3.31.2013

The Andalucian Friend, by Alexander Söderberg

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.
 
The Andalucian Friend
Alexander's Söderberg's The Andalucian Friend is an incredible read. I don't think I've ever seen an author keep as many balls up in the air as Söderberg does here. This book is far from an ordinary thriller. In a regular thriller, there's a Party A and a Party B. One party does something to piss the other off, then the second party chases the first, etc. etc. In The Andalucian Friend there's a Party A, a Party B, a Party C, and on and on until we get half way through the alphabet. Towards the end, I wanted to take a small break just to graph everything out to keep everyone straight.

The book opens with a series of short chapters introducing a fair amount of the cast. Two of the protagonists meet each other in a hospital in Stockholm. Sophie Brinkmann is a nurse, a widow with a teenaged son. Hector Guzman is a shady businessman with a seriously broken leg. (He was run down in a car by on of the many antagonists.) They become friends. Shortly thereafter, the police make contact with Sophie, hoping to use her as an informant to gather evidence about Guzman. Yet another protagonist, Jens, an arms dealer, pisses off a bunch of coked up Russians who chase him back to Stockholm. Jens and Sophie are old friends, and the business with Hector and his enemies brings them back together.

Not only are half the criminals in Europe (it seems) after Hector, Sophie, and Jens, but the police aren't much help. Gunilla Strandberg runs a small unit of police that have carte blanche for gathering evidence and capturing criminals. Gunilla uses that carte blanche for everything its worth and in short order bugs Sophie's house, puts her under surveillance, and tries to get leverage over her by framing her son. If it wasn't clear by now that Gunilla isn't on the up and up, it gets really clear when hints about her past actions and mistakes come to light.

There are four parts in this book, and it seems like new enemies and complications crop up in every one of them. Like I said, I wanted to chart it all out to keep it straight. It seems complicated just writing out this introduction to the book, but Söderberg makes it all work. I'm not sure how he does it, but he does. Every chapter reveals new details about the characters, keeping them from just being stock characters. The plot twists and turns with each chapter, too, so you can't predict what's going to happen next.

When I looked this book up on GoodReads* to grab the picture, there's a note that this is the first book in the "Sophie Brinkmann Trilogy." I'm very curious to see what happens in the next volumes, because even this first entry shows Sophie transitioning from an ordinary nurse into something much less cut and dried. I'm not sure, at this early stage, if we're talking about a Breaking Bad sort of transformation but Sophie has already showed her mettle several times in The Andalucian Friend.

* I don't care that Amazon bought them last week. And the people who deleted their accounts are overreacting.

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Dodger
I had a lot of fun reading Terry Pratchett's Dodger. It wasn't just that I got to entertain myself looking for Dickens references and jokes, but Dodger is a terrific narrator. Dodger gives him a chance to shine, since I don't think he got nearly enough time on stage in Oliver Twist. Instead of being a prequel or sequel to that book, Pratchett gives the character a different history. In his version, Dodger is a tosher (a person who combs the sewer system for lost money and valuables), rather than a pickpocket.

The book opens with Dodger rescuing a young woman who is being chased by a pair of toughs. Dodger and his allies, Henry Mayhew and a scribbler named Charlie Dickens, soon work out that the young woman is more than she appears. Dubbed Simplicity, the woman recuperates at the Mayhew house until it turns out that the men who were chasing her were working for a prince from the Germanys--the father of Simplicity's weak-willed husband. As Dodger works to keep Simplicity safe, he starts to fall in love with her and she with him. It becomes even more important for Dodger to find a way to help Simplicity permanently escape from her in-laws.

Along the way, Dodger shows us more of his world and inspires Charlie Dickens. I kept getting little frissons when someone would use the name of one of Dickens' novels when they spoke. And, of course, Pratchett is a hilarious writer and can so amazing things to common phrases. For example:
Mister Mayhew...said, "Sol being the gentlemen of Jewish persuasion with whom Charlie tells me you share lodgings?"
"Oh, I don't think he needed any persuading, sir. I think he was born Jewish." (82*)
 And:
What I really like about the English is that they don't have theories. No Englishman would ever have said "I think, therefore I am." Although possibly he might have said, "I think, therefore I am, I think." (220*)
The whole book is full of witticisms and snortingly funny moments.

The mystery and the plot aren't that hard to work out, but that's not really what I go for when reading one of Pratchett's books. I read it because I knew I would have a good time, which I did!

* From the Kindle edition, with allegedly real page numbers.

3.30.2013

Hulk Take Break From Smash. Hulk Read.

I still think this is funny.
Stories have made me feel happy, amused, sad, melancholy, thrilled, frightened, sympathetic, and--above all-entertained. But I realized that I rarely read books that make me angry. I enjoy feeling angry even less than I enjoy being scared by horror movies. And I hate being scared.

There are two books that I can recall having made me so angry while reading them that I wanted to throw them across the room. I came close in both cases and only the fact that I might have damaged the books kept me from doing it. I finished one of them because I was reading it for an American literature class. The other, well, I'm still not sure why I finished reading it. I suspect it was because, no matter how pissed off I was, I just had the know what happened to the heroine.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
The first book that I can recall making me furious was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published in 1852, it's packed with stereotypes and one dimensional characters. But we still read it because it captures an important piece of American history. This book needs to be read, just as Roots and Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage need be read, because I don't know if any other book can show just how inhuman slavery was. I'm not going to argue that this book is realistic, because it's not. But Uncle Tom's Cabin's stereotypes are like characters in allegories or parables. They represent the extremes, to show the audience the problem in stark tones. Just reading about the history isn't enough, not for something the magnitude of the crime of more than one hundred years of slavery.

I still wanted to throw this book across the room, though.

Sophie's Choice
The other book that made me so angry that I can recall the feeling even a decade after reading it was William Styron's Sophie's Choice. I could make the argument that, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Sophie's Choice is also meant to make you feel the reality of the Holocaust. But I just can't. When I read it, the story just felt like Styron torturing Sophie. First, the appalling choice she faced, then a life of terrified misery with a schizophrenic boyfriend. I know making your characters' lives difficult is one of the more frequently given pieces of writing advice, but damn. If Sophie's travails had been one or the other, I probably would have been able to handle this book without wanting to hurl it into a wall. (I think I actually did toss this book at one point, now that I think about it.)

As I was thinking over this post, I wondered why you don't hear readers talking about books that made them angry. I've heard people talk about books that made them laugh or cry--or both, which means I have to read that book. And I wonder why. I've heard readers talk about books that made them bored or frustrated, but not angry or furious. Is it because anger is personal? Is it because the book affected us so deeply that we can't talk about it until we come to grips with it? I suppose, as the Credible Hulk would say: Need More Data.

3.27.2013

Oh the dilemma!

A few years back, I learned that Vladimir Nabokov's heirs were going to publish one of his unpublished, unfinished works. Another one, The Tragedy of Mister Mornjust came out. It's not the first time heirs have published unfinished works, or even published texts against the author's wishes. If Max Brod had obeyed Franz Kafka's last wishes, The TrialThe MetamorphosisThe Castle, and all the rest of his works would have been burned after Kafka died. In the case of Nabokov, unfinished and unpublished might not mean that he didn't want the books eventually published, but Kafka left clear instructions. I'm glad Brod ignored them, because how would we be able to talk about politics and work and life without the adjective Kafka-esque?

Next month, Knopf will be publishing The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. While Cather didn't actually destroy her letters, it appears she really, really didn't want them made public. Doug Barry over at Jezebel wrote an interesting piece about this recently and it started me to wondering about the ethical dilemma between honoring an author's request for privacy versus the desire of scholars to learn more about texts and their creators. I've never thought that becoming famous meant that someone has to give up the right to their privacy, but knowing about an author's life can be incredibly illuminating. In the case of Cather, knowing her sexuality could re-color how we read her stories and poems. One could easily make the argument that because Cather has been dead since 1947 that it probably doesn't matter. Dead people don't get embarrassed (as far as we know). And who is left alive that knew her personally? Not that this is an excuse to ignore that request for privacy. Hence, the dilemma.

So what about the argument that ignoring requests like this is in the interest of the greater good? After all, a world without Kafka would be hard to imagine. I would argue that having Kafka in our canon makes our culture richer and much, much more interesting. And learning more about Cather's personal life and thoughts can help us better understand her books.

3.24.2013

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

Chocolat
Joanne Harris' Chocolat is a perfect book to read before Zombie Jesus Day. I've read it once before, during a Religion in Literature class about a decade ago. So I prepared for this read through by buying some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (my favorite).

Chocolat is told in alternating voices by Vianne Rocher, a culinary witch, and Francis Reynaud, the curé of the small village of Landsquenet-sous-Tannes. Vianne and her daughter, Anouk, blow into town on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and set up a chocolaterie--much to the displeasure of Reynaud. Reynaud is a throwback to the old-school aesthetic style of Catholicism. He interprets everything Vianne does as an attack on the church and on himself. All Vianne is after is to bring some happiness to Landsquenet.

This isn't a hard book to decipher, but it's a lot of fun to read as Vianne rights wrongs in the village and Raynaud torments himself and tries to undermine her. Reynaud is more than a bit of a stereotype, though Harris give him some backstory to explain why he is the way he is. I was more interested in what I could pick up about Vianne's past. She is clearly some kind of witch; Harris doesn't hide the supernatural elements, though Vianne doesn't do much with her abilities. She doesn't need to, as she's really just letting people know that a little bit of hedonism every now and then is not a bad thing. Meanwhile Reynaud views his flock is scornful terms, frequently thinking of them as stupid and weak. Even with the backstory, it's very hard to view him with any sympathy.

The best part of this book is the food, obviously--that's why I needed the Peanut Butter Cups. Vianne creates all manner of chocolates and candies, and a gloriously decadent feast for one of her regulars' eighty-first birthday. I imagine that some readers will either get very hungry reading this book, or feel stuffed just from the descriptions alone. Books like this really make me wish that books about food came in scratch-and-sniff format. 

The Age of Ice, by J.M. Sidorova

I received a free copy of this ebook by Netgalley, to review on behalf of the publisher. This book will be released July 23, 2013.

The Age of Ice
It's fitting that J.M. Sidorova's The Age of Ice isn't coming out until July. It will be a fantastic book to cool off with.

The book begins in 1742, with the Empress Anna of Russia and her cruel games. The main characters parents are tormented and their twins are born a little strange. Alexander Velitzyn is impervious to cold and when his emotions are aroused, he actually gets colder. The only one who can touch him without risking frostbite is his brother. Oh, and then there's the other thing. For some reason, Alexander just doesn't die--even after being frozen solid in ice for two months while in Siberia.

Alexander's story, for a large part of his life, follows the history of Russia. He takes part in Pugachev's rebellion, a search for a Northeast Passage, fights at Austerlitz, and fights his way across Europe with the Russian Army during the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But when his personal life falls apart, Alexander is cut adrift. His curious abilities keep him from forming attachments to people. He is not only looking for someone who can love him, but also for answers about what he is. He ends up drifting to Afghanistan and India, outliving his old life by decades.

Sidorova doesn't tell the story as a straightforward biography. Instead, it's almost like having Alexander talking about the highlights of his life. Or rather, it's a bit like seeing Alexander talk about his proverbial nine lives. He constantly reinvents himself. People come in and out of his life, then their descendants crop up. Russia changes. Europe changes. The Age of Ice is an incredible journey, in all senses of the word.   

The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro

The Art Forger
I really enjoyed reading B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger, though it is a book that's crying out for illustrations. Shapiro tells the story of Claire Roth, a struggling artist with a scandal hanging over her head. Claire makes her living painting copies of famous paintings, watching as other less talented artists get shows and sales. Shapiro interweaves the story with letters purportedly from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece, describing the history of Edgar Degas' After the Bath V.

The two stories blend together when Claire is hired by an old friend to forge a copy of that painting. The friend convinces her to do it so that they can hang the real one in the gallery--since it was stolen 20 years previously--and sell the fake to a collector and thereby rescue the original from the black market. Though she is dubious (it is a dodgy plan), Claire consents and gets to work. But as she works, she begins to suspect that the painting she was given is also a fake.

I picked this book up because it kept popping up in recommendations lists for me, and I'm really glad I took a chance on it. What starts out as an already interesting story about a reluctant art forger turns into two different mysteries. First, Claire's friend is arrested and charged with dealing in stolen art. In order to save him from a long jail term and to satisfy her own suspicions, Claire sets out to prove that she was copying a forgery. Meanwhile, Shapiro slowly reveals just what happened to cast a blight on Claire's legitimate art career. There is an awful lot of book packed into The Art Forger, and it's an amazing read. I was completely hooked.

It was funny that, the very day I finished reading this book, I saw this story, "FBI Offering $5 Million in Decades Old Art Heist," on the local news website. I knew that Shapiro did a lot of research for this book. (It was tricky to spot a lot of the fictional elements, because they were so skillfully blended with actual history and art techniques.) But I didn't realize that the art theft in the book had actually happened. I love this little coincidences.

3.23.2013

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Book?

I learned, via the Jezebel grapevine, about a study that was published in PLoS One about using Google's textual analysis tools to look at the predominant emotion descriptors in twentieth century British and American literature. Here's the abstract of the study by Acerbi, Lampos, Garnett, and Bentley:
We report here trends in the usage of “mood” words, that is, words carrying emotional content, in 20th century English language books, using the data set provided by Google that includes word frequencies in roughly 4% of all books published up to the year 2008. We find evidence for distinct historical periods of positive and negative moods, underlain by a general decrease in the use of emotion-related words through time. Finally, we show that, in books, American English has become decidedly more “emotional” than British English in the last half-century, as a part of a more general increase of the stylistic divergence between the two variants of English language.
I've seen articles about using Google to analyze literature before, and I've always had my doubts about them. I immediately start to ask questions about their methodology. Since the advent of using software to analyze large amounts of text, I've questioned it. It might be because I spent my undergraduate years learning to figure out literature the hard way. I'll grant that looking at word frequencies can help, but software can't help you glean meaning from the words in context.

Reading further in "The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books," the authors do note that there has been an increase in words expressing fear and anger (though looking at their methodology, they might have skewed that way). Given what's happened in the twentieth century, I can easily believe this. I've seen how well horror and and mysteries and conspiracy thrillers have done in the bestseller lists. But then, Frankenstein and Dracula and Poe were products of the nineteenth century, and romance novels are still doing well.

Acerbi et al. also point out that they're seeing fewer descriptions of emotion in the texts they fed through Google's Big Data, which I find very interesting. It's tempting to use the data to psychoanalyze writers and readers over the last hundred years. It makes sense that literature would reflect our collective psychology. But then, speaking for myself, I'm also drawn to books that let me see things outside of my own experiences. I'm just one reader, by I daresay that at least some other readers are the same.

I don't mean to pick apart Acerbi et al.'s work, but I have a lot of questions and quibbles. The biggest one I have is that they don't seem to ask about changing tastes. Sure, literature reflects desires and interests, but the style of literature that was popular in the nineteenth century is a lot different than what's popular now--just as what was popular in the eighteenth century was different from what was popular in the nineteenth. Authors have to keep evolving and experimenting, otherwise people stop reading them. I suspect that Acerbi et al. are on to something, but I think it's just part of a much bigger picture.

3.20.2013

Trust Issues

Baron Münchhausen
Reading Jane Harris' Gillespie and I got me thinking about one of my favorite literary devices*: the unreliable narrator. It's best when you don't know they're unreliable, I think, because a good writer can really throw you for a loop when you figure it out.

Though, I might be thinking about this because I've been watching Lie to Me.

A few years ago, I read Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist. All I knew about it was that there was a murder and there was archaeology. I had no idea where Phillips was going to take me, but I marveled at how I was manipulated by the narrator.

I think what I like about the unreliable narrator device is that, if it's done well, it can hide in plain sight. As the reader, you experience the story through the narrator's perspective--under normal circumstances. But when the narrator is lying or hiding something from you, there's a layer between the reader and the story. You have to read the story through that layer, questioning whatever the narrator chooses to reveal or hide because there's a motive behind it. You often get two mysteries, two stories, for the price of one.

I also marvel at the author's ability to hide and reveal things. They have to lay down clues, so that the eventual revelation about what happened makes sense. The best stories make you want to read the book over again, so that you can see it coming and have a different experience. I've read about the characteristics of the unreliable narrator, but there's not a lot of information about how an author achieves this. I suppose it's analogous to what the narrator is doing; they're telling two stories at the same time. For the author, I think creating one of these characters involves hiding a code inside the story the reader reads. Every scene and piece of dialog has to be scrutinized to make sure the secrets aren't accidentally revealed.

Of course, they can't hide everything. When I read an unreliable narrator, there's always a sneaking suspicion that something is wrong. This is where the author really shows their skill, by giving you just enough hints to prepare the ground. I have read a few stories where the narrator flat out tells you that they're not to be trusted. Those are fun reads, because you have to question whether that's a lie, too. (I love the Liar's Paradox, by the way, even if it is maddening.) Günter Grass's The Tin Drum famously begins with the line, "Granted, I am in a mental institution.**) When the narrator isn't just lying, but actually perceives events differently, the reader ends up with a challenge to suss out subjective reality from objective reality***.

Unreliable narrators stick with me. I wonder if there are more secrets for me to discover if I go back and reread their stories. Because you can't trust them, I'll always wonder.

* It shows you how nerdy I am that I have a favorite literary device.
** Translated by my college German teacher and filtered by my memory. 
*** Assuming there is such a thing. My philosophy professors have suggested otherwise. But that's a different post altogether.

3.17.2013

Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy

I received a free ebook copy of this book from NetGallery, on behalf of the publisher. This book will be published on May 7, 2013. 

Red Moon
Benjamin Percy's Red Moon can be read as a thriller, in which lycanthropy exists as a prion infection. It can be read as an alternate history, because the disease lead to the creation of a country just for the infected between Finland and Russia. But I think the best way to read it is as a work of social commentary. Lycanthropy has turned the infected into a cross between second class citizens and suspected terrorists. Their existence makes everyone edgy and fearful, infected or otherwise. Red Moon give you a lot to think about. 

Red Moon opens with a terrorist attack. Three lycans attack the passengers and crew of three different planes. Only one person, Patrick, survives. In my reading, Patrick is our everyman character. He gets to see the divide between infected and healthy from a lot of different angles, changing his mind as he goes. Another narrator, the infected daughter of former lycan advocates, shows us what life is like if you're infected but don't want to take the side-effect heavy mandated drugs. Yet another narrator, a politician named Chase, shows us the insider perspective on the government response to the attacks and lycanthropy in general.

The narrators and minor characters cross each others' paths from time to time, but they don't link up the way that I've come to expect. Rather, Percy bounces between his characters to give us a fairly complete picture of an American society with serious divisions. It wouldn't be hard to read it as a satire. But while it gives you a lot to think about as you go, Red Moon is a messy read. It's hard to get a grip on where it's going. Many of the villains are undeveloped, though the protagonists are interesting and well-rounded. The plot zigs and zags around a lot, and jumps back in forth in time.

What I liked most about this book is that it's not the usual thing. Percy brought back a lot of the scariness into werewolf stories. Thankfully, no one strips off their shirt for no reason. But I feel as though this book tries to tackle to many things, and doesn't quite achieve all its objectives. It's not a bad book, by any means, but it could have used some more organization.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence
It's interesting the difference that fifteen years can make. A few weeks ago, I read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, published in 1905. It was a scathing satire of New York society and the power of reputation. But The Age of Innocence does not carry the same sting, even though it's thick with criticism of the rule-bound, judgmental world of high society. Set in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence is about the ties that bind--specifically bad marriages. Divorce was possible at the time, but to divorce was to chance social suicide.

The book centers on Newland Archer, a lawyer who doesn't need to work that hard, scion of two highly regarded New York families, who has just proposed to the perfect girl. But then he meets Countess Ellen Olenska, his fiance's cousin. Olenska has recently fled from her wastrel Polish count of a husband to the shock of her family and New York society. As he gets to know her better, Archer starts to question things he'd never questioned before. He grows more and more dissatisfied with the status quo, and outright disgusted with the hypocrisy around him.

Unlike Lily Bart of The House of Mirth, the characters in The Age of Innocence are not going to buck the social order. In fact, a lot of this book takes place inside of Archer's head as he ponders his many questions. He wonders whether divorce is really that bad or whether his fiance can be more than just the model of high society girlhood that she portrays. He wonders if Olenska is the woman he should have married. He wonders and wonders, so not much actually happens. Olenska doesn't become a tragic figure (other than being trapped by her marriage). Mostly, he wonders about the idea of old New York, a mythical place that all the characters have made exist by mutual agreement.

I enjoyed The House of Mirth a lot better, but I can see why this book won a Pulitzer back when it came out in 1920. It said things that needed to be said, but I wish there had been a bit more drama in this book.

The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgway

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published April 23, 2013. 

The River of No Return
Bee Ridgway's The River of No Return is a highly entertaining read. I had my doubts at the beginning, because the premise seems a little wobbly. But Ridgway pulls it off. I was completely hooked before too many chapters passed. I really hope that this book really is the start of a series, because I really, really want to know what happens next.

In the prologue, we meet Julia Percy, granddaughter of a dying earl. It doesn't take long to realize that there is something odd about this family when it appears that the earl can play around with time. Before we can learn too much, Ridgway introduces us to the main protagonist in the first chapter. Nick is a British soldier, fighting in the Duke of Wellington's army in Spain in 1812. Just as it appears that he's going to be skewered by a French soldier, Nick somehow manages to jump 200 years into the future. The time travel in this book is the wobbly part. The characters explain (mostly) how it works, but it sounds pretty flimsy. You just have to roll with it. Fortunately, Nick and Julia are great characters. I would have put up with a lot more just to see what would happen with them.

When Nick jumps, he falls into the hands of the Guild, an organization that tries to maintain order in the time stream. They set Nick up and let him live a new life for ten years before they recall him to duty. He has to go back to 1815 to search for an unexplained Talisman. Accompanied by a Russian Guild member, Nick heads home and pretty much immediately falls for Julia when they reconnect. The Russian, Arkady, sets off looking for the McGuffin--sorry, the Talisman--while Nick settles back into his life and tries to figure out if the Guild really are the good guys they claim to be. The Guild is so secretive, and their members behave so suspiciously, that you have to wonder about them. At first, Nick believes them, because the Guild has the chance to get their story in first. They make out their opposition, the Ofan, as deranged and dangerous. Before long, Nick has a chance to meet with a card-carrying member and starts to seriously wonder about where his loyalties should lie.

The River of No Return was a lot of fun to read. I enjoy the world that Ridgway has set up. 

3.14.2013

Deja vu all over again

There are books that I regularly reread. I reread Christopher Moore's Lamb around Easter, and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens around Christmas. I reread a classic scary story around Halloween every year. There are some books I've read so many times that I have entire scenes memorized, sometimes with dialog.

But at last count, I own more than 650 books. With all the new books coming out and all the books that I haven't gotten to yet, it seems like a waste to go back and reread books. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn't allow for the relationship that you can have with your favorite books.

This isn't meant to be a soppy post about loving books. Let's just take that as read. (No pun intended*.)

The reason that I'm writing about rereading is probably because I feel a bit snowed under with my reading pile. I've got books from the library, ebooks from Netgalley, books I bought. I have a lot to read. And yet, I have hankerings to reread books that I really enjoyed the first time around. They really weren't kidding about the so many books, so little time thing.

When I get the hankering to reread books for the second time, I feel a little bit of trepidation. What if the book isn't as good as I remembered? I actually liked The Da Vinci Code the first time around, but the second time I hated, hated the dialog and the exposition. I don't know what I was thinking the first time around.

Once you get past the second read, that's another story**. Good books that I know well become palate cleansers. If I read an absolutely outstanding book, one that's hard to follow up with something just as good, I can go back to an old favorite. If I read a crap book, I can read a book I love to restore my faith in books.

I freely admit that I haven't reread everything in my collection. But, someday, I'll get back to them.

* Really.
** Sorry.

3.12.2013

I don't like poetry. Well, I like some. But mostly I don't.

I taught my niece to say this.
I pissed off an English professor once* when I was an undergraduate. I bumped into this professor outside of class, and we got to talking. He told me that he wrote poetry and asked if I wrote poetry, too. Since I was an idiot, I answered that I gave up writing poetry once I got through puberty.

As you can guess, this did not go over well.

I've been using tumblr lately, because I clearly don't spend enough time on the Internet. It's actually gotten to the point that I'm skittish of checking out the #literature section because it is just packed with bad poetry. I really want to tell them that what they're scribbling is not literature, not by a long shot. But I don't want to get flamed to death.

There are some poets I like. John Donne. Thomas Wyatt. Robert Browning. Carl Sandburg. But I've never sat down to read an entire book of poetry. When I'm asked about it now, I make jokes about preferring lines that go all the way to the other side of the page, complete sentences, etc. But that's not really why I don't dig poetry. I don't much like short stories, either, because they end just when I'm getting into them. I think my dislike of poetry has something to do with that. Well, that and it's just so emotional. My very favorite writers are naturalists and realists. I like all that emotional stuff in the subtext.

Cripes, I sound like that kid in The Princess Bride who wants his granddad to skip the kissing bits.

Maybe it's just that I've experienced so much pubescent poetry that it's scarred me for life.

* Okay, this is probably one incident of many.

3.10.2013

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Thanks, Deb, for reminding me about this book!

Anansi Boys
So, last week, I wrote about sequels that I would love to see. I forgot about the sort of sequel that Gaiman wrote about five years after American Gods called Anansi Boys. It's set in the same world, but has a completely different story. In this world, gods are still alive--though not necessarily all well--and mostly working little scams for a living. But they keep magic alive in the world, if nothing else. The book opens with Fat Charlie Nancy receiving word that his father, who he didn't know was the god Anansi, has died in possibly the most embarrassing way possible. Shortly thereafter, he learns that he has a brother. And when that brother stops by for a visit, things go to hell in just the way you'd expect when a trickster comes to visit.

Charlie, who isn't actually fat, is an accountant for a money management agency. (His father gave him the nickname and when Anansi names someone, the name sticks.) He's engaged to a very nice girl whose mother hates him, and he spends an awful lot of time trying to avoid causing a fuss or embarrassing situations. When his brother arrives and starts to mess up his life, Charlie does to great (and supernatural) lengths to try and get rid of them. His efforts trigger a divine grudge match and changes the book from an amusing comedy of errors into a thrilling, multidimensional battle.

In spite of the godly doings in the latter half of the book, Anansi Boys feels like it's happening on a slightly smaller scale than American Gods. Fewer pantheons are represented, for one. But it's not a lesser book by any means, though. It's still a journey to discover who one really is, coming to terms with history and heritage, and finding real love.

Graveminder, by Melissa Marr

Graveminder
Melissa Marr's Graveminder is an entertaining piece of original contemporary fantasy, with a dash of horror thrown in. It's set in a small town, Claysville, that seems to exist outside of time. There's definitely something up, but it's not clear what until about halfway through the book. Our main characters, Rebekkah Barrow and Byron Montgomery, find themselves inheriting roles that they never expected and learning the secrets behind what makes the town special.

The book begins with a strange incident in which the town's graveminder dies at the hands (and teeth) of a dead girl. Because of the town's bizarre burial laws, the graveminder has to be buried within three days. The town's sheriff summons the graveminder's heir, Rebekkah, from California to take up where her grandmother left off. Byron, also a returning emigrant from Claysville, finds himself taking up the role of undertaker, the graveminder's partner. There's a lot of mythology to pick up in this book, but it makes for a very thrilling story once you figure out all the rules.

It turns out that Claysville is special because sometime in the 1700s, someone from the nascent town made a deal with Death. As long as the terms of the agreement are upheld, Claysville remains an idyllic little hamlet. If the graveminder and the undertaker don't fulfill their roles, the deal breaks down and the hungry dead start to roam.

It takes some time for Rebekkah to accept her role completely and there are a few conversations that get a bit tedious as she continues to wrestle with her destiny. It bothers her that her free will is taken away (fair enough) and she spent most of her adult life before the book opens running away from Claysville. I can understand this, but it bothers me how many times she ends up saying the same thing, for chapters on end. Fortunately, there's enough going on around her that's interesting to keep me from getting completely fed up with Rebekkah. 

I'm curious to see if Marr is going to write another book in this world. Much of the book's plot is nicely wrapped up by the end, but there's still some unfinished business to attend to.

Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I
I really want to tell people about Jane Harris's amazing novel Gillespie and I, but I'm afraid to reveal too much because its one of those books that becomes more magical the less you know about what actually happens. It is a mystery and the narrator is extremely unreliable. I knew that much before I started. But the thing about the unreliable narrator is that if you don't know what they're up to when you start reading, the revelation at the end about how much you've been tricked is mind-blowing.

Gillespie and I is narrated by Harriet Baxter, an English spinster. The book opens with Harriet, writing her memoirs fifty years after everything happened. She lives alone in a flat, with two finches and an assistant who helps her with research. This frame also includes a secondary story that helps to show what kind of person Harriet is. But anyway, back to 1888. Harriet traveled to Glasgow for an artists' Exhibition. Shortly after her arrival, she meets the wife and mother of the artist Ned Gillespie and becomes a friend of the family. Strange things start to happen and Harris dots the narrative with clues that something is not right here. It's hard to put your finger on it, even if you do know something about Victorian social norms*. And then, about a year after Harriet met the family, tragedy strikes.

I can say no more about the plot without ruining the story.

Not only did the plot and characterization of this book blow me away, but so did the writing style. Normally, I don't like frames because they are distracting or clunky. They take me out of the narrative. But here, the frames give you clues as to what really happened and help you to read between the lines of Harriet's version of events. The entire book is subtly written; the revelations at the end don't hit you over the head. Instead, it's like you're looking at the narrative through a fog that gradually lifts, showing you the truth. It's the sort of reveal that makes you want to start again at the beginning.

As soon as I finished Gillespie and I, I hunted up Harris's other book on the Kindle store to see if it was a) as good as this book and b) if it was available. Gillespie and I was utterly amazing. I just stumbled upon it while I was weeding through GoodReads' recommendations. I picked it up because of the setting and because the online sample over at Amazon hooked me. I had no idea how dark this book would get. It's an incredible piece of psychological drama**.

Update: I wrote the author's name down in correctly. Her name is Jane, not Joan, Harris. Apologies.

* Everything I know comes from novels, so I have no idea how accurate my suspicions were.
** It is unbelievably hard to write rave reviews without sounding like a cheerleader. My apologies for all the superlatives.

3.08.2013

Doomed! Doomed!

Inevitable last meeting of a book club.
I love talking books people people. And because I work in a library, it tends to happen rather frequently. One thing that often crops up in these natterings--apart from the fact that Joyce is unreadable, of course--is that book clubs never seem to work out.

No matter how friendly you are with the people in the club, unless you have adventurous readers, the big problem seems to be with coming up with a book that people will like and find interesting. If you don't know the other members well, the problem is tripled. Hell, I judge myself sometimes based on what I read. I can only wonder what others think of me if I were to suggest something like Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death or Barry Udall's The Lonely Polygamist or John McWhorter's What Language Is.

Reading is just such an individual experience. We all read at different paces. We're all in the mood for different kinds of books at different times. I once tried to join a group, but I read so quickly that I forgot what the books were about by the time the next meeting was scheduled. Another group I killed because I talked everyone into reading Anna Karenina*.

I think the best kind of book club would be one where the participants gathered just to talk about books, without a book of the month thing. It should be about sharing great reads and talking about characters and styles and authors, preferably over a pot or two of tea. With cake. 

* Which worked out about as well as you'd expect.

3.06.2013

The revenge of the return of the son of the sequel

Jeff O'Neal wrote a great piece on BookRiot the other day about sequels that he would pay to see written if they were a Kickstarter project. It's a pretty short list, so I immediately started to think about what I would add to it.

A lot of the books I read are series books, so I already have sequels for them. As I thought about it, I could only come up with a few that I would contribute to a Kickstarter for:
  1.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. There already is a sequel of sorts, in the form of a short story in the collection, Fragile Things. I love the premise of this book and would love to see what might have happened to other gods and supernatural creatures that immigrants brought with them to America. And I would really like to see more about Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis at the Cairo funeral home. (Come to think of it, I would also like to see a sequel for Neverwhere because the world of London Below is so wonderfully realized that I want to learn more about it.
  2. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Mostly because I want to see what happened after its ambiguous ending--which was the best way to end the novel, natch. A sequel would probably mess up the original book's reputation. 
  3. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I thought there were going to be more books in this alternate world, but as the years roll on it looks less and less likely. But this one is another case of a fantastic world that you only really get to peek into as the plot steamrollers past.
Thinking about hypothetical sequels also made me think about actual sequel. All of the readers I know have come across a lackluster (or worse) sequel or entry in a series. There is one series, a trilogy, that I actually pretend is a sequel book. I pretend that the other two books in the series don't exist because the first book is the series was so wonderfully perfect that I'm afraid reading the other two will ruin my feeling about it. In case you're curious, that book is Nancy Turner's These is My Words.

That's the danger of sequels, of course. We want to see more of our favorite characters and worlds, but there's always a chance that the sequel won't live up to the debut.

3.04.2013

A genre by any other name would actually make a lot more sense

Even though literary fiction is not really a genre, we tend to talk about it as though it is. I've been asked more than once what makes a book literary or not, and I've never been able to come up with a really good answer. Like the Western canon, literary books are so designated mostly because critics agree that it is. When I read a book that I think is literary, it's mostly because the author gives as much attention to the language as he or she does to the characters, plot, setting. It shows in the words that author uses and, often, in the structure he or she uses.

That, and I can usually tell because very little tends to happen in literary books, plot-wise.

Literary fiction, then, tends to become a catch all category for books that clearly don't belong in other genres. Unfortunately, I think because of the way that literary fiction is treated like a genre, it creates a divide that is hard for literary books in genre fiction to cross. I've seen authors go from the literary side to the genre side, such as Colin Whitehead did with Zone One and Margaret Atwood with so many of her books. But it's hard to name an author go the other way. I suspect it's because genre authors have more fun. I don't think there's any good replacement terminology, either. You could call these books human drama, but that's just as vague. And, really, any book is human drama (unless it's a picaresque or something).

But the vagueness bothers me. Even if I wasn't a librarian, I suspect that I would still want to classify my books by what they are and what they aren't. I read according to my moods, because I know that I will enjoy them much more. Because I don't have any better category, I have a couple of shelves that are just there. They're neither fish nor fowl, so they're just alphabetized by author. I love the books that there, but I'm afraid I tend to neglect them since I'm more often in the mood for a mystery or a work of science fiction. On the other hand, these shelves are great when all I know is that I want to read something good.

3.03.2013

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars
Peter Heller's The Dog Stars reminds me a lot of Earth Abides, by George Stewart--one of my favorite books. It has a lot of the same poetic melancholy and the same strange notes of hope as the main character, Hig, survives after two devastating plagues wipe out most of the human population in the United States (and, presumably, the rest of the world).

The Dog Stars is written in flowing style. Heller doesn't use dialog markers and the chapters are written, mostly, in short paragraphs. This style, which would normally drive me nuts, helps give you a sense of what life and thought might be like if all of the usual markers of time and social rules were gone. Hig lives at an airport with his dog and an odd survivalist man named Bangley. He's without human company most of the time and has gotten into the habit of reminiscing and talking to himself. He does have a job, of sorts. He flies short sorties to make sure that their hideaway is not found by the roving bands of starving and/or infected people. Hig lives in a very violent world, more violent than I think things might have been during even the darkest years of the Dark Ages. At least then (I think) you didn't open fire on everyone who approached without trying to talk to them.

After a heartbreaking episode while hunting, Hig decides to pursue a muffled radio exchange he heard three years previously with another airport. He meets other survivors that he gets along with (in spite of their efforts to kill him when he buzzed their valley). Even after all the devastation of the plagues, revealed as Hig and his new friends fly back to Hig's home, there's a clear sense that humanity can rebuild, and maybe learn something this time around. Mixed into the descriptions of burnt towns and wrecked vehicles, there are hints that nature is starting to recover. Hig and his companions see deer and a bear, even a few buffalo. After pointing out the effects of climate change and extinction and pollution in the first half of the book, the second half shows nature starting to adapt.

Once we get into the second half of the book, Heller gently changes the tone from melancholic mourning and hopelessness to a kind of purposeful resurrection for Hig. He finds something to live for. I wonder if Heller has read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, because reading this book is a lot like seeing Frankl's thesis set to fiction. I don't mean this in a disappointed way, because I loved seeing this play out. This book is extremely well written.

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Ratlines
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville, is a tricky book to like. Neville is hampered by actual history in his story of an Irish Intelligence agent trying to stop a group of soldiers--with help from a Mossad agent--from killing Nazi Otto Skorzeny. It's not exactly a book you can wholeheartedly embrace.

I knew roughly what the book was about when I picked it up. I read and enjoyed Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File, and that was the kind of book I was expecting, to be honest. I'm sure I'm meant to read this book entirely from the narrator's perspective, and understand the pull between job duties and personal ethics. But our hero, Albert Ryan, tends to feel the pull of duty much more strongly than I thought he should. I was just waiting for the book to turn into alternate history and for Ryan to join up with the rogue soldiers and kill Skorzeny.

The book opens with Ryan being called in to the Minister for Justice's office to be given a dodgy assignment tracking down the man or men who are killing Nazis and former Nazi collaborators. It's documented that Skorzeny and other Nazis and war criminals were given refuge in Europe, South America, and the Middle East, with or without the assistance of the local governments. Skorzeny, as Neville paints it, definitely has the help of the government. The Minister, Haughey, wants Ryan to quietly find the culprits and, it is implied, turn them over to Skorzeny. As Ryan begins to investigate, he finds that this group of soldiers is actually after money and have the help of a Mossad agent. This Mossad man is a tough character for me to wrap my head around. I can understand why an author wouldn't want to turn him into a stock good guy. But to have Weiss sell out his country and justice by wanting money more than either? I was pretty disgusted by that, actually.

The book is pretty skimpy, too. The chapters are very short, so as to keep up the pace. For me, though, this actually made it easier to me to put the book down a lot. In the drive to keep the book racing along, Neville sacrifices characterization. Perhaps if I'd gotten to spend more time with the other characters, I would have understood them better. I probably would have enjoyed the book more if more attention had been given to the ethical dilemmas the story presents. This could have been a very interesting book. Unfortunately.

3.02.2013

Why do I have to read this? Asked every student ever.

It's been a project of mine, over the last year and bit, to read "the classics" that I missed when I was an undergraduate English major. Every few weeks, I try something new-old. Since I graduated from graduate school, I've read things like Oliver Twist and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This week I read The House of Mirth.

So, of course, I start to wonder--as many have before me--why some books become part of the Western canon* and others don't. It clearly doesn't consist of the best reads, because some of the texts in the canon are awful**. And it's not just texts that are exemplary pieces of literature because they are innovative for their time, or because they say something important about our culture or about people--because some books I think are brilliant in this respect are overlooked***. I suppose the best reason to question the canon is because no one can agree on what is and is not canon; it all depends on who you ask about it.

I think the reason we (as a culture) have even a nebulous notion of a canon is because I think there are books that people should read (or at least know about, for trivia contests if nothing else). Some books have made such an impact that they influence what comes after. To know those books helps you understand what came after. As a librarian, I often explain citation and research techniques in terms of a chain, from experiment to secondary literature to the students' papers. I tell them that they're taking part in a conversation. I heard a professor from my university's English department explain with an even better metaphor. It's like walking into a party late. Everyone around you is talking and making references to what was said before. With effort, you can catch up and make your own contributions.

Of course, this point doesn't help at all with deciding exactly what we need to read, just that there are some books and texts out there that we all should read.

* I'm amused by the fact that there is no one list of works that are in the canon. The Wikipedia link here actually lists more than a dozen links to lists from various institutions.

** Even though he's been dead for about four hundred years, I still can't forgive Edmund Spenser for The Faerie Queene. Ugh.

*** Anne Brontë, among others.

3.01.2013

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth is going to stay with me for a while. You just don't see pure tragedy like the story of Lily Bart anymore. Some time in the last few decades, tragedy has been diluted to mean depressingly sad, it seems. But Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, comes to her sad end* because of flaws in her character as much as by her circumstances.

As book starts to get going, it would be easy to mistake the book for another Austen-esque quests for marriage. When we meet her, Lily Bart is 29 and considered almost on the shelf for a woman who has never been married before. She has no fortune of her own, and lives on the goodwill of her aunt and friends. She is beautiful and very well-liked in her circle. But after a friend (who fancies her) tricks her into taking money from him in the guise of dividends from investing her money, Lily keep finding herself in socially unacceptable situations with her friends husbands. One of those so-called friends uses the rumors that start to swirl around Lily as a chance to start wrecking revenge for a past slight. Eventually, Lily finds herself shunned and cut out of her aunt's will. Things quickly go from bad, to worse, to impossible.

I kept expecting Lily, who the narrator and other characters praise for her ability to turn situations to her advantage, to find a way out of her difficulties, to return to society in triumph. But every time she had a chance to do so, it involved playing dirty and Lily just couldn't bring herself to do it. While she sinks into poverty, there are some things--like blackmail and loveless marriage--that she won't stoop to. And, of course, the one man who appears to genuinely loves her won't sacrifice his place in society to do so. Thus, tragedy.

As I made my way through The House of Mirth, I was amazed at how innuendo and rumor could effectively destroy a person. Reputation is important even now, but not to the extent that it was in Lily's day. It was amazing that Lily could let herself get caught up in situations where she was effectively distracting one woman's husband while that woman conducted an affair or visiting a man alone in his house around midnight. After all, she'd spent over a decade playing by her society's rules. She was strangely oblivious to how bad things would look from outside her own perspective. I wanted to take her aside and try to wake her up to what was happening around her.

I wonder if the original audience of this book knew to expect a tragedy or if they, like me, kept waiting for a white knight or a self realization that would turn everything around. Would that audience have known that there was no going back once a girl had been associated with ruin?  

* The House of Mirth was published in 1905, so no calling spoilers.