Tuesday, October 23, 2012


NW? Zadie Smith’s new novel? I waited seven years for you. Now that we have finally spent a few days together what am I left with?  Was it worth the weight? I say yes.
NW is not straight forward storytelling and good thing because given the story I could have thought I was reading a Jodi Picoult novel. Two girls, different classes, different ethnic groups,  different side of the tracks, societal issues, race issues, questions about marriage, parenthood and career, then people grow up. It’s the kind of story that when you compare the basic elements of the plot you know that this is a tale that is published every day but none of those books are written like NW.

The novel is stylized but not at all inaccessible. This is not two girls waiting for Godot. It’s very readable. There are the Big Life Events you expect for this type of an over the years, coming of age novel but they are not always presented in the way that we are used to. NW is more challenging than experimental. There is nothing in Smith’s technique that’s style over substance but there is a shuffling timeline and nontraditional storytelling that make good use of her excellent writing skills and do require the reader’s attention.
I like the way Smith writes. In contradiction to the plot (And how many 1000’s of novels fall into the same category an NW? Should I even be quibbling about that? Am I only doing so because Smith has taught me to expect so much from her? ) the writing in NW is ambitious. Smith’s play with structure is intriguing and creative.  Her ear for dialog and her dissection of London are brilliant. This is a big picture novel where ideas are in play and Zadie Smith manipulates it all.

 P.S. What do you think of the eye chart cover? Boring I say.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bring Up The Accolades

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker again! She is one of only three people to ever win it twice and the only woman to ever do so. She is the only person to ever win for the first two novels in a planned trilogy AND she is my girl! And Bring Up The Bodies deserves to win.

 Go Hilary!!!

I cannot wait for book 3 in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Telegraph Avenue

One of the constants in Michael Chabon’s novels, aside from excellence, is his obsession with pop culture.  This has never been so much in evidence as in his new novel, Telegraph Avenue. You are never more than a couple sentences removed from another pop culture reference. However as the pop quotient has been ratcheted up in this new novel, the overall success of the story is a little down. That being said Telegraph Avenue is still worth reading but maybe you’re left not quite as satisfied as you have been with his previous novels?

Telegraph Avenue and the surrounding area is home to a varied lot including the business that is at the heart of novel and the soul of the community, Brokeland Records. The store is a poor but honest, sad but true, mod kid kind of place, a second hand record store.  As for the citizens think modern Frank Capra; the novel has the same positives and the same cynicism as in one of his movies.  Eccentricities rule, most people are basically good hearted (especially if they live paycheck to paycheck) and The Man could stick it to you at any time. As is usual in this Chabon novel the characters are treated with affection and are very well developed but you have seen them before. That isn’t usually the case with Chabon.

What I enjoyed the most about Telegraph Avenue was the sprawl. Watching Chabon manipulate the ever widening, deepening and intertwining storylines that build right from the beginning in this novel is pure pleasure. For me this is Chabons’ greatest strength and biggest appeal.  He has the talent and the smarts to build a world with its own defined history and relationships.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bellewether Revivals

Why did I finish reading The Bellwether Revivals? Why didn’t I quit in chapter 2 when I realized I didn’t like any of these characters and that I knew this plot? I am not a proponent of finishing a book just because you have started it. Drop it I say! You have better books waiting for. Poor pitiful me was stuck at a swim meet with no other reading material. What was I going to do? Put the book down and talk to people? EEK. Heaven forbid.

You know I can’t even say that somewhere inside this just plain icky novel stuffed with unlikable characters is a good one trying to get out. The plot is a rehash of the poor, townie outsider seduced into joining the group of educated but immature, moneyed, morally questionable, twenty somethings with what they like to think of as radical ideas and too much time on their hands. Sound familiar? You’ve read it, seen a movie about it and watched that After School Special* that covered it.

Save yourself. Don’t be tempted by a nice cover or interesting blurb or sale price or even a Free sign. Let my mistake be your warning. Avoid The Bellwether Revivals and always keep a back-up book in the car.

*You have to be a certain age ---and maybe a girl--- to answer this question but didn’t you love, love, love an After School Special?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Mirrored World

If there is someone out there who doesn’t have a soft spot on the bookcase for The Madonnas of Leningrad? If there is and it’s because you haven’t read it okay---However you really need to get to it.--- but if it’s because you didn’t like it…? Then what the heck?

One of my favorite reading surprises of a few years ago (Was it 2007 maybe?) was The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I had not heard much about it prior to publication but when it came into the store I was intrigued and needed to read it right away. After that it was my great pleasure to put it into the hands of many customers.

Dean’s new novel, The Mirrored World, like Maddonas is set in Russia.* This time we are taken to St. Petersburg in 1736 where Dean tells us the story of St. Xenia. Also known as The Fool For Christ, Xenia was canonized in 1988. She had devoted herself to the betterment of the poor throughout St Petersburg.

In the novel, Dean uses a fictional narrator, Dashenka, to take us through Xenia’s story. They come together as girls when a fire devastates St Petersburg and 2,000 homes are destroyed. Dashenka’s family takes in Xenia, her sister and her Mother. (Is any of this based on fact? I don’t know. I have not researched Xenia so I’m going with Debra.) The two girls grow up close and happy. Eventually the time comes for all three girls to enter society.  One finds happiness, one finds money and one finds despair and they all find melancholy. When tragedy comes everything changes in ways no one can foresee. Their lives as women are not what their girlhoods trained them for.

Dean’s use of a narrator works well in The Mirrored World. Dashenka is the reader, the thinker in the family and the fact that she is a female as well immediately sets her as an outsider.  Her intellectual curiosity coupled with her devotion to Xenia allows us to trust her observations and opinions. Dashenka has no ax to grind, nothing to gain by elevating Xenia or tearing her down. The plot, the setting of 18th Russia and the many overlaps into the imperial court also fit nicely into the grand storytelling tradition of using a narrator.

The Mirrored World was such a pleasure to read. I adore how Debra Dean writes. It’s an overused description but I have to say that Dean has a great turn of phrase. You get lulled into the novel, you're enjoying every minute and WHAM! You are stopped dead in your tracks by how Dean phrases something.
 Dean has the knack of brevity down as well. Her words are carefully chosen to perfectly fit the time period, the mood, the characters and to do their job where the plot is concerned. I could certainly stand for her to be the kind of writer who puts out a book a year!

*In between The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World came the short story collection, Confessions of Falling Woman. Obviously I didn’t read that book.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Another debut novel, another winner. It seems like 2012 has been a good year for first timers. What do you think? The latest in this series of good reads for me is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson. 

The action in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is set in 1923 and involves sisters Eva and Lizzie. They are on their way to do mission work in the Chinese governed, Muslim city of Kashgar. Lizzie despite her frailness is the zealot on this trip although she does have other passions. Eva, who has brought along her prized bicycle, is looking for adventure and a possible book contract for a travel guide. The third wheel on this journey is Millicent Frost. She is the expert, the one who is going to see them to Silk Road city of Kashgar.

There is also a contemporary side to the novel. Joinson has divided the action between the missionaries and the story of Frieda in present day London. ---Let’s take a full stop here for a moment. When have you ever read a novel that toggles between a historical setting and a contemporary one where the author manages to keep them both of equal interest? Does the word never come to mind? There must have been at least one or two books over the years that I have read that used that device and the Miss Modern Times part has been equal to the historical portion but I cannot for the life of me think of them.

Frieda is a professional expert on Islamic youth and little else. She is questioning her relationship with a married man, helping a homeless filmmaker get on his feet and inheriting things from some mysterious person she seems to have no connection with. Taybo is the homeless man. He is a refugee from Yemen whose visa has expired.

The locales, the period details and the politics in Lady Cyclist’s are all layered in with a casual simplicity that creeps up on you. No beating you over the head with research here. (Yipee!) The excellent characterizations in Lady Cyclist’s are successful fed by these details and the plot. Eva, Lizzie, Millicent and Frieda are all carefully drawn. Their very interesting quirks and their search for themselves all come about naturally but don’t assume that equates to a See Dick and Jane kind of obviousness. Joinson uses her talent to let you bring all of these particulars together and discover for yourself the depths of the idividuals and the relationships.

Can Frieda’s search for the reasons behind an unknown benefactor’s gift, the wonderfully interesting inventory of the inheritance, her relationship with Taybo and her everyday living problems really compete with the story of  three white women who take off in 1923 searching for all different freedoms in an unstable country? The answer is a surprising yes.  Hats off to Joinson for pulling that off! In The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar she has married skillful writing with an emotionally and historically rich story about independence, abandonment and love.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cover Crush

A favorite new to me cover. I do not know when Bantam changed their cover of David Copperfield to this:
 but I am thrilled that they did. Look at that! It is terrific. The suit ties the image to the period and the lack of a body in the suit creates an everyman anonymity that echoes the novel.
 I think that this cover is very compelling and appealing. Cover designer Marietta Anatassatos you get an A++
And yes I did buy this edition of David Copperfield because of my cover crush regardless of the fact that I did not need another edition of D.C.