Monthly Archives: December 2013

Reading Round-Up 12/8/2013

First of all, I never reported back on my Small Business Saturday book shopping experience. I loved Sherman Alexie’s Indies First idea — that authors go hang out in bookstores and act as booksellers for a day — and I wanted to take part in it as much as possible. One of my local bookstores, Byrd’s Books, hosted the author Mark Slouka, who recently published the novel Brewster, which takes place in a town not far from my home. So we stopped in the store to meet him, and I left with a signed copy of the novel. The bookstore was full of people and excitement, which was great to see. Then we headed out of town to visit Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. The drive was rather lengthy, but Hobgoblin wanted to see Kelly Braffet and get signed copies of her books, and I was happy to go along. We thought perhaps her author husband, Owen King, son of Stephen King, might be there, but he wasn’t. That was fine, though. In the store, it took a minute to figure out who Kelly Braffet was, and then it took a few minutes more to figure out how to get a conversation going. But since she was hanging out by the cash register looking a little bored, I eventually just went up and asked if she was giving out book recommendations. She immediately lit up, happy that someone wanted a recommendation from her, and we headed over to the fiction section, where we spent the next 10-15 minutes looking over books and talking about ones we liked. As we talked, I realized how difficult Hobgoblin and I are as customers in bookshops; much of what Braffet recommended, we had already read. We talked about Jennifer Egan, Megan Abbott, Joe Hill, and others. Eventually, we came across Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon, which neither of us had heard of, and which sounded great. Then Hobgoblin got Braffet to sign his books, we looked around a little more, and we were two happy customers.

That’s not all going on in my book world, though. Yesterday evening, my mystery book group met to discuss D.A. Mishani’s novel The Missing File. It was a lively discussion, although not because the novel is a great one. For the most part, I was enjoying myself as I read the book, but afterward when I tried to put it all together, it just didn’t work. It’s a very odd mystery novel. The detective is not very good at his job and makes several important mistakes. His colleagues do a better job conducting the investigation, but they are flawed as well. Mishani spends a lot of time with a marginally-related character who involves himself in the mystery for reasons that I never fully understood. He’s a writer, and through what I guess is writerly imagination and empathy ends up doing a better job understanding the people involved in the mystery than the detective does. But this guy is kind of creepy and doesn’t cohere as a character. I think Mishani is most interested in the ways fictional stories help but also more interestingly fail to help us understand stories in the “real” world. This is an intriguing idea, but Mishani doesn’t manage to pull his plot and themes together.

Next up for the mystery book group is Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View, which was my choice. I became interested in Millar after reading this essay by the crime fiction critic Sarah Weinman. Sarah has come through with recommendations for me before, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

The only book that has come into the house since I last wrote about incoming books is Brewster. I have added a bunch of books that I’d like to investigate and perhaps add to my TBR pile at some point, though. These are by no means books that I will definitely read; they are just ones I’ve got my eye on:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, winner of the National Book Award.
  • Javiar Marías’s The Infatuations, as another Marías novel to follow All Souls.
  • Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I can’t remember where I heard about this one….

These books are small press books, a category I’ve been learning more about recently as I listen to podcasts with small press authors or that champion small press books. I really have no idea if I will like these or not, but it will be fun to explore them:

  • Monica Drake, The Stud Book,
  • Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, Nothing,
  • Renee Gladman, Event Factory,
  • Pamela Erens, The Virgins: A Novel,
  • Jamie Iredell, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac.

Have a good week everyone!


Filed under Books

All Souls, by Javier Marias

I enjoyed All Souls by Javier Marías in a detached, intellectual kind of way. It’s not the kind of book that wins over your heart, or not in any obvious way at least. It’s set in Oxford and tells the story of a visiting lecturer from Spain who is looking to pass his two years as pleasantly as possible. He has minimal teaching duties and frequently finds himself bored. He looks around for and then finds a woman, an Oxford tutor, with whom to have an affair and this helps fill his days. But his life is fairly flat. He finds amusement looking through used book shops — this is, as Amateur Reader pointed out to me, a book shopping classic — and he also observes British life and particularly university life and reports to us on its oddities. Most memorable for me was a lengthy set piece describing a college dinner in which one of the dons behaves spectacularly badly and everyone else pretends not to notice. We also get lengthy descriptions of the things that fill the narrator’s life: the beggars he sees on the streets as he takes long walks, the author whose work he is trying to track down, the garbage that accumulates in his apartment.

All this sounds dull, but it’s not. Somehow, through the satirical tone, the dry humor, the detached observations, a deeper feeling comes through. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps it’s melancholy, sadness, and nostalgia all mixed together. The narrator is writing from a time after his stay in Oxford is over; he is back in Madrid, married and moving on with his life. We learn early on that two of the men most important to him while in Oxford have died, and he is writing in part in order to describe them and his interactions with them. So a sense of loss hangs over the whole book. It’s not only these friends — or, perhaps, acquaintances — that he has lost, though; he recognizes on the novel’s first page that the person he was then is gone, replaced by someone entirely different. Even memory doesn’t hold him together as a coherent being. He didn’t make much of a mark in Oxford, and it seems that this is his fate: not to make much of a mark on the world. All he can do, it seems, is to write down his story, and to seek out the nearly-lost stories of others, which his bookshop haunting allows him to do.

The pleasures of this novel are quiet, but real, nonetheless. For a lengthier review of the book, make sure to read Litlove’s take on it. I think I might like to read more Marías at some point. All Souls has intrigued me.


Filed under Books