Dec 31, 2015

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, by Brian A. Catlos

Ending the year on a non-fiction note, I picked up a book that has much relevance to my area of study in college. And up front, I'll admit that I skipped the last fifty pages since it was information on the Crusades with which I was already quite familiar. The subtitle to this work is "Faith, power, and violence in the age of Crusade and Jihad." It's an academic, approachable look at the Mediterranean (specifically Spain, North Africa, Sicily, and the Near East) during the Middle Ages, a time when borders were fluid and Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived mostly together and mostly peacefully. Catlos's thesis is that the primary sources that seem to indicate that religion was a major cause of discordance and violence in the medieval Mediterranean world give a false impression; instead, Catlos argues that religion was simply an easy tool to utilize when one wanted to damage someone personally or politically. A Jewish wazir was only attacked because of his Jewish identity when he angered Muslim taxpayers; an Armenian Christian wazir was excoriated for his Christianity only after personally refusing a loan to a Muslim administrator. Religion, far from being divisive, was simply another means to a political end.

Catlos argues his point well, though he tends to restate his thesis a little more often than is necessary. His chapter on the Cid is particularly interesting, as it parses the well-known legend into its real world history. He could have focused more on the turning point of religions relations, where instead he suddenly jumps into it with the announcement of the First Crusade in 1095. But it's a well-written, extremely well-researched book, another strong exhibit for the argument that the three Peoples of the Book can, and did, get along well enough without religious invective and violence.

Dec 10, 2015

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett's wonderfully funny and whimsical Discworld novels always have a bit of philosophy in them, but I found this book to be especially deep. When the beings who run the universe decide to get rid of human life, their first move is to do away with the Hogfather (the Discworld's version of Santa Claus). Why? Because belief, Pratchett postulates, is what makes us human. As children, we have to learn to believe in the little things, such as the Tooth Fairy, before we can believe in bigger concepts like justice and mercy. These are not absolutes; they are concepts, ideas, impermanent and fragile. Once again, Terry Pratchett's humor and wisdom have impressed me mightily.

Dec 6, 2015

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree Jr.

I had never heard of this author when this collection of his short stories popped up on a "best of sci fi" list I read a couple of years ago. I bought a copy and it sat on my shelf, thick and blue, until I decided to bite the bullet and try it. What an impressive, surprising, incredible piece of work. James Tiptree Jr. was the nom de plume of Alice B. Sheldon, who started writing science fiction short stories under that name in the late 1960s. Her luminous stories soon took home awards and she developed a large, devoted fan base with whom she corresponded quite freely, despite never being seen in public. Her writing was known for its philosophical, cynically tinged hard sci fi with beautiful titles and not an inconsiderable amount of feminism. Her career remained strong after she was revealed to be a woman, but a life-long struggle with depression ended in her suicide.

These stories are nearly indescribable. Terribly imaginative, one can easily see the influence they have had on future science fiction writers. I was reminded of "Station Eleven" at the very first story, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain." Her writing is almost too good to bear; paragraphs of solid, wrenching emotion pull strenuously at the heart and soul and you are almost too afraid to read on while simultaneously devouring every page as quickly as possible. Tiptree's cynicism towards humanity, especially men, is laid bare on the page, the inevitable nature of our animal spirits striving vainly to reach some sort of greater height but always falling just short. What an incredible talent, what an amazing writer.

Dec 1, 2015

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, by Jackie Copleton

It's hard to write a lovely book about nuclear warfare, but newcomer Jackie Copleton has managed to do just that. Ameratsu, when we first meet her, is an elderly widower living in Pennsylvania, lonely and veering into alcoholism. A knock on her door reveals a middle aged Japanese man, clearly marked by the scars of the atom bomb, who claims to be her dead grandson. The story proceeds back and forth through time - the moment the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, the years and months just before the bomb, the weeks after, and Ameratsu's own youth. Her daughter, Yuko, was instantly killed as she waited for her mother in Nagasaki's cathedral, right in the middle of the bomb zone, and Ameratsu has always blamed herself for her daughter's presence in the city that killed her. Could Hideo, this man on her doorstop, possibly be that daughter's son?

Each chapter is preceded by a Japanese word and its meaning, usually colloquial or traditional. Though I generally dislike chapter epigraphs because I always forget them anyways and thus lose their significance, these are relevant to understanding the nuances of Japanese culture each chapter circles around. It's a beautifully written and very touching novel.

Nov 22, 2015

The Jesus Cow, by Michael Perry

Funny and biting, Perry's "The Jesus Cow" is everything I wanted it to be. When one of Harley's cows gives birth to a calf with the unmistakable face of Jesus Christ in black and white fur on its side, Harley knows that nothing good will come of it. His little mid-Western hometown, Swivel, is economically depressed, and so is he: should he follow his instinct and get rid of the calf as soon as possible, or listen to his best (and only) friend Billy, who wants Harley to monetize the crap out of it?

Perry's send up of religion, capitalism, and small-town politics is done just right. There's nuance to even the most caricatured personality. The money-hungry financial bulldog, Klute, is also a lonely middle-aged man on the brink of ruin; the town nut, snobbish academician Carolyn, is finding that all the brains in the world can't beat having a good friend; and Harley himself is the very picture of the stoic, farm-raised "Scandihoovian", but he'd really like a little poetry and art in his life. There are hilarious moments and touching moments, and even as he skewers the evangelical American, Perry injects a stunning humanity into the most ridiculous of situations. This is a wonderful, page-turning read.

Nov 18, 2015

The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea

The two novels by Urrea that I've read were both incredible; his writing is simple yet lyrical, almost prose poetry and weighted delicately with meaning. But Urrea is actually most known for his journalistic nonfiction, and this decade-old tale of illegal immigration is my first foray with him into that genre. I was delighted to find that his writing is exactly as I remembered; it still holds poetry despite its factual basis. Even the description of the body's journey from health to heat death holds a singular allure. That Urrea's subject matter is so tragic makes his language all the more plaintive.

In mid-May of 2001, a large group of Mexican men, mostly from the state of Veracruz, attempted to illegally enter the United States through the desert of Arizona, known as Desolation. Walkers, as they are called (along with other less savory euphemisms), are lead by Coyotes, guides who travel with them into Arizona then go back to Mexico to await assignment to another group. Though Mendez, this particular group's guide, had done so several times before, this time he got lost. Then he got even more lost. It doesn't take long for Desolation to kill you. When even nighttime temperatures hover in the 90s, the sun quickly bakes the moisture out of you and your body soon ceases to function. Twenty-six men entered the U.S. - only twelve made it out of the desert alive, including Mendez but not his two associates. Walkers usually die in twos or threes, making this an unusually large mortality.

Urrea doesn't point fingers or lay blame. The walkers' stories are sometimes wildly different from each others', but since heat causes hallucinations, who can tell which stories are more accurate? Mendez tells his own story, of course, one of innocence and helpfulness, but he suddenly changed his plea to guilty on the day of his sentencing and got jail time instead of the death sentence; he refused to correspond with Urrea at all.

The most interesting part of this book, for me, was Urrea's description of the Border Patrol. The book is ten years out of date, and much has happened regarding immigration control since its publication, so I have no idea how accurate this portrayal remains. But it struck me nonetheless: the BP isn't really there to keep people out - it's there to make sure the people who do come in don't die. Yes, they arrest most walkers and send them all back, but their main concern when finding any is to see to their health. After the Yuma 14 (as the media called the episode), the BP designed and erected a series of towers along the Devil's Highway, the most traveled and deadliest stretch of desert in Desolation. There are signs in English, Spanish, and pictures warning walkers of the danger they are in and presenting them with a big red button. When pressed, this button instantly summons the Border Patrol, who are there in no more than an hour. These towers have already saved lives. And the BP members pay for them OUT OF THEIR OWN POCKETS. I've no doubt things have changed since then, but I cannot help but be moved by these people doing a thankless job who do so mainly to save other people's lives.

I already respected Urrea as a writer of great beauty and subtle humor. Now I know that he couples his wonderful language skills with a powerful journalistic sense for his nonfiction, and will continue reading his work, both fiction and nonfiction, as often as possible.

Nov 11, 2015

Winter, by Marissa Meyer

This, the final installment of the Young Adult science fiction/fairy tale series, the Lunar Chronicles, is a romping good time. Romance! Action! Villains! Redemption! "Winter" is everything you want it to be, fun to the core and full of the requisite twists and turns, with a great happy ending. Strong female characters (on both sides of the good/evil spectrum) nonetheless have very real emotions and weaknesses. You can be brave and shy at the same time, crazy and courageous, determined and unsure. This is a fabulous series for any teen who isn't ready for more serious science fiction, particularly girls, and for those who enjoy the recent takes on age-old fairy tales. I look forward to recommending this series for a long time to come.

Nov 5, 2015

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

First published in 1955, this American classic is often included on lists of the funniest books of all time, and it holds such resonance that the title is a firm member of our lexicon. And while it certainly is very funny, it is also not an easy read. "Catch-22" is absurdist satire and mostly nonsensical. As such, what little plot there is can only be followed by careful reading, making it a little slow going. It is exceedingly smart, and its groundbreaking satire continues to inspire comedy to this day. The movie Dr. Strangelove especially comes to mind.

The main character, as much as there is one, is Yossarian, an American bombardier of Assyrian descent stuck in a regiment in Italy run by all manner of incompetent officers. Of particular concern to Yossarian is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the maximum number of missions needed to finish one's tour of duty and be sent back home. By the time Yossarian hits 40, it's 45. When he hits 45, it's 50. And so on. One can hardly blame Yossarian for feeling that everyone, friends and enemies alike, are trying to murder him. There's the flak in the sky, the Colonel on the ground, and the sullen, violent whores of Rome who have a penchant for hitting him over the head and with whom he falls in love constantly. Most of the men surrounding Yossarian get a few chapters themselves, none less ridiculous than the others.

What's incredible about "Catch-22" is its sharp, quick brilliance. It's hard to describe humor like this, nor is it easy to understand, for that matter. There's probably plenty of people for whom it flies right over their head, or they simply don't have the patience to buckle into it and get the full weight of absurdity. And then there are the moments of horror - Snowden's bloody, cold death in the plane; Yossarian's nighttime walk through Rome that reveals the myriad ways in which the strong take advantage of and abuse the weak; the unfeeling manipulation of a sensitive man by a narcissistic one - that are written so expertly but so suddenly that you don't even realize you've left the realm of satire and are now neck-deep in a condemnation of war and the men who seek self-aggrandizement from it. This is a masterful book, well-deserving of the term "classic," and I encourage all readers to take the dive into "Catch-22" with Yossarian.

Oct 31, 2015

Rat Queens, Volumes One and Two, by Kurtis J Wiebe et al

There's a very specific audience for this comic; luckily, I fit right into it! The Rat Queens are a group of four women of various races - only, this is based on Dungeons and Dragons, so "races" really means species: elf, dwarf, etc. There's magic and mayhem and very big swords. Oh, and a whole lot of swearing. So the "very specific audience" this comic is geared towards are people who enjoy D & D, badass women, and off-color humor. It's great fun! The art is really beautiful, expressive and rich. The story line is a good mix of bigger picture and smaller side stories. The dialogue is snappy and fun. All in all, this is a pretty good start to my comics education!

Oct 27, 2015

The Story of My Tits, by Jennifer Hayden

Now that I'm expected to be some sort of expert on graphic books (haha), I figured it was time I start reading them in earnest. "The Story of My Tits" was a magnificent place to start, and would be a fantastic gateway for many who are new to the graphic genre. This is the story of Jennifer Hayden's life thus far, structured around the various stages of her breasts: having none but wanting them, being comfortable with having none, growing them, motherhood, breast cancer, double mastectomy, and having no tits again. There's a lot that happens besides this, namely her relationship with her husband, his parents, and her own parents. Many of these stages are familiar stomping ground for all women, and we can all relate to Hayden's feelings about her tits in particular, and her femininity in general. Breasts can define a woman in many ways: too large, too small, too young, too old, too saggy, too perky; life giving and life taking. Hayden's story should resonate with men, too, since it's also about finding your place in the world and the slow, inexorable and often unwilling crawl into adulthood. Men who's lives have been touched by breast cancer in some way (relatives, friends, partners) will appreciate Hayden's no-nonsense, but emotional description of her own illness.

The art is wonderful, totally distinctive and accessible. Tits, in all their various forms, are obviously omnipresent. Hayden's drawings of angry faces turn into horned, hairy beasts, while the rest are simply drawn. This incredible book deserves all the attention it's getting, and I hope its reach continues to grow.

Oct 26, 2015

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

This is a pretty spectacular book, but probably isn't for everybody due to the level of gore. It's also rather difficult to describe, but here goes: The Library houses twelve main areas of study, all collected and collated by Father, a man of incredible age and unspeakable cruelty. Father gathered twelve children on Adoption Day, the day their parents all died, and each child has mastered his or her subject: death, healing, languages, war, etc. Now in their early thirties and familiar only with the insular yet vastly knowledgeable world of The Library, the unimaginable has happened: Father has been killed, but no one knows how or by whom. We follow mostly Carolyn, one of the twelve, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is planning something special all on her own.

This is the kind of book I'd love to see turned into a movie, but am so appreciative that it wasn't obviously written with that in mind. There's a good amount of action and violence, while the characters are astonishingly stark and well-drawn despite their alien natures. I found myself deeply invested in the outcome, and sped through the book in a single day (phenomenally fast for me, not an especially quick reader). I wish it were a little more accessible but the gore would make it difficult for some. But if that's not your problem, I cannot recommend this fantastic novel enough.

Oct 23, 2015

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, ed. by Anthony and Ben Holden

I've never been able to get into poetry, so I thought this would be a good entryway to the genre that so many of my reader and writer friends love. While I was much more likely to cry at the brief introductions than the poems themselves, it's really a fantastic collection and very well edited. There are slightly fewer than one hundred poems, as some men picked the same pieces; they are written mostly by men but a solid handful of women; they are arranged in chronological order.

My trouble with poetry is I find it hard to concentrate on and relate to. I love language and words, but I need context and at least the semblance of a story to really connect to something. Having the introductions before each poem by the men who chose them did much to remedy this for me, and I found I was able to better dig into the dirt of the poem. There were a few standouts, such as Billy Collins' "The Lanyard," which was the only one to legitimately bring me to tears; and the more recent poems were easier for me to sink my teeth into than the older ones. Slow reading, it was, but it's a fabulous collection and perfect for the uninitiated poetry reader.

Oct 12, 2015

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I'll be honest: I don't have much to say about this book. It's really well done, but I didn't absolutely love it, nor do I have any complaints. The writing is great, the plot is great - it's as intricate as it should be and lets the reader make her own guesses along the way. It's a really good book, but for some reason I find it a bit unremarkable. Perhaps this is because I regularly read novels in this genre, whereas most of "Station Eleven's" big fans don't, so it's more unique to them. I think that I'd like to read more of her work but only if it falls further along the spectrum, either straight literary fiction or straight science fiction. But despite not being blown away by it, I must stress that it really is a very well-done book, and I'd absolutely recommend it to readers looking for something a bit beyond their normal fiction.

Oct 10, 2015

Not On Fire, But Burning, by Greg Hrbek

In an astounding feat of writing, Greg Hrbek has managed to humanize terrorism, hatred, and fear. Though there are speculative-almost-science-fiction aspects to this book, it is really the story of two boys growing up in circumstances that conspire against their conscience and better judgment. Dorian's parents think he's going crazy: lately he's been insisting that he had an older sister, Skylar, who died in the infamous bombing/meteor blast/unknown destructive event that decimated San Francisco on August 11 in the 2020s, but who never actually existed; not to mention his recent well-publicized Islamophobic vandalism of a local mosque. Karim, an opium-addicted orphan in the internment camp of Dakota, whose parents were killed in a government drone strike, is being adopted by an old veteran of the Gulf Wars and preparing to give his life to the Islamist cause in order to see his mother again in Paradise. When Dorian and Karim meet, they bring with them years of indoctrination and peer pressure, and with the weight of societal expectations bearing down on them, are lead to a moment when a crucial decision must be made. Will they make the right choices, and, in their situation, is there even a right choice to make?

This is a difficult book to read, mostly due to its content, but also partly because of the structure. We switch rapidly between characters and perspectives, sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first, and occasionally even into parallel universes. It's well worth the effort, though, as Hrbek delves deeply into our national consciousness to expose the prevalent but underlying prejudice and hopelessness that leads us to curtail freedoms and rights in the name of security. This is an important book, a look at what we have become and what could be our future in this post-9/11 world.

Oct 4, 2015

Dumplin', by Julie Murphy

What a treasure, this book is! Meet Willowdean Dickson: sixteen, blond, and fat. But she's okay with it, really; her body is the way it is and she's comfortable in her own skin. She loves Dolly Parton and her best friend Ellen, and misses her beloved Aunt Lucy who died of a heart attack after reaching 500 pounds. But this is the summer of the changing status quo... Ellen and her boyfriend Tim decide to finally have sex, and Bo, the drop dead gorgeous private school boy Willowdean works with at the burger joint, starts kissing her behind the dumpster at work. It's wonderful, beautiful, exciting - until Bo touches Willowdean's body. Every caress reminds Will of her back fat, or her bulging thighs, and she just can't get it out of her head. Then school starts and Bo is suddenly at her high school, and this football player Mitch starts courting her, and she gets in this huge fight with Ellen that there seems to be no coming back from, and, oh yeah, she decides to compete in the Clover City Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pagaent. Whew...

This book is just fantastic. There's no apologies here, no physical transformations or realizations of some hidden innate talent to make everybody love her. Will muddles through like the rest of us, doing her best to be happy and confident but not succeeding most of the time, and who can't relate to that? She doesn't lose weight or even try, she doesn't embrace her body and start flaunting it like a drag queen; she just comes to terms with the fact that sometimes trying out something different isn't so bad, and that a bully just isn't worth anybody's time. This isn't a manifesto; it's a common ground on which all people with insecurities (i.e. ALL people) can meet each other and recognize that we've all been there. Willowdean isn't a hero, just a kid trying to find her way and starting on that journey with a smile on her face. I love this book, and hope it gets read by all the girls out there who need it.

Sep 23, 2015

Nightfall, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

I return to young adult fiction with a newly released horror novel, a tale of friendship, family, betrayal, and very large creatures that like to kill people. Fourteen-year-old Marin, her twin Kana, and their friend Line - whose growing interest in Marin has rather alienated Kana - live in Bliss, a perfectly formed town on a beautiful island. Day lasts for fourteen years, as does Night, and when it comes, the entire town packs up and heads south to the desert. Curious about the rituals surrounding their departure and exasperated by her brother's sudden indifference to her, Marin nevertheless packs up with everyone else when the tide turns and the furrier's boats arrive to take them away. Except that Line has disappeared, probably to go find a necklace Marin lost several months back, and as the boarding of the boats becomes more frenzied, she convinces Kana to go back and find Line. They're pretty sure they can get back in time to catch the boats...but they don't. Left alone on an island made suddenly unfamiliar with the onset of Night, the three adolescents must keep each other alive and try to escape the terrors that lurk in the woods.

The scary bits are done pretty well, enough to make the book a page turner and definitely enough to pump adrenaline into the teenager reading it. I wasn't as thrilled with the character development; moods tend to shift suddenly and without warning, and while teens are known to be hormone-crazy, the shifts are abrupt and awkward. It's written a bit like a movie, or like the authors intended it to be immediately bought for movie rights, which is one of my pet peeves. But the idea is very cool (it reminds me of the movie Pitch Black) and the good parts are enough to carry the bad parts. Predictable to me but probably not so much to a teen, it should make a fun read for those who need a little adrenaline in their lives.

Sep 22, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is an incredible work of erudition, all the more wonderful for how amazingly comprehensible it is. Non-fiction buffs have been raving about this book to me since it came out, and it did not disappoint in the least. Harari is a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the breadth of his knowledge and insight is truly remarkable. What starts out as pure archaeology and history slowly morphs into a frank philosophical discussion about what it means to be human and how that might evolve in the future. The scope of Sapiens follows the development of homo sapiens from merely one among many human species, through the Cultural (organizing ourselves into social groups bound together by gossip), Agricultural, Scientific, and Industrial Revolutions, within which we still find ourselves. And all of this is written in easily understandable, utterly engaging language. There is also no bias (other than the purely scientific), with many different viewpoints explained along with their strengths and weaknesses. Harari acknowledges that there is so much we don't know, but does his best with the tools at our disposal to synthesize as many different fields as possible into a coherent, ordered and logical presentation of our past - distant and recent - and our possible futures. This very brief review cannot hope to do justice to a splendid piece of scholarship that also happens to be tremendously readable. Bravo, Dr. Harari!

Sep 7, 2015

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories, by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Short stories are consistently underestimated; they can pack a huge emotional punch due to their truncated nature, but there is often no "pay off," in the sense that there is rarely a nice little denouement for the reader to enjoy. Bergman's stories are all like this - they are snapshots in people's lives, sometimes at pivotal moments and sometimes as a window into another person's existence. There are strong animal and motherhood themes (Bergman is a mother and her husband is a veterinarian) and the stories all take place in the northern Southern states (e.g. North Carolina) or New England (Bergman's birthplace and current home, respectively).

These stories are quietly lyrical, and the animals are described especially lovingly. A consistent theme seems to be that the caretaking love of a mother (for either child or animal) is a stronger tie than the romantic love between two people. The eponymous story is especially good, and reminds us, along with the penultimate story, that children often become caretakers in turn. Bergman is a wonderful writer and these are wonderful stories, and I would be interested to read any longer fiction she writes to see how she works with these themes in long-form.

Sep 5, 2015

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book, quietly released a few months ago, has enjoyed a resurgence very recently, and rightly so. America's longstanding reluctance to acknowledge continuing racism and racial inequities is slowly melting away against the onslaught of media attention finally being directed to the killings of black men and women, particularly by the police force. It's becoming clearer that we can no longer be complacent about this latent anti-black sentiment that seems to pervade American policies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist, but this is not a work of journalism; it is a work of the heart. "Between the World and Me" is a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, who, though he is growing up in a very different world from his father's projects of Baltimore, is nonetheless witness and subject to the racial violence that plagues our nation. The most important aspect of this slim book is that it positions the problem in a very different light than has been the norm. This is not a scholarly piece, and the audience is a teenage boy, so Coates frames it in bare, understandable terms: What the black person fears, throughout his or her entire life, is losing control of his body. From day one, cradle to the grave, black men and women are in danger of violence being acted upon their bodies by their parents, their neighbors in the ghetto, their police officers, even total strangers (Trayvon Martin). Assault, rape, guns, even the seemingly unthinking act of a white woman pushing Coates' four-year-old son out of the way are indications of the danger to a black person's body. Incarcerated at rates magnitudes higher than whites, far more often victims of police brutality, inheritors of a people enslaved, beaten, raped, and owned - Coates has hit the nail on the head. I'm not black, but I am a woman, and so I feel I understand what he means. There is a sense that at any time, any place, someone could take advantage of their physical superiority over me and hurt my body. For black men, the reality that someone physically inferior could do the same is, I'm sure, even more psychologically damaging.

The other main point Coates makes is that the racial problem is created by people who think they are, and need to be, "white." I have a bit more trouble understanding this argument, for the obvious reason that I am ostensibly a member of this category. Even so, I think I see what he means. It's the age-old dance of us vs. them; to make us feel better and safer, we have to define ourselves against something else. America's history of black slavery has left black people in this perpetual underclass, even those who are financially successful. Coates inveighs against the American Dream, that mostly unattainable life of white picket fences and Ivy League schools and yachts. This Dream, he argues, does not apply to black people. It is a soporific that tricks Americans of all colors into accepting the current situation as the status quo. This is a point I wish Coates would have discussed a bit more fully, because I think he's onto something but don't have enough to really understand it. I hope that as the popularity of "Between the World and Me" grows and our national conversation about race continues to evolve, he will build upon this incredibly important work.

Aug 31, 2015

A Gift From Earth, by Larry Niven

It's been a while since I've picked up my favorite sci fi author, and it's good to be back in his universe. Niven represents and exemplifies the best aspect of science fiction: believable, feasible worlds built on hard science and the realities of human naturei - different enough to be alien, yet familiar enough to recognize and cause some mental discomfort at what we might become.

On Mount Lookitthat, the descendants of the crew who manned the ship that landed on the planet are an untouchable elite class, ruling over the colonist descendants by way of capital punishment for all crimes, leading directly to the organ banks, as well as a monopoly on machinery, mobility, and electrical power. When a ship from Earth comes bearing a great technological advance, it threatens to upset the entire social and political structure of Mount Lookitthat. Caught in the middle of all this is Matt Keller, 21-year-old virgin with a knack for making people forget he exists... Fascinating and funny and fun, Niven remains simply the best in the genre.

Aug 29, 2015

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Devastating and incredible. Though these words don't really do this novel justice, they're the closest I can get to describe the power of Nguyen's "The Sympathizer." Set around and just after the fall of Saigon, our nameless narrator is confessing. To whom, we don't yet know. Why, is another mystery. Our narrator is a double agent, a communist working within the Republican Army's secret police. Doubling his doubled nature, he is also half white, son of a young Vietnamese village girl and a French priest. His two best friends, Man and Bon, are diametrically opposed as well: Man is a high level communist agent and Bon does the secret police's dirty work. Pulled between all these opposites, our narrator leads us along the path to his own personal fall.

The novel is immensely powerful. We get the horror of atrocities committed by Americans, Viet Cong, and those caught in the middle; we get the discombobulation of living in America as a non-white refugee, forced to perform menial work and accept government handouts to survive after having had real careers in Vietnam; and because the story is told in the first person, we get the idealistic belief of a communist who sees it as the only way out of persistent poverty and powerlessness, as well as the lure of capitalist America.

It's a damning look at human nature, not just the Vietnam conflict. America's roll as teacher of atrocities is equaled by the willingness of the Vietnamese to commit them against their own people in turn. Our narrator's crime, to which he eventually confesses, is that he did nothing in the face of evil. How many are guilty of such a crime? Too many.

Though the last 70 pages got a bit bogged down, this is an incredibly impressive novel by a masterful storyteller. Funny in parts and devastating in others, Nguyen lays bare the worst aspects of ourselves and sometimes the best. I look forward to what he writes in the future.

Aug 22, 2015

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett

Since I read and review Terry Pratchett's books fairly often, I figured I'd mix this one up a bit and just mention two quotes that really struck me and indicate his incredibly sharp intelligence.

"'Come to gloat?' whispered Rincewind. Death shrugged.
'I HAVE COME TO SEE THE FUTURE,' he said.
'This is the future?'
'A FUTURE,' said Death.
'It's horrible,' said Rincewind.
'I'M INCLINED TO AGREE,' said Death.
'I would have thought you'd be all for it!'
'NOT LIKE THIS. THE DEATH OF THE WARRIOR OR THE OLD MAN OR THE LITTLE CHILD, THIS I UNDERSTAND, AND I TAKE AWAY THE PAIN AND END THE SUFFERING. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS DEATH-OF-THE-MIND.'"

There are two salient points in this quote: one inadvertently references Pratchett's own future; wracked by Alzheimer's, he chose his own way out and made his own death to end his suffering. Clearly this is something he felt strongly about. The second is this "DEATH-OF-THE-MIND." In this scene, our heroes come upon a crowd of people being seduced into singlemindedness by a charismatic speaker. Nevermind that he's crazy, that what he says makes no sense; people are eating it up. We see this all the time, the brainwashed masses fixing their wide eyes and simple minds on the easiest, most charismatic speakers and ideas. It's easier than thinking for oneself.

The other quote: "...space is not really big, it is simply somewhere to be big in." I love this, because it's so true and so simple and such a clever way of describing what is so difficult to describe. What a gift Sir Terry was to the world.

Aug 15, 2015

Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

I wonder why it is we are so fascinated by other people's misery. We crane our necks at car crashes, we gasp and exclaim when we hear of acquaintances' misfortunes, and we read addiction memoirs by the thousands. Is it the redemption at the end that we seek? Do we feel better about ourselves for not having fallen as mightily as they have? Is it staring the wild animal of addiction in the face and feeling the dreadful rush of excitement overindulgence brings when we ourselves are cautious and moderate? Burroughs' memoir of his initial foray into rehab and recovery from alcoholism is told well. He's a good writer, as his successful advertising career attested to, with an unabashed willingness to show us all his ugly parts. It's an engaging and interesting read, though I think that this kind of thing is rather lost on me. I don't struggle with addiction and never have, and thus have very little I can relate to Burroughs with. It's a book I enjoyed reading and will probably forget fairly quickly.

Aug 13, 2015

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

"East of Eden," my second foray into Steinbeck's oeuvre, solidifies him as one of my favorite writers. Reading Steinbeck is like falling into a deep well, swimming in words that seep slowly into your soul and leave you breathless. And how is it he manages to impart hope even amidst the most hopeless of situations? There are many good writers, and lots of very good writers. There are very few flawless writers, and Steinbeck is one of them.

Set mainly in Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley, "East of Eden" follows the various immediate members of the Trask family, centered around Adam Trask. We get pieces of his military father, his borderline psychotic brother Charles, his sociopath wife Cathy, their twin sons Cal and Aron, and his faithful Chinese-American servant Lee; all are in some way affected and shaped by Adam's inherent, overwhelming honesty. I hesitate to say goodness, though that's the word Steinbeck uses, because I believe his meaning is somewhat altered from how we use the word today. Intention is everything to Adam, who cannot see that no matter how good the intent, what really counts is how the other person perceives the action. The road to hell, and all that.

Philosophy is provided by Lee, the most archetypal character in the book and who, I think, is Steinbeck's main mouthpiece. Adam and Aron are the good, Charles and Cathy and Cal are the bad, and Lee is the grey area between them into which Cal eventually slides while coming to terms with his own nature. Notice the abundance of A and C names? That's from the Cain and Abel story, the motif upon which "East of Eden" is built. Free will is at the heart of "East of Eden," the gift and burden of mankind. It's a stunning epic, both in its wide-reaching look at human nature and America in the early 1900s, and in its stark look at individuals and the decisions and choices they make. What a writer he was.

Aug 6, 2015

Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin

Thus ends the Earthsea Quartet, with a return to a familiar character written about twenty years after the first three books. I went back to the copyright page to check the dates when I noticed how different the tenor of "Tehanu" is from the other three. It's as though in the intervening years, le Guin found feminism. Her writing style is very similar, but when we meet Tenar of "The Tombs of Atuan" again in her middle age, she is no longer an overly proud girl who needs a man to set her free. Tenar, mother of two, homemaker and farmer, suffers no fools and argues freely that while a woman's power may be different from a man's, she is no less powerful and no less deserving of respect. I become more emotionally tethered to this story than the others; mistreatment of Tenar and the poor burned girl she had saved and was raising left my heart racing, and their ultimate triumph left me triumphant as well. While I think I'll stick to le Guin's science fiction from here on out, I'm very glad I finally read this fantasy classic. Now I just have to decide how I feel about people giving it to children to read...

Aug 1, 2015

Wonder, by R.J Palacio

After selling a boatload of these and hearing the best things about it, I had to read "Wonder" for myself. Told from six different perspectives, this is the story of August Pullman's fifth-grade year. What makes this year remarkable is that Auggie has several facial deformities and this is his first year going to school after 10 years of surgeries and homeschooling. It's a sweet story, full of trials and triumphs and redemption, with the lovely message of being kind to people no matter how different they are. Reading it as an adult, it's very predictable, but even then it has great merit. The writing is great, the different perspectives are done very well, and it's impossible to read it without crying at least once. It's wonderful that a book like this has been so popular among kids. They can be awful to each other, it's true, but it seems that their capacity for being mean is only overshadowed by their capacity for opening their hearts. I hope the children who have read and continue to read "Wonder" are taking its message into their own hearts. We need more books like this.

Jul 23, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng

This is a difficult book to get through, partly due to subject matter and partly due to the writing. To deal with the latter first: I don't mean to imply that the writing is bad. In fact, it's very good. But it's also incredibly dense, rich, loamy. There is little dialogue and it's written in the first person, which means we spend the entirety inside another person's head. For a rather slim volume, it took a while for me to get through it, and there were a couple times when I wondered whether I should give it up. I tend towards more plot-driven books, as might be obvious from many of my other reviews, so for a more cerebral reader it probably wouldn't be as challenging. That being said, the writing really is spectacular, driving and forceful and poetic.

Now as for the subject matter: Mayumi is a 41-year-old librarian living on an island off the East Coast of the U.S. with her 4-year-old daughter and her husband, with whom she does not share a bed, any interests, conversation, or essentially a life. One day a young man comes into the library and she quickly becomes enamored of and infatuated with him. Against all odds, they begin a torrid affair that lasts until the young man, who is 17, leaves to help clean up the Russian River in Northern California. The young man is never named. I noticed this about a third of the way through, and as soon as I did it became obvious that we would never learn his name. He is fleeting, an object of obsession that is more a possession than a person, though Mayumi loves him dearly. There is little graphic sex, though euphemism is used frequently. And Mayumi, being a librarian, thinks always in terms of books and stories, making this a sort of meta, self-referential novel aimed at other librarians/booksellers or very avid book-lovers.

Many will shy away from "Mayumi" because of its forbidden subject matter, and I won't blame them for it. It's hard not to feel as if some of Mayumi's illicit sexuality is rubbing off on you as you read. It's a beautifully written book, but not very accessible and certainly not for everyone.

Jul 20, 2015

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin

The third book in Le Guin's famous Earthsea quartet, "The Farthest Shore" is another hero's journey, but with an added element. The path is walked by two: our old friend Sparrowhawk, now Archmage, and Aren, a young prince of Enlad who comes to the Isle of Roke with ill tidings. Along the edges of the islands that make up Earthsea, magic seems to be disappearing. Those who practiced it so easily before can no longer remember the words or hand symbols to work their magic. Towns are falling into anarchy, ruled by only those with the strength to rule, and once happy and productive people now sit idle in their villages, scornful of everything but unable to make anything new themselves. Sparrowhawk and Aren sail around Earthsea, trying to pinpoint the source of this deadly imbalance. I enjoyed this volume, though not as much as the previous one. The metaphors run deep, and I especially liked Le Guin's description of the grey land of death. These are powerful books, and I look forward to seeing how the cycle ends.

Jul 12, 2015

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

"Nimona" grew out of an award-winning web comic, and it's a little gem of a graphic novel for teens. Funny, irreverent, and satirical, "Nimona" touches on the deeper themes of acceptance, both of oneself and of others, forgiveness, and governments secretly endangering their citizenry in the name of national security. Okay, so that last one is maybe deeper than most teens will go, but the more important themes for "Nimona's" audience are easily understood and charmingly presented.

The title character shows up at archvillain Lord Ballister Blackheart's lair, a young girl who desperately wants to be his sidekick. Oh, and she's a shapeshifter. What exactly she's capable of becomes more apparent as the book goes on and her true nature reveals itself. Alongside this is the story of Blackheart and his nemesis, the hero Lord Ambrosius Goldenloin (yes, that is his name). Once fast friends, Goldenloin betrayed Blackheart and sealed their fate as enemies. When the Institute, a supposed force for good and the law, is found out to be experimenting with a dangerous substance that could taint the country's food supply, Blackheart tries to expose and stop them.

It's good fun, very clever and touching in parts, and the art is great. Nimona's various personalities shine through the page. For only my third ever graphic novel, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Jul 11, 2015

If You Feel Too Much, by Jamie Tworkowski

Tworkowski, author of the viral story "To Write Love on Her Arms" and founder of a suicide prevention non-profit of the same name, here presents a curated collection of blog posts, letters, and meditations arranged chronologically. I found it surprising, mainly because I thought the writing of an anti-depression advocate wouldn't depress me so much. The message is good: people need other people, and sometimes people need help, and it's okay to ask for help because needing and getting help doesn't make you less loved as a person. So why did Tworkowski's writing make me so depressed? Perhaps it's a quirk of my own psychology, but accepting my need of other people and growing to love myself had to be founded internally. Sometimes love can be a burden...sometimes someone telling you how much they need you can add to your sense of guilt in not loving yourself and your inability to love them the way they love you.

On top of that, I couldn't help but think the whole time I was reading that there are so many other tangible needs in the world. Of course we're all entitled to our feelings, good and bad, and of course depression and suicide are awful things. But with millions around the world starving, or lacking clean drinking water, or affected by preventable infectious disease, or living in abject poverty, should so many people's efforts really be spent on First World citizens who feel kind of sad? It's a cruel calculus, and likely many people disagree with me. Maybe it's easy to feel this way because I don't currently suffer from depression. I just worry that we here in the U.S. and other western countries lack perspective, and that if we worked as hard on loving the starving, homeless orphan halfway across the globe as we do on loving ourselves, the whole world would be a little bit better.

I'm glad people find Tworkowski's message hopeful and helpful, and he certainly does have a gift for writing, but I would have a very hard time recommending this book.

Jul 7, 2015

The Bees, by Laline Paull

I'd been wanting to read this book for over a year, and it seriously did not disappoint. The premise is an epic undertaking, and I'm simply astonished at how well Paull pulled it off. "The Bees" encourages comparison to George Orwell's "Animal Farm," due to the farm-animal-as-allegory angle. But it is really so much more than that; it makes you feel from the very bottom of your soul as you are born and live and die with Flora 717. Born a lowly sanitation worker but physically aberrant (read: larger and able to perform tasks her kin-sisters cannot), Flora would have been summarily executed for her "deformity" but is instead taken by Sister Sage to the Nursery, where they discover she can, amazingly, produce royal jelly for the feeding of newborns. Flora's exceptional abilities continue to push her into greater and greater roles in her Hive, until one day they threaten to destroy it all.

"The Bees" is a masterpiece of world building. I only know a little about bees, but it seems that Paull did a huge amount of research about them and their behavior, and then fleshed that all out into a fully functioning religion and worldview. It's an astonishing piece of literary and imaginative work. Then on top of that, she added wonderful writing. We are with Flora through every moment of her life, and we feel what she feels, see what she sees. The fact that she is utterly inhuman but still so easy to empathize with is a mark of a masterful writer. "The Bees" is a brilliant, genre-bending work of fiction that well deserves the praise it has received.

Jul 3, 2015

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin

I enjoyed this second Earthsea book more than the first. It's less of a classical hero's journey than "Wizard;" it feels more unique and original to me, which makes it more interesting. And the world it describes is so very strange that one cannot help but be enthralled by it. Ged's quest through the islands of Earthsea didn't grab me nearly as much as does the Place on Atuan, with the Undertomb and the Labyrinth and the Hall of the Throne. A big part of why I love science fiction and fantasy is being thrown into a world I know nothing about and learning it as the story goes on. "Wizard" just wasn't strange enough for me, but Atuan is. Plus the writing seems less stilted and formal, perhaps because I got used to it reading the first book, or because Le Guin loosened up her writing a bit for the second. I'm looking forward to seeing how Earthsea will evolve in the third installment.

Jun 28, 2015

The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton

This wonderful novel didn't quite make the cut for our Debut Authors panel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit David Mitchell-esque, "The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms" follows our eponymous hero from his birth to his death in a small village in Yugoslavia, with much wandering in between. It takes until about halfway through the book to hit the crux of the novel: Johan Thoms is the driver of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand fell victim to the shot heard round the world, thus launching World War I. Wracked by guilt which only increases as the horrors of WWI and then WWII grow, and convinced that he will be found and (rightfully, in his mind) blamed for causing millions upon millions of deaths, including that of his best friend, Thoms runs continually west, leaving behind his beloved Lorelei, who assiduously writes him a letter a day for decades.

The writing is fantastic, rich and nuanced and complex, hence the David Mitchell reference. The characters surrounding Thoms are delectable, with even the people who last only a few pages or less richly drawn without being overly described. This is a first novel, which Thornton says took seven years to write, and it shows in the extremely careful word selection. My only complaint is pacing. The first half mostly consists of a few months before the assassination, whereas the second half gallops through 1914 to the present day. I understand the decision, as it echoes Thoms' idyllic, slow-paced life before the unhappy day and then the madness into which he rather gleefully descends afterwards, but it's a little difficult for the reader to wrap her head around. Other than that, this is a truly fantastic first novel, and I very much look forward to Thornton's future work.

Jun 23, 2015

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

It's hard to believe I haven't read this fantasy classic until now. I'm surprised so many young children read it, though, because the language and style is not simple nor quick to read. It reminds me of The Lord of the Rings; epic and sweeping, with much description and little action or dialogue. Despite losing interest a couple of times, I liked it. The writing style is rather similar to "The Left Hand of Darkness," which I enjoyed much more, perhaps because it's science fiction instead of fantasy. I just find it hard to get into fantasy novels anymore; Patrick Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind" is the only one I've been able to get into in the last several years. Though I didn't love it, I'll read the rest of Le Guin's classic series, if only so people stop giving me weird looks when I say I haven't.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Who does one take with one on a ten hour plane flight? Why, Sir Terry Pratchett, RIP, of course. As with all his wonderful Discworld novels, "Snuff" is all fun and games on the surface and cutting social commentary underneath. This novel's skewered topic is slavery, racism, and ethnic arrogance.

While on a strictly enforced holiday, Commander Sam Vimes stumbles upon a dark secret about the treatment of goblins - a sentient race though of as vermin. It's rollicking, it's funny, it's smart - thank you, Sir Terry.

Jun 4, 2015

Emma, by Jane Austen

To prepare for this review, I rewatched Clueless. Oh, you didn't know that Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, was a modern retelling of "Emma?" Don't worry, very few people do. But having now read the book, it's an astoundingly faithful rendition, shone pretty brilliantly through a satire of 1990s culture. But enough about Clueless (which is on Netflix instant play, should this review inspire a Clueless craving).

"Emma" is the second Austen book I've read, and while I enjoyed it, it's awfully long. Four hundred pages is a lot of 18th century English to wade through, and the story is very slow to develop. I suppose that at the time it was written, people had much more reading time and the longer the book, the more hours of entertainment it could provide. Now it's a bit of a slog. The characters are exceedingly well fleshed out, to the point where I could have done with less of their monologues. But it's a cute story nonetheless: the precocious and beautiful Emma, determined to remain unmarried her whole life in devotion to her anxious father, instead tries to match others. She matches terribly, much awkwardness ensues, and the Highbury society is set all in a tizzy. She's a sweet character and it's a sweet book, I just would have been happier if Miss Austen had written a tad less of it.

May 31, 2015

Modern Romance: An Investigation, by Aziz Ansari

Yes, THAT Aziz Ansari, the guy from Parks & Recreation. If you've seen any of his recent stand-up, you'll know that Ansari has an interest in modern romance. Texting, swipe apps like Tinder, and online dating have totally altered the romantic landscape. In "Modern Romance," Ansari joins up with a sociologist to find how just how much the new technology, as well as advances in women's rights, have changed the way we look for and find love. Some of it isn't all that surprising, at least for anyone who's participated in online dating. But the presentation is fun and easy to understand, Ansari being witty and charming, and his conclusion that we need to give people a respectful chance and get to know them better is sweet and on-point. I can see older people who are interested in finding out how their children's romantic world differs from their own reading this and getting a very good sense of the climate, and I can see young singles reading it and coming to a mature understanding that for all the amazing things technology lets us accomplish, face to face human interaction will always win out. It's a fun little book on a very interesting subject by a talented comedian who genuinely seems to be a good guy, and I hope it does very well for him.

May 24, 2015

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

This debut novel was hugely successful a few years ago, and having finally gotten a chance to read it, I can see why. Taking place in 1938 New York City, "Rules of Civility" is the first person narrative of a tumultuous year in the life of Katherine Kontent, a New York native. Smart as a whip and employed as a secretary, Kate lives in a boardinghouse with her mid-Western escapee best friend Eve. On New Years' Eve, they chance to meet an incredibly charming Tinker Grey, a banker and (supposed) Ivy Leaguer. Their beautiful trifecta is thrown into disarray in a split second car crash: Eve's face is disfigured and she loses much of her left leg's mobility; Tinker, horrified to have caused her injuries, brings Eve to live with him and pays her way through recovery. Kate is left to watch from the outside as Eve entrenches herself in the upper crust, even as Tinker's facade begins to crumble away.

The writing is astoundingly good, particularly for a first novel. I have mixed feelings about the trend that leaves out quotation marks (here, speaking is denoted by a long "-"), but it quickly becomes unnoticeable. Kate's voice is smart and witty without being overly precious (just like her), and it's a joy to be sucked so deeply into the world of 1938 NYC. My only real complaint is the typeface, which is quite thin and strains the eyes a bit while reading at night. It's a really beautiful novel, well deserving of its bestseller status.

May 20, 2015

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, by Louis Theroux

In the late 1990s, Brit Louis Theroux was working for the BBC making documentaries about the strange and interesting members of some American subcultures, such as Neo-Nazis, porn actors, and UFO believers. Ten years later, Theroux decided to try and track down some of his subjects and find out how their lives had changed. Implicit in this is the question (and hope?) of whether they somehow decided to be "less weird." It's an interesting subject and an interesting book, but rather amorphous. The interviews shed light on some very dark corners of America, but there is little to string them together. And I don't know that I like his usage of the word "weird." Eccentric, maybe, or liminal, would perhaps describe these people a little better.

Several times, Theroux claims to like these people, despite their glaring flaws. Now, it's one thing to like someone despite the fact that, say, they like My Little Pony a little too much. It's another thing entirely to like someone who believes Jews rule the world and are in league with Satan and that all races other than whites are subhuman. That, to me, speaks of a deep-seated wrongness within someone, and it's a little dismaying to have Theroux expressing how nice a guy someone is despite, you know, the vicious and paranoid racial hatred. The book is fun and interesting, but I can't say I learned much from it, and it seems to really be an exercise for Theroux that he happened to decide on making into a book because he's a journalist and that's what he should do.

May 16, 2015

Illusions, by Richard Bach

This is our next book club book, and in keeping with the club's theme, it's definitely not something I would have ever read on my own. Nor, to be honest, is it something I'm glad to have read. I find books that border on (or fully inhabit) spiritual teaching to be boring and rather useless. It's not that I think I know everything or don't have philosophical issues I need to figure out, it's just that I feel very strongly about dealing with those things in my own way and on my own time. We are all so unique, how can someone else's solution fit me perfectly as well? There are some truisms in "Illusions" that I recognize as important, but I don't need a book telling me then. Maybe others do, but I'm not in their shoes and cannot know. We all have our own paths to truth. So I found the book boring and pedantic. I would have preferred, I think, to have these ideas addressed through non-fiction instead of in thinly veiled fiction. Dressing it up as a story seems almost condescending to me, like the writer thought we couldn't handle thinking about his ideas in too serious a fashion, though I'll freely admit that its popularity over the last forty years maybe proves me wrong on that point. It will certainly make for an interesting, if somewhat awkward, book club discussion.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

I really really really really really wanted to love this book. It's so rare that a book of science fiction, especially hard sci fi, gets so much attention from such a wide range of readers. Not only is it a bestseller several times over, people of all stripes have tried it out purely on the effusive praise of their trusted bookseller. So it truly pains me to say that I found it rather boring and poorly written.

Now, it is a debut novel, and first novels always have their weaknesses no matter how good they are. The biggest problem with "The Martian" is the dialogue. It's supremely bad. A math geek friend of mine tried to convince me that that's how math geeks actually speak, but I have a hard time believing it. Very few people are that clever AND that awkward at the same time. The next biggest problem is one of overall effect. It's a book written as though it were a movie. I ran into this problem with Justin Cronin's sequel to "The Passage," which feels more like a very descriptive screenplay than a novel. Hollywood's obsession with making movie versions of books has led to a rash of books written like movies. Very few people get rich writing books, but you can make a pretty penny if that book's movie rights get bought. And even if that isn't the author's intention, writing a book like a movie is easier than writing a book like a book. Movies are spectacles; books are more subtle, and subtlety is hard. Third problem: the hard sci fi stuff is pretty boring. Perhaps that's because it's mostly math as opposed to science, and I personally find the latter much more interesting than the former. But as someone who regularly reads hard sci fi written by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson, "The Martian" just doesn't hold up. Sixty pages in and I was already skimming large chunks of text to get to Mark Watney's pithy one-liners at the end of each log entry.

All that being said, it's not a terrible book, just not a very good one, and I'm glad that hard sci fi is getting wider attention among readers. I just wish it were a better book that had done the trick.

May 9, 2015

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is my Holden Caufield. Forget "The Catcher in the Rye;" I have never read a book that speaks so perfectly to me and with which I feel such connection. Nineteen years old and wickedly book smart, Esther is spending a month in New York City as a scholarship winner interning at a magazine. Years of straight As have led her to this point where she feels the tug of freedom for the first time. It proves disastrous. Faced with an infinitely wider world than the one of books and papers she is used to, Esther quickly loses her certainty about what she wants to be and who she is, then descends into a dark depression, complete with suicide attempts and shock treatments.

Esther and I are cut from the same cloth, and it's worth quoting one passage at length that touched me profoundly:

"From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked... I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

I call this the Paralysis of Opportunity, and it's a common problem for smart, middle-class young people. There are many things we would be good at, and probably we would be happy doing several of them. But which one would make us happiest? How can we possibly choose what we want to do when we don't know whether it will provide the best outcome? Is it really any better to exert oneself and work hard at something only to find you don't like it than to simply waffle between options forever? I know Esther's indecision, I know that feeling of worthlessness upon realizing all your As matter not a single bit in the real world. Minus the suicide attempts and shock therapy, Esther is me. What an astounding thing it is, to pick up a book and find yourself in it.

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks

The first thing to note about this book is that it was published in 1995, two decades ago. The second thing to note is its prescience and continued relevancy. An Australian journalist, Brooks traveled extensively throughout the Middle East in the late 1980s and early 1990s, meeting with Muslim women of many backgrounds, speaking with them about their faith and their private lives. The resulting book is, as The New Yorker exclaims on the front cover, "Frank, enraging, and captivating."

It is impossible to fully discuss the book and do it justice in the span of a short review, so instead I'll try to keep my points limited and succinct. There are aspects of Brooks' research that are horrifying, and many that are surprising, some even pleasantly so. Of the former: genital mutilation and clitidorectomy, the inability of women to vote/drive/travel without their closest male relative's written permission/work/learn, the hypocritical and expressly-forbidden-by-the-Koran punishment for women's crimes, Muslim women who fully believe in violent jihad and the death of infidels. Of the latter: women freely discussing sex with one another, women dressing very provocatively in private (ostensibly for their husbands), women distancing themselves from men and delaying marriage as a natural progression of enforced segregation of the sexes, women in positions of power trying to work within the Islamic framework to better the lives of women everywhere.

Brooks saw much of the vehement religious fervor that led to 9/11 and continues to fuel terrorism today, and it's worth noting that she dismisses apologists who claim "Islam is not like that." She argues that while pure Islam may not be like that, it has become so inextricably entwined with the social mores of tribal Arabia that it cannot be argued the two are separate entities. "Islam" means submission, but it seems that only women are expected to submit themselves entirely to men, rather than meaning the submission of believers to Allah. Human rights, Brooks argues, are truly universal and not merely based on culture, as many Islamists like to claim.

This is an astounding book, especially because it remains relevant - perhaps even more so - twenty years after its publication. Brooks's writing is very good, narrative and conversational. I encourage all women to read it, or at least do some research on its subject matter. A single woman subjugated anywhere makes slaves of us all.

Apr 27, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I got my first taste of Internet shaming when I was about 16 years old. Working in my dad's law office for the summer, with many of my friends traveling or away at camp, I was bored and looking for something to do. One day while browsing the web I stumbled upon a website - an entire website! - of people who were fans of a rather obscure comedy site. They'd created their own community, kind of like MySpace or Reddit, where you could create or enter different threads and talk to like-minded people. At first, I was welcomed with open arms. The more the merrier! But I was a teenager and the Internet was sort of new to me and, well, I fucked it up. I came across a thread of lawyer jokes. Really horrible, mean-spirited lawyer jokes. Both my parents are lawyers, and I love them dearly, and I'm not so good at differentiating serious ribbing from lighthearted joking. So I said something that I thought would make all those people change their minds about lawyers forever and applaud me for calling them out on their prejudice. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next. They destroyed me. My website-dedicated inbox exploded. They did some digging and found out my AOL email account and spammed the shit out of it, saying the most awful things about and to me. As a 16-year-old with already precariously fragile self-confidence, it threw me into a deep depression and I sobbed for days. The only people I'd ever found who'd accepted me immediately were suddenly my worst enemies.

I'm lucky, actually, that this didn't happen more recently. Twitter or Facebook or Instagram reach an astronomically wider audience; I would have been more than destroyed, I would have been obliterated. Which is what happened to the subjects of Jon Ronson's new book. Jonah Lehrer, Justine Saccho, and Adria Richards have all experienced the worst part of the Internet: mob-mentality fueled by anonymity incited by one stupid little thing. These people lose jobs and friends and most of all their reputation. And we feel good about it, like we're righteous to have destroyed these people's lives. Ronson is trying to remind us that we are all only human. We all make mistakes, and just because some mistakes play out in the public sphere does not give us the right to pillory people so horribly. It's a lesson we are only just becoming aware of, with the rise of suicides driven by cyber-bullying. And he also warns that what we're creating is a culture of overly cautious banality. We're all so afraid to say anything wrong that we say nothing at all; we're losing our individuality. Though the book could have easily gone much deeper, it's definitely a good first step towards self-awareness and reaching an equilibrium between holding bad people accountable and utterly ruining their lives. Shame is an exceedingly powerful emotion and tool, and we need to learn how to wield it more carefully.

Apr 25, 2015

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

"A Work of Fiction," claims the subtitle of Tim O'Brien's bestselling novel of the Vietnam conflict. But the characters in the book are also included in the dedication, and the narrator is a man named Tim O'Brien, and a common theme in the book is what makes a war story true. And so we are left to wonder what is fact and what is fiction, and deliberately told that the difference, when it comes to stories about war, is indistinct and unimportant. Our brains cannot hold that cognitive dissonance - "a work of fiction" and "in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true" (pg. 78). Which is the point, of course. O'Brien is asking us: does it matter if everything or nothing I'm writing down is true or not? There are truths behind stories, behind lies made into stories. I believe this also to be the greater meaning of fiction as a genre. Some people hate fiction because it didn't actually happen, it isn't true. But stories reveal far deeper truths than the facts ever could.

This is, I imagine, why so many high schoolers are assigned "The Things They Carried." Partly, of course, because it's about the Vietnam conflict, an immensely important episode in American history, and the novel is a way to see through the bare facts and into the face of what it was actually like. But also because it is instructive about what makes a story and why stories are important. It's short and broken up into smaller anecdotal sections that make it a quick read, relatively easy for the short attention span of a teenager, but there's a lot to chew on in this slim volume. It's an impressive book, and I'm glad I read it.

Apr 19, 2015

Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten, by Stephen Yafa (May 2015)

We've all been there: a friend hears about gluten sensitivity or reads "Grain Brain" or "Wheat Belly" and suddenly decides they're gluten-intolerant, cuts out all wheat, and claims to instantly feel happier, more energized, and healthier. When journalist Stephen Yafa's wife hopped on the anti-grain train, he decided to join her and investigate the science behind this fad diet that seems to just be growing stronger. Though he acknowledges that the science hasn't quiet caught up with the trend, what science there is does not add up to the sensationalist claims of doctor/writers like David Perlmutter.

Here's his conclusions: celiac is a horrible disease. There's no denying it exists and that its sufferers have to steer clear of all wheat. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance also exists, but seems to be increasingly common, and not just because more people claim to be gluten intolerant; the incidence has actually risen in the last 60 or so years. So what changed to make this happen? Processing. Grain is a multi-billion dollar business, and the emphasis is on quantity and speed with quality pushed so far back by the wayside that the government actually had to mandate enrichment. Grain companies have processed the nutrients right out of wheat in an effort to get the fastest baking whitest bread possible. What we're left with is a slab of carbohydrates that spikes our blood sugar and piles on the pounds. Enrichment - putting lost vitamins back into the bread before sale - can only do so much. There's no proof yet that this mega-processing is actually causing people to become sensitive to gluten or wheat, but the correspondences are intriguing. Yafa notes that there needs to be a lot more research in this area.

But what is clear is that people sensitive to gluten/wheat often have a much easier time digesting 100% whole wheat breads, ancient grains, and sourdoughs. A lot of this is due to fiber content: our gut microbes eat fiber, so when we don't have enough of it in our diet, they feed on us instead. the gut microbiome is a growing area of scientific study, and each new study suggests that it's far more important to our overall health than we ever suspected. A happy gut is a healthy mind and body, it looks like. 100% whole wheat, ancient grains like einkorn, and the microbes in sourdough mitigate or even eliminate immune response to gluten and wheat for many sensitive to it.

So how do we fix this? Locally grown or milled 100% whole wheat, a return to ancient grains, and slow baking are the answer. We've stripped nature of its essential vitality, and hastening the process of making bread has hurt our health. Right now, the options are few, far between, and expensive. Yafa's book is a clarion call to consumers to take a good hard look at their wheat and make educated decisions that will then force the bigger companies to start providing nutritious options at lower prices.

As for the writing, it's engaging and enjoyable; think Mary Roach but a lot less gross. The scientific discussions are tempered with anecdotal evidence and Yafa's own experiences, and he's a fun writer to read.

Apr 17, 2015

Practical Demonkeeping, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett (RIP) are my favorite go-to authors for when I just need a break in my reading habits. This isn't to say they aren't smart; far from it. Both are incredibly quick-witted and intelligent, but their novels are light-hearted and easy to digest. "Practical Demonkeeping" is another wonderful book by Moore that provided me with delight and giggles and a welcome respite from the heavier literary fiction I've been reading lately. It's Moore's character descriptions that I love the most: bar owner Mavis's lifelong fight against Death is described in excruciating, anatomical detail, while Augustus Brine's wine- and fishing-induced state of Zen leaves one wishing for one's own salty pier and wine bar. Moore's characters are always marked with an earnestness that makes them irresistible. I don't much care what the story is, I'll always like it. He's unique and original and damned funny. Thank goodness for Christopher Moore.

Apr 12, 2015

The Girl From the Garden, by Parnaz Foroutan (August 2015)

"The Girl From the Garden" could refer to either of the two main characters in this beautiful, luxuriant debut novel: Mahboubeh, an old woman living Southern California, tending to her semi-wild garden; and her vindictive, lonely aunt Rakhel, whose early life Mahboubeh remembers and fantasizes about. Jews living in Iran at around the turn of the century (timing is a bit difficult to place, give or take a generation or so), the Malacouti clan is wealthy, ruled by Asher, the elder of two brothers. Rakhel is Asher's young wife, and though they have been married for some time, she cannot seem to get pregnant. Khorsheed, a little younger than her, is the younger son's wife, and she is pregnant already. Rakhel feels the emptiness of her womb like a knife and a curse, and her continued barrenness slowly twists her into the terrifying taskmaster Mahboubeh remembers.

In this delicate, rich story, we are witness to a society little-known and oft-veiled: the home life of Jewish women in the Middle East. Though we get a taste of what living as Jews in Iran was like (the younger brother is beaten to within an inch of his life just for accidentally bumping into a Muslim man), the story is more about the complex world these women create for themselves within the boundaries of their family's walls. It's fascinating, pulling back the curtain on a world such as this one.

The writing is sublime, approaching poetry on many occasions. This does make it a slower read, as one doesn't want to skim through anything, but it's well worth it. I very much look forward to introducing readers to this wonderful new author and the world she has revealed.

Apr 9, 2015

Bastards, by Mary Anna King (June 2015)

Mary Anna King wasn't always Mary Anna King. For the first part of her life, she was Mary Agnes Taylor Hall, second child of a deadbeat father and a struggling mom who gave up their last four daughters to adoption, then ended up having to give up Mary and another younger sister to their grandparents. Oklahoma City, and life with her Air Force granddad and his less than loving wife, Mimi, was a far cry from having the run of the apartment complex in South New Jersey. And even though Mary knew, intellectually, that Mimi and Granddad could care for her in a way her own parents couldn't, she still missed the mother she fiercely loved. And she always harbored the hope that eventually, when they were all adults, her adopted sisters would find her and they would be a family again.

King writes of her complicated and often unhappy childhood with searing self-awareness. Though Mimi and Granddad certainly saved her, she doesn't spare them a critical eye, particularly in regards to their treatment of her older brother Jacob and favoritism towards her younger sister Rebecca. King also paints a vivid picture of herself as a girl, then a young woman, who feels the weight of intense longing for her reunited family as well as the indebtedness she feels towards her grandparents so strongly that it manifests physically in panic attacks and severe insomnia. In the end, are all the siblings reunited? Yes, and always the reunions are joyous occasions, but King takes care to not present it as a panacea for all their problems. Being with your family is better than not, but King concludes that her self-worth must not be tied up with that perfect family happy ending. "Bastards" is moving and emotional, without wallowing in melodrama or self-pity, and sure to be of great interest to members of the adoption community.

All That Followed, by Gabrial Urza (August 2015)

The Basque region of Spain is a place - and a situation - of which we are all for the most part only somewhat aware. In the U.S., we hear little more than the occasional mention of a new referendum for independence or the more rare 6 o'clock news version of a terrorist/freedom fighter bombing. "All That Followed," written by an American of Basque extraction who lived in the area for a time, sheds some much needed light on a region with an incredibly rich cultural history, and a painful, tormented political past. The story is told in short chapters from three different perspectives: Joni, an American who fell in love with a Basque woman and has lived in Muriga, a small Basque town, since the 1940s; Mariana, a young woman from Muriga whose husband belonged to the wrong political party and was kidnapped and murdered; and Iker, the young man who is in jail for that crime. Each voice has its own weight, an almost sultry flirtation between acknowledging history as it was while needing to create its own version of the story.

At the heart of it all is Muriga, a small town like any other small town, filled with gossip and unspoken accusations. People want others out of their own business but cannot help commenting on everyone else's. This brings familiarity to the story; we can recognize these tropes from our own towns. And Urza's writing is wonderful, allowing you to sink into these characters, though that makes it a bit difficult to switch between them, sometimes. The nuance is impressive for a debut novelist, and I'm glad someone is writing about a place we often forget unless it's on the news because something horrible happened there.

Driving Hungry, by Layne Mosler (July 2014)

I very rarely read memoirs, and the first 50 pages or so of this one did nothing to change my opinion of them, but then Mosler's story grew on me. It follows a theme that many people of my generation, Millennials, are starting to become more aware of: with the Great Recession and the ever-growing dominance of the internet, along with the continued "shrinking" and interconnectivity of the world, career options are much more fluid than they used to be. Outside the realm of what we call white or blue collar jobs are the livelihoods that people like Mosler are cobbling together. We are no longer required to fit ourselves into perfect pigeonholes in order to achieve financial and emotional success.

Mosler discovers this in Berlin, while on hiatus from New York, to which she moved after a stint in Argentina. Tango plays a big role in the first part of the book, the one based in Argentina, which is why I had a hard time getting into it. Sudden tango obsession is nothing new, in fiction nor in memoir, and I found it rather boring. But once she leaves Argentina for NYC and eventually decides to try her hand at taxi driving, the book gets a lot more interesting. Mosler got the idea to drive a taxi because of her blog, Taxi Gourmet, where she details stories of getting into a taxi and asking the driver to take her to their favorite restaurant. The blog blows up, opening doors for her in New York and, eventually, Berlin. It's cute and fun, joining Mosler through both the physical spaces she travels and her own inner journey as she figures out what exactly she wants to do with her life. It's a theme that will resonate with many my age, and perhaps serve as inspiration for those who feel they can't be quite happy living within "the norm."

Mar 31, 2015

SEVENEVES, by Neal Stephenson (May 2015)

Yes, Neal Stephenson's penchant for unpronounceable names once again rears its head. For this one, think "Seven Eves," which also gives you a nice hint about the book's subject matter. So get this: the moon explodes. Don't freak out, this literally happens in the first sentence of this 860-page science fiction epic. Not only does the moon explode, but its untimely demise ushers in a 5,000 year period of an uninhabitable Earth. What ever is the human race to do?? The solutions fall into three categories: deep water, deep underground, and - the option we follow in the book - space. The International Space Station, already home to a few Russian and American astronauts and scientists, becomes the ark upon which the survival of humanity is thrown. With every resource put into getting people and supplies into orbit, a few thousand people are saved along with a vast genetic storehouse.

Most of the book is a painstakingly detailed description of the time from Day Zero, when the moon explodes, to the time several years after that when only eight women remain of the human race, seven of whom are capable of bearing children. Hence the title. The book reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series. It's hard sci fi, not for consumption by people who care little for the scientific realities and possibilities inherent in the genre. Though I love hard sci fi for its believability and realism, this was a little too much exposition for my taste. Particularly in the last section, which takes place 5,000 years after Day Zero, there is too much description of the technology and not enough focus on the story. I can see it becoming a slog for many except the most dedicated sci fi readers. That being said, I found Stephenson's ideas of this future space-based technology, as well as the genetic evolution of humanity, totally fascinating, if a bit long-winded in parts.

Again, I come up against the issue of successful authors being given too much leeway, for it seems that editors are loathe to mess with a winning formula. The result is very long books, a la "The Luminaries" and "The Goldfinch," in a culture that increasingly values succinctness. People will buy this book because it's by Neal Stephenson; many will like it, but many will find it too long and slow to bother with, and that's sad. He really is a wonderful writer, and it really is a great book...I just wish there were slightly less of it.

Mar 14, 2015

Kid Moses, by Mark Thornton (October 2015)

Big things sometimes come in very small packages. Mark Thornton's "Kid Moses" is a fascinating, moving, damning look at childhood poverty and homelessness in modern Africa. In a slim 120 page novel, we follow a few years in the life of pre-adolescent Moses, who lives on the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Through him we meet kind strangers and evil strangers, other homeless streetkids, even some hunter-gatherers who live as their ancestors must have hundreds of years ago. It is a bleak look at how society has forgotten these children, and also how even the kindness of a few people is not enough to drag their lives back on track (if they ever were). Thornton's writing is beautiful, spare and haunting. For a first-time novelist, he seems adept at putting us in someone else's shoes. And the story he has to tell needs to be heard. As a bookseller, I will do my best to project it.

Mar 8, 2015

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

I dare you to find me a book that is more rage-inducing than Michelle Alexander's incredibly intelligent damnation of the United States criminal justice system. Even though after reading it I still hesitate to buy into her claim that the War on Drugs and the criminal code was created specifically to contain black and brown Americans in a racial undercaste, there is no doubt in my mind that that is exactly how the system is being used today. The mere fact that young white men are more likely to break drug laws but young African American men are incarcerated at several times the rate of white men proves that our system is not, in fact, colorblind at all.

The most infuriating chapter in Alexander's book shows how the Supreme Court, the designated last-ditch defender of minority rights, has actively made it nearly impossible to challenge these unfair practices. And while Alexander's assertion that colorblindness is actually harming race relations in America is not new to me - I have long argued that denying the existence of race does more harm than forcing ourselves to be aware of our conscious and unconscious biases - the extent of the damage this willful ignorance has caused is atrocious. There is no reason why young black men should be routinely searched while walking down the street in their neighborhoods, when it has been proven time and again that young white men are more likely to be using and dealing drugs. There is no reason why people convicted of first-time offenses involving crack cocaine should receive nearly twenty times the minimum prison sentence as people who are caught with powder cocaine. There is no reason why police departments all over the country should receive military gear from the army, nor any reason why they should be allowed to stop black motorists at alarmingly higher rates than whites with the express intention of searching their person and vehicle for drugs. Alexander's claim that our criminal justice system has created a new Jim Crow is very bold, but her meticulously researched and very well-written book proves that the American government and people are guilty of a grave injustice towards our black and brown neighbors. We need a mindset change, a system change, a government change, a priority change. All of us or none.

Feb 19, 2015

All Our Worldly Goods, by Irene Nemirovsky

Somehow, I never learned the story of Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942. I thought she was a contemporary author, and so the writing of this novel struck me as interestingly old-fashioned. Obviously, it feels old-fashioned because it is, in fact, old. Written so close to the events described therein, "All Our Worldly Goods" holds a quiet power within its pages. The story follows two lovers from their unplanned and accidental engagement just before World War I through to the invasion of France in WWII. I'm not sure why it never struck me until now, but there's one line that references the two wars occurring within the same lifetime, and it's staggering how much emotional devastation that must have caused. Pierre, the "first among equals" of main characters, fights in WWI, then his son fights in WWII. I'll admit I found it a tad dull until the very end, when Nemirovsky describes the destruction of the Hardelots' ancestral village and the terror of those fleeing the Germans. It's a quiet stunner, this short novel, a work that doesn't seem significant until after it is done.

Feb 13, 2015

Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller (March 2015)

You know those children that occasionally appear, ragged and emotionally stunted after years of being "missing?" Peggy is one of those children. Her father, obsessed with survivalism and self-sufficiency, steals Peggy away to a cabin in a very remote part of Germany while her mother, pregnant with their second child, is away touring (she is a concert pianist). After a particularly violent storm, Peggy - now called Punzel - is told by her father that the world outside their little slice of forest has completely disappeared. The Great Divide, he calls it, and Peggy is terrified and distraught to lose her mother, her home, and the entire world all at once. After nearly starving their first winter, Peggy and her father survive by themselves for eight years until Peggy discovers there is a third person left: Reuben.

It's a beautifully written book, told from Peggy's perspective both as a child and later when she walks out of the woods and is reunited with her mother and the brother she never met. It's a story that in the hands of someone unskilled would be very slow and plodding, but Fuller's pacing is spectacular, and the book never gets boring. It's emotionally difficult to read, certainly not good for someone looking for a light read or a happy ending. Haunting and lovely, it's an impressive piece of writing, and will stay with me for a while yet.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal (July 2015)

I don't often laugh out loud reading books, but this one got me quite a few times. The first 20 pages or so are filled with hilarious lines that I couldn't help reading out loud to my boss. The rest of the book isn't as funny, but makes up for it in damn good writing. The story centers around Eva Thorvald, who possesses "a once in a lifetime palate." Only one part of the book actually follows Eva; the rest of the chapters are told from the (third person omniscient) perspectives of people whose lives she touched, some only briefly and some for a longer period of time, but all indelibly. It reminds me a bit of "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell, another book with a woman protagonist who offers redemption to a number of people, only to have some slap it away in anger. Then again, some of the people we follow simply happen to have her in their lives at a pivotal moment. Through their eyes, we see Eva's maturation and success as a one-of-a-kind celebrity chef, and eventually wind our way back to the mother who abandoned her just months after her birth. It's a fabulous book, all the more impressive for being a debut, and I encourage everyone to pick it up when it is published in late July.

Troika, by Adam Pelzman

The first thirty pages of this novel blew me away, then I had to put it down in order to get work done, but could not stop thinking about it! I finally got to finish "Troika" this past week and am pleased that my first impression stayed true. This is a love story, but of the most unconventional kind. Perla is a Cuban-born stripper in Miami, street-smart and independent; her voice is a bit rambling but fascinating. Julian grew up an orphan in Russia; his family motto: submit to no man. Sophie is Julian's wife, intelligent and stifled, though I won't tell you by what since it's best discovered for yourself. It's a wonderful novel that I loved reading, well worth the hype the publisher was giving it a year ago. Happy endings come in all shapes and sizes, and I was thrilled by "Troika's".

Feb 7, 2015

Fairest: Levana's Story, by Marissa Meyer

The fourth book of the Lunar Chronicles ("Cinder," "Scarlet," and "Cress" are the first three) is a novella origin story of the antagonist, Queen Levana of Luna. Lacking chapters, it's a very quick read, but really quite interesting. Burned horribly as a child by her psychotic and manipulative older sister and desperately searching for genuine connection and love, it's hard not to sympathize with Levana. It's a welcome addition to the series, an added complexity that makes it more adult. Bad guys aren't always all bad; we all have a past, our own origin story, that made us who we are today. Yes, the decisions we make as adults are free-standing and cannot be excused simply because of a rotten childhood, but Meyer illuminates an uncomfortable truth that is relevant to fiction and life in general: we don't know each other's pasts, and any judgment we make about another must be tempered with this grain of salt. I'm interested to see how this story affects the ending of the series, and can't wait until #5 is out.

Jan 31, 2015

Napa, by James Conaway

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

Jan 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

Jan 4, 2015

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

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

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