Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book of Paul-Richard Long

Book of Paul-Richard Long

the facts
satisfaction: down/side
pages: 492
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel (series)

""Everything you've ever believed about yourself...about the description of reality you've clung to so stubbornly all your life...all of it...every bit of it...is an illusion." In the rubble-strewn wasteland of Alphabet City, a squalid tenement conceals a treasure "beyond all imagining"-- an immaculately preserved, fifth century codex. The sole repository of ancient Hermetic lore, it contains the alchemical rituals for transforming thought into substance, transmuting matter at will...and attaining eternal life. When Rose, a sex and pain addicted East Village tattoo artist has a torrid encounter with Martin, a battle-hardened loner, they discover they are unwitting pawns on opposing sides of a battle that has shaped the course of human history. At the center of the conflict is Paul, the villainous overlord of an underground feudal society, who guards the book's occult secrets in preparation for the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy.The action is relentless as Rose and Martin fight to escape Paul's clutches and Martin's destiny as the chosen recipient of Paul's sinister legacy.  Science and magic, mythology and technology converge in a monumental battle where the stakes couldn't be higher: control of the ultimate power in the universe--the Maelstrom."



here's a mini review:
frankly horrifying and revolting but with an utterly gripping plot written in too clear prose

Brilliantly written so I read it but the (admittedly very novel) plot was so horrifying that I can't claim to have enjoyed it. Trigger warnings for gore, torture, senseless death, rape, and mutilation
 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Autobiography of Red-Anne Carson

Autobiography of Red-Anne Carson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 149
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 1998
Novel (in verse)

"The award-winning poet Anne Carson reinvents a genre in Autobiography of Red, a stunning work that is both a novel and a poem, both an unconventional re-creation of an ancient Greek myth and a wholly original coming-of-age story set in the present."

I've had this book on my shelf for five years without ever really reading it. I was hesitant because though I've only heard good things about Anne Carson, they've mainly been uttered by the poetry lovers of my acquaintance. I am not the biggest poetry reader so I guess for that reason, unfortunately, Autobiography of Red languished unread for so many years. At times I have to admit that while reading it I wondered how it differed from simply poetic writing because at times it just seemed like a well written story with 'unusual' punctuation choices. But I really don't know much about poetry so what can I say.

I loved this story with Greek names recognizable from obscure Greek mythology built into a wholly modern tale of identity and living as an outsider in Peru. Wings under a t shirt and a complete identification with red make this a great study of a character whose mystery is never compromised even as his flaws annoy you. This is a sensitive and strangely heartwarming story that vividly draws you through to the end. Told in glimpses and snatches of verse that walk the line between myth and modernity almost every line.

The last part was a bit jarring actually after the beautiful middle. The anachronistic interview seemed a bit too ironic as if the middle was too earnest and the ending needed to cut the reader off of the spell.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I'jaam-Sinān Antūn

I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody-Sinān Antūn

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 97
gender: M
nationality: Iraq
year: 2007
Novella

"An inventory of the General Security headquarters in central Baghdad reveals an obscure manuscript. Written by a young man in detention, the prose moves from prison life, to adolescent memories, to frightening hallucinations, and what emerges is a portrait of life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq."

This is such a short book and it's so, so, so very sad. Written by a jailbound narrator there is no sense of time with the repeating line “I awoke to find myself here”. With no time and little hope the novel becomes dreamlike and eerily ethereal. There's some hope but it's fairly illusory (this was in a governmental inventory...). There's a lot of insight into how oppression acts upon the individual.

I don't really know what else to say but I really wanted to 'review' this book because I just want to recommend it to people! It's a sad book about a country that's unfortunately underrepresented in the reading list of most Americans.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Taste for Death-P.D. James

A Taste for Death-P.D. James

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 454
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 1986
Novel (Series: Adam Dalgliesh)

"When the quiet Little Vestry of St. Matthew's Church becomes the blood-soaked scene of a double murder, Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh faces an intriguing conundrum: How did an upper-crust Minister come to lie, slit throat to slit throat, next to a neighborhood derelict of the lowest order? Challenged with the investigation of a crime that appears to have endless motives, Dalgliesh explores the sinister web spun around a half-burnt diary and a violet-eyed widow who is pregnant and full of malice--all the while hoping to fill the gap of logic that joined these two disparate men in bright red death. . . ."

Definitely my favorite PD James thus far. It is intricate with almost too many characters to keep track of but has a solid mystery feel. The plot never strays into stereotypes which makes it a great read. Full of twists, few things make sense until the final pulling together of all the threads. And then James goes on to finish all of the arcs she started to create a very full novel about the way we live our lives. There's also a subtle commentary on the aristocracy and they do not finish off looking like a good bunch. The crime is particularly gory and there are other rather strong harrowing scenes nearer the end.

James is mean to the elderly though. They seem to always be either pathetic or just plain dead. And she hates beauty. In all her books there's always a couple of lines talking about beauty's rotten core rather than any lines about any good that comes from it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bitterblue-Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue-Kristin Cashore

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 547
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
YA novel (series: Graceling)

"Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck's reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle--disguised and alone--to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past. Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign."

Maybe it's because I read this after absolutely despising Neuromancer but I loved this book to bits and pieces and even more after that. I'd read the others in the series (Graceling and Fire) and loved them but Bitterblue is perhaps the best of the trilogy. It's like 550 pages long and yet not long enough. I pretty much read it in one long swoop because it was just so enjoyable. 

The world building is fantastic-there's just enough history that you didn't need to read the other books set in this world but not too much that you are ever bogged down. And the characters. THE CHARACTERS. The tragedies got me to cry and the humor got me to chuckle and laugh. It all felt so real while reading it partially because the whole national PTSD was so relevant even to our world. I kept feeling like there should be truth-seeking commissions like there were in Rwanda and all that pain was so visceral. The kingdom was scarred but the hope was palpable. The world was horrible, painful and cruel but the strength and courage in it was so strong. 

The plot was well paced with a bit of lightness (a romance...this is YA after all) that doesn't interfere with the true concern of the book. How does one move on? They don't, like Thiel (genuinely made me cry) or they try to preserve, like Death (Deeth) (otherwise known as my new 2nd favorite librarian) or they look to the future, like Teddy, etc. There are so many multi-faceted characters populate these pages that I ended up reading the glossary to make it last longer-extend my fix as it were. 

A fantasy novel with true depth.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce-Slavoj Žižek

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce-Slavoj Žižek

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 157
gender: M
nationality: Slovenia
year: 2009
Non-fiction, political theory

From the tragedy of 9/11 to the farce of the financial meltdown.
Billions of dollars have been hastily poured into the global banking system in a frantic attempt at financial stabilization. So why has it not been possible to bring the same forces to bear in addressing world poverty and environmental crisis?

In this take-no-prisoners analysis, Slavoj Zizek frames the moral failures of the modern world in terms of the epoch-making events of the first decade of this century. What he finds is the old one-two punch of history: the jab of tragedy, the right hook of farce. In the attacks of 9/11 and the global credit crunch, liberalism dies twice: as a political doctrine and as an economic theory.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is a call for the Left to reinvent itself in the light of our desperate historical situation. The time for liberal, moralistic blackmail is over.

This book...
I can't even. I'm going ahead and resorting to some gifs.
I'd been reading this book for more than two months and I'd be reading and going 

and I'm totally into it. And then, I don't know, Žižek keeps talking or something and he just ends up shooting himself in the foot or completely undermining what I had been enjoying before so that I just kept making this face

 and then

and even worse it kept going on and on but I kept reading. I soldiered on.
You want an example? Okay, so he's fascinatingly demonstrating how accepting aid from the IMF literally makes people sicker (b/c it promotes budget cuts in public health) and then he meanders out into phenomenology...


Despite all my efforts by the end I ended up not really understanding Žižek's point, thesis, or position in life. So what was he aiming at?
and I really should have abandoned this book much earlier. I got some great points, I've gotten some great arguments from it but I can't tell if I like them because of how Žižek used them or whether I'd actually using them in counterpoint to what he'd say. I've read many other political treatises I've grasped far better than this one. It's not just that Žižek adores Hegel (with whom I've had a fairly ambivalent relationship) but rather that he wins on certain very specific points and then meanders into territory that doesn't even border on his point. It was often like I started the point on Venus and by the end of the page ended up on Mars and ostensibly this was supposed to be the same point I was listening to on Venus.

I guess it also bothered me that there was also no real conclusion, not even an attempt at one. The last chapter is something like 2/3 of the book and so Žižek effectively spends all those 157 pages critiquing the systems currently in place,but he lacks any advice on what should be done instead except for the absurdly abstracted Communist Hypothesis.

The Double Bind-Chris Bohjalian

The Double Bind-Chris Bohjalian

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 359
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2007
Novel

When Laurel Estabrook is attacked while riding her bicycle through Vermont’s back roads, her life is forever changed. Formerly outgoing, Laurel withdraws into her photography, spending all her free time at a homeless shelter. There she meets Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box of photographs that he won’t let anyone see. When Bobbie dies, Laurel discovers a deeply hidden secret–a story that leads her far from her old life, and into a cat-and-mouse game with pursuers who claim they want to save her. In a tale that travels between the Roaring Twenties and the twenty-first century, between Jay Gatsby’s Long Island and rural New England.



This is a multi-layered novel. There’s the pictures aspect and I loved that Bohjalian included the photos he was inspired by (the true story of a former  professional photographer that ended up leaving a box of photos in his final homeless shelter). The amount of literary devices Bohjalian skillfully deploys creates what ends up being quite a post-modern crime novel.

The prologue grabs you with its tone of suppressed and subtle violence that immediately establishes your sympathies with Laurel. That means you spend the novel in her head and not minding. It’s totally understandable that she wants to solve the mystery of the photos. The photos, not the real ones in the book itself but the literary ones have a connection to her own childhood spent swimming in the bay across from Gatsby’s mansion. 

Some of the minor characters were underdeveloped and at the end there’s no explanation for their presence in the novel. The twist likewise is potentially not a real twist depending on how you sink into the novel. I got stuck, stuck in deep and so it did end up being a really clever, put-a-smile-on-my-face twist that made it all more than worth the read. It would’ve have been without the twist but the final part really made it a book that stood out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Atmospheric Disturbances-Rivka Galchen

Atmospheric Disturbances-Rivka Galchen

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 240
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2008
Novel

When Dr. Leo Liebenstein’s wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her—or almost exactly like her—and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love. With the help of his psychiatric patient Harvey—who believes himself to be a secret agent who can control the weather—Leo attempts to unravel the mystery of the spousal switch. His investigation leads him to the enigmatic guidance of the meteorologist Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, the secret workings of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their cosmic conflict with the 49 Quantum Fathers, and the unwelcome conviction that somehow he—or maybe his wife, or maybe even Harvey—lies at the center of all these unfathomables. From the streets of New York to the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, Leo’s erratic quest becomes a test of how far he is willing to take his struggle against the seemingly uncontestable truth he knows in his heart to be false. 

I don’t know what happened. I started reading this and really enjoying it.

There’s a heavy Pynchon and Borgés influence on the main character, Leo, and a heavy Murakami influence on the rest. Leo is a psychiatrist (and it’s clear the author knows a lot about psychiatry) and he’s having a great life until he notices that his wife has been replaced with a simulacrum . This disturbingly connects to a patient of his who is convinced he is part of a secret society that controls the weather. And thus Leo’s insanity begins. I started out liking this way of approaching the age old question of what happens when you have that moment when you think What Am I Doing With My Life? And How Did I Get Here? I thought it was hilarious. I chuckled at Leo’s artful pseudo scientific rationalizations. I enjoyed the secret society machinations. I was enjoying learning about Leo from how he interacts with the world around him. 

And then overnight, it got not funny. I ended up not enjoying it at all. It got dense and I felt bogged down with everything. The self-sabotage was too obvious (I prefer post-modern self-sabotage that is more subtle).  I ended up wondering whether the first half was actually funny or whether I was just in a very strange mood when I was reading it.

I don't know what to say about the book. I liked it and then despite little change in the book's style I started to dislike it. 

I’m thinking I should begin avoiding books in which the author uses their own last name. Tzvi Gal-Chen never speaks but he becomes a focal point for Leo’s descent into chaos which just…is a literary conceit I’ve yet to enjoy.  I suspect Tzvi is based on Rivka’s own father who must have been some sort of meteorologist because there was a remarkable backstory to Tzvi full of legitimate articles and Doppler expertise. Well done backstory but still...

EDIT: My suspicions are true…this novel is a love letter to her father and “an excuse for her to write his name down over and over”.  Which is cute but still a conceit I get annoyed by.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Uninvited-Liz Jensen

The Uninvited-Liz Jensen

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 302
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2013
Novel

A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother's neck and fires. An isolated incident, say the experts. The experts are wrong. Across the world, children are killing their families. Is violence contagious? As chilling murders by children grip the country, anthropologist Hesketh Lock has his own mystery to solve: a bizarre scandal in the Taiwan timber industry. Hesketh has never been good at relationships: Asperger's Syndrome has seen to that. But he does have a talent for spotting behavioral patterns and an outsider's fascination with group dynamics. Nothing obvious connects Hesketh's Asian case with the atrocities back home. Or with the increasingly odd behavior of his beloved stepson, Freddy.



I have no idea what I expected from this book. All I knew at the beginning is that I was genuinely creeped out by it. I consider myself fairly difficult to creep out in terms of media consumption. I watch horror movies right before bedtime and still sleep like a baby. I think it was just the oddness in which the world was dissolving-the saboteurs, the murderous children, the clear and flowing prose, and perhaps combined with that cover art just did their work.

I’d say this is a novel focused on two planes. One is the apocalypal novel in which the world is simply dissolving and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. There just seemed like there was no way to understand the problem either. Jensen’s writing is understated and never becomes baroque or anything like that and perhaps that also makes it very creepy. It’s tight story telling though and I really appreciated that. In a way, I thought about Wyndham’s story-telling skills and I think it’s a pretty fair comparison. Understated writing, unsolvable problems that had to finish their fated tracks, and a good sense of how to present events lightly.

Perhaps Jensen was also aided by making the main character, Hesketh, someone with Asperger’s. I thought that was spectacularly handled because Hesketh is quite focused on turning his Asperger’s into a positive thing about him. He’s perpetually out of place and so he became an anthropologist. This makes sense to me.

The Uninvited was great while it was focused on Hesketh and his personal story as it fit into the global catastrophe but it began to undermine itself when it began to focus on the children and the whole thing descended into an environmentalist parable. For me it was an about-face in tone and feel that I got disenchanted with the book unfortunately.
 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Volcano Lover-Susan Sontag

The Volcano Lover-Susan Sontag

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 419
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1992
Novel

Set in 18th century Naples, based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his celebrated wife Emma, and Lord Nelson, and peopled with many of the great figures of the day, this unconventional, bestselling historical romance from the National Book Award-winning author of In America touches on themes of sex and revolution, the fate of nature, art and the collector's obsessions, and, above all, love.



I can’t find the words to explain  how much I loved Volcano-Lover. The history is exquisitely told and brought to life (grisly bits and all).  You were reading this recounting of the Cavaliere’s life in Naples.  As the British ambassador, he’s required to be the social centre of all the ex-pats in the country. Emma was more suited to this role than the Cavaliere who also sought to collect and document his beloved volcano, Vesuvius. You hear a bit about Italians when the shockwaves from the French Revolution hit Naples but this is a book squarely about this British community told in a way that makes it clear that the narrator is modern. So overlaid this history is an erudite voice that admittedly sounds like Sontag in her non-fiction but fits in perfectly with the character of Cavaliere. I love her essays so there was no problem for me.

The tone is artfully art historical with well timed philosophical moments (that flow with the rest of the narrative). Sontag waxes lyrically about collecting and about how collections inspire, isolate, and unite. Most people are a type of collector of something  or other and so I think this makes for universality. Sontag even is pitch perfect about the reaction of others to your collection. I loved it.

However, I wish Books 4 & 5 were not a thing. I wish it had stopped at “and this is, the Cavaliere thought,  how it is to die.” Stopped there I would have considered this an impeccable novel. The sectionin which the Cavaliere is old and confused just made me sad. The narrator changes  meant you lost that erudite connection which I was so enjoying and the whole behind the scenes of minor characters thing seemed just awkwardly done and even worse, unnecessary. I say unnecessary because I read most of the book in a state of suspended belief, I didn’t spend my time wondering how real it all was because it was just so well done. But the last sections made me start to wonder how much was history and how much was fabrication and began to almost cheapen my enjoyment of the original story. I get that it was all about how history is written from one view and was making a statement about reliability but I guess I'm burned out of that conversation. I'm an archaeologist-I never assume anything is truly reliable.