28 December 2010

Post-Christmas blowout!

Greetings from the heart of Snowmageddon! And welcome to a hidden pitfall of working from home (been doing freelance editorial stuff for McGraw-Hill, and I kind of love it): no excuse not to work even when everyone else has a snow day. Oh wells.


The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes: One of the first fellow-bookseller recs I received when I started working at Watermark in, uhm, March 2008. The perils of the front list! For the first few hundred pages I kept worrying I was reading the wrong book after all--I was waiting for two characters to show up who didn't till very near the end--which anxiety messed with my enjoyment of the tale of a bit. You won't have that problem: you'll just rollick through a Holmesian, Poe-esque, relentlessly tongue-in-cheek murder mystery about an no-longer-young magician-detective; his hulking, silent, impervious, only-milk-drinking assistant (the Somnambulist of the title); circus freaks, secret agents, assassins, and Coleridge cults, all tied together by an enigmatic narrator who admits outright he plans to lie at times. Quite fun.

Flannery, Brad Gooch: More informative than enlightening. But really, as long as you quote her, it's impossible to write a bad biography of Flannery O'Connor, right?

Missing You, Metropolis: Poems, Gary Jackson: I won this in an Twitter contest in re: literary superheroes!!! Courtesy of the always fascinating Graywolf Press and my superheroine alter ego, The Editrix, pictured herewith:

[Note phalanx of red pens, and first edition Elements of Style. Not pictured: feline sidekick, The Independent Claws.] The book's a first collection by a poet from Topeka (Kansas--another connection! Though my only Topeka experience is field trips to the State Capitol. Look up our mural of John Brown: it is CRAZY SAUCE), strung together with comic-book ruminations, kind of a Midwestern, African-American Fortress of Solitude. It also reminds me of Krypton Nights, the (now sadly out of print) first collection by a poetry guru of mine, Bryan Dietrich. I think there's a strong argument to be made that the DC/Marvel universe is as important a source of shared experience and metaphor for our culture as, say, Homer was for the ancients: comic books are where our modern myths are created and revised.

Mr. Toppit, Charles Elton: Another Twitter score, sort of--went to my first-ever invited-as-a-book-blogger publisher-sponsored happy hour towards the end of last month (I skipped D&D for it! HUGE!!), at the charming and gracious behest of Other Press. Who, I'll have you know, published TWO of my favorites of the year: The Origin of Species (Nino Ricci) and Sarah Bakewell's brilliant Montaigne bio How to Live. The event was a great time, got me thinking more about expanding readership and reach and influence or whatever of this blog...and I totally forgot to pick up a copy of this novel, which I'd heard good things about. Luckily, Ms. Terrie Akers was kind enough to send it out, with impressive turnaround. Thanks!

(OK, one more side note: "Charles Elton" is just a straight-up Austen-character name, isn't it? I love it.)

Mr. Toppit--another winner. Hooked me with the first line: "And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us." EEK! It's the last line of what turns out to be the last book in "The Hayseed Chronicles," a series of Narnia-esque children's books that languish in obscurity until their British author, hit by a car, spends his dying moments with an American tourist adrift in her own life, who latches onto the books--and the man's family--and single-handedly creates a posthumous frenzy, turning the books into classics, their mysterious, sinister antagonist, Mr. Toppit, into a cultural icon. The author's son Luke, transmuted into the books as the main character, grows up twisted by his perceived notoriety; his older sister is similarly warped by the Chronicles' omission of her existence. It's a wonderful, dark story about stories, about the sometimes sick but inevitable feedback loop between books and life. And Elton does a marvelous job constructing the book's nesting flashbacks and revelations, both in the reality of the Haymans and the fiction of the Hayseeds--we read just enough of the Chronicles' weird and menacing prose to want to read them all, and at the same time to feel that we've read them before. I think Mr. Toppit deserves all the praise and exposure lavished upon the seriously disappointing The Magicians: better written, better plotted, infinitely more heartbreaking (and yes, wickedly humorous at times, as all the best dark books are).

Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper: Again, a fitting follow-up--a real beloved, dark children's classic. No clue how I missed the Dark is Rising sequence in my Narnia-and-Prydain days. I'm told that the conventional wisdom is actually to skip this one and head straight to the eponymous #2, and I can see why (this book is OBSESSED with logistics and maps and directions, which I am constitutionally incapable of following), but oh well, I'm a completist, and here at least I've been introduced to the Arthurian good-vs.-evil struggle that I presume makes up the narrative arc of the next four books.

See you next year.

12 December 2010

Fangs, gangs, perpetual trains!

[Yes, I am SO PROUD of this title. Trademark me, 2010!!!]

December reading:

Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Treasury of Victorian Vampire Stories, ed. Michael Sims: Out this summer, somehow slipped down to the bottom of my stack! I'm (probably not surprisingly) a peruser of vamp fiction from way back, since encountering Anne Rice at the tender age of 13 (and the less said about those books' influence on my burgeoning sexuality, the better) (the word for this kind of pointing-out-by-saying-you're-not-pointing-it-out, btw, is paralipsis! Second most useful word I learned this week--also, from a random Wikipedia article, "demonym," meaning the proper term for a person from a particular place, e.g. Kansas, New Yorker.). Really, this is one reason Twilight irritates me so much, because I KNOW VAMPIRES and these are NOT vampires, lady!!!
Returning to the anthology at hand: Dracula's Guest is a well-curated collection of tales, interspersed with some fun "non-fiction" accounts of Eastern European vampirism. Besides the obvious suspects (Polidori, Stoker), Sims collects some forgotten gems of bloodsucker lore--my favorite was "Let Loose" by Mary Cholmondeley, which involves an aficionado of early English fresco accidentally awakening a baneful (and slightly hilarious when revealed) presence. Other highlights include Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne" (and if you haven't read her Lady Audley's Secret, it's one of the Great Trashy Novels), a tantalizing excerpt from James Malcolm Rymer's penny dreadful Varney the Vampyre (can we say "overwrought"? And "can't stay in one tense within a paragraph"? Yes, we can), and yes-slightly-related Aleksei Tolstoy's "The Family of the Vourdalak."

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, Brian Francis Slattery: Heard M. Slattery read with Charles Yu at WORD back in yikes, September? accompanying himself on banjo: a dreamlike, sci-fi-by-way-of-folk experience and a perfect setup for the novel itself, which is a freewheelin' hippie road trip bluegrass heist dystopia about trying to correct the sins of history personal and national--and viciously, sardonically funny, and brutal and multicolored and just a great ride! Loved it.

Iron Council, China Mieville: Good luck of the draw reading this right after Liberation, as they're both Westerns at their heart. Remember what I said about Mieville's playing with The City as concept? In this, the city is also a revolution, and a constant escape--a train, seized by striking employees and set out across the continent over decades, laying tracks before it just long enough to travel over them, their path constantly disappearing in their wake. It's connected to New Crobuzon, the sick-at-heart metropolis introduced in Perdido Street Station, literally and figuratively. And as usual, I have trouble even discussing Mr. Mieville's work in any kind of intelligent fashion, as I am just so overwhelmed by his genius, and so aware of my inability to accurately reflect it in my own prose. Endlessly enjoyable.

And in sad news, coming full circle back to fangs: Francesca Lia Block's YA-vamp-bandwagon entry, Pretty Dead, is just awful. She's begun writing like a pale imitator of herself at her height, with none of the lushness or the heart that made her so important. Oh well, we'll always have Weetzie.

27 November 2010

Beginnings of Best of 2010!

Things these lists are: tentative (as I just started a book this morning that made it onto the list--what if I read something awesome on New Year's Eve?!?), in reverse order of when I read 'em instead of any kind of ranking, needlessly idiosyncratic. Links go back to original mention on this blog, in an omphaloskeptical sort of way.

FRONTLIST (i.e., published in 2010)


The best thing I read this week...

...this line from The Best of Everything:

"[She] had never been poor enough to feel the fright of poverty but only its small annoyances."

Most perfect phrasing ever of my quasi-adult lifestyle. For instance, this morning I handwashed a thrift-store cashmere sweater in the bathroom sink with shampoo because I can't afford dry-cleaning. Not exactly rent-or-food stuff...I mean, I'm unemployed, but I won't be for long. I have savings. Frugality for me is a virtue and not yet a necessity--I let people buy me drinks at bars. I don't go to movies. I haven't gotten that Nancy Drew tattoo.

And the whole novel was marvelous--the stories of young women in publishing in New York in the early fifties. One way to judge the success of a novel is whether I talk aloud to the characters, and here I kept shaking my head and muttering "He's never going to marry you, honey." And I was right, of course. If only one could be so clear-headed about one's own relationships.

I also finished The Outward Room: going to drag out the old adjective "lyrical" for the writing. It turned out much better for the protagonist than I'd feared. And it's always fascinating to read a novel from a time when Italians weren't yet white.

This morning I started reading Suzanne Rivecca's short story collection Death is Not an Option; I'm not even through the title story and I've already added it to my work-in-progress best of 2010 list. I'm such a sucker for effortlessness of voice!!

Literary cultures.

I loved this article in Slate about the parallel literary establishments of the MFA and NYC worlds. I shan't recap, because you should really go read the article, but I did a lot of nodding. I dropped out of my poetry MFA after a year, when I realized I was only having fun in my modern dance class, and I guess I'm on the periphery of the NYC market now, as a local bookseller. What bugged me most about my MFA program (besides my cohorts' lack of knowledge of, or interest in, much lit besides contemporary poetry, most of which bores me silly) was the willful blindness to the business end of things. I can write on my own (not that I really do anymore...), but I've no clue how to query, how to locate likely lit mags, how to format a goddamn manuscript--and the trade is just completely ignored--all something we're somehow supposed to pick up on our own. Or not, maybe--as the article points out, the point of an MFA is to secure your position in the MFA system; in other words, to get a teaching job. And that's fine if you want to teach. But I never did; nor was I any good at it. And I don't think there's any connection between writing well and teaching well, so it's a shame the teacher-writer is the standard.

But then, I see the shortcomings of the NYC publisher model, too, of course: business corrupts art, art avoids business, etc. I feel much more hopeful than my academic-y brethren & sistern about American Letters, though, as great books are being published all the time, whether heralded or no. Really, the three letters I'd offer as the literary culture producing the best work right now are SF/F. I know it's a pet topic with me that realism is limiting, and I find myself loving realistic novels all the time--but when the NYTBR positive review of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has to explicitly say "sometimes sci-fi can tell us more about our lives through metaphor than straight-up realism" IN THIS DAY AND AGE WHEN IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN TRUE?!?! It seems it still bears repeating.

24 November 2010

Happy Yam Day!

 (I don't like turkey. Also, today is my cat Juliana's 16th birthday, which is how I justify this otherwise gratuitous kitten adorableness pic:
OMG TINY EARSES) So, books! First, miscellaneous items of interest perhaps: I don't think I have plugged The Word Detective in this particular forum, but it is a must for all etymological hobbyists and "didja know"-ists. 'Twas knowledge garnered from Mr. Evan Morris that allowed me yesterday to explain the origin of the word "bailiwick." See, "-wick" is an old English place-name suffix (as in Warwick, etc.), and the "baili-" comes from "bailiff," who in ye olden times was a sheriff's assistant, a fairly powerful official. A "bailiwick" was simply his jurisdiction. Easy-peasy.

Also! A friend of my Aunt Laura & Uncle Kurt had a combination birthday costume party/ private showing of the new Harry Potter movie! She is not 10 years old, as such an event would suggest. I love grown-up theme parties. Here are slightly blurry iPhone pics of the two, as Minerva McGonagall and Mad-Eye Moody, I hope obviously respectively:

In things-I-am-actually reading news, I finished up the last novel from my September looking-for-a-job-at-indie-bookstores spree, Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse--very nouvelle vague, but less fun than Bad Marie--just in time to start another somewhat dispiriting rounds of visits (not going to bitch about the Strand at length. Just not at all a fun place to work). This time I'm trying to actually start living/spending like I'm unemployed, that being the actual situation, but I did pick up a copy of Perdido Street Station at St. Mark's Bookshop as a Christmas gift for my brother-in-law, who I don't think reads this blog: last Xmas gift to purchase! Are you jealous? I had a beautiful cupcake with a perfect buttercream rose at Books of Wonder; the frosting tasted just like the one my family makes for our traditional red velvet birthday cake, which most places top with cream cheese frosting, which is several steps less awesome. And at the cluttered, cozy, holy-crap-I-feel-like-I'm-in-London used bookshop Alabaster (so far the only place that "might" be hiring), I picked up a used copy of Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, which the lovely Stephanie Anderson is trying to get every woman in publishing to read. I started this on the train, as my previous read, Millen Brand's The Outward Room (NYRB Classics; snagged a galley as it has an introduction by Peter Cameron, one of my favorite contemporary dialoguists), while good, was dwelling on the travails of a bipolar girl looking for work in New York City during economic hard times. Liiiiiiittle close to home. Best of Everything is great--reminds me a lot of The Group, though written earlier and set later.

Other stores I visited without purchase, though I made sure to snag a bookmark for my "installation piece," by which I mean I'm gonna hang 'em on my wall: The Mysterious Bookshop, Posman Books in Grand Central Station, The Center for Fiction (mostly a subscription library/ lecture & workshop series, with a tiny, tiny fundraising bookshop), and Shakespeare & Co. (Broadway & Washington Place location). I am totally awarding myself a fake FourSquare badge for visiting the most New York indie bookstores this year. Go me! And that perfect job (that's somehow not WORD but perfect anyway) is out there. I may just have to be more artist-pursuing-a-dream about it and see if I can make some cat food money doing temp clerical work while I wait. Julie likes Innova, and that doesn't come cheap.

21 November 2010

A day late...

...but not a dollar short, I don't think. Let's try Sundays and Wednesdays for a bit, yes? They've always seemed good twice-a-week days to me.

So The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!!! Every bit as amazing as Agnes Grey was disappointing. I read this novel because of these chickens:

These lovely ladies free-range about my folks' backyard (here they're having Saturday morning coffee with my dad). And because my family is my family, their names are (L-R) Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, after the Bronte sisters! And because they'd ended up with those names, my parents couldn't resist taking my bookselling-alma-mater Watermark's Bronte Sisters Challenge last summer. And while Penguin Classics saw fit to stick Agnes Grey in with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights like it was Anne's best novel, the inimitable, indefatigable Mark Bradshaw (love you, Mark!) sussed out Tenant and told everybody in the Challenge it was his fave of all the Bronte novels. So Mom and Dad read and agreed. And golly, so do I!!!

Tenant centers on an excruciating portrait of a terrible marriage, at a time (1848) when such things weren't talked about--but it's worth as much as a novel as it is a historical curio, due to the relentless detail of how poor Helen Huntingdon, head turned by a handsome rogue and sure she can settle him down (how hope springs in the 18-year-old heart), finds herself tied indissolubly to a childish drunk, more interested in carousing in London with his bros than getting to know his son--he's jealous of the baby for diverting her attention from him; later, he amuses himself by getting the toddler drunk and teaching him swear words. Helen's first-person narrative (told in diary form) is a masterpiece of emotional doublethink: she vacillates between love and hate, between determination to force her husband to reform by endless patience and love and the fear that her beloved son will grow up just like his father. It's like following Lydia and Willoughby home, and a marvelous antidote to the "romanticizing [of] douchey behavior" (I love you, Kate Beaton) practiced by Anne's sisters, and by extension generations of writers for women (*cough Stephenie Meyer cough*). It's a must-read. Thank you, chickens!

16 November 2010

To tide you over...

Here's a gorgeous, gorgeous essay from The London Review of Books by Hilary Mantel. I wish Wolf Hall has been this full of amazing lines:

"Imagine you were creating all your experience by writing it into being, but were forced to write with the wrong hand"

"The iambic pentameter of the saline stand, the alexandrine of the blood drain, the epidural’s sweet sonnet form."

"Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet."

Eyes on the prize.

So today it turns out I'd rather read a book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Super great) than write about it.

(Also, the update sched is going to change as I've job changes in the works again--will try to stick to twice a week, though, as that jives roughly with my reading pace.)

13 November 2010

Plan B.

OK, so here's what I originally had planned for today: since the novel I'm reading (Richard Powers' first, Prisoner's Dilemma) isn't exactly knocking my socks off (it's not bad or anything--just that the tale of a studiedly eccentric Salinger-Glass-Royal-Tenebaums-type family led by an ever-sickening patriarch, who obsessively chronicles an alternate-history version of WWII wherein Walt Disney liberates 10,000 interned Japanese-Americans to create a soaring homefront propaganda film that will save the world [whew] isn't up to the intricacies and jaw-dropping juxtapositions of his later work: The Gold-Bug Variations or The Echo Maker)

Let's start a new sentence, shall we? That one rather got away from me. (Sometimes I'm envious of gendered/cased languages--one can keep so many dependent clauses straight without resorting to punctuation.) Anyhoo: I thought instead of chatting about book content, I'd write about bookshelf content--with pictures! Except somehow my camera cord has gone missing. Totally bizarre, since my apartment--while ample-space livable, with multiple rooms and everything!--is not NYC-sitcom-huge, and there are only so many places it could be. Stymied!

This is what I took pictures of, though:
  • The to-read stack--down to 6, which is crazy. I'll have to go the library or something.
  • On my desk, my teensy reference-book (dictionary, thesaurus, two copies of The Elements of Style, one a first edition, one with the Maira Kalman illustrations--everyone in my immediate family got one for Christmas the year it came out) and NYC-guide section.
  • On top of my dresser, flanked a bit precariously by my jewelry box and a magazine file containing the first 34 issues of the Buffy Season 8 comic books, kids' books, ranging from picture books (including my signed Bats at the Ballgame!) to my childhood favorites (including my signed A Wrinkle in Time, inscribed, just like Miranda's in When You Reach Me, "Tesser well"), then graphic novels and various miscellaneous tall books.
  • My main--and only proper, if you're looking for a Christmas gift idea--bookcase, mostly alphabetized fiction and then non-fiction, but also...
  • Idiosyncratic sub-sections. There's some Japanese lit in translation, some Catholic books (works by Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena, of course), poetry (with copies of all the journals my work's ever appeared in, which makes it sounds like there's a lot, right? But no, maybe a half-dozen), and finally my Great War books: poetry, prose, memoir, analysis, even a collection of soldiers' letters in French.

So how do you organize your books? Rhyme? Reason? Color?

09 November 2010

Kata sumbebekos.

A happy accident, that the roll of the die (down to 8 sides now!) should have me end up reading Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs directly after my visit to Montaigne-land, because the gentlemen have so much in common: curiosity, quotability, rambling prose style, obsession with the details of everyday, "low" culture. I can't tell you how many times I laughed aloud or blurted out "Exactly!" to the page. A worthy successor indeed!

At one point, Klosterman defines (in a footnote) the oft-tossed-about term "postmodern" as "Any art that is conscious of the fact that it is, in fact, art." I love the unfussy clarity of this definition, though it's unfortunate (and not Klosterman's doing in the least) that the semantic chunks of the word itself place it somewhere in time--I have no idea when. When was "modern"? The 1930s?--because that misleads one to think of art of this kind only being produced within a certain chronological era, when certainly one can find works that embody Klosterman's definition throughout history: say, Tristram Shandy, one of the most postmodern novels I've ever read, despite its being written shortly after the novel was invented (1759-1769). Thinking about the postmodern also got me thinking about what I'll refer to as post-postmodern (although I know that has a critical definition that doesn't jibe with how I'm using it). Art that knows it's art is taken for granted these days. The "new" prevailing mode of art (and I'm using "art" in a less restrictive sense, to mean not objects sequestered in galleries, but cultural expressions of all kinds), I think, is the remix or the mash-up; the unprecedented access to the history of human information and creation collapses the centuries, making it natural and obvious to combine and reshuffle songs or words or images from everywhere--essentially, making Montaigne-ism the dominant artistic manner. It's a great time to be alive.

07 November 2010

Connie, at last.

The world where Blackout and All Clear take place was first created in 1982's novella Fire Watch (thank Zeus it's hanging out online, as my copy of the eponymous collection is languishing somewhere at my folks')--the protagonist of which makes a fleeting cameo in All Clear. In between were Doomsday Book (1992--heartbreaking, and singlehandedly responsible for my thenceforth interest in the Black Death) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997--one of the funniest novels ever written, and the source of my family's youngest cat's name, Princess Arjumand, Juju for short). It's set it (what is now much nearer than originally) near-future Oxford, wherein the avuncular Mr. Dunworthy presides over the time-travelling history department. A lovely conceit--that this technology would end up being used primarily for historical research! There is, of course, an element of holodeckiness to it, in that we only ever experience the drops that somehow go wrong. This time, Willis returns to the Blitz, where it started for her 28 years ago: three students are sent back to observe various parts of the British WWII experience--Merope (as Eileen O'Reilly) with evacuee children in the country, Michael (as the incongruously American Mike Davis) at the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk, and Polly (whose name conveniently works for centuries) as a shopgirl during the opening months of the Blitz. When they individually discover they can't get home, they end up banding together in 1940 London, trying to figure out why they're stranded, whether they can affect events that should have already happened, and whether time travel--and hence the future--is doomed after all.

There's my blurb. Here's why I love her: the effortlessness. The (as I once wrote) "best comic incidental characters this side of Jane Austen." The incredible intricacy of her plots--this one in particular weaves several individual narratives and points of view into not even a knot but a braid, if you follow--and parcels out information over 1100 pages total yet manages to surprise even on the last few pages. She makes me laugh out loud, and she makes me cry. She has as fierce and wide-ranging an imagination as China Mieville, but more, if you'll forgive a phrase frowned upon in contemporary criticism, heart--while my friend Noah actually dislikes her because, as he says, "when you find out what's really happening, it's always optimistic*," I feel like this is a point of view sorely lacking in modern fiction of any type. And it's not like she doesn't earn her happy endings: there is suffering and despair and sacrifice. Or, to put it in terms of the 2010 novels, before V-E Day, there are six years of rationing, air raids, and loss. Darkness before dawn.

And the weirdest thing is? Most literary-readin' folks I talk to haven't even heard of her. Go forth and remedy!!

*with the extremely notable exception of Doomsday Book. Boy howdy.

02 November 2010

Skipping ahead.

OK, folks, I'm having a rough day, and I want to postpone writing about Blackout and All Clear till I can do them justice and actually impart some information to interested readers, rather than just flailing about going OMG SO AMAZING (though they certainly are that--definitely in my top 10 for the year. Is it cheating that they take up two spots?). And I'll be on a day trip to Easthampton, MA this Saturday to geek the flip out at Webcomics Weekend, so that entry will have to wait till Sunday morning. Didn't want to fall behind on the sched, though, so I'm skipping ahead to an easy reprint entry, in honor of my current read, Sarah Bakewell's charming and appropriately digressive Montaigne bio, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Montaigne's the only 400-years-dead dude I count among my best friends, and to put it in a cringingly zeitgeist-y way, the first blogger--or at least the straight-up inventor of the personal essay (in its original meaning, from the French essai--"try" or "attempt.). Back in winter '01 I took a great eight-week preceptorial on his essays, probably something that should be required for all people everywhere, ever. Anyway, here's the final essay I wrote for the class; it's much longer than my usual entries, so join me after the jump, won't you?

30 October 2010

"Royal Tenebaums meets Watchmen."

OK, I'm not done with All Clear yet, though I just checked and I'm only 100 pages from the end--OH NOEZ!! THEN IT WILL BE OVER!! It's an absolute masterpiece of plot construction, juggling points of view, piecing out information slyly, until you see things you should have seen all along--like the Agatha Christie mysteries one of the characters reads for research (Ms. Christie also makes a tiny, not-annoying cameo).

But I did finish a book this week, on three 15-minute breaks at work, actually: Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's lovely comic The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite. I don't have anything better to say about it than already said in this post's title, a quote from a fellow Goodreads denizen: a perfect encapsulation of what makes it great (except I liked it way better than Watchmen, but I'm of a distinctly minority opinion about said comic). It's about a septet of super-powered orphans adopted by a monocled, mysterious inventor--in the first issue, they save Paris from a marauding Eiffel Tower driven by a zombie robot Gustave Eiffel himself. Naturally! Then it jumps forward twenty years to the regathering of the children after their "father"'s death, filling in bits of the ensuing embitterment along the way.

There's a second trade, called Dallas, which I'm hoping turns up at the Strand soon so I can peruse it over a few more breaks. Lord knows I can't afford to actually buy it.

26 October 2010

Elevator operators.

(OK, The Intuitionist is actually about elevator inspectors, but who can resist the classic example of dactylic hexameter [the Homeric cadence]. Certainly not me!!)

So yeah, elevator inspectors, with the upward movement of elevators as a metaphor for African-American racial uplift, told through the downfall and increasing disillusionment of an unnamed-but-obviously-New-York-but-not-real-New-York-the-New-York-of-noir-city's first black female inspector, Lila Mae Watson. This just-slightly-off-kilter world is hilariously obsessed with elevators--vast amounts of political power are wielded by rival corporations and diametrically opposed factions with the Department itself, Empiricism and Intuitionism. There is, as I said, a noirishness to the story, with a stubborn, principled, but ultimately naive protagonist peeling back layers of corruption and cold-heartedness. And there's a humor running throughout, a kind of knowing "yeah, this is totally a novel about elevators" shrug that provided a much-needed counterpoint to Lila Mae's rather dour character. And yes, Whitehead's beautiful prose imbues the taken-for-granted elevator with a wonder and mysticism that would be impossible for a lesser writer to pull off--yesterday I saw an elevator inspection van on the street, and my heart leapt.

But I don't think he quite pulls off an even trickier feat: deploying a huge central metaphor/allegory without it sometimes becoming too pat, too obvious. OK, elevators go up, like African-American social mobility through the mechanism of the civil rights movement; OK, Empiricism is based on surface details (like segregating people based on appearance) and Intuitionism a holistic, internal approach (we're all brothers and sisters under the skin!). When this shoe drops fairly explicitly, quite late in the novel, I was a bit embarrassed for the book, because I feel like it's suddenly selling itself short. So many marvelous, intricate details (the collegial haircut sported by the male elevator inspectors, for instance; Lila Mae's only ally and his dogged determination to raise the profile of escalators) are unnecessary to the ultimately simple Empiricist=White=Bad, Intuitionist=Black=Good that if you decide it's all a racial allegory you lose a lot of the delight of the book--the speculative-fiction aspects of Whitehead having thought long and hard (and brought his ferocious talent to bear) on the idea of an elevator-mad universe. I feel like, in a way, viewing it as a Race Relations Novel is a way of side-stepping the world-building here, a way for critics to ensconce themselves squarely in the Literature purview without having to worry about having accidentally read something closer to sci-fi. I only blame Whitehead himself a little for this, really, because it's his flair for language and specifics that make it a great novel; but his critic-aided attempts to define the underlying abstractions keep it from being Great.

23 October 2010

An Internet pinky-swear.

I make a contract with you, my ten-and-possibly-more readers: for as long as my days off are Tuesdays and Saturdays, I’ll meet you here, to talk about books, as I read them and immediately after, before I forget all I wanted to say about them, and have to reel off another apologetic, amateurish, “in brief” post like, uh, this one. I know I can do it: just look back at the sometimes 1000-word+ reviews I wrote for Watermark’s weekly newsletter. Of course, for those I had free sandwiches as incentive. SAAAANDWICHES.

The Scar, China Mieville: the second novel set in the Bas-Lag world of Perdido Street Station; this one's set in a floating outlaw city called Armada. If you don't count Moby-Dick, which of course you should, it's the best sea-quest novel I've ever read...once I get a hold of Iron Council, I promise you a lengthy essay about Mieville's evolving use of the city--with every novel I've read fictional metropolises (Perdido's New Crobuzon, Scar's Armada, The City & the City's Beszel/Ul Quoma) close in on "real' ones, with the shadow-London of Un Lun Dun a crucial link to Kraken's setting in a richly reimagined London proper. (Although I hear Iron Council's a Western, so it may throw a wrench in the works--if so, like all good critics, I shall simply ignore it.)

Zofloya, or The Moor, Charlotte Dacre: I'm fascinated by old-timey popular literature, especially the high-strung gothic novel, but this one was just OK. Not sure how it would have come off had Oxford World Classics not made the stupendous blunder of giving away the huge twist on the second-to-last page on the back of the book. SERIOUSLY.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller & Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe: Dystopia ahoy! I might owe myself an essay on why I find these so fascinating, but I think it's just that I love thought-experiments in general and have a generally fatalistic view of the world. Of these two, Canticle was much, much better, using the throughline of the Catholic Church (speaking of generally fatalistic) to link three novellas through a millennium, **SPOILER ALERT FOR A 50-YEAR-BOOK** (mouseover for details, since if you're like me you can never successfully skip text without reading it). Jamestown, a near-future retelling of the founding of the titular settlement, was less successful (to me at least)--I can't quite put my finger on why, but I think it has to do with the too-similar idiolect of the many different POVs (the narrative switches with each chapter). Usually I can deal with stylistic repetition (especially if I like said style, and I liked Sharpe's quite a lot), and I rarely care about "believability" in terms of characters' thoughts and words, and in a book that's all about communication and its breakdowns, it actually makes sense for what should be wildly disparate to converge. So I've really no excuse but "I just did, OK" for coming away less than impressed. Please don't revoke my intellectual credentials.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman: Loved it--loved the premise (all the various multicultural lares and penates brought over by centuries of immigrants to the U.S., squaring up for a war with the new deities of Internet and Media), loved the execution. Once you've read it, head over to this great wiki of all the gods mentioned!

I also recently read Colson Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, which deals with racism and elevator inspection--no, really. Stepped it up out of the random-roll sched because it was this month's pick on The A.V. Club's book club (Wrapped Up in Books). Coming up in Tuesday's post: I actually read the A.V. Clubbers' essays, and try to make sense of the book myself!

(BTW: currently re-reading Connie Willis' Blackout, which ended cliffhangingly, since All Clear FINALLY came out this week!!! Will talk about both together, as they're really one v. long book, but it'll take me a while to get through. And then I'll be sad they're over.)

23 September 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town

Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore RooseveltHot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is an unfortunate example of overambition. Hot Time in the Old Town, in addition to being an earworm for anyone who ever went to Girl Scout camp, attempts to tell three interlocking story: the rise of Theodore Roosevelt's political career, the collapse of William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential campaign, and the forgotten tale of a ten-day stretch in August of that year when the heat index in New York City remained well over 100 degrees, due to a disastrous combination of high temperatures and humidity--a heat wave that killed about 1,300 people. All three stories are interesting and deserving of attention--the book was never boring--but the connections between them are often tenuous, and the chapters jump from one to the other with little transition, giving the narrative a jerky quality.

Roosevelt was police commissioner at the time, and made some laudable decisions that helped the sweltering populace, especially the denizens of the oven-like Lower East Side tenements: police wagons were deputized as extra ambulances, and towards the end of the heat wave, officers handed out free ice to the poor. When Roosevelt learned of the rampant fraud going on (some families sent multiple children to pick up ice & resold it; wealthy people who could afford ice lined up with the indigent), he re-organized the distribution by giving individual beat cops vouchers to distribute to the families they knew from experience were the neediest. But other than these two initiatives, Roosevelt had little involvement in the events of the heat wave, and he spent most of the time at his house on Long Island, well out of the city.

Bryan, for his part, arrived in NYC at the height of the disaster to give a speech at Madison Square Garden--accepting his nomination to the Democratic ticket and bringing his Western populism to the hostile--but crucial--East Coast. I am not going to go into the debate then raging regarding "bimetallism"--tying the dollar to both silver AND gold--since although it was the cornerstone of Bryan's campaign, it is eye-glazingly dull at the best of times, and especially when one has been reading harrowing tales of tenement dwellers driven to sleep on their roofs falling off in the middle of the night and the epidemic of horse carcasses rotting in the streets. True, Bryan's speech went over like a lead balloon, badly enough that his campaign strategists cancelled the rest of his East Coast tour--but I just don't buy that it was all due to the heat.

So Hot Time in the Old Town was ultimately disappointing, in structure if not in content--I think that the heat wave itself would have made more a fascinating book without trying to tie it into the politics of the time. I also feel like no book should ever have both a prologue and an introduction--or, even worse, a "conclusion," an "epilogue," and a postscript. Seriously? Three endings? Come on.

However, the author did quote Roosevelt's 1891 book on the history of New York, which I am taking as my motto in tough times from now on: "[New York's] life is so intense and varied, and so full of manifold possibilities, that it has a special fascination for ambitious and high-spirited men of every kind, whether they wish to enjoy the fruits of past toil, or whether they have yet their fortunes to make, and feel confident that they can swim in troubled waters--for weaklings have small chance of forging to the front against the turbulent tide of our city life. The truth is that every man worth his salt has open to him in New York a career of boundless usefulness and interest." A-men, Teddy!

18 September 2010

The NYC Indie Bookstore Tour Spoils!

(Besides, of course, a righteous collection of bookmarks.)

Aforementioned: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, at McNally Jackson

Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers, at Housing Works Bookstore: Powers' Operation Wandering Soul was probably my first exposure to the intricate possibilities of postmodern plot and prose. (And somehow I didn't get a bookmark here. Weird.)

Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe, at The Strand: A New Hampshire bookseller I know from Twitter (@MissLiberty) was in town last Sunday for the Brooklyn Book Festival (I went. It rained and I felt lonely. Crowds=not my thing), and was all a-flutter about meeting Mr. Sharpe, which is why I picked up this remainder. Then I saw it was dystopic and was like SIGN ME UP.

The Intutionist, Colson Whitehead, at Spoonbill & Sugartown: As aforementioned, I loved his Sag Harbor with all my heart and probably half of someone else's if they'd lend it to me--but it's the only one of his I've ever read. Happy to get the chance to remedy this!

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, at Three Lives: To be honest, I don't know much about this one, except that it's even French-ier than Bad Marie. I think I will read it wearing my striped almost-boatneck.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem, at Book Culture: I do love Lethem, and not just because he showed up at his post-Thanksgiving marathon-reading-with-donuts at WORD in the world's cutest sweater vest. A prime example of the hyper-literate, pop-culture-addled prose style that will lead me to forgive almost any literary sin. And a great riff on the noir novel, only with an excessively verbose hero rather than a taciturn one.

The Scar, China Miéville, at Greenlight: O hai, Mr. Awesomepants, we meet again! And in convenient mass-market paperback form!

The Midwife's Apprentice, Karen Cushman, at BookCourt: Will be starting this immediately after finishing this blog post! Stephanie, my manager at WORD, is only five years younger than me, and it almost never makes a difference, especially as we were similarly bookish children--but when she described this one to me, I was like "How on earth did I miss this when I was a little girl?!?!" Check the pub date: oh, I was in high school.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, at Park Slope Community Bookstore: Another mass-market find! So many folks have recommended this one to me, I have no idea how I've let it go so long. Also, this bookstore totally had a kitty, happily ensconced on Emma Donoghue's Room--what does it say about me that I'll take a feline endorsement over that of the Booker Prize committee?

I would also like to mention, proudly, that these purchases brought my to-be-read stack up to 19, and I've been rolling a d20 to randomly determine which to read next. Says my friend Marlo, "Sometimes, I'm not sure that you can get any nerdier. Then you post this. It's adorable." Why, thank you!

I have nothing to link these three, except they're all orangish.

Dogfight, a Love Story, Matt Burgess: Billed as doing for Queens what Jonathan Lethem's books do for Brooklyn...sort of, inasmuch as it's both a love letter to the crazy diverse energy of the borough and a borderline-bleak tale of the edge of the criminal element. I found it more competent than brilliant, though; Burgess doesn't have Lethem's way with words. I also found myself trying to explain it to a bank officer in Ridgewood while making a deposit--"Well, it's about a guy whose brother is getting out of prison and he's trying to organize a welcome-home dogfight. It's not going well, which is good"--and wondered if I came off as slightly unhinged. Dude's name was Gift, btw. What a great name.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor's Baby, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: What a great title, huh? A book of scary, weird fairy tales from a prominent Soviet/Russian writer. Really reminded me of the bloodthirsty old folklore I loved as a child--Disney Schmisney, I had the reading skillz for the originals, so that's what I read. (My first Barbie is missing her toes because I cut them off while playing Cinderella. I was five.) A friend & I might stage a reading of some around Halloween.
This was also my first purchase on my whirlwind One-Woman NYC Indie Bookstore Support & Resume-Dropping-Off Tour, 10% off at McNally Jackson. I find myself once again looking for work, a long story I'm not inclined to tell in this forum, and Tuesday through Thursday this week I visited three bookstores a day, featuring exciting subway logistics, some IRL tweep-meetin', and the purchasing of nine books (always use to hate it when people would come into WORD and ask for a job without buying anything, like, "Oh, I would love to work here, but I have no interest in helping the store stay open. Don't worry, they were almost all on sale, or cheapie mass-market paperbacks). BTW, McN J? Want to curl up on your shiny shelves and live there, Mixed-Up Files style.

Life Sentences, Laura Lippman: Never read her before! This was great--an amazing exploration of the shifting nature of our pasts, and the ownership of stories, particularly in our memoir-obsessed current culture. Not all writers can write about writers without seeming self-indulgent, but Lippman does a great job of creating Cassandra Fallows. And she had me in the first chapter with her spot-on depiction of a typical reading, down to the questions people always ask but never think the author has heard before.

Three hefty tomes.

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville: Gah. GAH. This dude may be the most jaw-droppingly imaginative talent I've ever read, and Exhibit A for the end to marginalization of "genre" fiction. To be able to dream such bizarre-yet-familiar worlds and peoples and monsters without being completely mad oneself is such a rarity--if no one else ever wrote a book again besides him and Kelly Link (and Peter Cameron for some realism once in a while. And Brian Lies, for picture books with bats in them), I would be a happy camper. (Also, my boyfriend is sick of hearing about Mr. Miéville. I probably should not have mentioned that he's also v. attractive.)

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel: Last year's Man Booker Prize winner, and I'm on a weird kind of fence about it. It is not that I didn't enjoy it--I certainly did--but I am just not sure what raises it above popular Tudor romance like Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. It traffics in the same marvelous gossip-y history, covers the same time period, has many characters in common: why, though, is Wolf Hall Serious Lit Fic while Mss. Gregory and Weir are considered "low" commercial fiction? My only answer is in writing style, but there I'm left with how often I was confused as to who was speaking or acting or the subject of the sentence. Does "hard to follow" equal "literary"? If so, why on earth? But again, I did like this book. I just don't see how it differs qualitatively from other historical fiction or, say, The Tudors, which I started watching on Netflix after reading Wolf Hall and which is glorious, giddy, overwrought, exploitative fun. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has not yet bellowed, "Because I am the KING!!!" while overturning a table, but OMG I know it's coming.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: I don't generally underline quotes in books I'm reading--at least when it's not Montaigne--but I wish I had with this one, because it's been a few weeks since I read it and the beauty of the writing is so incredible, I'd love to have examples at my fingertips. These 600 pages about the trauma of adolescence and what follows, set in an Irish boarding school, also give the lie to my tendency to say I'm not interested in realistic fiction; but it gives me a touchstone for what makes me want to read the non-speculative--Skippy Dies hits the sweet spot for me between bleak and hilarious, between epic and hopelessly mundane. And it taught me something about WWI I hadn't previously known: how Irishmen who fought with the British Empire found themselves traitors in the wake of the Easter Rebellion, and a generation was simply swept under the carpet. Just when you think there can't be more tragedy associated with the Great War...

13 September 2010

Vacation reads and a reread.

For the first time in ages, I brought more books on a trip that I had time to read. CRAZY TIMES. I blame my laptop, which I brought with me expecting to work on my Marlene Dietrich/von Sternberg paper (yeah, didn't happen. Applied for an extension, and wrote most of it in a too-much-coffee-not-enough-food trance on the first of September. At 20 pages, it's the second longest essay I've ever written), as well as only having four full days with my family, some of the few people on this earth I prefer to books. I did, however, read:

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell: One of WORD's perennial bestsellers, and I never got around to reading it until I wasn't working there anymore. Better late than never, though--it is, in fact, a marvelous book. Less experimental than I expected, in that it's really the structure that is unusual (six nesting novellas, like matroyshka dolls), as each narrative is fairly straightforward in and of itself. I'm amazed by Mitchell's creation of six such distinct, compelling individual voices, my favorite being the spluttery what's-all-this-then erudition of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish."

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan: I don't know that I've ever read a romance novel cover to cover, but my high school bestie and I gleaned hours of entertainment whilst working at Goodwill together--paperback books were like a quarter, and we'd highlight the naughty bits (and sometimes select words to create wholly unintended naughty bits); we were also aficionados of the classic overwrought Zebra Historical covers. (Later, in college, my sister and I decorated one of the bathrooms in the suite we shared with a linked chain of lurid titles: Beloved Viking to Viking Betrayer to Betrayed by Passion, e.g.) Said high-school-bestie is in fact having her first Regency romance (Season of Temptation) published by Kensington in October 2011--I could not be prouder (or more hopeful of appearing on the Acknowledgments page).
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that this book, by the foundresses of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, is smart, eye-opening, and absolutely sheer-f-ing-hilarious. Can't think of the last time I LOLed so much at a book!

Meeks, Julia Holmes: Tied with Sarah Wendell's appearance at the romance-section launch for WORD Event I'm Sorriest I Missed in July was the launch for this slim, spare, haunting debut novel from Small Beer Press, a teensy Massachusetts publisher run in part by my favorite little-known author, short-story genius Kelly Link (READ HER READ HER READ HER. DO NOT PASS GO.) The book takes place in a rigid dystopia wherein a returning veteran (from a generations-long war against a never-encountered Enemy) tries to vain to get his hand on a bachelor suit, without which he can't marry. Really well-done, especially in terms of lack of backstory--as if the novel's the tenth of the iceberg that juts above the surface of history.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead: Gosh, this book is great. I first read it in hardcover last summer, at the relentless urging of then-boss Sarah, and I think it may be a perennial summer read for me. This time around, it was still funny through an unexpected nine-hour layover in Baltimore AND the day I had to put down my oldest cat. Powerful endorsement, eh?

12 August 2010

Oh good, I'm not as far behind as I thought!

That is great news.

Two phenomenal reads:

Bad Marie
by Marcy Dermansky is, somehow, a French film from the '60s in book form (starring in my head, probably because of the cover art, Audrey Tautou as Amelie's evil twin). Wicked, swift, and a curious but well-executed mix of detached from and deeply involved in the exploits of its eponymous heroine, who within the first 50 pages has absconded to Paris with the husband of the friend who gave her her first post-jail job and the friend's little girl. Read it in one go, work the next morning be damned.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu: A father-son story bound up in time-travel trappings, which I'm not sure I wrapped my head around entirely, but which came to marvelous fruition in the last ten pages. With some marvelous sidekicks: a flirty operating system with self-esteem problems, a chatty boss who doesn't know he's a computer program (though his wife, who's spreadsheet software, does), and a dog that only sort of exists.

And I finally read Colm Toibin's Brooklyn and was terribly disappointed--bored me to tears. And then I felt guilty for being bored, because it's such a nice, calm, unassuming little book. I suspect having heard Toibin's name linked with Henry James in the past should have warned me off; I've only read Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, both of which I liked, but years ago I read (what the introduction told me was) Edith Wharton's most Jamesian novel, The Reef, and thought it was such a snooze I've never even attempted Portrait of a Lady or The Ambassadors. (I further suspect that we all have our own half-willful gaps in our literary pedigree.)

Splitting the difference between boring and engrossing were a photo-laden book on pre-Code Hollywood, Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus, and Juliet Nicolson's recent book on the two years immediately following the Great War in Britain, The Great Silence. Both shared a curious tendency to jam way too many disparate anecdotes into one paragraph, and Nicolson's has an unfortunate over-reliance on how 1918-1920 affected the wealthy and the nobility (she comes by it honest, being the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West. And how weird would it be to have a grandmother who slept with Virginia Woolf?)--I don't really care that the Duke of Devonshire had to sell off some of his houses. Both were worth reading, however, and were well-done evocations of historical periods I knew little about.

Next up, because I'm worth it: Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, a YA re-imagining of the Great War in which it's fought between steampunk armies and genetically engineered super-beasts. I have no idea how I haven't read it before now. Or, hell, written it.

01 August 2010


NOT ONLY is there a new Brian Lies picture book--Bats at the Ballgame--there is a new Jeffrey Brown kitty-pictures collection, Cats Are Weird & More Observations!!! I have no erudite literary commentary to offer; in lieu of such I offer my tweets as each title was unpacked.


1:55 pm: OH MAN AND A NEW JEFFREY BROWN CAT-DRAWING BOOK my cuteness cup, it runneth over

Oh! And Maine bookseller extraordinaire Josh Christie is snagging me a signed copy of Bats at the Ballgame later this month. Thank you Twitliterati! (And oh God, he's 24. I am ancient. It is a wonder I can work a computer.)

I may also add that Greenpoint's favorite book of the day is the brilliant sadorable All My Friends Are Dead, 3 of which I have sold in the past, oh, two and a half hours. Poor Mr. Brontosaurus (yes, I know it's an apatosaurus. Brontosaurus is his name.)

31 July 2010


So Anne "The One Who Didn't Glorify Byronic Douchebags" Brontë's Agnes Grey really started out strong: the eponymous heroine (O how I love this phrase. Also when it employs the word "titular," although it always makes me giggle) becomes a governess to help support her family after her clergyman father loses a ton of money in a dodgy investment. The first family she's placed with--the Bloomfields--are masterfully demonic, the parents simultaneously indulgent and distant, the three children (as is to be expected with such an upbringing) gleefully obdurate little sociopaths, led by an heir who enjoys torturing baby birds. It's a great portrait of the plight of the hired caretaker: all the responsibility for the children's progress, no authority to enforce it.

This theme carries through the beginnings of her second position, with the rich and vulgar Murrays; Agnes describes her job as being "to render [the girls] as superficially attractive, and showily accomplished, as they could possibly be made without present trouble or discomfort to themselves . .. to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine." Again, frustrations familiar to any teacher. But then, the parish gets a new curate, full of informed abilities--we are told many times of his marvelous, simple, humble sermons, but never hear a word. Miss Grey gets all gushy, and the book turns into Mansfield Park, the only boring Austen novel.

I know that in the long run, the broody, tortured male leads of Jane Eyre and especially Wuthering Heights (which can more or less be blamed for the more disgusting in-the-name-of-love excesses of Twilight) are worse romantic ideals for ladies than the sedate, nice-to-poor-old-ladies-and-kittens Mr. Weston of Agnes Grey--and Agnes is no flashy dame herself, so I'm sure she is as happy as Austen's Fanny Price is with Mr. Snoozeville Edmund. But good and kind do not equate to dull; it's still hard to find books that recognize this fact.

28 July 2010

Backlist ahoy!

I love being a bookseller, don't get me wrong. But there's always a downside to making a passion your job (even though it's worth it): for me, that's the necessity of keeping up with new books. While some of the summer-release books I've written about here are among the best I've read in years, and I have two oddly-similarly-named galleys I'm super excited about (Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, December & Sarah Bakewell's life of Montaigne, How to Live, December), lately I've just been yearning for backlist. After all, there are still so many gaps on my shelves, books I've been meaning to read for years, further novels by some of my favorite authors, co-worker raves I missed. So over the past few weeks, with the exception of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, I've been indulging myself with catchup. And you know what? I don't feel guilty.

Re SSTLS, first: Perhaps it's not fair that subsequent criticism can retcon one's enjoyment of something, but my liking for this book has paled a bit since a couple of the Twitliterati (to coin a phrase) (@jchristie & @bookavore, specifically) were less than enthusiastic. I agree that as satire it's predictable, and a bit toothless--social networking TMI, Chinese domination of the world economy, an increasingly paranoid right-wing U.S.--but the vein running through the novel, the love story, is notable for how old-fashioned it feels. The unattractive older male lover, the young woman of limited prospects, the themes of fierce family loyalty and heartbreaking social climbing: all are very nineteenth-century, at the latest, and I think it's well done. Maybe some of why it's unsatisfying is the combination of near-future and recent-past? Like a stunt-casting version of Hamlet where Ophelia's a dude or something.

Ooh, segue! Matt Haig's The Dead Fathers Club is, in fact, a semi-retelling of Hamlet, with a much younger protagonist (11), which serves to highlight the extremity of the ghost's request: to kill without proof. And from the beginning, it's unclear whether the child's father's shade is even trustworthy; he seems to get details wrong, and he bullies his son into some shocking actions. The occasional direct Shakespeare-analogues are fun to come across (I especially loved the idea of a movie version of The Murder of Gonzago with Mel Gibson and Tobey Maguire), but they don't overwhelm the story. Haig, like Wes Anderson, has made a career out of a fixation on the failures of family, especially fathers; both gentlemen's oeuvres have become favorites of mine. (I hasten to add that I actually have the best father EVER.)

Other reads: Haven Kimmel's The Used World--not up to the brilliance of Iodine, but then what is?--Donald Spoto's wonderful biography of Marlene Dietrich, Blue Angel--a great mix of real-life detail and artistic analysis. I'm currently working on Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World, which is gorgeously written and TERRIBLY sad: makes Laura Rider's Masterpiece's hilarity even more of an achievement. And, because I left that one at the boyfriend's Friday night, I've also started the serious-backlist Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (the sister nobody reads). Not very far in, but it seems a bit House of Mirth in its depiction of the bleak choices for a skill-less, poor, unmarried woman.

12 July 2010

Kids' books that make me cry.

I make no secret of being a total sap. I also don't and (really can't) have kids, so sometimes just straightening up the kids' section makes me teary. The following, though, have threatened to reduce both me and Stephanie into quivering heaps of jelly:

This one's about coming back from terrible loss--I think the death of a parent.

This one's all friendship and frolic until three-quarters through, and then BAM! sucker punch.

This one's more poignant than "sad" per se--it's more or less an introduction to moral ambiguity for children. Petit just can't understand why he is sometimes good (like when he plays with his dog, and takes good care of his toys) and sometimes bad (like when he pulls hair and throws things at pigeons). "Am I some kind of not-yet-discovered type of monster?" he asks himself...mind-blowing stuff for a 5-year-old. Her (I think Isol is a her; ah, yes, says Wikipedia. Also Argentinian!) It's Useful to Have a Duck is also sniffle-inducing sweet.

Ditto with this one, where the eponymous bunny goes to visit his city-gal friend Little Rabbit and gets exhausted being rushed around to cafes and museums and parks. "I just wanted to show you everything!" she finally says; "But I came to the city to see you!" he responds. OMG SO SWEET AND SO TRUE I LOVE IT. Uh, and the illustrations are gorgeous too.

And on the other side of the spectrum, I've personally tested it several times, and I defy you to get all the way through Big Rabbit's Bad Mood without feeling better. It's great stuff!

Something is amiss at the RH paperback design department.

[N.B. The images in this post will likely not be aligned in any sort of pleasing fashion. Sorry in advance.]

I first noticed this back in January but was reminded today with the arrival of Jim Lynch's Border Songs in paperback. Here's the hardcover jacket, followed by the paperback cover:

I know, right? We've got Crazy Seraphim Glob, and...cow. Cow crossing nondescript highway.

Some others, all from Random House, all evocative hardcover above, generic paperback below:

Srsly. What is going on in the Random House paperback design department? These are from two different imprints (Vintage & Anchor), so the problem is spreading. And Vintage puts out some gorgeous classic reprints (cf. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, or the recent line of Nabokov reissues [link goes to my fave, Pale Fire]). Shouldn't they know better? All of these seem to be repackaging the titles downward, from Literary Fiction to quasi-literary book club territory. I seem to recall Cutting for Stone being a Times bestseller in hardcover, though. It's fascinating to me how this works, or attempts to work; without changing the text of a title, you can change the audience.

Two more, non-Random House examples (they're just the worst offenders), the first from Grove/Atlantic (admittedly, the hardcover is no great shakes either), the second--and definitely the most awful downgrade--from Simon & Schuster:

08 July 2010

Hat trick!

What I've actually been reading, while pondering the problem of imitation and fretting about my bookstore moves:

Hard at work on my boyfriend-bestowed summer assignment (unlike, as I'm proud to point out, his other "students"), I've read The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg (John Baxter) and up-until-the-Dietrich-Sternberg-split in Blue Angel, a Dietrich biography by Donald Spoto. Waiting on reading a tome about the sadomasochistic aesthetic in their films until I've actually seen them all--Dishonored is coming on VHS from the NYPL, but darned if I can find Shanghai Express anywhere (OK, at the two library systems and the independent video store I've tried). I've got the paper structure outlined in my head--will probably subject you to excerpts here. But first, I've got an actually-paying article to write for my alma mater's alumni mag, The College. (Read my article on the philosophical implications of Facebook here!)

And I'm now on Book 3 of the Georgia Nicoloson series, and still finding it a hoot and a half. I once again made the mistake of looking at the Goodreads reviews (NOTE TO SELF: the only comments that don't angry up your blood are those at the Comics Curmudgeon. The rest of the Internet is dead to you). There were a lot of complaints that Georgia was shallow and mean. Uh, yes? That's the point? A. She's a fourteen-year-old girl, and they are the most judgmental and terrifying creatures on the planet. B. We can see her better than she sees herself--we know that her parents aren't horrible, that her constant school shenanigans are beyond childish, that dating the boy you can't talk to is Bad News (but a mistake we all make). The self-revealing narrator, particularly in a humorous context, goes back to, I don't know, Don Quixote? Even though that's not first person. Lighten up, folks.

04 July 2010

On the problem of imitation.

I recently finished the first installment in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief, and I liked it. I was a kid who checked out D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths from my elementary school library as often as they'd let me, and I wore out my folks' old copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology further until I got my own copy--both books are important enough to me that I packed them in the two (OK, two and a half) boxes I limited myself to in moving to Brooklyn. So yeah, I loved the creative reimagining of ancient standbys: think my favorite was the "EZ Death" line in Hades. And Mt. Olympus having relocated to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. (Though I found the explanation that "the gods move to the keepers of Western civilization, and that's America!" a bit over-the-top. And I'm pretty "USA! USA!")

But I couldn't give myself over to the book entirely, as I might have when I was ten or so, because my brain kept noting "Lord, what a Harry Potter ripoff." Kid leads a mostly normal life, discovers he's special, discovers secrets about his parentage, goes to special school for specialness, acquires a smart girl sidekick and goofy guy sidekick who's braver than he appears, discovers he's specialer than all the other specials...yes, a lot of this has been kid-lit standards for a long time, from plucky-orphan-makes-good days, but so much of the book is just straight-up HP echo. Even down to the fast-reading, likeable writing style.

And I'm not sure what to do with this. I mean, I honestly liked the book; it was fun despite being derivative. Is derivative always a bad thing? What if the source material is great, and it's well imitated? I remember responding to a friend who thought all early Lemonheads songs sounded the same, "Well, yes, but I like their one song, so I like all their songs." Is originality necessary for a good story? Part of me says no: there are only a few stories, that we've been telling since we harnessed fire; what keeps me in awe of mankind despite our propensity for cruelty and horror is our ability to keep retelling these stories, that are always old and always new. But then part of me reading Lightning Thief couldn't stop inwardly rolling my eyes: "Oh, Chiron the centaur is Dumbledore, obvs."

Is it just a question of time, and marketing? I also think of Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I (apparently alone among booksellers) just couldn't get into (I found the prose hopelessly leaden, the characters ill-sketched. And it's a flippin' vampire apocalypse novel--takes a lot to make me put one of those down!). I feel so much like it's a cynical ploy on the author's part, since vampires are "so hot right now"; his two previous books have been standard Iowa Writers' Workshop grad fare (there needs to be a word for this. IWW-lit?): still suffering from a fear of modifiers and multi-clause sentences. To my taste, there's no playfulness in this work. No realization and expansion of the possibilities of language and narrative. An embarrassment at the necessity of emotion, a maleness consisting of the worst stereotypes. It just sits there on the page and begs you to take it seriously.

Maybe, in fact, marketing is the central tenet of this problem. I don't get as upset about advertising as a lot of folks in my general demographic: sometimes I think, really, it's a form of public art, and fodder for discussion. (I do, however, rail at sexism in TV commercials. Every time I watch TV. I'm glad the boyfriend thinks it's cute.) But there is a bandwagon effect that worries me, because there's a desperation to it. I thought Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was great, a cultural mash-up that was funny and fresh and self-aware. (Aside: Clive Owen is the only choice to play Mr. Darcy in the movie. Only he can pull off the action star and the period piece. If he's not in it, I'm not watchin' it.) And Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters was great too--I actually liked it even better, because it was so damn weird. But, but, but. Now there's a fleet of imitations: Jane Slayre, Android Karenina, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead. I understand the want to get some of that sweet, sweet mash-up money. The publishers need it, and without them, no books for me to read or sell. Still, it's like hearing the one about the Irishman forgetting his wheelchair at the pub (oops, should that have had a spoiler alert?) for the nth time: it's funny, but it's really the memory of hearing it for the first time that's funny.

I know this is a ramble, and I'm not getting anywhere. I'll just end with this question, and hope for your thoughts: is liking a book enough to call it "good"?

30 June 2010


On Tuesdays I play D&D in the offices of Vertical, Inc., a publisher specializing in translated Japanese fiction and manga. (And yes, I realize that the geek force emanating from that sentence could power a small city.) So I've been lucky enough to discover Chi's Sweet Home, an impossibly kawaii manga about the life and times of a grey tabby kitten, available in English (translated by my fellow adventurer Ed Chavez!) and full color as of yesterday. Either you read that and think, "How could you write a whole comic book about a kitten? Snoozers" or (like me) "HOLY SHIT!!! A comic book about a kitten!!!! SIGN ME UP!!" It's dead adorable, is what I'm saying. And in one of those things about Japan that just makes you cock your head to one side and say "huh," it's actually serialized there in the premiere manga magazine for adult men. Yup. If your dad were Japanese, he'd be reading kitten adventures on the subway.
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