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.