She Shall Have Murder, by Delano Ames

She Shall Have Murder
Manor Minor Press is resurrecting the Jane and Dagobert Brown mysteries. Delano Ames' comic series, originally published between 1948 and 1959, made a little money in its time but has mostly been forgotten. After reading the first book in the series, She Shall Have Murder, in a few hours packed with much laughter and marveling at Ames' technique, I wonder just how the remarkable amateur detectives managed to vanish.

Jane is our narrator. She is also the author of a book based on the murder of one of the clients of the law firm that employs her. The book, Jane tells us, was originally the idea of her boyfriend (later fiancé). Dagobert Brown is a dilettante with little money to expend on his hobbies. He can't seem to settle to anything; Jane provides all the stability in their relationship. Instead of a job, Dagobert has a series of hobbies. Jane comments:
I have nursed Dagobert through several such crises before: Gregorian chant last year, followed by wildflowers and sixteenth-century French poetry. My mind is a jumble of Mixolydian modes, nipplewort, and Joachim du Bellay—to which fingerprints and strangulation are now being added. (Chapter 1*)
Dagobert, listening to Jane's tales of work life at Playfair & Sons law firm, selects one of the firm's more irritating clients as a potential victim. Jane will write the mystery and he will edit. Funny enough, the woman that Dagobert and Jane had chosen to be the model for their novel's victim actually winds up murdered.

Dagobert and Jane begin investigating Mrs. Robjohn's death after the coroner's court rules it to be an accidental death. The pair have never gone a-sleuthing before, but Dagobert's knowledge of so many different things and his ability to charm information out of people, coupled with Jane's logic and bravery, make for a strong debut. What really makes this book work, though, is the relationship between Jane and Dagobert. Dagobert is in the midst of a divorce. (He married too young and to the wrong woman.) He and Jane click all through the book. They remind me of a slapstick comedy couple with they banter:
"Let's see...Stewart says they had a row that night. Peter and Paul was the answer to the crossword clue, wasn't it? Did you say rose foncé was you color?" 
"What I like about you, Dagobert,?" I said, "is the clear, systematic way you have of putting questions, so that the simplest intelligence can see exactly how your mind's working. Does any of this really get us anywhere?" 
"No," he admitted, "but it gives you an amazing feeling of insight and penetration to ask these keen, apparently disconnected questions. I asked a man this morning what brand of pipe he was smoking on the night of the twenty-ninth of November, and you should have seen the way I went up in his estimation." (Chapter 20)
The pair keep up their schtick all the way through.

At points in the narrative, as Jane and Dagobert eliminate suspects and gather clues, Jane will comment on the process of writing all this up as a autobiographical novel (for lack of a better term).  I can't think of any novels as old as this one (originally published in 1948) that break the fourth wall as often as She Shall Have Murder. This is a novel that's aware it's a novel, with a narrator who is aware that she's telling a story to an audience, but with a bright humor all the way through that doesn't feel like anyone is being made fun of or condescended to.

I do hope that Manor Minor Press hurries up with the rest of the series.

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

* Quotes are from the Manor Minor reprint. Page numbers are not available.


The Observations, by Jane Harris

The Observations
I picked up The Observations, by Jane Harris, because I adored Gillespie and I. I love unreliable narrators, because I get so much more story to pick apart. But reading Gillespie and I didn't prepare me for The Observations. I finished the book and realized I had been lied to—in the best ways possible—for more than 500 pages. Though Gillespie and I was written later, I think that The Observations is the more sophisticated book.

Bessy begins her tale on the road to Castle Haivers*. She has left Glasgow because her old employer has died, but she relates this in a way that makes it clear she doesn't want to be found and returned there. At the end of the road, Bessy meets Arabella Reid. In spite of Bessy's shaky story about being a housekeeper at the age of 15, Mrs. Reid offers her a position at the manor. There are hints that something strange is going on at Castle Haivers. Bessy is just the latest in a long line of maids. The people in nearby Snatter** village are rabid for gossip about the manor and its people.

There absolutely is something strange going on. In addition to her duties as a maid, Mrs. Reid has Bessy perform pointless, repetitive tasks until Bessy stops obeying. Bessy is required to keep a journal documenting her daily routine and feelings. Mrs. Reid runs hot and cold on Bessy, though Bessy grows attached to her mistress anyway. The first turning point comes when Bessy discovers that her mistress has been writing a book about improving the obedience and loyalty of maids, called The Observations.

The discovery infuriates Bessy and she decides to take revenge on her mistress. There have been hints that the death of the last maid but one was not an accident and Bessy uses the information to make Mrs. Reid think she's being haunted. The plan works so well that Bessy starts to wonder if she has actually driven the woman mad.

As Bessy tells us her tale, she makes reference to her old diaries and Mrs. Reid's Observations, though she tells us she can only do so if we (the readers) keep it secret. Lives could still be ruined by the story Bessy is relating. Bessy also tells us about her life before Castle Haivers. Each time, more detail is revealed and Bessy's curious motivations become more intelligible. She is just as troubled, psychologically speaking, as her mistress. We're not sure who Bessy is writing for this time, at least not until she gives up her final revelations near the end of the novel. Bessy is also showing us how talented she is at lying, which colored the rest of the narrative for me. If she was lying then, how much is she lying to me now?

The Obserations—the novel, not the book within the book—begins with a girl running away from a terrible, terrible situation in Glasgow. Then it is a revenge story. Then it's a ghost story and mystery. There are so many wonderful layers to peel away that 500 pages seems like barely enough room for them.

* I wonder if the name of the manor is a play on the Scots word "havers," meaning to babble or to behave in an indecisive manner (via OxfordDictionaries.com).

** Also a dialect term, this time a Northern Irish word for snot, according to UrbanDictionary.com.


Bracing for backlash

I have been incredibly lucky online. (Knocks on wood. Tosses salt over shoulder. Looks up more tricks for averting bad luck.) Many of the reviews I write are positive, or at least balanced between the good points and the bad. Fortunately, none of my negative reviews have drawn fire the way that other amateur book reviewers have. Other amateur reviewers (those of us who don't get paid for our literary opinion) have had to put up with stalking and online harassmentThe one time I had an author respond to a negative review of mine, he was very civil and understanding about why I didn't like the book.
Not a recommended format for book reviews.

Unlike many amateur reviewers, I haven't felt the need to be braced for impact all the time. My audience is primarily composed of (I think) readers and the occasional authors who Google themselves. Then I read Brenna Clarke Gray's experience on GoodReads.  Clarke Gray chalks her experience up to sexism, but my picture and name make it clear that I'm female. I have been a user of GoodReads for ages and adore it. But I haven't been exposed to the vile comments Clarke Gray has. I suspect that I have been flying under the radar. I'm not saying that Clarke Gray is wrong, but I think that the sexism and vitriol she's seen is just a part of a large wave of trollish behavior.

Criticism is hard to take. Learning how to learn from criticism is a difficult lesson—but it's absolutely necessary to learn that lesson, especially if one is a creative. Criticism can feel personal. Sometimes, it is personal. Who are these amateurs who think my book sucked? Why did I get three stars instead of four or five? It would help if more of my fellow amateurs knew how to write book reviews, especially the occasionally necessary negative ones.

Authors, you're not doing yourself any favors by attacking your readers. You're making things worse.

Amateur reviewers or readers, if you're going to give a book a low rating or negative review, explain your reasoning. Otherwise, you're just providing fuel for the fire. And for the sake of everything that's holy about reading, do not attack authors.

Everyone, let's try to be civil. All we have is text (or emojis, if you're that kind of person) to communicate with each other. The sorts of virulent rhetoric and bullying that have been making headlines on the bookish Internet are driving people away from talking about books.


The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map
Some of the things we know now about medicine—hygiene prevents illness, the four humours are bunk, mercury doesn't cure anything—seem so simple that medical history would be laughable if it hadn't been so deadly. It's easy to forget that it took us thousands of years to get to where we are*. Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic is one chapter (a 320 page chapter) in the journey humanity has taken from curing insanity by drilling holes in people's skulls to modern medicine.

Filippo Pacini was the first person to see the Vibrio cholerae bacillus in 1854. That same year, an epidemic broke out in London that claimed more than 600 hundred lives. Some Soho streets lost up to 12% of their population that fall. At the time, the predominant theory about how cholera and number of other diseases and ailments were spread was the miasmatic theory. "Bad air" would settle in a location and poison the people there. Dr. John Snow, a physician who pioneered the use of ether and chloroform, had another theory. He believed that the only explanation for the spread of cholera was contaminated water.

The Ghost Map tells the story of Snow's attempts to trace the path of cholera during the 1854 Broad Street outbreak and change the minds of the entire British medical field. Johnson discusses Snow's various strategies: interviews with survivors, reviewing mortality reports, and mapping sewer and water pipes. Snow's case is overwhelmingly convincing to the modern reader. It's stunning how his fellow physicians fought to vigorously to uphold the theory of miasmas in the face of so much patiently collected evidence.

Snow is not the only one pursuing the truth of cholera's transmission. A curate who lived near Broad Street (the point of origin of the epidemic) named Henry Whitehead provided some crucial evidence by finding the "index case"—the first person known to have the disease at the start of an epidemic.

A memorial to John Snow a few blocks from
the site of the original Broad Street pump,
the point of origin for the 1854 outbreak. 
Johnson's account of the state of medicine in 1854 and the outbreak is painfully detailed. I wrote a post yesterday about how repetitive it is. This may have been because I listened to The Ghost Map instead of reading it. Hearing it aloud may have brought all the reiteration to my attention. At any rate, I can easily see readers' eyes glazing over a various points in this book; it really could have used it's own decimation. That said, however, I found it fascinating just how much Snow and Whitehead learned about how cholera spread from a single contaminated water pump throughout a neighborhood. Through their actions, the Broad Street pump was disabled and the immediate vector cut off. The 1854 outbreak took hundreds of lives, but it wasn't unusual for Nineteenth century epidemics to kill thousands. Snow and Whitehead saved untold lives.

The Ghost Map absolutely captures the mood of the time. Before the disease was understood, cholera (and a number of other afflictions) seemed to come out of nowhere—or possibly from the next ominous looking cloud, depending on who one believed. Vibrio cholerae is a violent illness, capable of killing its victims within hours in a particularly gruesome manner. Shortly after I started listening to the book, as I heard Johnson describe how the disease kills people, I started to feel very, very thirsty. At the same time, I didn't want to go get a drink of water because that's where the cholera comes from. (Funny enough, as I sit here writing this post, I'm drinking a big glass of tap water. Filtered, of course.)

A note about the narration: Alan Sklar narrated the audiobook version of The Ghost Map I got from Audible.com. Sklar has a pleasingly deep voice and a good rhythm. Unfortunately, he's also a very breathy reader. In the Audible edition, he can be heard sucking in breath before resuming his narration. He also mispronounces a few British place names, which I found jarring.

* If you'd like to learn more about the history of medicial, with special emphasis on the bizarre and misguided, I cannot recommend Sawbones highly enough. It is brilliant.


The thwarted red pen

Last night, I fell asleep listening to the epilogue of Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, somewhere between the explanation of New York's 311 service and a description of contemporary Soho, London. I've been slowly working my way through the audiobook for two week now. (I will post a review tomorrow.) Yes, I realize that listening to a book about a massive cholera outbreak in mid-Nineteenth century London is not most people's first choice as a bedtime story, but I make no bones (sorry, not sorry) about my interest in medical history.

I've written before about my nearly uncontrollable urge to edit the books I read. Listening to Johnson reiterate his points, over and over and over, had my hand reaching for my red pen once more. His over-writing got me to thinking about a tendency I've noticed in a lot of non-fiction. Many non-fiction writers—at least the historians that I've been reading—seem to have no idea how to end their overgrown essays.

The students in the class I'm helping to teach have reached the point where they need to start thinking about their final papers. The syllabus does not give them a page limit. When the students have asked the instructor and I how long the paper should be, we gave the only answer we could: it should be as long as it needs to be. I've been thinking a lot about this answer, too, as I read The Ghost Map. The longer I listened, the more it felt like Johnson was striving for a page count that seemed "right" for a book. Anything less than 300 pages must have felt skimpy to him.

The original hardcover edition of The Ghost Map is 320 pages. There's so much repetition and reiteration in the text that 320 feels like a stretch. My imaginary red pen was deleting sentence after sentence. Each time the book seemed to approach a natural ending, Johnson would sprint away with another version of his protagonists' struggles against proponents of the miasmatic theory of disease or dive into another topic that seems only tangentially related (New York's 311). How on earth did Steven Johnson slide all that unnecessary text past his editor?

Conclusions are beastly to write. I feel like I've already said what I wanted to say. How do I say it one more time to wrap it up? Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Monuments Men author Robert Edsel seem to put off that moment of conclusion as much as possible.

When it comes to non-fiction, there is no middle ground between an essay and a book. With fiction, we have flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels. For non-fiction writers, there is a dearth of guidance for how to structure for length. But there's a reason we teach students to ignore length. A piece of writing will be as long as it need to be—no shorter, no longer.


Equilateral, by Ken Kalfus

I usually write my book reviews as soon as I finish the last page, before details fade and I lose the sense of the book. I couldn't do that with Ken Kalfus' Equilateral. I'm still not entirely sure I know what happened in this book. On the one hand, it's another White Man's Folly story of a man who undertakes a massive engineering project in Egypt's Great Sand Sea. On the other, it might also be about a man whose project is the first line of dialogue with the people of Mars.

In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli observed a number of channels in the surface of Mars. His Italian canali was translated as canals and suddenly the astronomical (and popular) press was full of speculation about who built these massive canals. This historical event fired the imagination of (fictional) Sanford Thayer. Thayer and the world's astronomers map out the Martian canals and supposed patches of vegetation each time the great planet gets close enough for terrestrial telescopes. In the 1880s, Thayer begins to raise funds and support for an attempt to communicate with whoever (whatever) is on Mars by carving a gigantic equilateral triangle into the surface of the Egyptian desert—and then lighting the thing on fire.

Equilaterial begins in 1893. The triangle has been delayed time and again. Thayer himself lies ill from a disease the camp physicians can't identify. The project is only moving forward because Thayer's faithful secretary, Miss Keaton, is preventing the chief engineer from taking short cuts. Everything depends on the triangle being completed in time for ignition on June 17, when Mars and Earth are in optimal alignment. As if this weren't enough to be getting on with, the Mahdist War has been making things dicey in southern Egypt.

In between bouts of fever, Thayer makes observations with a telescope and charts the changes in the canali, shadows that might indicate farming, and strange lights in the Martian atmosphere. In our history, the mistranslation was fixed after a few decades. We know now that the Martian atmosphere is too thin to support life and that the channels are the result of natural forces, rather than something-created. That's not—or might not—be what's happening in Equilateral. It's unclear whether Thayer is hallucinating because of his disease and spreading a kind of hysteria among the world's astronomers or if there really are Martians in this alternate history. "Time and again Thayer has been the first man to see planetary features and starry phenomena that were later confirmed by his colleagues" (181*). Either Thayer is extraordinarily lucky, or no astronomer wants to say they can't see what Thayer can see.

The narrative toes this line between possibilities all the way through to the end. I still don't know which reality I'm supposed to accept.

What I can say, unequivocally, is that Equilateral is a magnificent portrait of Western hubris. In my opening paragraph, I called this book a White Man's Folly tale. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Man Who Would Be King or the construction of the Suez Canal or the Anglo-Indian railroad, Sanford Thayer, Miss Keaton, and the engineer believe in the absolute rightness of not only their project, but their entire way of life. Theirs is the right way to think and act. Everyone else is a lazy savage, though the narrative undercuts this prejudice time and again:
"We'll hang just two, in fact. The others will be spared, allowed to return to their spades invigorated by fear. And edified, having been introduced to the concept of Christian mercy[," said the engineer.] 
"Fear..." Thayer mutters, "Is that our greatest motivating force? Is there no ideal, no greater purpose, that may appeal to the men?" 
"Fear works surprisingly well. That's been my experience, from Aswan to the Punjab." (89-90)
Who's really the savage here?

Though the book is well under 300 pages, I've been left with a lot to ponder. If there really are Martians (or extraterrestrial life), should we contact them? How? At what cost? Will foreigners stop taking indigenous people for granted? What did I just read?

* Quotes are from the 2013 kindle edition by Bloomsbury USA.


Plague Land, by S.D. Sykes

Plague Land
Oswald de Lacey is so far out of his element in S.D. Sykes' Plague Land that all he wants to do is return to the Abbey that raised him up. But as the only male left alive in his family, Oswald has to learn how to be a lord of the manor in record time. In 1350s Kent, the task seems nearly impossible.

At the start of Oswald's story (after a brief, Boschian prologue), his biggest problems are finding enough people to harvest his barley crop and rent his holdings. After the Great Mortality of 1348-1349, the peasantry will go to whoever will pay them the most. Then a girl's body is found in the woods of the de Lacy estate. It's clear she's been murdered, but the village priest starts ranting about dog-headed people.

Plague Land is a welter of conflicts for Oswald. He has to contend with his hysterical and sinister village priest, his bloodthirsty neighbor who wants to marry Oswald's sister, an ally who keeps disappearing, and a village full of secrets that no one wants uncovered. Of course, Oswald investigates by metaphorically turning over as many stones as he can find. Each new discovery alternate fills him with horror or pity.

After a few chapters, it's a little hard to keep track of what's going on. The initial murders, which consumed Oswald's attention, get lost in the shuffle. The fact that the characters speak relatively modern English makes the whole thing hard to swallow as a medieval mystery. I was hoping this book would be another Owl Killers, but I was disappointed.


Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God
When she was young, Janie Crawford's grandmother was afraid for her. Janie was so beautiful and so unworldly that Nanny was worried she would be ruined just like her mother was. At sixteen, Janie marries a local farmer—the first of her three marriages. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, is the story of Janie's next twenty-odd years and her quest for true love. Their Eyes Were Watching God is also the story of how Janie's husbands try to reshape her.

Janie's first husband, Logan, wants a woman who will work. But Janie wants a man who will be the bee to her pear blossom (10-11*). She wants someone who will be her other half and Logan is not that man. A year later, Janie meets Joe Starks, a sweet-talking man who wants to carry her off to a town he will help build.

Janie spends twenty years with Joe, called Jody, in Eatonville, Florida. It's not long into their marriage, however, that Janie learned that Joe wanted a different kind of woman entirely to be Mrs. Mayor of Eatonville. He wants a woman who will cover her hair and help run his store. He wants a woman that will sit quietly and not make a fuss. He wants a woman who won't pass the time of day with the lower class inhabitants of the town. After a while, Janie allows herself to be transformed into what Joe seems to want:
But mostly [Janie] lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun...She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference. (72-73)
What else is there for Janie to do but knuckle under to Joe? Her family is gone. Logan is gone. Janie doesn't have any money or wherewithal of her own. Joe never entirely erases Janie's will and personality, however. A few months before Joe's death from kidney failure, Janie stands up to his humiliations and publicly shames him with a cutting remark about his aging body.

As Joe slowly dies, Janie returns to life. She pays some lip service and wears the proper mourning clothes, but she isn't the kind of widow the town expects. During these months of widowhood, without a man pressuring her to change or adapt or suppress herself, Janie gets a chance to do something she never got when she was a teenager: a chance to grow into herself. There's a wonderful passage where Janie likens this part of her journey to finding a bit of the divine in herself:
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. The after some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (86)
I love this passage. It jibed with a bit of Jewish mysticism I read years ago about divine sparks and a story Plato told in The Symposium about how people are seeking to lost parts of their soul. Everyone around Janie is either content with their lot or striving for their idea of a better life. No one is questing after love and individuality the way Janie is.

The whispers and gossip start up as soon as a man named Tea Cake gets Janie to laugh again. The two years Janie spends married to Tea Cake are full of the love that Janie has been looking for her whole life—but also some of the deepest grief and jealousy. It seems that all the emotions Janie has been stifling for two decades are finally allowed out. She found the bee to her blossom. Their relationship isn't perfect, but they belong to each other.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a love story, but it can easily be read as commentary on race. (There's no rule that a story can't be about more than one thing.) Much of the book is written in African American Vernacular, which takes some getting used to. There is liberal use of racial epithets. Some characters try to pass for white and utterly hate darker African Americans. There are passages in this book that highlight the strife among African Americans in the 1920s. Hurston also took time to include scenes that capture African American life at the time, writing about the dozens and tale-telling and dancing and music. Though the edition I read was less than 200 pages, Their Eyes Were Watching God is full of themes to unpack—as the academics would describe it.

* Paraphrases and quotes come from the 1990 HarperCollins trade paperback edition. The cover image in this post is from the 2006 Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, which I think is prettier.


Reykjavík Nights, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Reykjavík Nights
It's been ten years since the first Inspector Erlendur novel appeared in English. Over the past ten years, Arnaldur Indriðason* has been taking us deeper into the life of the quiet detective who is obsessed with forgotten cases of missing persons. Reykjavík Nights takes us back to the early days of Erlendur's career with the Reykjavík police. After so many volumes with the dour, weary version of Erlendur, it's strange to see him with energy and a bit of optimism. As I read Reykjavík Nights, I wanted to take the detective aside and warn him about the bad decisions he's going to make.

Reykjavík Nights takes us back to a summer when Erlendur was still with the traffic division. He's on nights with two police interns pulling over speeding and/or drunk drivers, responding to domestic incidents, burglaries, noise complains, and the like. This might be enough police work for anyone—except Erlendur. Anyone familiar with the character will know that when someone goes missing and the police stop actively investigating, Erlendur takes over. As a traffic cop, however, Erlendur has to investigate the drowning death of a homeless man and a woman who never came home after a night out on his own.

There is a recurring theme in the Inspector Erlendur novels. Even now, the landscape is so harsh and the weather so unpredictable, that it's entirely possibly for people to wander off on a hike and never be heard from again. It's also a country with a significant number of suicidal people. Many disappearances are written off as suicide or mischance. Erlendur's brother is one of the disappeared and the inspector has been haunted by this ever since. He can't let people go.

Reykjavík Nights takes place a year after two deaths (or one accident and a disappearance according to the official account). No one cares about Hannibal; he was written off years ago by his family. He was a drunk, so it's not hard to believe he died in a shallow pond. There's also nothing to link him with the disappearance of a young woman—until another semi-homeless alcoholic reports that she found a flashy earring near where Hannibal died. The woman, Oddný, had been trying to leaver her violence husband, but apart from the earring, no sign of her has been seen in a year. As in other novels in the series, the two seemingly unconnected cases start to coalesce into one.

Erlendur, in Reykjavík Nights, is becoming the dogged detective he will be in later volumes. He talks to people all over the city, following the faintest of leads. He doesn't yet have his delicate touch for getting reluctant witnesses to talk or criminals to unwittingly incriminate themselves. Instead, his stubbornness carries him along. Reykjavík Nights is one of the best prequels I've ever read.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 21 April 2015. 

* This is the correct spelling of the author's name, not the one that appears on the cover and title page of the American version published by Minotaur books. Indriðason is pronounced In-drith-a-son. The th, written with an ð, sounds like the hard th sound at the beginning of the word there.

The name of Iceland's capital city is also misspelled on the cover and title page.


Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon

Wonder Boys
Grady Tripp has been working on the same novel for seven years. It's more than two thousand pages at this point, and there's no end in sight. On top of all this, his lover is pregnant, his wife has left him, his protégé has stolen valuable memorabilia and murdered a dog, and his editor is in town. The events of Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, play out over 48 exasperating and exhausting hours as Grady is forced to come to terms with the mess he's made of his life.

Wonder Boys opens as Grady's college celebrates WordFest, an annual gathering of writers, publishers, and other industry people. Some lucky students walk away from WordFest with contracts, but the event is mostly just an opportunity for big shots to have their egos stroked. At the party at the college chancellor's house that night, Grady is informed by his lover that she's pregnant. As usual, Grady can't decide what he wants to do. Should he try to get his latest wife back? Should he try to make a go of things with Sara?

After this, things get decidedly strange for Grady. Chabon plays events for comedic effect, in a macabre sort of way. I'll admit that I was laughing at Grady's ineffectual flailing even as I pitied him. There's too much plot to summarize, but I will say that Wonder Boys reads like a picaresque of misadventure with a haze of marijuana smoke over the whole. There is a simple solution to a lot of Grady's problems. He has to give up his pot and start being honest, with himself and everyone else. Like all simple solutions, this is easier said than done.

Grady Tripp is a sad sack, a pothead who can't get through his day without a toke or twenty. He blames his behavior on "the midnight disease," which he claims all authors are infected with to one degree or another. "The midnight disease," according to Grady, "is a kind of emotional insomnia" (22*). He continues:
at every conscious moment its victim...feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the windows thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. (22)
Another writer in the novel, known only as Q., blames his bad behavior on a doppelgänger personality that periodically takes over and ruins his life. The midnight disease or Q.'s doppelgänger take the blame for a lot of bad decisions.

In moments when Grady is feeling biographical, he tells us about the first author he met, who he diagnoses with the midnight disease. This author lived at Grady's grandmother's hotel until his death. Grady saw firsthand how lack of success drove this author further and further into himself. I'm tempted to psychoanalyze Grady's inability to finish his latest novel as a reaction to that long ago author's death in obscurity. But that seems too easy—just like blaming the midnight disease or a doppelgänger personality is too facile.

The 48 hours of personal disaster Grady faces bring him to a crisis point. There's a real risky that Grady's story will end just like that forgotten, suicidal author in his grandmother's hotel. Perhaps what pulls Grady back from the edge, more than incipient parenthood, is seeing his protégé drink too much and take too many drugs for the first time. For once, Grady can see what his own addlement** looks like to others. It's a sobering sight, in more than one sense.

As I read Wonder Boys, it felt like my second time through—even though I haven't actually read it before. I watched the 2000 film version I don't know how many years ago. There are entire passages and word-for-word dialog reproduced in the film version. I read Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas' voice in my head, narrating just like he did in the movie.

* Quotes are from the 2011 kindle edition published by Open Road Integrated Media.

** Not actually a word, but I like the sound of it.


How to recommend a book

Listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd (Episode 31) reminded me of a question I got from a friend a few weeks ago. This friend has built a reputation for herself as a bookish girl among her friends. Now, her friends are pestering her for book recommendations. She panicked.

Recommending books is an art. To be a good book recommender, one has to read widely to have a stock of go-to books to draw from. I find it also helps to scour book review sources like Booklist, Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly so that I can talk about books I don't plan on reading. This is step one and is easy enough if you're a member of the bookish tribe. Step two is where the art comes in.

When someone asks me for a book recommendation, I subject them to a mini-interrogation to find out their bookish tastes. There are few things I find as frustrating as people who tell me that they'll read anything and refuse to give me any other leads. (Of course these people won't read just anything.) When someone wants a book recommendation from me, I always ask:

  1. What are your favorite books? Why are they your favorites?
  2. What book have you hated? Why did you hate it?
  3. What are your tolerance levels for sex, language, and violence?
Questions one and two are the most important and the most difficult to get good answers for. Aside from the former English majors I talk to, few people know how to talk about books. Question one often needs clarifying questions. Did you like the characters? Did you like the story line? Was it the setting that hooked you? 

I usually have better luck with question two. For some reason, it's always easier to talk about books we've hated. There are exceptions to this, of course. The third question Rita Meade and her guest host tackled on Episode 31 of Dear Book Nerd is a great example of how tricky recommending a book can be. (I hope that Ms. Meade forgives me for poaching one of her questions.) This question is a typical starting book for a book talk:
Dear Book Nerd, 
I read a wide range of books, but have found that there is one kind of book that I have never been able to finish. Despite many attempts at different writers and genres, I have always found Russian authors impossible to read. I have tried reading: Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita (this one I got half-way through) to name a few, but I have never found a Russian author that I have liked. Do you have any suggestions?? 
(Dear Book Nerd, Episode 31
Because this question came in to Dear Book Nerd via email, it's not possible for Meade to ask for more detail. (She mentions this at one point in the episode.) As I listened to Meade try to pick titles from the vast tundra that is Russian literature for this reader, I wished that I knew why those three books turned Lee off. Was it the length of the books? Was it the strangeness of Russian culture and history? Why does Lee want to read Russian literature? If we knew the answers to these questions, it would be easier to find the right books, stories, plays, or poetry for Lee.

The last question of my list is just for calibration.

From these three questions, I sift through my recollections of books I've read (or read about). For someone looking for a good love story, I recommend These is My Words. For someone who wants a ripping yarn, I dig up Robert Louis Stevenson or a thriller writer. For a reader who wants something different, I point them towards Neil Gaiman or China Miéville. I usually end up grabbing a stack of books from various genres and talk them up for the reader and let them pick a few that really appeal to them.

Few things make me as happy as the sight of a reader marching over to the circulation to check out a stack of books I've found for them.


The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly, by Matt McCarthy

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly
After a year in the minor leagues*, Matt McCarthy returned to the Ivy League complete his medical degree. The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly documents McCarthy's experience as a first year intern in a New York City teaching hospital.

Everything I know about learning to be a doctor comes from Scrubs. McCarthy's experience recalls the first season of that series—but with fewer sequences of daydream and less sparkling dialog. His first rotation is in the cardiac care unit, where patients are an inch from dying of heart failure. McCarthy is terrified and unprepared. His Harvard education taught him the theory of medicine, but very little about the actual practice of medicine in life-or-death situations.

Even with the help of generous residents and attending physicians, there is some doubt about whether McCarthy will survive his first year. (Unless you peek ahead to the epilogue or the About the Author paragraph at the end of the book, that is.) McCarthy's worst moment comes when he accidentally sticks himself with a needle loaded with the blood of an HIV patient with a high viral load and Hepatitis C. In the weeks that follow, McCarthy has to take a debilitating regime of antiretroviral medication and worry if he's infected.

McCarthy pairs his story of becoming a doctor with that of a patient he met in the CCU who is waiting for a new heart. Benny's ups and downs on the organ transplant list—literal and metaphorical—mirror McCarthy's highs and lows. Just as we have to wait to see if McCarthy will be a doctor, we have to wait to find out if Benny gets his new heart.

It's amazing and appalling to me what the current system puts medical students through. McCarthy writes of 30 hour shifts and supervising physicians grilling him about his mental health and ability to cope. The patients McCarthy meets are frustrating in their refusals to take medication and lack of knowledge about their conditions. (I don't blame them for this. Health education in the United States is a shambles.) It's a wonder anyone makes it to fully fledged doctorhood when it seems like everything is stacked against them.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly feels like it's too short. There are moments when McCarthy pauses to reflect on the power and responsibility he's been given, but these moments are few and far between. Aside from McCarthy and Benny, we don't really get to know any of the other people in the hospital. I would have liked to know more about, well, everything.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 7 April 2015.


* Documented in Odd Man Out. Questions have been raised about the veracity of McCarthy's account, however.


Reflections on reading nonfiction; Or, I should really stop making sweeping pronouncements

This conversation happened about a week ago, before I read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:
"So now you read memoirs?" asked a coworker.
"Apparently, I do," I replied.
The week before this conversation, I had tried to fend off a recommendation of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Because I don't read memoirs. I doubt the authors so much that I wonder about what they're not telling me. Because I'm a librarian who teaches people to question information.

Looking back at the books I've read this month, there is a surprising amount of nonfiction. I usually stick closely to fiction (though I jump from genre to genre). Now I've got The Ghost Map queued up on iTunes and a copy of Stasiland waiting in my to-read pile. What the hell happened?

"Young Woman Reading," Cilius Andersen (1903).
As for memoirs, I still draw the line at full autobiography. The kind of memoirs that appeal to me are the ones that are about something else in addition to the writer's life. I liked Smokes Gets in Your Eyes so much because the book followed an arc of ignorance to knowledge. It's the kind of journey I can appreciate—more than a journey to wealth or power or fame.

I've mentioned my Nope List a few times recently. Lolita and most of James Joyce and Proust are on that list. So are autobiographies. The Nope List is more a mental Venn diagram circle than anything else, containing things that repel me or just don't appeal. Books rarely come off the Nope List once they're on it. I realize it's contradictory of me to even have a Nope List. I encourage people to read widely and diversely whenever possible.

This is usually the point when I quote Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
My sudden fascination with odd memoirs, though, makes me reevaluate the whole notion of a Nope List. Perhaps there will come a time (doubtful) when I will read In Search of Lost Time. A Nope Lost limits me.


Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things
Once again, the Book Group has gotten me to read something that I would never have picked up for myself. I had heard great things about Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things from the folks at BookRiot, but I classified the book as "inspirational" and put it on the Nope List. I'm not sure why I have such an aversion to inspirational books. Perhaps it's because so often the inspiration comes from religion or woo or a gluten-free diet and feels like hypocrisy. The Book Group picked Tiny Beautiful Things because it was short. The last two books we've read (Unbroken and Americanah) were up around 500 pages. Another door stop was just too much. So, one member of the group suggested Tiny Beautiful Things and because it was less than 400 pages and because we'd collectively heard good things about it, we picked it for our March book.

I've been putting off reading it until today. (The Book Group meets tomorrow.) I shouldn't have done so. There's so much raw emotion in Tiny Beautiful Things that I think it should be read in small doses so as not to overwhelm. This book has its genesis on The Rumpus. Dear Sugar is the site's advice column. Unlike most advice columnists I know or have heard of, Cheryl Strayed's Sugar offers much of her own life story as advice to the people who write to her. In Tiny Beautiful Things, people seek advice from Sugar about the possibility of leaving spouses, forgiving themselves and others, dealing with grief and anger and jealous, and a raft of other very human problems. Sugar's advice is true in a way I've never seen before in an advice column.

The problems people send to Sugar are real problems—though there are examples in here of people who need to be smacked upside the head to realize that they're being idiots. In one letter to a advice seeker, Sugar writes:
“To be Sugar is at times a haunting thing. It’s fun and it’s funny; it’s intriguing and interesting, but every now and then one of the questions I get seeps its way into my mind in the same way characters or scenes or situations in other sorts of writing I do seep into my my mind and I am haunted by it. I can’t let go.” (22-23*)
I don't know how Strayed copes with all the pain that people bring to her. She offers sympathy and love to these strangers that astonished and moved me. In the foreword by Steven Almond, he writes that Sugar offers her readers "radical empathy" (6).

What separates Sugar from other advice columnists, I think, is her big heart and the fact that Strayed herself has lived such a screwed up life. It gives her an authority that I've never associated with people like Dear Abby, who seem to be dispensing their advice from above the fray of life. In another of her letters, Sugar writes that “[Life is] a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved” (107). Sugar offers ethical and honest advice and encourages her readers to be ethical and honest themselves, but there is a thread throughout the advice collected here that humans are humans. We screw up and hurt people and ourselves. We make bad decisions. But Sugar repeatedly points out that there's always hope for the future. People can change, forgive themselves, and move forward with their lives.

I confess that I'm curious about Sugar's success rate. Her advice often feels like a refreshing outsider perspective on problems that the people embroiled in the situation can't provide for themselves. I wish that Tiny Beautiful Things had included a few follow-up letters. But then, I wish that I could see follow-up letters from Captain Awkward with their scripts for dealing with this or that situation. (On the flip side, I really don't want to see the follow-up to the advice provided on thatbadadvice.tumblr.com.) Do people really follow the advice given by Sugar and other advice columnists? Can they see their way out of their messy problems and learn from an outsider's perspective? After reading Tiny Beautiful Things, and seeing the generous and often wise advice Sugar gives, I hope so.

All this said, I don't know that I can read another book like Tiny Beautiful Things. I feel wrung out by the experience. I'm not emotionally evolved enough to take that much raw emotion.

* Quotes are from the 2012 trade paperback edition by Vintage.


Things Half in Shadow, by Alan Finn

Things Half in Shadow
Edward Clark has his life set up just the way he wants it. He's engaged to a lovely, well-to-do young lady. He doesn't need to work, but he enjoys writing for the crime beat of the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. He's not very happy about his latest assignment, however. At the beginning of Alan Finn's Things Half in Shadow, Edward has been informed by his editor that the paper's owner wants him to debunk Philadelphia's mediums and Spiritualists. This assignment blows the lid off of Edward's comfortable, respectable life—and resurrects his darkest secrets.

Edward's first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins. After making a fool of her during the séance, Edward reveals that he knows how every single one of Mrs. Collins' tricks work—down to the little bells on the table and the "ghost" in the cupboard. The very next day, Mrs. Collins turns the tables on Edward. She wants him to continue debunking mediums, but to focus on her professional rivals. In exchange, she won't tell Edward's fiancée that he's really the son of a magician and convicted murderer and that he's been living under an assumed name for the past four years.

When Mrs. Collins and Edward visit the Quaker Leonora Pastor, intending to debunk her, neither is prepared to learn that she is the real deal. Worse, Leonora is murdered in the middle of the séance. Edward and Mrs. Collins are now suspects in a sensational murder. Edward's only hope to clear his name is to work with Mrs. Collins to find out who killed Leonora.

Things Half in Shadow surprised me at every turn. Every time I thought I had the measure of this book, Finn came up with something new. A historical fiction/mystery turned into a caper novel before turning into a historical fantasy. The ending makes it clear that Finn isn't done with Edward Clark. I hope Lucy Collins appears in any sequels. She constantly steals the show, to the point where I wished she was our central protagonist.

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


On Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)
Last night, in a flurry of book talking, I recommended Good Omens to a reader. I didn't know that this morning I would learn that Sir Terry Pratchett had passed away. I've never felt this affected by an author's death before. When a major writer dies, I feel a bit of sorrow that there won't be any more masterpieces to savor. But I've been reading Sir Terry's work for years. His quirky, highly humorous and deadly accurate satires are an integral part of my reading experience.

It's not just that there will never be another new Discworld novel. One fan on tumblr remarked:
A great many died today.
Just for a second, it feels as if many others died with him: a cowardly wizard and a perfectly imperfect watch commander, a shrewd politician and a pink-wearing ancient vampire, an angel and a demon, a witch and a witchfinder, a teen boy and his friends, a mother and a crone, Death’s granddaughter and Death’s almost grandson-in-law, even the grand ole scythe man himself.
And many, many others. So many.
When a truly beloved author passes, it feels like a gigantic book cover has just been slammed shut before you were done reading the story.

The tumblr fan continued, "But you know what? Tomorrow someone will turn the page, and all of them will rise again, and live on, forever." Perhaps that's the best way to mourn a writer like Sir Terry, a writer I can quote verbatim. There won't be any more new books about Sam Vimes or Death or Tiffany Aching, but we still have the ones that have already been written. As long as we keep reading, they will keep living. 

The most fitting parting words for Sir Terry appeared on his twitter account:


Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller

Norwegian by Night
Sheldon Horowitz has spent the last sixty years carrying the weight of guilt and anger. He was too young to enlist during World War II. His son died during his second tour in Vietnam—a war Sheldon encouraged him to sign up for. He did his best with his granddaughter, but Sheldon's wife has passed on. Now that he lives in Oslo with his granddaughter and her husband, there's not much left for Sheldon to do. At least, that's what he thinks, until he gets one more chance to be a hero and redeem himself in Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night.

Sheldon's wife told his granddaughter, Rhea, that Sheldon was starting to go senile. After his son's death, Sheldon started to claim that he was a sniper in the Korean War and not a file clerk. And Sheldon sometimes talks to the man who owned the pawn shop across the way from his watch shop—except Bill has been dead for forty years. Still, Sheldon insists that he's not senile, thank you very much. He's not very happy about living in Norway, either, but there's nothing and no one left for him in the United States. So, here he is, in the Tøyen neighborhood, listening to their neighbors fight and argue, and resenting the hell out it all.

All this changes when Sheldon opens the door for the desperate woman who lives in the upstairs flat. The fights she's been having have turned deadly serious. It's clear she's looking for a refuge for herself and her son. Sheldon opens the door for her, but the bad guy follows. Sheldon is able to shelter the woman's son, but she is murdered. Sheldon flees with the boy, soon dubbed Paul, and lights out for the territory.

Sheldon's simple act of bravery leads a chase that involves Kosovar war criminals and the Norwegian police. His old training as, yes, a Marine sniper starts to come back to him. Even though he's an 82 year old man with arthritis, Sheldon is still wily.

As the chase unfolds, we learn more about the burdens Sheldon has placed on himself. Norwegian by Night is a tragic but redemptive portrait of an old war veteran. At times, it does seem that Miller has stuffed his novel too full of other characters. The narrative occasionally jumps to Rhea's perspective, the perspective of the police inspector who is trying to solve the murder, and even the perspective of some of the Kosovars chasing Sheldon and Paul.

I wonder what this novel might have been if we had only been traveling along with Sheldon. He's the real star of this book. When the narrative shifts focus, Norwegian by Night veers into thriller territory rather than literary fiction territory. Such a blend can work, but the genres seem like uneasy bedfellows here.


Censor spectrum

On one of the library tours that I gave last January, a student asked me if book banning was still a problem. I regretfully had to inform them that, yes, book challenges and bans happen regularly. This post highlights just a few of the most recent, from the minor to the kind of story that turns me into a towering rage monster.

Clean Reader: Bowdlerizing Since 2015
My usual response to people who are offended by something in print is to not read that book. That book is clearly not for them. Given that there are so very many books out there in the world, this doesn't really limit their reading choices. However, if they feel left out, there is now an app that can take the swear words out of literature: Clean Reader. The Washington Post story on Clean Reader begins with a reminder about a publisher who wanted to publish Huckleberry Finn without all those offensive n-words. Clean Reader isn't censorship in the traditional sense; it's Bowdlerization.

This sort of thing makes me roll my eyes. Yes, the n-word is offensive, but it's there for a reason in Huckleberry Finn. Taking out the words that offend changes the meaning and the effect of the book.

Won't someone think of the children?
When I worked for my alma mater before I took a job at my current library, a student worker got in trouble for using a Sharpie to put bikinis on the nude women in the foreign magazines like Der Spiegel. This is a step up in intensity from Clean Reader. In this case, someone took it upon themselves to cover up what they thought someone else would be offended by and should be protected from. Today on Twitter, a librarian used the #LibrarianProblems* hashtag to share a photo of a damaged copy of a book by Eric Carle.

Like someone who has just eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the person who borrowed the Eric Carle book strategically covered the innocent nude figures with homemade leaves. Not only did they ruin a copy of a children's' book—which are surprisingly expensive—but they crossed the line I draw in the metaphorical sand when it comes to censorship. My issue here is that this person made the decision about what other people should be protected from. Further, I believe that making a big deal about something like nudity creates an issue out of nothing.

At this point in the censor spectrum, I am annoyed. What sends me over the edge is this story from Kansas. The Kansas State Senate voted at the end of February to pass:
A bill making it easier to prosecute teachers and school administrators for distributing materials deemed harmful to minors passed the Kansas Senate on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 56, which passed 26-14, removes a provision from current statute that protects schools against such prosecution. It keeps the protection in place for universities, museums and libraries.
The law makes it theoretically possible to send teachers to jail for assigning books that are "deemed harmful." Harmful is not defined. Leaving the law vague opens the door to a very scary place. The law was originally intended to protect children from being exposed to pornography—another term that doesn't have a legal definition. My first thought is, "Does this happen often enough that there needs to be a law against it?" I can understand wanting to protect children from pornography, but it's such a slippery term. The article from the Kansas City Star that I linked to at the top of this paragraph goes on to report that, "Earlier in the week, Rep. Joseph Scapa, a Wichita Republican, called a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning author, pornographic." This is the problem. One person's pornography is another person's essential American author.

I need to wrap this post up soon, because I can feel myself starting to slide into gibbering fury.

Stories like these—Clean Reader, defacing library books, jailing people for "distributing materials deemed harmful to minors"—are the reason why librarians still carry a torch for intellectual freedom. They are why I point out that the children's books in my library are where visitors can find most of the books on ALA's "Frequently Challenged Books" list and give presentations about book banning and censorship. They are why I share information via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to other librarians and readers.

* One of my favorite sources of information about what's happening in the daily lives of librarians and libraries.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

Surprisingly, I'm the first person to check out my library's copy of Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
When Doughty was eight years old, she witnessed the accidental death of a girl at a mall. The incident led to Doughty developing a series of rituals to ward off her own death and the deaths of her parents and loved ones. While Doughty eventually grew out of her death-related OCD, she never lost her interest in all things Death.

After graduating with a degree in medieval history (specializing in medieval death culture), Doughty took a job at a crematory. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty—treats is definitely the wrong word—relates touching and horrific stories from the death industry. (It is very much an industry.) The job kills off Doughty's fears of death once and for all. She's able to laugh at the absurdities of some deaths and cathartically weep over the bodies of dead children. All the mystery—and thus, fear—of dying gets stripped away.

In fact, her job as a cremationist leads Doughty to become downright philosophical about the end of life. This memoir is sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes from history, anthropology, and religion to describe how other cultures deal with death. The quotes are not just for our own edification. They give context to Doughty's thoughts about how the American way of death should be. Doughty writes:
The monks found liberation [from the fear of death] through their discomfort [by meditating in the presence of decomposing bodies], and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the hear of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it. (166*)
As this book wraps up, Doughty writes about her efforts to change American death culture to something healthier. Now she runs a site called The Order of the Good Death where people can ask questions and learn about alternatives to cremation, embalmment, and burial.

Before the 1930s, Doughty tells us, death happened mostly at home. We had cultural practices to tell us how to prepare bodies and what do do with them. Wakes are one of the few traditions still widely practiced. (Doughty mentions that "death doulas" are trying to revive other practices.) This is all gone. Death is hidden from view in America. Doughty believes this has warped our culture:
If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial. (165)
Doughty's mission, via the Order of the Good Death, is to re-educate people about death and death ways. This re-education, she believes, will go a long way to alleviating the fear that Americans and other Westerners have about death.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is, perhaps, not a book one might wish to be caught reading in public. But I found it fascinating. (I know. I'm weird.) Reading this book is akin to my experience reading Flow, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim. In both books, natural experiences (death, menstruation) are medicalized. We are no longer taught by our parents to expect them as a part of life. Consequently, we are afraid. Misinformation gets out and makes things worse. Doughty ends Smoke Gets in Your Eyes with her call to arms (or coffins), "Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi [manual for the art of dying] for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes” (234).

* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by W.W. Norton & Co.


Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall
In 1972 a folk-rock band retreated to a crumbling Tudor manor house to work on songs for their second album. The guitarist disappeared, never to be heard from again. No one knows exactly what happened. Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand, is composed of interview material from the surviving band members, their manager, a journalist for NME, and a local kid who caught something weird on camera. Wylding Hall is frustratingly brief, even for a novella. Hand gives you hints of what might have happened, but the mystery of what really happened to Julian Blake remains.

Windhollow Faire, in 1972, was just starting to make a name for itself when manager Tom Haring sends the quintet of potheads off to the country to practice new material. Through the frame of interviews with an unnamed writer, each surviving member of the band gets a distinct voice. The bassist is resolutely grounded in the empirical. The drummer and fiddler aren't so sure there wasn't something supernatural going on. The other lead singer of the band seems to know a bit more, but she's been fighting off accusations of being a jilted girlfriend ever since that make her a less than willing informant.

Julian Blake is described by everyone who knew him as a shy man who didn't like to be touched. The only thing that draws him out of his shell are old songs and archaeology. When he discovers an old song by Thomas Campion, it's clear that there's something odd and wrong about it. It sounds like someone trying to cast a spell. That song and all the strange rhymes and folklore about wrens give the whole vibe around Wylding Hall a distinctly supernatural feeling.

Because we never hear from Julian himself, we will never know just what happened at Wylding Hall that long ago summer. This novella is definitely not for readers who don't like ambiguous endings.

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


Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran
Literature matters. I could argue for hours about the importance of stories and the transformative powers of words. But whatever I say pales in comparison to the experience of people like Azar Nafisi, who lived in Iran for 18 years during a time when literature was a matter of life and death. Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, covers Nafisi's life from the late 1970s to 1997, when she left Tehran for the United States. During those decades, Nafisi taught at several universities and was expelled from two before creating a secret literature class for women. Reading Lolita in Tehran is also about the trials of being female in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where improperly wearing the veil can get you beaten in the streets.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four sections, centered on four different writers and their works. The book selections mirror what's happening in Nafisi's life—though the events of the book are not related chronologically. First comes the notorious Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. While discussing Lolita, the secret literature class—made up of women Nafisi taught while she was at the University of Allameh Tabatabai—ponders the ways in which Humbert Humbert traps the object of his desire. Nafisi also tells us of her history before she returned to Iran to teach at the University of Tehran just as the Islamic Revolution was heating up. In the 1970s, Nafisi herself was a revolutionary. But shortly after her return, Nafisi started to realized the ways that the revolution—like many before it—was going sour.

After Lolita, Nafisi takes us to The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This section covers Nafisi's tenure at the University of Tehran. I felt a palpable sense of dread during this part of the memoir. In the early 1980s, universities in Iran came under fire as the revolutionary and Islamist government tried to bring them to heel. Classes were canceled or boycotted at the drop of a hat as students rushed to attend demonstrations or protests. Nafisi's classes are depicted as a microcosm of the divisions between various political and religious factions. At one point, a student's outrage over the immorality of The Great Gatsby goads Nafisi to putting the book on trial. She plays the defendant, the book itself, while the student acts as her prosecuting attorney. The scenes of the trial are deadly serious, but there is a thread of hysterical giddiness to them that makes one ponder how everyone came to this.

In the last two sections, Nafisi turns to Henry James' Daisy Miller and Washington Square and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I found the last section the most affecting. Nafisi's students come to the fore in this section and we learn about their struggles to find love and cope with all the barriers that have been placed around them. Nafisi writes, earlier in Reading Lolita, "If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat" (111*). This quotation is particularly relevant in light of the Austen section. The classes are a way for Nafisi and her class to escape from the Islamic Republic for a while, where they can take off their veils and robes and chadors, and say what they think. Some of the girls in the class are contemplating marriage, lamenting that they won't experience love because they don't know what it is. Others are frustrated by their prospects.

All through Reading Lolita in Tehran is the affirmation of the importance of literature. Not only does it provide escape, but "even with the book closed, the voices do not stop—there are echoes and reverberations that seem to leap off the page and mischievously leave the novel tingling in our ears" (Nafisi 269). This is why Nafisi keeps teaching The Great Gatsby and Daisy Miller even though some of her university students believe that the characters should be killed and the books banned in favor of properly moral and revolutionary texts.

Reading Lolita in Tehran was pressed on me by a colleague. I'm glad he talked me into reading it, over my objections about reading books about reading. (I think that reading about another reader reading books has the potential to be the most meta-boring experience.) That's not at all what I found in Nafisi's memoir is about. She rarely discusses the reading experience itself. Instead, Nafisi's book contains passages of literary criticism that helped me understand Lolita and Henry James much better**. There are sections about the politics of the veil that had me feeling righteously feminist. Some of the brief chapters in which Nafisi writes about writers, journalists, critics, artists, and others being disappeared by the government that had me genuinely worried for her safety.

I'd like to wrap up my rambling review of Reading Lolita in Tehran with a video I watched just a few weeks ago. In "100 Years of Beauty - Episode 3," a model is made up to reflect the ideals of beauty in Iran. The veil appears, then disappears by the 1930s, before being mandated in the 1980s. In the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, however, the veil reveals more and more of the model's hair. The 2003 edition of Reading Lolita had hints of hope that real progress was coming to Iran. We know now this didn't happen, but the situation—as alluded to by this video—is not as bleak as it was during the darkest days of Khomeini's rule.


* All quotations are from the 2003 Random House trade paperback edition of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

** Lolita is still on my Nope List, though.


A librarian's lament

A few years ago, I was watching Inkheart with my sister and her kids. We had to stop the movie at one point to explain why it was such a bad thing to burn books. They're just ink and paper and cardboard and glue, after all. It was hard to put the feeling of profound sadness I was feeling at seeing books burn. I told my niece and nephew that burning books was an attempt to destroy ideas. I didn't tell them about the destruction of libraries in the past, like the burning of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. That burning was an attempt to destroy the history and heritage of a people.

It may be time to have that conversation. 

Mosul Public Library, March 2015
Last week, reports came out that ISIS forces had burned thousands of books and documents from the Mosul Public Library. This week, Western media reported that members of ISIS also obliterated sculptures and artifacts at the Mosul Museum. Mohammed Rabia Chaar was quoted in the New York Times about cultural assaults by ISIS:
The feeling of sickness is growing more and more, day after day, against these imperialist Muslims. Daesh wants people with no memory, with no history, with no culture, no past, no future. (Source)
That's why people burn books. It's not the books themselves; they're trying to erase an idea that they abhor.

I'm not sentimental about books, in and of themselves. I get sentimental about what books represent, about the memories of reading books that transported me when I was a kid, of the amazing facts and perspectives I found between the covers (digital or otherwise) of a book. Still, scenes like the one above of the burning books of the Mosul Library make my heart break.

I will leave you with this image of Vedran Smailović playing the cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National Library. This haunting image speaks to me of the futility of book burning. The books themselves—the ink, the paper—may be gone, but the ideas and history can never be destroyed.


Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre

Viper Wine
Between the two of them, husband and wife Sir Kenelm Digby and Venetia Stanley embody an age. Digby lived in the curious world of pre-Scientific Revolution discovery, when alchemy was studied as seriously as anatomy. Venetia was a court beauty who acted in masques for King Charles I. Hermione Eyre's curious blend of non-fiction and invention, Viper Wine, is a meditation on Venetia's quest for beauty and Kenelm's equally consuming quest for knowledge in the waning days of Charles' reign.

Do writers of historical fiction have a certain duty to fact? I have known readers who swear off the entire genre because they constantly wonder what really happened and what is historically implausible. Viper Wine doesn't fall between fact and fiction so much as it makes use of both while commenting on their limitations. I've used both genre tags for this post because I can't think of a word that adequately describes what Eyre is up to in this book.

I was reading Viper Wine as historical fiction until I came across small portraits of Venetia and Sir Kenelm. (The cover of many editions of this book reproduce actual portraits of Venetia. The cover in this post has a portrait of Venetia by Anthony van Dyck, painted around 1633. The original is in Britain's National Gallery.) The discovery of the portraits sent me back to the GoodReads description, which didn't help much. As I read on, I found that Eyre had peppered her text with quotes from Sir Kenelm's letters and papers, contemporary and modern poetry, quotes from medical texts, and more. Other passages have constructed dialog and read like fiction.

The plot—if I can actually call what happens in Viper Wine plot—covers the last year of Venetia Stanley's life and a few years following. Sir Kenelm has just returned from causing an international incident by attacking the Venetians. Over the years, Venetia has become pathologically concerned about her looks and has retired to the family's country estate. Sir Kenelm's return also means that the couple has to return to court. Once she's back in London, Venetia seeks out the means to restore her looks. She eventually lights on Lancelot Choice and the eponymous Viper Wine—a concoction of adder venom (probably Vipera berus), pregnant mare urine, and opium, for the most part. The potion works, encouraging Venetia to go so far as to submit to a primitive kind of Botox by having her face injected with Vipera venom to freeze her face muscles. Meanwhile, Sir Kenelm is building a gargantuan library and pursuing his own investigations in to, well, everything. He can't seem to settle on a specialty.

Eyre writes about Venetia's growing obsession with beauty, detailing the various cosmetics and medicaments she uses to maintain deathly white skin, fight wrinkles, and erase liver spots. (Coincidentally, I read a short photo essay on the history of poisonous makeup while reading Viper Wine.) As a character, Venetia inspires pity. Were she alive today, she would probably be diagnosed with some kind of body dysmorphia. When she was young, before she married Sir Kenelm and had children, Venetia's entire identity was wrapped up in her appearance. Now that her beauty has faded (debatable), who is Venetia?

After Venetia's sudden death during the night of April 30, Sir Kenelm becomes the primary protagonist. (Can you call it a spoiler if you can read what happens in a Wikipedia article?) Sir Kenelm is destroyed by his wife's death and becomes even stranger. Eyre depicts Sir Kenelm as a man who's mind is adrift in time. He practices Transcendental Meditation and makes Monty Python references. He exchanges dialog with the writer and Andy Warhol. It's hard to know what we're supposed to make of a man who, in 1632, appears to find a book written in Java code.

So, I ask again, what is the duty of an author of historical fiction to fact? It's clear that Eyre has thrown the rule book out of the metaphorical window. I still don't know what to make of this so meta book. I know some readers are going to hate it, because it's not one thing or the other. Even though I had no idea what Eyre was up to, I found myself enjoying the strangeness of Viper Wine. Historical fiction, to me, is a way of bringing the past to life in a way that nonfiction usually can't. The historical record is too full of gaps and too dull to capture attention the way that fiction can. And yet, neither of the genres really do justice to the context of people like Venetia and Sir Kenelm. They were people of their age, but historians and artists are still talking about them. They still have influence.

Perhaps the truth of Venetia and Sir Kenelm doesn't lie inbetween the genres. Perhaps their truth is more complicated and connected than we ever realized.

I received a copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 14 April 2015.