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.
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