Book Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan Phillip-Sendker

Originally published in January 31, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.. Receive bi-weekly Shelf Awareness for Readers in your inbox by registering here.

Jan-Philipp Sendker's brilliant debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, opens in a tea house in Burma, where Julia has come in an attempt to locate her father, who disappeared from New York City without a trace. Following a hunch (and an ancient, unmailed love letter) to her father's homeland, she hopes to uncover the secrets of his disappearance--and the first 20 years of his life.

In the tea house, Julia encounters U Ba, an aging Burmese man who mysteriously knows not only her name, but the purpose of her trip. Despite her initial protestations, he begins to recount a story of decades past, reintroducing Julia to the father she once thought she knew. "His sentences soon took the shape of a story," Sendkar writes, "and out of that story a life emerged, revealing its power and its magic."

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is laced with wonderfully crafted sentences like this, and, just as U Ba's sentences do for Julia, Sendker's combine to tell a powerful and magical story of a love that crossed continents and decades, that spanned blindness and physical disability to bring two people together as closely as one can imagine. Sendker's novel proves to be a love story of the most masterful variety: one that requires a box of tissues without ever venturing into the land of cliché. Coupled with an unusual glimpse into the Burma of the 1950s and today, readers will delight in the emotional power of Sendker's storytelling and find themselves believing not only in the power of love, but the strength of family.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Books on the Nightstand
The Book Case
My Books. My Life.
She is Too Fond of Books.


The Art of Hearing Heartbeats | Jan Phillip-Sendker | Other Press | 9781590514634 | $14.95 Trade Paperback | 336 pages | January 2012 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Guilty As Charged

The End

I remember clearly my middle-school lessons on literary devices. These were the classes in which we learned to pick apart the writing in front of us. We identified similes, metaphors, and hyperbole, metonymy, synecdoche, and litotes. I found it fascinating, wonderful, exploratory. I’ve dissected my reading ever since, often unconsciously. Foreshadowing, though, proved a sticking point to my eleven-year-old mind:

foreshadow: to indicate, represent, or typify beforehand: PREFIGURE (Merriam-Webster)

To me, this meant one thing: giving away the ending before it happened. But what I could not grasp was why an author would do such a thing -- and intentionally, no less. Or, perhaps more crucial to my argument, why a reader would continue to read if they had been told how things would turn out.

I’m sure the fact that I spent my days reading the like of The Babysitter’s Club and Redwall has something to do with this opinion. While both series remain near and dear to me, neither rests on the laurels of its writing alone, instead being driven by plot and conclusions. Perhaps most middle-school grade reading is like that, or maybe it was just my tastes at the time.

As I work my way through Stephen King’s latest masterpiece, 11/22/63, I find my thoughts frequently returning to these days of learning literary devices. King, a master of foreshadowing, is connecting the dots for me. He frequently lets slip just enough of what is to come to make it purely impossible not to turn the page. Look what’s going to happen, he seems to be whispering. Don’t you want to find out how we get there?

And while the plot of 11/22/63 is engaging and enticing, it is this “how we get there” that proves the best part of King’s writing. Because in between each crucial event, each twist and unexpected turn, King reflects on the nature of 1960s America, on the differences between the recent past and today, on the nuances and difficulties of time travel. These are the morsels of his writing most worthy of devouring.

There are books where foreshadowing makes what follows all the more powerful. The final, heartwrenching scene of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is not necessarily built on foreshadowing alone, but it is made all the more emotional because we, the reader, know what George must do. We know why he leads Lennie on in believing in the farm, and the rabbits, and their peaceful future together. It cuts to the quick, that knowledge. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s aptly  named Chronicle of a Death Foretold opens with the announcement of a murder: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” What follows in the next 120 pages is an account of how we got to this murder, this death we’ve known about all along. As a reader, we are curious: how do we move from a bishop to a murder? But knowing that it all ends in a death, we also see each mundane, everyday action tinged with the darkness of finality.

Knowing the ending, I’ve realized, does nothing to spoil the beginning and the middle. It changes the experience of reading, of course, but not necessarily for the worse. After all, what of re-reading? Readers tend to fall into two camps on this subject: there are those who do, and those who don’t. Those of us who do certainly do not do so in order to find out what happens. Presumably, we already know. We re-read to re-discover the beauty of the writing, the love we have for a story, the joy of immersing ourselves in something we already know we love.

 I no longer read such plot-driven work as I did in my middle school years, preferring instead the slow and steady pace of literature crafted with as much mind for sentence construction and imagery as for the plot itself. The Night Circus, criticized by many as meandering and slow, was just such a book. And Pete Hamill’s North River, a book of Depression-era New York City, is a gripping story, but as delightful for its setting as its outcome.

Perhaps this is why I find myself now more amenable to foreshadowing in a work. Or perhaps it is part of the art of learning to read--learning to appreciate the act of being in the story, rather than The End.

Why I Love BookRiot, and Also the Classics

... and also Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature:

"The classics are not irrelevant. They offer insight into our shared past- they show us how far we’ve come and, at the same time, how humanity has hung on to certain aspects of itself throughout civilization’s recorded history. The classics have shaped the course of literature, outlasted literary fads, and added value to the whole of human thought. Assuming that the modern reader doesn’t want to experience that (or worse, that they can’t because it involves too much effort) is unfair. Readers don’t need profanity and iPods to understand themes concerning racism, poverty, compassion, love, and family. Do we really think the modern reader is so lazy that s/he can’t read the classics because they’re too hard?"

From the BookRiot post Riot Response: In Defense of the Classics, which is absolutely worth reading in full.

Book Review: A Study in Sherlock, ed. by Laurie King & Leslie Klinger

Originally written for Shelf Awareness for Readers.Reprinted here with permission. Receive bi-weekly Shelf Awareness for Readers in your inbox by registering here.

Even as Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the original stories of Sherlock Holmes, other writers began to take their turn with the famous detective; by now "the canon" (as Doyle's stories are known) has inspired too many stories, fan fictions and spin-offs to count. Laurie King, author of the Mary Russel and Sherlock Holmes series, and Leslie Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, have set out to add yet another volume to this library--and have done so successfully. Their latest title, A Study in Sherlock, proves to be an exciting anthology of all-new Holmesian tales both whimsical and factual, inspired and inspiring.

Some of the stories in A Study in Sherlock retell a canonical tale from a different perspective, while others venture into the mythos that surrounds Holmes' life as described by Doyle--some even take on the rumor that he is still alive. Some dive wholeheartedly into Holmes' character, while others take inspiration from something as trivial as his hat; some are told in classic narrative, while others are illustrated, or written as blog posts. There's even a Twitter conversation.

A Study in Sherlock succeeds precisely because of this variety, and due credit should be given both to the editors who allowed such inspiration and to the authors who rose to the challenge. With contributions from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Laura Lippman and Jacqueline Winspear, A Study in Sherlock offers readers a healthy dose of well-crafted fiction that proves downright fun to read. If you weren't intrigued by Holmes before you read this, trust that you will be afterwards.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
A Walk With a Book
The Baker Street Journal
Publisher's Weekly


You might also like:
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol 1, ed. by Leslie Klinger (see also Vol. 2 & Vol. 3)
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore


A Study in Sherlock | ed. Leslie Klinger and Laurie King | Bantam | 9780812982466 | $15.00 Trade Paperback | 400 pages | October 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

I Won't Say I Told You So

(via GraphJam)


The Oatmeal summed this all up quite nicely:

Take a minute today to tell Congress not to censor the web. We're all against piracy, but not when it involves barbecuing kittens, yes?

And if you're looking to learn more about SOPA, PIPA and how these bills can and will affect you and your use of the internet, check out this video at A Home Between the Pages, or this Wikipedia page on the bills (one of the only non-blacked out pages to be found today on Wikipedia).

Book Review: Crazy Enough, by Storm Large

Originally published January 17, 2012 in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. Get a bi-weekly dose of Shelf Awareness news & reviews in your inbox by registering here.

Portland, Ore., musician Storm Large has spent decades carefully cultivating her image as "a killer, a badass, a dangerous woman." But, as we learn in her gripping memoir, Crazy Enough, this is merely a facade, behind which lurks an emotional, somewhat insecure woman borne of an unstable childhood and an uncertain relationship with sanity.

Large's complex identity is inextricably tied up in her relationship with her mother, a woman she recalls mostly in the context of one mental hospital after another. Amid a litany of tests, medications and diagnoses, one doctor casually mentioned to Large that because her mother's condition was hereditary, she would one day grow up to be just like her mother. This offhand comment formed the basis of Large's life, leading to the downward spiral we experience firsthand in Crazy Enough. If I'm going to go crazy eventually, she seems to ask, why not just go for it now? From losing her virginity at the tender age of 13 to her estrangement from her mother, from her fleeting heroin addiction to her blossoming career as a New York City actress, Large spares readers no detail in recounting her precarious hold on sanity. 

The result is a memoir that reads like an in-your-face mashup of Augusten Burroughs and Chelsea Handler, combining raw humor and an understandable bitterness with more than than a few oversexed anecdotes. Though not for the faint of heart, Crazy Enough proves to be a readable account of one woman's descent into madness--and back out again--in the context of friendship, family and the terrible trio of sex, drugs and rock and roll.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Williamette Week
Publisher's Weekly


You might also like:
Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs
My Horizontal Life, by Chelsea Handler


Crazy Enough | Storm Large | Free Press | 9781439192405 | $25 Hardcover | 288 pages | January 2012 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I might be the only person I know to have read American Gods and not adored it with my whole heart. This was my second foray into the much-touted Gaiman territory (the first being Good Omens, which Gaiman co-authored with fantasy author Terry Pratchett, and which I did adore), and while I did like the book, I certainly did not love the book. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

American Gods, which won both a Hugo and Nebula award, is most often categorized as a fantasy novel, though it in fact draws more heavily on mythology, religion, and history than on the classic tropes of the fantasy genre (magic, spells, dragons, the like) in its execution. Which is not to say that it is not a fantasy novel, for it is, but that it is not what one might initially expect.

From what little I've read of Gaiman, I'm thinking he has a bit of a thing for religious history. And really, I can't say I blame him -- the stuff fascinates me. The variations on central themes, the myriad attempts to explain our existence, our place in the world, our importance: this is interesting stuff, and Gaiman uses it well. American Gods centers on the idea that the gods we believe in, or anyone has ever believed in, walk among us. But as religion falls by the wayside and Americans begin to worship money, television, power, and the like, the old gods find themselves threatened, falling by the wayside, no longer thriving as they once had.

This contest between old and new sparks a war in which -- you guessed it -- the old gods of war, of love, of luck, of Spring, of moons, of stars, of night, of day battle the new gods of shiny objects and fads and trends and money and power. Caught up in the middle of all of this is Shadow, our seemingly normal protagonist, who finds, upon completing his three-year prison sentence, that his wife is not only dead, but had been cheating on him. With his best friend.

Shadow, then, is out of jail, out of luck, out one wife, and out of a job. He is out of reasons to live. So perhaps it makes sense that he falls in with the gods that come to him, accepting in stride the oddity of the requests, the strangeness of swearing fealty over three glasses of mead, the bizarre night in which he pulls a coin from the air, the inevitability of battle. But in the end, I struggled to understand Shadow, who is, in effect, the crux of the novel. Though Gaiman's writing is deft and skillful, and the story here is complex, engaging, and interesting, this lack of connection with our assumed protagonist proved a sticking point for me. Because in the end, if I cannot believe that Shadow would act as he does, or react as he does, can I believe anything I am reading?

Despite this, however, American Gods is what one might call a thoughtful -- and thought-provoking -- novel, and in this, it redeems itself. Although Gaiman is not the first to work from an assumption that gods walk among us (who sang that obnoxious song about god riding the bus as one of us, again?), he has done so in his own unique, convoluted, and often dark way, giving us a novel that is both powerful and understandable, if not entirely believable.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Bermudaonion's Weblog
Cecilia Bedelia (reviewing on At Home With Books)
January Magazine 


You might also like:
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman


American Gods | Neil Gaiman | HarperTorch | 9780380789030 | $7.99 Mass Market Paperback | 624 pages | May 2002 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Not Just for the Young, but the Young at Heart

#IndieThursday: Spotlight on The Annapolis Bookstore

#IndieThursday is a weekly meme hosted by Jenn at Jenn's Bookshelves, in which participants tweet/blog about recent purchases made at an independent bookstore. 

There are certain bookstores that will forever have my heart in their hands. Titcomb's, on Cape Cod. And Shakespeare and Co, in Paris. And of course, Strand, in New York. I've been fortunate enough to travel around the world, and have discovered bookstores in every town I've visited.

But there is something even more special about bookstores at home, a shop to which you can return, over and over again, each time finding some new treasure, some new delight. For me, that has recently become The Annapolis Bookstore, located in its (relatively) new location on Maryland Avenue, in the heart of downtown Annapolis. Nestled on a road of antique shops, coffee houses and gift boutiques, The Annapolis Bookstore is the perfect draw for any booklover, with a collection of new, used and antique titles.

The beauty of this store lies in its imperfections, in its oddities, in the miscellany of its mismatched shelves, out-of-place piano (with sheet music for sale across its stand), its lavishly decorated children's section (with a sign for Ollivander's, a lit tree, and a giant stuffed lion atop its shelves).

The disarrayed shelves are a browser's delight. The cozy chairs, including some in miniature for the little ones, are an invitation to stay awhile. So is the coffee shop in the back. 

I'm not sure how I lived in Annapolis for as many years as I did without truly appreciating the splendor of this place, and how lucky I am to have access to such a spot. But I do know that from now on, all my #IndieThursday purchases -- hell, all my Indie purchases -- will be made here. Unless, that is, I'm travelling again, in which case I'll be on the lookout for the next great shelved nook.


To find an independent bookstore near you, check out Indiebound


And now, we interrupt our normal broadcasting schedule to announce that the sequel to The Passage, which you really, really should read, titled The Twelve, also known as one of my most anticipated books of 2012 has an official publication date of August 28, 2012. That's just 229 days away, folks!

Think I can find a bookstore that will be open at midnight to sell it? Are bookstores expecting it to be that big? Am I jumping the gun? Anyone else as excited as I am? I've been agonizing over this sequel since 2010, so it's about damn time, really.

Now, if we could just have a cover, please?

There Really Is Nothing Quite Like a Real Book

This is just... just... well, beautiful. Lovely. Wondrous. Watch it. Love it. Share it.

(Many thanks to my wonderful Aunt Linda for sharing this with her two bookish nieces!)

The Magic of Libraries

Have you ever wandered into a library and wondered at the sheer magic of it all? The fact that it exists, and that it exists with one purpose in mind: to share the opportunity of reading and of learning with anyone, and everyone, of any and every age, race, class, and gender. At times, I leave the library with a stack of books and think to myself, "Did that really just happen?" A small, irrational part of me is worried that one day I will meet my quota, that the kindly librarians with glasses perched at the ends of their noses will tut-tut at me and say, very quietly, and though it is not the worst news in the world, that I can no longer take books out.

Because really, it's all too good to be true. And while I recognize that the library is not, in fact, free, that it is supported by our tax dollars and by donations and by library sales, it is, in fact, providing everyone in its vicinity with the opportunity to learn and to grow--and to read.

I'm not out to start a political diatribe, really, I'm not. I don't consider myself a particularly political person. But I do consider myself a fan of libraries, and of the opportunities they afford, and it is painful to watch them suffer, and to hurt, and to lose their financing, and to think that others cannot see how detrimental this is for our communities. Dickens himself, the great mastermind of fiction and advocate for justice, argued that the more a man learns,
"the better, gentler, kind man he must become. When he knows how much great minds have suffered for the truth in every age and time... he will become more tolerant of other men's beliefs in all matters, and will incline more leniently to their sentiments when they chance to differ from his own." (Dickens, as quoted in The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford)
Is it true? Perhaps. Perhaps it is an overstatement. Perhaps an exaggeration. But does reading open one's mind to new things, new ideas? Of course. And do libraries allow those who could not otherwise afford books an opportunity to read? Of course. Now, if only that were enough.

Audiobook Review: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens professes itself to be "The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch," the only accurate prophecy out there, and the only prophecy not taken seriously by any who read it. It is the tale of the final battle between Heaven and Hell, the coming of the apocalypse, etc, etc, etc. There's the son of the Devil and everything. Except that in the thousands of years they have spent on Earth in preparation for the battle, our angel and our demon have sort of become fast friends, drinking and dining and reading together in the back room of a small bookshop. And they also happen to be completely incompetent, and lose the Devil's son, and thereby create a whole lot of chaos and angry beings of religion.

It sounds a bit dopey, I know, but it works. And the audiobook, narrated by Martin Jarvis, is spot-on, stupendous, and outright hilarious, with Jarvis hitting the humorous notes in all the right ways. And because the story relies so heavily on snark and wit, this timing, this intonation, is crucial.

Though not the best book I read last year, Good Omens was a good first foray into both Neil Gaiman's work and Terry Pratchett's, and as a self-proclaimed fantasy reader, I was ashamed to have to admit I hadn't read either. Though perhaps I took a shortcut in tackling both at once, I'm glad I did: the combination is relatively seamless, and the author's voices blend almost as though they were meant to be, and I was left with a good laugh, some thoughtful commentary on religion as a whole (a topic Gaiman seems to explore on more than one occasion across his canon), and a desire to explore more of both writers.


You might also like:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Literary Omnivore
Melody and Words


Good Omens | Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, nar. Martin Jarvis | HarperAudio | 9780061735813 | $39.99 Audio CD | 12 hrs, 32 min. | November 2009 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Friday Laugh: Facebook vs. Real Books

(via Failblog)

Happy Friday! Here's to reading all those TBR books this weekend, instead of all those atrociously dull Facebook statuses we seem so interested in, yes?

Thoughts for a New Year

As we turn to a new year, and embark on those impossible I-will-only-eat-healthy-foods resolutions we made in the midst of the glut of the holidays, let us remember what Muriel Barbery first put so simply:

It would all be so much better if we could share our insecurity. If we could all venture inside ourselves and realize that green beans and Vitamin C, no matter how much they may nurture us, cannot save lives nor sustain our souls. (From The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I absolutely adored.)

There's more to 2012, really, than fruits and vegetables. And those of us who eat fruits and vegetables and chicken year-round find it INCREDIBLY OBNOXIOUS that when we try to grocery shop the first week of January, THERE IS NO PRODUCE LEFT because all the one-timers have bought twenty-seven pounds of bananas that will all go brown before they get eaten anyway and didn't leave any for me. Hmph.

Book Review: Spousonomics, by Jenny Anderson & Paula Szuchman

Spousonomics is the ultimate marriage book for nerds: one part econ, one part marriage advice. Wait, don't stop there, please. Both of those words make the book sounds boring and stuffy. Econ? Blah. Marriage advice? Gag me.

But no. It's not like that. Spousonomics is witty and fun, and even though some of the econ-to-real-life-in-your-marriage examples can be a stretch, the principles (both the econ ones and the marriage ones) are absolutely understandable. At times, in fact, the book can actually be too simple, boiling down complex economic theory into vocabulary less stimulating than that to be found in the "For Dummies" series.

Despite the tendency to over-simplify, though, and the subject's predisposition to be dull or unexciting, Spousonomics is, actually, engaging, at times funny, and mostly relevant. Of course, the recommendations would be more applicable if my husband read the book too, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. Regardless, Spousonomics is a quick read, the kind that can be taken chapter by chapter or bit by bit, and while the advice contained within is not life-altering, it is, at the very least, eye-opening to know that I am not alone in any or all of the insanities that make up a marriage.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
5 Minutes of Books
Devourer of Books
2 Kids and Tired Books


You might also like:
The Spousonomics Blog


Note: Spousonomics is being re-published in paperback as It's Not You, It's the Dishes in May 2012.


Spousonomics | Jenny Anderson & Paula Szuchman| Random House | 9780385343947 | $26.00 Hardcover | 352 pgs. | February 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Bookshelf + To-Read List = Best Shelving Ever

For the hyper-organized bookworm in us all. Of course, I'd need about six dozen of these to even begin to hold my to-read and read collections, but still. These are awesome.

Courtesy of my loving husband, image via Imgur.

2012 Reading Goals

2011 marked the first year in which I set myself some readerly goals: read more books I already own, read more non-fiction, read more of authors I love, read more classics. These were broad, open-ended, numberless assignments, and overall, I was pretty pleased with the results. I read 84 books in 2011, of which:
  • 9 I left unfinished
  • 8 were re-reads
  • 57 were fiction and 27 non-fiction
  • 36 were published in 2011
  • A mere 6 were classics
  • 16 were re-visits to authors I know and love
  • 29 were books I already owned and/or had were on my list in 2010

Twenty-nine books I already own wasn't so bad. And 27 non-fiction felt decent to me. But this year, I'm going for balance. I am going to attempt (attempt being the operative word, here), to read a balance of literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction and classics. In order to prevent myself from going absolutely insane, I will not be counting review assignments towards these numbers. The definitions of these categories may be a bit fluid, but it will have to do. This is, after all, my own challenge to my own self. I suspect I will have the most difficulty with the non-fiction, as I really have yet to find my groove with what kinds of non-fiction books I adore, and which ones I slog through.  Tips and advice always welcome on that.

It's probably worth noting, too, that I have challenged myself to read everything Hemingway has written and War and Peace before my 26th birthday, so I will be attempting to chip away at that in the coming year.

Wish me luck, I say.