Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time by Thomas Bender

This book gives a comprehensive intellectual history of New York City. Bender contends that intellectual life in New York has always been different from Europe--so if we look for European structures, we'll be disappointed. Instead, he traces three types of intellectual involvement: civil, literary, and academic. He contends none of these structures has been completely successful in developing intellectual life, and that a city that could embrace all three would be ideal. In this book, Bender thinks a lot about the relations between intellectual life and democratic society, ultimately contending that intellectual life has to be open to all and a vibrant part of city culture for the optimal situation. I found this book very diligent in providing convincing evidence to support its arguments. The three trends are very clearly defined, but the book could trace their relationships to each other a little more clearly.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ragnarök: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

In this book A.S. Byatt retells Norse mythology (especially as it pertains to Ragnarök, the Twilight (or Judgment) of the Gods) through the eyes of a child sent from her city home to the English countryside during World War II. This perspective both normalizes and makes strange aspects of the story that would have otherwise passed uncommented on stand out--although through the child's perspective everything is accepted in a way that an adult might not. I thought that this story made a powerful case for the relevance of myth in the modern age (and a slightly-less convincing (or maybe just more-disturbing) one for the Ragnarök stories in particular--warnings about beings who despite their power cannot stop themselves from destroying their world).

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

It took me longer than usual to read these books this year; I think I both got tied up in library books and busy doing other things than reading. When I did finally read them, I was most struck by the language and the structure this time around. Tolkien has a very good ear for the English language--so he was able to make his book sound like something that's come out of thousands of years of mythic history--while still using subtle differences in dialect to distinguish between the types of characters (and he has a series of invented languages from which the Lord of the Rings was supposedly translated that add a layer of complexity to his work). The structure is also very well done--things that open earlier in the story close later on (even Fredegar Bolger, who was left at Crickhollow in an attempt to foil pursuers is accounted for when the hobbits return to the Shire after destroying the Ring). I think this happens most clearly in the case of Smeágon/Gollum: his fall in Mount Doom is clearly foreshadowed by the oaths he swears on the Ring while he helps Frodo and Sam into Mordor. Despite the clear losses that everyone suffers in the story, it's really a hopeful tale: good can prevail, at least one age at a time, and we know it is good, not just because we are told so, but because it treats those who have done it evil with kindness and mercy; we can also track evil in its self-defeating hostility to all, even its so-called allies. I really love these stories--and I can't wait for the movies about The Hobbit, which start this December!

A Marked Man by Barbara Hamilton

This mystery features the sleuthing skills of Abigail Adams, who must come up with the true murderer of an arrogant Crown official when one of her husband's friends is falsely accused. Henry Knox, in love with the woman the official was trying to marry and a Son of Liberty, if he gave evidence against other traitors in return for his life, could condemn John Adams and many of his friends. The book does a good job with the historical fiction aspects of the story--and I think especially good with imagining Adams's character in the context of her time. I also liked the mystery plot, which was clever, and relied on techniques and observations available in 18th century life. While there were some clear clues pointing towards the solution, it may be one of those mysteries where the answer is a bit too complex, but not so much so that it would put me off reading other books by this author.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The President's Vampire by Christopher Farnsworth

In this book we get to see what an outlier Nathaniel Cade really is: he's a vampire, but he's not on the Other Side (which has apparently infiltrated not only the CIA and a shady contractor, Archers/Andrew, but also Yale as well). There's a retrovirus here which remakes humans into snakeheads (lots of almost-plausible-sounding science)--it basically works like a zombie plague might--but it's getting better at making scarier snakeheads at every outbreak, which would imply human involvement and development. There's a lot of blood, a lot of guts, and a lot of backstabbing in this story--but the mystery is well done, and it does a nice job developing the relationship between Cade and his liaison to the President, Zach Barrows as well. I also enjoyed the development and hints about many popular conspiracy theories (especially the Kennedy assassination).

Kennedy's Brain by Henning Mankell

This mystery is unlike most of Mankell's crime stories: it doesn't feature Kurt Wallander, an archaeologist (the mother of the victim) does all of the investigating, and it doesn't wrap up particularly neatly. Like many of Mankell's stories, the text has a strong (and outraged) point of view: it doesn't want questions of justice to be swept under the rug--in this case, the crux of the matter is a mission in Mozambique where foreigners not only treat Africans afflicted with HIV and AIDS, but also give the virus to healthy people, without their consent, to test the effectiveness of experimental vaccines and drugs. The mystery part was handled pretty well--although the reader has to put a fair amount together in the end, and the story doesn't offer a ton of closure.

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

This book finds Rincewind making his way through FourEcks (EcksEcksEcksEcks), a continent that looks a whole lot like Australia, while on the other side of the Disc, the wizards who sent him there are trying to figure out how to get him back (as the University librarian, who was turned into an ape some time ago, has gone unstable in his shape, and the wizards need to know his name to perform magic on him--a name which only Rincewind has a chance of knowing). But in their search for a geographer to help them find XXXX, they step through a window that takes them to a different place and time, where  they encounter a small god, who keeps banging his head against evolution. This was not one of my favorite Discworld novels (though in all fairness, Pratchett's take on academics is pretty funny)--I think it's because Rincewind has just never clicked with me as a character. But there were definitely some pretty funny moments along the way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book Tavi finds himself shuffled off to a legion where he should be far away from the impending civil war. Of course, as these things go, this legion quickly becomes the only thing standing between the Canim and Alera--and Tavi becomes the only officer left standing. There were several parts where I felt the story was getting a little pat--things were difficult for Tavi, but he got just the crucial piece of information or aid or insight at the right moment. Still, I think this series is doing a good job balancing having a wide scope but still keeping the characters and the range of action manageable. Every time I finish one of these books, I can't wait to see what happens in the next one.

The Man Booker Prize 2012

Today we get one step closer to the Man Booker Prize--an award for the best book published in the Commonwealth in 2012, at least in the opinion of Sir Peter Stothard, Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman, Dan Stevens, and Bharat Tandon, this year's judges. They confer today and announce a longlist of about a dozen books. On September 11, they'll announce a shortlist of about six books, and on October 16, they'll announce the winner, who gets £50,000. I don't have many predictions (I tend to use the Booker prize as a reading list), but I wouldn't be surprised if Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel makes it on the list this year.

I try to read all the books on the longlist (not necessarily before October 16--as some of the books may not even be published in the United States by that date). See 2011 (winner: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes) and 2010 (winner: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson) here. Other Booker-nominated books I've read can be found here. Booker-nominated books I have read but haven't reviewed include: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (shortlisted, 1991), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (winner, 2000), The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (winner, 2002), and On Beauty by Zadie Smith (shortlisted, 2005).

2012 Longlist (with UK/US availability in parenthesis)

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate UK, Unknown US)
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Bowman (Sceptre UK, Bloomsbury US)
Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker UK, Harvill Secker US)
Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber and Faber UK, Metropolitan US)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday UK, Random House US)
Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate UK, Unknown US)

2012 Shortlist

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon UK, Weinstein US)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories UK, And Other Stories US)
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt UK, Salt US)
Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury UK, Grove US)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber UK, Penguin US)

2012 Winner
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate UK, Henry Holt and Co US)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

This book picks up where A Gathering of Witches left off: Matthew and Diana travel back in time to Elizabethan England to look for a manuscript known as Ashmole 782 which promises to reveal secrets about witches, vampires, and demons. Matthew was still a bit heavy handed for my tastes, but we did get to see more of Diana's power--and just as importantly--to get some explanation of why she has the powers she does. We also got a number of historical cameos, including Queen Elizabeth I, Kit Marlow (who has been both daemonized and demonized in this retelling), and, all too briefly, William Shakespeare. There was a lot of historical detail (it probably doesn't hurt that Deborah Harkness is an esteemed historian of seventeenth century England in addition to writing novels and blogging about wine), which added to the atmosphere of the piece. At times it felt like obstacles were thrown up and then almost immediately brushed away (for example, when Matthew takes Diana to his family home in France, Matthew's father Philippe insists that Matthew and Diana are not married and should not marry, but by the end of the section, less than a month later, throws them a lavish wedding). The mysteries of the Ashmole 782 only continue to grow; even though we get to see it again, the reader is left with questions instead of answers--but now it seems that the book is more an object or possession than a book. It's all setting things up for the third and final volume of the trilogy.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This book fills in some of the gaps left by The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game, but it is nowhere near as complex, richly developed, or entertaining as the first two books in this remarkable series. Whereas both of the other books had surprising twists that developed the plot, this one was fairly straightforward. There weren't as many hoops to jump through. Still, I think without the first two books, it might be a difficult read all the same. I do think this volume left the door open for the fourth book in the cycle, and I think there's definitely room in the world for another rich volume, so I'll be looking for that with interest.

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This book is set in the same world as The Shadow of the Wind--marked especially by the Cemetery of Forgotten Books--but it is set a generation earlier. David Martín is a successful author of lurid gothic tales; many of his friends feel he is wasting his talents, but he's locked into a long-term contract with a publisher who's especially interested in only the lucrative side of his talent. An interested (and apparently rich and influential) publisher, Andreas Corelli, offers to get him out of his contract in order to sign another deal. As Martín delves into the work though, he notices disturbing similarities to the life of his old house's previous owner (a lawyer-turned-writer). Many of the twists in the story were shocking, and I loved its thorough investigation of what we give up when we sell our talents. There were great layers of moral complexity in this story.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This book takes the reader on a delightful journey into a gothic world: Spain in the years after the Spanish Civil War. Daniel Sempere, aged 10, is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and allowed to pick one to take and to care for. His choice, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, will shape the rest of his life. The story is gothic in the best sense: it's full of creepy old houses, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings. Even if you think you have a handle on who is who, there are all sorts of twists before everything is finally sorted out. There's also a deep love of literature embedded in its plot: it's a story about how stories are told and why they move us. It's definitely the kind of book I want to read again and again.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman

This book--an elegaic, pastoral journey into a family's past as well as the history of Maryland's Eastern Shore--slowly and inexorably moves to a tragic climax, as it depicts the Mason family. The Masons, American expatriates in England for almost a decade, have finally hit rock bottom, financially, and indulge in one last luxurious trip across the Atlantic on the Normandie to take over the family estate on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But while Edward, the patriarch, finds it hard to fit in, his wife and sons readily take to the Retreat. When the threat of World War II and the upswing in Edward's British manufacturing business threaten to tear the family from the estate, tensions that have been simmering beneath the family's surface come to a dangerous boil. I really enjoyed this book.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

In this book a young, British man who's recently lost his father (and his mother before that) finds himself in Bucharest, Romania, teaching at the University despite not having a bachelor's degree or even having interviewed for the position. While the first part of the book deals with his at-times naïve culture shock and his response to the Communist regime, as the story progresses, the narrator finds himself more and more deeply embroiled in the society and more and more called upon to react to the abuses of the regime. While this book is certainly about the end of the Ceauşescu regime, it's also about growing up and taking responsibility for your actions rather than drifting through life.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This book started a little slow for me (it was hard for me have sympathy for the young hellion who kept stealing from his neighbors), but it developed into a really great story. It was very carefully researched--so there's a lot of information beyond the biography of Louis Zamperini (Olympian, track star, WWII bombardier, POW, and inspirational speaker) that really provides a context for his experiences. A lot of the story was difficult to get through--apparently the prisoners of war held in Japan during WWII were often abused and starved--but it really is a great story about the ability of one remarkable man to survive in the face of overwhelming odds.

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The penultimate volume in the Wheel of Time series has convinced me that not only was Brandon Sanderson the correct choice to finish the series when Robert Jordan died working on what he thought was the final volume, but also that Sanderson has given the series a stronger ending than Jordan would likely have been able to. I find the new style much clearer: I have a stronger grasp of how all the pieces come together to make a cohesive story (granted, all the threads should be coming together because it's the end, but in the middle volumes of the story, it felt like there were tons of characters wandering around doing things for no clear reason). I would have liked to see a little more of Rand, but I am guessing that we'll see lots of him in the final volume. I'm more excited about what happens in the end of the series than just finally reaching the end, now, and that's a change for the better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I really enjoyed this book, which picks up with the pilgrims on Hyperion, but also introduces a broader, realtime context to their actions. Through the dreams of another Keats cybrid, Joseph Severn (named for the real Keats's painter friend), Meina Gladstone, CEO of the Hegemony can follow the actions of the pilgrims at the Time Tombs. The pilgrims disappear and reappear as they encounter the Shrike on their own. There were some great twists--rest assured that even what you think you know, you don't! I particularly appreciated the way the book examines the hidden costs of technology. The story is chock full of literary allusions, and a great conclusion to Hyperion!

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson

This book continues the story of Alcatraz Smedry and his attempt to protect the Hushlands from the evil librarians. I enjoy the humor in this book (for example the Smedry talents are all things like being able to break things, looking really ugly when you wake up, and dancing badly). In addition to the resourcefulness that these talents develop, they also give the book a light-hearted side. This story exposes treachery in Nalhalla (which we get to see for the first time) and develops some theories about how the magic system works (it seems to be cleverly plotted out). I'm looking forward to the next book.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Intertextuality and the Literary Response to Terrorism in Ian McEwan's Saturday by Paul Pugliese

This thesis reads Ian McEwan's Saturday not just as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but also a response to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It investigates how we respond to terror in the modern world--and how the interpersonal and intrapersonal responses of Woolf and McEwan modulate that response.

"A fair match, by Jupiter!": Language, Performance, and Struggle in Richardson's Clarissa by Allison Marie Murphy

This thesis insists we read Richardson's Clarissa not just for its words, but for the unwritten languages--such as gestures and clothing--in which the characters also communicate. By paying attention to these details, Murphy argues, the struggle between Lovelace and Clarissa is not so one-sided. I liked this approach: it accounts for Clarissa's agency (and the reader's interest in her) far better than other accounts that see her as a passive tool of her foes (both her family and Lovelace).

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book we jump ahead several years to see Tavi at school in the capital. He must step in to protect the First Lord as a threat from the first book (the Vord) becomes mobile and increasingly threatening. At the same time, his uncle Bernhard and Amara are fighting the threat in Caldera and his aunt Isana is negotiating the politics of the capital in an attempt to get help for them. Not only was this sequel very enjoyable, it gives further evidence of a well-plotted series.

Before the Frost by Henning Mankell

This book features Linda Wallander's first case as a policewoman--before she's technically part of the Ystad police department. She works with (and occasionally against) her father as they struggle to put together a series of mysterious disappearances, attacks on animals, and murders. I really liked seeing Linda's personality develop (she's a lot like her father, especially in her disregard for certain departmental policies). The mystery was fairly well presented as well.

The Land of the Painted Caves by Jean Auel

The end of this book did have more conflict in it than some of the previous books in this series, but I think that it suffers from the same basic problem (and one that the Outlander books also face, to a certain extent): Auel is more interested in how people lived at the dawn of the human race than in telling a story with believable characters and the kinds of conflict that make you want to keep reading. She does a beautiful job with the setting, but it starts to drag in these long volumes.

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

While the narrator of this book, Barbara Covett, thinks she's explaining (or possibly exonerating) her friend Sheba Hart's affair with a student at the school where they both worked, she's actually revealing her own obsessions and ticks. It's a portrait of a lonely woman, at times quite moving, and at others frankly disturbing, and a demonstration of how someone who feels sure of herself and her actions comes off as clueless to others. I enjoyed this book, especially because of its unreliable narrator. A haunting read. Booker shortlisted, 2003.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Railsea by China Miéville

This book tells an engrossing story set in a faintly recognizable but outlandish world. Islands of what might look to us like normalcy are connected by the railsea, train lines that twist & tangle over earth too dangerous to walk on (where moles, worms, & earwigs have grown in size & become genuine dangers to humans). Technology is salvaged by some trains, others carry goods, wage war, or engage in piracy. But we're treated to a ride on a moler, which hunts the massive animals of the railsea. In part, I loved this book for its imaginative world, & in part for the conceits which seems to speak to some primitive part of humanity (you can't step on the ground, or else!). I enjoyed seeing Sham ap Sooprap grow up. But mostly I loved it because in telling its story so well, it talks back to many other great books: Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, & Treasure Island, to name three obvious starting places. This is the kind of fantasy that got me started reading fantasy, & it's the kind of fantasy I want to read again & again & again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

This book focuses on Harri, a recent immigrant to England from Ghana, and his attempts to both figure out how to navigate life and school in the UK and to solve the mystery of the murder of one of his peers. Harri seems hopelessly out of his league on both counts (his attempts to fit in lead to dangerous behavior like throwing stones at buses and trying to set off fire alarms, and he investigates the murder by collecting fingerprints on cellophane tape), but his optimism and his faith in God and his family place the reader firmly in his camp. I also enjoyed the pigeon element--yes, Harri speaks pidgin English, but he also becomes mildly obsessed with a pigeon, who speaks to him and narrates parts of the book. A moving account of the best and worst of a tough childhood.

Derby Day by D. J. Taylor

This book is written in the style of a Victorian novel: there are many characters whose stories come together around one event: Derby Day. Mr. Happerton (a cad of the worst sort, who has married into a family better than his) buys Tiberius, a fabulous race horse, but decides that he can make more money by losing than by winning. Of course, getting his hands on Tiberius is not the most legal of processes, and the way he gets the money to bet is even worse. There are a number of memorable characters here (although all the best-developed ones are villains), and the story is enthralling, but I wish it were longer. Mrs. Happerton could use much more development, for instance. Still, I'm going to go back to Kept, a Victorian mystery which features the same detective.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

This book is definitely one of the better City Watch Discworld novels. When a small island appears in waters between Klatch and Ankh-Morpork, both countries claim the territory as their own and prepare to go to war. But as the Watch quickly finds out, some of the diplomatic incidents that precede the war stink. I found this book to be quite funny and a good satire on war and politics. I also loved the Leonard of Quirm character--great take on Leonardo da Vinci!

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

This book continues the adventures of Alcatraz Smedry, an orphan who discovers that he has supernatural powers and that the world is bigger than he knows. Again, there's a lot of meta-fictional commentary on what authors do, and why they do it. There's also a neat conception of the Library of Alexandria (not destroyed, but moved). The plot twists may be a bit contrived at points, but this series is a lot of fun.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Emmanuel Appadocca, or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers by Maxwell Philip

This novel focuses on Emmanuel Appadocca's attempt to avenge himself and his mother on his father, who abandoned them both. It has elements of both the gothic and sentimental romances. Appadocca sees his piracy in a Robin-Hood light; he avoids stealing from those who have made their money honestly. An intriguing tale of adventure on the high seas.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe

This novel follows the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, after he stows away on a whaling ship and finds himself in the midst of one disaster after another. Mutiny, piracy, cannibalism, and betrayal are all part of this story. Although the plot is wild, this book is more interesting for its unconventional form. At times narrative, at times journal, it ends abruptly--apparently the death of Pym himself (an event too well-known, according to the editorial "Poe" voice, to need further explanation) has cut off the explanation of how Pym and Dirk Peters escape their latest predicament (and why the color white is so terrifying on Antarctica). While the story is a little out-of-control (one problem piles onto another), it poses some very interesting questions about race, community, and narration.

The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass

This novella tells the story of Madison Washington, an enslaved man who leads a rebellion on the Creole while being sent from Virginia to be sold in New Orleans. Although the story is based on true events, the life of Washington before the mutiny is fictionalized. The story never adopts the perspective of Washington; events are narrated first through the lens of Mr. Listwell and then sailors who had been on the ship. There are some gothic moments in this otherwise sentimental story.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Blood Lite III: Aftertaste edited by Kevin J. Anderson

This collection was better than the first two because fewer of the stories fell flat. I still think that there's a high percentage of stories that don't quite get the humor, but Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden story was great. The shorter stories (such as the contract provided by the Maleficium software company) were often funnier (and more unique in execution) than the longer ones. I might suggest that Harry Dresden fans just read the Jim Butcher story, rather than spend all the time with the whole collection.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

This book was an enjoyable romp through a wonderfully imaginative world: Under London. Under London is full of the people who slip through the cracks--people who most people living in London Above don't see. This London is almost feudal: divided into baronies and operates via trades. Lord Portico attempts to unite Under London, but is murdered. His daughter Door, in her escape from the assassins who killed the rest of her family, inadvertently brings Richard Mayhew, a Scot living in London Above, into her world. The story is, in part, the story of Richard Mayhew's coming into his own, in a really wonderful way. It is also full of red herrings and diversions. Finally, everything comes together in a convincing and delightful way. I look forward to reading more of Neil Gaiman. The narration on the audiobook was really lovely as well.