Sunday, December 30, 2012

Poster Art of the Disney Parks by Daniel Handke and Vanessa Hunt

I really enjoyed this book, which is mostly various posters designed for Disney theme parks since 1955. The vast majority of the posters are for Magic Kingdom-style parks (a few from Epcot and DHS sneak in)--the chapters are by MK land and then Disney's California Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea. There was a fair amount of information on the parks, the poster design process, and the printing techniques. I learned a lot--but the book made me eager to return to a Disney theme park!

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

This book is presented as a story written by Ned Kelly (the famous Australian outlaw, whose last stand was also made into a short story in Armored) for his unknown, infant daughter, telling the story of his life and how he came to be an outlaw. I think I enjoyed this book so much because Carey gives Kelly such a distinctive voice--it's full of quirks and I found it to be very believable. Even though Kelly is practically illiterate, this book presents his desire, above all else, as only to be heard, as if to be heard will justify all his wrong-doings, murders, and robberies. And in this book, it might at that.

Rites of Passage by William Golding

This book, presented as the journal of an aristocratic younger son, on his way to Australia, written for his patron, an English lord, tells the story of the death of the parson on board the ship--a death that's written off by the captain as a fever, but whose more sinister roots are preserved in this journal. I was particularly intrigued by the unreliability and the moral ambiguity of the narrator, who obviously thinks much better of himself than the reader will and who is initially unable to recognize his own role and culpability in the story. Winner of the 1980 Booker Prize.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

I found this book a little hard to pick up--but I suspect it would be much easier had I read the previous book, The Passage, more recently. There's a lot of shifting in time in this book: one set of stories shows the actions of a devastated few immediately after the virals escaped--a pregnant doctor so traumatized by the attack she sees that she loses her mind, a lone wolf's escape from the penthouse apartment he'd holed up in, a group's response to the camps the US government set up to control the flood of refugees from infected areas--and the other set of stories is set about one hundred years later, as Amy and a variety of characters from the first book, attempt to destroy the 11 remaining, original virals. Once I figured out what was going on, I enjoyed this book, which was well plotted and well written.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This book focuses on the friendship between two families whose lives are on the brink of change: the husbands run a record business about to go under to the threat of a corporate store planned just a few blocks away, the wives' midwifery practice is under siege when a home birth goes wrong, a baby is about to be born (just as the father's illegitimate son reappears), and a teenage boy falls in love for the first time. Despite all these events, the book is about its vividly-drawn characters. I found this book easy and enjoyable to read (as opposed to, say, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which took me years).

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

This book is about a middle-aged romance writer who's sent away to a small hotel in Switzerland by her friends for her own good (after she jilts her boring fiancĂ© in favor of the married man with whom she's been having an affair). As she settles into life at the hotel, she reexamines her choices--in friendships, in romances, and in career, and is ultimately able to see past the temptations of comfort. I enjoyed this book but wasn't overwhelmed by it. Winner of the 1995 Booker Prize.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I really enjoyed this book, which is perhaps best described as creative non-fiction in the style of Tony Horwitz or Bill Bryson. It's about the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley--but it's also about the author's obsession with these assassinations and her travels to places relevant to them. Vowell has a vibrant personality with strong opinions she doesn't try to hide--which makes reading interesting, if, for example, you're not on the far left or of the opinion that Baltimore is a dangerous city you really wouldn't want to visit (except for the fact that John Wilkes Booth is buried there). The book also was a little uneven (the sections get progressively shorter, so there's more about Lincoln than Garfield, and more about Garfield than McKinley, and then a really short coda about Robert Todd Lincoln, who was on the scene at all three assassinations), but what I really felt was missing was an explanation: why stop with these three? While other assassinations were mentioned (John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X) it was only in passing--and if the book's about presidential assassinations, why rule out Kennedy? Obviously Kennedy's a big can of worms (and conspiracy theories)--but take a moment to say that! Overall, though, I found this book incredibly entertaining and informative: it's full neat facts and coincidences and it explores a potentially-overlooked corner of the American psyche.

Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre

This book is a send-up of US media culture. In the wake of a school shooting, the shooter's best friend--and the book's narrator and protagonist--is suspected of being involved with the plot. As the aftermath unfolds, however, we see the incompetent police, news media, and legal system, unfairly target Vernon Little. Although many descriptions of the book describe it as humorous, I was more horrified than amused. Winner of the 2003 Booker Prize.

Wolfsbane and Mistletoe edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner

This collection is united by the idea of werewolves and Christmas. The number of stories that started with someone spending the holidays alone for whatever reason got old really quick (even the Sookie story starts that way--a story, I might add, that also appears in the collection of Sookie stories). There were two that focused on Santa Claus that I thought were well-done and interesting: in one, a werewolf eats Rudolph and gets put in his place and in another, a couple of vampires discover that Santa is actually a vampire. I enjoyed the Kitty story by Carrie Vaughn.

A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan

This novel explores Horace Cross's struggle to find his place in a small, tightly-knit, religious town in North Carolina while accepting his identity; he attempts to reconcile his family's expectations and the religious truths with which he's been raised with his growing awareness of his homosexuality. Although Horace cannot come up with a workable solution (he turns to magic and demons, which ultimately betray him), the book uses its beautiful style and complex structure to give depth to Horace's experience and to the spirits of his family which haunt him and which have their own secrets.

Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod

This collection of nine short stories is united by its protagonists: they're all somewhat morally ambiguous protectors of the weak (by choice or by compulsion). The Jim Butcher story ("Even Hand") features John Marcone instead of Harry Dresden and was really excellent. I also loved "Even a Rabbit Will Bite" by Rachel Caine about the last dragonslayer in an age that doesn't really need her anymore. "Rookwood and Mrs. King" by Lillith Saintcrow, "Dark Lady" by P.N. Elrod, "The Beacon" by Shannon Butcher, and "A Questionable Client" by Ilona Andrews were all intriguing--I'd especially be interested in the series associated with Elrod's and Andrews's stories. Some of the other stories (apparently part of stories) were really opaque: the magical systems, worlds, and rules were weird and not clearly explained and the characters had lots of missing backstory.

Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron edited by Jonathan Strahan

I really enjoyed this collection of short stories about witches. It's worth noting that Neil Gaiman's contribution is a short poem rather than a story. I picked up the collection for the Bigfoot story by Jim Butcher (which didn't disappoint)--but I enjoyed most of the stories in the anthology (usually there's a dud or two). I particularly enjoyed both Jane Yolen's "Andersen's Witch" and Ellen Kushner's "Threefold World" which posit witchcraft as part of the reason for the creations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, respectively.

Bloodline by Ernest Gaines

This volume collects five stories by Ernest Gaines that mostly focus on the problem of becoming a man or asserting your position in a society that is designed to tear you down because of your race. Gaines's characters don't just turn to violence or protest, however: living or working within the society while calmly refusing to accept indignities or charity seems to be more of the model his characters work with.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando VerĂ­ssimo

I really enjoyed this book, which plays on Poe and Borges as it creates a locked-room murder mystery at an international conference on Poe, attended by Borges. The narrator, our main source of information on the murder, gives plenty of clues--both to the red herrings that abound and to the real murder--but it's up to the reader (for the most part) to figure it out. Lots of fun with symbols and numbers, too. I suspect this book might not be as entertaining for those not so into this kind of academic guessing game, but I found it a really great and entertaining book.

The Yips by Nicola Barker

This book is a sprawling, funny comedy of manners that manages an ensemble cast very well as it exploits the wild coincidences that occur when a washed-up pro golfer returns to the area where one of his stray balls hurt a bystander when it hit her in the head. I enjoyed the improbable coincidences and the sense of humor that marked this book.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty

This book collects forty-one of Welty's stories including the collections A Curtain of Green, The Wide Net, The Golden Apples, and The Bride of Innisfallen and two previously uncollected stories. The Golden Apples hung together the best for me--they're almost all set in or around Morgana, Mississippi and feature the same characters at various points in their lives. I also enjoyed the stories that revisited historical events like the Burr plot and the Medgar Evers assassination. The stories are dense--there's a lot of meaning compressed into small actions, but the prose and the characters are both beautifully realized.

Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman

Like Once Upon a Time in the North, this book features a short story starring Lyra and Pantalaimion and a number of illustrated souvenirs relating to the story. I enjoyed the story, but once again, there's not a lot there. Something to sate hard-core fans of His Dark Materials, rather than adding substantively to the story or the universe--I don't think it would be entertaining for those unfamiliar with the main trilogy.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

While this book starts with the basics of Booth's conspiracy (originally to kidnap Lincoln) and the details of the assassinations and attempted assassinations (Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also targeted), the majority of the narrative focuses on Booth's attempt to escape after the assassination (slowed by a broken leg) and the federal hunt to find him. The book is well-researched, and while it's not a scholarly text, there are notes at the back as well as an extensive bibliography for those seeking further information. I learned a lot from this book and I enjoyed reading it as well.