The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

rise-and-fall-great-powersI know, it’s taken me forever to get to The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. What can I say, I was saving it for the perfect moment. The Imperfectionists is a hard book to follow, so I wanted to be in the right mood to give Rachman a little leg up. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers was a really good book, it wasn’t The Imperfectionists, but it was a solid read. Continue reading

Writers Between the Covers by Joni Rendon and Shannon McKenna Schmidt

writers-btwn-coversDo you secretly read the covers of gossipy magazines while standing in line at the grocery store, yet consider yourself too highbrow to actually buy one? Do you like to give the impression that you are a connoisseur of literary taste, but relish in the scandals of Hollywood’s stars? Then maybe Writers Between the Covers is just the book for you. It contains all the literary heavy hitters – Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy – as well as the writers we have come to expect with scandal – Woolfe, the Fitzgeralds and Mailer. It is the perfect mix of literary insight and salacious rumor mongering. Needless to say, Writers Between the Covers was right up my alley.

In Writers Between the Covers the authors have divided the book into many bites sized pieces, giving you short snippets of the indiscretions of various writers. Rather than reading the book sequentially, I tended to skip around a fair bit. I read the great poets (Browning, Byron, Dickenson) all at once, followed by feminists (Stein, de Beauvoire, Parker) and then scions of the lost generation (Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds). Although the book does include more men than women, the authors have made an effort to include as many women as possible. Could it be that men are just more scandalous than women?

Who would like this book? This book is for your literary connoisseur who also loves a good tidbit of gossip. Writers Between the Covers is not likely to change the readers perceptions of their favorite writers because what is written about, for the most part, tends to be well know secrets. However, the indiscretions chronicled do give good insight into the behind the scenes lives of famous writers and that in and of itself is rather fascinating.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

How To Read Novelist by John Freeman

HT-read-a-novelistQuite simply, How To Read A Novelist is a collection of articles based on author interviews by John Freeman, a well know literary critic. What makes the book remarkable is the sheer number of awesome authors he has interviewed. You name the writer, and I bet he or she is included here. There are those who you would expect like John Irving, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, but there are some more unlikely candidates as well, like Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer and Vikram Chandra. And then there were the writers I’d never eve heard of, like Imre Kertesz and Aleksandar Hemon. Overall the book contains more than 50 articles based on interviews with celebrated writers. Not bad.

My only quibble with the collection is the title: How To Read a Novelist. I found this to be misleading. The title made me think that the book was going to be a in depth breakdown of several writers’ works, not interviews. But title aside, it was a fascinating read.

Who would like this book? You know who you are. This book is meant for the individual who always flips to the arts section of the newspaper first to read about writers discussing their latest works. It is meant for the individual who does not just read books, but is interested in the process behind the work, the life of the writer and literary celebrity. It is for someone like me. It reminded me very much of Why We Write, which I reviewed earlier this year.

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

novel cureLooking for a great gift for the book lover in your life? Try The Novel Cure (and please go visit their brilliant website) The premise is quite simple really, for every ailment there is a cure, and quite often that cure can be a book. Of course, it has to be the right book for the ailment. That is what bibliotherapy is all about. What friends Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have done is catalog a wealth of ailments in the style of a medical dictionary, and then recommended at least one or more book to put the sufferer back on the mend.

In addition to being quite useful, The Novel Cure is also immensely amusing. They have cures for your run of the mill ills like constipation (Shantaram), they also include some more obscure ailments such as Being Very English and Chasing After A Woman Even Though She’s a Nun. As would be expected the authors include tried and true classics such as Great Expectation and Anna Karenina, which appears to be a cure-all of a book. But they have also listed a surprising number of newer works that have come out within the last year.

Who would like this book? This book is for your book loving hypochondriac. There is nothing so pleasing as sitting down and discovering that some of your favorite novels can help you deal with your aging parents (The Corrections and Family Matters). Book lovers love nothing more than reading about their favorite books and giving a knowing smile when they discover that they have indeed already read 7 of the ten books recommended to lower high blood pressure.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

bookstoreAgainst all odds I really liked The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler. Why do I say ‘against all odds’? Well, I sometimes think that books called something along the lines of The Bookstore are a bit of a gimmick. Take Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, as another example. Who’s going to buy books with titles like those? Why, people who frequent bookstores, of course. So you already have a built in audience and a pretty sound business plan.

Enough cynicism. When I started reading The Bookstore, I didn’t think I would like the story: Young graduate student gets knocked up by jerky older man. Depressing. But the truth is, I couldn’t put this novel down. That speaks to Meyler’s abilities as a great writer. Her prose and characters were gripping. Mitchell, the older man, was such a subtle jerk, watching Esme’s relationship with him unfold was a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I was begging for her to leave him and yet I could not look away as things progressed.

A thread of feminism ran throughout The Bookstore. I liked that because all too often feminism has become another sort of F-word, left unspoken in certain company but I think it is something we cannot become complacent about. Throughout the novel Esme seems to struggle with her own feminist conceptions. As an art history graduate student she is well versed in feminist theory but cannot seem to put that theory into action. The ‘male gaze’ is epitomized by Mitchell and yet she is almost unwilling to see that as a fault.

My one complaint about the novel were the occasional rants against Amazon and the rise of electronic reading. These targets are too easy, and let’s face it, regardless of our feelings about them they are part of the literary industry that is not going anywhere.

Who would like this book? Obviously this book is geared towards book lovers, so I am not even going to tread into that discussion. In correspondence to some discussion taking place out in the world these day, I would have to say that this book is decidedly ‘Women’s Fiction’. That is not a name I embrace, or that even interests me, but sometimes we have to give way to current trends. I call it ‘Women’s Fiction’ because it seem altogether too intelligent and well written to be lumped in with ‘Chick Lit’, and yet it is definitely a story about a woman that will appeal most to women. Overall, I think we may see some good things in the future for The Bookstore and Meyler.

* This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

why we writeHere I go again. Another book that I absolutely loved. Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran is a simple book, and that is the beauty of it. She took 20 well known authors both of fiction and non-fiction, commercial writers and literary writers (Ann Patchett,Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis etc.) and asked them one simple question: Why do you write? The answers are all slightly different but drift back towards one truth: writers write because they can’t not write. As a notable aside, a portion of the sales goes to 826 National, a youth literacy program started by Dave Eggers.

Each chapters focuses on one writer. It starts with a short excerpt from their most recent work, follows with some background material, before breaking into a section called The Vitals which includes date of birth, hometown, day job, awards and notable notes. The Vitals was  in fact one of my favorite things about the layout of the book – a quick snapshot of the person you were dealing with. Not surprisingly, the next section listed the writer’s collected works. Finally we get to the bulk of the chapter in which the writers answers why they write. This section is written in a very casual, conversational way. Often other questions from Maran are interspersed in the narrative. The final color-blocked portion is Wisdom for Writers, in which these famed writers distill what they have learned about writing into three or four bullet points.

One of the reasons I liked Why We Write so much is because it granted me access to a unique club and made me feel as though I belonged there. It is certainly nice to know that blockbuster author David Baldacci, Pultizer prize winner Jennifer Egan and I all write for the same reasons. I also appreciated knowing that I shared some key characteristics with Michael Lewis (late night writing) and Susan Orlean (love of researching). Above all, Why We Write inspired me to keep doing what I am doing, and that feels good.

Who would like this book? This book is for the person in your life who loves reading, loves writing and loves reading about writing. I also think it would be perfect as a graduation present for the right person. If only someone had encouraged me when I was younger instead of telling me there is no money in writing, then I might be somewhere else right now. It is an easy read, but it is an enlightening read.

My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force

idealbookshelfFull disclosure – I already own one of Jane Mount’s fabulous prints. It is one of my prized possessions (take a look). So it should come as no surprise that I love My Ideal Bookshelf, an illustrated book dedicated to the ideal bookshelves of significant producers of arts and culture. I received this book for Christmas and spent most of the day slowly flipping through the pages, peaking at the ideal bookshelves of luminaries such as Judd Apatow, Michael Chabon and Alice Waters. I must admit that part of the appeal of My Ideal Bookshelf is the slightly voyeuristic nature of the endeavour. It is thrilling to see that Chabon is also a fan of Proust and that my ideal bookshelf resembles that of a book cover designer who I had never heard of!

Each contributor has also written a small piece discussing their choices. This makes for some pretty fascinating reading and has made my reading list grow with authors I have never heard of before as well as perennial favorites who I am embarrassed to say I have never read. Taken as a whole the book is revealing about what people read and why. Hemingway seems to be more widely represented than any other writer. The Great Gatsby is on many a list. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is favoured over The Corrections.

Who would like this book? Do I really need to answer this? I thought not. It goes without saying that My Ideal Bookshelf is meant for the book fetishist. So go ahead, covet this book. It’s worth it.