Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

This book is a testament to the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It tells the story of Michael K, who was born with a cleft palate and made a living as a gardener until civil war in South Africa makes life untenable for Michael and his mother Anna. Then he tries to take her to the farm she remembers from her childhood. Nothing comes easily for Michael, and he's continually faced with setbacks. But he perseveres despite it all. Winner of the 1983 Booker prize.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Coraline by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean

This book tells the story of Coraline, who trades her family for an empty mirror family, and then must decide how to get her real family back. It's a nice story of persistence and the substance of things, but I just didn't like it as well as The Graveyard Book. It's simple, and I appreciate how well it all works together, but it was just missing a certain spark for me.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

In this book, Claudia, an old woman and the writer of a number of popular histories, sets out to write a history of the world, which quickly changes into the history of her world. As she peels the layers of her life back, Claudia gradually exposes her family relationships--which are all shaped by the hole left after the death of her lover during World War II in Egypt. Winner of the 1987 Booker Prize.

Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

This book was a vampire story with a difference: it does not center on a romantic relationship between a vampire and a human, but on a decidedly non-romantic partnership. If anything, the beautiful lady in this story is the riverboat they build together. I enjoyed the adventure, I enjoyed the friendship between Joshua York and Abner Marsh, and I loved the historical side of things (mostly set on steamboats plying the Mississippi river before the Civil War). Martin's writing feels fresh in the face of the way a lot of vampire stories go.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean

This book is a marvelous story about a young man coming of age. In addition to the bildungsroman at the heart of the story--which is quite well done--there are the brilliant surrounding settings. I really enjoyed the idea of Bod being raised in a graveyard and hearing the stories of all the residents of the graveyard. There was also a healthy dose of mythology and the otherworldly. It all came together for a really wonderful story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This book's narrator, upon returning home for a family funeral, inexplicably finds himself drawn back to his old home--and even more so--to the farm down the lane from that home. When he arrives, he realizes that he has suppressed part of his childhood. As he starts to remember what happened at the ocean at the end of the lane, we're drawn into a world of mystery and myth--one where dark powers threaten perhaps all of human happiness. As always, Gaiman demonstrates his marvelous powers of storytelling and his strong grasp of what story means.

Stories: All-New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

This collection of stories covers a wide range of genres and a wide range of authors. Mostly the stories leaned toward the fantastic or toward horror. I mostly enjoyed this collection, but I don't know that any stuck out so much that I am going to track down more by that author specifically on that story's account. It's really an impressive collection of essays.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon

This book continues the story of the end of the Capetian kings in France. Philip the Fair, son of Saint Louis, has died and passed the crown to his somewhat incompetent son, Louis X, le hutin, who has just had his estranged wife strangled so that he can remarry. But the kingdom is full of plots, and Louis's inability to gauge his friends and enemies may be his downfall. This book is another enjoyable entry in the series.

Inferno by Dan Brown

This book felt light to me. It opens in medias res, and I spent the first two-thirds thinking the trail was too easy to follow. Of course, there were twists, and it was not quite as simple as it first appeared, but when all was said and done, it all wrapped up in a pat way that seemed more in service of making a point about the world's population and offering a magic bullet to put the world right than in telling a really good story. All of which is not to say that the ride wasn't a lot of fun--I enjoyed reading about the art and the architecture and following the story. This book would be a great beach read.

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien

This book contains J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished attempt to write part of the Matter of Britain in an alliterative verse form used for Old English poetry (such as Beowulf) and used again in Middle English (for example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The story starts with Arthur away from England, going east to fight barbarians when he hears of his nephew/son Mordred's treachery back home. The poem is enjoyable--Tolkien had a good ear for this verse form (as he also demonstrated in some of the poetry in his Middle Earth stories and in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Perhaps more interesting, though, is the supplementary material. The first essay is on The Fall of Arthur's place among other tellings of the story of King Arthur, especially The History of the Kings of Britain, the alliterative Morte Arthur, the stanzaic Morte Arthur, and Le Morte Darthur. The second essay argues (I think more convincingly thematically than on hard evidence) that not only was Middle Earth Tolkien's attempt to provide mythology for the English people, but that it was directly connected to the King Arthur legends--indeed, that the Isle of Avalon (where in some versions of the story King Arthur still awaits the moment to return and lead Britain to glory) is Tol Eressëa, or the lonely island, which was where the elves could dwell and look on Valinor after their exile. I really enjoyed this volume; however I would not recommend it to anyone just looking for a good story (there are better--and more complete--retellings of the Arthur myth) or who is a casual fan of The Lord of the Rings. If you like Tolkien's poetry, or are interested in the intricacies of the Arthur story, however, this book is well worth a look.

Dr. No by Ian Fleming

This book, like many of the James Bond novels, is very much of its time--the espionage is high-tech for the late fifties, the Cold War is raging, and the novel's portrayal of race and gender is often unsettling for a modern reader. But, for what it is, the story in Dr. No is entertaining and full of bravery, skill, and luck on the part of James Bond. Commander Bond is supposed to get an easy mission after his latest brush with death: he's sent to Jamaica to look into the disappearance of a British agent who has supposedly run off with his secretary. The truth, however, is something altogether more dangerous and Bond quickly finds himself facing a much more dangerous enemy than simple lust.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

This book is Pratchett at his finest. Moist von Lipvig is the consummate con-man--until he is caught. Then, after a convincing hanging, Lord Vetinari gives him a second chance, but only if he takes over the Postal Service (which has gone into decline with the advent of the clacks to send messages across long distances). As Moist cons his way around the post office, he learns that the clacks are being operated along a different kind of con--and he suddenly realizes, after a life of deceiving people, he must do the right thing--restore the post office and set the clacks to rights too. Full of humor and Discworld characters I came to love, Going Postal is satire with a warm heart.

Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D'Aguiar

This book is a historicization of the Zong disaster. While its perspective shifts among several of the participations, the most memorable character is Mintah, the woman who climbs back aboard the ship after being thrown over. The book explores what happens when we commodify the human body--the abuses and indignities that humans are willing to perpetrate on one another in the name of getting a good return on an investment. It also explores the role of literacy and the power it confers.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

This biography provides a comprehensive account of Walt Disney's life from his boyhood in Marceline, Missouri and Kansas City to his death in Los Angeles. I thought it was especially good on his work. At least according to this book, Walt was often the guiding force behind novel ideas, but it really wasn't his skill as an animator that launched the Disney empire--it was his ability to see the cultural potential for animations. I particularly liked the accounts of Disney's collaborations with Leopold Stowkowski and Salvador Dali. The book also portrays Disney as restless: once he achieved something, his interest often turned to doing something new instead of simply repeating his success (which is not, of course, to say that his companies didn't often try to capitalize on and reproduce these successes!). I have read that the Disney family (and particuarly Diane Disney Miller) disagree with the author's characterization of Disney (especially in his relationship with his wife), but I thought the book made sense and gave a persuasive reading of Walt's life and its meaning in the midst of the American Century.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

I really enjoyed this book, which is set in a world where the United States are actually the United Islands, and in which certain people have the ability to draw lines and shapes with chalk and then make the chalk obey their bidding and even affect the physical world. These people need this ability because the United States is populated by wild chalkings which would destroy its citizens without rithmatists (the people with the chalking ability) to protect them. There was a great mystery, a good dose of a young man learning more about his family and himself, and the promise of more to happen in this world. I'm looking forward to the sequel!

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, pére, narrated by John Bolen

This book mostly concerns a horticulturist, Cornelius van Baerle, who gets caught up in politics just before he can achieve his crowning success--the cultivation of an entirely black tulip. I enjoyed the story, and there's certainly a good revenge plot, but there's just not as much there as in some of Dumas's better novels (like The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers).

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

This book is set in a world influenced by African folklore, where technology is organic and Earth is only a myth. Zahrah, born with dadalocks in her hair, discovers that she has a rare, almost mythical, gift. But when her explorations of her power land her beat friend in the hospital, she has to go on a dangerous journey to save him. I found the world fascinating, and the story entertaining, but relatively simple. I love the way that Ms. Okorafor has made her world fresh--it feels new and exciting.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Strangled Queen by Maurice Druon

This book continues the story of the French throne after the death of Philip the Fair (IV). Louis X, Philip's son, inherits the throne, but he must decide what to do with his unfaithful and inconvenient first wife. In the meanwhile, a variety of other people are making their own plays for power. I enjoyed this story: it really makes the history and the people come to life.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

This book features a weak, and ultimately forgettable, mystery that allows Maisie to dither about her future. I had assumed that she had decided against marrying James Compton based on the previous book, but she's still considering it, and frankly I hardly understand why she cares either way. The time period is still fascinating, but I don't think Ms. Winspear uses it as well as she used to. I wonder if this series has been over extended.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

While I enjoyed this book from the start, as layers started to peel back and lies started to be exposed, I was drawn even more to the story. I loved the way this story revealed the lies the characters told each other, and the plotting and counter plotting of the protagonists, Nick and Amy Dunne. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, we see the facade they built start to crack, and gradually learn how this couple brings out both the best and the worst in each other. I'd highly recommend this book as a summer read.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

This book discusses zoonoses, or diseases transmitted across species. It tends to address one disease per chapter, and covers illnesses such as Hendra, Ebola, AIDS, and influenza. I learned a lot from this book, especially about HIV. I wish I knew more about how widely accepted the AIDS theories in the book (including positing 1908 as the spillover date for the worst strain of 12) are. It was also very good on how human choices can affect the relative danger of various diseases. Fascinating: a great science read!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

This book is an odd story. Niffenegger wrote it at the request of the Royal Ballet to provide a modern fairy tale as backstory for the new ballet they recently created. I am very curious about how this story might be staged as a ballet. It's dark and confusing at times, which is appropriate for a fairy tale, and although some questions linger, I think as a fairy tale, it works. The illustrations are beautiful.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

This book brings the First Law trilogy to an explosive conclusion. The roles of the characters continue to change as the Union is beset by even more uncertainty: Bethod exposes himself in the North, Eaters drive the South to bring war to the city of Adua, and the king dies without an heir. But as characters we have grown to know find themselves in new roles, something seems a little off, almost like things are being controlled by someone with more power than kindness. While the characters do not get what they want, what they deserve, a happy ending, or even a conventional fantasy ending, I think this book works--the ending fits the story told. And while it's depressing in many ways, it's also a fresh pleasure in a genre that can feel stale in less talented hands.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

This book combines a number of stories. While a mutiny on a slave ship is perhaps the key event in the story; the vast majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of two English characters: Erasmus Kemp, the son of the man who outfitted the ship, and his cousin Paris, a disgraced doctor who sails with the voyage. The book explores kinds of possibility: How cruel can humans be to each other? What are the costs of disappointment? What possible satisfactions can we obtain from revenge? Is it possible for a group of people, one set of whom tried to sell the other set into slavery, and who speak many different languages, to live together in harmony? altogether it makes a fascinating story. Winner of the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

In this book Tiffany Aching leaves home to train as a witch, but must face the hiven, an enemy which can get inside her head and turn her downright nasty. I liked the second half of this book, which featured Tiffany thinking for herself on how to finally defeat the hiven and what it means to be a witch better than the first, where she was more passive. The second half also has a good appearance by Granny Weatherwax, who is as delightful as always. Like the other young adult Discworld books, I don't think the humor, parody, and satire work as well here as it does in the adult books.

Revan by Drew Karpyshyn

This book is set way back in Star Wars mythology--thousands of years before the events of the movies. It brings together the stories of Scourge, a Sith Lord seeking more power in the Empire (of that time) and Revan, a Jedi who betrayed his cause and lost his memory and now knows there's something ugly on the edges of the galaxy. The story ties into a video game, but it wasn't too hard to pick up what was going on. I thought it did a better job of filling in what was happening in a galaxy far, far, away a long time ago than in developing its characters (although those familiar with the game might not find them as sketchy).

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

This book follows Lyman Ward tracing his own family history--in particular that of his grandmother, who was friends with a number of nineteenth-century movers and thinkers--as he's confined to his wheelchair and fighting with his son for his independence. But as Ward traces the events of his grandmother's life, the reader gradually becomes aware that the difficulties and challenges she faced (particularly in her marriage) have more than historical interest for Lyman. While the book never directly answers the question of whether history must repeat itself, it suggests that by delving into the past, we can learn to understand our worst tendencies, even if we can't overcome them.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

This book compares traditional societies (which have dominated the vast majority of human history) to state societies like the United States in order to think about the ways in which we can learn from traditional societies in the Western world. While Diamond acknowledges that we may not want to return to many aspects of traditional societies (particularly their approaches to war and strangers), we might adopt (or re-adopt) some of their practices selectively, such as bilingualism, forms of conflict resolution, and forms of child-rearing, and pay attention to other practices in order to modify our lives for the better (for example, we could cut back on the salt and sugar in our diets to reduce illnesses like hypertension and diabetes). I found the book very entertaining (although the main argument was repeated so many times in similar form that it got a little repetitive).

Fictions of the Sea: Critical Perspectives on the Ocean in British Literature and Culture edited by Bernhard Klein

This collection of essays examines the role of the sea in British literature. It starts with more general topics (like a history of the claimants to the sea and reflections on the sea and modernity) and then moves on to specific readings of maritime fiction as a genre and of specific works (like several of Conrad's sea stories). Some of the essays are stronger than others, but overall the collection is best for background knowledge rather than its specific insights or theoretical developments.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is an excellent coming of age story with a good dose of fantasy. Although Sunny was born in the United States, her parents have moved the family back to their native Nigeria. Sunny doesn't fit in because she's albino...and because she's a Leopard Person (she can work magic, or juju). But with a serial killer on the loose, Sunny has to find out who she is and what she can do quickly. This book is full of Nigerian folklore, and a great story about finding your place and your identity. I hope Ms. Okorafor writes more of Sunny's adventures.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

This book owes something to the beginning of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: it's narrated by an Irish child struggling to make sense of his world. The plot develops slowly and secondarily to character development. By the time I realized I was, in part, reading the story of the dissolution of the Clarkes' marriage, I was halfway through. The prose is beautiful and the story is moving. Winner of the 1993 Booker prize.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

This book is not quite in the same league as The Teleportation Accident, but it was still a great story. It features Kevin, a collector of Nazi paraphernalia who makes most of his friends on the Internet because he suffers from trimethylaminuria. When Kevin finds a letter from Hitler to a British entomologist, he finds himself rushing to solve a seventy-five year old mystery with very real implications. The complicated plot was handled very deftly, and I thought the story, filled to the brim with flawed, unhappy characters, worked very well.

The Drunken Botantist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

This volume contains encyclopedic references to many of the plants that make and flavor our alcoholic beverages. The first section is about the plants that are fermented into alcohols, the second section is about the plants that flavor our drinks, and the third section is about how to grow some of these plants at home. I found this book fascinating--especially the first section. There were lots of explanations about the hows and whys of drinking.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

This book has received a lot of criticism from fans ever since a copy appeared in Germany before its official publication date. I saw the writing on the wall in the last few books: Sookie was not going to end up with Eric. I can almost see Sookie falling for Sam. But I thought the plot was weak--it was more about bringing back everyone for one last hurrah than developing a coherent mystery or an exciting romance. I also thought Eric deserved a better send off; it makes sense to me that he and Sookie would not be together forever because she doesn't want to be a vampire (a thoroughly refreshing view, in my opinion), but not that they would break up as casually as they did. This is a series that was strongest in its middle books.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This novel tells the tale of Jun Do, whose mother has disappeared and whose father, head of an orphanage, denies his paternity. After a famine, Jun Do finds himself with many orphans in the army. As his career continues, he rises through the North Korean military and intelligence communities, and quickly falls into prison, where he realizes he can remake his life. The book is many things: part thriller, part Bildungsroman, part romance, and part exploration of how human personality can continue thrive under a savage dictatorship, it moves quickly to its climax, bewildering at first, but ultimately beautiful.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

This book makes a passionate case for remembering and preserving the histories of exploitation and oppression hidden by the wealth created by sugar, a case localized and directed by a history tied to Barbados, and the Ashby family in particular (the author's family). With a combination of genealogical research, historical commonalities, and clear prose, the author makes unimaginable statistics vivid, real, and personal. The book focuses on three eras: that of the first known Ashby migrant to Barbados, that of the planter who solidified the family's holdings (on the brink of emancipation, as it turned out), and that of the family the author knew personally. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the Americas.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Iron King by Maurice Druon, translated by Humphrey Hare

This book starts in France with a sibling rivalry: the wives of Philip the Fair's sons are rumored to be unfaithful, and Philip's daughter Isabella, trapped in a loveless marriage to the King of England, wants to do something about it. But when the family is royal, the repercussions of a family fight are wide: they extend to the church and the very peace of the kingdom. I really enjoyed this book, which is historical fiction in the best French tradition and sets up a series clearly and compellingly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

This volume splits the action into three areas: the North where Colonel West only finds help from Logen Ninefinger's gang of Northmen when the war (and the Crown Prince's idea of strategy) goes bad; the South where Superior Glotka faces a battle he cannot win to keep a city the Union does not want; and the far reaches of the world, where Bayaz leads a barbarian from the North, the military darling of the capital, a former slave, a navigator, and his apprentice to find a weapon that can help end a war that's been centuries in the making. Abercrombie handles a large cast of characters adeptly--all of them tortured (and most of them bearing the scars of that torture), and most of them troubled and morally ambiguous--and he makes readers appreciate the characters and understand their conflicts. I can't wait to see how this trilogy ends.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

This collection of fairy tales is selected from the Grimm brothers' final 1857 anthology of fairy tales. Pullman has translated (and in some cases adapted) the stories to tell what he considers to be the best fairy tale. There are a lot of familiar tales and a number of unfamiliar ones too--and all of them are classified and given a place in folklore through helpful end notes. These fairy tales have their own standards--their standards are not those of modern literature, for example--and they rely heavily on a system that rewards and punishes characters for their actions. At times the stories are gruesome, at times unrealistic, and at times they do not take the familiar routes to the stories, but this collection is well-worth a read.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber

This book is a fairly typical zombie thriller dressed up in Star Wars garb. Darth Scabrous, a Sith lord in charge of a school for Sith, has discovered the secret to immortality. He orders the Jedi Hestizo Trace to be kidnapped, in order to gain access to the very rare Murakami orchid with which she has a special Force connection. The only problem is a side effect of the immortality potion causes the dead to walk. Lots of fun zombie fights, but in the end I didn't really care very much about any of the characters. I enjoyed it for its peek into the Star Wars universe in the days long before the movies.

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

I liked this book more by its end than I thought I might at its beginning. It tells the story of Sarah Weston, a grad student in musicology, who receives a mysterious invitation to work at a Prague museum over the summer, cataloguing scores and papers relating to Beethoven, her musical hero. But even before she arrives at the castle, she realizes that all is not well. Most of the story was really clever and inventive. But there were a number of moments when I found myself rolling my eyes--many of the characters seemed to lack clear motivation, especially at first. I'm intrigued to see where the story goes next.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin

This book gives a broad overview of the history of higher education in the United States from its colonial beginnings until 2000. It does a really nice job teasing out some of the nuances, especially in terms of the relationship between state and federal governments and institutions of higher education--what does it mean to be a public institution? what were the results of the Morrill Land Grant act? It also incorporates the history of women and people of color in education into its history, rather than isolating these groups in short, separate chapters. Thelin always has his eye on two goals: present an honest history that really looks at the changes in higher education (rather than single-mindedly valorizing the past as better and bemoaning the present) and show how we can learn from the past (successes and mistakes) to make higher education serve the country more successfully than ever. At times Thelin repeats the same anecdote, and the book aims at a big-picture rather than an in-depth account, but this is a great introduction to the history of higher education in the United States.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

This book requires patience: it's written in a Scots dialect and in a stream-of-consciousness style that takes you inside the head of Sammy, an ex-con on a string of terrible luck. He wakes up after a bender to find that he's now blind and has been arrested, and then, after his release faces the disappearance of his girlfriend, the police, who question him about his participation in a crime they won't reveal, and the horrors of the welfare state and its bureaucracy as he tries to register his disability. This is definitely a book you have to adjust your way of thinking to understand--its lyricism is tied to its unfamiliar (and at times coarse) dialect, the action (such as there is) can be obscured by the stream-of-consciousness style, and Sammy is not the most appealing protagonist at first glance. But after getting to know Sammy, his resilience in the face of adversity shines through. Winner of the 1994 Booker Prize.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

This book continues the stories of Dr. Rivers and some of his patients, especially Billy Prior, during World War I. Billy is put in the position of choosing between his government job and the family of the woman who raised him, a woman suspected of plotting to assassinate Lloyd George. Billy's position is all the more complicated due to periods of missing time where he doesn't remember his actions. This book continues Barker's explorations of the psychic wounds of World War I.

The Edge of Doom by Amanda Cross

This book seems to overstate its sense of urgency both in its title and in its jacket copy to me. Kate Fansler suddenly discovers one reason that she may be so disconnected from her brothers is that she had a different father (proven via DNA testing, no less!). But she quickly discovers that her father has plenty to hide in his past. This mystery certainly helped explain Kate's character, but it was less good as a mystery.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

This book starts with a war in Borogravia--not that that's anything new--there's almost always a war on in Borogravia. But this time, Polly Perks is in on the action as she has joined the army to bring her brother back. Polly, now known as Ozzer, slowly realizes that she's not in an entirely normal regiment when someone hands her an extra pair of socks in the latrine. And when the women finally start getting honest about going to war, Borogravia finally has a chance of a better life for all of its citizens.

The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

This book reminds me of both Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz. There's the personal aspect--as if it's a memoir, but there's also the observer aspect--like many other books about the South, it's author has one foot in and one foot out. I found the writing clear and the thinking on questions Southern (such as: what does history mean? what are the costs of maintaining certain kinds of memory? what things do we falsely assume about the South?) engaging.

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 4th Edition by Joseph Williams

This book summarizes Joseph Williams's theories of writing well in ten chapters. The book is a condensed version of the longer Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and I think the condensation may make the book harder to understand and use for someone not already familiar with Little Red Schoolhouse principles. I think the principles themselves are sound--especially for those who want to write persuasively (as opposed to fiction or creative non-fiction). This book would be a good supplement to a course, as long as the instructor is committed to reinforcing the book's principles in class.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

In this book Flavia de Luce begins solving a mystery starting in the church: when they plan to exhume St. Tancred for the 500th anniversary of his death, little do the villagers of Bishop's Lacey expect to find a more fresh body in the tomb. But there is Mr. Collicutt, the organist who disappeared several weeks ago, and Flavia believes (as usual) that it's up to her to solve the mystery. In so doing, she finds that the roots of this mystery run deep--both beneath the church and into her own family history. The narrator of this audiobook was really excellent--in addition to the great story, it was a pleasure to listen to!

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

This book is part biography and part history. It's about the four daughters of Raymond Berenger, count of Provence. Marguerite and Eleanor marry the kings of France (Louis IX) and England (Henry III), respectively, and the two younger daughters marry their sisters' brothers-in-law. Both of these brothers are crowned kings in their own right (although they do less ruling). Sanchia marries Richard of Cornwall, who is briefly king of Germany, and Beatrice inherits Provence and marries Charles of Anjou who takes the throne of Sicily. I was very interested in the power politics behind the thrones, and I loved reading the history associated with these four women. I was surprised by how much a king's prowess in battle mattered in the Middle Ages, and by how religious Louis and Henry both were. I also enjoyed a minor theory expounded in the book: while earlier Provence had been the center of a literary movement (troubadours writing poems about courtly love) after Raymond Berenger died, there was no count (and thus no court) in residence in Provence (Beatrice lived in Sicily, and in other places, after her marriage), so there was not the same support for the arts, and the interest in love poetry moved south--to Italy.

Honest Doubt by Amanda Cross

In this book Kate Fansler takes a backseat to a new PI, Estelle "Woody" Woodhaven. I didn't love the new PI; I missed seeing more of Kate. The plot also felt a little recycled: it's the death of another hated, old-fashioned professor, this time through an overdose of heart medication in the foul alcohol that only he drinks. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I thought the ending of this book took too much from a famous Agatha Christie mystery. The first time it was done, it was novel and exciting, but in this book, it just felt like a cop out.

Day of Doom by David Baldacci

This book concludes the Cahills v. Vespers chapter of the 39 Clues. It wraps up a lot of loose ends (some in frustrating ways). Dan, Amy, Atticus, and Jake race to stop a doomsday machine--and there's less of the charming historical detail and discovery because there's so much action to fit in and so many plot lines to tie up.

The American College and University: A History by Frederick Randolph

This book gives a wide-ranging history of higher education in the United States from its colonial beginnings to the 1960s (when the book was written). It works admirably to show the broad types of changes in higher education--its forms and priorities. Reading this book makes this much clear: while it's easy to look at the challenges facing higher education today and bemoan how much better things were in the past, higher education never faced a clear or easy road. Instead, its history is a long history of compromises and attempts to finance something that many people want but no one wants to pay for. While the book is good on broad strokes, it's less good at looking beyond the history of white men: education for women and education for African-Americans each have only one short chapter.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ghost-Watching American Modernity: Haunting, Landscape, and the Hemispheric Imagination by Maria del Pilar Blanco

This monograph argues that we should be more attentive to the ways in which modernity haunts American literature; not with outright ghosts, but with two landscapes that uncannily exist simultaneously. Blanco makes a point of noting that her argument is not a generic one: often these hauntings transcend the genres of the gothic (in US literature) and the magically real (in Latin American literature). Blanco starts with a chapter on the hemispheric imaginary of haunting, before moving into three chapters that read specific scenarios: desert hauntings, urban hauntings, and transnational hauntings. She stakes a position as a close reader of texts (and thus, less interested in placing them in their historical contexts). The readings were not bad, but I found the theory of haunting more useful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History by Ian Baucom

This monograph creates an archive out of absence, specifically the absence of a response to Granville Sharp's letter to the Lords Commissioners protesting the court decision to treat the events on the Zong (that is, the captain's decision to throw 133 slaves overboard in order to conserve water supplies) as an insurance case rather than murder. Baucom looks at the way the Zong case has echoed through history (in politics, art, literature, and philosophy), how it reflects the growth of a system of finance capital that not only treats people as objects, but as objects whose loss can always already be theoretically present insofar as they can be insured, and how it shows us the intersections between a trans-Atlantic slave economy and modern systems of capital. The book is theoretical and dense. It draws connections between Benjamin's Arcades project and Arrighi's models of cycles in addition to drawing on theorists as diverse as Adam Smith and Slavoj Zizek. The contents of Granville Sharp's letter (and indeed, a straightforward account of the Zong case) are delayed and secondary to meditations on the ethical implications of how we understand history and of the connections between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and finance capitalism. While there are parts of the book that seemed opaque to me, its overall argument was eloquent and persuasive.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Novel and the Sea by Margaret Cohen

This monograph contends that fictions of the sea constitute a traveling, adventure genre that begins in the modern era with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. This genre challenges our dominant accounts of the formation of the novel: Cohen insists that we account for the sea adventure narratives of writers such as Defoe and Smollett, even though the adventure genre has been critically neglected. After Smollett, the number of sea fictions wane until the subject is adopted by James Fenimore Cooper. In part this decline may be the result of the incredible, but true, tales that were happening on the world's oceans. Like the previously mentioned authors, though, Cooper is not famous for his sea fictions (The Pilot and Red Rover) but his Leatherstocking Tales. These American sea stories became popular just at the moment that the craft of seafaring became obsolete, replaced by mechanical inventions (such as accurate clocks to measure longitude). Thus Herman Melville, Victor Hugo, and Joseph Conrad had the opportunity to use their sea stories to focus on other kinds of craft at the margins. Jules Verne, on the other hand, took the exploration of frontiers beyond what people were actually experiencing to what they could only imagine. Thus, Cohen contends, sea fictions are the root of today's science fiction. I found this book to be ambitious, but thoroughly researched, and I was ultimately persuaded by Cohen's readings and her contextualizations, that we ought to pay more attention to sea fictions as a genre. I thought her description of the mariner's craft in the first chapter was particularly useful.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink

I read this book in German. It starts as a conventional bildungsroman--a teenager falls in love with an older woman, but the affair ends and the boy moves on. Later, the young man, now a law student, comes across his former lover again--as one of the defendants in a trial which is trying to determine the guilt of former concentration camp guards. The novel explores the question of secrets--what secrets are most important, what actions should we be ashamed of--and the question of fitting in--what skills are necessary to live in our world, what might those who lack these skills be forced to do to make up for that lack. There's no moral high ground here, and no absolution in the end. But if we cannot forgive, we can still understand, and mourn the losses and broken lives all around.

La Vita Nuova (Poems of Youth) by Dante Alighieri and translated by Barbara Reynolds

This collection of poetry and commentary serves two purposes: it documents Dante's love for Beatrice, from their first meeting to beyond her death, and it allows Dante to offer his theory of poetic composition. Dante justifies writing poetry in the vernacular, rhyming lines of verse, and using figurative language by its subject: if the poet aspires to convey a deeper meaning, these techniques are legitimate. He forces readers to look beyond the mechanics of the sonnet form--often his notes about the division of the poem appear in different places than the traditional octet/sestet split; thus, he demonstrates the tension inherent in sonnets between prescribed form and inspired content. The poetry after Beatrice's death is particularly moving: news of her death forces him to break off a canzone, and then he offers less guidance on how to read the sonnets (one of which even starts in two different ways). He demonstrates a transition in his love: while at the start of the work, he loves Beatrice as a woman on earth, by the end of the sequence he realizes that she can become a heavenly guide to divine love (in fact, she becomes the Beatrice of the Divine Comedy). A lovely and thought-provoking collection of poetry.

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

This book begins when a troubled young boy, Simon, breaks into Kerewin Holmes's tower. Kerewin, a loner, gradually becomes closer to Simon and his adoptive father Joe. But as Kerewin learns more about the family, including Simon's traumatic past, she begins to realize that there are still real troubles plaguing this family. There are no simple or easy answers here. Simon's past is something of a mystery--and it always remains mysterious. All of the characters are damaged, and engage in morally questionable behaviors. While the majority of the book is written in English, it's littered with Maori phrases (translated in the back) and it eschews conventions--inner monologues are set off almost as if they are block quotations, for example. These stylistic differences required attention, but were easy to get used to. In the end this book is lyrical and haunting. Winner of the 1985 Booker Prize.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

This book was an engaging fantasy that brought in a variety of historical references in intriguing and new ways. There's conflict all over the Union: the northerners are trying to take back Angland (and the Shanka are pressing in as well), and there's pressure from the Empire in the south as well. The book follows four unlikely protagonists: Logen Ninefingers, who's only just lucky enough to stay alive, who has come from the North in search of a great Magus, Captain Jezal dan Luther, a fop with a lot of luck who realizes that there may be some things worth fighting for, Inquisitor Glotka, who lost everything as a prisoner of war, and now suffers through every day--and makes everyone else around him suffer as well, and Bayaz, a wizard who may just be the first among many and who may have returned from myth (he last appeared as himself during the reign of Herod the Great) just in the nick of time. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This book presents life behind the lines at a hospital during World War I. In particular, it focuses on the friendship between Doctor Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, who has published a letter insisting that the war is no longer morally justified. It really helped me understand what was happening (and the background behind) the third book in the trilogy. Next time I will try to read things in order!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and translated by Alan S. Frederick

This book combines prose translations of The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and Tristan's Madness. The story is not one that a modern reader would expect: there's little continuity (for example, one character dies twice), and the author tells the reader what to think (and then the characters' actions may not match the author's descriptions of their morality). But this version does give a clear version of the romance of Tristan and Yseut with the best episodes preserved (the sword between the sleeping lovers, the piggy-back ride in disguise, Yseut's double-speak, the sail confusion). Of interest to those who want a more complete view of the Matter of Britain and those interested in medieval romance (in a modern translation).

Requiem by Lauren Oliver

This book was a little bit of a slow starter for me, mostly because I couldn't remember what had happened in the first two books. Once I figured that out, things went much better. As Lena copes with the aches, pains, and irrationality of love, she and the rest of her small group find that the Regulators have started patrolling the Wilds. They move towards Portland. Interspersed with Lena's story, Hana's story gets its own sections: Hana is about to marry the mayor of Portland, but everything's not domestic bliss (despite her procedure). I enjoyed the book, but it wouldn't be at the top of my YA recommendations.

Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost by Karen L. Edwards

This monograph contends that Milton was fully attuned to the new scientific possibilities of the seventeenth century. Edwards debunks theories that Milton was stuck, backwards-looking, in old science, and instead contends that the very moments that seem the most to show that Milton was using an old system of knowledge actually indicate Milton's prowess: he's wryly commenting on the old way of understanding things. In Paradise Lost, he presents a world that needs to be read experimentally (as God's other book), the way that the Bible itself should be read. I found this argument persuasive: Edwards gives clear readings of Milton's masterpiece (and its use of plants and animals) and lucid descriptions of how science was changing at that time. The monograph is beautifully illustrated.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

This book introduces Tiffany Aching, a nine-year-old witch in training, who must save her inconvenient, sticky brother Wentworth when he is abducted by a fairy queen. Fortunately she has help--in the form of the Wee Free Men, tiny blue pictsies with amazing strength and little patience to help anyone who isn't a hag. This book was funny and heartwarming. I think I prefer the adult Discworld novels, but this one does have charms and an internal logic that works.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

This book is much more than the biography of General Alex Dumas (today best known as the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, among many other novels). It provides a lot of context for General Dumas's life and times--including the French colony of St. Domingue, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon. The book makes two arguments: that General Alex Dumas achieved remarkable success, especially given the prejudices and hardships he had to overcome--and so should be more widely remembered; and that Alexandre Dumas, the novelist, based several of his literary works, including The Count of Monte Cristo, on his father's life. I found both claims well substantiated in the biography. I enjoyed the tone, which not only detailed the general's life and helped readers with the history surrounding that time and place, but also gave a personal account of researching the biography and teasing out the relevant details (including an incident of sanctioned safe breaking!). The narrator of the audiobook had a clear and enjoyable voice. All in all, a great book to listen to.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beaumont

This novel is exactly the sort of novel I love to read: it's witty, self-referential, aware of its own status as a novel, and a lot of fun. Egon Loeser is the painfully self-absorbed anti-hero whose world is crumbling around him (he's an artist in Berlin in the 1920s)--but he doesn't see the political dangers because of his personal problems (an inability to get his show produced or to win over the charming Adele Hitler [no relation to Adolf]). He serendipitously leaves Berlin for Los Angeles (via Paris) chasing Adele, but he doesn't have any better luck in either place either with Adele or with his show. Yet, as the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Loeser's obsession with Adriano Lavinci, an Italian set designer who died in what is known as the Teleportation Accident (one of Lavinci's sets destroyed a theater in Paris). The novel teases readers: was Lavinci a theatrical genius, or a scientist centuries ahead of his time, or a magician? I definitely want to re-read this book; it may have been my favorite entry on the 2012 Booker Long List.

The Puzzled Heart by Amanda Cross

This mystery puts Kate Fansler in an uncomfortable position: her husband Reed has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers have threatened to kill him if Kate doesn't publicly renounce her feminist viewpoints. Instead of calling the police, or taking a particularly active role in the investigations herself, Kate starts with a friend from her last case who has since become a private eye. But Kate quickly realizes that she'll be happier and more successful if she takes a stronger hand in the case. I really enjoyed the introduction of a dog into the Fansler-Amhearst household, and I thought Kate's reaction, while frustrating, was also reasonable as this case was so much more personal than her previous cases. I'm conflicted about the full plot though: it may have been a bit overcomplicated. Still, another fine entry in this series.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper

This book seems in many ways to change from the previous one: it spends most of its time following a new character, Teia, who has a lot of the Talent and sees only bloodshed and death on her clan's current warlike path. From that story, we get inconsistent jumps to about three other places: Gair going on a journey with Alderan, Tanith trying to get the White Court involved, and a woman trying to become a knight. I can definitely see how the series is still in the "get a bunch of balls in the air, to be juggled into submission later" phase, but this book still hasn't persuaded me that the stakes of the story are as important as it thinks they are.

An Imperfect Spy by Amanda Cross

This mystery starts with Kate and her husband Reed taking a sabbatical to teach at Schuyler Law School, where they quickly find that the Old Boys Club is still in full swing and that all is not well at the school--and maybe not in their marriage either. The mysteries play out without a lot of suspense: the heart of the story is about the state of their marriage (at least it seemed to me). So, like many of Cross's books, this one is not a conventional murder mystery. But I still enjoyed it, mostly for watching Kate be a detective.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss

This book makes an impassioned plea for the continued importance of punctuation as marker of clarity and style. It consists of several essays (some longer and some shorter) on different punctuation marks including the comma, the dash, the semi-colon, the colon, the apostrophe, the hyphen, the question mark, the exclamation point, and even the emoticon. I agree strongly with some of its observations, and disagree just as strenuously about others (although the latter is hardly surprising as the author punctuates according to British conventions, and I find some of them, especially regarding the location of terminal punctuation marks and closing quotation marks, entirely unsettling). But I applaud her two most important theses: punctuation matters, and some rules about punctuation should be strictly observed, while others are matter of style and taste. The essays themselves cover a wide swath of ground: the history of punctuation, humorous observations on why punctuation is important and why those who care about punctuation are so-self important, and some rules and guidelines to effective (British) English punctuation. If you're just looking for a style guide, there are better places to go. If you're looking for entertainment and someone who cares deeply about language, you've come to the right place, in addition to helpful observations about style.

Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

I really enjoyed listening to this book, which is a heist-story set between the first two Star Wars movies. Han Solo and Chewbacca have lost all their reward money, and are looking for a way to get Jabba the Hutt off their backs. Enter Eanjer, who's recently been wounded in a disfiguring way during a robbery, and who is looking for revenge (and a large payout). Eanjer convinces Han to assemble a team of eleven scoundrels to steal back his money from one of the most secure safes in the galaxy, located in the home of a Black Sun sector chief. Winter, Kell Tainer, and Lando Calrissian are all part of the team (in addition to a variety of new players). I thought the story was fantastic--there are multiple layers of plots as everyone on the team is not always on the same page at the same time. While there are clear limits on the story because we know a lot about what happens to many characters later, there's still plenty of room for surprises. The audiobook was great: like Mercy Kill, the production involves a lot of music and sound effects, which I felt really added to my enjoyment of the story. Finally, there's a plot twist in the last few seconds of the story which I didn't see coming but added a whole new layer of pleasure and meaning to the experience. I highly recommend this book to Star Wars fans.

The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus

This book is Andreas Capellanus's guide to courtly love. Capellanus was chaplain at the court of Marie of Champagne, and supposedly wrote the book at her request to portray conditions at the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, who was Marie's mother. The first book describes what love is (pain--and, by the way, it can't be experienced between a husband and wife) and how to woo a lady (with descriptions giving sample conversations between eight different couples of different social statuses); the second book describes how to retain love once you've wooed someone; and the third book is a palinode that suggests rejecting love in favor of religion. The book reminded me a lot of Machiavelli's The Prince in genre and style (and perhaps even in content at times). There were some really lovely allegories scattered throughout the book, which added interest to its narrative.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The Time Monks are at it again, in this novel: they've sent Sam Vimes back to the beginning of his career just before the birth of his first child. And Sam realizes that he can't go home until he deals with the criminal who came back with him, lest time be altered too much and his home, family, and career disappear. I thought this book was a time travel story at its best: it pushes the imagination to figure out how all the parts work together, but in the end I was satisfied with how all the parts worked together. I thought the time travel device also worked really well in allowing the series to fill in some great backstory to both the Night Watch and the city's political structure. This book is a great entry in the Discworld series.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I enjoyed listening to this book, which is about the way that an environmental anomaly makes a woman reconsider her life and the choices and options available to her. Dellarobia Turnbow, who lives on a farm in rural Tennessee with her husband and two children, wants something more than she has. At the point the story opens, she imagines this something more only in terms of a different man. But everything changes when she suddenly sees monarch butterflies on the family property. Now Dellarobia can see that what she wants might not just be a different husband, but a different life entirely--one where she can put her intelligence to use. At times I found Dellarobia to be an extremely frustrating character, but I did enjoy the path of self-discovery her character took. Barbara Kingsolver read the book herself, and she really brought the book's lyricism to life.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Phaedrus by Plato translated by Christopher Rowe

This dialogue is a conversation between Phaedrus and Socrates. Phaedrus has just heard an impressive speech of Lysius's which contends that it is better to separate sex and love. Socrates, again adopting the pose of an ignorant man, at first gives a speech in agreement (with his head covered!) but then argues that love is a kind of divine madness (the highest of four kinds, actually) and that because the madness is divinely inspired it is actually good. This work is short, but very dense.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Symposium by Plato translated by Walter Hamilton

This dialogue reflects on the nature of love. It uses a fairly involved frame narrative set up--we hear about the party third-hand--to report only the most significant speeches. We get many different views on the nature and purpose of love, but the dialogue especially shows off Socrates's wisdom (which he displays only after several other people have spoken on the topic). There are mythological explanations of love, but the most convincing and beautiful account of love asserts that at its best, it encourages people to become more virtuous and to pursue excellence. A lovely piece of work--I wish I could have read it in the original Greek instead of in translation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This book is first in a trilogy set in a world that seems to have Russian roots. Alina, an indifferent mapmaker, and Mal, an excellent tracker, have been friends ever since they grew up in the same orphanage. But in a moment of danger, Alina discovers she has great powers--a magic that no one else has--and is taken away to learn to use them. But Alina discovers that she may not have the whole story and that those teaching her have been lying to her. The magic system in this story strikes me as original, but it wasn't terribly difficult to figure out. I enjoyed this book.

The Players Come Again by Amanda Cross

I really enjoyed this mystery, which starts with Kate Fansler being asked to write the biography of the wife of a famous modernist, whose masterpiece Ariadne features a female narrator. Kate is persuaded to write the biography by a childhood account written by a woman peripherally connect to the writer's family--but as Kate begins her investigations, she discovers this woman (and her two close friends, also connected to the writer) are alternately encouraging and stonewalling her investigations. This story didn't work like a conventional mystery, but I really enjoyed the literary detective aspect of it. It's definitely one of Cross's finest stories.

All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

This book provides three more-or-less well-developed biographical sketches of three women who traveled in similar circles during the years of modernism. It contends that in understanding the lives of these three women (Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland) we can uncover a feminine side to high modernism, which seems to consist of a writing side, a fan side, and a fashion side. But I don't think the book makes its case particularly well. Even though all three women knew each other, I had trouble understanding why we needed their stories to be told together. The biographies are certainly entertaining, I just am not sure the premise of the book holds together as well as it might.

Fire Down Below by William Golding

This book is about the end of Edmund Talbot's journey to Australia. After a risky repair to the mast (which involves setting a fire in the very bowels of the ship), the ship limps its way into Sydney harbor. But as they arrive, Edmund realizes that everything has changed--both internally and externally. I think that this book is a great conclusion to the trilogy, and that the trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts. While I really disliked Edmund in the first book, he's grown and changed in realistic ways into a much better hero by the end of the trilogy. Stick with these books--all three are vital.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

I didn't realize that this book was the third of a trilogy until after I read it, but I think it stands fairly well on its own. It's a World War I story, with its perspective shifting between a doctor (and his memories of his previous imperial service) and a working class officer, friends with figures such as Wilfred Owen, who is determined to go back to war despite the fact he no longer believes it is just. Winner of the 1995 Booker Prize.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

This book is the first young adult entry in the Discworld series, and the first with chapters. It starts at the Unseen University when a group of rats (and through the rats, a cat) eat something discarded by the wizards and find they can think and talk. Maurice develops a scam in which he uses the rats and a dopey-looking boy with a pipe to make money on unsuspecting towns. But when they arrive in a mysterious town in the Überwald, they find that the joke may be on them! The book was well-plotted and engaging throughout. I really enjoyed it.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

This book tells the story of a woman's life through the viewpoints of her children--starting with the twins who died young, and ending with a granddaughter. I loved the way each viewpoint expanded the story, so we could see Hattie's many different sides and her struggle to determine her identity in the face of the demands of her family. The book was lyrical and well-plotted. I look forward to Ms. Mathis's next book.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Trap for Fools by Amanda Cross

This mystery starts more quickly than most Kate Fansler mysteries: we know from the first chapter who has died (an unpleasant professor who had locked horns with Kate--and many others--on many occasions). Partly because Kate has investigated mysteries in the past, and partly because she is one of two possible suspects with an unimpeachable alibi (the other, the victim's widow, was out-of-state at the time of the murder), the university asks her to determine what happened. I thought this story started out more quickly than usual, but in some ways it fell behind and relied a lot on the reader's trust of the detective, rather than the reader's ability to put things together. I enjoyed it, but it's not one of Cross's best mysteries.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The Truth About College by Professor X

This book grew from a pseudonymous article in The Atlantic, also titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." It chronicles one man's journey into adjuncting college writing and literature classes to supplement his income after buying a house just before the housing bubble crashed. Professor X is cynical of the idea that college is the way to wealth for most of his students and argues that we (as a nation) should re-evaluate our college system. While Professor X has come under a lot of attack for giving up on his students (attacks that he meets head-on later in the book), I think the book works as a call to look at our colleges. While I think that anyone could benefit from writing more clearly, I think Professor X is right to question the "go to college or else" mandate and to think about how much remedial work is possible in one semester. The memoir part of the book strikes me as a little bland at times (we bought an expensive house and then we couldn't afford it very well, so we fought about it).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement edited by Benjamin Johnson, Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson

This collection of essays proposes that American universities are changing in ways that harm them because of the rise of corporate interests, which focus on lowering labor costs as much as possible without worrying about the effects these changes will have on the laborers themselves or the quality of education they are able to provide. The book shows how the casualization of academic labor harms faculty and provides accounts of attempts (both successful and not) of various employees (including graduate students) to unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. Even though this book was written about a decade ago, it still feels very relevant and its arguments still managed to persuade me.

Cold Days by Jim Butcher

In this book Harry Dresden is back from the dead and stronger than ever--thanks to his agreement to serve as Queen Mab's Winter Knight. Harry has got to figure out how he can serve in this role without letting it corrupt him--but in the meantime, Chicago is likely to be at Ground Zero of a magical explosion of apocalyptic proportions (centering on Demonreach, of course) and Mab has given him his first assignment: kill her daughter, Maeve (an immortal, for those of you keeping score at home). I like the way that this book doesn't shy away from tough questions, or asking Harry to do morally questionable things. I think Butcher has done (and continues to do) a great job increasing the stakes so we see what's going on with the series long term (it's not just one adventure after another) while making each book individually great to read.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Trust No One by Linda Sue Park

This book finally started bringing the pieces together for the series finale (due out in March). Now I understand what the Vespers' goal is (other than torturing the captives and making Dan and Amy steal important things). I thought that there were a number of plot points that got dropped throughout the book--especially in reference to Amy's relationships with a variety of characters. I love the way this series picks up historical artifacts and mysteries and tries to tie them together--it's not always completely successful, but it is entertaining.

Philida by André Brink

This book tells the story of an enslaved woman on the brink of freedom who finds promises unfulfilled, and realizes she must craft her own identity and search for her own destiny. It was a lovely story, that gradually unfolds to its full significance. I found the multiple narrators and the care given to small parts of the story (especially Kleinkat) really enhanced my enjoyment. This complicated and uplifting book was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.

Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger

This collection of essays examines the role of the vampire in contemporary literature. Its essays are grouped into four categories: the development of the vampire metaphor in an historical continuum, on writing vampire fictions, the role of disease and disease metaphors in writing contemporary vampire fictions (especially AIDS), and the vampire as an other (especially related to sexuality). I found some of the essays in the collection stronger than others ("Consuming Youth: The Lost Boys Cruise Mallworld" by Rob Latham on the ways in which the film The Lost Boys enacts the capitalist/vampire metaphor in our contemporary economy was particularly good), but all of the essays do better with reading a given text or set of texts than theorizing in new and exciting ways.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

This book concludes the Hyperion Cantos and the adventures of Raul Endymion and Aenea. I found the story really moving in places and challenging in others. There are parts that were just confusing for me: I'm still not sure I completely understand the motivations of the Techno Core, for example. But I found the story both intriguing and exciting. I think I would like to re-read all four of these books, but preferably one right after the other.

The Americans by Robert Frank

This book collects a series of photographs Robert Frank took while traveling across America on a Guggenheim grant in 1955 and 1956 and presents them in the style of Walker Evans's American Photographs: black and white, one photograph per spread. Even though there is an essay by Jack Kerouac introducing the collection, the photographs stand on their own. They are moving and beautiful and cover a wide variety of American life.

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

SMERSH plots to embarass MI-6 by taking down its top agent, James Bond, in this novel. A SMERSH agent offers to defect with a code machine--but only if Bond comes to get her. So Bond travels to Turkey. When they head back to England on the famed Orient Express, Bond must determine who to trust and who is trying to double cross him.

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

This book features Agent 007, James Bond going undercover as a diamond courier to trace a series of diamond thefts to its source. He finds himself in deep with an American gang. Felix Leiter returns as a Pinkerton agent. This book is similar to other Bond novels: a lot of good fun.

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett and illustrated by Paul Kirby

This book features Cohen the Barbarian on a final quest--to give the gift of fire back to the Gods. If he succeeds, he will destroy the Disc. And only Rincewind and Leonard of Quirm, using an experimental technology that allows them to travel around the Disc (a spaceship) can save him...but they didn't count on an unexpected passenger. I enjoyed this book--and it's lavishly and beautifully illustrated.

Close Quarters by William Golding

This book continues the sea journey of Edmund Talbot, a younger son of an aristocrat on his way to Australia to earn some money in hopes of eventually occupying a pocket borough back in England. The ship becomes becalmed--and in the midst of the general disaster, Edmund falls in love. Edmund is a more sympathetic character than he was in the first novel, and there's a lot of beautiful prose. I especially enjoyed Talbot's meditations on the ways that nautical metaphors have infused the English language.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

No Word from Winifred by Amanda Cross

This book features Professor Kate Fansler called in to locate a missing client of her brother's law firm. This client's connections to the literary world (she's the honorary niece of an Oxford writer) interest Kate. As with many of Cross's mysteries, I enjoyed the depiction of the literary-academic world (especially the scenes at the annual MLA conference) much more than the mystery, which worked in fits and starts.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

This monograph argues that American college students are not learning very much in college. Given the rising costs of higher education, and the increasing sense that a college education will open up possibilities to students, it's important to address this lack--although the authors hesitate to call it a crisis, because the US higher education system is not in danger of collapsing. The authors' conclusions are mostly based on a test called the College Learning Assessment, which was administered to students at twenty-four universities at the beginning of their freshman year (2005) and the end of their sophomore year of study (2007). The authors then used the data to assess how much the students learned. The book accounts for a wide variety of variables. It seems that the variable over which individuals have control (as opposed to, say, whether their parents went to college) is the types of courses they select: students tended to learn more in courses that required at least 40 pages of reading a week and at least 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester. I think this book brings up a lot of problems in higher education, and it motivated me to look more closely at course structure. I think a larger sample size (more universities) and studying a larger range of classes (not just the one cohort) would help reinforce the study's claims. I am also not entirely convinced that this test alone is a good measure of how much students have learned (though I admit that it is a step towards a solution of a tough problem).

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Moonraker by Ian Fleming

In this book Agent 007 gets put on a unique assignment: M. suspects Sir Hugo Drax (a member of his club, and about to give England a long-range nuclear weapon) of cheating at cards. Bond agrees to investigate, and with special permission, infiltrates Drax's installation after the murder of one of Drax's workers. Bond's physical stamina is at times unbelievable, but the story moves along quickly and has exciting twists and turns along the way. The bridge plot at the beginning is very well explained. Good for light reading.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book subtly investigates the questions of what we give up when we subsume our personality and our moral judgment into unquestioning loyalty. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, has lived the life of a perfect butler. Even as his father lay dying upstairs, he only worried about serving Lord Darlington and his guests as perfectly as possible. He decided to give his loyalty to Lord Darlington and then never questioned Darlington's decisions or actions--even the more hideous ones, such as firing two housemaids because they were Jewish. But when Lord Darlington dies in disgrace, and a new American buys the house, Stevens goes on a journey. Ostensibly, he's trying to find a new housekeeper, but more importantly, he attempts to reconcile his actions and his memories with his moral self. This book was absolutely lovely. It unfolds over the course of the journey, but is littered with flashbacks as Stevens's memories continue to haunt him. I really loved this book. Winner of the 1989 Booker Prize.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller

This book purports to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony. I think it offers a fairly plausible solution--but I am by no means convinced that it is the only solution. Miller asserts that conspirators in England who wanted to hurt Sir Walter Raleigh made sure that the colonization mission would be unsuccessful, that while some colonists went to Croatan, the majority were enslaved in the interior of what is now North Carolina, and that Roanoke was a dangerous place to stay because of two previous English expeditions which had mistreated the Native Americans. I think Miller's approach was useful--I appreciate that she considers the bigger picture, and not just the colonists themselves. She hasn't convinced me that her solution is entirely correct. The style of the book is a little odd: it's neither quite scholarly (there are lots of footnotes, but it seems more colloquial than most monographs), nor written for popular consumption. Still, I think this book broadened my knowledge of what happened in North America in the sixteenth century, and it gave me a lot to think about--all in a very enjoyable package.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I really enjoyed reading this book. It purports to set everything out on the table at the beginning: it's the memoir of a woman who found herself working for MI-5 toward the end of the Cold War, and how falling in love caused her to be fired. But, as you reach the end of the novel, a gorgeous twist shakes our confidence in the entire story. I loved the way the story meditates on lies, the truth, betrayal, and art. This book is a fine example of McEwan at his most deft.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

This usage guide is full of good, concise information to help readers improve their English prose. The authors forcefully advocate a stripped-down style, where each word must count. Some of the usage notes for words strike me as overly fussy (which may be a matter of taste or a sign of the book's age), but I think Strunk and White's suggestions are a great starting point for developing a tasteful and sound prose style.

Sweet Death, Kind Death

Kate Fansler is called to investigate a suicide that's not a suicide in this book. Most of Kate's problems come from the fact that woman who's died, Patrice Umphelby, seems clearly to have drowned by the autopsy results. Kate spends a fair amount of time investigating Patrice's obsession with death, but it's details that come right before the denouement that provide us with the motive and the means of murder. Another one that makes it hard for the reader to play detective.

Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross

In this book Professor Kate Fansler is called to Harvard to offer moral support to an old friend from grad school. This friend, who has just been selected to be the first woman to hold a chair in Harvard's English department, quickly alienates the department (which was already disposed towards hostility) and is just as quickly murdered. This book was much better on the question of women in academia than on the murder itself. Cross writes in a style that sounds of its time, but which is nevertheless charming.

A Death in the Small Hours by Charles Finch

In this book Charles Lenox, now a Member of Parliament and a new father, has taken a week's vacation in the country with his family to try to write an important speech for Parliament, but finds himself caught up in a series of small incidents that suddenly loom very large indeed. The solution was cleverly plotted, but the mystery and investigative techniques left the reader out of the hunt for the solution. I find Lenox pompous and overbearing at times, so that irritated me too. Not a bad addition to the series.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

In this book James Bond seems more familiar, as he teams up with Felix Leiter of the CIA again to take on SMERSH agent Mr. Big, who has apparently discovered a pirate's hoard of gold and is smuggling it into the United States and using the profits to fund communist activities. This book is clearly of its time: the way that it uses dialect and talks about race sound off-putting. But, it's more the words than the content that's offensive, and the spy story is good. The pacing is improved since Casino Royale.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

This book introduces James Bond, agent 007 of the MI-6. I was a little thrown by the plot: Bond's mission (which involves a complicated gambling scheme to financially ruin a Russian agent in France), seems to wrap up well before the story's over. It's also not the Bond I expected from the movies: he seemed more apt to fall in love and less sure of himself. In many ways, the book explains the way that Bond became the way he did. An easy, quick, and enjoyable read.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

This book owes a lot of its advice to the little book, Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Zinsser advocates a clear style that keeps the reader--and human interest--in mind. While at times Zinsser's tone came across as over-bearing, and I'm not sure that I'd want to have dinner with him, I think much of his advice is solid. If you're looking for concrete rules, you might prefer Elements of Style, but if you want more general advice, this book should be helpful.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This volume concludes Robert Jordan's series, The Wheel of Time. It is massive in every sense of the word: it wraps up an epic story, it contains a cast of characters in the hundreds, and one of its chapters is almost two hundred pages long. Sanderson does an admirable job bringing Jordan's material to a close--a task that Jordan himself was having trouble doing (as evidenced by the meandering plots of the last few books he wrote). There are still elements of the series that bother me (Rand's three women, as one example, and the huge number of plots, for another)--but most of these elements seem to have sprung out of the middle of the series, when Jordan seems to have lost the thread. And thread is really the right word for this series in particular, because so much of the magic and mythology is based on the idea of weaving--a metaphor which really struck me as I was reading this book. I was actually really satisfied with the ending. It was thoughtful, it was surprising at times, and it neither shied away from tough consequences and deaths nor unduly punished its characters. I think I will remember and ponder the ending for a long while, and I could even see myself re-reading the series at some point in the future--which I would have been much less likely to do before reading this book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Last Orders by Graham Swift

This book is about the journey of a group of friends to scatter one of their friend's ashes off the pier at Margate. Over the course of the book, we see the friendships' long and deep roots, over the disappointments of life. I thought this book was okay, but not great--although others might enjoy the style more. Winner of the 1996 Booker Prize.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

This novel is Discworld at its best. There's a bit of a Bond spoof, lots of Death (who works to reunite the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but doesn't count on Ronnie, who left before they hit it big), lots of Susan, and a great storyline involving monks of time and a glass clock that can stop it entirely. It's the sort of story you have to read to fully understand, and reading it is a real pleasure.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Question of Max by Amanda Cross

In this book Professor Kate Fansler finds herself drawn in to a mystery when her friend Max invites her to accompany him to Maine where he needs to investigate a report of mysterious strangers bothering the house of a family friend, of whose estate he is the literary executor. When Kate and Max find a body--in fact, the body of one of Kate's graduate students, it nags at her. And as she keeps investigating the death--and the literary circle to whom the author belonged--Kate discovers layers upon layers of mystery. I liked the sense that this book gives of the mystery not being all-consuming (we get a lot of Kate's day-to-day life which becomes relevant or complementary to the main story without making it feel like she's somehow become a police officer), and I loved the double ending. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

New American Gothic by Irving Malin

This book takes a psychoanalytic or Freudian approach to six American writers of the mid-twentieth century who produced gothic fictions: Flannery O'Connor, J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, James Purdy, and John Hawkes. Malin argues that these gothic fictions start with a narcissistic protagonist, disruptive to community. There are often family problems: self-absorbed parents and isolated children. Three typical gothic figures (the haunted castle, the voyage into the forest, and the reflection), which were "mere props" in British gothic, become more psychologically important--and show how these American gothic fictions reflect a community disrupted. This book could have been much more persuasive; it was organized thematically (chapters on the narcissistic self, the family, and the three images), rather than by author, and the argument felt rushed (although part of it may have been my lack of familiarity with many of the authors and titles discussed). I also felt the psychological approach was limiting--many times the analysis seemed forced or overdone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin

This anthology collects short stories, excerpts of novels, and excerpts of autobiographical writing from what the editors describe as the rough south or grit lit genre. Indeed, the anthology shines in its generic formulation: the introduction and headnotes to each story help clarify what rough south means. In this case, it's contemporary (so Faulkner and O'Connor aren't here), it tends to be white and poor and created by outrageous autobiographical stories instead of academic training (although some of the later writers have participated in various MFA programs and other forms of higher education--and this experience raises ambivalent feelings in them), and it often features a kind of toughness or grit. I enjoyed the stories; some were better than others, but it was a fairly engaging collection all in all. Harry Crews's and Dorothy Allison's writings stand out as gems.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

This book posits that we can better understand animal behavior by paying more attention to the differences in the way they understand, perceive, and interact with the world. Grandin also suggests that she better understands animals than most people because her autism allows her to perceive the specific details of the world the way animals do, instead of generalizing details the way most non-autistic human brains do. The book covers a wide variety of fields (autobiography, autism, animal behavior, animal training, and animal cognition, just to name a few) and Grandin handles them deftly and clearly--referring both to research studies in clear ways and specific, illustrative anecdotes. I think the book's most compelling point comes at the end: we should seek to understand animals better in order to give them as good lives (when they're in contact with humans) as possible, because it's likely that domesticating animals (wolves specifically) is a large part of what made us evolve as humans (different from other primates). The book also has some great advice for how humans can most safely approach their relationships with domesticated dogs--eliminating aggression problems so you won't need a trainer.