subtle shades of literature that only an adult book can employ? I remember this book where the empty chairs in the room so clearly stood for the existential loneliness that lies at the core of each one of us, and yet that isn't revealed in the brightness of day but only in darkness. Though come to think of it, that may be from Goodnight, Moon.
Really the point is in the type of book that can lead us to discover our existential loneliness. Or even that can make us want to use the word existential in a write-up. Oh, and the ennui! How I have missed the ennui. Certainly we can all admit that a teen's struggle to define himself along the expectations of society, parents, and peers all while trying to tune in to his own ever-shifting internal compass is trivial when compared to that sad, bored woman who eats, prays and loves.
So I'm making a pledge with a few others, that as an adult I'll only be reading adult books starting today, April Fools Day.
Hark! Here is a gift guide for the holidays. Some books are for grown-ups, some for children. At the end of the post, I've linked each title to Powell's. I have no affiliation with the store, but have ordered from it successfully in the past.
For the writer who doesn't mind a fist fight or two (or twenty):
Townie, author Andre Dubus III's memoir of his surprisingly hardscrabble upbringing—one of the best books about writing that I've read in ages.
For the preschooler on the verge of big-sisterhood or big-brotherhood:
Pecan Pie Baby, in which Jacqueline Woodson taps into the "What about me?" emotions of a soon-to-be sibling with humor and love.
For the subversive fifth grader in your life:
Spy vs. Spy Omnibus, vintage Mad Magazine cartoon comedy.*
For the friend who wants to cook more often and better:
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School. The subtitle says it all: "How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices Into Fearless Home Cooks."
For the toddler who scampers away at bedtime:
Hide-and-squeak, Heather Vogel Frederick's rhyming story of Mouse Baby and her papa. Featuring big, joyful illustrations by C.F. Payne.
For the student artist:
Drawing from Memory, Allen Say's fascinating picture-book memoir of an apprenticeship to a famous Japanese cartoonist.
For the grown-up fan of Doctor De Soto:
Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies and Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig, a collection of previously unpublished work by the New Yorker cartoonist and children's book author.
A debut author has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Last night at the National Book Award ceremony in New York, Thanhha Lai took home the prize for her autobiographical novel in verse, Inside Out & Back Again. Elizabeth Burns, who blogs at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, reviewed the book here, adding, "Am I the only one hoping this becomes a series that follows Ha [the protagonist] through her childhood and teenage years?"
The other winners were Jesmyn Ward, for Salvage the Bones (fiction); Stephen Greenblatt, for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (nonfiction); and Nikki Finney, for Head Off & Split (poetry).
For more on the awards and the evening, hop over to NPR's Monkey See blog.
Remembering ten years ago, I want to highlight a prose poem I love, Linsey Abrams' "The New Century," which can be found online here.
An excerpt from "The New Century":
Not that a human chain is the best metaphor for a policeman leading a whole floor of people by
hand down 95 flights of a pitch black stairwell, albeit with a better than average flashlight.
Maybe picture DNA, so unfathomable as to be beautiful. Or something ordinary but almost
crazy, like a conga line.
Meanwhile, I read an excellent book recently: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. It's about art, architecture, family history, great sorrow, and survival. De Waal's descriptions of the Nazi takeover of Vienna, where his wealthy Jewish grandparents lived, broke my heart, leaving me with an echo of the why? why? why? feeling of 9/11.
Tomorrow my family plans to be out and about, savoring the end of summer. There's an Internet nature project happening—International Rock Flipping Day—and we're hoping to participate. The blog Wanderin' Weeta has the details. Check it out and join in if you'd like! I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a kids' book that fits the theme well: Compost Critters, a picture-book photo-essay by National Geographic photographer Bianca Lavies (Dutton, 1993).
Over the years I've enjoyed many poets' autobiographies and books of letters. So why not make a list of favorites! The following titles are for adults, but some teenagers might like them, too, particularly the ones by Eileen Simpson, Jackie Kay, Mary Karr, and Natasha Trethewey.
Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen B. Simpson (Random House, 1982) Berryman, Lowell, Schwartz, et al.
Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey, by Jackie Kay (Atlas, 2010). Kay's search for her biological parents, one in Scotland, the other in Nigeria.
Lit, by Mary Karr (Harper, 2009). Karr's road to sobriety.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Natasha Trethewey (University of Georgia Press, 2010) Trethewey returns to her hometown, where her mother was killed and her brother incarcerated.
The Virgin of Bennington (Riverhead, 2001) and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, 1993), by Kathleen Norris
Randall Jarrell's Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 1982). Mary Jarrell, editor.
One Art: Letters, by Elizabeth Bishop. Robert Giroux, editor. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
Heaven's Coast, by Mark Doty (Harper Collins, 1996)
The Triggering Town: Letters and Essays on Poetry and Writing, by Richard Hugo (Norton, 1979)
A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, editors. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). I read half of this one and got overwhelmed several years ago, but want to return to this book and finish it.
I may have to revise as I remember more. What are your favorites?
Today is Poetry Friday on many of the children's literature blogs. Karen Edmisten is rounding up the posts at Karen Edmisten: The Blog With The Shockingly Clever Title. For an explanation of Poetry Friday, check here.
"I like to think about things," [Isabel] said airly. "I like to let my mind wander. Our minds can come up with the most entertaining possibilities, if we let them. But most of the time, we keep them under far too close a check."
from The Careful Use of Compliments, by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2007)
Less edgy than Barbara Pym's novels and a bit more sophisticated than Jan Karon's Mitford books, McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series is a delight. After my mother lend me The Sunday Philosophy Club (thanks, Mom!), I've gone on to read three more, and have the next waiting on the book shelf. Set in Edinburgh, the short novels, which make the most of their Scottish setting, feature a fortysomething philosopher, who really does think about lots of things and occasionally meddles in situations, if not exactly mysteries, where she shouldn't.
All this time, I couldn't help but wonder what my problem with English had been. It took me more than a long while to work out that English was not my language at all: British English was. A language in which syntax, vocabulary, slang and the odd turn of phrase involuntarily delineate the class origins of either the author or – should there be one – the fictional narrator.
Matthew Tree, "Finding My Voice in Spain," The Telegraph, 6 July 2011
The above is from a really interesting piece in which the author, a native Englishman living in Spain, talks about finding his voice in English after years of writing in Catalan. Tree's latest book is Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside. I've always wanted to visit Barcelona, and since summer is a good time to travel, if only by reading, I'm going to hunt down a copy.
Link via The Book Bench
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
by Nina Sankovitch
I admire Nina Sankovitch, although I've never met her. Every day for an entire year, she sat down and read a book, and blogged about it all. She even wrote her own book, afterward. I just finished the resulting Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, a lovely collection of personal-and-literary essays. The author began her year as an antidote to the overwhelming sadness she was still feeling three years after the death of a beloved sister, and her conclusions about the value of memory and the backward glance inform every chapter.
Books like Sankovitch's always give me additions to my wish list. I wrote down these titles: The Open Door, by Elizabeth Maguire; The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon; A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines; Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry; Little Bee, by Chris Cleve; Indignation, by Philip Roth; The Sunday Philosophy Club, by Alexander McCall Smith; and Pastoralia, by George Saunders.
Not surprisingly, Sankovitch was an avid reader as a child—Harriet the Spy was especially beloved—and she does include some children's and YA books on her list of 365. Among the titles are American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang; Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card; Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke; The Picts and the Martyrs, by Arthur Ransome; Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel; Twenty Boy Summer, by Sarah Ockler; Wizard's Hall, by Jane Yolen; and The Wright 3, by Blue Balliett.
If you need some lit-blogging inspiration, or just like to read about reading, don't miss Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
"But the things I flat-out enjoy the most [about owning chickens] are not about virtue or use—they are about having them. Naming them, feeding them, talking to them (which is stupid I know, and I don't care) and just plain watching them."
Laura Cooper, as quoted in The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process Media, 2010)
As someone who tells her hens good night, I can totally relate to the the "stupid I know, and I don't care" part. Chicken keeping is increasingly popular around here. We went to a ribbon cutting for some friends' big beautiful new coop recently, and one of the hens looked exactly like our Queenie. Exactly! She turned out to be Queenie's sister. Small chicken world.
We live in the suburbs, not the heart of the city, but there's plenty of practical advice in The Urban Homestead for anyone interested in living practically. I've spent the better part of May (when it wasn't raining) in the yard with J., planting tomatoes, herbs, okra, flowers, radishes, and other things. He is going to saw down some of our abundant bamboo for poles for Kentucky Wonder Beans.
Meanwhile, the Harry Potter audiobooks have taken us through a school year's worth of car rides. What a gift! We're now on #5. The Goblet of Fire, #4, was my favorite so far. So much is happening. I also noted how J.K. Rowling paints an absolutely awful portrait of the journalist Rita Skeeter. She lies, sneaks around, misquotes. Ouch. The Goblet movie is waiting for us at the library, so I'd better run and pick it up.
Happy Memorial Day to all.
This post is about a book for adults.
Alejandro Zambra's novella The Private Lives of Trees takes place during only one night. A writer waits for his wife to come home from class, and tucks his eight-year-old step-daughter into bed, telling her stories before she goes to sleep. Later, he fills in the void of his wife's unexplained absence, and the anxiety it causes, by imagining different scenarios (a car accident, an affair).
It's a book about stories, revision, and the unconscious tendency to fill gaps with narration. Some of the reviewers use terms like minimalist, postmodern, and meta-fiction in reference to Zambra's book, but don't let that put you off. The gently odd and witty tales that the step-father tells the little girl about the trees completely charmed me; I could imagine them as a very unusual kids' book. Zambra writes,
The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they put it themselves, stupid hunks of cement.
Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean poet, novelist, and critic. The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter Books, 2010) was translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
The Nation ran a piece about Zambra's work a couple of years ago: "Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra," by Marcela Valdes.
The shortlist for the UK's Man Booker Prize was announced this morning. The authors and books are
Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
Emma Donoghue Room (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books - Grove Atlantic)
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Review -
Headline Publishing Group)
Tom McCarthy C (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
The winner, revealed on October 12th, receives £50,000. Not bad, eh?
Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania
by Haya Leah Molnar
Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010
"We live on a quiet, tree-lined street, wedged between two of Bucharest's loveliest parks. Grandpa Yosef found the two-family house and rented the second-floor apartment shortly after the Communists nationalized all private property, including Grandpa's businesses and the several houses he owned before the war."
The "we" consists of seven adults and one beloved child, the author herself. As her artist parents and other relatives smoke, argue, and desperately await permission to leave 1950s Romania for Israel, young Eva (as she was called in childhood) wonders what it means to be Jewish and why first graders have to write assignments like "What the Communist Party Means to Me."
A memoir told from the point of view of a preadolescent kid is not the usual young-adult fare, and, indeed, Molnar says that she didn't write it with any particular age in mind. Her agent thought that Under a Red Sky was just right for teens. After all, Eva is also caught between the worlds of children and adults; at a family dinner, her father says to his sister-in-law, "I was wrong to call you a bitch. I should have called you a viper with a forked tongue." Although other dialogue is occasionally overburdened with expository material, this is a terrific book, full of memorable characters and sure to engage a wide range of readers, including adults.
Under a Red Sky is a nominee for a Cybil award in the Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction category.
"Above all, a good science book is imbued with passion for science and nature, and invites readers to engage with, imagine, and experience science in ways they may never have thought of before."
Danielle J. Ford, in "More than Just the Facts," from A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature, edited by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano. Candlewick Press, 2010. 368 pages.
Between the snow days and school holidays around here, I have been totally disorganized, although I did manage to read Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale. From Maud Newton's talk about the satirical novel on her blog last year, I thought I'd like it and I did. The first two chapters were indeed "bitchily insightful about the hypocrisies of literary culture,"and I had to laugh. Somewhere in our house is another book by Maugham, The Razor's Edge, which might tide me over during today's ice storm—between games of Bananagrams and episodes of "The Other Siders," a TV show about paranormal activity and a favorite of my son's. I'm too marshmallow-headed right now for Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a Christmas present that the New York Times called a "delightful conversation across the centuries." Cabin fever does not lend itself to conversing across the centuries, at least today.
What are you reading?
I'm on a new reading kick. Using Three Percent's longlist of best translated fiction 2010 (for adults), I started with Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. Megan O'Grady at Vogue writes, "Infused with an arrestingly immediate understanding of Berlin’s past, it’s the tale of a grand summer house on a lake just outside the city whose inhabitants have much to reveal about the ravages and battling ideologies of the twentieth century." An excellent book. I highly recommend it.
Three Percent is an online resource for literature in translation and international literature. It's part of the University of Rochester's translation program. Words Without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature is another good site.
Meanwhile, Zoe at Playing by the Book reminded me of the UK's Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation. Achockablog highlights the shortlist and winner, announced recently.
"Some people even used books to read. For education, entertainment, therapy, a way of making sense of the world. Sitting at the library's circulation desk, I saw more than one woman on the verge of tears while checking out a favorite children's book that she hadn't seen in years—Charlotte's Web or Curious George. For many in prison, childhood memories were very difficult or nonexistent."
from Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010)
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Take trip to Ireland. Read Edna O'Brien. Drink lots of tea. Return home. Think of nothing but tea. Make tea with tea bags. Terrible. Not it. Unable to read Edna O'Brien. Lunch with friend who spent year in Australia drinking tea. Friend says bought teapot after similar tea experience. Friend also recommends English Breakfast. Resolve to purchase teapot. Find two-cup teapot for eight dollars. Bargain. Realize loose tea is key. Milk and sugar cubes, too. Buy loose tea in tin at fancy deli. Have never in life made tea without tea bags. Have never made much tea, period. Cast yearning glance at unresponsive Mr. Coffee. Panic. Australian adventurer unavailable for counsel. Remember not knowing how to bake potatoes. Who knew? Fannie knew. Consult Fannie Farmer Cookbook on tea. Fannie knows. Fannie tells. Love Fannie. Boil fresh water. Warm teapot with boiling water. Pour out. Add big spoon of tea, more water. Strategy involved but do okay. Let pot, tea leaves, water sit. Five minutes later—tea. Breathe sigh of relief. Read Edna O'Brien.
by Susan Thomsen
During this snowy, icy winter, I've re-discovered the habit of afternoon tea, so I dug the prose poem "Tempest" out of the archives. (I ran it here back in 2006.) It was originally printed some years ago in Tea: A Magazine (the only poem I've ever had published!).
For more poems today, see the Poetry Friday roundup at the blog Rasco from RIF. Carol H. Rasco is the CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, "America’s oldest and largest nonprofit children’s and family literacy organization." Carol is a huge supporter of the children's book blogs. Go say howdy, and stay for the poetry.