... And I'm Off!

I'm heading to Europe for the next 30 days. Thirty days. That fact still hasn't really sunk in with me, but it's happening. Which means this little corner of the internet is about to get very quiet.

I've already submitted boatloads (well, not really, but it feels like it) of reviews of September and October titles to Shelf Awareness for Readers, along with several columns on the reading life, so some of my writing will be appearing even while I'm away. And while I don't plan to update this blog while I'm traveling, I do anticipate I'll be updating Instagram as possible, and likely tweeting wherever I can score WiFi along the way, so feel free to follow along there for tales of European Adventures.


Book Review: Flings, by Justin Taylor

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Justin Taylor's second collection of stories, Flings, centers on human relationships, particularly romantic ones, and the myriad ways they define and redefine us. The leading story, "Flings," sets the overall tone for the volume: recent college graduates make big life decisions--what job to take, what city to live in--based on what their friends and significant others are doing, only to find that none of these relationships are what they once seemed. "A Talking Cure" introduces two newlyweds who struggle to define marriage, and wonder whether or not it matters if their definition matches the rest of the world's. In "Carol, Alone," a lonely widow finds odd companionship with an alligator lurking in her backyard.

All of the stories in Taylor's collection are direct, though they sometimes lack enough description that they leave the reader with questions about motivation. In "Poets," for example, a couple breaks up, gets back together, breaks up again--and it is never clear exactly why any of this happens. The characters in "Sungold" are so deadpan as to feel flat, though the story overall is humorous in its absurdity. As in relationships, though, sometimes the less-successful moments make the good ones shine even brighter, and the gems here make Flings well worth one's time. Taylor's insightful stories illuminate the many ways we fall in love--and out of it--and how romances shape our identity both while they last and long after they conclude.


A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review.
Flings: Stories | Justin Taylor | Harper | Hardcover | August 2014

Book Review: Beneath the Darkening Sky, by Majok Tulba

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

When Majok Tulba was a young boy in South Sudan, a group of rebel soldiers attacked his village and took as recruits all of the young boys who stood taller than an AK-47. Though Tulba himself was too short to be taken, he has imagined what his experience might have been in Beneath the Darkening Sky, a novel that centers on Obinna, a young boy who measured taller than the rebels' guns.

During the raid on their village, Obinna and his brother watch as their father is murdered before they are carried away to join the rebel army. As new recruits, they are sent ahead to scout for land mines on long marches; they are ordered to run and hike to keep fit; they are fed measly meals of gruel and scraps; they stand on the lookout for government forces coming to attack them, day in and day out. Obinna's frequent mistakes earn him extra beatings, the nickname Baboon's Ass, even-more-limited rations and constant torment. Slowly, his captain strips him of his sense of identity, his sense of self, to turn him into a soldier--a raping, pillaging, murdering rebel who storms unsuspecting towns in the dead of night, just as soldiers stormed his so many years ago.

Beneath the Darkening Sky is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful, giving us the story of a young boy who must fight to defend himself against conditions worse than any human--let alone a child--should ever be forced to endure. As a novel of resilience and identity, and of what lengths we are willing to go to survive, it is at once harrowing and haunting, shedding light on the continuing horrors of child soldiers.


A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review.
Beneath the Darkening Sky | Majok Tulba | Oneworld

Book Review: Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Judy Melinek set out to be a surgeon, completing medical school and starting her residency before realizing it was not the career for her. In the summer of 2001, she changed tack and opted for a career in forensic pathology--what many might recognize from television crime series as a medical examiner. Working Stiff is an account of Melinek's years in training, complete with gory details, heartfelt emotions and plenty of ripped-from-the-headlines case studies.

Melinek, writing with T.J. Mitchell, packs every chapter with a careful balance of scientific fact and personal anecdote, covering topics such as what happens to a body's internal organs in a high-speed car crash with a static object (it's not pretty) and the difficulties of losing a loved one to suicide (Melinek's father killed himself). This mixture of nonfiction and narrative makes for compelling, informative reading as Melinek works through cases of homicide, accidental death, medical error and suicide--and becomes even more powerful as the authors recount the harrowing weeks and months following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, which brought more bodies and death to Melinek's door than ever before.

Though the subject of Working Stiff can be overwhelming and gory, Melinek and Mitchell carefully avoid reveling in the horrors of a medical examiner's work. Instead, they highlight individual case studies as a way to illustrate nuances of the job that might not come through on Law & Order: the humanity of the subjects, the inconclusive results of an autopsy, the lasting impact that working with death can have on an individual's life.


A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review.
Working Stiff | Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell | Scribner | Hardcover | August 2014

Book Review: A Mouthful of Stars, by Kim Sunee

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

In her foreword, Frances Mayes (traveler and author of Under the Tuscan Sun) writes that chef and food writer Kim Sunée (Trail of Crumbs) had gone on more adventures by the age of 30 than most have in an entire lifetime. Consider: Sunée was born in South Korea before being adopted and raised in New Orleans; she then traveled to Sweden and spent 10 years in France. This international background is reflected in Sunée's cookbook, A Mouthful of Stars, which Mayes calls "astonishing" proof of Sunée's aim to "cook as she lives, passionately and expansively."

This passion could not shine through any more brightly in Sunée's colorful, sometimes whimsical cookbook, which compiles reflections from her travels with recipes from places that have played a strong role in her growth as a chef: Seoul, North Africa, Provence, Paris, Sweden, the Southern U.S. and Tuscany. Each recipe here is based on the traditional dishes of these delectable cuisines, such as Pan-Fried Peppers with Coconut and Tamarind (India), Provençal Beef Stew, Spicy Fried Chicken (American South) and Swedish Beet and Apple Salad. The recipes are simple and easy to follow, though home cooks with less experience in the kitchen may miss introductory information like total preparation time and required equipment, which is not included. Details aside, however, lovers of food or travel or both will likely delight in this diverse collection of dishes (complemented by Leela Cyd's stunning photographs) and Sunée's travel anecdotes.


A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review.
A Mouthful of Stars | Kim Sunee, foreword by Frances Mayes | Andrews McMeel | Hardcover | May 2014

European Adventures: The Reading List

Last week, I wrote about my upcoming trip to Europe for the month of September (month! This is starting to feel so real...), and picking my reading list. I've finally narrowed down my selections. Seven cities, ten books (more than I'll need, of course, but such is the life of a bookworm, right?):

We've booked the entirety of our itinerary via AirBnB, renting apartments in city neighborhoods rather than staying in hotels, and I'm packing in the most spectacular L.L. Bean backpack I've ever seen (packing for a month in just a backpack will be an adventure unto itself, but one I think I'm fairly prepared for). Let the adventuring begin?

Book Review: Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Mancreu, formerly a British colony, is doomed: a political committee has determined that the small island must be burned in order to protect the international community from the bursts of toxic chemicals Mancreu emits. Nick Harkaway's third novel, Tigerman, introduces aging British Army Sgt. Lester Ferris into this strange island. After a difficult tour in Afghanistan, Lester is assigned to Mancreu to serve as the military presence until the island's destruction—a relatively peaceful post to tide him over until retirement. Instead of finding a sleepy community staring down its own death, Lester finds a friend--a nameless boy with a comic-book obsession--and with that friendship comes a purpose; he must get the boy off the island before it's destroyed. When a mutual friend dies in a gang shooting, both Lester and the boy are drawn into a political plot that no one could have imagined existed on an island as inconsequential as Mancreu.

Packed with sharp wit and quick humor, Tigerman will keep readers on their toes. Blink and you'll miss a clever joke or important plot point. Read with a keen eye, though, and Harkaway's novel offers big rewards: a world slightly skewed from our own, and yet still recognizable as the backdrop for a story that asks big questions about parenting, friendship, family, heroes and how to go on living when the world is ending. The resulting novel is a rollick of a read, packing emotion, hilarity and a dose of self-deprecation into a story that is, to borrow a phrase from Lester's young friend, "full of win."


A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review.
Tigerman | Nick Harkaway | Knopf | Hardcover | June 2014

Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Ernest Hemingway is known for many things: his stunning, crisp writing; his bravado and charm; his ability to drink obscene amounts of liquor; and his way with women. This last is the focus of Naomi Wood's incredibly researched and delightfully tense novelization of Hemingway's four (yes, four) wives, Mrs. Hemingway.

The novel's title is clever and accurate, as the three-hundred-odd pages are divided into four sections: one for each of the Mrs. Hemingways of history. First there was Hadley, known to most readers as the prominent figure in Paula Maclain's recent hit novel, The Paris Wife, as well as for her shiny, reminiscent place in Hemingway's essays in A Moveable Feast. Then there was Pauline Pfieffer, known to Hemingway and the world alike as Fife, who remained dedicated to Hemingway for over ten years, editing the writers' works, keeping his house in the Florida Keys, and pumping his career full of her family money--and the only of the four not to outlive Hemingway himself. Next was Martha Gellhorn, herself an author and also a war correspondent, whose relationship with Hemingway is aptly book-ended by two wars: an affair that started during the Spanish War and a marriage that ended with the liberation of Paris. And last, Mary Welsh, another war correspondent, the wife who was with Hemingway until his very last, unfortunate days.

"He wants his wife, he wants his mistress, he wants everything he an get. He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything."

Wood has clearly pored over Hemingway's works and secondary materials on both the author and his many wives in great detail; though the passages on each Mrs. Hemingway are necessarily short, as all four of them are packed into one novel, they feel real and fully developed, believably in love with, and in turn exasperated with, Ernest Hemingway. The chronology of each Mrs.' section jumps back and forth through time, which can make each relationship hard to follow in places. Ultimately, though, the humanity of each marriage, and how even Hemingway, whose history makes it easy to paint him a selfish bastard, struggled through them all, makes the stories of this author and his many women alluring to the known but still sadly shocking end.


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this title for review.
Mrs. Hemingway | Naomi Wood | Penguin | May 2014 | 336 pages

On the Fence: Books I'm Not Sure I Want to Read

I have so many books. So. Many. Books. We all have this problem, of course, but I've found that lately it has me wondering how many of these I'll actually read... and even more so, how many I actually want to read. My criteria for culling my book stacks lately has been harsh, sending books out the door at an astounding rate. But there are a few I've hung on to, or linger over every time I visit a book shop, and yet find I'm unable to commit to:

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: I loved, adored, fawned over, cried for, worshipped Tiny Beautiful Things, and have returned to it time and time again when I just need a little... something. In fact, I love it so much I'm not sure I'm brave enough to read her other work.

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith: I was a fan of The Casual Vacancy, even though a lot of people panned it, but I just haven't found this one calling to me. Has anyone read it? Should I?

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: I admitted defeat on this one when I tried to read it last year. I can't bring myself to get rid of my copy... but I also have no motivation to pick it back up.

The Son, by Philip Myer: I have no reasoning for this one. I saw the author speak at Politics and Prose with Rachel from Home Between the Pages, and he was awesome. I know lots of bloggers, like Shannon from River City Reading, cite it as a favorite novel of 2013. But for some reason, I keep picking it up... and promptly putting it back down again. Someone talk me into this.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen: I've written before about how I don't think Austen is for me, but I keep thinking maybe I just haven't read the right Austen novel... yet. Maybe

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adele Waldman: I've had this since it came out last summer, but have never made it more than a dozen pages in. Anyone read it? Worth pushing through?

This post is part of Top Ten Tuesday,
hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

European Adventures: Help! Assembling a Reading List

I'm heading to Europe. For a month. Seven cities, 30 days:

This doesn't *quite* feel real yet, though the trip is only a few weeks away. I've gone out and gotten myself a decent backpack, a pair of exceedingly comfortable walking shoes, and a solid raincoat (for the Ireland/Scotland portion of the trip more than anything else). But what I haven't yet considered: my reading list. Which is where I need help, because I know that the combined internet-brain of all my reader friends out there is more powerful than any Google searching I can do.


The Goal: 

Seven books, one set in each city on the itinerary. Plus maybe one eighth book on traveling in general for the flight there/back again.

The Parameters:

  • Because I'm packing in a backpack, I'm only bringing my small e-reader. Which means all books need to be available as e-books from either Barnes & Noble, Kobo or Google Play.
  • I'm looking for books where the setting is an integral part of the story, not just a passing mention and then never considered again.

I've tossed around Tana French for Dublin and Ian Rankin for Edinburgh. Shadow of the Wind for Barcelona and The Count of Monte Cristo for Marseille. But these are all names and titles I've already read (which is why I know them well enough to know the settings), and I'm hoping to broaden my horizons. So... anyone have any suggestions?

And out of curiosity, how do you pick books to read while you travel?

Book Review: Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

It took me a few weeks to finish Bad Feminist, a new collection of essays from author Roxane Gay (An Untamed State). Not because it was difficult reading, but because the essays in Bad Feminist proved so thought-provoking as to require time between sections for reflection and thought.

Bad Feminist spans a surprising range of subjects for a book of its title; topics include everything from fat camp to why The Help (book and
movie) was awful, competitive Scrabble to loving the color pink, rape to reproductive rights. But regardless of subject, Gay brings a solid mix of sociology, political commentary, and self-reflection to her essays, making each topic shine in a way that may not have happened had the essays been limited to either sociology, political commentary, or memoir.

Gay does not hesitate to put herself on the pages of Bad Feminist. She recounts her experiences at fat camp as a child and her struggles with weight; the horrible rape she suffered in high school; her experiences participating in competitive Scrabble; her search for love and romance; her continued search to find people like her on television and in movies with little success. This sense of self is ultimately what made Gay's collection so powerful to me--in her writing, she manages to tell a story and ask big questions, but by putting herself in the context of her opinions, she forced me--and hopefully will force others--to think differently about how we all fit together in this crazy, mixed-up world.

As a white woman of relative means, I have never wondered where my next meal will come from or wished that I could see more characters similar to myself on television. If I hadn't married young, I'd probably be just like the girls in Girls (though, having never actually seen the television show, I guess I'm not entirely sure I can or should claim that). I have not suffered sexual assault, nor have I struggled with my weight or my race. And for all of that, I am eternally, unspeakably, grateful.

Bad Feminist, though, is a reminder that who I am is not as standard or as normal as I would like to believe. It is a reminder to step back and try to see the world through different eyes. It is a collection that will long live on my shelves, and to which I will return, time and time again, to remember to think about my place in the world, and others' places, how they intersect, and how they don't.


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a digital copy of this title to review.
Bad Feminist | Roxane Gay | Harper Perennial | August 2014 | 336 pages

Book Review + Giveaway: The Magician's Land, by Lev Grossman

The Magician's Land is the third book in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, which started with The Magicians and The Magician King. If you're new to the trilogy, stop everything, go pick up The Magicians, and get reading. If, like me, you've been waiting with bated breath for the conclusion of the trilogy, rest assured: you won't be disappointed.

Lev Grossman created an incredible, if somewhat familiar, magical world in The Magicians: something like a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, a mundane world where a select few are chosen to learn sorcery, in which an even more select few find access to a secret world previously known only from a series of children's books. The similarities, though, end there: Grossman's world is more grown-up, more severe, and more intense in every way imaginable.

Where The Magicians focused on college-aged kids, and The Magician King moved our cast of characters into the post-college, pre-adulthood world of figuring out who we want to be when we grow up, The Magician's Land gives us relatively fully-formed adult characters, grown from the children we met in Grossman's earlier volumes: Quentin, who still doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up but is forced to decide, and quickly; Julia, who did a hell of a lot of growing up in The Magician King; Poppy and Josh, who are now in love and ruling Fillory in relative peace and quiet; Elliot and Janet, who have not fallen in love, but rule alongside Poppy and Josh.

As with Grossman's previous works, The Magician's Land uses a fantastical backdrop to reflect back on us important questions of our real lives: Who do we want to be when we grow up, and when does that growing happen? How far are we willing to go to achieve our dreams--and how far is too far? But he also asks more philosophical, complicated questions about magic itself, as Quentin and the others push magic to its known limits to achieve what they believe is necessary.

I don't mean to be vague in plot details, but the joy of Grossman's novels lies in the unexpected details, the "oh-no-you-didn't" moments as you read (along with the clever jibes against Harry Potter, quick references to lulz, a few OMG moments, and other pop culture references peppered throughout). Suffice it to say that those who have been waiting for years for the last volume of The Magicians trilogy will not be disappointed; and those who haven't started the series should probably start. Now seems a good time to do so, doesn't it?


If you've been holding your breath waiting for the last volume of the Magicians trilogy, here's your chance to win a copy! Courtesy of Viking, I can offer one U.S. resident a copy. To enter, simply fill out the Rafflecopter form below. Winner details will be shared with the publisher, who will provide the prize copy to the winner.


The Magician's Land | Lev Grossman | Hardcover | August 2014 | 406 pages

Thoughts: Don't Stop the Carnival, by Herman Wouk

Picture this: Niles Crane, of Frasier fame, is having a mid-life crisis and has decided to quit New York and go off to buy a resort on a Caribbean island. As in every episode of the awkwardly delightful Frasier (or Seinfeld, or 30 Rock, or most any excellent sitcom), everything that could possibly go wrong does.

This is the best parallel I can come up with for Herman Wouk’s delightful, wonderful, insightful and cutting novel of Norman Paperman, a middle-aged Broadway publicist who, after surviving a heart attack, decides to buy a small resort on a Caribbean island. But his visions of peaceful bliss, reading Ulysses by the sea, are shattered when Kinjan life interrupts his dreams of paradise: the hotel is out of water, the manager has disappeared, there is a gaping hole in the wall in the foyer, the aging celebrity in the cottage next door is having an issue with the drink, and Norm simply cannot wrap his mind around any of the confusing, slightly absurd ways in which the island works.

Norman Paperman, despite his strange name, is the envy of all his peers in his decision to quit the real world and escape to paradise:

“All these people were at an age when their lives were defined their hopes circumscribed. Nothing was in prospect but plodding the old tracks until heart disease, cancer, or one of the less predictable trapdoors under their feet. To them, the Papermans had broken out of Death Row into green April springs, and in one way or another they all said so.”

Don’t Stop the Carnival can be searing: I can understand some of Wouk’s hilarious, but all-too-honest depictions of the island culture, though others border on insulting in their overgeneralizations. But more than that, Wouk has captured the joys and trials and downright insanity of chasing down one’s dream, of fighting to build a paradise that could only have come from one’s imagination, only to find it is nothing like what you had expected. This battle is rewarding in its own right, and it is a joy to watch Norm grow up, at least a little bit, and become a stronger man because of his lost visions of paradise.


This book is one of the classics I am counting as part of the Classics Club five-year challenge to read 50 classics.

Looking Ahead: August Books I Can't Wait to Read

August will bring me back to the real world after a month of vacation reading (funemployment for the win!), but that doesn't mean I don't have my eyes on some big, juicy end-of-summer reads:

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial, August 5th): Damn, but Gay can write a powerful essay. The collection here ranges from why it's ok to be a feminist and like the color pink to all of the ways that Gay disliked The Help (book and movie) to why women still have to fight for reproductive freedom... and so much more. Stay tuned for a full review of this (I've already read it, can you tell?) one.

The Magician's Land, by Lev Grossman (Viking, August 5th): Grossman's book should really need no introduction, but in case you aren't familiar with his last two books, The Magician's Land is the culmination of the Magicians trilogy (The Magicians and The Magician King). This one I've also read, and it was a joy to go back to Grossman's magical world and revisit so many characters from the last book. Stay tuned for a full review... but keep in mind The Magician's Land will be best appreciated by those who have read the first two volumes in the trilogy.

Five and Twenty Fives, by Michael Pitre (Bloomsbury USA, August 19th): I've only read the first few pages of this novel and already I know it will be awesome, in the literal sense of the word. The publisher bills it as a novel about war and its aftermath (specifically, the Iraq War), and after Redeployment earlier this year, I'm looking forward to more in a similar space.

Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirek Clark (Little, Brown, August 19th): In a world of GMO battles, organic hoaxes, and new fad diets by the day, it seems impossible not to be drawn into a novel about a scientist who discovers a new sweetener--only to discover, along with, a multitude of dangerous side-effects.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, by Curtis White (Melville House, August 5th): Leave it to Melville House to have something as in-my-wheelhouse as The Science Delusion looks to be. I'm drawn to books about our society, our culture, and our brains--especially when said books look at how the three interact.

What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, August 5th): Again, merging two of my favorite topics: books and how our brains work. In this case, how we visually and mentally process images from what we read. HOW COULD I NOT LOVE THIS?

When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney (Random House, August 5th): I was initially drawn to this because the publisher compared it to The Secret Life of Bees and Rules of Civility, both of which I loved (LOVED). I'm always a little skeptical of publisher comparisons and setting expectations reasonably, but the description--that of a coming-of-age story set in New York City during and after World War II--sounds like it will be up my alley.

The Story Hours, by Thrity Umrigar (Harper, August 19th): Umrigar's sixth novel (I've never read her earlier works) centers on a suicidal immigrant woman, isolated from her family, her country, her culture--and the woman's therapist, who is herself struggling with the temptation of an affair. The character development here--especially of Lakshmi, the immigrant woman--is superb, and I was taken in by Lakshmi's history and Umrigar's crisp portrayal of the difficulties of immigration, adapting to a new culture, and finding one's place in the world.

What are you most looking forward to in August?