[To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I moved back to New York City in 2007 after an absence of five years. Shortly after my arrival, during one particularly bad insomniac fugue, I noticed The Pushcart War sitting forgotten on a distant shelf in my room, a relic of my elementary school reading days. I devoured it anew in about two hours. A few months ago, I read it again. I loved this book when I first read it in fourth grade, I loved it in 2007 and I love it now.
Its enduring appeal has much to do with what it means to me as a New Yorker. The Pushcart War is one of the quintessential New York books in children’s literature, on a par with Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square, doing for my hometown what Madeline does for Paris and Make Way for Ducklings does for Boston. It meant a lot to a 9-year-old just beginning to make sense of the city’s stew of sights and experiences and also to a 22-year-old finding that his city had changed a lot during an extended absence.
The New York that Jean Merrill presents is one easily familiar to its inhabitants, both in 1964 when it was originally published and even now. It is a polyglot, multicultural city, a bustling conurbation filled with colorful characters and encounters, many based at real locations around Manhattan, from the Upper West Side to Little Italy. It’s a place filled with cranks and raconteurs and folks with names like Morris the Florist, Harry the Hot Dog, Moe Mammoth, General Anna, Papa Peretz, Harry the Hot Dog and Mr. Jerusalem. … Continue reading »
You Lost Me There is an atmospheric novel, in the same vein as Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time—only Lost is affecting and layered, where Curse was spare and unenjoyable. Baldwin writes smoothly and well, and though he occasionally hiccups, he still delivers a nuanced, wrenching character study.
The character being studied: Victor Aaron, a 60-ish research scientist living on a tiny island in Maine. His wife, Sara, died a few years ago, and he’s been gripped, since even before her death, in the fist of a formless depression.
Victor and Sara had a vibrant, loving marriage, one that lasted decades, and that made the sting of its downslide all the more painful. He realized that he was a neglectful husband a few years before Sara’s death, and tried to change unsuccessfully. Then she died in a car accident, and left Victor with an awful mix of grief and regret.
The novel is primarily an exploration of that regret, which sharpens when Victor discovers a box full of index cards, dozens of them, on which his late wife detailed for her therapist her unhappy marriage. Baldwin pads the story with some interesting twists and characters, and he makes the ride an entertaining one, to an infinite degree more than Petterson did. But Lost is not, as its cover claims, very funny, or charming, and you should know that before you decide whether to read it: at its core, and at its best, this is a book about a man being sad.
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, reviewed by Dwight Garner (New York Times)
Hawking might be the smartest man in the world, and his A Brief History of Time is a book everyone should read, even if they have only a passing interest in science and philosophy. Hawking’s newest book takes on religion, as a consequence of asking how the universe began. A ballsy book that could probably only be pulled off successfully by this man, whose “body has been wasted by Lou Gehrig’s disease, while his mind is utterly intact, a pinging black box amid the physical wreckage.”
Ape House, by Sarah Gruen, reviewed by Amy Canfield (Miami Herald)
This is a novel about a house full of apes. These are bonobo chimps that can talk to people with their hands. This quote from Canfield’s review makes me want to read this book: “Gruen sets up her premise with wit, using a couple of quotes. First we hear from Nim Chimpsky, a real-life chimpanzee who learned sign language in the 1970s: ‘Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.’ That statement is followed by a message even more succinct: ‘Gimme, gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more’ — Britney Spears, 2007.”
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, reviewed by Troy Jollimore (Chicago Tribune)
I know I pointed to Freedom in last week’s installment, but this time I included it because I really liked Jollimore’s review. I just powered through this 550-page book in two sitings; it’s very good and you should read it too. I’ll be writing my own review for next week that will surely be the definitive take on the novel, but in the meantime, I like Jollimore’s ability to admire without leaving the faults unidentified.
The McNewspaper isn’t the best place to be looking for quality book recommendations, but this one seems pretty intriguing. Though to be honest, I picked this one because poor O’Brien’s author portrait made me chuckle. Click the link to see it; might as well read the review while you’re there.
Bonus! This weeks best book trailer. The Room, by Emma Donoghue:
Nearing the end of JNR Season 1. As a matter of fact, we haven’t yet pinned down a reader for round 8. So if any intrepid C4 readers/lurkers/passersby feel brave enough, shoot us an email at email@example.com saying you’re interested. We’ll draw a name out of a hat and send the “winner” a crappy novel stuffed with stickers, a koozie, and maybe some other swag–put “JNR” in the subject line so it doesn’t get misplaced. In the meantime, vote below for which of the remaining bad books C4 co-founder Eric Markowsky must read and review.
When I saw Tess’s Tree on display at The Blue Bunny, the local independent bookstore in Dedham, I grew excited. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to satisfy my interests on many different levels. A relative newcomer to Dedham, I’ve been making an effort to read books by local authors. I started with Peter Reynolds, an author, illustrator, and bookstore owner. The first book of his I purchased was The Dot. This was a wonderful story that my entire family enjoyed, and a book that I have since purchased to give as a gift. The illustrations were lovely, the character was both feisty and adorable, and the themes of the genesis of the artist and overcoming the fear of trying new things were compelling and well executed.
I purchased Tess’s Tree in the hopes of not just another great reading experience for me and my children, but one that would hold a special place on their bookshelf. I would be supporting the work of a local bookstore, a local artist, and I could do my best to advocate for it with a lovingly and spectacular review. My enthusiasm was doubly buoyed because I recognized the name of the author, Jess Braillier. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I worked with Jess, but I knew Jess from the days when our former employers shared an office space. Jess was the publisher of Planet Dexter, and among other books, he brought us the New York Times Bestselling title Grossology, by Sylvia Branzei, another book I consider special.
So I walked into The Blue Bunny and bought a signed copy of Tess’s Tree and everything was set for a great night. I removed the dust jacket delicately just before settling down into my glider and then plopped my daughter down on my lap and planned to be amazed.
My expectations were set too high. Tess’s Tree is a solid, well-illustrated book with an original story line and a wonderful message. However, I felt somewhat disappointed. Though I couldn’t quite figure out why. … Continue reading »
Three things helped me fight the urge to employ Tao Lin’s style in reviewing this book:
I’d likely have ended up with an incredibly dull and unimaginative piece of writing
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I feel no need to flatter Tao Lin
Tao Lin imitators (“Linitators” —mine, I think) have sprung up all over the Internet, and all of them suck. This is because nobody can truly capture Tao Lin’s style. Except Tao Lin.
Richard Yates is, at its core, a romcom for the digital native crowd, delivered to us through Gchat, email, text, cell phone and, in an inspired move, by sometimes actually putting the lovers together in the same place. The lovers are 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment (not the cloying actor, but an NYU grad who writes poetry, shoplifts what he needs, and sometimes thinks “about the next three to eight years of his life,” often while wearing “a neutral facial expression”) and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning (not the cloying actor, but a Jersey girl who works at McDonald’s and looks at people with “a sad facial expression,” or sometimes with “a concerned facial expression”). The book’s tagline reads “What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?”—but don’t expect much to be made of the fact that Dakota Fanning (the characters are always referred to by their full names) is underage. It’s an odd tagline, really—Lin is so deft at making the relationship seem perfectly acceptable that, outside of the occasional reference to the cops, the reader forgets that the young couple is breaking the law.
So, if not a racy Lolita-type narrative, what should the reader expect? Well, if you’ve read Tao Lin before, you already know what to expect—a lot of this: … Continue reading »
For most of us, Labor Day is a holiday about one-last barbecues and Wiffle ball games before the shorts get swapped out for sweaters. However, in case you’d rather sit around and read a book about unions and industrialization, here are some suggestions:
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
This is an important book, and one you probably read in high school for it portrayal of historical working conditions for immigrant laborers. But it’s also a very good book. If you don’t remember it, give it another read. It’s pretty short, so you should still have time for beach bocce.
The Pullman Case, by David Ray Papke
I’ve never read this, so I can’t attest to it. But Papke’s got a pretty cool name. If you’re into history books, this could be a good pick-up. In case you don’t know. The Pullman case was a landmark in labor laws–and was helmed by Clarence Darrow. It stemmed from a railworkers strike that got violent when federal troops arrived. It was the reason Grover Cleveland (or Congress then, whatever) established Labor Day and all the hot dogs that entails.
Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard
I’ve never read this book either, but after reading the description at Amazon, I kinda want to. Also, it is set in New Hampshire, which increases its odds of being good by about 11%, because everyone knows NH is the awesomest state in the union.
Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh
This book I actually have read. And it’s very good. A coming of age family drama set in a Pennsylvania coal town, Haigh’s novel isn’t directly about labor unions, but salt-of-the-earth, blue collar existence permeates the tale. It mostly takes place right after World War II, when middle America clawed its way to prominence and backyard barbecues were the cat’s meow.
[We're pulling JABBIC back to a monthly schedule. Look for the next one in October. Find previous installments here. And you can suggest covers we should use, or volunteer to write a blurb, by emailing us here.]
JABBIC is kind of like Balderdash with book covers. Based only on the cover at right, four of our contributors made up a one-paragraph premise for this week’s contestant, Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory. Can you reverse-engineer their fabrications and pick out the book’s real plot? (The answer will be posted in the comments later today.)
1. Were early American naturalists actually members of a secret Satanic cult? When NYU art major Chelsea Robards discovers a hidden series of three sixes in a William Bliss Baker painting, she launches a personal investigation through America’s art museums. Fighting through cover ups and death threats, Chelsea uncovers long-held secrets that, if revealed, would shake America’s artistic foundation to its core. Should Chelsea share the horrors she’s discovered? Will she even live long enough to do so? In this searing portrait of an American artistic movement, Daryl Gregory has created a work that is part alternate history, part Dan Brown-like thriller … and all evil.
2. Greg Daniels has spent his life dealing with Tourrette syndrome. But when he enrolls in a painting class at the local community college Greg’s twitching subsides into smooth and careful brush strokes. While Greg excels at his newfound pastime, he is about to discover a dark truth—that the scenes in his paintings are the sites of future murders.
3. When he discovers an idyllic countryside, failed artist Adolf Swinesburg believes he has found the subject that will finally allow his work to grace the walls of the local coffee-shop-slash-independent-gallery. His paintings don’t improve, but one day he realizes his beloved calligraphy brush from Japan has gone missing. A search of a seemingly innocuous farm house reveals a family of nymphs who love to play harmless tricks on their human neighbors– or so it seems, until Adolf stumbles upon the body of a long-missing poet.
4. A long time ago, artists had powers. Sculptors could create life, musicians could cast spells, and painters could shape—or destroy—the very fabric of the world. Young Lorence Polike is thrown out of his house at age ten, when he accidentally crafts a minor demon out of mud. Now, alone and forced to sculpt more demons just to survive, he’ll set out to find the most legendary magic artist of all: Leonardo da Vinci. The epic quest might save his life—if it doesn’t kill him first.
5. In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.
Many reviews of I Curse the River of Time (like this one, from Shelf Awareness) have called it “atmospheric.” A Time review blurbed on the cover says, “Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting.” I agree with both assessments, but I found Curse atmospheric and painting-like in that it doesn’t ever seem to move.
It reminded me, oddly enough, of the super-slo-moed Justin Bieber song that made the rounds a few weeks ago. Like the song, Petterson’s novel feels like it was intended to be shorter, but got artificially stretched by 800%. Both song and novel are hard to actively dislike, because both are so unassuming and calm. But both are also hard to focus on, or enjoy, or really get anything out of, besides the vague, disconnected feeling of experiencing them. … Continue reading »