Archive for February, 2011

January Recap

Edited to add a title I forgot.

While January may be short on titles, two of the books listed are quite long – Cutting for Stone at 658 pages and The Years Best Sci/Fi at 631 pages which took me all month to read, one story at a time. I started out the month with a couple of easy rereads, and then moved into a book I ordered through inter-library loan which I could not finish. However, I finished up quite strong which made it really hard to choose a best book (so of course I chose three for different reasons). If the quality of my reading stays this high it will be very difficult to come up with a “best of” list for 2011. And I am pleased to see that I have reviewed four of the books read so far and have two other reviews planned for Cutting for Stone and The Science Fiction collection.

  • Reread: Ordeal of Innocence – Agatha Christie
  • Reread: Murder at Hazelmoor – Agatha Christie
  • Did not finish: Eurdition – Joyce Crawley
  • Hypothermia – Arnaldur Indridason
  • Cutting for Stone – Abraham
  • The Wrong Blood – Manuel de Lope
  • The Report: A Novel – Jessica Francis Kane
  • Edited to Add: Hiroshima in the Morning – Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
  • The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
  • The Years Best Science Fiction: The Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Garner Dozois

Best Books: I read three really great books in a row and it is hard to choose a best among them – if I had to, I would pick The Report. It covers such complex issues while going into such detail about individual circumstances. For writing, I would pick The Summer Book because of Jansson’s evocative language and her ability to take the reader to the Island in Sweden as well as simultaneously letting the reader go back into their own memories of summer and grandmothers. But I can’t discount The Wrong Blood – it covers some of my favorite themes: secrets, memory, and the impact of the past on the present.

Best Travel Book: I would go with The Year’s Best Science Fiction, a collection of thirty-two of the year’s best science fiction short stories and novellas. It is heavy but there is something to appease you no matter what your appetite at the time. Himself got two collections for Christmas (Santa skipped a year) and reads the stories when he commutes to work on the bus. There is something for everyone in this collection from alternative history, steampunk, hard science fiction and some good old space operas.

Best Mystery: As much as I like Agatha Christie, I have to go with Hypothermia – a mystery with a quiet clarity. I also liked the back story of the main character, an Icelandic Detective.

Edited to Add: Best Non-Fiction: Hiroshima in the Morning. Of course it was the only non-fiction book I read but I finished it almost three weeks ago and I am still thinking and talking about it so it is hard to see what would have usurped it from this place. Hiroshima in the Morning is a memoir about a Japanese-American woman who leaves her family in New York for a six month fellowship in Japan. She is researching a novel and interviewing the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. Along the way, she is dealing with a mother in ill-health, a husband who is very unhappy, cultural differences, and redefining herself. All this adds up to a lot of angst and soul searching as well as some fascinating (and at times, hard to read) interviews. The writing is very good but the book left me very unsettled. At times the author made me angry and at times I was sympathetic. I wondered a great deal if my reactions to the book were generational, cultural, or even sexist. I am very glad I read it and I think it is an important book – it speaks volumes about what countries to do each other, and what people do as individuals and most importantly, what we do to ourselves.

Do not bother: Eurdition. Somehow I caught notice of this book and was intrigued enough to hunt the book down through inter-library loan. It is the story of a mother and daughter; the mother with her past trying to prevent her daughter from making the same mistakes and the daughter trying to be as different from her mother as possible. I struggled through the first half. At that point, I went searching for my original reference to try and see what that person saw in the novel and I couldn’t find it at all. I don’t know if I wrote down the wrong book or what. At that point I saw no reason to continue. Eurdition seems to be a first novel self-published (?) by Joyce Crawley. Some of the writing was very good but it had a distinct feminist theme that I found too strident. If you are interested in a similar book, I highly recommend Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle.


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Words for Wednesday

Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden, is a fascinating study of identity and relationship, self-knowledge and perceptions of others, the spoken and unspoken communication between friends. The novel is narrated by an unnamed playwright who is staying in her friend Molly’s house. Molly, an actress, is away and during a single day the narrator reflects the interplay between self and friend. The author uses the professions of both acting and writing to reflect this interplay.

She (Molly) also says that there are many ways to be an actor as there are actors. Once I said to her that I thought what she did was psychologically dangerous. I sometimes think she is in more danger of losing touch with herself than I am, that something in her art forces her to go deeper into herself than my art requires of me, and that the danger is that she might lose her way, lose herself….For me, as a playwright, the creation of a character like listening to something faint and distant. It’s like trying to remember someone one knew slightly, in passing a very long time ago, but to remember them so that one knows them better than one knows oneself. It’s like trying to know a family member who died before one was born, from looking at photographs and objects belonging to them; also from hearing the things, often contradictory, that people say about them, the anecdotes told. From this, you try to work out how they might spread and how they might react to any given circumstances, how they would interact with other characters who one has come to know by the same slow deliberate process. (p. 7)

There are forms of communication that drive people apart, that do nothing other than confirm distance. But there are also instances where no connection seems to be made and yet something profound takes place…(p. 13)

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Istanbul Noir

Istanbul is the place where East meets West, literally. It is, as convention would have it, a meeting point, a crossroads. At the same time, it marks the spot where geography is irreparably rent it two: it is a fissure in the continuum, a seething rupture, so to speak. (Introduction: Transgression and the Strait: Politics, Passion, and Pain, pg. 13)

Perhaps all of this still would have happened, even if the city hadn’t been caught up in the tempestuous lodos that night. But the truth is, that frantic wind, spinner of its own mysteries, provided justifiable motive for transgression. Strange, droning, lukewarm, the lodos keeps in its thrall not only the city, but the souls of its people as well. And Cavidan Altan was one of those people. Perhaps what would occur later hadn’t even remotely crossed her mind when she left home that day. I say “perhaps”, because we can never know for sure what’s on a woman’s mind. Now, I could pretend that I knew, but I don’t want to taint the authenticity of the story by adding to it something I’m not sure about. We can safely assume the same about Tolga Gucel, and say that he, too, never would have guessed that he would experience the things he did that evening, or any other evening for that matter. (Hitching in the Lodos by Feryal Tilmac, pg. 39)

The other day I was running into the library to pick up some books I had on hold, when I took a quick glance at the new books shelf. There was a slim volume called Istanbul Noir (edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler). I was intrigued because my parents had visited Istanbul a few years ago and they loved it. My mother tells me of how beautiful the city is and how hospitable its inhabitants were. I picked it up and took it home and read sixteen original stories each set in a distinct neighborhood of Istanbul. Fourteen of the stories were written by Turkish authors, the other two by authors who have lived in Istanbul. All the stories (except for the two) were translated by the Editors.

This wasn’t noir as in hard boiled detective fiction. Instead it is noir in the original sense: black – these stories delve into the darkest parts of a person’s soul. They cover the gamut of grief, revenge, loss, and guilt all of which feature a heaviness of spirit or “huzun” This may sound a little depressing but the stories are more about an itch under the skin that won’t quite go away rather than doom and gloom.  They are a mixture of the real and the surreal but each gives the reader a sense of the geography of the city – not only the feel of the neighborhoods but also the social, political, and historical geography featuring Istanbul’s complex religious, social, and political history. The stories range from large issues, the beginnings of an extremist political group and the effect on those involved in those beginnings to quiet stories of individuals just trying to get by. My favorite is The Smell of Fish by Hikmet Hukumenoglu. The main character, a middle aged Turkish woman, fondly remembers working with her father, a fisherman. She mourns the changes in her neighborhood and dislikes the fact that her friends keep trying to set her up with suitors. Because the woman has a difficult time saying no, she has to come up with creative ways of dealing with these unwanted suitors. It is a clever story and while the ending isn’t surprising, it was enjoyable to read and I found myself smirking at the woman’s cleverness.

This collection is part of series from Akashic Publishers. Each book is set in a different city (from around the world) and features original stories with each set in a distinct neighborhood. Some of these books have well-known editors: Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Laura Lippmen (Baltimore), Boston (Dennis Lehane), Manhattan (Lawrence Block), and New Orleans (Julie Smith). The Copenhagen Noir has just been published and I will definitely be looking for that one and I would love it if they did an Amsterdam Noir. I found this book to be a great “palate cleanser” and I look forward to exploring the rest of the series.

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Caught My Interest

It has been an odd week around here –  I spent more time reading then blogging because I wasn’t feeling well so the couch, books, and a very large orange cat looked better to me then the office. Youngest went off to the Spokane International Film Festival twice – love the fact that he and his friends like to go see non-typical stuff. And on Friday I got to sneak into a workshop himself was taking on writing for the academic market. It was very interesting because it all boils down to the same thing – good writing is good writing regardless of the subject: pay attention to sentences, clarity is your best friend and read good stuff.

On that note – here is what caught my interest this week:

Susan Salter Reynolds raves about The Still Point a debut novel by Amy Sackville in a review found here at the LA Times. The Still Point alternates describing the last days of Arctic explorer Edward Mackley and a day in the life of his niece, Emily 100 years later as she shifts through lifetimes of memorabilia in the family home she has inherited.  I cannot describe this book any better than the reviewer whose opening follows below. I was so impressed with the review I looked Reynolds up. She writes frequently for the Times as well as other sites on the internet. I can only hope that someday she comes out with a collection of her own work.

Many novels explore the sliding planes, the archaeology of past, present and future and the still points where the fabric of time is rent and characters slip through. This is a lot to juggle, especially in a debut novel, but Amy Sackville pulls it off — thrillingly, seductively, dreamily. Not only do all the moving parts hold together, but a new fictional voice emerges here as well; not harsh, brash and shiny, not overly self-conscious and sentimental — somewhere between the calm beauty we expect from novels that invoke Victorian England and the raw edges of modern life. (Susan Salter Reynolds, LA Times, February 6, 2011)

Swapna Krisna reviews These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf – the story of 21 year old Allison Glenn who has just been released from prison after serving time for an unspecific, horrible crime. She is released to a halfway house in her hometown and has to face and hostile reception from the town, a sister who hates her, and indifferent parents. I read Gudenkauf’s first book The Weight of Silence and generally liked it. I felt she was very good a capturing the character’s voices and this one seems like it might also be a good read.

Kevin From Canada reviews Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick which has long been on my to read list. The publishing blurb of this book and other reviews mentions that it is a retrace of Henry James The Ambassadors (only reversed) so I was putting off reading the novel so I could read The Ambassadors first. Kevin feels that while James served as a model, Foreign Bodies stands well enough on its own – so I might just have to move it up on my list. Beatrice (love this name  – it is the name of my 6th grade teacher) Nightingale is planning on a trip to Paris in 1952. Her brother asks her to look for his son who has taken up residence in the city. Ozick is an accomplished short story writer having won four O Henry Awards and she has also been short listed for the Booker Prize. This seems like it will be a complex read but well worth the effort.

And because Valentine’s Day is coming up here at Devourer of Books is a review of 13, rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro. Trevor is a young American scholar working in Paris when he finds a box of memorabilia. The box, left by his secretary to test his romantic worthiness, contains items from the life of Louise Brunet dating back to WWI. Trevor becomes fascinated with the box and fantasizes about Louisa’s life. The author frames the novel with illustrations of actual memorabilia.

West of Here by Jonathon Evison mentioned by Beth of Beth Fish Reads is a novel set in a small town in Western Washington. With two storyline, one set in 2006 and the other a hundred years earlier, this novel explores the actions of ancestors on the people in the present . The publisher’s blurb calls this “storytelling on the grandest scale”. I love books where the echos of the past reverberate in the present so I am going to keep my eye out for this one.

Finally, Bookstack‘s new Facebook page led me to this NY Times article A Reading List for the Egypt Crisis. Oldest child was just telling me that he and his friends were discussing Egypt. It is a topic on many people’s mind so some of you may find this list useful.

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Words for Wednesday

From Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden. This novel takes place in a single day in Ireland as a playwright reflects over her friendship with Molly and Andrew. It is an investigation of the nature of self – the very means with which we define our being.


I suppose it goes without saying that I headed for home. That is, I drove over to where my family lived. I went by the most circuitous route and I took my time. I thought about Andrew the whole way there. It seemed an irony that I had rarely seen the north looking lovelier than it was today. The light deepened  and intensified – a rich gold that lit up the landscape, the fading trees and the hedges with their bright berries; the drenched, flooded fields. To me it was a tragic place; to Andrew it had always been simply wretched. Perhaps he was right after all, I thought now, and in taking the view I did I was according it a sad poetry that it not only didn’t merit, but that was a real perversion, romanticizing all that had happened there. ‘Dark feelings can become a habit,’ he’d said to one when we were talking – arguing – about this. ‘And if they’re strong enough, like many strong feelings they can even be enjoyable.’ He said that this is why the peace process wasn’t working, that the whole population was locked in a trance of grief that they didn’t break out of because it defined them, it made them feel real. And in talking about all this, he never once mentioned Billy.

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