In Translation: L'Assommoir by Emile Zola'Assommoir (1877) by Emile Zola

"L'Assommoir can be seen not only as a firmly constructed, hard-hitting novel of Paris slum life, but also as a vast canvas of colors and tones making the reader both actually see and feel the life of the poor in the baking sun amid the stench of moldering refuse or in the squalor of snow melting with filthy street waste."

This excerpt from Angus Wilson's "Afterword" sums up all that is so extraordinary and so depressing about the seventh novel in the great Rougon-Macquart chronicle. Setting out to write about every aspect of French society under the Second Empire, Zola crafted twenty exquisitely detailed novels over the course of two decades at the end of the 19th century. His formulation of literary Naturalism, where the writer attempts to study objectively and analyze human society through the lives of his/her characters, was so influential that it drove Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, among others, to craft their own versions of American naturalism.


From the TBR Shelf #20: Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (2013) by Amity Shlaes

I requested this particular audiobook from the library because I'm kind of on a presidential history roll here. I didn't know much about the 30th president of the U.S., and I'm fascinated by early 20th century American history so...yeah. Obvious choice, no?

But what really sparked my interest in this book, even before I started listening to it, was that I had to wait five months just to get it because there were six people ahead of me.

Let me repeat that: SIX OTHER PEOPLE WANTED TO LISTEN TO THIS AUDIOBOOK. About Coolidge. You know, dude who was president at one time but if you ask random people on the street who he was they'd probably say "hrrrrrrhhh?" Yeah. But apparently this book is in demand, so now I have a bit more hope for humanity.

Professor E and the Towering Book Stacks always imagined, when I finally became a “Distinguished Professorial Personage,” that I would blanket my office in books. Even the door. Books on the floor next to my desk, books on the desk, books on top of chairs and the windowsill and lamps. Books spilling out of my door and into the hallway, into other professors’ offices. This was my dream.

Well, friends, I never did become a “DPP,” but I did find an office like the one I just described. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t mine- it’s just good to know that it exists.

It’s Professor E’s office, and no one who’s visited it will ever forget it.
I met Prof. E when I started grad school, and the first time I went to his office hours, I was almost killed by falling books.


From the TBR Shelf #19: The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe,204,203,200_.jpgThe Sorcerer's House (2010) by Gene Wolfe


I must admit that I hadn't read fantasy in a very long time, and when fellow book blogger Andrea sent me Gene Wolfe's novel about an ex-con who inherits an abandoned house and encounters all sorts and kinds of...ummm.... creatures, well, I wasn't about to pass that up!

And I must say, The Sorcerer's House does a very good job of offering up werewolves, face-foxes, and other creatures from "faerie" without so much as a how-dee-do, inviting the reader to plunge headlong into the story that is a world unto itself. 


From the TBR Shelf #18: The Secret History by Donna Tartt Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

Oh. My.

Seriously- I had only two words left in my brain after finishing this novel cause IT. WAS. BRILLIANT.

Now, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I don't normally praise books like this- just the really fantastic ones. I could tell early on that The Secret History would suck me in and deprive me of sleep, as all really great books do. Tartt offers us a narrative at once gripping, anxiety-inducing, and fascinating, all at the same time. After all, "murderous Classics students" is an intriguing phrase, no?


Rachel's Random Recommendation #34: Native Son by Richard Wright Son (1940) by Richard Wright

I've read this book twice and taught it once, but I believe that I could re-read it once a year and still find something new in it because it's that fantastic.

I first came to Richard Wright through Black Boy (1945), and I was hooked. Wright just knows how to draw you in, no matter what he's writing about. His description, for instance, of how he found his way to books while a young boy and read as many as he could made me think about how much of him I saw in myself, despite our different time-periods, religions, geographies, and ethnicities. I felt like Wright was a friend, taking me through his life step-by-step and describing the hardships he endured, as if he had known me for years.


Genre Kryptonite: Opera in Fiction upon a time, I spent most of my waking hours researching and writing about opera in turn-of-the-20th-century American literature for…you know…reasons. Anyway, I found a surprising number of novels from this period that included opera scenes or focused on the lives of opera singers. Actually, it shouldn’t have been too surprising because during the last third of the 19th century, people went kinda cu-RAZY for the operas of Charles Gounod and Richard Wagner. They packed the opera houses night after night cause for some reason they didn’t feel like listening to these performances on their iPods?? Whatever…

But really, 1870-1920 is the most interesting time period, in my humble opinion. And the writers of the time capitalized on that. Trust me, these novels that are all about opera are some of the funkiest and most fascinating you’ll ever pick up. So look, I’m gonna give you a list of some of ‘em (if you reeeeally want more, though, just hit me up).

This one goes out to all my opera homies and anyone interested in cool, old, crazy novels. Enjoy:


20 Bookish Twitter Parody Accounts That Should Exist of you know just how much fun Twitter can be, especially for us cool bookish folk. One of the things that makes it so much fun is the existence of the bookish parody account. These things can really unleash the hilarity…

For example, if you’ve been following @IsTheNovelDead, you’ve probably been rolling around on the floor clutching your stomach cause you’re laughing so hard. Because, seriously, with all the “is the novel/reading/writing/publishing dead?” articles out there, this account was just waiting to be created.

Well, we at Book Riot decided to come up with a list of our own bookish parody accounts that should definitely exist. Please add your own in the comments!


Books to Look For (May): Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Humor

Science Fiction Awakening by Jane Lindskold (Tor Books, 304 pages, May 27)

Two words: SO COOL. (Lemme 'splain). So there's this technologically-advanced human empire that created a "pleasure planet" for fun times, but then CRASH goes the human empire and the cool planet has become a myth. Until, of course, an archaeologist centuries later gets all "I'm gonna find that cool pleasure planet." Next thing you know, you've got the start of a great new scifi series.


Rachel's Random Recommendation #33: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1925) by Sinclair Lewis

Ok, so we all know that Sinclair Lewis novels are pretty great novels because Lewis writes like he means it amiright?

What struck me about Arrowsmith was how frankly Lewis exposed the culture of scientific research and education in early-20th century America, just as "professionalization" was becoming mainstream.

And I'm using "exposed" here in the sense of a scientist slicing something open to dissect it- exposing the innards, if you will; looking at everything with an objective eye, seeking knowledge, not jumping just yet to any conclusions.


Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer by Jeff VanderMeer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pages, May)

This second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy...I can't...really...oh words...

*pulls herself together*

Ok, let me try that again.

Authority continues the story begun in Annihilation of an unexplained Event that has completely erased all human traces from a piece of land in the southern U. S. Thing is, it's a little too pristine there, and all expeditions sent to investigate have failed to understand it. Oh, and all kinds of terrible things have happened to those expeditions...


Books to Look For (May): History, Comics/Graphic Novels, & Travel

History Foundations of Bretton Woods: International Development and the Making of the Postwar Order by Eric Helleiner (Cornell University Press, May 27)

I hear you saying "Bretton what? Development who?" but I had to highlight this book because I've been to Mount Washington, New Hampshire and it is beautiful. The mountain soars up into the clouds and the road that leads to the top of it is a lot of fun, if a bit frightening (no guardrail...). And the Mount Washington Resort is one of  those old, early-20th-century hotels where the old-timey-ness has been well-preserved. If you take the tour of the hotel, they'll give you a lengthy dissertation on the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, where the Allied countries met to fix up a new international economic order for after the war. Anyway, there's all kinds of cool stuff in here, so be sure to check it out.


From the TBR Shelf #17: How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique to Escape From a Leper Colony (2010) by Tiphanie Yanique

I must admit that I've read very few Caribbean writers (I have read Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipal, and Jamaica Kinkaid, but that was back in college...). Yanique's collection of stories in How to Escape From a Leper Colony makes me want to read so much more by writers from this part of the world.

While the term "Caribbean" fails to convey the vibrant multitude of peoples and cultural practices from Haiti to Jamaica, the Virgin Islands to Trinidad, and beyond, Yanique offers us stories that reveal the richness and diversity of the region. Moving from 1930s Trinidad to the Virgin Islands of the present day, and from Florida to England, these stories of interracial relationships, coffin-shop owners, Carnival participants, and artists are fully-imagined worlds. 


In Translation: May Fiction
 So I hear that there aren’t only two countries on this planet (1. America, 2. everybody else), but nearly 200! Two hundred countries! With all sorts and kinds of languages. Even multiple languages in many of them! And lots of those people write books. Holy bookstacks!

But can you guess how many books from all of those countries are translated into English and made available to the English-speaking, book-buying American public? Yeah, that would be 3%. Where did I get that number? Well, from a web resource devoted to translated lit appropriately named “Three Percent,” which claims in its description that “reading literature from other countries is vital to maintaining a vibrant book culture and to increasing the exchange of ideas among cultures.”

Buy, Borrow, Bypass: WWII + Vampires Edition

cryptonomicon Cryptonomicon (1999) by Neal Stephenson
This is one of those novels that you don’t want to read while you’re lying down, cause if it falls on your face it’ll be 1100+ pages of hurt. But what a wild ride it is. You’ve got your cryptography and proto-computers, your WWII submarines and stacks of gold bars, your Alan Turing and General MacArthur (yes, you read that right). Cryptonomicon swings back and forth between the 1940s and the 1990s, between brilliant mathematicians building complex computing machines and the building of a data haven in the Philippines, and between two generations of Waterhouse men involved in these projects. It’s not until the last third of the novel that the three story lines converge, and larger questions of security, bureaucracy, and world finance become clearer. Even with the many characters packed into the book, Stephenson managed to make me care about them all. A fun and intelligent read.

Verdict: Borrow because you’ll know about 50 pages in if you want to keep going or not. If you’re really digging it by page 50, then by all means, go and buy it!


In Translation: Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin Train to Istanbul (2002) by Ayşe Kulin

As you may know, I've been reading a LOT of WWII fiction lately, and not on purpose. It's just that all of these writers/books I've been meaning to read have fallen into my lap at once, and it's pretty fascinating to compare them.

Like Suite Francaise, Last Train is one of those novels that speeds up your heart rate and unapologetically raises your blood pressure. Most likely, this is because both are about events that took place during the war (a frantic exodus from the cities as the Germans invaded, the rounding-up of Jews and anybody else the Nazis didn't like the look of). Another thing these two books have in common is that they were recently translated, thus giving English-speakers a window onto how the war affected Europeans from their own perspective.


Books to Look For (May): Autobiography, Literary Fiction, & Mystery

Autobiography Up Straight and Sing! by Jessye Norman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, May 6)

You don't have to be an opera buff to love the sound of a beautiful voice, and Jessye Norman is known for hers, that's for sure. Descended from generations of enslaved and free Georgians, Norman developed her voice in her community church, launching into an opera career after being inspired by Marian Anderson. Spirituals, blues, and jazz also feature in Norman's repertoire. This is the story of a remarkable, inspiring life.


From the TBR Shelf #16: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell in the Lemon Grove (2013) by Karen Russell

The eight stories that make up Vampires in the Lemon Grove are at times beautiful, strange, haunting, and hilarious. Here, Russell has created compelling mini-worlds populated by human and non-human characters who struggle with desire, regret, terror, and...well, you get the picture. Reminiscent at times of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury (who explored the comingling of "reality" and "fantasy"), Russell's stories are eclectic enough to make me wonder how many hours of research went into writing them because the level of detail and knowledge is outrageous.

But what are these stories about?? Well...


Rachel's Random Recommendation #32: The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene Ministry of Fear (1943) by Graham Greene

Despite having read this, my only Greene novel, about 15 years ago, I've always remembered it as one of the strangest and yet most interesting and even thrilling books I've ever read.

In fact, because of its setting in war-torn London during the blitz and its surreal plot, The Ministry of Fear reminds me of another WWII/bombs-dropping-on-London text: "Chard Whitlow" by Henry Reed (one of my all-time favorite poems).


Studies Show: Fewer People Reading Scrolls[The following fragment (once part of a scroll) was recently discovered when construction workers were razing a timeless architectural wonder somewhere in Greece.]

Move over, scroll; it’s codex time.

“But the scroll,” you say, “the scroll has been around for millennia! How could people just abandon it? It’s the ONLY WAY to read!”

The times are a-changin’, though, as several recent studies show.

Apparently, one out of every three readers uses a codex, rather than a scroll, to get their daily literature fix.

In Translation: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky Française (2004) by Irène Némirovsky

I remember hearing about this book (and how fantastic it was) when it was first published in English in 2004 (yes, it took me this long to get around to reading it. Sigh). Némirovsky, a well-known, respected, and prolific Russian-French author, had written Suite Française while trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis as they invaded France in 1940. Despite having lived in France for years and converting to Roman Catholicism, Némirovsky was nonetheless targeted because of her Jewish heritage. The letters included in the Vintage edition reveal the desperate attempts of the writer's husband and publisher to release her from the concentration camp to which she was confined. She died, though, in 1942, before any help could come.