28 April 2011

Free book roundup!

One of my most favorite things about springtime in New York (I'm sure it carries over to other big cities): the convention of divesting oneself of books no longer wanted by just setting them out on the curb to be snatched up by passersby. Over the past couple of weeks I've gained a passel of new reads this way:

Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff: Found on Graham Avenue on the way to my friend Ash's, IIRC. Amazing title, gorge cover design. Wasn't blown away by the stories, though, which fell very much into what my friend Jason calls "the Iowa pattern": the modern MFAish trope of "everything was X until Y changed everything." It's not a bad plot outline, really, but it's overused by the keepers of realistic literary fiction, and it make me kinda tired--especially in a collection of stories, where the trope repeats itself every 30 pages or so. I would give it a C, which I hasten to add is not an outright condemnation: as an old professor of mine liked to point out, a C is average, and most people are average at most things. This one went back out to the curb.

Jenny Lind and Her Listening Cat, Frances Cavanah: OK, this wasn't on the street--Chris picked it up at a friend's I-have-too-much-stuff giveaway. But it was free, is my point. Just a charming and inconsequential 1960s children's book about the Swedish soprano (I say this like I knew who she was) and the story that she got her start singing to her cat. Awwwww.

The Horse in the Attic, Eleanor Lowenton Clymer: See above for provenance. Review = ehn. Maybe if I was eight and really into horses? Which I wasn't, when I was eight, or ever, really. Horses are big and smelly, and I fell off one once. (Yup, I did get right back on.)

Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool: This one was free because it came from the library, which most of my recent reads did. Really, I guess the "books on the street" intro was kinda misleading (though I am excited to see what the spring and summer will bring in that regard). Anyway, the shameful truth is that I didn't read this book as an ARC despite my curiosity--I worked with Vanderpool at Watermark Books--because I didn't like her, and was vocal about it, which at the time I attributed wholly to her job performance but in retrospect was largely my being a twerp, and really I owe her an apology. Clare? If you're reading this, I'm sorry I was mean to you. Then this book won the frickin' Newbery, which a debut novel hasn't done since the 80s, and so I HAD to read it! It is, in fact, a lovely and solid piece of historical fiction. Abilene Tucker, a 12-year-old who's ridden the rails with her father her whole life, has now (1936) been sent to live in the small southeastern Kansas town of Manifest (based on Vanderpool's grandparents' hometown of Frontenac). She misses her father and doesn't understand why he picked this place to abandon her, why she has to stay put. As she searches the town around her for traces of her father--spurred on by a cigar box full of keepsakes she finds hidden in her room, and the stories of Hungarian diviner Miss Sadie--she's plunged into the history of Manifest itself in 1917, when it was a community of new immigrants kept in check by the owners of the local coal mine. There are elements of mystery, and a lot of overlooked history, both in the 1917 and 1936 threads: anti-German sentiment during WWI that led to PC terms like "Liberty cabbage" for sauerkraut, the agony of the Dust Bowl (knowledge of which seems not to be taught in history classes outside the Midwest).  Manifest very much reminds me of  the historical-fiction Newbery laureates I loved as a child: Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986); Jacob Have I Loved (1981); Roll of  Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977); The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959); Strawberry Girl (1946) (AGH I could just keep listing, and now I want to read all of those again). Definitely worthy to join their ranks.

Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott: Also from the giveaway (the other books Chris selected for were Arnold Lobel's Whiskers & Rhymes cause KITTIES, a novelization of the X-Files episode "Eve," and a 90210-expanded-universe Christmas story. If I read those last two, you're not hearin' about it). He picked it cause of its old-timey Chicago setting a la Devil in the White City--it's a very similar endeavor, spinning the interwoven stories of the Everleigh sisters, keepers of the swankiest turn-of-the-century brothel in Chi-town; the South Side Levee red-light district where they and the whole price range of prostitutes (from their $50 minimum to the $1 cribs on Bed Bug Alley) made their home; and the reformers and lawmen who crusaded against them, bringing the topic of "white slavery" into the public eye, eventually leading to the Mann Act and the quashing of more-or-less-official vice districts in American cities. Fascinating stuff, and another reminder that debauchery wasn't invented in the 1960s--but the writing just doesn't quite get there for me, with a lot of unevenness of tone and too many unanswered questions: e.g., was the "white slavery" panic overblown? Certainly sex trafficking did and does exist: but how prevalent was it, really? Abbott can't really figure out where her sympathies lie--with the folks trying to rescue harlots or the admittedly glamorous Everleighs--and the book's a bit mushy because of it. Still, I do like my history titillating, and I remain interested in reading her latest, American Rose, on the life of Gyspy Rose Lee. (Oh, and I was completely mistaken about her having written A History of Celibacy--that's Elizabeth Abbott--but that book is gangbusters, and y'all should read it.)

22 April 2011

Another stalled story.

I am soliciting feedback, queries, compliments, whatever--I know where this is going eventually, and I like what I have, but have been stalled for MONTHS. You'd think unemployment would be good for my writing, but it turns into one more failing. (P.S. Yup, it's sci-fi. V. excited by the prospect.)

     They knew they weren’t the first. They were graduate students, after all, in an unpopular department at that; all the really exciting research went to the tenured and their lovers and lackeys, so all that was left for their group thesis was recapitulation. “The last botanical survey of the Forest was six decades ago,” Archon Venk had said, “and that wasn’t at all a proper one—they just sent some seercraft overhead, snipped some cuttings from the canopy.” Which they knew; there was a sickly bleakblade bush sitting in Venk’s office, brought back by a former dean and watered maybe once a semester. “It’s been two centuries since Fintzer’s original expedition.” Which was how they knew what the bleakblade was supposed to look like. Back then, seers could only draw their observations, and so almost all scientific illustration was an unsettling mix of crude and passionless; but one of Fintzer’s seers had had real talent, and she’d produced the inky, sleek images that gave the shrub its modern name. “You’ll have all the latest techniques, you’ll be able to study the biosphere as a whole, alive, instead of relying on recordings and specimens! It has the potential to be very exciting.”
            On the lips of an administrator, potential was a sweet and hopeful word. Jaina, Lett, and Inar, however, were scientists (or hoping to be), and thus couldn’t help but be ruefully reminded of the physics sense of the word—how the politely-sipped cups in their hands, held against gravity, were full of potential energy as well as overbrewed tea; how that energy could indeed be dispersed with a crash and spill and shards, but instead simply whispered away as they filed out and placed them back on the cart. Similarly: sure, a modern expedition to the Forest might result in discoveries and prizes and professorships. More likely, they would only confirm previous data, cobble together a lackluster thesis, receive the lowest possible passing grade, and go on to work off their debt in windowless offices.
            “Maybe I’ll have a garden,” Lett said morosely. “Or my co-workers will just come to me to diagnose their houseplants.”
            “Like Venk’s bleakblade?” snorted Inar. “Nids. Hardy ones, too. I’ll bet they only ever get a drink when someone pours out that godawful tea.”
            Jaina pushed open the door to their shared office, biting back her natural inclination to see the bright side. It was improbable that their trip would turn up anything new, anything to build a career on. Still, the Forest! She’d had a book of indigenous folktales as a child, and all her favorites took place there: Tej and the Flowerbird, the Five Lost Monks, the leave-the-light-on stories of the Blind Tiger and its deadly glare. The part of her that was still a little girl (the same part, she suspected, that had led her into botany because she’d enjoyed picking wildflowers) was thrilled at the prospect of standing among those ancient trees, listening to birdsong not heard for hundreds of years.
            It was called The Forest not because it had never been named, but because it had been named so often; native records from as far off as Iothia spoke of dozens of attempted and failed settlements on its peninsula. Before that, folklore and ballads and proverbs referenced the Forest in unmistakable terms: bordered by a mountain range in the east, the ocean to the west, it was hard to reach and, it seemed, even harder to remain. Historians puzzled over this—indeed, the journey was difficult, but the soil was rich, and the easy access to the sea should have meant thriving trade for a port colony. Yet cultures and tribes had tried for millennia to establish such a town with no success, and though the documentation existed, it proved little logical help.
            “Most of the legends are nonsense, of course, all monsters and massacres out of the blue.”

21 April 2011

Hello Kitty Boyshorts

The start of an abandoned short story. Let's call it a character sketch:

Lately she’d found herself invoking adulthood more and more, but in the most childish of ways: ice cream for breakfast, for one. A child’s urge to fill up on Rocky Road in lieu of food groups or the food pyramid or whatever they were supposed to be teaching in elementary school now but weren’t because there were standardized tests every week or so, right?—this was an irrational desire, predicated solely on the anticipation of pleasure. Whereas her early (not that early, to be honest) dairy intake was the result of sober and thoughtful decision-making, to wit: Cereal and milk is a totally legitimate Complete Breakfast, even when sugar is involved. What is ice cream, then, but a novel and creative substitute, and Rocky Road in particular, with its marshmallows and almonds, providing in addition good proteins and the fats they actually tell you to eat? The absence of grain is hardly a mitigating factor, as the modern American diet is lousy with carbs. But really, nachos, combining thus dairy AND grain, are an even more adult and responsible substitute for said cereal. Nothing immature about it at all.

Nor, she maintained, was there immaturity to read into the seven or so pairs of Hello Kitty undies in her drawer: for one thing, they were mostly boyshort style, giving more coverage to the early-thirties female buttock than silly college-girl thongs. Also, the prevalence of Ms. Kitty on household décor and appliances (like her toaster, or her shower curtain) pegs her as part of adult culture. Also, the fact that increasingly she’s grown out of or given away her HK outerwear—hoodie, T-shirt, she thinks she had a skirt once—is definitely a sign of Maturity and Grown-up-ness, as she moves this beloved character into the realm of accessory (thus signaling her ancillary status) and privacy. She’d be less mature if she didn’t wear Hello Kitty underwear.

19 April 2011

Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)

Almost nothing happens in Molly Fox's Birthday. The unnamed narrator--a playwright on writing holiday at an old friend's flat (Molly Fox, a stage actor of some renown) in Dublin while her friend is in New York--dawdles, dines, thinks about her history with Molly, her own family, her similarly longstanding friend Andrew, breaks a pitcher, receives three callers (all looking for Molly and a bit disappointed), and doesn't get a lick of work done on her new play. There is a cat, and a hedgehog, and an olive wood bowl from the Holy Land.

It's a novel that calls to mind Virginia Woolf for me, in the quiet interiority and domesticity of its narrative and the forthright, liquid beauty of its prose. And, too, that Madden is aware that the "smallness" of these things belies their great importance. The book is about memory, and connection--with family, friends, lovers--about the benign and necessary falsehoods of love, protection, and the theater. So I take it back--it may be that almost everything happens.

18 April 2011

Weekend quickies.

The Great Perhaps, Joe Meno: Sometimes a book is pleasant and competent, and that's perfectly all right. I enjoyed reading The Great Perhaps, I enjoyed the characters (the Caspers, a Chicago family of four all with their own quirks and fears). I especially enjoyed that they got a happy ending, because beforehand there was too much of a whiff of Great American Novel, a ridiculous notion that usually means OMG the Suburbs Are So Devoid of Hope or Culture, and the way this played out felt much closer to my experience of life as it's lived.

A Shore Thing, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi: No, I haven't watched Jersey Shore, and I shan't; I'm only one-quarter Sicilian, but my late grandmother Josephine Zaffiro Perleberg was proud of her heritage and active in the Italian-American community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I can't help but think she'd be disgusted by the show's portrayal of her cultural companions as the worst and laziest minority stereotypes (sex-obsessed, drunken, materialistic), particularly since she could remember a time when Italians weren't yet "white." I can't imagine such a show being aired with Hispanic or African-American casts without a national hue and cry--which of course there SHOULD be.
That aside, from my position as pop culture outsider, I am fascinated by ubiquitous ephemera like the Shore phenomenon--and while I may not be willing to waste my time watching the show, I'm always willing to waste my time reading a (free) book. And this "novel" is both exactly as bad as you think it is and better than you think it is. The gender politics are repulsive, as are all the characters--simultaneously debauched and naive--and the plot is negligible except when it's laughable. Somehow, though, I had a good time reading in. I have to credit Snooki's "collaborator," Valerie Frankel (who seems to be a prolific chick-lit/romance/mystery/disposable fiction powerhouse, judging by her Amazon page), with the froth and lightness of tone and voice that keeps the book moving. No, of course it's not good. Yes, of course it's silly it got a hardcover publication. And true, I discovered my reading-on-the-subway shame threshold, as I took off the dust jacket and hid the spine in my lap. Allow me, though, to paraphrase the A.V. Club's intro to their brilliant "I Watched This on Purpose" feature: "Sometimes, even I'm not impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage."
(P.S. I gave this the same amount of stars on Goodreads as I gave Anna Karenina. This is a) hilarious, and b) a demonstration of the limits of star-based rubrics for evaluating literary achievement. To be perfectly honest, though, I had more fun reading the Jersey mind candy than the Russian classic.)

16 April 2011

The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson)

I don't know how many copies of The Devil in the White City I've sold, or how many people have recommended it to me. Approaching a kajillion, I suspect. Allow me to be kajillion and one: if you haven't read this book--and your taste in history runs less towards Great Men and troop movements and more towards the outré--DO EET NOW. I'll wait.

Wasn't it great?

Two stories, related by time and place, are told here: that of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and its primary architect, Daniel Burnham, and serial killer H.H. Holmes, who operated a "hotel" of his own design just a few blocks from the fair. I will admit without shame that at first I powered through the fair-plannin' chapter to get to the murderizin' ones; but as pages wore on, and silkiness of Larson's prose drew me in, I was just as fascinated by the tale of the logistical triumphs necessary to design, donstruct, landscape, and run the Columbian Exposition (named for the quadricentennial of Columbus's voyage)--an event that drew the largest crowds ever assembled in peacetime and left legacies as diverse as Shredded Wheat and the Ferris wheel. Too, the story of Holmes, a relentlessly charismatic con man and butcher who managed to build an edifice specifically planned for murder and easy corpse disposal (with windowless, airtight rooms that could be filled with gas at the flip of a switch, and a crematorium in the cellar), is haunting in its incredibility. Both are examples of the breadth of human ingenuity, for beauty and delight or terrifying darkness. First-rate!

13 April 2011

Aurorama (Jean-Christophe Valtat)

You know how a book can seem like it's going to get good any minute, and then it's over and it hasn't? Aurorama is one of those books.

The setting really should work. The book takes place in New Venice, a metropolis stubbornly carved from marble in the wastelands of the Arctic (deduction says Ellesmere Island, just west of Greenland). The time period is vaguely Victorian with steampunk trappings and the culture British Imperial, with a drug-induced aristocracy and good old-fashioned oppressin' the natives (the local Inuit). It's ruled by a Council of Seven who take the names of the days of the week and glean their power from the Seven Sleepers, the city's cryogenically frozen founders; they are, of course, corrupt to the core. Various forces are gathering to challenge their authority: Brentford Orsini, a disgruntled duke in charge of the Greenhouse; Gabriel d'Allier, an ostensible professor and true wastrel caught up in forces beyond his control; the mysterious black airship hovering over the city; the garbage-collecting, plague-mask-wearing underclass known as the Scavengers; and the perhaps-protective but slightly menacing semi-mythical beast known as the Polar Kangaroo. It's a good melange to start with, and there's a lot to like in the details of everyday life in a place attempting to preserve genteel society in a climate where "inhospitable" is an understatement.

But it fails in too many ways. First, I was distracted throughout the whole book by when this was supposed to take place: there are gas lamps coexisting with electric guitars, occasional very modern turns of phrase--is it Victorian? Is it society-imposed retro-Victorian, but if so, what's going on in the rest of the world? Is it proceeding as usual? The year is once given as 1908, but it's also said that the city's founders decided to count the years backwards, and there's a reference to a paper founded in 1927...does this mean it's 19 years after that, 1946? If so, is this a post-WWII world? The tale's scope is so narrow it allows for none of these questions, but in a story taking its cue from the real world, they are questions that must be asked.

I was also irked that all the female characters are muse figures in some way or other: living or dead, shamanic or sybaritic, they serve only to lead the male protagonists on their journeys, dropping convenient clues along the way. None of the characters are compelling, to be honest--but the women are just passive plot elements.

The denouement is kind of hilarious, too, in that the overthrow of this entrenched power structure consists mostly of one ever-so-nice soundwave bomb and then everybody just laying down their arms and getting drunk together...honestly, I get the feeling that Valtat just couldn't write a good fight scene, so he wrote a bloodless coup instead.

And the biggest shadow hanging over the book for me? China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. There are endless similarities between New Venice and New Crobuzon, none of which reflect well on the former. The imagination isn't as fertile, the characters aren't recognizably...crap, I can't say "human," because a lot of Mieville's best characters are recognizable without being human at all, and some of them are, conversely, so alien that they defy recognition. Whereas all of Valtat's are simply standard.

The best part of the book, really, was that it made me have a dream about seeing the Northern Lights. Turns out my subconscious has zero clue what the Northern Lights look like...but its analogue was pretty!

11 April 2011

The Master & Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

I'm so in love with WORD's Classics Book Group, you guys. To wit: dragged myself the three-mile roundtrip up and down Greenpoint last Saturday--despite battling nigh Week Two of a too-sick-for-a-cold, not-sick-enough-for-the-flu ailment (I think I'm finally OK now. Thanks for asking!)--because I wanted to talk about The Master and Margarita SO BAD. And it was worth it, despite the truly ferocious exhaustion that ensued.

Stephanie had sold this book pretty endlessly and noted that everyone who bought it seemed to be getting a copy as a present for a friend. Since it's a very particular kind of book that's propagated like this--one can love a book and even urge people to read it without taking the step to put it in their hands--her curiosity was piqued. Generalizing hastily: I think it's a book that's either beloved or culturally important; Master and Margarita is both. It's also surreal, thought-provoking, funny, tender, and subversive. AND THERE IS A CAT THAT DRINKS VODKA. (Awww, man, I just wasted several minutes trying to find a LOLcat pic of him. I mean, there's a LOLcat "The Waste Land"...my faith in the Internet is shaken.) (UPDATE: THERE, I FIXED IT.. YOU'RE WELCOME, UNIVERSE.)

The novel is, in unranked order, 1) a satire of Stalinist Russia; 2) a retelling of the trial and death of Christ centering on Pontius Pilate; and 3) a love story. You can haz explication:
  1. It's that peculiar kind of satire bred by terror and oppression, where you laugh and then gasp in horror...the devil and his minions come to 1930s Moscow and wreak trickster-god havoc, but they're not at all the evil at work in the city. Dreams and magic stand in for the surreality of an "ordinary life" marked by survival-instinct-bred mistrust and constant disappearances. The book itself wasn't published contemporaneously, of course--apparently its publication (albeit still in censored form) in 1966-7 represented a huge step forward in literary freedom in the Soviet Union, and it's a favorite of many Russians who lived through the Communist era, faithfully and obliquely detailing what it was like to do so. Without being, you know, The Gulag Archipelago (an obviously amazing and important work, but one of the worst birthday presents I can think of).
  2. Interspersed with the Satanic antics--starting as a tale told by the devil himself and following through in dream and novel-within-a-novel--is an absolutely beautiful (though unorthodox) version of the prosecution and condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. (Sidebar: I was amazed that there was more than one person in the group who had to look up who Pilate was!! Cultural currency varies so much.) For me (and for Bulgakov, I think), Pilate is a crucial figure in Christianity because he represents the challenge of living in the world, the impossibility of always doing the right thing, that faces every human being. He had to sentence Christ to death. Muscovites had to protect themselves and their families while their neighbors were denounced and executed. There are always saints, yes--but one can be a good person without being a saint. One can be a good person and have done bad things.
  3. AND there's also the Master and Margarita! And they are about love, and art, and loving an artist, and what love and art can and cannot do. And selfless deals with the devil.
So: yes, you should read this book, and then give it to your friends. Next up is Dead Souls, Gogol's only novel. Hooray!

04 April 2011

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

So I guess I read these books in the right order (i.e. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) (also i.e. in the opposite order from which they were written)--had I read O&C first, I probably wouldn't have bothered to read YotF. Left me pretty cold.

It's set in the same world, a nightmare near-future of corporate-sponsored genetic engineering, climate-changed landscapes, widening class disparity, executions on reality TV, and porn, porn, porn...gosh, when I type it out it really sounds like every single other "nightmare near-future" universe churned out in the past ten years, doesn't it? Really, subtract the climate change and it's every nightmare near-future since the 70s. Huh. So, OK, neither novel was original. But where O&C failed for me was in the choice of its protagonists: Oryx really seemed more of a vehicle for Awareness of Child Prostitution (not that it's not a horror that people shouldn't be aware of, of course) than a fully realized character; Crake was a similarly one-dimensional mad scientist, and Jimmy, the lover of the former and adolescent best friend of the latter, was honestly too dumb and cowardly to care much about--as the bulk of the novel is from his point of view, it was slower going for me. And the Children of Crake just annoyed the HELL out of me--genetically engineered Noble Savages are Noble Savages nonetheless. (Seriously, how are people still into Rousseau?!? Dude was a) wrong and b) a horrible human being even had he been right.)

I will say that it was neat seeing the asides and mentions that became characters and plot points in YotF--I'm impressed with authors who can smoothly interlock different stories. And both novels were that ol' standby "compulsively readable." Still, I shan't be waiting with bated breath for the purported third related novel (publication date who knows, really?).

You should still follow Ms. Atwood on Twitter. Because she is adorable. Like your grandma, if your grandma were the grande dame of Canadian fiction.
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