Monday, December 30, 2013

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova + Giveaway!

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova (cover)
I confess a weakness for the most brilliant person in the room. People who are great at what they do, whatever their “thing” may be, are my favorites. Excellence is dead sexy, especially when it comes to intelligence and the desire to improve. For this reason, I'm interested in the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Oh, sure, he's maddening to deal with — abrupt, insensitive, and distant at times — but the skill with which he gathers and assesses information is why his character has endured since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him in 1887. In Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova examines what goes into Holmes' process, the way he can block out all other distractions in order to solve his cases, and how ordinary people can use these skills in their everyday life.

Besides being interested in Sherlock Holmes, I wanted to read Mastermind for another reason — to push through my own brain fog. I suffer from both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, two illnesses with concentration and memory problems as symptoms. The severity of the brain fog varies from day-to-day, dependent on a few factors I've managed to identify so far (amount of sleep, activity level, etc.), but I wanted to know if there were ways I could retrain my brain to regain some of its previous ability.

And besides all that, increasing my powers of observation will make me a better writer. Being able to effectively take in my surroundings is just putting the work in, and Mastermind appears that it can help with such matters. Writers are not exactly known for being logical and reasoned, and we must remember that the tales of Sherlock Holmes are indeed supposed to be written by one Dr. John Watson.

Most psychologists now agree that our minds operate on a so-called two-system basis. One system is fast, intuitive, reactionary — a kind of constant fight-or-flight vigilance of the mind. It doesn't require much conscious thought or effort and functions as a sort of status quo autopilot. The other is slower, more deliberative, more thorough, more logical — but also much more cognitively costly. It likes to sit things out as long as it can and doesn't step in unless it thinks it absolutely necessary. 
 […] 
 I'm going to give the systems monikers of my own: the Watson system and the Holmes system. You can guess which is which. Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits — the ones we've spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we'll be once we're done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives — and in doing so break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.

Konnikova points out that most people cannot be operating as system Holmes all the time. Sherlock Holmes has spent his whole life practicing his way of thinking and is already unusually gifted, especially considering that psychology was still a very new study when the original stories appeared. He's made his way of thinking his job, not a mere mental exercise. Older Holmes has acquired more skill through practice over his younger self, and by witnessing this practice, Watson also manages to become more circumspect. Is he always successful? No. Holmes certainly loves pointing out all the ways his friend has erred. However, Watson has learned how he might start to change his initial thinking, and that is progress.

Most references are to the actual Arthur Conan Doyle texts themselves, though Konnikova does mention the popular BBC show a couple of times. (Sorry, Elementary fans. No love for you in this volume, I'm afraid.) Though I haven't read many of the stories, I've seen several of the films (old and new), and in reading Mastermind, I see how much the BBC show gets right and how much from the original stories, down to exact dialogue, that the writers include. That those details and conversations hold up over a century later is amazing and so much fun. Despite all the advanced technology now available to a modern Sherlock, it all comes back to his mind. His “brain attic” is where all that information is cataloged.

Yes, it's a “brain attic” originally, not a “mind palace.” Not nearly as funny, but the concept remains the same:

Whatever it looks like, it is a space in your head, specifically fashioned for storing the most disparate of objects. And yes, there is certainly a cord that you can pull to turn the light on or off at will. As Holmes explains to Watson, “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.” 
[…] 
The attic can be broken down, roughly speaking, into two components: structure and contents. The attic's structure is how our mind works: how it takes in information. How it processes that information. How it sorts it and stores it for the future. How it may choose to integrate it or not with the contents that are already in the attic space. […] 
The attic's contents, on the other hand, are those things that we've taken in from the world and that we've experienced in our lives. Our memories. Our past. The base of our knowledge, the information we start with every time we face a challenge. And just like a physical attic's contents can change over time, so too does our mind attic continue to take in and discard items until the very end.

Konnikova uses both Sherlock's methods paired with scientific studies to show how our minds work — how they jump to conclusions — and how to parse out what is relevant information, the facts, and what is conjecture. How many times have we been put off a person because they reminded us of someone annoying in our past? How many times have we been more likely to unconsciously indulge a person because we think they are pretty? And if we're the sort to love it when people are very, very good at what they do, do we put up with or completely ignore their frustrating personality quirks?

System Holmes asks that we pause and ask, What's really going on here?

Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson also get their time in Mastermind. Konnikova points out the times when the police see the “facts” as they want to see them, all for the benefit of having a speedy, open-and-shut case. What we want to believe is not necessarily true. And also, “When we try to recall something, we won't be able to do so if there is too much piled up in the way. Instead, competing memories will vie for our attention.” Long hours, similar cases, evidence that fits well enough — all these factors can make Lestrade think he has captured the right man.

We may insist that we are not biased to think one way or another, but upon further examination, that will not be true. A “bias” is merely the direction we have programmed our brains to take, to the point that we have programmed our brains to interpret the word “bias” as a negative, undesired concept.

Rather than be biased towards, for example, a person's appearance, Konnikova references “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” where Watson remarks that, “Surely his appearance would go far with any jury?”

“That is a dangerous argument, my dear Watson. You remember that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in '87? Was there ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday school young man?”

What it comes down to is engagement. Why Sherlock Holmes is good at what he does is because he is fully engaged with the observation at hand and nothing else. He is taking in everything presented before he goes on to decide what that means compared to the information he has gathered previously. He is not allowing himself to be distracted in the moment, and he does not let his thoughts wander, and because he has trained himself to be mindful in all that he does, he does not often slip up in his cases. (Mastermind points out where Holmes does slip up as well.)

The takeaway for my own brain after reading this book is twofold: One, I need to reread the book because the trouble with reading a book on mindfulness before bed is that one's mind tends to drift off and lose the thread even more so than usual. Two, I need to quit trying to multitask.

When we multitask, we are not actually being more productive — we're just doing two or more things at the same time, badly. We are not fully engaged and focused, and it is near-impossible to do anything well when we are not concentrating one thing alone. In terms of my illnesses, for example, I've found that if I'm trying to cook something, it can be more difficult to follow a conversation. Measured ingredients are hard to keep track of, and all for, what, getting three-quarters of what is being said to me? No, no, let me get all these things into the pot, and then you can tell me what you need to tell me.

Mastermind references and re-references different case studies, Sherlockian and scientific, and does so in a simple, straightforward way. In order to relearn how to think, we need to have the new ideas presented again and again for them to really sink in. I suspect that anyone who finds the book repetitive might want to check their bias that they are already perfectly smart and know plenty just fine, thanks.

Are you sure?

Well, maybe there are a few real Sherlocks walking among us, but I'm guessing that they might be using lived experience and the specific case studies themselves, and not necessarily Mastermind to know if their powers of observation are up to snuff.

While I'll definitely reread Mastermind at some point, Konnikova's enthusiasm for the original stories (plus wanting to notice more of the details on the show) make me want to delve into that source material. My brain may never get back to what I think it “should” be, but I can certainly try to improve.


Penguin Books provided me with this book for review purposes (and I thank them), and they have also generously provided one more copy to give away to one of you fine readers.

To be entered into the giveaway, leave a comment answering the following:

Have you read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Or are you more of a film/TV-version connoisseur?

Please also provide a way to contact you in the comment. (Email, Twitter handle, etc.)

One winner will be selected via random number generator and will be announced the evening of January 1, 2014.

Thanks!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Internal News: Book Release, Record Machines, Word Rioting, Rumpusing + Quirkilicious

Iraqi Headaches: Poems by Saif Alsaegh (Nouveau Nostalgia, 2013)

(Today's Internal News Post is sponsored by Grammarly, the site that checks your work for better spelling and grammar usage, helps you cite sources correctly, and will also allow teacher-types to say things like, "I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker for students because laziness is never endearing.")

And now the news:

If you didn't already know, I'm the publisher/editor for Nouveau Nostalgia, a micro-press that specializes in book with handmade elements. We've just released our third title, Iraqi Headaches: Poems by Saif Alsaegh. It's available directly from NN or through Amazon, presently.

Let's catch up on things I've written that haven't been here. Despite the lack of updates here (what with bringing a book into the world), I have kept busy.

The Rumpus has my review of Proxy by R Erica Doyle. It's a great book of poetry.

Quirk DIY has my post on Adventures in Book Arts: Three Places to Buy Beautiful Handmade Notebooks. It includes a TARDIS notebook. I'm hoping to have similar book arts-type posts over there in the future.

RECORD MACHINE at Persephone Magazine:


FRIDAY NEWS BITES at Persephone Magazine:


  • 12-13-13: Tributes to Nelson Mandela and Paul Walker, gun death statistics, LGBT issues and more.
  • 12-6-13: Frosty weather, Nigella court news, stranded whales, and more.
  • 11-22-13: Equality updates, typhoon damage... annnnd John Hurt wearing a baggy velvet suit, drinking champagne, and leaning against a Dalek.
  • 11-15-13: In which I flail about because the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, was featured in a Doctor Who 50th Anniversary prequel video. Oh, right, and some other news. 
  • 11-8-13: The corgis in danger? And Mexican Coke? IS NOTHING SACRED?! Also, the Whig party still exists. Huh.
  • 11-1-13: Marriage equality news, and an 80-year-old Russian Man vs. a Russian Bear: Involves falling off a cliff. Guess who wins?
  • 10-25-13: Rogue cows, racial bias and more. ROGUE. COWS.

Other posts at P-Mag:

Look at him, though.
Ready my swooning couch. 


Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:


  • 11-9-13: Lou Reed tributes, self-promo tips, Montana writers and more.
  • 11-22-13: Calls For Writers, Recent English History, National Book Award Excerpts + More
  • And hopefully another one this Friday because I need to quit slacking (again) in this department.


I'm hoping to get a bit more caught up on book reviews before the end of the year, so do stay tuned.

In the meantime, go add Iraqi Headaches to your Goodreads shelves, and then head on over to Nouveau Nostalgia to buy a copy. Only 100 of those special editions will be made, ever, and many of them are already spoken for.

Until next time!

Monday, November 18, 2013

For Your Reading Pleasure: 3 Books on Vulnerability and Bad Decisions

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

I read Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles right after Kristopher Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and they complimented each other to the point of Miracles almost reading like a sequel to Leopards. Both deal with unreliable male protagonists speaking to the reader, men who need some enlightening on matters of women and healthy relationships.

I preferred Jansma's book, but Miracles is still quite good. Currie's self-named character somewhat accidentally fakes his own death in the Caribbean, and as a result, his novel becomes a bestseller. He misses the woman with whom he'd lived “pre-death,” and eventually coming “back to life” makes the public unhappy with upending their Lost Genius fiction they'd constructed in his absence. We all have stories we tell ourselves, and facing their inaccuracies is startling.

The earliest known mention of a person enhanced with a prosthesis, believe it or not, comes from the Vedas. We're talking 1500 B.C., or thereabouts. A female warrior loses her leg, and is given a replacement. We've had 3,500 years to get used to the idea, yet when I talk about the Singularity, people still get an indulgent look on their faces, like they're humoring me and my absurd notions of human beings with brain/computer interfaces and titanium exoskeletons. I mean, they're polite about it, usually, which I appreciate. But, you know, 1500 B.C. The first time a person was joined with a machine, however primitive. Consider that, I tell them, then ask yourself: Who's being naïve, do you think?

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

Also dealing with questions of identity and existing in hiding is Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende, released this past May. In it, Maya Vidal alternates between writing about living in Chile with a friend of her grandmother's, and also the self-destructive path that brought her there. The scenery shifts between Berkeley, the Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas, and Chiloé.

Although the book is nearly 400 pages, it never feels like it goes on too long, and the diary premise never seems forced. Maya's story hurtles along, and Allende, no matter the location, immerses you in a way where you can nearly taste the weather. And there's a fair dose of humor too:

The cousin showed up an hour later than he said he would in a van crammed to the roof with stuff, accompanied by his wife with a baby at her breast. I thanked my benefactors, who had also lent me the cell phone to get in touch with Manual Arias, and said good-bye to the dog, but he had other plans: he sat at my feet and swept the ground with his tail, smiling like a hyena; he had done me the favor of honoring me with his attention, and now I was his lucky human. I changed tactics. “Shoo! Shoo! Fucking dog,” I shouted at him in English. He didn't move, while the cousin observed the scene with pity. “Don't worry, señorita, we can bring your Fahkeen,” he said at last. And in this way that ashen creature acquired his new name[.]

Both present and past storylines are riveting, and I can see this book also becoming a good movie. It wouldn't surprise me if the rights have already been sold.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From The Middle East to The Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

Yes, that title is a mouthful, but this New York memoir from Rayya Elias is an interesting portrait of redemption. At this point in my reading life, I admit to tiring of the addict memoir, but that doesn't mean that these stories aren't worth telling. It comes down to the surrounding environment, when I decide on giving the book my attention. It was the post-punk angle that sucked me into this one.

Elias and her family left Syria when she was young, and the rebellious teenager took to drugs in order to impress her tougher classmates:

For the first time I had earned street credibility — not because of my cool cousin, but because of what I had done. I was christened into the club of the psychos[.]

She joins a lot of bands, learns how to cut and style hair, and eventually moves to New York during the 1980s. She rises and falls multiple times, including a stint in prison. Although Elias isn't the strongest writer, I appreciate that Harley Loco isn't one of those “hit rock bottom/ climbed out/ everything is fine now” stories. Rayya Elias, though many years sober, shows the reality of her struggle, and how art can transcend addiction.


Full Disclosure: Viking provided me with review copies of both Harley Loco and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. Harper provided the review copy of Maya's Notebook. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Guest Post by Meera Lee Sethi: Fika with Mountainfit: A Swedish Recipe to Enjoy While Reading

Today we're going to do Glorified Love Letters' very first guest post. I've had offers for writers to do blog tour-type promotion before, and up until now, I've turned them down. The reasons why vary, but when it came to Meera Lee Sethi's book Mountainfit, something about the idea intrigued me.

Sethi's book is a beautiful meditation on her travels to Sweden, where she assisted in the tracking of various species of birds. While I'm not much of a nature-book reader, nor do I particularly know anything about birds, I really enjoyed Mountainfit. Sethi's openhearted enthusiasm for what she learns and encounters is contagious, and the way she writes is closer to poetry than journalism. You can find more of her writing on her site, Dispersal Range.

For today's post, I left the topic up to her. Since I am somewhat obsessed with food and coffee breaks, her contribution today is perfect. Enjoy:
*

Mountainfit is a book about science, nature, place, mythology, and identity—but it's also, at heart, a book about Sweden. And you can't go to Sweden without having your daily schedule taken over by several leisurely instances of what Swedes call fika. Fika is a kind of backwards version of the Swedish word for coffee, and is usually translated as "coffee break"—but it always, always involves not only a cup of (extremely strong) coffee, but also a plateful of small and most often sweet treats.

Fika is a truly pervasive cultural phenomenon—at some offices, I was told, fika might take place as many as four separate times between clocking in and clocking out. It is a wonderfully institutionalized system of pauses during the work day, dedicated to resting, consuming something delicious, and connecting with friends.

I don't, however, see why the company you keep over your fika shouldn't be a book.

Jennie, a very dear human being whom you'll meet a few times if you read Mountainfit, made a batch of these kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) on the spur of the moment the very last time we were together at the observatory. She wrote down the recipe for me, but she did it from memory, and my conversions may not be the most accurate.

Kanelbullar are a classic Swedish pastry, and you should note that they are very much less cloyingly sweet than American cinnamon buns. Instead, they are subtle and fragrant with cardamom. I hope you enjoy both them and Mountainfit.

Kanelbullar (Cinnamon rolls)

  • 60 g butter (a little over 2 oz.), warmed to 37 °C (98.7 ° F)
  • 25 g fresh yeast (0.35 oz. instant, or 0.5 oz. active dry)
  • 2.5 dL (1 cup) milk, warmed to 37 °C (98.7 °F)
  • 0.5 mL (1/4 tsp) salt
  • 7 dL (13 oz.) flour
  • 0.5 dL (1/4 cup) sugar
  • Sweetness and shine
  • More sugar
  • More butter
  • 1 egg or egg white, beaten
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Ground cardamom
  • Pearl sugar (optional)


  1. Mix together the yeast, milk, and warmed butter in a large bowl. 
  2. After the yeast foams, add the sugar and salt; then whisk in the flour slowly. 
  3. When the dough is thick and not sticky, let it rise covered by a damp cloth for 30 minutes.
  4. After 30 minutes, turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out into a rectangle (a little thinner than the cover of a hardback book).
  5. Spread a thin layer of butter all over the dough—you can either melt the butter and brush it on, or wield a slightly softened stick of butter like a paintbrush. 
  6. Sprinkle sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom generously onto the butter.
  7. At this point, you have two choices: A: Roll the dough up like a cream roll and cut it into small segments, Or B: Cut the dough into narrow strips. Then, cut a slit almost all the way through each strip, leaving an edge at the end. Braid/tie/creatively twist the two strands into a knot or knot-like shape. This need not be a precise process.
  8. Brush a layer of egg over the top of each kanelbulle, followed by a sprinkling of pearl sugar if you have any; ordinary sugar will do in a pinch. 
  9. Let the kanelbullar rise for another 30 minutes on a baking sheet.
  10. Bake for about 6-8 minutes at 250 °C, or about 9-12 minutes at 480 (this conversion assumes your U.S. oven is not a convection oven). Or just until they're beautiful and brown.
  11. Enjoy with very strong coffee and a good book.


*

Full Disclosure: Sethi's publisher, CCLaP (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), provided me with the eBook for review and were also the ones who contacted me about this guest post. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Internal News as of 10-23-13: Record Machine, Massive Notes From Elsewhere + More


Good lord, once again I've waited a long time to do one of these update things. All right, let's get right to the boatload of things I've been up to when I haven't been posting things here.

First off, two weeks ago, I went to the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula. That photo up there has my acquired goods, more or less:


  • Blasphemy: Short Stories by Sherman Alexie (didn't get it signed because that crowd was madness and I had a friend to catch up with.)
  • What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler (signed)
  • Rough Day: Poems by Ed Skoog (signed)
  • Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal (signed)


Then I already owned these, but I brought them along to get them signed:




So, yes, I did buy 4 books even though I have 100 sitting here waiting to be read. WHATEVER, MAAAN.

Anyway, while I was there, I was in the audience for J Robert Lennon and Ed Skoog's podcast, Lunch Box, for Episode 42. I'd visited Montgomery Distillery instead of having lunch that day, so I'll just say that it was the gin that made me shout out something about Brooks and Dunn, just before the 17 minute mark.

And at the 33 minute mark, I mention my stylish son while also not realizing my family is sitting behind me.

(My voice does not sound that high-pitched in my head.)

Seriously though, both Festival of the Book and Montgomery Distillery's gin are well worth your time.

Moving on.

At Quirk Books: DIY, I wrote about necklaces made about typewriter keys. I own one with an S key, and I like it a lot.

My review of The Queen: A Life in Brief now also appears at Pajiba.

Okay, let's get to what I've written at Persephone Magazine:


In newsy P-Mag matters:

Other P-Mag Posts:

And now onto Notes From Elsewhere posts at Word Riot:
  • 9-17-13: 8 Literary Lists and Poet Tributes
  • 9-20-13: The Perils of Book Publication and More #Franzenfreude
  • 9-28-13: Time to Work! Prompts, Contests, Submissions, more
  • 10-9-13: Word Riot Author News, "Urgent, Unheard Stories," more
  • 10-13-13: Bowie, Slush-Pile Avoidance, Man Booker 2013, etc.
  • 10-20-13: Personal Stories, Prizes, Publishing News

I am reasonably sure that is all. Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Simon's Cat vs. The World by Simon Tofield

Simon's Cat vs. The World
by Simon Tofield

We're going to do something a little different this time because, well, to be honest, the idea amuses me. While I am certainly a great lover of cats and comics/cartoons, Simon's Cat vs. The World struck me as something my six-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter would also enjoy. Anyone who knows my son knows he operates in his own amusing, creative universe, and my daughter is a voracious reader who can't believe I'm not blowing through the Harry Potter series just once while she's gone through it three times. (I'm about to start Book 4, at her insistence. Yes, I'm late to the party, as usual.)

So while I can tell you that Simon Tofield's kitty creation is both very funny and full of detail, I wanted to know what my kids had to say.

Jack: “I like the part with the couch because he's like AAAHHH!! with his paw. And the bird box is funny because the bird pops out and the birds are just like Yeah! I like the sticker with the arrow pointing into cat's mouth because it's like the cat is saying, Feed me.”

Grace: “I like the drawing lessons in the back because I like drawing a lot and I like cats. The book is really funny. The Godzilla part was my favorite.”

Jack: “And how could you conquer the Godzilla?”

Grace: “I don't know, it was the shadow of the Godzilla toy. And Simon looked fiercer the dinosaur toy's shadow.”

Jack: “Well, I don't really see how that's conquering it.”

(I think the cat's ongoing war with the hedgehogs is my favorite.)

The included stickers and drawing lessons are also a great inclusion with the full color illustrations. The way Tofield explains his relatively simple way of drawing different animals is something even a semi-inept artist such as myself could handle. My daughter, on the other hand, could practically do it in her sleep. The kids got right to work on their own Simon the Cat artwork:

Grace's kitty illustrations. The top three were tutorials in the book; the bottom two she did on her own.

Jack has the kitten and the birds watching the gnome do a little fishing. The sticker with the cat and the arrow, he stuck on the back of his NintendoDS.


As far as the original YouTube videos go, I'd never seen them before reading the book, yet somehow my daughter had already caught a few through some of the sites she visits. They are also funny and so very “essence of cat.” I watched a few after reading, and I saw so much of my cats in them.



Simon's Cat vs. The World is one of those books that manages to stay interesting for both parent and child (or just a kitty-loving adult in general), and while I'd say the videos have a certain edge over the book — the sound effects are perfect, for one thing —  this internet-cat book does not disappoint.


Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Half As Happy: Stories by Gregory Spatz

Half as Happy: Stories
by Gregory Spatz

You know a book is good if you only stop reading so that you can tell the author, at 1 AM via Facebook, how much you are enjoying it. The evening I began reading it, I'd plans to watch Doctor Who, which, if you know me, is serious business. I thought I would read a little, then turn on the TV. No, I kept reading. Let it be known: Gregory Spatz's new story collection, Half as Happy, is a wonderfully gratifying little book.

This is the passage, from the story “Happy For You,” that had me thinking, Jesus, this guy is good at opening paragraphs, and that's when I jumped online to tell him so:

For the moment, she is asleep — an ethereal gray sleep, something like the color of brain matter or of wet cement at dawn, or of the light seeping across her ceiling. A window fan at the foot of her bed whisks air into the room — wet, early spring air — furls and unfurls it around her, keeping her aloft in her dreams.
[…]The phone rings, jerking her from this gray ethereality, aches in her joints and muscles all previously dissolved out of reason magically reasserting themselves.

Spatz takes what is normally a somewhat clichéd story opening — a character awakes — and creates something so perfect and true that it could never be any other way. I know what it is like to be (for once!) deep into an all-encompassing sleep, only to come back to the world with the unceasing reminders that I will likely never be pain-free.

However, the woman in “Happy for You” is much older than I am. She's a mother, divorced, and constantly worried about her gay son. “Half their relationship since he'd finished high school — no, more than that, seventy, eighty percent — has taken place over the telephone,” she thinks as they discuss Easter plans. It's a great story.

Many of the stories have a lovely tenderness amidst loneliness, and many also concern music. Spatz plays in two different bands himself, so this influence comes as no surprise. Where they overlap is something that interests me greatly, so when music is written about well, it makes me want to get to work.

Another opening passage, this time from “No Kind of Music”:

He sat in one of the lower rows of the balcony section, high enough that the musicians in their black and white appeared to him diminished and foreshortened, but not so distant their sound was lost or tone compromised. He like to imagine that being this elevated raised his own position within the music, Godlike, and that the distance between himself and the players might erase mistakes and mismatched pitches, causing the notes to arrive to him sweetened and more perfectly blended, more purely themselves; and he watched the players for evidence of a divine or magical connection to some essential truth within the music moving so uniformly through them, innervating them. He knew this was a fiction — any player up close was a lot of suffering joints and contradictory impulses, bad breath, weak eyesight, creaky digestion […] ; if there was evidence of magical or divine connections to be beheld in them it showed in their fingertips, bitten nails and torn cuticles, chapped mouths — all the places where they'd worn through themselves trying and trying and loving the music so habitually, so imperfectly. They were only human, after all — mortal, mutable. Nothing in the world was ever otherwise.

Having played viola and then cello in school orchestras, as well as playing with Great Falls' youth symphony in high school, I know that difference between the individual and the whole when it comes to large groups of musicians. I've spent a lot of time listening to our professional symphony — one I've found to be superior to some other cities', despite our out-of-the-way location — and the theater in which they play is a beautiful 1930s structure with a full balcony. One does feel different while listening from above.

Questions of intimacy, of friendship, and of just how far a person can push a situation — all are themes Spatz explores with deft clarity. I liked or completely loved every story in Half as Happy, and it made me want to read more of his writing.

Middle of the night declarations, the desire for more, and the knowing uplift one feels during music? Yes, of course I recommend Half as Happy. It is a book just dying to wedge itself into a small corner of your heart.


Full Disclosure: Engine Books sent me an advanced reading copy for review. Because of this, my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#30 (Yes, since reviews #23-29 appeared on sites other than this one.)

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bonus Internal News Update!


I forgot to tell you all the other day something quite amusing/awesome: See that photo up there? It is featured in the new Animals Talking in All Caps book. I took this photo when we visited the grizzly observation center in Yellowstone last year, and shortly after we returned, ATIAC was asking for photo submissions to include in the book.

Unfortunately, my last name is misspelled in the credits ("Habien" instead of Habein. E-before-I!), but I'm still very pleased to be included. I won't spoil the caption that Justin Valmassoi wrote, so you'll just have to check out the book.

In other news, I have a new post up at Persephone Magazine today: We Try It! Sharknado Cupcakes.

Oh yes. Sharknado. Cupcakes.

Also, I've finally updated my e-book reviewing policy. I'm only a little bit speedier about reading them.

Now, off to finally finish this book review I started...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The "Good Lord Am I Behind on Everything" Internal News Update as of 9-11-13

Wow, has it really been since JULY that I've updated this page? I do apologize, for I have been doing lots of things writing and otherwise, and everything has gotten away from me.

First off, The Next Best Book Blog was kind enough to interview me for their Would You Rather? series. Twas a lot of fun.

Now here's the list of recent P-Mag updates, not quite as long for the time elapsed because they had to move servers not once, but twice:




At Word Riot, there are only two Notes From Elsewhere entries:

8-2-13: In which I talk about Calvin & Hobbes, non-literary hubs, Chloe Caldwell, submission news and more.
8-17-13: With the best explanation of the traditional publishing process I've seen yet, "Strong Female Characters," blurbs, book dealbreakers, and more.

Because of some server/security issues, I've had trouble logging into Word Riot lately, so between that and my...uh.. laziness, there haven't been too many posts. I plan on remedying that as soon as the issue is resolved with a lot of posts, partially because I've been bookmarking a ton of links and it would be a shame to not share them. Stay tuned for that.

I think that's everything. I promise to get back on the reviewing train here soon. Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey

The Queen: A Life in Brief
by Robert Lacey

With a newly arrived Royal Baby (capitalization probably required), it seems appropriate to read about the child's great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II. What got me picking up this indeed brief book, however, was The King's Speech. I'd finished watching it on Netflix and remembered seeing screenwriter David Seidler on Charlie Rose when the film was first released. He said that he'd wanted to explore the story of King George VI's stutter and relationship to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, but that the Queen mother asked him to wait until she died. Then, of course, she went on to live a total 102 years. Nine years later, The King's Speech won 4 Oscars, 7 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe, and 2 SAG awards. It is an outstanding film, and I wanted some additional information about the family.

I've never really been a royalist, but my interest stems from how odd their insular experience must be. In The King's Speech, the Queen Mother, then the Duchess of York (played by Helena Bonham Carter), makes a joke that being royalty is like “indentured servitude,” which isn't too far off — though it's still a very pampered, privileged life, despite its obligations. The Queen: A Life in Brief condenses much of the information found in Robert Lacey's other book, Monarch (also known as Royal, in the Great Britain edition), which was the basis for the Helen Mirren film, The Queen. When a family is so private, the sources all seem to feed into one another.

Despite being a slim book with thick pages and fair amount of photos, Lacey still provides plenty of information about Elizabeth Windsor, from her birth on April 26, 1926, to her irregular ascension to the crown in 1953, then on to all the Diana-Charles-Camilla chaos, and her current existence up until last year's Diamond Jubilee. The impetus for publishing this biography was probably because of that anniversary and the subsequent renewed interest in royalty — a move I can't begrudge, given my timing for publishing this review.

There's a little bit of background information on Queen Elizabeth's father, Prince Albert, who would eventually become King George VI, when his brother David (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne. I found myself wanting more than what was mentioned, but I suspect I will have to choose another book listed in Lacey's bibliography for any more information. Other family members get more time — not so much Elizabeth's sister, Margaret (who died in 2002), but certainly her children and her husband, Prince Phillip. Lacey recounts her courtship with Prince Phillip as a long and drawn out affair, punctuated by interference from family in the name of “duty.” He also talks about the strained relationship she's had with her children, Charles and Andrew, and the grandmotherly way in which she renewed public support after Princess Diana died.

Lacey writes in a simple way that's not overly fawning. He points out the difficulties and criticisms the Queen has faced over her reign, but he does not become gossipy or overly malicious. He's a very good biographer in that there is not much conjecture. The facts are presented, he cites his reference material, and he makes it all interesting.

Only six months older than the Queen, Margaret Thatcher was Elizabeth's first Prime Minister of her own generation, and would turn out to be her longest-serving premier ever. For the entire decade of the 1980s, male chauvinist Britain was unique in the world in having a female head of state alongside a female head of government. But they were women of very different styles. A prime minister who loved a row was teamed with a monarch who would do anything she could to avoid one.

What's also refreshing is that Lacey talks about the recession and awful practices Thatcher employed, but he doesn't do it in a way that criticizes Thatcher because she's a woman. Blessedly little page space is given to things like clothing and style matters — though with Princess Diana, some of that is unavoidable. Everyone is talked about in regards to their actions, not their gender.

I finished the book in about two nights, and it nicely sated my curiosity about the Queen. I don't know that I'm so enamored with British royalty that I'll pick up Lacey's other books, but I would definitely recommend The Queen: A Life in Brief to anyone looking for a basic rundown of recent history. This book accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, and for that, it is worth mentioning.


Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#22

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

This review now also appears on Pajiba.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Massive Internal News Update as of 7-20-13

The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971)
Wow, we have a lot of catching up to do, don't we? July has been a rather busy month for me, so let's get right to what I've been doing when I haven't been posting here.

At Persephone Magazine:

-whew-

And now for so many Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:

  • June 7th: Featuring cool Poe book art, writing fantasies, good interviews, Scrabble and more.
  • June 15th: literary cats, gendered covers, more good interviews, Patricia Highsmith and more.
  • June 28th: Jess Walter being awesome, Jami Attenberg being awesome, other people being awesome,  MORE Patricia Highsmith, etc.
  • July 5th: More book arts, Neil Gaiman, foot-in-mouth on Twitter, Adulting, other things.
  • July 20th: Contests! Advice! Lists! Oh My!
Geez, that better be all, shouldn't it?

Until next time!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group by Ian F. Svenonius

Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group
by Ian F. Svenious

What a delightfully odd little book this is. Presented as an old manual mixed with a narrator that's rather Lemony-Snicket-meets-Ted-Wilson, Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group manages to be just as funny as it is strange. Throughout, Ian F. Svenious injects enough knowing truth that anyone who has ever involved themselves with musicians will recognize.

The idea is this: During a séance, the ghost of The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones offered advice on forming a group, “accompanied by a vague scent of Moroccan spice and the rustling sound of suede on corduroy.” I let out an audible Ha! when I read the following:

Can we somehow become renowned without dying?
Faking one's death is an obvious route, and is often accomplished — albeit in a metaphorical sense — in collusion with the PR Industry. First one must create a record which is sensationally acclaimed. Then one must explode at the apex of its career.
[…]The La's, the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, the Sex Pistols, and The Specials all successfully used this virtual death technique to ensure renown, as did David Bowie when he fired his group Spiders From Mars onstage while their concert was being filmed at the Hammersmith Odeon for theatrical release.

Which is, of course, completely true until festival season 25 years from that “death,” when the living members of three-quarters of those bands reunite for a bit of Rock 'n' Roll Church at Glastonbury or Coachella. A tidy profit and a bit of personal nostalgia — They can be loved as before.

(Lest you think I'm making fun: With Noel Gallagher as my witness, I would succumb to my own metaphorical perishing if I could see the Stone Roses live.)

Eventually the spirit of Brian Jones signs off, and this séance group contacts Richard Berry (composer of “Louie, Louie”), who tells them all about how rock 'n' roll relates to the history of the US and its military industrial complex. Somehow, it makes a certain sort of sense. The spirit of Mary Wells continues these thoughts while also tying them to the music's origins within blues and doo-wop. “Her spirit (or what announced itself as such) communicated by spelling out letters in cooked spaghetti on the wall.”

Of course she does.

As Mary Wells was neatly explaining the origins of the group model, a ghost claiming to be Sir Paul McCartney interrupted and began to fill us in on the next stage of historical development. “So the rumors where true!” we joked, but he assured us it wasn't so. He explained that, though he is not dead, he does spend a lot of time in the spirit world while meditating or tending to his garden in Scotland.

What, was George Harrison not available? Or is he too busy to offer his thoughts on the British “colonizing” rock music? (That colonization has to do with “the founding fathers' teenage tantrum called 'The American Revolution," by the way.)

The spirits and the advice and the historical context continue, and I suppose it's meant to be funny that every spirit speaks in a dry, lecturing way and not in their own voices. That trick gets a bit old as the book goes on, so blessedly, the book is not very long.

Still, I did really enjoy all the talk of bands to which I listen. Besides the Stone Roses, The Small Faces get a mention, and then there's a whole rundown of musicians and their astrological signs. Identities within the band, their outward image, sex and drugs are all discussed, and perhaps what I found most amusing was that I'd already written about a fictional band that quite mirrored these traits.

Bass players are usually picked for their style and are often quiet and/or affable. Guitar players are often controlling, temperamental, and fastidious. Singers, insecure because of the highly personal nature of their contribution, behave like politicians. Drummers are gregarious, but have style and anger issues.

Did I write about a band this way because I have studied real life counterparts, decades' worth of bands, and therefore had absorbed this “supernatural” knowledge? It's very funny to me, though I understand that it probably isn't as much to you reading this.

However, if you've been in a band, managed or dated a musicians, or have just spent a lot of time thinking about music, this book is worth a look. The pairing of ridiculousness with facts makes the theories all the more plausible. While I didn't love this book, I liked it, and it reminded me of all the great rock 'n' roll stories I love to hear about, and all the analysis I love to provide.



Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#21

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Suite Encounters edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Suite Encounters: Hotel Sex Stories
edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

In more than one magazine article or online advice post, I've seen writers suggest that, if one is having trouble with their usual sex life, that they try mimicking the hotel room environment at home. No laundry laying around, no family photos — as much as possible, make the bedroom as utilitarian and not “you.” The idea is that the blank slate will take you out of your regular life and open up new possibilities, and perhaps — no, hopefully — that will translate into super hot sex.

Let's be real; hotel sex is pretty great. One does not have lingering thoughts like, Did I pull dinner out of the freezer? or Is the dog getting in the trash again? The articles often make the suggestion that, if the couple can afford it, checking into a room for the night can do wonders. And even if a couple's sex life is just fine, really good, or even great, a hotel room is a fun change in scenery.

Suite Encounters is an erotica collection that encompasses all sorts of sexy ways people make use of hotel and motel rooms, with a variety of gender pairings, sexualities, and scenarios. Ages, locations, and backstories vary enough to offer a little something for everyone, but not so much that the changes are jarring. Not every story was for me, but the book is one of the better erotica collections I've read.

The story title that intrigued me right away was “Air Conditioning. Color TV. Live Mermaids” by Anna Meadows. I live in a city with a bar that does indeed feature “live mermaids.” Did someone write about the O'Haire Motor Inn and the Sip 'n Dip lounge?

MERMAID HOTEL. HOME OF DIVE IN THE DESERT.

Ah, curses! Montana is not so much the desert. The story itself seems to be more about the novelty of someone who works as a mermaid. At one point, the woman says that the hotel uses salt water instead of chlorine because it's “cheaper,” but I'm not sure if that's true. Yes, this is a fantasy, and here I am fact-checking, but I guess that since I was disappointed that this wasn't the Sip 'n Dip and that the sex was written about in a more restrained way (when it comes to erotica), I noticed more things about which to quibble.

Speaking of quibbles and what we allow in fantasy — I really dislike reading descriptions of characters that feel like survey answers put into sentence form: “Six feet three inches of dark-haired, blue-eyed Australian hunk.” I do not fucking care how tall he is down to the inch. Does it make a difference in how he has sex? If this story is not about a height fetish, then it does not matter. That and rampant adjective abuse is a problem in a lot of erotica, and it takes me out of the story.

Let's talk about the good: “Soundproof” by Emily Moreton features a bisexual man who gets off on hearing a couple having loud sex in the next room. Bisexual men — full-on, acknowledged bi men who are not at all conflicted about it — are such a rarity in any media that this story immediately became one of my favorites. Moreton even uses the phrase “equal opportunity,” which made me want to high-five the page.

There are stories where the people already know each other, stories with strangers who just can't help themselves, and also ones with co-workers making business more fun. I liked that not everyone is a skinny, hot 23-year-old, and not every room was a swanky suite. None of this “Let's pretend we're rich and have nothing better to do.” Rachel Kramer Bussel has edited this collection well, and one can tell that it's a topic that not only excites her, but that it excited enough submitting writers to where Suite Encounters does not appear to have filler. Cleis Press puts out a shed-load of books per year, many edited by Bussel, and finding quality erotica writers that match the theme needed must be a challenge sometimes. Because of that, I'm always more impressed when the collection feels balanced. It's not kink-heavy for those who are a little BDSM-averse, but it is not free of kink either. Those stories are introductory Dominance and submission, if you will. Other stories are more “traditionally” romantic, and then there is the offering from Delilah Devlin, “Tailgating at The Cedar Inn,” which is all about the hookup (in a two men-one woman configuration, no less).

I can't tell you your own desires, but I can tell you that I liked it. The hotel room is a fantastic setting around which to assemble a short stories (erotica or otherwise), and Suite Encounters (if you'll forgive my word play here) provides above-and-beyond service.

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#19

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

AKA... That Time I Met Johnny Marr

“I ventured into this place called Rare Records on John Dalton Street in Manchester, I went into the basement and I remember to this day it was like a sea of future happiness.” 
— Johnny Marr, MOJO Magazine (January 2009)

After seeing him play in Portland, Oregon, Johnny Marr held my hand, and I told him about my novel. I told him how he had helped me write it, and in that moment, I felt the world ahead open up in that surreal and blinding way when everything seems possible. Here's how it happened:

April 16, I took the #9 bus to The Aladdin Theater. Inside, I could hear Marr sound-checking “The Right Thing Right,” and I lingered around back near his bus and thought about what I might say to him. Coming just six months from meeting Noel Gallagher in the same city, my brain had convinced itself that if I could meet one of my favorite people in the world, then surely one more would be no trouble. A man standing nearby, a fan, told me that Johnny had arrived not long before and told him that he was “running behind.”

That's fine, I thought. No point waiting in line out front when I can hear music from this spot. Eventually, the opening band, Alamar, wandered inside for their turn, and another man (who I'd later recognize as Marr's drummer), came out to retrieve something from the bus. We all nodded hello.

Once inside, I managed to walk right up to the front of the stage. Though there was a sizable open floor area, much of the crowd chose to use the theater's seats. I don't know if it was because the crowd skewed older — and therefore, they were more immune to the charms of front-row gig-experiences — but like hell was I going to grab a seat. Forget the sciatica, the burgeoning head cold, and the blister on my heel that plagued my day — On this evening, my body could pretend to have the same boundless pit energy I had at sixteen. This was Johnny Fuckin Marr, and the swirling brilliance of rock 'n roll can heal all.

Alamar's set was pretty good. The two women played alt-fuzz-rock, if you'll forgive the multiple hyphens in trying to describe them. Guitar, bass, laptop drum machine.

Oh, but then … Then out walked Johnny. He is a rather pint-sized man — probably around 5'6” and a size small — and he did this hip-swaying move while playing that was dead sexy. He engaged the crowd, walked around stage a bit, and when he played Smiths songs like “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” I may have temporarily died from happiness. Though he played much of his album and those few Smiths songs, he also did one Electronic song. The encore brought us “I Fought The Law” and “How Soon Is Now?” where I died all over again. I cheered, danced and sang my ass off during the whole gig, tiredness be damned.

Johnny Marr playing "Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before"
Along with a few of the other people I'd spoken to in the crowd, I made my way to the back entrance of the building and waited once more for Johnny to arrive. I'd been preparing myself — None of this blurting out the first thing that come to mind! About three people were ahead of me once he did come outside, and I waited calmly, ready.

When it was my turn, I held out my hand. “Hi, I'm Sara,” I handed him my CD and my purple Noel Gallagher-used Sharpie. “I came prepared.”

He smiled. “Is that Sara with or without an H?”

My brain made various nonsensical !!!!!! thoughts.

“No H.”

“Are you from Portland, Sara?” He looked up from signing the CD, and it became very clear that when Johnny Marr is talking to a person, he is talking only to that person. No hurrying me along.

“No, I'm from Montana.”

“Montana!” People are always impressed by Montana as though it's Mars.

“Yeah, I got in on the train this morning. And, I have to tell you something.”

“Yeah? What's that?”

Johnny Marr“Something you said in an interview about Rare Records in Manchester helped me write a part of my novel.”

At this, he brightened up considerably. “Really? What did I say?”

“You said you'd go down into the basement — ”

“With all the singles, that's right!” Full on grinning now.

“Yes, and when you'd take the new records home and listen on headphones in the dark, that you knew you were going on a little journey.”

“Wow. I was just a kid.” He grabbed my right hand and held it there in his. We stared at each other, after I took the half-second to glance down and confirm that, Yes, Johnny Marr had willingly and excitedly grabbed my hand, before he said, “That is so wonderful that something that was so important to me so many years ago made a connection with you now.”

“You were tremendously helpful,” I said. “Really.”

I realized that the line behind me was getting anxious to have their own moment. “I won't monopolize more of your time,” I said, “but … you have my Sharpie.”

Johnny Marr setlistI took my signed CD and my Noel Gallagher/Johnny Marr purple Sharpie and stepped aside so the woman behind me, Jane, could talk to him. She'd asked me before I spoke to him if I would take their picture when it was her turn. He agreed to a photo, and she says to both me and Johnny, “Can we move into the light? Here, move over here.”

She directed us closer to the lighted area by the stage door. “Jane is a bit bossy,” he said, laughing.

I took a photo, but it was a bit blurry — probably because my insides were still all !!!!!! They had a conversation about the buttons/badges on her coat, and she gave him one that her friend made. While they were talking, I scribbled onto one of my business cards, You helped me write my novel.

“I don't have a pen for you to sign anything,” she said to him.

“Oh, here.” I handed her my Sharpie, along with her phone. To Johnny, I gave the card. “So when the book is out in the world and you see it, you'll remember who I am, maybe.”

“Sara is prepared!” he said. “Thank you.”

After signing one of Jane's buttons, she and I started to walk away when he called out, “Good luck with your novel, Sara.”

And then I died again — But not before I answered, “Thank you!”

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Johnny. Even if the second time, I never got my Sharpie back.


I am so happy this t-shirt exists in the world

(View the rest of my photos from that night on Flickr.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards exists within the lies we tell ourselves and the lies others choose to believe. In this stunning first novel, Kristopher Jansma has accomplished a narrative feat by making the reader embrace bewilderment and questions of identity.

To properly summarize Leopards is to run the risk of spoiling its magic, but our young male narrator has yearned for notoriety ever since his flight attendant mother would leave him waiting in the concourse while she worked, depending upon other airport employees to watch him. The boy would write and write, desiring great words that would impress those around him. By impressing them, he wishes to earn their love.

We think we know his name, and then we are not sure. The process continues, and the boy ages — “growing up” is not entirely the correct term, for he still has not quite figured out who he is, or if the love he feels for a special woman is a love for her or just love for love's sake. He and his best friend exchange stories, and though they are often in competition with each other, their devotion remains — until finally, their friendship breaks:

“[...] You project these fantasies onto us. It's fun playing the people you think we are, but this is where it stops. This isn't some story anymore; this is her life. And you don't get to do this. You don't get to.”
And for once I thought I knew exactly what was running through Julian's mind. He was out of his mind, of course. But underneath that was something else. Something I'd never seen before, but that had always been there, whenever he'd looked at me, from the very first day: he pitied me. Not in the same snobby way that he pitied everyone and everything, but because I had no idea who I really was. He'd seen me all along, like a moth fluttering repeatedly against a windowpane. He'd grown attached to me, gotten to know the pattern of my wings against the glass. I'd always been on the other side of it, though. I'd been circling out there for so long that I'd forgotten.
Our narrator lives many lives, meets many people, and he travels the world, but we are not quite able to sort the likely true story from the fabrications until we are further into the book. That's part of the fun. Jansma writes in such a thrilling, beautiful way that we are on the same expeditions, enjoying the ride. He makes us want to go wherever he has deemed necessary, no matter if we have adequate clues towards our destination.

Running through all these questions of self are the questions directed towards the craft of writing. At what point do we learn to disregard what others are doing? When do we learn to sit down and tell the story we need to tell? Writerly insecurity is no new topic, of course, but in this unreliable narrator's hands, I enjoyed the perspective. There's also a bit near the beginning that is the narrator's short story that also contains a novel excerpt. When other critics compare Leopards to Russian matroshka dolls, it's apt.

While insecurity and identity are indeed weighty topics, the novel can be very funny at times, too.

“You know, Julian asked me to spy on you. Find out what you were writing for this contest tomorrow.”
Julian was nervous about what
I had written?
“He said he read your story, while you were in the bathroom or something. The one about the flight attendant's kid? And that it was so good he started his over. And then he saw you'd started yours over, and so he started his over again. I swear, I love him, but he's completely insane sometimes.”
“Well, you can tell him I've got nothing,” I said moodily. “Tell him to get a good night's sleep because both of my stories suck and I can't write another word.”
All of the emphasized words reminded me of the dialogue in Salinger's Franny and Zooey, which is fantastic.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is not terribly long for a novel, which makes it all the more amazing that Kristopher Jansma is able to weave together so much simultaneous information and mystery. I loved it, and I will eagerly await any other books he may release in the future.


Full Disclosure: Viking/Penguin Books sent me this as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#17

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Internal News as of 6-4-13

We need to do a mega-update of things I've been writing lately, in case you're not otherwise paying attention or have missed the posts on either Twitter or FB.

First things first: My review of Looking For The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco (Mr. Inaugural Poet Himself) was published on The Rumpus. Somehow, three whole years had passed since I last had a review up over there. Expect that to change.

Recently on Persephone Magazine:


  • 30 Years of Music: 2006! Featuring Richard Ashcroft, Arctic Monkeys, Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, Beth Orton, Gnarls Barkley, The Ranconteurs, AFI, Regina Spektor, Peaches,  Lindsey Buckingham, Cold War Kids, Amy Winehouse, Willie Nelson, Damien Rice, and Justin Timberlake.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2007! Featuring Kaiser Chiefs, Modest Mouse, The Nightwatchman, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Feist, Paul McCartney, White Stripes, PJ Harvey, Aesop Rock, Linkin Park, Radiohead, Blaqk Audio, M.I.A., Kylie Minogue, and Spice Girls.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2008! Featuring Adele, Glasvegas, She & Him, Flight of the Conchords, Atmosphere, Fleet Foxes, Jakob Dylan, The Airborne Toxic Event, Lykke Li, The Verve, Pretenders, Kings of Leon, Oasis, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, and The Ting Tings.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2009! Featuring Matt and Kim, Lilly Allen, The Lonely Island feat. Justin Timberlake, Doves, Manchester Orchestra, St. Vincent, Florence and The Machine, Kasabian feat. Rosario Dawson, Lady Gaga, Muse, Hockey, The Swell Season, Leona Lewis, Bat For Lashes, and 30 Seconds to Mars.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2010! (Shorter one this time around because 2010 and my tastes/familiarity had less in common.) Featuring The Dead Weather, Goldfrapp, Janelle Monáe feat. Big Boi, Apocalypta feat. Gavin Rossdale, Cold War Kids, Gorillaz feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Laura Marling, The Black Keys and an extra special version of Ke$ha. Really.
  • Lit Mags I Have Known: A Short Guide
  • Get in My Belly: Homemade Peanut Butter Cups: SO GOOD.
  • Get in My Belly: Black Bean Rice Salad with Mango: ALSO SO GOOD.
  • We Try It: Making Granola: Don't be like me and burn part of it.
  • We Try It: Pumpkin French Toast Bake: Mixed results, but not bad.
  • Book Review: Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho: Now also appearing at P-Mag.


And I've actually been updating at Word Riot, so here are the latest Notes From Elsewhere:


  • May 3rd: Jumbo Edition: featuring Bethany Prosseda, book arts, Cheryl Strayed, Deborah Copaken Kogan, Elif Batuman, Emily Temple, Fiona Maazel, Jenny Lawson, Jonathan Franzen, Kevin O'Cuinn, Len Kuntz, Matt Haig, Mel Bosworth, Roger Ebert, Tabitha Blankenbiller, Timmy Waldron, Tom Sheehan, Tyler Adam Smith, and Wil Wheaton.
  • May 10th: Regular Friday Edition: featuring Aimee Phan, Chloe Caldwell, Claire Messud, Elliott Holt, Harper Lee, J. Robert Lennon, Julia Fierro, Laura Stanfill, Maureen Johnson, Quinn White, and Robin Desser.
  • May 17th: Friday, I'm in Love Edition: featuring Aaron Gilbreath, Bart Schaneman, Bill Murray on Gilda Radner, Cheryl Strayed, Claire Messud, Courtney Maum, J.K. Rowling, Jennifer Egan, Katherine Rowland, Matt Thomas, and Rachel Friedman.
  • May 25th: Long Weekend Edition: featuring more Aaron Gilbreath, Barbara Westwood Diehl, Cleolinda, Eve Bridburg, Jessica Francis Kane, Jessica Probus, John Scalzi, Kindle Worlds, literary drinks, and Nancy Rommelmann.
You would think that there would be one for May 31st or June 1st, since I was so good about updating. You would be wrong. Sorry.

This many gerbillion links later.... I do believe that is all for now. Ta.