Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

chameleon club

When I was a junior in college, I read a book called Hitler: The Pathology of Evil by George Victor. Essentially, it humanized Hitler – and by that I mean it told his story as a human, from his childhood onward. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember the effect it had on me. I was utterly fascinated by the way Victor psychoanalyzed his life, on the premise that all of us, even the most monstrous, start out human. It’s what happens going forward that can distort and determine future action.

That is Francine Prose’s premise, too – and perhaps why I was drawn to this book. Prose’s Lou Villars is a fictionalized version of Violette Morris – a lesbian, cross-dressing race car driver, who worked as a spy and torturer for the Gestapo. In one of the book’s alternating sections, Lou’s biographer attempts to do for her what Victor’s book did for Hitler – pick apart her life, zero in on the warning signs and the impulses building over time. Other sections – excerpts from letters, articles, novels and memoirs being written by other characters – give shape and texture to the time period.

This is a kaleidoscope of a novel, chasing that ever-elusive chimera of whether we can locate and rationalize evil. We come to deeply know the villainess, but we also meet the heros and heroines – the brave men and women of the French Resistance. In this sense, Prose rounds out the spectrum of her colorful narrative.

Though this is a thick book – it took me over a week to get through – it is utterly immersive. Prose’s storytelling sucks you in and then challenges you with existential ideas and thought provoking questions. The voices of her secondary characters shine through, too – a writer, a photographer, a baroness – all become important.

I’m still puzzling over why this book – filled with such off-beat topics (its focal point is a transgender night club) –  appealed to me so much. My first guess is that it was complicated. The alternating structure of the novel made it unpredictable, so that I constantly had to reshape my perception. And the fact that it was based on the life of a real person made it all the more fascinating. That’s the word for this novel, actually: fascinating.

Visit Paris of the 1930s and 40s – get to know the players in the drama – and decide for yourself whether its possible to vanquish evil.

Many thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy and to TLC book tours for having me as a host!

Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon Stack

 oppositedear lucyall the light

Here’s a last minute post about my stack for the readathon this Saturday! I’m currently in the middle of All the Light We Cannot See and, because it’s a big book, I think it’ll take me into Saturday. Assuming I finish that up pretty early, my next option is The Opposite of Loneliness - a compilation of fiction and nonfiction essays, written by a talented student-writer who died tragically young. (This rings so many of my bells, as they say, and am only sad it took her death to get Marina Keegan published). Lastly, Dear Lucy, having discovered today that its paperback publication was this Tuesday. I’m thrilled about this, since I missed the chance to review the ARC in hardcover. Hurray for second chances!

What will you be reading (if you are participating?)

Checking in with East of Eden

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to check in after taking a brief break over the Passover holiday (which starts up again Sunday night). I’ve been reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and am immensely proud of myself for finally tackling this novel! May books will just have to wait – I have some TBR reading to do!

I’m enjoying it a lot so far, 150 pages in. It’s really well-written AND is very plot-driven. Can you ask for a better combination? It does however, require sustained concentration – “getting involved” as my aunt puts it – and this is proving difficult with two children home and a lot of cooking, shopping and mothering to be done. I’m progressing slowly, though – and definitely recommend this if it’s a classic you haven’t gotten to yet!

east of eden

Fill me in – what have you been reading? How are things?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

museum

I requested Alice Hoffman’s latest novel because I thought 2011′s The Dovekeepers was among the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Let it be said, I’m an Alice Hoffman newbie: I’ve only read The Dovekeepers and this latest offering. But I know that she can write and achieve a depth of characterization that totally infuses her pages.

Case in point: Hoffman’s does an impressive job with the backstories of Coralie and Eddie in The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Both feel bound by existential chains – one tormented by his freedom in defecting from his religious faith and the other tormented by her confinement, under the care of her sinister father. You will feel the agony of them both – how lost they are, how much they regret, how much more they hope for themselves. But then, when they come together finally, after 200 pages and  several interweaving stories, the substance crumbles. They fall in love instantly and don’t struggle to traverse each other’s difficult pasts so that they might create a future together. Coralie pines over Eddie the entire book because of a singular time she sighted him in the woods and Eddie dreams of her nightly. Ultimately, their basis for being together seems wispy and insubstantial, more convenient then anything else, once they converge during a specific point in the plot.

Not only was the love of the main characters unbelievable, several subplots seemed unnecessary, crowding what should have been a much more developed story. I would’ve liked to see this book be simply about the starkly different realities of Coralie and Eddie – one an attraction in a museum on Coney Island, an anomaly because of her webbed fingers, and the other a former tailor venturing down questionable paths. Instead there is a murder mystery thrown in, a father figure made out to be a Frankenstein creator and (we’re supposed to believe) Coralie herself who is half human, half mermaid. Hoffman is known for her magical realism but in this book it was a little too much for me. I preferred The Dovekeepers – more gritty, real, powerful and epic as it is. In fact, I recommend it highly. Make it the next book you pick up – it’s that good – and leave The Museum of Extraordinary Things to fantasy.

Many thanks to Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, for my review copy!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

fikry

I’ll keep this short, since this book has been reviewed and loved by so many already. And I’ll write to offer a slightly dissenting opinion. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this story about the bookish life and bookish love. I chuckled all the way through it, tearing occasionally and taking genuine heart from these like-minded characters, who believe “a place is not a place without a bookstore.” It’s possible I enjoyed it a little too much. It felt, the entire time, like a guilty pleasure, like devouring a chocolate bar and then reaching for another . These sorts of experiences feel too good to be true – and it kind of was.

Ultimately, I found this book a little too cutesy. The descriptions of small-town life felt cliche,’ like I was reading a scene out of the Gilmore Girls TV series. Do people really live  this way? So close, so cozy, so all-for-one? I live in a very close-knit community, and still I have my doubts.

Zevin accomplishes a lot in a very few amount of pages. This is a complicated, convoluted story and perhaps that is my biggest complaint: I wanted more of it! I wasn’t ready to let go of these characters. What happens to Amy and Maya? Does Amy begin again? Does Maya go to college, grow up, get married and become a writer, as her father predicted? There’s room for a sequel, or at the very least some expansion in these pages.

Still it was a pleasure to read a novel that was so book-centric, to feel at home among book people who just happen to be characters. If you’re looking for a treat of a read – or just want to feel it’s okay to love books this much – get to know A.J. Fikry.

Stoner

stoner

This book has become something of a modern classic but I only heard of it recently. The blurbs are effusive – Emma Straub calls it “the most beautiful book in the world” – and other readers sigh with over-the-top admiration. So, of course, I had to read it.

I think, because I went into it with such high expectations, I was taken aback by how dreary the plot is. Clear, crisp writing – sentimental when it needs to be, a joy to read – but the plot, particularly Stoner’s loveless marriage to frigid Edith, is really, really disheartening. There’s also the principles of Calvinism at work here – the notion that a life spent dedicated to hard work, be it in the field or of the mind, is a life well-spent. But to me Stoner’s life – which is first one of exciting study and new possibilities – slowly erodes so that work is a safe haven against a thankless home life – so thankless that even teaching can’t prove rewarding enough. Poor Stoner, you will think for the first 150 pages of this book. Poor Stoner.

Interestingly, the tempo of the book lifts when *spoiler here* Stoner has his extramarital affair. Suddenly there is life in the pages as he discovers love, and passion as it should be. As a reader, I was glad for him, glad he knew at last what he’d been missing. (As unprincipled as it is, I think you’ll agree with me here, disliking Edith so much you’ll be unable to find sympathy for her.) The book swings back and forth then – to marriage as it shouldn’t be and love as it should. Katherine, the love interest, will fade and Stoner will be met with the task of reconciling his life and his work to a satisfactory end before he dies. Predictably, the book gets philosophical towards the close, but any life-to-death story should. Stoner is a quiet book of the mind, with the dreary and the euphoric existing side by side. It’s a difficult pendulum to swing and Williams does it to great effect. Give this book a try for some good old classical writing and the singular examination of a life.

This book fulfills part of my 2014 TBR Challenge.

The Enchanted

enchanteds

The beauty of The Enchanted lies not in who did what to land in its death row prison, but in what the dungeon is like – the culture and climate of the place. The slave wages, the food (so foul that food poisoning runs rampant) the rape shed, where newbie prisoners are routinely violated, the bed bugs that crunch underneath the mattresses, the gaunt faces and hollow bellies of the prisoners as they dream of air and trees and sky.

It is grim, this setting, and dark, which is to be expected when the focal point of a novel is underground. And yet there is something lighthearted and whimsical about it, too, a fantastical element that Denfeld intersperses wonderfully between the hopeless moments. It’s a perfect juxtaposition, this marriage between doom and imagination, and it makes the novel an arrestingly engaging read.

While I was reading I thought repeatedly of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, because there is the same lyricism in the language and the same intensity. And yes, I understood the comparisons to The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold because there is the same depth and universality in the tone. But again the fantastical aspects – the galloping golden horses that make themselves felt after every execution, the little men that bang diligently with hammers during the quiet moments, the filbergibbets who are horrid and slimy and the glorious escape that books provide – are what make this novel unique.

Thinking back on it now, I can’t tell you exactly what the death row inmates did – the particulars are blurry because, for once, they are not the point. The point is compassion, for even these monstrous creatures. It’s difficult to feel compassion for people who do such heinous things but Denfeld makes you feel it. That is her accomplishment.

The prisoners in this book are human and vulnerable and wanting. They cower, display false bravado and hope when they shouldn’t.  As we read, we get to know them; we live among them in their squalid conditions, and we witness the improbable castle they make for themselves in their minds. By the novel’s end, we may even question our beliefs or at least allow ourselves to wonder what happens after the sentence is handed down.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins Books for my advanced reader’s copy!

This Reader is Going on Vacation!

My husband and I will be taking a very anticipated vacation to Florida from April 2nd to April 7th! Happily, it corresponds nicely with Rachel’s 24 in 48 read-a-thon. This will be the first time in a long time I’ll have uninterrupted time to read and I am so excited. Weirdly, though, I’m stressing about which books to take with me! I’m gravitating towards Sadie Jones’ Fallout and Lauren Oliver’s The Quick but both reviews won’t post until May and I feel like, even I get both books read, the blog will be empty for it. I’m the worst at filler posts, you guys. What do you do when you are in between reviews?

I love reviewing current books – writing something up and then immediately hitting publish. There’s that sense of immediate gratification in the reader responses. But when you read books ahead of time, as I tend to do, there’s a lapse in blog-time that’s not necessarily indicative of your reading life. Conundrum. Well, there is always The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry! If the blogosphere is any indication, it seems like I have to read that one immediately – and it’s out already!

fallout                                                       quick

Will I read more than two books in five days? What else should I take with me? It feels like these two want company….

Spring 2014 TBR

springtbr

It’ll be a mix of ARCs and TBR books this Spring. In fact, I plan on dedicating a whole month (not sure if it will be May or June yet) to my TBR Challenge. Advancing through this pile will take some time – 6 out of the 10 featured here are chunksters at over 450 pages, but I’m excited for what looks like some great reads.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck - I’ve been wanting to read this forever and feel like I’ll get to over it over the Passover break. What is it about Passover that has me itching to read it? The biblical themes?

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley – It’s funny how I came across this one. I e-mailed a publicist hoping for an ARC of Jodi’s Picoult’s 2014 release, before learning she wasn’t with S&S anymore. The publicist did represent Kate Morton though, who has a new book coming out in November. She didn’t have a galley to send me yet but could send me this in the meantime – the comparable Lucinda Riley, whom she recommends. I’ll take it.

MFA vs. NYC edited by Chad Harbach – This book was an impulse buy – not part of any “pile.” I have an MFA background, I live in New York and I’m really interested in its publishing industry. This book of essays is right up my alley.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman - I don’t know if it’s cheating to include my current read. I loved 2011′s The Dovekeepers so much(read before I became a blogger) that I just had to request Hoffman’s latest. I can’t say I’m enjoying it as much as her previous work, but Hoffman’s writing is always something to behold.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostovo - This is another oldie I hope to get to. It’s over 600 pages but completely engrossing – or so I hear.

Fallout by Sadie Jones (April 29th)Somehow, I missed The Uninvited Guests, though I was completely drawn to it. I’m looking forward to Jones’ next attempt.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (April 1st) – I couldn’t handle Room but I think this one will be more digestible. Many thanks to Monika for sending this! I’m excited to read the book so many bloggers are talking about.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (August 19th)I only just saw a pitch for this in the S&S newsletter but the synopsis and writing style reminded me very much of Alex George’s A Good American. I’m expecting good things.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (May 6th) - another S&S upcoming title. The reviews for this one have been phenomenal.

The Quick by Lauren Oliver (June 17th) - I have Shannon to thank for cueing me into this one. An epic, sprawling tale set in Victorian London? Yes, please.

These aren’t pictured but I also hope to read: The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenburger, Stoner by John Williams and Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, a new Chris Bohjalian coming out this summer.

Happy Spring everyone! What’s on your TBR?

The Mapmaker’s Daughter

mapmaker's daughter

I first agreed to take on The Mapmaker’s Daughter after reading a glowing blurb from Mitchell James Kaplan, whose book By Fire, By Water I was swept away by. Both books are about the existential tension that occurs when religious faith must be compromised to save lives.

Because I’d read Kaplan’s book, I knew Laurel Corona’s would trod similar territory -15th century Spain before and during the Inquisition. But Corona does something Kaplan doesn’t – something ambitious, and impressive and unprecedented in my historical fiction experience. She probes not one culture and faith but three, straddling Judaism, Islam and Christianity, pitting them against each other before joining them together, blurring the lines somehow without crossing them. In fact, she navigates them as effortlessly as an acrobat.

Our heroine, Amalia, must venture into all of these religious realms as she decides what’s best for her family. She dapples in each – first because she must and then because she has a genuine respect for and warmth towards another religion. But through it all she holds fast to her spiritual identity as a Jewess, raising her daughter steadfastly in the same fashion, even as they mingle in these other worlds.

This reading experience was immersive and compelling – especially because I didn’t agree with all of Amalia’s choices. As an Orthodox Jew I had an almost visceral reaction when Amalia took up with Jamil, her Muslim lover. Relations between Jews and non-Jews are forbidden in our culture and I couldn’t reconcile how she could engage that way, while working so hard to keep her faith. There would be even greater challenges ahead, though, and it would be then that Amalia would show herself. How I cheered, even as she made decisions that broke her heart; how I rooted for her and Eliana as they sought to find a home for themselves.

Corona writes with tremendous empathy and scope – creating characters you will feel utterly invested in and admiring of. This is a terrific addition to the fiction on Inquisition-plagued Spain – perhaps the most compassionate take on the era. Pick this one up now during Women’s History Month and journey with Amalia and Eliana as they find untold strength to carry on.