Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Edge of Never—J.A. Redmerski

I gaze toward the wall briefly, thinking about it. So often I sit around and think about life and wonder about every possible aspect of it. I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. Even right now. In this coffee shop with this girl I’ve known practically all my life. Yesterday I thought about why I felt the need to get up at exactly the same time as the day before and do everything like I did the day before. Why? What compels any of us to do the things we do when deep down a part of us just wants to break free from it all? (8)

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the worst book. Of all time. Trite dialogue, misogynistic, offensive, potentially racist. Just terrible.

I really only read this book because it popped up in my recently acquired Amazon Kindle account (reading on my new smartphone). And it was only $1.99. So I thought, why not? How could any book not be worth $1.99?

It may be a bit harsh to say, but that might be a bit steep of a price for this book. This is coming from someone who can find something redeeming in almost every book. I felt a bit crazy for a moment, because I went on GoodReads and there were PAGES of reviews with 5 stars. Out of 5 stars! I thought, “Surely, all of these must be from those tween girls who also love Twilight.” I’ve mentioned my general abhorrence of Twilight several times before, and this book is on par with that series. Turns out, nope. Even grown up women are loving this book. What the hell? Do they have no appreciation for writing or finesse of language?

Then I kept reading and I figured it out. It’s because of the sexy times between Cam and Andrew. I mean, who doesn’t love a good sex scene? I know I do. But it’s definitely not worth reading the other 400 pages to get those 10 cumulative pages of sex. (The line that most people seem to love is preceded by Andrew offering to…help Camryn, but not actually sleep with her and she asks him why and he responds: “If you were to let me fuck you, you would have to let me own you.”) I would suggest that if you’re looking for romance or even just sexy time books, there are far better alternatives.

The premise of the book is essentially that this girl feels that her life has gotten off track and so she runs away. On her trek cross-country on a bus, she meets this boy. Of course there are sparks and they take off on a road trip together – after he saves her from an attempted rape, of course. Towards the end, after they actually start sleeping together – we learn that (SPOILER ALERT) Andrew has a brain tumor and is probably dying. His father, coincidentally enough, also died of a brain tumor. Ugh. Gag me.

To me, it seems that in the guise of attempting to create dialogue that is “realistic,”  Redmerski has created stereotypical characters who say things in a completely inorganic way. It’s also eminently obvious that she is a woman attempting to write in the voice of a male character, during those portions of the book when she is writing for Andrew. She tries so much to make him seem hard, seem as she thinks a typical (read: stereotypical) man should be. It reads so false to me.

Not only that, some of the dialogue is downright offensive, most especially when we’re looking at things from Andrew’s point of view. Some other guy is flirting with Camryn (before she and Andrew actually start sleeping with each other) and he thinks to himself: “How insanely pathetic was that? She’s not even mine and I just got raped by a crazy-jealous reaction.” Um, I’m sorry, what?! You got “raped” by a reaction? I suppose I understand that the concept is the emotion came over you without your control. However, I do not think that the term “rape” should ever be used in this context, and it especially shouldn’t be used so flippantly by a male character.

In addition to all of this, she seems intent on setting women back about fifty years. The female lead, Camryn, is maybe sexually awakened, or at the very least loses her inhibitions with Andrew. Then after that night, because she became more aware and actually asked for what she wanted, she says that he turned her into “a foul-mouthed, perverted, nymphomaniac.” Why is a girl who is in touch with her sexuality a pervert and a nymphomaniac? She also asks Andrew if he would think she was a slut if she had a one night stand. He says it depends: girls who have one or two one-night-stands are probably fine, but any more than that, and you definitely run the risk of becoming a whore.

When Cam and Andrew get to New Orleans, they meet several natives; however, it’s interesting that only the black man has a “Cajun” accent. Now, I’ve never been to New Orleans, so it’s entirely possible that it’s actually a Cajun accent. But it’s very suspicious to me that all of the white New Orleans residents somehow managed to evade that particular accent. For example, the fun loving, jazz-playing black man, Eddie says to them, “Ga, dere come Parrish!...Galee! You look like dem lad’es in dem magazines, you do!” WHAT?!

In addition to the ridiculous, offensive writing, there’s also just lazy writing. Instead of ending quotation marks in order to add something that is happening out of the dialogue. Example: “I’m giving you advance warning that I’m not going to be your next lay, or fall in love with you (he’s grinning from ear to ear right now and it’s very distracting) or anything like that…” (emphasis mine)

I cannot even adequately express my anger after reading this book. Please avoid it if at all possible, or if you’re in the mood to be infuriated, this is the book for you, definitely.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret—Brian Selznick

 “As I look out at all of you gathered here, I want to say that I don’t see a room full of Parisians in top hats and diamonds and silk dresses. I don’t see bankers and housewives and store clerks. No, I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.” (506)

I worked in a school during the 2009-2010 school year, serving in my capacity as an AmeriCorps member. I was specifically working with students on reading and reading comprehension, which was perfect in conjunction with my overwhelming love of books. I’d seen the book several times before that point, but as a hardbound book, it was decidedly more expensive, so I had bypassed it several times. This time in AmeriCorps was my first actual introduction to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I actually had the opportunity to begin reading the book – although I never finished it.

This year at the annual Scholastic customer appreciation warehouse sale – and in consideration of recently having acquired a shiny new job – I treated myself.

Now that I work for an organization that is interested in different types of literacy and in turn, different formats of writing, I’m especially excited about a book like this. Not quite graphic novel, the book is innovative in combining pages of hand-drawn illustrations with pages of text. It’s an interesting, engaging way of storytelling. The formatting of the pages with text was reminiscent of the silent movie captions, which was a great tie-in to the theme of the book.

Partially based around the actual life of filmmaker George Melies, The Invention of Hugo Cabret tells the story of…you guessed it, Hugo Cabret. Hugo is a young boy who lives in a Paris train station and cares for the clocks. He used to be apprenticed to his uncle, who was the official Timekeeper, and who disappeared a few months back, which is just as well for Hugo because his uncle was a drunk. Hugo’s father died in a fire, trying to figure out how to fix an automaton that he found in the attic of the museum where he worked. In the ashes, Hugo had found the automaton – which he calls the “mechanical man” - and was now working to fix him, stealing small toys and pieces from the toymaker who sold toys in the train store. The toymaker has a young goddaughter who he cares for, who is called Isabelle, and who befriends Hugo. When the toymaker discovers that Hugo has been stealing from him, he steals Hugo’s notebook and finds it filled with sketches of the automaton. For some reason, he gets very emotional at the sight and refuses to return the notebook to Hugo, although he offers to consider it if Hugo will work at his stand – sweeping, cleaning up, and fixing broken mechanical toys. The story progresses and we learn more about Hugo, Isabelle, and the toymaker.

A great story, wonderfully interwoven with dynamic illustrations, this book is a good selection for any age.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The House of Silk—Anthony Horowitz

It is curious to reflect now, at the very end of my writing career, that each and every one of my chronicles ended with the unmasking or the arrest of the miscreant, and that after that point, almost without exception, I simply assumed that their fate would be of no further interest to my readers and gave up on them, as if it was their wrongdoing alone that justified their existence and that once the crimes had been solved they were no longer human beings with beating hearts and broken spirits. (155)

We seem to be in a phase of reincarnating Sherlock Holmes, much like our re-obsession with vampires. The powers-that-be see that something works once and then decide to milk it forever. In this particular instance, I’m not annoyed. With regard to all of the film and television media, I can find something redeeming in each iteration of Holmes that I see. With the Holmes of Robert Downey, Jr. you get…well, Robert Downey, Jr. In all of his snarky, ridiculous, wonderful glory. With the BBC’s Sherlock, you get Benedict Cumberbatch (I challenge you to find someone with a better name), who is brilliant as a modern-day Holmes, and was perhaps born to play the role of the un-self conscious, socially inappropriate, imminently observant consulting detective. (And Martin Freeman is wonderful as sidekick Watson.) With the new CBS version, Elementary, you get Jonny Lee Miller and his tattoos. Okay, there’s more to him than that. He’s wonderful as Sherlock, in another modern day take on the old classic. I mean, really, you can’t go wrong. Perhaps it’s because Conan Doyle provided such a marvelous foundation. And let’s be honest, you really can’t go wrong with a British accent.  While we’re on the subject, Amazon Kindle just released The Complete Sherlock Holmes for free. You can’t do better than that. Even if you weren’t planning on reading it anytime soon. I take things that I don’t even want if they’re free, so I say, go for it.

This is the first print version of Holmes that I’ve read which was not written by Conan Doyle  - at least as far as I can remember – and I have to say, I was impressed. I had just finished reading a slew of young adult novels, which may have contributed to the refreshing change of tone. But even with that in mind, this book was a triumph compared to other contemporary works; maybe because it is a recall to a more refined time. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my biggest pet peeves is the laziness of modern writers, the lack of interest in utilizing exposition and instead having characters express details in dialogue in the simplest of terms. (Note: I’m not saying that I can do any better, but I’m also not trying to have my writing published. That’s why I stick with a free internet blog that nobody ever looks at.) The House of Silk was as much the opposite of that as any book could be, which may have lent itself to creating a more realistic follow-up to the Conan Doyle canon. I am no expert, but in my mind, Horowitz artfully imitates the style and tone of the novels and detective stories of the 1800s, and especially those of the familiar Holmes stories.

The bulk of this story has been written shortly after Holmes has died, as Watson tells us at the start of the story. He tells us that the case was of such a nature that it would have been impossible for him to have told it any time before that point, and it becomes apparent why that is true. The two cases that Sherlock is working on in The House of Silk, seemingly unconnected, of course end up being greatly related. Watson relays the story of an art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, who comes to Sherlock, looking for assistance. He believes that he is being followed by a man who he thought was killed while he was in America attempting to track down some stolen artwork. While working on that case, Sherlock is sent down another road when one of the hooligans he has hired to help him track down the man is viciously beaten and murdered. Indeed, the case becomes so serious, and the duo are on the trail of something much bigger than they realize, that a conspiracy takes place and Sherlock is arrested for murder. (Of course, he is innocent.) The end point does end up being a bit disturbing, although thankfully not graphically so. It has the typical Holmes-ian ending, in which he explains how he came to the correct conclusion, and you feel as though you should have seen it all along.

The writing was so well done. I thought that Holowitz did a remarkable job of capturing the naked egotism, the childlike and unabashed frankness that is the somehow loveable Sherlock Holmes. A wonderful, stimulating read.

The Liberator—Alex Kershaw

To the end of his life, Sparks would continue to decry the easy access to guns in America, which have claimed more lives than all the wars fought by Americans throughout the nation’s history. More young Americans have died from gun violence in the year his grandson was shot than had died under his command throughout the Second World War – when death was a daily occurrence. (355)

While I’m reading books that I plan on reviewing, I usually will put Post-It tags on pages that have good quotes. I’ll also add them to pages where I have comments, both positive and negative.  I would say I probably used more tags than ever before on this book, in a completely positive way.

I’m not sure how the author found this particular soldier, but Felix Sparks seems to be the best, most heartwarming, uplifting story of a soldier that I’ve read in a long time. His selflessness, his certainty, his desire to do the right thing – even and especially during a time when rules and conventions are often thrown out the window – are truly inspiring. Myself and the author were clearly not the only ones to notice the amazing leadership capabilities that Sparks possessed, because he was constantly being promoted, even despite his young age. He was a man who persevered, amidst the loss of men who had become his family, continuing on his mission to ensure the freedom of many.

The author gracefully intertwines the personal stories of Sparks’ life and military career with the other events that were taking place during the war. We get pieces of things that are happening with Sparks and his men, from their storming of the beaches at Sicily to the gates of Dachau. Thrown in with that, we also get to see other events taking place simultaneously, and an idea of what the leaders were doing towards the end of the war.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about the book is the author’s ability to get inside the mind of the soldier, and to point out that our enemies are not that different from us. There were many instances of humanity from the other side, as well as instances of atrocity from our side. Like this:

“Under cover of darkness, Sparks went out and tied a piece of communication wire to Turner’s leg and to the German captain’s then dragged them both back to E Company’s lines. For the first time, he felt real anger toward the enemy. But a few days later he realized that the Germans could be every bit as humane as his own men. E Company seized another hillside, where two sergeants from G Company had been killed. The Germans had taken their bodies and dug two graves for them in ground that seemed as hard as granite. They had even placed two wooden crosses on their graves and hung the Americans’ dog tags from them.” (74)

Or this:

“At around 11 a.m., something extraordinary happened. Sparks spotted a German half-track, bearing a white flag, moving toward his position. A German captain dismounted. He clearly wanted to talk with an American counterpart. Sparks pulled himself out of his foxhole and approached the half-track.

‘Captain, you have a great number of wounded here and we have a number of wounded,’ the German officer said in fluent English. ‘Would you agree to a true of thirty minutes so we can evacuate our wounded?’” (89)

With so many tragedies and examples of inhumanity these days, and in all times of war really, it’s important to remember that the things that unite us are far greater than the things that separate us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Divergent and Insurgent—Veronica Roth

He is not sweet or gentle or particularly kind. But he is smart and brave, and even though he saved me, he treated me like I was strong. (Divergent, 288)

People, I have discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them. (Insurgent, 510)

After having been on the receiving end of what I would consider some wonderful reading suggestions (The Hunger Games, The Song of Ice and Fire series), I wanted to be the one – the first one – to find something awesome and tell everyone I know about it. I decided to stick with the Young Adult genre, with the assumption that this is a genre that most of my friends are generally not gravitating toward.

Like The Hunger Games, this series is set in a dystopian future, and has a strong female character as a lead. Unlike The Hunger Games, and many other YA series, there is not a love triangle. Which is not to say that there is no “love interest” drama happening. There absolutely is. But there’s no “Peeta vs. Gale“ or “Edward vs. Jacob.” Nobody has to take sides in that regard.

While I don’t feel that this series is on the same level as The Hunger Games, I do feel that it’s worth reading.

At an undisclosed time in the future, society has been separated into five factions: Erudite, Abnegation, Candor, Amity, and Dauntless. Funnily enough, the members of each faction personify that particular “trait” – all of which are clearly related to words that are part of our current everyday vocabulary. (Abnegation may be less familiar for some folks – from the act of relinquishing or giving up a right.) Not only are the factions separated by these particular traits, they are also separated geologically. They also all have distinct rituals, practices, and religions.

In Divergent, we meet Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who has grown up in the Abnegation factor with her mother, father, and older brother Caleb. Being not quite a year apart, Tris and Caleb go for their aptitude tests (their faction placement tests) during the same year. When finished with her test, Tris’s test proctor seems concerned about her results. Tris is told, in whispers, that she is Divergent. Unlike the great percentage of people – almost everyone – she is not destined for just one faction; Tris would fit in with, and has aptitude for, any of three factions. Which means that on her sorting day, when the youth announce their new faction to their old one in a public ceremony, she has a difficult decision to make: stay in Abnegation with her parents, even though she has never felt completely at home with the selfless, demure lifestyle OR leave her parents behind and join another faction that allows her more freedom.

During the choosing ceremony, since they go in revere alphabetical order, her brother is called first. Tris is shocked when her brother chooses Erudite as his new faction. This makes her decision even tougher. Even though she may have felt inclined to transfer to a new faction, now she feels like perhaps she should stay with her parents. But she doesn’t. She chooses Dauntless.

Although the young ones have now selected their new faction, or stayed with their old one, that doesn’t mean that they are automatically accepted into the fold. Every faction has a period of initiation. The initiation period for the Dauntless recruits is especially vigorous, as they are the daredevil, what some would call reckless, faction. There are those who die on the way to the Dauntless location. There are those who fail early on, and become “factionless,” a shameful, homeless, disconnected section of the population.

At the Dauntless complex, Tris meets Four, Eric, Al, Will, Christina, Uriah, Marlene, and many others. She feels much more at home with this group of “reckless” teens, and tries to fit in – against all her Abnegation instincts – by getting tattoos and adapting her clothing. She is taught how to fight, how to shoot a gun, all of the good stuff. Four, a Dauntless member is a few years older than Tris and is assisting with her training. During one of her simulations, Four discovers that Tris is Divergent; while in the simulation, she is aware that she is in a simulation, which is a sign of being Divergent. He only knows this because he is also Divergent.

The story continues, and of course there is some love business happening with Tris and Four (who it turns out, Tris actually knew before she came to the Dauntless party). And there is inevitable drama when the Dauntless recruits learn that only ten of them will be allowed to stay – only ten of all of the recruits, which includes those who have grown up as Dauntless, and those originally from other factions. All the typical teen/dystopian future drama that you would expect. Then, one day, the world as they know it falls apart. What results is the final quarter of Divergent, and essentially all of Insurgent, as Tris and those working with her attempt to find a way to put the world back together again.

These books were quick reads, as I finished each of them in less than the time of a plane ride from San Francisco to Miami. It was refreshing to not have to see a love triangle emerge, although I suppose there is still a third book, so there’s still time. I appreciate with this book, as with some other prominent YA fiction (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) the unapologetic way that Roth kills her characters off. I felt the same way about Rowling and about Collins: that’s the way the world works in actuality – when people die, they stay dead. I felt like so many other young adult novelists were unwilling to let their readers experience that sense of heartbreak, but I think it’s very important not only for the development of the still-living characters in the novel, but also for readers’ perceptions of reality. Novels already do a great job of skewing that. I actually liked the use of obvious, explanatory names for the factions. It made it easy for me right away to understand the restrictions of this new world. I related easily to Tris, in her desire for strength, her desire to do the right thing, but the struggle to know what that might be. I do feel that, if there are girls/women out there who do not relate to Tris, there isn’t a great deal of character development of other women in the series to allow you another character to connect with. This is understandable, however, as the series is told in the first person, from Tris’s point of view.

The end of Insurgent gives you a tiny taste of what started the factioned society. It makes me excited to see where we go from here, and leaves me with expectations of maybe seeing more of where we’ve come from. I definitely recommend this book a fast-paced, moderately engaging read.

These two books are part of what is meant to be a trilogy, with the final book being released sometime in fall 2013. Apparently Summit Entertainment bought the rights to the first book in October of this year, and have already cast Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) as Tris. That should be interesting, if it ever ends up actually happening.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sheltered from the Swastika: Memoir of a Jewish Boy's Survival amid Horror in World War II—Peter Kory

...this points to the ultimate truth about war - it's war as an idea that is the real villain, those who perish in it are the victims, and, in the final analysis, there are no winners. (135)

This is yet another of my books from the Early Reviewers program through Librarything. (I have two more on their way, which is more thrilling than I can express, free books.) I can honestly say that this is the best of the three books that I have thus far reviewed, although to be fair, the other two were children's literature.

I rather enjoyed this memoir, written by a now eighty-year-old-man who was a young boy when he was separated from his parents in World War II. He does a remarkable job of weaving historical facts with his personal remembrances.

With his parents, Peter escaped Germany when he was an infant. His parents could see the intense restrictions that were coming down the pipeline with relation to Jews. They fled to Belgium, where they lived for a brief time. I appreciated the coverage of his time in Belgium, a country for which I have heard little on the subject of its experience during the war. And I studied history at university, so that's not for nothing. Although that lack of coverage may be as a result of Belgium's neutrality, but what do I know? After Belgium, they went to France, initially to track down Peter's father, who had been taken from them in Belgium. Once they found him, and helped him escape from the prison where he was being held, they started to create a plan for escape to a space where they would no longer need to live in fear of their religious background. Once the plans were set up, and his parents had accounted for all possibilities and created contingency plans for Peter in case they were separated, they set these escape plans into action.

One of the worst-imagined scenarios occurred, and Peter was in fact separated from his parents. He followed their directions and, avoiding Nazi agents and collaborators at every corner, he found his way to the place where he would eventually spend the remainder of the war, a familial chateau in Auriac, located in the southern region of France. Following the end of the war, the family that had been sheltering him, the de Bonnefoys, started proceedings to adopt him. Unfortunately, due to intervention from a postwar organization, the OSE, it was determined that as Catholics, the de Bonnefoys were failing Peter in not allowing him to acknowledge and experience his Jewish heritage. The OSE apparently didn't care that Peter was not interested in living an Orthodox lifestyle - in fact, his parents had never been devoutly religious - and sent him to an Orthodox orphanage, with the long-term goal of sending him to the recently formed Israel. From this orphanage, a strange and fortuitous series of events led to the discovery that he had family in America, and after much debate, he was allowed to join them there, in the land of prosperity and dreams.

While I found the book well written and thoughtful, there were some things that I thought could have been a bit better. I understand that the book was more about the personal events of the author and less about historical points and the sources for those points; however, I would have appreciated if Kory, for the few citations that he utilizes, had employed endnotes. Instead he has an incredibly simple bibliography at the end of the book. This is more a personal preference than anything, having spent my university career reading documents with endnotes. Further, there was some inconsistency with regard to the photo captions - sometimes they were labeled in first person (my mother) and sometimes in third (Peter with...). There were also some obvious typos and punctuation errors that were upsetting to see, considering how easily they were spotted and thus how easily they could have been remedied.

Most frustrating for me was a seemingly incorrect use of the word penultimate, which does not in fact mean the same thing as ultimate. Rather, it indicates the second to last of something.

Overall, an eloquent, informative, well organized memoir written by a remarkable man who overcame early struggles and trauma to achieve success and happiness.

Some other good quotes:

Life in Brussels became almost tediously normal. As a fiercely neutral country, and a kingdom at that, we were like a small island of calm, floating in a sea of horrendous geopolitical turbulence. (30)

I felt then (and I still feel now) that trying to raise any religion to the status of a nationality or, even worse, a race, is precisely the tactic that the Nazis had used so successfully to justify the persecution of Jews. Those views, in my opinion, have always served to segregate Jews fro the mainstream of the population, thereby causing them to emerge as a convenient target for the placement of blame for all the problems of the world. No, I never considered Palestine my "Promised Land," nor Israel a sanctuary. I believed in assimilation. My country was never an abstract "Kingdom of Heaven" or a "Sacred Ancient Promised Land." It was a country that would have me as a citizen and treat me like everybody else, without any kind of hyphenation. (167) [Please note: This should not be taken as a political statement about my position on Israel; I merely appreciate the sentiment of "his country" as one that would accept him, regardless.]

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Boy Detective Fails—Joe Memo

In our town - our town of shadows, our town of mystery - it seems our buildings have, without reason, begun to disappear completely. Still full of their loyal inhabitants, the buildings and the people all disintegrate soundlessly. The air has been hard to breathe, full of regret and the glassy voices of the unsurprised dead. (35)

I found this book in a lovely new and used bookstore in Berkeley. As with almost all books, I judged it by it's cover, and found myself intrigued. A disembodied arm being examined by a small, tie-clad boy? Sign me up.

The book follows the life of Billy Argo, a once-lauded boy detective. He used to solve crimes with the assistance of his younger sister Caroline and their neighbor Fenton. Following his high school graduation, Billy leaves home to study Criminology at university. His life is shattered when he hears of the suicide of his younger sister. As it turns out, she had attempted suicide once before but his parents neglected to mention it him. Crippled by her death, and feeling left with nothing but questions in that regard, Billy attempts suicide in the same way as Caroline. His life is saved, but he is committed to a local mental hospital. After ten years, state budget cuts lead to the realization that Billy isn't actually in need of that support and medication any longer. He is transitioned to a sort of halfway house. As he attempts to re-enter the world, the long-dormant questions regarding his sister's death surface, and he once again takes up his magnifying glass and notebook in order to find some answers.

While mostly a quick read, there are moments of touching poignancy as Billy journeys back to something resembling contentedness and sanity. Along the way, there are also special messages and codes for the intrepid reader who cares to decipher them. A quite enjoyable, fairly light-hearted read which allows a brief reminiscence of old school detective stories with a facelift.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Telegraph Avenue—Michael Chabon

From the time he went verbal - two, three years old - Julie had made it a point to appear before the bench with his arguments scrubbed and tidied. Business plan all formatted and punctuated. Scheming, deep scheming, but letting you see that he was scheming, that your consciousness of his machination was a part, maybe the key element of his scheme. (118)

Michael Chabon has been one of my favourite authors ever since I first read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when I was a sophomore in high school. I recently re-read it in anticipation of sending it along to a friend, and I have to say, it is still one of my favourites, and probably my favourite Chabon.

I recently relocated to the Bay Area, and in preparation for that move, investigated publishing companies that might have openings. As a bibliophile, I have this (admittedly idealized) dream of working in a publishing company, just reading books all day. What could be better? It was through this investigation that I was reminded: Chabon resides in the Bay Area. I rediscovered this information when studying the McSweeney's website. McSweeney's, which publishes a fairly well-known quarterly, has several other projects, one of which is printing nonfiction works with some of their contributors, including Chabon.

Almost accidentally, I had the opportunity to attend a Michael Chabon lecture-interview. Just a few days prior, my new roommate Jessica and I had been discussing our mutual admiration for Chabon. As she found out, he was going to be appearing on the day of his new book release for a conversation with Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters, as part of San Francisco's City Arts lectures, and in support of 826 Valencia. I took the BART into the city, and walked leisurely to the Herbst Theatre, newly purchased, hot-off-the-presses, brand new Chabon book in my bag. Sitting outside the theatre, reading my new acquisition, I received several inquiries from fellow Chabon lovers, also attending the event. "Is that the new one?" as though an object above the need of a more descriptive noun. The conversation was interesting, inspiring. It made me want to go home and write. (Not given to Chabon's gift with prose and impressive language, however, I refrained.) Jessica, having recently completed writing her own novel, informed me she now felt a part of the brotherhood of authors; even though there is still much to be done, she could relate to the feeling of elation, the urge toward the end of writing to just be done with your characters, the realization that you didn't really know what you were writing about until you finished.

I managed to read about ten pages of Telegraph Avenue before I entered the theatre for the event that night. I knew that it was going to be a good one when I laughed out loud before the end of the second page. Even before that, I fell in love with the cover, which is a record (the book is about a music store), on both the front and back. The "tracks" of the record indicate sections of the book on the front, and on the back, praise for the book. It's set within the confines of the Oakland-Temescal-Berkeley area, or "Brokeland." As a resident of the area, Chabon related at the lecture, he indulged himself in waxing poetic on his most loved locations and happenings in the area. It's hard to begrudge him the indulgence with such beautiful exposition. This book, as with Kavalier & Clay, was much more exposition than conversation. In this way, Chabon personifies the ideal author for me, utilizing words to paint pictures, rather than lazily having his characters do the work with their dialogue. For me, his books (although modern in their subjects) are a throwback to the Romantic authors. Like Victor Hugo, who wrote pages describing Paris before beginning the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The book, while on the surface about a record store in the Brokeland area, at the heart is about relationships. We follow Archy and Nat, and their families, as they try to deal with the new mega-music store which will soon be moving to town and ostensibly put their already struggling record store out of business. Their wives are also partners, in a midwifery business. Typical Chabon, there is also a young man who is struggling with his sexuality, although he struggles less and less as the book goes along. Telegraph Avenue also introduced me more to the new area in which I live. (I actually read Telegraph Avenue as I traveled on a bus down Telegraph Avenue, headed into Berkeley.) Telegraph Avenue is typical, brilliant Chabon.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Swan Thieves and The Historian—Elizabeth Kostova

When she had gone, and I was left alone with my trembling emotion, I tried to consider what I had done, what we had done, but my sense of completion and happiness interfered at every mental turn. Today I will go to wait for her again, because I cannot help it, because my whole being seems now to be bound up in the being of one so different from myself and yet so exquisitely familiar that I can scarcely understand what has happened. (The Historian, 399) (I have to say, this is not my favourite quote, but I stopped marking them because I was so enthralled with the story and finishing it.)

And I would not intentionally break any promise to you as long as I live. If I could give you all of my past, and abscond with all of your future. I would do that, as you must guess; and it is perennial grief to me that I cannot. You see how abundant is my selfishness - to think as I do that you might be happy with me when you already have every reason to be happy. (The Swan Thieves, 308)

I first heard about The Historian when I was a senior in college, and a floormate suggested it to me. Now, as a history major, the title was the first drawing point for me. She told me a bit more about it, and I don't think that I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that it's about Dracula. This made me less intrigued, because I felt like the vampire craze was driving me craze-y, and I had been suckered into reading Twilight, possibly the peer pressure moment I will always regret the most. So I bought it (on sale) but it's been sitting on my shelf for almost four years. Funny story: I actually bought another copy one day at Half Price Books, completely forgetting that I already had a copy. So I had two copies which were not being read.

Meanwhile, I remembered Elizabeth Kostova's name and on another trip to Half Price Books, I purchased The Swan Thieves, which I actually read first. The basic summary is that a man is arrested trying to stab a painting in the National Gallery. He is sent to a psychiatric hospital, and his psychiatrist attempts to communicate with him, as psychiatrists are wont to do. However, this man refuses to speak or even acknowledge the presence of his doctor, and only paints, a portrait of the same woman over and over again. On a quest to determine who this woman is - hoping that she might be the answer to attempting to heal his patient - the doctor follows a long path through his patient's life.

A common theme through the two books is the interweaving of several narratives. In The Swan Thieves, part of the story is begun when the doctor is given a bundle of letters that belong to the artist. The letters are actually in French, so he has them translated, and reads them periodically throughout the remainder of the story. The letters were originally written in France in the late 1700s. When he starts reading them, you have no idea why they relate, but by the end, they are tied to the narrative of the modern-day characters.

The same was true of The Historian. A young girl is searching for her father, who is in turn searching for her mother, who, even further still, is searching for Dracula. Like you do. Regardless,  her father relays the story of his journey as a young academic - and in fact his meet-cute with her mother - in a series of letters that he leaves for her when he takes off to try and find her mother. Further, in the letters from her father, there is the story of her maternal grandmother and grandma's encounter with her father's advisor (who, as it turns out, is her maternal grandfather). Sound confusing? It is a bit, although more confusing to explain in three sentences than in 600-odd pages. Going back several generations, having a story within a story within a story - it's all very ambitious. But Kostova pulls it off with admirable aplomb.

Mostly the interwoven stories make sense, because they are all connected in the end. In both books, she did a great job of differentiating (with italics and thoughtfully placed quotation marks) between characters and timelines. The voice change leaves a bit to be desired, especially in The Historian between the writings of a grown academic man and his teenage daughters recollections. Her books are more about narrative than about dialogue, which I appreciate. Few things bother me more than lazy exposition disguised as conversation. If you really can't figure out a better way to reveal the plot to your readers than to have a character straight-up explain it to them, then you really should find a new line of work, in my humble opinion.

Back to the point. I highly suggest both of these books.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale—Margaret Atwood

I am way behind in reading this book. It has actually been sitting on my shelf for a while (yet another $1.00 book at Half Price Books) but I just hadn't gotten around to reading it. I think it was one of those that everyone kept telling me I "have to read" and that makes me less interested. Even though it may be the best book in the world. There have been too many of those that have scarred me - Twilight would be an example. Poor choice, on my part, to listen to anyone about that.

Regardless, I am glad that I finally made the time to take in this one, spurred by a friend of a friend who insisted that I must read it.

In a future time when population numbers have dwindled, women are objects, vessels for younger generations, and the powerful men are to fertilize as many women as possible under the guise of assisting with numbers. These Commanders essentially own their "surrogates" (Handmaids) who do not retain their own names, but instead are given names that are derived from their commanders. For instance, our narrator is called Offred, as her commander's name is Fred. Names are changed when Handmaids are transferred to new households. The commanders have wives, who seem to be too old to have children of their own. When babies are born, they are raised by the commander and his wife, and the handmaid moves on to her next Commander.

In this time when women are objects (even more than they have been in the past, when they were property) they are not allowed to read, they must all wear full body coverings, and wear hats that are essentially blinders. There are no mirrors - vanity is a sin, after all. All options for escape or release are removed in order to ensure the safety of the Handmaids. Offred remarks that it looks as though where there used to be an overhead light, it has been removed, most likely because it could be used in order to hang oneself. It is very interesting to think about what the reaction would be to such a drastic change for our society. As our narrator says, she remembers the time when things were what we would consider "normal," and perhaps the generation younger than her remembers as well, but there will be a time in the all-too-near future when people won't know anything different. We learn that Offred had a whole life before society changed - a partner and a child. The reason that she has become a Handmaid (there are many different reasons for this particular role) is that she was not married to her partner, and he was in fact married to someone else when their relationship began.

Offred temps fate by breaking many of the society's rules. She begins to associate with her Commander outside of the ritual mating time, a relationship which is instigated by him. He allows her to read, he takes her out dancing, they talk about how things have changed. But she can't really be herself with him. Through her walking buddy, a fellow Handmaid, she learns that there are those who are rebelling, who are escaping, through a sort of Underground Railroad. She begins to have an affair with Nick, who is the handyman/chaffeur around the house. When she becomes pregnant, which should be a joyous occasion as she's been successful at her one reason for being, wheels are set in motion to help her escape.

In the afterword, we learn that tapes from Offred have been found, which is how we know about her experiences. The afterword takes place at a convention, a time even further in the future, when Offred's society is but a strange memory. Due to the naming and renaming of Handmaids, it's been near impossible for this convention to track down who Offred is. There is no way of knowing who she was before, even attempting to use the names that she has included: Nick, the handyman; Luke, her partner before the "revolution"; her daughter.

What is perhaps the most frightening about the scenario presented in this book is not its hypothetical - it is that situations like this have happened in the past, where groups of a society are targeted, persecuted, and made to follow strict rules. Historically this has progressed to the perceived need to be rid of this particular group. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be capable of learning from the past, and are doomed to repeat our mistakes, so a society like Offred's is not so far-fetched.

Overall a great, thought-invoking read. Margaret Atwood is fantastic.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul—Karen Abbott

Before opening their world-famous Club, the Everleigh sisters, too, were girls who disappeared, and they reconstructed their histories at a time when America was updating its own. To that end, this book is also about identity, both personal and collective, and the struggle inherent in deciding how much of the old should accompany us as we rush, headlong, into the new. (xii)

I have always had something of a fascination with prostitution. I don't think I'm the only one, and I hope for Karen Abbott's sake that I'm right. Focused on Chicago shortly after the turn of the century, but more specifically on the Everleigh sisters and their Club, this book was fascinating. Operating in a time and place where the field was especially tainted, the Everleigh sisters did their best to remain classy and dignified, in a profession that doesn't easily lend itself to that.

There was a great deal of persecution of the prostitution that was taking place at that time, and rightly so. Even though it had been at least ignored previously, there were some very legitimate concerns that surfaced with regard to he profession. There were many young girls who were being taken advantage of, being used and abused and sold to the highest bidder. The Everleigh sisters said from the beginning, they were going to have only girls who wanted to be there, they were going to interview all of their clients ahead of time, they were going to be in control and protective of their girls. They had waiting lists of girls waiting to get into their brothel.

Written in a thoughtful, almost novel-like format, Abbott is organized, and unbiased in this retelling. She doesn't approach prostitution with automatic derision. She covers both sides: the madams and pimps, and the side of the religious and legal opposition.

The Little Book—Selden Edwards

This is the story of how, through a dislocation in time, my son, Frank Standish Burden III, the famous American rock-and-roll star of the 1970s, found himself in Vienna in the fall of 1897.

I greatly enjoyed this book.

The weaving of historical content with emotional intrigue for our characters was quite engaging. I would liken it to The Alienist, another book which blended history with a fictional story. Well written, and truly a labor of love for the author, having written it over several decades.

In the book, fictional rocker and intellectual Wheeler Burden is somehow transported through time and space from San Francisco in 1988 to Vienna in 1897. He's confused as to his arrival, but is well acquainted with Vienna at the turn of the century, as his mentor the Venerable Haze (Arnauld Esterhazy) had recounted his time there repeatedly during their relationship. He explores Vienna, running into some bright up-and-coming minds, seeking out Freud to discuss his predicament. He also encounters his grandfather, his grandmother, and his father. His father Dilly Burden, a World War II war hero, has similarly been dropped into Vienna in 1897 after having been tortured by the Germans.

Although at times it felt a bit predictable, that was only after having been presented with several surprises. Surprises that were very welcome, as the previous truth was a bit disturbing...You'll understand if you read the book.

Something I have always wondered about books or media on the subject of time travel: logically, how would you be able to cause yourself not to be born? Because if you are not born, then you would not have existed to travel back in time to cause yourself not to be born. Admittedly, I am no expert on time travel, theoretical or otherwise. This book explores that exact issue. At the beginning of their encounter, Dilly tells Wheeler they must be especially careful not to be influential, most certainly with regard to their own family. But by his death, Dilly tells Wheeler that's exactly what they were sent to do: exactly what they did, even though they influenced their future. They influenced it exactly as they were meant to.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Chyrsalis Chronicles: The Eyes of the Desert Sand—Edwin Wolfe

This is my second AR copy of a book that I have received through the Librarything Early Reviewers program. I was looking forward to reading something new, with the belief that nothing could be as disappointing as the first one I received. While I would say that this one is not as bad as the first one, I have to say I was frustrated while reading this book. This was true not only of the writing style but also of the grammar and punctuation. Maybe the answer is just to not "bid" on young adult books from the Early Reviewers program...

For me, this book was trying too hard to be Harry Potter. It's clear from the "advance praise" that was included on the back of the book: "A charming debut from an author who is sure to draw comparisons to none other than J.K. Rowling." And even though this is only the first book for this series (and the author), they are already planning on having seven books in the series.

The book focuses on Ethan Fox, who is pulled into this supernatural world which is shrouded in mystery. He is joined by a slew of mythical creatures and beings who accompany him on his journey through this land. One thing I always really enjoyed about Rowling's books was her use of actual mythical beings in her writing. I don't mind inventiveness and creativity in a book about supernatural and mystical beings - in fact, that's exactly what this type of book calls for. However, unless you're actually going to commit to being innovative, and presenting the reader with entirely new creations, don't bother. I found it annoying to have these creatures presented to me in the guise of something new, when they were really just poorly recycled versions of everything I've seen and read before.

I will never claim to be an expert in grammar, but things that are clearly grammatically incorrect drive me a bit insane. This is especially true for punctuation. I understand having some issues figuring out tense problems or split infinitives, but commas are simple. This book made me CRAZY with the abuse and misuse of commas. It really added to the feeling of lazy writing to see sentences that were clearly not meant to have commas in them, were clearly two independent sentences, but yet were mushed together. On top of that, there were more than few sentence which I felt needed commas in order to make sense, and yet seemed to be missing them. Rather than using rich language and creative writing, it really seemed as though Wolfe did as little work as possible to get his vision of his world across. This not only speaks to lazy writing, but lazy editing as well. There were two very clear grammatical errors, in addition to the overwhelming use of commas: one was the use of the word "decent" when the word "descent" was obviously the word that was meant to be used. The other was the wrong use of they're (their was the version used in the book). The second

This book continues a trend that I have noticed recently. It's clear the author wrote the book with the expectation that it will become a movie. This makes for lazy narrative and poorly created pictures. Rather than utilizing descriptive language, authors will instead attempt to write the scene as it might appear in a screenplay. This was one of my major problems with the Twilight series (beyond it being horrible) - it was abundantly clear to me that Meyers had written it with the express purpose of turning it into a film. That is not the purpose of a book.

A large portion of this for me is the prevalence of dialogue as a means of presenting an important plot point. When I think of many books that are considered classics - books by authors like Hugo, the Brontes, Austen - they would often go pages without dialogue. Authors used to have skill in developing a story, and this skill seems to have gone by the wayside. Instead, characters will suddenly have an epiphany or commence with a monologue. Again, this is the "screenplay" issue - screenplays rely heavily on dialogue, and rightfully so. If your intention when writing a book is to have it eventually transition to a screenplay, of course you're going to include a large amount of monologue and conversation. I'm done with this trend. If I wanted to see a movie, I would go see a movie. Give me a book. A real honest-to-goodness book. Those are the ones that make the best movies anyway.

Once again, I'm underwhelmed. I can only hope that, should I be fortunate enough to receive another advance copy of a book, I will enjoy it more.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

New Early Reviewers book!

I'm taking a little break from the book I had been reading - The Little Book - to read the book I just received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. This is the second book I've gotten through this program, and am hopeful that this one will be better than the first. Stay tuned for my review of Chrysalis Chronicles: The Eyes of the Desert Sand.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest—Linda Carlson

In federally supported towns like Coulee Dam and Richland, Washington, government subsidies eased the way to independence. Especially in Richland, where townspeople didn't even have to change their own light bulbs as late as 1946, the change was a shock...The actual incorporation didn't take place until 1958, after the Atomic Energy Commission promised partial funding for another ten years. Although Richland residents disliked the AEC's rigid control, they were astounded by the costs of self-government and private ownership... (204)

This was a remarkably well-organized and constructed book. (The content of the book was so beautifully culminated by a "gazetteer" which included a paragraph about each of the company towns in the Pacific Northwest.) I feel as though these features shouldn't be a surprise to me, but they are, sadly. On a semi-related side note, I read a book about the role of medicine in the Lewis and Clark expedition, which would have been fascinating had it not been for the fact that it was so poorly edited, disjointed, repetitious, and filled with personal anecdotes from the author (who was not a member of the expedition). Hence my need to praise this selection.

As I carried this book with me to work, I received some questioning glances. Since I started this blog I've taken to making notes in my books, and especially flagging certain pages if they have potential quotes, as I always like to include that portion at the beginning of each post. With a history book, this flagging system becomes a bit more advanced. You can barely see the edges of the book at this point. If I ever get back into academic writing, I'm sure this flagging system will advance to the next level, with the flags actually color-coded to specific subjects or thesis lines. At this point, it's more a hodge podge of not only flags marking good quotes, but also sticky notes with larger questions and observations - again, in the event that I were to ever again have the energy to write a research paper.

This book was especially poignant for me. I'm a Pacific Northwesterner, and my maternal grandfather was actually from Roslyn, Washington, one of the mining towns mentioned fairly frequently in the book. His father, I believe, was the mayor at some point. Some of you may be more familiar with Roslyn as the site where they filmed Northern Exposure - Roslyn filled in for the fictional town of Cecily, Alaska. (If you're interested in more trivia about well-known films and famous figures who visited these mining towns, you should definitely read the book. I never knew that Elizabeth Taylor was in Washington State for the filming of one of the Lassie movies, or ALL of the numerous movies that were shot in and around the area.)

Like many others who have been given a bare-bones history of company towns, I imagined that they mostly consisted of dictatorial businesses who owned everything purely as a means of staff retention and a means to gain more revenue . They didn't care about their employees, and paid them the minimal amount, sometimes paying them in scrip, which could only be used at the company store. However, this book tells a much different story. While there were some company towns like the awful ones I pictured, they were few and far between. Rather, more were actual communities, communities that banded together in good times and in bad.

The majority of these towns were in existence from the late 1800s into the mid 1900s. While the rest of the country was struggling during the Depression, companies in the Northwest were looking to take care of their workers. While they weren't able to pay employees to work full-time, they tried to ensure that each man had a few shifts a week. This meant that they were always certain to have some pay at the end of the month. Additionally, since companies owned everything, many of them were incredibly lenient, if not entirely forgiving, of rent that had to go unpaid as a result of the financial hardships. Several of them lowered the prices in the company stores as well.

Also present are stories of communities collaborating to send their young'uns to college. Often, this included the financial support of the company, contributed through several different avenues. The support for education seems to have been rather astounding, leading one to consider how to replicate that support in our current climate.

Religious tolerance also seems to have been a theme. "In Britannia, Beach, B.C., owned by the same copper-mining company that developed Holden, Washington, volunteers built a church with an entrance on each end and a wall down the middle so both Catholic and Protestant congregations could meet at the same time." (73) One of the main reasons for this was most likely due to the social nature of church in general. As the book mentions, congregations were usually the first to establish social activities in the community, regardless of the denomination.

Most obvious was the amazing sense of community these company towns inspired in their folk. Due to the isolation, mostly as a result of transportation obstacles and the other aspects mentioned above, these communities were really more like extended families - caring for their sick, sending their children to college, even staying in touch decades after the town had been shut down and they had all gone their separate ways. The families in these towns went out of their way to take care of each other. As the book says, "At Grisdale, Washington, when the young son of the school principal, Lou Messmer, and his wife, Ann, faced surgery, the loggers donated enough money to cover the medical bills...At Holden, miners had a voluntary payroll deduction program for making donations to a grieving family." (156) A voluntary payroll deduction program. These men, who were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, voluntarily gave portions of their pay in order to help out their neighbors, cousins, friends.

I'm not sure where that sense of community has gone, and why more often than not our society has an "every man for himself" mentality. I don't understand why we try to mask this inhumanity under the guise of capitalism. I don't understand why any attempt to help those who are struggling is often hatefully lambasted as a move towards socialism. We could all stand to learn something from them.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Man Overboard!—Curtis Parkinson

The actual conversation wherein the FBI agent tells a 16-year-old kid he's just met that he's an FBI agent, with relatively no prompting.
"You mean you were on the Rapids Prince when my colleague Derek Patterson went overboard?"

"Derek Patterson was your colleague?"

"Derek Patterson is...I mean was...the one who'd been following Heinrik since he landed from the U-boat. We weren't ready to nab Heinrik yet as we wanted to see who his contacts were first."

"But who was Derek Patterson? And who are you?"

The main sighed. "I guess I need to explain. I'm from the FBI -" (85)

I was beyond thrilled to receive this book. I've been a member of the LibraryThing website for about three or four years now, and just recently discovered the Early Reviewer option. This special feature allows you to browse the books which publishers are releasing for early review, and enter a lottery to win them. Although I had won a book prior to this one, I received the envelope sans book and was sorely disappointed. It made it even more exciting to actually receive this one!!

Okay, enough excitement. Down to business.

I'm sad to say that I was rather disappointed to complete this book. It's partly my own fault for building up these intense expectations in my head. I should have also taken the time to reacquaint myself with the summary of this book once I received the notice that I had won.

I felt the plot was not particularly unique. In addition to it being an old idea, it was not particularly well executed. The book is set in 1943, when 16-year-old Scott - who is working on a ship for the summer - accidentally overhears a secret Nazi plot. In the ensuing action, his friend Adam is kidnapped by the Nazis as leverage to keep Scott from telling anyone. Meanwhile, the Nazis have also made a connection with a French-Canadian woman, and utilize her daughter Colette as a cook and general maid. When the Nazis leave the city for the country in order to be closer to the shipping lines, they take Colette with them in order to keep an eye on Adam and continue to manage their meals. In the end, Adam escapes with Colette's help, meets Scott in the woods right outside of the Nazi hideout, and they successfully foil the Nazi's plan.

As you may have guessed from my tone, I was quite incredulous at the plot. It was completely unrealistic, even for young adult fiction. It's been one of my pet peeves for quite a while - probably since I was a young adult myself - to encounter books that condescend to readers and make things so simplistic. Although I can say that it does lend itself to the tradition of books such as The Boxcar Children or even the Nancy Drew series: kids encounter a problem, they decide not to tell adults, yet somehow the problem always manages to work itself out by the end of the book. Even if there are Nazis involved.

I did really like the cover of the book, which was shiny and metallic. So that's something in its favor.

At one point, Scott encounters an FBI agent who is undercover with the Nazis. How does Scott know he's an FBI agent? Because this man tells a 16-year-old kid that he's an undercover FBI agent. WHAT?! Absolutely not.

Towards the end of the book, when they find the bomb (taped to the top of the toilet tank in the crew washroom), the response from Adam and Scott is, "Wow! Look at that!" Of course. That is the correct response to a bomb.

All in all, I was underwhelmed. While I am grateful and thrilled to have received this book through the Early Reviewers system, perhaps I need to be more selective about the books I "bid on" in the future.