Book Review: The Alienist, by Caleb Carr

There are certain books that warrant little more in a review than a pure and simple statement: "Trust me. Read this." The Alienist is one of those books. Trust me. Read it.

If you need more than that, read on.

Set in New York City in 1896, The Alienist centers on the hunt for the murderer of several young child prostitutes. Theodore Roosevelt, then of the NYPD and not yet of the politics, assemables a ragtag group of "detectives" for the case, which has been cast aside by the NYPD proper. And so we find ourselves following a psychiatrist, a journalist, a woman, and two Jews on a quest to solve a rash of child killings that no one seems to give a damn about.

They may be a ragtag group, but they are a smart group, and through their eyes, Carr takes us back to the very early days of crime-solving, before fingerprints are admissible in court, before forensics exist outside of a small realm of ostracized doctors, and before psychiatry played a role in any murder investigation. We take these things for granted now, with CSI and NCIS and SVU and Bones and Criminal Minds and the like, and a walk down the path of what used to be is at one enlightening and haunting.

The Alienist marked Caleb Carr's first foray into fiction, and so entrenched was he in his role as a non-fiction author that he pitched it to both his agent and publisher as a non-fiction title. The mere fact that he managed to pull off such a stunt is evident on each and every page of the gripping suspense he's written there. His characters ooze authenticity, their actions reek of history and the city of New York persists in the realism of well-researched facts.

I have always loved a good mystery, and the heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed, furious page turning that goes with it. The Alienist proves the best kind of mystery to be had, one whose elegant prose forces readers to slow down as the plot forces reader to move faster. Couple such dueling motivations with the kind of historical detail that has me constantly wishing for an encyclopedia, and I'm sold. I can only hope you might be too. And let me just repeat: Trust me. Read it.

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Many, many thanks to Emily for both the recommendation of the book, and my very own copy of it to boot.

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Thoughts from other bookworms:

A Little Bookish
Bibliofreakblog
Books on the Nightstand (podcast)

2011 Man Booker Longlist

The 2011 Man Booker Longlist was just announced, and - surprise! - I've read exactly 0 of the books on the list. Ok, not a surprise. I generally find that I haven't read many books on lists, because my reading tends towards books assigned to me for review and backlist titles that I'm still trying desperately to catch up on. But it was a surprise (to me, at least) that though I am familiar with a few of the authors on the list, I knew only 1 of the titles on the list: Jamrach's Menagerie.

So... have I just been living under a rock, or are these titles more obscure than those on past lists?





The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
Far to Go by Alison Pick
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

Note: The last two aren't even listed in Indiebound, so clearly I'm not the only one who hasn't heard of them, right?

Pseudo-Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I think. I must have, because I remember clearly the green light at the end of the dock, but then I think I must not have, because I do not remember it being sad or melancholy or anything but jazzy and full of parties. Maybe I only read the first few chapters. It's odd how we remember books, isn't it?

Regardless, I've read it now. And really, here is little I can say here to add to the body of criticism surrounding Fitzgerald's most known and treasured novel. I can say that it was shorter than I had expected (on audio, it was only about 4 hours long). I can say that it is a striking novel of love and romance and hope and dreams and friendship and betrayal and loneliness and shallowness and money and power and greed and lust. I can say that it walks a fine line between hope and melancholy.

Most importantly, I can say that it is powerful and that it is meaningful and that within all of its careful contradictions lies some important idea that all readers should mull over in their own way.
"It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment." (Ch. 6)
As for the audio, I listened to the Record Books edition, narrated by the now-deceased Frank Muller. Muller's voice is near perfect for this novel; he embodies Nick Caraway in the most believable of ways, a narrator at one empassioned and dispassionate. I rarely follow narrators, but I'll be looking for more narrated by Frank Muller.

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Did you know they are making a movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby , starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan? Current release is scheduled for November 2012.

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Thoughts from other bookworms:

5 minutes for books
Fizzy Thoughts
The Blue Bookcase

Book Review: Among the Missing by Morag Joss

Originally published June 24, 2011 in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. Receive bi-weekly Shelf Awareness for Readers in your inbox by registering here.

"Of course I have wondered if you are dead, but you aren't. It isn't possible. I need you too much for you to be gone forever."

This all-too-human sentiment weaves together the lives of three otherwise unrelated characters in Morag Joss's (Half-Broken Things) most recent novel, Among the Missing. Joss explores the aftermath of a bridge collapse in a small tourist town in Scotland; with several people dead and still more unaccounted for, those left behind have to deal with a story that has pieces missing.

Each of Joss's three main characters brings a different perspective to the events surrounding the collapse. Silva, the one left behind, clings to the hope that her family is still alive; Annabel is one of the missing, a confused, lonely woman who has used the tragedy to start anew; and Ron, struggling to find direction for his life, who suddenly finds himself with a sense of purpose derived from the tragedy of the bridge victims.

The novel is slow but steady, a mystery that strolls through events rather than rushing them. It is this subtlety that makes the novel successful; though the collapse of the bridge is dramatic in its own right, it is what follows that allows Joss to delve into the very human side of grief and loss. Among the Missing achieves the remarkable feat of allowing us to know both what it is to be left behind and what it is to be the one leaving.

The Good of a Book (Quote of the Day)

The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. -Umberto Eco

26 by 26: Because you asked for it...

I posted last week about two of the bookish goals on my list of 26 things I plan to accomplish before I turn 26, and several people asked to see the whole list. Here it is, in all its glory. I'll post now and again as I (hopefully!) check things off the list. 2 years, 4 months and 2 days left.
  • Juggle three bean bags.
  • Make 100 lovely things
  • Throw a first-annual dinner party - and second, and third...
  • Write thank-yous to my teachers
  • Read all of Hemingway's works
  • Plant a garden. Plant flowers.
  • Open champagne with a knife
  • Make a soufflĂ©
  • Buy a house. With a porch. And, therefore, a porch swing.
  • Do a victory kneel at the end of my first completed 5K
  • Eat an extra large popcorn at the circus
  • Read (gulp) War and Peace
  • Fire a gun.
  • Sing "Buona Sera, Signorina" in Italy
  • Sail on the Chesapeake in the fall
  • Take myself on vacation
  • Make a habit of sending cards
  • Make a book stack lamp
  • Spend the night in a bookstore
  • Write a book (or at least a story)
  • Decorate a house I am excited to come home to
  • Fly an airplane
  • Celebrate every week with a toast
  • Make a new friend & reconnect with an old one
  • Smell a book at the Library of Congress
  • Make apple pie from hand-picked apples

E-Readers, Travelling, and a Plea for Nook Advice

I'm going to Italy in the fall. 10 days of winey (not whiny) foreign goodness. We're planning on jumping around a lot, renting a car and driving through Tuscany, and a train ride (or two!). Still working on the itinerary. BUT. This poses a colossal problem. Because I do not travel with less than one book per day. No that's not a typo. One book per day of travel.* So that means 10 books.

You see the problem? That's a whole suitcase. And so I have decided to purchase an e-reader. I already have a Sony Pocket Reader, but this will not do because a) I do not like it and b) I want a new gadget and c) I cannot underline or highlight or take notes on books in it and d) it is a few years old already (shocking, I know) and the battery life is leaving something to be desired.

Couple this with the fact that I have a $100 gift card to B&N, and I am leaning towards a Nook. BUT (Always the "but"). Which one? The Nook Color? Or the new e-ink Nook? The latter is definitely a more attractive price... but the former has apps! And email! And color! BUT (there it is again) maybe that is not such a good thing, all that distraction?

Alternatively, I could just buy $100 worth of really long, lightweight paperbacks.

Help, please?

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*This method of counting the number of books needed for a trip is tried and true. I took 7 books with me on my 8-day honeymoon and had to purchase a paperback in the Mexican airport. I took 5 books with me on my 5-day trip to Cape Cod and read 3 of them, and I ended up working remotely for a solid day of that 5-day trip.

Driving in Reading Style

I'm not a bumper sticker person, really, but I do flaunt my reading love with one and only one bumper sticker on the back of my car:

What about you? Do you decorate your car? Or would you, with any of these?




Entomology of a Bookworm Goes Mobile

Apparently Blogger now has settings for mobile devices. To be fair, they have probably had said settings for some time now, but yours truly just discovered them. So Entomology of a Bookworm is now mobile-friendly. Check it out, smartphoners.

Defining a Good Book

I have a good friend who recently abandoned her "I only read non-fiction" stance and accepted a few book recommendations from me, lover of fiction that I am. Based on her tastes, I ended up lending her The Thirteenth Tale, Shadow of the Wind and The Alienist*. When she asked why I had chosen these three, I went on at length about how all three are smart, intelligent stories, but are stories nonetheless - plot-based, fact-paced, etc. All have an incredible sense of time and place. All have characters that you can love and hate and envy and pity, and all are believable without ever being mundane.

But more importantly, all three are the kinds of books that do not end upon turning the last page. They demand that you flip back through, refer to passages, re-read sections, re-read the whole book.

To me, that is the greatest compliment that can be paid a book, whether fiction or non. The best books are those that do not end; they are the ones that linger on, infusing and interrupting your thoughts at the best and worst of times.

26 by 26: Reading all of Ernest Hemingway & Completing War and Peace.

Confession: I'm one of those annoying people that always has to have a plan. I don't do well with spontaneous. I like to have a goal and be working towards it. I like to have a milestone in mind and moving in that direction.

And so when I woke up this winter and realized that I lacked a goal - or goals, even - I decided to make some up. Taking inspiration from my dear friend Emily and the wonderful blogger Mighty Girl, I formulated a list of 26 things to do before I turn 26. I now have 2 years, 3 months and 11 days to figure out how I'm going to fly an airplane, learn how to sabre open a bottle of champagne (check!), make 100 lovely things, and make a successful souffle, among other things.

Of course, I am a bookworm. My list could not exist without some bookish goals. I contemplated selecting a list of the "Great Books" and completing all of them, but given my distaste for reading lists, I balked at my own suggestion. Instead, I netted out with two bookish items on my list of 26: one to complete a daunting, challenging novel, and one to read one author's entire body of work.

The first was a quick decision: War and Peace. I purchased a copy of this title in January intending to participate in the year-long War and Peace readalong hosted by Kalen and Ann. I haven't cracked the spine yet. I figure I can manage this sometime in the next few years, right?

The second took some deliberating, though. I definitely wanted an author who had written multiple books, and preferably in different mediums (short stories, perhaps?). I wanted an author that interested me. I did not want an author with such a dauntingly large library as to prove cumbersome or impossible. After much deliberating, and input from my husband and my father, I landed on Ernest Hemingway. I'm halfway through my first book in this endeavor - A Moveable Feast - and so far, I'm not disappointed.

What about you? If you were to pick one author to read from start to finish, who would it be? How do you feel about Hemingway? Any suggestions for which Hemingway title I should pick up next?

Fiction Personalizes History (Quote of the Day)

"Fiction personalizes history and injects humor, tragedy, romance, and peril." - William Dietrich, in his recent Huffington Post article on educating children on history via historical fiction. (article via Reading the Past.)

Audiobook Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

This was one of those books that has teased at the edge of my reading consciousness for months now. This was one of those books I picked up on a whim, thinking somewhere in the back of my head that I had heard good things. This was one of those books that immediately grabbed me, gave me a lesson or three or four or twelve about myself and others and the world we live in and how it got here. This was one of those books I read and has continued to tease the edge of my reading consciousness, existing now as a story in its own right and not merely as an impression of one.

In short, this is the kind of book I can recommend wholeheartedly to all of those other readers out there who have seen the fleeting bits of hype or heard a passing word on the title.

West of Here
is a big, generous novel, taking in multiple generations of settlers in Port Bonita, a small town on Washington's coast (the state, not The District). Whether focused on the aspiring woman journalist, a struggling adventurer, an ex-con looking for direction, or a pothead kid living on an Indian reservation, the cast of characters in West of Here are all inspiring in that they are seeking to be inspired. They are open to the world, waiting for direction, looking for direction, knowing nothing more but that that direction must be onward. They start with promise, and do not disappoint.

Jonathan Evison has succeeded here in creating the kind of dense novel that readers love, full of the important ideas of history, love, the environment, Big Foot, and loyalty. With West of Here, he has brought readers a palate of characters that are intimately recognizable, and in doing so, he has created a work of fiction that succeeds in the best of ways: it lingers on, proving important in understanding both our history and our present.

A dose of reality with a touch of mysticism, West of Here is at times witty, at times funny, and at other times rather sad. But throughout it all, there is an underlying feeling of hope, that we, like the characters we come to know so well, have some element of potential within us, if only we can identify it, and therefore move onward.

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A note on the audio: This narrator rocks it. 'Nough said.

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Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Book Lady's Blog
Large Hearted Boy
Beth Fish Readsa home between the pages
Bermuda Onion

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More from Jonathan Evison:

All About Lulu