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 sju┼żet (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.