The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”

Review:

While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

Synopsis:

18490539Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” Phyllis Rose reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.

The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.

In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. “Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels,” she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.

Review:

Fear not, this is not a stunt memoir. Rose does read through a shelf at the library but it’s not as extreme as the title suggests as there’s no time limit, no angst when titles on the shelf change, and no diatribe about doing things right or wrong.  The shelf is a device, a way to hang interesting conversations about reading and the literary world together.

I like what she has to say.  While choosing a shelf she talks about how most of us have our reading chosen for us, be it by teachers and bestseller lists or award panels and librarians.  The fact that only three of the eleven writers on the shelf are women opens my favorite chapter about women and fiction.  She delves into how libraries decide what to keep and what to toss, and how opinions of books change (or not) over time and distance.  If you are a bookish person (I’m going to guess you are) Rose is speaking to you.

Refreshingly she doesn’t put down particular ways of reading.  Physical books are fine, but the text can be too small and the pages can crumble as you turn them, interfering with your enjoyment.

The ideal of translation as a pane of glass becomes embodied when you read on a Kindle or a Nook. Nothing comes between you and the text, certainly no object remind you distressingly of age and decay.

All of us who are unable to read physical books (audiobooks for the win) or have something going on that makes it a painful proposition (like my sad wrists) wholeheartedly agree.

Wide-ranging and packed with insight, The Shelf is a welcome addition to any “books about books” shelf.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

Synopsis:

26633749For more than a decade, the “Complete Review” has been an essential site for readers interested in learning about new books in translation and developments in global literature. Expanding upon the site’s content, this wide-ranging yet user-friendly resource is the perfect guide for English-language readers eager to explore fiction from around the world. Profiling hundreds of titles and authors from 1945 to today, with an emphasis on fiction published in the past two decades, this reference provides a fascinating portal into the styles, trends, and genres of the world’s literatures, from Scandinavian crime thrillers and cutting-edge works in China to Latin American narco-fiction and award-winning French novels.

Review:

Orthorfer has read the world so you don’t have to.

No, wait, that’s not true.  He’s read the world so he can guide you through each region and country, pointing out the most important and interesting literary landmarks.  He’s a master at it, making The Complete Review Guide readable both in chunks as mood dictates or straight through, as I devoured it.

However you decide to read be sure to start with the introduction.  It lays out why there is so little translated literature in the US, the state of world literature today, and what to look out for when picking up a translation.  I knew to be wary of a book that doesn’t have the translator’s name featured on the cover but Orthofer adds,

A red flag to look out for is the translation copyright in the name of the publisher, rather than that of the translator, which indicates that the translation was a work for hire, thus giving the translator no rights regarding the presentation of the text.

That’s scary, especially as he goes on to talk about how translations are edited and sections, or even half the text, may be cut.  Good to know.

Once you’ve read the intro dip in to whatever region or country captures your fancy.  Each starts with an overview of the literary scene, both domestic and translated, and how events have shaped it over time.  I found it fascinating that  globalization can lead to originally English language books entering a country, stifling the native language writers already there.

The most important authors get several paragraphs outlining their life and their titles available in English.  Other authors get a few sentences each about their most influential or representative works.  Orthofer comes across as a wise guide, pointing you towards the best while not being afraid to warn about a clunker.  And he has a way of making a book irresistible in a single sentence:

Jang Eun-Lin’s (b.1976) No One Writes Back (2009, English 2013) is a well-crafted and moving road novel that slowly reveals itself to be more than it initially seems.

Sold!

I especially appreciate the effort he makes to include writers outside of the mainstream.  If a country has a lot of expat authors writing in English he makes sure to include some that have been translated from native languages.  Women are woefully underrepresented in translations in general but he points out many, both those concentrating on the female experience and not.  Most of the books are literary fiction but crime, mystery, science fiction, and other genres get some well-deserved love.

Orthofer hints at novels that aren’t translated yet but may be in the future, combining hope and a plea to the universe to make the translation of such worthy fiction happen. And the reference section is a gold mine of websites and books about literature in translation.  My feed reader became more interesting overnight.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is an easy recommendation to anyone that’s trying to diversify their reading.  But I’d also recommend to people that are in a reading rut, have an interest in a particular part of the world, or simply want to try something different.  Going on a trip to Spain?  Want to read something from Brazil in time for the Olympics?  Orthofer has you covered.  This book instantly earned a spot on my reference shelf and I look forward to revisiting it in the years ahead.

Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer

Synopsis:

86145Susan Wise Bauer provides a welcome and encouraging antidote to the distractions of our age, electronic and otherwise. In her previous book the author provided a road map of classical education for parents wishing to home-school their children, and that book is now the premier resource for home-schoolers. In this new book, Bauer takes the same elements and techniques and adapts them to the use of adult readers who want both enjoyment and self-improvement from the time they spend reading.

The Well-Educated Mind offers brief, entertaining histories of five literary genres—fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry—accompanied by detailed instructions on how to read each type. The annotated lists at the end of each chapter—ranging from Cervantes to A. S. Byatt, Herodotus to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich—preview recommended reading and encourage readers to make vital connections between ancient traditions and contemporary writing.

Review:

I think a lot of readers, myself included, have a nagging voice running through their heads – you still haven’t read War and Peace. You haven’t touched any Greek drama since high school. You always meant to study Shakespeare’s sonnets… why aren’t you doing that?

The Well-Educated Mind is a starting point for anyone interesting in tackling the “great books” of the Western canon. Bauer breaks the books into five categories – fiction, plays, history, autobiography, and poetry – and provides a mini-history and study guide for each. Twenty plus works are listed for each category, to be read in chronological order.

If you were to sit down and follow her plan to the letter it would take a long time, even for just one of the areas. You would have a notebook filled with timelines and chapter summaries and family trees. And you would know someone, preferably in the flesh, that would be doing the same thing at roughly the same time so you could discuss each work in detail and debate the finer points.

Needless to say the thought of all this gave me hives. A list of things I “ought” to read, answering questions a la middle school, the need for a friend just as crazy to join me.

Nope, not happening.

That being said I learned a lot from this book – how autobiographies evolved over time, questions to keep in mind when evaluating an argument, books I’ve never heard of that I’m now interested in. But I also felt a lot of guilt, as I’ve only read a few of the many titles she lists. Does that make me a bad reader? Am I lacking?

No, of course not. But it’s a hard feeling to shake. I self-justified – This is the sort of thing to tackle once I’m retired. I work in a science-y field so my time would be better spent reading journals than classics. And if I did read classics it would make more sense for me to read from the Eastern tradition because I live in Japan. So on, and so forth.

What I need to do is get over myself and own the fact that I will never read most of these books, and that’s okay. I will be partly read in the classics and more deeply read in romance, Japanese literature, and medical non-fiction. I will tackle the Russian greats and British poets if, and only if, the mood strikes.

And that will be enough.

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Synopsis:

17707738A novel is a story transmitted from the novelist to the reader. It offers distraction, entertainment, and an opportunity to unwind or focus. But it can also be something more powerful—a way to learn about how to live. Read at the right moment in your life, a novel can—quite literally—change it.

The Novel Cure is a reminder of that power. To create this apothecary, the authors have trawled two thousand years of literature for novels that effectively promote happiness, health, and sanity, written by brilliant minds who knew what it meant to be human and wrote their life lessons into their fiction. Structured like a reference book, readers simply look up their ailment, be it agoraphobia, boredom, or a midlife crisis, and are given a novel to read as the antidote. Whatever your condition, the prescription is simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals and in nice long chunks until you finish. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will offer solace, showing that you’re not the first to experience these emotions.

Review:

The idea of a book curing your ills feels far fetched, I know. Don’t think of novels as a magic elixir or cure all but as a way to examine a problem from a different point of view. Conquer Flying, Fear of by reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight – see how much worse it can be? That turbulence was nothing! Feeling lonely? The gang at 28 Barbary Lane in Tales of the City will take you in as one of their own.

This book can be read equally well straight through or as the mood strikes you. Even if you aren’t suffering from the particular ailment you will still find interesting recommendations to add to your TBR.

The selection of novels covers a wide swath of literary history, from classics to more contemporary works and everything inbetween. I was pleased to see that there were a decent number of books in translation that go beyond the usual Murakami and Russian greats. I especially liked the ten best lists, including the best books for each decade of your life (from teens through 100+), the best novels for when you have a cold, and the best audiobooks for road rage. Genres are hit and miss – fantasy and sci fi are lovingly covered while horror, thrillers, mystery and romance fall by the wayside. Le sigh.

The introductions to each book go me interested in titles but I became annoyed when Berthoud and Elderkin give away major plot points and spoilers. I get that they are eager to say why the book is such a good cure for xyz ailment, but I’d rather they said “trust us” more often. I found myself skimming when they talked about titles already on my TBR just to make sure nothing was ruined for me.

As the authors point out novels are not a substitute for sound medical advice. But when you’re coping with a problem, be it mental or physical (or metaphysical), sometimes a well-chosen book is just the thing you need.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Synopsis:

9476292Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.

Review:

Many “stunt” memoirs are about doing a crazy, unsustainable thing – making every recipe from a huge cookbook, living to the letter of the Bible, going without or making do with.

Sankovitch makes it clear from the beginning that she will not fail. For her reading a book a day isn’t a trial, but an escape and path to healing after the loss of her sister. By giving herself permission to take a year “off” and simplify her life she finds what she was looking for… and what she was running from.

If I found this book at a different point in my life – after a profound loss of my own, say – it would have been more meaningful. I live on the other side of the world from my family and have no sisters nor kids of my own, making it hard for me to identify with much of what Sankovitch talks about. Even so I was left misty eyed repeatedly… not good when you’re reading in a restaurant. But hey, at least it wasn’t crowded.

This would be a great read for someone that’s looking to restart their life after a death of a loved one. While many works are mentioned if you’re itching for book-on-book action you’ll probably be disappointed.