30 April 2012

Announcing Mystery May!

There comes a time in every bookseller's life when she looks at her TBR shelf and her stack of ARCs dutifully organized by release month and says to herself, "Ehn, screw it." For me, that moment of mutiny came last week, when I finished up Asa Nonami's Rebecca-but-so-much-creepier Now You're One of Us and realized I was in the mood for a run of mysteries, darned the torpedoes, and moved on to Tana French's amazing In the Woods. (Full reviews of both of these forthcoming. I've been sick. Again.)

Join me, then, as I catch up on a bunch of authors I've been meaning to read . . . and grant myself re-reads of China Mieville's The City and the City and Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night (ugh, how is the latter out of print? what is wrong with people?). Here's my wishlist:

Ken Bruen, The Guards
Jim Butcher, Storm Front (Dresden Files #1)
Alafair Burke, Never Tell (this one is an ARC, out in June)
Tana French, The Likeness
John Green, Paper Towns
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley 
Scott Phillips, The Adjustment
Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

24 April 2012

Wichita (Thad Ziolkowski)

As a Midwesterner living in NYC, I'll admit I've got a chip on my shoulder. "I'm from Wichita!" I'll say. "It's a city! We have ethnic grocery stores and gay people and gang violence and everything!" Thus my first reaction to seeing Thad Ziolkowski's Wichita was trepidation . . . and the first sentence, wherein the characters pass a farm while driving from the airport to someplace else in town (College Hill-ish, I pictured), did not assuage my nerves. Cause guys, it's freeways and strip malls and subdivisions all the way.

But while a native would've written it differently, it is a Europa Editions title, from the same new imprint (Tonga Books) that brought me Treasure Island!!! I got faith in these folks (thanks esp. to Michael, who accepted my hometown-pride fact-checking ever so graciously!). And it turns out it's a wonderful novel, which portrays the real, complicated, non-nutjobby (OK, more diversely nutjobby than you think, you East Coast elitists in my audience) city I know and love.

Lewis Chopik has retreated to Kansas following an ignominious breakup--he proved insufficiently academically ambitious for his ex-girlfriend, and, he fears, for his father's family, professors all. His mother, Abby, doesn't find his aimlessness a problem in the slightest; after all, she's still finding her way in middle age, isn't she? Current projects: polyamory (one boyfriend in the house, one in a marijuana-scented tent in the backyard); a ladies-only pyramid scheme called "The Birthday Party"; an idiosyncratic New Age stormchasing business, Grateful Gaia Storm Tours. To Lewis's horror, she's chosen not to worry overmuch about his bipolar younger brother, Seth.

Seth's character is amazing: funny, dangerous, heartbreaking, smart enough--as many mentally ill folk are--to realize his own madness and his helplessness before it, which leads him to rage and despair by turns. All the family members are similarly well drawn--Abby in her nebulous pursuit of Big Ideas and neglect of the immediate, Lewis in his floundering ineffectiveness, the vicious, blinkered Chopiks, who've dwelt so long in ivory towers they literally can't fathom why anyone would want anything else.

The book climaxes with a storm chase--convincing to me (though meteorologists might find errors, who knows), and weirdly prescient. On April 14, a tornado tore across the southeast edge of the city, destroying homes and damaging several buildings at the aircraft plant where my father works. No one was killed in Wichita; in Wichita, not everyone is so lucky.

20 April 2012

The Lola Quartet (Emily St. John Mandel)

I read Emily St. John Mandel's third novel, The Lola Quartet, in one go on a February sick day, with big, sweet recent-addition-kitty Benny by my side. I'm almost glad for the cold that'd stomped me flat, as I would have been decidedly irked to put it aside (and the next day, I read Zone One! Best cold ever).

While I cannot remember the context in which I heard Mandel referred to as a "stealth mystery writer," it's the perfect description. Like Margaret Atwood's sci-fi or Joyce Carol Oates's horror, her novels escape the mass-market paperback racks to be shelved in Literary Fiction, but they're structured like white-knuckle thrillers, full of secrets, dangers, and page-turning revelations. (Really, I dare you to stop reading this book after the first short chapter.) They've just got the value-add of first-rate prose and believable, technical-sense-of-pathetic characters.

She's also adept at driving a narrative from multiple, intertwined points of view. In Quartet, these follow the members of the title jazz combo, whose lives diverged after high school graduation but who find themselves coming back together a decade later. It's a chance meeting and a cell-phone photograph that spurs the action. Gavin Sasaki, now a New York City journalist, is shocked to learn he may have a daughter by his then-girlfriend, Anna, who disappeared one night without saying goodbye. And when he thinks about it, maybe he knew she was pregnant--maybe his  younger self just chose to disregard the knowledge. Disturbed by his sin of omission, he's soon torpedoed his career, and crawls back to his Florida hometown during the foreclosure-ridden summer of 2008. There he reconnects in tense and tentative ways with his fellow performers: haunted addict Jack, bitter cop Daniel, and Anna's half-sister, late-shift waitress Sasha. The question of what happened to Anna and her child is answered early on, but the implications play out slowly and suspensefully.

Like the wandering compositions of the music they shared, the Lola Quartet's individual stories alternate in prominence, sometimes sharply apparent, sometimes just serving as background. And the ending--appropriate to the genre--is like a major seventh chord, a partial and unsettling resolution.

17 April 2012

Hav (Jan Morris)

Thank Jupiter for the phrase sui generis, or I'd never be able to succinctly describe Hav, Jan Morris's genre-bending fictional travel memoir. Yeah: it's not quite a novel--no characters nor plot arcs on which to hang one's hat--it's an account of a visit (two visits, actually, of which more later) to the eponymous city-state, which never existed, but is entirely plausible.

Were Hav located anywhere but Morris's imagination, it would lie somewhere in the nebulous area where Europe, the Middle East, and Asia collide, as Greek as it is Arab, as Russian as it is Turkish, with the aftermath of colonial millennia adding British, Chinese, and French to the mix. And of course, there are the Kretevs: cave-dwellers, friends to bears, and cultivators of that rarest of fruits, the snow raspberry.

(Hav also clearly borders the dual cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma from China Mieville's mindbending murder mystery The City and the City--and indeed his note acknowledges a deep debt to Morris.)

I'll admit it took me roughly half of Hav's 300 pages to start enjoying myself--as it turns out, I don't find travel memoir that interesting, even when it's technically speculative fiction. But the skill of the world-building, Morris's insertion of real history and historical figures into the story of Hav, and the wealth of charming detail (the Hav mongoose! the urchin soup! the trumpet tune that wakes the city every morning) won me over. There are two parts collected here; first, her original 1985 novel, Last Letters from Hav, and then Hav of the Myrmidons, a follow-up novella written in 2005, bringing the tale up to then. Both serve neatly (but not heavy-handedly) as allegories of their eras on the world stage, the late twentieth-century's discomfort with and glorification of the past, the twenty-first's twin demons of fundamentalism and money, as Morris returns to a Hav made unrecognizable by a Cathar theocracy and Chinese cash.

The latter is more straight dystopia territory, and hence I liked it better (OK, except for the too-precious last paragraph). This is, in fact, a book I'd recommend first to sf/f readers, partly because they've more patience with alternate histories and invented societies. Its appeal is far broader, though--rather like Hav itself.

05 April 2012

The Beauty & the Sorrow (Peter Englund)

Sometimes the test of a book's greatness is simple: while I was reading Peter Englund's unique WWI history, The Beauty and the Sorrow, I kept going to bed early (we're talking 8:30), just to spend more time with the twenty voices he's collected--twenty ordinary people caught up in a cataclysm that changed them all.

(I'll admit I had heard of one of these folks--Willy Coppens, top Belgian air ace--but only because I once made my dad a poster featuring every top ace from every country in the war. Cause I'm a great daughter. And he's a great dad--this book was his Christmas gift to me, purchased from my very own bookstore! Thanks, Papa!)

These men and women (and one girl--Elfriede Kuhl was only twelve when the war started) come from all over Europe and beyond. They fought, observed, nursed, and drove in all theaters of the war, including colonial Africa, Mesopotamia, and Persia, fronts I'd known about only vaguely. Some joined up out of nationalist pride, like Vincenzo D'Aquila, who left New York City to join the Italian army (and was jeered at for a fool by the native troops). Others had no choice, like Kresten Andresen, a Dane drafted into the German trenches. Some simply wanted adventure--like Olive King, an Australian who drove an ambulance for the Serbian army, or Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan globetrotter who tried and failed to join several Allied forces and then ended up serving with the Ottomans (witnessing many scenes of the Armenian genocide). And fifteen others, diverse, unimportant, often eloquent individuals whose stories will echo in my head for years.

Englund weaves together letters, diaries, and memoirs with astonishing skill (I think about just the translation required and my mind boggles), jumping chronologically from one narrative to another. He tells us in his introduction that he is less interested in writing about "what [the Great War] was--that is, about its causes, course, conclusion and consequences--but . . . about what it was like. . . not so much events and processes as feelings, impressions, experiences, and moods." The result is (as the subtitle promises) an intimate history and easily the best book written about WWI since Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. An absolute treasure.

04 April 2012

The Homemade Pantry (Alana Chernila)

I can't really review a friend's book, I know. And Alana Chernila is a friend from college--she taught me contact improv when we were witches together in Macbeth, and her husband, Joey, lived upstairs from me my freshman year. So in lieu of a formal review (like my reviews are ever formal, amirite?) of her debut cookbook, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making--although it is FANTASTIC and you should buy it!--I'll share my experience making a recipe from the book, and in doing so endeavor to live up to the thoughtful, helpful, and lovely prose that lines its pages, and those of the blog she's kept since 2008, Eating From the Ground Up.

I chose the cover recipe--from-scratch toaster pastries--as a test of my own mettle, and a gift for Chris, who grew up with all the sugary treats I didn't (I find one can't develop a taste for Lucky Charms with a mature palate). I had never made pie crust. I know! How did I ever land a man?!

But really, it's terrifying stuff! All you ever hear is how difficult it is to get right--Alana admits that her daughter Sadie lost a tooth on an early attempt. Even my maternal grandmother, Ila, a formidable cook if there ever was one, starting buying ready-made as soon as they were available and never looked back. Still, if I could become the kind of person who saves her vegetable scraps and denuded chicken carcasses in the freezer to make stock, I was confident I could become the kind of person who makes her own pie crust. Especially with Alana as my guide--after all, the woman taught me to dance!

The problem, it turned out, was mechanical. The most important step in making pie crust is cutting the butter into the flour; you mustn't let the butter get melty or too incorporated with the flour, and gluten is not your friend, so you can't handle the dough too much. Alana's recipe uses the bladed paddle attachment for a stand mixer. While I do own such a mixer (inherited from the aforementioned Ila), it's only equipped with beaters and dough hooks. And I don't have a pastry blender, because when was I ever going to need one of those? So Alana suggested (via Facebook) I use two knives, held like scissors with points crossing and blades facing apart. This can be done. But it is tedious and frustrating, and you curse your lack of technology: Chris, taking a turn (yeah, that's how long it took), summed up the process as "Amish bullshit."

Then I added the liquid, and the stupid dough refused to coalesce. I came whisker-close to just throwing away the whole glob and bursting into tears, but this is why I have Chris, because he won't let me do silly things like that. I added a touch more water. I smushed it together as best I could, and stuck it in the fridge overnight.

And in the morning? LOOK!!

Not cover-worthy, no. But lovely flaky yumminess, filled with raspberry jam. And just like that, a new skill! Though I am definitely investing in a pastry blender.

The Mom 100 Cookbook (Katie Workman)

Here's how I knew I'd made the right decision in picking up Katie Workman's The Mom 100 Cookbook despite my non-maternality: in a sidebar for black beans and rice (a half recipe of which, btw, made cheap, hearty, delish Lenten dinner for four, with lunch for two left over), she writes:
Are you wondering, "Hey, Ms.-Full-of-Advice, what should I do with the rest of the tomato paste, other than leaving it partially covered in the back of my fridge, waiting for it to get moldy so I can toss it out and feel resentful that I wasted it?"
And indeed, that has so many times been my predicament! Her solution? Freeze the rest in a plastic bag, flattened out so's you can just break off an appropriately-sized chunk the next time you need less than another whole can. Also? Apparently ketchup will sub in a pinch.

That's the kind of cookbook this is: no exotic ingredients, no arduous techniques, little margin for error. More and more I disdain the fancypants chef-y tomes, rife with knife skills I don't possess (though thanks to a class at The Brooklyn Kitchen, I no longer fear chopping) and spices and vegetables I'm too lazy to source (yeah, I know there's a Penzeys Spices right in Grand Central Terminal. I am VERY lazy). I'm a competent home cook, and that's all I aspire to be. I make dinner from scratch for me and Chris probably five days out of seven, bring leftovers for work lunches, sometimes whip up a baked good for a special occasion, and love hosting friends for meals. So, yeah, I don't have kids--but I do cook like a traditional mom (in most families--my dad's the cook in mine), and The Mom 100 is going to be a great resource.

Besides the beans and rice, I've now made chickpea poppers (roasted with a little cumin and chili powder, easy-peasy and gone in like five minutes) and a pan of perfect chicken enchiladas--lunch today was the last of 'em, and oh how I'll miss the delicious. Until I make them again. Other recipes I'm eager to try include a lasagna-ish Mexican Tortilla Casserole, Lazy Oven French Toast, and a Cheddar-Cauliflower Soup (oh, cauliflower, so cheap, so evocative of childhood distate).

Oh! And in a fun turn of events, Ms. Workman held her book launch last night at Posman's Chelsea location--recently named best bookstore in the city by New York magazine. No, I haven't visited yet. Remember? Lazy.

02 April 2012

The Stress of Her Regard (Tim Powers)

In The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers accomplishes a near-impossible feat: he makes me sympathetic to Byron and Shelley.

Seriously, I hate those dudes. Esp. ol' Percy B. Writing "Ozymandias" does NOT excuse abandoning your pregnant wife to run off with a 16-year-old. (Yeppers! When Mary started writing Frankenstein, she was still Miss Godwin; they didn't marry until his first wife committed suicide. How Romantic!)

But! In these pages the trufax behind the many oddities of these gentlemen (as well as poor doomed Keats) are revealed--and while they're still reckless, stubborn, sybaritic, their hearts are in the right place. In fact, Shelley's heart--which legend says came through his funeral pyre intact--is the key to the whole last act. WHICH IS SO AWESOME I CAN'T EVEN DEAL

Long before that jaw-dropping denouement, an ex-Navy obstetrician named Michael Crawford, while drunk at his bachelor party, slides his bride's wedding ring onto the outstretched finger of a statue for safekeeping. But when he comes back to get it, the statue's hand has clenched around it--and the morning after his wedding night, he wakes next to the brutally murdered corpse of his wife. Pursued by the authorities and his deceased wife's twin sister, he falls in with the aforementioned triumvirate of poets, and learns too late that he's accidentally married into a very old and powerful family, that of the Nephilim--pre-Adamite monsters who are part vampire, part succubus, part stone. And getting a divorce won't be easy.

Powers spins a terrific secret history dating from the earliest days of life on earth; his story scales the Alps and swims the canals of Venice. Along the way, there's an unexpected romance, a cohesive supernatural cosmology, half a dozen killer action setpieces, and quite a lot of IRL biography. Oh, and that great title? It's from a poem by H.P. Lovecraft's bestie, Clark Ashton Smith, called "Sphinx and Medusa":
...Yet thought must see
That eve of time when man no longer yearns,
Grown deaf before Life's Sphinx, whose lips are barred;
When from the spaces of Eternity,
Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.
P.S. Having now read both, I understand the decision not to market Powers's latest, Hide Me Among the Graves, as a straight-up sequel to Stress. While they share characters both human and inhuman, he's tweaked the mythos just enough that the books stand more easily alone than together.

P.P.S. I couldn't figure out a good way to segue to a link Kate Beaton's awesome Shelley 'n' Mary 'n' Byron comic, so I'm just gonna do it here. SO GOOD
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