Friday, January 28, 2011

Chtenia Readings: a periodical featuring writing from Russia

Chtenia is a literary journal published through Russian Life magazine, but its content is entirely different.  Featuring a collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography, this advertisement-free journal is more like Granta than a typical magazine.  In fact, it's sized similarly to Granta, with a paperback book-like size and feel.

Especially unique is that the contents vary from classic Russian authors, such as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Andreyev as well as newer readings from modern Russian writers:  an excerpt from Marina Tarkovskaya's memoir brings us to the end of the 20th century in her "Shards of a Mirror".  Her brief section reveals both the extreme poverty as well as the blind wealth and ignorance of some families during one of Russia's most complicated times.

The theme for the issue I received to review was Dacha Life, exploring the tradition of upper- and middle-class Russians to have second homes, dachas, in the countryside. Irina Borisova's short story "A Summer's Tale" describes two older women still living the dacha lifestyle while their children have grown up and away. 

A special note must be given to the featured photographer, Alexander Anshukov, whose black and white photos (especially the orange cat framed in an old rustic window above) show an old, rural Russia not often depicted.  This journal is published four times a year and the readings are the perfect size to enjoy.  While the subscription is not inexpensive, the fact that it has no annoying advertisements makes it worthwhile.

Special thanks to Paul for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Life & Memoirs of Dr. Pi, Edgar Bayley

Okay, possibly I'm completely off base with this, but I could not connect with this book at all. And I really wanted to!

It features short vignettes of Doctor Pi, sort of a nerdy James Bond man of mystery with a penchant for brunettes. Maybe there is some literary reference I'm missing, but I couldn't even finish this. There was no draw, no pull that made me want to learn more or see where it was headed. In fact, because of the short (a few paragraphs) sections, it was puzzling to try and see if they were linked, and if so, what that meant in terms of a story. I really didn't want to work that hard.

I may keep it around and try another time...but really, given how short the book is (maybe 1/4" thick?) there wasn't much room for it to improve if it was going to.  Just not my thing, and it feels pretty good to admit it!
Thanks to Clockroot Books for the Advanced Review Copy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another giveaway: Luis Sepulveda's The Shadow of What We Were

Since the last contest was international, this one is for US members only.  It is for Luis Sepulveda's award winning title The Shadow of What We Were, from Europa Editions (somehow they sent me two!).  It won the 2009 Premio Primavera for Spanish Literature award.  This translation has a gorgeous cover and is from one of Chile's most noted authors.

Rules are simple.  Be a follower, leave a comment WITH a way to contact you.  Email, or GFC if it's set up to show an email.  You must respond to my notification email within 48 hours.  Random selection on February 6 of the winner.

Thanks to Europa Editions for the copy.  My review for it is upcoming.

New giveaway, International only!

First off, congrats to LuAnn who won The Last Brother from Graywolf Press. She's been notified and has 48 hours to respond.

Now, since I promised an international giveaway, here goes:

This giveaway is for anyone OUTSIDE the U.S. who lives where Book Depository ships.  Since shipping is so high, I'm not usually able to do international.  So, if you fit the bill, leave a comment with your email OR a way to contact you.  Note:  some GFC members don't have an email address attached.  Make sure I can reach you!  This ends on February 5, 2011.

What do you get?  A $15 Book Depository gift certificate.  I know, it's not piles of book money, but since they offer free shipping you should be able to get a trade paperback of your choice or ???

Contest starts now, followers only please.  As a special perk, if you are already participating in the Eastern European Challenge from out of the US, you are automatically entered, you don't have to leave a comment. 

US followers, don't feel bad.  See the next post!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Succeed in Procrastinating

A Day in the Life of a Procrastinator

• Wake up, sigh deeply at thought of urgent project that needs completion

• Make coffee, grind the ‘special’ beans-hard work deserves it

• Stare out window while coffee brews: nature is inspiring

• Sit down with cup and laptop, boot up

• Check email first, obviously

• Check Facebook

• Check twitter

• Decide to make a to-do list, but a paper one is so last decade: go online to look for a desktop calendar/to-do list. Attempt to download and install.

• Realize computer already had Windows Outlook

• Quick email check

• Decide it would be helpful to clean work space, spend an hour sorting paperwork

• Decide desktop theme is boring, thus uninspiring, spend 30 min at LOL Cats looking for a new background picture

• Inspired, go to Twitter and select new theme and background

• Open word, ready for business.

• Coffee is ice-cold, pour new cup. Pee. Realize bathroom could use a quick cleaning. Spend 15 minutes polishing it up. Contemplate ugly light fixture.

• Return to computer, go to look for light fixtures at Anthropologie.

• Recheck email.

• Realize all this creativity should go to blog as well-go to blog and play with color scheme

• Read and respond to blog comments

• Clean actual laptop for clarity.

Ian Britton photo
• Open Word again, try and start project.

• Realize that Arial is boring. Try Calibri instead. Edgy.

• Pour more coffee.

• Get out paperwork for project. Lay it out in good order. Realize that a outline would be helpful.

• Return to Word to write outline.

• Check FB, Twitter, AND email.

• Decide to check obits in local online paper. It could be someone you know.

• Move on to Read California section. Grumble about book section.

• Back to project. Realize key text is missing. Spend 20 minutes searching house for it, only to find it outside on child’s playhouse.

• Sun feels good, decide to review text and watch adorable child play outdoors. Children are inspiring.

• Look at child’s worn clothing, head over to computer inside and go to and shop for new duds.

• Sigh at expense. Go to credit card online and check balance.

• Sigh deeply at current balance.

• Decide to put up credit card. Find purse. Clean out. Decide purse is boring. Go online to Bluefly and look for another. One suitable for toting files, books, work implements. Decide to go to Levenger.

• Drool over Levenger site. Imagine what items would make writing more successful. Compile shopping cart of items you can’t afford.

• Go back to email, FB, twitter. Realize you haven’t contacted best friend. Write chatty email about all the work you have to do.

• Overcome with hunger, eat peanut butter on a spoon out of jar. Too busy to sit.

• Start typing and realize as a reward you’ll watch cool movie in the evening.

• Go to Netflix and put something in the queue.

• Back to work. Realize word count is not specified. Attempt to contact editor.

• After emailing editor, find email from Decide to look for suitable inspiring titles for writers. Find nothing.

• Decide to go to Amazon to look for books on writing. Order random titles.  Realize that you haven't updated Goodreads with recent ARCs.  Head over to add to library.  Spend 30 min reading updates, then head back to Amazon to look for titles.

• Look at clock and realize scheduled work period is over. Sigh with guilt.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tales of Priut Almus by Robert Belenky (nonfiction)

Robert Belenky is a clinical child psychologist who has chosen to spend his time working to study the dynamics of children who are abandoned or removed from their homes, in order to learn the best ways to help them grow to successful adults. With years of success in the US, he branched out to make voluntary trips to Haiti and Russia to observe the children in their temporary homes and determine how to more effectively design a shelter program. In Tales of Priut Almus, he relates

“It is a chronic condition of unfulfilled needs; of children huddled under railway station platforms, of orphans abandoned to fate, of victimization by way, disease, and abuse, of derelicts, scroungers, vagabonds, thieves, and crooks who inspire only revulsion in our hearts.”

Thus, he travels to Russia to stay in Priut Almus, a shelter for these “surplus children”, the majority of whom have lost their family structure due to alcoholism. The priut (which means shelter) houses a coed group of children in ages ranging from 3 to 17. The facility features combined sleeping rooms, an in-house medical facility, cooking facilities, and a large community room for eating and tasks. “Vospitatilnitsa” are the caregivers that keep order among the children. Chores are assigned for each child, and an informal ‘government’of children meets to discuss various decisions in the prius.

In this prius, the children are part of the community, attending school along with neighborhood kids, and are allowed to leave the prius on errands and field trips. However, the children are only allowed to stay in an almus like this for one year, after which they must leave and return home, transfer, or be lost to the streets.

Living in the prius as he does his research, Belenky is immersed in the schedule and the children bond instantly with him. Taking comprehensive notes on their behavior and interactions, he compiles what he feels are strengths and weaknesses to the facility design. His immediate concerns relate to the variance in ages and the mix of sexes, particularly of teenagers within the prius. On his visit though, all seems to be appropriate, and he notes a particular tenderness and instinct for protection that the older children feel for the younger.

Strengths of the prius include the healthy meals, structured schedules, and loving caregivers that, despite being grossly underpaid, attempt to provide stability and a measure of permanence. Included in Tales of Priut Almus are black and white photographs of many of the children: heartbreaking faces that display innocence and hope even in their tired eyes. To start this book, one should examine the photos first, as they make the connection to his observations more personal.

An absorbing read, I did find a few distractions. One was a large number of typos that should have been caught on an editorial level. These were especially noticeable in the second portion of the book but rare in the first half. I’m not sure how that came about, but it gave an amateur feel to the book despite the high credentials of its author. Given his devotion to this cause, making a number of trips over ten years at his expense, I can’t help but wish his information was presented better.  At other times, his commentary rambled and seemed repetitive, with small details that weren't always necessary.

The other thing that bugged me was a particular word choice he used. He describes the emotional needs of the children as well as the physical needs. “…not touching a needy child is also a form of child abuse. Children such as those who live in Almus must be touched-their hair must be brushed, they must be allowed to sit on one’s lap and they must be embraced as the occasion warrants, with honesty, warmth, safety, and sensuality.” I was agreeing with him until he arrived at “sensuality”. He repeats it and tries to clarify that he doesn’t mean sexuality, but I can’t find a synonym for sensual that doesn’t imply gratification on a sexual level. I understand what he’s trying to get across, but again, I think on an editorial level this word could have been removed and replaced with a more neutral choice. As it was, his phrasing sort of haunted me throughout the rest of the book and made me realize just how vulnerable children in this situation would be.

Belensky clearly knows how to advocate for children, and his insights into the structure and how it works successfully is a valuable tool in assessing other shelters and systems.  Not jumping in to change or alter the system, but rather neutrally observing makes both the children and staff comfortable in airing their concerns. 

Thanks to Kevin Gray of IUniverse for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Modern Ruins, Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region, Shaun O'Boyle photographer


I have a thing for rustic windows, and things that somehow return to their organic, rustic origin. All the artificial colors and signage seems to disappear, and the primeval elements of metal and stone are revealed. This of course is especially subtle in black and white photos, that make these structures somehow elegant and lovely.

Sure, I'd hate to have miles of these abandoned structures out my window or on my commute. But in their photos, O'Boyle takes them out of the 'real world' and into a more unique frame of thought. It's like looking at old headstones and realizing two things: the representation of what once was alive, and the way the passage of time creates something new and yet still alive (rust, decay, encroaching plants).

Bethlehem Steel interior
The most impressive are the ones showing exterior windows, some clinging to just a few shards of glass. And interior photos from Bethlehem Steel, monsterous open spaces surrounded by stick trusses and steel posts look as ghostly and haunted as you'd imagine. In some photos, the small paned windows look more like the bars in jail cells...did the former workers symbolically escape when the factories closed? In fact, the Eastern State Penitentiary are especially poignant, with the frames of old metal cots under elegant barrel-rolled ceilings.

Northampton State mental hospital

 Having spent years in architecture, I appreciate the unique style and efforts that went into the most mundane of buildings-moldings, pediments, trim...things that modern construction eliminates due to costs. The Northamptom State mental hospital is especially elegant, eyebrow arches, miles of deep crown molding and panel trim makes the abandoned interior look more elegant than many McMansions today.

Insightful essays are inserted that discuss what the decay symbolizes in view of modern times.  Photography fans would love this coffee-table style book...

Special thanks to Penn State University Press for the Review Copy.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Eastern European Challenge update, quiz, and need opinions!

We've hit 62 participants in 20 countries, including China!  Woo-hoo!  If you are looking for titles/authors, check the upper tab-it has links to books submitted as suggestions by several participants, and there's another link for reviews.  It would be great to get participants from South America and/or Africa to fill out the map.

One question came up-should pre-1989 work by East German authors or literature be considered since, technically, it was part of Eastern Europe then?  (Yes, this bunch is a bit OCD!  LOL).  I say it could, but if anyone thinks it shouldn't, throw in your thoughts.

Also, someone brought up Macedonia...For some reason I thought that was more related to Greece, Armenia, and Turkey than Eastern Europe.  I checked two sources online and one included it in EE, another didn't.  Any thoughts?

On that note, how about a game?  Just for fun, if you are bored on this gorgeous day, print out the blank Eastern Europe map at this link, and fill in what countries you know.  Test your geography skills!  It may contain more than just our selected region, but see how many you know.
Then, check your answers at

As always, please share the Challenge with any who may be interested.  Cut and paste the picture above if you wish.  After all, Salon magazine's Laura Miller mentioned it in her column, so she must have heard it from one of would NOT believe the hits my stats page showed after that appeared.

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Citizen Machine by Anna McCarthy (nonfiction)

Everyone knows the television is going downhill fast, right? Surely we can look at this week’s episode of Jersey Shore (please don’t make me!) that set a record for MTV viewership and know that quality isn’t exactly easily found in television programming today. So, should we get nostalgic and remember the old days of TV, where we imagine it was more beneficial and innocent back when the family crowded around the massive console?

Or, consider how worked-up parents get when their children’s television show/babysitter is interrupted with commercials selling cheap toys and junk food. Haven’t you heard many parents reminisce about a time when a television show was simple and enjoyable and didn’t come with all sorts of corporate or merchandise tie-ins?

Wasn’t it the Goo Goo Dolls who said, “Reruns all become our history.” What if that history was wrong?

If I sound snarky, I am….this week I’m focusing on television. First, I got really rattled with the book Citizen Machine by Anna McCarthy (next week I’ll post about The Mind Snatchers). I’d been led by tradition and assumption to believe that the early days of television were more noble and family-oriented.  But this book relates that instead, it was simply a tool to manipulate viewers, much like a McDonald’s commercial that interrupts The Penguins of Madagascar. In fact, the way television was used as a means of advertising was actually worse, in that the content was designed around a specific agenda without a clear delineation of where the show ended and the commercial began. In this case, it was government and corporate policies that were subconsciously projected into the mindset (and television set) of the viewer, clearly designed to manipulate their viewpoint on everything from civil rights to labor unions.

As a means of delivering propaganda, the television was perfect. The novelty of its invention made people clamor to view it, with little thought to who and what was behind the productions they watched. Citizen Machine analyzes several examples, and I’m only going to touch on a few. Remember years ago when Chevron ran those ads about how they were placing (dumping) old pipeline into the ocean to create new habitats for fish? Who doesn’t love an aquarium, right? Those kinds of commercials are considered institutional advertising: a ploy to convince you that this big business isn’t just out for a profit but to help the world. In the early years, DuPont was one of the biggest forces in institutional advertising, needing to soften their image in a time that society was suspicious of large corporations.

In DuPont’s case, their image was especially tainted. Known for making a killing selling gunpowder and poison gas during WWI, it was discovered afterwards that they had defrauded the government despite huge profits. The DuPont family "were vocal supporters of the United States’ entry into World War I, although only one of them…would see combat”. They needed to boost their image, and began so with a radio program called The Cavalcade of America. Later, that turned into a television series of the same name. Along with GE, they created “anthology dramas” that appeared, on the surface, as a means of delivering classy content to its audience, but that constantly reminded the viewers that DuPont was providing it to them, “appearing as a civic entity donating cultural goods to viewers and asking only for their goodwill.”

Besides the programming itself, they inserted their slogan “Better things, for better living, through chemistry”. McCarthy then connects how, by aligning their corporate image with science, it added a level of superiority and legitimacy. Anything, in their case, to distract from their business image as a vicious monopoly. They also used the programming to perpetuate the power of the white, successful businessman and his loving nuclear family.

About that white businessman… DuPont did air an episode on their Cavalcade Theater called “Toward Tomorrow”, one that presented an inspirational tale of the rise of the successful black man and Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Ralph Bunche. Some viewers were shocked, while others were supportive. McCarthy quotes a letter from one viewer who makes sure she identifies her own race as white and who “requested that television ‘give us more all colored folks performances. It would be a good rebuttal for the crime they (those folks from that town in Miss) commit against us the white race’”. While this viewer was referring to a recent news event, her attitude towards blacks in general is implicit.

From this episode, one would imagine that DuPont scored a victory for blacks and civil rights too, as well as appearing culturally evolved. Actually, it fell flat. The majority of blacks who saw the episode thought it pandering and condescending (it was). They also quickly made the connection that while DuPont had promoted this episode, “company hiring policies did not reflect the image of social responsibility and racial outreach…” In fact, DuPont was actually investing in the South in order to save money on workers who demanded higher wages in the North, even contributing money to political organizations who opposed desegregation.

As seasoned viewers today, can it be said we would be able to catch on to such manipulation? It’s difficult to be sure, when corporations now spend millions on analysts and research experts who try and pull the strings to both our wallet and our emotions with their subtle techniques. McCarthy gives some insight to this in her Epilogue (which should have been its own chapter) where she ties together the modern trend of television experts who counsel viewers on self-improvement but only in one perceived direction.

McCarthy discusses reality television programming as well, but fortunately, her time on that is brief. There’s enough information in the media currently that dissects the trend without her needing to analyze it further. The strength of this book is seeing just how powerful corporations and organizations were and contemplate what and how things have changed, if at all. It’s then a short step to connect the concept to the early years of any new innovation. Well-researched and full of anecdotal details (she even researches the marginalia of notes taken in corporation meetings), it is full of information that gets a bit overwhelming at times. Part of me wished the chapters had been a bit shorter (there are only five) to be able to compartmentalize the massive amounts of information easier. In any case, the material is applicable to any reader, and would be an especially useful asset in a semiotics study on a high-school or college level.

Special thanks to Anne Sullivan and Melissa Nguyen of The New Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Devil's Share by Kris Farmen (literary fiction)

“Jack, she scolded, you take that old-time stuff way too seriously. Those days are long gone.”

So laments Jack’s mother after he’s ditched school, yet again, to explore the woods outside his family’s home in a small Alaskan town. Jack seems genetically disposed to adventure as his parents had homesteaded in the Wrangell Mountains before his birth. Now they were living in town, working regular jobs, because the Federal government and the Parks Service had moved residents out of the hills to create protected wild lands. Now, with college pending, Jack’s eager to hold off and spend a year back in those same mountains as a guide for a family friend who caters to the scientists and tourists who fly in to study the native plants or hunt.

Thus begins his quest, one that introduces him to an entirely different world that is hidden in the scenic vistas of snow-capped mountains and icy streams. His new boss flies him into the interior of the Yukon to his lodge, and Jack easily adapts to difficult work with the camp horses and maintaining the cabins. He learns to guide, track, and especially to get by on very few material comforts. To say he’s found his niche is an understatement. But it doesn’t last long, and a very different set of circumstances overtake him. Miles away from any communication or assistance, he has to navigate nature’s dangers as well as the surprising criminal element that hides within the park system.

In a place where a horse can fall into a glacier crevasse and a man has to keep track of how few bullets he has left for defense, anything can happen. And the fact that it wasn’t just the animals but savage humans he had to fear makes reading it tense and scary. And yet, Jack is no Boy Scout. The author, Kris Farmen, takes a risk by making his protagonist less than perfect. At times, he’s vicious and retaliatory. The risk pays off in a story that is far more believable than if Jack was a saint.

author Kris Farmen,
Scott Dickerson Photography
Clearly, this is a work of literary fiction, yet it has the elements of suspense that you’d find in a crime novel. I hit the second half of the book at about midnight, and there was no option for sleep after that. I could barely breathe as I stayed up and finished the book. The exhaustion the next day was worth it.
For one thing, the survival story of endless cold and dinners of furry animals (if there was to be any dinner at all) locked me into the story. As a reader, I felt incredibly wimpy to imagine that a person could do all this to survive when I can barely go without coffee without terrible consequences.

The character of Jack is complete: we know what he thinks, dreams about, hopes for, and regrets. We sense his loyalty and his morality even while we may be horrified at his actions. The details of the Alaskan regions are specific, as are the ways he kills, skins, and eats all sorts of prey.

My only real distraction in the novel has to do with the opinions of virtually every character against both the Federal government and the Canadian park service-at times I felt like there was too much commentary on the actions of both against private landowners in regard to public policy. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject when a family home could be taken forcibly, then used for the ranger’s use or to rent for tourists or even left empty to decay. So the repetition of the acrimony towards the government was a little tiresome, yet in the denouement, Farmen ties it together in a way that actually makes sense. Again, he takes the risk of letting the reader decide the issue, after showing both sides, and I think this sort of resolution again makes the story that much more captivating.

Special thanks to Carla Helfferich of McRoy & Blackburn for the Review Copy.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Suggest a Book Title for the Eastern European Reading Challenge

This is another 'placeholder' post, to be accessed from the Upper Left tab on TBSD's homepage.  If you know of titles that you want to share, please list them in the comments to this post and I'll move them up into the body of the post when I figure out how.

Please list author, title, and genre in your recommendations.

From Mediations:
Croatia: The Ministry of Pain, by Dubravka Ugresic, trans. Michael Henry Heim (lit fiction)

From Iza: two Hungarian authors Sandor Marai & Magda Szabo, Marek Krajewski, With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe by Henryk Sienkiewicz

From Damian:
Absinthe Magazine Europeana and volumes from Twisted Spoon Press, as well as Case Closed by Patrik Ouředník, Celestial Harmonies by Péter Esterházy, Hotel Europa Dumitru Tsepeneag

From Polish Outlander:
Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski (Poland), Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Maslowska (Poland), Poland by James A. Michener Madame by Antoni Libera (Poland), Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin (Poland), Against a Crimson Sky by James Conroyd Martin (Poland), Eva Underground by Dandi Daley Mackall (Poland), The Loves of Faustyna by Nina Fitzpatrick (Poland) ,The Good Soldier Svejk: and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hasek

From Boris:
Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, Life of Insects, by Victor Pelevin, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Danilo Kis, Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Naboko,v Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavic Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov The Winter Queen

From Christie:
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, ands Elif Batumen's Possessed.



Links to Your Reviews of Eastern European/Russian Titles

I'm using this page to try and connect the links to particpant blogs and those writing their own reviews for the challenge.  This page will be placed under the upper left tab (Eastern European Challenge) on the home page, so that if you are looking for reviews or links, check there.  This is a work-in-progress, hopefully by next week it'll be a place where you can come and put your link right in the comment box to this post.

Links will go here, soon:

From Daisy: Cold Snap: Bulgarian Stories


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Meeks by Julia Holmes

“Duly noted: the official exhortation to pursue one’s own happiness or be put to the task of generating happiness for others, or worse-to be not in the picture.”

Meeks is the first dystopian novel that I’ve ever read, and I’m glad I started the genre with an exceptionally good title. For in this imaginary world (if indeed it is imaginary rather than futuristic), nothing is as it seems. The complexities of life are narrowed down to the need for a good pale suit to woo in, and an appetite for lovely and varied cakes.

Two main characters alternate in the novel: Ben and Meeks. Ben is desperate to find a pale suit, because that’s what all the suitable bachelors wear in the city park, flirting with women and insuring their actual health and future by finding a wife. You see, there’s a unmarried man is either forced to become a civil servant (who can only wear gray smocks) or be killed. This desire to be married doesn’t appear to have anything to do with romance, instead it’s just a means to continue living and enjoying the sweets that the ladies provide in abundance. That, and the ability to wear lovely seasonal sweaters in pale colors (all the happy married men wear them prominently). But all Ben has is a cheap black suit, and despite his efforts, he can’t get a pale one. He resides temporarily in a home for bachelors, where suitable “manly” hobbies are assigned to the residents. His fear is tenable: “what if he was becoming, or had become, an unlovable man? What if the toxin of failure was already coursing through his veins, what if he was already stinking of defeat?"

The character of Meeks is a bit more complicated. He really doesn’t know who he is, and his namesake, Captain Meeks, is rather ambiguous. The city park boasts a statue of Captain Meeks, and his poster appears in certain city buildings. Is he a hero? Or is there an alternative reason? Our character Meeks appears to be something of a bum, one who insists that he’s helping the police in different investigations. Is he, or not? I don’t want to reveal spoilers, so I must word all of this carefully. Suffice to say, no character is typical. Are his police buddies sincere?

Julia Holmes
The environment around these characters is bizarre: the city park is home to most every function, and there’s little talk of life outside the park, or work, or even family activities. Women are rarely mentioned in terms of romance, only as mothers (who seem to only bear sons) or as dainty little things who pack luscious picnics for their chosen man. And then there’s the mints…it seems the citizens are all overly fond of the tiny foul-tasting mints made right there in town in less than appealing factories. Between candy and cakes, little else of nutrition is mentioned. In fact, throughout the book, it even appears that the only real places of color appear in the park-other locations tend to be dark, gray, and gritty.

So what’s it all about? Reading this with a mind to a review was difficult-I was trying too hard to find meaning. I tried another tack, to just enjoy the novelty, and that made the difference. You have to let go of the need for explanation and symmetry to fall into the story. That isn’t to say there are no undercurrents of meaning: at times I wondered if the mints were actually a commentary on the pharmaceutical industry that numbs people into stagnation. Then again, the focus on fluffy frostings and sweets, rather than the fruits that Ben craved, could be an illustration of society’s dependence on immediate pleasure and sensual appetites over moral fortitude. Even without a deeper meaning, the story holds your attention and the writing is original and crisp.

Special thanks to Jedediah Berry of Small Beer Press for the Review Copy.

Help Me Win a Nook? Pretty Please?

So here's the deal (you can do it too!):  Kirkus Reviews is doing a contest to write a "prediction" review as if it's Dec 2011 and you are reviewing publishing events of 2011 in past tense.  The instructions are on Facebook on their Kirkus Reviews site.

I wrote one, and the link to it is here:

I'm about 11th down on the list, and I really really want a Nook!  If you are so inclined, go to the link above and hit "LIKE" on my entry.  You don't have to, of course, but PRETTY PLEASE? 
You see how I need this, right?  Also, feel free to enter your own prediction/review.  It has to be 140 word intro with a 250 word review.  I chose the new title by Roger Rosenblatt Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Ecco, which is a non-fiction writing guide.  Thanks a bunch!!!

New Giveaway of The Last Brother...and previous winner!

Now, another giveaway!  Graywolf Press generously sent me an extra copy of The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, a work of translation to be released February 1, 2011.  This is not an ARC, it's a final copy, and the giveaway for it starts now and ends January 20, 2011.  US only (the next giveaway will be international, I promise!).  Rules are as follows: you must follow the blog and leave your name and contact info in the comments of this post.  You don't have to leave an email if you use GFC.  My review for the title will post Feb 1.  I'm sure it'll be great, because the 'wolves' at Graywolf take pride in their books.

Devin was selected by random generator to win the ARC of The Devotion of Suspect X...I am emailing him right now. He has 24 hours to return to me with an address or I pick another. Thanks for supporting the contest and please check this title out, even if you didn't win. It's just not 'any' mystery-the plot and procedurals are intriguing.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Salon magazine and Laura Miller

Today Laura Miller mentioned TBSD's Eastern European Challenge in her blog at Salon magazine here:

She lists quite a few challenges that look interesting, so if you are up for more, check it out. 

Additionally, regarding the Challenge, please leave comments for me or email me directly if you have some amazing titles to recommend.  Daisy has mentioned Cold Snap: Bulgarian Stories, and Chrissie recommended Under a  Cruel Star.  More titles are in the comments section of the sign-in sheet:  click on the upper tab on TBSD's homepage.  I'll try and start a page just for you to type in links to your own reviews or related websites...

Also, Solvi is looking for sci-fi novels for the challenge, especially ones that can downloaded from Audible...anyone?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tolstoy and Russia

"Ambivalence toward Tolstoy is new in Russia.

The Soviets planted him at the top of their literary pantheon, largely because of the radical philosophy he preached amid the early rumblings of the October Revolution. The publication of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” made Tolstoy so famous that one contemporary described him as Russia’s second czar. He used that position to rail against the church, as well as the police, the army, meat eating, private property and all forms of violence.

Lenin loved Tolstoy’s “pent-up hatred.” He anointed him “the mirror of the Russian Revolution,” ignoring his pacifism and belief in God. As the 50th anniversary of his death approached, the Central Committee of the Communist Party began preparing two years in advance, so a monument would be ready for unveiling. "

New York Times article on how Russia barely acknowledged the anniversary of the death of its most well-known author, and why...a fascinating theory on why:

The Sore Throat by Aaron Kunin, poetry

I'm not sure how old Aaron Kunin is, but even if I hadn't seen his author photo, I'd have guessed he was youngish...there's something about the words in this collection that feel youthful.  I'm guessing he's a bit of a punk.  Maybe the kid in the back row of the classroom, making smart remarks behind the teacher's back?

In any case, The Sore Throat has been an intriguing read.  He analyzes words in a way that twists them inside out, and the repetition of some words makes you look at them differently.  The same word can be read differently, and I'm not just talking about synonyms.  It's a feel of directness, and the collection almost feels like an accusation...there doesn't seem to be a divide between poet and reader.

For example, in "No Word, No Sign", he toys with what is a word.

everything I once was sure of seems wrong;
for what you do to my way of seeing,
so that I start to doubt my own eyes if
what my eyes report isn't just like what

I hear you say;  and for what you do to
my voice to keep it from talking, to keep down
every word somewhere where I can't remember
it:  for this, there's no word.  To me

you're like a machine without a purpose,
whose purpose is to cast doubt on every
idea that my mind is thinking, and
the end of every idea is you.

You, to me, are a kind of fault in the
mind, a complete system of bad habits,
a video that I keep seeing or a word
I keep saying (do I have a choice?), and

this word has no meaning, and anyway
it's not a word, for there's no
word that contains what you are....

There's an ambiguity here that feels like this could be a romantic poem or one filled with hate.  What "word" defines it as such? 

In "For Pleasure", a similar ambiguity or disconnectedness is he commiserating or insulting?

"Sigh no more," moron, sigh no more!
Let laughter have voice, for a change;
Let there be pleasure, let there be goodness;
Be kind, be kind, and be knowing!

Let like keep with like, and no more
Weeping;  let rats dance with rats and
Not be sorry;  let laughter last
Longer than weeping.

Rain Taxi magazine (Vol.15, No.3) had a review by Sumita Chakraborty that explained that Kunin uses only about 200 words in the entire collection, and that some of this is a nod to Ezra Pound.  I'm not familiar enough with Pound to have caught on to that, but I did notice the limited use of words and the repetition.  Maybe it's more an allusion to Mies van der Rohe, "Less is more."  I don't think it ever translates as cramped;  Kunin feels very comfortable within his own confines.  And the lack of the expansive verbosity that appears in some poetry makes this collection almost pop in it's brevity and forthrightness.  This is an intricate collection that is bold and unhesitant.  

Special thanks to Fence Books for the Review Copy.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Pushkin's Prose Stories

Russia:  2011 READ EAST selection

Pushkin is pretty much synonymous with Russian prose, and in the past I can only remember reading a short story or two.  This collection contains most of his famous short stories as well as a few unfinished tales.  While they were written in the early 1800's, the stories are timeless and reflect quite a knowledge of human nature.  "The Blizzard" and "The Postmaster" were both favorites of mine..."The Undertaker" was also amusing.  The subject matter seems to revolve around the either very wealthy or very poor in Russia, with detailed descriptions of high society in the times.  Russia hadn't yet seen many of the tragedies that would later occur, so the stories are not heavily involved in military accounts or political issues.  Instead, very simple stories about ordinary people fill the volume.

This would be a great introduction to Russian literature, especially in that the short stories are not as much of a committment as War and Peace or Anna Karenina.  He's very concise as well, and the short stories pack a punch.

Equally interesting is reading a brief biography of Pushkin...he was quite the ladies man!  That is, until he decided he wanted to seek and marry the most beautiful woman in Russia.  He found her, and pursued her, and after many years, ended up dying in a duel over her honor in 1837. 

Special thanks to Lisa Hayden for the gift of the book!  I wasn't able to find the exact copy online, so the photo is from a very similar collection.

Scandinavian Challenge ends...well-done!

Thanks to all who participated in the Scandinavian Reading Challenge for 2010.  We had 78 participants throughout the year, and I've heard from the following who completed the Challenge.  There may be more, and I apologize if I missed your name....

Bernadette from Australia
Barbara F
Solvi from Norway
Kathy D
Jose from Spain
Alistair from Scotland
Uriah from UK
Kenneth US (sorry to omit!)
and I'm nearly positive that Maxine and Karen M and Dorte completed it!

Thanks to all for particpating.  It appears, by rough estimation, that Hypothermia and The Ice Princess were among the favorite titles to be read.
My favorite was tied between To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell and The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson.

Now, I'm hoping you are all ready for Eastern Europe and Russia!  It'll be Vodka instead of Aquavit, and Volgas instead of Volvos, but still pretty chilly.  You'll all fit in just fine.  Thanks for playing!