29 January 2014

Rats (Robert Sullivan)

Many moons ago, I paired up Rats with Andrew Blechman's Pigeons as a Goodbye-New-York-City gift to myself, for obvious reasons. Yes, I wasn't only the weirdo who said "Hey buddy, how's it going?" to pigeons on the street, I always squeaked with joy at rats on the subway tracks or scurrying along the platform: "Good job, little guy! I'm proud of you!"

I am perversely proud of the rat, for turning human civilization to its advantage, spreading with agriculture across the globe, finding a niche in cities filled with garbage--and becoming the most common mammal in the world. They've got a fearlessness and adaptability I admire (and envy). And yes, I think they're cute, even their lil naked tails.

So integrated is the rat into urban life that it's rarely considered in naturalistic terms--there was no Planet Earth segment on the NYC rat, for instance. Sullivan, however, decides to approach them this way, observing them in their unnatural natural habitat: a single alley on the Lower East Side, which he watches over four seasons' worth of nights (broken by the cataclysm of 9/11). He's a great tour guide, with an infectious enthusiasm and a willingness to go off on tangents, burrowing ratlike into all the corners of his story--anywhere there's a tasty morsel of information.

Interspersed with his surveillance, then, are wide-ranging chapters on the relationship of rats to man and specifically to cities; he talks to exterminators both private and public (yes, NYC has a city department dedicated to pest control), delves into the biography of 19th-century rat-fight entrepreneur Kit Burns, details the arrival of bubonic plague (carried by the rat flea) in the U.S. The latter's an astonishing tale--the first victims showed up in San Francisco's Chinatown in March 1900, and a charming mix of racism and business interests covered it up, mayor and governor alike denying that anyone had ever been diagnosed, ruining the career of the doctor who'd made the discovery. And that's why plague is endemic to New Mexico today.

Also, FYI, I just this minute noticed there's a rat on the cover.

28 January 2014

Hyperbole and a Half (Allie Brosh)

Look, y'all, you're on the Internet, so you've heard of Allie Brosh. You've read the tale of the Alot, or the God of Cake, or her simple dog; you've announced your ambition to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS; you've laughed until you coughed at her turn of phrase and magical ability to make uncomplicated art so expressive.

And if you suffer from a mental illness, or you know someone who does, you've read and re-read and posted and clutched to your heart her pieces on depression, her dealing with which led to an online silence a year and a half long. The empathetic joy I felt last May when she resurfaced with that brilliant second piece still resonates with me, and I feel like she captures the experience of anhedonia--the most difficult thing for a depressed person to explain--perfectly. I'm awed and grateful.

My mother, besides dealing with her own depression, has plenty of experience with having a mentally ill child (coughs, points to self), and she feels a maternal protectiveness towards Brosh that's just beautiful--and which made Brosh's book, signed no less, the perfect Christmas gift. Nothin' wrong with giving someone a gift you really really want to read yourself, either.

Brosh reprints the hits here, but there's tons of new material: childhood stories, pieces on motivation and secret selfish thoughts, a long hilarious letter to her dogs about theirflawed approach to the world ("Misconception #4: I should eat bees.). It's terrific stuff, and I'd tell you to buy it, but chances are you already have. Good job!

26 January 2014

Homeward Bound (Emily Matchar)

Homeward Bound hit my TBR courtesy of my friend Alana Chernila, food blogger at Eating From the Ground Up, author of The Homemade Pantry--in other words, a committed member of one of the many related subcultures Matchar talks about in this book. I, too, have been embracing domestic tasks of late, cooking from scratch, keeping house, knitting and mending; partly because my bundle of chronic illnesses makes it difficult for me to maintain a steady work schedule, but also because I enjoy the role of "housewife" in my partnership (though I prefer the term châtelaine, because I'm also the designated spouse to deal with The Man, i.e. insurance companies, banks, government offices).

And I feel really, really guilty about this, about my contentment with staying home, about my utter lack of ambition regarding a career. Sure, I love books, and I love writing, but I don't want to manage or own a bookstore, and it seems foolhardy to believe I could support myself through writing alone. I'm college-educated, though, upper-middle-class, feminist--so aren't I wasting my life and my talents being a homemaker? Aren't I letting my husband down as an equal partner, since he's the one who has to work to support us? (I'll admit, I feel less guilty since I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a compelling medical reason not to work too hard. Or at least less rationally guilty.)

So Matchar's book, which observes and critiques various aspects of the phenomenon I find myself part of, i.e. educated women choosing not to work outside the home and/or immersing themselves in traditional "women's work," appealed to me immediately., and my friend Molly (an associate editor at Simon & Schuster) hooked me up with a copy. Matchar terms this phenomenon "the New Domesticity," defining it as "the re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject those things." That last clause is super important, of course, cause if you're a Colonial woman who sews all her family's clothes because there's no such thing as store-bought garments, well, you're far less likely to enjoy it. Whereas I dropped $60 on merino/alpaca yarn to make myself a sweater, and it's a delightful leisure activity.

Matchar begins with a historical overview of American domesticity, starting with that toiling Colonial gal; crediting the Industrial Revolution with the establishment of "work" as something one left the house to do, which necessitated the parallel sphere of homemaking; the enshrinement of women as spiritual and moral keepers of the home (see Virginia Woolf's Angel in the House, and see also Mallory Ortberg's "Virginia Woolf: Angel Hunter," because it's hilarious); the rise of convenience foods and automation in the mid-19th-century, which had the side effect of giving housewives less to do--and she argues cogently that this unstructured free time led to boredom which led to rebellion which led to second-wave feminism. (I simply cannot back her play when she keeps insisting said feminism didn't help devalue women's work. I can agree that some of the blame should fall on economic factors, some on the fact that women's work was never really valued in the first place--but stay-at-home moms and non-working women are still regularly vilified or at the very least viewed dubiously by some of the very feminist scholars she cites in the book, and by comment sections everywhere. Otherwise I wouldn't feel so darn guilty about not working!)

She then examines different threads of the New Domestic movement, with chapters on lifestyle bloggers, Etsy/craft culture, the DIY food movement, attachment parenthood, rejection of mainstream corporate culture, and homesteading, and it's all fascinating. I love the mix of skepticism and envy that comes through when she talks about these women's lives, and I love that she talks about the strange overlap of left- and right-wing that happens in many of these subcultures. And I extra extra especially love that she draws conclusions, and comes up with some potential lessons that acknowledge the good she finds in the movement while suggesting ways in which it could improve, without yelling at anybody. Seriously, when was the last time you read an opinionated non-fiction book that did that?

23 January 2014

Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)

Look, if you pay attention to YA at all, you've heard of Fangirl, probably in the context of that Kermit-arms gif that was the most articulate thing I could summon about Megan Abbott. And it is, indeed, all that and a bag of kale chips (hmm, I haven't had kale chips in ages, I should make Chris get some): read-it-in-one-day-and-oh-look-at-the-time involving, sweet and funny and fun and wise.

(And yes, totally affirming of my ridiculous hobby.)

Cath is starting her freshman year at a Nebraska university, and for the first time in her life, she doesn't have her outgoing twin, Wren, to rely on--her sister didn't want to be roommates, so Cath is stuck with Reagan, who is brusque and confident and absolutely terrifying. Even worse, she's stuck with Levi, Reagan maybe-boyfriend, who hangs out in their room constantly, won't stop talking...and is really, seriously cute. All Cath wants is to be left alone to keep up her real life in the Simon Snow fandom--she's a massively popular writer of fic set in this Harry Potter-esque world, chronicling the romance between Simon and his nemesis/roommate Baz, and she's trying her darnedest to finish her version of the series' denouement before the last book comes out in spring. Meanwhile, she worries about her bipolar dad, unsure whether he can get by without his daughters taking care of him--and as the year wears on, she worries about Wren, who's partying a bit too hard for comfort.

Cath's story is interspersed with excerpts from the Simon Snow books and her own fic, and Rowell does a killer job showing the development of Cath's voice, as well as building a whole fantasy world in these few paragraphs that makes you desperately wish the series was real. There's a lot going on here (sometimes a bit too much, actually) about growing up, detaching and connecting, what it means to be a writer and what it should mean. I'm totally in love with Cath and Levi and Reagan especially (I think she both reminds me of myself and who I really want to be), and the ease of Rowell's writing, which can delineate feeling in a few strokes. Definitely worth staying up too late to finish.

My only real complaint? Coulda used more slash. ;)

21 January 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)

So I've been staring at this page for nearly an hour, trying to think of a new way to say that one of the most acclaimed sci-fi novels of the 20th century is, in fact, realreal good, and you know what? I don't have one. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is realreal good, you guys,and I read it in a day, and it doesn't have nearly as much in common with Blade Runner as I thought. It's post-apocalyptic, for one thing, and there are indeed electric sheep--and goats and cats and spiders and owls. And household mood-inducing machines, responsible for a quote Dick stole from my day planner: "'My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression.'" YUP. EVERY DAY.

Thanks for picking this up off the street in Brooklyn, Chris! You're the best!

19 January 2014

Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Edgar Allan Poe)

Total coincidence that I'm writing this on Poe's birthday--it's not much of a present, since I thought his only novel, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was no great shakes. So, uh, happy 205th, dude! I didn't like your novel!

But while I didn't enjoy it, I can appreciate its influence. The first chunk, wherein our narrator stows away on his BFF's dad's ship--only to find himself trapped below decks by a mutiny--is super Melville-y; or rather, some of Melville's work (esp Benito Cereno) turns out to be super Pym-y, right down to the uncomfortable-making racist bits. Who knew, right?

The middle chunk, wherein the last four survivors on the ship face the horrors of storm and salvation, is really the only part that feels like Poe to me, good and gory. When they're finally rescued, however, they embark on a journey to the South Pole (yes, really)--and then unfolds a precursor to the Weird Voyage tale (borrowing a phrase from Ann & Jeff Vandermeer's awesome anthology The Weird): strange animals, strange plants, strange people. Even the water changes nature. I've read a bazillion of these, short stories and novels both (see, for instance, M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud), and thus Pym suffers the fate of being read after its descendants, lessening its impact. This happens when you read ALL THE THINGS, unfortunately.

18 January 2014

Inverted World (Christopher Priest)

Christopher Priest's 1974 sci-fi dystopia, Inverted World, is itself an inverted novel, taking a fairly standard "coming of age in a weird world" narrative and twisting it. But you'll have to take my word for it--not only will I not spoil it for you, I don't have the physics chops to explain the revelations anyway. (I should send this to my brother, he'd love it.)

I can tell you the setup, though: Helward Mann, at the age of "six hundred and fifty miles," joins the Future Surveyor guild of the city of Earth, like his father before him. During his apprenticeship, he works with members of all the guilds that keep the city functioning--and moving, because the entire municipality creeps along on rails, taken up behind and put back down before, and has done so since its creation. The necessary laborers are hired from the dirt-poor villages along its route; the city also borrows women, who gain a temporarily comfortable life in exchange for bearing a child. The secret of why it does so--why it must do so--is unknown to the ordinary citizens, preserved by the guilds under oath. When Helward's charged with taking a trio of village women back home south of the city--a direction mysteriously known as "down past"--he's initiated into the true, bizarre situation of the city, and the peril that faces its inhabitants.

But Priest doesn't stop there. After establishing the parameters of Helward's world, he deftly undercuts them in the book's third section. Argh, I'm sorry to be so vague, but the fun's in the journey, quite literally--hopping on the train-city (which inevitably makes me think of China Miéville's Iron Council and Railsea--this novel must be an influence), seeing where it goes, and what happens when it stops.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NYRB Classics, in exchange for an honest review.)

11 January 2014

Speedboat (Renata Adler)

This book, you guys. THIS BOOK.

Renata Adler's Speedboat is all voice--a novel without a narrative, plot, or climax. And yet, though one could certainly apply the dread epithet "experimental," it's easy to read. Fun, even!

It's "about" (as far as that goes) Jen Fain,  a young female reporter living in New York City in the 70s. She teaches sometimes, she goes to Elaine's, she has a few casual romantic entanglements, she hangs out with artist types; and she tells us about them in a succession of anecdotes, rarely more than a page long, sometimes just a few sentences. It's too disjointed to be stream-of-consciousness--puddles-of-consciousness perhaps? And not so much a character study, because Jen studies the people around her with sardonic wit (sardonic witty ladies are my favorite!), keeping herself at bay. Somehow, though, these discrete episodes build on each other, not cresting to an epiphany, but documenting a setting, internal and external, in all its small dysfunctions and quiet victories.

And Speedboat is full of what are, frankly, perfect sentences. Like the very last one: "It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime." Yes, that is exactly the kind of sentence one wants, holy crap.

P.S. I've decided to give my reading some structure this year by adopting different themes every month, like I've previously done with Romance February or Newbery November. I'm starting off simple with TBR January--the goal being to get through all the books waiting on my shelf that have been there since before I moved to Wichita. Last June.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from NYRB Classics, in exchange for an honest review.)

08 January 2014

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls (Katherine Larsen & Lynn S. Zubernis)

N.B.: As this is perhaps the niche-iest books I've ever read, I am simply gonna write this as a chatty book report for my fic friend Jessi. The rest of y'all, feel free to stop reading; I won't be mad.

Hi sweet pea! Super jealous of your 3 a.m. lasagna.

Let me first of all tell you what may, for you, be the fatal flaw of Fangasm: it was completed in 2008, and took five years to find a publisher. Thus, it contains woefully little Misha; he shows up in the last chapter, is awesome and adorable, and then the book ends. This also means that the discussion of fic is limited to Wincest, which I know is on your NOPE list, and RPS, which is on mine.

But fic is actually a small part of the story here. It's a strange book, a hybrid of memoir and sociology (a little heavy on the former for my taste, but I'm kind of a jerk about memoirs generally). The authors, both college professors with real jobs and lives and children, document their trajectory as SPN fangirls. They discovered the show, then fic & wank, started attending cons (much to the chagrin of partners & children. I'm not gonna lie, were I a 15-year-old girl and my mom was flying across the country to ogle some hot twentysomething actor, I'd be mortified).

At some point, they had the admittedly brilliant idea to write a book about their fandom, which had the sneaky side effect of parlaying their academic credentials into access to the cast & creators. There are some great interviews in here: J2, obviously (and now I can say, yeah, they seem like nice dudes, but realllll ordinary. Whereas Misha? Total weirdo, hence one of My People), but there're also some nice moments with Jim Beaver, Samantha Ferris, etc. The more they approach BNF, however, they find the line between shrieky fangirl and serious scholar ever more difficult to navigate; eventually, their project comes to the attentions of TPTB and they're signed on to do an official book on SPN fandom (which comes with waaaaay increased access, natch)--but they finally realize that TPTB aren't interested in what they actually wanted to write about, i.e. fangirl guilt, shame, infighting, and above all, the sexual aspects of the fandom. (Because obvy, as much as they keep putting gorgeous people in our faces, TPTB don't want to hear about fan appreciation of such beauty, because Nice Girls don't have libidos.) Whereupon they were promptly dropped, slapped with a freakin' cease-and-desist order, and were left with a nearly completed orphan.

So. Would you like it? Probably, though it's not as insightful as Fic. I do like their notion that we all define "crazy fan" as the person juuuuuust over the horizon from where we're at, and they've got some smart things to say about how odd it is that a group of people linked by passion can clique off and turn on each other for not liking the same thing in the "right way." I really feel bad for Larsen & Zubernis having to wait so long to publish, because there's so much they weren't able to cover, and the book feels understandably dated. And also, it needs more Misha.

04 January 2014

The Haunted Bookshop (Christopher Morley)

What to say about Christopher Morley's delightful The Haunted Bookshop that I didn't already say about his first adorable novella about the bookselling life, Parnassus on Wheels? Honestly, not much. This one takes place in Brooklyn itself, itinerant bookmonger Roger Mifflin having settled down with his wife, Helen, and opened a bookshop in place. There's a bit of a romance and a shred of plot, the latter of which hinges on some embarrassing-in-retrospect anti-German sentiment, but one can overlook that in a 1919 work. There are, regrettably, no actual ghosts.

There are, however, quotable bits in spades, so I'm just gonna let Morley take it from here. Many of these could be a framed manifesto on the wall of any indie bookstore. Or a tattoo:
  • "I am not a dealer in merchandise but a specialist in adjusting the book to the human need. Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a 'good' book. A book is 'good' only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. . . . My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms."
  • "Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives."
  • "The life of a bookseller is very demoralizing to the intellect," he went on after a pause. "He is surrounded by innumerable books; he cannot possibly read them all; he dips into one and picks up a scrap from another. His mind gradually fills itself with miscellaneous flotsam, with superficial opinions, with a thousand half-knowledges. Almost unconsciously he begins to rate literature according to what people ask for."
  • "One thing, however, you must grant the good bookseller. he is tolerant. He is patient of all ideas and theories. . . . He is willing to be humbugged for the weal of humanity. He hopes unceasingly for good books to be born."
  • "[A gathering of booksellers is] likely to be a little--shall we say--worn at the bindings, as becomes men who have forsaken worldly profit to pursue a noble calling ill rewarded in cash."
  • "The beauty of being a bookseller is that you don't have to be a literary critic: all you have to do to books is enjoy them."
  • "I will tell you a secret. I have never read King Lear, and have purposely refrained from doing so. If I were ever very ill I would only need to say to myself 'You can't die yet, you haven't read Lear.' That would bring me round, I know it would."

01 January 2014

Fic (Anne Jamison)

My forays into different genres have lately led me to dabble in the least respected one of all: fanfiction. And by "dabble," I mean that I've written 27,000 words since August--and read many, many more--that center on the pairing of Dean and Castiel from Supernatural, because they are madly in love, dammit, and no amount of furious backpedaling from the writers this season will convince me differently.

Uhm. Excuse me while I wrestle myself back to the point . . . or, rather, use my obvious emotional investment in a subtextual relationship between fictional characters as the perfect segue into the marvelous project that is Anne Jamison's book Fic.

Part anthology, part literary criticism, part sociology, Fic faces the concept and community of fanfiction (as the title implies, people who write/read it don't call it fanfiction) head-on, warts and all, through the lens of history, technology, and a few exemplary fandoms--Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, The X-Files, Harry Potter, Twilight, and yes, my dearly beloved Supernatural. Jamison includes essays by fan writers galore; interviews conceptual writers excited by fic's alterations in the relationship between text and author, media and consumer; and delves deeply into the Fifty Shades of Grey controversy, which it turns out is far more complicated and illustrative of the collaborative nature of fic than I'd imagined.

As a guide, Jamison herself is first-rate, her writing conversational, but a conversation with a snarky smartypants (like pretty much all the acquaintances I've made at Archive of Our Own, a huge fic archive whose founders speak in these pages as well). She understands the urge to expand upon and correct primary texts, having written some Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic in her day, and is able to draw parallels between modern fanfiction and old concepts of authorship without simplistically equating them:
Reworking an existing story, telling tales of heroes already known to be heroic, was the model of authorship until very recently. This book is organized to highlight both this kind of continuity with the past, and also what I see fanfiction doing that I believe to be new. . . . Paradoxically, fanfiction, the cultural enterprise apparently dedicated to revisiting familiar ground, ends up leading us to new models of publishing, authorship, genre, gender . . . and to voyeuristic aliens who resemble lava lamps, vampire peaches, sex pollen, and an entire universe based on the structure of the canine penis.
Reading this book has erased the last vestige of shame I felt about writing fic rather than wholly original work (though I still think it's prudent to post my slash under a pseudonym), has in fact made me proud to be part of both a history of reader engagement that spills over into creation--didja know that William Thackeray was so pissed off by the end of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe that he wrote his own ending instead, where Ivanhoe married the right woman?--and nebulous new worlds that blur the line between (as Lev Grossman says in his introduction) "genders and genres and races and canons and bodies and species and past and future and conscious and unconscious and fiction and reality."

Also, I'll have you know I write world-class smut.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Smart Pop, in exchange for an honest review.)
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