Jun 16, 2017

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

I read Catcher in the Rye in my high school sophomore English class, and while I didn't hate it, Holden Caufield was quite possibly the most annoying character I'd ever encountered. While reading "Franny," the first short story in this slim little book, I was reminded of what exasperated me. Like Holden, Franny is perhaps too smart for her own good. She's young and well-educated, and has gotten herself into a philosophical pickle. She views everyone around her with disdain, sickened by their egotistical attitudes, as well as by her own need for external gratification. "Zooey," published two and a half years after "Franny," is longer, more a novella than a short story, and it eventually becomes clear that Franny is Zooey's younger sister. He, too, is afflicted with intelligence and education, uniquely qualified to understand Franny's existential pain because he feels it too. But the wisdom of years (albeit only a few ahead of Franny) allows him to see a way through that crisis, and in his own awkward brotherly way, he seeks to help Franny navigate it as well.

I very much enjoyed both stories, particularly the banter between Zooey and his mother. The way Salinger wrote allows for a complete setting of the scene: he lists in one page-long paragraph literally everything in the room we're in, and delightfully italicizes exactly where his characters emphasize their words. As one member of my book club noted, it's almost like a screenplay, it's so easy to reel the pictures through your head while reading. In terms of the content, I did have a similar reaction to Franny as I did to Holden, but as another book club member pointed out, they are anti-heroes and were really the first of their kind; you're not necessarily supposed to have a positive reaction to them. They are meant to make you think, not to make you like them. And their struggles resonate very differently at different ages, so if you're reading this young, try it again in ten years.

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Jun 8, 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stepheson and Nicole Galland

This book co-authored by one of my favorite writers is massively fun, and a big departure for Stephenson. Normally a master of hard sci fi, Stephenson's partnership with noted historical fiction writer Galland yields very different fruit. There's certainly science in here - namely theoretical physics - but hardly any compared with his other novels. Time travel is the name of the game here, and so we end up in several different historical locales. This is, presumably, where Galland's expertise comes in.

The story is told mostly through long-form diary entries and exchanges on D.O.D.O.'s intranet, making for a varied reading experience. Grainne is an especially fun character; what's not to love about a feisty red-haired Irish spy in Elizabethan London? Oh, and she's a witch. Here's where we depart from Stephenson's usual stomping ground. Early in the book, we learn that magic did really used to exist in the world, but disappeared after July 1851. What caused it and how can we get it back are the motivating questions for D.O.D.O. And then when magic is revived and the DOers (don't worry, you'll catch up with the acronyms pretty quickly) start going back in time all willy nilly, the expected complications ensue.

Yes, it's a little predictable, but just so much fun. This is the Netflix-and-Chill of books: enjoyable, addictive, and a little bit sexy.

Get it here!

May 30, 2017

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

I know this might piss some people off, but I'm just gonna put it out there: I think David Mitchell does Neil Gaiman better than Neil Gaiman.

I've long admired Mitchell's writing; Cloud Atlas blew me away, and The Bone Clocks cemented my love for his oddly weird novels. Slade House showed me how masterful this writer really is, the way he can get you so comfy-cozy with his totally relatable characters and then turn everything on its side so quickly you don't know which way is up and aren't sure you ever will again. Black Swan Green is rather less supernatural than those novels, more like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in that respect, but retains a supernatural feeling just as well as any of them. It's uncanny. And lord knows I'm not and never have been a thirteen-year-old English schoolboy, but for the span of this novel I absolutely was. Having a background of being bullied definitely helped, but Jason's voice is just so real and addictive that I can't imagine anybody not falling into it immediately.

Jason Taylor: poet, promising young student, stutterer, nearly friendless, younger child of a dissolving marriage. We live in Jason's footsteps for one full year of his life, and what a doozy of a year it is. Terminally uncool, Jason's one ardent wish is to simply sneak through life undetected. Getting noticed is never a good thing when you're a favorite target of bullies and sneered at by the popular kids. Jason's mind is a pretty fascinating place to live. Some of it is uncomfortably familiar (read: the psychology of being bullied) and some it totally out of this world. We are emotional putty in David Mitchell's hands. This is just another example of his mastery of fiction.

Buy it from my favorite bookstore!

May 21, 2017

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

A tad heavy-handed and positively laden with tropes, The Invisible Library is still a fun little fantasy romp sure to push all the right buttons for many readers. Irene, our imperfect heroine, is an agent of the Library, an entity that stands apart from normal time and space. Librarians collect books from across the alternate worlds, and there are many, many alternate worlds, each with its own blend of science and magic. When she's saddled with a student and sent on a rather opaque mission to a quarantined alternate, things go awry. Fast.

The story manages to be both original and highly derivative at the same time. Certain aspects we've seen again and again from fantasy writers, but there's enough new material to make the book enjoyable. I'd be surprised if anyone who isn't a bookworm could really get into it, if only because the premise of the Library, a main character in and of itself, is to simply save and love books. There are about a bajillion literature references, of course, making it practically nonsensical to anyone who doesn't read much or at least have a pretty good knowledge of Western literature. The writing is nicely descriptive and there's certainly a lot of action to keep things moving along. But readers with a lot of fantasy books under their belt will probably be more exasperated than thrilled with the theatrics. We've read this story, over and over; there's just not enough originality to lift it above the quotidian. Readers who aren't generally drawn to fantasy might find this a little more interesting; it certainly appeals due to its average length when stacked up against behemoths like The Wheel of Time or The Song of Ice and Fire. I'd recommend this to the rather specific subset of reader who loves books but doesn't read widely in fantasy; most others will want to look elsewhere.

May 13, 2017

Family, Genus, Species; by Kevin Allardice

There's a lot packed into this very slim book's pages, and I was extremely impressed by all of it. Vee, our heroine, is at her nephew's birthday party in the Berkeley hills. Though her relationship with her sister is strained, she adores little Charlie and can't wait until he sees the magnificent dinosaur model she brought him. It starts out funny and sort of sweet, and then shit starts hitting the fan, and then abruptly escalates.

The layers in this novella are many, but the one I found most captivating is the theme of self-narration. We are all the protagonist in our own story; to others, we are bit characters, sidekicks, nemeses, and so forth, but never the main character. And since no one can read another's mind or truly step into their shoes, we tell ourselves stories about each of these other players in our lives. An example: Vee and her boyfriend ended their first date at her sister's Christmas party, drunkenly getting it on in a back room. During the act, someone walks in on them; Vee goes limp but her boyfriend keeps going; the door quickly closes again. To Vee, this is a split second of the day she met the man she later fell in love with. To the person who walked in on them, it looked an awful lot like rape. A rape that person then proceeded to ignore, which ate at him enough so that he felt the need to approach Vee at the birthday party and tell her what he saw and insist that he's a good guy because he's telling her that right now. To that man, Vee and this possible rape he witnessed is a story in his own life, not hers, one that he can refer to to illuminate something he feels is in his character, to make him feel better about himself.

I was especially impressed with Allardice's commentary on the fat woman as a sexual being. Vee is fat, and knows this well. She's used to men fetishizing her body while ignoring the person inside it, and aware that women who fall outside the very narrow spectrum of socially acceptable beauty are expected to be grateful for sexual attention. From these men's perspectives, too, her experience holds no value on its own, and to insist otherwise would be to violate their sense of self.

All this runs underneath a pretty brutal satire of white hipsters in the Bay Area, who cultivate their urban farms with honest intent but leave the people with whom they share their city to flounder, be marginalized, murdered. And then of course the book is quite funny in parts, proving again how multifaceted this novella is. I look forward to reading more from Kevin Allardice.

May 9, 2017

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is Professor Harari's follow-up to the blockbuster (at least by sociology's standards) Sapiens. Instead of "A Brief History of Humankind," this is "A Brief History of Tomorrow," Harari's vision of where our present might lead us, based on our past thus far. His prediction: having done away with plague, famine, and war (more or less), humans will now look to attain immortality, bliss, and divinity. We are not, Harari proves, all that far off from any of these goals.

While life expectancy and general health keep improving, the possible lifespan of a human being has not changed at all. Though few and far between, ancient Egyptians and even Mesopotamians were quite capable of living into their eighties, just as we are now. But simple good health won't be enough anymore, at least not for humanity's ultra-rich elite. Why settle for winkles when you can have smooth skin? Indeed, why settle for any less than perfect body part or organ if you could heal or replace them and remain twenty-five until some unnatural death visits you? We already replace joints and hearts with those of other animals' or artificial copies, it's not such a leap forward for the wealthy to keep replacing parts as long as they can.

Bliss is arguably the easiest attained of these new goals. We're already doing it: drugs. I'm sorry, medication. Our burgeoning knowledge of chemistry and physiology allows us to medicate all sorts of mental ills; even carefully applied electricity can work wonders on the brain's neural activity. Why should anyone be miserable when they can just swallow a little pill and feel good again? Why should we tolerate the occasional accidents caused by tired truck drivers or plane pilots when we can create lasting focus and wakefulness with a cap that sends weak electrical pulses through the brain?

Divinity...this dream is a little less attainable. Omniscience might be a better word to describe what Harari is talking about. The speed with which humanity learns new things seems to be increasing at an exponential rate. In his example of the internet, he reminds us that twenty years ago it was nearly unheard of and poorly understood. Now the whole world runs online, most jobs and people depend on it in some way or another, and many of us are irrevocably attached to it. Similarly with biology, we barely understand our own bodies but our knowledge is growing every single day. For at least an elite class, cursed with extremely long lives and the ability to medicate themselves into any mental state they wish, the realm of knowledge will be the last real playground.

Harari's writing is, as in his first book, highly engaging. He's utterly brilliant, but speaks to the layman with great ease: "If modernity has a motto, it is 'shit happens.'" (pg. 200) His explanation of group dynamics is fascinating, particularly in his descriptions of how democracy works and the delusions people feed themselves to justify suffering in the name of nationalism (pg. 302). Did you know that sick people tend to vote more conservatively? Seriously. It's on page 339.

My one hang up about this book is something Harari says early on but then seems to work off the opposite assumption for the rest of the book. He notes that in the age of steam, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, people thought of the human body and mind in terms of steam, because that was the dominant technology of the day. Hence Freud's theories on pent up sexual frustrations finally boiling to a head at some random moment. Similarly, we talk of our bodies and minds in the language of computers - we act the way our genes program us to, we have different systems that have separate functions but report to the motherboard of our brain. It's the technology du jour, so that's the way we see things. But then Harari goes on for the entire rest of the book to talk about the mind as a set of algorithms, and goes on at great length about this fact plus reminds us of it frequently. Didn't he just say that we shouldn't fall into the trap of describing ourselves in terms of our technology because it's just a metaphor and might not be how things actually work? Or is he saying that this time, we're right and we really are just incredibly complex computers? I wish he would have explained this contradiction more thoroughly. Still, it's another superb read and I recommend anyone interested in the future of humanity (everyone, yes?) to pick it up.

Apr 26, 2017

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

This is a great idea. A fantastic idea, a really, truly, interesting and cool idea. Too bad the writing sucks.

Extrapolating the next leap forward of social development, Wilson gives us the Affinities: 22 types of people, grouped by some intangible biomechanical features. Not every person qualifies for an Affinity; about half of humanity falls into one of these groupings, with five being the largest. Members of the groups feel an...affinity...for each other. A deep, instant understanding that allows for incredible collaboration and cooperation, and mutual trust that leads to fulfilling, meaningful relationships, often to the exclusion of others, i.e. the families they were born into. These groups start to become much more than simple social clubs, and when things get political, relations between the Affinities get hairy.

Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't do the idea justice. Perhaps it's the first person narrator, but the story is told so flatly that I just couldn't get invested. The plot pulled me through and I read it quickly, but Adam isn't a particularly likable character and the twists are pretty predictable. Adam is merely a reporter, with hardly any strong emotion to speak of. He's annoyed at his strict, racist Republican dad, feels bad for the girl he was supposed to marry but didn't, pities people who don't have an Affinity, loves the pretty girl but not enough to stand up for her against the asshole father. It's lazy storytelling, letting the idea free and simply recording the logical next steps rather than molding it into an original, surprising tale that teaches us about human nature. Or something. Anything. I could see this being a fun TV show on TNT Tuesday nights, Prime Time! But it's only a mediocre book.

Apr 21, 2017

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

It took me far too long to pick up this companion novel to Atkinson's wonderful Life After Life, which I read years ago. That innovative novel followed the many iterations of protagonist Ursula's life, as she dies and is reborn as the same person over and over again. Teddy, the main character of A God in Ruins, is her younger brother, a bomber pilot who perishes in World War II. The unique nature of the previous book allowed Atkinson to write of Teddy's life as if he had survived the war, which only half of those pilots did. It's her way of humanizing the vast numbers of the dead, showing us how many lives just one life affects and now if that's not heartbreaking enough for you, multiply that by several million. It's a powerful message.

I'm a well-known Anglophile and am partial to Atkinson's very British, albeit contemporary, writing. Dry humor lies beneath every page, even in the darkest of moments. My one complaint would be that the characters other than Teddy come off as more caricatures than real people. His daughter is absolutely atrocious, even given some leeway because her mother died very young. It's hard to believe any normal person with a loving parent could be quite so horrible, and we seem to have to endure her just so we can witness her epiphany and reversal at the very end. I loved the way we skipped through time, though not the fact that Atkinson tends to draw our attention to it - "But that was yet to come, the future, and we are in the present, now." It's a bit much; perhaps she felt it necessary to keep the reader grounded as the time jumps occur quite often. Neither criticism detracts from the beauty of the whole, a really wonderful story about a horrible thing that had a lot of consequences, sometimes even good ones. The two books are a playful, powerful pair, and I'm so glad to have read them.

Apr 12, 2017

Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Beloved children's (and more) author Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away recently of cancer, about six months after the hardcover release of this book. It's interactive stream of consciousness, with a built-in texting feature that links to a website, www.textbookamykr.com. I know I should have, but I couldn't bear to text the phone number, knowing Rosenthal has passed. Is someone still monitoring it? Are stories and pictures and rainbows still added to the website?

The book can be read in a quick hour; it's mostly empty space with a little bit of text per page and the occasional picture. Anecdotes, challenges, memories - each new page brings something unexpected. This is the author's attempt to universalize our humanity, to point to an uncomfortable or subconscious event and say, "hey, I do this too, I'm normal, you're normal, we're all totally weird and totally normal in being weird." It's sweet, but not saccharine, relate-able yet extraordinary in its ability to disarm. It makes one wonder why we always tend to lose too soon talents such as this; but then, Rosenthal would probably protest, maybe it's just because we know their names. We lose people all the time, famous or not, and there is no greater or lesser tragedy in any of these deaths. Goodbye, Amy.

Apr 11, 2017

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

The stresses of moving house prevented me from reading this fantastic Iranian farcical novel as quickly as I would have liked, though it provided a welcome respite from the anxieties of the last two weeks. Our first person narrator is a teenage boy, hopelessly in love with his cousin, daughter of the fearsome yet ridiculous personage referred to as Dear Uncle Napoleon due to his obsession with Napoleon and hatred of the British. This is a doomed love; Layli is more or less promised to their other cousin Puri, a sycophantic young man the two lovers despise. Each relative represents an aspect of Persian culture in hyperbolic fashion: the auntie obsessed with death and funerals, the doctor who stubbornly sticks to an obviously incorrect diagnosis just because it's different from the other doctor's opinion, the devoted servant who feeds his master's fantasies of being a war hero, the lecherous uncle who cannot help but meddle in the affairs of others in order to make a joke of them. These caricatures interact in uproarious, hilarious fashion, as tense situations go from bad to worse with more than one participant stirring the pot into a violent froth.

Published in 1973 then later banned by the Islamic Republic for its politically subversive overtones, My Uncle Napoleon takes aim at the tendency of even intellectual Iranians to blame the British for every ill and misfortune. Underneath this is the more personal tragedy faced by lovers unable to break out of the strictures of marital customs. As a work of Iranian literature, it shines a much-needed light on the culture of Iran before the revolution, and its highly comical nature makes it a joyful, fun read. This is a must for any reader looking to expand their non-Western repetoire.

Mar 24, 2017

The Potlikker Papers, by John T. Edge

The Potlikker Papers is an extensively researched, albeit a bit scattershot, work of culinary and cultural history. John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and devoted Southern son with an interest in documenting how the food culture of the South has echoed, and at times preempted, major cultural, social, and political shifts. Though not long, the book covers a wide swathe of modern American history with great depth and attention to detail. It's impressive, both for the work that went into it and its execution, but it feels a bit more like a doctoral thesis than a coherent work.

Edge starts us out right in the thick of it, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. This section is brutal; we hear of the incredible violence and indignities suffered by black (and some white) Southerners who had simply had enough. He minces no words, but then, neither did the racists he quotes. It's almost viscerally painful to read what white people said to and about blacks; more so because their sentiments have recently been echoed at Trump rallies and on the platforms of the self-labeled "alt-right." He chronicles the work of Georgia Gilmore, who turned her home kitchen into a center of revolutionary foment and inspired a whole group of black home chefs to sell their food in support of those striking the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama. These entrepreneurial women fought one side of the battle, while Freedom Riders took their fight to the lunch counters of popular downtown diners. Their simple desire was to, quite literally, have a seat at the table.

From this explosive, emotional beginning, Edge moves us rather abruptly to the hippies and communes of the 1970s. While fascinating in its own right, the subject utterly changes the character of the book. What I thought was a much-needed exploration of black involvement in and influence on Southern food culture turned into a broader discussion of the various elements that make up Southern cuisine. We later move to the celebrity chefs of the 1980s and '90s, then the reaffirmation of local ingredients and the immigrants who farm them and have made them their own. All of this is interesting, and Edge clearly knows his stuff - he's a prodigious culinary name-dropper. I suppose it's unfair to judge Edge for not writing the book I wanted, when I'm sure he is happy with the book he wanted to write, though I do think it would have benefited from a slightly narrower focus. Also, how come he barely talks about potlikker?? A possible editorial suggestion would have been to take this one dish and follow its development in Southern kitchens through all those years. There needs to be some other thread to piece the narrative together besides just "Southern food." All told, though, it's a testament to a lot of hard work and the love Edge has for the South, and a thoroughly informative read. Now excuse me while I go scrounge up some BBQ.

Mar 16, 2017

The Musical Brain, by César Aira

I'm afraid most of these stories were a bit beyond me, though I'm at least clever enough, I suppose, to recognize their brilliance. I'd say about a third of these stories are hilarious, a third are incredibly smart and moving, and a third are a little more absurdist/surrealist that I can handle. Examples: God throws a birthday party for himself every year, only it's held outside of space/time and is attended exclusively by monkeys; a priest is assigned a poverty-stricken diocese but instead of spending money on the poor, decides to build an incredible house for his successor so that that man will be able to give all his money to the poor instead of worrying about a house, but the successor decides to do the same for his own successor, and so on and so forth; a café's patrons make more and more elaborate origami for a little girl, each creation more impossibly complex than the last.

Aira is a deliberate writer, but I'll admit I'm not a very deliberate reader. The funny stories were great, I read them quickly, giggled, and appreciated how smart they are. But his other stories are rambling, some start going one direction and change tacks a couple times to end up somewhere completely different. Perhaps I'm an impatient reader - no, I know I'm an impatient reader. I'm a book buyer and reading is part of my job, so if a book doesn't catch my attention quickly, I ditch it. This is hard to do with a collection of short stories, some of which I really enjoyed; how long do I give a story I don't like? A page? Two? Dear reader, I read it all, though I didn't love it all, just so I could say I had.

Mar 11, 2017

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I was hesitant to pick up this debut novel, despite its numerous accolades from readers and writers alike, and though it has already garnering several awards. The reason for my reticence is my coworker and fellow buyer, who has been in this business for thirty years and has impeccable taste. She didn't like it that much, though agreed it's an important addition to the small but growing library of literature by women of color. In this case, however, I disagree with her entirely. I think this is an incredible novel, particularly since it's a first effort.

Homegoing follows the lineages of two half-sisters, Effia and Essi. The former is a Fante living on the Gold Coast who marries the white commander of the Cape Coast Castle, an important stop for African slaves from the interior on their way to slavery in the Americas. The latter is an Asante, captured in a raid and shipped off to be a slave in the American South. We step in on the lives of six generations of their direct descendants, alternating between one sister's line and the other's, showing the disastrous affects of slavery both on the enslaved and on those complicit in their servitude.

Gyasi's writing is clear and insistent, rich in metaphor and description without being overbearing or long-winded. She manages to get at the heart of being black in America in simple phrases that hit you as so obvious once uttered, but were anything but thirty seconds earlier. Gyasi's characters are fully realized; I feel I could meet any of them walking down the street. This is a powerful, stunning debut for what I hope will be a long writing career.

Goldenhand, by Garth Nix

Returning to the Old Kingdom and one of my all-time favorite series, Garth Nix here expounds upon a subject I have always wondered about: Just what lies to the north of our heroines' home? Goldenhand begins about half a year after the events in Lirael. It's been a while since fans have visited these characters. Between the latter and the former, Nix wrote a series of short stories set in the Old Kingdom (Across the Wall) and the hundreds-of-years-earlier prequel, Clariel, which I was unimpressed with.

Goldenhand is more a return to form, happily. Lirael is settling into her position as Abhorsen-in-Waiting, equipped with a new Charter Magic-infused metal hand, fashioned by her nephew, Prince Sameth. Though she is taking to her new duties with aplomb, she's finding a social life much harder to come by. When a cryptic message about a Free Magic creature in the southern country of Ancelstierre (impossible!) arrives, she jumps at the chance to be reunited with Nicholas Sayre. Their ensuring awkward flirtation is adorably realistic.

Alternating with Lirael's story are chapters following a young girl of the Northern Clans, Ferin. These chapters were the juiciest for me. We know what lies to the south of the Old Kingdom but I have long wondered about its northern border. We learn of the horse clans, nomadic raiders with their own developed religion and societies quite separate and unique from the Old Kingdom's. These fearsome warriors, we quickly learn, have been in thrall to an old, familiar enemy.

I thoroughly enjoyed the expansion of the world I first dove into long ago with Sabriel. The writing is much the same, though of course reading it lacks the joy of initial discovery. I welcome any journey back to the Old Kingdom in Nix's capable hands.

Mar 1, 2017

The One Eyed Man, by Ron Currie

Written before meeting the author...
I'm honestly not sure whether this is a story about grief standing atop a soapbox, or an excuse to stand on a soapbox wrapped in a story of grief. Our hero (or antihero, as it may be), known only as K., has recently lost his wife to a long, protracted illness. Obvious to everyone else but rather less so to himself, his grief manifests in a need to be absolutely literal. If the crosswalk sign says DON'T WALK, you don't walk, even if it says so for several hours straight; people who's views or beliefs have the tiniest holes of logic are questioned intently until exasperation or anger explode. Within a 48 hour period, K. breaks his best friend's window, gets punched in the face by a redneck, gets a girl fired from her posh grocery store job, and gets shot during a robbery gone sideways. It's been a rough few months for K.

But then he gets noticed by the right (wrong?) people and becomes the star of a reality TV show in which he questions everyone he meets. Not maliciously, of course; it's all just part of his desire to understand. Most people, it becomes quickly obvious, do not want their beliefs questioned. K. is beat up. A lot. Interspersed with his adventures in conversational violence are chapters detailing the death of his wife, starting at the end and working backwards in time to her diagnosis. These chapters are as beautiful and striking as the present time chapters are amusing and thought-provoking. The book gets just close enough to pissing you off before dumping you back into the sadness of watching a loved one slowly, painfully die. It's a hell of a book, and I look forward to the discussion it inspires.

Written after meeting the author...
Ron Currie is, I should say, an utterly charming author. Smart, funny, thoughtful, he listens intently and shares honestly. It's the best kind of interaction a bookseller can hope to have with an author. It can be uncomfortable speaking with someone about what they've written, particularly when the subject matter is difficult. But Ron listened to everything we had to say about the book and was very gracious in discussing it. I find that I often realize things about a book whilst in the process of talking about it, and it always deepens my understanding of the work.

Currie writes grief as it really is, messy and complicated and uncertain. K.'s grief is a sea of grey, filled with guilt as well as sadness, and his way of dealing with that grey is to try to categorize the world in black and white. Anything irrational must be broken down until the roots are discovered, because his own grief and guilt are so irrational. Cognitive dissonance is the ability to hold two opposing views in your mind at the same time, and K. loses that ability entirely even while he tries to eradicate it in others. This includes being able to see how his own mind is working; he doesn't feel sadness anymore, therefore he can't be feeling grief. It takes an especially horrible situation to finally snap him out of it, though even then he is not the man he used to be.

This is a wonderful novel, though not for everyone. You have to keep an open mind during the parts where K. drills into people's deeply help beliefs. But it's all worth it for a moving story about human fragility and resilience.

Feb 21, 2017

How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff

I figured I would round out my Resist List, as I like to call it, with some optimism and motivation. Flintoff is a British journalist and author who has spent years raising money for good causes and working towards real policy change at the governmental level. His argument is fairly simple: do what you can, when you can; make sure it's something you really care about and have fun doing; don't feel badly if it's something small - painting a beautiful picture that brings people happiness can be just as important as purifying drinking water or teaching a child to read.

I'm glad I read this after the relative doom and gloom of The Nordic Theory of Everything and Why I am Not a Feminist. There are a few journaling prompts to help hone in on what you really care about and what method might be most comfortable and effective for you, always keeping in mind that no effort or change for the positive is too small. For instance, I found that I care most about education because I think it's at the root of a lot of American society's problems, and that my best options for active resistance involve letter-writing and getting involved in local government. I'm not the most optimistic person, but I really did feel better after reading this. I have a game plan now, which should help keep me energized, and feel better about the little things I can do to make a difference. How to Change the World is a good, quick read for anyone who feels lost after the last year or so of enduring American politics...

Feb 15, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Sales for this modern dystopian classic have skyrocketed recently, and not just because a new TV adaptation is coming out. With Republicans catering to their anti-choice constituents and threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, in addition to a cabinet full of rich Christian white men (and one rich Christian white woman), women's reproductive rights are suddenly in question once more. As that old lady's protest sign exclaimed: "I can't believe I'm protesting this same shit again."

Our nameless narrator lives in a society drastically different from our own. I hesitate to describe it in much detail; one of the joys of science fiction is being thrust into an unfamiliar world and having to put the pieces together as you read, until you finally have one complete picture of that book's universe. Suffice to say: fertile women are a hot commodity, all women are suppressed and repressed, and Christian misogyny is the cause. This is an immensely powerful story about what can happen to a society when average people are too afraid - or too complacent - to speak out. Our narrator remembers the time before, her husband and her daughter and her job, misses it and them dearly, but is already frighteningly accustomed to her new life. She is voiceless and nameless property, a tool with one specific purpose, slave to a system that is built solely for her subjugation.

I don't love the writing style, if I'm being honest. It's a bit too stream-of-consciousness for me, rife with wordplay and free association, and the time periods switch back and forth frequently. That being said, I can't imagine this novel being as powerful if it weren't written in first person, which is the only way we can feel how utterly the narrator's circumstances have changed her as a person.

Atwood's inspiration was clearly the overthrow of secular government and establishment of religious law in countries such as Iran. This isn't science fiction, she's saying, this is happening, right now, right here on Earth, and it can happen here. This book is a warning; we need to fight to make sure it isn't a premonition.

Feb 12, 2017

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, by Jessa Crispin

I probably need an advanced degree in rhetoric or sociology or philosophy to truly understand this slim powerhouse of a book and to do it justice in a review. I don't have any of those degrees, but I'll try my best regardless.

Jessa Crispin is, if you take the tenor of this book to heart, an angry woman. She's angry that women who label themselves feminists now denigrate the work done by radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin. She's angry that women who achieve money and power - the pinnacle of capitalist success - are labeled feminists simply because they have achieved parity in a man's world. She's angry that the self-help and -empowerment movement is taking feminism away from a movement that would empower ALL women, all people everywhere, in fact. She's angry that there is no room for dissent and disagreement within today's feminism, that monolithic ideology has replaced intellectual discourse and that when a woman dares to disagree, she is shamed and shunned and stripped of her "feminist" name tag.

The most salient thread that runs through these short essays is Crispin's dismay that feminism is now about finding equality within a morally bankrupt system, rather than tearing that system down and starting over again with something better. When feminism was redefined to mean getting money and power and success in romantic love, women betrayed their own movement. It's hard to deny that this is indeed the case. Women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are automatically labelled feminists because they have reached up into The Man's world and grabbed money and power. But there is little digging underneath, no understanding that it's what that woman does with her money and power that makes her a feminist. Melinda Gates might be a good example; she's immensely wealthy and has spent much of her time and money on programs to help our planet's most vulnerable populations.

I'm simplifying, of course, partly for my own sake as I think about and parse out Crispin's brief but rhetorically rich manifesto. She is a much smarter woman than I, to be sure. The one thing I wish had been included is what her vision of that new, feminist society looks like, if she does indeed have a vision. It's easy to say we need to tear something down, and so much harder to determine what we can build in its place, and how.

Feb 7, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen

In order to do this extensively researched, heartfelt plea for sanity in American policies justice, this review would need to be pages and pages long. Partanen, a native of Finland, fell in love with an American and immigrated to his country. Once ensconced in NYC, she enjoyed (and endured) the vagaries of American life: horribly expensive and insufficient health care, insanely expensive and failing public schools and child care, rock-bottom wages and non-existent parental leave - are you noticing a theme? Americans pay top dollar for nearly everything but get far less back for their money than the Nordic countries do. For example, we pay TWO AND A HALF TIMES what Iceland and Finland pay for health care but our life expectancy is lower and we have higher infant mortality rates. It's lunacy.

And how about the fact that free-market capitalism has apparently mandated that employers, not the government, help pay for benefits? How does that make sense? In Finland, as well as the other Nordic countries, the government (and yes, that means citizen taxes) pay for: universal health care, free public education up to and including university, mandated paid vacation time of at least 4-5 weeks per year, mandated paid parental leave for BOTH parents and protection from job loss, excellent public transportation, and extensive elder care. And for all this, they pay about the same in taxes as we do. None of this, high taxes for the wealthy included, prevents the Nordic countries from excelling in the free market. Entrepreneurship is just as, if not more, common there as it is here, because the risks and stressors of American life simply don't exist in these countries. What could you do, if you didn't have to worry about maintaining health insurance, or paying for your employees' insurance?

Partanen's arguments are all based around her Nordic theory of love: true freedom only happens when a person is unencumbered by ties of dependency on others. In America, children are utterly dependent on their parents and the accident of their birth to determine their economic status (and no, social mobility won't help them much, since about 40% of men born into the lowest income bracket stay in it); workers are dependent on their employers for (crappy) health insurance; spouses are dependent on their partners for financial stability; as we age, parents become dependent on their children to take care of them, both physically and financially. As Partanen points out, this is the exact opposite of freedom. Why do we insist on following a path that doesn't work, and ignore much more successful strategies to achieve wealth and happiness? It's so self-defeating.

I finished the book feeling, well, sorry for Partanen as she gained her U.S. citizenship. She left a land of stability for one of anxiety and stress. And given the current economic climate, the Nordic theory of love is looking better and better. I hope enough people come to their senses and use books like this to help make our country better.

Jan 29, 2017

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

There is a certain type of writer who makes you want to write - their words are bold yet understated and flow with an ease belying the massive amount of work put into them. The facility with which they are read implies they are easy to write, and makes one think, "yes, I could totally do this." Kathleen Collins is, was, one of those writers. The copy I have is a galley, and is missing the promised forward by Elizabeth Alexander, which is a shame as I'd love to know more about this woman's life and work. Her short bio on the back of the book reads, "Kathleen Collins was a pioneer African American playwright, filmmaker, civil rights activist, film editor, and educator. Her groundbreaking film, Losing Ground, is one of the first feature films made by a black woman in America..." She sounds like a hell of a woman, and left this earth too soon at 46.

This slim collection of short stories features an array of mostly women, mostly African Americans, mostly intellectuals. How rare was it then, and how rare it is now, to be put inside the head of an educated black woman; this is proof of America's "post-racial" falsehood. Despite my wide-ranging reading, despite my good intentions, and even despite a consistent effort to seek out marginalized and rarely heard voices, the educated black woman is not a voice I can recall having heard before. Ever. In any medium. What a tragedy for us, as readers and as a society, to miss out on such work as this.

The tension of the civil rights movement finds a new light in these stories, as the inner struggle of "bourgeois black" women to understand and help fight against the plight of the poor, southern blacks, to understand their own histories as part of that struggle despite their parents' best efforts to shield them from it. And so we meet the young "Negro" college graduate whose father has a stroke upon seeing her with browned skin, short hair, heading down south to help with voter registration. We meet the two black intellectuals, so perfect for each other and yet...and yet, she cannot feel at home among his mid-Victorian pillows or upon his four-poster bed. While each story is much about the constant compromise of relationships, it's the thread of race that binds them all together. And her writing, such beautiful, powerful, quiet writing. Collins laments the awkward condition of the intellectual black woman, feet in two or three worlds, and I wonder if we can say that this condition has changed much since her death in 1988. What a perfect time to bring her work into the light and into readers' hands.

Jan 28, 2017

Shrill, by Lindy West

It's difficult to understate the importance of voices like Lindy West's, not just for fat women, but for all women, all bodies, all humans. By being incontrovertibly who she is - fat, funny, loud, smart - West opens the door for other marginalized voices and bravely challenges the status quo for assuming its in the right just because it's the status quo. Hers is a fight against privilege, and it could not come at a more decisive time.

West's humor is what makes her commentary so accessible. She is very, VERY funny. I giggled. I chuckled. I laughed. I guffawed. She is proof, too, that humor doesn't have to be at the expense of someone else to be funny. Sure, some of it is. Satire is pretty much only that. But there's truth to the notion that shock value for its own sake isn't inherently funny, and when it comes in the form of marginalizing already marginalized voices, it's okay to speak up and say it's not right. West's milieu is the comedy scene, which is notorious for misogyny and blatant sexism ("women aren't funny"). But when anyone, particularly a woman, stands up to say that no, some things just aren't funny, the trolliest trolls of the InterWebs come for her en masse, and in the most horrific ways possible. For West, that moment came because of rape jokes. Her argument: millions of women are raped and sexually assaulted each year. It is one of the most vile, demeaning, violating, soul-sucking acts that can happen to a person (man or woman). Telling a rape joke in front of an audience in which most certainly sits at least one woman who has been raped is a violent act of victimization and cannot, in any way, be construed as funny. If you got mugged at gunpoint, your friends wouldn't greet you with a toy gun in your back, because that's not funny, it's cruel. Picking out the one thing that is a person's weakest psychological link and using it for a few cheap laughs is not just harmless kidding around.

"But self-selection/free speech/thin skin blah blah blah whine whine whine!" Sure, there's some nuance. There's nuance to every situation. But when Daniel Tosh says to a woman at his show, "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys just got up and raped you right here?", that's beyond the pale. You're punching down, as West would say, victimizing the already less powerful for your own glee. And that's fucked up.

West's other battle is against fat-shaming, and her writing was an integral early voice towards the body positive movement of today. Even in the most accepting, loving households, girls in America internalize the notion that any body that isn't thin, tall, long or lean is bad. And not just ugly, morally bad. Fat people MUST be unhealthy so they're causing our high insurance premiums, they MUST be smelly and unclean because obviously they don't care about their appearance, they MUST be incapable of self-control because fat people just eat whatever they want all the time. Nevermind the fact that there are plenty of fat people out there who are perfectly healthy, or who's weight gain was caused by a physical or mental illness. Some people are just fat, and that means nothing about their moral state of being. I mean, seriously, like we think Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen are masters of self-control and practitioners of the highest form of morality? Please.

All this makes it seem like a super serious book, but I promise you, it's completely hilarious. Lindy West is the kind of person we need more of: smart, brave, funny, thoughtful. I want to be her friend, but since that's probably not going to happen (call me, Lindy?), I'll settle for supporting her work and making as many people read her book as possible.

Jan 23, 2017

Viking Economics, by George Lakey

While my mind was certainly open to the ideas George Lakey puts forth in this fantastic book, his message has completely changed the way I view the American economy. By nearly every absolute standard, we're doing almost everything wrong. Lakey's evidence and argument for the Scandinavian model of economics, explained simply and conversationally, is powerfully persuasive. Whether those who aren't as open-minded would be convinced (or even pick up the book) is quite another issue.

Lakey takes us through the growth of Scandinavian economics chronologically at first: we start all the way back with the Vikings (important for understanding the general Scandinavian mien) and travel through the politically tumultuous 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the incredible growth of socialism (real socialism, not psuedo-fascist, lip-service "socialism"). The thread running through Scandinavian history is one of self-determination - whenever oligarchy threatened to overtake democracy, workers used every nonviolent means at their disposal to bring the government back to working for the people, rather than for the rich. When the recession hit in 2008, the International Monetary Fund tried to force its theoretically modeled policies onto the affected countries; Nordic nations, Iceland especially, fought back. Depending on real data rather than models, they increased spending on health care and education, raised taxes and offered more government services; their economies bounced back within a couple of years, while nearly a decade later, the U.S., Spain, and Greece are still mired in the aftereffects of the recession.

The ideal behind the Scandinavian economic model is what drives every decision: investment is made in the individual, who is considered a resource for economic growth. Where in the U.S. it's assumed that business owners and the wealthy are job creators, in the Nordic countries it's acknowledged that workers drive the economy. People in debt, working 80 hours a week with horrible health that they can only afford to deal with at the emergency room cost the economy real dollars. Entrepreneurship is something the U.S. prides itself on, yet "rates of start-up creation in Norway are among the highest in the developed world, and Norway has more entrepreneurs per capita than the U.S." Think about it: most students in the U.S. graduate with a mountain of debt. Those new workers are too worried about that pile of money they owe to take risks, and risk is what stimulates the economy. Not to mention, it undermines the American ideal of freedom; too much debt means you're stuck in a job you hate in a city you despise because you can't realistically change jobs or move until you're financially stable. This means people with skills that would be put to better use elsewhere can't do so, perhaps don't even know they have those talents. We're too worried about education, retirement, and medical expenses to make work more meaningful for us. And people who like their work are more productive.

So the Scandinavians have free health care, free education (including university), free job training if you lose the job you're in, free elder care, free public transportation; how is all this paid for? That four-letter word Americans seem to hate so much: TAXES. But here's the thing: according to Lakey, polls clearly indicate that most Americans think their taxes should actually be higher in order to increase government services. After all, you get what you pay for, right? In the Nordic countries, so many institutions are publicly funded so their transparency is very high. Plus since they're all run under the same system, the bureaucracy, which you'd think would be ridiculous, is actually much smaller! Multiple systems mean an obscene amount of paperwork and are very inefficient; Norway pays a little more than half for health care what the U.S. pays. And it's better care! Everyone gets taken care of no matter what job they have, allowing people to work in fields they actually enjoy, which, as we've already seen, increases productivity and entrepreneurship.

Aside from all the basic economic arguments, there's also the social goods that the Scandinavian model creates: these countries have much lower child, relative, and absolute poverty; they have longer life expectancy and much better overall health; they have already cut their carbon emissions immensely and seek to get rid of them entirely within this century; their birthrates are high and their children perform very well by international educational standards. Sure, they're not perfect - right-wing, racist anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, not to mention the winter weather leaves something to be desired. But when all is said and done, their people are taken care of (immigrants included), their land is being preserved for future generations, and their economies just keep growing and growing.

Come on, America, you can do so much better...the Vikings prove it.

Jan 17, 2017

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

At the forefront of the burgeoning translated Chinese science fiction scene is this Hugo Award-winning novel about Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. Long story short: it doesn't go so well. Rooted firmly in the incredibly difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu's characters take a particularly dim view of human nature. Our main character, Ye, is forced to watch her mother denounce her father then her father murdered simply for the crime of being an academic; even carefully hiding her own intelligence isn't enough to keep from being noticed by a certain group of people, and political pressures see her giving up any hope of future freedom to work at a research base with a heavily-cloaked purpose. These scenes are interspersed with the present time and our second protagonist, a scientist working with nanotechnology named Wang, and his journey through an immersive video game called Three Body.

That's the most I'll give away about the plot, which is best left for the reader to unfold herself. While I am supremely impressed with Liu's story - the physics, the fully realized alien culture, the philosophical implications of humanity's long-noted self-destructive tendencies - the writing itself left me a little cold. As with all translated works, it's impossible to know whether this is an accurate reflection of Liu's writing or the translator's own interpretation, a frustration I often encounter when reading in translation. Though Ye's struggles are horrific, the story is told so plainly that I found it difficult to connect with her. The only character with any real life to him is Shi Qiang, a veteran police officer with a serious attitude problem, and apparently the only person in all of China (and perhaps the world) with a sense of humor. My disappointment with the writing doesn't diminish, however, the importance of this novel, both for its overarching, epic sensibility, characteristic of the most interesting science fiction, and for the role it has played in bringing Chinese science fiction into the mainstream. Ken Liu is an author in his own right, and I have his short story collection sitting on my shelf. I look forward to dipping into it.

Jan 8, 2017

The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman

There was a time when I read historical fiction almost exclusively, I believe in my early teens, before I discovered science fiction. Since then, I've tended to stay away from the genre due to its tendency to be formulaic. A formula, however, doesn't stop something from being entertaining, as this medieval English romance/mystery/war story proves. We follow a few main characters: Emma, a young girl from the fen who is abused horribly; Gwil, the middle aged mercenary who finds her, nurses her back to health, and raises her as his own; and Maud of Kenniford, a young noblewoman made a pawn in the war of succession between Empress Matilda and King Stephen. No one gets off easy. Sorry, that's an understatement: rapine, murder, torture, and betrayal abound. It's a bit much for a reader like me, to be honest. I can't abide reading about horrible things happening to good people, and as fetchingly plucky as Emma and Maud are, it's not enough for me to overlook the horrific violence against women.

While the writing itself is good, I'm not a fan of the narrative device used to move the story along. The story is broken up between the present day and the past, the latter being the story itself and the former being an old abbot telling the story to a young scribe. It's really unnecessary, inserted only to introduce a twist at the end that is painfully obvious, plus now that I think about it, the twist wouldn't even be necessary if that part of the novel didn't exist. It's extraneous, serving only to take away from the actual story. So while generally enjoyable this book was, I'll not be picking up many more historical fiction novels in the future.

Jan 2, 2017

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

It's interesting that 2016 saw two powerful novels written about the same subject with an alternate history twist to each. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead replaces the figurative railroad with actual railways. Underground Airlines is a bit more sinister: the Civil War did not end with the emancipation of the slaves, but rather with permanent amendments protecting slavery in any state that wishes to retain it. The novel takes place in the present day, with four Southern states still participating in that most despicable of practices. Built into the Constitution are protections for those states, including a branch of the U.S. Marshal Service that hunts down runaway slaves and returns them to their owners. The other states represent varying degrees of collusion; most states have passed laws preventing businesses from dealing directly with slave-holding companies, and some have made it illegal to force a black police officer to participate in the search for and detainment of runaway slaves. Despite these well-meaning efforts, racism - both overt and subtle - is still very much at work in these free states, and whites who fight against the situation are invariably taken in by the Mockingbird mentality: oppressed black, white savior. Sound familiar?

While Winters was writing this novel, much of the racial tension I just described had been simmering under the surface of American culture and politics for years. With the election, and the wave of hate crimes that immediately followed it, the fallacy of a post-racial America has been brought painfully to the surface. The world Winters built is not so surreal anymore, as it has become clear that race does indeed still play a large role in 21st Century America. The government that turns a blind eye to racial violence and the people who perpetrate that violence are just as much a part of our world as they are a part of our anti-hero's. It's chilling.

Now onto the writing. The novel feels more to me like two books than one - the first is about finding Jackdaw, the second is about finding the package. Winters has written series in the past, so I'm curious why he jammed so much into one book. It was a bit exhausting, to be honest. Our anti-hero, known through most of the book as Victor, is a black agent of the U.S. Marshal Service who tracks down runaway slaves. He's very good at his job, and something about this newest case just seems off to him. He pulls back layer after layer until finally reaching a sordid secret. I don't want to reveal anymore about the plot because this is definitely worth picking up, I just wish it were a little less busy. The story could have easily be split into two books, and I would have readily picked up the second if it had been cut off just after the finding of Victor's prey. As it stands, the book stuffs a very eventful week into just over 300 pages. I think two 250-page books would have been a more enjoyable read.

Once we get into that second half, the writing also becomes a little frenetic and disjointed. Victor is experiencing emotional upheaval, which in Winters' writing is expressed with lots of repetition of phrases and substantially more emotion-coded words than the first half. Perhaps this is another reason why I felt splitting the story into two books would have been smart. The second half is practically a different novel anyways, as Victor is a very different person and the writing reflects that. Instead of being pulled into his emotional state, I felt put off by it due to the sudden switch in writing style.

Despite these flaws, this is an important addition to contemporary American fiction on race. It throws into high relief the absurdity of claiming race does not play a role in America, or that racism does not exist. We may no longer have race-based slavery, but there are huge swathes of our population who seem to look back upon that dark time as their glory days. The growing voice of the racist, misogynist groups that seek to relabel themselves as the "alt-right" show that Winters' alternate reality is not so very different from our own. Read, be made uncomfortable, then go do something about it.