Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Review: Ex Libris

Ex LibrisAnne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

This collection of essays by Anne Fadiman deals with a topic that is dear to every reader’s heart: books and reading. In “Marrying Libraries,” she describes how she didn’t truly feel married to her husband until they merged their book collections. In “My Odd Shelf,” she shares her idiosyncratic passion for polar exploration narratives. In “The His’er Problem,” she discusses the English language’s deficiency in not having a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. In “The Catalogical Imperative,” she cheekily admits her love of mail-order catalogues. And in “Never Do That to a Book,” she divides readers into “courtly” book lovers and “carnal” book lovers, proudly declaring herself to be one of the latter. Throughout these essays, Fadiman keeps a fairly light, playful tone, but she also deals with weightier topics such as her father’s deteriorating health. Still, the focus remains on books and how the love of reading can shape a person’s life.

I don’t seem to be very good at reading essays; I tend to read them all in one gulp, like a novel, even though I think I ought to dip in and out, reading only a couple at a time. As with any short story or essay collection, some installments are better and more memorable than others. The one I enjoyed most is probably “Marrying Libraries,” which not only touched on serious issues like whose copy of a book should be kept and whose discarded, but also showed a sweet little glimpse into Fadiman’s relationship with her husband. I found “Never Do That to a Book” to be the most controversial, as Fadiman seems to poke fun at people who take care of their books as physical objects. She and her family, it seems, don’t mind dog-earing, tearing out pages, breaking spines, and so forth. I’m not saying those things are wrong, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to keep one’s books looking nice! Overall, I sometimes enjoyed Fadiman’s breezy tone and sometimes found her a bit pretentious. But the essays are certainly fun reads for book lovers!

Review: First Impressions

First ImpressionsCharlie Lovett, First Impressions

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of A Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I should have known better than to pick this one up. My love of Jane Austen means that I’ve read a lot of the retellings, re-imaginings, and spinoffs of her novels, and most of them have ranged from “meh” to truly awful. So I should have known that I’d dislike this book, and indeed, the writing style had turned me off by the end of the first chapter. The author unwisely makes Jane Austen a character and tries to imitate her voice, with disastrous results.

Further, the entire “past” storyline had essentially no stakes, being nothing more than an account of the friendship between Austen and an elderly clergyman. In the “present” storyline, book lover Sophie Collingwood comes across said clergyman’s name in connection with Austen and investigates a possible plagiarism scandal. Because of course Austen lovers want to read books suggesting that she didn’t actually create her own work!

Anyway, Sophie is an utter ninny caught between a Darcy and a Wickham, although they’re pretty equally insufferable! The Wickham (whose name I can’t actually remember) is supposed to be skeevy, of course, but the Darcy also exhibits some major stalker vibes. Therefore, I didn’t buy the love triangle or enjoy the romance. So for me, the book failed on basically every front. Maybe I’m being too harsh; I’d read some positive reviews of the novel, and possibly my expectations were too high. But unfortunately, this book is in my “bottom 10” for the year.

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, TheGabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

A.J. Fikry is going through a rough time. He is still grieving the loss of his wife, who died in a car accident two years ago. His small independent bookstore on Alice Island (somewhere off the coast of New England) is steadily failing. And someone has just stolen his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. A.J.’s current method of dealing with these problems is to isolate himself from everyone, even Ismay, his sister-in-law, and Officer Lambiase, a compassionate policeman. But everything changes when someone leaves a baby girl in the bookstore, along with a note placing her in A.J.’s care. At first, A.J. wants nothing to do with this situation, but he eventually bonds with the child and decides to adopt her. The more time he spends with baby Maya, the more cracks appear in his cantankerous facade. He slowly opens up to Ismay, Lambiase, and the rest of his community, even finding the courage to fall in love again. A.J.’s story ultimately illustrates that good friends and good books make a good life.

I actually started this book on New Year’s Eve, but I stayed up past midnight to finish it, so I’m officially counting it as my first book of 2015! For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to books about bookstore owners, especially cranky ones with very particular literary tastes. As a result, I really liked A.J. as a character, even when he was being rude and obnoxious (which was often). His romance with publisher’s rep Amelia Loman is absolutely adorable, especially in its early stages when he’s being tentative and embarrassed. Their teasing, slightly awkward banter is a pleasure to read. I also liked Maya’s character, which surprised me a bit, since I usually find children in novels tiresome. But I enjoyed watching her grow up and absorb her father’s love of literature, which culminates in her own desire to be a writer. The book is somewhat disorganized, jumping into the heads of several different characters, and the stakes aren’t particularly high. But for a pleasant read about people who love books, I’d definitely recommend this novel!

Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen Cover to CoverMargaret C. Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers

This is a book that delivers exactly what it promises: AustenBlog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan has compiled a large (though not exhausitve) collection of covers of Jane Austen’s novels, from the earliest published editions of the Regency period to the movie tie-in editions of today. The covers are arranged chronologically, giving Sullivan the opportunity to discuss related topics such as the publishing industry in Austen’s day, the waxing and waning of Austen’s popularity in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the Janeite resurgence that began in the 1990s with the iconic image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The covers themselves are a delightful hodgepodge of different styles, from the somber scholarly editions to the far-out art of the 1970s. Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it rather insubstantial; it doesn’t really have anything to say about the broader cultural relevance (if any) of Austen cover art. Still, it would make a great gift for Janeites or for anyone who judges a book by its cover!

Review: Texts from Jane Eyre

Texts from Jane EyreMallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

Mallory Ortberg, popular writer for websites such as The Hairpin and The Toast, has expanded her ingenious “Texts From” series into a book. What if the various authors, poets, and characters you studied in school had the ability to text? Hamlet would probably be a whiny teenager who refuses to come out of his room for dinner. William Carlos Williams would be constantly bugging his wife to bring home more plums from the grocery store. And Mrs. Bennet certainly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to urge her daughters to snag rich husbands! From Achilles to Virginia Woolf, Wuthering Heights to Sweet Valley High, nothing is safe from Ortberg’s satirical (and often punctuation-less) eye.

It’s hard to review humor because it’s so subjective: You either think it’s funny or you don’t. I’m definitely a fan of Ortberg’s style — the texts from Jane Eyre had me ROLLING the first time I read them! — so I enjoyed this book. I definitely think it helps to be familiar with the source material; most of the literary references are to pretty famous works, but there are also sections on The Hunger Games and The Baby-Sitters Club, so it’s a rather random, eclectic mix. The biggest criticism I have about the book is that it’s kind of one-note. The premise is funny, but there’s really nothing more to it. Basically, I don’t think it’s a book that I’d need to read over and over again, but it would be a great gift for someone who loves literature!

N.B. I received an ARC of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The publication date, per Amazon, is November 4.

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

Haunted Bookshop, TheChristopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop

In this sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, bibliophile Roger Mifflin has temporarily abandoned his traveling bookstore for a more permanent location on Gissing Street in Brooklyn. He calls his store the Haunted Bookshop, claiming that it is “haunted” by the ghosts of great literature. One day a young salesman named Aubrey Gilbert enters the store, hoping to persuade Roger to advertise with his firm; instead, the two men have an intense discussion that leaves Aubrey with a newfound appreciation for literature. When Aubrey returns to the shop a few days later, he is immediately smitten with Titania Chapman, the beguiling new shopgirl. But as he starts to visit the store more regularly, he notices something strange: an old and rather obscure volume keeps disappearing from the Haunted Bookshop and then re-appearing without warning. Is there a literary-minded thief frequenting the bookstore, or is something more sinister at work?

This is one of those cozy little books that take you back to a simpler time, and I found it absolutely charming! Roger Mifflin’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and the novel is full of his musings on literature, both in general and about specific books. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize most of the titles he mentioned, presumably because they’ve gone out of fashion (and print!) since the book was published in 1919. But this is definitely the type of book that reminds me of the huge number of books in the world that I still haven’t read! The mystery plot is clever, though very slight and easy to guess (and very much a product of its time). I also liked the central characters, especially Aubrey, who makes a lot of endearing mistakes in his quest to solve the mystery and win Titania’s heart. All in all, I finished this book wishing that I could stop by the Haunted Bookshop for dinner and a literary discussion with these characters.

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressDai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (trans. Ina Rilke)

This slight novel tells the story of two young Chinese men who are sent to a remote mountain village to be “re-educated” during the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Both youths are talented individuals; the unnamed narrator plays the violin, and his best friend Luo is a master storyteller. Despite these gifts, however, they soon feel oppressed by the overwhelming boredom of their new lives, where they are forced to perform manual labor from dawn to dusk. But two unexpected events soon occur, changing the course of their lives forever: they discover a hidden cache of Western classics translated into Chinese, and they meet a beautiful young seamstress who steals both their hearts.

This is a very short book, and it honestly felt more like a tableau than a novel to me. The setting is described vividly with meticulous prose, but nothing much happens. I think I was expecting the book to be more overtly political, since the author was himself “re-educated” during this time period and ended up leaving China for France. But while the cultural revolution certainly isn’t praised, the boys’ lives aren’t portrayed in a particularly negative light either. Also, their exposure to Western culture isn’t always a good thing; in fact, their relationship with the seamstress is irrevocably altered by her exposure to European literature. So I was very interested by the ambiguities in the novel, but the plot and characters didn’t particularly grip me. I’d like to read another novel (or nonfiction work) about this time period, which seems like it would be rich in dramatic material.

Review: Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

Set in the early 20th century, this short novel tells the story of Helen McGill, a 39-year-old spinster who has spent the last several years living on her brother’s farm and keeping house for him. One day a traveling book salesman named Roger Mifflin shows up at Helen’s door and persuades her to take over the business. She purchases his van, called “the traveling Parnassus,” and sets off with Mifflin to have an adventure. Along the way, she meets several interesting people, discovers the joy of literature, and even finds true love.

I think this novel is a must-read for any book lover. Roger Mifflin’s love of literature is contagious, and he is very eloquent in praise of the written word:

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue — you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night — there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.”

The book isn’t particularly complex or thought-provoking, but it’s sweet and cheerful and a real pleasure to read. I definitely recommend it, and I hope to read the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, soon.