Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy Draw a Dinosaur Day!



Well, why not? Happy Draw a Dinosaur Day to all.

The second one is Jack's rather abstract rendering of his favorite made-up dino, The Nakatori.

Also, I'm not very good at drawing, but at least it resembles a T-Rex, right? And I'm always calling myself a hopeless dino, so it's only fitting to acknowledge the day.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Detour
by Andromeda Romano-Lax


What an impressive, thought-provoking novel this is. Set in 1938 Germany and Italy, The Detour presents a man who must weigh his love against his duty, all while existing in the broader picture of pre-WWII. We know what is ahead, and this purgatorial state stirs up all sorts of questions about idealism, loss, connection, art, and the perils of authoritarian states. I hadn't heard of any Andromeda Romano-Lax's work before receiving this book, so this was a fantastic surprise.

Ernst Vogler is twenty-six and a great lover of classical art. Employed by the Third Reich's Sounderprojekt, he is sent to Rome to retrieve "The Discus Thrower" marble statue, as part of Germany's quest to own as much of the world's notable art as possible. He has three days to complete the job, and he is to be assisted by twin Italian brothers, Enzo and Cosimo. Though he is both curious and thrilled to behold this statue in person, his employer's growing power makes him uneasy. At one point, he recalls the words of his friend Gerhard, a man who was mysteriously relocated to the newly anointed prison-village, Dachau:

"The truth is something we savor — usually in private. If you are lucky, Herr Vogler, you'll have many private pleasures in your life which shall make up for some public inconveniences, such as saying things you don't necessarily believe, and purchasing the world's most valuable art for fools who neither deserve nor appreciate it."

The journey does not go as planned almost immediately. For one, he doesn't even get to witness the statue before it's been boxed up by government officials. Enzo and Cosimo seem to have their own side plans for the trip as well. Ernst waffles back and forth between indulging the brothers and fearing for his job.

And this was why, perhaps, the Italians were better off selling some of their national art. Because they too often thought: What's the difference? A few kilometers off the main road, a few hours off schedule, a few pieces of straw from the crate. Everything was flexible, everything emotional. Decay and disaster, one small step at a time. There was no hard reasoning: the packing material had been there for a reason, just as the schedule had been there for a reason. One more bump and the statue might shift, an outstretched marble finger might make contact with wood — and break. That finger, Cosimo, outlasted the rise and fall of civilizations, outlasted attacks by barbarian hordes. But it might not outlast your brother's desire to get under a woman's skirt on a moonless night.

Still, Ernst is going through his own emotional decay — the peeling away of layers from his history. He resists and resists, but cannot fully escape the change brewing within him. Old fears start to transform as he realizes that "Everything is political" and "How easy it is to start something. Too easy."

The writing in this is just... Well, I know I overuse the word "lovely," but that's what it is. Lovely. Full of love for the Italian surroundings, the people swept up in this crazy shift, and none of it comes across as heavy-handed, which might be something of a feat when discussing Nazi Germany. Romano-Lax has talked about how her Italian and German ancestry and her Greek name helped shape her interest in 1938 Europe and "the strange confluence at the time of influential and sometimes dangerous ideas about classical art, genetics, and politics." Hitler was a failed artist, we must remember, and though his presence looms over the book, he is mainly referred to only as Der Kunstsammler — "The Collector." This is a deliberate act on Romano-Lax's part, as naming the man did not have the same connotation in 1938 as it does in retrospect. Ernst tells his story in retrospect, but he wants to make clear that he was once young and unknowing of what was to come, despite how obvious it may have been when looking at the country from above.

With love comes pain, of course, and The Detour does not avoid it. Family, sacrifice and loneliness all play a role here, as well as questions of worth. How does a man succeed? And on this particular mission, what counts as success?

How could I say anything with authority? I could tell you what the German copy cost our government — five million lire. But could I tell you what the German copy was worth? Could I tell you whether it summed up everything that was best in the human form? Could I tell you whether it justified Der Kunstsammler's fanatical interest? Could I tell you whether a nation should have been escalating its acquisitions of fine art, rather than feeding its people, or finding some future for its youth beyond the trench, the munitions factory, or the museum?

I could not tell you, just as I could not tell you with authority how the heart might respond to the Discobolus's representation of the moment — not a moment in action, but a moment just before action, the moment just before the discus flies, when nothing has happened yet, when no one has been judged, and no one has succeeded or failed, won or lost. When everything remains possible.

It is difficult to see the scale of damage a political environment can cause when one is immersed in it. Tiny events snowball into small, small into large, large into catastrophic. People may either willfully ignore the signs, or remain blissfully ignorant when their needs are met at the most minimal level. "It's not so bad," one might say, or, "It could be worse." And yet, the damages keep mounting, unchecked. The Detour marks the moment when that atmosphere has begun to noticeably and irrecoverably shift.

Full disclosure: SOHO Press sent me this book. It was an advance reader copy, meaning that my pull quote could have changed slightly in the final edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

#4/26+

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure edited by Larry Smith

(This review is cross-posted over at the lovely Persephone Magazine.)

The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure
edited by Larry Smith


Though it is of course natural and obligatory, when talking about the major moments in one's life, to discuss the birth of a child or knowing when someone was "the one," they are not my first loves. Wildly and unresistingly able to love, I do not fear reveling within the emotion, but everything beautiful that I have ever experienced comes after a different kind of magic: music. Yes, I am in the business of writing, and have done so since the alphabet was within my grasp, but music? Oh, music is something other. Music is where my moments live, and the biggest moment of them all arrived when I took the train from Spokane to Seattle to see Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and Oasis live. For over a decade, I'd listened and been changed by this music, yet this would be the first time I'd ever seen either band perform. I traveled alone, and I preferred it that way.

Noel Gallagher and Ryan Adams are the songwriters whose work sends a tremor straight from my chest and into my ribs. To hear their songs live, to be in that music's presence — to stand with others who feel as you do and sing — felt like a gift. If Liam Gallagher’s other-worldly, a force to be reckoned with, then Noel’s the one tapped into the deepest part of my brain, woven right into the fabric of everything else. If there’s anything I love, it’s a person who’s not afraid to be the best in the room. They don’t fool around. You find your calling and then, dammit, you go go go until you are the example by which others are measured.

Further details — the hows and the whys and the songs themselves — are beyond the scope of this review, but know that within those words, within those notes, I am most at home in the world. It is personal, and it is unreplicable.

Smith Magazine knows that everyone's life has its standout moments, and operating within their desire to "celebrate the joy of passionate, personal storytelling," they've created a lovely book of reflection. Also known for their work with six-word memoirs, The Moment allows the writers a little more room to talk, though many of the stories are just a few pages. Some are paired with photographs. Almost all of them made me think of similar moments in my life, or how I might react were the specific situation thrown my way. The writers are both professional and not, but each have carved their way into the heart of their moment in an effective way.

Perhaps my favorite story came from Cheryl Delle Pietra, "Gonzo Girl," in which she applies, on a whim, to be Hunter S. Thompson's personal assistant.

What this means, I have no idea. I'll find out later when I'm drinking scotch in a hot tub surrounded by seven key lime pies and a gun: right now I only know that whatever it involves will be better than shaking another Long Island Iced Tea. It will be be better than one more "informational interview" at Condé Nast, where I have failed the fucking typing test twice. It will be amazing. If I get it.

She does. She throws herself "into the fire." What an amazingly odd experience, one I imagine that not too many people were able to have before his death, as he strikes me as someone who was particular about his company. I'm no Hunter S. Thompson expert, but his fierce independence was admirable.

There are other recognizable names in the book like Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, and Laurie David, but many of the stories come from more "ordinary" (though we are all at once ordinary and extraordinary) SMITH readers. Tamara Pokrupa-Nahanni's story, "Motherless," hit me both as an avid lover of cassettes and as a person who has lost a parent. "I was twelve when my mother died," she writes. "A couple of days before she passed, I asked her to record a translation of an English passage into Slavey, the language of our people."

The tape didn't record. She had nothing, just silent playback on a tape labeled in her mother's "beautiful script." It's so final.

A few comics artists also contribute to the book, including L. Nichols, Molly Lawless, and Emily Steinberg. I love personal essays told this way — sometimes there are things that are conveyed better in a drawing paired with only a few words, more so than they are if given a whole paragraph.

The Moment reaches all over the world, asking us to revel in our own lives, to be an active and studious participant in them. It asks us to let our ignored emotions in, and to decide how we will let our triumphant and sad tales affect our course. I've been teased before about my inquisitiveness towards other people — how I ask questions about family, about relationships, about all-time favorite meals — as though I couldn't honestly be interested in what the storyteller might consider mundane. But how are we to relate to one another if we do not know from where the other person comes? We've all been amazing, confused, and terrible at some point in our lives, and reconciling this, I think, will go a long way towards a better existence. We have to seek out what we need.

On the bus home from the concert venue, I overheard a woman talking about Liam Gallagher to the man next to her. "I don't know," she said. "It's like he thinks he's too fucking cool."

It's not a matter of thinking, lady, I thought.

I could've gone anywhere that night — had a few drinks at a bar, wandered around late-night Seattle, anything — but I went back to my hotel room. On the bed, I unrolled the tour poster next to the t-shirt I'd purchased and took a photo. My ears still throbbed with sound, my jeans were soaked from the rain. I could not think of anything but happiness.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. It was an advance reader copy, meaning that my pull quote could have changed slightly in the final edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

#3/26+

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

Taft 2012
by Jason Heller


On the surface, Taft 2012 sounded like quite the funny novel to read going into an election year. A satire on our political process mixed with a semi-obscure presidency? Sure. Count me in. The end result is an amusing, though not fully baked story.

Mysteriously awakened from a near century-long slumber on the White House grounds, former President William Howard Taft appears alive and unchanged, though covered in mud, during a present day presidential press conference. He is confused as to what has happened to him, not to mention taken aback by all the various modern medical instruments used to confirm his identity. They even "have the unmitigated gall" to take a piece of his mustache. The mustache!

This book has a lot of talk about the mustache. And Taft's eating habits. And how the only thing anyone seems to remember about the Taft Presidency is "the bathtub incident." Also, in this version of Taft's life, he did not live until 1930, but instead "disappeared" on Inauguration Day for Woodrow Wilson.

Taft laughed. "Not the world I remember? Why, I'd have to agree with you there. Today I've been shot, assaulted with strange machines, and spoken to in riddles. I appear to be in a world where the President of the United States can be condescended to like a child. By a manservant, no less."

"Mr. Taft," the man said, "I need you to keep an open mind here, today and in the coming days. There is a lot you're going to need to adjust to. First of all, I am the President of the United States. Not you. Not Woodrow Wilson. Me."
Though the President is not named, we are to infer that this book occurs in a very similar "universe" to the one we are in, with our current President running for re-election and the Republican party still sorting out their candidates. The above conversation is the last we see of the White House, though it isn't long until we are introduced to Taft's great-great-granddaughter, Congresswoman Rachel Taft, as well as Taft historian, Susan Weschler. And because this is like our universe, cable news and the internet basically explode with Taft coverage. A secret service agent, Ira Kowalczyk — the one who shot him in the leg during the interrupted press conference — is to keep an eye on Taft and help acclimate him to modern society.

After some convincing, he agrees to to be interviewed on a cable news show. Things are going mostly well, despite the somewhat predicable craziness of host Pauline Craig, until she surprises him with live footage of people across the country. They're chanting his name.

"What you're looking at, Mr. President, is breaking news. A Raw Talk exclusive. Our investigators have uncovered these groups — small, grassroots, spontaneous — that have sprung up across this great nation of ours, and they've gathered in dozens of spots today to watch this historic broadcast. Your coming out, as it were. They're just beginning to blog and network, and they seem to come from all walks of life and political viewpoints. But they have one thing in common: They want a new direction. They want a return to values and tradition. They want new leadership, one driven by reasonable common sense rather than ego or ideology."

Her voice swelled to a crescendo just as the audience broke into raucous applause.

"In short, they want you."

Never mind that "crescendo" makes the word "swelled" redundant, but what about the fact that no one seems particularly concerned as to how Taft is still alive, not to mention how long it will last? Yes, he seems perfectly fine as though no time has passed, but who's to say he won't just fall down dead tomorrow? Apparently no one, as Taft does not wonder even once.

He also has little trouble adjusting to living a century later. Yes, he finds certain matters of dress odd, and experiences some puzzlement over certain inventions, but fifty pages into the book, he's Wii golfing with little more astonishment than, "That's quite remarkable."

Remember, the earliest commercially sold televisions did not appear until 1928. The real William Howard Taft died in 1930, but this Taft disappeared in 1913. He finds the remote control a "time saver," but no comment is made about the television itself. I know it seems a bit persnickety to call out factual differences in a book that has an unreal premise, but I have to be made to believe that premise by presenting a world that makes sense on its own terms.

Also existent in this world is a food conglomerate called "Uptyn Foods," a name that is meant to recall The Jungle author Upton Sinclair, the man who helped inspire the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, passed by Taft's predecessor Theodore Roosevelt. Taft 2012 mentions Roosevelt passing that act, but Taft only finds that the name Uptyn "did ring a bell somehow." If it's excessive slumber-amnesia happening, it's not explained, but one would think that this Taft would remember someone whose bestseller influenced government policy during a time at which he was involved with government.

Uptyn Foods, however, is the opposite of "pure." They make the most processed of processed foods and sell them cheaply, in mass quantities and varieties, and cause their consumers to become addicted to what is essentially fat, salt, and "chemical synthesis" masquerading as something else. Rachel Taft is trying to pass the "International Foods Act" which would regulate what exactly is put into food, as Uptyn lobbyists have slowly dismantled much of the 1906 act. A disastrous Thanksgiving dinner involving something called "TurkEase" is what restarts William Howard Taft's political passion, as he decides to fight against "Uptyn's festering reservoir of corruption!"

A commentary on our processed food and cable news diet is a fine enough concept for political satire, but somehow, a road trip happens in the meantime. Taft and Agent Kowalczyk start traveling the country — with some vague talk about "real America" — and there's an obligatory New Year's Eve dive bar drunk-fest scene. It has some good parts, but it doesn't really serve the overall story.

Yes, I found this book to be enjoyable, not to mention a light and quick read, but it just wasn't quite as good as it could have been. The first half felt better thought out than the second, and only former President Taft feels close to fully fleshed out as a character. (Pun not intended — I'm not going to make some joke about "fully fleshed out" and his weight. There are plenty of those jokes in the book.) He's quick with the one-liners, misses his dead wife, and has plenty to say about the state our country finds itself in. I don't know how those views align with the real Taft, but in this case, it does not matter because it is one of the instances where the content feels true. It is what this character would say. Or the author, at least.

Rachel Taft fares all right as far as characterization, and host Pauline Craig is an appropriately over-the-top entity, but the rest aren't so clear. I don't need full character biographies or anything, but about all I remember off the top of my head is that Kowalczyk is into punk, and historian Susan Weschler likens her expertise to being "an authority on Luxembourg" — as in, other people tend to pick more popular things to study. I won't even get into the bartender they meet on their road trip, except to say that she's so much of a cliché, she serves almost zero purpose.

Taft 2012 could have worked better as a novella, after another round of some hard-ass editing. That's certainly not to say I didn't like the book — No, I laughed plenty and recognized its potential. I just expected more... I don't know, oomph. If nothing else, I wouldn't have minded more explanation for Taft's second life, and a little more circumspection overall. It's true that history is unkind to quieter personalities, and that the circus pretending to be our government reaches new levels of crazy every day, but there is the underlying unsaid thought running through popular culture: Death is an end, an end that happens to other people.

Present day politicians have the nasty habit of simultaneously invoking our history while also ignoring the specifics. So what happens when that history can talk back? What happens when a man who should be dead lives again? Why does that man get a second chance and no one else? Mortality, legacy and reflection — Taft 2012 should have started there.

Full disclosure: I won this book through The Next Best Book Club in December. It is an advance reading copy, and so some content may have changed for the final copy. The publisher, Quirk Books, is the one who sent me the book, along with a 'Taft 2012' campaign button that my husband thinks is hilarious to wear around town. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#2/26+

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell


About the only review I've ever read for Cloud Atlas that I now know comes close to doing it justice is a tweet from Ayelet Waldman, which I must paraphrase for it was a while ago: "I wish I could re-experience the feeling of reading Cloud Atlas for the first time." The first time blows your damn mind; the first time is what you hope will be the first of many times. I honestly don't remember when a book last made me want to start at the beginning immediately after finishing its last page. I will likely be one of the many people who feel they lack the adequate vocabulary to concisely encapsulate this book, but oh, I'll certainly ramble on and try. Cloud Atlas is a marvel and David Mitchell is a genius, and no, I don't feel that I'm throwing around the terms loosely. I wanted to eat this book, it was so deliciously composed.

To call the six stories within the novel interlinked undersells their connection. What at first seems to be tales stretched across time — mid 1800s Pacific ship life, 1930s music composition in Bruges, roughly modern England and California, engineered Korea so far in the future, and Hawaii even farther beyond — are more like sections of a map folded atop each other. Time bleeds and blends into the different locales, with each at least peripherally aware of the story against which they lie.

Mitchell weaves together so many narrative motifs, and yet they never feel heavy-handed. Different methods of communication shape each story in a way that best suits their time, and on reflection, play into the larger idea of progress, and what sacrifices are worth making in the name of endless innovation.

The opener, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" comes across as though Ewing has subconscious knowledge of eventual publication. Still, the details are not thoroughly rendered solely for the benefit of others. With limited methods of record, how else is a person to fully remember their experience? Ewing has boarded a ship headed from colonized islands into San Francisco, where the gold rush is in full effect. The ship's crew mostly act as goods transport from the colonies to the United States, and as was the time, people have no trouble speculating about the inferior mental capabilities of the tribes they've "civilized."

The Moriori's generosity was rewarded when Cpt. Harewood returned from New Zealand with another four hundred Maori. Now the strangers proceeded to lay claim to Chatham by takahi, a Maori ritual transliterated as "Walking the Land to Possess the Land." Old Rēkohu was thus partitioned & the Moriori informed they were now Maori vassals. In early December, when some dozen Aboriginals protested, they were casually slain with tomahawks. The Maori proved themselves apt pupils of the English in "the dark arts of colonization."

It is worth noting that up until that point, the Moriori had not engaged in war in over six centuries, and Ewing wonders if the islands were "closer to More's Utopia than our States of Progress governed by war-hungry princelings in Versailles & Vienna, Washington & Westminster?"

The journal ends mid-sentence, right as Ewing is starting to feel his mysterious illness getting worse. From there, we're reading "Letters from Zedelghem," addressed to a man called Sixsmith, written by a young composer on the lam named Robert Frobisher. He's broken promises and owes a slew of money all over England, and he has run off to Bruges in the hopes of becoming the once-great composer Vyvyan Ayrs's transcriber/assistant/mentee, his "amanuensis," as he puts it. The older man's health has been in decline, and while Frobisher admires the man's music and hates its absence, he of course wants to use the experience to help himself. Writing to his close friend and sometimes lover, Frobisher has an eye on posterity, and so his way with words shows off a bit, but also in the same way that one might try to convince their loved ones that their lives are exciting or that their misadventures will be worthwhile in the end. Letters are also a way to pass the time when one feels so very alone.

Frobisher falls in well with Ayrs, but also starts an ill-advised relationship with his wife, Jocasta, while also managing conflicting thoughts for their daughter, Eva.

E. walked off to the stables, her whip swishing in the air like a lioness's tail. Went off to the music room to forget my dismal performance in some devilish Liszt. Can normally rattle off an excellent La Prédication aux Oiseaux, but not last Friday. Thank God E.'s leaving for Switzerland tomorrow. If she ever found out about her mother's nighttime visits — well, doesn't bear thinking about. Why is it I never met a boy I couldn't twist round my finger (not only my finger) but the women of Zedelghem seem to best me every time?

Completely changing in tone, Mitchell jumps into "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery." It's a straight-up thriller, complete with a young reporter hot on the trail of a nuclear power company's safety violations, and the silencing of those who might point out those flaws. It is divided into easily digestible short chapters filled with jaded co-workers, italicized internal monologue, double agents, a hit man... Hell, there's even a malfunctioning elevator scene in which Luisa Rey meets Dr. Rufus Sixsmith.

The puzzle solving escapism is exactly the sort of peril one enjoys reading on vacation or during a summer matinee. Bad behavior meets tenacious good. The power plant, Seaboard Incorporated, insists that their new plant on Swannekke Island will revolutionize energy consumption and availability, but:

Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jake's mock conviction. "He'd [Sixsmith] written a report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting for Federal Power Commission approval. When it's approved, Seaboard can license the design for the domestic and overseas market — the government contracts alone would mean a stream of revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith's role was to give the project his imprimatur, but he hadn't read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response, Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence."

Ah, but wait! Mitchell wants to simultaneously amp up and dial down the bewilderment. He can write suspense without it reading, as the next narrator puts it, "in neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay."

No, in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," our title man will most certainly not be running into the fight. In fact, he's headed north to Hull, precisely so he can avoid the thuggish family of the dead memoir writer of Knuckle Sandwich. Cavendish has profited massively from this book as its editor and publisher, and these brothers aren't going to be the only creditors looking for him. One halfway forgets that they were just reading the voice of a young reporter, so steeped in "curmudgeonly middle-aged Englishman" Cavendish is:

Temple of the Rat King. Ark of the Soot God. Sphincter of Hades. Yes, King's Cross Station, where, according to Knuckle Sandwich, a blow job costs only five quid — any of the furthest-left three cubicles in the men's lavvy downstairs, twenty-four hours a day. I called Mrs. Latham to explain I would be in Prague for a three-week meeting with Václav Havel, a lie whose consequences stuck with me like herpes. Mrs. Latham wished me bon voyage. She could handle the Hogginses. Mrs. Latham could handle the Ten Plagues of Egypt. I don't deserve her, I know it.

Of course, as the title would indicate, not all goes to plan. Cavendish speaks like a person telling a story to party guests after the fact. He uses the word "ruddy" — as in "No, that sign ruddy well did send me to this counter!" — what seems like every other paragraph, but instead of being irritating, it somehow comes off as amusing. At first, it's hard to see where this story fits in with the rest, apart from the tangential manuscript connection, but all becomes more clear later.

Secrets, expected behavior, willful ignorance in the name of progress — all of these notions intensify by "An Orison of Sonmi-451." What takes place is an interview between what is called an "xpedience," who records history, and a "fabricant," a human clone genetically programmed to serve a specific function — in this case, a server in a McDonald's-like restaurant. Somni-451 is considered a criminal, for reasons one has to be patient to discover.

The xecs at the Ministry of Unanimity insisted that you, as a heretic, had nothing to offer corpocracy's archives but sedition and blasphemy. Genomicists, for whom you are a holy grail, as you know, pulled levers on the Juche to have Rule 54.iii — the right to archivism — enforced against Unanimity's wishes, but they hadn't reckoned on senior archivists watching your trial and judging your case too hazardous to risk their reputations — and pensions — on. Now, I'm only eighth-stratum at my uninfluential ministry, but when I petitioned to orison your testimony, approval was granted before I had the chance to come to my senses. My friends told me I was crazy.
So you are gambling on your career on this interview?

… That is the truth of the matter, yes.
Your frankness is refreshing after so much duplicity.

A duplicitous archivist wouldn't be much use to future historians, in my view.

This might have been my favorite part of the book. The language, the science, the whole world that Mitchell has created never, ever seemed strained. It did not feel derivative of anything else, book or film, and his word choice? Perfect. One does not need to have an extensive vocabulary to understand what is going on because even if I did not know that "orison" was an actual word (and not a creation like the way in which he defines "soap" in this world), I got what he meant, and I've since read up on its relation to the word "prayer." What makes me want to dive back into the book is partly these little bits of language, all the subtle bits Mitchell has included that further enhance what he's created. (I've fought the urge to start rereading the book roughly one hundred and eleventy-blue times since starting this review.)

Pushing the futuristic motifs and language even further is "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After," in which the old man Zachry tells of his childhood, bringing everything back to oral storytelling. Set after an event referred to as "The Fall," Zachry is one of the few humans left on Earth who meets a mysterious older woman, a "Prescient" named Meronym, who knows much about what happened before that Fall. People live in basic huts and exist largely technology-free as they farm and avoid neighboring hostile tribes. Zachry does not entirely trust Meronym at first.

I'd got a bit o' the brave by now an' I asked our visitor why Prescients with all their high Smart'n'all want to learn 'bout us Valleysmen? What could we poss'bly teach her what she din't know? The learnin' mind is the livin' mind, Meronym said, an' any sort o' Smart is truesome Smart, old Smart or new, high Smart or low. No un but me see the arrows o' flatt'ry them words fired, or how this crafty spyer was usin' our ign'rance to fog her true 'tentions, so I follered my first question with this pokerer: But you Prescients got more greatsome'n'mighty Smart'n this Hole World, yay? Oh, so slywise she picked her words! We got more'n the tribes o' Ha-Why, less'n Old Uns b'fore the Fall. See? Don't say a hole lot does it, nay?

The reason why I go into this whole long plot summary/text example is that I just enjoy seeing the variance between the writing styles all laid out, not to mention the subtle connections to the previous stories. Why is it that I tired of heavy dialect in Huckleberry Finn, but ate it up in this book? Was it because it was only one section, a mere 70 pages? Because I was already in love with this book having read the previous 238 pages? Because after reading Mitchell's most recent book last year, I already wanted to hug his face off? It's probably all of these things. (That and a cranky once-upon-a-time high-schooler averse to classics is unlikely to pay too much attention to Huck, I reckon.)

"Sloosha's Crossin'" occurs in the middle of the book and resolves entirely in one spectacular piece. From there, we move backwards, listening again to the orison of Somni-451, then back still until we reach Ewing again. Threads come together, holy shit moments abound. In his cover blurb, Michael Chabon compares the book to "a series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes," which is quite apt. I feel like there are endless packages to unwrap within these pages. Not everyone could write a book like Cloud Atlas, never mind do it so well.

Honestly, we know I could keep going on. I could talk more about the idea of progress, our humanity, our unruly way of cutting off our noses to spite our faces, and also the great beauty and interconnectedness of the world. The remarkable unseen energy that floats through us all is endlessly fascinating to me, and should other readers of this book want to talk specifics, book club-style (side of wine-soaked aha! Moments optional), you've got the comment section right here.

Somewhat predictably, I'm going to have to resist the urge to fall down the David Mitchell back catalog rabbit hole for a little while longer while I move through other reading piles I've accumulated. Three other novels of his await, and perhaps its better that I break up the bouts of online gushing. They will come though, and I will enjoy every moment.

#1/26+

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

This post also appeared on Persephone Magazine on March 1, 2012.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, Volume 1 by hitRECord and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, Vol. 1
by hitRECord and Joseph Gordon-Levitt


Yes, this book is quite tiny. A tiny, adorable piece of art. Filled with stories no more than three sentences — and many that are just one — it features the work of 67 contributions from the creative collective site hitRECord. Illustrations paired with the stories range in style from notebook sketches to expert pencil work, each in a way that works well with their respective text without interpreting it too literally.

A fair number of the stories are simple, amusing plays on words:

"King Midas often
wondered what would happen
if he touched himself."

"The doctor's wife ate two
apples a day, just to be safe.

But her husband kept
coming home."

Some of the jokes make more sense with the artwork. Others are quieter, sadder thoughts:

"You're gone. No mailing address.
But I send you letters anyway."

"If I read our story backwards,
it's about how I un-broke
your heart, and then we were
happy until one day, you
forgot about me forever."

All of the contributors are listed in the back of the book by their site usernames. The famous man on the cover is listed here as "RegularJoe." It's an interesting idea, doing a creative collaborative project with whomever frequents the site. Online, they had over 8,000 contributions before the making of Volume 1, and work on Volume 2 is already underway. Part of me wishes that more people used their real names over handles, but I understand that the purpose of the book isn't to give individual acclaim. Yes, Gordon-Levitt's name on the cover helps sell copies and makes big publishing imprints take notice sooner, but apart from the intro, it isn't immediately obvious what his portions of the book are. One has to flip back and forth from the resources list in the back to figure it out.

Perhaps some readers might find the content a bit too twee, but I liked it. I like silly word jokes and animal doodles mixed with outstanding detail and inner reflection. This book feels like a good start to even more interesting work.

On a side note: Apart from some sly sex talk that went over my reading daughter's head, both of my kids spent quite a bit of time looking at this book. They, too, appreciate its tininess.

!t Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

(Though Cannonball Read IV has begun, I am not counting this towards this year's challenge. At 88 pages and with very little text, it might be just a tad TOO tiny for the rules of the challenge. Still, I'm happy to have read this one.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Internal News: E-Book Reviewing Policy

(UPDATED 9/13/13)

It seems funny to have a "policy," but I've received enough emails at this point that I may as well lay it out. How do I feel about e-books? If you have written a book that is only available electronically, will I read it?

The answer is... maybe.

1. I now own a Kindle Fire, so I can better read e-books. Because of that .mobi files are now okay, in addition to .PDF and .doc files. However...

2. I'm still not that good at reading e-books. I don't know if it's the chronic fatigue-related brain fog, or some other way that I am wired, but I have trouble reading text-dense items on a screen. The Kindle is more manageable than the laptop screen was, however. That does not mean I don't want to read your book -- No, I'm just slow about it. For that reason, my Feedly is often creaking with the weight of unread items. Usually, I wait until I'm better able to concentrate, or I catch up while I'm folding laundry or something. Otherwise, lines blur together and I don't hold onto the information as well. That's unfair to your book.

So if you email me and say, "Hey, I've published this e-book. Will you review it?" more often than not, I'm going to decline. If your book sounds really interesting to me and something I'd love, sure, I'll make the effort. But if it's a matter of, "I might like this," I'm less likely to devote the time than I would if a printed review copy were available.

I don't have [much] prejudice against self-published works -- If your request is professional, then I will treat you as such -- but I prefer a physical book. That way, I can give your book a better read, and therefore, a more through and honest review. Your book deserves that, right?

Still, I understand that when you're in the business of publishing yourself, sometimes you don't have the cash for a printed edition. Believe me, I get it. So, it does not hurt to ask me anyway. If you've followed my reviews and feel like your book would be a good fit, say so.

The only thing I ask, when it comes to e-book reviews, is that you be patient. Stalk my "currently reading" status on GoodReads, if you want, but know that my turnaround time is not so swift.

If you have a physical book to send me, I'd rather you did that. And I thank you for even offering. Seriously, it's awesome. You wrote a book! I just want to treat it fairly.

I hope that clears things up a bit. Thanks for reading (and writing).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Book Review Roundup / Year in Reading

Since I finished my reviews for 2011 on New Year's Eve, my roundup has to be on the first day of 2012. Keeping track of my pace and what books I had read was easier than in the past, thanks to GoodReads and their yearly reading goal challenge. I actually read 54 books in 2011, despite only reviewing 53. Tessa Hadley's Accidents in the Home snuck in right at the end there, and while I'm still unsure if I'll give it a full-on review, I will say that I loved it and the pages flew by.

If you are the curious sort and like things color-coded, I have made a PDF of all the books I read this year, divided by author gender and with notes on how I acquired the book. But more on that in a minute.

Top 3 books for 2011:

1. Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy -- Yes, I've been promoting this book to everyone I know. It was my favorite this year, easily. I don't think it got near the amount of widespread attention it deserved.

From the review:
God, I love that phrase – “the calm violence of attraction.” Is there any better, more succinct way to describe it? Van Booy's writing is filled with so many beautiful truisms, that I could spend much of this review listing them, and having little to offer in commentary apart from, “Yes. That.”

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith -- This book deserves all the accolades it has received. Patti Smith is a fantastic writer, and the story of her and Robert Mapplethorpe's life together is the stuff of legend.

From the review:
Just Kids is a love story — a love story between people, a love story about art — and a story of sacrifice for what one believes is their destiny. Patti Smith has talked about the pleasure she had writing this book, and how even though she thought she would only write the one, she feels as though she may have another one in her. I hope she does.

3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell -- David Mitchell's writing and the way he talks about writing basically make me want to hug his face off. Reading interviews with him led me to this book, and I loved it. Right now, I'm about 3/4 of the way through his Cloud Atlas, which is also amazing.

From the review:
Though I have yet to read David Mitchell’s other novels, I still feel like my favorite has yet to come. That’s not to disparage anything about de Zoet, but for making me love a story I might have otherwise ignored, I can only guess that his more modern settings will leave me lacking in the adequate vocabulary to describe their greatness. This is high and hypothetical praise, I know, but my head and my heart are in agreement.

For the most part, I read some really excellent books this year. However, there's one book I still can't decide how I felt about: There is No Year by Blake Butler. It was so strange, I'm not sure whether to applaud the effort or stare suspiciously at it, at the thought of being "had" for over 400 pages. I honestly have no idea. It is completely, and by no exaggeration, unlike anything else I have ever read.

From the review:
The ending is only a designated cut-off point, the end of the exhibit. Butler's writing comes closer to performance art in some ways, the literary version of disorienting video installations, housed in dark rooms at the MOMA. It would be disingenuous of me to define this book in terms of "good" or "bad" — All I can tell you is that it's an experience.

Now, then! Do you like pie graphs? I like pie graphs.

In early 2011, the literary corner of the internet went a'speculating about the reasons for gender disparity in publishing. Somewhat predictably, I got cranky about it:

[G]raphs like these can be misleading. While of course gender disparity exists in publishing, the amount of women published in these handful of publications are not also featured alongside the number of women who submit. So it's difficult to come away from their graphs with any real sense of what the numbers mean, other than we should be somewhat irritated by them.

Throughout the year, author gender isn't a large consideration when I decide what to read. My to-read queue is an ever-changing thing. It's an unscientific mix of what I'm interested in at the time, what has laid around too long and now I feel guilty, what has just arrived that I'm really excited about, or I'm trying to be fair to an author/publisher and am trying to get a brand new release reviewed by its publication date (I'm not as good at this, but it does happen).

Still, I like to see how the stats shake out, and yes, I like pie graphs. And pie. So let us have some graph, yeah?


That's 54 books for the year. It should be pointed out that there's always a chance my math can be wrong in these breakdowns, but if you notice something and care to figure out what I meant, do consult the 2011 Book List PDF.

I'm writing this through an eye infection, the flu a massive ear infection that's gumming up the works and the usual chronic fatigue, so let's not assume I know what I'm doing with numbers.

How did I get my mitts on books this year? Here's how it works out:

Wondering what the difference between "Requested from Publisher" and "Review Copy from Publisher" is? "Requested" means that I'm the one who initially sent out the email. I saw a new-ish book I wanted to read, tracked down the marketing address for its publisher, and basically said, "Hi, I'd like to review this book. Could you part with one?"

"Review Copy" means that the publisher or author themselves asked me first. They were the ones who sent the email, basically saying, "Hey, we have this book. If it sounds interesting to you, we will send it."

Giveaways are just that -- usually 'comment on this post, and we'll pick someone at random.' I won titles from GoodReads, Boooooom!, Chronicle Books, and BookSlut this year. Used to be, I never won anything, anywhere. So thanks to them.

But because I receive so many review copies, I want to show you all that I do spend my own money on books still, and never underestimate your local libraries. We'd be lost without them.

Here's how the Lady Author stats shake out:


It's a tad heavier on the "I sought it out" side than the "They sought me out." However, I am not figuring in the review copies that I was sent that I have yet to read, so this does not provide a complete picture.

On with the Men Folk:


Here, the "They sought me out" paired with giveaways almost doubles what I sought out. Again, we're not counting books I have yet to read, but this does back up the anecdotal evidence of publishing's heavier emphasis on male authors. Believe me, I'm not disparaging men. I like and love a lot of men just fine, but I think the point of these graphs is to have even just a little more awareness of the institutionalized sexism that has led us to the present.

Still, like I said early last year, I hate that we should even have to pay attention to gender disparity. I find it insulting to have my writing given extra consideration just because I have a set of ovaries. But at the same time, I also hate the still-existent attitude that books with women as main characters are "only" for women. I hate the labels "women's fiction" or "GLBT fiction," as though they somehow change whether or not a good story is involved. Or that we should rate it with different criteria. And on matters of race, the disparity numbers are especially dismal.

I don't really know what the solution is. No writer wants to be professionally patted on the head for reasons other than being a good writer, but the literature that gets widespread attention isn't equitable. We know this. Some presses, like Engine Books, are making a concerted effort to feature books predominantly by female authors. I think that's fantastic, and one way to call attention to the problem. As far as the publishing world on the whole goes? Well, I suppose just talking about it is a start. Discrimination is hardly limited to just publishing, and I'm not in the business of figuring out world peace. Other than to say, you know, it'd be nice.


The above graph basically shows the large number of compilations I read this year. I've been supporting a lot of small presses/journals with my money, and if they can spare a review copy, I like getting those too.

Really, you're not meant to draw definitive conclusions about publishing trends from my graphs and list of books, but they are pieces of the larger scope. A much, much bigger pie graph, if you will. All I know is that I'm going to keep on reading what interests me, and I will tell you my thoughts along the way.

Onward, 2012...