2.28.2015

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter

The World Before Us
After we are gone, all that's left for the living are documents and photographs and memories—at least until the bearers of those memories pass on in their turn. Perhaps there's a bit more documentation these days with everyone carrying around a phone with a camera and access to a social network or three. Archivist Jane Standen understands better than most that the evidence of a person's life leaves large gaps in their stories. In Aislinn Hunter's The World Before Us, Jane is unknowingly haunted by a crowd of ghosts who have forgotten who they are.

We meet Jane's ghosts before we meet the woman herself. Her entourage of ghosts are our narrators. They attached themselves to Jane when she was 15, after a Jane lost the girl she was babysitting. The ghosts were, mostly, the inmates of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescing Lunatics. Others are the inhabitants of the local village or servants at the nearby Farrington House. They can remember a few things—the feeling of corseted ribs, snatches of poetry and music, physics, rooms and sounds. They're not sure why they're still around. Hunter's ghosts are not the usual sort looking for revenge or to say goodbye to loved ones one last time. What they want more than anything else is to know their names again and remember who they were. By following and watching Jane, who eventually becomes an archivists at a natural history museum, they hope that Jane can find them in the letters, hospital logbooks, and other documents that remain.

Most reviews of The World Before Us focus on Jane herself. They mention the babysitting tragedy and the fact that Jane seems to have spent the intervening nineteen years hiding. When she sees the father of the girl who was lost, Jane runs back to the scene of the crime. Curiously, she doesn't search for Lily. She dives back into the local archives to try and solve an even older mystery. Her previous researches uncovered a curious incident from 1877. Three patients from Whitmore escaped and visited the local squire at Farrington. The two male patients returned after a cup of tea, but the girl who was with them N—, was never mentioned in the hospital records again. The case of N— haunts Jane as much as Lily.

The ghosts tell us about their discoveries while telling us about Jane's archival investigations in a hypnotic fashion. As a librarian, I'm biased, but I think Hunter has a gift for writing about doing research in a way that captivates rather than bores. I wasn't quite sure what Hunter was doing with her ghosts in The World Before Us, as it isn't an overtly supernatural novel or magic realism. It wasn't until I got to the author's acknowledgements at the end of the book that the purpose of the ghosts was revealed. Hunter quotes George Steiner:
A remembrancer is a human being who knows that to be a human being is to carry within yourself a responsibility, no only to your own present but to the past from which you have come. A remembrancer is a kind of witness through memory. (Acknowledgements*) 
Hunter says Steiner asked people to remember ten individuals listed on a memorial wall, "so that someone on this earth remembers" (Acknowledgements)

After reading these remarks from Steiner, The World Before Us took on a beautiful poignancy for me. Jane finds and the ghosts fill in the gaps in the documentary record. Secrets come out, but there is no judgment now that all the Victorians are gone. Even though the ghosts are, strictly speaking, dead, knowing their names and histories restores them to a kind of life. And, by investigating the past and trying to find someone who was considered lost for 140 years, Jane might be restored to a kind of life, too.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 31 March 2015.

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* Quotes are from the advanced reader copy from Hogarth. Page numbers are not available.

The Favor: A Journey to a Foreign Library

Because this piece is longer that what I normally publish here and because it's more about libraries than the reading life, I've published it on Medium.com.

There are many ways to vex a librarian. Quibble about a .10¢ fine. Steal our DVDs. Poop on the floor. I now have another to add to the list: send a librarian out of their home territory to another library.

Read the rest at Medium.com.

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace
In November of 1843, 16 year-old Grace Marks* was convicted of assisting in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in the small town of Richmond Hills, in what would one day become Ontario. The case made a splash in the papers at the time and Grace continued to generate interest well into the early 1900s. Because, even after all these years, we don't know if Grace was guilty, innocent, victim, or something else entirely. Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is a second attempt at telling the celebrated (alleged) murderess's story. (The first was a TV film called The Servant Girl, made in 1974). And even after reading nearly 500 pages of Grace's tale—supplemented by excerpted letters, folk songs, memoirs, and newspaper stories—it's still hard to say what Grace's verdict should have been.

Grace Mark's history is related through her conversations with Dr. Simon Jordan. Jordan was hired by a committee to free Marks in 1858 to investigate Grace and her claims of amnesia on the day of the murders. The psychiatrist, hoping to test his theories about memory and word associations, begins slowly. Grace begins her story at the very beginning and we learn about her very humble origins in Ulster, Northern Ireland. Dr. Jordan does his level best to remain objective. To his credit, he maintains a degree of critical thought as Grace tells him about her first jobs as a maid-of-all-work in Toronto and how she came to work in the Kinnear household in the early 1840s.

The first person perspective is powerful. It's hard not to be sucked in by someone telling their own story in their own words—even if they're a convicted murderer. Because Grace maintains that she fainted and remembers nothing of the day that her fellow servant, James McDermott, murdered Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, it's up to the readers to decide what really happened. Atwood offers a solution, but it's the kind of solution that's supposed to be questioned. Even more troubling, because we have access to Grace's inner thoughts as she talks with Dr. Jordan, we occasionally get passages like this one that make us question everything we've already read and will read before the book is over:
What should I tell Dr. Jordan about this day? Because now we are almost there. I can remember what I said when arrested, and what Mr. MacKenzie the lawyer said I should say, and what I did not say even to him; and what I said at the trial, and what I said afterwards, which was different as well. And what McDermott said I said, and what the others said I must have said, for there are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too... (295**)
What are we to think? Dr. Jordan criss-crosses southern Ontario, tracking down people who remember Grace from the time of the murder. He talks to her lawyer. He talks to a tavern owner who lived in Richmond Hill. He also tracks down her doctors from the time, shortly after her imprisonment, when she was removed to an insane asylum.

Alias Grace is not a book for readers who dislike unreliable narrators. For readers who do (like me!), this book is a delight. I will be puzzling over Grace for days. When I read unreliable narrators, I look for a truth that's somewhere in the middle of what all the characters are claiming. I learn which parts I can discount and which to trust. But I wasn't able to do that very easily in this book. Grace is cagier than most. Many of the characters around her are uniquely biased, making it hard to parse truth from hyperbole from dodge from outright lie. Of course, that's what makes Alias Grace so very good.

But then, I always expect the best from Margaret Atwood.

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* This brief biography of Marks on Wikipedia contains links to contemporary newspaper articles and court records of the Kinnear-Montgomery case.

** Quotation comes from the kindle edition of Alias Grace and the page number is approximate.

2.25.2015

Word flu; Or, Jane Austen makes me talk funny

Perhaps because I haven't been able to eat much over the past few days (stomach bug), I've been gorging on Jane Austen. Watching Death Comes to Pemberley and re-reading Persuasion has had its own side effect. I've noticed this before. For some reason, my diction starts to resemble Regency English and it takes a while to work it out of my system. I start using words that haven't been seen in print for more than fifty years. My sentences get even longer than usual. I can hear myself using semi-colons and m-dashs. And I stop swearing, damn it.

I once had to talk to my mother in this state. She thought I'd overdosed on PBS.

Fortunately, I was back to my pungent, over-educated Twenty-first century idiom by the time I went back to work this morning. That would have been dreadfully awkward.

2.22.2015

The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native
The most irritating thing about cliches is that they are so often true. (This statement is also a cliche.) The old saw that kept popping into my head as I read The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy, was "Marry in haste. Repent at leisure." The first half of this book is bad marriage after bad marriage. The second half contains the resulting tragedies.

I was drawn to The Return of the Native because of Eustacia Vye. Eustacia is often mentioned in the same breath as Hardy's other great tragic heroines. Early in the novel, she is described thus, "She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman" (Part I, Chapter 7*). Unlike those heroines, Eustacia is not a good woman at heart. She feels trapped on Egdon Heath; she wants to live a rich life in a city. Unlike Tess, who works hard to eke out a living, Eustacia doesn't want to work at all. Unlike Sue Bridehead, Eustacia is too selfish to love someone more than herself. And unlike Susan Henchard, all of Eustacia's problems are chiefly of her own making.

At the beginning of the novel, Eustacia is toying with the affections of Damon Wildeve—who is actually engaged to another woman. After throwing him over, Eustacia ensnares Clym Yeobright. She does love him, but she mostly agrees to marry him because she things he'll take her to Paris in spite of all his assertions that he wants to live a poor, quiet life on Egdon Heath. Wildeve and Eustacia still love each other and proceed to lead all the other characters down the road to tragedy. (Read the Wikipedia article for a more complete summary of the plot.)

Eustacia Vye puzzles me. She is so unlike anyone I've ever met. She's the catalyst for the plot, but I find that I can't understand her at all. How did she become the woman she is? What does she really want? What could possibly make her happy? I want to shake her until her teeth rattle and explain the facts of life to her. I had much more sympathy for Clym and his cousin, Thomasin Yeobright. Clym and Eustacia are a terrible match for each other. Thomasin and Damon Wildeve are almost as bad a match. And yet the Yeobrights seem helplessly dazzled by these rare birds. No one appears to see the reality of their chosen mates. To be honest, I think I want to shake the whole dramatis personae until their collective teeth rattle.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me about The Return of the Native was the snarky humor scattered throughout. This sense of humor disappears by the time Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (I think), some of the characters in this book land some right zingers:
"Is there any use in saying what can do no good, Aunt?" [asked Thomasin.] 
"Yes," said her aunt, with some warmth. "To thoroughly fill the air with past misfortune, so that other girls may take warning and keep clear of it." (Part II, Chapter 2)
The Return of the Native, at least in the first parts, had me laughing as other characters kept up a running commentary about the foolishness of the four protagonists. Even though this disrupts the overall tragic tone of the novel, I found that I rather enjoyed the company of the peanut gallery.

The Return of the Native came early in Hardy's career. It was serialized in 1878. Having read some of his later books—Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscureit was clear to me that Hardy was still working out how to write his tragedies. In fact, the edition that I read (an 1895 edition reproduced on Project Gutenberg), had this note in the penultimate chapter:
The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whitherThomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent. 
Readers therefore can choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one. (Part VI, Chapter 3)
Reading The Return of the Native was, for me, a lot like reading Oliver TwistBecause I'd read the later work first, I could see missteps and awkwardnesses that other readers might not. Few of the characters have quite the complexity that later ones do—especially the overwrought Eustacia. On the other hand, Hardy has clearly mastered his dramatic descriptions of Wessex that he became famous for. He also displays his nostalgia for rural life and work and a sensitivity to the limitations placed on women in Victorian England. Still, I think I would recommend a later Hardy novel to a curious reader rather than this one.

___________

* Quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg version.

2.21.2015

The Last Flight of Poxl West, by Daniel Torday

The Last Flight of Poxl West
At a reading of his bestselling memory, Poxl West is asked if his memoir has anything new to say about the Jewish experience of World War II by a dandruffy graduate student. The question flusters the old man and infuriates his nephew (our narrator). I wanted to interject myself and say that everyone has a right to tell their story, that there are a multiplicity of stories from that era that deserve to be heard. But what if that story turns out to be less than true? Daniel Torday's The Last Flight of Poxl West begin with the story of a boy and his much-admired war hero uncle before becoming something much more complicated.

Elijah Goldstein and Poxl take turns telling their stories. Poxl's story is one of a Jewish Czech who managed to flee the European continent just after the Anschluß before joining the British war effort as a member of a rescue squad. Elijah is only fifteen in 1986 when Poxl's memoir, Skylock, comes out to great acclaim. The book is the first time the young man has heard a story from World War II in which a Jewish man is not a victim. After a life time of reading Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Skylock is a revelation to him. He devours the tale of Poxl's work rescuing victims of the Blitz before being accepted to the RAF as a pilot.

Elijah basks in the reflected glory from his uncle's memoir. He resents any negative criticism of Poxl's sometimes shaky prose and overemphasis on sex. It isn't until five months after Skylock's publication that it all comes crashing down. It is discovered that Poxl West's name doesn't appear on the crew lists for the bomber he claimed to fly on sorties over Hamburg. Elijah (and I) had to immediately question everything we'd heard and read from Poxl. How much was true and how much wasn't?

Torday creates distinct voices for both Elijah and Poxl. Poxl's memoir begins stiffly, as though written by a man who is not a native English speaker. But there are parts of Skylock in The Last Flight of Poxl West that have the ring of truth about them. Skylock isn't just the story of a Jew who got a little taste of revenge on the Nazi machine; it's also the story of a flawed man who makes huge mistakes. Poxl's story is a failed love story more than anything else. When Poxl writes of his lost loves, the depth of emotion creates all the verisimilitude the book needs. At 15, however, Elijah is too young and inexperienced to recognize what Skylock and Poxl were trying to say to the world.

It's funny I read this book after recently reading Cynthia Ozick's brief rant about fraudulent Holocaust memoirs [1]. Skylock is just the sort of lie that would infuriate her. A lie that makes readers doubt Jewish history is a dangerous one, the sort that gives Holocaust deniers ammunition. Still, Poxl's story is mostly true—just not the parts about his war record. His losses were real. After finishing The Last Flight of Poxl West, I have to think that if Poxl hadn't written about being a successful RAF bomber pilot, Skylock would have sunk beneath the waves like that graduate student at the reading seemed to think it should have.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 17 March 2015.

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1. Cynthia Ozick, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” in Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 103-119.

2.20.2015

If you change your mind...

Unshelved recently posted a cartoon that summed up many of the regrets re-readers have when they go back to books they used to love. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait. Back? On with the post! So often, I see re-reading discussed in terms like this and many readers end up paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe. I can understand. We aren't the same readers we were, so we can't recapture the original experience. I'm going to argue that this isn't always a bad thing.

In reading the scholarship about The Reader, I keep coming across anecdotes in which the author of the article admits that they had to change their mind about the book. On their first reading, these authors were taken in by the narrator, Michael Berg. The Reader is a first person novel, so it's hard not to see the novel this way. But The Reader is problematic. Michael is a remarkably naive, indecisive person. He can't be trusted, either, because he's in love. In the second half of the book, it is revealed that the woman Michael was in love with was a former member of the SS and a war criminal. And we're all just as shocked to discover this as Michael is.

The articles then inform us of the authors' second impression. Usually, this is a more nuanced view of The Reader. They didn't hate it; they're just more aware of what the book as a whole is up to and just how untrustworthy a narrator Michael is. On scholar, Ursula Mahlendorf, comments, "In fact, the book became more personally troublesome the closer I looked at it" [1]. After reading an essay by Cynthia Ozick [2], Jeffrey Roth started to question his first impression: "Had I been led through the medium of fiction into sympathizing with a Nazi mass murderer and, by extension, with the hundreds of thousands of her criminal cohorts?" [3] Both Mahlendorf and Roth then go on to offer intriguing interpretations of The Reader and its characters. And, in both cases, I think these reexaminations are better readings of the book.

This doesn't happen every time, of course. There are books I loved as a teen and picked up decades later. All I could say was, "What the hell was I thinking? This is shit." Other times, like when I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was able to find new angles with which I could learn more from the book. I had years of literary criticism classes and even more years of talking about books with people between that first reading and the second reading.

It's a risk to re-read a book. It might be a disappointment. But the risk is worth it if a second (or third, or 99th reading) unlocks a book to reveal deeper meaning or questions to ponder.

___________

1. Ursula Mahlendorf, "Trauma Narrated, Read and (Mis)understood: Bernhard Schlink's The Reader: '...Irrevocably Complicit in Their Crimes... .'" Monatshefte 95, no. 3 (2003), 460.

2. Cynthia Ozick, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” in Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 103-119.

3. Jeffery Roth, "Reading and Misreading The Reader," Law and Literature 16, no. 2 (2004): 164.

2.19.2015

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah is so full of ideas it's hard to know where to start. The story touches on race, identity, immigration, culture, language, money, class, prejudice, family, disappointment, and homecoming. Our two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, are our eyes in Lagos, London, and middle Atlantic America. They are perpetually outsiders. They are the only ones who understand each other. It may seem strange (or frustrating) that Ifemelu and Obinze are separated for much of the novel, but in the maelstrom of all the other topics, Americanah is also their love story.

Ifemelu's flaw (as other characters see it) is her willingness to speak the truth as she sees it. Her tongue is always getting her in trouble, in Nigeria and in America. She and Obinze meet in high school. They have an instant intellectual and physical connection, but they take it slow. They stick together through to university. The true test of their relationship comes when Ifemelu gets a visa to travel to the United States for graduate school. Obinze gets rejected again and again. After a traumatic experience trying to earn money under the table, Ifemelu stops talking to Obinze and it all falls apart. Obinze gets a temporary visa to go to London. They grow further apart as Obinze struggles as an illegal immigrant and Ifemelu strives for legitimacy and independence.

Adichie frames the first two thirds of Americanah in flashbacks as Ifemelu has her hair braided one afternoon in Trenton, New Jersey. As she whiles away the hours, we learn more about her relationship with Obinze, her fifteen years in America, her success as a blogger writing about race. Obinze gets his turn to reflect, too, until we are caught up on their lives apart. Ifemelu returns to Lagos after shuttering her popular blog and her research fellowship at Princeton ends. The last third of Americanah is Ifemelu and Obinze's homecoming.

Americanah is highly episodic. There are flashbacks and set pieces and posts from Ifemelu's fictional blog, all connected by the arc of her life. And this is where Ifemelu gets to reflect on what it is to be a "Non-American Black," African American, Nigerian immigrant, and all the other roles she plays. I'm trying not to say this is a brave or honest book (though it very much is both of those things), because those are platitudes. Ifemelu would not approve.

Because Ifemelu is an outsider, she sees things the way no one else sees them. There are so many scenes in this book that made me squirm because they were so true. A clothing store manager bends over backwards to try and ask which sales woman helped Ifemelu and her friend without asking, "Was it the black woman or the white woman?" There are the white liberals who deliver boneheadly offensive mini-lectures about Africans. There are academics who can only talk about race if they turn everything into metaphors and signifiers.

As I read Americanah, I started marking instances of characters changing themselves. Some characters, like Obinze's wife, Kosi, becomes preternaturally accommodating so that she doesn't make any waves among the Nigerian elite. Ifemelu's aunt, Ujo, changes the most. Over the course of the book, she transforms from a general's mistress to immigrant to the wife of another immigrant. She changes physically. She changes her personality. No one is, to use a word the academics would love, authentic. But who can really say what authentic is? As Kurt Vonnegut would say, we are who we pretend to be. Some of the characters in Americanah change themselves because they want to be someone else. Others change because their loved ones want them to. Ifemelu is told by one of her American boyfriends to read certain books, eat fair trade/organic/über-healthy food, and to write her blog posts in a more "responsible" way (my danger quotes). This is where Ifemelu has the most trouble. She angers other people because she says things they don't want to hear.

Americanah is not an easy book to digest. In addition to its solid plot and superlative characterization, it's also an idea book. Adichie never lets things bog down with philosophizing and speech-making, but there is so much to think about. This may be the perfect book for a book club—as long as the members can buck the social stigma of talking bluntly about race, without posturing or academic distance.

2.18.2015

The Witch of Painted Sorrows, by M.J. Rose

The Witch of Painted Sorrows
Sandrine is a runaway. She's running away from her husband, her father's death, and scandal. The only person who can shelter her is Sandrine's courtesan grandmother, Eva. But in M.J. Rose's The Witch of Painted Sorrows, the Paris of 1894 turns out to be far from the sanctuary Sandrine hoped for.

Though she spent time with her grandmother in Paris when she was younger, Sandrine doesn't know much about her family's past. All she knows is that she comes from a long line of courtesans beginning with La Lune in the sixteenth century. Eva refuses to tell her anything other than that women in their family should not fall in love. Terrible things happen when the Verlaine women fall in love.

At first, Sandrine is too worried about her husband falling her from New York to do much else. Her grandmother's secrets pull her own of her misery. An architect is cataloging Eva's old house, Maison de la Lune, to turn it into a museum. Sandrine discovers an unknown artist's studio full of sensuous paintings. And still, Eva won't tell her anything about her family's past. She just warns Eva to stay away from the maison.

It wouldn't be much of a plot if Sandrine didn't ignore all that well meaning advice. She goes back to the maison day after day, falling in love with the architect and in love with painting. Little does she know that she's not becoming more assertive because she feels unfettered, but because Sandrine is being taken over by the spirit of La Lune.

It took a few chapters for The Witch of Painted Sorrows to win me over. At first, it read like just another romance with a bit of fantasy on top. Rose outdoes herself with the setting and the characters. Belle Époque France comes to life in this book. It's the world of salons and the École des Beaux-Arts. Sandrine, the sheltered daughter of a banker, should be lost in the middle of the glitter. Instead, she's right at home.

As Sandrine gets deeper and deeper into her family's past, it's hard to know what's going to happen next. Does La Lune deserve another chance at love? How will Sandrine get free of her husband? Can there be a happy ending for anyone? You'll just have to read The Witch of Painted Sorrows for yourself.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 17 March 2015.

2.17.2015

Book snobbery; Or, we can be our own worst enemies

I'm not even a fifth of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah and I've already lost count of the times characters have tried to tell each other that they need to read "better" or "more challenging" books. These scenes reminded me of so many episodes of Dear Book Nerd in which readers have written in to say that they feel like they're wasting time with popular fiction or feel ashamed of liking genre fiction. When Rita Meade, the host, starts to answer, I want to yell into the podcast that life's too short to worry about what book snobs think.

I think there's nothing more likely to squelch someone's love of reading than forcing them to read a book they're a) not ready for or b) books that won't appeal to them. Don't these people remember trying to find jokes in A Midsummer Night's Dream in junior high? Or were bored to death by The Old Man and the Sea? (I was, but my bibliophilia survived.)

On top of all this, I've read Jonathan Franzen's latest interview/rant in Booth (and some of the reactions to it). In this rant/interview Franzen takes time to go after people who read YA:
Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury.
It's hard to tell what Franzen's tone is in a text-only format, but the rest of the interview doesn't make me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. This is a very snotty attitude to take about anyone's reading choices.
I make as many jokes about Twilight as anyone, but I will be the first person to hand someone the series if that's what they wanted to read. (I will probably also try to slip them something else, like Dracula.)

How did this attitude become so pervasive? How did it poison so many readers to the point where they get neurotic about their reading choices? Don't these book snobs realize that they're ruining reading for us?


2.16.2015

The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical
250 years before Ian Tregillis' stunning novel, The Mechanical, opens, Christiaan Huygens made a remarkable discovery that blended alchemy and chemistry and engineering to create sentient automatons called Clakkers. The Clakkers helped the Netherlands build an empire that spans the globe. In an alternate 1926, the war between the Dutch and the remnants of Canadian New France is heating up again. At the center of the war is another conflict for the freedom of the enslaved mechanical people the empire depends on. The Mechanical is the first in a series.

Jax is a 118 year old Clakker who currently serves the Schoonraad family. When we meet him, Jax is fighting against the alchemical compulsions that bind him to the Schoonraads and the Dutch government to witness the execution of a rogue Clakker—a mechanical who managed to free himself. Through Jax's perspective, we learn of the torturous lot of mechanicals. Disobeying orders causes them unimaginable pain, but humans are taught that they can't feel and have no souls. The whole system depends on this lie. As if Jax's existence weren't complicated enough, he finds himself in the middle of an international spy ring and on the front lines of this world's version of the Great Game.

Jax isn't our only narrator. Tregillis also gives us a priest turned spy turned monster, Luuk Visser, and the French spymaster, Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord. Berenice is a wonderful character. She serves as the French King-in-Exile's Talleyrand. Her goal is to see the king back on the throne in Paris, but that's what all the Talleyrands have been trying to do since Louis XIV was defeated by a Clakker army. What I loved most about the indomitable Berenice is her salty tongue. She's devious and determined and she can outswear a sailor any day of the week.

While Jax gains independence, Berenice finds herself stripped of her powers and influence after one of her big ideas results in disaster. Visser, the former priest has perhaps the most harrowing journey. Talleyrand posted him to Amsterdam, the lion's den for an agent of New France. Worse, the rest of his network has just been rolled up and executed. He sees his doom around every corner. This would have been enough for me, but Tregillis turns up the heat on this character and plunges him into an agonizing existential nightmare.

All three plotlines converge in New Amsterdam for an explosive conclusion. Along the way are nail-biting battles, airship crashes, philosophy and theology, real politick, and alchemy. The Mechanicals is nearly 500 pages long, but it didn't feel like it. The pacing races along as Tregillis' characters fill in details about this alternate, Dutch-conquered world and as the author himself sets up the next novel in the series.

I've been a fan of Ian Tregillis since I first picked up Bitter Seeds. Tregillis' novels are original blends of science fiction and fantasy, with touches of other genres mixed in. The Milkweed Trilogy was a war series. Something More Than Night was noir. With The Mechanical, Tregillis is now transforming steampunk. The man's talent and imagination are incredible. I truly hope that there are no publishing snafus to delay the next book in the Alchemy wars.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 March 2015. 

2.15.2015

Readers who just don't quit

In my reading life, I have had to replace my copies of Jurassic Park and Good Omens because I read them to death. The spines were cracked. Pages were falling out. Every corner was dog-eared. At one point, I could quote whole sections of Good Omens from memory. My copies of The Poisonwood Bible and To Kill a Mockingbird aren't looking too healthy, either.

All this pales in comparison to Stephen Marche.

Marche recently wrote a terrific piece for The Guardian on his "centi-reading." I thought the title of the article was hyperbolic, but Marche really has read The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse and Hamlet more than 100 times each. Marche read Hamlet so many times because it was the subject of his thesis; The Inimitable Jeeves because it's his favorite book.

I admire the man. I miss re-reading my favorites, but I feel that there's just so much new stuff out there that I have to get to. Still, I made a resolution at the beginning of the year to re-read something from my collection each month. (I feel bad about them just sitting on the shelf.)

My re-reading doesn't even come close to approaching the level of re-reading that Marche does. The amazing thing about this is that, by re-reading a work so many times, you can hold the whole thing in your head. This is so valuable for writing about literature. In the class discussions I've been attending for a writing about literature class, we've tended to zero in on specific scenes or even pieces of dialog. The students forget about other passages and scenes that contradict their interpretations because they haven't read the book more than once or twice. (My colleague has read it three or four times by now, but I'm still at two readings.)

On the other hand, I can recall patrons the tiny public library I used to work for who would come in and fill up paper grocery bags with romance novels every week. They'd never re-read anything (that I knew about). Granted, romance novels aren't the best examples of books with high re-readability, but I know other people don't buy books because they don't re-read.

The reason I keep returning to Jurassic Park, Good Omens, The Poisonwood Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird is because I always find something new each time through. The text remains the same, of course, but I'm different each time. Depending on what's been going on in my life or what I've been reading lately, I tune into issues of gender or ethics or education or something each time.

I'll leave you with this bon mot from the fabulously witty Oscar Wilde:
If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.

2.14.2015

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower
When I was young and had just gotten in trouble for punching my brother or something because he'd done something to annoy me, my mother used to tell me, "Two wrongs don't make a right." This little piece of aphoristic wisdom was constantly in my mind as I read Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower. In Makkai's tale of misguided adventure, a young librarian becomes concerned about one of her young patrons and ends up aiding and abetting his attempt to run away from home.

Lucy Hull became a children's librarian in a small midwestern town because she didn't want to rely on her father's probably illegally acquired wealth. It was the first job she could get. Because she doesn't have a degree in library science, Lucy tends to overcompensate when matters of censorship and privacy come up. One of Lucy's young patrons becomes her favorite. Ian Drake is a devoted reader, but his mother makes it hard for him to read anything more challenging than the Hardy boys. In fact, Ian's mother delivers a list to Lucy of all the topics Ian is not to read about. The list almost sends Lucy into a rage right on the spot. The list, the small scars on Ian's face, his evangelical parents, and his enrollment in what is probably a "gay rehab" program all combine into a giant knot of worry for Lucy.

Then, one winter Sunday, Lucy walks into the library to discover that Ian has run away. When she tries to drive him to his grandmother's, Ian tells Lucy that he will say she kidnapped him if she does. Ian's "grandmother," he tells her lives somewhere else. Lucy first drives to Chicago, then Pittsburgh, and on to New England, following Ian's made up directions. She knows he's lying, but she knows that jail time awaits her if she goes back.

When Lucy first learned about Ian's situation, she developed a protectiveness towards the boy. She was convinced that she knew better than Ian's mother what was good for the boy. Ian is rumored to be gay but, at ten years old, it's hard to say why anyone thinks this. Ian just doesn't fit the stereotype of what a boy "ought" to be. He's not good at sports, prefers to read, and gets along with girls more easily than with boys. His evangelical parents are worried about. Neither Lucy or Ian's mother is doing the right thing for Ian. Lucy has no right to do what she does, but Ian's mother is exposing the kid to the psychological damage conversion therapy will cause (even if the kid isn't gay).

As I read, I realized that Lucy is as much in need of a rescue as Ian. She's 26 and she's gone to college. With an apartment and a job, Lucy should be a functional adult. And yet, she's been running away since she left home to go to school. I don't think she can say what she's running toward, just that she's running away from her father and his probable ties to the Russian mafiya. She's lived her life in books and never really had to grow up. Her father, who fled the Soviet Union when he was 20, is always there to provide a safety net. To complicate things further, as Lucy flees with Ian, she learns from family friends that her father's stories about his time in Russia were even more fictitious than she knew.

Still, I can't help but like Lucy. She reminds me of myself. She says things about the necessity of reading and the importance of intellectual freedom that I've probably said myself. Passages like this one make me love Lucy a little bit:
I refused to have bookshelves, horrified I'd feel compelled to organize the books in some regimented system—Dewey or alphabetical or worse—and so the books lived in stacks, some as tall as me, in the most subjective order I could invent. 
Thus Nabokov lived between Gogol and Hemingway, cradled between the Old World and the New; Willa Cather and Theordore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy were stacked together not for their chronological proximity but because they all reminded me in some way of dryness (though in Dresier's case I think I was focused mostly on his name); George Eliot and Jane Austen shared a stack with Thackeray because all I had of his was Vanity Fair, and I thought that Beck Sharp would do best in the presence of ladies (and deep down I worried that if I put her next to David Copperfield, she might seduce him). (30*)
Lucy makes bad choice after bad choice, but I couldn't help but root for her a little bit as she dug herself deeper into trouble in her misguided attempt to save a child.

__________

* Page number approximate. Quote taken from the kindle edition.

2.13.2015

Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

Leaving Berlin
It's impossible now to pinpoint the moment when the Soviet Union became America's official enemy rather than its ally after the end of World War II. The moment had definitely passed by the time Alex Meier returned to Berlin in 1947 at the invitation of the Soviet and German authorities. Little do they know Alex is actually returning at the behest of the American government to spy on the other members of the Kulturbund and any Soviets he can in Joseph Kanon's latest thriller, Leaving Berlin.

Alex Meier left Germany after a brief incarceration in Sachsenhausen. Because he was a well-known writer, Alex had connections to get himself out and across the Atlantic to the United States. After the war, Alex found himself on the wrong side of the government again, when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to testify and his impending divorce gave Alex the perfect cover to return to Berlin, according to his American recruiters. So, back to Berlin to be a part of the new worker's paradise goes Alex. He's wined and dined and introduced to other artists who were invited back. Bertholt Brecht, Helene Weigel, and other real-life figures make cameo appearances. Alex also finds that a few of his pre-war acquaintances survived and are now in a position to help him with his new career as a spy.

Leaving Berlin is as much about the post-war confusion and transformation of the city as it is about the returned writer, Alex. The wall hadn't yet been built, but the city is no less divided. Spies and soldiers abound. The city is just as deadly as it was in 1945. Alex ducks several assassination attempts as he gathers information for his American masters. The only difference is that the appearance of peace has to be maintained so that the city doesn't erupt in violence between the supposed allied forces.

A few years ago, I read The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis. I was very much reminded of Tzouliadis' recounting of Americans who bought into Soviet propaganda and emigrated to the Soviet Union in search of jobs during the Great Depression. The artists and writers who returned to Berlin and joined the Kulturbund were former Communists who fled the Nazis before World War II. They were still believers in the revolution, even after Stalin's bloody purges and the pervasive police state that had developed. In Leaving Berlin, only Brecht is famous enough to be able to say what he likes. Everyone else is terrified to criticize any aspect of the Communist Party or the government. It isn't long before Alex becomes just as paranoid as everyone else. It's not long before the recently welcomed artists are being subjected to surveillance, document "checks," imprisonment, and interrogation.

Leaving Berlin is slow to ratchet up to thriller levels of pacing. Kanon takes his time about situating his protagonist in Berlin. He gives us flashbacks to Alex's early life. Other characters get to tell Alex their stories. Unlike some readers (like this book's reviewer in Publisher's Weekly), I didn't think the exposition bogged down. I was fascinated to see the origins of the Stasi, for example, and the compromises the Germans had to keep making in order to preserve some independence after the war. This book brings up the difficult questions of dealing with a country that had, collectively, committed unprecedented crimes against humanity. Alex's mission, in that sense, is just a vehicle for exploring this complex landscape.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 March 2015.

2.12.2015

We don't want to throw your books away for you

Last week, I had to turn down a donation. Donations can be wonderful. They can help us fill in gaps in our library collections or replace damaged books. This, unfortunately, isn't what we usually see off-loaded at the library's font desk. In this case, the donor was trying to hand off encyclopedias from the 1950s and '60s, because "someone might find them interesting."

Then I tweeted about it. Then it got favorited and retweeted by a bunch of other librarians.

Unwanted donations are a common complaint. Years ago, when I worked for a small public library, I arrived at work to find three or four black plastic yard bags filled with moldy, cobwebby volumes of a Braille bible. Not only did our little library not have shelf room for these, but they were unusable in their condition. And we didn't collect books in Braille anyway. We ended up throwing them away.

There are shelves in the backroom at my current academic library that are filled with donations from alumni and retiring faculty and students clearing their shelves before graduation. These are the ones we can use. The ones we can't use are sent to the campus surplus depot: books that are obsolete, books that are outside our collection scope, books that are in bad condition, books that are illegal copies. We are, essentially, throwing them away because their original owners couldn't bring themselves to do it.

In some ways, being a librarian or library worker can desensitize you to what books can represent. People have memories about their books. They want to pass them on. Then we have to be the ones to say, "No, I'm sorry. No one is going to want your copy of Twilight because we have a bijillion of them." Sure, some of the old books might be useful for historical purposes. I can see that. "But, sir, we don't collect old computer science textbooks from the 1980s." I can't blame them. (Much.) I feel bad when I have to turn people down or tell them what will probably happen to those copies of Readers Digest Condensed editions.

"But the book is still good!"

It could be worse. At least I've never had to deal with the fallout of a mass weeding project like other libraries have done (Fairfax County, VA; Emporia State University Library, KS; Albany Library, CA; Urbana Free Library, IL). It's better to tell someone no up front than having to deal with the outrage when someone finds their donations in the dumpster behind the library.

While searching for articles about library weeding projects and public outcry, I found Julie Goldberg's blog post, "I Can't Believe You're Throwing Out Books!" Goldberg's post is most extensive and goes a lot further with this topic than I did here and is a very good read about what happens to books that libraries don't want.

2.11.2015

The Eterna Files, by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Eterna Files
Leanna Hieber's The Eterna Files kicks off a series about a race to immortality between the United States and Great Britain in the early 1880s. The Eterna Project began in the United States when a young spiritualist, Clara Templeton, tried to comfort the grieving Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband's assassination. Templeton and Senator Bishop create a small department within the Secret Service to find a cure for death. By 1882, Queen Victoria has gotten wind of the project and wants her scientists to find immortality before the Americans.

Hieber splits her story between Clara Templeton and Harry Spire, a Metropolitan police detective, with appearances by a Parliamentary secretary, a jailed madman, a ghost, and the ghost's living twin brother. There's a lot going on in this book—partly because of the profusion of narrators and partly because Hieber is setting up a complex alternate 1882. At the beginning of The Eterna Files, the short paragraphs and premise made me worry that this would be another slapdash alternate history with touches of fantasy. I'm pleased to report that my first impression was wrong.

As Hieber's American characters investigate a lab disaster that killed their scientists and most of their magicians, the British characters try to take the lead. The British team is somewhat hampered by Spire's disbelief in mysticism and Spiritualism. All Spire wants is to get back to his investigation of a ring of child murders and not babysit a bunch of weirdos who talk to themselves and mutter about auras. In the background of this race, Hieber introduces a sinister villain named Moriel, who is still running a gory criminal enterprise from his jail cell. (It's clear that Moriel will play a bigger part in later books.)

Normally, I stay away from talking about the ending of a book. With this one, however, I feel I need to reveal that The Eterna Files ends with a cliffhanger. If you're the kind of reader that can't abide cliffhanger endings, wait for the next book in the series to be published.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

2.10.2015

The Wonders, by Paddy O'Reilly

The Wonders
One thing humans have failed to evolve past is the desire to gawp at people who are radically different from the norm. Dwarves used to belong to royal courts. Circus freaks travelled around the world. Leon Hyland spent a year in hiding to keep his difference a secret from the people around him. When he gets a call from Rhona Burke and hears her offer to join what is essentially a new-style freak show, Leon's instincts tell him to run. Only her promises that he can back out at any time keep Leon on the hook. The Wonders, by Paddy O'Reilly, is the strange tale of the three members of Rhona's show.

The Wonders begins with a corker of an opening line. Leon's heart is weak and he started suffering frequent cardiac arrests. His first heart transplant failed. With nothing left to lose, Leon agrees to have an experimental mechanical heart implanted. A year's worth of surgeries leave him with a hole straight through his torso and a visible metal heart. He reluctantly joins Rhona's show as the Clockwork Man after learning that two other "freaks" have already signed on. Christos is a performance artist who has had metal wings that respond to his muscle commands. Kathryn had a bizarre reaction to an experimental gene therapy for Huntingdon's Disease that left her covered with black wool, like a sheep's.

Leon is our man on the scene, reporting on the experience of performing for the ultra-rich—which essentially amounts to high priced gawking. Slowly, this exceedingly shy man learns to be comfortable in his enhanced body and even find love. The journey is not easy. Protesters of all stripes turn up to heckle and torment the "Wonders." Fundamentalist Christians call Kathryn demonic and Christos' wings blasphemous. Kathryn is the target of hate mail and stalking. Advocates for the disabled accuse them of profiting to the detriment of disabled rights. Meanwhile, Rhona keeps the show rolling along and her public relations specialist keeps the media humming.

Kathryn, called Lady Lamb in the show, is the highlight of The Wonders. Leon serves well enough as a narrator, but he doesn't have the fire that Kathryn does. I often wished that O'Reilly had let Kathryn tell this story. Kathryn's arc takes her from poverty to cure to humiliation to uncomfortable stardom. She's a broken woman, but the show, surprisingly, helps her regain herself and heal. I was much more interested in her than Leon's tentative personal transformation. (This is a problem I've been encountering a lot lately.)

I had a quick look at reader responses to this book on GoodReads. Several readers remarked that this book "didn't gel" for them or that there was something missing. I suspect its partially an issue with the narrator. All the really interesting things happen to other characters. It's also an issue of O'Reilly raising more questions than he answers. I don't have a problem with this. I love books that leave me with unanswerable questions that need to be pondered. Then again, the book doesn't exactly linger over these vexed issues of disability, celebrity, and exploitation as Leon bumbles along. The Wonders, then, can probably read like an awkward blend of literary "idea" fiction and plot-driven genre fiction to some readers.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 March 2015.

2.09.2015

The Devil's Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Devil's Detective
When they arrive in Hell, the angels are disappointed. Where are the lakes of fire? Where are the torments? In Simon Unsworth's The Devil's Detective, Hell has become a more subtle place. The delegation of angels that arrive at the beginning of the book are told that the new punishments are all the worse because they rest on the slim hope the damned have of maybe, one day, getting released. The system is arbitrary. No one knows what they're being punished for. A special punishment seems to have been reserved for Thomas Fool, one of Hell's Information Man. Just as the angelic delegation arrives, Fool is also told to investigate a series of murders even more savage than usual. How is this sort-of cop supposed to mete out justice in Hell?

Unsworth rebuilds the afterlife in The Devil's Detective. Souls are fished (literally) out of Limbo and assigned roles in Hell. They are laborers, prostitutes, farmers, and so on. A rare few are assigned as Information Men. Most of the cases they receive are not investigated. Fool even has a stamp marked DNI for Did Not Investigate. It's unusual to get a case that has to be investigated. Meanwhile, Fool is an escort for a quartet of angels who've arrived in Hell to haggle over how many souls will make it into Heaven this go-round.

As Fool learns how to be a real detective, he only has his gun and a feather given to him by an angel to assist him. He has to work his way through the truly nasty denizens of Hell and the damned and comes close to his own death more than once. Every where he turns, Fool is told that he amuses the higher ups of Hell. He entertains them, but Fool is never told exactly why. He can feel himself changing and Hell changing around him as he digs deeper. Is he becoming the hero everyone says he is? Is he atoning for his own forgotten sins? Like all great reads (by my lights), The Devil's Detective asks more questions than it answers.

As I read, I wanted to read The Devil's Detective metaphorically as well as reading it as just a thriller. Does Fool represent humans? With a name like Fool and having angels and demons talking into his ears all this time, it's hard not to read this book as an elaborate metaphor for how humans twist themselves up with guilt and redemption and the possibility of an afterlife. Fool tells us something about Hell's past as he tries to explain the strangeness of Hell to the heavenly visitors. There used to be lakes of fire and all the traditional Dantean tortures. But Hell has become existentialist. The damned worry about what it was they did to arrive here. They hold out hope that they can do something to better their lot. Hell is changing again as humans start to fight back against the demons with signs bearing the slogan, "We Deserve Better."

The Devil's Detective hits all the right notes for me. The characters are marvellously complex and well-drawn. The setting is absolutely stellar. Unsworth uses the premise of Hell and Heaven and Limbo and runs with them to create something original and terrifying. The plot contains hints about the larger mystery in the background of Fool's murder investigation. And the ending is surprising and satisfying all at the same time.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 March 2015.

2.08.2015

Turnabout is fair play

Biersteker's prototype. Image from The Guardian.
Artist Thijs Biersteker has created a book that won't open unless it sees a "neutral expression" on its viewer's face, reports Alison Flood for The Guardian. This was bound to happen, considering how many books we judge by their covers. If your face expresses an emotion other than calm blankness, this book will stay closed.

I've written before, at length, about book cover design. Book covers are advertisements, meant to entice potential readers to at least pick the book up and glance at the back cover or inside jacket flap to find out what the book's about. Blogs on tumblr and elsewhere mock bad covers mercilessly.

It's only fair that a book (art project) gets to judge us back. Biersteker has this to say about his project:
My aim was to create a book cover that is human and approachable hi-tech. If you approach the book, if you’re overexcited or your face shows a sceptical expression, the book will stay locked...But if your expression is neutral (no judgment) the system will send an audio pulse and the book will unlock itself. I often worry about my scepticism and judgement getting in the way of my amazement. Judgment should never hinder the relentless enthusiasm of seeing things for the first time. (http://thecoverthatjudgesyou.com/)
My first thought when I saw this story on The Guardian was, "This had better be a friggin' fantastic book." (My first reaction to most modern art is usually skeptical snark.) Then, I thought more about the artist's objective.

I chose to read books based on their reviews and, sometimes, their reputations (as with my classics reading project). I only see covers when the book arrives on my kindle or in my local library. Unless the cover is particularly amazing, I rarely look at the cover again. What makes me skeptical about books is overuse of tropes or pointed criticism in the reviews. Perhaps Thijs Biersteker's project isn't for me?

No, that sounds too smug.

Biersteker has a point about not letting a first impression get in the way of something great. ("This had better be a friggin' fantastic book.") This book isn't about books. The original expression isn't about books, either. It's about prejudice. Biersteker just ran with the idiom.

Still, I will absolutely judge books with covers like this:
Only $2.99!

2.07.2015

The Alphabet House, by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Alphabet House
To crash one's plane is terrifying, but to crash one's plane and land behind enemy lines must be a pilot's worst nightmare. In The Alphabet House, Jussi Adler-Olsen imagines an even worse fate for a pair of British pilots who've just crash landed near Freiburg, Germany in late 1943. To escape capture, James Teasdale and Bryan Scott manage to climb aboard a hospital train and take the places of two SS officers there. But the train isn't taking them to an ordinary hospital. The train takes them to a new mental hospital where experimental treatment tries to bring SS officers back from madness.

The first half The Alphabet House, set in the Freiburg hospital, is deliciously frightening. Scott and Teasdale have to feign post-traumatic stress disorder so that they are not discovered and shot. (Because the pilots are out of uniform and ditched their identification, the rules of engagement don't apply to them.) They're subjected to pharmacotherapy that leaves them lethargic and unfocused. The eletroshock treatments are worst. To top it all off, Teasdale and Scott discover that they're not the only fakers in their ward. Teasdale overheard three SS officers discussing their crimes and their plans to divert a train car full of stolen treasure for after the war. When they realize they've been heard, the three men torment Teasdale until it's clear that he's not faking his trauma anymore. The first half concludes when Scott manages to escape, but has to leave Teasdale behind.

The second half takes place some twenty years later. Bryan Scott has built a life for himself back in Coventry as a doctor and pharmaceutical salesman. But he he is haunted by having to leave his best friend behind in hell. In 1972, he tries one last time to find his friend James Teasdale. His investigation kicks up secrets that had been safely buried for decades. A trio of men in Freiburg will do anything to stop Scott from exposing them as escaped war criminals.

The Alphabet House is written with the quick pacing that I've come to expect from thrillers. Adler-Olsen, after all, got started as a mystery writer. Because of the setting in a mental asylum and the treatment of mental illness in this book, I wish that Adler-Olsen had let things simmer slowly instead of racing ahead. There's no subtext in The Alphabet House. Adler-Olsen takes you into the heads of his narrators and even some of the antagonists to let you know exactly why they're doing what they're doing. This strips the book of any poignance that it might have achieved. I feel this could have been a stellar psychological thriller if the first half of the book had been the entire book or if Alder-Olsen hadn't stuck with the thriller formula.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 24 February 2015.

2.02.2015

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless
Fairy tales never die. They just get retold. I suspect it's because fairy tales have a little piece of truth at their core that keeps them ever-relevant. Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Angela Carter's short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, which retold a number of European fairy tales like Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast. Catherynne Valente's Deathless does something similar for Russian fairy tales by retelling the story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless against the background of the Russian Revolution, Civil War, the Purges, and the Siege of Leningrad.

In the fairy tales, Koschei is a villain who kidnaps a girl or some hero's wife. The hero pursues his lost love and, in order to escape, figures out how to find Koschei's death and kill him. In Deathless, Valente gives us another side to the chilling immortal. Here, Koschei isn't a sinister, power hungry monster. He's just as much a victim of circumstance as everyone else, in a manner of speaking. Baba Yaga explains thusly:
Chyerti—that's us, demons and devils, small and big—are compulsive. We obsess. It's our nature. We turn on a track, around and around; we march in step; we act out the same tales, over and over...while time piles up like yarn under a wheel. We like patterns. They're comforting. Sometimes little things change—a car instead of a house, a girl not named Yelena. But it's no different, not really...That's how you get deathless. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing...and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines. (110*)
Marya Morevna, in this iteration of her story, is draw into Koschei's tale at age six, when she sees birds drop out of trees to become husbands for her sisters. Nothing is ever ordinary after that day.

When she's older, Marya is whisked away to Buyan by Koschei to be his bride. She learns about his magical world and the war he's fighting with his brother, the Tsar of Death. The language of Deathless changes from the simplicity of a fairy tale, in which everything happens in threes and motivations are never discussed, to richly described passages about hunting in Buyan or starving in Leningrad. At each stage of the story, Marya has to rediscover what she wants and how to get it within the boundaries of whatever story she's in.

Deathless is more complicated than a fairy tale. Marya's story is the foreground of the novel. In the background, we have Koschei's war and Russia's various wars. While Marya is fighting for her happiness and her two loves, the magical Russia is losing a war to secular Russia and communism. I've seen this metaphor before, of a magical pre-Industrial society losing out to modernity. The metaphor is even more poignant than usual in Deathless. This is something Valente does particularly well. She did something similar for the Old West in Six-Gun Snow White. In Deathless, it's startling to hear a dragon talk about show trials and domoviye have committee meetings. But it all works the way Valente writes it.

There's so much meaning and depth to explore in Deathless that I feel I'm not doing justice to the story. On the other hand, if I talk about it too much here, anyone reading this might not be tempted to go check it out for themselves. Plus, I'm not an expert in Russian folklore and mythology. I'm sure there was a lot in Deathless that I wasn't picking up on. I know I'm going to have to come back and re-read this book—after spending several hours on Wikipedia swotting up, no doubt.

__________

* Page number is approximate. I read the kindle edition of Deathless.

2.01.2015

Books for the bookish

I don't make recommendation lists all that often, but I've had booky books on the brain lately. There are some books posted on NetGalley and Edelweiss that are like catnip to me. If I see a mention of bookshops, libraries, or mysterious cemeteries of forgotten books, I have to read it. Sometimes I'm disappointed. Other times, I find a book that captures the joy of what it means to be a reader. This list is to share the joy.

Readers are always looking for their next read.
This list is not ranked. It's in order of books that occurred to me whilst making the list.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

This selection is a little controversial because of the ending. Some people like it; some hate it. Either way, Sloan blends the experience of the traditionally bookish with the digitally bookish in a wonderful little philosophical thriller.

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton

I don't have much to add to my recent review of Salamander (linked in the section head, just above this paragraph).

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

If you could become the custodian of one book, to make sure it's not completely forgotten, which book would it be? What if someone is trying to make that book disappear?

Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

I almost didn't include this one, because it's more about authorship and writing, really. But one thing readers always wonder about is how the story came to be on the page in front of them. So, Mr Fox goes on the list.

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

Sure, this one is a little sappy, but I love it. A.J. gets to live a life that, for the most part, other readers would envy. He lives surrounded by books and stories.

I trawled through my list of books that I can remember reading to compile this list, which doesn't contain nearly all of the books I've read that involve books and reading. These are just the best of the best. You might ask why books like The Book Thief and The Thirteenth Tale aren't on this list. My answer is in two parts: a) I made the list and got to decide the criteria, and b) I think The Book Thief is more about other things than it is about reading.

As I scrolled through the list, I kept seeing books like Libriomancer and The Eyre Affair, which are very much about books and story. But they're not about reading, so they're not on this list. It occurs to me that I'm going to have to do a list of my favorite meta-literature (books messing around with other books).

Okay, enough editorializing and explaining. Go read, people.