Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I, Libertine: A 1950s Literary Hoax

I just sold a copy of a hilarious literary hoax novel penned by humorist Jean Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon and am struck with a severe case of bookseller's remorse. The book in question is I, Libertine, by Frederick R. Ewing (the goofball pseudonym for Messrs. Shepherd and Sturgeon), published in 1956.

The story behind this hoot of a novel is quite interesting.
Originally, radio disc jockey Jean Shepherd exhorted his cadre of
"Night People" to come up the title for a book that would be a
sure-fire best-seller. "I, Libertine" was suggested by one of his
listeners as an appropriately ridiculous title for a book about the ribald adventures of an 18th century British roue. Thereafter Shepherd
and Company managed to talk up the "Banned in Boston" book and request
copies of it at enough bookstores to the point where it starting
showing up on best-seller lists and in library card files.

At this time, Shepherd and his publisher, Ian Ballantine had lunch
with sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon and Sturgeon was hired to bang
out this bellicose "English" master work under the pen name of
Frederick R. Ewing. Shepherd posed as the dyspeptic looking author on
the rear jacket panel and Frear created a nutty illustration for the
front jacket with the book's hero, "Lance" Corday, in ruffled 18th
century gentleman's garb smirking a la Alfred E. Neuman.

Behind him, a bosomy lady with severe decolletage glares at him from in front of a
tavern,The Fish and Staff (Sturgeon and Shepherd). This book was also published as a paperback and the color cover art must really add to the luridness of this Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous! literary work. I guess I'll have to go on the hunt....

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Guerrilla Marketing for the Bookshop

Last year Dan and I saw the first signs of an anemic book-buying economy and embarked on a tedious, but necessary project to boost book sales on our used bookstore website by adding photographs to all of our book listings. On any given day, I maintain 7,000 or so book listings online, out of the 50,000 books on our bookshop shelves, so this massive project took a little over a year to complete. I chipped away at it in between customers and when the natural lighting in the shop was best, which was hardest to do in the winter months.

The photos aren't Pulitzer Prize winners, but they convey the books' condition and attributes and our book listings get ranked higher in the search engines because of the photos. I do know that our website sales quadrupled, even in these tough economic times, so I'm happy to have done this task. I did also shake my head at myself for having listed some books that are either really common or beat up or overpriced for the market, so these got deleted, donated, repriced, etc. I would recommend this somewhat Sisyphean project to anyone with online book listings that would like to sell more on their own websites.

Now I just got to get cracking on attaching the photos to my book listings for sale on other book seller sites, but I need a break from boring, long projects for awhile.

Another marketing tactic we undertook for Old Saratoga Books was to make use of a metal sign post that was long-vacant and sticking out of the sidewalk a couple of blocks north of our bookshop. Dan fashioned a sign out of some waterproof plastic board scraps from his pile of recyclables and with a few screws and nuts, we now have a directional sign that a few customers have told me lured them into Old Saratoga Books.

Another monumental project which I started during our annual February break was to update my book cataloguing software. I had been using an old version of Homebase for years and was comfortable with it, but wanted to start listing books on Amazon, which has a whole set of issues associated with that; chiefly, the requirement that books without ISBN numbers (which started only in the 1970s) need to have a specific Amazon identification number attached to them to be listed on the bookselling site.

Again, it's another long and tedious project of going through my book database yet again and finding the correct Amazon id to upload and selecting out heavier books to exclude from international delivery, but I bought a copy of the Booktrakker software, which, as advertised, simplifies many of the dreary tasks associated with online bookselling and has the dynamo time-saving feature of uploading all my book updates to our website, Alibris, Biblio and Amazon with one click. Amazon has quickly grown to be my bestselling used book site and this helps in any economic climate. I got back my purchase price for Booktrakker almost immediately through Amazon book sales and would highly recommend it to my colleagues.

Perhaps some of you out there will be able to make use of some of these suggestions for weathering these tough economic conditions. I would love to hear about your similar experiences or any recommendations you may have for increasing book sales.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Reviews: Untangling My Chopsticks & Absinthe

I am squeezing in two short book reviews to complete the Books About Food reading challenge today. Interestingly, both books are centered around green beverages: green tea and absinthe. The first book, "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto", by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (NY: Broadway Books, 2003), recounts the author's year spent in Kyoto, Japan, learning about the art of kaiseki. Kaiseki is the traditional and highly ritualized series of foods to accompany green tea ceremonies and involves a series of small dishes of exquisitely prepared and garnished foods.

Riccardi lands in Kyoto without much knowledge of Japanese culture or language, but is fortunate to have some friends of friends to stay with until she finds other lodging, enrolls in language classes and snags a coveted spot in a prestigious tea kaiseki school where there is an American ex-pat to help her navigate the new culinary and language challenges she faces.

The kaiseki banquets she studies sound exquisite; they evolved from Buddhist monastery traditions into highly formal social dining banquets in which tastings of thick and thin whipped green tea are interspersed with samples of the freshest, seasonal dishes, exquisitely garnished. She also provides interesting glimpses of Japanese home cooking and ordinary restaurant fare, and includes many recipes easily adapted to Western kitchens.

Though this book is but a glimpse into a highly complex Japanese culinary tradition, it was a mouthwatering introduction and I will be referring back to it when attempting my own forays into Japanese cooking.

The concluding book for this Books About Food reading challenge is actually about a distilled spirit, and one which not only does not provide any nourishment butwas historically considered quite deadly in large doses. The spirit in question is Absinthe, that green spirit made from wormwood and the favorite tipple of many an artist, writer and dreamer in 19th century Europe, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

The fascinating history of this often-outlawed beverage is fleshed out in "Absinthe: Sip of Seduction: A Contemporary Guide", by Betina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch (Golden, CO: Speck Press, 2008). This revised edition is an entertaining look at the rituals of drinking this bitter spirit, which involve diluting it with water and straining it through an absinthe spoon and sugar cube to produce an opalescent, cloudy cocktail. Absinthe was perhaps the most vilified alcoholic beverage during the temperance movement that swept the West over the last century, associated as it was with the excesses of the bohemian lifestyle, but it has since become legal to imbibe in the United States and Europe again.

The book contains a wealth of illustrations of Art Nouveau posters, postcards, absinthe drinking paraphrenalia and photographs of Absinthe fans from Aleister Crowley to Johnny Depp, so this makes for an entertaining foray into the lore and truths about this infamous beverage.

This concludes my reading for this short but sweet Books About Food Reading Challenge. In addition to the two books reviewed succinctly above, I also enjoyed reading:

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber

A Bowl of Red:The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants by Frank X. Tolbert

Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen

My original list of Books About Food was changed to suit my mood, but all were enjoyable and recommended reading. Now I am primed to read some more science and classics books. Off to the couch!

Friday, March 20, 2009

More Change at the Bookstore

It must be a sign of the times. Schuylerville, New York is not an economic hot spot, but lately I have more and more customers at Old Saratoga Books paying with coins. Usually it's just kids who come in for one or more of our 25 cent kids books or people killing time in between washer loads from the nearby laundromat. But not lately. There has been a notable uptick in the number of folks forking over handfuls of dimes, quarters and nickels to pay for their paperback and hardcover escapes.

Are they raiding piggy banks for some cheap entertainment? Hunting through couch cushions so as to procure the next installment in their mystery or fantasy series? (note to self: check couch tonite).

Ditto for the surge in phone calls asking if we are buying books right now (answer: VERY sparingly, as I'm trying to balance the yin/yang of the OSB till) and in the number of sales calls for all manner of business services.

Another more encouraging trend is the increase in sales and requests for books about such self-reliant skills as gardening, canning, appliance repair, alternative energy, weatherization and home repairs, and cooking.

I am trying more sale piles of books in the shop and these seem to be selling well and easing the groaning of the shelves. I've been successful with stacks of books by the same author (Stephen King, John Sandford, Doris Lessing and Solzhenitsyn have all been lugged out of the shop to make way for more fiction), and by subject (religious books, gardening and furniture repair have all gone out). If you are one of my regular in-store customers, come on down to see what's stacked up cheap and if you are one of my on-line customers, feel free to call or email to inquire about any inexpensive book lots I might have lying about for sale. Requests for particular authors/titles/subjects also considered.

Gotta go roll some change.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: The Extinction Club by Robert Twigger

The second book on my Science Books Challenge reading list is Robert Twigger's "The Extinction Club" (NY: William Morrow, 2001). My husband had read and enjoyed the author's book about trekking after jungle reptiles in "Big Snake" and I looked forward to diving into this book about the rare Chinese Milu or Pere David deer.

The Milu (Elapharus davidianus) are a native Chinese deer which were only allowed to be kept and hunted by the imperial court. A Basque missionary and amateur naturalist, Pere David, wrote about the deer and smuggled some butchered deer parts back to the West in a French diplomatic pouch (quel odeur!), paving the way for part of the herd to be imported back to various private hunting grounds and sanctuaries back in Europe when the Chinese empire was carved up after the Boxer Rebellion.

Though the book was not the natural history adventure I expected, Twigger's writing is witty and easy to dive into. Just like the Milu, with their camel necks, stag horns, donkey tails and reindeer feet, this book is an amalgam of parts: part philosophical musings on big questions like the meaning of extinction, part history (the carving up of the Chinese empire by Western powers is sad and fascinating), part memoir about writerly angst and only a very small part of information about the subject deer.

Twigger uses a diverting brand of creative non-fiction to juggle these disparate themes and most of the time it works well and reads easily. Other times, it is confusing, as when he invents a maniacal retired Army Major who has the means to cause the extinction of fragile species of fish by pouring chemicals into remote lakes. I thought this fellow was a real person until rereading several passages over again. Then I began to question whether other characters and scenes in the book were real or imagined, so ultimately I have to say that while I was highly entertained by the book, I can't say that I am more informed about Chinese-European history or the saga of the Milu after reading this book. Or was I?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen

There's another helping of book review to serve forth for my Books About Food Reading Challenge, having read the delightful memoir, "Stealing Buddha's Dinner", by Bich Minh Nguyen, NY: Viking, 2007). The first book I read for this event was another memoir about growing up in an American immigrant family, Diana Abu-Jaber's "The Language of Baklava". This book had similar themes about straddling two cultures and finding one's own adult identity, though the main characters switched from being an American Arab to being a Vietnamese refugee.

Nguyen's book starts with her earliest memories of being a toddler in a cold and drafty house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, living with her extended family of her father, older sister, grandmother and five adoring uncles. We find out early on that the family fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, but we don't know what happened to the girls' mother until much later in the book. Her father works long hours at a pillow factory and sleeps with a ceremonial sword on the downstairs sofa to protect his family. His mother, Noi, is a devout Buddhist who cares for the girls and cooks the meals, and is the quiet matriarch in the family.

The uncles provide comic relief and spoil the Nguyen girls with sweets, rock and roll music and toys. The uncles' lairs throughout a succession of moves are a nostalgic morass of Seventies pop culture: shiny rayon clothes, ABBA albums, leather recliners, elaborate hi-fi setups, silver wallpaper. They easily turn off the switch from work to play when they come home from their factory jobs, unlike Nguyen's dad, who spends his few off-hours tensely smoking on the porch or playing cards and billiards with his Vietnamese friends, marinated in lots of booze.

The family is enlarged when Nguyen's father marries Rosa, the socialist teacher and daughter of Mexican migrant workers. She brings her daughter Crissy with her and the family now has to figure out how to integrate this new mother and cook. Rosa is pursuing college and post-graduate studies throughout the book, so her cooking time is precious and limited to a few standard meals that the Nguyen bunch stoically eats without much relish. The author, however, through the lens of adult insight, has a great empathy for her stepmother and insightfully shows her isolation from the rest of the family when they go to Vietnamese parties on the weekends. There, the tall and curvacious Rosa is left to herself, separated by age, gender and language from the cliques of poker-playing men, the TV-watching children and and extended sessions of gossip and deep-frying among the slender women of the kitchen.

Young Binh doesn't want "weirdo" Vietnamese food made from exotic ingredients from the Asian grocery, nor does she savor Rosa's timesaver, budget meals bought with coupons and made from generic cans and boxes. Instead, she covets American junk food: Pringles, a chocolate rainbow of candy bars, Dairy Cones with strawberry dip, McDonalds burgers and buckets of fried chicken. She wants to eat what her conservative, Christian, primarily Dutch heritage neighbors and schoolmates eat so she can fit in, but finds this a constant struggle. As she points out, coming of age in the Seventies and Eighties was to grow up before being ethnic was cool, before phrases like "multiculturalism" and "diversity" were embraced. And Nguyen is unable to become popular like her two pretty (her author photo says she's a knockout too), more gregarious older sisters.

She finds solace in reading and the titles of many of the classic juvenile books she hoards in her special bookcase and which she nests among her bedclothes, will appeal to all those who came to bibliophilia early in life. While her sisters spend their spare change on banana lip gloss and Pat Benatar records, the author buys (and racks up huge library fines) for books outlining the adventures of her friends Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby, Charlotte the Spider, the March family, Harriet Welsch, and the entire Ingalls clan.

Slowly, though, she comes around to appreciate her grandmother's daily offerings of fruit, (first offered to Buddha on a lacquered salver) carefully peeled and sliced; her Pho slippery with noodles and slices of oxtail; and even Rosa's holiday tamales. Though she may still covet "regular" American foods, she finds greater appreciation for her family's spicier tangle of comfort foods.

"Stealing Buddha's Dinner" does not mix in as much wit as "The Language of Baklava", but was as enjoyable for its detailed and sensual evocations of time and place. Foodie readers will enjoy the Bacchanalian descriptions of Vietnamese holiday feasts and Seventies' spreads at "Ponder Rosa" (the Ponderosa steakhouse chain), while others will delight in the way the Nguyen family changes and grows during their years in America. The author explains a lot about traditional Vietnamese and Buddhist culture and how aspects of both clash against against modern American culture.

Recommended reading for foodies, fans of biography and memoir, social history and the American immigrant experience.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Book Review: A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert

A Bowl of Red: The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants, by Frank X. Tolbert, Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company (1988), reprint.

This book is a reprint of the classic chilihead bible, originally published in 1953. Tolbert was a born-and-bred Texan, first, and a journalist and founder of the World Chili Championship held each November in Terlingua, Texas. The book swaggers with lots of outsized Texas bravado about how hot a proper chili should be, how a classic bowl of red would eject any attempts to throw beans into it, and some interesting profiles of cowboy chuck wagon cooks.

"A Bowl of Red" is a little dated, with all of its references to period film stars and celebrities, and some non PC references to various ethnic groups, but it does contain great information about Southwestern culinary history and will make your mouth water for something spicy. He lists some of the many chili aficionados of the day, including humorist H. Allen Smith, Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ, Jack Benny and trumpet virtuoso Harry James, who notes "Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili".

Tolbert's book explores the various permutations of chili (suet or no, tomatoey and garlicky or vegetable-free) and then examines some other Texan specialties, including son of a bitch stew (an extravaganza of cattle organ meats), tamales, enchiladas and burritos. He has the highest regard for the humblest of chili chefs, from diners, jailhouse kitchens and those like Early Caldwell, the Tamale King, who hunts down prime corn shucks and other ingredients and steams up vast quantities in his home kitchen to sell every other day at a prime corner in Athens, Texas.

The book is very entertaining and a great look at a chunk of American food history. I would definitely seek it out as a gift for any chili heads in your life. This is the second book I have read for the Books About Food challenge, which I am thoroughly enjoying. Next up for that reading challenge: "Stealing Buddha's Dinner", by Bich Minh Nguyen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich

Ravens in Winter, written and illustrated by Bernd Heinrich (NY: Summit Books, 1989)

I just finished a great book about ravens and Nevermore will I look at these intelligent birds in the same light again. The author is a Professor of Zoology at the University of Vermont and has written other books about insects, owls, marathon running and ecology.

The book provides a great look at the social behavior of ravens and other birds, bears and creatures of the winter forest in New England, as well as an interesting glimpse into Heinrich's style of scientific observation. He displays his marathon training during the hardcore camping and activities of his first several winters of raven research. He is an Iron Man that sleeps in an unheated cabin during below zero weather, drives hundreds of miles through blizzards, gets up before dawn to shimmy up swaying pine trees to await his feathered research subjects and nonchalantly slices off pieces of raven-ravaged moose butt for supper. A more rugged scientist seems hard to imagine.

The author is dogged in his research and spends monotonous hours in his outdoor blinds watching for ravens to come to the thousands of pounds of slaughterhouse guts and roadkill carcasses he drags uphill on his weekend raven research sessions. He is equally disciplined in avoiding inferences from random observations and reading interpretations into one-time events. He attributes this to a single-minded avoidance of advancing theories without multiple evidence:

When I was very young and didn't "see" what seemed obvious to adults, I often thought I was stupid and unsuited for science. Now I sometimes wonder if that is why I make progress. The ability to invent interconnections is no advantage where the discovery of truth is an objective.

He has a somewhat dry writing style, but his heroics make for interesting reading and he certainly has a sense of humor about his unorthodox research methods. He drives through Maine during hunting season with a dead goat strapped to his hood noting that the beast, which is the same size and coloring as a deer doe, looks "good enough to tag". He enlists volunteer help in capturing and banding razor-beaked test by advertising free beer and a sheep roast at a "Raven Roundup" party.

You may not want to party with Dr. Heinrich but you have to admire his patience and determination and this book was an excellent start to my Science Books Challenge, where I intead to read six books about science in 2009 to expand my selection of reading matter and the content of my gray matter.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Language of Baklava: A Book Review

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber (NY: Pantheon, 2005).

"The Language of Baklava" is the second book pick for the new foodie book club, Cook the Books, that a couple of blogger friends and I have organized. What a fantastic book on so many levels. It is a book full of food memories and recipes, a devastatingly funny collection of crazy family scenes and dialogue, and a writer's memoir, full of interesting
remembrances about how keenly she observed and sensed things throughout her unique childhood. She perfectly captures the buzzing level of energy I remember having as a child and the easy acceptance most children have of new friends and situations.

It is also a funny and perceptive lens on the American immigrant experience of her Jordanian-born father, "Bud" (originally Ghassan), whom we learn is the descendant of Bedouin sheiks and has at least four other wild and crazy brothers who joined him in trading their desert homeland for the Syracuse area of upstate New York. Arid desert winds are swapped for six months of snow and wind that no longer stings from sand but from ice.

Bud was raised Syrian-Orthodox but turned into a "mild" Muslim when he was an adult and struggles with being a gregarious immigrant with high hopes in an American culture that fools and disappoints him often. He marries a tall, American goddess, Abu-Jaber's quiet teacher mother, a retiring figure in the book that quietly accepts moves back to dusty Jordanian compounds when Diana is a pre-schooler and then gets ready for another move when she is a rebellious adolescent. She seems to mutter and slowly fold her objections down inward with each of Bud's new schemes or impromptu dinner parties and I kept wondering why she was so retiring and such a surprisingly minor character in this book. I understand why she was attracted to Bud, a larger-than-life host who can even charm nuns with his spicy special rice and pontifications about religion and philosophy, but I wonder why she never voices any misgivings or argues. She is a very passive character and yet I sense hidden passions and strength.

We learn more about Diana's maternal grandmother, a disdainer of men, in a hilarious Chinese restaurant scene. Never has self-confidence (Gram) and acute adolescent self-anguish (Diana) clashed so mightily as when Gram blunders her way through a conversation with a highly cultured Chinese waiter about the "Chinese opera" she had just taken Diana to see (it was actually Madama Butterfly, a Puccini opera about a Japanese heroine).

Gram's a larger-than-life match for Bud's personality as well. After enduring a bossy father, a scalawag husband that abandons her, and the Great Depression ("brought about by men"), she tries to stanch the burgeoning romance between her daughter and Bud by inviting him over for a bright pink and glistening ham (Muslim taboo), followed by a second dinner of shrimp which Bud thinks are giant insects. Abu-Jaber further defines the difference between them in terms of their cooking styles:

"The problem seems obvious to me: Gram is a baker, Bud's a cook. Cooks are dashing, improvisational, wayward, intuitive; bakers are measured, careful, rational, precise. Gram can follow a recipe, but the drama for spice isn't in her bones. "Oh, rosemary," she says to me dismissively as we discuss a chicken recipe. "Rosemary is for show-offs."

Bud is a restless figure, always wondering whether he should move his family of three daughters back to Jordan to keep them as "good Arab girls" and switching them from suburban to rural real estate around Syracuse as restaurant dreams ebb and flow. As a result, young Diana has to "re-create" herself with all these moves to fit in with new circles of friends. I was especially interested in her comment that American food tasted of "sugar, stone, and chemicals" when she returned from an extended stay in Jordan.

Then, there are the recipes! They sweeten the end of each chapter and I have already tried two of them, Magical Muhammara ("a dip or spread for when you want everyone to quit running around and come to the table") and "Start the Party" Hummus, and can say that they are as sumptuous as Abu-Jaber's writing.

I read Abu-Jaber's second novel, "Crescent", last year and was delighted when "The Language of Baklava" was selected as the second Cook the Books title. It is a book that I can't wait to read it all over again soon.

This book is also the first book read for my portion of the Books about Food challenge, which is headquartered here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Reading Goals for 2009

No Text

For the New Year, I have set out two reading goals for myself. I read entirely too many mysteries (I'm now working through Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti series set in modern Venice; what great characters! what corruption! what great food!) so I would like to stretch myself a bit and read more widely. Here's what I plan to read in 2009 to expand my knowledge of the world and its literature:

Classic Novels:

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Pere Goriot, by Honore de Balzac
O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
Recollections, by Colette

I have never read anything by these authors before, so I will hopefully be able to proudly crow about them the next time some punk kid asks me about them at the shop.

Books about Food:

The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber
A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert
A Glutton for Punishment: Confessions of a Mercenary Eater by Jay Jacobs
Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyenn
We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food, edited by Mark Winegardner

I read a lot of cookbooks and foodie novels for escapism, but I would like to know more about the social history of food, hence this challenge for myself. I have just finished Diana Abu-Jaber's book above for the Cook the Books club, and I have also found out that there is an organized Books About Food Challenge which I may join if I can get my butt in gear for the March 31st deadline.

Books about Science:

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould
Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich
The Extinction Club, by Robert Twigger
The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, by Marilyn Chase
Equations of Eternity: Speculations on Consciousness, Meaning, and the Mathematical Rules that Orchestrate the Cosmos, by David Darling (this last selection will really test my resolve!)

There's a Science Books challenge for 2009 which asks readers to read only 3 books all year to help spread science literacy. I SHOULD be able to do that.

Back to the books....

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reading Groups and Challenges for 2009

I am happy to have finished my Orbis Terrarum reading challenge for 2008 to expand my knowledge of world literature a tiny bit, and now am casting about for some new reading challenges for the New Year. I did a little research into online reading groups and book challenges for another guest blog post at Shelf Space, the blog attached to Foreword Magazine, and you can read all about it here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: The Salt Letters by Christine Balint

While I am a few days over my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge deadline, I did want to clear the decks for a new Reading Year in 2009, so I have a ninth and final book to review. We travel in the uncomfortable and fetid steerage compartment of a ship bound from England to the wilds of Australia in 1854 with a young woman narrator, Sarah, in Christine Balint's debut novel "The Salt Letters" (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001).

Sarah spends yawning days and nights crowded into a bunk and a small room with a cluster of other unmarried women. Their every move is monitored by a Matron, and they are segregated from all other passengers, except for brief journeys above deck when the weather is fair. Otherwise, it is a hot, dank, smelly and long trip, with nothing but a little needlework and gossip for entertainment.

Sarah's recollections about her life in England, which includes an earthy grandmother, a hydrophobic mother and a forbidden attraction with her cousin Richard, are all very interesting and contrast with the squalor of her sea travels. However, having read even more vivid descriptions of conditions on board ships bound for Australia during the same era in Robert Hughes' wonderful history "The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding", I would more likely recommend the latter to anyone looking for a good book on the subject.

Balint has great descriptive talent, but the plot line weaves in and out like one of the heroine's fevered reveries, and ultimately, I was not entirely sure how the book ended. Was she now married? Was she pregnant? Was Richard on board? Did her mother die? Were they finally arrived in Australia? I just didn't feel that things wrapped up and that Balint could have fleshed things out a bit at the end.

Thus concludes my journey around the world with nine books by nine authors about nine different countries, which included:

* 1) Far Afield, by Susan Kaysen (Faroes Islands)
* 2) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia)
* 3) The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
* 4) Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin (Georgia, Russia)
* 5) The Story Teller, by Mario Lllosa Vargas (Peru)
* 6) Talkative Man, by R.K. Narayan (India)
* 7) Balzac & The Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie (China)
* 8) Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka)
* 9) The Salt Letters, by Christine Balint (Australia)

"Far Afield" was a-far and a-way my favorite book out of the lot; it was mordantly funny and the characters were well-described in all their glorious eccentricity. A close second and third for "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" and "Reef", where I was transported to exotic locations and moved by the characters' longing for their former lives.

In 2009 I plan to tackle another reading challenge to stretch my personal reading habits, perhaps with a peek at some classic literature or some history. The structure of a reading challenge like Orbis Terrarum helped keep me on track with my goal and certainly, announcing something publicly on this blog, spurred me on to complete my self-assignment. I am glad that I found some new authors to read further and to recommend to my friends and customers and feel a little more well-read having checked these nine new authors out.

Happy New Year!