3.31.2014

Annie's infinite playlist

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read at least two books each month from my to-read list. Three months in and I've been reading more than two books per month.

It hasn't helped.

Yeah, the to-read list looks like this
most of the time.
I'm always adding books to my GoodRead's list from book blogger recommendations, Library Journal, Publishers' Weekly, inside other books, etc. etc. It's probably an occupational hazard. My list has stayed at around 170 titles for years now. No matter how many titles I read from it, there are always more going on the list and the list doesn't get any damned smaller.

Last night, in a fit of exasperation and honestly, I culled my to-read list. I managed to pull about 30 titles off of it. I probably could have culled even more titles if I'd stopped to read more of the plot summaries. (I've done that in the past. When I reread the summaries, I want to read the book again.)

The victims of my latest cull were mostly titles that I aspire to have read*. (I apologize for the weird subjunctive there, but it's accurate.) I pulled classic titles by Henry James and others that I finally admitted to myself that I will probably never read. I want to have read them, but if I'm honest, I'm much more likely to continue reading a mishmash of contemporary literary and genre fiction. And you know what? I'm okay with that. I'm still reading a classic novel a month, per my resolutions. I may read Henry James and Alfred Döblin and Fyodor Dostoevsky someday. But it bothers me that some books just languish on the list for years.

__________

* Fun fact: Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" came up on my Spotify playlist while I was writing this. No, really.

3.30.2014

McTeague, by Frank Norris

I came to Frank Norris' 1899 novel, McTeague, in a very roundabout fashion. I was reading one of the late Kage Baker's Company novels, in which cyborgs rescue and preserve history and nature's treasures for the future. The cyborgs gather to watch the lost eight hour version of Eric von Stroheim's Greed. After a little investigation, I found that Greed was based on McTeague. Since the film is lost—and because I have no patience for eight hour films no matter how "classic"—I grabbed a copy of the novel from Project Gutenberg.

McTeague
McTeague is the story of a group of people who have their lives ruined by their own unbridled greed. In fact, all the species of avarice are represented here: covetousness, envy, hoarding, cupidity. McTeague himself is the center of the novel, the connection point between the various other characters. When we meet him, McTeague is an unlicensed dentist working in a shabby neighborhood in San Francisco. He is a simple, slow-witted man, but he's content with his lot until me meets his best (only) friend's cousin. Marcus Schouler is vaguely engaged to Trina Sieppe. Marcus brings Trina in after an unfortunate accident caused her to lose some teeth. McTeague falls in love with her over the weeks it takes for him to fake his way through making a bridge for her. When McTeague confesses his love, Marcus renounces his unofficial claim. The dentist, against all odds, successfully woos Trina. She is attracted to his strength and likes to be dominated by him, though she is not really sure if she actually loves him or not.

On the day that Trina and McTeague announce their engagement, Maria—who cleans the rooms of the people lodging in McTeague's building—surprised the couple by telling them that the lottery ticket Trina bought on a whim weeks ago won her $5,000. As Trina and McTeague share their first happy years together, Norris puts some storm clouds on the horizon. Marcus irrationally believes that the $5,000 should have gone to him, because he might have married Trina. There are several ugly incidents before Marcus heads south to work on a ranch. Before he goes, Marcus lets someone in the city government know that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a license. McTeague is forced to give up his practice. He thinks he and Trina will be all right, because of her nest egg. But Trina has become a miser. She refuses to touch her winnings or the money she has saved during her marriage. The couple retrench and retrench again, falling several rungs down the social ladder as they do. McTeague discovers a taste for whiskey and turns violent.

Norris contrasts the rise and fall of the McTeagues with two other couples in their building. Elderly Miss Baker and Old Mr. Grannis are clearly in love with each other but won't admit it, to the hilarity of the other lodgers. They are content to sit in their respective sitting rooms with their chairs pushed to the wall they almost share with each other. They do not strive. They are content with their lot. The other point of comparison are the Zerkows. Maria enchants the rag-bottle-sac man Zerkow with an apocryphal tale of a gold dinner set that her family may have owned. Zerkow asks her to tell the story over and over again; he is the only one who believes it. He asks Maria to marry him because—the other characters theorize—he wants her around to tell him the story of the gold whenever he wants. In actuality, it's because he wants Maria to tell him where the gold is. When Maria finally admits that the story isn't true, her part in the novel comes to a tragic end.

After Maria's murder, Trina and McTeague fall even further. One night, McTeague steals all the money Trina saved and abandons her. Trina finds work as a charwoman and becomes even more obsessed with saving money. She and McTeague become ever more desperate until the former dentist finally snaps. He steals everything Trina had and beats her to death. McTeague goes south and finds work at a mine. Because he insists on carrying his canary with him everywhere, it's not hard for the law to find him. The climax of the book happens on the edge of Death Valley, where Marcus and McTeague have their last confrontation.

Each of the characters in McTeague—except for Miss Baker and Mr. Grannis—is warped in a different way by their lust for riches. They want more and more of something. When they think they've achieved their goals, they're not satisfied. Their greed pushes them on into ruin. This is not a pleasant book to read. In addition to all the pathological acquisitiveness of the characters, there's casual racism, anti-Semitism, domestic abuse, murder, and suicide. Still, McTeague is a worthwhile read for the human tragedy Norris creates among his varied characters. This book made me laugh at the antics of Trina's Swiss family and gasp at the raw human greed and violence. I can see why von Stroheim didn't want to cut anything out.

3.29.2014

The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal

I received a free review copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Anatomy Lesson
One day in January of 1632, a handful of people became linked through the body of one man. This man, a thief, was beloved by one narrator in Nina Siegal's The Anatomy Lesson. He was a subject of medical study by two other narrators and an object to be acquired by a fourth. To yet another narrator, he was the subject of a painting that would become world famous. That man, Adriaen Adriaenszoon, lived a short, miserable life, with no idea that we would still know his name four hundred years later. One last narrator, a modern painting conservator, lends us his scholarly experience to understand what Rembrandt was doing with his painting.

Each of the narrators, who get the unusual opportunity of addressing us all from the first person, are distinguished by an anatomical heading. The body speaks for himself. Adriaen tells us of his unhappy childhood and how he came to be a thief. The heart is Flora, the only one who showed kindness to Adriaen during his life. They loved each other and Flora became pregnant with the thief's child. She is six months gone when she gets news that Adriaen is to be executed for committing one theft too many. The mind is René Descartes. Descartes happened to be in Amsterdam at the time. Siegal invites him to the anatomy lesson held by Dr. Tulp, the hands. The eyes belong to Rembrandt van Rijn. Van Rijn is commissioned to paint the anatomy lesson for the surgeons' guild. The mouth is Jan Fetchet, who deals in curiosities and acquires bodies for the surgeons to dissect.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt, 1632
Flora, Fetchet, and Rembrandt tell most of the tale. Flora travels to Amsterdam to try and claim Adriaen's body for a proper burial, knowing that it is already too late to try and save his life. Compared to her very practical concerns and Fetchet's fixation on money and acquisition, everyone else in this book is distinctly cerebral. They meditate and discuss the nature of the soul. Dr. Tulp and Descartes wonder where the soul resides in the body. Rembrandt believes that capturing some essence of a person's soul is only possible when a person is alive. He can catch a glimpse of it while painting portraits.

As I read The Anatomy Lesson, I frequently looked at Rembrandt's painting. I wondered about the foreshortened limbs, but Rembrandt and the conservator narrator pointed out the structure of the painting that puts Adriaen at the focal point. The conservator, Pia, points out the anatomical errors the artist made and discovers that the thief's right hand was a creation of the artist. Rembrandt originally painted Adriaen's stump; he lost his hand to one of the many judges he went before during his life. In The Anatomy Lesson (the book), Rembrandt was trying to give Adriaen back his dignity.

Nina Siegal is a conscientious and erudite writer. Her scholarship is on full display in The Anatomy Lesson, but it doesn't overpower the narrative. Her characters live and breath (except for Adriaen, obviously). I very much enjoyed her portrayal of Dr. Tulp. Tulp was caught at an awkward time in the history of medicine. New discoveries were coming fast and thick, but Tulp trusted the ancients. He would bend over backwards to incorporate (please excuse the pun) Galen, and even Plato and Aristotle, into his anatomy lesson. His Calvinism showed in his attempts to find signs of "internal corruption" that would explain why Adriaen was a thief and, essentially, a failure at life. Tulp thoroughly rejected William Harvey's theory on the circulation of blood. He believed in a bizarre blend of Galen and Aristotle about how the body worked. He believed, among other things, that the lungs would blow air into the heart. Any high school student of today would be able to point out the error of Tulp's ways.

The Anatomy Lesson covers one short day in January 1632, but it doesn't feel rushed. By parceling the story out to so many narrators, the book has room to breathe. We get to ruminate, as several narrators do, about the nature of the soul and the body. We get to experience the business of a booming Amsterdam. We get to see the tension of lingering medieval ideas and the light of the Renaissance and coming Enlightenment. This really is a remarkable book.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario; Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, by Rachel Cantor

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher

Kwinks, a GoodReads member, has the best description for this book--better than any I could come up with on my own. So, I'm going to quote them here:
Did you ever have a friend who was SO EXCITED to tell you about this WILD dream she had the night before and you listen, patiently, as she begins to describe it? You quickly realize that it just goes on and on and has no point. Some of it is interesting, most of it makes no sense, and quite a bit is just plain repetition (Felix has a red afro!).

Yeah, that is this book.
Yes, that is Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario; Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. I supposed you could describe it to listening to someone telling you what their latest drug trip, but I shudder to think what drugs that person would have to be on to produce something as weird as the tale Cantor tells.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario
Leonard works as Listener for Neetsa Pizza, a corporation with a cult-like devotion to Pythagoras. During his shifts, he takes phone calls in an entirely white room. When he's not on duty, he helps take care of his nephew, Felix, while Leonard's sister works at Jack-O-Bites. In their world, a distant Leader theoretically maintains order while fast food franchises/corporations/religions run the day-to-day lives of the people in the unnamed walled city. There are more than a few hints that the situation is not as stable as the corporations would like. Neo-Maoists and other freedom fighters bomb or attack fast food joints. Baconists squabble with Cathars over the Voynich Manuscript. As if all this wasn't weird enough, Leonard starts getting calls from Marco Polo instead of us usual complaints calls. So, yeah.

Somehow, Marco is able to contact Leonard using something he learned from Tibetans on his way back from Cathay. He and Leonard grow to be friends after a few weeks. Then Isaac starts to contact Leonard. Isaac and Leonard's grandfather have been guarding Kabbalist mystical secrets throughout history. Marco is inadvertently about to blab to his ghostwriter. Isaac exhorts Leonard to stop him, which Leonard does. Isaac continues to give Leonard missions to stop other geniuses through history from revealing these secrets. Along the way, Leonard's nephew picks up Kabbala left and right, they meet Leonard's future wife, and end up in the middle of a revolution.

That's the plot, in a nutshell, of this brief book. A Highly Unlikely Scenario is not for the faint of heart or for readers who don't like a heavy dose of the surreal in their fiction. Anything can—and probably will—happen in this dementedly wacky tale.

3.28.2014

Unwrapped Sky, by Rjurik Davidson

I received a free review copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 15 April 2014. 

Unwrapped Sky
Rjurik Davidson's Unwrapped Sky should have been catnip for me. There were minotaurs and sirens, mysterious alien creatures, trapped gods, and an ancient city on the brink of revolution. Davidson lavished words on his settings, but I found many of the characters—especially the chief antagonist—to be strangely erratic. Character motivations are vague or absent. This is the beginning of a series, so the ending is unsatisfying; it just sets things up for the next book. There were parts that I enjoyed, but it didn't make up for the flimsy character development.

Kata is in debt to House Technis. She can only get out of her debt by killing two minotaurs, but she winds up back in debt to the House. Her new mission is to spy on a cadre of seditionists in Caeli-Amur and find out what their plans are. Her orders come from Boris Autec, an official who is rocketed through the ranks at the whim of the strange creatures that rule the Houses through fear. Autec has good ideas and begins with some sympathy for the workers. He used to be a factory worker before he was promoted. But Autec has no ability to read people and he deludes himself that others feel things for him that they don't. Autec can't seem to tell when people lie to him, a vital skill for a leader. Meanwhile, Kata finds herself swayed by a growing affection for one of the seditionist leaders, Maximillian.

Max has a plan to change life for the lower classes by rediscovering lost, ancient secrets. The rest of the cell are growing increasingly violent, thought they have little hope of overturning the entrenched system. Kata turns double agent to help and try to save him. But things get a little strange once Max gets into the Great Library in the city of Caeli-Enas, which has been lost underneath the sea for about four hundred years.

Unwrapped Sky sounded to me like it could have been a good story, but I just couldn't get into it. I admit that I skimmed through the last half just to see what would happen and so that I could write an honest review.

3.27.2014

Little reading villages

For the past three years or so, I've been working on a project on my library to fill in the gaps in our literature collection—gaps like Africa, the Middle East, etc. This is a bigger challenge than you might think because it involves so much research. I've gotten used to putting aside some of my work time to look for obscure (to Americans) book prizes or scour literary magazines for listings of books in translation. I haven't thought about how hard this project is until I listened to episode #83 of The Readers podcast.

Episode #83 was published last fall, but I listened to it because it's become my habit to listen to the backfiles of podcasts I've just discovered and loved. In this episode, the hosts Simon Savidge and Thomas Otto were discussing the news that the Man Booker Prize would start accepting submissions by American writers. As they spoke about the English language hegemony, the challenge of finding out about good books from the rest of the world popped back into my head. It's easy to learn about new books published in English. There is a dedicated press and lots of bloggers that cover new books published in America, Canada, and England. I have no idea where to begin when it comes to finding book news in the rest of the world.

Occasionally, The New York Times or The London Review of Books and other places will mention who won the various Prix Goncourts. The Nobels always bring my attention to non-English writers I've never heard of, but they only choose one author a year and that's not enough for my purposes.

If anyone knows of a place to find international book news, I would love to hear about it. I am frequently reminded that my chosen sources and books are only showing me part of the world. I want to read about the rest of the globe.  

3.25.2014

The Weirdness, by Jeremy Bushnell

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publishers.

The Weirdness
What would you do if the Devil showed up in your apartment and tried to make a deal with you? If you're a sad-sack, failing writer and sandwich maker like Billy Ridgeway, you tell the Devil you want to sleep on it for a couple nights—at least until after your first publisher-sponsored reading. This may not sound like an auspicious beginning for Jeremy Bushnell's quirky novel, The Weirdness. In Bushnell's hands, Billy's off-kilter life becomes a hilarious tale of a man who is such an underdog that even the other underdogs underestimate him taking on occult forces in New York.

When we meet him, Billy is on the outs with his girlfriend and terrified about an upcoming reading. Billy is a self-described coward and fuck-up. It's hard for him to sort his life out because he thinks far too much. He lets opportunities slip through his fingers because he thinks about everything that could go wrong, second-guesses himself and his friends, and then gives it all up as a bad job. Then the Devil (the Judeo-Christian one, as Billy's friend Anil frequently points out) turns up in Billy's apartment. If Billy will agree to retrieve a lost artifact from hell, in this case a maneki-neko that has the power to destroy the world, the Devil will make sure Billy becomes a published author.

Of course, all of Billy's friends think he's finally cracked when they get him to spill the beans. It doesn't help matters when Billy is kidnapped by a group of warlocks who swear they're the good guys before getting his ass metaphysically handed to him by the warlock who stole the neko in the first place. The plot begins to race at this point as Bushnell puts the screws on his character and makes things even weirder for him when the Devil reveals his ulterior motives. (Because he's the Devil, duh, as everyone is quick to point out when Billy objects.)

The Weirdness is an uproarious short novel, crackling with originality and great dialog. There are twists and turns everywhere and never a dull moment.

Booknerds of the world, unite!

The most recent episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast (#273) reported on a study by the Codex Group about reader loyalty. They found that readers were more likely to stick to authors with a strong brand. The Codex Group study found that a writer like Lee Child has a more dedicated following than authors like Stephen King. Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness attributed this to the fact that readers who are heavily invested in a series are more likely to buy the author's next book. This investment in a series is a more powerful indicator of future book sales than an author's level of celebrity.

Not me. This belongs to someone who
loves Vonnegut even more than I do.
I have no objection to this finding. But I do quibble with Kingman's comments that it's hard for readers to broadcast their series loyalty, especially when there is no movie. As I listened to Kingman wonder about groups of dedicated book fans, I wanted to point out the pre-movie Twi-hards or the people who treat Catcher in the Rye as their very own anti-establishment bible.

The Internet, especially sites like tumblr or author pages on Facebook, have made it easier for booknerds and bookworms to find their respective fandoms. Young adult authors like John Green have a huge following online. Fans of the series remix quotes from the series in fan art. They find and comment on each other's posts. After that, I've noticed, they start requesting recommendations. Book fandoms start to resemble infinite, interlocking Venn diagrams after a while. 

I think you see less real world (off line) booknerdery because reading remains such a solitary activity. We only find other fans of the book after we read it and loved it. The initial relationship is between the author and the reader. When I encounter fans of books I love, it's more like we recognize the shibboleths and move on. Even for the people who tattoo passages of books onto themselves, I seriously doubt they're looking to signal their literary allegiances.

Any road, if a reader is looking to connect with the rest of the fandom, they have only to look online.  

3.23.2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 April 2014. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book for bibliophiles. Fikry is a curmudgeon and a book snob. He only reads books that meet a certain set of criteria. He drinks after the shop is closed to forget the love of his life, who died in a car crash almost two years before the book opens. The only thing he values anymore is a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe's first published works. Until he finds two-year old Maya in the small children's section of his bookstore, Island Books.

Each chapter in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry begins with a citation for a short story with a paragraph addressed to Maya. She completely changes A.J.'s life. He goes from reluctantly watching her and Googling how to bathe a toddler, to asking the social worker if he can keep Maya a little longer, to adopting her. She brings him out of his grief, slowly but surely. He recovers enough to ask out Amelia Loman, the publisher representative he tossed out of his bookstore just before he found Maya. Together, the three of them build a life together.

The years roll by. Maya grows up. A.J. and Amelia create in-jokes and bicker and love each other. The bookstore becomes the center of the town, hosting dozens of book groups. The love of reading becomes contagious. There are ups and downs, joys and sorrows and triumphs and some very good stories. The ending is masterly. I can't say much, because it will ruin the effect. But I will say that everything comes full circle.

The plot of this book is brief, but it hums. The dialog is delightful, sharp, and feels utterly real. The book is full of references to books and author's I've read. They have nerdy book arguments that I've had. I wish that Alice Island and Island Books were real so that I could visit them. I can't say enough good things about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

3.21.2014

Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 April 2014. 

Love and Treasure
Ayelet Waldman gives us three powerful stories in Love and Treasure, linked by an art nouveau peacock pendant. The pendant changes hands all too easily, but to each owner, it comes to represent to much: long held regrets, a death bed mission, a mismatched friendship.

The prologue, set in 2013, introduces us to Jack Wiseman and his granddaughter, Natalie. Jack is dying of cancer, but he makes a request that Natalie can't ignore. He wants her to return a peacock pendant that he's had to decades to the rightful owners; he was never able to do it himself. Waldman then takes us back to the end of World War II. Jack Wiseman and his unit come across a train in Werfen, Austria packed with Hungarians and the stolen belongings of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The Hungarian Gold Train is a political bombshell. It would be nearly impossible to return most of the watches, household goods, art, jewelry, and other items to their owners. Many of them are dead. Their surviving relatives are scattered across Europe. To Jack's lasting regret, the American brass help themselves to the train's contents to furnish their appropriated homes in Austria. Jack is given the futile task of inventorying and protecting the stolen treasures. The only bright spot is Ilona, who Jack meets in Werfen. Ilona is a survivor from eastern Hungary. She is thin and bitter, but not entirely broken. Jack falls in love with her, much to Ilona's chagrin. Their relationship is fraught in so many ways and Jack has his heart broken several times before Waldman returns to 2013.

Jack took the pendant from the Gold Train treasure because it came from Ilona's hometown. She rejected it when he tried to give it to her and, ever since, Jack wanted it to go back to its owners. Natalie Stein, his granddaughter, takes the pendant to Budapest where, with the help of a jaded Israeli art dealer named Amitai, she tries to find out who the real owner was before the pendant was stolen. Amitai recognized the pendant from a painting by another Holocaust victim. He believes the pendant is the key to finding out what happened to Vidor Komlós' art after the war. As Natalie and Amitai search for lost treasures, they realize that they are strangely suited to each other. They have an instant connection and this second part of Love and Treasure hums with energy.

The last third of Love and Treasure is, for me, the weakest of the three parts—but only because the narrator irritated me so very much. Natalie and Amitai discovered that the peacock pendant originally belonged to the suffragist Nina Einhorn, who died at Auschwitz. Part three is narrated by the psychoanalyst Nina's father sent her to when she started making trouble with her arranged marriage, insisting on attending medical school. In 1913, Nina's father saw her career goals as, potentially, the first symptoms of dementia praecox (later known as schizophrenia). The psychoanalyst, Dr. Zobel, is a firm Freudian. Anyone familiar with Freud is probably rolling their eyes now. Zobel keeps trying to find childhood traumas to explain Nina's behavior, though he frequently admits to himself that Nina is as sane as he is and that her suffragism is entirely rational. Nina makes an unsuitable (to her family) friendship with a dwarf, Gizella Weisz, another suffragist. They get into all kinds of trouble and are forbidden to see each other ever again after causing a scandal. Gizella gives Nina her peacock pendant as a goodbye gesture.

I loved the first two parts of Love and Treasure. I did manage to enjoy the third part, as long as I ignored my desire to mentally slap Dr. Zobel for being a Freud-influenced idiot. The book is so moving in so many ways. By presenting the story of the pendant in three parts, Love and Treasure becomes the story of the snarled legacy of the Holocaust. There is no clearly right thing for the characters to do. They have to wade through murky ethical waters on their own and learn to live with their difficult choices. But, like any great book, Love and Treasure isn't just about one thing. It's about memory. It's about friendship and love. It's about the meaning that people give to their possessions.

3.20.2014

Ten books that have stayed with me

A reader always has books on her mind.*
"Which ten books have stayed with you?" This question has been floating around tumblr for a number of weeks now. It's taken me this long to pick ten books out of the many books that I still think about, years after reading them. The question is very similar to "What are your favorite books?" And I still can't pick a top ten list. There are just too many books that I love.

I have been able to narrow the list of books that I mentally carry with me to the ones that have had the greatest impact on my thinking and reading life. Obviously, this list is presented in the order that I thought of these books:
  1. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This book is always near the top of my imaginary list of favorite books. I get something new from it every time I read it. I adore the multiple, distinct voices of the narrators. 
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This book taught me that it is truly noble to stand up and fight for justice, no matter what the risk is. We should all try to be as good as Atticus Finch.
  3. Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. I see the Faustus story everywhere, especially in science fiction. The quest for knowledge should always be tempered by thinking about potential consequences and ethics. No end ever absolutely justifies the means.
  4. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. This book is partially responsible for my atheism because one of the characters asked, "Why didn't God put the Tree [of Knowledge] somewhere else?" 
  5. Lamb, by Christopher Moore. This book is also partially responsible for my atheism. Both this book and Good Omens are also the funniest things I've ever read, but there are some philosophically beautiful moments in Lamb.
  6. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. This book showed me that misfits find each other. 
  7. The Giver, by Lois Lowry. I read this in seventh grade and it opened my eyes to the power of science fiction. This is the closest thing to a gateway book I have.
  8. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. This book taught me the power of belief, belief can make things real. Also, we all carry our stories and myths with us. 
  9. These is My Words, by Nancy Turner. Along with Jane Eyre, this is the only love story I wholeheartedly adored. Also, the main character is so strong that she's the kind of woman I aspire to be.
  10. The Stand, by Stephen King. This book messed me up when I read it. I remember that I read it as my parents drove us back to Washington from Wisconsin. I was traveling across the same plains that some of the characters were. It was the first post-Apocalyptic book I ever read and I had to keep taking breaks every 60 pages or so and read something entirely frivolous so that I wouldn't completely freak out. Since then, I have been fascinated by the question of how to rebuild a society after an Apocalypse.
So there it is. My list. It represents the twenty years of reading that I actually remember. I wonder what my list will look like in another twenty years.

__________

* "Storyteller," by Jean-François Segura.

3.18.2014

Books that will drive you nuts (Off the Shelf, VII)

This month, I'm bringing you a different kind of March Madness: books that will drive you nuts.

3.16.2014

Irenicon, by Aidan Harte

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 April 2014. 

Irenicon
How do you fight against impossible odds? Twenty years before the opening of Aidan Harte's Irenicon, an unnatural wave ripped through the city of Rasenna and ended their resistance against the Concordian Empire. Since then, the city has torn itself apart as factions fight pointless, bloody vendetta. The heir is underage. The city's regents scheme and squabble. The beginning of the book is rocky, but if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with a fantastic (in both senses of the word) vision of an alternate late medieval Italy.

Sofia Scaligeri is the contessa in waiting. She's been trained up by Doctor Bardini, who is loyal to Sofia's father even twenty years after his death. Streetfighting is all she knows, though Bardini has been trying to teach her statecraft. It isn't until she apprentices herself to the nun who knocked Sofia on her ass that she starts to learn what it means to resurrect Rasenna from defeat. She finds an ally in a Concordian engineer who has been sent to bridge the Irenicon, the river that destroyed the city all those years ago. Harte lets both of these characters take turns narrating the story, shifting occasionally to let minor characters catch the reader up on recent history, hatch plots, betray and double-cross each other, make deals, and more. Harte shows us just how unlikely it is for Rasenna to stop fighting itself long enough for Sofia to free it from Concordian dominance.

Harte recreates the Italy of the Medici and Sforza, but with many twists. There was no Jesus, but a kind of Christianity developed around Mary. A Girolamo Bernoulli sparked a secular Re-Formation. Cities are states and condottieri roam the Etrurian (not Italian) peninsula looking to sell their swords. It's fortunate that there isn't a Machiavelli analog; these people are devious enough as it is. Behind all this alternate history are fantastical elements. Because Irenicon is the opening book in the series, we don't learn much about the buio—water spirits—who live in the river or what the Engineer's Guild in Concord is really up to with their horrific Beast underneath their citadel.

By the end of the first third, forces have moved into inexorable motion and Irenicon becomes incredibly hard to put down. There are so many impossible situations that characters end up in that I was amazed at their ability to fight their way out again. I was cheering for them by the end of the book. I wonder what Harte has in store for his ragged heroes in the next installments of the Wave Trilogy.

3.15.2014

The Midnight Witch, by Paula Brackston

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 25 March 2014. 

The Midnight Witch
In the heart of London is a hundreds years old coven whose members can speak to the dead. They've kept their secret for a very long time. But it's 1913 when Paula Brackston's The Midnight Witch begins and things will soon change, whether the witches will it or no.

Lilith Montgomery has just buried her father, the former Head Witch of the Lazarus Coven, when Brackston introduces her to us and to the young artist who has just arrived from Sheffield. Bram Cardale immediately begins to sketch Lilith as she and her family stand at the graveside. He admires Lilith's quiet strength. He longs to meet her again and chance—and Lilith's friend, Charlotte—bring them frequently into contact. As Lilith and Bram fall in love with each other, Lilith must also bear up to the challenges of being the new Head witch and battling against ancient enemies.

The Sentinels have been after the Lazarus Coven's great secret for centuries. The coven holds the secret to resurrecting the dead. Only the Head Witch has all the pieces of the secret. The Sentinels were stripped of their powers centuries ago, but they've always been trying to get it back. They see their opportunity now, with an untested witch at the helm. They send a dark spirit to try and weaken Lilith's resolve. They threaten her family. They try nearly everything to get Lilith to give up her secret.

Events build to a heart-stopping fight on Tower Bridge during the spring of 1914. Brackston skips ahead to 1917, then 1919, as Lilith and her enemies spar for control of the secret of resurrection. The author doesn't let up a bit during the last third of the book.

The Midnight Witch is a terrific read, rich in period detail as Brackston draws us an alternate version of 1913-1919. Her characters are richly drawn. Some of the minor characters even threaten to steal the show, especially Richard Mangan the wild sculptor and his family and mistress. I loved their madcap scenes. The Midnight Witch is the latest in a series of novels that feature secretive witches in England's history. I enjoyed this one so much that I really want to go read the others now.

Alas, my to-read pile has been out of control for a while now.

Hanif Kureishi has some bad news for everyone

Earlier this week, novelist Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia, and others) dropped a bomb on writers and potential writers. The Guardian quotes his remark about his students: "it's probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent." Kureishi also described creative writing courses as "a waste of time." This is the nature versus nurture debate in the literary world. Can a writer be taught or are they born?

Possibly one of Kureishi's students.
Every semester, hopeful writers attend seminars and courses taught by famous and not-so-famous authors. They spend thousands of dollars that they almost certainly don't have to gather pearls of wisdom from their professors. No doubt there are naturally talented students who just need to hone their craft and learn the mechanics of story telling. There may be others who have the grammar down, but need to be taught how to harness their imagination and put it to work. As a pragmatist, I'm leery of generalizations, especially the ones like Kureishi's. (Personally, I wonder what kind of a teacher Kureishi is and how the program screens potential students. I always look for the other factors.)

As a reader, I've read novels by professional writers who've been through writing programs and gifted amateurs. Each group is as likely to produce a clunker as the other. If a writer feels they need a creative writing program, I say go for it and good luck with the publishers. If a writer doesn't feel they need such a program, I say good luck the publishers. I doubt many readers look at an author's credentials before they buy or read a book, especially if it's a work of fiction. All we want is a good story. Most of us don't care about how it was produced. (If a reader does care, they're a snob.)

There is one point in the article I linked above, from Lucy Ellman, who also teaches writing, with which I sympathize:
The whole system is set up to silence writers, and dupe students. It doesn't even provide a safe haven for writers, as Hanif made clear, because most universities go out of their way to ruin writers with admin, overwork, and other nonsense. There's lousy teaching too: I know of creative writing teachers who don't even read the students' work. This is criminal...But of course, the purpose of corporations - which is what universities now are - is to scupper originality and dissent. Universities have gone from being culture - preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions. And people queue up to pay these culture-destroying institutions £9000 a year to ensure that any idea of literature is destroyed before it can enter their heads.
This extreme, of course, but I have noticed that a lot of the writers who come out of the Iowa Writer's Workshop* sound very similar to one another. Many of them appear to fall into the trap of writing to impress one another and please their professors and they let their linguistic fireworks get in the way of the story. But that's a long standing gripe of mine. What I worry about is when programs and universities churn out writers at incredible rates without nurturing their originality. Kureishi is probably right when he describes the ideal model as a master mentoring an apprentice.

__________

* I highly recommend Eric Bennett's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "How Iowa Flattened Literature."

3.14.2014

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 8 April 2014. 

The Word Exchange
In the beginning was the word. It might be hyperbole—though I don't think it is—to say that without words, without language, civilization would be impossible. Words are collections of sounds that we collectively agree have meaning. They translate our ideas into something others can understand. They connect us to the thoughts from the dead and let us pass ours on to future generations. All that is preface to the fact that Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange scared the hell out of me. In this book, the ability to speak is stripped away from thousands, millions of people around the world through a dreadful, unintentional collision of two viruses.

A few years in the future, most people own a Meme—a device that can read and interpret its owners brain patterns to play preferred songs, adjust room temperatures, send messages and files to friends, update Life profiles, transfer money, and more. Memes can even administer medication for certain mental disorders, like anxiety and depression. They are ubiquitous. Anana Johnson, daughter of the chief editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, doesn't think twice about reaching for her Meme when someone uses a word she doesn't understand. Definitions can be had cheaply from the Word Exchange. No one thinks twice about it. Sure the words people look up are getting less and less obscure, but that's not a big deal, is it?

On the Friday night before Thanksgiving, Anana's father fails to show up at their weekly dinner at a local diner. She races to the Dictionary's offices, only to find him missing. This is just the first in a rapid sequence of events that leads to the word flu spreading around the world. Anana writes about her experiences in New York from hindsight, months later, as part of her language therapy. She tells us about Synchronic, the company that manufactures Memes and owns the Word Exchange. She tells us about her ex-boyfriend, Max, who sells his company's mega-hit game, Meaning Master, to Synchronic. She tells us about the Diachronic Society, seeming Luddites who dedicate themselves to the printed word and the unplugged life.

Graedon also gives us Bart's journals. Bart is another harmless drudge at the NADEL. He harbors a crush on Anana, but is too shy and awkward to speak up. He's also an unwilling friend to Max. He can't muster a good enough argument to decline when Max offers him a job as a pet lexicographer. Unfortunately, this brings him into contact with the word flu. His journal entries become riddled with Russian and Chinese-tinged gibberish as he succumbs to the aphasia the flu brings. Together, Anana and Bart tell the story of how an audacious attempt to corner the market on the English language and develop a new, even more symbiotic version of a Meme went awry.

The Word Exchange is an amazing (and terrifying) tale, which is why I plan on recommending it to all the readers I know. I can't be the only one to be freaked out by this book; I need to spread it around. Reading it on an iPad gave me an extra frisson of unease every time I had to look up a word I didn't know (e.g. panicle). What I loved most about The Word Exchange are Graedon and her characters' meditations on the importance and fragility of language. It's incredible to me what we've built on words. A language can encompass everything from texts to Immanuel Kant and David Foster Wallace. Without it, we would be locked inside our own minds, cut off from everyone. Along the way, you will also pick up some delicious new terms for your own mental word exchange. If you love words, read this book.

3.13.2014

The Colonial Hotel, by Jonathan Bennett

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 13 May 2014. 

The Colonial Hotel
In a way, war stories never change. They are always tales of disillusionment, mortal terror, psychological horror, wrenching violence. It is fitting, then, that Jonathan Bennett weaves together the oldest recorded war story with some of the newest conflicts in The Colonial Hotel

Helen is an experienced frontline nurse. Paris is a doctor who met her while working somewhere in Africa, fell in love with her, and began to follow her from war zone to war zone. Both of them address their stories to their daughter. Helen has just revealed to Paris that she's carrying their child as a civil war breaks out in the unnamed town where they're staying. They meet for breakfast at the Colonial Hotel just as soldiers from the North take over. Helen and Paris are quickly separated. Helen is spirited away due to her connections. Paris is not so lucky. He is held for ransom by the Colonel.

Helen describes her escape to the capital city, staying to try and get Paris out of danger. She is prepared to brave anything, she thinks. When a bomb goes off in the middle of the supposedly stable capital, Helen realizes that—much as she loves Paris—her priority must be to her growing child. Bennett lets Paris carry the second third of the book as he tells his daughter about being moved from here to there as the war rages on. He tells of long years in prison. He talks about his father, Priam, the distant politician. Years past and it becomes clear that Paris has been forgotten. The last third of The Colonial Hotel is narrated in turns by Paris and Oenone, the woman who finds and rescues Paris from starving to death in prison.

Nearly all the characters' names come from The Iliad: Paris, Helen, Priam, Hector, Oenone. Bennett's writing is elegiac, but not ornate. There's a sense of deep melancholy in this book, along with the terror, horror, violence, and disillusionment you seen in all war stories. Bennett never raises his authorial eyes from his characters' direct experience. You only learn a little of why this unnamed country is tearing itself apart. You don't really need to know why there is fighting because nothing can be worth the price the citizens are paying. In The Iliad, honor was everything. In The Colonial Hotel, life is the most precious thing.

If you can't say anything nice; Or, how to review a bad book

I will never get these hours of my life back.
Last week, Anne Rice petitioned Amazon to end anonymous reviews because, as we all know, anonymity gives people license to behave like assholes online. I understand the point. I even sympathize to a certain extent. On the one hand, writers should expect that not every reader will enjoy their book and that they will say so, sometimes publicly. On the other hand, just because a reader didn't like a book doesn't give them permission to attack the author personally.

While I have no cure for trolls, I wish that readers who chose to review books would learn how to write a constructive review of a bad book. It needs to be done, after all. Here are some things I recommend for the amateur reviews out there that I've learned when I had to be honest about some less than stellar prose:

  1. Don't attack the author personally. That makes your writing a hatchet job, not a book review. It makes you look like a prick.
  2. Review only the text. This is for the people who give one star reviews to books because it arrived late, they didn't like the cover, or something bugged them about the experience and not the book itself.
  3. Be specific about what you didn't like. Your taste is not the same as everyone else's taste. I will frequently disregard negative reviews that pick on things I actually like in stories. This is part of being honest. When someone just says they hate a book, that doesn't give anyone any useful information. 
  4. Proofread your work. This is just general advice. I always disregard reviews with spelling and grammatical errors. I can't trust someone's opinion of writing when they can't write themselves. 
  5. Consider a cooling off period. Basically, don't write angry. 
  6. Remember that the author is a human being. This is general advice for the Internet, too. Authors work incredibly hard on their writing. Some novels represent years of work. Be honest, but don't be mean.

3.12.2014

Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

Sinful Folk
There are secrets behind secrets behind even more secrets in Ned Hayes' Sinful Folk. Just when you think you've gotten to the bottom of everything in this dark tale of justice, Hayes reveals something that turns everything around. And lurking behind the story is the actual history, making you wonder just how much of the fiction is actually fiction, and how much might actually have happened all those centuries ago. The writing is spare. Nothing is embellished. Nothing needs to be. But you'll need to pay attention to every word and take nothing for granted.

Five boys died a terrible death in December 1377. Their parents, maddened by grief set off from their village to seek justice from their king. Mear is our narrator and holds more secrets than most. She used to be known as Miriam of Houmout. She was a nun who fell in love with a prince, then had to run after the birth of their child. She kept his ring, but it's the only proof she has of what happened and who she really is. But for ten years, she has been pretending to be a mute man. She only spoke to her son, Christian. But after his death, she travels with the other fathers.

On their journey from the tiny, hidden village of Duns to London, almost every horrible thing that can happen to them does. They encounter bandits, impatient monks with too much power, weary knights, and famine-wracked peasants. Even the winter weather is their enemy. To make it all worse, it's clear that there is a traitor in their midst. Mear keeps her silence for most of the book as she pieces together what actually happened to the boys from the things her fellow travels let drop and her memories of other violence acts that happened in Duns.

Detail of Edward's tomb, showing alternating escutcheons that,
together, read "Ich diene Houmout."  
The entirety of Sinful Folk is a tense read, but the revelations about Mear's past kick the book into high gear, especially at the end. There is a note after the conclusion about Edward the Black Prince that made me marvel at Hayes' virtuosity at taking a couple of medieval puzzles and weaving this story out of them. On the Black Prince's tomb, there are a series of alternating shields with the word "Houmout." No one has satisfactorily worked out what they refer to. Hayes created a small village that disappeared after the arrival of the Black Death. The village was Miriam's home until the plague left her an orphan and she was sent to a convent to be raised. From this one word and from a historical record that shows that the Black Prince was known to have lovers before his marriage to Philippa of Hainault, Hayes gives us the astonishing tale of Miriam of Houmout, known as Mear.

Hayes writes Miriam's story with a delicate touch that I relished. If you can stand the harshness, the madness, and the fear of the fourteenth century, I highly recommend Sinful Folk.

This book will mess you up

Yesterday, I filmed a new episode of Off the Shelf, the video podcast I've been doing sporadically for my library. This month's theme was books that drive me nuts. All my book conversations lately have been revolving around the idea of mind-bending books. I commented on Twitter that I love being able to recommend books by handing them over and saying, "This book will mess you up." Within the afternoon, someone responded asking for book suggestions.

"It's 4:00 PM. Do you now what your child is reading?"
I'm no stranger to being floored by a book, though it's a fairly rare occurrence that I come across a book that's so original and so uninhibited that it will haunt me forever. What I didn't know was that I could share the experience if I coyly suggested some of these titles with other readers. I recommended Connie Willis' Blackout and All Clear a few years ago to a reader only to receive a hysterical text with lots of question marks and exclamation points when she finished the set. Then I gave her Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne alternate history series with an evil chuckle.

I've been lucky in the last few years to find more books that mess with my head. Or, maybe I'm just getting braver about what I read and have been taking more chances. To me, reading a book that will rearrange your synapses is one of the greatest pleasures of reading. What else is literature supposed to do other than showing us new perspectives, taking us beyond the realms of our imagination, utterly transporting us to something new?

Tomorrow, I'll post the finished version of Off the Shelf episode here. It has me recommending five recent brain-warping titles. There's one phrase I wish I would have thought of yesterday during the filming that I will include here: Bookworms, read bravely!

3.09.2014

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 


In the Courtyard of
the Kabbalist
Among the many things I don't understand, there is one that I'm sure no effort will help me with. I don't understand the religious, people of such deep faith that they let the rules of their religion guide every aspect of their lives. Ruchama King Feuerman gave me a glimpse in In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. The prologue introduces us to Isaac Markowitz. He has sold his haberdashery to travel to Israel to seek the advice of Rabbi Yehudah Grodin, whose reputation as a problem solver has spread far and wide. Isaac never leaves.

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist opens a few years later. Isaac has found a home with the Grodin's as an assistant to the rabbi. The elderly rabbi is not well, but Isaac lacks the confidence in himself to counsel people the way the rabbi does. He also lacks the confidence he needs to make a success of dating. All the women he dates become exasperated with him because he always waits for others to make the move.

Wailing Wall. 1920.
Feuerman also gives us the story of Mustafa the janitor. Mustafa has a crooked neck and has been insulted and neglected all his life. Isaac is the first person to show him kindness for years. So when Mustafa discovers a Jewish relic during construction on Temple Mount, he delivers it to Isaac. The little ceramic pomegranate with the Hebrew letters on it is politically dangerous and it touches off a battle between Isaac, Mustafa, the police, and Mustafa's bosses on Temple Mount.

As the controversy over the pomegranate grows, Isaac struggles to be a good rabbi and to show his affection to Tamar, an American who came to Israel to live a religious life and find a religious husband. It's a touching story, though I grew exasperated myself at Isaac's passivity. He's the story of man who needs to be pulled to the end of the diving board, then pushed off because he will never jump himself.

Judaism, Jewish tradition, and Islam and Islamic tradition run all through In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. I was not pleased by the portrayal of the Muslims in this book. Apart from Mustafa, they're shown to be irreligious, venal, and cruel. It cheapens the story. Feuerman is capable of writing more nuanced characters, as she shows with all her Jewish characters. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist could have been much better than it was (and it was already pretty good) if it had embraced more of the complexity inherent in the premise.

Human Solutions, by Avi Silberstein

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 April 2014.

Human Solutions
A word, a gesture, a nudge, or even a chicken and an electric fence can be just what you need to make an angry boss stop harassing a put-upon book, a weatherman fall in love with a woman with a crush, or even rescue a boy from a madman. Javier Gonzalez and his company specialize in providing the necessary manipulation in Avi Silberstein's Human Solutions. Javier works with actors, a psychologist, and a private detective to arrange things for their clients. They never go too far, because that would be ridiculously foolish in Pinochet's Chile in the mid-1980s.

After years of seeing how easily people can be pushed this way and that have made Javier jaded. A good day at work puts him in a good enough mood to be manipulated (browbeaten) into accepting his sister's invitation to a party, where she sets him up with the lovely Elena. Things go well until Elena tells Javier that she can't see her son. She trusted some disastrous advise about a boarding school that now won't let any of the parents see their children. Elena is heartbroken. Because Javier is so twitter-pated by her, he takes on the most risky job of his life. He will walk into the Colony and walk out with Elena's son.

The Colony was founded by a German prophet who insists that people call him Uncle Peter. He's an extremely dictatorial pederast who is a skilled manipulator in his own right, who has everyone in his little utopia spying on and denouncing each other. It takes all of Javier's skill to rescue Elena's son and walk out unscathed.

A lot happens in less than 300 pages in this short novel, but I wish that it was longer. The blistering speed of Human Solutions left me feeling that Silberstein squandered a unique premise. Javier and his team are so much more interesting than the usual police procedural or private eye thriller.

The gateway book; Or, I have a theory

I don't remember the first book I read. I can remember my parents reading to me: Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, The Hobbit. But I don't know which book I first read all on my own. I don't know which book really hooked me into the world of reading. Fortunately, I've been able to see the books that have hooked others.

Ready to read.
In the last three weeks, I've had the pleasure of stacking books in two readers' hands—not even being asked why the readers should take my suggestions. I sent them away with a foot of books each. For one of those readers, it started with Harry Potter.

So, my theory. I frequently encounter people who say they don't read for the pleasure of it, which saddens me. They say they've tried this book or that, but nothing lit them up. My theory is that everyone could be a reader, if not a dedicated bibliophile, if they just found the right book. That's the trick.

School doesn't necessarily help. Reading Romeo and Juliet and Frankenstein and The Grapes of Wrath under duress, before someone is ready, can kill a love of reading faster than anything else. A good teacher can help explicate and unlock a book, but they are—sadly—few and far between. I was lucky enough to have an advanced placement English teacher in high school who gave us books and a few pointers when we needed them, but otherwise left us alone to explore on our own.

If my theory is right, it gives readers a duty to help non-readers find their gateway book. For non-readers, don't worry about not enjoying the books you've tried to read in the past. You just haven't found the right book yet. And there are plenty of books on the shelves, just waiting.

3.08.2014

Q-23, by Paul Theroux

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

Q-23
The subtitle of Paul R. Theroux's Q-23 is a lie. This is not a novel. It barely makes it to novella length, in spite of its chapters.

Kurt Strong's tennis partner has a problem and it's throwing off Roger Pate's game. Roger has invented a revolutionary hair removal stuff called Q-23, but his company—which makes most of its money from shaving gear—refuses to put it into production. It annoys him so much that Roger insists on seeing the head of the company. Roger is shut down again and ruins his tennis game.

Kurt encourages Roger to try again, so Roger goes back to work to talk to his boss, Soly. Soly is caught between his zealous employee and his boss. Roger can't be dissuaded and won't take a bribe, which leaves Soly with only one option as far as he sees it. He has to eliminate Roger. Over the course of the next several brief chapters, Roger and Kurt elude Soly's thugs. When they start their own company, Hair-Ban, Soly tries to blow it all up.

And that's about it. Q-23 is a caper with an incredibly silly MacGuffin. It's an amusing way to kill some time.

The Antiquarian, by Gustavo Faverón Patriau

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 3 June 2014. 

The Antiquarian
Picture the formation of a pearl. A small irritant gets inside an oyster shell and the oyster releases calcium carbonide to shield itself from the pain. Layers and layers build up over time as the oyster protects itself. As I read Gustavo Faverón Patriau's The Antiquarian, I couldn't shake the image of a pearl as I read the complicated tale of Daniel, his Julianas, and the mystery of what really happened when the women were killed. Patriau tells Daniel's story in a series of waves, revealing a little more with each pass.

Our narrator, also named Gustavo, is a psycholinguist, specializing in understanding psychologically caused language problems. Three years after his college friend and book collector Daniel is incarcerated in a mental asylum in the middle of an unnamed city. Daniel was convicted of murdering his fiancee, Juliana, and is only in an asylum because his mother paid a lot of money to keep him out of prison. Gustavo has avoided him ever since. Daniel reaches out to his old friend with another inmate is strangled with pages of Daniel's books.

At the beginning of The Antiquarian, there is little doubt that Daniel killed the Julianas and the woman known only as Huk. The evidence and Daniel's own behavior make it likely. Daniel has always been a loner, a socially inept intellectual who collects bizarre stories and rare books. He used to stage elaborate, Gothic dramas with his sister that would culminate in ritually burning the sets. When he was young, his sister, Sofia, burned the house down. Daniel's mind has been mentally polishing this event into a pearl ever since.

Patriau's language is ornate, even Baroque. More than once I had to stop to look words up. The narrative seems to meander as Gustavo (the narrator) questions Daniel's old friends and fellow inmates to find out what really happened, but everything is relevant. I'd recommend reading this novella in one or two sittings so that you don't miss the associations, parables, motifs, and hints. There is so much about this novel to analyze: the twins, the spirals, the way events from the past show up in the mutterings of the insane people in the asylum. Reading The Antiquarian is being inside the mind of a highly literate, mentally untethered man with a dark secret.

3.07.2014

Rivers, by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers
Storm after storm has devastated the Gulf coast in Michael Farris Smith's Rivers. The American government will not, or maybe cannot, pay to rebuild one more time only to see it all destroyed. So they drew a line and retreated. Anyone who stayed below the line was officially on their own.

The Line has been in place for a few years by the time Rivers opens. Cohen has been living in the house he shared with his life and isn't doing too badly, considering the Mad Max-like conditions a lot of other people are living below the Line. A nameless dog and a horse named Habana keep Cohen company. He meets with Charlie, who braves the wild territory of Mississippi chasing a rumor of buried casino money, to get food, gas, and other supplies.

Cohen might have been able to carry on for years like that if he hadn't stopped to pick up two teenagers who looked like they needed help. The teenagers ask him for a ride, then attack and nearly kill him. By the time Cohen gets home, his house has been ransacked. He can replace the food, but he can't replace the shoebox of photos, documents, and other mementos of his deceased wife. Cohen saddles up Habana and sets off to track down the two teens. Little does he know but this act is just the beginning of dangerous adventure involving a homegrown pseudo-cult, mercenaries, and tempests.

Smith lets Cohen tell most of the story in hypnotic chapters, full of run on sentences. The sentences take you into the mind of a man who spends too much time on his own. Smith's style is the opposite of the stripped down dystopias we've seen in recent years. The style takes some getting used to, especially if you're an English major who was taught to seek an destroy run on sentences. After a while, I enjoyed the way the verbs and nouns stumbled over one another. Our internal monologues don't follow Strunk and White, after all.

Rivers bucks a lot of the other trends I've seen in other dystopia. The plot twists and turns in unpredictable ways. The rich language can make you feel as cold and wet as Cohen and his companions as they struggle north towards the Line. It's impossible not to get caught up in this story.

3.05.2014

All the pretty words

Today I learned that the College Board would be changing the SAT by dropping its essay section and changing the vocabulary section to include less esoteric words. It's a pity, and not just for a word nerd like me. In the last two days, I've had conversations with English professors and librarians about the poor quality of writing by the students at the university where we work. More than that, every week or so, I have to explain a word: sotto voce, schlep, curmudgeon, cantankerous, knackered. The list goes on and on.

English has more words than any other language in the world. There's a word for every occasion and every nuance and I love that. I follow the OED on Twitter (word nerd) so that I can learn a new word every day. By changing the test and not requiring students to push themselves to learn more words, the College Board is making it okay to make do with a smaller vocabulary. When these students get to college, where they have to read scholarly articles, they're lost. I know. I've seen them flail about in literary criticism, medical jargon, and articles from a host of other disciplines because they didn't learn the skills to parse unfamiliar words and don't have a big enough vocabulary base.

Worse, I think, is that the College Board no longer requires the essay. Learning to write well is a skill that takes years of practice. Students should start as early as possible to hone their skills. And yet, my university's writing center is swamped with students every midterms and finals week. Those students who don't avail themselves of the writing center turn in absolute dreck, even when they're seniors. If they manage to pass, they enter the labor market not being able to express themselves coherently in words.

3.03.2014

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

In the Company of Thieves
Science fiction author Kage Baker passed away in 2010, putting In the Company of Thieves into the awkward category of posthumous works. Some of the stories collected here were previously published, but some were finished by the editor, Kathleen Bartholomew. All of the stories take place in the world Baker created for Dr. Zeus, Inc., a company from the future that uses their immortality/cyborg technology and time travel technology to save lost works of art and literature and endangered plant and animal DNA. I first read the opening novel in the series, In the Garden of Iden, years ago and I fell in love with it because I wholeheartedly approve of the company's mission. Whenever I see major cities destroyed by aliens or something in movies, my first thought is always for the lost art and architecture.

I jumped at the chance to read these stories when I saw In the Company of Thieves listed on NetGalley. I always wanted to know more about the world of Dr. Zeus and the cyborgs that save things for them. Some of the stories, such as "Rude Mechanicals" and "Hollywood Icons" feature characters we met in the Company novels. The other four feature the Gentlemen's Speculation Society, a precursor to Dr. Zeus.

All of the stories are well-written, as you'd expect from Baker. They're well-paced, though they left me hungry for more plot—especially in the case of my two favorites. "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" features the Ladies' Auxiliary to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society. They work as highly talented courtesans and gather information about cutting edge technology and strange goings on. I enjoyed this one because the women in the story shine, break stereotypes, kick some serious butt, and aren't afraid to enjoy their sexuality. My absolute favorite was "Mother Aegypt."

"Mother Aegypt" features Amaunet, a cyborg who has been working for Dr. Zeus for millennia, since she was rescued as a child in ancient Egypt. She is terribly weary of her life because it's always the same, though faces and clothing change. Our narrator is Barbu Golescu, a Romanian conman. He runs across Amaunet and her rescue, Emil, as he's running away from a scam gone awry. He pressures Amaunet to make use of Emil's gifts, but she refuses. Every time Golescu does get a chance to make a fast leu, it goes terribly wrong. There are giant chickens and uncontrollable hair tonic and worse. The end of the story is hilariously demented.

I would recommend In the Company of Thieves to all Kage Baker fans, especially fans of her Dr. Zeus stories.

3.02.2014

My book shelf, my self

Ria Mirsa asked a question last week that will give bibliophiles nightmares: are bookshelves becoming obsolete? It's a valid question, of course. Ebooks haven't taken over entirely, but they have made it harder to see what people are reading in public. (People who read Fifty Shades of Gray and similar books are more than happy about this.) But as people start reading more and more books and buying fewer and fewer print books, we won't need nearly as many bookcases in the future. (Vinyl record listeners will keep IKEA in business, though.)

Some of the books I'm proud to admit I own.
Bookshelves are more than just furniture that keeps our books off the floor. It's a representation of a reader's inner life and aspirations. I shelve by genre, but I keep the books I want people to know I've read in the front rooms and my guilty pleasures (Terry Pratchett, Carrie Vaughn, Charlaine Harris, etc.) in the bedroom. When I invite people into my apartment, this is how I want to tell them about who I am. When I visit other people's homes, I immediately look for their bookshelves to find out who they are (and judge them*).

My bookshelves also hold books that I haven't gotten around to you. It's harder for me to ignore a book that stares me in the face every day, so I stock my shelves with classic works that I really want to read (after I get through the fun stuff). The problem with this system is that you don't always get around to those books and you have the problems that Jonathan O'Brien ran into in this blog post.

My digital "bookshelves" are a mess. I only have the option to sort books by author, title, or most recent on my kind. The collections are pointless. With iBooks, I can sort books however I want. But neither set is as browsable as my bookshelves. When I don't know what to read, I stand in front of one of the six cases, moving slowly as my eyes read the spines, until something jumps out at me. Skimming my digital shelves doesn't have the same languorous feeling. On the other hand, I love having my iPad with all those books preloaded when I travel. Oh well, that's modern reader life for you.

Getting back to my original point, how will we show people our inner lives without bookshelves?

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* Just a little. I'm not a book snob. I'll tease you if you own a copy of Twilight before I start asking what you thought of the books on your shelves and which you'd recommend.