Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Humans: Every few years we have to convince some alien race that we deserve to live and also that our noses are nice. Oh, the burdens of humanity.

Matt Haig retweets a lot of the nice things people say about his book (which you shouldn't do too often, authors, please keep in mind) and I suppose all that niceness wheedled its way into the book-choosing region of my brain.

So it came to be that I was opening The Humans, without knowing much of anything about it.

I should be annoyed with you, but here I come I guess.

The premise is pretty simple: Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, has unlocked a mystery of prime numbers that could change the course of human history. A member of an advanced alien race in another galaxy is sent to Earth to make sure no one ever finds out about this breakthrough. The alien takes over Andrew's body, infiltrating his workplace and family, and sets to work undoing his progress. The book is a first-person record of the experience, addressed to his fellow aliens.

At first, Alien Andrew is horrified and disgusted by the human form (especially noses, because what are those all about?) and the primitive ways of the human species. The members of his race have always believed the worst about humans, and his observations often corroborate that view.
The humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. . . . They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities among themselves.
But the longer he spends in Andrew Martin's body, the more he sees the complexity and value of humanity, messy as it is.

Alien Andrew makes loads of poignant observations about the human condition, but he's at his best when he's describing the mundane.
The "pub" was an invention of humans living in England, designed as compensation for the fact that they were humans living in England.
This is what dogs liked to do, I discovered. They liked to run around on grass, pretending they were free, shouting, "We're free, we're free, look, look how free we are!" at each other. It really was a sorry sight.
So yes, I'm glad the hive mind convinced me to read this tidy black comedy with hints of Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and The Rosie Project. Very glad indeed . . . if just a little bit more self-conscious about my nose.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Dear Library: It's not you, it's me.

I was surveying a list of the books I read in 2014 . . . you know, just to see how it went in a general way. I felt like I'd read quite a few books written by women, and I did make a conscious effort to step outside my comfort zone with genre and culture and such.

I did OK I guess.

Looking at the list, it's pretty obvious and completely unsurprising to me that I need to focus more on nonfiction and nonwhite authors, and I'd also like to get back into the classics, which I seem to have wandered away from in recent years.

But that's small potatoes compared with the other thing the list showed me.

I have a habit that got completely out of hand last year, and I can't make light of it any longer. I'm staging an intervention for myself. You're all invited, and we can drink booze at it, obviously.

Out of the 67 titles I read last year, 46 were from the public library. That means, despite my sizable and ever-increasing personal library, I continue to ignore most of the books I share my home with.

My husband, every damn day.

The cycle goes like this: (1) See a book I've been meaning to read and am actually pretty excited about reading. (2) Buy it (and usually several others shut up). (3) Lovingly shelve it by genre and author's last name. (4) Promptly forget it ever existed.

Once I get a book home, an invisible switch is flipped and I immediately start taking it for granted. I know it will be there waiting for me indefinitely, like a long-suffering friend. But the thing is, it isn't always. I can't tell you how many times I've loaned out a book and never seen it again. And if I've already read the book, that's a minor irritation, but I usually haven't read the book.

Don't go! I can be better!

I think this problem stems from a lack of impulse control. If someone on the Internet is raving about a book and all I have to do is add it to my library hold list and wait passively until it's my turn, I'm gonna do that. Multiply that by every time someone raves about a book on the Internet and you get a massive library hold list that's steadily supplying books, all of which have the sexy allure of an expiration date.


I think I have just one title on hold going into 2015, and it's Station Eleven. Everyone's been drooling over that one, so it can be my bit of fun on the side. But I'm making a point this year to focus on loving the ones I'm with. Incidentally, that includes a few Joan Didions, a couple of Donna Tartts, some William Gibsons, several George Eliots, and the Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison.

And they all deserve my time and attention.

Thanks for being patient, books. Now get off those shelves and let's boogie.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thunderstruck (and a life update): "I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it."

Before I get into the book we're all gathered here to discuss, I just want to say, HEY, HEY GUYS, GUYS, I WORK AT DISNEY PUBLISHING NOW, GUYS.

It's been a crazy first two weeks, and I'm going to bed tonight with visions of Sith Lords dancing in my head. I love my coworkers, piles of cookies and chocolate keep appearing on my desk, I literally read books about super heroes and Jedi between the hours of 9 and 5 every day, and I sometimes eat my lunch next to a life-sized sculpture of Sully from Monsters Inc. My life does not suck.

But I haven't quite figured out where everything else goes now that I can't stay up until 3 a.m. catching up on my reading or check in with some of you guys on gchat during the workday or hang out at home with my husband until noon or stop what I'm doing at any given moment of the day to rub my face all over my dogs' faces.

Change, even the good kind, is hard.

But the main things I want you to take away from this are that my job is awesome and I've eaten my weight in cookies today.

And now we can move on to the business at hand.

When it's been a while since you finished a particular book, but you loved it so much that you really can't let it pass through your life without comment, there's nothing for it but to bust out some quotes.
The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body's a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn't a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.
A round-jawed teenager sat on a leather settee with a handheld video game, frowning at the screen like a Roman emperor impatient with the finickiness of his lions.
Paris on paper always looked like a box of peanut brittle that had been dropped onto the ground, the Seine the unraveled ribbon that had held it together. 
The way Elizabeth McCracken describes everyday things is beyond me. It took me a solid month to get through this book of only nine stories, and it's because every sentence describes a new way of looking at something—sometimes the mundane and sometimes the incomprehensible. Each story demands to be lingered over; no skimming allowed.

Just really get in there and spend some time with it.

My favorite, "Juliet," falls almost exactly in the middle of the collection, and I think it's a good example of the cohesive tone of these stories—a quirky snapshot of everyday life that also addresses how humans cope with loss.

The story opens with the plight of a beleaguered bunny named Kaspar who lives in the children's room at a public library, and then it goes into the interactions of the librarians and patrons, and one patron in particular, Juliet. But it morphs into an examination of tragedy, and how the effects of sudden loss (of any loss, really) ripple out and out and out, reaching more people in more varied ways than we might imagine possible.

I first fell in love with McCracken's writing (and her, also...a little bit) when I read her afterword to the Signet Classic 150th anniversary edition of Bleak House. I read afterwords because I'm a completist, but they rarely make me want to go straight back to the beginning of the book for a reread. What I did do was go straight to Twitter to tell her how lovely her words were, and within minutes she replied to express her gratitude for my gratitude. We live in a magical time, friends.

Every day brings us a little closer to Internet tacos.
So what've we learned here today? You should read Elizabeth McCracken's writing at every opportunity. And you can still be hungry for tacos after eating many, many cookies.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Minireadathon: I'M AWAKE I'M AWAKE. WhadidImiss?

The Minithon's been in progress for about 2 hours now, and I've just stumbled out of my cave and toward the coffee. This is why Angelenos are notorious for being late to everything: Pacific Standard Time, that cruel minx.

I tentatively planned my reading for this thing, but it's mainly just whatever books I'm in the middle of right now.

  • I'm halfway through Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories (short stories are miniature longer stories).
  • I'm also halfway through Middlemarch (not miniature in girth, no, but the people in the cover art are quite small) and determined to finish it by 2015, so help me.
  • I've been saving Horrorstor for this day because I have a feeling it will whiz along. And it's about an IKEA, basically, where all the furniture and the meat products come in pieces. Small pieces.
  • Sex Criminals Volume 1 is a comic and therefore inherently miniature. Let's hope nothing inside is miniature. *nudge-nudge*
  • Oh yeah, and I checked out a couple of Star Wars middle-grade chapter books yesterday because of reasons.
I have coffee in my cup. I have miniature quiches in the oven. READY, SET . . .

UPDATE: It's after 7 p.m. now, and I've just kind of . . . kept reading and eating. But I guess I can't keep counting all this toward my minithon achievements indefinitely. Otherwise I'll be 83 and still making a list of all the tiny foods I've accomplished, and then it will be a list with just PRUNES written over and over and over.

Despite starting the minireadathon 2 hours late and going shoe shopping in the middle of it, I did manage to put the following into my brain and/or face:
  • One heart-achingly beautiful short story from Thunderstruck (16 pages)
  • The entirety of Horrorstor, which fit the mini theme even more closely than I thought because so MANY things were in small pieces by the end (243 pages)
  • Three mugs of coffee
  • Seven tiny spinach quiches
  • Three teensy oranges
  • Innumerable cheddar Goldfish
  • Half an ahi tuna slider

But I've got all these snacks left over . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Does no one else feel as though photos of David Mitchell are quietly judging them?

I was intimidated by David Mitchell for some reason. No, actually . . . I know why. It's because he has an expression of vague disapproval in his author photos* and the trailer for the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas makes my noodle hurt.

Oh NOW I get it.

Despite my crippling self-doubt, I have now read a David Mitchell book in its entirety, and aside from a few instances of flipping back 50 pages, rereading select portions, waiting for the light bulb to go on, and then proceeding, my concerns were unfounded.

I'm not saying it's a simple story structureIt's written from multiple character perspectives and intertwines story lines, which seems like it might be Mitchell's Thing. The transitions from one perspective to the next are clearly divided into six sections and marked with thematic illustrations, but even so the switch-over can be disorienting—like going to sleep and finding, upon waking, that you're in a different body. You might need a minute to get your bearings.

Oh please, you know this is the first thing you would do.

We start out with Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old in the English countryside who has a fight with her mother and decides to run away from home. Everything is pretty standard-teenage-girl-stuff with Holly. She's a lot like Johanna from Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, dealing with family life, falling for the wrong boy, and itching to grow up. But there's this subtle undercurrent of oddity, because Holly has, in the past, heard voices and experienced what you might call psychic premonitions.

That supernatural flavoring carries through all the sections, as we jump from Holly to a cast of other characters whose lives intersect with hers in unexpected ways. The book jacket uses the phrase "everyday grace and extraordinary wonder," and I guess the book jacket knows what it's talking about.

The prose isn't flowery or spare, but it's often quite good, like so:
Love's pure free joy when it works, but when it goes bad you pay for the good hours at loan-shark prices.
Minor quibbles: In one of the sections, people occasionally speak French, without any translation provided. That sort of thing makes us peasants feel left out, and we don't prefer it. Also, the foreshadowing can be heavy-handed at times—"I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just seen so-and-so for the last time" and that sort of thing. I suspect the editors recommended adding these signposts, maybe worrying that the average reader would trail too far behind without moderate hand-holding.


At any rate, this book successfully broke the David Mitchell ice for me, and now I can tackle that copy of Black Swan Green I've had for 3 years. Well, you know . . . eventually.

*After watching this video of Mitchell's presentation at BEA 2014, I see that he's charming and self-deprecating and not at all scary. He describes his own book as a "big, thumping beast of a thing" and briefly examines the subject of tickling.

Monday, November 3, 2014

California: The book, not the state...but also the state a little bit

Brainstorming about what we might do in the event of a global catastrophe seems to be a natural human compulsion. It's driven by nothing so practical as preparedness (I have the empty cupboards and junk drawer with a lone AA battery rolling around to prove it); I think it's more about our fascination with the breakdown of the civilized world. It's why Zombie Apocalypse story lines are most compelling when they focus more on how the survivors form new hierarchies and moral codes and less on the AAAAAAH ZOMBIES.

The husband and I discuss contingency plans as a matter of course.

Just the other day
Me: "That looks like the kind of place where people are lured to die."
Husband: "But . . . no windows . . . gated courtyard . . . high, flat roof. Excellent shelter for the Zombie Apocalypse."

If you don't mind the very real possibility of murder by puppets and/or Bob

In California, civilization is knocked off course by a series of natural disasters, the severe effects of climate change that all those scientists have been warning us about. Exclusive gated compounds called Communities pop up for the few who can afford the extravagant membership rates. Outside the Communities, everything looks a lot more dystopian. This intensified contrast between the haves and have-nots brings out political radicals who seek to dismantle society even further so that everyone will be on the same level.

Young married couple Cal and Frida decide to leave disintegrating and increasingly dangerous Los Angeles and head for the woods, and that's where we find them at the start of the book. Juuuust the two of them. In the woods.
The finality of their situation sat on her chest like a brick and pushed. No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away, the ones keeping her safe with their concern, keeping her okay, keeping her the same as before, and she was spit out as if from a Wizard of Oz tornado.
But then Frida discovers that she's pregnant, and this whole cabin-in-the-woods, solitary existence doesn't seem like the best option anymore. As events unfold, Frida and Cal get alternating chapters to show us their side of things, which makes the book a lot about how this new reality changes them and leads them to do things that strain their bond as a couple.

Just for example

It's "eminently readable" for all the reasons Alice lists in her review (subtle plug for my homegirl, Reading Rambo), but if you happen to live in Los Angeles, you also get the added joy of seeing well-known locales from actual life through a grimy post-apocalyptic filter.
Toni lived on the second floor of a ramshackle duplex that overlooked Echo Park's now-drained lake. The lake's old bridge was gone, maybe burned for firewood, as were the pedal boats. Frida had been born too late to see the lotus flowers, which had once floated across the water's surface.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ruby: Here's some information. Do with it what you will.

I'm going to tell you, very calmly, why I couldn't love this book and in fact sort of disliked it, but first here's Emily's mini-review because she loved it and I love her.

First of all, the language is rich and dense (similes and metaphors and descriptors, galore...sometimes too many?), and the characters are complex. And the message—which centers on a woman breaking the cycle of abuse and taking back control of her soul (literally)—is deep and poignant and relevant. I get why people are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison. I do.

But I hated my life while I was reading this book.

I am far from being the sort of person who demands that books and movies make me feel warm and safe. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorites of recent memory. I'll watch a Lars von Trier movie to unwind after a long day at work. I enjoy existential dread!

But this seemed gratuitous. It felt like Bond was forcing me to wallow in the most vile pits of mortal experience, and every time I thought maybe it was time to get out and towel off, she was like, "NOPE. You don't have enough muck in your soul crevices."

Soul muck is my Kryptonite.

All we really know at the beginning is that Ruby is in her 40s and is the "local crazy" in a small Texas town. Ephram is a man who knew Ruby and loved her from afar when they were children. She had moved to New York as a young woman but came back I think 15 years prior to when the book picks up. And in that time, something about being back in that town made her lose her mind 100% all the way.
They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline.
As the story unfolds in the present day, we learn through current events and flashbacks what set Ruby on the path to madness, how her tortured history inexplicably relates to Ephram's seemingly uneventful one, and the heroic effort that will be required to bring her out of the pit. And, oh right, there are supernatural doings throughout.

Damn. Even now, it sounds so good. Because it is. It would be. It should be. So why isn't it?

As near as I can figure, the book's biggest problem is that it's grossly out of balance. You have to slog through 99 miles of evil before you reach 1 mile of world-weary sadness shot through with glimmers of hope for future redemption. One chapter in particular, toward the middle of the book, was so emotionally oppressive that I was nauseated.

But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe that imbalance was intentional.

Bond works with homeless and at-risk youth in Los Angeles, so this is probably a story she's seen play out in real lives. She may have taken in all the hurt and trauma of all the kids she's ever counseled and poured it into Ruby. This could be her way of letting victims of abuse know that she sees them, that they're not alone—that if all they find when they look back is darkness, they should take one step forward. And then one step more.

OK, this is what I'll say about Ruby: I will never claim that anyone should read this book. People (especially women) who have suffered abuse are more likely to be triggered by the events of Ruby's life than encouraged by them. People who haven't suffered abuse might feel as though they have by the end of the story. It's your choice.

I support you if this is your decision.