Friday, March 23, 2012

Crimes by Moonlight: Mysteries from the Dark Side edited by Charlaine Harris

This collection of stories focuses on crimes with a supernatural element. The first story ("Dahlia Underground" by Charlaine Harris) and the last story ("Taking the Long View" by Tori Kelner) worked the best for me; the rest seemed to vary in quality and originality. At times many of the stories in the collection seemed to take the easy way out--with a supernatural twist--rather than giving a satisfactory, fully-worked up ending.

Prentice Alvin by Orson Scott Card

This book continues the story of Alvin Maker, focusing on his return to Hatrack to be the Smith's apprentice. Alvin's not just learning how to be a blacksmith, however, but also how to be a Maker. We also learn more about Peggy, the town Torch who leaves just before Alvin arrives in order to learn how to be a better help to him. Perhaps the most compelling part of the story, though, is the story of Arthur Stuart, a mixed-race boy whose mother saved him from a life of slavery, but whose freedom is always at threat throughout the book. I'm really enjoying this series.

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

This collection of essays is part travel writing, part memoir, and part creative non-fiction. It gives a beautiful blazon of New York: a portrait in parts. The writing at times is descriptive and at times is in dialogue with its reader, who is always a both a visitor to and resident of New York. I was impressed by the spatial reasoning that this book displays.

Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King

I enjoyed this book, especially for its love of baseball. Its record of the season is detailed, meticulous, and loving. We follow the hopes and the fears of fans throughout the ups and downs of the season. The book really evoked the feeling of baseball for me; it made me want to be at the ballpark. Now I'm not a Red Sox fan, so I wasn't as invested in the team itself as I might be (in some senses, these guys are the enemies). Some of the circumstances of the book's production make for the most interesting reading. To start with: Scribner commissioned the book before the season started from King and O'Nan, both writers. They are mostly writing as well-informed fans. But at times they get press privileges, either as favors or related to the book. Overall it's a great piece of baseball history.

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

In this book the presence of a Black Council that's working to undermine the world as we know it and unleash evil becomes increasingly clear. Harry has to reevaluate his relationships and his views of members of the White Council. I enjoyed watching Harry's innovative thinking in terms of magic, diplomacy, and mystery. This series builds well: I don't feel like it's either stuck to a mundane plot or adding weird new elements as the stakes rise. In short it's an organic and tantalizing development.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said

This book in some ways picks up where Orientalism left off, but in other ways it is far more universal in its reach. Said contends that empires generally--and especially the British, French, and American empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--do not exist as merely political and economic formations, but must also be supported and reinforced by the culture of the metropole. Similarly, though, resistance to imperialism, as it arises, also bears a cultural mark. This book combines a great idea with compelling close readings ranging from Austen to Conrad to C.L.R. James and beyond. As I read, I realized that lots of my ideas about both empire and how we can use literature and other cultural productions to understand, reinforce, and contest empire, come from this monumental study. This study gives critics a standard to which to aspire both in its content and its style.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

In this mystery Flavia de Luce finds her Christmas celebrations (and plans for catching Santa Claus and dazzling the surrounding countryside with her chemical acumen through a fireworks display) interrupted, first by a film crew coming to make a movie at Buckshaw (one of her father's attempts to hold on to the property despite increasing financial difficulties), and then by murder. I really enjoyed this mystery--I thought the holiday and the presence of the film crew added to the cozy side of things in a really intriguing way. I think the strength of this series is in its sense of character, especially Flavia, who is so sharp about so many things (like chemistry), but is also clueless in other ways (she's continually baffled at why her sisters seem to hate her). I'll be glad when the next entry in this series appears.

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

This book contains more of the same careful attention to detail, plot, character, and history which marked Quicksilver, but it also does much more to suggest the overall arc of the plot--where things are headed. This clarity could come from the fact that I've already read one book setting things up, but I appreciated it. I loved the gold-theft plot--it worked particularly well between the two interwoven books (writ large, the story of Jack and the story of Eliza). I'm looking forward to the third book in this trilogy.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

This mystery should delight Austen-philes. It felt true to the characters in Pride and Prejudice for the most part; I found Colonel Fitzwilliam a little off, and maybe Darcy himself. The appearances by Jane, Bingley, and Mr. Bennet were cameos at best. I appreciated nods to Austen's other books (as if they were all part of the same fictional universe). The mystery itself was a tad clunky--the book showed its hand too soon, I think, by the way it divided its attention. I like being able to solve the mystery, on the one hand, but on the other, not as I did in this book. There was a lot of careful attention to backstory (Mrs. Younge, in particular, gets some surprising developments). Enjoyable, but not really great either.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Toussaint Louveture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution by Matthew Clavin

This book provides a hemispheric perspective on the US Civil War by showing how Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution were part of the dialogue and the public consciousness in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. Although these figures are shadowy to most American citizens now, Clavin shows how both abolitionists and staunch supporters of slavery invoked and manipulated the memory of the general and the revolution in order to win public support for their positions. This book was very persuasive.

Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois

This book covers Haitian history after the Haitian Revolution. It shows how after the Revolution, the people in power sought to recreate certain types of colonial structures (mainly separating those with wealth and power from those without it). I found the book vastly informative, but also quite entertaining. It offered a mixture of information and covered both the leaders and the ordinary people of Haiti. Well worth the read, especially since the subject is so important to US history but also so neglected in the US.

Down These Strange Streets edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

This anthology contains short stories loosely united by what the editors call urban fantasy. I enjoyed the Lord John story in this anthology ("Lord John and the Plague of Zombies" by Diana Gabaldon) more than any of the other Lord John stories (and really, more than most of the recent Outlander books). "Death by Dahlia," a new Charlaine Harris story set in the Sookie Stackhouse universe was also entertaining. There was a story that featured Dashiell Hammett and another that seemed a clear take on The Maltese Falcon. I enjoyed the stories set in Rome (there were two). There was also a good one about a jazz musician. A few had mythological worlds so complex, it was hard to figure out what the rules were in the course of the story. Overall a very entertaining collection.

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

The stakes may be a bit higher in this book, but the Wheel of Time continues to turn a bit too slowly for my taste. I appreciate the vast complexity of the world, but the significance of this installment to the overall plot continues to elude me. I often lose track of which character is which, and on whose side they're fighting, if I'm even supposed to know. I'm very interested to see how the series plays out, but it's not as immediately compelling as some other long series I'm embroiled in at the moment.

Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead

This book is an engaging and provocative reflection on nomenclature. The story is silly at times (a nomenclature consultant who loses a toe because the bandaid he used made him forget that it was hurt?) and at other times moving and historically relevant (the deals that various townspeople made and reneged on in attempts to secure their freedom and prosperity). But most of all, the book is about names, and their meaning and significance. I also really enjoyed digging out the hidden history of the town of Winthrop. A quick read that's quite delightful.

A Theory of Narrative by F. K. Stanzel translated by Charlotte Goedsche

This monograph lays out Stanzel's theory of narrative. He contends that narrative fiction is unique because of its Mittelbarkeit or mediacy. That is, what makes narrative fiction narrative is that it reflects the presence of an intermediary or narrator. He characterizes this kind of fiction according to three properties: mode, perspective, and person, each of which has a binary set of attributes. These propensities lead to a typological continuum or circle which can be used to class narratives. According to Stanzel, historically narratives have tended to be one of three types: first-person narrative, authorial narrative, or, more recently, figural narrative, although he has found these types from a preponderance of historical examples and sees no reason why other types could not develop in the future. I though Stanzel was very good on the consequences of narrative choices, and that his classification scheme is flexible enough to be useful (especially since he doesn't insist that a given narrative strictly adhere to a certain type throughout). Altogether a useful way of looking at narrative, if you like that sort of thing.