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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

5 Sep

I cannot explain how thankful I am that this ARC was passed along to me. Though it took me a month and some change to read this 700+ page masterpiece, I am happy to report that I thoroughly ADORED this book.

“The Goldfinch” was a tough read in the beginning for me. We open with Theo Decker, in a hotel room in Europe, looking back on the day it all began; the day that would eventually take us back to this mysterious hotel room; Theo a depressed and suicidal man. Theo talks about the year his mother died, the day in fact. Theo and his mother went to an art museum, there was an explosion, and the facts of that day lead Theo to stealing a very famous and very much intact painting after the explosion. We see everything through Theo’s eyes which is absolutely frustrating and intriguing at the same time–we both know and don’t know what Theo knows and doesn’t know about the explosion and about the painting.

We are then whisked away to Las Vegas, with Theo, where he will presumably live out his life with his father, an alcoholic now hooked on drugs, and his father’s girlfriend, a woman who has a dog she barely takes care of, a fuzzy resume, and, of course, barely tolerates the fact her boyfriend has a teenaged son.

The fact that this novel is not LONGER than 700 pages is amazing. The toughest part for me was the beginning when Theo’s mother dies and his wild grief that follows. Having just lost my mother earlier this year I found myself extremely emotional while reading these pages: so be warned, this could be emotional for you, too!

Otherwise, Tartt has become my new favorite author. The way that she writes and so easily allows the characters to be who it is that they are and will be is a a particular magic act I sadly see so rarely in novels anymore. Theo’s heart is broken, fractured, and high MOST of the book, but there it is, always in the right place. For that we follow Theo from one bad decision to the next because we have to find out:  what will happen to the painting he stole? What will happen to Theo? How can Theo survive to page 300? 500? 700? Will he get over the loss of his mother? Will he recover from all of the losses in his life? What will happen to Theo?

This novel is, for me, the best book of 2013. The writing is spectacular, the story is irresistible, and Tartt makes the characters so real and so alive that I fully expect to meet Theo, Kitsey, and Boris right around the corner should I ever travel to New York.

I have not read any of Donna Tartt’s novels but I will now. “The Goldfinch” is a wild and heartfelt meditation on fate, consequences, and art. Theo becomes himself the Goldfinch and by the end of the novel you will find yourself musing alongside Theo about all the things that have occurred during the short life of Theo Decker.


Lexicon by Max Barry and my first recommended reading list

17 Jul

Let me just tell you this right now: You should read this book. This is a great book. This book is the summer read for you. That is, if you’re like me and you love books and you love words. If you hate words and you hate books I’m not sure why you are reading my humble blog. My advice would be to start reading and learn to love words.

“Lexicon” is a book about a group of people (can I just say secret society? It sounds cooler) who have unlocked the ability of words to persuade. They have learned that by studying words how they are used and how people perceive and understand words they can persuade people to do just about anything that they want them to do. So a school is made and once you learn about personality types and origins of words, etc, you might become a poet. A poet is someone who is really really good with words and when you become one you get to be named after one.

Let’s be honest at this point: This is basically the number one reason I loved this book.

So, we are dropped into the story with this guy called an outlier. But we don’t know what an outlier is and we don’t know why so many people have been persuaded to kill him. Then later we meet this girl named Emily (#2 reason I got sucked in, obvi) who is really good at persuasion and who gets to go to the Academy where she learns all about words.

This book has action, timely storylines about people giving the general public very personalized ads and information based on sneakily gaining access to their information via surveys and browsing history (I said timely, right?), and a big twist at the end involving a town in Australia where a word is released that causes everyone to die (this gives nothing away I promise!).

What I loved best about this story is that Max Barry really knows how to keep the action, suspense, and story going. Barry does not sacrifice anything for his story and he certainly doesn’t sacrifice his craft to get the story told. Large revelations are made with a single sentence. You learn character histories in single flashback stories. This is a remarkable book. And this book is  part of a new list of recommendations I will be giving people who are looking for fun, quirky, and a little bit nerdy books to read.

I give you:

Emily’s Favorite Books about Books or Books about things geeks love:

1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Not a book about books but it IS about ’80s pop culture so books, movies, and video games are heavily involved. GO READ IT NOW.

2. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde: This isn’t about books or anything but it is about a world with varying shades of color. A book about COLOR. This society is all about who can see how much color in which spectrum (Red, Yellow, Blue, etc). The people with the highest color sight, you guessed it, are also the wealthiest.

3. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: This is a lot like Lexicon by Max Barry. This is about a bookstore that is really a front for a secret society that is trying to unlock to the secret to immortality through code breaking. It’s exciting, it’s fresh, and it’s totally nerdy.

4. The Eyre Affair (and though I haven’t read it, I believe you might also enjoy the Nursey Crimes books!) by….JASPER FFORDE. It’s like Fforde loves to read or something given the amount of geeky and literary themes books he writes. This one is great though I had to abandon the series awhile back when I started college.

5. The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry: This one was great. It was a mystery set in a kind of otherworld, one like ours, but different. I enjoyed the plot and there was a real “quirkiness” to this particular story that I think only certain kinds of readers will appreciate.

6. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: So, this is a pop culture kind of book. It’s all about social media in the future and it references books a lot. But in a way to illustrate how dumb people are getting. Book snobs everywhere can appreciate how so many people aren’t reading (though, from my perspective as a Librarian it feels like MORE people are reading in general).

7. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This is less literary and more music related but it’s another pop culture infused novel that makes pop culture references smart instead of as a way of dating the book. READ IT NOW.

8. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu: Another “Read it now and forever be changed.” I love Yu’s writing and I loved the way this story is written. I read this pre-Doctor Who obsession so I should probably read it again to see if there are any references (when it comes to time travel it seems absurd to think a writer would NOT include the Doctor)

9. John Dies at the End by David Wong: Hilarious, dirty, and full of great adventure this one is sure to make any reader laugh out loud while going along with the soy sauce induced intergalactic adventure.

10. The Magicians by Lev Grossman: MAGIC IS REAL GO READ THIS BOOK.

These are books I’ve read and loved. I bet there are a million other books about books that would go better on this list but I’m recommending books I’ve read. It’s more personal that way. If you want something new because you’ve read these already head over to your local library and ask a librarian for some help!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

15 Jul

If Neil Gaiman isn’t a Time Lord himself then he must live in a magical realm that mere humans are not privy to and therefore must write us magical tales and sell them as fiction. Neil Gaiman, I love you.

I have been waiting for “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” since I got the email from B&N that I could pre-order the book way back in April. I was not disappointed. Here is a book that reminds you that sometimes seeing things differently as a child is okay, you were merely seeing the truth that adults were blind to. Gaiman reminds his readers that magic exists but that maybe those who live near magic are not so eager to share it with the other world–they are too busy keeping it at bay and keeping it from destroying the world they love (ahem, TIME LORD MUCH?). Now that I think about it: maybe this is just a book about lady time lords.

The story seems simple enough: A man is attending a funeral in his hometown and he finds himself, in his grief, driving to the house at the end of the lane, a place where he played as a child. While he is there he starts to remember a particularly vivid and dangerous summer when he was 7 and the girl at the house at the end of the lane, Lettie Hemstock, was 11. Suddenly we are taken back in time to the summer when the man, as a young boy, must move out of his room for a renter. This renter kills himself in the boy’s father’s car at the end of the lane. Suddenly, strange things happen. The boy and Lettie unleash a creature into the world that is as old or older than the world itself, a creature from “the old country.” The boy and Lettie must trap the creature and destroy it before it destroys the world.

By the end of the book you wonder how many times you’ve found yourself forgetting something whimsical and magical from your childhood thinking it was just a dream but now second guessing yourself–maybe it was real. Maybe, you had the grandest adventure of your life.

As an afterthought:

Did anyone get to this passage and wonder if he was throwing out a Doctor Who reference,(maybe I read too fast but it seems like an interesting choice of words)? pg. 143, “I knew where Rose was–the peculiar crinkling of space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.”

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

24 Jun

I look to books for answers a lot. Maybe I should be looking to the Bible you might say or, maybe I should be looking to God for answers. When I say that I look to books for answers I mean that I’m looking to God for answers. God works through people so why can’t he work through people’s writings in books? 

While I was working on my MA I wrote my thesis on the dead and on birds. So it only made sense that when I was walking through the new bookstore in town before Mother’s Day (a terrible day when you’ve lost your Mother) and saw the book “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice” by Terry Tempest Williams, I stopped and browsed. When I discovered that this book was also about her own Mother’s death, I bought it.

I loved this book. Williams writes about birds, her Mother, her Grandmother, conservationism, how she met her husband, and her grief when her Mother died. It’s a lot to write about and sometimes I felt like maybe this could have been split into two books (her family and her conservationism) but, I understand that when you talk about your Mother and your experience of her dying, your entire identity is brought to the forefront. 

What I also appreciated about this book is Williams working through the mystery of why her Mother bought notebooks but never filled them. Williams muses on all the reasons why her mother didn’t fill them and what those notebooks represented to her Mother but you get the feeling that these things are more what the notebooks represent to Williams’ perception of her Mother and that’s okay. 

I was expecting to read something to help me on my journey through grieving and mourning and this book delivered. To go further I would also recommend this book to bird lovers, feminists, and conservationists. Williams gets to your heart in a poetic and honest way and you can’t help but want to roam out in the forest somewhere looking for a bird and looking for yourself.


Quotes I loved:

“What is voice? I will say it is so: The first voice I heard belonged to my mother. It was her voice I listened to from the womb….I will say it is so: My mother’s voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing.” pg. 17

“To be read. To be heard. To be seen. I want to be read, I want to be heard. I don’t need to be seen. To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. ” pg 47/48

“Facing the death of one’s mother puts things in acute perspective. I did not have the luxury of fighting with my mom as other friends did with theirs…A rupture was occurring in me.What mattered most was time with family, time in nature, and time with myself.” pg. 55

“Good friends were traded for good reads. Books became my moral grounding, my way of finding a philosophy that comforted me when church did not.” pg. 55

“Reading has not only changed my life but saved it. The right books picked at the right times–especially the one that scares us, threatens to undermine all we have been told, the one that contains forbidden thoughts–these are the books that become Eve’s apples.” pg 97


Red Doc> by Anne Carson

14 Apr

Let’s talk about Anne Carson. Or, let’s talk about her presence in my life. If you’ve been reading my posts you’ll remember me mentioning some books a professor once recommended me. Before becoming a Librarian…and sometimes while I’m a Librarian….I used to wonder “what SHOULD I be reading?” instead of “What would I enjoy reading?” And I would ask my professors to give me recommendations. A great idea if I had actually read any of these. A missed opportunity but the point is, back in 2005 or 2006 a professor recommended a book by Anne Carson. It wasn’t until I took this professor’s class on hybridity that I actually read the book she recommended, which was, “The Autobiography of Red.” We were talking about bestiaries and hybrid forms and I totally got into the novel/poetry/whatever. I love when Geryon says he’s a philosopher of sandwiches.

I’ve also read “The Beauty of the Husband” (right before I got married of course) and “Men in the Off Hours” (I remember loving it). So, you could say I’m a fan. I am a fan of Anne Carson, the poet, who lives in Canada. Or did, or, whatever. I missed her speaking in Ann Arbor specifically because I was too nervous that seeing her speak in public (in person!) would ruin my idealized vision of her in my head.

On to the book. When I heard that Anne Carson had a new book out I was so excited! I rushed to Amazon, bought my copy, and waited. And then I got it and I got nervous I would hate it. And then there was this nice interview with her in the New York Times online and then I thought: I definitely need to read this. And then I read a couple of other books.

And then I read it.

The NYT ruined the form a little for me when I found out that it was simply because poor Anne Carson doesn’t know how to use Word properly. But then I thought, well, it’s a happy accident and it was unfortunate that you had to learn about it and can’t try to decipher her decision to write the story like this.

Next: the whole thing felt like a big 70s mod-lit experiment or something. But then I thought, get over it, it’s just because you don’t read a lot of stuff like this. This is what brilliant women write!

And then Anne Carson did what she always does: she writes words that were meant for me and this exact moment in my life. Just like I had been hoping.

I’m going to say it now: Spoilers from here on.

I haven’t exactly been shy about it, my Mom died about 3 months ago. And I’m not going to sugar-coat it, it’s a very big loss to lose your Mother. I know it sounds lame, but I keep hoping I’ll pick up a book and it will tell me what to do next or how to feel next. “Red Doc>” didn’t necessarily do that but it proved to me that there is always something greater than myself working in my life.

While in a lot of ways this review isn’t going to deal with what the book is majorly about, it deals with the loss of Geryon’s Mother. The loss comes late in the book and it hit me hard. I don’t usually cry when reading but then…

I got to this passage: pg 143

“TIme passes Time does not pass. Time all but passes. Time usually passes. Time passing and gazing. Time has no gaze. Time as perseverance. Time as hunger. Time in a natural way.”

and then, pg. 145:

“He brings lilacs from the bush by the corner of her house to which she will probably not return this time. Or ever and he leans his face into them.”

And then I couldn’t stop tearing up, pg. 154:

“In later years this is the one memory he wishes would go away and not come back. And the reason he cannot bear her dying is not the loss of her (which is the future) but that dying puts the two of them (now) into this nakedness together that is unforgiveable.”

Though, not really biographical in my life–I had  a lot of closure and forgiveness with my Mom at the end.

Carson writes on pg. 160:

“He’d almost forgot about the rain. Unloading on the roof and squandering down the gutters. Rain continuous since the funeral a wrecking      rattling bewildering   Lethe-knuckling mob of rain. A rain with no instructions.”

“Listening to rain he thinks how strange all its surfaces sound like the’re sliding up. How strange his mother is lying out there in her little soaked Chanel suit. The weeping has been arriving about every seven minutes. In the days to come it will grow less.”

pg. 162:

“Mothers ashamed and Ablaze and clear / At the end / As they are / As they almost all are, and then / Mothers don’t come around Again / In spring.”

I get it. This isn’t a very good review. But, I hope you take my reaction to reading this book AS a positive review. Much of poetry isn’t just about dissecting and tearing apart, much of it is the reader’s response to poetry and how the words affect the reader. Ann Carson has written a very interesting narrative about what happened to our red friend G in later years. She has flown through genre and plucked the loveliest flowers from each and designed a book around them to delight, mystify, and bewilder. Anne Carson might be the most innovative poets writing today. “Red Doc>” is worth a read but only after you read “The Autobiography of Red” first and only if you promise to let yourself be carried in Ms. Carson’s river of myth, poem, and icebats.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

12 Apr

I need to admit something. It’s a tough one to admit, being a Librarian and a Writer but, here goes nothing: I judge whether or not I want to read a book…sometimes by the cover. But usually it’s an instinct thing! Like, ooo that’s mysterious and lovely I should see what it’s about! And 9 times out of 10 it’s a book I want to read.

That’s a little how it was with “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller. I saw it on the shelf one day and thought the title was poetic and I thought the cover was beautiful. Then I read what it was about and I KNEW I had to read it. Post-Apocalyptic? A dog (usually I hate this but I foolishly thought–no this time my heart WON’T be broken!)? Postmodern narrative techniques? I’m in.

I waited around awhile with this one because I really did have other books that HAD to be read first–I’m in like four book clubs. Finally, my friend decided she wanted to read it and since we both had it on our “To Read” list on Goodreads, she chose it as her April Book Club pick.

I read this book in 3 days. And that’s saying something. I work 40 hours a week. I sleep 8 hours a night. I read all 317 pages of this book in THREE DAYS. I loved it. Here’s why:

FIrst of all, it’s more than a post-apocalyptic book. Which is saying that, mostly, it’s not about the science stuff it’s about the human stuff. And before you Sci Fi readers get all up in my blog about this, I totally agree that Sci Fi is about the human stuff, too. It’s just that this is more literary than speculative science fiction and it’s less “in a world where there are 8 people and tons of techy stuff” and more “there is a guy and he’s trying to emotionally deal with the end of the world.”

And there it is: This is a book that deals with what it would be like, emotionally, to live after the end of the world.

So begins our journey with Hig. Big Hig. Not Higs. And Jasper his beloved dog, and Bangley his grumpy friend who does all the killing of intruders. Hig flies. Hig flies and Hig fishes and Hig hunts. And Hig misses his wife, Melissa. Hig is trying to figure out why he’s surviving when he’s not sure what he’s surviving for.

Heller is a wonderful writer. It’s hard to admit but he’s the kind of writer I wish I could be. Just the way he choose words makes me fall in love with language. Jealous.

“The Dog Stars” follows Hig as he navigates this new world in his plane. At one point he’s traveling out farther than usual (he just flies to protect the area in the prairie that he and Bangley have set up. One day Hig radios to the Airport tower and get this—someone answers. Three years later and Hig is feeling lonelier and sadder than ever so he decides to leave Bangley behind and fly out past his Point of No Return (When his gas he brings with him won’t bring him back unless he fills up) and find these people. And what does Hig find? A reason to live.

This isn’t a sentimental novel at all but it is a novel that grapples with what it means to grieve and what it means to grieve and move on. As someone whose Mother died just a few months ago this novel hits home big time. It’s not the same as being a widow or widower but I get it when Hig talks about loss and how it’s just sort of ALWAYS THERE.

But Heller doesn’t want us to focus on the loss. Heller makes us fall in love with the world. The fish, the deer, the plants, the stars–Heller shows us why we all need to live in Colorado and camp every weekend in the summer. Heller offers us the flip side of the apocalypse: the beauty of a world without humans. Do yourself a favor and go to a campground, sit around the fire, and read this book. And then enjoy the stars and name some new constellations for yourself.

Some quotes I enjoyed:

I once had a book on the stars but now I don’t. My memory serves but not stellar ha. So I made up constellations. I made a Bear and a Goat but maybe not where they are supposed to be.  –pg. 11

They used to say all FAA rules resulted from a real accident. So the .o32 mil wire is maybe a kind of memorial to some pilot. Maybe his family too. — pg 15

They bred dogs for everything else, even for diving for fish, why didn’t they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man? — pg 25

So I wonder what it is this need to tell. / To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty . Breathe life in the telling. –pg 52

There is a pain you can’t think your way out of. You can’t talk it away. If there were someone to talk to. You can walk. One foot the other foot. Breathe in breathe out. — pg. 114

Grief is an element. It has its own cycle like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen. It never diminishes not ever. It passes in and out of everything. — pg 115

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

6 Apr

I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, especially after my horrible experience trying to listen to “The Hunger Games.” However, I just began my first professional job as a Librarian and my first job was to purchase new and older audiobook titles (I am now buying new fiction but that’s a different post). Because I want to be a good Librarian, I decided that I should actually become a little familiar with my collection so that I could better talk about it and make more useful recommendations to read. So, I decided to listen to “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan. Ari Fliakos narrates this book masterfully!

I know that it was mostly Sloan’s writing so I”ll talk about this: AWESOME. The book is about books, bookstores, technology, the meeting of physical books and ebooks, and, of course, a cult. Every bit of this book was exciting, even when Sloan’s characters were discussing technical things like information technology, databases, typography, and graphic design. Which is something else the book does: it walks the line between being only interesting to a type of a person and being appealing to everyone.

Clay Jannon is a great narrator and a useful character in this book to follow. Clay is the main character but he is more than that, he’s us. As Clay learns so we learn. As Clay sees, we see. I have every confidence that Clay is reliable and honest with me and I appreciated that. Clay is out of a job and so desperate that he stumbles into a job as a clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s used bookstore.

This used bookstore, of course, is not like any other bookstore you would usually encounter. This bookstore is open 24 hours a day, has a secret back room full of old books written in some kind of code while the front of the store sells unusually pristine newer books to customers. Clay is expected to write details about the members of the bookclub that come in to check out books from the back room.

Clay is curious and so are we and what happens when Clay starts to look around and discover as much as he can about Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is where the story takes off and we are taken to places like Google’s campus, a storage facility full of historical artifacts no one wants, and an underground cave in New York. There is a medieval cult and intrigue and, of course, a cute girl who knows her way around a computer.

I can’t tell you more because it will eek out the fun of reading this delightful book. Pair this book with “Ready Player One” and “Shades of Grey” for the adventure and total immersion in a world and “The Magicians” for a story that will make you wish it were real. And of course read “The Manual of Detection” for the same world of twists, turns, codes, and mystery.

Related reads: “The Manual of Detection” by Jedediah Berry, “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, “Shades of Grey” by Jasper Fforde, “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman,

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

26 Mar

Last year whenever I was in the middle of a class, longing to read any fiction new or old, I would go to Powell’s website and dream of the day when I had a full time job–meaning extra money–and time to read whatever I wanted.

As it turns out, you don’t usually get MORE time to read when you get a full time job. However, you learn how to manage your time better and, slowly, I’ve been learning how to say no to the television and yes to the written word. I’ve read 18 books so far this year. And yes, this means I should be blogging more.

The second thing that happens when you finally get that rare bird called “full time” is you get a little bit more money. I say a little bit more because working as a public librarian doesn’t yield a high paycheck but it’s still more than a paraprofessional working 20 hours a week. So, in January, I finally joined Powell’s bookclub, Indiespensable. The first book I received was “The Death of Bees” by Lisa O’Donnell. I’ve been dragging my feet on this one because I’m in a book club and I wanted to read a few other books on my to read shelf first.

I’m sad I waited so long. “The Death of Bees” is beautiful in its ugly reality. I don’t know much about Glasgow and I don’t know much about being poor in Scotland, but, I can tell you this book destroyed any romance I had about either. It’s easy to forget that Europe has joined the 21st century with the rest of the world and is full of problems just like we have in America.

Aside from the locale, the story is perfect. Two sisters, different from each other of course, are growing up in a family, to quote Ani Difranco that is “built like an avalanche.” There is no nuclear family here, or, if it can be called a nuclear family, it is a nuclear family in the sense that it has exploded and is currently decaying.

Cue the problem: The sisters discover their parents have died. The sisters do not want to be separated by the Social Services so they bury their parents in the backyard and try to live life without them. This is problematic.

Along the way to what you know is going to happen at some point in the novel, the story become less about the abuse they have endured and more about how much they learned about what love and family is from each other. The sisters clearly have grown up with some sense of humanity and love and take care of each other with a loyalty and fervor that is enviable. They meet a family in the man next door who ultimately sacrifices everything he can to save their future and they discover that blood does not always make family.

The novel is full of stories of wayward people, people trying to figure things out amidst drug, alcohol, and physical abuse. People who are full of love and full of hate. “The Death of Bees” is about two sisters trying to define what family is to them and how they are going to grow and live together despite never having the childhood all children deserve–one with love and stability.

I highly recommend this book to literary fiction lovers and anyone interested in stories about growing up. Also great for those interested in a book about dysfunctional families or alcoholic parents or life in the slums.

The Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman

1 Mar

I began reading this book, in all sincerity, while on a plane to Spain. I really thought that I would get 564 pages read in a weeks time, including the flight, waiting in airports, and during all of the coffee shop observing/writing/coffee drinking/reading I was going to do. What I hadn’t counted on was being extremely interested in exploring Madrid. So, sadly, I read the hefty book slowly between October and February. I’m glad I did.

“The Traveler of the Century” is about a traveler during the turn of the 19th century.  I do not know much about Spanish and German history and I understand this to be historical fiction, as Wandernburg–the city where the story takes place–is fictional.

The greatest revelation of this novel is that it is translation. That most of the characters speak in languages that are not there first must reflect the culture of Europe, especially during this period. Our main character, Hans is a translator and poet, and is in Wandernburg for only a short time.

Until he meets the organ grinder;until he meets Sophie. Sophie holds salons for conversation about literature, politics, and culture. It is here that Hans falls in love with Sophie and the novels biggest conflict begins: Sophie is engaged to be married to someone else.

I have to interject here and tell you something of myself as a reader. I do not like reading long books but I especially love having gotten through a long book. Much like I imagine a runner does not like all of the pain of a marathon but enjoys getting through the marathon and having done it. I also have to confess that I’m training myself with large books to eventually run the triathlon that is “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace.

Neuman brings to the reader many things: a mystery (a thriller even–a subplot of the story is a serial rapist in the very city that seems so quaint and innocent), a romance, a political and social history of Germany and Spain, magical realism–a town that is never quite the same physically and, finally, an ars poetica and an ars poetica about the translation of poetry.

In sum, “The Traveler of the Century” brings a dense text to the reader offering up something rare in the world of reading today: thoughtfulness. The novel is thoughtful in its discussion, giving pages to what feels like real discussion among scholars and readers. There are pages of dialogue where you are not quite sure who is speaking until you learn the voices of the characters and you are not surprised when you find out who is speaking. Neuman writes accurately the way philosophical and political discussions evolve and climax in groups.

Another enchanting aspect of the novel is the musings on so many different topics, this truly is a “novel of ideas.” This is what made reading the novel slowly so meaningful to me. As I read the novel, my Mother became sicker with the cancer she had been recently diagnosed with and her death coincided with a death in the novel. Neuman’s words and ideas surrounding death and dying and grief were so spot on to what was happening in my life, I knew the book had found its way, like most important books in our lives, at the right time.

Overall, I would recommend this book to the literary types and don’t worry if you find yourself saying “but I don’t read historical fiction!” You do now.

Some quotes I especially enjoyed:

“In that case I must introduce you two. He asked Hans’s name, then said: Franz, this is Herr Hans, Herr Hans, this is my dog, Franz” –pg 14 (see also the following video I could not get out of my mind:

“The smokers blew out spirals like ribcages–a smoke animal devoured the patrons. Hans pulled a face.” -pg 15

“He even imagined he could hear someone breathing nervously on the other side of the door. But he could not be sure. Perhaps it was his own breathing, growing gradually deeper, his own breathing, his own, his.” – pg 16

“Although, Hans reflected, perhaps Lamberg’s aim was to find the quickest route to unconsciousness, and this was why he drank as though he were swallowing not only the alcohol but also all the words he never spoke.” -pg 26


11 Nov

When I was young, maybe about ten or eleven, I noticed that my Dad had a few books that he kept by his bed. Nothing controversial or creepy, he just liked to keep his small library near him so that when he read at bedtime (the only time to read for him) he could have his pick without having to get up and trek to the bookshelf. Among his books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, Illusions and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, and something that at the time seemed weird called A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I thought was a real book about a real confederacy.

Obviously the first and last books were a bit above me at the time. As I grew up, however, I became something of a quote hound and loved gathering quoteable lines from authors and artists and displaying them in my journals and musing on how awful my life was and how these quotes could lift me up out of my suburban, white picket fence (literally), three square meals a day, supportive and loving hell. It’s really that when everything is always so good you start to think, around thirteen, that things won’t always be good, or, worse, weren’t always so good but you just don’t really remember it so you start to invent it.

This is about the time I picked up Illusions and I felt like God had answered me. He had given me an entire book that was infinitely quoteable. This is where I first learned that what you put out there you get back. And that you should never, as the Doctor says, ignore a coincidence, unless you’re busy. In the book there is this part where one character tells the other one that you just have to think of something really hard and it will come to you. So he thinks of a feather and then the next day or so he’s looking at something. And there’s a feather. BAM. I was hooked.

But the thing is, life has sort of become this weird cyclical world for me. I spot connections–yes I know, my brain is built to do that–but I never know quite what they mean. So I ignore them. And then they show up and I think, oh yes, I’ll take advantage of this and then I never do.

Right now, the biggest example in my life is the author Ben Lerner ( I was the kind of kid that thought growing up to be a writer would  be “easy” and would be “brilliant” and would be “easy.” So, I enrolled at the local University and proudly declared my major to be “Imaginative Writing” which by the next semester was rightly called “Creative Writing” because imaginative sounded like something from the world of Harry Potter (or so I assume). I had a really supportive and creative and, in her own right, brilliant professor. She was unlike any professor I had encountered and immediately was a great resource for all things literary. One summer, after feeling like Letters to a Young Poet, Illusions, and Billy Collins’ extraordinarily accessible and loveable collection of poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room were somehow just not enough for my expanding literary palate, I asked her for a book list. She gave me this:

Ooga Booga by Frederick Seidel

Angle of Yaw by Ben Lerner

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine

as well as a few others. I immediately interloaned the books through my library, and, finding them exciting, purchased them on Amazon. But, like most college kids, I was starting a new relationship, living on my own for the first time, and going to school full time with a small part time job to pay some bills (beer, food, that kind.). I ignored my new little library. I flipped through Angle of Yaw and found myself so in love with the writing that I had to stop reading! Why couldn’t I write like that? Lerner, you jerk! You’ve made me feel terrible about myself! So I abandoned Lerner and his lovely sentences.

Flash forward about 6 years. It’s 2012 and my husband (back then the boyfriend distracting me from Lerner and Rankine) has work to do in Spain. I’ve spend the past 7 years working in a library and have become better and better each year and navigating the piles of books I “should” and “should not” (what does that even mean!) read. So I decide to go to Madrid for the week (more on this later for sure). Because the librarian who purchases fiction at my library is amazing, I decide to take the book Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman to be read in Spain.

But something weird happens. I’m at the Reina Sofia and I see this book, one that I had seen many times before at the library, Leaving the Atocha Station…by BEN LERNER. And I think, that name looks familiar. I know that name. And I look at the author and it’s the same author as Angle of Yaw. And I know it’s fate. And I know that because I hadn’t finished the book of poetry, I need to read this book.

So I do. And it’s perfect. I’m an aspiring poet in Madrid. This book is about an aspiring poet in Madrid. I’ve been feeling like I need to figure things out about this whole life thing and That’s when I start thinking about my Dad. And how he’s always told me that if you think about something and open a book you might find a useful sentence. And I think about how just a few months ago the library held a book club and read A Confederacy of Dunces and I didn’t join in and he, randomly, gave me his copy because he didn’t want it anymore.

I guess, the point is that, maybe we aren’t ready for the  books we want to read. I’m rationalizing the fifty unread books I’ve purchased over the last two years. The thing is, I always seem to read these books that have a profound impact on my life out of order. Only when they present themselves to me, myteriously and profoundly, at the right time, do I get the point. I need to read something in this book. Call it a God moment, call it being a human reading something into it, or call it magic. Whatever you call it, I call it wonderful.