They Make a Good Pair

fingersmith womaninwhite


Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and The Woman in White by Willkie Collins

Sarah Waters’ brilliant novel about thieves and swindlers in Victorian London has a Dickensian feel, but it is also a clever and pointed homage to Collins’ mystery novel. The parallels between the two books are clear, but Fingersmith never feels derivative.


gesualdo jessold


Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer by Wesley Stace and Gesualdo: The Man and His Music by Glenn Watkins

Stace’s novel is a fascinating meditation on the relationship between artistic creation and an artist’s real life. Although set in early 20th century London, it draws heavily on the life of sixteenth century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo.

What am I reading now? (and should you read it, too?)

What I’m Reading Now

Catherynne Valente‘s The Orphan’s Tales series, a set of two books: In the Night Garden, and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. These two books form a modern Arabian Nights, consisting of the fantastical tales a mysterious girl tells a Prince over the course of many nights spent in the palace gardens. These are not merely short story collections with a framing device, however. Valente links and nests the tales like a very complicated set of matreshka dolls or a spiralling labyrinth.

night gardencitiescoinspice

Yes, You Should Read It, Too

I am nearly done with In The Night Garden, and I am thoroughly hooked. The intricate way the stories are nested and connected is incredibly compelling – each tale propelled me on to the next one. I could hardly put the books down. I don’t know whether to plunge ahead as fast as I can, or carefully pace my reading so as to fully savor every sentence.

Books inspired by Eastern European folkore and fairy tales

Inspired by my efforts to learn Polish, I have begun to seek out more fiction inspired by Eastern European culture, particularly its folklore and fairy tales. These mythologies are less often explored in fantasy or magical realism, but many of the books that do draw on Eastern European folklore are very fresh and fascinating.

by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia:  her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

mermaidThe Mermaid in Chelsea Creek
by Michelle Tea

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is about Sophie, a 13 year old who, whose vision of a mermaid inexplicably residing in her hometown’s polluted creek leads to her discovery of the hidden magic in the world and her role as a long-awaited girl of magical power, predicted in a myth that persists in the immigrant communities of Chelsea. Since most of the main characters are Polish-American, the magical elements come from Polish folklore and legend.

by Catherynne M. Valente

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

greatglassseaThe Great Glass Sea
by Josh Weil

Set in a near future Russia, this is the story of Dima and Yarik, twin brothers grappling with the changes brought to their hometown of Petroplavilsk by the projects of billionaire entrepreneur Bazarov. A mysterious, greedy, and often capricious man, Bazarov has built a series of satellite mirrors (the zerkala) that have plunged Petroplavilsk into perpetual daylight and round the clock productivity. He followed that up with the Oranzheria, a giant greenhouse in which to grow crops, which clearly capitalizes on the zerkala. Yarik and Dima react very differently to these developments, and the diverging choices they make have some very wide-ranging consequences. Throughout this story, Weil weaves a subtle thread of Russian folklore through his exploration of the nature and meaning of the connectedness forged through close familial relationships and shared upbringing, the tension between the needs for work/productivity and leisure, the pros and cons of the old soviet way of life and the new rampant capitalism, communal activity and experience and complete individuality.


Great books about music (no musical training required)

Ever since the invention of the phonograph at the end of the 19th century and continuing with the digital streaming services of the early 21st century, music has become ever more accessible to more people. If you want to know more about all of this music and how it is made, there are many wonderful books that can provide interesting and useful insights about music whether or not you’ve ever studied it or played an instrument.

pianoshopThe Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
by Thad Carhart

This short memoir centers around Carhart’s discovery of DesForges Pianos, an atelier in his quartier where pianos are restored and refurbished. Once Carhart gains the proper introduction, he enters into the world of DesForges and a growing friendship with its proprietor and master craftsman, Luc. Carhart also rediscovers his own long-buried passion for pianos and soon selects and purchases a piano from Luc, then begins taking piano lessons. Embedded within the narrative are warm and intelligent reflections on pianos and people’s relationships with them. It’s an instrument that you don’t just possess, but live with. It becomes a part of your household.

musicsmodernmuseMusic’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac
by Sylvia Kahan

This fascinating biography covers the life of Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and one of the most important music patrons of late 19th and early 20th century in France. She commissioned important works from Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, de Falla, Tailleferre, and many others. She also gave many, many composers and performers support through her musical salons. Singer was generally quite forward-thinking, often championing and encouraging those who were at the forefront of modernism. The entire history of 20th century music would have been vastly different were it not for the Princess de Polignac. Kahan’s book is an enormous pleasure to read. It is strongly narrative and linear, which gives it the feel of an engrossing novel.

howmusicworksHow Music Works
by David Byrne

Byrne has a lot of interesting things to say about music and his experiences in and out of the Talking Heads. He covers a lot of ground, offering up illuminating perspectives on the social and cultural functions of music, how these contexts affect its creation, and how the music business works. He is also brimming with a refreshing optimism and positivity about popular music and its future.