Fat Books & Thin Women

So many exciting things!
July 18, 2012, 5:19 pm
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Hello, internet! Time to make my excuses, yet again, for my long absence from book reviewing. It’s a good one this time: I was in Turkey! (This trip was, I admit, surrounded by a few weeks of pure laziness, blog-wise.) That beautiful country I have been dreaming of visiting ever since I was in kindergarten, wearing my snazzy grandmother-provided Turkey-bought necklace and bracelet set. This was such a fun trip, and I should eventually get around to writing it up on my other blog, but there’s so much to cover that I would not be surprised if that post takes until December to write. (No surprise to long-time readers of this blog – I know there are a few of you, counting my parents – who have been watching my plummeting post counts.) Two days on a boat, swimming laps around the boat, getting off the boat to buy ice cream, swimming some more, followed by two days of sea legs… “conquering” my fear of heights with a balloon ride over Cappadocia and, get this(!), an emergency landing that I SURVIVED, a number of expensive sites in Istanbul, lots of old tombs, hitting my head about three times a day, and lots of good food.

Balloon ride!

Bookishly speaking, I finished A Dance with Dragons while on the trip, and no real thoughts on it except…GRRM, how many more of my favorite characters can you kill? I don’t want to say anything more about this because I know everyone who hasn’t finished the five completed books in the series is either currently reading them or planning to read them. At this point, I’m so used to my favorites dying that they only warrant a brief jaw drop…nothing like the Red Wedding scene which, OH MY GOD.

It’s less than two weeks now until I return to the States, so I’m too excited to do much reading – but lots and lots of movies. Maybe I can learn to be a film critic? Expect things to step up a bit once I’m in the America, because my father was kind enough to go the library and reserve a list of books I’d sent him. So, prepare for: Etgar Keret! Nathan Englander! Chad Harbach! Jo Nesbo! Tom Piccirilli! My brain feels like it’s about to explode right now, so off for a coffee and a question: What have you all been up to? Are you as excited (or, sometimes, terrified) for this summer* as I am?

* In my mind, summer starts when I am sitting on the Jersey Shore…so August.

2011: The Year in Books
December 29, 2011, 7:43 pm
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In the past year, I’ve read 97 books. (This will probably be 98 by the real end of the year; I’m on Lehane’s Mystic River and having a hard time putting it down to, you know, do all the “American stuff” I should be doing while on vacation.) I finished my Peace Corps service and the next day took a furgon (van) to Tirana, Albania, to start my Fulbright grant. I also came back to the States not once but twice (after twenty months without setting foot on American soil), both times making the library one of my first trips after arriving home.

A quick highlight of some of the best and worst in reading, of the past year.

Best “Discovered” Author: Margaret Atwood. After having a copy of The Blind Assassin on my shelf for years, I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and, just a few days ago, The Blind Assassin. I’m still not sure how to write about her novels, but I can’t wait to explore her backlist – even if I never come up with a review any better than: “Incredible. Read it now.”

Author to Abandon: In my first year in the Peace Corps I got hooked on Elizabeth George. That lasted until I traveled to Egypt last winter, and found myself trapped, on the bus ride across Macedonia (we were flying out of Bulgaria, so my first leg of the trip was ten hours of bus rides across my home country) with a copy of What Came Before He Shot Her. And, my god was it bad. I gave her one more try with the soul-crushingly bad Missing Joseph, in which George confirmed for me that she does not really want to be a mystery novelist, not any more, but rather to be a writer about society’s ills – under the guise of a mystery novel. Never again, Elizabeth. Never again.

Most Over-hyped Novel: The Night Circus. Count me in the group of reviewers grumbling over feeling tricked and let down by this one. Beautiful cover, tons of gushing reviews, but the occasional moments of gorgeous description weren’t enough to make up for Morgenstern’s “plot” and vaguely drawn characters.

Book I’d Most Like to See as a Movie: Still, I think that some of the things I did like about The Night Circus will translate well to the screen. I can’t wait to see what the circus looks like on the big screen…and am hopeful that the director will flesh out the plot.

Author Whose Novels Makes Me Most Uncomfortable: After finishing Stieg Larsson’s spectactularly mediocre Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, I was at a loss for Scandavian crime fiction. Where to turn but to Henning Mankell, whose The Fifth Woman and Faceless Killers I read in November and December. I decided to give the books the benefit of the doubt despite their terrible titles, even offering Mankell a chance to redeem himself for the bloated mystery of The Fifth Woman, but I’m checking out after two tries. Either the translations are bad or Mankell’s prose is as lumpen and sodden as I think it is; I’d like to give my time to mystery novelists with some style. What’s more, Kurt Wallander just makes me uncomfortable: his suspicion (founded on zero evidence) that one of the victims of The Fifth Woman was gay, and the way he obsesses over this theory for over half the novel; his wet dreams about “black women”; his attempts to seduce married women. Just, ugh, Kurt. Ugh.

Novelist Who Most Makes Me Want to Move to Boston: Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane!

Book/Article/TV Series/Movie That Most Made Me Want to Move to Texas: Friday Night Lights, duh. I’m partial to the article over the book (a closer focus on the football itself), but Bissinger’s ability to reveal a town in both article and book form is extraordinary. I really, really thought, while reading the book and watching the TV show, that I would do well living in the heart of economically depressed Texas. And clearly I wouldn’t (read Friday Night Lights the book and it will be clear why; Bissinger is not judgmental but people often don’t appear in their best light [in other words, lots of racism]), but that I thought that – even for a minute – is a marker of just how carefully Bissinger drew his town and his subjects.

Author I’m Most Excited to Read in the Future: I’m going to fudge this one a little. I’m psyched to read more Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead, but when I thought of this category (about twenty seconds ago) it was with Karen Russell in mind. I didn’t love Swamplandia!, which I read while home last summer, but moments of the novel were thrilling and creative and had me wishing she had written more. My review of Swamplandia! reflects my disappointment with the novel; although this was Russell’s first novel I somehow expected more of it and of its close. I don’t plan to revisit her first novel, but I do want to see what Russell comes out with in future.

Best Short Story: I haven’t been keeping up with Story Sundays lately (these’ll be back on schedule soon, promise…really, I do promise), but looking back at the list is a powerful reminder of how many Really Good Short Stories I’ve read in the past year. Because I can’t choose just one, my two favorites of the year are Murray Dunlap’s “White Boy” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” (Side note: Kelly Link also wins the honor of being Most Featured Author, with three stories in the past year. She is absolutely one of the best short story writers alive.)

Worst Book: Gertrude Stein. Three Lives. I read a few bad books this year, but this is the only one that had me wanting to tear the book to pieces.

Best Book: So hard to choose just one. Soooo hard. In the past week alone I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (incredible! and also the first time I’ve read a book because I love the author’s twitter feed) and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, both of which deserve a place in the year’s top five. Top honor, though, still has to go to Michael Crummey’s Galore from Other Press. An unbelievable look at a town, tradition, how we share our histories and stories, and time. It’s been less than a year since I read Galore, but it is already near time for a reread.

I hope all of you have had a wonderful year, wonderful holidays, and are looking forward to the New Year! On my way back to Albania I’ll be stopping for a few days in Rome, so regular posts won’t resume for about two weeks. See you then!


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Return(ish) to books, reviews, the internets
November 21, 2011, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Blog Stuff

Hey, internet! As you know if you’ve been bored enough to visit my other blog, I finished my Peace Corps service in Macedonia three and a half weeks ago and the next day moved to Tirana, Albania to be a Fulbright grantee. Having heard, pretty much every day, that to be part of the professional world in America nowadays you need to own an iPhone/be constantly accessible (trust me, things have changed a lot in the past two and a half years – it was not like this when I left), I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to be inaccessible and decided not to get internet. Only, turns out you also need to be able to check your email more than three times a week when you’re living in Albania, if you have any hopes of ever getting anything done; so I finally broke down and signed up for the cheapest internet plan I could find.

Best thing about Tirana, maybe? The number of books, everywhere. Not just bookstores, which I haven’t really checked out, but the guys selling used books along the streets. Taken as a whole, Albania may not be as developed as Macedonia; but I think parts of Tirana are farther along than Macedonia’s capital, allowing me to treat this as a transition back to America. Seeing so many books is a nice start, even if it means constantly resisting buying Albanian translations of The Hunger Games.

New reviews and Story Sundays will be up this week.

Happy Birthday, Blog! + Giveaway!
September 5, 2011, 8:23 am
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It’s been a year (well, a year and a day) since I started this blog. Although I didn’t realize book blogs existed when I started mine (a trail blazer, as always…at least in my own mind), I’ve become a total convert to book blogs and have also arrested the disintegration of my English by writing one. (This is something I keep saying and I realized, when I was home on vacation, that no one believes you can forget your native language. Trust me, you can. I am not just being a goofus, though I often am.)

What I wish I were eating today.

Many thanks to everyone who’s visited over the last year. And especially to the writers of some of my favorite blogs, who through their own posts have helped me figure out what I want to be doing with my blog: The Reading Ape, The New Dork Review of Books, Soy Chai Bookshelf, Literary Musings, Pens with Cojones, Zeteticat’s Bookish Habits, Reader’s Quest and What Red Read, among others.

Tradition dictates that it’s now time for me to announce what I am giving to you. Because, yes, greedy and cheap though I may be: it’s time for a giveaway!

The deal? You can win a copy of any book I’ve read since starting this blog (list after the jump). All you have to do is choose your book, fill out the google form telling me who you are and why you want to win, and wait. This giveaway is good internationally. I’ll be using Better World Books, because I love their Book for Book program and I never get to take advantage of it by ordering books for myself. This contest is open for just over a week, through Monday, September 12th at 11pm my time (that’s 5pm EST).

Giveaway Closed

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September! Autumn! Blog Stuff!
September 1, 2011, 11:33 am
Filed under: Blog Stuff

September 1: it’s the first day of school in Macedonia, the market is about to be taken over by red peppers, and people are going to be preparing for winter soon, making ajvar (a roasted red pepper spread – abundant in Macedonia, available in some speciality stores in the States and worth the $5 you’d spend on a jar) and yufki (noodles similar to pasta) and pickling vegetables.

I only have about nine weeks left in Macedonia, so this fall is going to be a strange one for me. Instead of heading in to school today (it’s registration day) I’m starting to go through my drawers to find and organize all the games and supplies I’ve made for classes over the past two years. I’m picking out the clothes I want to take with me to Albania and the ones that I want to give to my family or other volunteers, trying to drink all the tea I’ve accumulated since I moved into my house, and am returning books to the Peace Corps library rather than checking them out.

This month also marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, which I started on September 4th because none of my friends wanted to hear me talk about all the weird edits to Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and I was desperate to think about books again and reverse the disintegration of my English. In the great tradition of blog birthdays, blogoversaries, whatever you want to call it, there’ll be something special here. To avoid sullying Sunday’s short story with a post not about a short story, we’ll do the birthday stuff on Monday. Check back on September 5th to see what’s what.

On Wednesdays I’ll start running a new feature, similar to the Sunday Stories, focused on longreads. For a while I’ve wanted to write more about non-fiction on this blog, but I often don’t review the non-fiction I read because those “reviews” tend to be more summation of the facts than actual review. Starting on September 7th I’ll start digging through the absurd number of articles and essays I read to (I hope) provide you with some good reading material for your lunch break. (Because we all know that you’re not surfing the internet during work, right?)

Oh, and it’s autumn – and I love autumn, the relief from sweltering heat and no air conditioning (or even a fan – what can I say, I’m cheap) – and everyone’s been talking about this reading challenge, R.I.P. VI, which runs from September 1st through October 31st. I’m not much of a challenge person but I’ve been won over by the crazy enthusiastic posts people are writing about this one. I’ll be reading House of Leaves and some other novels to be determined later on. We’ll also see about focusing the short story posts on horror, so if you have any recommendations let me know.

And, finally, to preserve last month’s 30 Day Book Meme I’ve added a link in the sidebar to a page with all the meme topics and my responses. I’ve enjoyed seeing other people pick up this meme (which I stole from Gillian) so let me know if you decide to do this on your blog.

Somewhere in all this I’ll fit in the regular reviews, one or two a week as always. Right now, time to get back to organizing/discarding the two years of my life I’ve jammed into every available drawer and cupboard, never thinking there’d be a day when I’d actually be preparing to leave Macedonia.

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