Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan

This collection of short stories, mostly set in the fictional neighborhood of Tims Creek, North Carolina, delights with its beauty, humor, and meta-fictional commentary. The stories feature a wide range of protagonists, and gradually set out a depiction of a community with memorable characters. I particularly loved "Clarence and the Dead (and What do they tell you, Clarene? and The Dead Speak to Clarence)," "Things of This World ; or, Angels Unawares," and "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead; Being the Annotated Oral History of the Former Maroon Society called Snatchit and then Tearshirt and later the Town of Tims Creek, North Carolina [circa 1854-1985]." The stories show the magic inherent in everyday life and satirize academic attempts to interpret or explain the community.

Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

I think this book is probably aimed at a much younger audience--and while it may work for that audience, it's less entertaining for adults to read. Its young protagonist, who has deliberately apprenticed himself to the worst chaperone to give himself more freedom to follow through on his own (still somewhat mysterious) plot, realizes that the mystery he is solving is hardly the mystery he thought it was. There's lots of humor, many ridiculous adults, and a spattering of difficult words with definitions worked in, so many children will enjoy this book. I didn't find it as well done as the author's previous series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

This book tells the story of the first meeting between the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby and the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. They find themselves on the same side of a fight against an oil magnate in Novy Odense. This book illustrates just how much there is to love about both of these characters, and has a good measure of action and adventure thrown in to. I'd recommend it to people familiar with the main His Dark Materials trilogy--it probably wouldn't be the best place to start, though.

NW by Zadie Smith

I suspect I missed some of the formal playfulness of this novel because I listened to the audiobook version (which had two excellent narrators). The story is as much about life in northwest London generally as it is about the three protagonists: Leah Hanwell, her childhood friend Natalie (then known as Keisha), and Felix Cooper, whose presence in the book both demonstrates how tightly-knit the community is and how wide the gulfs between its people are. While the end of the book culminates in an engaging and satisfying plot, the story meanders on its way there--it's as much about exploring the characters and their relationships, their aspirations and their limitations as it is about telling a specific story. I found the book beautiful and lyric.

Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society by Lauren Goodlad

This book argues that many of the contradictions on topics such as social welfare, poverty, and the government's ideal role in society inherent in Victorian viewpoints come from the fact that "Victorian Britain was a liberal society"--and that this liberalism cut in two ways to both promote freedom and to insist on state aid as a means of achieving social health (vii). While Goodlad sees a Foucauldian perspective as useful in untangling the different strains of thought in Victorian Society, she finds later Foucault more useful than the genealogical approach of Discipline and Punish. Many of Goodlad's readings focus on pastorship--that is, someone (usually middle class) guiding the poor to better character and better living. She reads Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend), Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope, George Gissing, and H.G. Wells among others. These readings arrive in conjunction with a careful social history: Goodlad does a nice job of showing the relationship between the literature, its authors' opinions, and the culture in which it was produced. I found her reading of the educational system in Our Mutual Friend particularly helpful. While this book is out of my field (and out of my usual mode of theoretical approach), I found its argument to be cogent and reasonably well supported.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This book still suffers from some of the problems that plague earlier books in the series: clunky Southern accents, fake-sounding Latin, a magic system that is difficult to parse, and (although this might be new I can't remember) bad poetry supposedly written by one of the protagonists. However, I thought the plot worked really well--it had a nice shape and I finally understood what was at stake in the Caster world. I wish we had seen more of the power structure and understood more of what goes on in the Far Keep earlier. I found starting with Ethan in a between-place after death refreshing, and I liked that the story forced its characters to make sacrifices and suffer the consequences of their choices. I think I would have liked this series better if I could have read the books one right after the other instead of each as they were being published, so the fact that they're all out now should be a boon for future readers.

Finale by Becca Fitzpatrick

This book more or less allowed Nora to grow up and start taking charge of her own life--although a lot of it seems improbable. For example, she's supposedly broken up with Patch--and in reality trying to hide their relationship from the Nephilim--and yet, every other scene she's hanging out at his apartment. The pacing also felt off: the story developed slowly in the beginning (lots of training sessions) and then when things started happening they just flew by in the last few chapters. Finally, I thought the devilcraft part of the plot was underplayed: supposedly Nora's addicted to the stuff, and yet, once she finally takes the antidote, she suffers no ill effects. And maybe that leads into my main criticism of the series as a whole: while using varieties of angels as immortal creatures feels original (more so than vampires, for example), the god for whom these angels are supposedly working (as well as the devil himself) seems conspicuously absent. Even that might be alright, but it's not explored or interesting in these books. They do get better as they develop, but I'm not sure that the series as a whole stands out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This book is a quirky novel about a family under pressure and on holiday. The stresses on the family's relationships become clear when they find a woman floating in the pool of the home they've rented. She's invited to stay (no room at the inn, as it turns out) and her presence highlights the unhappiness of the rest of the family. The whole book has a surrealistic, dreamlike quality--the point is as much the objects and other descriptions as the plot. Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker prize.

Death of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet

This book has an interesting premise--the murder of the writer of cozy-style murder mysteries--and may even be attempting to comment or send up the genre, but it fails to entertain. The flatness of the characters and the byzantine plot may be part of the sendup, but they also turned me off the story. The writing was not an enjoyable style--it felt workmanlike in some places and overwritten in others. The main detective had no interest for me. Even though there are other books by this author, I won't be seeking them out.

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

This book reminds me a lot of a certain kind of witty historical fiction--the kind of thing you might read in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, for instance. It's the story of Roberto, a young nobleman who gets caught up in Parisian politics and sent to spy on developing science (here, the goal is to calculate longitude), but ends up shipwrecked on a deserted (or maybe not quite deserted) ship. The book is highly meta-fictional: the narrator is coy about how he came into possession of Roberto's papers, although fairly upfront about how much he makes up or supposes along the way. The book is a lot of fun if you're into seventeenth century scientific theories, early novels (this story can't help but remind me of Robinson Crusoe), or meta-fiction generally.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

This volume gathers all of Flannery O'Connor's published short stories. They are nothing short of brilliant. Every time I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," I see new details to admire and enhance my reading of the story. I think one of the reasons I admire these stories so much, is that O'Connor is so good at getting inside a person's head and exploding all his or her prejudices, bigotries, and limitations for the reader. It's not like she has a great deal of sympathy for these characters: she really doesn't hold back on her criticism, but on the other hand, she knows them so well that you have to think that she must like some part of them at least a little bit. Really magnificent: these stories are the work of a master of the form and the human condition.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

This book focuses on the return home of Alun and Rhiannon Weaver. He's a writer who's made his name as one of his generation's great Welsh writers, even though most of his career has been spent in London. When he comes home, decades-old relationships, friendships, and betrayals are reevaluated as Amis skewers everyone with a dark humor. I enjoyed this book, though I have the strong suspicion that I don't find Kingsley Amis as funny as Kingsley Amis finds Kingsley Amis. 1986 Booker Prize winner.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

This book is a bildungsroman of sorts of Nick Guest, a young gay man who spends the 1980s living in London at the wealthy, conservative, and political active family of a college friend of his. The book is a comedy of manners that exposes the emptiness not only of Nick's life but also of his friends and the people in his social milieu. As personal and political disaster close in on Nick and his household, he's left with the memory of the various lines of beauty (of someone's body, architectural, or even lines of cocaine) that he's experienced, but not much hope for the future. I found this book to be an extremely compelling read: the plot moves forward organically and the prose is beautifully styled. Winner of the 2004 Booker Prize.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

This book deals with the challenges of living in a postmodern, movie-going world, where we're confronted with simulacra (for Binx Bolling, the protagonist, surroundings are certified by the movies he sees, instead of the other way around), where long-held truths and narratives of historical progress are meaningless, replaced by the experience of repetition--seeing the same thing after a period of time has passed, and where our identities are constructed by mass culture (in Binx's terminology: rotation). There's no easy answer here, as Binx enters on a search to transcend the everydayness (a search prompted by his wartime experiences). But the book does suggest that the South has something to teach the nation: while the 1960s may have brought this cultural dissatisfaction to the forefront, Southerners have seen these problems before: they were defeated in the Civil War--and even more importantly--certain Southern ideas about racial hierarchy and white supremacy had already been exposed as false: so white Southerners have already had to face the loss of a sense of absolute truth. A really wonderful book.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I didn't think the secrets in this novel were commensurate with the plot's concealment of them: the book spends a lot of time with an actress trying to uncover her mother's secret past from World War II--while she could have just asked her mother (who was ill, but able to talk, and as it turns out, finally willing to do so!). I thought the story and the mystery were intriguing--and I loved the historical aspects of the story--but the present-day frame just didn't excite or convince me.

Bad Little Falls by Paul Doiron

I enjoyed the plot of this mystery, but I found the narrator/protagonist extremely frustrating. I understand why the flawed, noirish detective exists, but you have to have sympathy with the detective on some level, and in this book, I really found Mike's stupid behavior (in relation to how he related to one of the accused criminal's family members) frustrating. Not only should he know better, but he was mucking up the potential for good police work. The insights he brought to the cases as a detective weren't things that would cancel out such bad behavior.

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

This book gives readers a peek at Thursday Next as an aging detective. The timeline has jumped forward (it's now something near the current time) and Spec Ops is reforming. Unfortunately Thursday is not tapped as the director of the literary detectives. The book is both deftly plotted and wickedly funny--things that seem crazy at first turn out to be essential parts of the story--and to fit in quite well. I love the way that the disbanding of the Chronoguard is handled, and the suggestions about the journey into Dark Reading Matter (all the books and ideas that have been destroyed or disappeared). This series just keeps getting better.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

I enjoyed this book. It's set in an unnamed, Slavic country still dealing with a long history of war, and it focuses on the narrator's relationship with her grandfather, who is the linchpin in a number of stories about his life. Although the stories felt scattered at first, they came together in a really moving way. They rely heavily on a magically real aesthetic, and the relationship between humans and animals. They also have a strong folksy feel--both in the setting and in the moral-like tone of several of the stories. Overall, a highly enjoyable book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

This book continues the story of Yunior (protagonist of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). In a series of short stories, we see various instances of Yunior in love. This love is not all the same--some of it is familial love (for his mother, for his brother) and some of it is romantic--although Yunior can't ever seem to treat the women he loves with respect or honesty. The collection comes together slowly, because the stories are not in chronological order. The first and the last story--both dealing with Yunior coping with a girlfriend (in one case, a fiancée) breaking up with him after she discovers he's been cheating--were particularly moving, as was "The Pura Principle" which told about Yunior's brother Rafa and his brief marriage. A brief, but moving, collection.