Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

I read this book based on Patrick Rothfuss's recommendation and it fulfilled and exceeded my expectations. The book tells the story of a unicorn who accidentally discovers she's the last one left, and then embarks on a quest to find the other unicorns. It was a really delightful story, made all the better by lots of humor that gently lampoons the fantasy genre. I could see myself coming back to this delightful book time and time again.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

In this book Malcolm X and Alex Haley work together to tell the story of Malcolm X's life. He doesn't hold any punches either--we see a tragic childhood give way to a life of hustling and crime before Malcolm X discovers the Nation of Islam. We also see his break with the Nation of Islam. There's a helpful epilogue that not only gets into Haley's relationship to Malcolm X, but that also covers the assassination. A moving book.

A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama by Robert Stepto

This book looks back at the African American canon and contrasts scenes in writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frederick Douglass to scenes in Obama's Dreams of My Father. It's perhaps not surprising that these scenes are often educational--for example, set in a school--because of Stepto's earlier thesis, that African American literature is driven by freedom and literacy narratives. While the book offers persuasive readings, and the comparisons to Obama are interesting, it doesn't have the heft, examples, or theoretical grounding to be a major work.

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye

This book investigates the literary features of the Bible without making the case that the whole Bible is poetry (or that the Bible should necessarily just be read as literature). This book is heavily invested in the ways that we communicate as humans (the metaphoric, metanymic, and descriptive modes of narrative) and in the typology of the Bible--the way that truth in the Bible is portrayed as relative to itself (so the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament, and the New Testament is predicted by the Old Testament). The arguments are erudite and the book is informative.

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear

I enjoyed the latest Maisie Dobbs novel. Maisie gets a job with a hush-hush government agency requiring her to go undercover at a new college in Cambridge and try to suss out the truth regarding a pacifist who wrote a book that caused mutinies during World War I--a pacifist who's murdered fairly quickly into Maisie's work. I loved the story of the book within the book (the children's book that caused the mutiny), and Maisie does much more of the old-fashioned crime solving these days (a few of the books in the middle, she'd just sit in the room and know who had done it--which is not satisfying at all as a read). The side plots didn't really tie in to the main murder mystery, but the main mystery was good enough to carry the book.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I found myself enjoying this book much more than I expected to. In a futuristic society where love is a disease that can be cured (by laser brain surgery) after you turn eighteen, Lena, an average girl in every way, falls in love just months before her procedure and learns to question the foundational tenets of her society. I thought the character of Lena was well done, and the love story tenderly and realistically achieved. Furthermore, the world building worked particularly well: each chapter's headed by some witty epigram taken from the books, websites, and policies that provided the canon of this dystopic government. My biggest complaint is that the book ended on a cliff-hanger, so now we have to wait a year to see how it resolves! This book is definitely part of a trilogy (too many loose ends for a stand-alone novel), but it is a promising opening.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

This play depicts the decision of an African American family to move into a house in a white neighborhood. It does a really lovely job depicting the family's conflicting dreams--Lena (the matriarch) wants to buy the house (and fulfill plans she had made with her now-dead husband when they were first married), while her daughter Beneatha wants to become a doctor and her son Walter wants to buy into a liquor store. Walter and his wife Ruth in particular have interesting developments as each feels stifled (and a loss of autonomy) in their marriage.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan by Gerald Morris

This book had considerably less to do with the Seelie Court (i.e. fairies) than previous entries in the series. I still enjoyed it however. I particularly liked the inclusion of Sir Palomides and the depiction of Sir Dinadan's humility. There was a nice twist in his friendship with Lady Brangienne as well. Finally, the depiction of Tristram and Iseult was somewhat of a relief after all the overblown accounts of their story.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

I felt that this book was one of the weaker entries in the Outlander series. Jamie, Claire, Roger, and Brianna have a series of adventures in North Carolina--there are some plot lines that get lost in the shuffle--and several don't get finished. There are several plot points (usually medical) that stretch the limits of belief. I enjoy parts of the series, and I'm so far in now, I'll probably keep going, but the first book was the best.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This book does an excellent job juggling several different plots at the same time. First, there's Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, the two lone survivors of a terrorist hijacking of a plane over London, who are transformed into an angel and a devil during their fall back to earth. Then there are the Satanic Verses themselves--Mahound, the prophet, struggles with the decision of whether to acknowledge the goddesses Allat, Uzza, and Manat. Ayesha's pilgrimage on foot to Mecca was also striking. The book is also very well embedded in a world literary scene: references to other works abound. I look forward to re-reading this book, as it is the kind of book that richly repays the attention put into it. Booker shortlisted, 1988

Parsifal's Page by Gerald Morris

In this book young Piers wants nothing more than to be called Pierre and to join the courtly world that his mother tells tales about, much to the disgust of his father, a simple blacksmith. When a knight rides up, Piers gets his chance, but he quickly learns that neither he nor the knight knows much about the courtly world--and Piers gets a new master, Parsifal. I enjoyed this story, perhaps especially because although I have read some about the Fisher King, I hadn't read all that much about Parsifal. The story ended on a heart-warming note.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

This book presents two, interlocking plot lines: the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and his friend Bram Stoker as they investigate a letter bombing and a series of murders in London, and the adventures of a Holmes fan investigating the death of another Holmes fan and the disappearance of one of Doyle's diaries. The idea behind the story is intriguing. The plot was better than the writing: I found the love affair (such as it was) tedious, the characters not entirely rounded or likeable, and the prose clunky.

Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America by Stephen Fjellman

This book analyzes the cultural work that Walt Disney World does. Why does it appeal to so many people? How does it work with nostalgia? I found the book very entertaining, because I both love Disney and recognize that it works by obscuring relevant things (like history for example). Fjellman describes it as post-modern in the way that different parts of history and geography flow from one part to the other (but modernist in its portrayal of the future--which generally has more to do with the past in Disney). The book is dated (published in 1992)--so lots of the things in it have long since closed, but it was a fascinating read, and made me eager to visit Disney again despite myself.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

This book, like most of Jasper Fforde's books, is difficult to classify. Thursday Next, Spec-Ops and Jurisfiction agent, is missing, as her written version slowly comes to discover, and written Thursday, along with her cogwork butler Sprockett, have to sort through tons of red herrings to figure out who's behind her disappearance and where she's hiding. This book is as funny as the previous books in the series (I had no trouble picking it up although I only read First Among Sequels when it came out several years ago). I also really enjoyed the change of scenery into the Book World (which itself has changed) and the chance to watch written Thursday grow. All in all a treat.

Pym: A Novel by Mat Johnson

This book revisits the story of Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Chris Payne, a college professor who has recently been denied tenure, discovers a narrative written before the Civil War by a free black man--Dirk Peters--and discovers that the story Poe told in Pym was true, if not entirely accurate. Payne convinces his cousin, friend, ex-wife, ex-wife's current husband, and two explorers to join him on a trip to the Antarctic to look for the Tsalals. Obviously, things don't go quite as expected, and the crew finds themselves taken prisoners by the Tekeli-li. While the story is very entertaining in its own right, I found it most valuable for its reflections on race in America in the current day--and the way academics deal with race.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

As I read this book again, I couldn't help but notice how carefully the story is crafted--there's a lot of foreshadowing that works very well, and the imagery is just magnificent. I also really enjoyed the buzzards' service for Matt Bonner's mule's death this time around.

The Princess and Mr. Whiffle by Patrick Rothfuss

I re-read this book while waiting around at a recent signing on The Wise Man's Fear tour. I enjoyed the story and the illustrations again this time. Someone sitting behind me at the signing made the (very good) point that if the kitten can't get out, presumably the princess can't either--which makes Rothfuss's recent talk of doing a sequel even more intriguing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Black Vampyre by Uriah Derick D'Arcy

This book, which is perhaps more accurately described as a pamphlet, continues to amaze me. It's formally a mess: there's a short story (hard to call it a novel, when it clocks in at less than 50 small pages), and a long poem about vampirism. While the story starts as your typical horror story, it quickly becomes a critique of a wide variety of things, including but not limited to capitalism, plagiarism, and slavery.

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf by Gerald Morris

I enjoyed this book which is less about Gawain and Terrance and more about the way Lyanna finds that love depends on character rather than appearance. There are lots of mistaken appearances in this book. Morris continues doing a good job making Arthurian legends relevant and entertaining.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish

This book makes an argument for the sentence as the primary unit of literature. It tries to simplify the way people understand sentences by arguing that they're thoughts, and that they should be judged not by dangling modifiers but by whether they are clear. Fish argues there are two forms of sentence, generally speaking, worth considering: the subordinating sentence and the additive sentence. I found the text clear, and Fish's love of the language shines through. I wouldn't go so far as to say, however, that this book is particularly better than other books as far as ways to teach grammar go.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I read this book in anticipation of the HBO series coming up this April. It took a while for me to figure out who everyone was and what the recent past history was (Robert Baratheon took the throne from the Targaryan kings and now is supported by two rival houses, the Starks of the North--who are led by the king's best friend, Eddard, and the Lannisters--one of whose daughters the king has wed). I found the politics and intrigue of the book very satisfying, and the stakes quite high--I was constantly surprised by the plot--but not disappointed. I look forward to the next several books.

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

This book continues the adventures of Claire and Jamie Fraser in colonial America. They're joined by their daughter Brianna, once she discovers news of their death from the 20th century. The plot of this book moved better than I thought it would once it got started, although I'm not sure that the overall narrative arc was complete (lots of things felt like they were left hanging)--this series definitely builds from one book to the next. Enjoyable, though I feel at times the book's playing the game of trying to figure out how one might transfer knowledge of modern medicine back 200 years.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

This book tells the story of Helga Crane, daughter of a Danish mother and an African American father. As I read the book this time, I particularly noticed how vivid colors are important to Helga, and how she embraces conspicuous consumption as a means of navigating the world around her. While she's not the easiest character in the world to sympathize with, I found the ending, in which she finds herself as disconnected from her children as her parents were from her and in which the Helga Crane we've been reading about throughout the novel dies (the character doesn't die, but she does stop trying), very moving.

American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy

This collection of essays reflects on American forms of Gothic literature. After a few introductory essays (which insist that the American Gothic in general is played out but that we should focus on specific criticism and delve into its particularities), the collection does just that. I found the reading of The House of Seven Gables and Absalom, Absalom! particularly useful. I don't necessarily buy the book's main contention that overarching Gothic narratives are played out, but I did appreciate the specific readings. I don't practice the type of criticism used to read Poe's story "The Black Cat," but that essay was well-researched (lots about animals and child-rearing in the nineteenth century). I also enjoyed the essay on The Wide, Wide World and punishment and desire. Overall a solid collection.