F. Scott

I was listening to this podcast back in April and one of the commentators mentioned the reading project she was embarking on which was to finally read the books that she’s only faked reading. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and decided I would make that my summer reading project. First book on the list was the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It somehow was not part of my required reading in high school so it left a gaping hole in my literary knowledge. I finished it this past Saturday and loved it. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters. I’m fascinated by his marriage to Zelda and was eager to read some of his letters to her. I was delighted to find that the first letter was to his younger sister, with some wise brotherly advice like:

– (on general conversation) Always pay close attention to the man. Look at him in his eyes if possible. Never effect boredom. It’s terribly hard to do it gracefully. Learn to be worldly. Remember in all society nine girls out of ten marry for money and nine men out of ten are fools.

– (on expression) A good smile and one that could be assumed at will, is an absolute necessity. You smile on one side which is absolutely wrong. Get before a mirror and practise a smile and get a good one, a radiant smile ought to be in the facial vocabulary of every girl. Practise it – on girls, on the family. Practise doing it when you don’t feel happy and when you’re bored. When you’re embarrassed, when you’re at a disadvantage. That’s when you’ll have to use it in society and when you’ve practised a thing in calm, then only are you sure of it as a good weapon in tight places.

– (on dress) I’ll line up your good points against your bad physically: Good – Hair, good general size, good features; Bad – Teeth only fair, pale complexion, only fair figure, large hands and feet.

– General summing up: (1) dress scrupulously neatly and then forget your personal appearance. Every stocking should be pulled up to the last wrinkle (2) Don’t wear things like that fussy hat that aren’t becoming to you – At least buy no more. Take someone who knows with you- someone who really knows. (3) Conform to your type no matter what looks well in the store (4) Cultivate deliberate physical grace. You’ll never have it if you don’t. I’ll discuss dancing in a latter letter.

Wasn’t that great? Great authors are keen observers. I found it endearing that he would take the time to pen an instructional note to his little sis, even if it was totally cringe-worthy. If you’re interested the book of letters is:

Next on the reading list is either Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust or Middlemarch by George Eliot.


Photo by Jonathan Grassi (from the Young Lions FB page)

I attend at least one bookish event a week. I love listening to authors read and talk about their books. I was especially excited for the event hosted by the New York Public Library on Tuesday “Karen Russel in conversation with Wells Tower”. If we’ve talked books in the past year, then you’re probably aware of my fondness for Wells but Karen was a more recent discovery. I read her last book a short story collection called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She was also one of the most recent writers in the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 series and has been featured in the Best American Short Stories collection. I enjoyed her stories very much and saw her on a panel of the 20 under 40 at the 92 Street Y in November, where I was pleased to find that she was a genuinely nice person. She exuded that kindergarten teacher warmth, enthusiasm and silliness. I was crossing my fingers that her second book a full novel called Swamplandia would be received well. Luckily it has been, most recently receiving glowing reviews from the New York Times, NPR and even The Economist!  I planned to buy the book at the event, since she would be on hand to sign my copy.

The event was held in a lovely ballroom at the basement. It had an ornate ceiling that made you feel like you could look out and see stars twinkling. For those book nerds who have fantasies of getting married at the library, the NYPL has you covered. Going to events like this always have me silently squealing with glee at spotting authors I greatly admire. Wells and Karen are friends, it was pretty obvious by the awkward fawning over each others work. They both attended the Columbia MFA program and were on the 20 under 40 list. The conversation was good, Wells asked very detailed questions about the characters and the setting of the book. I have no reference for the Florida everglades (where Swamplandia is set), so it was interesting to hear about a place where going on a bike ride you are likely to run into alligators lying in your path. I wanted to start reading the book right then and there. Then Wells asked Karen to read an excerpt of the book, what he thought held the real power of the book. I listened intently as Karen Russell ruined the book for me!! I have never gone to a book event where the author basically gives away the ending. I felt like she had just popped the balloon of my enthusiasm. I still want to read the book, Karen is a great writer and based on the reviews and discussion I heard this book is fantastic but it has moved far down on the reading list for me. Damn it! Even without reading it I would still recommend it based on the premise alone. Set in the Florida everglades, Ava Big-Tree a 12 year old girl that comes from a family of alligator wrestlers sets out on a journey through the swamps to find her lost sister. When you read it, tell me how you feel about the turning point in the book. I ‘ll try to live vicariously through your surprise.

Wells Tower & Karen Russell laughing at me - Photo by Jonathan Grassi (from the Young Lions FB page)




Books of Note 2010

A short list of the books that made an impression this year.

First is the list of books I was truly excited about reading and was just really disappointed. They are written by some very excellent writers, but I was just not convinced they lived up to all the hype.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart :

I read an excerpt of this story in the New Yorker as part of their 20 under 40 series. I was instantly intrigued by the bumbling love story set in a sarcastic futuristic world. I’ve seen Shteyngart a couple of times and it’s obvious that the man is a clown, this shines through in his writing. The futuristic world is a tongue and cheek commentary on our obsession with technology. The main character Lenny Abramov is an awkward middle aged man trying desperately to stay current but unable to let go of his roots. He falls in love with a Korean American girl called Eunice Park, who is too young for him and who treats him like a charity case. I read the excerpt and loved the writing, it easily transported me into the mind of poor Lenny. When I got the book, I couldn’t wait to see how it all unfolded. Sadly it never took off for me. The story begins very slowly and I got halfway through it before I just gave up. It may be a testament to Shteyngart’s ability as a writer that he crafted such a hopeless failure as a protagonist. I cringed through most of what I read and felt a little skeeved out by Lenny.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen:

This was one of the most hyped books of they year. It keeps getting referred to as the next great American novel. Franzen was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the greatest living writer. This book was even picked for the Oprah book club (insert eye-roll). The New Yorker ran part of the book in one of its issues, which I read and loved, I couldn’t wait to finally get my hands on it and read it. It’s good, really good, very well written, a realistic depiction of a modern-day family. The problem for me was, it just wasn’t special. There was no surprise in this book, the characters were realistic but stiff and self-indulgent. It wasn’t even fun reading it, apart from admiring the craft of the sentences I labored through to the end of this book to be able to form my own opinion of the most talked about book of 2010. Overrated.

A Visit from the Good Square by Jennifer Egan:

As every year draws to a close there is a stream of top 10 lists, I usually zero in on the book ones. This one by Jennifer Egan has been almost universally included on those lists. Now I didn’t get to the end of this book, frankly I didn’t even get halfway through but I am perplexed by all of adulation. I agree that Egan has a keen ability to inhabit and convince you of a characters voice. This story is a collection of short stories all from different characters who are linked to one man in the music business; family members, colleagues, etc. I just couldn’t find myself caring about any of the people she was writing about. The writing just felt so distant for me. I like to feel like I’m in the characters head, that I’m on a journey of introspection.

Now for the books that I lost sleep over, wowed me, and took me by surprise.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower:

This powerful little short story debut has probably been my most talked about book this year. I went back and forth a lot on whether or not to recommend this. Not everyone likes literary fiction, or short stories. The writing is absolutely superb. I inadvertently put my life on hold for a day because I couldn’t  get enough of stuff like this:

The loveliness of the day was enough to knock you down. Swallows rioted above the calm green lid of the lake. Birch trees gleamed like filaments among the dark evergreens. No planes disturbed the sky. I felt dead to it, though I did take a kind of comfort that all of this beauty was out here, persisting like mad, whether you hearkened to it or not.

Hands down my favorite read of the year.

The Hunger Games Trilogy (Hunger Games, Catching Fire & Mockingjay):

I only read YA if it comes highly recommended. So many of it is just really bad. This rec came from a bookish kindred spirit who I can’t stop thanking for introducing me to it. It has all of the elements needed to sweep a reader away into a different world. Violence, love, characters you care about, struggling in a well crafted world. This is the type of series that will have you putting up “shhh, I’m reading” signs. I think I actually shushed one of my roommates while reading this :/

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates by Richard Yates:

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I used to consider myself the type of person that only read novels so short story collections usually went to the bottom of the reading pile. The world of short stories was opened up to me this year and so many of the writers I fell in love with mentioned their ardent admiration for Richard Yates’ short stories. I’ve been a fan of Yates for a while, The Easter Parade is one of my favorite books so I was more than happy to delve into his short story collection. Richard Yates is a treasure, his writing is heartbreakingly excellent. A little 12 page story can absolutely punish you with a vivid glimpse into a characters life. It’s not for everyone, there are few (if any) happy endings. His stories are of people trying with all their might to get by and just not being able to catch a break, of putting on a brave face, of relishing the small victories even amidst tragic defeat. Even with all its bleakness, I found a lot of hope and a lot to admire in this great collection.

The Man with the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam:

I also discovered some modern day British writers. This one was my favorite of the bunch. I read this short series out of order so if you pick it up, read Old Filth first. It’s a story about a marriage. The pacing of British literature is so different from the frenetic pace of American literature, I found this very enjoyable. It portrays the elements of growing in love with someone; the convincing of oneself, the turning a blind eye, the carefully weighed resignation but also the comfort and steadiness of it. I still haven’t read Old Filth but is definitely on the reading list for 2010.

I know I resolved to read 100 books this year, I only got to 89. So the goal rolls into 2011, and hopefully I’ll figure out a better way to keep track of what I’m reading and review anything worth mentioning in a timely manner. Happy reading in the new year.

Recent Reads

I am shamefully behind on my book reviews. Here’s a quick recap of the books I’ve finished recently. I want to start with a series that I devoured:

YA fiction historically hasn’t been my go to book genre. Reading this series has made me give YA a second look. It was recommended by a trusted bookworm friend so I gave it a chance and I was quickly swept up in the story. If you liked Harry Potter, or like YA at all you should definitely check this series out.

I admire an economical writer. This a super short read that packs a lot of punch. If you get breathless at an immaculate sentence (like I do), check this one out.

I read this in one sitting at a local bookstore. It’s in textbook format, more picture heavy than text heavy. It was very funny and hysterical just like the show. Would I buy this? No, but it would be a fun gift for someone who is into political satire.

Shteyngart’s, Lenny was just too much of a creeper for me. The older man falling for the younger girl as he tries to clasp onto his youth is a pretty typical story in literary fiction. Lenny, the main character is just so desperate and icky, I would often cringe reading it. It is very well written, maybe too well written I had to take a shower after deciding that I would take a break from the book.

My new favorite term is “defensive pessimism”.

“The ‘defensive pessimist’ looks at everything and thinks [that] this is going to be a disaster,” he explains to Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “They lower their expectations … and they go through all of the negative capacities and the negative capabilities of a given event. You imagine the worst-case scenario you can and you go through it step by step, and you dismantle those things and you manage your anxiety about it.”

Rakoff is the quintessential defensive pessimist, and I love him for it. The stories are sardonic but generally surprise you with some feel good sentiment. I’ve found that Rakoff’s stories are much better listened to than read. There is something unique to his narration that adds more weight to the stories. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll like David Rakoff.

My favorite Rakoff review: “Like a whore with a heart of gold, David Rakoff says all the nasty things we want to hear and then reveals that, actually, it’s all about love.” -Ira Glass

Those are the books that stuck out most recently.  So far I’m at 72 books; I’m pretty confident I’ll hit the 100 book goal by the end of the year.

Take a Seat

My author crush, Wells Tower sat next to me today at a reading. I like to get to things early and sit at the front of the class. Front row seating at readings for some of the more obscure writers I enjoy, tend to remain vacant until right before a reading starts, which was the case for this evening.

In comes Mr. Tower strolling in casually looking for somewhere to sit. Two seats to my left are empty and he asks politely motioning toward the empty seats “Is anyone sitting here?” I could’ve been cool in this moment. I could have nodded my head and said “I don’t think so” acted casual like he was any old Joe off the street, but I have never been cool a day in my life. I knew exactly who he was (the future father of my uber-literate children) and motioned to the chair next to me presenting it like some prize and overeagerly saying “Oh, yes, yeah you can sit here, this seat isn’t taken” (because you don’t know it yet but I love you and sometimes I read your stories and I just weep because they are so good so really it’s fate that you’re sitting next to me because you will be mine Wells Tower you will be mine). He sits next to me and I feel like I’ve just won the Nobel Prize. My friend nudges me because she too knows how fortuitous this situation is. I want to nudge back but am afraid I might scare away my author friend on my left. I spent most of the evening holding my breathe and stiffly shifting in my seat.

His reading was of course wonderful. It brought me back to the quiet hours between the pages of his book Everything Ravaged Everything Burned practically drooling over those finely crafted sentences. I felt the same not wanting it to end feeling.

No, I didn’t talk to him. What do you say to someone who has made your heart stop by reading one of his short stories. “I’m such a big fan Mr. Tower” sounds so stupid and doesn’t even begin to describe the overwhelming gratitude I feel. I’m sure the fangirl way I internally fawn all over someone who can command words would just make everyone involved feel awkward and cringe. Don’t worry I didn’t do anything weird like lightly press my shoulder against his.

Here’s a sampling of some of his work:

Love in the Ruins – Outside Magazine

The Landlord – The New Yorker

Noteworthy Books

The book update is long overdue, I am very behind my 100 books goal but I am steadily catching up. I’m only going to blog about the books that stood out these past few months.

Everything Ravaged Everything Burned by Wells Tower:

This collection of stories was superb. Wells Tower constructs sentences expertly. I constantly found myself reading individual sentences over and over, in awe at the punch a few rightly chosen words strung together produced. These stories were a thing of literary beauty. Books like  this are not for everyone. There are pretensions that sometimes accompany the designation of being bookish. Some of these are: a proclivity to use big words (guilty), casual name dropping of famous authors in conversation (the serious ones and yes guilty again), earnest discussions about recent articles in the New Yorker or The New York Times, and a tendency toward literary fiction. What is literary fiction exactly? Basically it’s one long inner monologue of everyday mundane living. It often displays in heartbreaking detail the losing battle of life, the ridiculous coping mechanisms we use to get through life’s obstacles. There aren’t any loud explosions, no superheros, monsters, or epic romances. My favorite type of literary fiction contains stories of people getting pummeled by life and coming out on the losing end (i.e. anything by Richard Yates) or resigning themselves to mediocrity. This is a grim view of literary fiction but it is by no means comprehensive and does not do justice to the beautiful writing but again this type of story is not for everyone.

Recommended for book snobs (my favorite).

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder:

This book reduced me to blubbering tears on the train. I stopped wearing mascara the couple days I was reading this book in anticipation of the tears. Paul Farmer is an amazing human being. His very existence has changed my life. To read about a man who took a no nonsense approach to aiding those in need, who fought against the establishment bare knuckled, and also traveled miles and miles on foot to visit and treat one person. He is a superhero, if that sort of thing even exists. I was humbled by the way he treated the poor and desolate. He didn’t just acknowledge them in some sort of citizen high to citizen low demeanor but got down and dirty, became one of the people, advocated for them, became part of their families, he met their needs on various levels, he treated each of his patients like they were his own mother, father, daughter. It’s one thing to be generous with your money it’s a completely other thing to be generous with your life.

Recommended for everyone, yes you please read this book.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene:

I haven’t quite finished this book yet. It was a bad idea to think this was good train fodder. I quickly had to relegate this to the weekend intense read shelf because I had to start taking notes to visualize the concepts he was writing about. Greene does a great job of breaking down superstring theory into manageable pieces for those who don’t regularly frequent the physics and math world. I’m really enjoying this book but really wish I had a theoretical physicists friend on call to talk to about it.

Recommended for math and science folks or those with even a fleeting interest in theoretical physics. There is a NOVA mini-series based on this book that is worth checking out.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson:

There always seems to be a mystery thriller everyone is talking about and/or reading. Currently it is the Stieg Larsson trilogy. I read the first book Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last year and really enjoyed it. I waited for the 2nd book to come out in paperback before buying it. The story in this second installment was predictable and yet still really enjoyable. It was nice to get swept up in a world of intrigue. I can imagine the Bourne Identity type movie these books are going to make (I think I heard rumor of this getting turned into an American movie). The cliff hanger of an ending easily segues into the third book which unfortunately is still in hardback. I will wait a few months before picking up the third book and seeing how the adventures of Lisbeth Salander play out.

Recommended for lovers of mystery thrillers and those eager to get swept up in a mystery adventure.

Atticus Finch (making American men feel inadequate for 50 years)

I attended an event tonight at Symphony Space to celebrate Harper Lee’s birthday and the influence “To Kill a Mockingbird” has had on the American psyche for the past 50 years. Panelists included Authors and actors:  Libba Bray (award winning young-adult novelist Going Bovine, winner of 2010 Printz Award), Oskar Eustis (Artistic Director at The Public Theater), Kurt Andersen (novelist and Studio 360 Host) ,Jayne Anne Phillips  (novelist and National Book Award finalist Lark & Termite), filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy (author of the upcoming book Scout, Atticus, and Boo) & Stephen Colbert (who let’s be honest is the only panelist I really cared about). The highlight of the evening was Stephen reading a chapter from the book.

The panelists discussed how the book affected their lives and the way they thought it had affected America. Oskar Eustis shared an anecdote about of a little girl he fancied and how she said “I want to marry a man like Atticus Finch”. Oskar went on to say that the Atticus Finch standard has made him feel inadequate as a man and after having kids, an inadequate father. He said this jokingly of course, but like most jokes there was a sad sad truth behind it. Atticus is not your typical hero. He isn’t overly militant, he is understated and determined. He does what’s right because it is right and doesn’t make a show about it. He is wise, generous, humble & compassionate. With his kids he is patient, honest, and tries to instill in them good values by example.  I want to echo Oskar’s girl’s statement. I want to marry a man like Atticus Finch too!

The panel discussed Harper Lee and the mystery surrounding why she never wrote again. Today (April 28th) is Harper Lee’s 84th birthday. She has rarely done interviews or made appearances. I think the general consensus was that she never wrote again because she could never live up to the anticipation. To Kill a Mockingbird was too much of a success for her to write anything again. I guess we’ll never know. Personally I think she is more than happy with the masterpiece she has contributed to American literature.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in 4th grade. My mom took us to the library almost every week and it was on one of these excursions that I stumbled upon and into the world of Scout Finch. I think even at that age I was able to glean so much about what integrity looked like, what justice was, how entrenched social constructs were hard to change but it didn’t mean you shouldn’t try if they were wrong.

I love this book. I loved the movie too. Thank you Harper Lee for giving us Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill & Boo. Happy Birthday.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

February Books

This post is a little late but here’s a recap of the books I read in February. I’ve already reviewed four of the February books in previous posts (see PP:DOTD, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Austenland & Pride & Prejudice).

Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters by Jane Austen & Ben H. Winters

For the sake of full disclosure I have a little bit of a crush on the author. I met him at a lecture and he was amiable and charming, so I may be a little biased when I say I really liked the book. The book is set within the Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility story only this time with a Sea Monster infestation. One of the bigger players in the book, Colonel Brandon has a face of tentacles (don’t worry he’s not a bad guy). I thought this book was fun and had a more natural monster infiltration. I appreciated that the author really took the time to get the Austen writing voice right.

Recommended for those that enjoy the ridiculous.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I warned you that February would be full of Austen. I love stories about second chances, especially second chance love stories. The main players in our story are Anne Elliot and Capt. Fredrick Wentworth. Anne falls in love with Wentworth, the family objects because he is poor so Anne rejects him. Wentworth joins the navy and gets his fortune and comes back rich, a Captain and also bitter towards Anne. This book is my third favorite of the Austen novels. It’s heart wrenching to read the interaction between the two when Wentworth comes back.

Recommended for lovers of second chances and Jane Austen.

Across the Nightingale Floor (Tale of the Otori book 1) by Lian Hearn

A wonderful tale of secret legacy and feudal Japan. The story is fast paced and engrossing. A great book to pick up on cold days where you just want to stay inside and cuddle up with something fun. I liked that there wasn’t always a happy ending with the story lines. I think it’s those disappointments that pave the way for sequels. A friend lent me this book as a primer to his ninja ways. This book does a good job of alluding to the mythology of the ninja, though they never expressly call themselves that. Very enjoyable read.

Recommended for boys who like adventure and ninjas.

Grass for His Pillow (Tales of the Otori book 2) by Lian Hearn

I feel like the 2nd book in a series tends to be the weakest. The first book sets up the back story and the second is that middle coming of age story that sets up the big battles in the third. Takeo made choices in this book that surprised me, which I enjoyed. This book isn’t a main course story but merely the appetizer for the big battles to come in the third. Looking forward to it though.

Recommended for anyone who loves adventure stories.

Jane Austen Challenge

I stumbled upon a Jane Austen reading challenge via Austenprose on Twitter last night and had to join. It’s over at the Life (and Lies) of an Inanimate Flying Object run by Haley. The rules are pretty simple, pick a level (I fall under the “Fanatic” category) and share your list of books. Since I’m already well on my way I thought it would be fun to interact with other bookworm bloggers. So for the fanatic category I must read 6 Jane Austen books and 5 Jane Austen inspired works. Here’s my list:

  • Pride & Prejudice (done)
  • Sense & Sensibility
  • Emma
  • Persuasion
  • Mansfield Park
  • Northanger Abbey
  • Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters
  • Dawn of the Dreadfuls
  • Austenland (done)
  • A Truth Universally Acknowledged
  • These Three Remain

Books have to be read by December 31st. Like I need an excuse to read Austen.