Tuesday, December 28, 2010


An Adventure History of Paris

Consider this an entirely unorthodox guidebook through the crooked streets and tumultuous times of Paris.  Robb, as expert as one can be without actually being Parisian, uncovers and shares fleeting tales of famous moments in the City of Lights.  

It is rather like finding a train ticket or a receipt and discovering an unknown afternoon.  He leads off with a somewhat innocuous story of Napoleon visiting the city (the Palais-Royal in particular) as a young man.  From a diary entry, the reader sees a generous and impressionable man -- not a fearless conqueror.

A sophisticated underground system
Robb continues to reanimate voices through the centuries.  Marie Antoinette is captured only because she became lost during her escape attempt.  M. Guillaumot literally keeps Paris from collapsing by shoring up old mining quarries and tunnels -- then finds a new use for his underground city.  The real, vengeful and masterful Comte de Monte Cristo is uncovered.  The romantic criminal-turned-detective Vidocq and the devastating life behind La Boheme.  There is a story of a small building in Marville that escaped numerous wrecking balls.  The photographs of it over the years show the lives it has held.  It is a study of which Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes would be proud.  Zola and Proust weave in amongst the crowds in the early days of the Eiffel Tower and the Metro - landmarks in their own right.  An alchemist takes clues from the facade of Notre Dame and an exuberant Hitler goes on an eerie tour of the city he has obsessed over.  

A famous Metro sign
The book slumps in the middle. The chapters "Occupation" and "Lovers of Saint-Germain Des Pres" do not hold up nearly as well.  Robb uses various storytelling techniques throughout the book, all in an attempt to enhance each tale.  Yet the distant, impressionist portrait of the lives of children during the war doesn't carry the weight it deserves.  The existential chapter is written in screenplay form (Godard-esque, perhaps?) but it is barely readable.  Thankfully, Robb returns to more approachable and appropriate styles of the remainder of the book.  (Sadly, he skips the surrealists and the street photographers of the 1920s.  Perhaps he feared too much had been written on them already). 

These are postcards; small tales, yet ones you can't believe you'd never heard.  It underscores the importance of archives, history-gathering, and storytelling in our own time.  It is not the streets and buildings that make a city -- it is what happens within (and under) them.  The foundations of predecessors determine as much as a cornerstone.  

Many thanks to the folks at WW Norton for the review copy.

Hardcover  - April 2010   ISBN 978-0-393-06724-8   6.5 × 9.5 in / 496 pages

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sheeeeee's baaaaack!

Rebecca DeWinter just won't stay dead. 

Read about her, and more, in the BACK FROM THE DEAD issue of the Revolving Floor:


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

WIN BIG -- It's Happy Haul-idays from Chronicle Books!

It's SO easy to win.  Read about the list of items I've put together.  Leave a comment below.  If Chronicle Books picks your comment, we BOTH win up to $500 worth of great stuff in the list below!  Even if you don't win, you can always visit their website to purchase the items you just can't live without.  As a fan and customer of Chronicle Books for years, I have no qualms about recommending their products.

Since I have both a film criticism and a book criticism blog, I am combining the two interests into one enormous and amazing list which I'll call STORIES & STORYTELLERS.

For the Cinephile...

Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers, By Robert Schnakenberg $16.95
What Your Teachers Never Told You About the World's Greatest Directors

Readers will discover that:
• Charlie Chaplin's corpse was stolen and held for a 400,000£ ransom.
• Akira Kurosawa dreamed of making the ultimate Godzilla film.
• Alfred Hitchcock "lost" his belly button during abdominal surgery—and often shocked his leading ladies by flashing his curiously smooth tummy.

(I might be able to finish one of these...)
TCM Classic Movie Crossword Puzzles, By Turner Classic Movies $9.95
Foreword by Robert Osborne 7 x 9 in; 96 pp

Art of the Modern Movie Poster - International Postwar Style and Design $75.00
By Judith Salavetz, Spencer Drate, and Sam Sarowitz With text by Dave Kehr
11 x 13 in; 516 pp ; 1500 color images; b/w photos throughout
Critically authoritative, visually stunning, and physically massive, Art of the Modern Movie Poster is the first and last word on post-WWII film poster design.

Hollywood Glamour Pack, includes $27.95
Leading Men 7 x 9 in; 240 pp; 200 color and b/w photographs, paperback

Leading Ladies 7 x 9 in; 240 pp; 200 b/w and color photographs, paperback
Full of surprising trivia, film stills, posters, and stunning photos, Leading Men and Leading Ladies pays tribute to the most charismatic, enduring, and elegant actors of their time.

(A flip-book, one of four "scenes" available.)
Petit Cinéma: Bridge $4.95
From the collection of Gaumont Cinémathèque and The Museum of Modern Art 
4 x 2-1/4 in; 120 pp ; b/w photographs throughout, paperback

Picture Show $19.95
Classic Movie Posters from the TCM Archives
By Dianna Edwards, Foreword by Robert Osborne
9 x 12 in; 168 pp ; 150 color images

Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters $40.00
Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film, By August Ragone
8-1/2 x 10-1/2 in; 208 pp ; 200 b/w and color images, hardcover

Moleskine Passions Film Journal $19.95
5 x 8-1/4 in; 240 pp; hardcover

King Kong Journal $10.95
5-9/16 x 8-3/8 in; 96 pp ; debossed cover with tip-on, 2-color throughout, hardcover
Cinescopes $14.95
What Your Favorite Movies Reveal About You By Risa Williams and Ezra Werb
5-1/2 x 7-1/2 in; 176 pp; paperback

The Action Hero's Handbook $14.95
How to Catch a Great White Shark, Perform the Jedi Mind Trick, Track a Fugitive, and Dozens of Other TV and Movie Skills
By David Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht
5 x 7 in; 192 pp; paperback

The Action Heroine's Handbook $14.95
How to Win a Catfight, Drink Someone Under the Table, Choke a Man with Your Bare Thighs, and Dozens of Other TV and Movie Skills
By Jennifer Worick and Joe Borgenicht
5 x 7 in; 192 pp; paperback

Movies to Check Out $10.95
By the Imagineering Company
4-3/4 x 6-5/8 in; 128 pp; hardcover 

For the Bibliophile...

Lethal Vintage - A Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery $23.95
By Nadia Gordon
Lethal Vintage offers a look at what goes on in the mansions above the vines.

Ramayana - Divine Loophole $29.95
By Sanjay Patel
8-3/4 x 8 in; 208 pp; full-color images throughout
Pixar animator Sanjay Patel lends a lush, whimsical illustration style and lighthearted voice to one of Hindu mythology's best-loved and most enduring tales.

(Awesomest party game EVER)
Dracula's Heir - An Interactive Mystery $24.95
By Sam Stall 10 x 8 in; 88 pp ; interactive removable features, hardcover
As with The Crimes of Dr. Watson, Dracula's Heir features an original novella plus several removable clues, including a private journal, a death certificate, a newspaper, and more. Once you've solved the mystery, you can open the final signature (sealed at the printer) to test your sleuthing skills.

(I kinda want to try this now... )
The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects $24.95 
By John Tingey
6 x 9 in; 176 pp ; 125 color and 15 b/w images, hardcover

Mysterio's Encyclopedia of Magic and Conjuring - A Compendium of Astonishing Illusions $24.95
By Gabe Fajuri
7-1/4 x 9 in; 368 pp; hardcover  

(For lovers of THE KINGDOM OF OHIO)
Lost States - True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It $24.95
By Michael Trinklein
8 x 10 in; 160 pp; hardcover

And for the Bravest of All: The Writer...

Copywriting - Successful Writing for Design, Advertising, and Marketing $24.95
By Mark Shaw
7 x 10 in; 208 pp ; 100 illustrations, paperback

You Know You're a Writer When . . . $9.95
By Adair Lara
4 x 6 in; 96 pp; hardcover

(I know I could use this on my desk at times)
The Writer's Toolbox - Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the "Write" Side of Your Brain $24.95
By Jamie Cat Callan
6-3/4 x 9-1/4 x 2 in; hinged box, 64-page, 2-color booklet, 60 cards, 60 wooden sticks, 4 spinning palettes

Like anything on this list?  Have people on your gift list that you'd like to surprise?  Just leave a comment below!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It has been just about a year now that I have been doing book reviews -- and I'm having a blast.  I'd like to thank everyone who takes the time to read my reviews.  But mostly I'd like to thank those that read books, those who write the words that inspire us, those that work tirelessly to see the book on a shelf.

And thank you to Penguin for being very supportive to a rookie reviewer.  Here's to another year!

Monday, November 29, 2010


"He thinks of numbers and electricity, reason and magic."

I am hardly a fan of science fiction or fantasy -- at least not the contemporary version of it.  But Matthew Flaming manages to reinvent a Jules Verne-esque adventure.  And in the midst of the action, finds quiet moments to consider how history is written, and remembered.  How permanent is memory?  Can a photograph be evidence of anything?

Peter Force leaves the frozen hills of Idaho in search of something better in fin de siecle NYC.  Struggling, he takes a job as a digger of the first subway tunnels.  His natural ability to understand mechanics lands him a promotion of sorts to the machine shop.  One afternoon he sees a woman stumble in the park, and he is possessed by an urge to help her.  His actions are innocent enough, but once she confides in him about her strange past, he quickly becomes embroiled in a secret race between Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and JP Morgan.  

Financeer JP Morgan
The young woman is an heir to a lost kingdom in Ohio.  The Latoledan family was given tracts of land in the Louisiana Purchase and allowed to keep their autonomy throughout the Revolution and the Civil War.  Toledo was their capital and for a time they flourished.  But as Manifest Destiny took hold, and subsequent generations mismanaged their land, the kingdom shrank to a speck on the map.  It seems she is the only surviving Latoledan -- only because she escaped the siege via a transportation machine she worked on with Tesla (in this way, it reminds me of Christopher Priest's The Prestige and the "New Transported Man"). 

Inventor Nikola Tesla
It sounds far-fetched when I say it, but Flaming's book is surprising believable.  There is just enough truth to make it all plausible.  This was new science for these steampunk inventors.  Tesla and Edison truly were experimenting with the unknown.  Flaming never strays too far from established history, and he inserts completely believable footnotes and references.  It was convincing enough that I had to investigate for myself.  

I'll leave that discovery to the reader, but I will say that a search of Peter Force came back with exciting results.  There was a Peter Force, who was descended from a French Hugenot family, and was a minor politician in early America.  His was a printer, editor and collector of documents and founded the American Archives.  His personal collection was also purchased by the US Government to start the Library of Congress.  I am certain this is no coincidence.  In fact, nothing in this novel is a coincidence.  Each string of thought leads to another, when it just as easily could have led to a third -- not unlike the labyrinthine tunnels under the city streets.

Flaming's form is also satisfying.  His narrator reveals himself slowly.  It is only in the last few pages that the whole picture is seen, yet it is not a gimmick.  The novel is not about the narrator -- or at least, not only about the narrator.  It is about something much larger and grander than we can comprehend.  And therein lies its draw.  

Many thanks to Caitlin at Berkley Publishing for the review copy.  Also visit www.kingdomofohio.com.

Book: Paperback | 8.26 x 5.23in | 336 pages | ISBN 9780425236949 | 07 Dec 2010 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP

Monday, November 15, 2010

INTERVIEW: With Ben Greenman

About "Celebrity Chekhov"

Ben Greenman has decided it’s time for us to talk back to literary characters.  His recent projects What He’s Poised To Do and Letters with Character both rely upon reader engagement not only to succeed, but to exist.
His latest book, Celebrity Chekhov, inserts present day actors, reality “stars” and otherwise notable notables into classic Russian short stories.  The tales suggest a new understanding of what being famous means, and what we know about those who live under the scrutiny of the public eye.
Elin Woods, Britney Spears, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, and Kim Kardashian all make appearances— and arrive on the other side with a bit more sympathy from the reader.
And with so many celebrities (and celebrity–seekers) around this week, perhaps some levity could come in handy.
I asked Greenman, one of the editors of the New Yorker and contributor to numerous publications, about Chekhov and the celebrities who wouldn’t behave.
Why Chekhov? Why not Twain, or Aesop?
Ben Greenman: Chekhov has special expertise in probing the moral and emotional consequences of apparently ordinary transactions. I could have picked another author, but it wouldn’t have been Twain — his characters are too familiar already. Aesop is interesting, and that’s closer to the benefits of Chekhov — it’s easy to imagine Lindsay Lohan starring in The Fox and the Grapes — but with the narrative detail stripped away, it might seem too nakedly critical of the celebrities, and my point was more about satirizing society than celebrities.
Were there any celebrities that just wouldn’t behave? That rose above the narrative, and just had to be sent back to rehab?
Ben Greenman: O.J. Simpson. Also Bill Clinton. Also Michael Jackson. Also, oddly, Paula Poundstone. Some celebrities didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
Have you heard back from any of the celebrities?  Or from their agents/publicists?
Ben Greenman: A little bit, but no one has gone nuts and threatened to sue me, or Chekhov. I’m a little sad about that. I’m more sad that no one has complained about not being included.
You seem to have an affinity for surreal texts. Unfinished stories, letters to literary characters – what is it about inserting a disjunct detail into a narrative that interests you so much?
Ben Greenman: I think that the process by which we read is dangerous if it’s too smooth. Information and insights (I’ll put both of those in quotes, “information” and “insights”) get absorbed as if true, as if meaningful. How can that work for anyone? I put in strange details, I think, because they give a reader a foothold on a narrative – a little bit of ownership, a moment of drawing back. That’s not always the case: in 2009 I published a straightforward novel called Please Step Back that didn’t have any of these metafictional issues, at least overtly, though it did play with questions of what’s documentary and what’s invented.
Reading should be an exercise in keeping the mind open. I was on a book tour recently and I got some questions that struck me as odd, like “Why would you write a funny book after a serious one?” or “Why would you do a more commercial–feeling book after a more literary one?” I don’t think that way, and I would urge other people not to either.
The job as a writer, I think, is to look at how we interact with and engage with the world. Sometimes that requires thoughtful and sophisticated inquiry. Sometimes it requires clownish comedy.
Often what’s needed is an unholy mix of the two, like what Reese’s would invent if they were literary critics instead of candy makers. You put your clownish comedy in my sophisticated inquiry. With any luck, over the course of a career, they become two great tastes that taste great together.
How much did you have to “change,” adapt?  Did you use a newer or an older translation? 
Ben Greenman: I changed quite a bit in parts, and not very much in other parts. I started from the Constance Garnett translation, which is kind of old–fashioned and stagey, and brought it as far into the present as I could without adding in iPhones and vajazzling.
Are you ever nervous about asking the general public to partake in your literary projects?  How do you let go of the final result?
Ben Greenman: You have to let go. That’s the direction art flows. I have written serious novels and comic stories and essays and experiments, and it’s only ever an invitation: come along if you can.

Read my review of Celebrity Checkhov here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


This gripping mystery from the UK is not for the faint of heart.  Naomi, the main protagonist, has endured the most unspeakable of personal horrors yet found a way to carry on.  So unspeakable that three years later her closest friends are still unaware of it.  That is until she becomes obsessed with finding her missing lover.  Further complicating her story is the fact that her lover is an unhappily-married man.  Knowing the police will be unlikely to look for him if she reveals herself to be the "other woman", she lies about her relationship with him.  And thus begins a tenuous string of truth among lies, leading to the underlying reality.

The novel alternates perspectives between Naomi and Detective Sargaent Charlie Zailer, the tomboy, hard boiled officer assigned to the case.  Their voices are the ones we hear as the bizarre tale unravels. Author Hannah has a natural, believable way of writing the female psyche -- one that is refreshing in a book list burgeoning with immature narratives.  The characters are complicated and display questionable judgement, perhaps, but are not two-dimensional or predictable.  It stretches the psychological boundaries of first-person narrative, especially from a doubtful narrator.

Author Sophie Hannah lives in Yorkshire, England.

Also refreshing is the fact that the publisher/editor for the US did not alter the local flavor.  Characters use words that are only British, and they haven't been watered down for the American reader.  It makes a true difference in the mood and style of the novel.  (For example, a holding cell is a "nick".)
As I mentioned, it is not for the faint of heart.  It is not gory, but it is disturbing and unsettling.  But it is so well-written that you want to keep reading.  Expect to be up late at night. This is a great book to start on a winter afternoon with a cup of hot chocolate, a warm fireplace and a cat for your lap.  I look forward to reading more from Sophie Hannah. 

Thanks to Meghan at Viking/Penguin for the review copy.

Book: Paperback | 5.43 x 8.07in | 400 pages | ISBN 9780143115854 | 28 Sep 2010 | Penguin | 18 - AND UP

Saturday, November 6, 2010

REVIEW: A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

An absolutely fascinating snapshot of a town hit hard by the Great Depression.  As one who never lived through anything so terrifying, I was always intrigued by how emotions -- particularly fear and doubt -- can affect something so math-based like the economy.  And how the (over)reactions of a few can drastically ruin the lives of so many.

Ted Gup, former writer for the Washington Post, is given a suitcase that has been in his grandmother's attic for decades.  When he finally gets around to investigate its contents, he discovers hundreds of letters, thank you notes and cancelled checks.  Even more mysteriously, they were addressed to a Mr. B. Virdot.  Putting his bloodhound skills to use, he digs up the history of these desperate missives -- and some secrets about his own family.

Author Ted Gup, grandson of B. Virdot.

B. Virdot was really Sam Stone (who was really Sam Finkelstein), a Romanian Jew who fled persecution, along with his family, at the turn of the century.  He was a relatively successful businessman in the retail clothing business when the Depression engulfed the country.  Canton, Ohio was particularly hard hit because so much of the local economy was based upon the numerous factories headquartered there.  The unemployment rate there hovered around fifty percent.  And those with job security like grocers and doctors were often traded on a barter system.

Virdot opened a bank account with $750.  He then placed an ad in the Canton Repository asking people to share their stories with him.  He intended to send those most worthy $10 each.  He was so inundated with worthy pleas that he ended up sending $5 to 150 people -- just days before the Christmas holiday in 1933.  Such a transaction probably never would have happened if Virdot had not promised to keep their stories and identities a secret.

Sam Stone aka B. Virdot
The letters that Sam Stone kept reveal more to us now than they ever would have to their neighbors then.  But true to his word, he never let on that he was B. Virdot or that he knew anything about the secrets that had been shared -- even though he would have seen their faces for many years afterward.  Their stories vary, but two things are consistent.  The writers are relieved to be able to tell someone, anyone about their plight, and they are heartened that anyone would even offer help.

Gup sifts through dozens of these letters and finds out what happened to these families after the check was cashed.  In some cases, Gup contacted descendants and read the letters to them.  Most had no idea, but a few remembered that Christmas and being surprised by the doll or the new pair of shoes.

The stories are touching and Gup's research is very thorough.  The only weakness is the sometimes repetitive presentation of the letters and Gup's contextualization.  At times his background as a investigative reporter overtakes a narrative subtlety that the stories benefit from. Still, the book is a spellbinding glimpse into a time that most Americans wished to put behind them.  Yet in this great Recession it does us well to remember where we came from, and where we might go again if we repeat the mistakes of the past.

View more photos and scans of the letters here: http://www.asecretgiftbook.com/
Many thanks to the folks at Penguin Press for the review copy.

Book: Hardcover | 6.14 x 9.25in | 368 pages | ISBN 9781594202704 | 28 Oct 2010 | The Penguin Press | 18 - AND UP

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Russian Pas De Deux: TWO REVIEWS

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

This historical fiction is the debut novel by an award-winning short story writer.  Her true strength lies in creating vignettes; small snowglobe-like places that her characters inhabit.  The tale switches between present day and 1950s Soviet Russia, following the memories of a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi.  

Daphne Kalotay
Pulling the pieces together is a determined auction house associate.  When the ballerina donates her distinctive jewelry collection to benefit the local ballet, they begin to research the history of the unusual jewels.  Of especial interest is the set of amber pieces -- amber with insects trapped inside. While the young, determined auctioneer seeks clues to the maker and owners of the suite, Nina Revskaya retracts further within herself and hides from the painful past.
Kalotay's tone is most comfortable with the "present" scenes.  Her dialogue and actions feel more comfortable.  Though the "past" scenes are a little bit stiff, the characters are warm.  But by far, Kalotay's strength is painting the picture.  Her descriptions bring to life a Soviet lifestyle that is barely possible to imagine.  It is not a classroom understanding of the Iron Curtain.  It is a human, everyday.  The terror and mystery of that other dimension is, in part, revealed, in a very tactile way.  

Kalotay also excels in the portrayal of life backstage.  What it is like to wait in the wings, to see the show from an oblique angle, to be a part of the not-so-glamorous backstage life.  How pieces of ribbon and clay makeup become a dramatic, perfect picture with stage lighting, underscored by an orchestra.  Perhaps the most poignant scene is when a number of the dancers, with a few hours off in Berlin, accidentally take the subway two stops too far... and find themselves on the other side of the Wall.  They see how different life could be, in the seemingly meaningless details.  But it is these details that make it human.  And make Kalotay's novel so vivid.  Read this one by a roaring fire, and with a mug of hot chocolate.

Thanks to Mark at Harper Perennial for the Advanced Reader Edition.

ISBN: 9780061962165; ISBN10: 0061962163; Imprint: Harper; On Sale: 9/7/2010; Format: Hardcover; Trimsize: 6 1/8 x 9; Pages: 480; $25.99; Ages: 18 and Up

Celebrity Chekhov, Adapted and Celebritized by Ben Greenman

In a much less traditional mode are these stories from Russian icon Anton Chekhov.  This is a vodka martini with a twist, both shaken and stirred.  Greenman brings a new layer of (mis)fortune and understanding to the pop culture names we love to hate.  While at first it may seem either unfair to Chekhov, or possibly a celebrity, after a few stories one begins to realize, this is not out of spite.  There are no judgments, just observations of the human condition.  
Ben Greenman

That's not to say it's all dry and dour.  There is humor and a bit of ridiculousness.  But it works.  Greenman has become practiced at these somewhat out-of-body tales.  While there is a modicum of discomfort, it engages the reader in a new way.  There is a sadness by enveloping the faces and personalities that we *think* we know into classic stories.  It's like asking Queen Elizabeth II to go to a rave.  By juxtaposing the two, it forces you to reconsider both.

Something else to bear in mind for reader.  Don't be afraid of Chekhov.  Russian is often a scary moniker in the world of literature.  These stories are very accessible, made even more so by Greenman's adaptations.  It makes me want to revisit Chekhov, actually.  

** Watch this blog for my interview with Ben Greenman about this book.  Coming soon. **

Many thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for the review copy.  

ISBN: 9780061990496; ISBN10: 0061990493; Imprint: Harper Perennial ; On Sale: 10/5/2010; Format: Trade PB; Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8; Pages: 224; $13.99; Ages: 18 and Up

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

REVIEW: Voltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo De Santis

Translated by Lisa Carter

This is the perfect Halloween read.  It is smart, sharp and dry -- like a fine cheese.   It leaves you wanting more, but with the knowledge that it is perfect as it is.

The basic premise, without reveals the twists that make it so lovely, is that calligraphers, of the early 18th century as an occupation, are an endangered species.  The widespread use of the printing press threatens to make them obsolete.  A constantly shifting empire found these professionals dangling at the ends of nooses. 

The narrator happens to be a calligrapher for the playwright Voltaire.  Yet his adventures range further than escaping a hangman or sustaining employment.  He uncovers a steampunk wonder, with a sinister twist.

Again, trying to preserve the magic of this novella, I refrain from revealing too many details.  So let me say this: if you like anything by Poe, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Sherlock Holmes, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, or The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox.  Yes.  All of those.  And I'm sure more that I haven't thought of.  But to put it more simply - read it.  It's amazing, fun and has me looking forward to De Santis' next work.

Many thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy.

ISBN: 9780061479885; ISBN10: 0061479888; Imprint: Harper Perennial; On Sale: 10/5/2010; Format: Trade PB; Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8; Pages: 160; $14.99; Ages: 18 and Up

Sunday, September 26, 2010


The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

Part academia, part history, part theory, part commentary and part mystery itself, this ambitious book tackles numerous subjects at once.  Not because the author lost his focus, but because the stories, and the people in them, were so intertwined.

Author Biggers 
The character Charlie Chan was "invented" by American writer Earl Derr Biggers.  Yet Chan was inspired by real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana.  Apana was illiterate and spoke only broken English but was an amazing officer and caught dozens of criminals in his lengthy career.  A bit of a legend in his own time (stories circulated about his abilities with a bullwhip), Biggers got the idea for a Chinese detective.  The books were wildly popular, and prompted several films (some not even based on books written by Biggers).  All of this amid American anti-immigration policies and before Hawaii was even a state.
Detective Chang Apana
Huang ably describes the circumstances in which this character was born and how he rose to fame.  Aspects of Orientalism, the Great Depression, popular Hollywood, and literary prowess are all investigated.  By setting the contexts for Chan's popularity, Huang gives perspective to what might seem like an outmoded and, by some, racist character.  In fact, Huang tackles this dialogue head-on and dissipates the rhetoric without insulting the angry critics.  Rather, he exposes how very complex Chan really is -- and the reception he has received in other countries, including China.

Actor Warner Oland with Chang Apana
Less focus is given to Biggers and his creation of the character than I would have liked, but only inasmuch as that is where my curiosity lies.  While the films inspired by Chan are of varying degrees of quality, the books are solid and show significant research on Biggers' part.  Having read most of Biggers' novels, I was surprised to find how literary they were, having been introduced to Chan by Warner Oland.

Huang does credit to a number of artists who helped to shape Charlie Chan.  And he graciously allows for an enjoyment of Chan, particularly the films, that is not insensitive.  Thankfully, in researching and putting together this book, Yunte Huang took a bit of Charlie's own advice: Mind like parachute - only function when open!

Thanks to the folks at WW Norton for the review copy. 
Book Details : Hardcover, August 2010, ISBN 978-0-393-06962-4, 6.7 × 9.5 in / 354 pages, Territory Rights: Worldwide

Thursday, September 16, 2010

REVIEW: MAD WORLD by Paula Byrne

Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

"Thorough" is the first word I would use to describe this biography.  Intense, assured, incisive. America had Hemingway and Fitzgerald, while England had Waugh and Wodehouse.  
Wodehouse found the whole scene rather silly and made hysterical fun of it.  Waugh, on the other hand, had a more complicated view.  
The Great War had left aristocratic families in tattered remnants.  Elder sons were dead, or maimed.  A heavy tax was levied against the very wealthy, forcing many to close up or sell manor homes.  A few found themselves forced to take jobs.  The younger siblings of these wayward families felt they had their own marks to make and became known as the Bright Young People.  Waugh, for his part, was a member of the club, but not to the manor born.  His inclusion was based solely on his friendships with various hosts of the ongoing party. He felt distinct self-loathing both for participating in their debauchery, and in desiring to be a part of it.  

It seems his cynicism ebbed and flowed, depending on his mood (or more likely, his standing within an important family).  But his wit remained intact and was employed in varying thicknesses upon all of his writing.  
This biography chooses the writing of Waugh's most famous work, Brideshead Revisited,  as its ultimate target, but as I mentioned before, it is nothing if not thorough.  At times, it can see a little too tangental.  For instance, the chapter exploring the secret scandal of the Lygon family is a bit to muddled, although it makes for good gossip.  
All in all, the author has approached her subject with supreme respect, and bravely included even the unsavory bits for her readers. 

Many thanks the folks at Harper Collins for the review copy.  The paperback will be available March 8, 2011.  Hardcover available now. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

LOCAL BOOKSTORE: The Book Lady, Savannah GA

I submitted this very short description of The Book Lady as part of the Spotlight on Bookstores series.  Every Wednesday, this blog hosts a section encouraging people to write about their favorite independent bookstore.

My submission:

I love to frequent a little, independent, used bookstore called THE BOOK LADY, on Liberty Street in Savannah.  It is nestled a couple of steps down from the street level, in the lower level of an historic old home in downtown Savannah. Brick walls, stuffed leather chairs, fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling shelves, filled with interesting titles.  Her desk is always covered with stacks of invoices, orders, and other books she is considering.  She handwrites all of her receipts on a small pad.  And there is nothing that can stump her encyclopedic knowledge.  But the store has one more secret - a garden out back.  A tiny spot of green, overflowing with flowers - a quiet place to shuffle through your latest find.

Submit yours, and encourage others to frequent these little gems.

*Photo snagged from the Book Lady's FaceBook Page.*

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010


This is unabashed writing at its funniest.  Imagine if David Sedaris were a twentysomething, Jewish, naive, experimental actor abroad, with questionable taste in men -- then wrote a book about it.
Shukert's exploits include landing an unpaid gig in an acting troupe that specializes in nontraditional performance pieces.  The show, seemingly forever in rehearsal, finally gets lined up for a small tour in Europe.  Fickle actors and an even more sensitive director plague the performances but they are the least of Shukert's worries.  She tries on different boyfriends, as if they were a favorite new pair of jeans that slowly shrunk in the dryer, or faded too fast.  None are what is was really looking for and she teaches herself this the hard way. 

The author, Rachel Shukert
But do not think this is a self-pitying memoir.  It is one part cathartic, one part dinner party story.  For most of us, I think we would be embarrassed to share our mistakes so readily with the rest of the world.  But perhaps Shukert sees her readers as members of group therapy.  If she gets it out there, the baggage is lighter and she knows she will never repeat her mistakes.
This chapter in Shukert's life is wrapped up nicely, but let's hope she keeps having adventures, and keeps writing about them.  She reminds us that to err is human, and to read about someone else's growing pains can be hysterical. 

Many thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for the review copy.  Check out her blog, The Olive Reader.

Follow Rachel Shukert (twitter.com/rachelshukert or visit her site.

ISBN: 9780061782350; ISBN10: 0061782351; Imprint: Harper Perennial ; On Sale: 7/27/2010; Format: Trade PB; Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8; Pages: 336; $13.99; Ages: 18 and Up

Thursday, August 26, 2010

CLASSIC REVIEW: Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

I've been a bit slow in the review area lately.  I'm still reading, have no fear, but I am on vacation with limited internet access... and limited time!  It's lovely to unplug but I had to share a few words about this unlikely find. 
I finished the book I brought with me entirely too quickly and was on the lookout for something to amuse myself.  I visited my aunt & uncle's hardware store in the small town of Hidalgo.  I saw a stack of books, gathering dust and possibly holding up the cables for the computer.  I asked if I could borrow the Agatha Christie title, one I had not heard.  She gave me the whole stack.
The book opens with a retired couple moving into a nice country home in need of a bit of TLC.  Her nosey nature leads her to a room full of books, some of which have been made into a cipher.  She translates it - Mary Jordan did not die a natural death.  It was one of us.  She is convinced it was written by the young owner of the book, Alexander Parkinson, whose family owned the house generations ago.
Greenway, Christie's country home in Devon.
What begins out of innocent curiosity, becomes an intrigue of increasing dangerousness.  The list of clues grows as Tuppence and her husband Tommy try to casually gather information from neighbors.  Yet when accidents seem to be more than accidents, and a beloved old gardener dies in a suspicious manner, the couple slowly begins to realize someone doesn't want them to uncover the past of the house.
It's is a great little read.  Most of it is told in dialogue, which Christie uses to extend the narrative, drawing out the tension.  The main characters can be maddening because of their nattering on, but it's of course effective.  They are assisted by their Manchester terrier, Hannibal - rather like an older Nick and Nora with their Asta.  And the settings often remind one of a Daphne du Maurier novel.  Yet it smacks thoroughly of the dame of murder mysteries.

Monday, August 9, 2010

REVIEW: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

This book is absolutely as much fun as you think it is.  But what isn't immediately obvious from the cover (and engrossing subtitle) is how very well-researched and detailed the tales of the recently liberated women of Chicago.  Perry delves into each murderess' past with the nose of a bloodhound.  Drawing on newspaper clippings, quotes, letters and interviews, he sketches a transitional moment in time -- a perfect storm of social upheaval.

Each woman is given equal treatment, and is a sympathetic character if not innocent.  He is more interested in illustrating the conditions that brought about their crime rather than placing judgement on them.  After all, judgement was passed 80 years ago.  

Maurine Waktins
The most compelling character may be the cub reporter Maurine Watkins, a shy, pretty young girl from small town Indiana.  Her staunch Christian values were constantly foiled in the tumultuous 1920s. In a press interview, Perry says of Watkins, "That Maurine Watkins willingly embraced this professional ethos is astonishing.  As I mentioned, she was cripplingly shy. Se had trouble looking a man in the eye... In Chicago, she became fascinated with gangsters.  She even developed a crush on one.  She said that the 'nicest man I men during the time I was doing newspaper work was supposed to be the toughest gunman in Chicago's West Side.  He was like something you read about, such a charming courteous man'." Watkins went on to pen the Broadway smash play Chicago (the Fosse musical would come years later, after her death) as well as William Powell / Myrna Loy films Libeled Lady and I Love You Again.

Much to his credit, Perry also writes in a prose style that makes the action, drama and wit immediate.  There is nothing staid or dusty about this historical study.  Perhaps, like Maurine, we too are at once entranced by the lifestyle, and surprised at our own entrancement. 

Book: Hardcover | 5.98 x 9.01in | 320 pages | ISBN 9780670021970 | 05 Aug 2010 | Viking Adult | 18 - AND UP  Viking Listing

Thanks to Meghan and Gabrielle for the advance copy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

REVIEW: The Art Detective by Philip Mould

Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures

I could not have enjoyed reading this book more.  It is fresh, fast, and furiously entertaining.  If you need a summer read with some substance, look no further. Part Indiana Jones, part London academia, Mould shares tales of his years in portrait dealing with elegant charm.

The Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I, one of Mould's finds.

He leads off with a tale of a packrat who had amassed as many pieces of junk as he had treasures.  There is an aching sadness as both the narrator and reader realize how the collector's life was consumed.  Thankfully, the extensive collection was salvaged and donated to SCAD in Savannah.  

He also delves into the nail-biting world of research (yes, it is exciting), discovery and finally winning at auction.  Many hours are spent in dusty corners of libraries, scouring tidbits of information on the internet, and interogating other experts in the field -- all to determine who put brush to canvas, who made that little smear of paint.  The answer can cost a collector millions of dollars, in either direction.  (It reminds an old soul like myself of the wonderful episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show when they go to auction to get ideas for an episode of the Alan Brady Show.)

Dick Van Dyke & Mary Tyler Moore
This book is great fun, and educational but refreshingly not didactic.  And Mould is quick to give credit to others in his gallery and in the field who are constant sources of assistance and perspective.  It's rather like watching Antiques Roadshow UK (of which he is a appraisal member) -- it's more about the stories behind the art, and the people who love art, than the price tag associated with it.  

Thanks to Meghan at Viking/Penguin for the review copy!

Book: Hardcover | 5.51 x 8.26in | 272 pages | ISBN 9780670021857 | 10 Jun 2010 | Viking Adult | 18 - AND UP