Monthly Archives: November 2013

Supporting Independent Bookstores

I care very much about independent bookstores staying in business, so it only makes sense to buy books from independent bookstores as frequently as possible, right? Right. I thought so. So while on our way to visit friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving, Hobgoblin, the baby, and I stopped in Brattleboro to visit a couple stores. From Mystery on Main Street, I bought Sarah Weinman’s anthology of stories Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. The book includes stories by Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar and others. Troubled Daughters From Everyone’s Books just around the corner, I found How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman, a collection of profiles of contemporary authors.

And then later, in Manchester, we stopped by the fabulous Northshire Bookstore and I got a few more things. First is Maureen McLane’s book My Poets, which Stefanie wrote enthusiastically about. How could I resist? It’s a book of experimental prose, combining memoir, criticism, and poetry, and it sounds beautiful. My Poets I also found My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. I’ve never read Koestenbaum before, but he seems to write the kind of book I admire — idiosyncratic cultural criticism. And finally, I picked up From the Mouth of the Whale, a novel by Sjón, an Icelandic writer. A.S. Byatt wrote glowingly of his work, so I thought I’d give it a try.

When I arrived home, I found this waiting for me, a non-independent bookstore purchase (I’m not perfect!): Hallman The Story About the Story II, edited by J.C. Hallman. I loved the first volume Hallman edited. The book collects  essayistic literary criticism — criticism of literary works that is literary in its own right. As a lover of literature and of the essay form, I had to have this, right?

To further support independent bookstores, I hope to stop by my local bookstore (one of my local bookstores, I should say — I’m lucky!), Byrd’s Books, which is hosting Mark Slouka as part of “Small Business Saturday” and Sherman Alexie’s Indie’s First idea, where authors act as booksellers for a day at their local stores. It should be fun.

I’m just here doing my duty!


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Giveaway Winners and Recent Reading

First of all, I’d like to announce the winners of Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. And yes, I said “winners” because I decided to give away two copies. The first winner is Teresa, and the second is Stefanie! So congrats to both of you, and thanks to those of you who entered. I hope everyone gets a chance to read the book at some point. If the winners would email me with their mailing addresses at ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com, that would be great.

I’d also like to write about the latest Emily Books selection I read, Samantha Irby’s essay collection Meaty. Irby is the author of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, which I hadn’t heard of before I read the book, but which has a lot of readers and a devoted following. Irby is also a comedian in Chicago. The essays in Meaty have a “bloggy” feel to them, which I don’t mean as a negative; I just mean that they are loose, funny, and informal. They are also very personally revealing and sexually explicit. They are not for everyone, for sure! But I liked their forthrightness, their energy, and their humor. I always admire writers who can reveal personal details about themselves and do it in a way that’s not irritatingly self-absorbed. These essays may be self-absorbed, but they are self-absorbed in the best possible way, which is to say that they are entertaining and may make you feel better about yourself. To say that Irby “reveals” personal details isn’t quite the right way to put it; it’s more like she revels in them, she throws them in your face and dares you to criticize her. She is her own worst critic, after all, so you can’t possibly do her any harm. Her topics include body image, dating and sex, race, food, money, mothers, health, and others. Her first essay is about turning 30, and is basically a long list of all her longings and failures. In another essay, she lists, in actual list format, all her physical imperfections. The overall effect, in spite of or because of the in-your-face tone and the foul language, is charming. She seems like she would make a great person to hang out with, if maybe not the best roommate.

As for the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I finished Javier Marias’s novel All Souls, and I’ll try to write about that later. This evening, I’m going to start Tinkers, by Paul Harding. And soon, I’ll pick up The Missing File by D.A. Mishani for my book group.

Have a good week everyone!


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Book Subscriptions

I’ve become a subscriber to Emily Books, an ebook-only bookstore that makes one book available per month and offers a subscription service so that each month’s book arrives as a link in your email box. I’m very happy with the service, in part because Emily Books are so distinctive: they are generally books by women and ones that have been overlooked or forgotten, or are out of the mainstream for one reason or another. They tend to have a feminist sensibility, and are sometimes edgy and experimental. The books are sometimes novels, sometimes nonfiction. The most famous ones are probably Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent and Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but there are a lot that I had never heard of before. I have Emily Books to thank for introducing me to Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a book I loved.

I’m enjoying reading by subscription, but it does cause some anxiety: a new book arrives every month, and I always wonder when I will have time to read it. There is so much to read already! I don’t want these books to pile up unread (metaphorically speaking — they are ebooks!). But on the other hand, I love the idea of someone else choosing a book for me. And I love supporting a small, indie bookstore like Emily Books. They are doing great work in supporting and promoting lesser-known books and authors.

It seems to me that book subscriptions have been growing in popularity lately. There’s the NYRB Classics Book Club, the Melville House Art of the Novella subscription series, the TNB Book Club, and others, I’m sure. There is even a personalized service from Heywood Hill bookshop, which Alex wrote about recently, that offers a book a month tailored to your individual taste.

Emily Books is the only subscription service I’m participating in right now, and I should probably limit myself to only one such service at a time, but they all look so good. All this is entirely too tempting for someone as greedy for books as I am!


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Reading Round-Up, 11/19/13

First of all, don’t forget that I’m giving away a book! Leave a comment on my post reviewing Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound to have a chance to win a copy. I’ll draw a name after this Friday.

A few new books came into my house in the last week and a half, although none of them were books I bought — they were all books I won in some way or another. I rarely have this many free books coming into the house at once, so it felt decadent:

  • Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life came from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program. I’m not sure if this book is getting more attention or less since it has the same title as Kate Atkinson’s new release.
  • From Goodreads I won Brother Kemal: A Kayankaya Thriller by Jakob Arjouni, part of Melville International Crime from Melville House. This is book 5 in a series of crime novels set in Germany.
  • And then The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, which I won in a giveaway on Twitter. Can you believe my luck? This is another mystery, part of Dennis Lehane’s imprint with HarperCollins.

I added a few books to my TBR list (which numbers in the hundreds and includes a lot of books I may not get to for a long time):

  • The first is Young Rebecca: Writings, 1911-1917, which Rohan from Novel Readings was tweeting about recently. I’m a great admirer of West’s, but I haven’t read any of her nonfiction and would like to.
  • Then there is Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 1960-2000, which Danielle has been writing about. The book is made up of diary entries from, as the title tells us, one day each year. The concept is intriguing.
  • And then I’m greatly looking forward to writer/professor/blogger Jenny Davidson’s forthcoming book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. It’s not coming out until next spring, but I’ll get a copy as soon as I can.
  • Finally, I read about Enid Bagnold’s book The Squire from the Persephone catalog. It was originally published in 1938 and is largely about pregnancy and childbirth. Intriguing, right?

As for what I’m reading now, I decided to pick up All Souls by Javier Marias, which I’ve had on my shelves for a while now. I was drawn to it because I felt like reading about its Oxford setting, and I just finished a rather ridiculous set piece narrated in great detail about formal dinners at the university, or “high tables.” So far I’m enjoying the novel’s dark humor. I’m also making my way through the essay collection Meaty by Samantha Irby. I should finish that one soon.

After that, who knows?


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Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound, and a Giveaway!

Housebound I’m thrilled that today is publication day for my friend Elizabeth Gentry’s novel HouseboundI’ve been rereading it this week, and what a pleasure it’s been. As I wrote earlier, I read the novel in draft form and loved it then, so it was fun to reread and see what changes she’s made to make it even better. I’ve read a lot of Elizabeth’s writing over the years, and my response is always, oh, this is exactly the kind of writing I like! Things happen in her books, but the focus is on the characters and their experience of consciousness. The books are about what happens in the mind as much as in the world. Her writing has a very distinctive voice, a thoughtful, deeply insightful voice that makes me think about the world in a new way. But it’s also a little bit strange, in an entirely good way, a little eerie and dark. It’s beautiful, and entirely unconventional.

Housebound tells the story of 19-year-old Maggie and her family, who live an isolated life in a large, oddly-shaped house. Maggie is the oldest of nine siblings, in a  family that undermines the stereotype of large families as close-knit, their houses full of noise and chaos. This is a cautious, guarded family, with an emotionally-absent set of parents and a habit of watching each other carefully, making sure everyone follows the rules that, at this point, don’t have to be named. Everyone just knows what they are. The children are home-schooled, and their only social interaction, at least in recent years, is with neighbors they meet on the way to town to go to the library once a week. They spend their time doing their lessons, reading, and playing quiet games. They know that one of the rules is not to wander beyond the boundaries of their land; in particular, they are not supposed to visit their neighbors, who are few and far between.

It becomes clear soon enough that the family has been under some kind of spell, and that this spell is now showing signs of weakening. The novel opens with Maggie’s decision to leave: “Leaving home felt like tunneling out of a snow that had kept everyone housebound so long they had run out of things to talk about.” From there, the opening paragraph circles back to what it had been like when the spell descended:

There were no more anecdotes, poetry recitations, ghost stories, contrived games, or late-night disclosures before the wood stove. Rather than building their knowledge of one another in successive cycles of irritation and love, memorizing each new layer as they aged and grew, the eleven members of the family had simply succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers … They felt suspended, always waiting for someone else to make the first move — to take a turn with the bath, to return with fresh wood, to put the pot on to boil, to summon to supper, and most of all, to grow up and to leave.

But now, Maggie has decided she’s ready for a job and drives into the nearby city with her father to find one. The events of the novel take place during the days between getting the job and moving to the city to start it, a strange, suspended time when Maggie is still part of the family, but newly separated from it as well. She begins to venture out into forbidden spaces, to visit the neighbors she’s not supposed to visit.

The question of what Maggie will discover is what drives the plot forward, but along the way, there is so much to notice. The novel has a fairytale quality to it, with witch-like figures, frightening grandmothers, lost memories, suspended time, and the sense of a magic spell settling on the house. There is a definitive emphasis on the menacing, eerie aspects of fairy tales and the threatening sexuality that underlies many of them. Nature is menacing as well; rather than being a benign or a healing force, nature repulses and repels the characters. It’s forever threatening to invade their house — most importantly in the form of a rat that bites Maggie one night — and requires never-ending labor to contain. Even something as potentially pleasurable as reading takes on a dark cast in this novel: the characters are forever escaping into stories in ways that do not seem entirely healthy.

The novel is about isolation and loneliness, as Maggie does battle in a sense against these menacing forces all by herself. The focus isn’t entirely on her, however; the point of view shifts regularly into that of other characters, so that we learn, slowly, what the other siblings and the parents are experiencing. We even, briefly, get into the perspective of the rat. This gives the book a sense of richness as we come to understand the emotional and psychological complexity of everything going on in this very quiet, seemingly still, house.

So, as a way to celebrate publication day, I’d like to give away a copy of the book someone who might like to read it. If you would like a copy, just leave a comment on this post letting me know, and if more than one person is interested, I’ll choose a name at random at the end of the day next Friday. I’m happy to send the book internationally, so everyone is welcome.

If you would like to get a sense of the writing, The Collagist has published an excerpt of the novel here.


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A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

When I requested this book from the publisher on Netgalleys, I had no idea it was 880 pages long, and I probably wouldn’t have requested it if I’d known. But I thought, well, I might as well give it 50 pages and see what I think. After 50 pages, I was reading happily, and I read happily until the end. Now I miss being in the world of the book. It’s not that the book is unputdownable in the way that long, plotty novels can be, exactly, but it’s absorbing and draws you deeply into the world the author evokes.

It’s described as a retelling of Wuthering Heights, set in Japan, which is largely true, although it doesn’t follow the plot of Wuthering Heights exactly, and there is much more to it than that. But it is about a long love affair between a Heathcliff-like man, Taro, and a Catherine-like woman, Yoko. Taro disappears from home for many years and makes a return just as Heathcliff does, among many other parallels. The parallel to Wuthering Heights that I liked best, though, was the novel’s use of multiple story tellers and embedded stories. Where in WH, we get Nelly Dean telling us the bulk of the story, in A True Novel, it’s Fumiko who narrates much of it. She is first the maid to Yoko’s large extended family, and later more of a friend. There is also an equivalent of Lockwood, the first narrator in WH, in this case, Yusuke, who meets Fumiko accidentally and finds himself unexpectedly drawn into her story. But there is another layer beyond all this, which is the author herself, Minae Mizumura, or someone very much like her, who tells us how she found out about the whole story. This forms a lengthy prologue before the main part of the novel begins.

All this sounds complicated, but, of course, there is plenty of time for Mizumura to develop all her story lines. We begin, surprisingly enough, among Japanese immigrants to the U.S. living on Long Island, where Mizumura meets Taro, her novel’s hero. From there, however, we move to Japan to read about Fumiko’s history and Taro’s and Yoko’s youth and family life, and we learn a lot along the way about Japan from the World War II period through the 1990s. The novel has much to say about the struggles the Japanese experienced after the war and how the ups and downs of Japan’s economy affected their daily lives. We get a picture of Tokyo and also of the countryside, of poor families and of wealthy ones.

The novel offers a chance to think about the relationship of reality and fiction, a preoccupation announced in the book’s title — a “true novel” is perhaps oxymoronic, perhaps not. The author starts with what seems to be autobiography or memoir, and then moves into the lives of her “characters,” one of whom she has met in “real life.” So is all of this “real”? But this real life story is a retelling of sorts of a novel from 19thC England. Added into the mix of fact and fiction are photographs sprinkled throughout the book of landscapes and places mentioned in the story. In case you start to feel as though you are reading a fictional story (which of course, you actually are), the photographs are there to ground you in “reality,” or something like it.

Again, described this way, the book seems like a messy tangle, but that’s not what the experience of reading it feels like. Instead, you feel like you’re drawn into a complex, fully-realized world, a book that explores ideas and history and tells a good story at the same time.

For a lengthier, more detailed discussion of the book, see The Complete Review’s take on it.


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Reading Round-Up, 11/10

This week I finally finished Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, which is well over 800 pages. I will review it in the upcoming week. For now I’ll say that I enjoyed reading it in a quiet, steady way. It didn’t blow my mind, but I stuck with it happily for a long time, and that says something. Once I finished the Mizumura, I picked up Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. She’s the one I mentioned in an earlier post who is my friend and whose writing is amazingly good. The release date for the novel is this coming Friday, and I’m super-excited about it. I read the novel in an early draft a while back — a couple years ago maybe? Maybe more? Elizabeth went on to revise it quite a bit, and even though I loved the book the first time around, I can tell it’s even better now. More on both these books later.

As for what is next, I read a couple essays in Samantha Irby’s collection Meaty but set it aside for a while in favor of A True Novel, so I’ll pick that back up. I have no idea what novel I will read next. There’s nothing I need to review immediately so the possibilities are wide open. What fun!

A couple weeks ago, I checked two books out from the library, and my next read might be one of those two — but also maybe not. They are Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave and John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist. Any opinions on these?

I bought no new books this week — (sad! I’m going to stop being apologetic about acquiring new books — who cares if my TBR shelves are overflowing?). But I did put some new ones on my list of books to investigate. I might read these, I might not, but they seem worth keeping an eye out for:

  • The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing. This is a book about the connection between creativity and alcohol and I believe it may be partly autobiographical. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it was one of the people whose recommendations I always take seriously (my dream reading app would have an easy way to add books to my TBR list AND makes notes on how I found out about the book).
  • Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora. I heard an interview with Jackson on the Other People podcast that I liked, and the book sounds interestingly strange.
  • Alfred Hayes’s In Love. I have Stefanie to thank for this one!
  • The Whispering Muse by Sjòn. A.S. Byatt reviewed three of his books for the New York Review of Books.
  • Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife. I liked her new book The Interestings and would like to read more.

I added one book to my list of books I would definitely like to read, and that is Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries, which won the Booker prize this year.

I hope your reading week was a good one!


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This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

I didn’t realize when I first picked up this book that it’s a collection of essays; I thought instead that it was a memoir. But I didn’t mind — I like both genres. And, as it turns out, the essays are mostly autobiographical, so I learned a lot about Patchett’s life by reading them. Patchett is a good writer, and I liked all of the essays, some more than others, of course. The most memorable one for me wasn’t the title essay, although that was very good, but “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” about opening Parnassus Books in Nashville. The essay is partly the history of the bookstore itself, but it’s also a passionate argument for the value of bookstores, and for the demand for them. Patchett argues that people are ready to support their local, independent bookstores, and I certainly hope she is right. Anyone at all tempted to open their own store would be encouraged by this essay to give it a try, maybe foolishly, maybe not. But at any rate, her enthusiasm is infectious.

The title essay is also very good, the story of Patchett’s two, very different, marriages. There are several essays about writing and literature, and those I liked, particularly one about going on book tours. Her essay on giving a convocation speech at Clemson University over the protests of students and parents who found her book Truth and Beauty offensive is very good. Overall, Patchett’s voice is engaging, and she seems like a fascinating, vibrant person. I’ll admit I felt some disappointment at times, especially with some of the less personal essays where Patchett’s own history and personality is not the focus, but I also felt this way about the collection as a whole. I wanted more depth, more complexity, more that felt surprising. The essays were solid, but not revelatory. Ultimately, although this is a strong collection, I felt that Patchett is best as a novelist.


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Reading round-up

I thought I might try posting occasionally — maybe once a week, maybe less often — a listy-type post about what books I’m reading, what books I’ve acquired recently, and/or what books I’ve put on my TBR list. It might be fun to keep track a little more closely of the books that come in and out of my house and the ones that have caught my eye.

For today, I’ll list the books that I’ve put on my TBR list recently (I keep track of these books on GoodReads):

  • Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community: Selected Essays 1967-2007. I know nothing about this book and GoodReads doesn’t tell me much about it. But the table of contents looks interesting, and it would be good to browse through to see if I might like it. I put it on my list to remember in case I run across it somewhere. I read about it on a Book Riot post.
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. The amazing Roxane Gay has been been writing about and praising this book. It’s a collection of essays and won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.
  • Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years. This is a novel, published by Bloomsbury Press. I heard an interview with Jackson that intrigued me.
  • Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. I’m reading Patchett’s recent collection of essays, and although I have some reservations about it, I’m enjoying it in parts and I want to read this memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. I’ve got Grealy’s memoir on my shelves to read, and I like the idea of reading the two books together. Speaking of reading two books together, Patchett briefly mentions the brothers Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, both of whom wrote memoirs of their childhoods, although they lived in different places. These would make another good pairing.

The two books I acquired this week are:

  • Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic, acquired through Book Mooch. I don’t remember where I first heard about LaValle, but the name has stuck with me as one to investigate further.
  • D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File, which I’ll be reading next for my mystery book group.

As for what I’m reading:

  • I’m finishing up the Patchett essay collection This Is the Story of  Happy Marriage, and
  • I’m about halfway through Minae Mizumura long, long work A True Novel.

More of these last two books later!


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Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

I very much enjoyed listening to J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Maine on audio. It’s the kind of book that I probably enjoyed more on audio than I would have on paper; it’s hard to tell, but I might have remained indifferent reading on paper, but on audio, where I tend to get more emotionally caught up in the story, I enjoyed the family drama. It’s a multi-generational family saga, a genre which I’ll admit only occasionally appeals to me, but this one’s relatively tight focus worked well. It’s set roughly in the present time with flashbacks to earlier years to fill in back story, and I appreciated that we are never in the back story for too long and the shifts are handled well.

What made me like the book the most are the sharply-drawn characters, whom we see through multiple points of view, so we come to understand their inner lives as well as the reasons they drive other family members crazy. The book is divided into sections that switch among four different narrators: there’s Alice, the family matriarch, who is difficult and drinks too much, and whose past life her family knows only a little about. There’s Ann Marie, her daughter-in-law, a seemingly perfect martyr-type who tries so very, very hard to keep her world just so. There’s Kathleen, Alice’s daughter, a former alcoholic trying to stay as far away from her complicated family as possible, and there is Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, living in New York City and trying to forge a life for herself that feels genuine but that is very different from the lives of the other women in her family. Each character makes us understand her own inner life while we are in her head, in the kind of close third person perspective that made me think sometimes it was actually first person, while showing us how the others look from the outside, so the final picture of each character is richly complex.

The plot largely revolves around a summer home Alice owns in southern, coastal Maine that her children and grandchildren both love and loathe — it’s the site of many treasured memories but also of conflict and anxiety. There are numerous subplots, all of which Sullivan handles well. What I enjoyed most, though, is the book’s emotional complexity, its sense that each person contains more stories than we are ever aware of.


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