Friday, December 24, 2010

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

This book follows Claire, a nurse who is taking a second honeymoon with her milquetoast husband after World War Two, when a stone circle in the Scottish Highlands sends her back to the eighteenth century. Once there she must choose between her past and the past, amid dangers, violence, and a new marriage. I enjoyed reading this book. There's a little bit of everything in it. I'm looking forward to continuing the series.

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Although Jennifer Strange isn't a magician herself, she becomes vital to the survival of magic in the Ununited Kingdoms in this book. The story was at times funny and at times exciting. As usual, Fforde's remarkable imagination and sense of humor make this book extremely compelling. I am looking forward to the remaining two books in this trilogy.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cell line, known as HeLa, changed the way we understand cells and disease. The book follows the cells, Henrietta's life, and her family's reaction to the discovery of the ways scientists have used the cells. The science was fairly clear, and I thought the discussion of the ethics and implications of the way we use bodily materials was level headed and helpful. Skloot did a fine job with the human interest angle of the story as well. I enjoyed the biographical elements of the book.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Play of Piety by Margaret Frazer

This mystery brings Joliffe back to his troupe, who are holed up at a medieval hospital while Basset recovers from an attack of arthritis. The novel portrays medieval medical care with great acumen. As these books tend to go, the mystery develops slowly. I was a little disappointed that the crowner does a fair amount of the legwork off screen. Still, an enjoyable book.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

This collection of poetry has some really beautiful and memorable moments. The poems are all short, but they're well worth reading. The collection moves from the joys and excitements of young love to the sadness and despair of love's end. I especially enjoyed "Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche," which as its title implies comes near the end of the collection.

Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt

This book pairs two loosely-linked novellas, one about an entomologist who finds himself trapped by domestic concerns after a shipwreck destroys his collections, and one about a group of Victorian spiritualists attempting to communicate with the dead who are linked to Tennyson and Arthur Henry Hallam. I liked the first part better than the second part, which seemed disjointed to me. This effort is as good as neither Possession nor The Children's Book.

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

This book is fantastic. Homans faces a difficult task in describing the history of an art form which for much of its existence has been passed down from dancer to dancer instead of being recorded in some form of notation. She admits to these challenges from the beginning and meets them with style and grace. Homans theorizes that by tracking ballet's role in European cultural life, we can see larger political and cultural changes, and although she doesn't provide a grand theory explaining everything, she makes a great case for the relevance of ballet. Although she ends the book pessimistically, I think the effort she's put into telling ballet's story (and the apparent popular success) belie the point she makes at the end, namely that ballet's on its way out.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

This book was not as enjoyable as Morton's previous books. The plot felt a bit contrived, and while the initial idea--that a letter could ruin lives for the lack of its delivery--was intriguing, the plot didn't make that idea make sense in contrast. I really enjoyed the digging for the basis of the mudman story, but in the end, the frantic plot advances at the end couldn't make up for a slow start and the contrived nature of the story.

At Home by Bill Bryson

The idea behind this book--tracing the history of privacy and domesticity--through the rooms of a house is fascinating. Many of the anecdotes Bryson tells are intriguing and his style is commendable--authoritative with a touch of humor. However, as the book wore on, I found it difficult to discern the principles upon which it all hung together--in the end it felt like a hodgepodge of facts Bryson had found and stories he wanted to tell.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Stranger in Mayfair by Charles Finch

Although I hadn't gotten the exact details right, I knew the linchpin on which this mystery turns early in the book. This book seems as much concerned about how Lenox manages the conflicting pressures of Parliament and detecting as the detective work itself. I found the characters more tedious in this outing--especially because Lenox and Lady Jane (his new wife) are utterly unwilling to say anything meaningful to each other the whole book.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

I found this collection of essays to be really refreshing and amusing. Wallace covers a wide range of topics with erudition and grace. From the adult entertainment industry to Dostoevsky and Kafka, and from the 2000 primary campaign trail with John McCain (a deeply ambivalent piece in which Wallace admires McCain's character but deprecates his political positions) and conservative talk radio to the September 11th bombings, from the ethics of eating lobster to a review of Garner's guide to American usage, Wallace is always thoughtful, thought-provoking, and witty. The last-mentioned usage review is the best single piece in the collection, but I enjoyed all the essays.

Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

This book starts with Temeraire and Laurence separated, as Laurence, having been convicted of treason, is alive only to ensure that Temeraire behaves himself. But with Napoleon threatening London itself and the French dragons appearing in surprisingly large numbers, Temeraire and Laurence are called back into service. I particularly liked Temeraire's growth and insistence on becoming a fully-fledged part of the military in this book, although I hope that the twist at the end is only temporary!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Crosscurrent by Paul Kemp

This book features dissatisfied Jedi Knight, Jaden Korr, who experiences a Force vision and goes off to the Unknown Regions to track down its source. He gets two scavengers to lend their ship to the hunt, and they run into a Sith dreadnought with a damaged hyperdrive that has jumped 5,000 years into the future--and a Thrawn-era research facility that was cloning Force-sensitive individuals. I liked this story--I thought it had the right scope of action. It ties in nicely with both the Lost Tribe of the Sith and the Legacy of the Force and the Fate of the Jedi series. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Allies by Christie Golden

This book seems to explain a lot--almost too much, too quickly. The Jedi seem to be driven mad by Abeloth, a monstrous being in the Maw who may have defeated Callista at one point. Luke joins the Sith (from the Lost Tribe) in a tenuous truce. Daala's behavior gets worse and worse, and the Jedi on Coruscant more beleaguered. I'm intrigued to see where the series goes from here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Backlash by Aaron Allston

This book takes Luke, Ben, Han, and Leia back to Dathomir. I enjoyed seeing Luke and Ben interact with other Jedi again, and I'm getting increasingly interested in this lost tribe of Sith. It was definitely a very middle-of-the-series book: there are lots of plot lines meandering around that don't seem very close (at all) to resolution (and the what made Jacen Solo go bad thread seems to have been dropped, for the moment at least, entirely). So, we'll see how the series develops from here. I also like the development of Allana's personality.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trespass by Rose Tremain

This book uses its elegant prose to examine familial betrayals and impositions in the lives of two pairs of siblings brought together over the sale of a house in the South of France. I thought this book was particularly aptly titled--as various kinds of trespassing (on people's land as well as emotions) resonated throughout the book. The pace of the book was leisurely at first, but it all came together to a moving ending.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

This novel features the City Watch and the discovery of the gonne, a dangerous weapon. It took me a long time to get into the story line, and at times I had trouble following exactly where Pratchett was going, but once I got into it, I enjoyed the story. I particularly liked reading about Vimes (whose impending marriage disrupts his career and habits) and the integration of trolls and dwarfs into the Watch.

Multiethnic Literature and Canon Debates edited by Mary Jo Bona and Irma Maini

This collection of essays contends that the culture wars of the 1980s are not yet over, and that we need to continue studying and acknowledging the importance of multiethnic literature, especially in an American context. The quality of the essays varies. Some merely rehash the debates over the canon (sometimes with a particular perspective). Others give readings; I found the reading of The Great Gatsby as an ethnic work particularly helpful. The third section (which has more of a cultural studies bent and examines the canon from the perspective of popular culture) was perhaps the most useful section and the most innovative.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on Five Hundred Years of History, Volume 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800

This volume presents a geographical history of the areas of the North American continent that are currently part of the United States or are relevant to the way the US turned out the way it did. The book focuses pretty clearly on the US: while it does a great job attending to the many European and African peoples who settled the early US, and differentiating among the Native Americans already here, it has less interest in the rest of the hemisphere (which is not to say that Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and the Caribbean never appear, so much as they aren't the main focus). While this book would not give an adequate history if you were looking for great men or politics, I found it to be an excellent and thorough approach. I'm looking forward to the other volumes, which will take the US through 2000.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

This book purports to teach readers how to identify an American's class status through appearance. While the book was reasonably funny (and, I hope, meant to be funny), it was also dated in a variety of ways (you can tell it was written in the early 80s). It's the kind of book that's best kept beside the toilet to amuse your guests in small bits.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I found this book extremely difficult to read. As a Midwestern family falls apart (the father has Parkinson's disease), its members learn what's important to each of them. Parts of this book were really funny, but I found the main characters generally unpleasant and the ending too pat and easy. I can see why this book won such acclaim, but it certainly wasn't the best thing I've read even this month.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amexica: War Along the Borderline by Ed Vulliamy

This book looks at the violence currently raging in the cities along Mexico's border with the United States. Vulliamy doesn't shy away from portraying the corruption, violence, and shattered lives present in these cities, but he doesn't blame only the narcocartels, either. Instead, he insists that the reader understand that the money which fuels the destructive cycles comes from the United States's seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs, and from its willingness to sell guns south. The book is clear and well-researched, and I appreciated Vulliamy's obvious respect for the borderlands and most of the people trying to make their lives there.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

This book is the fourth and final chunk of the first volume of the Library of America edition of Gertrude Stein's writings (I didn't re-read the second chunk, Three Lives). It's a very strange book: although it purports to be an autobiography, Stein has written it (as she admits in the very last sentence, comparing herself to Defoe). It's especially strange as Stein always refers to herself as Gertrude Stein. The book covers the relationship between Stein and Toklas obliquely rather than explicitly (in the book, Stein ventriloquizes Toklas as saying she sits with the wives of geniuses), and shows Toklas as the person who takes care of all the pesky, bureaucratic things that Stein would rather not bother with. I was particularly interested in the account of their work driving an ambulance during World War I, and her description of post-war Paris (full of artistic American expatriates). This book is less experimental on the level of the sentence than Three Lives and many of the writings collected in the third part of this volume.

Portraits and Other Short Works by Gertrude Stein

This collection of Stein's short work includes a range of materials dating from 1903 to 1932. Included in this collection of thirty-six works are a number of short sketches (portraits) of people she knew in Paris, Tender Buttons, Four Saints in Three Acts, "If I Told Him" (a remarkable poem about Picasso), and "Composition as Exposition" an essay derived from a lecture she gave on writing. I particularly liked "If I Told Him" for its playfulness. Stein's work presents an interesting challenge to the reader, because in some senses it demands to be both seen and heard--if you don't read it aloud you don't get the playfulness and the phonetic connections between words that are so important to it making any sort of sense, but if you don't see it, you'll miss the work she's doing with homonyms and punctuation.

Q.E.D. by Gertrude Stein

This short novel, some of Stein's earliest writing, is a semi-autobiographical account of an affair she had. While certainly not her most experimental piece, there are certain elements about the way she describes feelings and the repetitiveness of her sentences that give a hint of what's to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi

This book is a collection of five stories set in a post-apocalyptic future where the city gains a whole new meaning--they offer modes of political collectivity, ways of innovation, and sustainable interactions with the environment. The stories range in location and tone (Scalzi's story in particular, "Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis," was really funny), but they work together really well (the five authors did the world building parts together). I read them instead of listening to them (they were initially written to be made into an audiobook first), but I really enjoyed this collection.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

This book gives a no-frills, no-holds-barred account of the rise of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The main contention of the book (insofar as it as one) is that Atlantic City's heyday was made possible by cheap train fares, and the tourist trade. As other options opened up to American tourists (especially with the rise of the personal automobile), Atlantic City found it increasingly hard to attract tourists, who form the city's lifeblood. Unfortunately, the book is dry (despite a thrilling history) and I found it theoretically lacking (it was mostly about just saying here's what happened without much of a framework). Fans of the HBO show will find the 1920s heyday of Atlantic City evoked much more convincingly and excitingly on television.

Juliet by Anne Fortier

This book starts with a neat premise: the descendants of Romeo and Juliet are still around and still trying to break the star-crossed part of their ancestors' love affair. And at times, the story works well in the mode of present-day characters living a story while trying to untangle the past sort of way (a mode employed to great success in A.S. Byatt's Possession and in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian). It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly how this story falls apart--at times it just seems to clunk or thud when it should ring. At times it's the curse part, and at times it's the characters' motivations, and at times it's the way the characters act like they have Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in their bones, but it was hard for me to stay entirely immersed in the world of the story without stopping from time to time and thinking, does the author really expect me to buy that. But, all in all, it was an enjoyable story.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World by Vijay Prashad

This book is organized geographically and covers a remarkable range of Third World history. Prashad argues that the Third World, in its attempts to organize itself, offered, at least temporarily, a viable alternative to the standoff between First World capitalism and Second World socialism. While he argues that this potential was lost through exploitative lending practices and other pitfalls, he suggests that what's needed is for some people to take up the banner of the Third World. This book is an impressive collection and analysis of history. It looks with equal clarity and criticism at the both United States and the First World and the USSR and the Second World. Nor does it romanticize the goals of the Third World. I learned a lot about a period of history that was not very well covered in my education.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America by Richard H. Brodhead

I found this book to be disappointing: Brodhead's argument, writ large, is that to understand nineteenth century American writing, we need to understand the conditions surrounding the writers. This idea sounds right to me, but somehow the connection between the theory and the readings just doesn't work for me. Which is not to say that the readings are bad, exactly, just that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't all hang together for me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

In this book Magrat Garlick returns to Lancre to find that King Verence is not only still planning on marrying her, but he's got the wedding planned for Midsummer's. And, with or without Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg's help, the wedding's going on--despite Magrat's opinions on the matter. I enjoyed this one--especially the nice parody of the tradesmen's play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lots of good laughs--and a nice parody of fantasy conventions (especially as regards witches, wizards, and elves) along the way.

"There are no delusions for the dead. Dying is like waking up after a really good party, when you have one or two seconds of innocent freedom before you recollect all the things you did last night which seemed so logical and hilarious at the time, and then you remember the really amazing thing you did with a lampshade and two balloons, which had them in stitches, and now you realize you're going to have to look a lot of people in the eye today and you're sober now and so are they but you can both remember" (Pratchett, 28).

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies: A Novel of Discworld. New York: HarperPrism, 1995.

Abyss by Troy Denning

This book picks up the pace on the hunt for what Jacen was up to while he was traveling around the galaxy after the Yuuhzahn Vong war--and hints at an underlying structure that might make sense of Centerpoint, Corellia, Kessel, the Maw, and the Jedi going crazy. The Jedi seem to be figuring out how to cope with Daala (though Hamner seems to be liking his position too much for my taste) and the plot's really picking up. At this point I'm really relieved to see some good, old-fashioned Sith who aren't shadows of their former, beloved selves.

The Shining by Stephen King

This book is every bit as creepy as the Stanley Kubrick film version, although the differences (which are subtle at first) completely change the character of Jack and the nature of the story's ending. Although the book is long, and the creepiness builds much more slowly than it does in the film, at the end you can hardly stand to put it down--and I don't think I could have read it while I was entirely alone in the house. In fact, I'd recommend summer as an ideal season to read this book. The supernatural is much more pronounced, and much more in control in the book than the movie, but the book still manages to think harder about the questions of addiction and anger that fuel Jack Torrence's descent, and about family more generally--in the movie I never could quite understand how Wendy, whiny and useless though she is, could put up with such a creep of a husband--but the book shows both Jack and Wendy to be much more sympathetic, realistic, and nuanced characters. All in all, read this book--but only during the day!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reading for the Plot by Peter Brooks

This monograph begins by contending that plot is far more important in literature than we tend to give it credit for being. But, rather than taking a strictly formalist approach (although Brooks does acknowledge its usefulness), Brooks gives a psychoanalytic reading of plot itself (as opposed to authors or characters)--looking at the dynamic relationship between fabula (the events of the story) and sjužet (the way these events are narrated in the text) and the role of repetition in literature in relation to Freud, especially Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Brooks's method seems useful, and it produces convincing readings. There's a wide range of subjects here from Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert to Dickens and Conrad, and finally Faulkner. The readings of Conrad and Faulkner were particularly useful and salient to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vixen by Jillian Larkin

I received this book from Barnes and Noble for free through their First Look program. I'm putting the rest of my review under a cut as we haven't finished our discussion there yet.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson

This book contains a series of essays written as a weekly column for a British magazine during Bryson's first several years back in the United States after twenty years in England. Although they're not linked by a narrative arc, it's endearing to follow the progress of several years through the essays (in an almost Walden-like way), and they're all quite funny. There's also a fair amount of trenchant commentary on the United States and its culture and the practices of its citizens. This book would be a great occasional book--the kind of thing you would keep by your bed and pick up when you can't sleep.

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

This book is an exciting middle entry in the Leviathan trilogy. The beastie of its title, the behemoth, is a bit of a deus ex machina that comes along at the end, but otherwise, it's a great story about two kids, who like each other despite being on opposite sides of World War I, who learn to trust each other and work together. It's done with a deft hand, and is a quite amusing read, even for adults. I'm looking forward to the final book in this trilogy, Goliath, which I believe will come out next year.

Negroes with Guns by Robert Franklin Williams

This book recounts Robert Williams's experiences in Monroe, NC, where he helped organize African Americans to respond to white racists with violence when they threatened lawful NAACP organization. The book is a radical call for increased goals (Williams contends that while bus boycotts and sit-ins accomplish worthy goals, the real change that needs to happen is economic) and an attempt to hold whites responsible for administering the justice that the Constitution promises. Written in a clear style, this book offers a clear social vision and an alternative that can work with non-violent methods as a means of achieving racial justice.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I found this book remarkably easy to pick up, even though it has been a year since I read The Strain. Things have gone from bad to worse. While a group of people working together joins together to fight vampires and get their hands on the Occido Lucem, a rare, expensive book that's conveniently up for auction, and which may hold the key to human survival, the forces of the Master grow ever stronger. This book is clearly a middle-of-a-trilogy book: it starts in the middle and runs through without much final resolution. Still, I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This book picks up the adventures of Ethan Wate, a young man who has suddenly realized that the world is much more complicated (and magical) than it seems. These books are alright, and I appreciate when someone makes up a new magical system or moves away from the (often tired) vampire clichés, but I'm not sure that this system is convincing yet (I have the same feeling about the archangels in the Hush, Hush series). The Latin seems to be correct, but it doesn't feel lived-in, and the characters seem to be over-reacting to much of what the authors throw their way. I enjoyed the book, but I'm not sure I fully buy into it yet.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

The latest book in the Temeraire series continues to impress. Laurence and Temeraire return from their long trip to China (with the detour to Istanbul) only to discover that a consumption-like illness has put almost all of Britain's dragons out of service. They hasten to Africa to search for the cure (apparently Temeraire had contracted it on the trip to China but was cured in Africa), and in so doing, discover a civilization that's breeding dragons and elephants--which attacks the British settlement at Cape Town because of the slave trade. When Temeraire and Laurence discover that back home, the British government has been acting unethically in its pursuit of the war, they're left with an ethical decision of their own to make. The book was excellent, and I'm really enjoying the way this series plays out questions of duty, morality, and friendship. As a fair warning to all readers, this book ends on a cliffhanger. If you read it, you'll probably need to keep reading the series. Still, if the series keeps getting better, that's not a problem.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen

This book tells the story of Mona Chang, who struggles to come to terms with her identity in a suburb of New York during the late 1960s. I found this book both entertaining and moving, and I think it provides a good picture of that moment. It asks big questions--what does it mean to be American? What do we owe our families? Can you change identities like you change clothing?--and it takes them seriously, but answers them playfully.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

This book introduces Allan Quatermain, an elephant hunter who agrees to accompany two Englishmen on a dangerous journey into Africa's interior, to find one of the men's estranged younger brother, who himself was on a hunt to find the legendary mines of King Solomon, reputed to be filled with diamonds of inestimable worth. The narrative, at least in Quatermain's acquisitive hands, quickly gets diverted into two other quests--first to reunite their guide Umbopa with his people (who conveniently live near the mines) and restore him to his kingship, and second to see the mines for themselves (an interest which Quatermain vigorously denies). So, when the brother is found alive at the end, it feels more like a footnote than the fulfillment of the quest. Although Quatermain is clearly racist and sexist (his dedication alone, "to all the big and little boys" who will read his account, will be enough to put women off the story), the introductory essay makes the point that Haggard is clearly aware of his narrator's failings. I enjoyed this story, but on the other hand, I'm probably not going to be storming the gates to find all the sequels in short order.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism by Wai-chee Dimock

This monograph links a formal reading of Melville's novels (except Typee and Omoo) to an historical reading of Jacksonian individualism and national expansion. As Dimock explains in her first chapter, "indeed, it is through Melville, through his authorial exercises in freedom and dominion, that we are able to see Manifest Destiny--not as most of us see it now, as a quaint idea, but as innumerable antebellum Americans saw it, as a powerful account of national and individual destiny, an account that conferred on both the nation and the self a sense of corporeal autonomy in space, and teleological ascendancy in time" (10-11). Her account of Jacksonian individualism and Jacksonian imperialism in the first chapter gives her work a solid grounding in history, and her readings of the novels themselves are quite persuasive. This monograph is a great example of criticism at its best: a reading of cultural texts that provides larger contexts while offering a theoretical structure.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War by Franny Nudelman

This monograph looks at the ways that Civil War-era practices of portraying the body, starting with the song "John Brown's Body" incorporate people into the nationalistic labor of supporting the war effort. Nudelman reads a wide variety of cultural texts, from "Benito Cereno" and Melville and Whitman's war poems, to battlefield photographs, to practices of dissection. The book's arguments were convincing--and Nudelman sold me on her work's relevance to modern instances of violence.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

This book starts a new series in Percy Jackson's world: but Percy's missing. Instead, a new trio of demigods, Jason, who has amnesia, Piper, and Leo go on a desperate quest to rescue Hera before a mysterious, evil force can resurrect one of the giants using Hera's powers. This series is just as entertaining as the original Percy Jackson series, but it adds interesting twists to Percy's world. I can't wait till the next book in this series comes out next fall!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller

This collection of essays probes the relationship between forms of official and unofficial discipline and the Victorian novel. Miller takes Foucault's work on power and discipline as a starting point and applies those theories to the novel. Among the books that Miller offers convincing readings of are Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Bleak House, Barchester Towers, and The Eustace Diamonds. I found Miller's insights about the relationship between the police and the criminal and his analysis of the policing powers in the novels particularly convincing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

This book, which spoils itself both in its title and in its first six pages, is actually a meticulously-plotted, sweeping, and engaging account of the tragedies, cons, and even triumphs of an Irish boys' school. The characters were round and human, yet engaging, and despite knowing Skippy's fate, there were plenty of twists and turns in the plot--Murray forces the reader to move beyond common assumptions in his nuanced plot. It's quite a long book, but it repays its reader in kind.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

I received this book from Barnes and Noble's First Look program a long time ago, but only recently got around to reading it. The book's tone is elegiac, as the narrator remembers both the Sag Harbor vacations of his childhood generally, and the summer he and his brother spent mostly alone in Sag Harbor in 1985, which the reader senses marks a turning point in Benji's memories. The narrator's persona is one I really enjoyed--he is obviously smarter now than he was at the time he narrates, and his aspirations, fears, and bad decisions struck me as realistic. If the book is weak anywhere, I'd say it's weak in plot--while it moves mostly chronologically through the summer, and a lot of stuff happens, there's also a sense in which nothing happens. I'm sure that the non-happenings of summer are partially the point, but it does seem to take something away.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson

This book features a cartoonist narrator who's ambivalent about his own Judaism. While a lot of the book is a meditation on love, relationships, and loneliness (the narrator has three failed marriages behind him), insofar as there is a plot, it deals with the narrator's resumption of friendship with Manny Washinsky, whom he knew as a boy, and who gassed his parents in their sleep. I found this book much more enjoyable than The Finkler Question, the 2010 winner of the Man Booker Prize, also by Howard Jacobson, but that may be because I am more used to Jacobson's work now.

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

This book is a history of the Anglo-Irish owners of Castle Rackrent (the Rackrents) as told by their faithful retainer, Thady. While Thady's son, who is an ambitious young lawyer, manages to buy the Rackrent property from its dissipated heirs, Thady sides with the Anglo-Irish overlords. Thady's position is intriguing to me. The book is slender and goes by relatively fast--and is enjoyable as much for its linguistic feel (the non-standard English) as much as anything.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bored of the Rings by the Harvard Lampoon, Henry Beard, and Douglas C. Kenney

This book parodies Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The parody is smart and accurate, but I didn't think it was actually all that funny. Funny how that works (or doesn't). I guess part of it is, I already appreciate the inherent goofiness of the trilogy, so I didn't need a parody to see that. Also, there were parts that were a bit crude for my tastes.

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

This book traces the historical development of the Irish people in the United States from an oppressed race to part of the oppressive race. The historical work seems alright, and I appreciate the analysis of class and race (analysis undertaken too infrequently in an American context), but I finished this book wanting more theoretical work--more of a methodology of analysis. It didn't help that Ignatiev uses literature in ways that I find suspect: I don't think it works as evidence in the ways he uses it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This book has been receiving a ton of hype and attention: Jonathan Franzen's face graced the cover of Time magazine; Oprah selected the book for her book club; Jodi Picoult claims that the difference between the critical reception of her work and the critical reception of Freedom (both she and Franzen, she contends, deal with similar themes) is driven by the fact that he's a white male, so might be expected to produce Literature or The Great American Novel, whereas she's a woman who writes chicklit; pranksters stole the very glasses off Franzen's face at a reception in London; Freedom was snubbed when the National Book Awards finalist list came out; and the UK first printing had to be pulped and reprinted when the wrong draft of the book went to the printers!

After all this hype, Freedom delivers (at least) on its promise of telling a good story. While both the Berglunds struck me as overdone in their unfortunate antecedents (although part of that, I think, was that Patty narrated large chunks of her own story in a third-person memoir that both constitutes part of the text and drives a lot of the plot as an object), I found their story (with Richard Katz, Walter's college roommate)--set up in the book as the story of a typical, urban, yuppie family gone horribly wrong--was great to read. Franzen's prose works, his plot is engaging, the characters are mostly realistic (if reprehensible and hard to like at times), and the use of the memoir works surprisingly well in a formal sense. I wasn't quite sure how to read Walter's environmentalism. It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's most recent book, Solar, in that aspect--the environmentalism is an important plot engine, and the author takes the environmental positions of the characters seriously, but shows the characters' environmental attitudes leading them to take CRAZY and untenable actions. Surprisingly, for an American novel, there was much more concern about class (for example, in Joey's friendship with his roommate at UVa, Jonathan, the class power (or lack thereof) and class status of poor people being moved from their land in Appalachia to make the land available for mountain top removal, or in the class implications that Free Space's messages would have) than about race (although Walter does briefly engage in an interracial relationship with Lalitha, which is only commented upon by some ignorant folks in West Virginia, if I'm remembering correctly).

This novel dealt with 9/11 in mostly tangential ways. It was really most important to Joey, who was in his first year at UVa when it happened. Perhaps the local connection was what made this portrayal most acceptable to me: I have a lot of friends who were at UVa in the fall of 2001, and Joey's experience as far as school goes pretty neatly matches what they've told me, so it feels real. It also wasn't fetishized in the text. It happened, it changed some characters (particularly Joey, but it also gave some political tangles and consequences to Walter's work in Washington), and people moved on rather than dwelling (which is not to say that dwelling is bad, but rather that I've yet to see a book that dwells on 9/11 (except possibly Netherland) that hits the right emotional tone for me, and even in some books with passing references to it, I finish the book with my hackles up--for example, The Stars in the Bright Sky).

The references to UVa were meticulously correct insofar as place and experience goes (did Jonathan Franzen visit UVa to research? Undercover?), but they struck me at times as less than generous to unfair. Dressing up for football games is what makes us great (it's certainly not the football team, and definitely not after their disgusting performance last night)!

Is this book worth reading, thinking about, discussing? Without reservation, yes. Is it the next (or the) Great American Novel? If we ignore the fact that the Great American Novel is a construct, I'd still say probably not. It's one of the great novels of the year, but I think to pretend that it's somehow sui generis or unique or so far ahead of other novels that it's somehow in its own class is to do a disservice both to all the other great American fictions (and great novels generally) that are still being written and that have been written and to Freedom itself, which I think is strongest when you consider it among and in conversation with other novels (for example, there are a lot of explicit references to War and Peace running through the text).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Los Días Enmascarados by Carlos Fuentes

This collection of short stories is small but dense. I found the Spanish in the six stories difficult, but the stories intriguing. They strike me as Borgesian: statues come to life, gardens in old houses are actually in different places, and so forth. Things aren't as they initially seem. I'm not sure if an English translation is available.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature by Jennifer Rae Greeson

This book examines the relationship between the United States and the South through three distinct periods: the early Republic, the antebellum, and Reconstruction. Although Greeson contends that this relationship changes in each of those periods (in the first, the South is the nation's colonial other, in the second, the South becomes a repository for concerns about modernization, and in the third, the South is a place for Empire to start), this relationship always contains elements of what the US wants both to embrace and to disavow. The book is meticulously researched and contains brilliant readings of canonical and less-familiar texts.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

In this novel Terry Pratchett takes on religion. On the Disc, the size of gods depends on the number of believers they have--and Om, a small god, has been stuck in a tortoise for three years. This satire of religion wasn't as funny as some of the other Discworld novels have been--although I liked the bits about the Quisition. I think this novel's set earlier than most of the other Discworld novels, if that might have made a difference....

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

This massive book is the first part of Sanderson's new series, the Stormlight Archive. It definitely took me a while to get into the book--and to figure out who was who, where things were located, and what the magical systems were. But once I got in: what a story! I am enjoying trying to decipher the past history, and I'm really liking the characters. There's a little constructedness in the whole thing--characters always seem to be trying to figure out x so they can do y--but by in large it's a magnificent story. Once I figured out the basics, it moved beautifully from scene to scene. I'm particularly interested in the dilemma Sanderson's set up for his main characters: they seem to need wars to protect people, but once they get into the wars, it's hard to see how the killing helps. I'm also intrigued by the relationship between Shallan and Jasnah. Finally, I think it's awesome to see a world where only women write. Wake me when it's late 2012/early 2013 and the second volume is released!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Omen by Christie Golden

This book features more Jedi going crazy on Coruscant, Luke and Ben visiting another different group of Force users (the Aing-Tii), and the appearance of a pocket of Sith, who have been stranded for millennia, and discover that instead of rejoining a galaxy ruled by Sith, they'll be reentering a galaxy where the Jedi prevail (for the most part). It felt short, and there wasn't a lot of forward progress on any front (except for the GA hating the Jedi more and more), but I'm really excited about this group of Sith coming into play.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

This book recounts the adventures of Francis (Fanny) Hill, an orphaned girl who moves from the country to the city, and falls into prostitution before being reunited with the first man she falls in love with and marrying him. The book is very much interested in Fanny's education--from a simple and naive country girl, she finds it to her advantage to adopt the airs of simplicity again before she can break free of the traps of prostitution and marry the man she loves. While she condemns most of her lifestyle in this retrospective book, she does depict her own pleasure pretty frankly.

Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

In this book Artemis Fowl finds he isn't himself--and not just because he has a plan to save the world. As Artemis suffers from the Atlantis Complex, Butler's sent on a wild goose chase to rescue his sister in Mexico, and a hardened criminal (who's hijacked a deep-space probe and sent it back to Earth to cause troubles) takes Artemis's meeting with Holly and Foaly as the excuse to start his escape plan, things look grim for our heroes. The book is a solid entry in the series; I found Artemis's alter ego, Orion, to be sort of funny. The plot moved a bit slowly for me, though.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Weird Texas by Wesley Treat, Heather Shades, and Rob Riggs

This book contains an eclectic mixture of tales about Texas. The quality of the writing is uneven: it appears that some stories were sent in by readers and others were written by the books' compilers. I particularly enjoyed the stories about real places and events, rather than the ghost stories and the collections of stories about the same paranormal phenomenon. I'd use this book as a coffee table book or a conversation starter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Truly, Madly by Heather Webber

This book reminded me of Charlaine Harris's writing, in both style and subject. Lucy Valentine, who lost her share of the family's matchmaking psychic abilities when she was hit by lightning at age 14, has been called in to fill in for her father at the office for a few weeks. Now she has the ability to find lost items. But when one of her clients shows up looking for a missing engagement ring, and Lucy sees it on a corpse, she's got a case that turns dangerous on her hands. This book makes an enjoyable read, and I think I'll be looking to read the next one in the series (and possibly Webber's other series)

To Fetch a Thief by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn has done it again in this murder mystery. When an elephant and her trainer go missing from the circus, Chet and Bernie get dragged into the case, which has deeper and farther roots than they first imagine. Once again, we get to see Chet's intelligence, charm, and heroics. I am really enjoying this series.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Orientalism by Edward W. Said

This book contends that in Western nations--especially Britain and France, historically, but also the United States in more recent times--a type of scholarship and attitude towards the other, and more specifically, toward what these Europeans class as Oriental. Said does a really nice job of showing how these Orientalists (people who study the Orient) aid in the imperial projects of these European countries--and how the West can learn more about itself from its views on the Orient than it can about the Orient. This book is a model of interdisciplinary and nuanced scholarship.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick

I received an ARC of this book for free from Barnes and Noble's Sneak Peek program. I'm putting the rest of the review behind a cut since we haven't finished discussing the book on the boards yet.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

I read the 1995 edition of this book, and in some places and in some senses, it feels dated. Loewen is absolutely right, of course. Textbooks of the kind he describes, full of errors and low on controversy, make learning hard and boring for students. But, the textbooks he describes seem different from at least some of the ones I used in high school, and in college, we used secondary monographs and printed editions of primary sources rather than textbooks. I think he comes down too hard with a leftist point of view at times as well (for example, when he claims that Thanksgiving celebrations are entirely racist--I happen to love this holiday, not because of the way I understand relations between the Native Americans and the pilgrims, but because it's a time for family to come together). Still, it's an informative read.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

This book tells the story of the French Revolution from the perspective of three of its leaders: Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins. I had always taken them as the bad guys--the ones who did all the beheading. This epic story made them human to me. The plot was fascinating, the prose crisp, and the characterization marvelous.

Monday, October 4, 2010

February by Lisa Moore

This elegaic book follows the life of Helen, who lost her husband when the rig he worked on at sea sunk in 1982. It mainly focuses on recent events--as she opens herself to love again and her son becomes a father, late in life. The story is beautiful, but constrained. I really enjoyed reading this book.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and The Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (Volume I) edited by Peter Straub

This collection is one to be savored. I have read it slowly, but I can't think of one story that disappointed me. I found it to be creepy and wonderful. I read many familiar authors here, but I had read only three of the forty-four stories before--and these are forgotten gems, rather than hidden stinkers. There were also lots of new writers to meet. I highly recommend this collection if you're looking for something gothic. I can't wait to get into volume two.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

This book shows the radiating effects of one event: a man slaps another couple's child at a barbecue. Told from eight different points of view, and extending in time far past the initial slap, this book refuses to make any one of its characters into a villain, but shows them all as human, just as you think they couldn't possibly behave any worse (or that they couldn't possibly have been more wronged). I don't know that I'd care to hang out with this circle of people--mostly because there's a lot of what strikes me as gratuitous drug use--but the characters are well-realized, and the book works.

Nineteenth-Century Geographies: The Transformation of Space from the Victorian Age to the American Century edited by Helena Michie and Ronald R. Thomas

This collection contains seventeen essays that together make the argument that conceptions of geography changed in the United Kingdom and the United States during the nineteenth century. They analyze cultural products to determine the ways in which people's relations to the spaces and places in which they lived changed. I found the essays, by in large, to be very smart, and the ones by Lipscomb on Cooper and Brady on the Southwest to be particularly helpful.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kraken by China Miéville

This book at first seems to be set in our world, but as the story of the giant squid that impossibly disappears continues, it becomes clear that the world is a very different one indeed. I enjoyed both piecing together what was possible in this world and following the plot through its multiple twists and turns. The richness of the world and the dexterity of the plot are this book's real assets--the characters are interesting, but not quite as important somehow. I look forward to reading more of Miéville's writing.

A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Houseman

This collection of poetry is mostly written in a pastoral mode. The verse itself is not bad, but sort of what I would expect for Victorian poetry. Mostly it's short and lyric, and has to do with people courting, dying young, and serving in war. I particularly like the penultimate poem, which I have come across before, whose first line is "Terrence, this is stupid stuff." There are intriguing contrasts between the Shropshire countryside and urban London, and between nature, which will continue to exist, and people, who die quickly.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Outcast by Aaron Allston

I listened to this book as an audiobook because that's the version the local library has. I have really enjoyed listening--there are lots of sound effects and ambient music. I enjoyed all the subplots of this story--it did a really good job giving characters challenges to overcome and tasks to complete. I did feel like the overarching setup (the Galactic Alliance is afraid of the Jedi, what went wrong with Jacen Solo) was a bit forced.

The Enchanted Country: Northern Writers in the South 1865-1910 by Anne Rowe

This monograph struck me as thin. It's obviously pretty short, but I think there was also something methodologically lacking. The author's argument is that after the Civil War, Northern writers who write about the South increasingly write about it as an "enchanted country." It seems to escape the tawdry industrialization and modernization of the North. This enchanted aspect also seems to come from an admiration of the courtly behavior and life style of an idealized upper class. I guess my concerns about Rowe's method are two-fold: first, it seems like she's trying to make a cultural argument, but the readings rely heavily only on primary texts, so I'm not buying her cultural connections; second, at times I got the feeling that she herself was caught up in the awe/hero worship of a type of southern gentility. Still, I thought the readings themselves were strong, and she's obviously read a lot of the works of writers who don't get as much critical attention.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This book, set in a post-apocalyptic (precise nature of the apocalypse never specified) wasteland, is one of the best things I've ever read by Cormac McCarthy. A father and his son prowl through the desolated landscape, looking for food, fuel, and other useful items, and avoiding the bad guys who cannibalize dead people. They gradually make their way to the ocean, mostly helped by luck. It's when their luck turns sour that they must discover who they are, what they believe in, and whether they're able to trust. The prose is clear and strong.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

This book had me captivated from almost the first page. It tells the story of Andrei, a skilled pediatrician, and his wife Anna, a nursery school teacher, who are living in Leningrad during some (at first) unspecified point during Stalin's rule--a time when World War II and the deprivations everyone faced in Leningrad are still high in many people's memories. Andrei gets called into to consult on the case of the son of a Party leader. The son has an aggressive cancer, and when his treatment doesn't go well, Andrei and Anna must negotiate their survival in a society where they cannot trust their neighbors or their colleagues. Dunmore's elegantly written book probed themes of paranoia, survival in a state of terror, love, family, betrayal, friendship, and loyalty. I probably would not have picked up this book based on its description, but I think it overcomes its description to offer a compassionate portrayal of the possibility of ordinary people to survive and even shine in their humanity even during the most difficult historical epochs.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

In this book Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat travel to Genua, where Magrat has been sent by the witch who left Magrat her wand and her position as fairy godmother. With moments that spoof The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, and countless fairy tales (but most of all Cinderella), this story is hilarious. There's also a lot of travel humor. I can't get over how smart these books are in their parody. All of which is to say, this book is another one smashed out of the park for Pratchett.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex, Class, and Culture by Lillian S. Robinson

This monograph comprises a collection of twelve essays, written over half a decade, that start by outlining a practice of feminist criticism (one which pays attention to history and does not ignore class) and then demonstrates how this criticism would work on a wide variety of cultural texts (A Room of One's Own, Pride and Prejudice, Renaissance epic poems, television, and more). I found the first part (the theoretical exposition) more even than the second part (though I thought the essay on why Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins to be nothing short of brilliant).

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

It took me a long time to get into this book. I guess I didn't know where the characters were going and I had a hard time grounding myself in the story. I think to a large extent, I still don't quite get what's going on. Lots of reviews praise the book's comedy, but I didn't really see it. Treslove struck me as lame and wandering rather than as a compelling leading man. Odds are, this book will be the one that wins the Booker Prize this year, as it's the shortlisted title I've liked least....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? edited by Gustavo Pérez Firmat

This collection of essays features thirteen scholars' perspectives on the relationship between literature produced in the United States and the literature produced in Latin America (more or less). While the style of some of these essays was more casual than I usually expect from academic essays, I found a number of them (particularly the early ones on history and literature, the one on Poe, Borges, and detective fiction, and the one on Faulkner and Carpentier) helpful and intriguing. I am a strong believer in these kinds of juxtapositions and think that more of this kind of scholarship is necessary.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

C by Tom McCarthy

This book is a strange and amazing tour-de-force. It's the story of Serge Carrefax, who is born in his caul in 1898, grows up in a school for deaf children (although he's not deaf himself), fights in World War I, and then goes to Egypt to work on an imperial telegraph project. The story is not really driven by plot, and Serge is not a well-rounded character. But it's intensely playful, has a sort of dark humor, and I found the book a quite enjoyable read.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

I found this novel to be both horrifying and captivating. Narrated by a five-year-old boy who's known nothing but an 11' x 11' room for his entire life, it tells a little of his life in Room, his daring escape, and his life in the outside world. The set up is frankly horrifying. But the narrator is believable and it's at times quite the challenge to figure out just what's going on. I wouldn't push this book on anyone, but I think it was worth the read.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

This book comprises three novella-like segments in which the same protagonist, sometimes "he," sometimes "I," and even "Damon" in the first section, goes on three different journeys (to Lesotho, to Malawi, and to India). These travels rarely seem directed and never end as the narrator/protagonist thinks they might. The story seems disconnected, so a sense of place doesn't always come through. Instead, the plot is driven by encounters with other travelers--some planned, some happen-stance. The narrator shows some development in his increasing connection to other people and in his ability to take responsibility. Between the lyric prose and the unstable narrator, there's something heady and unreal about reading this book.

The Analogy of the Faerie Queen by James Nornberg

This monograph contends that The Faerie Queen's complex and self-reflexive structure is best accounted for in a criticism that understands the work as a whole. Books are connected reflexively (so the private virtues of books I-III [holiness, temperance, and chastity] are reflected in the public virtues of books IV-VI [friendship, justice and courtesy]). Norhnberg contends that whatever the original plan (Spenser originally meant to write twelve books), the poem as it stands is complete to itself. The monograph is quite erudite, as Norhnberg first situates The Faerie Queen in an epic and romance tradition, and is continually contextualizing it with other works of literature, especially the Bible (there's a nice reflexivity in his reading of Book I as the word of God and Book VI as the words of men). There's not much analysis of the formal features of the poetry, but as a guide through the allegory (a mode, not a genre) and narrative structure of the poem, this book excels.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Black Powder War by Naomi Novak

This book opens as Temeraire and Laurence prepare to leave China and return home to England, where Temeraire hopes to institute reforms in the ways the English treat dragons. However, their journey is delayed when they receive an order to retrieve three dragon eggs from Turkey, and further delayed when they find themselves forced to fulfill a promise that the British made to the Austrians but never followed through on. These double betrayals make the plot of the book a bit unstable, but it was a very enjoyable entry in an entertaining series.

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right by Bill Bryson

I found this book to comprise a helpful collection of entries on style, usage, and grammar. While some of the entries, as Bryson himself admits, are governed more by Bryson's preference than other authorities, Bryson's clear justifications and entertaining prose demonstrate just how seriously each entry might be taken. Bryson has full respect for the following facts: English is not a language governed by an academy (as French and Spanish are), and use and form change over time. The book may be more helpful as a reference than enjoyable as a straight read, but I learned a lot from this book and would recommend to those people looking to improve their style.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Millenium Falcon by James Luceno

This book got better the further I got into it. Although the ending was something of a bust, there are chances for Han to be heroic, and for us to get to know the ship a little better. I also liked the break from the politics (that seem to get sillier with every extended series) and the depressing fates of Han and Leia's sons.

The City and the City by China Miéville

While this book's plot centers around the murder of a grad student studying archaeology, its fascination comes from its setting--an unidentified place on the edges of Europe where two cities exist in the same landscape. Their borders are zealously guarded by Breach--both a concept ingrained in the population from a very young age, and an extralegal agency that handles individuals who see or sense things outside of their city. I hesitate to say too much about the plot, because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but I will say that it was very well-done and kept me guessing till the final pages. Do yourself a favor and read this book as soon as possible.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

I received this book for free from Barnes and Noble as part of their First Look program. As we haven't yet finished discussing the book on the forums, I'll put the rest of my review behind a cut.

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

This book tells the story of five Scottish girls and one's English roommate who get stuck in an airport while trying to go on a cheap holiday together. While the girls themselves aren't the type you'd necessarily want to hang out with (they love drinking and buying clothes), Warner does a great job of capturing six individual personalities--they seem vivid and real. Furthermore, the girls are clearly trapped by their surroundings, life in a small town, and poverty and dealing with it (or not) as best they know how (or can). It's a grim book, with a grimmer twist at the end, but all-in-all well done.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel by Michael Chabon

This book is set in an alternative history, where the state of Israel fell in 1948, and Jewish people were offered a temporary homeland in Alaska (which is about to revert back to the United States at the time the novel occurs). Meyer Landsman, a policeman who's made a mess of his personal life, gets involved in a case in which a man is murdered in the fleabag hotel he calls home. As he continues to investigate the murder, despite pressure to stop from higher-ups, he finds the plot's tied into far more than just one murder--and has political and religious consequences that will affect everything he knows. This book was a great story--and the pace really picked up after the first few chapters. A great read.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Passing by Nella Larsen

While this book is ostensibly about a woman with black ancestry who passes as white and marries a virulent racist, I found Debbie McDowell's argument in the introduction to the omnibus version (Passing and Quicksand) that it's also about a hidden, emotional relationship between Clare (the woman who passes) and Irene (the narrator) very convincing. This book is both fascinating and rich, and the three-act structure builds to a well-paced and exciting conclusion that raises a lot of questions about ethics and responsibility.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

This book follows the life of Helga Crane through several iterations. She starts as an independent, young teacher--but when teaching in the South stifles her, she moves North to Chicago, New York, and eventually Denmark, before returning to the States, a hasty marriage, and the servitude and drudgery of childbearing. I thought the critiques of religion, racial attitudes, and marriage were all well-done. While Helga doesn't have all the answers, she does a magnificent job figuring out how to live her life true to herself until she comes smack against these obstacles--which makes the story a moving one.

The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Grey

This document is a strange combination--it's ostensibly Nat Turner's confession, after he was captured after the slave revolt he lead in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, but it's also mediated by Thomas Grey, the man who recorded this confession. I was interested in the attention paid to catalogues--a list of people killed, a list of slaves implicated and tried (both appendices added by Grey), the careful noting of the progress of the revolt.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Death confronts his own mortality in this installment of the Discworld series. When the powers that be decide that Death has too much of a personality and must be replaced, Death learns what it's like to be human (temporarily at least), and, in his absence, the wizards of Ankh-Morpork, faced with an over-load of spirits separated from their bodies, deal with the challenges of a high un-dead population--including the threat of a parasite that preys on cities: the shopping mall! In a book both hilarious and touching, Pratchett succeeds again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The New American Exceptionalism by Donald Pease

This book examines the state fantasies that have been present in the United States since the close of the Cold War. How do we understand our role in the larger world? How have various presidents constructed their political policies in order to repress or highlight certain aspects of history. Pease's account is sophisticated and nimble and combines cultural phenomena (like the resurgence of The Patriot and talk radio callers) with historical events to create convincing arguments. I'm not in full agreement with all of his contentions, but it's a helpful and thoughtful account of the past forty years.

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

This book gets at the tensions and confusions that swirl beneath the surface of everyday life. The annual village pageant--this year a history of England--hides marital discord. Just as the country's about to enter into war (there are hints, at the edge of the text, which was written in 1941 and set in 1939), the book closes just as Isa and Giles Oliver are about to enter into their own disagreement. Written in Woolf's beautiful style, this book fairly simmers with its keen and wry observations.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Andrew Jennings

This book is part casual (i.e. not academically foot-noted) history of country music from 1950 to 1970 and part memoir. The style made it easy to read. Jennings's main arguments about country music were that it is primarily a working-class music (especially for the working class that still felt the lingering effects of the Great Depression after the Second World War), that it is not just a white, Southern phenomenon, and that country music (as opposed to what Jennings calls meta-country, or country music produced in Nashville about country music), because it is a product of given economic circumstances, is dying out. Jennings was fairly convincing, though most of his argument was based on anecdotal evidence. Still, you can feel his affection for the music and the people, and I found myself buying a selection of songs on iTunes immediately after reading this book.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

This book, purportedly a story told by the publisher's mother, gives a compelling story about the end of slavery in Jamaica. As the story goes on, you gradually realize that the narrator is telling the story about herself--and that she's not entirely reliable--as her son keeps correcting the story. I really enjoyed reading this book. I particularly thought that the characters were well-drawn--they were all shown as flawed, but real. Of the two books so far that I've read on the short list (this and Parrot and Olivier in America), I would say that while the scope of Carey's book is more ambitious, this one is more satisfying.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

This book, like If on a Winter's Night A Traveller..., consists of a series of interlocking stories. While at first the shifts in time are disorienting, and the connections between the stories not entirely clear, Mitchell gradually makes a case against colonialism, slavery, and settling to be part of a morally unacceptable system, despite personal cost. Mitchell speculates on the ends of civilization and on the power of writing (and communication more generally) to forge human connections and inspire hope for the future. In addition to containing all of these moving themes, the book is beautifully written. I suspect this book will stay with me. Booker shortlisted, 2004.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Red Rain by Bruce Murkoff

Although this book is set during the Civil War, and the war provides a steady background, it's much more about grit, guilt, and love than the war itself. Will Harp, back from service in California after his father's death, buys a neighbor's farm after the neighbor is gored by a mastodon's horn while clearing the land. While Will assembles the skeleton and runs head to head against Harry Grieves, who aspires to own the whole town, and is willing to use less-than-savory methods to do so, he also must confront the reasons for his self-imposed exile. Lots of other characters round out the story of this book, which is written in beautiful, easy prose.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Rise and Fall of the American Century: The United States from 1890-2009 by William H. Chafe

This book presents a fairly cogent overview of American history from 1890 to 2009 (barely--it saves two pages for the recession and President Obama's election). The point of view is fairly liberal (especially in the latter chapters), and while it covers a variety of social, economic, political, and military history, if there's one aspect of American history it focuses on, it's the presidency. It reads a bit like a textbook, and is thus a little dry, but it would be a good and quick overview for anyone who wants to catch up on modern, American history.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

This book is a complex meditation on the nature of love, responsibility, and honor set in Dejima, a Dutch trading post near Nagasaki, around the turn of the nineteenth century. It took me a little while to get into this book because there are many characters and many bits of plot going on--and people drop out of view for long portions. Still, I was fascinated not only by the feel of the place and time, but by the characters, who confront greed, corruption, and temptation on all sides.

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

This book parodies the siren call of the silver screen, as the whole Discworld is turned upside down when the last of the Doorkeepers dies, the Alchemists discover octo-cellulose, and enterprising individuals flock to Holy Wood. There are lots of great moments sending up classic Hollywood movies (Gone with the Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Ben-Hur, among others). Very funny.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

In this book Laurence and Temeraire accompany a British diplomatic mission to China. This book has a lot of good adventure and intrigue, and I thought the handling of the politics of the situation, and the character of Hammond, the British envoy, were particularly deft. I look forward to reading the next book in this series.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Into the Gauntlet by Margaret Peterson Haddix

This book concludes the 39 Clues series. Can Dan and Amy reunite the family and discover the secret to the serum? In this book, there are great references to William Shakespeare as the kids learn who they can trust in their family. I wouldn't say that this series is great literature, but it is a good story, and I'm hoping that the hints at the end that seemed to point to the possibility of a second series are accurate!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Was the Jukebox: Poems by Sandra Beasley

This collection of poetry is both witty and moving. I enjoyed the playful points of view, and there were lots of beautiful images throughout. I particularly liked the ones about college, which were heavy with UVa atmosphere.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

This book gives a fictionalized account of Alexis de Tocqueville's trip to America. The book opens with an account of it's hero's (Olivier de Garmont) childhood, which reminds me a lot of Marcel's childhood in Swann's Way. Garmont's parents decide to send him to America to investigate the penal system (but really to escape the wave of revolutions and anti-aristocratic feeling in France); a British man working for a friend of Garmont's mother accompanies Garmont as his servant. Despite the vast differences between the two men, they form a friendship, as each learns more about America itself. This book is quite enjoyable.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Faulkner: A House Divided by Eric Sundquist

In this book Sundquist argues that the best way to understand Faulkner's literature is to see his good books (leaving the bad ones out of the equation) as being divided chronologically: in the first ones (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary) Faulkner develops a modernist form of his own, and in the later ones (Light in AugustAbsalom! Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses) he finds themes (of race and racial conflict) appropriate for those forms. Sundquist does a nice job building connections between Faulkner's characters (I particularly liked the idea that although Quentin Compson commits suicide early on, Faulkner needs him too much to let him die), and connecting Faulkner's literature to both earlier nineteenth-century American prose (as Faulkner moves from Modernist to Americanist in Sundquist's estimation) and to the history Faulkner keeps digging up. The argument was fairly convincing and articulated very well.

The Fleet Street Murders by Charles Finch

I enjoyed this book, but I am starting to get the sense that these books are as much interested in telling about the development of characters (the detective's run for Parliament, his courtship of his neighbor, his friendship with a doctor who has let success drive him to drinking) than about the mystery itself--indeed, I felt that the mystery was harder for the reader to solve along because in this case, Lenox is far more interested in getting himself elected to Parliament by a town he's never visited before in his life (and NO, the defense of virtual representation was NOT convincing) than in solving the mystery. This book was enjoyable, but it's no substitute for Agatha Christie.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Although this book is different from the first two in the Hunger Games series in that the games have been ended and it's all about the resistance to the Capital, I found this book very enjoyable and a fitting ending to a great series. Katniss is faced with choices to make (should she accept the role of being public face of the resistance?) and consequences for those choices--and she has to determine what sacrifices should be made for liberty. This book asks big questions and answers them bravely--while it's not for the weak of heart, it will leave you with a lot to think about and a lot to ponder.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Legal Handbook for Photographers by Bert Krages

This book presented legal challenges that might face photographers from a variety of perspectives (i.e. from taking pictures, to publishing them, to defending copyrights) in a level-headed and informative way. The main messages I will be taking away from this book are that it's important to understand your rights, it's better to explain clearly what you're doing (and often to ask permission first), and that if you can avoid legal recourse, it's often cheaper and better than taking someone to court.

Invincible by Troy Denning

This book concludes the Legacy of the Force series. It was much more focused than the previous books in the series--it really boiled down to a series of confrontations between Darth Caedus and the rest of his family. I thought that the series ended correctly, for the way it was set up (although I didn't particularly like the way that Jacen went to the Dark Side--I felt it was inconsistent with his character as it had been set up in earlier books).

The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other by Tzvetan Todorov

This book uses the Spanish conquest of the New World, and particularly Cortés in Mexico, to investigate the ways that humans understand the other. I found the book particularly interesting in its history. I thought that the example of the conquest worked well for Todorov's points about the other (and found the chapter about signs and types of communication particularly helpful)--but I don't think this book would be a good way to understand the conquest on its own. I also really liked the last chapter about two different Europeans writing about native cultures.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart

While the main plot of this book follows a couple struggling to deal with the death of their only son, there's a lot more here. There's a lot of humor, lots of history (especially as relates to the Tower of London) and even a bit of mystery (what exactly happened to Milo, the son?). The playful moments, the magically realistic story of the Beefeater asked to open a menagerie in the Tower, and the story of attempts to find the owners of property lost in the London Underground contrasted powerfully with the story of living with loss. All around an excellent read.

Hard Core by Linda Williams

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

This book, while beloved by children, is rich for any reader. The satire is sweeping and at times vicious (but what else would you expect from the author of "A Modest Proposal"). I was particularly interested in the changes in Gulliver during the journey. While at first he wanted to return to England, his wife, and children, by the end, he so misses the Houyhnhnms that he can barely stand human contact. This ending reminded me of the quick disposal of Robinson Crusoe's family in his book--but Gulliver seems to change more than Crusoe (who never worried particularly much about human contact). I was also struck by Swift's great imagination--Gulliver finds himself in all sorts of wildly different societies--and in places that could conceivably (just barely) exist within the world of that time. All in all a marvelous book--I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading it!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Revelation by Karen Traviss

In this book Ben Skywalker confirms for himself that Jacen Solo killed his mother, Jacen continues to act like a creep and a petty tyrant, and Jaina patches things up with the Fetts in order to be ready to kill her brother. This book felt like it was marking time till the grand finale, though I enjoyed the Mandalorian parts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The September Society by Charles Finch

In this book Charles Lennox returns to investigate a case of missing boys at Oxford, which seems to relate to military affairs of twenty years ago in India. The main case itself was quite interesting and well-plotted, if a bit opaque (there was a fair amount of explanation left at the end of the book), but the romantic subplot struck me as silly.

Theodor SEUSS Geisel by Donald Pease

I think this book would have been more successful if it focused on either presenting a straight biography of Dr. Seuss or giving a critical reading of his books. Merging the two strains, in this instance, read like an attempt to use the books of Dr. Seuss to diagnose his own childhood traumas (much like the people who want to diagnose characters and historical figures with various conditions after the fact). I thought it was enjoyable to read--but at times, the biography skipped around, so I was left a little confused as to what happened when, and how the life fit together. It did provoke me to think more deeply about the books themselves, and the ways in which they make reading both possible and fun for children.

Eric by Terry Pratchett

This book tells the story of Eric, a thirteen-year-old demonologist who tries to make a Faustian bargain with a demon to get power over the whole world, the most beautiful woman in the world, and to live forever, but ends up with Rincewind instead. The fulfillment of the wishes (including spoofs of the Aztecs and the Trojan War and the Big Bang [this last could almost have been written by Douglas N Adams]) is pretty funny. I enjoyed the peeks at the Unseen University, Death, and Pandemonium as well. A solid entry in the Discworld series.

Storm Warning by Linda Sue Park

The penultimate book in the 39 Clues series answers a lot of outstanding questions about the Cahill family, the Madrigals, and Nellie's behavior. I thought the pirate part of the hunt was cool--and I'm really excited to see how it all wraps up now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

This book chronicles Bryson's experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1996. In addition to his personal experiences, there's a lot of information about the history of the trail, and the nature and other things one encounters along the way. He's willing to push beyond the appearance of things (for example, what do the National Park Service and National Forest Service actual do with the land and resources they're protecting), and he serves it all up in an entertaining and humorous style. This book prompts some great reflection about our relationship to the natural world and to our own bodies and their capabilities. A great read.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Antiphon by Ken Scholes

This book continues the Psalms of Isaak series--and it really increases the stakes. As Jin Li Tam, Rudolpho, Petronus, Nebios, Winters, Vlad Li Tam, and Isaak all seek to serve the Light, alliances shift and the path to serve the light becomes less and less clear. This book has lots of surprises--and really, no one seems truly safe. Scholes investigates what family means and what we owe our family--and what separates man from machine in this beautiful and intriguing book. I can't wait till the last two in the series come out!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

This book continues the adventures of the Princess Irene, focusing on Curdie, the miner's son who helped her in the last book. He battles his way through a series of challenges only to discover that the king is being poisoned by a cabal of his treacherous subjects. Curdie is helped in the challenge by the mysterious Queen Irene and her servant, the hideous but loyal dog Lina, and prevails because of his loyalty and good behavior. An excellent adventure, with a moral that's not too overbearing, but a strange ending; despite its strangeness, I think it works.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz

This book presents a history of sugar. While in some ways I found it to be somewhat Anglo-centric, it was a really fascinating account of the rise of sugar as a form of food. It's Mintz's contention that sugar and the patterns of consumption that surround it are not accidental or arbitrary, but instead the result of larger economic patterns. I found the production and eating and being chapters particularly helpful--Mintz talks about the way that sugar's chemical properties (especially in preserving food) and its historical circumstances have changed the way we eat--and thus the way that we relate to each other. This book is really remarkable.

Fury by Aaron Allston

This book continues to tell the story of Jacen's fall. He gets even more protective of Allana, to no avail for his own plans, while Jag, Jaina, Zekk, Han, and Leia track down Alema Rar and Luke decides to support the Galactic Alliance, but not Jacen. Jacen gets even worse as a character, so it's going to be easier when he's eventually defeated, but I'm still generally frustrated by this plot line.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In this book Terry Pratchett follows the logical consequences of professionalizing thieves in Ankh-Morph: the city watch becomes superfluous--except not, as an ambitious leader of a secret society uses a dragon to terrorize the city. This novel is rollickingly funny and a quick read to boot. The first few Discworld novels were difficult for me to appreciate, but I'm finding that as the series continues, the books keep getting better and better.

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

This monograph gives a fairly thorough history of the Haitian Revolution. While James contends that you can't understand the Haitian Revolution except in the context of the French Revolution, and historical circumstances more generally, I think James does a good job of avoiding the trap of merely reproducing metropolitan/colonial relationships. According to James, Toussaint L'Ouverture is the driving force behind the Revolution, so the book's a tad Toussaint heavy. Still, this book strikes me as an excellent overview of the Haitian Revolution and a good perspective from which to start thinking about that historical moment.

The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins

This book tells the story of Gerty Flint, who overcomes a poor and deprived childhood to find happiness. The story is pretty good--of course there's a bit of gothicism in the family romance (missing family members) who reappear by the end, and a good measure of religious sentiment (but not so bad as The Wide, Wide World), and a fair amount of sentimentalism. There are a few points where Gerty seems almost modern--she wants to stand up for herself and earn her own way, at one point, and at another, she lets another girl be saved from the fire instead of herself, but she never quite breaks out in a fully satisfying way. Still, I'm interested in the intricate plot, and the character development (which at times seems a bit flat or uneven). Much more enjoyable than I thought it might be.

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

The third entry in the Deptford Trilogy returns to Dunstan as narrator, but this time he's telling the story of Paul Dempster, the boy born prematurely when Percy Boyd Staunton threw a snowball at Dunstable Ramsay which hit Mary Dempster instead, and who ran away at a young age to join the circus. There's much less recapitulation in this book because Dempster, known as Magnus Eisengrim now, had much less interaction with the Ramsay-Staunton set during his life, but it's really a magnificent story. It ties up loose ends (although in some cases, I like my speculation better than what Davies says happened). As a whole, I enjoyed the trilogy. I thought its strengths were its ability to revisit situations from several perspectives (still keeping it fresh) and its different takes on what it means to grow up. At times, I felt like it was slightly misogynist, but my overall impression was one of enjoyment.

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

The second book in the Deptford trilogy shifts its focus to Boy Staunton's son, David, who is undergoing a course of therapy in Switzerland following his father's death. This book tells us a lot about David, and could very well destabilize Dunstan's testimony in the first volume, although it doesn't seem to. I didn't like this book as well because I found the therapy sessions strange at times. Still, it was a pretty good conceit for going back over a lot of the same events--though it was helpful to see them in a new light.