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.

Captive, by Aimee Carter

This is the sequel to "Pawn," which I loved; "Captive," unfortunately, as a bit disappointing. It's action-packed and stuffed chock-full of betrayals and twists and surprises, which make for a very quick - but not a very well-written - book. The curse of the science fiction sequel seems to be authors trying to make their book too much like a movie. "Captive" could easily pass for a fleshed-out screenplay, seemingly designed to work better on the big screen than in writing. It's unfortunate, that these authors feel they have to fall back on shocking revelations and actions sequences one after the other to keep our attention. That said, it was a fun enough read, and I do intend to read the third installment. I hope Carter dials back the action and lets her writing speak for itself, next time.

Dec 7, 2014

Disquiet, Please!: More Humor Writing From The New Yorker, ed. David Remnick and Henry Finder

This is a compilation of humor writing from the pages of The New Yorker, the second such collection. I really enjoyed seeing the continuity of style and tone throughout eighty years of the publication, as well as how humor has changed. Some I liked more than others, of course, and I obviously struggled with the pieces that reference people and events with which I'm not familiar. But it was still a fun read, worth recommending to people who enjoy smart humor with a strong dose of satire.

Nov 19, 2014

Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller

I rarely read memoirs, but this one as well as Tom Robbins' has got me thinking maybe I should do so more often. Fuller grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Africa, Rhodesia to start, then Malawi and Zambia. It's a life that's utterly foreign to me, not just because it's Africa, but because of her family's (and the other white people's) very real and comfortable racism. Her mother does not mince words when talking about the revolutionary wars in Africa, making it abundantly clear that they were cheated out of their land and the Africans don't deserve to be in power. But coupled with her daily clinic for the surrounding natives and more than one story about her saving a servant's life, I'm a bit confused about her attitude. Her reassurances to her children that they would never drink out of the same cups that Africans have mixed with her obvious love of Africa make for a complex woman. Not to mention her three dead children and the manic depression she is finally diagnosed with. I also find it really hard to understand parents who chose to raise children in such incredibly dangerous, unsafe places. They move to a farm in Rhodesia that is practically on the border of Mozambique and are constantly around rebels (terrorists, in their terminology). Fuller mentions quite often that she and her sister had worms half the time. Her parents seem to be constantly drunk, but that doesn't stop them from driving (on roads littered with landmines, no less). She and her sister start smoking and drinking pretty much as soon as they hit double digits. It's a life that I have no context for, it's completely incomprehensible to me; perhaps this is why I found the book so enthralling. It's told both in vignettes and with a larger overarching sense of structure and a more or less chronological nature. Fuller vacillates between child-like language when describing her own emotions and actions and rich, vivid descriptions of the people and the land. It's a fascinating book, and a fascinating life. I'm just glad I wasn't my own.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This is a haunting work of speculative fiction that has taken me a couple of days to digest. Peter is a pastor and lives with his wife, Bea, in England. Bea is a nurse, and saved Peter from a life as a drug addict and alcoholic when he both fell in love with her and became a Christian at her encouraging. Peter, but not Bea, is chosen by the amorphous American corporation USIC to visit the alien planet Oasis and minister to the natives. It's a dream job, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread the news of Jesus's love, but it means months without seeing each other with the only mode of communication being something akin to e-mail. Much to his surprise, Peter finds the Oasans very eager to hear his preaching, and he quickly begins to feel at home on the balmy, stark planet. The only thing interrupting his happiness is the increasingly upsetting messages he receives from his wife - things on Earth aren't looking so great, she's having a really hard time without him, and his lackadaisical and frankly self-righteous messages back to her aren't helping.

So what is this book about? The foreign-ness of an alien world and people? The end of the world? Marriage? Normal human interaction? It's about all of these things, and each reader will perhaps zero in on the message that most speaks to them. Personally, I believe it is about the loss of faith and regaining of a different kind of self-worth, one that encompasses not just yourself but the people who are around you. Meaning can be found in a bible or in oneself or in each other; for each of us it's different, and the struggle to figure out which is most important to you is sometimes Herculean.

The writing is wonderful, saturated and descriptive despite Oasis's lack of geological interest. As a science fiction fan, I appreciate Faber's measured, intelligent Oasans, and am impressed by the comprehensive species and culture he built. There is plenty here to satisfy dedicated sci fi readers as well as more mainstream ones. And I almost never note this, but the book itself (hardcover) is just beautiful. Amazing cover and fantastic gold edges. This is a book I'll keep on my shelf and lend out often.

Nov 15, 2014

Atlantia, by Ally Condie

I started off loving this newest YA fantasy/science fiction offering from Ally Condie, who wrote the very popular "Matched" series. Cool concept: humans poisoned the world, and had to Divide the population between those who'd live short, sick lives Above and the loved ones they sent to live safely Below. The Below depends on the Above for food and maintenance, and the two societies share a religion that encourages continued assistance from the Above. Rio, our protagonist, has just lost her mother (to a suspicious death) and sister (who chose to go Above, even though they had both decided to stay Below). The double loss is almost more than Rio can take, and the added pressure of concealing her true nature as a siren - one whose voice has the power to sway people's thoughts and emotions - eats away at her self-control. She immediately begins hatching a plan to escape to the Above and find her sister.

Like I said, it's a cool concept, but the writing leaves something to be desired. Important plot-jumps are made very suddenly and with little sense. Rio and True fall in love, but only because YA novels dictate there has to be a love interest; there's nothing in their interactions that indicate they even care for each other as more than colleagues, let alone love each other. And the reveal of the villain's secret was similarly sudden, described as pieces falling into place that were completely unforeseeable to the reader. Crazy plot twists are no good if they're totally out of the blue. Readers like to feel smart, like they might be able to guess what's coming, even if they can't. These things happen without warning, and so there's little tension generated in the story. It's choppy and threadless, and I'm disappointed that such a great idea falls so flat.

Nov 7, 2014

NUM8ERS, by Rachel Ward

This is a British young adult book about a 15-year-old girl in foster care who can see the date of a person's death as soon as she looks them in the eyes. Jem is sullen and withdrawn, placed in a special ed class for troublemakers which she attends only sporadically. Partly, this is because of her difficult life, but also because avoidance is the best way for her to deal with her knowledge of others ' death-dates. But then she is befriended by Spider, a gangly black boy with a number only a few months into the future, and starts to enjoy her first real friendship. That is, until the numbers she sees of a group of people near the London Eye all show the same date, today - she forces Spider to run away with her just as a bomb explodes on the Eye, and the two teens quickly become the top witnesses/suspects.

It's a clever plot-line, but the writing isn't spectacular. It's a bit difficult getting through the London slang, and since it's written in the first person and Jem isn't exactly the nicest of people, you kind of want to punch her in the face half the time. That being said, I like that Ward is trying to bring attention to an often-overlooked class of people. Still, I doubt I would recommend this to many people.

Stiff, by Mary Roach

I was unable to eat while reading this book, but it was still awesome. Written about ten years ago, Mary Roach tackles the nasty, disgusting, smelly, ugly, helpful, and interesting life after death: what happens to the human body after the soul has left the building? What happens when you will your body to science? What's the best way to dispose of a dead body? Just how gross is rotting human flesh? Roach courageously, and hilariously, seeks to answer these questions and address the fascinating history of anatomy as well as our evolving social mores. It's a subject that could only have been dealt with properly by the likes of Roach, with equal amounts humor, empathy, and gumption. Only today did a customer, in reference to Gawande's new book, "Being Mortal," mention that our discomfort talking about death needs to end, if we are to care for the dying with dignity. She's right, as was Roach - we need to move past the way our own fear of death prevents us from helping others through it; reading Roach's book is a good start.

Nov 3, 2014

Four Spirits, by Sena Jeter Naslund

Another book club book, and a powerful one at that. Naslund grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, which is what this book is about. Taking place over two years, from the infamous fire hose-doused nonviolent protests of Spring 1963 to New Years' 1965, "Four Spirits" chronicles such horrific incidents as the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls, and Kennedy's assassination. Bombingham, as it was called then, experienced the struggle for civil rights violently, with beatings, lynchings, bombings, fire hoses, and dogs, a beautiful city ripped apart by racial prejudice and fear.

The book is broken up into very short chapters, each from a different character's perspective, but with young Stella Silver at its core. Stella's parents and two siblings were killed in a car accident when she was 5 (another iteration of the four innocent dead) and her aunts raised her. Engaged twice throughout the course of the book, and with love and sex close to her mind at all times, Stella is also uniquely unprejudiced - perhaps due to a Jewish mother - and takes a volunteer job teaching night school at the local black college for black high school drop outs. There is animosity on both sides, but the black and white teachers slowly become friends, amidst the despicable atrocities committed by Klan-supported white men. There were some parts that got a little too introspective for me, but then each section was so short that none of these parts were long enough to cause any real boredom or annoyance. It's a beautiful, powerful novel, and I eagerly look forward to the discussion our book club will have.

Nov 1, 2014

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

A short one, this Discworld novel is about a wizard mistakenly passing on his power to a baby girl, when he thought it was a baby boy. The local witch is horrified - women can only be witches, not wizards! It's the wrong kind of magic entirely. But the wizard's staff seems permanently connected to young Eske, and at last the witch is forced to concede that the girl must be taught wizard magic by wizards, who are themselves loathe to welcome a female amidst their ranks. Fun and funny, as always, this story also injects a bit of darkness into the Discworld, with the introduction of shadowy beings who are attracted to a powerful young wizard and have evil intentions.

Oct 26, 2014

Clariel, by Garth Nix

Garth Nix's "Sabriel" is one of my all-time favorite books, and the trilogy it starts is, in my opinion, firmly in the pantheon of YA literature. "Clariel" is a long-awaited prequel, taking place several hundred years before the events of "Sabriel" and giving an origin story to a lesser villain in that series. I was a little disappointed by "Clariel;" it seemed a bit boring and one-dimensional. Clariel is a teenaged girl who wants only to be left alone to live in her beloved Great Forest, but her mother is the most skilled goldsmith in the Old Kingdom and the family moves to Belisaere, its capital, so she can play a more active role in the Guild. There, Clariel finds that the King has all but abdicated and Kilp, head of the Goldsmith's Guild and Governor of the city (and all around slimy guy) has taken control with the help of a Free Magic being. Clariel's all-consuming desire to get back to the Great Forest is in a tug of war against her sense of loyalty to her parents and worry that the kingdom is in grave danger. The former consistently wins out over the latter, making Clariel a rather uncomplicated figure, but then again maybe that's the point - villains are selfish creatures, and though they may sometimes rise above their base desires to do something truly good, their selfishness wins out in the end.

I would have liked to see more of the world-building that made "Sabriel" and "Lirael" so wonderful. It would have been interesting to learn more about the culture and history of berserks, since a major character in the original series also carries that genetic trait. All in all, I'm excited that Nix has returned to the Old Kingdom, and look forward to his next book (which continues the original series), but didn't like "Clariel" as much as I wanted to.

Oct 19, 2014

Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

So I've never read any of Robbins' novels, but having read his memoir, I now very much want to. Robbins has a way with words that is utterly unique and enjoyable; much of the book is laugh out loud funny, and Robbins' observations are keen. The book progresses more or less chronologically, from Robbins' Appalachian boyhood to his time as a meteorologist with the Air force to the beginnings of a beatnik lifestyle in Richmond, Virginia to his eventually settling in La Conner, Washington, peppered all the way with his various wives and girlfriends. I'm not usually one for memoir or biography, but this was such a pleasure to read. He is clearly a singular soul, and I look forward to discovering a similar originality in his fiction.

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips and Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville

The reason for this rare doubleheader of a review is that I was unable to get past 50 pages in either of these books. "The Egyptologist," while having an interesting plot, is written as a series of letters and journal entries, and it was just incredibly boring. It's hard to pull off that kind of unconventional style, and I'm afraid it simply couldn't hold my interest. "Un Lun Dun," written by a master of modern genre-bending fantasy and sci fi, is meant for a young adult audience but comes off as rushed and stilted. Children and young adult readers are more sophisticated than many give them credit for, and I feel that Mieville's book is too simplistic for anyone over the age of 8. It's unfortunate, since otherwise he's such an intriguing writer.

Oct 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell doesn't write characters so much as inhabit them, and it's extraordinary. "The Bone Clocks," his latest novel, spans from the mid-1980s to 2045 and follows (basically) the life of Holly Sykes. The first and last section are written from her perspective, while the other sections are from the perspectives of those who enter into her life at certain times. Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey are particularly amazing, two British men who are too smart for their own good and whose minds are stunning and hilarious. I am a self-professed Anglophile, and Mitchell's British-ness is positively delectable. He's an amazing writer, incredibly smart and deft at weaving a persona out of thin air. And there's a strong element of the surreal involved - vampire-like immortals, souls that are resurrected forty-nine days after the body they inhabit dies, and a cold war between the two - and I just love that such a commercially successful and respected author can write such things without getting saddled with the sci fi stigma (which even I, a huge sci fi fan, readily admits is quite real). I got to meet Mitchell, at an event in San Francisco, and he was utterly charming (though sick with a cold) and came off as incredibly intelligent while also being a huge amount of fun. It's always a relief when one meets a respected author and they're also a lovely person. I cannot say enough good things about David Mitchell; read his books!

Oct 3, 2014

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Another book club pick, this is one hell of a historical novel. Set in a London very similar to Dickens', "Fingersmith" follows the twists and turns of a very bad con. Susan Trinder has been raised in a house devoted to two illegal tasks: baby farming and the distribution of stolen goods. She's a rarity, brought up among Mrs. Sucksby's other orphans as her own daughter, though always reminded, proudly, of her murderess mother. When Gentleman comes to her with a job offer that will leave her with three thousand pounds, it's simply too good to pass up. The plan: pretend to be a maid to a lady out in the country, a young woman who, once married, will inherit a vast sum. After Susan convinces this lady, Maud, to marry Gentleman (known to Maud as Richard Rivers), they will trick her and stick her in a madhouse so that Gentleman receives the money in her stead. It's a nasty plan, and as Susan gets to know Maud, her apprehension grows. It starts out fairly formulaic, but the end of the first part and beginning of the second turn everything about on its head. This is no Dickens novel, this is a taut mystery as much about the pull of nature vs. nurture as it is about an illicit current that runs beneath even the most everyday occurrences. It's a long book, 600 pages, and thick with a language that takes a bit getting used to, but well worth the read. Halfway through, I kept saying to myself, "how on earth did she think of this stuff?!" Kudos to Waters for taking a stale story and making it brand new. I can't wait to discuss it with the other book club members.

Sep 27, 2014

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is already well-known for her "Legend" trilogy, which I now very much want to read after devouring "The Young Elites." The island nation of Kenettra is in social and political upheaval. About a decade ago, the blood plague swept through the nation, killing all the adults it infected and most of the children. Those children that did survive were left with disfiguring or identifying marks of some kind: oddly colored hair, splotches of color across their faces, strange markings on an arm. Adelina has silver hair and a scar where her left eye used to be. She is a malfetto, one of the marked. There are rumors that some malfettos also developed unnatural powers, and that these dangerous youths are banding together to end the mistreatment of malfettos, who are believed to be abominations; they are called the Young Elites. Adelina's father practices cruelty in many forms upon her in the hopes that she will reveal a power that would make her worth something, whereas as a simple malfetto, he fears she will never be taken as a wife. Adelina shows no inkling of power, until the night she runs away from home after overhearing her father sell her as a mistress to a wealthy merchant - when he discovers her and threatens to kill her, Adelina suddenly calls upon a dark power within her that raises shadowy demons with huge claws and teeth dripping blood. She is, after all her father's cruelty, an Elite.

This is a dark, bleak book, suitable probably only for kids 14 and up, or younger only if they're very hearty. Adelina suffered years of abuse, both physical and mental, at the hands of her father, and the resultant darkness in her soul is very black indeed. Lu doesn't shy away from Adelina's dark thoughts of power and ambition and revenge, making this a tough read for gentle souls. I loved it, though, and have a great respect for authors who don't shy away from writing about dark or complicated issues for teens. Adelina is a complex heroine, perhaps even an anti-heroine, and I can't wait to see where Lu takes her in future books.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

Perhaps a book about cholera outbreaks isn't the best idea for a self-proclaimed germophobe...but then again, it's a really interesting book! "The Ghost Map" is about an outbreak of cholera in a London neighborhood in 1854, a tragic event that led to a doctor named John Snow (no relation to the Starks [apologies for that ridiculous GoT joke]) figuring out that cholera was waterborne and not, as contemporary theory dictated, caused by "bad air." It was a momentous work of investigative science, the echoes of which are still quite strongly felt today in such areas as public health, urban planning, scientific method, epidemiology, and even social mapping programs such as Yelp. Johnson is an engaging writer, skillfully explaining the more complex scientific concepts as well as telling the story of the outbreak like a modern day murder mystery. He goes a bit off the rails toward the end, descending into fearmongering about the chances of a nuclear detonation in a major urban center; luckily, this unnecessary and marginally related section is rather small, and only detracts a little bit from the work's overall strength. I just wish I hadn't read it while eating...

Sep 20, 2014

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I first read this little book in seventh grade, shortly after its publication. Everyone was raving about it, teachers and students alike, so in my pre-teen irascible contrariness, I read it and declared I didn't like it. I think I knew that I was being specious and argumentative just for the sake of standing out, but so much time had passed since reading it that I could no longer remember whether I really did dislike it or if I was just being difficult. With a much-heralded movie coming out very soon, my boss and I decided to reread it.

"The Giver" is a masterpiece, a brilliant novel that introduces young people to some very complex, interesting questions. The reader, whether 12-years-old or 28, is forced to ask, along with Jonas, whether stability is more important than variety. Is the true price of peace an eternal Sameness? Is contentment and safety more important than happiness and love? Would we rather live in a world without color, or a world without war? And seriously, DOES JONAS DIE AT THE END OR WHAT??

"The Giver" deserves its place in the canon of children's literature, as well as that of science fiction in general, and I look forward to seeing the (by all accounts very carefully crafted) movie version of Lowry's wonderful work.

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

It's amazing how Pratchett has this way of taking an everyday normality in our lives and placing it in such vastly different circumstances that allows him to comment on said quotidian thing in a totally new light. He did it with banking and the postal service; "The Truth" is about newspapers, specifically, the notion of a free press. A heady theme, but in Pratchett's hands it's hilarious and exciting and totally accessible. I've said it before and I'm bound to say it again: I just love the British sense of humor (or humour, in a nod to Pratchett), and Pratchett's books are filled with it. Witty, clever turns of phrase pepper each page and make an already hilarious story that much more delightful. His books are a welcome respite of insanity in a field of all-too-often depressing contemporary fiction. Thank you, Mr. Pratchett, for making the literary world a little bit brighter by your presence.

Sep 19, 2014

Waiting for the Electricity, by Christina Nichol

Satire is extremely difficult to write well, and Nichol has nailed it with "Waiting for the Electricity," a strong indictment both of post-Soviet "democracies" and American capitalism (as well as Bay Area hippies). Slims Achmed Mashkavili is a maritime lawyer in post-communist Georgia. The electricity works only part of the time and no one has been paid for their jobs in over six months; Slims wants out. So he applies for an entrepreneurial internship in the US. Against all odds, he wins the position and heads to San Francisco for a six week business course and job at a fish packing plant in Oakland. Where all his friends and relatives in Georgia are content to complain vociferously about the lack of electricity, jobs, and money but never make a move to do anything about it, Slims finds that while Americans have everything they desire, they are also lonely and distant, cut off from their families and living in a state of constant fear that they end up on the wrong side of the law. "Why do you follow the law? Why not be free?" Slims (and Nichols) asks. Why can't he drink a beer on the sidewalk? Why can't he herd sheep through the National Parks? Why do Americans put up with all those tasteless ads everywhere?

It's quite a piece of work, to be able to satirize two completely different cultures at once. Nichol pulls it off brilliantly, somehow describing that odd gray area in which most difficult issues lie. Communism destroyed cultures, but at least its citizens had food and electricity and jobs. Post-Soviet democracy is a joke - no money, no jobs, no electricity - but at least families stick together. American consumerism creates a land of harmonious plenty, but we lack perspective and are overly materialistic. None of these systems has it right, but so few people are willing and able to do anything about it. Nichol is a fantastic writer, able to merge her message with some truly wonderful turns of phrase, and I very much look forward to reading her future work.

Sep 15, 2014

A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans

This is a literary thriller right up my alley: narrated by George, first as a grown man then as an eleven-year-old boy, the supporting cast of characters includes a medievalist, a psychologist, and a gay southern eccentric professor who reminds me exceedingly of my mother's friend Lanny. George, whose father passed away after a trip to Honduras, starts seeing/hallucinating a young boy who tells him that his father's death wasn't an accident and that his father's best friend, Tom Harris, planned his murder because he was in love with George's mother. Upon learning of George's visitations by this boy, Tom Harris and his friends assume he is possessed by a demon - and it turns out George's father was a bit of a celebrity exorcist - while George's psychiatrists want to put him in a long-term home for mentally insane children. Either way, it's a lot for a kid to handle.

We get a hefty dose of medieval Christian mysticism and Catholicism, much to my delight, which doesn't slow the pacing down at all. The book is a page-turner, but much better written than your average bestseller. The short chapters devoted to George as an adult, as a father who is deathly afraid of holding, or even touching, his infant son, devolve into what we would probably deem psychosis, as George's eleven-year-old self is torn between the mother he loves dearly and the inner circle of his father's friends that he desperately wants acceptance into. I had to read the ending a few times to figure it out, but when I did I saw its beauty. How does one break the chain of fatherly distance, anger, and disappointment? You'll have to read it to find out, and you'll be glad you did.

Sep 8, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Another book club book, my boss likens this to "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" for adults, and I think her description is very apt. It's a novella, really, of a grown man remembering a harrowing, magic-fraught couple of days when he was seven. He lived in the English countryside, and at the end of their lane was the Hempstock farm: Old Mrs. Hempstock, who likes to keep the full moon always shining into the bedroom windows; Mrs. Hempstock, a strong motherly figure with a no-nonsense attitude and just the right comfort food for any meal; and Lettie Hempstock, who has been eleven years old for a very, very long time and who insists that the pond behind the farmhouse is actually an ocean. The trouble starts when a lodger kills himself on the edge of their farm, letting into the world a thing that quickly upsets the balance. The language is ethereal, but also concrete in the way something narrated by a seven year old would be. I liked it, but more as something unique than as a genre I'd like to read more of.

Sep 4, 2014

Winger, by Andrew Smith

I found this book absolutely hilarious, but both my boss and our 17-year-old (female) intern thought it was rather ridiculous. I just can't help it that I think jokes about balls are funny! Ryan Dean West (and yes, Ryan Dean is his first name) is a precocious 14-year-old junior who is stuck at a boarding school somewhere in Oregon. His nickname comes from his position on the varsity rugby team, and he is hopelessly in love with his best friend Annie, a 16-year-old. Ryan Dean tells his story with hilarious side-comments from his constantly sex-obsessed brain, punctuated with hand drawn comics. Yes, he thinks and talks about his balls. A lot. What teenage boy doesn't?

It took me back to a time when I remember every little crisis being the absolute end of the world. This could have been depressing (as "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" was, at times), but his sense of humor instead made me look back at that time with a smile. It is, of course, a coming of age story. Winger has to deal with bullies and peer pressure, girls and friendships, loyalty and duty and doing what's right. There is an awful lot of swearing in it, which I think could have been toned down, but otherwise I think it's a great read for teen boys who are maybe a little too smart for their own good, who have something that makes them stick out in a crowd, who are torn between doing what they want and doing the right thing, and who sometimes have trouble being able to tell the difference. I really enjoyed it, even if the other ladies at my job didn't, and I look forward to giving it to some poor boy who needs a good book-friend.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

"Foundation," and its subsequent sequels and prequels, is a member of the science fiction cannon. When a friend mentioned he was going to read it, I found it on my bookshelf and decided to do so as well. Perhaps I am used to big, thick volumes and lots of world-building in modern sci-fi, but I found that it left me wanting much, much more. The idea behind "Foundation" is exceptionally grand in scope: several thousand years into our own future, Hari Seldon uses the mathematical science of psychohistory to predict the fall of the all-powerful Empire. He and his cadre position a group of scientists and intellectuals, the Foundation, to ride out the decline and minimize the years of anarchy that will follow. The concept is vast: by using statistics and mathematizing the way groups operate and think, Seldon is able to predict both the general flow of future history as well as surprisingly small, insightful details. This book, written in 1951, describes a few turning points along this timeline. It's incredibly intriguing, and I definitely want to read the rest of the Foundation novels, but I wish it were longer, that each crisis were fleshed out considerably so I could really dig my teeth into it. Instead, I read it in two days. The book seems too small for such a big idea, so I really look forward to reading the rest of the series to see what he does with it.

Aug 29, 2014

The Billionaire's Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace

A nonfiction bestseller from a few years ago, "The Billionaire's Vinegar" is just as interesting a read as I've heard it was. Wallace details for us the growth of the rare and antique wine market, and the parallel rise of wine forgery. Living in wine country, it's a particularly apt book to read, and I certainly recognized some names. Even without that connection, though, it's a fantastically readable piece of investigative journalism. Wallace is a deft writer, and knows how to slowly reveal the bud of truth from the petals adorning and obscuring it. Will I ever have a need to be wary of the fake-riddled rare wine market? Almost certainly not, but that doesn't stop this book from being a delicious little mystery and expose, and I quite enjoyed reading it.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

This is only the second Murakami book I've read, and I must admit that I wasn't very impressed. "Colorless" reminds me greatly of "1Q84:" lonely, isolated, emotionally bereft protagonist; odd shifts in reality that could point to supernatural or paranormal occurrences; constant references to Western culture, especially music. People generally rave about Murakami, but these two that I've read mostly just confused me, nor did they strike a chord at all.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old bachelor who helps redesign train stations. At the age of 20, his four best friends, with whom he had been extremely close, suddenly stop talking to him and demand that he cease communicating with them. Stunned, Tsukuru can barely even ask why; no answer is given, and he sinks into a deep depression. Now, at 36, he's finally met a woman he can see having a future with, and she demands, as a condition of continuing to see her, that he find his old friends and figure out what happened, since it seems to have left "an emptiness" inside of him.

First of all, I find the notion of a person taking psychological advice from a woman he hardly knows rather bizarre, and even more distasteful is her ultimatum and his quiet acceptance of it. I'm not fond of people who lack a backbone. Second, we find out what did happen about halfway through the book, so the rest of it is just him roaming around, trying to force himself into some great epiphany. I get it, it's not supposed to be about the plot, it's his inner journey that really counts. But his inner journey is, well, kind of boring. He's an empty man, and the idea that he could only become whole with the help of other people, and that his emptiness is only filled when it is full of a feeling for another person is something I personally find unacceptable.

I think I need to try Murakami's earlier books, which people seem to love so much. Perhaps now that he's written so much and is so famous, his writing has become a bit stagnant. Or maybe I won't like those either, and I'll be a non-Murakami-fan in a sea of Murakami devotees. And that would be okay, too.

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.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

A group of us at the bookstore (employees and customers) decided that we'd always wanted to read "Anna Karenina" but never quite got up the motivation to do so, and that scheduling a book club to discuss it would provide the proper instigation. Having finished this tome of 19th Century Russian literature, I'm still a little unsure of what to say about it. I enjoyed it, but without having read much else that was contemporary, I can't tell what is distinctly Tolstoy and what is merely cultural. As a history major, I definitely liked peeking into a society and time so very different from my own: Russian society is a fascinating subject, and the length of the novel allows one to become almost familiar with it.

At several junctures, I pondered why Tolstoy chose to call it "Anna Karenina," since the eponymous character is really only one of several main characters. Towards the end of the book, I realized that it's because her actions produce a profound effect on each of the other main characters' lives. Also, I'm pretty sure she is bipolar, or manic-depressive, or suffers from some such kind of mental illness. Anna is capricious and even cruel at times, violently self-centered and needy. As the book goes on, reading her sections becomes rather more painful, whereas the sections focusing on Kitty, Levin, or Oblonsky are far more pleasing. I suppose this is the point.

I'm interested to hear what the others have to say about it, though I think "War and Peace" would have provided us more fodder for discussion. I've heard many people list it as one of the best, if not the all-time best, novels ever written, so that will definitely have to be tackled at some point.

Jul 11, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

I picked up the advanced reader's copy of this book with some trepidation, though the premise intrigued me: "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932" is built around a famous photograph of a lesbian couple at a nightclub known for its boundary-pushing clientele, and was taken by a young Hungarian photographer. The picture can be seen at https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRYxWtsv4-ZdiVMzbSDfxOdABsxOeJd8pZHfm3a8xKInXeG7qmI. Sorry for the website gibberish. Prose doesn't just write a novel, she uses several different invented mediums to tell a fascinating story. The book centers on Lou Villars, a champion race car driver and butch lesbian who becomes an informant and torturer for the German occupiers of France during World War II (yes, I've read of lot of WWII books lately, I think I'll hold off on more of those for a while). We read from a biography of Lou written by the grand-niece of an acquaintance of hers; we read letters from the photographer sent to his devoted parents back in Hungary; we read from published and unpublished memoirs of ex-pat writers and French industrialists. All of these people circle around Lou in some fashion, and each has a distinctive voice.

Prose's accomplishment is incredible. I had thought of her as sort of a thinking woman's chick lit writer, but this book proves me very wrong (and I'm not sure how I even came to that assumption in the first place). Her writing is hilarious in many places, poignant in others, and she demonstrates a remarkable ability for concocting many different voices convincingly. It really makes you think about what convolutions a person's brain will twist into in order to justify his or her actions, and whether evil is really so simple a concept as it seems. I was enthralled by this book, and am left with a sincere desire to read her previous works as well.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

I've been hearing for months about this book, with other booksellers saying it's one of the best books they've read in a long time. This is extremely high praise from booksellers, so I had very high expectations for this novel. "All The Light We Cannot See" takes place before and during World War II. We follow Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who goes blind at age six, and whose loving father constructs a model of their neighborhood so she can confidently get around on her own. Her father is also the locksmith at the natural history museum, and most of the action revolves around the possibility that, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Paris, he is entrusted with a priceless gem from the museum's collection. At the same time, we follow Werner, an orphan in Germany who has a particular genius for radios. He's drafted into the Hitler Youth, then quickly sent to the front to help triangulate insurgent radio transmissions. The chapters are very short, and we bounce back and forth between these two characters, with a couple of additional points of view thrown in every now and then. My favorite parts were Doerr's description of Marie-Laure's blindness, the way she experiences the world: in sets of numbers, in sounds and feelings from her deft fingers. It's a beautiful book, and astonishingly well-researched. I wouldn't say that it's one of the best books I've read in a while, but I certainly think it's very good, and would readily recommend it to most readers.

Mirrored Time, by J.D. Faulkner

Full disclosure: Faulkner is a very good friend of mine, so I've tried to remain unbiased while reading this, her first self-published novel.
"Mirrored Time" is a fantasy novel about a criss-crossed timeline and a young woman trying to find her place in life. It's a good first effort, fun to follow, with a clever backstory and premise. Like most first novels, it's a bit choppy at times, and (though this may be only because I know the author well) I thought her writing voice sounds a bit too much like her speaking voice. Every writer has his/her particular style, and I'm certainly not saying that she should erase hers, but I expect that over time, it will develop itself more fully and become less recognizably "her." The twist at the end was great and a good cliffhanger, while remaining satisfying, that makes us want to read the next installment. I look forward to reading more of Faulkner's work and watching her writing develop.

Jun 10, 2014

Brazen, by Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is having an event at my bookstore, so we decided to base the first meeting of our teen book club around her three young adult novels about women living at court during the reign of Henry VIII. "Brazen," her third, comes out in a couple of days, so as soon as we got it in the store, I started reading it. And didn't stop. I read the entire thing in less than 24 hours, which I think might be some kind of record for me. It's a really fun book, with a charming, interesting heroine.

Mary Howard is married to the king's illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy when they are both just 14 years old. Forbidden to consummate their marriage until they have reached adulthood, Mary and Fitz spend the next three years playing an incredibly awkward game of romantic hide-and-seek. Told in the first person by Mary, we wonder along with her whether this marriage, which dramatically raises her social standing, will free her from the grasp of her horrific mother or instead become her new prison. Mary must often decide between duty and loyalty, self-interest and selflessness, and though the Tudor court is very different from our own culture, these decisions are faced by teens everywhere, all the time. I especially loved the way Longshore gives Mary a type of synesthesia: Mary loves poetry and words, and each word has a distinctive taste. These synesthetic remarks are sprinkled throughout the book, and they give the narrative a lovely richness. I can't wait to talk about this with the members of our teen book club, and to meet Longshore at her reading!

Jun 9, 2014

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition), by Ernest Hemingway

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I, a bookseller, have never read Hemingway, and that it took someone else picking this for our bookstore's book club for me to read anything by him; but it's the sad truth. I had a bit of a problem with the first chapter, which I found myself reading in the voice of the actor who played Hemingway in Woody Allen's movie "Midnight in Paris," but that quickly disappeared. He certainly had a distinctive writing voice; few contractions, fewer commas, long sentences. I enjoyed it, it was very interesting to get a glimpse of one of history's most fruitful moments, and I especially enjoyed his description of Scott Fitzgerald. I really look forward to discussing this with our group.

Jun 4, 2014

Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I've finally finished this epic trilogy! Like the first two books, "Blue Mars" follows different members of the First Hundred, the first people to land and live on Mars, and who started (or fought against) the terraforming project. Earth is in shambles, since the melting of half of the Antarctican ice shelf caused the sea levels to rise significantly, and their desire to relocate refugees to Mars causes no end of problems for the new Martians. Meanwhile, the planet is quickly changing, there are gardens and farms and wild animals of all sizes, and vast seas. Another problem: they've invented a way to cure old age, so people are living well into their 200s, albeit with some problems with their memories, and now population pressures are very sudden. Robinson describes all these things with incredible attention to scientific detail, so much so that some parts are simply a blank for me, as I can't understand them as well as I would like. I also started to notice that Robinson writes very long sentences, and very long paragraphs, with lots of colons and semi-colons. Generally, I don't mind that kind of style, but in a 750-page book, it becomes a bit wearing. But the research he must have done is staggering; I'm so glad I read these books, and look forward to recommending them to other hard sci-fi readers.

May 21, 2014

Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda

Gruda is a Polish-born French author with a wicked sense of humor, and the uncanny ability to get inside the brain of a precocious young boy. Young Julek is born in Poland to staunchly Communist parents. As Russia cracks down on Polish communists, Julek's mother (who he thought was his aunt) and his aunt (who he thought was his mother - it's all very complicated) send him to live in France, where he quickly turns himself into a Frenchman (albeit, still a Communist). World War II disrupts his childhood and prompts a series of moves as he lives with different families to keep him safe. What could be a devastatingly emotional novel is instead a little gem of humor and good-will, an anthem to keeping a steady head on your shoulders, maintaining your good humor, and sticking to your beliefs even when you have control over little else. This is published by Europa Editions, which once again impresses me with the quality of foreign language books they chose to translate and publish in the US.

May 17, 2014

Ashes, by Ilsa J. Bick

"Ashes" is a YA apocalypse novel, and a rather gruesome one at that. Like most YA science fiction, it's very plot-driven, so it goes quickly. The writing is pretty good, with good authenticity, though I got a bit tired of the "dun-dun-DUN" moments (e.g. "And everything was fine. But that was the last time everything was fine.") It's a beginner's writing crutch, an easy tactic to fall back on when you want to keep the story moving. It's okay every once in a while, but having it at the end of every chapter is a bit much. I also must protest the graphic nature of the zombies. I really don't need to read about someone popping out another person's eyeball and eating it. Maybe today's teen is totally numb to that kind of disgusting imagery, but even my strong stomach had trouble handling that. Again, it was just a bit much. This is the first in a series; I won't be seeking out the next book, but if I happen upon it, I'll probably read it.

May 13, 2014

Positive, by Michael Saag, M.D.

"Positive" is Dr. Michael Saag's memoir-manifesto about HIV/AIDS and the United States' healthcare system. It has a bit too much memoir for my taste; while I find his anecdotes about patients and what they and he went through to fight back against the plague that is AIDS important and edifying, I could have done without his own family history. I guess it's a little mean to say it, but I'm not at all interested in Dr. Saag, while I am very interested in his work and his insider's view of the healthcare industry. His "magical thinking" is cute, and I don't mean to imply that it's untrue that he does think that way, but it's a little silly in such a serious piece of work.

As you might imagine, this isn't an easy book to read. I reached for tissues multiple times as Dr. Saag writes about the terrified, incredibly ill men and women he's treated over the years. Due to a bill called Ryan White, the federal government allocates money to cover any gaps in treatment of HIV-infected patients. As Dr. Saag notes, the program has completely eliminated any difference in care due to economic status, meaning that a poor person will get as good treatment and have as good a chance at life and health as a rich person. America outspends every single other developed country - by A LOT - in healthcare, yet ranks very low in actual health when compared to those same countries. So why don't we have Ryan White-like funding for ALL healthcare, instead of just one single disease?

Dr. Saag puts together a comprehensive list of what a good American healthcare system should look like, while acknowledging that it's a drastic change and will incur plenty of growing pains. What he doesn't do is suggest ways we can start making this actually happen, beyond informing ourselves of how the system really works and, um, complaining about it, I guess? What about letter writing campaigns? Surely he knows which recipients would be most effective. Or what if he starts a group of healthcare professionals that give "The System" an ultimatum: fix it, or we'll stop working? He makes no such recommendation, however, and as such, this is a manifesto without teeth, an exercise in mental masturbation as he tries to make himself feel better about the situation by unburdening his thoughts into a book. It's nice and all, but in the end, the only people reading it will be the choir to which he is already preaching.

May 7, 2014

Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan

This is a very Malcom Gladwell-type book. So much so that many of the points Hallinan makes are the same that Gladwell makes in "Blink." It has the same approachable readability of Gladwell's books, as well. Both books come to essentially the same conclusion: our intuition affects us much more strongly than we believe it does. "Blink" stops there, whereas Hallinan continues by adding that this is why we make mistakes so frequently and consistently; we are overconfident in our own intelligence and abilities and greatly downplay the role instinct makes in decision-making. It's told so plainly that it almost seems like common sense, which I think makes Hallinan's accomplishment seem less grand. But it's an incisive piece of work, and impressive for how engaging it is.

May 1, 2014

I'll Be Right There, by Kyung-Sook Shin

I have very mixed feelings about this South Korean novel. Parts of it are really beautiful, and I like how the story seeks to individualize a time of violent unrest in South Korea, but then parts of the novel are cliched and sophomoric. Thin beams of light suddenly shine upon upturned faces right at the moment of epiphany, that sort of thing. Most of this is at the beginning of the book, and it does get better as the novel turns its focus to Seoul in the 1980s. Since I've never read this author before, nor indeed anything written by a South Korean, I don't know whether the silly bits are characteristic of the author's writing, the translator's style, or South Korean writing in general. As for the story, it's very interesting, though I would have liked to see more about the relationship between Professor Yoon, a poetry scholar, and his students. There is constant reference to the closeness of this relationship, but little explanation as to why or how that situation played out. It's an interesting read, and enlightening about a period of history I know nothing about, I just wish the writing were a little deeper in some parts.

Apr 30, 2014

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I read this for my bookstore's book club and absolutely loved it. It's the story of Ursula, born in England in 1910; plain enough, but there's a twist: when she dies, she goes back to her birth and lives another life. Sometimes she dies as a baby or a child, sometimes as an old woman, sometimes as a young woman, and every time she lives, her life is a little different. It's a study in what-ifs, a paean to our human propensity to hypotheticals. I loved Atkinson's writing; her characters are just so very British, and she does an amazing job describing situations as unthinkable as the London Blitz, or the Allied bombing of Berlin. It's a long book, but took me only a few days to read because I couldn't put it down. I was worried about it being repetitious, but the perspectives are so different each time that it wasn't boring at all. This novel definitely makes me want to read Atkinson's other books.

Apr 23, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

I have never read Matthiessen before, though I know his work, both fiction and nonfiction, by reputation. He just passed away a week or so ago, so close to the publishing date of this book. It's not normally the kind of book I pick up, but I now know his reputation to be quite justified. He's known particularly for his nature and adventure writing, but wrote several novels as well. "In Paradise" is the story of Dr. Clements Olin, a Polish-born American professor who travels to Auschwitz in search of answers about his past, and loosely attaches himself to a spiritual retreat there, the first of its kind. I tend to stay away from WWII books, but I'm immensely glad I read this one. The people on the retreat are raw, angry, not the beatific presences one expects from the word "retreat." The different nationalities bite at each other, as all try to comprehend the unutterable evil of the Holocaust. Some of the participants are downright disgusting, but it forces the reader to question whether s/he would react any differently. What can one do, in the face of all that? Olin's struggle, that of one among the many, becomes representative of how we each must deal with that history on two levels: the universal and the personal. Even then, comprehension is elusive. This book impressed me deeply, and I will surely be picking up his earlier works to read.

Scatterbrain, by Larry Niven

"Scatterbrain" is a collection; there are a couple short stories and excerpts from Niven's novels, but mostly it's full of random pieces. There are essays, recollections, email exchanges, lists of rules. To anyone who isn't a Niven fan, it's basically gibberish, but it was fun for me to read. I especially found interesting his comments on collaboration, since I have never been as much a fan of his collaborative works as of his solo writing. It's a cool little book for Niven fans, though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone else.

Apr 16, 2014

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers

I read this novel in one day flat, which I can't remember having done in forever. I don't think that is because it's an amazing book, though I did very much like it. Mostly it's just incredibly readable: the spacing is wide and dialogue is marked by long dashes instead of small quotation marks, each chapter starts halfway down the page with a blank page facing it. Usually plot-driven books read quickly, though this isn't really that. We spend most of our time in Alan's head, as he remembers the missteps he made while encouraging American companies to move their manufacturing to Asia, or when he met his ex-wife, or composing letters to his college-aged daughter.

Alan is in Saudi Arabia with three much younger colleagues. They represent a company that is submitting a bid to do IT for a new city, one which is rising from the desert, much like Dubai. He's excited by the prospect, the effort to create something great from nothing, but he has no real place in this new world, an old-school salesmen like him. Aside from his daughter, his life is empty, he's made bad decisions, his redundancy is a direct result of his own work. I really did enjoy reading this book - something about it spoke to me - but I have a feeling either it works for you or it doesn't. I can see the sparse language and quickness of the story failing to hold some people's attention. For me, though, I continue to enjoy Eggers' fiction, and look forward to reading more of it.

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is, among other things, a journalist who focuses on death row and the death penalty. Her message in this book is obvious: the penal system is horrific, and desperately needs reform. It's an important message, and I think choosing fiction as her medium was a smart way to get it noticed, but I feel rather bashed over the head with it. The writing itself is good, particularly in the parts in which we follow "the lady," a woman whose job is to find enough evidence to get a reprieve of the death sentence for her clients. But the prison parts are just awful. I guess that's the point, and perhaps it's willfully naive of me to rebel against reading such terrible things as repeated prison rape, guard corruption, and almost laughably substandard medical care. There are few people I could suggest this book to, few customers I know who would be able to handle the horror contained in this little novel. And it's a shame, because Denfeld is trying to make a very important case, and she clearly has the skill to do it. But reading is my escape, just as it is for our death-sentenced narrator, Arden; I get enough horror in the daily news, I don't want it from my fiction as well.

The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings

We've all been there: caught up in a conversation, you accidentally trip up on your own tongue and use the wrong word, or conjugate the verb incorrectly. The point you're trying to make is all but forgotten as your conversational partner gets hung up on your silly mistake, and you can practically feel the judgment radiating from them. Hitchings' book is about the history of just that situation, how people obsessed with proper language are not a new phenomenon. But language, Hitchings points out, is hardly static. It is in flux constantly, as evidenced by the words we now have in our dictionaries that did not exist two hundred years ago, or words that existed as recently as fifty years ago that have now fallen out of normal usage and will probably leave the English language soon. Grammatical rules have changed greatly, as well, though some have hung on tenaciously, like the dreaded double negative. Hitchings explores the way language theory has developed, arguing that those who make any comment about usage are often buying into a particular notion of socio-economic class. Derision over language is used to mock those in the upper echelons as well as the lower classes, with no attention paid to the fact that language is as changeable as the people who use it. It's a very interesting book, quite funny at times and illuminating something we use everyday but think about very little. I even learned a few new words, myself!

Apr 2, 2014

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

I am not, apparently, a big fan of incomplete sentences. They're distracting, taking me out of the flow of the writing and making me reread what I just finished in case the lack of grammar was all in my head. That's my only real complaint about "The Flamethrowers," however, my bookstore's next book club selection.

The novel is broken up into two alternating stories: first we have a girl known only by the nickname Reno, a young woman who moves to New York in the 1970s to try to become a serious artist. Then we have Valera, the Italian father of Reno's older boyfriend, who lived through two world wars and came out at the top of the industrial and socio-economic pyramid. It's a brilliant juxtaposition and interaction, the heady art scene of New York and the socialist uprisings of Italian youth. Which is more real? Which is more important? People die, and dissimulate, and deceive, for all kinds of reasons. Kushner's writing is extremely deliberate, creating a dense reading experience that is sometimes a bit difficult to push through, but well worth it. I wouldn't call this book a favorite of mine, but I do appreciate its artistry and the way it makes me think about topics I'd otherwise skim over, and it will undoubtedly make for a fascinating discussion.

Mar 29, 2014

The Best American Short Stories 2011, ed. by Geraldine Brooks

So I'm a little behind the times. Luckily, short stories don't go bad, and these truly are some incredible stories. I particularly can't stop thinking about "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks, where an entire town takes to hibernating during the winter months. "Escape from Spiderhead" by George Saunders was also one of my favorites, taking place in a science fiction universe where convicts can opt into serving out their sentence as guinea pigs for drug tests. I really love short stories, and don't read them as often as I should. I think a good short story can be more arresting than a good full-length novel. Such impact packed into only a few pages affects me more than an equally well-written novel. I have an immense appreciation for a good short story, and thoroughly enjoyed reading this compilation.

Mar 24, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

So I guess modern retellings of fairy tales is a thing now, like how Hollywood in the 90s and 00s had a thing with retelling Shakespeare plays. And if my love of The Lunar Chronicles and this positively delicious retelling of Snow White are any indication, I am fully on board with this trend. Boy is our first narrator, a young white woman in her early twenties who escapes her abusive father and hides out in small town New England. Snow is her stepdaughter, breathtakingly beautiful and innocent at seven years old, whom Boy sends away to live with an aunt in Boston. Bird is Boy's daughter, born with unmistakable black features, thus revealing Boy's husband's family to be black Southerners passing as white. You'd think that would be plenty of drama, but the action of "Boy, Snow, Bird" takes place in the unique minds of Boy and Bird. The Snow White references are clear - Boy sometimes catches herself smiling at her own reflection - but in the end, the story is about women coming together for each others' sake. The writing is fantastic, very funny at times and deeply moving. Oyeyemi is a formidable talent, and I'd love to read more of her work in the future.

Mar 23, 2014

I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva

This Italian novel is published by Europa Editions, a press that specializes in bringing exceptional foreign language novels to English readers. It's a wonderful book, funny and moving and existential. Vincenzo, our (somewhat anti-)hero is 42, a struggling lawyer who's been separated from his wife for two years and shares with her a stepdaughter and a son. He's a bit of a bumbler - smart, no doubt, but rather locked up in his own world, and he rarely thinks before he speaks, often surprising himself with what comes out of his mouth. His ex-wife, though she has a live-in boyfriend, still occasionally calls him for sex, which is complicated by the unforeseen and utterly shocking attraction a particularly beautiful colleague shows in him. Add onto this his appointment as the defense attorney for a man involved in the Camorra (i.e. mafia) and a son who keeps showing up to school having been visibly beaten, and Vincenzo is in for a rough week.

De Silva has written other novels, plays and screenplays, and that background shows in this work. It's written a bit like a movie, even referencing how things would have played out had Vincenzo been, in fact, in a movie, or his observation that we seem to instinctively and subconsciously imitate Hollywood in our daily lives. It's a gimmick that mostly works, only falling flat very occasionally. It's a great book, fun to read and with an utterly endearing protagonist, and I'd like to note as well that you really can't go wrong with Europa Editions books.

Mar 16, 2014

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

I'm not entirely sure why, but I really liked this little novel. Perhaps it's the straightforward writing, the way Thompson says exactly what's happening and what Kemp is seeing and the way he's feeling. Or perhaps it just felt appropriate, given the mini-heat wave we're having here in California. Or maybe it's that I can empathize with Kemp's own particular brand of wanderlust, a need to be elsewhere without actually knowing where or why or what he should be doing. Whatever it is, I really enjoyed this novel of the Caribbean and San Juan, of rum and palms, of racism and imperialism and patriotism. It definitely makes me want to read more of Thompson's work (though I have little desire to see the Johnny Depp movie version).

Mar 15, 2014

Mount Terminus, by David Grand

I tried, I really did. I fell in love with the first few pages of this book, but then it gets bogged down and I'm embarrassed to say I couldn't get past 150 pages. It took me a long while to figure out that it's about the beginning of Hollywood, an oversight that's understandable given the crazy backstory we get at the start of the book. At first, I was charmed by Grand's lush writing, but the depression his character Rosenbloom wraps himself in seems to seep through the pages, and I could barely read five pages without my eyes drooping. I love the story, I really do, but there's very little dialogue and what little there is lacks quotation marks (perhaps this is a trait only of the Advanced Reader's Copy I have, I'll have to see whether they're added into the final version). There's just far too much description and not nearly enough plot to keep me interested in all 365 pages of the book. It's a true writer's book, meant for someone who spends their time and makes their living studying language and writing. I, alas, am not such a one, and I can only wish I had the patience to get through it.

Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I love the characters Christopher Moore creates. They're absurd and hilarious, heartbreaking and relatable. This is one of Moore's most popular books, a clash-of-cultures/true-love tale of Samuel Hunter, a fast-talking insurance salesman, who was born Samson Hunts Alone, a full-blooded Crow Indian with a dark secret in his past. His spirit animal, unfortunately for him, is Old Man Coyote, the trickster of the Indian pantheon. The beginning of the story finds Sam meeting Calliope, an incredibly beautiful young woman who is exactly how you'd imagine someone who's mother switched religions at a prodigious rate during her childhood. Sam falls head over heels, even as Old Man Coyote manages to destroy the last twenty years of Sam's carefully constructed life in the course of a single day. This book isn't as uproariously funny as some of Moore's others, but it's one of the best written. Like "Sacre Bleu," it's a bit more subtle, with characters you really come to care about instead of merely laugh at. I'm having a great time discovering all the different modes of Christopher Moore, and as always, look forward to reading more.

Mar 13, 2014

Cress, by Marissa Meyer

The third installment of The Lunar Chronicles is based on Rapunzel, and it's fantastic. Meyer got back to a good balance between action and introspection as we follow Cress's escape from her prison-like satellite onto Earth. Suddenly faced with the vastness of a planet after seven years in what essentially amounted to solitary confinement, Cress is a believable mixture of excited, terrified, and curious. We alternate her story with Emperor Kai and Cinder's. Just as exciting as the first two, "Cress" was hugely enjoyable to read, and I'll be awaiting #4 with great anticipation.

Mar 9, 2014

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

Well, this was certainly a challenge. It took me two days to get through the preface alone, and I'll admit I merely scanned the appendix. This is Eggers' first book, a memoir (mostly) that launched him onto the national literary stage. Most of the praise is deserved; it's completely unique, a look inside someone's brain where that brain doesn't work quite the same way as most. Or maybe it does, we just aren't self-aware enough to have the ability or courage to write it down and publish it. It's overwhelming at times. Imagine spending a week inside someone else's mind, hearing all their thoughts, their paranoia, fantasies, fears. Then imagine that person being a bit too smart for his own good, a narcissist with a fatal mixture of low self-esteem. Add onto that the fact his parents both died of cancer within five weeks of each other and, at the age of 23, he's raising his 7-year-old brother. The book is pretty much the definition of metacognition, an act of literary masturbation in which Eggers alternately tries to convince himself that he is a terrible parental substitute and his brother will inevitably end up dead, or that he's the most amazing parent who ever lived and his brother is incredibly lucky to have him. It's a very interesting read, but I'm glad Eggers now sticks to fiction, because I don't think I could handle another heartbreaking work, be it of staggering genius or not.

Mar 5, 2014

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

We're reading this for my bookstore's book club this month, which I think is a great pick since so many people either have never read it and only seen the Disney movie or read it when they were children and haven't revisited it since. I'm in the latter category, and was surprised at how little I remembered of the book but how much I remembered of the movie. The aspect of "Alice" that strikes me most is how close an approximation it is to a child's imagination. I remember, as an only child, having parties with my dolls and stuffed animals, voicing all the characters and having full discussions, even arguments between them. My plastic indoor play structure became a castle more times than I can count. And Alice's characteristic of always trying to show off all her knowledge and how clever she is (when she usually gets it wrong) is classic child behavior. It's really quite amazing, how Carroll - who had no children of his own - captures the imaginative ramblings of youth. There is, of course, all the speculation about whether Carroll was in fact a pedophile, mostly encouraged by his numerous pictures and paintings of young girls, though it's something no one has been able to prove for sure. Either way, this should be an interesting discussion at our meeting.

Feb 27, 2014

Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

Okay, I've officially joined the Mary Roach fan club. I get it now. She's certifiably hilarious; I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud while reading non-fiction! This is Roach's book about the science of space travel - not the rockets or flight paths or lunar modules, but what it takes for human beings to actually survive in space. Gravity (and the lack thereof), food, waste management, personality types. Roach covers a whole lot of ground, the stuff that isn't generally included in textbooks. It's fascinating, to think that a mere fifty years ago we honestly had no idea what space could do to a person. If nothing else, Roach's book leaves one with a healthy respect for NASA's ability to test just about every scenario possible. Her writing is incredibly enjoyable, funny and informative and great fun to read. My only complaint was reading the rather lengthy chapter on excretion while eating my breakfast... Informative, but gross. I can't wait to read Roach's other books.

Feb 23, 2014

Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

This second book in The Lunar Chronicles reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with a Big Bad Wolf who turns out to not be so bad after all. This installment is as engaging as the first, though I found it to be a little heavy on the action. Scarlet's story is intermixed with the continuation of Cinder's, with the entire book taking place over only one or two days. It's 400 pages of pure action, which is exhilarating, no doubt, but a bit much. The first book had a more even pace, periods of action alternating comfortably with more sedate sections. But it's still a great story, and I can't wait to read the third book!

Feb 21, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

Magical realism is big nowadays, and Walton takes full advantage of that. This is a beautifully written book, but it tries a little too hard for originality and ends up feeling a bit like an amalgamation of other magical realism books. The title, first of all, is terrible. Too long, and too similar to "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." And I'm confused as to why this has been marketed as a Young Adult book. There's harsh language, rape, violence, and vocabulary only the most precocious of high schoolers would know, let alone the average adult. It may be written from (mostly) the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, but I really don't think this is an appropriate book for teenagers.

That out of the way, I did really enjoy it. It's quite well-written, even if the style is a bit derivative, but that's not all that surprising from a first-time novelist. The best part is the beginning, as Ava recounts the history of her grandparents and parents. As we get into Ava's story, the plot flattens a bit, but the writing is still lovely. I think, perhaps, I'm just getting a little bit tired of the whole magical realism thing. I appreciate it more in small doses than as the main event in a book; it no longer has the ability to make me gasp with wonder.

Feb 19, 2014

The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

I seem to be into modern retellings of old tales, lately. "The Crane Wife" is Ness' take on an ancient Japanese fable. George Duncan - middle aged, divorced, nice, and utterly bland - wakes one night to find a crane in his backyard, an arrow through her wing. He removes the arrow and the crane flies off; the dreamlike quality of the event seems confirmed by his rather abrasive daughter Amanda, who insists it was just a dream, until an equally dreamlike woman, Kumiko, enters his print shop and changes his life. As for herself, Amanda - 25, divorced, filled with love for her young son and incapable of keeping a friend for more than a few months - struggles to understand why she seems capable of only loving with hatred and violence.

It's a tale beautifully told, and also really quite funny at times. I was unprepared for how funny the book would be, as the cover and plot all lean towards the decidedly melancholy, but the humor rested easily alongside the serious, reminding us that life is not always one thing or another.

Feb 15, 2014

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

Oh, I loved this book...it took me two days flat to read it. This modern, science fiction retelling of Cinderella is a reminder of why I love YA literature and reading. Great plot, totally believable and relatable characters, just the right amount of description, and great originality - all together, they make one hell of an enjoyable read. I'm so glad Meyer turned this into a series, and greatly look forward to reading the second and third installments.

Feb 13, 2014

The Ice Balloon, by Alec Wilkinson

This little book is about the age of Arctic exploration, when intrepid, adventurous men in the late 1800s tried to find the geographic North Pole. Wilkinson writes for The New Yorker, and though he has published several other books (none of which I've read), this one reads much like a series of connected essays. The title is inspired by the Arctic attempt of S. A. Andree (please forgive my lack of computer expertise; that first "e" in Andree should have an accent on it). We learn a bit about Andree's youth and young adulthood leading up to his attempt to sail a balloon across the North Pole, then read about several other journeys, nearly all of which ended in horrific disaster. There's an awful lot of quoting in this book - journals, diaries, newspaper articles, and essays make up the bulk of the narrative, strung together by Wilkinson's writing. There was one section where he listed four or five pages of different kinds of ice and what they looked like. I'm not entirely sure why this was necessary; a few paragraphs would have been sufficient to elucidate that sailors have lots of words for ice. And I have to say that I was extremely, perhaps excessively, bothered by the fact that Wilkinson never tells us what the S and A in Andree's name stood for. A small thing, yes, but when writing a biography about someone, even if there is a bigger theme to the book, for goodness' sake, tell us that basic information at least! We do eventually find out that it stood for Solomon August, but only towards the end and in a quoted section, not in Wilkinson's own words. So the book was interesting, but mostly for the topic rather than the writing, and I can't help but feel a more heavy-handed editor would have helped immensely.

Feb 7, 2014

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

This is the sequel to "The Passage," which I absolutely loved, but I have to say that I didn't enjoy this one as much. It took me a while to figure out why, but it finally dawned on me: Cronin wrote it like a movie, not like a book. Characters say and do things that are scripted for dramatic effect, things that would look great in a movie or a TV show, but read awkwardly in a book. I liked "The Passage" so much partly because it took a common movie theme (vampires), and treated it unlike any movie out there. I got involved in the life the characters had built for themselves after the proverbial end of the world, not in high octane action sequences. "The Twelve" is all about action, revenge, true love - it's not about how real people would act in these science fiction situations. Like when Peter Jaxon defeats a drac in a caged off boxing ring by looking it dead in the eye, or when Sara immediately recognizes a five-year-old girl as her daughter even though she'd never seen her, not even right after giving birth. These are crafted for the big screen, not the small page, and as a reader, this is a disappointment. It feels like Cronin sold out a little, and I'm not sure I'll bother buying the third installment.

Jan 30, 2014

Empires of Food, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

This was an interesting book, though a little preachy at times. "Empires of Food" lays out the history of food empires, that is, political powerhouses that grow because of their ability to produce, store, and ship immense amounts of food, but then inevitably fall when that food runs out. The relevance is obvious: Earth is its own food empire right now, connected as all the countries are by dizzyingly complex trade agreements. Fraser and Rimas argue that extreme specialization - when one geographical area cultivates only one product - is dangerous. Environmentally, specialization is horrific. It strips the earth of the nitrogen plants need to thrive and destroys ecosystems by eroding soil, which in turn pollutes the water sources. A single crop is also terribly vulnerable to an insect or disease that can wipe out an entire region of fields, leaving nothing to sell, let alone eat. This in turn leads to famine and starvation, causing deaths and political destabilization, and riots that can bring down governments and bring countries to a standstill.

The science was all quite new to me, though I knew the rough basics. The history, and the conclusions drawn therefrom, were a little less informative. I found that a lot of the conclusions seemed very obvious, though it's difficult to say whether that's from a college education in history, or perhaps just the critical thinking I'd been taught. Or maybe that's the point, that these mistakes are so obvious and yet ignored that it takes someone like Fraser and Rimas to take the time to point it out to us. The fact of the matter is, the environment is suffering because of the way we grow food, and the earth is warming up. Arguing about why that's so is beside the point. Specialization and over-reliance on international trade will fail to feed a population expected to hit 9 billion people soon. The authors suggest a food economy much more focused on local producers and in-season food, with plenty of planting diversity and no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. They don't deny that we will have to, to some degree, continue the trading; after all, trading food is how cultures first connected. But we need to start stockpiling for the dry skies ahead (which resonates quite strongly for me as California eases itself into another drought), and we need to farm smart.

A quick note on the writing: it was a little silly. Engaging, yes, and it has to be as the book is meant to be consumed by laymen. But some of the metaphors really push the bounds of good writing; while it may not be inaccurate to compare the Roman empire to a rotten pumpkin surrounded by flies, it is, however, utterly ridiculous. They tried too hard to be cute and funny, and it ends up falling a bit flat. All in all, though, a though-provoking and educational book, and I'm glad I read it.

Jan 22, 2014

The First True Lie, by Marina Mander

I requested this as an ARC because the premise intrigued me: adolescent Luca, already half an orphan raised by his mother, wakes up one morning to find his mother has died, presumably from an overdose of sleeping pills, and decides to keep it a secret because he is terrified of being sent to an orphanage. The book is Italian originally, but still very powerful in translation. Luca likes swearing and fantasizing; he's in love with his classmate Antonella and loved his life with his mother, even as he hated being branded an orphan. It's not, as one might imagine, an easy book to get though, despite being quite short. As his mother's body begins to stink, Luca falls deeper into himself in an effort to keep up outward appearances. Mander makes a good approximation, I think, of a young boy's brain, and I could easily slip inside Luca's shoes. That said, I'd be careful who I recommended this to, as the novel is every bit as painful as the subject matter promises.

Jan 21, 2014

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

This is the second book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, and it's just as magical as the first. When I read "The Name of the Wind," I was struck by Rothfuss's storytelling skills. He's a wonderful writer, but as I said in that review, he'd be a fantastic storyteller in any genre. My opinion has not changed at all after reading the second installment of his trilogy. Rothfuss is writing a fairy tale, not of the Disney variety, but more like the original folklore those happy movies are based on. The story is dark and even violent at parts, but throughout it maintains a lyrical, haunting quality that is truly delectable to read. I read its thousand pages in a week, and loved every minute of it. I can't wait until the final book is published!

Jan 15, 2014

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Nominally, this book is science fiction, but I think the label, stigmatized as it is, belies a greater depth. Good science fiction is supposed to open our minds to possibilities and scenarios we otherwise would not have encountered. It makes us think about issues that fly under our radar in everyday life. "Flowers for Algernon" does just that. Charlie Gordon is mentally handicapped (retarded or moronic in the parlance of the day) but wants very badly to learn and be smart. He's chosen to be the first human subject of an experiment designed to increase intelligence. As the experiment succeeds, Charlie quickly surpasses the great minds around him while at the same time experiencing disorienting resurfaced memories and the prospect that his intelligence might not be permanent.

What Keyes forces us to confront is our idea of what makes a human human. Charlie's main complaint is that the people he considered to be his friends as well as the scientists he must thank for his new-found intelligence did not think of him as a human being before the experiment. It's such a powerful message that I'm surprised the book hasn't been mass produced and distributed by organizations who advocate for the mentally handicapped. Keyes wants us to understand that personhood is not a product of intelligence, but of emotion. This is a powerful book, and a wonderful example of what makes science fiction great.

Jan 6, 2014

The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman

This is officially the first graphic novel I've read, and boy, did I pick a doozy. People have been telling me to read "Maus" for years, and I finally dove into it when I picked it for my bookstore's first book club meeting. About graphic novels in general: I was a bit skeptical because part of what I love about reading is you get to essentially create a movie in your head as you go. I imagine faces and settings as vivid as the real world and retain them throughout my reading of a novel. I was worried that a graphic novel wouldn't allow me to do so, and it would be distracting. Having now read one, I can say that far from being distracting, I actually had a hard time remembering to even look at the pictures at all! I read the captions and the dialogue, but would often forget about looking at the pictures as I went along. So while it didn't distract me in the way I thought it might, my guess is that I'm missing quite a bit because of my reading blinders.

As for the story, whew...I think the most interesting part about "Maus" is how unlikable Vladek is. He's a Holocaust survivor, an Auschwitz survivor, so your first instinct is to empathize with and pity him. But he's really a jerk, verbally abusive towards his wife and controlling of his son. The debate could go on forever, trying to figure out if he was that way all along or because of what he lived through. The story he tells, albeit nothing new to us in 2014, is heart-wrenching in its honesty. I had the bad luck of eating dinner when he speaks about how the showers and ovens worked and was nearly unable to finish chewing. The most astonishing parts were how cruel other prisoners and Jews could be to each other. The systematic dehumanization of the Jews allowed other humans to act out their basest instincts. We are all xenophobic animals deep down, and the Nazis not only permitted but encouraged people to tap into those dark spots in their souls. We all like to think the human race has evolved since then, but there's no real indication this is so. "Maus" is a fascinating read, though I'm not enamored of the format, and I believe more people should read it.

Jan 3, 2014

Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg

Simon Pegg is smart. Very smart. This isn't entirely surprising, given how nuanced his movies can be, but I wasn't expecting quite the level of intellectualism Pegg puts on display in his highly enjoyable memoir. I love Pegg's movies (I own Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), and have a definite soft spot for British humor, so I knew I would at least like his book. But in addition to being extremely funny, Pegg is also very intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, and just the right amount of introspective. This is basically what I had been hoping for in Tiny Fey's book, which unfortunately disappointed me. I don't think you need to know Pegg or his work very well to enjoy this book. There's a lot of film and cultural analysis, along with touching anecdotes from Pegg's past, and it's refreshing to read a memoir by someone who actually loves every member of his extended family; it's inspiring, as well, to read about someone who had a dream and worked really hard to achieve it, and now makes a good living doing what he loves. This book cements my appreciation of Pegg's work and makes me really like him as the person he seems to be. Now, I'm not saying a have a crush on Simon Pegg, but if I ever happened to meet him in person, I would probably jibber and giggle and blush and make an utter fool of myself. And somehow, I think he wouldn't mind all that much.