Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Thank goodness our publishers provide us with advance copies of books. The two novels below were 600 - 800 pages each. Not sure I could have told you about both of them this week without a head start. Here's what we're reading:

The Valley of Amazement - Amy Tan.
Two continents, three generations: mothers, grandmothers and daughters. Ms. Tan works familiar territory for her new novel. To complain would be like complaining that Dickens only wrote about the British class system. Her depictions of turn-of-the-20th-century Shanghai are vivid and emotional, the lives of the women who made up the courtesan houses are bluntly realistic and yet not without hope and rewards.

It's a vividly strange world where American-born Lucia finds herself after following her Chinese lover from San Francisco. He can't choose her, or the daughter he fathered with her, once he's back in China without losing status with his family, so Lucia becomes the owner of a courtesan house while raising Violet among the women. The book then unravels with all of the labyrinth plot twists and emotional turns Ms. Tan's fans expect, taking the reader on a very satisfying and gripping multi-generational journey, from Shanghai to a hellish Chinese mountain village and back to San Francisco. I read all 600 pages in a weekend - it's that kind of book.

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt.
Ms. Tartt reminds me of John Irving in her willingness to take an outrageous premise and ground it to a life we can all recognize through the power of her imagination and humanity.

Young Theo Decker is caught in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. The bomb blast kills his mother, but only knocks him unconscious. He wakes hurt and disoriented, befriending an older man near him who is moments from dying. The man convinces him that a painting, the 17th century Dutch masterpiece "The Goldfinch," needs to be rescued. In the confusion and hysteria, Theo is able to remove the painting from the wall and make his way out of the ruined building.

In the ensuing years, Theo attempts to cope with the aftermath of that day on many levels, and the painting becomes both a link to his mother and a talisman for the incredible adventure his life becomes. The environments go from comforting to harrowing to absurd; the characters that pop in and out of the story are complex and full of life. Theo strives to both distance himself from the fate he's left with, and to find its emotional core. This central struggle, and its surprising resolution, gives the novel enormous weight and resonance. The Goldfinch succeeds on every ambitious level Ms. Tartt intended, and is a profoundly moving reading experience.

Used Books at Alpine
I had a chance to visit the Alpine Schuler this past week and, of course, headed straight to their Used Book section. To no one's surprise, there were as many gems on the shelves as there are at 28th Street. Keep in mind these are usually single copies, so if you want one you gotta go get it soon - or call the store and have them hold it for you.

Skinny Legs and All - Tom Robbins (hardcover)
His offbeat humor has always been a bookseller favorite. It's rare to see one of his older books in such great condition.

July July - Tim O'Brien (hardcover)
A lesser known, but powerful novel from the author of the astounding The Things They Carried.

Glory Days - Dave Marsh (hardcover)
Music fans will know this one - Dave Marsh's acclaimed bio of Bruce Springsteen is sitting on the shelf in a beautiful First Edition/First Printing edition.

The Man Who Ate Everything - Jeffrey Steingarten (paperback)
Before he was the cranky judge on Iron Chef America he was the author of this best-selling foodie memoir. One of my favorites and one you don't see around much anymore.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union - Micheal Chabon (hardcover)
My vote for one of the most unjustly overlooked American novels, in a beautiful hardcover version.

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth (hardcover)
One of Mr. Roth's more audacious concepts - Charles Lindbergh is elected POTUS and develops an "understanding" with Hitler that leads, of course, to a radically different 20th century American history.

Shakespeare: The Biography - Peter Ackroyd (hardcover)
The definitive story of the man who changed the English language. This volume is the First US Edition.

Round House - Louise Erdrich (hardcover)
Hard to pick a better recent novel than this one, and a pristine hardcover, to boot.

Devil May Care
- Sebastian Faulks (hardcover)
A great entry into the new James Bond canon by one of a rotating cast of thriller authors. Here's a chance to follow where 007 leads.

Let's keep talking about books! Drop me a line and let me know what has you reading past your bedtime.

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.