The Lady in Gold

The story begins “never had a little old Jewish lady in Los Angeles called Austria so much trouble.” Telling the tale of Maria Altmann’s quest to have Gustav Klimt’s paintings of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer returned from Austria, Anne Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is an enthralling and enlightening read (thanks to my mom & grandma for the recommendation). O’Connor begins with Klimt and the Jewish bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. Stefan Zweig wrote “whoever wished to put through something in Vienna” or “sought appreciation as well as an audience was dependent on the Jewish bourgeoisie.” She details the response to Klimt’s paintings – a “rare acknowledgement of female sexual desire.” Parallel to understanding the world of Klimt and Adele (and their hinted-at relationship), O’Connor describes Hitler’s relationship with the art world. Not only is the book an examination of Maria’s quest for the paintings of Adele, but of the Nazi looting of art and of post-war Austria’s refusal to acknowledge many origins of their masterpieces. “The Austrian Gallery had amassed an excellent Klimt collection during the war, and they did not intend to give it back.” O’Connor is clearly sympathetic to Maria’s case, but nonetheless presents a fully fleshed-out story. Adele is “frozen in Vienna’s golden moment” but represents the dual question of what defines cultural property (“when patrimony is the arm of genocide”) and what is the value of artwork that evokes the “theft of six million lives?” Definitely worth a read – especially after seeing Klimt’s work displayed at the Belvedere. Rating: ★★★★


Off the Map

Subtitled “Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World,” Alastair Bonnett’s Off the Map (sold in America under the title Unruly Places) was a fascinating collection of places that do not exist within the realm of traditional maps. As the back of the book describes, the book “takes us to the ends of the earth" and "shows us that topophilia, the love of place, is a fundamental part of what it is to be human.” I found it fascinating, full of fun facts and insights into human connection to place. Because the book was a collection of places, here are two examples in order to give a sense of what the book was like:
  1. Arne: a village in the English Channel evacuated in 1942, and where a decoy factory was built. As I learned, “decoys were widely employed throughout England during the war” (22) meant to divert bombers from cities. By June 1944, decoy sites around England were attacked on 730 occasions. After the war, Arne was permanently abandoned. 
  2.  Mount Athos: in the section on “Places of Exception,” about places that exist within other places (i.e. embassies), I found Mount Athos the most fascinating. It is a 50-km long peninsula that extents into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece, with twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries built into the mountain. Women are banned from Athos – female humans and female animals. Mount Athos is an example about the “deep sense of anxiety about the presence of women” (190) that exist within world religions. 

 Bonnett does a fantastic job of taking the reader across the world, into places known and unknown. It was a book of “floating islands, dead cities, and hidden kingdoms.” There are forty-seven places explained within the book, demarcated into seven sections: Lost Spaces, Hidden Geographies, No Man’s Lands, Dead Cities, Spaces of Exception, Enclaves & Breakaway Nations, Floating Islands, and Ephemeral Places. As one review describes, "A conversational, thoroughly researched, and very engaging armchair tour of what might be seen as a parallel planet to the one we live in every day—one in which nothing is ordinary...Alastair Bonnett is a most excellent traveling companion." Perfect for travel, or no travel at all. If you’re looking for a fascinating look into place, or just an escape from wherever you are, pick up this book. Rating: ★★★★


Why Not Me?

Mindy Kaling has published a second collection of essays (a follow up Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, my blog post about that one here) which was better than the first. I read it while waiting to board my flight (thanks to the generous amount of time I had at the airport, also shoutout to my other blog emburack.blogspot.com that has really just been given out to family as of now, follow me on there to hear about some adventures I'm having abroad). I was engrossed not only by Mindy's humor but her perspectives on various things like ambition, women in the workplace, body image, boyfriends... etc. As she writes in her introduction, "The truth is, it’s hard to get people to like you, but it’s even harder to keep people liking you. You’d have to bring in Skittles every single day. The result of my not caring so much about what I say allows me to care more about how I say it. I think it makes my writing more personal and more enjoyable." She is full of nuggets of wisdom. She also had a chapter on sorority life at Dartmouth, and she was a member of my house (Sigma Delta, a local sorority) for a term. The house has changed considerably since her experiences in the late 90s, but it was neat to see her experiences with a place that I consider such a large part of my college experience. Another favorite section of her book was the short chapter entitled "A Perfectly Reasonable Request," where she outlines her ideal boyfriend:
What I'm asking for is not that much. I just want a boyfriend who is sweet and trustworthy. That’s it. He doesn’t need to have a perfect body or look like George Clooney. I want a guy who wants to curl up on a Friday night and watch Netflix. He can even pick the show. I mean, ideally, it’s serialized and female-driven, and maybe not that boring political one. But honestly, I don’t care. It’s not important.
As one review describes, the book "takes readers through parts of Kaling's life with the same energy and fearlessness that mark her comedy." I thought it was a super enjoyable and insightful read that I would highly recommend. Rating: ★★★★★


The Magician's Land

"That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn't be unread." The third book in Lev Grossman's stunning "Magicians trilogy" were as engrossing (if not more) than the first in the series, The Magicians (read about my thoughts on that one, from August 2011 oh boy). The story is simple. The protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a twenty-something who has been educated at a college for magicians and is now king of a magical land that he once believed to be fictional. Saving the world shenanigans ensue. But the emotional punch that the stories pack is so much more than the story. The third book in the trilogy begins with an epigraph excerpted from C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle: "Further up and further in!" and the story begins: "The letter had said to meet in a bookstore..." And further in to the story the readers go. Lev Grossman has combined Chronicles of Narnia with the darker sides of Harry Potter and Donna Tart's The Secret History to create his Magicians trilogy.
It captures Quentin finding himself (as cliché as that is) through something as absurd as magic and it makes it feel real. The Magician King, the second book in the series, alternates POVs with Quentin and Julia, and Julia's story tells of depression and what you have to give up to get what you want. What you have to go through, what depths you allow yourself to sink, before you achieve your goals. The Magician's Land, as the NYT book review writes (and I wholeheartedly agree with): "The Magician’s Land is the strongest book in Grossman’s series. It not only offers a satisfying conclusion to Quentin Coldwater’s quests, earthly and otherwise, but also considers complex questions about identity and selfhood as profound as they are entertaining." The minutia of the magic gets a little tedious at times, but the story is quick-paced and enjoyable. The characters grow over the series and Quentin turns way more likeable and supporting characters get fleshed-out backstories. The series is also being turned into a TV show premiering in 2016, so if you want to stay ahead of the pop-culture curve, read on! I'll end with a great quote from the third book, after Quentin stumbles into a bookstore: "It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home." Rating: ★★★★★


One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

B. J. Novak's debut book is a collection of short stories can best be described as charmingly well-written. Titled One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, Novak's collection contains over 60 short stories and poems, with premises like a rematch between the tortoise and the hare or Confucius at home or a comedy central roast of Nelson Mandela. The titles are lovely - "the Pleasure of Being Right" or "The Vague Restaurant Critic" or "Kindness Among Cakes" - and I loved how the lengths of the stories and poems varied. Novak, known for his work on The Office, is a "a gifted observer of the human condition and a very funny writer capable of winning that rare thing: unselfconsciousness, insuppressible laughter" (The Washington Post, from the inside cover). One great poem, only three lines, titles "If you Love Something":
If you love something, let it go.
If you don't love something, definitely let it go.
Basically, just drop everything, who cares.
The stories, however, were my favorites. The emotional depth always surprises me in short stories (no matter how many I read), and this collection was no difference. There was true heart in all of them. As the NYT Book Review writes, "beneath the hilarious, high-concept set pieces and satires here beats a surprisingly tender heart." I encourage you, even if you don't get the book (which I totally think you should), to read or listen to excerpts on NPR. Charming, loving, funny, well-written, and absurd at times, Novak's One More Thing should definitely be on your reading list. Rating: ★★★★★


The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I discovered Gabrielle Zevin's charming The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in the second-hand bookshop in Hanover as I procrastinated studying for my winter term finals. As an avid fan of small bookstores, this novel was light, quick and loving. One reviewer writes, "Do you fantasize about owning such a place, preferably a jumble of rooms encouraging browsers to meander all afternoon, ideally located in a quaint New England town? Gabrielle Zevin has written this novel for you." And that definitely is one of my fantasies. A. J. Fikry's wife dies in a surprise automobile accident, leaving him to run their bookstore on a small New England island. As he drinks himself into disrepair, his rare book is stolen (one that he could have sold to save his bookstore from bankruptcy) and a two year old is left for him to raise, with a note saying:
To the Owner of this Bookstore:
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desparate.
Maya's Mother 
And so unfolds the story. It was a quick read (I must admit I read it in one sitting) and I really enjoyed it. Nothing special, but sometimes you just need a solid story about books (I know I do). I don't really have much to review besides I loved that each chapter started with a note from A. J. to Maya about an important short story. I now have the desire to look up and read these stories. A quote from Zevin, about how she describes her characters... "I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read.. I think you can do a lot, like describing people with their physical characteristics, things like that, but to me I've always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read." A charming and heartwarming literary story. Rating:★★★★

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James's third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, tells the story of Jamaica from December 1976 to March 1991. "It is a story worth telling, and a story about Jamaica that doesn’t only take place in Jamaica." (from The Guardian's review). The story is not brief, it is an impressive work, clocking in at just under 700 pages. And there are many more than seven deaths. I was enraptured from the first line:
Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you're coming from and you're always returning from it. You know where you're going though you nevr seem to get there and you're just dead. Dead. It sounds final but its a word missing an ing...
 The main plot focuses on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Marley is never referred to by name, only as "The Singer." And he provides the center of the story. But he's not just it. Marley is the starting point for a greater web of dynamics, as the NYT review describes: it is a "multilayered, choral inquiry into Jamaican politics and poverty, into race and class, and into the volatile relationship between the United States and the Caribbean." (X) The book began with a cast of characters, divided by location, which correlated with gang affiliation, and I did find myself constantly referring to this list as the book continued on. James divides his novel into five parts, "Original Rockers," "Ambush in the Night," "Shadow Dancin'," "White Lines / Kids in America" and "Sound Boy Killing," each a different day. There is a multitude of different narrators, which frustrated me at first, but I grew to love. Each character has a distinct voice and differing narration style. I learned so much about Jamaican history and Marlon James's writing was exquisite. I have a long list of quotes on my phone that I hoped to write in this review, but I will end with three, from very different characters:
The first, a poetic narration from gang member "Bam-Bam" who has been hopped up on coke to kill:
I run fast to you, to see you, to put you down but
But Josey beat me to the bang
Bam Bam, wife dead
And your brethren
And your sistren
And anybody that play guitar
I hear the bam bam bam bam on the ground
And reach up and push my feet
Echo in my head, bam bam
Blood rushing beat bam bam
Bomboclaat fuckery, I wanted to shoot you first
Nobody goin' forget the man that shoot you
The second, a reminiscence on the attempted peace treaty between the JLP and the PNP by Josey Wales, head enforcer, don of Copenhagen City (James's fictional Jamaican ghetto) and leader of the Storm Posse:
Peace can't happen when too much to gain in war. And who want peace anyway when all that mean is that you still poor? You can lead a man to peace all you want. You can fly out the singer and make him sing for money to build a new toilet in the ghetto. You can go wind your waste in Rae Town or in Jungle and par with man who only last year kill your brother. But a man can only move so far... 
The third, from Nina Burgess, the main female character (I won't spoil you with her description):
I hate politics. I hate that just because I live here I'm supposed to live politics. And there's nothing you can do. If you don't live politics, politics will live you.
I loved this book. Truly. I read the whole thing in less than a day, and even though I felt it got long at times, by the end I realized that those long times were necessary for the total story. So I would definitely recommend if you're looking for a longer novel. I look forward to reading Marlon James's other works, The Book of Night Women and John Crow's Devil. My apologies for the long review (a long review for a long book?) Rating: ★★★★(★)


The Post Office Girl

The Post Office Girl is one of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's most acclaimed novels.
“Time to leave now, get out of this room, go somewhere, anywhere; sharpen this feeling of happiness and freedom, stretch your limbs, fill your eyes, be awake, wider awake, vividly awake in every sense and every pore.”
The novel tells the story of Christine, who spends her days working in a post office in a lonely Austrian town following World War I. To sum up more eloquently than I can: "One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America and writes requesting that Christine join her and her husband in a Swiss Alpine resort. After a dizzying train ride, Christine finds herself at the top of the world, enjoying a life of privilege that she had never imagined. But Christine’s aunt drops her as abruptly as she picked her up, and soon the young woman is back at the provincial post office, consumed with disappointment and bitterness." (X) Another review describes the story as "Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s haunting and hard-as-nails novel, completed during the 1930s, as he was driven by the Nazis into exile, but left unpublished at the time of his death." I was utterly engrossed in Zweig's writing when I began to read. Zweig was inspiration for one of my favorite films, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my grandmother bought this book for me over the summer. I did not pick it up until winter break, after returning from Israel. While in Israel, I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem. While on a tour, our guide stopped briefly at a display of Jewish authors and intellectuals. Zweig was among them. He left his native Austria in the 1930s and fled to England, then America and Brazil. He later committed suicide at age 60 in 1942. Zweig kept popping up in my life, so I felt compelled to read his stories. And what magnificent stories they were. The Post Office Girl was a wonderful start and introduction to Zweig. It gives you a sense of the social impact of the first World War, and the immense wealth gap. I adored the novel (and his other works, hopefully which I'll write about soon) (going to try to post more often...) Highly recommend, especially if you've never heard of Zweig before. Rating: ★★★★★


Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is over a thousand miles, and Cheryl set out to do it alone. I loved every moment of this book. I had seen the movie (2014's Wild) in the fall and fell in love with the soundtrack. My favorite moment was Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)"  playing as Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon) finished her hike and crossed the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon at the end of the PCT. Anyway, having this soundtrack on repeat (and rewatching the movie) convinced me it was time to finally read the memoir it was based off of. And I read it in one sitting. Cheryl Strayed writes beautifully and makes you feel like you're on the trail with her. The memoir opens in the middle of her hike, as she hurls one of her hiking boots off the side of the mountain. It interweaves her life throughout, her relationship with her mother, her struggles with heroin, her divorce... the book was wonderfully crafted. Cheryl wrote an advice column for years, and one of my favorite quotes from this column (thanks to a great article from Vulture)
“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
This memoir sums up this idea: no regrets on the life you could've had. It is an important concept, and she writes about all the decisions she has made (some bad, some good) led her to where she is now. She reads various books on the trail, and the quotes and reflections interspersed throughout make you want to go on a self-discovery journey of your own (although I probably wouldn't last a day in the wilderness). My favorite, from Emily Dickenson:
If your Nerve, deny you --
Go above your Nerve --
Cheryl did just that. Rating: ★★★★★


My Promised Land

Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is an influential Israeli columnist. His book takes its readers through the history of Israel, beginning in 1897 through the current day. But this is not just your typical history book, in the slightest. Shavit "draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family's story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is large than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension." Each chapter is a glimpse into Israel's history, but I never felt like there were significant gaps. And within each of the chapters, all entitled with a phrase and a year (like "Into the Valley, 1921," "Lydda, 1948" or "J'Accuse, 1999"), Shavit focuses on the stories that make up each chapter in Israel's life. "It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism," writes the New York Times Book Review, "It is about the entirety of the Israeli experience." He does not shy from critiquing Israel, commenting on current political realities that were shaped by historical situations. What I found interesting is that My Promised Land was written in English. It was not meant for Israelis. Instead, it was meant for American Jews. As Jerusalem Post (critically) writes, "Shavit's book gives the American Jewish community the ability to feel comfortable refusing to be inconvenienced for Israel." I viewed My Promised Land differently. Yes, it is the tale of the morally ambiguous Israel, and does give the American Jewish community ability to distance itself from Israel. But I read it as a wonderfully written account of a country that American Jews don't necessarily fully grasp and a book that everyone should read if they have the chance to understand Israel today. To end with a quote from the "Peace, 1993" chapter, describing the Valley of Hulda (currently, a kibbutz; previously, an Arab village)
Hulda is here to stay. And Hulda has no solution. Hulda says peace shall not be. I descend the hill to the well, the vineyard. It's so beautiful and calm here. But the soil is hard. The land is cursed. For it is here, in the Valley of Hulda, that history's door creaked open on April 6, 1948. It is precisely here, at the end of the Herzl forest, that the Jews crossed the threshold between the commune's oil grove and Jamal Munheir's fields and entered the forbidden....Here, by the old well of Hulda, we moved from one phase of our history to another, from one sphere of morality to another. So all that has haunted us ever since is right here. All that will go on haunting us is right here. Generation after generation. War after war.  
I highly recommend it. Rating: ★★★★★