I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is one of the most profound love stories I’ve ever read, and I remember loaning my copy to at least five friends afterwards. So when Her Fearful Symmetry came out, I started on it right away.

It’s a story of twin sisters who move to London after the death of an unknown aunt who’s left them money and a flat, and of the inhabitants of this flat’s building that sits next to a cemetery. As you might now guess, death figures prominently in the novel. The story seems to be set in present day, but the narrative and the characters have an ethereal, removed quality that at the same time suggests a past century. This fits comfortably with the tale’s resemblance to Victorian Gothic novels. It has all the elements: Horror, romance, the supernatural, and death all intertwine.

I recommend the book, but not because it follows in Traveler’s footsteps. The tale itself isn’t as engrossing as Niffenegger’s first novel, where you feel compelled to keep reading. I think Her Fearlful Symmetry’s strength is in its aesthetics: the picture it paints of a spiritually active world, the themes of death and darkness. I enjoyed it because I felt transported to an intriguing new time and place.

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We all need methods in our lives to separate the worthwhile from the time-wasting, the valuable wheat from the useless chaff.

I’m not suggesting that all other books are chaff-like (I will admit Twilight was a delicious read), but the award winners below are safe bets in an age where 200,000 books are published each year in the United States alone. For reading and collecting.

Mann Booker Prize, open to novels by citizens of the Commonwealth of  Nations, Ireland, and Zimbabwe

National Book Award, open to American authors

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, open to American authors

Sad to say, I haven’t read any of them. I have my eye on The Children’s Book (Byatt is always great) and The Little Stranger (a mystery in postwar Britain seems right up my alley). Let me know what you think of these, or any of the books on the list.

I discovered a great comment that had been marked by wordpress as “spam,” and I fortunately rescued it from oblivion.

Vanessa from the Odyssey Bookshop commented about a fantastic scheme: Odyssey’s Signed First Edition Club. Each month, they send out a first edition that’s been hand-picked by the staff as a club selection, and signed by the author. Check it out:

The Odyssey has become the premier bookstore in Western Massachusetts for author appearances and signings. Odyssey staff read advance copies of books months before their publication, and are keyed in to those books which are likely to make an impact in the publishing world. We also know the books from small publishing houses, and those which will have ‘short press runs.’ This is important, since a book with a first edition printing of 5,000 copies will, all other things equal, likely have greater value down the road that one with 200,000 copies.

Past selections include The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Pulitzer Prize winer) and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Sea of Poppies (both New York Times’ top ten picks of 2008). And the price? Publisher’s list price plus shipping. I can’t imagine a more rewarding treat to look forward to each month — or a better gift for a friend.

My newest fixation is the audiobook. I’ve taken a few long trips — one to Paris, and most recently holiday travel. When traveling for long periods of time, I have always brought books along but either my eyes get tired or I find I’m restless from bending over a book.

So in preparation for my interminable flight to France, rather than buy a new book, I downloaded one. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. It was mesmerizing. The narrator was brilliant and brought the story to life — a dark and perverse story, I might add. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not for the faint of heart; it is an intriguing mystery that touches on some very uncomfortable subjects (rape and incest, for example).  Audiobooks are a bit pricey, but I consider the entertainment for long trips well worth it. I use Audible, associated with Amazon.

Now I’m on to Anna Karenina, a book that I’ve started before but never finished. The audiobook is around 37 hours long. I’ve listened to 8. But I’m optimistic that I’ll finish. Audiobooks are particularly well-suited to lengthy classics — you don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of difficult characters’ names and heady detail. The story flows at the steady pace of the narrator, and you are drawn along for the ride.

accordioncrimesOver the weekend, I shopped at Books for America‘s amazing sale of used books. I’ll do a profile on Books for America (located in Washington DC) later, but it’s enough now to say that it’s a charity bookstore that has amazing prices.

And those amazing prices were half-off this past weekend. The hardcovers I bought were originally $4, marked down to $2. I bought six books for over $12 with tax! Incredible.

Two of the books weren’t first editions — I just wanted to have them. They were Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (which I have read before, though a long time ago) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer, which I want to read eventually (though I might have to schedule that in 2011).

The others I bought because I suspected they might be first editions, and of course because I wanted to read them as well. I never buy books just for the potential value of them, because I’ll likely be wrong that the book’s a first edition and them I’m stuck with a book I don’t want. Those were Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver; Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx; Leap of Faith by Queen Noor; and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike.

And of course, I came home and did my requisite Alibris analysis (checking to see what the market prices are for first editions). Alas, Accordion Crimes apparently had a limited edition run of 2500 signed copies, and my copy is not one of those. Who knew?! My copy does have a number line with a “1.” Judging from copies for sale on Alibris, I’d guess my copy is about $15. Pristine copies of the signed limited edition are listed for $200.

The Prodigal Summer is probably worth around $20, Leap of Faith isn’t really worth anything, and The Witches of Eastwick, because of the limited run of 250 printed by the Franklin Library (John Updike always does this), is worth around $10. I take into account the condition of the books when I make these estimations.

Checking the prices is just a fun exercise for me; I have no intention of turning around and trying to sell any books. Not anytime soon, anyway!

barack_obama_reading1In the spirit of the inaugural celebration, here’s a post devoted to President-Elect Barack Obama’s love of reading. He himself has written two critically-acclaimed books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, attesting to his appreciation of the power of words.

Culled from a variety of sources (see some articles on the topic at the end of the post), here’s a list of some of the books that Barack Obama has voiced his appreciation for:

Fiction

Poetry

Nonfiction

And Barack Obama himself is no stranger to being a widely-read and renowned writer; his books spent time at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list and a signed first edition copy of Dreams from My Father sold on Abebooks.com for $5,500.

To read more about Barack Obama’s literary tastes, read “Barack by the books” at Salon.com and “From books, new president found voice” at New York Times.

from WebUrbanist

Stacks of books everywhere. A jumbled mess of books toppling over on the shelves. There are better ways to display your books!

And there are more options than a traditional, orderly bookcase. I found this great post on WebUrbanist featuring creative ways to store books. Short on space? Make a staircase out of bookshelves! Hang them from hangers! Build a fort of books for your children to live in!

So maybe these examples of creative bookshelving aren’t all the most practical, but they’re pretty awesome. Check them out at WebUrbanist.

from Bookshelf

And while you’re at it, check out another blog entirely devoted to bookshelves, like the one pictured above. That’s right — all bookshelves, all the time. Bookshelf.