Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Bone Season

I read this review on NPR that gave The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon some high praise - "There's a distinct Margaret Atwood-style wash to Shannon's dystopian universe" they said.  "The new J. K. Rowling," they said.  Let's not get carried away.  The author is 21 and has gotten a 7-book deal and a film in the works, but I don't think we're looking at the next Harry Potter.  

It takes place in an alternative/futuristic London where some people, like the main character, Paige, have magical powers, but they are outlawed.  Paige is arrested and taken to a secret land where some other alien-types keep the magical people as slaves and suck up all their energy and whatnot.  Paige's "master" is some brooding old dude that glares at her all the time like Heathcliff and... can you guess what is going to happen???? 

Shannon invents a fairly large vocabulary as well as world (there's a glossary I was rather annoyed to find at the end - but, I never skip ahead...) so if you like that sort of thing you may find The Bone Season right up your alley.  It's really quite complex, I wonder what her notes looked like.  

Ultimately I found it wearisome - there were no surprises in the romance area and once the introductions were made to all the ins and outs of this universe, I just didn't find the story that compelling. 

Who knows, maybe this series is going to blow up - maybe as the books and the author age, it will grow into itself.  Anyone else have a different experience than me with this book?  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Flight Behavior

We read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver for book club.  Everyone agreed it was a perfectly fine book but we didn't have a great discussion.  Often a book everyone merely enjoys has a kind of bland reaction.  No one's offended, but no one's world has been rocked.  That's a bit unusual for Kingsolver, who has rocked my world before.

Flight Behavior is about a young mother who lives on her in-law's property with her husband and babies.  Monarch butterflies have altered their flight path to migrate in their Appalachian home.  So, it has a lot to do with the environment and global warming, and a bit with globalism.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt inspires some real adoration in her fans.  I was 100% willing to jump on the bandwagon after reading some amazing reviews of The Secret History. Tana French cites Tartt as an inspiration and I'm crazy about her.  So, I read The Secret History this summer and to tell the truth, wasn't quite sure what all the fuss was about.   I have relatively fond memories of The Little Friend, which I read back in 2007 and wrote a really worthless review about.

So, anyway, still eager to fall head-over-heels, I read The Goldfinch.  Here's my review in Newcity Lit.  I thought parts were outstanding and over-all it was too long, to greatly simplify a not-so-simple book.  I love that she uses this actual painting as a jumping off point - creating a narrative around a (fictional) history of that work.  I suspect, although I honestly have no idea, that there was some really higher-level Marxism shit going on in the theory of this book but, ha! ha! I am not a Marxist expert!  Particularly near the end, she becomes extremely theoretical about spending time with art work and the capacity of an experience like that to change a person, but more than that, it seemed quite related to the ownership or possession or consumption of things of beauty that led certain people (wealthy ones!) to afford that experience.  Anyway, I would be much obliged if anyone with expertise in that area would like to weigh in.  Or I suppose I could break down and go read the wikipedia page on Marxism.  Ugh.

Also of note was epigraph she included that I had never read before:
We have art in order not to die from the truth.-Nietzsche
Whoa.   I need to think about that for about the next ten years 'til Tartt's next book comes out.
The Goldfinch (Het Putterje), 1654
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Anyway, the whole thing reminds me of this lovely article I read in Harvard Magazine about patience, and art, and looking.  By coincidence, it also features a small animal on a chain.
John Singleton Copley’s A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765

The Lowland

Here's my review of The Lowland on Newcity Lit.  Jhumpa Lahiri is a beautiful writer but I didn't love this book.

Claire of the Sea Light

Here's my review on Newcity for Claire of the Sea Light.  I'm a huge Danticat fan - this is a fine addition to her ouvre.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Likeness

After I read In the Woods, by Tana French, I had that terrible I don't want it to end feeling, and skedaddled over to my local bookstore for The Likeness. That book switches POV to Cassie, Rob's partner from the previous book.  Cassie's out of sorts because of the cock-up that her last case turned out to be, but she doesn't really drop any spoilers about the case, so it doesn't matter if you read these books out of order.

In the beginning of The Likeness, Cassie's boyfriend, Sam, calls her and asks her to come to this location, where it turns out this woman who is the spitting image of Cassie lies DEAD. Her former undercover boss is there, and he has already hatched a plan to send Cassie into the dead girl's life to find out who the murderer is.

Thereafter follows about a hundred pages of Cassie waffling about whether she wants to do it, and then studying the girl's life so she can fit in - I was kind of like let's get ON with it.  Also, let's face it, the whole premise is just ridiculously unlikely.  But, whatever.  Go with it.  When Cassie does move in with the girl's roommates, who live in a ramshackle but beautiful old house in the Irish countryside outside Dublin, the book is essentially unputdownable, just an addictive ride to the end.

After I read In the Woods I read a bunch of interviews by French trying to find out more about the unsolved mystery she leaves at the end of that book.  I discovered that The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, has been influential to her.   (Also that she often doesn't know who the murder is when she starts and works it out as she goes along, also that she might revisit the unsolved mystery in the future!!!!!!)  I didn't love The Secret History, but French captures the greatest aspect of that book in The Likeness, which is this group of oddball, brilliant, friends, as close as can be, that, as as a reader you would like to be friends with, even though one of them is most likely a murderer.  And, that's exactly the problem Cassie has - after moving in with them, she quickly falls in love with their way of life, with their easy relationships with each other, with their wonderful house - and, despite the fact that one of them just might have killed her likeness, the urge to spend the rest of her life with them is almost irresistible.

It's pretty amazing that French crafts these mysteries without knowing how they're going to end - she must go back and do a lot of editing - becau
se her books are so smooth - when she wraps things up, everything falls into place in a extremely satisfying way.  I think the only thing that might improve the whole experience for me might be to listen to her next book on audio because I would like to hear the whole thing in an Irish accent.
The Housemates, shoulder to shoulder, graceful and inseparable as a group in a painting and all with the same fine bloom of light on them, like the luster on old beeswaxed wood. It was only over that first week that they had turned real to me, come into focus as separate individuals with their own little quirks and weaknesses.  I knew the cracks had to be there. That kind of friendship doesn't just materialize at the end of the rainbow one morning in a soft-focus Hollywood haze. For it to last this long, and at such close quarters, some serious work had gone into it. Ask any ice-skater or ballet dancer or show jumper, anyone who lives by beautiful moving things: nothing takes as much work as effortlessness.  

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Good Kings Bad Kings

Oops - I thought I posted this a long time ago.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Nussbaum about her new book, Good Kings, Bad Kings, which is probably one of my top five fave books from 2013.

The book is about some young people that live in institutionalized homes for disabled people and really opened my mind to what happens in places like that, and really turned my mind against institutionalization as well.  I love a book that makes me think that hard.  Her book is brutal, but actually very very funny.

It was so nice to meet her, one of the more pleasant interviews I've ever done.

Here's the article that Nussbaum mentions in the interview that inspired the title.  And these are the organizations in Chicago she mentioned that do great work with the disabled community:
Access Living
Equip for Equality

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

I love love love these Claire DeWitt mysteries by Sara Gran.  If you like mysteries in any way, I urge you to run out and buy both her books and then spend the next year in agony like me, waiting for the next one.  Here's my review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway on Newcity.  (Here's my review of Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Night Film

This review of Night Film is much better than mine but he really gives away the store.  I have this personal standard that I really don't want to give much (or anything?) away in a review - especially for a new book I think people will or should actually read.  So, I make a pretty hard time for myself trying to give a good impression of what happens generally so people can get an idea if it's for them or not.  I don't know - maybe that's not the best thing to do.

Anyway, here's my review.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Dumb Dirty Eyes

My review of My Dumb Dirty Eyes on Newcity.  Lisa Hanawalt is a really terrific artist - check out her work and her Instagram.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bridget Jones

Recently I reread Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason for book club. I haven't read them for about 10 years so it was fun to revisit them, and read back-to-back. This time around the social satire of both books really struck me more than ever before. And they're just so, SO funny. The humor really holds up. I laughed and laughed. Fielding is so great at writing line after line of really hilarious sentences and situations:  "Realize it is no longer possible for smokers to live in dignity, instead being forced to sulk in the slimy underbelly of existence." 


"How many alcohol units to do you drink a week?" said "Rebel": Brad Pitt-style whippersnapper fitness assessor as I sat trying to hold in stomach in bra and pants.
"Fourteen to twenty-one," I lied smoothly, at which he had the nerve to flinch.

 Personally I think The Edge of Reason is even funnier than the first book - the bit in the Thai prison and the interview with Colin Firth are sososososo funny. But, I think there's a lot more to these books than lolz - what I find most impressive is how they're absolutely steeped in British literature tradition - BJD is, of course, based on Pride and Prejudice and The Edge of Reason is loosely based on Persuasion.  In England there is also a long history of serialized novels in the papers, and that's also how BJD began in 1995.  So while the books are often dismissed as the first "chick lit", I think the reality is that Bridget Jones is an incredibly smart satire firmly rooted in British tradition, continuing a trend Jane Austen started several centuries ago about the difficulty single women face in a world where (heterosexual) coupling is the normative expectation.

So, as you may or may not know, Helen Fielding is writing a 3rd Bridget Jones novel (!!!!!!!) called Mad About the Boy, due out in October. Judging by the cover art (little toys, stuffed bear) everyone thinks there's a baby in this one... Truthfully, I hope not, because I find mommy fiction really boring and I hate stories that end like and they had a baby and that's the end because what more could you possibly want out of life? I did a bit of internet snooping and Fielding has two kids, so, I wouldn't be surprised if the story goes that way. ALSO, did you know that a follow-up to the 2nd book was published in The Independent, serial style, in 2006? In the 2006 version (spoiler alert), Bridget Jones has like a short break up from Mark Darcy, meets Daniel in a bar and immediately gets sprogged. I tried really hard to read it but it was kind of boring and it ended pretty much as I have previously described. But, you can read the whole thing if you want to.

Well, even though I'm not excited about the possible continuation of that particular story line, you can bet I still want to be one of the first to get my hands on that book!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Secret History

The Secret History had been popping up on a lot of "recommended" lists for me and I finally got around to reading it.  I thought it was going to be my kind of book - I love a school book/coming of age-ish tale like I love peanut butter and chocolate.  Although I read the whole thing, I didn't entirely love it, and in fact I kept thinking any minute it was going to get really good - but, I hate to say, it never did.

It's about this relatively poor kid from California who goes to a prep school out east and studies Greek with this small, oddball group of students and a single professor.  The other students seem like they're living in the early 20th century so it was some shock when I realized the book was actually taking place during the late 70s (I think).  They seem to imagine themselves in Gatsby-esque light - calling each other Old Sport and drinking martinis and whatnot.

It turns out these kids tried to have an honest-to-god bacchanalia where they went out of their minds and "escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one's moment of being."  So, they spend a long time trying to find the right combination of drunks and alcohol and meditation/fasting, and eventually they achieve it:
It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know...
Except, in their altered state, they somehow kill a farmer, out in the woods.

All these kids are really entitled, except for the Californian, who wasn't involved in the bacchanal  but keeps their secret.  One of the kids in the group (also not involved) figures out that they killed man and starts tormenting them and extorting them.  So, they decide to kill him too.   You'd think with all this murder and bacchanalia stuff the book would be terribly exciting, but parts were quite dull, and I found myself skipping pages at a time, which I really hate to do.  If the book were HALF as long, it would have been much more interesting.

Tartt had done an rather incredible amount of research, however, and I really did enjoy her insertion of Greek and other languages - the greek language is like a secret code that these students can use to communicate with each other anywhere they choose - absolutely no one understands what they're saying.  So, even though I found the book rather boring, it was punctuated by this love and reverance of language and words that I really appreciated.
Pur: that one word contains for me the secret, the bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek. How can i make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue? Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections such as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel's second "comic drama" Are You My Mother? is ostensibly a memoir of the artist's mother, but it's more of an incredibly introspective viewing of the relationship between mother and daughter.  

I was a big fan of Bechdel's Fun Home (it was one of my favorite reads in 2008), in which she ingeniously wove literary classics to her families story, at once elevating the comic genre as well as exposing the universality of her story.

Are You My Mother? also makes frequent references to literature, like Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child, Sylvia Plath's diaries and much, much more. Bechdel chronicles her own interest and experience in therapy & analysis and is well-read in psychoanalytic writings.  She's particularly interested in Donald Winnicott, a contemporary of the Bloomsbury group.  I'd never heard of Winnicott but I guess he's a follower of Freud, and came up with the idea of "object relations" and "transitional objects".  I know a little bit about these theories from my mommy friends, and also my sister, who would always say to my nephew before she put him to bed, "Pick out a transitional object" even when he was a tiny baby so he'd go to sleep calmly.  

So, intentionally, Bechdel's book is extremely self-reflective and, I fear, might cause many readers to interpret it as sort of ... narcissistic.  I don't know.... narcissism is kind of a derogatory term, and I think she makes a fair case for her kind of absolutely true writing.  Intellectually, I like her exploration of what it is to tell your own story or someone else's - particularly someone who's unwilling.  I honestly don't think Are You My Mother? is a memoir at all, but rather an adult working through the idea of the object relation and identity between herself and her mother.  What's revealed along the way is a glance into this strange relationship they have - Bechdel talks to her mother almost every day on the phone (a fact most people would interpret as a strong relationship), they have a huge psychological distance between them. Bechdel actually sits at the computer and types out most of what her mother says.  Also, she says they haven't embraced since she was a young child.  Also, her mother is openly ashamed of her daughter's sexuality and encourages her to hide it, or write under another name.   Parent Fail.
Anyway, while intellectually i appreciate her style, it's overwhelming to read that level of self-scrutiny.  I mean, she starts out each chapter with a recurring dream she's had followed by a Freudian interpretation.  Why it's so boring to hear about someone else's dream, I don't know, but, oy - so boring.  I still think she's a genius and I love what she does with her art and her craft, but I was a bit turned off what reads as self-involvement.  (I write.  On my blog. Which is all about me. And my thoughts.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

such a pleasant opinion

I've had a few interesting comments on my blog recently - this one is quite nice - it was on my review of Faithful Place:
Thanks for sharing such a pleasant opinion, piece of writing is nice, thats why i have read it fully
Why, thank you!  I appreciate it when people read my thoughts fully.  I attempted to return the favor, but, alas, the site is in Chinese (I think).  It is called "Louboutin Shoes" but it is about food.  I have always wanted a pair of Christian Louboutins.  Gah, like these, maybe...

I also received a response to my scathing review of The Professor and the Madman that was so defensive I suspect it was written by Simon Winchester himself:
This sophomoric and self-indulgent 'review' neglected to mention that this book is an account of how the Oxford English Dictionary came into existence. Future readers may want to consider that the use of 'mad' connotes something rather different for British English speakers, like Mr. Winchester, than it does for the Yankee author of this 'review'.
I guess I did skip over the part about how the book is indeed an account of how the OED came into existence, although I rather think the title, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary sums it up nicely.  I don't think I've ever been called a "Yankee" before.  Made me feel like I was being told off by Foghorn Leghorn.

But, I do find it quite amusing when people don't agree with my opinion on books.  Sometimes if there's a book I really LOVE and I give it to my sister or my friend and they don't LOVE it, I get mildly bummed out for about three seconds.  I don't think I've ever gotten pissed and started started placing words in unnecessary quotations as a result.  What's pretty interesting is that, at my book club, for example, if everyone has the same general opinion of a book, we sometimes have a boring conversation.  But if, more likely, everyone has a different impression, we often have a rousing, funny, thought-provoking, (respectful) conversation.  I love that. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Faithful Place

I read Tana French's Broken Harbor last year and finally got around to reading another one of her books - Faithful Place.  Is Tana French my new favorite British Isles Lady Mystery Writer?  I think so!!!

Faithful Place is about this detective, Frank Mackey, whose family finds his old girlfriend's suitcase in an old rundown house in their neighborhood.  Frank and the girl were going to run away together to London 20 years ago, but she never showed up at the meeting place.  Frank is on very bad terms with his family and has hardly talked to them in the 20 years since.  But, after the suitcase is found, he ends up spending quite a bit of time with them and some of his old acquaintances  trying to solve the mystery of what happened to his girlfriend.

French has a kind of nifty trick going on - her main characters are a rotating group of men from a police squad in Dublin.  In Broken Harbor, the main character is "Scorcher" Kennedy - he's a minor character in Faithful Place.  In fact, Mackey doesn't like Kennedy and claims to have given him his nickname, for being a dick in a soccer game or something.  I checked in Broken Harbor, and Kennedy claims that the nickname is positive - a result of his scorching goal.

One of French's greatest strengths is dialogue - reading Faithful Place feels like sitting in the corner of a bar in Dublin and listening in on conversations.
"She left us a note, sure. To say good-bye. The Shaughnessy young fellas and of the Sallie Hearne's lads brought it round, the next day; they found it in Number Sixteen. It said right there, she was off to England. At first we thought the two of yous..."  In this case she turns a 20 year old relationship between teenagers romantic and sweet.  She also manages to write these terribly complex characters - I mean, Mackey's actually a sort of horrible guy, he's so out of touch with his emotions he spends most of his time physically constraining himself from punching people.  Or alternately looking for fights so he can punch someone.  I mean, yuck, I wouldn't want to spend two seconds with a person like that - but she gives you a glimpse of where they came from and the next thing you know, you just finished a 400 page book in one sitting.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Interestings

My interview with Meg Wolitzer is up at Newcity Lit.  It was a real pleasure meeting her - we had a great talk about her new book and feminism!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Professor and the Madman

Last year I read HHhH, which is amazing, and, to paraphrase myself (to paraphrase Eric Stoltz in Kicking and Screaming) it's basically made the average historical non-fiction completely unbearable for me.  The amazing thing about HHhH is that the author doesn't call it "non-fiction", despite the fact that the entire story IS true, because he acknowledges that his own bias in retelling the story changes it.  Even as he's recounting how these two spies are being fired upon by like, hundreds of Nazi's, he won't even suppose that they might be scared.
In The Professor and the Madman, all kinds of supposing is going on.  Author Simon Winchester freely associates as he images conversations and emotions throughout his best-selling non-fiction book from 1998. We amused ourselves at book club by reading out the most egregious of these presuppositions - mine was "Mrs. Merrett had no reason to be concerned: She assumed, as she had for each of the twenty previous nights on which her husband had worked the dawn shift, that all would be well."  Really?  A lady thought that, every morning for twenty years in 1871?  That was page 10... I had a long way to go.

For me, the most annoying thing about Professor and the Madman was this offensive language Winchester insisted on using regarding people with mental illnesses.  It's quite clear that the so-called "madman" had schizophrenia, however, he refers to him as "mad" or consumed by "demonic mischiefs"and so on (not to mention prostitutes were referred to as "whores").  I think that he was going for an over-all tone of 19th century yellow journalism or the penny-dreadful, but it's really unclear what purpose it serves.  

The most ridiculous part was where he implies that the "madman" had a sexual relationship with the wife of the man he killed, even while prefixing it with "No suggestion exists..."  What a bizarre thing to write!  Because this man and a woman were possibly in a room alone maybe once, oh, good lord, they probably/well could have/certainly could have/but probably didn't have sex.  Thus I rend my garment and cry out in rage.  

Overall, I found the entire book completely offensive - I mean, the basic premise is CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? A MENTALLY ILL PERSON HELPED WRITE AN IMPORTANT BOOK??? As if the mentally ill are incapable of contributing to society.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl’s getting a lot of buzz since it came out a year ago - I finally got around to reading it recently and got so mad on Facebook I said it made me QUESTION THE VERY PURPOSE OF BOOKS.  In retrospect, I don’t know what I really meant by that, and I’ve kind of settled down about the book.  I’m about to drop some Crazy-town spoilers, so don’t read on if you intend to read Gone Girl yourself.

So, at the beginning, there’s a double-narrative about the disappearance of Amy on her 5th wedding anniversary.  Nick, her husband, gives his perspective, and the other half is from Amy’s old diary.  Nick comes off like a jerk and Amy seems like sweet and likable woman that’s WAY too good for Nick.  So, it seems fairly obvious that Nick “did it”, because you can only assume that she is dead and that she was killed by her domestic partner.  

So, then there’s a twist.  If you talk to anyone who’s read Gone Girl, they’ll want to know when or if you knew there would be a twist.  I’ll admit that I saw the twist coming only about 2 pages in advance.  Some people will tell you they saw it a mile ago.  It turns out, Amy’s a psychopath, and she staged her own death and framed Nick for her murder, mostly just to stick it to him.  So, the double narrative continues, but from Nick’s increasingly befuddled POV and from Amy’s vindictive POV, where she explains how she “did it” and observes how the case goes forward.  Amy admits that she’s taking advantage of the general assumption that in case of a missing or dead woman, it’s fairly likely that her domestic partner had something to do with it.
I thought the entries turned out nicely, and it wasn’t simple. I had to maintain an affable if somewhat naive persona, a woman who loved her husband and could see some of this flaws (otherwise she’d be too much of a sap) but was sincerely devoted to him - all the while leading the reader (in this case, the cops, I am so eager for them to find it) toward the conclusion that Nick was indeed planning to kill me.
For a while that really cheesed me off until I was finally able to doff my cap to Flynn and admit she’d really pulled a good one.  I mean, not only that, but put together an extremely well-crafted narrative structure followed by a beautifully executed twist. Although, the truth is, if a woman is injured or killed, it’s actually fairly likely that her intimate partner did harm her - somehow I felt like this whole switcher-oo was a kick in the pants to the very real issues of domestic violence.  So, ok, I’m naturally willing to concede this is FICTION and for entertainment purposes, but what Gone Girl turned into for me was a particularly over-the-top episode of CSI, which I stopped watching years ago specifically because of their propensity to veer toward ridonkulous plot twists.  I mean, the only rational explanation for what Amy does is that she’s like, an honest-to-God psychopath.  And then the book turns to the area of truly inconceivable when Amy double-frames and murders her ex-boyfriend, comes home to Nick and somehow convinces him that they’re going to live together even though he knows what she did and then she impregnates herself with old sperm he had a bank and traps him forever with the threat that otherwise she’ll turn their kid into another psychopath or... something?  

Anyway, aside from a handful of friends who discreetly whispered to me that they too, were annoyed by Gone Girl, it’s been very well received since it’s publication.  It was also a finalist in the Tournament of Books, a kind of cool showdown between some of the year’s hottest and, in some cases, overlooked fiction in a sports-like bracket thing.  Anyway, Gone Girl made it to the next-to-last bracket-thing (I’m not very good at describing this).  Here’s what Kate Bolick has to say about the book, even as it beats out the competition:  “And then: Hah! The joke is on Amy! And also on Nick. And also on you.”  That’s the truth.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

My review of A Tale for the Time Being on Newcity!  What a great book!  I'm a long-time Ozeki fan, this is a fine addition to her cannon.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy continues to amaze with Bring Up the Bodies, which chronicles the dissolution (to put it gently) of Henry VIII's second marriage to Anne Boleyn.  I read Wolf Hall, despite my general rule, that I break all the time, not to consume culture about capital punishment, which makes me feel queasy inside.  Bring Up the Bodies is all about Henry giving Anne the boot, which leads to her eventual (spoiler?) decapitation.  Boy, did that make me feel queasy.  Both books have won the Booker Prize. This entire trilogy trajectory is going to end with (mini-spoiler) Thomas Cromwell's decapitation.  Eek!  But I can't. Stop! Reading!

Mantel got in a teensy bit of hot water recently when it was perceived that she was denigrating the duchess Kate in her talk on Royal Bodies.   Even David Cameron jumped into the fray.  I found the whole thing very amusing - and an especially inept reading of what she actually said, which was a feminist examination of the "royal body", from Marie Antoinette to Anne Boleyn to Kate to Queen Elizabeth, who Mantel shamefully admits:
I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment.
Yowza.  I mean.  The way this woman writes!  Bring up the Bodies was largely a thrilling experience for me - like a joyride of gorgeous unravelling language from a master of the craft.  By now I've noticed that critics seem to enjoy sharing what they consider the Most Beautiful Sentence Mantel has written.  For me, it's this one:
The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation.
Sure, it's an incomplete clause but uh, in context it's really great.  Also I had to remind myself what "susurration" means.  Suddenly studying for the GRE came flooding back.  Actually, I am not ashamed to list the following words whose meanings I had to look up (see below if you want to quiz yourself):

  • Tonsured
  • parvenu
  • opprobrious
  • suborn
  • oubliette
  • sauve qui peut
  • sprezzatura
  • subfusc
  • fulminating

Also "phlegmatic" doesn't mean what I thought.  All this time I thought it was a person with a lot of phlegm.  Thank you, Reader-dictionary-tool!

An interesting aspect of this trilogy so far is that Henry VIII actually comes off as a fairly likeable character despite almost all evidence to the contrary.  Makes sense - almost everything's gone right for him his entire life, surrounded by yes-men with his every whim fulfilled. Why shouldn't be be a jovial character?  But, it's wise to be careful around him:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.  

That's the rub, of course. Out of the mannered civility of the court come the absolutely barbaric actions of the crown, and by the end, (spoiler?) everyone's literally slipping around in the blood of Anne Boleyn and five men on trumped-up charges of treason.  Whew!  What a book!  Read it!


  • the bald part of a monk's head
  • a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth
  • disgraceful, shameful. Not to be confused with approbation, of course
  • bribe
  • a secret dungeon accessed by a trapdoor at the top.  
  • a general stampede, panic. Literally: "save who can"
  • studied nonchalance 
  • drab
  • hurling denunciations or menaces.  Underused, isn't it?  I mean, I fulminate almost daily.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Looking for something to read?

Here's a great list of books that were longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize).

There are a few you'd expect to see - Bringing Up the Bodies, NW, How Should a Person Be, Kate Atkinson's new book, Life after Life (I'm working on my review now for Newcity) and Gone Girl (I just finished it and will have excessive words about that later).... but a few I've never heard of that look great!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

From Potter's Field

I cannot release myself from Patricia Cornwell's unholy hold over me.  Nor can I easily resist a free mystery book in a give away pile.  If you see a pile of free books, there's a 82% chance  a Cornwell is nestled in its thorny depths.

I hesitate to even summarize From Potter's Field, which I do not recommend, but for my own sake (ie, I spy a free copy of From Potter's Field in a box in 6 years and wonder, "Have I read this?") I will.  It's one of her Kay Scarpetta books.  She's a forensic something-or-other and for some reason (this book assumes you've read a previous book called I Don't Know What COME ON!) this serial killer is obsessed with her and she's sort of obsessed with him and ends up nearly getting killed a few times.  It's not really a mystery because it's quite clear who this serial killer is, it's more of a how-are-they-going-to-catch-him?  And, obviously they are going to catch him.

Once again, I'm going to try to make a vow not to read any more Cornwell paperbacks that throw themselves in my path...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Code Name Verity

It's impossible to talk about the plot of Code Name Verity very much because I'm in danger of giving away the whole thing if I get started, so, I'll describe it in broad terms.  It's about these two young women (20ish? 18, maybe?) during WWII.  One's Scottish, her nickname's Queenie and she's a spy (YES!), the other is English, she's a pilot.  They meet while in training and become best friends.  We learn this while Queenie is writing her "confession" to the Nazis, who've captured her in France.  That's not a spoiler, you learn that right away.

So, poor Queenie's captured in France and being held in a hotel turned prison, tortured and forced to write down everything she knows.  I just finished an unputdownable book, So Much Pretty, and then, what do you know but THIS book is keeping me up way past my bedtime because I can't put it down either!  I may have mentioned when I was a kid I loved reading books about WWII - if this YA book had come out when I was a teenager, I probably would've just gone to Spy Heaven.  Forever Young Adult has gone so nuts over this book they even made a style board about it.  (Yes, I would like those shoes, thank you.)

I was a bit disappointed by the end, for reasons I can't really talk about, but something compelling happened that forced me to go back and read about half of the book again, right after finishing it, and I'm fairly eager to put this in the mail immediately for my sister to read.  I wish there had been more kissing.  Oh, if you don't know what "Kiss me, Hardy" means, you'll need to read this in advance.  And this, just for fun.

Elizabeth Wein sprinkles bits of French and German through the book, and translates most of it for you.  I think that's one of the aspects of this book that puts it in the YA category.   (I'm currently working on a complicated theory of what makes a YA book....).  I don't like it when authors translate bits, I prefer to figure it out myself.  Also there's no romance, although there's an implied future between Maggie and Queenie's brother.

So, trust me, if you like spy stuff, and girl-power stuff, and WWII stuff, read it.  The characters are really plucky and terrific; you'll wish they were your best friends.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is How You Lose Her (2012)

I finished This is How You Lose Her in 2012, but we just had our book club about it this weekend.   Here's a watercolor I made from this scene:
The chief rocker, though, was Doña Rosie, our upstairs neighbor, this real nice boricua lady, happiest person you've ever seen even though she was blind. Halleluja! You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she'd missed the couch and busted her ass - the last time hollering, Dios mío, qué me has hecho? - and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet.

"Boricua" is a person from Puerto Rico
"Dios mío, qué me has hecho" means, My God, what have you done to me?

Monday, January 21, 2013

So Much Pretty

Small towns are well regarded in America as bastions of community and helpfulness, but I've never really shared that feeling, particularly after living in several big cities.  When you're from a small town, something awful happens where some of the people you know and love are also racists and misogynists and homophobics - it's hard to square.  Anyway, I've just never agreed with this pastoral nonsense about the good people of small towns - small towns are full of assholes and criminals, just like any other place, but due to poverty and lower education levels - maybe more.

Cara Hoffman sets her mystery, So Much Pretty, in a small town in upstate New York.  It's a low-income area, where people are perceived to be farmers, but in fact the largest employer is a big box store.  The local dairy is polluting the land.  A girl is found dead on the side of the road.

The story unfolds very slowly.  Wendy is found dead, and, piecemeal, you find out about her history.  It's told from the perspective of various characters.  Another family, the Pipers, mixes with Wendy's.  They moved from NYC to find that peaceful sanctuary of the small town and raise their daughter, Alice. Early in the book, you discover that something is going to happen to Alice, or that maybe she's done something awful - it's hard to believe she might have something to do with Wendy's death, because the more you get to know her, the more charming and brilliant she seems.

A journalist, Stacy Flynn, has been trying to find Wendy since she went missing.  She's a great character that reminded me a lot of Claire deWitt in the other book I just finished, Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead.  She reads like a dude - I love that Hoffman didn't bind her by gender roles.  

I couldn't put this book down - I read it in two sittings.  It haunted by thoughts for about 4 days and a week or so later, it's still heavy on my mind.  I'm about to drop some major spoilers now, so, stop now if you're intrigued enough to read it, or don't mind spoilers...

Major spoilers.  Everything...

OK, then.

When you find out what happened to Wendy, it's terrible.  It's worse when you find out out the book is loosely based on an actual case of an 11-year old girl who was gang-raped by adult members of her "community" in Texas.  (Here's the original story in the NYT, which later required an apology for lacking balance.)  The chapter where Alice unravels what happened mirrors the reader's experience.  She's shocked, horrified, scared, and she wants to do something.  "It would hardly be rational to accept that I live inside a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide, and then wait in line to rape."  Alice, being a supremely rational, thoughtful person, decides that the only way to resolve not just this crime, but to make a stand against further crimes against women, is to kill the men that she knew were involved and let their deaths stand as a warning to others: this is what happens.  So, Alice becomes a school shooter (I think she's a junior in HS) and a murderer.  It was shocking reading it, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting - and came as such a surprise. Girls don't commit school shootings.

I read some of Hoffman's blog and other work after I finished the book. (Here's a good interview.)  She's obviously like, a genius, and has some extremely well-reasoned things to say about violence toward women in our culture.  She's angry, understandably, and doesn't back away from that - I think a lot of people don't appreciate art or thought that comes from a place of anger, particularly from a woman.  I appreciate that she stands behind her anger and her feelings because it's a natural reaction, and women are entitled to be angry, and, aside from that, fury seems to be a pretty good impetus for making art.  There's a scene in her book that shook me as much as some of the more outwardly violent ones - the journalist's predecessor at the newspaper is upset about something she's done and comes to do some mansplaining to her, but she won't hear it.  "And he knew then that people were right about her being ethnic of some kind. He sat down because he wanted to hit her or grab her, and he felt that if he remained standing, he might do it, and then he would be charged with assault."  The idea that this person was so upset with her that he had to sit down to keep himself from hitting her is a perfect example of how quick some men are to jump to violence that they have to fight to "keep themselves" from a physical response.  And I can't tell you how many times I've felt men look like that at me over some small argument, clenching their fists and sputtering and stalking, talking themselves down from... what? Punching me?

I don't advocate violence, in any way, in fact, I'm so anti-gun I don't even think hunters should have guns. They can shoot with bows and arrows.  I really don't like the idea of vigilante justice.  So, I don't accept Alice's actions as a rational choice, but she makes a fairly convincing argument - that horrifies me.  I guess that's what's been on my mind since I read this book - that violence toward women is so pervasive that nothing less than an armed revolution will solve it.  But, today, Martin Luther King Day, I choose to believe that peaceful resistance is the only protest that works.  It works unbearable slowly, but, eventually, it works.   

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid, Virgil's epic poem, although you might argue that a war was fought for her.  The great Ursula K Le Guin wrote an inspired feminist retelling of the story in her 2008 Lavinia.  Le Guin imagines the Virgil's story of the Trojan  Aeneas, who travels to Italy and is prophesied to marry Lavinia after a war.

In Le Guin's story, Lavinia is a dutiful princess, pious, and faithful to the Gods of her family.  It's time for her to get married, and her greatest desire is to make her father happy.  I was most interested in how Le Guin focused on the familial aspect of the tale - what their home life was like, the relationship of the royal family to the rest of the town.  In an engaging afterward, Le Guin writes about how people at this time (I think it takes place between 12-8 BCE) lived quite primitively, and that she was drawn to "... early Rome; the  dark, plain Republic, a forum not of marble but of wood and brick, and austerer people with a strong sense of duty, order and justice... extended families who worship was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits of the place and earth."  So, Lavinia's life is very much about her role in society - keeping the Vesta fire going in the hearth (her job as the unmarried young woman in the house), visiting her families oracle and performing rites for her family and community.

So, when she  visits the oracle and is told that she must marry a stranger and that a war will be fought, neither she nor her father question it.  That's probably the hardest part for any contemporary reader to swallow, because without laying eyes on this guy, when a ship rolls up the Tiber river, they already know it's got Lavinia's future husband on it.  But, what's interesting is that Le Guin tips the idea of what it is to win or conquer in war - there aren't really any "bad guys", and there aren't especially "good guys" either, although one naturally has an affinity for the narrator.

Le Guin faces the brutality of this hand-combat war straight on.  In an agonizing page-and-a-half, she outlines the series of deaths like ingredients in a dish, "Ilioneus kill Lucetius, Liger kills Emathion, Asilas kills Corynaeus, Caeneus kills Ortygius. Turnus kill Caeneus..." and so on.  A wise, older Lavinia looks back and says,
I had not learned how peace galls men, how they gather impatient rage against it as it continues, how even while they pray the powers for peace, they work against it and make certain it will be broken and give way to battle, slaughter, rape and waste.
Another amazing twist of story-telling Le Guin includes (here gently I'll remind you that she wrote this book at 79 years of age!) is the character of Virgil - he visits Lavinia and tells her the poem, so not only is her life predetermined, but she herself admits her own creationism in the story.  "It has not been difficult for me the believe in my fictionality, because it is, after all, so slight."  So slight!  I'm still mulling that one over.

We went to Rome recently, and two of my favorite things were the wonderful she-wolf sculpture and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.  I like lady-stuff, and in that male-dominated period, those are two powerful examples of female empowerment.  There were quite a few references to the she-wolf as mother and protector, and, although the Temple of the Vestal Virgins wasn't specifically mentioned, the practice of worshipping Vespa became much more clear to me as related to the hearth fire (and all that that entails).  

You know how sometimes, when you're really into something, it all starts falling into your lap?  I also chanced across a bit of scholarship by a hairdresser/archeologist. She created this video on the hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins (which Le Guin also mentions when Lavinia gets married).

I highly recommend the personal afterward that was, at least, in my edition (First Mariner Books ed. 2009).  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in feminist reclamation of history, Early Roman or Italian history or Ursula Le Guin in general - it's not a casual read but continually challenging, and, at least for me, involved a fair amount of research!

Monday, January 07, 2013

2012 Stats

I read a total of 54 books in 2012
48 fiction and 6 non-fiction
36 were by women
18 were written by men

I wrote 16 reviews for Newcity.

Books I'm most looking forward to in 2013 are:

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (March)

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris (April)

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (April)

Night Film: A Novel, Marisha Pessl (August)

If you're looking for ideas or interested in what other lady writers and editors liked best in 2012, check this out.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2012)

There's a blogger I  follow whose recommendations haven't led me astray yet... I put Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead on my wishlist after I spied it on her site.  And my sister gave it to me for Christmas (thank you!)  It's written by Sara Gran.  All the blurbs are like...

" if David Lynch directed a Raymond Chandler novel..."

" Kinsey Millhone channeled by Hunter S. Thompson..."

"... a cool blend of Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious..."

Settle down, people!  It's like Lizbeth Sander fucked Sherlock Holmes and Claire DeWitt was their illegitimate chid that was raised by gypsy circus bears.   

But, seriously, it IS kind of like all those things.  I've never read Sara Gran before, but her voice is really fresh and compelling.  Claire DeWitt felt like something really original, even though the story followed a fairly normal arc (thank God.  I was a bit worried, as I was reading, that the mystery was going to have a non-traditional ending and I was dreading it.)    Apparently it's the first of a series (oh, snap!  It looks like the next one comes out in June).  I reminded me of two other slim mysteries that are really worth checking out if you haven't already:  Michael Chabon's The Final Solution (which also has a parrot on the cover) and Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno.

Claire DeWitt is a detective - and the city of the dead is New Orleans, post-Katrina.  DeWitt is trying to solve a murder and interacts with all these wackadoo New Orleans characters, particularly some semi-homeless teens.  Claire studied this method based on a French writer named Silette and his thin book, Détection.  She frequently refers to his advice in her quest to find the truth.  Silette's method is circuitous and introspective - for example:
"The detective thinks he is investigating a murder or a missing girl," Silette writes. "But truly he is investigating something else altogether, something he cannot grasp hold of directly. Satisfaction will be rare. Uncertainty will be your natural state. Sureness will always elude you. The detective will always circle around what he wants, never seeing it whole."
Claire utilizes some strange techniques to solve mysteries, like getting drunk and stoned with suspects.  In one hilarious scene, she talks about how disguise, and then comes up with this complicated backstory for a character disguise, and then everyone recognizes her right away.  Even though that scene is pretty silly, however, you're meant to understand that she really is this amazing detective - one of the best in the world.  

Gran's prose is really clean - here's a passage chosen almost at random - look how beautiful:
Terrell came out from inside the house. The windows were boarded up with plywood. Terrell held his pants up around his slim waist with his right hand. The boys who hung out on street corners in New Orleans were so achingly thin, I wondered if it was a fashion trend or they were trying not to exist, even less than they already did in the eyes of the world.
It was a fantastic mystery (I'm becoming a real mystery lover) and I eagerly await the next in the series.