Friday, November 30, 2012

The Age of Miracles

I read this FANTASTIC book called The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker - it was so good, and I just want the whole world to read it.  It's about... the end of the world, sort of.  This girl and her family live in California, and pretty soon they and the rest of the planet discover that the earth is spinning more slowly.  By about a minute slower a day, if I remember correctly.  At first everyone freaks out, and they cancel school and work for a week or so.  And some people move out to Utah and start end of the world colonies and whatnot... but what's really interesting is how, after the initial shock, people sort of return to life as usual.  Aside from the planet's actual orbit changing, the life of the teenage character, Julia, continues in the somewhat standard manner.

Partly this is a rather brilliant commentary on how all events are like the end of the world to teenagers, but what really struck me, and maybe this is just me... but what I felt was this larger metaphor of how we react to global catastrophes.  For example, right now global warming is this really serious situation, and I feel pretty strongly that we're all pretty much going to die from it in the relative near future.  But, the average person doesn't really spend much or any of the day fretting or doing much about it, they just carry on with life, even though this major, global, disaster is literally getting worse every minute.  But, also, it's like, what are we going to do?  Just, freak out for like, the next 20 years or whatever?  Just ... constantly freak out?  That doesn't make sense.

Thompson Walker really thought through the implications of the earth spinning slower.  So, after a while, the day gets really, really long - I love how she dealt with the reality of time in her story (You know I'm nutso about Time and Space, y'all.)  Because the Earth spins slower, gravity changes slightly - how does that effect people.  How does it effect crops, and so on?

Most of all I loved the pacing of the book.  It frequently reminded me of Eugenides' Virgin Suicides, which has a beautiful, yearning, slow pace.  Both books are simply exemplary for their treatment of the contemporary suburban American teenager.

We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood that the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closet. We accepted that fissures might appear in our sidewalks. Swimming pools sometimes sloshed like bowls of water. We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. At the start of every school year, we each packed a large ziplock bag full of non-perishables in case The Big One stranded us at school. But we Californians were no more prepared for the particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Liz Jensen has a new book coming out that I'm going to review for Newcity.  I had read The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (2004) before, but I didn't write about it on my blog, so therefore I basically had no memory of it.  In case any of my handful of readers thought this blog was for you, ha ha - well, no.  I have a terrible memory, and don't remember a thing I don't write down.

Louis Drax, much to my surprise, despite having read it before (everyone is like that, right?) is about a precocious young boy in a coma.  It's kind of a mystery, because it's not quite clear how he became comatose.  The book is partly from the perspective of Louis, who has a unique voice, and partly from his doctor.  The whole thing takes place in France.  Jensen is British, but I guess she used to live in France.

Anyway, without giving too much away... there's this kid in a coma, and there's a little mystery, and there's also a little mysticism (or something) - for example, Louis's mother tells the doctor that she thinks her child is an angel.  Louis also narrates, and seems to have a fair amount of insight into what's happening around him.  Louis's voice is interesting to read because he's very aggressive for such a little kid.  Jensen is not at all precious with this story:
Every Wednesday after school, when all the others are doing ateliers or cat├ęchisme or watching TV, I'm visiting Fat Perez who's a mind-reader who isn't any good at mind-reading and to punish him you could post some hamster droppings to him in an envelope, except maybe he'd think they were papaya seeds and plant them in a pot because he's so dumb and he'll wait and wait and wait for them to grow but they never will. And sometimes I count aloud just to drive him mad, un deux trois quatre cinq six sept huit neuf dix onze douze, or in English, one two three four five except then I have to stop because I don't know what comes after five. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Clan of the Cave Bear

Somehow I managed NOT to read Clan of the Cave Bear between the ages of 15-23, like every other girl in America, but it's always been on my kitschy-to-read list because I've long heard that it's "good" and also that there are "bonkers sex scenes."

Then we went to France a few years ago and I got really interested in caves and cavepeople and cave drawings, so, I finally picked up a copy at my local thrift store (trust me, there's always a copy at your local thrift store).

So, it's about this girl, who's a Cro-Magnon, I guess, named Ayla, whose family gets killed in an earthquake.  She nearly dies, but is saved by this Neanderthal lady named Iza.  Iza raises her as her daughter, but the whole thing's fraught with a lot of suspicion and anxiety because the girl is from "the Others".  Their culture is extremely patriarchal and all the women have to literally bow and avert their eyes until the men allow them to talk.  I just cannot bear to read shit like that, unless there's a pretty quick subversion and triumph by the lady folks. Unfortunately for poor Ayla, it's just one damn tribulation after another, mostly because of the men in the tribe.  Eventually the tribe elder announces that she is "dead" (temporarily) because she illegally learned how to hunt, and even though she saved someone's life, she has to go to the "spirit world" for a month.  It's actually pretty easy for her to survive the spirit world, which, it turns out, is just the regular world, because she knows how to hunt and she's pretty smart, having a larger frontal lobe and whatnot.  Anyway, she survives that and returns to the clan and then, she starts getting raped by this rotten caveman all the time.  Eventually she gets pregnant and has a baby, but everyone thinks there's something wrong with the baby because it has a skinny neck and can't hold it's head up.  So, she runs off with the baby so they won't kill it, but when she comes back, they're like, Now you have to be "dead" again.

And all this happens when she's, like, EIGHT.

There were a couple parts I liked, like, how Jean Auel describes Ayla as tall, blonde and lithe but all the Neanderthals think she's really ugly.  Also, I liked how she described Ayla setting up her own cave and surviving all by herself.  I like to think I could do that, even though I would most surely die of hypothermia almost immediately.  PS, I saw these great photographs by Megan Cump that reminded me of the book.

But, the gross patriarchal overtones, the child-rape and complete absence of cave paintings means I'm done with those books FOREVER!  Although, will someone please tell me what happens in the rest of the series?  Just for fun?

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Hologram for the King

As you may know, I think Dave Eggers is an absolute genius, and I love everything he writes and does - especially the 826 organizations around the country.  By the way, my old friend Amanda is an Executive Director at 826 Michigan and recently spoke at TED Detroit. (So! Cool!)

So, I really don't know why, but his latest book seemed to really fly under the radar this year.  But, let me assure you that it is amazing in every way, and really worth anyone's time to read.  I'm even think my dad, who, as far as I know, hasn't read a full book since... I don't know when, would really love this book.

It's called a Hologram for the King - and, first, I would like to wax nostalgic about the cover art.  For one thing, I've noticed that Eggers usually doesn't have a book jacket, and, I have to think that he's like me and thinks, book jackets are stupid, why does my book need a jacket, it's just extra paper that gets in the way and requires production... so, no book jacket, but the hardback has been kind of pressed to resemble and old, fancy, embossed leather book.  It even has a sort of surprise detail in the cover, but I'll leave that for you to figure out.  Just gorgeous, and it's going to put all the other books on my shelves to shame.

It's about this man, Alan Clay, who's in Saudia Arabia to present a technology to the King in order, he hopes, to secure the IT contract for this new city that's being built in the desert.  Clay is almost broke, having experienced a lot of success but now stuck in the downward spiral of the economy.  Clay and his colleagues soon realize that the king's schedule changes constantly, and the few days they thought they would be overseas stretch to several weeks.  Meanwhile, in a jet-lagged fog, compounded by some illegal hootch given to him by an ex-pat, he awkwardly tries to negotiate this new culture and turn his life around.

Cleverly included in this funny, slightly surreal story about a the hubris involved in building a city in a desert (while firmly remembering that that very hubris is what lead to unprecedented growth in America) are reflections on American industry, outsourcing, a cautionary cautionary tale about putting our eggs in the basket that is the middle east, and representations of masculinity.  
He wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. The architectural renderings he'd seen were magnificent. Gleaming towers, tree-lined public spaces and promenades, a series of canals allowing commuters to get almost anywhere by boat. The city of futuristic and romantic, but also practical. It could be made with extant technology and a lot of money, but money Abdullah certainly had. Why hadn't he just put the money up himself, without Emaar, was a mystery. The man had enough money to raise the city overnight - so why didn't he? Sometimes a king had to be a king.
Once again, Eggers has really captured the spirit of our times and I just wish this book were getting more press!  I feel like it's not getting the praise it deserves.

Here are my glowing reviews of What is the What and Zeitoun.  I must have read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius pre-Bookish because I don't have an entry for it, but I love that book too.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Wolf Hall

This Hilary Mantel has been getting a lot of good press for her Bringing Up the Bodies, so I wanted to read the first book in the series: Wolf Hall.  It's the first of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was kind of like Henry VIII's right-hand man.  This book is about Henry's divorce from his first wife and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

To tell the truth, I didn't know a lot about Thomas Cromwell, he is portrayed as a thuggish, desperate child and a enterprising businessman - he comes off as thoughtful and caring, at least for his own people.  His dialogue is very funny - he and other members of the court are portrayed as quite witty.  Henry VIII manages to maintain a image that sort of belies the ever rising death toll around him - instead of coming off as a monster, like I expected, he's jovial and friendly.

I remember learning (in school!) that Anne Boleyn had 6 fingers on one hand, but apparently that's pretty much debunked as a myth.  One of the things I really liked about this book is that it sent me straight to wikipedia over and over again to research the course of events, to find out if various parts of the book were historically accurate.   I'm a little torn because well... historical spoiler alert: Cromwell is executed at the end of his life, so it's kind of weird to read a trilogy where you know straight up what's going to happen in the end.  In a few interviews, Mantel has been quite clear about how she intends to end the books, even.  Also, I don't like reading/watching/thinking about the death penalty, it just really upsets me.  So... I don't know if I'm going to carry on.

Probably I will...

Mantel is a great writer.  She is able to walk that fine line of elegant prose without falling into the trap of cheesy, overwrought language (so typical in a lot of historical fiction).  Another thing I loved about Wolf Hall was the reference to Cromwell's memory technique, based on the Memory Palace idea - my obsession of 2011!  Here she write about Henry going to visit the king of France:

He is taking his own cooks and his own bed, his ministers whom Europe calls his concubine. He is taking the possible claimants to the throne, including the Yorkist Lord Montague, and the Lancastrian Nevilles, to show how tame they are and how secure are the Tudors. He is taking his gold plate, his linen, his pastry chefs and poultry-pickers and poison-taster, and he is even taking his own wine: which you might think is superfluous, but what do you know?
Snap! That last bit of the paragraph slays me!  She does something like that a few times in the book which brings in a very modern sensibility that I love so much!

The title is also really clever - Wolf Hall is where Jane Seymour (#3) grew up - there was some scandal there and it had this reputation as a debauched sort of place (I'm not sure if that's historically accurate or not...).  Anyway, I don't believe any of the book actually takes place in Wolf Hall, but the title continuously reminds you that, despite the sort of glamour and apparent civility of the court of the King of England, the events are dark and frankly, barbaric.

Monday, November 05, 2012

After Henry

We read After Henry for book club - I've never read Joan Didion before and it was a fairly nice introduction to her work.  She writes beautifully, and that book of essays (written after her editor, Henry, died) focus mainly on Reagan politics, and the politics and cultures of place: New York, California, and Hawaii.  I really liked everything she wrote about California - she really has a knack for capturing the zeitgeist of place.

The only downside to After Henry is that it's LITERALLY like reading a 30-year old New Yorker.  Like, really good, but a little out of my frame of reference.  I didn't start paying attention to politics until the 2nd Clinton administration.

On earthquakes in southern Cal, she writes:
At odd moments during the next few days people would suddenly clutch at tables, or walls.  "Is it going," they would say, or "I think it's moving" They almost always said "it", and what they meant by "it" was not just the ground but the world as they knew it.  I have lived all my life with the promise of the Big One, but when it starts going now even I get the jitters.
I really want to read one of her novels, preferably about California, but not sure where to start - any suggestions?