Friday, September 28, 2012

Israel Potter by Herman Melville

This book is Melville's reworking of the historical story of Israel Potter, a private at the battle of Bunker Hill who quickly finds himself taken away from his new country and, after a series of intrigues, spends most of his life in poverty in London. This text is marked by Melville's interest in animal metaphors, the extreme gothic tropes (Potter is buried alive in a hidden room in an English house, for instance), and the story's lack of reward for a life well lived--even as Potter experiences one disappointment after another, things keep getting worse. It was initially published serially, which accounts for its episodic nature.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This book is a beautiful meditation on art, memory, and forgiveness after great inhumanity. Judge Teoh, the narrator, returns to Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists, where she served an apprenticeship many years ago. As she sets down the paths her life has traveled, and attempts to bring the garden--the only Japanese garden in Malaysia--back to order, some of the mysteries of the past are unraveled and she is forced to reassess the choices she's made. I really enjoyed reading this book--it's beautiful and mysterious, and it really makes me appreciate how little of the history of Southeast Asia I know.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This book is about the Fall of the House of Compson, as told through the points of view of its last three sons--Benjy, who is mentally retarded, Quentin, who is suicidally insane, and Jason, who is morally bankrupt--and a third-person, omniscient narrator. Although the majority of the narration technically happens during Easter weekend 1928, the story is continually haunted by its past traumas, which keep slipping in and out, along with Faulkner's cruel golf jokes. This book is a hauntingly beautiful warning about the dangers of getting caught up in the past and about the dangers of settling for a flawed modernity.

Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston

This book features a return of the Wraith Squadron with many familiar characters and some new (or almost-new) ones as well. The story has a nice balance of spying adventure with some character growth--the scars of the Yuhzohng Vong war are obviously still healing slowly. The audio was particularly nice because there were a lot of sound effects and music to go along with the reading. Basically a very nice adventure that can stand on its own.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shatterproof by Roland Smith

This book is full of red herrings as Dan, Amy, Atticus, and Jake continue their adventures in an attempt to outwit the Vespers and save their family members.While this book develops the story, it (like the others in the series) is a little short: I think the series is divided into so many short episodes because it's aimed at younger readers. These books do a great job of showing neat places around the world: they always make me want to travel.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

This book is about a supposedly sane man, Stephen Leeds, who is surrounded by multiple personalities with extraordinary skills. Leeds and his team of aspects are called in to find the inventor of a camera which can take photographs of the past. There's a little bit of adventure and a lot of speculation in this story. I enjoyed it, and I have a feeling there's more to it--or rather more to the character Leeds, who has a mysterious woman who disappeared in his past. Unless you're a big Sanderson fan or entirely opposed to e-books, I'd recommend the e-book rather than the print version: the novella size seems more reasonably priced digitally than in hard copy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

This book tells the story of David Lurie, a middle-aged literature professor who is forced to leave his University post after he has an affair with one of his students. He moves to a rural part of the country, where his daughter lives alone on a farm, but his safety and his relationship with his daughter are imperiled when the farm is attacked. None of the characters clearly held the moral high ground, and I think that this ambiguity is one of the book's strengths. I'm not sure that the book had a fantastic answer, but it posed the question of how do you live life past disappointment and things not working out the way you might have hoped very well. Booker award winner, 1999.

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris

This book presents a nostalgic version of plantation life in the slave South. Uncle Remus, a formerly enslaved man who still lives with the white family that owned him before the Civil War, tells the family's young son a series of stories about animals--Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Tarrypin and their friends. In many of these stories, although Brer Fox or Brer Bear is stronger and a natural predator, they fail to catch and eat Brer Rabbit, who is clever enough to escape their plans and to live to torment them another day. The stories preserve Georgia folklore, but the frame narrative tends to reinforce the nostalgic and misleading idea that life was better in the Old South. These stories are the basis for the Disney movie Song of the South, the first movie to combine live action film and animation--and a movie which Disney executives now refuse to sell on the basis of its racist nostalgia for the Old South. These same executives don't mind making money off the franchise however: as the popular Splash Mountain ride in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland is based on one of the Brer Rabbit stories.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cane by Jean Toomer

This book crosses all sorts of lines, both generic and social. It's a collection of short stories, dramatic pieces, and poetry that explores the conditions of culture in the United States. The first section is about life in the South and has a feminine feel; the second section is about life in the North and is masculine and sterile, and the third section is about a Northerner coming South, and has a synthesis. The book tries to rewrite our ur-myths from the rape fantasies that spurred lynching (instead of Southern white men needing to protect white womanhood, the real sin, according to the story, is hiding the root story, that of desire between a white man and a black woman), to Genesis itself (refigured in "Blood Burning Moon."). The book imagines that a Messiah figure could be replaced by an artist who might offer absolution for all the violence that marks US culture. Cane never fully gives us this healing, restorative art, however. Instead, we get the fragments. The poet can gather the fragments, but the collection implies that we need a community to assemble them into a whole. A beautiful, troubling, and ultimately moving meditation on race, culture, and the United States.

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book Tavi faces the ultimate challenge and the last battle for Alera against the Vord queen. He also must assert his rightful position as First Lord of Alera against a variety of challengers and rivals. Once again, Tavi's unusual upbringing allows him to be more resourceful and clever than his predecessors and his sense of honor and charming personality help him to earn the respect and cooperation of a wide variety of peoples. This book brought the Codex Alera to a fitting and enjoyable conclusion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

In this book PC Grant goes underground when a US Senator's son is found stabbed in the back in the Baker Street tube station. Aaronovitch does a great job developing his characters--his stories have real consequences, and these consequences play out in real ways. The landscape of the stories is also rich: you really feel like you're in London. There are a number of Lord of the Rings references, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The faceless man (the big bad introduced in the last book) is still hovering, but I think that adds to the series's appeal. If you're a fan of Harry Dresden, these books should appeal to you.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This book finds PC Grant solving the mysterious deaths of jazz musicians during or just after gigs. It took a while for me to figure out where the plot was headed--the book didn't necessarily cohere as well as the first one, but in the end it was worth it. I particularly liked the way that the story added a big bad: an ethically challenged magician who went rogue sometime after World War II and is apparently training others in his nefarious ways. I'm looking forward to seeing where this series is going.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt

These stories are told in a frame narrative: a white couple, John and Annie, move from Ohio to North Carolina in an attempt to improve her health and to make money farming. When they arrive in the South, they find their plantation is home to Uncle Julius, an African American who was born into slavery and who tells a series of stories about life before the Civil War. Although Uncle Julius may seem like an Uncle Remus figure, John quickly realizes that Julius's stories have a point: he tells the stories as a way of attempting to manipulate John and Annie. While John sees the smaller point, he lacks the emotional intelligence to see the larger ones: Julius's stories expose that although slavery is over, many of the same inequalities still persist in the South. The stories are folktales in which conjure features heavily: many have enslaved and white characters seeking redress for wrongs through magical means (metamorphoses into animals, trees, and other people are common). This conjure (which echoes the Latin for with the law) metaphorically demonstrates what slavery did legally and what Jim Crow statutes did quasi-legally: they turned people into things and established color lines which it might mean death to cross. Julius's stories invite John and the reader to transgress and cross these lines, to imagine what life is like outside of ourselves. While John has difficulty seeing this offer, much of the hope in the stories is that the reader can do what John cannot.

The Gathering by Anne Enright

This book is a study in grief and loss: after Liam Hagerty's suicide, his remaining family gathers for his wake, and his sister Veronica tries to sort out her complicated feelings for her brother, her husband, and her children as she tries to make sense of why Liam died. Long-buried family secrets come to light as Veronica teases out how the past created the present she's now living in. Elegiacally and patiently this book slowly unwraps years of family trauma. Booker prize winner, 2007.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

This book is a modern tour-de-force. Toru Okada, who has recently quit his unsatisfying office job, finds himself drawn into a series of mysteries when the family cat disappears. But this disappearance leads to more mysteries: Toru's wife leaves him, and he finds himself drawn into a story that started during World War II. To solve the mysteries, Toru must learn to take the occult seriously and face dangers in a dream world. I really enjoyed this book, which weaves its alternate realities together in a convincing and beautiful way. Most of all, I think, this book is about family and how much of who we are is determined by our circumstances and how much by our will.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

This book tells the story of Hajime, whose happy family life is disrupted when a woman he loved in childhood comes back into his life. The story is fascinating, and in some senses, only covered in its contours: there's a lot of Shimamoto's history and circumstances that's simply left unexplained. The book is far more interested in the emotional impact of her interactions with Hajime than in telling her story.

Scourge by Jeff Grubb

This book is about characters who are on the margins of the Star Wars universe--a Jedi archivist who enters field service when his former apprentice is killed, some smugglers, and a Hutt crime syndicate. I enjoyed the story, which included a fair amount of double-crossing and some action, and I liked the new characters, but it's no Zahn novel either.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America by Terence Whalen

This book investigates Poe's understanding of and relation to the interaction between capitalist market forces, political economy, and conditions of literary production in the antebellum United States. Whalen is not afraid of making a controversial argument or taking on years of scholarship: in two of his most remarkable assertions, he claims that the accounts of Poe's success at the Southern Literary Messenger are greatly exaggerated (and possibly by Poe himself) and that the controversial Paulding-Dreyton review published in the Southern Literary Messenger was actually the work of William and Mary professor Beverley Tucker, so Poe's racism was not virulent, but rather the "average racism" of the age. Indeed, Whalen contends that Poe was so interested in the potential of a national market for his work, that he worked very hard to create political neutral texts. I agreed with many of the arguments in this book, but I thought Whalen's tone was a touch aggressive and arrogant: he is the only scholar in a hundred and fifty years to make arguments like these and to look at the sources he does! There's also a very strong reading of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

In this book Samuel Vimes, commander of the Watch, is sent as Ankh-Morpork's ambassador to Uberwald where tempers are running high over the latest dwarf election and the ceremonial Scone may be missing. With the help of his sharp wife Sybil, Vimes must negotiate a diplomatic solution in a country full of vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, and Igors but noticeably short on the rule of law. I am enjoying the Watch books more and more.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

This book is a comprehensive biography of the racehorse Seabiscuit. In telling the story of the horse, Hillenbrand ranges far and wide: she covers a brief biographies of the most important people associated with him (owner, trainer, jockeys), the state of racing at that time, Seabiscuit's pedigree, and detailed accounts of the races themselves. Her writing style at times telegraphs results and mishaps before they actually happen, but it was a thorough and enjoyable account of Seabiscuit's career. I really got to know the horse and his team through this book. The narrator for the audiobook did a great job: dramatic when it was called for and otherwise clear.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

This book tells the story of the Loftis family. Although most of the story is set on the day of their daughter Peyton's funeral, the story goes much farther back to explain the family's dysfunction. In many ways, this book is a classic story of the decadence and failure of the South: it already starts in a place of dissolution (the funeral of the family's last living child) and offers little hope for a family future (all the characters are emotionally stunted). Some of the plot and style elements echo Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (like the stream of consciousness narration, suicide, nihilistic father, alcoholism). I was interested in the isolation in this story--both geographic and emotional.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to, based on its description. Harold Fry, recently retired, sets off to mail a letter to a work colleague with whom he had lost touch and who has written that she has terminal cancer. But he reaches the postbox much too quickly, and decides to keep walking. After a conversation he has when he stops for a snack, he decides to walk all the way across the island (from southeast England to western Scotland) and deliver the letter personally. During the course of his journey, the familial conflicts that have been haunting Harold slowly unfold, as does the incident that ended his coworker's employment. Although Harold's journey gets slowed up as it gains publicity, and followers, he's not interested in the others' investment in his trip. This book is finally a lyric and moving meditation about how to live after painful losses.

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer

This book starts with a bang--and Artemis and Holly and the gang quickly realize that they'll need to act fast and use any help they can get to stop Opal Koboi's plan to kill all humans aboveground. For the most part, this book was similar to the other Artemis Fowl books: entertaining but not great. I though the ending was a huge copout, but I hesitate to say more so as not to spoil anything.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

This book is the story of Saleem Sinai, one of 1,001 so-called Midnight's Children, people born during the first hour of India's independence. Saleem grows up with the nation, and must face a variety of betrayals as he navigates his life in India and Pakistan, and as he narrates his family history before Indian independence. The magical realism works very well in this book--it adds to the beauty and power of Saleem's experiences. Between Saleem's job in the pickle factory, and his love for his sister, I could see antecedents of plot points in The God of Small Things. It's a really great story that masterfully juggles the intimate and personal with the national. Winner of the Booker Prize, 1981, and twice voted the best of the Booker winners.