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.

29 April 2014

How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days by Laura Lee Guhrke (An American Heiress in London #2)

From USA Today bestselling author Laura Lee Guhrke comes the story of a bargain, a marriage of convenience...and the chance for love to last a lifetime.

They had a deal...

From the moment she met the devil-may-care Duke of Margrave, Edie knew he could change her life. And when he agreed to her outrageous proposal of a marriage of convenience, she was transformed from ruined American heiress to English duchess. Five years later, she's delighted with their arrangement, especially since her husband is living on another continent.

But deals are made to be broken...

By marrying an heiress, Stuart was able to pay his family's enormous debts, and Edie's terms that he leave England forever seemed a small price to pay. But when a brush with death impels him home, he decides it's time for a real marriage with his luscious American bride, and he proposes a bold new bargain: ten days to win her willing kiss. But is ten days enough to win her heart?

Edie Jewell - an American heiress - has made the ultimate marriage of convenience: she'll pay her husband's debts and competently manage the duchy as long as he returns to Africa and never asks her to consummate the marriage.  Margrave, unfortunately, returns five years later haunted by a near-fatal lion attack determined to become a responsible duke with a wife by his side.  Their agreement is broken and Edie prepares to return to New York but Margrave persuades her to give him ten days to change her mind.

What makes this convenience-to-love romance so good is the time Guhrke takes to build trust between Edie and Margrave.  Edie exhibits PTSD symptoms (we are not left in the dark long before we understand why) and the care Margrave takes to ask her about triggers, what makes her more comfortable versus less comfortable, etc. makes the resolution of their love story so much sweeter.  A very lovely story.  I look forward to future installments in this series.

28 April 2014

It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden (Scandalous #2)

Summary from Goodreads:
Sometimes It Takes a Scandal...

Abigail Weston has everything: beauty, wit, and one of the largest dowries in England. Her parents hope she'll wed an earl. Abigail hopes for a man who wants her desperately and passionately. But the money seems to blind every man she meets—except one.

Sebastian Vane has nothing. He came home from war with a shattered leg to find his father mad and his inheritance gone. He's not a fit suitor for anyone, let alone an heiress. But Abigail lights up his world like a comet, bright and beautiful and able to see him instead of his ruined reputation. And it might end happily ever after...

To Reveal Your Heart's Desire

...Until Benedict Lennox begins courting Abigail. Ben is everything Sebastian isn't—wealthy, charming, heir to an earl. Sebastian won't give up the only girl he's ever loved without a fight, but Abigail must choose between the penniless gentleman who moves her heart, and the suitor who is everything her parents want.

Abigail Weston (and her sister Penelope, who has an upcoming book) was introduced in the previous book, Love and Other Scandals.  She has an enviable dowry but her father is a Cit - catching a titled man but not a fortune hunter is tricky.  However, now that the family has moved to Richmond - next door to a wealthy earl with an eligible son - it seems Abigail might make a desirable ton marriage.

But their other neighbor is the supposedly disreputable Sebastian Vane.  His mad father (not a euphemism, the father was actually mentally unstable) lost (read: was cheated by the earl) the majority of the family estate, then went missing under questionable circumstances, and now a sum of money is missing from the earl's estate.  At best, Sebastian is an injured, angry ex-soldier.  At worst, he's a thief and patricide.  And Abigail can't stay away.

I really liked this second installment in Linden's Scandalous series.  The "50 Ways to Sin" pamphlets continue to scandalize everyone.  Abigail is very sweet and plucky, a perfect foil to Sebastian's barely contained rage.  The grotto scenes were excellent.  I loved the seeds sown between Lennox and Penelope for the next book and the conflict between Sebastian and Lennox who used to be friends felt very real.  My only disappointment came in how ready Abigail seemed (for a little while at least) to put up with the earl's clearly malevolent personality to allow Lennox to court her.

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.

Sex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick

Summary from Goodreads:
Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks. A bawdy and brazen sex comedy for comics begins here!

By Matt Fraction (Satellite Sam, Hawkeye) and Chip Zdarsky (Prison Funnies, Monster Cops).

Named one of Time Magazine's top 10 graphic novels for 2013.

Collects SEX CRIMINALS #1-5.

The Sex Criminals Vol 1 trade is out.  I've already reviewed issues 1-5, which are included here, so what are you waiting for??

Get thee to a store and buy it already!

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

26 April 2014

Dewey's #readathon Spring 2014: Off we go!

So it is 7am (yawn) and IT'S TIME FOR READATHON!!!!!

I programmed the coffee-maker - it's brewing up Red Velvet Archer Farms coffee as I stumble out into the kitchen.

It's also Saturday.  At 7am.  Ack. But I have brownies.

And a stack of books:

Nook - American Gods
The Whipping Boy
The Door in the Wall
The Phantom Tollbooth
The Go-Between
Fanny Hill
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry
The Age of Miracles (half-read)
The Ashford Affair (half-read)
Tampa (half-read)
Sex Criminals
Saga, Vol 3
Hawkeye: Little Hits
Bluefire app on iPad - The Truth About the Henry Quebert Affair, All That is Solid Melts Into AirHow to Lose a Duke in Ten Days, and It Takes a Scandal (I have four DRCs expiring in a week, eep)

A little combination of review reading, Newbery Project Reading, Overdue Reads Project reading, half-finished reading, and hella-awesome graphic novels reading.

Now, time for some shut-eye because the cats are doing that saddest-cat-ever-because-no-attention-for-meeeeee thing:

23 April 2014

MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Summary from Goodreads:
Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled “MFA vs NYC,” bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them. Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? What’s worse—having a day job or not having health insurance? How do agents decide what to represent? Will Big Publishing survive? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction? The expert contributors, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and Fredric Jameson, consider all these questions and more, with humor and rigor. MFA vs NYC is a must-read for aspiring writers, and for anyone interested in the present and future of American letters.

I didn't read the original essay "MFA vs NYC" when it pubbed on n+1 in 2010 (I was selling a house, OK, it was a huge pain).  When n+1/faber listed the essay collection Harbach edited to round out the MFA vs NYC debate, I was intrigued.  I mean, I can throw launch from a very large slingshot a stone across the Iowa River from my office and hit Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and one of my bosses is on the board of the Examined Life journal (a lit journal for people in the medical field).  It's MFA territory up in here a lot.  I was seduced into buying MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction because of the pretty, pretty cover that stood out among all the other essay collections.  And it matched my sweater.  Yes, I know I'm a weirdo.

This is a good collection.  You get a little bit of MFA history, some personal essays that refute the MFA-programs-have-a-flattening-effect-on-writing, and one that posits that does actually happen.  Some writers had good NYC experiences, some not so great, the agent who sold Alissa Nutting's Tampa talks about how he got where he is now, and there's an insider-baseball look at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  There's even a David Foster Wallace essay that reminds us, once again, that depression is the worst and takes away some of our best creative people.  And someone made me really confused with a line about JFranz detractors whose idea of good literature is German film.  Huh?  The essays don't resolve the MFA vs NYC debate one way or another.  Did they really need to?  (For an essay-by-essay rundown, complete with grades, Kit Steinkellner did a great job on the Book Riot site.)

What really got me, though, was Harbach's original essay because on the first read-through I was ready to swear he was having one over on us.  No one else was seeing this, possibly chalk one up to sleep deprivation, so I settled in with a different color pen to prove/fail to prove the theory that Harbach was funning us with his MFA vs NYC essay (I actually wrote that as my "thesis" at the start of the essay, my inner scientist never takes a break).

In the end, I have to conclude that Harbach isn't pulling our legs but he is very clever and droll.  I think his tone stems from an interesting omission.  In the course of the "MFA vs NYC" essay Harbach does not disclose that he does, in fact, have an MFA.  From the University of Virginia.  Perhaps it was assumed readers of n+1 in 2010 would already know that and that they might also know that he had just sold his first novel for six figures (The Art of Fielding would come out in September 2011 and take off like a shot), giving him a bit of experience with the NYC side of the divide as well.  His experience allows him to poke fun at both experiences:

  • In referring to MFA programs as a subject of self-satire, he mentions a DFW essay, "Francine Prose's Blue Angel, [and] that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack."
  • An MFA teacher-as-writer wants to be an outsider "lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate" yet "in the morning puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office."
  • In describing the spread of MFA programs across the country Harbach calls out "a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd street." [Looks around - nope, still in Iowa]
  • Summertime workshops are "picturesque make-out camps."
  • The short story focus in MFA programs "may seem like collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories." [This statement seems a off now that multiple story collections have recently sold well.]
  • No one in NYC knows of canonical MFA writer Stuart Dybek vs no one in an MFA program will care about a new Gary Shteyngart novel 
  • The English department American literature canon consists only of Toni Morrison and the MFA canon "keeps alive the reputation of great..., near-great..., and merely excellent writers whom publishing has long since passed by." [ouch]
  • NYC writers live in a specific part of Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights.
The NYC tone was less playful, making me wonder if subbing his manuscript to the NYC publishing scene had not been initially going well.  I also thought it was interesting some of the examples of MFA/NYC crossover writer-teachers who were not mentioned - Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, Karen Russell - who have had success with both novels and short stories.  Obviously, Harbach couldn't have included every author ever, the essay would have just been a very long list, but more examples of authors who successfully work and live in the middle of the NYC/MFA divide would have been a good contrast to those who seem more either/or.  (And then there are the very successful authors - looking at Eloisa James and Co. - who have tenured academic positions not in writing programs and still sell a load of novels; do they fall into the NYC side?)

So, thesis = not proven.  

22 April 2014

The Trip to Echo Spring

Summary from Goodreads:
Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.

All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often they did their drinking together - Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of 1920s Paris; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.

Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever's New York to Williams' New Orleans, from Hemingway's Key West to Carver's Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery. Beautiful, captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.

On the very first page of The Trip to Echo Spring John Cheever and Raymond Carver are rolling up to a liquor store in Iowa City at 9am to get lit before they teach that day.  Welcome to the University of Iowa - we have always been good at writing and drinking.  *clinks glass*  But in all seriousness, Laing has started her book this way to highlight how very far down into the addiction-hole these two very talented writers had got themselves.  Which was very far.  All six of the writers she focused on - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver - seemed to inhabit alcohol addictions as bad as their writing was great.  Why is that?  And why was it so hard for them to maintain any sort of sobriety?

This is a very interesting and readable set of linked essays (well, we keep it in the essays section at the store but it veers between memoir, biography, lit studies, and essay over the course of Laing's trip from New York to New Orleans to Key West to Port Angeles, WA, via Chicago - mostly on a train) musing over the relationship between six writers and their relationships with alcoholism. Laing presents details of the authors' drunken exploits almost clinically; there are no excuses made for the broken families and friendships caused by the bottle.  Since I was less familiar with the authors' specific biographies Laing was presenting me with a lot of new information.  The many collective attempts at sobriety by the men, with only Carver and Cheever attaining any lasting sobriety, are chilling in how deeply entrenched the addictive mechanism remains in the brain and body.

But what holds the book back, in my opinion, is that Laing concentrates solely on six men. Granted, she says alcoholic women writers hit far too close to a personal issue but I think it would have been good to pull in one or two women for contrast. Or perhaps a writer of a different race.  Or perhaps not American? On the personal side, her own connection with an alcoholic family member sometimes provides contrast but is also very vague next to the detailed movements of Fitzgerald and especially Williams, who seemed to be a favorite.

21 April 2014

On Reading 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Summary from Goodreads:
One of today’s foremost Steinbeck scholars writes an extended meditation on the influence of The Grapes of Wrath, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its first publication

In this compelling biography of a book, Susan Shillinglaw delves into John Steinbeck’s classic to explore the cultural, social, political, scientific, and creative impact of The Grapes of Wrath upon first publication, as well as its enduring legacy. First published in April 1939, Steinbeck’s National Book Award–winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. The story of their struggle remains eerily relevant in today’s America and stands as a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, “in the souls of the people.”

I've been meaning to re-read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for a while now (sophomore American Lit teacher did a fair job at making this one of the least enjoyable novels ever) and while I have started on it, I'm still only on chapter 5.  Fail.  When Susan Shillinglaw's slim companion On Reading 'The Grapes of Wrath' caught my eye I thought that might be good to help me over my Steinbeck reading hump.  

Shillinglaw provides a  very good overview of the writing and publication history of The Grapes of Wrath as well as some basic literary analysis (i.e. the five layers that make up the plot) without hitting you over the head with symbolism.  She also pulls in example from a few of Steinbeck's other work, particularly Sea of Cortez which isn't a novel (I didn't know that).  If you're working on a re-read of TGoW, like me, this is a really good companion but it's also just a nice book to read on the 75th anniversary of TGoW's publication.

17 April 2014

Classic Nasty: More Naughty Bits: A Rollicking Guide to Hot Sex in Great Books, from the Iliad to the Corrections

Summary from Goodreads:
Jack Murnighan, former editor in chief of the erotica website Nerve.com, is back with a new collection of the steamiest sex scenes from the greatest books of all time. Here is the literary sex-education readers have always lusted for, with over 80 excerpts by authors ranging from Homer to James Baldwin, Kierkegaard to Judy Blume, Scheherazade to Franzen. Who knew there was so much bumping and grinding in Goethe? How about Dali's fascination with masturbation? Ever curious about what made James Joyce purr? Murnighan supplements each bite-sized excerpt with a lively, insightful introduction that will help readers see the world's great books as they've never seen them before.

It took me a bit but I finally tracked down a copy of the next Naughty Bits collection from Jack Murnighan's Nerve.com column (it's no longer available to order through usual channels, had to resort to a used search).

No surprises here, since it's basically volume two, and I enjoyed the range of literature Murnighan included.  The Native American Trickster myth.  St. Augustine's plea that he be made continent...but not yet.  Restoration poetry.  Pushkin.  A Confederacy of Dunces (ok, not that enjoyable for me since I really don't get why people go gaga over that book).  John Fowles.  Peter Abelard (yes, that Abelard).  Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  Rita Mae Brown.  Lots of room for many different tastes among Murnighan's columns.

And, yes, I found more things for the TBR list.

14 April 2014

The Interestings

Summary from Goodreads:
From bestselling author Meg Wolitzer a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships.

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In "The Interestings," Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules's now-married best friends, become shockingly successful--true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, "The Interestings" explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

The last book I read on vacation (sitting in the back of the car because Dad prefers to drive = primo reading and napping time).  I had never read Meg Wolitzer before but The Interestings came very highly recommended.

And it does deliver.  The beginning is so, so wonderful and I loved every word that conjured up the high school arts camp and Jules's circle of "Interestings."  Where I started losing the narrative was post-college.  Some Big Things had happened and then there was a bit too much meandering around in What Shall I Do With My Life Since My High School Dreams Are No Longer Feasible Land for my personal taste (and one jaunt into Moonies territory that was just odd) but it picked back up for an excellent ending.  Had I not been riding in a car with my parents I might have cried.

I greatly enjoyed the musings on what we're meant to do and what it means to be pushed or talented as a teen. Are we all meant to work toward great things or are there only a few talented ones who do great things while the rest of us lump along and make do?

Dear FTC: I purchased my Nook copy of this book.

10 April 2014

Sarah Vowell: The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Unfamiliar Fishes

Summary from Goodreads:
Sarah Vowell travels through the American past and, in doing so, investigates the dusty, bumpy roads of her own life. In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell -- widely hailed for her inimitable stories on public radio's This American Life -- ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?
Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush's inauguration.
The result is a teeming and engrossing book, capturing Vowell's memorable wit and her keen social commentary.

Summary from Goodreads:
Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.
Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

As part of my vacation reading I packed the two Sarah Vowell books I owned but hadn't read yet: The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Unfamiliar Fishes.  Light, fun (oh, and I'd brought along the audio edition of Assassination Vacation to make my parents listen to while I was driving - it worked, Dad downloaded the ebook to read since we hadn't got the audio finished).

I loved both of these books but didn't find either to usurp Assassination Vacation as my favorite.  The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a collection of essays on different subjects more in the vein of her appearances on This American Life than a single-subject work of non-fiction.  It was good but it felt a bit all over the place.  My favorite essay was the last piece about Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Unfamiliar Fishes is much more akin to Assassination Vacation in format but very serious in tone.  It's hard to be wry and witty when detailing the questionable tactics used by both missionaries and the US government that led to the annexation of Hawaii. I did learn a lot about the history of Hawaii that I didn't know, particularly about the Hawaiian royal family and how their version of monarchy operated.  Very much a book that needs to be read by many people.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copies of these books.

08 April 2014

The Word Exchange

Summary from Goodreads:
In the not so distant future, the forecasted "death of print" has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past, as we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication, but have become so intuitive as to hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order take out at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called The Word Exchange.

Anana Johnson works with her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the final edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or video-conference) to communicate--or even actually spoke to one another for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It's a code word he and Anana devised to signal if one of them ever fell into harm's way. And thus begins Anana's journey down the proverbial rabbit hole. . .

Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague (who is secretly in love with her), Anana's search for Doug will take her into dark basement incinerator rooms, underground passages of the Mercantile Library, secret meetings of the anonymous "Diachronic Society," the boardrooms of the evil online retailing site Synchronic, and ultimately to the hallowed halls of the Oxford English Dictionary--the spiritual home of the written word. As Ana pieces together what is going on, and Bart gets sicker and sicker with the strange "Word flu" that has spread worldwide causing people to speak in gibberish, Alena Graedon crafts a fresh, cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller, and a thoughtful meditation on the price of technology and the unforeseen, though very real, dangers of the digital age.

Continuing in the bio-tech thriller reading-vein of Karen Russell's novella Sleep Donation I lucked into a DRC of Alena Graedon's debut novel The Word Exchange.  In this setting, an influenza-like-illness that causes aphasia spreads among the population, released under suspicious circumstances.  A very interesting idea.  I really like speculative fiction that plays just at the edge of our own reality so of course I downloaded it to the Bluefire app to read on vacation.

It's easy to see the crosswalk from our smartphone-and-wearable-tech-coveting society to the one in The Word Exchange where hand-held Memes - enchanting little silver boxes - detect brainwaves to anticipate users' needs for almost everything from meals to entertainment.  As users become more reliant on the technology, the easier it becomes to hijack that technology.  Hence, the "Word Exchange" - if you can't remember the meaning of a word, your Meme will supply it for you (for a fee, of course)...but what if it begins to substitute garbage definitions and made-up words?  Ideally, a paper dictionary would be the "gold standard" but the NADEL Ana and her father have been working on is the final edition.  When Doug disappears, Ana finds a secret basement room where copies of the dictionary are being incinerated.  Ana and Doug tell their story in alternating chapters; Ana's sections are footnoted autobiography, Bart's are a real-time journal, and they are racing to beat a deadly game.

It is a game full of secrets and lies, too, where no character is completely truthful with any other making them all complicit in the unfolding disaster.  At times Ana is bold and intrepid, other times you want to shake her for being such an idiot.  Bart makes the stupidest decision in the entire novel, then in his next chapter becomes the knight in shining armor.  Ana's ex-boyfriend Max is a dickish dude-bro for most of the novel then is revealed to have ulterior motives.  I wanted to kick Ana's father, Doug, repeatedly in the balls and very hard - his character is the hardest to like.  In short, all the flip-flopping the characters do makes them very annoying and very realistic.  Real people make hella stupid decisions and Graedon's characters follow suit.

A caution, for those who read very fast like me and will certainly want to read this novel: you will need to slow down.  As the "word flu" spreads among characters it is reflected in both their speech and the writing.  You can infer the intended meaning from the nonsensical words but you have to be watching for it.  I kept having to back up and re-read, which got really annoying, so I eventually had to slow down considerably and read almost word-to-word, particularly near the end of Bart's journals.

The Word Exchange was a great novel to read on vacation.  I was sort-of unplugged anyway (hey, when you spend six hours in the National Gallery of Art and don't check your phone even once - because you turned it off - that is a hugely significant change over my usual rate of checking) and it afforded me some time to consider how much I rely on my iPhone throughout the day.  I don't use it to look up every, single thing - I do math in my head and don't often need a dictionary - but I could see how neatly a service that just anticipated what I needed could slot into my life.  I am tired, ooo, coffee maker has started brewing.  I need to relax, the stereo pops on with my meditation track.  Look at how much information people entrust to the vast "cloud" now - a bit frightening to think about, particularly with all the security loopholes that keep cropping up.  While The Word Exchange does serve as a (fictional) cautionary tale about dependence on technology I don't think it bashes you over the head with it.  It's just food for thought and very worth reading, trust me.

Dear FTC: I was pre-approved for a DRC of this novel by the publisher via NetGalley.

05 April 2014

A Burnable Book

Summary from Goodreads:
In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.

Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews--and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.

Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

Ok, so last time I fell for a pitch that likened a book to previous books I loved - Dangerous Liaisons, Perfume, and The Crimson Petal and the White - I was let down when I expected some drrty, drrty moral quandaries (The Skull and the Nightingale).  So I was initially hesitant when pitched A Burnable Book...but then I noticed the author was a medieval scholar so at minimum there should be some good historical research.

And there is.  Holsinger spins a fraught, complicated tale that stretches from Italy to England set in a time period where even speculating about the death of the monarch earns one a visit with the headsman.  The plot is set in motion by an unlikely character - a maudlyn (streetwalker) - who witnesses the interrogation and murder of an unknown young woman whose last defiant act is to chant a strange verse.  The verse seems to be connected to the book and fine cloth that are now in the maudlyn's keeping and that many people are looking for.  We jump then to poet John Gower, a poet I'm not terribly familiar with, who is set on the trail of a treasonous book by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer; Gower is a specialist in leveraging information, shall we say, making him uniquely suited to this task.

And so back and forth, from the gutters and stews of Southwark to the court at Windsor, the plot twists and turns, jumping from third person narrative with the maudlyns to first person narration with Gower.  Holsinger has filled the book with real historical characters, including the crafty Katherine Swynford, mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, and a fabulous creation: the "swyving" prostitute Edgar/Eleanor, who changes identities based on client and situation at hand.  The historical details are well-placed throughout the book so it doesn't bog down in exposition, description, or hard-to-decipher language (a hard balance to strike between "historically accurate" and "readability by the general public").

Where Holsinger stumbles, though, is in the sheer number of threads and characters he juggles throughout the book.  The beginning feels a bit jumbled during the many chapters to introduce the principal characters but once that's over the pace picks up.  It read marvellously well until it came time for the "reveal" - unfortunately, the big secret was repeated so often that the section felt too recapitulated when combined with the "letter" sections interleaved throughout the book.  This possibly was due to having too many significant characters and plot ends to tie up, but the basic idea was very good.

A good first effort from Holsinger.  According to Goodreads, A Burnable Book is "John Gower #1" in a series so if that's true I'm interested!

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book for review from the publisher.

03 April 2014

The Haunted Bookshop

Summary from Goodreads:
Volumes disappear and reappear on the shelves, but the ghosts of literature aren’t the only mysterious visitors in Roger Mifflin’s haunted bookshop.

Mifflin, who hawked books out of the back of his van in Christopher Morley’s beloved Parnassus on Wheels, has finally settled down with his own secondhand bookstore in Brooklyn. There, he and his wife, Helen, are content to live and work together, prescribing literature to those who hardly know how much they need it. When Aubrey Gilbert, a young advertising man, visits the shop, he quickly falls under the spell of Mifflin’s young assistant, Titania. But something is amiss in the bookshop, something Mifflin is too distracted to notice, and Gilbert has no choice but to take the young woman’s safety into his own hands. Her life—and the Mifflins’—may depend on it.

With a deep respect for the art of bookselling, and as much flair for drama as romance, Christopher Morley has crafted a lively, humorous tale for book lovers everywhere.

Finally catching up with the Mifflins now that they've settled in Brooklyn with Roger's bookshop.  The Haunted Bookshop is the "Parnassus at Home" and is (metaphorically) haunted by the ghosts of authors and books.  A strange idea to the young ad-man, Aubrey Gilbert, who stops by the shop looking to sell an advertising account.  He strikes up a friendship with Roger Mifflin and begins returning to the bookshop, particularly when a disappearing-reappearing-advertised as lost copy of Cromwell's Letters and Speeches raises his suspicions.  Aubrey further decides to keep an eye on the shop once he meets Roger's new clerk, Miss Titania Chapman (daughter of a businessman with an enormous advertising account at Aubrey's firm), and is smitten.

Through misguided attempts at safety, ill-advised house-breaking, and a terrorist sub-plot worthy of the television show 24, Roger Mifflin's love of books shines through.  From Morley's charming introduction to Roger's assertion that each book sold is an advertisement for the shop to the Corn Cob Club's ruminations to the entirety of Chapter IX (where Roger writes a long, winding letter to his brother-in-law about words and reading), The Haunted Bookshop is a lovely short novel for booklovers everywhere.  Even as our book formats change, the love of words remains.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy through Melville House's Art of the Novella subscription.

01 April 2014

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

Summary from Goodreads:
In this exuberant book, the best-selling author Natalie Angier distills the scientific canon to the absolute essentials, delivering an entertaining and inspiring one-stop science education. Angier interviewed a host of scientists, posing the simple question "What do you wish everyone knew about your field?" The Canon provides their answers, taking readers on a joyride through the fascinating fundamentals of the incredible world around us and revealing how they are relevant to us every day. Angier proves a rabble-rousing, wisecracking, deeply committed tour guide in her irresistible exploration of the scientific process and the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, cellular and molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. Even science-phobes will find her passion infectious as she strives "to make the invisible visible, the distant neighborly, the ineffable, affable."

At its most basic, Natalie Angier's The Canon is a nice book that overviews all the cool things about physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, etc. It's not really a book for me - someone who already likes science and majored in hard sciences - but I thought the breadth of information was nice.

However, the breezy, chirpy, odd-obscure-vocabulary-and-literary-reference stuffed writing style was really distracting. I consider myself to have a very wide-ranging vocabulary but I was making considerable use of the Oyster dictionary then out to the web to look up words but even Google started drawing a blank. Surl? Proptosically? For a book about how fun and not-hard science is the style made it seem artificially dense.

Give The Canon a shot if you aren't terribly familiar with the science realm, but skip if you have already have an in-depth knowledge.

Dear FTC: I read this via my Oyster subscription.