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.