Gutenberg’s Apprentice

gutenberg

Johann Gutenberg has long been known for the invention of the printing press – a single man given credit for a world-changing creation. In fact, there were two others who were integral to the project, men history has forgotten about, and whom Alix Christie gives life to in this intricate novel.  Johann Fust was the financier behind the venture and Peter Schoeffer was the talented scribe who set down the letters of their massive first undertaking – the Bible.

I’m always fascinated by a story of obscure but influential individuals and respect the novel’s ability to give in-depth treatment to seldom-explored lives. I was intrigued by this book from the start – Christie’s letter to the reader about her discovery of this symbiotic trio and how it connected to her own apprenticeship to a master printer. What book lover isn’t going to want to know more about the invention that brought books to the masses and made reading a leisure activity?

Christie does a lot of things right here. There’s a rhythmic confidence to her prose, a natural smoothness that makes the fact that she’s a debut novelist impressive. And the characterization in this book is nothing if not entertaining – Christie perfectly captures the grisly grouch of a man that Gutenberg was, the fact that his crew couldn’t have gotten along without his dictatorial gaze, in spite of the fact that he was largely a figurehead. Gutenberg was a man with both bark and  bite and nary an endearing quality about him, but a man who was a visionary all the same. Though Christie mainly sought to explore the inner life of Peter Schoeffer, it’s Gutenberg who came across as the most vivid to me.

There was one major drawback to the novel, I felt – one that detracted from its overall power and readability. It’s extremely dense, with pages of uninterrupted narration about the complexities of printing and the religious and political tensions of the time period. This book badly needed more dialogue, more action, because the little action there was took a long time to happen, buried under passages that weren’t nearly as interesting to this reader as they were to Christie herself. As such, the novel was a long and very slow read, with the reward of an anguished scene between characters far and few in between.

There’s nothing to be done about this, since the book is already in print, but it’s a caveat to inform readers about before they begin. Those who prefer style over plot, with some well-drawn characters mixed in will enjoy this book, I think. It shines a light onto an aspect of history that has since been shrouded in darkness, a period of upheaval, uncertainty but also great promise. The book is bogged down in detail, but equally as obvious is Christie’s reverence of printing. Here is a mixture of both art and craft – the reader should know that going in.

Thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for having me as a host! 

A Bookish Update

Hi everyone – happy Read-a-thon!

I’m not formally participating this year – with 2 small children, a husband that likes me to look at him every once in a while and lunch at my mom’s house I didn’t think I’d get THAT much reading done. I did still read some, though, and thought I’d update you all on what’s been going on.

First, two milestones: October 16th marked the two-year anniversary of ReadLately.com. I couldn’t post to commemorate it because it fell on a Jewish holiday, meaning no computer use for me, but I thought I’d mention it now. I dare say the blog will be less active this year because of how busy life has gotten, but I’m looking forward to posting when I can (and to going to another BEA in May!)

Also, my 31st birthday is tomorrow! I’ll spend it with my husband, kid free (somehow) in New York City. There will be a trip to the bookstore involved (he promises), possibly a Broadway play and definitely dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, Va Bene.

Here are two books I’m going to be picking up at a Manhattan Barnes and Noble:

some luckdeep down dark

Now for what I’ve been reading – more than usual since I’ve been on an extended break from school.

malala

I just finished I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. The book was recommended to me by both the high school librarian and assistant principal as a powerful example of Creative Nonfiction, and, once she won the Nobel Peace Prize, (just recently, at the young age of 17!), I thought it was time I read it. I thought the prologue was a compelling entry into the book but that Part I was slow, though it got progressively better as it went on. By the end, I closed the book saying “Wow” – at the tremendous emotional maturity showed by this girl and the fact that someone so young could be so outspoken and so meaningful to politics. I truly commend Malala and hope she only continues to rise from here. I do believe, having achieved all she already has, that she will reach her dream of becoming a politician.

leaving time

Now I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time, which just came out in hardcover. She’s definitely the author whose work I most anticipate, though I don’t love all of her books with equal fervor. I really couldn’t wait to start this one and it took such discipline to finish Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (review will be up on Monday) and read I am Malala before doing so. I’m 160 pages in and should finish within the next couple of days, if not sooner (when it comes to Picoult, I devour). I have a review copy, so a formal review will be up soon.
station elevenlila
 
After that will probably be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a National Book Award finalist, which was enough to make me actually buy it with my own money (rare, for a book blogger, am I right?) Browsing the blogosphere, I saw that Kim Ukra read it today during the readathon. Her saying it was simply beautiful was enough to push it to the top of my stack. Coming in as a close-second contender was Lila by Marilynne Robinson, also a NBA finalist. I’ve never read any of her work (including Gilead or Home) but I’ve been told Lila is a prequel to both of them and that I won’t miss anything by starting there. I’ve heard that Robinson’s prose is magnificent, and I can’t wait to see for myself.
 
Happy reading, everyone! I  hope you’ll visit here again soon.

Becoming Jospehine

becoming josephine

 

Becoming Josephine is indeed a story of “becoming” — of inner growth and of outer ascension. It’s hard, sometimes, to believe this book is based on the life of a real person because there is so much that happens  – Josephine’s fortune is constantly changing and, unbelievably, she adapts to all of it.

We follow Josephine – named Rose at birth – as she marries, first, Alexandre, a man who does not love her and does not prove a faithful or companionable husband. Josephine’s despair and loneliness is palpable in these pages as is the reader’s detest for her husband who behaves despicably at every turn. Josephine’s filing for a separation after bearing too much torment is indeed momentous – for the time period and for the new beginning it allows her.

Her fresh start is thwarted by imprisonment  – she and Alexandre both are picked up as suspects in France’s violently-brewing revolution. The conditions of the prison, and the way Josephine withers near death because of them, are also acutely rendered. When she is released, the reader feels it as the most amazing stroke of luck, because she surely would’ve died within days.

It is at court, once she’s recovered, that she meets a new batch of suitors – Napolean Bonaparte among them. Webb portrays him perfectly at the outset – ungainly, ill-mannered and awkward. Still the reader can tell there is an earnest, if misdirected heart brewing underneath. When Josephine accepts his offer of marriage she, and the reader, too, suspects she will be treated well.

And in fact, the two come to truly love each other – amid Napolean’s success as a war general and rise to emperor and amid Josephine’s inability to bear him an heir. The conclusion of the book, which I won’t give away, is among the most bittersweet of any I’ve ever read – a reflection of the times, of societal expectation and of two people battling the opposing desires of their heads and hearts.

This is a well-done first effort, with every note hit. My only complaint is that I found it a bit overwritten, with too many descriptors and superfluous phrases. This is a nitpicky, I’m aware; Webb was probably just getting into character, becoming melodramatic as a writer to mirror the life she sought to capture.

Kudos to Webb for covering with great heart and vivacity a complex time period in history as well as the vacillating tides of Josephine Bonaparte – the woman behind the man .

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for my review copy!

The Story Hour

story hour

First, a sincere apology to TLC Book Tours. This review is four days past my agreed-upon posting date, the first time I’ve ever missed my tour stop since beginning with them over a year ago. How to explain it? I’ve been in a funk to surpass all reading funks. Goodreads tells me I haven’t finished a book since August 9th. That’s one month and 11 days that I haven’t been reading – the longest respite from books I think I’ve ever taken.

So what have I been doing? Starting a new job as a high school creative writing teacher. The stress level has been high. Not only in the preparing but also in the actual doing – because once the course started both the students and I had to adjust our expectations. It’s been entirely all-consuming, to the point where, reading, for the first time in my life, has not been a priority.

Why am I wasting so much review space to say this? Because of this reason: I finished The Story Hour. When I picked it up today at 4:00, I was only 100 pages in, but I read straight through – 217 more pages – until I finished the book tonight. I was determined to let a book envelop me again, transport me and transform me as it hadn’t for months.

I’ve been in a trance ever since. The kind of marathon read I did was immersive and it left me completely open, almost raw to the changes the characters underwent. Lakshimi and Maggie seem like such friends at first, such supports to one another and also such foils – the Indian immigrant appearing uneducated and unstable, the black therapist sure of herself and whole. But by the novel’s end the roles are completely reversed, making for the sort of character development and narrative arc I haven’t seen in a long while.

This book is so rich – not only because of all the things it examines – marriages that aren’t built on love and marriages that are, the quest for fulfillment, the American experience, immigrant ascension, child abuse, sisterly love, sacrifice, adultery, trust …but also because of the way it is told. The book alternates between the assured third person narration of Maggie’s portion and Lakshimi’s broken and highly original English. Tremendous praise to Umbrigar for keeping Lakshimi’s voice consistent, for imbuing in her dialect a quality so trusting and searching and plucky.

What it is that Umbrigar does so effectively? I think she gives her characters vulnerability. She makes them flawed and human and open to the ebbs and flow of human emotion. And she allows the reader to enter completely into their predicaments, to get yanked under the yoke of their burdens. I felt each and every character’s falter and resolve as they struggled to surge forward and begin anew. And when they did reach this place of fresh beginnings and rekindled hope, I cheered inside as the best-realized books make us do.

Many thanks to TLC book tours for my review copy and for having me as a host. And one last apology for the late review!

The Angel of Losses

angel of losses

The Angel of Losses is being billed as a cross between The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Having read both, I can see the connection – especially the comparison to Obreht’s fable-like writing. Feldman’s prose is at its strongest in these sections, where she tells the tales of  The White Rebbe. There’s something sonorous and gorgeous about the language she uses – fluid and natural and effortless. Feldman has a real gift f0r the long-ago. It was a pleasure to be in her company while spun the the first half of the weave that is her novel.

My problem really lay in the second half – the real-world, every day life of Marjorie and her sister, Holly. The narration here seems mundane, forced, awkward – too much of a shift from the world in which we were previously immersed. It sounds as if Feldman herself is just waking up from the dream of her narration and now has to shift tones, put on a different hat in which she’s not as comfortable. The book truly seems as if it is written by two different writers, the second not nearly as competent as the first.

And so I struggled while reading this book. While I read of two estranged sisters, and a grand daughter’s effort to uncover her grandfather’s past  I wanted to be back in the mythical world of The White Rebbe. I wanted the lore, the sleepy happiness that comes with being told a story. Feldman is just so good at it. It’s a shame the whole book couldn’t have been written as allegory.

While I felt disconnected from the secondary plot line – and also a bit resentful about the way Orthodox Judaism is portrayed – I also see tremendous potential in Feldman’s abilities. I think she just needs to find her stride and truly inhabit her narrative voice rather than trying to mold it to different purposes. I will certainly watch for what she does next!

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me as a host!

The Home Place

home place

When her reckless, drug-abusing sister is found dead, lying face down and unattended in the snow, Alma must return to her hometown and help police with the investigation. It could have just been exposure – having had the bad luck to pass out unconscious in the brutal Montana cold  - or it could have been murder.

In Vicky and Alma, La Seur creates a tension of opposites. Though on the one hand they seem a bit like stock characters – in fact, many of the characters in this book seemed archetypal to me – it’s compelling to watch Alma’s steely resolve crumble, to bear  witness as she learns that not everything can be controlled, stored away, hidden from.  As she’s forced to reacquaint herself with the people that made up her past and the mistakes that perhaps led to this present, Alma must examine her long-ago choices, and see if there is anything she can do now to make them right.

It’s always heartening to watch a character go on this sort of journey, to come up against moments of reckoning, to grab that long-lost chance. My problem here was that I couldn’t connect to the characters – or even to the plot. It felt very much as if the author was trying to check all her boxes, to keep all her cogs in place, to ensure the pace moved meanderingly along to the denouement. Vicky’s death never felt like a loss to me – only the event that set the story in motion. I couldn’t feel the gravity of her passing, perhaps because the people touched by her death – her sister, her young child – are resolved not to cry. As a reader, I was waiting for the chink in the armor, for the moment that would make the tragedy seem tragic instead of just a call for efficacy.

I wish I hadn’t felt so detached, because I thought the book held great promise. It’s being compared with dramas like The House Girl which I loved and, structured differently, I think it could’ve been very powerful. Throughout, I wanted first person narration rather than third, and a novel told in multiple voices: Maybe  Vicky’s, post-mortem, Lovely Bones style, Alma’s and finally Vicky’s daughter, Brittany. Pete the turned-around older brother and Uncle Walt, a volatile Vietnam vet, could’ve also been good narrative choices – especially because either of them could’ve stopped Vicky’s death from happening.

I think this sort of creativity was hampered by the direct journey we take from beginning to end. (The book is even told chronologically, with no straying from the timeline). But who knows – this is only a debut, with some very strong, evocative writing, particularly on its first few pages. We will see more from this author. Perhaps on her next attempt, she will show us more reach.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for my advance review copy!

“Astonish Me” at the Library

Since moving to Deal, NJ for the summer at the end of June, I’ve been so thankful for by my local library – a cozy, bright, inviting place that’s a joy to visit. I’m not much of a library patron – snobby as this sounds, I don’t like the feel of used books or that musty library smell. I like my books crisp and fresh and this library delivers. It’s orderly and clean, the books are new as can be and how amazing to catch up on books I’ve always wanted to read (or recently heard about) for free?

elberon library

Nearly every Friday, I’ve taken my 18-month-old there for story time and of course there is much lingering at the shelves when it’s over. For the first time in a long time (bookstores don’t do this for me anymore) I’ve felt like a serendipitous browser. And the selection is amazing! Books that came out a week ago are in stock here. No waits, no holds – it’s mine as fast as I can snatch it up.

Among the first batch of books I checked out was Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me and it is most certainly aptly named!

astonish me

While there was so much I admired about this novel – the carefully measured writing, the interior narrative voice and the immersive way Shipstead incorporated ballet culture and terminology, the last quarter of it was downright creepy – wholly unexpected and I might even say unearned. Was this where Shipstead was going all along? If so, she should have done more through the first half of the book to foreshadow or make the relationship credible. Did she happen upon this idea suddenly and decide to go through with it for shock value’s sake? (Authors do this and I hate it – it’s so manipulative!) What was going through her head? Did she see the end at the very beginning? And if so, how did she keep up the book-length facade? I’m intentionally being unclear here because I don’t want to give anything away, but those of you who’ve read it, what’s your verdict? Is this book well-choreographed, masterfully planned? Or does it completely crumple under the way of an unviable ending? Share. Opinions. Please!

Land of Love and Drowning

land of love

I first got turned on to this book from Rebecca at BookRiot.com. She said she read it in delicious little sips and that it was full of magic and myth. I couldn’t resist that sort of exuberance – the promise of a gorgeously-written, slightly fantastical world. And so I requested this one for review and wasn’t disappointed. The book is finely executed and infused with all the twang and charm of the Caribbean. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that turned out to be a wholly refreshing thing.

I’ll come right out and say this for the sake of those who need to know it: incest is a big part of the plot – father/daughter and half-brother/half-sister. Normally, that sort of thing makes me squeamish, but here…though it was incest, I didn’t see it like that, really. Perhaps this is owing to the strength of Yanique’s writing. She makes you feel like these are simply cases of forbidden love. Love that cannot be permitted, certainly, but still love that is valid and true and strong. I didn’t feel as if the half-siblings were that to eachother – more like they were thwarted romantic partners, who, if they could be together, would do very well with eachother. The same goes for the feelings sprouting up between father and daughter -rather than a gross abomination, they felt like idolation taken a bit too far.

Why does Yanique paint her situations this way? Why does she makes us feel the pull of her characters’ connections, even as they are entirely wrong for eachother? I think because she wants us to think about something larger than the appropriateness of a relationship. What about when you’re in the thing already – because objectified, being romanticized – what then? Sometimes, in life, it is too late to turn back, you’ve already gotten swept up in the current or swayed by a false impression. It’s already happened. So what do you make of the future remaining?

This book is about otherness, it’s about colonization and belonging, desire and freedom – and love in its many forms. Yanique draws her characters with empathy and tenderness rather than the shame and disgust you’d expect given the subject matter. And that is what makes this such an interesting read. It’s not often my perspective is broadened to this degree – so that I see the struggle above all things. Yanique should be praised for not only taking a risk but doing so beautifully – with bravery and with grace.

Many thanks to Riverhead Books for my advance reader’s copy!

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

toledo

This book was such a pleasure to read. I gave it 5 stars easily – as easily as Lydia Netzer’s characters fall in love once they meet.

Smart and observant, laugh-out-loud funny with vulnerability underneath, Netzer’s latest is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It seeks to undermine the traditional love story – even make a mockery of romantic love by taking it literally. We loosely throw around the concept of soul mates and the notion of fate, but in reality, do they exist? And if they don’t, can we will that majesty into being via our own machinations?

A bit of an aside: In the Jewish religion it’s actually believed that married couples are two halves of a single soul, so that when they meet on earth there’s a resounding connection between them. It’s not fabricated, the way it is in this book by George and Irene’s mothers – we believe it’s preordained by G-d. Nevertheless, this concept felt familiar to me and real: how you might ground and control a very spiritual concept.

I think Lydia Netzer believes in romantic love – but her characters chaf against it at first and, ultimately, want it to be earned. That’s the most interesting part about this book, I think (and there are many fascinating elements) – the emotional journey the characters undergo before and after they find eachother.

I loved How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. I thought it crackled with energy and each day its storyline was something I couldn’t wait to get back to. It’s pure, guitless pleasure, hours of unabashed fun and also a very smart meditation on the core of human experience: love. I hope you all enjoy it this summer!

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for my review copy!

It’s Monday….

Hello, everyone!

I thought I’d breathe some life back into this blog by sharing what I’m reading this week. I may have finally gotten into the reading groove, having finished a book last week, wrote a blog post and started another one soon after. The book was Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique and a review will be up on its publication day, July 10th. Now I’m reading Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky

toledo

and it’s so much fun! I think I’m enjoying it a little too much. But it’s just what I needed to restore my faith in reading and thaw out my mental state.

On that front, I got a job at my old high school! It doesn’t feel real yet, because I haven’t signed a contract, but I’ll be teaching two semesters of creative writing (one to juniors and one to seniors) working hours in their writing center and also supervising the literary magazine. I’ve been given complete flexibility with the creative writing class – I can shape the curriculum however i want – which is really exciting. I’ve never taught at the high school level or made so many lesson plans before but I think I’ll really enjoy the process. I’m trying to breathe through it all and tell myself I’ll still be able to read books for pleasure.

I hope to finish Toledo today (it’s  completely addicting) and have a review up on pub day tomorrow – so keep a look out!