Dec 26, 2016

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

An interesting thing happened when I was about halfway through this collection of essays from noted feminist science fiction author Kameron Hurley: I was watching the movie Tombstone, a classic with a boatload of (then) young 80s stars portraying the infamous Wyatt Earp and his band of lawmen, and it just wasn't doing it for me. I'm not usually one for Westerns but it felt like something else was going on with my feeling of distaste. I do enjoy a good action flick and there were snarky one-liners aplenty, but something just felt off to me. About an hour in I realized that it's because the movie is just one big machismo-loaded circle-jerk. It's about MEN BEING MEN out in the wild west with guns and horses and gambling and liquor. The romantic story is between a MARRIED MAN and a beautiful entertainer, while his wife sits at home getting high on opium and looking oh so helpless. Despite the fact that women made the west what it was just as much as the men (and let's not forget the Mexicans, Chinese, and Blacks who were all equally active participants [not to mention the Native Americans who got trampled on in the process]), this story hardly includes them except as complications to a MAN DOING WHAT A MAN'S GOTTA DO.

Now, I'm not saying that before reading Hurley's essays I wasn't a feminist, or wasn't aware of the whitewashing and male-washing of history. But spending a week reading these essays about the abuse women and people of color and non-binary gendered folk deal with on a daily basis from both the world at large and the science fiction community in particular throws everything into high relief.

Especially enraging are the essays that detail the abuse Hurley and authors like her endure from within the SFF community, one you would think would pride itself on inclusivity. Of course it doesn't. Like nearly every aspect of life, SFF is dominated by white, economically privileged men. This is rapidly changing, though, as evidenced by the failure of the Sad Puppies to dominate the Hugo Awards when they tried to. More and more people are standing up for themselves and each other, speaking up when someone says, "I'm the norm, people like you don't exist or don't matter," fighting back by showing that, in fact, "people" are not monochromatic or mono-gendered. It's a big wide world out there, and we all live it in together. If those of use who are different never speak up, then those who assume we don't exist will never be forced to change their worldview.

I found her essays on writing particularly interesting, and important for creators of all kinds to take to heart. There's so much emphasis on talent that it's easy to forget how much incredible hard work goes into writing well. Even the best writers have editors. Hurley points out writers need very thick skin because every writer endures so much rejection; but writing is a skill that can be developed just like any other, and you CAN get better at it the more you practice.

My one complaint about the collection is repetition. I can probably now recite Hurley's life story from memory, so many times did I read about its progression. This is, of course, the danger of an essay collection along a tight theme. Hurley writes for all kinds of outlets and often writes about the same topic in different forums, so the redundancy isn't surprising. I did get a little tired of hearing the same things over and over again, but thankfully the different slant to each piece helped mitigate possible boredom.

While there's certainly an aspect of "preaching to the choir" here (who do you think is going to pick up a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution?), it's important because it serves as a notice to all those feeling along in the world that there are PLENTY of people who agree with them. Thank you, Kameron, for being brave for those who are still working up their courage to speak out. We've got your back.

Dec 15, 2016

Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig

When you hear the phrase "writer of the West," your mind probably jumps immediately to John Steinbeck, deservedly so. But there is another author who writes the West brilliantly, albeit in a very different fashion: Ivan Doig. Doig's milieu is the rugged cowboy West, the West of Idaho and Montana and Wyoming, rather than the sun-soaked Central Valley West or rain-soaked coastal California West of Steinbeck. Doig's characters invariably display an approachable erudition, a homesteader's know-how, and gumption to spare. These are the backs upon which were built the farmlands that feed America, and the gold mines that made her rich. Doig's writing is incredibly smart, with a nearly-British cadence that no doubt contributes to my admiration. As a bookseller, Doig is my go-to for that certain fiction reader who wants smart without snobbish, excitement without lurid details.

Sweet Thunder follows a certain Morris Morgan, learned as an Ivy Leaguer with a rather colorful past that (of course) comes back to bite. Morgan and his wife live in Butte, Montana, home to the massive copper mines that are helping to electrify the nation - the year is 1920, by the way. Morgan is tapped to write scathing editorials of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which makes obscene profits while paying next to nothing in taxes and endangering the lives of their workers with horrible conditions while paying them a pittance. The Thunder, as the new newspaper is called, is meant to work in concert with a newly elected state senator to right these economic wrongs. But a company that big and wealthy doesn't go down without a fight...

While it's not my favorite Doig novel - Whistling Season takes that title for me - this is still an utter pleasure to read. Funny, exciting, smart, it's just a darn fine book, especially on these wet, winter nights.

Dec 8, 2016

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I received this collection of science fiction short stories through a Reddit gift exchange. Despite the fact that I adore sci fi short stories, the cover of a human head made out of mathematical equations intimidated me, and it sat on my shelf for four whole years. What changed? People started talking about a movie called Arrival, and a week or so later, I realized that the movie is based on a story in this collection. Intriguing! So I put it on my nightstand as my next read.

Whoever that anonymous Redditor was four years ago has impeccable taste. Ted Chiang's stories display an astounding intelligence and originality. The story on which Arrival is based - "The Story of Your Life" - marries physics and language in a stunningly brilliant manner, all while paying equally careful attention to character development. "Seventy-Two Letters" is another fine example of uniting two wholly different ideas into one consistent, unique worldview. In this case, it is the Jewish golem and Hebrew numerology added to an old explanation for how life forms, wherein each organism exists fully but in miniature until an impetus causes it to grow.

What's so impressive is how technically advanced these stories are while simultaneously being beautifully written. I almost want to hate Ted Chiang for being so damn smart and talented all at once; it's hardly fair to the rest of us that one person can be this gifted. I know that sales have picked up very nicely for this book after the movie's release, and I hope people enjoy it as much as they have the movie, and that Chiang gets the readership he deserves.

Nov 30, 2016

The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan had recently graduated from Yale in 2014 when she was killed in a car crash. Only a week or so beforehand, she'd published the titular essay of this collection in which she exclaimed that she and her fellow graduates were "just so young," and that they had so much time in which to live their lives. I've read plenty of dead authors, and some of those works were written at the end of the authors' lives. The difference, of course, is that they generally knew it. They were dying of cancer, or heart disease, or old age. So when Keegan's essays and stories hint at or loudly proclaim their nervous excitement for the rest of her life, it catches at your heart. Keegan had already written for the New York Times, interned at The Paris Review, and had her plays performed. Her professors were astounded by her, her classmates looked up to her. So when her death occurred mere days after publishing "The Opposite of Loneliness," the essay went viral. This compilation of essays and short stories was put together by her family and professors as a testament to Keegan's youthful talent, so her name might be remembered.

Keegan's fiction is very slice-of-life, which I'll admit isn't quite my taste. The last story, however, is absolutely chilling and brilliant. "Challenger Deep" follows a deep sea submarine crew that is in crisis. Their ballast tanks blew, they've fallen to the bottom of an abyssal trench, and though their power is on, the lights don't work. They have been in complete darkness for days, then weeks. They have rations for six months, and only a slim chance of rescue. The story is incredibly emotional, and the imagination it took to write about what humans in complete darkness must feel is amazing.

The essays are well-formed, though like the stories, only one really stood out to me. "I Kill For Money," wherein Keegan profiles a cheerful exterminator, is emotionally illuminating and a pleasure to read. I hate to say that I liked it best because there's so little of her in it, but that is one of the biggest distinctions between it and the other essays. I think that getting out of her head allowed her creativity to flow more freely.

It truly is a shame that we won't get to watch Marina Keegan develop as a writer. Though I didn't love all her pieces, she was clearly very talented and by all accounts had the drive to really accomplish something with her writing. I'm glad this book at least will be her legacy.

Nov 22, 2016

The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

I'll say this much: despite an uneven tone and a bit too much of a reliance on cliches and pithy comebacks, Durst's fantasy novel reeled me in and genuinely surprised me with the ending. There's something about fantasy that keeps me reading long past when I should be asleep, and though I've certainly read better fantasy than The Queen of Blood, I was impressed by its original world-building.

Renthia depends on elemental spirits to keep its forests healthy, its crops growing, its people fed and industrious. But the spirits also hate humans, the only truly destructive force in nature. The queens of Renthia hold the spirits in check, controlling them so they work for the people. When they lose control, the spirits descend with teeth and claw and people die horribly. Only women hold this power, and only a select few have enough to be trained as heirs to the queen.

Our heroine is Daleina, whose diligence and dedication stem from being one of only a few people in a village to survive an inexplicable attack of the spirits. Against all odds (of course), Daleina is chosen to train for the crown. Meanwhile, Queen Fara is doing something very naughty up in her high tower, and people are dying.

Less than stellar writing and a derivative plot aside, the world of Renthia is fantastic and wonderfully imagined. I love the way the spirits are described, each unique and easily imagined. I love the tension that holds this world together, the destructive forces that must keep each other in check for all to prosper. I love the subtle environmental message, that humans depend on the natural world but also depend on controlling it. I love the political message that warns against thinking that harming some for the greater good is an ethical decision, that security is worth the price of freedom. I just wish the writing were a tad bit better...

Nov 18, 2016

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Having read two long novels by Steinbeck, and , I was quite curious about his shorter fiction. Cannery Row doesn't pack the same emotional punch as either of those two masterpieces, but it is a fantastic read nonetheless. We read about the denizens of this certain industrious street, abutting the water and the myriad sardine canneries. We meet Lee Chong, canny proprietor of the general store; Doc, the kind bachelor who collects local fauna for his business, Western Biological Laboratory; Mack and the boys, drifters who've found a home together in a vacant building; Dora and her girls at the local gentleman's establishment; and several other outliers. The story hops, skips, and jumps from person to person, and sometimes not to a person at all, just a place or an animal, so that we begin to feel that Cannery Row is our home as well. Steinbeck's use of language is unparalleled; he's moving and funny and just has such a way with words that I seem to forget then become re-astonished by every time. He's a master of the craft, a literary giant, and I will never tire of his work.

Nov 14, 2016

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I can see why this became so popular; it's a seriously fun ride! Roth helped make this genre - which I call Young Adult Dystopia and Apocalypse - popular. It's fast-paced and exciting, tapping into that desire we all have to be special in some way. Tris is special but, like Harry Potter, like Katniss Everdeen, she is unsure and unsteady. This is, of course, part and parcel of being a teenager. Everyone that age is unsure of who they are, confused about what they want and who they should become. These hero figures who keep popping up are the teenage condition writ large. Especially when written in the first person, like this one, the stories make you feel a part of something bigger and sweep you up in the grand emotions of adolescence, and apocalypse. Will I read the rest of the books? Maybe...if the mood strikes me.

Nov 12, 2016

pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

Wow, twice in one month! This much-lauded debut novel-in-short-stories is described as "sensational," "luxurious," and "brilliant." I found it incredibly boring and opaque. It's really more a prose poem than a novel, and perhaps this is where it falls short for me. Despite a serious love of language, poetry remains inscrutable to me. I want to like it, so very much, but instead I struggle to find it anything other than dull. pond reads like poetry, and so I found it terribly dull. The character Bennett builds throughout the chapters-cum-stories is obviously interesting, but her stream of consciousness is difficult to penetrate. And while I hesitate to rebuke books that have no real plot, they do tend to be, well, boring. When absolutely all the action is internal, you've cut out a whole swathe of the reading population that just won't be able to get into it, myself included. So I will say only that this book is not for me, but will take it on faith that it surely is sensational and luxurious and brilliant for another type of reader.

Nov 7, 2016

Nose, by James Conaway

Jim (as I allow myself to call him, due to having met and chatted with him on a few occasions) is a luxurious writer. He loves language, revels in its richness, muddles it playfully and dollops it extravagantly onto the page. His writing is, fittingly, as complex as a fine wine, as adjective-laden as a fine wine review. His intimate knowledge of Napa Valley and its characters, painstakingly researched for his bombshell work, Napa, and its sequels, allows him an insider's look at the wine industry and to recreate it on the page. Having lived in Napa for several years, there is much in this novel that is familiar to me, despite the name changes.

This is a mystery, of a kind: Clyde Craven-Jones, king of wine critics, tastes his first perfect wine. But alas, the bottle is unlabeled, its provenance unknown, and no credible source steps up to claim it. CJ's wife hires recently fired journalist Les to do some digging, and Les finds a whole lot more in the valley than just the vineyard that birthed the perfect wine. It's a familiar story of greed, shone through the lens of the high stakes, small world of the wine industry. I can see this book appealing both to those already in the business (as a way to relax and laugh a bit at themselves) and to those who are completely removed from it (as a way to feel a part of this exclusive world, and to feel superior to those who sometimes snobbishly make it their lives). I enjoyed it as someone who's feet rest in both worlds, as the non-industry girlfriend of a winemaker. Plus Jim is just such a wonderful, playful writer to read. Always a pleasure, sir.

Nov 5, 2016

#GIRLBOSS, by Sophia Amoruso

When Sophia Amoruso was 22 years old, she had no high school or college degree, a history of shoplifting, and no job. 8 years later, she was running a $100 million business. #GIRLBOSS is both the story of how this incredible transition occurred and Amorusa's advice to young women (and men) looking to effect a spectacular life transformation of their own. The rags-to-riches montage is far from new, and her advice is pretty commonsense and basic. The contents aren't really all that special; the real value of this book lies not in what is being said, but how Amorusa is saying it.

Business classes are boring, and the usual narrative demands diplomas and degrees and due diligence. Amorusa didn't really reject these tenants so much as acknowledge that this tried and true method doesn't work for everyone. The business environment is changing, drastically and quickly, and the prospect of creating your own job that plays to your strengths is becoming more common. Amorusa is highly creative with an interest in visuals, so she paired that skill set with some serious gumption and willingness to learn on the fly and parlayed it into a multi-million dollar company. Her message, replete with swearing and self-deprecating asides, is to be yourself, but be the best self you possibly can be. Figure out what you're good at and like doing, and you'll be a lot more willing to put in the immense amount of work required to turn that into a kick ass job. It's commonsense, yes, but run through a millennial filter and made more accessible to my generation. She's a remarkable woman who wants to see other women succeed. I hope her book has lit a fire under some people's butts to go out and make a difference in their lives.

Oct 29, 2016

Emperor of the Eight Islands, by Lian Hearn

I very rarely stop reading a book before I've finished it. This happens perhaps once or twice a year, and usually because of boredom more than anything else. This is the case with Emperor of the Eight Islands. It's not because the writing is bad; it's lyrical and descriptive, evocative of medieval Japan and respectful to its distinct culture. And it's not because nothing happens; the plot moves along briskly, with plenty of action. It's just...boring. Perhaps there is actually too much going on, by which I mean that so many things happen, it's hard to care about any one of them. Nephews are murdered, old men's eyes put out, wives passed between brothers - there's so much happening and so many main characters that it's difficult to focus on any one of them. I was halfway through the book and a year had passed without me giving a hoot whether the central main character lived or died. And perhaps the problem lies in that very character's blankness. Shikanoko has plenty to be pissed about: a dead father, a treacherous uncle, romantic jealousy, a stolen land. But none of these things seem to actually motivate him to do anything other than attach himself to the strongest lord around and take his orders. He's a nonentity.

This is a multi-book series, so maybe it just takes a while to get to the meat of the story. But if an author wants readers to pick up books 2, 3, and 4, she needs to hook them in book 1. Hearn failed to do so, with this reader at least, so I'm giving up and moving on.

Oct 21, 2016

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is Harry Potter's favorite book. Well, Daniel Radcliffe's, anyway, along with a whole host of other celebrities and luminaries. Penguin Classic's stunning 50th Anniversary edition was too pretty to pass up, and the book's cache too ubiquitous to ignore. This edition is a new translation by powerhouse Russian translating team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, though I recently read a criticism of their translating skills that was too convincing to ignore. I read their version of Anna Karenina and found it quite readable. But this particular article (no chance of me remembering who wrote it or where it was published, of course) put certain passages therein alongside another translator's earlier effort, and it was impossible to deny that Pevear and Volokhonsky's utterly lacked the lyricism of the earlier translation.

All this is to say, I struggled to get into the writing and I want to blame it on the translators, but of course, not speaking Russian myself, can't read the original and prove to you that my struggle was just that. Language barrier aside, it's a hell of a satire, and I can see why it's so well-loved. Gotta love a book where the Devil is the good guy! As to who the bad guy is, well, pick your poison: bureaucracy, Communism, mob mentality, writers and artists, fear of political retribution, vanity. There's plenty for everyone here, a smorgasbord of derision. Interspersed amidst this bombardment are a few chapters of the eponymous master's book about Pontius Pilate. These chapters are, truly, stunning. What a talent was Bulgakov! Narrative description, which often bores me, here pulls you down into that hated city, Yershalaim, sitting with that poor man forced to kill a man he wants to save him, with only his loyal dog to love, surrounded by forces he can control only enough to doom himself. As fun as the Moscow chapters are, I hungered for Pontius Pilate and his burden. That Bulgakov's writing is skillful is an understatement that does these chapters no justice. A master, indeed.

Oct 4, 2016

Tales of Accidental Genius, by Simon Van Booy

I'll be honest: If I had flipped through this book before picking it up, I probably would not have read it. The second half of this short story collection is more of a long series of interconnected poems. It's beautiful, and I'm glad I did read it, but it's not really my cup of tea.

Van Booy's stories are slices of life; we dip into a moment and quickly dip out. Except for the last piece, which spans a man's lifetime, and reads more like a parable than a story. I have no real criticism of this book, but also must say that it pales in comparison to the short stories of Anthony Doerr, which I reviewed a month or so ago. I very much enjoyed the first two, which are about the kindness of strangers, while the others were interesting but not as engaging. I do appreciate Van Booy's originality in "Golden Helper II," the last story, with its unconventional structure and almost epic song-like cadence. I just doubt I would have been interested in reading more than the 150 pages it covered.

Oct 2, 2016

We All Looked Up, by Tommy Wallach

I usually say that my traditional "wash out my brain" books are anything by Terry Pratchett, but I also love a good Young Adult novel for the same purpose. Books written for teenagers are quickly paced and engaging as heck; they make a great two day read of pure escapism. In We All Looked Up, we follow 4 seniors in a Seattle high school as they learn of a comet that has a 66.6% chance of hitting Earth in two months. Struggling with identity issues as it is, what are these kids to do when faced with a prospect of a future that may not exist?

I heard Wallach speak about a year and a half ago when he accepted a small award for this, his first published book. He cracked me up and I've been looking forward to reading it ever since. But I have to admit that the book leaves something to be desired. Everything that happens is pretty predictable, and the writing is littered with cliches. The characters are the best part about it; they're well-drawn and easy to relate to. It's just everything else that seems, well, amateurish. To be fair, this kind of book reads very differently to a sixteen-year-old, so perhaps I'm being unfair by holding it to a higher standard. Then again, there are plenty of YA novels that fulfill my expectations while still playing to that same sixteen-year-old, so perhaps not.

Oct 1, 2016

What Becomes Us, by Micah Perks

What a stirring, delightfully unique novel! Evie, ten weeks pregnant with twins (who serve as our quirky narrators), leaves her controlling husband and moves clear across the country to upstate New York, settling amidst a tight-knit, complex group of people. Her substitute teaching job puts the store of Mary Rowlandson in her hands, and as she reads the words of the first English-speaking woman in North America to write a book - which describes her kidnapping and captivity by Native Americans - her life becomes entwined with Mary's and takes on new depths of complexity, echoing the babies' growth within her.

Evie is a character that quickly grows on you, and the people surrounding her are so interesting and well-drawn you can't help but become invested in their lives. It's a beautiful book that also sheds light on a little-remembered personage of our early history, and I foresee a significant up-tick in Google searches for Mary Rowlandson as a result. Bravo, Micah Perks, on a really enjoyable read!

Sep 28, 2016

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

In 2005, Robinson's novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize. Nearly ten years later, she returned to the small Iowa town of Gilead and its elderly preacher, Reverend John Ames, but from a very different angle. This time, we follow the story of his wife, Lila. (Full disclosure: I've not yet read Gilead.)

Lila is representative of a certain class of people who lived during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Born to a family that cared little for her, Lila was stolen away from them by Doll, who saved her life, named her, and treated her as her own. Doll was a hard woman in her own way, though not to Lila; she carried an ever-sharpened knife in her skirts, and bore a blood red mark upon her face. She attached herself and the little girl to a small band of itinerants led by a man named Doane. They were good enough people, looked after each other and worked together when there was work. They followed the seasons, slept outside, lived off the land when payment in money or kind could not be found. They were proud, in their own way. But the dust killed the farms, and the Depression broke the group up, until even Lila and Doll could no longer stay together. Left to herself, Lila survived and eventually made her way to Gilead, Iowa.

The writing in this book is without compare, though it did drag a bit at the very end. I flew through it, devouring every phrase. Lila's voice rings so honest and true; she is as complex and nuanced as any person, smart enough to know what she doesn't have and feel shame because of it. The story slides back and forth from the present, wherein Lila is pregnant with the preacher's baby, and the past she is both proud and ashamed of. It's impossible for me to exaggerate how good this novel is and how enthralled I became in Lila's small world. This is masterful storytelling, a gift to literature.

Sep 25, 2016

Without You, There is No Us, by Suki Kim

North Korea: the black hole of international politics, the unknowable, confounding, belligerent nation that pops up on our radar every once in a while when seismographs register another nuclear test, or a lucky defector manages to tell his or her tale of unending woe. For most of the world, North Korea is a minor, albeit slightly worrying inconvenience, more notable for its various humanitarian crises than anything else. China is its only ally, and Japan its most nervous antagonist. But for South Koreans, the North is a source of constant pain, a reminder of families torn apart and a war that destroyed a generation, along with its parents and children.

Kim's memoir is notable for many reasons, the first of which is drawing attention to this pain that is largely unknown outside of Korean communities. She writes of her mother and grandmother and their flight from Seoul, from which Kim's uncle never returned. He could have been killed in the war, or taken to the North to work in a gulag, or alive with a family. For so many Koreans, this ripping apart of families remains a wound that cannot possibly heal because there is no way to know what actually happened to their loved ones. This scar is passed along the generations, so that Kim feels her mother's pain, and her grandmother's.

Even if this book were terribly written, it would be fascinating for its unprecedented look inside North Korea. Kim spent a year teaching young men English. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is hardly any of those things: funded and staffed entirely by Christian missionaries, the students at PUST are taught only one subject - English - and are nearly all the sons of North Korea's elite. Their worldview is so utterly different from our own, stunted and limited, not to mention completely warped by the propaganda they live with. Even that's an understatement; propaganda is their way of life, there is nothing else to compare it to. To list even half the ways in which these children grow up with misinformation would take pages and pages; I encourage you to read the book, as it defies expectation.

I only have two qualms about the writing, one general and one specific. Generally, the writing is (and I wish I could think of a better word for this) slightly childish. While this is partly a good thing, in that it puts us into Kim's fragile state of mind, it also becomes a bit repetitious. Again, this might be her intention, to echo the inane repetition of each day, but the writing is just so emotional that it becomes annoying. Specifically, I absolutely detest her usage of the word "lover." She's referring to a man back home, someone she used to date and had reconnected with shortly before leaving for North Korea. He's not a boyfriend, and she doesn't want to use his name, so I understand her need for some other label, but in today's language, "lover" is a strong word that denotes an extra-marital affair, and very few people use it at all. So every time it cropped up in the book (which is fairly often), it jarred me and completely took me out of the reading experience. I wish she had just picked a pseudonym for this man, as she did with all the others in the book.

Still, if you have any interest at all in this enigmatic country, I strongly encourage you to pick this up. It's a quick, enthralling read, one of very few like it that can educate you about one of the world's last unknowable places. Writing this book was an act of bravery for Kim, and I thank her for it.

Sep 18, 2016

The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt

There is a certain reserved quality to A. S. Byatt's writing, very British in its bearing, that I enjoy but have a hard time reading quickly. Byatt's books are always meticulously researched and beautifully, deliberately written. It makes for a heady combination and you don't want to miss anything. Every fact is important, every descriptive detail plays a role. This does, however, make for rather slow reading, though it is always enjoyable.

The Children's Book follows a group of children and adults from the late 1800s through the end of World War I. The adults are artists, writers, Fabians, and socialists; they live mostly in the country and let their children, for the most part, run wild. Their parenting methods are perhaps confusing to their young, and their relationships with each other are just as muddled. The main family is the Wellwoods of Todefright: Olive writes children's books and Humphrey works for the Bank of England while writing socialist articles under pen names. They have seven children, but not all of them are both of theirs, though the children don't know it. We also follow Humphrey's brother's family, the family of a famous potter, and several outlying relatives and acquaintances thereof. As the children grow up, their relationships with their parents, each others parents, and each other shift and reform like the dunes of England's coast. They are intelligent, artistic, and driven, one way or another. One becomes involved in the brutal women's suffrage movement, another becomes a doctor, another a scholar. And then, with utter abruptness, they are each destroyed in some way by WWI.

It seems a cheat to spend 500 pages with these characters, watching them grow, only to have them decimated in the last part of the book. But that, I believe, is the point. WWI's cost of life was staggering; there was not a soul in Europe unaffected. It is a plea, a testament, to juxtapose such sudden, brutal loss of life and hope with young lives searching for meaning and connection. The English boys didn't want to kill the German boys anymore than the Germans did them, but the human bond was subjugated to money and land and power. What a sad thing, and what a beautiful novel.

Aug 26, 2016

The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson

It's pretty fascinating to read Stephenson as he writes now and as he wrote twenty years ago. This is the second early book of his that I've read, and having read SEVENEVES, his latest, just recently, the evolution of his writing is obvious. While The Diamond Age and Snow Crash center around futurism and technology, Stephenson clearly delved much deeper into hard sci fi as time went on. His later novels contain a hefty dose of detailed mathematical and scientific descriptions, while his earlier work has little of that. Science fiction fans who aren't as interested in hard science will prefer this novel and other early works.

The conceit of this novel, as evidenced by the title, is that after internecine warfare and dwindling resources, human society reorganized into self-determined tribes, or phyles, all sustained by the Feed - nanotechnology-driven matter compilers - with three major tribes dominating: one of these is the Neo-Victorians, adopting Victorian morality and ethics, as well as social structures, clothing, beauty ideals, etc. Chapters begin with veiled descriptions of what we're about to read, and the narration adopts a wry, British-like humor.

As for the plot, I'll paint only very broad strokes, as Stephenson's books are complex and evolving. John Hackworth, a Victorian, is tasked by a wealthy, powerful man with creating an interactive book to teach said man's granddaughter to think for herself. Hackworth does his duty, but creates a copy for his own daughter, which then falls into the hands of Nell, a poor, abused little girl without a tribe. With three Primers instead of one, the future suddenly becomes much less assured.

Like all Stephenson's books, I loved it. I didn't get sucked into it like with some of his others, but his masterfully built plot, wonderful characters, and always wry narration are still a true delight.

Aug 22, 2016

The Arab of the Future 2, by Riad Sattouf

The New York Times calls this graphic memoir "a disquieting yet essential read," and I must agree. Sattouf grew up in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s; his father was Syrian and his mother French. Blond and sensitive, little Riad has trouble adjusting to life in a small Syrian village after his father moved the family there, though not nearly as much trouble as his mother, faced with intermittent electricity, cooking over a camp stove, and no Arabic language skills. Riad loves his family and his two closest friends from school, but school itself is a source of confusion and fear. The teacher is prone to hitting the students' knuckles with a ruler, and the lessons are learned by rote without any comprehension encouraged. Riad's father loves Syria and seeks to further his social standing by hobnobbing with generals and other elites, but it's clear that the assistant professor is out of place, and the children of these society men are often cruel to Riad.

When a shocking event occurs, the Western reader, persistently a bit uncomfortable with this strange Syrian life, is jerked out of place and made to look straight at the cultural gap between them and us. Riad's summer vacations in France put this prominently on display: in France, he goes to vast shopping malls and grocery stores and his grandparents are not concerned with what he will be, while in Syria there is only Syrian food and a father who insists his son will be a doctor. We feel for Riad, with his blond curls, caught between two worlds, and wonder what will become of him in a land so different from our own. Part 3 is eagerly awaited.

Aug 5, 2016

Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig

Ah, the pig...reviled, beloved, abstained from, engorged on...the pig is many things to many people, a complicated animal with a complex history. Essig's well-researched history of hogs delves into the biology and evolution of swine, their domestication and the development of how humans live with and raise them, and of course their varied cultural associations. Moving essentially chronologically, Essig explains how pigs most likely domesticated themselves several different times in several different places, and how the consumption of their meat has fluctuated wildly, though usually for the same reasons. Feeding on anything in their path, including human corpses and excrement, pigs developed a reputation for being filthy, unclean animals, suitable only for poor people who had no other meat available (the notable exception to this rule being Rome, whose ruling class had a serious love affair with pork). This association fed on itself (pun intended), to the point where some societies outlawed eating pork as a means of social control over the lower classes. We find the vestiges of this in the kosher and halal laws of Judaism and Islam, respectively. Even taking religion out of the picture, the association remains very strong, and wasn't helped by the unveiling of horrific meat processing conditions in the early 1900s, nor by the revelations of modern agro-business's indoor meat-raising plants.

For the most part, this is a relatively unbiased look at the animals some love excessively and some despise passionately. Essig's eventual conclusion is the simple exhortation to make an effort to know where your pork is coming from and to support farmers who choose to forgo huge industrial operations in favor of treating their pigs well, in comfortable, natural environments, the side benefit being that the well-treated pig almost always makes better tasting pork. The book is easy to read and engaging, though it does occasionally get bogged down in numbers. I certainly feel more educated about the biology and history of the pig, though I wish at times I hadn't been eating as I read it. Despite the occasional gross out moment, this is a noble work on a "lesser beast."

Jul 27, 2016

The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr

Yes, this is the same Anthony Doerr who gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. The Shell Collector is a short story collection, and Doerr's first major published work, so I expected some of the usual "first work" awkwardness. There is none of that here. My only complaint with this book is that it ended far too soon; the last 30 pages of this edition are sneak peeks of Doerr's yet-to-be-released titles, so I thought I had at least one more story left when I finished the last. It was devastating. I felt cheated and robbed.

Doerr is a wordsmith, a one-of-a-kind talent that leaves me breathless and tearing up and so deeply affected by each story as to make it impossible to continue onto the next story after finishing the one before. His is a language to languish in, to soak up and read fully, not to skim through and seek out plot and dialogue. These stories are mostly about people in failed or failing relationships, and sleep is a theme that recurs in each - the hibernation of winter, sleep so deep it cannot be disturbed, the inability to sleep. They feature one Liberian man's attempt to regain control of his life by burying the hearts of whales washed up on the Oregon coastline and growing a garden over them; a retired man's indiscretion; a wife who can glimpse the pathway between life and death. This is not a book to be read, it is an experience to be grasped. Do yourself a favor and read The Shell Collector.

Jul 22, 2016

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

Let's be honest, most people will think of the Jack Nicholson movie upon hearing this title, not Kesey's unique novel. I haven't seen the movie but do intend to soon; I'm curious how this story is told on screen.

You'll sometimes hear the phrase "unreliable narrator." This book is told from the first person perspective of a very tall half-Indian man who lives in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Oregon; the others call him Chief Bromden, or simply Chief, and he's cultivated the belief that he is both deaf and dumb. He is neither, and understands far more than he ever lets on, but he is also, quite definitely, crazy. The Chief calls the outside world the Combine - people enthralled by the Combine are part machinery and live very sanitized, regimented lives. Within the ward, the Combine's greatest weapon is the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched. Her name gets thrown around a lot in pop culture, and from that context only I thought she was some kind of yelling, spitting, terrifying beast of a woman. While she is terrifying, she is none of those other things. Quiet, patient, always with a smile frozen in place, with a perfectly starched uniform: Miss Ratched is the pinnacle of passive aggression, and rules the ward (including the aides and the doctor) with an iron, milk-white fist.

Into this, Randle McMurphy is thrust. Fresh off the fields doing hard labor, McMurphy loves two things most in this world: gambling and screwing. Through the entire novel, it's unclear and unknown whether McMurphy pretended to be crazy in order to get off work duty, or whether he is actually insane. He shakes up the ward in a myriad of ways, and a battle of wills takes place between him and Miss Ratched.

It's a heartbreaking book, really, witnessing these men who so very much want to get better be systematically undermined by the Big Nurse and contemporary psychology's rather tenuous understanding of the human psyche. Group therapy is anything but therapeutic, as Miss Ratched uses the hour to break down and shame her chosen target, even having his fellows report on him and try to analyze him themselves. McMurphy, disruptive though he is, breathes life back into these broken men. Now, of course, we understand that listless days, group analysis (without the addition of group support), and electroshock therapy are quite the opposite of what most mentally ill patients need. The Chief might be crazy, but he is still a man, Kesey is telling us, still a human being with human needs. Being crazy doesn't mean he shouldn't feel happy or fulfilled. This book is indeed a classic, much deserving of that label.

Jul 13, 2016

Gumption, by Nick Offerman

Ron Swanson. No mere sitcom character, this man has become an icon, a legend of masculinity, libertarianism, woodsmanship, and terseness. Offerman, who plays him, has a similar dry sense of humor and is a well-known woodworker, but there end the similarities. Offerman, despite being comfortable hunting an animal with a gun, is also a pretty damn liberal guy. Ostensibly, this is a book about twenty-one Americans who Offerman believes has his most valued trait: gumption. Gumption is a grouping of characteristics - passionately caring for something, perseverance in the face of difficulty, kindness and love for all human beings, tenacity and a painstakingly-curated skill. His list includes early presidents, artists and woodworkers, comedians, and writers. Some are obvious (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt), some are surprising or at least lesser known (Yoko Ono, Wendell Berry).

The prevailing theme through these histories and discussions are Offerman's very strong feelings about kindness and human decency. He's made no secret of his predilections and beliefs, many of which he set out in his first book, and he's not shy to press his point. Christians who disapprove of gays and transgenders get a fair chunk of his wrath, as do racists, sexists, and bigots of all kind. He's preaching to the choir, though, as the vast majority of people who pick up his book will probably agree with him. Still, it's nice to have someone respected and well-known stumping for the values I also believe in. Plus the book is fun! I learned a lot and Offerman's humor throughout make this a quick, enjoyable read. Well done, Mr. Offerman.

The Clasp, by Sloane Crosley

I'd call this book "literary chick lit." It was a fun vacation read, but probably not something I would have read otherwise. Drawing from and built around Guy de Maupassant's tragic short story, "The Necklace," The Clasp follows three friends from college and their incredibly awkward not-quite-love triangle. Themes of alienation from one's society as well as the people one was closest to at a particular time in life will resonate with most young-ish people, and Crosley does have a wicked sense of humor to go along with it. Though it features two male main characters to one female, I doubt many men would enjoy reading it, with its references to pop culture and central story line around jewelry. My only major complaint is that the eponymous clasp, as well as the real plot of the story, don't actually start up until about 150 pages in. So while it's fun and funny up until that point, it also leaves one wondering exactly when the action's going to start, and then it's a bit surprising when it finally does. But overall this was a fun read, good vacation fare for sure.

Jul 10, 2016

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

I tend to avoid World War II novels because of their ubiquity and ubiquitous depressing nature. But with the well-deserved success of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and this positively lovely, totally enjoyable novel by Lissa Evans, WWII literature seems to be turning a new leaf. Like the former, a monumental bestseller, Crooked Heart features a pair of quirky protagonists who exist at the borders of the war. Where Doerr's wonderful novel is heartbreaking and touching, Evans' is funny and touching. We all know I'm an anglophile, and Crooked Heart contains a healthy dose of that British humor I love so much.

Noel, a ten-year-old boy, lives with his godmother in London, with no other living relations to be found. Mattie is brilliant and eccentric, traits her godson either comes by honestly or learns from her, or perhaps both. But dementia begins to set in just as the Blitz looms over the horizon, and Noel is left effectively alone in the world. Evacuated to St. Albans along with the rest of his class, he is picked up by Mrs. Sedge, who is quite a character herself. Born of mean circumstances and never able to get herself out of them, Mrs. Sedge supports her mute mother and lazy son by means both honest and not so honest. The addition of an evacuee means a little extra cash and food rations, and that's that. Not exactly taken with each other, Noel and Mrs. Sedge eventually find their equilibrium, in between various capers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, funny and refreshing and realistic. Mrs. Sedge and Noel are described delightfully, easy to picture and populate in one's mind and, though far from perfect either of them, utterly charming. This is a little gem of a novel, and would make a great book club read as well.

Jun 27, 2016

Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Judd Trichter

My biggest complaint about this book is the copy editing. Misspelled words, incorrect words used, sentences that don't quite make sense - was this book copy edited at all? Surprising for St. Martin's Press, usually a solid, reputable publisher.

That being said, the book is good, an interesting, unique idea performed, for the most part, well for a first novel. Eliot is in love with Iris. Eliot is a heartbeat, a human being with a belly button and a pulse. Iris is an android, with an outlet for a navel and a red fleck in her eye, a flaw from the factory production line that she has embraced and replicates in all her artwork. Their love is forbidden, with radicals on both sides of the fight taking lives brutally. Then Iris disappears, and Eliot must work alone to find her scattered parts since no one cares about a single missing android. Things get a bit ridiculous at times, very action movie-like, and it's fairly predictable, but I like the ingenuity of the concept. I hope Trichter continues working on his writing, and look forward to watching the ass kicking movie this particular book will inevitably turn into.

Jun 22, 2016

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon

This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and though interesting in format, I don't have much else to say about it. "At Night We Walk in Circles" is about a young man, Nelson, and the journey he takes with a legendary guerilla theater group through their much-changed South American country. We soon realize that this novel is a transcript of sorts, that our narrator is another young man who is interviewing anyone he can find that is at all connected to Nelson to get at Nelson's story. The writing is very good, with a tinge of South American insouciance. I liked the conceit, where the novel reads in a traditional narrative but with dashes of the interviews peppered liberally throughout. It's a commentary on acting and actors, among many other subjects, and how one can be subsumed by a character so completely as to lose oneself. This would make an excellent book club read, as there's little to offend anyone's sensibilities but many aspects that would provide rich discussion topics. Plus I just love the title!

Jun 6, 2016

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

After that last essay compilation, I needed something mellow to kick start my brain. Cue the ever-wonderful Terry Pratchett! Maurice is a very special cat: he can talk, and so can the Clan of rats he's convinced to work with him to bilk unsuspecting towns out of their gold. Oh, plus there's the stupid-looking kid who can play a mean pipe. You see where this is going? Add in a precocious girl with a head full of stories, some rat catchers with malicious intent, and some seriously philosophical musings by rodents, and you get a pretty damn enjoyable romp through fairyland. Always a pleasure, Sir Terry, always a pleasure.

Jun 5, 2016

The World Is On Fire, by Joni Tevis

The subtitle for this collection of essays is "Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse," which doesn't make much sense before you read this book, but certainly does after. Tevis starts with a meditation on the Winchester Mystery House, a well-known attraction in Northern California, contrasting the Winchester's "crazy," paranoid builder's public image with the very human grief that drove her to build it. We witness the atomic bomb tests of Nevada, advertised as a tourist attraction, while retracing Buddy Holly's last steps before that fateful crash. Tevis's miscarriage then subsequent infertility treatments are partnered with Freddy Mercury writing "Somebody to Love."

There are two kinds of very good writers: the first writes language that flows like crystal water and leaves you breathless; the second writes with intense deliberation and is no less beautiful, but takes work and careful reading. Tevis is the latter, and as unique and emotional as her essays are, they are not easy to read and require a certain state of mind to fully digest. I'm glad I read this book, but I fear few readers have the stamina to stick with this challenging read.

May 19, 2016

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Silly subtitle aside, this is a wonderfully original piece of fantasy-like science fiction. One of my favorite experiences in reading is to be dumped unceremoniously into a world that looks very little like our own and then to piece out a comprehensive understanding of that world's society, culture, and history. Schoen does a fantastic job of dropping us into his world and then slowly unraveling bits of it until we become immersed in it ourselves, unaware that something we knew nothing of fifty pages ago now seems familiar. The expressive qualities of elephant ears and trunks become just another descriptor of mood. All the characters are anthropomorphized mammals, and a very select few of these beings are able to ingest a drug that lets them call upon the personalities/souls/ghosts of the dead and converse with them. This is a world of prophecy and telepathy, but also one of science and politics.

My only complaint with the writing is that some plot twists are a mite predictable, and there's a bit too much telling rather than showing. It's very difficult to explain a vast and complicated social system, or history, or religion, and the best writers are able to do so without seeming like they are doing so. Schoen doesn't quite manage this, making some sections a bit on the pedantic side. Otherwise, it's a fantastic story, a fully realized world that is a pleasure to delve into. I look forward to more inventive work by this author.

May 12, 2016

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's writing style is so distinctive, flat of affect yet descriptive in its own way, it's easy to see why his work continues to be read today and why it made such a splash upon its publication. Plus it really, really makes me want to move to France.

Jake is a newspaper writer living in Paris, socializing in a milieu of other English-speaking ex-pats of various kinds. The narrative centers around a small group of his friends: Bill, visiting from out of town; Cohn, hot off the successful publication of his first novel but struggling with the second; Lady Brett Ashley, with whom Jake has a complicated past and is probably still in love; and her bankrupt fiance, Mike. Different combinations of the group make their way to Pamplona for the infamous running of the bulls and the bull-fights, described in lush, explicit detail.

The decadence of ex-pat life, even a bankrupt one, cannot help but be alluring. I wonder if anyone has tallied up how much alcohol the group consumes in the story, as it seems each meal is accompanied by multiple bottles of something or other. Cafes, cobbled streets, black jazz bands, fishing in the Pyrenees, and overnight trains, with only the complexities of interpersonal relationships to get in the way. It's a heady life Hemingway describes, and it is quick to catch the American suburban imagination. A classic, indeed.

May 5, 2016

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, by Dave Eggers

I partly don't know what to think of this experimental novel, and partly really enjoyed it. The experimental bit is because it is a novel entirely made of dialogue. There is no description, no narration of any kind. Just two people talking. It sounds rather boring, except when you learn that the two people talking are a kidnapper and the kidnapped. He doesn't want to harm anyone, just wants to talk. He's been writing letters but no one's been answering, and this seemed the only logical way to get his questions heard. I won't say anything more about the story itself since that would ruin it, and I do think this is a book worth picking up. The lack of narration and description allow the reader to build a picture in her own mind of what's happening, and to focus intensely on the emotion and nuance of the dialogue. We have to; there's nothing else to focus on. It's a very quick read (haven't you ever noticed that reading dense, descriptive sections takes much longer than reading the dialogue?) and very hard to put down. And while I don't know that I'd read too many other novels written in a similar fashion, I thoroughly enjoyed this experiment and recommend others try it as well.

May 1, 2016

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin

Picking up this memoir of a white man born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I expected something similar to Alexandra Fuller's Don't Lets Go To the Dogs Tonight. This is an altogether different beast, not at all like Fuller's remembrance of her African childhood. Instead, this is a stirring and disturbing account of Zimbabwe's shockingly fast decline under the notorious dictator Robert Mugabe. Ravaged by AIDS - in 1980 the life expectancy was 54 while at the time of publishing (2006), it was a depressing 34 - and decimated by hyperinflation, Zimbabwe's "free democracy" obliterates the middle class and improverishes even further the already poor, both black and white. And Mugabe's anti-white rhetoric, after years of relatively peaceful existence, stirred up a well-armed (and military-supported) mob to threaten white farmers with violence if they didn't hand over their farms to black Zimbabweans. Farmers and their families are run off, robbed, and murdered, and since the men who seize their farms know nothing of farming, crops lie rotting in fields and never get replanted, contributing to the food shortage, rampant inflation, and healthy black market.

In the middle of all this, Godwin's parents are aging and their health is fading. His father has a heart attack, his mother needs a hip replacement, his father is in constant pain due to gangrene in his feet. The book starts with his father's funeral pyre and ends with the same, and in the middle we learn much about the Rhodesia that was, the Zimbabwe that briefly was, and the Zimbabwe that is now (at least in 2006). And through all this, Godwin's father offers a startling piece of personal history: he isn't actually the proper British gentleman he'd always presented himself as. George Godwin was born in Poland to a Jewish family and was sent to England to study when he was fourteen. The outbreak of World War II prevented him ever returning to Poland, from ever seeing his family again, and leaving his mother and sister victims of the Treblinka gas chambers

The writing is very good, powerful and passionate and helpless at the same time, as Godwin watches his country and parents fall apart. While the parts about his father's heritage and Godwin's research into his family's fate during the war are fantastic, they do seem a bit out of place in a memoir ostensibly about Africa. He ties the themes together nicely, but I couldn't help feeling that Godwin really had two books here, one about Africa and one about discovering his Jewish identity. My only other complaint would be the persistent use of the present tense throughout the book. It makes sense for his trips back home and the narration of his current life, but doesn't really work for the flashbacks to his parents' history or the history of Zimbabwe. Reading about something you know happened in the past but that's written about in the present tense, just like the stuff that is actually happening in the present, is jarring and confusing. It's a small problem in an otherwise fantastic book, a heartbreaking look at a once-promising nation that languishes under a dictator one can only call evil with no sense of irony or hyperbole. It's well-worth reading, and certainly inspires me to look into the state of Zimbabwe now, ten years after its publication.

This Too Shall Pass, by Milena Busquets

It's hard to dislike a book once you've met its author, assuming she or he was pleasant. This slim, powerful novella came from a slim, powerful native of Barcelona who was charming as heck and such fun to talk with, much like her main character, Blanca. Written after the death of Busquets' much beloved mother, This Too Shall Pass follows Blanca for a few days about a month after her own formidable mother's painful and drawn out passing. Forty-years-old with two sons by two fathers, Blanca acknowledges that she has much love in her life but is bereft at losing, as Busquets put it herself, the mother who was really the love of her life. Her friends, lovers, and children orbit the globe of her grief as she learns to let go of her mother's last painful months and grasp again the things in life that had given them both joy. The emotion is raw and the setting irresistibly Mediterranean, a heady combination successfully navigated by Busquets.

Apr 25, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins

This is an incredible book, one that pulled me in so deeply that I had trouble removing my brain from the Gold Fame Citrus headspace. California, along with the entire Southwest, is in such serious drought that most of its denizens have been evacuated, all but a few foolhardy, freedom-loving people. Water and food are the only real commodities, we quickly learn, as we follow Luz and her boyfriend Ray around "the starlet's" house, in which they are squatting. Luz wears Hermes scarves and designer dresses left behind by the starlet, while Ray digs latrines and scrounges up food for them. On a trip to a bonfire, they come across a toddler, a little girl whose people Luz finds incredibly untrustworthy. On an instinct and a whim, Ray and Luz take the girl home with them, and then decide to brave the many risks of fleeing the area for the unaffected parts of the country. To do so, they must pass through the Amargosa, a massive, ever-growing, ever-moving dune sea that is swallowing the Southwest.

This very brief summary does no justice to the writing, which is utterly unique and visceral. Flashes of Luz's past as an underage model haunt her, Ray's inadequacies as a man and caregiver threaten to destroy them all, and the Amargosa, silent and deadly and beautiful, looms over all. The world is different enough to be shocking, similar enough to be uncomfortably familiar. I finished this book on a plane across the country and found it difficult to look down upon the earth and see anything other than the world Watkins describes. She is young and her talent is formidable. I look forward to seeing what work she produces in the future.

The Rose Society, by Marie Lu

This is the sequel to the dark, brutal young adult fantasy novel, The Young Elites, and it is even darker and more brutal. Adelina, cast out and betrayed by everyone she's ever cared about, seeks to gain power and protect other malfettos by gathering together her own group of Elites. These are a dangerous group of young people, themselves rejected by the Young Elites or disdaining to ever join up in a common cause. And Adelina's hallucinations are getting out of control, to the point where her mind is creating them without her even knowing it. Her need for vengeance is fierce and threatens all around her, and when she finally gets what she wants, the victory is hollow. What will Adelina do now?

I'm not sure I'll be reading the next (and presumably, last) installment of this series. It really is terrifically dark, to the point where I wonder if it's all that appropriate for its teenage audience. The writing and story are easy enough to follow, but Adelina's darkness only seems to grow until she pushes everyone she loves away from her. Perhaps the lesson will be learned in the third book, but even so, I question Lu's decision to delve so deeply into a wounded soul. Bullied teenagers might find Adelina's actions inspiring, rather than horrifying.

Apr 12, 2016

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book had I known it was about suicide; had that been the case, I would have sorely missed out on a literary treasure. Yolandi and her older sister Elfrieda grew up in a tiny Mennonite town near Winnipeg. Elf goes on to become a world renowned pianist while Yoli writes young adult rodeo books. Elf, as many great artists seem to be, is burdened by extreme depression. With some flashbacks to their childhood, Yoli narrates Elf's most recent suicide attempt and the affects on their family. This book is devastating and stunningly beautiful, and as I finished it last night I felt as though my heart had been gently cut from my chest and pulled into little bite-sized pieces, to be patched up again with masking tape. This is not an easy book to read, not at all, but it's well worth the effort.

Apr 2, 2016

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is one of the top hard science fiction writers working today, and Aurora is another fine example of his work, though it didn't grab me quite as much as his Red Mars trilogy or 2312
The most interesting thing about this book is that the narrator is the ship. Through conversation with a couple key colonists and with the help of a quantum computer, the ship's various artificial processes are able to achieve, over the course of several hundred years, something very close to (if not actually) sentience. As such, seeing the humans through the ship's eyes provides the reader with a unique narrative experience, albeit heavy on the science and technology (which is Robinson's fan base anyways, and therefore quite appropriate). The last part is especially beautifully written, and I am once again impressed with Robinson's skill as a scientific as well as narrative writer.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

It's not fair: Not only is Hope Jahren a ridiculously smart scientist, she is also an insanely talented writer. These two things should not be allowed in the same person; it makes the rest of us look bad.

Lab Girl is the memoir of a woman, of a scientist, and of a woman scientist. In alternating chapters that describe the life cycle of a tree (far more fascinating and beautiful than you've ever imagined it to be) and Jahren's own experience with growing, we get a long, wonderful glimpse of what makes a scientist tick. Triumphs and set backs occur professionally and personally, and Jahren's love of science makes the two nearly indistinguishable. We're also treated to the most cogent, comprehensible description of mania that I've ever read, and though it takes up only a few short pages, it will stay with me forever.

Jahren's loving description of the growing tree is so gorgeous at times it nearly brought me to tears. Her unique and amazing relationship with her lab partner, Bill, as well as the birth of her son, definitely did bring me to tears. This book is a tribute and a plea, a call for people to care more about science and the overworked, underpaid practitioners thereof, and an admonition to care for this planet and for each other as best we can. What an incredible woman, writer, scientist, book.

Apr 1, 2016

The First Book of Calamity Leek, by Paula Lichtarowicz

This, my friends, is a hell of a book. It takes one of my favorite aspects of science fiction - being thrust into a whole new world and having to struggle to understand it and its dialect - and marries it to the creepy children of horror lore. And it's fabulous. Narrated by Calamity Leek, a teenage girl and an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, the world she describes is vastly different from the one we know to be true, and it becomes only more chilling the deeper we dive into it. I don't want to give anything away; this is a novel best discovered as an untouched country and experienced unexpectedly. Lichtarowicz packs a huge emotional and richly plotted wallop into less than three hundred pages, gifting us a work of unparalleled originality. This is a book I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.

Mar 23, 2016

What Is Not Yours In Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi, author of the wonderful Boy Snow Bird, has a flair for fairy tales. All of these short stories have that same ethereal, fantastical, random quality of a fairy tale, with a modern sensibility and the occasional modern phrase thrown in. All the stories are connected by characters, though you don't realize it until about halfway through reading them, and the connections are usually fairly tenuous - casual mentions or not much more. My favorite story is the very first, "books and roses," and it's also the most fairy tale-like. Oyeyemi is a beautiful writer, lush and evocative no matter what she is describing. My only concern would be that a few of the stories are a bit too random and thus lack cohesion and continuity as a story. They tend to jump around, or introduce something startling that throws the reader a bit off guard. Still, a lovely set of stories from one of the best young writers working today.

Mar 8, 2016

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

I've been wanting to read this classic graphic memoir for ages, so having it pop up as my next book club read presented me the perfect opportunity. This book deserves all the attention it's gotten over the years. Satrapi grew up during the Iranian revolution - her country was liberal and educated until around her tenth birthday, whereupon religious fanatics took control of Iran and turned it into a fundamentalist Muslim dictatorship. Her family's history provides a solid reflection of the country itself, as her great-grandfather had been a prince under the Shah's rule. Her family was wealthy and well-educated, and Satrapi went to the French school in Tehran. Politically active, her parents took part in demonstrations against the Islamists until it proved too dangerous, and Satrapi was sent to Austria at fourteen to finish her schooling.

Satrapi's honesty about her philosophical growth is refreshing. When very young, she wanted to be a prophet and bring peace and happiness to humanity. When she got a little older, she discovered Marx and communism, embracing that ideology while acknowledging uncomfortably that this conflicted with her own family's obvious wealth. When her life in Austria exposes her to Western values, she realizes that as liberal as she may be in Iran, she would always be a third-worlder to Europeans. A disastrous break up sees Satrapi taking shelter back in Iran, where the political and religious climate only get worse and worse.

The drawing style is striking, almost like wood blocks, as the main color is black with white drawn in it rather than the more common opposite. "Persepolis" provides us with a much-needed inside voice from Iran and the revolution, a look at a situation we see as black and white but that has so much more gray than we realize. This is a fascinating, important book, and I'm very much looking forward to discussing it.

Mar 2, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac, by Ethan Canin

This is an astonishing piece of work, a multi-generational epic about brilliant minds and the prisons they create for themselves as a means of dealing with the world. The first half of this novel is about Milo Andret, a mathematical genius and womanizer whose interactions with others and the outside world are characterized by brutal honesty and basic emotional incomprehension. To calm his mind, Milo turns to drink, and it slowly kills him. The second half of the book is written first-person from his son's point of view. Hans is also a brilliant mathematician, but instead of entering academia, he uses his skills to make millions on Wall Street. His poison of choice starts out as MDA as a teenager, then cocaine as an adult. But rather than let the addiction alienate his family and destroy his body, Hans is able to overcome it and become the father that Milo should have been.

The first half of this book is amazing. The math is there but very theoretical and not at all imposing, and Milo's journey to adulthood is enthralling. Hans' half of the story is not quite as good. It's still engaging, but some of the magic from Milo's story just doesn't quite make it into Hans'. The writing sometimes slides dangerously close to cliche, and watching Hans and his family rally around Milo despite the way he's treated them all was rather maddening. I think I'd have preferred the whole book just being about Milo, a much more interesting (albeit disgusting) character than his son. Still, it's a accomplished work and well worth picking up.

Feb 22, 2016

Mort(e), by Robert Repino

The apocalypse is upon us, and it is cute and fluffy. After millennia of mistreatment, the ants have had enough. Systematically gathering knowledge and information to herself, the Queen sets in motion a plan to end the scourge of humanity. To help in her dark endeavor, she releases a hormone into the water supply that turns all animals into sentient beings, makes them human-sized, and gives them opposable thumbs. Pets rise up and kill their masters as armies of enormous ants rip any human they find to shreds. Sebastian, a neutered house cat, has recently found happiness and friendship with his neighbor's dog, Sheba. But upon the uprising, Sheba has run away and Sebastian, now known as Mort(e), is left to wander a broken world, forever looking for her. As the animals battle a bioengineered disease known as EMSAH and hunt down the last remaining humans, Mort(e) wraps himself in loneliness, wanting only his old friend with whom to share his new life.

This is a pretty action-packed book, and would make a killer movie. It reads quickly and easily, while presenting some interesting deeper themes - religion, the afterlife, whether there is such a thing as munificent domination. It reminds me of The Bees, in its description of the ants. It's a great book for anyone looking for a slightly different kind of apocalypse page-turner.

Feb 15, 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is another one of those books that consistently pops up on "best of" lists, as well as "funniest" lists. Though there are quite a few funny parts, I wouldn't call this a comedy; this book is very dark satire, and Miller clearly takes a dim view of human nature.

It quickly became clear why people have been suggesting this novel to me for years: though it takes place in a post-apocalyptic (post-nuclear) future, humanity has been blasted back to a medieval way of life, and the keepers of knowledge are monks of the Catholic church. Sci fi AND medieval history? This book has me written all over it. My only real complaint is that anyone who doesn't have at least a vague understanding of Latin is going to be pretty easily lost, unless they're very good with context.

In Miller's depressing (and depressingly realistic) future, mutually assured destruction wasn't enough to prevent mankind from nearly obliterating itself. Enraged by the death and destruction wrought by men of science, the survivors ritually murder all people found guilty of possessing knowledge, even literacy. The only hold outs are Catholic monks, who lock away and salvage any scraps of humanity's past that they can find. Centuries pass, then millennia - has humanity learned from its gravest mistake? All I can say is that Miller doesn't have much faith in us, and the weaknesses he skewers are readily recognizable in our society today. So the book is funny, in parts, and absolutely brilliant throughout, but also pretty demoralizing and sad.

Feb 3, 2016

Memphis Afternoons, James Conaway

James Conaway, of Napa fame, is a beautiful writer. This self-published book of autobiographical essays transports the reader to the Memphis, TN, of Conaway's childhood and adolescence. A child of the Depression, his parents and grandparents are related lovingly yet unsparingly, revealing the devotion of a son married to the outsider's adult understanding of human nature. As the daughter of a Nashville-raised mother from around this period, I recognized elements of the southern temperament and social standards people held incredibly dear in those days. The country clubs, debutantes, high school fraternities, are all there, as is the excessive drinking, corrupt politics, and obsession with reputation and the "right people." Conaway's descriptions of his days catching fish in the muddy Mississippi and getting in fights with his frat brothers while discovering a love of language and literature that would soon take him away from the city of his birth, are hypnotizing and enthralling. His Memphis is not idealized, nor is it dissected. It is simply what it is.

Jan 25, 2016

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

I really enjoyed this smart, funny novel set in the Bay Area. Veblen and Paul are thirty-somethings with some baggage in the form of Mom and Dad. Veblen is named for thrifty, anti-consumerist economist Thorstein Veblen; her father is in a mental home for his severe PTSD and her mother is an incredible hypochondriac. Paul is a neurologist starting a medical trial for a field trepanning tool of his own design; his parents are inveterate hippies and his older brother is mentally disabled. Veblen has spent her entire life making sure her mother feels loved and happy and dealing with the immense stress that causes by talking to squirrels, while Paul has always struggled with his unconventional upbringing and the attention his parents pay to his brother, finding solace in traditional forms of status and wealth. After four months together, Paul asks Veblen to marry him, but the more they delve into each other's pasts and families, this seems less and less like a good idea...

But people will surprise you. Perhaps being with someone so different from each other forced them to finally come to terms with their own inconsistencies. Paul's ethics are tested when his product is illegally fast-tracked, and Veblen's conversations with squirrels really seem to be getting out of control. This is a wonderful love story, very well-researched and so enjoyable. This is the kind writing that seems effortless, making for effortless reading, which of course means the author put a huge amount of work into it. There is little or nothing to complain about this book, I highly recommend it!

Jan 20, 2016

Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Mieville

I'm afraid that I just don't get it. China Mieville is a hugely popular science fiction writer, a well-respected author and denizen of countless "best of" lists. And I just don't see it. This is the second book of his that failed to sustain my interest more than halfway through. These are short stories, which I normally love, but they seem so haphazard. It's as though Mieville's agent called him up with a demand for a new book and he said, well, I've got these bits and pieces that have never amounted to much, I guess I'll just throw them all together and call it a collection. There's no coherent thread or theme, that I can tell, at least. The stories themselves are all basically set pieces instead of real, whole stories. They are descriptors, beginning chapters of books that never quite made it. And they're kind of boring, to boot. Mieville's most famous is "Perdido Street Station," which I've never read, so perhaps I need to open that book up to see what all the fuss is about. This particular offering leaves me cold.

Jan 14, 2016

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

As fantasy novels go, this is a thoroughly enjoyable one. But it's hard to write an original fantasy story these days, and if you've read enough of them, you can name all the tropes Novik tied together to create "Uprooted." We have the different kinds of magic, the young adult who doesn't know she's special until suddenly one day she is, the vain and arrogant nobility, the corrupted natural landscape. Novik's tale isn't new, but then maybe it isn't really supposed to be. Her use of Russian-like names and recognizable characters such as Baba Yaga indicates this is more of an homage to the fairy tales of old, the gruesome, twisted Brothers Grimm-type stuff. If that's the case, she does a lovely job. My only complaint with the writing is her tendency to have our heroine (through whom the story is told in first person narration) think something in her head, then another character responds to her as if she were speaking. Was she actually speaking aloud, Novik just didn't bother to put quotations around it? Are these people all slightly psychic? Is Agnieszka's face THAT transparent? It's a device used several times throughout the book, and it's rather distracting. But it's the only thing taking away from this fun, engaging fairy tale.

Jan 11, 2016

God Loves Haiti, by Dimitry Elias Leger

Big things sometimes come in small packages; "God Loves Haiti" is one of them. Though slim, this debut novel packs a psychological punch. Set in the moments and days after the devastating earthquake nearly destroyed Haiti, we follow three main characters: Natasha Robert, a twenty-year-old artist who has just married the outgoing President of Haiti; said President of Haiti, a man forty years Natasha's senior; and Alain Destine, Natasha's young boyfriend who is head over heels in love with her. Each of the three carries their own burdens after the earthquake, holding a nation and a people upon their backs in different ways. After a rollicking start in the earthquake itself, the majority of the book's action is internal. This is not a book one can skim easily, and I could see how some people, drawn in by the action of the first chapter, might lose interest later on in the novel. But it is our desire to see lovers united, to make sure everything is okay, that pulls us through the emotional molasses of "God Loves Haiti." The denouement is unexpected, but wonderful nonetheless. This is a beautiful, lyrical debut novel that deserves high praise, but will probably not win over the action-hungry.

Jan 4, 2016

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino

What a lovely, refreshing book, and such a wonderful way to start the new year! This is the kind of writing I revel in - nouns turned into verbs in ways that make you wonder how no one else has done it before, indelible characters that have you rooting for them from the start - good fun, good writing, and incredibly readable. This is a love letter to the flawed city of Philadelphia, to anyone who has suffered loss, to the beauty of friendship and music and those who find joy in even the darkest corners. The star of this book is Madeleine, nine-years old with a mother dead of cancer and a father so deep in grief he can no longer be a father. Madeleine is smart and blunt, as city girls are, with a hell of a singing voice and a dream to sing at church, assemblies, clubs, anywhere they'll let her, only no one will. Singing back up is her teacher, Sarina Greene, late thirties, divorced, back home and listless in her loneliness. When her old prom date, the one who got away, shows up at a dinner party she is last-minute-invited to, her world goes sideways. We switch narrative voices often and seamlessly. This is a beautiful little book that did not get the attention it deserved in hardcover; I hope people will pick it up now it's in paperback.

Jan 1, 2016

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

Science fiction and fantasy, though often shelved together in bookstores and libraries, are actually quite difficult to combine into a single narrative. Aliens and magic don't mix; they tend to negate each other. And yet Anders has spun an incredible sci fi fantasy story, a fairy tale about the apocalypse, a morality play without god.

Patricia and Laurence find each other as miserable middle schoolers, both with parents who do not understand them and try to force the square pegs of their souls into the round hole of society. Patricia once spoke with birds and an ancient, wise Tree; Laurence made himself a two-second time machine and is working on a sentient supercomputer in his closet. They are outcasts, pariahs, bullied to within an inch of their sanity and sometimes their lives, and though they find comfort and friendship with each other, their desire to be left alone by their peers sometimes overwhelms their bond. Not to mention the assassin who pretends to be a school counselor and tells Patrica that she must kill Laurence because magic and science are diametrically opposed, or risk "the Unraveling". It's a lot of pressure for a kid...

This book is funny, charming, moving, and inventive in the very best way. The tropes are common enough - friendship, loyalty, destiny, the whole star-crossed lovers thing - but the packaging is the kind of wonderfully original writing that doesn't come around very often. Anders is a masterful writer who isn't afraid to use unconventional techniques, and the characters are fully fleshed out human beings (and some animals). My one complaint: San Francisco nights are described as "hot and itchy." Now, I don't know how many nights Anders has spent in San Francisco, but even if it's 90 degrees during the day (which is rare), it will still drop to 55 once the sun goes down. Always. Aside from that, this is one of my favorite books this year and a must-read for any lover of fiction.