Jan 31, 2015

Napa, by James Conaway

Published in 1990, this book is still controversial among Napans for its exposure of the very insular world of Napa winemakers. Conaway traces families both famous and little-known, revealing mental illness, suicide, sibling rupture...you name it. He traces the growth of Napa from a rural backwater that happened to grow good grapes into the international financial and cultural powerhouse that it is today (or rather, that it was in 1990 and is even more so today). There is little in the way of commentary, but his writing makes clear that Conaway supported the agricultural preserve and those who fought for stricter land use and finds the corporate vintners snobbish and arrogant, as well as terrifyingly short-sighted environmentally. Having lived in the valley for two years now, and knowing some of the people mentioned in the book, it's a fascinating peek into that world. And Conaway is a skillful writer, descriptive and engaging. I've also met the man, at an event he did for the bookstore, and found him very charming and intelligent. I'm not surprised people opened up to him the way they must have, but even then, the amount of research that went into this book shows great tenacity. I'm curious about his follow-up book, "The Far Side of Eden," written ten years after "Napa," and there are beginning to be rumors that he is starting research on a third...

Jan 11, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

It would be impossible - or at least make for an excessively long review - to enumerate the ways in which in this book is incredible. This is science fiction at its best while still being very accessible to a non-sci fi reader. It is a tale truly as old as time: alienation and the other slowly dissolving into understanding, kinship, and friendship.

We are cast into an unknown world just as is our protagonist, Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen sent to the cold planet Winter to pave the way for an alliance with the 80-odd other planets inhabited by humans. Each world has its own particular brand of human: on Gethen, they are a kind of hermaphrodite. Neuter most of the time, Gethenians go into kemmer about once a month (think an animal in heat) and interaction with other people determines which gender the individual becomes for the sake of mating. Thus can each Gethenian both father and mother children. The impact this has on society is immense, and it is a thread that runs through the book as well as being discussed explicitly a number of times.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a journey tale, as well, and a politico-philosophical treatise, and a mythology, and many other things. The writing is superb, descriptive enough to paint a vivid picture without being bogged down. Small wonder this gem won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Jan 4, 2015

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

This is, embarrassingly, the first book I've read by the venerable Jane Austen, and I only picked it up because our book club reads it this month. And I really liked it! We all know my love of the Brits, and while Austen's humor (or should I say "humour"?) is much subtler than Pratchett or Gaiman or even Kate Atkinson, I still found it to be delightful. The book is a parody of upper class British life, the idleness in which they lived their lives while trying to glean every possible bit of information about each other by the most roundabout means. After all, when all your business interests are operated by underlings and maids do all the cleaning and cooking and child-rearing, what else is there to do but gossip?

S&S, as my Austen-loving friend calls it, is about two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their marital circumstances. We follow them both through heartbreak and new love and old love and slow-to-start love as they navigate the ridiculous people amongst whom they find themselves. Austen's descriptions of her characters are my favorite part, and the more she dislikes them the juicier the description. I see how they have caught the imagination for so many years, and look forward to reading more of her famous oeuvre.

Dec 31, 2014

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

This is a really fantastic novel about the two children of performance artists. Caleb and Camille Fang believe traditional art (i.e. painting, sculpture, theater) is dead. True art involves an unwitting audience witnessing a ridiculous/horrific/violent event. Think flash mob, with fewer people and a lot more awkwardness. Their children, Child A (Annie) and Child B (Buster), are participants in these events, raised to do whatever Caleb and Camille ask them to in the name of art (e.g. Buster wears a wig and dress to compete in a children's beauty pageant as a commentary on gender norms). As adults, well, they're pretty fucked up. Annie's a movie star, Buster's a freelance writer with two novels - one successful, one panned - under his belt, and they are both very much alone. When Caleb and Camille suddenly, violently, go missing, they are convinced this is just another Fang Event and determine to find them and ruin it.

It's a great book. I love Wilson's writing and the switch between past Fang Events and Annie and Buster's current lives. It's infuriating, too, because you end up respecting Caleb and Camille as artists while hating them as human beings and parents, and I always appreciate a book that succeeds in muddling your feelings and expectations.

The Midnight Charter, by David Whitley

I was very impressed by this unique young adult fantasy. The city of Agora is ruled by the Director of Receipts. There is no currency here, you own yourself and barter your services for food and shelter, and it is up to each individual to produce something she or he can trade. So the fishermen trade their fish for food and medicine and rent, glassblowers trade their glass, woodworkers trade their handcrafted pieces. Those who have nothing to trade, whose bodies even are worthless, are debtors, damaged goods; these unfortunates are arrested by the Receivers for their debts or die on the streets.

Lily, a twelve-year-old (at the age of twelve, you own yourself rather than your parents owning you) who was raised in an orphanage, believes that just because one cannot offer anything doesn't mean one deserves imprisonment or death. She brings the notion of charity into this mercenary world, an idea that could shake the very foundation of Agora's success as a society. At the same time, Mark, sold by his father to pay for medicine, reaches his twelfth birthday and becomes a tool of the elites to play their power games.

It's a wonderful concept, very original and striking, though perhaps a bit beyond the age at which the writing itself is aimed. I'd say that the idea is appropriate for thirteen and up, whereas the writing is around a ten-twelve age level. The discrepancy makes this a difficult book to recommend, but I still really enjoyed it. It's the first of a trilogy, so I'll be trying to find the second and look forward to seeing the choices Mark and Lily make.

Dec 21, 2014

The Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

I will be the first to admit that I am sometimes afflicted with literary snobbishness, one area of which is the genre of mysteries. I've tried to read some, and they just don't appeal to me. My sense of most mystery/thriller authors is that they are skilled mainly in quantity, not quality. It was with some hesitation that I picked up this Laurie King mystery, but then found it to be so much fun! Granted, the main reason I enjoyed it so much as that it is ever so British. "The Pirate King" is King's eleventh novel in a series about Mary Russell, wife of Sherlock Holmes, who narrates with a quintessentially British wit. The mystery was rather secondary to the rest of the novel, which was just fine by me since mysteries aren't my thing. But it was quite clever, I thought, very engagingly written and smart, and I really enjoyed reading it. So now I know not to judge a book by its author, and that I have a new series I can read when I need my British humor fix.

Dec 14, 2014

The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey

I don't think my eyes have rolled so much while reading since I read "Shantaram." Ostensibly about Gilbert Bland, the man who stole hundreds of antiquarian maps from libraries across the U.S. during the 1990s, "The Island of Lost Maps" is overburdened with Harvey's navel-gazing. I wanted this book to be like "The Billionaire's Vinegar" or "The Orchid Thief," but instead it devolves into psychobabble about how maps are an allegory of the human fear of the unknown, both internal and external (duh); how Harvey's search for answers to why Bland would do such a thing parallels Bland's crimes themselves (eh...maybe); and how Harvey's attempt to understand Bland, as well as Harvey's understanding of himself, is exactly like Bland in key ways (quite a stretch, if you ask me). The crimes are fascinating, as is the history of maps (which we do get a lot of), but I barely found those parts worth wading through Harvey's ridiculous analogies and unfounded psychological theories. It's a silly book that could have been a really interesting book; such a shame.