19 October 2014

#Readathon Wrap-Up Fall 2014

Hello all!

Just a short Readathon wrap-up post!

I didn't get as much read this time around as I have in past years (the total page count is a bit down) due to work and I just couldn't get that "reading groove" going.

But I did finish four books and start a fifth:









So that's 992 pages and I read for 10 hours and 41 minutes total.  That's still really good!!

Thanks to all the organizers at Dewey's Readathon and I'll be ready to read-it-up in the spring!

18 October 2014

It's time for #Readathon! Dewey's 24-hr Readathon Fall 2014 edition

It's October and that means Readathon!  I'll be reading most of today, Saturday, October 18, except for the 12-6 block because I have to work at the bookstore.  Boo.

But I have a nice stack of books:

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe
Age of License by Lucy Knisley
People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann
The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
Field Notes on Democracy by Arundhati Roy
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by AS King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
California by Edan Lepucki
On the nook: Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt and Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
On the iPad: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett, The Human Body by Paulo Giordano, and a DRC that I kind of can't tell you I have (but it will be amazing!!!)

(I made a video of my stack and a few readathon tips for my BookTube channel if you want to watch)

In a goofy departure from my norm, most of my stack is comprised of library books and DRCs.  Go figure.

Righty-ho, then.  My coffee will be brewing, my scones are baked, my brownies are baked, my Excel spreadsheet is ready, and with any luck I will be awake for the kick-off at 7am CDT.

But if I'm not, my post will be up then.  Haha.

Get ready, get set, READ!!

13 August 2014

Unboxing Riot Read #2!

I recently joined the "book-tube" community.  Yeah, I'm a little behind the curve on that, but I decided to make an unboxing video for the Riot Read #2.  Enjoy!



09 July 2014

The Hundred-Year House

Summary from Goodreads:
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.

In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.

Old houses seem to have a life of their own.  Laurelfield, the crumbling Chicago estate of an estranged offshoot of the Canadian Devohr family is no different.  The Devohrs seem to be a cursed line, plagued with suicides and mysterious deaths.  The last of the Devohrs are Gracie and her daughter Zee, born Zilla. Zee has returned home (reluctantly) to teach at the local college.  She and her husband Doug live in the Laurelfield carriage house, soon shared by another couple Case and Miriam, Zee's step-brother and his wife.  Things seem fairly orderly: Zee will teach (and try to get Doug hired at the college) and Doug will finish his monograph of Edwin Parfitt.

Then things start to go weirdly wrong.  Zee is obsessed with forcing out her elderly colleague, then imagines Doug and Miriam are having an affair. An old dress re-appears in a wrong place.  Doug writes and writes but not on his monograph - he is ghost-writing Baby-sitters' Club-type books.  Case suffers a series of accidents.  Gracie becomes fanatical about guarding the arts colony files from Doug.  Bruce begins hoarding supplies to survive the Y2K meltdown.  Is the house causing all these things to happen?  The ghost of Violet Devohr?

As the wheels begin to come off normality we find that the characters wear their identities like cloaks, one under the other, much like the history of the house reveals that it has been a home, a prison, and a haven of creativity.  Lies are created and lies are uncovered.  Relationships are made and broken.  At the end of each section we step through a doorway in time as the house sheds another layer to let us out into another one of its secrets.  It's a bit like a counter-part to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  How much crazy is lent by the environment and how much is lent by the inhabitants?

Makkai's progression through Laurelfield's history is very interesting.  A reverse first-half of Cloud Atlas, if you will.  I only have one very minor bone to pick and that has to do with a very short (perhaps 10 pages) section where Makkai does a very neat wrap-up of all the previous characters' lives.  It's redundant, in my opinion, because readers who pay attention have already pegged what happened, it pulls you out of the established narrative of the book just before you get the very last bit of information that you need.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai is available from Viking Adult on July 10.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via the Penguin First to Read program.

01 July 2014

One Plus One

Summary from Goodreads:
American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted stateside, she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation, Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story that reads like a modern-day Two for the Road.

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

Confession time: I have yet to finish Jojo Moyes's Me Before You.  I'm about halfway through and I'm absolutely terrified of the ending because I'm not sure if I will "like" the ending as a critical reader or whether it will feel trite and manipulative and then I'll be ragingly annoyed.  There is a level of social realism in Moyes's writing that conveys an "anything might happen" situation.  So there was a bit of trepidation when I put in my name for a Penguin First to Read DRC of One Plus One and got lucky in the drawing.  Would I like it?  And, more importantly, could I finish it?

The above blurb doesn't quite do One Plus One justice because it gives a sense of zaniness or a madcap adventure.  And while there are moments of levity and goofy circumstances, this is not a funny rom-com where people dash all over England and Scotland in attempt to get a special child to a contest that she is guaranteed to win and a Happy Ending For All.

No.

Jess is a single mother living on a council estate where she works two low-paying jobs (bartending and cleaning houses) to try and juggle the bills so that she and the kids can eat, pay rent and utilities, and have a bit leftover to take care of the dog and maybe have a small treat now and then.  She is ever the optimist, believing that being a good person and constantly working hard will bring rewards (she even avoids nagging her husband who, two years ago, went to live with his mother in what sounds like a bout of severe depression).  Her current desire is to get the hell out of that council estate because Nicky (her stepson) is being terrorized by a local crowd of bullies who have so terrified the neighborhood that witnesses to the abuse evaporate, even when an attack lands Nicky in the hospital.  If Nicky is beaten for being different (a little alternative, maybe a little glam, a good kid) what will happen to eight-year-old mathematics prodigy Tanzie when she gets to the same school?

Ed, though he works hard, grew up in a solidly middle-class family, went to a good school, and recently sold the software he created with his best friend to make a mint.  He had it all - until he made a spectacularly bad decision in giving an annoying booty call some "financial advice" (caveat: it's the Queen Bee from college that nerdy Ed couldn't ever hope to be with and he got played).  Now he's being investigated for insider trading, ostracized from work, and isolated at his beach house.

Jess is his house cleaner.  Later, he vaguely recognizes her at the pub when she calls him on being a jerk.  Through a series of plot machinations - chiefly, Tanzie's ability in maths, her acceptance at an elite school, Jess's desperation to cover the remaining ~2,000£ with a series of poorly thought out bad decisions, and a Maths Olympiad prize that could cover the amount and then some - Ed offers to drive Jess, Nicky, Tanzie, and Norman (the family's very large, drooly, smelly dog) to Scotland for the maths competition.

And this is where Moyes's social realism brings the issues of income and social class to a head.  Ed literally cannot wrap his head around why Jess makes sandwiches, avoids incurring expenses, and insists on paying him back.  When she says that he is rich, he demurs.  He describes the banking software he sold as costing the average person less than a penny per transaction (it sounds vaguely like a universal PayPal something or other); when Jess asks Tanzie to do the addition it comes out to over 100£ per year.  Ed protests that this is a rather paltry sum but Tanzie reels off exactly, almost to the penny, how much food and clothing the family could buy and how much Jess could stretch that amount for a family of three.

This conversation is one of the significant points in the book.  It illustrates how much the system makes a family like Jess's work for every little good thing.  That even in the face of the family's financial hardship the school that could save Tanzie thinks that a 90% scholarship is enough and that surely Jess could just fork over 2,000£.  The hidden shame that Jess makes all of Tanzie's clothes rather than buy them.  That the police can hardly be bothered when Nicky is hospitalized.  That Ed doesn't realize 100£ dribbled out over the course of a year could take a family from poor to destitute.  Tanzie's list of much needed items, a very pedestrian list to someone like me who, although I have bills and debts, doesn't have to worry about choosing between paying for the next meal or paying the rent, reads like a calorie count of food items recited by an anorectic.  Each strange set-back on the trip - motion sickness, food poisoning, Tanzie's broken glasses - seems like another brick in a wall meant to keep the lower classes low.  Even the maths competition is not the rewarding experience that is promised.

Alongside the issues of money and class, Moyes's also pulls bullying, cyberbullying, the ostracism of females who excel at STEM fields (I don't have a tidy word for that - it's feminism but that doesn't seem to fit right), slut shaming, and deadbeat dads into the mix.  Jess and Ed each make really stupid decisions, then regret them.  Nicky thinks that ignoring his problem will make it go away.  Even Tanzie makes a decision that could have disastrous consequences.  I was moved to tears at one point when Nicky discovers that the kindness of strangers is a real, true thing.  This is a novel about people who live real, messy lives and don't have the luxury of waiting for things to happen.  They grab onto their opportunities with both hands and if the ending isn't Happily Ever After it is certainly Happier and More Secure Than We Were.

Jojo Moyes's One Plus One is out today from Pamela Dorman Books.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via Penguin's First to Read program.

26 June 2014

Everything I Never Told You

Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

The first lines of this debut novel are so eye-catching: "Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet."  It just pulls the reader into the world of the Lees, a biracial Chinese-American family in college-town Ohio in the 1970s.  Lydia was her parents' bright star, the fulfillment of all their dreams of success and acceptance.  Nath and Hannah have been shunted aside. Nath's dreams of astronomy and space flight regarded as a passing fancy, Hannah's dreams unformed but she is more observer than observed.

The narrative unspools both forward and backward from this first line in perfectly placed words.  James and Marilyn break the racial lines (and possibly an ethical line which is echoed later in the book) by first falling in love, then marrying.  James gains a professorship teaching about the representation of the "cowboy" in American culture.  Marilyn gives up her academic dreams to become a mother.   Lydia carefully crafted the image of the perfect daughter - popular, brilliant, and successful - and it became her cage.  Nath is accepted to Harvard yet still yearns for the approval from his parents; his frustration is unleashed on bad-boy Jack who knows more than he is letting on about Lydia's death.  Hannah hoards the little items pilfered from each family member that together tell a much different story than what her family thinks they each know.

This is the heart of the novel: the secrets and lies, everything that went unspoken and wrongly assumed.  The Lees are so busy being the perfect American family they never actually listen or see each other as imperfect humans.  Race as an issue is suppressed within the family but it haunts each member.  James's students walked out of his lecture at the realization he is Chinese no matter that he turned his back on his culture in an effort to fit into white America, the children are taunted at the local pool (the Marco Polo scene is heartbreaking), and James and Marilyn themselves never discuss how to deal with racists.  Gender issues are also largely ignored.  When Marilyn attempts to work part-time as a research assistant, which is possible given her chemistry background, James worries that it will look bad for his tenure application. Marilyn later breaks and leaves her family in an attempt to finish her degree but when she returns there is no acknowledgement that she needs an intellectual outlet.  Everything, all the hopes and dreams, are transferred to Lydia. Lock, stock, and barrel.  Even though Ng set Everything I Never Told You in 1977 it is so relevant to today with the pressure on students to be perfect, the gender imbalance in STEM subjects, and the racial issues that divide America to this day.

Everything I Never Told You is available on June 26 - which is today!  Definitely a recommended buy.  Take it with you on vacation, the beach, between innings at ballgames, everywhere.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via a Goodreads Giveaway.

24 June 2014

To Marry a Scottish Laird (An English Bride in Scotland #2)

Summary from Goodreads:

New York Times bestselling author Lynsay Sands returns to the Highlands of Scotland in her hottest new historical romance yet!

Highlander Campbell Sinclair is no stranger to battle, so when he sees a lad attacked by bandits, he jumps into the fray. He didn't count on being stabbed. Grateful to the boy for nursing him back to health, Cam offers to accompany Jo safely to his destination. But when he accidentally comes across the lad bathing in the river, Cam discovers that Jo is actually Joan...with the most sinful of curves.

Joan promised her mother that she would deliver a scroll to the clan MacKay. But traveling alone is dangerous, even disguised as a boy. When a Scottish warrior lends his aid, she is more than relieved...until he surprises her with lingering kisses and caresses that prove her disguise hasn't fooled him. As their passion ignites, will the secrets of the scroll force a wedding...and lead to a love she's never known?

Hot, kilted man rescues a boy. Boy turns out to be an attractively-shaped woman. Man and woman have lots of (hot) sex. Plot causes them to marry. Things get crazy with jealousy, murder, and lies to get in the way of happily ever after.

Thus, we have a Lynsay Sands historical set in the Scottish Highlands (it’s not a spoiler that there’s a marriage – but why the marriage comes about is so I’m going to avoid that bit). These are my favorite Sands historicals. Do I think these are the best-written historicals? No, the language and vocabulary are full of anachronisms (i.e. “great” is used in its modern form), but the plots are fun and To Marry a Scottish Laird seems to borrow much less from her previous books (unlike An English Bride in Scotland which has bits from many of her previous books). Cam and Joan are interesting characters who are both disillusioned with the practicalities of having children: Cam’s first wife died in childbirth so he does not want to put a woman through that again and Joan has seen enough women die in childbirth that she never wants to have children herself. They are both agreed that they will avoid having children (Cam has brothers so it’s not like the Sinclair clan won’t have any heirs). Now, the way this detente is resolved isn’t quite the best-plotted idea and is actually skipped in the narrative so we miss out on our hero and heroine working out this problem. But Cam and Joan are very sweet together and I liked them very much. The Sinclair and MacKay families are both a riot. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book were scenes with Annabel and Ross from An English Bride in Scotland who are now 20 years older and still themselves. I would have liked to see Joan demonstrate more of her healing skills as the book went on – we are told she’s a very good healer, and the other characters are told that she’s a very good healer, but after she treats Cam there aren’t any other chances for Joan to show those skills.

23 June 2014

Elegy on Kinderklavier

Summary from Goodreads:
The stories in Elegy on Kinderklavier explore the profound loss and intricate effects of war on lives that have been suddenly misaligned. A diplomat navigates a hostile political climate and an arranged marriage in an Israeli settlement on a newly discovered planet; a small town in Kansas shuns the army recruiter who signed up its boys as troops are deployed to Iraq, falling in helicopters and on grenades; a family dissolves around mental illness and a child's body overtaken by cancer. The moment a soldier steps on an explosive device is painfully reproduced, nanosecond by nanosecond. Arna Bontemps Hemenway's stories feel pulled out of time and place, and the suffering of his characters seem at once otherworldly and stunningly familiar. Elegy on Kinderklavier is a disquieting exploration of what it is to lose and be lost.

During the Twitter flurry that is BEA-when-you're-too-broke-to-actually-go-to-New-York a stray title in an RT caught my eye: Elegy on Kinderklavier.  Huh.  So I trotted over to opened a new tab in my browser for Edelweiss and looked up the title.  Interesting thing 1) it's a short fiction collection from a small press, Sarabande Books.  Interesting thing 2) the author is both an Iowa Writers' Workshop grad and is apparently currently teaching here, so he's sort of a local.  I'll bite - and I requested the DRC from the publisher.

These are not happy stories nor are they very short. They are not absurd or funny.  These are stories about people down in the shit.  They are soldiers with PTSD, a trio of Kurdish friends injured in a stray bombing, an African man with a repressed love for the white, dying son of an American businessman, a group of schoolchildren with repressed rage for the local Army recruiter, Jewish settlers in an un-Earthly settlement, and a father watching his child die.  Each story is a lamentation for not just those who have died but for those who can't escape the memory of their dead and dying.

There are two stand-out stories in this collection.  The third story, "The IED", is a stream-of-conscious look at man's last moments as he realizes that he has stepped on an IED and cannot stop the motion of his foot and leg.  Thoughts flash through his mind.
The hinge of the cuneiform bone (beautiful term) extending into the gentle metatarsal has predetermined Abrams' fate.  The application to the ground of the plantar fascia (horrible term) may not be stopped.  (p 63)
Beautiful.

The final piece in the collection is the title story, "Elegy on Kinderklavier."  It is a heart-breaking examination of a father and mother caught in the horrible whirlpool of their child's illness.  One parent stays the course, the other parent must leave when watching a child die becomes unbearable.  In a strange way, there is no judgement of either parent, just a reckoning of how these two people came together, made a child, and are each dealing with the stress of terminal illness.

Elegy on Kinderklavier will be available for purchase July 15 - it's already been selected as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2014 Discover Great New Writers Selection so check in the Discover Bay in July.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

16 June 2014

Ulysses and Us

Summary from Goodreads:
Declan Kiberd, a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at the University College Dublin, offers an audacious new take on Joyce's classic novel. Ulysses, he argues, is a work written for and about the common person, offering a humane vision of a more tolerant and decent life in the modern world. In this passionate corrective to the widespread view of Ulysses as an esoteric tome for the scholarly few, Kiberd dispells the aura of academic mystique that has attached itself to the novel, opening our eyes to Ulysses as a celebration of the everyday and a model for living well in an unpredictable world.

I did it!  I finally finished this!  Whee! 

I gave up the idea of reading Ulysses and Us concurrently with Ulysses because, pfffft, that was really not happening.  Also, the cats did that thing where they knock the book down behind the furniture and I don't find it for a few years.

This is a very readable guide to Joyce's Ulysses.  It does make that work of high-modernism seem accessible (I read this in the hopes that by understanding some of the themes I can work on the language).

14 June 2014

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto creates a resonant portrait of a life in this collection of writings on love, friendship, work, and art.

"The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living."

So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to—the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun. Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up. Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.

These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life. Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable—scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel—are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will. The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn't capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.

An irresistible blend of literature and memoir, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a unique examination of the heart, mind, and soul of one of our most revered and gifted writers.

Ann Patchett isn't an author I gravitate to.  It took two tries for me to get through Bel Canto (ultimately, I loved it) and I don't think I would have picked up State of Wonder if it hadn't been a BNBC Literature by Women pick.  For whatever reason, her subjects or blurbs don't catch my eye.  However, she is a fantastic putter-together of sentences.  When I kept getting recs for her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage I decided I'd give it a try. 

This is an excellent book of essays with subjects ranging from her childhood to her second marriage (that first marriage - whoa, weirdness).  My favorite essay dealt with the zoo surrounding Clemson's selection of her first memoir, Truth and Beauty as an all-freshman read (because wow, we shouldn't introduce college freshmen to adult concepts ever) and it including the convocation address she gave that fall.  Patchett has a good style, glad I picked this up.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from the library.

12 June 2014

The Most Dangerous Book

Summary from Goodreads:
For more than a decade, the book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was illegal to own, sell, advertise or purchase in most of the English-speaking world. James Joyce’s big blue book, Ulysses, ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time. But the genius of Ulysses was also its danger: it omitted absolutely nothing. All of the minutiae of Leopold Bloom’s day, including its unspeakable details, unfold with careful precision in its pages. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned the novel as �obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” Joyce, along with some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win the freedom to publish it. The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.

Literary historian Kevin Birmingham follows Joyce’s years as a young writer, his feverish work on his literary masterpiece, and his ardent love affair with Nora Barnacle, the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora socialized with literary greats like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Beach. Their support helped Joyce fight an array of anti-vice crusaders while his book was disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain. The long struggle for publication added to the growing pressures of Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, finances and home life.

Salvation finally came from the partnership of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a dogged civil liberties lawyer. With their stewardship, the case ultimately rested on the literary merit of Joyce’s master work. The sixty-year-old judicial practices governing obscenity in the United States were overturned because a federal judge could get inside Molly Bloom’s head.

Birmingham’s archival work brings to light new information about both Joyce and the story surrounding Ulysses. Written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century, The Most Dangerous Book is a gripping examination of how the world came to say yes to Ulysses.

Full confession time: I have not actually read the entirety of James Joyce's Ulysses.  I know, right?  Trust me, I chip away at it every year but my fast-reading brain just cries every time I make it read Ulysses because it's like reading a foreign language (to me).  It lasts about 4 pages before rebelling and going wandering for a book that actually reads like proper English.  I'll grab my copy of Ulysses on Bloomsday next week, along with one of the many guidebooks/keys that I've accumulated, and get a bit further in the novel.  I actually know what's going on in all the episodes of Ulysses because I've read all those guides - I haven't decided if that's good or bad yet.

Which brings me to The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham.  Ulysses has what is likely the most infamous publication history of any modern novel.  Joyce wrote or re-wrote much of the book while enduring horrible pain from eye disease.  The book was banned before even completed in both the UK and the US simply on the basis of the parts published in periodicals.  Multiple court cases regarding the publication of such an "obscene" work.  Birmingham took all the material - personal letters, legal briefs, manuscripts, etc. - and turned out a really solid, readable look at the publishing history of a (very) divisive book.  Wherever you fall on the Ulysses continuum (from "this is amazing and groundbreaking" to "this is puerile garbage" ) it's worth a read to understand how government-sanctioned censorship came about and how it began to recede.

Do you have to have read Ulysses to understand The Most Dangerous Book?  Nope.  As long as you know the basic summaries for Homer's The Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses you're good because Birmingham explains the salient parts.  He provides a little bit of Joyce biography (if you're squeamish about eyeballs, there are a few descriptions of Joyce's harrowing eye surgeries, ow ow ow), a little bit of literary criticism, a little bit US Law history regarding the origin of the obscenity laws, and snippets of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Dubliners (just one of Finnegan's Wake).  Read it to find out why one of our most sacred rights in the United States - the right to Freedom of Speech - was not used to defend or protect material some high-moral muck-a-muck decided was "obscene."  It brought to mind the articles I read about book challenges at schools and libraries because some of the rhetoric hasn't changed in almost 80 years.

My only complaint about The Most Dangerous Book is that the narrative feels a bit unfinished at the end - what happened to Miss Weaver after the British government stopped banning Ulysses? What did the Ulysses case mean for other writers of work that had been banned in the US? What about the book pirater (jerk)? Or the Booklegger? Or Slyvia Beach, who did so much for Joyce until he pissed her off? It sort of ends with Ulysses being legalized (yay!) but what happens to all the real people whose lives and opinions came to bear on the book and it's publication? Maybe one more chapter would have been good.  We got so much information about all the major players pre-Ulysses we need more post for balance.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher.

04 June 2014

Orfeo

Summary from Goodreads:
In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els the "Bioterrorist Bach" pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.

Orfeo popped up on my radar when the Millions website released their list of most anticipated books for January - June 2014.  I'd never read Richard Powers but the description was compelling.  The situation Els finds himself in could conceivably happen.

I like the ideas in this book, all the thoughts of a life and regrets and creations rolled into a few days on the run.  Els's life was interesting and the digressions into his backstory are quite a read.  I don't know if the book was hard to put down because of the story or because there weren't any chapter breaks AT ALL (there was a really annoying perspective shift from limited 3rd to 3rd omnicient to 2nd about 10 pages from the end that was really unnecessary).

However, I seriously did not have enough information/experience in mid to late 20th century classical composition to even start to understand the things Els is talking about (I top out at Shostakovich with a little Shonberg thrown in).  Ron Charles's review for the Washington post notes how much music he purchased; I didn't actually buy anything - I already had most of it - but the Messaien went on the wishlist.  The worst sections for me were trying to make sense of what Richard Bonner was doing; it just seemed like random garbage to me.  This was a good read, but it didn't blow my socks off.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this from the library.

ETA: Orfeo has been long-listed for the 2014 Booker Prize (and it is still weird to me that non-UK/Commonwealth/Ireland writers - i.e. Americans - are eligible for this award).