Jan. 8th, 2013 02:34 pm
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
"A friend of mine once said this famously. And I think it's very true. To write a book, in the process of writing, you have to become the person you need to become to finish that book. And so when you write a book, you yourself have to be transformed in the process of writing it. And that can take a while, man. Especially if you're serious about the transformation. That could take a while."
- Junot Diaz, Interview with Bill Moyers, 12/8/12

I've got novel editing on the brain. Who else? I think it's time to print out the full copy and get out my red pen. Part of my ambition for 2013 is to create a full second draft of my NaNo novel, and taking advice from Grant Faulkner of OLL about taking a first pass to look at the macro, the plot points and counterpoints and progression, and waiting for the second pass to look at the micro, the sentence-level stuff.

(My other writing ambition for the year is to begin a regular practice of translation, working from Prato's Giu la piazza non c'e nessuno, which I started translating years ago, but that will have to wait until I can dig my copy out of the closet. It's the same plastic-bound photocopied version that I made in 2000 when working on my thesis, because I was too poor to buy a copy and could only borrow it for short periods of time. Ahhh the days before copyright was a big deal in higher ed...)
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
3. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro

Kirk very sweetly picked this up for me as a gift on Saturday. It is set in Boston (nostalgia!) and centers on intrigue and suspense around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, which has been a semi-obsession of mine since I was younger and my grandma gave me another mystery on the same topic. The narrator Claire, who is a rather unbelievably beautiful struggling artist, currently works as an art copyist (which is not illegal) and gets caught up in an art forgery (which is illegal), and then solves part of the famous heist. This involves mucking around in sub-basements, jail, lawyers, mysterious art journals, locked rooms, obsessive art collectors, gigantic ovens, and lots of juicy details on the techniques of art forgers. There is a nice parallel flashback storyline about an old boyfriend of Claire's, for whom she ghost-painted an artwork that was bought by MoMA, and her subsequent efforts to get rightful recognition. This is readable and fun, authentically Bostonian without being namedroppy, and with a good bit of suspense that kept me reading, even if I did guess one or two of the twists long before they arrived. The only glaring flaw, to my mind, was the unrealistic prose/voice of the "historic" letters from Isabelle Stewart Gardner to a niece. An excellent cooped-up-on-a-sick-day book overall.

2: Drown

Jan. 4th, 2013 03:29 pm
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2. Drown, Junot Diaz

I went through this entire collection in one sitting, and it was worth it. I feel more than a little voyeuristic about Diaz's life, the further I've gone into his works. I fell for his longer fiction first (please oh please will his new sci-fi novel come out soon) and it's evident, going back to this work, his first short fiction collection from 1996, how he's changed. And how he hasn't. The narrators in Drown are just as down and out, just as abandoned, just as hopeless or blind or abused as all his other narrators. I get the feeling that part of why he does short stories (which he likes to link together, sometimes you get two halves of the same story, or a crypto part two; fantastic interview about the craft of this technique here) is because it's a way of diving into these terrible painful worlds without going too deep, and certainly without claiming any kind of redemption. I wouldn't claim there's some brilliant feminist turnabout for his more recent characters, but at least in Oscar Wao there was a glimpse of a tiny corner of hope; not so in Drown. Diaz has spoken a lot about the legacy of violence, of poverty, and of sexual abuse, which haunts nearly every character; specifically the rape of young boys, or molestation, or statutory rape, recurs throughout his body of work. What of this is Diaz? I have to stifle a kind of mothering urge about him, as an author. He is a writer making conscious choices and he is not his characters, emphatically. And at the same time I have a hard time keeping that separation in mind as I read. Or I enjoy letting go of that separation, perhaps.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
After some final scrambles to sort out a few misnumbered reviews, my 2012 total stands at 48. I'm pretty proud of that number, as it was attained in between work and parenting and a hell of a year. I read more books than that, but I think of this primarily as a way of digesting what I've read, getting my thoughts together, and only secondarily about quantity.

Most of the best books didn't fit into any themes, per se, but there were a couple obvious themes: 1) childbirth and parenting, 2) nonviolent communication and relationships, 3) British domestic service between the wars, and 4) the holocaust. You could say my class schedule this past academic year has been a bit erratic, to say the least.

Here is a list of the top 8 that stuck out when I reread through my reviews, unranked:

42. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, believe the hype
41. La Batarde, Violette Leduc a.k.a. the writer I should have written my thesis about
34 & 35. books 1 & 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss
15. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
20. You're An Animal, Viskovitz!, Alessandro Boffa, hilarious, sweet and clever like a randy Calvino
8. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a.k.a. the book that might have saved my marriage
6. Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, best unintentional utopia
1. The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obrecht

There are lots more I would add to the honorable mentions list, which I don't care to list out, but these top 8 are the ones I would spend money to have on my bookshelf. That is a big endorsement these days.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
I am super excited to continue my book reviewing habit in 2013! I'm really pleased that it catalyzed a much more intensive search for good books, for finding meaning in good books. It's now just a habit -- a book is mentioned in an article, or by friends? Boom, it goes on the library request list. It's a fabulous perk of working at a college that through our local Summit network or through general ILL I can get pretty much any book I want. Books have become a main source of entertainment again, after being sorely neglected due to the pernicious influences of the internet and its shady vapid bullshit.

Onward with the first book of 2013!

1. The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks.

This was a lucky find at our local library's New Release shelf. I picked it out for Kirk, remembering the author's name. I remember now...I read the Algebraist a couple years ago? It was super fucking confusing. Anyway, the other book I was reading was missing its middle chapters (thanks, whoever bound Buddha Heart Parenting) so I sniped this up from Kirk's pile. Kirk's early verdict was "it's surprisingly funny!" and I found that was true throughout. The book itself hinges on the liar's paradox, kind of, or rather on the philosophical dilemmas of trying to unmask a lie, and what you might learn from it, and whether it's worth all the trouble if nothing will change when you find the truth out anyhow. This is pretty top notch sci fi world building, and features a female protagonist, which gave me warm fuzzy feelings. I really enjoyed digging into the mechanics of how superior intelligences, the ships' Minds that have kind of Douglas Adamsy names and occasional quirks, work within and among other (less smart) beings, or how their internal workings (or external machinations) are an integral part of the world and the plot. In general I think that's what makes good sci fi, for me -- a world in which the whizz bang stuff is not just set dressing. The other interesting conceit of this novel is the whole concept of the Sublime, a place into which various civilizations have chosen to disappear, and it's not about death, it's about a higher realm/dimension of existence, but rather like heaven -- can we describe it? Does it really exist? People have come back from it, in the book, so presumably it's real. But no discernible information comes back about it. I could imagine that for someone who believes in heaven, this might be a disturbing kind of stoner revelation, dude, what if it's all not real...but it was an interesting philosophical exercise to turn my skepticism on this whole accepted (or is it?) facet of the novel; what if we all believed in the Sublime, and chose to go there, except it wasn't really anything at all?What if it's just winking you out of existence and you agree to do it because of a lie (not the same lie as the liar's paradox mentioned above, incidentally, this is no spoiler) and it's all just empty rituals and such to convince you that it's real? Conversely, what if it was real, in a secular way, and civilizations could choose to go there all at once? Interesting, anyway. And of course, I know [livejournal.com profile] mordicai raves about Banks' Culture novels, of which this is one, so now I want to read more. This was a fantastic novel as a standalone, though.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
48. Mink River, Brian Doyle

This one was a surprise. I loved it, loved it, loved it. It was like a big poem river to swim in. Doyle's story, complete with Oregon coast village life, a talking crow, assorted Natives and Irishmen, looked at first like it was going to be maudlin and perhaps racist/appropriative? But instead it was rich and wonderful, and just the right amount of quirky -- a bit like David James Duncan mixed with Murakami mixed with...I dunno, someone very Irish. There are bits about The Hunger (an gorta) and lots and lots of gaelic, and Worried Man and Cedar who run the very, very unusual Department of Public Works in the tiny village and do all kinds of semi-magic (ignore the blurbs about this book, which make the DPW angle sound like the only thing, like it's some kind of Twin Peaks/Northern Exposure thing, but it's really not the main story, at all). It's slightly mystic in that the town's inhabitants are, slightly, but the reverence and the spiritualism never comes off as trite, it's just kind of...there. It's knit in with the whole style of writing and the backdrop. I can't help but love this, partially, because it's about a corner of the world I especially love, and wish I knew better. Doyle's writing is beautiful; his particular genius is in these long, parallel-construction passages where he knits together dozens of stories happening simultaneously around the town, all united around a random moment, like at one moment everyone in the village is singing at the same time, or everyone is kneeling at the same time. There are passages like this which are like long run-on poems. They were just right. I wish I'd noted down some of my favorite phrases to share with you, but this was one of those books that I just swam into and through, so if you like novels like that, I highly recommend this one. Especially if you're in the mood for visiting a damp little fish midden on the North coast and meeting an erudite gentleman crow named Moses who will eventually make you cry (maybe). Okay now I'm being deliberately evasive. If you like this review you just might like this novel, otherwise, skip it.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
45. The Fishing Fleet: Husband-hunting in the Raj, Anne de Courcy

Well, this was a nice little jaunt through a lot of English racism! Anne de Courcy has written a number of volumes about high society in the debutante era -- I picked up and discarded her 1939: The Last Season for being too boring -- here she manages to be much more interesting, if shockingly embedded in a kind of throwback racism throughout the book. When the British colonized India, there were lots of eligible men, and very few eligible women, the opposite of the situation in England, and so the 'fishing fleet' girls would take a perilous steamer journey to India to do the cool weather high society season with army captains and India Civil Service men, and the viceroys aides-de-camp, etc. the season was full of polo and hunting and balls and endless "weeks." This was apparently part of being in the army, for the British, all the horse riding and hunting was considered the only adequate preparation for war. And you were practically required to get married, as a man. Many of the fishing fleet girls would be engaged within days of arriving, so tight was the market, if they hadn't become affianced to a likely gentleman on the boat ride over. If you didn't manage to become engaged by the time your return journey came around, you were known as a 'returned empty' and were considered an old maid by 25.

It was fascinating to read about how the British empire established its home-country norms in a different climate and then clung to those norms obstinately, to the point where etiquette and points of precedence were followed more closely in the Raj for much longer than they were in England. As de Courcy points out, in England someone of low birth or career could manage to aim higher if they were especially clever or socially connected; in the Raj everything was determined by the husband's rank in the army or ICS. Anyway, the main problem with this book is that there is practically zero interrogation of the issues of race and class going on between the colonized and the colonizers, aside from a few brief passages. The author says that since caste was so embedded prior to their arrival, the British-imposed hierarchies and etiquette was "natural," to the colonized populations, which sounds like a load of colonial bullshit justification to me. You will read pages and pages about the elaborate, gemstone-encrusted turbans and aigrettes and clothes worn by the native maharajas, but only one sentence about how 'sad' it was that they held authority in name only. There are other things, too, like random society women in the narrative will write about some town "rebelling" and having to be put down, and de Courcy glances right over it; however, every name mentioned will have its little footnote about how they later went on to receive such-and-such royal honor, or ascended to some fancy leadership position. It made me want to read a real history of the Raj, to figure out how much of this is unexamined colonialist hogwash through de Courcy's blinkered gaze, and how much of it is real. However, if you want to read about the crazy history of Brits being teddibly, teddibly British in the hill country and Snooty Ooty and about the durbars, it's kind of fun. De Courcy writes touchingly of the colonialists' dilemma, where every had to send their children back to England to be educated, due to rules about citizenship; unless you had a lucky aunt to pick you up, you were basically abandoned in these (occasionally awful) schools for children of the Raj, separated from your family for years and years until you were of age and could go out to either join the army or ICS, or marry someone. Small price to pay, however, in exchange for joining the ruling elite and gaining your fortune, right? Nowhere did I read a single thing that sounded like, oh and look at the awful humiliations or racist murders that happened (though a few are mentioned). What a weird book.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
44. This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

I am not normally a big fan of short stories, but as it turns out, I am a big fan of trying to read autobiographical details into Diaz's fiction! It is kind of nice to read his short stories, since many of the characters are the same, or so similar it doesn't matter, so you start to recognize Paloma, and Rafa who dies, and Yunior who always ends up at Rutgers eventually, etc. These are excellent stories -- mostly told by men who lament their nature as sucios while being incapable (seemingly) of living any other way, constantly cheating on women who don't deserve it. The final story, though, is what really got me. It appears to be Diaz's story of a terrible, Sisyphean attempt to get over a girlfriend, told over several years, complete with serial awful dating stories and heartbreaking revelations from girlfriends and guy friends, and he is very funnily insulting about Boston the whole time and it is a kind of Job story, I suppose. Terrible, constant heartbreak that is only vaguely illuminated at the end by the promise of yes, finally, after six or so years, he finally wrote a tiny bit of a book that he didn't hate, and went from there. This is what I was wondering about his Oscar Wao book, when does he ever write about not Dominican life, on the island or in New Jersey, but his current life, the one where he's a pulitzer-winning professor at MIT? If this is that story, it is more than enough, it is too much: it made me pity him, and if it is really his life, it made me dislike him as a person. It was a lot harder to write off the macho/sexist stuff as "just characters" because the narrator in the final story, The Cheater's Guide to Love, is pretty awful. With his friends, without his friends. I feel like I have a complicated attraction for him. For all the sexist realism he writes, though, there is still a lot of poetry, a lot of fire, and this book only made me want to read more. I am definitely putting Drown on my list. Hopefully he finishes that postapocalyptic novel from his New Yorker story soon, too.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
42. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

If you follow Diaz in the literary sphere, you know he is a Controversial Author lately. Is he really as amazing as his Pulitzer Prize suggests? Is he a genuine nerd or does he just sprinkle in lingo like seasoning? Is he just writing chick lit but getting a pass because of a sprinkle of nerd references and Dominican flavor? (Well, this last is more a dig at his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which I'm also reading right now, but it's a criticism I tried to hold in mind while reading Oscar Wao, because it's also relevant.) In short, I think he is worthy of the hype, but he's not some kind of god of writing -- his narrator got annoying sometimes, especially in the early history/exposition sections in Oscar Wao, which sound very spoken-word, sometimes to good effect but sometimes to excess, and after a while I felt like I kind of fell into his world of gender relations and wasn't that interested in critiquing them. Which is kind of awful! Because no one comes out looking good, in these books, not in love and not in lust! Also, I felt towards the end of the book that it suffered from its time ordering -- like maybe it used to be in a different order and was rearranged? Without having a substantial enough rewrite to make it flow? People getting introduced in weird order, stuff like that. For all that, this book drew me in, made me laugh, made me cover my face and read between my fingers, made me cry at the end, and the characters are genuine and genuinely well drawn. My only confusion was sometimes believing that Oscar was Diaz, and sometimes believing that Yunior was Diaz, and wondering if he was either fronting as more nerdy than he really was, or fronting as more of a player than he really was. (I still wonder this about Diaz, he seems like something of an enigma. I want to know more about what his college life was like, to learn whose experience he mirrored, if either.)

43. That's Not a Feeling, Dan Josefson

I can't recall where this book recommendation showed up, but it came in my ILL queue so hey, new book! I picked it up on Friday morning, finished it Sunday afternoon, it's a quick read. Dan Josefson's book is, allegedly, the last recipient of a David Foster Wallace blurb, and at the end of my edition there was a quick little essay interviewing someone who facilitated that connection. The story takes place at the Roaring Orchard School for Troubled Teens, and is full of darkly comic humor, following one boy's arrival (and departure and arrival and departure and arrival) and his experiences (often through multiple characters' POVs) in this surreal, possibly awful or possibly genius rehab school. There are confusing words, getting put in a wiggle, or someone's "furniture got popped" or someone is sheeted, or they have to turn in FIBs and all these other bizarro things that feel really, really real. Never answered is the main issue: are the kids really being helped? Is it all a scam? There are lots of uncomfortable moments where the kids are participating in some group "process" and it's clear the adults don't really believe in it, or maybe they do, and the kids do what they do out of a confused kind of loyalty or desire for it to simply be over, and no one knows whether the end result is real or happenstance. Like life, maybe? Yes, like life. This would be a fantastic movie in the vein of Ghost World, maybe a Wes Anderson flick, or someone willing to tell a kind of hazy upstate New York rehab school version of Virgin Suicides? It has a hazy vibe, and requires a massive mansion and a weird hand-drawn map of the school grounds (which is in the book, I love it). Yes.
aslant: (Default)
41. La Batarde, Violette Leduc

Wow. Although I'm pretty sure I read some Leduc at some point in college, I came to this remembering next to nothing about her, and was completely, solidly blown away. Her writing is absolutely amazing. This is her first volume of autobiographical nonfiction (not her first book -- her first novel, L'Asphyxie/In the Prison of Her Skin, was also autobiographical), and it follows her from her childhood, born out of wedlock, through her unhappy adolescence in a girls' boarding school, to her young adulthood working in publishing in Paris, and her war years as a somewhat hapless but successful black marketeer. But all of this is just background to the story of how and with whom Violette falls in love -- in boarding school with the luminous Isabelle, and then Hermine, a teacher, with whom she lives for many years, a ridiculously awful marriage to a strange man named Gabriel, and then later she falls in love with a gay Jewish writer, Maurice, who finally convinces her to write, while they are isolated in a Normandy village during the occupation. (Yes, somehow, I cannot avoid reading about WW2, yet again. My obsessions, let me show you them.) And much of her love life is shot through with memories of her grandmother, Fideline, who loved her in a tender way that her own mother never offered. The passages when Leduc writes about Isabelle are spellbinding, perhaps moreso because I felt she captured so perfectly that weird experience of sexual exploration, with a girl, when it's hidden and of a piece with the whole bubble of being at a school -- nearly precisely my experience in college (because for various reasons, at the gayest school in the country, I was quite closeted, and as inexperienced as Violette was at age 12 or 13, apparently). The beauty of her writing is how it has so many unexpected turns and images in it, like this, in one of her night trysts with Isabelle: A wave carried her away and she sank down into the bed, then rose up again, plunged her face toward me, and held me to her. There were roses falling from the girdle she put around me. I fastened the same girdle around her. Or this, from the book's closing passage: This August day, reader, is a rose window glowing with heat. I make you a gift of it, it is yours....I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips. Does that capture it? No? Maybe? Anyway, amazing. The book faltered a bit, for me, in the long awful sections of her chasing Gabriel and Maurice around. She has a doggedly low opinion of herself, and although she was taken in by Simone de Beauvoir and other famous post-war writers in that circle, she never quite achieved fame as a writer. It's a shame, reading this book, because she is really something special.

I'm working on finishing the second autobiographical volume that follows this one, Mad in Pursuit, which is so far proving to be almost better. Though nothing will quite match her lyricism about her awful childhood and her early loves, I think. Sad but luminous, her writing has inspired me so much this past month. I wish I'd known her work better in college, she is a perfect match for my other favorite autobiographist, Dolores Prato. Anyway -- this book is highly, highly recommended.
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39. The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan, adapted by Orpheus Collar
I picked this up because it was on top of the graphic novel display in the children's library -- it's an adaptation of a novel. I am a sucker for Egyptiana and this delivered, with more esoteric details about the gods than I could really keep track of, and an interesting enough magic/otherworld design. The characters weren't very deep, though maybe that just didn't translate well. The art was also a little uneven, and very obviously just a vehicle for the adapted novel text. Frequently I had the feeling I was reading a particularly pretty storyboard for the film adaptaion. But the art did have flashes of beauty, here was Sadie's encounter with the night goddess, Nut:

I'm a sucker for Nut. The story, generally, is that separated (multi-racial!) siblings Sadie and Carter Kane are the children of some bad-ass gods, and they have to save the world. There are some clumsy adolescent crushes that pop up along the way, but mainly the kids are action! heroes! and not so much actual kids. I liked this, but maybe not enough to seek out the other sequels, in novel or comic form.

40. Secrets of the Flesh: a life of Colette, Judith Thurman

This is a beautiful, long, dense biography. I offer Thurman high praise by saying she's almost as good a biographer as Hermione Lee; this is dense with so many Belle Epoque and wartime French literature and politics and art references that it was a bit dizzying. Previously, I'd only been familiar with Colette through Roxanne's costume so this was a fascinating way to get to know a fascinating woman/character/author/actress/personality. Perhaps the most shocking thing to me was her cruel childhood, and her cruelty to her young daughter, too (also a theme in another writer I'm reading concurrently, Violette Leduc). This cruelty is remarked on and studied in her literature and her biography, so it's nothing new, but it also felt strikingly opaque, to me. Sometimes, for all this book's brilliance, I wasn't entirely certain I was getting a view of a person. Colette's letters are quoted frequently, and sometimes the phrasing was just baffling to me, like I wasn't entirely certain I was hearing her considered thoughts, perhaps it was just a phrase she thought sounded good. Frustratingly, this is the same criticism often leveled at her prose, so I felt there was something missing in the biography that might have helped unlock it. But Thurman's view was quite clear on another front, that of Colette's collaboration with the Vichy regime, publishing in some of the most virulently far right publications. This was not unusual among the French literary crowd, apparently, who were not entirely convinced either way (unless they were directly persecuted) and really only switched sides to the Free French once it became clear the Germans were going to lose -- not out of conviction but out of self-preservation, Thurman and others have suggested. Thurman also suggests, as have others, that much of Colette's opacity comes down to this kind of unconcerned ego-centrism, and in some cases (i.e. Colette's judgments of the younger lesbian set, in comparison to her own turn of the century cohort) more a product of her provincialism or lack of education, not really understanding the circumstances in which others might live. She gave herself a lot of credit but could be harshly judgmental of others. For all that, she was a renowned author, and I haven't read any of her work. I'll be interested to see how it comes off, after reading this.


I'm pleased to have hit 40 books total, with only two months remaining in this year. This is probably quadruple my normal reading total in prior years -- I've never committed to the library the way I have this year, it's really fueled me.

The stack I have ongoing (a Vogue sewing guide from 1957, two Violette Leduc books, a book of essays on Dante in art and literature, Under Fire (memoir of WWI from one of Colette's contemporaries), and Kim Stafford's memoir) is probably entirely too much to complete, given that I plan to spend November writing NaNoWriMo, but I'm hopeful. I started planning ahead by deliberating culling books from the pile (I won't be finishing that biography of Beatrix Potter with the adorable illustrations on the cover, for example). I plan to keep this project ongoing in 2013, as much as possible! In the meantime, surely some reading will get done in November, since I will have to take a break from writing at some point, yes? Here's hoping.
aslant: (Default)
37. Kings of Infinite Space, by James Hynes

I wasn't sure what to think of this novel, but halfway through it turned into a "well at least let's finish it" book. I dunno, I'm very lukewarm on it. I think it was supposed to be witty -- guess what, there is highly surreal campy cultish horror hiding behind the facade of a fallen academic's dead-end job in a Texas cubicle! Complete with Fringe-esque pale men who keep showing up and doing mysterious things, and strange undergrounds that are a little too overtly Dantean, a ghost cat, excruciating Texas twang verbal tics that are overdone, too. Like the clueless boss who mixes his metaphors EVERY TIME. Or the girlfriend who always says ain't/was and then helpfully winces and corrects herself to aren't/were every time, which after a time began to seem like a lazy author's way of getting around being snobbish toward a genuine undereducated poor southern girl. Like, if she hadn't been so helpfully self-abasing, he would've been too much of a snob to fuck her, or something? Poor Callie. Luckily it was her GREATEST DREAM to read the Norton Anthology and parade around in the protagonist's buttondown oxfords. (Hey Levelland, all two of you reading this, Callie is exactly like a young Kerri Rivera, I think. Sardonic, doesn't take shit. The most fun reading this book was picturing Kerri in her place.) This was kind of a fun take on zombies, I suppose, except the excruciating realities of a cubicle job AND the awful flat hellish Texan heat were so overdone that they occasionally went right over the top of surreal into belabored. This would have been a great update on the zombie genre if Shaun of the Dead hadn't already done it with more wit and humanity, you know?

38. Broken Harbor, by Tana French

Super glad I waited for this to come in at the library rather than buy it -- I love Tana French, but this was a terrible slog, had to force myself to finish it. I guess it's all been downhill since In The Woods, in my opinion, because in that book she was clever enough to combine an old mystery, a new mystery, and a love story gone wrong (plus it stars Clive Owen, in my head); in this one, we just had a new mystery that never quite lived up to its surreal touches, and I guessed 75% of the Great Big Twist about 100 pages in advance. There were none of the layers, especially in the main character, who was so emphatically Old School Boyo Hardbitten Irish Detective that he seemed to have no inner life whatsoever. Or, I guess this one did have an old story layered into the new/current story, but it wasn't really mysterious enough, it was just This Made Me A Tough Guy. Okay, so what? The most compelling part of this story was where Detective Hardbitten almost fell into bro love with his rookie partner, except he didn't. What a disappointment. Oh also, French's characters seem to all turn out to be mysterious synesthetes, but this seems to be an authorial tick more than anything else, and it got old. People are always shaking the mysterious waft of perfume out of their nose, or being surprised by weird theatrical flashbacks. Her writing isn't awful, but what seemed deft in novel #1 becomes old hat and annoying, to me, by #4. My recommendation: go read In The Woods if you haven't, or read it again (I might), and then maybe The Likeness if you need a bit of a follow-up thrill, but in my opinion, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor are not really worth the time.
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(the birthday girl does not understand what you mean by "smile")

(however, she can use herbivore in a sentence, thank you dinosaur train)

we surprised her this morning with legos, some beauty & the beast figurines (she recently braved watching the entire thing by herself and only cried twice!), and a doll bed. requested birthday breakfast: mini poppyseed muffins. requested purple cupcakes: to come at birthday dinner saturday night. hooray! all last night and this morning, and later today i imagine, too, we've been telling stories about what we were doing three years ago. i showed her how i leaned over the windowsill during labor so kirk could push on my hipbones. i talked about not being able to sleep at the hospital. i did not say this part, but the most vivid thing i will always think of, about waiting for that morning in that horrible hospital bed, was the gulping drowning sounds made by a woman in the next room giving birth, and how i cried with relief when she finally gave birth around 4am and stopped making those awful sounds. and three years ago right now i was unhooked from my lines, and my midwife took me down to the cafeteria omelet station for breakfast, yum.
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35. The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss

Book two to my #34 book review, I devoured this in another three days. Now that the first blush of author-crush has worn off, and I was crushing a little less on the book in general, I found myself more attentive to whether the storytelling would hold up. In short, I'm not sure -- it's still deft, funny, frightening, made me laugh and gasp out loud like an old fashioned rube -- but if I looked at the premise of the first book, and then took a hard look at where book #2 ended, I was far from satisfied with where the plot had gone. Not because it was unpredictable, but because the driving forces of book #1 just didn't seem to develop. [Vague spoilers ahead] Where are the Amyr? We are stuck in the same "durrrr maybe they're around here somewhere" place that the first book ended on, yes? Or maybe it was given away at the beginning of this book. Either way, I want to know about: the Amyr (knights templar!), the Chandrian (mysterious evil!). Instead I got a travelogue with sidequests. Don't get me wrong, still awesome! Still highly recommended! However, as far as advancing the plot goes, it felt pretty static. Our protagonist is on his way to being even more awesome, we learned a little bit more about why he's feared and revered, but we're still not sure why his bookend storyline has him as a brokedown innkeeper with a mysterious trunk, or what to think of the other big themes. If book 1 was a bit of Harry Potter in hell, book 2 was his junior year abroad, and he came back still not really sure what he should major in. Lots of fun, but not much to show for it. Maybe I'm being too harsh here -- I still love this book a whole lot.

36. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

This is my reading habit in a nutshell, books that were all the rage approximately two years ago! This is your standard dystopic New York kind of novel, with occasional bonus sexism or racism or hey maybe the protagonist is just awful? It's Woody Allan but Russian, the aging self-hating Jew who magically attracts his youthful beauty, Soon-Yi Previn! Except her name is Eunice. And they are verballing and FAKing on their apparati and shopping on AssLuxury and talking about yuan-pegged dollars on their GlobalTeens accounts, all this gibberish that makes sense in the book and is ridiculous in a book review. The point is, the world collapses, and then what happens to tenuous bad-idea romances? What happens to chasing youth? What happens when the American economy collapses and corporations take over? Nothing good, but then I think I already knew that. This book was definitely poignant, with its switching POV chapters showing how Eunice kind of despises Lenny, who prostrates himself in front of her, and maybe he understands her in a few interesting ways that transcend fountain of youth chasing, but mostly they seemed like slightly awful people. Perhaps this book was more radical in 2010, before the Occupy movement, and in that sense it was also weirdly prescient, but not in an interesting way. The message was that people are awful, America is awful, corporations are awful, chasing youth will bite you in the ass, money is power, and oh also this love story goes pretty terribly. Not terribly satisfying, but also fairly clever along the way.
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33. American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld

I loved Sittenfeld's Prep but resisted this book for a long time -- needlessly, as it turns out, because it was very enjoyable. I don't know a lot about Laura Bush, but watching her qua Alice Lindgren, and George W. Bush as Charlie Blackwell, made them both a lot more likable. That is to say, made them more redeemable than the view I'd had of them before, as 1) George, stupid and rich, and 2) Laura, Stepford wife, cipher. As the reviews all say, this book is fascinating during Alice's childhood and early adulthood, especially during Charlie's courtship of Laura, which really made me like him and feel affectionate for his weird, horny, drunk character...but then the whole thing gets boring once she/they get to the White House. Furthermore, as a character I was kind of repulsed by Alice, frequently, for her "oh horrors we are privileged and other people are poor" attitude, alleviated by very occasional good deeds, and for her "I really liked housework, it was just kind of soothing, even though we were rich enough to hire servants" attitude (what the fucking fuck). This portrait of a small town working class girl who ascends to the highest privileges was perhaps just truthful, in that sense, by portraying someone who really didn't put a lot of thought toward housework, or fame. Though that was also its weakness (and the weakness of Laura as first lady), because some of the most fascinating dilemmas of the person -- a liberal pro-abortion librarian married to the GOP president? -- came down to, essentially, well I believed in supporting him so I kept it to myself. In that sense, a lot of the tragedies of her generation come down to simply not thinking very much about tragedy/complication. I know my grandmothers are like that, too. Weirdest things: wishing good old George had stayed a horny rich drunk bastard, wishing the Karl Rove character had more substance, wishing Sittenfeld had kept the Bush twins in the book (the Blackwells have only one daughter). Oh, and wishing that Laura/Alice was not quite so eye-rollingly orgasmic, in that predictably novelistic sense, where it seems she is Super Vanilla Girl who reliably, obediently comes in missionary, somehow. Whatever, Sittenfeld, fix that next time, but otherwise you write pretty damn good fan fic. Keep up the good work.

34. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

On [livejournal.com profile] mordicai's excellent recommendation -- this book fucking rules and I have a crush on Rothfuss now. This is the first fantasy book I've read since finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series over a year ago, and it soothed a lot of my pain about Martin's books. Why? Because yes, it is really *is* possible to be a feminist author writing about a male protagonist in a not very enlightened society who is not constantly engaged in rape culture! And it's not heavy-handed! And I trusted Rothfuss as an author! You know, I didn't trust Martin because I genuinely disagreed with his character-killing choices, the further I got into it; not because I didn't want the characters to die, but because it was so sloppily done and further evidence of a so-so writer at work. With Rothfuss I was neither anticipating/dreading the plot moves nor questioning his choices. It's actually a little rare for me, when reading a book, to just fall into the prose and not rewrite the sentences in my head, but I fell full into this book. Awesome. Kvothe, the main character, is one of those I'm A Magical Genius Prodigy At Everything I Do characters, but I didn't mind it, because he held genuine mystery; in fact the book was loaded down with so many fantasy tropes (magic! the wayside inn! lonesome journeys! mysterious powers! manic pixie dreamgirls! apprentices! traveling performers! street urchins!) but Rothfuss managed to make it feel fresh, deliberate, made with careful authorial intent, and the world feels expansive and rich. Even the Hogwarts and Obi-wan Kenobi parts of the story were good, because they scratched that itch for tropes of the genre, but Rothfuss never tried to trade on familiarity, nor did he belabor his tropes or try to make them overly unique. It felt genuine. I really got caught up in this book, aside from being a good story it just gave me genuine hope for the genre, can you tell? I found bits of the book's rhymes caught in my head, too, sure sign of a novelist with a poet's soul. What's their plan, what's their plan / Chandrian, Chandrian. If you like fantasy, go get this right now.
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31. Wild Feminine, Tami Lynn Kent

This book is all about taking care of your lady parts in slightly unexpected ways! Holistic pelvic self-care, as practiced by Kent, is a pretty wide-ranging set of things you can do to take care of yourself, including but not limited to general awareness practices, guided meditations, sending ovarian energies, exploring gender identity, interacting with histories of trauma, and practicing vaginal self-massage. It is not particularly birth-focused, though her own experience is influenced by her birthing experiences, so there's that. I was interested in this for a variety of reasons, not least of which is, what the hell is going on with my scar tissue and hey, will it explode if I give birth again? I realized some time ago that I thought of my scar (from repairing a messy, deep 2nd degree tear) as a kind of locus of chaos, panic, distrust. But just like any other scar, it can benefit from massage and movement. Once I got through the super hippie woo-woo stuff, Kent's general message is that your vaginal muscles and tissues deserve (nonsexual) love just as much as any other part of the body. I'm simplifying this greatly, but even if you just pick this up for the pelvic mapping exercise, it's worth it. Also, Kent is a practitioner here in Portland, and has trained several people in pelvic care, so you can also have this done by actual gifted physical therapists. This is not some yoni cult stuff, it is holistic care based on real doctor stuff. But it also combines some pretty tuned-in energetic intuitive work as well, this is not just someone rubbing your bits and sending you on your way, since as a holistic art it is necessarily about everything. Yay vaginas!

32. Armies of Heaven: the first crusade and the quest for apocalypse, Jay Rubenstein

Rubenstein is a talented author, and this is a lot of confusing history to digest, but this book never came together as the fascinating story I wanted it to be. It was gory, bizarre, and funny by turns, while being a completely serious academic work, and it's definitely more readable than your average history tome, but I never turned to it with a "yay I can't wait to read more" feeling. Rubenstein's conceit is to stop ignoring all the millenarian/apocalyptic rhetoric around the first crusade, common for many historians -- Rubenstein talks about these crazy Christians didn't just think they were fighting for god, they genuinely believed that their actions were going to bring Jesus back to earth, and pitched their actions, words, histories, and choices of leaders based on medieval ideas of how the apocalypse was going to happen, from Biblical sources and popular interpretations. The "saracens" were literally the armies of Satan, to them, and furthermore they believed that they were becoming god's chosen people (ref. Deuteronomy, usually referring to the Jews) in this fight. They were also granted a confusing indulgence, prior to leaving, which said not that they could gain heaven instantly, but that after the crusade, if they were found to have participated with the correct motivations, they could be granted an indulgence. Others have argued that this is what led to the 12th century "rise of the individual," where suddenly the idea of what we would call psychological motivations became a part of the western dialogue; they had to try to understand why people committed horrible acts of war. Because they were not actually committing acts of war that were always familiar within western civ. Acts of war included mass rape, massacre of innocents (instead of taking prisoners), torture, cannibalism (definitely new), and things like catapulting enemies' heads over city walls, and many of these things were appropriated on the road from their enemies, or in the case of cannibalism, a necessity in periods of starvation that gradually became a tactic of deliberate intimidation for cities under siege. The descriptions of the crusading armies' mass starvation and death from plagues, constant finding of "miraculous" relics in conquered cities, various visions and dreams guiding them from one course of action to the next, these were the book's strength. You get a good sense of what the common peoples' experience was, too, because the first crusade was not just nobles on horses (especially as those were eaten for food frequently), it was a massive group of psychotic, religious, uneducated, barefoot peasants. And despite being outnumbered and not particularly cohesive as an army or smart or driven (they could have gotten to Jerusalem in maybe two years, instead of four, if they hadn't gotten greedy and/or bored along the way), they actually did conquer Jerusalem. Blood ran shin-deep, corpses were piled everywhere, all the biblical images like that, they did happen. To the severe detriment of western civilization, it has continued to inform Christian-Muslim (and Christian-Jewish) dialogues ever since. As a final note, although I don't enthusiastically recommend this to everyone, unless the subject matter is fascinating to you, I do recommend it as a bedside book, because I still enjoyed it even if I only read a half-chapter at a time, and never more than a few chapters together, because the progression is still interesting even if I didn't remember everyone's names exactly. (And PS, wow there are some weird parallels with our modern wars here, WMDs as manufactured holy relic, anyone?)
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I am home sick with Penny today, so let's get two more book reviews out of the way!

29. Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor, Rosina Harrison.

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kore for the timely recommendation, this was a nice companion to #28, Below Stairs, though where Margaret scraped for decent employment and was desperate to escape via marriage, by contrast, Rose, who came from a similarly impoverished background, held far higher ambitions and achieved far more (the obvious answer to the obvious question is, yes, education and social capital: Margaret left school at 13 and had no connections or advice beyond "don't tell them you worked in a laundry, everyone knows laundrymaids are sluts," but Rose stayed a number of years beyond that and moreover had an unpaid apprenticeship at a tailor's shop, and Rose's parents were driven enough to make this happen financially and to give her solid advice on how to actually become a lady's maid, no mean feat for someone living in poverty). Rose goes in short time from a young lady's maid (a position which entailed being something between a seamstress, international diplomat, travel agent, nursemaid, fashion consultant, etc) to lady's maid to Lady Astor, Extremely Rich Person, which is about the highest status job in service, for one of the highest status women in Britain. Lady Astor was one of the early female MPs and had an active political life until just after WWII; she was also a pretty terrible human being to Rose, insulting, tempestuous, condescending, mean, though eventually they worked out a sort of truce where Rose would boss Nancy around as much as vice versa. They were like best friends, if your best friend was your (poorly) paid devoted servant, and like an old married pair in their cyclical rages and manipulations. For some reason Rose has this crazy blissful temperament and it never bothers her, or not much. My favorite part of this book was the more in-depth description of life between and among the Astors' various palatial residences, all the entertaining and backroom scandals and the regimented service rituals, including bits of interviews with older servants who talk about prior times that were even more formal. Also, she became closer to her employer after weathering the firebombing of Plymouth, her whole description of wartime was very intimate; she illuminated something else, too, which was how wartime improved servants' conditions not only because of labor shortages, but because the bombings forced formerly-aloof mistresses to take refuge in the belowstairs world, where their scrimping habits were more obvious, to themselves and to guests. Rose was fairly ambitious, in that her entire reason for going into service was to travel widely (which she did in spades with the Astors), and that within the restrictive norms of the times she managed to accrue substantial leeway and respect both above and below stairs; all that, however, and she apparently never received a raise from Lady Astor, despite asking, except once, and she received maybe one afternoon off per week, far less than others in service, and yet seemed to like it that way. In general there was a bit of Stockholm wafting around, but as a portrait of employment, lowerclass upward mobility, richesse, and class portraiture, this was a fantastic book and I recommend it highly.

30. Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives, Annie Murphy Paul

How did I come to pick up this book? I only know it showed up in my request queue at work. Paul is a decent science writer, though the conceit of each chapter being a month in her own (second) pregnancy wasn't quite as awesome as it could have been. I had one big quibble with this book: it was very quickly obvious to me that she was solidly on the OB side of the birthing spectrum, and indeed at the end has a scheduled c-section, and she wasn't that interested in looking at research that challenges this model of care, focusing more on other kinds of interactions, such as those in diet, mood, environmental chemicals, drugs, genes vs epigenetics vs nurture, etc. For someone whose metanarrative was pretty persuasive on the idea that the gestation process is more responsive, reciprocal, subtle and sensitive than we may think, where does that reciprocal sensitivity go during labor? She seemed to breeze right by the scheduled c-section, which to me said, okay, this is not a book for me, so I admit to skimming at times. Still, her review of plastics research galvanized me (pun intended?) to get rid of a bunch of plastics, be more vigilant about avoiding fire-treated pajamas, things like that. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so optimistic about a pop sci book; it is still interesting stuff, but I feel I've picked up a good deal of the same conclusions just from reading the odd research finding, over the past couple years, you know, mom media radar. And honestly, as weird as it is, I found Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others a more useful primer than this, though perhaps it isn't fair to compare the two writers there. Both are writing, in some ways, about prior eras of drastically incorrect science. But most of Paul's findings (and she is summarizing, obviously, not drawing new conclusions) are in the category of stuff we mostly already know about, whereas Hrdy's stuff is more squarely outside the realm of modern western practices. In any case, yes, still a very unfair comparison, but oh well. Go read Hrdy, ignore this one, unless you are somehow still convinced that plastics are utterly safe, pollution is no big deal, vitamins are stupid, etc etc.
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27. Trio, by Dorothy Baker.

This was a follow up read since I liked Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding (book review #26) and the lesson here is...stick with the ones that NYBR has seen fit to reissue. Trio has not been reissued. It is not that great. I was interested in this one because it was the one she wrote after her Guggenheim fellowship, and it was considered "too scandalous for the times" and in its later play form was closed due to protests. The covert lesbian relationship at the heart of Trio is pretty depressingly stereotypical, like gay pulp fiction but without any sex. I'd say it was more shocking that this was considered literature than that it was considered immoral -- it's just not a great book. Older academic woman Pauline controls young grad student girl Janet in creepy, not quite believable ways, girl runs away with boy in a refutation of her sordid past, complete with a classic Chekhovian gun set-up and predictable denouement. What I did like about this was the portrayal of the confrontation between Pauline and the dean when her (spoiler alert, but you're not going to read this, are you? please don't, go read Cassandra at the Wedding instead) plagiarism is discovered. She pulls this classic delusional faculty move, the whole "I won't defend myself because the charges are absurd and if the university won't defend me then I guess we'll part ways" without actually acknowledging the dean's point that well, if it's not true, then why don't you refute the charges publically? Because of course the charges are true, except they are part of her sordid past and the gun comes out etc etc etc. Not recommended. Ah well, a quick read.

28. Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell.
This book had me laughing out loud and reading passages to anyone who would listen -- it is a hilarious, salty, old school confessional about life in British domestic service. It was apparently Julian Fellowes' inspiration for Downton Abbey, though I far prefer Gosford Park (I watch it maybe three or four times a year), and there were lots of points where I saw echoes of his plot points. Margaret, born 1907, went into service at age 13, and her descriptions of a life of poverty in the 1910s were almost more fascinating to me than when she went to work -- things like parents sending their kids to sunday school only so they could stay home and have sex for the afternoon, or about her typical day at age 7: her mother went to work before dawn as a charwoman, then Margaret would serve breakfast to her younger siblings and deliver two of them to a day nursery, then go to school with some of the other kids, rush home to cook lunch for the family (everyone returned to eat it), rush back to school, then come home and make tea (they were frequently on the edge of starvation). She is surprisingly, hilariously frank about matters of sex and "snaffling a permanent young man" and throughout her stories you hear her early feminist consciousness and class criticisms -- she was employed during an era when domestic service changed drastically in favor of the workers, due to supply and demand of the working population and the ebb of fortunes of the upper class. I found it an excellent companion to Victorians at Home, another favorite of mine, since you can still see the remnants of Victorian life in the 1900s. I am fascinated by this era in Britain, not so much for the above stairs as the below stairs life, and if you like that then you'll love this too, probably. Don't hold me to that.


Onward! At home I'm finishing up a book about the Crusades, and have another few nonfictions in the interlibrary loan queue. Here's hoping I get to those sometime before November.
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25. Babylon By Bus, Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann
This was a lot of fun. A lot of depression and a lot of fun. Ray and Jeff are these two Boston asshole kids who sell Yankees Suck tshirts, and then give it up to take a bus into Iraq semi-illegally (after the "liberation" but right before things got really really bad) and got jobs and did some good in the world, mainly because they didn't give a shit about rules, and also they took a lot of drugs along the way. Sadly, or perhaps not, this is the most helpful guide to the development of the Iraq conflict, post-2004, that I've seen so far -- not that I've been looking, but I didn't pick it up expecting to learn so much. And about Israel, too, along the way. It's a sobering but hilarious read, definitely gonzo style warzone romping and a kind of outsider's-insider view of how war media live and the occupation government worked (or not) and the rest of it; they run with semi-famous journalists and filmmakers and humanitarians, some of whom are killed. I kind of wanted to read a follow-up, can they also explain to me what's happened since they left? But then perhaps that's the whole point -- no more asshole Red Sox rats trying to help/occupy/bungle. Highly entertaining and not stupid at all, they are actually highly educated liberal assholes, but not in a flaunting-it kind of way (though some of their background research does show through a little baldly in some of the exposition, it wasn't too overt) and they are mildly aware of their own privilege and assholeishness throughout, and they have a healthy respect for nuance, and for people who get things done, and have lived through more than most American kids my/our age have, that's for sure. Highly recommended, very quick read.
{ETA: this is another book found through an old This American Life episode.}

26. Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker
I picked this up from a NYBR review (it's their reprint edition) and was surprised, pleased, taken in. A short novel of tight, closely-observed narration by a crypto-lesbian twin in the 1960s. Apparently I didn't read the review very closely because I totally missed the whole lesbian thing until I got into it, and so it was pleasantly shocking to read between the lines and realize what the narrator was saying/not saying, though her coded words and very oblique references could probably have gone over the head of a blinkered reader, I'm sure. But this was part of the fun! It's also a sad and weird novel, almost of a piece with the Bell Jar; if I could go back in time I'd tell myself at 16 to read this along with the Bell Jar, I suppose. It's a nice companion to that kind of claustrophobic dissociative first-person depressed youth early-feminist vibe. When I finished it I was kind of despondent (a night's sleep was helpful) because it was hard to come out of it, wanting more. Highly recommended -- stylish early 1960s, alcohol-soaked, unreliable narrator, interesting character studies. I really wanted this to be a film, maybe in the vein of the Virgin Suicides or even Picnic at Hanging Rock. That kind of dreamy, sun-soaked, surreal vibe. Looking online, seems like someone is planning to make a modern update -- it would have been fantastic with those old 60s movie voices, though; if done right it could be a real style maker, like Mad Men gone off the rails. In a way I suppose it kind of has been updated for modern times -- it would be hard to beat Rachel Getting Married, to which it has more than a few passing similarities.
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I wrote a weird zine, you guys. I'm equally proud and reluctant to let everyone peek into my head and my life like this.


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July 2013

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