31 December 2012

2012 favorites.

Closing out the year with some opinionated accolades! This year, I've with great difficulty held it to twenty-five, giving precedence to genre reads and a couple of small presses. As per uzh, books are in arbitrary (alphabetical by author) order; links go back to original mention on this blog, in an omphaloskeptical sort of way.

And in the "my friends are super talented" category:

26 December 2012

We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We takes place in the far-future One State, walled off by glass from the green and chaotic world outside, where all citizens have numbers instead of names, and order their lives according to a strict Table of Hours--even chewing their food in unison. It's narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer heading up the construction of the Integral, a spaceship set to take the blessings of the One State to the universe. Then he meets a strange woman, I-330, who opens his mind to the possibilities of disorder and disobedience.

It's a story I've read before, but that's because it's the source, the progenitor of better-known 20th-century dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World. (Better known in the U.S., I mean--though We wasn't published in its native Russia until 1988, some 67 years after it was written, I imagine it's pretty standard there now.) Orwell, in fact, wrote 1984 just a few months after encountering a translation of We. So it's clearly an important novel, and surprising, since it was written so soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, long before the oppressive heyday of the Soviet Union.

For me, though, We's ur-text nature hurt it somewhat as just a good read; I can't undo having experienced the plot before in my own chronology, and so it felt predictable. The prose, too, suffers a bit from its own premises--writing of a perfectly comformist society requires a certain tedium, backed up by very Russian bleakness. It's not a difficult read, nor a disappointing one. But I felt its worth more as an artifact than as a work of art.

P.S. Yevgeny is so my favorite Russian name!

22 December 2012

Limit (Keiko Suenobu)

Since one of my selected post-apocalyptic reads was a bust, I decided to cheat a little and swap in something I'd read previously: the first two volumes (of 6) of Keiko Suenobu's Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Mean-Girls manga Limit.

A bus crash on a high school class trip kills all but five girls: Konno and Haru, both acolytes of now-dead queen bee Sakura; meek, injured Usui; level-headed Kamiya, indifferent to the cliques and callousness of her peers; and outcast Moriko, whose awkwardness conceals a reservoir of rage. And she's the one who scrounged a garden scythe from the wrecked vehicle, which puts her immediately at the top of their improvised society. She won't be a benevolent ruler.

It's the tiniest of dystopias, putting the ordinary teenage cruelties into a pressure cooker. Not having read all of it, I can't judge the whole narrative, but the first two installments are fantastic, edgy and troubling, with striking art--lots of slashing diagonals in the panel layouts, the dialogue parsed out between successive bubbles in a way that really draws out the tension. I think it's my favorite manga of the year (with Flowers of Evil a close second. Teenagers messing with each other's heads = compelling drama).

P.S. Speaking of comic dystopias, Chris urged me to read Tales of the Bizarro World, a collection of Silver Age hijinx from the crazy-wacky-zany square planet Bizarro, populated with imperfect clones of Superman and Lois Lane. I would say the target audience is maybe 6 or 7, whatever age it is where Opposite Day is the height of mind-bending comic genius: people break into jail! Every woman wants to win the ugly contest! The alarm clock rings when it's time to go to sleep! It is very, very silly, in short. Helps to be drunk when you read it.

20 December 2012

Things We Didn't See Coming (Steven Amsterdam)

I don't know how much I have to say about Things We Didn't See Coming--didn't dislike it, decent prose, some good ideas, all that. It's not a novel but a series of connected stories, with the same first-person narrator, over three decades of varied post-apocalyptic anecdotes--there's plague and barricades and societal breakdown, as per uzh.

I guess what's missing for me is connection: both between the stories and with the narrator himself. The episodic feel of the book skips over years that I wanted to know about: the world reshuffles itself so many times in the lacunae, but I've no real idea how, what the transition was like for those who lived through it. And the narrator himself is always a cipher.

As a whole, I think Things is a perfect example of the tendency of literary fiction to emulate genre without really understanding it, preserving the outer trappings but missing the heart. Again, there's nothing wrong with it--I do plan to read Amsterdam's upcoming novel, What the Family Needed--I've just enjoyed other, fully-committed spec-fic dystopias more.

19 December 2012

The Giver (Lois Lowry)

I think I'm supposed to remember Lois Lowry for Number the Stars, an Important Holocaust Novel--and I'm sure I read that one in my youth--but as an awkward smartypants little girl with glasses, I'm most indebted to her for writing Anastasia Krupnik and its sequels. Kept Love and Hate lists for years. (Oh, and looking at her bibliography, I also loved Taking Care of Terrific and The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, which both look to be out of print, boo.) Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I hadn't read The Giver,, which won 1994's Newbery; now that I have, I wish it had been published ten years earlier, because I would've loved it as a kid. Beginner's dystopia, so much better and more complicated than The Hunger Games!

It's written from the point of view of almost-teenaged Jonah, though his community doesn't reckon ages like we do--every December, all children born that year become Ones, the next year Twos, and so forth. Each advancement is celebrated in a ceremony attended by all, and each new "age" brings with it a new set of responsibilities: Sixes receive the bikes everyone uses to get around, Eights give up their "comfort object," a stuffed animal of species none of them recognize, like elephants and bears. Jonah is about to become a Twelve, the last numbered ceremony, when all the children are told what position they'll hold in the adult community--Nurturer (like Jonah's father), Pilot, Law, Birthmother, and so forth. Jonah is assigned to train with the Receiver, who holds the collective memory of what mankind was like before it adopted the strict ranks and rules of their community . . . pleasures, pains, colors, music.

The Giver's not didactic--too well-written for that--but it raises questions not usually put before middle-grade readers (and they should be, they should!): what are peace, safety, security worth giving up? Can we gain from unhappiness and injury? How should we treat the very young, the very old? And (as Jonah struggles with his knowledge of the world before Sameness) when we begin to feel that authority is wrong, what can--or should--we do to change things?

Lowry wrote two other middle-grade dystopias related to The Giver--2000's Gathering Blue and 2004's The Messenger--before bringing the storylines together in this fall's Son. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a little disappointed in this giving in to the series fever endemic to kids' books these days; I also really liked that The Giver has an ambiguous ending, and it's too bad that now there's a canonical continuation for the characters. But you know what? I'll bet they're good.

18 December 2012

Chalcot Crescent (Fay Weldon)

You'd think, reading the jumping-off point for Fay Weldon's Chalcot Crescent ("Two years after I was born, my mother has a miscarriage. . . . This is the sister's story, set in an alternative universe that closely mirrors our own") the novel would be, frankly, a downer. Instead, I can only describe it as delightful--and it's my old friend, VOICE, that does the trick.

Said voice comes courtesy of Weldon's conjectured sister, Frances, eighty-something in a near-future London. It's so nice to have an elderly female narrator, you know? And so rare. Frances is so much the kind of old lady I aspire to being, the kind one might admiringly refer to as a "battleaxe": cranky, funny, bawdy, and far more realistic than her descendants about the future ("When people complain that I am cynical, I say, but I am not cynical, I am just old, I know what is going to happen next"). She is a writer, or once was--she's outlived her heyday and spent her fortune, and the bailiffs are at the door of her title-street home--and the novel is a kind of memoir, full of flashbacks and imagined scenes. Two favorite passages, witty and wise, which shall have to stand in for many more:
  • "I hesitate to say this of this alleged love of my life, but show him a female and he'd try to fuck up her mind."
  • "Many a lady writer feels that . . . she will be unveiled any minute as an impostor. That the review will one day appear: 'Why have we been taking this writer so seriously? She can't write for toffee.' And that will be that. It is not a worry that plagues men. On the whole, women who get bad reviews crawl under the blankets and hide; men writers roar and go round and beat up the critic, or at least think about it."
Reading Crescent right after The Stand, the latter a thoroughly American apocalypse, really highlighted its Britishness--not just the humor, which runs to the dry, but the nature of the dystopia itself. Britain, a few years from now, has been through a depressingly familiar series of crises, economic, political, and climatological, but has found a sort of stability under the National Unity Government (NUG), which is composed "not of politicians but of sociologists and therapists." There's a CiviCam on every corner and National Meat Loaf (suitable, mysteriously, for vegetarians) in every pantry. It's very much the nanny state writ large, a government that cares so much about its citizens it has no choice but to oppress them for their own good.

11 December 2012

Rogue Male (Geoffrey Household)

At the end of every WORD Classics book club meeting, the esteemed Bookavore asks us: "To whom would you recommend this book?" (Albeit sometimes less grammatically, because for goodness' sake, it's Saturday. Also this time there was beer.) For me, the question's the best way into Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, which is both a thriller for people who don't read thrillers and a thriller for people who only read thrillers, but are willing to delve into some explorations of social class (because it is, after all, British) along with the chase.

In the opening pages of Rogue Male, the unnamed narrator, a wealthy English sportsman of some note, decides on a hunterly whim to see how close he can get to the Central European stronghold of an up-and-coming dictator (it was written in '39, so yeah, Hitler, but that's really beside the point). He has the man in his sights when he's captured by bodyguards and brutally interrogated; but he manages to escape, and from there the book divides its time between furious flight and the tedium of hiding as, pursued to his home country by the dictator's minions, the narrator goes to ground in a literal burrow in Dorset, his only companion a similarly feral cat he calls Asmodeus.

What I loved about this book is the mix of skills required for the narrator's survival--both the primal knowledge that provides him with food and shelter and the social aptitude he uses on his rare forays from his den. For he belongs to what he calls "Class X," a rank he struggles to define but which is immediately identifiable to any Englishman, who treat him accordingly. Even more so than his limitless wealth (though it certainly helps), it's this vague but unmistakable membership that allows him to navigate through the world of men. Being Class X isn't enough, of course; he needs his Bear Grylls-esque ability to eke existence from his environment, but the latter skill set also isn't sufficient to keep him out of harm's way. Watching these two very different areas of expertise complement and support each other is a joy to read, and makes Rogue Male uniquely pleasurable for the mutually exclusive sets of readers I've mentioned above. Highly recommended!

09 December 2012

The Stand (Stephen King)

Thirteen days, you guys! Thirteen days it took me to read King's apocalyptic American epic The Stand. I'll admit that while I enjoyed it the whole way through, by the last 400 pages or so I was kinda ready for it to be over--but I never once considered giving up.*

The Stand
begins with the death of 90% of humanity, slain by a genetically engineered superflu. Bands of survivors across the country find themselves drawn westward in dreams, some to Boulder and a 108-year-old woman named Mother Abagail, others to Las Vegas and the dark empire of a sentient ball of hatred who calls himself Randall Flagg. (The supernatural nature of the dreams, as well as Flagg's magical powers, are actually my least favorite part of the book . . . but really, how else to draw characters from Texas and Maine and NYC together?)

On the other hand, the bulk of King's work deals with what fascinates me about post-apocalyptic stories in general: the (exhaustive) details of survival and reconstruction. Food, shelter, transport, medicine--how to scrounge these things from the remains of industrial society? In this vision, all the resources are still there . . . but what good are scalpels with no surgeon, power lines with no electrician? I could (and did) read about the remnants' improvisation and ingenuity for ages.

But really, the heart of the book is the Tolstoyan cast. If you'll allow me to repeat myself: "Dude can create and dispatch characters so effectively, with such an understanding of the Western cultural expectation of story; it's as satisfying as listening to Mozart."

*(The same cannot be said of Julianna Baggott's Pure, which in its first 20 or so pages continually commits the unpardonable spec-fic sin of using a neologism in dialogue and then immediately explaining it in narration. Authors! It's totally OK if your readers have to figure out what something means from context! In fact, most sci-fi/fantasy readers think that's a big part of the fun!)

24 November 2012

New bloject: Dystopia December!

Gearing up mentally for another season of holiday retail in Grand Central Terminal--which is exactly as bananas as it sounds--I had the bright idea to counter the real-life stress with some nice dystopic reading. Lighten the mood after a long day, right? Have already started (Black Friday being the ceremonial consumerist debut of the season) with Stephen King's apocalyptic epic The Stand, which is crazy good. Dude can create and dispatch characters so effectively, with such an understanding of the Western cultural expectation of story; it's as satisfying as listening to Mozart.

Other novels on deck:
Things We Didn't See Coming, Steven Amsterdam
Pure, Julianna Baggott
The Giver, Lois Lowry
The Purple Cloud, M.P. Shiel
The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya
Chalcot Crescent, Fay Weldon
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

Let's hope this lineup eases some stress!

04 November 2012

Season for Surrender (Theresa Romain)

Once again, I find myself in a quandary: how to celebrate a friend's book while maintaining my (perhaps over-scrupulous, judging from book-world example) bloggeristic ethics? For high school bestie Theresa Romain's second Regency romance, Season for Surrender, is even better than her first! But if you can't take my word for it, well, it's the November book club pick at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, an honor that ain't nothing to sneeze at.

It picks up where Season for Temptation left off, continuing the story of shy, sweet Louisa Oliver, who's recovering from the scandal caused by her erstwhile fiancé-of-convenience's love match with her sister, Julia. She's surprised but secretly delighted to be invited to Lord Xavier's infamous Christmas house party; she doesn't know at first she's the subject of a wager between the notorious rake and his equally dissolute cousin--ten pounds on whether the proper young lady can be induced to stay the full two weeks without fleeing aghast at the other guests' antics. Xavier knows the bookish miss won't be able to resist the lure of his large but disorganized library--but Louisa also sees a chance to escape her sedate lifestyle before it solidifies into staid spinsterhood.

So much good stuff here! Books, cryptography, parlor games, a mistletoe-gathering contest, spouse-swapping, a cigarillo-smoking Italian opera singer, the return of Louisa's snarky Austenish aunt, Lady Irving--and a rake who's begun to chafe at his role, and a timid girl tired of fading into the background, slowly connecting and creating their truest selves. And books! And LIBRARY MAKEOUTS. LIBRARY MAKEOUTS. I need to find my husband a frock coat, pronto.

P.S. Yep, I'm aware it's been a month since I've written, and I've decided to just let the interim reads fall by the wayside (though they're all recorded and reductively rated on my Goodreads page). Here are my excuses, in order: illness. Wedding. Honeymoon. Hurricane.

05 October 2012

Fairy tales! My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (ed. Kate Bernheimer) & Fables (Bill Willingham) &

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father She Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer: I've been dying to read this anthology for two years, being, as I'm sure I've babbled about before, a fairy tale devotee from my earliest literate years, in all their dark and bloodthirsty glory. Unfortunately, while there are some wonderful, weird, wicked stories here, the collection as a whole falls short of greatness. Some of this, I think, is the way it's structured: each story is linked to an original fairy tale (maddeningly, the latter are given in the table of contents but not in the body of the book), and they're organized by country of origin. The problem with this is that there are often multiple new stories deriving from the same old one, so the reader gets several versions of, say, "The Six Swans" in succession. It's clunky pacing, and makes the book seem far too long. Furthering this awkwardness is the author's note following each tale, in which most of them explain what they were trying to do--well, authors, if you succeeded, the note's redundant, and if you didn't, it's just embarrassing.

I also felt that many of the stories were, in fact, the opposite of fairy tales, over-grounded in the Real World and Things That Actually Happen--ignoring the fact that the original tellers of these tales knew perfectly well that they were rearranging reality, creating worlds in which the good were rewarded and the evil punished, where bleakness and misery turns to triumph, usually through the kindness and hard work of the protagonist. Stripped of their otherworldly nature, fairy tales are just depressing, and that's what, for example, John Updike does with "Bluebeard in Ireland," which is just about an unhappy couple. Really breaking new ground there, dude.

But! Those wonderful, weird, wicked stories I mentioned definitely appear. The reliably magical Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman contribute "Catskin" and "Orange," respectively. And I loved Kevin Brockmeier's "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin," Shelley Jackson's "The Swan Brothers," and Timothy Schaffert's "The Mermaid in the Tree." Lydia Millet's "Snow White, Rose Red" and Kate Bernheimer's "Whitework" are also standouts' both of them also appeared in the superior Tin House Fantastic Women compilation. And it was nice to see some lesser-known stories represented, particularly the couple for Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, a loved-to-the-point-of-being-coverless edition of which looks down from the shelf as I type.

Fables: Legends in Exile, Bill Willingham (story), Lan Medina (penciller), Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (inkers): Another title I've been meaning to read since I discovered it existed! Legends is the first trade collection of the ten-years-running Fables series from Vertigo, which runs with the conceit that the once-disparate kingdoms of fairy tales and nursery rhymes alike were driven from their homelands by an annihilating Adversary. A lucky few slipped through into the human world--specifically New York City, where the expats now live hiding in plain sight. It's a fun premise, well executed: Snow White as deputy mayor! The Big Bad Wolf (turned human) as sheriff! Prince Charming as a twice-divorced smarmy bastard! This initial arc is a murder mystery--who killed Rose Red?--that also smoothly introduces the setting and major characters. It feels so lovely to begin a new series and love it--with the 13th trade paperback publishing next January, I shan't run out anytime soon.

And the simple, realistic art makes me wish so badly that comic-strip syndicates would get better artists for soap opera strips--I exempt Graham Nolan (Rex Morgan, M.D.) and Mike Manley (Judge Parker) from this, as they're aces with the medium. But poor Frank Bolle (Apartment 3-G) needs to retire. Yes, my comics-nerdery area of expertise is newspaper soap opera strips. WHAT OF IT?

03 October 2012

Five-star romances: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (Miranda Neville) & Ravishing the Heiress (Sherry Thomas)

I keep intending to branch out romance-wise--read some contemporaries or some classics of the genre (like, people say Nora Roberts is actually good? Who knew?)--but more often I just wanna read Miranda Neville and Sherry Thomas forever and ever. I fear they have spoiled me for all others, for very different reasons.

Exhibit the first: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Miranda Neville: Third in the linked Burgundy Club series (after previous fave-raves The Wild Marquis and The Dangerous Viscount), this one takes up the amatory fate of Tarquin Compton, fashion plate and bringer of Regency snark to those who don't measure up to his sartorial standards. Celia Seaton once found herself the victim of his jibes, and blames him for the dashing of her chances with the London ton marriage market, which doomed her to life as a governess. So when they are thrown together by violent circumstance (and in deshabille) on the Yorkshire moors, and she discovers he's suffering Plot Device Amnesia, she can't resist telling him he's really her country-bumpkin fiancé. Needless to say, things get complicated when she finds herself falling for this un-dandified version of Tarquin--especially when a naughty book she discovers in his belongings (a real example of 18th-century pornography--as Neville says in her research notes, "It's okay, you know, if it's historic, especially if it's in French")  gives her ideas she's never imagined.

For me, Neville's greatest strength is her humor, ranging from sly to slapstick, not just in her characterizations (I've read quite a few books where the hero/heroine were described as "witty," but she writes them telling actually funny jokes, which of course I would quote if I were a better reviewer, but alack), but in the goofy joy of eroticism itself. And, of course, her background in rare books is a constant delight.

Exhibit the second: Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas: And then we have Ms. Thomas, my greatest love for whom is reserved for her ability to be just gut-wrenching, my goodness. Ravishing is an example of perhaps my favorite romance subgenre, the Arranged or Unhappy Marriage Becoming a Passionate Meeting of True Minds (see also her Not Quite a Husband or Eloisa James's An Affair Before Christmas); this one's got even more unspoken despair to it, as tinned-goods heiress Millie fell head over heels for impoverished earl Fitz the moment they met, only to learn that their marriage requires him to leave behind the woman he loves. Eight years later, after an unconsummated union where they've become best friends and business partners, Fitz learns his lost love Isabelle is newly widowed--Millie, ever outwardly practical while she nurses her constantly broken  heart, grants him permission to pursue happiness with the other woman. But first, they need to conceive an heir.

Ravishing is so sad, you guys, all about making do with the life you have while trying to set aside what you really want, and then omigosh what if you had what you wanted all along? I just kept tearing up, and yelling at the characters about how their marriage is so perfect by modern standards--but they wouldn't know that, it's 1896! And they were married as teenagers, so goodness knows they were idiots! Oof. I teared up so many times reading this book--the last time with joy.

(FYI, Ravishing is the central entry in a trilogy about the Fitzhugh siblings. The first, Beguiling the Beauty, tells the story of Fitz's sister Venetia, who revenge-seduces a studious duke on an Atlantic crossing, never letting him see her face, as punishment for using her as an example of perfidious pulchritude. I liked it, especially the couple's shared interest in paleontology and its partial American setting, but it didn't resonate as deeply as this one. Still worth a read--and the third installment, Tempting the Bride, is coming with my on my imminent honeymoon!)

29 September 2012

Publisher crushes: The Other (Thomas Tryon), Lazarus is Dead (Richard Beard)

The Other, Thomas Tryon (NYRB Classics, Oct. 2): A horror-novel bestseller from the early 70s, packed with reliable tropes--tropes because they work, otherwise they'd be clichés. We've got the bucolic New England town, a long-established family in decline, a slightly psychic ethnic grandmother (Russian), and most notably, in the person of creepy, vicious, taciturn Holland Perry, the evil twin. (Evil children were big in the 70s, weren't they? I'm sure film theorists have written about this, but I'm gonna speculate it's because Baby Boomers started having kids and got cranky about not being the center of attention anymore.) The Other is ominously paced, and Tryon reveals his secrets at optimum times, making for a page-turning read with some excellent shocks. This was the only book I picked up (as an ARC) at Book Expo America this May (because I knew the guy at the NYRB booth from book club, and was too shy to talk to anybody else), so I'm glad I liked it as much as I did. (P.S. There is one other doozy of a trope here . . . I shall leave it as an exercise for readers more astute than I.)

Lazarus is Dead, Richard Beard (Europa Editions): Yep, that Lazarus. This is a fascinating novel, counting down until the famous revenant's demise and beyond, reconstructing a wryly humorous, quasi-historical (and not at all blasphemous, always a nice surprise in modern literary fiction!) account of Lazarus's life, death and resurrection. Extrapolating from the Bible, hagiography, fiction, and drama, Beard makes some pretty compelling connections. I loved especially the idea that Lazarus was the son of Joseph's best friend, the only other family to escape Herod's slaughter of the innocents--thus relieving Joseph of the guilt of running off to Egypt and leaving all those other children to die. It works, right? The whole thing works. And it kinda made me wanna go to Mass.

28 September 2012

Vertical reads: Pro Bono (Seicho Matsumoto), Naoko (Keigo Higashino), Flowers of Evil Vol. 3 (Shuzo Oshimi)

I've mentioned before that my friend Ed at Vertical hooks me up with a steady string of awesome Japanese works in translation--the small publisher's stock in trade. I always wanna be up front with personal connections to the books I write about, back-scratchin' in book-reviewin' being what it is . . . but c'mon, I'm not gonna not write about books I like! Here are three.

Pro Bono, Seicho Matsumoto: While I think I'd shelve this 1961 novel (filmed multiple times in Japan, most recently in 2010) in Mystery, it's not a whodunit or even a procedural--the story really starts where most mysteries end, and spirals out from there into deep, dark, uncomfortable greatness. It begins when a young woman from the provinces arrives at hotshot Tokyo lawyer Keiichi Abe's office, pleading with him to take the case of her older brother, arrested for murder, whom she believes is innocent. But she can't pay his fees, and he's preoccupied anyway about meeting up with his lover for a round of golf and adultery, so he turns her down. Her brother is convicted, and dies in prison waiting for his appeal; Abe finds himself drawn back to the case after it's too late. Pro Bono is about injustice, inaction, and the uselessness of remorse--and eventually, about revenge. First-rate!

Naoko, Keigo Higashino: And then there's this novel, which I'd shelve under . . . uh, is Unsettling Body-Switching Gender-Role-Exploring Coming-of-Age a genre? No? Can we not make it one, because Naoko simultaneously creates and perfects the concept? Great! Anyway, to elaborate: after Heisuke's wife, Naoko, and 11-year-old daughter, Monami, are in a terrible bus accident, the latter wakes from a coma claiming--convincingly--to be the former. When they return home, Naoko/Monami finds herself living two lives, the junior high student and the dutiful housewife (because it doesn't even occur to Heisuke that maybe he should lend a hand with dinner while she does her homework, argh): until she realizes she wants more from her daughter's life than she achieved in her own. Heisuke, used to taking his authority as father and husband for granted, is baffled and outraged by her struggle for independence, and the conflict heightens as she matures in body as in mind. So creepy and weird in all the right ways!

Speaking of which . . . Flowers of Evil, Volume 3, Shuzo Oshimi (out October 23): OH MAN. This terrific manga series just keeps ramping up the queasy-making adolescent sexuality and psychological manipulation and small-town boredom and decadent-author-worship to new heights, and I'm totally in love with it. But I would not let it date my son.

25 September 2012

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

I've been curious about Elena Ferrante for a while--Stephanie, late of WORD, adored her The Days of Abandonment, and y'know I have a publisher-crush on Europa Editions. Abandonment, though, is about a woman's descent into madness after her husband leaves her, and I . . . haven't been up to it. Possibly may never be? My Brilliant Friend, on the other hand, is a painstaking, heartfelt chronicle of female friendship and a portrait of mid-twentieth-century Neapolitan culture--totally my speed.

While I generally liked My Brilliant Friend, I'm having trouble writing about it--its strengths and weakness derive from the same cause, its exhaustive scope. This is book one of a trilogy, told in flashback--so while we know from the outset that Lila, narrator Elena's lifelong friend, has vanished in her sixty-sixth year, we only hear their story from early childhood through the marriage of one in her late teens. Ferrante tells their story not only of their friendship, but their poor Naples neighborhood, and the myriad connections, feuds, and histories of the families surrounding them. She handles the many characters deftly (I was worried I'd have to continually refer back to the cast listing at the beginning of the book, but didn't), and vivid and poignant moments abound. Sometimes I felt bogged down by detail, however.

The Italians in my family background come from Sicily, not Naples, and came to the United States (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, specifically--what shock that change of climate must have been, eh?) several decades before the 1950s where the story begins; but I couldn't help but have the Zaffiros and Serios in the back of my mind, especially when Lila--at the top of her class all through elementary school--isn't allowed to continue her education, while Elena goes on. My great-grandmother Grace left school after eighth grade at her parents' behest despite her longing to go on; her un-studious brother was sent. I'm told it was an injustice she never got over.

FUN FACT: Despite being one of Italy's top literary authors, Elena Ferrante's real name and whereabouts are popularly unknown. Isn't that crazy? MAYBE SHE'S SHAKESPEARE

16 September 2012

Old-school frantic catchup post.

So sometimes, I've got seven books waiting in my to-be-reviewed pile, and they all deserve a full write-up, but I've been horribly fatigued and ache-y for weeks again (the doctor thinks it's fibromyalgia), and it's just not going to happen. So rather than skip over the books, I'm gonna give them woefully short shrift in a "HERE I READ THESE I LIKED 'EM" post.

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James: I'll admit, while I connected to this latest entry in Eloisa's brill fairytale series on a gut-and-heart level, I found parts of the narrative kinda silly . . . i.e., the hero becomes a pirate for a while. But y'know, I feel like romance is best measured in emotional terms, and gosh I ached for the heroine, Theo, a super-smart lady who's heard from meanies all her life that she's ugly, her breasts too small, her features too large. Specifically, they say she "looks like a boy." (Yeah, this resonates like crazy, since I weathered the same insults for a good chunk of my own experience.) Her worst fears are realized when she learns that her childhood friend, James Ryburn, has married her to cover up his wastrel father's embezzlement of Theo's fortune. She throws him out, and hears nothing from him for seven years, when he barges triumphantly into the House of Lords during the proceedings to declare him legally dead--sun-browned, scarred, and savage. He's determined to prove to her that it wasn't just mercenary motives that led to his proposal, but there's bitterness and mistrust on both sides to overcome. I do like reconciliation plots in romance, but I kinda thought it was a tragedy that young, sweet James had to become so growly and alpha-male to win back his Daisy.

The Fantasy Hall of Fame, edited Robert Silverberg: A found-on-the-street coup, this is a mammoth (500+ pages) anthology of fantastic tales, selected in 1996 by the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. I'd only read two of the stories before--"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (Borges) and "The Lottery" (Shirley Jackson), both of which obviously bear rereading; the rest cover fifty years of imaginative writing, wildly divergent in prose style and subject matter. A lot of the authors were new to me, particularly the early ones (H.L. Gold, L. Sprague de Camp, C.L. Moore), and many were familiar names who I shamefully haven't read but now must all the more: Poul Anderson ("Operation Afreet"), Peter S. Beagle ("Come Lady Death"), Gene Wolfe ("The Detective of Dreams"), Roger Zelazny ("Unicorn Variations"), Robert Silverberg ("Basileus"). Weirdly, it seems to be out of print, but super-easy to find used. Or waiting on the sidewalk for a sharp-eyed fiancé, a gift from the city!

A Contract with God and Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Will Eisner: Speaking of pivotal genre figures, Eisner's one of the pioneers of the modern graphic novel--heck, the biggest American comics award is named for him. Both these titles are set on a fictional Bronx street; Contract contains four related tales set in the 1930s, among the mostly Jewish, working-class denizens of a single tenement. Here I had my usual problem with sequential-art-lit, which is that I read it too dang fast, so it ends up feeling slight, which I hasten to blame on my own text bias and not the medium itself. I liked Dropsie Avenue more, finding its historical ambition and Tolstoy-numerous cast much easier to follow with the aid of art. It follows the street from 1870s farmland through urban growth and sprawl and decay and renewal, through successive waves of immigrants, each in term weathering bigotry from the established inhabitants until they become the establishment: Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, African-American, Romani . . . the grand sweep doesn't keep him from telling tiny stories as well. It's a great work of historical fiction.

Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, Arthur Conan Doyle: Between trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem" and resurrecting him by popular demand in "The Adventure of the Empty House," Doyle spent ten years writing these charming comic tales of by Etiénne Gerard, Napoleonic soldier of great bravery and mustache, who, like Harry Flashman's good twin, manages to meet a litany of important figures and be privy to the real stories behind what the historical record believes. Gerard is delightful, a wonderful mix of full of himself and genuinely courageous and skilled, and as Flashman's chronicler George MacDonald Fraser says in his introduction, it's subtly subversive that Doyle's hero is from the wrong side of the Channel, allowing him to satirize French and English alike--Gerard's oblivious misreadings of English sport are particularly hilarious. We've got the zillionth iteration of the Holmes-Watson pairing hitting CBS this fall; surely someone can spare the time to make a miniseries with Doyle's second greatest creation? I'd love to see Thomas from Downtown Abbey with luxuriant whiskers . . .

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott: Loved the writing in this first novel! It hits my literary-fiction sweet spot where the Big Themes (family, memory, identity) don't overwhelm the relentless and ephemeral details of everyday life and personality.

Among Others, Jo Walton: This having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards this year, I feel confident in not belaboring the praise--sci-fi/fantasy is way better than literary fiction at deserved awards. It is, as fifteen-year-old Morwenna would say, brill, both a great fantasy in its own right and a paean to dozens of the best writers (several of whom appear in The Fantasy Hall of Fame), books, and short stories of the genre. Thank Zeus for the Internet--someone with more stamina than me has already compiled a list of every book mentioned!

05 September 2012

Breed (Chase Novak)

So my "hey, I should read more horror" notion is thus far limited to picking up horror-lookin' ARCs when they come in at work, with predictably mixed results. (Totally taking nominations.) Chase Novak*'s Breed didn't set me on fire (which, huh, how did that get to be a positive metaphor), but it's well-crafted, well-written, imbued with a strong sense of place, and genuinely scary and grotesque in places. Definitely a Like!

The place is Manhattan, a setting that's indeed been done and done--I'd be interested to see a statistical analysis of books and movies set in NYC as compared to the proportion of the U.S. population who actually lives here. But Spencer conjures it in meticulous though casual detail--cross streets as shorthand for whole ways of life, from rarefied private schools and families of four that live in three-story brownstones by themselves instead of in an apartment chopped out of a quarter of a floor . . . to two grown men in a 600-square-foot existence, "continually trying to navigate around each other, like dancers unsure of the choreography." Also, because I am just enough of a New Yorker now to be totally ignorant about the city outside my corner of it, the book alerted me to the existence of this badass statue of fifteenth-century Polish king Jagiello, in Central Park.

In the former, monied stratum, Alex and Leslie Twisden try in vain to conceive for three years, swapping stories of fertility doctors with other couples until they get a lead on a Slovenian physician named Kis ("[h]e looks like one of those concert pianists in the movies, the kind who are struck with amnesia or who hear voices, who triumph briefly in the concert hall and then descend into madness") with a mysterious magic-bullet treatment. And sure enough, after a humiliating and painful series of injections, Leslie becomes pregnant.

And also increasingly hirsute. When she visits a dermatologist about hair removal, she ends up biting through the woman's finger. Meanwhile, Alex tries to track down the couple who originally recommended Dr. Kis, and discovers their apartment abandoned in shambles, the stinking refrigerator filled with Ziplocked corpses of rats, squirrels, and hamsters. He eats one of the latter in four bites--"[i]t is easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted."

Yet all this is merely prologue to the main action ten years later, where the Twisden twins, Adam and Alice, live in seeming privilege but are locked in their rooms every night, listening through the wee hours to noises both sexual and violent issuing from the rest of the house, where the furniture falls progressively into disrepair, often shredded. Their escape and subsequent flight from their parents and towards unsettling truths about their origins is harrowing, tense . . . and a lot of fun to read.

*(This is a pseudonym for Scott Spencer, author of literary novels I haven't read, most famously Endless Love. Except every scrap of promotional material I've seen for the book says so, posing the question: how can a pseudonym be a pseudonym when the author's real name is on the back of the book? Discuss.)

04 September 2012

NW (Zadie Smith)

The terse title of Zadie Smith's sad, funny, knowing new novel NW refers to a set of postcodes in northwest London, where it takes place. (The preceding sentence brought to you by a Wikipedian rabbit hole of British administrative nomenclature, capped off by the hilariously named article "NUTS of the United Kingdom.") The book's four parts, "Visitation," "Guest," "Host," and "Crossing," correspond roughly to four characters--Leah, Felix, Keisha-cum-Natalie, and Nathan--who are linked by their time as children in the Caldwell council estate (Americans would call it a housing project). Their storylines collide, intersect, keep pace, and diverge throughout; while the parallel-lives construction, and the mostly working-class milieu, are familiar from other modern novels, I can hardly think of enough positive adjectives for Smith's prose. (Or un-cliched ones: lapidary! scintillating! trenchant! Like an obsidian knife?)

Each protagonist's part of NW is written in a distinct style, connecting diction with disposition. All are beautiful. Felix's section, "Guest," is the most straightforward, as is his story, that of a tragic striver. Its chapters are called after the postcodes where they take place, and while the sentences don't take structural chances, they remain full of precise, packed imagery: "His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked in through an open window."

"Host" follows Keisha's journey from her Caldwell upbringing to her adulthood as Natalie, high-powered and emotionally empty lawyer. Her obsessive need to order her life results in a numbered series of mini-chapters, some only a sentence long--largely chronological, but in the way that memory is chronological, jumping sometimes forward, sometimes back. In "Crossing," her settled existence shattered, she takes a walk with Nathan Bogle, once the cutest boy in the class, now a homeless addict--together, they literally pace out the path of their shared youth, their steps ringing hollowly through the present.

My favorite, though, is "Visitation." Told from Leah's perspective, the section is fragmented like her consciousness, the sentences often literally so. Dialogue sometimes, but not always, is set off with what another Wikipedia digression informs me is called a "quotation dash," a definite break with her internal monologue. Every now and then, the narrative cascades into chaotic, scattered lines on the page, voices and thoughts crowding over each other. I was mesmerized by the very first sentence: "The fat sun stalls by the phone masts." Listen (I want to use the Old English hwæt): it's a heavy, even stride like climbing stairs contrasted with the quick hiss and spit of the fricatives--an almost synesthetic pleasure to speak, the sounds on the tongue like cherry tomatoes, discrete, smooth, bursting.

Impossible for me to write about without trying to emulate it.

03 September 2012

Guest post! by Immortal Lycanthropes author Hal Johnson

Since I'm sticking by my "don't review friends' books" code, I can't just tell you Hal Johnson's Immortal Lycanthropes is great--though it is! But I've spent most Tuesday nights over the past couple of years immersed in a Hal-created world, playing a literally epic game of Dungeons & Dragons, based in an alternate tenth-century where all the legends of every country are true. (Turns out Albania has the craziest folktales. Seriously, look 'em up!)

And Lycanthropes, his first YA novel, is similarly wide-ranging, ambitious, and wryly funny--and exactly what it says on the tin. It's the story of Myron Horowitz, a horribly scarred, friendless thirteen-year-old who learns he's part of an underworld of were-mammals--not humans who can turn into animals, but animals who can turn into humans--and that the mystery of who he really is means a lot of people want him dead.

One of my favorite things about the book is the debt it owes to 19th-century "boys' adventure" books, a largely forgotten genre whose patterns and tropes nevertheless echo throughout modern fiction. Hal, who's probably the most well-read person I've ever met, graciously agreed to write up an arbitrarily-numbered list of Five Boys' Adventure Books We Should All Read--so without further ado . . . 

Hi! I’m Hal Johnson, Anna’s Dungeon Master, and she was kind enough to offer me a guest spot here. I wrote an adventure novel coming out tomorrow, Immortal Lycanthropes, that was in part inspired by the boys’ adventure novels I read as a kid. Because I tended to get my books from garage sales and my grandparents’ attics, a lot of them were older, and I ended up with a real affection for nineteenth-century boys’ adventure fiction. So I thought I’d introduce a couple of interesting books of the genre.

The problem with boys’ adventure books is that a lot of them are not very good. G.A. Henty wrote over a hundred books for boys; four of them were adapted into comic books in Classics Illustrated, and they may be better in that form.  So any interested reader may have to suffer through leaden prose and wooden characters; but it’s not a real adventure unless you suffer for it, is it? The books I picked are not necessarily the best boys’ adventure novels of the period (The Coral Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Howard Pyle are notable for their absence), but they’re all pretty awesome. They’re pretty awesome even if you’re not (as we probably all should be) a twelve-year-old boy.

Best of all, they’re all public domain and available for free on the internets!

1. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1870)

Thomas Bailey Aldrich is one of those writers who used to be everywhere and is now almost totally forgotten. The books he edited, especially The Young Folks’ Library series, or his poetry or travel writing, are always turning up in used bookstores. But his finest work may be the pseudo-autobiographical boys’ book The Story of a Bad Boy, often cited as the first American book to depict boyhood realistically (in this way it’s exactly analogous to the British Tom Brown’s School Days). I say pseudo-autobiographical because some parts of the book are clearly fictional—one reunion in particular would have seemed hoary and implausible even decades earlier in a Dickens novel—but others ring so true that they must have happened, or been remembered, that way.

The plot is episodic, which is to say nonexistent, just a series of events in the life of a boy newly come to coastal New Hampshire. But Bailey establishes, even more than Tom Brown, what would become an axiom of boy’s literature through most of the next century: that the true adventure is not imperialistic warfare (ala Henty) but childhood itself, and that what must first be explored are the woods at the edge of town. Bailey’s account of Fort Slatter—a snow fort, of course—and its heroic defense is written like an Iliad, and all the literature of sea voyages can offer little as harrowing as the voyage of the little rowboat Dolphin. Eliade remarked a hundred years later that children live in a mythical time, and Bailey was among the first to remember this fact into adulthood, and record it. Robert Newton Peck, John D. Fitzgerald, Bertrand Brinley, et al., (not to mention, on a different vector, Jean Shepherd or Robert Paul Smith) would be unthinkable without this innovation.

Although it’s sometimes clunky, sometimes embarrassingly melodramatic, and sometimes, especially near the beginning, unnecessarily racist in the way only old “humorous” passages can be, The Story of a Bad Boy is well worth reexamination, both as a historical record of American boyhood and for its passages of mythic grandeur.

2. In Search of Treasure by Horatio Alger (1894)

Horatio Alger is more known than read nowadays, known for the rags-to-riches archetype, the poor boy rising through “luck and pluck” (his terms) to the middle-class.

In a lot of ways, Alger exemplifies all the worst in nineteenth-century boy’s books, or in fact in nineteenth-century popular literature in general. He’s smug and moralistic, his characters are priggish, coincidence favors the hero so heavily that it can be easy to feel sympathy for the villain. All his plots are more or less the same, so much so that his biography of James A. Garfield can be distinguished only insofar as here the hard-working poor boy grows up to be respectable and then [SPOILER] becomes president and gets assassinated; the assassination of the protagonist doesn’t recur in other Alger books. As he aged, Alger became fonder and fonder of that C19 boogeyman, the unexpected inheritance, so much so that one wag (whose name I’ve forgotten) suggested Alger proves that in America any young man can, through hard work and enterprise, grow up to be the grandson of a billionaire. His books are filled with accidental sexual innuendo, and not only is a minor character in Struggling Upward named Fanny Pratt (ha!), but a major character in several books who searches for orphan boys to adopt as his wards is named Dick Hunter (ha ha!).

Alger’s unflagging faith in America and the middle class are easy to parody (Nathanael West did the best job, in the still-hilarious A Cool Million), but at the same time, his vision of the middle class is the warmest in all of literature, and a breath of fresh air for anyone used to the contempt of a Flaubert or a Stendahl. Alger’s middle class is unpretentious, generous, hardworking, and tolerant of anything except alcohol and billiards. Above all they are not snobs. Snobs (along with kidnappers, of course) are Alger’s true villains. You can almost always pick out the bad guy in town in an Alger book because he’s the one insisting on being called “squire.” Time and again, the good guys stress (in the face of an upturned nose) that any honest work is honorable. Bankers (always good guys here) nod in hearty approval at ditch diggers and street peddlers, while the idle squires are busy tsking. Above all there is the belief that wealth must be used to benefit others, and virtuous tycoons are always willing to give an opportunity to any ”frank-faced” boy; when these boys make it good, they become the benefactors, in later books, to other “frank” urchins. (“Frankness,” along with “pluckiness” and perhaps industriousness are the cardinal Alger virtues.)

But we’re not here to talk about the middle class, we’re here to talk about AWESOME ADVENTURE! Because for all their problems, Alger books are always home to awesome adventure. Often they take place in the streets of New York, but they may well involve a trip to the wild west; and they always involve a boy hero leaving home (if he has one!) and striking off on his own and braving the unknown. Whether he’s facing grizzly bears or grifters depends on where he is, but he’s got to be facing one or the other.

It’s somewhat arbitrary, therefore, which Alger book to feature. I picked In Search of Treasure, just because it’s one of the more adventuresome.  It’s the story of young Guy Fenwick, whose uncle left him clues to a pirate treasure buried on an island in the Indian Ocean. By odd chance, Guy gets a job on a ship sailing to India soon after. Guy learns that the Indian Ocean is really big, though, and instead of going anywhere near his treasure, he finds in Bombay a patron and a job, and has to speed over to England to overthrow the reign of a tyrannical schoolmaster (!).

Alger characters have a tendency to go on a long journey two-thirds of the way through a book, a structural habit few authors have chosen to imitate. In In Search of Treasure, this means that the final third of the book starts with Guy actually setting off on his treasure hunt. There will be betrayal and marooning and benevolent older wealthy men, and of course, back home the town swell, who thought money made him a big shot, needs to get a look at all that treasure.

This is all perfectly ridiculous, I’ll admit, but Alger tells it all with such a straight face that it is irresistible. It’s pure kitsch, but anyone with any kind of fondness for kitsch plus adventure will find a real-life treasure chest in Alger’s oeuvre.

3. The Boy Hunters by Captain Mayne Reid (1853)

Captain Mayne Reid’s The Boy Hunters is in some ways not a very good book, either, but parts are crazy enough to be capital-G Great. The adventure portion, which features three brothers trekking through the western frontier in order to bag a white buffalo to impress some relative of Napoleon’s (!), is fine, when it’s actually happening, but that’s only about a third of the books. Another third is taken up with tedious lectures (often delivered by the brainy middle brother for the amusement and edification of the others) on the life cycles of animals and the industrial uses of plants—as well as strange rants against scientific naturalists and theoreticians in general. Fortunately another third of the book is taken up with NATURE SPECTACLE, and it’s pretty phenomenal. There are quite a few fight scenes, as nature red in tooth and claw grimly acts out a blood-soaked drama for our heroes to watch. This is the real meat of the book.

In one chapter, awesomely titled “Chain of Destruction,” the lads watch a fly get eaten by a hummingbird, which in turn is eaten by a tarantula, which in turn is eaten by a chameleon that is maimed by a skink that is eaten by a snake that is eaten by a kite that is killed by an eagle that is shot by our heroes. “This was the last link in the chain of destruction!” Although the moralistic middle brother helpfully points out that a bear could come along at any moment and form another link in this chain.

There are few chapters in literature that can compare to this one for a combination of pure action, bloodshed, awe in the face of nature, and philosophical extrapolation. Reid wrote over two dozen books, but if he'd written nothing but this one chapter, he deserves to be remembered in the canon

4. Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

All right-thinking people hate Stalky & Co. Wells hated it enough that in his Outline of History he spends more space complaining about Stalky & Co. than on the life and career of Abraham Lincoln; and it was this condemnation of Stalky that I absorbed long before I read the book.

It’s not that Stalky isn’t a hateful book. It’s just that it’s an honest one, and if you were in a nineteenth-century boarding school you’d probably be hateful too.  Stalky and his “co.” of M’Turk and Beetle (modeled, apparently, on Kipling’s school-age friends, with Beetle being Kipling himself) get themselves into scrapes and outwit teachers the way modern analogues such as Bruno and Boots, or Harry Potter, do—but everything seems more violent, sordid, and terrifying than you would expect from a book about school. Except that violent, terrifying, and sordid should be the watchwords for any book about school. Stalky may be willing to go further than other schoolboys of literature, but it’s because his world is a darker and more horrible one. It’s easy to forget the boys Stalky ties up and tortures (in the scene that so upset Wells) are being paid back precisely the tortures they have inflicted on other, smaller children. Stalky doesn’t do this to make the innocent world of childhood a fallen world; presented with a fallen world, he leads his co. in an attempt to make it right. (Or sometimes to prank his enemies.)

This is all made explicit in the final chapter, where Kipling (no longer in his Beetle disguise) comes right out and explains how the skills the boys developed fighting against their school have made them expert at imperialistic adventure in their adulthoods. It goes without saying that any nineteenth-century British writer (let alone Kipling) will be more excited about imperialism than we’ll be today, but if you take it for what it’s supposed to stand for here (duty, patriotism, progress, helping society at large) you’ll find one of the most radically audacious proclamations about childhood any major writer has managed to slip through to a mass audience. Childhood is here painted as a Bizarro-world where the same actions that make you a bad boy (as Stalky certainly is) make you a good adult. The very morality of the schoolroom is backwards. No wonder Stalky’s vigilantism was needed to clean it up.

This is admittedly interpretive, and I’m not sure any other reader has ever taken the same message from the book—but I think it goes a long way to explaining why so many people hate Stalky and his Co. H. G. Wells could take or leave bourgeois civilization, and he may even be willing to assert that its values were the opposite if an innocent child’s—but he could scarcely play along with Kipling’s dialectic.

Two cautions on Stalky: Although Kipling is obviously a much better stylist than the three authors above, this book is at times almost unreadable because it is drenched in period slang (“Fids! Fids! Oh, fids! I gloat!”), and assumes a knowledge of “forms” and “fags” the lack of which can make a labyrinth of a simple tale. Also, it is often published, with extra stories added, as The Complete Stalky & Co., but the new stories are mostly unnecessary.

Kipling wrote other boys’ adventure books, varying in quality from Kim (snooze!) to The Jungle Books (awesome!), but none of them hold a candle to Stalky & Co. Very few books can.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

This is the big one, probably the greatest American novel and certainly the greatest boy’s adventure story. It’s also a book everyone knows, and almost everyone’s read. There’s no point “introducing” such a well-known book; but what I want to say about it is that it’s possible to read and love Huck Finn without understanding anything about the larger import or meaning that so often get discussed. I first read it in first grade, and it changed my life; of course a great deal went right over my head, and racial politics and ethical debates were completely beyond my ken, but I understood the idea of floating down a river, completely removed from society, and that was enough for me. It wasn’t something I was ever going to do—I assume rafting on the Mississippi is now illegal, and I assume if I tried it anyway, I’d just end up drowning—but the idea that theoretically one could pack up and run away from it all, was enough to get me through much of childhood, and good chunks of adulthood. Toby Tyler and to a lesser extent The Cruise of the Dazzler offered a similar opportunity, but Huck Finn offered it best.

(Another confusing thing it took me a long time to understand was that “pison” meant “poison.” Through several readings I honestly though that Huck was planning to piss on a dog.)

I’ve read a lot of criticism—the good and the bad kind—of Huck Finn over the years, and I’m glad the book can garner the kind of critical attention it does. But this is the rare book that you can strip most meaning from without crippling it. The spine of the book is a boy (and, paradoxically, a slave) who momentarily are free. I’ve never been free, but I tasted it vicariously, and that was enough. Everything else in the book, and every other analysis of the book, is superfluous.

26 August 2012

YAP Break!; or, fun with connecting titles

The Young Adult Paranormal Break is a time-honored tradition for me, an occasional rebellion against Grown-Up Books, a respite from the worst excesses of literary fiction. This time around, I couldn't resist reading three novels I'd already been interested in which happened to have transitive-property titles: to wit, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Leah Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, and Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow.

I loved Taylor's Lips Touch: Three Times (despite being mildly embarrassed by the title, and oof, that paperback cover is rough), and Daughter bewitched me on the first dang page, with the phrase "the occasional cheek-chew of bitterness." Yes, thank you! Perfect image, taking the sounds of language into account! It's like she's a writer!!! Oh, all the hearts.

But my girl-crush on this book goes beyond prose, of course. The fantasy world Taylor creates is both wildly detailed and deep and totally original, qualities in woefully short supply. The story centers on Karou, a blue-haired art student living in Prague, known among her classmates for her elaborate stories and sketches of a family of imaginary beasts: serpent-woman, giraffe-man, parrot-lady, and ram-horned Brimstone, the Wishmonger who deals in teeth, with his raven/bat messenger Kishmish on his shoulder.

Except it's all true--the beasts, who call themselves chimaera, raised Karou from a baby. And her blue hair? A wish, a small one, for they come in denominations corresponding to their power. Brimstone (who I inescapably picture as Urkonn from Joss Whedon's Fray comic. She's even got the right color hair!) only ever gives Karou small wishes to spend, scuppies and shings, never a lucknow or a gavriel. (And she's not willing to pull out her own teeth to earn a bruxis, like the sad, demon-haunted Moroccan graverobber, Izîl, part of Brimstone's sketchy global network of dealers.)

Then Karou's double life is shattered, thanks to an angelically beautiful being called Akiva (super-gorgeous people are a YA/romance trope I sorta roll my eyes at, but I heart Taylor too much to really complain), and she finds herself plunged into the middle of a never-ending war in another world entirely, a world to which she's somehow connected. Her unraveling of her true identity, and her search for a way Elsewhere to reunite with her monstrous family, intertwine with one o' them Delirious Scorching All-Encompassing love stories that would be tiresome if it wasn't awesome because, to repeat: Taylor is a dang writer. Liked this book so much I don't even care that it's part one of a trilogy like everything else in YA these days--instead, I'm giddy with anticipation.

Mixed feelings about Shadow and Bone. On the positive side, the setting was amazing! And unique: fantasy Russia, like Tolstoy with magic! The stand-in kingdom, Ravka, is cut off from its ports by the Shadow Fold, a positively Miévillesque rift of darkness teeming with carnivorous winged beasts. Orphaned Alina (hey, that's my mother-in-law's name!) is crossing with her regiment when they are attacked, and in a moment of panic discovers she can channel sunlight. She's whisked away to the headquarters of the Grisha, orders of robed mages with power over everything from metal to storms, led by the mysterious (and alluring) Darkling. The system of magic (is there a technical term for this? Thaumaturgy?) is unique and fun, with the Grisha classified into Materialki (makers and engineers), Etherealki (summoners of weather and winds), and Corporalki (healers and the terrifying Heartrenders), with their own cliques and uniforms. And it's a kick to have onion domes and kvas instead of turrets and mead.

However, I'm not crazy about Alina herself, and since she narrates in first person, she's inescapable. A lot of it's the comes-with-the-territory of fantastic protagonists thinking and talking like modern American teenagers (well, modern American teenagers who don't curse), but she's also kinda whiny about being So Special and it's So Hard. (Yes, this also comes with the territory.) She doesn't ruin the book (see: Setting, amazing); still, I would have enjoyed it more in third person.

I really liked The Book of Blood and Shadow, howevs! It's more of an occult historical thriller than a straight-up paranormal, with dueling, ancient secret societies, and a Renaissance machine for talking to God, and the freakin' Voynich manuscript! Shades of Foucault's Pendulum! (And my friend Hal Johnson's upcoming, awesome Immortal Lycanthropes.) Well-researched, well-paced, whip-smart. Also, when was the last time you read a YA novel with serious discussion of the existence of God?

In one night, Nora Kane's life goes to pieces: one best friend killed, the other (his girlfriend) catatonic, her own boyfriend missing and the prime suspect. Unwilling to believe Max would ever harm Chris and Adriane, Nora suspects a connection to the research project they'd been working on with eccentric professor Anton Hoffpauer (himself the victim of a stroke shortly before the murder): translating a cache of letters related to the Voynich manuscript, an absolutely real and crazy mysterious 15th-century document written in an unknown language and script, full of bizarre astronomical and botanical illustrations that don't seem to correspond to anything concrete. Nora was tasked with the letters of Elizabeth Weston, stepdaughter of alchemist Edward Kelley--both real people; Kelley talked to angels, and hung out in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II until his imprisonment and death. Puzzles in Elizabeth's correspondence set Nora and Adriane on a quest to Prague to clear Max's name, find Chris's real killer, and possibly reconstruct an apparatus known as the Lumen Dei, a four-hundred-year-old direct line to the Lord. Their path is full of danger and classical scholarship, betrayal and secrets and leaps of faith. Oh, and the golem of Prague! And Kepler! And Latin ciphers!

Not to mention: extra cool that Blood blends right back into the Prague setting of Daughter . . . and extra, extra cool that these three word-shifting titles manage to feed right into the sequel to Daughter (NOVEMBER 6TH SO FAR AWAY AUGH), Days of Blood and Starlight! Waiting with bated breath.

25 August 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics (Gideon Defoe)

You know how you're reading a book, and there's a funny bit, and you snurk to yourself and your impulse is to read said bit out loud to whoever's handy, even if it's just an old Chinese lady sitting next to you on the subway? OK, what if the whole dang book is the funny bit, up to and including the table of contents? How do you keep from going hoarse pestering your friends with jokes, or, worse, coming off as a maniac on public transit as you periodically shake silently with laughter or emit yelps of glee?

Such is the dilemma posed by Gideon Defoe's farcical romp The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics. ("Romp" is one of those book-review words I try to avoid, but it's totes appropes in this case. As is "rollicking.") It's actually the fifth book in a series that somehow no one told me about--if you're my friend, and you knew about these books, and you didn't tell me? ANATHEMA--all following the adventures of a band of buccaneers as they meet various historical/fictional figures (Darwin, Ahab, Marx, Napoleon). This time around, in need of funds, the crew and their Captain answer a classified ad in a Swiss paper requesting "Exotic adventure! Should contain romantic elements, mild peril, and foreign travel," and find themselves at the Villa Diodati . . . occupied, of course, by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Lord Byron, the latter introduced thusly:
Across the room a strapping man with a cascade of wavy black hair so shiny it looked like it had been conditioned in something really expensive, like lobster sweat or dolphin's eggs, balanced on the balustrade of an ornate balcony. The sudden appearance of a pirate didn't seem to bother him at all. He furrowed his brow, and held up two billowy shirts. "Which one do you think would look best on my shattered, yet still unfeasibly dashing corpse?"
I've made no secret of my love of fictionalized Byron (nor my desire to punch the real Byron in his stupid face), and Defoe's portrayal of him as a goofy, melodramatic, jovial fellow--author of a quarterly newsletter of his own exploits entitled Young, Brooding, and Doomed--is absolutely priceless.

Romantics in tow, along with Charles Babbage of difference engine fame, the crew investigates the Captain's mysterious belly tattoo, chases a lost Platonic dialogue, visits a spooky castle in Romania (despite a brochure in which the South-Eastern Romania Tourist Authority "recommends travellers visit the new log flume at Carphatifun Land" instead), and takes every opportunity to dress up in ridiculous costume--for instance, they meet Babbage disguised as a bunch of nannies, except for the Captain, who goes with "sexy fireman." Meanwhile, Mary and the Captain bond over their fandom for monster fiction--she's working on a tale about a half-man, half-kelp creature--and maybe fall in love?

But plot--fun as it is--is naturally secondary here. The real star is Defoe's madcap comic prose, right up there with Douglas Adams for sheer delight. Here, let me pick a random page, and I'll find something to bust a gut over (seriously, the apartment is splattered with viscera). OK, p. 98! "'A man with my hair and physique mustn't trouble himself with numbers. They're literally poison to me. Did I ever tell you how I once caught consumption simply from being in the same room as a times table?'" P. 230: "Some of the pirates had other suggestions, but they were mostly serving suggestions for boiled hams, and so not particularly helpful at this time. Byron announced he was going to go be moody in the kitchen." P. 151: "Please note, I shall occasionally employ the myth of Orpheus to illustrate my passage into the academic underworld. I realise you pirates may not be familiar with the classics, so I've brought along some copies of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Share if there aren't enough to go around. No, there aren't any pictures. Yes, it's in Latin. What? You can't read Ovid in translation! Well, just listen then."

Oh, and that table of contents? Bonus story told through chapter headings for an elementary Russian textbook ("Unit Two: Basic Grammar--Boris and Anna Take the Subway Together"). And a list of entirely hypothetical illustrations ('Fig 1: The Bering Land Bridge at the last glacial maximum, as reconstructed from the latest research. Fig 2: Vin Diesel in "The Pacifier".').

And I have to stop now, or I'll just find myself retyping the whole book. Suffice it to say: I'll be searching out the other installments ASAP.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Patrick Hamilton)

Was gonna write about Patrick Hamilton's trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky--my favorite read for the NYRB Classics book club so far this year--back on Wednesday, but then I had a beer (a Magic Hat Elder Betty, which yum! also, we keep having parties, and people bring over beer, and then they leave it, and then we have, three weeks later, 14 beers left in the fridge, and should we just have another party and be like DO NOT BRING BEER WE'VE GOT SOME?). Anyway: had a beer, lost my ambition. Which is in retrospect perfect, as booze and the bad decisions derived therefrom are a recurring theme in Hamilton's working-class epic (and apparently his life, poor guy). Like in my favorite, favorite lines, stuck in my head forever:
He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth--bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.
Twenty Thousand Streets' three linked novels correspond to three connected characters: Patrick (The Midnight Bell), Jenny (The Siege of Pleasure), and Ella (The Plains of Cement). Patrick and Ella are co-workers at a pub, Jenny a prostitute who comes in for a drink one night, with whom Patrick pursues a financially ruinous and heartbreakingly one-sided relationship*. Jenny's story is told in flashback, detailing her rise from meek factory girl thrilled at the prospect of becoming a live-in maid, through her introduction to drunkenness, to her rapid slide into streetwalking. Meanwhile, scraping-by Ella suffers the courtship of middle-aged, unpleasant Mr. Eccles, seeing it as her only chance to escape being constantly broke--unless her mother's awful husband dies.

You know the crazy thing? That synopsis sounds like Downertowne U.K. (sister city to Bummerville U.S.A.), but Twenty Thousand Streets is often funny, usually thanks to Hamilton's snappy prose style--dude rocks the Sarcastic Capitals. An extended passage regarding Mr. Eccles's snaggletooth, which often passes without notice but sometimes proves "capable of exercising a partially hypnotic effect upon those who looked at it for too long, and at moments made him look rather like a tiger," is hysterical. Hamilton also, I think, sidesteps miserablism through his empathy for his marginal and tragic-in-the-classical-sense characters. He's not putting these people through these trials, but observing and, yes, loving them--this care allows the reader to inhabit these lives, and the result is immersive, emotional, enchanting.

*(This is apparently autobiographical. Yikes!)
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