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.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

I enjoyed this book, which, like its protagonist's journey, slowly circled around to its inevitable conclusion with a steady and misleading pace. Futh, newly separated, visits Germany for a walking holiday after moving out of his family home and before he is to move into a new apartment. As he walks, he remembers his familial traumas (both with his wife and with his childhood family--which his mother abruptly left) and treasures a glass perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse as a totem. But as Futh returns to Hellhaus (the town and the motel from which his journey started), we slowly realize that Futh, drawn like a moth to a flame, is about to be caught up in a story he never knew he was part of. Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker prize.

Umbrella by Will Self

This complicated novel uses modernist techniques (such as stream-of-consciousness narration, and three distinct narrative threads that intermingle and change with dizzying speed) in order to insist on the continued value of difficulty in reading and the continued difficulty of telling certain types of stories in more conventional ways. Fortunately for the reader, the book presents a brief précis of each time period (Audrey Death's early life to the end of World War I, her encounter with Dr. Zach Busner--who's willing to try new techniques for a certain class of patients--in a mental hospital in 1971, and Dr. Busner's reflections on his practice at that time from the vantage of his (almost contemporary with us) retirement. The book more than repaid its challenges. I particularly enjoyed the playful attention to Audrey's last name. I also thought the World War I story (with its familial betrayals) and the role Dr. Busner played in the treatment of the patients with encephalitis lethargica worked very well together to raise the questions of what we owe each other as human beings, and then to examine the consequences of failing to fulfill these duties. Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2012.

The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons by Colin Dayan

This book examines the ways that the law has been used to manipulate the boundaries of the human--especially in the case of enslaved persons and prisoners. Dayan posits that forms such as zombies, ghosts, and dogs appear in literature and culture in response to the ways that the law can be deployed to take away someone's humanity. The book covers a broad time period (dealing with cases in US law from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first) and it combines sources and techniques from a variety of fields, including the law, history, and literature, to end in a stunning indictment of legal systems that take away people's humanity and an exposé of how the cruelest forms of punishment may be written off as administrative conveniences. All in all, a persuasive and useful monograph, and a model for a radical, engaged form of criticism.

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

I enjoyed listening to this book, which argues that medical doctors and veterinarians should work more closely together because humans and other animals share many of the same diseases and health problems, and so, such an approach, which the authors term "zoobiquitous" would help improve health for all animals and might offer strategies for diseases that are otherwise difficult to treat. The book was full of examples, anecdotal data, and surveys (although most of the formal studies were based on one species). At times, the writing felt a little repetitive (the authors drove home the value of this zoobiquitous approach at every possible opportunity), but I learned a lot about disease and was convinced that increased communication (and respect) between veterinarians and doctors would be a good thing.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

This book is a fantasy story about Gair, an orphan who has magical powers--that mark him as a witch. There were some interesting elements (especially the idea that the church has something to hide in the history of its rise to power). However, the book felt very repetitive: lots of ideas from other series (from the Wheel of Time, to Star Wars, to Lord of the Rings). While I understand that lots of fantasy tropes are repeated from series to series, there wasn't a lot of originality in the ways that Cooper used them. Also, the main romantic pairing of the book was off: technically the relationship was forbidden by the rules of the school--a point that was made much of until people in charge found out about the relationship--and then it didn't matter at all. I'll be interested to see where this series goes, but I certainly hope it improves.