Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Blind Contessa's New Machine


Reading The Blind Contessa's New Machine began as a purely I-love-the-cover choice. Isn't that a lovely cover? I'm a bit of a sucker for floral patterns. They might not make me purchase a book but they will always make me pick one up to look at. As usual judging a book by it's cover worked out fine, my friend. So much for what your Mother tells you.

There is the kernel of a true story in Contessa. A kind of prehistoric typewriter was created in Italy in the early 1800's for a blind woman to use as a means of communication. From that slim start author Carey Wallace has written an enchanting love story.

The Contessa is Carolina Fantoni. The town beauty, Carolina has been indulged by her parents all her life. Like almost all historical fiction heroines she has grown up to be intelligent and independent. It is fitting that she will marry the prize of the town, Pietro. As her wedding approaches Carolina realizes that she is going blind. Her parents, her fiance, none of them think that it could possibly be true. It's love, it's a momentary anomaly, it's anything but what it really is. The only person who believes her is her is childhood friend Turri. Before the end of her first year as a wife Carolina is blind.

The best parts of this novel concern Carolina's blindness. Her initial panic and bewilderment. Then her acceptance and efforts to live a productive and fulfilled life. It's fascinating. This is where the author's research and writing skills really pay off. You can understand what a tragedy this is and you know that if it weren't for Carolina's rank her life would have ended with her sight.

In an effort to stay in touch with Carolina, Turri invents the typewriter. With this 'communication machine' she will be able to write letters. She will be able to have a small private space in her life. Turri's eccentric spirit and support are the solace of Carolina's life and soon they are lovers. Of course in any time love triangles and infidelity are dangerous but in historical novels especially they can be deadly.

Wallace has written a surprising fairy tale with it's own humor, darkness and sensuality. Her characters are plausible and charismatic. The Blind Contessa's New Machine can at times be a little married to it's own charm but overall Wallce should be praised for bringing such a light touch to the usual grim detail of historical fiction.

Another marvelous thing about Contessa is that it reminded me of one of my favorite novels ever The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini. A gorgeously written novel about an 18th century Duchess who has been blind and mute (for mysterious reasons) since childhood. Duchess is one of the novels that made me fall in love with historical fiction. The writing is superb and account of life at that time is outstanding.


As a note to future historical fiction authors: how about a heroine that is semi-accurate to her time instead of ahead of it? How about a woman who is not a genius or independent. I thought that The Blind Contessa's New Machine was great and I truly do love The Silent Duchess. I'm so glad that I read them and I want everyone I know to do the same. But. There are moments when I'm reading other historical fiction novels when I feel like I could play Heroine Shuffle. I could switch any 19th century female main character with her 16th century novel counterpart and never see any difference except in dress.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Flower. Flower. Flower.

What a world. In yesterday's Guardian, Penguin chief executive, John Markinson disagreed with me. He thinks that  publishers will always be needed by authors. How very parental and wrong. It's certainly not an unpopular or never talked about stance in publishing. It seems to be the norm. Is it an ostrich mentality or just towing the company line?

Want to know his reasons? Check it out. It's worth reading but don't expect anything new.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

So Saith Me

Oh Flower!
I wonder about a lot of things: what I'll have for dinner, if I'll have time for a nap, if girls still like paperdolls, do they still make paperdolls, whether or not the guy in the car ahead of me will ever stop changing radio stations and just drive for goodness sake, etc. There is one thing I wonder about more than any other thing. Where are readers going to come from?

You can't read any publication or listen to any news program without getting information overload about e-readers. They are tearing up and apart the publishing world, it's the death of books, their sales are gigantic, everyone is fighting over the e-rights to backlist titles, bookstores are worried, they will make you a better person, they will make you rot in Hell---whatever. I have yet to hear anything about how they will create new readers. So here's my question. Why is a New And Improved product being created for an already existing product in a no growth market? Riddle me that.

Set aside the iPad. There are too many other uses for that to consider it an e-reader in my opinion. It's more like a tiny laptop, catnip for gadget hounds. Calling an iPad an e-reader would be like saying that your pc or your cell phone is an e-reader. They can be the vehicles by which you download and read books but that is not what people buy them for.

So Kindle? Nook? Created by booksellers to keep their customers. Smart. If e-books are going to be all there is in the future it's better to be in a position to keep the reading consumers that you have now by being able to sell them the next new thing that can only be used at your store. I get it. However, where do Barnes and Noble and Amazon propose to get new customers? Publishers aren't going to provide them. They have no idea how to sell what they make let alone create new, life long readers.

Every few years there are titles that sell like the old hotcakes. Books like Angela's Ashes, The Da Vinci Code and in the separate once in a millennium category the Harry Potter series. Publishers latch onto books like those, hail them as the renaissance of reading and then crank out scads of copycats. No question titles like those pay the rent and put the kids through college but if they also created new, committed readers then books would be raking in the kind of cash that movies do and as we know they do not.

Anyway Publishers have a bigger problem as in who needs them? Do you think that if Stephen King decided to manufacture his own books that he would have any problem finding a distributor to get them to bookstores and bookstores to sell them? No he wouldn't. As for selling his books in the ebook format he could do that in a snap as well. Are there many Stephen Kings in the book world? No, but what he could do any writer could do and as soon as one Big Author jettisons his publisher to control it all himself the flood gates will be open.

So? New readers?

Happy and wondering

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And Just Where Have You Been All My Life?

Flower my veggie loving friend!

Are you aware of this?

It's from Sweden. They make this and Saabs over there. Can we move there?

Why am I not finding this on my grocery store shelves? There cannot possibly be FDA issues. Come on those people approved Cheese Whiz for goodness sake.

Think of the options now open to you. Flower, you can now have bacon anytime with no muss no fuss no dirty pan. You can leave a bottle of bacon at work for lunch and emergency needs. Why is this not an everyday condiment choice? Who is trying to deny us this?


Man Booker 2010

Good Morning Flower!

It's time for my favorite award again.The Man Book Prize Longlist was announced yesterday. Here it is. I have noted (*) what titles are available in the U.S. at the moment and what will be available soon.

*Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Random House) available now in hardcover

*Emma Donoghue Room (Little Brown) on sale 9/13 in hardcover

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

*Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (McClelland & Stewart) on sale 8/3 in paperback

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

*Andrea Levy The Long Song (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) available now in hardcover

*Tom McCarthy C (Random House) on sale 9/7 in hardcover

*David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House) available now in hardcover

Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

*Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber) on sale 8/31 in hardcover and paperback
*Rose Tremain Trespass (Norton) on sale 10/18 in hardcover

*Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Penguin) available now in paperback

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

Two of this years nominees are sequels. That's unusual right? The Betrayal is a sequel to The Siege and The Stars In The Bright Sky to The Sopranos.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

At Last! More To Read!

So, Flower, need some more to read? Tons, right?

Bloomsbury Publishing has re-issued more out of print titles in the Bloomsbury Group series. How nice is that? The new titles are: Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady, Henrietta Sees Through It by Joyce Denny and Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson. They join:  A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson, Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson, Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, and The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson.   

At this moment these books are only available in the U.K. but since the previous four titles in the series were published here you can hold off on the panic. These will be published here as well at some point. Although buying books from the U.K. isn't impossible. The shipping is what can really add up so shop around.

If you visit Bloomsbury's website you can recommend other titles for them to bring back into print. What would I like? hmmmm..... I'd like Random Harvest by James Hilton, Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich...


Friday, July 23, 2010

Let The Thieves Of Manhattan Steal Your Precious Reading Time


I am all for books that are... what? What is the common thread? Two things: entertaining and well written. They don't have to be: important, funny, sad, mysterious, romantic, historical, modern or classics but they have to be good storytelling. No, I am not about to tell you that those elements come together once in a great while and here is a book that is one of those books. Well here is a book that is one of those books but I find books that meet my demands all the time. Isn't that wonderful? Some fulfill the requirements more completely than others and The Thieves of Manhattan is one of those books, but in general there are so many terrific books to read.

Okay. Enough with the misty eyed gratitude. The Thieves of Manhattan, right? Right.

What a crack up! Author Adam Langer has taken James Frey, publishing insiders, misery memoirs, the stereotypical Manhattan artist scene and written a funny, funny novel. His hero Ian Minot, a failed writer, is a classic bad luck Shleprock. He can't get anything right and his timing is worst of all. His lack of success is thorough. He can't get his work published and his immigrant Romanian girlfriend, the current darling of the publishing world as a result of her memoir of life under Ceausescu, is about to throw him over for a con-artist author Ian sees as the epitome of all that is wrong in publishing, Blake Markham. Into Ian's trough of self pity and failure comes brilliant editor Jed Roth, himself a rejected author, with a plan. Revenge.

The rest of the plot is Top Secret. Read Thieves yourself and find it out. By the time you finish it you will have had the world's best internship in publishing. The book will not only entertain you but it will also make you think about the voracity of what you read--just because it's in black and white doesn't make it black and white or anywhere near true. The shadier the road to success becomes for Ian the more important the truth is to him. Langer's novel (his 4th) isn't just all mock and no soul. Langer obviously has great affection for his characters and books.

My only dislike in The Thieves of Manhattan is a minor one. I did not enjoy all the fake book slang. Calling a short sentence a Hemingway or an umbrella a Poppins certainly displays Langer's reading credentials, but I found it tiresome and affected. There is even a glossary in the back containing all these terms presumably for all of us who don't get it. So you get the dumbed down explanation instead of the reward for being as well read as the author. Aside from that quibble, Thieves was a pleasure.

And. It's in paperback! And. It's at independent bookstores everywhere! And. If you go to one of those stores as opposed to shopping on line at one you will find tons of other good books to read. Isn't that fabulous?


P.S. The Cover? Love it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Bless Me Flower For I Have Sinned.

Or Have I? I kind of think I have.

There are things I haven't read that people assume I have read and I don't contradict them. Maybe if I was not a book person or a book seller the perception of my reading chops would be different. When you work in bookstores customers expect that you have read 3/4 of the store's inventory, if not all of it and they know  like they know that babies are cute, Stepehn King will have a new 700+ page novel out every year and that each Jennifer Aniston movie will be worse than the last  that you have read everything ever published for the 14 and under set.

It's true.

I have no problem with the adult books that I have not read that people/customers think that I have. I say whatever. Retail is retail. If John Q. Public brings assumptions concerning my literary authority into the store the better for me. If he then holds up Crap Novel and askes if I think he will like it, like a cop looking down the barrel of a perp's gun I have to make a split second decision. I have to contemplate the author's reputation, the price, any recent reviews and/or customer feedback, Mr Public's customer loyalty and purchase history----Did he buy 2 books last week, 3? Well did he, Punk?----- all weighed against my desire to sell, sell, sell. Guess what wins? But then ask me how many people have ever been unhappy with me for really just quiting any am-I-wasting-my-money fears because that is all they want.

I feel differently about books for children through young adults. When it comes to books for that crowd I need my never quite at the surface integrity. I want to recommend books that will help keep youngsters reading and loving books. Not only because I want them to one day spend their hard earned at my bookstore but because I want them to have the joy, knowledge and companionship of books throughout their lives.

So. I am going to stop pretending that I have read Goodnight Moon and The Giving Tree.

Okay. I'm not going to do that but I will continue to feel bad about myself for doing it. Is that enough?


P.S. In case you were wondering if my opinions about the books on this blog are my real opinions? They are. If I had to comment on every book that comes into my hands they wouldn't be but here I get to pick and choose.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Invisible Bridge


In the world of English language historical novels there are 3 time periods that get the most play: Ancient Rome, Tudor England and WWII. Why? I'm not sure. There were big changes in those eras and even bigger villains but you can say that for Renaissance Italy and the French Revolution as well. My personal theory is that most people have at least a vague knowledge of those times from all the films made about those periods (Not to mention that WWII is recent history with hundreds of thousands of people who lived it still living!) and that makes reading about them more accessible than say Feudal Russia. Therefore that's what they buy and what they buy determines what gets published next and so on and so on.

It's a brave author that picks one of the Big Three as the setting of their novel because that built in familiarity is a double edged sword. The author can count on the reader bringing a certain amount of understanding and empathy to their book but the reader also brings a show-me-something-I-haven't-seen-before attitude. Amazingly enough author Julie Orringer manages to accomplish that literary miracle in her sensational novel The Invisible Bridge.

Three Hungarian, Jewish brothers are all taking their first steps in their adult lives. The eldest, Tibor, to medical school, the middle brother (our hero) Andras to Paris on a scholarship and baby brother drops out of school to pursue the stage. Their freedom and excitement is short lived. This is Europe in 1937. Horrific historical events that the brothers will need to survive to keep their family intact are just around the corner. Within two years the brothers will be even more scattered and very familiar with the worst the twentieth century has on the menu.

What sets Invisible apart from other World War II sagas is Orringer's focus on the details of everyday life. Here is where the payoff for the jaded war story reader is found. Orringer writes with singular attention about the daily lives of her characters. She never loses the epic sweep that you want in a novel about lives tossed about by war and evil but the focus is on the helplessness and day to day struggles and successes of her characters. Invisible is an intimate chronicle of a family trapped in terrible times determined to stay a family.

I was impressed by The Invisible Bridge. The story isn't new but Orringer's writing is fresh and beautiful. This novel demands your interest and consideration and in return gives you a powerful reading experience.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ghosting As A Career Choice


How much of yourself do you set aside every day when you go to work? Are you putting on a game face or do you become someone else entirely? In Ghosting, author Jennie Erdal writes about her years spent living a double life at work. Why? Money? Timidity? Power? Ghostwriting started out for Erdal as a convenient job for a mother of three. It became a very strange and morally murky career. The details of her 15 years ghosting for a well known publisher (Referred to as Tiger throughout the book. In real life he was Naim Attallah) and media personality are absorbing. During that time she wrote a huge amount of business letters, love letters, articles and even full length books that were published under Tiger's name. It's quite bizarre and absorbing.

Erdal grew up in Scotland, studied Russian literature, married, divorced, married and in between had three children. She writes about all these events with grace and humor. However it's her symbiotic relationship with Tiger and especially how she got to that point, that is the fascination here. This is no misery memoir. Tiger, while the antihero isn't a villain. Some of Ghosting is quite amusing. Erdal as her alter ego, writing Tiger's erotic novel and the trip to France to write his first novel when she has no idea at all how to write fiction. There is some unpleasantness: temper tantrums, office politics and an ego the size of the universe to deal with on a daily basis.

Ghosting is a remarkable life portrait about an intelligent woman in a very curious situation. She not only thrives in that situation but survives and overcomes it as well.

Happy who is really someone else but writes all her own stuff as this other person

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine


Did you like or maybe love The Vanishing Act of Esme Lenox? I did, love it I mean. That was my first experience with author Maggie O'Farrell. It made me go back and read her backlist-- excellent -- and be excited by the prospect of any new titles by her. Now----Ta Da! A new novel by Ms O'Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine. Do I like it? Do I love it? Love it.

What a thrillingly (Is that a word?) expert writer O'Farrell is. Every word is a perfect choice and not one is wasted. Her novels are all about relationships. That sounds very boring and potentially awful but don't worry. To say that O'Farrell writes about relationships is like saying Fred Astaire can dance. You get a starting point but you actually have no idea of the talent, seemingly effortless skill and artistry that they bring to the job.

The Hand That First Held Mine covers the lives of two independent women. One of the women's stories is set in the 1950's and the other woman is in a contemporary setting. The novel is also about motherhood and time. In the earlier part of the story Lexie Sinclair is at the start of her career. She is a working journalist, in love and we're told going to die young. In the present day Finnish (Will this count as Scandinavian appeal?) artist Elina Vilkuna and her boyfriend Ted excitedly await the birth of their first child. After Elina almost dies during labor motherhood becomes an isolating and fearful experience. For Ted fatherhood brings up memories that distance him from his new family. Of course the parallel lives will somehow converge. How that is going to happen isn't telegraphed to you. There are subtle references but O'Farrell lets you discover the gaps in these lives as she builds tensions.

There is poetry in the writing of Maggie O'Farrell. She writes with such color and strength about the everyday and yet the novel is absolutely gripping. I have heard O'Farrell compared to Daphne Du Maurier and I agree. In the books of both of these writers are interesting, completely realized women coming to terms with the mysteries of fate. The Hand That First Held Mine is a wonderful puzzle that O'Farrell presents to you and she is the kind of writer that lets you have all the fun of solving it.


P.S. The U.K. cover? What do you think? Neither cover really appeals to me. The U.S. cover is flat and has a YA feel to it and the U.K. cover looks like the entire novel takes place in the 1950's. I don't like the balance of the U.K. cover either. It's very top heavy with all that varying type below.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Target Is My Heart

Oh Flower the humanity!

Ok. Ready? The Back To School shopping area is already set up at Target. And. It's not new today. Oh no it's been up for over a week. Have I been Rip Van Winkle-ized in some way? Is it now mid August and I just didn't know it? Do our children need to be exposed to this before they finished even one chorus of  No More Teachers, No More Books?

Back to school paraphernalia in the beginning of July? Talk about a buzz kill. Poor little guys.

I am all for getting the Christmas merch out in October. I love seeing it all and it makes the holiday last a little longer. Ditto for Easter products making the shelves in January, Flag Day party plates ready for purchase in March, and calendars on the sales floor by August. But in the name of all that is sacred and holy put the school supplies back in the store room. It has been many, many years since I was in school and still after all these years seeing notebooks, calculators and pencil cases all in a row breaks my heart.

So Un Happy

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Her Say For Heresy

Thy Flower!

Over time in the book world sub-genres begin, flourish and die away. The contemporary romance novel is a Mama genre but within that there are things like time travel romance novels. Books like the Gabaldon Outlander novels and The Time Traveler's Wife. Following the nothing succeeds like success motto publishers have put out countless books that have romantic time travel themes for the fans of these two super popular authors to enjoy. It happens all the time. Tom Clancy spawned a men's adventure techo thriller sub genre in the 80's that still thrives. I have no problem with this. I am all for people buying books and reading and whatever their tastes are is fine by me.

One of the newest and most popular of the baby genres comes out of the Thriller. It's the religious thriller. It comes in two main varieties. There is the contemporary search for the lost artifact theme and the historical persecution of religious truth with a dollop of lost artifacts and thumbscrews. I'm not a reader of the contemporary search novels but given my love of historical fiction the latter are right up my alley. I need to thank Dan Brown (and let's face it Umberto Eco is really the Papa of it all) for the proliferation of both varieties. How many times have I sat down with a salesman over the last few years and heard a book described as "Dan Brown meets John LeCarre", or been told to "think of this as a smart Dan Brown". I mean no offense to Dan Brown but these are the kinds of things you are told when an author has dominated sales. As a buyer you tend to disregard descriptions like those. You know from experience that the next Da Vinci Code will turn out to be a novel that only has sales figures in common with Da Vinci not plot.

The newest novel by S.J. Parris (a pseudonym for writer Stephanie Merritt) is a religious thriller of the historical variety called Heresy. It's 1576 and a monk named Giordano Bruno is exercising unauthorized freedoms by reading Erasmus in the privy. About to be caught and punished in many un-Godly ways, Bruni makes a run for it. So far so real. The real monk, philosopher, Galileo-ist scientist and poet Bruno made his way to England, after securing the friendship of a few important men, where he hoped to obtain a teaching position. Novelistic-ally Bruno does all that and gets caught up in a murder and Catholic (ever the Nazi's of the religious thriller) based treason threat against Queen Elizabeth I.

I wanted to read Heresy because of my interest in English history in general and this time period in particular. On those counts Heresy does not disappoint. The history is there in all it's satisfyingly chewy detail. Thriller-wise? Well there is nothing new in the premise but Parris has concocted a complex and intriguing enough plotline and likable enough characters to move the suspense along at a steady pace. My one complaint is that the dialog doesn't always stay true to the 16th century but that did not take away from my enjoyment of Heresy.


P.S. Why the pseudonym? I've heard writers say that they use the fake name so as not to confuse the fans of their 'other' books. Is that the case here? I'm not sure but Merritt does publish novels her real name. If that is her real name...

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Earth Hums In B Flat

Flower! Good Morning!

I am suspicious of adult novels told in the first person from a child's point of view. The child is never really a child. It's always a quirky little prophet machine. It's innocence a mask in place to reveal the hypocrisy of adults. This doesn't mean that there haven't been many novels like this that I have enjoyed. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Sweetnees at the Bottom of the Pie come to mind.

Another book to add to this list is The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Stranchan. Growing up in the 1950's in a small Welsh village twelve year old Gwennie is the 'odd' child of the community, not that she thinks of herself as that way. She sees herself as gifted: She flies in her sleep, has visions and takes questions from the Toby mugs in the kitchen. Is it that she has a good imagination? At home she must very carefully navigate her Mother's mental instability and her peacemaker Fathers' enabling.

When the husband of a supportive teacher is found dead Gwennie takes the case. Her investigation unwittingly reveals the kinds of secrets that change lives but the real tension here is a more unexpected type than catching a murderer. As you read Earth and succumb to Gwennie's considerable charms there is a palpable suspense in what exactly Gwennie's mental state is. Is she a young eccentric who will find her way or are the same seeds that torment her Mother already planted in Gwennie?

Given my suspicions I didn't expect to think much of The Earth Hums In B Flat. I read it because my friend Sasha encouraged/nagged me to read it. Well don't I have good friends? She was right. This is an outstanding novel. I was surprised the directions the story took. The impressive Gwennie is a wholly realized creation. Stranchan's development of her characters is more accomplished than most established authors can muster let alone a first timer like herself.

Earth would make a discussion filled book club choice. The family dynamics, where do individuals fit into society, what's changed since 1950, the mysteries, Gwennie's fate, etc would all be excellent talking points. It would also be a good book choice for more mature fourteen year old (and up) that are ready for more adult novels than are geared for their age group---and that is not to say at all that The Earth Hums In B Flat is a YA (young adult level reader) masquerading as a grown-up so many others do.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

We, The Drowned


I wish I could remember where it was that I first heard of We,The Drowned by Carsten Jansen. I can't help thinking that where ever it was must have recommendations for other books and since Drowned is so very, very good I would like to know all the other books they liked. It had to be somewhere on the internet of course and it was made the book sound so intriguing that I wrote down the title. I wanted to keep a record of it so that when it became available I could get it. Availability was an issue because this novel was originally published in Denmark in 2007. Not only was I going to have to wait for an English language publisher to buy the novel but I was also going to have to wait for it to be translated. ~~sigh~~

Fast forward to April 2010 and voila We, The Drowned makes it's English language debut, but in the U.K. not the states. Oh well. Luckily for me I have an extraordinary friend who lives in London and will send me whatever books I ask for. He's my own private little crack dealer.

The book is divided into 3 parts: local legend Laudris Masden's incredible story, the attempts of his son Albert to find his missing Father and decades later young mother Klara Erik desperate to keep the sons of Marstal, the hometown of the novel, from the sea. When the novel begins in the 1840's the citizens of Marstal are about to be conscripted by the Danish Navy into service in their war with Germany. The novel continues for the next hundred years until the final days of the second World War.

The novel is told by an invisible Greek chorus (the drowned of the title) that seems to be made up of the townspeople of Masden both living and deceased. They move you forward and backward through the characters lives and through the history of the town. After their impressment the first battles that Laudris Masden and his friends find themselves struggling to out last are horrific. Suddenly the book moves from away from the beguiling tall tales and the depth of the novel is revealed. This sets the style for the book. The juxtaposition of the warm, conversational feeling of stories handed down and folk tales treasured with the hard edged, painful experiences of the characters trying to survive life on the sea and the women and children trying to live their lives not knowing if the men will ever return is powerful and affecting.

There is something otherworldly about the sea. It's just outside your door but it has all the strangeness of a fantasy novel. It's a place where nothing is under your control. The rules that govern the rest of us don't apply out there. It takes a writer with a big vision and even bigger skills to capture the fear and it allure of it  while still entertaining and enlightening us. We, The Drowned is enthralling and masterful. Jensen has written one of the best books of the year. You will enter Drowned exactly like you are today and you will leave it knowing about a world that you didn't know existed and with a new understanding of great writing.

I am curious to see how well the publisher sells this book over here. It's coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2011. HMH isn't known for aggressive marketing or really any marketing as evidenced by their craptastic website. They do publish a large number of literary authors so they have experience with titles outside of the usual bestsellers. Among others they publish: Philip Roth, Cynthis Ozick, Edna O'Brien and Jose Saramago.

There is a huge interest in Scandinavian mysteries right now and no publisher has yet tapped into any other genres by Scandinavian authors and brought them to the U.S. We, The Drowned did win numerous prizes when originally published including the Danske Banks Litteraturpris the Danish equivalent of the Man Booker. So we shall see!

We, The Drowned does further my theory that books that begin with maps and/or a list of characters and/or where the author has named the chapters are destined to be greatly enjoyed. There's a map right there on the page before the chapter titles page! Maybe HMH can use that in their marketing.

If you are interested to know what nautical stories Carsten Jensen considers the best of the best here is a list he made for The Guardian. Warning--looking at this list might increase your own reading list.


P.S. The British edition of Drowned was beautifully translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 4th Eve

Flower my fellow citizen,

It's the 4th of July Eve. Time to acknowledge how grateful I am to be an American and how much I love the U.S. Why do I feel the need to add a caveat to my love? To point out that I recognize there are problems in the U.S. and many things I don't like about it but that I love it Overall. Is that because of who I am or because The Media and/or other people make me feel like I'm some sort of a dolt if I don't publically admit to my homeland being imperfect when I publically admit to loving it? Loving your country of origin, if you're American, is totally uncool. Well I'm uncool in a lot more ways that just this one. So bring it on.

I have traveled outside of the U.S. a lot. I have seen gorgeous vistas, gasped in awe at buildings and art, met interesting and wonderful people, eaten food both yum-tastic and scary and bought books and yarn on four continents. Traveling is exciting. It is something that I never want to stop doing. It doesn't matter where I go everything seems exotic when at the end of the day I am not going to sleep on my own pillow. Seeing what I have of the world has made me love my own country more. It's created a sizable chunk of gratitude in my heart that will never diminish. I have learned that there really is no place like home.

I am a free person because of where I was lucky enough to be born. The only thing I have ever done to earn that freedom is to vote and how difficult is that? I'm from a country with a stable government, opportunities, optimism and freedom and that makes me exceptionally lucky.

There is one little thing. It's hardly worth mentioning except that it bothers me. It's come closer to keeping me awake at night than any other thought ever has. ...Why has there never been a really good or even just ok movie about The Revolutionary War? Civil War? Check. WWI ? Check. All other wars with the exception of The War of 1812? Check. Nothing worth watching about the start of U.S.? Isn't that odd? Is this some sort of conspiracy? It's not as if war movies were so rarely made during Hollywood's golden age.

The only movies I can think of is  Revolution ,The Patriot and Johnny Tremain. Revolution is as God-awful as any movie ever gets, Patriot and Johnny are ok but is that the best that can be done?


Thursday, July 1, 2010

I'll Have The Frozen Rabbi Please


The oldest thing I have in my freezer right now is a 48 count pack of fish sticks I bought in 2007. In the intervening 3 years I have purchased and consumed other fish sticks. I'm not sure why the catch of whatever day it was in 2007 is still in my freezer awaiting an archaeological expedition to make it to the oven. Maybe I just like knowing they are there at the ready? They have survived numerous minor power outages and 2 outages that lasted more than 3 hours. I have to say I'm a little proud of them.

However, I would trade them in for one Frozen Rabbi. It sounds like a drink doesn't it? "I'll have the Frozen Rabbi, shaken not stirred" and nice as that might be a Frozen Rabbi also makes a terrific novel. Ask for a Frozen Rabbi at your local independent bookstore and you will get a novel that you will love not the do-you-have-Prince-Albert-in-a-can kind of response that you might expect thanks to author Steve Stern.

Fifteen year old Bernie Karp lives with his family in Memphis Tennessee. Everything is all pretty typical. Then one day when Bernie's looking for some food out from the fridge comes a frozen old dude. Go figure. Young Bernie Karp finds the frozen Rabbi in his parents' basement freezer. The Ice Age began generations ago for Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr when he was accidentally frozen while meditating and was presumed dead by his colleauges. Later he was found in-cased in a block of ice by a Polish laborer and has been in that family's care ever since. Their own lost Ark of the Covenant to keep and preserve. The Rab-sicle has been a deaf, dumb and blind family burden through the worst the 20th century had to offer for Jews. He has been protected by the family until he defrosts one day in Memphis in 1999.

The big thaw makes young Bernie a bit of a mystic. He has out of body experiences, becomes a seeker of knowledge and has hundreds of questions for the Rabbi. The Rabbi on the other hand becomes more secular and more convinced that America is a paradise every day. The Rabbi bites into every indulgence that contemporary life has to offer. Of course he attracts flocks of followers and his New House of Enlightenment is an immediate successful.

Telling me that a book is funny is the kiss of death. There have been amusing moments in many novels I have read but I have always found that the phrase 'comic novel' is an oxymoron. I have been proved wrong. Steve Stern can write funny. There is funny end to end in The Frozen Rabbi. Everything from slapstick to sarcasm. There is also an outstanding novel in there. From the historical elements surrounding the Rabbi's travels in his ice cube disguise to Stern's dovetailing Bernie's new spirituality into the Rabbi's hedonism. The Frozen Rabbi is waiting to make you laugh so stop waisting time and go get him already.

It all makes me wonder what Walt Disney will do when he gets thawed out.

P.S. I think the cover on The Frozen Rabbi is excellent--very appealing. It reminds me slightly of the jacket of a very different novel Free Food For Millionaires. I know. It's the top hat. This is the cover on the hardcover edition and it is much nicer than the paperback cover.
Millionaires is a wonderful debut novel about the daughter of Korean immigrants finding her own way in the world. The daughter, Casey, is just one of many fabulous characters  throughout the book. Millionaires was a big, lovely surprise for me. I am looking forward to the authors next book. So I wishe she would hurry up.