Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Bat in the Belfry (A Home Repair is Homicide Mystery), by Sarah Graves


A Bat in the Belfry
A Home Repair is Homicide Mystery
Author: Sarah Graves
Publisher: Bantam (Random House Publishing) 
Publication Date: April 30, 2013 


I've only read one other book in Sarah Graves' "Home Repair is Homicide" series, Wreck the Halls, and that was so long ago I don't remember anything about it. I vaguely remember liking it, but based on my review (written before I had a book blog, back when I just jotted down my thoughts on the books I'd read in a little notebook on my night stand), I did not.

Still, after several weeks of increasingly depressing reads, I was all set for a nice cozy mystery. The problem was that this one was a little darker than I had hoped, opening with a young teenaged girl being bound and murdered in the church belfry. Eesh. But it wasn't quite tense enough to be a thriller either, so it was sort of in between "cozy" and "gruesome." 


I found the book--particularly the first few chapters--to be needlessly confusing because the author kept switching perspectives from character to character. It took me much longer than it should have to even figure out who the star of the book was (like I said, I didn't remember much from the other book in the series that I had read).

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Publication Date: March 21, 2013
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a novel about novel writing. Well actually it's a series of stories about novel writing. It's sort of an impressionist painting with words instead of spots of paint--ah! spots!--that creates a meta novel.

It's not an easy book to categorize but ti did remind me of several other books I had read before. It was less direct than Ben Brooks' Grow Up, not quite as fantastical as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, and--I hate to say it--probably not as memorable as John Irving's The World According to Garp

But it was sufficiently clever if a bit infuriating at times. Just tell me what happens! I wanted to shout. By the end, however, I was glad I had stuck with it. The ending provides a synchronicity that makes it almost like a framed narrative but not quite. An unframed narrative perhaps?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

So Cool Sunday: Entire text of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as a single poster

It may be a little hard to see, but this is the entire text of the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone printed as a single page poster, from Spineless Classics. They also have other classics from Jane Austen, Shakespeare and more. So cool!

Hit the jump to see a larger, hi-res version of the poster.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Shakespeare Roundup: What I Learned from Cymbeline

My Shakespeare Year is back on track (I'm all caught up!). One of the plays I read recently was the little-known Cymbeline (SPOILER ALERT: Cymbeline is a boy's name. Yeah, I didn't see that coming.)
Penguin Shakespeare

Cymbeline is a lot of stories wrapped up into one. It's like Snow White meets, like, five other Shakespeare plays. It starts out with a king, Cymbeline (wait, Cymbeline's not a girl?) worried about his empire, hoping to marry his daughter off to the son of his second wife (who plays up the whole "wicked stepmother" angle to a tee, manipulating the situation to her son's advantage as much as she can, but then devolving into pettiness and even poison because, well, why not?). The daughter, Imogen (not Cymbeline, even though it totally sounds like a girl's name), is already in love and married to her father's ally, Posthumus Leonatus (a name given to him after his father, Leonatus, died...hence "posthumously"...ugh) and so they have the whole "star-crossed lovers" thing going on, which results in them being separated and Posthumus (okay, had Shakespeare just given up when he wrote that name?) being subjected to all kinds of doubts about his bride's fidelity. This results in hilarious death threats.

In the beginning, Cymbeline is a combination of Othello, King LearRomeo and Juliet, and maybe a little of The Merchant of Venice. Plus, of course, fairy tales like Snow White or Cinderella. Imogen even has to disguise herself as a man and takes poison from her stepmother...sort of.

Then BOOM! Beheading! What the what? I did NOT see that coming.

After that the whole play gets messy. Not "bloody" messy so much as muddled. There's a war, long lost sons, death threats both made and revoked, a dead queen (but nobody liked her apparently) and a supposed "happy ending" except that it's weird that anyone would be happy after all of that. 

Oh and there are ghosts and an appearance by the god Jupiter. But that does lead to the play's best moment, when Jupiter says, "Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline" and then ascends (to his crystal palace I assume) and shortly after everyone on stage says in unison, "Thanks Jupiter!" 

That's Saturday morning cartoon gold right there.
via

Shakespeare Roundup: I finally re-read Julius Caesar!


From my Shakespeare blog...what I learned from Julius Caesar (Hint: It's less than I learned in high school):

I finally finished Julius Caesar...again. Technically, I suppose I could have skipped it altogether, considering I definitely read it in high school so I don't need to read it again in order to check it off my list. But I didn't like the idea of skipping over plays just because I had read them before. It seemed not to fit the spirit of the project.

So what did I learn the second time around? Probably less than I did the first time, back when I had weeks of class discussions, handouts, additional reading and a teacher explaining everything to me line by line. But I did learn that Julius Caesar has a LOT of great dialogue and that it is impossible to go through life without having heard at least some of it (Et tu, Brute? Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...Beware the Ides of March...).

I also learned that if Caesar had just listened to his wife none of this would have happened. She TOLD him it was a bad idea for him to go out that day. But did he listen? NOOoooo. And look where it got him.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

You Got to Be Kidding! The Cultural Arsonist's Literal Reading of The Bible, by Joe Wenke

You Got to Be Kidding!
The Cultural Arsonist's Literal Reading of The Bible
(also published as You Got to Be Kidding! The Cultural Arsonist's Satirical Reading of The Bible)
Author: Joe Wenke
Publisher: Trans Uber
Publication Date: September 26, 2012
I'm not sure what a "cultural arsonist" is, but this book is pretty funny. It's not, in case you were wondering, "serious scholarship." A lot of other reviewers seemed to be all up in arms because they were "serious biblical scholars" and they felt Joe Wenke just wasn't up to the task. He's not trying to be up to that task. He's being facetious, half-serious. He's pointing out the ways in which a literal reading of the bible would lead to absurdity (think A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically). 

But he's not, I don't think, trying to be farcical or even deliberately offensive (a lot of reviewers accused him of that too). He makes some excellent points. If you've carefully read the bible and haven't had some of these same questions, I'd like to know why not quite frankly! 

Honestly, my biggest complaint wasn't with the content or the subject matter but with the font choices. The digital copy I had seemed to have about ten different font types and sizes, sometimes switching within the same word. It was beyond distracting. I'm guessing I must have just gotten a corrupted file or something (it was sent to me by the publisher through Net Galley) because the preview on Amazon looked completely fine. I usually email the publishers when things like this happen, but sometimes it can take a while to hear back from them. So I'll just assume it was a problem with the file I received and not a quirk of the book itself.


Digital Wildlife Photography, by John and Barbara Gerlach


Digital Wildlife Photography
Authors: John and Barbara Gerlach
Publisher: Focal Press
Publication Date: November 14, 2012
Boy, if there was ever a book that needed a subtitle, it's this one! I thought it was a book OF wildlife photography, not a book ABOUT wildlife photography! It's my fault for not reading the description better. I was really looking forward to some beautiful, high-res photos of wildlife, like what's on the cover. Instead it's a book about how to get the most out of your digital camera when trying to take pictures like that on your own. So disappointed!

That's not to say that YOU'LL be disappointed because now that you know what the book is about, it might be exactly the book you're looking for. Unless you're looking for a coffee table style book of glossy animal pictures, in which case you will be disappointed (but don't say I didn't warn you). Here are some of the topics covered in the book:

  • Cameras and Accessories: The Best Wildlife Camera Systems
  • Choosing and Using Lenses: Selecting Quality Lenses
  • Exposure Strategies
  • Precise Focusing Techniques
  • Shooting Quality Images
  • The Crucial Role of Light
  • Composition
  • Electronic Flash
  • Getting Close to Wildlife

Not covered: Adorable little lambs jumping over their mothers. For those photos, you should really check out the Flickr stream of photographer Roeselien Raimond. She has nothing to do with this book, but she took this photo. Look! It's a leaping lamb!
Photo by: Roeselien Raimond
It's not in the book. It has nothing to do with the book. It's just an awesome photo.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dear Lucy, by Julie Sarkissian


Dear Lucy
Author: Julie Sarkissian 
Publisher: Simon and Schuster 
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
 It's a real testament to how much I loved this book that I couldn't even begin to write my review until a few days after I had finished it. I needed time to let the book sit, to let it breathe. I needed to mull over the story I had read, contemplate the characters. Honestly, it's what all reading should be like. Unfortunately, I've had a rough couple of weeks here at Cozy Little Book Journal and I've been reading far too many books that have left me feeling flat, discouraged or just plain annoyed. Thank goodness for Julie Sarkissian!

Dear Lucy is a story told in a series of first-person narratives, primarily from three characters: Lucy, a developmentally challenged teenager who is sent to live on a farm when her mother finds her overwhelming; Samantha, a pregnant teen with few confidants; and Missus, one half of the mysterious couple who runs the farm. Each character tells her version of events, but each has difficulty judging her situation objectively (don't we all?).


I fell in love with the character of Lucy instantly. She is sweet and sincere and her narrative voice is fully realized and believable. The comparisons to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are warranted. As Lucy struggles to please the people in her life, the reader is able to decode the signals that Lucy isn't. Namely, that her mother ("Mum mum") may not be up to the task of raising a child--with or without special needs--that Samantha isn't being completely honest with her about the father of her baby, and that Lucy's trust in people is often misplaced. In fact, Lucy's naïveté often made me feel tense as I was reading, so convinced was I that something awful was bound to happen to her at any moment.

Julie Sarkissian's stunning debut reminded me of many other books I had read and loved (some of which are listed below), but it was also unlike any other book I had encountered. It's like a very familiar one-of-a-kind, if that makes any sense. It's certainly a story that will linger with me.

Just a note on some of the other comparisons the book has attracted: I have read Emma Donoghue's Room and, while I agree that it was well-written and I understand why people have compared this book to it, I personally found Dear Lucy MUCH LESS TRAUMATIC to read. This book had a sweetness that was not overshadowed by the dangers (or potential dangers) the characters faced, something I could not say for Room. I would draw the comparison instead to Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English or Matthew Dicks' Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. In any case, it doesn't matter, because Dear Lucy is a unique story all its own and I highly (HIGHLY) recommend it.


Farmyard Knits, by Fiona Goble




Farmyard Knits
Author: Fiona Goble
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
WOW! Can I do this? Like, right now? Look at all the little farm animals she made! Look at the l'il tractor! OMG! Honestly, I don't think I'm ready to make any of these since I just started knitting, like, a second ago. But I think I'm going to try to get better so I can work towards this!

The book shows you how to make everything shown on the cover (including the tractor!), which you can then use as toys or as set pieces for little farm scenes. There is a warning at the beginning of the book saying that the projects described are not intended to be used as toys for small children, something about small parts and choking and what have you. So maybe technically they're supposed to be used in the latter capacity. (BUT JUST TRY TO STOP ME FROM PLAYING WITH THEM!)

Oh you know what it would be great for? Illustrating a children's book about farm animals! OMG I HAVE TO GET BETTER AT KNITTING RIGHT NOW!!

Keep reading to see more pictures from inside the book, including the knit animals in action.

Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom, by Daphne J. Fairbairn

Odd Couples
Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom
Author: Daphne J. Fairbairn
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: April 28, 2013
I think the problem with this book is that it is a scientific paper trying to be a commercial book with wide mainstream appeal. As a result, it's neither. The author acknowledges that she tried to reach a broader audience by limiting the scientific jargon--which resulted in over a hundred pages of notes, appendices, glossaries and charts in the back of the book--but she doesn't seem to understand what she could have added to the book to give it more lay appeal. There are almost no photos or illustrations in the book see update below (but lots of charts! charts everywhere!), and the ones that are included are mostly line drawings of sea creatures (I think I saw an octopus penis but, honestly, I'm not even sure). Where are the photos?* As a lay person, I was disappointed.

It's not that I couldn't follow along with the science of the book. My first year as an undergraduate was spent as a biology major. So I have some background. Some, but not a lot (as you may have guessed, I switched majors pretty early on). But the thing is, am I the target audience? I felt like anyone with less knowledge of biology would be lost (I was straining at times) and anyone with more (like a biologist) would find the book too "dumbed down." As for me, I was a little bored. I really wanted the glossy pictures of the male and female elephant seals or some high-res shots of those "female tubeworms with harems of minuscule males" I was so excited about.

Just know what you're getting into. I'm not saying the book is terrible. But it is NOT a coffee table book, if that's what you're hoping for.


*UPDATE: I was contacted by the author who assured me that the finished book does, in fact, contain full colour photos. She even sent me a few to look at. It really does make a big difference. It's always hard to know which things will be different in the final copy of a book, compared to the advanced digital galley, but I really wish the galley had better indicated what the photo spread would be like. I do, however, stand by my initial assessment of the tone of the book. But photos help a lot.

**UPDATE UPDATE: The author had her publisher send me a finished print copy of the book. While that was very nice of her, it didn't make that big a difference. There are fewer pictures than I thought there'd be (STILL!) and they're mostly of the walruses. Meh. I'm thinking it'll be a future giveaway or else I'll donate it to my library.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table, with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist

Bread and Wine:
A Love Letter to Life Around the Table, with recipes
Author: Shauna Niequist
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Finally! Someone who GETS it! As much as I love, love, love those glossy cookbooks with gorgeous pictures of food and home decor that looks like it came right off of Pinterest, the truth is those are ALL KINDS of intimidating. I can't get mine to look like that. Would people eat it if I did? My house is too messy to invite people over anyway. Besides, all of that looks so fattening...

Shauna Niequist knows all that. She thinks the same things. And you know what? She says DO IT ANYWAY! Enjoy food. Enjoy those moments in your life when food memories are made. Food is an essential part of our lives, not just because we need to eat to live, but because so many of our family and social memories are tied up in food. Yes, food and entertaining can cause anxiety and guilt, especially in women, but we can't let that take away all our wonderful experiences with food and loved ones. 

In a lot of ways this book was a healing journey for me. I have had all of the same fears and anxieties as the author (I was particularly affected by the chapter about having a house that is too messy, too small, or too unfinished to entertain...but doing it anyway) but I also miss having that wonderful, positive relationship with food, particularly with sharing food with friends and family. Shauna Niequist really inspired me!

Point Your Face at This: Drawings, by Demetri Martin

Point Your Face at This:
Drawings
Author: Demetri Martin
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: March 19, 2013
I think the copy I got from Net Galley must have been one of those "uncorrected proofs" that reviewers often get. Usually that just means there may or may not be a typo here or there, or the table of contents is blank or something like that. Rarely does it actually mean that the content of the book is vastly different from what the finished product will look like. But in this case, I can only assume that the final product will be quite different. Many of the drawings were repeated (sometimes more than once), some didn't have captions (and therefore made no sense), some were repeated with different captions. It was odd. But again, I can only assume that this was an uncorrected proof and that the final book won't be like this.

Having said that, the drawings that I did see were a little disappointing. I'm a fan of Demetri Martin (my partner Mike is a HUGE fan) and I've enjoyed his TV specials and his short-running show, "Important Things With Demetri Martin." He often does sketchpad humour, in which he draws simple line drawings and makes jokes, either by changing the sketches slightly or by making funny observations about them. He's a funny guy. That's why I thought I'd like this book.

And I did like it. Mostly. A lot of the jokes seemed a little bitter, like they were coming from someone who had just been through an ugly divorce. So that was weird.

Overall it was okay. But not more than that. Shame.


Sinatra and Me: The Very Good Years, by Tony Consiglio and Franz Douskey (narrated by Norman Dietz)

Sinatra and Me
The Very Good Years
Authors: Tony Consiglio and Franz Douskey
Audiobook Narrator: Norman Dietz
Publisher: Tantor Media
Publication Date: November 13, 2012
Buy Now on Amazon.com paperback kindle audio
Buy Now on Amazon.ca paperback kindle audio 
The best and worst thing about an audiobook is that the narration very much affects your enjoyment of the book. And the best and worst thing about a review of an audiobook is that it very much takes the narration into account when discussing the book. Some books are only made better by great narration. Sadly, my experience has been that this is rare. Usually the best an audiobook can hope for is to not ruin the book for the listener with narration that is uneven, filled with weird accent choices, delivered too fast or too slow, read at an odd pitch, or just otherwise odd. This, in my experience, is far too common.

Take, for example, the case of Sinatra and Me: The Very Good Years, by Tony Consiglio and Franz Douskey. It's plenty interesting. It's a memoir of Sinatra's life as told by one of his oldest and closest friends, Tony Consiglio. It's also an audiobook narrated by Norman Dietz. It's the last bit that's the problem.

There's a fine line between bringing a story to life by imitating the voice and cadence of the author (or the subject), and turning your narration into a stereotyped-filled caricature. Actually it's not that fine a line. I felt like I was listening to Jackie Mason as Rabbi Krustofski.

Monday, April 22, 2013

In the Tree House, by Andrew Larsen (illustrated by Dušan Petričić)

In the Tree House
Author: Andrew Larsen
Illustrator: Dušan Petričić
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
In the Tree House was not what I expected. I had previously been rather hard on artist Dušan Petričić after he illustrated a new edition of Robert Munsch's Mud Puddle. (It wasn't that it was bad, I was just partial to the original drawings by Sami Suomalainen.) But this book could not have been more different. The illustrations reminded me of a cross between Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and Pat Shewchuk's In Lucia's Neighborhood (illustrated by Marek Colek). They are lush and textured and rich and simple, all at once. My partner and I enjoyed reading this to our three-year-old as much as she enjoyed hearing it.

The story is very sweet, and also struck a chord with me as an adult, as much as it did with my child. It's about a boy who lives in a city (or well-lit town or suburb) and dreams of building a tree house and gazing up at the stars in the night sky. The latter dream may not be possible, since the street lights in his neighbourhood make it difficult to see any stars, but he does get to build the tree house, with the help of his dad and his brother. The story is about their relationship with each other, the neighbourhood and the night sky, as much as it is about the tree house.

In the Tree House made me nostalgic for my own childhood, which included stars, tree houses and older siblings who grew up so much faster than I did. My daughter liked this book, but I loved it.

Canada's Road: A Journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John's to Victoria, by Mark Richardson

Canada's Road:
A Journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John's to Victoria
Author: Mark Richardson
Publisher: Dundurn
Publication Date: April 1, 2013

It's not often I get to say this about a book, let alone say it and mean it as a compliment, but this book was exactly what I expected. I hoped, based on the cover and description, that this would be a travel memoir about driving across country on the Trans-Canada Highway ("the TCH"),an informative book about the history of the road and the country, with a few pictures and colourful anecdotes thrown in. I hoped it would make me want to travel the TCH myself, or at least feel like I had. I was even hoping it would make me feel more Canadian somehow, and that I would learn a thing or two. Honestly, it was all of those things. Mark Richardson delivered exactly what I was hoping for in this book and the only thing I regret is that I only have the ebook edition instead a coffee table book hardcover (does it come in that? I couldn't tell based on the Amazon product page).

Plus, he's from Cobourg, Ontario, home Alan Bradley, creator of everyone's favourite chemistry-obsessed preteen amateur sleuth, Flavia de Luce. So bonus points for that! 

You can also read more about Mark's journey cross country here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

So Cool Sunday: Awwwwwww! The Library Proposal

Jason and Molly got engaged at the Chicago Public Library. Awwww.
So sweet! Jason Methner, a 31-year-old Chicago advertising executive, proposed to his girlfriend, 27-year-old Molly Lipsitz, in the Chicago Public Library last month. 

But that's not all. He went so far as to make a book, titled A Hare-y Tale, illustrated by his friend Yoni Limor, about the couple's 4½-year relationship (Molly's nickname is "Bunny" because of her favourite childhood stuffed rabbit toy). He then had the bound volume placed among the "new arrivals" for his girlfriend to find.

Jason even thought to have professional photographer Aparna Paul Jain on hand to capture the surprise moment. Good thing she said yes!

So Cool!

(via thestar.com)

WIN A COPY of Joe the Monkey Saves for a Goal, by John Lanza!

Have you been trying to think of ways to talk to your child about money? If so, I highly recommend the Money Mammals series by John Lanza. I've previously reviewed two books in the series: Joe the Monkey Learns to Share and Joe the Monkey Saves for a Goal. Both were fantastic and really inspired my three-year-old, Magda, to start her own "3-Jar" system to manage her allowance and birthday money. She now has jars labelled "Spend," "Save," and "Share" (plus a fourth one labelled "Invest" for money that goes right into the bank).

Now the author is pairing up with Cozy Little Book Journal and The Bookish Elf to give you a chance to win a copy of the first book in the series, Joe the Monkey Saves for a Goal

Use the widget below to enter. Contest runs until Sunday, May 12, 2013 (which is Mother's Day!). Also, continue reading to see pictures of Magda's Spend-Share-Save-Invest jars!

UPDATE: THIS CONTEST HAS BEEN EXTENDED UNTIL MAY 31st! Click here to enter!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Helene Wecker, author of "The Golem and the Jinni"

Earlier this week I reviewed The Golem and the Jinni, the debut novel by Helene Wecker. It's a lovely and magical novel, and I really can't say enough good things about it. But here, I'll let the author speak for herself. Check out this interview with Helene Wecker, courtesy of HarperCollins.

Helene Wecker
Q.: How did the idea for your novel originate?

When I was a writing student at Columbia, I started writing a series of short stories that combined tales from my family and from my husband’s family. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and so in that sense we come from two different (and, in many eyes, opposing) cultures. But I’ve always been struck by the similarities between our families, the way that certain themes echo between them. We’re both the children of immigrants, with all that entails. As a result my husband and I both grew up in suburban, picket-fence America—but with the intimate and sometimes uncomfortable burden of another place’s history, and the complications of living as a cultural minority, which affects our relationships with those we love and those we meet.

In any case, I was writing these stories, but I wasn’t having much luck with them. One day I was complaining about it to a friend. She suggested I try something different. She knew I loved stores that used elements of the fantastical, and was surprised I never wrote like that. By the end of the conversation, the seed had been planted. Instead of two families of different cultures meeting and interacting, I now had two supernatural characters: a golem and a jinni. And somehow it seemed likeliest that these two would meet in New York in the late 1800s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe and Syria were coming to America in droves.

Q.: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?

I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague or Frankenstein’s monster. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human,” and brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite.


NYC circa 1899, from helenewecker.com

Q.: Your male jinni Ahmad arrives in turn of the century NYC's Little Syria neighborhood (now Lower Manhattan) from inside an old Syrian copper vase. How is your Jinni different or similar to those of legend? From the Book of One Thousand and One Nights, and the TV show "I Dream of Jeannie," we have some preconceived ideas about what a jinni is. When you were writing his character, what were you thinking about getting across to the reader?

I started out on less certain footing with the Jinni than with the Golem. I didn’t realize until I started researching the jinn how much they are an everyday truth for many in the modern Middle East and the Muslim world, and I wanted to be respectful of that. But I also realized that a Western audience would be more familiar with the Thousand and One Nights and pop culture versions. In the end, I kept coming back to the idea of a creature created from fire, and how that might translate to his personality: impulsive, passionate, dazzling, dangerous. It struck me that such a creature would have a very hard time camouflaging himself in New York society.

Q.: You decided to give your golem and jinni free will and fairly strong-willed personalities, even though they are both bound to masters. How did you come to this decision, and what are the consequences? 

Funny enough, it was never really a decision. I think their strong personalities came about because they’re both bound and limited, and forced to live in a state that isn’t quite natural to either of them. I knew the interesting stuff would happen when they came up against those limitations. As for the consequences, it meant that they’re constantly arguing!
Prague golem reproduction (Wiki Commons)

Q.: Besides the main characters, who else was the most fun to write?

It’s hard to choose, but I think Saleh was my favorite supporting character to write. He was a huge surprise to me. I was researching Little Syria, and I found an article in the New-York Daily Tribune written in 1892. One of the illustrations was of a man in a turban, sitting in front of a wooden churn. The caption was “An Ice-Cream Seller.” I thought, who is that guy? And suddenly I knew. I wrote his backstory in one long, frenzied session. It felt like an unlooked-for gift. I grew very attached to Saleh – he’s such a great curmudgeon.

Q.: In writing and researching this novel, what most surprised you?

One thing that surprised me quite a bit, and shouldn’t have, was the diversity of Jewish religion and philosophy at the turn of the century. It’s far too easy to think of past peoples as monolithic, and the past as “a simpler time,” when of course it was anything but. I hadn’t realized the extent of the Socialist movement in the Jewish community, or the vehement variety of opinions on the budding Zionist movement. They probably tried to teach me all this at Sunday school, but I was too busy reading Dragonlance novels in the back.

Q.: What makes your novel relevant today?

Over and over, my research told me that the concerns and dilemmas of 1900s-era New Yorkers would be very familiar to the modern reader. They worried about multiculturalism and globalism, the tensions between science and religion, between tradition and assimilation. It became clear to me that we have always been finding and losing our faiths; we have always struggled to defend or flaunt propriety, to follow or ignore the dictates of our hearts. And apparently folklore and fantasy can still capture the modern reader—at least, if the continuing proliferation of vampires, werewolves, and the like is any indication. They’re our own all-too human urges and struggles, embodied and made explicit.


Hungarian stamp representing a jinni
from the One Thousand and One Nights.
(from WikiCommons)
Q.: What writers and their works have had the most influence on you?

The first name that always springs to mind is Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay came at a very crucial time for me. I was in my early 20s and miserable, working in communications and PR, and I hadn't yet internalized that I had no future in the field. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was little, but to me it was kind of like saying "I want to be an astronaut"--it wasn't something a person could just up and do. When I read Kavalier and Clay, it felt like Chabon had written it specifically for me. Looking back, I think it woke up that petrified desire to write my own stories. Neil Gaiman was also a huge influence, especially American Gods. More recently, A.S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel, for their masterful historical work. I think they have a time machine stashed away somewhere. I love Michael Byers for his immersive descriptions--he really pulls in all the senses--and for his amazing characters, who feel like family members after a while. And then there's Ray Bradbury, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kelly Link, Susanna Clark, Lorrie Moore, Iain Banks, Chris Adrian, David Mitchell, Samuel Delany, Ian McEwan, Jennifer Egan...

Q.: What you be doing if you weren't a writer?

I shudder to think. The only other career I can see myself happy in is film and TV, either behind the camera or in the editing room. At this point I've thoroughly trained my brain into writing, so I have a hard time not creating stories out of things. I might make a good academic. I can imagine myself teaching English at a liberal arts college somewhere, and grading papers into the wee hours.

Q.: What else are you reading right now?

I've just started the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I'm about fifteen years late reading. I loved G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, which has its own jinni in it, a fascinating guy named Vikram. My book group recently read John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which is why I started babbling about Guns 'N' Roses at a four-year-old's birthday party. Lately I've had less time to read due to the baby in the house, but the Hunger Games trilogy made her three a.m. nursing sessions a lot more enjoyable.

Q.: What's next for you?

Honestly, I'm not sure! I've been working on this book for seven years, so I've got a few projects waiting on my mental shelf. I'd like to write a screenplay, or else a novel that relies much more heavily on dialogue. I've had a character kicking around in my head for a while, a very spiritual scientist, but I'm not sure what story he fits into. Also, I'd love to write something set during the run-up to America's involvement in World War I. While I was doing research for The Golem and the Jinni, I kept coming across fascinating material from that time, but of course I couldn't use it! So it's all sitting in a file on my laptop, waiting for a story.

Check out the trailer for The Golem and the Jinni, on sale April 23!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Story of the Voice, by David B. Capes, Chris Seay and James F. Couch, Jr.

The Story of The Voice
Authors: David B. Capes, Chris Seay, and James F. Couch, Jr.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
It's not often that I review bibles or biblical materials, but I was so impressed with The Voice Bible translation that I read last year. It was written by gathering poets, authors and biblical scholars together to create a bible that read well as a story. A lot of translations claim that, but this one really looked different from any one I had seen before. The pages look like a screenplay, with dialogue separated out and prefaced by the name of the person speaking. It's genius, really.

The Story of the Voice is just what it sounds like. It's the story of how those collaborators came together and made the decisions they made in order to create The Voice. I loved reading it. There were some surprises, but for the most part I found myself thinking, "That's what I thought they meant to do! I can see that!" They even refer to the page layout as the "screenplay" approach, just like I thought. 

I know this sounds weird, but The Story of the Voice made me feel like the authors didn't just understand the bible, they also understood me as a reader. I know. That sounds weird, doesn't it?


Shakespeare Roundup: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

It's been a rough couple of months for me over at My Shakespeare Year. I was lost in those Roman plays for what seemed like years, then every play I read seemed to have rape in it. I thought The Two Gentlemen of Verona would be a nice break. It's not a Roman play, it's not a tragedy or a history. It's a comedy! That also has rape in it. Ugh. 

I'm not going to give up on reading Shakespeare, but I AM going to give up on the notion that I'm going to like every Shakespeare play I read.

Here's what I wrote about The Two Gentlemen of Verona (or Two Entitled Jerks and the Women Who Love Them...or Don't Love Them, It Doesn't Matter Because No One Asks the Women Anyway (working title))

Luigi Schiavonetti, “Valentine, Proteus, Silvia and Julia”
from “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1852)

Oh come on, Shakespeare! Can't a just read a play that doesn't condone rape? Apparently not this month, I can't. After the horror that was Titus Andronicus, I was looking forward to a light comedy in the form of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. 

Be careful what you wish for because Shakespeare's "light" comedies usually involve something horrific.

What would it be this time? Racism? Anti-Semitism? Physical violence? Well, yes, to an extent. All of the above. Oh and rape.

One of the "gentlemen," Proteus, is "in love" with Silvia (he's "in love" with all the female characters at one point or another, not that there are very many of them) and if she doesn't feel the same way, why he'll just "woo you like a soldier, at arms' end, and love you 'gainst the nature of love,--force ye...I'll force thee yield to my desire." Charming.

But never fear! Valentine is here! He "saves" Silvia. I say he "saves" her in that he stops the rape, but then Proteus apologizes--more to Valentine than to Silvia--and how does Valentine respond? He basically says, "Aw shucks. That's okay. As long as WE'RE still friends." And then he gives Silvia to Proteus as a sign of their friendship! 

Oh and did I mention that Julia, another woman that Proteus has claimed to be in love with, sees this and freaks out because she wanted Proteus to herself? HOLY SHIT.

You know, plays like Macbeth and King Lear and Othello make me appreciate just how wonderful and timeless Shakespeare's words can be. But honestly, if he were only famous for plays like Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona...well I doubt he'd be famous at all. 

If you're looking to read ALL of Shakespeare's plays because, like me, you're on some sort of personal Shakespeare-based mission, then yes, you'll have to read these ones. But if you're just looking to get better acquainted with the bard to find out why he's still talked about and studied over 400 years later, then move on. These are not the plays you are looking for. 

Go back to the ones that are really, really famous. Turns out people like those ones best for a reason.

Living with Shakespeare: Actors, Directors, & Writers on Shakespeare in Our Time, by Susannah Carson (ed.)

Living With Shakespeare:
Actors, Directors and Writers on Shakespeare in Our Time
Editor: Susannah Carson
(Preface by: Harold Bloom)
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
If there's one thing I've learned from my ongoing Shakespeare in a Year project, it's that reading about Shakespeare can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I've found it helpful to understand the context in which plays were written and to get a some perspective on what they mean. I've read essays on Shakespeare that opened the plays up to me in whole new ways (see: everything Ben Crystal writes). On the other hand, my enjoyment of certain plays has been greatly hampered by reading too many of those types of literary essays before reading the actual play. The introduction to Coriolanus in my Riverside Shakespeare had me convinced I would hate it, and I was half way through the play before I realized I was loving it. It's tricky to take those Shakespearean "authorities" as, well, too authoritative.

Which is precisely why I love this book. The authors of the essays all show their hands. They reveal their biases and specific perspectives and just tell you their opinions. There are no anonymous introductions to the "right" way to read Shakespeare here (like in my stupid Riverside Shakespeare). These are essays by people talking about how and why they see certain plays or certain passages the way they do. You may agree or disagree with them, but at least you know where they're coming from. 

And yes, there's even an essay about Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes did the movie version and he too was worried that everyone would hate it, even though he found the play, in his words, "addicting." I hear ya, Ralph. It IS addicting, and don't let those anti-Coriolanus "experts" tell you otherwise.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't listen to what Shakespearean scholars have to say. And there are plenty of Shakespearean scholars in this book. What I'm saying is that a literary scholar's opinion about Macbeth, for example, may be very different from an actor's, or a director's, or a prisoner's (see: Shakespeare Saved My Life). And that's what I loved about this book. It offered different perspectives without any one voice being "the one and only true way to feel about Shakespeare." 

As someone who is just now getting around to reading all of Shakespeare's plays for myself, it was a breath of fresh air to realize that it's okay that so many of them disagreed about things. When I was a student, I'm sure I would have been looking for the "right way" to read Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream but now I appreciate the discussions more than the answers. I'm not sure if we would have preserved these plays for 400 years if there wasn't so MUCH to discuss.