Aug 17, 2014

The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour

In the legend for which the main character, Zal, is named, Zal is rejected by his father as an infant and left to die in the wild. A giant bird finds him and raises him as her own; his father later returns, recognizes his son, sets him on the throne, and Zal becomes a mighty conqueror, protected by a huge white feather from his magical bird mother. Our protagonist Zal, born in Iran with white skin and yellow hair, is rejected by his horrified mother, who calls him White Demon and delivers him into a cage, raising him as a bird alongside her more beloved bird pets. Discovered at the age of 10 by his elder sister, Zal is freed, renamed, and adopted by an American man who specializes in the psychology of feral children.

Zal becomes in interesting man; he defies the odds and reaches a surprising level of normality, considering. This is a big word for Zal, who wishes he could be himself and also be normal without having everyone around him ending their assessments of him with that word, considering, implying that his past is so overpowering that he will never be able to be just plain old normal, with no considering on the side. In his early twenties, Zal meets the very strange Asiya McDonald on the streets of Manhattan. Asiya, whose parents divorced and left her in charge of her two younger siblings - one of whom is so overweight she is confined to a bed, while the other has serious anger management issues - is an artist, a religion-hopper, and an anorexic. And also kind of crazy. Maybe.

This is a fantastic book, cleverly written and conceived, so much so that (having started reading it without referencing the blurb on the back) I only realized what it's really about until I was two-thirds of the way through. I won't say what that is here, since I think I enjoyed it much more not having that thought in the back of my head the whole time. It allowed me not to categorize it as anything but just "fiction," and I really liked it.

Aug 14, 2014

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck

This fascinating book was chosen by one of my bookstore's owners for our next book club meeting, and I really enjoyed reading it. Speck is arguing for a vastly reduced dependence upon cars for all but the most rural of environments, and his arguments are very convincing. He cites study after study that prove that increasing walkability makes all aspects of the economy go up: property values, local businesses, income savings. He suggests building our cities around the pedestrian instead of the car, which has proven to only blight downtowns, which should be the lifeblood of our economy. He especially attacks traffic engineers and the various state DOTs for insisting on huge, unnecessary roadways, giving lipservice to safety, when really it's been proven that smaller, tree-lined streets lead drivers to drive more slowly and cautiously and have far fewer accidents. It's a no-nonsense approach, backed by an immense amount of hard data that the average person generally has no access to (or interest in). Speck's enthusiasm makes for a very easy and entertaining read, and I can't wait to discuss his ideas with our group.

Aug 5, 2014

Golden Boy, by Tara Sullivan

This is the final selection of my bookstore's summer teen book club. It's about Habo, an thirteen-year-old African albino whose family is forced to leave their failing farm and move to a city to find work. Habo is the only albino he and his family and village have ever seen, and he has no idea that there are others like him. He only knows that he is different, though he knows he feels the same emotions and has the same needs as everyone else. Mwanza, the city his family first goes to, holds great danger for Habo: here, albinos are killed and their body parts harvested as tokens of good luck, much like a rabbit's foot. Habo tries to hide but is found out, and must escape the city, leaving his family and everything he knows behind.

"Golden Boy" is a bit of a stressful read; it's written in the first person, from Habo's perspective, so we feel very immediately all of his fears and anxieties. Since he's frightened for most of the book, this can make for some decidedly unrelaxed reading. But this is an issue well-worth bringing attention to, and I'm glad Sullivan is doing so with this book.

VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

I can't decide if this book is brilliant or utterly ridiculous; perhaps it's a bit of both. It's incredibly hard to explain "VALIS," but here goes: Dick, writing about himself in the third person as Horselover Fat, has a psychotic break. He thinks that God/Jesus/Buddha/Asklepios/an omniscient alien satellite fires a beam of pink light into his head and he is suddenly filled with knowledge, both of a mundane and surreal nature. Half the book is taken up with Fat's exegesis, delving into the mythological pasts of most of the world's major religions, conflating and explaining them. The rest of the story is actual plot, though even most of this consists of philosophical/religious discussions amongst Fat and his three friends (one of whom is Dick, who at this time considers himself a totally separate entity from Fat). Since I studied history and religion in college, I was able to follow a good deal of the exegesis, but it was still confusing and hard to get through at parts. I'm still trying to sort out exactly what it is I read... This is probably the least accessible work of science fiction I've ever read, though interesting, and I'm glad I read it despite not understanding it all.

Jul 31, 2014

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

This is the first, and last, Stephen King book I will read. Some people get a thrill reading about gruesome murders and horrific rapes; I am clearly not one of those people. This is a collection of four short stories, novellas, really, though I could only read three of them and had to skip part of one of those. Graphic violence really does nothing for me. I've heard a lot of people really love King's writing, and while I did think the first story was well-written, the other stories didn't stand out to me. I can't even really remember the third, and I read it mere days ago. Fantasy or sci-fi violence doesn't affect me the same way modern violence does; chopping off heads with swords isn't something I would read in the newspaper, whereas King's stories seem totally plausible. But reading is my escape, and I have no interest in reading about something in my spare time - and for pleasure - that sounds like it could actually happen. I know that horrible people do terrible things to each other, but I don't want to think about it any more than I absolutely have to.

On a similar note, I also tried reading Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," which has been recommended to me on several occasions. I got about thirty pages in before running into the same problem: I just don't want to read about a public prosecutor being raped and murdered in her own home. There's nothing titillating or interesting about that to me. So I think I'll stay away from horror and mysteries from now on.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I really enjoyed this book that has become a teen classic over the last 14 years since its publication. I think it may be "The Catcher in the Rye" of our generation, only with a far more likable main character. Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a precocious, lonely boy with a whole lot of brains and a whole lot of feelings. He befriends (or is befriended by) a group of older teens who come to love Charlie's awkwardness because they see the wonderful intent behind it. Charlie just wants to be a good friend, though sometimes he takes that a bit too far, a potential flaw that his older crush points out. He wants to please everyone so badly that his own needs and desires become background noise. This, and other emotional issues, are explained towards the end of the book in a slowly dawning, yet still shocking revelation. It's an ambitious novel, both in subject and in form (Charlie tells his story in letters to an unnamed "friend"), and Chbosky's ambition pays off in a big way. I can understand why this book has touched a lot of people and continues to be a well-read staple of teen literature.

Jul 23, 2014

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris

David Sedaris really is a magnificent essayist. There's not a single one of the chapters in this book that isn't funny and poignant and expertly crafted. He has the kind of writing skill (and memory) that booksellers dream of: oh, the stories we could tell about our bookstores, if only we could write as well as Sedaris. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing him speak at my college several years ago, and hearing his voice and delivery in my head while reading his essays only makes them better. His essays definitely have a pattern - funny story about himself or a family member, then incredibly touching and insightful denouement at the very end - which with other writes would seem trite, but with Sedaris, the knowledge of what will come at the end increases one's anticipation of it, as well as the humor of the rest of the story. I need to read his work more often.