Ordained by Syntax (Quote of the Day)

"And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning." -Anthony Burgess, Enderby Outside (as quoted in Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, p.2)

Writing Elsewhere: Books Do Furnish My Home

This article originally appeared at BiblioBuffet, a wonderful book-ish site that is well worth a browse if you have a moment and a regular follow if you have several moments. Thanks to Lauren and Nicki for editing and publishing and giving me a shot as a guest columnist.
“What better place to kill time than a library? And for me, what better way to get to know someone than her choice and treatment of books?”
So asks antiquarian bookseller and amateur biographer Margaret Lea in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (a title, by the way, not to be missed by any booklover out there). While I myself am not an antiquarian bookseller—despite whatever hopes and dreams I may have to that effect—I find that I, too, often wander unintentionally into the role of amateur biographer when studying another’s library.
After all, Margaret’s is an excellent point: what better way to get to know someone than through his or her library? Or —as the case may be—lack thereof? When I enter someone else’s home for the first time, I subconsciously scan the room for shelves, bookcases, the odd title on an end-table with a bookmark in its place.
No bookshelves in the main living areas? Not a reader.
Bookshelves overflowing with college textbooks you refuse to unload? Reads, but only under duress.
Rows of nonfiction, business titles, how-to books, the like? Does not read fiction; or, perhaps worse, finds fiction not worth display.
One small shelf packed with a range of titles? Books aren’t worth the space, but are worth the time.
You get the picture. These may not be fair assumptions to make—and of course they vary greatly depending on a great many factors—but I am telling the truth when I say I cannot stop my brain from following this course.
So I ask myself: If I turned the tables back onto my own library, what am I telling people about my story?
Shelves of books on Irish history, language and culture speak to my husband’s Irish background, and my college studies. Further shelves of history tell the same college story. The lack of any other nonfiction is the most glaring exception here; we both lean heavily towards fiction. Our fiction collection is broken out into shelves of classics and modern fiction (anything written in the twentieth century and beyond), with a special shelf reserved for the Robert Jordan-esque fantasy novels we both devour.
But more important even than the skewing of books on the shelves, at least to me, is the fact that books quite literally litter our house. Our living room walls are lined with the infamous IKEA Billy bookcases, teetering and in one case even leaning quite precariously, all stacked end-to-end with titles; the coffee table shelf is lined with stacks of books and wordy games (Scrabble and the Booklover’s edition of Trivial Pursuit). Books line the window ledges along the staircase, and framed photographs of antique book bindings hang on the walls.
And that’s just the first floor.
Clearly, we are sending a message here. This is in part due to practicality: between my husband and myself, we just have too many books to fit tucked away into any one room. But even if I had a dedicated room for books, I don’t think I could stand to part from them. For mine is a life not just filled with books, but lived among them.
When I bring work home, I sit in our office and stare longingly at the shelves of ARCs (“advanced review copies”) waiting to be reviewed on the shelf. When I watch television, my eyes stray fondly over the well-loved copy of Love in the Time of Cholera on the shelf—the first book my now-husband ever lent to me—and the broken spine of Mark Helprin’s Winter's Tale, which I read the first year I moved to New York.
When I sit down to write, I always sit in the living room, where a glance shows me a row of newly-added titles on the shelf, originally purchased to act as the centerpieces at our wedding. There is Father of the Bride, which we found at a local antique store and sat on my father’s table; there is Love: A History, a slim paperback I have never heard of but will someday read. Each book is a memory, and an open invitation to discover or re-discover some new thought or idea.
My library lives around me, and I in it. What it says to someone else probably lies most in that other person. What it says to me, however, lies in my understanding of the story of each book, how it came to be in my possession; my knowledge of the notes carefully written in the margins of read and re-read favorites; the characters yet to be met in new titles by old authors. My library is a living, breathing, evolving entity, and whatever it says to visitors, to me it says home.

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen's latest novel, Ape House, is at once a drastic departure from the bestselling Water for Elephants and yet completely familiar. Where Water for Elephants dove into the culture and history of the circus, Ape House explores the culture around the study of apes - particularly, bonobo apes - and their ability to learn language. The two subjects could not be more diverse, and yet Gruen tackles both with a vigor and intense curiosity that is refreshing in an author.

In Ape House, Gruen tells the story of a family of bonobo apes - a family that includes their caretaker, Isabel. When their habitat is bombed in what is assumed to be an attack by animal-rights extremists, the bonobos are frightened, scattered, corralled and ultimately made to disappear. They arrive once again in the public eye with the announcement of Ape House, a television show that takes reality TV to an entirely new level, and Isabel is left to fight for their freedom - and her own - against mobs, the media, and a millionaire (no alliteration intended).

The similarities between Ape House and the abysmal reality television on air today keep Gruen's novel grounded in the real world while the coincidences and sometimes complete inability of one character to understand another stretch credibility at times. But what is most engaging about Ape House is not Gruen's commentary on reality television, the state of a news-starved media industry, or the moral lows that humans are willing to go to get ahead. It is her admiration of the apes and their language and their interactions and their relationships that make Ape House stand out. Gruen has noted that this novel is based on her experience with a real family of bonobo apes at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, and that experience - and her subsequent research - shows.

Bottom line: Though somewhat disappointing after the success of Water for Elephants, Ape House is still an engaging story. Gruen is a talented writer who unfortunately stretches plausibility here a bit too far to be believable, and yet not far enough to venture into fantasy. When tallied up against the detail of the bonobo culture and the intrigue of a who-dun-it storyline unfolding, the far-fetched nature of the plot can be forgiven.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Perpetual Page-turner
Stiletto Storytime
my books. my life.


More Sara Gruen:

Water for Elephants
Riding Lessons
Flying Changes


Many thanks to Spiegel & Grau for an advanced review copy of this title, which I picked up (and had signed!) at BEA last year. Many apologies for taking nearly an entire year to get to it.

Book Tour: Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, by Jerome Charyn

I'm going to be up front about this: I did not finish Joe DiMaggio. I meant to. Really. I just couldn't get into it. Which is not to say that the book itself is not a good one. It's incredibly well-researched, and Jerome Charyn is a skilled writer and biographer. Rather than simply regurgitating well-known (or even little-known) facts, Charyn inserts his own take on events where appropriate. He draws on myriad sources, quoting heavily when necessary and breezing through details when fitting. The book itself, part of Yale University Press' Icons of America series, is short, topping out at merely 146 pages, and thoughtfully organized, with sections dedicated to his pre-career days, his career, and a lengthy passage on his post-baseball days.

It was the post-baseball days that lost me. Biography is a genre of which I'd like to read more, and baseball is a subject about which I wish I knew more, so the combination struck me as a good candidate. Perhaps it was too far outside of my comfort zone to really strike a chord with me; I'm sure a baseball enthusiast would be more engrossed. Or a biography enthusiast. All in all, Joe DiMaggio is a short, concise biography that is sure to appeal to a certain audience; despite my best efforts, I found that I was not that audience. I'm looking forward to reading more of Charyn's work - it just won't be a baseball book.

Looking for more? Watch:


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Tribute Books Reviews
Stiletto Storytime
Reading Between the Lines
... and a whole host of others from the Tribute Books Blog Tour


More Jerome Charyn at his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Many thanks to Nicole at Tribute Books for inviting me to participate in this tour and providing a copy of the book for review.

Making Time for Books (Week in Reading)

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” - Confucius

It's been a busy week or two or fifty-two, but I'm coming to terms with the fact that it's actually no busier than usual. This is the pace of my life. I should probably get used to it and make it work instead of fighting it and letting things slip for "someday when I'm not so busy." Like legally changing my name. And finally planting those thyme seeds. And starting on my list of 26 things I'd like to do by 26 (I did sabre open a bottle of champagne, which was on the list).

And reading. Always reading. My dad recently marveled to me that I manage to read as much as I do (which is not nearly as much as I'd like), wondering aloud how I find the time. His question contained its own answer though: I find the time. It doesn't find me. The demands on my time will only increase as I grow older, when I own a house, have children, work longer hours, etc. Without actively carving out time for books, it would be too easy to find that reading was the activity that offered least resistance in being cut from the schedule. Let me put it on the record: not going to happen.

Book Reflections: Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I read this back in February for the Age of Innocence read-a-long hosted by bookworm meets bookworm, and, in true overbooked fashion, managed to post my Part I thoughts on time only to miss the Part II posting by 6+ weeks. But, to be fair, I did read the book on time.

Part I of Age of Innocence sets up Newton Archer as a high-Societyman struggling to identify his place in a stifling, hypocritical and often unfair Society. By Part II, Archer has identified the Society of New York, and recognizes in it its weaknesses and flaws; strengths and promises:
"It was the old New York way, of taking life 'without effusion of blood'; the way of people who dreader scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than 'scenes,' except the behavior of those who gave rise to them." (272)
In understanding this, Archer is then faced with a decision: conformity or noncomformity. He must choose between his place (and his duty) and his whimsy (and illicit love).

It is an eminently familiar situation: that battle between what we feel we must do and what we wish we could do; the contest between who we are and who we thought we would grow up to be; the struggle between making ourselves happy with what we have and longing after what we might have had.
"His days were full and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbably that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery." (281)
Archer's tale is sad but not without hope; he is disappointed, and somewhat disappointing, but not to an extent that he becomes despicable. He, like so many others, has set out to do what he believes to be the right thing, and upon making his decision, is resigned to living with it. He does not buck (too much) or complain (too often). In that, he is actually rather stoic. Though it is tempting to view him as weak, does it not take some courage to give up a dream in the face of responsibility? And to accept the consequences that accompany it?

Despite some readers' disappointment with the final pages (and at a risk of giving away too much), I believe Archer's actions are instead a perfect reflection of his character: steadfast, courageous, dutiful, aggravating.

Bottom line: Wharton's Age of Innocence is the kind of novel that has sat on the edge of my consciousness for some time without me ever really focusing on it. Now that I finally have, I find it is also the kind of novel that is eminently quotable, easy to relate to, and transcends the both the era in which it was written and the era about which is what written in that perfect way that those books we deem "classics" tend to do.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

bookworm meets bookworm
The Story Girl Reviews
Literary Musings
The Novel World
That's What She Read

The Power of Words

Just a reminder that it's not always what you say, it's how you say it. Words are powerful things.

Reading to Review

There was a time, not too long ago, when I didn't actually write book reviews. I just read books I liked (lots of them) and then told anyone who would listen why they were or were not wonderful. I worked in a bookstore; I had a captive audience.

In the 2+ years since these little verbal reviewlettes became this full-fledged blog, I've come to love blogging. And reviewing. I've found other outlets for my writing - from reviews on Bookgasm to my recent article over at Bibliobuffet - and I am thrilled to have not only places to share my writing, but a whole host of things to write about.

It's that writing about that's starting to rub me the wrong way, though. I no longer read my daily newsletters solely for my own enjoyment. Instead, I read them with a mind to what might make an interesting post. And even worse, I read books that way too. Reviews quite literally form in my head as I read. Sure, it makes the reviewing easier, especially when I actually take the time to write those little review blurbs down for future reference - but part of me is starting to wonder what it is I'm missing by reading as a reviewer instead of as a pure reader.

Maybe it's not fair to say that's worse. Maybe I can be fair and say the verdict is still out on this. After all, I now read books sort of like I did back in college; I read with a critical eye and an analytic brain. But at what cost? Am I too judgmental, pushing for something to critique in every book I read? Am I missing the book for the page? Am I missing the success of one book by struggling to place the book and its author in context; or vice versa, am I missing the context by defining the book as a standalone item?

I feel like I'm treading into the waters of book-reading philosophy here, and I'm no philosopher. I love this blog. I love having my own corner of the interwebs in which to place my bookish thoughts. I love reacting to others' corners of the interwebs, or to others' reactions of my own thoughts. I love reading books. I love thinking about books. I love reviewing books. I even love reading and reviewing books I don't love.

But they say the grass is always greener on the other side, and right now, the non-analytic reading experience is looking mighty appealing. Too bad I can't seem to turn my reviewer brain off every now and again.

Quick Break

After a few weeks of sporadic posting (at best), I'm going to make it official and take a quick break from blogging. Just enough time to kick whatever stomach bug I seem to have, catch up on some lingering post ideas, and power through some books I've been meaning to get to for some time. I'll be back next week and promise to be refreshed and gushing over the Game of Thrones premiere this Sunday. With any luck, I'll also have finished the last two books in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (Must. Find out. What happens.).

In the meantime, hope you are all enjoying whatever version of Spring is coming your way - whether it be April showers or 80 degree weather.

Book Review: The Good Son, by Michael Gruber (on Bookgasm)

"... Those looking for a ripped-from-the-headlines plot will get it, but those seeking a read with more depth than a traditional thriller will be pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of subjects offered up here through the lens of fiction."

Read my full review of The Good Son over at Bookgasm this week.

Quick Roundup (Week in Reading)

Holy smokes, bookworms. I cannot believe it is halfway through April! Already! So soon! But then the weather tells me it must be - 80 degrees one day than cold and raining the next. It could not be any month besides April.

Work and life have been hectic, which means blogging and thinking about interesting things to blog about have been limited. It's a directly inverse relationship, and I fear it will always be that way.

I did manage to review Enough About Love this week, a fabulous French translation that centers on love and relationships in the most French way imaginable. I also posted my one-and-only-ever complaint about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, which I love with my whole heart, it's fabulous and wonderful and spectacular, but in re-reading does have some noted flaws. Not that this means I do not love it, of course. Just that it means that Books 8 and 9 were a tad bit on the slow side. But now I'm almost finished with the 11th book which means I can start reading 12 & 13 which aren't re-reads but first reads and oooooooh boy I can't wait.

More interesting than either of those things, though, I had an article published elsewhere besides here! Check it out - over at Bibliobuffet I wrote about my home library and what I think it says about me as both a person and a reader.

Despite not posting much recently, I did finish Meghan Daum's amusing memoir on home ownership, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, during my pseudo-participation in yesterday's Readathon. Congrats to everyone who participated for reals and planned it out and even had snacks on hand (which I did none of) - you rock!

Moral Illumination (Quote of the Day)

“The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.” - Elizabeth Hardwick

Great Idea Friday: Little Golden Books GOWN

Yep, that's right. Someone took Project Runway inspiration and made a GOWN - yes, a real gown - out of Little Golden Books. The skirt is made of pages, the bodice of the gold from the spines. How freaking cool is this?

The "someone" who gets credit for the design is designer Ryan Novelline. You can see the entire process of the making of the gown on his website. It's worth checking out the rest of the pictures, I promise.

And thanks to Eliza at The Book Case for featuring this story in a recent round-up of weekly links.

Re-Reading Repetition: Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan

In case you somehow missed it, I'm in the midst of re-reading Robert Jordan's incredible - and incredibly long - Wheel of Time series. I've been listening to them in the car on my commutes to/from work. I'm up to Book 11. I started a year and a half ago.

The first time I read this series, I was living in France with no access to television and a limited supply of English-language books (at least until I discovered Shakespeare and Co., but that's another story). As such, Wheel of Time was my daily distraction; on the Metro, on the numerous flights and train rides I took to visit other parts of Europe, for countless hours between classes at the American University of Paris.

Despite the distractions of a European setting, I finished all 11 books currently in print at the time in a mere six months. That's approximately 10,000 pages.

In hindsight, I couldn't be happier that my first read of the series hit when it did; otherwise, I'm not sure I would have made it through Path of Daggers (Book 8) and Winter's Heart (Book 9). As much as I love Jordan and the impeccable world he has created with this series, Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart, are slooooow. And repetitive. Maybe it struck me more the second time through because it was the second time through. Or maybe it was listening to it (and therefore not being able to skim through the slow parts in a rush to find out what happens next). But if I hear one more time how Nynaeve pulls her braid, or Mat wishes for embroidery, or Rand needs to learn to laugh, I just might scream. The two books could have been consolidated into one, as the bulk of the 900-page volumes strikes me as repetitive descriptive one-liners and set-up for books 10 and 11 (and 12 and 13 and 14, I suppose).

Whew. There. That is the one and only time you'll hear me voice a complaint about Jordan. Now that I've got that off my chest, I can turn back to reviewing Crossroads of Twilight (Book 10) and powering through Knife of Dreams (Book 11) with clear conscience. And with any luck, I'll be up through Book 13 before the 14th - and last! - volume is released.

That said, if you enjoy epic fantasy novels and haven't read this series: What on EARTH are you waiting for?

Book Review: Enough About Love by Hervé le Tellier

Hervé le Tellier's Enough About Love is the kind of very French book that seems to lose none of its Frenchness in translation, which is a wonderful, difficult, marvelous thing. The novel traces the love lives of four characters, whose infidelities and romances intertwine with one another, leaving a tangle that is not quite a love triangle, not quite a love square, but not quite expected. Set against a backdrop of modern Paris, these four characters are French to the core, in style, character, thought, and deed, but their stories are easily carried from one culture to another.

Le Tellier's writing is strong and well-crafted; he weaves a complicated web of storylines without ever losing track of where he is or where he is going. His writing is neat and orderly and philosophical; his characters are messy and deep and confused. He is eminently quotable, with passages speaking to the nature of love, reading, romance, sex, friendship; his story is heartfelt and meaningful, flawed in the way that real life is flawed. He is an author tackling big life issues in small life events; his work is very, very French.

Enough About Love is intriguing from the first you read the title - which, to be frank, is the main reason I was drawn into this book - to the moment you turn the last page and realize with a startling frankness that really, there never is "enough about love." It's a subject we will continue to muse over, meddle with, write about, etc. It will at once give us a place in which we belong and yet continue to break our hearts. It will keep poets writing poetry, singers singing songs, author crafting novels. And precisely because he understands this, le Tellier's Enough About Love is intriguingly relevant, no matter what language you read it in.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Literary License: Short Reviews with Real Opinions
My Books. My Life.
The Book Lady's Blog
The Boston Bibliophile


Many thanks to Other Press for providing an e-galley of this title for review, via NetGalley.

Books Do Furnish My Home

“What better place to kill time than a library? And for me, what better way to get to know someone than her choice and treatment of books?” - The Thirteenth Tale

Hop on over to BiblioBuffet this week for my guest column on my own choice and treatment of books, and what my library says about me as a reader.

Passionately in Love with Language (Quote of the Day)

"A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language." - W.H. Auden
Happy National Poetry Month, folks. With any luck, I'll even read some poetry this month myself (something I've always meant to do and never truly done).