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.

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.

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.

28 May 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

Summary from Goodreads:
August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?

A global phenomenon, with sales approaching a million copies in France alone and rights sold in more than thirty countries, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a fast-paced, tightly plotted, cinematic literary thriller, and an ingenious book within a book, by a dazzling young writer.

The Penguin First To Read program is a bit interesting - offer readers the chance to snag choice DRCs ahead of publication (there's a way to guarantee a copy if necessary) and submit reviews.  I had been striking out on the random drawings thus far so I decided to plunk down some points to read the much-buzzed The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  A little feedback for Penguin: one month to read a 700 page novel isn't long enough (particularly when the DRC expires three weeks ahead of the pub date) and your DRCs are really hard to read (I had to borrow a paper ARC off a fellow bookseller so I could finish).  Now that's off my chest....

Harry Quebert is a breakout novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker (his bios are in French) and is frequently compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.  In some aspects, this is true.  The book's structure is like a series of nested puzzle boxes: meandering, twisting, and repetitive. Scenes are constantly retold from different points-of-view and with changing information. Different timelines in both the 1970s and 2008 are jumbled around. His chapters can cliff-hanger with the best of them.  Unfortunately, there's too much meandering at the beginning of the book.  Until the end of part 1, which is a good 300 pages, I was having a lot of trouble even wanting to finish the novel.  First off, the "narrator" of the book - bestselling author Marcus Goldman, aka Marcus the Magnificent - is an annoying, egotistical, self-absorbed, whiney brat with a really stereotypical Jewish mom; I spent much of those 300 pages wishing desperately that he would Get Over Himself and realize that people (him included) are the most flawed creations under the sun.  Second, the level of provincial bumpkin-ism given to the residents of Somerset, New Hampshire, was grating; now, that may have been the translation at work, but so many characters just came off as flat and uninteresting.  Including the two central players in the historical drama: Harry Quebert and Nola.  I just didn't care what happened.  If I hadn't been reading-to-review, I might have just set the book down at about page 150.

But I kept going.  I'm glad I did because at about the halfway point someone drops a media bomb into the mix and then everything starts being real (to paraphrase The Real World opening credits).  The characters stop being nice to each other, and oh, so provincially sweet, and get down to the business of being crazy, obsessed, screwed up human beings.  The back half of this book is where the thriller being advertised lies. This is a novel about love, obsession, psychosis, shame, and truth with enough left turns thrown in to make even Agatha Christie dizzy.  And those good twists are too excellent to spoil, which is a shame because this is where I want to talk about SOME STUFF.  (Personally, I would have chopped about 100 pages out of the front half of the novel to get the reader to the good stuff at the back.)


So read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  Maybe take a small break during the front section of the book if the reading becomes boggy. The second half is worth it.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from Penguin's First To Read program and borrowed an ARC from a friend. 

21 May 2014

The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition: A New History of the Great Depression

Summary from Goodreads:
An illustrated edition of Amity Shlaes’s #1 New York Times bestseller, featuring vivid black-and-white illustrations that capture this dark period in American history and the men and women, from all walks of life, whose character and ideas helped them persevere.

This imaginative illustrated edition brings to life one of the most devastating periods in our nation’s history—the Great Depression—through the lives of American people, from politicians and workers to businessmen, farmers, and ordinary citizens. Smart and stylish, black-and-white art from acclaimed illustrator Paul Rivoche provides an utterly original vision of the coexistence of despair and hope that characterized Depression-era America. Shlaes’s narrative and Rivoche’s art illuminate key economic concepts, presenting the thought-provoking case that New Deal regulation prolonged the Depression.

The Forgotten Man reveals through striking words and pictures moving personal stories that capture the spirit of this crucial moment in American history and the steadfast character and ingenuity of those that lived it.

I, annoyingly but such is the life of a booknerd, haven't gotten around to reading Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man.  It's in the long-list of things to read but I just haven't made it there, yet, because the world is constantly shoving new and cool books under my nose.  Which is why the new graphic edition caught my eye - new, cool, and on-trend.  I've started reading more graphic novels so why not an adaptation for a work of history?  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has had an adaptation (haven't read it, yet).  How does a book that must deal in facts and figures work when you take away probably 75% of the words?  Can the pictures tell the story accurately?  I had an opportunity to read the DRC of The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition so I decided to give it a shot.

It works very, very well.  Shlaes and collaborator Chuck Dixon chose to give a frame to this history of the Great Depression - Wendell Wilkie, former exec of a ultilities company that was sold to the TVA, discusses the history and impact of the Great Depression with Irita van Doren, a literary editor and Wilkie's longtime companion, in 1940.  It was a way to "voice-over" dates and descriptions without making the character dialogue in the panels really awkward and reads well.  A few times the historical narrative jumped around and got a bit disjointed, but that did emphasize how confusing and contradictory New Deal policies and their makers could be.

The art work is beautiful.  Illustrator Paul Rivoche chose to use stark black and white drawings for the history sections with interspersed sepia-toned modern-set 1940 sections. The style looks vintage, which suits the historical period.  I have to call out a great rendering of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" photograph which is featured in the book.

This was a great experiment (for me) in seeing whether history could be told accurately using a graphic format.  I think it worked very well and it was very fun to read.  I even chose to spend an entire day at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during a recent trip since I learned in the book that the collection was started when Andrew Mellon donated his collection (plus money for a building) in 1937. 

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

30 April 2014

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

Russia, 1986. On a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old prodigy plays his piano silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, hiding her dissident past. In a nearby hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work, avoiding his failed marriage.

And in a village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbor's cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.Now their lives will change forever.

An end-of-empire novel charting the collapse of the Soviet Union, All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping and epic love story by a major new talent.

I was eight when news about Chernobyl broke.  I remember maps of the "cloud" that threatened to disperse deadly radiation via a wind from the Soviet Union.  The news did its level best to scare the pants off of pretty much everyone.

What fear we felt here in the US was a mere speck compared to the terror those in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union went through where danger existed from both radiation and government mis-information.  Darragh McKeon has brought that world to life with characters both near to and far from the accident at Chernobyl.  At first, nothing seems wrong.  People go to work, boys practice the piano, fathers and sons go hunting.  And then, the world around Chernobyl begins to change, physically.  The writing is atmospheric - not "atmospheric" as in this-is-a-word-found-in-a-blurb but truly evocative of an area of the world so impacted by man-made radiation and fall-out that it cannot belong to our normal frame of reference.  The forest doesn't just shrivel and die; it cycles through an incredible sequence of colors.  The horrific way the human body reacts to differing levels of radiation, melting down in unheard-of ways.

Each of the main characters - Grigory the surgeon, Maria the factory worker, Alina her sister, Zhenya the piano prodigy, and Artyom a boy from a village near Chernobyl - has a meltdown during the novel as they fight against restraints, the lack of information, the lack of freedom, the lack of transparency.  McKeon follows his characters as they live beyond the immediate aftermath of the accident with just one unraveled thread escaped from the neat bow.

The level of research and detail provided by McKeon paints a chilling picture of a governmental regime trapped within its own rhetoric, slowly spiraling toward dissolution. Don't ask questions, don't poke around, keep your head down and don't think for yourself.  The most horrific scene presents early in the novel in the form of an emergency manual with all relevant information blacked out; belief in the system is so great that even the idea of disaster preparedness is anathema.  Even though the accident at Chernobyl is nearly 30 years in the past many parallels can be drawn to events in the 2010s.

All That is Solid Melts Into Air is one of the best books I've read in 2014.  An excellent debut.

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

27 April 2014

Saga, Volume 3

Summary from Goodreads:
From the Hugo Award-winning duo of Brian K. Vaughan (The Private Eye, Y: The Last Man) and Fiona Staples (North 40, Red Sonja), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the universe. Searching for their literary hero, new parents Marko and Alana travel to a cosmic lighthouse on the planet Quietus, while the couple's multiple pursuers finally close in on their targets.

Collects issues 13-18.

The third Saga trade volume!!  This arc doesn't move through the galaxy with the same sweep as the first two trades but it makes the world so much richer.

Poor Lying Cat - your abilities get confusing when the humans are hallucinating.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

The Ashford Affair

Summary from Goodreads:
New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig "spins a web of lust, power and loss" (Kate Alcott) that is by turns epic and intimate, transporting and page-turning

As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .

What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.

I am a huge fan of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series and was really excited to read her first stand-alone, non-Pink novel.  But about half-way through the first chapter I put it down.  I wasn't enthused by the characters for some reason.  However, it has been staring at me from the corner of my dresser since then so I picked it back up for Readathon.

I was immediately sucked into Clemmie's family and the mystery surrounding her Grandma Addie.  Such a rich world created in post-World War I Britain and Kenya and end-of-the-20th century New York City.  Granted, I did guess the Big Family Secret but that is only half of the plot.  Pink fans should be on the lookout for a Vaughn descendant that slipped into the Kenya storyline.  Definitely a novel to recommend for fans of Downton Abbey.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Summary from Goodreads:
Milo mopes in black ink sketches, until he assembles a tollbooth and drives through. He jumps to the island of Conclusions. But brothers King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis war over words and numbers. Joined by ticking watchdog Tock and adult-size Humbug, Milo rescues the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, and learns to enjoy life.

Poor Milo, stuck in the Dolldrums. I remember having this read to me in grade school yet never read a copy on my own. So I decided to re-read it during the Readathon.

Just as wonderful as I remembered. And far more complicated and intricate in vocabulary and plot (how did this not win a Newbery Medal?). Either I wasn't paying attention or it's the perfect read-aloud.  It was the perfect Readathon read.  My edition had a lovely preface by Maurice Sendak, which seemed especially timely.

FTC: I read a strip of this book that I got through work.

Dewey's #readathon Spring 2014: That's a wrap!

It is the readathon finish line. Finally.

Since I got started three hours late (7am on Saturday is like the worst and it took forever just to get the motor going, even with coffee) I read a little bit more today from my official readathon list.


Yup. 1464 pages read, a little over 12 hours total.  6.2 books (Darragh McKeon's All That is Solid Melts Into Air I only started; probably going to break my heart).  I used the Bluefire app on my iPad to read the Linden, Gurhke, and McKeon; it works out really well, reads quickly, and the formatting on the HarperCollins DRCs is really nice.

How well did readathon go this year? Well, about 130am (hour 16?) was pretty daunting since it was about then that I developed massive indigestion stemming from what was likely the ingredients in Snyder's of Hanover's cheddar cheese pretzel bits (note to self: all processed cheesy-type food products are usually hell for you during readathon [cf. generic frozen garlic pizza with extra cheese, dodgy frozen lobster bites); stick with the trail mix, dried strawberries, fruit, and brownies).  I made it through to finishing my book but then decided it was simply time to go to bed and sleep it off.  So I did a little make-up reading this afternoon to make up for the late start and my ornery stomach, only lawnmowing and the weather (boy did we have a storm) intervened so I wasn't able to read as much as I would have liked.

Thank you, everyone who cheered and read and otherwise commented, rec'd books, etc on posts during readathon and, as always MANY MANY heaps of thanks and gratitude to Heather and Andi because readathon wouldn't be such a great thing if they didn't work so darned hard.