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A Book A Week





Updated: 2017-12-29T09:58:54.464-08:00

 



So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

2015-05-02T15:52:40.174-07:00

Now that Isthmus has elected to focus its book coverage on local authors only, my blog posts have no home other than this shabby one. And I’m ready for a break. I’m burned out on blogging and have been for a while. I will leave this website up and hope that some readers will still find the several hundred book-related posts useful. The search box in the sidebar should help you find specific titles and authors, and of course the tags are useful too. I’ll keep my book list going over at Goodreads where I might break out into song occasionally, if properly motivated. See you there, maybe.



Bracket Thingies

2015-03-05T12:29:10.545-08:00

I'm not much into the traditional March Madness, as you can probably imagine. I am, however, enjoying the UW-Madison Library's take on it, called UW Book Madness, where you vote for your favorite books. I even filled out and submitted one of the brackets they provide on the website.

But here is my question: when you do one of these brackets, are you supposed to enter the books (teams?) you THINK will win, or the ones you WANT to win? I think it's the former, though I did the latter. Humph. I guess that means that I am unlikely to win the prize.
(image)
My bracket

Here is a link to the page if you want to participate. Unfortunately you can only submit brackets in person, at locations around campus or at several Madison Public Library branches, so you have to be in Madison to participate. Submit your bracket by March 17, 2015; voting begins March 19. The prize is a gift card to the UW Bookstore.

In case you can't see the picture clearly, my Final Four includes Room by Emma Donaghue, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, and Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, with Life After Life as the winner.





Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

2015-03-02T12:02:08.275-08:00

This is a sneaky book—but I mean that as a compliment. It’s got a girly cover and a breezy tone, and it purports to be about yummy mummies whose children attend the same elementary school in an affluent Australian suburb. It looks like a light fun read, and it is, until you realize that it’s also about domestic violence, and how it crops up where you never expect it and how easy it is for the abuse (and the abuser) to hide in plain sight. It’s also a very funny book, except when it makes you cry.

I have already said too much about the plot so I won’t go on. I do want to say that I really was impressed by Moriarty’s ability to hit the right note every single time. She could have gone wrong so many places, veering off into movie-of-the-week territory, or worse, trivializing the issues, but she avoided all these obstacles perfectly. Moriarty is often mentioned in the same breath as Jojo Moyes, another author who excels at giving us a fresh look at the lives of ordinary women, and for tackling difficult subjects with humor.

(Book 2, 2015)



Broken Harbor by Tana French

2015-03-02T12:01:55.557-08:00

In Broken Harbor, by Tana French, Detective Michael Kennedy and his rookie partner investigate the murder of a family. Was the crime committed by a stranger? Or was it domestic violence? As she does in all her books, French handles the story of the murder and subsequent investigation with great skill and suspense. It’s the rest of the book that I’m not as sure about.

I’ve read two other books by French: The Likeness, which I loved, and Faithful Place, which I didn’t finish. Like these other books, Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and features one of the detectives from the Dublin murder squad. I like the way French does this, setting all her novels within one police department but rotating the cops in charge of the investigation so that each book has a different protagonist. Some characters show up in more than one novel but others don’t. It’s a clever device that unifies her stories while keeping them fresh. It also lets you read them in any order.

My problems with Broken Harbor were the same ones I had with Faithful Place – both these books are overly long and digressive. In addition to crime fiction, French seems to want to write social commentary. This isn’t a new thing in crime fiction, where lots of writers use the genre to highlight issues such as poverty, domestic violence, racism, and class inequality. My complaint is more that French overdoes it. It’s one thing to seed an interesting story with astute observations about societal breakdown, for example, but French just goes on and on. Her issue of choice is the collapse of the Irish economy. While she does eventually manage to tie this topic into the mystery itself, she still spends way too much time on it, to the detriment of the forward motion of the mystery.

So why did I finish Broken Harbor when I couldn’t finish Faithful Place? I think because I listened to the audiobook version of Broken Harbor. I definitely experience a book differently when I listen to it vs. when I read it. Am I a less critical, more patient listener than I am reader? I’m not sure.

Here’s another thought (added later): In some ways French’s books have more in common with the recent spate of noir-ish television dramas than they have with traditional mysteries, especially the shows that originate in the UK and Scandinavia. I’m thinking here about examples such as The Fall, Broadchurch, and The Killing; all of these are relatively slow moving in the plot resolution department, but rich in detail about society and families. Even French’s approach of featuring a murder squad rather than a single detective feels more like a TV series with an ensemble cast than it does a traditional mystery series. But readers and viewers have different expectations about pacing, and some narrative devices work well in one arena but not in the other. I’ve just given myself a lot to think about here, including the fact that by listening to the audiobook version of this, I had a kind of hybrid experience.

(Book 1, 2015)




2014 Year End Wrap-up

2015-01-08T13:08:08.774-08:00

I read several really good books this year. In no particular order I want to mention these as among the best:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Alena by Rachel Pastan

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Wake by Anna Hope

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Last year I wrote a long excuse about how much my television watching was interfering with my reading. I won’t bother you again with that line of thinking, but I will say that the situation was much the same this year. I read even fewer books but watched a lot of good TV.

In an effort to get my reading back up close to earlier levels, I signed up for the Goodreads 2015 challenge and promised to read 35 books in 2015. I plan to reach that goal by listening to more audiobooks. I had forgotten how much I like them for when I’m doing housework; they keep me going when I’m tempted to sneak off and watch some TV. I am almost finished listening to Broken Harbor by Tana French and my kitchen hasn’t been this clean in a long time.



Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2015-01-02T09:10:03.093-08:00

An Americanah is a Nigerian person who has lived abroad and has adopted American habits. Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S. to attend college, and Obinze, Ifemelu’s friend who stays behind in Nigeria.

When Americanah opens, Ifemelu has been in the U.S. for more than ten years. She has made a career as a social critic: She writes a popular blog, gives lectures, and leads university seminars on race relations in America, as seen through the lens of a black African person. But she is restless and wants to return to Nigeria. Obinze, too, is emotionally adrift; after a brief stint living illegally in London, he has become a successful businessman in Lagos, but something is missing from his life.

The book moves back and forth between the past and the present as we watch Ifemelu and Obinze grow up together and fall in love, spend their years apart, then gradually become reunited upon Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria. Contrasts abound in this book: Life in Nigeria vs. life in the U.S. Ifemelu’s success in the U.S. vs. Obinze’s troubles in London. And most interesting of all, the experience of being a black African in the U.S. vs. the experience of being an African American.

Ifemelu provides a unique perspective on this last issue, especially. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Author Adichie sprinkles Ifemelu’s blog posts throughout the novel. It’s a clever device that lets us learn from Ifemelu without feeling like the book is too didactic. Ifemelu’s voice is strong, and her warmth and humor belie her sometimes pointed indictments of white privilege. It was interesting to read this book now. As conversations about race swirl around me I keep wanting to respond “So Ifemelu says…” before remembering that she is just a character in a novel.

Sometimes a book is so good that you stay up all night reading because you can’t put it down. The corollary to this is a book that is so good that you ration it out in tiny bites so that it lasts as long as possible. Americanah falls into the second category; I started reading this in September and made it last three months. Even now I’m sorry that it’s over.

(Book 25, 2014)



Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

2014-12-16T14:30:13.551-08:00

This book was long on description and short on plot. Author Michelle Wildgen has obviously spent years working in the food industry and her expertise shows. And this story, about a guy who opens his own restaurant, could probably provide a blueprint for anyone interested in doing the same. She describes in great detail the steps involved in developing a new dish, managing the waitstaff, and choosing the right décor. The problem is, I can’t imagine these processes are compelling to anyone outside of a narrow group of foodies and restaurant aficionados; I certainly struggled to maintain my interest and I like to cook and eat.

Wildgen hangs pages and pages of luscious descriptions of food onto the thinnest plot framework imaginable: a rivalry between the young restaurateur and his older brothers, who own a different restaurant. Dramatic tension centers around issues like whether or not the younger brother is stealing the older brothers’ pastry chef. I’m not trying to be flip here, but I really would have liked this book better if someone had murdered the pastry chef and hid his body in the walk-in amid all those vegetables Wildgen so lovingly describes.

(Book 24, 2014)



Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

2014-12-12T12:35:38.960-08:00

Annihilation is the first book in The Southern Reach trilogy and tells the story of the 12th expedition to Area X. Area X is the (fictional) site of a mysterious ecological disaster, located somewhere in the southern U.S. It has been closed for over 30 years at the time this book opens, and access is restricted to occasional groups of scientists. The Southern Reach is the name of the quasi-governmental/military authority that controls Area X. Expeditions there are fraught with danger; several explorers have been lost, and those who return are physically or emotionally damaged. Do we think Expedition 12 will go any better? Well, with their story entitled Annihilation, what do you think?There’s a lot to like here for fans of the TV show Lost, and those who like to read post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s a creepy monster, and some emotional baggage with the biologist, who has an interesting reason for going on this mission. There are double-crosses, and mysterious lights and noises, and a good old-fashioned shoot-out. While you could argue that VanderMeer is just checking off boxes on a list of sci-fi/horror tropes, he uses them in an interesting way, and I was entertained. I also applaud him for making the Expedition 12 scientists all female. It would have been so easy to make them all male, or to include one token female, but he made this interesting choice and I noticed.Here’s my problem: why haven’t I read the two subsequent volumes of the trilogy: Authority and Acceptance? I finished this months ago, and put off writing about it until I could write about all three at once, but here I am, having not quite ever gotten round to the remaining two books. I think it’s because I feel a tiny bit manipulated, as if this whole thing smacks just a bit too much of clever marketing. Annihiliation is short, at 208 pages (though the two following books are longer). All three were released within 7 months of one another, so VanderMeer clearly had the sequels well in hand when the first was released. Why not wait and release them together as one long book? Why make me pay for three books instead of one? Well, why did Peter Jackson carve The Hobbit up into three movies? Why did someone decide to release the Hunger Games and the Twilight trilogies as four movies? Let’s squeeze as much revenue out of these properties as we can, folks. VanderMeer sold the Annihilation movie rights for a “sizable” amount, according to the Deadline Hollywood website. Who wants to bet that the remaining two books will get nice deals, too, and Acceptance will be released as two films?  If these novels had been released as one book, could VanderMeer have only sold the rights once? (I am just asking and admit to knowing nothing about how these deals work.) It’s the combination of all these factors (the on-trend post-apocalyptic theme, the trilogy, the movie rights) that has me feeling a little bit like a pawn in someone’s media marketing chess game. It’s nice to see an author making some money and I don’t begrudge VanderMeer his opportunity to do so. I know he’s been writing sci-fi for a while and has paid his dues. It just all seems so… calculating. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”I already feel marketed-to in so many areas of my life (what TV shows I watch, products I buy, websites I visit); I don't like it when the same feeling invades my reading. It even makes me worry that VanderMeer’s choice of female protagonists was somehow motivated by a reading survey that indicated that large numbers of female readers enjoy post-apocalyptic trilogies.Look, I know I sound like @GuyinyourMFA, whose hilarious tweets poke fun at the idea that Literature (with a capital L) can only be written with great suffering and angst, and that marketing is anathema to Art. I don’t mean that. But clearly something in me is resisting the cal[...]



The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

2014-12-04T10:11:13.891-08:00

To describe this book is to make it sound awful and off-putting. As Michiko Kakutani pointed out in the New York Times, it’s kind of a Young Adult/Historical Romance mashup. It’s also a coming-of-age novel with an (at times) unsympathetic teenage protagonist and features some disturbing sexual shenanigans between a boarding school headmaster and that teenager. Nevertheless this book is more than just what these descriptions imply, and it’s a very good read.

Thea Atwell has been sent, at age 15, to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, a year-round boarding school in North Carolina. In the 1930’s at the height of the Depression, the camp is a place where well-heeled southern girls ride horses, practice their social skills, and wait to get married. Thea’s parents have installed her at the school against her will, for some transgression that the author spends the rest of the novel slowly revealing, generating at times almost unbearable tension and anxiety.

Thea’s crime, of course, has to do with sex, and a boy. But it’s a lot more complicated than that: The boy in question is her cousin, and an act of violence has left this boy injured to an extent that isn’t fully revealed until quite late in the book. Thus DiSclafani neatly sidesteps the double standard issue of the boy’s culpability and possible consequences, while saddling Thea with some real guilt in addition to the feelings of shame imposed by her family and society for breaking the conduct codes of the time.

Thea is not always likeable, but she is very authentic. Her intelligence and sexual energy (and that of all the girls at the school) cannot be contained or managed in the way the adults in charge think it can and should be. The whole school simmers with hormones and repression. Readers can get kinda sweaty and uncomfortable reading this book, but will also be caught up in the drama.

Is this a Young Adult novel? I don’t think so. Adult readers will be very interested in DiSclafani’s portrayal of Thea’s parents and their motivations, and to the behaviors of all the adults. Despite the heat and the suspense, this is very much a character-driven story, one that moves beyond obvious emotions and easy answers.

(Book 22, 2014)



The Liar's Wife by Mary Gordon

2014-11-07T11:11:31.496-08:00

The Liar’s Wife is a collection of four novellas by Mary Gordon. The novellas are thematically linked in that in each one someone revisits an important past relationship. Sometimes it’s by examining a memory, but in other cases the protagonist is faced with the actual person, as in the story “Simone Weil in New York,” where a young woman encounters her old teacher, Simone Weil, in Central Park.

In this story, Genevieve, the student, is a grown woman with a husband and a baby. As they become reacquainted, she finds Mlle. Weil’s anxieties and eccentricities disturbing, and as evidence of her instability, instead of awe-inspiring signs of her brilliance. Yet ultimately she is not surprised by her own change in perception. I identified with Genevieve’s experience of reexamining her impressions and drawing different conclusions. It’s a universal experience, no?

Two of the novellas feature real-life characters as well as fictional ones: Simone Weil and Thomas Mann, who appears in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” That story highlights Mann's speaking tour of the U.S. in the late 1930’s, where he tried to call attention to the horrors of Nazi Germany to a mostly uninterested U.S. public.

Incorporating a real person into a fictional world introduces a whole subtext that may or may not be accessible to the reader. Note the parallel titles of the two novellas. Would either of these stories have worked the same way if Gordon replaced Weil or Mann with fictional versions of their characters? I wonder. In truth, I preferred the two novellas that had only fictional characters, especially the title story, "The Liar’s Wife," about a woman who receives a midnight visit from her first husband, a man she hasn’t seen in many many years.

Mary Gordon is a Serious Writer. I’ve read most of her earlier novels but have found her more recent stuff harder to get into, as she has turned to nonfiction to explore her relationships with her family and with Catholicism. I was happy to have something new from her that was more like the older stuff I remember reading. But that reflects more on me as a reader than on Gordon as a writer.

(Book 21, 2014)



Alena by Rachel Pastan

2014-10-30T09:08:55.026-07:00

This book is a contemporary retelling of the classic Daphne DuMaurier book Rebecca. I read it because I love Rebecca, and because the author was coming to the Wisconsin Book Festival and I wanted to attend her reading. I also read it because I’m interested in modern retellings of classic novels. Pastan isn't the first to tackle Rebecca; a few years ago I read a book called Daphne, by Justine Picardie, which was a mashup of Rebecca and elements from duMaurier’s life.

The plots of Alena and Rebecca overlap considerably. Rebecca was written in the 1930’s and made into a popular movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. In that novel, a nameless young narrator tells of her marriage to a much older man, Max de Winter, and her life at his home, Manderley, where she lives in the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. Life at Manderley is fraught with anxiety. The servants, especially the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and view the narrator’s arrival with suspicion and hostility. Her attempts to run Manderley are undermined, she is filled with self-doubt, and duMaurier cleverly ratchets ups the tension with each chapter. In a dramatic conclusion, the details of Rebecca’s death emerge and the reader discovers that all is not as it seemed.

In Alena, author Rachel Pastan moves the setting from Cornwall to Cape Cod, thereby retaining the windswept isolation of the original novel. She moves the action to the present day, and gives the unnamed narrator a career – she is now a museum curator, hired by Bernard Augustin, an art collector, to run his contemporary art museum after the mysterious death of the previous curator, Alena. Like Max deWinter, Bernard is alternatingly attentive and remote. The narrator is inexperienced and in over her head. Agnes, the museum’s administrator, stands in for Mrs. Danvers.

I loved the choices Pastan made when she transformed the book to a contemporary setting. It was essential to give the narrator a career, and making her a curator gives Pastan (who works in a museum) a chance to populate the background with contemporary artists both real and imagined. Bernard Augustin is gay; this enables him to have an emotionally intimate relationship with the narrator while removing the marriage element from the story. I didn’t find Agnes to be as menacing as Mrs. Danvers. In Alena she is more of a caricature, in her black dresses and red nail polish – a kind of Cruella De Vil of the art world. My perception of all the characters was of course colored by what I know about Rebecca, and Pastan relies on this to a certain extent, especially when it comes to conjuring up the late Alena.

But do you have to have read Rebecca to read this novel? Absolutely not. It stands alone perfectly. It works as a mystery, as a coming-of-age novel, and as a commentary on the world of contemporary art. Pastan writes elegant prose that honors duMaurier’s work but which also envelops the reader in atmosphere and art.

(Book 20, 2014)



Wisconsin Book Festival Recap

2014-10-24T09:44:43.101-07:00

I love the book festival because I love all things bookish, and I love when people pay attention to books and writers. Here's my recap of the festival, which took place (mostly) this past weekend, October 16-19, in Madison, Wisconsin. Curtis Sittenfeld, Susanna Daniel, Michelle Wildgen, and Mary Kay Zuravleff“What topics do you find difficult or uncomfortable to write about?” That was the question posed to these four writers, and the topic of their panel discussion.Sittenfeld is the popular author of several novels, including Prep, American Wife and Sisterland, all of which I've written about on this blog. I've yet to read books by the other three authors, but plan to do so soon (and have just checked Wildgen's novel Bread and Butter out of the library).So what is the most difficult topic to write about? The obvious answer is sex, though none of these women seemed to express much discomfort with the subject, and Mary Kay Zuravleff read a very funny, sexy excerpt from her novel Man Alive. Apparently Curtis Sittenfeld gives her parents redacted versions of her novels, with the sex scenes excised, and only after it’s too late for them to offer editorial suggestions. The real answer seemed to be injury to or death of a child; all four writers expressed extreme reluctance to investigate that topic. As a reader, I generally avoid books about injured or dead children, so it just seems like a good marketing decision as well. Glad we got that settled.Rachal PastanPastan is the author of Alena, a modern retelling of the Daphne Du Maurier classic novel Rebecca. She is also a former Madisonian who used to write for Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper for which I also write, though we didn’t overlap there. I didn’t know this when I read the book (blog post coming soon). She read from Alena, and told a funny story about the origins of her idea to write this novel: A few years ago she took a new job where she replaced an employee who was extremely competent and much beloved by her staff. Pastan reported that every time she attempted something new, her coworkers would wistfully reminisce about how her predecessor had so expertly handled a similar situation. Readers of Rebecca will understand this reference, and Pastan exploits it beautifully in Alena.Mary GordonI’ve loved Mary Gordon’s books since I first started reading them in the 1980’s. Her 1998 novel Spending remains one of my favorite books of all time. (Here’s a link to a New York Times review of Spending by another of my favorite writers, Hilary Mantel.) In preparation for her talk at the book festival I read her newest book, The Liar’s Wife, which is a collection of four novellas (blog post also coming soon). Gordon chose to read a selection from the novella I liked least in the collection, and the questions after her reading centered around that, which disappointed me. I also felt like the crowd wasn’t as familiar with her work (especially her early work) as I was, and I was frustrated by the lack of depth in the questions. Gordon, too, seemed a little bored, and hurried, though she gave me a nice smile when she signed my book. Maybe book festivals aren’t really her thing. Jordan EllenbergHe went on about math. So does his book; here’s my review/profile at Isthmus. Ellenberg participated in a popular event called Nerd Nite Madison, where nerds get together in a bar and talk nerd stuff while drinking. This month's Nerd Nite was tied in to both the book festival and the Wisconsin Science Festival and was held not in a bar but at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus (though drinking still featured heavily; I might have had a beer). Ann GarvinI reviewed Garvin’s book The Dog Year for Isthmus back in July. It’s a de[...]



The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

2014-10-07T13:09:34.766-07:00

Historical fiction comes in two basic flavors: the kind that teaches you about history as you read it (e.g., The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, 1008 pages about building a 12th century cathedral), and the kind that is more opaque, where the history, while important, is not so spelled out. I like both kinds, but I often get more of a kick out of the second type, especially when the historical details intrigue me enough to go off and read more on my own, later.

The Wives of Los Alamos is definitely in the second category. In spare prose, author TaraShea Nesbit tells the story of the community of scientists and their families who lived and worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the 1940’s, where the scientists developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most of the scientists were civilian men, formerly university professors, many of them with families and children. The U.S. government moved them to New Mexico where they worked for years under top secret conditions. Their families were kept in the dark about the nature of their work, and everyone’s contact with family members and friends from outside the community was strictly monitored. In some cases, where a scientist was well known within the field, names were changed as well. The restricted nature of their lives meant that the women, especially, formed close bonds with one another as they attempted to create a semblance of normal life in the isolated desert community.

Nesbit reinforces the women’s closeness by writing this novel in third person plural, which I thought would bother me, but which didn’t. The wives speak as a group, about their children, the landscape, and the difficulties of being cut off from extended family. They reveal both the petty (whose government- issue house has a coveted bathtub) and the frightening aspects of their lives (what, exactly, are their husbands working on? Something very dangerous.).

Real historical figures inhabit this novel (Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr) but their influence is minimal. It’s not the kind of historical novel where you play “guess who this character is?” It’s more diffuse than that, because of the third person narrative voice and also because it’s mostly about the wives, whose names we don’t know anyway. After I finished reading it I read the Wikipedia articles about the Manhattan Project. On her website, Nesbit recommends another book, The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, which is nonfiction, about the women who worked in the secret Oak Ridge, Tennessee uranium separating plant. Now I want to read that, too.

(Book 19, 2014)



The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

2014-12-12T12:50:17.583-08:00

The Silkworm is J. K. Rowling’s second mystery novel written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and featuring the curmudgeonly detective Cormoran Strike and his clever assistant Robin Ellacott. Strike is hired to find Owen Quine, a missing novelist, and find him he does. Quine is dead--murdered, it turns out, by a grisly method described in Quine's latest (and not yet released) book. The initial list of suspects includes anyone who may have read the manuscript, and this list contains more folks than you might imagine: family members, his agent, his publisher and the office staff, fellow authors, lawyers, etc., many of whom had good reasons to hate Quine, whose capacity to offend was outmatched only by his ego.Who knew there was so much vitriol in the staid world of publishing? Rowling apparently knows. As her characters offer observations on the state of modern literature, book marketing, and fame, it’s hard not to interpret them through this lens. The world that Rowling/Galbraith describes is a hotbed of jealousy, spitefulness, incompetence, greed, and decades-old grudges, all of which seethe under a thin veneer of respectability.While it’s interesting that Rowling brings all this publishing world angst to the novel’s backstory, the real question I’m thinking about is, what makes this book better than the hundreds of other mysteries out there? Or more precisely, why did I like this book (and the first one in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling) better than many other mysteries I’ve read? Here are my reasons, in no particular order:1. Rowling hews to some classic mystery character tropes (an outsider detective and a clever assistant who have some unresolved sexual tension between them) but her skill and experience as a writer elevate them beyond the cliche. Hence Strike and Robin are well-developed, sympathetic characters--Strike is not very good looking or overly macho, and he makes mistakes. Robin is smart and self-motivated, but still learning. She and Strike treat each other like colleagues, despite whatever might be simmering underneath.2. The crime, while gruesome, is not titillating or exploitative. I’m really tired of mysteries that include sexual violence, and The Silkworm is blessedly free of that.3. The book is just not as dark as a lot of current mysteries. Strike, despite his difficulties, remains essentially a hopeful man, and if he has a self-destructive streak, he’s working hard to get it under control. While the publishing industry takes some shots, Rowling avoids the tendency of a lot of modern mystery writers to engage in broad (and usually negative) social commentary. The death of Owen Quine is not viewed as a symptom of some larger social ill and we are not called upon to draw any such conclusions. (That said, this is certainly not a "cozy mystery" where all unpleasantness happens off screen and recipes are interspersed throughout. Not that there's anything wrong with those.)Almost everyone I know is reading Robert Galbraith’s books. The library waiting list for The Silkworm has over 400 people on it, and a few hundred more are still waiting for The Cuckoo’s Calling. For some reason this fact brings me a lot of pleasure.(Book 18, 2014) [...]



The Abundance by Amit Majmudar

2014-09-21T13:08:59.280-07:00

This book held my interest while I was reading it, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it.

It’s about an Indian family in the U.S. The matriarch is dying. Her relationships with her adult children are tenuous, conflicted. It’s old country vs. new country; she is still rooted in India while her children and grandchildren are firmly American. The conflicts play out in food, in approaches to childrearing, and in expectations of attention. The daughter, Mala, a doctor, is an anorexic control freak. The son Ronak works in finance--his most successful relationship is with his iPhone. No one can meet anyone else’s minimal expectations, let alone make anyone else happy.

For a while the mother and daughter attempt to use cooking as a means to connect to one another, as the mother teachers her daughter the family recipes. But even that doesn't really work. While the mother revels in the creativity of cooking, of using food to express love, to evoke memories, and to create sensory experience, Mala treats the whole activity like a science experiment, reducing each recipe to a series of unconnected ingredients and precise measurements, completely missing the point. And her eating disorder provides further subtext throughout the activity--Mala restricts herself to tiny portions of what they make together (insert interpretation of food=love symbolism here). It was all just sad. Is that what the author intended?

I never know what to say about books that are well written but unpleasant. Or, for that matter, how to recommend them. Do you want to read a book about some miserable people who really don't get one another and can't connect at all? Here you go.   

(Book 17, 2014)





One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

2014-09-06T12:16:12.206-07:00

I’ve come to regard books by Jojo Moyes as little treasures, to be indulged in when I need a special treat. When I get a new one I hang on to it for a while before reading it, enjoying the anticipation. (The same is true for J. K. Rowling’s mysteries that she writes under the pen name Robert Galbraith; I'm reading The Silkworm now.) My only problem is that neither writer is cranking out books fast enough to satisfy me. Maybe I could stick them both into a parallel universe where there are more hours in a day, enabling them to produce more books, faster. I’ll have to get right on that.

In One Plus One, Jess is a single mother who is just barely getting by, working as a cleaner and barmaid in a resort community in southern England. She lives in a crappy apartment in public housing, her kids are being bullied at school, and her ex-husband hasn’t sent her a penny in years. In the face of these problems, Jess remains unrelentingly cheerful, buoying everyone along through creative budgeting, hard work, and unflagging optimism.

On the other side of town, where the rich folks have their beach houses, we find software entrepreneur Ed Nicholls, who is hiding out from, well, from everyone. Under investigation for insider trading, Ed is dodging phone calls from his ex-wife, his ex-business partner, his lawyer, and his sister, and sinking further and further into self pity.

Jess cleans Ed’s house, and she waits on him at the bar. She finds him arrogant and rude; he barely registers her existence. But through a series of events too complicated to get into here, Ed ends up driving Jess and her kids to Scotland so that Jess’s daughter Tanzie can compete in a math competition. It’s Jess’s last desperate attempt to get Tanzie, a math whiz, out of the local school and into a safer place where her skills can be nurtured. It’s this road trip (complete with a huge flatulent dog) that takes up the lion’s share of the book, and where of course, Jess and Ed fall in love.

Nothing in this book is as simple as it sounds here though. Moyes can sketch out a character in a few telling lines, and provide unexpected richness and depth to simple situations. She’s really a great writer and this book works on a lot of different levels: as a love story, a modern family drama, and an investigation of entrenched class differences in modern Britain.

The trickiest thing she does is to make Ed sympathetic. He transitions from a clueless self-absorbed whiner into a man who takes responsibility for his poor decisions and moves forward with insight and compassion. My favorite part of the book is where Ed dismisses £50 as “nothing” and Tanzie schools him on all the things that her family can buy with that amount of nothing (the school lunches, bus fare, and other expenses that Jess sweats every day). A lazier novelist would have been content to make Ed the knight in shining armor who rescues Jess from poverty. In this book the person who really gets rescued is Ed.

(Book 16, 2014)



The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

2014-09-06T12:16:38.768-07:00

This is a big sprawling book that reads like classic literature. In fact, maybe someday it will be classic literature. Elizabeth Gilbert has written an old-fashioned historical novel that has more in common with works by Rebecca Stott (Ghostwalk) and Andrea Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwhal) than it does with Gilbert’s most famous work to date, her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.The title refers to German mystic Jakob Bohme’s belief that every object in the natural world contains some hidden meaning, put there by God to help people make sense of the universe. And indeed, this book’s protagonist Alma Whittaker, is searching for meaning. But she’s not waiting to hear it from God; she’s going to try to figure it out for herself. Alma has very little time for God and a lot of time for scientific analysis, specifically botany. And human nature. And world exploration. All of which she engages in over the course of her long life.Alma is the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia botanist and plant collector Henry Whittaker, who makes his fortune developing a method for manufacturing quinine, and whose story takes up the first quarter of the book. Henry and his Dutch wife have unorthodox ideas about women’s education (the book is set in the late 18th and early-mid 19th centuries) and they train Alma to manage their vast pharmaceutical empire, botanical collections, and gardens.Considered physically unattractive (tall, big-boned, with unmanageable hair), Alma eschews traditional women’s pursuits and spends her time at her parents’ sides learning both business and science. She devotes years to studying various plants before happily settling on mosses (bryology) and becomes the world’s leading expert in this field. (Note: historians tell us that botany was actually rife with women scientists in the 19th century as it required little more than a notebook, pencil, magnifying glass, and long walks in the woods, all of which were more available to women than, say, a laboratory filled with chemicals or a surgery for dissecting things.)Tragic events, including a failed love affair and her father’s death, upend Alma and force her to step outside her tiny moss world and embark on her quest for meaning in the universe. This section of the book (especially the long middle section about her voyage to Tahiti) reminded me of those books by Victorian women travel writers like Isabella Bird, who stoically endured shockingly harsh conditions aboard 19th century sailing vessels and lived rough among the natives. Alma’s journey echoes her father’s earlier explorations, but while he was singled-mindedly focused on plants, Alma remains open to discoveries about all aspects of the world and about herself. And it’s while she’s in Tahiti that she hits upon her own theory of the signature of all things, the pursuit of which takes up the final part of the book.What a great novel! Carefully researched, ranging among a huge variety of historical and scientific topics, and intensely personal, this book is unique and delightful.(Book 15, 2014) [...]



Wake by Anna Hope

2014-08-05T16:30:21.017-07:00

Wake tells several stories at once, some very personal, and some public. Set in England in the years immediately following World War I, it follows several characters whose worlds intersect, and uses a real-life event as an anchoring device to bring the stories together.

Running throughout Wake is an account of the 1920 state funeral of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in London. Author Anna Hope follows the anonymous soldier’s body from its exhumation from an unmarked grave in France, to its burial alongside kings on November 11, 1920. Hope’s report is well researched and well told. As we know, the British excel at pageantry and they pulled out all the stops for this event, providing the poor unknown soldier with a battleship escort on the journey from France, and a Field Marshall’s funeral, complete with a 19 gun salute.

Intertwined with this narrative are several fictional stories of women who could be the wives, mothers, or sisters of the unknown warrior, and the men who escaped that fate, but whose lives were nevertheless ruined by their experiences in the war. Their tales are dark and brutal and the women, especially, rail against the futility of their losses. The funeral of the unknown warrior was in part designed to help British citizens start to heal; this book shows how impossible that process was for many people, and how little the men in charge understood that. This book is extremely sad, but it's beautifully written and very moving. Don't be put off by the topic--Hope's characters are compelling and I love how she mixed the fiction with the nonfiction.

I’ve read a lot of Second World War fiction, but not as much about the First World War. A lot of World War II fiction focuses on the victims of the war—on those oppressed by the Nazis or on the civilians who were collateral damage. But it seems to me like World War I fiction often focuses more on the soldiers themselves. Wake joins books like My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by Louisa Young, the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, and even the Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd in identifying the soldiers themselves as primary victims. Wake especially continues this approach.

(Book 14, 2014)



The Dog Year by Ann Garvin

2014-07-28T12:27:30.398-07:00

I had the pleasure of reviewing this for Isthmus. The article is here. Enjoy!


(Book 13, 2014)





Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison

2014-07-15T08:02:05.886-07:00

I read this book because I'm interested in fanfiction as a literary trend. I was hoping for a coherent discussion of why fanfiction is so derided while at the same time it is increasing in popularity. I wanted to read about the gender issues surrounding fanfiction – the fact that it is mostly written by and read by women. And I wanted to read about the porous boundaries between fanfiction and mainstream fiction like Longbourn, which is a new original novel that uses characters and settings from Pride and Prejudice (but which no reviewer described as fanfiction, despite its obvious connections).

But I didn’t get any of that in this book. Instead, I got a scholarly history of fanfiction and a snapshot of the current state of the art, especially the role of fanfiction within the larger world of fandom. An English professor at the University of Utah, author Anne Jamison has read and written fanfiction for years, as have most of the book’s other contributors (of which there are several). Her enthusiasm for her topic, however, in some ways prevents her from delivering me the answers I wanted; Jamison and the other authors are too close to the subject to give it an objective analysis and they consider the appeal (and the legitimacy) of fanfiction to be self-evident. Jamison does not address the gender issues, and swiftly dismisses the idea that writing fanfiction is “playing in someone else’s sandbox.” She says that writing is writing. I tend to agree.

But nevertheless, I enjoyed this book, albeit slowly. I’d love to recommend it to other fanfiction readers but unfortunately I can barely find anyone I know who will admit to reading it. Part of me wants to write a spirited defense of fanfiction here, and address those issues that Jamison didn’t. Another part of me thinks it’s not worth my time. Either you are open-minded about it or you aren’t. I have read fanfiction written by anonymous amateurs that moved me to tears, and award winning literary novels that bored me to tears. Remember, there are no reading police. If you think reading new stories about Harry and Ron sounds like it could be fun, well so do hundreds of thousands of other people. Why not join them?

(Book 12, 2014)



Outlander and American Gods: Books to TV

2014-07-06T14:15:23.000-07:00

I was really thrilled to read the news that Starz (the U.S. premium cable network) is developing a show based on the Neil Gaiman book American Gods. I loved that book and think it will make a great series. It melds mythology, fantasy, and social criticism to great effect--here’s my blog post about it. Apparently the project has been kicking around for a while, with HBO working on it at one point before handing it off to Starz. I admit to being pretty vague on how these deals transpire, and I don’t really care how they get done, as long as someone good is in charge and we eventually get to see a show. As of yet I could find no dates for when it might air.Starz is also developing a miniseries based on Outlander, the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. These genre-bending books are set (mostly) in the 18th century, first in Scotland and later in the U.S., and they combine an epic romance and time travel with traditional historical fiction. Back before I had this blog I read the first four books in the series (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn) but then lost steam. The eighth book just came out and the show premiers in August, 2014. Here's a link to the Starz website where you can watch a couple of trailers and see photos of the actors and locations.Author Gabaldon is closely involved in the show’s production, and the showrunner is Ron Moore, who produced the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I have really high hopes for this series. Moore knows how to make immersive television and he’s a feminist, which I find reassuring, given that these books (especially the earlier ones) can be troublesome in the way they deal with domestic violence and rape. Let’s hope he can steer clear of some of the issues that have plagued the Game of Thrones TV adaptation.Both Outlander and American Gods have huge installed fan bases, so the pressure is on to do these well. I know some Outlander fans who are very nervous and not sure if they will even watch. Interestingly, a trailer on the Starz website addresses this concern head on, with both Moore and Catriona Balfe (Claire) promising not to screw it up.As for myself, I have been really satisfied with recent book-to-TV adaptations (Game of Thrones and Case Histories come to mind as successful adaptions of books that I loved), and I really enjoyed the Starz version of The White Queen that I watched last year. I love good stories no matter how they are delivered: via books, television, plays, or movies, so I’m just happy to get more of them. [...]



Longbourn by Jo Baker

2014-06-23T07:22:58.766-07:00

Longbourn is a down-at-the-heels understaffed house in 19th century England, where you are more likely to get pigshit on your shoes than to meet a nobleman. The fact that Longbourn is the home of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice is hardly mentioned, and the few Bennet family members who do appear in the book do so peripherally and mostly unsympathetically. Instead, this book focuses on the Longbourn servants, especially Sarah the housemaid, and James, the footman.Usually I avoid the Jane Austen extended universe: the sequels and prequels, the mashups, the secret diaries, the mysteries, and the modern-day retelllings. But I was interested in Longbourn because it focused on the servants, and not on the traditional cast of P&P. It also was clearly NOT a romance. I like my historical fiction with some grit and it sounded like this book had it.An orphan taken in by the Bennet family housekeeper, Sarah works grueling hours in harsh circumstances. Baker makes sure we know about Sarah’s painful chilblains, her ill-fitting boots, and what time she gets up to lay the fires every day. Baker also introduces the rest of the servants, who, like all good literary characters, have secrets and agendas of their own. Both Sarah and James dream of better lives but the societal and economic restrictions they face limit their choices. James has also spent time in the army and Baker revisits his years fighting in Spain, a section of the book I read with increasing horror but which ultimately adds to the novel’s depth.I loved the way Baker was able to use some of the plot elements from Pride and Prejudice to her own different effect. P&P readers will remember that Longbourn is entailed; it can only be inherited by a male relative, Mr. Collins, a distant cousin of the Bennet girls. This uncertainty, far from being confined to the Bennet family, drives action in the servants’ hall as well, as the housekeeper worries that the new heir will want to replace the existing staff with all new people, as would be his right. Her very real fears that she and her elderly husband could be cast adrift, just as they are too old to find new positions, keep her awake at night and scrambling to impress Mr. Collins when he visits Longbourn. I enjoyed revisiting these familiar situations from a different angle, but readers who don’t remember every detail of P&P will have no trouble getting the point.Let’s talk about repurposing these characters and plot elements some more, shall we? Is Longbourn fanfiction? If not, why not? Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, by Ann Jamison. Next week I’ll write a blog post about that, and how it relates to Longbourn.I’m also moderately interested in a batch of new additions to the Austen extended universe—The Austen Project. HarperCollins has commissioned six bestselling contemporary authors to write modern retellings of Austen’s six full-length novels. What attracts me to this project is the authors themselves. I skipped the first release, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, but I’m planning to read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, whose crime writing is just so fierce, and I’m also interested in Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice, which comes out this fall. The literary press has been lukewarm about The Austen Project. I especially can’t figure out this review from the Guardian,  where Robert McCrum seems to be saying that McDermid did a g[...]



How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

2014-06-13T11:47:52.783-07:00

How Not to be Wrong is a collection of essays about math and popular culture by Jordan Ellenberg, author of the popular Slate column Do the Math. I wrote a profile of Ellenberg for Isthmus, and here's a bit of what I said about the book:

How Not to Be Wrong isn't just for math geeks. Ellenberg's writing is accessible and friendly. In one chapter, he deconstructs the methods several MIT students used to scam the Massachusetts State Lottery. In another, called "Dead Fish Don't Read Minds," he examines the ways scientific data are analyzed, vetted and reported. This essay made me doubt everything I thought I knew about the reliability of scientific reporting.

That is exactly Ellenberg's goal. Armed with an understanding of the math behind things like new obesity studies and unemployment reports, you can draw your own conclusions. You will no longer be constrained by others' interpretations. If you do your own math, you won't be misled.

Here's a link to the full profile on The Daily Page, the online edition of Isthmus.

(Book 10, 2014)







For Books' Sake

2014-06-05T19:56:58.551-07:00

I've recently started contributing to For Books' Sake, a popular website dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by women. I've been reading this site avidly for a while, and am thrilled to be able to join this talented group of writers.

For Books' Sake was founded in 2010, in part to address the imbalance in coverage of books by women in the mainstream media. It publishes book reviews, feature articles, and news coverage of women authors, and sponsors literary events in the UK, where the site's founders are based.

My first post for them went up today. It's a celebration of Margaret Drabble, one of my favorite writers, on the occasion of her 75th birthday. You can read it here.




We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

2014-06-02T18:33:14.181-07:00

It’s hard to write about this book without revealing spoilers. If you are considering reading it, I recommend you stop reading this post and go get the book right away, before you accidentally discover the secret. Diving into it without knowing the central conceit will be a good adventure and I envy you the pleasure. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Okay, off you go… bye!

Everyone else—In We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary and Fern are adopted sisters, raised together from infancy through age 5, when they are suddenly irrevocably separated. Rosemary spends the rest of her childhood mourning Fern’s loss and her young adult years tracking Fern down. She struggles to adapt to life without Fern and rails against her parents whose involvement in Fern’s disappearance baffles, then haunts Rosemary.

Here’s the thing: Rosemary is a girl but Fern is a chimpanzee, a fact that Fowler doesn’t reveal until about a third of the way through the book. Both Rosemary and Fern are test subjects in an experiment run by Rosemary’s father, a behavioral scientist. For their first five years, Rosemary and Fern are happily cared for by their parents and a slew of graduate students, their every move documented, their development celebrated and recorded at every turn. However, for reasons that unfold in the story, the experiment goes awry and Fern must be sent away, leaving the research project in shambles, and the entire family far more damaged than anyone thought possible. Rosemary’s mother retreats into serious depression, her father into alcohol, her brother becomes a fugitive animal rights activist, and Rosemary herself must navigate through life never sure whether her instincts are human or chimpanzee.

The novel’s complex structure of present-day narration combined with flashbacks adds suspense and makes the big reveal very satisfying, even if you already know it in advance, which I did. It was hard to avoid--this book got a lot of press when it came out last year and recently won the 2014 Pen/Faulkner award.

While it has a political subtext, the book is, at heart, a very personal story about relationships, loss, love, and what it means to be human. Fowler was inspired by several well-known cases of chimps raised in human families but has added her own spin. Politically, she walks a fine line, managing to avoid vilifying Rosemary’s father while still coming down firmly on the side of the animal rights folks. She has clearly done her research. It’s tricky subject matter and Fowler never puts a foot wrong. I was really delighted by this book, even when it was sad and heartbreaking.

(Book 9, 2014)